Nicola Walker and director Dominic Cooke refresh dated play
The Corn Is Green is a production that is worthy to stand alongside the best of the National Theatre. It almost seems a bonus that it features a star performance from Nicola Walker.
It’s a hundred years ago and an Englishwoman Miss Moffatt, played by Nicola Walker, arrives in a Welsh mining village. It’s her mission to educate the children. One of them, Morgan Evans, played with feeling and humour by Iwan Davies, is exceptionally clever and becomes her protégé. Much of the play hinges around the question, will he or won’t he go to Oxford University?
Apart from Morgan, the other characters are one-dimensional so anyone playing Miss Moffatt is required to carry the show. In the past, the part has attracted some big guns: Sybil Thorndyke, Ethel Barrymore, Bette Davis, Katharine Hepburn, Deborah Kerr. Hard acts to follow, and it seems for the first half that this is going to be a one note performance from Nicola Walker. I mean a beautiful pure note, but essentially she is determined and haughty toward everyone she meets and in everything she does. Then as she becomes more emotionally involved with making Morgan a success, a throatiness and slight hesitation pervades the previous stridency. It’s a subtle, powerful performance.
This semi-autobiographical play is dated in some respects and could have failed as a production but for some brilliant ideas by, I assume, director Dominic Cooke. First he introduces the author onto the stage, giving the stage directions and in that sense showing he is both is telling a story and that the story is very much about him.
Morgan talks about the conflict he feels about leaving his community but this is not dwelt on in the play. Again Dominic Cooke’s production comes to the rescue. The use of a miners’ chorus throughout is a reminder of the draw of the community.
The production opens with a 1930s ball shown in silhouette behind a curtain. A man steps out from it to the front of the stage. We soon realise this is Emlyn Williams. He begins to type his semi autobiographical play and creates the characters and story before our eyes. We’re back in a Welsh mining village in the early twenties. A group of miners sing in Welsh. The great Bill Deamer choreographs the moments of dance.
We meet some of the characters: the village children, who only speak Welsh, and the English who stand above and apart from them, showing contempt for people they regard as savages. Themain characters are amusing but fairly one dimensional: Richard Lynch is the saved Christian Mr Jones, with red-faced passion bubbling under his proper exterior; the dim, nervous Miss Ronberry played by Alice Orr-Ewing and the even dimmer landowner that she loves, simply known as The Squire, played by Rufus Wright. Then Miss Moffat appears.
Educating the children means teaching them arithmetic and to read and write, English, that is. The playwright appears to support this and treats the many racist attitudes towards the Welsh as a bit of a joke.
Morgan is the a cocky and clever leader of the boys (all of whom are played by adults). He becomes Miss Moffatt’s star student and she is tyrannical in her determination to pursue her ambitions for him, without care of any enemies she might make.
At first the actors mime on a set, designed by ULTZ, that is a blank and black with minimal props, perhaps indicating the emptiness of the prospects of these people who start down the mines at age ten. I don’t want to spoil the surprise but ULTZ’s set design is gradually populated with more detail and, when you come back after the interval, the curtain goes up on a transformed stage, like an Aladdin’s cave after the austerity of the first act. Just as Miss Moffat has become emotionally engaged and the educated Morgan has become committed to leaving for a wider world, the set becomes a naturalistic with colourful wallpaper and detailed furnishings.
Sure, The Corn Is Green is sentimental, patronising, and not overly challenging but, in the hands of Nicola Walker and Dominic Cooke, it is also heartwarming, and a hymn to the power of education.
The Corn Is Green can be seen at the Lyttelton Theatre within the National Theatre until 11 June 2022.
Paul received a complimentary review ticket from the producers.
Larry Kramer’s blistering attack on prejudice and complacency in the early days of AIDS epidemic
The Normal Heart, written in 1985 as the AIDS epidemic was finally beginning to be acknowledged, is based on author Larry Kramer’s own experience of this period. It’s a play that highlights prejudice and ignorance, fighting for what is right, and what it’s like to live in a time of plague.
The lead character Ned is semi-autobiographical and it’s great to see Ben Daniels given the starring role. He’s an excellent actor who always delivers on stage or screen. These days is probably best known for playing Princess Margaret’s husband in The Crown but in this production, directed by Dominic Cooke, he shows how he can carry a whole show.
This production was stopped in its tracks by the COVID -19 pandemic. So, inevitably, now that it’s finally made it onto the Olivier stage, we view it in the light of our experience of what’s happened over the last year and a half. We recognise the authorities’ slowness to respond to what was going on, albeit nothing like the fatal head-in-the-sand attitude to the early deaths within New York’s gay community. In the unwillingness of people to do what’s necessary to save lives, we can see a parallel with some gay men back then refusing to modify their sex lives. We are also familiar with wide-ranging and sometimes wild theories about causes and cures that have since gone by the wayside. In the play, you get the sense of bewilderment and panic about where this so-called ‘gay plague’ has come from and how it’s being spread.
What’s also happened between the postponement of this production and now is the joyous but devastating TV series It’s A Sin by Russell T Davies. That was set in the UK rather than New York and took us into the 90s but anyone who has seen it will recognise the way some newly liberated gay men became highly promiscuous during the 70s and 80s, and again the slowness to react, and the crushing sadness of friends dying all around, and the reconciliation between some parents, especially mothers, and their dying sons.
The Normal Heart is much more overtly political than It’s A Sin. It might be better compared with Albert Camus‘ The Plague, in which an outbreak of bubonic plague follows a similar trajectory and is intended as an analogy for the rise of Nazism.
