Exciting drama from Grime poet Debris Stevenson ★★★★★
Poet in Da Corner is the semi-autobiographical tale of Debris Stevenson and how she was inspired by grime music to become a poet.
Although the word ‘grime’ suggests ‘grim’, in fact it’s not. It’s an uplifting, exhilarating story of an adolescent woman struggling with her dyslexia, her sexuality and her strict Mormon mother. The teenage misfit makes friends with a young grime artist who encourages her to be real in the way grime artists are true to themselves and their background.
I really warmed to these two friends who love and respect each other and who are trying hard in difficult circumstances. Debris Stevenson plays herself and Jammz plays her friend and mentor.
It’s a show full of tempestuous relationships, lyrical language, and a lot of humour. There’s a moment both shocking and funny when her angry but nonviolent mother slowly pours a gallon of milk over her brother.
The title is a reference to the seminal Dizzee Rascal album Boy In Da Corner that was the spark that lit Debris Stevenson’s fire. The play uses an imaginary character SS Viper who represents grime artists and Debris’ best friend at school. He sees her as privileged because she’s white and her mum makes her sandwiches for school lunch. As an adult, he berates her for appropriating grime- and his work in particular- when she’s not from a black disadvantaged background.
But in the course of the play we see how she used grime as a pathway out of her own disadvantages.
Viper takes her to task for leaving the neighbourhood and losing contact with him. She responds: ‘Helped other people cause I couldn’t help you / took responsibility with privilege too. / But I ran away from me when I ran away from you.’ How she develops and whether the rift can be healed is the subject of the play.
The set, designed by Jacob Hughes, is a bare stage that uses minimal furniture. In a Brechtian way, it is made clear the scenes from the past are being acted out for us and the present day adults comment on them. So we don’t get emotionally involved with the characters. But we do care about them and we see the world of disadvantaged working class kids from a sympathetic perspective- not the gangs, aggression and crude misogyny which is the tabloid image of grime.
The talented Stacy Abalogun and Kirubel Belay play the mother, brother and other parts in this exciting evening directed by Ola Ince. The evening ends with the audience dancing as Jammz performs his excellent song Lemonade Man.
I have heard songs by Dizzee Rascal and Stormzy but I couldn’t imagine listening to whole album or going to a concert because my ears find the 140 bpm and the heavy bass difficult. After seeing this show, I now have a new respect for grime and the artists who produce it and I appreciate the quality of the lyrics. There’s a singular quote from Dizzee Rascal that is used in the play: ‘The skies are all empty because the stars are on the ground.’
If you have the opportunity to see Poet In Da Corner as it tours, please do. Even if you think grime (or poetry for that matter) is not for you, do it anyway.
Tom Chambers stars in tour of vintage crime drama ★★★
I suspect Dial M For Murder seemed more thrilling when it was first performed seventy years ago. The latest touring production, which I saw on the opening night at Richmond Theatre, doesn’t exactly have you on the edge of your seat, certainly not jumping out of it. However it still has a clever plot with a few excellent twists. And there’s considerable fun, intrigue and excitement to be had as you wonder whether the criminal will be caught and, if so, how.
This Simon Friend Entertainment production, directed by Anthony Banks, is faithful to the spirit of the original stage play byFrederick Knotton which the Alfred Hitchcockfilm was based. Tony Wendice, an impecunious former tennis player, plans to murder his rich wife because she has fallen in love with someone else and he doesn’t want to lose his cash cow. He recruits an old acquaintance with a need for money and a leaning towards crime. It could be the perfect murder… unless he makes a mistake.
Like top players in a tennis match
The set up is slow and wordy but once it gets going, especially when events cause Tony to improvise, the play becomes quite gripping- like watching a high level tennis match in which he quick wittedly returns whatever ball comes over the net.
