Category Archives: Theatre

London stage, 2016: a year for the women

Best female performances: Jade Anouka, Adelayo Adedayo

It’s been a rich year for female roles. Denise Gough in People Places and Things (Wyndham, transferred from the National Theatre) as the lying, addicted anti-heroine deservedly got an Olivier, but even her performance was one of many great ones this year. After her Medea last year Helen McCrory is cornering the market in gruelling female roles; her Hester Collyer in The Deep Blue Sea was all cut-glass desperation. Lia Williams and Juliet Stephenson were, of course, splendid in Mary Stuart at the Almeida. Kathryn Hunter played no fewer than ten parts in The Emperor (Young Vic), Anne-Marie Duff anchored The Almeida’s Oil, and Harriet Walter was morosely magisterial as Prospero in The Donmar’s The Tempest.

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Jade Anouka

My two standouts, though, were the glorious Jade Anouka as Ariel in The Tempest, one of those actors you miss when they’re offstage, and Adelayo Adedayo in the Young Vic’s wrenching play on female genital mutilation, Cuttin’ It. Adedayo played Muna, a streetwise schoolgirl who has herself undergone FGM and is desperate to protect her younger sister from the same experience. Her realisation that she had failed had the audience in tears.

 

Best male performances: Gary Avis, Edward Watson

It wasn’t a year for the chaps. I liked Timothy Spall’s seedy, wheedly Davies in The Caretaker at the Old Vic, but compared to my favourite male performances of 2015 – the divine Rufus Sewell in Closer and Simon Russell Beale as the agonised cleric in The Temple (both Donmar in 2015), the star names didn’t quite deliver this year. Dominic West was a competent libertine in Dangerous Liaisons at the Donmar, but shakiness on his lines made it a nervous experience. The most memorable turns were in supporting roles, notably Johnny Flynn’s unsettling outsider in Hangmen (Wyndham), Arinze Kene as Sam Cooke in One Night In Miami (Donmar) and Fisayo Akinade’s fey, cowardly Dauphin in Saint Joan (Donmar).

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Gary Avis

But the two standout performances for me this year were at Covent Garden and actually made me rethink my prejudices against narrative dance. Edward Watson as Leontes in The Winter’s Tale (Royal Ballet) buckled under his own jealousy, and Gary Avis in Macmillan’s The Invitation as the conflicted, predatory older man, who found extraordinary emotional complexity in a character in sexual crisis.

Best rewrite of a classic: Fagin’s Twist

Fagin’s Twist at The Place was a superb dance revision of Oliver Twist and reframed Fagin as the good guy and Oliver as a calculating disruptor. Having vowed never to sit through another fossilised Godot, I found Dave Hanson’s comic rewrite (two perpetual understudies in WFG bicker in the dressing room) a diverting corrective, though Waiting For Waiting For Godot (St James’ Theatre) doesn’t seem to have been popular with many critics.

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Fagin’s Twist, The Place

 

Most uncomplicated evening: Once In a Lifetime, An American In Paris, Roundabout, How The Other Half Loves

It was wonderful to see some vintage Ayckbourn in How The Other Half Loves (Theatre Royal), while JB Priestley’s early and under-performed Roundabout was a great rediscovery by Park Theatre. The Young Vic’s revival of Hart and Kaufman’s Once In A Lifetime was one of those productions you just relax into – a perfect pre-Christmas outing and a must for every Singin’ In The Rain fan. I was lucky enough to see An American In Paris on a rare New York trip, and I’m booking again for its London transfer. The perfect Hollywood tale brought to the stage by Christopher Wheeldon with the swooniest Gershwin numbers. Bliss.

