Tag Archives: Sebastian Armesto

“Leopoldstadt” at Wyndham’s Theatre

Start your play with a Jewish family in turn of the century Vienna and an audience is sure to have expectations. Tom Stoppard knows this, of course, there’s little Tom Stoppard doesn’t know. But the craft behind his new history play is a marvel. And the emotional power of Leopoldstadt every bit as strong as you’d imagine.

Starting in 1899, things are convivial and a little confusing. We’re introduced to Hermann Merz and an extended family that – like the cast – is huge. As we see them grow up, and the family grow, it’s tough to keep track. Thankfully, Aidan Mcardle and Faye Castelow take the lead as Mr and Mrs Merz, with marital troubles and his conversion to Christianity, to focus on.

Faye Castelow in LEOPOLDSTADT photo credit Marc Brenner
Faye Castelow

The discussions are fascinating and highbrow – after all, this is Vienna and they are Jewish! Identity, mostly, but all manner of politics and culture. There’s a sense of excitement and pride about the city that roots the play. Stoppard sets out issues clearly – it’s a great lesson in intellectual history – but also makes debates feel alive as the characters live them.

Admiration for the cast grows as their characters age. Mcardle and Castelow triumph as Stoppard takes us to the end of their characters’ lives. Jenna Augen’s Rosa, an American relation, is also a highlight with a performance that goes from strength to strength. And it is a thrill to see relatively small roles so fully developed. Sam Hoare is just one example as a British journalist who marries into the family. Director Patrick Marber has neglected nothing, like Brigitte Reiffenstuel’s exquisite costumes, the attention to detail is winning. A sense of grandeur and respect appropriate to the subject infuses the show.

If there are slower moments, the dramatic point behind the depth and detail brought to Leopoldstadt becomes clear as history progresses. A family encounter with Nazi’s is difficult to watch. Seeing the characters, we have so deftly been made to respect and admire, cowered and humiliated is painful. What happens feels unbelievable. Shocking. And that’s quite an achievement when we all know the awful history.

Arty Froushan, Jenna Augen and Sebastian Armesto
Arty Froushan, Jenna Augen and Sebastian Armesto

Stoppard gives us the space to think about history. A scene set in 1955 focuses on the encounter between a younger generation: Leo, who escaped to Britain, and Nathon, who has survived a concentration camp. If Sebastian Armesto and Arty Frouhsan play the roles broadly, they match the peculiar underlying tension to the scene which compliments the extremes of their experience. As Leo learns the fates of his family from Augen (who makes Rosa’s suffering palpable) we are made aware of how close we’ve become to them all leading to a conclusion of intense theatrical power.

Until 30 October 2021


Photos by Marc Brenner

“A Passage to India” at the Park Theatre

Simon Dormandy’s adaptation of E M Forster’s classic novel, which Dormandy directs with Sebastian Armesto, is sterling work. A harsh look at British rule in India, justice is given to the novel’s profound and disconcerting questions about how cultures and races mix.
This isn’t a production stuck in a period rut – hurrah! There are toffs, well led by Edward Killingback as the young magistrate about to be ruined by the Raj. And there’s the more enlightened Fielding, who Richard Goulding ensures is believably admirable. But we aren’t trapped in a distant past. The openly expressed racism Forster parodied is, one hopes, disestablished. But the anxiety about multi-culturalism is still frightening.

Edward Killingback and Phoebe Pryce
Edward Killingback and Phoebe Pryce

Its the visiting Adela, for whom Phoebe Pryce creates the perfect balance of sympathy, who becomes the focus of a dangerous drama. With her wish to see “the true India”, she befriends the Indian Dr Aziz, and a trip to the Marabar Caves results in the accusation of an “insult” that leads to public unrest. There could be more tension in the ensuing courtroom scene, but Asif Khan excels as Aziz. The humour, love of life, then sadness and anger are all present – it’s wonderful to see such a well-loved character brought to the stage so brilliantly.

Richard Goulding and Asif Khan
Richard Goulding and Asif Khan

The production falters at that pivotal episode in the caves, when Adele claims to have been attacked, and an audience doesn’t know what happened. Surely Aziz could have conspicuously left the stage, leaving the possibility of his guilt, and the tension that creates, open for a while? Nonetheless Forster’s theme of Panic (let’s give it a capital P) is conveyed consistently. It’s the mysteries and muddles the afflict humanity that make his work enduring. These struggles are embodied in the figure of Mrs Moore, and Dormandy wisely gives plenty of time to her. Again, there’s a strong performance, from Liz Crowther, unshy of the character’s “disagreeable” side and forcing us to confront bleak questions.

Kuljit Bhamra and Meera Raja
Kuljit Bhamra and Meera Raja

The production prioritises lyricism. It starts with Walt Whitman’s poetry that Forster so admired, and vocal work and impressive accompanying music by Kuljit Bhamra are expert additions. The “primal noise” of the cave, a cause and symbol of confusion, is created by the ensemble. The props are as sparse as can be, a blessed world away from film versions of Forster’s work. There are moments when the exposition could be clearer, but the approach demands imagination from the audience, leading to building theatrical excitement. And it serves the novel surprisingly well. A Passage to India may be pessimistic in its conclusions but, in sharing its author’s intelligence and imagination, this production is one to celebrate.

Until 24 March 2018


Photos by Idil Suka

“Moby Dick” at the Arcola Theatre

The Simple8 theatre company has already won acclaim for its current brief season at the Arcola Theatre. Moby Dick is its second production, following The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, another ambitious adaptation made remarkable by a back-to-basics method. With minimal props and a set erected during the action, Simple8’s emphasis is on story telling, delivering an appealingly pared-down piece of theatre.

Taking on the subject of mad Captain Ahab and whale hunting in such a rudimentary fashion works well and much of the success comes from the accompanying music, sea shanties and touching folk songs. Performances are also excellent, from Joseph Kloska as the cruelly obsessed, mutilated mariner Ahab, forever “bound” to chase the eponymous Great White, and Oliver Birch for a series of smaller roles. Taking the lead is Sargon Yelda as an impoverished schoolmaster turned sailor. If at times a touch too ebullient, he navigates proceedings admirably as our narrator.

Sebastian Armesto’s adaptation of Melville’s mammoth classic is strikingly economical and effective – qualities also commendable in his direction. Armesto superbly wrings out the action in the text using a great deal of mime and Melville’s religious concerns are downplayed. Instead, Armesto is fascinated by the allegorical use of the sea as a mirror for man’s own nature. It’s a rich seam to explore and one that gives satisfying depths to a show that provides much to reflect upon.

Until 4 May 2013


Photo by Idil Sukan

Written 3 April 2013 for The London Magazine