Tag Archives: Danny Lee Wynter

“The Normal Heart” at the National Theatre

Several theatrical responses to the AIDS crisis might be labelled ‘ground-breaking’. Epics by Tony Kushner, or the recent marathon effort from Matthew Lopez, as well as William H Hoffman’s As Is, could all make the claim. Larry Kramer’s play from 1985 deserves the label, too. But, as this excellent revival inadvertently demonstrates, breaking ground doesn’t always age well.

There’s no doubt you will be moved by the central love story between characters Ned Weeks and Felix Turner, played by Ben Daniels and Dino Fetchser with such tenderness. The usher who told me to get some tissues ready knew what she was talking about. Fetchser is brilliant at showing romance alongside his character’s illness, while The Normal Heart marks a career high for Daniels – it’s an extraordinarily demanding role that he delivers with conviction.

Dino Fetscher and Ben Daniels in The Normal Heart at the National Theatre
Dino Fetscher and Ben Daniels

As Weeks starts to campaign for research into the then new disease his partner suffers from, Daniels makes the urgency and desperation palpable. The history of neglect in the early years of the AIDS crisis is still shocking. With the help of Liz Carr’s Dr Brookner, the advocacy organisation Weeks helps found makes the play a microcosm for the topic of activism. Almost incidentally, there are strong characters for Daniel Monks, Danny Lee Wynter and Luke Norris, who show different personalities – and arguments – within the campaign.

Weeks’ anger and energy are phenomenal (the role must be exhausting) and driven by a fierce intellect. The play addresses issues of identity and community, reflecting political tensions through energising polemic. The ideas are interesting, although Kramer’s handling of them is far from even. And there’s another strong role when it comes to Weeks’ calls for acceptance: scenes with his brother, played so well by Robert Bowman, could be explored further.

For all director Dominic Cooke’s efforts to emphasis activism and Weeks’ abstract thinking, neither is what the play is about. The piece has such a definite purpose that a tension within the revival becomes increasingly clear.

The Normal Heart was political in a very direct way. With its statistics and documentation, Kramer wanted to educate and hold others to account. He wanted to incite action and inflame emotion. Debates are detailed. The pressing question was how to best get results. No matter how skilfully conveyed, that question is no longer relevant. Even the staging in the grand Olivier Theatre feels incongruous, despite Vicki Mortimer’s cleverly stripped-back design. A show with the capacity to tour smaller venues feels like the intention.

Written as a call to action for an event now thankfully past, both play and production command respect but feel lost in the present.

Until 6 November 2021

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Helen Maybanks

“Faustus: That Damned Woman” at the Lyric Theatre Hammersmith

We know that Faustus, who famously sold his sold to the devil, makes for a good story. It’s been told often enough. This new version from playwright Chris Bush is a mixed bag, but it does a lot with the tale’s potential, and modern twists make the story approachable and intriguing.

Changing the gender of the protagonist is a good start. The show provides a star role for Jodie McNee who plays Johanna Faustus with gusto. She’s ready to spar with Satan as much as sign Beelzebub’s book, and sexism becomes the big evil in the play.

Part of Johanna’s motive for her diabolic bargain is to be independent – to be her own woman in 17th-century London. Cue witches, corruption and the plague. Bush sets up an entertaining story with interesting ideas.

Director Caroline Byrne does a good job creating an exciting atmosphere, handling historical flavour well. There’s strong support from Katherine Carlton, Alicia Charles and Emmanuella Cole. Line Bech’s costume design also deserves a nod.

But things start to go awry with the show’s humour – there’s a playfulness with the past that doesn’t always work. The jokes are good, but dilute the tension too much. Take Mephistopheles, the devil contracted to serve Faustus: Danny Lee Wynter does well with the wit in the role, but that wit doesn’t help the play as a whole.

A further big idea is sounder – Faustus has a plan to “save the world to shame the devil”. It’s never clear how selfish our heroine is; Bush and McNee do well to keep this question open. But, of course, doing good isn’t easy, and the show becomes more a wait to see what will go wrong. While the passion that drives Johanna has an interesting origin, her anger becomes abstract and simply isn’t hot enough.

As the action moves into the future and starts to engage with technology, this coolness increases. The play gets less surprising and at times a little silly. Messing around with Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and Marie Curie turns into a diversion rather than a serious point; GM foods and minds uploaded into the cloud follow too quickly. The latter is intriguing in a play obsessed with souls (a tricky topic in 2020) but needs fuller development.