Fortunately the production is blessed with two fine players in the lead roles. Tom Chambers as Tony is wonderfully louche with an amusing habit of striking tennis playing poses. On the other side of the net, Christopher Harper’s police inspector is a worthy opponent. He exudes authority, intelligence and determination. I particularly enjoyed his increasing animation as he believes he’s closing in on the guilty party.
The production also stars Sally Bretton and Michael Salami .
The play was written in 1951 and the clipped dialogue and repressed emotions are typical of the time. In fact, I’m not sure why director Anthony Banks has transferred the action to the more unbuttoned sixties when an affair and the planning of a murder were more shocking in that earlier decade.
The production pays homage to forties and fifties cinema. It uses chiaroscuro lighting at various times which I am assuming is intended to summon up the feel of an old detective film. I’m sorry to say I found the shadows more reminiscent of a power cut than a film noir.
On the plus side, David Woodhead’s angular set with much early Sixties detail gives a good sense of both the period and of the striking camera angles used by Alfred Hitchcock.
By the way, there’s an inadvertent spoiler in the programme’s cast list so I advise not looking at that until the interval.
If you fancy a night out, you could do a lot worse than this diverting entertainment.
Dial M For Murder can be seen at Richmond Theatre until 18 January 2020. It then tours to Norwich Theatre Royal 21-25 January, The Orchard Theatre Dartford 27 January-1 February, Yvonne Arnaud Theatre Guildford 4-8 February, Theatre Royal Bath 11-15 February, His Majesty’s Aberdeen 17-22 February, King’s Theatre Edinburgh 24-29 February, Theatre Royal Glasgow 3-7 March, Salisbury Playhouse 10-14 March, Churchill Theatre Bromley 17-21 March, Palace Theatre Southend-on-Sea 23-28 March, Dubai Opera House 7-11 April, Milton Keynes Theatre 14-18 April, The Alexandra Birmingham 20-25 April, New Theatre Cardiff 28 April-2 May, Curve Leicester 4-9 May, Lyceum Theatre Sheffield 12-16 May, Liverpool Playhouse 19-23 May, Theatr Clwyd 25-30 May, Theatre Royal Brighton 2-6 June, Theatre Severn Shrewsbury 9-13 June, The Lowry Salford 16-20 June, Royal & Derngate Northampton 22-17 June, Theatre Royal Plymouth 30 June-4 July, Leeds Grand Theatre 7-11 July, Wolverhampton Grand Theatre 14-18 July 2020. Booking details can be found on the tour website dialmformurderplay.com
Paul Seven Lewis was given press tickets to review this production
Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins is one of his lesser known musicals. Having seen this production of it at The Watermill, I understand why. There’s no story, no engagement with the characters and, like the would be assassins, it’s hit and miss. On the plus side, you do get a fascinating look at men and women who attempted and sometimes succeeded in assassinating American presidents. You are also treated to some great music and amusing lyrics and, in the case of this Watermill production, an entertaining performance that hits the bullseye.
In this fantasy musical with a book by John Weidman, all the would be assassins get together at a funfair where they are given their own special guns and cajoled into going for the big prize if they shoot a president dead. The musical is an exploration of what that prize is. The answer, and this is not a spoiler, is fame.
We learn something about each of these would be assassins, first John Wilkes Booth who killed Abraham Lincoln, finally Lee Harvey Oswald who shot John Kennedy. It’s by no means chronological and the various stories intertwine. We see them as failures, mentally unstable nobodies who have been let down by the American Dream which promises that everyone can succeed.
Although we never sympathise with this unhinged bunch of people, we do hear some great tunes. Peter Dukes as Leon Czolgosz (who killed President McKinley) sings one of the best- The Gun Song which describes the number of hands involved in the manufacturing process. Generally Stephen Sondheim’s score offers pastiches of various forms of traditional and popular American music. It carries us and the assassins along with the joy of America while contrasting with the grubby truth revealed before us and through his lyrics.
Another National Anthem sums it up: ‘There are those who keep forgetting That the country’s built on dreams.’ Or as another song says: ‘Everybody’s got the right to be happy.’
