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Posts Tagged ‘Hildegard Bechtler’

This play was made for a stage like the Olivier and Simon Godwin’s excellent production, superbly designed by Hildegard Bechtler, makes great use of the space. Add in a set of great performances and you have a fine A&C.

It’s modern dress but feels timeless. They make great use of the revolve and drum to create some strikingly different settings from Rome to Alexandria and at sea. It starts tentatively, but when it gets into its stride it’s captivating, with the political & military and the relationships given equal attention and sitting comfortable together. Intimate scenes between Anthony and Cleopatra and battle scenes at sea and on land both work superbly, and Michael Bruce’s music adds much to the atmosphere.

Sophie Okonedo’s Cleopatra is very much in control, feisty and determined, but palpably in love with her man. She shows us many facets of Cleopatra in a passionate performance which swept me away. Ralph Fiennes has great presence as Anthony and also shows us a multi-faceted character who’s clearly torn between his loyalty to Rome and his love of Cleopatra, and when he’s with her he behaves like he’s the luckiest man in the world. There are so many fine performances around them that it’s impossible to mention them all; an excellent ensemble indeed.

When you have a bit of a Shakespeare habit, as I do, it’s rare to see something as fresh as this. Terrific.

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There’s a real frisson at the beginning of this play, as a coin is spun to determine which of the two leading ladies, in similar modern dress and hairstyles, will play Mary Stuart and which will play Elizabeth I. The rest of the cast then bow to the chosen Queen Elizabeth I and the play begins. We’ve had role-swapping before, like Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein at the NT, though as far as I know none determined quite like this (assuming that it is).

Schiller’s 1800 play revolves around a meeting between the two Queens at Fotheringay, which never actually took place. Mary is imprisoned and requests a meeting to plead her case for release. It’s a tense psychological and emotional encounter, though it results in nothing. Elizabeth is advised that releasing Mary would be a great threat. From here, it evolves into a thriller about the proposed execution of Mary and who is responsible. This adaptation / production takes a more feminist stance, implying that both women were being manipulated by the men around them; an entirely plausible and fascinating theory.

Director Robert Icke has written this adaptation, which is some 50 minutes longer than the Donmar’s eleven years ago. The problem with it is that it takes way too long, around eighty minutes, to get to the pivotal meeting and I found this first part ever so slow, and frankly a bit dull. When we do get to Fotheringay, it’s a riveting ride through to a brilliant ending, but it risks losing the audience before it gets there. You also have to swallow some implausibilities, like the story unfolding in just twenty-four hours, despite the fact it’s locations are 80 miles apart, the brazen and, it seemed to me, unlikely sexual advances Mortimer makes to Mary and Leicester to Elizabeth and the existence of a female ordained catholic in the sixteenth century, or now come to think of it. I do wish he’d got someone to help with or edit the adaptation.

The performances, though, are stunning. On the night I went, Juliet Stevenson was a passionate, defiant Mary and Lia Williams a charismatic, assertive Elizabeth; both brilliant. There’s terrific support from John Light as the duplicitous Leicester, Rudi Dharmalingam as Mortimer, a character Schiller invented, besotted with Mary, Vincent Franklin as the devious Burleigh and Alan Williams in the more sympathetic role of Talbot. It’s set on a round platform that sometimes revolves, with additional side seating to make it almost in-the-round. There’s another of Robert Icke’s trademark soundscapes, this time including tunes by Laura Marling no less. It’s in modern dress, and I found the simplicity of Hildegard Bechtler’s design enabled you to concentrate on the story and the dialogue, well, when it took off.

A fascinating piece of historical fiction that is beautifully staged and performed, but about 45 minutes too long.

 

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Another occasion where the critical reception lowered my expectations so that the experience exceeded them. Alexi Kaye Campbell’s play is a lot better than I was led to believe.

It’s set on the Greek island of Skiathos in 1967, just as the coup which installed the Colonels is about to happen. We’re on holiday with budding British playwright Theo and his actress wife Charlotte. They’ve befriended / been befriended by an American couple in a local bar and they invite them over to their rented house. It’s an unlikely friendship, with an even more unlikely sexual tension between Harvey and Charlotte. Harvey is on leave from his US government posting in Athens with his wife June, who is a bit of a dumb blonde caricature, overly fond of the booze. Harvey is a highly persuasive control freak and by the end of the evening, he’s persuaded Theo & Charlotte to buy the villa for a song from it’s owners, who are about to emigrate to Australia.

