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Posts Tagged ‘Henrik Ibsen’

The first time I saw Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, on the same Olivier stage almost 30 years ago, it was so slow and turgid we decided an earlier dinner would be preferable to the second half. We’d finished our meal before the rest of the audience left the theatre, rather pleased with ourselves. I felt a bit like that at the first interval of this version by David Hare ‘after Henrik Ibsen’, but there were enough moments in Jonathan Kent’s production to send me back and see it through. It’s overlong and uneven, but there is much to enjoy.

Peter is Scottish, from Dunoon, and that’s where the story starts when he returns from a war, though not to a hero’s welcome. His girlfriend is about to get married to someone else and just about everyone, including his mother, sees him for the pathological liar and fantasist he is. It’s a while before he starts his journey (too long), first to meet the mountain king in the land of the trolls, who have selfish ways and intentions. From here, we find him at his golf course in Florida (yes!) a businessman with fingers in lots of pies, but a Frenchman, Icelander & Russian woman wipe him out. On to North Africa and the Middle East to make mischief and money before returning home to discover his legacy and destiny.

It’s a good time to revive it, in a world full of self-obsession, ego and greed, and Hare’s updating often works well. Amongst the highlights are the mountain king scene, Florida, at sea and the final scene, but it’s crying out for some editing to provide more focus and improve its pacing. Peter is a hugely challenging part, but James McArdle rises to it with a towering performance, often commanding the stage alone. Richard Hudson’s design sometime fills the stage thrillingly (the scene at sea) but other scenes seem lost on this vast stage. There’s great use of music, with particularly fine vocals from Tamsin Carroll.

It’s heading to the Edinburgh Festival (hence the Scottish setting?) where I suspect the somewhat conservative ladies from Morningside will go beyond their customary tut-tutting and vote with their feet, as quite a few did in an already sparse audience on Wednesday. I’m glad I didn’t, though, but I do wish they’d had the nerve to trim it to improve it; it’s not too difficult to see where that would be possible. In this form, only a partial success.

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Samual Adamson’s examination of sexuality and marriage from the late 50’s to the present day uses Ibsen’s play The Dolls House, and its main character Nora, as it’s starting point and it’s both clever and intelligent.

We start in 1959, backstage after a performance of the play when Suzannah, the actress playing Nora, is visited by an acquaintance and her boorish husband Robert. It soon becomes clear that Daisy and Suzannah are much more than acquaintances, but also that Daisy is pregnant. In subsequent scenes we meet a descendent of Daisy & Robert at two points in their life, thirty and sixty years later, with encounters with different Nora’s / Suzannah’s at each point. There’s a nod to the future, but its not particularly well developed.

In effect, we’re moving from marriage as cover story to partial same sex legality (not age or marriage) to the equality we have today. To say more would be to spoil it, but I loved its cleverness and humour. There are great performances from all six actors, who play fourteen roles between them. Richard Kent has kept the design simple to facilitate speedy scene changes within acts and Indhu Rubasingham’s direction seems totally in tune with the material.

The clever structure and humour could have swamped the serious historical examination, but it doesn’t. It added much to making it such a satisfying evening.

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This 1950 adaptation of Ibsen by Arthur Miller came midway between All My Sons & Death Of A Salesman and The Crucible & A View From A Bridge, an extraordinarily productive and successful eight years for Miller, fired up by the McCarthy trials. It’s rarely produced these days, so Phil Willmott’s revival at the Union Theatre is very welcome, and as it turns out very timely.

Miller didn’t change much, just gave it contemporary relevance 68 years later and Willmott has done the same another 68 years on. The small town of Kirsten Springs is in the process of building a spa resort. Town doctor Thomas Stockmann has been following up patterns of illness by having the water tested and he’s ready to go public, with the local newspaper on his side. It will delay and increase the cost of the project and when his sister the Mayor gets wind of it she points out how much damage it will do to the town and how much extra tax the people will have to cough up. The newspaper withdraws its support so Stockmann calls a public meeting, which is hijacked by the mayor and newspaper in cahoots. He becomes an enemy of the people, with consequences to his family’s safety, job loss, eviction and blackmail from the mayor, the newspaper and even his father-in-law, but not everyone can be bought.

It proves to be absolutely timeless, resonating in our current political climate where finding anyone with principles is like finding a needle in a haystack and where fake news rules. The production has great pace and passion. They even manage to make the public meeting rousing with just nine actors and some recorded crowd noise. It’s an excellent ensemble led by terrific performances from David Mildon as Stockman and Mary Stewart as his sister The Mayor. Willmott has breathed new life into it as he did to The Incident at Vichy two years ago. An absolute must for Miller fans and strongly recommended for anyone who likes gripping drama.

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Robert Icke, the master of reinvention, is at it again. After Greek Tragedy, Shakespeare, Chekov and Schiller, it’s now Ibsen. Good to report that at the other end, out comes a play that feels contemporary, faithful to Ibsen’s story, with overt parallels with the playwright’s own life. I haven’t liked all of his reinventions, but I did like this one.

The Woods family business is destroyed by senior employee Francis Ekdal, who goes to prison as a result. Charles Woods, though, financially supports Ekdal’s son James and his wife Gina & daughter Helga, and even Francis Ekdal on his release. When estranged son Gregory Woods, a very good friend of James, returns he decides to reveal Gina’s secret, which begins a series of events which ends in tragedy. Gregory’s intentions may have been good, but the consequences far from it, as the world of the Ekdal family collapses.

