Macbeth, RSC Barbican Season, Barbican, London EC1

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2018 is turning out to be a Macbeth fest, with 4 major productions in London at various times through the year. Spring brought a Punk style, post apocalyptic version to the National Theatre. Autumn had The National Youth Theatre’s stylish and stylized, gender fluid adaptation. Shakespeare’s Globe has a Macbeth opening just now which will run to 2019, and this, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s interpretation, has been playing in Stratford through the year and will be at the Barbican until January.

Here we have a large cast, big names and high production values. The Barbican has a huge stage which is kept fairly minimal throughout, a digital clock, ticking down the seconds, dominates the set – reminding us of the passing of time. The witches are a stroke of genius, three schoolgirls dressed identically in red dresses and shoes with white wool tights, advancing together across the set and speaking in unison. Slightly reminiscent of the film “Don’t Look Now” but certainly the eeriest Macbeth witches I have ever seen.

This is a Macbeth that emphasises the psychological horror of the story. It is a brutal and murderous play, but priority is given to the effects of the violence rather than the violence itself. Polly Findlay, as director has made a clever and thoughtful direction decision in doing this, because we get to see more deeply into the characters of Macbeth and his wife, without losing any of the malignancy of the tale.

Niamh Cusack proves herself to be one of the finest actors, as Lady Macbeth. She is the instigator of the action, she drives and encourages her husband in his moments of doubt. We are always aware that her ambition is not hers alone, it is for them both together – and when she realises that his ambition has gone past hers, that she cannot stop him and that she has lost him, her descent into despair is palpable.

Christopher Ecclestone is Macbeth, he plays him as a modern day fighter, comfortable in battle fatigues, yet ambitious enough to don a dinner suit to schmooze at parties. His acting is a tour de force, we see him grow in ambition as the play moves on. The first undefended murder hits him hard, but each death gets easier and less affecting, until near the end they all just chalk marks on a blackboard, made by the watching porter.

This is a cold and dark Macbeth, perfect for a winter night, one that will stay with you as you sip your whiskey in the pub on the way home from the theatre. A great production of a chilling play. My favourite Macbeth.
 
 
 

Macbeth, National Youth Theatre, Garrick Theatre, London WC2

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This is the third of the National Youth Theatre’s West End season that I have seen, after Consensual and Victoria’s Knickers, which were on last month at the Soho Theatre. I am pleased to say that Macbeth maintains the high standard set by the first two.

This is a contemporary and stylish version of the play. It was interesting to see Macbeth, Lady Macbeth and Duncan, all as women, it was good to see how little it changed the dynamic of the piece. Of course, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are both ambitious, determined characters and this setup underlines that each has their own portion of the guilt to bear. Isabel Adomakoh Young as Lady Macbeth does a fantastic job of displaying her ambition when strengthening her partner’s resolve at the start, and then showing her despair when she feels it has gone too far. Olivia Dowd as Macbeth makes us see  how difficult it is to carry out the first undefended murder and then shows us that each successive one becomes more easy, until by the end she doesn’t care how many lives it costs as long as she keeps her power.

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The witches in this Macbeth are fantastic. They look both dramatic and other worldly. Their movement and utterances are chilling, perhaps the best realisation of the witches I have seen, in a perfect combination of costume and delivery. The direction with regard to the apparitions is masterful too, they appear as though spawned by an archfiend that the witches have conjured up. This is a Macbeth where the effects of the supernatural world are strongly felt.

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Back in Scotland, Jay Mailer is good as Ross, Oseloka Obi is a strong and sturdy Macduff and Jamie Ankrah is great as a soldierly Banquo. This is a very accessible Macbeth, Natasha Nixon as director has been clever in managing to convey the horror of the tale while minimising the blood and the gore. I really enjoyed this stripped down, stylized telling of the Scottish play. Its on Tuesday, Thursday and Friday afternoons at the Garrick Theatre until the 7th December.

It has been most enjoyable to see 3 of the NYT West End shows this winter, the standard of acting has been very high and I am looking forward to seeing many of the actors on stage or screen again in the near future. If you are in town when the next year’s season is announced, it is worth looking up – the tickets are such good value for a west end show and the productions are excellent quality.  I have to say that, for me, The National Youth Theatre Rep Company’s West End seasons are a highlight of the theatre year.

