Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare’s Globe

2/10

This production has the distinction, not just of being the worst production of Much Ado that I’ve had the misfortune to see, but of being the absolute worst thing I have seen put on at the Globe in 20 years.

All the hallmarks of the Globe’s recent productions were there, but this time none of them worked:

  • The action was moved to 19th Century Mexico, and the exposition and rewrites required to make this plausible were clumsy and tiresome. Scenes were punctuated by sweaty, dirt-brushed people with guns rushing about babbling in Spanish.  I cringed with discomfort.
  • Obviously, if you have Mexicans (said someone) you need Americans for the purpose of them being at enmity with each other. Cue Dogberry running around being semaphored as A.N. Annoying American hours before his character became relevant. How subtle.
  • Antonio was played by a female actor, but no-one on stage could decide whether this was a gender-blind or gender diverse casting, and so the character was she then he, then brother then sister, which felt lazy and like tokenism.
  • There were horse puppets and every opportunity was taken to put actors on stilts with horse puppets. Horses not being particularly integral to the action in Much Ado, it was a distraction. If I had liked horse puppets, I would have seen War Horse.
  • The songs were fucking awful

There is some attempt at feminist interpretation: in the lengthy set-up sequence we see Beatrice, Hero and Margaret toting guns and performing surgical procedures on wounded soldiers. But it felt unnecessary and unwarranted.

But despite this – and here’s the thing I am going to get really angry about – some genius decided to turn the female lead from a rapier wit into a cringing drunk. Beatriz Romilly‘s Beatrice treats her dialogue as the pre-smartphone equivalent of drunk tweeting. She apes cringing regret practically every time she opens her mouth, gurning and flinging her arms in a show of “Oh no, what have I said?” She’s patronising and often slows down and repeats her barbs with expansive gestures. In one scene, to indicate that she is not really aware of what she is saying, she downs repeated tequila shots before starting her tirade. And yet, by contrast, Benedick is shown in full possession of his wits. I wanted to drag the woman off the stage and yell at her, I was so enraged by her interpretation of the role.

The one saving grace was Matthew Needham, whose Benedick was funny and believable in the midst of so much mess. As far as I could tell, the rest of the audience around me was drunk enough to have no complaints, and I must confess, I envied them.

 

Apologia, Trafalgar Studios

8/10

I first saw Apologia when it premiered at the Bush Theatre in 2009 – and it is a testament to the play’s weight and complexity that I got something entirely different out of the play in 2017.

Apologia is about the choices society forces women – specifically feminists – to make and the judgement that is passed down when women choose equality and feminism over what society expects of them as women. The central character, Kristin, is a celebrated art historian, academic, author and activist who has held firm to her convictions since the 1970s and has prioritised her career and activism over family life. In 2009, she was British, and I loathed her, I know not why because the performance was great. In 2017, she is an American who has adopted the UK as her home, played with vigour by Stockard Channing.

Channing’s Kristin is loud, sharp, and takes no prisoners: exactly what she’d have needed to be to  reach eminence in male-dominated academia. And yet she also exudes a certain nervousness and physical fragility that betrays her battle scars and the sacrifices she has had to make. The action opens as she is preparing for her birthday party and the arrival of her friend Hugh (Desmond Barrit), her sons Peter and Simon (both played by Joseph Millson) and their partners Trudi (Laura Carmichael) and  Claire (Freema Agyeman).

It’s clear from the outset that Kristin has a fractured relationship with her children – and has taken refuge in an echo chamber that shares her ideals, as represented by her fellow warrior, Hugh. Channing perfectly conveys Kristin’s spiky anxiety, moving testily around the stage, unsure about facing her offspring, and spoiling for a fight.

Both Kristin’s sons have built their lives around opposing the mother they feel abandoned them: The eldest, Peter, by entering wholeheartedly into the corporate world and by betrothing himself to a woman who is everything his mother is not: Christian, stereotypical and happy to be a ‘supportive wife’ – a basic bitch, basically. Simon, by refusing to lead a functional life and partnering with a seemingly superficial television actress. And yet, they cannot escape her: each craves her approval in his own way and their chosen partners are more like her than they realise, particularly Claire, a born fighter who prioritises her career over Simon in the end.

