Red is a conversation about art. I realise that could sound boring but I promise you it isn’t. You will be caught up in the passion that writer John Logan shows for the history of art, the creation of art, even the meaning of the colour red. And you will be gripped by a drama about the conflict between an older and younger generation.
Alfred Molina plays the artist Mark Rothko at a late point in his career when he’s famous and successful. And if you go to this play for no other reason, go to see Alfred Molina.
The abstract expressionist movement of which Rothko was a major player has blown away what went before, but he himself now faces destruction from a new movement with new ideas, Pop Art. As Rothko himself says, the child must banish the parents. It’s a commanding performance. His Rothko is a confident, self-centred, controlling, great artist but we also see just how vulnerable he feels.
His assistant Ken, played by Alfred Enoch, represents the new generation. Rothko is very serious about how he fits into history and how profound his art. Like Ken, the new generation- Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol- are more broad-minded and playful. Ken questions and challenges Rothko, gently at first, more confidently as the months pass.
The tension and teasing between them is riveting. Then, every so often, there is an interruption to the musical point and counterpoint of the conversation. And at these points, the two move as one to, for example, move a canvas or (and this was a theatrical moment I’ll never forget) when they paint the red undercoat on a white canvas in silent dance-like unison. I guess this symbolised the fact that, whatever their differences, the two generations were united in their love of art.
Just as the red and black in Rothko’s paintings work with and against each other in a constant dialogue. In fact, the whole production is analogous to Rothko’s approach to painting.
It was vital to him to control how his paintings were viewed- the setting, the lighting, the mood. So, at the start of the evening, Molina is sitting silently on stage as the audience enter still chatting and settling, illustrating how art is diminished if the viewer is not concentrating on it.
Christopher Oram‘s set impressively recreates Rothko’s studio and provides the perfect setting in which to see the play. Lighting designer Neil Austin keeps the paintings at the centre of our thoughts and makes the red of the title shimmer and glow. Director Michael Grandage has created a wondrous, flowing rhythm in both dialogue and movement.
‘all consuming enchantment’ New York Times ‘it leaves its audience awestruck, spellbound and deeply satisfied’ Time Out ‘every bit as spellbinding as promised’ The Hollywood Reporter ‘Must-see’ Chicago Tribune ‘a theatrical marvel’ Entertainment Weekly ‘a wildly theatrical and thrilling Broadway spectacle’ Daily News ‘It’s some kind of miracle’ Rolling Stone ‘Hooray!’ Variety
We knew the London production of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child had entranced the British critics, the question was would the Broadway version cast the same spell over American reviewers? The answer clearly was ‘yes’.
So what was it that bewitched them?
There were five spells that the show cast. First, no matter how much we theatregoers might want to judge Harry Potter And The Cursed Child purely as a stage play, we can’t avoid the legacy of seven novels and eight films.
The Harry Potter Legacy
‘The story begins where the final novel in the Potter series… ended’ pointed out the NYT. Chicago Tribune described it as ‘an immersive coda to the most powerful literary brand of a generation’. And many of the critics were happy with this: ‘the show has a plot that really works as an extension of the Potter saga’ said Variety. ‘an unprecedented extension of a beloved world is making something so impossible feel so much realer than it ever could be’ said Entertainment Weekly. Some were worried that only those familiar with what had gone before would enjoy the play. The Guardian said it ‘will deeply perplex anyone who hasn’t read the delightful books or seen the so-so movies’. But others were confident you didn’t have to be a Potterhead. Hollywood reporter pointed out: ‘there’s … a universal dimension to the human drama here – the challenges of parenting, the conflict between fathers and teenage sons burdened by intimidating legacies, the sustaining force of love and friendship, the eternal grip of the past – that will prove poignant and meaningful even to audiences unversed in the wizarding wars.’ amNY went so far as to say, ‘a theatergoer with no prior “wizarding” experience should still be able to have a great time – and may even find the show more enthralling than would a longtime fan who already knows the “Harry Potter” universe inside and out.’
Secondly, there was the story, which came from JK Rowling and director John Tiffany and was scripted by one of my favourite playwrights Jack Thorne. ‘The script has more variations on father issues than the entire canon of Greek tragedy’ said the daddy of theatre critics the New York Times’ Ben Brantley. The Hollywood Reporter was impressed by the ‘pulse-pounding storytelling vitality and … unexpected emotional richness’. The Chicago Tribune said ‘it was a must-see, totally enveloping, thoroughly thrilling chance to experience the global power of shared storytelling at its most robust.’ Entertainment Weekly found that it ‘unlocks new points of view, particularly in the show’s climax, that are wholly unique to this play, unable to be replicated no matter how countless one’s consumption of the books or movies’. New York Stage Review reckoned ‘they might as well send out the 2018 Best Play Tony Award for engraving already’. Variety described it as ‘theater that shows us the true magic of great storytelling’.
It’s proper theatre
And that’s another thing that the theatre critics loved about Harry Potter & The Cursed Child. It’s proper theatre. As the New York Times put it: ‘By contrast, most of the family-courting stage versions of animated films that have ruled the theater district for so long look as stiff and artificial as parades of windup toys.’
Similarly The Wrap contrasted it with ‘the stage versions of “Mary Poppins” and “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” (which) dumbed the imagination with their literal interpretations.’
