Thursday, October 08, 2015

CASA VALENTINA at Southwark Playhouse - Harvey's Hideaway...

Harvey Fierstein, unofficial Mayor of Broadway, has had two long-running successes over the last few years in New York with his books for two big film-based musicals NEWSIES and KINKY BOOTS, but there was no long run for his latest play CASA VALENTINA which ran for two months.  The play has now opened at London's Southwark Playhouse, a venue which seems to have now become the London conduit for Broadway musicals: IN THE HEIGHTS, CARRIE, TITANIC, GRAND HOTEL, DOGFIGHT and the soon-to-come XANADU and GREY GARDENS.

As odd as CASA VALENTINA sounds, it is actually based on a reality.  In the late 1950s a married couple, Tito and Marie Valenti, set up the Chevalier d'Eon holiday resort in the Catskill Mountains in upstate NY which was also called by the more quaint Casa Susana.  Tito was a transvestite and wanted a place where he and his 'sisters' could relax as their feminine personas.  The intriguing thing is that the resort catered exclusively - or as much as could be claimed - for hetrosexual men who were secret transvestites.

Harvey Fierstein's play introduces us to fictionalised versions of the Valentis, George aka Valentina and his wife Rita, and several of their most regular clientele: large and sassy Bessie aka Albert, glamorous Gloria aka Michael, ageing Terry aka Theodore and Amy aka the Judge.  Joining them over a momentous 24 hours are nervous first-timer Jonathan aka Miranda and, much to George's pride, Charlotte aka Isadore, a well-known writer who runs a transvestite publication and who is also an activist for wider acceptance.

Slowly Charlotte is revealed to be the villainess of the play - 'she' knows that George has been interrogated by his Post Office bosses about an intercepted parcel which contained amateur photographs of a gay sex session and also that the Casa is losing money.  The offer of a loan from Charlotte comes with conditions: that the clientele come forward publicly to wider the 'awareness' of transexuals.

The trump card Charlotte holds is she knows that one of the guests was involved in the gay sex photos which forces George into the position of having to betray one of his oldest friends as, tellingly, Charlotte is adamant that in identifying themselves to the world that there can be no homosexuals involved, their cause will be better received if it only involves hetrosexuals.

Fierstein certainly gives us an entertaining play which in the first half lulls you into expecting almost a situation comedy with larger-than-life personalities and waspish, camp dialogue.  However once Charlotte reveals her true colours, the play takes on a more sombre atmosphere and ends with hitherto dependable and understanding Rita slowly realising that her compliance in her husband's secret life has always benefited his needs and that the moment she has secretly been dreading might have arrived - the day that George goes upstairs to change into Valentina and never returns again.

The problem I had was that with scenes like the second act confrontation between the nasty villain and the tragic gay victim, it seemed a very old-fashioned play, almost like a drag-retelling of "The Children's Hour".  There is even an 11 o'clock appearance of the gay man's daughter whose castigation of the set-up leads to Rita's realisation of her doormat status in the marriage.  

Despite the rather formulaic structure there was much to enjoy in Luke Sheppard's in-the-round production with good performances from all the cast: Tamsin Carroll as Rita, Ben Deery as shy first-timer Jonathan/Miranda, Edward Wolstenholme as George/Valentina, Gareth Snook as the hissable villainess Charlotte, Matt Rixon as the larger-than-life Bessie, Ashley Robinson channeling Rhonda Fleming as Gloria, Bruce Montague (yes, from "Butterflies") as the old dear Terry, Robert Morgan as the Judge/Amy and Charlie Hayes as the disdainful daughter.

I also liked the atmospheric lighting by Howard Hudson and the silvery knotty branches of the trees in Justin Nardella's simple set.

the Chevalier d’Eon resort
the Chevalier d’Eon resort
the Chevalier d’Eon resort
the Chevalier d’Eon resort

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The ORESTEIA - the daddy of them all...

