Tag Archives: James MacDonald

“#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

“Wild” from #HampsteadTheatreAtHome

The first of three free streamed recordings on offer, Mike Bartlett’s 2016 play takes inspiration from Edward Snowden and revelations of government spying on its citizens. This superb play shows Bartlett’s characteristically calculated skill and cool intelligence.

Handled impeccably by director James Macdonald, for a while, Wild looks like a modest two-hander. The Snowden character, renamed Andrew, meets his contact from what we assume is WikiLeaks in a Russian hotel room. What happens to a man right after he becomes the world’s biggest ever whistleblower? It’s a smart little twist and what follows is often clever, and funny, provoking plenty to debate.

The next move is to make ‘George’, sent to represent Julian Assange, quite bonkers. Andrew’s rescuer arrives in tottering high heels and with plenty of provisos, making a great role for Caolifhionn Dunne, who gets a lot of laughs. If the performance seems a bit broad on a screen, it’s clear it would inject energy on a static stage.

Questioning Andrew’s actions and motivations, playing with the espionage surrounding the situation (which also introduces considerable threat) continues when another George appears. This time played by John Mackay, whose dour presentation is just as good as Dunne’s mania. The play takes on a surreal paranoia with simple effectiveness. 

In the role of Andrew, Jack Farthing’s response shows how carefully his performance has been prepared; increasing the panic nicely and adding an intriguing depth to the role. Yet the play still has an economy to it that’s impressive. Only later does extravagance arrive.

Bartlett is not a playwright shy of exaggeration and this comes into its own in Wild. Conspiracy theories pile up, moving tantalisingly close to spiralling out of control, and, as the arguments become more abstract, Bartlett’s tone turns impassioned and aggressive. Both of the Georges become demonic figures, whose power is undoubted, while Farthing makes his character’s lot lamentable. 

For final praise, there’s a plot spoiler. Designer Miriam Buether (with a consulting illusionist, Ben Hart, also credited) provides a set with a surprise – it collapses and the floor rotates 90 degrees. As a literal metaphor for Andrew’s disorientation it may not be subtle – but it’s brilliant theatre and leaves a stunning impression.

www.hampsteadtheatre.com

Available until 5 April 2020

Photos by Stephen Cummiskey

“The Night of the Iguana” at the Noël Coward Theatre

With a drunken defrocked priest battling his demons, while two women fight over his future, this play is classic Tennessee Williams. Brimming with disturbed characters and melancholy abstract observations, it may be verbose (it has a three-hour running time), but this fan lapped it up. And with the production’s star casting – a triple whammy of big-hitters – it’s a quality night out that deserves success.

Clive Owen

Clive Owen takes the lead, filling big shoes as the not-so-Reverend Shannon, a part made famous by Richard Burton in the 1964 film. Owen seems uncomfortable at first but grows into the part and always manages a kind of charm; that’s quite something, given Shannon’s predatory violent abuse of women (no, the play hasn’t aged well in that respect). There are plenty of references to Shannon being a gentleman, and he could be played aloof, but Owen ignores this to give us a rough-and-ready chancer. Even the “crack up” that Shannon suffers is moving as we’re taken through the range of rage and infantilism that Williams too studiously lists. That Owen ends up overshadowed by his female co-stars is down to Williams more than him.

Anna Gunn

The iconic status of certain roles by Williams may have blinded us to the variety of his writing female parts, and here a blunt contrast between Hannah and Maxine proves illuminating. It’s a conflict full of ambiguity, notably between a spinster and a widow (roles that both characters play tellingly with). Anna Gunn is Maxine, manager of the hotel the play is set in. A “bigger than life” personality, she offers Shannon fun and vitality, but at what cost? Gunn makes her character’s loneliness, one of the play’s main themes, a subtle undertone. What Maxine would get out of a partnership with Shannon remains an intriguing question. But it’s Lia Williams as Hannah Jelkes who lights up the play. Twee one moment, a “cool hustler” the next, this is a magnetic performance of a mesmerising character. Has Shannon met his match? Does Hannah care either way? Carefully revealing the characters’ own troubles, this is a picture of eccentricity that Williams – the actress more than the author – grounds in real life. No matter how bizarre Jelkes or her aged poet grandfather (another strong performance here from Julian Glover) may be, they feel recognisable – and not just exaggerations in a Tennessee Williams play.

