Tag Archives: National Theatre

Macbeth

reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 30 October

It’s the shortest of Shakespeare’s tragedies and, on the surface, perhaps the most straightforward. A successful, loyal general is seduced by prophecies and egged on by an ambitious wife. He kills his king, takes the throne, disposes of those who might threaten him – and then unravels into death.

Macbeth was written at a dark time, as the newly-crowned James I eased himself onto Elizabeth’s throne and the Gunpowder Plot proved just one of the challenges to the crown. Rufus Norris’ production for the National Theatre presents us with a world where small countries’ conflicts can spillage dangerously.

Designer Rae Smit depicts this as a dark grey causeway with its paving flaking. Poles, suggesting those gallows-trees familiar from Callot engravings, support flutters of crow-torn rags. The witches (Elizabeth Chan, Evelyn Roberts and Olivia Sweeney) writhe up these as they contemplate the evil past and to come.

Sparse rooms suggest castles and dug-outs where comfort takes second place to security. Paul Pyant’s lighting adds to the sense of embattled menace. Only briefly, in the scene with Lady Macduff (Lisa Zahra), her son and her cousin Ross (Rachel Sanders) does a suggestion of normal domesticity appears briefly.

Kirsty Besterman’s Lady Macbeth is the dominant performance, radiating a dangerous level of tightly repressed frustration on many levels. Michael Nardone as Macbeth almost matches her, but not quite manages it. There’s an excellent Banquo by Patrick Robinson, suggesting the inner ease which Macbeth has probably never experienced.

The sleep-walking scene, with Reuben Johnson’s doctor and Sweeney’s gentlewoman petrified by what they see and hear is magnificently played. Tom Mannion’s Duncan, swathed by costume designer Moritz Junge in eye-blasting scarlet (Macbeth’s assumption of the regal colour appears far more tentative) is impressive.

Shakespeare wrote for a time and a place. His universal appeal over four centuries later shows that this transforms into many cultures, languages and eras. Ambition, and the illnesses which attend it, have no boundary of place or time. We watch in horror – but also with recognition. A play for all seasons.

Four and a half-star rating.

Macbeth runs at the Theatre Royal, Norwich until 3 November with matinées on 1 and 3 November.

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This House

reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 13 March

How is it done? That’s an intriguing question for most people, whether the subject is cookery or politics, plays or cookery. James Graham’s play is based on and in the House of Commons between 1974 and 1979.

It shows us in fictionalised form what happens when Governments with small or no absolute majorities have leaders who fail to keep tight control of the slippery and fluid situations.

We hear about these Prime Ministers (actual or ambitiously waiting) but we are watching the backroom-boys (and occasional girl) of the Whips’ offices as they manipulate Members to achieve those all-important knife-edge majority votes.

Jeremy Herrin and Jonathan O’Boyle’s production emphasises the bear-garden aspect and associated callousness which underpin contentious votes. Acting as chorus is the Speaker (Miles Richardson in Act One, Orlando Wells in Act Two).

Designer Rae Smith uses various on-stage levels as well as the auditorium to draw us into the action. A rock band adds to the surreal effect, but the production’s impact has to rely on the main characters.

Giles Cooper is the eager new recruit to the Tory whips’ office, run with a certain degree of cynicism by old-school William Chubb and businessman Matthew Pidgeon. But it is with the Labour whips, frantically shoring up increasingly wafer-thin majorities, that the real drama lies.

Chief Whip Tony Turner and his energetic deputy Martin Marquez both give fully fleshed characterisations of men who never forget who put them into Parliament – and why. James Gaddas and David Hounslow give fine support while Natalie Grady shows us a young woman developing both confidence and authority.

There are a succession of well-defined cameos and vignettes to remind us that politics at this level is a matter of priority juggling both within the House and outside it.Does a vote count for more than a life?

As befits a play and production of Chichester Festival Theatre, Headlong and National Theatre provenance, it is an object lesson in ensemble. One which has its audience as keyed up with tension as the drama onstage.

Four and a half-star rating.

