Sweat- an important visceral play by Lynn Nottage.
(5 / 5)
There is so much I could say about this play but I want to concentrate on the central story which concerns the deindustrialisation that happened in the US in the early 21st century. It’s something we in the UK are only too familiar with. Our government, like many others, moved the economy away from manufacturing, letting those jobs go to China, Mexico and other developing countries where labour was cheap.
In Sweat the action takes place in 2000 in Reading, Pennsylvania and is based on true events surrounding factory closures. Lynn Nottage has created complex believable characters and we see at first hand their sense of betrayal, loss and anger. They feel betrayed because generations had worked at the factory and displayed what they saw as loyalty. They lose their way of life and their sense of worth.
In a succession of scenes, the main characters meet up in a bar that looks as industrial as a factory. In particular we meet two good friends Tracey and Cynthia. At first all is well but we can see the seeds of what will happen. Unlike Tracey and her son Jason (Patrick Gibson) who see working on the line as their lives, Cynthia and her boy Chris (Osy Ikhile) aspire to get away from the grind of the factory floor. Chris plans to go to college, Cynthia would like to move into management.
Both women apply for a supervisor vacancy, Tracey just for the hell of it but Cynthia because she really wants it. When the more suitable Cynthia gets it, Tracey who’s white puts it about that Cynthia only got the job because she’s black- in other words, because of positive discrimination. Racism, it seems, is just waiting below the surface like sewer beneath a road. When the factory threatens jobs, the division between old friends just gets worse as does prejudice against any ethnic minority.
Tracey is repulsive. She’s undoubtedly the life and soul of the party but she’s also ignorant and blindly prejudiced. And very aggressive- Mike Tyson would hesitate to pick a fight with her. It’s a layered character brilliantly conveyed by Martha Plimpton. You are appalled by her but you know enough about her to recognise her as a fellow human and to realise her biggest problem is a lack of education, which leads to her inability to see the bigger picture, and her failure to see that her interest lies in unity not division.
When we go forward eight years, we see the long lasting devastating effects of job loss on individuals when a whole community becomes poor. Frankie Bradshaw’s set now represents the isolation of homes rather than the community of the bar. Clare Perkins breaks your heart as Cynthia who dreamed of improving her life and ends up used, abused and struggling to survive.
There is a shocking act of violence involving Jason and Chris that stems from the threatened factory closure. Perhaps Jason was always likely to resort to violence when under pressure but it is easy to see what happens as a metaphor for the blows against the establishment struck by working class people voting for Trump or Brexit.
Lynette Linton‘s direction is tight and the characters express themselves as physically as they do verbally. While the production might not be as visceral as it must have been in the cockpit of its original venue The Donmar, Sweat remains a harrowing, important experience. It brings home the shocking reality of the effect of deindustrialisation on people and communities. It also gives us an insight into why we are seeing such a rise in racism and populism.
Much is being made by the National Theatre of how this play and its author Githa Sowerby are not that well known and that if she had been a man, it would have been a different story. She would have stood alongside Bernard Shaw or even Ibsen in whose footsteps she followed with this realist drama of ideas. Well, I would have to say, on the strength of this production, there’s another reason that this play is not well known and that is that it ‘s dull. Worthy but dull.
Before I go into detail, let me say that the acting is excellent. Roger Allam dominates as an actor much the same as his character dominates. It’s a powerful performance as the bullying father who is more committed to his family glassmaking business than to his family. His beard deserves a star dressing room of its own. It says to all the other characters, I can grow bigger thicker beard than any of you.
Admittedly I saw a preview, so it may get better. Maybe it’s Polly Findlay’s heavy handed production that doesn’t do Sowerby’s work justice. I’ve no doubt part of the problem is the perennial one of the size of the Lyttelton stage. This is an intimate family drama intended for a stage the size of a drawing room, not one made for spectacle. I’ve seen The Cherry Orchard chopped down by this auditorium so Rutherford And Son is in good company.
Even so, I was not convinced that this play has aged well since its premiere in 1912. The story tells how Rutherford’s grown up children rebel against the repressive businessman. It was revolutionary in its time for its depiction of women as people who could think for themselves and lead lives of their own, not to mention its exposé of the patriarchy, class prejudice and the evils of capitalism.
Well, I’m all for exposing the patriarchy but I found the outcome of their family quarrels too predictable, mainly because nearly all the characters were caricatures of weak men. They just bounced off Rutherford who was the polar opposite, powerful and with depth.
