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Posts Tagged ‘David Harrower’

This is the most famous of Muriel Spark’s twenty-two novels, her 6th, published in 1961, which was on stage within five years, on film within eight and a TV series ten years after that. Last seen on stage in London twenty years ago, at the National’s Lyttelton Theatre in a production by Phyllida Lloyd starring Fiona Shaw, this is a new version by Scottish playwright David Harrower. Though he’s done a lot of adaptations, he seemed an odd choice, but as it turns out he’s taken an interesting, fresh look.

Set in the thirties in a private girls school in Edinburgh, teacher Jean Brodie’s determination to teach her girls about life sets her on a collision course with Miss Mackay’s strict adherence to the curriculum. She treats them like friends, telling them about her relationships and her experiences, inviting them to her home. They are more like followers than pupils. At first it all seems mildly subversive and rather charming, until you realise how much control she exerts, her attempts to make choices for and mould her girls, not forgetting her fascist leanings. There is a dalliance with married art teacher Mr Lloyd and a long relationship with music teacher Mr Lowther, whose proposal she spurns. She is eventually betrayed and is forced to leave the school. It’s often very funny, but at times it’s sinister and dark too.

It’s told partly in flashback from post-war scenes where one of the girls, who went to Oxford and published a memoir, is interviewed by a journalist just before she enters a convent, and I’m not sure this worked that well or if was really necessary in telling the story. They’ve put in a middle aisle and swapped the front two rows of the stalls for wooden school chairs, which I’m also not sure is entirely necessary. They’ve gone to a lot of trouble to create a partly glazed back wall and ceiling, yet Lizzie Clachan’s design still seems to be missing something. I did love the use of bells, though, which emphasise both the school setting and the period.

If you need only one reason to see Polly Findlay’s revival it’s Lia Williams brilliant performance. She makes the role her own, delightful in her opinionated rebelliousness but ultimately transformed into a tragic figure. I’ve long admired her work, but this is a career high. In a fine supporting cast, Rona Morrison is terrific as Sandy, who sees the negatives in Brodie’s approach, and Sylvestra Le Touzel provides the contrasting sternness of Miss Mackay.

Good to see it on stage again, and warmly recommended.

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I was wondering why I couldn’t remember anything (except earth) about David Harrower’s first play, the premiere of which I saw twenty-two years ago, then after I saw this revival at the Donmar, I realised that it was the stage equivalent of an impressionist painting – more about the setting and atmosphere it creates than the story it tells.

We’re in medieval times, though the period and location are no more specific; rural north England, perhaps. A nameless young woman lives with Pony William, the local ploughman, who doesn’t have a lot to say and whose intimacy is confined to perfunctory and speedy sex. When she takes their grain to Gilbert Horn, the miller, for processing, the attraction seems to be more than just sexual. He’s a reader and a writer and she is interested in the world this opens up to her.

I can see why director Yael Farber was attracted to it as it suits her visual style. Designer Soutra Gilmour, with help from Tim Lutkin’s striking lighting and Isobel Waller-Bridge & Christopher Shutt’s brooding music and sound combine to create something earthy and sensuous within which we get a limited amount of narrative but a lot of atmosphere. As much as I loved the visual imagery, I did feel it was light on story. The three performances are excellent – Judith Roddy, torn between Christian Cooke as strong, silent Pony William and Matt Ryan as strong, more cerebral Gilbert Horn.

It holds your attention for an unbroken ninety minutes, its sometimes mesmerising, and it leaves you feeling you’ve travelled back to peek voyeuristically into this medieval world, but I’m not sure its the modern classic some claim.

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What with travelling and theatre catch-up as a consequence, April was a lean month for anything else.

Opera

My first visit to The Globe’s new Sam Wanamaker Playhouse was to an opera rather than a play. It’s a gorgeous, intimate venue and it suited Cavali’s L’Ormindo perfectly. The production was lovely, with terrific costumes, a great ensemble under Christian Curnyn and some fantastic singing. Singers popped up all over the place – in a gallery or in the pit, from under the stage or descending from ‘the heavens’. I doubt I’ll have more fun at the opera this year, or for much longer than that.

Through His Teeth at the Linbury Studio was a fascinating short opera by Luke Bedford and playwright David Harrower about a woman preyed on by a conman. Short scenes of her experiences were framed by the filming of a documentary after his imprisonment. There were some first night glitches, but it was an original subject for opera and it was staged with great tension.

Pop Up Opera took Bizet’s early one-acter Le Docteur Miracle and added a Pearl Fishers prologue and a trio of pieces from Carmen as an encore to make a delightful evening. Really well sung, with just piano accompaniment, it was an absolute hoot. This particular venue was called The Department Store and was billed as a disused one, though it turned out to be a space in a block of craft studios next to a railway line in Dalston! A company to watch.

Dance

I was a touch disappointed by the Royal Ballet’s The Winter’s Tale. It looked gorgeous and the music was good, but I didn’t really take to the choreographic style and the middle act was one of those full of show dances that added little to the storytelling and broke up the dramatic flow. Two long intervals also slowed down the drama, with gaps amounting to a third of the running time.

