Posts Tagged ‘Nicholas Hytner’

I’m fond of Shakespeare but not that fond of Hamlet. It always seems overlong and ponderous and I find it hard to believe in or be moved by it. Give me a more cracking yarn like Richard III any time. Yet somehow, its hard to resist re-visiting it – maybe to find what I haven’t yet found or maybe to see how an actor rises to the challenge of that pinnacle for a leading man.

My first one was Roger Rees and my second Kenneth Branagh; both deeply introverted and neither RSC productions really did it for me. Then there was highly strung Daniel Day-Lewis on the same stage (before he had his breakdown, withdrew and was replaced by a dying Ian Charlston) and cool Adrian Lester at the Young Vic. A couple of adventures followed with Ingmar Bergman’s Swedish Hamlet and Ninagawa’s Japanese Hamlet. After a long break, I started again as I couldn’t resist Jude Law or David Tennent, both of whom turned in very good interpretations but neither production was totally satisfying. I regret not giving Simon Russell Beale and Ben Wilshaw a crack.

One of the pleasures of going to the National in recent years has been to see the range and growth of Rory Kinnear, but I thought it might be too soon for him to tackle Hamlet. Well, I was certainly wrong there, as it was the most interesting, intelligent and real Hamlet of them all – I actually cared about what this man was going through for probably the first time.

What helps is a production which creates a believable timeless police state where everyone is watching everyone else. This brings a plausibility to the story and adds an excitement which propels the play along. What also helps is a faultless supporting cast. Patrick Malahide is such a good Claudius that I became tense every time he came on stage. Dame Clare Higgins creates a highly original stilletto-heeled shallow gullible monster, drink almost always in hand. You could really believe in and were touched by Ruth Negga’s journey as Ophelia. The production didn’t seem at all imbalanced by understudy James Pearse standing in for David Calder as Polonius.

I’ve liked Nicholas Hytner’s other Olivier Shakespeares – Henry IV parts 1 & 2 and Henry V – but I liked this most of all. Vicky Mortimer’s design is important in creating this believable world and facilitates the pace, energy and excitement. I also liked the use of sound to create atmosphere.

So, the most satisfying Hamlet so far and one that will no doubt encourage me to continue exploring the play – somehow, I doubt I will be able to resist Michael Sheen at the Young Vic next year!

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Tennessee Williams wrote this play at University and it lay untouched for the next 60 years until it was first staged in the US in 1996; this is the European premiere. It opened here to rave reviews and for the first 30 mins or so I was wondering what all the fuss was about, but then it began to captivate me.

It covers the usual TW ground – Southern sensibilities, social-climbing, mental illness, alcoholism…. The central character flits between poor macho man – who she loves and who her heart says is Mr Right – and rich wimp – who the family are promoting and who her brain says she should marry. What’s so fascinating is how, from a flawed early work like this, you can see the seeds of genius so clearly. It takes your breath away in the same way as it does when you hear a piece by a very young Mozart – you just can’t believe someone so young can produce something so mature. Of course, what followed were much better plays, but I suspect many playwrights would die happy if this was the pinnacle of their work.

There are some very good performances. I really liked Liz Smith’s energy as heavenly (what a terrific name!) and thought both the male leads – Michael’s Thomson and Malarky-  excelled; this was a very impressive stage debut for Malarky (what must it feel like to have your debut performance go straight to the National!).

I thought it was a huge mistake to have a back curtain on three sides as this required you to suspend disbelief a little more than necessary; in fact, though I appreciate the difficulty of moving from high bluff to home to garden to library,  the design overall was the weak link here. I thought the voice-over stage directions rather quirky – it made it seem like a film – but I can’t say it bothered me.

It’s great to see regional work of this quality being brought to the National. Congratulations to Laurie Sansom for discovering and bringing this play to the UK and thanks to Nicholas Hytner for recognising both the significance and the quality and transferring it to London.

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The impact today of 19th century comedies like this depends more on the production and acting than the play (I remember a very mediocre London Assurance in 1989 transferred from Chichester and directed by a very young Sam Mendes). Well, here’s a terrific example of how you can breathe new life into something that’s 170 years old; I doubt it was that funny then!

Nicholas Hytner’s company get every laugh in the play, and a lot more that aren’t in it. Simon Russell Beale has extraordinary range as an actor, and comedy is one of his best hands – he’s the only person I know who can convey a reaction, emotion or opinion with just his eyes and cause a riot merely by striking an outrageously funny pose – and this is one of his best performances. He’s joined here by Fiona Shaw’s larger-than-life Lady Gay Spanker (!), comic genius Richard Briers in a wonderful cameo as her husband and a fine ensemble who appear to be having as much of a ball as the audience.

When Russell Beale and Shaw are struggling to suppress their own laughs (and at times, I wonder how it’s possible to play against SRB without corpsing) it adds rather than detracts from the fun.

Mark Thompson has built a terrific country house which fills the Olivier stage to great effect and created costumes that convey the characters perfectly.

This is an absolute gem and one of the best things to grace the Olivier stage in 30 years

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