It’s a fast moving, slick production from Bill Buckhurst. The Watermill has a small stage but the 15 strong cast manage to fill and move round it with military precision, choreographed by Georgina Lamb. They also play instruments, so to say they are talented is an understatement.
I don’t like to pick out individual performances from this excellent ensemble, but I’m going to. Eddie Elliott is the delusional but hyper confident Charles Guiteau who expects to become ambassador to France and shoots dead President McKinley. Mr Elliott plays him with great pizzazz, jumping around the stage and shaking hands with the audience and rushing to the scaffold with a joyful gospel I’m Going to The Lordy. Lillie Flynn as the Balladeer, a kind of narrator, has the strong punchy voice of a classic musical singer. Sara Poyzer’s neurotic Sara Jane Moore gets a lot of laughs as her mind and her gun fire in all directions.
Inevitably on a stage as small as The Watermill’s, the set is minimal but Simon Kenny has cleverly created a fun fair feel particularly by showing the presidents’ faces like targets in a shooting gallery.
When it comes to the climax- the assassination of JFK- the back of the set spins round to become the windows of the famous Book Depository. All previous assassins led by Wilkes Booth (a chilling portrayal by Alex Mugnaioni) gather to nudge the suicidal Oswald to pick up the rifle.
The previously black comedy becomes serious and even sentimental which makes the end inconsistent with what leads up to it. Presumably Sondheim and Weidman decided this particular assassination was still too raw in their and our minds. Perhaps, unlike Oswald, they lost their nerve.
(5 / 5) Prism at Hampstead Theatre (touring autumn 2019) is a double pleasure. It marks a welcome return for Terry Johnson, author of Dead Funny, Hysteria and Insignificance with his first full length play in ten years. And it gives Robert Lindsay the chance to get his teeth into a role worthy of his great acting talent.
Based on the life of the cinematographer Jack Cardiff, Prism tells a story of dementia. It shows us Cardiff’s uncertain grip on present day reality and, in a ‘wow’ moment of revelation, we get to see the world as he is seeing it – memories of his life in the movies. On top of that, we are given a fascinating insight into the art of lighting and treated to some magical effects.
Terry Johnson’s understanding of the art of theatre is peerless. He describes himself as a ‘dramatist’ and rightly so. Here he has directed as well as written this play and has created a pretty much perfect piece of theatre, which is ironic for a play about a filmmaker.
It has sharp dialogue, it’s funny, it’s poignant and it does things only theatre can do. There is a moment when, as the scenery moves, Jack steps from a location in his memory of the past to his present location but still acting out in his mind a past situation which we have already seen from the others’ point of view. It could only work in a live performance.
Robert Lindsay is one of our great stage actors
It’s a play full of metaphors for the process of growing old and dying. Cardiff fears blindness more than death but we realise the obliteration of his brain will be as bad. A prism is the key to making colour filming work just as the hippocampus is the key to a functioning brain. The ‘dying of the light’ as night approaches was Dylan Thomas’ metaphor for death: here it is literally the moment when you can no longer film.
Above all, this is an opportunity to see one of our great stage actors. Robert Lindsay has done a lot of work in light entertainment from the musical Me And My Girl to TV’s My Family to the recent stage version of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. He has done it brilliantly but perhaps his ability to entertain us has made us forget the depth of acting of which he is capable. This is a timely reminder that his combination of rich voice, rugged good looks, timing and sheer presence are to be treasured.
Claire Skinner, Barnaby Kay and Rebecca Night all provide excellent support but the evening belongs to Robert Lindsay. I hope Prism gets a West End transfer. This is a production that everyone who loves theatre should see.
News added June 2019
Prism starring Robert Lindsay but with some changes to the rest of the cast is touring during autumn 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)
Rachel Wagstaff’s triumphant adaptation of classic Christie whodunit
(5 / 5)
Watch the YouTube review of The Mirror Crack’d-
The Wales Millennium Centre and Wiltshire Creative touring production of Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Crack’d, adapted for the stage by Rachel Wagstaff, received its premiere at Salisbury Playhouse.