This year has seen us visiting the Globe Theatre a stonking five times - last year I finally got to like the space after four visits - but here we were at our sixth and last visit this year to the main stage (we have a couple of productions booked for the indoor Playhouse later in the year) and we went out on a biggie... the daddy of them all, Aeschylus' THE ORESTEIA.

THE ORESTEIA is the only existing trilogy from the ancient Greek theatre and pre-dates Sophocles' ANTIGONE, OEDIPUS THE KING and ELECTRA as well as MEDEA, THE TROJAN WOMEN, ANDROMACHE, HECUBA and THE BACCHAE by Euripedes.  It is known that THE ORESTEIA was presented with the first prize at the Dionysea festival in Athens when it was first performed in 458 b.c. and was his last great success as he was killed two years later, famously by a falling tortoise dropped by an eagle flying overhead - it's worthy of one of the tragedies!

Aeschylus had been a successful soldier before his playwright years and it was as a soldier that he was memorialised but his work was so highly prized that his were the only plays that were allowed to be re-staged in following festivals - it was the rule that plays were only to be staged once.

Down the years the plays have inspired all great tragedies with their mixture of cracking revenge plots - where would today's soaps be without the revenge storylines? - and memorable, vibrant characters: proud but doomed Agamemnon, calculating Clytemnestra, tragic Cassandra, conniving Aegisthus, driven Orestes and distraught Electra.  There is another production currently running with the absurd adline: "Part The Godfather, Part Breaking Bad" - you could equally cite Hamlet and/or Game of Thrones... they all flow from The Oresteia - and apart from Hamlet, it still has the power to wipe the floor with all successors.

I have seen the trilogy twice: the legendary Peter Hall production at the National Theatre which staged them in masks and with an all-male cast and the more director-theatre version directed by Katie Mitchell in 1999.  Adele Thomas' production mixes various styles of dress and imagery and uses a new translation by Rory Mullarkey.  Despite the odd bit of clunky business - and an out-of-nowhere finale - I enjoyed it very much.

Of the three plays I enjoyed the first, AGAMEMNON the best as it is the perfect revenge drama with Clytemnestra proving to be one of the great women's roles in drama.  Mullarkey's plain-English text speeds the action along with edge-of-the-seat tension: a watchman finally sees a far-distant beacon burning - the sign he has gone without sleep to see which lets him know that the Trojan War is over and King Agamemnon is returning home.  The chorus of dejected Greeks cannot believe their ears that the ten-year war is finally over but get confirmation from a weary soldier herald.

Queen Clytemnestra makes frequent appearances from the House of Atreus to scornfully mock the chorus for their doubts and to alert us that Agamemnon has a deadlier foe at home.  Ten years before, to implore the gods for a fair wind for his ships to sail to Troy, Agamemnon killed his daughter Iphegenia in sacrifice... and Clytemnestra wants her revenge.

The second play THE LIBATION-BEARERS finds their son Orestes returning back to his home after years away and finds his sister Electra in misery at their father's death and together they plan to revenge their father's murder - so often during this play one is reminded of HAMLET.

The final play, THE KINDLY ONES, brings the action full-circle with Clytemnestra's ghost awakening the Furies to chase Orestes forever to avenge the matricide.  He travels to Athens to be judged by the goddess Athena as to whether he is guilty or not.  And so the courtroom drama was born too...

As I said Rory Mullarkey's adaptation was direct and unambiguous which worked well and certainly made plain the thoughts that will never date - the weary herald's rebuking the chorus for their glorying in Greece's triumph of Troy when all he wants is to return to his home which is also mirrored in Agamemnon's statement that the time for attributing blame in the run-up to war will be decided at a future time - Chilcott anyone?  However there was a lack of poetry in his text which was probably highlighted by my previous experience of the trilogy's previous rough-hewn adapters, poets Tony Harrison and Ted Hughes.

