Friday, April 26, 2013

Othello, National Theatre

My, but she takes a long time to die, Desdemona, twitching on her barrack mattress, doll-blonde and bare-legged, as her husband crushes the breath from her. Just when he thinks the deed is done, she splutters back to life, pleading. He could stop then, could maybe save her, but he’s gone too far, so he plunges on, laying his weight on her until she is still, his hands wrapped round her delicate neck. It’s awful and protracted and upsetting – as it should be – with Nicholas Hytner’s production making much of their physical disparity, the brutality of it: she’s so fragile-looking and exposed, in her knickers and the tiny child-like T-shirt she wears to bed, his muscled, uniformed form all but obliterating her.

It’s sexual too, all that writhing, there on the contested bed. Adrian Lester’s Othello doesn’t rape her, but there are intimations of reclamation in the methodical way he goes about putting out her light, still palpably, physically drawn to her, even when he his sniffing her sheets to detect traces of betrayal.

Hytner’s production is the third in a sort-of triptych, together with his Henry V(starring Lester) and hisHamlet (starring Kinnear) and it shares a similar contemporary earth-toned aesthetic. At its best it succeeds in saying some interesting things about the weaponisation of men in the military, with Othello, the career soldier, pinwheeling from love-struck to rage-fuelled in half a heartbeat, his jealousy so intense it makes him vomit. And though Iago tries to rationalise his hatred, it seems to spring from some deeper, primordial place, controlling him rather than the other way round.

With their faces close-cropped and deep shadowed, their eyes burning out at you, the NT poster campaign pits Lester and Kinnear against each other like prize fighters, the Rumble in the Olivier if you will, and it’s difficult not to look at it through this frame, though it seems reductive to do so as both performances are powerful, both rich in their own way. Lester’s Othello is commanding and full of fire – he has a voice you could warm yourself by and hulks out convincingly, flipping over a table with a flick of his wrist whilst roaring with rage – but it’s perhaps the nature of the play that Kinnear’s Iago is the more compelling figure (though it’s in no way inevitable that Iago should dominate – Chiwetel Ejiofor in the Donmar’s 2008 version remains one of the most intense, controlled Shakespearean performances I’ve seen), coming across as a bit of a bruiser, Phil Mitchell with added smarts, driven, cold-eyed and calculating but with a dash of the schoolboy in the way he air-punches and victory shimmies when he gets one over on the object of his malice. As with his Hamlet, Kinnear’s performance has a kind of ease to it, there’s a clarity of intention to his delivery, and he juggles the verse as if he spoke that way every day, though there are times when the mechanics of it all feel a bit too visible.

Olivia Vinall’s Desdemona fades into the background a bit, but that’s again perhaps a consequence of the role. (In making Desdemona an absence, The Q Brothers’ Othello the Remix – performed as part of the Globe to Globe festival last year – was one of the more interesting readings of this play and the placing of women within it). Lyndsey Marshal’s Emelia, while furious and forceful in her loyalty, seems a bit trapped in a role that feels particularly contradictory in its modern context.

For while the production’s military setting makes sense in terms of translating the hierarchies and power games – this man’s, man’s, man’s world – into a recognisable present, embroidered handkerchiefs aside, there are times when it feels a bit tired, a bit ‘done’, a rehashed Iraqistan which we’ve seen before and we will see again. It does at least allow for a great, lively and messy, mess-room scene - with a couple of bikini pin-ups the only thing to break up the bare walls - in which Jonathan Bailey’s Cassio is forced to chug down a lager fountain while being beerily cheered on by his fellow soldiers.

Vicki Mortimer’s flood-lit military base of a set is intentionally bulky and ugly, a transient space, devoid of home comforts, all concrete, harsh strip-lighting, and cheap plaster board walls: when Othello punches out in anger his fist goes straight through. Though there’s something a bit effortful about the set, with its numerous sliding panels allowing various bedrooms, offices and yards to emerge and retreat, its very blankness is an asset, for in this fenced-in place of sun and sweat and tension and little in the way of distraction which doesn’t come in a can, it’s plausible that here passions, jealousies, petty vendettas, could grow and spread unchecked like bacteria on a petri dish.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Interview: Little Bulb

The creators of Orpheus at the BAC - as well as Operation Greenfield and the gorgeous Crocosmia - on music, myth, the ensemble as family, and what it's like to live on site at the Arts Centre while developing work.