Lia Williams and Julian Glover

Controlling some of the playwright’s often inspired flights of fancy means plenty of credit for director James Macdonald. One approach is to embrace the offbeat humour, making the play surprisingly funny, with both Owen and Williams excelling here. Another technique is for a muted feel that roots the play in its bizarre love triangle and provides necessary focus. The Night of the Iguana is overpopulated – not just with that titular reptile – and nothing can redeem a group of German tourists who make random appearances for not-at-all-light relief. But Macdonald handles the numbers well. The talk of “spooks” who haunt Shannon is made to feel practical, a dramatic plot point rather than overplayed metaphor. Macdonald clarifies a battle between reality and the fantastic. The latter is Shannon’s favourite word, as Jelkes wryly notes, but it ends up serving as a good summation of the show overall.

Until 29 September 2019

www.delfontmackintosh.co.uk

Photos by Brinkhoff.Moegenburg

“One for Sorrow” at the Royal Court

If you’ve ever used #opendoor in the charitable spirit of helping a stranger, then Cordelia Lynn’s new play presents a challenge. Using the scenario of a terrorist attack, with one middle-class family trying to be of use, Lynn hosts a struggle between generations and exposes tensions in our society with a degree of honesty that’s as uncomfortable and insightful as it is funny.

Emma and Bill are the baby boomers who open their home to John, who is in need of safety for the night. But the invitation to stay is issued by their daughters. And it doesn’t take long for suspicions about John’s backpack to foul the atmosphere. How quickly did you wonder why he wouldn’t take off his coat?

Emma and Bill were idealistic… sorry, are idealistic… but “realistic, too, now”. All that liberal angst and first-world privilege makes these great roles for Sarah Woodward – truly commanding – and Neil Dudgeon, whose emasculation is the stuff of Daily Mail nightmares. Full of fear, then guilt about that fear, they fall over themselves to accommodate, and stand their ground. Lynn mines the couple’s parenting methods with chilling skill.

Their two bundles of joy are Imogen and Chloe, played with aplomb by Pearl Chanda and Kitty Archer, straight from Millennial casting. “We’re not girls, we’re women,” they cry – instantly and in unison. Correct, of course, but parroted? Their naivety comes close to incredible, and Lynn treads a fine line in making them believable. Or perhaps it’s the other way around? Younger audiences might feel that it’s the parents who are caricatures. Wherever your sympathies, lie Lynn plays with them to perfection.

Irfan Shamji
Irfan Shamji

There is a stumble, with the role of the family’s caller, who inspects… but doesn’t bear much inspection himself. Capably performed by Irfan Shamji, it’s clear an effort has been made to make John more than a device, but he is a still too much of a foil (an uncomfortable irony for the noble intentions here). But this is small blip in an outstanding script, and director James Macdonald does a superb job throughout, injecting considerable tension that adds a charge to the comedy.

The delicious satire would be enough to recommend the play, but Lynn has loftier aims. Chanda’s character comes to dominate after the interval, and her performance goes from strength to strength. Ideas take over as One For Sorrow becomes more intense, increasingly bizarre and didactic. The potential relationship between Imogen and John forms a kind of test for cultures. Think A Passage to India with overtones of Adam and Eve! It makes the literal incomprehension between them – magpies come into it and it’s too brilliant to spoil – ultimately bleak. The suggestion that our comfortable homes and lives may be not just vulnerable, but actually the catalyst for danger, is a stretch. But the writing is of such consistent quality that it deserves the utmost respect.