Variety summed it up by saying ‘the theater has brought its own brand of wizardry to the material’. The Hollywood Reporter loved its ‘Thrilling theatricality’. It was, in the Chicago Tribune’s eyes, ‘a feast of epic theatricality in celebration of the imagination (that) manages to be both extraordinary and old-fashioned theatrical fun’. The Daily News went on a similar tack: ‘What’s so wondrous is how low-tech stagecraft brings such high-definition delight.’ The Hollywood Reporter agreed: ‘The ingenuity on display, often using the simplest means, is dazzling.’ Time Out said, ‘Great care has gone into creating each moment of this state-of-the-art adventure. It leaves its audience awestruck, spellbound and deeply satisfied.’
Many critics name checked the entire creative team. Here’s The Washington Post: ‘Director John Tiffany and his longtime maestro of movement, Steven Hoggett … have created a dynamic pair of evenings replete with ahhhh-inspiring tricks and illusions overseen by the ingenious Jamie Harrison. (Christine Jones’s swirling breakapart set pieces and Neil Austin’s lighting effects are marvels, too.)’
‘Given what Cursed Child’s design team has accomplished on a technical level,’ said Entertainment Weekly, ‘Broadway will never be the same.’ And while that publication went all apocalyptic, The New York Times went all philosophical: ‘”I am paint and memory,” a talking portrait of the long-dead wizard Dumbledore says […] Well, that’s art, isn’t it? Substitute theatrical showmanship for paint, and you have this remarkable production’s elemental recipe for all-consuming enchantment.’ ‘The stagecraft on display is unlike anything I’ve seen, with magical moments taking your breath away at every turn,’ said Newsday breathlessly.
Time Out joined the chorus of approval with a concise phrase surely destined for the posters: ‘A triumph of theatrical magic’
Magic. That’s the word that- inevitably you might say- comes up again and again. The Hollywood Reporter called it ‘sheer magic’. ‘It contained’, said the New York Times, ‘some of the most eye-boggling illusions you’ll ever witness’. The review goes on to say it sets ‘the new gold standard for fantasy franchise entertainment on Broadway’. (Maybe, like me, you didn’t know ‘fantasy franchise entertainment’ was a separate genre but you do now.) Entertainment Weekly named the wizards responsible: ‘The show’s illusion and magic designer Jamie Harrison and special effects chief Jeremy Chernick are certain geniuses.’
The fifth and final spell was cast by the cast.
‘The leading actors are jolly good,’ said the Washington Post, subtly referring to the fact that many of the cast are from the original English production.
Coming in for particular praise was Anthony Boyle as Draco Malfoy’s son Scorpius who, said the New York Times, gave ‘a show stealing performance’. Variety called him ‘brilliant’. The Chicago Tribune said he was ‘fabulous’, adding that his ’emotional energy empowers the production’. Entertainment Weekly along with many others was impressed by Jamie Parker as the grown up Harry: ‘the actor excels at showing this grown-up Gryffindor as a brave but stunted man, outwardly successful but inwardly tormented’. It was, said The Hollywood reporter, ‘A finely nuanced performance, with gravitas and heart’. Noma Dumezweni wowed the American critics as much as she previously impressed the Brits in London. Entertainment Weekly said she ‘stuns as a Hermione who is both cold and warm, hardened by politics, softened by parenthood, a brilliant enigma dealing with the frustration of a problem she cannot solve’.
The power and limits of love
So there you have it. A show that, thanks to its story, its theatricality, its magic and its cast, transcends its literary and cinematic origins to become a classic piece of theatre in its own right, and that, in the words of the Washington Post, ‘will be inducing swoons in Times Square for years to come’.
I’d like to end with a quote from the Chicago Tribune that seems to me to get to the very heart of why this is so much more than a mere Harry Potter spinoff: ‘you’re struck by the great beauty of both the theater and the people inside, all thinking and feeling as one about the power and limits of love’.
Alfred Molina stars in the first UK revival of John Logan’s Red since Michael Grandage directed it at the Donmar Warehouse back in 2009. At that time the play about the abstract painter Mark Rothko went on to win six Tony Awards following a Broadway transfer, including one for Best Play. Alfred Molina reprises the role of the painter and is joined by Alfred Enoch who you may recognise from TV’s How To Get Away With Murder. It’s at Wyndham’s Theatre from 4 May.
It’s getting fractionally warmer and sunnier so what about a visit to the open–roofed Shakespeare’s Globe? Hamlet and As You Like It lead the summer season.
From 1 May, Park Theatre in Finsbury Park present the UK Premiere of Robert Schenkkan’s political thriller Building The Wall, a harrowing tale set in 2019 when terrible events have resulted from Donald Trump making good on his promise to build a wall between Mexico and the United States.
Rick played by Trevor White (who you might have seen playing Henry Miller in The Durrells) is incarcerated awaiting sentencing for the crime of the century. He grants just one interview – to Gloria, an African American historian, played by Angela Griffin. In a world of ‘fake news’ surrounding one of the world’s most powerful and controversial political figures, Gloria is Rick’s only chance to tell his version of the truth.
Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband has its official opening night on 3 May at the Vaudeville Theatre in London as part of its Oscar Wilde season. An ambitious government minister’s smooth ascent to the top seems assured until a woman appears with damning proof of his previous financial chicanery. The cast includes theatrical heavyweights Edward Fox and his son Freddie, Susan Hampshire, Sally Bretton and Frances Barber. When it finishes in London it moves west to the Theatre Royal Bath from 18 July while The Importance Of Being Earnest follows at the Vaudeville from 20 July.
