All entries for Sunday 16 December 2007

December 16, 2007

Much Ado About Nothing @ The National Theatre

The National’s decision to put on a new Much Ado about Nothing as their main house show over the Christmas period seems to be a slightly odd one, coming so soon after Marianne Elliott’s hugely successful production for the RSC which is still garnering award nominations. Clearly, however, Nicholas Hytner felt there was still something to be drawn out of the play, and Simon Russell Beale and Zoe Wanamaker head up an impressive cast that also includes Oliver Ford Davies, Mark Addy and Trevor Peacock. Big names, a familiar play and the lavish resources of the Olivier stage- surely a hit in the making.

The initial response to the casting, at least in my case, was “Aren’t they a bit old?” However, Wanamaker in particular used her relative seniority to great advantage. This Beatrice was getting on in years, and seemed to be at a point where she was regretting the militant single-ness of her younger years. Her comments on her past with Benedick were laced with regret, of opportunities missed, and her wit was now a screen to mask her loneliness. Yet Wanamaker didn’t allow her character to descent into self-pity, only bringing these elements occasionally to the surface. Here, Beatrice lived for other people’s happiness and entertainment, revelling in the comedy she created and trying not to focus on her own situation.

Simon Russell Beale, last seen by me on stage in Spamalot, was thoroughly entertaining as Benedick, using a similar mixture of bemusement and knowing charm to that which worked so well for him as King Arthur. His performance was genial, his insults mostly coming across as playful rather than cruel. He particularly shone in the ever-funny overhearing scene, hiding behind the slatted walls of the set to listen in. Teetering around a pool as he tried to hide, it seemed inevitable that he would eventually fall in, yet continually avoided it. The three gentlemen eventually left, leaving him free to come out into the open. Suddenly, however, they returned from separate angles, leaving him with no choice but to deliberately and spectacularly dive-bomb into the pool, slowly peeking his head across to wince at the audience while the conspirators laughed at him. Yes, it was easy, yes, it was obvious, yes, it was milked for all it was worth, but that didn’t stop it being absolutely hysterical. Topping it off by leaning seductively, yet still dripping, against a wall while Beatrice stared at him in disbelief, Russell Beale confirmed that he has a full grasp of comic timing.

Having seen several touring productions, I get frustrated sometimes at what I consider to be the unnecessarily cluttered stages of the National’s productions. I felt the same at first about Vicki Mortimer’s set for this production, a huge piece of decking split by slatted wood into four major sections and external areas, which revolved continuously. It seemed too much, but Hytner utilised it to great effect, particularly as the characters walked through rooms, the stage revolving to keep track of them while other business and scene-changes were conducted in the now-hidden areas. It was fussy, but gave an impression of fluidity and also of activity. The large cast had plenty of extras, meaning that servants were generally bustling about, allowing the preparations leading up to the wedding to be hinted at. The atmosphere of Messina was well-evoked, a balmy warmth bathing the action, and the revolving stage allowed for great contrast in the evening between the brightly lit masque outside and the shadowy decking outside where Don John conducted his business.

The darker elements of the play were given plenty of weight, and the wedding scene was well-pitched, edgy rather than hysterical. Oliver Ford Davies shone as Leonato, with good support from John Burgess’ Antonio who challenged Claudio by bringing in an enormous sword, as big as himself. Claudio and Hero’s individual performances didn’t particularly stand out, but their story worked well: it was played straight and both were believable in their responses to each other. Typically, it was again Wanamaker and Russell Beale who shone here- she distraught at her cousin’s fate, having invested so much in it herself in her bid to ignore her own situation, and he hesitant and divided, unsure of whether to follow his prince as he stormed out or to stay and comfort the woman he loved.

The other pleasant surprise was in Dogberry and Verges, played by Mark Addy and Trevor Peacock. Addy’s Dogberry was the straightest version of the character I’ve ever seen- the malapropisms and pomposity were present and correct, but the comedy was efficient, quick and effective rather than dragged out to agonising lengths as can sometimes happen. As a result, the Watch scenes were actually amusing, and Peacock’s bumbling performance also worked well.

The result was solid enough, if not life-changing. It’s the most money I’ve spent on a theatre ticket all year, and I was rewarded with an enjoyable Much Ado that played it safe. It won’t be remembered, but as a fun evening out it hit the mark.

God In Ruins @ Soho Theatre

Anthony Neilson, love or hate his writing, is certainly one of the most interesting dramatists currently active. The only other production of his I have seen, The Wonderful World of Dissocia, was a mess of ideas- often beautiful, often incoherent, but always fascinating. His new Christmas commission for the RSC, God in Ruins, is a similar melting pot with everything thrown in, but works far better.

Devised in rehearsal with the male half of the company who performed Macbeth and Macbett in Stratford last Spring, the RSC’s gimmick with this production has been on the unpredictability of the text. Tickets went on sale before a title had even been announced, and no-one quite knew what to expect. What has been created is a contemporary and adult-oriented (do NOT take your kids!) version of A Christmas Carol that taps into the relationships and problems of the internet generation with plenty of panache.

