Antony and Cleopatra, Olivier Theatre

Antony and Cleopatra. clocking in 3 hours and 30 minutes is a tale of two halves (you really do only get one interval). The first half is lavish in its set designs but lacking in narrative clarity whilst the second half is much more basic in design but the direction and narrative are much clearer.

The problem isn’t necessary the production but the source material. William Shakespeare understandably expects us to know the background of this Roman tragedy but I am not sure Simon Godwin who directs should expect that kind of knowledge. Without productions of Julius Caesar and Imperium (Parts 1 AND 2), I would have been baffled. We begin in Egypt Marc Antony (Ralph Fiennes) and Cleopatra (Sophie Okonedo) are living the life in Hildegard Bechtler beautiful Egyptian palace set. She is Queen, he is a successful army commander and the news that his wife Flavia has died should bring them joy, unfortunately, it sets off a catalyst of events that end in tragedy.

Okonedo’s Cleopatra is spoilt and indulgent. She looks amazing in Evie Gurney’s Costume designs but along with Fiennes, they struggle to build up the sexual chemistry needed to make this pairing work. They act well together but they often feel like close friends rather than lovers. I am not sure I was ever convinced that anyone would go gaga over Fiennes’ Marc Antony. The issue across the whole production is the lack of characterisation. We have no understanding of why the characters are doing what they are doing;  if it is for love then we don’t feel it from our leads, if it is for power struggle then Tunji Kasim doesn’t have the gravitas or presentation of the language to make Caesar a force to be reckoned with and it feels like a series of sketches rather than a coherent story; Antony marries Octavia (Hannah Morrish), Caesar’s sister  to keep Caesar happy, then the marriage breaks. Now they are drinking on a boat. There is just no purpose. The whole endeavour feels thankless, to both audience and cast and creative team.

What this production has is quality actors in supporting roles. Tim McMullan manages to command the stage as Enobarbus, having the chemistry with Agrippa (in a gender reversal played by Katy Stephens) and his final scenes are strangely moving. It is a shame to see actors like Fisayo Akinade and Nicholas Le Prevost not used to their full potential as Eros and Lepidus.

As a production it often felt confused; the contemporary costumes would work better if we had a real sense of time and place. The early comparisons to the European Migrant Crisis which saw many Africans head to Italy were soon forgotten. This production should be saying something and it manages to say nothing. There is some lovely sound from Christopher Shutt, particularly in the Egyptian scenes and Luke Halls video design, when used, is used to great effect but not even the arrival of an adorable and well-behaved milk snake can make this production feel relevant and exciting. It was one of the few occasions where I felt I was watching a production rather than story unfold.

Thanks to Laura and the team at Official Theatre and Susannah and the Seat Plan team for arranging my complimentary ticket. Visit the sites for deals on London theatre tickets

Antony and Cleopatra is on at the Oliver Theatre, National Theatre until 19 January 

 

Apatheatre; Apathy and the arts

I see a lot of theatre productions, obviously and whilst I still enjoy seeing new shows, new ideas and a creative piece that is genuinely exciting I am starting to feel apathetic to much of what I see; no longer seeing it as a piece of entertainment but questioning the ‘why’ more than the ‘how’.

I think there is a supply and demand problem. There is too much on and not enough people who want to see it. I recently found myself in a 400 seat theatre with maybe 20 people in it (despite offers on free ticket websites). Fringe shows find themselves, particularly in August, with large theatres to fill and no means of publicity. Social Media is limited in who it can bring in.

There isn’t this apathy towards the West End from audiences, even a poor selling show will manage to find an audience from somewhere because of its location and will usually have a budget to shake up marketing campaigns during the run; Consent’s marketing that saw it sell well at the Dorfman was shaken up for its West End run. The issue is that fringe is seen as not being ‘proper’ theatre, that is cheap and not much better than am dram. In some ways yes, many fringe productions you see will be badly paid because they are badly attended. Even a full house in a theatre like the Finborough doesn’t guarantee professional actors will be getting a professional wage.

Whilst there are productions that are genuinely exciting because of their interactivity such as immersive shows For King and Country, The Great Gatsby or Land of Nod or productions such as Nine Night at the National for providing their audience with a point of view rarely seen there are plenty of productions that fail to evoke an emotional response anymore.

