Tag Archives: Es Devlin

“The Crucible” at the National Theatre

Lyndsey Turner’s new production of Arthur Miller’s classic looks and sounds great – no small achievement given its famous setting of seventeenth century Salem run by Puritans. Design supremo Es Devlin uses a lot of rain onstage while Tim Lutkin’s superb lighting also impresses. The music from Caroline Shaw is good – a mix of hymns and background soundscape that is atmospheric but not too spooky. Behind the fancy touches is a solid production of an excellent play.

There’s nothing faddish when it comes to a revival (if that happens to concern you). For Miller, the historic witch hunts are a parallel to McCarthyism in the 1950s. Turner doesn’t stretch to any twist. I thought the crazy children, who say they have seen devil and end up “jangling the keys of the kingdom” might provide a spin. But the audience can make up its own connections – thank you – Miller’s study of hysteria and revenge is powerful enough.

Turner has confidence in the piece. Miller’s preface and an afterword are added, pretty neutral inclusions in my opinion. Respect for the text is referential (after all, it really is brilliant) and despite ending up a long evening, the production is gripping.

The key is not to question how credible events seemed. The accusations the girls make are going to raise eyebrows nowadays – could people really believe them? Likewise, the twisted logic of the theocracy that falls for their tricks: yes, the idea of dancing was scandalous! But the dark motives in the play are serious and Turner aids the piece’s gravitas.

Brendan-Cowell-and-Rachelle-Diedericks-in-The-Crucible-at-the-Naitonal-Theatre
Brendan Cowell and Rachelle Diedericks

The younger cast members do a great job when it comes to a degree of restraint – not easy when you are supposed to be possessed by the devil. The leader of the pack – Abigail -seems far from “wild” and her cohort Mary suitably scared through strong performances from Erin Doherty and Rachelle Diedericks. There is a sense neither girl really knows what they are doing but are carried along by events.

It’s the adults in the show who are the focus. A suitably bland Paris, the community’s minister, becomes increasingly manic in a controlled performance from Nick Fletcher. John Proctor, the play’s flawed hero, takes a back seat: Brendan Cowell must wait until the very end to shine. Instead, it’s his wife, played by the excellent Eileen Walsh whose steely self-righteousness interests more. Walsh suggests the power as well as the costs obtained from the character’s “cold” persona.

Erin-Doherty-and-Fisayo-Akinade-in-the-Crucible-at-the-National-Theatre
Erin Doherty and Fisayo Akinade

Above all, the court itself is the focal point. More than just the villains of the play, Miller is careful to present the arguments of those who come to judge. There are two figures with different journeys here: the Governor Danforth (played expertly by Matthew Marsh) who balances arrogance with conviction. And an excellent Reverend Hale – a great performance from Fisayo Akinade – whose flip between repentance and cynicism when he realises the disaster he is embroiled in, is brilliantly done. It’s these figures of authority that interest most  – and Turner interrogates them superbly.

Until 5 November 2022

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photos by Johan Persson

“A Number” at The Old Vic

This is an excellent revival, directed Lyndsey Turner, of Caryl Churchill’s popular sci-fi two-hander. The scenario of cloned children, head-to-head in conversations with their father, gives instant drama. The sons, played by the same actor, of course, are either discovering their parentage or have been abandoned. How they and their father react means the different scenes offer huge potential for interpretation.

The script is a prospect sure to excite actors, and Paapa Essiedu and Lennie James leap at the opportunities. Which is not to say the play is easy to get your head around. You can see the pitfalls with Es Devlin’s design. Having the walls and ornaments all the same colour is clever – a play on identity and difference. But such concepts quickly become portentous.

“Positive spirit”

Turner avoids the potential weight of the script and the fact that it is a famous play. This version of A Number is clearer, lighter and funnier. Revelations about the father’s history (that could be cryptic or odd) are treated like a thriller: exciting but also creating sympathy. The humour is almost exaggerated, Essiedu especially has great comic skill. The “positive spirit” of the first character we meet (a contrast with another ‘version’) lifts the play. Which is not to say serious concerns aren’t raised.


The nature/nurture debate is explored swiftly and effectively in A Number. Too quickly you might argue, as the show is only an hour long. Essiedu’s confusion, anger or interest in the different characters he takes on are all thought-provoking. Big issues of independence and identity are raised, as are themes of memory and responsibility.


Under Turner’s confident direction, Essiedu and James impress with their ability to bring out the play’s arguments so naturally. These are excellent performances that belie such demanding roles. Churchill’s text is as heavy with concepts as the experiment both men are part of. To make the debate feel so human is a big achievement.

Until 19 March 2022

www.oldvictheatre.com

“Ugly Lies The Bone” at the National Theatre

Lindsey Ferrentino’s plays have received plenty of awards and, having worked for the Roundabout Theatre Company and The Public Theatre in New York, she is no stranger to prestigious venues. Still, it must still be an exciting coup to have your UK premiere on the South Bank, and surely her work has much to commend it, but it’s a shame this lacklustre piece doesn’t live up to the honour.

