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Posts Tagged ‘Jan Versweyveld’

The Lyttelton has been turned into a TV News Studio, with a control room and make-up & meeting rooms. There’s also a fully functioning restaurant on stage, with kitchen behind, where audience members are served and eat a full meal during the play (the clatter of cutlery as they did was occasionally irritating!) and where several scenes take place. It’s one of the best uses of this vast space ever; a brilliant design by Jan Versweyveld.

It’s more than forty years since the film on which this is based was made, but you’d never know it, even though Lee Hall’s adaptation of Paddy Chayefsky’s screenplay remains in the 70’s. It may be timeless, well it’s certainly found its time now, in a world of fake news and wholesale disaffection, even though we’ve now also got news from the internet and social media. I thought it was thrilling and timely.

Howard Beale is a long standing news anchor who appears to have a meltdown on air. The fictional NBS network’s initial reaction is to dump him, until they realise there is mileage, and money, in having someone madly prophetic on TV. He continues to plough his own furrow, at all odds, whilst engaging with the world around him, even turning against his paymasters.

American actor Bryan Cranston is best known for his screen work, only making his Broadway debut a few years back. He has terrific presence and is as good as Howard Beale on stage as Peter Finch was on film. He’s surrounded by a high quality supporting cast, notably Douglas Henshall as his friend and protector Max, Michelle Dockery as bright young producer Diana and Tunji Kasim as the company CEO.

van Hove uses his trademark live video again, this time for scenes in partially obscured spaces, outside the building, and for close-ups in the studio and the restaurant. There’s a big screen centre stage and a strip screen high up, right along the three sides. The last two of his productions worried me, that he was becoming a master of reinvention, but with this he regains his place as the master of invention with a production that’s technically hugely accomplished but also serves the material well, making it resonate once more in a new age.

After the curtain calls there was historical video footage on the big screen which resulted in cheers and boos from the exiting audience and, in a life-imitates-art moment as it ended, there were loud cries of ‘I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore’! Unmissable.

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A collaboration between a musical hero for 45 years and a favourite theatre director. What could possibly go wrong? Well, an awful lot it turns out, starting with Enda Walsh’s obtuse and incoherent book.

Apparently it was all David Bowie’s idea. Producer Robert Fox came on board first, and he introduced playwright Enda Walsh, to whom Bowie gave four pages of notes and a selection of music to choose from. Director Ivo van Hove came on board last. What further involvement Bowie had is unclear. It would be impossible to stage The Man Who Fell to Earth, in which Bowie made his screen debut, but the idea was to take his character Newton and sort of pick up where the film left off.

It takes place entirely in a Manhattan apartment (uncannily like the one designer Jan Versweyveld built last year in the Young Vic for Song from Far Away).The band is on the other side of the apartment windows, with screens and curtains sometimes putting them out of our view. There are video projections on a central screen, and also on the apartment walls and ceiling, and even behind the band; they are very effective.

Newton is an alien who came to earth to find water and a way of transporting it home. He made a fortune patenting technological ideas from his more advanced planet. Now he’s stuck on Earth drinking gin and watching endless TV, and we’re watching him as he interacts with three new characters – some sort of mass murderer, his assistant Elly and a girl. There are a handful of others. Exactly who they all are or whether they’re even real is unclear. In fact, it’s a complete lack of clarity and coherence that’s the show’s problem. Apparently, during gestation, Bowie’s assistant said ‘yeah, but what happens?’. I couldn’t have put it better myself. The narrative is a bit of a mess and the show is ever so dull.

The score is a mixture of old and new, from 1969’s The Man Who Sold the World through to the wonderful Where Are We Now? from The Next Day. The trouble is they all sound so cold, clinical and bland, devoid of energy and emotion, as if they’ve had the very life squeezed out of them, and the sound doesn’t help. When a club scene turned up accompanied by that Glam Rock anthem All the Young Dudes, I went from disappointment to despair.

You can’t fault Michael C Hall as Newton, sounding uncannily and spookily like Bowie, or Michael Esper as Valentine, the scary ‘mass murderer’. Sophie Anne Caruso as ‘girl’ and our own Amy Lennox as Newton’s assistant Elly are good too, but a fine young musical theatre talent like Jamie Muscato is wasted, I’m afraid. I bet he wished he was back in Bend it Like Beckham or Dogfight.

Whatever the quality of the creative inputs, it’s the material that kills it. It was a long unbroken 110 minutes. A huge disappointment.

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Another day, another monologue? Well not really, as this one-person play by Simon Stephens is much more than a monologue. In the hands of director Ivo van Hove and actor Eelco Smits, it’s a deeply personal story of love and loss where you seem to enter into someone’s thoughts and feelings rather than merely hearing or observing them.

Our protagonist returns from New York to his Amsterdam home for the funeral of his brother, though not initially to his home as he stays in a hotel. Over eighty minutes, he tells us his story as a series of letters to his dead brother. His relationship with his dad is clearly strained, his relationship with his brother was complicated, his mother dotes on him and his sister is preoccupied with her simple life and her children. He tries but fails to hook up with his former lover, but instead has a one-night stand with someone he picks up in a bar. It has surprising narrative and character depth for such a short play. He’s bearing his soul and opening his heart and the effect of this is heightened by the fact he does so completely naked for much of the play.

It’s a very simple unadorned box set, but Jan Versweyveld’s lighting is extraordinary and Mark Eitzel’s music haunting and beautiful – and beautifully sung by Eelco Smits, who’s naturalistic acting is compelling throughout. For me it never lagged; I was enthralled by the story and captivated by the visual imagery. I think the key is its simplicity and beauty. It’s hard to describe what it is, and even more so how if engages with you emotionally, so I’ll just say that it surprised me and left me thoughtful but content.

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