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Posts Tagged ‘James Macdonald’

After contemporary works about China – US relations, a nuclear incident and a sibling relationship as experimental physics, playwright Lucy Kirkwood has turned her hand to something set 260 years ago, women’s place in society at that time, in particular the legal and political worlds. I thought it was a fascinating play, with a superb ensemble of fine actors and a stunning design by Bunny Christie.

We start by briefly watching these women carrying out their daily chores, underlining their limited roles in the world. After a crime is committed and a young girl, Sally Poppy, arrested and tried, a ‘jury of matrons’ is formed to establish if she is pregnant, as she says she is. If she is, her execution will be postponed or she may be transported instead. The jury of matrons for this specific purpose provides the only role women can have in legal affairs at the time; they cannot be jurors who convict.

The final person to join this group of twelve women is midwife Elizabeth Luke, who is sympathetic to Sally. She proves Sally is pregnant, but not all of the others will accept this. As their deliberations progress, conflicts of interest and prejudices emerge. They are offered a (male) doctor to examine Sally and they accept this, but even this doesn’t break the impasse. It twists and turns in ways that surprise you and when they do reach a conclusion, that doesn’t necessarily mean it will be implemented.

Bunny Christie has created a brilliant design whose jury room fills the Lyttleton stage, beautifully lit by Lee Curran, with Carolyn Downing’s sound design letting us know there’s an angry lynch mob just outside. The costumes establish the period and the accents the location as East Anglia. The ensemble, led by Maxine Peake in the best role I’ve seen her in, contains fine actors like Cecilia Noble, June Watson, Jenny Galloway and Haydn Gwynne. Ria Zmitrowicz is superb as feisty Poppy. James Macdonald’s staging is masterly.

Good to see another Lucy Kirkwood play, a bit of a departure, of a fascinating subject I’m not sure anyone has tackled before.

 

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When this evening was announced, it was three new short plays by Caryl Churchill. Now a fourth has been added, longer than the other three added together, which makes it the longest evening of new Churchill work in ages. I’ve tired of her descent into minimalism of late, also finding earlier works haven’t stood the test of time when revived, but this is a real return to form, a veritable theatrical feast.

The first half consists of three short works, with the inspired idea of front of curtain entertainment between them. The first is an intriguing piece about a glass girl. The characters perform on an elevated white shelf, which at one point is clearly a mantelpiece with ornaments that come alive, but at other times not. The second play features a god on a cloud and a boy playing on the ground, the god giving us a manic telling of Greek myths. In the third, a serial wife killer’s friends discuss him and his crimes and how they should react.

In the longest play, we’re in the home of Dot and Jimmy, cousins who live together, neither of whom work. In most of the short scenes, they are visited by Niamh, a distant cousin from Ireland who has recently moved near them, and Rob, a homeless man Jimmy has befriended during his runs in the park, mostly separately, but sometimes at the same time. Dot has a past and an intriguing object, both of which are revealed.

Death and killing run through all four plays, though they are often very funny. They appear to be modern spins on old tales – Greek myths, Bluebeard and a short story by Robert Louis Stevenson – though I can’t identify the fourth. James Macdonald’s staging is clever, Miriam Buether’s design is stunning and the acting is brilliant, with Tom Mothersdale giving a virtuoso performance as the god and Deborah Findlay and Toby Jones acting masterclasses in the final play.

It’s been a long wait, so all the more welcome.

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Revivals of this 1961 Tennessee Williams play don’t come along as often as most of his other classics. I first saw it at the NT in 1992 with Alfred Molina as Shannon, then again in the West End in 2005, where Woody Harrelson took the lead. Now its Clive Owen’s turn, with American Anna Gunn and our own Lia Williams as the women in his life at this moment in time. It has TW’s usual biographical strands, with a predatory man who exploits young women adding a timeliness.

Rae Smith’s extraordinary set creates a mountain lodge with four shacks, palm trees, walkways and a mountain! It conjures up the tropical coastal location in Mexico where Irish American ex-priest, now tour guide, brings a group of ladies from a Baptist college in Texas. The tour isn’t going well; he’s already accused of sex with one of the underage girls and they are refusing to stay at the lodge run by Shannon’s friend and sometime lover Maxine, recently widowed.