Read the full interview on Exeunt.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Seagull, Nuffield Theatre

With his shoulders shaking and his body bent low, Boris Trigorin brings himself off as his lover Irina verbally pleasures him, praising his creative skill, his gifts as a writer. It’s a glitteringly satirical moment, the writer as wanker. Once done, he appears to mop up the resulting mess with a page from his trusty notebook, the receptacle of so much mental seed-spilling.

We’re on first-name terms with the characters in John Donnelly’s adaption of The Seagull, no awkward, tongue-teasing patronyms here; Nina bares a breast while performing Konstantin’s fevered failure of a play and everyone says ‘bollocks’ a lot. But there’s more to this reworking than a generous scattering of swearwords, while Donnelly and director Blanche McIntyre haven’t quite burned the text and built on its ashes, as Konstantin wants to do to the ‘old theatre’ that so frustrates him, they have created something that feels contemporary, a thing of now, without ever forcing its hand. It’s not aggressive in its modernity, but it makes you look at the play afresh.

The characters talk about the strange veneer of fame and what it means to be an artist in terms that are recognisable, while Masha does her self-mourning in an LBD and sunglasses before adopting, on her marriage, a shapeless cardigan, the eternal garment of defeat.

McIntyre once again shows that she is a superb director of actors. Abigail Cruttenden’s Irina is not a theatrical caricature but a woman of a certain age and type, confident of her attractiveness, her centrality to the world, but still easily threatened, flippant in her treatment of Konstantin’s artistic endeavours, capable of breaking him with a single brutally dismissive line. Pearl Chanda’s Nina is all adolescent intensity, harbouring a consuming crush on Gyuri Sarossy’s Boris, a girl all too easily swept along on other people’s waves. Alexander Cobb’s Konstantin is a contradictory figure, an earnest young man convinced he can shrug off the past and create something entirely new, that he is the one to show the world where it’s been going wrong, while also a bit of a mummy’s boy (he even calls her ‘mummy’), desperate for Irina’s approval and praise.

There is a lot of comedy in Donnelly’s adaption, the situations, characters and collisions mined for their inherent humour, and more than a dash of audacity in his approach coupled with nice line in metatheatrical commentary. McIntyre’s production makes much use of the aside, the characters stepping to the front of the stage to address the audience directly. Laura Hopkins’ minimal design places a silvery screen at the back of the stage, a lake-like still thing, like a blank page in a notebook, upon which the characters scrawl (or rather spray, as they use squirt bottles, theatrical Windowlene), its clean clear surface becoming increasingly streaked and murky. There is no set as such, just a long wooden platform on a pivot, which serves as a jetty, a dining table, and in one of the production’s only missteps, a giant see-saw. The scene in which Irina and Nina lounge on this device, occasionally over-balancing the other, feels like an exercise in overstatement; the lighting however is gorgeous and golden throughout, each scene subtly shaded.

While the anguish of Konstantin and Nina’s last meeting – the latter damp-eyed and desperate, rapidly unravelling – isn’t as gutting as it might be, and the production struggles slightly to make the transition from tragicomedy to tragedy, it does what it sets out to do: it takes a play so frequently staged –Anya Reiss’ (by all accounts pallid) adaptation was only just performed at Southwark Playhouse in November last year – and makes a case for revisiting it once more, rooting Chekhov’s concerns in a world that belongs to us.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Sunday, April 07, 2013

Vanessa and Virginia. Riverside Studios

We are loving vultures, as fascinated by the hand that holds the pen, the face behind the easel, as with the words and work those people produce. We can’t keep from picking, through letters and diaries, through the layers of the lives of this small group of friends and lovers who lived a century ago, in the hope of catching a glimpse of the person who once was, who once wept and lusted and dreamed and created.

