Friday 17 June 2016

Theatre Review: Richard III (Almeida)

Hamlet may remain the prized part for the younger Shakespearean actor, and King Lear the Holy Grail for the older, but, for those aged in between, there’s no denying that Richard III still retains a strong attraction, as evidenced by the high-profile names – including Kevin Spacey and Benedict Cumberbatch – who’ve taken on the role in recent years.

Shakespeare’s characterisation of the monarch as a charismatic villain, merrily murdering his way towards the throne, may send certain historians into a fit, but the role clearly remains as appealing to actors as the play itself does to audiences. The attraction lies in part, perhaps, in the way that Shakespeare makes Richard himself a performer, counterfeiting and pretending, and, at one point, essentially coaching his co-conspirator Buckingham in effective acting technique.

This emphasis on performance can turn the play into something of a pantomime; Richard Loncraine’s 1995 film version, starring Ian McKellen, arguably fell into this mode. But Rupert Goold’s excellent new production at the Almeida, which dynamically re-teams Ralph Fiennes and Vanessa Redgrave after their previous collaborations in the films of The White Countess and Coriolanus, doesn’t take that route. There’s humour, certainly, in Fiennes’s witty delivery and in the memorable darkly comic performance of Daniel Cerqueira as the killer Catesby, coolly bringing out the block and axe to chop off the head of James Garnon’s Lord Hastings.

Yet, from Jon Morrell’s dark costumes to Hildegard Bechtler’s spare set to Jon Clark’s crepuscular lighting, this is a production that takes the play seriously and illuminates it in intelligent ways. A postmodernist framing device, referencing the 2013 discovery of Richard’s skeleton under a Leicester car-park, is striking but superfluous. Otherwise, though, the production, which mixes cell-phones and breastplates, offers a fine blending of the traditional and the contemporary.

At the centre, of course, is Fiennes, hunched and with his right side braced, his body seemingly at odds with itself yet frighteningly nimble when need be. Fiennes has always been a great actor, but in recent years his performances on both stage and screen (not least his superb, uninhibited turn in A Bigger Splash) have taken on a looser, riskier quality. Always exceptionally clear in his delivery, with an expert approach to the soliloquies, Fiennes does terrific, surprising things in this role: whether it’s mocking Rivers with a Cockney “What, marry, may she?”, letting out a bashful “Aw!” when it’s suggested that the throne might be his, making the line “Are you Tyrrell?" into a question for the audience, turning on Hastings with startling ferocity, or chillingly letting his mask of benevolence slip when Baxter Westby’s bound-for-the-Tower Prince Edward jumps on his back.
The dramatic face-offs with Joanna Vanderham’s strongly characterised Lady Anne and with Aislín McGuckin’s Queen Elizabeth, are particularly disturbing, Fiennes grabbing the crotch of the former and forcing the latter to the floor in a full-on sexual assault,  before railing against “shallow, changing woman” in a moment that powerfully exposes the character’s violent misogyny.

Redgrave, always bold and inventive, makes something equally original of the mad prophetess Margaret. Boiler-suited and carrying a battered doll as the emblem of the character’s losses, she dispenses her curses with stealth rather than stridency, wiggling her finger as she refers to “the worm of conscience”, kissing and caressing the doll  (and reacting with open-mouthed horror as Fiennes grabs its head) and, in a great moment, finally passing her mantle of insight and grief to McGuckin’s Elizabeth. Of the play’s female characters, the critic John Jowett has noted: “Shakespeare empowers them as chroniclers, the voices of those who understand and know”. Redgrave, in particular, embodies that understanding and knowledge here.

