Katie Campbell reviews some recent productions on the London stage …

*Twelfth Night     *Women Beware Women   *Posh, Little Gem, 11 and 12   *The Habit of Art  *The Empire
*A Midsummer Night’s Dream   *Jerusalem   *Dunsinane    *The Misanthrope   *Serenading Louie
*Arcadia    *Medea   *Burnt by the Sun   *Phedre   *The Winter’s Tale    *Death and the King’s Horseman
*Duet for One   *Aunt Dan and Lemon   *England

*
Twelfth Night
by William Shakespeare
National Theatre
Peter Hall has chosen an autumn setting for this January tale of what Shakespeare mischievously described in his text as ‘midsummer madness’.  But what else would one expect of Twelfth Night, a time of topsy-turvey when the lords of misrule reign?  Hall has created a thrilling production of this always strange and often inconsequential play.  It is never an easy play to stage as all the interest is in the first half while the second is simply tying up ends, a fault even Hall can’t quite overcome.  Nonetheless he brings a wonderful clarity and simplicity to the tale of people on the edge – of class, age, gender.  Hall’s production stresses the word-play and reveals, among other things, a nasty bawdiness which is often lost in the frenzied antics of other stagings.

This is, of course, an old man’s interpretation and Hall, in his eighty-first year, presents the comedy as more bitter than sweet.  A Chekhovian melancholy hangs heavily over the proceedings, and as with Chekhov, one often feels the characters deserve their fates.  Casual cruelty is the order of the day.  Marton Csokas imbues Orsino’s egotism with a deliciously sinister edge and even Ben Mansfield’s beloved Sebastian displays an unsettling negligence and opportunism.  Charles Edwards  as Aiguecheek manages to elicit some compassion despite his character’s wanton scheming, while Simon Callow as the malicious Toby Belch dominates the stage, drawing a cheer each time he appears  thus brilliantly implicating the audience in his callous capers.  David Ryall’s Feste is older than usual, bringing a lugubrious gravity to the role.  But best of all is Rebecca Hall, superlative as Viola, who retains her wits through all the madness and dissembling.

The set is simple, dream- like: Illyria as Elysium; the lighting is subtle and discrete.  Clothing his characters in Jacobean dress, Hall gives period authenticity while hinting at contemporary relevance: 1601 when Shakespeare wrote the play, was a time of transition, Puritan fundamentalism threatened daily pleasures, the future was unsettled as lines of succession unclear. Within the play the final coalitions are unconvincing and we sense, as Viola seems to, that she should perhaps have been more careful what she wished for.  The audience doesn’t even get to witness the nuptial celebrations, and the play ends, as it begins, on a dying fall, suggesting that the whirligig of time will indeed bring in its revenges.

*

Women Beware Women

by Thomas Middleton

National Theatre, Olivier Stage

Fragment of photo by Simon Annand of Harriet Walter in Women Beware Women

The main problem with Thomas Middleton is that he isn’t William Shakespeare. Middleton is one of the most prolific of the Jacobean dramatists; a freelance playwright he produced comedies, tragedies, masques and pageants, he wrote alone and in collaboration – not least with the Bard himself.  When epidemics of the plague periodically shut down London’s theatres, he turned his hand to poems and pamphlets; indeed one of his earliest published poems, written while he was still an undergraduate at Oxford, was banned as it transgressed the church’s proscription on satirical verse. Behind Middleton’s excoriating wit is a cynical view of human nature, and herein lies the problem: he has none of Shakespeare’s richness, nuance and delight – a victim perhaps of the shift from Elizabethan humanism to Jacobean Calvinism with all its superstition and misogyny.

Women Beware Women, one of Middleton’s most popular plays, tells the real life story of Bianca Capello, a high-born Venetian who eloped with a lower-born Florentine who promptly incarcerated her to prevent lustful eyes from sullying his treasure. Inevitably, the Grand Duke of Tuscany spied her in an upper window. Bowing to the inevitable, Bianca became his mistress while her husband was bought off with appointments and villas. When the Grand Duke’s religious brother denounced the affair, her husband and his wife conveniently died freeing the couple to marry.  Several years later both Bianca and the Grand Duke died, apparently poisoned. Interwoven with this historical tale is a fictional subplot depicting the widow Livia whose unhealthy love for her brother leads to her procuring for him her innocent niece.  Needless to say it all comes to a sticky end in a grotesque masque where betrayal, vengeance and despair lead to a piling up of the bodies.

Marianne Elliott’s intelligent production sets this twisted tale in Mussolini’s Italy – another time when church and state oppressed women and corrupted men.  A convincing cast is led by Harriet Walter as the scheming Livia, an intelligent woman whose gender precludes her from real power. In the brilliant set-piece chess game she reveals her thwarted potential, gleefully manipulating bishops, kings and pawns alike.

Some, like T.S. Eliot, have championed Middleton as the near-equal of the Bard, others claim a feminist sympathy in his portrayal of innocent  women brutalised by sordid men, some might even discern a political message in his depiction of simple citizens betrayed by unscrupulous rulers, but ultimately Middleton’s characters are so relentlessly odious that it’s hard to care about any of them.  The play remains an interesting period piece but for modern audiences the final scene’s rapid accumulation of blood and guts veers dangerously close to parody.

