Sandy Pritchard-Gordon

Sandy Pritchard-Gordon
Theatre Blog

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Art at The Old Vic

Matthew Warchus first directed Yasmina Reza’s play, Art, in 1996 when it garnered an Olivier Award.  I didn’t get to see it then so am thrilled he has decided to reprise it now at The Old Vic.

Art is ostensibly a savagely funny play about - well art, or at least a canvas painted white with hardly noticeable different shades of diagonal white lines.  Or, as one of the three friends in the play calls it, “shit”.  It is this comment that causes discontent and, ultimately, downright animosity between them.  The owner of said painting is Dermatologist, Serge (Rufus Sewell) who has paid 100,000 euros for the privilege of hanging it on his wall.  Mark (Paul Ritter) is his long-term close friend and the one who names the painting “shit”, whilst the third member of the trio is Yvan (Tim Key).  Ivan is soon to be married and is the peacemaker of the group, the one who constantly “sits on the fence”.  Mark, on the other hand, sounds off and scoffs at pretty much everything. 

Within a few minutes it becomes obvious that this white painting has become the catalyst for highlighting the basis of the friendship between these three men.  Mark can’t begin to understand how his oldest friend who once (or so he thought) looked up to him, could have lost all taste and self respect by purchasing such an abhorrent piece of art work.  Ivan’s reward for being the conciliatory member of the trio, is for the other two to viciously turn on him, whilst the rather self satisfied Serge is hurt by the smugness of his Philistine chum, who dares to call his new acquisition, shit.

Reza’s dialogue (brilliantly adapted from the French by Christopher Hampton) crackles, sparkles and often wounds.  At one point, poor old Ivan’s frailties are so cruelly exposed by his two friends that there is an audible gasp from the audience.  The men make us wince, groan and laugh ‘til it hurts, whilst they encircle one another, boxer-like or gang up two to one.

The three actors are exemplary, as is Matthew Warchus’s direction.  The impossibly handsome Rufus Sewell who seems to improve with age – how can that be – makes for a perfect Serge.  Cool and sophisticated, he has just the right balance between self-satisfaction, confidence and insecurity and, as I’ve said, is very, very easy on the eye.  Paul Ritter is hilarious as the bitter Mark, who can’t reconcile the fact that he is no longer the alpha male in his friendship with Serge (if he ever was, of course).  And then we come to Tim Key, who is genuinely moving and rightly deserves the round of applause that follows his mounting hysterical monologue concerning mothers, step-mothers and the wording of a wedding invitation.

Following her Olivier Award for best comedy, Reza jokingly said that she thought she had written a tragedy.  In many ways there is a bleakness to this story about the near disintegration of three men’s friendship but, thanks to Warchus directing with a lightness and being unafraid to milk certain pauses to the limit, the humour comes out on top.  The scene where three men throw their olive stones into a stainless steel dish is a sublime piece of theatre.

I have certainly put my money where my mouth is, having seen Art twice within a space of ten days.  The second viewing was as funny as the first.  Thank you Mr. Warchus for reprising this “big small play”; I loved it.

Monday, 19 December 2016

Hedda Gabler at The Lyttleton

It often feels that Ivo van Hove’s modern-dress production of Patrick Marber’s adapation of Ibsen’s classic has veered away from the original to such a degree that it is a brand new play.  But of course this is just a misconception brought about because of this amazing director’s ability to turn a classic (as he also did with the brilliant A View From The Bridge) into something fresh and new.  He is aided and abetted by a paired down but accurate new working of the text by the great Patrick Marber and Ruth Wilson, an actress who has made her name synonymous with nuance.

Hedda Gabler at The National is radical and so gripping that even those of us who know the play well wonder what will happen next.  Ruth Wilson is extraordinary, but no change there.  She was a shining star as Stella In A Streetcar Named Desire and Anna Christie both at The Donmar and continues to ensure that The Affair on Sky Atlantic is a must see.  I also remember watching her play Jane Eyre opposite Toby Stephen’s Rochester on television  some years ago and thinking this is one special actress.

