Tag Archives: Donmar Warehouse

“Love and other acts of violence” at the Donmar Warehouse

There is nothing easy about Cordelia Lynn’s new play. Given that it looks at anti-Semitism, and the legacy of violence through the prism of a troubled relationship, the fact that it’s difficult to watch isn’t surprising. The shock is that the play lacks power.

Setting up connections between a historic pogrom and its effects on a single couple living much later is an intriguing idea – the kind of question theatre should be addressing. Good intentions and topicality aside, the subject isn’t well handled.

Being deliberately vague makes the piece too hard to follow. That it’s set in a generic near-future, in a Fascist Poland, takes a while to work out. I’m sure there is some point to being so generic, but too little context makes the action and connections opaque and frustrating. And we are robbed of preparation for the play’s final scene, set in a past that hasn’t been addressed adequately.

There are problems with the love affair too – lacking chemistry, it’s hard to believe in it. A political poet (named, sigh, ‘Him’) is energetic and superficially appealing. ‘Her’ is a scientist who has to come around to his enlightened thinking as her life is impacted by populist politics. But the characters are uneven: she far more interesting, imaginative and full of surprises. Snippets of poetic internal dialogue strive achingly hard to be profound but add little.

The series of short scenes, dropping the audience into dramatic situations, are sometimes funny and often bold. And the acting is good. Tom Mothersdale and Abigail Weinstock give committed performances, the latter being notable as a professional debut of great confidence. But Lynn’s skill as a provocateur ends up wasted with vague arguments that aren’t as original as the theatricality of the production.

For the show is strong visually. Credit to director Elayce Ismail and an excellent technical team. The lighting design by Joshua Pharo is innovative, especially when it comes to disturbing scenes of violence. And Basia Bińkowska’s set, with a surprise for the finale, is superb. That last scene takes us to 1918 and Lemberg but I’m not sure I’d have worked that out without a programme.

Lynn isn’t obliged to write for a simple soul like me. Pointers to the past might be enough for some, and it’s clever to have a play that looks to the near future flip into the past for its conclusion. There is a charge as Mothersdale arrives in the character of a soldier to confront Weinstock in the role of her grandmother. But I wasn’t interested enough in a future already seen to bother as much as I should. The subsequent bleak union, thankfully separated from most realities, is too divorced from dramatic interest.

Until 27 November 2021

www.donmarwarhouse.com

Photos by Helen Murray

“Blindness” at the Donmar Warehouse

All hail Michael Longhurst and his Covent Garden venue for staging a show during the lockdown. Not a performance exactly – the description is a ‘sound installation’ – as it is a recording of Juliet Stevenson that the audience listens to through those fancy headsets. It’s still a chance to get back into a theatre. That, alone, is worth applauding.

Simon Stephens’ adaptation of José Saramago’s novel is close to home – it’s about an epidemic, albeit one where the population suddenly goes blind. But there’s still escapism and entertainment in the far-fetched story. It’s exciting at first – a tale of the unexpected with creepy touches that Stevenson narrates exquisitely.

Close your eyes…

…for a bit of plot spoiler. As the disease becomes rife, Stevenson moves from being the storyteller to a doctor’s wife, who joins him in suitably gothic quarantine, pretending to be afflicted herself. Too quickly, Blindness becomes too generic. The script is well constructed and full of strong imagery. As with the last motif of the play, Saramago’s writing has a certain grace. And it is always impeccably directed by Walter Meierjohann. But it is not original. This is a very standard sci-fi societal breakdown: surely such views convince less and less? The only surprises come from not encountering familiar tropes; why isn’t the one woman immune investigated and what about those who are already blind?

You can open them again…

Few would be thrilled to go to the theatre for a radio play. OK, maybe I am desperate enough. But, with sound design from Ben and Max Ringham and the sculptural work from lighting designer Jessica Hung Han Yun, this piece comes closer to immersive than many that aim for that label. 

Along with a sense of excitement from the solicitous staff, there’s also the irreplaceable connection of watching as part of an audience. With the hope that none of this talented team is offended, my highlight came at the end, catching the eye of another theatregoer who, like me, wondered if we should clap. Yes, we can, and yes, we did – deservedly so.