*

Posh

by Laura Wade

Royal Court Theatre, London

Laura Wade’s new play takes place in the private dining room of a rural gastro-pub which has been rented for the evening by a privileged Oxford dining club such as the one to which our current PM, our current chancellor and our current Mayor all subscribed.  I hope it isn’t accurate; I fear it is.  A knot started forming in my gut in the first five minutes and tightened non-stop for the next two and a half hours.  This means, I suppose, it was a good play, perhaps even an excellent play.  It’s quite a feat to create ten fully formed and equally odious characters each of which manages to be curiously vulnerable.  Wade captures the shibboleths and tribal jargon of this trapped and dangerous species, while Lyndsey Turner’s production brilliantly charts the sudden descent from ritual horseplay to naked barbarity.  The plot takes one twist too many, stretching credibility, but it’s hard to deny its basic premise that the class war is still bagging bodies – on both sides

Little Gem

Bush Theatre, Shepherd’s Bush, London

The aptly named Little Gem presents theatre at its simplest, and perhaps most profound.  Three women sit on the bare stage and recount their lives and loves. Sarah Greene is the vulnerable teenage Amber, Ameila Crowley is her fastidious mum, Anita Reeves is her voluptuous gran.  This being Ireland the craic is foul and very funny; the stories are mundane and predictable but the acting is flawless, the writing exhilarating and the directing, by Paul Meade, is suitably invisible.

See it soon before it moves; much of the power comes from the intimacy of the Bush theatre.  This is Elaine Murphy’s debut play but her other career as an actress has given her a sure sense of what works; without the trappings of set, action or even interaction the sheer energy of her text and the irrepressible courage of her characters keeps the audience enthralled . . .

11 and 12

directed by Peter Brook

Rose Theatre, Kingston

 . . . The same could not be said of Peter Brook’s 11 and 12 at the Rose Theatre for a brief run after its time at the Barbican. A carpet spread across a sand-strewn stage provides the set; a cloth is manipulated with Brook’s characteristic inventiveness, to suggest a boat, a grave, a cloak; a few spare trees carry all the symbolic weight of … a few spare trees. Marie-Helene Estienne’s adaptation of the Malian folk tales of Amadou Hampate reveals two groups playing out a disagreement over whether their ritual prayer should be said eleven or twelve times.

West African stories and story-telling traditions would seem a perfect vehicle for Peter Brook as religious, racial and tribal conflict are explored against a potent background of colonial exploitation.   But while he’s clearly aiming at profundity, the piece comes off as pretentious, portentous and patronising – both to its subject and its audience.  It is also very, very slow.  At 84, the legendary director is perhaps beginning to lose it, and even the talented multi-cultural cast and inventive multi-lingual text don’t cover for the fact that we’ve seen this all before.

*
The Habit of Art

by Alan Bennett

National Theatre

Presented as a play within a play, Alan Bennett’s new work is more like one of those Russian dolls: just when you think you’ve got to the core of the piece, another layer is revealed.  Fittingly, for a work which explores the value of art, Bennett’s play is littered with allusions, referencing everything from American pop, through French farce, to Soviet oppression.

At first it appears to be set in Pirandello territory with mistaken identities spicing the dialogue and theatrical in-jokes driving the plot. The – metaphorical – curtain rises on a chaotic rehearsal, set in the same National Theatre as the audience now sits.  Abandoned by the director, who is en route to a conference on the Relevance of Theatre, the stage manager cajoles her unruly cast in a run-through.  The play bounces along on Bennett’s characteristic wit and verbal brilliance, as the actors slip in and out of character through a round of queries, prompts and spats.

Though richer and more dramatic than many of his earlier works, the play explores Bennett’s usual themes – the conflict between life and art, the difficulty of depicting life in art, the human cost of art, and the topical, if touchy, subject of old men lusting for young boys.  In this particular riff perhaps Bennett lets his subjects off too lightly, suggesting such relationships involve collusion rather than coercion. Otherwise, however, he is ruthless in exposing the flawed human beings behind the masterpieces, while celebrating the unsung midwives, the journalists and biographers, directors and actors, the porters and partners and rent boys who nurture the men behind the work.

The play proposes a fictional meeting late in life between the poet WH Auden and the composer Benjamin Britten.  In the 1920s and 30s Auden did indeed mentor, bully, awe and encourage the younger Britten, but when he deserted England for America at the onset of the Second World War Britten cut him off for life.  Now that both men are old, insecure and essentially irrelevant, Bennett has the prissy Britten visiting the odoriferous Auden, seeking support for his controversial attempt to transform Thomas Mann’s Death In Venice into an opera.  Even in post-1968 England, after homosexuality had been decriminalized and censorship abandoned, the story of an aging man enchanted by an 11 year old boy seemed dangerously autobiographical.

To suggest the play depicts the clash between the Dionysian and the Apollonian is too obvious ; indeed Bennett’s Auden disparages ‘all that counterfeit, classical luggage’. The interdependence of Caliban and Ariel is a more apt allusion and one which is endorsed by the play’s many references to Auden’s The Mirror and the Sea, an analysis of Shakespeare’s Tempest, which ends with the bestial Caliban speaking for his godlike master, rather as Bennett’s rent boy at the end of the play recalls his brief encounter with the two great men.

Auden once declared of Shakespeare:  ‘to be able to devote one’s life to art without forgetting that art is frivolous is a tremendous achievement of personal character.’  The same could be said of Auden himself, and indeed of Alan Bennett.  This theatrically complex play is superbly directed by Nick Hytner. Richard Griffiths is brilliant as the grotesque but strangely engaging Auden, and equally good as Fitz, the querulous actor who deplores the irreverent depiction of one of England’s greats.  Alex Jennings gets his Blanche DuBois moment as Henry, the camp actor who slips seamlessly into character as the brittle Britten. Steven Wight is the rent boy who aspires to better things, and Adrian Scarborough is a disillusioned Humphrey Carpenter who did, in real life, write biographies of both Auden and Britten but here is engaged in constant battle with The Author played by Elliot Levey.   The most moving performance however, comes from the incomparable Frances de la Tour as the overlooked stage manager who keeps the whole show moving, then gathers up the scripts and turns out the lights at the end.

