Emperor and Galilean by Henrik Ibsen – The National Theatre – Review

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Andrew Scott as Julian

On hearing this was a 3.5 hour epic play, my buttocks reeled in shock remembering the endurance that was Hamlet last year at the National. Could they go through this again, or would I be calling into work the following day complaining of a numb bum?

Please don’t expect this review to go into detail of each of the cast at 50 (some say 45 others 50, I didn’t manage to count them on the night) of them, that’s not going to happen. However top marks to Andrew Scott for coping with this role, he’s on stage for all but a few fleeting moments and carries the whole piece with great skill and hats off to him for delivering such a huge part. He also should be congratulated as I could hear him throughout, which for some of the actors I can’t say the same alas.

I’ve always wanted to see Ian McDiarmid in a play and was pleased to see him scheming as Maximus. I must admit though this character was extremely similar to his famous film role of Emperor Palpatine, even with him goading Julian to choose between Light and Darkness, I almost expected a light saber duel to follow.

I attended a NT Platform event with the director Jonathan Kent the week prior to seeing this, which was helpful. Especially his point that even though this is being hailed as Ibsen’s “masterpiece”, that means something very different in Norwegian. It actually means that this play contains all the ideas/seeds/thoughts of his other works, all in this one. Ben Power has edited the original version that would take about 8.5 hours to perform to a more manageable 3.5hrs version, and so without reading the entire version, I’m not sure if that’s a valid statement. This version seems to focus mainly on Ibsen’s views on religion and the choices an individual makes and lives with.

I really like Ibsen’s work and this is the first time this play has been put on in the UK. It’s VERY different to his others works in structure (except for Peer Gynt)

Several parts I did not like: the moment that Julian reinstates paganism to the Roman Empire, suddenly it felt like we’d been whisked off to see a production of Hair, with the cast dancing and getting their kit off, I was expecting a chorus of “This is the dawning of the age of Aquarius” , they didn’t go quite that far thankfully. It seemed so clichéd and a tad naff to try to show that as “paganism”. (spoiler alert – there’s another instance of  nudity in the play too)
Even more so as the programme has an article by Christopher Kelly (Fellow of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge) that states, “he [Julian] encouraged charity, celibacy and asceticism”!

I was also expecting big things regarding the staging, yes the Drum is used, but I did feel it was not used to its fullest, and can someone please tell me what the lowest level was supposed to be, it looked like a dodgy butchers, is that what it was meant to be?? There were some good effects, more so in the second half, but I perhaps mistakenly was expecting more. The Olivier is a vast space to fill and even with this large cast, it did feel empty of occasions, I’m not sure how that was possible, and so I think the staging just didn’t work for this.

There’s been a great debate about the mixing of the ancient with the 21st century in the dress and projections. I really liked this, and felt it did add a contemporary feel to the story being told. Just as I had recently enjoyed with Antigone at the Sothwark Playhouse. I’m aware a great many do not agree with me there, but I think it was effective.

The themes of the play are relevant today, and Ibsen offers no glib answers, especially to the question of how do you act in a tolerant way to an intolerant religion? I liked the ending and thought that theme of how each religion can take its own interpretation of events that suit its ends are a timely message.

This really is a play that only the National could put on and they’re to be commended for attempting this. This production is successful in some areas and not so in others. I left thinking only Ibsenites or theatre aficionados would really enjoy this, but on speaking to others I think it does have wider appeal perhaps. The story itself is gripping and certainly kept my attention. So much so my buttocks didn’t ache at the end (although a good stretch in the interval helped I’m sure!).

At £12 a ticket as it’s part of the Travelex Season, I’d say it’s great value for money and unlike anything you’ll see for a while. It’s good to see the Olivier Drum used. It really is Epic in every way, as a story, its set and the large-scale cast. I’ve been pondering on its themes these last couple of days, that’s a credit to the playwright, I think he’s been let down a little by this attempt, but as it’s a gargantuan task, I don’t think it’s right to be too harsh on those involved. I’m glad this neglected play has been brought to my attention and to have seen it put on, as I doubt it ever will again be tackled in my lifetime at least.

Translations by Brian Friel – Abbey Theatre, Dublin

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I studied Translations for my last assignment at college (and got a 2:1 for it, yippee! ). As mentioned previously on my blog, I really enjoyed my modules on Irish playwriting, so much so that my wife and I took a long overdue trip to finally visit Dublin last week. This was our first time in this great city and we did all the touristy things, top of my list though was a visit to the Abbey Theatre and this was even more of a priority when I found out that they were putting on a revival of Friel’s Translations on whilst we were there.

