That was April in London (and New York) theatre-land - the bloody (dog) star-spangled month

TamaskanApril was a bloody month and it was a (doggy) star spangled month...

* Haven't seen a dog on stage since Little Eyolf at the Almeida last year but this month there were two occasions for pause so the audience could go 'ah'. First up was at the Almeida again, this time a dog was walked on the stage during Boy then in The Crucible at the Walter Kerr there was a wolf. Actually it was rare dog breed called a Tamaskan (pictured) which looks spookily like a wolf. The Tamaskan gets the performance award for wandering around the stage (helped by strategically placed treats) pausing to look out into the audience before trotting off.

* Talking of The Crucible, as you may have guessed my theatre obsession took me state-side. It was my second trip to New York to check up on Ben Whishaw and it is reassuring to know he can still touch his knees with his nose at the curtain call. Used the Today Tix app to get some really good seats for a relative bargain to see Michelle Williams and Jeff Daniels in the disturbing and devastatingly good Blackbird.

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Review: Ivo Van Hove's epic Kings of War, Barbican Theatre

9731_xFour and half hours of Shakespeare performed in Dutch (with English subtitles)? With Ivo Van Hove directing I rushed to buy a ticket. 

Bart van den Eynde and Peter van Kraaij have combined Henry V, Henry VI and Richard III into one epic play (there is also a smidgen of Henry IV part 2 at the beginning) which Van Hove has set in what looks like a war bunker.

There are three corridors (of power) that feed the bunker and a camera* follows the actors when they disappear down them, the feed appearing on a large screen at the back of the stage. Some of it is obviously pre-recorded - as much as I would love to believe they had a flock of sheep back stage - some of it is live. There are also cameras hidden on stage which film the action from angles not easily seen by the audience.

Kings of War begins quite slowly. Van Hove's naturalistic directing style has the actors in office mode. After the initial coronation scene which is done without speeches just a red carpet and a train of followers, in a device that will be repeated, there is little ceremony. Henry V (Ramsey Nasr) is portrayed more as a military leader at work than king, around him people sit at desks carrying out their usual tasks, finishing writing a sentence before responding to a question.

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Theatre hottie of the month: April 2016

At the start of the month there were two potential contenders in my mind. Previous hottie Eelco Smits who is playing Henry VI in Ivo Van Hove's Kings of War (review is on its way). And the pretty and muscular Kit Harington in Dr Faustus.

Now, when Eelco won hottie of the month last September for A Song From Far Away he was naked for most of the play. Poly insisted that he wouldn't be getting his kit off in Kings of War but he did, bless him, strip down to his pants to change into PJ's so that was a real 'shame'.  I'm starting to wonder if he ever keeps his clothes on when he's on stage.

But Eelco already had stiff competition from Kit who'd spent most of the second half of Dr Faustus in his pants and has a body that is no stranger to the gym. It was almost gratuitous. Almost. So the lovely Kit Harington is my theatre hottie of the month for April:

Kit Harington in Doctor Faustus Running at the Duke of York's Theatre London until 25 June 2016  CREDIT Marc Brenner (2)
Kit Harington in Doctor Faustus Running at the Duke of York's Theatre. Photo: Marc Brenner

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Review: A Kingdom for a Stage, Chelsea Theatre

A Kingdom for a Stage (c) Charlene Segeral (4)
Jonathan Coote in A Kingdom for a Stage Photo: Charlene Segeral

As we celebrate the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare's death Tony Diggle's new play imagines that the Bard is still around, sort of. He's in a writers limbo between heaven and hell.

There is an intimidating cockney Angel Gabriel (Christopher Knott) who keeps Shakespeare (Jonathan Coote) and fellow writers Ben Johnson (Alex Murphy), Christopher Marlowe (Edwin Wright) and George Bernard Shaw (Richard Ward) in line while Puck (Sue Appleby) tries to keep them out of line. Shakespeare, with Pucks help, wants to visit earth to see The Globe and check out his legacy and what he sees whilst there inspires him to write a new play much to the dismay of the other writers.

This is all well and good but in addition to the action flitting between 'heaven' and earth, Diggle also takes us back in time to Shakespeare as a young man (Dan Wheeler) on the cusp of success and then, later on, at the end of his life. Here we see Shakespeare conflicted between creative success and being at home where his family need him.

And here lies the problem. The individual elements are in themselves fine but as a collective it creates a play of such diverse tone that it is difficult to make out what exactly Diggle is trying to convey. When Shakespeare makes it to earth he quickly realises that certain things have not changed in 400 years but this feels almost perfunctory amid everything else that is going on.