The scenario is powerful, a wounded war veteran returning home. The treatment includes artificial reality – the idea is to shock the system into forgetting horrific burns – so reaching for designer Es Devlin’s number, given her work on The Nether, was a sensible move. Devlin has delivered the goods, with projections on to an impressive set that’s part infinity cove and part model town.

Kate Fleetwood

Ferrentino’s characterisation isn’t bad, either. There’s the strong lead role of Jess for Kate Fleetwood – a flawless performance – whose indomitable spirit is saved from cliché by an edge to her humour that could have been pushed further. The men in her life seem pretty scrappy by comparison, but the roles allow Ralf Little and Kris Marshall to show some good comedy skills. Yet so overpowering is Jess’s part that, along with the character of her sister (another superb performance, from Olivia Darnley), the play feels as if it should focus on them, yet doesn’t quite manage to do so.

There are too many false starts around. The medical advances used to treat Jess are interesting, but explored superficially. Hearing but not seeing the scientist pioneering the treatment (Buffy Davis) is novel but alienating and starts to become dull. The time and location of the play – the end of the space shuttle programme in the midst of war in Afghanistan – could give us more pauses for thought but any claims or insight about either are lost. We fall back on a solid human-interest story that ticks along too slowly. Director Indhu Rubasingham does little to add pace, resulting in a disappointingly pedestrian evening.

Until 6 June 2017

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Mark Douet

“Faith Healer” at the Donmar Warehouse

Rain is falling as we are introduced to the ‘Fantastic’ Frank Hardy, an itinerant performer, whose life and miraculous show lie between the “absurd and the momentous”. Es Devlin’s stunning set creates a box of brilliantly lit water that returns between each of the four monologues that make up this intense and intriguing revival of Brian Friel’s 1979 play.

Stephen Dillane joins a line of famous names to tackle the title role. It’s a restrained performance, uncompromisingly demanding, carefully playing with the “sedation of incantation” that runs through the script: place names visited, adventures and traumas, are repeated in the softest tones. Hardy knows whether or not miracles will happen – that his success depends on chance – so his gift is also a curse.

We meet Hardy’s mistress and manager. As the former, Gina McKee’s accent is offputting at first – we’ve been told she’s from Yorkshire, and that’s not the only lie we discover from hearing her side of the story. The detail McKee invests in her scene makes it moving and engrossing. After these hear-a-pin-drop performances there’s some respite, thanks to Ron Cook’s appealing Cockney artistes agent. Though stories about a bagpipe-playing dog are funny, this isn’t comic relief. Cook presents a tired and disappointed man with subtlety.
The performances are awe-inspiring but the material is consuming to the point of claustrophobic and difficult because of its complexity. The drama comes from having three unreliable narrators, who lived together for many years but don’t meet during the play and are talking about events in the past. We see Hardy’s wife after his (possible) murder, and his manager after she has committed suicide, but the chronology is not explicit and how much time passes between scenes is opaque. Friel’s script shifts and changes and needs the lightness of touch that director Lyndsey Turner provides. A heavy hand could damage such first-class storytelling. Rendered so impeccably, the play is absorbing.

Until 20 August 2016\

www.donmarwarehouse.com

Photos by Johan Persson

“Linda” at the Royal Court

Best wishes – also commiserations – to Kim Cattrall, originally cast in the title role of Penelope Skinner’s new play, who withdrew for health reasons at the last minute. Instead, Noma Dumezweni gets the chance at a brilliantly meaty part and wins huge admiration. Although performing with the script close by, Dumezweni’s is a towering rendition that gets to the nub of Skinner’s grand efforts with precision.

Linda is a woman who has it all: career, kids and “the same size ten dress suit” from 15 years ago. But she’s 55. Employed by the beauty industry, enjoying plenty of predictable irony, Linda isn’t safe, despite her success. It could all be a standard, if satisfying, drama with important issues and depressing topicality. But it’s far from that. Michael Longhurst’s direction is smooth and Es Devlin’s budget-busting set a two-tier rotating triumph, combining work and home, with a moat for extra symbolism. And, excitingly, Skinner takes risks with her script that stops the show being too polished.

For much of the first act, Linda is the only well-rounded presence. Other characters are oddly transparent – a brave move – making them cringe-worthy vehicles for Skinner’s toe-curling humour. The men come off especially badly: a new-age hipster intern (Jaz Deol), insulting boss (Ian Redford) and mid-life crisis husband (Dominic Mafham). Can men really be this crass? Don’t answer. But best of all is Linda’s new rival at work, a younger woman, naturally, who you’ll love to hate, with Amy Beth Hayes’s performance guaranteed to make your blood boil.

Karla Crome and Imogen Byron
Karla Crome and Imogen Byron

It’s when flesh is put on the bones of other roles that the play falters. Mother and daughter relationships are insightfully probed, with clever Shakespearean nods. And as Linda’s daughter’s, Karla Crome and Imogen Byron grow up impressively before our eyes. But by now we just want Linda. It’s her late realisation that she has “ta’en too little care” outside the office, rather than her daughter’s plights (these alone could make another play) that interest. Despite Longhurst’s valiant efforts, searching deeper issues slows the pace too severely. Thankfully, a final flourish of outrage shows Skinner as outlandish once more. She is surely not a writer to be messed with.

