187 posts categorized "National Theatre" Feed

Review: Phaedra, National Theatre - superb performances and distracting staging

Phaedra National Theatre 2023
Phaedra, National Theatre, February 2023, starring Janet McTeer and Assaad Bouab

Phaedra at the National Theatre started with writer/director Simon Stone making a speech about this being the first run-through. He asked for our indulgence if things didn't quite go smoothly, blaming himself for any issues.

During the opening scene, there was nothing noticeable, the problems came when there were scene changes and subtitles later on - but I'll come back to that because, at its core, this version of the Phaedra story and the performances are superb.

All the action takes place in a glass cube, similar to Yerma at the Young Vic, which Stone also directed. The story is transferred to modern Britain; Phaedra becomes 'Helen' (Janet McTeer), a politician and Oxford graduate from an affluent background.

Her husband Hugo (Paul Chihadi) is a diplomat of Iranian descent - he chose the name Hugo because no one could pronounce his Iranian name.

Helen and Hugo have a grown-up married daughter Isolde (Mackenzie Davis), and a 14-year-old son Declan (Archie Barnes).

Family dynamics

We find the family at home, along with Isolde's husband Eric (John Macmillan), teasing and bickering while preparing for the arrival of a guest for dinner. They talk rapidly, interrupting each other or having several conversations at once. It feels relaxed and uninhibited.

When their guest Sofiane (Assaad Bouab), arrives, the atmosphere changes; there is excitement, awkwardness, and curiosity. Sofiane is the son of a Moroccan man Helen had an intense holiday romance with when travelling with Oxford chums as a student. 

Sofiane is the spit of his father, who died in a car crash while he was having his affair with Helen.

While not technically a stepson as in the original story, Stone instead has created a more complex dynamic.

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Review: Giles Terera in Othello, National Theatre

The National Theatre's Lyttelton stage has been transformed with steps and terraces around the performance space, creating a look that is a cross between an ancient greek theatre and a fighting pit.

Othello National Theatre Nov 2022
Othello, National Theatre, Nov 2022

Before the play starts, images of past productions of Othello and the year they were performed are projected onto the steps and back wall as a reminder of the story's timelessness.

When the play begins an angry mob confronts Othello (Giles Terera) about his marriage to Desdemona (Rosy McEwan), and one of them holds a rope tied into a noose. It's a startling reminder of the lynch mobs of the not-too-distant past.

The production is consciously white, with Terera the only person of colour in the cast. It serves to emphasise the racism and jealousy that fuels the tragedy and Othello's isolation.

A sort of chorus - called 'system' on the cast list - is almost permanently present on stage, either seated or standing on the steps. They are like the personification of an infection, the sickness of emotions that grows in Othello's mind synchronising their jagged and exaggerated movements.

And there is something that is part creepy, part peaceful in how they gather and sit with Othello as he dies. 

Paul Hilton's Iago is played with the chill and wit of a good comic book villain. The system moves and are animated by what he says and does; sometimes, there is something grotesquely comic in how they respond.

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Review: Manor, National Theatre - unsatisfying hodgepodge

As the stage was plunged into darkness at the end of Manor on the National Theatre's Lyttelton stage, I was thinking: What was the point?  

The applause died down and the actors left the stage, I turned to my friend who said what I was thinking before I had the chance.

National Theatre at night
Manor is on the Lyttelton stage at the National Theatre

Manor is an odd play and one that will divide given the mixed response from those sitting around us.

Set in a crumbling restoration-era manor house, on a stormy day with floodwaters rising, Lady Diana Stuckley (Nancy Carroll) is arguing with her husband Pete (Owen McDonnell).

He's off his tits on drugs (to put it bluntly), but the row whiffs of a marriage long past its sell-by date.

When daughter Isis (Liádan Dunlea) appears, there is no cessation of hostilities, and the mood doesn't get any better when strangers start arriving seeking shelter from the storm.

There's Ripley (Michele Austin), a nurse training to be a doctor and moody teenage daughter (Dora) Shaniqua Okwok, who were staying at a nearby holiday cottage.

