Tag Archives: NTLive

“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

“Les Blancs” from NTLive

Although unfinished at her death in 1965, and in a production that’s four years old, Lorraine Hansberry’s play feels more urgent than ever. Questioning the perceived price of African lives, the legacy of imperialism and featuring the death of a black man in police custody, it is depressingly topical in this summer of Black Lives Matter protests.

Yaël Farber’s strong production doesn’t suit filming – that happens sometimes. The slower pace, which can work in a theatre, makes watching online tedious. Several scene changes, which use the theatre’s revolve well, dampen the script’s considerable tension on screen. That Hansberry wrote a thrilling play with plenty of action is a little lost.

Thankfully, even on film the strong characters and performances still shine. The ‘Whites’ of the title, running a missionary hospital in an unspecified African country, are well developed by James Fleet and Anna Madeley. And a visiting journalist – a little too close to a device to provide an American perspective – is played with passion by Elliot Cowan. A magnificent role for Siân Phillips, the wife of the Mission’s pastor who everyone is waiting to show up, illustrates the complexities of colonialism in a moving fashion.

LES BLANCS The National Theatre, 2016 photo Johan Persson
Siân Phillips and Danny Sapani

Three brothers, torn by the conflict for independence, provide drama of an epic nature that results in fantastic acting. Gary Beadle’s Abioseh is about to become a priest, while “mixed up” Eric, a powerful role for Tunji Kasim, wants to go to war. The focus is Tshembe, now established in Europe but “ravaged” by his responsibilities. Which path will he take?

Danny Sapani takes the part of this intellectual and reluctant revolutionary with a clear understanding that this is a unique kind of hero. Sapani shows Tshembe’s intelligence and humanity, making him interesting and appealing. But he is also aloof and dangerous. The tragic outcome is one of the most shocking you can imagine.

The brutal ending of Les Blancs shows its real strength lies in Hansberry’s unflinching bravery. Many scenes featuring Clive Francis’ bigoted Major Rice are difficult to watch, no matter how well they work dramatically. But, with Hansberry’s forensic arguments, the play is also bold. The exploitation of colonialism is easy to see, but what about the idea of the missionary sense of fulfilment also being at the expense of Africans? The play’s obsession with “reason”, easily contrasted with tradition, and a flirtation with violence (let alone nods to Marxism) are startling and powerful. 

Available until Wednesday 8 July2020

To support, visit nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photos by Johann Persson

"A Midsummer Night’s Dream" from NTLive

Filming theatre shows for broadcast in cinemas started during Nicholas Hytner’s time as artistic director at the National Theatre. So it’s appropriate that this resource, a defining feature of lockdown for theatregoers, visits and raises funds for Hytner’s new home, The Bridge Theatre.

As for the choice of show, this production of Shakespeare’s comedy, which won acclaim last summer, shows off Hytner’s directorial skills and his venue’s flexibility. It’s one of the best versions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream I’ve seen. And I even like the way its magnificent theatricality stubbornly refuses to be filmed.

Having small, movable stages and the audience standing in the stalls means the show is “immersive” – Hytner knows the term is a bit naff – with Bunny Christie’s brilliant design featuring beds that come up and down from the ceiling. And there are acrobats! David Moorst’s Puck is amazing to watch. Sometimes the film’s focus on performers’ faces is welcome, the crowd less distracting, and the joyousness Hytner instilled in the show is still present. But being in that crowd can’t be conveyed on a screen.

Fresh ideas and twists fill the play. There are small touches; a suggestion Hippolyta has a magical “power” over Hermia and making the ‘lion’ genuinely frightening (a great turn for Jamie-Rose Monk). Most noticeably is the change of gender over which fairy monarch is tricked – here Puck serves Titania (a wonderfully imperious Gwendoline Christie) to fool Oberon.

Oliver Chris’s Fairy King – who falls for the brilliantly funny Bottom of Hammed Animashaun – is magnificent. Their affair is sexy and funny and – evidence of how skilled both actors are – also moving. It leads to the best dad dancing I’ve seen and a promenade around the audience that is a real highlight. That Chris can get a laugh with the word ‘mulberries’ tells you all you need to know.

A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Bridge Theatre
The “crew of patches” led by Hammed Animashaun

The joke at the heart of the play can go wrong. But Hytner targets a toxic masculinity it feels good to laugh at. Oberon and Theseus, who Chris also plays and doesn’t slack at, are poked fun of for their (fragile) sense of power. Likewise, the Athenian lovers Demetrius and Lysander are also a source of humour with their young machismo. Magically, it makes all these sometimes boorish men more appealing. Similarly, the “crew of patches” performers are a joke but in a gentle fashion. With a finale where Animashaun commands the stage, there’s just a glimmer that their show within a show is serious! The joke is that Bottom is trying – he even bears in mind that his performance is in the round. Bless. Yes, it makes it funnier that he’s so bad – such delusion could only come in dream. But it gives the production a charm and energy that, by the end, make it feel like a party.

Available until Wednesday 1 July2020

To support, visit nationaltheatre.org.uk, https://bridgetheatre.co.uk

Production poster image by Perou, production photo by Manuel Harlan

“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

“Coriolanus” from NTLive

It’s a shame not to be able to rave about Josie Rourke’s Donmar Warehouse production of Shakespeare’s Roman epic a little more. The idea of putting the title character’s mother, Volumnia, to the fore is excellent and leads to the performance of a lifetime from Deborah Findlay. But Coriolanus is a tricky play, with an unappealing central character and short crowded scenes that are tough to make convincing. Although Rourke tries hard to inject energy and aid comprehension, the play frequently drags and hard to follow.