Although the production makes good use of the Almeida’s intimate space, Goold’s staging has some problems. The imperfect construction of the play leads to some awkward transitions, “The Citizens” scene feels under-directed, and a couple of the performances aren’t everything they might be: Susan Engel, for one, indulges in some surprising hamming as Richard’s mother, the Duchess of York. Complaints about pace during the preview period may also have resulted in the ending now feeling rushed: the eve-of-Bosworth apparition scene is effectively and unfussily done, and Fiennes invests Richard's fractured final soliloquy with a compelling mixture of self-justification, self-hatred and vulnerability. Yet the battle itself, with blaring lights and a very weedy rain effect, feels somehow stilted, leading to a muted finale. Still, if Goold’s production doesn't match Propeller's amazing take on the play, it remains essential viewing, not least for the chance to see one of our finest actors at the very top of his game.

Richard III is booking at the Almeida until 6 August. The production will also be broadcast live to cinemas around the world on 21 July as the first “Almeida Live” broadcast.

The Pleasure of New Challenges: An Interview with Andrzej Chyra

Andrzej Chyra greets me warmly in his dressing room at London’s Barbican Centre. In under a couple of hours, the actor will be taking to the stage in two roles: firstly, as Hippolytus in Sarah Kane’s  Phaedra’s Love, and, later, as an academic interlocutor in the J.M. Coetzee-derived Elizabeth Costello. Along with the opening Wajdi Mouawad-authored section (in which Chyra doesn’t appear), these pieces constitute the 3 hour 40 minutes triptych that is Phaedra(s), the latest multi-text theatrical extravaganza by Polish auteur Krzysztof Warlikowski, starring Isabelle Huppert in the lead role(s).

Hippolytus, in particular, is a challenging, exposing role for Chyra, but there are no signs of pre-performance nerves on display from the actor, who appears both relaxed and animated as we talk. Chyra thinks hard over his answers, which then tend to come in a rush of ideas and impressions. In short, he’s great company, and the 20 minutes allotted for the interview flies by all too quickly.

Chyra is one of the most acclaimed of Polish actors, known equally for his work in theatre as in cinema, where his key roles include his breakthrough, award-winning turn as the blackmailer Gerard in Krzysztof Krause’s Debt (Dług) (1999); the tormented survivor in Andrzej Wajda’s Katyń (2007); and the priest, Father Adam, struggling with his sexuality in Małgorzata Szumowska’s In the Name of…  (W imię...) (2012). Most recently, Chyra has appeared as the ex-con hotdog vendor  in Jerzy Skolimowski’s stunning city symphony 11 Minutes (2015) and will be seen later this year in Tomasz Wasilewski’s highly anticipated United States of Love, which won the Best Screenplay award at the 2016 Berlinale.

A constant in Chyra’s career has been his collaborations with Warlikowski, the Artistic Director of Warsaw’s Nowy Teatr. Chyra’s roles for Warlikowski have ranged from Dionysus in Bacchae to Hanan in The Dybbuk to Roy Cohn in Angels in America. Premiered at Paris’s Odéon-Théâtre de l'Europe, and now at the Barbican for nine performances, Phaedra(s) is the pair’s latest venture together.

I ask Chyra how he and Warlikowski first met, and what he finds particularly rewarding about working with the director. “After I graduated it took a while to get interesting work and I ended up directing TV quiz shows and things like that,” Chyra recalls. “But then Debt happened and things changed.  I don’t know if Krzysztof had seen the film but he heard about me and we met. I don’t think I’d seen any of his productions at that point, either. So we didn’t really know each other’s work so well but there was a great connection between us, and it felt immediately like we were on the same wavelength.  I felt energised again, inspired to act. Since then, it’s not like we’re working together on every production he does, but we always look forward to collaborating.”

Warlikowski’s productions are noted for their distinctive, highly stylised approach. Does the director allow much space for the actors? “Yes, he does,” Chyra affirms. “In fact, Krzysztof’s approach is very collaborative. He works closely with [designer] Małgorzata Szczęśniak, and, in the last few productions, with a dramaturge, on the concepts. But, as actors, we never feel that we’re simply there to slot into a pre-conceived design. He doesn’t treat his performers as puppets. Rather, he is always open to our input and our ideas. He also has a great sense of humour, which is necessary, working on texts that can be quite intense. He’s a very brave director.”