The play opened with Patrick O’Kane’s Bob Cratchitt and Sean Kearns’ Scrooge, three years after the events of A Christmas Carol, imagining the aftermath of Dickens’ story. Hysterically, Cratchitt has been driven to distraction by his boss’s relentless enthusiasm and constant cheeriness, eventually breaking it to Scrooge that he can’t spend Christmas with them after all. While funny, the scene was also moving- Cratchitt felt that his role as a husband and father was being usurped by the over-generous stranger who could provide better for his family than he himself could. After pleading with his boss for a half-way point between exuberance and misery, he stormed out, leaving Scrooge to sneer after him.

Three festive man-children held up scrawled paintings of their daddies, before turning them over to reveal the play’s title. The play then moved into its main action: the story of Brian, a modern-day Scrooge. An alcoholic TV producer responsible for some truly horrendous sounding reality shows (they discussed the follow-up to “Chimp Monastery”, deciding ultimately to reject “Chimp Holocaust”, and he also had an idea for a new show in which homosexual men were tortured by CIA-types into having sex with a woman. The title? “Guantanamo Gay”…), Brian had recently been divorced and was trying to call his daughter on Christmas Eve, but getting nowhere. Visited by his foul-mouthed dead father (who was being punished for infidelity in Hell by being given 600 wives), he was told that he had to find a way through to her otherwise he would lose her forever, and Scrooge was sent through time to help him in his mission, escorting him through events in his past as he tried to unravel a series of clues leading him to a way of communicating with his daughter.

So far, so bizarre, but Neilson’s script was anything but linear. A party sequence saw Brian and several partygoers, dressed in various festive outfits, snorting lines of coke while all singing different Christmas songs. Two anoraked kids discussed Santa Claus’ death (he was eaten by his reindeer when they objected to his whipping them, apparently), and the more gullible of them was later recreated in adult form as a hoodie with a knife, randomly stabbing Brian in a semi-dream sequence out of his disillusionment at the lies he had been told.

Brian Doherty was utterly brilliant in the lead role, always slurring and offending everyone he met. A wheelchair-bound friend listened to his bid for a show entitled “Mong About The House” with patience before telling him that the only person he truly hated was himself, and a pizza delivery boy hoping for a tip cropped up in Brian’s dreams throughout the play after a lengthy tirade by Brian over his constitutional right to not give tips (“I voted New Labour so you could get that minimum wage- you owe ME”). In a genuinely creepy scene, he switched on his computer and mouthed the disembodied words of a girl in an internet chatroom, manipulating the men he met online into digital sexual acts. As we moved into his past later, we saw him at an AA meeting explaining his actions to the rest of the group as a way of getting back at his ex-wife, but we also saw him experiencing genuine feelings towards Mark, another member of the group. As he discovered his own sexuality and failed to unravel the clues that would lead him to the answer of how to get in touch with his daughter, his situation became more sympathetic, letting us see the circumstances and decisions that had turned him into this awful person.

God in Ruins publicity art

The whole cast gave good performances in a play that made use of the actors as an ensemble group rather than as individuals, with the mass drug-taking a highlight and a good example of how the group worked together. A special mention for Ryan Gage, though, who kept appearing in small roles and was particularly good as the worldly-wise child who told his friend about Santa’s death, arrogant in his self-belief and taking great pleasure in his friend’s falling face.

The play’s only real mis-step came when the auditorium lights rose, exposing the audience to the actors who paused, whispered to each other and slowly turned in embarrassment as they acknowledged us, not knowing what was going on. What started as quite a fun idea, though, quickly descended into chaos with no-one quite sure what was going on. A homeless man, once a soldier in Iraq but now a beggar, then came in at the back of the auditorium to ‘interrupt’ the production, and the actors broke out of character to chase him around the stage as he ran around the set, and a ‘security guard’ was brought in to remove him while Doherty and Kearns apologised to the audience. This all culminated as Brian approached the homeless man when he appeared from backstage facing the other way. The man turned round, revealing the disillusioned kid from earlier, who stabbed Brian in despair. The play quickly got back on track, but this interlude added nothing and seriously marred the evening.

The finale, though, was wonderful. After realising that all the clues he was getting from his visits to the past were leading him to ‘Second Life’, the virtual reality network, Brian plugged himself in. Instantly the cast appeared in a very funny selection of insane costumes and danced robotically to a beat, a representation of Second Life that actually came quite close. As Brian emerged to talk to the cyber-representation of his daughter (“Why do you look like a middle-aged bald bloke?” “You don’t get hassled so much”) the play reached its most moving without descending into sentimentality. The longed-for reconciliation was matter-of-fact on the daughter’s part, she not realising the lengths he had gone to and dancing away as she talked to him, answering his questions in short bursts of teenage disinterest while he looked lovingly at her. Eventually, she said he could dance with her if he wanted, by which time the audience were on-side- it was a small victory, but for the daughter to acknowledge his presence in her life after 90 minutes of his attempts to find her felt much bigger.

