16 posts categorized "Tragedy" Feed

End of year review: My favourite theatre of 2019, a year of dazzling performances, wit, drama and tears

It's been tough but I've managed to whittle down my 'best theatre of 2019' list to 10 plays, well, one isn't actually a play but deserves a place nonetheless. So here goes, in no particular order:

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

1. Downstate, National Theatre

A challenging, difficult play with humour and wit inflected with wisdom that carefully balanced entertainment without detracting from the seriousness of the subject matter.

2. Betrayal, Harold Pinter Theatre

I wasn't that enamoured with Jamie Lloyd's season of Pinter shorts and then came along Betrayal and it was utterly breathtaking.

The sparse script was layered with nuanced performances from Tom Hiddleston, Zawe Ashton and Charlie Cox. What wasn't said screamed loud.

3. Seven Methods For Killing Kylie Jenner, Royal Court upstairs

This made a lot of what is on stage in London look stodgy and staid. A fresh and achingly contemporary play that cleverly and boldly tackled social media and what it reveals about modern society.

4. Hansard, National Theatre

One of those plays that get mentioned a lot in theatre conversations, this was an extremely witty and acerbic political drama/comedy which had an unexpected emotional punch.

I loved it also for its balance approached in scrutinising both left and right-leaning politics.

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Review: The Duchess of Malfi, Almeida Theatre or where has the magnetic Lydia Wilson been?

Lydia Wilson is back on stage, hurrah! Haven't seen her since she played Kate in Charles III back in 2014 and seeing her as the Duchess of Malfi reminded me how much I've missed her on stage. 

Lydia wilson duchess of malfi

And it was a great way to round off my year of theatre-going, I love a good, gruesome piece of Jacobean drama.

The Duchess of Malfi is a revenge tragedy sparked by the widowed Duchess deciding to defy her powerful brothers and not only marry but marry 'beneath her'.

Her siblings' instructions are motivated by a desire to inherit the Duchess' wealth, snobbery and, in the case of her deranged twin Ferdinand (Jack Riddiford) incestuous lust.

Power and greed

It is a play about power and greed and women's lack of currency in society.

The threat to the Duchess is evidence even before her secret marriage to Antonio (Khalid Abdalla) her gentle former steward.

When her brother picks up a dagger, a family heirloom, during a conversation her nervousness and discomfort marks him out as already dangerous and volatile.

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Review: Brutal, cold, dystopian Macbeth, National Theatre and a Children of Men comparison

You don't walk away feeling any sense of tragedy merely that you've watched a bunch of unsavoury characters killing each other.

The first time we see Macbeth (Rory Kinnear) in Rufus Norris' production at the National Theatre, he is committing a brutal act of violence on an enemy. It sets the play down a path that doesn't necessarily lead to satisfactory conclusions.

Macbeth-mobileherospot_2160x2160-sfw-5The setting is some point in the future when society seems to have broken down.

It's a landscape of generators, machetes, chest armour held together with parcel tape and clothes and buildings patched-up using whatever is available - mainly polythene it seems.

Only King Duncan (Stephen Boxer) wears a smart, intact, red, tailored suit.

Stylistically it reminded me of parts of Alfonso CuarĂ³n's film Children of Men (which I love), thematically there are similarities too.

The film is about an infertility crisis which leads to societal breakdown and of course Lady Macbeth (Anne-Marie Duff) and her husband are childless.

It could be argued that they seek out self-fulfilment in a desperate and increasingly brutal pursuit of power.

I liked the dark tone of the setting, even the Back to the Future, Doc Brown-esque porter played by Trevor Fox.

And I really liked the witches who were all different in their movements and energy levels and seem to haunt the dark corners of the stage. 

But the characters are nearly as unrelentingly cold and brutal as the landscape they live in and it is easy not to care.

There is no charisma to Rory Kinnear's Macbeth and how can you sympathise with a man - and the woman who spurs him on - who is capable of such horrific acts from the outset?

In this video interview, Rufus Norris describes them as in one sense 'Shakespeare's most happily married couple' but this is no love story or crime of passion.