The women were stronger and their engagement with Rutherford more interesting. Anjana Vasan is the working class daughter-in-law Mary, who realises she needs to be as ruthless as Rutherford. Justine Mitchell is the put-upon daughter who learns she can’t rely on men.
The characters may be weak but, as I said, the cast is strong. It includes Joe Armstrong as the blindly loyal worker Martin and Sam Troughton as Rutherford’s ineffectual, overwrought son John who has been alienated from the business.
Lizzie Clachan‘s set is naturalistic and full of detail as befits a realist drama. It suggests the draughty, high maintenance nature of homes in those days and the bleakness of life with Rutherford.
I recommend that if you want to experience a strong female character and a critique of society in the genre of realist drama, you give this a miss and go across the river to see the wonderful production of Ibsen’s Rosmerholm at the Duke Of York’s.
Note: More about Roger Allam’s performance added on 6 June 2019. YouTube review re-recorded with better sound quality on 13 June 2019.
Sheila Hancock and James Nesbitt are the leading lights and Kirsty MacLaren shines
(4 / 5)
There’s a lot to like in This Is My Family which is directed by Daniel Evans with a light comic touch.
This is the second of CFT Artistic Director Daniel Evans‘ ‘greatest hits’ from his days at the Sheffield Crucible to be revived at Chichester. I wasn’t so keen on Flowers For Mrs Harris but I’m delighted he brought this show south with him.
Nicky, our narrator and the daughter of the family in question, sees that her family is falling apart. Her mum and dad are hitting midlife crises, they bicker and don’t seem loving any more, her brother is moody and withdrawn, her grandmother is beginning to lose her mind. Nicky’s solution is a camping holiday back where mum and dad first met.
Put like that, it sounds quite predictable and in truth there’s not much to challenge the audience but Tim Firth has written a beautifully observed comedy about family relationships through the generations. There are some very witty lines, the best of which go to Grandma (‘Love is when you’ve sucked off all the chocolate and there’s the nut left’) and Mum’s libido driven sister Sian played by Rachel Lumberg. The latter part is, unlike the others, more of a cariacature but it’s all the more funny for that and her song comparing lovemaking to driving a car is hilarious.
This is My Family is a musical play rather than a musical musical which may be why I didn’t find the songs memorable. There are no show stoppers or vocal stretching moments- they’re more like words accompanied by music, almost recitative, and this may be the point because Tim Firth‘s many lovely metaphors would be too poetic or emotional for spoken dialogue.
Kirsty MacLaren is magnificent as Nicky. She holds the show together and is one talented young woman, living up to the promise she showed in Our Ladies Of Perpetual Succour. Scott Folan as the lovestruck brother is good too and their antagonistic but loving sibling relationship feels spot on.
At the other end of the age scale, Sheila Hancock is fabulous as the grandma who’s frightened of what she’s losing but finds peace in the past.
James Nesbitt and Clare Burt are a pleasure to watch for their comic acting.
The set by Richard Kent is clever. This is the Minerva so mostly it’s three-sided space but at the back in act one there’s a kind of slice through the middle of a house, filled with domestic details, which then spins round to form a wood in act two.
In the end this is a hopeful view of the family that we can all recognise. As I said, there’s a lot to like about This Is My Family. It’s been a while since Chichester had a West End transfer, this feelgood musical deserves to be the one.
Avengers star Hayley Atwell is forceful co-star with Tom Burke
(5 / 5)
Rosmersholm is about wanting to pursue passion and change but being held back by the past – the political system, religion, inhertitance.
At the beginning, everything is covered in dustsheets in this stately home- Rosmersholm. The walls show signs of flood damage at the lower levels. It’s murky. Until Hayley Atwell playing Rebecca West starts pulling the sheets off and letting the light in.
It’s a year since Rosmer’s wife committed suicide in the lake and clogged up the millwheel, thus causing a flood.
Her death raised questions, the main one being why did she do it? Rosmer is weighed down by his past. Not only the recent tragic event of his wife’s death but his whole inheritance. The high walls of Rae Smith’s brilliant set are covered in paintings of his ancestors staring down. He is expected to keep the line going.
We are on the eve of an election and people are looking for a lead from Rosmer. But his disillusionment with the political system, where everyone is in it for themselves is profound. He renounces his traditional party- the conservatives, whose representative is superbly conveyed by Giles Terera as the likeable but ruthless Kroll who views women and the working class with contempt. So it seems Rosmer should back the radicals but both sides take against him. Both own newspapers that lie about him. You see there are many modern parallels.
