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Posts Tagged ‘Judi Dench’

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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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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Well: my father was right – that wasn’t nearly as bad as I was expecting, based on the truly horrifying reviews.

I went to see Mishima’s “Madame de Sade” with Me As A Protestant (we were due to be accompanied by his wife, though not, of course by my theatre-phobic wife: but she was too late in her pregnancy, suffering the ills of acid indigestion to join us – which was a shame): he is a huge Mishima fan, and confided to me that, other than “Hamlet”, this is the only play that he has seen four times. Four times! It’s hardly ever performed – at least in the UK – so this is “theatregoer as sleuth/pilgrim” if ever there were a case of that.

Anyway, it was great to see him, as ever, and great to hear that his prodigious talent is pushing out into yet another area (he’s starting work at The National Theatre Studio this year), and (as should be evident from the above) there probably isn’t anyone who is more likely to be a great companion at this play.

It really is considerably better than the critics would have you believe. Most of there problems have centred on the play itself and how “nothing happens”. Well, that is as true as saying that nothing happens in Racine (or, indeed, Beckett – but then everyone KNOWS that “we don’t say that…anymore”) – what happens, happens off-stage and is reacted to on-stage, by the six women who comprise the cast. The other problem with the play (from an English perspective) is that it is about sex, passion, profane and sacred love: there isn’t a fat neighbour with a speech impediment, or a nouveau-riche couple with HILARIOUS pretensions in sight – and that gave rise to a lot of embarrassed reactions to some of the rhapsodic passages in the play, and indeed to a chorus of “Ooh” from the stupid cunt in the seat in front of me. One can imagine how it has come to be part of the repertoire in France, and is so rarely seen here that it’s the first time it’s been seen in the West End, sadly.

Anyway: there are some flaws in this production. It seemed to me that the director couldn’t entirely commit himself to one style  – there are a series of projections that appear on the walls of the set, often accompanied by an echo appearing on the voices of the actors, which pushes the production into a very different space than that which the (for the main part, see below) acting styles and costuming seem to be pushing it. It’s as if the director doesn’t quite trust the actors, the script and the design to carry the meaning of the text: so we get it all underlined for us. And then, there is Frances Barber. Frances Barber is in a different production to everyone else: one that is akin to Gerald Scarfe cartoons come to life: she arches her eyebrows, she cracks her whip, she tilts her head and gives a hearty sneer – tipping the wink to the audience at every opportunity. I have never been a fan of hers, having seen her stamp her stupid way through major roles in “King Lear” and “La Dame Aux Camellias”, but when counterpointed by an actor of the talent, subtlety and grace of Judi Dench, her flaws were glaringly awful. Sadly, she dominated the first ten minutes – that critical point of orientation for any audience, when they starting thinking “Ah – so that’s what they’re doing here…” – and so she took the play into an eye-rolling, thigh stroking pantomime of “Ain’t I SHOCKIN’?” – so it’s hardly surprising that the audience took its cue from her and thought they were in for a naughty night. That opening speech (it seemed to me, though no expert I) should have been flinty and cruel, not salacious and smirking: we got the equivalent of a child waving its bum at a bunch of adults and then saying “I’m a naughty girl”. Euch.

Ah, but then there was Judi! She was magnificent, and in a role that must have been a joy for her: malignant and loving in equal measure, with a couple of speeches that she gave her unparalleled all to. I’ve never seen her anything other than splendid on the stage, and I know that a number of people whose view on acting I admire enormously (chief among them: David Hare and Richard Eyre) view her as our greatest actress, possibly they mean “actor” (though possibly, let’s be honest, they don’t…). Rosamund Pike, too, was first rate, providing as good an account of sexual and moral fervour as I have seen – and of course, she looks sensationally right for the part, a Blakean rose in full bloom.

The look of the thing distracted me (and not in the hugely satisfying way that the lovely Rosamund did): the set is certainly opulent – a silver gilded, paneled salon, with the gilding and the patina on the mirrors suggesting mould. The costumes are straight out of Fragonard and Boucher – but the palette is all wrong, and it’s hard to understand what is being suggested by the contrast between the setting and the costumes. And by the times the projections are in on the act (photo-real, adding another visual language) it all gets very muddy.

Anyway: I am glad i went. if I can, I might go again. It’s a treat to see a play that is so unapologetically for an audience (a group of listeners, let’s not forget), and that is entirely dependent on women to hold the narrative. I’d give it a healthy four out of five, and would suggest that were you to attend on a night when the audience weren’t hoping for “Whoops! There Go My Bloomers!”, and when Frances Barber is indisposed, then you might be in for a real treat. And for a different treat – those of you who are interested, might like a rather more scholarly (and certainly, better informed) take on the production:-

http://richard-t-kelly.blogspot.com/2009/05/mishimas-madame-de-sade-blood-roses.html

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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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