We’ve lost five characters, mostly ‘staff’ who wouldn’t fit the modern setting. The Werle’s have become the Woods, and some forenames have been changed. The most radical change is the addition of narration and commentary about truth, lies and Ibsen’s life, by characters who they pick up a microphone to talk direct to the audience. We start with a bare stage, which acquires some furniture and props as we go along, but it remains minimalist, though there is a bit of a design coup d’theatre at the end.

Though puzzling at the outset, it does draw you in and becomes much more dramatic than vanilla Ibsen, helped by a superb set of performances from a fine cast. Clever stuff.

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As I’ve got older, I’ve warmed to Ibsen’s plays. I now realise how much they were ahead of their time and how important they were to the development of modern drama. Elinor Cook’s adaptation moves this one forward in time and relocates it to the Caribbean and it comes up fresh, full of relevance and contemporary resonance.

Ellida, the ‘lady’ of the title, was the lighthouse keeper’s daughter who lost her father and came inland to marry the older, widowed Doctor Wangel. He has two teenage daughters with differing views on the match. Ellida loses a child and becomes unsettled. Wangel sends for her friend (and his daughter Bolette’s ex tutor) Arnholm and an old flame of Ellida returns too. She is torn between returning to the sea with him or staying with Wangel, and Bolette has to decide if she stays or marries Arnholm.

It’s a very modern, even feminist story and the change of time and place suits it well as it adds another dimension without smothering it. Kwame Kwei-Armah’s staging is delicate and nuanced. He gets fine performances from his cast, with particularly enjoyable ones from Jonny Holden as fragile artist Lyngstrand and Ellie Bamber as daughter Hilde, capturing teenage frankness perfectly. Tom Scutt’s impressionistic design, beautifully lit by Lee Curran, is gorgeous.

A lovely evening.

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At the end of this play I was convinced Partick Marber’s ‘version’ was substantially different to Ibsen’s original. Then I read the synopsis and discovered it wasn’t. It’s contemporary not just in setting and dress, but also in dialogue and behaviour. The only thing that jarred with the contemporary was the guns, but even that wouldn’t have in the US. The combination of Marber, director Ivo van Hove and the mesmerising Ruth Wilson proves irresistible.

The newly married Tesmans return from honeymoon to their new home, which does indeed look as if they’re in the process of moving in. It doesn’t take long before we realise it’s a loveless marriage (well, at least on Hedda’s part) and the contrast between the coldness of George & Hedda’s relationship and the warmth of the relationship between George and his aunt Juliana, who brought him up, is striking. Lovborg, George’s former colleague, now competitor, was once in love with Hedda and is now in a relationship with her school friend Thea. Brack, a judge, is in lust with Hedda. Despite the fact Lovborg has cleared the way for Tesman’s professorship, Hedda still spikes his career in loyalty to her husband, and his relationship with Thea, perhaps through jealousy. The knowledge that Brack has a hold on her propels the play to its tragic conclusion.

It feels slow at first but when it gets going it becomes broodingly intense and eventually feels like a contemporary Scandinavian thriller. The vast one-room set adds to this atmosphere and there is some striking imagery, not least the way the light changes from dawn to sunrise through the French windows and the physicality of Hedda stapling flowers to the walls and virtually attacking the blinds. There were things I didn’t really get, most notably the continual presence of maid Berte, even illogically acknowledging her presence; she wasn’t an actor sitting on the side-lines but she wasn’t a character all of the time. It’s hard to take your eyes off Ruth Wilson, even when action and interactions are elsewhere; she is such a spellbinding presence. That said, it’s a fantastic cast with Kyle Soller’s earnest but naïve George and a very maternal Juliana from Kate Duchene. Brack’s sexual chemistry with Hedda was brilliantly conveyed by Rafe Spall and Chukwudi Iwuji was passionate and intense as Lovborg.

Patrick Marber gets more than his fair share of the National stages, but it’s great to see them welcoming world class directors like van Hove and Yael Farber. If I had seen it in 2016, this would have been one of my candidates for Best Revival of a Play, a completely fresh look at a playwright who is often produced like a museum piece.

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Ibsen is the second most performed playwright in the world (no guessing who’s first) but this late play is one of his least performed. In Richard Eyre’s new version, it’s a devastating but brilliant eighty minutes. I left the theatre emotionally drained.

Alfred and Rita’s relationship is very rocky. Rita feels Alfred’s sister Asta and their son Eyolf somehow come between them. Alfred comes back from a spot of self-imposed solitude determined to devote more time and energy to Eyolf, but before he even begins the boy drowns and all three adults, plus Bjarne who is desperately wooing Asta, are plunged into deep grief during which the complex web of their relationships unravels.

It packs so much into eighty minutes and doesn’t feel anything like a 120-year-old play. It has great psychological depth and unfolds like a thriller. The intimacy of the Almeida increases the intensity of the drama whilst Tim Hatley’s elegantly, simple design (with superb projections by Jon Driscoll, beautiful lighting by Peter Mumford and an atmospheric soundscape by John Leonard) provides a window to the world around them.

Though I’ve seen all of the actors before, they blew me away last night, especially Lydia Leonard and Eve Ponsonby as Rita and Asta respectively, who invested so much emotional energy into their performances.

I’ve only seen the play once before but this definitive production was a revelation, placing it up there with Ibsen’s masterpieces. Unmissable. 

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