The Normal Heart follows closely the developments in early 1980s New York: the early deaths, the uncertainties, one doctor flagging up the concern, and the forming of an organisation intended to warn gay men of the danger, help those that contracted AIDs, and pursue the authorities for support.
It’s hard to know what’s more depressing: people faced with the possibility of contracting a fatal disease still carrying on with a reckless lifestyle, or the authorities and media trying to pretend it wasn’t happening because this seemed to be only to do with gay men, and not something they wanted to be associated with. So both familiar and yet still shocking.
Ned is instantly at odds with his fellow campaigners. He is all for directness and shouting from the rooftops in order to pressurise those in power into action, and his fellow gay men to refrain from sex. I guess he’s the kind of person who these days would be gluing himself to the motorway. Others, some still in the closet, argue for a more softly softly approach.
Humour, pain, anger and compassion
Because the abrasive Ned is never afraid to tell it like it is, he has some barnstorming moments, but the other actors in Ned’s circle including Luke Norris, Dino Fetscher, Daniel Monks and Danny Lee Wynter, take hold of their well drawn, varied characters and fill this evening with humour, pain, anger and compassion.
Liz Carr plays Doctor Brookner who first notices the increase in this distinctive illness and goes from compassionate but objective medic to militant campaigner, with a blistering speech in the second act. ‘How does it always happen that all of the idiots are always on your team?’ she asks her opponents.
Ned is also in conflict with his straight brother Ben, given a nicely nuanced performance by Robert Bowman, who shows the love he feels for his brother while barely able to disguise his homophobia.
Not only does Kramer give the various members of the group the space to express their differing feelings and opinions, he digs deep into his main protagonist’s character. Despite all the risks of intimacy, the previously lonely Ned falls in love and suddenly the story of this epidemic becomes very personal. Love is what makes Ned a human ding rather than a simple polemicist
The end is heartbreaking, compounded by the misery of the latter stages of the disease and, even after their death, the continuing prejudice in the treatment of their bodies. If you are not in tears by the end, I would question whether you have a heart.
Although the setting is specifically the gay community of New York in the early 80s, the behaviour it shows can be seen again and again in many other situations. We’re reminded by Ned in the play how governments turned a blind eye to the Nazis’ treatment of Jews. And if we look around today, we could take the example of the way a male-dominated, misogynistic judicial system consistently fails to take effective action against the number of rapes and other violence against women. Or the way elderly people in care homes were treated during the COVID -19 outbreak (see Help by Jack Thorne on All4). Or the daily discrimination against black people (see my review of Typical).
A word about the set. The Olivier at the National Theatre has been converted into a theatre-in-the round. The stage is a circle with a thin light all the way round the circumference, perhaps suggesting the way gay men were seen at that time as separate from the rest of society. It’s pretty much bare apart from a few benches so this production is all about the acting, and that to be frank is a relief after many productions I’ve seen in this large space where the set design has dwarfed the play. The set, designed by Vicki Mortimer, also has a flame burning high up throughout. I took this to represent the kind of eternal flame you find at a tomb of the unknown soldier, as if to say these thousands who died through the prejudice and ignorance should not be forgotten.
To make this truly in-the-round, there are seats on what would normally be the stage, though it was my impression, sitting in the circle that the actors faced to the traditional front the majority of the time. A word of warning: there are lighting towers positioned around edge of the circular stage. These will inevitably give you a restricted view if you sit in the right or left stalls and circle. I know this to be true because a delayed train caused me to arrive at the last moment, so I was sitting to the side for the first act before I was able to take my central seat.
The Normal Heart is a deeply moving play, with scintillating, witty, powerful dialogue that deserves this well acted revival.
Revision made on 1 October 2021 to add more about the significance of love and the universality of the message
I’ve watched quite a few recordings of theatre shows since the Lockdown and the more I see the less sure I am that that they’re a good advertisement for theatre. By which I mean, what works on stage often doesn’t work on film.
At the heart of live performance, there’s a conspiracy between audience and actor. We all know we’re watching someone acting out a story. So we accept the artificiality, the theatricality if you like. That unnaturalness is exposed when we are forced to stand back from it and view it through the medium of film. So when the actors in This House race up and down the stage, it looks exciting in the flesh but on screen it just looks a bit silly. When actors speak loudly on stage, it’s riveting, on screen it’s a bit shouty.
Films and television dramas are more artificial than theatre but they do everything they can to make it seem like it’s real- the photographically detailed set, the convincing makeup and so on.
What we want in theatre is simply to watch those actors telling us that story with their words and actions. Film wants to show us flashbacks and dreams. It has to provide something to keep the eye interested: you can’t have a detective go question somebody without that person carrying on with their gardening or car repair.
We theatregoers want to use our imagination, just as we did when our parents or teacher told us a story as a child. We conjure up images of, as Shakespeare said, ‘the cloud-capp’d tow’rs, the gorgeous palaces’- not to mention pitched battles and shipwrecks. We don’t need imagination for film and TV drama because they do it for us. In This House, as the Labour Whips desperately try to get MPs back to give them the votes they need, a silhouette of a helicopter appears at the back of the stage, to great comic effect. That’s all we need. In a film, we would expect a real chopper.
