Review: Venus in Fur, Theatre Royal Haymarket

117118Given that Venus in Fur is about an actress auditioning for a male writer/director it was inevitably that pre-theatre conversations would turn to Harvey Weinstein and the treatment of women by men in positions of power in the entertainment industry. It is perhaps unfortunate timing for a play with such a synopsis but while it does explore male/female relationships and power it thankfully doesn't stray into that territory.

David Ives has written a play within in play. Writer/director Thomas (David Oakes) has adapted for the stage, the 1870 novel Venus in Furs which is said to have inspired the term 'masochism'. He has got to the end of a long day of fruitless auditions for the central character Wanda when Vanda Jordon (Natalie Dormer) turns up insisting she auditions.

She is unsubtle - brash even, and won't take no for an answer even if she appears to be the opposite of what Thomas is looking for. He reluctantly agrees that she can perform a few of Wanda's lines.  At Vanda's insistence Thomas reads the part of Severin who falls for Wanda, an independent woman. He asks to be her slave for a year promising to do whatever she asks of him. She initially refuses but eventually agrees asking more and more degrading things of him.

Vanda has come prepared for the audition which surprises Thomas but her preparation is more than a few costumes to help her get into character, over the course the play actress and director debate Wanda and Severin's relationship and who is dominating who. In parallel the play raises questions about Vanda and Thomas and their relationship - who is manipulating who?

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Review: The superb Seagull, Lyric Hammersmith

Full-Casting-for-The-Seagull-Lyric-HammersmithThe Seagull is one of the only Chekhov plays I really like but I never thought I'd like it quite as much as I did watching this version by Simon Stephens. His words teamed with Sean Holmes direction, leap off the page and the production breaths new life into the story teasing out the humour and in turn elevating the tragedy.

For a start this feel more like an ensemble piece rather than a story about Irina (Lesley Sharp) and Konstantin (Brian Vernel) - a former star actress clinging on to fame and her son seeking a career of his own. All the characters are fully formed and the result is a collective of human mistakes, heartbreak and foibles - and that is its power.

They are riddled with emotional injury, delusion, faults and  seem hell bent on making or repeating mistakes; from Pauline's (Michele Austin) unrequited love for the doctor and Marcia's (Cherelle Skeete) for Konstantin to the way Irina can't help hurting her son. Even the doctor (Paul Higgins), with his sanguine remarks about having lived a full life, has a shadow of regret; there is something fatherly in the way he behaves with Konstantin that perhaps hints at a secret. 

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Review: The classic with modern touches Jane Eyre, National Theatre

Jane-eyre-whatsonwidget_1280x720-sfwThere was an awful lot I loved about Jane Eyre or Jane Uhrr as many of the characters in the play say her name with a northern accent. It would be easy choice to have costumes and set faithful to the period of the novel but what director Sally Cookson and designer Michael Vale have done is keep a sense of the time with the costumes and odd bit of furniture but use an abstract set; a sort of wooden frame with walkways, platforms, ramps and ladders.

The set doesn't move instead the changing landscape of Jane's (Nadia Clifford) journey is represented using movement, lighting, music and and occasionally snatches of song. The latter are often contemporary, chosen for their lyrics but sung in an operatic style - Gnarls Barkley's Crazy is a particularly genius choice.

In choosing to have a stripped back set design it allows for more inventive and dramatic theatrical devices - outfits lowering from the ceiling, wind machines and floaty veils and real flames. However none of this detracts from the characters and the narrative, rather it enhances so that while you get a fast-paced and vigorous production, it still oozes atmosphere, passion and tenderness. The soul of Charlotte Bronte's classic novel of freedom, loneliness and love is there in abundance.

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Review: The oddly entertaining Saint George and the Dragon, National Theatre

St-george-and-the-dragon-2160x2160_0Rory Mullarkey's new play Saint George and the Dragon is odd.

Saw it during preview and there were a few teething problems with the fancier aspects of the staging (which isn't that unusual during preview for a big production like this) so I don't feel I got the full 'wow'* but still got the essence of the play.

