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Posts Tagged ‘David Hare’

The first time I saw Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, on the same Olivier stage almost 30 years ago, it was so slow and turgid we decided an earlier dinner would be preferable to the second half. We’d finished our meal before the rest of the audience left the theatre, rather pleased with ourselves. I felt a bit like that at the first interval of this version by David Hare ‘after Henrik Ibsen’, but there were enough moments in Jonathan Kent’s production to send me back and see it through. It’s overlong and uneven, but there is much to enjoy.

Peter is Scottish, from Dunoon, and that’s where the story starts when he returns from a war, though not to a hero’s welcome. His girlfriend is about to get married to someone else and just about everyone, including his mother, sees him for the pathological liar and fantasist he is. It’s a while before he starts his journey (too long), first to meet the mountain king in the land of the trolls, who have selfish ways and intentions. From here, we find him at his golf course in Florida (yes!) a businessman with fingers in lots of pies, but a Frenchman, Icelander & Russian woman wipe him out. On to North Africa and the Middle East to make mischief and money before returning home to discover his legacy and destiny.

It’s a good time to revive it, in a world full of self-obsession, ego and greed, and Hare’s updating often works well. Amongst the highlights are the mountain king scene, Florida, at sea and the final scene, but it’s crying out for some editing to provide more focus and improve its pacing. Peter is a hugely challenging part, but James McArdle rises to it with a towering performance, often commanding the stage alone. Richard Hudson’s design sometime fills the stage thrillingly (the scene at sea) but other scenes seem lost on this vast stage. There’s great use of music, with particularly fine vocals from Tamsin Carroll.

It’s heading to the Edinburgh Festival (hence the Scottish setting?) where I suspect the somewhat conservative ladies from Morningside will go beyond their customary tut-tutting and vote with their feet, as quite a few did in an already sparse audience on Wednesday. I’m glad I didn’t, though, but I do wish they’d had the nerve to trim it to improve it; it’s not too difficult to see where that would be possible. In this form, only a partial success.

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This early David Hare play was first staged at the NT’s Cottesloe Theatre 33 years ago, paired with another called Wrecked Eggs. It’s now flying solo at the Menier in an impeccable production by Richard Eyre with a stunning design by Fotini Dimou, but I’m not sure its substantial enough to hold an evening on its own.

It’s 1955 and Valentina Nrovka has been invited to the Hermitage in St Petersburg to contribute to the debate about the provenance of a painting believed to be by Matisse, who was her friend. Valentina’s daughter Sophia comes too, and much of the play is in fact about their relationship and Sophia’s intention to leave her husband for a much older man, Peter, who also turns up. The personal story, the art and the Soviet state are interwoven to form the narrative.

Valentina is acid tongued and Hare has written some brilliant lines for her, delivered to perfection by Penelope Wilton, so much so that she dominates the piece, a bit like Lady Bracknell does in The Importance of Being Earnest. Ophelia Lovibond provides fine support as Sophia, and David Rintoul as Peter and Martin Hutson as the Assistant Curator give fine cameos, but it’s Wilton’s evening, worth the visit for her masterclass in acting, plus a truly evocative design of a seemingly vast room in the Winter Palace.

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David Hare can’t complain about his share of the National’s stages; this is his 17th play to premiere there. Over more than thirty years, he’s put up a mirror to Britain, from foreign press barons in Pravda (co-written with Howard Brenton), through institutions like the church and judiciary, politics, finance, war, rail privatisation and the Labour Party. Now he combines Labour and the NHS for his latest.

We follow Pauline Gibson from just before she goes to University through her work as a hospital doctor to standing and being elected as a single issue MP and the possibility of her bid to lead the Labour Party. Her university friend and sometime lover Jack takes a different path, following in his fathers footsteps as a career politician; he also has his eyes on the party leadership. Along the way a lot of other issues, both health service and party related, are brought in, most notably Pauline’s childhood, where her father’s abuse of her mother and her mother’s health loom large.

