Category Archives: Theatre

Les Blancs – a remarkable play and tense production

When one enters the auditorium at The National Theatre the sense of foreboding envelopes you, the stage of Les Blancs is dark and smells heavily of smoke and incense.  Set in rural Africa Les Blancs revolves around the events that take place around a missionary hospital compound at a time when the dominant colonial rule is struggling to survive. The play, directed by Yaël Farber, looks at the complexities, cliches and tragedies surrounding a country on the brink of a war of independence.  It is a remarkably intense performance, uncomfortable, tragic and full of reckoning, as are so many of Yaël Farbe’s plays.

The focus of the story circles around Charlie Morris (played by Elliott Cowan) an American journalist who arrives at the compound to do a piece of the famous Revenant, a pious missionary who has dedicated himself to the local tribal community for decades, and Tshembe Matoshe (played by Danny Spani), an African expatriate who has returned home from Europe to the village to bury father.  As the struggle escalates, people are forced to take sides and confront the history, assumptions and ties that bind them to the country and each other.  As violence erupts friends, families, colleagues and communities find themselves divided with devastating consequences.

Danny Sapani is magnificent as Tshembe Matoseh and the exchanges between Matoseh and Morris are brutally frank, passionately charged and intellectually challenging.  Matoseh makes short work of the Morris’ idealism and western assumptions and Morris is bewildered by the truths he finds.  Matoseh is an educated and well travelled man, his global experiences provide a sharp lense through which the play dissects the enormous mess of the situation and the impossibility of finding a peaceful or meaningful way forward.  The pain is heartfelt and the weight of the decisions clear.  

It is an engrossing three hours that takes one on a complex journey through the different political, personal, cultural and social dilemmas that lead to revolution and bloodshed. There is meaning and symbolism in every moment; the play opens with the chanting of four African woman who enter carrying smoldering incense and take up residence on the side of the stage.  A statuesque woman, dressed in rags walks purposefully on an endless journey.  Her the path is clear and the destination is far.  The woman is a constant feature of the play, she is Mother Africa, forlorn, abused, powerful and unrelenting.  She is on the move, she is everywhere, touching everything and reminding everyone that unavoidable change is following in her wake.  

For more information and tickets visit:  www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photography is from the NT website.  Photographer is Johan Persson

A little about the author Lorraine Hansberry:

Lorraine Hansberry was the first black woman to write a play performed on Broadway. Her best known work, the play A Rasin in the Sun, highlights the lives of Black Americans  living under racial segregation in Chicago.  Young, Gifted and Black by Nina Simone was inspired and dedicated to Lorraine Hansberry.

A little about the director and screenwriter, Yaël Farber:

Yaël Farber is a multiple award-winning director and playwright of international acclaim. Originally from South Africa, her productions have toured the world extensively – earning her a reputation for hard-hitting, controversial works of the highest artistic standard.

http://www.yfarber.com/

Les Blancs at The National Theatre London
Les Blancs The Woman
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David Hare takes on Nordic Noir in Ibsen’s The Master Builder

Ibsen could be the godfather of Nordic Noir.  His plays are dark and constantly chip away at the façade of civil society.  His plays are realistic and simple, analysing issues of morality and the uncomfortable complexities of the human condition.  

The Master Builder is considered one of Ibsen’s most significant works, yet it is also one of his most abstract.  The message behind the play is difficult to understand and there is a great deal of debate about how to interpret its true meaning.

This new adaptation by David Hare sees Ralph Fiennes take the lead role as Halvard Solness, a middle-aged Master Builder in a small town in Norway.  Solness is a self made man, without formal training or education he has become a great architect and runs a successful business.  Yet his success has coincided with exceptional good fortune and the misfortunes of his competitors.  This preys on his mind, he feels guilty and at the same time gifted.  It makes him fearful of competition, especially from the young.  He is particularly resentful towards his talented young apprentice Ragnar Brovik and actively sabotages any opportunities that come his way.  

The sudden arrival of a young woman, Hilde Wangel, changes everything in Solness’ carefully maintained world.  Whether Hilde represents Solness’ conscience or is simply the new object of his desires is unclear.  However, she slowly works her way into his confidence and that of his wife with disastrous consequences.

Fiennes does a masterful job of peeling back the complex layers that shroud the Master Builder.  He slowly exposes Solness’ fears, paranoia and guilt.  The Solness we meet in the first act is a confident, arrogant man who manipulates everyone and everything for his own benefit.  He revels in his power and cunning.  But in act II, we start to see the man fearful of competition, resentful of youth, a man racked with guilt about his success and delusional about his gifts and powers.  By the end Fiennes has created a caricature of a middle-aged man lost in the workings of his own mind and obsessed with proving himself to be fearless and unbeatable.

