So, tonight saw the airing of the BBC’s adaptation of 2014’s critically acclaimed stage play, King Charles III. It was one of my theatre highlights of that year (you’ll find my original review here) and I was thrilled to hear that such a daring and though-provoking drama was to be brought to the screen, particularly with most of the original main cast.
Now it has aired and after reading such diverse comments about the programme on Twitter, it seemed only right to review this new version and compare it to my experience of Mike Bartlett’s original material.
On seeing it for the first time in the theatre, I imagine I had the same thoughts many tuning in to BBC Two had; starting off with unease and discomfort at what I was watching. These are after all, some of the most familiar people in our lives in Britain. However, the cleverness of the style, structured as if a History play by Shakespeare, in verse, means that although real people, the drama is a step removed from reality, allowing the audience to be absorbed by the characters in front of them, rather than focussing on who they were based on.
Many are also saying that it is disrespectful, but I disagree. I support the Royal Family by and large (especially the Queen and the younger members) and yet I loved this play and equally enjoyed the screen version. It isn’t autobiographical – after all it’s set in the future! Like any good drama, it causes its audience to discuss and debate its content. It requires you to focus and engage with the questions it raises. None of us know what will happen when the Queen passes away and the crown moves to Charles and yes, this is a heightened reality, which I doubt would ever come to pass. However, as a drama, it asks some intriguing questions – Would Charles, who we know has given his political views in the past, resist giving his assent to a law he personally disagreed with? If he did, what would William do? Would he say nothing, or would he in fact do what was necessary in order to preserve the future of the Monarchy if it was put at risk by his father’s actions? Should we even still have a Monarchy, or does the stability of the Monarch actually hold Britain together?
Ultimately these are simply people, just like the rest of us and King Charles III treats them as such, as people with flaws, weaknesses, ambitions and desires. Yes, there are aspects I remain uncomfortable with (in particular, putting words in to the mouths of William and Harry about their mother), but I cannot take offence at something that isn’t claiming to be anything but fiction. In fact, I find myself thinking about the actual Royal Family and their lives in a whole new light.
As for the transition from stage to screen, overall, Mike Bartlett has done a great job in adapting his play for television. There have of course been cuts, mainly to long soliloquies to save time and certain scenes have changed locations (Jess no longer comes to the Palace after her first night on the town with Harry, which I actually think makes much more sense), but on the whole the text and the spirit of the play remains the same, something that I was a little worried may not translate from the stage. Director Rupert Goold (who also directed the play) is perfectly placed to ensure the Shakespearian tone of the piece remains – dramatic in places, mildly comedic in others. I also loved the moments in which characters spoke to camera, preserving the sense of theatre (which is becoming more common on television, with dramas such as House of Cards) and the use of the original music from the play, particularly the haunting Latin singing during the Coronation (which in the theatre gave me goosebumps).
Although, I did prefer the stage play due to my love of theatre and the powerful atmosphere the play brought to the stage, there are elements that, in my opinion, work better, or are improved by this adaptation. The biggest example is the ghostly presence of Diana. I never enjoyed this on stage, finding it rather cheesy and uncomfortable (even though I understood that a Shakespearean History play needs a ghost to steer the fates of the characters). Rather than a woman walking across a stage, here through the use of lighting and echoing voices, these moments actually work much better. Also, the inclusion of scenes showing the rest of the family’s reactions to Charles’ dissolution of Parliament were also welcome television additions, raising the stakes of the unfolding drama.
The acting remains strong in this 90 minute drama, with the key players from the stage stepping back in to their roles (Charles, William, Harry, Camilla and the Prime Minister all the same). I’ve seen a fair amount of comments on social media criticising the acting, but, in my opinion, to think that is to miss the complexity of this piece. This is after all a fictional story, depicting a family we all know incredibly well. Therefore the actors had to find a balance between conveying a realistic portrayal of those we know, but without becoming caricatures of them. This isn’t after all Spitting Image, which would indeed have been cheesy!
Central to this is the incredible performance by Tim Pigott-Smith, whose recent death makes watching this even more poignant. He brings to the screen a man whose whole life has been geared towards this one job and on finally getting it, he faces choices which affect the stability of the whole country. It’s interesting that the law he opposes is one restricting freedom of the press, which may be seen by some as admirable. Yet, the monarch’s role is not to stop laws, but to give their ceremonial assent and it is this decision, followed by his dissolution of a Parliament that he feels opposes him, that results in civil unrest. Over the course of the story, you move from admiration, to frustration and then to deep sympathy for Charles and this is thanks to the rich depth of Pigott-Smith’s performance. The last few scenes are heartbreaking and remind me how much he will be missed.
My favourite role on stage was that of Kate and she is just as strong here (with Charlotte Riley replacing Lydia Wilson). Kate is strong and an equal partner to her husband and her soliloquy to camera captures that strength of resolve. I’m not sure I agree with the Lady Macbeth comparisons, but every Shakespearean History needs an expert manipulator! Oliver Chris also does a fantastic job at playing a conflicted William. He loves his father and yet, ultimately has no choice but to effectively betray him, in order to restore stability. I’ve never seen them as evil as many are saying tonight, as although cruel to Charles, their actions seem necessary to preserve the monarchy that the current Queen has worked decades to protect above all else. This drama now includes their two children and by having William hug his son, as he is faced with the such a hard choice, added an extra layer of emotion to the story. Crucially, the final confrontation between William and Charles was just as powerful to watch on screen, which is all due to the work of the actors.
Adam James (a favourite of mine for years), is back as the Prime Minister, placed in an impossible situation and privy to the later emotional scenes. His interactions with Pigott-Smith and Oliver Chris remain very believable. Margot Leicester provides strong support as Camilla, while Richard Goulding returns to the role of Harry. His was a difficult role on stage, as Harry’s plot line acts as the less weighty aspect of the drama and because of that, comes across as weaker and a bit farfetched. However, the more you think about it, the more sad it is, to see someone adrift and ultimately forced to give up what may have made him happy. It’s a performance that I think you have greater appreciation for the more you watch it. The newcomers to the main cast, Tamara Lawrence as Jess and Priyanga Burford as the Opposition leader were also very good too and I particularly liked the gender switch, meaning the Conservative leader here was also a woman!
