Tag Archives: Hampstead Theatre

“Mary” at the Hampstead Theatre

The frequency of dramatisations and the little learning many of us have about Tudor history make a serious new play about Mary Queen of Scots rather difficult. And Rona Munro’s new play is very serious indeed.

The playwright is an expert. Her James Plays cycle, looking at earlier Scottish history, were a thrilling epic when they visited London. As the latest instalment of an exciting ongoing project, Mary stands alone and shows a master at work. But it is notably starker – as reflected in Ashley Martin-Davis’ design and Roxana Silbert’s restrained direction – and a model of economy.

Munro takes only two moments in Mary’s story – her escape from and then imprisonment by her third husband, the Earl of Bothwell. The thesis is that the Queen was abducted and raped. Munro highlights how impossible it is to know what really went on. The next bold move is that Mary herself doesn’t speak. The play is more about how she is interpreted – and used. And it’s a sorry tale that generates much sympathy and anger.

The politician James Melville is the focus. We see him powerful and then broken, with the moral dilemma of how those in power handle cases of sexual abuse full of contemporary resonance. This is a complex role given a strong realisation by Douglas Henshall. Melville is smart, cynical and a stranger to modesty. Seeing his regrets and justifications make great drama. For all that, Henshall’s ability to bring out the play’s dry humour impresses most (and shows a further skill that Munro excels at).

Rona Morison in Mary at The Hampstead Theatre
Rona Morison

Melville’s interlocutors are fictional characters called Thompson and Agnes. They illustrate realpolitik and religious conviction respectively but still manage to feel three-dimensional. Their passions don’t make the roles easy to perform (Agnes has a damascene moment that might make you pause), but these are strong performances from Rona Morison and Brian Vernel that take into account how a small contact with power can make a big difference.

The three characters talk and talk. It is remarkable how much excitement Silbert maintains in such a static play. The movement comes with minds changing, with characters persuading. Motives surrounding love and power shift and we are left questioning how sensible or selfish each position and character might be. As for the biggest achievement, time will tell… Munro might have managed to change how we think about Mary herself. The play that takes her name is certainly good enough to do so.

Until 26 November 2022

www.hampseadtheatre.com

Photos by Manuel Harlan

“The Breach” at the Hampstead Theatre

The striking use of words might be the best way to consider Naomi Wallace’s play. With an autodidact heroine, who reads encyclopaedia, the vocabulary in the play is verbose. Lots of cliché and colloquialism, along with arresting imagery that mixes the obscure and the mundane, make the play poetic and Wallace’s voice unique. The script is erudite but also obtuse and enervating. And a little word overpowers other descriptions – The Breach is odd.

The story the words are telling isn’t without drama. Scenes alternate between four teenagers, including Jude and her brother Acton, in 1977 and 1991. A bizarre, cultish competition to prove the friendship between three boys, which turns Jude into a victim, unfolds with tension and unexpected repercussions. The challenge is for the boys to “top my love” with sacrifices that bind them together. But the results, let alone the motivation, are bizarre.

Sarah Frankcom’s direction is keen to preserve the tone of the piece – respectful and controlled with a restraint that results in a static production. Frankcom is sensitive to Wallace’s tight structure but the play itself is cluttered with ideas and detail. Connections to time and place, politics and economics, feel thrown in and the arguments around consent are poorly developed.

There’s no doubt the scenario is powerful. Without a plot spoiler, Wallace tries to remove physical violence from sexual abuse – to question what difference results. But using exaggeration to bring home the cruelty with which men can treat women is a blunt tool. And Jude’s reactions to what happens to her simply baffle. Even the way Jude and her brother mourn their father (another ill-explored topic) by rolling on the ground and imagining his final moments, are hard to swallow (however stylish).

There are casualties to Wallace’s approach – the performers. While the seven strong cast are professional, their characters are mere mouthpieces for the playwright. It’s only Jasmine Blackborow and Shannon Tarbet, who both play Jude, that manage to inject emotion or even much interest. The male characters simply make you squirm. The Breach isn’t for the fainthearted and has a haunting quality but it is too enigmatic for anybody’s good.

Until 4 June 2022

www.hampsteadtheatre.com

Photo by Johan Persson

“The Forest” at the Hampstead Theatre

Few will rate this new play from Florian Zeller as his best. But a world première from the successful French writer is a feather in the cap of any theatre. Add a superb cast and skilled direction from Jonathan Kent and the show becomes a hot ticket.