The stage, a great assortment of wood in random construct, appears a little odd at first glance but it slowly shows itself to be a stroke of genius.  As the play precedes it acts as a reminder of the source of all Solness’ conflicts and the complex history that has lead the Master Builder to construct a bewildering mental maze that tortures him constantly.  However, the set’s true nature only reveals itself in the finale when it puts an end to the drama both physically and metaphorically.  To describe how this happens would spoil the play’s grand finale but it is brilliant.

The Master Builder is showing at The Old Vic in London until  19th March 2016.  For more information and tickets visit:  http://www.oldvictheatre.com/

The master builder ralphe fiennes and leading lady

Workplace bullying is put under the microscope in Mike Bartlett’s play, Bull, at the Young Vic

Playwright Mike Bartlett has a knack for identifying the grey areas that unnerve us about many subjects. His plays push us to confront uncomfortable realities about our world and society. In “Bull”, Bartlett takes the audience into the world of office politics, bullying and the fight for survival, which often people unwittingly find themselves in at work.

The stage is set centrally, a ring of glass and steel under glaring strip lights. One enters this brightly lit space to a pumping fight track that is belting out anthems such as “eye of the tiger”, which have undoubtedly been used to set the scene at many a corporate “kick-off meeting” around the world. The stage imitates the ubiquitous sterility of the office environment – a harsh place of efficiency, achievement and hard work. It is here the action takes place, on a grey square of carpet, ring fenced by chrome bars and glass panels. Our three contenders wait, suited and booted, to meet the senior management who will decide their fate in light of the company’s imminent downsizing.

Through a razor sharp script the play puts workplace bullying under the microscope as two colleagues gang up on a third to try to ensure their own survival. But Bartlett doesn’t let his audience off lightly; he deliberately avoids stereotypes and clear cut baddies and goodies. He challenges us by making his victim hard to like, a defensive, secretive and unmemorable character.

The play is very astute, making sharp and cruel observations about people’s behaviour and the way that many will do anything to protect their own backs and mindlessly follow anyone who instigates bullying, thus avoiding being bullied themselves.

As with all Bartlett’s plays, Bull is thought-provoking and manages to both shock and amuse. The effect of the dialogue on the audience is dramatic and, like the play, exposes the different reactions towards bullying. Some people stare in horror and distress clearly wondering why would people behave like this and asking themselves why it is funny; others smirk in glee or laugh hysterically relishing the feeling that this is just the way life is, how one gets ahead, after all it’s the survival of the fittest and all that; others hang their heads with guilt (remembering their roles as passive bystanders or unwitting accomplices perhaps); whilst others look on miserably probably having had the difficult task of trying to root out and put an end to such behaviour or even worse having been the brunt of some similar cruelty.

One thing is certain, the play is unsettling and for the majority of people it will raise questions about how one behaves to others and within a group dynamic. The ring side seats may not be coveted for this cruel commentary on modern society but they most certainly will be full.

Bull  was applauded a huge success when it ran at the Young Vic in London during the first few months of 2015.

It is now back at the Young Vic Theatre until 16th January 2016.   Click here for more information or go to:  http://www.youngvic.org/

Photography:  The image is from the Young Vic’s advertising posters and billboard

Measure for Measure at The Young Vic

The Young Vic Theatre is never one to shy away from a challenge and in their autumn season they have taken Shakespeare’s lesser known play, Measure for Measure, and completely revamped it.  The Young Vic has joined forces with Joe Hill-Gibbin and together they expose the unpleasant business of sexual politics, social injustice and the challenge of inflexible virtue.

Measure for Measure has the reputation of being one of Shakespeare’s problem plays.  It is generally considered a comedy but blends both tragic and comic elements together.  Under Joe Hill-Gibbins direction it is laugh-out-loud funny at times, but he manages to do this without undermining the dark and sinister side of the tale.

The story looks at justice, morality and mercy and Joe Hill-Gibbins puts the spotlight on the corruptive nature of power and how even the most virtuous of people can succumb to temptation and abuse their position once under its influence.

The action takes place in modern Vienna, where vice and licentiousness are rife.  The Duke of Vienna, Vincentio, disgusted by the immorality which he has allowed to proliferate during his reign, vows to clean up the city. He hands this task over to his deputy, Angelo, a man of scripture and firm abstinence, while he himself pretends to go on a diplomatic mission but in fact disguises himself as a monk to watch what unfolds in his absence.

