Saturday, April 28, 2007

Another day another play... On Friday Owen and I went to see Tennessee William's THE ROSE TATTOO at the Olivier Theatre. I was a bit worried bearing in mind Owen had hated the last two plays we saw that after about 15 minutes he would shriek and run out of the seat but happily he stayed.

This was again a play I had never seen onstage but had read it and of course had seen the 1954 film starring Burt Lancaster and the force of nature that was Anna Magnani in her Academy Award-winning role. The play was last staged in London during 1991 with Julie Walters and Ken Stott and it's relative rarity is probably due to the fact it needs a fairly big cast as well as an actress of particular power who can carry the play for two-and-a-half hours.

Set in the Sicilian community of a village outside New Orleans, Serafina (played here by Zoe Wanamaker) is the proud seamstress wife of a truck driver who is smuggling drugs in his truck for the local mafia. She remains blind to this, only aware he is earning enough to better their circumstances as befits his origins as the son of a Baron in the homeland. She is delighted to be in the early stages of pregnancy and despite a visit from a glamorous woman who shows a particular interest in his photograph and wants a shirt of rose-coloured silk made for her Sicilain lover, Serafina is eager for his return home. Then she hears the news the neighbours are too scared to tell her... her husband is dead, shot by the police chasing his truck.

Serafina spirals into a mournful depression that lasts for three years, rarely leaving the house distancing the women of the town who disapprove of her slovernly appearance and fiery temper and the local priest for having her husband cremated and keeping the ashes. She is also driving her daughter Rosa to despair just as she discovers the joy of love with the sailor brother of a schoolfriend much to Serafina's disgust.

On the day of her daughter Rosa's graduation ceremony Serafina is confronted with the life she has tried to hide from. When she upbraids a customer for being common the woman lashes out
with the fact Serafina's husband was sleeping with the glamorous woman who called the night he was killed. Serafina attacks them and the police are called. A cowed Serafina is visited by Rosa and her sailor boyfriend but rouses herself to make him swear in front of a statue of the Virgin that he will not lay a hand on Rosa. But it's when her home is invaded by the macho presence of Alvaro Mangiacavallo, a truck driver hurt in a fight on her doorstep that Serafina realises life may not be over.
It was great to finally see this on stage although it wasn't a perfect production possibly due to the fact that the original director Stephen Pimlott died after only one week's rehearsal and was replaced by Nicholas Hytner. At two and a half hours the production seemed sometimes more than a little padded, there seemed to be lots of extraneous business during scene changes involving children and the village women - to say nothing of a real-life ram, chased around the apron of the stage during two scenes - poor bugger. Some of the other supporting roles were a bit wooly too with vocal coaching seemingly by Blanche from The Golden Girls and it was sad that their was no bigger role for the multi-talented Marilyn Cutts other than as a head-shaking villager. But Zoe Wanamaker was remarkable as Serafina. Seemingly playing against type, she was voluble, comic, broken, loud, tragic and bursting with energy. Although he was truly awful in the Vanessa Redgrave HECUBA at the Albery a few years ago, Darrell D'Silva brought great life and comic vitality to the bumbling Alvaro.

On Thursday Owen and I made the perilous journey to the southern outpost of Croydon to see the one and only Petula Clark.

I am sure the home of Kirsty MacColl - and she couldn't wait to get out! - has many charms but all my trips there have been for entertainment - hard to believe I know - twice at the Warehouse Theatre and the Fairfield Halls once.

The Fairfield Halls sadly isn't the most atmospheric of auditoriums - it's like the years of James Last and Daniel O'Donnell concerts have left a heavy musk of resignation in the air so it's got to be a special performer to liven it up a bit... luckily our Pet has been doing concerts for - WHAT??? - 64 years????? A radio star at ten, she made her concert debut at the Royal Albert Hall the next year - no pressure then!