I felt that Hare lost focus by trying to cover too much (this may be a late career phenomenon, as Alan Bennett has done the same of late) and I feel that the premise that the Labour Party would elect someone who had only just joined and is still an independent MP is implausible. That said, it emphasises the political importance of the NHS, the Labour Party’s apparent aversion to female leadership and how it puts inward-looking concerns above the pursuit of power very well.

The three central roles are exceptionally well acted by Sian Brooke, Alex Hassell and Joshua McGuire as Pauline’s representative Sandy. I loved the humour of the press conferences and the projection of close-ups of the faces of those interviewed onto the walls of the revolving room which represents every location. Hare’s dialogue sparkles and there’s much humour. I wondered whether an Australian director like Neil Armfield brought more objectivity to it, but did not reach a conclusion.

Flawed perhaps, but well worth a visit nonetheless.

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On the lists of writers and directors least likely to adapt a Georges (Maigret) Simenon psychological  thriller, I’d put David Hare and Robert Icke pretty high, but that’s what we have here, and they’ve turned out a rather stylish, if slow, piece of staged film noir.

Simenon’s piece is a nicely plotted story of two couples caught in a storm returning from a society party in Connecticut to the Dodd’s home in the country. Don Dodd and Ray Sanders are old friends, both lawyers. Don is married to stay-at-home Ingrid and Ray to fellow party animal Mona. Ray doesn’t make it back, losing the other three before they make it to the house in a blizzard. His body is eventually found and the investigation concludes it was an accident. Don subsequently pays frequent visits to Mona Sanders New York apartment to help her with the estate and we see the true nature of their relationship, with a few more surprises to come.

It’s played out in a large number of scenes, mostly in the cosy Dodd home and the contrasting Sanders apartment, with flashbacks to the party. Black screens of different shapes and sizes close at various speeds like camera shutters in between scenes. It’s a superb design by Bunny Christie, but it really slows down the pace and you seem to be looking at black space too much of the time, with just a soundscape for company, making it a lot less thrilling than it should be. It was one of those occasions when the middle of the front row was pole position, though I suspect others, particularly front left, will have found some of the sightlines challenging.

The acting style is very film noir with lines ending in mid-air as rhetorical questions or speculative statements, with a few laughs, occasionally seeming a touch tongue-in-cheek. The performances are all good, particularly Mark Strong as Don and Elizabeth Debicki as Mona.

It’s good to see this rarely staged genre at the NT and all of the components are first class – writing, design, performance and staging – but I’m afraid they don’t add up to more than the parts, so it’s only a partial success for me.

 

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David Hare’s new play is about an art form I love and institution I loathe. The birth of Glyndeborne. It does come after a 26 day theatrical famine and a 36 day absence from London theatre, so perhaps that helped me enjoy it despite that – oh, and a brilliant performance from Roger Allam.

John Christie was clearly a true British eccentric. His plan for a 300-seat opera house on his Sussex country estate was more than a bit bonkers. When you add that he wanted it to stage Wagner, apparently with a full cast but only a string quartet and organ, even more insane. He persuaded two German pre-war exiles (though one was actually of Irish and Polish descent) and an Austrian to fulfil his ambition, though they persuaded him to start more modestly and appropriately with Mozart and to hand over much control (on condition his wife Audrey, the moderate soprano of the title, played Susanna in Figaro). Audrey was very much his muse, his visionary partner and his moderator.

It’s good subject matter, but Hare has focused so much on the role of Christie, who has all the best lines, that it comes out imbalanced, with other characters much less well developed. In the middle of a series of short scenes over just 100 minutes, there is a much longer central scene where the German’s provide background to their exile. Despite the importance of this background, it’s overlong relative to the rest of the piece. The time-hopping away from the core period wasn’t always clear enough too. There’s much to enjoy in the play, particularly it’s humour and its central character, but it is flawed and I was left feeling it could be developed into a better one.

