Tag Archives: Deborah Findlay

“Coriolanus” from NTLive

It’s a shame not to be able to rave about Josie Rourke’s Donmar Warehouse production of Shakespeare’s Roman epic a little more. The idea of putting the title character’s mother, Volumnia, to the fore is excellent and leads to the performance of a lifetime from Deborah Findlay. But Coriolanus is a tricky play, with an unappealing central character and short crowded scenes that are tough to make convincing. Although Rourke tries hard to inject energy and aid comprehension, the play frequently drags and hard to follow.

Rourke recreates the battle scene (where Caius Marcius wins his honorary surname of Coriolanus) with chairs and ladders – it probably looked better on stage but it is tough to follow. And a hard-working cast doubling up as politicians from different sides is also confusing.

It’s difficult to care about Coriolanus and his obsession with honour – even his arrogance becomes repetitive. How good a politician might he be? Is he truly modest or just another hypocrite? Such questions become unsubtle in a show with lots of shouting and moving around, none of which helps you work out what is going on or makes it exciting.

Thankfully, Deborah Findlay makes the show more than worth watching. Every scene with Volumnia is marvellous; from her introduction as the mother who would rather have a “good report” of her son than have him survive a war, to her creepy adoration of his battle scars. Findlay makes the exaggerations everyone spouts make sense. Rourke’s focus pays off and if the show uneven – aren’t we just waiting for these scenes? – it’s worth it. Here, Rourke has added to our interpretation of the play and brings out the best bits.

It’s not that the rest of the cast is bad – far from it. There are good turns from Elliot Levey and Helen Schlesinger as the tribunes who plot against Coriolanus, and making them lovers is another good idea. Mark Gatiss, as Menenius, gets better as the show goes, with a “cracked heart” from his last meeting with Coriolanus that is effective. 

CORIOLANUS The Donmar Warehouse credit Johan Persson
Tom Hiddleston

As for our leading man, Tom Hiddleston is very good indeed. It might have been interesting to explore the suggestion of “witchcraft” in the role, but Hiddleston is more than a little scary and brings out the character’s urge to be the “author of himself” well. Hiddleston can hold a stage superbly and, with Rourke’s impressive visual sense in this literally bloody show, helps creates some memorable images.

Yet even Coriolanus ends up seeming something of a foil for his mother – Findlay is so good. On her son’s exile, Volumnia refuses to cry, saying “anger’s my meat” in chilling fashion. That she finally begs Coriolanus is all the more moving – no wonder Hiddleston is reduced to tears. Even here there is a manipulative edge (see how she ushers her grandson towards his father) and note that this tragic dilemma is hers. Coriolanus says his mother deserves to have a temple built to her. It’s one of the few sensible things he utters. But, recalling Matthew Dunster’s idea about Cymbeline a few years ago at Shakespeare’s Globe, it might be an idea to change the title of this play, too? From Coriolanus to Volumnia anyone? 

Available until Wednesday 11 June 2020

To support, visit nationaltheatre.org.ukdonmarwarehouse.com

Photos by Johan Persson

“Allelujah!” at the Bridge Theatre

In his 84th year, Alan Bennett has written his most topical and overtly political play yet. Set on a geriatric ward, this is a heartfelt appeal for the NHS in its anniversary year and a play that is as challenging as it is amusing. Using the term youthful as praise seems inappropriate, but the piece feels fresh and bold regardless of the average age of its cast and creatives.

Allelujah! is full of songs and fun. With a massive cast, of mainly elderly characters, there is a sense of studies rather than fully fledged personalities. The experienced ensemble does well and is always entertaining, but it is great lines rather than roles that allow the likes of Gwen Taylor and Jeff Rawle to shine. Bennett adds life by injecting frank remarks and some swearing. It’s a simple but effective move.
When it comes to those running the hospital, conditions improve. There’s still some flab and flat parts – Bennett’s long-time director Nicholas Hytner could have been stricter. But from the hospital’s incompetent chairman, an excellent performance from Peter Forbes, and the stalwart Sister Gilchrist, a role that Deborah Findlay is superb in, Bennett points out systemic problems and gives them dramatic impact.

Sacha Dhawan and Samuel Barnett
Sacha Dhawan and Samuel Barnett

Samuel Barnett plays another villain, a management consultant, and is joined by fellow former History Boy Sacha Dhawan as the appealing Dr Valentine. The pair are polar opposites – indeed a story about migration feels a touch tagged on – but both do well to make Bennett’s blunt approach work. By the time we get to the plot twist, the whole atmosphere is appropriately spirited – nothing exercises emotions like the NHS.

The sensational storyline might be criticised in a younger writer. Given his pedigree, it seems safe to say that Bennett is aware of any potential drawbacks. Throwing a lot of subtlety to the wind, he joins the often reviled group of angry old men. And good for him. Allelujah! becomes hectoring towards the end; the patients’ patriotic singalong seems jolly enough, but there is little hope or glory around. Yet the anger here is salutary, Bennett wants to shake us up and, as a result, his play is a surprise.

