The star casting of Cush Jumbo in the title role of Shakespeare’s tragedy does not disappoint. One of the finest Hamlets I’ve seen, Jumbo gives a stirring performance of clarity, considerable humour and intelligence. This is the philosopher prince, keen to debate and discuss – a wit with a love of words.
In case you’re wondering, Jumbo plays Hamlet as a man (there’s no change of gender in the text). It’s how convincing she is as a swaggering youth that surprises, balancing bravado with insecurity just like many a teenage boy. The humour is excellently handled. Let’s be honest, not all the jokes in Hamlet work – some need a little extra help – and Jumbo seems to know exactly when to provide this.
Surprisingly, beyond casting a woman in the lead, director Greg Hersov’s commendable production ends up conservative, in the sense that it is restrained. Firstly, some performances are strikingly muted. Adrian Dunbar’s Claudius is a forceful study in minimalism. Incredibly understated, he barely raises his voice. The performance is all the more powerful for its control. The same praise can be given to Tara Fitzgerald’s Gertrude. Her delivery of Ophelia’s death, and even her own death, are remarkably flat. The royal couple are so repressed they are frightening.
As a contrast, Laertes and Ophelia carry much of the burden of emotion in the play. Hersov reminds us that Hamlet is the story of two families. Along with Joseph Marcell’s appealing Polonius, Norah Lopez Holden and Jonathan Ajayi create the sense of a family unit with remarkable speed and efficiency.
This Hamlet is an austere affair, from Anna Fleischle’s minimalist design to the sparse modern touches. There’s an edit, too – a bold one – as Fortinbras is excised. It’s all to focus on how cerebral both character and play are: this is a Hamlet for thinkers.
Plotters, too, of course. There’s Hamlet’s procrastination – but note how Jumbo carefully lays out thoughts. Hersov emphasises what a bunch of thinkers this court contains. Claudius doesn’t really try to pray; he’s working out why he can’t. And the scene of his plotting with Laertes is a proper sit-down meeting.
The production is a move away from those that have emphasised performance and acting. The travelling players suffer a little as a result and action is minimalised. But, as an interpretation focusing on argument and discussion, Hersov starts a debate about the play that this excellent production wins.
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’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.
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.
This Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Jackie Sibblies Drury is a challenging piece that explores racism in such a bold manner that it makes for uncomfortable viewing. There’s no doubt that Fairview is startling theatre – its potency and originality are embedded in its very structure. Beware plot spoilers as the action, sturdily directed by Nadia Latif, is deliberately – and brilliantly – disorientating. It’s impossible to forget that its award is American: many of the references are culturally specific and the final fourth-wall-breaking scene may have a different response in the UK. But, sure to prompt plenty of discussion, it will be fascinating to see if a work about cultural divisions can cross the Atlantic divide.
see an African American family dinner, played as a light sit-com that becomes
surprisingly tiresome. The scene is then repeated as mime while we hear another
set of actors debate race. The later dialogue proves truly excruciating –
increasingly so as it becomes clear that they are talking about what we are
theories about the gaze so admired by cultural studies (and turning the tables
on an audience) certainly makes the play powerful. The toe-curling talk
presumably plays at being even-handed – regardless of the politics of those
overheard, they are all pretty awful. So, you might think Drury is a little
tough on a well-off liberal? Or that the treatment of an ignorant French
speaker is a little silly? Maybe you’ll get nervous about the cultural
appropriation of a third talker who later appears as a drag queen? And I’d
rather just skip the fourth ‘shock-jock’ style interlocutor. The dialogue, and
its interaction with what we see on stage, is often funny but also infuriating.
We have to get back to that drag queen. The voices heard – who turn out to be Caucasian performers – come to the stage as family members. The resulting action is frantic and a sense of chaos not quite controlled by Latif. Fairview is obsessed by performance – from films and dancing to how we behave in front of others – and generates bold questions, notably about the fluidity of identity, that Drury is brave to raise. Writing of such intelligence creates a daunting number of layers to negotiate.
The only caveat is that the play deconstructs so much that the result is bewildering. And a heartfelt finale, led by Donna Banya, where members of the audience identifying as white are asked to go on stage, makes what can come next a daunting question. It becomes hard to know what to take away from Fairview – aside from being hugely impressed. The production is undoubtedly superb: Naana Agyei-Ampadu, Nicola Hughes and Rhashan Stone give brilliant performances. And Fairview is imminently theatrical; it engages with an audience as only live theatre can. I couldn’t argue with the pessimism Drury highlights, but it results in a cold response to the work. With a suspicion that it is not the desired intention, respect (and a touch of confusion) is the best I can muster.
