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Posts Tagged ‘Nicholas Hytner’

What an extraordinary initiative NT Connections is. Ten brand new plays especially written by premiere league playwrights for 230 youth theatre companies, ten of which get to perform them at the NT; two on the Olivier stage! I caught the two that did just that and what a great experience it turned out to be.

Wigan’s Winstanley College performed Lucinda Coxon’s clever play What Are They Like? which turned things upside down by getting the kids to say what they are more used to hearing their parents say. It opened with an acapella song sung beautifully before the scenes weaved in and out as the kids rolled out every parental cliché in the book. Great stuff.

This was followed by London’s Jigsaw Youth Theatre with Jim Cartwright’s brilliant Mobile Phone Show. This was packed full of invention and performed with great enthusiasm and energy. We moved from the archetypal mobile sales situation to a deeply moving story of texting a dead mum to the trauma of a lost phone and much more. The audience was brought into the play when invited to call cast members and the cast came into the audience to engage directly with us. Full of energy, completely infectious and absolutely unmissable. This one has to have a life beyond this festival.

In his closing tribute, NT director Nicholas Hytner said that what he had seen compared very favourably with the Olivier’s more normal fare – stars on expensive sets doing plays by dead playwrights! How wonderful it is that this project reaches 25,000 young people all over Britain and ends up on the biggest National stage.

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I was so excited about two of my favourite actors cast as Othello (Adrian Lester) and Iago (Rory Kinnear), heightened by seeing Lester play Ira Aldridge play Othello in Red Velvet at the Tricycle last year, there was a big risk of disappointment. The surprise turns out to be  how much else I loved about Nicholas Hytner’s production and how the exciting casting didn’t overshadow it at all. This is one of the best Othello’s I’ve ever seen, and one of the best modern settings of Shakespeare.

After the initial scenes in Venice, we are propelled to a hyper-realistic army camp in Cyprus, brilliantly designed by Vicki Mortimer. As soon as you get into the rhythm of the verse, this is a contemporary thriller, not a 400-year-old play. It builds brilliantly and draws you in to the story of power, jealousy and revenge. About the only implausibility in a contemporary world is that it all rests on a handkerchief!

The racism Othello is subjected to struck me more than ever. Iago seems much more complex here than I’ve ever felt before. The scene where the authorities decide to send Othello to Cyprus could be a cabinet meeting at the outset of the Iraq war. In the barrack room, the soldiers play drinking games and get drunk, as they would. Ludovico arriving by helicopter rather than ship makes complete sense. This is intelligent rather than gimmicky, though perhaps Roderigo as Prince William is a little tongue in cheek! From the moment that Othello takes Iago’s bait (in the gents!) it unfolds like the best thrillers.

Neither Lester nor Kinnear disappoint and compare favourably with my other Othello’s, from Ben Kingsley (when it was acceptable!) to Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Iago’s, from Ian McKellen to Ewan McGregor. Lyndsey Marshall as a soldier Emilia is the best interpretation of this role I’ve ever seen. In a distinctly unstarry company, there is fine support from William Chubb as Brabantio and Nick Sampson as Ludovico, amongst others.

I think I enjoyed this even more than any of the other Hytner Olivier Shakespeare’s and at the end I was desperately hoping his departure as AD won’t mean its the last.

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I left the theatre last night with two theories – that Alan Bennett decided he wanted to see how many issues he could cover in two hours (more Ackybourn than Bennett!) or that he was downloading everything he wanted to say about everything while he still has a chance. If any play has ever thrown in the kitchen sink, without a kitchen sink, this is it.

I’ve already lost track of how many issues he covers and my brain hurts even trying to recall them. At its heart it’s the heritage industry in general and the National Trust in particular. Within that there’s the sub-issues of conserving & preserving versus access & exploitation, the roles of the ‘volunteers’, the industrial ‘colonialists’ and their victims, the morals of the Church of England, business and pornography……

Buried in all this is a fascinating debate (or three), some great satire and some very funny lines – but he tries to do too much and in so doing turns the characters into caricatures & stereotypes and the situations into farce (particularly in the second half). Even lovely central performances from Francis de la Tour, Linda Bassett and Selina Cadell get a bit buried and delightful cameos from Miles Jupp, Nicholas le Provost and Peter Egan likewise. This all takes place on a stunning set of a run down ‘stately’ home in South Yorkshire by Bob Crowley which transforms spectacularly towards the end.

It’s by no means vintage Bennett and seemed to me like it was something he hadn’t yet finished. I was surprised that director Nicholas Hytner hadn’t reigned it in and given it more focus. What could have been as fascinating a debate about heritage as The History Boys was about education has turned into a fairly pedestrian comedy which raises a lot of issues but doesn’t really explore any in depth.