I recently returned my ticket to Julie at the National Theatre; the word of mouth reviews hadn’t been great and crucially Vanessa Kirby was off, possibly planned and whilst I wish her understudy Francesca Knight all the best I returned my ticket. It didn’t help that even Kirby, an actress in her professional prime, no longer seemed interested in the role

If a professional actress in a sold-out play can’t muster up the energy then why should audiences?

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I now question, when reviewing, not just production values but why a show has even been put on. It is an expensive and time-consuming endeavour and whilst I don’t expect passion from all involved I hope to get some understanding that goes beyond needing additional credits for their Spotlight or Mandy profile. When writing a new piece made me understand what drew everyone to it when reviving make me understand why now and not at another point in time.

It is easy to put the blame on actors but they are only as good as their source material, that includes writers and directors. I also appreciate that money and time are limited, I don’t need or expect coup de theatres or lavish costumes. You can elicit warmth and interest with no set or props but with so much competition, with so many fringe shows to see there needs to be something good about yours that makes me want to recommend it, to paying audiences, over all the small shows going on in London. This is no longer about entertainment but a deeper meaning behind why people create what they do and who they are creating it for.

Network, National Theatre

The question when adapting Paddy Chayefsky’s blistering attack on ‘70s television news and the media’s propensity toward sensationalism and exploitation, is one of relevance. Does the story of Howard Beale, “the mad prophet of the airwaves”, still speak to us in an age when we curate our own content and imagine we’re no longer beholden to the commercial imperatives of media conglomerates with a monopoly on our attention?

Ivo van Hove’s production, starring Bryan Cranston in the iconic Peter Finch role, makes the case for itself by inviting audience identification with Beale’s angry, uncensored, unedited, uncorroborated stream of consciousness – a comic conceit and satirical novelty in the 1976 film; eerily evocative of the self-appointed seers online, now.

In 2017 Beale looks like the blueprint for Infowars’s Alex Jones and his sad ilk; anti-establishment furies driven by anomie, self-righteous indignation, paranoia and a messianic compulsion to preach to the duped and docile masses. Chayefsky’s stupendous joke is their manifesto.

Network, inspired by the real world on-air suicide of depressed Florida TV reporter Christine Chubbuck – a woman who decried the local station’s taste for “blood and guts” before shooting herself in the head, was once a lament for TV’s dehumanising, fear-stoking imperative. Now it asks, where did all that impotent rage, unleashed by Howard, go? A compilation of presidential inaugurations at the close, ending on you-know-who, suggests an answer.

Hove’s adaptation straddles two eras, then – the world of ‘70s US Network news, with ad breaks between segments for coffee sniffed by Roy Scheider, and new cars, and the sleeker, multi-platform media landscape of today. Consequently, the impressive set, centred by a giant screen to which live reports and blocked scenes are transmitted, and flanked by a director’s booth and working restaurant, falls between two stools.

Appropriately, it gives us a show structured and timed with the precision of live television, utilising outside broadcast, video inserts and the like, but it doesn’t convince as a period backdrop. Despite sops to the era – the dress, the sexual politics, this is a fully-integrated digital studio, required to make the show work. Transitions to vintage commercials and news footage ground talk of petro-dollars, hikes in oil prices and plane hijackings – the mid-70’s zeitgeist.

Perhaps that’s the point; what plagued Chayefsky back when, has simply found new expression and a multiplicity of outlets, now. Consequently, Cranston’s take on Howard Beale, more melancholy and resigned than Peter Finch’s high-energy, manic and above all else, urgent performance, is better suited to the times. Finch’s Beale looked forward in anticipation and horror. Cranston’s adopts a little of the audience’s media literacy and weariness from all the narcissism, baseless bile and idiocy lurking in every nook of their digital lives, and transmits it back. That voice he hears just might be the future.

Ultimately, the story of Howard Beale remains a challenge to think for oneself, while being vigilant against the interests of those who package and disseminate information for our delectation. In short, contrary to Howard’s advice, this NT production reminds you that there’s never been a worse time to switch off.

The Trackers of Oxyrhyncus, Finborough Theatre

The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus, Tony Harrison’s 1998 will either divide or conquer its audience with its intense performances and its rhyming couplets.

