Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

Palace, London
18th June, 2017, two show day

*An attempt has been made to keep this spoiler free in terms of plot, however it’s not totally spoiler free.

Harry Potter had a profound influence on my formative years – as it did for many children of this generation (and likely will continue to be for generations to come). Rarely does a piece of pop culture capture the hearts and minds of a nation(s) so completely, and, even amidst the squealing hype of its heyday, stay benevolently wholesome. Harry Potter brings people together, it brings out the childlike wonderment in all of us, and despite having grown up to appreciate a diverse and challenging world of literature (my love for which I must also pay a debt to J.K. Rowling! – get reading kids, it will change your life!) the Harry Potter series will always hold a special place in my heart and on my bookshelf. And so it came, by good fortune and fast fingers (my boyfriend won the fabled Friday Forty – it does work!), that on the eve of my 26th birthday I was transported once again to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry – a sort of final hurrah to childhood (no one likes growing up, surely?).

Regardless of the above sentimental gushiness, I had big reservations when it was announced that a Harry Potter play was in the works. The big-budget, big-bombers Lord Of The Rings (the musical) and Spider-man: Turn Off The Dark (the musical) were an unpalatable promise of what could be to come. However, The Cursed Child is not a musical (though for those that enjoy HP, silly humour, and a catchy tune I highly recommend StarKid’s affectionate parody, A Very Potter Musical and its sequels), and has a good measure of substance to offset the stylish spectacle. Jack Thorne, with help from Rowling, has crafted a play that stands up to the original series, as well as being a thoroughly stage-based fantasy family drama.

Harry Potter (Jamie Glover) is a middle-aged father of three, juggling his roles as family man, the Ministry’s chief of defence, and being the most famous wizard in the world. But Harry does not live with these burdens alone – his father’s fame and growing distance weigh heavy on young Albus’s (Theo Ancient) shoulders as he struggles to simultaneously alienate himself from the pressures of his heritage while also craving the love and admiration of his dad. Misunderstandings, foolhardy escapades, friendships and conflicts ensue, including all the twists and turns of a classic Potter story … and if I say any more I’ll be devoured by the spoiler hounds!

It is a testament to the writing that the play’s new characters are just as believable and endearing as the old favourites. In my opinion, The Cursed Child belongs to Albus and his fellow Hogwarts classmate, Scorpius (Samuel Blenkin), and, thanks to Blenkin and Ancient’s enthusiastic and touching performances, I defy anyone not to root for them. Glover is a solid Harry, his anxieties and sorrows are (recognisably) thinly veiled by a veneer of stoicism, while his maturity manifests in his lack of bravado and trepidation concerning familial and political matters (this isn’t the same Harry that threw himself into dangerous situations at the drop of a hat!). One of the charms of the play is that it is both familiar and new, the natural progression of the title character being finely drawn, and therefore making his new challenges of adulthood just as gripping as those which kept us up all night reading as teenagers.

But, of course, you can’t have a play about magic without a little stage trickery, and boy do director, John Tiffany, and illusionist, Jamie Harrison, deliver on that front! Levitation, invisibility, characters disappearing in a split second – all the spells and incantations that Rowling made famous are present and stunningly realised. The ingenious creation of the Polyjuice potion was thrilling, both in the magical effects and in the warm and fuzzy nostalgic feeling it gave me. Another (unnameable) moment was utterly overwhelming and goosebump inducing – I was in awe.

The skill that has gone into this production is breathtaking. Even from our seats on the front row of the stalls the illusions were impeccable, convincing and astonishingly beautiful. This owes a great debt to Neil Austin’s lighting – illuminating, yet concealing – and Steven Hoggett’s choreography. Actors flip, tumble, fly and freeze in time, and even the simplest scene changes are accompanied by a lyrical swish of a cloak and swirl of a staircase. The overall aesthetic of the production is its greatest asset, we are undoubtedly in the world of Harry Potter and Co. – heightened by the Palace’s transformation featuring Hogwarts wallpaper, dragon sconces and gothic architecture, as well as several instances where the magic overflowed into the auditorium. A final mention to Imogen Heap’s haunting and original score, which enhances but refuses to overwhelm the drama, and conjures a world of magic without needing to borrow from John Williams’ back catalogue.

