Tag Archives: National Theatre

“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

“Phèdre” from NTathome

After its generous offering of shows for donations during the first lockdown (thanks again) the National Theatre now has a streaming service. It’s a great deal: choose a monthly subscription, with exclusive content, or rent shows individually. And the broadcasts are those for cinemas, so of the highest quality. Joining up sounds like a good New Year’s Resolution to me.

The first show

There’s plenty of choice – more will be added each month – but I’ve started at the beginning, with the first NTLive broadcast dating from 2009. Nicholas Hytner’s production of Jean Racine’s version of the Phèdre myth, with Theseus’ wife in love with his son, is a show I’ve long regretted missing.

The first triumph for the production is Ted Hughes’ text. The script is packed with memorable lines. This is glorious poetry. The story is clear and the telling captivates the ear, no matter how complex the psychology.

Hytner’s direction matches Hughes’ direct appeal. There’s nothing fancy here – it’s not needed. Nothing distracts from the characters’ passion and turmoil, with their flaws and the “inexorable Gods” balanced as explanations of why tragic events unfold.

Famous faces

Helen Mirren takes the lead role and gives a performance that deserves to be described as mythic. Phèdre is “the monster in this riddle”, a “diabolical” woman, who can be truly scary. But it’s Phèdre’s agony that Mirren makes palpable. The “constellations of torment” over love for her stepson Hippolytus are various. There’s guilt aplenty and it’s plenty moving. At first, Phèdre is a “dying woman wanting only to die”, and Mirren conveys this exquisitely. But there’s also anger – an address to Venus is magnificent. As Phèdre becomes a “woman in a frenzy”, speculation escalates as to what will come next.

Ruth Negga and Chipo Chung in Phedre credit Catherine Ashmore
Ruth Negga and Chipo Chung

Phèdre is Mirren’s show. But there’s a superb supporting cast here. The play’s love triangle, with Hippolytus enamoured by enemy of the state Aricia, is not to the fore but makes a strong role for Ruth Negga. Aricia’s “thrill” at conquering the chaste Hippolytus gives her character an edge. While Dominic Cooper’s Hippolytus has presence (his chemistry with Negga is great and he’s generally good with torment!) there are some shortcomings. A description of him as “the most loveable of men” doesn’t match Cooper’s performance and even the character’s oft-repeated flaw of pride isn’t conveyed.

Back to the best bits. A trio of attendants populate the play, commenting on or contributing to psychology or action, and all three performances are fantastic. Margaret Tyzack is remarkable as Phèdre’s nurse Oenone, her complete dedication rendered utterly convincing. Both John Shrapnel and Chipo Chung, attendants of the younger lovers respectively, admire and admonish by turns. These roles are effective in making us question how much Phèdre is really “the cause of everything”.

Dominic Cooper and Stanley Townsend in Phedre credit Catherine Ashmore
Dominic Cooper and Stanley Townsend

Gods aside, there are moments when each of those in power seems easily played. And nobody appears more manipulated than the ‘hero’, in classical terms, of the piece – the legendary Theseus. Stanley Townsend manages to make the king successfully human. Cursing his son, and calling in a handy favour from Poseidon, is an electric moment that reflects the dichotomy surrounding personal motivations and divine interventions perfectly.

Up next…

Shows missed and much-loved productions that can be watched again have a place on NTathome. Olivia Williams’ play Mosquitoes was tricky to get a ticket for (it stars Olivia Colman), so is next on my list. Dara, Othello and The Cherry Orchard are all excellent shows I’m tempted to revisit. Once again, the National Theatre is going to be a huge help during lockdown.

www.ntathome.com 

Photos by Catherine Ashmore

“The Death of England: Delroy” at the National Theatre

While its back catalogue of broadcasts from NTLive was a blessing during lockdown, being back on the South Bank for a show in real life is the real deal. For those lucky enough to have caught the brief window of performances, before a second closure, this new play by Clint Dyer and Roy Williams was a very special occasion.

An introduction from creative director Rufus Norris, justifiably proud of his theatre getting back into action, added to the atmosphere. The caution shown around protecting customers is clear: there are allocated tables before being taken to seats and – beware – last orders for pre-show drinks is in the afternoon.

What of the play selected to welcome theatre devotees back? As well as the important subject matter of racism, Death of England: Delroy is topical. After seeing shows years old, it’s good to be reminded of how quickly theatre can respond to current concerns.