Theatre is on a human scale (with the odd exception where the director insists that the production will be better for using video screens). We may like the odd spectacle but only because we can really appreciate a barricade built on a stage in front of our eyes. Generally, we like engaging with people who are not small and removed from us on a TV screen or larger than life in the cinema but people who are the same size as us, alive in front of us. For that reason, recorded theatre works best when following one character close up, like Fleabag or Sea Wall, or a small scale play dominated by one person like Cyprus Avenue.
Thrilling production from Jeremy Herrin and Rae Smith
When watching a live performance, our brains and eyes are remarkably good at seeing detail, even from a distance. On TV, we either view the whole set and miss the detail or the camera hones in on our behalf and creates its notion of what we should see. In theatre, we may be nudged by the script or the direction but we still make the choice to look at the person talking or the one listening or a detail of the set. Rae Smith’s set for This House is brilliant. She uses a traverse stage with green seats on either side creating both the sense of gladiatorial combat and the close intimacy of parliamentary politics. Not so great when you’re not one of the people sitting on one side looking at the other side.
So, no, I didn’t think the NTLive recording conveyed the quality of This House. It’s a superb piece of theatre deserving four or even five stars, reduced to maybe three at the most. What saves it is the wonderful script by James Graham and the great way it’s acted.
This House tells the story of the time in the 1970s when the Labour government was hanging on with small or nonexistent majorities. The play may be about politics which you might think boring but it is actually thrilling as the Labour whips tried to find the MPs’ votes to keep the government going and the Conservative whips tried to bring it down. And it’s funny, as when they drag in a dying member to vote.
It’s also a very good explanation of how parliament works- and sometimes doesn’t work- and an advertisement for respect and compromise at a time when extreme positions are in danger of bringing down democracy.
Among many fine performances in Jeremy Herrin’s production at the National Theatre, I would pick out Charles Edwards and Reece Dinsdale as the ruthless but mutually respectful deputy whips, Phil Daniels as the conspiratorial cockney Chief Whip and Lauren O’Neill as the newcomer who grows in confidence and stature as the years go by.
I would definitely advise you to give it a watch, despite all my caveats, but I am glad I originally saw This House live on stage.
I saw One Man Two Guvnors at the National Theatre back in 2011 and would have given it five stars if I’d been posting reviews back then. It is a love letter to theatrical comedy. So, how do you tackle recording on film a play that is all about the stage?
Richard Bean’s script and Nicholas Hytner’s production are a tribute to Commedia dell’Arte and its influence on subsequent comedy such as Music Hall, pantomime and farce. It’s a deliberately theatrical show- shouty and with over large gestures. It shouldn’t work on screen and, for a few minutes at the beginning, I did fear that it was going to be everything I hate about recordings of stage shows.
Then I realised NTLive had been very clever. They made hardly any concessions to film, barring the odd close-up. There are many views of the proscenium arch and of the whole stage. The actors weren’t miked, which they often are for live recordings, so the sound is echoey. What better way to film a self consciously theatrical show than by confronting its theatricality?
One Man Two Guvnors is probably best remembered as being James Corden’s finest moment on stage and this recording is worth seeing for his performance alone but it is a production of all-round excellence. Starting with the script.
Richard Bean‘s play is an adaptation of Goldoni’s The Servant of Two Masters. This 1746 classic comedy came directly out of the Italian tradition of Commedia dell’Arte, which is pretty much the earliest form of European theatre.
The playwright has stayed faithful to Goldoni’s original story, but relocated it to 1963, recent enough to feel contemporary but long ago enough to be able to get away with sexist stereotypes and language. James Corden as Francis Henshaw, in a checked outfit, a toned down version of the Commedia dell’Arte Harlequin character’s traditional chequered costume, decides to earn some extra money by working for two bosses and then gets into all manner of confusion trying to juggle those jobs.
More than an adaptation of Goldoni, Richard Bean makes One Man Two Guvnors a tribute to Commedia dell’Arte’s influence on theatre. The standard characters and plots, so recognisable across all cultures and centuries, formed the basis of many of our comedies and comic traditions ever since. You’ll find it in everything from da Ponte’s libretti for Mozart’s operas to The Benny Hill Show.
So we get a Music Hall style production, with an emphasised proscenium arch and a skiffle band playing musical interludes between scenes. The set designed by Mark Thompson uses what appear to be traditional flats- pieces of flat wooden scenery- to add to the old fashioned feel.
We get pantomime elements- Pantomime itself being a direct descendant of – such as a slush scene where Francis serves dinner to both his guvnors while trying to keep them apart in separate rooms, and eating most of the meal himself. Doors open and shut, the two bosses appear and disappear, food and drink get mixed up and reduced as Francis tries to eat most of it, people are knocked over, all ending in a climax of flames and foam.
Talking to the audience and audience participation and the accompanying improvisation, familiar from both music hall and pantomime, are a key feature of this play and provide some of the funniest moments, whether they are really as spontaneous as they appear or not.
We get knockabout Farce: Francis falls over a chair trying to catch a nut in his mouth; Stanley, one of his guvnors, uses him as a punchbag; or, in one of the most laugh-out-loud moments, an elderly servant Alfie, played fearlessly by Tom Edden, is pushed headlong down some stairs.
Physical comedy, wordplay and first class acting
In fact, he has many of the funniest physical moments, from being hit by a cricket bat to having his pacemaker turned up so his shoots around the room like a pinball. These, for me, were the best bits of the evening and credit here goes to the associate director Cal McCrystal who was responsible for the physical comedy.
There is even a scene where two characters have their trousers down, reminding me at least of the inevitable moment in the legendary Whitehall farces where Brian Rix would lose his pants.