From an early age I was aware of
Petula Clark - we had her number one single SAILOR at home and she was a staple on shows like Radio 2's Family Favourites at Sunday lunchtimes. However I had never felt the urge to see her before - her home counties appeal and difuse career always made her a hard personality to concentrate on. I saw her in the short-lived 1990 American Civil War musical she also co-wrote SOMEONE LIKE YOU at the Strand and squirmed all the way through it and I know I saw her around the same time on one of the innumerable Terrence Higgins Trust benefit nights.

But a few years ago I started listening to my Greatest Hits double cd more closely and apart from knowing the songs almost word-perfectly I found myself playing them over and over again. Perfectly produced for her voice her mid-60s hits DOWNTOWN, I KNOW A PLACE, YOU'D BETTER COME HOME, YOU'RE THE ONE, A SIGN OF THE TIMES, DON'T SLEEP IN THE SUBWAY and my favourite and one of the best British pop singles of the 1960s I COULDN'T LIVE WITHOUT YOUR LOVE are fantastic records which need a serious re-evaluation. So when Owen suggested going to see her the time had come!

An Epsom girl by birth she was duly welcomed like a Homecoming Queen but the audience - a heady mix of suburbanites, feebs and mature homosexuals - were a bit slow at first to give her something good to bounce off of. She certainly proved how diverse her catalogue is. She revisited two major theatre successes, as Mrs. Johnson in BLOOD BROTHERS on Broadway and as Norma Desmond in SUNSET
BOULEVARD in London and on a US tour which lasted nearly two years. She also sang Stephen Sondheim's LOSING MY MIND from FOLLIES which made me wonder how good she might be in a production of it. She also sang quite a few songs at the piano which she composed herself, another string to her bow. By the encore of I COULDN'T LIVE WITHOUT YOUR LOVE - of course I sang along! - she was given a rapturous and well-deserved standing ovation.

She has a few more dates in her strangely-plotted tour - Skegness and King's Lynn - then she's back over to the US to play Ohio and Pennsylvania then back in September playing Hayling Island and Cricket St. Thomas!! You can't say she doesn't bring it to the fans. Maybe that's her appeal to her undeniablely large fanbase? Unlike Julie Andrews (younger than Petula by three years) and who also had a similar start in the 1940s as a singing juvenile radio and stage performer, Clark never capitalised on her 1950s film career - possibly due to her father who strictly managed her career up until her marriage in 1961. She did of course star in two major musicals in the late 1960s FINIAN'S RAINBOW and GOODYE MR. CHIPS but these were in the last years of the big-budget studio musicals and could not equal the success Andrews had with MARY POPPINS or THE SOUND OF MUSIC. Maybe that is why she has the aura of being 'our Pet' and not the legendary status her longevity would suggest.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Went with Owen tonight to see Christopher Hampton's fifth play TREATS at the Garrick.

Backdrop: In 1971 Hampton adapted Ibsen's A DOLL'S HOUSE for a Broadway production starring Claire Bloom. It nightly inspired bravos and applause from the Women's Lib-friendly audiences at the scene where Nora walked out on her marriage at the end of the play. This set him thinking about a recent experience concerning the director of his previous plays Robert Kidd and his then partner Jane Asher. Kidd had been directing MACBETH in America and realised how bad he had been to her and on his return made up his mind to propose. When he arrived home he found she had already moved in with Gerald Scarfe. Hampton then thought but what if the woman couldn't leave the bad relationship? Five years later TREATS opened at the Royal Court Theatre (before transferring to the west end) with Stephen Moore as the new lover, James Bolam as the ex.... and Jane Asher directed by Robert Kidd! How civilised theatre people can be.

As with TOTAL ECLIPSE last week, TREATS was a play I had only ever read before so was keen to see it live (read that however you wish) on stage. While not as badly staged as ECLIPSE Laurence Boswell is not my most favourite of directors so again I was left feeling that the full worth of the text wasn't mined - oh and Billie Piper was off tonight so the usual dynamic of this three-hander was slightly off-kilter. About 10 minutes in I started to feel for Owen, he was being subjected to another play about unsympathetic people!