Susan Sellers’ novel Vanessa and Virginia tells the story of the Stephen sisters – the girls who would become Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf – from the viewpoint of Vanessa, tracing their complex, entangled relationship from their earliest days in the nursery through to Virginia’s suicide.

It has been adapted for the stage by Woolf scholar Elizabeth Wright, who has pared down and sharpened the original text. The fragmented poetic structure of the novel remains, though the filter of Vanessa’s thoughts is less overt; Virginia is brought more clearly into focus as a character, as a presence – she is given shape and skin, a voice, though Vanessa still speaks the majority of the lines.

The resulting play is like a series of sketches with the other members of the Bloomsbury set pushed to the periphery. The sisters are both deeply needful of one another and also envious of the other’s successes; they know just where best to prick the other to draw blood. Emma Gersch’s production captures this sibling heat, the centrality of it to their well-being, their hunger for each other’s love. On the surface Vanessa appears to be the most stable one, less prone to collapse, less brittle – she is shocked by the ice of Virginia’s tongue, the unabashedly cruel way she speaks of Ottoline Morrell, with her “great beaky face – yet she was capable of deep passion and her lasting desire for the homosexual artist Duncan Grant is shown to be a potent, painful thing, a relationship which could never come to anything beyond friendship, though it would eventually result in the birth of a daughter.

The play shows how strong and necessary the bond between the sisters was. As children they were surrounded by death and loss, their family slowly shrinking. Their mother died when they were still small and a beloved older half-sister, Stella, followed soon afterwards; their brother Thoby would also die young. They had only each other to cling to. Another step-brother George was reputedly a predatory figure and their father was emotionally remote while at the same time needy and fretful, carping over the household accounts which he expected young Vanessa to manage on her own, until he too passed away and the girls were finally able to escape the oppressive Victorian atmosphere of their Kensington home and live as and how they wished. (Within reason of course, they couldn’t do without their servants).

There are times though when the production feels like it is ticking Bloomsbury boxes, with fleeting mentions of Vita, Carrington, Maynard Keynes, and Roger Fry. In fact there are chunks of the play that might prove difficult to unstitch without at least a passing knowledge of this world, its inhabitants, and the numerous ways in which they are interconnected. In its use of soliloquy the play can feel static at times and the drama is at its strongest when the two sisters are interacting, sparking off each other, alternatively vulnerably and hostile.

The staging takes its cues from the dreamlike structure of the play, fragmented, sing-songy and drifting. At the beginning the actors, Kitty Randle as Vanessa and Alice Frankham as Virginia, gambol across the stage like little girls before gradually letting down their skirts, throwing off their pinafores and growing up, becoming women. The occasional use of dance adds to this dreamlike feel, though this does start to feel repetitious after a while. The adaptation lifts nearly all of its words directly from the book and there are some phrases that, even though they sit easy on the page, don’t work as well when put in people’s mouths, (a description of Virginia’s eyes as “snake-green”, a reference to Grant’s “seed”) but again this is less jarring in the context of an aging Vanessa looking back at her life, penning her memories.

Kate Unwin’s set, a canopy of low-hanging objects – a parasol, a mirror, a fishing net - conveys something of the Charleston clutter of the artist’s studio, while Jeremy Thurlow’s original piano score echoes the undulations of the sisters’ relationship. Randle and Frankham age and fade subtly and convincingly. Vanessa would struggle to recover from the death of her son; Virginia couldn’t bear the thought of suffering another mental breakdown: their descent into a grief they could not save each other from is movingly conveyed.

The play presents its audience with a not altogether unfamiliar portrait of these two women, it doesn’t really challenge the image of them we have come to expect, not of Virginia anyway, she remains brilliant and difficult and magnificent and aloof; Vanessa on the other hand is allowed to emerge from behind that easel, and this is where the play’s real strength lies.

Reviewed for Exeunt