Just as Commedia dell’Arte benefited from the audiences’ familiarity with characters and plots, modern day comedy audiences like the comfort of a catchphrase. And there are catchphrases galore in One Man Two Guvnors.
Pauline played deadpan by Claire Lamb repeatedly says ‘I don’t understand’, the reformed villain Lionel’s most memorable experiences all seem to have happened at ‘Parkhurst’, a word weighted with significance by actor Trevor Laird’s glances at the audience. And there’s a running joke about a male and female twins being misdescribed as identical.
The script is also full of wonderful wordplay. There’s alliterative repartee involving the phrase ‘He was diagnosed with diarrhoea but died of diabetes in Dagenham’. There are non sequitors like ‘We had to put newspaper down because I’d had a banana’ or ‘You can’t trust a Spaniard alone with a Swiss Roll’. Hyperbolic metaphors proliferate: ‘a floral clock in the middle of winter, all the flowers dead, the hour hand pointlessly turning, the minute hand stuck on a long gone begonia’.
As to Nicholas Hytner’s production, you couldn’t ask for more variation of pace and tightly choreographed movement.
The acting is first class. James Corden has a great ability to connect with an audience, so important in a role that requires interaction with them, and a warmth that enables him to gain sympathy for the mess his deceptions have landed him in. Like other oversize comics- Oliver Hardy springs to mind- he also extracts humour from being unexpectedly delicate in his movements and surprisingly agile.
The rest of the cast extract everything they can of their largely two dimensional characters. Let’s look at the two guvnors who are also lovers- a further plot complication. Jemima Rooper is great at putting on a tough exterior while hiding a quivering heart. Oliver Chris is perfect as an upper class twit. Also gaining a lot of laughs from being serious while behaving ludicrously is Daniel Rigby as a pompous young actor.
Susie Toase is Francis’ love interest Dolly. She’s a bookkeeper and her seaside postcard body contrasts comically with her feminist ideas. The elders in this play, Fred Ridgeway as Pauline’s criminal Dad and the previously mentioned Trevor Laird, both add to the verbal comedy.
This recording of such a eulogy to theatre could never be as good as being there but in these days of being confined to home, I couldn’t be more grateful to the National Theatre for giving us this chance to see it.
Hansard in the Lyttelton Theatre of the National Theatre is what I love about theatre. Forget video screens, background music, special effects. This is simply two great actors live on stage telling a story to a live audience. For ninety unbroken minutes this couple bickers and takes swipes at each other until eventually they reveal what’s behind their fractured relationship. It’s art on a human scale.
And what’s amazing is that this is Simon Woods’ first play which makes its perfect structure and precise and funny dialogue all the more remarkable. And there’s confidence in how he handles his audience- he’s even bold enough to make a joke about plays with no interval.
In case you don’t know, Hansard is the written record of all that is said in Parliament. But it doesn’t tell the full story. This play is about what’s not said. The story behind the legislation. The point where the personal and the political meet.
It’s 1988. Robin, a public schoolboy MP, arrives home for the weekend. His wife Diana seems unprepared for his arrival. She isn’t happy that his government has just passed section 28 which outlaws sympathetic teaching about homosexuality. He’s upset at how wild animals are wrecking his lawn. She lays into him, pretending she thinks he’s talking about what his government is doing to the country. There are many more crowd pleasing snipes at the public schoolboys who run the Conservative government and the country. For example, there’s a joke about how people who keep voting for them are like abused partners. It all sounds so contemporary despite being set 30 years ago.
It’s clearly familiar ground this couple are going over, a bit like putting on old slippers, neither surprises the other, being amused even by each other’s insults.
Gradually the humour subsides without totally disappearing and the previously unspoken reason for the schism between them is revealed, followed by secrets that are deeply upsetting but show how much they have misunderstood one another in their anger.
I suspect Diana and Robin owe a debt to Edward Albee’s warring couple in Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? but this war of words is less vicious or at least more civilised.
Lindsay Duncan and Alex Jennings convince
Lindsay Duncan and Alex Jennings, directed by Simon Godwin, are top class. He is totally believable as the upper class husband who keeps his emotions battened down and reacts to everything in the modest self-deprecating way of those born to rule. (I was very impressed by his ability to first cook toast on an Aga and then eat it while still projecting his lines to the back of the circle.)
She too is upper class but while she enunciates vowels that could cut glass, her voice is strained by emotion suggesting she is close to the edge. Even so, she is in control enough to toy with her husband and give him sideways looks that could cut steak.
These are convincing characters in a real situation. What implications there are about the way we conduct our politics- her ineffective left wing words, his assumption of his right to govern, the need for understanding and common ground- are very subtly woven in.
Hildegard Bechtler’s set, a naturalistic kitchen and dining area, uses the often intimidating width of the Lyttelton stage to great effect by bringing down the proscenium arch until it looks even wider, like a letterbox. Which means the warring couple seem at times miles apart.
You might wonder why 1988, why not now? Certainly much of what is said in the play could refer to today. Common values, tolerance and liberal democracy are once again taking a bashing at the hands of public schoolboys. I guess one answer is that setting it in the past will stop it being dated. But it’s also an important reminder that government backed homophobia was present in Britain only 30 years ago and therefore how recent and possibly fragile gains in LGBT rights are.
Hansard is an excellent and an important play.
Hansard was at the National Theatre until 25 November 2019. An NTLive recording and can be seen at cinemas in January 2020.
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.