Best ensemble: The Tempest

How I loved Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour (National Theatre), the comic and touching adaptation of Alan Warner’s novel The Sopranos, which traces the stories of six schoolgirls on a choir trip to Edinburgh. It’s not often you hear gorgeous versions of Mendelssohn and ELO in the same evening. The Boys In The Band was Park Theatre’s hugely successful revival of the 1968 play – Mark Gatiss was the big draw, but this was very much an ensemble piece. The Isango Ensemble’s Man of Good Hope at the Young Vic was a largely musical tracing of a young man’s journey from Somalia to South Africa, and which avoided all sentimentality about migrants. Saint Joan at the Donmar had one of the best casts I’ve seen all year, and managed to transform Shavian speechifying into urgent debate. But the most outstanding ensemble was at Donmar King’s Cross for Phyllida Lloyd’s all-female staging of The Tempest. Like her previous productions of Henry IV and Julius Caesar, Lloyd set this within a women’s prison. A-fizz with energy and beauty – and quite the clearest verse-speaking of the year (I’m looking at you, RSC).

Best play set in the Amazon: Don’t Sleep There Are Snakes

Complicité’s The Encounter (Barbican) was no doubt the most aurally inventive and immersive play of the year. The audience dons headphones and watches Simon McBurney create extraordinary sounds to accompany his narration of a photographer’s trip into the jungle and encounter with a lost tribe. If only he’d trimmed it by 20 minutes it would have been astonishing. I actually preferred Don’t Sleep There are Snakes, at Park Theatre, which had a similar dramatic premise. A missionary-linguist lives among an obscure tribe not only to learn their language but also to impart the word of God. How does grammar shape concepts of time, and how do you translate religious metaphor? A great little production strangely overlooked.

Best history lecture: Patriotic Traitor

A mixed bag here: modern history plays are a little bit too much exposition and not enough theatre. The Trial of Jane Fonda (Park Theatre) fell into this trap; the presentation of Fonda’s confrontation with Vietnam veterans in the 1970s was entirely unconvincing, but it was an efficient enough primer on US foreign policy. Patriotic Traitor, also at Park Theatre, was the story of the relationship between Petain (Tom Conti) and de Gaulle (Laurence Fox) and condensed fifty years of French history into the relationship between two men. The Emperor (Young Vic) dramatised the last days of Haile Selassie through ten characters all played by Kathryn Hunter, bringing to life multiple viewpoints based on original testimonies.

Worth leaving at the interval: The Alchemist, Painkiller

The Alchemist (Barbican) was the very worst of the RSC on show: frenetic, shouty, the actors careening through their lines as if comedy was all about pace rather than timing. The same mirthlessness was evident in the Branagh vehicle Painkiller (Garrick), which established top volume in the first scene and stayed there. Leaden.

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Inventing Magna Carta /Light Shining In Buckinghamshire, National Theatre

In my day job as legal business journalist it’s been pretty difficult to avoid Magna Carta commemorations this year, particularly since it’s coincided with furious debates over the continued existence of the Human Rights Act (HRA). Partisans of the HRA have invoked Magna Carta as a precursor to the Act; by contrast, David Cameron used it this month to push his stance that the UK needs a Bill of Rights. It’s all highly tendentious and entirely predictable, so the antidote for those with Runnymede fatigue is to read Lord Sumption’s astringent dismissal of the whole jamboree, characterising it ‘a distortion of history to serve an essentially modern political agenda’ and ‘high-minded tosh’.

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King John and the drama of Runnymede, in Ladybird

Jonathan Sumption is a medieval historian and silk whose brilliance led to his appointment to the Supreme Court without the inconvenience of ascending through the lower courts (not something that particularly endeared him to some at the bar, but that’s another story). His speech to the Friends of the British Library in March this year gave some welcome context to Magna Carta. Sumption argues that its effect was limited, that the charter was closer to a private contract than a constitutional document; it did not provide for an independent judiciary and was aimed at protecting the financial interests of a small aristocratic class. Even the famous clause that demands that freemen be tried by their peers, Sumption argues, is born of a narrow grievance of the baronage on jurisdiction.