As I said Adele Hughes' production was uncluttered and spare, concentrating all the action on the word and the character speaking it - only at the end did it all go a bit up the Atreus.  Now we know that the Globe always ends it's productions however body-strewn with a dance - as in Shakespeare's day - and THE ORESTEIA when first staged would have been followed with a fourth play, a Satyr play poking fun at the blood and guts that had gone before - but it was still a shock when just after Athena - in full golden disco frock - turned the Furies from avenging creatures into the sacred, beneficent guardians of Athens - brassy music started playing and all the cast got happy-clappy around a large golden phallus with a blacked-up tubby and small Pan running around!

Despite this nerve-jangling coda, I would urge you to experience this production and to also applaud the performances of George Irving as Agamemnon, Naana Agyei-Ampadu as the distraught Cassandra - the only drawback is Thomas has most of her speech sung which throws the rhythm of the scene - Dennis Herdman's war-weary herald and Joel MacCormack's vengeful Orestes - he didn't even let an upstage exploding brazier put him off his stride!

The performance of the night was Katy Stephens' marvellous Clytemnestra.  Some with long memories may remember I used her as my e-mail address for a long time - such a 2YK tribute - so you can probably guess that she is truly one of my favourite characters in theatre. Sarcastic, proud, lustful and intent on enacting her revenge - it is a mighty role and Katy Stephens was magnetic, you simply could not watch anyone else when she was onstage - and not just because of her a-line Bridget Riley formal!

By the way, the onstage golden phallus at the end reminded me of one of my favourite Coral Browne stories: she went to Peter Brook's 1967 modern-dress version of OEDIPUS for the National Theatre when at the Old Vic.  After Irene Worth stabbed herself and John Gielgud blinded himself, onstage suddenly appeared a huge golden phallus while the cast danced into the auditorium while a jazz band played "Yes We Have No Bananas".  Browne eyed the giant knob and turned to her companion saying "Well, nobody *I* know!"

Now... what a Clytemnestra Coral would have been!

Thursday, September 10, 2015

KINKY BOOTS at the Adelphi.... Standing Tall in Heels

Every so often there is a "little British film" that can usually be simmered down to the following plot - individual or small, mis-matched group decide that they must make a stand and assert themselves against their fate, two-thirds in there is usually a major set-back when it all looks lost but the final act brings a little triumph that leaves them all changed for the better.  BILLY ELLIOTT, THE FULL MONTY, CALENDER GIRLS, BRASSED OFF, MADE IN DAGENHAM, even PRIDE can be included in the genre.

It's interesting that these films have all been adapted into plays or musicals - there is talk that PRIDE will be on stage next year - and one more to add to that number is KINKY BOOTS, the 2005 film that told the odd but true tale of a Northamptonshire shoe factory that, when faced with possible closure, diversified and found a USP in making boots for drag queens with strengthened heels to take a man's weight.

I must admit that when I saw the film I found it under-whelming with Julian Jarrold's uninspired direction drearily sticking to the all too-obvious template as described above.  It was made bearable only by Chiwetel Ejiofor's striking performance as Lola, the amazonian drag queen who drives the plot.

But in the recent trend to make stage shows out of known films, the quality of the source material is of no great matter and I found KINKY BOOTS: THE MUSICAL to be much more enjoyable than the film.

The show premiered on Broadway in 2013 and was an immediate success so it was only a matter of sitting it out until the show transferred here.  By the way it's interesting that it replaced the flop musical of MADE IN DAGENHAM at the Adelphi, one former-film-set-in-a-factory replaced by another!  The Broadway production won six Tony Awards including Best Musical, Best Choreography and Best Score and now it's here - bright, brassy, bouncy and the most enormous fun.  I didn't even mind that it was an American version of England!

Jerry Mitchell directs with a panache that skillfully skirts over some of the more threadbare patches of the plot and his choreography has a muscular punch that is thrilling.

Harvey Fierstein has written an excellent Broadway musical book which is well-paced and hits the right balance of humour and emotion - who better to write a musical about a drag queen than the writer of LA CAGE AUX FOLLES?  Lola has the best lines of course but he has also created sympathetic roles in Charlie, the diffident young man who inherits his father's failing shoe factory and Lauren, one of his workers who discovers the man behind the shoes.

