Monday, March 27, 2017


Yes Constant Reader it's true... I really struggle with Tom Stoppard.  There, I've said it.  I feel cleansed.

It's that Smart Alec air, the over-use of wordplay and punning which wears me down; I feel I want to yell back at the stage "Yes I get it, English is your adopted language - now stop the bloody barrage!".  So you can imagine that it was with a heavy heart that I sat down to watch his first big success ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD now revived at the Old Vic, the very theatre where it made it's London debut 50 years ago staged by Olivier's National Theatre.

My only experience with Stoppard's play was seeing his own drab 1990 screen version starring Tim Roth and Gary Oldman so at least I had a general idea of what to expect but swipe me, I really liked it!  In large part this was due to David Levaux' crisp and fast-moving direction but also impressing were Joshua McGuire as Guildenstern and - the real success of the evening - Daniel Radcliffe as Rosencrantz.

Stoppard's megamix of WAITING FOR GODOT and HAMLET muses on what happens to Rosencrantz and Guldenstern - Hamlet's university friends invited to Elsinore to spy on him by Claudius - when they are offstage.  They sit and wait for Hamlet, Claudius and Polonius to update them on what is happening - they chat, they bicker, they play question-and-answer games, they guess at what's going on but even when they are told by Claudius to actually do something - to find what Hamlet has done with Polonius' body - they don't do anything.  Finally they get to do something when they escort Hamlet to England... but as we know, this doesn't end well...

Stoppard's clever trick is to use the actual Shakespeare text for the scenes from HAMLET but uses vernacular in the scenes between the two friends as well as their scenes with The Player, the leader of the troupe of actors so beloved by Hamlet.  The Player gives David Haig the chance to be as splenetic as ever but also to investigate Stoppard's musings on the permanence of death and the pretense of performing.  Who better to muse on death than the actor who has to die convincingly?

Maguire and Radcliffe make a good double-act, the former obviously the more dominant of the two as he gets so easily exasperated at Radcliffe's sweetly naive Rosencrantz.  But under the comedy wordplay they also suggest a sadness and pathos of two lost souls caught up in a situation not of their making and although not aware of it, totally in over their heads.  As I said above, this really does showcase how good Radcliffe is now as a stage actor - EQUUS and HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS.. showed him to be a charismatic performer but those early performances had an air of trying too hard, here he seems relaxed on stage which helps the comedy.

The excellent performances of the three lead actors is matched by a fine supporting cast; it was interesting seeing this so soon after the Almeida Theatre production of HAMLET and it must be said that the performances of Luke Mullins as Hamlet, William Chubb as Polonius and Helena Wilson as Ophelia are as good as anything seen in a standard production of Shakespeare's play.

As I said David Leveaux' production has a nimbleness that only slightly becomes becalmed as the play comes to an end but overall it kept one engaged in not just the dizzying wordplay but the action both offstage and on.  The non-specific set by Anna Fleischle and lighting by Howard Harrison also contribute greatly to the overall enjoyment to be had.

It has just been announced that ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD has been extended at the Old Vic to May 6th - this production is thoroughly recommended both for a good laugh but also for the arguments which linger in the mind after.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Dvd/150: FEMALE ON THE BEACH (Joseph Pevney, 1955)

Ten years after winning her Academy Award for MILDRED PIERCE, Joan Crawford was still a star but the films ranged in quality over that era.

A dip in the early 50s changed with an Oscar nomination for her woman-in-peril in SUDDEN FEAR in 1952 and this theme was revisited three years later in Universal's FEMALE ON THE BEACH.

Joan always gave full-on performances but with a bad script she looks too obvious - in FOTB she reminds you of Scott Fitzgerald's remark about her not being able to change emotions without "Jekyll and Hyde facial contortions".

Rich widow Lynn Markham moves into a beach house owned by her husband only to find the former tenant died falling from the balcony - imperious Lynn comes into contact with house agent Jan Sterling, gamblers Cecil Kellaway and Natalie Schaefer, and charming but feckless sailor Jeff Chandler - but is one a killer?

Shelf or charity shop? I think this will live in DVD limbo (kept in a paper sleeve and in a plastic storage box)...  I am sure I will want to see Joan waltzing through this hokum again in either Dior new look frocks or showing off her legs in shorts!

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Remembering Ian...

I was going through some programmes from the early 1990s a few weeks back and found something that soon had my jaw hanging open...

In a US Playbill I found a full page appreciation of one of the greatest performances I will ever see - Ian Charleson's heroic HAMLET at the National Theatre in October, 1989, less than three months before his death from an AIDS-related illness.  I had not noticed it before but as I read it I was amazed to see that it matched exactly my thoughts on Ian's acting - and it has laid quietly in a storage box all this time for me to finally discover it.