Ann and Patrick's quiet evening at home is shattered by the arrival of Dave her ex who breaks in, punches Patrick and refuses to leave until Ann explains why he has been replaced by Patrick while away working as a reporter in Iraq. He turns up the next morning and convinces Patrick to invite him round to dinner that night. A miserable evening is had by all as Dave continues to belittle Patrick and Ann in each other's eyes. The next morning Patrick apologises to Ann for his wimpish behaviour but she has her own admission: he was a rebound romance and she wants him out. A week later Dave turns up again to return the rug Ann had let him have and Dave suggests they make love one last time. She agrees only for Dave to physically attack her and tell her to call once she makes her mind up what she wants. After a night of anguish she calls the number. Two weeks later in a mirror image of the first scene Patrick breaks in and demands to know what is going on only this time Ann turns on him and violently orders him out of her life. He leaves but Ann runs after him. Dave is left alone staring at the door. The door opens and Ann returns, they sit on the couch in silence and Dave withdraws from her when she attempts to touch him.

It's always good when the rug is pulled totally from under the audience and the scene where Dave attacks Ann as you think he's about to make love to her certainly did that - the shock was audible. After that the witty barbed comedy you thought was playing out turns icy cold and the unsettling unresolved ending leaves a bitter taste.

The trouble is that Hampton always invests his darker characters with the better lines so Kris Marshall as Dave has no trouble making the evening his as the manipulative Dave. His is a swaggering performance which really makes the outcome of the tussle never in doubt. Interestingly Hampton had wanted the unknown Jonathan Pryce to play this role in the '76 production but he lost out to the more bankable James Bolam who Hampton thought never managed Pryce's feel of lurking danger.

Laurence Fox certainly shines as Patrick in his scenes of gormlessness as Dave runs verbal rings around him and is genuinely touching in the scene when told by Ann she wants to end the relationship, his painstaking attempts to return the front-door key lengthening the torture. But where is his voice? Father Edward should really give him the secrets of his cut-glass Windsor diction as his son's croaky delivery here made a lot of his lines hard to make out - and we were in the centre halfway back!

Antonina Lewis was on for the absent Piper and though okay was a little too stagey in her delivery which stood out against Marshall's on-the-nose delivery and Fox's croaky mumbling. It doesn't help that the character of Ann in the first scenes has only a handful of lines and ultimately is never a character you fully understand the psychology of. At one point after the dinner party she erupts in anger that the men assume she would want to be with either one or the other of them. But Hampton drops this strand and that is exactly the situation.

Here too were early signs of Hampton's awareness of the damage lovers can do each other verbally which later came to fruition in his masterpiece LES LIAISONS DANGEREUSES where again the glitteringly evil characters of Valmont and Merteuil have the best lines and scenes but where again the rug is pulled from under the audience when they realise that the enjoyment had by them makes the audience complicit in their actions.

I am grateful for having seen these two early plays of Christopher Hampton - even TREATS was written when he was 29 - but on reflection my admiration for him is based on his later work such as TALES FROM HOLLYWOOD, LES LIAISONS, CARRINGTON, WHITE CHAMELEON which all have one thing these plays lack - a humanity.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Monday night is Morgan Mathews night.

Following on from the soap wasteland that is Emmerdale / Corrie I / Eastenders / Corrie II with it's cartoon characters and outlandish drama it has been a joy to find the documentaries of Morgan Mathews on Beeb2 for the past two Mondays. Usually involving cartoon characters and outlandish drama!

Last week's BLUE SUEDE JEW looked to be a simple one-joke film profiling Gilles Elmalih, Israel's premiere Elvis Presley impersonator. It could almost write itself yeah? Nope.