Most interesting to me, though, was Sumption’s characterisation of our modern uses of Magna Carta as a distinctively seventeenth-century creation – and more specifically, one by the jurist Sir Edward Coke. Sumption doesn’t have much time for Coke, calling him the ‘chief sinner’ in the ideological appropriation of the charter through his Institutes of the Lawes of England, written between 1628 and 1634 and published in separate volumes up until 1644. The Institutes became a set text for mid-century Parliamentarians who wanted to challenge what they saw as the King’s untrammelled power. It was Coke, argues Sumption, who rescued Magna Carta from relative obscurity in order to underpin his argument for the sovereignty of Parliament.

Sumption’s argument that the seventeenth century created the Runnymede narrative is compelling, but begs wider questions. Why are we so obsessed with Magna Carta, and yet refer so little to the period that essentially created the myth of a high-minded revolt? While school students learn about the French and Russian revolutions, the English revolution is barely studied at all. I loathed the Civil War in history lessons in school because it was taught as a series of battles rather than an explosion of ideas; we spent a term on it, and the only thing that engaged me was hearing some bonkers Puritan names like Praise God Barebones. In fact, the first time I heard of the Diggers was not through alighting upon Christopher Hill but by listening to Billy Bragg’s first album.

I’m consistently baffled why our only period of republicanism barely features in the school syllabus. It’s a particular mystery that Michael Gove, that arch-proponent of ‘English’ history, didn’t insist upon it when he was Education Secretary. The mid-seventeenth century not only sows the seeds of our political system, but is so imaginatively accessible. The explosion of pamphlet culture so much like the cacophony of the internet; huge theatrical setpieces such as sporting opening ceremonies rivalling the masque in their elaborate hymns to power; the rise of identity politics paralleling the godly certainties of the Calvinist elect.

Even theatrical treatments of this time are few. Two, to be precise: 55 Days, a great Howard Brenton play at Hampstead Theatre a couple of years ago which featured the wonderful Mark Gatiss as Charles and Douglas Henshall as Cromwell. It focused on the trial of the king, and cutely, the auditorium was divided into two; on booking your seats, you were asked to pick the Royalist or Parliamentarian side.

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Light Shining In Buckinghamshire, National Theatre

The National Theatre has recently presented a revival of Caryl Churchill’s Light Shining In Buckinghamshire, directed by Lyndsey Turner. Originally written in 1976, the play deliberately restages Civil War as history lived by the common people, and Royalists are barely referred to. The entire stage is turned into a giant banqueting table laden with fruit and candelabras (it’s a fantastic set by Es Devlin), and that table itself later turns into the ground that is being dug by the people appropriating land for the common purpose. The play loosely follows trajectory of Briggs (Trystan Gravelle) from raw Parliamentarian recruit to a man retreating into isolation and desolation on the collapse of the republic, and is peppered with scenes in which Ranters, Levellers and Diggers argue, prophesy and scrabble for existence in a world turned upside down.

It’s intermittently engaging. The most successful sequence is a piece of verbatim theatre that occurs just before the interval with the dramatisation of the Putney Debates of 1647. The Putney Debates were put on by soldiers of the New Model Army and chaired by Oliver Cromwell (Daniel Flynn) and included such radical notions of one man, one vote and a complete rethinking of the English constitution. It was during the Putney Debates that Thomas Rainsborough, the soldier and Leveller, famously declared: ‘It seems to me that the smallest Hee that is in this kingdom hath a life to live as the greatest Hee’. In Churchill’s play, the radicals are matched in passion and rhetoric by General Ireton (Leo Bill), who defends property as a cornerstone of suffrage and of social stability. The scene doesn’t just work because it is adversarial; it works because the ideas are still exciting now.

Ordinary people – the rank and file of the New Model Army – were actually working through new ideas about how society should be shaped. Even now, rereading excerpts from the Debates fills me with awe. It was a time when everything was up for grabs; in eighteen months there would be a republic, and in 12 years the republic was gone. Magna Carta seems very wan in comparison.

