Sunday, February 20, 2011

Sometimes you see a production in a theatre that leaves you so shaken it takes a while to get over it. Peter Hall's latest whack at Shakespeare's TWELFTH NIGHT has left me thus... and not in a good way.

The production sold out to the National Theatre mailing list punters so tickets have been on the rare side - when two popped up on the NT website a few weeks back I nabbed them. No doubt Peter Hall wanted the Cottesloe so we are close to the action and, as is his lifelong mission, can concentrate on the text.

The production marks Peter Hall's 80th birthday and it's his fourth go at the play. I have to say that rather than seeing a production that showed that experience, I saw a production obviously directed by an old man.

An unavoidable problem was the clanging amateurishness of Rebecca Hall. Damn girl, how did you get the gig? Oh yes, I forgot for a minute. Her film career might be in the ascendant with roles in VICKY CHRISTINA BARCELONA, FROST/NIXON as well as winning a BAFTA for the RED RIDING trilogy on Channel 4 but her stage work leaves her with nowhere to hide.

Although she won the Ian Charleston award in 2002 for her performance of 'Vivie' in her father's production of MRS. WARREN'S PROFESSION I found that portrayal a bit two-dimensional but that at least fitted the kill-joy character, and felt she only succeeded playing Hermione in Sam Mendes' 2009 WINTER'S TALE at the Old Vic when she played the statue at the end!

Time and again Rebecca Hall give us true moments of jaw-dropping thinness. In her solo speeches to the audience she gave a masterclass in coarse acting - her arms stiffly raised from her sides for emphasis or looking from one side of the auditorium to the other to 'include the audience in' on her thoughts. It was a performance that semaphored cluelessness to the audience and more than once I found myself groaning quietly.

It all reminded me of when Jennifer, another of Hall's offspring, appeared as Helena in MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM at the Lyttleton in 1983 and gave a performance of resounding averageness.

This mis-firing performance colours the whole production and is not helped by being paired with the rather odd Orsino of Marton Csokas. Looking not unlike a shaggy Russell Crowe, it was a performance that again consistently hit wrong notes all over the place. Like... was Peter Hall having his afternoon sleep during the rehearsals?

Rebecca Hall's Amateur-Night-In-Dixie turn is illuminated all the more by her scenes with Amanda Drew as Olivia. Where Hall speaks her lines with the studied earnestness of an over-achieving schoolgirl, Drew simply acts. For her the lines are learned and tucked away and she simply plays the role with a bemused air that is a pleasure to watch.One of the reasons I wanted to see the production was that Simon Paisley Day was playing Malvolio. His last two roles in ENTERTAINING MR. SLOANE and PRIVATE LIVES have shown him as one of our best high comedy actors but here the life seems drained from him, the comedy gold that Simon Russell Beale and Derek Jacobi have found in Malvolio's pomposity and gulling by his enemies is here fitful and on a very low-light. He is a good enough actor to be able to adapt to Hall's doleful take on TWELFTH NIGHT and he certainly makes you sympathise for Malvolio's longing for revenge at the end of the play - I just felt cheated out of the performance I know he could have excelled in.

Sir Peter doesn't seem interested in the play's lovers. No, for him TWELFTH NIGHT is a serious rumination on death and the autumnal shades of Shakespeare later plays. As early as 1960 when he wrote a long preface to the play that is reprinted in the programme, he identified the central role in the play as Feste, Olivia's rueful clown . Not Viola, not Malvolio, Feste.Now as much as I admire David Ryall who plays the woeful jester, his ponderous delivery and lengthy scenes slowed the night to a crawl. While one can understand Hall's desire to make an elderly character the one we should pay most attention to, it unbalances the play so one sits there enduring the molasses-like atmosphere rather than enjoying a proven enjoyable play. Ryall plays the final scene alone, singing one of his interminable songs. Hall's decision to attempt to do it as an audience sing-a-long was a very wrong call.

As much as I liked Ryall's performance, I could not help thinking what the late John Normington could have done with the role as he was an actor capable of the lightest of touches.Apart from Drew, the best performances come from the devious characters in the Lady Olivia's house. Simon Callow's rambunctious Sir Toby Belch, Finty Williams as a sly Maria and, best of all, Charles Edwards as a delightfully daft Sir Andrew Aguecheek lifted the spirit with their every appearance - but these characters should surely be the mischievous devils who are the icing on the cake - not the ones who you are watching the wings for their next entrance?

I really can't be bothered to write any more about it but I must mention the bizarre design of Anthony Ward - a bare stage with a canopy of autumnal leaves - YEAH WE GET IT - with a tiny row of houses on the left-hand side of a shelf that runs along the back of the stage which doesn't so much suggest perspective so much as the remnants of a seaside gift shop at the end of it's closing down sale. The second-act addition of a large doll's house version of Olivia's mansion suggests a large piece of Capodimonte sitting in a litter tray.


