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Posts Tagged ‘Sam Mendes’

Given it’s iconic status in musical theatre, I’m surprised this is only the fourth major London revival since I moved here forty years ago. Sam Mendes also turned his theatre, the Donmar Warehouse, into the Kit Kat Club for his 1993 production, albeit less dramatically. This transferred to Broadway, where it ran for six or seven years, returning less that ten years later for another year. Rufus Norris’ 2006 revival was a radical production on a conventional stage. Now Rebecca Frecknall’s is a complete reinvention within an elaborate reconfiguration of the Playhouse Theatre. There was so much to take in, which might be why I’m still struggling to write about it four days later.

It must have felt extraordinarily ground-breaking when it was first staged on Broadway 55 years ago; it felt pretty much the same now – a musical set in 30’s Berlin during the rise of the Nazi Party featuring prostitution, drugs and homosexuality, the Kit Kat Club at the heart of all the decadence. It starts when you enter, walking through the bowels of the theatre to emerge in what used to be the foyer where the ‘prologue cast’ were performing. Then you enter the auditorium, where the club vibe continues, with the audience on two sides of a round playing area which revolves and rises, and the band above in the two boxes that once housed audience members. It’s actually a small playing area, though Frecknall and choreographer Julia Cheng use it brilliantly, switching from the club to all other locations with few props very speedily.

In addition to Tom Scutt’s physical design, his Kit Kat Club costumes have a distinct aesthetic too, a sort of surreal punk fantasy, never more so than with Eddie Redmayne’s Emcee, which he invests with an extraordinary physicality and a manic stare. One of the striking things about this production is how all of the roles come to the fore; it isn’t just Sally & the Emcee’s show, the audience waiting for their next entrance. This cast rise to that challenge superbly. Lisa Sadovy is terrific as landlady Fraulein Schneider, her relationship with Elliot Levey’s excellent Herr Schultz growing, exuding warmth, before it crashes so sadly. Omari Douglas continues to impress with a very subtle and sensitive Clifford, struggling with his sexuality. It’s great to see Anna-Jane Casey back where she belongs investing prostitute Fraulein Kost with such exuberance. Then there’s Jessie Buckley, conquering yet another peak in a short career that has demonstrated extraordinary range. Her Sally Bowles balances confidence and vulnerability perfectly.

It’s an unsettling, dark show and this production is often chilling. Perhaps because of the recent passing of Stephen Sondheim, the parallels between him and Kander & Ebb struck me. They both tackled subjects unusual to musical theatre before, and each show was completely different. Cabaret will go down in history as a show which made a great contribution to the evolution of the form in the last half of the 20th Century and this production will be remembered for proving the point that great shows evolve and change, reflecting the period they are performed in and the talent that creates and performs them. I’m so glad I was there to experience this one.

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This early Alan Bennett play, 48 years old now, is rarely seen. I can only recall one London revival, by Sam Mendes at the Donmar twenty-five years ago, which I missed because the performance I’d booked was cancelled and I couldn’t make another, so it’s been a long wait, not just the eighteen month lockdown one.

It’s his most farcical play, which seems to me to be a send up of the form, without slamming doors, but with the trouser dropping. It’s more Joe Orton than Brian Rix, both of which pre-date it. It also has more than a touch of absurdism, and is partly in verse. A very odd concoction which I’m not sure has stood the test of time.

Dr Arthur Wicksteed is a GP with a roving eye. His son Dennis is desperate to lose his virginity and his sister Constance wants false breasts to bag her a better man than the Canon, her fiancee. His wife’s ex flame is Sir Percy Shorter, the President of the BMA, who’s here in their home town of Hove for a conference. Lady Rumpers and her daughter Felicity, back from their colonial adventures, turn up, though it’s a long time before you realise why. Add in the false breast salesman / fitter, a suicidal patient and the Wicksteed’s housekeeper Mrs Swabb, our ‘narrator’ – a brilliant performance from Ria Jones – shake & stir and you have a surreal take on the classic British farce of that time.

It’s all very well plotted and littered with good jokes. There’s a coffin centre stage, the purpose of which remains unclear, otherwise there are no props, so it zips along. The costumes are pitch perfect 70’s, and of course the soundtrack is to die for. Underneath all this there may be some messages, but if there are they get lost in the form. You can’t fault the performers, who make the best of every line and every situation, but it didn’t really work for me.

It’s a curiosity, and as a big Bennett fan I’m glad I went to see what he was up to in early career, but it’s easy to see why its taken 25 years to reappear on a London stage again.

