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Posts Tagged ‘James Macdonald’

I’m struggling to understand why the Royal Court thought this was good enough to be staged there (mind you, it isn’t the first time I’ve thought that in recent years). Four very good actors in a very mediocre play.

Rory Mullarkey’s tale of armed insurrection in the UK starts with a meeting between a black boy and a posh woman on a deserted train platform. He appears to be some sort of Messiah and he’s not unexpected. Catherine, a Lady in the titled sense, invites him home. It isn’t for sex, as Leo at first thinks. She’s going to engineer his journey to power through uprisings of the most unlikeliest of groups like the Women’s Institute. It starts with a couple of murders and follows it’s absurdist trajectory from there to a new Britain.

Given the number of (short) scenes and locations, it is by necessity staged on a simple square platform with a projection screen behind and a couple of tents on either side, but Tom Pye’s design still seems a bit half-hearted, as did James Macdonald’s direction. Anna Chancellor is excellent, but why she took the role is beyond me. I was very impressed by Calvin Demba as Leo, who maintains his naive otherworldly expression throughout. Sophie Russell and Pearce Quigley provide excellent support in multiple roles, with some quick changes.

Maybe I’m missing something, but this all seemed a bit pointless. More like work-in-progress than a finished play. It was occasionally funny and often unpredictable but rather unengaging.

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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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If you want to know where the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs benches have gone, the answer is to a community centre in Haggerston (‘where?’ I hear you ask). If you want to know why, the answer is that this play is set in a community centre in Shirley, Vermont (where?).

We’re observing an acting class over six weeks in lots of short scenes. There’s the teacher and four participants, including the teacher’s husband. Their exercises include telling each other’s stories, walking around the room, chain sentences, role playing and so on. There are also a lot of pauses and a lot of silence; playwright Annie Baker makes Harold Pinter look like an amateur at pauses and silences.

Somehow over the next 120 unbroken minutes, you learn a lot about these people. Their relationships evolve, sometimes surprisingly. They each have different reasons for being there, but they’re mostly therapeutic. It’s amazing how deep characterisation can go with few words. I found them fascinating and very real. As the title says, a transformation.

It’s an extraordinary cast. It’s not long before you’ve forgotten it’s Imelda Staunton playing Marty the teacher as she becomes Marty (with a spot on American accent). Toby Jones could do Schultz with even fewer words, such is his ability to speak volumes by facial expressions and body language. Fenella Woolgar adds to an already impressive track record with a beautiful interpretation of fragile Theresa, the very underrated Danny Webb is at home as ageing hippy James and relative newcomer Sharon Tarbet makes Lauren grow up before your very eyes. James Macdonald’s delicately nuanced staging respects the playwright’s precise Beckettian instructions with the exception of a wall of mirrors (which would have been interesting but probably distracting in this space).

So is it worth the schlep out to Haggerston? Well, despite the relentlessly hard benches and the progressively stuffy room over two hours, yes it is. The venue added to the realism and the play makes you think; indeed, I’m still thinking about it – always a good sign.

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I had two reservations about this. Can you really make an interesting play about the arrest of a Chinese dissident, however important the issues are? Is Hampstead, with its somewhat conservative audience, the right theatre?

Well, the answer to the first question is a definite yes. What Howard Brenton has produced, at Ai Weiwei’s request, based on his account in Barnaby Martin’s book, is a multi-layered piece about freedom of expression, the absurd responses of tyrannies to dissidence, the cruelty & indignity of imprisonment & interrogation and a bit of a debate about art. Silence is used to create tension and illustrate boredom and both humour and humanity pop up in the most unlikely places.

We start with Ai Weiwei’s arrest at the airport, about to board a plane for Hong Kong. In the first segment, we see his initial detention and interrogation by the Beijing police with two young guards suffocating him the rest of the time, occasionally playing with their smartphones, dozing and playing games with one another to relieve their boredom. In the second, we have more interrogation but now in military detention with two soldiers now suffocating in a more formal way including watching him pee. In between, we glimpse some debates between politicians divided in how to deal with it all.

The detention, of course, has the effect of increasing the attention and negative publicity they seek to bury. Even the guards, soldiers & interrogators eventually hint at their personal sympathy. The pointlessness, dullness, cruelty and indignity of it all are clearly and cleverly presented in James Macdonald’s production. If an intelligent Chinese politician saw it, they would surely realise how misguided their policy is. He was of course released, so maybe they did.

