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Posts Tagged ‘Simon Russell Beale’

We seem to be going through a phase of filleting and re-ordering Shakespeare’s plays. The Donmar gave us a shortened Measure for Measure, twice in one evening, with gender swops between them. The National’s Anthony & Cleopatra started as it ended. Now the Almeida’s Richard II has lost an hour and nine characters and also brings forward a later scene. Somewhat ironically, this hyper-radical interpretation returns to Shakespeare’s original title. What comes out the other end is a frantic portrait of a country falling apart; not too difficult to identify with that at the moment. Shakespeare purists probably won’t like it; I found it bold, but not without its faults.

Eight actors play the thirteen characters remaining, in a large metal box, designed by ULTZ with excellent lighting by James Farncombe. in contemporary casual clothes. It’s somewhat manic in style, with fast speech and rapid movement and exaggerated gestures. Buckets of water, blood and soil (amusingly, labelled) get poured over characters and more gauntlets get thrown down in anger and challenge than you’re likely to have seen in your entire Shakespeare playgoing experience. There’s not a lot of subtlety, characterisations are weakened, verse loses beauty and the narrative of the play suffers……but it is a gripping 100 unbroken minutes and you can’t take your eyes off the stage.

The cast, led superbly by Simon Russell Beale as Richard, are uniformly excellent, but I didn’t feel Joe Hill-Gibbins production allowed them to get under the skin of their characters and reveal their psychological depth and motivation. I see Richard II as an introverted, introspective king who didn’t want to be king, uncomfortable with power, as most productions convey, and this didn’t come over here. Though I respect and admire the audacity and creativity, I didn’t find it entirely satisfying. It was a bit like watching the Tory party tearing itself and the country apart, and I’d done that before I got to the theatre that day, and indeed every other day at the moment.

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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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Much has been made of the use of cutting edge technology in this production – ‘The ROYAL SHAKESPEARE COMPANY in collaboration with INTEL, in association with THE IMAGINARIUM STUDIOS’ – that I was concerned it would swamp Shakespeare’s play, but nothing could be further from the truth. If anything, the contrast between spectacle and quiet reflection brought something very fresh and unique.

It’s set inside the wreck of a giant ship’s hull, designed by Stephen Brimson Lewis. Prospero, Miranda and the shipwrecked royals and their staff are normal humans. Caliban is a Shrek-like monster, brilliantly realised by Joe Dixon. Ariel is both an onstage character and multiple digital projections using performance capture (think Gollum in Lord of the Rings and Planet of the Apes), also brilliantly realised by Mark Quartley, as are the seven spirits that he sometimes conjures up. The characterisation of Stephano and Trinculo by James Hayes and especially Simon Trinder are also superb, and their scenes with Caliban are amongst the best I’ve ever seen.

With giant projections on the back wall and the ship’s hull, it does create truly spectacular scenes, but only when they’re needed. Much of the time we spend with Prospero feels even more introspective, thoughtful and restrained than usual, and the verse shines through. At first I thought Simon Russell Beale’s characterisation was too gentle, but then you realise you’re hanging on to every word in a theatre where you couldn’t hear a pin drop (despite the presence of many school parties!).  In addition to the technological partners, the projections of Finn Ross, Simon Spencer’s superb lighting and Paul Englishby’s evocative music add much to the magical cocktail.

Who’d have thought a 400-year-old play and state-of-the-art technology could feel as if they belong together.

 

 

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Samuel Foote, an eighteenth century actor, the subject of Ian Kelly’s play, may well be the most fascinating person you’ve never heard of – well, I hadn’t. He was a friend of David Garrick and Peg Woffington, the most famous actors of their day, Samuel Johnson, Benjamin Franklin and King George III. He appears to have invented a new form of theatre – improv! – getting around the stringent restrictions of the day by having no script to be approved and charging for the tea rather than the entertainment. The play is as enthralling as it is entertaining.

We meet Foote as a well-established member of London society. He’s moved on from acting to semi-improvised prologues and epilogues and on again to create comic and satirical one-man ‘entertainments’ and impersonations of infamous brothel madam ‘Mrs Cole’. He runs the second largest theatre company in the land, but after a riding accident he has to have his leg amputated, which of course impacts his career (and may have affected his mental condition). He does get a prosthetic leg, something that was being pioneered by John Hunter, the father of modern surgery, at that time, but he never really recovers. The sympathetic George III grants him a Theatre Royal license for the Haymarket Theatre, but his fortunes begin to decline when he satirises a Duchess who responds with accusations of sodomy which ultimately bring him down. Why have I never heard of this man or his plays!