Peter Brook called them ‘the finest ensemble theatre in Europe’. So there’s a little bit of excitement that the Maly Drama Theatre of St. Petersburg are returning to London for the first time in over a decade to play a ten-show engagement at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket beginning 8 May. The 28-strong cast will be peforming the UK premiere of Vasily Grossman’s magnum opus, Life and Fate, an epic tale about Russia told through the fate of a single Jewish family. The company will also perform their critically acclaimed production of Chekov’s Uncle Vanya.
Summer Holiday.A brand new stage musical version of the film begins a tour that will cover most of the country. The show will include all of the hits from the movie, which of course starred Cliff Richard, plus some more of his hits.
Taking on the lead role of Don made famous by Cliff Richard is singer-songwriter Ray Quinn. Ray shot to fame in The X Factor in 2006 and has subsequently carved out a career for himself in stage musicals including playing Danny Zuko in Grease in the West End and appearing in Dirty Dancing, Legally Blonde and The Wedding Singer. For the first 8 weeks of the tour, the role of Jerry, the long-suffering agent, will be played by Bobby Crush. The iconic red double-decker bus makes its first stop at the Liverpool Empire on 8 May.
Jordi Galceran’s The Grönholm Method gets its UK premiere at The Menier Chocolate Factory. The successful American director BT McNicholl makes his UK directorial debut.
Set in the offices of a New York City Fortune 500 company, four unsuspecting candidates embark on the most testing job interview of their lives. This taut play – which premièred in Barcelona in 2003 to great critical acclaim- exposes the psychological depths people will go to in order to get what they want. The production opens on 10 May.
It may be associated with Christmas these days but Peter Pan is an excellent theatrical entertainment any time of the year and to prove it the Open Air Theatre at Regents Park have a version running from 17 May. In this spellbinding production, the story becomes an allegory for World War One as wounded soldiers escape into the world of their imagination.
It sold out last year at The National Theatre. Now Nina Raine’s Consent is getting a West End run. It’s a searing look at the law in which friends take opposing briefs in a contentious legal case. The key witness is a woman whose life seems a world away from theirs. At home, their own lives begin to unravel as every version of the truth is challenged. You can see what the Daily Telegraph called a ‘tense, entertaining modern-day tragi-comedy’ at the Harold Pinter theatre in London from 18 May.
Kay Mellor’s Fat Friends‘ triumphant tour has reached Scotland. It’s at King’s Theatre in Glasgow until 5 May and His Majesty’s Theatre in Aberdeen from the 21-26 May.
84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff is lovely, gentle story about a transatlantic friendship between a New York writer and a London bookshop owner which starts in the 40s and goes through to the 60s. There’s a new tour of James Roose-Evans’ stage adaptation starring the excellent Stefanie Powers and Clive Francis. It begins at Darlington Hippodrome on 23 May before moving on to Wolverhampton, Malvern, Richmond, Oxford and finally Cambridge Arts Theatre.
Frantic Assembly are always worth a look. From 25 May at the Lyric Hammersmith, the company presents Fatherland by Simon Stephens of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time fame. Fatherland is described as ‘a bold, ambitious show about contemporary fatherhood in all its complexities and contradictions’. It’s ‘a daring collage of words, music and movement will transform the Lyric animated by a 13-strong cast and a multitude of voices’.
These days we often associate Christopher Hampton with his brilliant translations of plays but he’s a fine playwright in his own right as DangerousLiaisons, Art and Atonement attest. His adaptation of Moliere’s Tartuffe re-locates the comedic masterpiece to present day Los Angeles. Orgon is a French media tycoon determined to become part of Hollywood royalty. He falls under the influence of Tartuffe, re-imagined as a radical American evangelist, who plots to steal his fortune, seduce his wife and marry his daughter.
It stars Paul Anderson from Peaky Blinders and Audrey Fleurot who I love from the French TV police drama Spiral. Tartuffe will be the West End’s first ever dual language theatre production, in English and French with surtitles throughout the performance. It opens at the Theatre Royal Haymarket on 25 May.
And finally in this section, a closure. This month offers your last chance to catch Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman. The Royal Court production directed by Sam Mendes ends its hugely successful run at the Gielgud Theatre on 19 May.
Booking Opens In May For These Top Theatre Shows
The Royal National Theatre has announced some new productions. Rhys Ifans appears in a new version of Eugene Ionesco’s Exit the King. It’s written and directed by Patrick Marber. You’ll know him from plays like Dealer’s Choice, Closer, Three Days in The Country (his version of Turgenev’s A Month In The Country), After Miss Julie (his version of Strindberg’s Miss Julie) and Don Juan in Soho (his version of Moliere’s Don Juan). I suppose we should be grateful he’s kept the same name this time. Exit The King is a tragi-comedy about a dying king- and dying in general. The first performance is on 17 July.
It’s part of the Travelex Season so there’ll be hundreds of £15 tickets available for every performance
The intimate Dorfman Theatre is the venue for the world premiere of Home, I’m Darling by Laura Wade, author of Posh. Katherine Parkinson who you’ll know from The IT Crowd and Humans plays Judy in this unsettling new comedy about one woman’s quest to be the perfect 1950s housewife. Home, I’m Darling, which is a co-production with Theatr Clwyd, runs from 24 July.