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Review: The heartbreaking Summer and Smoke, Almeida Theatre

Summer and Smoke is tender and delicate and yet simultaneously as emotionally intense as the heat of the season during which it is set.

Tennessee William's Summer and Smoke is a coming of age story, a self-discovery story and a heart-breaking love story.

Set in a small, gossipy, Mississippi town during a hot summer Alma (Patsy Ferran) is the minister's daughter chaste, principled, spiritual and spirited. John (Matthew Needham) is the doctor's son and is more material and physical.

Summer_and_Smoke_FINAL_banner_1470x690Both are products of their upbringing and feel trapped by it. Alma's mother has had some sort of nervous breakdown pushing Alma into the position of carer and house-keeper.

John is expected to follow in his father's footsteps and feels the weight of that expectation, he seeks out physical diversion and satisfaction whether that is alcohol or girls.

Alma has long harboured feelings for John and there is obviously a spark between them that always seems on the verge of fully igniting. Is it their different outlooks? Is it denial of a different side of themselves? Is it fear of being trapped or fear of giving themselves over to another physically and emotionally?

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Review: The RSC's muscular Othello

Othello production images_ 2015_Photo by Keith Pattison _c_ RSC_Othello.2866
Hugh Quarshie and Lucian Msamati in the RSC's Othello. Photo: Keith Pattison

The opening scene of the RSC's Othello has a Venetian canal, the water reflecting on the wall of the neighbouring building but this is just a brief moment of beautiful reflection before Iago (Lucian Msamati) uses the pole of the punt to strangle Roderigo (James Corrigan) just enough to force him to his purpose.

In just a few moments it has set the tone for this muscular and sometimes brutal production. Director Iqbal Khan plays up the military background of the story - Iago, Othello (Hugh Quarshie) and others are testosterone fulled soldiers full of battle and killing. We are shown scenes of torture - waterboarding and worse - which are a matter of course in these men's minds.

When the battle starts and finishes very quickly on Crete the soldiers are left idle and passions easily ignited which all works in Iago's favour as he plots his revenge on Othello.

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Review: Hugo Weaving is Waiting For Godot, Barbican Theatre

Hugo Weaving and Richard Roxburgh in Waiting for Godot

I've been waiting for Godot (sorry) to return to London for six years. Samuel Beckett's surreal, existential tragicomedy is a Marmite play, I know, but I think it's a great piece. It is a play that tests both actors and audience and one which always gives up something new.

This is a Sydney Theatre Production which is in residence at the Barbican for just over a week and sees Hugo Weaving take on Vladimir and Richard Roxburgh Estragon with Philip Quast as Pozzo and Luke Mullins as Lucky.

Their back drop are the walls of a what looks likes a former industrial building and yet there is proscenium arch of sorts which also looks likes a dressing room mirror frame with most of the bulbs around its perimeter either missing or broken. And of course there is the tree, just a long trunk disappearing off into the flies and one branch.

It is evocative of economic decay, the passing of good times and a reflection of ourselves and the human condition. The latter is an irony that is really brought to the fore in this production. It feels like the play is often poking fun at the audience; as Vladimir and Estragon entertain themselves to pass the time so we are similarly entertained. There is a bleakness and tragedy in everything but equally there is something very warm and comforting. This is a production with no half measures.

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Review: Sandals, stage blood and sweet revenge in The Broken Heart, Sam Wanamaker Theatre

Owen Teale and Amy Morgan in The Broken Heart. Photo Marilyn Kingwill

John Ford's more well known work is Tis Pity She's a Whore* and while that focused on the incestuous relationship between a brother and sister The Broken Heart is about brotherly betrayal.

Set in the court of the King of Sparta, Ithocles (Luke Thompson) stops his sister Penthea (Amy Morgan) marrying her betrothed Orgilus (Brian Ferguson) by marrying her off nobleman Bassanes (Owen Teale).

Later, having returned victorious from battle, and seeing how his sister suffers he has feelings of regret. He falls in love with Princess Calantha (Sarah MacRae) who is set to marry someone else. Meanwhile Orgilus, despite warnings, plots his revenge.