Zeller likes to play with an audience, and you either love or loathe his intellectual games. His obsession with truth and family relations, with reality and mental illness, are familiar from hit shows such The Father and The Son. In The Forest, additional surreal touches and elements of a thriller make this story of infidelity original and entertaining.

“Sad and strange”

The Forest has three romantic affairs, well, two, really, with three acts containing repetitions as well as alternate outcomes. All the action is engendered by one man’s perspective. It’s less complex than it sounds (thanks to Kent’s disciplined approach). The idea of a kaleidoscope (cribbed from the programme) is worth bearing in mind, but it’s still often wilfully baffling.

Gina Mckee in The Forest credit The Other Richard
Gina McKee

There’s a lot of suffering in the play. A strong performance from Gina McKee as The Wife shows suspicion and concern. Angel Coulby is great as The Girlfriend, a deliberately opaque role. That this woman is perceived as unstable and dangerous comes to the fore. Both characters are shown as they relate to the lead protagonist, and increasingly so, which gives the text dynamism as well as making it uncomfortable.

If we struggle to find an emotional response to the play, this could well be Zeller’s intention. Toby Stephens leads the action alongside Paul McGann as The Man, a character so important that he needs two performers. Interpretations are welcome; but it seems we are watching a mental breakdown, fantasies and all – his mistress kills herself (or was she murdered?).

“Abandoned in a forest”

Coulby’s character is described as “difficult to manage”. And that isn’t going to endear this Man to anyone. The status of this wealthy, much-respected figure is emphasised. Is our sympathy for him a challenge? Stephens manages to convey grief and tension, and it’s hard not to feel for someone so lost.  Especially when the imagined therapist/interrogator he talks to is a spooky Man in Black, exquisitely depicted by Finbar Lynch.

Zeller’s audience might feel a little lost at times, too. Instruction for the distinct zones of Anna Fleischle’s design is that “interpenetration” occurs. Thankfully, this is subtly handled by Kent. Hugh Vanstone’s lighting is excellent. The play is a puzzle, stylishly set (quite literally… there’s some lovely furniture here). As delusions escalate (let’s just say we end up with a dead deer on stage), you can’t help feeling it all seems a great deal of effort for a simple moral message.

Until 12 March 2022

www.hampsteadtheatre.com

Photos by The Other Richard

“Peggy For You” at the Hampstead Theatre

Alan Plater’s 1999 play tackles two subjects. As a day in the life of theatrical legend Margaret Ramsay, it’s about a formidable and fascinating woman. And Peggy For You is also a play about plays. This strong revival, carefully directed by Richard Wilson, gives both topics their due: both are interesting but I’ll admit to preferring one far more than the other.

Both Plater and Peggy have plenty to say about plays. And Art with a capital A. Tricks and techniques of the trade are plentiful, some of them are funny (even for those of us who don’t work in the theatre). But the insights are heavy handed. It’s hard not to make this subject feel rarified. Meta-theatrical moments are clumsy.

Plater shows us three ages of the playwright. There’s the newcomer, the man of the moment and a former most-promising but now out of fashion. Trouble is, it feels all these descriptions should have a capital letter. The characters are well played by Josh Finan, Jos Vantyler and Trevor Fox. But each role is slim. Only Fox’s old-timer has much to say or do.

Plater suggests there is a high price to pay for plays yet doesn’t explore this idea enough. Another author kills himself. But this offstage character isn’t vivid enough to have much impact. What interests is Peggy’s cold reaction to the death. Indeed, all the way through the play, it’s Peggy who interests most.

A great source of anecdotes and one-liners, Plater gives a wonderful depiction of his own agent. Explicit that the play is “a pack of lies”, the strategy aims at creating a portrait close to the truth. His Peggy is complex and entertaining, the depiction cleverly affectionate while acknowledging her many faults.

Taking this starring role, Tamsin Greig’s performance is phenomenal. It would be all too easy to exaggerate this larger than life woman. Greig, while always funny, shows incredible control. Volatile emotions and a sharp intellect are clear, imperiousness is balanced with vulnerability. Ramsay was a woman to watch and Greig mirrors this – the performance makes for compulsive viewing. A bully the wrong side of loveable eccentricity, a passion for danger gives the character edge. Does Peggy’s commitment to the theatre excuse it all? No, but Peggy will choose a pub theatre over the National, and who doesn’t admire that?

Until 29 January 2022

www.hampsteadtheatre.com

Photo by Helen Maybanks

“”night Mother” at the Hampstead Theatre

This revival of Marsha Norman’s Pulitzer Prize winning play offers the chance to see brilliant performances from Stockard Channing and Rebecca Night. But be warned – the play deals with the subject of suicide in a provocative and strange fashion.