Make a note in your diary. Public booking for Exit The King and Home I’m Darling opens on Friday 18 May at 8.30pm. If you’re a member, you can book earlier.
Some new NT Live screenings were also announced. Nottingham Playhouse’s The Madness of George III with Mark Gatiss can be seen on 20 November. Before that, Chichester Festival Theatre’s production of King Lear starring Ian McKellen will be broadcast live from the Duke Of York’s on 27 September.
Talking of King Lear, the casting has now been announced. Reprising their roles will be Sinéad Cusack as Kent, Danny Webb as Gloucester and Kirsty Bushell as Regan. I can tell you all of these were superb in the original production. The production opens at the Duke Of York’s on 11 July. There are only 100 performances scheduled.
The Park Theatre in Finsbury Park London is always worth checking out for high quality productions. Their latest season is now on sale. It opens with the world premiere of a black comedy called End Of The Pier by Danny Robins. Les Dennis plays a former comedy presenter and national treasure thrust back into the limelight, at the centre of a media frenzy. Then there’s a revival of The Rise and Fall of Little Voice, the world premiere of a psychological thriller The Other Place and a revival ofJoanna Murray-Smith’s Honour, an unflinching portrait of what happens when a secure marriage suddenly stalls.
Riaz Khan’s book Memoirs of an Asian Football Casual which details his experience of racism, the violence and the pop-culture in 1980s Leicester has been adapted for the stage. It’scoming to Curve Leicester from 26September to 6 October. We’re promised an immersive experience from director Nikolai Foster who is Curve’s Artistic Director.
Looking even further ahead, this year’s London Palladium pantomime will be Snow White. It will star Dawn French as The Wicked Queen and sees the return of Julian Clary as The Man in The Mirror. Also in the cast are Paul Zerdin, Nigel Havers and a particular favourite of mine Gary Wilmot as the dame. It begins on 8 December 2018 and runs until Sunday 13 January 2019. Public booking opens on Friday 4 May 2018. Last year’s Palladium panto Dick Whittington from the same production team won an Olivier
You don’t have to go to London for a great panto. The Great British Pantomime Awards 2018 named last year’s Salisbury Playhouse panto Jack And The Beanstalk ‘best panto at a theatre with less than 750 seats’. This year their panto is Beauty And The Beast.
If there were instructions for the correct assembly of a stage play, how would they read? First, get a good theme. In Thomas Eccleshare‘s Instructions For Correct Assembly, we have at least two: dealing with grief;and when we create something how much responsibility and control do we have.
Then you need a plot. Again we have two. We start with a married couple, who enjoy DIY, constructing a human robot. It becomes apparent that they are trying to create an improved version of their young adult son who died. The second story- of what happened to their son- is told in parallel.
The two stories don’t always fit easily together. The sci-fi story leads to some hilarious moments as the robot tries to please but reveals his essential amorality. There’s a scene at dinner with friends where his inability to filter leads to sexual remarks so rude I can’t repeat them here. On the same occasion, he states his ambition to sell junk food outside secondary schools before responding to the shocked reaction and eventually muting it to organic healthy food. The other story is a poignant sometimes brutal portrayal of what it’s like when your child is an addict.
Then you need good characters and you need to assemble a cast of good actors to play them. Jane Horrocks as Max and Mark Bonnar as Harry are excellent as the fragile but positive parents. They make a believable loving couple. Michele Austin and Jason Barnett are exactly right as their friends- the Joneses, as it were, with whose child Harry and Max can only wish theirs could keep up with.
Brian Vernel is brilliant both as the son and, especially, as his fast talking robot replacement. Alike but subtly different, both try to impress and both lie. Neither ‘son’ turns out how the parents plan- and this is the glue that holds the play together.
A good production also needs a good designer. Cai Dyfan’s superb set starting as a tight aperture through which we view the action gradually opens up to show that the world cannot be controlled.
As with many assembly packs, there is one piece missing. A heart. Perhaps this is deliberate on the part of the author but, funny and interesting as it was, I didn’t find the play emotionally involving.
Instructions For Correct Assembly performs at the Royal Court‘s Jerwood Theatre Downstairs until 19 May.
See below the review on the YouTube channel One Minute Theatre Reviews
Ever since they were first built in the 1500s right up to today, British theatres have been running into trouble with what they put on their stages but five plays in particular- one in each of the last five centuries- shocked British theatre to the core.
The first British theatre buildings staged some of the greatest plays ever written in the English language. The so-called English renaissance ran from the late 1500s through to the mid 1600s. Theatre was the television of its day- the leading form of popular entertainment. The top playwrights of this golden era included William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe. But what was allowed on stage was strictly controlled. For example, no modern monarchs could be portrayed. One playwright decided to test the boundaries.
The Game At Chess
Thomas Middleton was, along with Ben Jonson and John Fletcher, one of the big three playwrights of the early 17th century. His hit plays included The Revenger’s Tragedy and The Changeling. So there was much anticipation when A Game At Chess was staged in August 1624 by the acting company and playhouse most associated with William Shakespeare- the King’s Men at the Globe Theatre.
On the face of it, it was a comedy was about the pieces in a chess match but audiences immediately latched on to the fact that the play is an allegory for the relationship between Spain and Great Britain. The White King was James I of England and the Black King Philip IV of Spain.
