Tag Archives: National 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.


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).


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.


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’.


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.


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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Fictions of politics and the executioner’s axe

aa Execution of Charles BH_Crown Copyright_Historic Royal Palaces 156

What happens when politics morphs into fiction? I’m not talking about spin doctors and myth-making, but the problems inherent in dramatising recent history. The modern mind tends to place history and fiction as generically distinct forms whose readers have differing expectations, but for the early moderns that distinction was blurred.

Take roman à clef, which had a brief but intense flowering during the Interregnum. The immense romans à clef Panthalia, Theophania and The Princess Cloria all retell Stuart history at huge length. Real characters appear under different names and with neatened-up narratives. The few critics who attend to these texts largely see them as ideological; at best, they’re viewed as compensatory fictions for defeated royalism where disguise is a defensive move to fend off censorship.

However, the rush to work out which character represents which political figure is to ignore that hugely enjoyable space between history and fiction where the drama is not about ship money or the Scottish Kirk or diplomacy with Spain but is told entirely through character. For example, The Princess Cloria was reprinted in 1661 with the disguised names still intact. After the Restoration, there might seem to be no need for a royalist writer to use code, but the preface gives us a clue. The exigencies of fiction and readerly pleasure, rather than history, are highlighted: “Do not look for an exact History, in every particular circumstance; though perchance upon due consideration you will finde, a certain methodical coherency between the main Story, and the numerous Transactions that passed, at home and abroad, as may render people competently satisfied; for that the tediousness of reparties, and impertinent discourses, commonly used in inventions of this kinde, are for the most pat omitted, that oftentimes not onely weary Readers with expectation, but make them cast away Books before they are half read.”

When you fictionalise recent history the draw is personality; plot becomes secondary to motivation. Think of going to see a David Hare play, which often explores the weaknesses of the rich and powerful behind closed doors. Or, indeed, This House at the National Theatre, which I saw the other week.

In This House the history of the Wilson-Callaghan governments is staged as clash of personalities; MPs’ individual decisions to rebel against the Labour whip create the plot. It’s history where teleology is king, since This House‘s underlying assumption that Thatcher’s lengthy apotheosis was inevitable.

The chaotic politics of the pre-Thatcher era will continue to be disputed, but for royalist writers in the Interregnum who are evoking pre-Civil War times there is one event that is un-rewritable: the regicide. Sir Philip Sidney pulled off the fake execution of Pamela in Arcadia, but no amount of narrative trickery can get you past the fact that in 1650s roman à clef the king is dead and his son is in exile. The dispossessed prince is a fundamental trope of romance, but in the early 1650s there were no happy endings in sight for the royalists; Restoration was barely envisaged.  (It’s why I always feel uneasy about using the term Interregnum, since it presupposes a historical inevitability that simply didn’t exist at the time.) To write a roman à clef in the 1650s you have to engage with the scaffold.

You don’t need to have read any Foucault to realise that an execution, with its blend of state violence and personal repentance, is pure theatre. A good scaffold speech, whether by criminals or aristocratic rebels, always set the early modern pulse racing. Take the execution of Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford, in 1641. It spawned a large number of pamphlets very much aimed at the mass market; the bookseller, Francis Coules, had previously made his living selling broadside ballads (see here for an excellent blogpost by Mercurius Politicus on Coules and his colleagues). So forget any jurisprudential treatment of the subject; in restaging execution roman à clef is participating in the collective and demotic world of pamphlets as much as the discussions of statecraft in Sidney’s Arcadia or John Barclay’s Argenis.

In allowing the characters to reframe their own autobiography and speak of their motives the scaffold speech is both a neat microcosm of the historical and fictional process and a confessional shriving. Richard Brathwaite’s Panthalia (1659) obsessively replays execution as the cornerstone of Tudor-Stuart history, starting with Clarentio (the Earl of Essex) and narrating the deaths of Mariana (Mary Queen of Scots) and Sophronio (Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford). It also devotes considerable space to Silures (Buckingham) as Jacobean villain, whose death is unjudicial, but is perhaps providential. Royal power in this romance is decisively centred upon the executioner’s block, and the transfer of that power to the Senate (Parliament) with the death of Rosicles (Charles) is clearly signalled when he points to the axe, saying: “There is an instrument… that will shortly ease me of my sufferings.”

The king becomes a marginalized and solitary figure. Brathwaite’s rendition of his speech includes his grief for the execution of Sophronio/Strafford, as indeed Charles’s speech did.  While Rosicles/Charles initially speaks of himself as a prince who has “become a Sacrifice to his Subjects”, the religious element is relegated in favour of a dynastic lament: “Never did Royal Race.. fall into like misery”.

In contrast, Charles’s speech on the scaffold that cold January day in 1649 was considerably more religious in tone, taking place an hour after he had received communion. Ten days after his death Eikon Basilike, The Pourtrature of His Sacred Majestie in His Solitudes and Sufferings was published. Eikon Basilike, that brilliant mixture of the sacred and self-justifying, went through 36 editions in the first year of its publication, and not even Milton’s counterblast Eikonoklastes could stop Charles’ transformation into martyr.

Remarkably, Panthalia does not engage in the project of Anglican canonisation undertaken by Eikon Basilike; despite his subtitling of his work “The Royal Romance” Brathwaite never marshalls the devotional strategies to be found in royalist elegy of the period. Brathwaite’s ambivalence towards the romance’s subscription to royalist history is striking. This is a disappointed text, not a propagandistic one.

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