This House – NTLive – review

Film fails to convey thrill of live theatre

★★★

Phil Daniels in This House. Photo: Johan Persson

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.

Photo: Johan Persson

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.

Charles Edwards in This House. Photo: Johan Persson

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.

This House is streaming on the YouTube channel National Theatre At Home until 3 June 2020.

Click here to watch the review of This House on YouTube

Rosmersholm with Hayley Atwell & Tom Burke – review

Avengers star Hayley Atwell is forceful co-star with Tom Burke  


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Hayley Atwell in Rosmersholm. Photo: Johan Persson

Rosmersholm is about wanting to pursue passion and change but being held back by the past – the political system, religion, inhertitance.

At the beginning, everything is covered in dustsheets in this stately home- Rosmersholm. The walls show signs of flood damage at the lower levels. It’s murky. Until Hayley Atwell playing Rebecca West starts pulling the sheets off and letting the light in.

It’s a year since Rosmer’s wife committed suicide in the lake and clogged up the millwheel, thus causing a flood.

Photo: Johan Persson

Her death raised questions, the main one being why did she do it? Rosmer is weighed down by his past. Not only the recent tragic event of his wife’s death but his whole inheritance. The high walls of Rae Smith’s brilliant set are covered in paintings of his ancestors staring down. He is expected to keep the line going.

Giles Terera in Rosmersholm. Photo: Johan Persson

We are on the eve of an election and people are looking for a lead from Rosmer. But his disillusionment with the political system, where everyone is in it for themselves is profound. He renounces his traditional party- the conservatives, whose representative is superbly conveyed by Giles Terera as the likeable but ruthless Kroll who views women and the working class with contempt. So it seems Rosmer should back the radicals but both sides take against him. Both own newspapers that lie about him. You see there are many modern parallels.

Tom Burke in Rosmersholm. Photo: Johan Persson

Mildly spoken Tom Burke as Rosmer pefectly conveys the uncertainty that alternates with his passion for Rebecca.

Good as Mr Burke is, the evening belongs to Hayley Atwell as Rebecca. She is the force of change and she is a force on the stage. Her performance is bravura but always believable. However even Rebecca is dragged down by the past.

This is an excellent cast. Lucy Briers is the housekeeper, representing the dour working class, still mired in superstition and believing what she reads in the papers. Jake Fairbrother is the radical newspaper editor, previously driven out of the town by holier-than-thou outrage, led by Rosmer, who is now the victim of the same high mindedness himself. Peter Wight is the faded leftwing revolutionary who is violently rejected by the workers he wishes to empower.

Nothing in Ibsen is straightforward and, as in his earlier An Enemy Of The People and The Wild Duck, naively believing that all you need is truth is a sure recipe for disaster. 

Ultimately the politics gives way to the personal. Hope and heartbreak mark the love between John Rosmer and Rebecca West and, as this is Ibsen, a happy ending never seems on the cards. There are many questions and no easy answers in this masterpiece but there is much to thrill to as emotions once constrained begin to burst free.

Ibsen is famous for his revolutionary realism and Ian Rickson’s production and Duncan MacMillan’s adaptation triumph in making the characters in this 130 year old play seem totally real.

Also realistic are the set design by Rae Smith and lighting by Neil Austin which emphasise the claustrophobic setting and changing moods. Rae Smith‘s final contribution (which I won’t reveal), as the curtain metaphorically is about to come down, is a coup de théâtre that underlines what has happened and gives final proof of how much the design is another actor in this terrific production.

Finally a quick word of praise for producer Sonia Friedman. Again she has brought a play to the West End that might have been expected to stay in the domain of subsidised venues and, although she has used star names from film and TV, the stars are stage actors of the highest calibre. Commercial producers often look for safe, audience pleasers but Ms Friedman stretches and challenges her audience and, on this occasion, has rewarded them with an evening of extraordinary theatre.
Click here to watch the review on YouTube

SPOILER ALERT! This is a complaint about the publicity material. Rosmersholm is one of Ibsen’s least produced plays (although this may change after this powerful production), so audiences are unlikely to know how it ends. However, having seen the picture on the posters and adverts, they are likely to have a good idea as the play progresses.