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Posts Tagged ‘Mark Gatiss’

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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2013 will go down as the year when some of our finest young actors took to the boards and made Shakespeare exciting, seriously cool and the hottest ticket in town. Tom Hiddleston’s Coriolanus joins James McAvoy’s Macbeth as a raw, visceral, physical & thrilling role interpretation. The dream team of Adrian Lester and Rory Kinnear provided psychological depth in a very contemporary Othello. Jude Law and David Tennant as King’s Henry V & Richard II led more elegant, traditional but lucid interpretations. They enhanced the theatrical year and I feel privileged to have seen them all.

The Donmar has provided some great Shakespeare evenings in recent years – Othello, Richard II, King Lear & Julius Caesar – and this is a match for them all. It’s a deeply intelligent, imaginative and thrilling interpretation that was riveting from beginning to end. When we got to the interval after 90 minutes, I wanted a pee, but not an interval! It’s the most objective reading of the play I’ve seen, with a less sympathetic Coriolanus. It balances his scorn at the public reaction to his heroic defence of the state with Rome’s concern over his propensity for tyrannical autocracy. This most political of plays gets a most political production, yet a very personal mother-son relationship shines through.

There are so many highlights, I don’t quite know where to start. The opening food riot uses live and projected graffiti to great effect. The fight scenes are so well staged (by Richard Ryan) you almost feel the blows. The battle to take a city is brilliantly staged by climbing ladders, one real and the rest projections. The disrespect shown at his banishment is truly shocking. The scene where Volumnia pleads with her son not to take Rome is deeply moving. Coriolanus’ death makes you gasp. Josie Rourke’s staging and Lucy Osbourne’s designs are masterly.

Tom Hiddleston exceeds expectations as Coriolanus, with huge presence and great passion, but he has extraordinary support from a faultless cast. Deborah Findlay conveys the mother’s pride and love superbly; a strong woman of great conviction. I loved Birgitte Hjort Sorensen somewhat neurotic Virgilia (without a hint of her native Danish accent), Mark Gatiss fatherly Menenius adds much-needed humour and Hadley Fraser leads the bearded Volscians with tribal passion yet respect and love for a fellow soldier, even if he is the enemy. You admire Peter de Jersey for his loyalty and you’re deeply suspicious of the motives of Tribunes Brutus & Sicinia played by Elliot Levey & Helen Schlesinger – effective sex-blind casting there, as there is with Rochenda Sandall as a one-woman crowd who almost bursts a blood vessel before your very eyes.

This ended my theatrical year on a real high. A triumph for all involved and great to report that those Hiddleston fans were enthralled, quiet and respectful. Wonderful.

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The story of the English Civil War, and in particular Charles I’s trail and execution, seemed like an excellent subject for playwright Howard Brenton who has had such success with both recent history (Macmillan in ‘Never So Good’) and history of the same period (‘Anne Boleyn’) but I’m afraid this play doesn’t really stand up to either.

The action is concentrated into a small period leading up to, during and after the trial and into a limited number of locations so it doesn’t have the epic scale the events perhaps deserve. It also doesn’t have the depth of both story and characterisation that the subject deserves; it felt like he had a great idea but got a bit bored with it before he was through.

The first half is particularly slow, though things do pick up in the trial scenes in Act II. There is, however, something uneven about the evening and it could do with a lot more pace. This is unusual for director Howard Davies who’s always seemed to me to be the master of pace.

I’m not sure it gained much from the traverse staging (and those in the first couple of rows on both sides would probably say it lost a lot for them in the trail scenes as they appeared to be looking at the backs of the parliamentarians) or indeed Ashley Martin-Davies’ design. The idea to dress everyone in modern dress except Charles is a bit puzzling and everyone and everything in black and grey made for a somewhat drab experience.

Mark Gatiss is perfectly good as Charles (though I understand he’s about a foot too tall if you want to be historically accurate!) and Douglas Henshall is fine as Cromwell. In fact, there’s nothing wrong with the performances, though none excited me.

Perhaps I was expecting too much, but I left the theatre feeling very indifferent about the play and the production, I’m afraid.

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I wasn’t very excited by Josie Rourke’s opening season at the Donmar, but I may have to eat a few words. Her opener is something the Donmar doesn’t normally do (restoration comedy) and it gets a handsome production with a full set of great performances.

The theatre has had its biggest makeover since the 25th Putman County Spelling Bee. It has been turned into an 18th century playhouse with the stalls back wall removed, the circle railing replaced with a wooden one, wooden floors and (false) wooden ceiling, a painted back screen with candle holders and real lit candles, more real lit candles around the auditorium and three chandeliers, also with real lit candles! Lucy Osbornes’ setting is warm, welcoming and gorgeous, as are the period costumes.

George Farquhar’s comedy takes place in Tewksbury where two army captains are recruiting using all means, fair and foul. Both  have designs on different local girls, Sylvia and Melinda – who also has the attentions of local businessman Worthy. The girls fall out and Sylvia returns disguised as a man, Wilful, who both captains seek to recruit. Captain Plumes’s Sargent Kite plumbs new depths of deception, there’s a lot of confusion but it all ends happily – except for the recruits. It’s a comedy but it does make a serious point about the treatment of recruits and ends with a powerful statement as they head for the war.

In addition to the lovely design, the use of music is terrific. The jigs and reels played brilliantly by five of the actors add much – including a delicious twist on the ‘turn off you mobiles’ advice now common at the start of plays. The performances too are terrific, with Nancy Carroll and Rachel Stirling as Sylvia and Melinda shining and Tobias Menzies commanding the stage with great authority as Captain Plume. Mark Gattis’ excellent comic turn as Captain Brazen suggests we need to see as much of him on stage as we already do his League of Gentlemen colleagues Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton. The other two leads, Nicholas Burns as Worthy and Mackenzie Crook as Sargent Kite, complete an excellent set of leads and the supporting cast of eight are all excellent.

Somehow though it didn’t add up to the sum of the parts; the first half in particular was uneven and didn’t sweep you away anywhere near as much as the second half did. I don’t know whether this is the play or the production. It’s not the complete delight the NT’s She Stoops to Conquer is, but it’s still an impressive start to the Rourke reign. Don’t wear too many clothes though, as for some reason the Donmar is set at sauna level temperatures.

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