Posts Tagged ‘National Theatre’

I was SO excited when I saw the combination: “Sam Mendes”, “Simon Russell Beale” and “King Lear” at the beginning of the year: excited enough to go right ahead and book tickets for four nights, in various combinations.
When the time came for the first visit (with Old Friend at Work and her husband) there had been a few early, snipey comments about how the production “Missed greatness by a whisper” (I think that particularly useless observation came from “The Sunday Times”) and so on, but I was still in a state of breathless over-excitement by the time we walked into The Olivier Theatre at The National.
The stage looked good: huge moon suspended over a blank set, with modern, stark props. Good. This was going to be good, I thought.
Well, it was, pretty much. Simon Russell Beale is (I think rightly) lauded as the best Shakespearean actor that we have, and so his Lear was never going to be a non-event. Every one of the four times I saw it, I was in floods of tears (embarrassing but true) for the first time each night at precisely the same point: “Oh let me not be mad. Not mad.” Whether this was a Pavlovian conditioning after the first couple of times, I don’t know – but I still think it’s a pretty strong endorsement of the man’s talent to be able to do that to a forty-three year-old father of three. It’s not the best I’ve ever seen – because Ian Holm is the best I have ever seen, and I am pretty confident that I will never see a better – but it was certainly a major piece of work.
Other good things were Edmund and Edgar: both excellent; and Gloucester and Kent – also terrific. There was a brilliant decision to have – spoiler alert – Lear murder The Fool in his madness in the joint stool scene, exhausted and maddened and apparently forgetting what he had done until the end of the play; and there were any other smart line readings and ideas that kept the production fizzing along. Now and then, there were moments that only The National Theatre could do: the huge number of extras who made up Lear’s army and retinue, dwindling as the play progressed, really did seem, at the start of the play to number one hundred. The Leninesque statue that dominated the courtyard outside Goneril’s home was sturdy enough to have a man chained to it and for it to seem as though it was an utterly immoveable thing. The rushes that encircled the back of the stage, revealed as Act Five began were dense and high – an effective screen for soldiers and medical staff to trample through.
On the downside, nearly every scene involving the daughters was pretty bad. The opening scene, from which everything flows and which needs to make absolute sense, was performed at such a lick that almost everything was missed – even Russell Beale was gabbling away and swallowing words. It became pretty obvious that some strange choices in characterisation had been made, and there was some spectacularly over-the-top acting from Anna Maxwell Martin, who is normally excellent. The “What need one?” moment that precedes “Oh reason not the need.” (to my mind, one of the cruellest things in that very cruel play) was positively chucked away – so there were a couple of disappointments there. One of the benefits of seeing it a number of times, with a number of different people was that on one occasion Anna Maxwell Martin’s understudy went on for her – and actually I preferred it. I can’t remember her name, but (even though she was obviously “following” Maxwell Martin’s interpretation) she was calmer and more restrained in her characterisation than her more famous predecessor.
I’m glad I saw it as often as I did. It’s never going to be a bad idea to watch people of that calibre perform “King Lear” – but what I’m most excited about (given that Simon Russell Beale is in his early 50s) is the anticipation of his next Lear.

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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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Yes, much has happened since I wrote last – all of it good, I think.

There will be time for that in good time, but I must write now (as so often) of Fiona Shaw.

By way of gentle introduction to the celebration of that finest of actors, let me first take you (protesting and looking in a panicked fashion over your shoulder to see if anyone has witnessed your abduction) back to my school days. Worse than that, I am going to take you to Rugby training.

Rain seemed to be a constant, as was mud and (of course) our coach: a MASSIVE (or, as Eldest Son has recently discovered, to my chagrin: “mahoosive”) block of a man with an Easter Island face, shaved head and a tendency to see anything other than death as a below par reason for not training for the next game. Anyway, in spite of this decidely Fotherington-Thomas-sounding description, I loved Rugby – still do – and found the playing of that great game exhilarating and energising. What I could never get excited about was the training: the running with your knees as high as you could, star-jumps and press-ups that had fuck all to do with how the game was played. I could see the point of a couple of laps of the field to warm up, but most of it was utterly pointless – and nothing was more pointless than the piece of apparatus called “The Scrum Machine”. This was a piece of machinery that looked like a slatted wooden bed-base, swaddled in horsehair and rough cotton, mounted on springs and held by a metal framework. The scrum (including myself) wood scrum down, push heads through the gaps in the bed-base and push like hell in order to drive the thing back against its springs, replicating the effect of the opposing team’s scrum. It didn’t, of course: the opposing team’s scrum (being made of people) had a habit of moving in different directions, dipping up and down and pushing with unequal force, rather than standing its ground and being driven back stoically.

I was reminded of this fruitless, exhausting task when we went to see Fiona Shaw in Howard Barker’s “Scenes from an Execution” at the National Theatre last week.

Howard Barker was, when I was first a student, THE modish paperback to have – far more impressive than the standard (and SIGNIFICANTLY better, of course) Beckett/Barthes/Lodge alternatives that suggested that one was a little too ensnared by things such as thought, quality and artistry. PAH! Barker was IT, man. I thought it was shit then, and I think it’s little more than shit now.

