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Posts Tagged ‘John Light’

French Playwright Florian Zeller’s work has become a staple of London’s theatre in the last five years. Six of his play’s have had productions here in that period, all translated by Christopher Hampton. This seventh is the third in his family trilogy, following The Mother & The Father which, both first seen in this theatre, we saw the other way round to the order in which they were written. Though I liked the other three, those two stood out for me, and this is a very welcome companion piece.

The son, Nicolas, a teenager, seems badly affected by his parents separation. His dad Pierre has a new wife and baby son and he asks to live with them after his mother Anne struggles to cope when she discovers he hasn’t been going to school. If anything, it’s even more of a challenge at his father’s and he spirals into depression and despair. What at first seems unhappiness at the split proves to be severe depression.

It’s hard to say more without spoiling it, but it is a harrowing journey that shows the damage that can be done at a vulnerable point in a young person’s life, and the agony of the parents who have to deal with it. It doesn’t take sides, and Zeller doesn’t mess with your head as much as he did in The Father, about dementia, and The Mother, who struggles with empty nesting, but he does have a trick or two up his sleeve.

Michael Longhurst’s sensitive production features a career defining performance by John Light, at first unsympathetic, but whose pain you come to feel intensely as he lets go, and a stunning performance that oozes authenticity by Laurie Kynaston as Nicolas. Though the male leads carry the emotional weight of the play, there are excellent contributions too from Amanda Abbington as Nicolas’ mum Anne, who struggles to cope with it all, and Amaka Okafor as Pierre’s new partner Sofia, torn between supporting her man in his support of his son and focusing on their new life and new child.

It’s not an easy watch, but it’s an insightful piece which rewards you with a sense of understanding and appreciation of mental health, as the other two plays had done, and the impact marital separation can have on children.

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There’s a real frisson at the beginning of this play, as a coin is spun to determine which of the two leading ladies, in similar modern dress and hairstyles, will play Mary Stuart and which will play Elizabeth I. The rest of the cast then bow to the chosen Queen Elizabeth I and the play begins. We’ve had role-swapping before, like Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein at the NT, though as far as I know none determined quite like this (assuming that it is).

Schiller’s 1800 play revolves around a meeting between the two Queens at Fotheringay, which never actually took place. Mary is imprisoned and requests a meeting to plead her case for release. It’s a tense psychological and emotional encounter, though it results in nothing. Elizabeth is advised that releasing Mary would be a great threat. From here, it evolves into a thriller about the proposed execution of Mary and who is responsible. This adaptation / production takes a more feminist stance, implying that both women were being manipulated by the men around them; an entirely plausible and fascinating theory.

Director Robert Icke has written this adaptation, which is some 50 minutes longer than the Donmar’s eleven years ago. The problem with it is that it takes way too long, around eighty minutes, to get to the pivotal meeting and I found this first part ever so slow, and frankly a bit dull. When we do get to Fotheringay, it’s a riveting ride through to a brilliant ending, but it risks losing the audience before it gets there. You also have to swallow some implausibilities, like the story unfolding in just twenty-four hours, despite the fact it’s locations are 80 miles apart, the brazen and, it seemed to me, unlikely sexual advances Mortimer makes to Mary and Leicester to Elizabeth and the existence of a female ordained catholic in the sixteenth century, or now come to think of it. I do wish he’d got someone to help with or edit the adaptation.

The performances, though, are stunning. On the night I went, Juliet Stevenson was a passionate, defiant Mary and Lia Williams a charismatic, assertive Elizabeth; both brilliant. There’s terrific support from John Light as the duplicitous Leicester, Rudi Dharmalingam as Mortimer, a character Schiller invented, besotted with Mary, Vincent Franklin as the devious Burleigh and Alan Williams in the more sympathetic role of Talbot. It’s set on a round platform that sometimes revolves, with additional side seating to make it almost in-the-round. There’s another of Robert Icke’s trademark soundscapes, this time including tunes by Laura Marling no less. It’s in modern dress, and I found the simplicity of Hildegard Bechtler’s design enabled you to concentrate on the story and the dialogue, well, when it took off.

A fascinating piece of historical fiction that is beautifully staged and performed, but about 45 minutes too long.

