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Posts Tagged ‘Simon Russell Beale’

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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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 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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David Tennant’s “Hamlet” opened last night to what appears to be pretty universally good notices. They’re not in the league that was accorded (to my mind, rightly) Simon Russell Beale (which won the plaudit from Benedict Nightingale in “The Times” of being “The best Hamlet in living memory”), nor to Ben Whishaw (who was good – but really, as Me As A Protestant can attest, the idea of casting Hamlet as young and meaning every word he says isn’t THAT startling, is it?), but very good – and making the fair point that before he won such fame as he now enjoys as The Man in the Tardis, who was previously at the RSC in the lead role in That Fairly Pedestrian “Romeo and Juliet” – so it’s more a return to the medium from whence he came than “Telly Star Tries The Bard”.

But I was reminded of Hamlet’s tart reply to Polonius’ enquiry over what he’s reading, not just by this timely accident of fate, but by a conversation I had recently with Northern Planner With Hosiery Compulsion.

She’s just done a great bit of work for a client, and we (as we Planners do) were talking about it: testing it out, seeing if it was robust, the whole Plannerly wank. And it tested, and it was, and we did. She’d hit on a very evocative, very apt property for the brand to own, and she’d even had the (hitherto unimaginable) comprehension AND THEN APPROVAL of Famously Overpaid Creative Director.

It was when Parody of 80s Account Handling Account Handler started to weigh in that she started to get the fear – not the feeling that she’d been found out, but the feeling that she was about to be bound up in a semantic exercise which gives the impression of engaging with the issue, but is in fact (in my experience) the stupid person’s preferred means of appearing clever while failing to engage in the issue.

It is one of my most abiding frustrations that this cult of “What do we mean by yellow?” is given any credence at all in advertising and marketing circles at all. Rather than saying: “Yellow, you fat twat – you know, the colour that isn’t blue, red or green”, there are too many people who’ll nod along and agree that perhaps, yes, we ought to spend a bit more time (and certainly “do some charts on”) explaining what yellow is.

Surely, the power of what we do (work to exploit the power of brands – and that’s it) is based on being expansive, suggestive, evocative and analogous? 

What would have happened if the “I think we need some charts on…” crew had got hold of “Think Different”, “Just Do It”, “Every Little Helps”, “Where Do You Want To Go Today?”, “Dirt is Good”, “The Future’s Bright, The Future’s Orange” or any other great idea?

I’ll tell you what: “Think Different to IBM Do About What PCs Are For”, “Just Start Doing Some Exercise”, “Every Little Thing, Such As Certain Facilities, Store Layout, Customer Satisfaction, Pricing Policy and Range Helps You Enjoy Buying Your Groceries More At Tesco”, “What URL Address Do You Want To Be Connected To Today – We Can Do That”, “It’s Vital That Children Can Play Creatively – Which May Mean They Get Dirty – As That’s How They Develop, So Dirt’s A Sign of Childhood Development, and Anyway – We Can Clean Dirt” – and finally “The Future Is Bright, The Future Is Bright Like The Orange That We Use In Our Logo, and Have As Our Name – Sort of Cheerful, Without The Buddhist Robes Angle…”

Of course, I am exaggerating to make a point – and clumsily at that. But why are we so afraid of suggestiveness, when it is the very essence of what we do? We hope to unlock with allusion, metaphor and suggestion a world where a brand can be far more than the products that it makes: and it’s the bedrock of a Planner’s skills to find something that is right, evocative and ownable. It is NOT our job to substitute for either a dictionary or a thesaurus.

So here’s a plea to any fellow Planners out there: next time you’re asked “What KIND of excitement do you mean?” by someone who sits back with the smug expression of one who is thinking “My work here is done” – PLEASE fix them with a Basilisk stare and reply “Exciting Excitement” and leave it there.

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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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