“Wait” is the show’s final word. And I like the way it’s given to Johanna. But by that point it feels as if we’ve seen enough, and Bush hasn’t managed to inject any sense of peril about what might come next. An order to the devil is appropriate for this feisty Faustus – but it’s a damp squib of an end for a play that wants to be fiery.

Until 22 February 2020

www.lyric.co.uk

Photos by Manuel Harlan

“Cell Mates” at the Hampstead Theatre

Edward Hall always puts on a classy show. His direction for this first revival of Simon Gray’s 1995 play is, typically, clear and careful. And Hall always gets great performances from a cast: here Geoffrey Streatfield plays the spy George Blake, alongside Emmet Byrne as Sean Bourke, who “sprung” him from prison, and both are superb. Joined by Philip Bird, Cara Horgan and Danny Lee Wynter, who play different characters aiding and abetting the criminals in the UK and then Russia, it’s as fine an ensemble as you could wish for. The production also boasts an impressive set from Michael Pavelka that feels ready and waiting for a West End transfer.

The only problem is that this is a disappointing play that Hall has an unjustified faith in.

While Cell Mates is based on a thrilling real-life story, complete with Blake’s extraordinary break-out from Wormwood Scrubs prison and subsequent life in Russia, the play steers away from a documentary feel or political commentary. Fair enough. But for a piece rammed with spies and the Cold War, it seems perverse to include so little tension. A scene in Blake’s safe house shows Gray’s strength for farce, expertly executed here, while making the KGB officers we meet funny is fine (Wynter is especially good at this), the play isn’t really a comedy either. The focus is Blake and Bourke’s relationship: why the latter helped the former, and why he was subsequently betrayed and imprisoned when visiting Blake in Moscow. Unfortunately, the duo’s friendship isn’t made interesting enough.

Blake and Bourke’s first meeting is gnomic, if intriguing. Scene II starts to reveal some idea of why Bourke might be around – he wants to be a writer and senses “a story to tell and a story to sell”. While this motif is taken up as both men work on books when in exile it does not settle the question of their bond or provide motivation for what they go through together. Talk of a “country of the future” and ideologies is given the briefest lip service. Streatfield and Byrne depict the stress of imprisonment in an accomplished way but the question of their attachment becomes an overwhelming puzzle. Their friendship may well be inexplicable, but Gray doesn’t speculate or explore it in depth and the void created makes the play a pointless struggle.

Until 20 January 2017

www.hampsteadtheatre.com

Photo by Marc Brenner

“Deathwatch” at The Print Room

Lurid, dense and poetic, Jean Genet’s play is revived with an expert translation by David Rudkin. We join three prisoners in a cell who say they will be “the slow death of each other”. The felons plot a murder, while creating a hierarchy of criminality that baffles as much as it intrigues. Genet said the play should unfold as in a dream and director Geraldine Alexander bears the dictate in mind, so this is a style that won’t appeal to all. Cryptic and cerebral, it’s an experience that’s dazzling, but might leave you dazed.

The cell is a cube reminiscent of cage fighting, placed in a circus ring with sawdust on the floor. The design from Lee Newby fits the play perfectly and The Print Room’s (newish) home at the Coronet only adds to the atmosphere. With an impressive lighting rig utilised by David Plater, the production values are top notch. As are the performances – there’s outstanding acting here. The murderer Green-Eyes, awaiting execution, has the most “clout” in the cell and the character’s animal magnetism and poetic fervour are convincingly portrayed by Tom Varey, showing the twisted depths of Genet’s writing. The cellmates share an obsession with Green-Eyes. Lefranc’s crimes may be “hot air” but he becomes a chilling figure through a balanced performance from Danny Lee Wynter. And Maurice is confrontationally played as a “screaming Queen” by Joseph Quinn, who gives a professional stage debut of great detail that bodes well for his future career.

Joseph Quinn
Joseph Quinn

All three roles are challenging. Unlike most (maybe all) crime fiction, Genet isn’t interested in the personal motivation behind crime. Backstories are suggested, but can they be trusted? Philosophy is explored as much as psychology. All this could ring alarm bells – or excite. Call me slow, I wanted more pauses – time for everything to stop and slow down – allowing an opportunity to drink in the language. Instead Alexander’s emphasis is on the tension, so fair enough. A more justifiable quibble is that even in this strong production the depth of Genet’s text isn’t plumbed, with the roles of brute force and mindless violence neglected. Nonetheless, an exceptional show.

Until 7 May 2016

www.the-print-room.org