Consensual, Soho Theatre, Dean Street, London W1

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Consensual is the latest production from the National Youth Theatre of Great Britain. Set in an urban modern school, it deals with very current issues. It was first performed three years ago, but following the rise of the #metoo movement in the intervening time, it catches the zeitgeist even more today than it did at the time.

The thrust of the play is about the what exactly constitutes consent and where the abuse of power begins. The play wastes no time getting into the subject matter.  A teacher is discussing the “Healthy Relationships” curriculum in  class, then after school, she is confronted by a relationship that she had with a student seven years earlier when she was a teaching assistant. She believes that the student took advantage of her naïveté at the time. He believes that she groomed him while he was underage.

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These two, Diane and Freddie, nicely played by Marilyn Nnadebe and Fred Hughes-Stanton, are the main protagonists of the story. The are supported by a cast of pupils, teachers and family who highlight the blurring of the lines, between their opposing points of view. There is a host of great cameo performances among them, the play is sharply observed and cleverly written, so there are some nice characters and some excellent lines to be delivered. I particularly like Alice Vilanculo as Georgia, who manages to convey a begging for help by resolutely deny that she needs it. Jay Mailer is also outstanding in his one scene as Jake, Freddie’s brother, his exasperation giving way to  grudging support in the end.

The direction is clever, the dark subject matter and deep conversation is interspersed with musical breaks and funny moments.  The song where the school boys deliver a song in the manner of the Pussycat Dolls or Destiny’s Child is a highlight.  There are some very witty exchanges between classmates and these lines are delivered fast and the scenes are short. Jamie Ankrah, Muhammad Abubakar Khan, Olivia Dowd and Simran Hunjun deliver nice brashness and impudence, they keep the mood upbeat and the pace brisk.

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The set is sparse and inventive, allowing the direction and writing to shine. I did love the way the cast quickly make a car from school benches. Consensual is a thought provoking show, it tackles a difficult subject in an entertaining way. It could not be more topical.  It has some great acting, keep your eyes on the cast list – I’m sure we will be seeing more of these actors in the future!

 
 

Pinter 1, Pinter at the Pinter season, Pinter Theatre, London WC1

 
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Pinter at the Pinter is a season of all of Harold Pinter’s one act plays in 7 different programmes over a period of 6 months. I saw Pinter 2 first. Pinter 2, Pinter at the Pinter Season, Pinter Theatre, London WC1

Pinter 1 is a collection of 9 short plays, sketches and poems, mostly from the 1980s and 1990s. The are generally political, often about authoritarianism, occasionally funny but broadly bleak and dark. The sketches “Press Conference”, “The Pres and an Officer” and the poem “American Football” are dark comedy but still light relief among the rest of the fare on offer here. “The Pres and an Officer” was discovered late last year, almost 10 years after his death. It seems to be so precisely what we would expect Pinter to say about Donald Trump that, if it is truly a Pinter piece, it is eerily prescient.

It is a measure of grimness of the writing that the next lightest piece is a poem called “Death”. This is lyrical, sad and it is beautifully delivered by Maggie Steed. “Precisely” is a comedy sketch about a nuclear holocaust. “The New World Order” a sketch about torture. “Mountain Language” is a moving short piece about the suppression of a language by an authoritarian state. The acting is phenomenal. Jonjo O’Neill is excellent as various political bullies in the pieces named above.

“One for the Road” is a piece about authoritarian interrogation. A man, wife, and their 7 year old son are interrogated in separate rooms by a tyrannical bully, played by Antony Sher. The violence is implied, as it all happens in the rooms we are not watching at the time, however it is actually more palpable because of this. A truly magnificent piece of writing, it was surely instrumental in his receiving of the Nobel Prize for literature, but in no way is it an easy watch. Paapa Essiedu and Kate O’Flynn are both amazing as the husband and wife.

They also play the husband and wife in “Ashes to Ashes”.  This is a later play, more abstract in narrative, though still dark in tone, experimental in the shifting of subject matter. It could be about the loss of a child, about the holocaust, about an abusive marriage or even about a murder. It hints at these, changes focus and moves on…  It is an interesting and brave piece, written by an ambitious author, confident of his ability.