David Hare’s new play is contrived, predictable & flat
When the National Theatre announces a new season, it’s always a challenge to decide which events to spend one’s time and money on. But a new play by one of our greatest living playwrights David Hare starring a fine actor like Siân Brooke and directed by the renowned Neil Armfield seemed a safe bet.
So you can imagine my disappointment when confronted by a contrived plot with a weighted conflict and a predictable end, not to mention an acting performance that offered none of the charisma that the role seemed to require. To be fair to Siân Brooke, it may be the script that was lacking rather than her performance.
The plot concerns a clash between a doctor who has run a single issue political campaign to save a hospital and subsequently becomes an MP and a career politician with whom she has, shall we say, history. By the way, Alex Hassell as her ‘sparring partner’ gives a bravura performance ranging from tears to tantrums.
The play jumps back and forth between the present day and the events that led up to it. We see the main character developing her political understanding to the point where she is considering running- or not running- for the Labour Party leadership.
A big auditorium but not a major play
David Hare tries to help our political understanding too. So we learn how the personal and the political are connected, and how we need political parties, in this case the Labour Party, if you seriously want to change things. At Westminster, the play says, we need less towing the party line, less putting efficiency before people and less male ego, and conversely more passion, more belief, more women.
The play takes its time and, if you’re not interested in politics, you may find it dull- although there are some juicy confrontations between the two main characters. The problem for me is, the arguments always seem one sided, so the excitement never mounts. Far from being carried along to the climax, I had plenty of time to consider how unlikely the ending is.
Although the play is about politics, there are no big speeches. It is an intimate play consisting almost entirely of conversations between two people in small rooms. The Lyttleton stage is too big for it. Ralph Myers’ set comprises a simple triangular white room which spins round nicely to frame the action but the large auditorium seems to create performances that are a bit more shouty than they should be.
Last year I saw both Labour Of Love and This House by James Graham, both about Labour Party politics. I was far more affected by his portrayal of impassioned but flawed people who believe in their cause and understand the need to compromise and work together for change in a democratic system than by David Hare’s fantasy world.
I’m Not Running is performing at the National Theatre until 31 January. There will be an NT Live broadcast of the final performance.
Watch below to see the YouTube review of I’m Not Running on the One Minute Theatre Reviews channel
Exit the King is about how we come to terms with the shocking fact that we’re all going to die. As a character says in the play, ‘everyone is the first person ever to die.’
Patrick Marber has done a brilliant job both as director and as the adapter of Eugene Ionesco’s original play. It sounds contemporary and there are funny lines galore and there remains Ionesco’s intention that theatre itself with its exits and entrances should be a metaphor for life. The characters speak in a theatrical way and the King is told early on ‘you’re going to die at the end of the play.’
And as the King, Rhys Ifans is extraordinary. He goes through denial and anger and all the other emotions experienced by those who are dying. Physically he declines before our eyes. He sounds like one of those declamatory stage actors of old like Laurence Olivier and his physical comedy reminded me of Jerry Lewis.
He’s supported by Indira Varma as the cool first Queen, Amy Morgan as the not-so-dumb blonde second Queen and Debra Gillett hilarious as the irreverent servant. Adrian Scarborough and Derek Griffiths complete an all round superb cast.
My only disappointment was that the ending felt dragged out and momentum was lost.
Oh, and credit where it’s due to set designer Anthony Ward. So often designers are defeated by the size of the National Theatre’s Olivier stage but his solution is to have the small cast at the front for most of the play with a big crumbling palace wall behind them, then, in a gobsmacking ending, the set disappears and the whole grand canyon of the stage area opens up as the king dies and fades into eternity. It’s a theatrical moment of which one feels sure Ionesco would have approved.
Ever since they were first built in the 1500s right up to today, British theatres have been running into trouble with what they put on their stages but five plays in particular- one in each of the last five centuries- shocked British theatre to the core.
The first British theatre buildings staged some of the greatest plays ever written in the English language. The so-called English renaissance ran from the late 1500s through to the mid 1600s. Theatre was the television of its day- the leading form of popular entertainment. The top playwrights of this golden era included William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe. But what was allowed on stage was strictly controlled. For example, no modern monarchs could be portrayed. One playwright decided to test the boundaries.
The Game At Chess
Thomas Middleton was, along with Ben Jonson and John Fletcher, one of the big three playwrights of the early 17th century. His hit plays included The Revenger’s Tragedy and The Changeling. So there was much anticipation when A Game At Chess was staged in August 1624 by the acting company and playhouse most associated with William Shakespeare- the King’s Men at the Globe Theatre.
On the face of it, it was a comedy was about the pieces in a chess match but audiences immediately latched on to the fact that the play is an allegory for the relationship between Spain and Great Britain. The White King was James I of England and the Black King Philip IV of Spain.
Among other prominent people featured was a former Spanish ambassador Diego Sarmiento de Acuña, conde de Gondomar, who was caricatured as the underhand Black Knight. (Apparently The King’s Men even bought up secondhand, items from his wardrobe to use in the role.) The new Spanish ambassador recognized the satire and took offence. He complained to King James.
Despite, or perhaps because of, it being a huge hit, the play was stopped after nine performances. Middleton and the actors were prosecuted. The Globe Theatre was shut down. Further performances of the play were forbidden. Middleton and the actors were fined. Middleton never wrote another play.
A few years later, the monarchy was overthrown by Cromwell and the puritans and theatrical performances were banned.
