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Posts Tagged ‘Howard Davies’

You might not expect 100 minutes real time set entirely in a church office to be enthralling theatre, but it is. Steve Waters intelligent play about the dilemma facing the Dean of St. Paul’s when the Occupy protesters are driven to his church steps captivates from beginning to end and Simon Russell Beale gives us yet another master-class in acting.

The 100 minutes are those immediately before the church is re-opened for services after a two-week closure. The protesters had been driven there away from the target of their ire. The Corporation of London wants the Dean’s support in driving them away altogether by an injunction. The church hierarchy, through the Bishop of London, has no direct authority over St. Paul’s but still seeks to influence it. Some of the Dean’s senior staff feel strongly, at least one to the point of resignation. His PA has gone sick with stress and her cover is seemingly incompetent. The Dean is in an impossible situation and struggles to find a solution and to show leadership.

So much is covered in this short period of time. We learn of the special status of St. Paul’s and the history that puts it there. We see the differing views within the church, varying from logic to pragmatism to principled to passive. The debate that is played out covers the moral and ethical and the practical and expedient. Surrounded by those giving advice, The Dean is in a very lonely place. The Bishop makes it clear what the Archbishop wants, the City Lawyer uses her legalistic jargon to spell out where the Corporation sits. His staff think they know what Jesus would do and the PA proves to be wiser than it seemed at first.

Though its a fiction it feels very real and I kept wondering how much research Waters had done. Howard Davies direction is impeccable, allowing the writing and performances to shine, and Tim Hatley’s realistic design and the Donmar’s intimacy make you voyeurs peering into the room. Simon Russell Beale is perfect casting as the Dean, a very sympathetically written character, and he gives a beautiful, nuanced portrait of a man under pressure, on an emotional roller-coaster, struggling as his conscience and his brain battle within him.

I loved Malcolm Sinclair’s rather pompous Bishop of London who’d taken advice ‘from his communications people’ and was very much in tune with ‘the modern world’ and I thought Rebecca Humphries was superb as the PA Lizzie, moving from dippy temp to show wisdom and passion as she too tries to influence The Dean. There’s also a terrific cameo from Shereen Martin, who perfectly captures the legal eagle blinded by logic but so lacking in emotional intelligence that she would know a moral dilemma if she fell over one.

I was entranced by this gentle, often funny, thought-provoking play and have been reflecting on it ever since. A candidate for Best New Play I’d say. Off you go…..

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This brilliant new play by Tena Stivicic presents us with 66 years of Croatian history through the lives of one family and one house. From the creation of Yugoslavia to the eve of Croatia’s entry into the EU, through the turmoil of the late 90’s, this has a fascinating and enthralling epic sweep.

In 1945, Yugoslavia is being established as a union of Communist nations. Rose is well-connected and is given part of a large home taken from a wealthy family. She lives there with her husband, child and mother. One of the former occupants, Karolina, has lingered and when they find her they ‘adopt’ her.

In 1990 the union is breaking up and war raging between its nations. Rose’s daughter Masha and her husband Vlado are bringing up their daughters Lucia & Alisa in the house, with her parents and Karolina still living there. Two other families occupy other parts of the building and they are particularly close to neighbour Marko. Masha’s sister Dunya lives in Germany but visits to attend her mother Rose’s funeral.

In 2011 Croatia is contemplating joining another union, the European Union, and the debate rages. Alisa now lives on London, but comes home for Lucia’s wedding, as does Dunya and her husband from Germany. Lucia is marrying someone who has become rich in the new Croatia, where there are few rules and corruption is endemic.

You have to keep your wits about you as it hops from period to period, but you are deeply rewarded by a superb interweaving of political and personal history. The scene changes are themselves captivating, as screens slide and rooms and periods transform whilst projections cover them with period footage. Howard Davies direction and Tim Hatley’s design are masterly.

I’ve seen more of Siobhan Finneran’s TV work than her stage work and now I want to see more of the latter; she’s excellent as Masha. Adrian Rawlings plays her husband Vlado, a complex character, beautifully and Jodie McNee and Sophie Rundle spar brilliantly as the very different daughters who take a very different path, the latter getting a round of applause for a defiant speech towards the end of the play. Lucy Black and Daniel Flynn are well matched as Dunya and Karl, with a violent scene in their bedroom truly shocking. There’s luxury casting in the smaller roles, including Susan Engel and James Laurenson in fine form.

I’ve been interested in this part of the world for a while, have visited all seven former Yugoslav nations in the last nine years, and have been lucky enough to work in Croatia twice (the second time including the day of the EU referendum), but you don’t need to know much to enjoy this terrific play and terrific production (though getting there early enough to read the brief history in the programme would probably help). Only the National could stage this play and they’ve made a great job of it. Go!