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It’s somewhat ironic that this revival of Larry Kramer’s partly autobiographical AIDS play was delayed by an epidemic / pandemic, though that probably makes it resonate more. The contrast between the response to AIDS it shows and the response to Covid-19 we’ve just experienced is also striking. The parallel between the current debate about differing types of protest, and in particular the use of civil disobedience by environmentalists, wasn’t lost on me either. So an up-to-date 36-year-old play, then.

By the time this was written / produced, US deaths from AIDS had exceeded 5000; the disease had been around for four years. Our protagonist Ned Weeks is a founding member of a HIV support group and much of the play is devoted to the contrast between his confrontational style of advocacy and the more reserved ways of his colleagues, some of whom hadn’t come out. Despite clear medical advice on safe sex, though, all were reluctant to promulgate such advice. It was all about resources to respond and support the stricken community and how best to lobby for these.

As the play develops, we learn more about the disease and are drawn in to personal stories, not least that of Ned’s partner Felix, a closeted journalist dying of it. Ned’s passion becomes anger. He is marginalised by his colleagues as he is losing his lover. The authorities’ response to AIDS is sadly lacking. It makes the reaction to Covid-19 seems so much better (vaccines in less than a year?!), because of the speed of spreading and mode of transmission, perhaps because of what we learnt from AIDS, perhaps because AIDS was seen as only affecting the gay community.

The first part seemed a bit too laboured, perhaps because it focuses too much on the political and not enough on the disease, but the second half punches you in the stomach as it becomes devastating, personal and deeply moving. This is helped by staging in the round, which provides more intimacy than the Olivier can usually muster. The setting, with just benches inside a circular metal structure and four entrances, facilitates a pace and urgency for the storytelling.

Ben Daniels plays Ned with such passion and commitment, on stage virtually the whole time; he inhabits the role fully. A towering, career defining performance. Liz Carr is superb as straight-talking Dr Emma Brookner, just about the only character who challenges Ned effectively. Daniel Monks stands out as Mickey in an older, very different role to his impressive UK debut in Teenage Dick at the Donmar. The rest of the 13 strong cast, all men, provide excellent support.

The original off-Broadway production never made it to Broadway, which seems to echo the response to the disease shown in the play, but the Royal Court’s UK production, initially with Martin Sheen as Ned, did get to the West End. It might be worth noting that the 1988 Cambridge University production was directed by Sam Mendes, with Nick Clegg as Ned!

Like Channel 4’s It’s A sin, this is very timely, though a completely different take. That TV series could only be written now, whilst this was written at the time. The Olivier audience was on it’s feet, and that doesn’t happen very often.

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Previous productions of this play, by Italian playwright Stefano Massini, have lasted five hours and had huge casts. Ben Power’s adaptation has a playing time of just under three hours, and director Sam Mendes has chosen to use just three actors to tell this epic story spanning 175 years. An inspired idea which delivers a captivating story of a dynasty, but also the history of capitalism and immigration to the USA.

The Lehman brothers are the sons of a German Jewish cattle merchant, the first brother Henry arriving in the US in 1844, Emanuel and Mayer following in the subsequent six years. Their business starts as a general store in Montgomery, Alabama, before they become cotton traders. After Henry dies, they move to New York City, where they expand into coffee trading, invest in railways and the Panama Canal, and eventually everything from airlines, cigarettes, films & armaments to banking.

It was not until 1965 that they move into trading investments, the business that killed them in 2008, something that the 1857, 1873 and 1929 financial crises, the American Civil War, two world wars and 9/11 didn’t. By then, there were no Lehman brothers left in the business that kept their name, the last dying in 1969. In the previous 125 years, six brothers from three generations had led the business, two for sixty years each.

Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles and Adam Godley remain in the cloths in which they arrive in the mid-eighteenth century, but all play multiple roles of all generations & ages and both sexes absolutely brilliantly. It all takes place in Es Devlin’s glass-walled offices, representing where the company meets its demise in 2008, which revolve in front of a giant screen on which Luke Hall projects locations. The 2008 box files are used to create everything from shop counters to steps. It’s all in monochrome. Mendes’ staging is simple, enthralling storytelling, with the role-switching lightening it, providing some very funny moments. Live piano accompaniment at the side of the stage is also inspired, and brilliantly played by Candida Caldicot.

It all combines to create a wonderful unmissable theatrical feast.

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I last saw this 1980 play by the late Brian Friel in Sam Mendes’ Donmar Warehouse Theatre production twenty-five years ago. Ian Rickson’s revival in the National’s Olivier Theatre makes a virtue of the bigger space and it works even better on this scale, with a superb design by Rae Smith, beautifully lit by Neil Austin, making great use of the Olivier stage (something that lately hasn’t been said that often!).