I failed to really research this production prior to seeing it. I waltzed in with my double G&T expecting an Edwardian drama about two Oxford dons in the Egyptian Desert I was soon surprised to get swearing, fake penises and rhyming couplets.

1824I have mixed feelings on rhyming couplets; Andrew Maddock’s The WE Plays in 2016 did it to great effect in its double bill of monologues but I struggled with this as the rhyming just felt very adolescent and not really challenging for the audience or Harrison. There are so many cringe-inducing examples of rhyme

“I’m a God, Apollo, but I was tipped
On a rubbish tip inside this manuscript.
I’ve spent two thousand years asleep
On an Oxyrhynchus rubbish heap.”

The actual story does start with Edwardian Oxford papyrologists, Bernard Grenfell (Tom Purbeck) and Arthur Hunt (Richard Glaves), are searching for ancient fragments of poetry and plays, next to an old rubbish heap in Oxyrhynchus, apart from the rhyming couplets this so far so conventional but it then takes a bizarre turn. Grenfell, assumingly going mad with his lack of progress in finding poetry as opposed to Greek petitions from the ancient poor becomes Apollo and Hunt becomes Silenus, the lead Satyr (in reference to his much better relationship with the poor men who had been struggling to find the poetry Hunt so craved). What follows is Harrison’s version of Sophocles’ Ichneutae, which was found in 1912 amongst the papyrus but its message of high art vs low art is lost amongst the vulgarity of the piece

The strongest performances were from Purbeck, who embraces the dated piece with the slightly imposing and at times over the top performance being Apollo requires, whereas Glaves and Peta Cornish find the subtleness in their characters Silenius (who has a lovely monologue towards the end) and as Nymph Kyllene, a character that brings the calm amongst the storm of Satyrs who shouted and stomped in Games of Thrones-esque Lancashire accents. The chorus of Satyrs is a crucial part of this piece but I felt so unrewarded by Harrison and the whole production. This should be a timely revival as we look at how accessible theatre is not just to the patrons, as ticket prices rocket, but to the people that want to be actors, writers, directors, set designers etc as prices to train become extortionate. The issue is that this play looks at “high art” and “low art” but the lines are blurred now. For example, see musicals at the English National Opera such as Sweeney Todd and the upcoming Bat Out of Hell and is one of the things that makes it feel very dated as a piece of theatre, when I am sure it was a shocker to have on at The National Theatre in 1990.

As a production it looks and sounds great, embracing its small space rather than trying to work around it with projections and Philip Lindley’s set works well with Jimmy Walters direction but it seems unsure of its purpose and is too risky an adaptation of an ancient work.

An Inspector Calls, Playhouse Theatre

An Inspector Calls at the Playhouse Theatre -The Cast of An Inspector Calls - Photo by Mark Douet.jpgAn Inspector Calls,  is a haunting look at the gaps in society and this production is a timely and important reminder that not much has changed since it’s 1912 setting, it’s 1945 premiere or even when it debuted as a production in 1992 at the National Theatre

Written in 1945 it is no doubt JB Priestley’s damning reminder what society’s treatment of others can lead to, following a second major world war in thirty years The family, the Birlings, are celebrating the engagement of their daughter Sheila (Carmela Corbett) to Gerald Croft (Matthew Douglas) and the play opens with us watching them, as if they were dolls in a doll’s house, seeming happy and content but this can only last so long. As the males argue about their role in society, with Arthur (Clive Francis) telling his son Eric (Hamish Riddle) that is every man for himself the arrival of Inspector Goole (Liam Brennan) and the literal opening up of the house reveal a lot more about this family than they ever intended.

Brennan’s Goole strikes the right tone, a man not just seeking answers for Eva Smith’s suicide, but a representation of doing good, even as Birlings prove, we never quite manage to. There is a controlled anger that contrasts well with Arthur and Sybil, a fantastic Barbara Marten who plays the character as ice cold but brings out in the humour in her ridiculous airs and graces, Corbett’s Sheila is the character that develops the most but sadly the younger male cast’s performances felt very 1940s and thus quite hammy. and It could be that actually as a play this piece has dated considerably and modern actors simply don’t know to approach it any other way and the contrast of their spoof radio comedy acting in contrast with the calm and classy portrayals from the other actors didn’t merge well at all.