 

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I’ve got a soft spot for this late Shakespeare play. How can you not like something with a man-eating bear, Time as a character to explain the passing of sixteen years between acts, a sheep-shearing festival with a dance of satyrs and a statue that comes alive! This production in the candlelit Sam Wanamaker is the finest I’ve ever seen.

It’s got a very dark beginning, with the king’s rampant suspicion and unfounded jealousy leading to deaths of the queen and the young prince and the abandonment of a baby princess. When the oracle declares the queen innocent, the king is initially unrepentant, but later becomes wracked with guilt. Meanwhile in Bohemia, the prince has fled and hooked up with a shepherd’s daughter but get’s found out at the aforementioned sheep-shearing festival. The progress from here to the happy ending is a joy.

Like Cymbeline a couple of weeks ago the play, also written for an indoor playhouse, fits this one like a glove. Again, it had few props but gorgeous costumes from Richard Kent and some particularly original and quirky choreography from Fleur Darkin.

John Light is a terrific Leontes and Rachael Stirling is great as Hermoine. I very much liked Niamh Cusak as Paulina and there was a superb comic turn from James Garnon as Autolycus. Luxury casting in the smaller parts too, with David Yelland particularly good as Antigonus and Fergal McElherron likewise as Camillo. Director Michael Longhurst has assembled an outstanding ensemble.

This late play season at the SWP is turning into a real treat. Bring on The Tempest!

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This ‘version’ of Turgenev’s 1869 play is set over three days in mid-19th century Russia on the estate of Arkady and his wife Natalya and young son Kolya. Arkady’s mother Anna, her companion Lizaveta and Natalya’s ward Vera also live with them, but its a small family unit for the place and time. Turgenev was more of a novelist than a playwright (the only other piece of his I’ve known staged in modern times was actually adapted from a novel) and somehow it shows here; it felt at times like a reading.

The recent arrival of assistant tutor Belyaev seems to have worked wonders on Kolya, but caused havoc amongst the ladies as Vera, Natalya and maid Katya have all fallen for him. This puts a couple of noses out of joint – family friend Rakitin, who has carried a torch for Natalya for some time, and manservant Matvey, who loves Katya. Add in two sub-plots of neighbour Bolshintsov seeking to wed Vera and the doctor, Shpigelsky, proposing to Lizaveta (one of the highlights of the play) and you have a lot of love and relationships to unfold in three stage days (a month in Turgenev’s original), under two hours playing time, and it turns into an eighteenth century soap opera.

This is all played out in front of a giant painting (design Mark Thompson), the canvas of which appears to continue to cover the stage, ending in rough edging at the front. The wings are exposed and the actors often sit at the back and sides when not performing. There is some furniture, but it feels like a oversized space much of the time, perhaps intentionally, representing the vast estate.

The evening’s chief pleasure is a uniformly excellent cast, though they appear to have been directed to play in a less naturalistic, somewhat old-fashioned way. Amanda Drew is exceptional as Natalya, able to instantly convey passion and emotion. John Simm impresses in the role of Rakitin, unlike any other I’ve seen him in. Mark Gatiss provides much of the comedy as Shpigelsky, particularly in scenes with the superb Debra Gillett as his love interest. Though the role is a bit underwritten, John Light is great as Arkady and Royce Pierreson gives a fine performance in the pivotal role of Belyaev.

When a writer directs his own work, I worry where the creative tension will come from. Patrick Marber has directed three of his own plays here at the NT (though not The Red Lion, currently running next door https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2015/06/15/the-red-lion) but not his other two adaptations, both at the Donmar. I found the seated actors a bit passe, pointless and distracting and the I found the playing style a bit quirky, so I did leave wondering what another director would have made of the material, which was indeed well written. A more conventional period staging may have served it better.

It was a pleasant enough evening, and I enjoyed it more than The Red Lion, but it didn’t wow me and I left feeling that it was a bit unfair giving over two of the three NT stages at the same time to the same playwright for plays which may not be entirely worthy of them.

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Well, it isn’t going to be a fun-filled theatrical week, that’s for sure. On Monday, it was a chemotherapy clinic, later today it’s the man who invented the bomb, tomorrow it’s Les Miserables (schools edition!), Saturday it’s Greek tragedy (in Dutch) and this one concerns the Nazi horrors of the 1930’s! Playwright Mark Hayhurst is not content with making both a TV drama and a TV documentary on the same subject, he wrote a play too, and a playwriting debut to boot, now transferred from Chichester to the West End. It’s the little known story of Hans Litten, a young lawyer who put Hitler in the dock in 1931 and cross-examined him and its rather good.

