Theatre Review – Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wood? (aka Imelda Staunton’s latest stunning performance)!

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Despite being a regular theatregoer, there are still some classic plays that I have yet to see on stage and this famous one by Edward Albee was one of them. With such an exciting cast, I had been looking forward to seeing this one for quite a while.

It is set in the 1960s, in the home of Martha and George. George is a History professor at the local college, of which Martha’s father happens to be the dean (a fact she continually loves to rub in George’s face). After yet another faculty party, Martha has invited the newest young Biology professor Nick and his wife home for a nightcap, much to George’s dismay. Over the course of three Acts, we observe the game-playing between husband and wife, in which their guests become unwitting pawns in their vicious attacks on each other.

Imelda Staunton is utterly incredible as Martha, reminding audiences that it isn’t just musicals in which she can bring the house down (if you saw either Sweeney Todd or Gypsy, you’ll know what I mean)! It’s an incredibly intense play to watch, with the majority of that intensity resting with Staunton and Conleth Hill (you may recognise him for playing Varys in Game of Thrones) and they play off each other brilliantly. Theirs is a marriage that seems to have been built on years of battling. They needle each other, fighting to be the victor. Martha is horribly cruel to George, pointing out how muc of a disappointment he is and how she’d hoped for better and yet as the night goes on, we see that, after years of such games, George is just as capable of pulling the emotional rug out from under her. Interestingly, despite the awful way they seem to treat each other, there is also clearly a strong bond of affection underneath, with their cruelty disturbingly holding them together, while simultaneously threatening to destroy them.

What I loved most about this play is that it’s also incredibly funny, much more so than I expected. There’s something darkly entertaining about watching Martha and George tear shreds off each other and some of the sharp, biting dialogue has you laughing out loud, even as you grow more and more uncomfortable. I can imagine it’s easy to overdo the dramatics in this play and yet director James Macdonald’s production doesn’t do this. In fact, in a frightening way, it feels very believable. There are also strong supporting performances from Luke Treadaway, the latest young man to catch Martha’s fancy and watching Staunton flirt so sexily with him was great fun, and also from Imogen Poots, who pulls off playing Treadaway’s young, naive wife.

I loved this production and it will certainly be one of my highlights of the year, due to the truly superb performances. I’ve been slow posting this review, but you still have until Saturday to see it, so hurry up and get booking!

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is at the Harold Pinter Theatre until Saturday. TodayTix has a great deal each morning for twenty pounds day seats, which I highly recommend. I was on the front row, which was a bargain!

Review – Bold and daring television from the BBC – King Charles III, from stage to screen

 

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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.

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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).

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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!

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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.

 

 

Doctor Who Review – The Pilot is a welcome return for our favourite Time Lord! 


Is it just me, or does it feel like it’s been a long time since Doctor Who was on our television screens?! Yes, there was the mediocre Christmas special, but after a year without a weekly dose, I tuned in last night with all my fingers crossed and thankfully it didn’t disappoint. We all know that series 10 will be the last for Steven Moffat and Peter Capaldi and I was so pleased that The Pilot saw a return to form, proving to be one of the most enjoyable episodes in a long time. 

This series opener acted as the perfect springboard for anyone new to the show, or hoping to introduce others to it, as we see the Doctor meeting Bill Potts (played by Pearl Mackie), the latest companion to be introduced to the fantastical life of the Doctor and his blue box. He is currently undercover as a university professor and Bill has been attending his lectures, despite not being a student. It becomes clear very quickly that she is someone with the curiousness and bravery that appeals to the Doctor and is the ideal candidate to travel through time and space with him and Nardole (continuing to be played with fun & wit by Matt Lucas).

It’s not easy taking on the role as new companion, but Pearl Mackie does a great job in this episode. So much so, that I already felt she’d been around for ages by the time the credits rolled. Bill is strong, independent, clever and able to think on her feet. She’s also kind, caring and not intimidated by the Doctor and takes the revelation of who he is in her stride. She reminded me a lot of Rose from series one, with her simply keen for adventure in her life. She also likes chips too! The Doctor has clearly taken an interest in her, investing time in her education and already displaying a protectiveness towards her. With the photo of his granddaughter Susan on his desk, I’m looking forward to seeing a similar style relationship unfold over the course of this series. Much has been said in the media about Bill’s sexuality, being the first LGBT companion. I think it’s great that a show such as Doctor Who is including such a character without making a fuss about this aspect of her life. It’s simply who she is. It’s early days, but I’m already thinking Bill could be one of my favourite companions yet.

