Thursday 23 January 2020

Theatre Review: Uncle Vanya (Harold Pinter Theatre)

Reviewing Anthony Page's Royal Court production of Uncle Vanya in 1970, Martin Esslin pointed to "the strange and marvelously productive affinity between the British and Chekhov", suggesting that "the country house civilization which Chekhov portrays, with its house guests, its boredom and its frustrations... closely resembles the country house life of the English middle classes until not so long ago, and in some ways to this day." 

Esslin might have also given special attention to the relation between the Irish and Chekhov, since my two encounters with Uncle Vanya on stage have come via translations by Irish playwrights: first, Brian Friel's version for Sam Mendes at the Donmar Warehouse in 2002 and now Conor McPherson's new take, directed by Ian Rickson, which has just opened at the Pinter Theatre. 

The play retains its original setting here, but the production boasts a stealth Irishness too, evident not only in McPherson's dialogue rhythms but also in the casting, with Ciarán Hinds playing the pompous prof and Dearbhla Molloy as his devoted mother-in-law. 

McPherson's version has some infelicities: the drunken nighttime revels scene is funny but slightly overdone, and the use of a phrase like "wanging on" may be (just about) acceptable once, but not twice, and certainly not delivered by two different characters. But the production gets the ever-shifting Chekhovian flow of laughter to tears right, and the themes of unrequited love and disappointment emerge vividly and without ponderousness. Confrontations give way to embraces, mundanity intrudes into the philosophising, and the production preserves the compassion and humanism of Chekhov's vision, with each character given their measure of pathos, absurdity and awareness. 

There have been more poignant Vanyas than the impish Toby Jones; in an effort not to sentimentalise the character he seems to have robbed him of some of his tragic stature. But Jones certainly conveys Vanya's bitterness and resentment at the waste that he's made of his life: which he lays at the Professor's door. A commanding Richard Armitage does well with the contradictary qualities of Astrov - his obliviousness to Sonya's devotion, his cynicism, his surge of sexual passion for Yelena - and he makes the vegetarian character's ecological concerns (a prescient part of the play if ever there was one) urgent and compelling. 

As Nana, the magnificent Anna Calder-Marshall (who played Sonya in the 1970 production that Esslin reviewed) makes every look and line, however throwaway, count. "Do you remember?" she asks Vanya and the remark reverberates thanks to her beautiful voice. Some of the biggest pleasures of the production come in watching Calder-Marshall interact with Peter Wight, whose garrulous Telegin - describing how his wife left him a day after their wedding - strikes just the right notes of silliness and melancholy. 

The older actors' beautiful ease makes Aimee Lou Wood's performance as Sonya look especially effortful; Wood has some touching moments, but others that are shrill or amateurish, and a lack of rapport between her and Jones is a weak spot that makes the ending less moving than it should be. Wood seems much more secure with Calder-Marshall and Rosalind Eleazar. I wasn't sure about Eleazar as Yelena at first either, but the performance warms up as the actress powerfully reveals the character's sense of entrapment and frustration. Enhanced by a beautiful country house design by Rae Smith, and by Bruno Poet's lighting, the production is already in strong shape and looks likely only to deepen as the run progresses. Overall, it's a Chekhov to cherish. 

Uncle Vanya is booking at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 2 May Further information here. 

Images: Johan Persson

Tuesday 21 January 2020

Theatre Review: The Welkin (National Theatre)

The last time I saw Maxine Peake on film was in Thomas Clay's great Fanny Lye Deliver'd (2019), a properly startling 1650s Shropshire-set "Puritan Western" in which Peake played the title character: a wife and mother who undergoes all kinds of awakenings when two strangers appear at the family farm.

Now, back on stage in James Macdonald's production of Lucy Kirkwood's new play The Welkin at the NT, Peake fast-fowards exactly 100 years to the 18thC. Here Peake plays one Lizzy Luke, a midwife who, along with 11 other women from a Norfolk-Suffolk border community, is called on to form a "jury of matrons" to pass a judgement on the fate of a child-killer, Sally Poppy. The women's task isn't to determine Poppy's guilt or innocence - that's already been decided by a jury of men - but rather to make a judgement on whether the girl is, as she claims, pregnant: a condition that would save her from the hangman's noose.

Kirkwood continues to prove herself a versatile writer in terms of form and subject matter, and The Welkin - a period 12 Angry Women, if you will - is a play whose ambitions are pleasingly big. Unfortunately, and despite the best efforts of Macdonald's production (boldly designed by Bunny Christie), the end results feel rigged, contrived, and a bit of a mess. The opening image - a "split stage" portrait of women's domestic toil - is sensational, and the production stays strong for most of its first half. It's grip slips, however, when  revelations start piling up; after one of these the play loses believability and never recovers, with moral issues and character nuance sacrificed to plot twists, not all of which make sense. (Included in the play-script, a final flourish that would have brought the proceedings together has sadly been snipped from the production.)

It doesn't help that Kirkwood's dialogue swings uneasily between juicy mock-Georgian rural diction, contemporary profanity and flagrant anachronism, with some psychobabble and "woke" statements designed to flatter a contemporary audience thrown into the mix. Laurence Ubong Williams appears as a doctor who genially informs the group that women's bodies represent "a history of disease." In a moment that might have popped out of some recent Twitter exchange, Philip McGinley's Mr. Coombes - there to oversee the women's deliberations - is lectured: "You're not here to speak; it's your turn to listen." A low point comes in a meant-to-be-moving interlude in which the women sing together - not a folk ballad that might have made some thematic and dramatic sense, but rather an iconic 1980s pop song. At such times I couldn't help thinking back to Charlotte Jones' excellent The Meeting, another female-centred "period" play but one which trusted the audience to find its way in the setting without heavy-handed contemporary signposts or pandering to current sensibilities.