Successful revivals – and this is one of the best – tend to present a classic text with reverence or remodel it for the current day. Trying to do both – respecting and reinventing – usually pleases nobody. But just such a combination has been achieved by co-directors Marianne Elliott and Miranda Cromwell with Arthur Miller’s classic story of Willy Loman’s demise. It’s like no production of the show before, but presents Miller’s concerns for the working man with utmost conviction. The result is marvellous.
Casting the Loman family as African American is the most obvious difference. The consequences are profound, rippling through the show, continually adding layers to Miller’s text. Take Willy’s subservience to his much younger boss – more painful than ever. Highlighting the play’s concern with Willy’s breakdown is novel, too: since Miller’s day appreciation of mental health, including dementia, and how distressing it can be for victims, has grown. Flashback scenes, with bold lighting design from Aideen Malone, add a distressing air that increases sympathy for Willy. The production takes modern sensibilities into account and fills the play with new questions and tensions.
Meanwhile Miller’s political concerns are amplified. Rather than connect Willy to buzzwords (“the squeezed middle” or the “precariat”), ideas about the dignity of work, perhaps old fashioned, are explored as the writer intended. Likewise, the aspirations that obsess Willie, maybe even drive him mad, are given space. A period atmosphere is aided by Femi Temowo’s compositions and musical direction – I don’t think Miller’s ever been this cool. The brilliant design, by Anna Fleischle, makes the family home, just about to be purchased, a frame: a perfect reflection of how transparent these lives become to us.
As if all this weren’t enough, this production also boasts some of the most fantastic performances you could witness. The whole cast is impeccable, even the smaller roles who add to the music in the show. Victoria Hamilton-Barrit and Matthew Seadon-Young excel, despite their characters coming close to being devices. The Loman brothers are vividly depicted by Ṣọpẹ́ Dìrísù and Natey Jones with performances that complement each other – as they should. The tension for one bubbles under while the other’s anger proves explosive.
Making a West End debut that will surely be remembered for a long time, Wendell Pierce takes the lead role with astonishing skill. Willy is not an appealing character, rather a tin-pot tyrant who’s easy to condemn. But Pierce makes him a man you can warm to – and a surprisingly diffident person that you feel for. Adding a purity of intention, focusing on his sons, he becomes a noble character whose end is truly tragic.
As his wife Linda, Sharon D Clarke recognises the role as the lynchpin of the play. Often quite literally centre stage, Clarke has the presence to make the role major. For Linda is also the play’s moral compass and Clarke gives a performance of dignified intensity that becomes heart-breaking. Finally, the chemistry between the two leads is something really special – adding an urgency to the drama and, again, an emotional impact that makes this the most moving Miller I’ve ever seen.
Prison dramas are pretty much a genre in their own right and this play from the year 2000 by Stephen Adly Guirgis must rank as one of the best. Tackling faith and justice, it’s a big issues piece with brains that leaves you with plenty to think about. It’s also full of compelling stories with a great plot. Entertaining and intelligent, what’s not to admire?
Guirgis writes the most wonderful roles and dialogue. Still, in presenting a debate, no matter how smart, each part could become a mere mouthpiece. With the help of a strong cast and expert direction from Kate Hewitt, every character is compelling and believable.
Ukweli Roach and Oberon KA Adjepong perform as two convicts thrown together during the one hour outside their cells allowed to them. It’s a simple enough device, but the detail provided by Guirgis is used to great effect by both men. Roach gives an emotional performance as the young Angel Cruz that shows the strain of incarceration gradually and wins sympathy carefully. As Lucius, you might guess that Adjepong gets the best lines, but the combination of charm and mania with which they are delivered is magnificent.
On the other side of the “cage”, Dervla Kirwan gives a great performance as Angel’s lawyer, driving the plot with excellent story-telling skills. The prison guards, played by Matthew Douglas and Joplin Sibtain, present moral ambiguities in a way that feels natural, respectively relating to the criminals in a personal and psychopathically macro level. These three, presumably the characters we are supposed to identify with most, pose provoking challenges to the audience.
