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Posts Tagged ‘Martin Hutson’

This early David Hare play was first staged at the NT’s Cottesloe Theatre 33 years ago, paired with another called Wrecked Eggs. It’s now flying solo at the Menier in an impeccable production by Richard Eyre with a stunning design by Fotini Dimou, but I’m not sure its substantial enough to hold an evening on its own.

It’s 1955 and Valentina Nrovka has been invited to the Hermitage in St Petersburg to contribute to the debate about the provenance of a painting believed to be by Matisse, who was her friend. Valentina’s daughter Sophia comes too, and much of the play is in fact about their relationship and Sophia’s intention to leave her husband for a much older man, Peter, who also turns up. The personal story, the art and the Soviet state are interwoven to form the narrative.

Valentina is acid tongued and Hare has written some brilliant lines for her, delivered to perfection by Penelope Wilton, so much so that she dominates the piece, a bit like Lady Bracknell does in The Importance of Being Earnest. Ophelia Lovibond provides fine support as Sophia, and David Rintoul as Peter and Martin Hutson as the Assistant Curator give fine cameos, but it’s Wilton’s evening, worth the visit for her masterclass in acting, plus a truly evocative design of a seemingly vast room in the Winter Palace.

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This play teaches us three lessons that still hold true. The first is that people will quickly follow anyone who pushes the right buttons – setting out their belief, engaging emotionally and laying out the supporting facts (or lies, as appears to be the case today) – and switch allegiance just a quickly. Secondly, when power goes to their head, or they derail for other reasons, leaders are dealt with by their own (the Tories dealt with Thatcher before the electorate had a chance, and are circling May as I write – and hopefully the same is happening in Washington!). The third is that you may think you’ve got rid of a tyrant or a tyranny, but another one, even worse, may come along soon – think Arab Spring. Shakespeare is often timeless.

The people willingly follow the charismatic orator Caesar, but the conspirators assassinate him to protect the republic and prevent permanent autocracy. Mark Anthony then woos the people with his rhetoric, joins forces with Octavius, and before you know it you’re back where you were before you despatched the last dictator, only this one seems worse.

It’s a relatively conventional, classical production, devoid of modern references and gimmicks, so its all about the verse and the performances. I didn’t engage with the first half, up to the point of the assassination, as well as I did with the second, the aftermath, political turmoil and battles, but that’s as much to do with the play as the production. This part of the story is much more thrilling, though it’s difficult to do war and death at close quarters with twenty or thirty people. In this production, though, when it comes to the murder of the boy Lucius, the audience were traumatised by its realism.

There are two cracking performances at the centre of this production – Martin Hutson’s Cassius and Alex Waldmann’s Brutus, and their combined passion creates a powerhouse combination. Andrew Woodall’s Caesar, James Corrigan’s Mark Anthony and Jon Tarcy as Octavius also impress. This fine ensemble has been very watchable in all four plays.

I’ve enjoyed the Romans season, particularly seeing them over an eight-week period, albeit in the wrong order. Adding the contemporary Imperium plays in Stratford, covering the same period, turned it into a real theatrical feast. This is what the RSC is for.

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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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