Tag Archives: Lia Williams

“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

“Pinter 1 & 2” at the Harold Pinter Theatre

Director Jamie Lloyd has an unerring ability to surround his projects with excitement. His latest scheme is to present short works by Harold Pinter in a six-month-long series of carefully curated and stylishly packaged shows (they really should sell a T-shirt). The project boasts an array of stars – young and old – which indicates that everyone wants to work with Lloyd and offers the chance to see rarely performed works.

The season – and Pinter 1 – get off to a bang courtesy of confetti cannons and Press Conference, which stars a commanding Jonjo O’Neill as a sinister politician. It sets the scene for a first half of plays that show a variety of dystopias. Sometimes the shorts come across as dated, too simplistic and full of conspiracy. Or should we see the paranoia as prescient? A Donald Trump impersonation in The Pres and an Officer, a newly discovered satirical skit, suggests Lloyd does.

Maggie Steed and Paapa Essiedu

The way Pinter encapsulates the most basic fears surrounding the breakdown of society makes them raw and moving. Mountain Language reduced me to tears, with Maggie Steed as an elderly mother confronting her tortured son and forbidden to speak to him. And the tension Pinter can create becomes almost unbearable with One for the Road, which stars Antony Sher as a truly chilling interrogator, alongside Paapa Essiedu and Kate O’Flynn as his victims. The paranoia moves into a domestic setting for the evening’s finale, Ashes to Ashes, which sees a couple recounting an affair and an atrocity, both products of a deranged mind. It’s a too puzzling piece, held together by the direction of Lia Williams and passionate performances from O’Flynn and Essiedu.

Pinter 2 is a double bill of plays that look at infidelity, both from the 1960. First up is The Lover, where a squeaky clean couple discuss their affairs over breakfast and perform a bizarre role play. Surely this once appeared more challenging than it does today, and the point seems overplayed – even at just under an hour, the play drags. The boredom isn’t Lloyd’s fault – his direction is snappy and the whole show stylish thanks to the saturated colours of Soutra Gilmour’s designs. But while the piece is a comedy, the absurd is emphasised to a fault. Hayley Squires and John Macmillan perform well, but their characters are flattened, reduced to puppets. In fact, their shadows catch the eye more than they do (Elliot Griggs’ lighting design is superb).

John Macmillan and Russell Tovey

This second evening improves a little with The Collection, where Squires and Macmillan benefit from meatier, if shorter, roles taking on another suspected affair and a confrontation between the husband and the man his wife says seduced her. Russell Tovey plays a wide boy who taunts the cuckolded Macmillan while his flatmate, David Suchet, looks on. Lloyd employs a broad brush again, and the cast clearly has fun, but a degree of tension is retained. The older man and his younger counterpart, from the slums it is said, make for a disconcerting mix of sex, class and violence that’s the real deal.


Until 20 October 2018

www.pinteratthepinter.com

Photos by Marc Brenner

“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

“Oresteia” at the Almeida Theatre

A sterling start to the Almeida’s Greek season, Robert Icke’s new version of the Oresteia is a mammoth achievement, presenting all three plays in one spirited and, at times, gruelling evening, where the trilogy’s themes of society and justice come alive in a stirring, contemporary fashion.

Agamemnon comes first, the king powerfully portrayed by Angus Wright as a politician, military leader and man of faith, who sacrifices his daughter Iphigenia before setting out for Troy. The murder occurs onstage, which some will find objectionable in itself, but for me the clinical approach of feeding the young actress some pills makes the scene so brutal I cannot say I fully support the decision to show it.

After a break that is strictly timed by a countdown on television screens, Clytemnestra comes to the fore. Consummately controlled, plotting to kill her husband as revenge, Lia Williams is mesmerising in the role, her exclamation that “the war came home” emphasising the consequences of battle abroad on the families left behind.

For the second play, The Libation Bearer, we see Orestes avenge his father by killing his mother. Previously presented as undergoing therapy, he joins forces with his sister Electra, with Jessica Brown Findlay making a forceful stage debut, the highlight of which forms a meditation on mourning. The fate of Electra later brings a penny-drops-twist from Icke that doesn’t deserve a plot spoiler.

The Eumenides sees the judgment upon Orestes for his matricide. Wright and Williams, reappearing as legal council, aid high emotions, and issues of gender are satisfyingly forefronted. But the scene rests too heavily on Luke Thompson’s fraught performance in the title role. At least those countdowns make sense – it wasn’t just to hurry people’s G&Ts – we have been watching a re-enactment in real-time. Instead of being treated, Orestes was being cross-examined.

It’s possible the production is too stylish for its own good. Hildegard Bechtler’s design, with its ghostly sliding glass that becomes opaque, looks so great that, combined with the moody background soundtrack, it becomes slightly distracting. And having live recordings played back onto screens may illustrate the public nature of this family, but it’s becoming a bit of a theatrical gimmick.

