David Hare’s new play is contrived, predictable & flat
(3 / 5)
When the National Theatre announces a new season, it’s always a challenge to decide which events to spend one’s time and money on. But a new play by one of our greatest living playwrights David Hare starring a fine actor like Siân Brooke and directed by the renowned Neil Armfield seemed a safe bet.
So you can imagine my disappointment when confronted by a contrived plot with a weighted conflict and a predictable end, not to mention an acting performance that offered none of the charisma that the role seemed to require. To be fair to Siân Brooke, it may be the script that was lacking rather than her performance.
The plot concerns a clash between a doctor who has run a single issue political campaign to save a hospital and subsequently becomes an MP and a career politician with whom she has, shall we say, history. By the way, Alex Hassell as her ‘sparring partner’ gives a bravura performance ranging from tears to tantrums.
The play jumps back and forth between the present day and the events that led up to it. We see the main character developing her political understanding to the point where she is considering running- or not running- for the Labour Party leadership.
A big auditorium but not a major play
David Hare tries to help our political understanding too. So we learn how the personal and the political are connected, and how we need political parties, in this case the Labour Party, if you seriously want to change things. At Westminster, the play says, we need less towing the party line, less putting efficiency before people and less male ego, and conversely more passion, more belief, more women.
The play takes its time and, if you’re not interested in politics, you may find it dull- although there are some juicy confrontations between the two main characters. The problem for me is, the arguments always seem one sided, so the excitement never mounts. Far from being carried along to the climax, I had plenty of time to consider how unlikely the ending is.
Although the play is about politics, there are no big speeches. It is an intimate play consisting almost entirely of conversations between two people in small rooms. The Lyttleton stage is too big for it. Ralph Myers’ set comprises a simple triangular white room which spins round nicely to frame the action but the large auditorium seems to create performances that are a bit more shouty than they should be.
Last year I saw both Labour Of Love and This House by James Graham, both about Labour Party politics. I was far more affected by his portrayal of impassioned but flawed people who believe in their cause and understand the need to compromise and work together for change in a democratic system than by David Hare’s fantasy world.
I’m Not Running is performing at the National Theatre until 31 January. There will be an NT Live broadcast of the final performance.
Watch below to see the YouTube review of I’m Not Running on the One Minute Theatre Reviews channel
Exit the King is about how we come to terms with the shocking fact that we’re all going to die. As a character says in the play, ‘everyone is the first person ever to die.’
Patrick Marber has done a brilliant job both as director and as the adapter of Eugene Ionesco’s original play. It sounds contemporary and there are funny lines galore and there remains Ionesco’s intention that theatre itself with its exits and entrances should be a metaphor for life. The characters speak in a theatrical way and the King is told early on ‘you’re going to die at the end of the play.’
And as the King, Rhys Ifans is extraordinary. He goes through denial and anger and all the other emotions experienced by those who are dying. Physically he declines before our eyes. He sounds like one of those declamatory stage actors of old like Laurence Olivier and his physical comedy reminded me of Jerry Lewis.
He’s supported by Indira Varma as the cool first Queen, Amy Morgan as the not-so-dumb blonde second Queen and Debra Gillett hilarious as the irreverent servant. Adrian Scarborough and Derek Griffiths complete an all round superb cast.
My only disappointment was that the ending felt dragged out and momentum was lost.
Oh, and credit where it’s due to set designer Anthony Ward. So often designers are defeated by the size of the National Theatre’s Olivier stage but his solution is to have the small cast at the front for most of the play with a big crumbling palace wall behind them, then, in a gobsmacking ending, the set disappears and the whole grand canyon of the stage area opens up as the king dies and fades into eternity. It’s a theatrical moment of which one feels sure Ionesco would have approved.
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
‘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 first thing to say about Macbeth at the National Theatre is that Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff as the murderous couple do full justice to Shakespeare’s magnificent poetry and his insights into human nature.
Director Rufus Norris places Macbeth in some post-apocalyptic version of today’s world. Rei Smith’s design is a disaster but not in the way some critics meant. The striking black and broken set underlines that something terrible has happened. Society has broken down into low tech tribes fighting for turf. They exist in ruined buildings, wearing cobbled together clothes and sitting on what looks like furniture salvaged from the tip. The characters’ many different accents take the setting well away from Scotland into what could be any modern war zone.