*

The Empire

by D.C. Moore

Royal Court Upstairs

Photo by Tristram Kenton

D.C.Moore’s  second play is set, topically enough, in Helmand province. Gary, a British soldier and Hafizullah, his Afghan shadow, languish in a burnt-out building, guarding a bound and unconscious prisoner whom they suspect is the ‘terry Taliban’ who sabotaged Gary’s best mate. The heat is palpable, as is the dust which wafts from Bob Bailey’s brilliant rubble-strewn set to settle on the audience in the Royal Court’s edgy Upstairs theatre.  Gary tries to be decent, he’s even attempting to learn the local language, but from behind the fog of dope with which he  anaesthetises himself, Hafizullah is clearly infinitely more sophisticated than his patronizing mentor; while we’re unsure where Hafizullah’s sympathies lie, we know, as he does, that his best chance of survival rests with the occupying army.  For the prisoner the situation is not so clear as he jerks into agonized consciousness and protests in an east London accent that he’s an innocent tourist whose holiday plans went horribly wrong.  Tensions rise as the wounded mate expires and Gary wants revenge, but the prisoner, being British, is entitled to ‘consular support’, and Gary’s superiors don’t want him harmed – at least until they’ve patched him up and officially handed him over to the Afghan army.   Male culture is laid bare as the playwright explores race, religion, football and, inevitably, class.  The title indicates this play is not just about modern Britain and Afghanistan.  Gary claims that his father was in Aden, his grandfather in India, and this – the violence, the occupation – is his birthright: ‘thick cunts, led by posh cunts, hitting brown cunts’.  It appears that nothing has changed in generations. The dialogue is enthralling and the play manages to be both witty and heart-warming as well as searing and brutal.

Directed by Mike Bradwell, with  Joe Armstrong as the febrile Gary, Josef Altin as Hafizullah, Nav Sidhu as the prisoner and Rufus Wright as the superior officer who is trying to maintain order in the chaos.

Photo: by Tristram Kenton – Nav Sidhu & Rufus Wright in The Empire

*

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Rose Theatre, Kingston

Directed by Peter Hall, starring Judi Dench

Judi Dench as Titania 2010 Photo: courtesy Rose Theatre, Kingston

As Titania, Queen of the Fairies, under Peter Hall’s direction, Judi Dench is reprising a relationship the pair first enacted nearly 50 years ago.  Dench, now 76, brings fierce rage to a part which is generally given to a woman half her age and played with petulance.  Indeed, this dark and ambiguous production stresses the Night rather than the Midsummer of the title; the action takes place in shadows, the costumes are black and Oberon, King of the Fairies, is more vampire than woodland sprite.   While many would consider it heresy to describe the nation’s favourite actress as grotesque, Dench, puffy, pinked and powdered, exudes a morbid, almost foetid quality.

Fluttering with doublets and ruffs, this Dream is set in an Elizabethan court – appropriately enough as the play was written in the anxious years towards the end of Elizabeth’s reign.  Dench’s Titania is modelled on the Virgin Queen, whose ambiguous sexuality, representing both chastity and fecundity, became increasingly bizarre as the aging ruler flirted with ever younger courtiers.  The production explores love in all its delusions, aptly proving Pucks observation: what fools these mortals be – though the immortals in this play are just as foolish, quixotic and immoral as their temporal cousins.  Indeed one wonders why Hall didn’t exploit his famous star in the obvious doubling of Titania and Oberon with Hippolyta and Theseus, thus allowing the same actors to play both the human rulers of Athens and the magical rulers of the forest.

The story begins with the announcement of the wedding of Theseus, Duke of Athens to Hippolyta, an Amazon whom he has conquered with his sword.  This implicit act of rape and the wider male abuse of power is a theme that is woven through the play, echoed first when Theseus’ friend Egeus drags his daughter Hermia to the Duke demanding her death if she marries her beloved Lysander rather than Demetrius, whom her father has chosen for her – an unscrupulous philanderer who has already ravished her best friend, Helena.  Theseus acknowledges the father’s rights and charges the lovers to choose their fates in time for his wedding four days hence.  They retreat to the forest where, as often happens in Shakespeare’s forests, the characters’ loyalties, their values, their very identities are challenged.

Jealousy, treachery, mistaken identities and magic potions ensue as the fairies wreak havoc for their own sport.  But fairyland itself is in turmoil as King and Queen battle over possession of a beautiful young boy.  Remarkably little is made of this disturbing subplot, though given the age of its leading lady it is hardly surprising that Hall’s production concentrates on the madness of love rather than the destructive power of sexuality.  Nonetheless the disputed child – orphaned when a celibate priestess raped by a king died in childbirth – allows the introduction of such subjects as the danger of childbearing, the defiling of chastity and the ownership of royal offspring – all potent issues at the end of Elizabeth’s reign.