Until 22 August 2020

www.donmarwarehouse.com

“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

“Midnight Your Time” from the Donmar Warehouse

Ensuring we don’t forget one of the West End’s smallest – and enormously prestigious – venues during dangerous times for all theatres, director Michael Longhurst presents a specially commissioned film. Written by Adam Brace, and originally penned for High Tide, it’s very good indeed. And, of course, deserving of donations.

There are many monologues about at the moment and the idea of one based on Skype calls, when a lot of work has gone online, might be the last thing most of us want. But it’s a clever idea, appropriate to the times, and the one-way messages between Judy and her daughter Helen prove engrossing, moving and entertaining.

Set in 2010, as if to remind us that isolation of one kind or another is nothing new, Brace has created an easily recognisable lead that Diana Quick performs with ease. There’s a gentle humour around this upper-middle-class well-meaning Islingtonite that makes the character a touch too naïve. But it’s fun to watch as she is “gazumped” over dinner with an Afghan refugee and makes gaffs, despite her good intentions.

Produced under lockdown conditions, which only increases my admiration, Longhurst and Quick are clearly a great team. The scenes have a nice variety, not just of costumes and times of day, but also of distinct atmospheres. Quick shows her character’s moods marvellously, from being “lighter than air” to angry and upset. There are also nice touches over her hesitancy with the technology – especially when she deletes messages that have gone too far.

Judy’s relationship with her daughter is a fraught one, and Brace and Quick unveil this with great skill. How serious an argument over Christmas was becomes clear slowly and is increasing moving. Although we never get her daughter’s side of the story, Judy’s interference in the young woman’s life would surely be a problem. But, combined with Judy’s loneliness and worries for the future, this is a neat study that raises surprising sympathy and is a great half-hour watch.

Available until the 20 May 2020

www.donmarwarehouse.com

“Far Away” at the Donmar Warehouse

Although it has a running time of only 45 minutes, there’s nothing little about this masterpiece from Caryl Churchill.

Believe it or not, despite the brief duration, Far Away could even be thought of as three plays rather than one. Maybe the scenes, despite shared character names, don’t have to be connected? 

Churchill’s invention provides a trio of dystopian visions, each scary and increasingly bizarre, held in tense suspension with one another. 

First there’s a trip to the proverbial woodshed, then a workshop producing hats for a judicial display. Finally, we see the world at war in a peculiar fashion. This is political turmoil that straddles allegorywith prescient fears in a unique fashion.

Of course, Churchill didn’t invent dystopian dramas, and she uses Orwellian overtones expertly. But it’s easy to see how influential this text from 2000 has already been. The mix of sci-fi with macabre touches means the play hasn’t dated a jot. And this production does the text proud.

Lizzie Clachan’s set combines simplicity with theatrical surprises. The sound design from Christopher Shutt will give you goose bumps without being ostentatious. And director Lyndsey Turner admirably resists the temptation to spin out the stories. The only extravagance is the use of supernumeraries, drawn from the Donmar’s ‘Take The Stage’ programme, who do a great job. But their appearance is brief. There’s a recurring theme here – a respect for Churchill’s marvellous economy.

Far Away at the Donmar Warehouse
Aisling Loftus and Simon Manyonda

Take the characters that we meet, so briefly and in such complex circumstances. Turner’s cast is superb in creating a sense of ordinary individuals no matter how removed from us the situations seem. Jessica Hynes, Aisling Loftus and Simon Manyonda provide just enough glimpses into the everyday lives of the roles they take. While appearing respectively as Harper, Joan and Todd twice, the characters change dramatically, revealing extraordinary skill from the actors and creating incredible tension. That such richness can come from such austerity really shouldn’t be possible! Churchill’s writing is breath taking – every line in Far Away works close to the bone.

Until 4 April 2020

www.donmarwarehouse.com

Photos by Johan Persson

"Teenage Dick" at the Donmar Warehouse

Joining a slew of strong American plays to reach London this year, the work of Mike Lew receives a British premiere under the energetic direction of Michael Longhurst. Along with its provoking title, this reimagining of Shakespeare’s Richard III as a high-school drama ends up somewhat burdened by its concept. But it is more than just a smart exercise: insisting a disabled actor plays theatre’s most famous disabled character provides a superb vehicle for Daniel Monks, who takes the title role, and brings issues surrounding disability powerfully to the fore.

