Tag Archives: Josie Rourke

“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

“Sweet Charity” at the Donmar Warehouse

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

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

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

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

Until 8 June 2019

www.donmarwarehouse.com

Photo by Johan Persson

“Committee…” at the Donmar Warehouse

Verbatim theatre, with the script transcribed from everyday speech, is relatively rare. As for a verbatim musical – I can only thing of Alecky Blythe’s hit London Road. So doubling the genre, with music by Tom Derring, this new show counts as a curiosity, while suggesting the novel treatment has potential.

The subject matter might make you question the sanity of the project. The piece’s full title is The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee takes oral evidence on Whitehall’s relationship with Kids Company. Yes, it’s a crazy idea. But it works well.

For further originality, the book and adaptation into lyrics, by Hadley Fraser and Josie Rourke, use not the casual conversations admired in most verbatim works, but public testimony in the House of Commons – speech that contributors knew would be on record.

Topical, political, important – all fine qualities for good theatre. It’s clear that, despite the humour, including initial giggles at people bursting into song, this is serious stuff. The cast excels at depicting the MPs we came to know during the news story – Alexander Hanson and Liz Robertson are especially strong as Bernard Jenkin and Cheryl Gillan – but coming so close to impersonations can be distracting. Thankfully, the show isn’t flattering about anybody’s sense of importance – or their desire to capture the “8.10 slot” on the Today programme.

Being grilled are none other than Alan Yentob and Camilla Batmanghelidjh, the Kids Company charity’s trustee and CEO. The roles are taken by opera singer Oscar Ebrahim and, with a voice to match him, Sandra Marvin. Again, while their impersonations are eye catching, the real achievement is a vocal ability that aids in revealing the complexity of characters and the situation. They add weight to Deering’s compositions and, while the show is static, some clever touches from director Adam Penfold are well used.

While you might find yourself surprised at how entertaining the whole thing is, Committee’s biggest success is drier – it works as a peculiar pedagogy. The MPs sing that their aim is not a show trial but “to learn” what happened to the bankrupt charity. And from this condensed 80 minutes you discover the issues and questions far more efficiently that following the story in the media. The edit deserves credit, of course, but the ability of the music to focus the mind has a strange power I’d happily hear utilised more often.

Until 12 August 2017

www.donmarwarehouse.com

Photo by Manuel Harlan

“Elegy” at the Donmar Warehouse

While (seldom) questioning the subject matter a playwright chooses, some should come with a warning. With its main character suffering a degenerative brain condition, Nick Payne’s new play – brilliantly written as it is – makes for a harrowing experience. Elegy calls forth questions as topical as they are uncomfortable and nothing about this play is easy.

New techniques in nanotechnology and neuroscience are knocking at the door, and Payne explores their potential effect on a mind slipping into dementia. They may prove a miracle that extends life, but let’s not use the word cure. Memory is lost and anyone who’s read David Hume will know the consequences of this. Lorna and Carrie, who married each other late in life, find their romance has been surgically removed in the process of ‘saving’ the former. That the person she was is gone, akin to the effects of dementia anyway, is one cruel irony. Another – her inability to recognise her lover means the treatment has worked – makes matters peculiarly grim.

The play is performed backwards. We meet the women after Lorna’s treatment and retrace the steps leading to her surgery. Becoming increasingly involved with this couple, there’s a cruel twist that brought me to tears. The reverse technique, well served by Josie Rourke’s direction, builds tensions and allows three excellent actors to give mind-boggling performances. Zoë Wanamaker’s struggle with the illness is as frank as it is moving. Barbara Flynn is a revelation as her wife: engaging, appealing and torn apart. They are joined by the superb Nina Sosanya as a doctor who slowly reveals her personal motivations behind her professional mask.

It’s Payne’s superior skill with dialogue that’s the jewel here. Painful conversations feel fresh, characters’ attempts at humour and their struggle to comprehend, believable. Particularly in rendering the incoherence of stumbling, confused and truncated speech, the economy and precision of language is brave and haunting.

Science has long been a theme of Payne’s – putting people into the equation is his skill. Elegy ups the stakes and demands a great deal. At its heart is the complex question of what makes us human, encompassing faith, love, history and our responsibilities to each other. The fear that we’re on the brink of unknown territory is palpable. Away from dystopian fantasy, this play feels real enough to give you nightmares, propelling us into the messy heart of a dilemma with piercing skill.

Until 18 June 2016

www.donmarwarehouse.com

Photo by Johan Persson

“Les Liaisons Dangereuses” at the Donmar Warehouse

It’s odd that Christopher Hampton’s hugely successful adaptation of Choderlos de Laclos’s epistolary novel is receiving its first West End revival since it opened back in 1986. Josie Rourke’s production provides an opportunity to see a brilliant transformation to the stage that shouldn’t be missed. Hampton’s delight in the plots of seduction, betrayal and sexual politics, along with the exquisite characters and dialogue, are blissful.

