Tag Archives: Lyndsey Turner

“Under Milk Wood” at the National Theatre

Poetry on stage is never easy. And when Dylan Thomas’s text comes with the legacy of a famous reading (Richard Burton, no less) a new production becomes even trickier. Lyndsey Turner’s brave attempt benefits from a star draw and strong performances from a large cast, but struggles to deliver anything new or to please old fans.

The big idea is to start the play within a care home. Additional material is provided by Siân Owen. Our narrator (Michael Sheen) jogs the memory of his dementia-suffering father (Karl Johnson). Thomas’s themes of memory and mortality are clear. But this preface (how could it be considered anything else?) makes the show longer than needed. And an hour and three quarters without an interval and wearing a mask feels very long indeed.

Maybe you have the patience. But while the show feels lengthy, the delivery – undoubtedly impressive – is too often rushed. And this is not an easy text to follow. Turner, with the help of movement director Imogen Knight, has taken the challenge of bringing a ‘play for voices’ to the stage vigorously. The lives of those living in Milk Wood come and go with alarming speed.

It’s easy to enjoy the cast, who take on the roles of villagers as “one spring day” goes by. I’d single out Alan David as making me laugh the most, while Siân Phillips manages to convey different ages of characters quite magically. There are nice touches with minimal props and excellent costume changes (bravo, set and costume designer Merle Hensel). Emotional moments between father and son are highlighted by the issue of alcoholism, and the “always open” Sailors Arms pub is a vivid presence within the play.

Thomas was not nostalgic. You can imagine the temptation… all those simple lives in an easier past. There is charm and humour here but, admirably, Turner avoids rose tints. A call to observe the balance between seeing the best and worst sides of people has weight as a result.

Sheen can command a stage. And he sounds fantastic. But with a show this dark – literally – and often pin-drop-quiet, it’s all too easy to slip from the level of concentration he brings to the role. The “noise of the hush” is an exquisite phrase to describe the life of this community… the trouble is that I heard a snore above it more than once. This production is an achievement on the part of its cast. Unfortunately, it requires a feat of endurance for an audience.

Until 24 July 2021

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

“Far Away” at the Donmar Warehouse

Although it has a running time of only 45 minutes, there’s nothing little about this masterpiece from Caryl Churchill.

Believe it or not, despite the brief duration, Far Away could even be thought of as three plays rather than one. Maybe the scenes, despite shared character names, don’t have to be connected? 

Churchill’s invention provides a trio of dystopian visions, each scary and increasingly bizarre, held in tense suspension with one another. 

First there’s a trip to the proverbial woodshed, then a workshop producing hats for a judicial display. Finally, we see the world at war in a peculiar fashion. This is political turmoil that straddles allegorywith prescient fears in a unique fashion.

Of course, Churchill didn’t invent dystopian dramas, and she uses Orwellian overtones expertly. But it’s easy to see how influential this text from 2000 has already been. The mix of sci-fi with macabre touches means the play hasn’t dated a jot. And this production does the text proud.

Lizzie Clachan’s set combines simplicity with theatrical surprises. The sound design from Christopher Shutt will give you goose bumps without being ostentatious. And director Lyndsey Turner admirably resists the temptation to spin out the stories. The only extravagance is the use of supernumeraries, drawn from the Donmar’s ‘Take The Stage’ programme, who do a great job. But their appearance is brief. There’s a recurring theme here – a respect for Churchill’s marvellous economy.

Far Away at the Donmar Warehouse
Aisling Loftus and Simon Manyonda

Take the characters that we meet, so briefly and in such complex circumstances. Turner’s cast is superb in creating a sense of ordinary individuals no matter how removed from us the situations seem. Jessica Hynes, Aisling Loftus and Simon Manyonda provide just enough glimpses into the everyday lives of the roles they take. While appearing respectively as Harper, Joan and Todd twice, the characters change dramatically, revealing extraordinary skill from the actors and creating incredible tension. That such richness can come from such austerity really shouldn’t be possible! Churchill’s writing is breath taking – every line in Far Away works close to the bone.

Until 4 April 2020

www.donmarwarehouse.com

Photos by Johan Persson

“Top Girls” at the National Theatre

Lyndsey Turner’s revival of Caryl Churchill’s classic play has a reverential air. With such variety in the writing – starting with a fantasy dinner party, turning into a domestic drama and becoming increasingly political – there’s no doubting the text’s importance. But in this staging, the humour in the writing stumbles, the edge is blunted and the production is luxurious to a fault.

The novel, and expensive, move is not to double up roles as most productions of the play do. So performers playing guests at the opening scene, women from different cultures and times, don’t reappear in other roles. Using actors the calibre of Amanda Lawrence, Siobhán Redmond and Ashley McGuire for just one scene seems positively wasteful and it also isolates the brilliantly bizarre prologue scene.

