Tag Archives: Nicholas Hytner

“Bach & Sons” at the Bridge Theatre

The biography of composer Johann Sebastian Bach that informs Nina Raine’s new play is interesting. And a star turn from Simon Russell Beale as the musical great makes this play entertaining. But, despite director Nicholas Hytner’s valiant efforts to tell the story, the playwright’s ambitions become a problem.

Raine and Russell Beale – he really is fantastic – make sure we enjoy a character both angry and vulnerable, with a sharp tongue and quick wit. An obsession with “order in all things” and his religiosity show a complex character. All good stuff. But the contrasts in Bach’s temperament find a too-fast parallel in discussions of his work.

The debate about life and art is held, noisily, with his sons – Wilhelm and Carl – composers moving into a new era and men living in their father’s shadow. But it’s the former, rather than a family drama, that is focused on. These sons almost disappear in the discussion Raine wants to start. And the ideas aren’t new or elaborated on particularly well. It’s only the sincerity in the delivery of the argument, from Samuel Blenkin and Douggie McMeekin, that makes any of this interesting.

Pandora Colin, Samuel Blenkin, Simon Russell Beale and Douggie McMeekin in Bach & Sons photo by Manuel Harlan
Pandora Colin, Samuel Blenkin, Simon Russell Beale and Douggie McMeekin

There is more Raine starts to investigate – the idea that a great artist doesn’t have to be a good man. It’s a notion that seems common sense to me but is increasingly debated, so input is welcome. Bach’s family suffers from his obsessions with telling the truth. His wives most of all. There are strong performances from Pandora Colin and Racheal Ofori as Mrs Bach 1 & 2. Raine has written fulsome roles that make these scenes more successful.

Raine tries to mix the high-flown ideas on art with down-to-earth comments (mostly about weight), but the efforts feel like a gesture. Saying one of Bach’s Passions was received like a “turd in a tureen” gets a laugh… but too briefly. Bach & Sons does build in power, there are moving moments with Russell Beale’s uncanny ability to show his character aging. But all the discussions of music and meaning, counterpoint and chaos, end up close to platitudes. The result is a piece that is disappointingly one note.

Until 11 September 2021

www.bridgetheatre.co.uk

Photos by Manuel Harlan

“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

“A Christmas Carol” at the Bridge Theatre

Although Christmas 2020 is sure to be very different, theatres are trying their best for the festival season. There are pantos out there (at the National Theatre, the Palladium and the Hackney Empire) and plenty of other versions of Charles Dickens’ perennial favourite are on offer. But Nicholas Hytner’s venue always promises good value and this neat, concise version, adapted by Hytner himself, does not disappoint.

The production boats an excellent cast. Simon Russell Beale as Ebenezer Scrooge would be a must see at any time – he is excellent and takes the role as seriously as he would any Shakespearean lead. Joining him to narrate and perform all other roles are Patsy Ferran and Eben Figueiredo, both showing a masterful physicality and excellent portfolio of accents. The trio form such a superb ensemble, it’s hard to imagine you need more performers to bring the story to the stage.

The key to the show’s success is good old-fashioned story telling. Aided by Jon Clark’s lighting design and an effective set from Rose Revitt, there’s a cosy feel of the tale unfolding. And suitably spooky touches for each of the ghosts who arrive to teach Scrooge the meaning of Christmas. The almost obligatory video design (from Luke Halls and Zakk Hein) is good but hardly necessary with story tellers this proficient.

There’s fun (and even Christmas jumpers) as Hytner’s adaptation injects plenty of humour. Figueiredo adds some lovely comic touches throughout. But the trick is to take the show seriously; Russell Beale’s Scrooge is carefully distanced from caricature. Seeing Dickens’ complex character sincerely brought to life makes a refreshing change that adds considerable drama. 

Now is the time for comfort theatre and Nicholas Hytner knows it. Injecting just the right amount of nostalgia into proceedings strikes a fine balance of escapism into Christmas pasts just as the present one might not be so great.