And now she is Hedda Gabler, a part that she has apparently shied away from playing until now.  Ivo van Hove was one of the reasons for her volte-face and it is easy to see why.  He is the director of the moment who manages to wiggle his way into the mindset of a playwright and squeeze something extraordinary out of his/her text. 

Unlike Sheridan Smith’s more sympathetic Hedda at The Old Vic, Ruth Wilson’s version is very difficult to like.  It could be all too easy to categorise her as solely evil, if it weren’t for the fact that this young actress is able to make her so much more.  Unencumbered by corsets and the strictures of Victorian society, this modern Hedda’s “imprisonment” is of her own making.  Holed up in a stark modern apartment on return from honeymoon to the academic, Tesman (Kyle Soller) she is incapable of getting out and doing her “own thing”.  That she doesn’t love her new husband is perfectly clear (her facial expressions and body language attest to this) but this is not the elderly, domineering Tesman we’re used to seeing.  Kyle Soller plays him as intense but not without humour and the only demands he seems to make are for them to become parents asap.  Over her dead body!  Sharing an apartment with him, let alone a bed is obviously anathema to this bored, self-absorbed, at times cruel but ultimately wretched young woman.

Hedda’s raison d’etre is to destruct.  Initially it’s the buckets of flowers inhabiting the apartment that feel the brunt of her frustration; the ones that aren’t left strewn across the floor are stapled to the walls.  Finally it’s herself, but not until she has cruelly destroyed the beloved manuscript of her old flame, Lovborg (Chukwudi Iwuji).

It’s telling that there are no doors to Jan Versweyveld’s high tec apartment;  the characters, come and go via the auditorium.  Except for Berte, the maid (Eva Magyar) and Hedda herself, for they have nowhere to go.  There are visitors but they’re not particularly welcome, despite her hatred for being alone.  She is complicated this one!  Mrs Elvsted (Sinead Matthews) does illicit something approaching admiration.  She has bravely left her husband in order to be with the reformed character, Lovborg.  If only Hedda had that much courage.

Apart from the buckets of flowers, an old sofa and Hedda’s fathers’ pistols in a glass case, the only major prop on stage is an upright piano at which Hedda is slumped at the start of the play.  Barefooted and dressed in a silk, clingy slip, she tinkers on the keys and cuts a solitary figure. Later, the strains of Joni Mitchell’s Blue add to the melancholic atmosphere until, finally the inevitable happens.

The entire cast is strong, although I did have trouble hearing Kate Duchene’s Aunt Juliana at the beginning of the play.  But Rafe Spall as Judge Brack is especially fine.  The ultimate controlling male, he exerts an unsettling power over Hedda, invading her space, goading her and even covering her with his can of tomato juice.

There are many more superlatives I could use but suffice it to say this Hedda Gabler packs a devastating punch and is a definite must see.

Friday, 9 December 2016

The Children at The Royal Court

Lucy Kirkwood’s witty dialogue ensures that, despite its underlying seriousness, her new play is never depressing.  Playing at The Royal Court, The Children is set in the kitchen of a seaside cottage situated close to a nuclear power station and features three retired nuclear scientists. There has been a disaster at the station, so husband and wife, Hazel & Robin (Ron Cook and Deborah Findlay) have left their family home and moved here as it is just outside the exclusion zone.  An unexpected visitor turns up and upsets the equilibrium.  She is Rose (Francesca Annis) an old work colleague and, it appears, one time lover of roguish Robin.  Is she here to win him back or has she something more sinister in mind?  Is the sacrifice she wants them to make one step too far even for people of a certain age, especially when there are children involved.  Moreover a daughter who has “issues” and is particularly needy?