After meeting Elmalih at the 'European Elvis Impersonator' Championships in Blackpool (!) Mathews followed him back to his West Bank home and met his wife Liz and her two teenage sons by her first marriage. They claimed the eldest son was clairvoyant and, in a trance, was possessed by the spirit of Elvis who was urging the family to move to the USA where fame would be theirs. Oh and when the son wasn't in a trance Elvis communicated with them by letter in Hebrew, scrunched up pages lobbed onto the kitchen floor by an unseen hand. The sign that this would all take place would be a phone call from Uri Geller yet! As the self-imposed deadline looms for the call Mathews decides to get the BBC to contact Geller on the basis that he's grown to like the man and would hate for him to be disappointed - and to lengthen his documentary of course! Geller - never one to balk at a tv appearance - calls and invites them to his house in the US should they ever be in the area. Cue Elmalih and wife flying to America but not before Mathews tells them that Geller called because of him. They refuse to believe him, telling him that Elvis was obviously working through him. What followed of course was big dreams being shrivelled in the cold light of day.

This week's was HAIR WARS profiling two stories relating to the World Hairdressing Championships - again a subject easy for a few easy laffs. But again Mathews managed to penetrate the layer. One strand followed John Phelps a double World Champion hairdresser who in 1996, after having a rock n roll moment insulting the judges and trashing his hotel room, was banned from competition for five years. He has since married a fellow prize-winning hairdresser divorcee and they have set up an academy teaching under-privileged youngsters how to follow in their footsteps. His biggest challenge is to try and relate to his wife's twin daughters by her jailbird ex, one of whom made Vicky Pollard sound like Hermione Granger. Counter-pointing this story was Keith Broughton the team manager for the UK Team heading for the championships. At the start he and his wife Marcella are seen heading off to the Hairdressing Awards - "It's very exclusive, invitation only", by the time the championship comes round they are living apart due in no small measure to his leading stylist, a salon Lucretia Borgia who spits venom with every blow-dry over any of her competitors. In one priceless exchange at a competition we overhear him tell her she did a brilliant styling "you know me I wouldn't fanny you about" to which she responds "I'd fanny you about". I'm still trying to get my toes to uncurl.

Keep 'em coming Mr. Mathews!

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Despite the best efforts, both above and below ground, of London Transport to delay me I saw Zhang Yimou's CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER (Man Cheng Jin Dai Huang Jin Jia) with Owen on Saturday night. It is really quite a bizarre film, being sensational and ridiculous - usually within the same scene.

In the 10th Century, an Emperor (Chow Yun-Fat) returns from a war to his enormous palace to celebrate the Feast of The Chrysanthemum with his Empress (Gong Li) and sons, Crown Prince Wan (Liu Ye) from his first marriage and Princes Jai (Jay Chou) and Yu (Qin Junjie). Jai
has also been fighting the war for three years and soon realises all is not well at home - he don't know the half! The Empress and her step-son are having an affair and the Emperor is slowly poisoning her with a drug that turns people insane within months. What the Empress doesn't know is the Crown Prince is also having a secret liaison with Chan (Li Man) the daughter of the Emperor's physician (Ni Dahong) the very man poisoning his mother. All plans are thrown off-balance when the Empress learns of the poisoning from a shadowy informant (Chen Jin) who is revealed first as the physician's wife and then, when brought before him, as the Emperor's first wife - secretly imprisoned when he married his present wife, the daughter of a neighbouring ruler. Soon events engulf these eight people into internecine plotting which culminates on the Feast night with bloody revenge and retribution.

The story is a strange Shakespearean mixture of Hamlet and Macbeth: a King fighting to maintain his crown, a son seeking revenge, a Queen being poisoned, an old courtier whose young daughter is in love with a prince, an advancing army and a high body count. Indeed it often betrays it's theatrical source - it is based on a 1930s play. Back in the early 1990s Zhang Yimou would have made this film with the eight main characters and a few extras on a simple set - such as in RAISE THE RED LANTERN - but as his films have been getting more and more epic CURSE is played out with what looks like the population of China drafted in as extras.

The film's opening scenes involve row after row of ladies-in-waiting going through a regimented choreographed early morning dressing ritual while the denouement of the film features hundreds of soldiers fighting in the palace grounds, the mounds of dead being quickly whisked away... enter a huge choir, musicians and hundreds of courtiers! I remember thinking: where were they when the battle was raging on their doorstep? Probably listening at the door saying "Ooo it's all kicking off out there" while the choir bitched about all those rehearsals wasted for it to be cancelled at the last minute by a blood bath. The sheer lavishness of it all finally overdoses on itself leaving the distinct impression that the revenge tragedy really cannot support the bewildering operatic production afforded it.

