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Posts Tagged ‘Stephen Daldry’

American playwright Sophie Treadwell wrote this expressionistic play in 1928, not long after Eugene O’Neill’s expressionistic masterpiece Emperor Jones. It was based on a real murder case, and its premiere provided Clark Gable with his Broadway debut. I first saw it in its last London outing twenty-five years ago, directed by Stephen Daldry at the Lyttleton Theatre. I thought then, as I do now, that it must have been way ahead of its time 90 years ago. It’s feminist aesthetic and focus on mental health means it still resonates today.

In ten scenes over ninety minutes we follow our protagonist – ‘young woman’ – doing what society expects of her, from the office job she doesn’t like, or do well, to marriage to the boss who repels her and the birth of the child she struggles to bond with, before she turns and is propelled to an unexpected and tragic conclusion.

Each scene in Natalie Abrahami’s production starts by the parting of screens to reveal locations which are mirrored diagonally above. Miriam Buether’s clever design is accompanied by a brooding mechanical soundscape from Ben & Max Ringham and striking lighting by Jack Knowles. The scene changes are a bit slow, but its an immersive experience nonetheless, though I did find myself admiring the stagecraft and performances at the expense of emotional engagement with the story.

Elizabeth Berrington is hugely impressive in the lead role, at first in fear of just about everything, growing enough confidence to betray her husband Jones, played well, with period behaviour, by Jonathan Livingstone. In a supporting cast of ten, there is an excellent cameo from Denise Black as Helen’s mother.

Treadwelll wrote many more plays, with a diverse range of themes and styles, but this is just about the only one that’s ever been revived. She found it increasingly difficult to get her work produced, and many remained unpublished. Neglected in a man’s world it seems, which makes it even more timely today. It would be good to see more of them.

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It’s over three months since my last theatrical immersion and only eight months since one covering similar ground. Matthew Lopez’ play comes in at six hours without feeling anything like it.

Some have called it a sequel to Angels in America, exploring the lives of the generation that followed, as it does. That’s partially true, but it’s less edgy and less political, though it covers seven years either side of last year’s US election. It’s a gentler, more emotional and sentimental piece inspired by E M Forster’s Howard’s End. It’s best to forget the parallels with both, as it’s its own thing, though still an epic theatrical feast.

It centres around a group of thirty-something gay friends in New York City at the present time, at the centre of which are Democratic party campaign worker Eric, earnest and loyal, and writer Toby, self-obsessed and flighty. Their group of friends are young professionals like doctors and lawyers in a world living with AIDS rather than dying of it. The link with the previous generation is provided by neighbours Walter and Henry, who’ve been together for thirty-six years. Eric finds a soulmate in Walter and later an unlikely partnership with Henry. Forster is a character too, tutoring them all in writing the story at the outset, then acting as a narrator, commenting on and suggesting changes to the story as we go.

Eric and Toby’s relationship is derailed by the latter’s success adapting his novel for the stage and screen, propelling young Adam to stardom in the process. Adam rejects Toby in favour of the play’s director, and Toby starts seeing a lookalike Leo, who has another connection with the group. Others plan marriages and children, something the previous generation couldn’t contemplate. It’s like binge watching a drama that grabbed you in episode one and won’t let you go. I loved the structural ingenuity and variety, including Forster’s presence, flashbacks, direct to audience narration, and it sends itself up deliciously on occasion. It’s funny and moving in equal measure.

Stephen Daldry’s staging, on and around a platform which rises and falls occasionally, is simple but masterly, with an organic flow about it. Bob Crowley’s understated design allows the story to speak for itself, with just a few moments when the back-screen moves to signpost something significant. Paul Englishby’s music and Jon Clark’s lighting add much atmosphere.

The performances are universally committed and passionate. I’ve long admired Kyle Soler, but this is surely a career defining performance as Eric. Making his UK debut, Andrew Burnap is simply sensational as Toby and Paul Hilton is wonderful as both Morgan (Forster) and Walter. Two other American visitors complete the handful of superb leads – Samuel H Levine as Adam / Leo and John Benjamin Hickey as Henry. Then in the last 45 minutes, on comes Vanessa Redgrave to give the best performance I’ve ever seen her give in a cameo as Margaret, who lost her son to AIDS after which she devotes herself to caring for others.

Another unmissable theatrical feast at the powerhouse in The Cut. I left exhausted but exhilarated, as only live theatre can do.