The star of the show turns out to be Cyndi Lauper's wonderfully-varied score.  It reminded me of Boy George's score for TABOO as it too had a wide range of ballads, show-stoppers and character numbers.  That it is her first-ever score makes it even more impressive, she fully deserved her Tony Award.

Essentially it is a show with only two lead roles and the production has been well-cast.  At first I was worried about Matt Henry as Lola as he seemed to be commenting on the role rather than simply being, being flamboyant doesn't seem to be a natural fit.  But as the evening progressed and we get to see Lola's more private side Henry came into his own and belted out his big numbers with a real strength.  No such problems with Killian Donnelly as Charlie - he played the role with just the right air of bashfulness cast adrift in a world where so much is expected on him and he also belted out his numbers with real emotion.  Maybe I might have enjoyed MEMPHIS more if I had seen him and not his understudy (doubt it though),

Amy Lennox is delightful as Lauren the factory girl with 'The History Of Wrong Guys' which also happens to be her big solo which is the score's most Lauper-esque number and which Lennox lands right on the button.  I also liked Michael Hobbs as the mild-mannered foreman George and a special mention must go to Lola's club dancers The Angels - imagine Les Cagelles but with beaucoup attitude!

David Rockwell's stage designs are a bit of a disappointment but Gregg Barnes's costumes are suitably dazzling.  I would recommend you to zip up those boots and sashay away to the Adelphi for a show that will lift you up in more ways than one.

Saturday, September 05, 2015

OUR COUNTRY'S GOOD at the Olivier - Freedom Through Theatre

In 1990 I saw Timberlake Wertenbaker's OUR COUNTRY'S GOOD in it's last few weeks at the Garrick Theatre and was taken by it's simple production and the way Wertenbaker interpreted Thomas Keneally's book The Playmaker which dealt with the first convicts who were sentenced to be transported to Australia for a range of both petty and serious crimes and how an officer uses the prisoners to stage an amateur production of George Farquhar's THE RECRUITING OFFICER.

This originally opened at the Royal Court and won the Olivier award for Best Play and, by the time I saw it after it's transfer, it had an impressive cast of Julian Wadham as the well-meaning officer and his convicts included Amanda Redman as quiet Mary Brenham, Tony Rohr as volunteer hangman Ketch Freeman, Nigel Cooke as keen amateur actor Robert Sideway, Ron Cook as the Jewish prisoner John Wisehammer, Caroline Quentin as bolshy Dabby Bryant and Linda Bassett as loose cannon Liz Mordern.  It is now revived at the Olivier Theatre and while the performances rarely match these, it was interesting to see it again.

What I did not realise when I saw it first was that the characters - officers and prisoners - are all, by and large, based on the real people involved in the first ever transportation to Australia that resulted in the staging of the amateur production of THE RECRUITING OFFICER in 1789.  Yes, while The French Revolution kicked off and George Washington was made President, while Fletcher Christian led the mutiny aboard HMS Bounty and William Blake published "Songs of Innocence", a small group of prisoners performed Farquhar's popular comedy to celebrate George III's birthday - I hope the irony was not lost on them.

Wertenbaker' has written a fascinating play which looks at the subject from both the officers and the prisoners perspectives but the latter come out as the real heroes of the piece.  However I felt there were times when Nadia Fall's production looked too exposed on the expansive Olivier stage on Peter McKintosh's stylised set with it's Australian desert backdrop but Neil Austin's lighting design was as exemplary as ever.  However I think the Lyttelton would have been a better fit.

Admittedly we saw a preview so hopefully the production might bed in better when the cast have the measure of the piece.  Standouts in the cast were Ashley McGuire as the wonderfully gobby Dabby Bryant, all bolshy front while quietly yearning to return home to Devon, Lee Ross as Robert Sideway the eager actor-to-be who has seen David Garrick onstage, Tadhg Murphy as the convict who is despised by the others as he has volunteered to be the colony hangman, Matthew Cottle as the word-loving Jewish prisoner and in particular Jodie McNee as Liz Mordern, burning with anger and resentment who is the most transformed by being exposed to kindness and the chance to find her own voice.