I can’t say I didn’t enjoy myself, but compared with all the other NT Bennett’s – Single Spies, The Madness of George III, The History Boys and The Habit of Art – this just isn’t in the same league.

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It’s hard to believe it’s taken 10 years for this Marvin Hamlisch show to get to the UK, a delay no doubt resulting from its lack of success on Broadway in a production by our very own Nicholas Hytner. It may be on the fringe, but the production feels very West End; a bit too slick maybe?

It’s set in 1952 (a good year!) in the manipulative, machaeavelian world of gossip columnist JJ Hunsecker. A mere mention in his column and you hit the bigtime or disappear into obscurity. Venues and people employ press agents specifically to get them into his column and he befriends one such agent, Sidney Falcone, in a club where Sidney poses as JJ’s sister Susan’s friend in order to cover up her relationship with jazz pianist Dallas – though he hasn’t even met her. JJ’s relationship with his younger sister is possessive, obsessive and rather unhealthy. They propel Dallas to stardom, but when JJ and Dallas discover the truth the shit hits the fan bigtime.

The seven piece band under MD Bob Broad makes one of the biggest sounds I’ve ever heard in the theatre and you jump as they hit the first notes. Fortunately, Ed Borgnis’ sound design maintains perfect balance with the vocals and it all sounds great. The new Arcola studio has seats on three sides and three galleries – one long one for the audience, a smaller one for the band and an even smaller performance space. Most of the action takes place on the unelevated stage floor, though the arrival of the chorus at the back in a space that has something to do with the building’s former use is ingenious. A few neon signs and some furniture constitute the minimalist but effective design by Mark Bailey – there are 17 scenes in 14 different places!

I was hugely impressed by Adrian der Gregorian as Sidney; great characterisation and superb singing. Stuart Matthew Price was in fine voice as Dallas and Celia Graham gives a lovely cameo as Sidney’s girl Rita. I thought David Bamber was good though he didn’t blow me away like Der Gregorian did. Caroline Keiff’s seemed to be singing uncomfortably high as Susan. There’s an excellent ensemble who are well choreographed by Nathan M Wright. Mehmet Ergen’s production is super-slick and that for me was a bit of a problem. The show is a bit cold and cynical (typical of book writer John Guare), failing to engage on an emotional level, and the production’s slickness just adds to that rather than trying to balance it. Perhaps coming just two nights after Howard Goodall’s deeply moving musical of  A Winter’s Tale at the Landor didn’t help.

Still, as impressive an outing as the show is ever likely to get and just 3 months after Hamlisch’s sad demise. Off to Dalston you go…..

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How on earth can a 400-year old play be so of the moment? Here it turns out to be a play about the evil of money and the selfish and unprincipled nature of (most of) those who make it and have it. Familiar?

A spendthrift but generous Greek becomes disillusioned with the world when his friends desert him as his money runs out. It’s an odd play, but Nicholas Hytner’s production makes it work well for a modern audience. We recognise everyone at Timon’s party – freeloaders and liggers exploiting his generosity and hospitality. The poet seems a bit like Wil Self and the artist is a dead ringer for Tracy Emin! When his steward tells him he’s spent it all, he sends his staff to his friends in the expectation that his generosity will be reciprocated, but they all turn their backs on him. So off he goes into exile – in this production as a vagrant living in what appears to be a disused underground car park.

The play opens brilliantly at a reception in a gallery named in Timon’s honour and moves to dinner parties, designer hotel receptions and City offices. The verse is the only dated thing about it – the words themselves aren’t – and relocating it to the current day works really well. Simon Russell Beale is superb; he has that knack of making you hear things you didn’t hear / read last time, seeming to give the verse  new meaning. Timon’s male steward Flavius has become female Flavia and Deborah Findlay is excellent; she gets a lot of the lines which fit current times. Hilton McRae is a brooding prescence as philosopher Apemantus.

Modern settings don’t always work, but this one certainly does. After the dreadful German Timon at Globe-to-Globe, this is a tonic.

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This is a work of fiction, and if you take it as that, its charming, amusing, clever and well crafted. Some seem to have taken exception to its hijacking of cinematic history which I’m not sure it’s trying to do.

We’re in an East European Jewish village at the turn of the 20th century when Motl returns from the city after the death of his father. Discovering his father’s photographic and early cinematic equipment, he becomes enthralled with the idea of moving pictures and is encouraged and funded by local businessman Jacob to make a film of people in the village. Despite the somewhat critical reception, the idea of a work of fiction is mooted and enthusiasm goes viral as they embark on its making.