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The Young Vic main house has had another of its extraordinary makeovers; this time Miriam Buether has recreated Calais’ refugee camp, the so-called Jungle. We walked through one of its houses and a shop to reach our seats in the restaurant in a segment named Afghanistan. The audience are either at tables with benches, or on the sides looking in. The performers are all around, scenes popping up everywhere. This is something only theatre can do.

Though there had been makeshift camps there before, the play concerns the last incarnation, from 2014 to 2016, when the population were largely from Africa and the Middle East. The segments of the space are all named after the countries they come from, as were the sections of the camp. Playwrights Joe Murphy & Joe Robertson were there for seven months, setting up and running the Good Chance Theatre inside the camp, named after the words used for the regular attempts to reach the UK, and the piece feels completely authentic.

Starting close to it’s end, before moving back to its creation, we experience these people’s lives in vivid detail. I hadn’t really grasped before how this was a complete town, with church, mosque, school, shops and a restaurant. Five British charity workers and do-gooders from very diverse backgrounds contribute to the organisation, though there are representatives of the various communities who bring a kind of democracy and promote harmony.

We hear individual stories, witness conflicts, see friendships formed and bonded, understand their aspirations and how they are exploited and abused. It’s deeply moving, but there are many moments of warmth and humour. Both the good and bad in people is exposed, but never judgementally, though the failure of governments and other institutions is. How on earth could humanity allow this to happen?

Everything, from the writing, staging by Stephen Daldry & Justin Martin, all of the design elements and eighteen deeply passionate and committed performances contribute to bringing us the stark truth. I do hope it can be seen by many more than the Young Vic can accommodate by some sort of cinema or TV screening. Though the Jungle has been demolished, there are still refugees in Calais and elsewhere and their stories must be told, in the hope they will be heard by, and will prick the consciences of those who can bring about change.

Good Chance, the Young Vic and the National Theatre have collaborated to create urgent and important theatre.

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It’s twenty years since Stephen Daldry’s NT revival of An Inspector Calls renewed the theatre world’s interest in this oddest of British playwrights, who seemed very much out of his time in the last part of the first half of the 20th century. This very well cast 1937 rarity came halfway through his playwriting career, eight years before An Inspector Calls, and it again shows his preoccupation with time.

We’re at an inn on the Yorkshire moors on Whitsun weekend. Oliver, a young school headmaster, is recuperating from stress when he is joined by the Ormunds, a couple away for the weekend. There are connections between them and the landlord Sam and his widowed daughter Sally. Mr Ormund, a wealthy businessman, is a donor to, and governor of, Oliver’s school, which Sally’s son attends as a boarder, and Sam and Sally are shareholders in Mr Ormund’s business. Then an exiled German professor turns up; he seems somewhat mysterious, even psychic.

From here it’s a complex web of premonitions, alternative time tracks and deja vu, leading to a dramatic if inconclusive conclusion. Neatly staged on a curved platform with audience on both sides and three pieces of furniture that change position for each act, Anthony Biggs production has a mysterious quality to match the material. It’s not a great Priestly play, but it’s well worth catching if, like me, you’re interested in the playwright.

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Classical Music

I was perhaps a little too excited about the Berlin Phil / Rattle Sibelius cycle at the Barbican. I enjoyed it very much, but it wasn’t the life-changing event the eye-watering prices and the hype might make you expect. It dipped a bit in the second concert with the particularly dark and difficult 4th, but it was great to hear them all together again, one of the best sets of symphonies ever written.

Another free lunchtime concert at the Royal Academy of Music proved to be a real treat. It’s wonderful to see world class conductors like Sir Mark Elder give up their time to helm and nurture the Academy Symphony Orchestra and his introductions are informative and welcoming. The newly orchestrated Six Songs from a Shropshire Lad (Butterworth / Houseman) were beautifully sung by Henry Neill and this was followed by a thrilling interpretation of Shostakovich’s 6th. Lovely.

Any qualms I had about the Sibelius cycle were wiped away by the same team’s concert at the Royal Festival Hall of Mahler’s 2nd symphony. Joined by the LSC, CBSO Chorus and two soloists, this was unquestionably the best I’ve heard this work. The chorus sung without scores and there was some interesting offstage positioning of musicians. The power of 250 performers is extraordinary.

Back at the Royal Academy of Music, this time for Rachmaninov’s 2nd symphony conducted by Edward Gardner. I’d never heard it before but is was accessible on first hearing and packed full of lovely melodies. The talent on stage was extraordinary; if you’d paid full whack at a major concert hall, you’d go home happy. This was a lunchtime freebie!