Seeing this just a couple of weeks after seeing the National’s Angels in America is a reminder of what astounding work contemporary theatre can do. The legacy of Marianne Elliott’s productions of War Horse and The Curious incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is clear to see in the workings of Tiffany’s production, and it feels like we’ve entered a new golden age of theatrical vision and fantastical physicality. But what’s more, seeing these two productions in close succession has reminded me of the intense humanity and sociality of theatre – family, friendship, love – these are the things I will take away from The Cursed Child, however cheesy it may seem. The magic of spectacle in Tiffany’s production is a foundation to promote the magic of the human spirit and our unwavering ability to connect and bond, whatever the circumstances. As J.K. Rowling said, ‘Hogwarts will always be there to welcome you home’, and the team behind The Cursed Child have created a new home for Harry Potter fans, young and old.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is currently booking until July 2018.

The Potters: l-r Harry Potter (Jamie Glover), Ginny Potter (Emma Lowndes), Albus Potter (Theo Ancient)
Photographer credit:  Charlie Gray

Sunday, 11 June 2017

Plays, plays, plays: Tonight's Tony Awards

The most pressing questions about this year’s Tony Awards:

Will Kevin Spacey sing? Will it be Ben Platt or Andy Karl (if either) who wins Best Actor in a Musical? Will Groundhog Day or Dear Evan Hansen win the title of Best Musical? Perhaps it will be Come From Away which won the Drama Desk Award. Will Oslo sweep the board before its London transfer this Autumn? Will Kevin Spacey sing? How many awards will Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 (this year’s most nominated show with 12 nods) walk away with? Will Kevin Spacey sing? Here is a little whistle stop tour of this year’s Best Play and Best Revival of a Play Tony nominations.

Best Play

In times of political and national uncertainty, we still look to playwrights. Of all the eligible plays for this year’s award, these four are arguably the most expansive in theme and ambitious in their scope. Vogel's Indecent is probably the most daring in its form. Two women have been nominated for Best Play this year. That’s only previously happened twice before (unless I’m mistaken), in 1960 (Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun and Lillian Hellman’s Toys in the Attic) and 2002 (Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses and Suzan-Lori Parks’ Topdog/Underdog). Staggeringly, or perhaps not so, this is the first time both Nottage and Vogel have had plays on Broadway and therefore been nominated for the Tony Award for Best Play. I thought they’ve both nominated before, Nottage for Ruined and Vogel for How I Learned to Drive, but that is not the case. Yasmina Reza remains the only woman to have been nominated more than once for this award for ‘Art’ which won in 1998 and God of Carnage which won in 2009.

Lynn Nottage’s Sweat
Paula Vogel’s Indecent (There are two fascinating New Yorker articles on this play and Sweat, which can be read here and here).
Lucas Hnath’s A Doll’s House Part 2
J.T. Rogers’ Oslo

Best Revival

Something curious about the Best Revival of a Play award for the last couple of years is the awards’ insistence on including the playwright’s name in with the title of the play with most of the American plays. The Tony Awards have specifically titled plays as 'John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation', 'Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes', and 'August Wilson’s Jitney'. The same honour(?) hasn’t been subscribed to Coward’s Present Laughter. Last year, the same went for revivals of 'Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge' (although I don’t think that the London production was titled like that and some might argue it was as much 'Ivo Van Hove’s A View from the Bridge' as it was Arthur Miller’s) and 'Arthur Miller’s The Crucible'. The same didn’t go, however, to David Harrower’s Blackbird, Frayn’s Noises Off or even O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night. This new trend seems an attempt by the awards to highlight famous work from the American 20th century canon. I think it does put more weight on a play or production if the author’s name is listed in front of it as it has been here. For example, people might not know Jitney but they might have heard of August Wilson. Even so, it seems oddly and perhaps unnecessarily patriotic.

August Wilson’s Jitney (1977).
This production marks the last of Wilson’s 10-play Pittsburgh Cycle to be staged on Broadway, whereas all the others were nominated for the Tony Award for Best Play for their original Broadway productions.
Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes (1939).
It was last nominated in 1981 starring Elizabeth Taylor. It was the only play nominated that year, as musical and play revivals were only split in 1994. Other nominees included the winning Pirates of Penzance, Brigadoon and Camelot.
Noel Coward’s Present Laughter (1942).
It was last nominated 20 years ago in 1997 for a production starring Frank Langella and Alison Janney (the latter was in this year’s revival of Six Degrees of Separation).
John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation (1990).
Guare’s play was nominated for Best Play in 1991 when Neil Simon’s Lost in Yonkers won, which had this year’s host Kevin Spacey playing Louie.

