Hymn starring Adrian Lester – review

Adrian Lester & Danny Sapani give an acting masterclass

★★★★★

Danny Sapani & Adrian Lester in Hymn. Photo: Marc Brenner

Hymn, although it’s not spelled ‘him’, is a play about two men, two sons, and two brothers as it turns out. A bare stage with two actors provide possibly the best piece of streamed theatre I’ve seen.

It begins with a funeral. Gil, played by Adrian Lester, gives a eulogy to his late father, his hero. Now 50, he is the youngest child of four, the only boy, in the shadow of his older sisters and in awe of his late father. In the course of the play, we learn that his life has been shackled by following in his father’s footsteps as a businessman rather than being comfortable with being the kind but naive man he clearly is. And it seems his father was not the paragon he thought he was.

At the funeral, he meets Benny played by Danny Sapani. We soon discover he is an unacknowledged child of Gil’s father, born just a few weeks after him. Gil and Benny are drawn to one another. From then on, they are set on a road that starts with bonding and leads them hand-in-hand to disaster.

The two men satisfy a need in the other. Gil is pleased to have a younger brother, albeit by a few weeks, someone he can impress. Benny, who spent much of his childhood in care, has a connection with a dad and siblings for the first time. There’s a lot about the effect of dads on sons, or the lack of a dad.

Adrian Lester & Danny Sapani in Hymn. Photo: Marc Brenner

Both have their demons and each boosts the other. They bond through music and dance. Lester and Sapani have fine voices and are good movers. The songs they sing pepper the story and, when they relive their 80s youth, it gives them a shared experience they never had at the time. The musically knowledgeable Benny calls it ‘sympathetic resonance’. The first song significantly is Bill Withers song that says ‘Lean on me when you’re not strong.’

In another scene Benny introduces Gil to a gym where he can unleash his frustration with his life.

For a while, it is wonderful to hear two men conversing about their lives and their feelings, relaxed and natural. But we know something must go wrong- the hints are there- and inevitably it does, but I won’t spoil anything by going into the details. Just to say, like any two people who blindly love each oither, they lead one another down this fatal path.

Adrian Lester takes us through many emotions as his character moves from confident to destroyed. His face, his voice, his eyes all transform— it’s a masterclass in acting. Danny Sapani too is excellent.  I was touched by sensitivity and a puppy-like enthusiasm he conveyed, so apparently at odds with his bulky body.

The 90 minutes fly by. Lolita Chakrabarti’s script is so tight and so true. It’s interesting, I think, that, in a time when it is sometimes suggested that authors should not or cannot write about things outside their experience, a woman manages to make these men so believable.

It’s unfortunate that covid restrictions prevent the actors touching, because there are moments when they would have hugged or given one another a helping hand but the camerawork does well to suggest closeness.

In fact, this is a lesson in how to film a stage play, especially considering it is done live. It feels very like theatre- the bare stage designed by Miriam Buether tdoes just enough to suggest and leave the rest to our imagination, Prema Mehta‘s lighting and Blanche McIntyre‘s direction ensure we concentrate on the two characters and hardly notice that we are seeing it through a lens.

I was applauding at the end. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that a recording will be made available.

Hymn is streaming nightly until Sunday 21 February 2021. Tickets available from https://almeida.co.uk

Click here to watch this review on the YouTube channel One Minute Theatre Reviews

 

Mike Bartlett’s Albion – review of BBC live recording

Victoria Hamilton blooms in Mike Bartlett’s play about loss

★★★★

Victoria Hamilton in Albion at the Almeida. Photo: Marc Brenner

Sometimes you watch the first act of a play and it’s just the setup and you really want to get it over with so you can move on to how it’s all going to work out. Not so with Mike Bartlett’s Albion, directed by Rupert Goold at the Almeida Theatre, which is currently available as a live recording on BBC iPlayer. The first act is captivating and what follows, while good, never lives up to the promise.

Audrey has bought a house she knew as a child. It had a historic garden and she plans to renovate it. No matter that this involves uprooting her daughter, neglecting her business, upsetting the local community who have become used to using the huge outdoor space for their annual events.