All the pieces bar the last are directed by Jamie Lloyd and have a cold, metal, prison-cell like setting which suit the mood of the pieces. “Ashes to Ashes” is directed by Lia Williams, this is set in a living room and changes in lighting match the flow of the dialogue. It is ingenious how she makes the set feel more intimate without making it feel more warm.

Pinter 1 is a hard watch, I can’t imagine how tough it must be to act each day. It is dark and bleak with implied violence, both mental and physical. It may be emotionally draining, but the writing is strong, the themes are universal and the acting is tremendous. To say that I enjoyed it would not be entirely accurate, but I am really pleased to have seen it and if it were to return in at some point in the future, I would certainly gather together my mental strength and go to see it again. Warning! This collection is stimulating and disturbing and is definitely one to avoid on date night.

 
 
 
 

Imperium, Gielgud Theatre, Shaftsbury Avenue, London W1.

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Imperium is an adaptation of Robert Harris’ three books on the life of Cicero, into six plays, each just over one hour long. These have been amalgamated into two plays; Conspirator and Dictator, which are running concurrently with the same cast at the Gielgud Theatre. It is possible, if you choose the correct day, to watch the first play as a matinee and the second one the same evening.

This is a Royal Shakespeare Company production which has transferred from Stratford to the West End. Robert Harris is an acclaimed author of historical novels, renowned for making history accessible. Mike Poulton who adapted these novels has recently brought Hilary Mantel’s,Tudor novels to the stage with great success. These three combine well to make a thoroughly entertaining and interesting biography of one of Rome’s less covered  characters.

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Cicero has been written as the hero here although not without flaws. He is honourable and steadfast to his belief in the Republic of Rome. He has great oratorical skills and is politically adept. He is also vain, aware of his talents, but blind to his faults. Richard McCabe plays the part admirably, with charisma – he is self important and gossipy, but witty and likeable still. The other main part in this play is Tiro, Cicero’s slave, who is writing his biography. Joseph Kloska is fantastic in this role, he is effectively the narrator of the story. He is integral to making Cicero likeable and his affection for his master, while seeing his faults, shines through his performance. Both of them are on stage for almost the entire seven hours of the show. The synergy between these two main characters is lovely and is the column around which the whole production is built.

Nearly everyone else is an antihero and a threat to the Roman Republic. Peter de Jersey is a smooth, smiling Julius Caesar – politically adept, desirous of power for personal gain. Joe Dixon is very good as Cataline, all brawn and little brain, who believes that he deserves to rule Rome and is prepared to bring it down in revenge, if it fails to deliver his wishes. In the second series of plays Oliver Johnstone is good as Octavian Caesar. He is cold, calculating and calm, able to bide his time as he is convinced of his own divinity.

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For me, the one misstep was portraying Pompey as a Donald Trump type figure. In historical terms it is likely that they were far from alike politically, and director Gregory Doran did a nice job of drawing our own comparisons with the present day throughout the rest of the show, without us needing any coercion, so maybe we should have been trusted to do the same here. However that is a small quibble, for a production that has managed to walk the line between accuracy and accessibility.

The set too is good, simple and effective. Senate steps that the cast sit upon while listening. Tesserae of watching eyes at the back of the stage. The walls of the senate are built with Roman bricks. There is a huge revolving, reflective, silver globe suspended over the set, that changes hue with events on stage – perhaps a pun on Urbis et Orbis from the city to the world. Anthony Ward has done well making the audience the forum, to whom the senate are speaking and drawing us in to the action.

Imperium is a lovely reproduction of a small part of ancient history. it is witty, funny and accessible, an enjoyable show whether or not you have an interest in the Roman Republic. Robert Harris famously said of his Cicero trilogy that is “The West Wing with Togas”, well this contemporary adaptation turns it into “House of Cards in Ancient Rome”. Surely a Netflix production cannot be far away – and if it is I will surely be watching!