Until 29 September 2018

www.bridgetheatre.co.uk

Photos by Manuel Harlan

“The Children” at the Royal Court

The critical consensus seems to be that Lucy Kirkwood’s new play is slow. True, it’s three talking heads: retired physicists coming to terms with a disaster at the nuclear power plant that they built and tackling personal meltdowns along the way. But Kirkwood’s wit – there are some very good jokes here – and some fantastic characterisation make her play so entertaining it grips from start to finish.

Against the dramatic backdrop of exclusion zones and power cuts, director James Macdonald allows the dynamics between three old friends (and lovers) to develop, doing justice to Kirkwood’s observations and dialogue. The carefully crafted performances are strong. Ron Cook plays Robin, who feels “eroded”, with a grumpy old man act that proves more complex than the first gags suggest. Francesca Annis performs as his one-time mistress, Rose, making the most of her character’s humour and mystery; reappearing after many years to pose the play’s dilemma – her plan to return to the toxic plant to replace younger workers who have more of their lives ahead of them.

In a year that’s seen several strong roles for mature women (there are interesting parallels here with Caryl Churchill’s Escaped Alone, which makes a welcome return early next year), Rose is joined by Ron’s wife Hazel, a brilliant part that allows Deborah Findlay to make the play her own. The atmosphere surrounding this “cautious” character crackles with tension, and the relationship with her husband is full of credible touches. Findlay even lights candles in character: carefully using only one match to suggest, ironically, eco-friendly convictions.

Hazel is appalled by Rose’s self-sacrificing suggestion – she doesn’t see her life as anywhere near over. Behind the homely touches there’s a steeliness that present the counter argument. Kirkwood isn’t simply baby-boomer-bashing, but it’s pretty clear where she thinks the moral obligation lies. Children is a less showy affair than the playwright’s biggest hit, Chimerica, or her previous work at the Royal Court, NSFW. The theme tackled, the responsibility of one generation to another, is thought provoking – this problem feels real world and ripe for exploration. But the presentation and symbolism are too blunt. Utilitarianism is a hard taskmaster and doesn’t leave a dramatist much room for manoeuvre.

Until 14 January 2016

www.royalcourttheatre.com

Photo by Johan Persson

“Escaped Alone” at the Royal Court

Sometimes the theatre seems obsessed with youth: plays about teenagers, hot new stars and valiant efforts to attract ‘new’, i.e. younger, audiences. But here’s a play that takes old age and experience seriously, while highlighting another important debate – about women in the theatre. The 77-year-old Caryl Churchill’s new play is for four older women, a brilliant piece confirming that being radical isn’t about age but about sheer skill and vision.

Escaped Alone is short, under an hour, and director James MacDonald tightly controls the duration. It’s worth paying attention to Christopher Shutt’s audio work here, with sounds and silences in the piece as carefully constructed as the impeccable script.

Despite the brevity, Churchill manages more than most playwrights. This is a buy-one-get-two-free play, mixing genres to startling effect. First a group of friends, chatting in the garden – the conversation observed to perfection and their relationships conveyed with marvellous economy – is funny, wise and topical.

Monologues interrupt, revealing the women’s current fears. These are poems on anxiety, depression and regret, each one capable of moving you to tears. Circling around the theme of loneliness, the show is explicit about the “bitter rage” we all contain.

ESCAPED ALONE by Churchill,    , Writer - Caryl Churchill, Director - James Macdonald, Designer - Miriam Buether, Lighting Peter Mumford, The Royal Court Theatre, 2016, Credit: Johan Persson/
Linda Bassett

And then there are scenes of storytelling. Dystopian tales of earth, wind, fire and water that Churchill has wicked fun with. The outrageous scenarios bring laughs, but the abject isn’t far away. Absurd suggestions, worthy of any conspiracy fantasist, these apocalypses come close to our darkest imaginings.

Linda Bassett takes the lead in these stand-alone scenes, so she excels among an amazing cast. She’s joined by Deborah Findlay, Kika Markham and June Watson, who each seem incapable of putting a foot wrong, and it’s hard to imagine another ensemble this strong.

The production marks a stellar beginning to the Royal Court’s anniversary year. The venue’s tagline, ‘sixty years young’, feels appropriate for Churchill’s fresh work. Settling into the home of previous career triumphs, Escaped Alone is just as experimental and challenging, bold both structurally and thematically. Forget those angry young men… it’s time for these wise old women.