The cinematography, art direction and costume design give you sumptuous with extra-added sumpsh using a colour palate that leaves you woozy - reds, golds, pinks, purples, fuchsias, blues, greens - and that's just the wallpaper! There are also only sporadic martial arts scenes which will probably annoy punters expecting another CROUCHING HERO, HIDDEN GREEN DAGGERS but the Emperor's black-clad assassins who fly through mountain ravenes on ropes attached to grappling hooks - like an Emperor's 1st Airborne - will keep them watching the skies.

Occasionally the actors manage to break through the film's glittering carapace. Chow Yun-Fat seems muted as the Emperor. Half the time he looks rheumatic and doddery then suddenly springs to life to start knocking people about - he put me in mind of a Tang Dynasty Andy from "Little Britain". I did enjoy the performances of Jay Chou as Jai and Qin Junjie as the watchful younger son.

The women fair better - Li Man has a bit more fire to her than Zhang Ziyi who simpered through Zhang's last two films, Chen Jin is very good as the Emperor's first wife and then there is Gong Li.

Just as 2006 saw Almodovar
reunited with his muse Carmen Maura in VOLVER so in this film Zhang is reunited with his ex-partner (on and off screen) for the first time in ten years. Although in no way equaling her stunning work in JE DOU, RAISE THE RED LANTERN and TO LIVE, here Gong Li again proves that she is one of the screen's most hypnotic actresses.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

So Constant Reader... how do you round off a day when your second work computer died on you in as many weeks and your ma had her purse stolen out of her bag while shopping? Why you go and see a remarkably depressing play about French 19th Century poets of course you big silly.

TOTAL ECLIPSE was written by Christopher Hampton in 1968 , his second play, at the age of 22. It is based on the tortu
red relationship between the poets Paul Verlaine and Arthur Rimbaud which strangely predestined the relationship between Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas to say nothing of echoing stories like THE BLUE ANGEL, LULU or CARMEN where a seemingly ordinary man is reduced to the lowest of the low by his love for a mercurial, capricious lover.

Verlaine (Daniel Evans), a relatively successful poet in his late twenties invites the teenage Rimbaud (Jamie Doyle) to his home after he is contacted by him for help. Already chafing at having to live with his pregnant young wife in her parent's house, Verlaine is delighted and excited by the anarchic teenager who revels
in upsetting the bourgeois household, a relationship that soon becomes sexual under Rimbaud's tutelage. Soon they are living a peripatetic life, moving from France to Belgium to London, all the time their relationship turning sour with Rimbaud becoming more restive - at one point he stabs Verlaine's hands in a bar. When Rimbaud announces he is returning to Paris this time it's Verlaine who lashes out, firing a gun at Rimbaud wounding him in the hand. This results in his arrest and imprisonment for two years. He trails Rimbaud to Germany but his hoped-for reunion is violently rebuffed. They have now travelled far from each other emotionally - Rimbaud has stopped writing poems and Verlaine has become a Catholic. 16 years later, Verlaine now a down-at-heel teacher, is visited by Isabelle Rimbaud who tells him of her brother's death from cancer. She asks Verlaine to return her brother's letters to the family so they can better manage his legacy. On her departure he tears up the mother's address as Arthur appears before him and Verlaine persuades himself that they were happy together.

Christopher Hampton is one of my favourite playwrights - TALES FROM HOLLYWOOD and LES LIAISONS DANGEREUSES easily making my favourite plays list - and I had never seen this play before. I must admit to being disappointed in the production. For some odd reason it was designed for a traverse stage which dictated that each scene invariably resulted in the dialogue being used like a tennis ball between the actors standing at either end of it. It also leads to awkward scene changes which take place against mood music broken through with the wail of an electric guitar - a lazy shorthand for "look, he's like a youth rebel"!