Until 11 August 2018

www.royalcourttheatre.com

Photo by Johan Persson

“John” at the National Theatre

Annie Baker’s new play is probably the best show at the Dorfman Theatre since… the last play by Annie Baker was staged there. This is a major writer with a unique voice, forging works of originality, distinguished by intelligence, humour and a distinctive quietude.
John has the bare bones of a plot: a couple, whose relationship is on the rocks, visit a guest house for a weekend break. It’s a more a scenario than a story. Not a lot happens and you spend plenty of time watching people eat biscuits. But the play is so fecund with ellipses and questions it feels perfectly replete.

Jenny and Elias are the solipsistic couple on the verge of breaking up, Anneika Rose and Tom Mothersdale deliver crafted portrayals of these neurotic Millennials, bringing out a lot of gentle jokes. Neither is very appealing, with cares and concerns that are all of the moment. The real stars of the play are the two much older characters: the B&B’s owner, Mertis, and her friend Genevieve. Marylouise Burke plays the kooky proprietor to perfection, being adorably endearing and deeply mysterious. It’s an appropriately detailed performance, full of nuance and control. In her smaller role, June Watson excels in delivering the jokes with dead-pan perfection. Don’t rush to the bar too quickly after the second act, as Genevieve’s monologue after the curtain has fallen is not to be missed.

 June Watson and Marylouise Burke

The giant red curtain is opened and closed by Burke for each act, nicely summarising Baker’s extreme and playful approach to naturalism. The dialogue rings true, even when there are flights of fancy, and the pacing is slow, emphasised by a ticking clock and Peter Mumford’s lighting design. Restraint is the key, which places the burden on the cast and director James Macdonald. Resisting temptation, not an action feels rushed, as that would break the spell. John has a strange magic.

This is a three-hour play that doesn’t feel a moment too long. The one-room set with its excess of gewgaws comes to fascinate as it embodies Mertis’ object-orientated ontology. From the dolls she collects to the sunsets she contemplates, all matter is alive. Talk of ghosts and the battle of Gettysburg, along with personal histories full of playful parallels, are all toyed with – and debunked. Downright puzzles and unanswered questions abound. Here is a real naturalism – a new kind – that creates a play unlike any other.

Until 3 March 2018

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Stephen Cummiskey

“Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” at the Harold Pinter Theatre

Casting doesn’t get more exciting than this. For the first revival of Edward Albee’s masterpiece since his death last year, Imelda Staunton and Conleth Hill take on the iconic roles of George and Martha, the feuding couple whose frustrated lives on a New England college campus are full of twisted alcohol-fuelled fantasies. Imogen Poots and Luke Treadaway, as the younger Honey and Nick, join them for a party – unfortunates drawn into troubled lives for a fight night they will never forget. The stage brims over with talent for this astounding play.

George and Martha’s “exercise” of combat is frightening. Their aim at one another is practised and potent, themed on his stagnant career and her drinking and adultery. Their “games” escalate ferociously – and they start out pretty vicious. Staunton and Hill convey the complicity between the couple perfectly, who display a mix of resignation and excitement over their perverse sport. The final scene, revealing who is really the most damaged, shows how carefully constructed both performances have been. Yet it is the younger cast who offer the most insight into the play. The 1966 film shows how easily these roles can be eclipsed, but Honey and Nick are more than sacrificial pawns. Potts and Treadaway work to create a convincing relationship, a foil to their elders. Potts does a great drunk (never to be underestimated) and Treadaway adds an edge to his “smug” character with cold ambition and repressed physicality.

Luke Treadaway and Imogen Poots
Luke Treadaway and Imogen Poots

Yet the production is not an unqualified success. It’s too funny. Yes, Albee’s text is full of wit but here the humour is blunted and misogyny unquestioned. Director James Macdonald hasn’t mistakenly stumbled into his approach and clearly gets what he wants – big belly laughs. But it is a disappointment. Take a moment of physical violence (noting how rare and strange it is) and Honey’s reaction to it: Potts gets a roar of laughter but this should be a moment of raw bestiality. Macdonald has stripped the play of surreal touches, such as George’s ironic obsession with order. Deliberate mistakes, over job titles, locations and dates, are treated glibly when they should be unsettling. Too much of the comedy is treated as sparkling and fresh – it should be fetid and uncomfortable. George and Martha’s “flagellation” is sordid stuff, but here it feels like a drawing room comedy.