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Angels in America

National Theatre (Lyttelton)
3rd June 2017, two play day

Where do I even begin? Tony Kushner’s monolith of a play is epic in length (we attended a two play day, so it clocked in at a mammoth 7 ½ hours, not including breaks!), scope, and theme. Covering an expanse of issues including history, migration, the planet, evolution, politics, sex, love, life and identity both personal and national, the mere programming of Angels In America at the National Theatre had prematurely ensured its status as the theatrical event of the year. With this predetermination, Marianne Elliott, no doubt, had the weight of fevered expectation resting heavy on her shoulders, and while it is difficult to separate my thoughts on her production from my thoughts and feelings regarding Kushner’s creation, I can unreservedly say that she did not disappoint!

Hugely funny, devastatingly profound, charmingly messy, and, for all the pain of its subject matter, Angels in America is ultimately a lesson in hope and the uniquely human capacity for resilience. We roam locations diverse as Central Park, Utah, Antarctica and heaven itself. We meet characters diverse as a Jewish Rabbi, conflicted Mormons, and the infamous corrupt lawyer, Roy Cohn. Elliott’s production captures this variety in all its bemusing, visceral and scorching tenderness. When I read the plays earlier this year the more fantastical and divine sections (particularly those in Perestroika) left me in awed bafflement – I appreciated Kushner’s vision, but I struggled to see how it could tangibly manifest onstage without seeming gauche and somewhat silly – but I blame this on my lack of creative imagination, as in Elliott’s hands these scenes became some of my favourite moments.

In fact, the Angel scenes are where Elliott most visibly makes her mark. Reminiscent of the use of movement in Curious Incident, The Light Princess and even the puppetry of War Horse, the Angel feels like a living, breathing creature, her fluid and ethereal movement making the stasis and inaction of the god-forsaken divine creatures all the more potent. I loved Amanda Lawrence’s skeletal, banshee-like Angel, draped in a tattered American flag, she seems less benevolent and more twisted and urgent. Similarly, heaven is akin to a nightmarish version of the Red Dwarf control room, populated by Angels that bear more than a passing resemblance to the Wicked Witch of the West’s flying monkeys. It is effectiveless chaos; these angels wield no power, but merely witness the harshness administered in a godless world. When faced with this heaven-hell it becomes apparent that humanity must be propelled into action and realise the cause and effect of historic, social, political and cultural progression, both good and bad. By rejecting the Angels’ proposition of apathetic immobility, Prior accepts all this on behalf of humanity, the essence of ‘more life’ itself.

Perhaps it is this admirable resilience and Kushner’s subversion of stereotypical AIDS narratives that makes me fonder of Perestroika. If Millennium Approaches dramatizes destruction – of the body, of relationships, of sexual, religious and national identities - then Perestroika dramatizes resurrection and is an unlikely ‘feel-good’ play. This disparity is echoed in Ian MacNeil’s set. Millennium Approaches’ design is both confining and confounding – revolving blocks of abstracted walls, doors and windows – I’m not sure we ever saw the same space configuration twice, yet as the blocks look uniformly familiar it creates a sense of the uncanny. Thus, when towards the end of the play, and for the whole of Perestroika, the stage opens up into a single vast space it feels like the production is able to breathe more, expanding in scope and generally feeling more fluid and coherent.

Of course this is vastly helped by the extended time we spend with the characters. As flawed people, they are 100% believable. Waspish, caring, pithy, tender, their identities are confused or concealed, but with an occasional pin precise illumination of heart and soul. Some are in equal measures sympathetic, attractive and infuriating (Louis, I’m looking at you!), and others are so fragile you want to bubble wrap them in warmth and protection (Harper and Prior, for me). Even in all his horrific, bile-spewn nastiness and homophobia, Roy Cohn induces some sympathy by proxy in his pitiful denial of his sexuality.