Guirgis presents a fallible justice system and religious questions while avoiding the quagmires of moral relativism or scepticism, which means we can get some real-world thinking done! Any revival of a play this good is worth checking out. Hewitt’s production is certainly stylish. In a sense, she works harder than she has to. Using bright lights and discordant jazz in between scenes proves wearying and the set from Magda Willi, while effective, is a little showy. But the most important job, namely understanding and doing justice to the text, is precise and impeccable throughout.
Trying to tackle colonialism and
religion, along with sexism and education, could easily overwhelm a play. But
this assured work from Danai Gurira, directed with inspired steps by Ola Ince,
takes all these big topics in its elegant stride.
The key to success might come from
specificity: the play focuses on the distinctly Catholic experience of a single
woman, Jekesai, alongside the history of one uprising in the Zimbabwe of 1896.
The characters are all local and their culture is explored in detail, with
complex results that are rich and satisfying. It’s an in-depth look, from many
angles, complemented perfectly by the decision to stage the show in the round.
Letitia Wright makes Jekesai’s
conversion believable – and that she sees the opportunity for power and
representation through religion is an exciting spin, as Christianity literally
saves her from a marriage of convenience. Quickly becoming the protégé of Mr
Clifford, who aspires to be a priest, this is a central relationship that’s as
moving as it is layered. Clifford is given a superb realisation by Paapa Essiedu.
Full of repression and conviction, for all his weaknesses he’s a hero of sorts.
With the pair seen as collaborators of the colonists, and therefore targets,
the theme of religious persecution is given a forceful twist. Two strong female
characters accentuate the complexities of locating dissent. Pamela Nomvete
plays a servant who pays only lip service to her master’s religion, while
Luyanda Unati Lewis-Nyawo is the blue-stocking Miss Prudence ready to provide a
The one exception to a generally
old-fashioned feel is to include a lot of a local language, which highlights
linguicism with great dramatic skill. Gurira bolsters the point, again
skilfully, with the Queen’s English that the play’s westernised characters
speak. There’s humour in mistakes in syntax and endearing precision, but the
connection between power and language is clear and thought-provoking. The
struggle with speaking is one of many carefully developed investigations of
imperialism. But views never feel forced on characters (true a “signifier”
slips in once) and a believably late Victorian feel indicates thorough research
alongside theoretical thinking.
Among all the issues, Gurira hasn’t
forgotten the basics, and The Convert
is a well-crafted, traditional piece. There’s a set of strong characters that
the performers get their teeth into and a powerful plot that builds tension
marvellously. In short, it’s a gripping story about people you really care for.
Inspired by EM Forster’s novel, Howards End, Matthew Lopez’s epic play, in
two parts, develops the novelist’s dictum of “only connect” in almost-present-day
New York. Combining important ideas with big characters and plots that pull at
the heart strings, it is soon to be on every best-of-the-year list – mine
included. A transfer from its
sell-out run at The Young Vic means more people have the chance to see this
unmissable piece. Or, if they are lucky enough to have seen it already, spot
any differences the move to the West End might have brought.
Packing both parts into the same day was my (unnecessary) excuse for going again, leaving me even more in awe of the amazing cast. Paul Hilton ends up the star of the show, primarily through his skilled depiction of Forster. The Edwardian author joins a group of young men to help tell their stories, and is coaxing and commanding in turn as we learn about their lives. This premise, which is such a delight, means we miss the great author too much in Part 2. Hilton’s second role is as Walter, who uses his home as a refuge for the sick during the AIDS epidemic. This story serves as the finale to Part 1 and guarantees not a dry eye in the house.
During the second part, the story of Walter’s heir, Eric (a career-defining performance from Kyle Soller), takes over and would more than satisfy in any other play. But, despite Soller’s efforts, Eric doesn’t fascinate in the way Forster did. While his story is also moving, it’s far less entertaining. There’s a cruel irony – and a call to action – as, despite improvements in gay rights and the treatment of AIDS, as we come into the Trump era the play becomes more fraught and less joyous. Lopez struggles with the privilege many of his characters possess, while the misery that comes with the stories of Toby Darling and Leo (two more superb performances, from Andrew Burnap and Samuel H Levine) start to feel a touch overblown.
Some of the exaggerations may come
from the show’s new location. While the leads are superb and Stephen Daldry’s
direction fool-proofs the show, some smaller roles are too exaggerated. The result
on the night I attended was whoops of joy from the stalls at political observations.