It’s late season in 1940 and the only other guests are four German tourists who sing Nazi songs and rejoice in the bombing of London! Then New England lady Hannah, an artist, and her 97-year-old grandfather, ‘America’s oldest living poet’, turn up. Maxine is reluctant to accommodate them, but succumbs under pressure from Shannon, who is clearly attracted to Hannah. Their problems and their demons emerge and unfold on this one night, with sexual tension between Shannon and both Maxine and Hannah, but in very different ways, and an unspoken rivalry between the two women.

Clive Owen seemed to take a short while to get into his character, but was soon commanding the stage. Anna Gunn and Lia Williams are both excellent in their very different roles, Gunn as feisty promiscuous Maxine and Williams as gentle serene Hannah. There’s terrific support from Julian Glover as Hannah’s grandfather and Finty Williams as Mrs Fellowes, the church group leader who takes no prisoners. In addition to Rae Smith’s set, James Macdonald’s fine production boasts some great lighting from Neil Austin and an atmospheric soundscape by Max Pappenheim.

Good to see it again, done so well.

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Theatre owes a lot to The Restoration, the fifty-year period from 1660 to 1710 that followed an eighteen-year theatre ban. Playwrights, including the first women playwrights like Aphra Behn, wrote meaty roles for women who could at last play them themselves. Many of these ‘comedies of manners’, like this, have survived. I’ve seen around a dozenn and the last one, The Beaux Stratagem at the NT, sparkled. So I was looking forward to William Congreve’s last play, returning home to Covent Garden.

It’s a convoluted plot revolving around the relationship between Mirabell (an excellent Geoffrey Streatfield) and Millamant (wonderfully played by Justine Mitchell, hotfooting it over from Beginning at the Ambassadors around the corner). They need Lady Wishforth’s blessing to marry, but she wants Millamant’s hand for her nephew Sir Wilfull Witwoud. Mirabell’s friend Fainall is having an affair with Mrs Marwood, who once had an affair with him. Mirabell’s servant secretly marries Lady Wishforth’s servant and they plot to help Mirabell by deceiving Lady Wishforth.  As with all restoration comedy, it’s flowery character names, social satire that’s a bit lost on us three-hundred years on and much wordplay. The production is beautifully designed by Anna Fleischle, whose costumes are simply gorgeous, and it’s atmospherically lit by Peter Mumford.

For a comedy there are nowhere near enough laughs, particularly in the first half, which is one long, dull set-up. It picks up after the interval, with some particularly good scenes, notably the ‘proviso’ scene where Mirabell and Milamant negotiate the terms of their marriage, but it’s too late (particularly for the significant number who didn’t return!). It’s an excellent ensemble, with great performances from Jenny Jules as Mrs Marwood and Tom Mison as Fainall, both cold and calculating, and Christian Patterson as a very hearty and funny Sir Wilfull. There are lovely cameos from Fisayao Akinade and Simon Manyonda as Witwoud and Petulant and Alex Beckett and Sarah Hadland as the pair of plotting servants.

I came to the conclusion that the play is of its time and has nothing to say to a contemporary audience. If it was entertaining, it might still be worth reviving, but it isn’t – at 3 hours 15 minutes, it’s a long, dull evening. So much talent, but a play not worthy of it today.

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American playwright Annie Baker seems to have invented her own genre – ‘slow theatre’, as it’s being called. This isn’t as successful as The Flick (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2016/04/19/the-flick), in the same theatre two years ago, as it doesn’t sustain its length as well, but I think its still worth catching – though not everyone does slow, it seems.

It’s set in a B&B run by a lady called Mertis in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Her husband apparently also lives there, but we don’t meet him. Visitors Elias and Jenny have broken a journey there to explore the area’s historical significance. Their relationship is troubled. The only other character is Mertis’ friend Genevieve who pays a couple of visits. She is blind and obsessed by her dead husband’s ongoing presence. The fifth character is the design – Chloe Lamford, with lighting by Peter Mumford and sound by Christopher Shutt – which sometimes performs.

It plays out, slowly, over 3 hours 20 mins, with a forensic attention to detail. It’s intriguing, sometimes funny, but mostly just mysterious. You feel as if you’re peering into the sitting / dining area and hall, which we’re invited into when Mertis pulls back the curtains at the beginning of each act. When characters go upstairs, to the bedrooms named after historical figures, you still hear them talking and moving. Mertis has a lot of stuff, particularly dolls, which are absolutely everywhere. There’s a Christmas tree, so we assume its seasonally appropriate. Elias & Jenny’s relationship, Genevieve’s ‘possession’ and Mertis’ home interweave as the three strands unfold.

