Tag Archives: Anna Fleischle

“Hamlet” at the Young Vic

The star casting of Cush Jumbo in the title role of Shakespeare’s tragedy does not disappoint. One of the finest Hamlets I’ve seen, Jumbo gives a stirring performance of clarity, considerable humour and intelligence. This is the philosopher prince, keen to debate and discuss – a wit with a love of words.

In case you’re wondering, Jumbo plays Hamlet as a man (there’s no change of gender in the text). It’s how convincing she is as a swaggering youth that surprises, balancing bravado with insecurity just like many a teenage boy. The humour is excellently handled. Let’s be honest, not all the jokes in Hamlet work – some need a little extra help – and Jumbo seems to know exactly when to provide this.

Tara Fitzgerald in Hamlet credit Helen Murray
Tara Fitzgerald

Surprisingly, beyond casting a woman in the lead, director Greg Hersov’s commendable production ends up conservative, in the sense that it is restrained. Firstly, some performances are strikingly muted. Adrian Dunbar’s Claudius is a forceful study in minimalism. Incredibly understated, he barely raises his voice. The performance is all the more powerful for its control. The same praise can be given to Tara Fitzgerald’s Gertrude. Her delivery of Ophelia’s death, and even her own death, are remarkably flat. The royal couple are so repressed they are frightening.

Jonathan Ajayi and Joseph Marcell
Jonathan Ajayi and Joseph Marcell

As a contrast, Laertes and Ophelia carry much of the burden of emotion in the play. Hersov reminds us that Hamlet is the story of two families. Along with Joseph Marcell’s appealing Polonius, Norah Lopez Holden and Jonathan Ajayi create the sense of a family unit with remarkable speed and efficiency. 

This Hamlet is an austere affair, from Anna Fleischle’s minimalist design to the sparse modern touches. There’s an edit, too – a bold one – as Fortinbras is excised. It’s all to focus on how cerebral both character and play are: this is a Hamlet for thinkers.

Plotters, too, of course. There’s Hamlet’s procrastination – but note how Jumbo carefully lays out thoughts. Hersov emphasises what a bunch of thinkers this court contains. Claudius doesn’t really try to pray; he’s working out why he can’t. And the scene of his plotting with Laertes is a proper sit-down meeting.

The production is a move away from those that have emphasised performance and acting. The travelling players suffer a little as a result and action is minimalised. But, as an interpretation focusing on argument and discussion, Hersov starts a debate about the play that this excellent production wins.

Until 13 November 2021

www.youngvic.org

Photos by Helen Murray

"Death of a Salesman" at the Piccadilly Theatre

Successful revivals – and this is one of the best – tend to present a classic text with reverence or remodel it for the current day. Trying to do both – respecting and reinventing – usually pleases nobody. But just such a combination has been achieved by co-directors Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell with Arthur Miller’s classic story of Willy Loman’s demise. It’s like no production of the show before, but presents Miller’s concerns for the working man with utmost conviction. The result is marvellous. 

Casting the Loman family as African American is the most obvious difference. The consequences are profound, rippling through the show, continually adding layers to Miller’s text. Take Willy’s subservience to his much younger boss – more painful than ever. Highlighting the play’s concern with Willy’s breakdown is novel, too: since Miller’s day appreciation of mental health, including dementia, and how distressing it can be for victims, has grown. Flashback scenes, with bold lighting design from Aideen Malone, add a distressing air that increases sympathy for Willy. The production takes modern sensibilities into account and fills the play with new questions and tensions.

Meanwhile Miller’s political concerns are amplified. Rather than connect Willy to buzzwords (“the squeezed middle” or the “precariat”), ideas about the dignity of work, perhaps old fashioned, are explored as the writer intended. Likewise, the aspirations that obsess Willie, maybe even drive him mad, are given space. A period atmosphere is aided by Femi Temowo’s compositions and musical direction – I don’t think Miller’s ever been this cool. The brilliant design, by Anna Fleischle, makes the family home, just about to be purchased, a frame: a perfect reflection of how transparent these lives become to us.

Matthew Seadon-Young and Wendell Pierce in 'Death of a Salesman'
Matthew Seadon-Young and Wendell Pierce

As if all this weren’t enough, this production also boasts some of the most fantastic performances you could witness. The whole cast is impeccable, even the smaller roles who add to the music in the show. Victoria Hamilton-Barrit and Matthew Seadon-Young excel, despite their characters coming close to being devices. The Loman brothers are vividly depicted by Ṣọpẹ́ Dìrísù and Natey Jones with performances that complement each other – as they should. The tension for one bubbles under while the other’s anger proves explosive.