Clearly, this drama won’t have appealed to everyone and will have its critics, which is fine by me, provided all those criticising it have actually watched it. It’s also true that theatre will never have the same impact on screen as it does live. However, I applaud the decision of Mike Bartlett, Rupert Goold and the BBC to be bold enough to take such a daring piece of theatre and make it available to a wider audience, while ensuring that those of us who loved the play get to see it again in a new form, for which personally, I’m extremely grateful!
King Charles III is now available in the UK on BBC iPlayer. It will also air in the USA on Sunday 14th May on Masterpiece on PBS. The text of the play is available from Nick Hern Books here.
Following last Thursday’s performance of Hamlet, the majority of the cast and the Associate Director Daniel Raggett joined the audience for an engaging and insightful Q&A. I had specifically booked to see this performance in order to be there for the talkback session and as this production has left me wanting to ask so many questions, I was thrilled that at least some were answered during the evening. It was also hugely impressive to see so many of the cast attend the Q&A after a four hour performance (I’ve included a full list of attendees at the bottom).
This post sets out the questions asked and the responses as fully as I can.
Who do they (the cast) think should have ruled Elsinore in the end?
The cast all agreed that this was a great question and that it was hard to choose, but that the key was that these are exactly the types of questions Shakespeare is asking and for us to think about.
The cast was asked about the choice of music within the production.
The assistant director said that he couldn’t speak for the director Robert Icke, but commented on how he works instinctively and so he imagines it started with one Bob Dylan song and progressed from there. He also referred to Icke working alongside Laura Marling in considering the music to be used in the production.
What were their thoughts about the perception of time and reality in the production?
Angus Wright (Claudius) discussed this from Claudius’s point of view, saying that in his mind it’s all about Hamlet taking a different time to him, particularly with his grief for his father. Claudius just wants him to hurry up and get over it!
Luke Thompson (Laertes) spoke of how for his character it’s all about it being the time to leave at the beginning. He is keen to return to France. He also agreed that Robert Icke had taken a specific attitude to time and raised how purpose is a slave to memory, in that the more you let thought in to something and spend time thinking about it, the harder it is to act. I certainly agree with him that this is something that affects a number of characters in the play.
Barry Aird (Gravedigger / Francisco) spoke about the sense that the Gravedigger is almost dreamlike; there is a sense that he is almost out of a different time to the other characters and he referred to it reminding him of the barman in the film The Shining.
The cast were also asked about their thoughts on the striking image used for the poster and why it was chosen.
Andrew Scott agreed with the audience member that there were links to Ophelia in the image (through the use of flowers strewn across Hamlet on the T-shirt) and he said that, in his opinion, there are a lot of similarities between Hamlet and Ophelia. He certainly believes that they really do feel love for each other and yet are forced to work out their parents’ problems, not theirs. He spoke about how cruel this is. He also made the important point that there can be no tragedy if there is no love (something in my mind that many productions of the play get wrong). Lastly, Andrew also made the point that the image could also signify either Hamlet (that is, the young man or his father) and the sense of stepping in to someone else’s shoes.
A question was also asked about whether the cast think that theatre is still allowing people to come and be transformed by what they see, which in turn may enable them to use that energy to create real change in the world?
Andrew Scott spoke about how it is important to Robert Icke that his plays are for now and mentioned the line from Hamlet which speaks of “the age and body of the time.” He also said how the play itself is full of love and compassion and how all of the cast is trying to understand each other and serve those emotions.
Jessica Brown Findlay (Ophelia) commented on this issue too, making the important statement that if art stops being brave and starts apologising then we’re in trouble (well, she used a stronger term than that!) and that art can stretch over everything and unify us, which received a round of applause from the audience.
Jessica Brown Findlay was then asked about why we don’t see Ophelia’s face as she speaks her last line (the person asking the question really wanted to see it).
Jessica discussed how they had played around with the scene and that Ophelia looks around at all the people there. Ophelia has wanted to be heard her whole life and so this is her moment to be heard and look at all of those in her life. She hadn’t really thought about the fact the audience couldn’t see her at the moment, although Angus Wright (Claudius) said how it’s great for the other actors, as they can see her in that powerful moment.
It was also raised that the production seems to have used scenes / lines from different versions of Hamlet, with specific reference made to the scene between Horatio and Gertrude (a scene which is only included in Quarto 1 (the “bad quarto”).
Elliot Barnes-Worrell (Horatio) spoke about this scene coming from the “bad quarto” which is allegedly written by the actor who originally played one of the other smaller characters in the play. He commented that without this scene, you are left with the scene in which Hamlet recites a letter from Hamlet (one which Barry Aird (Gravedigger) said is quite dull) and so when Robert Icke found this scene in quarto one, Elliot was pleased that they could instead have a scene which puts Gertrude on team Hamlet and gives Horatio an ally at that point in the play.
Joshua Higgott (Marcellus) also spoke about the importance of creating a world that fits the production and in this one, a scene about pirates wouldn’t have made much sense. Barry Aird (Gravedigger) also made the important point that Shakespeare should be treated as if a new playwright and I agree with him. The key to keeping Shakespeare’s work alive and relevant is to make it fresh for its audience and this production certainly does that.
Reference was also made to the production’s modern parallels, such as the images of war and the cast were asked whether anything had any particular resonances for them.
Associate Director Daniel Raggett said that it is their job to ask the questions for the audience to think about, while Amaka Okafor (Guildenstern) spoke about how she finds the setting of the production very domestic, which is important as it is about heart. She also commented that stories have the ability to span all political stories and events.
David Rintoul (Ghost/Player King) referred to the scene in which Hamlet sees the Poles defending the small patch of land and how those lines about war could apply to so many places in the world today.