Jason Hughes as Ralph Clark, the officer who is also the play's director and Caoilfhionn Dunne as Mary Brenham, the convict he fell in love with, should stand out more but their plot-line felt under-played as did the sub-plot of the scenery-chewing Paul Kaye as the mid-shipman slowly losing his mind over his love of the convict Duckling Smith.  The latter was played by Shalisha James-Davis in a barely adequate manner.

Nadia Fall has made a major change with her production by adding a sung score supplied by Cerys Matthews which I suspect was done to give it more of an epic feel in keeping with the Olivier auditorium.  Some times it was effective - the convicts would surely have sung to themselves to keep their spirits up - sometimes it felt a bit too obvious.

If you have never seen the play before I would recommend seeing it as it makes for a moving, thought-provoking experience.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Dvd/150: The GO-BETWEEN (Joseph Losey, 1971)

Joseph Losey and Harold Pinter's elliptical film of LP Hartley's novella is fascinating to watch.

It is redolent of 1970s filmmaking, good and bad.  Michel Legrand's emphatic piano score sounds more suited to a spy thriller and the claustrophobic sound makes you suspect it was all dubbed afterwards.

Nowadays it would be filmed as straight period drama but Losey and Pinter choose a more distancing approach, cross-cutting from 1900 when young Leo is invited for the summer to the Norfolk country estate of a schoolfriend, to the 1950s when Leo returns on a secretive invitation.

Leo is smitten by his friend's sister Marion who befriends him.  Already engaged, she is secretly seeing local farmer Ted Burgess.  They use Leo as a go-between for their notes but when he discovers the secret, his loyalties become confused.

Julie Christie, Alan Bates, Margaret Leighton and Michael Redgrave all give memorable performances.

Shelf or charity shop? Keeping it's secrets on the shelf...

Saturday, August 29, 2015

RICHARD II at the Globe Theatre - non-Cumberbatch Shakespeare

You would never know it from the press hype surrounding Benedict Cumberbatch's HAMLET but there is another vacillating royal in serious trouble on the London stage and we were lucky to see it last week.

RICHARD II is the latest production in the Globe Theatre's 2015 season based around the themes of Justice and Mercy, qualities that are singularly lacking in the story of the downfall of the vain, misguided Plantagenet King who learned too late that it's more important to be human than majestic.

Charles Edwards brought his upper-class panache to the role of Richard: by turns pampered, remote, haughty and witty, he sailed through the first act on an air of privilege, uncaring of the turmoil he was creating in his wake among his lords and barons, sure in his knowledge that as an anointed King he was impervious to complaint.

However when Richard II tires of the dispute between Henry of Bolingbroke and Thomas Mowbray and banishes them both abroad he sets off a chain of events which swiftly leads to disaster.  Caring little for the angry remonstrations of Bolingbroke's dying father John of Gaunt, Richard seizes his property and goods to pay for his war with the Irish and in doing so deprives Bolingbroke of his legacy.  The King returns from Ireland to discover that Bolingbroke has returned from exile and rallied an army while his own followers have vanished.

Up until this point Richard has been fairly unlikeable but his realisation that his destiny is now uncertain leads him through various stages of self-pitying anger, despair, and finally to a wisdom that is touching in it's resignation.  Up until the arrival back on English shores, the only moment of real poetry has been John of Gaunt's denunciation of Richard, brooding on what his reign has done to "This sceptre'd isle".  William Gaunt in the small but haunting role of John of Gaunt was excellent, using up the last of his energy to rain down anger on Richard's reign.

But with Richard's growing realisation of his inadequacy, Shakespeare ups the ante and Richard finds his poetic voice, in particular when he invites his admirers "let us sit upon the ground and talk about the death of kings".  Two excellent scenes follow where Richard and Bolingbroke confront each other, first at Flint Castle where Richard attempts to face down his enemy but eventually capitulates to fate and the following scene at Westminster Hall where Richard is called before the council to abdicate.

