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Posts Tagged ‘James McArdle’

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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When I first saw these Tony Kushner plays 24-25 years ago, in the NT’s Cottesloe auditorium, there was a gap of more than a year between them; the second play, Perestroika, hadn’t been written when the first, Millennium Approaches, opened. I saw both parts of the only London revival, Headlong at the Lyric Hammersmith ten years ago, in one day, but then it seemed like recent history. I repeated that experience at the latest revival in the National’s Lyttelton theatre on Wednesday, but now ‘the AIDS plays’, as many called them, feel like much more than that, and in so many ways bang up-to-date.

Prior and Louis are a gay couple; the former hails from early English immigrants and the latter from more recent Jewish immigrants. Pryor has AIDS and his close gay African-American friend Belize is an AIDS nurse, who is reluctantly looking after a racist, homophobic, corrupt Jewish lawyer called Roy Cohn, who disguises his condition as liver cancer. Roy’s protege, object of his desires, and possible sexual partner, is a closeted Mormon called Joe, whose agoraphobic, depressive wife Harper and Mormon mom Hannah, who becomes Pryor’s unlikely friend, are also characters. Joe begins a relationship with Louis when the latter deserts his sick lover. Roy M Cohn was a real person, right-hand man to chief witch-hunter Senator Joe McCarthy, and sometime lawyer to Donald Trump, representing him in the now infamous racist rental case, who appears to have been a mentor, even role model, to the current president. Of course, it’s set in the reign of that other celebrity president Ronald Regan, but in lines written 26 years ago, we hear things we heard last year.

Marianne Elliott’s new staging starts intimately, with scenes stage front on small sets on three side-by-side revolves. This continues for two of the three parts of the first play and, though emotionally engaging, wasn’t as epic as I remembered, and for someone who needs visual as well as narrative stimulation, constituted a slowish start. From here, though, it opens out with small scenes in a giant space giving the epic feel I expected, with scenes in the second play changed by the Angel’s spider-like puppeteers crawling eerily. It fully sustained it’s 6.5 hour playing time, over a 10 hour period, to the point where the gaps felt like waiting time during which you became impatient to return. The inclusion of two intervals in each part was the right decision though.

It’s hard to imagine a better cast, packed full of favourite actors. I first saw a very promising Andrew Garfield eleven years ago in another theatre in the same building, but I had no idea he would grow into the extraordinary talent that plays Prior now. I’ve admired James McArdle’s stage work for years, most notably as King James, also next door, but his Louis is a new career high. Russell Tovey first wowed me at the opening night of The History Boys on the same stage and here he is owning it in a more difficult role as introspective Joe, whose eventual emotional explosions take your breath away. I’ve only seen (and loved) Nathan Lane in The Producers, so watching him create the monster that is Roy Cohn was a revelation. I’ve seen little of Nathan Stewart-Jarrett’s work, but now can’t wait to see more; he brings Belize alive by wordless facial expressions, then adds a delicious bite with his dialogue. Denise Gough continues to impress in another tough role in the shadow of so many larger-than-life characters, her restraint amplifying the emotional outbursts. In addition to Hannah, who Susan Brown navigates from conservative Mormon to loving friend, she plays three men – a Rabbi, a doctor, and an old Bolshevik – plus the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, one of Roy Cohn’s victims, in a series of terrific performances. The ever wonderful Amanda Lawrence gives us our Angel, but also many others in another set of fine turns. What an ensemble.

When I look back at my lifetime of theatre-going, this will be another of those days that justify my obsession with the stage. No other art form could provide such a dramatic feast that leaves you exhausted and emotionally drained, but energised, thrilled and deeply satisfied at the same time. I woke up the following morning feeling completely blessed.

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I wasn’t convinced I wanted to see this film adapted for the stage, despite the fact a favourite playwright of mine, Mike Bartlett, adapted it, so I was late booking and ended up at the last performance before its transfer to the West End. Ten minutes in, I thought I’d been right all along – there was so much going on it felt like a bit of a mess. It takes a while to get into the pace and rhythm of this piece, but when you do there’s much to enjoy.

Miriam Buether gives us another of her extraordinary design transformations. Hampstead Theatre becomes a stadium with a race track around the lower level, behind the audience – rather like the original production of Starlight Express but without the budget (or the roller skates). Scott Ambler’s choreography is brilliant and Edward Hall’s staging manages to make both the epic and intimate moments work; the personal stories of Abrahams and Liddell both come through well and the race scenes take your breath away. The music is an effective combination of Vangelis’ iconic soundtrack and Gilbert & Sullivan with a tear-jerking finale of Jerusalem. It’s patriotic & sentimental, but hey who cares, it’s the London Olympics in a minute, this is great timing and we’re entitled!

The young cast of athletic actors, excellently led by James McArdle as Abrahams and Jack Lowden as Liddell, is outstanding, and there are lovely cameos from oldies Nicholas Woodeson as Abrahams’ coach, Nickolas Grace as the Master of Trinity & the Duke of Sutherland, Simon Williams the Master of Caius & Lord Birkenhead and Simon Slater in four roles (and as MD!). Tam Williams also stands out as Andrew, Lord Lindsay.

I’m glad I saw it at Hampstead pre-transfer and I’m glad I sat in the second level; I’m not sure how its going to work in the much bigger space of the Gielgud.

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