We’re in rural Ireland in 1833, in an independent and potentially illegal ‘Hedge School’, giving a classical education to adults in Latin and Irish. The school is run by Hugh and his son Manus. Hugh’s other son Owen is working as a translator for the British army, which is mapping this part of Ireland, renaming places in English. When British army Lieutenant Yolland and Manus’ girlfriend fall for each other, events take a dramatic turn. The disappearance of Yolland incurs the wrath of the British, who threaten to kill animals, evict people and demolish homes. The true purpose of the British forces mission becomes clear.

It all takes place in a school room, with a large green space behind and brooding clouds above providing an atmospheric and evocative picture of rural Ireland. It takes a while before you realise the Irish are speaking Irish (Gaelic) and the British speaking English; at this time English was rarely spoken by the people of Ireland. Ciaran Hinds is great as Hugh, with Seamus O’Hare as Manus and Colin Morgan as Owen both excellent. In a fine supporting cast, Dermot Crowley shines as the erudite, knowledgable but often drunk Jimmy Jack Cassie, who studies Greek and Latin.

This is an excellent revival of a fascinating play, anchored in history, beautifully staged and performed.

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This latest (last?) Stephen Sondheim musical has had a tortuous journey since it was first workshopped by Sam Mendes in New York City in 1999. First produced in Washington and Chicago (where I first saw it) in 2003, it re-appeared Off-Broadway in 2008 but never made The Great White Way. It started as Wise Guys before it became Gold!, Bounce and eventually Road Show. It’s not even five years since it’s UK premiere at The Menier Chocolate Factory (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2011/07/15/road-show), but it’s good to see it again in this revival by Phil Willmott at the Union Theatre.

The show presents the story of the real life Mizner brothers. Younger brother Wilson was a serial entrepreneur / chancer / con-man and Addison a self-trained architect. Their adventures started with the Klondike Gold Rush in 1897, moved to New York City in its hey-day and ended with ground-breaking property development in Florida. In between, Wilson gambles, runs a saloon, becomes a boxing manager, writes plays, sells Latin American furniture, becomes a hotelier and marries a very rich widow. Addison’s journey was less colourful! In truth, in the show their story isn’t anywhere near as exciting and doesn’t make as good source material as any other Sondheim show, but compared to mere mortals it ain’t half bad. The score has too few proper songs and a bit too much ensemble sung dialogue / story, with a lot of melodies that seem familiar from other Sondheim shows.

Phil Willmott’s production is very effective, probably more so that the Menier’s traverse staging. The big two-way mirror at the back works really well and full use is made of the space, making it seem bigger than usual. I particularly liked Thomas Michal Voss’ choreography and Richard Baker’s trio does full justice to the complex, difficult score. The casting of the brothers is crucial to the success of this show and this is its trump card. Howard Jenkins and Andre Refig, both recent RAM graduates with fine vocal and acting skills, are terrific, conveying the completely different personalities, yet totally believable as brothers. The other three leads and ensemble of ten are all very good, but they carry the show.

I wasn’t sure we’d ever see this flawed but fascinating show again and I worried it might be soon to return to it, but I’m very glad I did.

 

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Maybe I’ve seen too many Lear’s (10). Maybe it was because I was tired, having braved the rain, wind & a tube strike. Maybe I was just over-excited about seeing a favourite actor climb this infamous acting mountain. Whatever the reason, I didn’t really engage with this Lear. I found myself in detached observation admiring it rather than being involved or moved by it.

I’ve heard the word ‘epic’ so many times in connection with this Sam Mendes production, but it didn’t seem that epic to me. I’m not sure why Anthony Ward’s design has blue-green abstract painted panels and stage floor, though it is attractive. Screens cut the stage in half for the more intimate scenes and sometimes when they rise the image behind takes your breath away. It works best in the storm scene when clouds and lightning are projected onto the screens as thunder claps, though I don’t know why a strip of stage with Lear & The Fool on it has to rise and move around.

I don’t have a problem with the modern setting, but I’m not sure the military concept works as well for this as it does for plays like Othello where the characters are military. I always have a problem believing he would divide the country, giving a third to the daughter who marries a Frenchman(!), and then cast out this favourite daughter just because she won’t match her sisters sycophancy, but here Lear doesn’t even look like a king. Simon Russell Beale may have concentrated so much on the madness / dementia that he neglects the other facets of this complex man.

There are some great performances, though. Anna Maxwell-Martin and Kate Fleetwood are excellent as Regan & Goneril, the former becoming vicious and the latter a bit of a vamp. Tom Brooke is a superb Edgar, particularly when disguised as Tom. Stephen Boxer invests Gloucester with great passion and Adrian Scarborough is a highly original and rather cool Fool. SRB completely transforms himself – not just shaving his head and growing a bushy beard, but his whole body seems to take on a new shape.