Andrew Scott also talked about how wide-ranging a play Hamlet is, as it covers so much ground, from war, to grief, to love and so to drown it in one theme would be a tragedy. He also referred to people’s comments that the production was so long, saying that if it isn’t long, then you aren’t doing the play, as there is so much in it!
Sadly, we then had to let the cast escape, despite the fact we could all have spent so much longer asking questions about the production! The full list of cast members attending the Q&A alongside Associate Director Daniel Raggett was as follows: Andrew Scott (Hamlet); Amaka Okafor (Guildenstern); Calum Finlay (Rosencrantz); Luke Thompson (Laertes); Jessica Brown Findlay (Ophelia); Joshua Higgott (Marcellus); Marty Cruickshank (Player Queen); Peter Wight (Polonius); David Rintoul (Ghost/Player King); Barry Aird (Francisco/Gravedigger); Elliot Barnes-Worrell (Horatio); Angus Wright (Claudius) and Juliet Stevenson (Gertrude).
Thanks very much to the cast and creative team of Hamlet for a brilliant evening. All productions photos used in this post are by Manuel Harlan.
Hamlet continues its run at the Almeida Theatre until 15th April. Although advance tickets are sold out, seats occasionally pop up online and day seats are released each morning at 11 a.m, with returns also being a possibility closer to the show each day. The production is also transferring to the Harold Pinter Theatre from 9th June – 2nd September (albeit with some cast changes). For more information on the West End transfer, see the Almeida’s website here and the ATG website here.
Last night saw the opening of David Tennant’s latest play! I make no secret of the fact he has been my favourite stage actor ever since 2008’s Hamlet and I’d been looking forward to finally seeing him live on stage in a non-Shakespeare role. This was my second trip to the play (having been to the first preview on 17th March), allowing me to see how the production has settled over the preview run.
Don Juan in Soho is the latest incarnation in a long line of Don Juan stories, some better known than others and Patrick Marber’s play draws on one of these classics, Moliere’s 1665 Don Juan. Whether you’ve ever seen the opera Don Giovanni, a film or play, the character is someone most people know – Don Juan, the Casanova of his time, sleeping his way through the ladies thanks to his wit and charm and that’s exactly what you get at the Wyndham’s Theatre.
Tennant is “DJ”, whose aristocratic family is hugely wealthy. He has lived a privileged life during which he has never had to work or think about anything other than satisfying his own primal needs. Set in modern day London and Soho in particular, DJ gallivants around the city, flirting and seducing every woman he passes (he is after all “magnificently fu*kable” if he does say so himself!), while his long-suffering servant Stan (the brilliant Adrian Scaborough) follows dutifully behind, clearing up his mess and acting as commentator for the audience. Whether he does it because he cares about DJ after all their years together or simply to get his much sought after pay, you’re never quite sure!
When we meet them, DJ has just returned from his honeymoon with Elvira and yet, to him, she is already a memory; she’s a woman he pursued so fiercely, simply to sleep with and take her innocence. His absolute lack of regret or sorrow at how he has hurt her, by immediately deserting her, infuriates her two brothers, who swear that one day he will pay for his actions. Then at the height of his frivolous behaviour, he receives a stark message from a stone statue of Charles II!
Put simply, this production is bonkers; absolutely, utterly bonkers and because of that I did enjoy it, but at the same time, I can see its weaknesses.
First and foremost, the greatest strength of the production is the relationship between its two main characters, DJ and Stan and the fact that they are played superbly by Tennant and Scarborough, who have a wonderful chemistry on stage. Both individually and together they bring an energy to the stage that you cannot help but enjoy. Scarborough’s Stan is funny, sarcastic and tragic. You like him immediately and cannot help but feel sorry for him as he grows ever more fed up with his life, as simply the servant to a man who never shows him appreciation in a meaningful way (or indeed even pays him)! His asides to the audience are also a great way of setting the tone for the character of DJ before we even meet him and add wonderful moments of humour throughout, as he implores us not to be taken in by DJ in the same way his many women are.
Tennant is of course the big draw to this production and when the play itself is so strange, it needs an actor of his calibre in the lead. DJ is not a likeable character and yet through Tennant, you can’t help but warm to him despite his actions. For fans of the actor, you’ll be able to spot glimpses of previous roles (especially the playfulness of Casanova and the dark depravity of Killgrave), as he bounds about the stage.
Throughout the first half, we follow him on his mission to bed whatever woman crosses his path and while you despair at his nerve, he makes you laugh too, as Marber’s dialogue trips off his tongue. Perhaps part of DJ’s appeal is because of the very point he makes in his rant in the second half – that although he is viewed to be a disgusting, dishonest human being, he may be more honest than any of us. He doesn’t pretend to be something he isn’t and he refuses to apologise for who he is and how he lives his life, whereas the rest of the world around him seems, to him, to be desperately trying to please, to be approved of, or is indeed putting on an act to hide something darker (“the priests prey, with an e” being a particularly bold line). I did enjoy his speech as he rails against modern society’s need for validation in the most superficial of ways – “Like me, friend me, follow me” and “Welcome to my vlog, today I bought a plum!” I couldn’t help thinking that maybe the man had a point!
However, as much as I love seeing Tennant on stage and as much fun as his and Scarborough’s scenes in this play are, everything else is rather average. All the other characters are two-dimensional, the result being that all the other performances feel weak and irrelevant. I didn’t even feel particularly sorry for Elvira, the character supposedly representing good. In fact, I didn’t really care about her at all.
I also felt there was too much padding of scenes in this play for the sake of it. It’s already a fairly short production (2 hours including a 20 minute interval) and yet it could easily be cut down further, for example, the dance sequences, which add nothing to the story and feel unnecessary (yes, I see the link to opera, but they still felt a bit pointless). In fact, I’m not sure why there even needs to be an interval at all. The preview run has however resulted in some tweaks to the scenes involving the statue, which thankfully make this less cheesy than my first visit. Its later appearances are swathed in smoke now, a very wise choice, especially in the scene in which it arrives to take DJ on a journey, which now looks much less ridiculous than it did (it’s still a statue driving a pedicab though, so it’s never not going to be nuts)!