This magnificent confrontation - where vacillating Richard literally makes Bolingbroke pull the crown from his grasp and then ruminates on the transition from King to man - saw Edwards at his finest and indeed, his final scene was shot through with a noble pathos.

David Sturzaker also upped his game as Bolingbroke in his scenes with Edwards although he at times felt a bit lightweight to play such an important main role.  There was very good support from William Chubb as the honest Duke of York, Richard Katz as both the murderous Exton and the Queen's head gardener and Sarah Woodward as the Duchess of York.  However her major scene at the end where she begs Bolingbroke to spare the life of her traitorous son while her husband the Duke demands his son's death was played almost as slapstick and threw the tone off dramatically.

Overall, Simon Godwin's production was very enjoyable although some of the cast were a bit lightweight and the first act seemed to feature one too many scenes of the rebellious lords sweeping on to only sweep off again after a few minutes.  Despite this I enjoyed it more than the Kevin Spacey/Old Vic production from 2005.

Where the production did score well was with Paul Wills set of cracked and peeling shining gold paint.  As soon as I saw it I was reminded of the famous portrait of the ill-fated King in Westminster Abbey.

Friday, August 28, 2015

HAMLET at the Barbican - When Cumberbatch Met Shakespeare...

After all the hype, the year-long wait for tickets, the brouhaha over director Lynsey Turner moving "To be or not to be" to the start of the play, press reviewing the first previews... after all that, how exactly did HAMLET at the Barbican pan out?

As I said I've had a year to build up to the production with only the poster art to whet one's appetite.  The design of a troubled younger Hamlet, with trademark Cumberbatch hair, staring out while other unhappy kids - maybe Laertes, Ophelia, Horatio and Fortinbras? - mope about in the background at a miserable party, is really not reflected in the final production, who knows if it ever did?

To be honest, after all the press and social media jabber about Benedict Cumberbatch stepping up to the plate to play the melancholy prince, I actually wasn't looking forward to seeing the production.  It all seemed whipped up and over-blown, and more importantly, we had seen Lynsey Turner's dire over-conceptualised production of LIGHT SHINING IN BUCKINGHAMSHIRE at the National which made me fear the most.  But there I was last Monday, taking my place in the front row - THE FRONT ROW - with my over-sized £10 programme.  I resisted the tshirts and mugs on sale in the foyer.

At first my heart sank as Hamlet was revealed listening to a Dansette playing Nat King Cole's "Nature Boy" but I didn't dare grind my teeth as Cumberbatch was only a stone's throw away - and we all know how distracted he can get by his audience!  Turner has dropped the opening scene on the ramparts and gallops straight into the first court scene, all the quicker to get her star on the stage as quickly as possible.

The subsequent action all takes place on Es Devlin's extraordinary, angled set which suggests a low ceilinged Middle-European palatial hunting lodge, almost CinemaScope in aspect as it reaches across the large Barbican stage.  It's painstakingly detailed with mounted stags-heads, royal family portraits and, tellingly, an old rocking-horse and boxes of toys stored almost out-of-side under the impressive staircase and first-floor landing.  It could have been somewhere Nicholas and Alexandra might have stayed when they wanted to be a 'normal' family in the summer months.

When we first we see it it is also festooned with large hanging white garlands to celebrate the marriage of Claudius and Gertrude with a long table attended by courtiers dressed in bright colours - apart of course from Hamlet in his inky coat of mourning.  His first monologue "O that this too too solid flesh would melt..." is played direct to the audience with him climbing over the table while all around the others do their best sloow-motion acting.

Turner's streamlining of the text focusing all on Hamlet makes for a swift first act although the interval was placed quite late in the action after Hamlet is shipped off to England and as if to make up for it closing on a non-Cumberbatch scene, Turner has the doors of the set suddenly blow open as leaves and dust swirl through them engulfing the solo figure of Ciaran Hind's Claudius.  It did leave the nagging feeling that Elsinore was the latest venue for SLAVA'S SNOW SHOW.

