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Posts Tagged ‘Max Webster’

The Donmar will not have known their new production of Henry V, a play about a sovereign nation invading another sovereign nation over some obscure historical claims, would open as a nation invaded another over obscure historical claims. Life imitates art.

This is a very contemporary take on the play, cast regardless of sex, with most actors playing multiple roles. After the prologue there appears to be an additional scene of revelry with Falstaff et al prior to the announcement of Henry VI’s demise, making it a more seamless follow-up to the previous (chronologically) history play, but not what Shakespeare wrote. There’s also a lot more narration than I think Shakespeare wrote. In fact, they take rather a lot of liberties with the verse, not least putting the desire for naturalistic dialogue above respect for it. Perhaps the most radical thing is the French speaking in French, with English surtitles, plus a smattering of other tongues, including Welsh. While I’m on that subject (subjectivity alert!), the stereotyping of the Welsh is clumsy and tiresome – you’ll hear ‘look you’ more times in three hours at the Donmar than in a year living in Wales.

There are things to like, mostly visual, including battle scenes, Fly Davies’ design and the use of sacred music, sung live by some of the cast. Kit Harington makes a decent job of the Henry he’s tasked with characterising, though it won’t go down as a great interpretation of one of Shakespeare’s meatier roles. While I’m on the subject of Shakespeare, who wrote the play by the way, they are way too preoccupied looking for contemporary relevance and modern resonance to bother with something as basic as serving the play, hence my title of this review. I usually enjoy modern, contemporary productions of Shakespeare, but here director Max Webster pushed it too far and lost so much in the process. Still, they’ll continue reviving the play long after his production is forgotten, so I guess The Bard gets the last laugh.

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I’ve never read Yann Martel’s novel and I didn’t take to the film. After watching this stage adaptation by Lolita Chakrabarti, I’m beginning to wonder why. Whatever you make of the story, the telling of it, and the stagecraft with which it is presented are extraordinary. It’s great to see quality like this on a West End stage.

It starts in the Mexican hospital room where Pi was taken after his time lost at sea. From here, we flash back to his home in the zoo & botanical garden in Pondicherry, the market of that city where the family prepare for the voyage, the harbour and the ship as they load and set sail for Canada for a new life, with their animals, including a hyena, orangutang, zebra, and a Bengal tiger.

From here, Pi – the only survivor of the shipwreck – tells the Japanese accident investigator and Canadian consular official the story of his period of hundreds of days at sea in a lifeboat and on at attached makeshift raft. Reality and fantasy seem to blur, differentiating between truth and hallucination or dreams becomes difficult. All the time we move back and forth between telling his story in the hospital to his memories of this time at sea.

Much of it really is breathtaking, with eleven actors and six puppeteers swiftly moving us from place to place. Soon after it starts, we experience terrific transitions – from zoo to market to harbour to ship – and it continues at sea, on the lifeboat and raft. The entire cast excel, but the central performance by Hiran Abeysekera is simply astonishing, on stage throughout, continually moving from the present to the journey to the past. An award-winning performance if ever I saw one.

Director Max Webster has assembled a first class creative team, with Tim Hatley’s designs, Finn Caldwell & Nick Barnes puppetry, Andrezej Goulding’s video & Tim Lutkin’s lighting and the music & sound of Andrew T Mackay & Carolyn Downing fully integrated in the storytelling. Wyndhams is a fairly small theatre, and it seemed both intimate and epic.

Sheffield Theatres originated this show in 2019 and it’s taken a while to get here, with at least three scheduled openings, so it’s great to report a huge hit that might sit in the specially reconfigured theatre for some time. Don’t miss it.

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This is the second time this week that I’ve seen a stage adaptation of a film I haven’t seen. This one is Ingmar Bergman’s autobiographical three-hour film, which was also a five-hour TV series, adapted by Stephen Beresford, best known for The Last of the Hausmans at the NT and the screenplay for the film Pride. It’s an everyday tale of theatre folk in Sweden, well at least initially.

In the first act, we’re with the theatrical Ekdahl family, theatre owners and performers. Husband and wife Oscar and Emilie, Oscar’s mother Helena, brothers Carl and Gustav and their wives Alma and Lydia, Gustav & Lydia’s daughter Petra and Fanny and Alexander themselves, Oscar & Emilie’s children. We’re onstage, backstage and at home in what seems to be an idyllic world, until Oscar dies suddenly. There was plenty of character development, but not enough story in this first part and I went into the interval a touch underwhelmed.

The second act is very dark, as Emilie marries the widowed Bishop, a frightfully stern bully into whose austere and joyless home Emilie, Alexander and Fanny arrive. His sister Henrietta is unwelcoming, fearing her loss of power in charge of the home. Alexander is a bit of a fantasist and gets on the wrong side of the Bishop very quickly, resulting in brutal punishment. Emilie, by now pregnant, wants to leave, but the law and societal conventions prevent this.

In the third act, with the help of Oscar’s brothers and Helena’s friend Issak and his nephew Aaron, they plot to free them all from the Bishop’s tyranny. These latter two parts are much more satisfying and feel almost Dickensian, sweeping along at a fast pace, drawing you in to these characters lives. I haven’t seen much of director Max Webster’s work, but his staging here is impressive, helped by Tom Pye’s excellent set, Laura Hopkins’ lovely costumes and atmospheric music by Alex Baranowski, played live on piano and cello.

It’s a tribute to Kevin Doyle’s performance that there was palpable hatred in the audience for the evil Bishop. Penelope Wilton is wonderful as a seasoned thespian and the head of the Ekdahl family. I loved Catherine Walker, an actress who hasn’t been on my radar before, as Emilie and it was great to see Lolita Chakrabarti again in a pair of contrasting roles as Alma and Henrietta. Jonathan Slinger’s role was relatively small, but he almost stole the show when the Ekdahl brothers confront the Bishop in the third act – the whole audience were willing him on. The actors playing Fanny & Alexander were brilliant, in what are big roles for child actors, especially Alexander.

It was a slow burn at first but it won me over, oozing quality in every department.

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