It’s a testament to the strength of this text that Rourke’s direction disappoints by not getting the maximum from it. Arch plotters Valmont and Merteuil, planning love affairs for fun and revenge, are played by Dominic West and Janet McTeer. And, it should be stressed, they are played very well indeed. West brings a forceful sexuality to the role that makes it easy to believe in his character’s success as a lothario. McTeer’s is a more layered performance, having a great deal of fun as she uses Valmont’s sex, as a weapon, against himself. McTeer is playful, a cunning coquette, but when she needs to, reveals the uncomfortable truths Laclos highlighted about the position of women in society. So where’s the problem? Very much star vehicles, West and McTeer dominate the production too much.

True, the other characters are creatures in their games, but smaller parts, especially their main victims Cécile and Madame de Tourvel, should stand out more. Morfydd Clark and Elaine Cassidy struggle to leave a mark, creating surprisingly little sympathy as their characters’ respective innocence and piety are broken. The production makes it hard to believe that Valmont finally falls in love and is uncomfortably blasé about the creepy seduction of a 15 year old.

LES LIAISONS DANGEREUSES BY HAMPTON, , WRITER - CHRISTOPHER HAMPTON, Director - Josie Rourke, Designer - Tom Scutt, Lighting - Mark Henderson, The Donmar Warehouse, 2015, Credit: Johan Persson
Dominic West

Which indicates another problem, albeit an unusual one – the production is too funny. The deliciously wicked Valmont and Merteuil gain plenty of laughs. It’s superbly done – Valmont’s brazen hypocrisy is a delight and McTeer makes nearly every line a quotable gem of bitchy cynicism. But there’s a penalty for this, with little tension between the two of them and too little time for the play’s darker overtones. Nearly all end badly but, rather than tense, the evening is simply deflating. Though much of the production is brilliantly done, these liaisons aren’t really dangerous enough.

Until 13 February 2016

www.donmarwarehouse.com

Photos by Johan Persson

“The Weir” at Wyndham’s Theatre

With queues for Josie Rourke’s Coriolanus starting crazily early, adding to her string of hits as artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse, she now has a West End transfer to boast about with The Weir, which opened at Wyndham’s Theatre last night.

This much admired and awarded play dates from 1997 and sees various ghost stories told by its misfit characters in a small rural pub. Fortifying this tried and tested concept are Conor McPherson’s beautiful writing and mythic undertones: suggesting our longstanding psychological connections to storytelling and the supernatural.

Rourke’s production is spookily precise. Like one of the play’s characters, Finbar, she clearly has “an eye for the gap” – pauses are perfectly measured for both comedy and tragedy and space is created for the captivating stories. The pace is wonderfully controlled, and the banter in between, the majority of which is very funny indeed, fills out the characters, adding further layers to the play.


Ardal O’Hanlon

Each of the roles is interesting and exceptionally well acted. Risteárd Cooper and Peter McDonald give fine performances as a local entrepreneur and the landlord of the pub. Their different ambitions are just one example of a cleverly injected sense of community, covering the petty differences of life in the country and a network of personal histories. Crowd-pleasing Ardal O’Hanlon joins them as Jim, a bashful handyman who still lives with his mother.

Upsetting the group’s equilibrium is Valerie, a new arrival or “blow in”, who soaks up local folklore then reveals her own ghost story. In the role, Dervla Kirwan delivers the most moving moment of the evening, bringing home the pain and loneliness all feel and fight against. But it’s Brian Cox – as the finest storyteller and bar room wit – that you can’t take your eyes off. Playing an ordinary man with a quiet sadness slowly revealed with great skill, Cox heads a high-powered cast that’s sure to really pack them in. And deservedly so.

Until 19 April 2013

Photos by Helen Warner

Written 22 January 2014 for The London Magazine

“The Same Deep Water As Me” at the Donmar Warehouse

Following the success of Nick Payne’s award-winning Constellations, Josie Rourke, artistic director at the Donmar, has the coup of presenting his new play, The Same Deep Water As Me. Set in a ‘no-win-no-fee’ lawyers’ office in Luton, it’s a departure for the young writer, moving from intimate personal dramas into the wider world of work. Payne tackles big issues with humour and intelligence and deserves great success.

Superbly directed by John Crowley, the play’s plot, an attempt to swindle large companies via insurance claims, serves to explore the theme of lying. The rather desperate Kevin suggests the idea to his old school friend Andrew, who has made good as a lawyer. In a bravura performance, Daniel Mays takes the lead, deceiving his character’s older colleague Barry and renewing an attachment to his first love, now Kevin’s wife, Jennifer (a charming Niky Wardley). Payne’s strong characterisations emerge as they become embroiled in the scam.

There are some marvellous one-liners here, some of the funniest you’ll hear on stage in London at the moment, and the delivery from Marc Wotton’s Mephistophelean Kevin is superb. Nuanced observations on class are used to particularly great effect when a claim is contested in court: Peter Forbes and Monica Dolan play a sleek legal establishment magnificently and Isabella Laughland’s cameo as a lorry driver is arresting (if a shockingly small role for such a talented actress).