Much of the success of the play is down to Benedict Wong’s outstanding central performance. He conveys defiance and determination but also frustration and hopelessness. It’s a nice touch to have the same two actors – Andrew Koji & Christopher Goh – play the young police guards and the well-drilled uniformed soldiers. In Ashley Martin Davies’ excellent design, the ‘cells’ cleverly open up from crates manoeuvred by ‘extras’ and giant painted scrolls and ornamental trees appear for the brief exchanges between politicians.

Despite its relatively short running time, and fewer words than most plays, it covers a lot of ground effectively and in depth. With regard to the second question, though, I do think its in the wrong theatre playing to the wrong audience. This is a Tricycle play on the Hampstead stage, but still, it’s on a stage and should be seen. I now have to reconcile my view of it all with two impending visits to China!

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Twitter on stage? Over 50 3D audio-visual bites. In seven sections (not sure why). Each a completely different situation. Over 100 characters, each appearing only once. 16 actors playing all roles. In each, information is passed. Some scene breaks are longer than scenes. Sound bites between scenes. 105 minutes.  No interval.

Caryl Churchill used to write plays. (Cloud Nine. Top Girls. Serious Money). Then she went all minimalist. (Blue Heart. Far Away. A Number). Like Beckett and Pinter before her. Is this creativity or a lack of ideas? A friend said it would never reach the stage. If it was a new writer.

Miriam Buether’s bright white box frames each scene. James Macdonald’s staging is slick. The speed of scene changes is impressive. The acting is superb. It must be hard to portray a character in mere moments. It’s occasionally funny. It’s occasionally profound. It’s often clever.

This review might give you a flavour of the evening. Intriguing. Innovative. Satisfying theatre? Not really.

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When I booked Ecstasy for the night before this, I wasn’t at all conscious of what I was doing. Chalk & cheese.

Like Pinter, Edward Albee has always been a bit of a problem playwright for me. Where Pinter has too much silence, Albee has too many words! His plays usually have smug characters, glib dialogue and a cynical veneer. I find it impossible to empathise with any of them.

By the time I got to the first interval, I was thinking ‘here we go again; I hate these people!’ Is this an American Knot of the Heart? (the Almeida’s last play, which drove me to drink at the interval, after which I couldn’t bring myself to return).

Agnes and Tobias seem to be going through the motions of life in late middle age, with Agnes’ alcoholic spinster sister providing some conflict and confrontation. Over one weekend, their lives are turned upside down when they are invaded by best friends Harry and Edna (who move in because they are afraid of being at home alone!) and daughter Julia, a thirty-something spoilt brat who has given up on her fourth marriage and comes home. These people, particularly Agnes, speak lines with a quick-wittedness and articulacy that is very implausible – could anyone really think and say all of that spontaneously?

Something compelled me to return after that first interval and in the second and third act things did improve as the drama unfolded, but it’s still people you can’t give a shit about spouting implausible bollocks in unbelievable situations….but it does intrigue and hold you and it does makes you think.

It has not one but two national treasures in the cast – Penelope Wilton & Imelda Staunton – and they are both excellent in roles you wouldn’t usually consider them suitable for. Tim Pigott-Smith, Diana Hardcastle and Ian McElhinney also shine as the other oldies, though Lucy Cohu seems a little uncomfortable throwing adult tantrums. Laura Hopkins set is an extraordinary wood-paneled living room that, as a 60’s upper middle class New England home, is the most believable thing about the evening. James Macdonald’s direction is of his usual high standard.

There’s an intellectual pomposity about it which annoyed me, and it didn’t move me one bit, but it did hold and intrigue me for nigh on three hours. Having said that, when compared with last night’s British social realism, I’m afraid there’s no contest – Ecstasy wins hands down because Leigh has humanity where Albee has disdain.

The Almeida’s next-but-one play is yet another Neil LaBute – the natural successor to Albee, in my view. I’ll have to go of course…..

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English ‘National’ Opera 5 (The Pearl Fishers 2* Idomeneo 3*)

Welsh National Opera 10 (Rigoletto 5* Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg 5*)

This proved to be a fascinating and revealing match. ENO’s Pearl Fishers started really well. They seemed to be actually diving for pearls in a vast expanse of water behind glass whilst Bizet’s beautiful music began. Then we moved to an extraordinary waterside shanty town with the chorus sounding great and both Nadir, Alfie Boe, and Zurga, Roland Wood, singing well. Then the soprano, Hanan Alattar, came on………..it was a harsh sound with poor diction; frankly it was sometimes difficult to listen to without squirming. It went down hill from there with a translation which turned the beautiful sound of sung French into banal English and some really clumsy staging.