It’s told from the perspective of his mother, who talks direct to the audience as well as appearing in scenes with other characters, all male, and there’s nothing like a mother to tell her son’s story with passion. We follow Hans from arrest through three concentration camps to his death whilst his mother works tirelessly for better treatment or even release for her son, confronting Gestapo officers head on. Penelope Wilton combines steely determination with defiance and dignity in a superb performance as Irmgard Litten. The scenes of imprisonment and torture are harrowing, but the story could not be told properly if they weren’t. We only see the cross-examination which unleashes the Nazi wrath towards the end, in flashback.

In addition to Dame Penelope, there are fine, sensitive performances from Martin Hutson as Hans and Pip Donaghy and Mike Grady as fellow prisoners Erich Muhsam and Carl von Ossietzky (who won a Nobel Prize for peace whilst captivated), John Light as Nazi Dr Conrad and David Yelland as a British peer who seeks to help Irmgard. Robert Jones’ design has a suitably claustrophobic ‘corridor’ at the rear where prison scenes are enacted and the stage is thrust forward into the stalls, bringing a real engagement with Irmgard’s story. It’s beautifully staged by Jonathan Church. Not an easy ride, but one worth making.

 

 

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There was a time when Schiller’s plays were dull and turgid. Then along came Mike Poulton with adaptations which breathed new life into them. His  adaptation of Don Carlos was masterly and now he excels with this cross between Les Liaisons Dangereuses and Romeo & Juliet.

The Chancellor’s son, an army major, is in love with court musician’s daughter Luise, but his father plans to wed him to the Prince’s mistress to provide cover for the Prince and obtain influence for himself.  The Chancellor’s private secretary, appropriately named Wurm, wants Luise himself and with the help of Lady Milford and Hofmarschall ( I wasn’t quite sure what his role is) his machiavellian plans unfold, ending tragically with its R&J moment. It’s a cracking story and the dialogue is sharp and often witty; not a word is wasted.

The Donmar space is simply but beautifully designed and lit by Peter McKintosh and Paule Constable respectively and Michael Grandage’s staging is as ever impeccable. I don’t think even the Donmar has ever assemble an ensemble this good. You totally believe in the love and passion of Felicity Jones and Max Bennett as Luise and Ferdinand. Ben Daniels has never been better than here as the Chancellor, whose craze for power unleashes such tragedy and results in his own deep remorse. John Light and David Dawson provide the intrigue in their deliciously smarmy, oleaginous fashion (and in the case of Dawson, very camp) whilst Alex Kingston is every bit the arch manipulator whose only interest is herself – at any cost . I also really liked Paul Higgins devoted passionate father who does much to illustrate the backdrop of the class divide.

This will I’m sure be one of the highlights of the year, and one of the defining productions of Grandage’s reign at the Donmar. Miss at your peril.

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I was beginning to warm to Ibsen. Good recent productions of Pillars of the Community, A Doll’s House, Hedda Gabler and John Gabriel Borkman were beginning to turn one of my problem playwrights into an interesting and intriguing one. Then along comes this very obtuse play in a very stylish but dull production…..

To be honest, I still don’t really know what it was all about or what’s his point. Solness, the master builder, has learned his craft from someone who now wants him to help his son who he’s been training. Not only is he reluctant to do so, he also appears to have a relationship with the son’s girlfriend. There’s stuff about his wife’s home being destroyed and rebuilt, bedrooms for non-existent children & fear of heights. Then a young girl turns up to confuse you even further!

The Almeida stages this on what looks like soil with the bare walls of the theatre as a backdrop. There’s a big staircase but next to no props. I found Stephen Dillane too mannered and actorly as Solness, but I was very impressed by Gemma Arterton and there were good supporting performances from Anastasia Hille, Jack Shepherd, John Light and Patrick Godfrey.

It did hold my attention for 110 unbroken minutes, but I left the theatre thinking of all the other things I could have done. There have been a few evenings like this at the Almeida of late; are they losing the plot? Artistic-Director-staying-too-long syndrome?

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