“Brave” is the adjective that Chyra uses to describe Huppert, too. The pair first worked together on Warlikowski’s A Streetcar in 2010 and Chyra’s deep admiration for the actress is clear. “She’s one of the greatest actresses. She has such intelligence, takes so many risks. Sharing the stage with her, those moments when I look into her eyes, or see her hands … there is a strong connection. It always feels fresh. We don’t get tired of each other. At least, I hope that she feels the same way!”

Touring the productions internationally is also something that he enjoys. “Again, it keeps things fresh. We’re in Europe so things are not so very different [a poignant comment given Huppert’s unexpected reference to the EU referendum at the Phaedra(s) Press Night] but there are always little distinctions, country by country.  That helps you to stay present as an actor.”

In The Name Of... (dir. Szumowska)

It soon becomes apparent that Chyra is an artist who seeks out novelty, challenge, the excitement of “keeping things fresh.” He mentions that he recently directed two operas, Shostakovich’s The Gamblers and Paweł Mykietyn’s The Magic Mountain, experiences which he found rewarding. He tells me that part of the attraction of working on A Streetcar was learning French for the part: “that was a great challenge.” 

Chyra recalls that Phaedra(s) is not his first time performing in London theatre: he appeared  here in Festen 14 years ago. He confesses, though, that he and the company had some apprehensions and “doubts” about performing Sarah Kane’s play in the UK. In fact, despite some negative reviews (a couple of which have offensively implied that a French/Polish production can’t hope to share British sensibilities about humour or its sensitivities about racial or gender politics), Chyra contends that the response to Phaedra(s) in London has been more positive than in France, and that the connection with the audience here is stronger.

“We had some great audiences in Paris, but, you know, in France, “Phaedra “means Phèdre, it means Racine. So you have some people walking out at the interval, because this production is not what they anticipate. Different countries, different contexts, generate different expectations. Performing here, in London, it feels … lighter in some way. Serious, yes, but not so heavy. It is a total pleasure to do the play here.”  He looks forward to continuing to tour the production, including to the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) in September.  Why is the show not being presented in Poland, I ask him. “Well, it got complicated with financing,” Chyra tells me. “And the political situation doesn’t help.”

Our conversation turns briefly to film and to his recent experience of working with Skolimowski. “What a guy, what a guy!” Chyra says admiringly. “He is very special. In fact, straight after we finish Phaedra(s) in London, I go with Skolimowski for a few days to Slovakia to present 11 Minutes [at Art Film Fest] . He wanted me to go to the premiere in Venice and the screening at Gdynia but I was busy on all those occasions. So I will finally get a chance to support the film at a festival.”

Does he have a preference for theatre over film? “No, no,” Chyra says emphatically. “It depends entirely upon the material and on your collaborators. After I’ve done a play, I often feel an urge to make a film, and then vice versa. Making movies, then a production every few years, a directing project… this feels like the right kind of rhythm.” He pauses. “Though I’m over 50 now so perhaps it’s time to rest.” His laughter as he says these words suggests, in fact, that there’s little danger of that.  

Phaedra(s) is at the Barbican until 18 June.  

Saturday 11 June 2016

Theatre Review: Phaedra(s) (Barbican)

Isabelle Huppert, as Phaedra, in wild blonde wig, killer heels and leather mini-skirt, sprawls centre-stage on a bed with Hippolytus (Gaël Kamilindi), as a huge video projection of the pair is presented on the wall behind. It’s an image that encapsulates much of what’s striking and what’s silly about Krzysztof Warlikowski’s Phaedra(s), qualities which, in Warlikowski’s work, can be pretty close.

Having premiered at Paris’s Odéon-Théâtre de l’Europe last month, Phaedra(s) now arrives at the Barbican, as part of the 2016 London International Festival of Theatre (LIFT). While this year’s Festival offers many diverse highlights, Warlikowski’s production is undoubtedly one of the most anticipated. It’s also one of the most starry (for European cinephiles, at least), boasting not only the iconic Huppert among its cast, but also Alex Descas (most familiar to international audiences for his work in Claire Denis’s films) and Agata Buzek and Andrzej Chyra, reunited from Jerzy Skolimowski’s sensational city symphony, 11 Minutes, last year.

