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Posts Tagged ‘Deborah Warner’

I know that many – perhaps even most – people believe that the truly great plays demonstrate their greatness, in part, by proving themselves to be infinitely open to interpretation and presentation.

Along side this belief there is also the much-repeated claim made by actors (genuinely meant, I am sure) that they feel that they never did – never COULD – get totally to grips with the character of Lear, Hedda, Iago – whomever.

These two things taken together make it almost blasphemous to talk about a definitive performance in one of those roles (let alone the more complex and wide-ranging idea of a “definitive production”)…and yet…

Of course these things are matter of taste, and they are locked in time (even if one were to admit its possibility, a definitive “Othello” of the 1950s is going to be very different to one of this decade – not least because of the natural skin tone of the actor playing the eponymous hero), but that said, I think I have seen quite a few “definitive” productions of the great plays (and thus with “definitive” performances at their heart) – and I think (without modesty) that I have seen enough and no enough to be able to make that judgement. I’m thinking of “the classics” here – rather than modern plays where the production has been mind-blowing (and hard to imagine an improvement being made: such as Denise Gough in “People, Places and Things” or Mark Rylance in “Jerusalem”).

These are not in date order, and I don’t know how they’d hold up today: but I would guess “pretty well”…

Fiona Shaw in Deborah Warner’s “Hedda Gabler” – still the best night (nine nights, in fact) that I have ever spent in a theatre.

Antony Hopkins and Judi Dench in Peter Hall’s “Antony and Cleopatra”

Ian Holm in Richard Eyre’s “King Lear”

Ian McKellen and Judi Dench in Trevor Nunn’s “Macbeth”

Adrian Lester in Nicholas Hytner’s “Othello”

Mark Strong in Ivo van Hove’s “A View From the Bridge”

Fiona Shaw in Deborah Warner’s “Medea”

Andrew Scott in Robert Icke’s “Hamlet”

As I write this, “Hamlet” is still on at The Gielgud Theatre in London. I saw it for the first time in the Almeida, and then the second time with my children at The Gielgud – and I’ve got tickets for two more nights before it closes in a month’s time. It is absolutely extraordinary.

Andrew Scott’s Hamlet makes the play – and the character – feel newly minted (which I would have never thought possible). He is conversational, clear and accessible, never once striking a false note; and managing to find wit, humour and passion in even the most well-trod of passages. There isn’t one cliche, there isn’t one moment that feels manufactured: this is the first time that I have seen the leaps in emotion executed with such clarity and conviction – it really is a monumental performance. This Hamlet is so grief-stricken because he is so passionate: you feel that he has one layer of skin less than anyone else – he is so vulnerable to what goes on around him, to the endless betrayals that he faces and the lies that he is told that his death felt like a release that he was yearning for. The “fall of a sparrow” section had me in pieces: this was someone looking forward to death as a way out of a tormented life. Mind-blowing.

The direction is a masterpiece of clarity and creativity. I’ve never seen the Ghost of Hamlet’s Father presented in so chilling and brilliant a way. I’ve never seen Elsinore feel so watched and watchful (even in other productions when that was clearly a core part of the interpretation: Nicholas Hytner’s great production with Rory Kinnear in the lead was awash with FBI types with earpieces and walkie-talkies – but somehow I became immune to it: here, the touch is far lighter and far more significant). I have never seen such a strong and affecting Ophelia as Jessica Brown Findlay, whose mad scenes were handled with such control and pathos that there wasn’t a single embarrassed titter throughout (and if that doesn’t sound like the highest praise imaginable, I assure you that it is): this was the first time that I thought Hamlet and Ophelia really, really loved each other. The final scene (well cut and sharply staged) ends in a coup-de-theatre that delivers a punch to the heart.

It is absolutely once in a lifetime, dust-free, fuss-free stuff: and it blew me (and my children) away. If you can get to see it, I would urge you to see it. If you only go to the theatre once a year, make it this. It is so, so good and I know that I will never forget it.