While the past bubbles under the surface, there is an immediate source of tension: Kristin has just published a memoir, in which neither of her children is mentioned. This sets the scene for what, in my view, is an exploration of the double standard society sets for women when they are parents. Kristin is at pains to explain that her memoir is an exploration of her professional life: it does not cover her personal life at all, except where it overlapped with her work. Whereas for a man, this omission would largely go ignored, for a woman, it is unforgivable. Kristin’s children are deeply hurt at having been filtered out of her life.  Over the course of the dinner party, the audience learns that Kristin did not abandon her children as they claim: their father came and took them, and she chose not to pursue. They maintained contact, spending holidays together. Kristin’s crime, it turns out, is not abandoning her children, but failing to meet their standards for motherhood.

Desmond Barrit is outstanding as Hugh, Kristin’s fellow activist, always ready with a glass of wine and a sharp, witty phrase. He gets the biggest laughs in the production – and more than once Laura Carmichael seemed to be struggling not to laugh, too. But there’s another, less comfortable side to Hugh, too. If Kristin represents the feminist perspective, he represents her LGBT counterparts. Elderly, comical, poverty-stricken at at times condescended to, it’s hard not to see his Hugh as a representation of how the LGBT activists of the 1960s have fared in relation to their feminist sisters.  Looking beyond the laughs, it’s plain that Hugh is treated not only with affection, but with condescension, too. The last, he is portrayed as living vicariously through others, a sexless existence hinted at by his parting shot to Claire to enjoy her upcoming erotic tryst. For me, Hugh represents those who have suffered for their activism and who have seen their contributions ignored and their talents left behind.

I generally enjoy Laura Carmichael’s performances, but I think she was handed something of a poisoned chalice playing American Trudi opposite a genuine American.  I couldn’t help feeling she deserved better. Freema Agyeman, on the other hand, is wonderful as Claire, a woman as strong, feisty and in charge of her own destiny as Kristin.

In 2009, I had very different feelings about it. In one of the key scenes, where Kristin’s younger son Simon blames her for a miscommunication which led to him spending a night alone in Florence and narrowly escaping sexual assault, I empathised with him, loathing Kristin with all the fury of a child who has been let down by their parents. Simon is a man whose life is marred by the fact that his parents turned out not to be the all-powerful superhumans he wanted to guide and protect him. In my 20s, I felt that way too.

This time, decidedly closer to middle age than adolescence, I took Kristin’s side. How was it her fault that her ex-husband miscommunicated the travel dates? In a world before mobile phones, how was she to learn about the whereabouts of her son? How dare he blame her, hate her, judge her not just for the misunderstanding but for her failure to stick to the role society had arbitrarily assigned to her. A mother would have been there, he spits. But he means the fantasy mother women are told they should be.

With a feminist reading, the conclusion of the play is deeply unsatisfying in that it reveals how society has punished many of the women who spearheaded feminism. In the era of “choice” where we tell young women they are free to make more traditional life choices, we also often tell women who rejected those choices in the past and lived with the brutal consequences that they are monsters. At the end of Apologia – rejected and alone – Kristin is undeservedly suffering the fate of such a monster, despite having paved the way for the confident women who judge her. 10 years on, Apologia is more brutal than it was perhaps intended to be. And I for one like it that way.

NB – I caught up on a couple of broadsheet reviews of the production – both inevitably by middle-aged-to-elderly white men and was quite shocked by how comprehensively they ignored any kind of feminist reading of the work. Yet another reason why we need more diversity in theatre criticism.

 

 

Follies, Olivier Theatre

10/10

If you are going to see Follies, be warned: this production is a tapestry so complex that at no point does the audience know where to look. Wherever the focus of a scene seems to be, there is always something else happening in the background or off to the side. You dare not focus for fear of missing some subtlety on the other side of the stage. I have seen it three times so far, and still feel I have not quite experienced the whole of it.

Follies has all the hallmarks of a great Sondheim show – that almost macabre dissection of human relationships which grips anyone who has ever fallen in or out of love. This particular production is also a tribute to resilient womanhood: from the opening strains of Beautiful Girls to the reprise at the end, the men play second fiddle: they are the plus ones, merely a part of the stories of these women. They mourn for former glories, grasp for emotional strength, hold handbags, watch from the shadows. The men wait and prevaricate.  The women dominate centre stage.

Everyone – and everything – in this show is superb. Not flawless – of which more later – but of a quality that is unlike anything else you will see. It is a perfect combination of material – which, although acknowledged to be problematic has been reworked expertly here – direction and performance and a testament to the sort of thing that can be achieved with publicly funded theatre. It’s unlikely that a show like this, at a scale of this kind, would not work commercially.