Friday, February 04, 2011

How very strange...

Two actresses whose two landmark films caused a riot of censorship and media 'outrage' have died within a day of each other.
Lena Nyman, who died today, was a 23 year-old actress when she played the lead in Vilgot Sjoman's I AM CURIOUS (YELLOW) and it's sequel the following year I AM CURIOUS (BLUE). The pseudo-documentaries were the sensation of the year with it's frank sexuality and nude scenes. I suspect most of the media outrage was - ahem, stoked - by people who never saw it and the film has ebbed away from the collective memory with maybe just the name retaining a whiff of controversy.

Nyman continued to work steadily in Sweden including a featured role as Liv Ullmann's mentally-retarded sister who is a silent witness to her sister's coruscating night time fight with their mother (Ingrid Bergman) in Ingmar Bergman's AUTUMN SONATA. I AM CURIOUS (YELLOW) could get away with the media outrage as it was a foreign film with a cast of unknowns but what if a sexually explicit film starred a Hollywood superstar?Maria Schneider, who died yesterday, was the young French actress chosen to star opposite Marlon Brando in Bernardo Bertolucci's LAST TANGO IN PARIS - cue the media and censorship shitstorm! Bertolucci and Brando of course sailed on regardless through the controversy but Schneider, as is usually the case it seems, was the one who seemed to be scarred by the experience.

After another media brouhaha at her announcement of being bisexual, she had another bite of big-screen fame in Michelangelo Antonioni's THE PASSENGER with Jack Nicholson but after that, although film offers kept coming in, she had a series of mental breakdowns allied to drug abuse and suicide attempts. She managed to kick her habit and continue working but she was always dogged by LAST TANGO.

Oddly enough she was the illegitimate daughter of the French actor Daniel GĂ©lin - a distant figure in her life - who had his own battles with drugs and depression.
One of the most enjoyable experiences last year was seeing the pre-Edinburgh tryout of GUTTED: THE REVENGER'S MUSICAL at the Riverside. Owen had got tickets as his Streatham Rock God Jim Bob from Carter USM was appearing in it so I had no idea what we were letting ourselves in for, but it was a delirious treat from start to end - the only thing I can liken it to would be KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS meets THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW. A cult hit in waiting for Danielle Ward (book & lyrics) and Martin White (music).

So when we saw it was playing one night at the Leicester Square Theatre we jumped at it! This time however it was just a rehearsed reading with The Mystery Fax Machine Orchestra who took up most of the stage. I was a bit disappointed as I hoped for a proper staged production - at the Riverside there had been enough to suggest a full production.

The other reason for disappointment was that Helen George was no longer playing the lead role as at the Riverside she was terrific. I saw that she is cast in the Landor's upcoming production of BY JEEVES so maybe that explained her non-appearance. Instead the character of Sorrow was played by Isy Suttie who might fit the other's stand-up comedy style but she had a voice like a goose farting in fog and wasn't as sympathetic.

However it was easy to overlook her contribution and marvel instead at the comic timing and improvisational skill of Colin Hoult playing the five members of the Bewlay famly that Sorrow takes great delight in bumping off in ever-more outlandish ways. He was great at the Riverside and he was just as good here - real comedy gold.

The cast bristles with eccentric comedy turns: David Reed, Humphrey Ker & Thom Tuck (aka The Penny Dreadfuls) have great fun as the Furies who pursue Sorrow and Michael Legge was a lipsmacking treat as the fruity local Vicar, happy to take the wedding photos although he's blind! At the Riverside he also had the most memorable line
"When you sin it's like God sticking his finger up your bum and you have to smell it for the rest of your life" but this time it was changed to "When you sin it's like God bumming your Mum and putting it on YouTube". Funny but not as good as the former.

With delightful support from Jim Bob as the Wedding Singer, Margaret Cabourn-Smith and Sara Pascoe as the Bewlay's grudging servants and the charming Doc Brown as Sorrow's possible happy ending boyfriend, the show had me laughing out loud and clapping equally as loudly at the end.
Allegedly it was filmed from the back of the auditorium but I suspect that was for promotional use and I suspect that with their own stand-up schedules any future performances of GUTTED will be few and far between. But if you see it on a schedule I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

FINALLY! My 2011 theatre-going duck has been broken. I knew there was a reason why I was feeling unduly jittery. It's been so long I had to think twice to make sure I was sitting in the seat properly. And what was the production that saw me back in the theatrical saddle? The rather underwhelming AN IDEAL HUSBAND at the Vaudeville Theatre.

