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Posts Tagged ‘Debra Gillett’

We don’t see many Theatre of the Absurd plays these days (well, apart from Beckett, if you include him), and its an important part of the history of modern theatre, so it’s good to catch this one. Ionesco only wrote something like nine full-length plays, and four of them feature the character Berenger, three as some sort of everyman, but here as King Berenger, in the last 98 minutes if his life.

He’s lived for 483 years, but his kingdom is shrinking and crumbling and his health deteriorating. His household consists of two Queens, doctor, guard and servant. They encourage him to accept his fate, but he’s determined to hang on to life and power, which is how we spend the 98 minutes. Queen Marguerite (Indira Varma, lots of majestic presence and authority) is the realistic, stern one. Queen Marie (Amy Morgan, delightfully coquettish), his favourite, French, is much more flaky and emotional. The Doctor (the excellent Adrian Scarborough) is a somewhat offhand doom merchant. The very put-upon servant is forever clearing up (Debra Gillet, lovely) and the Guard (a rare appearance from Derek Griffiths) acts as a sort of MC, most of the time from his elevated position in the Throne Room.

Anthony Ward’s cartoonish design cleverly reduces the stage size by a back wall, and projects the action forward into the stalls with a carpeted platform. I don’t know if or how Patrick Marber’s adaptation differs (he also directs, again). It’s impossible to say what it is about because it’s not clear what it’s about, except coming to terms with death. You just need to go along for the ride, enjoy the fine acting, especially Rhys Ifans’ towering performance as The King, and add to your education in 20th century drama. Ionesco plays don’t come along that often (I’ve only seen two others), and it’s good to see this one at last. Just don’t ask me to explain it!

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As I get older I find myself seeing plays anchored in modern history that I’ve lived through, though with unreliable memories. This is another timely one, about the creation of the SDP as a reaction to a Labour lurch to the left on a tide of member activism with a policy of EU withdrawal and an unelectable leader. Who said history doesn’t repeat itself! To add an extra frisson, I saw it on the day Article 50 was invoked, something there will no doubt one day be a play about, but probably not in my lifetime.

It takes place the day after the Labour conference which cemented the lurch, in David Owen’s fashionable East End home (uber realistic design by Alex Eales). The gang of four, as they were known, are convened by Owen. His attempts to pick the others off one by one are rumbled and seen as manipulative and divisive. His American wife Debbie is key to toning down his excesses, which are clearly winding the others up. They struggle to make decisions under time pressures of their, well Owen’s, making, but they make it in the end, after the debate on alternative options leads them back to there being only one real option. Though the initiative failed in the end, it may in some way have paved the way for New Labour’s later successful bid for power from the same middle ground and the Lib Dems eventual entry into coalition. It lags a bit in the middle, with circular debates that go nowhere (which may be true, but don’t make good drama) and it doesn’t have the pace, energy or incisiveness of something like James Graham’s This House, but it’s a fascinating piece of history and way more timely that you could ever imagine.

Roger Allam is the only actor who doesn’t have the responsibility of playing a living figure. His Roy Jenkins, then President of the EU Commission, is uncanny. He’s very old school, a touch bumbling, with a penchant for expensive French wine. David Owen comes over as a somewhat unsympathetic character and Tom Goodman-Hill captures his ambition, passion and manoeuvring well. I loved Debra Gillett’s characterisation of Shirley Williams, the one everyone loves, and the less well-known Bill Rodgers is played by Paul Chahidi as a passive follower, very much in awe of Jenkins. If the play is to be believed, Debbie Owen had a considerable influence, both on her husband and the others, and Nathalie Armin conveys this very well.

I love seeing plays anchored in real events with real people and, like his previous play Temple about Occupy’ s effect on St. Pauls, Steve Waters particularly timely piece is very welcome indeed.

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This ‘version’ of Turgenev’s 1869 play is set over three days in mid-19th century Russia on the estate of Arkady and his wife Natalya and young son Kolya. Arkady’s mother Anna, her companion Lizaveta and Natalya’s ward Vera also live with them, but its a small family unit for the place and time. Turgenev was more of a novelist than a playwright (the only other piece of his I’ve known staged in modern times was actually adapted from a novel) and somehow it shows here; it felt at times like a reading.

The recent arrival of assistant tutor Belyaev seems to have worked wonders on Kolya, but caused havoc amongst the ladies as Vera, Natalya and maid Katya have all fallen for him. This puts a couple of noses out of joint – family friend Rakitin, who has carried a torch for Natalya for some time, and manservant Matvey, who loves Katya. Add in two sub-plots of neighbour Bolshintsov seeking to wed Vera and the doctor, Shpigelsky, proposing to Lizaveta (one of the highlights of the play) and you have a lot of love and relationships to unfold in three stage days (a month in Turgenev’s original), under two hours playing time, and it turns into an eighteenth century soap opera.

This is all played out in front of a giant painting (design Mark Thompson), the canvas of which appears to continue to cover the stage, ending in rough edging at the front. The wings are exposed and the actors often sit at the back and sides when not performing. There is some furniture, but it feels like a oversized space much of the time, perhaps intentionally, representing the vast estate.

The evening’s chief pleasure is a uniformly excellent cast, though they appear to have been directed to play in a less naturalistic, somewhat old-fashioned way. Amanda Drew is exceptional as Natalya, able to instantly convey passion and emotion. John Simm impresses in the role of Rakitin, unlike any other I’ve seen him in. Mark Gatiss provides much of the comedy as Shpigelsky, particularly in scenes with the superb Debra Gillett as his love interest. Though the role is a bit underwritten, John Light is great as Arkady and Royce Pierreson gives a fine performance in the pivotal role of Belyaev.

When a writer directs his own work, I worry where the creative tension will come from. Patrick Marber has directed three of his own plays here at the NT (though not The Red Lion, currently running next door https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2015/06/15/the-red-lion) but not his other two adaptations, both at the Donmar. I found the seated actors a bit passe, pointless and distracting and the I found the playing style a bit quirky, so I did leave wondering what another director would have made of the material, which was indeed well written. A more conventional period staging may have served it better.

It was a pleasant enough evening, and I enjoyed it more than The Red Lion, but it didn’t wow me and I left feeling that it was a bit unfair giving over two of the three NT stages at the same time to the same playwright for plays which may not be entirely worthy of them.

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