A sort of sequel to their show last year, Dyer and Williams develop a character mentioned in their previous monologue, Death of England. Recounting a “very bad day” Delroy has had – quite randomly – this likeable character runs into trouble with the police. Serious consequences include estranging him from partner and new-born child.

The show provides a starring role for Michael Balogun who is superb. It’s amazing to learn he was drafted into the project last minute. A rapid-fire delivery shows remarkable confidence with the script. And his level of energy over 90 minutes is astounding.

Welcome as the show is, it would be wrong to say it’s perfect. The Olivier is an unforgiving space at the best of times and the Covid-reduced seating feels particularly detrimental. All the more credit to Balogun for creating an atmosphere that ranges from convivial to confrontational.

The unusual conditions can’t be avoided. But Dyer’s direction creates problems too. It’s understandable that all aspects of design (the set by Ultz, lighting by Jackie Shemesh and sound by Pete Malkin) want to show off what the National is capable off. Like us, the team is thrilled to be back in the theatre. But does this show need any extras? Loud, dazzling, effects and some pretty naff props (including an explosion of confetti) are not needed with such a strong script.

Because the text itself really is excellent. The bravura language, which Delroy aptly describes as a “riot in my mouth” is provocative and funny. The ease with which ideas are raised is impressive, including arguments both enlightening and far-fetched (a motivation for voting to leave Europe is worth a raised eyebrow). There’s anger alongside a cool recognition of “colour class bullshit” that pervades all aspects of Delroy’s life. Putting the spotlight on privilege couldn’t be more timely; Dyer and Williams are experts at it.

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Normski Photography

“Amadeus” from NTLive

Although mediocrity is mentioned many times in Peter Schaffer’s play, it is not a word to describe the playwright’s masterpiece. The battle between the average composer Antonio Salieri and the divinely gifted Mozart makes for a great combination of drama and history with big ideas around posterity and religion.

This production, energetically directed by Michael Longhurst, dates from 2017. It is notable for the inclusion of the Southbank Sinfonia (which you can also donate to). The musicians move around the stage and interact with the cast as a sense of theatrical complicity – an intelligent response to the text – is carefully nurtured. 

There’s a superb leading performance from Lucian Msamati as Salieri, who conveys the character’s sense of arrogance and pain, always keeping the audience on side. Msamati makes the play’s theoretical (and theological) questions emotive. And he has an easy comic touch. There are also strong turns from his ‘Venticelli’ – servants who bring him gossip – played by Sarah Amankwah and Hammed Animashaun. As an aside, the latter has been a lockdown revelation for me, having revisited, or caught up with, shows he has consistently excelled in.

Amadeus at the National Theatre by Marc Brenner
Amadeus at the National Theatre by Marc Brenner

That Longhurst’s achievements aren’t fully conveyed on the screen is something we should be getting used too. It is hard to appreciate just how well he uses the Olivier stage. Close-up filming has a tendency to make the show look chaotic rather than choreographed. And it is a disappointment that Adam Gillen’s performance as Mozart comes across as shrill and oddly accented: I remember being impressed when I saw him on stage. Again, he is playing for an auditorium and not a camera. 

Any quibbles reinforce what theatregoers love and miss about a life experience. With Amadeus being the final show in the season offered by the National Theatre because of Covid-19 shutting its doors, all those involved can be proud. Seeing a body of work, as the whole world has been able to do, of such diversity and quality has been awe-inspiring. NTLive has been more than welcome – it has been a real light during lockdown.

Until 22 July 2020

To support, visit nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photos by Marc Brenner

"The Deep Blue Sea" from NTLive

This week the National Theatre’s fund-raising offering is sheer class. Carrie Cracknell’s 2016 production of Terence Rattigan’s play is a traditional affair that oozes quality, with a solid script, stunning set and stellar performances.

The Deep Blue Sea is far from easy sailing. It starts with its heroine, Hester, having just attempted suicide, as the affair that broke her marriage is coming to an end. Concern over mental health has progressed since Rattigan was writing in 1952 but the playwright’s insight into depression offers much to learn from.

Rattigan’s preoccupation, however, is Hester’s passion. Her love for her husband, eclipsed by that for RAF pilot Freddie Paige, is fascinating. The romance is dangerous – this sea is stormy. Hester sees no chance of escaping a love that will not work: she and Freddie are “death to each other”. The production’s first triumph is to make sure Rattigan’s piece doesn’t descend into melodrama.