In the second act, we move forward nine years. Greece has recently returned to democracy. Harvey is a successful playwright and he and Charlotte now have two children. The Americans have been posted to Chile, but are briefly back in Athens en route to Zaire (spot the pattern here?). They visit for a few days and we learn more of the bidding Harvey does for his government to keep communism at bay, and the guilt he carries, but the Brits have reason to be guilty too, albeit on a smaller scale. Their relationships disintegrate. Underneath the personal stories, we explore the ethics of power – big countries clandestinely dominating small ones and little people exploited by bigger people. Nothing changes, of course, and Greece today suffers the same, albeit economically.

Hildegard Bechtler has built a brilliant two-story whitewashed house on a rocky promontory; it’s very imposing in the Dorfman space. I was very impressed by Ben Miles as Harvey, particularly his American accent (well, to this British ear), forceful and larger than life. Elizabeth McGovern’s June was a bit too much of a stereotype for me, though very funny. Pippa Nixon is excellent as Charlotte, initially submissive but eventually defiant, and Sam Crane is very good at navigating Theo’s more complex journey. Characters seemed to have their backs to a significant chunk of the audience much of the time, but otherwise Simon Godwin’s direction was good.

An underrated play with a particularly good set of performances and a fine production.

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Plays usually cross the Atlantic with ease, but I’m not sure this one has. It’s set on a US college campus, somewhere that’s so uniquely American that it effectively distances a non-American audience; well me, anyway. The subject matter of Christopher Shinn’s play should engage and impassion, but it left me rather cold.

It doesn’t revolve around the the title character, but around openly gay Gabe, moving between his somewhat complicated personal life and college life for the LGBT community. Gabe has recently started a relationship with Drew, who writes for the college rag. His best friend Tim, outgoing student president, is (apparently) straight. Tim and his girlfriend Jenny and Drew’s black gay colleague Nicky are involved in Gabe and Drew’s relationship in surprising and not always plausible ways. 

Teddy Ferrara and disabled gay Jay enter Gabe’s life as leader of the college LGBT society, the former wanting someone to talk to and the latter wanting a relationship. As the college president hosts the first meeting of a group set up in response to the college’s diversity committee, Drew’s paper publishes speculation that a recent suicide victim was gay, suggesting gay campus life might be difficult. Teddy Ferrara discovers his room-mate is streaming his casual sex with partners picked up on the internet and his suicide soon follows.

Even though the setting is uniquely American, Shinn’s play, like Neil LaBute’s, are cynically un-American and his characters manipulative and self-centred, even the victims. There’s a lot of story, the issues are relevant and important, but its all very slow and unengaging I’m afraid. I didn’t really care about anyone, which makes it hard to care about the issues. It left me cold.

There are some fine performances, particularly from Mathew Marsh as the clumsy college president and would-be senator, Ryan McPartland in the title role and Pamela Nomvete as lecturer Emma. The accents are uniformly excellent. Hildegard Bechtler’s design is as cold and clinical as the play and Dominic Cooke’s staging lacks pace.

I think it would have worked a lot better if it had been relocated to the UK and shortened by twenty minutes. As it is, a disappointment for me.

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On Thursday 20th February, I appear to have seen a different show than the one reviewed by the critics. None of them mentioned that Lesley Sharp overacts mercilessly, turning Helen into a caricature of the person Shelagh Delaney wrote, with Kate O’Flynn coming dangerously close to challenging her for the OTT title as the play progressed. She has either diverted from Bijan Sheibani’s direction (the same appeared to happen when I saw The Rise & Fall of Little Voice) or Shebani has decided to send up a 50’s British classic. Frankly, I thought it was a travesty unworthy of a National stage. Carry On Up North.

Written by a very young Delaney in 1958 and produced and directed by Joan Littlewood at the Theatre Royal Stratford East, this was as much of a landmark show as John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger. Brassy barmaid Helen is a shit mother, more interested in her men than her daughter Jo, who is perilously close to following in her footsteps. Helen marries Peter and leaves Jo, now pregnant by a black sailor, to fend for herself in their seedy flat. Art student Geoff befriends Jo and moves in to look after her, until Helen returns professing maternal feelings to hide the fact that Peter has thrown her out.