So, at Rosewood High the war that student Richard Gloucester starts is one for class presidency. He’s unwittingly aided by his friend ‘Buck’ and his teacher Mrs York (great performances from Ruth Madeley and Susan Wokoma) while his rivals are football star Eddie and over-achiever Clarissa (less satisfactory roles that Callum Adams and Alice Hewkin still do well with).

Daniel Monks, Ruth Madeley, Callum Adams and Alice Hewkin in 'Teenage Dick' at the Donmar Warehouse
Daniel Monks, Ruth Madeley, Callum Adams and Alice Hewkin

Such moves are not unfamiliar (Lucy Monroe will tell you about them in the programme) and Lew manages well enough. There are some amusing references to the play, and the meta-textuality (which even the worst of this genre shows) is plentiful. Openly acknowledging Richard’s arcane language (in itself interesting and impeccably delivered) – and how it contrasts with the other characters’ speech – is fun. Trouble is, this game can get tiring quickly.

Siena Kelly and Daniel Monks in 'Teenage Dick' at the Donmar Warehouse
Siena Kelly and Daniel Monks

Thankfully, Lew knows he has to be more than just playful. Both Richard and his love interest, Anne Margaret – who it’s acknowledged deserves a play of her own – provide emotional weight as the play grows. Focusing on Anne Margaret (played brilliantly by Siena Kelly) shows Lew’s strong writing – including a particularly harrowing scene that needs a warning – and the role goes some way to grounding the play.

That Monks is hemiplegic undoubtedly makes a difference to the story we know and leads to powerful scenes of Richard dancing and debating. Disability is stated as the reason for the character’s unpopularity – a stark suggestion – and from this comes his platform to change the “order of things” in school society. Unfortunately, whether his pledge is for the better or just for power gets a little lost.

Throughout, Lew plays with our expectations of Richard the character and of people with a disability. The layering effect seems less interesting than the mix of pity, hate and fear that the contemporary teen experiences. That’s the bit we’ve not seen before, while the Shakespeare seems a distraction. Lew’s exploration is seldom subtle – but it’s frequently effective. The challenge, that the audience assumes Richard can’t be the hero – and so must be the villain – raises problems too frequently ignored.

Until 1 February 2020

www.donmarwarehouse.com

Photos by Marc Brenner

“[Blank]” at the Donmar Warehouse

This collection of 100 scenes, with the instruction that they can be selected at will and performed in any order, is “a challenge and an invitation” to theatre companies. It’s a startling idea that makes for a big book and shows playwright Alice Birch’s prodigious ability. It is also a suitable celebration of co-producer Clean Break Theatre’s 40 years of working alongside women involved with the criminal justice system. The treatment for the many situations they must have encountered is, by turns, heart-wrenching and thought-provoking. So what has this production, directed by Maria Aberg, created in response?

First, some brilliant performances. From names this theatregoer loves – such as Jackie Clune, Jemima Rooper, Zainab Hasan and Thusitha Jayasundera – to performers I’ve not had the privilege of seeing before, the acting is stunning. Tackling characters who all have a connection to crime, from the most serious to unnamed incidents, undoubtedly makes the show grim. But what’s important is how far-reaching and detailed repercussions are shown to be. Highlighting the children and relatives affected, as well as the women convicted, makes every character encountered a figure to be accounted for. As the 16-strong team moves from role to role, in scenes that are often very short, their achievements are breath-taking.

Much of [Blank]’s power come from its variety. Thirty scenes are delivered here, so we get to see many different women and hear multiple stories, from foster care, including one from the many scenes written for children (the young performers are fantastic), to an adult reunited with a mother freed from prison (providing stand-out moments for Kate O’Flynn and Lucy Edkins).

Shona Babayemi and Jemima Rooper in BLANK
Shona Babayemi and Jemima Rooper

Remember, teasing themes or coherence out of the texts is a choice Birch offers. Part of her point is to challenge conventional narratives about women ‘like this’. Aberg’s response is a light one; a couple of scenes share characters, but this feels like a coincidence. Rosie Elnile’s design and projections of the performers bind the play visually (although I am agnostic about the need for them). And there’s a nod to our specific location in the boldest scene that roots us in Covent Garden with the Donmar’s particular clientele: in a dinner party that turns into a disaster, Birch shows ruthless skills as a satirist and Shona Babayemi gives an unforgettable performance.

