Thursday, October 24, 2013

Revival Day...

Two recent theatre-trips, two revivals, two radically different results.

I was so excited when MUCH ADO was announced as it meant Vanessa Redgrave was finally going to act on the Old Vic stage, the very stage from which Olivier announced her birth to the world.  It also meant she was finally going to play Beatrice, that she was reuniting with her DRIVING MISS DAISY co-star James Earl Jones and they were being directed by Mark Rylance.  What could go wrong?


I had deliberately not seen any reviews but heard that they weren't too complementary.  Oh well... not the first time reviewers don't get it.  What could go wrong?


The first inkling that something was odd was Ultz' standing set - a bare brick wall set with a large wooden box-affair plonked in the middle of the stage which after a few minutes started to resemble a giant coffee-table and that thought stayed with me for the rest of the evening.  His set mock-up gives you an idea of it's... oddness.

According to the programme it's a tribute to the director Tyrone Guthrie's vision in the 1930s of setting Shakespeare plays in a non-specific setting with a single wooden structure that could suggest different places.  I am sure Guthrie would be charmed by the thought but I'm also sure he would never have wanted something which suggested a giant coffee table and did nothing to help the production but impeded it and cramped the performing space.  Maybe if it revolved, or went up and down... but no it just sat there.

Then the production started. Rylance has hit on the whizzer idea to set it in England during the 2nd World War in a town close to a US Airforce base.  I mean... how else can you explain away a black American actor and an English actress?  It took awhile to get over the poleaxing evidence of Rylance's lack of an imagination.  Then the incongruities and bad choices came, not as single spies but in battalions...

Ok so we all know the stage can take years off an actor but even that can't stop you thinking that Michael Elwyn is surely playing Vanessa's brother not her father, besides the hideously ugly costuming does nothing but suggest Beatrice is an old frump.  To his credit, Elwyn does actually give one of the better performances.
The arrival of Don Pedro's messenger also throws you completely - is the actor REALLY that tall or is he on stilts? it is one of the most preposterous stage images ever.  Enter Don Pedro's platoon of soldiers... sorry, squadron.  And enter James Earl Jones in the world's largest flying suit or, as Owen preferred to call it, his onesie.
And then the trouble REALLY started.  Now Earl Jones, aged 82, still has the voice which I'm sure made him a fabulous Othello, Lear, Oberon and Claudius.  What his voice is not suited for is comedy verse.  So the opening skirmish between Benedick and Beatrice - which should set up the larks to come - is here a confusing Fugue For Tinhorns between his rumbling and Redgrave's almost mumbled responses.  These two are supposed to be a couple who have already had a failed relationship but for all their recent experience of working together I was really surprised to find Redgrave & Earl Jones' onstage partnership so negligible, as if they were only meeting for the first time in the lift up to the rehearsal room.
And so the first act progressed. Earl Jones rumbled away, saying all the words but with absolutely no sense of meaning behind them, the supporting performances seemingly being spoken as if they were still blocking the scene, a bland Claudio, an insipid Hero, a laughably non-threatening Don John and Vanessa occasionally hinting at the performance I was willing her to give.  Was she hidebound by Earl Jones' performance? 
Three times, thankfully, she delivered - I loved her playing of Beatrice's lovely lines "but then there was a star danced, and under that was I born" stopping after 'danced' and blowing a kiss up to the chandelier above the stalls.  It felt like an acknowledgement of her birth and that auditorium.  I also liked her surliness in the scene when she bids Benedick to come in for dinner, and she also had fun with her speech after the gulling scene, the start of which she directed to a member of the front row, culminating with a joyous "And, Benedick, love on; I will requite thee, Taming my wild heart to thy loving hand".  I wish I could say the same for Earl Jones.  He rumbled through his speech making no sense whatsoever and when he said "No, the world must be peopled" I am sure I was not the only one thinking "Love, you're 82!"
The wedding scene was a bit of a disaster - and not just for Hero.  I have written before about the inherent flaw in this scene as directors always have Margaret onstage during it and as it was she who Don Pedro and Claudius saw standing at Hero's window being seduced by Borrachio, why doesn't she just own up while she is seeing her mistress' marriage going upsy-dutch?  Maybe she had lost the power of speech when she caught sight of the SHITEOUS frock that Vanessa was in.  When she dramatically threw aside her dressing gown to reveal it my first thought was of Dame Edna Everage.
The wedding scene did have one saving grace in Peter Wight's performance as Friar Francis.  We had just seen him as the bumbling arse Dogberry but here he was, slowing the pace and speaking his lines - Stop The Press - as if he understood what he was saying.  A shout-out too to Penelope Beaumont as Ursula whose several lines also showed that she knew what they meant.  Needless to say, now that Benedick suddenly becomes serious and confronts Don Pedro and Claudius with their wrong, Earl Jones finally - briefly - came into his own.  For all of ten minutes he justified being there.
Sadly it couldn't last, we had the bizarre finale to come.  The news of Benedick and Beatrice's marriage - and his command of "Strike up pipers" - was the cue for someone to crank up the onstage record player to play a swing tune so the cast could start a half-hearted jitterbug while Earl Jones and Redgrave sat upstage on two chairs hidden behind an open newspaper.  I shitteth you not.  The curtain call consisted of a company bow which parted for Redgrave and Earl Jones to get up out of their chairs and join them in a bow and exit upstage, with Vanessa waving to the audience behind the by-now shuffling Earl Jones.  You know there is something very wrong with a production when the actors playing Beatrice and Benedick don't get a solo bow.
Don't get me wrong.  I didn't hate it.  It just left me bemused and frustrated that it was allowed to be presented as such.
Especially as I then saw a production which was the polar opposite: focussed, free of directorial conceits, designed to fit the stage requirements of both the actors and the piece itself and acted with a unity of performance and purpose.  But then, not every director is Richard Eyre.

