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July 2012

Timely Timon @nationaltheatre

Timonofathens13july2012twoEverything about the National Theatre's  production of Timon of Athens (pronounced Ti-mon not Tee-mon as the Greeks do) screams of the current global economic crisis. From the camping protesters at the beginning to back drops of the bank-branded Canary Wharf buildings it resonates and the story itself also feels startlingly contemporary.

Timon (Simon Russell Beale) is generous with his friends. He helps them out without a blink, buys them gifts, gives artists patronage and throws lavish dinner parties. He is generous to the point of bankruptcy but when his debtors come calling and he turns to his friends for help the doors are suddenly closed on him. Generosity of wealth is not even matched in spirit.

Without the back drop of our own financial crisis, I am sure the play would feel very different but here Timon's spending beyond his means, ignoring creditors and the ease with which his followers accept his generosity feels far more symbolic. 

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Playwrights plays: Roy Williams chooses the witty and well observed Abide With Me

Hadn't heard of Barrie Keeffe or the play, nor did I know that it is the second in what is called the Barbarians Trilogy, so it's been a bit of an education this afternoon and a fun one.

The premise of the play - chosen by Roy Williams as part of the Royal Court's Playwrights' Playwright season - is three football fans are waiting outside Wembley on cup final day where their beloved Man United are playing Southampton. Jan (Sam Swann) has been promised tickets for the game from his Uncle Harold who is meeting them there but he is cutting it fine.

On the surface this is a play about passion for the game. It means everything to Paul (Morgan Watkins) to see his team play for the cup having followed them around the country all year. But underneath, it is also about identity and ambition and laced with social commentary.

For Paul the game comes before everything, it is his life and his reason for living. Jan is torn between the sense of belonging, feeling like someone when he part of the football crowd and wanting to move on and make more of his life. For Louis (Daniel Kaluuya) he is just going along with the crowd, happy to be accepted but his ambitions lie outside the world of factory work and football games.

Once again, with less than 18 hours to rehearse the actors have done a stirling job, throwing themselves into the performance even standing to sing Abide With Me and play ape. It's a funny, witty and interesting play. Williams chose it because it made him realise that theatre could be the medium for the man on the street and you can understand why.

Barbarians was revived at the Broadway Studio in Tooting earlier this year and I really wish I'd seen it. Let hope this bit of a exposure in the West End sparks further interest.

Related posts:

Benedict Cumberbatch is back on stage and he's angry

In praise of rehearsed readings by Poly G

Antigone review and why I want a radically modern production of a Greek Tragedy

AntigoneAntigone is probably the most rounded Greek tragedy I've seen so far in terms of plot. I normally spend my time while watching the ancient Greek dramas re-writing story lines in my head so as to maximise dramatic tension.

Didn't feel I had to do that with this, it's a straight forward debate between family loyalty and duty to the state. Antigone's brothers have been killed in battle. One was fighting for their uncle, King Creon, the other against. The loyal brother is given burial while the disloyal, Creon decrees, is to be left where he fell on pain of death. Horrified that her brother won't be accepted into the afterlife Antigone buries her brother and gets caught in the process by Creon who decides he can't make exceptions for family. 

And it is all nicely done, given a cold war setting in the operational HQ of the King complete with glass walled offices, desks, filing cabinets and telex machines. Christopher Ecclestone is a scary, determined Creon (I've only ever seen him play formidable and therefore scary characters) while Jodie Whittaker's determination as Antigone has a stoicism and stubbornness.

Continue reading "Antigone review and why I want a radically modern production of a Greek Tragedy" »

LabFest 2012: Occupied @theatre503

First time at Theatre 503* in Battersea last night thanks to playwright Carla Grauls whose new play Occupied is being performed as part of the LabFest 2012 - a festival of full-length, new plays.

It's a great little theatre (if a little warm at this time of year), perfect for showcasing new writing and Occupied immediately grabs your attention. Set in a public loo, Alex (Mark Conway) is using the facilities, trousers around his ankles reading a paper, Andreya (Rosie Hilal) is playing Rule Britannia very slowly on an accordion and a Tom (Luke Waldock) lies tied up and seemingly unconscious on the floor. 

Tom has been kidnapped by Alex and Andreya who are Romanian immigrants living in the toilet. Alex wants to know how to be British and plans to find out from Tom. And so we embark on an absurdist journey of cultural stereotypes and prejudices, learning a little on the way about what it takes to survive or even merely exist in modern western society. Each character, we discover, is running away from something and hoping to find something better.