These characters are brought to life by a cast at the absolute top of their game. Susan Brown is a chameleon, you’d be hard pressed to recognise her playing the Rabbi, Prelapsarianov, Ethel Rosenberg and Hannah Pitt. Andrew Garfield’s Prior is both hilariously OTT and incredibly sensitive, vocally and physically giving his all, he looked absolutely exhausted by the final curtain call. Denise Gough takes all the turmoil she displayed in her outstanding performance in People, Places and Things, and expands upon it, showing a deeper breadth of emotion as the lonely, Valium addicted Harper Pitt. The scenes between Harper and Prior were wonderful (I especially liked Harper’s tiny, knowing gesture towards Prior following her exit from Joe). The casting of New York theatre legend Nathan Lane to play another, rather different, New York legend allows us to feel the character’s prominence. He physically changes as the plays go on, deteriorating in front of us, yet that famous voice of his still conveys the humour, vitriol and occasional humanity of Cohn. Amidst a starry cast with great clout, it speaks volumes that James McArdle, for me an unknown quantity, is utterly compelling as Louis. He is a character that, in his verbose hypocrisy, I swiftly lost patience with while reading the play – Louis’s actions cannot easily be forgiven, but in McArdle’s hands I at least felt I understood his motivations, frustrations, and masochistic need for catharsis.

After the play I overheard two audience members discussing Prior’s final speech. They wished to have seen the play when initially produced, as it would seem more ‘relevant’. However, is the play not just as relevant today? It may be contextually specific but remains thematically universal – we still live in a world of disease, cultural conflict and racial tension, frighteningly right-wing politics (Trump is the new Reagan, if not worse, no?). The sense that in recent years Western society has regressed in regards to extremist political views and prejudices (whether that be racism, sexism, homophobia, islamophobia etc.) suggests to me that the promotion of progressivity in Angels is as pertinent as ever. Kushner showcases life in its rich and various glories and horrors, and, as Prior says, we are ‘fabulous creatures’ for all our complexities. Therefore, the final revelation – the vast, space-age metallic structure that has loomed above the stage for 7 hours transforming into the cleansing waters of the Central Park Bethesda fountain – sums up the rippling positivity during the closing moments of the play. However cynical, oppressive, and downright painful life can be, we must make of it what we can – the ‘world only spins forward’ and change lies in our hands.

It’s a play which, when reading it, seems near-on impossible to stage. I don’t know where Elliott and her team (from automation to stage management) would have started when mounting it. I can’t pretend towards even beginning to fully comprehend Kushner’s play in its multitudinous range, but this play was an experience, perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime experience, as I can understand the trepidation with which producers/directors approach it. I apologise if this review has seemed overly gushy, but it is a play that restores my faith in humanity and that is, indeed, a blessing.

Angels in America plays at the National Theatre until 19th August.

James McArdle as Louis and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett as Belize in Angels in America at the NT. Photo by Helen Maybanks


Old Vic, London
31st May, 2017, matinee

Some reviews – as discussed by Matt Trueman for What’s On Stage – have questioned the faithfulness of Thorne’s adaptation. Having never seen Woyzeck before, I still came out of the theatre feeling as if I’ve seen Woyzeck; not Woyzeck-Lite or Woyzeck in Berlin or Voidzeck or Woy-checkplease!. It is intriguing how Jack Thorne and Joe Murphy have emphasised that it is an adaptation/translation of Buchner’s work and not a version after Buchner in the way of Simon Stone’s Yerma after Lorca. And seeing as Buchner’s work is incomplete and that even the order of the fractured scenes is disputed (as Trueman notes) surely each new version is quite a departure from the original text. Jamie Lloyd’s mantra of ‘treat every new play as a classic and every classic as a new play’ comes to mind. Thorne and Murphy, working so closely with each other during this production’s infancy, have done both. Their Woyzeck feels like it’s nodding to a classic play and yet feels extremely contemporary in its themes, staging and language. In its essence, it’s a play that shows a man’s life spiral out of control due to external forces, including mental health difficulties, a dubious medical trial, a tumultuous upbringing, paranoia over his girlfriend, Marie, cheating, and from the horrors (and monotony as hinted in this production) of war.