Working from his own adaptation, Eyre's production of Henrik Ibsen's GHOSTS at the Almeida Theatre is a stunning achievement which keeps you gripped from the start.  Even scenes which in past productions have seemed to tread water are here played with an urgency which is forever pushing the characters toward their destinies while stirring up secrets from the past.
Tim Hatley's shimmering, translucent set design is the perfect illustration of a house which has kept too many secrets behind closed doors and Peter Mumford's exquisite lighting design from a grey, rainy afternoon to the blackest night to the blazing glory of a new day, so ironical after what we have witnessed.
I have seen productions where Ibsen's use of repeating images and motifs are clanged like a deafening bell but here the repeated references to parents and children, of the sins of a previous generation being visited on the next, and the stymied chances of renewal slowly build up until they really are the ghosts of the title, haunting the rooms of the Alving house.
As I said, Eyre's translation is lean and powerful - although I must admit than an exclamation of "Bollocks" at one point was a bit of a surprise.  He also has cast five performers who act as a real ensemble, keeping the intensity going relentlessly throughout the entire 90 minutes.
The sometimes sticky role of Jacob Engstrand is slyly played by Brian McCardie, slippery as an eel and always thinking a few steps ahead of whoever he is in dispute with to gain the upper hand.  Charlene McKenna was a spirited, feisty Regina, sure of her future with her employer's son and determined to rise above her place in life.  The savageness of her fury at the shattering of her dreams was well played.
The other potentially sticky role is Oswald, the artist son who has returned from a libertine Paris life to confront his mother with his own secret.  In some productions I have seen him played as less of a character and just a collection of symbolist metaphors but Jack Lowden played the role with a real humanity which made his sudden descent into a living limbo all the more affecting.
Will Keen, while not entirely banishing memories of Tom Wilkinson in the role, was a squirm-inducing Pastor Manders, full of self-righteous hypocrisy and sanctimonious smugness in a brilliantly conceived performance.  He also managed to give Manders a humanity which made it possible to imagine why, when younger, Mrs. Alving ran to him to escape her tyrant of a husband.
I have seen Vanessa Redgrave, Judi Dench and Jane Lapotaire play Mrs. Alving but it struck me while I was watching her that Lesley Manville's was the most humane I have yet seen.  Expertly paced, she first appears as a woman happy to explore new ways of thinking and confident in her future now she is free not only of the physical presence of her drunken lecherous husband but, thanks to her action of building an orphanage in his name out of his money, also free from any ties to her from beyond the grave.
But her attempt at freedom, like Regina and Oswald's, is soon unravelling as Captain Alving's actions do indeed reach back from the past, and Manville's horror that although she has deliberately squandered her husband's financial claim on their son, some inheritances are beyond her control was palpable and real.
Her distress at the realization of Oswald's future built and built until I was left poleaxed by the intensity of it all.  I stumbled out into the Islington sunshine breathless from the tension and wondering how she would regroup to do that again for the evening performance.
The production plays until the 23rd November and although sold out, there are day seats released at 11am at the box office.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

