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Archive for the ‘Theatre’ Category

I’ve seen some amazing actors play Lear, seven of them knights of the realm, but this is the first time I’ve seen the same actor play him twice, only ten years apart (though I’ve seen five more Lear’s since the last time, not counting the one from Belarus and the one with sheep!). With Ian McKellen in his eightieth year, he’s the oldest, and the closest to the character’s age. I regret not booking to see this in Chichester. My thinking was that I’d seen McKellen’s Lear. I suspect it would have been better (and cheaper!), but it’s still a must-see in the West End, and I now realise how flawed my thinking had been.

They’ve put a platform through the centre of the stalls, leading to an entrance / exit at the rear, losing a handful of rows and quite a few other seats in the process. They also use the side aisles as entrances / exits. I don’t know the impact of this in the upper tiers, but it made the stalls space more intimate. On stage there’s floor-to-ceiling wood panelling with doors and entrances within it. The floor covering changes with the location, starting as red carpet as the royal family enter for Lear’s announcement that he is to divide the country between his daughters. I thought Paul Wills design was excellent.

Though it’s something like my 14th Lear, there were things about this one that changed my response to the story. I still think there’s more than a touch of implausibility in him falling for the sycophancy of two daughters rather than the sincerity of the third, but here there’s an ageism in Goneril and Regan, in addition to to my normal feelings of spoilt children and inheritance ruins, and Regan in particular becomes completely self-obsessed and self-centred. The Duke of Kent has become the Countess of Kent, and this subtly changes, softens, the character. Edmund seems more machiavellian in contrast to an even more empathetic Edgar. Lear’s madness at first seems eccentricity, before it becomes tragic. I thought Jonathan Munby’s production was very fresh and intelligent.

From the original Chichester cast, Sinead Cusak and Danny Webb are both excellent as Kent and Gloucester respectively, and Kirsty Bushell is simply terrific as Regan. Michael Matus makes much more of the role of Oswald. There are some great performances from new cast members too, not least a superb Edgar from Luke Thompson and an outstanding Edmund in James Corrigan. Lloyd Hutchison is a particularly good Fool. I felt privileged to be seeing Ian McKellen in this role again, a gentler, sadder reading. At the curtain call, memories of more than twenty earlier performances by this fine actor swept over me as I rose to my feet in tribute.

The programme is way better than normal flimsy West End fare and in one of its four essay’s, historian David Starkey suggests that Shakespeare may have been having a dialogue with his patron, King James, even sending him messages about the consequences of dividing a kingdom. Four hundred years later, it’s sending messages still, and I suspect will continue to do so for a long time to come.

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Previous productions of this play, by Italian playwright Stefano Massini, have lasted five hours and had huge casts. Ben Power’s adaptation has a playing time of just under three hours, and director Sam Mendes has chosen to use just three actors to tell this epic story spanning 175 years. An inspired idea which delivers a captivating story of a dynasty, but also the history of capitalism and immigration to the USA.

The Lehman brothers are the sons of a German Jewish cattle merchant, the first brother Henry arriving in the US in 1844, Emanuel and Mayer following in the subsequent six years. Their business starts as a general store in Montgomery, Alabama, before they become cotton traders. After Henry dies, they move to New York City, where they expand into coffee trading, invest in railways and the Panama Canal, and eventually everything from airlines, cigarettes, films & armaments to banking.

It was not until 1965 that they move into trading investments, the business that killed them in 2008, something that the 1857, 1873 and 1929 financial crises, the American Civil War, two world wars and 9/11 didn’t. By then, there were no Lehman brothers left in the business that kept their name, the last dying in 1969. In the previous 125 years, six brothers from three generations had led the business, two for sixty years each.

Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles and Adam Godley remain in the cloths in which they arrive in the mid-eighteenth century, but all play multiple roles of all generations & ages and both sexes absolutely brilliantly. It all takes place in Es Devlin’s glass-walled offices, representing where the company meets its demise in 2008, which revolve in front of a giant screen on which Luke Hall projects locations. The 2008 box files are used to create everything from shop counters to steps. It’s all in monochrome. Mendes’ staging is simple, enthralling storytelling, with the role-switching lightening it, providing some very funny moments. Live piano accompaniment at the side of the stage is also inspired, and brilliantly played by Candida Caldicot.