Making a West End debut that will surely be remembered for a long time, Wendell Pierce takes the lead role with astonishing skill. Willy is not an appealing character, rather a tin-pot tyrant who’s easy to condemn. But Pierce makes him a man you can warm to – and a surprisingly diffident person that you feel for. Adding a purity of intention, focusing on his sons, he becomes a noble character whose end is truly tragic. 

As his wife Linda, Sharon D Clarke recognises the role as the lynchpin of the play. Often quite literally centre stage, Clarke has the presence to make the role major. For Linda is also the play’s moral compass and Clarke gives a performance of dignified intensity that becomes heart-breaking. Finally, the chemistry between the two leads is something really special – adding an urgency to the drama and, again, an emotional impact that makes this the most moving Miller I’ve ever seen.

Until 4 January 2020

www.atgtickets.com

Photos by Brinkhoff & Mogenburg

“Home, I’m Darling” at the National Theatre

While the culture of the 1950s has appeal for many, including a misguided political nostalgia, setting out to actually live as if in the period is the extreme scenario for Laura Wade’s new play. Trying to step back in time means buying not just retro wallpaper but also decrepit kitchen appliances for the stay-at-home wife to use. The idea is a novel, if flawed, way to question as well as mock those who idealise the past. Unfortunately, the play is really worth remembering only because of its brilliant performances.

Home, I’m Darling is essentially a romantic comedy about Judy and Johnny. Their decision to ignore the present day, and how their lifestyle came about, has some twists. And Judy becoming a housewife serves as a speedy springboard to consider women’s lives then and now. There’s also the theme of individuality – how many problems come from others’ perceptions of their eccentricity? It’s just a shame that all these themes feel tacked on.

Kathryn Drysdale and Barnaby Kay
Kathryn Drysdale and Barnaby Kay

If the questions and issued seem contrived and obvious, it’s still all wonderfully performed. Wade’s characterisation holds attention. Katherine Parkinson and Richard Harrington take the leads and manage to convince us that their marriage is special. Other parts are blatant foils but, again, the cast manage to make them work. The scepticism of Judy’s mother and Johnny’s boss leads to great dialogue and is superbly performed by, respectively, Sian Thomas and Sara Gregory. Meanwhile two friends, 1950s followers rather than fanatics, are satisfyingly filled out by Kathryn Drysdale and Barnaby Kay.

Katherine Parkinson
Katherine Parkinson

This is unquestionably Parkinson’s show. All too obviously, donning rose-tinted period spectacles is a distraction for bigger problems, and Parkinson suggests this depth better than Wade writes it. She makes you feel for Judy at every attempt to be an “angel in the house”. A constrained fragility is conveyed to perfection and incredible tension ensues over the smallest domestic tasks.

As the sexism of the past comes into collision with modern values, it makes us ask how much progress has been made. There’s a sexism-at-work subplot that is effective. But if not quite as laboured as housewifery, these points are long-winded and Tamara Harvey’s direction, with scenes slow to arrive, doesn’t help to inject urgency. Wade struggles with some virtue signalling about the scenario as a “luxurious” choice and the drama of hard economic facts impinging on a one-salary household. Ultimately, while the play has lots of good jokes (and looks great thanks to Anna Fleischle’s set and costumes), the idea doesn’t have enough scope to develop past a sketch or short story.

Until 5 September 2018

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photos by Manuel Harlan

“Before The Party” at the Almeida Theatre

Preparation is often the key to both a good party and a good play. Director Matthew Dunster’s impeccable staging of Before The Party at the Almeida Theatre is clearly well provisioned: a strong text, finely executed, with the highest production values.

The action occurs before two events, a teatime affair and a dinner, with the Skinner family facing increasing turmoil and scandal as they prepare for each. The fare on offer is various – this is a sharp comedy with plenty of deliciously dark-edged plot twists.

Saving the family face makes the snobby Skinners a great target for writer Rodney Ackland’s satire, but emotions break through with a genuine touch that’s truly affecting.

Heroine Laura (Katherine Parkinson) fights for her right to party despite being only recently widowed, and that’s just the start of her shocking behaviour. Laura mortifies her mother and sister (Stella Gonet and Michelle Terry in fine comic style), and infuriates her father, portrayed with suitable bluster by Alex Price.

Special mention has to go to the costumes from a team headed by designer Anna Fleischle. Spot on for a time when post-war celebrations and a touch of provincial conservatism had to deal with continued rationing, they should win an award.

In many ways, Ackland’s play (a big hit in 1949) is pretty dated: the snobbery seems ridiculous, but current financial straits find a parallel with wartime rationing and the black market exploited by the wealthy Skinners shows that we were never really all in it together. Even if you’re not one for nostalgia, Before The Party has enough hits against hypocrisy to make you glad you attended.

Until 11 May 2013

www.almeida.co.uk

Photo by Keith Pattison

Written 8 April 2013 for The London Magazine