Overall, I had a good time at Don Juan in Soho. Fans of David Tennant will love it, as he flirts his way across the stage, with a sly smile here and a dirty sentence there (he’s the Ghandi of gang bangs didn’t you know?). There is a magic he brings to his performances that will always thrill me in a way few actors can achieve. It was also fun to see him away from Shakespeare for a change and Adrian Scarborough is a joy to watch. However, I’m not sure whether it’ll appeal to a wider audience. Don’t go expecting a serious, substantial play or you’ll be disappointed, but if a couple of hours of innuendo and silliness appeals to you, then this may be for you!
Don Juan in Soho continues its run at the Wyndham’s Theatre until 10th June 2017. For more information and availability, visit the website here. You can also enter the daily TodayTix online lottery for £20 front row day seats via the TodayTix app. See here for further details.
Theatre Review – Hamlet starring Andrew Scott (Almeida Theatre): devastatingly emotional, thrillingly original & impressive on every level
Hamlet is my favourite Shakespeare play and I’m always keen to see a new interpretation of this rich and powerful story. Over the years, I’ve never been quite as eager in advance of seeing it, as I was before my very first experience back in 2008 at the RSC. That was until the Almeida Theatre announced Andrew Scott would be taking on Shakespeare’s famous character in a production by one of theatre’s most exciting directors, Robert Icke. I knew this had the potential to be truly special and on Monday night, I was thrilled to discover that all my expectations had been met and surpassed!
The key for me has always been that a great production of Hamlet must have more than a talented lead actor. The whole cast and the vision of its director need to be strong enough to bring Shakespeare’s story to life anew for the audience and this production succeeds in bringing together brilliant actors throughout the cast and a talented creative team, who together deliver a truly devastatingly emotional and thrillingly original experience.
Before we talk about Andrew Scott (and there is much to say!), I therefore have to talk about some of the many other performances in the ensemble worthy of praise. Juliet Stevenson follows Mary Stuart (also at the Almeida) with a fantastic Gertrude. Too often Gertrude is left on the sidelines of the play, but not here. She is a fully realised, flawed woman. Thrilled with the idea that Claudius is attracted to her, she has been carried along by the passion of it and yet is still conscious of how Hamlet is suffering, in no small part because of her actions. The closet scene has always been a favourite of mine and in productions such a this, where Gertrude has a believable bond with her son, it is a joy to watch. Stevenson and Scott wring every ounce of emotion out of it and in a production where Hamlet feels truly capable of anything (frighteningly so in fact), the danger feels very real and Stevenson captures Gertrude’s fear for herself, as well as her heartbreak at her son’s mental state.
Interestingly, this production also places her firmly against Claudius before Hamlet’s return to Elsinore, as we see her realise and accept the King’s villainy when Horatio puts it in front of her. I have never seen such a scene included in Hamlet before and found that it made her choice to drink from the cup instead of Hamlet, a cup she knows with certainty to be poisoned, all the more tragic. Her last act is to show her loyalty to her son over Claudius.
The relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia is also given much more stage time than other productions I’ve seen, which gives far greater life and depth to their connection. Seeing her comfort a devastated Hamlet, who breaks down in her arms once they are alone after the wedding party scene was agonising, yet beautiful. It grounded their relationship in reality and was one of my favourite moments in the production, ensuring a greater emotional resonance to the tragedy of what’s to come. Jessica Brown-Findlay is a strong Ophelia, who has a truly loving relationship with her father, ensuring her spiral in to depression following his death is all the more poignant and heartbreaking. Her descent in to such despair is also handled sensitively. She isn’t a wild, whirling woman in these moments, but a young girl who has lost a father she adored and respected and at the hand of the man she loved.
Also and more so than in any other Hamlet I have seen, I found Rosencrantz and Guildenstern fascinating. For a start, they arrive much earlier than I am used to, which captured my attention! Hamlet has yet to “put on an antic disposition” when we first see them, suggesting that even before his father’s ghost appears to him, his behaviour is already causing concern. Not only that, but from the moment they arrive, there seems to be a tension between them and Hamlet, due to a potential love triangle.
Amaka Okafor plays the female Guildenstern as a woman who clearly loves Hamlet and you have a sense that perhaps the two of them have a romantic history. Yet now it seems she is with Rosencrantz (played by Calum Finlay), which made for an interesting dynamic between the three. It also meant that certain lines carried much greater meaning, such as when Hamlet asks them to admit they were sent for if they love him, to which Guildenstern responds and also by giving Rosencrantz’s line “My Lord, you once did love me” to Guildenstern. Having two characters who are too often one-dimensional and marginalised actually catch my attention, is just one example of how Robert Icke’s production adds a fresh perspective to this well known story.
Angus Wright’s Claudius is a modern political manipulator. He is calm and collected and carries an air of suaveness that you can see would have turned Gertrude’s eye. I also didn’t believe for a moment that he felt any remorse for killing his brother, which became so evident in his “prayer” scene. He may not have the same commanding presence as actors such as Patrick Stewart had in the role, but Wright’s portrayal makes clear that the King is a threat to Hamlet, which is essential to maintain the underlying tension as the play progresses (and which I felt was lacking in Ciaran Hinds’s version).
Elliot Barnes-Worrell is a wonderful Horatio, who has a believable friendship and loyalty to Hamlet. Often their bond is lacking, resulting in a less satisfying, emotional ending, but not here. Luke Thompson’s portrayal of Laertes is also enjoyable. Laertes is often a weak link, yet Thompson ensures he is a character you sympathise with. David Rintoul’s Ghost was another performance I enjoyed. Although his initial appearance in front of Hamlet is quite eerie, he isn’t a frightening figure. In fact his interactions with Hamlet are much more affectionate than every other production I’ve seen and it only emphasises just what Hamlet has lost. In light of Rintoul’s portrayal, the choice to miss out the Ghost’s bellowing commands from below the earth (a moment I always find rather silly and certainly didn’t miss) was a wise one!