And the charismatic-as-a-snake, Ted Farrier (Shaun Evans), who is the leader of a far-right group, accompanied by his blind girlfriend Amy (Ruth Forrest) and loyal recruit Anton (Peter Bray) in tow.

Local vicar Fiske (David Hargreaves) and unemployed youth Perry (Edward Judge), who lives in a caravan nearby, make up the group.

Remind you of something?

The set-up immediately reminded me of The Mousetrap, but while Manor is described as darkly comic on the National Theatre website, there isn't a great deal to laugh at unless you find fat-shaming funny.

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Review: The Normal Heart, National Theatre - from anger to heart-wrenching

The Normal Heart is a play of fights. Set in the early 80s, in New York, gay men are dying, but gay activist Ned Weeks (Ben Daniels) is struggling to get anyone to do anything.

Only Dr Emma Brookner (Liz Carr), who is trying to treat the increasing numbers of sick men, shares his concern and sense of urgency. 

 

The Normal Heart pre performance National Theatre
The Normal Heart is staged in the round at the National Theatre. Photo: Rev Stan

 

While Ned and Dr Brookner agree something needs to be done, they don't see eye to eye on what and how.

As the death toll rises in New York and beyond, Ned gathers a growing group of volunteers to raise awareness among the gay community and campaign to get funding and support from the authorities.

Ned's approach is to be direct, to shout and stamp, but others prefer a softer, more diplomatic tone; there is more at stake than losing lovers and friends.

Fight for recognition

This isn't just a fight for life, it's a fight to smash stereotypes. It's a fight for the recognition of a community and the right to be out and proud - or not - without prejudice.

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Review: After Life, National Theatre - a bittersweet, warm, fuzzy glow of a play

If you had to choose one memory to take with you into the afterlife, what would you choose - and how would you choose? This is the premise of After Life, adapted by Jack Thorne from a film by Hirokazu Kore-eda.

After Life flyer at the National Theatre
After Life, National Theatre Dorfman stage

And it's an intriguing concept. One which gnaws at your mind while you are watching the story unfold in front of you.

Set in a sort of in-between place - kinda like 'King's Cross station' in the Harry Potter book - where people go for a week after they die. It looks a bit like a 1940/50's Government department, bureaucratic and grey.

The back wall of the Dorfman stage is floor to ceiling metal filing draws. There is a ladder on tracks of the sort you see in old libraries to help the staff reach the higher draws.

Its staff are there to guide the newly deceased in their choice of memory and then recreate it for them so they can pass on with their chosen memory.

Challenges and mistakes

They have their own issues and challenges, make mistakes and occasionally face a moral dilemma. It adds a rich layer to the story, another layer of humanity.

Naturally, different people respond to the place and the task they have in different ways.

There's the elderly lady more concerned about her cat, the teenager who settles on a memory very quickly, the young man who refuses to engage with the process and the workaholic who struggles to settle on something meaningful.

The search and recollection of memories provoke a huge mixture of emotions, but amid the maelstrom of anger, hurt, and regret, there are bundles of tender moments and joy.

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Review: Under Milk Wood, National Theatre, starring Michael Sheen

REVIEW: The National Theatre's production of Under Milk Wood, starring Michael Sheen, was much anticipated and turned into a mixed experience.

Under Milk Wood poster
Back at the National Theatre for Under Milk Wood

It was much anticipated partly because it's my first trip to the National since before the pandemic, in part because I haven't seen Michael Sheen on stage since Hamlet at the Young Vic and partly because I've never seen Under Milk Wood before.

The play is framed in a care home setting, the Milk Wood story, to help an elderly man with dementia remember. We are transported to Welsh fishing village Llareggub (bugger all backwards 🙂) at night, where the residents sleep, their dreams revealed by the narrator (Michael Sheen).

We then follow them into the day and their inner thoughts, which reveal their true feelings - longing, revenge, desire, hope, contentment, frustration, joy and more.

The extraordinary and ordinary

Their thoughts are an extraordinary, emotionally colourful soundtrack to the ordinariness of their day. A day punctured by routine and often mundane tasks.

Michael Sheen's narrator tells us their thoughts using Dylan Thomas' vivid, lyrical language, sometimes with the ensemble playing along as the villagers, sometimes not.