It is a clever premise, nicely executed and staged, at times funny and quite poignant and rattles along at an entertaining pace in the main. 

However, for the subject matter I would have like it to have been just a little bit more challenging and have had a little more back story for Alex and Tom. For the latter and without giving too much away, there isn't enough to satisfactorily explain how he ended up in the situation he did and I'm not sure whether we are supposed to feel sympathetic or whether he is just an attention seeking melodramatic.

Plaudits must go to the cast though who have had limited time to rehearse and you really couldn't tell - certainly three names I'll keep an eye out for, as I will Carla Grauls. It will be interesting to see what they all do next.

Occupied is only playing for three nights and finishes tomorrow. 

* Get there early grab a drink in the Latchmere pub and head upstairs to the theatre where there are some huge comfy sofas.  

Theatre related stuff on TV and Radio July 12 -15

Compiled by Poly Gianniba

Thursday July 12

12:45pm on BBC Radio 4: as part of The New Elizabethans season, a programme dedicated to Peter Hall.

Saturday July 14

7:15pm on BBC Radio 4: Saturday Review features A Doll's House at the Young Vic, starring Hattie Morahan and Dominic Rowan.

8pm on BBC2: Henry IV - Part 2, directed by Richard Eyre, starring Tom Hiddleston.


'Allo 'Allo Henry V - Propeller is London Calling

Propeller-3-copy-690x459A production of Shakespeare's Henry V that incorporates the 'Allo 'Allo theme tune, a Clash song and some bad French accents is never going to be one critiqued for nuanced performance and character arc but then this is Propeller Theatre Company's Henry V.

Last year they brought us Richard III with chainsaws and Comedy of Errors with sparklers clenched between naked buttocks so a little Gallic ribbing is to be expected, demanded even, when our English protagonist spends most of the play fighting in France.

Propeller's skill in eking out the wit and entertainment is second only to its marriage of irreverence and the more serious moments - I would love to see their take on Hamlet at some point.

Henry V isn't quite in the same league as the all-male theatre company's Richard III and Comedy of Errors though. Having seen Tom Hiddleston as Henry V-in-the-making in the BBC's Henry IV parts one and two just a week ago, I couldn't help draw charm comparisons with Duguld Bruce-Lockhart who takes the lead for Propeller. Hiddleston oozes it and while Bruce-Lockhart certainly has his moments his isn't quite as charismatic a performance and this is the story of a King who wins hearts and minds, persuading his depleted and injured forces into battle once more.

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No toying with the Doll's House at the Young Vic

ImgresI've never experienced an audience reaction quite like the one I experienced on Friday at the Young Vic while watching A Doll's House.

When the nanny brings Nora's (Hattie Morahan) children home from an outing the two young boys run onto the set followed by nanny carrying an infant-sized and shaped bundle which she carefully hands to Nora. Nora turns around to face the audience and the bundle is, as expected, a baby but this is no prop, it's a real baby. I wasn't aware of anyone actually saying anything out loud but you could hear everyone thinking 'it's a baby!'. 

Naturally it was a hot topic of conversation in the interval and one of those theatre moments I won't forget. The baby nearly stole the show - he or she behaved perfectly - but it was a superb production all round. 

First time I saw A Doll's House was at the Donmar in 2009 and I was completely blown away with the production and how ahead of its time the play was. 

Nora, played here by Hattie Morahan, has secretly borrowed money to pay for her sick husband's sabbatical to Italy to recover his health. To her husband Torvald (Dominic Rowan) she is silly and naive, a doll to play with and he likes that but behind his back she is working diligently and spending thriftily to pay off the money before he finds out. All is going well until her money lender decides to blackmail her.

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Benedict Cumberbatch back on stage and he's angry

LargeWith Benedict Cumberbatch's star firmly in the ascendant, I thought those of us who recognised his talent pre-Sherlock would be waiting a long time before seeing him tread the boards again*. Then came the news that he was to take the role of Jimmy Porter in Look Back In Anger for the Royal Court's series of playwrights plays performed at the Duke of York's Theatre. 

The idea is simple. Four playwrights choose their favourite play and the have two days, well a day and a half really, to rehearse with a group of actors who will perform it as a read through. You never know which lovely acting talent you might get. It's a couple if days work. No costumes, makeup, props, blocking just the actors and the script. And an audience.