Director Caroline Steinbeis makes the most of the source material. She draws out the comedy as well as the passion and drama and the two hours and 45 minute running time (including interval) is peppered with some great moments however it is not until the plot threads start to come together that it really satisfies.

Owen Teale stands out as Bassanes, he's tyrannical, irrational and jealous and yet the performance just skirts the comic so that you don't know whether to be afraid or laugh, particularly when he is staring right at you from just two feet away.

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Review: Helen McCrory is Medea at the National Theatre


Helen McCrory's Medea is the physical embodiment of barely contained anger and hurt. Desperation and vengefulness make for a potent mix and their is a feistiness and passion that we can only assume Jason (Danny Sapani) found alluring when they first met.

Medea is a woman who kills for love, kills her own brother to win her man and it is an act than can only lead one way when she is betrayed by Jason for a younger, rich woman as we are told in the prologue by the Nurse (Michaela Coel).

Director Carrie Cracknell's production plays with this energy, this passion, mixing sombre atmospheric music, devised by Alison Goldfrapp and Will Gregory and contemporary dance sequences that quiver and pulse as Medea sets upon her path of revenge.

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Review: Sand and Sandals produced a mixed Berenice

114098175_bernice_341913cJosie Rourke's latest offering at the Donmar Warehouse had me weeping and it wasn't because I got sand in my eye - there is a lot of sand in this production.

But crying at a tragic love story is a good thing right? Well yes but it was in spite of many things and testament to some wonderful moments.

Jean Racine's story, in a translation by Alan Hollinghurst, is a tale of quiet passion and emotion rather than of high drama. As @Polyg commented, had Shakespeare written it, it would have ended very differently and I like it for that.

Berenice (Anne-Marie Duff) is the long-time lover of Titus (Stephen Campbell Moore) who'd been forbidden to marry her by his father. When his father dies and he succeeds as Emporer it looks like the two will finally get up the aisle. The problem is Berenice is a foreign queen and Titus risks earning the wrath of his people by marrying.

Meanwhile Titus and Berenice's friend Antiochus (Dominic Rowan) is secretly in love with Berenice and decides to confess to her before she is lost forever to his love rival.

The story is played out on a spectacular set. Aside from a couple of light wooden chairs and some broken pieces of fencing  there is what I can only describe as a delicate flying staircase. It has a spiral at one end then bridges across the stage before sweeping down in a curve of steps.

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Sir Trevor Nunn introduces V&A Hamlet screening and studying Ben Whishaw's performance a second time

IMG_0445The first and only time I've seen what I regard as the definitive Hamlet was on a small telly with headphones in the V&A theatre and performance archive nearly three years ago.

As part of the 20th-anniversary celebrations of the archives they are showing a selection of the plays on a big screen and today was said definitive Hamlet, the Old Vic's 2004 production starring Stan fav Ben Whishaw and directed by Sir Trevor Nunn, who braved the snowy weather to introduce the recording.

In what he claimed was an unprepared speech, he talked about how this production came into being, a production which sees not only the protagonist played as a 19-year-old but also his fellow students, mother and uncle as much younger than theatre-land normally casts.

Opportunity to revisit

Previously unaware that the recording existed (the archive is for a national record not commercial purposes) Sir Trevor seemed genuinely pleased to have the opportunity to see it again: "Theatre is usually like drawing in the sand, the waves come in and wash it all away so there is nothing left to see."

At the time Hamlet was playing at the Old Vic negotiations were ongoing about making a TV version but these came to nothing.

Now the story of how he got the idea for a young Hamlet began when he was what he describes as "a precocious 18-year-old, or rather a more precocious 18-year-old".

He put on a production of Hamlet with a company of teenage actors and felt then that the play was always about this age group.

Conventional production

Ten years later he directed Alan Howard in the lead role for the RSC. Howard was then in his early 30s and Nunn realised that what he was putting on "was a conventional production".

"Theatre history decrees that Hamlet is played by an actor in their 30s or even 40s and we've grown accustomed to that," he explained. "In the 19th century touring companies the lead actor, who would naturally be given the part, would always be of a certain age."

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