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Posts Tagged ‘Robert Icke’

For a 32-year-old, adapter / director Robert Icke has had an extraordinary career. Fifteen major productions in eight years, of which nine were at the Almeida, four of them transferring to the West End. Until this, I’d seen nine, six of which I loved. His work isn’t always to my taste, but it’s always interesting. This is his last production as Associate of the Almeida and for me he’s ending on a real high.

I don’t know the source of this adaptation, Arthur Schnitzler’s ‘Professor Bernhardt’, but it’s billed as ‘very freely adapted from’ so probably more Icke than Schnitzler. It’s a riveting debate about medical ethics & politics and how modern society responds to such issues. We’re in a medical institute which researches into and treats dementia, but the incident that generates the debate concerns a young girl who’s taken in as an act of mercy. Her death is picked up by interest groups covering faiths, abortion, race and sex, fuelled by the internet, social media and the press, escalating in a matter of days, with most of the debate driven by emotion and special interest.

Casting which is gender and colour blind, and in one case of doubling up, means things are only revealed by what is said rather than what is seen, so identities aren’t always immediately obvious. The first half sees the debate confined to the institution, though events outside are being monitored. In the second half they become public, and the worst aspects of modern society’s obsession with witch hunts and public ‘crucifixions’ come to the fore. The unfolding drama and discussion has you in its grip throughout, with the plainness of the design placing all of the focus on the dialogue as it takes its hold. It could easily be dry, but I found it thoroughly absorbing and emotionally engaging. It would be good to think those who judge without evidence get to see it, but they are probably making ill-informed comments via their smart phones or pursuing a blinkered view based on vested interest.

Juliet Stevenson is onstage throughout, even during the interval, and her performance is an extraordinary tour de force, moving from detached and logical to surprised, defiant, combative, dejected and broken, a real roller coaster ride. There is a fine supporting cast in multiple roles and a drummer high above the stage adding tension through percussion. I left the theatre emotionally drained but exhilarated. I suspect I shall be processing for days. As fine a piece of drama as you could wish for.

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Well, here we are back at the world’s biggest arts festival, with more than 2000 shows to navigate. In a one week visit, we’ll manage around 20 to 25, a mere 0.01%, but at 3 to 4 a day, a still impressive attempt I’d say.

We started with main festival opera at the Komisher Opera Berlin’s production of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin**** at the Festival Theatre, sometimes called the opera where nothing happens! What does happen is gorgeous music, played and sung here as well as I’ve ever heard it, in an unusual outdoor staging in gardens and woods which looked as gorgeous as it sounded.

The fringe started at 10am the following morning at my second home, the Traverse Theatre, with the highly original and very thought-provoking Rich Kids: A History of Shopping Malls in Iran****. Opening with the alternatively revolutionary instagram feeds of the privileged sons and daughters of Iran’s revolutionary guard, it bounced around as a modern day illustrated lecture covering all sorts of current issues and prophesies, with the audience joining in on instagram. It divided the group, but I really liked it.

Back at the main festival, Robert Icke’s modern take on Sophocles’ Oedipus*** for Internationaal Theater Amsterdam (formerly Toneelgroep) at the Kings Theatre was a bit of a mixed bag, largely because of the pacing, at times very slow. I’ve seen this group many times, but what struck me on this occasion was the quality of the acting and the chemistry between the performers, which I suspect is the result of regularly working together over long periods.

It would be impossible to kick-start a Sunday more thrillingly than with The Patient Gloria****, the retelling of the true story of a woman exploited by psychotherapists as a third wave feminist tale, back at the Traverse. Brilliantly staged, defiant, ballsy (!) and very very funny, with Gina Moxley superb as both writer and co-lead. Perfect festival fare.

It was good to catch Eugene O’Neill’s short play Hughie*** and add it to my ‘collection’ of this favourite 20th Century American playwright. It got it’s stage premiere in Stockholm in 1958, 16 years after it was written, but has since attracted stars like Burgess Meredith, Jason Robards, Ben Gazarra, Al Pacino, Brian Dennehy & Forest Whittaker. Here comedian-turned-actor Phil Nicol was outstanding as the gambler who never stops talking, with Mike McShane superb as his ‘straight man’.

Back at the main festival, in the Usher Hall, Elgar’s underrated oratorio The Kingdom**** sounded superb, even with a stand-in conductor and two stand-in soloists. Whatever you think of this somewhat incomprehensible work the music is lush and it’s hard to imagine it better played than here by the Halle, or sung better than by the Edinburgh Festival Chorus and four fine British soloists.