Warlikowski and Huppert previously collaborated on the Tennessee Williams adaptation A Streetcar in 2010 and their re-teaming for Phaedra(s) looks likely to receive an equally mixed response. Reuniting, too, with his usual coterie of collaborators – including designer Małgorzata Szczęśniak and composer Paweł Mykietyn – Warlikowski continues to draw on the lingua franca of progressive, postmodernist European theatre for this outing. The boldly hybridised approach of this Polish auteur, who is the Artistic Director of Warsaw’s Nowy Teatr, has become so patented as to almost be clichéd, with his use of video, dance, multiple intertexts, and headline-grabbing provocations. “Three hours of vomit, fellatio and menstruation” warned – or promised – a screaming Spectator article on Phaedra(s) -  though, in fact, those elements take up approximately three minutes of the production’s 3 hour 40 minute running time.

As the pluralised title none-too-subtly suggests, Warlikowski’s production is all about investigating the possibility of “many Phaedras”, and of exploring the cultural legacy of the myth. The wide-ranging, international ethos of his approach is evident in the diverse texts he’s based the production around, utilising Sarah Kane’s 1996 Phaedra’s Love and extracts from J. M. Coetzee’s 2003 novel-essay Elizabeth Costello alongside a new text, adapted (very) freely from Euripides and Seneca, by Wajdi Mouawad. In addition, there’s a dash of Racine, and clips from Psycho, Theorem and Frances are incorporated.

The production begins with Mouawad’s material, presenting what Huppert has described as “a geopolitical Phaedra”, an immigrant “torn from her roots”, a princess from a family destroyed by Theseus. A punky Huppert enters initially as Aphrodite, before turning into Phaedra, instrument of the goddess’s wrath. A dancer (Rosalba Torres Guerrero) twirls and gyrates as a singer (Norah Krief) performs “The Ruins” in Arabic to Grégoire Léauté’s ambient electric guitar accompaniment.

The second section presents Kane’s play in its entirety, much of it unfolding in a boxy enclosure, where a second, older Hippolytus (Chyra), mopes and masturbates before facing off with Huppert’s more demurely-dressed incarnation of Phaedra, his step-sister Strophe (Buzek) and later, with a Priest (Descas).  Finally, the Coetzee material takes the form of a parody (or is it?) of academic discourse, as Huppert’s trouser-suited and bespectacled Elizabeth Costello gives her views on Eros and the "man-and-god business" to Chyra’s lecturer character.

Are these divergent strands illuminating? Well, in part. Although the overall trajectory of the production – from a primal, animalistic depiction of desire to a talky, analytical account – is not very satisfying, Phaedra(s) is a powerful sensory experience at its best. The opening section is especially haunting, with Huppert giving a striking performance that pulls us deeply into the character’s tormented head-space.

On film, Huppert’s performances have mostly (though not exclusively) tended toward minimalism. Her fill-in-the-blanks impassivity has often been viewed as the quintessence of screen acting, though not by Pauline Kael who memorably dubbed her a “little French mouse”. Huppert’s face, Kael argued, is “not enigmatic, just closed …She … gives you a little glimmer of something that is so small and wan no camera yet invented could turn it into an emotion” (Kael, Taking It All In, 102)).

There’s nothing mousy about Huppert’s work in Phaedra(s), though. From banshee wails, to desperate crawls across Małgorzata Szczęśniak’s sterile set, Huppert’s performance in the opening section is notable for its physical and vocal abandon. She’s great in the Kane material, too (getting a surprising amount of comedy out of her recitation of the stage directions), and is well-matched by distinguished work from Chyra and Buzek.