50 / 50

The National Theatre today celebrated it's 50th birthday and so, because it seemed silly buying it chocolates, I thought I would honour this wonderful occasion by naming my 50 favourite productions.

I have laughed, cried, been scared, shocked, thrilled, touched, marvelled, knestled back in my chair and been on the edge of my seat and, more than once, felt the real alchemy that happens when the cast and audience are as one.

Shall we begin Constant Reader?  After all you have shared my thoughts on a few of these...

Let's start on numbers 41 - 50 and remember these are the 50 best... there are no losers here (that might be for another blog):

41) AN INSPECTOR CALLS (J.B. Priestley, directed by Stephen Daldrey, 1992)
42) ANIMAL FARM (Peter Hall after George Orwell, directed by Hall, 1984)
     (Harold Pinter & Di Trevis after Marcel Proust, directed by Trevis, 2001)
     (J.M. Synge, directed by Fiona Buffini, 2001)
45) THE DAY I STOOD STILL (Kevin Elyot, directed by Ian Rickson, 1998)
     (William Shakespeare, directed by Marianne Elliott, 2009)
     (Aeschylus, version by Ted Hughes, directed by Katie Mitchell, 1999)
     (Tennessee Williams, directed by Trevor Nunn, 1998)
49) FRANKENSTEIN (Nick Dear after Mary Shelley, directed by Danny Boyle, 2011)
50) ANGELS IN AMERICA (Tony Kushner, directed by Declan Donnellan, 1992)

Looking at the posters I remember great performances by Kenneth Cranham, John Normington, Barrie Rutter, David Ryall, Janine Duvitski, Ben Daniels, Fritha Goody, Derbhle Crotty, Adrian Scarborough, Michelle Terry, Oliver Ford Davies, Clare Higgins, Anastasia Hille, Paul Hilton, Corin Redgrave, Finbar Lynch, Jonny Lee Miller and Henry Goodman.  Next, numbers 31 - 40:
     (Anton Chekhov, version by David Lan, directed by Trevor Nunn, 2000)
32) THE MYSTERIES (Tony Harrison, directed by Bryden, 2000)
     (William Shakespeare, directed by Nicholas Hytner, 2008)
34) HAMLET (William Shakespeare, directed by Nicholas Hytner, 2010)
35) LONDON ASSURANCE (Dion Boucicoult, directed by Nicholas Hytner, 2010)
36) SHE STOOPS TO CONQUER (Oliver Goldsmith, directed by Jamie Lloyd, 2012)
     (Matthew Bourne after Robin Maugham, music by Terry Davies, directed by Bourne,
     (Federico Garcia Lorca, version by David Hare, directed by Howard Davies, 2005)
39) THE AMEN CORNER (James Baldwin, directed by Rufus Norris, 2013)
     (Ayub Khan-Din after Bill Naughton, directed by Nicholas Hytner, 2007)