 

 

 

 

 

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The bleakness of love: Closer, Donmar Warehouse/Kill Me Now, Park Theatre

They say that Park Theatre was deliberately constructed to resemble the Donmar. This month the programming oddly converges, with two savage relationship plays. The first is the revival of Patrick Marber’s 90s classic Closer at the Donmar, a tightly-constructed four-hander whose plot plays with a series of sexual permutations. Dan (Oliver Chris) and Alice (Rachel Redford) get together; Dan meets Anna (Nancy Carroll) and falls in love with her but stays with Alice; Larry (Rufus Sewell) and Anna meet and marry; Dan and Anna have an affair; Anna leaves Larry for Dan; Larry and Alice have a relationship; Anna goes back to Larry; Dan and Alice reunite; Larry and Anna split; Dan and Alice split. Put like that, it sounds like Midsummer Night’s Dream rewritten by David Mamet.cc051ed2-dd04-44ad-a0cc-c1a20a3c7a0b-1360x2040

When I saw it back in the 1990s I don’t think I properly appreciated the quicksilver shifts of fury, desire and neediness that Marber creates between the characters; each new relationship builds on the emotional residue of the previous one, so that every scene is layered with history of previous exchanges.

All the characters keep insisting on knowing the truth, but the truth always brings pain. Rufus Sewell’s deceptively mild delivery never obscures the rage and manipulation beneath. He absolutely dominates the second act, as Larry moves from bafflement at Anna’s desertion to a calculated relish of maximum revenge. I wasn’t entirely convinced by Redford as Alice, though I thought her reading of the character was right. Alice could so easily be played as your standard damaged child-woman, but she brought a welcome sincerity to the role. I quite liked the idea expressed in the Donmar programme notes that the fifth character of the play is Postman’s Park in Clerkenwell, to which the four protagonists variously return. Bunny Christie’s spare production design highlights the gravestones of the ordinary people buried there, their heroism a mute counterpoint to the self-indulgence of the main characters.

At Park Theatre, whose success is contributing to the gentrification of N4, they’re showing Brad Fraser’s Kill Me Now, whose bleakness resides in its subject matter rather than its narrative outlook. Jake (Greg Wise) has given up his career as a writer to look after his severely disabled son Joey (Oliver Gomm); Jake is helped also by his younger sister Twyla (Charlotte Harwood) and Joey’s best friend Rowdy (Jack McMullen). Jake’s isolation from the world is only tempered by his weekly trysts with Robyn (Anna Wilson-Smith).

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The play charts a downward trajectory; Jake, for so long the carer, develops an incurable condition and has to be cared for. Throughout, we’re confronted with the difficulties of disability and desire: in the very first scene Jake, bathing Joey, notices that his son has an erection, and realises he now has to deal with adolescent sexuality. Eventually it leads to a masturbation scene involving two characters, the strangeness of which is entirely normalised within the emotional context. Wise puts in a strong performance, and I loved Jack McMullen as Joey’s best mate Rowdy, a boy with mild special needs whose dedication to his friend is both comic and heroic. The standout was Oliver Gomm as Joey, though. There will always be a debate over casting an able-bodied actor in the part, but this is a performance that will probably win awards, and is a beautifully-judged mix of tenderness and raging horn. Whereas in Closer love is narcissistic, in Kill Me Now it represents the little hope available. Take a tissue.

 

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The Knight of the Burning Pestle, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

I missed The Duchess of Malfi, so my trip south of the river last week was my first time at the new Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, which has been built to put on the sort of plays that weren’t originally staged at the Globe but at the indoor Blackfriars theatre. It’s a lovely intimate space, lit only by candles. The repertoire is non-Shakespearian– next up is Marston’s The Malcontent, and running right now is Francis Beaumont’s The Knight of the Burning Pestle.