Tom Scutt’s ingenious set uses 25 moving walls. The walls are stark and simple, hanging from metal chains, and filled with insulation, giving them a makeshift quality. They move up and down from the flies and side to side from the wings to create a number of places such as the claustrophobic bedroom of Woyzeck and Marie, long dark corridors and chasm-like spaces. They’re like machinery, imposing as they close in like shutters. They take up 90% of the space when fully used and dominate the design, the rest comprising of only a bed, a cot and the odd chair. The walls aren’t to be trusted though: characters are revealed behind them when they move, and in the second act bits of the lagging paper are ripped to reveal bloody guts spilling out from inside. They’re a reminder of the abattoir that sits beneath the flat and act as a reminder of violence that soldiers perhaps come across and a foreshadowing of the violence to come.

The little I knew of the play beforehand was its interesting use of space. This production doesn’t mimetically take us from the fairground to bars to fields to apartments in such a loaded way as I imagined but Scutt’s design still gives a splintered sense of space which reflects the fractured structure of the play and Woyzeck’s sense of placelessness: as Steve Waters has previously pointed out in The Secret Life of Plays, Woyzeck ‘belongs nowhere and owns nothing’. And because the stage is often so bare and cold (noticeably different from the Old Vic’s red plush curtain), military, medical and supposedly domestic settings feel effectively loaded with a sense of something sterile, temporary and alienated. It’s something I can’t quite put my finger on but it did feel that we, like Woyzeck, were stuck in a stasis, on a border, between freedom and entrapment, madness and sanity, etc.

We hurtle through the play’s structure, towards the inevitably tragic end, seeing the external forces that drive Woyzeck to doubt his wife’s faithfulness and the gender of his baby, and then, ultimately, to violence. He turns on his friends, his family and himself, and it is increasingly uncomfortable to watch – from the animalistic and rough sex scenes which infiltrate Woyzeck’s consciousness, to the limpness of Marie’s lifeless body, dangled like a ragdoll from his arms. The rapidity with which the play moves is momentous, car-crash theatre. But despite the horror, you can’t look away. I’m reminded briefly of play’s which have similar (or perhaps dissimilar) structures like Mamet’s Edmond and Stephens’ Birdland. I’m intrigued to learn more about the play and different versions of it.

Thorne’s version has apparently made more of the part of Marie and commendably so. In Sarah Greene’s portrayal, she is loving, resilient and someone who has given up everything for Woyzeck. Ben Batt as Woyzeck’s colleague Andrews (a composite character?) is aggressive and selfish but also elicits sympathy in an odd sort of way, perhaps as he’s Woyzeck’s only friend. The marquee outside the Old Vic describes the production as ‘John Boyega in Woyzeck’, and the intention to diversify the audience and create a more accessible version of the play is palpable in Boyega’s presence. Having (shock horror!) never seen Star Wars, and only knowing Boyega previously from his affable chat-show personality, he proves himself worthy of the acclaim he’s achieved of late. Physically imposing, he broods and stalks the stage, his actions inconceivable, but his psyche pitiful as he transforms into a raving shell of a man.

Woyzeck runs at the Old Vic until 24th June.

Stefan Rhodri as the Captain and John Boyega as Woyzeck in Woyzeck at the Old Vic. Photo by Manuel Harlan

Thursday, 1 June 2017

The Graduate

Curve, Leicester
30th May, 2017*

*Please note that this was a preview performance

Philistine that I am, I’ve never seen Mike Nichols’ film of The Graduate (itself based on Charles Webb’s novel). Literally all I knew about it was Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘Mrs Robinson’ and that famous shot of Dustin Hoffman artfully framed by Anne Bancroft’s legs. So I came to Terry Johnson’s adaptation with fresh eyes, unclouded by comparison and unjaded by the now well-worn coming-of-age story. This had both its benefits and its detractions – I was amused by the unfolding plot, yet found Johnson’s contemporary skewering of 1960’s suburban ennui highlighted themes which left me slightly uncomfortable.

Lucy Bailey’s direction is stylish and assured, the sex scenes were handled particularly well, being neither overly gratuitous nor coldly detached she struck a perfect balance, and her use of video projection to convey Benjamin’s sense of suffocation and desire is very effective. Mike Britton’s design complements the play in the use of wood panelling and fluttery gauze curtains to depict early 1960’s suburbia; a pre-revolutionary world of faux-swish beige. In fact, the video, set and Mic Pool’s soundtrack of folksy muzak unite in reminiscence of Nichols’ influential cinematic adaptation while also being a solid theatrical experience.