Again I am remembering the performances of Vanessa & Corin Redgrave, Eve Best, Roger Allam, Jack Shepherd, David Bradley, Sue Johnston, John Normington, Simon Russell Beale, Zoe Wanamaker, Rory Kinnear, Clare Higgins, Fiona Shaw, Sophie Thompson, Penelope Wilton, Deborah Findlay, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Cecilia Noble, Meera Syall and Harish Patel.  Next, numbers 21 - 30:
21) THE WINTER'S TALE (William Shakespeare, directed by Nicholas Hytner, 2001)
     (William Shakespeare, directed by Trevor Nunn, 1999)
     (Anton Chekhov, version by Michael Frayn, directed by Christopher Morahan, 1984)
24) WHITE CHAMELEON (Christopher Hampton, directed by Richard Eyre, 1991)
25) A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE (Arthur Miller, directed by Alan Ayckbourn, 1988)
     (William Shakespeare, directed by Bill Bryden, 1983)
27) THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING (Joan Didion, directed by David Hare, 2008)
28) THE SECRET RAPTURE (David Hare, directed by Howard Davies, 1989)
29) THE SPANISH TRAGEDY (Thomas Kyd, directed by Michael Bogdanov, 1984)
30) RACING DEMON (David Hare, directed by Richard Eyre, 1990)
Again more excellent performances by Alex Jennings, Deborah Findlay, John Normington, Henry Goodman, David Bamber, Derbhle Crotty, Ian McKellen, Charlotte Cornwall, Saeed Jaffrey, Tom Wilkinson, Nadim Sawalha, Michael Gambon, Robert Stephens, Jack Shepherd, Susan Fleetwood, Brenda Blethyn, Derek Newark, Vanessa Redgrave, Clare Higgins, Jill Baker, Penelope Wilton, Michael Bryant, David Bamber and Oliver Ford Davies.
We are getting down to the business end of things now, numbers 11 - 20:
11) ALL MY SONS (Arthur Miller, directed by Howard Davies, 2000)
12) GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS (David Mamet, directed by Bill Bryden, 1983)
13) AFTER THE DANCE (Terence Rattigan, directed by Thea Sharrock, 2010)
14) THE SHAUGHRAUN (Dion Boucicault, directed by Howard Davies, 1988)
15) THE RIVALS (Richard Brinsley Sheridan, directed by Peter Wood, 1983)
16) OTHELLO (William Shakespeare, directed by Sam Mendes, 1997)
17) PRAVDA (Howard Brenton & David Hare, directed by Hare, 1985)
     (Nick Stafford after Michael Morpurgo, directed by Marianne Elliott & Tom Morris,
     (Henrik Ibsen, version by Inga-Stina Ewbank & Peter Hall, directed by Hall, 1975)
20) RICHARD III (William Shakespeare, directed by Richard Eyre, 1990)
Any of these could easily rank in my top 10 but for the grace of more personal favourites.  The late James Hazeldine and Julie Walters confronted their family's secrets and lies in ALL MY SONS, Jack Shepherd was a human dynamo as Ricky Roma in the London premiere of GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS, Nancy Carroll, Benedict Cumberbatch and Adrian Scarborough confronted devastating loneliness in Rattigan's rediscovered masterpiece AFTER THE DANCE, Stephen Rea led a wonderful company in the rollicking Irish yarn THE SHAUGHRAUN (which also showed off the capabilities of the Olivier stage to great effect), Michael Hordern and Geraldine McEwan sparkled in High Comedy style on John Gunter's magnificent Bath set design in THE RIVALS, Simon Russell Beale and Ian McKellen gave two wonderful portraits of Shakespearean evil as Iago and Richard III while Anthony Hopkins proved their equal in hypnotic nastiness as Lambert La Roux the press baron in PRAVDA while Joey the War Horse galloped into our hearts.
In 1975 I was taken on a school trip to see Ibsen's JOHN GABRIEL BORKMAN at the Old Vic, my first exposure to the National Theatre.  I was fascinated by the play, I didn't understand most of it but something connected within. I know I was amazed by the performances of Peggy Ashcroft and Wendy Hiller as the sisters fighting for the heart and soul of Ralph Richardson - who at one point memorably turned to the fractious schools matinee audience and bellowed "WILL YOU KEEP QUIET!!!"  Not a peep was heard after that.
So here we are...

