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.
Laura Linney, Andrew Scott and Aiden Turner are among the big names opening in shows in June
Possibly the most anticipated opening in June is the West End debut of American actor Laura Linney in My Name Is Lucy Barton, a dramatic monologue based on Elizabeth Strout’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel about the complexities of family life. It opens at the Bridge Theatre on 2 June for a very short run.
Octoroon opens at at the National Theatre on 7 June. Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins’ play was described by The New York Times as ‘the decade’s most eloquent statement on race in America today’. Meanwhile the National’s The Jungle which was co-produced with the Young Vic transfers to the Playhouse Theatre from 16 June. ‘The Jungle’ in question is the one just across the Channel in Calais. The play tells the story of the refugee camp from its creation to its destruction. We meet some of the residents and learn about their stories, their hopes and their fears.
Beirut was written in the USA in the 1980s at the height of the AIDS crisis. Alan Bowne’s play is a cutting examination of a society ravaged by a nameless disease. Although written at a particular moment in history, the play transcends the issues of its time and could be about the spread of any incurable disease. At its heart is a dark love story, questioning how society deals with the ‘abnormal’ in a society gone mad with fear and ignorance. Beirutwill be performed at Park Theatre from 12 June .
The Royal Shakespeare Company has two major openings in June. Imperium, Mike Poulton’s adaptation of Robert Harris’ best selling Cicero books transfers from Stratford to London. It had great reviews when it was in Stratford including five stars from Michael Billington in The Guardian who called it ‘one of the finest achievements of the Royal Shakespeare Company in recent years’. It’s an epic drama set in turbulent times for the Roman Empire (it covers the assasination of Julius Caesar). Imperium is in two parts lasting a total of seven hours. Richard McCabe’s performance in the central role of Cicero was much praised. It opens at the Gielgud on 14 June.
Back in Stratford, the RSC are putting on a new musical. Miss Littlewood tells the story of the anarchic revolutionary of 20th century theatre Joan Littlewood. Her Theatre Workshop was responsible for many famous productions including Oh, What A Lovely War!, A Taste of Honey and The Hostage, and breathed new life into the then-derelict Theatre Royal Stratford East . This new musical of Joan’s life story, told with her own uncompromising candour, reveals a mighty love story at its heart. Clare Burt makes her RSC debut to play Joan Littlewood. Miss Littlewood opens on 22 June.
Andrew Scott, famous for television’s Sherlock and his recent stage performance of Hamlet, will be reprising his almost legendary monologue Sea Wall, written by Simon Stephens. Andrew Scott first performed this at the Bush Theatre in 2008. You can see it, if you can get a ticket, at the Old Vic from 18 to 30 June.
When it was performed on Broadway, Fun Home won five Tony Awards including Best Musical. The New York Times said it was ‘a poignant and raw exploration of family, memory and sexuality’. Now we get the chance to see it at Young Vic from 18 June
Cordelia Lynn’s new play One For Sorrow opens at the Royal Court on 20 June. During an attack on London, 20 year old Imogen joins a campaign offering refuge to victims. Before her family have even had a chance to have a reasonable discussion, John is at their door. He is different to them. He isn’t what they expected. And although they’d never admit it to themselves, he isn’t necessarily what they want.
Following his success with Red (here’s my review), Michael Grandage directs The Lieutenant Of Inishmore by Martin McDonagh at the Noel Coward Theatre on 23June. Aidan Turner, a great actor who is probably best known for baring his chest in Poldark, stars. If you know the films In Bruges and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri or the plays The Cripple Of Inishmaan and Hangmen, all written by Martin McDonagh, you’ll know the kind of black comedy to expect. In this play, a republican Irish paramilitary goes on a rampage after his cat is killed. This is the link official Noel Coward theatre box office.
Dusty, a new musical based on the authorised biography of Dusty Springfield, will have its world premiere at Theatre Royal Bath on 23 June before touring to The Lyceum in Sheffield, Newcastle Theatre Royal and The Lowry in Salford.
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.
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-
If you want to experience the Nuffield Theatre’s new Southampton city centre space, their second production is Tennessee Williams’ masterpiece A Streetcar Named Desire. It runs from 23rd to 31st March before touring to Keswick, Malvern, Bristol, Ipswich, Cambridge, Oxford, Mold and finishing where it started at the Nuffield.