This could have a standard Agatha Christie whodunit but this production is far above standard. Rachel Wagstaff has provided an adaptation that is faithful to the plot and characters, necessarily simplified for a two hour stage show, but with unexpected depth added.
It’s still a story of Miss Marple investigating the death of a villager who expires after drinking a famous film star’s daiquiri.The original shows Miss Marple concerned that she’s being marginalised by her old age and the changing times (it’s set in the early Sixties). In this story, she is also temporarily disabled to add to her feeling of being ignored.
Apart from putting a contemplation of the invisibility of old age centre stage, this play concerns itself with the loneliness of older people. It also dwells on memory- both the way in which memories affect who we are but also, integral to the plot, the unreliability of memory.
We see the same scene re-enacted on numerous occasions, each time slightly different depending on who is telling the story. Melly Still‘s pared back production with a simple, appropriately dark set by Richard Kent keeps the story moving between flashbacks and changes of scene.
Rachel Wagstaff’s dialogue is also more dynamic than Agatha Christie’s and more robust, by which I mean there’s some swearing.
Susie Blake has some big acts to follow in the role of Miss Marple but she more than holds her own with a mix of quiet determination and sly humour. The rest of the cast, and there are eleven altogether, provide humour and weight. Simon Shepherd is amusing as the pompous, patronising Chief inspector Craddock. Suzanna Hamilton is the fragile film star and Julia Hills is amusing and slightly sad as Miss Marple’s snobbish but empathetic friend Dolly.
The Mirror Crack’d has an entertaining plot with some welcome depth, like biting on a soft chocolate and finding a chewy centre.
The Mirror Crack’d continues at Salisbury Playhouse until 9 March 2019 then visits The Gaiety Theatre Dublin (12-16 March), the Arts Theatre Cambridge (19-23 March) and New Theatre Cardiff (26 March-6 April).
Tom Burke is mesmerising in this powerful production
(5 / 5) Schiller’s 1787 play about about love, freedom and a revolt against totalitarianism is given a powerful, grippiing production by actor Tom Burke and director Gadi Roll‘s new theatre company Ara.
The plot concerns King Phillip II of Spain and his son Don Carlos in 1567. Love drives much of the play, the love of father and son, who have become estranged because of the love the son feels for his stepmother Elizabeth whom the King in effect stole from him, and also the love between Don Carlos and his friend the Marquis of Posa.
Interweaved with this is a political element in which the totalitarian government of the king is challenged by the more romantic Don Carlos and his freethinking friend Posa.
There are misunderstandings and sacrifices that add to the drama. And it all happens in the shadow of the Spanish inquisition.
There’s a lot of conversation about the importance of freedom and the wrongs of autocratic leaders that is still relevant today. And the words are forceful in this modern, poetic translation by Robert David MacDonald.
Gadi Roll’s dramatic, stripped back production
Gadi Roll’s dramatic, stripped back production concentrates our attention on those words. The design by Rosanna Vize is a bare black set with black costumes. The actors are almost entirely lit by spotlights that pick out faces and concentrate our attention on what they’re saying. And Gadi Roll’s use of a discordant soundscape is highly effective.
This production has been sold very much on the star quality of Tom Burke which may be why, confronted with so much talking- and it is over 3 hours long- quite a few members of the audience left. In fact, Tom Burkegives a mesmerising performance as Posa. He exudes an inner power and his passion for his cause and for his friend is palpable.
Since this production puts acting at its core, I must also praise Samuel Valentine as the emotionally unstable, indecisive Don Carlos, Kelly Gough as the conflicted Elizabeth and particularly Darrell D’Silva as king Phillip whose struggle with his feelings and emotional collapse is extraordinary to witness.