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Review: Nick Paynes' Elegy, Donmar Warehouse

ElegyIf the choice was to slowly succumb to a debilitating and fatal disease such as Alzheimers or have your brain repaired but lose up to 15 years of your memories what would you do? If you were married to the person making that choice and your wife would unlikely remember you afterwards would you encourage them to have the operation?

At the beginning of the play we see the aftermath of that decision. Zoe Wanamaker's character has had the treatment and no longer recognises or remembers her wife (Barbara Flynn) and her doctor (Nina Sosanya) is trying to assist them both. Subsequent scenes, like snatches of memory, reveal what life was like before the operation and the lead up to the decision.

Set in the future Nick Payne imagines a set of new human conditions and dilemmas as the result of medical advances. The doctor represents the science side of the equation. She has problems explaining things without using medical terminology and also has problems with the emotional aspects of the procedure. The human dilemma, a loss of identity, a loss of a loved one mentally but not physically, the debate about whether it is the right answer to the medical condition comes through the story of the married women.

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A short review: Michelle Williams and Jeff Daniels in Blackbird, Belasco Theatre, New York

IMG_4550The detritus of several work lunches and an over flowing bin in an anonymous, functional break room. It is the perfect setting for the meeting of two people whose lives are full of emotional debris.

A young woman, Una (Michelle Williams) has come to confront Ray (Jeff Daniels) who raped her when she was a 12-years old. As the story of what happened between them is unravelled, feelings and hurt surface and the long term impact of those events are revealed. There is unfinished business between the two, questions to be answered.

The casting of this play is perfect. Michelle Williams' small frame and almost girlish dress teamed with stilettos works on several levels. A visual symbol, perhaps, of how part of her is frozen in time, part of her is still that 12-year old girl. And, given where the story goes, is it subconsciously calculated, a test of Ray's feelings? Jeff Daniels' bigger build contrasts so that its not that much of a stretch to see Una as a 12-year old girl. It makes the play all the more unnerving.

When Una recounts her version of events Williams' draws you in, takes you back in time. It's like you are reliving every moment and feeling with her. It is an utterly gripping performance and one during which you have to remember to breathe.

David Harrower's play delivers punches to the last. It is an intense and uncomfortable watch, it is daring and unflinching in its approach to this complex subject matter and it will haunt you.

Blackbird is one hour and 30 minutes without an interval and is on at the Belasco Theatre, New York until June 11.


Me and Shakespeare - a list

CgtmglOWgAAbcEOOn the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death it seems appropriate to do a list:

First Shakespeare I saw

Midsummer Night's Dream at Tolethorpe Hall - Performed by a local am dram society outside in the grounds, the stage skirted by trees and shrubbery it was quite magical. The cast would just melt into the darkness of the leaves and branches.

Last I saw

Coincidentally it was A Midsummer Night's Dream, this time at the Lyric Hammersmith and it was brilliantly funny.

Plays I studied

Henry IV part 1 for O-level, Richard II and The Tempest for A-level, Hamlet, Othello, Richard II, Richard III, A Midsummer Night's Dream and Twelfth Night for my degree.

The plays I've yet to see

Cymberline (booked to see in the Autumn), Antony and Cleopatra, Henry VI (seeing an abridged version as part of Ivo Van Hove's King's of War tomorrow), Henry VIII, Merry Wives of Windsor, Pericles and King John.

Favourite play

Hamlet. Always see something new in every production and I'm still waiting for the perfect Ophelia.

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Review: Ben Whishaw and Sophie Okonedo in The Crucible, Walter Kerr Theater, New York

IMG_4548It is a calculated irony that Ivo Van Hove has set his modern dress production of The Crucible in a school classroom. Arthur Miller's play about a Salem witch hunt was written to reflect the hysteria and suspicion surrounding communism in 1950s America. Today you can replace communism with any number of groups on whom a generalised suspicion and distrust falls. Nothing changes. You could chalk it up on the blackboard at the back of the stage but the lesson hasn't been learnt.

Ivo Van Hove's cast, a mixture of American, English and Irish actors mostly speaking with their native accents, plays into this idea of prejudice and suspicion of outsiders. Abigail, the spurned school girl and the first to plant the seed of suspicion that there are witches in Salem, is played by Irish/American actress Saoirse Ronan. She is an orphan taken in by another family and has a different accent to her school friends. There is a distinct sense of fighting to get attention, fighting to fit in and be accepted. 

Rev Samuel Parris (Jason Butler Harner) is also an outsider. He's a university graduate and has had to fight hard to gain the respect of the community to which he ministers. As he starts to gain acceptance he will do anything to protect that.