It’s a good script but what you’re riveted by is Victoria Hamilton’s performance. From the start, she grabs you by the lapels, then she puts you down and walks away, then she picks you again. She is mesmerising as she paces back and forth and spits out her staccato sentences, like a neurotic sergeant major. For example, when she is pouring tea and says: ‘Let me be mother…since I am…’ followed by a false, stuttering laugh.

This is the sort of intimate theatre that works really well in a live recording. The Almeida is a small theatre and the cast occupy a three-sided stage. It’s like an oval island surrounded by the audience. Actually, although an island might symbolise its isolation from the rest of the world, it is in fact a garden with a solid tree at one end, giving a sense of history. The actors don’t have to shout and the cameras close in on a face much as you would if you were lucky enough to be sitting in one of the seats.

For me, nothing lived up to that first act. There’s plenty going on with many developments involving the other characters but they felt tacked on, no matter how good the acting was. Not so much multi-layered, as laid on thick. And the ending was way too melodramatic.

What I loved throughout the whole play was the dominating character of Audrey and the way Victoria Hamilton blooms as the wishful gardener. Grief has consumed her and the only way she can cope is to reject everyone and everything in favour of a retreat into an imagined golden age.

She has lost her soldier son in what she sees as defending his country but what is referred to a one point as a ‘folly’. As a way of honouring him, she is determined to recreate the original garden, even though it is now anachronistic. It’s pointed out that the climate has changed- and that ‘climate’ may refer to more than growing conditions, because there is an allegory here for the state of England and how we as a nation are coping with the loss of mythical past glories and with the need to move on.

Audrey wants to return to a bygone age but only within the boundaries of her world. So, she doesn’t care that she is trampling on the traditions of the local people; and she hires the more efficient Polish cleaner (and sacks the local woman who has done the job for years. It is fascinating, shocking even to see the insensitivity that can come from single-mindedness, and her gradual but inevitable disintegration.

Mike Bartlett’s Albion at The Almeida Theatre. Photo: Marc Brenner

It’s also fascinating to see the garden change as flowers grow through the four acts, each of which is a different season, culminating with the ‘fall’. It’s a great design by Miriam Buether.

I glossed over the other characters earlier but that doesn’t mean I don’t think they were acted well. Audrey’s daughter Zara is played by Daisy Edgar-Jones, who recently made a breakthrough to stardom with her role in TV’s Normal People. She is perfect as a troubled twenty something. Helen Schlesinger makes you feel the pain as Katherine, a successful but shy novelist, forced to make a hard choice between a thirty year friendship and a rare opportunity for love.

In a play that is more amusing than funny, Nicholas Rowe as Audrey’s devoted husband Paul got the most laughs as a man so proudly laid back that he was almost horizontal.

It’s hard not to compare Albion with Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. Unfortrunately, on every count, this play comes out worse. Chekhov’s second half doesn’t peter out, his ending feels real and even his minor characters have depth.  So best not go there, better to simply enjoy Albion as a good if not great play with a mother of a leading role that, in future productions, actors will queue up to play.

For me, one of the tests of watching theatre at home is whether I wish I’d seen it in the theatre. In Albion’s case, despite some flaws, I would have loved to have been there. Especially to see that outstanding performance by Victoria Hamilton.

The live recording of Mike Bartlett’s Albion is currently available on BBC i-Player.

Watch the YouTube video of this review here.

Juliet Stevenson in The Doctor at the Almeida Theatre

Juliet Stevenson outstanding in Robert Icke’s exposure of populism

★★★

Juliet Stevenson in The Doctor. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Dr Wolfe, played by Juliet Stevenson, prides herself on being logical and making medical decisions based on facts in a world of irrationality.

Hildegard Bechtler’s stark set is quite a contrast to the detailed oppressiveness of her design for Rosmersholm. Here you have bare pale walls with only a table and benches in the middle, very clinical and hospital-like but also reflecting the cool rationality of the main protagonist.

On this occasion she’s treating a 14 year old girl who has botched a self administered abortion and contracted sepsis. She’s going to die and Dr Wolfe wants her to die peacefully. A Catholic priest turns up expecting to give her the last rites but the doctor doesn’t want her patient disturbed.