Night takes the role of Jessie who decides to tell her mother, played by Stockard, that the evening the play recounts will be her last: she calmly reveals that she is going to kill herself. She’s planned it all, including telling her Mama all about it.

Questions arise quickly. Does Jessie have the right to take her own life as she argues? Do her reasons make sense? And what of this sharing. Can that be rational or even, in some way, kind?

It is the powerfully calm tone of the play that proves striking. Credit to Channing and Night for their consistency. With touches of dark humour, the frank discussions, flipping from mundane domestic details to family secrets, avoid histrionics.

night Mother gains much of its power from a cool look at life in a small community. But does Jessie have too many troubles? Epileptic, divorced with a troubled child and agoraphobic – her problems cloud the play’s cerebral intentions. Jessie’s anhedonia is heartbreaking but make her arguments unreliable.

You may have sympathy for Jessie and her desperate wish for control. But the pain she inflicts on her mother is unquestionable. Channing excels in showing her character is far from the “plain country girl” she claims, revealing a repressed intelligence and wit. Trying all manner of persuasion, cajoling then cruel, Channing is awesome to watch.

There is a bravery to Norman’s writing and Roxanna Silbert’s impeccable direction that is commendable. And an originality that impresses – trying to be objective about such an emotive topic is beyond me. Far from easy viewing, ‘night Mother is hard to recommend but is an evening sure to live in the memory.

Until 4 December 2021

www.hampsteadtheatre.co.uk

Photo by Marc Brenner

“The Memory of Water” at the Hampstead Theatre

As part of the “Hampstead Originals” season, celebrating significant pieces that started off at the venue, this new production reminds us why Shelagh Stephenson’s 1996 play is popular. A satisfying comedy drama and a gift to performers, The Memory of Water has plenty to please.

Within the scenario of three sisters together before their mother’s funeral, Stephenson injects a surprising amount of comedy with a superb ear for dialogue and strong characters. Take your pick from doctor Mary, health food entrepreneur Teresa or the troubled, younger, Catherine. Each has an appeal. And there are three top notch performances to enjoy – from Laura Rogers, Lucy Black and Carolina Main – each a careful detailed study.

The Memory of Water at the Hampstead Theatre
Lucy Black, Carolina Main and Laura Rogers

There are good jokes, inappropriate reactions and a down to earth humour that is great fun. Stephenson examines sibling relations with confidence and risqué insight. Meanwhile the theme of memory proves stimulating (if not particularly subtle when it comes to Mary’s research into amnesia) as the sisters’ recollections of their past, and their mother, diverge.

After the interval, The Memory of Water gets bolder and darker. Painful truths and shocking secrets are revealed. The grief within the play becomes multi-layered. And we start to take Catherine’s health problems more seriously. Harsh words are spoken and the action is frequently gripping.

It is with quieter moments that director Alice Hamilton’s command of the play is clearest. While the comedy is strong (with Catherine’s tantrums, Teresa’s neurosis and Mary’s deadpan lines) it’s the pacing of more dramatic scenes that really impresses. Ever alert to the space the text needs, and aided by Johanna Town’s lighting design, Hamilton guides the audience magnificently. Given Sam Yates’ success with the venue’s previous show, Hampstead Theatre is clearly a home for directing talent.

The Memory of Water at the Hampstead Theatre
Kulvinder Ghir and Adam James

While there’s no doubt that The Memory of Water is a play focused on women, and their relationships with one another, Stephenson deals just as well with the men we meet. Indeed, even the girls’ father, long dead, is a vivid presence. Again, there are great roles for Teresa’s husband and Mary’s married lover that Kulvinder Ghir and Adam James do well with.

A final strength with The Memory of Water comes from the ghostly role of the girls’ mother, Vi. Played by Lizzy McInnerny, with a particularly fine study of her character’s accent, her interactions with Rogers were my favourite scenes. Vi is far more than a foil for her daughter: gifted her own voice, showing us a previous generation, and adding a twist to what we have seen. Vi is funny and hurt while her maternal legacy and suffering from Alzheimer’s takes us to the heart of the play’s theme. Stephenson’s description of the cruel disease, that Vi feels “broken into islands”, is brilliant and moving. As Vi’s influence on her daughters becomes clearer, McInnerny becomes magisterial. Despite Mary’s request, Vi is “never” really going to leave her daughter; like the play, she is a woman to remember.

