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Posts Tagged ‘Almeida Theatre’

I’ve enjoyed all of the Mike Bartlett plays I’ve seen, some fifteen of them, including two other adaptations and three before at this theatre, which itself has form with this very play when it successfully produced it in the West End twenty years ago. So all the more surprising to be be so hugely disappointed.

Gorky wrote it in 1910 and set it between the 1905 & 1917 Russian revolutions, though it wasn’t staged for another 25 years or so, in a new version. Perhaps he was representing the end of empire and a transition to a new world, and maybe Bartlett sees some parallels with our current populist revolutions. Why else would you adapt it?

Vassa is the family matriarch, a bit of a monster. Her husband is dying. She runs the business he’s built. Her children have been disappointments. Her brother-in-law can’t wait to get his hands on his share of the business. She berates, bullies and bruises all around her. The first two acts are played as farce and this whole seventy-five minutes did nothing for me, apart from a few laughs. Even the second act’s shocking ending didn’t touch me.

I would have left at this point, the interval, but I’d already invested 70% of the necessary time, so it seemed worth seeing it through. This act could have been directed by a different person. Dad is dead and everyone is seemingly grieving and the dysfunctional family unravels. A stage strewn with flowers, blame, secrets, lies and arguments about inheritance. It was much more stylised, mannered gestures, offstage actors sitting at the sides not entirely neutral. By now I didn’t really care about anyone or anything and was fantasising about the glass of wine awaiting me at home.

The cast work hard, but at the curtain call they seemed relieved another performance was over; I felt sorry for them. Samantha Bond, originally cast as Vassa, pulled out, which may be good sense rather than illness. It seemed to me to be a pointless revival, a rare dud for the Almeida and the first turkey by its adapter. May it rest in peace.

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For a 32-year-old, adapter / director Robert Icke has had an extraordinary career. Fifteen major productions in eight years, of which nine were at the Almeida, four of them transferring to the West End. Until this, I’d seen nine, six of which I loved. His work isn’t always to my taste, but it’s always interesting. This is his last production as Associate of the Almeida and for me he’s ending on a real high.

I don’t know the source of this adaptation, Arthur Schnitzler’s ‘Professor Bernhardt’, but it’s billed as ‘very freely adapted from’ so probably more Icke than Schnitzler. It’s a riveting debate about medical ethics & politics and how modern society responds to such issues. We’re in a medical institute which researches into and treats dementia, but the incident that generates the debate concerns a young girl who’s taken in as an act of mercy. Her death is picked up by interest groups covering faiths, abortion, race and sex, fuelled by the internet, social media and the press, escalating in a matter of days, with most of the debate driven by emotion and special interest.

Casting which is gender and colour blind, and in one case of doubling up, means things are only revealed by what is said rather than what is seen, so identities aren’t always immediately obvious. The first half sees the debate confined to the institution, though events outside are being monitored. In the second half they become public, and the worst aspects of modern society’s obsession with witch hunts and public ‘crucifixions’ come to the fore. The unfolding drama and discussion has you in its grip throughout, with the plainness of the design placing all of the focus on the dialogue as it takes its hold. It could easily be dry, but I found it thoroughly absorbing and emotionally engaging. It would be good to think those who judge without evidence get to see it, but they are probably making ill-informed comments via their smart phones or pursuing a blinkered view based on vested interest.

Juliet Stevenson is onstage throughout, even during the interval, and her performance is an extraordinary tour de force, moving from detached and logical to surprised, defiant, combative, dejected and broken, a real roller coaster ride. There is a fine supporting cast in multiple roles and a drummer high above the stage adding tension through percussion. I left the theatre emotionally drained but exhilarated. I suspect I shall be processing for days. As fine a piece of drama as you could wish for.

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It’s rare to be so emotionally engaged with a play whilst at the same time kept on the edge of your seat as the story unfolds. This quietly devastating piece is rich in drama, staged and performed to perfection.

We’re in a small community in rural Denmark. Lucas has been teaching at the primary school for a term, since the secondary school closed. His wife has left him, heading for the city with their teenage son Marcus. Lucas is well integrated in the local community, though, with strong friendships amongst his neighbours and with the men at his hunting lodge, until an accusation of inappropriate behaviour at the school changes everyone’s attitudes and perceptions and his life begins to fall apart. The positives of this idyllic, liberal, tight community turn very negative very quickly.

