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Posts Tagged ‘Karl Johnson’

I’m fond of a bit of Beckett, something to fire your imagination and stretch your brain. I enjoy my regular trips to the Old Vic Theatre, one of London’s truly great theatre spaces. Director Richard Jones has long been a favourite, though he’s done more opera of late. I’ve much admired how Daniel Radcliffe has managed his post-Potter stage career and liked the three performances I’d seen before this – Equus, The Cripple of Inishmaan and Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. Yet I left the Old Vic disappointed.

The double-bill opens with Rough For Theatre II, a rarely performed and arguably unfinished 25-minute piece where two suited men are at desks in a room where a man is standing on the window ledge poised to commit suicide. B (Alan Cumming) reads about his life from files, as if they are justifying or judging whether the act should proceed. A (Radcliffe) comments, smirks, appears to be in charge. They have come from other suicides and will continue to more. It’s intriguing, if slight, but my biggest problem with it was the contrast between A and B, or Radcliffe and Cumming, I’m not sure which. The difference between them didn’t really make sense to me.

The main event, Endgame, isn’t a long play, but it is three times the length of the curtain-raiser, and at 75 minutes outstayed its welcome; I hadn’t felt that on the two previous occasions I’d seen it. Hamm (Cumming) is confined to a chair, waited on by his servant Clov (Radcliffe). They have a seemingly endless repetitive ritual that involves Clov climbing ladders to look out of the high windows and commenting on the world outside and fetching and carrying for Hamm. Their relationship is brittle, Hamm waiting to die, Clov waiting to be free. Hamm’s parents occasionally make an appearance, popping up from their place in adjacent dustbins. Radcliffe brings an expert physicality to his role, but his youth seemed at odds with the character.

Despite both being end-of-life plays, to me they didn’t belong together, and the theatre was too big for both. I liked Cumming’s two characterisations and the casting of Karl Johnson and Jane Horrocks was luxurious indeed. On the three previous occasions, I felt Radcliffe had chosen roles that suited him, but here they don’t, which does slightly derail his otherwise impressive short stage career.

This was my second Beckett this year and I’m afraid the tiny Jermyn Street Theatre, home of the first, upstaged the Old Vic.

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For what its worth, these are my thoughts to add to the trillion column inches this production has already generated……

I’ve never left the theatre feeling quite so relieved. Not because of the play, but because the whole bloody Sonia Friedman Hamlet Experience was at last over. From the ticket mania (where Barbican members like me played second fiddle to ATG & Friedman followers), through the thirteen months of hype to the (p)reviews, press reports of poor audience behaviour, patronising Barbican emails telling me to bring photo ID and behave myself (I’m a 60-something who goes to the theatre 3 or 4 times a week for gods sake), to the ‘Hamlet Shop’ and its £8.50 programmes and the post-interval policing by ushers trying to be assertive but too meek to pull it off, this was never going to be a normal ‘buy ticket-wait-ignore reviews-turn up-make up your own mind’ theatre experience. I actually feel sorry for Benedict Cumberbatch trying to do his job in the middle of all this, and oh how I hate what Sonia Friedman is doing to London theatre.

Es Devlin must have been given a humongous design budget. Elsinore is amazing, but with dubious sight lines making my £65 view restricted! In the second half it’s invaded by ‘stuff’ but I’m not sure why. Still, with costumes by Katrina Lindsay, it looks spectacular. In addition to a very good performance from the man in the goldfish bowl, there are fine performances from Anastasia Hille as Gertrude, Ciaran Hinds as Claudius and Karl Johnson as the ghost; in fact, it’s a fine ensemble and, to his credit, Benedict Cumberbatch plays it like the good company man he’s always been. Lyndsay Turner has some original ideas, most of which worked and none of them offended me (that line has by now returned to its proper place). I particularly liked her take on Hamlet’s madness, a touch madcap and manic. The audience was amongst the quietest, most attentive I’ve ever sat in. The problem with it for me is that I didn’t engage with it emotionally at all. That may be my mood, missing curtain up for the first time in an age courtesy of the Northern Line, or the cumulative effect of the hype (I hadn’t been looking forward to it as much as I should have) but it’s at least in part the production, which wants to be big in every sense, at the expense of psychological depth and emotion.

It’s a pity he didn’t make his return to the stage at the NT, Donmar or Almeida, like many of his fellow ‘star’ actors. Fewer people would have seen him, but he and the audience would have had a truer theatrical experience. C’est la vie. At least (for me) it’s over!

 

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Walking into the Donmar for this is another one of those WOW moments. Rob Howell’s extraordinary set of ‘distressed’ planks draws you in like never before into this already intimate space. It really is like peering into these people’s homes.

Though it’s the same play, it’s a very different experience to the Michael Rudman production I saw at the National 27 years ago. Then, a young Ralph Fiennes was Arkady and Robert Glenister was Bazarov, with Lesley Sharp as Fenichka. In addition to the smaller space, the success of this revival is due to masterly direction from Lyndsey Turner and one of the finest casts ever to grace this stage well used to fine casts.

Arkady returns from university in St. Petersburg a nihilist, with his friend and fellow nihilist Bazarov of whom he is in awe. Bazarov has great charisma and people can’t fail to be affected by him – Uncle Pavel and family retainer Prokofyich detest him, Dad Nikolai takes to him and maid Dunyasha swoons over him. When they move on to Bazarov’s home, his parents idolise him. Sadly, he’s unable to reciprocate any of these emotional responses. When he does let his guard down and profess his love for Anna, he is rebuffed and withdraws even further into himself. Though Arkady shares his philosophical beliefs, he’s nowhere near as cold and hard-hearted and the tragic conclusion leaves him devastated.

Playwright Brian Friel tells this story of familial love and friendship with a light touch and it’s lovely. It has great pace and there are no wasted moments. The ensemble is simply superb. I missed American Seth Numrich’s London debut last year, but I was hugely impressed by his performance here, with the earnestness, presence and passion required for Bazarov. It must be hard to play against this, but Joshua James does so with great emotionality and vulnerability. Anthony Calf is revelatory as the bumbling, hapless Nikolai and Tim McMullan is suitably pompous as Pavel. It’s hard to single out others, but it was great to see Karl Johnson and Susan Engel give such fine interpretations of Vassily and Princess Olga.

This is a brilliant and long overdue revival and another great night at the Donmar.

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