Charles Edwards as Oberon makes the most of Shakespeare’s meta-theatrics, challenging the audience like some modern stage hypnotist as he announces: ‘I am invisible’, before proceeding to manipulate the unsuspecting lovers into increasingly ridiculous behaviour.  The Rude Mechanicals perform the play within a play with great wit and charm, and Oliver Chris is especially appealing as Bottom the weaver, transformed into an ass, with whom the bewitched Titania becomes briefly enamoured.  Eventually the magic is reversed, the couples emerge from their forest frenzy, order is restored and marriages are duly wrought.  Though it offers no particularly topical reading of the play, this is a very clear, engaging production of one of Shakespeare’s more bizarre comedies.

*

Jerusalem

by Jez Butterworth

Apollo Theatre

The Lord of Misrule, the flight to the forest, indeed the idea of Englishness is also explored in Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem.  This vivid, modern take on Shakespeare’sDream explores a group of misfits gathered at the woodland squat of petty criminal ‘Rooster’ Byron, who is indeed mad, bad and dangerous to know.  Brilliantly played by the incomparable Mark Rylance, Rooster is a charismatic, drug dealing, alcoholic seducer with a golden tongue and a disturbing penchant for underage girls.  Mackenzie Crook leads the strong supporting cast of losers and dreamers who gather on St George’s Day, weaving between the annual summer fair and the more potent pleasures of Rooster’s realm.  With telling names like Pea and Tania these courtiers seeking solace from the crushing boredom and petty humiliations of small town Wiltshire life.   As the local authorities conspire to evict him, the audience is left to decide whether Rooster is the potent Green Man of English folklore, a Christ-like figure providing refuge to friends who will betray him as adeptly as his enemies, or a clapped out, self-deluding, old hippie . . .  Whatever the conclusion, this is one of the most innovative, exhilarating plays on the London stage.  Directed by Ian Rickson, designed by Ultz, with music by Stephen Warbeck the production is a dream.   It must have been electric in the confines of the Royal Court Theatre, its first venue. While the excitement of intimacy is lost in the vastness of the West End stage, it is still a riveting piece.

*

Dunsinane

by David Greig

Hampstead Theatre

As its title suggests, David Greig’s new play takes as its starting point the end of Shakespeare’s Macbeth.  This is a play about the aftermath of war, the ephemeral nature of peace and the impossibility of ruling in an alien land.  Malcolm, the effete ruler, has been installed by the English to ensure peace on their northern border.  Siward, the idealistic English commander charged with keeping order, forbids rape and pillage but his big mistake is his refusal to murder Gruach, the deposed tyrant’s Queen.  The stark, bleak set is soon draped with bodies – the victims of a naive but noble attempt to rule with honour.

A live band supplements the haunting chorus of handmaidens, wraithlike figures which weave about beguiling and terrifying their captors with their incomprehensible songs.   The maidens and their mistress prove more than a match for the lads from the south. Indeed, as the foppish Malcolm moves from whiny stooge to steely diplomat it soon becomes clear that the English are mere pawns in a long-running battle between the clans.

The play provides plenty of scope for humour – the dullard English and the primitive Scots.  The dialogue is both witty and gritty.  Siobhan Redmond is electrifying as the captive Queen veering between seduction and sedition; Jonny Phillips is an engagingly earnest Siward, but not quite her match; a more balanced battle would have made for a more satisfying finale.  Sam Swan gives a poignant portrait of a boy soldier slowly broken into manhood and Brian Ferguson brings a deliciously serpentine quality to the puppet king who is playing a much longer and more subtle game than his commander.  While the echoes of Iraq and Afghanistan are perhaps a little too simplistic, this is a terrific play: dramatic, resonant and intelligent.

*

The Misanthrope

Starring Keira Knightley and Damian Lewis

Comedy Theatre

The problem with watching a play written in rhyming couplets is that one is always anticipating the next rhyme; if it’s good, one savours the wit, if it’s bad one attempts to improve on it.  In either case the action keeps moving forward leaving the audience musing several couplets behind.

For the Comedy Theatre’s current production of The Misanthrope, Martin Crimp has updated his 1996 update of Molière’s seventeenth century comedy of manners, moving it from France’s royal court to London’s media world.  Topicality is provided with references to David Cameron with his ‘toxic spray-on brand of fake compassion’.  Swipes at the audience prepared to spend £50 to be abused, are balanced by in-jokes about the theatre industry – notably in the form of the critic-turned-aspiring-playwright with the resonant name of Covington.

Damian Lewis valiantly attempts to bring flesh and bones to the eponymous hero Alcestes whose violent rejection of social dishonesty sets him at odds with his community.  Dominic Rowan is his friend, and foil – an altogether more reasonable character, prepared to dissemble a little to oil the wheels of society.  Keira Knightley is enthusiastically flirtatious as the coquette who enchants Alcestes while representing everything he despises.   As the fey yet bitchy American star she lights up the stage, though whether it’s her fame, her fragility or her acting ability which electrifies, it is hard to tell.

A supporting cast of sycophants and poseurs flounce and flatter their way around Hildegard Bechlter’s witty po-mo hotel suite inducing squirms of recognition in the audience.  But while Molière left his audience unsure whether to praise Alceste as a model of honesty or to condemn him as an uncompromising fool, Crimp’s characters are all so ghastly the audience simply doesn’t care.

*

Serenading Louie

by Lanford Wilson

Donmar Warehouse

Who is Louie? Who is serenading? Who cares? In the 1970s when it was first written this exposition of middle-aged, middle-class disaffection might perhaps have seemed radical, but these days it is hard to care about the growing pains of aging beauty queens and football kings.  The acting is fine, the accents convincing, the direction by Simon Curtis is sympathetic and there’s a nice little gimmick with the set. The problem is the script.  Lanford Wilson has written some moving plays but this is not one of them. The characters are weighted down with endless monologues, very little actually happens and the final action is signalled so many times that when it finally comes it is a relief rather than a revelation.  I found myself agreeing with the woman in the front row who announced to the room at large as the lights went up: ‘I wanted to shake the lot of them!’