 
 
 

Sea Wall, Old Vic, London, SE1

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Sea Wall was written by Simon Stephens specifically for Andrew Scott. He first performed it ten years ago at the Bush theatre in Hammersmith. Since that time, both of them have become regarded as leaders in their sphere. Simon Stephens was already very well regarded, being involved with young writers at The Royal Court, but his hugely successful adaptation of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” has taken his career to a new level. Andrew Scott has been involved in the big hit TV series, Sherlock, where he plays Moriarty, and his stage performance of Hamlet was one of last years stand out performances. https://reviewdonkey.wordpress.com/?s=hamlet

This particular play has developed something of a cult following, it has been performed in the UK and Ireland and there is filmed version of it available online. I have to say that it is a truly remarkable piece, beautifully written. It plays to all of Andrew Scott’s  considerable strengths. He interacts directly with the audience, his naturalistic style of acting fits perfectly with the writing and one cannot help but be moved by his telling of the story. It was surely imagined for performance in a much smaller space than the Old Vic but Andrew Scott has even this larger audience in the palm of his hand.

The piece is short, only half an hour long, and the tightwad in me, initially felt a little short changed that The Old Vic is charging pretty nearly full price for a thirty minute one man show with no set. However, with perspective, Sea Wall is a very high quality, dense piece and I’m not sure that Andrew Scott, or the audience for that matter, could have kept up that level of intensity for any longer.

This show really enhances the reputations of both the actor and the writer. From Andrew Scott we really do get a masterclass in captivating an audience. He managed to make a thousand seat auditorium feel like a private conversation. I think that after he has finished the run here, there is life in the show yet and, I suspect that it is likely to be performed at other venues in the future. If not, I believe that you can watch the show on film at  http://www.seawallandrewscott.com/ I haven’t watched it yet, but if it is half as good as it is live then you are in for a treat!

Translations, National Theatre, Southbank, London SE1

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Translations is set in Donegal in the 1830s. Ireland is under British control, but most of the population do not speak English. It is at a time before the famine has set in, but people know of the blight and are aware of the damage that a potato crop failure can do to a  community. Ordinance Survey has sent teams of men to map the countryside and to standardise place names. Education had not been allowed for Catholics, so the practice of illegal hedge schools operated throughout Ireland. One of these schools is the precise setting of this play.

This is a play about language, the effect language can have on culture, how we can communicate with it and also about how we can communicate without it. This makes it quite an intimate piece and the Oliver Theatre, The National Theatre’s largest space and stage, does not appear to be a natural home for it. However, Rae Smith, the set designer has done an amazing job and used the space to great advantage. The hedge school is a small, low walled area right at the front of the stage and the rest of the area is peat bog stretching out into the distance, covered by the gently rolling mist that is prevailing climate of the region. Thus, we have the intimacy of the small school and the expanse of the area that is in the process of being mapped.

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Brian Friel was, he died in 2015, a wonderful playwright and Translations is a virtuoso display of his skills. The play itself may be about the power of words but the main love scene is between two people without a common language. It consists mostly of lists of place names, and is still a very moving piece of theatre. The director, Ian Rickson, has taken great care of the action, every entry and exit feels considered and the lines are all delivered deliberately, making you feel that each word has been carefully chosen.

The acting is of the highest calibre, Ciaran Hinds is as good as you would expect – and those expectations are high indeed. Colin Morgan is also very good, showing that he is aware that he is taking both sides, while denying it to all. Dermot Crowley, as Jimmy Jack Cassie, is a revelation, in a part as a humorous fantasist, who has to be credible to be funny. I also loved Michelle Fox, who managed to get us to feel a wide range of emotions even though her part has very few lines.

The thing that makes this production stand out for me, though, is the extraordinary way that Ian Rickson handles the final scene. The mechanism he employs, comes out of the blue and is gone in a flash, it adds a current reference to the play and suits it well. All in all, this is a beautiful piece of writing, beautifully presented and performed and I will consider myself to be very lucky if I see anything as good this year.

 

Follies, National Theatre, Southbank, London.

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Follies is probably Sondheim’s most traditional musical, in that it has set pieces, dance routines, show girls and, separate songs that don’t bleed into each other. However, it is still complex; the story has great depth and some of the songs are operatic in nature.

