Tag Archives: Donmar Warehouse

“The Band’s Visit” at the Donmar Warehouse

A big production in a small space is one way to get a buzz. This Broadway hit, by David Yazbek and Itamar Moses, has a huge cast considering the venue: there are the titular musicians, on tour from Egypt, and those they unwittingly encounter, the locals of a nowhere-town in Israel. But it’s the committed low-key tone – the claim from the beginning that what we are about to see is not very important – that makes the show stand out.

The visiting musicians get involved in some heavy stuff, offering advice on life and love, with romances beginning, or not, and ending… maybe. And there’s a lot of consideration as to how important music can be – transforming lives and bringing people together. But Moses’ book has a consciously slow pace, which director Michael Longhurst embraces. The action is deliberately minimal: characters visit a park, go on a date, and wait for a phone. The show becomes a triumph of restraint and modesty.

The music and lyrics by Yazbek are often quiet too – there’s no search for a show-stopping number, although the songs are fantastic, and the score deserves its Tony Award (one of six!). A fascinating mix of the Middle Eastern with Western influences, it’s exciting to hear a musical that sounds so different. The sentimental songs are excellent – stand-alone hits – and Yazbek has a gift for comedy too.

Although a true ensemble piece, Miri Mesika shows she’s a star in the role of café owner Dina. With a great voice and sure command of the comedy in the piece, Mesika makes her character believable and admirable. The connection between Dina and the band’s conservative conductor proves fascinating through the chemistry between Mesika and Alon Moni Aboutboul. It is striking that the focus for the show is middle life, both characters have a history and share a sense of calm resignation.

There are also strong performances from a married couple in trouble, played by Marc Antolin and Michal Horowicz, with a role for Peter Polycarpou as her character’s father providing a perspective from later in life. And given two fantastic numbers, it’s impossible to ignore Harel Glazer and Ashley Margolis as younger men starting their romantic lives.

It is clear that Yazbek and Moses have more ambition for the piece than their tone suggests – the ages of characters show that much. There is a sanguine approach that gives the work a distinct flavour, with beauty in everyday things that has tremendous charm. Hope is the big theme in the end – past and future. The Band’s Visit searches out hope at all stages of life and turns out to be, well, important, after all.

Until 3 December 2022

www.donmarwarehouse.com

“The Trials” at the Donmar Warehouse

Dawn King’s climate change play has a strong scenario – the youth of the future hold their parents to account in court for environmental damage. A sci-fi dystopia, the piece is an effective, well-written call to action. It’s big on ideas and, while important for all to see, perfect for a younger demographic. There’s a powerful sense of rage propelling the controlled script: this is theatre for the angry young gen.

Accountability and justice are meaty subjects. As is the impact on the planet of being a carnivore. If some of the future King imagines is far-fetched (it would seem the revolution that has occurred is the first in history to benefit the poor) the balance with what we can all imagine as the shape of things to come is good. It’s easy to guess that folk of the future will be aghast at how we live now.

Overblown touches add to a sense of urgency. But there are hitches. It could be clearer from the start what the outcome of the trials is. Also, for a piece about a generational divide, it would help to know what the date is. Is it Gen Z in the dock? Since King wants to be vague, I’ll avoid spoilers. Suffice to say that there’s a lot of drama from a tight, twisty plot. And those accused aren’t just the usual suspects.

The play also manages its young cast superbly. First, three experienced performers – Lucy Cohu, Nigel Lindsay and Sharon Small – punctuate the action. Their speeches, as their characters defend themselves, are superbly delivered. Then, under the careful direction of Natalie Abrahami, the ensemble, some of whom are very young, all acquit themselves admirably.

Lucy-Cohu-in-THE-TRIALS-Donmar-Warehouse-credit-Helen-Murray
Lucy Cohu

Fans of Heartstopper (and I spotted a few) will be pleased with performances from Will Gao and Joe Locke. The former injects some much-needed light relief, while Locke clearly revels in having a darker character to deal with. But this is an ensemble piece – great care is taken to give all 12 cast members time and the show is good at this. Twelve is a lot of characters. Some of the roles may be sketched – they represent attitudes (often, anxieties) – but King ensures all are memorable and distinct.

Honor-Kneafsey-in-THE-TRIALS-Donmar-Warehouse-credit-Helen-Murray
Honor Kneafsey

Honor Kneafsey as Ren is the central role, the strongest written character with a performance to match. Jowana El-Daouk also stands out for a streak of ruthlessness combined with a hatred of “dinosaur” elders – an internal conflict that is important. King has an uncanny ability to show and balance the conviction and anger of youth. The mischievous Tomaz intrigues most and Charlie Reid’s energetic performance of this lethargic character (not easy) is good. The role brings home how young those in charge are in the story.

Charlie-Reid-in-THE-TRIALS-Donmar-Warehouse-credit-Helen-Murray
Charlie Reid

But are they really running things? There’s a lot unspoken in The Trials, which King plays with and could extrapolate. The jurors can ask for help… but from who? Do these witch hunts have a darker purpose? Is there some kind of catharsis going on? Or is it all about resources being scarce? With more big ideas bubbling away, this Utilitarian future comes under question. Avoiding easy answers, King has a fine play that is bleak, but undeniably absorbing.

Until 27 August 2022

www.donmarwarehouse.com

Photos by Helen Murray

“Henry V” at the Donmar Warehouse

A lot of people like to see a star on stage. The attraction for Max Webster’s new production of Shakespeare’s history play is Kit Harington. And the Game of Thrones actor more than earns his presumably vastly reduced wage. Although the production has its moments, Harington is the focus of these in what is an uneven affair that’s too stop-and-start to call it a success.

The large cast takes on multiple roles – which is, normally, sure to impress. And all the more so when the cast is bilingual. For Webster’s version of the play has French characters speaking French. Which makes sense – and makes a point – but creates mixed results.

The scenes in French prove a distraction, as you can’t help wondering if the performer is a native speaker. And when it comes to the different roles, it is all too obvious which one each cast member prefers. Efforts to distinguish the different parts (through accents or body language) are often poor. Kate Duchêne is a notable exception but, overall, there’s a lot of talent for little result.

The language isn’t the only distraction. Andrzej Goulding’s video work is good, but it is too big for the stage. As with Fly Davis’ impressive design, the Donmar’s intimacy is negated. Is a transfer so badly desired? A stage this small feels crowded very easily, yet Webster ignores this. He clearly just wants a bigger space. At one point we even have some marching on the spot… yuk.

Henry V is famous for Shakespeare’s appeals to our imagination. The chorus’ speeches can be inspiring, but here they are lacklustre – Millicent Wong’s delivery is strangely petulant. In attempting moments of realism, the show doesn’t deliver. I don’t think using guns helps, but fight scenes frequently look clumsy. Their direction, by Kate Waters, is, again, really for a different venue.

The production is not a failure. The addition of strong singing is revelatory – there are powerful voices in the cast that gave me goosebumps. It’s a shame that additional music (including, sigh, some Handel) is all over the place. Several scenes have a rawness which is striking (the final scene for Danny Kirrane’s particularly unappealing Pistol is notable).

Above all, Harington’s Harry is a great. The anxiety of ruling and war are etched on this king’s face, and the play between politician and regular guy is riveting. Star appeal saves the show. Which is good, but a little disappointing.

Until 9 April 2022

www.donmarwarehouse.com

Photo by Helen Murray

“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