Tom Burke in The Deep Blue Sea. Image by Richard Hubert Smith
Tom Burke

The love triangle provides strong roles for Peter Sullivan and Tom Burke, who are excellent. Their chemistry with their leading lady is astonishing. Burke is especially strong in making the occasionally odious Freddie convincingly alluring as an “homme fatale”. But the show belongs to Helen McCrory whose performance as Hester is flawless. Sharp and wry, the mix of “anger, hatred, shame” is conveyed in every move.

There’s a sense of British reserve behind all the action, darkly adding to the potency, but McCrory and Cracknell keep this as under control as Hester’s emotions. Moments when Hester is alone and can let go – holding her face to the light or crawling on the floor in desperation – are awe-inspiring in their emotional power.

The Deep Blue Sea image by Richard Hubert Smith
Tom Schutt’s impressive set

Focusing on a sense of community within the boarding house setting, aided by Tom Schutt’s impressive set full of solicitous neighbours, means Cracknell adds to the play. A brilliant scene where Hester is joined by the women in the piece (played by Marion Bailey and Yolanda Kettle) alters our focus. It’s a move all the more remarkable given that the play, through Rattigan’s biography, is often discussed for its gay subtext.

If interested, try to track down a copy of Mike Poulton’s play Kenny Morgan, about the suicide of Rattigan’s lover (and a fascinating work in its own right). There is a danger that The Deep Blue Sea can be overpowered by this biographical note. But Cracknell has provided a space for the play to exist independently; an achievement for any revival that makes Rattigan’s script and his legacy stronger.

Until 16 July 2020

To support, visit nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photos by Richard Hubert Smith

“Small Island” from NTLive

Andrea Levy’s 2004 novel, written long before the national disgrace of the Windrush scandal, feels regrettably pertinent during these times of Black Lives Matter protests. The piece is a painful example of how systemic racism can be – even the most sympathetic character is prone to insulting comments – and it’s depressing to note that the treatment of those coming to our country has never been something we can be proud of.

There’s more to Levy’s work than important lessons about multiculturalism. It’s a long time before the major characters – Hortense and the men in her life, Michael and Gilbert – actually get to the UK. Completing a romantic pentagon, full of coincidence and longing, are Queenie and her husband Bernard. Questions of gender and class are brought the fore with a well-realised sense of a period drama that’s blissfully free of nostalgia.

Aisling Loftus and Leah Harvey in Small Island
Aisling Loftus and Leah Harvey

Such rounded characters are a dream for performers. Leah Harvey takes the lead as the snobby, slightly spiteful, Hortense, who we still come to love. Joining her as Queenie, Aisling Loftus is just as good, and both women bring out the humour in the script that the characters are more the butt of then instigators (bit of shame).

CJ Beckford in Small Island
CJ Beckford

CJ Beckford makes a suitably dashing Michael (praise, too, for Trevor Laird’s performance as his father, who carries the show’s religious undercurrent), while Gershwyn Eustache Jnr’s charm matches that of his character, Gilbert. Andrew Rothney is also excellent at allowing us to see the complexity of his unsympathetic Bernard.

Andrew Rothney, Leah Harvey and Gershwyn Eustache Jnr in Small Island
Andrew Rothney, Leah Harvey and Gershwyn Eustache Jnr

Small Island’s considerable success starts with the fact that it’s a great story. Both Helen Edmundson’s adaptation and the direction from Rufus Norris use the narrative to the fullest to create a gripping show that feels far shorter than its three-hour running time. Katrina Lindsay’s design is impressively minimal, relying on excellent costumes. I’m not even sure Jon Driscoll’s impressive projections are really needed (although the colour in these great production photos is making me think again). The power of the story comes out on the stage, its message hopefully lingering long after viewing.

Available until Wednesday 24 June 2020

To support, visit nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photos by Brinkhoff Moegenburg

“The Madness of George III” from NTLive

Another trip away from the South Bank this week, to the Nottingham Playhouse, means two places to donate to and reminds us of problems facing theatres nationwide during the Covid-19 lockdown. Alan Bennett’s play started at the National Theatre in 1991 and this revival, directed by Adam Penford towards the end of 2018, shows strong work outside the capital.