Until 16 January 2020

www.bridgetheatre.co.uk

Photo by Manuel Harlan

“Beat The Devil” at the Bridge Theatre

Leading the return to live theatre, Nicholas Hytner has his venue on the South Bank up and running. OK, it’s a season of monologues and we’ve seen a lot of them online during lockdown. And even though seats have been removed, rather than being left empty, the capacity is sadly shrunk. But the season, and this opening piece, are exciting. And it is great to be back inside an auditorium to experience theatre for real.

David Hare’s monologue is based on his own experience of contracting Covid-19. You might share my reservations about the subject matter – enough pandemic already! – but bringing Hare’s talent and intelligence to the subject is valuable. Full of insight and wit, with a perfect blend of humour around this serious topic, provides a healing quality to the show. Maybe it’s wishful thinking, but I left feeling that things are starting to get a little better.

The show has star appeal, with Ralph Fiennes taking the role of the writer. The delivery is impeccable, aided by Hytner’s confident direction, always aware of the text’s nuance. The balance of humour, humility and serious points is reflected well in the performance. The effects of this “dirty bomb” of a virus on Hare are detailed but contain no self-pity. More noticeable is the “survivor’s rage” when he comes to consider how politicians have been handling things.

It isn’t hard to claim Hare is preaching to the choir. There’s some fun personifying the virus, imagining it targeting Boris Johnson and Donald Trump’s faults. Developing an eloquent disbelief at how incompetent our leaders have shown themselves has considerable bite. As topical as could be, Hare’s anger is hopefully an indication of his full recovery. Holding those with power to account, as he has so many times in the past, is healthy and invigorating.

Until 31 October 2020

www.bridgetheatre.co.uk

“Talking Heads” at the Bridge Theatre

Four out of eight… that’s not some strange rating for these shows, far from it, but the number I’ve managed to see in this series of Alan Bennett monologues. The tickets are reasonably priced, the staff on top of social distancing, and creative director Nicholas Hytner’s idea of bringing his lockdown TV shows to the stage (where they clearly belong) is a simply brilliant.

The Shrine & Bed Among the Lentils

First up is Monica Dolan’s brilliant portrayal of a grieving widow. Learning about her husband’s life – after his death – her version of Clifford the bird watcher has to expand to include Cliff the biker. The Shrine is sensitive and often funny. It’s classic Bennett territory, with plenty of wry observation. And an important point about how individual bereavement is.

The accompanying piece has Lesley Manville’s turn as an “upstanding Anglican lady”. Battles with her husband the Vicar, and his fan club parishioners, start well. But does competitive flower arranging sit uncomfortably alongside the AA meetings the character ends up at? It’s Manville who makes the extramarital affair here seem something magical. Another performance not to miss. Both pieces are directed with a sure hand by Hytner.

The Hand of God & The Outside Dog

Another piece is also mostly noticeable for its performance. Did you ever imagine Kristen Scott Thomas could ‘do’ frumpy? The Hand of God is a touch predictable but, with an affecting melancholic air there’s no doubt this is another of Bennett’s strong characters. Playing a small-time antiques dealer, with humour coming from her snobbery, is a real achievement on Scott Thomas’s part.

More impressive – as the performance is excellent and the writing surprising – is The Outside Dog where Bennett moves to less familiar ground. A serial killer’s wife, a role Rochenda Sandall gets lots from, in a script that twists like a thriller. It’s plot driven but note its brevity. While the TV might drag a serial out of something like this (and we’ve all seen plenty on Netflix lately) Bennett and director Nadia Fall cram mystery, drama and emotion in a quarter of an hour – fantastic!

There are four more big stars to come – Lucian Msamati, Imelda Staunton, Tamsin Grieg and Maxine Peake – in two more double bills. This may be bite size theatre, but the season is a big achievement.

Until 31 October 2020

www.bridgetheatre.co.uk

Photos by Zach Harrison

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the Bridge Theatre

While Shakespeare’s romantic comedy is always a popular seasonal play, 2019 seems to be the summer for ancient Greeks and misbehaving fairies. While the production at Regent’s Park has already closed, you can still enjoy the Globe’s version, or this one from director Nicholas Hytner. It’s not a competition – the text continually proves its versatility and brings out the best of theatrical creativity. Suffice to point out the five-star reviews for this production and confirm that it thoroughly deserves them.