It's a clunky allegorical tale that starts off feeling like a piece of children's theatre as we learn the history of Saint George (John Heffernan) and how he saves England from a dragon (Julian Bleach). We then fast forward to the industrial revolution with the same set of town's folk although for them only a year has passed. There is a new dragon to destroy in the new era but this dragon is more difficult to kill because he's representative of an establishment setting rules and regulations that benefit the few.

Then we jump forward to the current day, again only a year for the characters of the play, and there is yet another dragon representing another dark side humanity for George to destroy.

At the interval I couldn't help thinking there must be more to it and hoped it was leading up to something really clever but it wasn't. It's too black and white with goodies and baddies and only one character - Henry (Richard Goulding) - who switches. OK so the point is that the 'dragon' is in all of us but even so.

There is a nice point of reference from the first dragon encounter which brings things almost full circle but otherwise it felt like a lot of effort for something that didn't really delve much beneath the surface.

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Review: My Name is Rachel Corrie, Young Vic Theatre

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Erin Doherty in My Name is Rachel Corrie. Photo Ellie Kurttz

Rachel Corrie (Erin Doherty) is someone who cares. OK, so a lot of people care but they don't care to the extent of Rachel, to the extent where she actually does something and does something remarkable and life-threatening.

Based on Rachel's writings and performed with tireless energy, wit and compassion by Erin Doherty we meet Rachel when she is a child growing up in Olympia, Washington. She'd probably be described as a sensitive, slightly odd, slightly eccentric child - precocious even - she thinks a lot, is ambitious but in her passions and pursuits rather for a career. When her class is asked to write down what they'd like to do when they grow up, she writes a long list.

Through her teens her personality and passions blossom, she is admirable, quirky in an amusing, endearing and sometime irritating way. She volunteers, she talks to people, listens to people, her compassion grows until all the work she does isn't enough so she gets on a plane and heads to Israel. Once there she crosses into Gaza where she joins up with the International Solidarity Movement, a group of activists trying to stop the demolition of Palestinian homes by Israeli soldiers. 

She wants to help the ordinary people, those struggling to live on day to day basis and she puts herself in danger in order to do so. She wants to help the innocent people caught up in the politics and devastation of war. Her humanity is met with humanity, the people she is trying to help, help her, take her into their homes and feed her when they have so little. It is a story that gives you faith in the human race while simultaneously making you despair at the injustice of the world.

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That was September in London theatre land with added mobile phone disturbances and actor drop outs

 

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Ben Whishaw in Against. Picture Johan Persson.

* Suranne Jones, Nina Sosanya and Jason Watkins have been cast in Frozen (the Bryony Lavery play not the Disney thing) which opens at Theatre Royal Haymarket in February.

*Punchdrunk announced its latest London production which is a six hour, two at a time walk. And no I'm not the least bit bothered about seeing it, I'm still scarred by The Drowned Man.

* The Almeida announced casting for Mike Bartlett's new play Albion which includes Victoria Hamilton, Margot Leicester, Vinette Robinson, Christopher Fairbank and Nicholas Rowe. Previews from Oct 10.

* Up in Stratford, Christopher Eccleston is to play Macbeth with Niamh Cusack as Lady M. (How many Dr Who's is that who've trod the boards in Stratford?) It opens for previews on March 13. I'm hoping for a London transfer.

* Kwame Kwei-Amah was announced as the new artistic director of the Young Vic and takes over the role next year. Love the Young Vic and I think he's a great choice.

* The Donmar announced its new season. Michael Longhurst is to direct James Norton and Imogen Poots in Amy Herzog's Belleville from December. Then there is Peter Gill play The York Realist from Feb and I must admit I'm not a huge fan of his work but it's got Katie West in it so... The season finishes with The Way of the World which I've only seen once before, at the Sheffield Crucible, and I loved it. Linda Bassett stars and it's directed by James Macdonald. Full season details on the Donmar website.

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Review: Hidden passions and audience reactions in Desire Under the Elms, Sheffield Crucible

Casting-Announced-for-Desire-Under-The-ElmsThere was one of those audible audience reaction moments during Desire Under The Elms. I'm not talking about laughter, I'm talking about a sharp intake of breath, even a few 'oh's' around the auditorium.