The two women couldn’t be more opposite.  Hazel, the yoga practicing,  careful and practical one, married with children and Rose, single, childless and risk taking.  Would they ever have been close friends?  Probably not, especially when we suspect that Hazel is fully aware of what has gone on between her and her husband.

The play cleverly combines the mundane with the extraordinary, the pleasant with the shocking and is acted with aplomb by all concerned.  One is in no doubt from the word go that Hazel’s reaction to Rose’s appearance is in complete contrast to her husband’s, but the sublime Deborah Findlay brilliantly goes through the motion of being the perfect welcoming host, at least until Rose pushes her to the limits.

The Children doesn’t preach about the dangers of nuclear power.  In fact it doesn’t preach at all.  The calamity at the power station is a symbol for the type of world we are bequeathing to our children and the responsibilities for which each generation is responsible.

As I have said, there are bleak themes.  Robin has made the mistake of returning to his old house to tend to the cattle they abandoned and the Geiger counter eventually reveals that he is radio active.  Cancer often rears its ugly head and day-to-day living is hard following the explosion.  But life must go on and Kirkwood relies on the British stiff upper lip and recourse to humour to ensure that her beautifully written, well directed and evocatively lit play, although dramatic in theme has more laughs than tears.

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Nice Fish at The Harold Pinter Theatre

Mark Rylance spent his childhood years in the States, part of them beside the crumbling shores of Lake Michigan.  With his play Nice Fish, which he wrote with the collaboration of poet Louis Jenkins, he is revisiting this experience by setting it on one of the frozen lakes of Wisconsin.  He is obviously very taken with Jenkins’ poems, who also spent his informative years living beside one of these dark, deep waters, and this surreal and whimsical production is based around them.  First aired in America it has now transferred to the Harold Pinter Theatre, luckily giving us another chance to see one of, if not the greatest stage actors of our time.

The long, hard winter is coming to a close and Ron (Rylance) and Erik (Jim Lichtscheidl) are two friends taking time out together fishing on the ice.  Erik is a seasoned fisherman, Ron not so much.  They spend their time, Godot- like, ruminating on life, love and the landscape, all the while dealing with whatever weather this part of the world can throw at them. The two men are consumate actors and the scene where they battle with a particularly fearsome gale, makes the audience sit tighter in their seats to prevent being blown away!   Despite being very different in character (Erik has a serious air and tends to worry, whilst Ron, the eternal optimist, likes to clown around) the two men kind of get along!  Louis Jenkins’ humerous and atomospheric poems pepper the dialogue and the skill and physicality of the cast ensure this strange play is thought provoking, funny and endearing. 
A few other characters join them on the ice at various times throughout the play.  Their first visitor is a bumptious official from the Department of Natural Resources (Bob Davis), quickly followed by a fairy-like female called Flo (Kayli Carter) and her spear fishing grandfather Wayne (Raye Birk).  A couple of tiny puppets also pepper the upstage icy wasteland, which, along with the distant minute trees help to highlight the vastness of the environment in which the play is set.

Todd Rosenthal has covered the entire stage in white polystyrene, which does such a good job of giving the appearance of snow covered ice, that one can quite understand why Ron is encased in a bright orange parka with matching salopettes and ear flap hat.  The cold is so palpable that when Flo arrives dressed in non cold weather gear, the main thought is, “I bet she’s freezing!”. 

Claire Van Kampen, directs with a lightness of touch and elicits the very best performances from the cast, especially the playwright himself.  But then she is Mrs. Rylance, so no surprise there.  Not that I think her husband can ever deliver a bad performance.  He has the audience in the palm of his hand from the word go and laughter abounds even when the absurdity of the piece is at its zenith and his wrestle with a tent is a joy to behold.  We soon begin to realise that the abrupt blackouts that occur throughout the 1hr 40mins are actually one of the least strange things taking place.  Can anyone explain the appearance of a palm tree festooned with fairy lights?  No?  Does it matter? Not one bit.  After all, Mark Rylance himself states that he doesn’t really know what the play is about and will be making sense of it, word by word, as are we the audience.