Ambition, political scandal, ruthlessness… and the race for the White House. It’s the UK premiere of Gore Vidal’s political drama The Best Man about two contrasting Democratic candidates seeking the approval of the incumbent president. Martin Shaw leads a star studded cast including Maureen Lipman, Jack Shepherd, Honeysuckle Weeks and Glynis Barber. It was written in 1960 so it’s not about recent presidential candidates- but it could be. The Best Man opens at The Playhouse on 5 March.
There are a lot of productions of Macbeth around including one at Stratford. I’m opting for the one at the National Theatre. It stars Anne-Marie Duff and Rory Kinnear as the ruthlessly ambitious power couple whose relationship comes under pressure as the body count mounts. Shakespeare’s rollercoaster tragedy is directed by Rufus Norris and opens on March 6th.
Caroline, or Change, which was a big hit at Chichester last year, has finally found a London home. Hampstead Theatre plays host to the musical set in Louisiana in 1963. The civil rights movement is rising elsewhere but things seem much the same in the Gellman household, or do they? Caroline, or Change opens on 19 March.
The wonderful Menier Chocolate Factory’s latest show is Kiss Of The Spiderwoman, a provocative tale of love, victimisation, fantasy and the friendship that develops between two very different men imprisoned together in a Latin American jail. Previews begin on 8 March.
42nd Street at Theatre Royal Drury Lane was the big winner at the What’s On Stage awards. There’s a new cast from 19 March featuring Lulu, back in the West End after 30 years.
There’s an unexpected world premiere at Theatre Royal Bath’s Ustinov Studio. It’s by Harley Granville Barker. Granville Barker was one of the theatrical greats of the early 20th century, an actor, a director and the author of The Voysey Inheritance and Waste. But he died in 1946. So what’s the story? It seems a comedy by him has been found among his papers and will receive its first performance in a production directed by Trevor Nunn. Agnes Colander opens on 15 March.
Booking Opens In March
Talking of world premieres, a new Alan Bennett play is always an exciting event. Allejujah!, directed by Nicholas Hytner, begins at the Bridge Theatre on 11 July and runs until 28 September. Public booking opens on 2 March.
In the next booking period of the National Theatre, you’ll find such wonders as Brian Friel’s Translations and Strindberg’s Miss Julie brought into the present day and called simply Julie. Perhaps most exciting of all, Sam Mendes will be directing Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley and Ben Miles in The Lehman Trilogy which tells the story of the financial institution Lehman Brothers from its humble immigrant beginnings to its bankruptcy 163 years later, triggering the greatest financial crisis in history. Public booking opens on 16 March.
February is a busy month for new shows in London with big names.
Jeremy Irons and Lesley Manville star in Eugene O’Neill’s masterpiece Long Day’s Journey Into Night at Wyndham’s from 27 January for 10 weeks only. First seen at Bristol old Vic. More than one reviewer noted the exhilaratingly fast pace of this production directed by Richard Eyre. The Tyrone family positively hurtle toward their destruction.
Rufus Norris directs Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff in Macbeth at National Theatre from 26 February to 12 May.
Carey Mulligan is in the one woman play Girls And Boys by Dennis Kelly at the Royal Court from 8 February to 17 March. It’s already sold out but try for Monday tickets.
Frozenat Theatre Royal Haymarket is Bryony Lavery’s thriller about a missing girl, not the Disney film. Suranne Jones and Jason Watkins star. It opens on 9 February for 12 weeks.
On the London fringe, The B*eats written by and starring the excellent Monica Dolan was well reviewed at Edinburgh Festival and can now be seen at Bush Theatre from 12 February. It’s a comedy drama (dramedy, anybody?) about the sexualisation of children.
Another Edinburgh hit opens at Soho Theatre: Dust, penned and performed by Milly Thomas, imagines a woman committing suicide and then be forced to watch the aftermath.
Outside London, the big event is the opening of the Nuffield Theatre Southampton’s new city centre space on 7 February launched with a new play The Shadow Factory by Howard Brenton.
The tour of This House by James Graham begins at West Yorkshire Playhousein Leeds from 23 February and then moves to Cambridge, Bath, Edinburgh, Nottingham, Birmingham, Salford, Plymouth, Norwich, Great Malvern, Guildford and Sheffield. Read my review of This House here.