Aberg is wise to have faith in Birch’s short sketches – they are packed with emotion and drama. It can be frustrating to leave the action so quickly, and dizzying to think of how many scenes could be developed into full plays. That’s not the aim, and the writing is too precise for it to be the case – each scene stands fully formed. Rather, being overwhelmed by this breadth of – frankly awful – experience is a statement. This feels like a whole other kind of theatre. The play could be mounted anywhere, with any cast, making it a real treasure – full of possibilities and lives that we don’t normally see. While these women maybe invisible to some, [Blank] goes some way to filling that void.

Until 30 November 2019

www.donmarwarehouse.com

Photos by Helen Maybanks

"Appropriate" at the Donmar Warehouse

Newly appointed artistic director Michael Longhurst has his first big find for the Donmar with this excellent play by American writer Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. The production is impeccably directed by Ola Ince with a precise hand which complements the depth of the script. Set over a fraught weekend, as the Lafayette siblings fight over the sale of their family home, the play looks at legacy – historical, financial and emotional – hitting on important themes. But Jacobs-Jenkins has a steely eye on the present and his touch is comic. Appropriate is a smart satire, all about behaviour far from befitting. But first of all this is a play with real belly laughs – a super strong comedy not to be missed.

The former plantation house, containing some trigger warning trash, serves as an appropriate location to consider ghosts from the past. Ince provides the spookiness suggested in the text superbly. A hint of horror amongst the comedy adds fun but is also a warning note: no matter how bad things get, a house with its own slave graveyard has seen worse. In the present, and without catastrophising – there’s plenty of that from the privileged characters – the Layfayette’s make a sorry lot. When they see a chance to profit they rush to take it. With questions of appropriation left aside. Meanwhile, the hang-ups and addictions of three generations crowd the stage. It’s quite the crisis for what used to be the elite; as we move from family drama to state of the nation play, dysfunctional is the word.

Monica Dolan, Steven Mackintosh and Edward Hogg in Appropriate
Monica Dolan, Steven Mackintosh and Edward Hogg

These “misfit disaster people” are awful enough to get a lot of laughs; prepare to gasp at what they say when their blood is up. But Jacobs-Jenkins makes sure none of them are irredeemable. There’s a reason for older brother Bo’s greed and Steven Mackintosh’s performance in the part carefully shows us a man under pressure. Meanwhile Edward Hogg, as prodigal son Frank, is appealingly offbeat – until how much of a delinquent he really was is revealed. As their partners, Jaimi Barbakoff and Tafline Steen both excel with themes of nurture and motherhood, flipping from sensible concerns to exaggerated fads. Both characters are sources of fun – sensitive, privileged and modish, they’re easy to mock – but the women can hold their own. No matter how silly or objectionable the opinions shouted by all, it’s not easy to dismiss these people

Ahead of them all is big sister Toni, both formidable and fragile. It’s the role of a lifetime for Monica Dolan who impresses with every line. Toni is “disgusting” plenty of times – rude, racist, overbearing and oversensitive. But there’s no doubt that she has borne the brunt of looking after the family and her father. Sharp as a knife and nearly always funny, with her common sense up against political correctness (always popular), Toni has the play’s most moving moments too.

Plenty of theories and trends meet the messiness of real life here, which proves emotional as well as entertaining. The characters’ pain always convinces and causes us to pause. Since everyone is selfish, it’s harder to take sides than you might think. Jacobs-Jenkins makes us laugh and leaves us thinking, as you try to work out if anyone is ever acting appropriately. And what your proper response to what you’re watching should be.

Until 5 October 2019

www.donmarwarehouse.com

Photos by Marc Brenner

“Sweat” at the Gielgud Theatre

After rave reviews and a sell-out run at the Donmar Warehouse, the transfer of Lynn Nottage’s play is especially welcome. A political play about blue-collar America and trade unionism isn’t your average West End fare. Brilliant performances and excellent direction count for many stars awarded by the critics. But, above all, it’s the marvellous work from an exceptional writer that makes this one of the best plays I’ve seen in an age. Oh, and it won a Pulitzer Prize.

At the heart of Sweat’s success are a series of characters that we come to know so intimately. As a trio of work friends whose jobs in a steel factory and threatened and then lost, Jessie, Cynthia and Tracey make for wonderful studies that Leanne Best, Clare Perkins and Martha Plimpton all excel in. Their history established with speed, when Cynthia moves from shop floor to office door we get a moving moral dilemma brimming with conflict.