Reservations are small compared with the scale of Icke’s accomplishment. The dialogue is modern and easy to follow, with references to Whitman and even G&S. Icke is obsessive about retelling these stories, which justifies the liberties he has taken but also aids the coherence of his production; the omnipresent reiteration of concerns for signs, stories and interpretation is clear, convincing and engaging.

Until 18 July 2015

www.almedia.co.uk

Photo by Manuel Harlan

“Old Times” at the Harold Pinter Theatre

The scenario is straightforward: a woman visits her old, now married, friend after many years. The exposition less so. As the three reminisce, memories become distorted and history manipulated, as they battle for supremacy in their accounts of the past. Old Times is a fascinating exploration of relationships and has a mysterious edge, it keeps the truth about this trio hidden, and as a result this play is as gripping as it is intelligent.

Director Ian Rickson is experienced with Harold Pinter’s work, and it shows. The writer loved triangular relationships, he was a master with them, and this skill is matched in a careful, rich, production. The acting is intense, intentionally affected, with every word and gesture full of potential: the possibility of a laugh or a slap. The dialogue is a constant competition, and the heavyweight cast – Kristin Scott Thomas, Lia Williams and Rufus Sewell – all excel at it. Each manages to traverse the fine line between humour and suspense that is peculiar to Pinter. It’s a surprise to see how much fun they seem to have. Sewell brings an impishness to his role, at times camp, as well as the requisite menace as his character tries to dominate the group. His development into what Pinter described as “a man defeated by women” is a huge achievement. Scott Thomas and Williams bring real charge and their every physical interaction bristles with sexual tension.

A common theory about Old Times is that the two actresses play different sides of the same person, a concept given weight here by Scott Thomas and Williams alternating their roles. But some (or all?) of the characters might be dead, in some kind of Satre-esque Hell, or they might just be plain silly with some peculiar kinks going on. Whatever your idea Old Times is always captivating.

For my money this is a problem play that you aren’t supposed to solve. The wonder of it is in its construction, like the dynamics of the relationships that it explores – it’s enough to see these picked apart and rebuilt over and over. Pinter toys with the audience. The joy of Rickson’s production is to see that game played so well.

Until 6 April 2013

Photo by Simon Annand

Written 4 February 2013 for The London Magazine

“Earthquakes in London”at the National Theatre

Of the several excellent productions this summer from the Headlong Theatre Company, none has created quite the buzz of Earthquakes in London at the National Theatre’s Cottesloe auditorium.

Headlong’s star director Rupert Goold takes charge. While Broadway gave his production of Enron a drubbing, London loves Goold – and rightly so. A director of great style, his bag of theatrical tricks belies a precise hand adept at delivering unforgettable shows. Goold brings all his invention and courage to Earthquakes in London. He has to – Mike Bartlett’s play could easily have seemed unstageable.

Creating a time-travelling story of environmental apocalypse, Bartlett flirts with the past and future, but his play is really about the present – a condemning vision of our apathy and arrogance. Unashamedly political, if occasionally obtuse, the passion displayed is admirable. Akin to the National’s production of Rattigan’s After the Dance, the question that frustrates and angers is how society can carry on the party in the face of catastrophe.

Bartlett’s uncanny gift for characterisation shows his skill as a writer. While the wry observations on modern life are sometimes predictable, they can seldom be argued with and if the scope of his ambition doesn’t always pay off, his emotional insight creates a recognisable world of believable people.

Lia Williams is brilliant as Sarah, a newly appointed Lib Dem minister struggling with the conflict between her ideals and power. Lia has brought up her sisters: Jasmine (Jessica Raine) has ended up as a “natural disaster”, angry as only a post baby boomer can be, while heavily pregnant Freya (Anna Madeley) is given a haunting depiction that matches this harrowing role.

A massive cast live their lives around these women. Even their husbands, both men in crisis and played wonderfully by Tom Goodman-Hill and Geoffrey Streatfield fail to connect with them. Their father Robert (Bill Patterson) is a prophet whose vision of the future removes him from his family and provides this bleak play’s most exigent moments. Always surprising, Earthquakes in London is an epic with the most unusual hero as Bryony Hannah excels in two roles that show her enviable versatility.

But the stars of the show are designer Miriam Buether and the technical team at the National Theatre. Transforming the Cottesloe to an unprecedented extent makes the night exciting from the start. Performing amongst the crowd and in two pillbox stages at either end allows the breakneck speed required. It provides memorable tableaux and builds up connections that add further to an already rich work. The evening is often overwhelming, but it is never confusing. This is compulsive viewing that will run amok in the mind for a long time to come.

Until 22 September 2010

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Manuel Harlan

Written 5 August 2010 for The London Magazine