Many of the pioneers of early Hollywood were Jews from this part of the world and indeed we do skip forward to 1936 when Motl has changed his name to Maurice and become a successful director, but I don’t think the play is making any claims to present the true origin of cinema as we know it. It does include the genesis of the business model for public exhibition of films and shows technical discoveries like editing, lighting reflectors, the camera dolly and special effects, but it does so with its tongue in its cheek. We have stereotypes like the interfering producer, corner-cutting production accountant, highly strung director and upstaging actors. There are comments from a preview audience (the beginnings of the focus group) and it even hints at the casting couch!

Bob Crowley’s monochrome design cleverly merges live action with film footage, though it only opens up once to reveal the village exteriors (as a film set in 1936) which seems a bit of a shame. It’s a little slow in the first half, but does pick up pace and draws you in. The performances are a bit stereotypical (Fiddler on the Roof – with a fiddler included!) though I really liked Damien Molony as Motl and Lauren O’Neil as the love interest. The other ladies all engage well – Sue Kelvin as Motl’s aunt, Abigail McKern as Jacob’s wife and Alexis Zegerman as his daughter. This isn’t Anthony Sher’s greatest moment, but his somewhat caricatured Jacob does make you smile and laugh.

If you don’t set your sights too high, it’s an enjoyable couple of hours. The Nicholas’s Wright (playwright) and Hytner (director) have done better work, but this is an enjoyable evening nontheless and I’m glad I went.

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When they first read the play, I would imagine the reaction was ‘how are we going to stage this?’, such is the cinematic quality of the writing – not surprising given the playwright seems to have only ever done screenplays before. Well, I suppose if anyone was going to pull it off, it would be Nicholas Hytner (with help from Bob Crowley’s clever set with four entrances – and what seems like a lot of dangerous angles).

The starting point is of course true. Stalin liked Mikhail Bulgakov’s The White Guard (brilliantly staged at the National just last year) which led to him being asked (?) to write something about Stalin. Beyond this, much is speculation and fantasy in John Hodge’s play. Stalin ends up writing most of the play about his early life while Bulgakov runs the country, benefiting from Stalin’s patronage to a point where it is almost Faustain.

This is all surprisingly entertaining and often funny (though it gets darker in the second half) with lots of short scenes interrupted by flash forward rehearsal scenes of the play what they are writing. Of course, when you have Alex Jennings as Bulgakov and Simon Russell Beale as Stalin, two of our best actors at the height of their powers, you’ve got a head start and both deliver the goods bigtime. Mark Addy is also outstanding as a secret service officer / intermediary and there’s excellent support from Nick Sampson as a doctor, William Postlethwaite (the late great Peter’s son)  as idealistic young writer Grigory and Pierce Reid as Sergei, who inhabits the Bulgakov’s kitchen cupboard in true Bulgakov fashion!

It’s a fascinating picture of the mechanics of a tyranny and in particular Stalin’s. He only has to think of something and its done. There are acts of extraordinary generosity as well as vile deeds – everything, of course, for a reason. There is much depth to the characterisations of Bulgakov and Stalin and their mutually dependent relationship is intriguing.

At last a new play at the National worthy of the venue’s stature.

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Well, all the hype and rave reviews are true, then – there hasn’t been so much laughter at the National since Jeremy Sams revival of Noises Off ten yours ago.

I can’t help making comparisons with restoration comedy The School for Scandal currently at the Barbican and French farce A Flea In Her Ear recently at the Old Vic, both of which were seriously unfunny. Perhaps director Nicholas Hytner is lucky that the original is in Italian so that he could commission an adaptation, whereas Deborah Warner and Richard Eyre respectively had to work with the original words on the page. The success owes as much to the adaptation as it does to the first class production and terrific ensemble. The very prolific Richard Bean (three crackers now in the last year alone) has been faithful to the spirit of Commedia dell’Arte whilst moving the action to 1960’s Brighton and produced something with snap, crackle and fizz whilst Sheridan’s restoration comedy has been de-laughed by the production and Feydeau’s farce was so faithfully re-produced and you felt like you were in a museum.

When you enter, there’s superbly played 60’s style pop from a four-piece band in full flow (music – Grant Olding) in front of a gaudy proscenium. The band return to keep us entertained between each scene change and before the second half and during the second half feature a series of brilliant cameo performances from cast members. The design is deliberately period production values with flats that wobble and fabric walls that shimmer. These are brilliant ideas that contribute much to the success of the evening.