The Knight of the Burning Pestle performed at the Globe Theatre

The Knight of the Burning Pestle is proof that the post-modernists didn’t invent post-modernism. The play announced onstage is ‘The London Merchant’, in which Jasper the apprentice (Alex Waldmann)  is courting Luce (Sarah MacRae), the daughter of his master (Giles Cooper), but their love is forbidden. Sitting among us in the auditorium are the Citizen (Phil Daniels), the Citizen’s Wife (Pauline McLynn – yes, Mrs Doyle from Father Ted) and their apprentice Rafe (Matthew Needham). The grocer and his wife interrupt the play and demand that London characters – specifically Rafe – should appear and be given heroic roles. The apprentice duly joins the action on stage and the rest of the play is accompanied by a very funny running commentary by the Grocer and his wife – Neil Rhodes’s piece in the programme likens it to a Jacobean Gogglebox. The commentary and occasional direction from the Citizens – who now and then invade the stage – constantly take the plot of The London Merchant into random directions. Rafe’s noble deeds in Waltham Forest scare away Jasper’s mother (Hannah McPake), who, fed up with her drinking and prodigal husband, has run away with Michael, her favoured son. After various adventures in which Rafe defeats the giant Barbaroso (who is really the barber), Jasper pretends to be dead and then impersonates his own ghost, and all sorts of slapstick, the two young lovers win the merchant’s approval.

It’s probably a bit long at three hours, but it’s actually very funny.  It’s not just knockabout stuff, either; it’s terribly meta. The Knight of the Burning Pestle is actually three plays in one – the original play put on by the company, the chivalric play urged on by the grocer, and the ensuing final production that we, the real audience, enjoy, which is a comic synthesis of both of them. There’s explicit comedy of register too; Luce’s approved suitor Humphrey (Dickon Tyrrell, in a Michael Fabricant wig) speaks in high-flown rhyming couplets that are far removed from the demotic speech of the lovers and particularly the grocers. ‘The London Merchant’ plot is straight out of the cynical City comedies of Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker, which usually involve spirited lovers outwitting their merchant fathers. But City comedies don’t offer heroism; what the grocer couple really want to see on stage is escapist chivalric literature, and they want to get involved.

Imagine Harry Potter rolled into Jason Bourne and you’ll get an idea of the stories that the grocers are after. These are the so-called Iberian romances, probably best filed under early modern guilty pleasures. They include the Palmerin series and the granddaddy of them all, Amadis de Gaule, which originated in Spain, were elaborated upon in French and translated for the first time into English by Anthony Munday in 1590. We had our own homegrown tales too, like Guy of Warwick, whose provenance goes back to the fourteenth century.

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Beaumont is having a lot of fun at the expense of the grocers and their insistence that they no longer be passive consumers of romance but active purveyors of it. You can see how much he is tapping into the satirical, anti-romance tradition personified by Cervantes. The Knight of the Burning Pestle is thought to have been performed in 1607; Don Quixote, which had been published in Spain in 1605, had its first English printing in 1612. By the time Cervantes is writing at the beginning of the seventeenth century, there’s enormous amounts to satirise. The Iberian romances are full of heroic battles, magic potions, jousts with masked knights, vicious giants, and the insistence on knightly honour and duty. Although chivalric romance is often pretty sexy (Amadis gets it on with the heroine Oriana before getting married) Rafe is modelling himself on the chaste Christian hero – rejects the advances of the princess of Moldavia. In this context the syphilitic overtones of the ‘burning pestle’ are particularly amusing given our hero’s obvious sexual innocence. What’s more, when Don Quixote and Rafe transplant their understanding of heroism into a ‘real’ context of innkeepers and barbers rather than knights and princes, their rigidity in the way they read the genre usually ends in their getting beaten up. The fight scenes in this production, by the way, are genuinely hilarious.