There’s a lot to like in the design and performances, but not enough happens at too slow a pace in James Macdonald’s staging. Annie Baker is an original writer, but I do hope she doesn’t trap herself in this slow theatre mode.

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When I look back at my lifetime of theatre-going, one of the highlights will be seeing three great actresses, each ten years apart, play Martha – Diana Rigg, Kathleen Turner, and now Imelda Staunton. Edward Albee’s classic 1962 play is a mountain for any actor and its thrilling to watch them reach the summit. I left the theatre emotionally drained; I can’t even imagine what it takes out of them.

It’s 2am on a Sunday morning in September and George & Martha return to their New England home drunk from her ‘daddy’s’ faculty party. He’s the President of the college where George teaches history. A new teacher and his wife, Nick & Honey,  have been invited back and they follow on, arriving shortly after. The drinking continues in earnest as George and Martha fight, snipe, bicker and tear each other apart in front of their guests, playing the most extraordinary psychological games. Their guests get embroiled as the alcohol flows freely. Martha flirts with Peter, and more. Truth and illusion become blurred. Martha eventually breaks the rules, which brings on the endgame.

You’d be forgiven for thinking three hours of people fighting isn’t entertainment, but it’s a black comedy and a theatrical feast, so you’d be wrong. Though it’s impossible not to single out Imelda Staunton’s astonishing tour de force (is there anything this woman can’t do?) her three colleagues are all superb. Conleith Hill’s George makes a more restrained foil for her vitriolic outbursts. Luke Treadaway’s Nick goes from intensely uncomfortable to cool to predatory to angry. I didn’t know anything about Imogen Potts work (based on the programme bio, it may be her stage debut) but I was hugely impressed by her characterisation of Honey. Tom Pye has created a very realistic lived-in home and James Macdonald directs this roller-coaster brilliantly, with his usual forensic detail.

I still think it’s a 20th century classic, and this is a seminal production. You don’t see performances like this every day, every year come to that, and Imelda Staunton’s is a highlight in a lifetime of theatre-going. Unmissable.

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Lucy Kirkwood’s brilliant Chimerica was always going to be hard to follow, so it’s great to report that her new play is very different but just as rewarding, a very mature piece from a young playwright.

Hazel and Robin are retired nuclear scientists / engineers with a small farm and four grown up children with four grandchildren. They live near the plant, on the coast, where they worked. A recent incident has meant a move to temporary accommodation and a significant disruption of their lifestyle. Former colleague Rose turns up after almost 40 years. She’s lived most her very different life in the US. They started their careers together building the plant and the conversation revolves around shared memories and catching up with the events in each others’ and other colleagues’ lives, until Rose says why she’s come.

It’s a very personal story of these three people, but so much more, exploring the diverse ways we fulfil our lives, growing old, relationships, generational legacy and debt, energy policy and the environment. I was captivated by these deeply drawn characters and their extraordinarily unique situation in whay is a play of many layers.

Miriam Buether’s cottage kitchen set is closed in by walls, floor and ceiling so that you feel you are peering into the room and their lives; it has the intimacy of a much smaller theatre. Deborah Findlay, Francesca Annis and Ron Cook are all superb and their somewhat complex relationships and current dilemma completely believable. James Macdonald directs this beautifully written play with great delicacy.

It’s a while since we saw such a fine play on the Royal Court’s main stage. I found it thought-provoking and enthralling, a deeply satisfying evening in the theatre.

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I’m a big fan of both designer Miriam Buether and director James Macdonald, but why on earth didn’t they check the audience sightlines when they were creating this? Their failure to do so certainly spoilt my evening – from my top price seat! If you’ve already got side seats, change them now. If you haven’t booked, make sure you’re in the centre.