Ian was only 40 when he died and we were all robbed of the performances he never gave; he is so frozen in time it is strange to think that he would have been 68 this year but one has only to look at his contemporaries Bill Nighy, Jim Broadbent, Simon Callow and Robert Lindsay to know he might still have been delivering great performances.  Just thinking of Shakespeare alone, we lost his Prospero, Lear, Claudius, Titus Andronicus, Leontes, Malvolio, Oberon, Macbeth and Richard II.

So thank you Richard Allan Davison, wherever you are...  and of course, thank you Ian.  Goodnight Sweet Prince...

Thursday, March 16, 2017

TREE OF CODES at Sadler's Wells Theatre: beyond words so let's dance...

Take one cutting-edge choreographer, one unclassable book, one current musician and one modern artist... now stir it up and stand back and marvel; I give you the truly astonishing TREE OF CODES.

As you are aware Constant Reader, it was through Wayne McGregor's hypnotic WOOLF WORKS at Covent Garden that I finally found an appreciation for dance in all it's forms.  Although McGregor has been the resident choreographer at Covent Garden for the past eleven years he still works with his own independent company which he uses for more avant garde projects.  For TREE OF CODES his troupe has teamed up with the Paris Opera Ballet to form a company of 15 dancers who are simply unstoppable!

McGregor was a fan of Jonathan Safran Foer's artifact TREE OF CODES and seeking to work on a project with the installation artist Olafur Eliasson he was thrilled to discover that Eliasson and Foer were friends.  TREE OF CODES was Foer's 'remix' of the Bruno Schultz novel STREET OF CROCODILES which consisted of Foer cutting away words to make his own book out of the existing text.

However McGregor's extraordinary body-bending (and mind-bending) choreography is actually only a part of a glorious whole which shows him to be a true collaborator.  The propulsive electro score came from the composer Jamie xx which was an excellent aural backdrop to McGregor's seemingly limitless choreography.

For me the key element to the show's success was the astonishing visual design of Olafur Eliasson.  Creating WOW moments is what Eliasson does - I discovered him, as a great many others did, in 2003 when he created The Weather Project for Tate Modern's Turbine Hall a.k.a. The Big Sun - one of the truly most awesome creations I have ever seen!

Since then I have marvelled at his work with light and water as well as his simple-but-profound Ice Watch in Paris 2015, for which he transplanted 12 large blocks of ice, weighing in total 80 tonnes, to form a clock-like circle with which the public could interact, only for it to slowly melt to nothingness in only 9 days.

Here in essence using only lights, mirrors and screens he created a total immersive stage environment which time-and-again found me wanting to get up there to stop the show and shout out loud "but how do you do THAT??"  Of course I would never actually want to know that - it's so rare that nowadays you see a genuine scenic wonder on stage that I wanted it to never end.  Two screens descended at one point: a couple were between the audience and the first screen with a second couple between the first and second screens then beyond that was a large semi-circular mirror - the first couple however were only reflected once while the second seemed to be reflected ad infinitum... like, how??  It was like watching a 70s Top Of The Pops camera effect live!

Oh and the reflections moved too! One moment they were at stage level then they hovered above the dancers as the orange neon strip-lights hanging above the dancers also multiplied behind them.  Each 'scene' saw a new vision unfolding but always with a breathtaking simplicity that made you wonder why no one had ever done that before.

The last scene was again a feast for the eyes - and ears - with the whole company onstage but seen through a large screen which had two large circles in the middle which slowly opened and rotated at different speeds filling the whole stage and auditorium with shafts of solid coloured light, all quite stunning.

TREE OF CODES was a totally unexpected wonder but only played a week at Sadler's Wells - hopefully it will appear again soon.  I recommend it highly

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

HAMLET at the Almeida - something old, something new...

It is now with a regular sense of trepidation that I take my seat to see any play from The Repertoire - it used to be plays pre-20th Century but now even Tennessee Williams has fallen victim to the sweep of Director Theatre - and as the lights go down I ask myself "Am I going to see a version of a classic play that will illuminate while showing why it has stood the test of time - or am I going to see a production by a director who is jamming a classic text into their pre-conceived ideas of audience alienation and quirk-for-quirk's sake gender-blind casting or post-modern tropes?"

It was with the above feelings that I sat down to watch Robert Icke's production of HAMLET at the Almeida and, for most of it's 3 + 3/4 hours running time, I was surprised at the clarity of vision despite the odd anachronistic elbow-in-the-eye.  But then as the climax of the play careered out of control it felt almost like Robert Icke just vomited out all the Director Theatre tricks he had managed to keep down up until then.

Of course nowadays a director feels the urge to give us a HAMLET at about the same time as a name actor edges into the spotlight to play it.  Andrew Scott, this is your 5 minute call... 5 minutes Mr Scott.  I have seen Andrew Scott only once before onstage - DESIGN FOR LIVING at the Old Vic in 2010 - so it was interesting to see him step up to have a go at the gloomy Dane.