Kirkwood's concern with how the justice system fails women certainly gives The Welkin some bite. Yet, despite the research evidently undertaken, there's a lack of sympathetic imagination at work in certain areas, not least the treatment of the crime itself, perpetrated as it is against the child of an upper-class family who are - no surprises here - vicious exploiters and abusers of the poor.

What keeps the evening going through the missteps is that this "jury of matrons" is comprised of a company of great actresses. While Ria Zmitrowicz overdoes it as the accused, June Watson, Jenny Galloway and Haydn Gwynne (sadly stuck with the worst of the "reveals") provide texture and humour in the (long) deliberation scenes. Best of all is Cecilia Noble who contributes another of her cherishable characterisations as the hardliner who sucks up to Gwynne's out-of-towner and identifies "a moral slippage in this country I find most troubling." The cast make the evening worthwhile, but it's disappointing that a play that promises to be an insightful exploration of the politics of women's work and women's bodies ends up as a lurid maternal melodrama.

The Welkin is booking until the 23rd May, and screens in cinemas as an NT Live on 21st May. Further information here

Images: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg

Sunday 12 January 2020

Theatre Review: 4 x Hamlet (Teatr Studyjny, Łódź)

The sharing and doubling of roles has been a feature of almost all of the Łódź Film School Diploma shows I've seen so far (in particular Mariusz Grzegorzek's great devised extravaganzas Pomysłowe Mebelki z Gąbki and Nie Jedz Tego! To Jest na Święta!) - an approach that allows a range of actors to put their individual stamp on a character that they may all have had a hand in creating.

As its title suggests, the second of the 2019/20 shows, 4 x Hamlet, directed and designed by Jaracz Theatre Artistic Director Waldemar Zawodziński, continues the trend but applies it, this time, to a canonical text. The production shares this mightiest, most demanding of Shakespearean roles between four of the graduating actors. (Well, actually eight in total, since the production boasts two casts, whom you can watch perform on separate nights.)

In relation to Shakespeare's play, this seems a particularly apt - and democratic - gesture: Hamlet is, after all, to quote Harold Bloom, "a character so various that he contains every quality." At the performance I attended, Rafał Kowalski, Dominik Mironiuk, Krzysztof Oleksyn and Jan Butruk appeared in the title role, forming a compelling "relay" that rejects a "consistent" approach (if such a thing is ever possible in the case of Hamlet) to instead emphasise the contrasting qualities of the multifarious prince. 

If anything, the conceit could have been taken further: how about giving one or two of the female actors the chance to take on the role too, huh? But Kowalski, Mironiuk, Oleksyn and Butruk all bring interesting qualities to the table. Taking on the early sections of the play, his first soliloquy delivered directly to a particular audience member, Kowalski conveys both the prince's melancholy isolation and his scathing wit as he pops Gertrude's mourning veil over his head; still, his most galvanising moment occurs in the brilliant staging of the first encounter with the ghost. Mironiuk (who was memorable as the MC in Nie Jedz Tego!brings a distinctive stealth savagery to the part, notably in the violence with which he turns on Rosencrantz and Guilderstern (a relationship that, it's suggested, goes beyond the platonic here) and, later, Ophelia. 

And Oleksyn is an absolute whirlwind, amazingly fast and dynamic in his movements, and equally dexterous with the language (the production mixes several Polish translations of the play); the closet scene, played between him and Victoria Zmysłowska's ever-imbibing Gertrude, is, as it should be, one of the evening's most intense and moving moments. 

The production itself provides a pacy, modern-dress context for the actors' committed efforts, with some illuminating ideas and also some questionable ones. Augmented by the between-scenes appearances of a posse of percussionists drumming frantically on barrels, the show seems to take its cue from those strident sounds; the early scenes are played with an upfront aggressiveness (plenty of shouting in faces) that sometimes cuts against the grain of the text. Far from a dodderer, tall, shaven-headed Michał Włodarczyk contributes the bolshiest Polonius I've ever seen, though his death scene - in plain sight here - is startlingly effective and disturbing.

Luckily, the tone is modulated as the evening progresses, allowing for some subtler touches and fine moments for Hubert Kowalcyz's well-drawn Claudius and Antonina Jarnuszkiewicz's exceptional, expressive-voiced Ophelia, who starts out in leather-jacketed, short-skirted stroppiness, succumbs to abuse, confusion and grief, yet still finds surprising strength in the character in a haunting performance. 

Complete with dressing room mirrors (where the Players pause to do their make up before delivering a Mousetrap with a touch of Drag Race about it), seating area (for the court to watch the Players' show and the final duel), plus a tomb at the front, Zawodziński's design nicely emphasises the themes of performance and mortality, while Maria Balcerek's costumes accentuate the notion of generational conflict, the suited older generation contrasting with the casually attired youth. 

A bold final flourish is somewhat fumbled, but, exactly ten years since Rory Kinnear performed the role for Nicholas Hytner at the National Theatre, Zawodziński and company provide one of the stronger stagings of the play I've seen since, and one that's far superior to Robert Icke's overpraised 2017 Almeida Theatre take, with its Bob Dylan songs and Andrew Scott's awful orgy of gesticulation. Zawodziński's is a production to be seen for its performances, for the power of individual moments, and, particularly, for its innovation in turning an iconic role from a star turn into a collective endeavour. 

4 x Hamlet returns to Teatr Studyjny next month. Further information here

Photos: Aleksandra Pawłowska.