I also questioned whether I had been exposed too much 21st century Coup de Theatre because whilst there are aspects of the set that are still stunning nearly 25 years on I wanted to see more of the home and Ian MacNeil’s set takes it out of the drawing room and seemingly into the rain, which is a great metaphor but not what the 16-year-old me imagined when doing her GCSEs I struggled with aspects of Stephen Daldry‘s (with associate director Julian Webber)production. I felt much of subtlety of Priestley’s piece was stripped away, with an ensemble cast seemingly watching over the Birlings.  Priestley’s piece should be a claustrophobic look at society through one family’s eyes and whilst this is a fantastic production to see in the New Year it is a play that gives a lot and a production that doesn’t give as much.

 

Tickets start from £15 and is on at the Playhouse Theatre until 25 March 2017

Look Back on: Terence Rattigan

With revivals of his work at the National Theatre, Theatre Royal, Bath, Chichester Festival Theatre, The Garrick and on tour why does the work of Rattigan attract modern audiences?

09thedeepblue0906aNational Theatre’s The Deep Blue Sea (1952), directed by Carrie Cracknell and starring Helen McCrory this summer was one of a number of revivals of his work, including English Touring Theatre’s French Without Tears (1936) and Christopher Luscombe’s Theatre Royal, Bath production of While the Sun Shines (1943). The Arcola Theatre also presented Kenny Morgan (2016) by Mike Poulton, a piece that put Rattigan and his romantic relationships in the spotlight.

Kenneth Branagh tackled two very different works as the opening production for his Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company at the Garrick Theatre; the comedy Harlequinade about a man playing Romeo who finds out he is a grandfather from liaison twenty years ago and All on Her Own with Zoe Wannamaker playing a widow.

111110_770_previewThe growing interest in Rattigan extends beyond the stage. In 2011 Benedict Cumberbatch presented a documentary about his fellow Old Harrovian  BBC4 and in the same year, Terrence Davies adapted The Deep Blue Sea for the silver screen starring Rachel Weisz, Tom Hiddleston and Simon Russell Beale. Cumberbatch had previously appeared in the National Theatre’s 2010 revival of After the Dance (1939). The play struggled in its summer 1939 premiere and the suggestion has been that its darkness was too much for a country approaching war.

There was a time when Rattigan and his work was rejected by society. The emergence of angry young man such as John Osbourne made his work seem outdated, aimed at a middle class, older audience. The critics turned on him and even when Rattigan funded an upcoming writer called Joe Orton’s work he felt it stood no change in a time where he was rejected as being out of date and irrelevant.

The modern audience embraces Rattigan and the suggestion is due to his work of repressed passion but my interest in Rattigan stems from his bold writing, especially about homosexuality. Separate Tables (1954)’ first half has political scandal but the second half, focusing on a fraudulent man living the in the Bournemouth and the impact his arrest for homosexual importuning has on his fellow boarders. In Major Pollock Rattigan creates a greatly sympathetic character, whose bold claims mask the fact he can never truly be himself.

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In Ross (1960), recently revived with Joseph Fiennes in the lead at Chichester Festival Theatre, Rattigan depicts the rape of T.E Lawrence so vividly that it is shocking to a 2016 audience but again it is a depiction of a man lost, a man who is hiding from who he really is. It is a common theme in Rattigan’s work and it seems to reflect the inner turmoil of a man who, due to his own homosexuality, could never reveal his true self.

Rattigan died aged 66 in 1977,after moving to Bermuda when his popularity as a playwright began to wane. His last work, Clause Celebre (revived in 2011 at the Old Vic with Anne-Marie Duff),was inspired by the murder of Francis Rattenbury.  It is clear in hindsight that Rattigan was a prolific and varied writer, perhaps too much so and he needed to step aside, along with Noel Coward and JB Priestley for a younger generation. With time his work is now appreciated for the quality and discussion it still provokes.

Look Back On: An Inspector Calls

Stephen Daldry’s National Theatre Production An Inspector Calls made its debut in 1992 and twenty-four years later it returns to Playhouse Theatre after many revivals but what is the long lasting appeal of JB Priestley’s play and why does this version remain so popular.