My visit coincided with the opening preview night, so my review is based on that performance I hasten to add.

It’s a play with powerful themes and ideas, are they still relevant in a post Good Friday Agreement Ireland and the globalised 21st Century? By Friel locating his play in a historical setting of the early 1800’s, he has avoided the possibility of it becoming dated. The theme of language and it’s evolution as a political tool of oppression in many ways has a contemporary and different message now. Ireland itself is a very different place since this was written, the Celtic Tiger period of its history has been and gone, and walking around Dublin whilst I could not deny this is Ireland’s capital, and Irish in every way, I was also aware of it being a very multicultural city with a plethora of accents and languages being spoken.

The Abbey Theatre itself was a pleasure to visit, a modern and comfortable theatre that looks like it has had a recent refurbishment. I was also pleased to see what a vibrant bunch were there for the opening night, and it was great to see the theatre filled with so many young people/students. As and when I return to Dublin, I will certainly make sure a visit to The Abbey is on my list of things to do on each trip.

I was pleased to see this play finally. The set designed by Naomi Wilkinson was superb, the soil stage was a brilliant theatrical device as the indigenous characters were all barefoot whilst the colonial characters and Owen are booted, a subtle but clever device noting the characters wealth. This added to the rural and earthly feel of the piece.

It’s always a delight to see an alumnus of Rose Bruford College on stage and Janice Bryne as Sarah, acted this dumb character extremely well. Aaron Monaghan as Manus gave a very strong performance, limping about the stage we see him struggle to find himself only to then decide to flee. The most touching scene in Act 2 between Lieutenant Yolland and Maire, played by Tim Delap and Aoife McMahon where they are speaking to each other, saying the same things, yet in languages neither can fully understand was certainly one of the highlights of the performance for me.

I’m sure this run will be a success for The Abbey, it’s a modern-day classic of Irish playwriting, but its themes and ideas are equally as important now and so it’s of interest to a wider audience too. It’s a play that has some brilliant comedic moments, yet it’s tinged with a melancholy sadness throughout. It’s depiction of the circularity of violence is still a very important message especially with peace only ever on a delicate knife-edge.

If you’re in Ireland, I really recommend you see this, or if like me you fancy a trip to Dublin, use this play as a good excuse to go and see this fantastic city.

I must get around to compiling a page of my favourite theatres, when I do, The Abbey Theatre will be in there.

 

The Seagull – Arcola Theatre – Review

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When everything comes together in theatre, it’s like a certain magic is being recreated in front of the audience. Most of the theatre I see is good, sometimes exceptional, sometimes it leaves a lot to be desired and occasionally it is something quite magical.

This production of The Seagull falls into the latter category. This is like capturing lightning in a bottle. The play by Chekhov is a classic, and this new translation by Charlotte Pyke, John Kerr and Joseph Blatchley brings it up to date while keeping it rooted in the period it’s set in. I’m no Chekhov scholar but to me it seemed an accurate and fair translations to previous ones I’ve read, without some of the “stuffiness” that seems to be present in some.

Seeing Chekhov in the round was also a new experience, yet it actually made it feel more intense and I was surprised at how it suited being presented this way. The slick changes of the scenes made by the cast and the creative way each one was created really worked.

So what made this so special? the pedigree of the script obviously  helped, the creative staging likewise made this seem fresh and new. However I feel that the lions share for what made this so magical must go to the WHOLE cast and the director Joseph Blatchley. Not a weak link at all in the cast, each bringing their characters to life. I’ve seldom seen such perfect ensemble work (London Road at the National being the only other example that springs immediately to mind).

I was blown away by Yolanda Kettle who played Nina. This was her professional debut and it was phenomenal, to see an actress of such ability at the debut of their career can only mean we’ll be seeing her in much more as her career progresses. Her portrayal of Nina brought tears to my eyes in Act Four and her acting in the previous acts shows a zest of youth and idealism. Certainly an actress to keep our eyes on.

Al Weaver showed  a real depth and gave an excellent portrayal as the tortured and troubled  Konstantin. The aforementioned scene in Act 4 with Nina was so moving and the intensity in his performance throughout was palpable.

Even though it’s a smaller part, I thought Paul Westwood’s portrayal of the money conscious and struggling teacher Medvedenko was superb. His glances and asides to characters added to the desperation and conflict he was going through.