This is a promenade performance with the Bridge’s stalls space converted for standing patrons. I’m not a fan of the format but appreciate that the atmosphere appeals to many and, without question, Hytner manages it masterfully. The danger is distraction, as you have to keep your eyes peeled for potential moves and be more aware of fellow audience members. Some lines are lost during scene changes; rehearsing “obscenely” being a personal favourite that is sacrificed. All the more credit, then, to the impressive cast who command attention and use the crowd expertly. Above all, praise for designer Bunny Christie, who uses small stages that come up and down (seen in Julius Caesar last year) to great effect. The addition of a collection of beds that rise up to the roof and trapeze artists makes the show a visual delight.

Incorporating the audience is a gift to the comedy in the show. Take the play-within-a-play: as the workmen putting on a show account for playing in the round, this scene proves the highlight of a tremendous performance from Hammed Animashaun, who takes the role of Bottom. And there’s a nice self-deprecating note as well – as Moonshine’s torch blinds Hippolyta, Theseus helpfully consoles and explains by saying, “It’s immersive”. The humour may not be subtle (having such a great response to characters taking selfies is vaguely depressing) but it is sure to prove memorable. Touring one of the beds around the crowd or getting everyone to hold hands and circle the action are fun-filled highlights.

Gwendoline Christie (Titania) and David Moorst (Puck)

Along with Animashaun’s fantastic stage presence the production boasts an acrobatic Puck in David Moorst. A little too keen on his ad libs (which the show abounds in) Moorst’s physical performance is hugely impressive. And he brings an interesting cruel edge to his punk-inspired anarchy. This Puck is not entirely likeable or stable. The four Athenians in the forest feel a little too much like his victims and their roles (led by strong performances from Isis Hainsworth and Tessa Bonham Jones, as Hermia and Helena respectively) become more moving than funny.

Hammed Animashaun (Bottom) and Oliver Chris (Oberon)

Hytner’s strength is that, for all the fun, he isn’t afraid to make the show serious. There’s real tension in the plight of Hippolyta and the young lovers, a drama led by the excellent Oliver Chris, whose Theseus is steely to the point of sinister. And there’s an air of menace in Titania’s plot against Oberon – no, that’s not a mistake. In a brilliant gender swap, Gwendoline Christie gets the larger role as a Fairy Queen victimising her husband. A swipe at the patriarchy? Maybe, but while Oberon’s affair with Bottom gets plenty of giggles (praise for Chris and Animashaun again) the swap adds another layer of transgression that makes this dream edgy. Gender fluidity in Shakespeare is embraced more than ever at the moment, and Hytner is very much on board. But it’s because his direction recognises there can be bad dreams as well as good ones that his show appears so magical.

Until 31 August 2019

https://bridgetheatre.co.uk

Photos by Manuel Harlan

“Alys, Always” at the Bridge Theatre

Harriet Lane’s novel about an unassuming sub-editor called Frances, whose life becomes entangled with a famous author after a car accident, is a quality page turner. Bringing the story to the stage, Lucinda Coxon retains its strong plot and much of the book’s flavour: an air of Daphne du Maurier with a Ripleyesque lead make for a sturdy combination. There’s a stumble over the humour in the piece – Lane has a wry eye that Coxon has blurred – but the show is never less than entertaining.

With a strong cast, including Robert Glenister as the writer Laurence and Joanna David as his agent, there’s insight into London’s literati. But too many stabs at the middle classes become a problem in the role of Polly, Alys’ daughter. This spoilt rich girl is too broadly painted and easy to laugh at – a shame as Leah Gayer, who makes her professional debut in the part, clearly has the ability to make the character more sympathetic. Instead there’s less tension surrounding Frances manipulating the younger woman than there should be.

Even worse, too many jokes set in Frances’ workplace show the parallel plot of her blossoming career being mishandled by Coxon. In place of presenting another side to our heroine’s burgeoning ambition, we get a checklist of woes about the modern media that are both too familiar and unconvincing. Again, the gags have the detrimental effect of making many roles too slight. Frances’ editor and rival colleague Oliver see Sylvestra Le Touzel and Simon Manyonda struggling to fill out their parts.