     (Abe Burrows & Jo Swerling music by Frank Loesser, directed by Richard Eyre,
2) TALES FROM HOLLYWOOD (Christopher Hampton, directed by Peter Gill, 1983)
3) THE BEGGAR'S OPERA (John Gay, directed by Richard Eyre, 1982)
4) HAMLET (William Shakespeare, directed by Richard Eyre, 1989)

     (Henrik Ibsen, version by Nicholas Wright, directed by Richard Eyre, 1996)
6) FOOL FOR LOVE (Sam Shepard, directed by Peter Gill, 1984)
     (Hugh Wheeler after Christopher Bond, music & lyrics by Stephen Sondheim,
      directed by Declan Donnellan, 1993)
     (Bertolt Brecht, version by Susan Davies, music by Hanns Eisler, directed by
      Richard Eyre, 1982)
9) BEDROOM FARCE (Alan Ayckbourn, directed by Ayckbourn, 1978)
10) KING LEAR (William Shakespeare, directed by Richard Eyre, 1997)

So there you have it, ten productions that are never far from my mind.  Richard Eyre directed six of them, Peter Gill directed two and Alan Ayckbourn and Declan Donnelan one apiece.

I remember Ian Holm's breath-taking Lear, crashing from majesty to despair in a brave, ferocious performance, none more so than in his naked 'heath scene'.  In 1978 I saw BEDROOM FARCE and the great comic performances of the late Michael Gough and Susan Littler as well as Cheryl Campbell and the mighty Stephen Moore as the charming but awful Trevor.  It should have been the trigger to becoming a real theatre fan but maybe I was still too young to appreciate what I was seeing and it would not happen for another 4 years.

Of course when it hit it was with a glorious bang thanks to Richard Eyre's 1982 NT company.  His production of Brecht's SCHWEYK IN THE SECOND WORLD WAR launched Bill Paterson on the world.  His canny, cocky and unstoppable survivor was played with his trademark relentless energy and was ably supported by Harry Towb, Imelda Staunton, Brian Glover and Julia McKenzie as Anna Kopecka, a world-weary pub landlady just trying to survive the occupation.  I still treasure her performance of The Song Of The Nazi-Soldier's Wife.

Her pragmatic Anna hinted at the Mrs. Lovett she was to play 11 years later in SWEENEY TODD at the Cottesloe.  This intimate production was directed by Declan Donnellan with an air of real menace and suspense.  Julia played Mrs. Lovett opposite Alun Armstrong and later Denis Quilley when it transferred to the Lyttelton.  Her Dickensian shopkeeper was a triumph, gloriously sung of course, but wonderfully acted too with great comic timing and an underlying seriousness so she could step it up when the musical turns into tragedy at it's climax.

I re-visited JOHN GABRIEL BORKMAN when Richard Eyre directed it with Eileen Atkins and Vanessa Redgrave as the estranged sisters.  If that wasn't enough, lifting the production to greatness was Paul Scofield's titanic performance as Borkman.  Oh that voice, I can hear him now in his final speech - it was if he was whispering to me alone.

Ian Charleson returned two years after GUYS AND DOLLS to memorably lock horns with Julie Walters in Sam Shepard's powerful, funny FOOL FOR LOVE as the incestuous couple trapped in a bare motel room.  Peter Gill ratcheted up the intensity as the couple literally bounced off each other and the walls of the set.  Five years after that, already in declining health, Ian returned to the National to take over in Richard Eyre's HAMLET.  I have written before about his performance, the like of which I know I will never see equalled, when on 11th October 1989 I saw him for the last time.