Kane’s Phaedra’s Love is not a great piece of work, however, and, stretched out across both sides of the interval, it becomes tedious here,  culminating in an extended dance interlude for Torres Guerrero that feels like it will never end. The Coetzee material is also arch and annoying, and the indulgent clips from Frances and Theorem, ostensibly used to give depth to the theme of mortals/gods interaction, are stubbornly un-illuminating. (To quote Kael again: “It takes intellectuals to be this dumb.”)

It’s a definite relief when Huppert and Chyra launch into some lines of Racine in this final section; the dialogue is so strong, and the actors’ performances so beautifully controlled, that this simply-staged moment outclasses almost everything that’s gone before it. As such, it’s hard not to wish that Warlikowski had ditched the other texts and self-conscious effects and just based the whole evening on Racine’s work.

Still, in its combination of the exciting and the enervating, the admirable and the absurd, Warlikowski’s production remains a memorable experience, and its international approach justified an unexpected coda. At the (rapturous) curtain call, Huppert stopped the applause to weigh in on the impending EU referendum, shouting a heartfelt “All Europe loves you! Stay with us!” at the audience. Coming from an actress known for keeping a tactful silence on political matters, the remark was as surprising as it was touching. It was also appropriate in another way: much like the EU, Phaedra(s) itself stands as a testament to the value of deeply flawed yet nonetheless worthwhile endeavours.

Phaedra(s) is booking at the Barbican until 18 June.

Reviewed for PopMatters.

Thursday 9 June 2016

Theatre Review: The Deep Blue Sea (National Theatre)

When Terence Davies directed his much-anticipated but ultimately disappointing film adaptation of Terence Rattigan’s 1952 play The Deep Blue Sea in 2011, he commented that he cast Rachel Weisz in the role of Hester Collyer because there was simply no other British actress whom he could imagine playing the part. As it turned out, Weisz seemed too young and a bit lightweight in this particular role, leading some of us to speculate who might have proved a better choice. For me, one immediate candidate suggested herself: Helen McCrory, an actress whose superb body of work encompasses classical and contemporary drama, TV, film and stage.
McCrory now gets her chance to play Hester in Carrie Cracknell’s major revival of The Deep Blue Sea at the National Theatre. It’s not the first time that McCrory and Cracknell have collaborated: the pair delivered a stellar contemporary reworking of Medea at the NT two years ago. Their re-teaming on Rattigan’s text is more conventional, but none the worse for that, for the result is a beautiful, sensitive and measured production of one of the greatest, most emblematic pieces of 20th century British drama.

Since Karel Reisz’s Penelope Wilton-starring 1993 Almeida production revived interest in the play (and in Rattigan’s then-underrated drama more broadly) The Deep Blue Sea has established itself as Rattigan’s masterpiece, a work that insightfully explores the complexities of love through the experiences of a middle-class woman who, having left her husband for a younger man, attempts suicide as the new relationship sours. For all the drama’s intimacy – it unfolds entirely in the sitting room of Hester and Freddie’s shabby boarding house flat – the piece has its wider resonances. Indeed, Dan Rebellato, in his Introduction to the Nick Hern edition of the play, argues for The Deep Blue Sea as “a much broader, more social play, concerned with the pain suffered by those caught between their desires and a society which will not tolerate them” (xxi). (Mike Poulton’s new play, Kenny Morgan, currently at the Arcola Theatre, probes the real-life events that inspired the drama, one of several recent plays that have used  - or exploited - elements of Rattigan’s biography for dramatic purposes.)

Cracknell’s production attempts to give a sense of that wider social context, and of other lives unfolding around Hester’s. The ambient transition between Acts 1 and 2 (the production’s most self-conscious, dissonant moment) offers a glimpse into some of the other flats in the building. These elements feel half-baked, though, and could have been taken further; the large ensemble cast seems squandered. In addition, although Rattigan’s stage directions specify that the action takes place in “a big room”, designer Tom Scutt arguably overdoes it here with a spacious set, lit in melancholy, vaguely aquatic tones by Guy Hoare, that doesn’t quite help to convey the claustrophobia and entrapment of Hester’s predicament.