What makes it unmissable is the central performance of Roger Allam as Christie, a very likeable character whose eccentricity charms the socks off you in Alam’s characterisation. I thought Paul Jesson was excellent too as the imported Musical Director Fritz Busch, but the part of Christie’s wife Audrey was underwritten so even an actress as good as Nancy Carroll had too little to work with. The same applies to Nick Sampson’s Carl Ebert and George Taylor’s Rudolf Bing (who went on to run The Met), both doing very well with what they had.

As much as I enjoyed it, and Jeremy Herrin’s staging and Rae Smith’s design both serve it well, it felt more like work-in-progress than the finished article. I also felt it might make a better TV play than a stage one. Worth a visit nonetheless.

 

 

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Even though its four months before Rufus Norris takes the helm at the NT, this may well be a sign of things to come. Though playwright David Hare has had 17 plays at the NT, everything else about this production seems to be saying ‘new broom’. It’s also the best in-house production in the Olivier since Norris’ Amen Corner last year.

Hare has adapted the reportage of Katherine Boo, who spent three years regularly visiting the shanty town of Annawadi at Mumbai airport and published their story as non-fiction in the book of the same name. This mostly Muslim community is screened from visitors, business people and the Indian middle-class by barriers, on some of which posters advertise ‘Beautiful Forevers’, whatever that is / they are. The play centres on three strong women, who between them represent life in these slums. Zehrunisa Husain’s family have become relatively wealthy by collecting rubbish, thanks to son Abdul, the best sorter, and his friend Sunil, the best collector. Asha is the local fixer – the ‘go to’ woman who, for money, can make things happen. Fatima Shaikh, who has lost one leg, sells her body in the afternoons to keep her family. These are the people you don’t see if you visit India. The government tries hard to hide or remove them. The police and other officials exploit them. Upwardly mobile Indians, benefitting from globalisation, ignore them, a bi-product and consequence of this globalisation.

This community is a microcosm of a society with unwritten rules and norms. There is much conflict between them as they strive to better themselves and better their peers. The conflict between The Husain’s and Fatima reaches a new level when Fatima sets herself alight and blames them, but she has gone too far and, with health standards as they are, does not survive. Three Husain’s end up accused and we’re then propelled into the world of hospital cover-ups, police corruption and judicial incompetence. At the same time, Sunil crosses the line from collection to theft, a world occupied by another group of very violent men, yet another society within a society.

There’s a great epic sweep to the story and Norris’ staging, with design by Katrina Lindsay, makes great use of the Olivier stage and its resources. Occasionally, scene changes slow down a well-paced production, but the overall impact is captivating. It’s very inventively done, with the rubbish centre stage and brilliant recreation of the planes landing. Sunil’s climbs and walks over the metal gantry took my breath away more than once. When Time Out reviewed Norris’ Death & the King’s Horseman on the same stage five years back, they said ‘if you’re a black actor and you’re not in this, get a new agent’. One could say something similar about this, a fine ensemble of 23 British Asian actors. The three matriarchs – Meera Syal, Stephanie Street & Thusitha Jayasundera – are all excellent, but its Hiran Abeysekera as Sunil and Shane Zaza as Abdul who steal your heart with two natural and very moving characterisations.

The play makes you think a lot about the real consequences of escalating economic change, particularly in the so-called BRIC countries, but it does so by telling the true story of real people unwittingly caught up in it. This is great theatre and hopefully an example of what’s to come at the NT.

 

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Contemporary Music

In Laura Muvla‘s late night Prom she performed the whole of her one and only album, Sing to the Moon, with an orchestra and choir. Some of the arrangements were a bit overcooked, smothering the lovely songs a bit, but overall it was a success as the writing and singing shone through. The sound was great and the audience even more quiet and attentive than most classical Proms. Now we need a new album, Laura.

