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Posts Tagged ‘Rufus Norris’

I haven’t read Andrea Levy’s book, but I did see the TV adaptation ten years ago. Now Helen Edmundson has adapted it for the stage where she had her greatest triumph with Coram Boy.

It starts in Jamaica when young Hortense is sent to live with relatives, and we glimpse her childhood with her god-fearing adopted parents and her cousin Michael, who becomes a playmate and close friend. We move to wartime London and meet our other protagonist, cheery cockney Queenie. The rest of the first half moves between Queenie’s story, Jamaicans in London joining the forces and Hortense back in Jamaica, now grown up. I thought this first half was overlong and structurally weak. It lacked cohesion and clarity, though it ended brilliantly as we see people boarding the now infamous Empire Windrush, bound for the UK.

The second half opens as Hortense arrives in London six months after her husband Gilbert, who came on the Windrush, shocked by the conditions in the boarding house Queenie now runs after her husband Bernard’s failure to return from the war and her father-in-law’s death. This shorter second half is absolutely brilliant as we see what these immigrants have to put up with and the trials and tribulations facing Queenie before, when and after Bernard returns. This second half, though, covers less than a year. It’s very uncomfortable listening to the racism of the post-war period.

Small intimate scenes sometimes seem lost on that vast stage, but it’s used to great effect when the whole cast of over 40 populate it and when Jon Driscoll’s brilliant giant projections shrink it. Director Rufus Norris marshals his cast well, with excellent movement by Coral Messam. There’s superb incidental music from Benjamin Kwasi Burrell. It’s a fine ensemble with particularly good performances by Leah Harvey and Aisling Loftus as Hortense and Queenie respectively. If only the first half had been tighter and shorter.

The warmth of the reception was a striking contrast with the period racism on show. We have come a long way, even if the journey’s not over and may never be.

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Reading his biography in the programme, it appears this is the National Theatre’s Director Rufus Norris’ first Shakespeare production. Perhaps he should have asked one of his predecessors for some coaching. He’s fallen into the trap of swamping it with concept and directorial conceit, losing the essence of Shakespeare’s play in the process.

His two big ideas seem to be to set it in some sort of dystopian present / future and to ramp up the magic; the latter works better than the former. In the process he’s lost the psychological depth of the story, the subtlety of the characterisations and much of the verse is chewed and spat out rather than spoken, sometimes competing with the soundscape. It’s dark, bleak and relentless and actors of the calibre of Rory Kinnear, Anne-Marie Duff and Patrick O’Kane struggle to shine.

Rae Smith’s design has an arc platform on the revolve which is used to great effect; otherwise it’s all hanging black plastic, concrete rooms, tacky furniture and grubby clothes. There are a lot of severed heads in clear plastic bags. The soundscape has eerie wind instruments. The lighting is striking, but ever so dark, so that you are sometimes straining your eyes trying to work out who’s speaking.

It’s not all bad – some scenes work well, like Macduff learning of the fate of his children, Macbeth finding his dead wife and the weird sisters during the final battle, but much of it was un-engaging. When it ended some 20-25 minutes before the published time, the shortest Macbeth I’ve ever seen, I wondered if they’d lost confidence in it themselves.

A big disappointment.

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Another half-baked new play on the high profile Olivier stage. Following hot on the heels of Common, Rory Mullarkey’s good idea doesn’t really work in its present form. This brings into question the NT’s QC process again. Were Rufus Norris, his deputy Ben Power and head of New Work Emily McLaughlin all on holiday at the same time?

It’s an allegory of the history of England which uses its patron saint St. George to take us to three periods. First he arrives in mediaeval times where the dragon ruler is about to sacrifice sweet Elsa on his feast day. He overcomes him and liberates the people. In the industrial revolution, the evil dragon capitalist is in control and George frees them again, this time by helping them to take control of their own destiny. Finally, in modern times, the dragon is within us all and liberation seemingly impossible. Here, the English football team is used as a metaphor – again, a good idea. The same characters appear in each scene, behaving as if only a short time has elapsed between them.

It just doesn’t work. It doesn’t engage, it doesn’t bite, it’s rarely funny and its too long, so you find your mind wandering, thinking about the next meal or drink or what you could be doing with your time and money. Rae Smith’s design is excellent; in fact, there’s not much wrong with Lyndsey Turner’s staging. I felt sorry for John Heffernan, a favourite actor of mine, doing his best, imprisoned in this misguided piece. In a pretty empty theatre (so rare at the NT, particularly in the very accessibly priced Travelex Season), with a fair few not returning after the interval, it just fell flat I’m afraid.