The action takes place in the women’s local bar, and the manager’s bar-room philosophy and news commentary, skilfully delivered by Stuart McQuarrie, add to the sense of a whole community, maybe the whole US. The complex picture is created with such a natural touch it seems effortless on Nottage’s part – and appreciated by director Lynette Linton – but what technique!

Let’s not be naïve. Focus on the women in the factory and ethnic minorities working in the bar could feel tokenistic. Here, it’s what it is – real life. And the characters are all the more remarkable when we come to consider how functional each role is. Each represents a response to or facet of economic meltdown. NAFTA, the rise of nationalism and anti-immigration rhetoric, even self-medication and the opioid epidemic are all issues raised. And, handled with such humanity, Nottage makes them personal.

If Sweat still sounds dry, exceptional plotting makes the delivery anything but. There’s a thrilling mystery here surrounding two of the women’s sons, Jason and Chris, and a crime that occurs. Beginning with their release from prison we’re left guessing what happened, even who the victim was. With yet more tremendous performances, from Patrick Gibson and Osy Ikhile, we see a once close friendship and the disturbed characters both men have become. During the second act, Linton ratchets up the tension: who does what to whom is unexpected, the cruelty of events ripping a community further apart.

When racism rears its head, it is especially poignant as we see a friendship destroyed. Yet understanding how violence has escalated shows the play has important insights. As well as examining the systemic in society, Nottage takes into account an element of chance. Think of the characters, to various degrees, as unlucky and it’s sure to change any moral judgements you might make. Sweat ends as a challenging piece, preventing us from condemning any of its protagonists too quickly. It creates an uneasy sense of ‘there but for the grace of God’ time after time in a way only the very best theatre can.

Until 20 July 2019

www.sweattheplay.com

“Sweet Charity” at the Donmar Warehouse

While Anne-Marie Duff is no stranger to acclaim, certainly not on this blog, her casting as the heroine in Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields’ masterpiece marks her first effort in musical theatre. Of course, plenty of actors who aren’t singers do well in musicals. If you want to add Duff to that list, then this is a great start. Her Charity is a moving figure, but her singing makes you wince, which seems a shame with such wonderful songs. Nonetheless, Duff’s “laughing and giggling” dance hall hostess is often brilliant, her heartbreak and hope visceral. It’s a star turn not to be missed – unfortunately, this isn’t true of the rest of the production.

The twist from director Josie Rourke is to set the show roughly around Andy Warhol’s Factory. And this turns into a dead end. Sweet Charity is, surely, a piece from the 1960s in dialogue with the 1950s, tackling the changes in society between the decades. So adding Warhol at least needs explaining. Instead we get clever touches – Charity’s encounter with a film star (played rather flatly by Martin Marquez) includes a screen-print portrait – that tend to prove cumbersome. And no Warhol figure actually appears (I can’t be the only one with a literal mind expecting cult leader Daddy Brubeck to don a silver wig). If the idea is to comment on Charity or the way she is treated, it was lost on me.

Rourke has a conviction in her direction that she certainly passes on to the ensemble and they work hard. But they don’t excite. It’s Duff’s show – to a fault – as the rest of the cast fail to individuate their roles. The choreography provides another star turn, with Wayne McGregor stepping into the legendary Bob Fosse’s shoes. The connections he draws are respectful and there’s no shortage of invention. But there’s a suspicion that the cast aren’t quite up to his demands on them. It’s never a question of energy, although too much of that comes from a revolving stage, but when even the hit number Rhythm of Life lacks excitement, you know something has gone wrong.

The Warhol concept interrupts the flow of the show. We’re presented with set piece numbers, prepared by The Factory crew, too frequently containing some gimmick. It’s hard to imagine why, but we’re not allowed to get caught up in Charity’s world. The momentum of the show and its structure suffer as a result. It’s all fits and starts. Ultimately, the story’s bold end, when Charity’s romantic hopes come crashing down, is simply sour. Only Duff manages to inject any ambiguity, and the suggestion that Charity might pick herself up and be OK is too slim. With a piece notable for its cynicism, more bleak isn’t needed. It would be nice to be more charitable but this production isn’t sweet.

Until 8 June 2019

www.donmarwarehouse.com

Photo by Johan Persson