*

Arcadia

by Tom Stoppard

Duke of York’s Theatre

Thank God for Tom Stoppard; while the rest of the world is dumbing down, he continues to raise the intellectual bar.  His 1993 Arcadia is as dazzling today as it was when it premiered sixteen years ago.  Behind the mind-blowing science, the literary jokes and drawing-room banter this is a play about freewill and determinism, about chaos and order, about the human propensity to fall in love, usually with the wrong person.

The story is cheekily set in an English country house, shifting between past and present.  The play begins in 1809 with the grounds of Sidley Park being modernized and updated in the latest fashion.  As the order and serenity of the Arcadian landscape is replaced by the rough, dramatic gloom of the newly fashionable Picturesque style, Stoppard charts the shift from the sureties of the Classical age to the insecurity of our own Romantic era.  Part cultural history, part drawing-room farce, part literary who-done-it, the play weaves from musings on commercial hermits through Byron’s sudden flight from England to Fermat’s Last Theorum.  Early on the precocious schoolgirl Thomasina expresses the Enlightenment faith in an ordered universe by asserting that the world is predictable if we could only find the formula; her comforting assumption is countered by the modern ingénue’s observation that the one unpredictable element is human nature.

While stirring milk into her tea Thomasina meanders into a disquisition on the Second law of Thermodyanamics, the idea the world and everything in it is gradually cooling down – everything, that is, except the passions playing out before her.  The generations intertwine as today’s academics attempt, unsuccessfully, to unravel the mysteries of the past while getting entangled in their own emotions.   In a final poignant moment all the characters waltz together, each lost in his or her own world, though the audience knows that despite the Second Law of Thermodynamics, one brilliant creature is about to go up in a blaze, taking to the grave a formula that science is only beginning to comprehend.  David Leveaux’s production underplays this final conflagration, leaving the audience with the consoling image of the dance.

Neil Pearson as the egotistical media scholar lacks the reptilian charm of Bill Nighy’s original performance, but brings a lusty solidity to the part; Samantha Bond as the cold academic is less winsome but more vulnerable than Felicity Kendal, Stoppard’s lover at the time, for whom the part was written.  Dan Stevens is great as the philandering tutor who understands, too late, the genius of his unassuming pupil.  Ed Stoppard – yes, the son of the writer – is engaging as Valentine Coverly, the modern-day mathematician who helps explain some of the less arcane science and delights in learning that everything he thought he knew is wrong.  The rest of the  company play their parts with great wit and verve.  Hildegard Bechtler’s simple, elegant set convincingly contains the accumulating clutter of the two time frames, but the real triumph here is the play itself: Shakespearean in its breadth, Chekhovian in its bittersweet nostalgia, Arcadia displays Stoppard’s eloquence and erudition at its best.

*

Medea

Directed and adapted by Dylan Tighe

The Gate, Notting Hill

What do a live caged bird, a pair of child mannequins in school uniforms, a hobby horse, a microscope and a box of Dazz soap powder have to do with the myth of Medea? You might well ask.  More interesting perhaps is the question of why this story, first dramatised by Euripides in the fifth century BC, continues to fascinate? I suppose because it expresses men’s fear of women.  Woman as vengeful wife and mother: a woman so enraged at her husband’s betrayal that she poisons his  fiancé then sacrifices her own children to ensure their father has no consolation.

But this is also a story about otherness.  Medea is a barbarian whom Jason married on his travels after she helped him secure the Golden Fleece.  Now they’re back in Greece she is feared as a sorceress and despised as a foreigner; meanwhile he can’t resist the opportunity to marry the King of Corinth’s daughter, justifying this treachery to his wife as a chance to secure a better future for their children. It is this theme which Dylan Tighe pursues in his new adaptation for the Gate.  Pushing a topical angle, Medea, here, is depicted as Muslim swathed in dark robes while the younger, newer model for whom she is traded is naked and blond.

The production is part of the Gate’s New Directions initiative, which promotes new approaches to classic plays.  This is certainly a new approach: the characters communicate via a sound track which moves through Arabic, French and Spanish, quoting, among other things, the Koran, Roland Barthes and Semiotics for Beginners.  Except for the anxiously flittering bird, the characters move in somnambulant fashion while a digital clock on an overhead screen reminds us that time is pressing on.  Though Tighe’s play is never predictable it often feels like the end of term show at an avant-garde drama school.  I suspect Euripides’ play reflects the passing from a matriarchal to a patriarchal society in ancient Greece; with a story of such rich potential it’s a shame the production got bogged down in pretentious contemporary tropes.  On the other hand, what can you expect of a director who starts his programme notes with ‘the theatre is a toilet’ and ends by asserting ‘beurocracy (sic) is the death of theatre art’.

*

Burnt by the Sun

by Peter Flannery from the screenplay  by Nikita Mikhalkov and Rustam Ibragimbekov.