Hampton has re-worked the play four times over the years and it sometimes betrays his shifting emphasis - he has admitted that the spur for writing the play was his love of Rimbaud's poetry but while writing it he found Verlaine's emotional complexity more interesting. One can imagine Rimbaud being hugely appealing to the counter-culture of the late 1960s.

It has other problems - for a play about two male poet lovers there are none of their poems and no scene showing any
physical affection between them (the play was written when the Lord Chamberlain still acted as a censor for British theatre). This would be less noticeable I think in a production with a surer hand and with performances of equal strength. Daniel Evans can't quite get to grips with Verlaine's shifts of character but he has some very effective moments towards the end of the play when his character is released from prison. The trouble is he is having to bounce his performance off Jamie Doyle's. Doyle speaks all his lines as if each word has a capital letter "I Am Leaving Whether You Like It Or Not" etc. with absolutely no variation in tone - he has a speech where he is explaining to Verlaine his reasons for writing his style of poetry and as he was saying it the thought crossed my mind he probably didn't understand a word but knew that it had to sound 'impassioned'. I suspect a better actor would have found more nuance in the role as there are obvious places in the script which suggest Rimbaud's own disguised frailty.

The supporting cast didn't impress much apart from Wendy Nottingham as Isabelle, Rimbaud's loving sister who will go to any lengths to keep her brother's reputation
unsullied by scandal.

Life imitating art imitating life:
The first production of TOTAL ECLIPSE starred Victor Henry as Rimbaud and John Grillo as Verlaine. Victor Henry was one of the most exciting young theatre actors of late 1960s with a string of acclaimed performances at the Royal Court and west end. A fierce drinker, he could be notoriously difficult, arguing with directors and co-stars. Indeed he disliked Grillo so much that on particularly fractious nights the actor was scared of having to play the penultimate scene where Rimbaud beats up Verlaine.
Victor Henry at 29 was the victim of a hit-and-run driver in 1972 which left him in a vegetative state eventually dying 13 years later.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Er... so where was that War On Terror being waged Mr. Bush?

Friday, April 13, 2007

Happy birthday to me... yes April 12th usually signifies my launch onto an unsuspecting public and this year was no different. Thank you for all who sent me birthday cards, texts and e-mails... there were some noticeable absentees. No names no packdrill (no Guy Smith).Anyway had a fab surprise tonight when Owen lead me on a circular route to the Comedy Theatre to see the 1960s French farce BOEING BOEING. I couldn't understand why this was being revived when it was announced - especially as it was being directed by Matthew Warchus and the cast included such heavy-hitters as Frances de la Tour, Mark Rylance and Roger Allam - in a boulevard comedy from the 1960s which was turned into a Jerry Lewis/Tony Curtis film - like, what gives? Well what gives is a masterclass in how to stage a classic farce - not a form I particularly warm to.

1960s Paris, Bernard (Allam), a successful architect, has a swanky flat in Paris and a love life to match, he's engaged simultaneously to three air stewardesses who provide an ever-changing variety of fun thanks to their rigid work timetables. When an old schoolfriend appears, the wide-eyed and shy Robert (Rylance), Bernard happily shows his plan in operation with the departure of American Gloria (Tamzin Outhwaite) at breakfast and the arrival at lunch of Alitalia's Gabriella (Daisy Beaumont). As his plans are helped by his sardonic and sceptical housekeeper Berthe (de la Tour) what can possibly go wrong?

Yes you guessed.... thanks to delays and weather conditions all three mistresses turn up at the flat one after the other and the hapless Robert is press-ganged into the escalating comedy of errors - particularly when he is attracted to the Teutonic Gretchen
(Michelle Gomez). Believe me it plays better than it reads.

Tightly directed by Warchus and with eye-popping design by Rob Howell, the production just shows that what could have been hackneyed in other hands is a comic gem when entrusted to a focused cast of actors. Mark Rylance is a riot, almost Stan Laurel-like at times in his baffled movements and facial expressions - horror, joy and confusion chasing themselves across his face at any given time. His panicked improvisations when confronted by yet another angry female are a joy. Frances de la Tour once again gives a masterclass in comic timing which is pure genius. Each line mined for it's comic potential, each word weighed up for just the right emphasis. Rylance and de la Tour share a scene together where she toys coquettishly with him which is the funniest thing I have seen on stage for ages.