I would have thought that, during the commissioning and development process, you could see that it wasn’t ready for twenty-one actors, six musicians and the technical resources of one of the country’s biggest stages. I’m ready and willing to accept the odd mistake, but too many on such a high profile stage……

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Lucy Kirkwood has taken to writing big, complex multi-layered, multi-issue plays. From Sino-American relations to a nuclear incident to particle physics. Think Tim Stoppard, but not so cold and glib, with personal stories for added empathy. I like them. A lot.

Mosquitoes revolves around two sisters – the brilliant Alice, an eminent scientist at CERN in Geneva, and Jenny, a bit of a basket case living in Luton, who seems to believe everything she reads on the internet. Despite the differences they are close, and come to each other’s rescue when needed. Their mum Karen lives with Jenny; she was an eminent scientist in her day too, but perhaps not much of a mother; she’s got an ice cold bite. Alice’s husband disappeared and she’s now in a relationship with Henri. Her troubled teenage son Luke is struggling with bullying at school.

Kirkwood weaves the personal story of these three generations with some mind-blowing science, taking us way beyond now to the possibilities of the distant future, using The Bosun, who seems to be the ghost of Alice’s former husband, as our guide. She writes really sharp dialogue and it’s often very funny, but it sometimes surprises you too, going down quite unpredictable and unexpected paths. I loved the density of the narrative and the meatiness of the dialogue. The personal story has lots of twists and revelations and is simply staged in the round, with a circular floor, a moving circular feature overhead and dramatic lighting and sound effects to convey the science. 

Jenny is a peach of a role which Olivia Coleman clearly relishes and completely inhabits. It’s harder for Olivia Williams to play less emotionally against this, but she does so well. Amanda Boxer is wonderful as mum Karen, seemingly devoid of emotion and fighting dementia, and Joseph Quinn, excellent in Wish List at the Royal Court earlier this year, is hugely impressive as angst ridden lost soul Luke. Rufus Norris’s staging is well paced and captivating, with idiosyncratic scene changes to boot.

This is a very mature play for someone in her early thirties and there’s clearly a lot more to come. I for one can’t wait.

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Verbatim theatre can be very powerful in presenting real issues, and this look at last year’s referendum is amongst the most powerful I’ve seen; thought-provoking but also highly entertaining. I’m rather glad I missed it at the National in February, as it seems to take on extra meaning post-election, and feels more at home in ‘a people’s theatre’ at the end of it’s 14-venue tour, mostly visiting the cities and towns in which the interviews that it features took place.

Britannia has convened a gathering and Caledonia, Cymru, Northern Ireland, the South West, North East and East Midlands arrive. After pleasantries, each conveys the words of the interviewees from their location, which eventually descend into inaudibility, talking over one another; no-one’s listening. Britannia represents and conveys the words of the politicians – Cameron, Johnson, Gove, Farage and May. Beyond this, each representative presents the best of their country / region in song, dance and poetry, with others commenting. It ends thoughtfully with the voices of the interviewees themselves as the representatives leave the stage. Carol Ann Duffy has put this together expertly.

The ensemble is outstanding, perhaps benefiting from being together for almost four months now. Penny Layden is terrific conveying the politicians. Christian Patterson represented my home country very well; his rendition of Goldfinger a highlight, as was Cavan Clarke’s Irish dance! Stuart McQuarrie is a superbly feisty Scot and Laura Elphinstone a brash Geordie. There were many laughs at the expense of Adam Ewan representing the South West as somewhat new age and Seema Bowri represented the diversity of the East Midlands well. Rufus Norris’ production manages to make this entertaining without belittling the seriousness of the situation, though I did feel uneasy at times laughing at the words of real people.

Excellent, relevant theatre, which does help you understand how we’ve got into this mess, though it didn’t lift my depression over it!

 

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I’m not sure how Brecht & Weill even knew about John Gay’s 18th century original, The Beggar’s Opera, but it’s easy to see the attraction of 21st century theatre folk to this piece, which resonated more on Monday night than it ever has with me before – and not just because of Macheath’s comments about returning after the interval, choosing to remain and being united, and the extensive use of the flag of St. George as England was being humiliated elsewhere! This is a radical adaptation by Simon Stephens, edgier and ruder, which I rather liked.