All I do know is that Nice Fish is a theatrical recipe that includes mysticism, surrealism, absurdity and a dollop of truth.  The humour of Spike Milligan and Monty Python springs to mind and that’s no bad thing at all, especially with a cast and creative team all pulling together to provide a joyous evening of theatre.

Monday, 21 November 2016

King Lear at The Old Vic

Well one thing’s for certain, Glenda Jackson certainly has balls.  To make a come back to the theatrical stage from the one in Westminster, is a brave feat for any actor, let alone one who is eighty years young.  That the role in question is the mighty King Lear adds to this lady’s pluck.  And it’s not just pluck, because on stage at The Old Vic she also proves that she is still the fine actress she was twenty-five years ago. But the main question is, will she go down as one of the great Lears?  Probably not, but to be fair, this is actually more down to Deborah Warner’s production rather than Ms Jackson’s performance.

The director has set the play in a modern day rehearsal room with a minimalist set designed by herself and Jean Kalman that comprises a succession of white cubes and squares.  The lighting is stark and plain and does nothing to hide the gaunt features of this octogenarian female Lear.  Jackson is allowed no vanity, for we witness every line and sinew, especially when, at full throttle, she brings out the king’s malice and desire for revenge.  Her recognizable, rasping voice is undiminished and that she is a woman playing a man (she hasn’t been re-named Queen Lear) is not an issue.  No, the issue, for me, is that I was strangely unmoved by the whole thing.

The production lacks atmosphere, apart from the magnificent storm scene, realised with billowing black plastic and lightening streaks of silver light.  There are also a few unnecessary distractions.  Not only are we “treated” to a lingering full frontal Edgar (Harry Melling), but his sibling, Edmund (Simon Manyonda) bares his buttocks following a skipping-rope work-out.  All very fine (their bodies aren’t unpleasing to the eye) but one gets the feeling the director feels the need to shock.  That we are also treated to not one but two characters tossing themselves off and one of Gloucester’s eyeballs is lobbed into the audience, is, I feel several gimmicks too far. 

Some of the remaining performances are also a bit hit and miss.  Jane Horrocks is a dominatrix type Regan, clad in spindly stilettos and tight black jeans, but, peculiarly her and be-suited Celia Imrie as Goneril are somewhat underpowered.  This is a particular shame for me, as their inclusion, alongside Jackson and Rhys Ifans were a factor in my booking tickets.  Mind you, Rhys Ifans’s Fool does not disappoint.   Resplendent in Superman costume, he brings a welcome warmth to the Old Vic stage and is undeniably funny.  Also worthy of a mention are Morfydd Clark as a quietly effective Cordelia and Sargon Yelda as Kent.  They bring clarity to the text, unlike Harry Melling and Simon Manyonda, who whether through overexertion or distraction from dangling private parts tend to lose or throw away key speeches.

Despite the negatives, seeing Glenda Jackson on stage once more, doing what she does best, is well worth the ticket price.

Monday, 14 November 2016

One Night In Miami at The Donmar

Hurrah, at last we have a production under the “new” regime at The Donmar worthy of a standing ovation. Directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah, who has been working as Artistic Director of Baltimore Center Stage, One Night In Miami by Kent Powers is superb.  Kwami is also responsible for directing One Love, the Bob Marley Musical, soon to be put on at Birmingham Rep Theatre following its stint in Baltimore.  If this production is anything to go by, One Love will be a must see.

The play is set in a motel room in Miami on 25th February 1964, the night when Cassius Clay becomes the new world heavyweight champion following his defeat over Sonny Liston.  He celebrates the win by sharing this sparse space with three friends, Jim Brown, Sam Cooke and Malcolm Little (aka Malcolm X).  All famous in their own right; Brown, arguably the best ever American Footballer; Sam Cook a very successful soul singer and Malcolm X a Civil Rights Activist, they gather together to discuss their standing as black men in 1960’s America.