Mildly spoken Tom Burke as Rosmer pefectly conveys the uncertainty that alternates with his passion for Rebecca.
Good as Mr Burke is, the evening belongs to Hayley Atwell as Rebecca. She is the force of change and she is a force on the stage. Her performance is bravura but always believable. However even Rebecca is dragged down by the past.
This is an excellent cast. Lucy Briers is the housekeeper, representing the dour working class, still mired in superstition and believing what she reads in the papers. Jake Fairbrother is the radical newspaper editor, previously driven out of the town by holier-than-thou outrage, led by Rosmer, who is now the victim of the same high mindedness himself. Peter Wight is the faded leftwing revolutionary who is violently rejected by the workers he wishes to empower.
Nothing in Ibsen is straightforward and, as in his earlier An Enemy Of The People and The Wild Duck, naively believing that all you need is truth is a sure recipe for disaster.
Ultimately the politics gives way to the personal. Hope and heartbreak mark the love between John Rosmer and Rebecca West and, as this is Ibsen, a happy ending never seems on the cards. There are many questions and no easy answers in this masterpiece but there is much to thrill to as emotions once constrained begin to burst free.
Ibsen is famous for his revolutionary realism and Ian Rickson’s production and Duncan MacMillan’s adaptation triumph in making the characters in this 130 year old play seem totally real.
Also realistic are the set design by Rae Smith and lighting by Neil Austin which emphasise the claustrophobic setting and changing moods. Rae Smith‘s final contribution (which I won’t reveal), as the curtain metaphorically is about to come down, is a coup de théâtre that underlines what has happened and gives final proof of how much the design is another actor in this terrific production.
Finally a quick word of praise for producer Sonia Friedman. Again she has brought a play to the West End that might have been expected to stay in the domain of subsidised venues and, although she has used star names from film and TV, the stars are stage actors of the highest calibre. Commercial producers often look for safe, audience pleasers but Ms Friedman stretches and challenges her audience and, on this occasion, has rewarded them with an evening of extraordinary theatre. Click here to watch the review on YouTube
SPOILER ALERT! This is a complaint about the publicity material. Rosmersholm is one of Ibsen’s least produced plays (although this may change after this powerful production), so audiences are unlikely to know how it ends. However, having seen the picture on the posters and adverts, they are likely to have a good idea as the play progresses.
Anne-Marie Duff adds Wow Factor to excellent production of Sweet Charity
(5 / 5)
Sweet Charity with book by Neil Simon, music by Cy Coleman and lyrics by Dorothy Fields.
This would be an excellent production with any musical star but Anne-Marie Duff adds a wow factor. She may not be as good a singer or dancer as those who’ve made a career out of musicals but she can sing and she can dance and she brings to the part all the emotional depth of a great actor. You feel her pain and you feel her ecstasy, and her pick-yourself-up-and-try-again smile is infectious.
Charity is a taxi dancer in the 1960s. If you don’t know what that is (and I didn’t), it’s someone who works in a club where punters can hire them for a dance, and sometimes more. Charity believes in love. Despite being conned and let down many times, she remains an optimist and keeps looking for love. When things go wrong, she simply changes reality to suit her romantic view of love.
Ironically, despite being no virgin, she remains an innocent, which is the essence of her vulnerability but it’s also her strength. You could simply dismiss her as a naive fool, instead her way of seeing the best in people and not losing hope is inspirational. We want her to find love, even though we fear she won’t.
Anne-Marie Duff is perfect for the part. Her song-and-dance rendering of If My Friends Could See Me Now complete with a routine with a top hat and cane perfectly conveys Charity’s child-like unaffectedness. And her I’m A Brass Band is a joyous expression of what it feels like to be in love.
But it’s not a one woman show.
Arthur Darvill as Charity’s shy insecure boyfriend and Martin Marquez as a charming and charmed (by Charity) film star are both superb. Most of all there are the women who make up the rest of the taxi dancers. Their performance and reprise of Big Spender are astonishing. In the intimate setting of the Donmar where the audience is only four rows deep, these women saying ‘Let me show you a good time?’ is very personal.
The stunning choreography by Wayne McGregor, paying homage to the original work by Bob Fosse, evokes Cabaret and Chicago. Robert Jones’ set, a simple open stage with silvery props and furniture inspired by Andy Warhol’s 1960s Silver Factory, suggests Charity’s bright optimism in a harsh world.