The restoration of the monarchy brought with it a liberation of theatre. Reacting to the puritanism of previous years, Restoration Comedy was deliberately rude in language and subject matter. Also, for the first time, women performed on stage and a large number of plays incorporated plots in which a woman disguised herself as a man, thus allowing audiences to see women’s legs in trousers which would normally be hidden behind skirts. If this wasn’t scandalous enough, one playwright decided to push what ould be shown on stage to the limit.
The Country Wife
William Wycherley’s The Country Wife was said at the time to be the bawdiest, most sexually explicit play ever written. It was deliberately shocking with its plot about cuckolding and randy upper class women. Not to mention its sexual innuendoes. People of the time couldn’t talk about china- the crockery not the country- without embarrassment for some time after.
It went down well in 1675, but times and tastes change. Not only did people become more conservative, governments were unhappy about playwrights satirising the country’s rulers. So in 1737, Prime Minister Robert Walpole introduced a Licensing Act whereby all plays had to be approved by the Lord Chamberlain before being performed. However the Lord Chamberlain was not only concerned with satire in plays, he was protective about many other aspects that might affront public decency. In the new climate, The Country Wife was regarded as obscene and after 1753 it was not performed on stage again until 1924.
As time went on, the Licensing Act ensured that references to drugs, sexual activity especially homosexuality, naked bodies, innuendoes and much more from what some called ‘real life’ were forbidden on stage. Inevitably there was rebellion and at the end of the 19th century a leading writer of the day mounted a challenge.
Mrs Warren’s Profession
George Bernard Shaw had already had box office success with Arms And The Man. In 1893, wrote Mrs Warren’s Profession. The problem was the play was about prostitution. The Lord Chamberlain refused to allow it to be performed. In 1902, a number of leading actors performed the play in a members only club but it took until 1925, by which time Shaw had had a string of successes including Pygmalion, Man And Superman, Saint Joan and Caesar And Cleopatra, before it was finally allowed into a British theatre open to the general public.
The Licensing Act remained in place until 1968. By then, it was in disrepute and was replaced by the Theatres Act which effectively abolished censorship in the theatre, albeit allowing for the Attorney General to prosecute a play liable to ‘deprave and corrupt’. It may say something about the changing place of theatre in society that while theatre now had freedom of expression, cinemas and television were still subject to censorship, suggesting that theatre was no longer the popular entertainment of years ago and that the educated middle classes who attend theatre could be trusted not be corrupted by it.
The day after the abolition of the Licensing Act, the musical Hair received its first performance on a British stage complete with nudity and references to drug taking. Calcutta quickly followed and, over the next few years, there was an explosion of plays depicting the realities of life including all kinds of sexuality. Nudity became almost commonplace. It began to seem like the stage had become a place where anything goes. But a play at the National Theatre showed that theatre could still shock and there were still potential boundaries.
The Romans In Britain
In 1980, the National Theatre presented Howard Brenton‘s The Romans in Britain, an allegory about the British army in Ireland. It featured a scene in which a naked male Roman soldier raped a naked male British Druid. I don’t think I need to say that this was simulated but the first night audience was reported to be stunned into silence at the end. When morality campaigner Mary Whitehouse heard about it, even though she hadn’t seen it, she had no doubt it should be banned.
Having failed to get the Attorney General to agree to a prosecution, she invoked a piece of legislation never intended to apply to theatre- the Sexual Offences Act – and took out a private prosecution against the director Michael Bogdanov, effectively labelling him a ‘pimp’. The chief witness for the prosecution, claimed to have seen a penis. Under cross-examination he revealed that he had been sitting at the very back of the theatre- in row X. Defence counsel Jeremy Hutchinson QC demonstrated that what he had witnessed was the actor’s thumb protruding from his fist. The prosecution dropped its case.
The case settled in law that sex and violence in theatre is ‘pretend’, not ‘real’. A triumph only tempered by the judge agreeing with Mrs Whitehouse that a prosecution under the Sexual Offences Act was valid, even if in this case unsuccessful.
In fact, nudity and sexual activity of all kinds have continued to be presented in plays unchallenged in the decades since. But that doesn’t mean there haven’t been more plays that have shocked people and rocked theatres. At the beginning of the 21st century, a small theatre in Birmingham triggered an explosion that continues to ripple through British theatre to this day.
In December 2004, the Birmingham Repertory Theatre presented a new play by the British Sikh playwright Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti. Her play Behzti was described by Helen Cross in The Independent as ‘offensive, and furious and bloodthirsty and angry in all the right places. Set mainly in the Gurdwara, the Sikh place of worship, this searing comedy features rape, abuse, murder, violence – while still managing to be hugely funny, touching and tremendously important’.
It was the setting that caused the controversy. Word got round about its content and on the opening night there was a protest organised by local Sikh leaders. Leaders of the protest said they didn’t want actually to stop the play being performed so long as the setting- the Sikh temple- was changed.
About a thousand Sikhs turned up to what was intended to be a peaceful protest. Some entered the theatre and tried to get on the stage. After 20 minutes, the performance was abandoned. There were violent clashes between some protesters and the police. The playwright received death threats. Fearing for the safety of audiences and staff, the theatre cancelled further performances of the play.
The following year, a number of Christians protested against the tour of the West End hit Jerry Springer The Opera because of its irreverent depiction of Jesus and others from the Bible. The threat of picketing by a group called Christian Voice was enough to cause a number of theatres to withdraw from the tour.