Hildegard Bechtler’s enormous set is a bit over-engineered for a five-hander virtually set in one room, but it looks authentic. The men appear to be in a different play, with more restrained performances in keeping with the period location and story, particularly Harry Hepple who hits the spot perfectly with his interpretation of Geoff in the second half. If Sharp and O’Flynn were performing as Sheibani intended, this disrespects the memory of both Delaney and Littlewood; if they have veered away from his intentions, it’s just as disrespectful but also unprofessional.

I’ve been disappointed by Sheibani’s work at the NT before – Our Class, Greenland, Damned for Despair – and I’m beginning to wonder why he warrants such prominence in the NT programming. I think I will have to shall steer clear in future because I’m not sure I can stomach such misguided directorial arrogance which Is common at the opera (where they don’t really care what dead composers intended) but less so at the theatre. The mute applause last night suggested I’m not alone.

You have been warned!

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Perhaps this should be called ‘Waiting for Ronnie’, as we spend almost three hours doing so. Not a lot happens and, until the last few minutes, it seems to be a ‘slice of life’ play, but in the end Arnold Wesker makes his points. Along the way, though, it’s a masterclass in staging and acting.

Beatie is the youngest of the Bryant’s four daughters. They are Norfolk farm labourers, struggling to make a living but happy with their lot. Beatie returns home from London with her fancy ways and fancy ideas for a two-week holiday. Her socialist boyfriend of three years, Ronnie, with whom she is besotted, will follow, to meet the family for the first time. She spends the first couple of days with sister Jenny and her husband Jimmy, before arriving at her parents home where in Act Three they all assemble (apart from sister Susan, who has fallen out with her mother) for tea with Ronnie.

It’s beautifully staged by James Macdonald on an evocative 50’s set of two kitchens and a parlour by Hildegard Bechtler. It’s full of meaningful pauses, but not in a menacing Pinteresqe way! There isn’t a weak link in the casting, with the ladies shining most. It revolves around Jessica Raine’s Beatie and she invests her with passion and naivety in equal measure. Linda Bassett is simply marvellous as Mrs Bryant, resigned to her lot but still restless. Sisters Jenny and Pearl are beautifully played by Lisa Ellis and Emma Stansfield.

At the conclusion Beatie proves she is her own woman, emerging from the influence of Ronnie with a passionate speech of hope and hopelessness. The play doesn’t go very far, but I enjoyed the ride greatly.

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Pinero’s 1898 play is about the theatre and theatre folk at a time of transition from the mannered to the naturalistic. Though I saw the 1994 NT production, I can hardly remember it. I suspect it will now return to my mental theatrical archive even more quickly.

The play opens as her fellow (presumably Sadler’s Wells) actors bid farewell to Rose Trelawny, who is giving up theatre for a life with new love Arthur Gower, initially living with his grandfather Sir William Gower and his Great Aunt Trafalgar(!) in Cavendish Square. She misses the theatre and her theatre friends so much, she escapes and returns to the theatre, despite her love for Arthur. Sadly, her pining gets in the way of her acting and she’s soon confined to bit parts and then sacked. Fellow actors Tom (sometime playwright) and Imogen (aspiring theatre manager) plot to reunite the lovers by opening up a disused theatre to stage Tom’s play starring both of the lovers.

Director Joe Wright has got himself a fine design (Hildegard Bechtler) and a fine company. For some reason, he then decides it’s really a panto, as a result of which there’s more ham than in a fully stocked pork butcher. To make matters worse, the style varies between characters / actors and through the play. Some get away with it most of the time (Ron Cook cleverly doubling as Sir William and theatrical digs landlady Mrs Mossop), some get away with it some of the time (Daniel Mays as camp actor Ferdinand), some get away with it in one of their roles (Jamie Beamish as Ablett, but not as O’Dwyer) and some don’t get away with it at all ( Aimee-Ffion Edwards as Avonia).

Clearly, the play would have meant more in its day, but it’s difficult to see the point of reviving it (yet again at Josie Rourke’s Donmar). If you’re going to, though, why bury the context of a theatre in transition in an eton mess of acting styles? A misfire for Wright’s high-profile theatrical debut and again for this (former?) powerhouse.

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