The play itself is one of thematic binaries – age vs youth, experience vs naivety, subservience vs rebellion – and is very much a character driven piece. I found my sympathies fluctuating between mother and daughter. The legendary Mrs Robinson, played with equal measures of bravado and fragility by Catherine McCormack, is a shell of a woman, ravaged by years of alcoholism and a loveless marriage, who seeks a lost vitality through her affair with the young Benjamin Braddock. Despite the whiff of exploitation surrounding the affair, Mrs Robinson is a complex and deeply sad character who is a victim of circumstance, tied by the societal mores that bound women in the pre-enlightenment, post-war years. By contrast, her daughter Elaine (Emma Curtis) stifles her sense of self and liberty through a naïve façade of optimism. Mrs Robinson’s twisted sense of protectiveness towards Elaine, filtered through emotions ranging from jealousy to resentment, creates an intriguing maternal relationship at the centre of the play.

However, while interesting and rather captivating, I found it much more difficult to sympathise with our protagonist. Jack Monaghan does a fine job of conveying Benjamin’s erratic nature; he is, at times, full of puppyish enthusiasm and gawky awkwardness, interchanging with an embodiment of the increasing dissatisfaction of the disenfranchised youth. When he describes his feelings towards the ‘grotesque’ people around him, I was reminded of the pin-up of teenage nihilism, Holden Caulfield, and his obsession with ‘phonies’. We meet Benjamin at his most cynical, something is missing from his life, but, as we find, Mrs Robinson can’t give him what he craves. And whilst Elaine administers a generous dose of optimism to counteract his cruel introspective nihilism, I couldn’t bring myself to root for them as a couple.

Elaine’s ultimate act of rebellion – ditching her fiancé at the altar to run away with Benjamin – is only a subversive ‘up yours’ to the confines of convention on the surface. If we look deeper it is apparent that throwing herself into the arms of the equally controlling Benjamin is a bad move. Benjamin is, by all intents and purposes, a stalker. He uses Elaine (just as Mrs Robinson used him) as a means of placating his own conflicted sense of identity, believing he now wants a life of innocent domesticity (in contrast to the animalistic sexuality of his affair with Mrs Robinson) and that Elaine is the only means of achieving it. The truth is, he doesn’t know what he wants, and his actions throughout the play are merely an exercise in selfishness and entitlement – do what you want and don’t think of the consequences.

As a feminist, it is thus difficult to locate a credible message amongst all the thematic angst in The Graduate. The final Cheerios scene is bittersweet. I can’t really call it a happy ending – more a feeling of temporary joy, a static and childlike tableau of adult domesticity. I can’t see a content future for Benjamin and Elaine – are they not destined to succumb to boredom, drink, and illicit affairs as Mrs Robinson did? (As Benjamin already has done?). But my biggest problem with the play is this: Benjamin never feels truly oppressed, despite his whinging he remains an entitled intellectual man in the position to forge his own path. On the other hand, the women – even Mrs Braddock (Rebecca Charles) who is hysteric at the thought of causing her son’s misdemeanours – feel very much under the thumb of societal expectations and are at the mercy of the whims of the men around them. Elaine is very much stuck between a rock and a hard place – either obeying society’s demands that she marries a doctor and has lots of children, or succumbing to Benjamin’s pressures – could she not have chosen neither? Therefore, the greatest binary of them all is the age old Men vs Women, and The Graduate is an interesting addition to such debates and provides much food for thought.

As a dark satire, Johnson does a commendable job of retaining a sense of place while encompassing universal themes that still resonate with today’s youth. Bailey’s direction is stylishly droll while maintaining intellectual substance, and she draws lovingly human performances from her cast – the three leads in particular come across as well rounded characters, devoid of the caricature that could result from adapting such a ubiquitous story. Johnson’s play is a fine introduction to Charles Webb’s story, and has left me intrigued and somewhat bewildered. I’ll now be looking out for the film with a sharp eye and keen mind.

The Graduate plays at Curve, Leicester until 10th June.

Jack Monaghan as Benjamin Braddock and Catherine McCormack as Mrs Robinson. Photography by Manuel Harlan

Monday, 29 May 2017

Julius Caesar

Crucible, Sheffield
27th May, 2017, matinee

Apart from the basic plot (thanks to Sparknotes) and reviews of the toga-fest that is the RSC’s current production in Stratford-Upon-Avon, I knew hardly anything about Shakespeare’s play before seeing this production. New Artistic Director Robert Hastie’s contemporary set Julius Caesar allows us to invite comparisons with contemporary politics without him having to crowbar an ill-fitting concept onto it. The result is a fast moving production that reveals the power of rhetoric to win or lose a crowd and that we too easily make politics into a case of binaries. Modern dress highlights the play’s themes that are at stake in today’s world: the nature of democracy, political betrayal, deceit, populism, and the power of acting to the career politician.

