Saturday, July 13, 2013

Revivalists: Act one

...and what of the revivals I have seen?  There have been a few... I won't list them by preference, I shall simply pull programmes out of the Poly Styrene tote bag they are currently residing in!

First off the rank is the National Theatre's long-awaited production of OTHELLO at the Olivier.  Ironic that, as Larry O had one of his biggest successes - although retrospectively controversial - when the National Theatre was at the Old Vic.

The big anticipation was for the NT Dream Team casting of Adrian Lester and Rory Kinnear as Othello and Iago.

In 2003 Nicholas Hytner directed Lester as Henry V in a production that looked more like a War On Terror than a war against the French and here he gives us the same shtick, as Cyprus becomes a dusty, dry, compound which suggests Afghanistan.  I have no problems with this approach but it does chime with the idea that Shakespeare can only be relevant if put in a contemporary setting and that the audience won't 'get' the timeless aspect of his plays unless it's made obvious.

And above all, it makes for a very drab evening.  I sympathised for the actresses playing Desdemona and Emilia whose respective wardrobes looked to be the best that Primark and Millets can offer.  I do appreciate how the unrelentingly awful barrack-room atmosphere of Vicki Mortimer's set suggested a world where wives are out-of-place and more likely to be victimised.

Did I enjoy the production?  All in all, not as much as I had hoped.  Kinnear was fine, creating a very recognizable character: the reliable bloke, everyone's mate, but secretly snide and conniving.  Lester rose finally to the challenge but he is such an intelligent actor that it was a real struggle to believe that his Moor would simply change from loving husband to jealous tyrant.  It didn't help that the production literally had him exiting as the former and 5 minutes later bursting through the same door as the latter.

I guess there was so much anticipation that these two actors would bring the drama that it was bound not to deliver totally.  Olivia Vinall played Desdemona as the usual milquetoast blonde, oh for a Desdemona who actually puts a fight.  Lyndsey Marshal was also lacking something as Emilia.  It's worrying when the performances that stayed with me were those of William Chubb as an unforgiving Brabantio and Nick Sampson as a sympathetic Lodovico.  The lead supporting male roles of Roderigo and Cassio were played by Tom Robertson and Jonathan Bailey with little effect.  I did like the brief flash of fire that Rokhsaneh Ghawam-Shahidi brought to Bianca.

Vicki Mortimer's interiors of flat-pack and office furniture combined with Jon Clark's glaring neon lighting design gave us a world of mundane joylessness.  The production certainly gave us some new Othello images: Othello heaving into a handy toilet at the news of Desdemona's alleged infidelity and Desdemona meeting her death in a tee-shirt and drawers on a Seconique bed.

In 2011 I saw OTHELLO in Sheffield with Clarke Peters and Dominic West which the director Daniel Evans set in a more 17th Century style and I have to admit I preferred that production.  There was less to prove, less of an 'event' and there was stronger characterisation especially in the two female roles.

Also at the NT was CHILDREN OF THE SUN by Maxim Gorky in a new version by Andrew Upton.  There were big hopes for this as it reunited Upton, director Howard Davies, designer Bunny Christie and lighting designer Neil Austin who had struck gold with Bulgakov's THE WHITE GUARD in 2010.

Disappointment set in early as Bunny Christie's set was practically the same as THE WHITE GUARD - big windows, small closed area, long corridor stretching away from the audience - check, check, check.

Gorky's 1905 play can be included in the Russian stable of plays where silly people fritter and fuss their lives away not realising that events in the world outside will change them forever.  Protasov, a scientist tinkers away with his experiments at home, oblivious - wilfully or not - to the growing chaos around him - his wife Yelena is fighting off the advances of an artist friend, his sister Liza is becoming more and more mentally distressed, Boris the town vet who loves Liza is becoming more and more depressed while his sister Melaniya is almost semaphoring her adoration to the scientist which, of course, he cannot deal with.

All the while the offstage anger of the town's people is growing at the cholera that is sweeping the town which they blame on the scientist poisoning the water with his experiments.  Gorky based the play on an 1862 cholera epidemic but anyone seeing the play in 1905 - the same year as the Bloody Sunday massacre of workers and their families - would know exactly what the left-wing writer was really saying.  Allegedly at the play's first performance, the audience got so agitated at the offstage sounds of a riot that the actor playing Protasov had to assure them it was part of the play!

Writing the above actually makes me wonder why I didn't enjoy the production more.  Howard Davies is one of our finest directors but by God, his Russian productions tend to the ponderous and without Chekhov's more forensic writing of characters, Gorky's people did nothing to keep you interested in their fate.  On and on it went in Upton's modern speech, scene after scene with the characters reiterating what they had done in the previous one with no change in tone.  Luckily there were a few performances that I clung to.

As Protasov Geoffrey Streatfeild was enjoyably irritating, his baffled incomprehension at the world outside of his science lab wonderfully done.  Justine Mitchell as Yelena seemingly reprised the same role she played in THE WHITE GUARD, that of the only sensible person who knows what is going on outside as well as inside.  Paul Higgins was very effective as the tragic Boris.

Two actresses whose performances really stood out were Lucy Black as the wealthy, imperious but lovelorn Melaniya and Florence Hall as the Protasov's stroppy maid Feema, marking time as a servant until she could marry a wealthy man.  Emma Lowndes as Liza and Gerald Kyd as the artist in love with Yelena both usually outstayed their welcome.