Sadly the second act built on the niggles I felt during the first act and possibly because Cumberbatch was offstage for awhile, the pace slackened and never really recovered.  A main contributor to that was the fact that in the interval the set is changed to a desolate shell of it's former self with the the stage now covered in mounds of dirt and rock.  Yes it's a good visual flagging up of the fact that the second half of the play focuses on the spiralling paranoia within Elsinore and the threat of war without but it didn't help the flow of the scenes with the cast gingerly climbing over the mounds like worried mountain goats in Jane Cox's gloomy lighting.

In retrospect I think the production highlights all of Lyndsey Turner's worst aspects of vision and direction - the visual over-emphasis and the feeling that the actors are playing in their own sealed spaces and not connecting onstage was all very prevalent.  I also found the whole visual idea for Hamlet distracting: his mad scenes are played while dressed up as a toy soldier and he even finally resorts to dragging on his own large fort to hide in.  It all felt overly-cute and done to get easy laughs for Cumberbatch to the cost of the rhythm of the play - and why for the play scene did he sport a Ziggy Stardust t-shirt??

I had expected Ciaran Hinds as Claudius to really put a stamp on the production and give Cumberbatch a run for his money but he made only fitful impressions, usually when he was in scenes with others.  Anastasia Hille isn't an actress I particularly like but I also felt she was colourless as Gertrude - at no time did I feel any connection between her and Claudius and in particular between her and Hamlet - the closet scene might as well have been two people standing at a bus stop.

I was looking forward to Jim Norton as Polonius but he too seemed to gave a muted, underplayed performance while Ophelia was played by the colourless Sian Brooke.  Turner has thrown greater emphasis on Ophelia in this production, she wanders around snapping away with a box brownie camera during the first act and in her final scene, she drags on a large trunk which Gertrude opens to find hundreds of her photographs and her camera, then watches as mad Ophelia walks away from her up one of the rubble dunes to her watery death.  The trouble is that Brooke does nothing to impose any personality on the role.  Nice black lacy frock though....

The current trend seems to have been to cast a black actress as Ophelia but here the non-traditionalist casting is switched so Kobna Holdbrook-Smith plays Laertes and he at least has a forceful presence when he returns as the avenging angel.  There is also a strong performance from Sergio Vares as Fortinbras, demonstrating the strength of purpose that shows why he will thrive where Hamlet failed.  Karl Johnson, although anonymous as the Ghost was excellent as the Gravedigger. These three actors all stood out in the moribund second act.

The duel scene at the end of the play again showed the frustrating quality of the production, the swordplay was good but Gertrude's poignant last line was allotted to Horatio, her positioning was off to one side away from the action and in the final injustice, absurdly ended up doubled over on one of the mounds with her bum in the air.  Claudius's demise was also oddly bungled, happening upstage and behind the banister on the staircase, it was almost like they had to positioned to be as far away from the centre of the stage which was Cumberbatch's permanent domain.

The whole reason the production was there however was not for Lyndsey Turner's direction, Es Devlin's set, Anastasia Hille's Gertrude or Jim Norton's Polonius... it was for Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet.  To be honest he gave the performance I expected to give - he shot through the first act like an arrow, he spoke the text with clarity, waspish humour and with an intelligence that showed genuine understanding and radiated a real star wattage.

And yet.. and yet... and yet...  at no time did I feel Hamlet had taken over him, he remained Benedict Cumberbatch at all times.  This is of course what a star does, they give us various facets of an established persona and there was plenty here to please the 'Sherlock' fans in the house particularly in the cutesy business in the dress-up madness scenes.

But he didn't move me, not like the best Hamlets I have seen have done.  Derek Jacobi (1980, BBC TV), Simon Russell Beale (2000, NT), Rory Kinnear (2010, NT) and the greatest of all Ian Charleson (1989, NT) have all broken through to the real soul of the part so that by the end, when "the rest is silence", you mourn the loss of him in his world and in ours. 

In a few years Cumberbatch might have a chance of playing the role again, only hopefully with a director who can possibly connect him to a more integrated production and cast.