Until 9 January 2016

www.royalcourt.com

Photos by Johan Persson

“Light Shining In Buckinghamshire” at the National Theatre

History buffs look out; Caryl Churchill’s English Civil War play is a different kind of story about past times, concerning common people and heavyweight ideas, rather than Great Men.

Lynsey Turner’s punchy direction has design supremo Es Devlin’s work as a backdrop, moving from sumptuous to stark. A community company of local residents, whose participation fits the spirit of the play, mean this an enormous cast. Turbulent history, with “men in a mist”, is evoked by scale.

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Ashley McGuire

Trystan Gravelle and Nicholas Gleaves’s stand out, as two soldiers in Cromwell’s army, with increasingly divergent ideals, forming one of few traditional story arcs. Ashley McGuire and Amanda Lawrence impress by giving their roles an immediate power. Many of  the short scenes most of the play is made up of are strong but the culminating effect is underwhelming.
With politicians all around at the moment, do we need to hear canvassing from the seventeenth century? Levellers with manifestos, proto-Communist Diggers in, of all places, Weybridge and Ranters, reinforcing the period’s religious fanaticism. The ideas are radical at least. And Churchill makes these thoughts from the past live…for the most part.

When her exegesis falls it’s disastrous. A scene on the Putney Debate, where soldiers argued with Cromwell, is so boring it’s likely to be the most memorable thing about this, overall, commendable work.

Until 22 June 2015

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photos by Marc Brenner

“The Nether” at the Duke of York’s Theatre

A welcome transfer from the Royal Court, Jennifer Haley’s play The Nether is a taut sci-fi thriller that dissects the power of the internet in the (near) future. In a parallel world of virtual reality ‘realms’, so intoxicating are the dark fantasies acted out that punters threaten to become ‘shadows’ – volunteering to give up their lives to live online instead.

One online realm, catering to paedophiles, is envisioned by Es Devlin’s remarkable design, supported by Luke Halls’ video work. Those tasked with policing the line between the sick fantasy world and reality become caught up in an uncomfortably exciting journey.

Skillfully directed by Jeremy Herrin, The Nether is well performed, with Amanda Hale as Detective Morris, joined by David Calder, Ivanno Jeremiah and Stanley Townsend as troubled participants of the online investigation.

The Nether is a play of big ideas and important questions. What effect do online personas have? And how can fantasies online, between consenting adults, become illegal? Suspicions about technology are defined forcefully by Morris. Yet alternative arguments are presented with a conviction that makes you queasy. There’s the fascinating potential for corporate corruption, as the programming that creates the super sensory realm could prove lucrative for those that host these worlds – is our detective interested in the crime or the code?

Haley takes sci-fi seriously and, as a result, so do we. The Nether is a convincing world with minimal jargon that serves as the perfect base for difficult themes. Even better, the play is a gripping drama: a strong detective story, structured around exciting interrogations, with twists and tensions that leave you unsettled.

Until 25 April 2015

www.royalcourttheatre.com

“The Master and Margarita” at the Barbican

Mikhail Bulagakov’s classic novel, The Master and Margarita, is a work known for its complexity. A satire, full of politics and philosophy, it is marked by what has come to be known as magical realism. With the action moving speedily between the trial of Christ and Stalin’s Moscow, and a cast including the devil and his cat, it’s easy to see why many would regard it as unstageable. But Simon McBurney, and his theatre company Complicite, love a challenge and this production shows that, as they approach their 30th anniversary, they are at the top of their game: drawing out the theatricality in the book, enjoying the farce, and injecting drama into the fantasy elements of the story.

Marked by a level of accomplishment that is truly breathtaking the action is presented with invention and wit. The set, designed by Es Devlin, is a facade of houses onto which some of the finest video work I’ve seen on stage is screened. Not content with this, McBurney uses the floor of the stage, filming live and projecting onto the walls; it’s appropriately disorientating and makes the production seem bigger than the theatre itself. The lighting from Paul Anderson is an essential part of the show, used with intelligence to great effect.

But no matter how stunning the show looks it would be just a bag of tricks without the acting that accompanies it. The text, devised by McBurney with Edward Kemp and the company, moves at a great pace, with short scenes that require instant emotions in surreal circumstances. Tim McMullan is so powerful as Pontius Pilate he seems to anchor the whole show and, taking the title role of The Master, Paul Rhys gives a stunning performance. Susan Lynch, who plays Margarita, shows great bravery (not least since she spends a good deal of the play naked) with the emotional rawness she brings to the part. Lynch and the company manage to make the story of The Master and Margarita, and the idea that is should appear on stage, believable.

Until 19 January 2013

barbican.org

Photo by Bohumil Kostohryz

Written 21 December 2012 for The London Magazine