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Posts Tagged ‘Ben Daniels’

It’s somewhat ironic that this revival of Larry Kramer’s partly autobiographical AIDS play was delayed by an epidemic / pandemic, though that probably makes it resonate more. The contrast between the response to AIDS it shows and the response to Covid-19 we’ve just experienced is also striking. The parallel between the current debate about differing types of protest, and in particular the use of civil disobedience by environmentalists, wasn’t lost on me either. So an up-to-date 36-year-old play, then.

By the time this was written / produced, US deaths from AIDS had exceeded 5000; the disease had been around for four years. Our protagonist Ned Weeks is a founding member of a HIV support group and much of the play is devoted to the contrast between his confrontational style of advocacy and the more reserved ways of his colleagues, some of whom hadn’t come out. Despite clear medical advice on safe sex, though, all were reluctant to promulgate such advice. It was all about resources to respond and support the stricken community and how best to lobby for these.

As the play develops, we learn more about the disease and are drawn in to personal stories, not least that of Ned’s partner Felix, a closeted journalist dying of it. Ned’s passion becomes anger. He is marginalised by his colleagues as he is losing his lover. The authorities’ response to AIDS is sadly lacking. It makes the reaction to Covid-19 seems so much better (vaccines in less than a year?!), because of the speed of spreading and mode of transmission, perhaps because of what we learnt from AIDS, perhaps because AIDS was seen as only affecting the gay community.

The first part seemed a bit too laboured, perhaps because it focuses too much on the political and not enough on the disease, but the second half punches you in the stomach as it becomes devastating, personal and deeply moving. This is helped by staging in the round, which provides more intimacy than the Olivier can usually muster. The setting, with just benches inside a circular metal structure and four entrances, facilitates a pace and urgency for the storytelling.

Ben Daniels plays Ned with such passion and commitment, on stage virtually the whole time; he inhabits the role fully. A towering, career defining performance. Liz Carr is superb as straight-talking Dr Emma Brookner, just about the only character who challenges Ned effectively. Daniel Monks stands out as Mickey in an older, very different role to his impressive UK debut in Teenage Dick at the Donmar. The rest of the 13 strong cast, all men, provide excellent support.

The original off-Broadway production never made it to Broadway, which seems to echo the response to the disease shown in the play, but the Royal Court’s UK production, initially with Martin Sheen as Ned, did get to the West End. It might be worth noting that the 1988 Cambridge University production was directed by Sam Mendes, with Nick Clegg as Ned!

Like Channel 4’s It’s A sin, this is very timely, though a completely different take. That TV series could only be written now, whilst this was written at the time. The Olivier audience was on it’s feet, and that doesn’t happen very often.

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OK, so maybe I’m just thick, but I left this play thinking ‘so what is it you’re trying to say?’

Joe Pentall has written some good plays, amongst them the excellent Blue, Orange. Mental health is an issue he returns to often. In this play, husband / father Douglas disappears, seemingly for no reason. When he returns ,we discover he’s been with some sort of cult – or has he? He disappears again and when he returns this time he seems to be even more under the spell of an increasingly implausible group. His wife Julie is losing her tether and his son Thomas misses dad badly. It’s two hours before we discover the truth.

Sophie Okonedo is excellent and the young actor who played Thomas was terrific. Bunny Christie’s set is a perfectly realised family home, except the ceiling twice lowers mysteriously and somewhat pointlessly…. but what on earth the play is getting at is beyond me. I didn’t find it in the slightest bit illuminating, thought-provoking or even interesting. Ben Daniels seemed to be over-acting mercilessly, though in all fairness, I’m not sure how anyone could play Douglas believably.

Sadly, the Royal Court ends 2011 on a low. For me, a waste of an evening, I’m afraid.

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There was a time when Schiller’s plays were dull and turgid. Then along came Mike Poulton with adaptations which breathed new life into them. His  adaptation of Don Carlos was masterly and now he excels with this cross between Les Liaisons Dangereuses and Romeo & Juliet.

The Chancellor’s son, an army major, is in love with court musician’s daughter Luise, but his father plans to wed him to the Prince’s mistress to provide cover for the Prince and obtain influence for himself.  The Chancellor’s private secretary, appropriately named Wurm, wants Luise himself and with the help of Lady Milford and Hofmarschall ( I wasn’t quite sure what his role is) his machiavellian plans unfold, ending tragically with its R&J moment. It’s a cracking story and the dialogue is sharp and often witty; not a word is wasted.

The Donmar space is simply but beautifully designed and lit by Peter McKintosh and Paule Constable respectively and Michael Grandage’s staging is as ever impeccable. I don’t think even the Donmar has ever assemble an ensemble this good. You totally believe in the love and passion of Felicity Jones and Max Bennett as Luise and Ferdinand. Ben Daniels has never been better than here as the Chancellor, whose craze for power unleashes such tragedy and results in his own deep remorse. John Light and David Dawson provide the intrigue in their deliciously smarmy, oleaginous fashion (and in the case of Dawson, very camp) whilst Alex Kingston is every bit the arch manipulator whose only interest is herself – at any cost . I also really liked Paul Higgins devoted passionate father who does much to illustrate the backdrop of the class divide.

This will I’m sure be one of the highlights of the year, and one of the defining productions of Grandage’s reign at the Donmar. Miss at your peril.

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