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Posts Tagged ‘Paul Wills’

I’ve seen some amazing actors play Lear, seven of them knights of the realm, but this is the first time I’ve seen the same actor play him twice, only ten years apart (though I’ve seen five more Lear’s since the last time, not counting the one from Belarus and the one with sheep!). With Ian McKellen in his eightieth year, he’s the oldest, and the closest to the character’s age. I regret not booking to see this in Chichester. My thinking was that I’d seen McKellen’s Lear. I suspect it would have been better (and cheaper!), but it’s still a must-see in the West End, and I now realise how flawed my thinking had been.

They’ve put a platform through the centre of the stalls, leading to an entrance / exit at the rear, losing a handful of rows and quite a few other seats in the process. They also use the side aisles as entrances / exits. I don’t know the impact of this in the upper tiers, but it made the stalls space more intimate. On stage there’s floor-to-ceiling wood panelling with doors and entrances within it. The floor covering changes with the location, starting as red carpet as the royal family enter for Lear’s announcement that he is to divide the country between his daughters. I thought Paul Wills design was excellent.

Though it’s something like my 14th Lear, there were things about this one that changed my response to the story. I still think there’s more than a touch of implausibility in him falling for the sycophancy of two daughters rather than the sincerity of the third, but here there’s an ageism in Goneril and Regan, in addition to to my normal feelings of spoilt children and inheritance ruins, and Regan in particular becomes completely self-obsessed and self-centred. The Duke of Kent has become the Countess of Kent, and this subtly changes, softens, the character. Edmund seems more machiavellian in contrast to an even more empathetic Edgar. Lear’s madness at first seems eccentricity, before it becomes tragic. I thought Jonathan Munby’s production was very fresh and intelligent.

From the original Chichester cast, Sinead Cusak and Danny Webb are both excellent as Kent and Gloucester respectively, and Kirsty Bushell is simply terrific as Regan. Michael Matus makes much more of the role of Oswald. There are some great performances from new cast members too, not least a superb Edgar from Luke Thompson and an outstanding Edmund in James Corrigan. Lloyd Hutchison is a particularly good Fool. I felt privileged to be seeing Ian McKellen in this role again, a gentler, sadder reading. At the curtain call, memories of more than twenty earlier performances by this fine actor swept over me as I rose to my feet in tribute.

The programme is way better than normal flimsy West End fare and in one of its four essay’s, historian David Starkey suggests that Shakespeare may have been having a dialogue with his patron, King James, even sending him messages about the consequences of dividing a kingdom. Four hundred years later, it’s sending messages still, and I suspect will continue to do so for a long time to come.

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Oscar Wilde was a much less prolific playwright than you might think. He only wrote nine plays and only four of his social satires are still staged, two regularly and two, including this, less so. First produced 125 years ago, it must have been a bit shocking at the time. Now it feels a bit awkward and old-fashioned, despite the feminism and trademark bon mots. There are some fine things about this production, but it doesn’t quite breathe life into a museum piece.

Lady Windermere is a young bride and new mother. Busy-body The Duchess of Berwick tells her Lord Windermere visits another woman, Mrs Erlynne, on a regular basis. She confronts her husband, but he insists it is all innocent, even inviting Mrs Erlynne to their party that evening. At the party she greets other men she already knows, sowing seeds of suspicion in other society ladies, and more than holds her own with them, even making a friend of one, in her pursuit of a welcome into society. Lord Windermere’s interest turns out to be protective of his wife, but it may never be known.

Paul Wills set and costumes are bright, colourful and gorgeous. Grace Molony impresses as Lady Windermere in her West End debut. Samantha Spiro is well suited to the role of Lady Erlynne, assertive and defiant, and Jennifer Saunders as the Duchess of Berwick is a pleasant surprise, given that she only appears to have done one other play, 20 years ago. As they did in A Woman of No Importance, there’s an entr’acte song (only one here, though) which enables her to show off her comedic talent and for those in smaller roles to showcase theirs. It’s a big cast for the West End, sixteen in total, and director Kathy Burke marshals them well.