National Theatre

I suppose the real surprise is that it took fifteen years for Nikita Mikhalkov’s magnificent tale of politics gone sour to make the transition from cinema to stage.  When the film first came out in 1994 it won the Grand Prize at Cannes and the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language film.  The story is set in 1936 when Stalin’s collectivisation programme was bringing prosperity and his Great Purge had not yet begun to eliminate hundreds of thousands of party members in the reign of paranoia which many describe as the ‘Soviet holocaust’.   A decaying dacha filled with ineffectual aristocrats on an endless summer afternoon provides the wryly Chekhovian setting.  This rural idyll is threatened by the arrival of a stranger who recounts a fairy tale of love and betrayal.  Throwing off his disguise he reveals himself as the long-lost Mitya, a musical prodigy whom the master of the house, a famous composer, once welcomed into his charmed family.  Having seduced  the daughter of the house, Maroussia, Mitya had suddenly disappeared, leaving a distraught Maroussia to find consolation with the local war hero Colonel Kotov.  Rising benignly above their snobbish contempt, Kotov now provides refuge for Maroussia’s eccentric relatives.   As the communist holiday celebrations proceed in the background, quaint parades and ritual salutes take on a sinister note as Kotov’s blind faith in the party and Mitya’s desperate romanticism reveal the terrible cost of conviction – personal and political.

Film seems to be the natural medium for this heartbreaking story of people crushed by the grand sweep of history. What is missing in the translation to stage is the magnificent, sensual, oppressive, indifferent Soviet landscape which works so powerfully in the film. But this is also a private story about  the compromises individuals make to survive.  What the stage version loses in magnitude, it gains in intimacy.  As the realization of his naiveté begins to dawn, Cieran Hinds exudes a pitiful bovine bewilderment as the once powerful Kotov, while Michelle Dockery conveys the pragmatic heart at the core of the febrile Maroussia.  But it is Rory Kinnear who is truly devastating as the vengeful Mitya whose own concessions have destroyed not only his conscience but his soul.

*

Phèdre

Jean Racine translated by Ted Hughes

National Theatre

At first glance Phèdre appears to be a play about obsession and taboo.  The original Greek myth, dramatised by Euripides in the fifth century BC, tells of Phèdre, wife of Theseus, who has developed a secret passion for her step-son Hippolytus.  He, in turn, has pledged himself to chastity.  The older woman’s unnatural lust is matched by the young man’s unnatural celibacy, and both incur the wrath of the gods.

In the seventeenth century the French playwright Jean Racine translated Euripides’ play into rhyming Alexandrines and invented the character of Aricia,  daughter of Theseus’ enemy, who is spared execution on condition that she neither marry nor reproduce.  Predictably, Hippolytus falls in love with Aricia, balancing Phèdre’s  incestuous desire with his own filial treachery while adding jealousy to Phèdre’s catalogue of humiliations.  Though Racine’s addition reveals an Enlightenment misogyny, the balance it establishes is less satisfactory than Euripides’ as it pits, unequally, a young man’s healthy sexuality against an old woman’s monstrous passion.  Be that as it may, Racine’s is the version Nick Hytner has chosen to present at the National Theatre this spring, and he’s chosen a translation by the late Ted Hughes which abandons Racine’s classical verse for plain but heightened modern speech.

Helen Mirren, as Phèdre, brings great dignity to the role, expressing  bewildered rage and self contempt as an intelligent woman attempting to control her unspeakable affliction.  For all her poise and presence, however, Mirren is simply too old for the part; she lacks both energy and ardour.  As Hippolytus’ parent her passion should be disturbing, even grotesque; Mirren’s is simply unconvincing.  As a granddaughter of the sun god Helios, she should be all blazing fire, instead she plays the part like an ice-maiden, cool and calculating, an approach too similar to the cold virginity of her bewitcher. Nonetheless Dominic Cooper is suitably handsome and brooding as the fatally arrogant Hippolytus, Ruth Negga is skittish as the vulnerable Aricia,  Margaret Tyzack as Phèdre’s nurse and John Shrapnel as Hippolytus’ counsellor both bring a poignant naiveté to their roles as schemers who unwittingly initiate the demise of their beloved charges.
Bob Crowley’s set is magnificently oppressive; its elemental marble slabs and searing Mediterranean sun collude with the gods in crushing the hapless humans below.  The other disappointment however is Ten Hughes’ sparse translation; curiously lacking in poetry, it drains the play of layers of meaning.  Too many of Euripides’ unconscious allusions and dreadful portents are simply ignored.   While guilt, remorse, deceit, despair and desire appear to drive the characters, at a deeper level they are all victims of their pasts, expiating various transgressions of which they are oblivious. Hippolytus was born to Antiope queen of the man-hating Amazons; Phèdre was born to Pasiphae, who earlier conceived the monstrous Minotaur in her uncontrollable passion for a bull.  The illegitimate and philandering Theseus himself is of dubious parentage:  while his mother was the daughter of the King of Troezen, his father is said by some to be the King of Athens who stole a night’s pleasure en route from battle, other sources claim him as the offspring of Neptune, that primitive sea god to whom Theseus appeals in his final, fatal curse.  Before his marriage to Phèdre, Theseus had seduced then abandoned her sister Ariadne and slayed her brother Minotaur; he had also ordered the murder of Hippolytus’ mother.  It is no wonder that tragedy should ensue from such a tangled knot of unbridled passion.  But to say this is a story about dysfunctional families is to miss the point; behind its exploration of adultery, incest, filial piety and paternal jealousy, the play examines the fine line between free-will and predestination.

By downplaying the characters’ pasts the production misses the key theme of the myth: the inexorable, inevitable and inescapable nature of fate.