Among other prominent people featured was a former Spanish ambassador Diego Sarmiento de Acuña, conde de Gondomar, who was caricatured as the underhand Black Knight. (Apparently The King’s Men even bought up secondhand, items from his wardrobe to use in the role.) The new Spanish ambassador recognized the satire and took offence. He complained to King James.
Despite, or perhaps because of, it being a huge hit, the play was stopped after nine performances. Middleton and the actors were prosecuted. The Globe Theatre was shut down. Further performances of the play were forbidden. Middleton and the actors were fined. Middleton never wrote another play.
A few years later, the monarchy was overthrown by Cromwell and the puritans and theatrical performances were banned.
The restoration of the monarchy brought with it a liberation of theatre. Reacting to the puritanism of previous years, Restoration Comedy was deliberately rude in language and subject matter. Also, for the first time, women performed on stage and a large number of plays incorporated plots in which a woman disguised herself as a man, thus allowing audiences to see women’s legs in trousers which would normally be hidden behind skirts. If this wasn’t scandalous enough, one playwright decided to push what ould be shown on stage to the limit.
The Country Wife
William Wycherley’s The Country Wife was said at the time to be the bawdiest, most sexually explicit play ever written. It was deliberately shocking with its plot about cuckolding and randy upper class women. Not to mentions its sexual innuendoes. People of the time couldn’t talk about china- the crockery not the country- without embarrassment for some time after.
It went down well in 1675, but times and tastes change. Not only did people become more conservative, governments were unhappy about playwrights satirising the country’s rulers. So in 1737, Prime Minister Robert Walpole introduced a Licensing Act whereby all plays had to be approved by the Lord Chamberlain before being performed. However the Lord Chamberlain was not only concerned with satire in plays, he was protective about many other aspects that might affront public decency. In the new climate, The Country Wife was regarded as obscene and after 1753 it was not performed on stage again until 1924.
As time went on, the Licensing Act ensured that references to drugs, sexual activity especially homosexuality, naked bodies, innuendoes and much more from what some called ‘real life’ were forbidden on stage. Inevitably there was rebellion and at the end of the 19th century a leading writer of the day mounted a challenge.
Mrs Warren’s Profession
George Bernard Shaw had already had box office success with Arms And The Man. In 1893, wrote Mrs Warren’s Profession. The problem was the play was about prostitution. The Lord Chamberlain refused to allow it to be performed. In 1902, a number of leading actors performed the play in a members only club but it took until 1925, by which time Shaw had had a string of successes including Pygmalion, Man And Superman, Saint Joan and Caesar And Cleopatra, before it was finally allowed into a British theatre open to the general public.
The Licensing Act remained in place until 1968. By then, it was in disrepute and was replaced by the Theatres Act which effectively abolished censorship in the theatre, albeit allowing for the Attorney General to prosecute a play liable to ‘deprave and corrupt’. It may say something about the changing place of theatre in society that while theatre now had freedom of expression, cinemas and television were still subject to censorship, suggesting that theatre was no longer the popular entertainment of years ago and that the educated middle classes who attend theatre could be trusted not be corrupted by it.
The day after the abolition of the Licensing Act, the musical Hair received its first performance on a British stage complete with nudity and references to drug taking. Calcutta quickly followed and, over the next few years, there was an explosion of plays depicting the realities of life including all kinds of sexuality. Nudity became almost commonplace. It began to seem like the stage had become a place where anything goes. But a play at the National Theatre showed that theatre could still shock and there were still potential boundaries.
The Romans In Britain
In 1980, the National Theatre presented Howard Brenton‘s The Romans in Britain, an allegory about the British army in Ireland. It featured a scene in which a naked male Roman soldier raped a naked male British Druid. I don’t think I need to say that this was simulated but the first night audience was reported to be stunned into silence at the end. When morality campaigner Mary Whitehouse heard about it, even though she hadn’t seen it, she had no doubt it should be banned.
Having failed to get the Attorney General to agree to a prosecution, she invoked a piece of legislation never intended to apply to theatre- the Sexual Offences Act – and took out a private prosecution against the director Michael Bogdanov, effectively labelling him a ‘pimp’. The chief witness for the prosecution, claimed to have seen a penis. Under cross-examination he revealed that he had been sitting at the very back of the theatre- in row X. Defence counsel Jeremy Hutchinson QC demonstrated that what he had witnessed was the actor’s thumb protruding from his fist. The prosecution dropped its case.
The case settled in law that sex and violence in theatre is ‘pretend’, not ‘real’. A triumph only tempered by the judge agreeing with Mrs Whitehouse that a prosecution under the Sexual Offences Act was valid, even if in this case unsuccessful.
In fact, nudity and sexual activity of all kinds have continued to be presented in plays unchallenged in the decades since. But that doesn’t mean there haven’t been more plays that have shocked people and rocked theatres. At the beginning of the 21st century, a small theatre in Birmingham triggered an explosion that continues to ripple through British theatre to this day.
In December 2004, the Birmingham Repertory Theatre presented a new play by the British Sikh playwright Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti. Her play Behzti was described by Helen Cross in The Independent as ‘offensive, and furious and bloodthirsty and angry in all the right places. Set mainly in the Gurdwara, the Sikh place of worship, this searing comedy features rape, abuse, murder, violence – while still managing to be hugely funny, touching and tremendously important’.
