Macbeth, National Theatre, Southbank, London

Macbeth

This is more Mad Mac than Macbeth. This play is so different to what we usually see put on as Macbeth, that it would not have been too much to change the title as well. At least then we would have had a little more idea of what to expect. I was not amazed at the number of people who did not return for the second act, because for many people, this will not have been the show that they came to see. It is certainly not Macbeth as we know it, the set, costumes and music fight to overwhelm one of Shakespeare’s most dramatic plays, but thanks to strong lead performances Macbeth just about wins through.

I admire Rufus Norris’ audacity here, he makes Macbeth into a gory, post apocalyptic, horror show – with zombies. The party is a grimy, drugged-up car park rave, ripped plastic bin bags are the height of home decoration and the future of clothes care clearly doesn’t involve any kind of washing. The world he presents is ugly, violent and harsh.  It begins with a particularly brutal beheading that warns you that this will be a difficult watch at times, and there are other moments in the production that transcend even the gore, slash/ horror genre that was in vogue in 1980s. It has a punk ethic that sets out to shock, and the visceral disgust of the moment when Lady MacDuff is presented with the bodies of her mutilated children in clear plastic bags is something that will not be soon forgotten.

Anne-Marie Duff and Rory Kinnear are both good, despite all the eccentric distractions going on around them. The actors here have a hard job, it’s almost as though Rufus Norris has decided that the lines of the play are secondary to the action on stage, so often he has them doing strange things while delivering famous lines. Why is Porter giving this speech clinging on to a pole at the back of the stage, why is Macbeth removing his socks after killing Duncan? Even when Rory Kinnear is alone on stage, he has to contend with avoiding the furniture on a spinning set.  This vision has some wins and some losses, the point in the second act where all the dead characters are lurching around the stage in crazed zombie mode is a big contrast from the performances of Kevin Harvey and Steven Boxer in the first act as Banquo and Duncan. As Macduff, Patrick O’Kane’s reaction to the news of the murder of his family stood out, all the more, for being so restrained in the sea of lunacy surrounding him.

This is not a Macbeth that I would ever have envisioned, and it is not one of my favourite interpretations. I don’t believe that this production was made to be liked, it was made to alarm, astound and to be talked about – and if that is the case, it surely achieves what it set out to do. What is certainly true, is that this Macbeth is one that I will remember and, for that,  I am pleased not to have missed it.

The Fall, National Youth Theatre of Great Britain, Southwark Playhouse, London

The Fall

I really look forward to seeing what the National Youth Theatre of Great Britain bring out each year. It is always interesting and thought provoking. They rarely disappoint and this show is no exception. This is a triptych of plays with a common theme, aging and how we treat the aged. All three are written by James Fritz, they have funny and intelligent dialogue. Directed by Matt Harrison, the bed in the centre of the stage is the single focal point, it cleverly has different implications in each scene.

The first is the most conforming of the three, the story of a couple of horny teenagers who use an old man’s flat to have sex while he is away.  Jesse Bateson and Niyi Akin are both excellent, showing off teenage attitudes to old age, with humour and occasional compassion.

The second is also a two hander.  A couple age from teenage to late middle age in the course of twenty minutes, as they cope with looking after their son and an aging parent. Sophie Couch is really good, we are unsure of her actions without ever being unsure of her motives. Troy Richards as her partner does a great job of keeping us guessing as to whether he believes her because he trusts her or because he just chooses to without any real justification.

The third is set in an old peoples’ home, in a future where virtual assistant apps control the looking after and their only company is each other. The only outside human interaction appears to be a liaison officer, played with cool dispassion by Lucy Havard, offering voluntary euthanasia. Jamie Ankrah does a good job of playing the archetypal “Grumpy Old Man”.  Jamie Foulkes evokes compassion for his decision and Madeline Charlemagne is great as an octogenarian with a sense of fun. Josie Charles is fantastic as the last old person left, measuring out her days by turning on her room lights. Joshua Williams is excellent as the Nurse, one of the few people in the cast who gets to play his own age, whose job now is doling out death, but at least trying to do it with compassion.

Every year the NYT of GB do a season of shows in both off West End and West End theatres. This is the first time that they have been at the Southwark Playhouse, it is a venue that will work well for them, in that it is both intimate and adaptable. The plays put on by the National Youth Theatre are always innovative, interesting and entertaining and they are very competitively priced.  The production values are great and you are sure to see some stars of the future, either in acting, direction or choreography.

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.

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.

Don Juan in Soho, Wyndham's Theatre, London, 2017

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The 17th Century version of this play closed, after only one performance, because of its repulsive and offensive nature. It was not shown in an uncensored form again for almost 150 years. Marber updates the setting to 21st Century Soho, but stays remarkably faithful to the original story.
It is shocking, ribald, offensive but that is the point of the play, Don Juan is not meant to have any redeeming features.  David Tennant is very good as the debauched libertine, who is patronising, misogynistic and self serving.  Adrian Scarborough is fantastic as Stan, his forgiving manservant, who is just as taken is by his master’s guile as any of the women he seduces. Together they make a fantastic double act, funny and argumentative, Stan feels the guilt that his master doesn’t, but yet he cannot help himself from becoming involved in the collusion. Their duet to close the first act was brilliant.
The script is witty and sharp, Don Juan’s diatribe against social media and celebrity culture is funny, and made it feel current, even if it did not advance his argument.  I have to admit that I am not sure what the addition of the dancers in their underwear added to the proceedings, but the use of music is good, the occasional pieces from Mozart’s, Don Giovanni are a nice juxtaposition to the modern score.
This play is always going to a controversial choice, if it doesn’t disturb and distress people, it is not doing its job. It is a brave play for the leading actors to take on because it relies so heavily on the capability and rapport of the two lead characters and if it is not done well, it will always be a mark on their career. However, David Tennant and Adrian Scarborough are both excellent and carry it off admirably.
With the vogue in theatre now, for women to take on roles that have traditionally been played by men, this would be an interesting proposition – and it would go some way to counteracting the misogyny criticisms often levelled against it.
Until that happens, this is a very enjoyable show, an excellent night out and the perfect start to a night of revelry in nearby Soho.