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A shortened visit this year, to facilitate a ‘pit-stop’ back in London before I travel the Silk Road from Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan to Beijing! So, anything that I can see in London is automatically excluded – there still isn’t enough time, of course.

We started well with a new adaptation (from the Stephen King novella, rather than the film) of The Shawshank Redemption (****). It was well adapted by comedians Owen O’Neill & Dave Johns and the cast was also largely made up of comedians, led by Omid Djalili. In 100 unbroken minutes, it managed to bring out both the hopelessness of prison life and the depth of the friendship at its core. Simply staged (though elaborate for the fringe!) with five two-story metal towers and a handful of benches, with a brooding soundtrack, it packed quite a punch.

In a contrast typical of Edinburgh, we followed this with a concert from favourite Scottish folkie Karine Polwart (*****). I’d seen her with others but not doing her own show and it was a delight. She may be a folkie, but all of her songs are originals (except for a welcome tribute to another Scottish favourite Michael Marra, who died this year) and gorgeous they are, with backing by acoustic guitar and ‘percussion’. The Queens Hall was the perfect venue, with acoustics and atmosphere worthy of her talents.

Day Two saw me back at ‘second home’ The Traverse Theatre for the Abbey Theatre’s Quietly (****), where a catholic and a protestant meet in a pub during a Northern Ireland v Poland football international 36 years after one had killed the other’s father in a pub bombing during a similar match. It was a thought-provoking and original dissection of ‘the troubles’ at a psychological level and the addition of a Polish barman added a contemporary twist.

After the now customary & mandatory visit to the International Photographic Exhibition (**** – but too many contrived, posed, stylised unnatural shots this year), the afternoon saw me in a stationary minibus with 13 others and a storyteller telling us about his recreation of one of  his granddad’s jaunts to Cape Wrath (***)  in the far north of Scotland. It shouldn’t have worked, but it did and proved to be a charming hour.

I’d heard good  things about the National Theatre of Wales new show, The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning (*****), but I wasn’t really ready for how good. It reminded me of the National Theatre of Scotland’s Black Watch – thrillingly theatrical, tackling something about as topical and relevant as its possible to be. It’s a fascinating real life story with a Welsh connection and I was captivated from beginning to end. NTW continues to lead the way.

The common feature of my favourite living artists – Howard Hodgkin, David Hockney – seems to be colour, and Peter Doig is another. His Edinburgh exhibition (****) is bigger than his relatively recent Tate one, and though some of the 36 paintings were at both, there was much new here – plus lots of sketches, prints and posters – and the NGS (former RSA) space was perfect, allowing them to breathe and enabling you to get enough distance from them.

Things took a dip after this with a play called Making News (**) about a scandal at the BBC. It was underwritten and under-rehearsed, with lots of dull patches between a few big laughs. This was another of those companies of comedians, but this lot couldn’t act so well – particularly Suki Webster, who was as wooden as an entire forest. The dip continued for John Godber’s Losing the Plot (**), a play about the mid-life crisis which was a touch implausible and with too many short scenes between long gaps for it to flow well. Not even Corrie’s Eddie Windass could rescue it! When I first came to Edinburgh in the mid-80’s, Godber’s work for Hull Truck (Up n’ Under, Bouncers, Shakers, Teechers…..) was compulsory viewing. I think I should have stuck with my memories.

Things picked up again when we boarded the coach Leaving Planet Earth (****), space ‘jumping’ to New Earth just before we got to the extraordinary Edinburgh International Climbing Arena. The pre-emails asking us for our pledges and for objects for the Old Earth Museum had made me a bit cautious and sceptical and it took a while for the narrative to settle, but when it did, I found the story of our exodus from our dying planet engaging and thought-provoking. Promenading to different scenes over four floors of this amazing venue, Grid Iron’s main festival show was a technical and logistical marvel and the venue truly was a star.

Our first (and last!) dose of classical music kick-started Tuesday with a wonderful, and wonderfully different, Queens Hall recital by a 13-piece (mostly) woodwind (inc. horn!) ensemble called Nachtmusique (****). The programme was entirely Mozart with pieces for various combinations of instruments ending in a 45 minute piece for the whole ensemble. Gorgeous!

What can one say about Coriolanus (***) in Mandarin with two on-stage heavy metal bands called Miserable Faith and Suffocated?! It was a bit gimmicky, but it just about worked in telling the story of the revenge of the scorned man. When the actors were allowed to get on with it unencumbered, they were great, though the acting of the large ensemble was somewhat ragged, with particularly wimpy fighting, making me speculate that they had been recruited locally (later proved correct). The surtitles were often odd, as if they used google translate back from the Mandarin translation, and oddly paced in that they didn’t always keep up! Still, good to welcome another overseas theatre company to give us their take on The Bard.

A few wee exhibitions (see, gone native) to start my final day, but none really excited. Conde Nast Photos (***) were good if you like your photos highly stylised, obsessively posed & very contrived, but I overdosed a bit on it all. The City Arts Centre’s companion exhibition Dressed to Impress (***.5) showcased dress in Scottish painting through history and was a bit more satisfying, with a few real gems. Across the road in the Fruitmarket Gallery, Gabriel Orozco (**) was all circles – too many circles!