There is a riveting scene at the end of Act One between Posa and Philip in which the former speaks frankly to the King about the benefits of allowing freethinking to ‘restore the nobility of man’. The King, even as he argues, is captivated.
For me, this was pure theatre and an engrossing evening.
The Goon Shows are classic radio comedy. Many of us have caught up with them through the eternal repeats on Radio Four Extra. Part of the appeal is the imagination that radio encourages you to exercise. That makes it quite a challenge to present three of Spike Milligan’s Goon Show scripts as stage shows.
Apollo Theatre Company get round that by making it seem like we’re the audience for a recording of the show. That way we can continue to imagine the explosions, falls from great heights and other crazy happenings.
The team of Julian Howard McDowell, Colin Elmer and Clive Greenwood make a good stab at imitating Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan and Harry Secombe. They are well supported by Tom Capper and musicians Rachel Davies and Anthony Coote.
What was brought home to me was just how well these shows were written. Yes, some topical references are sixty years out of date but Spike Milligan’s surreal humour seems as fresh as anything written today. I laughed a lot, even at the tongue-in-cheek corny jokes.
Nostalgia and laugh-out-loud comedy as Goons go on stage
And there was the undeniable warmth of nostalgia for those long departed comic geniuses and their familiar characters like Bluebottle and Eccles.
If the production is short of anything, it’s the sense of anarchy and spontaneity that Sellers and Milligan brought to the original recordings. You know, the corpsing and improvisation (whether genuine or not). To be fair, I did see this production at its first performance at Salisbury Playhouse and I’m sure that missing element will come as the cast relax into both the show and each other’s company.
If you want an evening of nostalgia and laugh-out-loud comedy, I recommend you see The Goon Show at one of its many stops around the UK.
The Goon Show is at Salisbury Playhouse until 8 September and is touring to Churchill Theatre Bromley, Yvonne Arnaud Guildford, Everyman Theatre Cheltenham, New Alexandra Birmingham, Brewhouse Theatre Taunton, Trinity Theatre Tunbridge Wells, Theatre Royal Winchester, Richmond Theatre, Lighthuse Poole, Blakehay Weston-Super-Mare, Octagon Theatre Yeovil, Princess Theatre Torquay, Haymarket Theatre Basingstoke, Theatre Royal Brighton, Key Theatre Peterborough, The Capital Horsham, Lichfield Garrick Theatre, Leatherhead Theatre, Norwich Playhouse, Theatre Royal Bury-St-Edmunds, Waterside Theatre Aylesbury, Grand Opera House York, South Hill Park Bracknell, Mercury Theatre Colchester, Theatre Royal Windsor, Theatr Clwyd Mold and Leicester Square Theatre London (11 November). For links to box offices, go apollotheatrecompany.com
Further thought: To be fair, theatre is also a medium that encourages imagination.
Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire is one of the greatest plays of the twentieth century. Chelsea Walker’s production at Nuffield Theatre’s City venue does it justice in many respects.
The cast convey the unspoken as well as spoken relationships very well. Kelly Gough gives a visceral performance as the central character Blanche Dubois who comes to stay with her physically abused sister Stella and macho brother-in-law Stanley, and whose superior behaviour and secret past create a charged atmosphere destined to explode. She’s hyperactive, nervous, fragile. You feel at any moment she could break into a thousand pieces, like the various objects during the production which do just that. A watermelon being one example.
Chelsea Walker has added many more visual metaphors, including some nicely done dance sequences, to underline what’s happening in the characters’ heads. One metaphor at the end by which the set becomes symbolic of Blanche’s state of mind and her separation from the other characters works really well.
There is a realistic lovemaking scene in which Stanley pleasures Stella. This has the effect of heightening the strong sexual atmosphere, as well as showing explicitly what the text only suggests, that one reason why she stays with this bully is that he satisfies her physically.
Chelsea Walker’s production sizzles with ideas
The production sizzles with ideas but there were times when I felt this talented director was trying too hard. For example, she’s given the play a contemporary setting. It’s true that the themes of being an outsider, domestic violence, masculinity and power, and more remain relevant to our times but by moving it to our times, many anachronisms are created.