It’s relocated in the East End of London, amongst the underclass and criminal lowlife. Peachum runs a professional begging gang made up of the homeless, veterans, lunatics, alcoholics and druggies. The corrupt police chief Brown was in the army in Afghanistan with Macheath, the rogue the ladies can’t resist, including the police chief’s own daughter Lucy, Peachum’s wife and daughter Polly and prostitute Jenny. A coronation parade is going to visit their ‘manor’ and Macheath has something on the king, whilst Peachum has something on the police chief and Mrs Peachum controls Jenny through drugs. The closing scene of Act I, where relationships and connections are revealed, is superbly staged, including a keystone cops parody, and the final scene of Act II brings out the Valkyrie helmets and the vocals turn more operatic to brilliantly underline the satire of John Gay’s and Brecht & Weill’s originals. It retains the sensibilities of 30’s Berlin through the music, which somehow fits perfectly with the new setting; it has an anarchic, manic quality and it’s superbly played and sung in this production under MD David Shrubsole.

Rory Kinnear has real menace and swagger as Macheath and a surprisingly good voice for someone without much experience in musical theatre. Nick Holder is more seeped in musical theatre and this is one of his best performances, combining just as much menace with a penchant for cross-dressing, in heels and red-streaked wig. Rosalie Craig excels too as a nerdy Polly with a ruthless streak. I loved Peter de Jersey’s very physical dictator-like police chief and Haydn Gwynne’s oily Mrs Peachum. It’s great to see the wonderful Debbie Kurup at the NT in a terrific turn as Lucy. It’s an excellent supporting cast with a stand-out performance from George Ikediashi as the Balladeer. I wasn’t sure about Vicki Mortimer’s rather ramshackle home made look design, though it did provide some great moments, and the costumes were excellent. Rufus Norris staging was outstanding.

Another evening at the NT which exceeded expectations; long may that continue.

 

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Rufus Norris’ first production as Artistic Director of the National Theatre somehow seems wholly appropriate. Carol Anne Duffy’s excellent adaptation of this 15th Century English morality play (which may be based on Flemish or Latin originals) is something no-one else could or would do on this scale. It also brings Chiwetel Ejiofor back to the NT after 15 years.

In this contemporary Everyman, he is celebrating his 40th birthday in a somewhat hedonistic way. He’s a successful businessman and his friends (each representing one of the senses or wits) spring a surprise party at the top of a London building. There’s drink, dancing and a brilliantly choreographed communal cocaine snort by Javier De Frutos. We next see him awaken, hung over, to meet Kate Duchene’s cleaning lady God and Dermot Crowley’s droll Death, who set him off on a journey to account for himself, starting with his family who he has all but deserted and continuing through his life, career and relationships.

Duffy’s modern verse sparkles and I think it’s the chief reason the play works so well today. It’s performed on a bare stage in front of a giant video wall with a pit at the rear for most entrances and exits. A few tables, some mannequins and a lot of rubbish are the only props, but with great lighting, music and a giant wind machine it all seems epic. In addition to a brilliant but exhausting performance from a sweat-drained Ejiofor, and the terrific turns from Duchene and Crowley, the 20 strong supporting cast includes the wonderful Sharon D Clarke as his mother (who gets to sing Stormy Weather) and Nick Holder as Strength.

We haven’t seen Everyman in modern times as much as we have it’s contemporary The Mysteries and its great to see it staged at last, particularly in such a fine production on the Olivier stage led by one of the greatest actors of his generation.

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Even though its four months before Rufus Norris takes the helm at the NT, this may well be a sign of things to come. Though playwright David Hare has had 17 plays at the NT, everything else about this production seems to be saying ‘new broom’. It’s also the best in-house production in the Olivier since Norris’ Amen Corner last year.

Hare has adapted the reportage of Katherine Boo, who spent three years regularly visiting the shanty town of Annawadi at Mumbai airport and published their story as non-fiction in the book of the same name. This mostly Muslim community is screened from visitors, business people and the Indian middle-class by barriers, on some of which posters advertise ‘Beautiful Forevers’, whatever that is / they are. The play centres on three strong women, who between them represent life in these slums. Zehrunisa Husain’s family have become relatively wealthy by collecting rubbish, thanks to son Abdul, the best sorter, and his friend Sunil, the best collector. Asha is the local fixer – the ‘go to’ woman who, for money, can make things happen. Fatima Shaikh, who has lost one leg, sells her body in the afternoons to keep her family. These are the people you don’t see if you visit India. The government tries hard to hide or remove them. The police and other officials exploit them. Upwardly mobile Indians, benefitting from globalisation, ignore them, a bi-product and consequence of this globalisation.

This community is a microcosm of a society with unwritten rules and norms. There is much conflict between them as they strive to better themselves and better their peers. The conflict between The Husain’s and Fatima reaches a new level when Fatima sets herself alight and blames them, but she has gone too far and, with health standards as they are, does not survive. Three Husain’s end up accused and we’re then propelled into the world of hospital cover-ups, police corruption and judicial incompetence. At the same time, Sunil crosses the line from collection to theft, a world occupied by another group of very violent men, yet another society within a society.