There is also petty squabbling amongst the farming community which adds further tinder to the fire. Disputes about land boundaries move from one courtroom to another when competition can be eliminated if the finger of witchcraft is pointed in the right direction.

Into this brittle environment steps John Proctor (Ben Whishaw), who lives slightly outside the community and doesn't attend church regularly. He and his wife Elizabeth (Sophie Okenedo) have English accents. It is his relationship with Abigail which seals his fate and sets the community onto the destructive path.

He's a flawed and tragic hero. He has seduced his young maid Abigail while his wife is sick and got caught. Elizabeth dismisses Abigail who is ostracised by the community. When caught dancing in the woods by Parris she explains it away as a witches influence, lighting the touchpaper. It gives Abigail the attention she craves and allows her to get her revenge on the Proctors.

John is contrite for his affair and has been trying to make amends. In casting Ben Whishaw Ivo Van Hove has gone against type. Proctor is normally played by actors of bigger stature and build, a physical, manly man - I saw Richard Armitage play him at the Old Vic a couple of years ago. By removing the overt manliness of Proctor you get a character who is no less passionate but certainly more of a sensitive, caring, thinker. You see it in the way he coaches Mary Warren (Tavi Gevinson) through her court evidence. There is a gentleness and genuine concern in the way he smooths her hair out of her face or holds her protectively or rubs her back when she is afraid. He treats her as a frightened child not just a means of putting an end to the injustice that has enveloped the town. It puts his affair with Abigail's in a different light and I'd love to know what they said about that in the rehearsal room.

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Rehearsal photos: Kenneth Branagh's Romeo & Juliet with Richard Madden and Lily James

Remember the sexy promo photo for Kenneth Branagh's production of Romeo & Juliet with Richard Madden and Lily? Well the rehearsal images are in, here's a selection:

Romeo and Juliet (Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company) - Richard Madden (Romeo), Lily James (Juliet) Credit Johan Persso
Romeo and Juliet (Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company) - Richard Madden (Romeo), Lily James (Juliet) Credit Johan Persson
Romeo and Juliet (Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company) - Kenneth Branagh, Lily James (Juliet) Credit Johan Persson 00139.jpg
Romeo and Juliet (Kenneth Branagh Theatre Company) - Kenneth Branagh, Lily James (Juliet) Credit Johan Persson


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Review: Blood, vomit, karaoke and Kit Harington in underwear, Dr Faustus, Duke of York's Theatre

6a0133ec96767e970b01b7c80f05da970b-320wiJenna Russell's (Mephistopheles) is sat on the stage, her legs intertwined with those of Kit Harington's (Dr Faustus). Her face is inches away from his: "I'm in hell," she says. "I'll bet you are," I think.

She is the genius casting in Jamie Lloyd's production of Dr Faustus. A woman, an older woman, with short cropped hair, dressed in an old lady's nightie seducing and tricking the pretty young Dr Faustus into damnation. Not that he is difficult to trick of course which more acutely exposes his human weaknesses. She is the strength of the play as is Forbes Masson who is a white-vest, white-pants wearing Lucifer. They make a brilliantly evil pair but I'm not sure it should be quite so much fun watching them toy with Faustus.

And this, perhaps, is part of the problem. The production puts its marker in the sand within minutes. The bored Faustus throws a can of drink over himself before delivering his first lines about how law, religion and medicine no longer hold any interest or intrigue for him. The chorus, all dressed in dirty white underclothes, with dark shadows under their eyes, watch ghoul-like from doorways and cupboards. Within minutes one of them has vomited up black stuff and another is foaming at the mouth and spitting it everywhere. Then a bucket of dirt comes out and then another with white powder both of which end up poured all over the floor of the living room set.

It continues with this level of destruction, mess and blood throughout. Which is probably why I found the ending a little disappointing but I'll come back to that. Like Kit Harington's performance (see below) there is very little light and shade, little subtlety and nothing to build towards. It is full on with snippets of music-video like dance routines, magic tricks and karaoke and it just feels like it is trying very, very hard.

There are some great set pieces. Jenna Russell does the karaoke which is a superbly cheesy montage of Kylie's Better the Devil You Know, Cliff Richard's Devil Woman and Meat Loaf's Bat Out Of Hell (she locked eyes with Poly at one point). Tom Edden does a brilliant human embodiment of the seven deadly scenes and Forbes Masson miming Happy Birthday Mr President in the style of Marilyn Monroe (Jenna Russell does the vocals) is something you have to see.

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