It’s nice to hear such enthusiasm, but the sentiment seems misplaced. Surely Lopez
isn’t as partisan as some of his characters? But guessing (which might be presumptuous)
that the West End audience was less well acquainted with the original source material
leads to a new joy. Instead of nudges at recognition with the book there was
shock at revelations in the plot. A gasp from a crowd is always exciting and
illustrates the story-telling craft behind the clever ideas here. It’s Lopez’s attention
to detail, his rigour, alongside his ambition, that will, let’s hope, result in
this play serving as an inspiration and having an inheritance in its own right.
Jeanine Tesori’s Tony award-winning musical is deceptively simple. It’s a modest story of family tragedy, a shell marriage and a suicide that is never overplayed. The lyrics, by Lisa Kron, are seldom flashy but always smart. Tesori’s music is beautiful, but folksy rather than symphonic. Such restraint takes sophistication. And the show’s aim, of a truthful search into the past, gains sincerity and emotional power through prudent understatement.
Based on the graphic novel by Alison Bechdel, it is the artist’s wish to paint “a picture of my father” that we are privileged to see performed. Bechdel is a lesbian and her father slept with men. Rather than supporting one another, in the style of the Gay Union Bechdel joins at college, repressed embarrassment and his frustrated life remain the consistent note. The roles make great parts for Kaisa Hammarlund and Zubin Varla, who are commanding throughout. But note: there are no sentimental pleas for understanding, no claims for revelations. Instead, what’s special about the tone of the piece is that no apologies are made. And there is a refreshing joy about Bechdel’s sexuality, with two songs of discovery – as a child and at college – that are highlights. Bechdel’s mother gets a fair turn, too, brilliantly portrayed by Jenna Russell. Again, there are no answers or explanations as to why she would stay in this marriage, but a bare dignity that is deeply moving.
The production from director Sam Gold is exemplary in its understanding of the piece – nothing distracts from the excellent storytelling and there isn’t a soap box in sight. And Gold gets strong performances from his child performers – indeed the acting all around is superb. Final praise goes to designer David Zinn for a stunning set that embodies the show: a rotating circle of furniture shows Bechdel’s obsession with bird’s-eye views, then a section in New York uses lighting to create comic book style panels, and finally the family home is revealed like a doll’s house. In each case, the point is clear and direct, forceful and impeccably well drawn.
Here’s a little idea: in times of cultural crisis, heroes are needed, and for Liberals they don’t come bigger than EM Forster. In Matthew Lopez’s play, about America but receiving its premiere in London, the Edwardian novelist appears on stage – portrayed with extraordinary skill by Paul Hilton – mentoring a group of young gay New Yorkers as they tell their stories. The clash of cultures is fun, adding a light touch to serious content that ranges far and wide. Played over two parts, with a marathon running time of nearly seven hours, perhaps the highest praise is that not a moment is wasted or uninteresting.
The Forster classic that the play is so very consciously in dialogue with is the 1910 Howards End. Lopez has characters narrating, shaping, scripting and performing events, a method that comes close to a combination of novel and play that is formally innovative and highly engaging. Action follows the book closely as sensitive artistic types (the Schlegels for Forster) come into contact with the world of commerce. Negotiating an update is full of wit. And thought provoking, too – when parallels become too forced, characters fight against what comes next. A reservation: it’s essential to know the book well to appreciate all this. The rewards include the novel’s titular abode transformed into an informal AIDS hostel – a stroke of imaginative genius that proves particularly moving.
The house is the base from which Lopez explores the inheritance in his title: the legacy of the AIDS epidemic and its relation to the gay community. History is alive and hauntingly literal for Lopez, which results in a truly stunning ending for Part One. Arguments are laid with ferocious intelligence and passion. A sense of fear about the current political climate results in inspirational calls to action – this is a play with a mission. It’s clear director Stephen Daldry is on board, treating the text with reverence: every joke is played for all its worth, each rallying speech given space. Daldry’s staging, imbuing more grandeur than the text requests, emphasises what an event the show is. Beautiful, too, bathed in a golden light by Jon Clark. Similarly, the conviction of the performances is humbling, as a strong ensemble creates a chorus of supportive friends, loved ones and artists.
One Eric Glass is the emotional heart of the piece (the lead Schlegel, if you will) and a hugely appealing creation that makes for a career-defining role for Kyle Soller, who is riveting throughout. Lopez retains the name of Henry Wilcox, transforming him into a billionaire property developer, giving the character great weight, and the performance from John Benjamin Hickey does this justice. Oh, and Vanessa Redgrave has a part, too – an extended version of the housekeeper Mrs Avery. Of course, it’s exciting to see her on stage (and a blissful nod to the Merchant Ivory film) but, no matter how small the role, it’s testament to the production that even Redgrave can’t overwhelm the play.