Opera

I’ve seen opera in the cinema before, but Der Fliegende Hollander was my first ROH Live experience. Favourite baritone Bryn Terfel as the Dutchman wasn’t the only great thing about it – the Senta, Adrianne Pieczonka, was new to me and I thought she was wonderful and the orchestra and chorus sounded great. With top price seats in the opera house at £190 (four times as much as seeing Terfel in the same opera in Cardiff, albeit not as good a production) I felt my £13 cinema experience was terrific value.

I’d seen the production at ENO of Mastersingers of Nuremberg when WNO premièred it in Cardiff (again with Bryn Terfel, but in German and at a third of the price!) but decided I’d like to see it again. I enjoyed it just as much from my more expensive less comfortable seat further away! The cast was faultless and the orchestra and chorus soared. There’s a lot of flab in this opera, but when it shines it takes your breath away.

Film

What a wonderful film Trash is. Stephen Daldry has given us a thriller with a heart set in Rio and performed mostly in Portuguese, which would have been a BAFTA and Oscar Best Film nominee if it hadn’t! The child actors are extraordinary. Unmissable.

I admired Inherent Vice but it lost me after 30 mins or so and never fully recovered. Joaquin Phoenix is terrific and the depiction of the 70’s is great, but it’s overlong and a bit too convoluted.

Shaun the Sheep is another delightful family film, this time from trusty Ardman. I was surprised but pleased to find it had no dialogue and the visual humour was wonderful, some reserved for the adults like all good family entertainment. Brilliant.

Love is Strange was an impulsive punt based on Time Out’s review. It’s a beautifully understated and unsentimental love story which is also achingly sad. John Lithgow and Alfred Molina are so believable as the couple whose lives are turned upside down in the 40th year of their relationship.

Selma is an excellent film, though the events depicted made me very angry and I was astonished when I realised this was only 50 years ago. The failure to nominate David Oyelowo for either the BAFTA’s or Oscars is a disgrace; Eddie Redmayne’s achievement is probably greater, but this is still a superb performance.

I’m a sucker for British romantic comedies and The Second Best Marigold Hotel was a treat. It might be safe and predictable, as the critics suggest, but it’s warm-hearted, charming and entertaining, with a cast of our best thespians having a ball.

Art

A richly rewarding morning in Oxford provided one major exhibition and three smaller ones at the lovely Ashmolean. As major exhibitions go, the William Blake one is small, but beautifully formed. It provides insight into his life and embraces the full range of his talent, as engraver, poet, painter and drawer. Chicago artist Ed Paschke is new to me and I liked his colourful, vibrant, stylised and a touch surreal pictures. The Tokaido Road print series by Japanese master engraver Hiroshige provided a brilliant contrast and a diverse selection of paintings by contemporary Chinese artist Fang Zhaoling completed the visit. A treat.

A less rewarding visit to Tate Modern started with Conflict, Time, Photography. It’s a very good idea – photographs of war zones taken at various times after a conflict – but it’s vast, daunting and relentlessly dark and depressing. It covers conflicts over a 150-year period, but it concentrates on the last 65. It comes to life occasionally, but its a case of more is less I’m afraid. In the Turbine Hall, Richard Tuttle’s installation is probably the most uninspiring they’ve ever had, but the visit picked up seeing South African Marlene Dumas’ The Image as Burden, a highly original portraitist whose images are somewhat spooky but high in atmosphere. Fascinating.

 

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Contemporary Music

In Laura Muvla‘s late night Prom she performed the whole of her one and only album, Sing to the Moon, with an orchestra and choir. Some of the arrangements were a bit overcooked, smothering the lovely songs a bit, but overall it was a success as the writing and singing shone through. The sound was great and the audience even more quiet and attentive than most classical Proms. Now we need a new album, Laura.

Anything Goes at Cadogan Hall was anything but another one of those song compilation shows. First it was Cole Porter and the 50th anniversary of his passing. Second, it was musical theatre royalty with Maria Friedman, Clive Rowe, Jenna Russell & Graham Bickley all at the top of their game, with obvious chemistry, mutual respect and friendship. It was great to see the Royal Academy of Music MTC Chorus given a chance to work with such musical theatre icons and with a band as good as the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra under Richard Balcome. You rarely hear musical theatre songs played this well, and the winds and brass were positively glorious.