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I’d seen this before, in New York, at what should have been about a third of the way into its run, and turned out to be almost the final day of its run: a victim of negative publicity, I presume (rather than poor notices – as they were pretty uniformly excellent).
I went back for the first of my three further London visits (I know…but I am obsessed) with Creator Rebel Planner and Tall Planner in Whom I Am Well Pleased; then on my own; then, finally with Sardonic and Sad-Eyed Muse.
It was when reading the programmme that I was reminded that it was some twenty years since the remarkable partnership between Fiona Shaw and Deborah Warner began with “Electra”, in the same venue (The Barbican), if not the same precise theatre – it was on in The Pit and “The Testament of Mary” was in the main theatre.
I remember that earlier performance with absolute clarity: the only description that begins to describe it is “mind-blowing”. Fiona Shaw, in a rag of a dress, her hair cropped short looked like a great, doomed bird; and she gave a performance of such staggering power, revealing such raw grief, that I can remember the pain in my heart and chest as I watched it. Reading an interview with Warner and Shaw much later, about that production’s rehearsal process, I was struck by how Fiona Shaw said that at first she devised little bits of business: cigarettes to roll, cups of water to drink, paper with messages written on, and how these were secreted about the stage. Later in the process, Warner removed them – and she said that this was because Electra HAD no little comforts, no props: she had nothing. Shaw remembered feeling desolate without her supports, deserted and alone with nothing to act as a crutch in that nightly journey into such a deep, dark place – and then, clearly, she converted those feelings into a performance that almost singed one with its grief. People queued all night to get a ticket – and were happy to do so. It remains one of the best things I have ever seen in forty years.
I wonder if there is something to be said about an opposition in creative partnerships (especially in film and theatre) that fascinates me: Catholic and Protestant, with their very different aesthetics working to create a brilliantly rich result that benefits from the extravagance and the focused stillness of the latter? Shaw was raised a Catholic, Warner a Quaker – and there is (I think) something perfect about the extravagant red, purple and gold performer being directed by the still, contemplative director. It’s why (I think) Paul Schrader and Martin Scorsese made such an interesting partnership – but I’m in danger of losing my thread.
Watching Fiona Shaw again, that thought about the “Electra” rehearsal process stayed with me, and I must confess to having wished that Warner had exercised her prerogative to remove a few of the props again. There can be a tendency (for my taste) with Fiona Shaw to illustrate every thought with props – and with an actor of her calibre it doesn’t need it. While the performance was absolutely magnificent (and I know that certain critics have referred to it as a “career best”), I felt that it was at its very, very best when she had nothing – and the grief, like Electra’s, took her whole body over.
There are obvious answers to this criticism: the play is as much about iconography as it’s about anything else – so the props have an absolute right to be there to illustrate that aspect of the text. Also, Mary is in a home (albeit a temporary one) and much of her day is filled by domestic routine, with its props and paraphernalia: so, once again, the props have an absolute right to be there. Let me say again: she was magnificent. Her grief, her anger, her confusion – all of these things were pitch perfect, and won her on every occasion a richly deserved standing ovation -so it’s petty to carp about “what might have been” (especially as my suspicion may well turn out to have been incorrect…). And yet…
It’s also greedy, after so great a glut of Fiona Shaw to be thinking “What next?” – but I can’t help myself (which is, I suppose, as good a definition of greed as any other…).
I have also seen Simon Russell Beale in Sam Mendes’ production of “King Lear” four times recently – and, after their great comic partnership in “London Assurance” I am left in even greater need to see them together in Shakespeare – specifically in “Antony and Cleopatra”. To my mind, there hasn’t been a production of that perfect play to match Judi Dench and Antony Hopkins at The National Theatre a good twenty five years ago – but I think those two actors could do it.
I’ll write about “King Lear” at length elsewhere – but “The Testament of Mary” is the best thing I have seen this year: more nuanced, more immediate, more emotional than it was in New York, and both Deborah Warner and Fiona Shaw showed themselves once again to be absolute masters of their craft, and (to my mind) peerless.

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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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It’s here in black and white: Fiona Shaw opens in “Mother Courage and her Children” in a version by Tony Kushner (of “Angels in America” fame), directed by the brilliant Deborah Warner at the National Theatre in September.

The poster image is a pastiche of the “shot” of Tony Blair photographing himself on his camera phone, with a scene of massive atomic destruction behind him – so who knows how modern we’re going to be going… Anyway, as I have written before, I hate not to know where my next fix of Shaw is coming from, and so I shall sleep easier now; even if I have also been haunted by the fact that she really needs to get a wriggle on and play Mary Tyrone in “Long Day’s Journey into Night” before too much more time goes by. But I think it’s time for her Cleopatra next, though who might be her Antony is a trickier question: Simon Russell Beale? Antony Sher? Ralph Fiennes? Sean Penn? Only one of those would be right – and he’s the only one who is never, ever going to do it…

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I am alarmed.

Deborah Warner and Fiona Shaw’s “Mother Courage” is now being written of in terms of a Summer slot at the National Theatre – that means an average of one Fiona Shaw London production every eighteen months, and as I have written before, on that basis, she is not going to get through the workload that I have got in mind for her (especially not if her involvement in film continues to strengthen).
She’s been in Brecht before, of course (also at The National) in “The Good Person of Sichuan” – and very good she was too. But I am not sure how excited I am to see her do “Mother Courage” – I can see the fit too well, and there is something inevitable about her playing it (but then, there was about Hedda – and she blew me away to such an extent that I can remember every second some twenty years later).

However, I suppose I should count my blessings: a piece arrived from The National, confirming that the production was actually happening – so it is very good news. I just want to know that she’s having serious thoughts about Mrs.Alving, Volumnia and Martha – and a timetable wouldn’t hurt either…

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Sunday, 27th January 2007

Obviously, I am a bit nervous when I don’t know when my next fix of Fiona Shaw is coming, but there have been TWO bits of good news.

First, she is still in New York with “Happy Days” (an engagement that I had though was going to stop before Christmas) and so I am going to fly out there on Sunday and see that incredible play, in that incredible production, with that incredible actress for the fifth time (having seen it three times in London and once in Paris).

After that, it goes dark for a bit – but the National Theatre has confirmed that she and Deborah Warner are going to do “Mother Courage” at the National in 2009.

With that year in mind, as I was reading The Sunday Times, I came across an advertisement for the Donmar’s new season: Jude Law in “Hamlet”, Judi Dench in “Madame de Sade”, Derek Jacobi in “Twelfth Night” and Kenneth Branagh in “Ivanov”. I was about to pick up the ‘phone and book some tickets, until I saw the date: 2009.

Do I want to book tickets for Jude Law in “Hamlet” in eighteen months’ time? Yes. I probably do…

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