There’s not just fighting – there’s a lot of music , too, The songs are often fragments, primarily sung by Merrithought (Paul Rider), who’s clearly modelled on Falstaff but without the coherence or the ruined majesty. Some are from pretty more elevated musical sources – ‘Down, Down, down’ is a reference to the ‘Sorrow Stay’ in John Dowland’s Second Book of Songs and Ayres (1600), and ‘Sing wee, and chaunt it’ is from Thomas Morley’s First Book of Balletts (1595) But the majority of them are popular ballads.  ‘Nose, nose, jolly red nose’, and ‘Trole the black bowle’ end up in Thomas Ravenscroft’s songbooks – respectively, Deuteromelia and Pammelia (both 1609), where they nestle against a large collection of drinking songs, catches and theatre tunes. The theatre and the alehouse were central social spaces, and inevitably both were attacked by the godly. Mirth was a loaded concept in Stuart cultural politics; James I’s Book of Sports in 1618 sanctioned leisure activities on holy days, much to the disgust of strict Puritans.

Puritans were not all your black-hatted Zeal-of-the-land Busy types satirised by Jonson in Bartholomew Fair. They also made up the sober, God-fearing, Protestant commercial class that ended up being the backbone of Parliamentarian support in London during the Civil War – in other words, the class to which the Citizen and his wife belong. But mirth, Beaumont is suggesting, is available to all of us, and it doesn’t have to be anarchic; it can be creative. For example, the fun he has dismantling playgoing conventions of the fourth wall creates another play before our eyes. At the same time, drinking does not have to entail prodigal disintegration. Instead, it can be an agent of sociability.  The Knight of the Burning Pestle ends with a speech not from a hero but from the Citizen’s wife, who takes charge of the epilogue. She says to the audience directly: “I would have a pottle of wine and a pipe of Tobacco for you’ and pretty much invites everyone back to hers. It’s certainly not The Duchess of Malfi.

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1984, Almeida Theatre

1984-1  Headlong’s splendid production of 1984 at the Almeida is inspired by the little-read appendix to Orwell’s book in which the development of Newspeak is discussed as if from a vantage point in the future. In formal terms, Winston Smith’s doomed rebellion against the Party relies on realist novel conventions where the story unfolds before us in real time, but the appendix reframes the novel as a historical and potentially unreliable document. Accordingly, the co-creators of this production, Duncan Macmillan and Robert Icke, use a framing device where a book group of the future discuss the text – but as the play will make clear, no text is reliable. History is not to be trusted. The individual has nothing to hold on to.

In the first scene, a camera records Winston Smith (Mark Arends) nervily beginning his diary. That moment of rebellion is made intimate for us through close-up on the screen, but at the same time we’re aware that the act of recording is being recorded. This is not a production that majors overtly on Newspeak and the impossibility of thought through the destruction of language, but the staging pounds away at the question of what is reality and whether it can it be externally verified. Winston deletes historical details of people who have been unpersoned, Party announcements are replayed as an endless loop and Parsons (Gavin Spokes) tells variations on the story of his daughter denouncing people to the Thought Police. It is only when Winston meets Julia (Hara Yannas) that he stops doubting his own sanity. Their short-lived refuge in Charrington’s  flat (Stephen Fewell) is played offstage on a screen, foreshadowing their eventual arrest. They lovers are being watched after all.

The moment of arrest is a fantastic bit of theatre that leads to the final harrowing scenes of Winston’s interrogation and torture by O’Brien (Tim Dutton), whom Winston had believed to be a co-conspirator against the Party. The heretic must be converted before being unpersoned. (Those scenes are not for those of a nervous disposition.)

It ends with the frame, as the book group of the future return onstage – but any sense that they there to represent comfortable posterity and external reality is shattered when these readers for whom Winston is eventually writing dismiss his existence as a fabrication. The happy ending we would really have wanted is for Winston’s existence to be verified, but the truth is not available, even in posterity. Chilling.