For example, talk of sending a wire when one would send a text or of workclothes when a character is wearing a leisure outfit. This wouldn’t matter if the modern setting provided new insights but I’m not convinced it did.
Patrick Knowles resisted the temptation to overplay Stanley, allowing Blanche’s character to dominate the play, as she should. He managed to convey the arrogance and insecurity of a macho man who imagines himself a ‘king’. He could perhaps have displayed more sexual swagger for a man who defines himself by his masculinity.
One thing missing was the oppressive atmosphere we expect in A Streetcar Named Desire. Georgina Lowe’s clever set, although appropriately restricted in its dimensions, has an open frame-like structure made more open by all the space of the Nuffield’s new auditorium around it. (I suspect it will work better in more intimate venues.)
The actors rarely behaved like they were weighed down by the heat and humidity of a New Orleans summer.
These caveats aside, I thoroughly recommend A Streetcar Named Desire either at the Nuffield or during its tour.
A Streetcar Named Desire performs at the Nuffield Theatres Southampton City until 31 March 2018 then tours to Keswick (3 – 7 Apr), Malvern (10 – 14 Apr), Bristol (17 – 21), Ipswich (24 – 28 Apr), Cambridge (1 – 5 May), Oxford (8 – 12 May) and Mold (15 May – 2 June), returning to the Nuffield 5 – 16 June.
‘misjudged mess’ WhatsOnStage ‘the worst Shakespeare production at the NT for at least a decade’ Time Out ‘An unfortunate failure’ Sunday Times ‘A dud’ Daily Telegraph ‘A real mess’ Variety ‘A dismaying muddle’ The Stage ‘A stinker’ Daily Mail
Macbeth at the National Theatre has garnered some of the worst reviews in a long time including a one star review from WhatsonStage. Most rated it two stars including Sunday Times, Daily Mail, Telegraph, The Guardian, The Stage, Evening Standard, The Times, The Observer, Time Out and Broadwayworld.com.
‘Is this a dagger I see before me?’ asks Macbeth. He wasn’t wrong- the daggers were out for this production. The Telegraph responded, ‘Is this a dud I see before me?’ and the Daily Mail said, ‘Is this a shambles I see before me?’
So what didn’t they like? Two words crop up more than any others: Rufus Norris. He’s the director of Macbeth and he’s the National Theatre’s Artistic Director. He must have felt like Macbeth did when Burnham Forest came to Dunsinane. The machetes were out for him.Quite a few of the forest of critics noted his lack of experience in directing Shakespeare. Given the hugely successful Shakespearean productions of his predecessor Nicholas Hytner, now wowing them with Julius Caesar down the road at the Bridge Theatre, the phrase ‘hard act to follow’ comes to mind.
The first problem was that he had, many felt,
No understanding of the play
Rufus Norris places his Macbeth in some kind of post-apocalyptic urban setting. Dominic Cavendish wrote in the Telegraph ‘if a director does decide to go into modern-day apocalyptic mode, they can face a losing battle (as here) defining what is being fought over, why attention is paid to hierarchies, and how any of it matters’.
‘Where are we exactly, what sort of society is this and how did people end up here? It’s never made clear – conceptually, it’s a dismaying muddle.’ That was Natasha Tripney in The Stage
Lloyd Evans writing in the Spectator agreed ‘everything is confusing here’. ‘Childish, tokenistic, muddled, this show is laughably unmoving. They splosh round masses of Kensington gore but it manages to be bloodless. Feeble,’ spluttered Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail.
Christopher Hart writing in the Sunday Times knows what he likes: ‘In the best productions, Macbeth can feel like a ferocious ride straight to hell, pausing only for some of the most haunting and desolate soliloquies in the canon: the outpourings of a human soul in the process of destroying itself.’ And he knows what he doesn’t like: ‘What it should never feel like is lacklustre, turgid, somnolent’.
