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Posts Tagged ‘Es Devlin’

It’s rare to be so emotionally engaged with a play whilst at the same time kept on the edge of your seat as the story unfolds. This quietly devastating piece is rich in drama, staged and performed to perfection.

We’re in a small community in rural Denmark. Lucas has been teaching at the primary school for a term, since the secondary school closed. His wife has left him, heading for the city with their teenage son Marcus. Lucas is well integrated in the local community, though, with strong friendships amongst his neighbours and with the men at his hunting lodge, until an accusation of inappropriate behaviour at the school changes everyone’s attitudes and perceptions and his life begins to fall apart. The positives of this idyllic, liberal, tight community turn very negative very quickly.

The suspense gives it the aesthetic of a thriller, the presumption of guilt means you’re rooting for Lucas, and it becomes an emotional roller-coaster. Rupert Goold’s gripping production, on Es Devlin’s very Scandic set, uses music to great effect, including the impressive vocal talents of Adrian der Gregorian. The small revolving house at the centre becomes classroom, lodge, home, with scenes played inside and outside looking in. I haven’t seen the film by Thomas Vinterberg & Tobias Lindholm, but David Farr’s adaptation doesn’t put a foot wrong.

Tobias Menzies’ restrained central performance as Lucas is a career high for this fine actor. Justin Salinger and Poppy Miller are brilliant as his close friends in a troubled relationship. In a superb supporting ensemble, Danny Kirrane as Gunner and Stuart Campbell as Marcus shine. Then there are two extraordinary child actors and dog Max, as restrained as his master.

A very satisfying evening in the theatre that I haven’t stopped thinking about since I left it.

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Irish playwright Brian Friel wrote something like 30 plays and adaptations in 45 years from the early 60’s. A handful have been revived fairly regularly, becoming classics. This is the second London revival of the summer, following the highly successful Translations at the NT. Sadly this rather Chekhovian play, written just one year earlier in 1979, is a lot less successful.

Though the story is the same, this isn’t the play I remember seeing at Hampstead Theatre in 1988 or the NT in 2005, and I’m struggling to understand why. Here the Irish ‘big house’ is represented by a faded backdrop and a model around which the action takes place in a shallow pit, with actors waiting at the back until they take part. I found Es Devlin’s design and Lyndsey Turner’s staging a bit puzzling.

The family is gathered for youngest daughter Claire’s wedding to a much older man, who we never meet. Casimir has come from Hamburg where he now lives with his wife and two boys. Alice and her husband Eamon are over from London. Judith runs the home, looking after their father, Uncle George and Claire, though she’d clearly like to be somewhere else with Willie. American historian Tom is visiting as part of the research into his latest project.

Nothing much happens in the first two acts, which is my main problem with it. Claire plays Chopin, encouraged by Casimir, sexually ambiguous, who tells implausible stories. Eamon and Alice, who seems to be the subject of abuse, spar. Willie makes himself useful; fixing intercom speakers so they can hear father’s confused ramblings downstairs. By the interval, I was frankly rather bored.

They make up for it in the final act, where their father’s funeral has usurped the wedding, which is to be delayed for three months. They try and resolve what is to happen to the house, and to Uncle George. Eamon and Alice are to return to London, taking the uncle with them. Casimir is heading back to his family in Germany. Judith wants rid of the liability the house has become so that she can at last live her own life. In a fine cast, David Dawson shines as Casimir, banishing the memory of Niall Buggy and Andrew Scott, who played the role before him.

This time around, I found it dull, uneven and poorly paced, a bit like my bete noire Chekhov!

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Previous productions of this play, by Italian playwright Stefano Massini, have lasted five hours and had huge casts. Ben Power’s adaptation has a playing time of just under three hours, and director Sam Mendes has chosen to use just three actors to tell this epic story spanning 175 years. An inspired idea which delivers a captivating story of a dynasty, but also the history of capitalism and immigration to the USA.

The Lehman brothers are the sons of a German Jewish cattle merchant, the first brother Henry arriving in the US in 1844, Emanuel and Mayer following in the subsequent six years. Their business starts as a general store in Montgomery, Alabama, before they become cotton traders. After Henry dies, they move to New York City, where they expand into coffee trading, invest in railways and the Panama Canal, and eventually everything from airlines, cigarettes, films & armaments to banking.