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Happy Days, Young Vic

Happy Days begins with a klaxon that makes the entire audience jump. On stage, buried up to her waist in sand, Winnie (Juliet Stevenson) awakes with a start. For the next two hours she tries to engage her partially visible husband Willie (David Beames) in conversation and gives a running commentary on her physical state, the contents of her bag (parasol, spectacles, revolver, music box, comb, toothbrush) and memories of her past, her optimism sounding increasingly misplaced. The second act is shorter and darker. Winnie is now buried up to her neck, and her fear and panic come to the surface.

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Juliet Stevenson as Winnie

It’s a mountain of a part for an actress and as you’d expect, Stevenson turns in a fabulously nuanced performance. She never lapses into histrionics, but the suppressed hysteria behind the stiff upper lip is extraordinarily affecting.

Being buried in sand evokes memories of children’s games on the beach, but also a presage of death. It’s an arresting poetic image that in the theatre could seem heavily allegorical but as is classic Beckett, meaning is free-floating. There is no night and day, time is parcelled out between sleep and waking and punctuated by the earsplitting klaxons. This is not the lux aeterna longed for in Christian liturgy; the harsh sun beats down on Winnie and Willie and offers no respite.

We don’t know who Winnie is, or her husband. We have no idea how she got there. There is no causality at all. Context tunes in and out like a faltering radio; Winnie tells us of her past but those memories remain fragments.

After the play our party spent some time trying to figure out the different layers in the text. Is it about a dying marriage? Is it a post-apocalyptic world? Is Winnie’s attachment to her comb, toothbrush and music box a comment on the human desire for ritual in the face of a hostile universe? Is it one of Dante’s circles of hell? Is it about the futility of language to make sense of experience? Is it a music hall routine gone wrong?

The skill of this production (directed by Natalie Abrahami) and of Stevenson’s performance was that all those potential meanings co-exist. It would be a mistake to plump for one unitary reading, since it’s a play that resists all closure. This makes it sound like it could be a terrible couple of hours spent in the theatre, but Beckett done well is mesmerising. Though you might need a glass of wine afterwards.

Beckett wrote in both French and English: Happy Days was staged in New York in 1961 and in Paris in 1963 as Oh Les Beaux Jours. Apparently Beckett got the idea for that exact title from a Verlaine poem, Colloque Sentimental (1869). You can see why he was drawn to it. It’s a short, melancholy piece, where the narrating voice overhears the fragments of conversation of two unnamed figures in a park. One is constantly asking the other to recall their past, but the other’s terse replies are a refusal of love or a refusal of memory itself. They eventually fade out of earshot. (There’s an English translation here http://poetry.poetryx.com/poems/15247/.)

Colloque Sentimental

Dans le vieux parc solitaire et glacé

Deux formes ont tout à l’heure passé.

Leurs yeux sont morts et leurs lèvres sont molles,

Et l’on entend à peine leurs paroles.

Dans le vieux parc solitaire et glacé

Deux spectres ont évoqué le passé.

-Te souvient-il de notre extase ancienne?

– Pourquoi voulez-vous donc qu’il m’en souvienne?

Ton coeur bat-il toujours à mon seul nom?

Toujours vois-tu mon âme en rêve? – Non.

Ah ! les beaux jours de bonheur indicible

Où nous joignions nos bouches ! – C’est possible.

– Qu’il était bleu, le ciel, et grand, l’espoir !

– L’espoir a fui, vaincu, vers le ciel noir.

Tels ils marchaient dans les avoines folles,

Et la nuit seule entendit leurs paroles.