I’m not sure the play is worthy of all the talent and resources. It’s creaking at the seams a bit and as much as it makes for a moderately pleasant and not overlong diversion, you can live perfectly happily without it. Classic Spring’s season now moves to the two best known plays – an odd sequence, as you might have expected them to build an audience with those first – but it’ll be good to have seen all four together.

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If you take out the two operas, the three foreign language productions, the deconstruction and the filleted three-hander, I think this is my 12th Hamlet. Simon Godwin’s bold and brilliant staging, with a mesmerising performance by Paapa Essiedu, may well be the best of them. I regretted not going to Stratford to see it, but now I don’t, because it’s particularly thrilling to see it at the Hackney Empire amongst an enraptured young and diverse audience.

It’s an African Denmark, colourful and throbbing with music and life, which works brilliantly. It serves the play well, adding some magic, but no gimmicks. So many scenes are superbly staged it’s hard to know where to begin. It gets off to a great start at Hamlet’s graduation ceremony, emphasising his youth and the likely effect of this on his grief at losing his dad and anger at his mother’s swift re-marriage. His confrontations with a cool Claudius are particularly spikey and the resentment of his mother palpable. As the play progresses, we get a superb play-within-the-play, Polonius’ death deftly handled, Ophelia’s grief heartbreaking, a wonderful grave digging scene and a thrilling fight between Hamlet and Laertes using double sticks. Godwin hardly puts a foot wrong and I felt I was hearing the verse afresh with new emphasis and intonation.

Paapa Essiedu really is extraordinary. His verse speaking is enthralling, he totally engages with the audience and every one of those many soliloquies, where he’s alone on that vast stage, are captivating. The rest of the cast is excellent too. I thought Clarence Smith was a particularly fine Claudius and Buom Tihngang made Laertes his own. Mimi Ndiweni is very moving as Ophelia and Lorna Brown navigates Gertrude’s emotional journey very well. Joseph Mydell is luxury casting indeed as Polonius. Paul Wills set, in red-rust colours, and colourful costumes evoke an African kingdom, with Sola Akingbola’s music adding that final touch.

It’s somewhat ironic that within 48 hours our two big national companies have given me one of the worst and one of the best Shakespeare productions I’ve ever seen. I can’t emphasise enough how much seeing it in Hackney Empire, surrounded by young people spellbound by the Bard, added to my experience.

DON’T MISS THIS

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Terry Johnson’s idea to turn this into a musical is as good as the late Bob Hoskins idea to put it on screen. It’s one of the best screen-to-stage transitions and a must-see in its final two months.

The Windmill was an iconic institution. It brought revue to London. It brought nudity to the stage. It was the only theatre still open in the blitz. It was the heart of Soho. It’s a great story for the stage and for a musical and Terry Johnson’s adaptation, book and staging are outstanding. It tells the story from the meeting of unlikely business partners Laura Henderson and Vivian Van Damm through their unsuccessful first shows, their negotiations with the government’s censor, the Lord Chamberlain, the successful nude tableaux shows to performing for soldiers during the second world war. The personal story of Maureen, from tea lady to star, her love (or not) for Eddie and her unwanted pregnancy is woven through it.

George Fenton & Simon Chamberlain are more used to producing film and TV music and their score is somewhat old-fashioned, but it suits the period being presented and it’s got some great tunes. Don Black’s excellent lyrics benefit from his significant musical theatre experience. I very much liked Tim Shorthall’s design, moving us successfully from backstage to onstage (and on the roof) with a couple of quick visits to the Lord Chamberlain’s office, and Paul Wills’ costumes are delightful. I loved Andrew Wright’s choreography, particularly in comic numbers like the Lord Chamberlain’s song – and his fan dance is masterly!

It’s exceptionally well cast, led by Tracie Bennett, yet again inhabiting a musical theatre role, and in this case banishing the memory of Judi Dench. I don’t think of Ian Bartholomew as a musical theatre man but when I read his biog in the programme I realised I’d seen him in a handful of musical theatre roles and he’s excellent here (and in fine voice) as Van Damm. Emma Williams delivers yet again and is sensational in her big Act II number If Mountains Were Easy to Climb (one day she’ll be in a commercial hit again!). In a very strong supporting case, I was particularly impressed by Samuel Holmes as Bertie and Robert Hands as the Lord Chamberlain.