So, today shocking plays like A Game At Chess, The Country Wife, Mrs Warren’s Profession and The Romans In Britain can be performed British theatres without censorship by the authorities or by the law. However, as Behtzi shows, in these days of people power, if a play shocks members of the public, whether or not they’ve seen it or even if they never go the theatre, they can protest against it and can potentially shut it down. And while the protests against that play and Jerry Springer The Opera were by people whose religious beliefs were offended, plays containing sexist or racist attitudes and behaviour, particularly in plays from the past, are also potential targets.
I’ve a feeling British theatre is in for a few more shocks yet.
Melissa D. Aaron, Global Economics: A History of the Theatre Business, the Chamberlain’s/King’s Men, and Their Plays, 1599–1642, Newark, DE, University of Delaware Press, 2003
‘misjudged mess’ WhatsOnStage ‘the worst Shakespeare production at the NT for at least a decade’ Time Out ‘An unfortunate failure’ Sunday Times ‘A dud’ Daily Telegraph ‘A real mess’ Variety ‘A dismaying muddle’ The Stage ‘A stinker’ Daily Mail
Macbeth at the National Theatre has garnered some of the worst reviews in a long time including a one star review from WhatsonStage. Most rated it two stars including Sunday Times, Daily Mail, Telegraph, The Guardian, The Stage, Evening Standard, The Times, The Observer, Time Out and Broadwayworld.com.
‘Is this a dagger I see before me?’ asks Macbeth. He wasn’t wrong- the daggers were out for this production. The Telegraph responded, ‘Is this a dud I see before me?’ and the Daily Mail said, ‘Is this a shambles I see before me?’
So what didn’t they like? Two words crop up more than any others: Rufus Norris. He’s the director of Macbeth and he’s the National Theatre’s Artistic Director. He must have felt like Macbeth did when Burnham Forest came to Dunsinane. The machetes were out for him.Quite a few of the forest of critics noted his lack of experience in directing Shakespeare. Given the hugely successful Shakespearean productions of his predecessor Nicholas Hytner, now wowing them with Julius Caesar down the road at the Bridge Theatre, the phrase ‘hard act to follow’ comes to mind.
The first problem was that he had, many felt,
No understanding of the play
Rufus Norris places his Macbeth in some kind of post-apocalyptic urban setting. Dominic Cavendish wrote in the Telegraph ‘if a director does decide to go into modern-day apocalyptic mode, they can face a losing battle (as here) defining what is being fought over, why attention is paid to hierarchies, and how any of it matters’.
‘Where are we exactly, what sort of society is this and how did people end up here? It’s never made clear – conceptually, it’s a dismaying muddle.’ That was Natasha Tripney in The Stage
Lloyd Evans writing in the Spectator agreed ‘everything is confusing here’. ‘Childish, tokenistic, muddled, this show is laughably unmoving. They splosh round masses of Kensington gore but it manages to be bloodless. Feeble,’ spluttered Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail.
Christopher Hart writing in the Sunday Times knows what he likes: ‘In the best productions, Macbeth can feel like a ferocious ride straight to hell, pausing only for some of the most haunting and desolate soliloquies in the canon: the outpourings of a human soul in the process of destroying itself.’ And he knows what he doesn’t like: ‘What it should never feel like is lacklustre, turgid, somnolent’.
‘There’s no compelling new take here on Shakespeare’s interest in questions of tyranny and masculinity,’ complained Henry Hitchings in the Evening Standard.
‘Norris has taken a play best compressed into a taut psychological drama and blown it up into something operatically overblown,’ blustered Variety.
Holly Williams in the Independent said ‘vaulting ambitious becomes more survival of the fittest’. To be fair, Holly Williams didn’t hate it: ‘I’ve seen far worse than this.’ Which is what is sometimes called damning with faint praise.
So what else did Rufus Norris do to upset the critics? Well, if he didn’t understand what Shakespeare was getting at, he also dissed the bard’s poetry.
No respect for the text
‘In more minor cuts and rewrites, metre counts for nothing,’ complained Ian Shuttleworth in The Financial Times. ‘It’s brutally truncated,’ said Sarah Crompton in WhatsOnStage, ‘its great moral debate about the corrupting effects of evil (is) entirely lost.’
Variety referred to ‘Unnecessary, almost arbitrary textual cuts’. Susannah Clapp in The Observer talked of ‘a slashed text that eviscerates the witches’ speeches – no hubble-bubble or eye of newt – and makes the drama blunter, more one-dimensional’.
Quentin Letts writing in the Daily Mail wasn’t happy with Slasher Norris from the start: ‘”When shall we three meet again?” is one of the greatest opening lines of any play. Mr Norris ditches that.’
The Guardian’s Michael Billington wrote, ‘While a play is not a poetry recital, this production seems indifferent to the rhythms of the language… (it) sacrifices its tonal contrasts and mysterious poetry.’
And not only did it sound bad, they thought it looked bad.
The set is ugly
‘Rae Smith’s ugly-to-behold set is dominated by an oppressive backdrop of raven-black hangings,’ said the Telegraph. That word ‘ugly’ crops up a few times. ‘It was aggressively ugly,’ shuddered The Stage. And WhatsOnStage found it ‘ugly to look at’.
The Daily Mail called it a ‘low-lit mess engulfed by blunt grottiness’. Time Out said, ‘the setup here is essentially meaningless’. The Guardian found it ‘harsh to look at, lacking in light and shade’. The Evening Standard thought it was ‘bleak and often brutal’.