What a way for director Josie Rourke to bow out as Artistic Director of the Donmar.
Sweet Charity can be seen at the Donmar until 8 June 2019
Handbagged by Moira Buffini in a new production directed by Jo Newman
(3 / 5)
Handbagged takes us through the major events of Margaret Thatcher’s reign as British prime minister. I use the word ‘reign’ deliberately because the story is told through a series of meetings between an increasingly regal Thatcher (Eve Matheson) and the actual Queen Elizabeth (Caroline Hacker).
Handbags multiply as those two are overseen by older versions of themselves, played by Sarah Crowden and Susan Penhaligon. Much of the humour stems from the characters commenting to the audience on what is said. Typically: ‘I never said that’.
Because the play is speculation, no-one knows for sure what was said and the characters are aware that they are performing this version of events for an audience. ‘Whatever we say, it must stay within these three walls,’ says the Queen. What we are presented with is a conflict between the ideological, deaf-to-compromise, humourless Thatcher (‘No’ being her favourite word) and a more compassionate, ethical and wryly amusing Queen. It’s no surprise who ends up the winner in this handbagging contest.
The author Moira Buffini clearly thinks Mrs Thatcher’s premiership was bad news. If you agree, you’ll get a lot of pleasure in hearing the Queen being upset by the effects of her government’s policies- dividing the nation, creating a greater gap between rich and poor, encouraging greed. ‘We lost the feeling that had persisted since the war,’ she says, ‘That we are all in this together.’ ‘Is she a socialist?’ asks Mrs T.
I never really felt I got beneath the skin of the two women in power, despite the poignant moments of shared sadness at the IRA bomb attack on Mrs Thatcher in Brighton and the assassination of Lord Mountbatten.
I found the history lesson got a bit boring at times but there is plenty of fun to be had in the conflict between these two women in power. All the women do good impressions of the protagonists but Susan Penhaligon is uncannilly believable as the older Queen and- perhaps because we nearly all have this well of affection for the real queen- she gets the most laughs.
Supporting the four women, two men play actors who have been hired to play all the other parts- Denis Thatcher, Ronald and Nancy Reagan, Neil Kinnock, Michael Hesletine, and so on- and who also address the audience with their ‘own’ left wing views, in case we found the Queen’s opinions a little oblique. Andy Secombe and Jahvel Hall provide a lot of knockabout comedy and almost steal the show.
On the whole the performance I saw seemed a little hesitant which, for me, dampened the laughs. I expect, after a few more outings, it will be much sharper.
Handbagged can be seen at Salisbury Playhouse until until 20 April 2019 then tours to York Theatre Royal (24 April – 11 May) and Oldham Coliseum Theatre (14 May – 1 June)
Come From Away, a musical by Irene Sankoff and David Hein at the Phoenix Theatre in London
(4 / 5)
9/11 was a tragic event carried out by evil people. The musical Come From Away is a kind of antidote, reminding us that most people are basically good and generous.
I’d forgotten but, at the time of the 9/11 attacks, US air space was closed which meant hundreds of planes were diverted. 35 of them with 7000 people on board ended up in a small Canadian community of Gander, doubling the population. The locals could have been hostile to these unexpected immigrants. Instead they welcomed and looked after them.
In this musical, we meet a diverse number of characters, locals, passengers and crew telling us their story. We get a sense of the panic and fears of the time and we zone in on some of the individuals’ stories and how they are changed by the experience.
It is not all sugar-coated. There is some anti-Muslim behaviour and inevitably some tragedy but the overriding message is one of hope.
I was impressed by the use of an almost bare stage in David Ashley‘s production. A few chairs and tables become a plane, a bus, a café and a community hall. It puts the burden on the cast to create the scenes in our imagination but this is a talented cast who also take on many parts. This is theatre and acting at its purest.
The players are all really good but I’m going to be unfair and pick out Rachel Tucker as the pilot who loves flying but has to take charge on the ground, Clive Carter as the welcoming Mayor and Cat Simmons as Hannah worried about her firefighter son.
There are a few too many characters to focus sufficiently on individual stories. There could also be more light and shade or, to be more precise, more shade. There are funny moments and there’s a love story but I would have liked to dwell a little more on the moments of sadness.
However the pace is tremendously fast and you really don’t have time to think about that. And the ending which is akin to a hoedown is hugely entertaining and uplifting.
This musical quite possibly paints too rosy a picture but I think, right now, we should treasure this positive view of humanity.
‘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’.
‘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-