Posts Tagged ‘Nicholas Hytner’

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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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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My first emotion was exhilaration.

Virtual Friend and Theatre Twin alerted me to the fact that Fiona Shaw was going to be appearing alongside Lindsay Duncan and Alan Rickman in Ibsen’s “John Gabriel Borkman”. She is something of a theatre insider and so this knowledge was shared way before it became public knowledge – so my excitement was very real, tempered only by the desire to get on and book some tickets. “Where would it play?”, I wondered. A cast like that has got Almeida, West End or National Theatre possibilities – but which? Could it be that the brilliant Nick Hytner was going to use this production to follow the flawless Paul Schofield, Eileen Atkins and Vanessa Redgrave “Borkman” of some years previous (a production I can still remember, almost minute by minute – can you even imagine how brilliant it was: well CAN YOU?)? WHERE?


And then New York.


This was going to be difficult: I had to get to see it. It was Fiona Shaw in Ibsen (and her “Hedda Gabler” is still the greatest thing I have ever seen in a theatre) – and the rest of the cast weren’t exactly slouches either. It was designed by Tom Pye, whose brilliant work on “Medea” and “Happy Days” had been so impressive, Finally, Virtual Friend and Theatre Twin got herself off to Ireland and gorged on it. Ireland would have been cheaper and easier – so I went to New York to see it.

Now, I am a Fiona Shaw enthusiast – but I am not a blind disciple. I, for example, found her performance in “Black Dahlia” (loved by many) to be so embarrassing that I could scarcely keep my eyes open – so I am capable of seeing where she has strayed from brave to ludicrous. That said, this performance was miraculous. It was up there with Hedda and Medea, largely because her danger zone (letting rip in quivering tones and going the FUCK FOR IT) was so well reined in that the audience could feel the pressure in her. And when she finally did let rip, it was like a glacier exploding: it was absolutely spellbinding, and most crucial of all, it felt like the result of years lived in torment and quiet fury, not like the outburst born of a couple of hours of theatrical adrenaline.

Lindsay Duncan was also magnificent. A much warmer presence than Shaw, and with a voluptuous quality that has served her throughout her career and is as much a mark of her interpretation as it is of her physical presence, they were magnificently paired. It’s always good to see two actors absolutely matched, but with contrasting qualities and styles (think of Brando and Leigh in “A Streetcar Named Desire”) and with this script it was very heaven.

I have to confess that the disappointment for me was Rickman. Maybe it’s because I saw Schofield in the role (and I truly can’t imagine it being done better), but I also think that Rickman was too slight a character to scale the part and to crash down into its depths: it felt as though he was picking round the edges of the part a little, rather than immersing himself in it. It is a mountain of a part and perhaps it was simply too much but (on the night that I saw it, at least) he was subdued, rather than destroyed; miffed, rather than devastated – though I should add that plenty of people disagree with me as violently as it’s possible to do without falling over.

It was a trip worth taking in every way – and I cannot but hope (though Virtual Friend and Theatre Twin thinks it highly unlikely) that there may be a London transfer at some point this year. I would gladly go again, and again, and again.

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A while ago (perhaps ten years ago, now) Me As A Protestant and I staged a production of Racine’s “Britannicus” in Islington, London. It was a fascinating experience (him directing, me designing) and was blessed with a few truly excellent performances – and a pretty vital directorial snap, which Racine absolutely needs. I saw the play some time later, with Toby Stephens as the eponymous hero, with Diana Rigg playing his mother, and was struck by how deadly the play became in a large space: declamatory, slow, passionless – like Classical Greek tragedy without the scale.

And so it was that I went to see The National Theatre’s new production of “Phedre”- Racine’s best play to my mind. Nicholas Hytner directing, Helen Mirren starring (alongside Margaret Tyzack and Dominic Cooper) and a translation by Ted Hughes: so what’s not to love?

Well: the set was great, the above-named actors were great, and the direction was very strong. Theseus was astoundingly bad: with all the heroic presence of Jeremy Beadle, he waddled around the stage like a fisherman on shore leave. But Racine doesn’t work in English. I don’t know that it works brilliantly in French. There is too little duologue, too much declamation and not nearly enough character development – and if your theatre tradition is Shakespearean, it is laughably poor by comparison.

So, I can’t imagine it being done better – but I don’t think I want to see any more Racine again for a long time.

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Saturday, 2nd February 2008

A good week for theatre. A disastrous one for the finances.

First was a trip to the sold-out production of “Much Ado About Nothing” at the Olivier, starring Simon Russell Beale (definitely the greatest Shakespearean of the age) and Zoe Wanamaker, directed by Nicholas Hytner, who has revolutionised the National Theatre and is a magnificent director.

For a play that I am not overly keen on (I find the beginning VERY complicated, and some of the humour not particularly engaging), it was a magnificent evening. I went with Charmingly Erudite Father in Law who has seen a number of productions (including the legendary John Gielgud and Peggy Ashcroft one) and he pronounced it to be his favourite. Whether or not he was being (true to form) charming about a night out that I had arranged, is hard to tell – but it was certainly the best that I have seen, earning that very rare thing: a standing ovation.

Standing ovations are rather more common in New York. Manage to make it through the performance without shitting yourself, and the audience is on its feet. It must be fantastic for the performers (though if you’re an experienced one, perhaps it loses its lustre – its currency degraded). 

So, it wasn’t surprising that Fiona Shaw’s tour de force at the BAM in New York received such approval. She was even better in New York than she had been in London: the performance had more nuance, more internal life – and more humour. I am currently engaged in a spirited correspondence with one New York audience member who preferred the London version, claiming that the “constant sniggering” of the audience put him off. I think he may be one of the “Beckett must be threadbare misery brigade”… but as he is a reader of this very blog, I daresay he can enlighten me on that point.

I would publish our correspondence here, but it is scrotum-shrivellingly dull.

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