Penford approaches the piece with a disciplined hand. Although the title role is unquestionably a star part for Mark Gatiss, who does very well, each member of the cast gets a chance to shine. Gatiss has the King’s avuncular nature down to perfection (what a good gossip), and he makes his illness moving. The stuttering, frustrated efforts to communicate – fantastic writing from Bennett – are great.

George’s love match with Queen Charlotte is well conveyed with the help of Debra Gillett (although the off-and-on German accent could be tighter). Best of all is the appearance of Adrian Scarborough as the King’s physician Willis, who adds a good deal of tension. Many a show picks up when Scarborough walks on stage but, unfortunately, that feels especially true here.

Surprisingly, given Gatiss’ background in comedy, the play isn’t as funny as you might hope. There are too many lines wasted: telling the Prince Regent that style never immortalised anyone really should get a laugh. Instead, the play’s keen eye for politics seems to interest Penfold more.

Focusing on the power struggles behind the sick monarch is good news for Nicholas Bishop as “cold fish” Prime Minister Pitt and is, undoubtedly, interesting. But the plotting could be clearer and scenes in Parliament are pretty poor, despite some nice design from Robert Jones. Nonetheless, Bennett does well when he engages with history and Penford is smart to pick this up. If the author’s more romping moments are neglected, the play is clearly still in good shape.

Available until Wednesday 17 June 2020

To support, visit nationaltheatre.org.uk

“This House” from NTLive

The scheduling for the National Theatre’s fund-raising lockdown-lifeline was organised a while ago, so a play about arrogant politicians and their mistakes can’t be seen as a current commentary. And anyway, in James Graham’s fantastic play the humanity of our Members of Parliament is to the fore, making it funny and moving as a result. Set between 1974 and Margaret Thatcher’s election five years later, these politicians of a previous age come off rather well. The current lot should be so lucky in their chronicler.

Too young to remember the events he so skilfully recounts (as one MP comments, it’s “anarchy out there”), Graham surely makes them slightly more interesting than they really were. Comprehensively and impeccably researched, this is a modern history lesson brilliantly told. All manner of boring bills and the arcane workings of parliament are made fascinating and funny. You honestly don’t have to be interested in party politics to find This House interesting.

Jeremy Herrin’s direction is a masterclass: what could so easily be confusing is clear, his appreciation of the comedy is perfect while at other times the pace resembles a thriller. Herrin is also careful to allow space for more poignant moments without lapsing into sentimentality – the script benefits as a result. It’s hard not to become attached to several figures, even with smaller appearances (the member for Walsall North and a subplot about mental health, played by Andrew Havill, spring to mind).

Focusing on the “engine room” of the Whips offices is Graham’s key move. On the Labour side, the roles of Walter Harrison and Ann Taylor prove the most interesting, making great roles for Reece Dinsdale and Lauren O’Neil, who play with how ruthless their characters are with appropriate efficiency. The jokes on class, gender, personal foibles and the 1970s range from downright howlers to subtle observation. The “aristotwats” they oppose are led by the brilliantly waspish Humphrey Atkins and the dapper Jack Weatherill, even stronger roles for Julian Wadham and Charles Edwards who are both brilliant.

Phil Daniels and Vincent Franklin in 'The House' at the National Theatre credit Johan Persson
Phil Daniels and Vincent Franklin

This is a recording of the show’s transfer from the Dorfman (then Cottesloe) into the larger Olivier auditorium. The music accompanying the show seems less noticeable and Rae Smith’s design, including the audience seated on a moving stage (what fun) is understandably lost. A bigger problem is that the cast seems to be compensating for the bigger space. Yes, politicians shout a lot, but the lead Labour Whips, played by Phil Daniels and Vincent Franklin, bellow all the time and the roles suffer as a result. Filming exaggerates this further.

Nonetheless, as a “war of attrition” takes its toll on the Labour ranks, Graham’s questioning of cooperation and the constant deals politicians make comes to the fore. Remember that when it was written in 2012 the UK was dealing with its first coalition government since World War II. A long way from Machiavelli, lots of the machinations here are petty, the motivations mostly tribal. Neither detract from the drama and maybe one character becomes something of a hero? Without making excuses for our masters, Graham has shown one lot at least working hard and trying their best.