There can be no quibbles about the cast – or Turner’s massive investment in them. The play is capably driven by Katherine Kingsley as the highflying executive whose success we scrutinise. And there are strong performances from Liv Hill and Lucy Black as her estranged family. It’s possible these roles don’t have to have be portrayed as quite so downtrodden – Churchill’s point is still made if they are just ‘normal’ people – but the play’s themes of inequality and individuality are depressingly pertinent.

Ian MacNeil’s design is bold in its variety of spaces – restaurant, office and home are all very different – and the scene changes are impressive. And dealing so well with characters speaking over one another gets more praise for Turner. In short, the production is without question technically accomplished. But is all this sleek professionalism necessary? Or appropriate? Does a dinner party with the long dead or fictional characters need so stylish a setting? Or the shabby world of corporate recruitment have to look so lush? Turner has too much respect for Churchill’s work not to present it impeccably, but the play is strong enough for productions to take a more inventive approach with it. There’s a disappointing lack of energy, or anger, that seems inappropriate: Churchill’s message is there, but the challenge is not.

Until 20 July 2019

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Johan Persson

“Saint George and the Dragon” at the National Theatre

The always excellent John Heffernan takes the title role in Rory Mullarkey’s new play and gives a truly heroic performance. But can he save the day and the play? Almost… yet not quite, although it’s still a pleasure to see him on stage. Looking at our national legend at the nation’s theatre is a neat idea, as is writing the story as a contemporary allegory (in three chapters). Unfortunately, this brave effort delivers too little.

The opening act, set in a parodied mediaeval world, gets the show off to a great start. With Pythonesque touches, Heffernan makes the foppish George a figure to laugh at, while retaining just the right amount of dignity. His damsel in distress in updated effectively by Amaka Okafor, making their courtship a lark. As for the Dragon, Julian Bleach has a great deal of fun playing his earthly form, camping it up terrifically. It’s all staged slickly by director Lyndsey Turner, with Rae Smith’s design looking great. It’s silly but it’s funny, charming even, and very enjoyable.

After a year George returns to his island home, which has undergone an industrialisation that has enslaved its people. The Dragon isn’t a monster, but “every system needs a master” and, suited and booted, he is bureaucracy incarnate. It’s another great turn from Bleach and his now imprisoned former henchman, played by Richard Goulding, does well from the confines of a prison set. But this time the dénouement is thin and unconvincing; the Dragon too easily vanquished. It’s simplistic and too predictable.

To continue with a lack of surprises, after another year, George returns again – this time to a version of the present. Cue skyscrapers descending on to the stage in a This Is Spinal Tap moment that Smith has had enough experience to have avoided. And that’s the least of the problems with this unhappily ever after ending. The Dragon continues incorporeal – his evil inside us all – and there’s no place for saints, nowadays. Heffernan excels as a George out of time and perfectly reflects the play’s questioning of heroes and heroics. But this is slim stuff for a long play, as the repetition indicates, as well as being bleak and naive. Both Mullarkey and Turner lose control with an overblown finale that’s uncomfortably messy. And really just downright silly.

Until 2 December 2017

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Johan Persson

“The Treatment” at the Almeida Theatre

Martin Crimp’s 1993 play is an exploration of truth and lies that uses art like a prism. The key question is who ‘owns’ a story – is it the teller or all of us? It’s a structuralist trope that gives rise to vivid characters who enliven the play’s opaque moments. And it’s a lot more fun than it sounds.

The piece pivots on husband and wife “facilitators” in the movie business, depicted skilfully by Julian Ovenden and Indira Varma. This gloriously devilish duo is working on the eponymous treatment that will become a film. Unbelievable, yet recognisable, the couple and their project turn out to be extremely funny.

Ian Gelder
Ian Gelder

Their treatment is of the ‘real life’ tragic story of an odd woman called Anne, recruiting a struggling writer (the excellent Ian Gelder) along the way. Aisling Loftus produces a figure disturbed and disturbing in Anne, using the role’s cipher-like qualities to advantage. Anne’s would-be amanuensis falls victim to the Shakespearean pretentions he tries to force upon her story (“vile jelly”, anyone?) in a shockingly grisly scene. How could the film being worked on relate to true events this strange? Combine the smart satire around the New York pseuds with Anne’s fragile mental health and art doesn’t stand a chance.

Gary Beadle
Gary Beadle

The film’s progress has a quasi-magical impact on real lives. Scenes of the movie’s planning are interspersed with Anne and her estranged husband (played by Matthew Needham), giving us an alternative view. Similarly, the high-profile actor/producer brought on board – a charismatic role for Gary Beadle – manipulates Anne’s story further. Meanwhile, his claim that “art changes everything” is debunked by the unsettling elision of truth and fiction.

Supernumeraries from the Almeida’s community programme provide a large cast that adds a well-used note of realism. Lyndsey Turner’s sure-footed direction, with Giles Cadle’s stark staging and Neil Austin’s lighting, combines naturalism with the bizarre and exaggerated superbly. A description of the moviemakers’ luxurious world as “allergic” to reality is typically solipsistic. Everyone involved, including the audience, is struggling to get to the bottom of motivations. But there’s fun to be had working out what’s going on – this is entertaining avant-garde.

