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Posts Tagged ‘Douglas Henshall’

The Lyttelton has been turned into a TV News Studio, with a control room and make-up & meeting rooms. There’s also a fully functioning restaurant on stage, with kitchen behind, where audience members are served and eat a full meal during the play (the clatter of cutlery as they did was occasionally irritating!) and where several scenes take place. It’s one of the best uses of this vast space ever; a brilliant design by Jan Versweyveld.

It’s more than forty years since the film on which this is based was made, but you’d never know it, even though Lee Hall’s adaptation of Paddy Chayefsky’s screenplay remains in the 70’s. It may be timeless, well it’s certainly found its time now, in a world of fake news and wholesale disaffection, even though we’ve now also got news from the internet and social media. I thought it was thrilling and timely.

Howard Beale is a long standing news anchor who appears to have a meltdown on air. The fictional NBS network’s initial reaction is to dump him, until they realise there is mileage, and money, in having someone madly prophetic on TV. He continues to plough his own furrow, at all odds, whilst engaging with the world around him, even turning against his paymasters.

American actor Bryan Cranston is best known for his screen work, only making his Broadway debut a few years back. He has terrific presence and is as good as Howard Beale on stage as Peter Finch was on film. He’s surrounded by a high quality supporting cast, notably Douglas Henshall as his friend and protector Max, Michelle Dockery as bright young producer Diana and Tunji Kasim as the company CEO.

van Hove uses his trademark live video again, this time for scenes in partially obscured spaces, outside the building, and for close-ups in the studio and the restaurant. There’s a big screen centre stage and a strip screen high up, right along the three sides. The last two of his productions worried me, that he was becoming a master of reinvention, but with this he regains his place as the master of invention with a production that’s technically hugely accomplished but also serves the material well, making it resonate once more in a new age.

After the curtain calls there was historical video footage on the big screen which resulted in cheers and boos from the exiting audience and, in a life-imitates-art moment as it ended, there were loud cries of ‘I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore’! Unmissable.

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The story of the English Civil War, and in particular Charles I’s trail and execution, seemed like an excellent subject for playwright Howard Brenton who has had such success with both recent history (Macmillan in ‘Never So Good’) and history of the same period (‘Anne Boleyn’) but I’m afraid this play doesn’t really stand up to either.

The action is concentrated into a small period leading up to, during and after the trial and into a limited number of locations so it doesn’t have the epic scale the events perhaps deserve. It also doesn’t have the depth of both story and characterisation that the subject deserves; it felt like he had a great idea but got a bit bored with it before he was through.

The first half is particularly slow, though things do pick up in the trial scenes in Act II. There is, however, something uneven about the evening and it could do with a lot more pace. This is unusual for director Howard Davies who’s always seemed to me to be the master of pace.

I’m not sure it gained much from the traverse staging (and those in the first couple of rows on both sides would probably say it lost a lot for them in the trail scenes as they appeared to be looking at the backs of the parliamentarians) or indeed Ashley Martin-Davies’ design. The idea to dress everyone in modern dress except Charles is a bit puzzling and everyone and everything in black and grey made for a somewhat drab experience.

Mark Gatiss is perfectly good as Charles (though I understand he’s about a foot too tall if you want to be historically accurate!) and Douglas Henshall is fine as Cromwell. In fact, there’s nothing wrong with the performances, though none excited me.

Perhaps I was expecting too much, but I left the theatre feeling very indifferent about the play and the production, I’m afraid.

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