As you can see, I could say positives about this whole company (heck it even has the glorious Marty Cruickshank as the Player Queen!), which is one of its biggest strengths. It does not have weak links, allowing the play to sing and for Icke and his cast to try new and imaginative ideas with the material.
So, we come to Andrew Scott. I have been waiting for him to tackle Hamlet for years and he is superb. He is such a versatile actor and this is a performance that covers the entire spectrum of human emotion; one moment his Hamlet is filled with [frenetic energy], exploding with anger, frustration and grief, the next fragile and broken, seemingly utterly adrift in the world. He is also both hugely vulnerable and frighteningly dangerous, which was thrilling to watch. You believe Hamlet to be capable of anything, which provides the production of this 400 year-old play with a fresh tension and energy.
Scott’s ability with the text is also fantastic. He may occasionally be a little too loud, but he found emphasis and humour in lines that I’ve never seen before (and in one particular case regarding Hamlet’s continual fencing practice, addressed a line that has always annoyed me, with perfect comedy). I have always found him to be a truly soulful actor in every role (especially on stage) and every soliloquy was so full of raw emotion that he held the whole audience under his spell. I found his delivery of the “readiness is all” lines particularly heartbreaking. His is absolutely a Hamlet you will never forget.
Indeed, on leaving the Almeida, I was most struck by how original an interpretation Robert Icke has created. Having seen most of his previous work, it is always thrilling and thought-provoking and yet I was still surprised by how his version of Hamlet had me seeing scenes I know so well in a different light, which is a rare treat. Hamlet is such a rich story, that directors and actors always have the scope to play with it if they dare and it was exciting to see that Icke and his cast have done just that.
I don’t want to spoil the cleverness of this production, but I will say that there are moments where a simple change leads to a whole new context for events that follow. The scene in which Hamlet considers killing his uncle as he is praying is one such example. The choices made on the Almeida stage in this scene were totally new to me and resulted in Hamlet’s crazed, frustrated, wild behaviour in his mother’s room making even more sense than usual, while proving that this Claudius is worlds away from the weaker portrayals of the character I’ve seen in other productions.
Hamlet’s sense of loss is always evident from the outset and yet here it is added to further through his immediate awareness of the fact he is potentially losing Ophelia too, following her father’s command that she stay away from him. In a production where we have already seen him break down in her arms, this is another blow to him and you feel the weight of loss on Andrew Scott’s shoulders. It’s another example of where just a couple of small changes impact on the emotional heart of the characters in new and interesting ways.
As for Polonius (played by Peter Wight), he is usually portrayed as either a comical old fool, or for actors unable to capture the comedy, a rather dry and dull character. He may not be my favourite Polonius, but I thoroughly enjoyed the fact that Wight’s version fits neither of these images. He is a loving father and indeed a useful adviser to the king and in the scene in which he is usually most comical – his conversation with Hamlet in which he is called a fishmonger, the production does not take the obvious and well trodden route of Polonius talking to himself or the audience. Instead, here he becomes a shrewd player in the surveillance world of Elsinore and it’s a wonderfully clever way to make the scene and the character feel fresh. The fact that Hamlet makes clear that he knows precisely what is going on too is also very well executed.
The use of newsfeed-style footage for the scenes involving the Polish army and Fortinbras is also a wise choice, as these moments, although necessary for the wider plot, can drag the pace down. By including them in such a modern way, enables them to serve the plot, without losing the audience’s engagement. For example, we need Hamlet to see the Polish army in order for him to deliver the soliloquy it inspires, but here the focus is able to stay on Hamlet.
Hildegard Bechtler’s set is ideal for this production. There are no huge, ornate sets, filled with lots of furniture, which needs moving on and off stage during key moments (yes, I’m looking at you Barbican Hamlet). Instead, it is a very stripped back stage space that reminded me very much of Icke’s Oresteia. Divided in to two sections, the front half is kept quite bare, with minimal seating, while a sliding door separates it from the back half, where events such as the wedding party can continue in the background, without distracting from the play’s biggest moments. This split stage is also used to beautiful effect during the play’s final moments, where the sense of death and its stopping of our time on the earth are so poignantly conveyed.
I also loved the music choices made by the creative team. More dramatic moments were accompanied by a throbbing beat, which added to the sense of time running out for these individuals, while other scenes were accompanied by songs which captured the emotional heart of the moment. I especially liked the musical choice taken during the fencing scene, which again was something I’d never seen before in this play. As for the running time? Don’t be put off by it. Yes, it’s long, but as with some of his other plays, Icke’s three part, two interval structure and pacing ensures that you are swept along until the final scene.
Simply put, this is how Hamlet should be – thrilling, dramatic, poignant, funny, heartbreaking and thought-provoking. With such a strong, visionary director and talented cast, it made me see the play with fresh eyes and engage with Shakespeare’s tremendous work in new and exciting ways. I am sure it will be one that is discussed and remembered long in to the future and although the 2008 RSC production will always hold a special place in my heart, this production is the only one I have seen since that could go on to become my favourite. I am already excited to see it again, which is exactly how a production of Hamlet should make you feel.
If you already have tickets, you are in for a treat. If you haven’t, make the effort to get your hands on one. I promise you, you will not regret it.
Hamlet at the Almeida Theatre runs until 15th April 2016. Although tickets have sold out, there will be day seats on sale each morning at the box office and it is also worth trying for returns a few hours before each performance. Running time is 3 hours 45 minutes (including two 15 minute intervals). For more information, visit the theatre’s website here.
Prior to Christmas, I made my last trip of the year to the Almeida Theatre to see its new production Mary Stuart. The show imagines what could have happened if, prior to Mary’s execution in 1587, Queen Elizabeth I had met with her during her imprisonment. Making the experience a little different for the audience, actresses Lia Williams and Juliet Stevenson alternate roles and the decision of who plays who is determined on the spin of a coin at the start of each show.