Mike Bartlett’s new play takes Edward Snowden as its starting point. We’re in a Moscow hotel room with the Snowden-like character Andrew and a woman who appears to be his ‘handler’. She’s rather off-the-wall, playful and cheeky. In the next scene there’s a male ‘handler’ with the same name, much more earnest and serious, but the woman’s back for the next scene. Assumptions are made by Andrew (and us) about who they represent – Wikileaks he hopes – but ambiguity reigns as we explore the ease and consequences of leaks and the idea of identity. Nothing is what it seems, which is the theme of the rest of the play and it’s coup d’theatre. Sadly on the night I went a technical glitch halted the final scene and by the time it restarted people were playing with their phones, then the sight lines (which hadn’t been good at the sides from the start) got so bad (particularly on the right facing the stage) it rather spoilt it, but I won’t spoil it for you by saying more.

I’m also a big Mike Bartlett fan, but this isn’t his best work. It’s a good rather than great play, like many of the others. Notwithstanding the sightline issues, it’s well staged and very well performed by Jack Farthing as Andrew and Caoifhionn Dunne & John Mackay as the ‘handlers’. It’s hard to ignore my personal experience and no doubt it affects my view, but I’m a full-price paying punter so I’m entiltled to it and to share it. Sorry, Hampstead, but you need to see things from the audience perspective if you want to please them.

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The Almeida Greeks season goes from strength to strength with this second revelatory and intelligent production of Euripides last play, in a version by Anne Carson. It certainly does the god of theatre proud. I thought it was spellbinding.

It’s a battle between the gods, in this case Dionysos god of theatre and wine (my god!), and the mortals, in this case Pentheus, King of Thebes, whose grandfather Kadmos has passed him the throne whilst still alive as he has no son. Dionysos in human form as Bakkhos presides over all things hedonistic, with a retinue of female followers, including Pentheus’ mother Agave, partying up a nearby mountain. Pentheus foolishly decides to take him on and it all ends in a lot more than tears. It is of course playing out the conflict of human nature between rationality and instinct, with characters often describing events happening off-stage.

All of the roles are played by just three actors, as was the convention in the theatre festival where it was first performed 2420 years ago. Ben Wishaw is Bakkhos, the blind seer Tiresius and Pentheus’ servant who witnesses his demise, Bertie Carvel plays Pentheus and his mother Agave, and Kevin Harvey plays Kadmos and messengers. They all undertake brilliant transformations and they’re all terrific. The superb chorus of ten women perform with an extraordinary cocktail of speech, singing, chanting and sounds, dressed in skins and fur with headdresses of greenery and painted faces, moving and sounding as one. They are much more a part of the play than is usual in Greek tragedy.

There’s atmospheric music by Orlando Gough no less and unusual and highly effective lighting by Peter Mumford. It’s played out on a bare stage surrounded by and on top of what look like black slag heaps, which provide challenging entrances for the actors. I thought James Macdonald’s staging was masterly and it gripped me from Ben Wishaw’s prologue and never let me go for the next 110 minutes.

With the first two stunners, Almeida AD Rupert Goold has set the bar high for his own Medea in September!

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A play about dementia. Depressing? Well, yes – as people get older, it’s often their greatest fear, more so than any physical condition – but its also insightful and not as heavy as you might think.

What’s so clever about Florian Zeller’s play, translated by Christopher Hampton, is that by messing with your head you get to peep inside the head of the demetia sufferer and it helps you understand what it must be like to experience this condition. It starts very straightforwardly, but soon becomes disorientating. Andre’s daughter Anne may or may not have a husband, may or may not be moving to London, may or may not have a sister. Our confusion parallels Andre’s confusion and we begin to understand, and dread, his predicament.

In a series of short, sharp scenes we see the condition deteriorate through the eyes of its victim. Characters and their back stories change and the room in which it is set changes as he moves home. It’s a very original way of conveying the agony of the condition for both the sufferer and their family. The final scene when Andre is in a rest home is devastating. It’s beautifully written / translated, with every moment contributing to the story and it’s extraordinary how much understanding you accumulate in less than 90 minutes. There is humour as well as frustration and sadness to lighten the tone without disrespect.

James McDonald’s direction is very sympathetic to the subject matter, as are the six excellent performances. As Andre, Kenneth Cranham navigates the decline very delicately and movingly. Clare Skinner gives a nuanced performance as Anne, full of love for her father whilst struggling to balance the demands of caring with her need to live her own life.

A subject rarely spoken of is given a thoughtful and illuminating presentation, something sometimes only theatre can so.

 

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