The final dance earned well-deserved applause. The audience reaction to the play was hysterics, with the contemporary references and random diversions being lapped up. Yet at the heart remained a human and recognisable story of redemption that was genuinely heart-warming. The play has had mixed reviews, but I’d really recommend this as an alternative Christmas show, and one with many more important things to say than even the best pantos.

Othello @ The Donmar Warehouse

Much has been made in the press of Michael Grandage’s new production of Othello for the Donmar, mostly to do with the selling-on price of tickets. Reportedly, tickets have been changing hands for £1200, making this officially the hottest ticket in London. The question is, is it really worth it?

Well, of course it’s not, no play is worth upwards of £1000, however good. Even for the more modest £15-£20 that most of us paid, however, it’s not the all-encompassing success that would justify the hype. Grandage’s production is a solid and interesting telling of the play that does its job, but won’t be entering the history books.

The highlight of this production was undoubtedly Chiwetel Ejiofor in the title role. Adopting a flawless Moorish accent, Ejiofor brings tremendous humanity to the role, for the most part avoiding the stock mannerisms and theatrics that sometimes dog the part. In the earliest scenes he was full of life and humour, exuding a likeability that endeared the audience, as well as the Venetian nobility, to his cause. The changes in him throughout the play were subtle, particularly during the crucial temptation scene as he initially paid only scant attention to Iago yet gradually came to a place of extreme violence. Ejiofor additionally rendered Othello an imposing character through an exceptionally strong presence that hinted at the horrors in store for anyone who crossed him. One never doubted his ability to carry out the threats promised should Iago not prove his love a whore.

It was a shame, then, that the other two lead performances were so weak. Ewan McGregor, the production’s big draw, made for an efficient but entirely dull Iago- in fact, rarely have I ever considered Iago such an unimportant character in the play. His coolness certainly made Othello’s trust in him understandable, but even in his soliloquies he seemed only marginally interested in his own scheming. Without personality, McGregor’s performance turned Iago dangerously into a plot device, a means to bring the action forward to its inevitable conclusion. Many reviewers have complained that he’s not evil enough- I would complain that he was just nothing. But at least he was more watchable than Kelly Reilly’s Desdemona. Pathetic and whiny, she may have looked the part but her delivery of the lines was stilted and affected. This combined with a slightly spoiled petulance to create a Desdemona who wasn’t particularly interesting or sympathetic, and like Iago she became a device for Othello’s downfall.

Other aspects of the production were far more rewarding. A fantastic lighting design by Paule Constable made great use of the Donmar space, with a huge sail extending across the ceiling to create an intimate and more brightly lit Cyprus, and once the sail was retracted the relative dimness of the auditorium made for a fitting atmosphere as the play drew towards its conclusion. The opening image too, of light reflecting from the gutter that ran across the stage to create ripples of light on the bare brick wall, was a beautiful one. The sound design was also excellently executed, particularly for the willow song. Desdemona began singing (here she was very good, I should admit) against a background of wind and rain noise with a low note providing an ominous backing. Then, a melody drifted out of nowhere, soft and barely noticeable but just clear enough to support the singing and make the scene very moving, one of the best moments of the production.

The always-reliable Tom Hiddleston was a top-draw Cassio, particularly enjoying himself during the drinking scenes and fawning all over Desdemona. Almost schoolboyish in his pleasure at being asked to read out the proclamation of victory and the first to cheer at good news, his youthful enthusiasm made his final disappointed words to Othello all the more affecting, the play showing his growth into sober manhood as well as Othello’s decline. James Laurenson and Edward Bennett provided good support as Brabantio and Roderigo respectively. Interestingly, having a less likeable Desdemona made Brabantio a far more sympathetic character by comparison, he disowning his daughter for her wilful disobedience. Laurenson’s grave and well-judged performance refused to turn Brabantio into a blustering fool, instead giving us a gentleman roused by an unexpected horror who ultimately resigned himself to it. Roderigo was responsible for many of the production’s comic touches, but Bennett also brought out the character’s positive attributes, particularly as he finally asserted himself against Iago, the character finding a strength which previously he seemed to have lacked.

The final scene was effective, Othello straddling Desdemona’s body as he strangled her with his bare hands on the floor, before gently finishing the job after she already lay still. Ejiofor died with style, a knife to his neck as he fell onto the huge bed. This was the Moor’s play far above anyone else’s, and Ejiofor’s performance will be remembered if there is any justice. A little less hype, and some stronger performances in the other lead roles, would have turned a good production into a great one, but with the Donmar fully sold out for the remainder of the run I don’t think anyone at the theatre will be complaining.

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Peter Kirwan is Teaching Associate in Shakespeare and Early Modern Drama at the University of Nottingham and a reviewer of Shakespearean theatre for several academic journals.

The Bardathon is his experimental review blog, covering productions of (or based on) all early modern plays. The aim is to combine immediate reactions with the detail and analysis of the academic review.

Theatre criticism always needs more voices. Please comment with your own views and contributions!

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