Amy Booth-Steele is a musical theatre actress I’ve often admired, and I loved her one-woman musical #HonestAmy***** at Pleasance Dome, a 50-minute heart-warming and, well, honest gem, with the songs played by her on ukulele. She was so engaging performing this autobiographical material.

Daughterhood*** at Summerhall, in Paines Plough’s Roundabout Theatre, is a play about two sisters born nine years apart whose mother left home and whose father is terminally ill, but its really about their relationship. With actors playing multiple roles and scenes moving forward and back in time, it took a while to get into the rhythm of the piece, but it packed a lot of story into 80 minutes and the performances were excellent.

West End Producer*** is a bit of a Twitter phenomenon, the Banksy of theatre, permanently masked, and Free Willy, the casting of his new musical, was his first Edinburgh outing. Despite a small audience, he managed to engage us and take us with him, with participation key to the show’s success. I will be in the chorus of the show. Apparently.

Simon Evans**** wove a very personal story into his politically incorrect stand-up routine, a bit like Mark Steele’s search for his parents a few years back, and it was all the better for it, becoming very moving at the end. Surprising and rewarding.

So far good. Back at the Traverse with a 10am start again……

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Robert Icke, the master of reinvention, is at it again. After Greek Tragedy, Shakespeare, Chekov and Schiller, it’s now Ibsen. Good to report that at the other end, out comes a play that feels contemporary, faithful to Ibsen’s story, with overt parallels with the playwright’s own life. I haven’t liked all of his reinventions, but I did like this one.

The Woods family business is destroyed by senior employee Francis Ekdal, who goes to prison as a result. Charles Woods, though, financially supports Ekdal’s son James and his wife Gina & daughter Helga, and even Francis Ekdal on his release. When estranged son Gregory Woods, a very good friend of James, returns he decides to reveal Gina’s secret, which begins a series of events which ends in tragedy. Gregory’s intentions may have been good, but the consequences far from it, as the world of the Ekdal family collapses.

We’ve lost five characters, mostly ‘staff’ who wouldn’t fit the modern setting. The Werle’s have become the Woods, and some forenames have been changed. The most radical change is the addition of narration and commentary about truth, lies and Ibsen’s life, by characters who they pick up a microphone to talk direct to the audience. We start with a bare stage, which acquires some furniture and props as we go along, but it remains minimalist, though there is a bit of a design coup d’theatre at the end.

Though puzzling at the outset, it does draw you in and becomes much more dramatic than vanilla Ibsen, helped by a superb set of performances from a fine cast. Clever stuff.

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You can spot a Robert Icke production within moments of it beginning. The use of live and recorded video, an atmospheric soundscape, contemporary songs placed appropriately, striking modern settings. It doesn’t always work for me, but on this occasion everything comes together to make this a brilliant Hamlet. Even the verse sounded like contemporary everyday speech.

We start and end with Danish news footage of the King and Hamlet’s funerals respectively. We’re with security staff watching the ghost in the castle on CCTV. Polonius is wired up when he goes to see Hamlet. When the players give us their play, the royal household join us in the audience where they are being filmed, so we can watch their reactions on screen as well as the play on stage. The same idea is used even more effectively for the fencing match. Ophelia’s burial scene is devastating. It unfolds like the Scandinavian thriller it is. Even the two intervals are perfectly positioned.

Andrew Scott’s soliloquies are restrained and understated, contrasting brilliantly with his rage and anger. It’s a stunning performance with an extraordinary emotional range, but he’s surrounded with a fine set of supporting performances too. Juliet Stevenson is superb as Gertrude, torn between her son and her new husband. Angus Wright is a brilliantly ice cold, defiant Claudius. Peter Wight is excellent as Polonius, with a fine Ophelia from Jessica Brown-Findlay and a passionate Laertes from Luke Thompson. This is a simply terrific cast.

At 3 hours 50 minutes it’s one of my longest Hamlets, but also one of the most gripping I’ve ever seen. The third of my late February four Shakespeare play binge. Probably sold out but look out for a transfer of a cinema relay.

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There’s a real frisson at the beginning of this play, as a coin is spun to determine which of the two leading ladies, in similar modern dress and hairstyles, will play Mary Stuart and which will play Elizabeth I. The rest of the cast then bow to the chosen Queen Elizabeth I and the play begins. We’ve had role-swapping before, like Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein at the NT, though as far as I know none determined quite like this (assuming that it is).

