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Posts Tagged ‘Lia Williams’

Revivals of this 1961 Tennessee Williams play don’t come along as often as most of his other classics. I first saw it at the NT in 1992 with Alfred Molina as Shannon, then again in the West End in 2005, where Woody Harrelson took the lead. Now its Clive Owen’s turn, with American Anna Gunn and our own Lia Williams as the women in his life at this moment in time. It has TW’s usual biographical strands, with a predatory man who exploits young women adding a timeliness.

Rae Smith’s extraordinary set creates a mountain lodge with four shacks, palm trees, walkways and a mountain! It conjures up the tropical coastal location in Mexico where Irish American ex-priest, now tour guide, brings a group of ladies from a Baptist college in Texas. The tour isn’t going well; he’s already accused of sex with one of the underage girls and they are refusing to stay at the lodge run by Shannon’s friend and sometime lover Maxine, recently widowed.

It’s late season in 1940 and the only other guests are four German tourists who sing Nazi songs and rejoice in the bombing of London! Then New England lady Hannah, an artist, and her 97-year-old grandfather, ‘America’s oldest living poet’, turn up. Maxine is reluctant to accommodate them, but succumbs under pressure from Shannon, who is clearly attracted to Hannah. Their problems and their demons emerge and unfold on this one night, with sexual tension between Shannon and both Maxine and Hannah, but in very different ways, and an unspoken rivalry between the two women.

Clive Owen seemed to take a short while to get into his character, but was soon commanding the stage. Anna Gunn and Lia Williams are both excellent in their very different roles, Gunn as feisty promiscuous Maxine and Williams as gentle serene Hannah. There’s terrific support from Julian Glover as Hannah’s grandfather and Finty Williams as Mrs Fellowes, the church group leader who takes no prisoners. In addition to Rae Smith’s set, James Macdonald’s fine production boasts some great lighting from Neil Austin and an atmospheric soundscape by Max Pappenheim.

Good to see it again, done so well.

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This is the most famous of Muriel Spark’s twenty-two novels, her 6th, published in 1961, which was on stage within five years, on film within eight and a TV series ten years after that. Last seen on stage in London twenty years ago, at the National’s Lyttelton Theatre in a production by Phyllida Lloyd starring Fiona Shaw, this is a new version by Scottish playwright David Harrower. Though he’s done a lot of adaptations, he seemed an odd choice, but as it turns out he’s taken an interesting, fresh look.

Set in the thirties in a private girls school in Edinburgh, teacher Jean Brodie’s determination to teach her girls about life sets her on a collision course with Miss Mackay’s strict adherence to the curriculum. She treats them like friends, telling them about her relationships and her experiences, inviting them to her home. They are more like followers than pupils. At first it all seems mildly subversive and rather charming, until you realise how much control she exerts, her attempts to make choices for and mould her girls, not forgetting her fascist leanings. There is a dalliance with married art teacher Mr Lloyd and a long relationship with music teacher Mr Lowther, whose proposal she spurns. She is eventually betrayed and is forced to leave the school. It’s often very funny, but at times it’s sinister and dark too.

It’s told partly in flashback from post-war scenes where one of the girls, who went to Oxford and published a memoir, is interviewed by a journalist just before she enters a convent, and I’m not sure this worked that well or if was really necessary in telling the story. They’ve put in a middle aisle and swapped the front two rows of the stalls for wooden school chairs, which I’m also not sure is entirely necessary. They’ve gone to a lot of trouble to create a partly glazed back wall and ceiling, yet Lizzie Clachan’s design still seems to be missing something. I did love the use of bells, though, which emphasise both the school setting and the period.

If you need only one reason to see Polly Findlay’s revival it’s Lia Williams brilliant performance. She makes the role her own, delightful in her opinionated rebelliousness but ultimately transformed into a tragic figure. I’ve long admired her work, but this is a career high. In a fine supporting cast, Rona Morrison is terrific as Sandy, who sees the negatives in Brodie’s approach, and Sylvestra Le Touzel provides the contrasting sternness of Miss Mackay.

Good to see it on stage again, and warmly recommended.

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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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It’s clearly going to be my Year of the Greeks. We’re not even half-way through and this is my 5th, and it’s the first of 3 in the Almeida Greeks season. I’ve seen lots of Greek tragedies, but this trilogy has passed me by (apart from an adaptation of one segment recently). I never saw the iconic Peter Hall production at the NT as I’d only just moved to London, was unemployed and hadn’t really got into theatre-going anyway. Director Robert Icke’s new version is contemporary and radical, with a 3 hour playing time, and I thought it worked brilliantly.

This paragraph may be considered a spoiler (of a 2500 year old tale based on Greek mythology!) – Orestia tells the story of Agamemnon, his wife Clytemnestra and children Elektra, Orestes and Iphigenia. Agamemnon sacrifices his youngest daughter Iphigenia to the gods before leading the Greek army in the Trojan War. Whilst he’s away, his wife moves his cousin / her lover Aegisthus in and when he returns she kills him in revenge for the sacrifice of Iphigenia. Orestes, encouraged by his sister Elektra, returns from self-imposed exile to avenge the death of his father by killing his mother and her lover.

Icke appears to have added the pre-war events to Aeschylus, so we see a happy family before Iphigenia’s death, the torment Agamemnon goes through, the sacrifice itself and his departure to war. This gives the plays better context and the normality and happiness of family mealtimes heightens the subsequent tragedy. The ghosts of deceased characters occasionally return and Orestes appears throughout, even when in exile, being ‘interviewed’ about events now passed by what at first appears to be a counsellor or therapist, with a hint of false memory syndrome. This makes sense in the final ‘courtroom’ scene when everything unravels like a detective story. In this final scene, the references to the position of men and women in society feel ever so modern.

The production’s default style is cold, clinical and somewhat austere and there are many long pauses, which makes the outbursts of emotion much more dramatic, moving and occasionally terrifying. They even integrate the need for good timekeeping (it’s 3.5 hours with precisely 28 minutes of breaks!) with the breaks announced, clocks audibly ticking down and ushers issuing reminders. The use of music is terrific, with God Only Knows heard more than once and Nick Lowe’s The Beast in Me a real surprise (to a Lowe fan like me).

Angus Wright and Lia Williams are terrific as Agamemnon and Clytemnestra (Wright also plays his ghost and his cousin Aegisthus, which may be why I thought this character’s part had been reduced). Luke Thompson was hugely impressive as a very passionate Orestes. I could hardly believe it was Jessica Brown-Findlay’s stage debut as Elektra, such was her command of the role.  Young actors Eve Benioff Salama as Iphigenia and Ilan Galkoff as the young Orestes were marvellous.

When I booked this for the evening after Everyman I hadn’t thought that I was pairing two morality plays written 2000 years apart. Both have taken ancient material and made them completely relevant for a 21st century audience. Thrilling stuff.

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