 

 

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What an odd play. This 1928 Irish anti-war piece must have been very radical then. They declined to produce it in Ireland, so it was first seen London, though it was seen in Sean O’Casey’s home country seven years later. It seems to have divided people on both sides of the Irish Sea.

In the first of four acts, we’re in a Dublin home during the first world war, just before Harry is about to go to the front. Sylvester & Simon, whose relationship with each other and others was unclear to me, are engaging in japes and banter. The woman upstairs seems to be on the receiving end of some domestic abuse from husband Teddy, also about to head for the front. Susie is trying to convert everyone and Harry’s mum is anticipating and dreading his departure. Harry returns triumphant from the football match, holding the cup which gives the play it’s title, and the celebration begins.

We then have the most extraordinary transition to the war front as the set changes before your eyes, amidst explosions and gunfire that made me jump more than a few times, until we’re in a bombed out village in the field of battle. This second act is a completely different expressionistic picture of the horrors of war, told partly in song. The staging is brilliant, but it didn’t move me (well, apart from the jumps).

We start the second half in a hospital back home. Harry has returned injured and Teddy has returned blind. Somewhat inexplicably, Sylvester & Simon are also patients and now become a fully fledged comedy double-act. Nurse Susie is being pursued by the doctor, who flirts mercilessly and openly with her. We learn that Harry’s girlfriend is now being courted by his rescuer Barney, who has received the VC for doing so. In the final act, we’re back at another post-football celebration watching Harry as a broken man.

I think O’Casey was trying to contrast the lives of those who went to war and those who stayed behind, but this doesn’t seem to me a particularly effective way of conveying the tragedy of war. It fails to engage at all on an emotional level, which is its biggest failure. It’s just a puzzling curiosity which begs a lot of questions.

What you can’t fault though is Howard Davies stunning staging, Vicki Mortimer’s superb design and a fine cast who give it their all. Even though I didn’t ‘get it’, Aidan McArdle and Stephen Kennedy make a great comic partnership. Judith Roddy is superb as the feisty religious zealot, Aidan Kelly terrifies as violent Teddy and Aoife McMahon is excellent as his put upon wife.

I saw the Almeida revival of this 19 years ago, and Mark Anthony Turnage’s opera four years later, but I don’t remember thinking either were as odd as this. It seems to me now that it’s a great production of a play that’s full of incongruity.

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I have to confess I don’t know a lot about Indian independence and partition; the subject of this play. My school history studies ended in 1914 and my interest in ‘current affairs’ didn’t start until the 1960’s. Anything I know about everything that happened in between has come from TV, film and written historical reviews.

Howard Benton focuses on the five or six weeks leading up to partition and independence, when the British PM, Clement Attlee, sent a judge out to determine the borders between India & Pakistan. Cyril Radcliffe had never been to Asia let alone India and knew nothing about maps! The representatives which each interested party appointed to advise him were obviously partisan and somewhat immovable. Brenton speculates humourously that the only thing they would agree on is that ‘flushing’ is better than ‘blocking’ as a solution to Radcliffe’s sickness! The Viceroy, as the King’s representative rather than the government’s, could not and would not become involved. The contentious points were Kashmir, Calcutta and The Punjab.

Faced with a seemingly impossible task, Radcliffe’s decisions became a bit random, but he drew the line. Brenton contests that when he delivered his conclusion, Mountbatten (the Viceroy) pressurised him to change the outcome for The Punjab. He suggests that this was to save his marriage, as his wife had in fact put pressure on him – she was apparently having an affair with Nehru, Indian PM designate, who was the source of this pressure. The play ends at the point where the new Indian and Pakistani leaders address their respective independent nations, with a stunning coup d’theatre to suggest the immediate consequences.

Brenton has written some great historical plays in the last fifteen years, including Never So Good (about the Macmillan years), Anne Boleyn and The Arrest of Ai WeiWei and he says in a programme interview that he tries to be concise, to be a storyteller, with the action in the present, and I think he succeeds in that respect. He achieves a lot in under two hours playing time and though unable to go into great depth he does clarify and illuminate. Given the subject matter, it’s surprisingly light and easy to digest.

The tone of the play does however follow the populist, revisionist tendency to blame everything on the colonial power. He doesn’t give any airtime to alternative solutions, or to the possibility that there were no viable alternatives. Subsequent events, here and in other parts of the world, would suggest that this may well be the case. Colonialist-bashing isn’t really objective enough for credible historical review.