Angelo goes at his new task with great zeal and in the process he becomes detached from any sense of humanity and is seduced by his new found power and influence.

Paul Ready plays the pious Angelo and Romola Garai the virtuous Isabella; both deliver a fine performance, although one could wish of more for chemistry between them.  That said they hold the play together; propelling it forward and lighting up the stark stage with their performances.

This may not be your classic rendition of a Shakespearean play but then one wouldn’t really expect that from the Young Vic Theatre and with Joe Hill-Gibbins directing be prepared for the unusual.  Whatever this modern Measure for Measure is it’s certainly not boring.

Measure for Measure is now on at the Young Vic Theatre in London and runs until 14th November 2015.  For more information and tickets go to:  http://www.youngvic.org/

The Trial by Franz Kafka

Kafka’s work is renowned for its surrealism and nightmarish situations, which provoke feelings of senselessness, disorientation and helplessness.  And if these are the emotions the Young Vic intends to convey through its new adaptation of The Trial by Nick Gill, they have done so admirably.

We meet Josef K. on the night of his 30th birthday, celebrating alone in a strip club, unaware that his world is about to change forever.  The next morning he is accused of an unknown crime and learns his case will be judged by a remote, invisible court that is governed by an inaccessible authority.  We never discover the nature of the crime but watch mesmerised as his life falls apart before our eyes.

The Young Vic has added their usual ingenious touch with the set design.  Using a conveyor belt we are propelled through time and key events with an unnerving sense of purpose.  We watch as Josef moves from initial outrage, through disbelief, towards desperation and helplessness, stopping momentarily at despair before finally giving in to submission.

Rory Kinnear does a superb job as Josef K and he manages to convey the sense of a man losing control of himself and everything around him.  Nick Gill’s adaptation is particularly disturbing as we never get a clear idea of whether Josef is losing his mind or if the events are really taking place.  Kinnear exploits this duplicity, he is both a man descending slowly into insanity and a victim of a totalitarian regime.   The other characters help to increase this uncertainty – are they real or in Josef’s mind?  Do the meetings take place or are they imagined?  Sian Thomas is brilliant as Mrs Grace, the lawyer who has no interest in his case; and Hugh Skinner is excellent in his two roles as the colleague who talks constantly about Josef’s professional failings and Block, another accused man, who is tormented by the promise of help by Mrs Grace.

The sense of unease is difficult to shake off, even after one has left the theatre.  The absence of a clear course of action to escape a labyrinthine situation is overwhelming and there is also a strange sense of familiarity at times (most will be able to relate to the scene at the information desk).  Perhaps, this is both the strength and the weakness of the play.

The Trial is showing at The Young Vic in London until 22nd August 2015.  For more information and tickets visit:  http://www.youngvic.org/

Scene from The Trial
Sarah_Crowden as the Information_Officer in The Trial_ Photo by Keith Pattison

Chiwetel Ejiofor in Everyman

How would you account for the time you spent on earth in front of your God?  This is the central question in the 15th century morality play Everyman.  Would you run; plea; try and outwit Death; or rally your friends and loved ones to your cause and ask them to accompany you to your tête-à-tête with your maker?  When Everyman is confronted by Death he try’s all of these to avoid this fate, until he finally realises he cannot escape the inevitable reckoning that awaits him and all men.Everyman is the allegory of the character who must face up to God’s reckoning but in this new version, by Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy, there is no Bible bashing, no wrath, no fire and brimstone.  Duffy has written a thoroughly contemporary version that exams Everyman’s life and achievements through his modern values of friendship, family, material goods and knowledge.

Duffy’s adaption is clever; it keeps the content secular and shines a light on our modern vices and temptations; the acting is superb and the desire to shock and provoke shines through.  Hedonism plays a central role and there are innumerable indulgences referring to drink, drug and sex.  And although the play is brilliant at times, it doesn’t quite hit the mark. It seems to lacks a certain edge and at times it feels like watching your parents trying to be outrageous party animals.  The National Theatre is not the Young Vic, Donmar or Royal Court, nor should it try to be.  The NT needs to carve out its own niche rather than take its cue from these smaller edgier theatres.

Having said this, the play is thoroughly enjoyable. Chiwetel Ejiofor is stupendous, Duffy’s verse is witty, sharp and poignant and the set and music as good as it gets.

Everyman is the first production by Rufus Norris as Artistic Director at The National Theatre and it is a tremendous start.  Perhaps Norris will help the National Theatre find this “alternative” niche it seems to desire. Undoubtedly the National has the creative capacity to do it and to do it well.  Let’s hope Norris is the galvanizing force they need to make it all come together.