There are three types of song in this show: the showcase showstoppers (Broadway Baby, I’m Still Here, Who’s That Woman, One More Kiss etc); dialogue songs that move the action along (Waiting for the Girls Upstairs, Don’t Look at Me, In Buddy’s Eyes Too Many Mornings, Could I Leave You) and the follies themselves (You’e Gonna Love Tomorrow, Buddy’s Blues, Losing My Lind, The Ballad of Lucy and Jessie, Live, Laugh, Love). These are performed to incredible effect by all concerned – the casting in most cases so perfect you cannot imagine each number being performed by anyone else or any other way.

Imelda Staunton is one of those performers whose work I admire so much its’ hard for me to be objective – and the combination  of her talent and Sondheim’s is intoxicating in the extreme. There’s no question she is fantastic as Sally Durant Plummer – possibly the least sympathetic character in the show. Her rendition of In Buddy’s Eyes takes a frankly quite cloying – and at times lyrically repetitive, though it reveals some of Sally’s obsessive nature – song and turns it into one of the best musical moments of the show. Her voice breaks in all the right places – notably on the line “I’m still a princess” – and anyone who has experienced the warm beam of adoration will feel the emotional punch. It’s a scene to give you chills. Losing My Mind is often performed as a lovelorn ballad, but in Staunton’s hands it is become the battle cry of a woman scorned. Sally’s helplessness – her inability to know whether to brush her hair, drink her bourbon or stare wistfully into her vanity mirror – gives way to seething rage at the rejection she has experienced. When she sings “You said you loved me,” clutching her empty class, there is rage intermingled with her despair, her face is tense with it, the words “you bastard!” are almost implied. I got the sense that if Ben were stood before her that glass would be hastily smashed and thrust into his face. Her intense lingering gaze at the end of the number is not that of a woman lost – instead, it is reminiscent of a Hollywood ‘bunny boiler’. This is a woman who does not internalise her hurt, who seeks revenge on whoever is most accessible to her, as hinted at by the long, rageful phonecalls to her distant sons.

And yet, Staunton doesn’t give the show’s standout performance. That comes from Janie Dee – exceptional as fast-talking, sharp, brutal Phyllis. She’s elegant and relentless, delivering her one-liners to perfection without once stooping to ruffle her feathers. While the role of Sally offers room for interpretation, the role of Phyllis is so taut that the performer cannot miss a beat. Phyllis is the only character whose emotional epiphany doesn’t involve a breakdown, in fact, she emerges still calm, still collected, and triumphant. Dee is custodian of one of the finest numbers in the show – Could I Leave You – and performs it with a brilliance and gusto that leaves you on a high. #TeamPhyllis all the way!

I was lucky enough to attend the Platform with Janie Dee and Phillip Quast and got to ask them to reveal their favourite moments in the show. So many, too many to mention – everyone in Follies, after all, is a star. For me, that moment is Too Many Mornings – vocally the absolute peak of what this cast can do, pitched perfectly at that point where musical theatre and opera converge. Staunton and Quast execute it superbly – in my view it could not be perfected beyond what they have done.

 

 

 

The Ferryman, Gielgud Theatre

8.5/10

I ended up seeing The Ferryman twice – quite unintentionally – and I am glad I did. For, despite being hailed as the ‘play of the year’ this is not a production that reaches its full impact at first viewing. Like Butterworth’s previous work there is so much to take in that it’s easy to be overwhelmed. I did not catch Uncle Pat’s eponymous ferryman speech until the second time round, for example.

The Ferryman is a play concerned with echoes and reverberations. In the course of one, long, festive day, we are shown how tragedies, legends and consequences ripple through families, countries and cultures – and in particular through the Carney family. In a cast made up of three generations, almost every character has a ripple and and an echo: whether they are women on the fringes of the action, left behind to care for broken families, or young men reliving the tragedies of their fathers and uncles, every character is enacting a story that already exists: Mary and Aunt Maggie take refuge in invalidity to cope with the loss of the men they loved; Aunt Pat and Caitlin both live lives marked by men who died; and Shane and his brother Diarmaid seem bent on re-enacting the sorrows of Quinn and Seamus Carney.

Folklore, mythology and politics ripple through the story – whether it is reverence for the IRA transmitted from Aunt Pat to her nephews and beyond, the folkloric tales of banshees becoming intermingled with the menace of the IRA, or the passive role being passed down to subsequent generations of women. Dreams, mythology, history and fact are all passed down from the same lips, with little distinction.

The most obvious theme rippling through the play is its characters relationship with the IRA. This starts with Aunt Pat’s generation, born at the dawn of the 20th Century: she loses the brother she idolises to the troubles in 1917 and keeps his revolver in her bedroom – remaining loyal to his ideals over the years to the point that she mourns for every hunger striker. Even when they are presented to her in the twisted form of thuglike Mr Muldoon, the very man responsible for the death of her nephew, she feels compelled to shake his hand. There is a sadness about this: that Pat has not grasped that her struggle and that of Muldoon are no longer the same, and that he warrants neither her sacrifice not her support.