Richard Eyre’s production is uproariously funny, though it does get darker as it progresses. Tim Hatley seems to have designed an intentionally small set which is both faithful to the period and rather intimate. Simon Russell Beale’s towering performance is amongst his best, showcasing his brilliant comic timing and ability to raise a laugh without speaking a word. He is as extraordinary as a large eighteenth century society lady as he was as a Carmen Miranda impersonator in Privates on Parade. He’s surrounded by a host of other lovely performances, with Joseph Millson as Garrick and Dervla Kirwan as Woffington and the writer himself as Prince / King George. I was hugely impressed by Micah Balfour as his ‘blackamoor’ servant and Jenny Galloway was a delight as his other help, Mrs Garner.

It was another co-incidence that this play about 18th century theatre folk followed the previous day’s play about 17th century theatre folk, and I thoroughly enjoyed both. It is unthinkable that this doesn’t transfer, and it would be particularly wonderful if it were to be to the Theatre Royal Haymarket which he took over 250 years ago next year!

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You might not expect 100 minutes real time set entirely in a church office to be enthralling theatre, but it is. Steve Waters intelligent play about the dilemma facing the Dean of St. Paul’s when the Occupy protesters are driven to his church steps captivates from beginning to end and Simon Russell Beale gives us yet another master-class in acting.

The 100 minutes are those immediately before the church is re-opened for services after a two-week closure. The protesters had been driven there away from the target of their ire. The Corporation of London wants the Dean’s support in driving them away altogether by an injunction. The church hierarchy, through the Bishop of London, has no direct authority over St. Paul’s but still seeks to influence it. Some of the Dean’s senior staff feel strongly, at least one to the point of resignation. His PA has gone sick with stress and her cover is seemingly incompetent. The Dean is in an impossible situation and struggles to find a solution and to show leadership.

So much is covered in this short period of time. We learn of the special status of St. Paul’s and the history that puts it there. We see the differing views within the church, varying from logic to pragmatism to principled to passive. The debate that is played out covers the moral and ethical and the practical and expedient. Surrounded by those giving advice, The Dean is in a very lonely place. The Bishop makes it clear what the Archbishop wants, the City Lawyer uses her legalistic jargon to spell out where the Corporation sits. His staff think they know what Jesus would do and the PA proves to be wiser than it seemed at first.

Though its a fiction it feels very real and I kept wondering how much research Waters had done. Howard Davies direction is impeccable, allowing the writing and performances to shine, and Tim Hatley’s realistic design and the Donmar’s intimacy make you voyeurs peering into the room. Simon Russell Beale is perfect casting as the Dean, a very sympathetically written character, and he gives a beautiful, nuanced portrait of a man under pressure, on an emotional roller-coaster, struggling as his conscience and his brain battle within him.

I loved Malcolm Sinclair’s rather pompous Bishop of London who’d taken advice ‘from his communications people’ and was very much in tune with ‘the modern world’ and I thought Rebecca Humphries was superb as the PA Lizzie, moving from dippy temp to show wisdom and passion as she too tries to influence The Dean. There’s also a terrific cameo from Shereen Martin, who perfectly captures the legal eagle blinded by logic but so lacking in emotional intelligence that she would know a moral dilemma if she fell over one.

I was entranced by this gentle, often funny, thought-provoking play and have been reflecting on it ever since. A candidate for Best New Play I’d say. Off you go…..

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Film 

A bumper 12 movie month, as January always is, leading up to the awards season and filling the gaps in a lean theatrical period. Here’s a whistle-stop tour:

I’ve been critical of how Peter Jackson has strung out The Hobbit to three long films, but I’m a completeist so I had to see the last one and decided to go out with a bang and see The Hobbit – the Battle of the Five Armies in the IMAX. It is overlong, the 3D and CGI is often disappointing and there was something tired and earnest about the performances, so it ended with a yawn.

I adored Paddington, a lovely, charming, heart-warming tale filmed and performed to perfection. I was almost put off by ‘kids film’ branding; what a relief I succumbed.

Though there was much to enjoy in Birdman, I wasn’t as euphoric as the critics. Too much of people shouting at one another for me, and overlong to boot. Good rather than great.

I was somewhat apprehensive about seeing the film adaptation of a favourite musical by one of my heroes, but Into the Woods exceeded expectations bigtime. Brilliantly cast, superb production design and some decent singing. You have to suspend disbelief a lot in the theatre (beanstalks, giant, castle ball….) but the film opens it right up. There was even a delicious moment right at the end when Simon Russell Beale is revealed as the ghost of Baker James Corden’s dad!

It is Benedict Cumberbatch’s great misfortune that The Theory of Everything is released in the same awards year as The Imitation Game, for his superb performance is eclipsed by an even more superb one from Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking. It’s another captivating biopic of another great Briton and we are lucky to have films like this still being made here.