However just as I thought the play would never end - it did with a bang!  The rioting mob finally broke in to Protasov's enclave and as Yelena rushed out into the melee brandishing a revolver, Protosev was left alone in a state of shock at what he had brought about.  His beloved science lab is set on fire and the play ended with a MASSIVE explosion which certainly woke the audience up - and going by the look of them gave them a few heartaches!  I loved it!!  I now want plays where there are exploding sets at the drop of a hat - bring it on!

Oh and on the subject of the NT... I have never blogged about their revival of SHE STOOPS TO CONQUER!  I had never seen the play before and I'm happy that this is the one to compare all future ones too. 

A play has to have something going for it to still raise genuine laughs 239 years after it was written and Goldsmith's classic farce of mistaken identities still delivered despite Jamie Lloyd's uneven handling of the play which felt at times like an adult panto - I really could have done without the outbursts of song from the ensemble between the scenery changes which diluted the tension of the plot.

The production was helped immeasurably by a delightful cast who sparked memories of Peter Wood's great 1983 production of THE RIVALS in the same theatre.

Steve Pemberton was an exasperated Mr. Hardcastle and in a performance of the most glorious over-the-topness, Sophie Thompson stole everything but the lighting gantry as the painfully nouveau-riche Mrs. Hardcastle.  Anyone who saw her play the scene where she welcomes her visitors from London to tea won't forget it with her strangulated pronouncements on all that was "farshionable"!  Sophie never fails to deliver on stage and here she created a wonderful monster!

For once at the National the other lead roles were also very well balanced, ex-Corrie star Katherine Kelly as Kate Hardcastle and Cush Jumbo as her friend Constance were equally matched with the posh blokes out of their depth, Harry Hadden-Paton as Marlowe and John Heffernan as Hastings.  Katherine Kelly in particular was a real surprise as Kate, possibly the most sensible character in the piece.  Daniel Fynn was the only one to pull focus as the troublesome Tony Lumpkin.
The classy quality of the production was exemplified by Mark Thompson's sumptuous costumes and sets and Neil Austin's lighting.  It was one of the increasingly rare productions which truly embraced the Olivier stage and showed it off to it's full potential.

More recently the National has also given us Eugene O'Neill's epic STRANGE INTERLUDE at the Lyttleton.

I had missed Glenda Jackson's version in the 1980s - and they never show Norma Shearer and Clark Gable in the 1932 film! - so I grabbed my chance to see it.

Um, does it sound odd to say that I wish it had been longer?  Simon Godwin - and the cast I presume - have tightened up it's standard 5 hour running time to a cantering 3 hours 30 minutes but I still felt oddly short-changed.  The play just seemed to be an upmarket soap opera - surely at that length there should at least be some sense of profundity?

Nina Leeds is a young woman who has cracked mentally under the grief of losing her pilot fiancée in WWI as well as the pressure of living with her professor father.  She makes the break from him and sinks her sorrow into being a nurse - and with sleeping around (always an under-rated tonic for misery).

She returns to the family home, still restless with inner demons and marries Sam, an amiable advertising man who will never challenge her wilful nature.  She learns from his mother however that there is a strain of madness in the male line of his family and, horrified at this prospect for her unborn child, Nina has an abortion procured by her father's doctor Edmund Darrell - then promptly seduces him to provide the replacement - you go, girl!  Hovering in the background is an old family friend Charles Marsden, a fussy would-be writer who lives with his ailing mother who secretly loves Nina.

We follow the lives of Nina and her besotted men over twenty-odd years and from the start the audience are included in on the secret thoughts - so the scenes are always played on a knife edge as we are privy to their secret thoughts.  The one who this works best for is Charles, his bland exterior covering a spiteful and frustrated interior life.

As the central quartet move into middle age they are joined by Nina and Edmund's son Gordon who has grown up with the suspicion of his mother's relationship with Doctor Ned.  When Gordon is grown and falls in love Nina finds herself implacably jealous of the threat to her relationship with his son but by now she should be aware of what curves life can throw, eh?

As I said, Simon Godwin's production rockets through the text but this actually leaves little space for reflection on the character's actions as they bounce on and off Soutra Gilmour's pretty sets, through innumerable quick frock and wig changes.  O'Neill's device of having the characters address their private thoughts to the audience suffers too as they sometimes do this at such a speed that it comes across less like high drama and more like sitcom. 

Speaking of comedy, while watching the play I kept thinking of Groucho Marx in ANIMAL CRACKERS where he spoofs O'Neill's premise while talking to Margaret Dumont and Margaret Irving, he keeps stopping to address his thoughts to the audience such as "Pardon me while I have a Strange Interlude"!

Anne-Marie Duff gave a fine performance as Nina, making the character's wilful behaviour understandable and believable.  A lesser actress would struggle with this which is maybe another reason why the play is rarely revived.  The other standout performance was Charles Edwards as Charles Marsden.  Bristling with resentment at Nina's choices in life he nevertheless made the character a fully-rounded one and his deftness of touch was missed when not onstage.  They also aged wonderfully!
Jason Watkins was fine as the optimistic Sam while Darren Pettie (last seen flashing his knob as the Angel of Death in the less-than-impressive THE MILK TRAIN DOESN'T STOP HERE ANYMORE on Broadway) was again adequate enough as Nina's sometime lover, it's just a shame they couldn't have found a more charismatic performer.
Ok time for an ice cream and an interval wee... Act Two starts soon!

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