*

The Winter’s Tale

by William Shakespeare

The Old Vic

directed by Sam Mendes

The Winter’s Tale is an enigma.  How could the bard have written such an awkward play: an utterly implausible plot littered with the most mechanistic devices of Greek drama – oracles, exposed babes, mistaken identities and vengeful gods, characters no sooner introduced than they’re swept off stage till the very end, and at the heart of it all that ridiculous sixteen-year gap.  The plot is all over the place, indeed it is structured as two separate plays; the first half is a tragedy, full of anger, injustice and death in a dark kingdom.  Then, suddenly we’re swept into a rustic comedy in sunny Bohemia.  And tacked on to the end is that abrupt display of Christian forgiveness and redemption.  Not to mention the fact that Bohemia, even in Shakespeare’s day, had no sea coast –though this is a minor quibble compared to living statues and fast-acting oracles.  Of course, it is, as the title declares, a winter’s tale, a story to amuse the children on long evenings by the fire, so perhaps one shouldn’t  examine the details too carefully.

There are two schools of thought on the dating of the play, and this, I think, is the key to the enigma.  As the first official record of the work is in 1611 most scholars assume it was a late play, written just before The Tempest which deals with similar themes of guilt, remorse and redemption.  Others suggest it was written as early as 1594 which would make it one of Shakespeare’s earliest works; thus the clunking plot, minimal characterisation and whimsical resolution would reflect the experiments of a novice rather than the mature work of a brilliant playwright with over  30 plays to his name.  This dating sounds more plausible to me, with regards to both story and staging; the unfair accusation of adultery, the rigged trial, the death of the heroine and the remorse of the ruler would resonate with an audience still familiar with the tragic fate of Anne Boelyn.  Furthermore, in this reading of the play, the lost Perdita, rehabilitated from her childhood exile and ushering in a benign new regime, would suggest Queen Elizabeth, Shakespeare’s sovereign at the time.  On the other hand the theme of tyranny is also prominent, and as Elizabeth’s successor, James I, had little time for parliament it might, indeed be a late play, written as warning to the recently appointed King . . .

Whatever its origins and inspirations, the play, with all its problems, or perhaps because of all its problems, has proved irresistible to theatre folk.  Sam Mendes is the latest in a long line of intrepid directors who have honed their reputations on its dilemmas.  His production, paired with Checkhov’s  Cherry Orchard, is the first offering of the Bridge Project, a transatlantic repertory company of British and American actors, conceived by Kevin Spacey of London’s Old Vic and Joseph Melillo of New York’s Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM).   Happily, this ambitious project has attracted some of the best talent on either side of the Atlantic.  Simon Russell Beale is spectacular as the childish, self-destructive Leontes who allows his insecurity to destroy his own domestic bliss.   Sinead Cusack is equally stunning as the stern, maternal Paulina – the deus ex machina who forces Leontes to confront his actions before undergoing the slow process of punishment and redemption.  Rebecca Hall as the wronged Hermione has a steely integrity as she defends herself against her husband’s increasingly mad accusations.   The American cast is slightly more problematical; Josh Hamilton as Polixenes, the childhood friend who inspires Leontes’ jealousy, has neither the stage presence nor the articulation of his British co-stars.  In a stroke of brilliance, however, Bohemia is interpreted as the American mid-west, allowing the other state-side actors to display their energy and verve, particularly in the sheep-shearing  festival where the lusty rustics are fleeced by Ethan Hawke’s delightfully demonic Autolycus.  Morven Christie plays both Perdita and her brother in a doubling which recalls the classic pairing of Cordelia and the fool; she is poignant as Mamillius, the boy who must die so his father can learn to become a man, but she comes into her own as Perdita, whose Grecian grace and floral posies recall Persephone, goddess of spring, if not indeed the Virgin Queen.  Michael Braun’s simple, stylish design pits the dark palace of Sicilia against the bright Bohemian landscape.  All caveats aside, this is the first time I have understood the poignancy of  the play and left the theatre feeling moved rather than irritated; elegantly staged, convincingly performed, this Winter’s Tale is a triumph.

*

Death and the King’s Horseman

by Wole Soyinka

Olivier Theatre:  National Theatre, London

Despite the recession, London’s theatre scene at the moment is particularly rich.  In what other city could one attend a Bollywood inspired dramatization of the great Victorian weepie Wuthering Heights (Lyric Hammersmith) a stage version of the Russian film Burnt by the Sun (National, Lyttleton) or a whole day of plays about Afghanistan (Tricycle Theatre). One particular highlight in this cosmopolitan landscape is Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman, now playing on the National Theatre’s Olivier stage.

Set in Nigeria during the Second World War and based on a real incident, Soyinka’s 1976 play mixes African spectacle and Shakespearean themes.   Cultural misunderstandings come to the head a month after the king has died when his horseman, a  local chief, is preparing to join his master in a ritual suicide.  Conflicting ideas of honour, transgression, duty and death are played out against the Yoruba village and the district officer’s guarded enclave.

The women provide a chorus, linking the living to the spirit world with its unborn to come and its ancestors who have to be propitiated to ensure guidance in the present.  The huge cast is stunningly choreographed by Javier de Frutos whose wild, sensual  dance routines provide a sober contrast to the staid, formal waltzes of the European ball.  A deceptively simple set evokes both the noble poverty of the village and the opulence of the governor’s mansion where living lamps and human tables underscore the fearful and precarious authority of the ruling class.  Much sport is made of European hypocrisy and conventions, leavening the story with some brilliant knock-about, but Soyinka doesn’t opt for easy moral polarities: the hero’s downfall comes from within and the governor’s well-meaning but misguided attempt to save his life is simply a subplot in this tragic tale of hubris.