The ripple carries on to demonstrate how little people learn from even the most recent tragedies and mistakes: through Quinn Carney, who leaves the IRA to raise his family, and his brother Seamus who is executed for talking too much. As the action unfolds, we see their sons and nephews struggling with the same questions over allegiance and identity – with Declan on his way to becoming another loose-lipped casualty.

There are echoes – in the structure and mood of the play, its pastoral setting imbued with impending doom – of Butterworth’s last hit play, Jerusalem. The action takes place on a holiday with roots beyond the Christian, there are live animals on stage at various points, the same large cast of characters, and the same unfurling process, with the household literally waking up, adopting a festive mood and the winding down as the sense of foreboding mounts. It’s impossible not to make comparisons – something I found incredibly distracting first time round.

Butterworth weaves in echoes from literature, too – elements rising to the surface from Homer, from Steinbeck and from Celtic myths and placing what might seem to be a domestic tragedy on a grander stage. But it also places the much of the history being shared in the context of mythology, too: Aunt Pat’s generation has reached mythological status in the eyes of her great-nieces and nephews, the hunger strikers are martyrs in the eyes of the boys who idolise them and aspire to be a part of the myths themselves. But Muldoon and his gang represent something more real and dangerous than the myths being spun.

Unlike Jerusalem, this is an ensemble piece, and although Paddy Considine is ostensibly the star, no-one performer is allowed to dominate. There is almost perfect balance between the old and the young, worldly and innocent, male and female on stage, with standout performances from Dearbhla Molloy as feisty, foul-mouthed Aunt Pat, Tom Glynn-Carney as Declan and John Hodgkinson as Tom Kettle. It’s a giant of a play – not just in it length, but in the scope of what it addresses, the human relationship with history and hyperbole and how the art of storytelling – and the desire to create and participate in myths – skew our perspective of the world and its realities.

Despite its richness, I cannot agree with the ‘play of the year’s claims. Unusually for such a vibrantly realised piece, I didn’t feel for the characters, or wonder what happened to them the moment after the curtain fell. When tragedy strikes there is no wrench. Quinn and Caitlin’s love seemed obvious and commonplace to me, almost lazy plot writing. As a result, the Ferryman is neither the best show I’ve seen this year, nor the best new show. It’s thought-provoking and heartfelt, packing punches as well as producing laughs…but for me it lacked the emotional impact of, for argument’s sake, Jerusalem.

Loot, Park Theatre

8/10

Possibly one of the most eagerly awaited elements of 2017’s celebration of Joe Orton was the uncensored production of his 1967 hit Loot. It could easily have been an academic exercise, but instead is hilarious, vibrant and deeply macabre.

Orton was known in his lifetime for being shocking – but 50 years have passed since then.  And yet, Loot still shocks – but not where it used to. It may be perfectly normal for Hal and Dennis to close with a lingering, passionate kiss in 2017, and the proposed menage with Fay may be fairly Jules et Jim, but Orton’s talent was in making his audience feel discomfort in ways that still hit home today. In Loot, the established order of things – which has probably not changed as much as we would have like it to since his death – is constantly questioned, challenged and found wanting.

Today, Loot shocks with its modernity. Written by a man who never got to update it over time, it should feel like a museum piece. Instead, it could almost be set in the here and now. The societal norms and trends Hal and Dennis are trying to buck don’t seem out of date. Anecdotes – such as Nurse Fay’s career killing off her patients – seem quite prophetic given that in the decades after Orton’s death cases of that nature received high-profile attention.

There is often discussion about how Orton’s plays should be performed – watching filmed versions of Orton’s plays from the 1970s is difficult because the lofty acting styles and the material don’t match. One of the challenges of performing his works and making them relatable has always been the fact that it’s farce written in quite elevated language. One of the reasons I suspect his plays work well now is that audiences have become used to TV shows like Blackadder which also pairs at times quite literary dialogue with farcical action. Graham Linehan’s sitcoms – notably Black Books and Father Ted – also came to mind as I watched, laughed, and stored away quotable quips for the future. The result is that unlike much work by his contemporaries, Orton’s voice feels modern.

In fact, watching Loot, you can’t help wondering whether had he lived – not just dodged his lover’s jealous hammer, but also the AIDs epidemic – the 1980s might have been Orton’s heyday.