Rourke recreates the battle scene (where Caius Marcius wins his honorary surname of Coriolanus) with chairs and ladders – it probably looked better on stage but it is tough to follow. And a hard-working cast doubling up as politicians from different sides is also confusing.

It’s difficult to care about Coriolanus and his obsession with honour – even his arrogance becomes repetitive. How good a politician might he be? Is he truly modest or just another hypocrite? Such questions become unsubtle in a show with lots of shouting and moving around, none of which helps you work out what is going on or makes it exciting.

Thankfully, Deborah Findlay makes the show more than worth watching. Every scene with Volumnia is marvellous; from her introduction as the mother who would rather have a “good report” of her son than have him survive a war, to her creepy adoration of his battle scars. Findlay makes the exaggerations everyone spouts make sense. Rourke’s focus pays off and if the show uneven – aren’t we just waiting for these scenes? – it’s worth it. Here, Rourke has added to our interpretation of the play and brings out the best bits.

It’s not that the rest of the cast is bad – far from it. There are good turns from Elliot Levey and Helen Schlesinger as the tribunes who plot against Coriolanus, and making them lovers is another good idea. Mark Gatiss, as Menenius, gets better as the show goes, with a “cracked heart” from his last meeting with Coriolanus that is effective. 

CORIOLANUS The Donmar Warehouse credit Johan Persson
Tom Hiddleston

As for our leading man, Tom Hiddleston is very good indeed. It might have been interesting to explore the suggestion of “witchcraft” in the role, but Hiddleston is more than a little scary and brings out the character’s urge to be the “author of himself” well. Hiddleston can hold a stage superbly and, with Rourke’s impressive visual sense in this literally bloody show, helps creates some memorable images.

Yet even Coriolanus ends up seeming something of a foil for his mother – Findlay is so good. On her son’s exile, Volumnia refuses to cry, saying “anger’s my meat” in chilling fashion. That she finally begs Coriolanus is all the more moving – no wonder Hiddleston is reduced to tears. Even here there is a manipulative edge (see how she ushers her grandson towards his father) and note that this tragic dilemma is hers. Coriolanus says his mother deserves to have a temple built to her. It’s one of the few sensible things he utters. But, recalling Matthew Dunster’s idea about Cymbeline a few years ago at Shakespeare’s Globe, it might be an idea to change the title of this play, too? From Coriolanus to Volumnia anyone? 

Available until Wednesday 11 June 2020

To support, visit nationaltheatre.org.ukdonmarwarehouse.com

Photos by Johan Persson

“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

“A Streetcar Named Desire” from NTLive

Provided during lockdown via the National Theatre, Benedict Andrews’ acclaimed production of the Tennessee Williams classic was a big hit for the Young Vic back in 2014: don’t forget there are two places to consider donating to this week! Intense and innovative, it reflects the spirit of its author and is a strong revival of a classic.

The legendary role of Blanche DuBois, the archetypal Williams heroine – a deluded, down-at-heel former Southern Belle – makes a star role for Gillian Anderson. The issue with such an iconic part is the struggle to make her appear new, and Anderson achieves this with a fraught interpretation full of pain that focuses on alcoholism and mental health.

Blanche is charming and sexy. Anderson makes her funny, too. But she is also imperious and her arrival and stay with her sister and brother-in-law, Stella and Stanley, along with a romance with their friend Mitch, is full of condescension as well as tension. Blanche’s “awful vanity”, which Anderson does not share, make her unappealing and her attraction to young boys is downright creepy. The desire for “temporary magic” doesn’t convince as it might, but Anderson still makes Blanche a heart-rending figure.

Andrews’ use of a revolving stage made the production memorable, but Magda Willi’s design is downplayed in the recording in favour of close-up shots. This is to the benefit of all, as the fine work from director and cast is, literally, clearer. This Streetcar Named Desire is presented as a real four-hander.

Vanessa Kirby in 'A Streetcar Named Desire'
Vanessa Kirby

Vanessa Kirby’s Stella is at her best when showing sisterly concern, which she does with consistent skill. Ben Foster’s Stanley is entirely brutal, given none of the glamour sometimes associated with the role. He’s all “animal force”, which makes his final outrage against Blanche (a scene not for the faint hearted) terrifying; the predestination he claims – “We’ve had this date with each other from the beginning” – is chilling. Foster’s performance is stark but fits Andrews’ brutal vision. Violence pervades the show, domestic abuse is taken for granted, and even Blanche’s suitor Mitch moves from having a “sensitive look” to being a threatening presence in a brilliant performance from Corey Johnson.

Ben Foster in "A Streetcar Named Desire"
Ben Foster

Williams, like his creation Blanche, goes for “strong bold colours”, a preference literally reflected in Jon Clark’s lighting design and one that sums up Andrews’ approach. As the “evasions and ambiguities” Blanche has been living with lead to a total breakdown, there’s the suggestion that Stanley, as with every other man she has encountered, has gaslighted her. It’s a bold and enlightened way of bringing out Williams’ questions of “deliberate cruelty” that make this production even better on a second viewing.

Available until Wednesday 28 May 2020

To support, visit nationaltheatre.org.uk, youngvic.org

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