Tag Archives: Juliet Stevenson

“Little Wars”: a rehearsed reading

As a second lockdown begins, there’s still a chance to get close to quality theatre, even if it is online. It’s hard not to be grumpy, though. This rehearsed reading of Steven Carl McCasland’s play makes it painfully obvious how much better a staged production would be. Nonetheless, the history in the piece is interesting and the event boasts an excellent cast.

Set in the home of Alice Toklas and Gertrude Stein, the scenario at first is a dream dinner party or, rather, soirée. Lillian Hellman, Agatha Christie and Dorothy Parker are going to pop by. There’s plenty of wit as well as friction to entertain, led by the somewhat dotty old couple who are as eccentric as they are erudite.

Little Wars quickly takes a more serious tone as a war-time spy drama. Toklas and Stein’s final guest is the brave Muriel Gardiner, who smuggles refugees out of Germany on the very night France surrenders. She’s a fascinating character, capably depicted by Sarah Solemani, so it’s a shame that the role feels like a forced foil – a too obvious moral conscience for the play. Unfortunately, McCasland’s plotting is slow, a flaw director Hannah Chissick cannot disguise, as well as heavy handed.

The superb cast adds some sophistication. Debbie Chazen makes an excellent – drunk – Dorothy Parker (tricky on stage, let alone online). Juliet Stevenson is fantastic as the steely Hellman, a role that, like a too-aloof Christie (Sophie Thompson) needs further development. The real treat comes with our hosts. Ably supported by Catherine Russell as Toklas, Linda Bassett’s performance as Stein is astonishing. Full of fury as much as fun, this “rare kind of bird” is dignified, frightening and inspiring. Bassett makes Stein’s poetry sound natural and the way her cold anger is carefully exposed is brilliant.

It’s no surprise that the evening’s conversation never lacks drama or interest. The talk is crammed with detail about the women’s lives that shows a lot of research. It’s fascinating, but McCasland does not wear his learning lightly. A bigger problem comes with efforts to expand from specific biography to broader experiences. There are highlights: a preoccupation with memory arising from Stein’s potential dementia is very moving. But the battle of ideas that McCasland tries to set up as his finale – with Christie and Hellman coming across as downright odd – falls very flat. At least there’s some fantastic acting to enjoy along the way.

Until 8 November

www.littlewars.co.uk

Photo by john Brannoch

“Blindness” at the Donmar Warehouse

All hail Michael Longhurst and his Covent Garden venue for staging a show during the lockdown. Not a performance exactly – the description is a ‘sound installation’ – as it is a recording of Juliet Stevenson that the audience listens to through those fancy headsets. It’s still a chance to get back into a theatre. That, alone, is worth applauding.

Simon Stephens’ adaptation of José Saramago’s novel is close to home – it’s about an epidemic, albeit one where the population suddenly goes blind. But there’s still escapism and entertainment in the far-fetched story. It’s exciting at first – a tale of the unexpected with creepy touches that Stevenson narrates exquisitely.

Close your eyes…

…for a bit of plot spoiler. As the disease becomes rife, Stevenson moves from being the storyteller to a doctor’s wife, who joins him in suitably gothic quarantine, pretending to be afflicted herself. Too quickly, Blindness becomes too generic. The script is well constructed and full of strong imagery. As with the last motif of the play, Saramago’s writing has a certain grace. And it is always impeccably directed by Walter Meierjohann. But it is not original. This is a very standard sci-fi societal breakdown: surely such views convince less and less? The only surprises come from not encountering familiar tropes; why isn’t the one woman immune investigated and what about those who are already blind?

You can open them again…

Few would be thrilled to go to the theatre for a radio play. OK, maybe I am desperate enough. But, with sound design from Ben and Max Ringham and the sculptural work from lighting designer Jessica Hung Han Yun, this piece comes closer to immersive than many that aim for that label. 

Along with a sense of excitement from the solicitous staff, there’s also the irreplaceable connection of watching as part of an audience. With the hope that none of this talented team is offended, my highlight came at the end, catching the eye of another theatregoer who, like me, wondered if we should clap. Yes, we can, and yes, we did – deservedly so.

Until 22 August 2020

www.donmarwarehouse.com

"Hamlet" at the Almeida Theatre

With Andrew Scott in the title role, this Hamlet already qualifies as one of the most exciting Shakespeare productions of the year. A consummate and intelligent performer whose lilting accent is a joy to hear, Scott uses the intimacy of the venue superbly. Combining sensitivity and ferocity he makes a strong philosopher prince. He also makes a great team with star director Robert Icke.