I haven't seen many Eugene O'Neill plays but all those I've seen seem to expose the pure, often blind, power of certain human emotions. He pops the lid of the shaken soda bottle and Desire Under The Elms is no exception as the audience response demonstrates.

It's a farm setting, mud stage with wheat crop at the back, a water pump, pieces of farm equipments and then at various points pieces of furniture - a table, a bed etc are brought on.  Eben (Michael Shea) and his older half brothers have been left to work their father Ephraim's (Matthew Kelly) farm as he has disappeared. There is no love lost between the siblings and also with their father. The older brothers want to leave, head west to the gold fields to make their fortune while Eben wants to take control of the farm believing it is rightly his as it belonged to his late mother.

We hear a lot about Ephraim  from the brothers and it heightens the expectation of his inevitable arrival. When he does arrive he has a new young wife Abbie (Aoife Duffin) in tow. He walks slowly with a slight stoop, looks frail but he is anything but. He soon puts Eben in his place, the animosity towards him from his children is well deserved, this is not a loving father rather one that would rather burn the farm to the ground than leave it to his wastrel sons.

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Review: Scripts and 'credit sequences' in The Lie, Menier Chocolate Factory

X300200the P20lie.jpg.pagespeed.ic.lGdKregG8zIf you enjoyed The Truth last year, (it made my 'Best Of list') then you'll enjoy The Lie. It's a similar set up with two couples who are friends.

Alice (Samantha Bond) and her husband Paul (Alexander Hanson) are hosting a dinner party for Michel (Tony Gardner) and Laurence (Alexandra Gilbreath) but prior to the party Alice sees Michele kissing another woman. Should she tell Laurence? Paul thinks it is better, not to say anything, better to lie.

Like The Truth, to say more about the plot would spoil it but at the heart of the play is the moral dilemma whether it is better to lie and protect or tell the truth and potentially hurt. Of course being a Florian Zeller play (translated by Christopher Hampton) he cleverly turns the idea on its head exploring truth, lies and relationships with insight and sharp wit, director Lindsay Posner and the cast bringing the humour beautifully to the surface.

There is something quite genius in the way Alexander Hanson says 'hmmm', his intonation and timing speaks volumes. It is particularly admirable given that he is a late addition to the cast - James Dreyfus had to withdraw for medical reasons - and with only a week of rehearsals under his belt, he was still working off script during the preview I saw. He even managed to put meaning into the manner in which he turned the pages and if he is that good with so little rehearsal time, it bodes well.

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Review: The Blinding Light, Jermyn Street Theatre

JST_Web_528x571_TBLSwedish playwright and poet August Strindberg (Jasper Britton) has locked himself away in a hotel room in Paris, turning his back on his writing career to become an alchemist and find philosopher's stone.

His work is disturbed first by a cleaning lady (Laura Morgan) and then his two wives Siri (Susannah Harker) and Frieda (Gala Gordon) - or is he? Strindberg has become paranoid, he hears voices and thinks there is something or 'they' are in the walls and are out to get him. The women act as a counterpoint to Strindberg, sanity versus a disturbed mind but through their interactions with the writer reveal pieces of his past and give a sense of the man he was before the 'inferno period'.

The stage setting is a sparsely furnished room with opulent painted walls - rich greens, blues and gold in a disordered splashes that perfectly represent Strindberg's state of mind and perhaps the colour of his personality and life. Jasper Britton, dishevelled and in paint-splashed under garments, is a sublime mix of rage, paranoia, determination, fear, lucidity and charm. The latter is important as a shade of the man he was before, a man who could not only attract young women but make them risk their place and position in society to be with him. His conversations with himself are particularly well articulated. 

It is the visits from the women where the play really flies. Yes they represent the voice of reason and have a manner that is satisfyingly non-nonsense compared to Strindberg's 'artistic temperament' but equally there are moments of tenderness and care that make these relationships believable. But what Howard Brenton's play also does is to examine the nature of fame or the need to be creatively a success, to be accepted.

The Blinding Light is play of insight, pain and humour, it is 90 minutes long and is at the Jermyn Street Theatre until October 14.