The three stewardesses are a formidable trio - no dumb dollybirds these - and indeed it is the women who get exactly what they want at the end of the show. They are played marvellously by Tamsin Outhwaite as Gloria from TWA and Sally Beaumont as Gabriella from Alitalia while Michelle Gomez as Gretchen from Lufthansa turns in one of the most outrageous comic performances I think I have ever seen. Gimlet-eyed and with the cheekbones of death you cannot take your eyes off her on stage. As good as Roger Allam is as Bernard, the script does not afford him as many moments to shine as his co-stars.

Thank God Owen booked this week to see it - I've just seen that Frances de la Tour leaves the show on Saturday to be replaced by Patricia Hodge.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Tonight for the first time in ages I went to see a straight play - and they don't come much straighter than Ibsen's JOHN GABRIEL BORKMAN which I saw with Owen at the Donmar.

I have seen the play twice before at the National Theatre with to-die-for casts.

The first time was Peter Hall’s 1975 Old Vic production which my English class were taken to see a mid-week matinee of with the lead roles being played by Ralph Richardson, Peggy Ashcroft and Wendy Hiller. I won't pretend I understood everything that was said on the stage but I remember being hooked on the melodramatic turns of the plot and also being aware I was in the presence of great actors - no more so than when Richardson turned and stared at the talkative school kids in the circle and shouted WILL YOU BLOODY WELL SHUT UP during his first scene. There wasn't a peep out of them after that as I recall.

Then in 1996 I saw Richard Eyre’s production at the Lyttleton with the equally amazing cast of Paul Schofield, Vanessa Redgrave and Eileen Atkins – Schofield’s final speech was one of the greatest theatrical moments I have experienced, him standing at the edge of the stage almost whispering to us the visions of a dying man. So Michael Grandage’s production had a lot to live up to, and although it didn’t quite scale the heights it still proved to be a rewarding night.

In this version by David Eldridge – who did an excellent version of Ibsen’s THE WILD DUCK at the Donmar two years ago – Ian McDiarmid plays Borkman, the disgraced financier who 13 years before the play’s opening, had been sentenced to five years in prison for his swindling of the bank he ran. Since his release he has lived as a recluse on the first floor of his house only visited by one of his former employees and the man’s teenage daughter who, to assuage his guilt over ruining the family, Borkman has helped to educate. Deborah Findlay plays his bitter wife Gunhild who, despite living in the same house, has refused to speak or see her husband for the eight years since his release from prison. She has devoted her life to getting their son Erhart to one day make the family name respectable again. Penelope Wilton plays Gunhild’s estranged spinster sister Ella Rentheim who had, during Borkman’s trial and imprisonment, taken in and cared for the young Erhart and who appears out of the blue at the start of the play and sets in motion a series of revelations that rock the foundations of the household.

Findlay and Wilton’s scenes together crackled with tension and anger as both strove to claim Erhart as their own and Wilton’s Act Two scene with McDiarmid was wonderfully anguished as she reveals the real reason behind her visit while also exploding in rage at him for cynically spurning her love when they were younger as a business colleague offered him the promotion to running the bank if he passed her on to the colleague.

Unfortunately Ian McDiarmid didn’t quite manage to conquer the role. No one can do withering put-downs and cutting, sarcastic posturing like him – one reason why his performance as Bertolt Brecht was so memorable in Christopher Hampton’s TALES FROM HOLLYWOOD at the National – but the ultimate redemptive, poetic side of Borkman seemed to allude him which was a real shame. The two best supporting performances were the ever-reliable David Burke as Foldal, Borkman’s faithful old employee and Lolita Chakrabati as Mrs. Wilton (bet they had fun with that at rehearsal), the worldy, divorced woman who lays claim to Erhart along with the sisters.

Thursday, April 05, 2007