It was the setting that caused the controversy. Word got round about its content and on the opening night there was a protest organised by local Sikh leaders. Leaders of the protest said they didn’t want actually to stop the play being performed so long as the setting- the Sikh temple- was changed.
About a thousand Sikhs turned up to what was intended to be a peaceful protest. Some entered the theatre and tried to get on the stage. After 20 minutes, the performance was abandoned. There were violent clashes between some protesters and the police. The playwright received death threats. Fearing for the safety of audiences and staff, the theatre cancelled further performances of the play.
The following year, a number of Christians protested against the tour of the West End hit Jerry Springer The Opera because of its irreverent depiction of Jesus and others from the Bible. The threat of picketing by a group called Christian Voice was enough to cause a number of theatres to withdraw from the tour.
So, today shocking plays like A Game At Chess, The Country Wife, Mrs Warren’s Profession and The Romans In Britain can be performed British theatres without censorship by the authorities or by the law. However, as Behtzi shows, in these days of people power, if a play shocks members of the public, whether or not they’ve seen it or even if they never go the theatre, they can protest against it and can potentially shut it down. And while the protests against that play and Jerry Springer The Opera were by people whose religious beliefs were offended, plays containing sexist or racist attitudes and behaviour, particularly in plays from the past, are also potential targets.
I’ve a feeling British theatre is in for a few more shocks yet.
Melissa D. Aaron, Global Economics: A History of the Theatre Business, the Chamberlain’s/King’s Men, and Their Plays, 1599–1642, Newark, DE, University of Delaware Press, 2003
[podcast src=”https://html5-player.libsyn.com/embed/episode/id/6454122/height/360/width/450/theme/standard/autonext/no/thumbnail/yes/autoplay/no/preload/no/no_addthis/no/direction/forward/” height=”360″ width=”450″ placement=”top” theme=”standard”]April 2018: Reviews of Carey Mulligan in Girls & Boys at Royal Court Theatre, Rufus Norris’ Macbeth at the National Theatre with Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff, and A Streetcar Named Desire at Nuffield Southampton Theatre. Plus the seven best theatre shows opening this month.
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Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire is one of the greatest plays of the twentieth century. Chelsea Walker’s production at Nuffield Theatre’s City venue does it justice in many respects.
The cast convey the unspoken as well as spoken relationships very well. Kelly Gough gives a visceral performance as the central character Blanche Dubois who comes to stay with her physically abused sister Stella and macho brother-in-law Stanley, and whose superior behaviour and secret past create a charged atmosphere destined to explode. She’s hyperactive, nervous, fragile. You feel at any moment she could break into a thousand pieces, like the various objects during the production which do just that. A watermelon being one example.
Chelsea Walker has added many more visual metaphors, including some nicely done dance sequences, to underline what’s happening in the characters’ heads. One metaphor at the end by which the set becomes symbolic of Blanche’s state of mind and her separation from the other characters works really well.
There is a realistic lovemaking scene in which Stanley pleasures Stella. This has the effect of heightening the strong sexual atmosphere, as well as showing explicitly what the text only suggests, that one reason why she stays with this bully is that he satisfies her physically.
Chelsea Walker’s production sizzles with ideas
The production sizzles with ideas but there were times when I felt this talented director was trying too hard. For example, she’s given the play a contemporary setting. It’s true that the themes of being an outsider, domestic violence, masculinity and power, and more remain relevant to our times but by moving it to our times, many anachronisms are created.
For example, talk of sending a wire when one would send a text or of workclothes when a character is wearing a leisure outfit. This wouldn’t matter if the modern setting provided new insights but I’m not convinced it did.
Patrick Knowles resisted the temptation to overplay Stanley, allowing Blanche’s character to dominate the play, as she should. He managed to convey the arrogance and insecurity of a macho man who imagines himself a ‘king’. He could perhaps have displayed more sexual swagger for a man who defines himself by his masculinity.
One thing missing was the oppressive atmosphere we expect in A Streetcar Named Desire. Georgina Lowe’s clever set, although appropriately restricted in its dimensions, has an open frame-like structure made more open by all the space of the Nuffield’s new auditorium around it. (I suspect it will work better in more intimate venues.)
The actors rarely behaved like they were weighed down by the heat and humidity of a New Orleans summer.
These caveats aside, I thoroughly recommend A Streetcar Named Desire either at the Nuffield or during its tour.
A Streetcar Named Desire performs at the Nuffield Theatres Southampton City until 31 March 2018 then tours to Keswick (3 – 7 Apr), Malvern (10 – 14 Apr), Bristol (17 – 21), Ipswich (24 – 28 Apr), Cambridge (1 – 5 May), Oxford (8 – 12 May) and Mold (15 May – 2 June), returning to the Nuffield 5 – 16 June.
‘misjudged mess’ WhatsOnStage ‘the worst Shakespeare production at the NT for at least a decade’ Time Out ‘An unfortunate failure’ Sunday Times ‘A dud’ Daily Telegraph ‘A real mess’ Variety ‘A dismaying muddle’ The Stage ‘A stinker’ Daily Mail
Macbeth at the National Theatre has garnered some of the worst reviews in a long time including a one star review from WhatsonStage. Most rated it two stars including Sunday Times, Daily Mail, Telegraph, The Guardian, The Stage, Evening Standard, The Times, The Observer, Time Out and Broadwayworld.com.