Everyman is showing at The National Theatre in London until 30th August 2015 for tickets and information click here:  http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/

Everyman will be broadcast live in cinemas on 16th July 2015.  For more information go to:  http://ntlive.nationaltheatre.org.uk/

Images are from the National Theatre and via Google images.

Chiwetel Ejiofor in Everyman
National Theatre: Everyman

Ah Wilderness Eugene O’Neill’s only comedy now on in London

Ah Wilderness

The great American playwright Eugene O’Neill is not usually associated with romantic comedies but Ah Wilderness is just that, a wonderfully light hearted and beautifully simple story of love, loss and a young boy’s coming of age.  Ah Wilderness tends to be known as O’Neill’s prelude to his more famous work “A Long Day’s Journey into Night”, both are thought to reflect his own life.  The title “Ah Wilderness” comes from a verse by the poet Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám and is Richard’s, the main protagonist’s, favourite poem:

A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread—and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness—
Ah, Wilderness were Paradise enow!

The play is set in Connecticut and follows events in the Miller family home over two days.

Richard’s mother Essie is worried.  She is worried about Richard, who is reading sensationalist literature by the likes of Swinburne and Wilde.  Richard, played by rising star George MacKay, is headstrong, rebellious, idealistic and in love.  It is 4th July 1906, he is about to turn 17 and the family are celebrating Independence Day.  Emotions are running high in the Miller family home and the play looks at the dynamics and tensions between the different family members, exploring their intertwining stories over the two days.

As the events of the 4th of July celebrations sweep the Miller family along, their stories unfold.  Their personal strengths and fragilities are woven cleverly into the play to form its very fabric.  One can’t help admiring the long term bond of love and commitment between Essie, the hardworking and loyal wife, and her husband Nat, the successful newspaper man; one sees the disappointment of the lost love that hangs in the air between Lily, Nat’s spinster sister and Sid, Essie’s drunken brother; and one feels dizzy with the head spinning emotional turmoil of Richard, as he vacillates between childhood and manhood, wrestling with rebellion, the injustices of the world, love and lust, right and wrong.

What makes the play so enjoyable is the characters. It is easy to sympathise with them.  The everydayness of their situations is so familiar.  The problems, joys and worries they face in their relationships and interactions are universal and are as relevant today as they were in the 1900’s when the play was written.

This American literary staple is rarely seen in UK theatres but now the Young Vic has brought it to life in the London. It is a wonderfully heart warming play, complete with moonlit beaches, firecrackers, booze and a powerfully dark undertow.

Ah Wilderness is currently showing at The Young Vic Theatre in London until 23rd May 2015.  For more information and tickets, click here:  http://www.youngvic.org/

Ralph Fiennes is terrific in Bernard Shaw’s brilliant play Man and Superman

“Heaven is the most angelically dull place in all creation”

And the prospect of a 3 hour 40 minute play can be daunting at the best of times and dull at the worst, but the National Theatre’s new production of Bernard Shaw’s play Man and Superman is anything but dull.

The play propels itself forward in great strides, racing from one razor-sharp line to the next with energy and purpose. The dialogues are witty and fiercely intelligent, putting forward philosophical questions about the purpose of life and then offering entertaining commentary on the farcical way we actually think and behave.

Ralph Fiennes takes the lead role as Jack Tanner, a wealthy bachelor and radical thinker who is entrusted with the guardianship of his old friend’s daughter Ann (Indira Varma). Ann sees Jack as the perfect husband and sets out to ensnare the bachelor and tame his revolutionary ideas. Once Jack realises Ann’s true intensions he flees, only to discover that his attraction to Ann is too overwhelming to escape. What ensues is an exhilarating game of cat and mouse and as Ann stalks her prey we are treated to some of the most entertaining exchanges around on stage at the moment.

Man and Superman is a long play, four acts in its entirety and often the Dream Scene in Act III is omitted because it adds 90 minutes to the play. The NT has not shied away from Dream Scene, instead they have ingeniously woven key parts into the final act and we are treated to an extraordinary dream-debate: heaven versus hell, when Jack meets the Devil. Tim McMullan is brilliant as The Devil, teasing us with a seductive Russell Brand like stance, a savage intellectual prowess and a persuasive manner.

When Jack finally awakes from his dream he discovers that Ann (along with her friends Ramsden, Octavius, Hector and Violet) has tracked him down and it seems he cannot escape his fate.