For the first three acts, Ben Stones’ design creates the ugly neutrality and professionalism of a senate. The semiotics are those of 21st century politics: imposing furniture and plush boardroom aesthetics. The Crucible’s usual lights that glitter like stars over the auditorium are replaced by rows of strip lights. The stage is a red tiled carpet surrounded by sunken desks with microphones and leather office chairs. Wooden panels complete with a Roman insignia stretch out into the auditorium and even the front of house staff’s black uniforms with red sashes possibly match the senators’ garb. Hastie’s aim, I guess, is to bring us right into the action. The house lights are on during some of the senate scenes and characters from crowds to soldiers to Mark Antony when delivering his great funeral speech roam the audience. I’m not fully convinced at how successful those efforts were to make the audience complicit however it shows Hastie experimenting with the possibilities of the space in what is a very confident and accessible first production. In the second half, the design reflects the messy chaos of Rome after Caesar’s death: the curtains are thrown back, lights flicker, rubbish and piles of broken office chairs cover the stage. And perhaps most startling: the bodies of three conspirators hang from above (aesthetically not unlike those in the first episode of The Handmaid’s Tale). Johanna Town’s lighting goes from impressively bathing harsh white light onto the characters, reflecting the exposure of public life, to sometimes casting shadows onto the back walls.

There is some particularly neat casting in Hastie’s production. Samuel West returns to the Crucible for the first time since he was AD, his first production being Brenton’s The Romans in Britain. His Brutus is complex and slippery. When we first see him, he is composed, articulate and seemingly balanced. Later, in the private space of his home, he’s less sure. Barefoot and dressed in sweats, toing and froing tormented by his decision and its political consequences. And when the deed is done and he’s giving his speech at Caesar’s funeral, he’s no longer confident. Fumbling with cue cards and way above the crowd on a balcony, he is not the orator that we hear he is. Compare this to Mark Antony’s speech, and we see why the crowd are won over by his rhetoric. Firstly, he’s on the same level as the revellers; he is of the people. Roaming amongst them – and us – he manipulates them skilfully, holding up Caesar’s supposed will and at one moment opening the coffin lid and holding the ghastly corpse of the stabbed statesman. It’s a brave move which shows his confidence and adeptness of being able to win over the crowd. It’s a scene wonderfully performed by West, Elliot Cowan and a committed community company.

But even though we can draw parallels with Trump and Brexit (for example) there are easy answers in the play. As Emma Smith asks in her programme article (there are a couple of excellent pieces in the programme), are Brutus and Cassius terrorists or freedom fighters? What exactly are Caesar’s motives? Here, he seems honourable as portrayed by Jonathan Hyde. He even seems a bit pathetic at one point, chasing his younger wife around trying to get his shoes from her. Zoe Waites presents Cassius as having the raw ambition (perhaps slightly hot headed) which she knows she needs to pair with Brutus’ experience.

Doubling Brutus’ wife, Portia, and Octavius (Chipo Chung) is a nice idea. It hints that Brutus’ betrayal is more than a political one. It also begins to solve the problem of what exactly happens to Portia, who otherwise disappears apparently so distressed from Brutus’ recent aloofness. There’s a hardworking company also made up of Pandora Colin, who speaks verse so naturally, and Royce Pierreson. Lily Nichol’s soothsayer (depicted here as a single mum wandering the streets) also stands out amid all the suits.

Hastie’s production is sharp, has the pace of a thriller and brings Shakespeare’s play down from the gods to the murky world of politics.

Julius Caesar plays at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre until 10th June.

Friday, 19 May 2017

The Red Shoes

Curve, Leicester
16th May, 2017

He’s done it again. Britain’s most prolific choreographer, Matthew Bourne, has worked his magic on a classic story and the result is a sumptuous feast for the eyes and ears. Based on the 1948 film of the same name, itself influenced by Hans Christian Andersen’s dark fairytale about a young woman possessed, both physically and psychologically, by the titular red ballet shoes, Bourne enriches the well-known fable through the music of Bernard Herrmann.