Opera

A return to Opera Holland Park after a few years to see an early 20th century  relative rarity by Francesco Cilea, Adriana Lecouvreur. My enjoyment of the first half was badly hampered by a full-on view of the conductor and not a lot else – a relatively expensive restricted view front row seat that wasn’t sold as restricted view! The highlight of the evening was the fantastic orchestra under said conductor, Manlio Benzi. There was some good (rather than great) singing and the updated production just about pulled it off. Sadly, OHP seems to be turning into a London version of those country house operas – rising prices, conspicuous corporate hospitality, dressing up…..if they introduce long picnic intervals, the transformation will be complete!

Classical Music

I don’t often go to piano recitals, then when I do I ask myself why?! A visit to Oxfordshire included one by John Lill at Christ Church Cathedral and I thoroughly enjoyed it. In a great programme of Mozart, Schumann, Brahms and Beethoven, the Schumann and Beethoven shone and the venue was a real bonus.

My first proper Prom of 2014 was an all-English affair, with three works from Vaughan Williams and a real rarity from someone I’ve never heard of – William Alwyn. Alwyn’s 1st Symphony isn’t brilliant, but it’s good enough and not worthy of such neglect (like the rest of his work). By contrast, The Lark Ascending is by all accounts the most popular classical work and here it was beautifully played by Janine Jansen. The gung-ho Wasps Overture and rarer Job ballet suite made up an excellent programme conducted by the BBC SO’s new chief conductor Sakari Oramo, whose enthusiasm and joy were infectious.

The next Prom was named Lest We Forget and it was a melancholy but very beautiful affair, featuring four composers, one German, who fought in the First World War, three never coming back. Two were completely new to me (the German, Rudi Stephan, was getting his Proms debut and Australian Brit Frederick Kelly is rarely performed). George Butterworth‘s song cycle A Shropshire Lad was sung beautifully by Roderick Williams and the BBC Scottish SO under Andrew Manze played all four pieces wonderfully. Vaughan Williams Pastoral Symphony (with tenor Allan Clayton, instead of the more usual soprano) has never sounded better. The loss of three talented composers was very sad, but it was a lovely tribute.

My final Prom for 2014 saw Andrew Davies back where he belongs and he chose a terrific programme of Strauss (R), Elgar & Berlioz to show off his great new band, the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, who got a great welcome from the Proms audience. Music by German  British & French composers spanning 89 years, an Australian orchestra & a Norwegian cellist & a British conductor and an audience of real music lovers – that’s what I like about the Proms.

Cabaret

Celia Imrie’s show Laughing Matters at St James Studio was a quirky and sometimes surreal affair. Songs accompanied by a pianist and drummer (I wish I knew who wrote them), monologues and anecdotes and two male assistants! It ended with a panto-style sing-along complete with song sheet, with the cast dressed as sailors and the audience in sailor hats emblazoned with ‘R.M.S. Celia’! She can’t really sing, the show had a certain amateurishness about it, but her charm won you over and made you smile – a lot.

Film

I was lured to The Inbetweeners 2 by rave reviews (4* in The Times!) and even though it was fun, it was like watching a triple episode of the TV series with big screen technicolour projectile vomiting. A peculiarly British take on gross-out teen comedy.

Positive reviews also lured me to Guardians of the Galaxy (another 4* in The Times), but it was no time at all before I was bored with the banal story and just watched the 3D effects, but they became relentlessly repetitive too. There were some nice tongue-in-cheek touches, but I’m now wondering why I stayed.

I refused to pay Sonia Freidman’s obscene prices for Skylight in the West End but I eventually succumbed to the ‘encore’ of the live cinema transmission. Carey Mulligan proves to be an exceptional stage actor and Bill Nighy has lost none of his charisma. The 19-year-old play seemed bang up-to-date and the interval interview with Hare was a bonus. I’d have loved to see Bob Crowley’s brilliant set live, but hey it came over as a great production and I thoroughly enjoyed my first NT Live experience, even though it wasn’t the NT and it wasn’t live!

Art

I think I’m going to have to stop going to the Saatchi Gallery as, yet again, only a small fraction of what was on show appealed. This time it was Abstract America Today upstairs and Pangaea: New Art from Africa & Latin America downstairs. When the best room has walls covered with giant insects, you know you’re in trouble.

I’m not a fan of fashion and if I’d had to pay I probably wouldn’t have gone, but The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier at the Barbican was great fun and extremely well curated with a nice tongue-in-cheek touch (some of the dummies had holographic talking heads!). Whatever you think of his clothes, you have to accept that he has a colossal imagination.