Andrew Scott with Amaka Okafor and Calum Finlay
Andrew Scott with Amaka Okafor and Calum Finlay

Scott’s Hamlet is tactile, all hand holding, wriggling fingers and pressing palms to his face – he even hugs his ghostly father (a brilliant performance from David Rintoul). This is a sensual Dane, aided by the casting of Amaka Okafor as Guildenstern (which adds tension for Calum Finlay’s Rosencratz, who sees Hamlet as a sexual rival). It all focuses us on Hamlet’s morbidity – his knowledge of man as “this quintessence of dust” – a cerebral point given theatrical physicality.
Icke is never short of ideas. He has so many thoughts on Hamlet it’s awe-inspiring. The overall tone is far less histrionic than many a past trip to Elsinor – even the furniture has a tasteful Scandi feel. Such restraint has a peculiar power, most notable in Claudius – a chillingly cold figure played by Angus Wright, whose controlled delivery would try the patience of many performers. It’s the first time I haven’t seen the King storm off the stage during the play-within-a-play and it’s brilliantly unsettling.
Juliet Stevenson and Angus Wright watch with Andrew Scott
Juliet Stevenson and Angus Wright watch with Andrew Scott

Other novel points include the decision to be open about Hamlet’s relationship with Ophelia. It makes more sense of her madness, giving us a modern woman to relate to that Jessica Brown Findlay exploits well. For Peter Wright’s Polonius there’s the suggestion that the respected government minister isn’t just a bore, but is suffering from dementia. And there are the videos and live recordings that are a bit of a trademark for Icke. Denmark as a surveillance state is fair enough, and rolling news broadcasts save some time, but wouldn’t it have been better for Horatio to take charge of the camera after Hamlet asks him to watch the King?
Not all of Icke’s introductions are as successful. Hamlet’s gun toting seems jarring – is it bravado on his part? While it adds shock to his confrontation with his mother (the magnificent Juliet Stevenson), pointing a gun at Claudius become confusing. The production uses a knowledge of the play heavily – a fair assumption – but loses power. An air of predestination predominates later scenes – like the audience, the characters seem to know the end. For much of the final duel, music predominates (it’s a puzzling selection throughout) while Hamlet’s “I am dead Horatio” is taken literally. Our finale – of ghosts at a party rather than corpses littering the stage – has odd tones of reconciliation. It’s all interesting, unmissable for bardophiles, and frequently brilliant, if a little cold.
Until 15 April 2017
www.almeida.co.uk
Photos by Manuel Harlan

"Mary Stuart" at the Almeida Theatre

Friedrich Schiller’s play, about 16th-century monarchs Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I, is full of dramatic speculation about the personalities behind a continually popular historical power struggle, and it is adapted and directed by Robert Icke in rousing fashion. With Mary’s flight into England, engendering a political crisis for her sister Queen, much is made of international law and refugee status. Having two powerful women in charge begs for a study in gender politics. You can’t blame Icke for leaping on the opportunities offered – if hardly subtle, he marvellously stokes the flames within this early 19th century text.
At the start of each show, a toss of a coin decides which role the two leads, Lia Williams and Juliet Stevenson, will take. That Icke emphasises one of the play’s many debates – the role of chance and fate – with such speedy excitement is indicative of his talents. As for the performances, both are impeccable. The night I attended heads and tails meant Williams played the Catholic monarch with a convincing mix of religious fervour and sensuality. Stevenson’s Virgin Queen was up there with the best – a shrewd executive struggling to hide hysterical fear about assassination plots. Physical threats to both women are highlighted by Icke, an expertly handled tactic that ramps up the drama.

Rudi Dharmalingham as Mortimer
Rudi Dharmalingham as Mortimer

A strong male cast joins Williams and Stevenson, with notably restrained performances. Occasionally the reserve strikes as almost odd. Rudi Dharmalingam’s double-dealing Mortimer presents a coolly controlled fanatic – his attempt to rape Mary is disturbing. Leicester is another duplicitous character who John Light makes it a pleasure to hate. Vincent Franklin and Alan Williams make their skill and experience show as Elizabeth’s loyal advisors, Burleigh and Talbot, who have to present different sides of an occasionally clunky argument about beheading Mary that are.
With brilliant performances, and some sprucing from Icke, this lengthy play, crammed with ideas and long sections of argument, races along. Success comes from the staging, with designer Hildegard Bechtler’s help. Played in the round, a rotating circular stage adds an adversarial air throughout. A climactic scene, utilising the stage’s movement is magical: accompanied by a song from Laura Marling, Elizabeth is transformed into Gloriana – face paint and all (it’s just too tempting for a story teller) – while Mary, in a simple shift, is freed from the “slavery” of the crown and worldly concerns. It’s a tough sell and, if you’re enamoured of Good Queen Bess, you won’t fall for the Marian martyrdom. But presentation of the debate about these women is brought up to date, the story shown at its gripping best, and there’s no doubt that Icke has produced stunning theatre here.
Until 21 January 2016
www.almeida.co.uk
Photos by Manuel Harlan