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Posts Tagged ‘Elliott Cowan’

Anne Washburn is an original and interesting playwright, but after a third exposure to her work, this juror’s still out on whether she’s a good one.

Jools & Jim have invited five friends to their new remote country home. They’re not experienced in country living and they’re not particularly good hosts, so as the weather deteriorates and the power is cut off, their supplies run out. They don’t run out of conversation, though, as they reflect on life in Trump’s divided America and how they got there. These are the liberal Americans – a wealthy gay couple, New York lawyers Andrew & Yusuf, a struggling straight, somewhat alternative couple, Richard & Laurie, and singleton Allie. The conversation widens to all sorts of apparently related subjects including the Jonestown massacre, racism & colonialism and Lord of the Rings!

We’re occasionally visited by Mark, the adopted black son of white parents who appear to be the former inhabitants of the house, who tells us his story. We also get a meeting between Trump and George W Bush as president, and towards the end a surreal version of that infamous confrontation between Trump and FBI chief Corney. There’s an awful lot of ground covered but at almost 3.5 hours it didn’t sustain its length (there were a conspicuous number of empty seats after the interval). Often thought-provoking and fitfully gripping, it was too much of a ramble, wordy and undramatic, lacking coherence, a download of thoughts and ideas, trying to say so much that more became less.

It’s staged in the round, in a design by Miriam Buether which has a partly revolving stage and a platform against the back wall on which there are projections. There was one row of audience sitting in chairs close to the stage as if at a dinner table, who participated in the surreal scene. There are lovely performances from Justine Mitchell, Fisayo Akinade, Adam James, Elliott Cowan, Tara Fitzgerald, Khalid Abdalla, Raquel Cassidy and Risteard Cooper, but these and Rupert Goold’s production are a lot better than the material.

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I am astonished that this is the UK premiere of this third Lorraine Hansbury play, unfinished when she died prematurely of cancer at 34, completed by her ex-husband, Robert Nemiroff, soon afterwards. It seems to me a masterpiece of 20th century American drama, but somehow we’ve had to wait forty years to find out – though part of me is pleased it’s waited for Yael Farber to give it such an extraordinary production.

Set in an unnamed African country, it moves between the home and hospital set up by Scandinavian missionaries and the village of the Matoseh family. Tshwmbe Matoseh has been living in Europe and visiting the US, lobbying for his country’s independence. He’s married a European and had a child with her. He returns to visit his sick father but he’s too late, except for the funeral. His brother Abioseh has stayed at home and, influenced by the missionaries, is about to become a priest, ‘one of them’. Their mixed race half-brother Eric is badly damaged by the consequences of his parentage in this society.

The colonial power is represented by Major Rice, who is trying to deal with an uprising which is escalating daily. The missionary minister is away, but his blind aged wife is at home with doctors from the hospital and a visiting American journalist, who observes and comments on events. The whites call the freedom fighters terrorists and are shocked when they learn some are in their own adopted communities.

The play looks at the situation from all angles as well as drawing parallels with civil rights in the US at the same time, in electrifying scenes between Danny Sapani as Tshembe Matoshe and Elliott Cowan as journalist Charlie Morris, two wonderfully passionate performances. In addition to commenting on colonialism, it looks at the differing attitudes of the indigenous people and the motivation of settlers, missionaries and medical staff – they appear well-meaning but they are not universally welcome, and being in the front line bear the brunt of the revolutionary anger, however benevolent and defenceless.

Yael Farber’s epic staging makes great use of the Olivier stage, often bathed in the beautiful bright light of Africa by Tim Lutkin. Soutra Gilmour’s simple impressionistic mission hospital building revolves on a sand covered stage, moving us to different parts, with the unadorned tribal home laid out stage front. A gentle soundscape by Adam Cork, wonderful music from a quartet of African Matriarchs and a silent semi-naked woman who seems omnipresent, moving slowly across the stage, all combine to create an evocative African atmosphere.

In addition to Sapani and Cowan, there is a superb, dignified performance from Sian Phillips – wonderful to see her continue to do such great work at this stage of her career. Clive Francis’ sends a shiver up your spine with a brilliant characterisation of The Major. I’ve seen Gary Beadle before, but here he’s a revelation, and unrecognisable, as Abioseh. Tunji Kasim beautifully captures the complexity of Eric, whose dead mother was very close to Madame Neilsen and whose father is shockingly revealed to us towards the end. It’s a terrific ensemble.

Like Mies Julie and The Crucible before, Yael Farber has again produced an enthralling, captivating and deeply moving production which burns an impression on you which I suspect will last a long long time. It must be seen!

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When I first saw this play, in a production by Peter Hall c.15 years ago, it fizzed; so much so that I went back to see it again when it returned to London after an extensive tour. It seemed to me to be so much better than the play most consider his best – The Importance of Being Ernest. For reasons I cannot fathom, in Lindsay Posner’s production the first half is ponderously slow – one of the longest ‘set up’s’ I can remember – whilst the second half zips along.

Oscar Wilde’s play may be 115 years old but if you ignore the settings and costumes, its thoroughly modern – unlike contemporaries like Chekhov or Ibsen, it has hardly aged. The story is rather timely – a corrupt act in the past comes back to haunt a rising star politician. The morals of the case are explored as the events unfold, but with Wilde’s usual sharp wit, satirising the upper classes along the way.

Stephen Brimson-Lewis’ opulent gold set becomes three different rooms in the same house and with the insertion of a simple green wall transforms into a room in another house. With superb period costumes, it looks gorgeous and seems to me to capture the time and the society of the protagonists perfectly.

What makes this revival is brilliant casting. Samantha Bond is a suitably icy Mrs Cheveley, Rachel Sterling (looking mote like her mother than she ever has before) a moralistic Lady Chiltern and Alexander Hanson a somewhat ernest archetypal politician with an ability to change his stance and rationalise it seamlessly.  The star of the show though is Elliott Cowan’s Viscount Goring, a brilliant and witty creation in full flight, and there are lovely cameos from Charles Kay, Caroline Blakiston and Fiona Button.

Such a shame the first two acts didn’t have the pace of the second two, but worth a look nonetheless.

 

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