Other Desert Cities by Jon Robin Baitz opens a new season at the Old Vic that sees the venue transformed into a theatre in the round. Love it though we must, the Old Vic is a barn of a place and the new intimacy created by the set up is much welcomed. The play is a strong piece that could surely hold its own in any venue, but this skillfully written family drama, full of political ambitions, benefits greatly from the reconfiguration.
Depressed New Yorker Brooke visits home in Palm Springs for the Christmas vacation. Gifting her right-wing parents Polly and Lyman with a tell-all memoir puts an end to any holiday spirit. Along with more than their fair share of family tragedy, domestic conflict comes from politics; the older Reaganesque Republicans (Sinéad Cusack and Peter Egan are utterly convincing) opposed by “hopelessly high brow” Brooke, performed superbly by Martha Plimpton. Adding to the agenda are alcoholic hippy Aunt Silda (Clare Higgins) and younger brother Trip (Daniel Lapaine) who provide some insight from the millennial generation.
Pulitzer-nominated Baitz has been a success on Broadway and is well known for his TV career (Brothers & Sisters, The West Wing). He joins hit American writers doing so well in the West End at the moment and seems very keen to have written a big American play. There are plenty of influences, Albee the most obvious, so it isn’t startlingly original. Topicality and politics are the important things and, although it seems slightly heavy handed, at one point even melodramatic, the play’s ambition is impressive.
The characterisation is very good. And the cast lives up to the strong writing. In a moving performance, Egan helps reveal a deeper character than we suspected. Likewise, Lapaine makes his smaller part stand out, while Higgins comes close to stealing the show. Great subtlety is invested in the central female characters Polly and Brooke; the writing seesaws our sympathy between the cold yet loyal, domineering mother and the selfish suffering of her brilliant child. It’s clever and complex stuff.
Until 24 May 2014
Photo by Johan Persson
Written 26 March 2014 for The London Magazine
It’s not just theatre critics who have seen a lot of Hamlets – pretty much everyone has. So, as with all directors, and all Hamlets, Nicholas Hytner and Rory Kinnear face the challenge of pinning down the complex text and the temptation of adding a new twist. The National’s first Hamlet since 2000 sees them juggling these demands to produce an enthralling night out.
The production is clear, thoughtful and delivered with commitment. This Hamlet isn’t mad (so that’s one examination question sorted) and the decision to have him truly ‘put on’ his antic disposition turns the pretend insanity into a dramatic political act. This Denmark is a surveillance state with a secret service continually present. The heavies may be ineffective (think of the body count at the end) but they add tension, a topical twist and make Hamlet’s soliloquies all the more precious.
Overall, this is Hytner’s most disciplined direction for quite some time, and yet there are digressions that feel like desperate attempts to impress the teacher. Ruth Negga as Ophelia suffers most. Adding a feisty modern touch to this sensitive character is confusing and the implication that she is murdered is frankly silly. Costuming Kinnear in a tracksuit and adding rave music is distracting – he is too old for it. And it is unecessary.
For this is a Hamlet with everything. Kinnear’s performance is remarkable and exciting. His Hamlet is the chameleon he proclaims himself as, with an over-arching concern for what this changeability might mean. Making full use of the character’s wry humour and intelligence, Kinnear’s grand delivery is perfect for the prince with a penchant for performance. At times he is quite literally in control of the spotlight and he always convincingly fills the stage.
As if Kinnear weren’t thrilling enough, this Hamlet boasts the finest Gertrude for many years. Clare Higgins gives a cracking performance with more than a touch of Joan Crawford (you can bet the bodyguards’ smart suits are hung on wooden hangers). This Mommie Dearest is formidable and believable – it is clear where a son’s complex comes from. A less confident director than Hytner might try to stem her scene stealing glances. But they add immeasurably, showing not only her ability but also Hytner’s confidence that his production explicates Hamlet in a riveting fashion.
Until 9 January 2011
Photo by Johan Persson
Written 8 October 2010 for The London Magazine