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Posts Tagged ‘Juliet Stevenson’

I only know American playwright Arthur Kopit’s work for musical theatre – books for Nine, High Society and Phantom (the other one!). This 1978 stage play started on the radio and it seems to me that it was way ahead of its time; a complex examination of the effect of a stroke.

Our protagonist is aviator and wing-walker Emily Stilson, who suffers a stroke. We see her struggling to come to terms with her condition, but we’re seeing it from her perspective – the confusion and intense frustration, like being inside a nightmare. In hospital, we witness medical examinations and therapies, most notably for speech, though some of what we see are memories, often jumbled up. It really is an insight into brain damage and in particular aphasia. It’s only 75 minutes long but I’m not sure I could have taken more as it is a bit relentless.

Kopit’s notes and stage directions are very comprehensive, and director Natalie Abrahami seems to have respected these, but at the same time created an inventive staging. There’s a simple moving platform with moving translucent curtains, but most important of all, inspired by her career, is that Juliet Stevenson spends almost the entire play ‘flying’, only occasionally touching the ground. It’s a brave, virtuoso performance by a fine actress. One of the consequences, though, is that everyone else seemed like a mere ‘extra’.

It hasn’t been seen here for over thirty years, and I’m glad I caught it. It is insightful, and it’s superbly staged, but I didn’t find it wholly satisfying and rather depressing. Perhaps it was too close to home.

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You can spot a Robert Icke production within moments of it beginning. The use of live and recorded video, an atmospheric soundscape, contemporary songs placed appropriately, striking modern settings. It doesn’t always work for me, but on this occasion everything comes together to make this a brilliant Hamlet. Even the verse sounded like contemporary everyday speech.

We start and end with Danish news footage of the King and Hamlet’s funerals respectively. We’re with security staff watching the ghost in the castle on CCTV. Polonius is wired up when he goes to see Hamlet. When the players give us their play, the royal household join us in the audience where they are being filmed, so we can watch their reactions on screen as well as the play on stage. The same idea is used even more effectively for the fencing match. Ophelia’s burial scene is devastating. It unfolds like the Scandinavian thriller it is. Even the two intervals are perfectly positioned.

Andrew Scott’s soliloquies are restrained and understated, contrasting brilliantly with his rage and anger. It’s a stunning performance with an extraordinary emotional range, but he’s surrounded with a fine set of supporting performances too. Juliet Stevenson is superb as Gertrude, torn between her son and her new husband. Angus Wright is a brilliantly ice cold, defiant Claudius. Peter Wight is excellent as Polonius, with a fine Ophelia from Jessica Brown-Findlay and a passionate Laertes from Luke Thompson. This is a simply terrific cast.

At 3 hours 50 minutes it’s one of my longest Hamlets, but also one of the most gripping I’ve ever seen. The third of my late February four Shakespeare play binge. Probably sold out but look out for a transfer of a cinema relay.

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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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Contemporary Music

Within minutes of taking my Choir seat behind even the sound crew, I began to wonder what I was doing at the Pet Shop Boys Prom. I hated the electromush of the 80’s with a vengeance, though I’ve liked some of the PSB’s crossover stuff – the musical, the ballet and the film live accompaniment. As it turned out, it wasn’t bad – a musicals style overture made up of nine PSB songs, another four PSB songs arranged for Chrissie Hynde (in white tails) and orchestra and a suite (?) about the life and loves of Alan Turing. I’ve never much liked narration to orchestral music (c/f Vaughan Williams Sinfonia Antarctica) and there was way too much in this (even if it was Juliet Stevenson), though the rest didn’t seem half bad. If only…..

Opera

Gloria A Pigtale was a quirky, surreal experience, particularly because it was at Covent Garden’s Linbury Studio. The music reminded me of the more manic Kurt Weill and the staging and design (with a sausage curtain!) were great fun. Even though it was only 80 mins, it didn’t really sustain its length and would have been better as part of a double-bill (but with what?). Still, you have to admire an opera with a line of puppet frogs in red tutus!

The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden gave me my third Maria Stuarda in nine months, following WNO and MetLive. It was musically stunning, with Joyce DiDonato at the peak of her extraordinary powers, as she had been in MetLive, but you had to suffer some preposterous stuff in a production which had the two queens in period dress and everyone else in modern dress and Elizabeth without her wig in public carrying an executioners axe! If only it had been the Met’s production and their Elizabeth (who actually shaved her head for the role!) with everything else from Covent Garden. Never trust a French-Belgian production team with British history (even when its written by Italians based on a German play)!

Classical Music

When I booked to see Thomas Tallis at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, I was expecting a candlelit concert by The Sixteen. As it turned out, it was a series of scenes from the life of the 16th century composer interspersed with a dozen pieces of his music. In addition to Tallis as a character himself, we got Henry VIII, the young Edward VI, Elizabeth I and Dr Dee amongst others, which illustrated how Tallis’ life and work were caught up in the flip-flopping from Catholicism to Protestantism in Britain at the time. Unexpected, but both biographically illuminating and an aural pleasure.

Dance

I’m not sure what I was doing at Brazil Braziliero, or indeed why it was at Sadler’s Wells (more Peacock Theatre, I’d say). The talent, energy and quality were all there, but the show that purported to present the history of the samba somehow seemed like one of those tourist culture shows they’re often trying to entice you to when travelling. It probably wasn’t helped by the emptiest Sadler’s Wells I’ve ever sat in. There were good individual components, but it just didn’t work as a whole for me.