‘Is this a dagger I see before me?’ asks Macbeth. He wasn’t wrong- the daggers were out for this production. The Telegraph responded, ‘Is this a dud I see before me?’ and the Daily Mail said, ‘Is this a shambles I see before me?’
So what didn’t they like? Two words crop up more than any others: Rufus Norris. He’s the director of Macbeth and he’s the National Theatre’s Artistic Director. He must have felt like Macbeth did when Burnham Forest came to Dunsinane. The machetes were out for him.Quite a few of the forest of critics noted his lack of experience in directing Shakespeare. Given the hugely successful Shakespearean productions of his predecessor Nicholas Hytner, now wowing them with Julius Caesar down the road at the Bridge Theatre, the phrase ‘hard act to follow’ comes to mind.
The first problem was that he had, many felt,
No understanding of the play
Rufus Norris places his Macbeth in some kind of post-apocalyptic urban setting. Dominic Cavendish wrote in the Telegraph ‘if a director does decide to go into modern-day apocalyptic mode, they can face a losing battle (as here) defining what is being fought over, why attention is paid to hierarchies, and how any of it matters’.
‘Where are we exactly, what sort of society is this and how did people end up here? It’s never made clear – conceptually, it’s a dismaying muddle.’ That was Natasha Tripney in The Stage
Lloyd Evans writing in the Spectator agreed ‘everything is confusing here’. ‘Childish, tokenistic, muddled, this show is laughably unmoving. They splosh round masses of Kensington gore but it manages to be bloodless. Feeble,’ spluttered Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail.
Christopher Hart writing in the Sunday Times knows what he likes: ‘In the best productions, Macbeth can feel like a ferocious ride straight to hell, pausing only for some of the most haunting and desolate soliloquies in the canon: the outpourings of a human soul in the process of destroying itself.’ And he knows what he doesn’t like: ‘What it should never feel like is lacklustre, turgid, somnolent’.
‘There’s no compelling new take here on Shakespeare’s interest in questions of tyranny and masculinity,’ complained Henry Hitchings in the Evening Standard.
‘Norris has taken a play best compressed into a taut psychological drama and blown it up into something operatically overblown,’ blustered Variety.
Holly Williams in the Independent said ‘vaulting ambitious becomes more survival of the fittest’. To be fair, Holly Williams didn’t hate it: ‘I’ve seen far worse than this.’ Which is what is sometimes called damning with faint praise.
So what else did Rufus Norris do to upset the critics? Well, if he didn’t understand what Shakespeare was getting at, he also dissed the bard’s poetry.
No respect for the text
‘In more minor cuts and rewrites, metre counts for nothing,’ complained Ian Shuttleworth in The Financial Times. ‘It’s brutally truncated,’ said Sarah Crompton in WhatsOnStage, ‘its great moral debate about the corrupting effects of evil (is) entirely lost.’
Variety referred to ‘Unnecessary, almost arbitrary textual cuts’. Susannah Clapp in The Observer talked of ‘a slashed text that eviscerates the witches’ speeches – no hubble-bubble or eye of newt – and makes the drama blunter, more one-dimensional’.
Quentin Letts writing in the Daily Mail wasn’t happy with Slasher Norris from the start: ‘”When shall we three meet again?” is one of the greatest opening lines of any play. Mr Norris ditches that.’
The Guardian’s Michael Billington wrote, ‘While a play is not a poetry recital, this production seems indifferent to the rhythms of the language… (it) sacrifices its tonal contrasts and mysterious poetry.’
And not only did it sound bad, they thought it looked bad.
The set is ugly
‘Rae Smith’s ugly-to-behold set is dominated by an oppressive backdrop of raven-black hangings,’ said the Telegraph. That word ‘ugly’ crops up a few times. ‘It was aggressively ugly,’ shuddered The Stage. And WhatsOnStage found it ‘ugly to look at’.
The Daily Mail called it a ‘low-lit mess engulfed by blunt grottiness’. Time Out said, ‘the setup here is essentially meaningless’. The Guardian found it ‘harsh to look at, lacking in light and shade’. The Evening Standard thought it was ‘bleak and often brutal’.
The set offended some critics so much, they couldn’t keep their eyes off it, thus subverting the Shakespeare’s classic work . Anne Treneman in The Times said, ‘the play struggles to rise above the sheer Stygian ghastliness’. ‘These distressing visual details aren’t just nasty to look at, they undermine the story,’ said Lloyd Evans in The Spectator.
Not everyone agreed. The Sunday Times thought it had a ‘marvelous look’. David Butcher on the Radio Times website praised the ‘bold production design’. The Independent said, ‘Norris’s production excels … in atmosphere and visuals. It’s dark.’
So you have this big dark set and here’s the next problem. It’s in a big theatre.
The Olivier is too big
Now arguably this is not Rufus Norris’ fault. He’s inherited the cavernous Olivier but then again he chose to place Macbeth, a play whose themes of conspiracy and paranoia probably work best in a confined space, in the biggest space the National has to offer.
‘Rae Smith’s black pleated walls – bin-bag cliffs – engulf the action on the huge Olivier stage,’ said Susannah Clapp in The Observer. Mark Shenton at LondonTheatre.co.uk thought ‘the scale of the production also mitigates against the domestic intensity of much of the drama’.
You might have thought the stars would redeem it. Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff are two of our finest actors and in Mr Kinnear you have someone with a brilliant track record of playing great Shakespearean roles. And, to an extent, they did but, even though most critics liked their acting, quite a few didn’t like the interpretations, especially Rory Kinnear’s Macbeth.
