An Enemy Of The People at Chichester Festival Theatre

(5 / 5)

Hugh Bonneville Triumphs in Ibsen’s Classic Play

Hugh Bonneville in An Enemy Of The People at Chichester Festival Theatre
Hugh Bonneville in An Enemy Of The People at CFT

When a public vote chooses Boaty McBoatface as the name for a polar exploration ship, it’s easy to agree with the main character in Ibsen’s An Enemy Of The People (Chichester Festival Theatre) that the majority is ‘stupid’. I’m don’t even want to talk about the EU referendum.

Dr Tomas Stockmann starts out believing the people will welcome his revelation that the town’s spa water is unhealthy. But when local people of influence realise the effect on business and the cost of putting it right, the townspeople are soon persuaded by them that Stockmann is their ‘enemy’.

His mistake is to think that truth cannot be denied. The reality is that most of us believe what we want to believe against the facts. And if the facts don’t fit, we blame a cover up or a conspiracy or make a leap of faith.

If our hopes and fears are exploited by ruthless politicians, advertisers or other people with an agenda, all the worse. The debate about ‘fake news’ and the behaviour of Donald Trump and some of our own politicians makes Ibsen’s play seem bang up-to-date. When you hear the outrageous statements made by our political elite during the EU referendum campaign and the level of ignorance among the electorate, even though the BBC’s Reality Check was freely available, you can sympathise with Stockmann.

He may believe the majority are stupid and society would be better run by an elite but we the audience can see that the majority are not stupid, merely uninformed, and the elite are the very ones who have undermined his truth.

A mountain range of a performance

An Enemy Of The People, directed by Howard Davies, offers a view of society in which nearly everybody operates out of self interest and those that don’t are crushed by those that do. Ibsen tells the truth as he sees it and it’s a view of human nature that may make him an enemy of the people but like all great artists he helps us understand humanity, if we are prepared to accept that life isn’t black and white. Our hero Stockmann isn’t spared from an honest depiction. He may be admirable as a whistleblower but he has flaws and suspect motives.

We see that he is driven by jealousy of his brother. We cringe at his hubris when he thinks he will be feted by his fellow citizens. We realise his ‘honesty’, at first attractive, is naive because he doesn’t see the need to engage and persuade people. We find him arrogant in thinking he is superior. We are shocked at his willingness to sacrifice his family.

All these swings from initial confidence through pride, bewilderment and anger to eventual collapse are conveyed in a brilliantly nuanced performance at Chichester by Hugh Bonneville. You may know him from TV’s Downton Abbey or W1A. I could feel every emotion his character was feeling. Even when I was laughing at his naive expectation of the honour he would receive, I still felt sorry for him. This is a mountain range of a performance.

The Painkiller with Kenneth Branagh & Rob Brydon

Branagh & Brydon excel in bedroom farce

Kenneth Branagh & Rob Brydon in The Painkiller
Kenneth Branagh & Rob Brydon in The Painkiller

For the second time in six months, a star known for his serious acting has amazed me with his skill at comedy. Just as when I saw David Morrissey in The Hangmen, I was surprised and delighted to find that Kenneth Branagh’s talent for farce was the outstanding feature of The Painkiller at the Garrick Theatre.

He plays a hired killer who gets drawn into helping a suicidal photographer. This being a farce, he ends up the victim of many misfortunes including suffering from the effects of a tranquilliser. Branagh’s portrayal of exasperation, his slurred and mixed up words, his comedy walk were a revelation from an actor I had previously known and admired in Shakespeare and Chekhov.

It helped that his opposite number was Rob Brydon, who was every bit as funny as you would hope. Thanks to them and the rest of an excellent cast, there were times when I, along with most of the audience, was crying with laughter.

Sean Foley adapts & directs top class comedy

Considerable credit should go to the French writer Francis Veber and Sean Foley who adapted and directs this now vintage play. Like all good farces, it is built on step-by-step misunderstandings that lead logically to a ridiculous conclusion.  Any moments when you might question the likelihood of something happening are lost in the sheer speed, another vital element in farce.

Taking the whole thing seriously, in other words not being deliberately funny, is another key factor in successful farce. In this respect, I couldn’t fault any member of the cast. Mark Hadley was brilliant as the confused Hotel Porter attempting to carry out his job in the face of an increasingly bizarre situation deserves a special mention.

Alice Power’s clever set was as crucial to making the farce work as any of the characters. Two identical hotel rooms with an adjoining door and an imaginary wall split the stage into two halves. We the audience could see what was going on in each room but the participants couldn’t.