There was only one way to guarantee seeing both versions of the show, which was to see both performances on a two-show day. On those days, the matinee roles are determined on the coin spin, with the evening being the opposite. As soon as the show was announced I wanted to see both interpretations, but I admit I was a little concerned that perhaps seeing the same three hour play twice in one day may be a challenge!
I needn’t have worried as Friedrich Schiller’s play was not only a pleasure to watch on both occasions, but in fact made it in to my top ten productions of 2016 (you can read the rest here). Robert Icke is such a creative force and he brings his own distinct style to the direction of the production, which feels incredibly relevant in today’s turbulent political times. There is an excitement in the theatre as the show begins and the coin spins. Depending on how it falls, one woman shall be imprisoned while the other has the cast kneel before her.
The fact the actresses are dressed in similar clothes, with similar haircuts, all emphasises what these two British queens had in common and as Mary points out, who else can judge her but her sister and fellow queen, Elizabeth. One was destined for greatness and one was destined to die, but watching this play really brought home to me how really it could just as easily have been a role reversal. Like the spinning coin, history could have fallen a different way.
Both actresses are superb, which knowing their stage work is no surprise. Having seen both, I felt each actress had a role for which they were better suited. In my view, Williams is a more convincing Mary, as she brings a vibrancy of spirit to the role that Stevenson doesn’t. She may appear smaller when face to face with Stevenson’s assured Elizabeth, but when she does unleash her fury it’s as powerful as her piercingly raw scream in Oresteia!
Stevenson however did effectively convey Mary as a woman born a raised to be a Queen, as she exudes a status that fit for someone who has grown up in that world. Williams was also a superb Elizabeth; much more sexual in the role, as she strutted confidently around the stage and had a much more physical relationship with John Light’s Leicester. It was fun to see her Elizabeth light up a cigarette and create a very different, but as equally fascinating woman as Stevenson.
There are also some strong supporting performances, particularly John Light, as Leicester dances between allegiances in order to protect his own position. Rudi Dharmalingam was also very good as Mortimer, whose loyalty to Mary is ultimately revealed by Leicester, as is Vincent Franklin as Burleigh. Being a Robert Icke production (again he adapts the play and directs it), it creates its own special atmosphere in the Almeida; there’s a buzz, as these people from centuries ago are put before us in a very contemporary style. This, as was the case with Oresteia, creates a world that feels current and fresh and as a result, thrilling. His direction of his two leads is also brilliant; the mirroring of their images, particularly in the scene were Elizabeth finally succumbs to her fears and signs the death warrant, as Mary looks on from her mind’s eye, works so well and adds to the tension on the stage.
The Almeida lends itself to these historical pieces so well. Its bare brick walls and stark setting help immerse you in this world in a way not many spaces can and combined with Paul Arditti’s sound design, plus a new song from there is a pulse to the production that makes its 3 hour running time fly by.
This is another superb Almeida / Icke production, which I cannot recommend highly enough. It also serves to make me even more excited about what Icke will create in this theatre for Hamlet next month!
Mary Stuart continues its run at the Almeida Theatre until 28th January. Check the Almeida’s website Almeida Theatre for more information and the limited seats that pop up there. The Theatre is also selling day seats every morning at 11 a.m. (get there early) as well as returns before each show (I recommend getting there at least 3 hours before the start for a good chance of getting one). Or you can call the box office on 020 7359 4404. Running time: 3 hours 5 minutes (including a 20 minute interval).
Happy New Year!
I’ve looked back on my year of theatre in 2016, which means it’s now time to focus on what lies in store over the next twelve months. The good news is that there is already quite a lot to be excited about and below are 17 shows I’d put on your list for the new year!
1. Hamlet (Almeida Theatre, 17th February – 8th April)
There is so much I’m excited about regarding the forthcoming Almeida production of Hamlet. It’s my favourite Shakespeare play, directed by probably my favourite director at the moment, Robert Icke, whose Oresteia and current Mary Stuart productions are some of the finest plays I’ve seen and it will see Andrew Scott take the title role. He may be best known for playing Moriarty in Sherlock, but he is also a superbly versatile stage actor and I cannot wait to see what he and Icke come up with for this production. All it needs is a strong ensemble cast, which it is well on the way to having wth Juliet Stevenson and Jessica Brown Findlay and this has the potential to challenge the RSC’s 2008 production as my favourite. Can you tell I’m excited?!
2. Angels In America (National Theatre, from 11th April)
Ever since the National’s 50th anniversary celebration featured a scene from this play, I’ve been hoping it would return to the London stage and 2017 sees that happen. It’s such an iconic award-winning play, which made such an impact originally in the 90s and this revival promises to be very special with actors including Denise Gough, Andrew Garfield, James McArdle, Nathan Lane and Russell Tovey announced and directed by Marianne Elliot. Tickets will go quickly for this. You have been warned!
3. Don Juan In Soho (Wyndham’s Theatre, 17th March – 10th June)
2017 also sees David Tennant return to the stage and this time it’s not Shakespeare. For me, he is one of the finest stage actors we have in the UK and I’m very excited to finally see him live on stage performing a non-Shakespeare role. Patrick Marber’s play is described as a savagely funny and filthy play, which has me intrigued to say the least! Directed by Marber and also starring the brilliant Adrian Scarborough, the only question for me is just how many times I’ll see this show over its run!
4. Hamilton (Victoria Palace Theatre, from November)
The juggernaut that is Hamilton finally arrives in London late this year at the Victoria Palace (which is undergoing refurbishment in advance of becoming the hottest theatre spot in town). I have heard so much about this show, but have resisted the urge to listen to any music from it before I see it. With crazily expensive tickets for the New York run, hopefully the London production will be a little easier to get in to!
5. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Harold Pinter Theatre, 22nd February – 27th May)
After her performances in Sweeney Todd in 2012 and Gypsy in 2015, I’d go and see the incredible Imelda Staunton in anything! Next on her list before Gypsy heads to Broadway is this production of Edward Albee’s play. Also starring Conleth Hill (now better known as Varys in Game of Thrones), this promises to be another gem in the 2017 calendar.