Aspiring dancer, Victoria Page, is offered the role of a lifetime when Prima Ballerina, Irina Boronskaja is injured. Spotted by impresario, Lermontov, Vicky is whisked into a whirlwind of glamour and fame as the leading lady of ‘The Red Shoes’, a new ballet by young composer, Julian Craster. However, when Vicky falls for Julian, much to Lermontov’s resentment her life begins to mirror the twisted tale of the ballet, with tragic consequences.

Herrmann’s music is powerful and resounding, abundant with drama and wistfulness in equal measure. While Bourne’s choreography is perhaps not quite as witty as his previous efforts – although the jaunty pharaohs in act 2 certainly upped the humour – it remains as tender and eclectic as ever. From the angular modernity of the ensemble numbers in ‘The Red Shoes’ sequence, to the silky duets between Vicky and Julian, Bourne’s creativity is a joy to behold. I particularly enjoyed the meta aspects of much of the choreography, from routines based on dance auditions and rehearsals, to a lovely sequence following Julian’s journey through musical composition. All this metatheatricality heightens the sense of life imitating art, especially considering the blood, sweat and tears I can only imagine went into creating a narrative dance production of this size. The red shoes compel Vicky, as I’m sure they compelled Bourne, and likewise compel us. The real skill lies in both Bourne and the dancers’ ability to make a small, seemingly non-threatening inanimate object come to vibrant, sinister life.

Furthermore, the production is sumptuous to look at thanks to Lez Brotherston’s set. It is testament to his and Bourne’s long time collaboration that the design is as much as a part of the fabric of the piece as the dancing is – it is more than a mere set on which dancers dance. Brotherston opens up many layers of meta and theatrical frames. We effortlessly go back and forth from front of house to backstage in a theatre. A whirling proscenium arch and curtain – what a feat of engineering and automation that is! – is integral to the piece. At the opening it sweeps forward as if a cinema zoom, and we are transported into the golden age of Hollywood.

In fact, much of the design pays homage to the production’s cinematic roots. The monochrome modernity of the spectacular Red Shoes ballet segment – the kaleidoscopic introduction was a simple, but breathtaking effect, focusing our attention in onto a new world-within-a-world – juxtaposes gothic graphics with the brilliant white backdrop, recalling the silent movies of old. Conversely, the melodrama of Lermontov’s sexual jealousy is played against a backdrop of plush velvets and golds, just what one would expect of post-war cinema’s promise of a ‘technicolor’ marvel. That Brotherston’s set transitions so smoothly between locations diverse as Covent Garden, Monte Carlo, a high society ballroom and a rough London apartment, further demonstrates his ambitious scope and keen cinematic eye in what is, essentially, a love letter to Hollywood.

A minor – and I mean very minor – sticking point imposed by Bourne’s nostalgic ode to tinsel town, is the slightly old fashioned plot. We could draw criticism from the rather anti-feminist career vs. love trope, but as the piece is so fundamentally shaped by both a by-gone era and the original fairytale (and we all know how un-PC they can be), I feel this can be somewhat overlooked in favour of the efficacy with which Bourne tells this most magical of tragedies.

Amidst the strong performances we’ve come to expect from the New Adventures company, Ashley Shaw is astounding as Vicky. Barely offstage, she is utterly mesmerising even in ensemble scenes; I found my eye continually drawn to her. She has a beautiful ethereal quality as she floats on air during her many en pointe routines (forgive me, I’m not au fait with dance terminology), and effuses emotion from every fibre of her being. In a relatively small but memorable role Michela Meazza is wonderfully wry as the glamourous diva, Irina, and Dominic North’s Julian is an endearing romantic lead.

If parts of the second act feel a little rushed and episodic, it is in part due to the generosity and lushness of the extended theatrical sequence: the incredible ballet routine at the end of act 1 is worth the admission fee alone! The Red Shoes is another triumph to be added to the Bourne canon, and I await with eager eye and ravenous heart to see what he treats us to next.

The Red Shoes is on tour throughout the UK. For full dates and details visit http://new-adventures.net/the-red-shoes/tour-dates

Sam Archer as Boris Lermontov and The Company. Photo Credit: Johan Persson.