Goldini’s plot revolves around a ‘minder’ who ends up with, well, two guvnors which gives us all we need for a cocktail of panto, carry on, slapstick & farce with a nostalgic feel but a contemporary freshness. Bean’s dialogue sparkles with wit and cheekiness with a lot of running jokes, the return of which seem like old friends as the evening progresses. The comic timing of the cast is simply stunning; they squeeze every ounce of laughter from these lines plus lots more that aren’t in the lines at all.

James Corden is excellent in the central role, but it’s far from just his show. There is so much other wonderful comic acting, it’s difficult to single anyone out – but I will! Oliver Chris’ creation of the toff is simply delicious, Daniel Rigby’s actorly actor is a hoot, Claire Lams turns playing dumb into an art form and Tom Edden’s 87-year old waiter is a masterclass in physical comedy. Playing (relatively) straight against these must be tough but I loved Fred Ridgeway’s deadpan Charlie, Trevor Laird’s lovable Lloyd Boateng(!) and Suzie Toase as prophetic feminist Dolly.

There are asides to the audience and even audience participation, but these don’t come over as gimmicks as much of Deborah Warner’s touches did for A School for Scandal; they seem absolutely right for the play and the adaptation. You do miss some of the lines and some of the funny business because of the amount of laughter and the amount going on, which seems like a very good reason to go and see it again! A triumph.

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This is like looking at a 30’s Hollywood movie in 3D on a giant screen. The period detail is extraordinary. Unfortunately, in the first half at least, it’s a B movie without much of a story, a poor screenplay and three exaggerated central performances. It is fatally slow and even though it picks up after the interval, it’s too late to recover.

Having a dentist as your central character may be original but is hardly an enticing prospect (unless he is a sadomasochistic dentist like in Little Shop of Horrors, of course). This one’s a real wimp, with a nagging neglected wife, a manipulative father-in-law as benefactor and a tenant dentist who gets away with rent default. There’s another health practitioner in the building (I didn’t quite get his specialty, but it might be something to do with feet) and another neighbour with a fine selection of sharp ties. It’s an offstage character who might provide the clue to why the NT decided to stage this – a certain Mrs Hytner!

The dentist falls for his assistant, as does his father-in-law and the neighbour with sharp ties. His wife is prepared to forgive and forget. The father-in-law wants to  marry her. The neighbour wants a less committed but equally close relationship. The dentist is a wimp…..

I really was puzzled why Joseph Millson, Keeley Hawes and Jessica Raine over-acted. This makes it easy for Nicholas Woodeson to steal the show when he comes on and lights up the stage, though to be fair Peter Sullivan, Sebastian Armesto and Tim Steed do well bringing life to their supporting characters. Anthony Ward’s design is lovely, though so huge the characters do seem a bit lost.

I recall finding it a good play when I saw it forever ago in the West End, so I kept wondering if it was indeed a better play than this production revealed. Director Angus Jackson has form as a plodder (Desperately Seeking Susan – the case for the prosecution rests); perhaps a director with more experience of the great 20th Century American dramatists (not that Clifford – a name subsequently requisitioned forever by Victoria Wood for the classic Acorn Antiques – Odets is one) like Howard Davies might have made more of it.

Today’s word is ‘indifference’……

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After an awful lot of revivals, at last here’s the first good new play of the year – and an original, often surprising & often funny one it is too.

The first half’s two scene set up is a bit long, but the second half’s five scenes snap and crackle. We’re with a somewhat dysfunctional family soon after husband / dad’s demise. His widow has MS and a toy boy (who we never see) and her daughter a complex but close relationship with someone her dad took in after his mother died. After a whirlwind romance, she marries the opposite of her ‘friend’ (a penchant for younger men like her mum), then springs a blind date on the ‘friend’. At this point we meet the Becky of the title and begin a whirlwind of unexpected events which is where the play really takes off.

I suspect this production benefits from Director Peter DubBois’ experience with its original US production(s), because its slick but very believable. Jonathan Fensom’s set, with revolve borrowed from the NT (good to se Nicholas Hytner’s sharing strategy in action) enables the action to move between seven locations without slowing it down. The play flows well and there’s a roundedness about it that is very satisfying. As one might expect from a playwright (Gina Gionfriddo) who also writes about rock music, the snatches of music between scenes are well-chosen.

American import David Wilson Barnes is excellent as Max (and a real double for Kevin Spacey), but he does have the best lines, and I loved Daisy Haggard’s hapless Becky. We don’t see much of Haydn Gwynne except in the first and last scenes, but she’s very good as the acid-tongued mum. Anna Madeley and Vincent Montuel do well with much drier parts.

It’s not in the Jerusalem and Clybourne Park league, but its a very good play and a return to form for the Almeida. I smell a West End transfer…..

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