I have to say that I was very nervous when the play started. A magnificent set by Hildegaard Bechtler was good news, but a nude male, arse in the air on a rocky outcrop was less easy-making: here was our first “Barker-esque” subversion – the artist (Shaw) is female, and the model is male. Oooh: challenging.

The first half was fuck awful: turgid and lifeless and only fitfully funny (and I see no reason not to level that as a criticism), with the ideas (and Barker’s admiration for them) proving to be too heavy for him to lift into drama. The second half, it must be said, was immeasurably better, with the narrative finding its rhythm and moving forward more convincingly, with the central theme of art and patronage coming into focus with less panting and straining than had been seen in the first half.

Fiona Shaw was (perhaps against the odds) utterly magnificent. I have only been massively embarrassed by Shaw once on stage – in ThePower.Book, the collaboration between Deborah Warner, Jeanette Winterstone and Saffron Burrowes, where the earnestness and energy of all those very talented women was so similar as to create something utterly still-born. Let me just add, as (depressingly), I fear I must, that this is not a comment on their gender: I have seen equally deadly pieces of theatre where the strutting male energy has been so one-noted as to rob the piece of any life too. That piece, like this, wrestled with ideas, with a deadening seriousness that suffocated all vitality – and as I sat watching “Scenes from an Execution” I thought “Oh no: it’s going to be ThePower.Book all over again – oh well, at least she won’t dance to Blondie. Probably.”

I was wrong: Shaw created a fantastically engaging character in Galactia. She was vain and self-assured, yet vulnerable; over-bearing and bullying, yet soft – quite something. The greatest piece was to observe this wilful rebel (whom one felt defined herself as an outsider as much out of a sense of expectation as out of a genuine desire to challenge) become part of the establishment, robbed of her power by the forces that professed to support and champion her. She was brilliant, and, when she took her bow, she was exhausted.

This is hardly surprising: Fiona Shaw is an actor who tends to give 100% or nothing, tearing up convention and expectation as she tackles roles from Medea to Hedda to Winnie to Katharina – so it’s hard to think back over the twenty-five years that I’ve been watching her to a performance when she hasn’t been absolutely exhausted by the end of the play. Maybe I’m “projecting”, as make-believe psychotherapists would say, but this time seemed different. She reminded me of how I felt, running at that great scrum machine: moving it back through sheer power and energy, but knowing that it would return to its original position, leaving me feeling as though – whatever I did – there was never going to be anything achieved.

Cleopatra next, please – Barker is just not good enough to deserve you – and Cleopatra is a part worth getting exhausted by.

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Exciting news: UAG and I double dipped, culturally speaking – theatre AND opera in a high art overload.

The theatre was The Cherry Orchard at The National, with Zoe Wanamaker, Conleth Hill, James Laurenson and Kenneth Cranham, directed by Howard Davies. Now: I’m more of an Ibsen fan than a Chekhov fan (as the blog title attests), not that it has to be a binary choice, and so maybe I am just not temperamentally suited to it, but I don’t really “get” “The Cherry Orchard”: the other “big three” I am all over, and find myself almost unable to stand up at the end of a half decent “Three Sisters” or “Uncle Vanya” (most especially in Louis Malle’s magnificent film version). That said, this is one of the best I’ve seen: Zoe Wanamaker finds a manic denial in Ranyevskaya that made her more tragic – and less fucking irritating – than I’ve seen previously, and Conleth Hill is far and away the best Lopakhin I’ve seen – a veritable Malvolio, with fury and vengeance bubbling all the way through his performance, until the final explosion of anger and venal triumph at his purchase of the house and land. I have NEVER understood why Firs’ final entrance gets a laugh, but it always seems to – and sure enough, even the redoubtable Kenneth Cranham (who has a face that hangs with tragedy, even before a single word is spoken) was greeted by a burst of laughter as he emerged to find himself locked into the empty house, to die there. Yes, I know it’s billed as “A Comedy” – but what IS that response? Is it nervousness? Fear? Irony? Or is there a proportion of every audience who truly thinks that it’s funny that the old man is going to starve to death inside that freezing, bolted house?

But three days later, and we were off again: this time to the Opera – a rare treat indeed and not of my doing. This was “Tosca” at Covent Garden, and it was magnificent.

Before we went, I was wondering if I would miss the scarlet sumptuousness of Zeffirelli’s staging, with its “Why have one priest, when you can have twelve of them, twenty nuns, fourteen altar servers, an entire congregation and ANIMALS” approach. I didn’t.

Jonathan Kent is the Director, and while some of his choices (especially in blocking) were a little weird (the thunderous “Te Deum” takes place in a side chapel, partially obscured from view, so the counterpoint with Scarpia’s “Tre sbirri, una carozza…” aria is a little compromised; and much of Act II happened so far upstage right that I would hazard that at least a third of the audience were craning round to view it), but he kept a tight rein on the melodrama – something that no-one could say of Signor Zeffirelli – and drew much finer acting from the singers (Terfel, Gheorghiu and Giordani – so no slouches there) than I would expect. The drama became human – and yet not dwarved either by the momentous settings (a Church, the private office of the State Security minister, and a prison’s battlements are pretty much “going for it” in terms of “location as drama”, aren’t they?), the music or the grand gestures necessary to tell the story.