The suspense gives it the aesthetic of a thriller, the presumption of guilt means you’re rooting for Lucas, and it becomes an emotional roller-coaster. Rupert Goold’s gripping production, on Es Devlin’s very Scandic set, uses music to great effect, including the impressive vocal talents of Adrian der Gregorian. The small revolving house at the centre becomes classroom, lodge, home, with scenes played inside and outside looking in. I haven’t seen the film by Thomas Vinterberg & Tobias Lindholm, but David Farr’s adaptation doesn’t put a foot wrong.

Tobias Menzies’ restrained central performance as Lucas is a career high for this fine actor. Justin Salinger and Poppy Miller are brilliant as his close friends in a troubled relationship. In a superb supporting ensemble, Danny Kirrane as Gunner and Stuart Campbell as Marcus shine. Then there are two extraordinary child actors and dog Max, as restrained as his master.

A very satisfying evening in the theatre that I haven’t stopped thinking about since I left it.

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Anne Washburn is an original and interesting playwright, but after a third exposure to her work, this juror’s still out on whether she’s a good one.

Jools & Jim have invited five friends to their new remote country home. They’re not experienced in country living and they’re not particularly good hosts, so as the weather deteriorates and the power is cut off, their supplies run out. They don’t run out of conversation, though, as they reflect on life in Trump’s divided America and how they got there. These are the liberal Americans – a wealthy gay couple, New York lawyers Andrew & Yusuf, a struggling straight, somewhat alternative couple, Richard & Laurie, and singleton Allie. The conversation widens to all sorts of apparently related subjects including the Jonestown massacre, racism & colonialism and Lord of the Rings!

We’re occasionally visited by Mark, the adopted black son of white parents who appear to be the former inhabitants of the house, who tells us his story. We also get a meeting between Trump and George W Bush as president, and towards the end a surreal version of that infamous confrontation between Trump and FBI chief Corney. There’s an awful lot of ground covered but at almost 3.5 hours it didn’t sustain its length (there were a conspicuous number of empty seats after the interval). Often thought-provoking and fitfully gripping, it was too much of a ramble, wordy and undramatic, lacking coherence, a download of thoughts and ideas, trying to say so much that more became less.

It’s staged in the round, in a design by Miriam Buether which has a partly revolving stage and a platform against the back wall on which there are projections. There was one row of audience sitting in chairs close to the stage as if at a dinner table, who participated in the surreal scene. There are lovely performances from Justine Mitchell, Fisayo Akinade, Adam James, Elliott Cowan, Tara Fitzgerald, Khalid Abdalla, Raquel Cassidy and Risteard Cooper, but these and Rupert Goold’s production are a lot better than the material.

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Best New Play – The Lehman Trilogy*, The Inheritance* & Sweat*

I find it impossible to choose between these three extraordinary evenings (well, afternoon and evening in the case of the The Inheritance) but they were in very good company with a dozen other new plays in contention. Also at the NT, Home, I’m Darling* and Nine Night* were great, and also at the Young Vic The Convert* became a late addition in December. At the Bush, both Misty and An Adventure impressed (though I saw the former when it transferred to Trafalgar Studios).The remaining London contenders were The Humans at Hampstead Theatre, Pressure at the Park Theatre, Things I Know To Be True at the Lyric Hammersmith and The Wipers Times at the Arts, though these last two weren’t new to London, just me. The Edinburgh Fringe added two, Class* and Ulster American*, both Irish, both at the Traverse and both heading to London, so look out for them. The eight starred are either still running or coming back in 2019, so be sure to catch them if you haven’t seen them already.

Best New Musical – Hamilton*

It opened right at the end of 2017, but I didn’t see it until January 2018 (and again in December 2018). It certainly lives up to the hype and is unquestionably ground-breaking in the same way West Side Story was sixty years before. It was a good year for new musicals, though 40% of my shortlist were out-of-town, headed by Flowers For Mrs Harris at Chichester, with Pieces of String in Colchester, Miss Littlewood in Stratford and Sting’s The Last Ship mooring briefly in Northampton. Back in London, the Young Vic continued to shine with Fun Home and Twelfth Night and the NT imported Hadestown*. Tina* proved to be in the premiere league of juke-box musicals and SIX* was a breath of fresh air at the Arts. Only four are still running, or coming back.