Peter Gill also directed the magnificent TALES FROM HOLLYWOOD which managed to be as expansive as it's subject town yet also painfully intimate.  Michael Gambon, in his white suit, was our guide through the bizarre and baffling Hollywood which greeted the German writers and artists émigrés who fled the Nazis and he effortlessly had the Olivier audience in the palm of his hand.  He was matched by two astonishing performances from Ian McDiarmid as a disdainful, vicious, painfully funny Brecht - "I feel like a sausage in a greenhouse" - and the tigerish ferocity of Billie Whitelaw as the vulnerable yet defiant Nellie Mann, not waving but drowning in her claustrophobic new life.  Christopher Hampton's huge success with his next play LES LIAISONS DANGEREUSES overshadowed TALES... but for me it's his masterpiece.

Which leaves me with again with Richard Eyre and his wonderful company, packed with talent and genius.  A company that could encompass Brecht's biting satire in SCHWEYK, the highwaymen, jailers, petty thieves, gin-soaked tarts and wronged maids of John Gay's BEGGAR'S OPERA and it's Broadway mirror image of crap-shooters, gamblers, showgirls and Salvation Army do-gooders in Frank Loesser's GUYS AND DOLLS.  Ian Charleson, Julia McKenzie, Bob Hoskins and Julie Covington led them tapping from Times Square into my heart where they remain.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

Craps Theatre... .. .

. .. Constant Reader, not crap theatre. Although I might revise that.  No, what I mean is... well, you just never know do you?  There you are, sitting in the theatre, the lights go down and you're off.  It's all a crapshoot.  What you *hope* for is that occurrence when cast and audience create a real alchemy - I have certainly been lucky enough to have had that true theatre experience happen - but I'm happy to settle for simply having an enjoyable time.

Now I will admit that I was in a mood when I arrived at the Adelphi Theatre to see THE BODYGUARD - bloody builders, bloody phone company, bloody bloody.  But surely if a show is good it will lift the spirits, whatever level it originally finds them at?