‘There’s no compelling new take here on Shakespeare’s interest in questions of tyranny and masculinity,’ complained Henry Hitchings in the Evening Standard.
‘Norris has taken a play best compressed into a taut psychological drama and blown it up into something operatically overblown,’ blustered Variety.
Holly Williams in the Independent said ‘vaulting ambitious becomes more survival of the fittest’. To be fair, Holly Williams didn’t hate it: ‘I’ve seen far worse than this.’ Which is what is sometimes called damning with faint praise.
So what else did Rufus Norris do to upset the critics? Well, if he didn’t understand what Shakespeare was getting at, he also dissed the bard’s poetry.
No respect for the text
‘In more minor cuts and rewrites, metre counts for nothing,’ complained Ian Shuttleworth in The Financial Times. ‘It’s brutally truncated,’ said Sarah Crompton in WhatsOnStage, ‘its great moral debate about the corrupting effects of evil (is) entirely lost.’
Variety referred to ‘Unnecessary, almost arbitrary textual cuts’. Susannah Clapp in The Observer talked of ‘a slashed text that eviscerates the witches’ speeches – no hubble-bubble or eye of newt – and makes the drama blunter, more one-dimensional’.
Quentin Letts writing in the Daily Mail wasn’t happy with Slasher Norris from the start: ‘”When shall we three meet again?” is one of the greatest opening lines of any play. Mr Norris ditches that.’
The Guardian’s Michael Billington wrote, ‘While a play is not a poetry recital, this production seems indifferent to the rhythms of the language… (it) sacrifices its tonal contrasts and mysterious poetry.’
And not only did it sound bad, they thought it looked bad.
The set is ugly
‘Rae Smith’s ugly-to-behold set is dominated by an oppressive backdrop of raven-black hangings,’ said the Telegraph. That word ‘ugly’ crops up a few times. ‘It was aggressively ugly,’ shuddered The Stage. And WhatsOnStage found it ‘ugly to look at’.
The Daily Mail called it a ‘low-lit mess engulfed by blunt grottiness’. Time Out said, ‘the setup here is essentially meaningless’. The Guardian found it ‘harsh to look at, lacking in light and shade’. The Evening Standard thought it was ‘bleak and often brutal’.
The set offended some critics so much, they couldn’t keep their eyes off it, thus subverting the Shakespeare’s classic work . Anne Treneman in The Times said, ‘the play struggles to rise above the sheer Stygian ghastliness’. ‘These distressing visual details aren’t just nasty to look at, they undermine the story,’ said Lloyd Evans in The Spectator.
Not everyone agreed. The Sunday Times thought it had a ‘marvelous look’. David Butcher on the Radio Times website praised the ‘bold production design’. The Independent said, ‘Norris’s production excels … in atmosphere and visuals. It’s dark.’
So you have this big dark set and here’s the next problem. It’s in a big theatre.
The Olivier is too big
Now arguably this is not Rufus Norris’ fault. He’s inherited the cavernous Olivier but then again he chose to place Macbeth, a play whose themes of conspiracy and paranoia probably work best in a confined space, in the biggest space the National has to offer.
‘Rae Smith’s black pleated walls – bin-bag cliffs – engulf the action on the huge Olivier stage,’ said Susannah Clapp in The Observer. Mark Shenton at LondonTheatre.co.uk thought ‘the scale of the production also mitigates against the domestic intensity of much of the drama’.
You might have thought the stars would redeem it. Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff are two of our finest actors and in Mr Kinnear you have someone with a brilliant track record of playing great Shakespearean roles. And, to an extent, they did but, even though most critics liked their acting, quite a few didn’t like the interpretations, especially Rory Kinnear’s Macbeth.
Here’s what they said about this ‘poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage’. ‘Rory Kinnear, one of our finest comic actors, never quite convinces as the driven, ambitious thane. He’s too dithering, nervy and jumpy.’ That was the Sunday Times.
