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Posts Tagged ‘Jeremy Herbert’

It’s sixteen years since this Joe Penhall play, probably his most successful (if we don’t count the Kinks musical Sunny Afternoon), premiered at the National Theatre and went on to win awards and transfer to the West End. It starred Bill Nighy, Andrew Lincoln and a young Chiwetel Ejiofor. I must have enjoyed it as I went twice.

We begin at a meeting between trainee psychiatrist Bruce and his patient, afro-caribbean Christopher, the day before his scheduled discharge from hospital. Bruce clearly believes Chris isn’t ready, but Chris is desperate to go home. They are joined by senior consultant Robert, Bruce’s boss, who is very much for discharge, though maybe for reasons of expediency (to free up a bed). 

Bruce and Robert disagree on the diagnosis, somewhere between borderline personality disorder and schizophrenia, and argue, sometimes in front of their patient. We learn Bruce has been sucking up to Robert socially and of Robert’s research into connections between mental health and ethnicity. In the second act, Robert meets Chris without Bruce and this results in an investigation which threatens Bruce’s career. In the third act, the senior and junior doctor play out their disagreements in front of Chris. In all of this, the patient’s interests are somewhat buried.

The play explores the motivations of the three characters as well as issues of medical ethics and racism, but I’m afraid I found it somewhat implausible this time around. Though I am prepared to believe health policies, the need for authority, research and career interests may all affect people’s behaviour, I just couldn’t believe that these two professionals would behave like they do in front of their patient. The acting of David Haig as Robert is unrestrained and over-the-top, as is that of Luke Norris as Bruce in the final act. Somewhat ironically, Daniel Kaluuya’s outstanding performance as Chris is more restrained, subtle and intelligent and his sudden switches from funny to manic are deftly handled.

Jeremy Herbert’s design echoes his one for Hamlet here four years ago, as he requires you to walk through a replica of the stage set consulting room underneath it, on a mystery tour to find your seats in one of the four banks of seating looking down on an island stage. 

I’m afraid I thought Matthew Xia’s production didn’t serve the play well, but it’s worth seeing for another fine performance by Daniel Kakuuya. 

 

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It’s taken me a couple of days to write about this because it’s taken me a couple of days to reflect and decide what I think about it!

What I am absolutely clear about is that The Young Vic Theatre and the play’s director Ian Rickson win all the prizes for bravery, ambition and sheer balls. Messing with the bard’s most famous play? Quelle horreur! Rickson’s ‘big idea’ is that it’s all in Hamlet’s head…..or our heads? We enter a mental institution, on a pretty long and impressive  ‘journey’, where the whole play takes place. It’s Hamlet -The Story-The Characters-The Words, but not Hamlet as we know it.

The first half is rather ponderous and slow with lots of Pinteresque silences Shakespeare didn’t write, but it picks up pace significantly in the second half. When it’s running at full steam, it’s a thrilling psychological ride with a couple of clever and brilliant coup d’theatre. Hamlet has never been as confused, damaged, tortured, lost, persecuted…..

Michael Sheen lives up to expectations as the Danish prince – an intelligent and often thrilling performance. There’s an excellent supporting cast, with Sally Dexter capturing Gertrude’s love for both her son and her new man and Vinette Robinson providing a fascinating emotional rollercoaster as Ophelia. Jeremy Herbert creates an all too believable institution with a significant contribution from Adam Silverman’s lighting (and lack of!).

This is the Hamlet that seems to be dividing people, and in my case dividing me….but I have nothing but admiration for the theatre and the creative team – it would have been so easy to churn out another traditional Hamlet-as-star-vehicle like the RSC and Donmar. Challenging stuff indeed.

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The last time I saw this restoration comedy was at the Edinburgh fringe a few years back by a company of stand-ups. It was like a panto and the chief pleasures were Lionel Blair hamming it up mercilessly and Stephen K Amos in a powdered wig – and it all came in at 90 minutes. Deborah Warner’s new production at the Barbican comes in at 3 hours 15 minutes and there isn’t a powdered wig in sight.

Fifteen minutes before curtain-up (not included in the running time above!), you can hear the rave music in the foyer; you’d be wise to go in at this point for a sort of fashion catwalk show in various types of dress and states of undress, with added cardboard signs. What follows is a particularly well spoken show in period costume (well, in a Vivienne Westwood sort of way) and period settings (well, cardboard cut-out with backstage and wings in view) from designer Jeremy Herbert, with a whole host of anachronistic contemporary references like burgers and coke – both types! – blackberries (the electronic variety), shopping bags from designer shops, video projections, flashing lights, binge drinking  and rave music. It’s sort of Sheridan on acid. Oh and there’s a tricorn hat that appears to have grown a lawn!

The story revolves around which of the Surface brothers Uncle Oliver will choose as his heir. He visits them in disguise, obviously, to help him determine who is the most deserving. Then there’s the question of the fidelity of Sir Peter’s new young bride, a husband for Sir Peter’s new ward Maria and the activities of the scandalmongers of the title. As always with restoration comedy we get delicious character names – this one also has Lady Sneerwell, Sir Benjamin Backbite and Careless.

Warner has assembled an outstanding cast, in which Leo Bill shines as Charles Surface. The more experienced actors fare best – John Shrapnel as Uncle (Sir) Oliver, John McEnery as Rowley and Alan Howard no less as Sir Peter Teazle. I particularly liked Vicki Pepperdine’s turn as chief scandalmonger Mrs Candour and Gary Sefton provides some excellent physical comedy playing drunk.

It was meant to shock c.235 years ago, so it seems to me legitimate to attempt to make it shocking today. Warner hasn’t done any damage, though she hasn’t added that much value – except to provide parallels with today’s equally decadent, gossip obsessed society. Having said that, there is a freshness about it (seeing a restoration comedy is often like visiting a museum) which I admired and it doesn’t feel like 3 hours 15 minutes. However, for a comedy, there weren’t really enough laughs.

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Laden with superlative reviews, I suppose it was going to be difficult to live up to them – and so it proved. Perhaps I was a little over-excited. Tennessee Williams is one of my top ten playwrights. Director Joe Hill-Gibbins is new to be but I was bowled over by his Beauty Queen of Leenane earlier in the year in the same theatre. Deborah Findlay is a favourite actress who we don’t get to see anywhere near often enough.

There was a little too much of deconstructionist Katie Mitchell’s influence in the staging, like musicians and ‘backstage’ on view throughout, which I’m not convinced suits an intense drama where it seems to me realism is crucial. As much as I Love Deborah Findlay, I felt she was OTT, turning Amanda into too much of a comic creation. The concept, and Jeremy Herbert’s design, distanced the audience from the play and the characters where I feel you need to be on top of it – maybe I just can’t get the Donmar’s terrific staging out of my head.

The only scene which gripped fully was the ‘courting’ of Laura (a little over-acted by Sinead Matthews) & Jim (an excellent Kyle Soller), where a back curtain brought the scene nearer to the audience and blocked out the backstage distractions. Otherwise, the acting honours mostly belonged to Leo Bill, who brought the sort of light and shade TW needs – passion where the role needs passion, diffidence where necessary etc. The music / soundscape was very atmospheric but I think would have been more so had it not been given such visual prominence.

There was much to enjoy, but it wasn’t the exciting re-invention I was led to expect. I didn’t read the reviews, but caught the stars in passing – maybe I should avoid this in future lest it makes me expect too much (or too little!).

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