Beautifully acted by Rory Kinnear & Anne-Marie Duff
Macbeth is an ordinary person who finds himself in this extraordinary situation- and no-one does the complexities that lie beneath ordinary people better than Rory Kinnear. You feel that in peaceful times, his Macbeth could have been the guy from accounts, so low key and sensitive and humorous is his portrayal. Yet, in this time of war, he’s become a successful soldier.
Once his ambition to become the top man is sparked by the witches and his wife, even though he clearly isn’t a leader and despite his conscience and all the horrors, he heroically follows through what he started. Unlike Anne-Marie Duff’s wonderfully agitated Lady Macbeth, who, when tested, can’t cope. Rory Kinnear’s everyman Macbeth does dreadful deeds but makes us wonder what we could be capable of in such violent, anarchic times.
The production is a little lacking in tension at times, especially at the end, which I put down to this grubby small scale war needing to be played out in more confined space than the Olivier. Then again, a smaller theatre would have meant less people getting to see this dystopian, beautifully acted production.
Here’s the review on the YouTube channel One Minute Theatre Reviews-
Before Network even begins, the Lyttleton Theatre stage is full of things going on. There are diners to the right, a TV control room to the left, a big screen in the middle, a shiny reflective centre stage. For someone like me who loves a show that could only be done in a theatre, it’s a case of ‘you had me at hello’.
Jan Versweyveld’s set may be just a bit too fascinating for the good of Ivo van Hove’s production. Fortunately he has one great asset keeping Network focussed: Bryan Cranston. As the TV news anchor suffering a breakdown, he commands the stage even when he is one tiny component in a mass of activity. His authoritative voice, his physical presence and his warmth, as for example when he interacts with the audience, add up to a tour-de-force.
By contrast, the sub-plot about a relationship between two other characters, which are well acted by Michelle Dockery and Douglas Henshall, tends to get lost in the sea of screens, reflections and general sense of pandemonium.
Like the film it is based on, Network is set in the 1970s when TV news was newer and more dominant than today, so its warnings about the dire effects of treating news as entertainment (echoed by Quizwhich opens soon in London) seem overly familiar to nearly all of us who have grown up with a TV in the corner and come to regard it not as a window on the world but more a gogglebox.
The play moves on to ‘expose’ global capitalism before putting in a plea for the humanity of the life we actually live. Lee Hall’s play, based on Paddy Chayefsky’s film script, is preaching to the converted- we are after all an audience of physically present people watching real humans on stage) and I emphasise ‘preaching’. Nevertheless it’s an unforgettable production and a towering performance from Bryan Cranston.
I would never have thought day-to-day politics could be so tense. This House, which I saw at Chichester Festival Theatre’s Minerva is set in the 1970s when Labour was running minority governments and ends at the moment the Tories returned to power. But it’s not about Wilson, Callaghan or Thatcher. The play is set in the Whips’ Offices, the people who organise their party members’ voting.
These are dramatic times as Labour struggles to maintain its majority and govern, a situation not dissimilar to Theresa May’s government. The tension mounts when ‘pairing’ is suspended. This is the agreement whereby members absent through government business or illness have their missing vote cancelled by someone from the opposition not voting. To go behind the scenes and see that our democracy can only work by co-operation and compromise is an eye-opener.
Many people- some of the Brexit voters and Trump supporters, for example- seem to be rebelling against the perceived cosiness of the establishment. James Graham, author of This House, shows that there is a purpose to this comity. We have only to look across the Atlantic to see how the extreme differences between Republicans and Democrats have brought government to a halt after decades of working together.
Politicians Are People
But more than the drama and the lesson in democracy, This House reveals the real people behind the parliamentary constituencies. Plays need characters and This House is packed with flawed human beings with feelings. They are sometimes bullies, sometimes desperate and, most movingly, they can be compassionate. We see that in many cases these are people who care passionately but still respect their opponents and act honourably.
Politicians often try to show their human side in PR exercises- a pint down the pub or an appearance on Have I Got News For You– but This House does a far better job at showing they are as funny, sad, triumphant and tragic as the rest of us.
National Theatre designers abhor a vacuum. Faced with the big space of the Olivier and Lyttleton auditoria, they feel the need to fill them with sets that dominate and slow down the plays.