There’s a great epic sweep to the story and Norris’ staging, with design by Katrina Lindsay, makes great use of the Olivier stage and its resources. Occasionally, scene changes slow down a well-paced production, but the overall impact is captivating. It’s very inventively done, with the rubbish centre stage and brilliant recreation of the planes landing. Sunil’s climbs and walks over the metal gantry took my breath away more than once. When Time Out reviewed Norris’ Death & the King’s Horseman on the same stage five years back, they said ‘if you’re a black actor and you’re not in this, get a new agent’. One could say something similar about this, a fine ensemble of 23 British Asian actors. The three matriarchs – Meera Syal, Stephanie Street & Thusitha Jayasundera – are all excellent, but its Hiran Abeysekera as Sunil and Shane Zaza as Abdul who steal your heart with two natural and very moving characterisations.

The play makes you think a lot about the real consequences of escalating economic change, particularly in the so-called BRIC countries, but it does so by telling the true story of real people unwittingly caught up in it. This is great theatre and hopefully an example of what’s to come at the NT.

 

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If you ask anyone around here what Amen Corner is, they’ll tell you it’s a junction where roads to / from Tooting, Streatham & Mitcham meet. Back home, they’d have said it was Andy Fairweather Low’s band (born 6 miles away – almost a neighbour). On the South Bank, it’s a 1955 semi-autobiographical play by American James Baldwin (one of only two he wrote) which I first saw 26 years ago at the Tricycle Theatre and again 13 years ago at the same venue. In Rufus Norris’ production for the NT, it seems quite a different play.

Harlem preacher Margaret separated from her jazz musician husband Luke and brought up son David alone. She lives below the tabernacle with David and sister Odessa. As the play starts, all is well in this devotional world, with her sister a church elder and her son its pianist. Luke turns up sick (and drunk), David starts to develop a life outside this insular world and Margaret’s life is turned upside down. The other church elder’s see this as part of her descent, making them intent on a coup. The personal story is played out against the contradictions of this 1950’s Harlem world – evangelical services full of people possessed and seedy clubs full of the fallen.

What makes the play very different from previous productions is that Norris has infused it with music – mostly the gospel of Margaret’s world, but also the jazz of Luke’s world. Ian MacNeil’s design cleverly delineates these worlds with the home stage front, the tabernacle above and the jazz world behind and to the side. The singing of the cast with the London Community Gospel Choir is uplifting, even to a hardened atheist like me, and contrasts with the sultry, sensual jazz soundscape. This does so much to create the dichotomy so important to the story.

I’ve already seen two stunning black casts in recent weeks, with Fences and A Season In the Congo (and there’s The Colour Purple to come in a matter of days), and here’s another one. It’s wonderful to see Marianne Jean-Baptiste again and her performance as Margaret towers over proceedings but doesn’t steal the limelight. Lucian Msamati is excellent as Luke, a difficult role requiring believable sickness and drunkenness. Recent graduate Eric Kofi Abrefa is hugely impressive as David and Sharon D Clarke has great presence as Odessa, successfully stretching herself away from the musicals we are more used to seeing her in. There are three brilliant performances as the machiavellian elders from Cecilia Noble, Jacqueline Boatswain and Donovan F Blackwood.

This must be the definitive production of this excellent play (a better play than August Wilson’s Fences across the river, in my view) and a great use of the difficult Olivier stage. I would have preferred the interval earlier, or two intervals, as the first half is twice the length of the second, but it didn’t get in the way of a thrilling evening at the theatre.

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When I see that a play has multiple writers, I think of the NT’s Greenland and break out into a cold sweat, but this is directed by the great Rufus Norris, so it’s bound to be good, right?

There aren’t as many feasts as there are writers – three rather than five – in this show’s epic sweep from pre-colonial Nigeria through slavery and migration to the Americas and Europe creating a Nigerian diaspora in Brazil, Cuba, the US and the UK amongst others. Yoruban culture, and Yoruban deities in particular, loom large over events as we move through 300 years right up to the London Olympic success of a British girl of Yoruban descent.

There’s much imagination and talent on show in the components of the piece – striking visual imagery, great movement and good music. The trouble is, it doesn’t come together to create anything cohesive. It’s a lot of ideas in search of a play, and it seems to me that the fault must lie with the concept of five writers. However good a director, however much talent on stage, however creative the design, it still adds up to a 110 minute jumble. 

I’m sure there is a great story to be told about roots and the fact that wherever we go and whatever we do, we still retain them where our ancestors trod, but sadly this Young Vic / Royal Court co-production just skims the surface. I enjoyed a number of the tastier courses, but I was still hungry when it finished – more tapas than feast!

 

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