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I am one of many who studied this play at GCSE, I sadly never saw a production of it at the time but as a piece of writing I actually enjoyed compared to my GCSE Shakespeare study of Macbeth, which I resented, and it has taken me a long to truly enjoy Shakespeare. The piece, written in 1945, resonated with me because it tackled hypocrisy and felt like a good old-fashioned crime mystery story. It has been said that the success of An Inspector Calls, the production won multiple awards in 1993/94 and has been seen by over 3 million people worldwide following performances in USA and Australia plus numerous West End residencies.

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Poster from the 1986 Royal Exchange Production

An Inspector Calls premiered in 1945 in the USSR, as a suitable British venue could not be found until 1946 at the New Theatre (now the Noel Coward Theatre) and has a cast including Alec Guinness and Ralph Richardson before a Broadway production in 1947. The production has a bit of revival lull until a 1986 production with Hugh Grant and Graeme Garden at the Royal Exchange, Manchester.

The production has been well represented on screen, with a film adaptation for 1954 and a recent television adaptation in 2015, with Ken Stott, Miranda Richardson and David Thewlis as Inspector Goole.

The success of the production in 1993-94 lead to a rediscovery of Priestley, a writer who was destined to be seen as dated and irrelevant to a playwright who is now recognised as a great social commentator on British society and the hypocrisy of the upper classes.  Priestley’s Time and The Conways (1937), directed by Rupert Goold, was produced by the National Theatre in 2009 and Bill Kenwright produced a touring production of Dangerous Corner (1932) in 2014, starring Michael Praed.

The Old Red Lion is presenting a world premiere of JB Priestley’s Benighted this December, proving that an appetite for Priestley’s work hasn’t diminished.

An inspector Calls is on at The Playhouse Theatre from 4 November – 25 March.

Tickets start from £15

http://www.atgtickets.com/shows/an-inspector-calls/playhouse-theatre/

‘You’d need to pay me to drink here’ London’s Theatre bars and pubs

Why are theatre bars such grim places to have a drink? I was inspired to write this blog by my friend Alison, who voiced her contempt for Soho Theatre’s cramped, loud and very expensive bar. In theory Soho is full of other bars you can go to but they suffer from the same problems that Soho Theatre presents, particularly on a Friday or Saturday night.

Increasingly venues are trying to not only make themselves available to those seeing a production but to those in the area who fancy a drink. The problem is that they are barely welcoming to those who have to be there let alone to any passing trade. The NT, for example, has plenty of bars, such as the new Understudy and restaurants but, in my experience, the service can be poor, the seats can be minimal and the drinks so very expensive. Even smaller theatres like Southwark Playhouse, which has more welcoming prices and much nicer than the near-by Rockingham Arms, is not really a venue I would choose to drink in if I wasn’t there to see a show.

The Old Vic has renovated its downstairs space and seems keen for people to go there before and after a show but it is too small and there is still enough competition in the Waterloo/Strand/Elephant and Castle area for people to go elsewhere. It is a real shame that, like toilets, theatres haven’t gone out of their way to make the general spaces more comfortable.

There is also the tradition of theatres above pubs and for me the likes of the Finborough, King’s Head and The Lion and the Unicorn get it right because they genuinely cater to theatre goers and general pub goers alike.

My suggestion would be to stop off at the nearest supermarket and stock up on tins of gin but the many security searches audiences face in the West End means this is unlikely (though always do this for interval sweets, I am afraid the ice cream might melt before then).

 

If you do know of any good theatre bars please let me know in the comments!

 

National Theatre bans critics’ plus one invitations

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/05/18/national-theatre-director-takes-revenge-on-theatre-critics-as-pl/

Interesting movement by National Theatre, who are no longer providing comps to critics’ guests. It is a fair move, in my (very small) experience of receiving free tickets for productions I am always a bit thrown when I am offered a pair. As an amateur it impresses my companion but really I am there to do a job, not entertain a friend or my latest fancy piece.

The critics are not happy, especially it was a throwaway line at an invitation to the anticipated Threepenny Opera starring Rory Kinnear but I don’t think this is sour grapes at a negative response to a poor season (I’ve voiced my concerns elsewhere) but a money saving measure that will hopefully lead to prices stabilising for those who aren’t fortunate to get free tickets. Some members also received an email from Rufus Norris stating that the drum revolve needs some additional finance as it isn’t working as well as it used to.

It is a worrying precedent for subsidised theatre though and just one result of the arts cuts many organisations are facing. This is another nail in the coffin for a theatre that has had to axe Sunday productions