Not so Amadeus. The stage is filled, but with people, mainly an orchestra. So Mozart‘s sublime works literally take centre stage, not to mention Simon Slater‘s wonderful additional music with its jangling jarring sounds conveying the states of mind of the two protagonists.
Chloe Langford keeps the sets simple and nothing distracts- appropriately a simple piano dominates every scene.
Brilliant acting by Lucian Msamati & Adam Gillen
The two central roles of Salieri and Mozart are acted brilliantly. Lucian Msamati is the wily member of the establishment. You can feel his anguish at understanding the greatness of Mozart’s music while being denied the talent to match it. You understand why he wants to bring his rival down.
It’s a difficult trick to pull off but Adam Gillen communicates the great composer’s annoying child-like innocence while still exuding the power of his genius.
There is so much in Peter Shaffer‘s play that a revival is more than merited: the frustration of recognising great art but being unable to create it oneself; the ease with which a cynical dissembler can destroy a naive open person; that Man tests God’s achievement rather than the other way round; that immortality can be obtained through evil or through association with the immortal; and much much more. All of which is brought out vividly in this bold production directed by Michael Longhurst.
Stephen Sondheim’s Follies is a difficult musical. To carry it off, you need an extraordinarily good cast. Fortunately the National Theatre production has one.
Imelda Staunton is now the preeminent West End musical star, certainly for the more mature roles. Her performance as Sally consolidates her reputation by offering a perfect, beautifully acted and sung portrayal of sadness and illusion. That would be joy enough but just as perfect is Janie Dee. In the role of the cynical but brittle Phyllis, her voice, her acting and her dancing reminded me that she belongs in the highest ranks of musical performers.
Dee gets the most laughs with her songs Could I Leave You? and The Story Of Lucy And Jessie. When she finally crumbles, her performance is every bit as poignant as Staunton’s, who expresses her damaged character through the songs Don’t Look At Me, Too Many Mornings and Losing My Mind.
The musical is set in 1971 in a condemned theatre where former showgirls from Weismann’s Follies, a series of Ziegfeld-style musical reviews from the inter-War years, are gathering for a reunion. Attention centres on two of the women and their husbands. We discover that both couples have relationship problems which date back to their Follies days. This is cleverly told by showing us the ‘ghosts’ of their younger selves.
Other women reveal their illusions about their lives and relive their glory moments, again accompanied by their younger selves. More top class performances include those of Josephine Barstow, Dawn Hope and Tracie Bennett.
Janie Dee and Imelda Staunton are magnificent
Why do I say Follies is a ‘difficult’ musical? There is very little in the way of plot. The exploration of the main characters’ unhappy present relationships and past regrets is told for a substantial part of it as a series of book or character songs.
Sondheim’s music is complex and deep with emotion but, knowing that I was watching a production that runs for two hours and ten minutes without an interval, there was a moment when I wondered whether it was ever going to move along.
Just when it seemed Follies was getting nowhere, we were treated to impressive song-and-dance numbers like Who’s That Woman and a series of pastiches of pre-war Broadway musical songs, excellently choreographed by Bill Deamer. They provided some much needed fun and spectacle.
Follies comes to a climax with Loveland, a collection of Broadway parodies in which each of the main characters sings about their ‘folly’, whether of youth or maturity.
The production, directed by Dominic Cooke, does the musical proud with its 37 strong cast and 21 piece orchestra. The large Olivier stage is used well by designer Vicki Mortimer to create the crumbling theatre complete with a flickering neon sign and, when it provides the setting for the more glitzy Broadway numbers, it gives an apt visual representation of the contrast between past and present. The space is great for the song-and-dance numbers but too big for the book songs but that is the paradox of this brilliant, broken musical.
A Kendall commented on my YouTube review: “The criticisms of James Goldman’s book as having little ‘plot’ are shown to be irrelevant when you have this good a production, because what it becomes is, in effect, a meditation on ageing, the death of dreams, the sense of regret, guilt and much more. That is why it draws people in so very deeply to it. And in that sense, it is to musical theatre what some of Wagner’s mature works are to opera.”
It’s a good point. Maybe we can too hung up on stories in musicals and should sometimes just enjoy the mood of the work.