Until 27 May 2017

www.whosafraidofvirginiawoolf.co.uk

Photos by Johan Persson

“The Children” at the Royal Court

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

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

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

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

Until 14 January 2016

www.royalcourttheatre.com

Photo by Johan Persson

“Escaped Alone” at the Royal Court

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Until 12 March 2016

www.royalcourttheatre.com

Photos by Johan Persson

“The Father” at Wyndham’s Theatre

Florian Zeller’s prize-winning play from France is a superbly performed, structurally interesting piece that explores senile dementia in a manner that’s both smart and stimulating.

Setting much of the action from the perspective of the elderly Andre is a masterstroke and makes the most of theatre’s immediacy – this is a play that couldn’t work in any other medium. As characters and furniture come and go, we share Andre’s confusion and paranoia. Who owns this house and who are these people? Despite little plot, Zeller’s piece is as tense as a thriller.

Translated by Christopher Hampton and directed by James Macdonald with fitting precision, the script is admirably sparse and controlled. There’s no indulgence here and, although you’ll probably leave in tears, there’s laughter, too, along with a frightening assessment of how annoying ageing relatives can be.

Kenneth Cranham is magnetic in the lead role, charming, amusing and imposing, often angry and ultimately heart-wrenchingly frightened. But, like his daughter, struggling to care for him and lead her own life, played marvellously by Claire Skinner, Cranham makes the most of understatement. This isn’t King Lear. These are unquestionably real people dealing with an increasingly common situation. The Father derives considerable power from its topicality, along with its sincere emotional realism. It’s all brave medicine delivered in well-measured doses.

Until 21 November 2015

www.delfontmackintosh.co.uk

Photos by Simon Annand

“Bakkhai” at the Almeida Theatre

With the first instalment of the Almeida’s Greek season, Oresteia, having announced a West End transfer, Bakkhai, has a lot to live up to. James Macdonald’s production of Euripides’ play is a traditional affair that takes us close to the original. bringing an opportunity to learn something deeper about Greek drama and its power. Vastly different from Oresteia’s contemporary take, the show makes a great contrast and confirms the season is one of this year’s theatrical highlights.

Marked by a strong sense of purpose, Antony McDonald’s simple design and Peter Mumford’s lighting accompany a clear and concise text from Anne Carson. Both Carson and Macdonald have a powerful appreciation of the dichotomies embraced by the religion at the heart of the play, explaining the concept of a daimon and its implications for Dionysus’ crazed followers. Macdonald’s grip never falters as he crafts the tension and explores the consequences of hubris. Most notable is the primary role of the Chorus and music in the show – nearly half of the production is sung.

The star attraction is Ben Whishaw, heading up the excellent promotional photography, and perfectly cast to bring out the complexities of the god, with flowing hair and fey gestures transformed into something sinister in a moment. As with his fellow performers, Whishaw takes on other roles admirably, but Bertie Carvel gets the best of this tactic, playing the ruler Pentheus with confident efficiency, then his mother Agave, with a visceral turn that puts the ghost of his Miss Trunchbull from Matilda to rest. Joining them is Kevin Harvey, whose roles include Cadmus, holding his own and making him an actor that joins my list of ones to watch.

It is the ten-strong Chorus that makes this Bakkhai one to celebrate; singing a capella throughout, with music credited to Orlando Gough. The sound is both otherworldly and tribal – an invigorating mix that keeps you guessing, veering from the frightening, almost repulsive, to strangely beautiful melodies. The singing acts as an exposition of the religion the women follow. The acting is strong, bearing in mind that mass ecstasy is a big ask. It’s when they comment on events and respond to the story that they really move you, showing a clear idea of the Chorus’ role in Greek theatre. Now, as then, the group draws in the audience, making us part of a truly powerful show.

Until 19 September 2015

www.almeida.co.uk

Photo by David Stewart