Ralph Fiennes is terrific as Jack Tanner and sparks fly in the fierce and fiery exchanges with Indira Varma (Ann), there seems to be real chemistry here and the play is all the better for it.

This production of Man and Superman is theatre at its best and, incredibly, by the end one cannot help wondering if the National Theatre should have indulged us in the whole production and included the full philosophical debate of the Dream Scene. This is quite an achievement in itself.  As Mendoza say’s in the play: “There are two tragedies in life. One is not to get your heart’s desire. The other is to get it.”

Man and Superman is currently showing at the National Theatre in London until the 17th May. Click here for more information: http://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/

The play will be broadcast live via NT Live on 14th May and may be released for further broadcast once the play has closed. For more information, click here: http://ntlive.nationaltheatre.org.uk/

Scene from the Dream in Man and Superman

Zoë Wanamaker in Stevie at the Hampstead Theatre

“I was much too far out all my life
And not waving but drowning”

From Not Waving but Drowning by Stevie Smith

Zoë Wanamaker takes the lead role in Huge Whitemore’s 1971 play, Stevie. She is mesmerising to watch, puffing incessantly on a cigarette, eyes glinting mischievously as she takes the audience deep into the world of Stevie Smith, introducing them to Stevie’s incredible imagination and wit.

Stevie Smith (1902-1971) was a British poet and although she may have missed out on many of the great public accolades bestowed by the critics, she was one of the most original women poets of her time. In Hugh Whitemore’s play her life is told through poetry and dialogue.

The dialogue is sharp and the poetry full of wit and seriousness.  And the play is punctuated with her disconcerting, but very funny, observations on life. Yet Stevie Smith lived what most people would regard, even by Victorian standards, an extremely mundane day-to-day life. She lived in the suburbs with her beloved Aunt, who she called the Lion Aunt, commuting to London for work. However, she escaped her middle-class existence through her vivid imagination, channelling it into her writing and poetry.

Zoë Wanamaker is fantastic as Stevie. She moves with incredible agility between Stevie’s funny highs and desolately black moods. Lynda Barton makes a brilliant Lion Aunt, the no-nonsense feminist from Hull who had no time for men and a whole list of other things too. Chris Larkin plays a variety of male roles, which help to fill in context about Stevie’s life, passions and fears, including the fiancé she rejects because ‘You expect me to behave in a certain way, to think a certain way, to lead a certain life. Well, I don’t think I can do it’. Going on to explain passionately and vehemently that “I’m cut out for friendship, not marriage”.

Stevie is currently showing at the Hampstead Theatre until 18th April 2015. Click here for more information and tickets: http://www.hampsteadtheatre.com/

Golem – A wickedly funny play

Golem is one of the most visually stimulating and thought-provoking pieces of theatre around at the moment. It is also a great deal of fun.  The Golem is a creature found in Jewish folklore and dates back to medieval writings. Traditionally it is a creature made of clay that is brought to life with magic and there are many stories about how the Golem was brought to life and subsequently controlled.

1927 use the Golem to give an intellectual commentary on our current society, looking at the subtle and powerful forces that are influencing our choices, behaviours, actions and thoughts. The play combines acting and live music with animation and film to create a filmatic performance. The visuals are brilliant and the script very clever, full of subtle references to our every day, our social norms and our digital lives.

Set in an urban landscape that is a vivid backdrop of rich animated images, which remind us of the inner city streets of London and LA. The main character Robert is sold a Golem as the ultimate time-saving device and personal helper. Initially Golem is quiet and reactive but things start to change as Golem learns about his master and his master’s world. Very soon Golem is influencing Robert and his whole family. Under Golem’s influence they become swept up in the rampant consumerist lifestyle favoured by the corporations that produce Golem on a worldwide scale, a life that is the opposite of the one they had before. The Golem of this modern world is subtle, manipulative, invasive and seductive. It is constantly on hand as a friend and a helper. It understands us and helps us to interpret and the see the world around us, until we can’t leave home without it.

The play hilariously explores the manipulation of the masses, the corrosion of individual thought and pokes fun at how easy it is for corporations to manipulate us as they accumulate more information and understanding of our preferences, fears, desires and behaviour.

As Roberts say’s when justifying his Golem “….. he seems to know what I want before I do …..”

After a sell out run at The Young Vic in London Golem has transferred to the Trafalgar Studios in London for a limited run:  14 April – 22nd May.   For more information go to:   youngvic.org

For more information about 1927 go to: www.19-27.co.uk

Photography is by Bernhard Müller from the Young Vic’s digital channels.