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Posts Tagged ‘Antony Hopkins’

Last night was my first visit to Deborah Warner’s production of this great, great play. It won’t be my last. I’ve booked tickets for two further performances and I cannot wait to see it again, and again, and again.

I pretend no impartiality when I discuss this great actor. I think her Hedda Gabler is the greatest performance I have ever seen on a stage, regardless of gender or material. I think her Electra and Medea were both definitive. She brings an intelligence and an immediacy to everything she does, and she is totally in control of the fact of her medium. There are few others (Judi Dench, Daniel Day-Lewis, Antony Hopkins) whom I think bear comparison (as stage actors) – so I was always going to like this (unless it turned out to be a hideous reminder of that cheek-burning awfulness “The Powerbook”, the hysterical, indulgent, unimaginative, DOA torpor of which is with me still).

Was it good “Brecht”? I don’t know – but then part of the joy of any Shaw/Warner (the brilliant Deborah Warner was watching her own production on the night I went, as she was when Me As A Protestant went – commendable commitment to the theatre as an ever-changing art form) is their lack of reverence for how a play “should be done”. “Hedda Gabler” should be a stately progress through the defiant disenchantment of a strong woman who chooses death before dishonour – but they reinvented it as a frenzied run through the last days of a woman who was cowardly and terrified of how she had lost control of her life. “Medea” should be a horrifying revenge of how an older woman exacts revenge on her former husband through the calculated slaughter of their children – but they reinvented it as the story of what happens when passion runs out between two people, where the children are collateral damage. “The Waste Land” should be read…. And so it goes on.

What I know is that last night was a boisterous, fresh and vital production of a play that I would have believed had been written this year. There was no “reverence” (but nor was there – nor is there ever – any disrespect), no sense of “inherited best practice” or anything that felt accepted, rather than felt. Absolutely fresh-minted and lively as hell. Having the songs performed by Duke Special and his band was a great touch: this Weimaresque pixie and his band created a great score of new songs, orchestrated somewhere between 1930s nightclub, gypsies’ wedding and rock concert, and the eponymous leader rightly shared a final curtain call with Shaw.

And she was astounding: a performance of enormous energy, commitment and intensity. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the fake smile she mustered to convince the soldiers that the body in front of her was not that of her son – and I think the great triumph of the performance was the decision to stress the Mother in “Mother Courage” (too often have I seen a defiant, hip-swinging roaring girl who “happens to have children”). These were some of the most credible family relationships on a stage I have ever seen (the relationship between Swiss Cheese and Katrin was peerlessly executed; and Courage’s love for the daughter she claimed to see as ordinary was palpable). That iconic scene (as memorable as Vladimir and Estragon standing still, not going, if not more so) when Courage strapped herself to the cart and started to pull it forward made my heart pound: it captured all the nebulousness of the description of the stage direction. Was it defiance? Was it the indomitable human spirit? Was it despair? Was it clinging to all she had? It could have been any one of those – and the reason I feel so excited to go again, is that I know the next time that I see it, it will be something entirely new.

When Fiona Shaw came forward (after prolonged insistence) for her final call, and (it transpired, standing ovation) from the audience, it was her absolute due. A towering performance in a fire-cracker of a production. If you can get to see it, do.

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I had lunch with Hilarious Researcher recently, and she (who is married to an actor, and who likes theatre) and I (who am married to a woman who does not like theatre at all) were discussing what it is to travel across London to see something truly execrable.

There is nothing worse than Terrible Theatre: nothing to make one conclude that this is an outmoded form, populated by self-indulgent actors whose understanding and experience of human nature seems as remote as our general understanding of alien life forms. I have recorded the unspeakable horror of Gary Wilmot as Bottom in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, and the (usually immaculate) Fiona Shaw’s ghastly folie d’amour in “The Powerbook” – but Hilarious Researcher was reminding me of another type of theatre: the type where one knows a member of the cast, and is thus performing every bit as hard and carefully as the paid performers. I haven’t been to this sort of show for a while, but I do remember at University (and for a number of years afterwards) turning up at “spaces” to stand (always) with a handful of other “friends of the cast” (invariably) to see someone one had spent too many earnest evenings with in the past, stand at a microphone in a tight spotlight, clad in a leotard, intoning “I am vagina” over and over before covering themselves in four pints of milk, assuming a foetal position and sobbing, as we wait for the pitilessly long and final fade of the light to release us all.

It seems that Hilarious Researcher has not been so lucky: her husband’s profession means that they are still finding themselves in strip-lit church halls with leotard-clad performers a little too often for her liking. Maybe it’s because I have been on the other side of the divide often enough (either as performer – although I always drew the line at the leotard, but was less resistant to the “basic black – a WORKING ACTOR” look, which is equally morally awful, if less anatomically repellent – or as director or designer) that I am ready to forgive bad theatre a little more readily than most others would. I know that it is, to some extent, a numbers game: because there is no financial barrier at all to a group of people performing a piece of theatre, it is bound to be prolific in a way that film isn’t (although there are lots of developments that mean the gap is narrowing, though still significant) and so that means that there is an awful lot of bad theatre knocking about. But when it is good (Shaw’s “Hedda Gabler”, “Electra”, “Medea”, “Happy Days”; Ian Holm’s “King Lear”; Simon Russell Beale’s “Hamlet”, Paul Schofield, Eileen Atkins and Vanessa Redgrave in “John Gabriel Borkman”; Judi Dench in “Amy’s View”, Judi Dench and Antony Hopkins in “Antony and Cleopatra”) there is nothing to compare with its thrill – and it stays with you undimmed forever.

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