*

Duet for One

by Tom Kempinski

Vaudeville Theatre

Duet for One at the Vaudeville theatre is yet another transfer from the dynamic Almeida Theatre.   The play charts the relationship between a psychiatrist and his patient, a concert violinist coming to terms with the Multiple Sclerosis which is destroying her career – not to mention her marriage and her life.  Despite the fact that there is only one set and two characters, one of whom is confined to a wheel-chair and the other is determinedly immobile in his desk chair, the evening is remarkably animated.  Pitting the psychiatrist’s passionate faith in hope with the patient’s equally forceful despair, it presents a dramatic battle of wits and wills.  Nonetheless Tom Kempinski’s play, first performed thirty years ago, is showing its age.   Written at a time when audiences were perhaps less familiar with the psychiatric process, it labours such elements as the psychiatrist’s silence and the patient’s resistance.

Henry Goodman brings compassion and profundity to the taciturn Dr Feldmann though his greying beard and heavy mittle-European accent teeter on the edge of cliché.  Similarly Lez Brotherston’s set seems to have transferred straight from Hampstead’s Freud museum with its African figures, phallic plants, rug-strewn couch and book-lined walls.  Juliet Stevenson as  Stephanie Abrahams, the world-renown performer with the crippling disease, brings her characteristic sincerity to the part, weeping and railing with a terrifying lack of restraint.  With only six short encounters to chart the journey from denial through despair and self loathing to understanding,  Stevenson has a difficult journey which she makes with conviction, despite occasionally resorting to unnecessary histrionics.

The end is admirably ambivalent, leaving the audience to decide whether Abrahams’ quiet acceptance has revealed to her the impossibility of continuing in a life without music, or whether it has convinced her of the possibility of forging a new identity with the help of her sympathetic shrink.  Poignant bursts of Bach’s sonatas and partitas for solo violin ratchet up the emotion to make for a moving evening.

*

Aunt Dan and Lemon

by Wallace Shawn

Royal Court Theatre

I don’t understand how Wallace Shawn continues to persuade theatre directors that he is a playwright.  A revival of Fever, his pre-9/11 meditation on American affluence and culpability, recently performed by Clare Higgins in the Royal Court’s Shawn season, felt like a New Yorker essay that never quite managed the transition from page to stage.  Similarly, the current revival of Aunt Dan and Lemon, which explores the dangers of fascism and the lure of force and brutality, doesn’t convince as theatre despite the dozen-strong cast which animate various episodes in the monologue with which the ineffectual, etiolated Lemon describes her fascinating,  amoral Aunt Dan.

Shawn specializes in middle-class guilt, particularly the anxiety of the liberal American intellectual; if only he could learn to translate his musings into drama he would have the perfect audience in the Court’s loyal patrons.  Meanwhile if he stuck to essays or even radio, think of the resources that would be released for playwrights who do appreciate the potential of lights, sets and action!

*

England

a play by Tim Crouch

Whitechapel Art Gallery, London

Cast:  Tim Crouch and Hannah Ringham

For the first few minutes of Tim Crouch’s England the audience members look anxiously round in the Whitechapel Gallery, hoping the play has not already begun and they are not unwitting performers.   Eventually, to their palpable relief, Crouch and his co-star, Hannah Ringham, emerge as tour guides, lecturing on the newly revamped space, the history of the building and the artist, Isa Genzken, whose works fill the room.  Soon this dialogue morphs into a personal narrative as the two speakers become a single narrator, riffing on the value, function and status of art.

The narrator’s boyfriend is a dealer who speaks four languages; he travels the world buying and selling; his apartment boasts a painting which is worth more than the dwelling itself and is insured for twice what he paid for it; his definition of ‘good’ art is art that sells.

As the narrative transforms the gallery space into a river-view apartment, a cathedral, then a hospital the narrator reveals that s/he is dying and the surrounding art is intended to reconcile the terminally ill to the idea of death.

Dan Jones’ evocative soundtrack underscores the performance, suggesting abstraction in the gallery, leaf-fall in the country house clinic, and the terrifying roar of the helicopter which appears to be the angel of death till the audience is ushered into a lecture hall where it is revealed as the vehicle transporting the narrator to the third-world country where s/he acquires a new heart.

Subtle and shattering, England brilliantly explores the commodification of art and life.   Crouch plays with theatrical convention: characters merge, divide and multiply.  His own shy, hypnotic delivery and Ringham’s incisive transformations create a vibrant cast where the missing characters – the unwilling donor, the never-say-die boyfriend – are as vividly evoked as those in the room.  Exhorting its audience to ‘Look!’, Englandexplores the devastating implications of globalization where a heart can be purchased as easily as a painting.

Two acts, no interval, an hour’s running time and the first thirty minutes is spend standing … not, perhaps, for the faint-hearted, this is a dazzling piece of theatre.

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The theatre reviews above are copyrighted to Katie Campbell

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Katie Campbell began her professional life as a journalist, playwright and fiction writer; having published two volumes of poetry, short stories and a novel she returned to academia and got a doctorate in landscape history.  She now lectures on Bristol University’s MA programme, leads tours and writes for various magazines.  She has published several books on the designed landscape: Icons of Twentieth Century Landscape Design (Frances Lincoln, 2006), Policies and Pleasaunces: A Guide to Scotland’s Gardens (Barn Elms, 2007). Her most recent book, Paradise of Exiles: The Anglo-American Gardens of Florence (Frances Lincoln, 2009), combines social history with horticulture, focusing on the eccentric community of English and American expatriates which gathered in Florence at the end of the nineteenth century.

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