Available until Wednesday 3 June 2020

To support, visit nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photos by Johan Persson

“Barber Shop Chronicles” from NTLive

With a trio of companies behind it – and, don’t forget, links for donations – the National Theatre, Fuel and Leeds Playhouse gave us something for the weekend with Inua Ellams’ play. This recording, from the London run in 2018, reminds us why this piece – which covers vast ground geographically and brings up plenty for debate – was so warmly received.

Scenes in barber shops in London, Lagos, Accra, Kampala, Johannesburg and Harare add up to a lot. And we encounter plenty of colourful characters (Patrice Naiambana’s Paul was my favourite although Hammed Animashuan’s performance was brilliantly scene stealing). Alongside a powerful drama between Emmanuel and Samuel, which make good roles for Fisayo Akinade and Cyril Nri, there are all manners of observation on language, politics, race and culture. It’s all interesting, although maybe not always subtle, but it could easily be overwhelming.

Hammed Animashau in Barber Shop Chronicles at the National Theatre (c) Marc Brenner
Hammed Animashau

Ultimately, these chronicles are a collection of small studies and intimate scenes. Director Bijan Sheibani skilfully combines the big picture with close details, and the result belies any shortcomings. Ellams’ touch is light, while segues between scenes, with singing and dancing, are excellent. What could be confusing proves energetic. And the play is funny: jokes are used pointedly and there’s plenty of wit to enjoy.

While the barber shops, as a “place for talking”, serve as an effective device for holding the play together, what really does this job is the theme of fatherhood. The stories take in violence and various ideas of legacy and inheritance, offering plenty of insight. And it’s interesting to note how much bigger than biology the theme of parenthood becomes. Connections between the characters are handled carefully (until the end, in a clumsy moment that really disappoints). Ellams’ play, with Sheibani’s help, ends up more than the sum of its parts. And, given that it has more parts than a barber shop quartet, that’s really saying something.

Available until Wednesday 20 May 2020

To support visit nationaltheatre.org.uk, fueltheatre.com, leedsplayhouse.org.uk

Photos by Marc Brenner

“Frankenstein” from NTLive

Bringing out a blockbuster as its weekly offering to entertain and raise funds during lockdown, the National Theatre’s production of Mary Shelley’s story was a must-have ticket back in 2011. If you love the theatre, you love others getting exciting about it. So, it’s nice to relive some of the buzz about director Danny Boyle and his star casting of Benedict Cumberbatch. At the moment, it’s as exciting as things get… but to be honest, the show itself isn’t very good.

The production is impressive. Not least Bruno Poet’s lighting design, which Boyle uses so spectacularly. The massive rig of bulbs, which seems to take up the auditorium’s whole ceiling, is breath-taking. Boyle’s direction is swift and efficient (although based on the assumption that we all know the story), and the whole thing looks fantastic. Boyle isn’t scared of minimalism, revelling in the size of the stage, coming into the crowd and showing off the Olivier’s mechanics with pride.

During the show’s run, the title role and that of The Creature were played in rotation with Jonny Lee Miller. For the recording, Cumberbatch is the latter and gives a performance to win respect. It’s a success yet a laboured affair. The long opening “birth” scene, with The Creature as a giant toddler, is studied, well thought out, impeccably prepared and, yes, affecting – as he literally finds his feet – but it reeks of the rehearsal room.

It’s when The Creature acquires language that real problems arise. Sad to say, you wish nobody on stage, let alone the rather pompous monster, spoke. The script from Nick Dear is leaden and (sorry) without a spark of life. Shelley’s philosophical concerns are ticked off rapidly. A bit like The Creature, you end up feeling “ideas batter me like hailstones”. The characters can’t help but suffer. Lee Miller makes Frankenstein’s arrogance believable, but the character does little apart from shout. And, while there’s strong work from Naomie Harris, as his fiancée Elizabeth, her appearances feel forced.

Boyle keeps up the pace, so much so that The Creature’s thirst for revenge arrives too suddenly. Also rushed is a thematic battle between rationality and love – which could have proved interesting. Cumberbatch manages to be frightening, Miller compelling and Harris holds her own, despite the scene of her wedding night hampered by some clumsy filming that I assume had an age guideline in mind. But the show feels like Frankenstein’s motivation for his experiment – “a puzzle to be solved”. It’s impressively tackled yet, like the man himself, lacks depth and feeling.

Available until Wednesday 7 May 2020

To support visit nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Catherine Ashmore