I enjoyed Testament of Youth, an unsentimental yet moving depiction of the First World War from the perspective of one woman, her family and friends. It was well paced, so it sustained its 130 minute length and the performance by Swedish actress Alicia Vikander, who I’d never seen before, was superb.

Foxcatcher really caught me out. Reluctant to go and see a film about wrestling, it turned out to have great psychological depth and a superb performance by Steve Carrell. It’s a slow burn, but it’s worth staying with it.

Whiplash was another psychological thriller masquerading, this time as a film about jazz. This one grabs you from the off and doesn’t let go. A thrilling ride.

American Sniper is a very well made film but I found it hard to swallow the delight taken in killing, whatever the rights and wrongs of it. Exceptional performances, especially from Bradley Cooper and an unrecognisable Sienna Miller, weren’t enough to redeem it I’m afraid.

A Most Violent Year is the third great thriller this month, also covering new ground (battles between and corruption within oil distributors in 80’s New York). A slowish start but it draws you in.

Alicia Vikander turned up again in Ex Machina, an interesting if slight and slow film about AI, in a completely contrasting role; definitely someone to watch.

I ended the film-going month with the populist – Kingsman – The Secret Service – which was rather fun. It was extraordinarily violent (not something I usually like) but it was comic rather than realistic violence, so I could stomach it – most of the time.

Dance

I recall being a bit underwhelmed by the first outing of New Adventures’ Edward Scissorhands at Sadler’s Wells nine years ago, but the consensus of ‘much improved’ encouraged me to re-visit it. Sadly, I remain underwhelmed. There’s a lot of moving about but not enough dance for me – a bit like New Adventures recent Lord of the Flies, but without the strong narrative that had. It just seemed like a series of set pieces and I didn’t really engage with the main character or the story. I did like the music though, and it picked up a lot in the last few scenes.

This is the third time I’ve seen BalletBoyz (The Talent) and it’s great to watch them grow and mature. This show, Young Men, also at Sadler’s Wells, is made up of 10 themed scenes about, well, young men and war. The soundtrack by Keaton Henson is brilliant and the design beautifully atmospheric, but it’s the dance that thrills most. Mesmerising.

Classical

It was only my second time seeing the Simon Bolivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela under Gustavo Dudamel, but they continue to impress. The first of their two RFH concerts paired Beethoven’s 5th with selections from Wagner’s Ring cycle and their interpretations of both were often thrilling. They’ve all grown up playing together in the El Sistema process and I’m sure this is why they sound so tight and cohesive.

I’d never heard Schumann’s oratorio Das Paradies und die Peri (like almost everyone else in the audience it seems!) It’s rare amongst choral pieces as it’s both secular and romantic, maybe even sickly and sentimental. It was given a thrilling outing by the LSO & LSC at the Barbican with six excellent soloists and a female quartet from GSMD under Sir Simon Rattle. If the rumours are true we might get a lot more of him in the future, which would be the best possible appointment the LSO could make!

Opera

I liked the Royal Opera / Roundhouse co-production of Monteverdi’s Orfeo, one of the earliest operas ever written, but more for the music than the production. The differentiation between hell and the real world was lost in a sea of black and grey costumes and the writhing people in grey boiler suits were very distracting. Orfeo acted well, but his singing was uneven, but the rest of the cast were excellent.

Contemporary Music

A Little Night Music isn’t my favourite Sondheim musical but given the casting I couldn’t resist the 40th anniversary concert performance at the Palace Theatre and was very glad I didn’t. The large orchestra sounded lush, Sondheim’s sharp and witty lyrics shone in this setting and, despite some fluffed lines, the performances were excellent, with Laura Pit-Pulford bringing the house down with The Millers Son.

Art

I very much liked the Sigmar Polke retrospective at Tate Modern. He’s clearly an artist who has not lost his creativity as his work has evolved and the artistic journey is brilliantly presented. A second visit beckons methinks.

Its extraordinary how a little known 16th century Italian portraitist can pack them in at the Royal Academy, so much so that it hampered the experience of viewing the Moroni exhibition in its final weekend. Round the back in Pace Gallery there was a fascinating and original exhibition of large B&W photos of museum dioramas of landscapes with wildlife by Hiroshi Sugimoto that I thought at first were paintings. Next door at the other RA galleries the Allen Jones retrospective was the highlight of the afternoon. Even though he was obsessed with women’s legs, the vibrancy and pizazz of the work was terrific.

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Contemporary Music

A friend suggested going to see Welsh harpist Catrin Finch & Senegalese cora player Seckou Keita at Union Chapel and what a brilliant suggestion it was. Their instruments blend beautifully and create an uplifting sound. It was the perfect venue, with a quiet respectful audience. Gorgeous.