No less than three exhibitions for an afternoon at the Royal Academy. The Summer Exhibition never changes but it’s an important institution and it’s always worth a visit. The highlights this year were the model of Thomas Hetherwick’s garden bridge (I can’t wait to see it built) and a couple of hilarious Glenn Baxter cartoons. Upstairs, Radical Geometry is an exhibition of 20th Century South American art which you’d never know was South American if it wasn’t billed as such. It’s well executed but they are very derivative abstract, geometric works. Interesting, but…..Round the back, Dennis Hopper: The Lost Album is a very personal record of six years in the sixties which would never be seen if the photographer wasn’t a famous film actor / director. Interesting, but…..

In just six years the Travel Photography Awards exhibition at the Royal Geographic Society has become so popular that my usual amble through it has become a scrum, partly because I left it until the final day I suspect. It was hard to get close enough to what seemed like a less impressive collection this year. Down the road at the V &A Disobedient Objects is an original, fascinating and wide-ranging look at items associated with protest, including banners, posters and even vehicles. Well done, V&A!

The British Library Comics Unmasked exhibition was a frustrating affair – low lighting combined with small print labels, but above all lots of nerds stooped over the exhibits reading every word of every cartoon and monopolising them. Again I was probably hampered by catching it on its last day, but it could have been curated so much better. The Enduring War exhibition, part of the WWI commemorations, was a lovely unexpected bonus which I enjoyed more!

The Photographers Gallery continues to be an essential regular visit and this time it was a fascinating exhibition tracing colour in Russian photography over 120 years. It proved to be a social and political history as well as a photographic history. At the entrance, they currently have a video wall which shows how a couple of Germans mined Facebook for images then put them on a spoof dating site with categorisations based on the images. It includes the victims comments, TV coverage and the legal threats they received. Clever, fascinating but spooky! I shall brush over the other exhibition – still life photos (and installations including them) of decaying fruit from Ridley Road market!

The first few rooms of the Malecvich exhibition at Tate Modern are spectacular – bright, colourful, original paintings of people and landscapes with a geometric spin. Then he goes all dull and abstract before returning to his earlier style. Frankly, it would be a better exhibition if it was ‘The early and late works of…’ and reduced from 12 rooms to 6!

There was some great stuff to see around town this month; two WWI tributes – the moving sea of poppies at the Tower of London, spectra – the lights illuminating the sky from Victoria Embankment Gardens – and this year’s Serpentine Pavilion, like a spaceship which has landed. Up in Gateshead, Daniel Buren created glorious colourful spaces in Baltic by covering the windows and skylights with coloured panels and placing large mirrors on the gallery floor. A real regional treat.

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The risk of coming to this late (I saved it up for some visitors) is that it wouldn’t live up to its expectations. By the interval, I was beginning to think that was actually going to happen; it was good but not great. The second half lifted it to another level altogether, so it’s good to report (not that you’re that interested by now anyway) satisfaction rather than disappointment, accompanied by some surprise……

……..surprise that it has been rewritten to reflect Thatcher’s death & funeral plus the abdication of both Queen Beatrix & The Pope, surprise that some PM’s turn up two or three times, surprise that it isn’t chronological, surprise at which PM’s have been left out (most notably Blair) and surprised at the combination of light (comedy) and shade (poignancy) that it achieves.

I thought Helen Mirren got off to a shaky start, but she’s soon in her stride. She’s better playing the older queen than the younger queen, and that’s nothing to do with he own age. Her on-stage quick changes are hugely impressive (without the flashing for which she was once notorious!) and her discussions with herself as a child were very effective.

I liked all of the PM performances, particularly Paul Ritter’s comic Major and Haydn Gwynne’s assertive Thatcher, though by his third appearance Richard McCabe as Harold Wilson shone above all and you could see why he won his Olivier. Another surprise was that what I expected to be a series of two-handers turned out to have 16 actors playing 21 roles.

It’s good to be reminded how good a director Stephen Daldry is and we hopefully won’t have to wait so long again. Bob Crowley’s elegant settings facilitate the speedy scene changes so crucial to the smooth flow of a play with so many of them. All-in-all, it’s an impressive staging.

Of course, Peter Morgan’s play is largely speculative, yet somehow I left the theatre feeling that I’d just seen real events portrayed – perhaps because it confirmed my own prejudices, but probably because that’s just what a well made, well staged and well performed play can do. Good to see one originated in the West End for a change.

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