The Daily Mail thought him ‘unexceptional’. ‘Kinnear is a martial not a meditative presence, too robust to seem deeply disturbed,’ said The Observer. The Stage said, ‘In the past he’s been an eloquent Hamlet and a bullish, envy-drenched Iago. He tackles Macbeth with the same clarity of delivery, but he never digs beneath his skin.’
That latter point is echoed by others. The Guardian said he ‘never takes us inside Macbeth’s head’. WhatsOnStage agreed saying he ‘does little to convey the conscience-stricken inwardness that makes the character so complex’. The Radio Times said, ‘There’s not enough sense of the dense geography of Macbeth’s inner life’ and continued ‘we don’t get the feeling here that his Macbeth is a great soul laid low by baser instincts, more an exasperated middle manager.’
Lloyd Evans in The Spectator had a similar thought. ‘There’s no trace of poetry, grandeur or mystery about him. But he’d be ideal casting as the tetchy manager of an Amazon warehouse.’
There’s more from Mr Evans. ‘Rory Kinnear makes an unlikely Macbeth,’ said The Spectator. ‘His voice is dark, rich and characterful but he has few other assets. Physically he’s suburban: a bit bald, slightly stooping, with a faint beer gut and a pinched, narrow frame.’ In other contexts, this would be body shaming but we can take his point that Rory Kinnear’s Macbeth is an ordinary guy.
Rosemary Waugh from Exeunt Magazine had the same impression: ‘Rory Kinnear plays Macbeth as the-bloke-down-the-pub, making some of the most famous monologues in the history of well, theatre, sound as dramatically intense as a food order.’
Not everybody was unhappy with Rory Kinnear. Marianka Swain from Broadwayworld.com said he ‘showed real existential angst’ and was ‘as clear-spoken and intelligent with verse as always’.
So what about Anne-Marie Duff? She came in for less stick than Rory Kinnear but The Observer did say, ‘Duff is precise, guarding against her own fragility – she delivers her smashing-the-baby speech tearfully – but lacks the fire that usually makes her so memorable.’
And BroadwayWorld.com thought, ‘Anne-Marie Duff’s Lady Macbeth feels half-formed.’ Variety was even less impressed: ‘as Lady Macbeth, Duff all but goes missing’.
That said, many critics did like the acting of both Mr and Mrs Macbeth. Mark Shenton at londontheatre.co.uk said, ‘Neither of these fine, fierce and always ferociously intelligent actors disappoints.’ The Radio Times enthused about the ‘clarity of delivery and line-reading that makes the text sing’.
And quite a few singled out Anne-Marie Duff. The Financial Times said ‘she makes every word vibrate with high-tension significance’. The Guardian’s Michael Billington, who didn’t find much else to like, said ‘she lives vividly in the moment’.
So there you have it. The critics full of sound and fury but… signifying nothing? Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow will tell whether sales or indeed Rufus Norris’s reputation are badly affected. I can say that when I saw it the audience reacted well. There was no polite round of applause- I heard strong clapping and some cheering. So word-of-mouth may prevail.
Did any critic give Macbeth at the National Theatre more than two stars? Yes- the Financial Times, The Independent, the Radio Times, the i and the LondonTheatre website to name but a few gave it three stars. One lone voice even gave it four stars. That was a certain One Minute Theatre Reviews.
What can I say? I liked the dystopian setting. I thought the poetry was beautifully spoken. I loved Rory Kinnear’s portrayal of Macbeth as an ordinary man caught up in lawless times. I found it interesting to see the themes of Macbeth played out, not in a war for a mighty kingdom but in the kind of nasty modern war over a destroyed city, such as we’ve seen in Syria or Bosnia.
I did think it would have been better in a more confined space, and it did lack tension at the end but I really hope the massed ranks of the critics advancing on Rufus Norris’s Macbeth don’t put people off this Scottish Play for our times.