This lovely show doesn’t deserve its early bath and I strongly recommend you catch it in its final two months.

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This 1975 early David Mamet play, his 4th (of 24!), certainly attracts star actors. I saw Al Pacino at the Duke of Yorks in 1984 and William H Macy (a pupil of Mamet) at the Donmar in 2000, both playing Teach, and now it’s Damian Lewis as Teach with both John Goodman and Tom Sturridge in the other roles! I suspect it’s more fun to play than to watch.

Set in a Chicago junk shop (brilliantly claustrophobic design from Paul Wills) it occupies a very man’s world of gambling and bravado, on the fringes of crime. Proprietor Don thinks he may have undersold a coin (which gives the play its title) and plots to rob it back (with others) with the help of friends Teach and Fletcher (who we don’t meet). It later transpires that his young gofer Bob may already have done so. The relationship between Don and Bob came over much more in this production, Don very fatherly with hints of perhaps more than that, and Teach is more larger than life, more comic. I’m not sure the play is wearing well, though. We see a lot more of this type of work today, so it seems less fresh and original. To be honest, I found it a bit dull this time around.

I thought both John Goodman and Tom Sturridge, in a very physical performance, were outstanding, but I felt Damian Lewis overacted a bit, stealing the centre of attention but not deserving of it. Director Daniel Evans staging is good, emphasising the subtlety and complexity of the relationships.

Good to see work like this, with such good actors, selling out on the West End; without them I couldn’t honestly say it would be a worthwhile revival.

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The US gave us three great playwrights in the 20th century and Eugene O’Neill was one of them. I’ve been lucky enough to see 10 of his plays, but this one has evaded me. So a chance to see it in a favourite theatre with a favourite actress. Treat watch!

O’Neill was apparently a seaman, and his insight into this world shows. We’re in the bar of an East Coast port with Swedish bargeman Chris and his woman Mathy. At first I wasn’t convinced by David Hayman (an actor who, surprisingly, I’ve never seen on stage before), largely because of his odd accent, but after the play settled, I got there. Jenny Galloway was, as always, excellent as Marthy. When Chris’ long lost daughter turns up, her female intuition means she susses her  profession – a prostitute – quick as a flash. Ruth Wilson in the title role is mesmerizing, with a defensive brashness masking her vulnerability. She is at times delicate and at times hard, prowls the stage with a sexiness and excitement that means you just can’t take your eyes off her. This is her finest performance so far, but I suspect there’s a lot more to come. A Dame in waiting!

We move to sea as a storm erupts, the stage becomes a barge and rises, and we get one of the most exciting stage entrances I’ve ever witnessed as Irish seaman Mat climbs a rope and boards the barge drenched and half-naked. I’ve liked the handful of Jude Law’s performances I’ve seen before, but this is on another level altogether. It’s extraordinarily physical as he picks up Chris like he was a sack of flour, throws an empty crate at a wall to see it shatter and lifts a bed on which Anna lies as if it were a bag of shopping. He acts with every inch of his body, looking every bit the seaman – at home in working clothes but clumsy in a suit, the pupils of his eyes piercing when he’s angry.

The balance of the play explores the relationship between Anna, the dad who deserted her and the man she falls for (and the relationship between the two men) as her profession is revealed. The chemistry between the three actors is terrific and the triangle completely believable and compelling. The proximity and intimacy of the Donmar again works to bring you right in to the minds of the characters and the heart of their story. Wonderful.

For a choreographer, Rob Ashford is turning into one hell of a director. This equals his Streetcar, also here, for impeccable staging. Paul Wills design and Howard Harrison’s lighting create the bar, barge at sea and barge interior superbly with next to no props. The stage tilt (a first at the Donmar?) is an inspired ides.

There have been many great evenings at the Donmar and this is up there with the best of them. I’d like to say ‘book now’ but I’m afraid you’ve missed the boat, as it were.

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