Anything Goes at Cadogan Hall was anything but another one of those song compilation shows. First it was Cole Porter and the 50th anniversary of his passing. Second, it was musical theatre royalty with Maria Friedman, Clive Rowe, Jenna Russell & Graham Bickley all at the top of their game, with obvious chemistry, mutual respect and friendship. It was great to see the Royal Academy of Music MTC Chorus given a chance to work with such musical theatre icons and with a band as good as the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra under Richard Balcome. You rarely hear musical theatre songs played this well, and the winds and brass were positively glorious.

Opera

A return to Opera Holland Park after a few years to see an early 20th century  relative rarity by Francesco Cilea, Adriana Lecouvreur. My enjoyment of the first half was badly hampered by a full-on view of the conductor and not a lot else – a relatively expensive restricted view front row seat that wasn’t sold as restricted view! The highlight of the evening was the fantastic orchestra under said conductor, Manlio Benzi. There was some good (rather than great) singing and the updated production just about pulled it off. Sadly, OHP seems to be turning into a London version of those country house operas – rising prices, conspicuous corporate hospitality, dressing up…..if they introduce long picnic intervals, the transformation will be complete!

Classical Music

I don’t often go to piano recitals, then when I do I ask myself why?! A visit to Oxfordshire included one by John Lill at Christ Church Cathedral and I thoroughly enjoyed it. In a great programme of Mozart, Schumann, Brahms and Beethoven, the Schumann and Beethoven shone and the venue was a real bonus.

My first proper Prom of 2014 was an all-English affair, with three works from Vaughan Williams and a real rarity from someone I’ve never heard of – William Alwyn. Alwyn’s 1st Symphony isn’t brilliant, but it’s good enough and not worthy of such neglect (like the rest of his work). By contrast, The Lark Ascending is by all accounts the most popular classical work and here it was beautifully played by Janine Jansen. The gung-ho Wasps Overture and rarer Job ballet suite made up an excellent programme conducted by the BBC SO’s new chief conductor Sakari Oramo, whose enthusiasm and joy were infectious.

The next Prom was named Lest We Forget and it was a melancholy but very beautiful affair, featuring four composers, one German, who fought in the First World War, three never coming back. Two were completely new to me (the German, Rudi Stephan, was getting his Proms debut and Australian Brit Frederick Kelly is rarely performed). George Butterworth‘s song cycle A Shropshire Lad was sung beautifully by Roderick Williams and the BBC Scottish SO under Andrew Manze played all four pieces wonderfully. Vaughan Williams Pastoral Symphony (with tenor Allan Clayton, instead of the more usual soprano) has never sounded better. The loss of three talented composers was very sad, but it was a lovely tribute.

My final Prom for 2014 saw Andrew Davies back where he belongs and he chose a terrific programme of Strauss (R), Elgar & Berlioz to show off his great new band, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, who got a great welcome from the Proms audience. Music by German  British & French composers spanning 89 years, an Australian orchestra & a Norwegian cellist & a British conductor and an audience of real music lovers – that’s what I like about the Proms.

Cabaret

Celia Imrie’s show Laughing Matters at St James Studio was a quirky and sometimes surreal affair. Songs accompanied by a pianist and drummer (I wish I knew who wrote them), monologues and anecdotes and two male assistants! It ended with a panto-style sing-along complete with song sheet, with the cast dressed as sailors and the audience in sailor hats emblazoned with ‘R.M.S. Celia’! She can’t really sing, the show had a certain amateurishness about it, but her charm won you over and made you smile – a lot.

Film

I was lured to The Inbetweeners 2 by rave reviews (4* in The Times!) and even though it was fun, it was like watching a triple episode of the TV series with big screen technicolour projectile vomiting. A peculiarly British take on gross-out teen comedy.