Helen McCrory in The Deep Blue Sea (Photo: Richard Hubert Smith)

McCrory’s performance conveys it, though. Her illuminating interpretation captures the character's clear-eyed assessment of her situation, her sexual passion for Freddie, and her deep despair. A calm surface conveying hidden depths, McCrory’s fiercely intelligent, economical delivery matches perfectly the beautiful restraint of Rattigan’s writing (listen to the way she inflects “Just my love” when asked if she has a message for Freddie). It also allows moments of heightened desperation to really resonate. Alongside some of the structural shifts and weak additions that messed with the dramatic tension of the material, part of the problem with Davies’s film version was that Weisz’s Hester seemed so much younger than her husband William (as played by Simon Russell Beale) that the transgressiveness of the character’s absconding with a younger man was considerably diminished. This isn’t a mistake that this production makes. Moreover, McCrory goes beyond the individual character to create an archetypal figure here: something similar to what Pedro Almodóvar, in his remarks about Cocteau’s La Voix Humaine, described as “a woman sitting next to a suitcaseful of memories, waiting miserably for a phone call from the man she loves” (Almodóvar on Almodóvar, p.80).

Though adept at indicating the way in which the character's frustrations at the direction of his life lead to his callous treatment of Hester, Tom Burke, as Freddie, might do more to suggest the charm and charisma that made Hester fall for him. The other performances are extremely well judged, however. McCrory’s scenes with Peter Sullivan, as the cuckolded William, are especially good, with awkwardness giving way to tenderness as the pair fall into reminiscence about their shared past.

The boarding house characters - variously offering moralistic judgement, advice, and practical help - are also vividly drawn. Yolanda Kettle and Hubert Burton are funny and touching as the well-meaning Welches, and Marion Bailey brings to the production the kind of wonderful naturalness she brought to another landlady character, Mrs. Booth, in Mike Leigh’s Mr. Turner (2014). (This production is particularly good at suggesting a complicity between its three very different female characters.) As the mysterious Mr. Miller, Nick Fletcher hits just the right note of shrewd detachment and compassionate concern. Fletcher’s wrenching final scene with McCrory brings out the still-potent poignancy and wisdom of Rattigan’s humane vision, in which a lover may prove lethal but a near-stranger might be a saviour, in the end.

The Deep Blue Sea is booking at the National Theatre until 21 September.

Tuesday 7 June 2016

Concert Review: Elkie Brooks (Richmond Theatre, 6 June 2016)

Photo: Christophe Cohen

Elkie Brooks takes to the stage of Richmond Theatre looking happy and energised, and clearly relishing the response of a very vocal crowd on a sunny Monday evening.  “What a beautiful day it’s been,” Brooks says. “I hope you’re not too hot… I’ve had the air con turned off because it makes the instruments go out of tune. And it makes me go out of tune as well.”

In fact, there seemed no danger at all of Brooks going out of tune. Watching her effortlessly commanding the stage, her voice distinctively raspy, delicate, or declaiming, is a total joy. For all her enduring appeal, evidenced by the responses of the rowdy, loving crowd, it’s hard not to think that she’s been undervalued as an artist in many ways, not even getting a mention in Lucy O’Brien’s She Bop: The Definitive History of Women in Rock, Pop and Soul, for example. Brooks’s music touches all those genres, as well as blues and country, and she finds dynamic connections between them.

Like the great Barb Jungr, Brooks is one of those artists who's only improved as they've aged, and her palpable pleasure in performance is infectious, putting many younger singers to shame. She doesn’t rival Jungr for between-songs banter, but she has a similar ability to brilliantly focus a song as a dramatic experience, and her joy in rocking out (at 70, after 56 years in the business) is wonderful to see.

Most of Brooks’s biggest hits – “Fool (If You Think It’s Over),” “Sunshine After The Rain,” “Don’t Cry Out Loud” – were placed in the show’s first half. Brooks has been singing these songs for years, but they still sound vibrant, she and her tight, hot band (bass, drums, sax, guitar, keyboards) keeping them supple and fluid and finding fresh textures. She saved “Pearl’s A Singer” for the second half, breaking off mid-song to introduce the band and then encourage an audience singalong. “Lilac Wine” was heart-breakingly vivid and intense; “Nights in White Satin” picked up ambient, prog-rock power;  “Make You Feel My Love,” accompanied by delicate keyboard and bluesy sax, became a beautifully assertive expression.