Howard Davies’ smooth flowing production serves the play well. Tim Hatley has designed an elegant and evocative set of carved wooden screens. The ensemble is excellent, with fine central performances from Tom Beard as Radcliffe, Andrew Havill as Mountbatten, Lucy Black as his wife and Silas Carson as Nehru.

It’s great to see full houses for theatre like this. The rest of the run is sold out but, like Ai WeiWei before it, it will be live streamed on Saturday 11th January. Watch it if you can.

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Whenever people think of late 19th / early 20th century Russian drama, only one name usually crops up – Chekov. This means Gorky rarely gets a look in; we get 50 Cherry Orchard productions for every Summerfolk. Whilst Chekov was pumping up the introspective middle classes, Gorky was trying to raise the plight of the poor. Much more up my liberal street.

This play was written whilst Gorky was in prison and produced on the eve of the 1905 revolution. It revolves around scientist Protasov. He is being pursued by widow Melaniya whilst his wife Yelena is being pursued by artist Vageen. Melaniya’s brother Boris, a vet, is in love with Protasov’s emotionally fragile sister Liza. Their attractive young maid, Feema, is being pursued by lots of men! It’s open house at the Protasov’s, presided over by Nanny with Protosov himself eccentric, weak and somewhat otherworldly.

Whilst all this is going on in the house, disease begins to wreak havoc in the village. In the second act, things begin to unravel in their relationships as rumours begin to circulate that it’s Prosotov’s work and not cholera that’s the cause of the disease and the outside begins to threaten the inside, eventually leading to an invasion which ends with an extraordinary coup d’theatre. We spend a bit too long in the interior world of the fortunate before the events outside are introduced, but from then on it’s a great piece – more because of superb characterisation than story.

The unstarry ensemble is brilliant; not a weak link amongst them. Geoffrey Streathfield is every inch the mad professor. Paul Higgins as Boris and Maggie McCarthy as Nanny each turn in another fine NT performance and Lucy Black, someone who is new to me, was hugely impressive as the besotted Melaniya. It’s another of Bunny Christie giant wild sets; she really knows how to make the best of the difficult Lyttleton stage. Director Howard Davies continues to show his affinity with this Russian repertoire with a masterly staging of Andrew Upton’s accessible adaptation.

More of a treat than the press led me to expect & something only the NT could do.

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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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It’s not often you leave a new play feeling deeply satisfied. Of late, the Royal Court has had the monopoly of those occasions and there are echoes of two of them – Jerusalem and Love Love Love – here. This is good enough to be the pinnacle of a playwrights career, but it’s  playwright Stephen Beresford’s first! At last, we have a fine new play at the National.

We’re on the Devon coast in the home of Judy, an ageing hippie and rebel, with her daughter Libby, son Nick and grand-daughter Summer, exploring the legacy of the 60’s generation and the relationships of the three generations on the stage. Neighbour and GP Peter is a frequent visitor and seemingly benevolent presence, as is shy young Daniel who grows up before your very eyes. Judy’s still rebelling (now against her nimby neighbours), Libby and Nick are rebelling against their mother and each other and young Summer is a teenager (nuff said). Neither Peter nor Daniel are what they at first seem. The characterisations are very deep and the sweep of the play is somehow both epic and personal. The writing is outstanding and often very funny.

This may well be Helen McCrory’s finest moment; from her first unrecognisable appearance, she completely inhabits the role of daughter Libby. Rory Kinnear too is spectacularly good as her drug fueled brother Nick, with the most realistic drunk / stoned acting I’ve seen since Peter O’Toole (and I’m still not convinced he wasn’t – O’Toole, that is).

You can see why Julie Walters wanted to play Judy. It’s one of those larger-than-life characters she excels in, though she is now so familiar we do see Julie underneath Judy at times. There’s also a brilliant performance from Isabella Laughland as Summer and another from Taron Egerton as neighbour Daniel (a professional debut, no less).

Vicki Mortimer has created an art deco  home as wild as its inhabitants which looks just like the famous hotel at Bigbury-on-Sea just down the road, which opens up to reveal three downstairs rooms as well as the garden. The music seems to be from the soundtrack of my life! As always, Howard Davies gets the best out the material and his actors.

This was such a treat that I really didn’t want it to end; I was so enjoying these characters company and their stories – but maybe that’s because I’m a 60’s child too? It will be intersting to see the thoughts of younger theatre-goers. For me, though, not to be missed at any cost.