Story-wise, this was a solid start from Steven Moffat. I admit I’ve grown increasingly frustrated with Moffat’s style of storytelling in recent years, with less than satisfactory resolutions to convoluted arcs, so it was great to see him back to writing an entertaining, creepy story without all that baggage. As is his style, this was a scare for children coming via something they see every day. He’s done shadows, statues and snowmen and now it’s the innocent looking puddle outside your front door that could be coming to get you and the episode had just enough creepiness, enhanced by its direction and Murray Gold’s music. The scenes with Bill in her bathroom were even tense enough for the adults watching!

Admittedly, there were ideas here that we’ve seen before in Doctor Who that fans will pick up on. We’ve already had water monsters coming to get you in The Waters of Mars and the eerie repeating of what you say in Midnight, so this wasn’t an original story in every sense, but I don’t mind that too much when the story is engaging (and admittedly only hardcore fans who watch the show a lot will notice these points anyway). I wasn’t sure about the inclusion of the Daleks though. Yes, they are a cornerstone of Doctor Who and in the right story they are brilliant, but this did feel a little unnecessary to The Pilot’s plot, being more a “look it’s Doctor Who with Daleks” stunt. It’s a minor gripe though and overall this was a fun, entertaining and engaging return to this iconic series, which also laid some questions that I assume will unfold over the next few episodes, in particular what is in The Vault and to whom the Doctor promised not to get involved with another companion. I just hope that there is a clear arc this year, culminating in a satisfying farewell to Peter Capaldi.

Welcome back Doctor! I’ve missed you!

Doctor Who continues in the UK on BBC One on Saturday nights and in the USA on BBC America, also on Saturday nights.

Television Review – Suits – Episode 6.16 “Character and Fitness” (Season Finale)

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The real world means that this post is much later than I would like, but I thought I’d post my thoughts anyway, having written about the rest of the winter half season. Plus, what better time, than in the week that filming begins on season seven, which means it seemed only right to ponder what next season may have in store?

The season six finale of Suits arrived far too soon and fans had many questions going in to it. Would Mike get in to the Bar? Would it come at a cost for Harvey? Would Donna find success? Would Louis lose yet another partner? It seemed clear that not everyone would get a happy ending.

These back six episodes have had the dreams of our PSL family at their heart and “Character and Fitness” saw some of those dreams realised, while others were put further out of reach.

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New beginnings for Mike & Harvey

Mike’s dream of being a lawyer has finally came true, after a last minute rescue by a beloved character at his hearing (more on her later). I’ve always liked Mike, but in recent years he has started to irritate me and although it’s great he’s in the Bar and coming back to the firm, I’m not sure I agree with the argument that he isn’t the same person who went in to prison. I don’t really think he’s changed that much at all over the last couple of years! Hopefully, this fresh start will give him a chance to become the very best lawyer he can be and bring back the partnership between him and Harvey that always worked so well in earlier seasons. It will be fun seeing him in Harvey’s office for a start!

After coming so far on a personal level, it was incredibly sad to see Louis yet again end up losing someone he cared for. He has really grown in maturity recently and I hope that the loss of Tara (and the family he was going to share with her) doesn’t set him back on that path. We know how emotional Louis is, so it will be interesting to see how this impacts him next season. Personally, I was never convinced that Tara was right for Louis and their whirlwind romance seemed rather risky to me. I’d still like to see him reunite with Sheila, but who knows. Hopefully, the writers will be kinder to Louis in season seven, but top marks to Rick Hoffman in this episode, as the scene in which he breaks down on listening to Tara’s voicemail was beautifully acted.

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Poor Louis! 

The other key cast member with big dreams during these past few episodes has been Donna. Although it came from nowhere, on being presented with the opportunity of becoming involved in a project that was hers, not the firm’s, not Harvey’s, clearly appealed to her. Yes, the device itself was quite silly, but it allowed us to see a more vulnerable Donna. She has always been confident and with a clear sense of purpose and this has been the first time we’ve seen her question whether she is in fact happy with her life. The Donna was never about the money for her and it’s a shame that things haven’t worked out, especially as I was looking forward to seeing her interact more with Benjamin and Stu.