I had wanted to see this for a while and, mindful that it was due to close in February, I booked two in the circle using a £10 off discount. Well, I'm not sure what the stalls were doing but my, we were an intimate collection of punters in the Dress - there were 5 of us in J row - and we were seated in seats 1-5! Needless to say there was much spreading out in the interval. In all other rows there were yawning spaces - between the yawning audience.

The production just feels tired, as if the cast had expended all energy in the months leading up to Christmas in the expectation that it would close early. But no, here we are in it's third month and it seemed to me that all the actors were appearing in different plays. If they had a cohesion under Lindsay Posner's direction initially it seems to have been given the go-by. I sat in my little seat in J row and pined for Oliver Parker's screen version - and I didn't expect to say that anytime soon.Oscar Wilde's play is certainly worth this timely revival with it's plot of a seemingly teflon-coated politician gliding his way slowly but surely up the parliamentary foodchain until confronted with evidence from his past which will ruin him if exposed. Peter Hall's acclaimed and long-running revival in the early 1990s also seemed au courant during the end of John Major's Conservative government. But I guess a politician with a secret is never going to be out of fashion - and in the week when it was announced that the Police were going to re-open the News Of The World phone-hacking case it was particularly thrilling to hear Robert Chiltern say "Spies are of no use nowadays... the newspapers do their work instead"!

What also struck me was how prophetic it was of Wilde's own destiny. The play premiered in January 1895 and only three months later Wilde was in court for the criminal libel charge he brought against the Marquise of Queensberry which led to his own trial for gross indecency and sodomy. Time and again in the play, the subject of a public figure ruined by scandal is raised and while watching it I could see Wilde at his writing desk writing a line, looking up, half-smiling and continuing on to possibly write:

Mrs Cheverley: Sir Robert, you know what your English newspapers are like. ... Think of their loathsome joy, of the delight they would have in dragging you down, of the mud and mire they would plunge you in. Think of the hypocrite with his greasy smile penning his leading article, and arranging the foulness of the public placard.

Oh Oscar you silly arse.What was so annoying about the production was the way all the performances - and accents - seemed to clash. From High Comedy to naturalistic, from idiosyncratic to BBC 3 sitcom there was no unity of style, time and again a character would come on stage and suddenly you are forced to adapt to a new acting style so you are never sure on which level the play truly sits.

Charles Kay is so busy with his harrumphing codger as Lord Goring's father that you can hear the rhythm of the accent while the actual words get lost in the bluster, Rachael Sterling as Lady Chiltern is so similar in her honking tone to her mother Diana Rigg that it keeps pulling focus and Fiona Button plays the Thoroughly Modern Miss that is Sir Robert's younger sister in the usual high-pitched voice that seems the default condescending accent now for The Ingenue. Of course one goes to a Wilde play to be pinioned by the darts of epigrammatic wit but here they are mostly confined to one very long second scene and all delivered by one character Lady Markby, played here by Caroline Blakiston. However as hers is such a one-note performance you begin to wonder is it ever going to end and it begins to resemble nothing more than the most hackneyed sitcom: line - line - joke, line - line joke.

Which brings me to Elliot Cowan as Lord Goring. In the role he was born to play Rupert Everett was sublime in the film version but here Cowan as Wilde's cynical playboy throws away one good laugh line after another by speaking in the most bizarre accent. I suspect that somewhere along the line he has heard the recording allegedly of Wilde reading THE BALLAD OF READING GAOL and has adopted the ew-sew mannered way of speaking with leeeengthened vowellls and what haeve yoooo that you want to punch him silent.
What makes this absurd is that he is the only one speaking like this and when he plays scenes with Alexander Hanson as Sir Robert, who speaks his lines in the most conversational way possible, it leaves you no way to just relax into the scene. Hanson is fine, but I joined Owen in wondering why he can't walk across a stage without skiffing the soles of his shoes. I kept expecting his blackmailed politician to break into a buck and wing.

Thank God for Samantha Bond! Although she appears to be channeling her frequent co-star Judi Dench vocally, she alone knows how to play High Comedy on stage while still creating a character with a possible internal life. Her sly and calculating Mrs. Cheverley was a pure delight and I pined for her when she was not onstage - Oscar you clown, why on earth did you not have her make an appearance in the final long-winded scene?

The supporting company all played the long party scene at the top of the play with an anonymity which almost had them semaphoring "don't worry, the stars will be on soon". One bright spot was Max Digby as Goring's manservant Phipps who got a bigger laugh with one line than Cowan managed with a whole speech.

Stephen Brimson Lewis can usually be relied upon for a glittery design but here we got a standing set of burnished gold which suggested that he too had seen MADAME DE SADE at the Wyndhams two years ago. Apart from his costumes for Mrs. Cheverley, the costumes for the women all looked like they were bolts of fabric ready to go back to Borovics in the morning.Oh well. Onwards and upwards into the theatreland of 2011....