For the most part he succeeded but his performance was let down by Icke having him burst into loud tears at the drop of a hat - yes we get it, he's still grieving for his father - and an annoying tendency to over-do the bellowing when Hamlet is riled up.  It's all the more absurd as he has only just told the Players: 

Oh, it offends me to the soul to hear a robustious periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters, to very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings...

But for the most part Scott was very good at speaking the verse - the great soliloquies were not sung out like arias but delivered quietly, as if coming to him for the first time. Where he sits in my league of Hamlets will have to be seen, at the moment I suspect somewhere below Rory Kinnear and my all-time number one Ian Charleson.

That he ultimately did not move me is more the fault of Icke's production than Scott's actual performance.  As I said I enjoyed the first two acts much more than I was expecting and indeed was on board for most of the last act, but as I said above, Icke's botched handling of the climax seemed to almost undercut any chance for the actors to shine.

We had been forewarned to the elements of the botched ending - just as Ivo van Hove's over-reliance on Joni Mitchell's 'Blue' irked during his HEDDA GABLER so Icke's seemingly inexhaustible Bob Dylan collection here very quickly bored, Icke shared Nicholas Hytner's 2010 NT vision of Elsinore as a closed circuit surveillance state and occasionally a large screen dropped down to give us updates on Fortinbrass's progress, to show the security cameras picking up the ghostly presence of the dead King (which actually was very effective) and then to show the reactions of Claudius, Gertrude and Hamlet to "The Mousetrap" while they sat in the front row of the stalls.

This last bit of business was gimmicky and cumbersome (despite the fact that the handheld cameras showing the royal family also picked up the truly regal Vanessa Redgrave sitting behind them!) but it was distracting from the very fine performances of David Rintoul as the Player King and Marty Cruickshank as the Player Queen.  So the final scene... again the screen appeared to show the onstage duel (which we could see anyway) as Angus Wright and Juliet Stevenson as Claudius and Gertrude sat again in the front row - why??  With the duellists' faces covered up with fencing masks we really needed to concentrate on the King and Queen to get the undertow of emotions but this was totally lost.

But if this stage blocking ruined the personal dynamic between the characters at the climax of the show, the text was drowned out by the BLARING final Bob Dylan song - do you love Gertrude's "He’s fat, and scant of breath...the queen carouses to thy fortune, Hamlet" or her defiant retort to Claudius' command for her not to drink from the poisoned cup "I will, my lord. I pray you, pardon me"?  Well you won't hear them here as the bloody song blares out while Stevenson mouths the words.  At least her violent convulsions after being poisoned were more convincing than Gertrude's usual drop and die.

And it didn't end there - Hildegard Bechtler's stage design featured sliding glass panels with a hidden room beyond shrouded by curtains.  It immediately reminded me of Tom Scutt's low-fi set for the NT's MEDEA and with Bechtler's low-level leather couches, easy chairs and arty standard lamps, this is an Elsinore designed around 1981 Sunday supplement advertisements.  But at the end, rather than have Horatio (a short-changed Elliot Barnes-Worrall) and Hamlet exchange the famous last words as he dies, we had a musical fugue where the room beyond was revealed to show Polonious and Ophelia slow-dancing together as one by one the Ghost beckoned those recently dead - Laertes, Claudius, Gertrude - to stand up and join the party within...  all of which vanished to show that we had just been watching what was going on in Hamlet's mind as he died.  I am sure if Shakespeare had wanted a parade across the stage at this point he would have done it as in MACBETH and RICHARD III... so Icke, don't bloody make a long night longer just to be fucking contrary!

As I said, this awful version of the play's climax was all the more frustrating as up until then there had been much to enjoy, albeit in a production which seemed to be made up of moments and not a through line of dramatic tension - Scott's delicate handling of the speeches (when not ranting during Ophelia's funeral), the genuinely spooky glimpses of the Ghost on the security cameras as well as well-rounded performances from the always-dependable Peter Wight as a Polonius seemingly beset by early dementia, Barry Aird's sarcastic Gravedigger, Jessica Brown-Findlay's o'erthrown Ophelia, the earlier-mentioned Rintoul and Cruickshank and a suitably volatile Luke Thompson as Laertes.

Juliet Stevenson was a very good Gertrude, slowly coming to realize the truth behind Hamlet's rages; she proved again what a good actress can find within the otherwise frustratingly-thin role - in particular she delivered the drowning of Ophelia speech wonderfully.  Stevenson also provided the unexpected laugh of the evening when she ran out after the raving Ophelia only to go WHONGGG into the closed glass screen door.  However, in keeping with this unpredictable production, as good as Stevenson was, she only showed up how disastrously low-rent Angus Wright was as Claudius; he played it like it was a tech rehearsal.

So another stage HAMLET to add to the pile, my tenth in all.  I would be surprised if I see another production this year, but it is a play that I find endlessly facinating and profoundly moving when done right, alack not here however - Mr Scott, your director done rained on your parade.