It was not until 1965 that they move into trading investments, the business that killed them in 2008, something that the 1857, 1873 and 1929 financial crises, the American Civil War, two world wars and 9/11 didn’t. By then, there were no Lehman brothers left in the business that kept their name, the last dying in 1969. In the previous 125 years, six brothers from three generations had led the business, two for sixty years each.

Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles and Adam Godley remain in the cloths in which they arrive in the mid-eighteenth century, but all play multiple roles of all generations & ages and both sexes absolutely brilliantly. It all takes place in Es Devlin’s glass-walled offices, representing where the company meets its demise in 2008, which revolve in front of a giant screen on which Luke Hall projects locations. The 2008 box files are used to create everything from shop counters to steps. It’s all in monochrome. Mendes’ staging is simple, enthralling storytelling, with the role-switching lightening it, providing some very funny moments. Live piano accompaniment at the side of the stage is also inspired, and brilliantly played by Candida Caldicot.

It all combines to create a wonderful unmissable theatrical feast.

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A play about the use of virtual reality to relieve severe pain in injured war veterans doesn’t sound particularly promising, but by including the personal stories of one veteran and her family and friends, and given a superb production by Indhu Rubasingham, it becomes rather captivating.

Jess is the protagonist in Lindsey Ferrintino’s play. She returns to her Florida home from Afghanistan with massive injuries, disfiguration and severe disability. The VR therapy she undertakes does reduce the pain significantly, by taking her to a calming mountainscape. She lives with her sister Kacie, a primary school teacher, in their mom’s house – she’s in some sort of home. Kacie has a new boyfriend Kelvin, a bit of a loser, courtesy of her ‘dream board’ it seems. Jess bumps into her ex Stevie and we learn that her third (voluntary) tour of duty causes their break-up. Though Jess’ world and her story is the core of the piece, the other three very different world’s revolve around it and connect with it, with a fourth added towards the end. Significantly, it’s set nearby and at the time of the final shuttle launch.

I loved Es Devlin’s design, with Luke Halls’ brilliant projections. When we’re in the real world, we can also see out to the environment around us. The virtual world is wrapped around the stage, revolving and evolving. Kate Fleetwood as Jess in on stage throughout and it’s a virtuoso performance, with the audience wincing as she feels her pain. Olivia Darnley captures the charming naivity of the almost childlike Kacie. I also very much liked the characterisations of Kelvin and Stevie by Kris Marshall and Ralf Little respectively.

I think the performances and production paper over the cracks in what seemed like an unfinished play, a touch slight to be on a major stage like the Lyttleton, but it’s an original piece, there was much to enjoy, it held me throughout and I was glad I caught it. 

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Penelope Skinner’s new play explores ‘body fascism’ through the life of Linda, a successful, award winning businesswoman. Though it takes a while to take off, and it didn’t quite sustain its 2h 40m length, it’s a worthwhile play exploring an important subject in a very interesting way.

Linda is Marketing Director for a cosmetics company and she’s responsible for making them global players and taking them in a new direction with anti-ageing products. Her boss and colleagues revere her and she’s happily married with two daughters. Then her life begins to fall apart. Her husband has a brief fling with a much younger girl. An ambitious and somewhat Machiavellian employee sets her up for an indiscretion and subsequently ensures it goes viral, just like she did for her daughter when they were both at school. Within this narrative there is a lot of stuff about attitudes to the female body, ageing and the way women are treated in comparison to men.  I felt some of the message was a touch heavy-handed and the play a shade melodramatic in tone, but enjoyable nonetheless.

Es Devlin has created another of her extraordinary designs, this time a multi-level revolving white structure which sits in a pool of water and contains multiple rooms at home and office. I think it’s meant to symbolise the company’s name – Swan – whose motto is ‘Changing the world, one girl at a time’. The all pervading muzak and bright glitzy corporate look are just as cringe-worthy as the motto. This design has given director Michael Longhurst full reign for an imaginative staging which gets dramatically expressionistic towards the end.

Linda is a big part and Noma Dumezweni only had a week to learn it. She sometimes refers to pieces of script, but this hardy distracts as she carries them like normal documents at work and home. It’s a Herculean task which she pulls off with great style to give a fine performance. I was also impressed by Amy Beth Hayes ice cool turn as her nemesis Amy.