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Donna has some important decisions to make next season

Where Donna goes from here is clearly going to be a big question for next season and her final scene with Harvey laid the foundation for that arc. Delicately played by both Sarah Rafferty and Gabriel Macht, it was an emotional moment for these two characters who care about each other so deeply, but yet still can’t quite address it. Donna expressing to Harvey that she wants more is a significant step and it would be too simple to say that she only means romantically. For fans like me who hope to see them together eventually, we believe she wants more with Harvey, but she clearly also wants more for herself professionally too. I admit, I was a little annoyed that Harvey didn’t give her a bit more support in that scene, but Gabriel did a great job of conveying Harvey’s confusion and perhaps realisation that he may be about to lose her for good from his work life no matter what he says.

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What’s next for Rachel and the PSL family?

It’s also great to see that Rachel too is about to fulfil her dream of being a lawyer. Had she been somehow penalised because of Mike I would not have been impressed!   In light of the rumours swirling around Meghan Markle’s future on the show, it will be interesting to see what happens to Rachel next year. I suppose this depends on a few things. If Meghan does want to leave, then when and how will it happen? If Suits does get the green light for an eighth season, then perhaps that will influence the writers on Rachel’s future / exit in season seven? Of course, all we can do is speculate on all of this. Personally, I hope Meghan stays until the end of the series whenever that may be, but if that’s not to be, then it will be interesting to see where the writers take her character. Seeing as Mike and Rachel are so happy now, with a wedding on the horizon, I can’t see why Rachel would go, leaving the question as to whether they’d kill her off. It would be tragic, but certainly provide some powerful material for the cast to play, as her death would impact on everyone. Time will tell.

The finale also saw the return of Jessica! She may not have been gone long, but I’ve already missed Gina Torres and so it was a lovely surprise to have Jessica return to save the day at the hearing. Plus, this also allowed Harvey to say a proper goodbye to his mentor and friend. I’d been sad that this hadn’t really happened in 6×10 or 6×11, especially considering how close the two characters were and so it was fantastic to have a moment just for them amongst Mike’s celebrations.

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A lovely moment between Harvey & Jessica

These back six episodes have been all about closure for Harvey, with this moment between him and Jessica the final piece of the year. He has reconciled with his mother and opened the door to a closer relationship with his family as a whole, developed a more mature professional relationship with Louis and helped Mike get a second chance (which in turn, hopefully rids him of the guilt he’s been carrying with him ever since Mike was arrested). As next season will see him step up to lead the firm, hopefully we’ll see him more at peace with his life. I just hope he is now there to support Donna in finding out what she needs, seeing as she has always been there for him, helping him get to this point.

Overall, I though Character and Fitness was a brilliant finale. Enough time was given to each of the characters and their stories, while still building the tension around Mike’s hearing and its outcome. Suits is a series that always keeps you guessing and you can never be sure where the writers are going to take you and the finale was no exception. Despite the lows and uncertainty facing Louis and Donna, I was very pleased that unlike the last couple of years, season six’s ending was incredibly positive and hopeful. More importantly, it leaves the series with the opportunity for a new beginning, which is very exciting indeed for its fans. Roll on the summer!

Suits seasons 1 -6 are available in the UK via Amazon Video, with the first five seasons available on Netflix. Suits season seven starts production this week in Toronto, with the first ten episodes arriving on our screens in the summer! 

Q&A with the cast of the Almeida Theatre’s Hamlet (23rd March 2017)

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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?

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(Photo: Manuel Harlan)

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. 

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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).

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Peter Wight & Jessica Brown Findlay (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

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.

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Andrew Scott as Hamlet (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

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.

Theatre Review – David Tennant is Don Juan in Soho!

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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.

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David Tennant back on the stage as DJ (Photo: Helen Maybanks)

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!

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A perfect team: Adrian Scarborough (Stan) & David Tennant (DJ) (Photo: Helen Maybanks)

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.

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(Photo: Helen Maybanks)

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

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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.

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Angus Wright (Claudius), Andrew Scott (Hamlet) & Juliet Stevenson (Gertrude). Photo: Manuel Harlan for the Guardian

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.

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Andrew Scott (Hamlet), Amaka Okafor (Guildenstern) & Calum Finlay (Rosencrantz). Photo: Manuel Harlan for the Guardian

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!

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The play within a play. Photo: Manuel Harlan for the Guardian

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.

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An utterly unforgettable Hamlet (Andrew Scott). Photo: Manuel Harlan for the Guardian

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.

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Jessica Brown-Findlay (Ophelia) & Peter Wight (Polonius) in rehearsal. Photo: Miles Aldridge

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.

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Director Robert Icke

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

 

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