Roger Lloyd Pack showed his experience and skill as ever and was perfectly cast as Dorn, the final lines need someone of Roger Lloyd Packs experience to deliver them. Which he did with a sensitivity and alarm, that provided a superb ending.

Jodie McNee as Masha, was suitably forlorn and depressed, with her mood as black as her mourning costume, she gave a melancholy performance that never veered into melodrama.

The scenes where there were arguments and banter between numerous characters were witty, and exciting, they didn’t feel forced or that the actors were saying “rhubarb”, rather the conversations seemed totally natural and realistic. Even the off stage meal that happens in Act Four made for brilliant background noise.

I’ve been recommending this to friends since seeing it on Friday and I recommended it to a young actor who is still in training today, as seeing Yolanda Kettle will definitely be an inspiration for her and something to aim towards.

As regular readers of this blog will know, I’ve given a few “rave reviews” recently, we’re extremely fortunate to have so much quality theatre on at the present, this production though ranks up there at the top of recent plays I’ve seen in the last few months. The Arcola Theatre building itself is a “work in progress” due to its recent move, but by putting on such exceptional productions as this, it can only go from strength to strength.

Strictly Gershwin – The English National Ballet – Royal Albert Hall – Review

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Stunning, Sumptuous, Glamorous, Gorgeous, Marvellous, Miraculous, Inspiring, Incredible, Fantastic and Fun!!! How many more superlatives do you want or need???

I can not heap enough praise on this wonderful production that I’ve just seen. I admit I’m a fan of Gershwin, but the English National Ballet have created something very special here. The choreography fits so perfectly to the music, it’s almost like it has been scored specifically for this production.

The dancing is breathtaking, the band are brilliant, the singers are superb. Ballet has a way of reaching out and transporting you to another place and level, which is one reason it’s one of my favourite theatrical forms, this production literally held me spellbound for its entire duration. I just did not want this to end.

Here’s a video as a teaser of what to expect;

It takes you back to an era of glamour and sophistication that’s sadly missing now. The way that Derek Deane has successfully fused not just ballet but, ballroom and tap into this production adds to its dazzle and for that reason I’m sure those that are perhaps wary of seeing a ballet, will enjoy this. It’s a complete package, glistening costumes, silky voice singers, an orchestra bringing Gershwins melodies to life, tap dancers giving of their all (on top of the grand piano lid at one point), with the magical English National Ballet dancers, being the icing on the cake, adding, beauty, skill and style as only they can.

As you can tell I’m on a high from this! So much so, my wife and I are booking tickets to catch this again when it goes on tour shortly in the UK, yes it’s THAT good.

Dancing from the beautiful Rhapsody in Blue

Chicken Soup with Barley by Arnold Wesker – Royal Court Theatre – Review

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They do a brilliant cappuccino at the Royal Court

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of this play, the Royal Court is re-staging it. I read it last year for college and enjoyed it, and so persuaded a group of us from college to go and see it last night.

Firstly a brief review of the Royal Court’s restaurant, it’s fab! Helpful staff, good food, and wine, made for a wonderful start to the evening. It was my first time using their restaurant, but I’ll certainly eat and meet there before a play again.

So often on seeing a play that I’ve previously read, seeing it then put on stage can either shatter the image I’ve created, or enhance it. As this is a naturalistic play, the setting and staging came as no surprise, but as ever the wonderful designers and technicians at the Royal Court worked their magic and created perfect recreations of the 30’s/40’s and 50’s.

Danny Webb as Harry Khan, "keeping the red flag flying"

The acting was superb, Danny Webb’s, Harry Khan was brilliant, especially his acting after Harry has had his strokes. Likewise Samantha Spiro gave a very subtle characterisation of Sarah Kahn, I thought her way of showing Sarah age over the acts was brilliant, just very small and miniscule changes to the characterisation, but they added and helped to see that whilst her ageing was nowhere near as dramatic as Harry’s she still was ageing as was her ideology.

As a play how does it stand up in the 21st century? It certainly feels like a period play now, the world it reflects and refers to is a thing of the past, the darker side of the communist movement in the first half of the 20th century is well documented, and the collapse of communism worldwide, makes this almost a quaint play, showing the ideals of this family in the 1930’s. It shows how people become disillusioned with politics, and as they grow older change the idealism of their youth. Yet it did not seem contemporary. Some of its themes were, but this play I feel is now a museum piece, important at the time and worthy of revival for its 50th anniversary as it’s vital we appreciate the plays of the past, but as for having something to say for today, I’m not so sure.