Thankfully Alys, Always is more drama than comedy. And director Nicholas Hytner has always been good with suspense. He knows how to pace a text and place a body so that a glance between characters crackles with tension. There’s little overt confrontation, but its potential bubbles under in many scenes (Sam Woolf as Alys’ son is especially good). And there’s an impressive eye on the intricacies of class, revealing aspirations that become the catalysts for Alice’s actions. Bob Crowley’s set may be minimal but, along with Christina Cunningham’s costumes and Luke Halls’ video design, the details are precisely focused.

Frances, the unfairly ignored central figure, is key to the novel, which she narrates, and she fits comfortably on the stage thanks to a fine performance from Joanne Froggatt. Ever the underdog, sympathy is won quickly but, as this good Samaritan becomes a sinister gold digger, Froggatt still keeps us on side. From lies that might have a noble motivation, through to tasteless if harmless kleptomania for “talismans”, a combination of worry and repulsion surrounds her. The plots and emotional manipulation intrigue and excite. Even when Frances becomes ruthless, there’s the thrill that her plans might work and a quiet cheer for this special heroine.

Until 30 March 2019

www.bridgetheatre.co.uk

Photo by Helen Maybanks

“Allelujah!” at the Bridge Theatre

In his 84th year, Alan Bennett has written his most topical and overtly political play yet. Set on a geriatric ward, this is a heartfelt appeal for the NHS in its anniversary year and a play that is as challenging as it is amusing. Using the term youthful as praise seems inappropriate, but the piece feels fresh and bold regardless of the average age of its cast and creatives.

Allelujah! is full of songs and fun. With a massive cast, of mainly elderly characters, there is a sense of studies rather than fully fledged personalities. The experienced ensemble does well and is always entertaining, but it is great lines rather than roles that allow the likes of Gwen Taylor and Jeff Rawle to shine. Bennett adds life by injecting frank remarks and some swearing. It’s a simple but effective move.
When it comes to those running the hospital, conditions improve. There’s still some flab and flat parts – Bennett’s long-time director Nicholas Hytner could have been stricter. But from the hospital’s incompetent chairman, an excellent performance from Peter Forbes, and the stalwart Sister Gilchrist, a role that Deborah Findlay is superb in, Bennett points out systemic problems and gives them dramatic impact.

Sacha Dhawan and Samuel Barnett
Sacha Dhawan and Samuel Barnett

Samuel Barnett plays another villain, a management consultant, and is joined by fellow former History Boy Sacha Dhawan as the appealing Dr Valentine. The pair are polar opposites – indeed a story about migration feels a touch tagged on – but both do well to make Bennett’s blunt approach work. By the time we get to the plot twist, the whole atmosphere is appropriately spirited – nothing exercises emotions like the NHS.

The sensational storyline might be criticised in a younger writer. Given his pedigree, it seems safe to say that Bennett is aware of any potential drawbacks. Throwing a lot of subtlety to the wind, he joins the often reviled group of angry old men. And good for him. Allelujah! becomes hectoring towards the end; the patients’ patriotic singalong seems jolly enough, but there is little hope or glory around. Yet the anger here is salutary, Bennett wants to shake us up and, as a result, his play is a surprise.

Until 29 September 2018

www.bridgetheatre.co.uk

Photos by Manuel Harlan

“Julius Caesar” at the Bridge Theatre

Showing off his new venue’s versatility, director Nicholas Hytner has transformed London’s newest theatre for only its second show. Presenting Shakespeare’s Roman tragedy as a promenade performance, with the pit peopled by theatregoers standing in for the populace, reveals a cavernous space that seems rather empty at first. But as Bunny Christie’s set of rising and falling cubes gets into action we see Hytner’s skill at staging. This crowd control is superbly done, and probably fun if you are in among the action (I paid to sit). But it’s almost too interesting to watch the hard-working ushers moving the crowd around.

In a play that discusses manipulating the masses so openly, there’s a kind of appropriateness to being distracted by the mechanics of the production. There are many instances when it’s clear the show is trying hard to be a spectacle with impressive touches that give it an expensive feel. It’s loud – right from the start when a band opens the show – and Bruno Poet’s lighting design is superb. Scenes of battle include a barricade that appears with stunning speed to divide the space. There’s even a Jeep for a few seconds.