To be honest. THE BODYGUARD was a show I expected never to see.  I have never felt the urge to see the film as I am no Kevin Costner fan and I was no longer into Whitney Houston by the time it was released.  So there was no reason to see the show.  That was, until I heard that Beverley Knight was taking over the lead role.  Sigh, the things that woman has put me through e.g the BBC teach-a-celebrity-to-sing show.  But I am a fanboy so I really have no say in the matter.  So there I was, sitting in the 2nd row of the circle (at a reduced price I hasten to add)... and the lights went down...
OK, we all know the only reason it's there is to give the West End another jukebox musical - I mean they are so thin on the ground - and they don't even bother to hide it - every time there is a song the show stops dead.  The team behind this really need to understand that 'scene / song / scene / song' does not a musical make.
So not having seen the film I have to ask - is it as ropey as Alexander Dinelaris' book?  While watching it, I wondered whether he had set himself the challenge to make each scene work with as few words as possible.  He certainly succeeded.  I watched bemused as scene after scene consisted of actors coming together, saying a few lines... then walking off again.  No attempt at 'fleshing out', no time spent giving characters a context or history, no tension...  The director is Thea Sharrock who in the past has mined Terence Rattigan's plays - AFTER THE DANCE, CAUSE CELEBRE - for context and inner life but here she is more like a traffic policewoman, getting the traffic on and off the stage without too many snarl-ups.
A lot of time and effort has been spent making the big set-piece numbers so spectacular as to blind you from the baldness of the plot.  Flashing lights, ramped-up sound, raised platforms, video projections - but at the heart of the show, there is... no heart.  It's like a battery-operated toy with flashing lights, mechanical noises and heads that spin around but has too many sharp edges to hold too closely.  I will admit I liked watching Tim Hatley's sliding-panelled set give us any number of cinematic pans and sweeps.
In the middle of all this is Beverley Knight.  She's no actress but she is given nothing to work with by the various planks of wood she has to interact with onstage (Tristan Gemmill is from the B&Q school of performing art) and her character is thinly-drawn (diva whose heart thaws while in peril) but you know at any moment you're never far away from the real reason she is there - and when she sings, who cares about the bad acting surrounding her and joyless production she's in?  Because suddenly here is heart, here is passion, here is soul.  Beverley took ownership of songs that once belonged to she who said she would drown her children if they turned out like Madonna (!) and made them her own.  "I Have Nothing", "So Emotional", "All the Man I Need" and "I'm Every Woman" were Knightfied and made fresh and vital.  Of course there was always the threat of "that song", hanging over the night like Damocles' sword and just in case the audience didn't realise that this was the apogee of the evening, this thick-eared production has a couple of scrims dropped behind the performer with montages of 'moments' from the show projected on them - a sort of onstage pop video - which shows a shocking disbelief in said performer's ability to sell the song as a genuine emotional moment.  But Bev turned this absurd production choice into an irrelevance as she simply turned that song OUT.
Owen also pointed out that in RUN TO YOU, which is performed as a duet between Bev and Debbie Kurup as her resentful sister, there was a rather lop-sided example of someone who can sing a show tune and someone who can simply *sing*.
I gave Beverley a standing ovation as her singing more than deserved it and it was delightful to see how genuinely happy she was to get such a thunderous response.  Of course then it was time for the by-now obligatory 'hidden track' and a quick costume change found Bev back onstage to give us I WANNA DANCE WITH SOMEBODY.  It's almost like the production team is saying "Yes we know the last 2 hours were a dozy excuse of a thriller, Let's Dance!"  That was never really in doubt.
But a West End film-to-stage jukebox musical is an obvious trap of snares... less so the National Theatre doing a history play by Christopher Marlowe.  Safe as houses you might have thought, but sadly for the much put-upon king EDWARD II he is also suffering from the DTs... Director Theatre. Owen wanted to see this being a big Marlowe fan and as it tied in nicely with pals Sharon & Eamonn going, tickets were booked.  I happened to see a review of it which made my heart sink but I kept an open mind as we swung open the all-too-familiar and strangely comforting doors to the Olivier stalls.  This one action can almost serve as an overture for what you are going to see... the first view of what the standing set is can either thrill, intrigue or sink the heart.  EDWARD II was the latter.  It does have a great poster though.
A throne with a long carpet horizontally placed in front of it (which was being hoovered when we arrived by a luckless ASM), a suspended gold curtain, a wooden shed-like affair behind the throne and then behind that... nothing. Strip lights illuminating racks of costumes and props piled up on tables.  I guess it was nice to see the back wall of the backstage area.  I guess. 