Though it has its flaws, it’s amongst the best of the Court’s recent crop of new main house plays.

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For what its worth, these are my thoughts to add to the trillion column inches this production has already generated……

I’ve never left the theatre feeling quite so relieved. Not because of the play, but because the whole bloody Sonia Friedman Hamlet Experience was at last over. From the ticket mania (where Barbican members like me played second fiddle to ATG & Friedman followers), through the thirteen months of hype to the (p)reviews, press reports of poor audience behaviour, patronising Barbican emails telling me to bring photo ID and behave myself (I’m a 60-something who goes to the theatre 3 or 4 times a week for gods sake), to the ‘Hamlet Shop’ and its £8.50 programmes and the post-interval policing by ushers trying to be assertive but too meek to pull it off, this was never going to be a normal ‘buy ticket-wait-ignore reviews-turn up-make up your own mind’ theatre experience. I actually feel sorry for Benedict Cumberbatch trying to do his job in the middle of all this, and oh how I hate what Sonia Friedman is doing to London theatre.

Es Devlin must have been given a humongous design budget. Elsinore is amazing, but with dubious sight lines making my £65 view restricted! In the second half it’s invaded by ‘stuff’ but I’m not sure why. Still, with costumes by Katrina Lindsay, it looks spectacular. In addition to a very good performance from the man in the goldfish bowl, there are fine performances from Anastasia Hille as Gertrude, Ciaran Hinds as Claudius and Karl Johnson as the ghost; in fact, it’s a fine ensemble and, to his credit, Benedict Cumberbatch plays it like the good company man he’s always been. Lyndsay Turner has some original ideas, most of which worked and none of them offended me (that line has by now returned to its proper place). I particularly liked her take on Hamlet’s madness, a touch madcap and manic. The audience was amongst the quietest, most attentive I’ve ever sat in. The problem with it for me is that I didn’t engage with it emotionally at all. That may be my mood, missing curtain up for the first time in an age courtesy of the Northern Line, or the cumulative effect of the hype (I hadn’t been looking forward to it as much as I should have) but it’s at least in part the production, which wants to be big in every sense, at the expense of psychological depth and emotion.

It’s a pity he didn’t make his return to the stage at the NT, Donmar or Almeida, like many of his fellow ‘star’ actors. Fewer people would have seen him, but he and the audience would have had a truer theatrical experience. C’est la vie. At least (for me) it’s over!

 

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I was cursing the education system at the interval of this play last night. I studied history for 4 years, for things then called O & A levels, and all we covered was the 125 years between 1814 and 1939. I was also cursing not reading the programme before the start. In my view, this 1976 Caryl Churchill play about mid 17th century English history needs, or at least benefits from, some prior knowledge.

It was clearly a fascinating period, the closest England came to revolution (a century before the French!). Charles I grabbed absolute power, provoking a thirty year period of unrest and civil wars until the establishment of the constitutional monarchy which still survives. Just the names of the groups involved makes you smile – in addition to the Roundheads and Cavaliers, we had the Ranters, Diggers, Levellers and the New Model Army! More recent history plays, like last year’s James plays, present historical events in a much more accessible way than this, though, which is very 70’s and very wordy, in a G B Shaw way. Too much of it is people talking direct to the audience and the endless debates about who’s side god would be on, though historically accurate I’m sure, just muddied it all for me.

Director Lyndsey Turner has added 40 or so ‘extras’ to the 18 strong cast (and it is strong, with actors like Leo Bill, Daniel Flynn, Alan Williams, Steffan Rhodri, Joe Caffrey and Amanda Lawrence in relatively small roles) which gives it an epic sweep. Es Devlin’s brilliant design starts as a giant banquet, before becoming a bare wooden stage, the boards then removed to reveal the earth. The audience wasn’t considered enough, though, as the sight lines (well, at the front of the stalls, at least) are dreadful. Soutra Gilmour, more usually a sole design credit, provides excellent costumes.

Notwithstanding my lack of preparation, I think we’ve become used to history presented more clearly and lucidly, so despite a spectacular production, I suspect it’s impact 40 years on has been watered down significantly.

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