Lopez gets tricksy when it comes to the role of Forster’s clerk Leonard Bast. Some elements of his role are shared out, his famous umbrella threw me, and taking on some of his aspirational characteristic is Toby Darling, rendered vividly by Andrew Burnap. Playing a self-destructive writer, trying hard to win an award as the ultimate narcissist, there are plenty of laughs. Toby’s own inheritance, an abusive childhood, lingers over the play and, while Burnap handles the scenes well, they feel like a loose end. Meanwhile, the parts of Leo and his doppleganger – a wealthy actor called Adam – are both performed by Samuel H Levine. All actors play more than one role but the flipping between parts for Levine shouts his talents deafeningly.
In the novel, Leonard is pivotal to deflating authorial grandiosity. The character retains his dignity and questions the role of art. Abandoning this, Lopez takes on a pious tone. Leo’s life as a member of an underclass – a prostitute who gets involved with drugs – brings us the play’s darkest moments, coming close to misery porn. While Leo’s end is ultimately happier than Leonard’s, it feels unrealistic. And it gives rise to surprisingly crass points on inequality. An earnestness pervades the play – it’s a fault some find in Forster, too – that makes it all a touch High Table. The humour that seeks to compensate doesn’t have Forster’s bite or finesse. The dialogue, rooted in contemporary privilege, might sound as foreign to English ears as anything Edwardian – which is interesting in itself – but some scenes, surely destined for auditions, feel like contrived set pieces.
While the conversation with Forster’s novel is fascinating, a final assessment of Lopez’s play rests on what he does with his inspiration. Current political concerns, social injustices and Trump trauma are all thrown in, sometimes messily. The legacy of AIDS, so sensitively handled, engulfs the play. Connections to Tony Kushner’s Angels in America are clear, but that’s another blog! An epilogue, which doesn’t leave a dry eye in the house, is when we arrive at a fantasia and when the play becomes its most aspirational. Concerning itself with the widest of societal connections through the personal, struggling so hard to connect the prose and the poetry – in the here and now – is the biggest lesson learnt.
With director Benedict Andrews and a couple of star turns on board, this foray into the West End by the Young Vic has plenty of allure. The story of marital tension between Maggie and Brick against the background of his wealthy father’s illness is not Tennessee Williams’ finest work. Of course, it’s still better than most plays you can see. And this production’s efforts to inject an arty edge could go a long way to increase its reputation within the playwright’s canon.
For a play somewhat tiresomely obsessed with mendacity, it’s a nice touch on Andrews’ part to present such a stripped-back stage – there’s nowhere to hide here. The intense focus respects Williams’ writing and sets up the cast for their sterling performances, even if it all becomes a little exhausting.
Sienna Miller plays Maggie the Cat. She injects a strong element of realism; you can sense her desire for her husband, her desperation at the breakdown of her marriage. Escaping from the shadow of Elizabeth Taylor’s depiction in the film version is no mean feat – Miller’s hard work deserves praise. Colm Meaney takes the part of Big Daddy and benefits from Andrews’ correct decision to balance the play so that it is equally about this grand patriarch. Meaney makes this “selfish beast” of a man truly compelling to watch.
Between both frequently loud characters comes Brick, former high-school athlete and sports commentator suffering from depression. Jack O’Connell takes the role and makes the quiet work for him. There are flashes of dignity in the performance and a good deal of anger, if not quite as much depth as might be required. O’Connell is a good stage drunk, though, and sections of the play that deal with alcoholism are the strongest, which comes as little surprise, given Williams’ own relationship with booze.
As the candles burn down on Big Daddy’s birthday cake, things start to get messy. The cake for start – you know someone is going to get dirty with it. It’s distracting to guess who and a relief when sticky sponge predictably ends up all over the set. Unfortunately, the messiness in the production extends to its direction. There’s a general untidiness that means Williams’ already sprawling story starts to drag. A shame since Andrews does have a strong central idea – to turn the family into white trash, with none of the usual genteel poverty. Maggie was “born poor, raised poor”, and this is very much new money. The insight makes for startling touches but needs more focus. Despite solid work, the treatment is too slow.