Until 16 October 2021

www.hampsteadtheatre.com

Photos by Helen Murray

“The Two Character Play” at Hampstead Theatre

What a play. This late work from Tennessee Williams, which premiered at Hampstead back in 1967, is a mind-blowing exploration of fear and metatheatricality. And what a production. Director Sam Yates and accomplished performers Kate O’Flynn and Zubin Varla command this hugely complex script. Yates makes a strong argument for Williams’ vision and his precocious eccentricities, making them theatrically compelling and appropriately terrifying.

The scenario is far from simple. Two actor siblings, struggling in many ways, perform a play within a play. Felice and Clare are vivid creations, like the roles they adopt. But as The Two Character Play we watch carries on, it reflects, mimics and then – maybe – shapes their lives. Felice has written the piece, but it is changing as they they both perform it. Oh, and it has no end. Don’t worry, nobody is more confused than the characters themselves.

The brother and sister in the play are trapped at home – I did wonder if the play was chosen for staging during lockdown – while Felice and Clare are trapped in the theatre (quite literally). The claustrophobia is intense and grows as we learn about all four characters. Trauma and phobia multiply. The use of stage – which seems simply huge one moment and confining the next – is brilliant.

Two-Character-Play-Hampstead-photo-by-Marc-Brenner
Kate O’Flynn and Zubin Varla

Williams’ language is a wonder. The poetic imagery, so full of the senses, means some lines stun. And the metatheatrical references, handled with bravado, include addressing the “stranger than strange” audience and speaking stage directions out loud. Clare’s live ‘edit’ of the script is signalled by a key played on the piano; O’Flynn even approaching the instrument becomes charged.

Yates brings just the right amount of lucidity to proceedings. With themes common to Williams’ plays, there’s a suggestion of self-parody that is often funny. O’Flynn has an exquisite delivery of some deadpan lines. Best of all, a sense of spontaneity is injected into a script that you could easily argue is contrived. Rather, the script itself seems alive!

Make no mistake – the mood is forbidding. Williams used dreams in his work throughout his life. But here we have a nightmare. Fear of performing is only the start as the characters’ lives, and their show, descend into darkness. Improvisations are fraught as the story unfolds to becomes more and more disturbing. Varla makes Felice a hugely sympathetic character – his performance is deeply moving. But the show is downright scary with a last half hour full of tension… and a gun.

All this drama is brought to the stage magnificently by Yates. With all manner of lighting and sound effects (Lee Curran and Dan Balfour) along with live video recording and projections (Akhila Krishnan). And Rosanna Vize’s set is perfect for the destabilising, fluid script. The Two Character Play is like being inside the minds of several mad people. Taking us into that condition makes unforgettable, amazing theatre.

Until 28 August 2021

www.hampsteadtheatre.com

Photos by Marc Brenner

“The Dumb Waiter” at the Hampstead Theatre

First praise here goes to whoever prepared this venue for a socially distanced audience. Instead of depressing signs telling you where not to sit, photographs from previous performances are used on empty seats. What a lovely, colourful, touch. A nod to heritage is appropriate, given Hampstead Theatre’s 60th anniversary celebrations, which this Harold Pinter classic is a part of. And I get to say that I sat next to Anna Maxwell Martin in the theatre… kind of.

Of course, any theatre deserves praise for putting on a show at the moment. But getting to see this short piece, between long lockdowns and tier adjustments, is especially welcome as it is directed by the talented Alice Hamilton. It’s a story of hired killers, waiting for… something. Hamilton’s direction is confident and expert, respecting Pinter’s nuance and drama and appreciative of the playwright but not intimidated by him.

Shane Zaza and Alec Newman in The Dumb Waiter at Hampstead Theatre credit Helen Maybanks
Shane Zaza and Alec Newman

Hamilton has secured fine performances from a talented duo: Alec Newman plays “senior partner” Ben, seemingly in charge of Shane Zaza’s Gus. Seemingly, as he knows as little about what is going on as his more anxious colleague. Through their skilled performances, the audience shares their confusion. A vague sense that whatever organisation they work for, and the enigmatic Wilson who is in charge, is being “tightened up” is compounded by bizarre messages the two men receive. What’s going on, and what’s happened previously, is never fully revealed, but glances at the men’s history prove chilling.

The production never overplays the more surreal touches from Pinter. That someone is playing “games” with Ben and Gus becomes more sinister as a result. The sense of menace is aided by James Perkins’ set, the “windowless dump” all action takes place in. We’ve all spent a little too long indoors lately, but under Hamilton’s steely control the claustrophobic tension in The Dumb Waiter builds marvellously – this is a director very much in charge.