Payne’s writing has a strange modesty that makes for a unique voice – a joke denied a punch line, unstated emotions suggested with restraint – and surely many a dramatist would have opted for the more dramatic criminal court instead of a civil one? Playing down has a purpose: raising questions about access to justice is topical but, providing a further satisfying weight, a Kantian universalizability shows that this is deep water we really are all in together.

Until 28 September 2013

www.donmarwarehouse.com

Photo by Johan Persson

Written 12 August 2013 for The London Magazine

“Men Should Weep” at the National Theatre

Josie Rourke, renowned for her work at the Bush Theatre, is canny in her choice of play to mark her directorial debut at the National. Ena Lamont Stewart’s Men Should Weep is a social drama with a large cast enacted on an intimate level. Rourke uses her experience of small venues while exploiting the Lyttelton’s resources to create the play’s larger world. Her skill envelops the audience; her talent is a fresh approach for the National Theatre.

Bunny Christie’s magnificent set reflects the claustrophobic squalor of the 1930s tenement in which the play is set. It’s impressive, but Rourke is never distracted by it. Lamont Stewart’s slice of life story receives the respect it deserves. The playwright worked in the Glasgow library and hospital during the depression and her text has an authentic feel that is captivating. The language maybe daunting, but might only prove a problem for the truest blooded Sassenach.

Men Should Weep is full of great roles for women. Sharon Small plays Maggie Morrison the matriarch of the family, around whom the story revolves. It is a demanding role performed with aplomb. Jayne McKenna is wonderful as her sister, a brittle, regretful woman. The younger generation fight against their poverty any way they can, with excellent performances from Sarah MacRae and Morven Christie. Thérèse Bradley puts in a great turn as the miserly sister-in-law, “so hard they dug her from a quarry”. These are women not to be messed with, but the mess their lives are in makes you understand why.

What of the men who should be weeping? Robert Cavanah plays John Morrison. The character’s faults make him a difficult man to sympathise with but love of his family and intelligence are always behind Cavanah’s performance. John says that poverty bends a man over double and makes him like “a human question mark”.

It’s grim up north to be sure, but the play is masterfully free of clichés and histrionics. Laughter and love of the family shine forth but without a ‘salt of the earth’ touch. There are no angels or devils here – just difficult circumstances. The domestic violence and vice can be harsh and shocking, but the motivation is desperation, and humour is never far behind. The Morrison children certainly suffer, but these are the sorts of lives the Jeremy Hunts of the world should consider before proscribing how many children people should have. Our current recession differs in many ways from that Lamont Stewart experienced, but her insight into human dignity has important lessons for us all.

Until 9 January 2010

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Manuel Harlan

Written 27 October 2010

“If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet” at the Bush Theatre

Under the directorship of Josie Rourke, The Bush Theatre continues its tradition of strong new writing with Nick Payne’s play, If There Is I Haven’t Found It Yet.

A young girl, neglected by her well-meaning, busy parents, is befriended by her prodigal uncle. In a carefully crafted arc, her adolescence is charted from being bullied at school, through the first pains of love, to her shocking desperation and finally some kind of hope for the future.

The teenager in question is played with spirit by Ailish O’Connor, who perfectly captures these troubled years, switching from frustration to confusion. Even more impressive is her ability to reflect the wild mood swings anyone who knows teenagers will recognise.

For O’Connor’s character has some serious problems. Overweight and bullied at school, she and her parents fail to connect. Finding solace in her uncle proves a mistake, given the baggage he carries himself, and the inevitable meltdown is powerful. While our own perspectives may make some problems seem trivial – the teenage date or over-protective parent, for example – so empathetic is the writing that we accept the intensity of the characters’ feelings.

Which is to ignore, so far, the strongest aspect of Payne’s writing. Not only is it intelligent and humane, it is very, very funny. There are some great one liners, but more amusing still are those toe-curling scenes, such as when father and daughter eat together in their local curry house and it is hard to work out which one is hating it more.

The rest of the cast also revel in the strong script. Pandora Colin plays a mother trying to do her best for her daughter and at the end of her patience with her husband. Michael Begley plays the latter, so consumed by his studies into environmental disaster that he ignores what is going on on his doorstep. Perhaps Begley’s performance is tainted too much by caricature, which gets plenty of laughs but does less justice to the underlying humour Payne excels in. Rafe Spall is the erstwhile uncle, offensive and tactless, but not unintelligent.

Payne benefits from tight direction by Rourke and an ambitious set from Lucy Osborne but it is the maturity of the writing that is most memorable. Here we have an intelligent and entertaining platform for exploring the serious issues of how we live now.

Until 21 November 2009

www.bushtheatre.co.uk

Written 26 October 2009 for The London Magazine