It all combines to create a wonderful unmissable theatrical feast.

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Last month I saw Akram Kahn’s Xenos, a solo dance piece at Sadler’s Wells Theatre which brilliantly highlighted the forgotten soldiers from the Indian sub-continent who fought in the First World War. That was co-commissioned and co-produced by 14-18 NOW, who this month co-commission and co-produce two pieces about the forgotten role of Africans in that war.

The first, The Head & The Load, was a performance art piece from William Kentridge in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern. The stage, screen, and indeed the audience, ran the full length of the flat part of the space. Collages and film footage were projected onto the screen, with extraordinary silhouettes and shadows created by the people moving on stage, so big no-one could see it all without moving their head. On stage there were actors and dancers playing scenes, music from bands and singers, large objects (some containing sets) moving across it. It tells the story of the Africans who were porters and carriers in WWI. I can’t say I understood where every detail fitted the theme – I’m not sure you are meant to, as it’s more an intuitive piece than a literal one – but it was a captivating and moving visual and aural spectacle.

At NST City Southampton, South Africa’s Isango Ensemble, one of my favourite international companies (this is the eighth show I’ve seen), told the story of the ship SS Mendi, which sank in the English Channel at the end of a long voyage from Cape Town, taking African men conscripted to help in the trenches. A simple, sharply raked wooden platform represented the deck of the ship and all other locations. We see the men recruited by a white military officer before they set sail. On board, there are deaths by disease & suicide, intertribal conflict and maltreatment, before the ship is in collision with a much bigger one so close to the end of their voyage. It concludes by examining why the other ship didn’t stop to help, resulting in more than six hundred deaths. As always with Isango, singing and percussion thrillingly animate the storytelling, and the show was deeply moving.

These were two more enthralling memorials to forgotten participants in World War I, in a truly wonderful series of events by this 14-18 NOW initiative, which has highlighted and served this centenary so well.

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This was only Rodney Ackland’s third play, written when he was just 23 and first staged in 1932, directed by John Gielgud. Like the other plays of his I’ve seen – After October, Before the Party & Absolute Hell – it’s a character-driven piece. It’s good to catch it in LAMDA’s summer season and add it to my small collection of this underrated playwright’s work.

Divorcee Vera lives in a big London house with her three adult children, sisters Esther & Jenny and their half-brother Gordon. She takes in lodgers, some of whom she treats with more than a little disdain, particularly vacuous toff George and flighty film actress Freda, two of her current crop, alongside writer Val and couple Laura & Jimmie. Val is in love with Esther, but it doesn’t seem to be reciprocated (but her mother worships him). George brings his friend Sylvia to a party and she falls for Gordon. Jenny invites artist Peter into the home, who isn’t who he says he is and appears to be attracted to Freda too. Jenny is going blind.

Though characters have their stories, there isn’t enough time to develop them all, so like the other plays, it comes over as a slice-of-life, in this case young arty middle-class people in the pre-war 30’s. Only Jenny Wall has to act outside her age range as Vera, and she does so very well. I thought Georgina Duncan managed Jenny’s difficult journey extremely well. It’s a fine cast, who are particularly good at creating the behaviour, mannerisms and speech of the period. Ruari Murchison’s terrific set has people coming and going through one external and four internal doors and stairs, which contributes significantly to the animation of Ackland’s play, which is finely staged by Philip Watson.

I saw these eleven players (one wearing a waistcoat) on the evening another eleven were occupied elsewhere, so it was small audience, but I suspect we had a more relaxed and satisfying evening! The play may not be up to the others, but it gets a very good production and was a great opportunity to catch another Ackland. Only 12 to go!

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This is an adaptation, by playwright Rotimi Babatunde, of Lola Shoneyin’s 2010 novel about a rich, larger-than-life Nigerian polygamist, Baba Segi. At first you seem to be celebrating this misogynist bullying monster as a lovable rogue, but it takes a delicious twist. It’s a rude, boisterous and hugely funny piece and the superb music is the icing on the cake.