David Harrower’s Ciara (***.5) is a monologue which I wouldn’t have booked if I’d known it was a monologue, but I was glad I did as it was extremely well written and performed brilliantly by Blythe Duff! We followed this with my final show – I’m With The Band (***.5) – about a band called The Union splitting up, a metaphor for – you guessed it – the union that is the UK. It was clever and the characterisations were very good, but it was a bit heavy-handed.

A 3.5* final day in a  4* festival. With a wimpy 12 shows in 5 days, will I be alllowed to return???

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Somehow, using the title Public Enemy rather than the usual Enemy of the People for an adaptation of Ibsen’s 130-year-old play makes a difference to a modern audience. Playwright & adapter David Harrower has moved it forward c.100 years. Designer Miriam Buether has built a bloody great big Norwegian chalet. Director Richard Jones has applied his extraordinary imagination……and there you have it – a bang up-to-date morality play.

A Norwegian coastal town (with its own smart new logo!) has begun to exploit its spa waters and built fancy new baths. Medical Advisor Thomas Stockmann discovers the waters are toxic and potentially lethal and when he has proof he sends his report to the Mayor, his employer and his brother, which sets him on a collision course with him and the community, and eventually with his wife and father.

The campaigning local paper and the leader of local small business support him and he is convinced the community will do so too, but when the full implications and costs are realised they all turn and the cover-up begins. In the fourth act, the audience becomes the community at a public meeting and issues of truth and morality are debated and politicians, the press and even democracy itself come under scrutiny.

Similar issues have become commonplace in recent years (we are confronted daily with the dubious morals of politicians, business, the media….well, just about everyone!) which makes the play contemporary and topical. In its day, it was a response to the reaction to his earlier play Ghosts. Arthur Miller’s 1950’s adaptation took on a new meaning. Here it comes alive again as a fresh play for our times.

The width of the stage is sometimes challenging and it is a little stilted at the outset, but it soon gets into its stride and it packs a lot of punch in just 100 minutes. A very welcome revival and adaptation and another feather in the Young Vic’s feather-covered cap!

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Ubercreative director Richard Jones’ latest makeover is Gogol’s 19th century farcical satire on Russian corruption, where an entire town ingratiates itself with what it believes to be a government inspector.

David Harrower’s version certainly makes it fresh, with some great dialogue which doesn’t jar at all with the setting and period. Miriam Buether has re-configured the Young Vic again with a wider than wide and deeper than deep stage, though I’m not sure why they have to go to the expense of building false walls at the sides of the auditorium. It’s size and shape does, though, add to the surreal quality of the proceedings, as do Nicky Gillibrand’s extraordinary costumes. Amongst the many clever coups, we have running rats, helium balloons seemingly turning up from nowhere and walking through walls. I could have done without the turd, though.

When it’s motoring, it’s great, but it sometimes lags – particularly in the first half – and some of the monologues outlive their welcome; this makes the pacing uneven and detracts from the undoubted success of the adaptation and staging. Julian Barrett is fine as the mayor, though he seems a little unsure of himself at times, which isn’t entirely in keeping with the character. Doon Mackichan is excellent as the mayor’s wife, helped by a series of panto dame costumes and French pretensions. Amanda Lawrence gives us another spectacular cameo as the postmaster, complete with false moustache and belly! It’s Kyle Soller’s tour de force as Khlestakov that steals the show, though, developing from a man who got lucky to an exploitive, manipulative monster.

If they tightened up the first half, this would be a cracker; though there’s much to admire and enjoy as it is and the Young Vic continues its role as an indispensable populist theatre.

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The Young Vic has pulled off another coup by getting Swiss director Luc Bondy again; he’s a world-class figure whose productions people in most European countries would be queuing up for; not London, of course!

This is an excellent adaptation of an Arthur Schnitzler play by David Harrower, whose Blackbird was a huge success in both London and Edinburgh a few years back. Two soldiers party with two girls when they are interrupted by a man who challenges one of the soldiers to a duel as he’s discovered his wife has been having an affair with him. In the second half we move to the life of the offending soldiers’ girlfriend, her father, friend and neighbour before and after the duel.

It isn’t the play itself that engages you as much as it’s unpredictability, brooding atmosphere and sexual tension. There’s a terrific physicality which draws you in like a voyeur and keeps you intrigued by the characters. The performances are uniformly fine, with a brilliant cameo from Hayley Carmichael as the busybody neighbour. 

I wasn’t sure I understood the point of all of the design / staging choices (which might mean they were seemless and effective!). High black back panels have been added to the Young Vic seats. There is a revolve, but it’s so slow it doesn’t complete one revolution in each half. There is a pit which is a kitchen in the first half and an orchestra pit in the second. In one short scene, the house lights are turned on. 

In the end, though, I was gripped by the intrigue, the sexual chemistry and the relationships. I almost gave it a miss – it was a visit I only planned at short notice – but I was very glad I didn’t.

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