Until 20 January 2020

www.hampsteadtheatre.com

“#AIWW: The Arrest of Ai Weiwei” from #HampsteadTheatreAtHome

This collaboration with China’s most famous contemporary artist, Ai Weiwei, marked something of coup for Hampstead Theatre back in 2013. Adapting the account in Barnaby Martin’s book, Hanging Man, playwright Howard Brenton’s clearly political and cleverly dramatic account of Weiwei’s Kafkaesque detention in 2011 is surprisingly entertaining and serves its subject admirably.

Weiwei is the star of the piece – convincingly so – and the show makes a terrific role for Benedict Wong, who conveys the artist’s magnetism perfectly, while also making him an approachable figure. Aided by Christopher Goh, Andrew Koji, Orion Lee and David Lee-Jones, as those who imprison him, his captors are given an identity and humanity, while the discussions about his art are exciting.

Director James MacDonald works hard to inject energy – this is, after all, a show about a man locked in a room. But the idea behind Ashley Martin Davis’ set – a giant packing case that might hold artwork, with accompanying supernumeraries and crew acting as unconvincing galleristas – feels unnecessary. Likewise, touches of the metatheatrical are forced: the suggestion that the imprisonment becomes the artist’s “greatest work”, not lost on those in power during a rare moment of perspicacity, is too unsubtle. And scenes that show the politicians behind events, with uncomfortably sinister roles for Junix Inocian and David Tse, are low points. These scenes are a marked contrast to the authenticity Wong and the source material bring.

The surprise comes with the humour in the piece. There are plenty of laughs at how crazed Weiwei’s interrogations were. Accused of murder, immorality, but ultimately being a “swindler”, it’s almost a shame those imprisoning him aren’t given a stronger argument… for the sake of the drama rather than Weiwei, of course. The tension of his awful imprisonment is conveyed, and Wong does very well with this. And Brenton gives the interrogations an impressive poetic touch, as repeated accusations contain a rhyme if no reason. But it’s Weiwei’s cool spirit – best reflected in that wry humour – that shows him unbroken and inspirational.

www.hampsteadtheatre.com

Until 3 May 2020

Photo by Stephen Cummiskey

“Drawing the Line” from #HampsteadTheatreAtHome

The history and politics of the Indian Partition may be messy as well as tragic, but this play about the five weeks leading up to independence by Howard Benton, first seen in 2014, is a neat one. The “impossible task” of dividing a subcontinent and the creation of Pakistan is made into a traditional, efficient and fascinating drama.

The sensible move is to make such a global event a personal story, focusing on Cyril Radcliffe the judge who literally drew the lines on the map. It makes a starring role that (the sadly late) Tom Beard shines with and gives the audience an effective focus. Beard makes a fine narrator with a character that’s engaging and self-deprecating. There’s a believable touch of ego behind a likeable man. That this unusual innocent abroad knows “bugger all about India” is historically awful, but it endears him as a dramatic character. As pressure mounts Beard gets better and better, showing Radcliffe’s vulnerability and determination. As it dawns on him that that he is a “patsy”, and a lonely one at that, we are shown an honourable man it is hard not to feel for.

There are problems with the other characters – a collection of famous historical figures – that the cast struggles with valiantly. While the future Pakistani leader Muhammad Ali Jinnah (Silas Carson, pictured top) comes across as too manic, Indian’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru is too much the consummate politician. Louis Mountbatten, last Viceroy of India, and his wife are given a lot of work to do and, while Andrew Havill and Lucy Black give strong performances, it’s difficult to care about their characters. The staff helping these (too self-consciously) political giants prove more interesting: there is strong work from Nikesh Patel and Brendan Patricks, whose characters work for Radcliffe but have partisan agendas and follow their own consciences.

Benton generally keeps anecdote to a minimum with some surprisingly light touches. With Howard Davies’ skilful direction, the action is clear and interest never flags. Davies also excels at creating a sense of tension with minimal staging or effects. The only slip comes with Radcliffe’s reading of the Bhagavad Gita, a potentially interesting thread that seems bungled, with a brief appearance by Krishna himself.

Understandably, Drawing the Line struggles for a conclusion. The aim of an “honourable end to Empire”, given hindsight, can’t create much tension. But Brenton isn’t scared of scandal or conspiracy and he uses both well. There’s the militant Gandhi and the Mountbattens’ private lives to spice things up. How much both really influenced or could have changed events seems open questions: flippant as both titbits may appear, they make for good theatre.

www.hampsteadtheatre.com

Available until 19 April 2020

Photos by Catherine Ashmore