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When the curtain opens at the Lyttleton (yes, a curtain – that’s a novelty these days) you’re a bit baffled. We’re in what appears to be a squat in an abandoned stately home, yet the play takes place in a Dublin tenement. This is partly explained in a programme essay, but the crux of it is that it robs the play of the intensity of tenement life, even though it is a brilliant design by Bob Crowley.

The problem with the play is its unevenness. The first half is a domestic (black) comedy with not much more than a hint at what’s happening outside (civil war!), played for laughs in Howard Davies’ production, dangerously close to cartoonish. O’Casey leaves much of the story and most of the context to the (shorter) second half which for me is the fundamental flaw. A bit like The Veil, which is currently sharing this theatre (with a design that could be the same stately home before it was abandoned), he could have made so much more of what’s going on outside in a crucial point in Ireland’s history (or at the time he wrote it, current affairs). 

We’re with the Boyle family – father Jack, an old sea dog, is a work shy drunkard; son Johnny is involved with a pre-cursor of the IRA and has lost an arm as a result and daughter Mary has left boyfriend Jerry behind and taken up with Charles (more prospects) Bentham. The family is held together by mother Juno, a feisty matriarch who is both breadwinner and homemaker. Jack’s drinking mate Joxer, who’s cynically taking advantage, is omnipresent – when Juno lets him. They get news of an inheritance and start spending the money before they’ve got it. In the second half, it all unravels. The inheritance never comes through and everything is repossessed, Mary gets pregnant and the IRA come for Johnny who has allegations to answer. 

The real reason for seeing this revival is a set of performances it would be hard to match on any stage. This is the best performance I’ve seen Sinead Cusack give. She beautifully balances the love of her family with the assertiveness needed to keep them together. Ciaran Hinds inhabits Jack, his main concern almost always his next drink, yet naive to Joxer’s exploitation. Risteard Cooper’s Joxer is a brilliant creation, going through life as a chancer and parasite, but with a charm and a swagger. Clare Dunne and Ronan Raftery do well as Mary and Johnny and there’s a fine supporting cast.

It’s an uneven evening, but well worth the visit for the performances alone.

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This play about Afghanistan during the 80’s started as one of the Tricycle’s Great Game playlets a couple of years ago; it has now become a very interesting and satisfying full length play.

It was the decade when the then USSR occupied this troubled land whilst the US, with British help, sought to undermine them by funding and arming Pakistani security forces and Afghan militias. It followed periods of western influence and was followed by the rise of the Taliban and subsequent US / British invasion and occupation. The geopolitical history is absolutely fascinating and playwright J T Rogers achievement is to make this so entertaining! It unfolds like a thriller and is packed with irony and humour, without ever debasing the seriousness of the events it presents. It also weaves in the stories of the home lives, and in particular the sons, of the three main players which adds an important personal dimension.

Designer Ultz use of sliding screens enables Howard Davies production to have real pace, moving quickly between the many short scenes without losing impetus. The central character of CIA agent James Warnock is excellently played by Lloyd Owen, who is onstage throughout, torn between his country’s pragmatism and his personal idealism. His British counterpart has been around longer and is therefore more realistic and cynical; also well played by Adam James. These performances are well matched by the other two key characters – Russian Dmitri (Matthew Marsh) and Afghan Abdullah (Demosthenes Chrysan) and there are fine supporting performances from Gerald Kyd as the representative of Pakistani security and Philip Arditti as Abdullah’s son (whose obsession with Western music and quoting of their lyrics is hysterical) and excellent cameos from Simon Kunz as James’ boss and Danny Ashok as the Pakistani military clerk.

I liked this play a lot; it explains so much about how we got to where we are in Afghanistan and the hopelessness of it all – but above all it’s a deeply satisfying evening modern drama.

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My second Arthur Miller revival of the year proves to be much more than the Suchet-Wanamaker show, though they are both at the height of their powers and give terrific performances.

The first star is Bill Dudley’s extraordinary set – a life-size American suburban house and garden surrounded by giant trees have taken over from Jerusalem’s English wood with Airstream caravan! Similar (the same?) as the National ten years ago, from the third row of the stalls you felt like you were peering over the fence into a neighbour’s garden.

The rest of the cast is excellent indeed, including Stephen Campbell Moore’s principled son, Jemima Rooper’s tortured  soul and an angry David Lapaine. Director Howard Davies has indeed assembled a uniformly excellent cast for this revival

The main star, of course, is Millers’ play – a masterpiece of the 20th century which could just as easily be about contemporary families torn apart by profiteering out of the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan. It has so much humanity and so much depth.

It’s great to see ‘House Full’ signs on a Monday for a modern classic, and it proved to be a thrilling evening in the theatre.

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