The set offended some critics so much, they couldn’t keep their eyes off it, thus subverting the Shakespeare’s classic work . Anne Treneman in The Times said, ‘the play struggles to rise above the sheer Stygian ghastliness’. ‘These distressing visual details aren’t just nasty to look at, they undermine the story,’ said Lloyd Evans in The Spectator.
Not everyone agreed. The Sunday Times thought it had a ‘marvelous look’. David Butcher on the Radio Times website praised the ‘bold production design’. The Independent said, ‘Norris’s production excels … in atmosphere and visuals. It’s dark.’
So you have this big dark set and here’s the next problem. It’s in a big theatre.
The Olivier is too big
Now arguably this is not Rufus Norris’ fault. He’s inherited the cavernous Olivier but then again he chose to place Macbeth, a play whose themes of conspiracy and paranoia probably work best in a confined space, in the biggest space the National has to offer.
‘Rae Smith’s black pleated walls – bin-bag cliffs – engulf the action on the huge Olivier stage,’ said Susannah Clapp in The Observer. Mark Shenton at LondonTheatre.co.uk thought ‘the scale of the production also mitigates against the domestic intensity of much of the drama’.
You might have thought the stars would redeem it. Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff are two of our finest actors and in Mr Kinnear you have someone with a brilliant track record of playing great Shakespearean roles. And, to an extent, they did but, even though most critics liked their acting, quite a few didn’t like the interpretations, especially Rory Kinnear’s Macbeth.
Here’s what they said about this ‘poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage’. ‘Rory Kinnear, one of our finest comic actors, never quite convinces as the driven, ambitious thane. He’s too dithering, nervy and jumpy.’ That was the Sunday Times.
The Daily Mail thought him ‘unexceptional’. ‘Kinnear is a martial not a meditative presence, too robust to seem deeply disturbed,’ said The Observer. The Stage said, ‘In the past he’s been an eloquent Hamlet and a bullish, envy-drenched Iago. He tackles Macbeth with the same clarity of delivery, but he never digs beneath his skin.’
That latter point is echoed by others. The Guardian said he ‘never takes us inside Macbeth’s head’. WhatsOnStage agreed saying he ‘does little to convey the conscience-stricken inwardness that makes the character so complex’. The Radio Times said, ‘There’s not enough sense of the dense geography of Macbeth’s inner life’ and continued ‘we don’t get the feeling here that his Macbeth is a great soul laid low by baser instincts, more an exasperated middle manager.’
Lloyd Evans in The Spectator had a similar thought. ‘There’s no trace of poetry, grandeur or mystery about him. But he’d be ideal casting as the tetchy manager of an Amazon warehouse.’
There’s more from Mr Evans. ‘Rory Kinnear makes an unlikely Macbeth,’ said The Spectator. ‘His voice is dark, rich and characterful but he has few other assets. Physically he’s suburban: a bit bald, slightly stooping, with a faint beer gut and a pinched, narrow frame.’ In other contexts, this would be body shaming but we can take his point that Rory Kinnear’s Macbeth is an ordinary guy.
Rosemary Waugh from Exeunt Magazine had the same impression: ‘Rory Kinnear plays Macbeth as the-bloke-down-the-pub, making some of the most famous monologues in the history of well, theatre, sound as dramatically intense as a food order.’
Not everybody was unhappy with Rory Kinnear. Marianka Swain from Broadwayworld.com said he ‘showed real existential angst’ and was ‘as clear-spoken and intelligent with verse as always’.
So what about Anne-Marie Duff? She came in for less stick than Rory Kinnear but The Observer did say, ‘Duff is precise, guarding against her own fragility – she delivers her smashing-the-baby speech tearfully – but lacks the fire that usually makes her so memorable.’
And BroadwayWorld.com thought, ‘Anne-Marie Duff’s Lady Macbeth feels half-formed.’ Variety was even less impressed: ‘as Lady Macbeth, Duff all but goes missing’.
That said, many critics did like the acting of both Mr and Mrs Macbeth. Mark Shenton at londontheatre.co.uk said, ‘Neither of these fine, fierce and always ferociously intelligent actors disappoints.’ The Radio Times enthused about the ‘clarity of delivery and line-reading that makes the text sing’.
And quite a few singled out Anne-Marie Duff. The Financial Times said ‘she makes every word vibrate with high-tension significance’. The Guardian’s Michael Billington, who didn’t find much else to like, said ‘she lives vividly in the moment’.
So there you have it. The critics full of sound and fury but… signifying nothing? Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow will tell whether sales or indeed Rufus Norris’s reputation are badly affected. I can say that when I saw it the audience reacted well. There was no polite round of applause- I heard strong clapping and some cheering. So word-of-mouth may prevail.
Did any critic give Macbeth at the National Theatre more than two stars? Yes- the Financial Times, The Independent, the Radio Times, the i and the LondonTheatre website to name but a few gave it three stars. One lone voice even gave it four stars. That was a certain One Minute Theatre Reviews.
What can I say? I liked the dystopian setting. I thought the poetry was beautifully spoken. I loved Rory Kinnear’s portrayal of Macbeth as an ordinary man caught up in lawless times. I found it interesting to see the themes of Macbeth played out, not in a war for a mighty kingdom but in the kind of nasty modern war over a destroyed city, such as we’ve seen in Syria or Bosnia.
I did think it would have been better in a more confined space, and it did lack tension at the end but I really hope the massed ranks of the critics advancing on Rufus Norris’s Macbeth don’t put people off this Scottish Play for our times.