 

Hangmen with David Morrissey at Royal Court

(5 / 5)

Martin McDonagh’s Play Feels Like A Classic Farce

David Morrissey in Hangmen
David Morrissey in Hangmen

Hangmen by Martin McDonagh already feels like a classic. The pompous, arrogant man brought down by jealousy is the stuff of many great comedies. The sharp dialogue and the fast moving farce would be a gift to any actors but in the hands of David Morrissey and his fellow cast, they became comedy gold.

I never realised Morrissey is such a great comic actor. He starts off strutting the stage like a bantam cock as the second best hangman in Britain, newly redundant with the abolition of hanging and relishing the attention. Then comes an amazing moment when he seems to deflate before your eyes.

The second act in which one misunderstanding leads to another and disaster looms had me in stitches. Every line, every action counts. Together they make this one of the finest plays I have seen.

The Father with Kenneth Cranham at Wyndham’s Theatre

(5 / 5)

An Acting Tour-de-Force By Kenneth Cranham

Claire Skinner and Kenneth Cranham in The Father
Claire Skinner & Kenneth Cranham in The Father

When The Father opens, it appears to be straightforward comedy about Alzheimers. In other words, easy laughs at the way the old man can’t remember things.

By scene two, when one woman goes into the kitchen and a new actor comes back out, it’s clear we are in a very different play, a drama in which we are inside the father’s head and are as confused by what’s going on as he is. By the end, I was as emotionally wrung out as him.

My mother had Alzheimers, which may have made me recognise the grief more, but experiencing the man’s desperate retreat into second childhood at the end had me in tears. It was an acting tour-de-force by Kenneth Cranham.

The Father, directed by James McDonald, is a French play written by Florian Zeller, who is clearly a huge talent, and translated by Christopher Hampton, whose credits include the hit translation of Art. Claire Skinner provided excellent support.

Dinner With Saddam at Menier Chocolate Factory

(3 / 5)

The first course Anthony Horowitz’s witty play is better than the second

Sanjeev Bhaskar in Dinner With Saddam at Menier Chocolate Factory, reviewed by Paul Seven Lewis
Dinner with Saddam

Dinner With Saddam by Anthony Horowitz has a winning way with witty dialogue and farce.

As the harassed head of the household in war torn Iraq, Sanjeev Bhaskar’s reactions both facial and verbal are very funny and his comic timing is perfect. It should be said that the whole cast was good.

You could say the first course of Dinner with Saddam is better than the second. The second act loses impetus with the arrival of Saddam Hussein (Steven Berkoff) and a massive dose of politics. It’s not that I didn’t find the analysis of the West’s position on Iraq interesting but it simply wasn’t that funny.

The Menier Chocolate Factory is a wonderful place for a theatre, intimate and exciting. This was my first visit. It won’t be my last.

A View From The Bridge at Young Vic

Mark Strong and Nicola Walker in A View From The Bridge at the Young Vic
Mark Strong & Nicola Walker in A View From The Bridge at the Young Vic

This Is Why I Love Theatre

I fell in love with theatre as a child and have been going now for over fifty years. I’ve seen hundreds of performances and I nearly always enjoy the experience but it’s very rare that I recapture the excitement I felt when I first sat in a theatre and the lights went down and actors came on stage to tell a story.

But it happened when I saw Arthur Miller’s A View From The Bridge at the Young Vic back in 2014. It is a brilliantly written play about a man’s obsession with his wife’s teenage niece but this was all about the production and the acting.

Mark Strong, Nicola Walker and Phoebe Fox played the three central characters- a husband, wife and the niece whom they had raised. The stage, with the audience on three sides, was completely bare. The actors were in bare feet. Everything in Ivo Van Hove’s production was was focused on the words and the acting. And what acting.

Having great dialogue helps but you still need to be able to speak it with conviction. This company’s deep understanding- of the words, the rhythms, the nuances, the silences, the looks- drew me into their world totally.

Everything That Is Best In Theatre

At the Young Vic, I was completely absorbed in the underlying sexual tension between the husband and his surrogate daughter, the self deception and the looming inevitable tragedy. The only ‘prop’ was music, an emotional extension of the human voice, used to great effect.

When the end came, there was one coup de theatre that made my jaw drop. As all the characters drew into a huddle in the middle of which a fatal fight was taking place, what I first thought was water (like tears) began pouring on them from above. Then I realised it was red and soon the actors and the stage were soaked in blood.

It was a simple enough effect and may even sound over the top, but coming at the culmination of such a tense two hours, it was stunning. It was a moment when time stood still.  It was everything that is best in theatre and why I have had a love affair with the stage for over fifty years.