Film

I broke my 15-week cinema famine by seeing Boyhood, filmed over twelve years as the actors aged and an extraordinary achievement. It fully sustained its 2h45m length and it was a great one for my return!

I enjoyed Begin Again, though it took a while to take off, the time switching was a bit confusing and Mark Ruffalo was initially very irritating. It won me over though with its feel-good story and unpredictability.

Art

David Hockney’s exhibition at Annely Juda contained new charcoal drawings and colour prints from the iPad paintings shown in his RA exhibition a few years back. The colour prints were editions of 25 for sale and all had been sold. I asked the price and then worked out that they would have grossed over £8m. A few days later I photographed the Monument to the Unknown Artist at Bankside whose inscription is ‘Don’t applaud, just throw money’!

The Hayward’s exhibition The Human Factor features sculptures of people, but only a handful impressed me. There was so much modern tosh that the good pieces were in danger of being overlooked. Unimpressed.

It was difficult to enjoy Matisse Cut-Outs at Tate Modern as it was so busy. At first, though I found it vibrant and colourful, I wasn’t convinced of their artistic merit. As it progressed I did warm to it and toward the end was more convinced. I will have to go back at a quieter time, though, if such a thing exists at a blockbuster exhibition these days.

I know I say this every year, but the NPG Portrait Award exhibition seems to have trumped itself again with a terrific selection. I noticed a trend towards realism this year, which in my more conservative view is no bad thing. Also at the NPG, an exhibition about Virginia Wolf brought together photographs, paintings, books and diaries by her and her circle, which seemed like a London who’s who of the first half of the 20th century. I have to confess I had no idea she was so prolific, or had so many famous friends!

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This was the first Beckett play I ever saw; 35 years ago, before I left Bristol for London. I’ve seen it three times since (including this one) but it’s one of those plays where your first time will probably never be repeated. A tour de force for an actress – for me June Barrie, Rosaleen Linehan, Fiona Shaw & now Juliet Stevenson – it’s still, somewhat astonishingly, more radical than anything else current.

Winnie spends the first act buried up to her waist and the second up to her neck. In previous productions, it has been a free-standing mound; in Vicki Mortimer’s striking design there is a cliff behind and an occasional light avalanche of scree. It glistens a little like gold in the bright lighting. Though we also see and hear Winnie’s husband Willie occasionally, it’s a virtual monologue as she empties her handbag and obsessively lays out its contents, including a gun, in front of her. The dialogue seems pointless, with more than a touch of sexual innuendo, though nothing is ever pointless in Beckett, just obtuse.

In this production, the contrast between the light(ish) first act and the somewhat bleak second act is greater than I remember. Winnie seemed louder and more shrill, particularly when she is barking instructions at Willie. The infamous bell has become a loud buzz. They stay frozen in character at the end as the audience applaud, presumably until we’ve all left the auditorium. This is my first exposure to director Natalie Abrahami and she makes as much impact as her former Gate colleague Carrie Cracknell did with A Dool’s House here last year.

It probably isn’t the best I’ve seen, but it’s great to see it one more time and Juliet Stevenson makes the role her own. David Beames has to take a back seat, well hole, until his big moment in the light, dressed to kill as it were, or as it maybe, at the end.

Still ground-breaking after all these years.

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The Royal Court really is on a roll. In less than two years, we’ve had great new plays like Jerusalem, Enron, Posh, Clybourne Park, Sucker Punch and Tribes – and now Richard Bean’s terrific new play The Heretic. Its evenings like this that remind me why go to the theatre; I’d sit through five Greenland’s for one play as good as this!

I’ve long been a fan of Bean, but he’s excelled himself here. Unlike the NT’s Greenland, this isn’t a play about climate change, but it uses it as a back-drop to develop its main themes of science v activism whilst weaving in the stories of the complex relationships of its four main protagonists. It’s rich in detailed story-telling, well developed characters, sparklingly sharp & funny dialogue and boy does it make you think. It twists and turns continually – sometimes you see them coming and grin in expectation, but sometimes you don’t and smirk at the surprise. He sets you up for an obvious outcome, only to confound you by doing the opposite. It’s clearly well researched; he even shows a HR Manager arranging the chairs for a disciplinary meeting exactly as HR managers do!

As someone who was heavily involved in a major employment law case which resulted in the interpretation of ‘religious or similar philosophical beliefs’ to include views on climate change, I’d already begun to buy Bean’s proposition that climate change has become a religion and in doing so the debate has ceased to be objective. He puts this point centre stage and debates it more eloquently and entertainingly than you would ever think possible – whilst, unlike Greenland, remaining objective and not patronising or preaching to his audience.

Peter McKintosh has created two excellent realistic sets and Jeremy Herrin’s direction is impeccable. The performances are terrific. The wonderful Juliet Stevenson clearly relishes her meaty role. James Fleet has never been better than here as her boss. Johnny Flynn and Lydia Wilson are both terrific in the complex roles of Ben and Phoebe, and there are fine cameos from Adrian Hood and Leah Whitaker.

The Royal Court is now fully established as the place where you go for intelligent, thought-provoking, topical, entertaining plays and this one is an absolute unmissable treat!

 

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