There has been a little bit of snipey criticism of Giordani’s “under-powered” Cavaradossi: I thought him perfect. Lyrical, a wonderful complement to his Tosca, and able to deliver the greatest rendition of “E Lucevan Le Stelle” I have heard since Domingo (the best ever).

Next up: “Kung Fu Panda II” – a film I feel (it can now be written) that dwarves “Citizen Kane” by comparison.

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Unfeasibly Attractive Girlfriend and I headed off to The National to see “Frankenstein” last night. It was her first time, my second (the two leads, Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch are alternating the roles of Frankenstein and the Creature, and I wanted to see both casts), and it was every bit as exciting the second time as the first.

Unfeasibly Attractive Girlfriend was slightly miffed that Cumberbatch was playing The Creature on this occasion (partly because I had raved to her about him in the role of Frankenstein, partly, I suspect that she would have been more interested in having a gawp at Jonny Lee Miller’s cock than Benedict Cumberbatch’s – and the first naked ten minutes certainly throws up lots of gawping opportunities), but I was really impressed. Oddly enough, as on the first night I saw it, there were a couple of people who walked out: last night it was an elderly couple next to me, who gave up some eight minutes into the Benedict Cumberbatch flailing penis show, with a protest (albeit whispered) of “This is obscene” (which it really wasn’t) before they went: I wonder how they’d have felt about the full frontal female nudity in the second hour, and the climactic rape of Elizabeth? Artistically justified, perhaps…

On reflection, I have to confess that I think Cumberbatch’s Frankenstein and Lee Miller’s Creature were the best: Cumberbatch’s natural intelligence is so apparent in both roles, that it feels a bit of a loss when one sees Lee Miller (who plays more off a base of hubris and energy, rather than intellectual appetite), and Lee Miller managed to find a danger in the Creature that wasn’t quite there for me when played the other way round.

However, it’s a terrific thing and cavilling of me to introduce any hesitation at all: both of us thought it was magnificent, exciting and scary.  The acting was uniformly brilliant, with Naomie Harris (who appears to have no stage experience, but a glorious and award-bedecked television career behind her) a stand-out as a convincing, brave (and very beautiful) Elizabeth. Nick Dear’s adaptation grew on me throughout the evening and I eventually marvelled at how deftly he had taken all the novel’s themes and minted them for today in a script that managed never to go in for exposition and over-explanation. It felt really fresh, alive and (ironically given that Boyle is surely best known as a garlanded film director) really theatrical, in the best possible way: immediate, brave and visceral.

Danny Boyle has done a terrific thing – and Nick Hytner has too in scoring him for The National. I hope he directs more theatre in the future: I’d love to see it.

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Alan Bennett’s new play, “The Habit of Art” opened yesterday.

Seeing it, I was reminded of something that David Hare wrote about the reception of “Pravda”, the Fleet Street satire that he co-wrote with Howard Brenton. Before a single review had been written, before a single line had been spoken, the two authors, sitting in the audience, looked at each other in delighted disbelief because it was already apparent before the lights went down on the first night that the audience had decided to love the play. Every line was met with delight, every laugh was twice as loud, and twice as long as they had dreamed, and the ovations went on and on.

And so it was with “The Habit of Art” – a consideration of artistic identity told through an imagined encounter between Auden and Britten when both men were in their sixties.

What struck me was that Bennett had (according to the programme note, quite late in the day) framed the story as a “play within a play” – enabling any questions that had arisen in the rehearsal process of the original, unadorned play to be voiced (and answered) by the playwright, stage manager and other attendant crew who watched a “run-through” in the rehearsal room. I think it worked very well, enabling Bennett to add a consideration of the process of acting and theatre as another example of identity being accorded to those who create out of habit and determination, as well as love. Alex Jennings (as Britten – and the actor performing the role) gave a beautiful pair of performances; Frances de la Tour provided a magnificently tired, cynical, but loving portrait of a woman who had spent her life not just in the theatre, but in a role that subjugated her identity and desire to others – and Richard Griffiths (stepping in at late notice for Michael Gambon) gave a performance of tremendous charm, maybe not quite as unforgettable as his “Hector” in “The History Boys” – but tremendously affecting, funny and clear. Definitely one to see.

Seen within a month of David Hare’s “The Power of Yes” it was another striking example of a great playwright who had presented a play that used commentary, notes and glossing to tell his story and present his argument. And then, of course, there is the powerhouse performance of Fiona Shaw in Brecht’s “Mother Courage and Her Children” – the ultimate playwright glossing his own work with a commentary. All three plays are running at the National Theatre: all three are giving us a very clear view (though from three very different positions) of dramatists examining –  possibly even doubting – the traditional form of the play.

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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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