Ben Whishaw
Ben Whishaw

The performances have to fight against a lot here – with mixed results and plenty of shouting. Those who join the mob seem best placed, including Rosie Ede and the show’s lead vocalist Abraham Popoola. But David Calder’s Caesar seems lost; presenting him as a populist politician may make the production feel topical but it stunts his performance, making the role a box ticked rather than a figure to engage with. David Morrissey’s Marc Antony holds the crowd, he is convincing and a suitable heir to his crowd-pleasing mentor. Ben Whishaw delivers his lines with finesse and his performance is in keeping with a theme of sincere activism, but his Brutus is too meek. Cast as an academic who plays with his spectacles, it’s tricky to see his nobility behind his obscurantism. There are also strong performances from two women cast in traditionally male roles: Michelle Fairley and Adjoa Andoh make an impassioned Cassius and a ruthless Casca, respectively.

It is nuance that is lost in Hytner’s production. The action is clear, often exciting, but rather too black and white. And this is a humourless Julius Caesar. Of course, the play isn’t a comedy but there’s usually a cynicism that delivers a dark wit. These characters are all politicians, after all, manipulating one another as well as the mob, but the tone is one of intellectual conviction. Arguably, it’s in keeping with the times to persist in such an earnest tone. What inspires Hynter is a feeling of youthful sincerity – but this doesn’t make the play particularly interesting or entertaining.

Until 15 April 2018

www.bridgetheatre.co.uk

Photos by Manuel Harlan

“Young Marx” at the Bridge Theatre

There’s nothing more exciting than a new theatre. And, bearing in mind that Nicholas Hytner’s new venue is the biggest in London for a long time, its opening night is a major cultural event to really celebrate. In truth, it’s a bit of a box of place – in one of those luxury housing developments you wish you could afford but wouldn’t live in if you could – trying hard to be swish (expensive sarnies) and smelling a bit too new. But the play’s the thing and, to open his new home Hytner, has collaborated with regular favourites to deliver a real crowd pleaser.

The true history of Karl Marx’s early years living in London is fascinating, with a fact-stranger-than-fiction appeal – it seems that Marx was an expert in economics but couldn’t handle his own money. The lead role provides an enviable part for Rory Kinnear, who embraces this larger-than-life, Bohemian (yes, really) philosopher. With One Man Two Guvnors and Dead Ringers writers Richard Bean and Clive Coleman at work, the play is, as you would expect, good, old-fashioned funny.

With the excellent Oliver Chris as Friedrich Engels, the two revolutionaries make a comedy double act. They even have a piano, until the bailiffs call and, as invited, literally, take a chair. There’s more than a hint of the Marx Brothers here – there’s even a cigar or two. Add numerous emigrés with funny accents (Tony Jayawardena is a highlight as the impoverished family’s doctor) and you have more than enough comedy ingredients. Kinnear is even good for some slapstick. Hytner enjoys this stuff – as do audiences – and his direction is faultless.

Just to make sure all bases are covered, we get some light extrapolation of Marxist ideas to give us something to think about, and it’s pretty evenly handled, with nice touches of hindsight. And there’s pathos: the death of a Marx child is movingly portrayed. The treatment of Marx’s wife and mistress short-changes two excellent actors – Nancy Carroll and Laura Elphinstone – and it becomes hard to believe these women stuck around. And there is angst: that Marx fears unleashing the “virus of hope” with his writing is an interesting idea, but we need to see more of Marx’s power, rather than just being told about it. Maybe that would have made things too serious?

Young Marx tries hard to be a hit – and it deserves to be one. Even with the best reputation and address book in the business, starting a new commercial theatre is a brave move by Hytner and his producer Nick Starr. As new plays go, this is a pretty safe bet. But Hytner understandably has a cautious eye on commercial success. A big show to get people talking is exactly what is needed and my fingers are crossed for just that.

Until 31 December 2017

www.bridgetheatre.co.uk

Photo by Manuel Harlan