This House runs at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until 17 March with matinées on 15 and 17 March. it can also be seen at the Theatre Royal, Norwich between 8 and 12 May.

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People, Places & Things

reviewed at the Cambridge Arts Theatre on 21 November

The concept of a box set takes on a new definition in this collaborative project from Headlong, the National Theatre, Manchester’s HOME and Exeter’s Northcott Theatre. The proscenium arch is framed with a white rectangle, like the lip of a box. Like any such container, it can hold a variety of things.

Duncan Macmillan’s play is a no-holds-barred almost clinically forensic examination of addiction and some of the therapies which seek to address the multitude of forms which it takes. The central character is an actress called Sarah (stage name Emma), given a magnificent three-dimensional portrait by Lisa Dwyer Hogg.

She’s onstage and at the centre of the action throughout as we watch her descent into a hell of her own making and her struggles to clamber out of it. Emma/Sarah is not a sympathetic person and Dwyer Hogg’s achievement lies partly in the way in which she makes this plain.

Directors Jeremy Herrin and Holly Race Roughan surround her with a shoal of would-be helpers, some of whom – like her parents – are completely out of their depth. Matilda Ziegler plays the doctor, therapist and mother showing that even tough love may not be enough to break the cycle.

Ekow Quartey is the nurse who has seen it all before many times, but retains his humanity and desire to help. There’s an interesting double of alcoholic Paul and Sarah’s father by Trevor Fox.  Mark draws another rounded portrait of an addict who has learned to accept his weaknesses and so guards against them from Andrew Sheridan.

That white set is by Bunny Christie, lit by James Farncombe and pierced by the soundscapes of Tom Gibbons and Matthew Herbert. I suppose that these days most of us know someone who appears to be about to if not actually tripped into the addiction spectrum. That makes this drama hard-hitting; it remains a gripping piece of theatre on any level.

Four and a half-star rating.

People, Places & Things runs at the Cambridge Arts Theatre until 25 November with matinées on 23 and 25 November.

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Hedda Gabler

reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 7 November

Women usually find something to sympathise with in fictional woman characters. In the case of the title character of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, that’s difficult. Hedda, in Patrick Marber’s version,  stirs no empathy.

Ivo van Hove’s production abetted by Jan Versweyveld’s set and lighting is modern Scandi noir. it suggests a penthouse almost devoid of furniture and in which Hedda’s old-fashioned upright piano is so out-of-place that it becomes a doppelgänger for the woman herself. Threads of Tom Gibbons’ sounds drift through the miasma of the action.

At the performance I saw, Cate Cammack – who played the part when this National Theatre production went to the USA – was Hedda. Her movements, at times almost as disjointed as the character’s tormented inner being, occasionally seemed at odds with her gentle voice.

Annabel Bates’s Thea Elvsted contrasts well, her apparent fluffiness (which both infuriates and intrigues Hedda) underpinned by a level of determination only Adam Best’s unpleasant Judge Brack can equal. His is a man who knows only his own law.

The two men – Tesman who has taken this pretentious apartment partly to reflect his new wife’s status as the daughter of a general but mainly because he is initially sure that he will be awarded a well-paid professorship and researcher-writer Lovborg – appear almost like twins in Abhin Galeya and Richard Pyros’ characterisations.

Galeya is the eternal optimist, though a degree of uncertainty soon crumbles the façade. Pyros, the former alcoholic who is tempted to one disastrous relapse, comes over a this sort of distorted mirror image. Tesman may survive for the moment by reconstructing his friend and rival’s masterpiece, but his future looks bleak.

Tesman’s aunt Juliana is crisply delineated by Christine Kavanagh and the ever-present, no doubt ever-watchful maid Berthe becomes a brooding presence by Madlena Nedeva. It’s an effective staging, but at the end we are left in the cold of a winter without end.

Four star rating.

Hedda Gabler runs at the Theatre Royal, Norwich until 11 November with matinées on 8, 9 and 11 November. It also tours to the Royal & Derngate Northampton (28 November-2 December) and the Milton Keynes Theatre (27 February-3 March 2018).