Best Play Revival – The York Realist and Summer and Smoke*

Another category where I can’t split the top two. The former a gem at the Donmar and the latter shining just as brightly at the Almeida. I didn’t see the Old Vic’s glorious A Christmas Carol* until January, so that was a contender too, along with The Daughter-in-Law* at the Arcola and The Lieutenant of Inishmore in the West End. Then there were four cracking Shakespeare’s – The Bridge Theatre’s promenade Julius Caesar, the RSC’s Hamlet with Paapa Essiedu visiting Hackney Empire, Ian McKellen’s King Lear transfer from Chichester, and the NT’s Anthony & Cleopatra* with Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okenedo. Another four still running / coming back.

Best Musical Revival – Company*

The leanest category this year, with Marianne Elliott’s revival of Sondheim’s Company exceeding expectations; I shall be back at the last night. Chichester brought yet more joy with Me & My Girl and right at the end of the year, the Mill at Sonning came up trumps for the third year running with a great favourite of mine, Guys & Dolls* Finally, The Rink at Southwark Playhouse, the only contender this year from the usually more prolific fringe. Two to catch if you haven’t already.

Theatre of the Year – The Young Vic

Though five of my thirty-seven contenders were at the NT, The Young Vic shone even more brightly with four, all new works. Only four originated in the West End, which further emphasises how crucial the subsidised sector and the regions are. You can still see half of them, but some close soon, so get booking!

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We seem to be going through a phase of filleting and re-ordering Shakespeare’s plays. The Donmar gave us a shortened Measure for Measure, twice in one evening, with gender swops between them. The National’s Anthony & Cleopatra started as it ended. Now the Almeida’s Richard II has lost an hour and nine characters and also brings forward a later scene. Somewhat ironically, this hyper-radical interpretation returns to Shakespeare’s original title. What comes out the other end is a frantic portrait of a country falling apart; not too difficult to identify with that at the moment. Shakespeare purists probably won’t like it; I found it bold, but not without its faults.

Eight actors play the thirteen characters remaining, in a large metal box, designed by ULTZ with excellent lighting by James Farncombe. in contemporary casual clothes. It’s somewhat manic in style, with fast speech and rapid movement and exaggerated gestures. Buckets of water, blood and soil (amusingly, labelled) get poured over characters and more gauntlets get thrown down in anger and challenge than you’re likely to have seen in your entire Shakespeare playgoing experience. There’s not a lot of subtlety, characterisations are weakened, verse loses beauty and the narrative of the play suffers……but it is a gripping 100 unbroken minutes and you can’t take your eyes off the stage.

The cast, led superbly by Simon Russell Beale as Richard, are uniformly excellent, but I didn’t feel Joe Hill-Gibbins production allowed them to get under the skin of their characters and reveal their psychological depth and motivation. I see Richard II as an introverted, introspective king who didn’t want to be king, uncomfortable with power, as most productions convey, and this didn’t come over here. Though I respect and admire the audacity and creativity, I didn’t find it entirely satisfying. It was a bit like watching the Tory party tearing itself and the country apart, and I’d done that before I got to the theatre that day, and indeed every other day at the moment.

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Robert Icke, the master of reinvention, is at it again. After Greek Tragedy, Shakespeare, Chekov and Schiller, it’s now Ibsen. Good to report that at the other end, out comes a play that feels contemporary, faithful to Ibsen’s story, with overt parallels with the playwright’s own life. I haven’t liked all of his reinventions, but I did like this one.

The Woods family business is destroyed by senior employee Francis Ekdal, who goes to prison as a result. Charles Woods, though, financially supports Ekdal’s son James and his wife Gina & daughter Helga, and even Francis Ekdal on his release. When estranged son Gregory Woods, a very good friend of James, returns he decides to reveal Gina’s secret, which begins a series of events which ends in tragedy. Gregory’s intentions may have been good, but the consequences far from it, as the world of the Ekdal family collapses.

We’ve lost five characters, mostly ‘staff’ who wouldn’t fit the modern setting. The Werle’s have become the Woods, and some forenames have been changed. The most radical change is the addition of narration and commentary about truth, lies and Ibsen’s life, by characters who they pick up a microphone to talk direct to the audience. We start with a bare stage, which acquires some furniture and props as we go along, but it remains minimalist, though there is a bit of a design coup d’theatre at the end.

Though puzzling at the outset, it does draw you in and becomes much more dramatic than vanilla Ibsen, helped by a superb set of performances from a fine cast. Clever stuff.

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