It’s made me want to re-read the other two plays that follow this (Roots and I’m Talking About Jerusalem), to see if those too have the same effect, it will be interesting to see if these are revived soon for their anniversaries.

It’s definitely worth seeing, it’s well acted, directed and it is a well written play. It is an important part of the British theatre canon (and on the reading list for many theatre schools), but for me (and a couple of the others that saw it with me), it didn’t seem to connect thematically with us, I can quite put my finger on why, perhaps with a bit more mulling it over, I’ll find out why.

Samantha Spiro, Tom Rosenthal, Jenny Augen and Danny Webb

Rocket to the Moon – National Theatre – Review

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I was not familiar with the play or writer before seeing it earlier this week at the National, to me Rocket to the Moon was a classic song by the band Runrig. So I was looking forward to finding out more, this play has been getting mixed reviews and I was pleased to be able to make my own.

The Lyttelton theatre was transformed into a New York dental surgery in the stifling heat in the 1930’s and the play focuses’ on the relationships of dentist Ben Stark. As you can see from the above poster (and the other advertising) Keeley Hawes is in it (she plays Ben Stark’s wife, Belle), for those unaware, she is a popular TV actor in the UK. In the programme under her credits there is not one theatre credit noted, I’m assuming this means she’s not done theatre before? Well to be honest it showed, I was in the stalls only a few rows back and I don’t believe her voice would have carried to the back of the Lyttelton, she also seemed to have an accent that seemed too false, “New YAAAAWWWK”. The good news was that she is actually in very little of the play. Which seems odd to promote it so much with her face, when actually her character whilst important to the plot is on stage very little. In her defense she was much better in her scene in Acts 2 and 3 (especially Act 3).  Please don’t get me wrong, she wasn’t awful, but as is often the case, the “star”, was clearly not in the same league as the other actors they were sharing the stage with.

So who were the others? Ben Stark was played by Joseph Milson, who was brilliant, his characterisation was spot on, and his nuances throughout just added to an amazing performance. Ben Stark is no hero, he stumbles into his affair with the younger and attractive Cleo and bumbled around not knowing how to deal with it or what to do. The tension from this is really where the strength of the play lies, he’s also having to deal with his strident wife, pushy father in law, friends and the lecherous Willy Wax (what a great character name that is!).

The foil to Ben Stark is Cleo Lane the attractive and seemingly naive dental assistant. Played with great skill by Jessica Raine. Her interaction especially with Joseph Milson, was some of the best acting I’ve seen this year. As she too has to interact and deal with all the characters, we see her maturing, and ending up not being as naive as we at first imagined.

The supporting cast likewise give excellent performances, I really liked Peter Sullivan’s portrayal of the debt ridden and depressed Phil Cooper. The scene where he “breaks down” was really touching and acted perfectly.

I’m glad that the National Theatre promotes new work, but that it also promotes other work from the past and brings it to a fresh generation. I enjoyed this play, it took me a while to “get into it”, but the pace and story really sustained my interest. With excellent performances, it made for a good night out at the theatre.

Happy Birthday – Miller Theatre Company – Caterham – Review

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Farce, it’s deemed by a good many as intellectually and aesthetically inferior to comedy or drama, but I agree with Ayckbourn, that “We often dismiss our light comedies and farces as trivia with nothing to say. With the successful ones, this is generally untrue.” The Miller Centre Theatre Company tend to put at least one on each season, and this year it was by Marc Camoletti, whose farce Boeing Boeing was a huge hit when it opened in 1962 and was successfully revived a few years ago in the West End (where I was fortunate enough to see it) and then toured the UK. That had been my only exposure to Camoletti’s work, so I was looking forward to seeing what Happy Birthday would be like.

As with any piece of theatre a tremendous weight lies with the cast, this is especially true with farce, where timing, looks and movement are everything. The cast of 5 dealt admirably with the task set before them, and the pace quickened throughout to its denouement. Special mention must go to Roberto Prestoni as Robert, who gave a superb “John Cleesesque” performance that brought great belly laughs from the audience. Gail Bishop too, as Brigit 1 also threw herself into her role and likewise got great reactions from the audience.

As a farce I really enjoyed this one, it’s similar to Boeing Boeing, I thought the final denouement was excellent, and look forward to seeing or reading more of Camoletti’s work.

Sharon Cox’s direction brought out the best of each of the cast and the set with all the necessary and numerous doors by Tony Dent was brilliant.

It’s good to go to the theatre, laugh lots and see absurdity presented as a reflection of the absurdity we all create in our lives, hopefully the absurdity I create is not as frantic as this though.