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The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time

reviewed at the Cliffs Pavilion, Southend on 18 July

Mark Haddon’s book about a teenage boy with Asperger Syndrome has been adapted for the stage by Simon Stephens. The National Theatre production by Marianne Elliott is currently on the second leg of its UK tour. Elliott may be the director, but Bunny Christie’s graph-paper design concentrated on a cube, Paule Constable’s complex lighting plot and Finn Ross’ video certainly don’t take second billing.

It’s not a comfortable story. Christopher Boone (Scott Reid), caught in a neighbour’s garden with the pitchforked body of her dog, is a central character with whom at first we struggle to find any degree of empathy, just as his parents and those around him do. If you’ve ever had anything to do with a friend or family member with autism, you will find yourself in familiar territory.

Reid’s portrait of a brilliant, logical and gifted mathematical youth trapped in a world whose lack of sequential reasoning seems so incomprehensible to him is a searing one. Siobhan (Lucianne McEvoy), one of his teachers,  comes closest to understanding his wavelength; McEvoy’s study of a woman who tries to comprehend – and to accept – is equally fine.

The other three main characters are Mrs Alexander (Debra Michaels), an elderly neighbour  who doesn’t condemn Chris out-of-hand, his uncomprehending father Ed (David Michaels) and Judy (Emma Beattie), the mother he was told had died but in fact who left her husband for a lover, Roger Shears. There is also a large ensemble.

Movement is an important part of this hypnotic production. Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett use the players in angular, often formal, groupings which echo Chris’ inner turmoil. This is a staging where what we hear – spoken dialogue apart – chimes in with the movement; Adrian Sutton’s score and Ian Dickinson’s sound design provides this. It’s akin to the incidental music familiar from films and, increasingly, television drams and documentaries.

What matters in the end is that it’s Christopher’s story, seen largely through his eyes and filtered through his off-kilter mental processes. Stand ing ovations are becoming a bit of a curtain-call cliché these days. The one for Reid (and, by inference, for the whole staging concept) was thoroughly merited.

Five star rating.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time runs at the Cliffs Pavilion, Southend until 22 July with matinées on 19 and 22 July.

 

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Jane Eyre

reviewed at the Theatre Royal, Norwich on 17 July

You can’t keep a good story down, especially when it’s Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. This version, now on a national tour, is a co-production between the Bristol Old Vic and the National Theatre, devised by the company but with a firm directorial hand provided by Sally Cookson.

Jane’s progress from a stroppy child, taken in unwillingly by her dead mother’s family and eagerly dumped into the unhealthy surroundings of Lowood School, to an independent woman who makes her own life through being true to her individual values is in any case a gripping story. It’s taken at a considerable pace.

Designers Michael Vale (set), Katie Sykes (costumes) and Aideen Malone (lighting) present us with a platformed set and a number of ladders. Ten actors play all the parts, as well as acting as a sort of Greek chorus, articulating Jane’s thoughts an fears. Nadia Clifford is a feisty Jane, crinkle-haired with eyes which glare as readily as they glance.

Melanie Marshall, clad in blood-red and with a fantastic vocal range plays Bertha Mason and provides a musical commentary spanning everything from Negro melody to Coward. The incidental music – there’s a lot of it and it sometimes drowns the dialogue – is by Benji Bower.

It’s always difficult to warm to any of the men who litter Jane’s path to self-knowledge. Paul Mundell has a well-contrasted double as authoritarian schoolmaster Brocklehurst and tail-wagging dog Pilot. Tim Delap’s Rochester is more of a typical North Country squire of the early 19th century than a much-travelled cosmopolitan.

Evelyn Miller, in a bit of gender-blind casting, is fervent missionary St John Rivers. She also plays Bessie, the one servant who takes Jane’s side in the Reed household. Hannah Bristow is consumptive Helen Burns and Rochester’s pert French ward Adèle while Lynda Rooke contrasts aunt Mrs Reed and housekeeper Mrs Fairfax.

Four and a half-star rating.

Jane Eyre runs at the Theatre Royal, Norwich until 22 July with matinées on 19 and 22 July.

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