Until 10 June 2017

www.almeida.co.uk

Photos by Marc Brenner

“Faith Healer” at the Donmar Warehouse

Rain is falling as we are introduced to the ‘Fantastic’ Frank Hardy, an itinerant performer, whose life and miraculous show lie between the “absurd and the momentous”. Es Devlin’s stunning set creates a box of brilliantly lit water that returns between each of the four monologues that make up this intense and intriguing revival of Brian Friel’s 1979 play.

Stephen Dillane joins a line of famous names to tackle the title role. It’s a restrained performance, uncompromisingly demanding, carefully playing with the “sedation of incantation” that runs through the script: place names visited, adventures and traumas, are repeated in the softest tones. Hardy knows whether or not miracles will happen – that his success depends on chance – so his gift is also a curse.

We meet Hardy’s mistress and manager. As the former, Gina McKee’s accent is offputting at first – we’ve been told she’s from Yorkshire, and that’s not the only lie we discover from hearing her side of the story. The detail McKee invests in her scene makes it moving and engrossing. After these hear-a-pin-drop performances there’s some respite, thanks to Ron Cook’s appealing Cockney artistes agent. Though stories about a bagpipe-playing dog are funny, this isn’t comic relief. Cook presents a tired and disappointed man with subtlety.
The performances are awe-inspiring but the material is consuming to the point of claustrophobic and difficult because of its complexity. The drama comes from having three unreliable narrators, who lived together for many years but don’t meet during the play and are talking about events in the past. We see Hardy’s wife after his (possible) murder, and his manager after she has committed suicide, but the chronology is not explicit and how much time passes between scenes is opaque. Friel’s script shifts and changes and needs the lightness of touch that director Lyndsey Turner provides. A heavy hand could damage such first-class storytelling. Rendered so impeccably, the play is absorbing.

Until 20 August 2016\

www.donmarwarehouse.com

Photos by Johan Persson

“Posh” at the Royal Court

There’s seldom a shortage of political plays in London and, in an election year, writers are keener than ever to deal with meaty issues. Laura Wade’s Posh promises a novel take on current affairs by allowing us an insight into one of those Oxford dining clubs beloved of Messrs Cameron and Johnson. It’s a good starting position, but what makes the play really clever is that it deals with so much more.

Fascination with power is always a great ingredient for good drama – what forms and drives those in charge? Wade sets out to inform us. In this case, the elite Riot Club diners are born to rule and very much aware of this fact.

Great humour comes from the plentiful clichés about such characters as their revolting snobbery is combined with the arrogance and ignorance of youth. It’s entertaining stuff, but these guys are easy targets. Again Wade provides more. Like all children of the baby boomers these toffs could be the first generation in history to be worse off than their parents. Angrily interpreting the current state of the nation, they see that if they don’t change things, they might have to stop being posh.

The large cast does a great job of making each character distinct despite belonging to a limited social world. In a variety of ways, each exposes their weaknesses and is played with by the others. They are vicious to each other as only schoolboys can be while their amateur manoeuvrings have a pathetic touch. Joshua McGuire, who is still in his final year at RADA, stands out as Guy. More than most he is utterly clueless and desperate to gain approval. Leo Bill plays Alistair, notable for the frightening anger he conveys and his palpable confusion in the face of what he regards as the injustices of the world.

The play is bookended by meetings with Guy’s godfather Jeremy. Performed with sinister aplomb by Simon Shepherd, he is an MP on the look out for future talent. Shepherd is perfectly cast as the man these boys will grow up to be. If this sounds a little too conspiratorial, bear in mind that the idea of such dining clubs containing undergraduates plotting to control the country is well avoided here. Wade sets out empty, rambling arguments full of powerful emotion but safely removed from political reality.

It might seem odd but, for my money, the star roles are the smallest ones. Fiona Button plays the toffs’ waitress and Charlotte Lucas a prostitute hired by the club. The women carry themselves with a sense of dignity and purpose that the club-members lack. Their articulacy renders the men speechless – until they leave the room.

Added to all these great performances come some surprises. Surreal touches are added that make director Lyndsey Turner’s production speed along. A capella interludes where the club sing inappropriate versions of R’n’B numbers require that musical director James Fortune earns a special mention. The songs are great fun and serve as a wonderful reminder of how anachronistic the club is. A guest appearance by the club’s founder, Earl Riot, who possesses Toby (Jolyon Coy) in his drunken stupor, also changes the tempo of the piece.

All this combines to create a great evening at the theatre. Undoubtedly some will claim that the observations about class and politics are too broad but the insight into youth and group dynamics are spot on. Behind this, a great ear for dialogue and skill at creating dramatic situations should compel our politicians to watch this for tips on how to engage an audience, if nothing else.

Until 22 May 2010

www.royalcourttheatre.com

Photo by Johan Persson

Written 19 April 2010 for The London Magazine