Then the penny dropped... ah! Although director Joe Hill-Gibbons was directing Christopher Marlowe's text he really wanted to be doing Bertolt Brecht's 1924 adaptation - and so it transpired with excessive use of alienation techniques such as using hand-held cameras to film scenes out of view of the audience which were shown on screens on either side of the stage - which of course also showed the ubiquitous scene announcements: THE EXECUTION OF GAVESTON, THE DEPOSITION OF THE KING, QUEEN ISABELLA HAS A BRAZILIAN WAX etc.
We also had an outbreak of gender confusion among the cast: actresses played Edward's brother Kent, the Earl of Pembroke and the young Prince of Wales.  But here's the thing: while Pembroke's gender was never mentioned (that I can recall), the Prince of Wales remained a boy in school uniform all the way through the 20 year span of the play - imagine Wee Jimmy Krankie in line for the throne - but Kent became the King's sister rather than his brother.  Why?  Did Penny Layden, Bettrys Jones or Kirsty Bushell bring anything unique to the roles that no male actor could?  No.  Kirsty Bushell, in fact, had difficulty walking in her high heels so a drag queen could easily have played that role if Hill-Gibbons was determined to have it played as a woman.
Time and again through this infuriating production I wanted to pull the director out from behind the throne, ANNIE HALL-like, to ask why he had done the latest in any number of bizarre directorial conceits, not because I dislike new ways of thinking but I do if they deliberately stand in the way of enjoying and understanding the piece.
  • Why have the Hokey-Cokey played by the on-stage pianist at one moment?
  • Why have so many scenes played out-of-sight of the audience and relayed to us on the screens?
  • Why have the costume dept. design what looks like a heavy brocade cloak for Edward only to have it flutter with every movement - could you not have had a whip-round for some 50ps to weigh it's hem down?
  • Why have the cast wear such ugly and obvious head mics?
  • Why have such clunkers interpolated in the text like "He's an arsehole" and "I'll call you back" (the last one causing a huge unintended laugh in the audience)
  • Why introduce Spencer and Baldock on film standing on the roof of the National Theatre which then sped up like something out of Benny Hill?
As I said, what was so infuriating was that these annoying tricks kept breaking the flow of what was a fast-paced and fascinating play, it certainly makes me want to read Marlowe's play.  What cannot be faulted were several of the central performances.
I liked Kyle Soller as the King's amour fou Piers Gaveston, even having to play the role as a 'rough trade' yob.  He certainly has great stage presence which he also showed in 2011 as The Gentleman Caller in the Young Vic's THE GLASS MENAGERIE (also directed by Hill-Gibbons).  He made a memorable first appearance as Gaveston returned from exile: sitting in the side raised stalls and slowly making his way to the stage, clambering over the railing and inching along the wall balancing on the handrail, declaiming all the time.  It's groaningly obvious to have him play Gaveston in his natural American accent - yes we GET he's an outsider because Marlowe has *actually* written it into the text.
Needless to say the gay aspect has been ramped up but this too does a disservice to the play as this is not why the lords rebel against the King, it's not Gaveston's sexuality that enrages them, it's because the King bestows titles on him despite his low-born status.  It's also obvious that Soller would also play Edward's killer Lightborn as it could be said that he as well as Gaveston were the death of the King.
I had just finished reading Helen Castor's excellent SHE-WOLVES on the early Queens of England, one of whom was Queen Isabella.  Vanessa Kirby was always interesting as the young French Queen, frustrated at being made to look foolish by Edward's preference for Gaveston and slowly turning monstrous in her revenge.  But she too was hampered by Hill-Gibbon's tricks.  In the first act she is dressed in a long satin gown; in the second act as the mistress of the King's usurper Mortimer, she is dressed like an extra from THE ONLY WAY IS ESSEX in leggings, a white baggy t-shirt and bulky fake-fur jacket.
In this year of the National's 50th anniversary, thoughts have turned to previous productions seen.  What one has got used to is a certain standard of performance in the supporting roles which wasn't particularly on display here.  Three stood out: Ben Addis as Baldock (giddy at the thought of being so close to power), Bettrys Jones who morphed from being his/her mother's silent shadow. refilling her glass or lighting her cigarettes, to an all-too-vocal new King eager to revenge his/her dead father, and Kobna Holdbrook-Smith as Mortimer, hiding his real ambition as he overthrows his King.
Despite all the directorial trappings going on around him, John Heffernan was a marvellous Edward.  He held the attention throughout, by turns humorous, angry, captivating, triumphant, doubting and finally all-too human, brought low by his own blindness to the bigger picture.  All these emotions were on display in the scene where he is expected to renounce his crown, which was all the more effecting for Hill-Gibbons stopping the wanky excesses.
His performance shines out from the cack-handedness of most of the production and, after seeing him in supporting performances up until now (THE LAST OF THE DUCHESS, SHE STOOPS TO CONQUER) this marks him out as a real star for the future.
I hope to see another production of the play - it has survived this long so I am sure Joe Hill-Gibbons won't kill it off.
“But what are kings, when regiment is gone,
But perfect shadows in a sunshine day?