I bought my ticket - this is a one-off performance - in advance of the casting announcement just because you never know who you are going to get and rehearsed readings are something a bit different as @polyg explains on her blog. So naturally, there was smugness and much excitement when Benedict Cumberbatch's name was attached. And his wasn't the only impressive name on the cast list: Rebecca Hall, Anna Maxwell Martin and the gorgeous Matt Ryan all filled in the other principal parts (pics of cast afterwards here).

Polly Stenham, the playwright who chose the play, said in her introduction that she didn't have any directing experience but working with Cumberbatch et al was like 'joy-riding a Ferrari'.

And so our stars took to the stage or rather their seats on stage, dressed in their civvies, scripts in hand and we were off. Benedict seemed to be giving it his all from the start, although looking back he definitely relaxed into it and had a bit more fun with the part as the play progressed. He raged and cried, more than once, he mimicked Ryan's Welsh accent and various others as Jimmy spits his famous vitriol at the world. He was even pretending to smoke his pipe towards the end.

But what I do particularly love about rehearsed readings is seeing the other actors reacting and enjoying each other's performances. So when Alison (Hall) and Cliff (Ryan) are talking about Jimmy while the character was 'off-stage' you could see a smile curl on his lips or a brief chuckle.

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BBC Henry IV part 1 and 2 post screening Q&A chaired by Sam Mendes

I was in awe, probably far more than I should have been, to be in the same room as theatre and film director Sam Mendes on Monday night. Love his work and there he was on stage chairing a Q&A with Sir Richard Eyre and Stan fav Simon Russell Beale following a preview of the two parts of Henry IV which Eyre adapted and directed and SRB starred as Falstaff.

IMG_0806I've already reviewed the two films, part of the BBC's Shakespeare season which they are calling The Hollow Crown, which were excellent, so this post is a few of the highlights from the discussion.

Richard Eyre: "It's my second favourite Shakespeare after King Lear but my condition for being involved was that Simon played Falstaff."

Other than cutting the words were never tampered with but he said added physical scenes to get around certain problems such as the fact that in part 2 you don't see the King for an hour. Also intercut a bit because you don't have the constraints of the stage.

Simon Russell Beale: "We vaguely put ourselves in the right positions and Richard would say just do it and I'll film principle shots."

When the play acting scene in the alehouse was filmed it was performed straight through without an "actor dropping a line". "The actions of the extras was entirely dependent on what we did. It was an extraordinary moment."

Sam Mendes: So why rehearse then?

SRB: "You can localise absolutely precisely. It's absolute concentration. I found it extremely pleasurable."

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BBC Hollow Crown review: Tom Hiddleston is magnetic as Prince Hal in Henry IV parts 1 and 2

ImgresHave only seen one production of Shakespeare's Henry IV part I and that was when I was studying it for O-level (yes I am old enough to have done O-levels). Since then haven't been near and I never touched part 2 although I always had an inkling for how things might turn out.

But, wow, what a great way to be reintroduced/introduced to the plays than with these magnificently produced,  film-length versions by the BBC as part of its Hollow Crown series, previewed on the big screen at the BFI last night.

Visually the two parts of Henry IV are very different to Richard II, which aired on BBC One last Saturday (still available on iPlayer). In Richard II, usurper-to-be Bolingbroke was somber and conservative to Richard's glamour and extravagance and his court, as Henry IV, reflects this. He's also a king that has inherited debt and is at war so there is little cash to splash on conspicuous wealth.

As a result Henry IV has a more earthy feel helped by the scenes in ale houses and muddy streets of Cheapside and then on the battle field where formality is somewhat thrown out of the window. 

Part 1 sees the King (a gravelly voiced Jeremy Irons) despairing about his wayward son Prince Hal (Tom Hiddleston) who spend most of his time drinking and concocting japes with his alehouse friends led by Sir John Falstaff (Simon Russell Beale) while the Duke of Northumberland's son, the respected Hotspur (Joe Armstrong), engineers a rebellion against the King.

Then in part 2 we see the breakdown of Hal's relationship with Falstaff as he tries to shake off his past and the King's battle with a new threat of rebellion, ill health and his troubled conscience about how he came to take the crown.

Tom Hiddleston is just a magnetic screen presence as the young prince switching from bawdy fun seeker to introspective intellectual weighed down by his future responsibility and then taking on the regal cloak like a natural in part 2. The crown scene is particularly moving, Hiddleston managing to convey grief and fear of responsibility with just a look. And he does a fantastic impression of Jeremy Irons's Henry IV in the mock confrontation played out with Falstaff. (Hiddleston fans may also enjoy a scene set in a sauna.)

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