Brooks gave full vent to her rowdy rock side with a stunning “Roadhouse Blues”, and the encore included three superb covers: Leon Russell’s “A Song For You,”  Bob Seger’s “We’ve Got Tonight,” and, most poignantly, Prince's “Purple Rain,” bringing a great evening to a beautiful close. 

Tour dates here.

Thursday 2 June 2016

Theatre Review: Sunset At The Villa Thalia (National Theatre)

Alexi Kaye Campbell remains best known for The Pride, his 2008 play (which debuted at the Royal Court and was later presented Off-Broadway) which juxtaposed two versions of gay experience: one set  in the repressed '50s, the other in the libertine 00s. Just opened in the National Theatre’s Dorfman auditorium, Campbell’s new play, Sunset at the Villa Thalia, is also structured with a significant, albeit much less radical, time leap. Its second Act moves ahead nine years to assess the fall-out of various decisions made by its quartet of protagonists.

The drama opens on the Greek island of Skiathos in 1967, on the cusp of the coup that placed the military in power for seven years. An English couple, Theo and Charlotte, are staying on the island, as Theo, a writer, works on his new play. Theo and Charlotte have made the acquaintance of an older American couple, Harvey and June. Harvey, it emerges, works for the US government, and may be implicated in the political unrest engulfing the country. Under his highly persuasive influence, Theo and Charlotte end up purchasing the villa in which they’re spending their trip, buying it off of Stamatis and his daughter Maria, who are emigrating to Australia.

Fast-forward nine years and Theo and Charlotte appear to have settled  into life on the island, and are raising a family there. But the reappearance of June and Harvey, jaded from  their recent experience in Chile,  brings both personal and political tensions to the fore. 
Talky, intimate and low-key, Campbell’s play is old-fashioned in its virtues, taking a potent political situation and dramatising it through the highly relatable personal interactions of its protagonists. At times the piece might put you in mind of Clare Peploe’s  1988 film  High Season, which explored the relations between ex-pats and Greek islanders in a more comedic vein, or even of Luca Guadagnino’s recent, much more highly strung A Bigger Splash.

At first it looks like the play will simply be pitting an arty British couple against a pair of brash American imperialists, but Campbell complicates this set-up in subtle and intriguing ways, giving the actors many more nuances to play with. The cast is superb, with terrific, detailed work from Ben Miles as the charismatic Harvey, Pippa Nixon as the increasingly self-righteous Charlotte, and Sam Crane as the dreamer Theo. Elizabeth McGovern very touchingly conveys the loneliness and quiet despair underpinning June’s breezy persona, and there’s vivid support from Christos Callow and Glykeria Dimou as the  islanders.

Playing out on Hildegard Bechtler’s superbly realistic villa terrace set, and with evocative lighting by Natasha Chivers and a fine sound design by Tom Gibbons, Simon Godwin’s production finds the writing’s strengths and conjures place and period wonderfully well.  I’m not too sure that Campbell’s suggestion that the purchase of a property abroad can wreak damage comparable to American interventionism stands up to much scrutiny, and in its final stages the play comes perilously close to taking an anti-migration stance, implying that the Greeks' decision to move out of the country (and the decision of the English to move in) has violated some kind of natural, spiritual or historical order.   Still, this is an absorbing new play that, in its quiet way, gives much to debate, making for a rewarding, worthwhile evening.

Reviewed for PopMatters. 

Wednesday 1 June 2016

Theatre Review: The Threepenny Opera (National Theatre)

Rory Kinnear in The Threepenny Opera (Photo Richard H. Smith)
My review of Rufus Norris's production of The Threepenny Opera at the National Theatre is up at PopMatters. You can read it here.