It is expensive and complicated to produce, it has a large company, with demanding roles throughout the cast. It needs an orchestra. Full productions of Follies are rare, the last proper one in London was thirty years ago, so when there is a high quality, committed revival such as this on offer, the opportunity needs to be grabbed.

It’s Sondheim, so the material is fantastic. It has some of his most famous songs, the storyline is elegant, and it is almost upbeat for Sondheim, (that means everyone in the cast isn’t going to live out the rest of their lives in abject misery!). It’s the National Theatre, so the production values are top notch. Dominic Cooke and Bill Deamer as director and choreographer have both done a wonderful job. I particularly loved the way each dancer at the reunion had their younger version dancing with them. I also loved the way all the mature dancers paraded down the stairs in a dignified manner wearing evening gowns, while their younger incarnations scrambled in over the rubble at the back of the stage, in their high heels, basques and feathers.

Imelda Staunton, Janie Dee, Philip Quast and Peter Forbes are the four leads, so the acting and singing are outstanding. Imelda Staunton does an emotionally draining rendition of “Losing My Mind” and Philip Quast’s voice is as amazing as it always is. It has Tracie Bennett and Geraldine Fitzgerald in supporting roles so it has incredible strength in depth. Tracie Bennett is in full on scene stealing mode with “I’m Still Here” sung with a mixture of pain and defiance.

Follies at the National Theatre is fantastic, and given all the elements that went into making it, there was never any doubt that it would be.

Consent, National Theatre, South Bank, London

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The reviews for this show had been so good, but it was sold out. I know that NT have a few restricted view seats that they sell at 9.30 on the day. I got there at 9.20 and BINGO! I was in. The seat was £15 and I wouldn’t have called it restricted view at all. Apparently some are less good, but I was only second in the queue, and the view was perfect.
The reviews are well deserved, the writing is dazzling. Nina Raine is a huge talent with a wonderful ear for dialogue. She tackles some really complex subjects and manages to make you aware of each different person’s point of view,  see the validity in it, and even make it funny! We are going to hear a lot more of Nina Raine as a playwright.
Of course, this writing would come to nought if the actors weren’t able to deliver, and here we have six main characters of talent, all on top form, and all buoyed by the knowledge that they have great material to work with. Anna Maxwell Martin and Ben Chaplin are excellent as the couple, Kitty and Edward, managing to make us loathe some of their actions while still understanding the reasons behind them. Adam James is brilliant as Jake, the husband who is able to rationalise his bad behaviour, and Priyanga Burford is perfect as his witty intelligent wife, who is laughing at herself for accepting it.
The set is simple and clever; an array of lights hang above the stage, and different ones lower and light, to convey which home we are in. The direction is uncomplicated; allowing the dialogue to speak for itself. Everything about this production is top quality.
I loved this play. I know it is sold out, but it is worth going along in the morning; to see if you can get day tickets, or if you hear of it getting a transfer or a revival; make sure that you are quick off the mark.

Obsession, Barbican Theatre, London, 2017

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Obsession is well acted, Jude Law and Halina Reijn are both moody and muscular, in fact, all six actors are good. The direction is classic Van Hove, there is a big sparse set, both the stage and the actors get very messy during the course of the show, and there is innovative use of both technology and sound. The story is good, it has, after all, spawned three quite different and successful films.
So, I’m not sure why this stage production was not to my taste. Maybe, it was too abstract. I did feel that everything was full of symbolism, but that there were some symbols that  I didn’t understand. Why did Joseph sing opera? Why did Anita bare her breasts at Gino at that precise moment? Why did Johnny meet nicer people at the seaside?

I have few individual criticisms of the play. I felt the nudity was gratuitous and possibly  sexist. Why was Hanna nude but not Gino? There had been a very well done and sultry sex scene earlier where they were both clothed, so I’m not sure why they changed this for the bathing scene. Either both naked for both scenes or neither, just to have the woman nude felt uncomfortable.
Obsession has some great moments, and the ending is dramatic. I really enjoyed Ivan Van Hove’s trademark touches.  However, this show was less than the sum of its parts, it did not hold my attention throughout, and ultimately, I left the theatre disappointed.