And this is where my experience of watching the play was mixed.

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Sunday theatre question: A song you always associate a play

This week's Sunday theatre question is inspired by a comment made on my Instagram post about how a song played during a production of Julius Caesar at the Bridge Theatre became forever associated with that play.

Sunday theatre question song

It got me thinking about which songs take me back to a play whenever I hear them. 

I've always loved music (just not musicals) and can find songs very evocative of particular times and places, so it isn't surprising that a stand out scene or play can get linked with a song that is played over it in a particular production.

Probably the strongest link is Chris Isaak's Wicked Game which was played during a pivotal scene in A Streetcar Named Desire at the Young Vic, starring Gillian Anderson, Ben Foster and Vanessa Kirby.

It fit so perfectly, tonally and lyrically to what was going on, and whenever I hear it, I think of that play and that scene.

Another song that I always associate with a play is David Bowie's Starman which was used during My Night With Reg at the Donmar Warehouse. It is a song with a bittersweet tone that worked perfectly when it was played for a dance scene at the end of the play.

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Sunday theatre question: Favourite solo performance

Sometimes plays just have one actor. They might be playing one character, they might be playing many, but they don't have any other actors to play off. It is just them and their performance.

Sunday theatre question solo performance

There are no distractions, it's just you and them.

Do you have a favourite solo performance?

The moment I started thinking about this, I realised it was going to be really tricky to choose a favourite as I've seen some superb solo performances over the years.

So here are a couple of notable mentions... and my overall winner:

Carey Mulligan in Girls and Boys, Royal Court Theatre

A tour de force performance from Carey Mulligan in which she manages to paint a picture of domesticity filling the stage with a family that is only their in our imagination while subtly hinting at something different. It's a play that surprised and a lot of that was down to the delivery.

Cillian Murphy, Misterman, National Theatre

Not only was it a solo performance, it was a solo performance on the Lyttelton stage which is one of the biggest in London. And Cillian Murphy made use of the entire space. It was a superb performance that mixed humour and fun with something darker and sinister, and I still remember it vividly.

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Sunday theatre question: Which is your favourite play based on real events?

Sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction and that's how I preambled my review of The Great Wave at the National Theatre back in 2018.

Sunday theatre question based on real events

It was based on real events in the 1970s and 1980s when North Korean agents abducted ordinary people from Japanese beaches in order to steal their identities or learn the Japanese language and culture.

The play follows two sisters one who has been abducted and the other left behind living with her sister's sudden disappearance.  It's a nail-biting, emotional roller coaster of a play that brought to life events I had no knowledge of.

Which is your favourite play based on real events?

The Great Wave is one of several plays based on real events I've really enjoyed over the years, here are some other notable mentions:

Enron, Noel Coward Theatre - Took a very dry subject and made it interesting and entertaining - bonus points for velociraptors and light sabres.

This House, National Theatre - a dusty 1970s political crisis given a high-energy makeover by writer James Graham and director Jeremy Herrin.

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Sunday theatre questions: Which play have you seen the most?

Theatre-land is a mixture of new plays and revivals, but there are certain classics which regularly get staged - which have you seen the most? Is there a particular reason why you've seen one play more than any others?

Which play have you seen the most

The hands-down winner for me is Hamlet. I think I've seen 17 or more different productions, but I confess it was less than literary reasons that got me hooked initially.

Yes, Hamlet was one of the set texts in my final year at Uni but that year also saw the release of a film version of Hamlet starring Mel Gibson.

He was one of my teen crushes so; naturally, I ran to the cinema to see it and then went back to see it again... and again.

I have no idea if it was well done - I wasn't really watching it for the play - but it helped me get really familiar with the key speeches. Handy when exam time came around.

The very first production

The first stage production of Hamlet I saw was on a student trip to Theatr Clwyd. It was memorable for several reasons no least because one of the actor's costumes caught fire  - it was all fine, quickly stamped out by another actor without even a pause in their speech.

But it wasn't until I saw it again years later - in 2008 - with David Tennant as Hamlet that it really sparked my interest/obsession. The speeches were still familiar, and the production just opened up the play in different ways.

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