We see Baba begin his collection of wives, adding two, who all give him children, before he meets the fourth, graduate Bolanie, who is unpopular with the other wives and appears to be barren. In the first half, we see Baba ruling like a despot, taking turns to have sex with the wives, celebrating his fertility in producing children. In the second half, it takes an unexpected, brilliant turn as Baba is brought down to earth, after which the wives can chose freedom or continued enslavement. Their decisions constitute another extraordinary turn of events.

It’s a exuberant production by Femi Elufowoju Jr. with thrilling African choral singing, accompanied by percussion and dancing. The cast are all superb, performing with the audience on all sides, with superb audience engagement (with some commenting on the action!). Somehow the cocktail of sexism, misogyny and bullying becomes a riotous and uplifting evening, and it was great to be in a white minority in the theatre for once.

With The Barbershop Chronicles, Nine Night (transferring to the West End), the revival of Leave Taking and this all within the last year, we may be entering a golden age for black theatre. Unmissable.

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To be honest, I’m not that fond of this show, but I’m very fond of GSMD’s end-of-year musicals, which combine West End production values with terrific young talent and the biggest and best orchestra you’ll ever hear playing for a musical, and this year is no exception.

By 1964, Rogers & Hammerstein had made it OK to write musicals on serious subjects and Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick & Joseph Stein chose the early 20th Century Russian pogroms for theirs. They’d done five shows before this, but this was their big hit, running on Broadway for almost ten years, in the West End for almost five, made into a successful film in 1971, with countless revivals since, including three in the West End. Though the political background is dark, the story of dairyman Tevye, his wife and five daughters in the village of Anatevka is light, and the contrast doesn’t work for me, with the latter smothering the former. Though there are four numbers in the show which have become standards, I find the score a bit too twee.

Whatever you think of the show, though, Martin Connor’s production is superb, with an excellent design by Adam Wiltshire, great choreography by Joanna Goodwin and a luxurious 28-piece orchestra which sounds glorious under MD Steven Edis. Another outstanding cast is led by Alex James-Cox as Tevye, a hugely impressive performance. I was looking at the news of last year’s graduates in the programme to find they’ve since been at Shakespeare’s Globe, the Old and Young Vic’s, Almeida, Bridge and Chichester theatres, two in the Harry Potter plays plus Game of Thrones and the BBC’s A Very English Scandal. That tells you something about the talent that awaits you at a GSMD show.

Can’t wait to see this lot in my future theatre-going.

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It’s takes a brave theatre, a brave director and a brave leading actor to revive this 2009 Jez Butterworth play, which had two West End runs and one Broadway run in the two years following it’s Royal Court premiere. Less than two week’s ago, The Guardian’s Michael Billington listed the ’25 best plays since Jerusalem’, which he referred to as ‘the hit that transformed British theatre’. One of those was Butterworth’s The Ferryman which is Broadway-bound, having just completed almost a year in the West End following it’s Royal Court premiere in 2017. It’s a big show for the Watermill, but they pull it off with great aplomb.

I still stand by my earlier thoughts (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2010/02/11/jerusalem) though my reaction has evolved through the passage of time and changes in the country, which seems to be clinging to a Jerusalem of its own. Rooster Byron is the ultimate rebel, the lovable rogue that some see as the personification of evil – contributing nothing to society, leading their children astray, polluting their backyard with noise and junk, but he’s also a defender of rural encroachment, gentrification, the rights of outsiders and independence.

I thought the other characters came to the fore this time – Ginger refusing to grow up, Davey not seeing the point of leaving Wiltshire, Lee naively thinking he can see the world with a one-way ticket to Australia and $200, but still reluctant to go, emasculated publican Wesley and The Professor, clearly unfulfilled with nowhere to go. Rooster’s past also seems more significant, with the arrival of his ex and son more poignant.

Designer Frankie Bradshaw has brilliantly created the same wild glade with caravan in the woods, much more intimate in the Watermill, and referenced the Flintock Fair in dressing the auditorium. Jasper Britton makes Rooster Byron his own, in a towering performance, with outstanding support from a cast who are so good they banish from the memory those that came before, particularly Peter Caulfield as Ginger, Santino Smith as Davey and Sam Swann as Lee.

This is a fine early revival, by Lisa Blair, of a ground-breaking state-of-the-nation play, perhaps even more timely today. Another great reason to head west to this lovely, ambitious theatre which consistently delivers.

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