On to Wales for WNO’s Rigoletto, which I’ve never considered one of Verdi’s greats – not in the Traviata & Otello league for me. When I discovered that director James Macdonald had relocated it to 60’s Washington I inwardly groaned.  Then the orchestra began and almost everything that followed was spell-binding. Rigoletto as a White House fixer with the Duke as a philandering President somehow worked. The chorus of men-in-black were terrific. US soprano Sarah Coburn made a most auspicious UK debut as Gilda. Gwyn Hughes Jones  (guess where he’s from?!) sang the Duke well, even if he doesn’t really look the part. Simon Keenlyside’s Rigoletto reminded me of Anthony Sher’s Richard III, a manic-tragic creation you can’t take your eyes off. He sang wonderfully, with every emotion pouring forth – cynical, contemptuous, angry, sad, bitter….Keenlyside has a habit of being so good that he comes to ‘own’ a role – as he has with Billy Budd and Prospero in Thomas Ades’  Tempest – and here he does it again in this role debut; you just can’t imagine wanting to see anyone else. The design wasn’t always successful, but the staging was, and this Rigoletto made me promote the opera to Verdi’s Premiere League.

Operatic triumphs don’t often come in  pairs, but 18 hours later the orchestra played the first notes of Wagner’s overture (more like a symphony really) to Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg and the journey through operatic heaven continued. When I first saw this opera in Covent Garden, I found it overblown and long-winded and haven’t seen it in the 20+ years since. Maybe it’s because I’ve grown through the hundred’s of operas I’ve seen in between, but this time I got lost in the beauty of the music and forgot about time altogether. You’d be hard pressed to hear it sung better anywhere in the world by a chorus as good as WNO’s  which in the last scene sent shivers up my spine and almost levitated me out of my seat. It’s a long away from 70’s comic C&W outfit Harvey & The Wallbangers, but Christopher Purves was as fine a Beckmesser as you’d wish to see. Then there’s Bryn Terfel…..he also hijack’s roles, as he has done with Verdi’s Falstaff and does again here with his role debut as Hans Sachs. Like Simon Keenlyside, he’s as good an actor as he is a singer, and this was a truly stunning display of both. Director Richard Jones and designer Paul Steinberg avoided modern spin and produced something simple, timeless, elegant and effective. Their solution for the problematic nationalistic ending was inspired – they turned it into a celebration of German artistic achievement. The audience in Cardiff are normally more reserved than London, but not tonight. They stood in unison as the curtain went up on the whole company and the cheers were deafening.

It was going to be hard for ENO to follow this when we were back in London for Mozart’s Idomeneo, an early Mozart which I found rather Handelian (it came before he began to write ‘too many notes’, as Salieri is alleged to have put it!). There were no ‘harsh’ sopranos this time – both Emma Bell and Sarah Tynan sang beautifully, as did the leading men – Paul Nilon and Robert Murray – and the orchestra and chorus under Edward Gardiner were great. So, a musical success then….. unfortunately, it wasn’t a concert. It was left to Director Katie Mitchell to destroy the evening with a cold-as-ice clinical modern staging that didn’t illuminate or reveal anything, hampered rather than aided the story-telling, added absolutely no contemporary relevance and removed all emotion. There were many distractions, including several scenes populated with waiters coming and going in and out of doors while the singers were trying to sing lovely arias. I’m not sure Mozart intended Elektra to sing her second act aria whilst pissed and flirting with a waiter! It wasn’t as bad as her National Theatre de(con)structions, but it was bad enough to drag a musical treat down to a dull and irritating musical theatre experience.

So there you have it. You might consider me unfair because this really was WNO at the height of their powers, and there’s more than my fair share of national pride, but I’m going to make the comparisons anyway! WNO receive two-thirds of the subsidy of ENO and half of the subsidy of the Royal Opera. The best seats for BOTH of the operas in Cardiff were the same as EITHER Pearl Fishers OR Idomeneo and 40% of one ticket for that up-and-coming baritone Domingo, currently wowing them in Simon Boccanegra at Covent Garden. When they leave Cardiff, they take both of these productions to the poor opera-starved people of Birmingham because the English NATIONAL Opera and the Royal Opera never leave their London bases. Half of WNO’s subsidy is in fact provided by Arts Council ENGLAND to provide opera on a regular basis in the otherwise operatic black holes called Plymouth, Bristol, Southampton, Oxford, Milton Keynes, Birmingham and Liverpool. Now, if I ran the Arts Council, I’d be looking for quality, accessibility and value – and based on this months’ scores there’s only one company providing all three!

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