There is much to admire, but it didn’t wow me like I thought and hoped it would. I may have not done it justice, so I’ve booked to go back at the end of the run as I have to know if it’s me or the production!

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This American musical had its first production here in the UK at the Donmar Warehouse in 1997, directed by Sam Mendes no less and starring a then largely unknown John Barrowman. Writers John Dempsey and Dana P Rowe went on to write the stage musical of The Witches of Eastwick three years later, which got a big scale production in the West End under the auspices of Cameron Mackintosh, but have not done a lot in the 12 years since than.

This revival at the Union Theatre has Michael Strassen at the helm; his recent productions of Company, Assassins, The Bakers Wife and Godspell at the same venue have wowed. He has a knack of creating stylish and slick shows with next to no set, relying on costumes lighting and the odd prop or two, as it is here. It looks terrific, but there’s no set – Neil Gordon’s costumes and Steve Miller’s lighting do it all.

Senator Reed Chandler dies on the eve of becoming president and his widow Violet becomes obsessed with the objective of ensuring her son Cal follows in his footsteps and makes it to the White House. She’s helped by her scheming and spinning brother-in-law Grahame, the architect of Reed’s campaign. Cal follows a fast track trajectory from the forces through City Hall to Governor acquiring a loveless marriage (and child), a mistress or two and a cocaine habit along the way. The family’s unsavory Mafia friends become their downfall as history repeats itself.

This production is brilliantly staged and paced; you’re on the edge of your seat for much of the time. The pop rock score sounds great with a (sadly uncredited) five-pice band under MD Simon Lambert in this snug venue, and outstanding unamplified singing from all involved. The three leads are simply extraordinary – Louis Maskell as son Cal has great presence and a fantastic voice, Liz May Brice convey’s Violet’s ambition, determination and passion superbly and Miles Western is terrific as the machiavellian fixer.

A musical I remember to be OK has scrubbed up great. Maybe it’s found its time now that such scheming and manipulation is more commonplace, or maybe its just a fine cast and creative team on top form. Whatever it is, you have to go!

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I’d have died happy having seen both Anthony Sher’s and Ian McKellen’s Richard III; I will die even happier now I’ve also seen Kevin Spacey’s. If I were to write my memoirs of a lifetime of theatre going, this would be there in both the ‘Great Shakespeare productions and ‘Great Shakespearean performances’ chapters.

Sam Mendes production has a cinematic quality and races along at a pace like no other Shakespeare production I’ve ever seen, aided by Tom Piper’s simple but highly effective design. Until Richard’s coronation, it’s contained within three grey walls with sixteen doors; then the back wall is removed. There are so many interesting ideas here, as the play reveals itself to be a timeless study of the psychology of dictatorship. Richard’s journey is brilliantly evoked, from the man-with-a-chip-on-his-shoulder (!) to a fully fledged tyrant. As we progress he adopts the trappings of autocracy, through to the medal-adorned military uniform  & dark glasses.

What Mendes & Spacey do is bring out the darkness inside the would-be king; the ruthless, manic intensity is there for all to see. It’s not without its humour, with the grinning asides to the audience and a couple of Hollywood references (Groucho Marx’s cigar gesture and the calls for ‘Stanley’ imitating Oliver Hardy) but the darkness pervades the production. In the scene where the ‘public’ are enticed to champion Richard, the audience is the public and he’s on screen. The battle is conveyed by loud percussion, as the cast join the two off-stage percussionists used throughout. Richard’s dream the night before is superbly staged and the scene where he informs Haydn Gwynne’s Elizabeth that he is to marry her daughter is riveting.

This is Spacey’s eighth role on this stage and unquestionably his greatest. He gives the role a menace through the contortions of his humped and calipered body and the way he uses the volume and tone of his voice to convey Richard’s feelings and motivations. The lines direct to the audience draw you in to his inner self. The only problem with such a towering performance is that when he’s not on stage you find yourself waiting for his return.

Simon Tisdall’s excellent programme points out the parallels with modern dictators and examines their different backgrounds and motivations through to those recently and currently challenged by the ‘Arab spring’, with Gaddafi the most obvious one. Richard III always seems to be relevant whenever you see it and it certainly is today. This production is yet another fresh and timely look and a thrilling one it proves to be with a leading performance from an actor at the height of his powers. It’s a triumph for the Bridge Project, which will enable 500,000 people in 10 countries on 4 continents to see it. Lucky them. Lucky me.

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