Thenceforth this sparkler of an incident turns into a stick of dynamite as the doctor is attacked on all sides: by her colleagues who want her power reduced, by campaigners who seize an opportunity for publicity, by internet trolls who want to vent their anger.

The Doctor at the Almeida Theatre. Photo: Manuel Harlan

An online petition condemning her gains tens of thousands of signatures from people who know nothing of the case. An anti-abortionist attacks her even though she didn’t carry out an abortion. People abuse her and accuse her of murder. Her Jewish parentage is invoked as a reason for her anti-Catholic behaviour.

Much of the play is about a rational person trying to maintain her position while being besieged by irrational, prejudiced people with their own agendas.

Robert Icke’s clever use of gender and colour blind casting

Writer and director Robert Icke cleverly uses gender and colour blind casting to wrong foot the audience. We don’t see why the doctor should be accused of prejudice until we realise that someone we thought was white was black or someone we saw as a woman is a man, thus underlining that it is the accusers who are prejudiced.

The doctor is drawn into defending herself and, under pressure, she reveals   some prejudice in her own behaviour which leads to irrationality, but in unexpected ways.

Take language. Her pride in her rationality is illustrated by her obsession with the correct use of English. She picks someone up for saying ‘literally’ in a context where it means precisely the opposite. Later she is forced to acknowledge that language is fluid and subjective, when her enemies pick on a seemingly innocuous phrase  as being racist because she used it against a black person.

She also freely admits that her practice of medicine is only the sum of today’s knowledge and could be seen as ignorant and like witchcraft in the future.

The original play on which The Doctor is based is Professor Bernhardi by Arthur Schnitzler. Written a hundred years ago it was a warning against the rise of populism and its use of people’s prejudices as a weapon. These days the tools may be different- social media and TV- but Robert Icke’s new version suggests the tactics of populists remain the same.

Juliet Stevenson gives a five star performance

The Doctor shows how frighteningly easy it is for the rational can be submerged by the irrational. Our protagonist gradually breaks down as she is engulfed by a nightmare. Juliet Stevenson gives a five star performance as she descends from the ramrod stiff leader at the opening through anger to desolation and tears.

The problem for me was that the plot seemed contrived. I didn’t believe that events would turn out this way. Would a senior doctor in dementia take on someone with sepsis from A&E? Would a TV debate really include an anti-abortionist when abortion was not the issue?  Add to which, the other characters seemed like ciphers there simply to make a point.

Ria Zmitrowicz and Juliet Stevenson in The Doctor. Photo: Manuel Harlanliet

The exception was the troubled young person staying with Dr Wolff and who has her private life exposed. only the other week The Sun published a repugnant story which used the name of famous cricketer Ben Stokes as an excuse to write about his parents and a family tragedy that happened before he was even born.  Ria Zmitrowicz was convincingly nervous and vulnerable as she placed her trust in her substitute mother.

A lack of respect for his audience?

I was disappointed in one element of Robert Icke’s direction. There is a point where Juliet Stevenson sits on the front of the stage and has an important confrontation with another character. This was not visible from the Circle where I was sitting. I have worked in a 2000 seat theatre where the directors would go to the back and sides of each of the three levels to ensure that the actors could be seen. It would be surprising if, in a theatre as small as the Almeida with 360 seats and two levels, Mr Icke was unaware that hundreds of ticket buyers would be unable to see this crucial moment.

Remembering the theme of this play, I will admit that I don’t know all the circumstances and I’m not a director. Nevertheless I find it difficult to believe he couldn’t have moved this scene upstage a little. I’m not going to start a Facebook petition or a Twitter campaign but he does appear to be showing a lack of respect for his audience.

Robert Icke is a hugely talented director and while his final production as associate director of the Alemeida Theatre may not be his best, The Doctor is an imaginative, thought provoking work that generates a powerful performance by one of our finest actors.

The Doctor is performing at the Almeida Theatre until 28 September 2019 before transferring to the Duke Of York’s Theatre for a limited run from 20 April 2020.

Click here to watch the YouTube review of The Doctor starring Juliet Stevenson