Here’s what they said about this ‘poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage’. ‘Rory Kinnear, one of our finest comic actors, never quite convinces as the driven, ambitious thane. He’s too dithering, nervy and jumpy.’ That was the Sunday Times.
The Daily Mail thought him ‘unexceptional’. ‘Kinnear is a martial not a meditative presence, too robust to seem deeply disturbed,’ said The Observer. The Stage said, ‘In the past he’s been an eloquent Hamlet and a bullish, envy-drenched Iago. He tackles Macbeth with the same clarity of delivery, but he never digs beneath his skin.’
That latter point is echoed by others. The Guardian said he ‘never takes us inside Macbeth’s head’. WhatsOnStage agreed saying he ‘does little to convey the conscience-stricken inwardness that makes the character so complex’. The Radio Times said, ‘There’s not enough sense of the dense geography of Macbeth’s inner life’ and continued ‘we don’t get the feeling here that his Macbeth is a great soul laid low by baser instincts, more an exasperated middle manager.’
Lloyd Evans in The Spectator had a similar thought. ‘There’s no trace of poetry, grandeur or mystery about him. But he’d be ideal casting as the tetchy manager of an Amazon warehouse.’
There’s more from Mr Evans. ‘Rory Kinnear makes an unlikely Macbeth,’ said The Spectator. ‘His voice is dark, rich and characterful but he has few other assets. Physically he’s suburban: a bit bald, slightly stooping, with a faint beer gut and a pinched, narrow frame.’ In other contexts, this would be body shaming but we can take his point that Rory Kinnear’s Macbeth is an ordinary guy.
Rosemary Waugh from Exeunt Magazine had the same impression: ‘Rory Kinnear plays Macbeth as the-bloke-down-the-pub, making some of the most famous monologues in the history of well, theatre, sound as dramatically intense as a food order.’
Not everybody was unhappy with Rory Kinnear. Marianka Swain from Broadwayworld.com said he ‘showed real existential angst’ and was ‘as clear-spoken and intelligent with verse as always’.
So what about Anne-Marie Duff? She came in for less stick than Rory Kinnear but The Observer did say, ‘Duff is precise, guarding against her own fragility – she delivers her smashing-the-baby speech tearfully – but lacks the fire that usually makes her so memorable.’
And BroadwayWorld.com thought, ‘Anne-Marie Duff’s Lady Macbeth feels half-formed.’ Variety was even less impressed: ‘as Lady Macbeth, Duff all but goes missing’.
That said, many critics did like the acting of both Mr and Mrs Macbeth. Mark Shenton at londontheatre.co.uk said, ‘Neither of these fine, fierce and always ferociously intelligent actors disappoints.’ The Radio Times enthused about the ‘clarity of delivery and line-reading that makes the text sing’.
And quite a few singled out Anne-Marie Duff. The Financial Times said ‘she makes every word vibrate with high-tension significance’. The Guardian’s Michael Billington, who didn’t find much else to like, said ‘she lives vividly in the moment’.
So there you have it. The critics full of sound and fury but… signifying nothing? Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow will tell whether sales or indeed Rufus Norris’s reputation are badly affected. I can say that when I saw it the audience reacted well. There was no polite round of applause- I heard strong clapping and some cheering. So word-of-mouth may prevail.
Did any critic give Macbeth at the National Theatre more than two stars? Yes- the Financial Times, The Independent, the Radio Times, the i and the LondonTheatre website to name but a few gave it three stars. One lone voice even gave it four stars. That was a certain One Minute Theatre Reviews.
What can I say? I liked the dystopian setting. I thought the poetry was beautifully spoken. I loved Rory Kinnear’s portrayal of Macbeth as an ordinary man caught up in lawless times. I found it interesting to see the themes of Macbeth played out, not in a war for a mighty kingdom but in the kind of nasty modern war over a destroyed city, such as we’ve seen in Syria or Bosnia.
I did think it would have been better in a more confined space, and it did lack tension at the end but I really hope the massed ranks of the critics advancing on Rufus Norris’s Macbeth don’t put people off this Scottish Play for our times.
The lights come up and there on the stage is Carey Mulligan. No set, just Carey Mulligan.
She’s the only person we’re going to meet for the next hour-and-a-half. She holds our attention for that long. We do see some colourless generic sets occasionally during Girls & Boys at the Royal Court but the main image you are left with is that of a single person alone on a blank set.
It’s a tour-de-force. Yes, she’s very engaging with her twinkling eyes and dimpled smile. But, more than that, she has the skill of seeming to speak directly to you. Her pauses make you hang on her words. Her timing is Olympic stopwatch standard.
Now delivery is one thing but, no matter how great an actor she is, she needs the words- and Dennis Kelly’s play, looking back on the story of a relationship from its light hearted beginning to its devastating end is also a grand achievement. It’s funny, insightful and sharp as a 4K TV. The language is at times rich, almost Rabelaisian, and at others pared down to the bone.
I’m guessing that the director Lindsey Turner made a major contribution to this triumphant production. It begins like standup comedy and ends like the bottom has fallen out of the world. Paralleling the course of the woman’s relationship, I began roaring with laughter and ended in shock.
Girls & Boys with Carey Mulligan at the Royal Court continues until 17 March 2018
Here’s the review from One Minute Theatre Reviews on YouTube-