6. the ferryman (Royal Court Theatre, 24th April – 20th May)
The Ferryman makes the list even though it is technically already sold out. This does not mean it should be ruled out however (I for one will be queuing as long as it takes for returns after failing to book this fast enough)! Jez Butterworth’s reputation for brilliant and exciting theatre was established with Jerusalem, but I also loved The River and I’m intrigued to see what is next. The production will also mark the Royal Court directorial debut of Sam Mendes.
7. Obsession (Barbican Theatre, 19th April – 20th May)
This year also sees Ivo Van Hove, whose recent productions of A View From A Bridge and The Crucible both made quite an impression on anyone who saw them (including me) directing one of three Toneelgroep Amsterdam productions at the Barbican. Jude Law leads a cast of Dutch and British actors in Visconti’s drama where two people’s attraction to each other leads them to plot murder. This season as a whole is on my must-see list, but I’m rather intrigued by this one in particular.
8. The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? (Theatre Royal Haymarket, 24th March – 24th June)
Spring also sees two of Britain’s finest actors, Damian Lewis and Sophie Okonedo together on stage in Edward Albee’s The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? Described as a dark comedy, I am rather excited about seeing these two together and directed by Ian Rickson too!
9. Woyzeck (Old Vic, 6th May – 24th June)
Woyzeck isn’t a play I’ve seen before and therefore I’m thrilled to be able to have a chance to tick this highly regarded piece of literature off my list. Set in 1980s Berlin, John Boyega (now of Star Wars fame) tackles the story of a young soldier on the border of East and West trying to build a better life for his family. This new version of Georg Buchner’s classic has been written by Jack Thorne, whose recent hits include This Is England for the screen and the Harry Potter play.
10. Speech & Debate (Trafalgar Studios, 22nd February – 1st April)
Stephen Karam’s play The Humans was one I’d hoped to see next time I was in NYC (sadly I’ll miss it), but I will at least be able to see Speech & Debate when it arrives in London in February. Billed as the story of three misfits, brought together at school by a sex scandal, with hilarious consequences, I’m looking forward to seeing Douglas Booth and Tony Revolori (Zero in The Grand Budapest Hotel) tackle this play.
11. 42nd Street (Theatre Royal Drury Lane, 20th March – 22nd July)
I can tick another classic musical off my list this year with the arrival of 42nd Street, the story of a young woman who, after joining the chorus line of a musical, may get her chance of stardom when the leading lady lady suffers an injury. Starring Sheena Easton as Dorothy Brock, this production will also be directed by Mark Bramble, the co-author of the original book of the production. I’ll be curious to see where this ranks in my list of musicals.
12. The Glass Menagerie (Duke of York’s Theatre, 26th January – 29th April)
I’ve still yet to see The Glass Menagerie on stage and so I’m pleased this version of Tennessee Williams’s play is transferring from Broadway at the end of this month. Director John Tiffany’s (also director of Harry Potter & The Cursed Child) production was highly regarded in New York and will again star Cherry Jones as the matriarch Belle Amanda Wingfield.
13. Paul Auster’s City of Glass (Lyric Hammersmith, 20th April – 13th May)
Regarded as a seminal American novel, I’m looking forward to a trip to the Lyric to see this new adaptation, which is billed as using ground-breaking stagecraft, projection, magic and illusion to tell the story of a reclusive crime writer who becomes drawn in to a thriller after receiving a call in the middle of the night from someone in need of a private detective.
14. Touch (Soho Theatre, 6th July – 26th August)
I didn’t get to see Fleabag last year, but after the acclaim it received, as well as for the BBC series based on the play, I’m certainly adding Touch to my 2017 list, as it is by the same creative team. Starring Amy Morgan, it’s the story of a 33 year old woman trying to find her way in London.
15. Tribes (Crucible Studio, Sheffield, 30th June – 22nd July)
I thoroughly enjoyed the original run of Nina Raines’s play at the Royal Court in 2010 and so I am looking forward to seeing this new regional premiere in Sheffield over the summer. The story of family life, where the son is deaf is very funny, but also incredibly moving and explores perfectly the desire we all have to be heard and understood.
16. Antony & Cleopatra (RSC, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-Upon-Avon, 11th March – 7th September)
I’ve always struggled a bit with this play, but I’ll certainly be heading to Stratford-Upon-Avon for this production, which will see one of my favourite RSC actors, Antony Byrne take on Marc Antony. Byrne was wonderful in the original Richard II in 2013 (and very much missed by me in its revival this year) and also in Henry IV and V and it’ll be fantastic to see him again performing Shakespeare.
17. Sex With Strangers (Hampstead Theatre, 27th January – 4th March)
The Hampstead Theatre has certainly come a long way since Edward Hall took the helm in 2010 and I’m very much looking forward to seeing its first production of the new year. Laura Eason’s comedy sees two people, very much opposites of each other, stuck together in a B&B in the snow, who find themselves undeniably drawn to each other. I enjoyed Emilia Fox’s performance in Rapture, Blister, Burn at this theatre in 2015 and so it’ll be lovely to see her back, in a production that also stars Theo James.
So, those are some of my suggestions for this year on stage. I could have picked so much more, with theatres including the Bush Theatre and the Young Vic already setting out exciting seasons. Then of course there are all the shows yet to be announced! Finally, there are some shows that opened last year, but which are well worth a trip if you can see them before they close. A few examples are:
- Love’s Labour’s Lost & Much Ado About Nothing (Theatre Royal Haymarket) until 18th March – the London transfer of the RSC’s gorgeous double-bill is not to be missed. With a lot of the cast returning, including Edward Bennett and Sam Alexander, they are perfect at this time of year. Go, go, go!
- This House (Garrick Theatre) until 25th February – This superb National Theatre production sees a new run in the West End. Set in the 70s as Labour cling on to power before Thatcher, it’s a brilliantly sharp and funny glimpse in to Westminster. Having seen the current cast in Chichester over the autumn, I can say it’s just as strong as it was originally. Review here.