Positive reviews also lured me to Guardians of the Galaxy (another 4* in The Times), but it was no time at all before I was bored with the banal story and just watched the 3D effects, but they became relentlessly repetitive too. There were some nice tongue-in-cheek touches, but I’m now wondering why I stayed.

I refused to pay Sonia Freidman’s obscene prices for Skylight in the West End but I eventually succumbed to the ‘encore’ of the live cinema transmission. Carey Mulligan proves to be an exceptional stage actor and Bill Nighy has lost none of his charisma. The 19-year-old play seemed bang up-to-date and the interval interview with Hare was a bonus. I’d have loved to see Bob Crowley’s brilliant set live, but hey it came over as a great production and I thoroughly enjoyed my first NT Live experience, even though it wasn’t the NT and it wasn’t live!

Art

I think I’m going to have to stop going to the Saatchi Gallery as, yet again, only a small fraction of what was on show appealed. This time it was Abstract America Today upstairs and Pangaea: New Art from Africa & Latin America downstairs. When the best room has walls covered with giant insects, you know you’re in trouble.

I’m not a fan of fashion and if I’d had to pay I probably wouldn’t have gone, but The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier at the Barbican was great fun and extremely well curated with a nice tongue-in-cheek touch (some of the dummies had holographic talking heads!). Whatever you think of his clothes, you have to accept that he has a colossal imagination.

No less than three exhibitions for an afternoon at the Royal Academy. The Summer Exhibition never changes but it’s an important institution and it’s always worth a visit. The highlights this year were the model of Thomas Hetherwick’s garden bridge (I can’t wait to see it built) and a couple of hilarious Glenn Baxter cartoons. Upstairs, Radical Geometry is an exhibition of 20th Century South American art which you’d never know was South American if it wasn’t billed as such. It’s well executed but they are very derivative abstract, geometric works. Interesting, but…..Round the back, Dennis Hopper: The Lost Album is a very personal record of six years in the sixties which would never be seen if the photographer wasn’t a famous film actor / director. Interesting, but…..

In just six years the Travel Photography Awards exhibition at the Royal Geographic Society has become so popular that my usual amble through it has become a scrum, partly because I left it until the final day I suspect. It was hard to get close enough to what seemed like a less impressive collection this year. Down the road at the V &A Disobedient Objects is an original, fascinating and wide-ranging look at items associated with protest, including banners, posters and even vehicles. Well done, V&A!

The British Library Comics Unmasked exhibition was a frustrating affair – low lighting combined with small print labels, but above all lots of nerds stooped over the exhibits reading every word of every cartoon and monopolising them. Again I was probably hampered by catching it on its last day, but it could have been curated so much better. The Enduring War exhibition, part of the WWI commemorations, was a lovely unexpected bonus which I enjoyed more!

The Photographers Gallery continues to be an essential regular visit and this time it was a fascinating exhibition tracing colour in Russian photography over 120 years. It proved to be a social and political history as well as a photographic history. At the entrance, they currently have a video wall which shows how a couple of Germans mined Facebook for images then put them on a spoof dating site with categorisations based on the images. It includes the victims comments, TV coverage and the legal threats they received. Clever, fascinating but spooky! I shall brush over the other exhibition – still life photos (and installations including them) of decaying fruit from Ridley Road market!

The first few rooms of the Malecvich exhibition at Tate Modern are spectacular – bright, colourful, original paintings of people and landscapes with a geometric spin. Then he goes all dull and abstract before returning to his earlier style. Frankly, it would be a better exhibition if it was ‘The early and late works of…’ and reduced from 12 rooms to 6!

There was some great stuff to see around town this month; two WWI tributes – the moving sea of poppies at the Tower of London, spectra – the lights illuminating the sky from Victoria Embankment Gardens – and this year’s Serpentine Pavilion, like a spaceship which has landed. Up in Gateshead, Daniel Buren created glorious colourful spaces in Baltic by covering the windows and skylights with coloured panels and placing large mirrors on the gallery floor. A real regional treat.

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