I really don’t know what to make of Elvis Costello‘s concert at the Royal Albert Hall. Part of BluesFest (what?!). He brings Steve Nieve & they play 8 songs together, some in radical new arrangements. His song selections are eclectic and perhaps a bit quirky. He’s often uncharacteristically flat or off key. He talks a lot. It contained sublime moments, but not enough of them. It was certainly no crowd-pleaser and the audience reaction was distinctly underwhelming. Georgie Fame & the Blue Flames, supporting, were great (though he talked a lot too). They played two songs together, one in each others’ set. I’ve seen almost every EC London outing in 30+ years and this was probably the least satisfying. Most odd.

Opera

The autumn Rossini pairing at WNO was amongst their best ever. Neither William Tell nor Moses in Egypt are typical Rossini (which may be why I liked them so much!); the latter more identifiably Rossini. Tell was the more satisfying all round – Moses was also a musical feast but the production wasn’t so good. Former MD Carlo Rizzi brought the best out of the orchestra and chorus (yet again) and there was no weakness in the soloists – just various levels of good to great.

The English Concert’s performance of Handel’s opera Alcina at the Barbican was a huge treat. A faultless cast was led by Joyce DiDonato & Alice Coote and the orchestra made a beautiful sound. I’d thought it might be a star vehicle for Joyce, but she was superbly matched by the rest and the audience showed their appreciation for them all.

I’ve seen a handful of Philip Glass operas, but until The Trial they’ve all been on a huge scale. What this chamber piece proves is how much more suited his music is to this smaller scale. It’s an absurdist, impenetrable story but it was superbly staged and performed by Music Theatre Wales in Covent Garden’s Linbury Studio.

Dance

Lord of the Flies is a big departure for New Adventures at Sadler’s Wells. With two-thirds of the large cast amateurs selected from workshops and open additions, there’s a freshness and energy thoroughly in keeping with William Golding’s story and contemporary dance is a suitable form to tell the tale. It was dark, but I loved it.

I don’t normally like mixed ballet programmes but Birmingham Royal Ballet‘s Shadows of War at Sadler’s Wells caught my imagination, largely because of the music. The first piece, to a Ravel piano concerto, was a bit frivolous for me, but the second was a fascinating re-staging of a Robert Helpmann work set in wartime Glasgow with music by Arthur Bliss and the third a lovely piece set to Malcolm Arnold and Benjamin Britten – and all at a half to a third of prices at the other Royal Ballet.

Cassandra is a rare modern dance piece from the Royal Ballet at the Linbury Studio. It was a nice combination of dance, music and film and it held me for 70 minutes, but in the end it was just OK. I think it was the lack of effective narrative drive / story that was its weakness.

Classical Music

I persuaded a friend who has recently taken up choral singing to go for one of those ‘scratch’ performances put together in one day. The choice of Elijah was ambitious, but they pulled it off. The soloists were terrific, particularly baritone Neal Davies, who gave it his all as if was at the Royal Albert Hall, and the orchestra of a handful of Philharmonia section principals with music students sounded great. It would have been good to see a much bigger audience – where were all the friends and families of the orchestra and chorus?

The third of the Composer Portrait series at St John’s Smith Square was the best so far. Reverie was about Debussy whose writings were spoken by Simon Russell Beale no less. Pianist Lucy Parham played his gorgeous music beautifully and it was a captivating couple of hours.

Film

As much as I loved Pride, the casting of so many English and Irish actors as Welsh characters did irritate me – though I suppose you need Bill Nighy and Imelda Staunton to sell films like this. I was surprised I never knew the true story behind it, but maybe it didn’t get much news coverage at the time. It’s certainly the most heart-warming, feel-good film for a long long time.

Dylan Thomas centenary

I found out about the Dylan Thomas in Fitzrovia festival very late on, by which time the diary was choc a block with other stuff, but I did manage to fit in some. A Warring Absence was readings of writings by him and his wife about one another by Daniel Evans & Sian Thomas with accompaniment by the Bernard Kane Players as a Platform performance in The Olivier Theatre and it was original and fascinating.  I’d never heard the Stan Tracy Jazz Under Milk Wood before – read excerpts accompanied by jazz which somehow works brilliantly; again original and fascinating. The final Gala Concert I had known about and this proved a real treat. An eclectic selection of Welsh music played by Camerata Wales (including world premieres) with readings of letters and poems by Sian Phillips, Tom Hollander, Griff Rhys Jones, Robert Bathurst, Lesley Manville, Jonathan Pryce and Owen Teale and songs from Welsh tenor John Owen-Jones and old folkie Ralph McTell. Two of the pieces combined Thomas’ works with music very successfully. For an Englishman, Tom Hollander’s reading of Fern Hill was almost as good as Dylan’s own!

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