- Hedda Gabler (National Theatre) until 21st March – My review will be up laster this month for this exciting modernisation of Ibsen’s play. Ruth Wilson is yet again superb and there are also wonderful performances from Rafe Spall and Kyle Soller. This was so close to being in my top 10 of 2016, so I urge you to go. Yes, it’s sold out, but there is the option of Rush tickets on sale on Fridays for the following week’s shows and returns will pop up, so keep checking.
- Mary Stuart (Almeida Theatre) until 21st January – One of my highlights of last year was this play which sees Lia Williams and Juliet Stevenson swap roles as Mary Stuart and Elizabeth I. It’s an exciting production from director Robert Icke and is another must-see. Again, it’s sold out, but there are day seats of every performance and I’ve usually been successful in the returns queue at this theatre in the past.
Hopefully there is something on the list that you are interested in. As always, I’ll be adding reviews of shows as I see them and so please do pop back any time!
Having already chosen my top ten productions of the year and my favourite performances of the year, for my last 2016 theatre review post I wanted to look back on my most memorable moments at the theatre in the last twelve months. These are the moments that have stayed in my mind, whether a set, scene or personal experience while seeing a show.
The mind-bending set change at the end of Wild (Hampstead Theatre)
I had heard so many people talk about the staging of Mike Bartlett’s Wild before I arrived at the Hampstead Theatre and that final set change was certainly a sight to be seen! Watching one set change in to another, much starker one was already impressive and then it started to rotate! I admit I was a little distracted from the actual scene itself. Top marks to the set designer and stage management team for this feat.
Watching the cast of Unreachable do all they could to make each other corpse during their final show (Royal Court)
I’d hoped to see Unreachable twice, but had to miss my earlier trip, meaning my only visit was to the final show. Seeing the final performance seemed to heighten the hilarity, as a number of times the cast, particularly Jonjo O’Neil, were trying to throw their fellow cast members off. It was very very funny and one of the most fun trips I’ve had to the theatre.
My return to the wonderful world of Punchdrunk (Sleep No More, NYC)
A Punchdrunk show is always an experience to remember and Sleep No More in NYC was no exception. From the first moments of making my way in to the venue in darkness, to exploring the eerie and intricate rooms and levels, where I sampled the sweets in the shop and leafed through the books on the shelves, right through to my own one-on-one experience with one of the cast, I had a great time. I only hope it’s still there on my next trip.
Genuinely feeling as though someone was behind me blowing in my ear at The Encounter (Barbican)
From immersive theatre to sensory theatre with my trip to Simon McBurney’s one-man show The Encounter. Using special technology (including the head in the photo), he was able to transport us in to the rainforests of Brazil. The moment he had us close our eyes and then created the effect that someone really was behind my right ear, blowing on it, was astonishing. The possibilities for audience interaction in future shows is very exciting indeed if such experiences can now be created.
The magical illusions in Harry Potter & The Cursed Child (Palace)
The most eagerly awaited show on the planet was just as much fun as I’d hoped (and I’m not even a huge Potter fan) and one of the biggest thrills of the theatre year for me was seeing the illusions achieved in this production. I especially loved the entrance to the Ministry of Magic. The cast must be on skates or something backstage to get from one part of the stage to another so fast! A treat for young and old alike.
Watching Glenn Close in Sunset Boulevard from the centre of the front row (London Coliseum)
Glenn Close as Norma Desmond was a performance I’d been looking forward to since it was announced and on seeing it, I just had to go back for a second time. I’m still amazed that this wasn’t a total sell out, but the fact that a week before, I was able to buy a front row ticket was unbelievable. Having Close stand so close to me and deliver that performance was a real thrill for me in 2016.
Saying goodbye to War Horse and Groundhog Day at their final London performances (New London and Old Vic)
I was lucky enough to be at the final London performances of both War Horse at the New London Theatre and Groundhog Day at the Old Vic in 2016. The first show was closing after over nine years, during which it has delighted and moved so many audiences and it was lovely to hear author Michael Morpurgo’s words of thanks to its cast and crew. On the other hand, we’d barely had Groundhog Day in theatreland before it was off to prepare for Broadway. I loved the show (it’s my favourite of 2016) and being able to say a fond farewell to it, from the front row no less, was a joy.
Experiencing the enthusiasm of New York audiences for Shakespeare during the RSC’s King and Country tour (BAM, NYC)
This year also saw my first trip to NYC since 2012 and it was filled with a great deal of wonderful theatre. However, one of the things that truly stood out was during my time at the BAM Harvey Theatre in Brooklyn, where the RSC was showcasing its King and Country cycle. Having seen it in both Stratford-Upon-Avon and London, I was surprised to experience the plays in a new environment. Antony Sher has talked about how the New York audiences were more enthusiastic and I agree with him. There was a new kind of excitement in the venue and lines received an audience response they hadn’t in the UK, which in turn had an effect on the actors. From chatting to other audience members, many had read the plays before coming and had a genuine enthusiasm for the plays. It was wonderful to be a part of it.
Being given a reminder of how precious time and life is by Gavin Plimsole (Greenwich Theatre)
One of the new theatres I visited during 2016 was the Greenwich Theatre and I was rather moved by its show The Inevitable Heartbreak of Gavin Plimsole. As we journey through the last part of Gavin’s life, depicted by marbles dropping through a chute after a certain number of heartbeats, the audience was reminded of how precious life is and how we should not take it for granted. At the end of the show, we each opened a box. Mine had a marble in it for me to keep. I have kept it in my handbag ever since. Sometimes it is the smallest shows that make the biggest impression.
There were so many special moments for me in theatres this year, but those are the ten that have stayed with me the most as I sit here and reflect on the last twelve months. Next I’ll be looking ahead to the productions I’m most excited about in 2017, which I hope to post very soon. If you have some moments that have stood out for you, let me know about them in the comments!