Until 12 March 2016

www.royalcourttheatre.com

Photos by Johan Persson

“Rules For Living” at the National Theatre

Using, of all things, Cognitive Behaviourial Therapy as a very literal framework, Sam Holcroft’s new play for the National Theatre makes for a riotous evening. A family’s foibles are revealed to us in the form of their coping strategies, or ‘rules for living’, to use the therapists’ term, on a game show-style screen – all part of Chloe Lamford’s witty set. So we know, for example, that one character sits down when they lie and another stands up to tell a joke. Every move realises its comic potential.

Holcroft’s strategy is a neat gimmick that’s so effective that the actors have half the work done for them. Nonetheless the cast is superb. Stephen Mangan and Miles Jupp are brilliant as brothers who reveal their competitive streak and long-held grudges. Claudie Blakley and Maggie Service play their partners, full of repression and insecurities, revealed, respectively, by booze and bad jokes. Best of all is Deborah Findlay as the mother who ‘cleans to keep calm’ – a performance that magically transcends her deliberately recognisable character to become comedy gold.

Rules For Living might be a touch too long in places, and the final act adds disappointingly little, but Marianne Elliott’s direction is impeccable and the jokes have a high hit rate. And underneath the original twist is an old-fashioned dysfunctional family comedy – it’s even set at Christmas – that works superbly. The show gets better the sillier the events and the characters become. The culminating luxury food fight alone means you get your ticket money’s worth. It’s not a play if you hate to see food wasted, but the whole thing is a great deal of fun.

Until 8 July 2015

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Simon Annand

“Timon of Athens” at the National Theatre

While directors seldom shy away from interpreting Shakespeare, sometimes searching almost perversely for a spin that promotes their production, Nicholas Hytner’s Timon of Athens offers something different. As Shakespeare’s least known work, we have the unusual situation of an audience coming to the show fresh. As a result, the new production at the National Theatre makes a remarkable contribution to the World Shakespeare Festival, presenting a contemporary sounding voice that demands to be heard.

Timon of Athens contains more parable than plot and traces the downfall of the eponymous protagonist, who is ruined by his generosity in a mercenary world. It’s easy to see the writing on the wall for Timon, but filling the play with contemporary references, setting the action in Canary Wharf and Parliament, and casting the rebel Alcibiades as a political protestor in the mould of ‘Occupy’ movement, give the production a powerful resonance in our financially unstable times. It’s a wicked world out there; you’ve only got to watch out for the on-stage product placement from Jaeger to have your cynicism reinforced.

The play’s main fault lies with its characterisation but Hytner’s cast manages to deal with this. Deborah Findlay is superb as Timon’s steward, adding emotional punch to the play, while Hilton McRae is excellent as the philosopher Apemantus. In the lead role, Simon Russell Beale gives a magnificent performance: his powerful presence matches the play’s directness – there are no byways here, just a monotonous misanthropy. Few actors could carry the violence of Timon’s language, his prayer of vengeance, this convincingly. Both Russell Beale and Hytner convey the bleakest view of humanity, making Timon of Athens the National’s most radical, challenging production for quite some time.

Until 31 October 2012

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Johan Persson

Written 18 July 2012 for The London Magazine

“The Glass Menagerie” at the Young Vic

Joe Hill-Gibbins’ production of Tennessee Williams’ ‘memory’ play, The Glass Menagerie, is one you won’t forget. Introduced as a play that gives “truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion”, Hill-Gibbins and designer Jeremy Herbert develop Williams’ emphasis on the theatrical with crystal clarity.

With a curtain that goes down as well as up and musicians integrated into the action, the workings of the story are exposed to all, entrancing us with its telling.

Not that this illusion is really all that pleasant. Our narrator Tom relates the tale of his escape from home but never disguises the fact that he is abandoning his mother and sister. Leo Bill plays this unsympathetic character, who haunted from the start. It is a surprisingly physical portrayal with a palpable sense of anger and despair.

The urgency of Tom’s leaving is well established by Deborah Findlay and Sinead Matthews in the roles of his mother Amanda and sister Laura. The danger of their self-illusion is subtly conveyed and is all the more powerful for the way it creeps up on you.

Even in Williams’ day, the chivalry of the South was a thing of the past. Nowadays, Amanda’s delusions and Laura’s timidity can seem not just deluded but silly. Findlay does well to establish her character’s ideas without alienating the audience. This is a lesson Matthews has chosen to ignore. Some actresses play Laura with a stubbornness about her fantasy life that is missing here. But, in neglecting this, Matthews is all the more moving and as fragile as the glass animals she collects.

The play’s fourth character, Jim the gentleman caller, is “an emissary from the world of reality” and arrives through a door marked with a star. Kyle Soller gives an excellent performance, fitting Tom’s description of him perfectly and adding a sincerity that cannot fail to move. He becomes central to Hill-Gibbins’ sensitive direction of this masterpiece and in bringing emotion to the fore leaves us as haunted as the characters left abandoned in their fantasy world.

www.youngvic.org

Until 15 January 2011

Photo by Simon Annand

Written 22 November 2010 for The London Magazine