Schiller’s 1800 play revolves around a meeting between the two Queens at Fotheringay, which never actually took place. Mary is imprisoned and requests a meeting to plead her case for release. It’s a tense psychological and emotional encounter, though it results in nothing. Elizabeth is advised that releasing Mary would be a great threat. From here, it evolves into a thriller about the proposed execution of Mary and who is responsible. This adaptation / production takes a more feminist stance, implying that both women were being manipulated by the men around them; an entirely plausible and fascinating theory.

Director Robert Icke has written this adaptation, which is some 50 minutes longer than the Donmar’s eleven years ago. The problem with it is that it takes way too long, around eighty minutes, to get to the pivotal meeting and I found this first part ever so slow, and frankly a bit dull. When we do get to Fotheringay, it’s a riveting ride through to a brilliant ending, but it risks losing the audience before it gets there. You also have to swallow some implausibilities, like the story unfolding in just twenty-four hours, despite the fact it’s locations are 80 miles apart, the brazen and, it seemed to me, unlikely sexual advances Mortimer makes to Mary and Leicester to Elizabeth and the existence of a female ordained catholic in the sixteenth century, or now come to think of it. I do wish he’d got someone to help with or edit the adaptation.

The performances, though, are stunning. On the night I went, Juliet Stevenson was a passionate, defiant Mary and Lia Williams a charismatic, assertive Elizabeth; both brilliant. There’s terrific support from John Light as the duplicitous Leicester, Rudi Dharmalingam as Mortimer, a character Schiller invented, besotted with Mary, Vincent Franklin as the devious Burleigh and Alan Williams in the more sympathetic role of Talbot. It’s set on a round platform that sometimes revolves, with additional side seating to make it almost in-the-round. There’s another of Robert Icke’s trademark soundscapes, this time including tunes by Laura Marling no less. It’s in modern dress, and I found the simplicity of Hildegard Bechtler’s design enabled you to concentrate on the story and the dialogue, well, when it took off.

A fascinating piece of historical fiction that is beautifully staged and performed, but about 45 minutes too long.

 

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On the lists of writers and directors least likely to adapt a Georges (Maigret) Simenon psychological  thriller, I’d put David Hare and Robert Icke pretty high, but that’s what we have here, and they’ve turned out a rather stylish, if slow, piece of staged film noir.

Simenon’s piece is a nicely plotted story of two couples caught in a storm returning from a society party in Connecticut to the Dodd’s home in the country. Don Dodd and Ray Sanders are old friends, both lawyers. Don is married to stay-at-home Ingrid and Ray to fellow party animal Mona. Ray doesn’t make it back, losing the other three before they make it to the house in a blizzard. His body is eventually found and the investigation concludes it was an accident. Don subsequently pays frequent visits to Mona Sanders New York apartment to help her with the estate and we see the true nature of their relationship, with a few more surprises to come.

It’s played out in a large number of scenes, mostly in the cosy Dodd home and the contrasting Sanders apartment, with flashbacks to the party. Black screens of different shapes and sizes close at various speeds like camera shutters in between scenes. It’s a superb design by Bunny Christie, but it really slows down the pace and you seem to be looking at black space too much of the time, with just a soundscape for company, making it a lot less thrilling than it should be. It was one of those occasions when the middle of the front row was pole position, though I suspect others, particularly front left, will have found some of the sightlines challenging.

The acting style is very film noir with lines ending in mid-air as rhetorical questions or speculative statements, with a few laughs, occasionally seeming a touch tongue-in-cheek. The performances are all good, particularly Mark Strong as Don and Elizabeth Debicki as Mona.

It’s good to see this rarely staged genre at the NT and all of the components are first class – writing, design, performance and staging – but I’m afraid they don’t add up to more than the parts, so it’s only a partial success for me.

 

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It took the new master of reinvention, director Robert Icke, to make me break my ‘No More Chekov’ rule. Surely he’s the man to turn paint-drying plays into something more animated and interesting?

Well, he starts with a rectangular, canopied wooden platform that slowly moves. His characters have modern clothes and new names, though they are still in essence Chekov’s. He also seems to have added almost an hour to the playing time and slowed the paint-drying down rather than speed it up.

Finally, he provides three short intervals after each act, which was too much temptation for me I’m afraid, and I broke at the second one and came home. It was still a bunch of irritating people talking bollocks. Nowhere near radical enough a reinvention for me.

 

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