– Paul Verlaine

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Coriolanus, Donmar Warehouse

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You want symbolism? As the stage lights go up at the Donmar’s production of Coriolanus we see a ladder extending right up to the flies and a wall graffiti’d with political protests. It’s a concise piece of staging; the ladder is the representation of the heroic exploits of the Roman hero, whose extraordinary valour leads him to scale the walls of Corioli, which his forces then subdue. It is his path to glory, but the wall covered in slogans is precisely the symbol of what undoes him; Coriolanus wants the consulship after his victory but simply can’t bring himself to disguise his contempt for the populace. Banished from Rome, he joins forces with his enemy Aufidius and his Volscians and marches on the capital…

The absolute unity of action in Coriolanus allows for a pretty pacy few hours, and there’s a lot riding on the lead role and his relationships with the crowd, with his enemy Aufidius and with his mother Volumnia. Tom Hiddleston bestrode the stage in a muscular way (much to the delight of his many fans in the house), but his speeches occasionally mistook rhythm for clarity. In contrast, Mark Gatiss’s sinuous delivery was one of the best things in the play; his laconic Menenius rather stole the show. The battle scenes outside the walls of Corioli came off well, as did the city politics of Rome, where the ensemble was strong. Coriolanus’s loathing of the populace and of himself for having to kowtow for their votes had a savagely comic edge.  This was, by the way, a production that took Coriolanus’s heroism at face value; there was no sense of the tyrant he might have become, and the plotting by the tribunes Brutus (Elliot Levey) and Sicinia (Helen Schlesinger) was presented more or less as cynical politicking. Although the personal, rather than tribal, tussle for martial glory between Coriolanus and his Volscian foe Aufidius (Hadley Fraser) was clear, I didn’t feel the production made the case for the sudden homosexual subtext when Aufidius gave him a lingering kiss.

In his great Crispin’s Day speech Henry V exhorts his soldiers to strip their sleeves and show their scars in the future, because they will be marks of collective endeavour and collective memory. Volumnia, like a Spartan matron, proudly enumerates her son’s twenty-five scars as literal marks of valour, but unlike Henry V’s, Coriolanus’s scars are individually sought and won. Things begin to unravel, then, when Coriolanus refuses to display his wounds to the populace. It’s an episode that doesn’t appear in Plutarch, but  Shakespeare makes wounds the manifestation of Coriolanus’s fatal pride. Because he considers it vulgar to put them on show to the people, they don’t warm to him, which sets in train the events that end in his banishment. His injuries can only be viewed privately, so when we see Hiddleston cleansing his body of blood and wincing in acute pain the audience turns voyeur. I suspect this is deliberately done, given the casting – after all, this is a Hollywood action hero’s ripped torso on display. There was some clever staging here: the long jet of water on Coriolanus’s body as he washes his wounds created a visual and thematic link between the ladder of his siege triumphs and the iron chain that strings him up at the end.

The key relationship, of course, is Coriolanus and his mother. Deborah Findlay’s Volumnia was masterful (I use the word advisedly), but the pairing itself lacked the tense co-dependence you might want. Coriolanus is in thrall to his mother, sure, but in their dialogues Hiddleston seemed overcome with lassitude. That infected the final scenes, when Volumnia, Virgilia his wife (Birgitte Hjort Sorensen) and Valeria (Jacqueline Boatswain) beg the exiled Coriolanus to abandon his vengeful conquest of Rome. Everything is riding on what ought to be an agonising intercession scene, and having enjoyed the production up till then, I felt that this is where it disappointed. Coriolanus should be visibly convulsed by the fact that he is going to lose either way. He’s already failed as a politician, and now he’s going to fail as a Roman soldier, whether he decides to invade his home city or not. The great fighting man is unmanned not by another warrior but by his mother; not by the sword but by rhetoric.

Director Josie Rourke cut the scenes of civic reaction to the women’s triumph, which meant that the sense of Roman ritual and display – so crucial to this piece – was also lost. Equally, Coriolanus’s death at the hands of Aufidius and his men felt less like popular violence and more like a private assassination. It could be that Rourke wanted to deny Coriolanus any heroism at the last moment, but the ending felt slightly cut short.

This is  tight, intelligent production that’s seriously worth seeing, though judging by the hundreds of fans outside the Donmar waiting for Hiddleston, tickets may now be in short supply. Apparently MTV viewers have just voted him sexiest man in the world. Vox populi…

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