As well as sharing the same skin colour, these four men are all on the cusp of change.  Brown wants to become a movie star; Cooke is debating whether or not to change his musical direction from popular ballads to more political, gospel driven songs; Clay is about to change his name to Muhammad Ali and become a committed Muslim; whilst Malcolm X is soon to leave the Nation of Islam.  Amongst the four, it is Malcolm X who strikes a discordant note.  He constantly goads the singer about his choice of material, even illustrating his point by playing the Bob Dylan song, Blowing In The Wind.  If a white man can write and sing such a powerful protest song, what’s a black singer doing singing smoochy love songs?

There isn’t a lot of action taking place on stage, but there is an underlying feeling of violence, particularly from the two “bodyguards” Kareem (Dwane Walcott) and Jamaal (Josh Williams), when you begin to sense that Malcolm X isn’t safe in the hands of his Muslim brothers.

The acting from everyone is exemplary, but Arinze Kene’s Sam Cooke is especially affecting, especially when he recreates moments from his concerts.  It is spine tingling stuff and he has a superb voice to match his effortless portrayal of the unpredictable but charismatic “Mr Soul”.  Cassius Clay is brought to bouncing “fly like a butterfly” life by Sope Dirisu, full of self belief and fervour at his decision to join the Muslim faith.  The one man who tries to keep the peace whilst Malcolm X tries to undermine it, is David Ajala’s character, Jim Brown, a big pleasant bear of a man.  There is only one American actor in the cast and that is Francoise Battiste, who totally captures the restrained anger rumbling beneath the surface of the devout and immaculately turned out Malcolm X.

So, not only is One Night In Miami beautifully realised but it is also extremely relevant to what is happening in America right now.  To emphasise the point, we see footage of Black Lives Matter demos at the end of the play.  Nothing has changed in that black people are still the real victims, but at least here at The Donmar in 2016 we are treated to a brilliant all black production that has practically everyone up on their feet at the end. 

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

No Man's Land at Wyndhams Theatre

What a treat to see two theatrical knights effortlessly (or so it seems) give it their all in Harold Pinter’s infuriating but excellent 1975 play, No Mans Land.  Of course Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart do not disappoint and neither do the remaining two members of the cast, Owen Teale and Damien Molony.  A brilliant cast of four, performing in a play by a brilliant playwright; what could be better?  As it happens not much, because this production at Wyndhams Theatre is a delight from start to finish. 

Nothing much happens in No Man’s Land, although there is a continuous atmosphere of “Pinter” unease throughout.  Will something nasty happen or not?  Stephen Brimson Lewis’s exquisite set sets the scene from the start.  Before lights up, we view a gloomy night-time copse, which soon gives way to a smart library belonging to successful literary figure, Hirst (Patrick Stewart).  He has brought Spooner (McKellen) a failed poet, back to his house for a late night glass of malt whisky, or should I say glasses, following their meeting in a North London pub.  The two men’s outward appearance couldn’t be more different.  Hirst oozes wealth in his beautifully tailored pinstripe suit and bow tie, whilst Spooner’s cheap suit is crumpled and he exudes more than a whiff of seediness.  Whilst Hirst assumes an air of quiet superiority, the loquacious Spooner attempts to ingratiate himself with his host.  What follows is a conversation between the two men, the content of which may or may not be true (but probably isn’t). On the arrival of Briggs (Owen Teale) some kind of major-domo to Hirst and Foster (Damien Molony), who may or may not be his son (but probably isn’t), their menacing air towards the interloper, racks up the tension.  Is their resentment towards him anything to do with their sexual proclivity?  The following morning, after Spooner has spent the night locked in the room, the two older men continue their bewildering exchange, with Hirst now appearing to remember Spooner from his past (or does he?).  Confusing?  Yes, very. Although it could all be the result of one or other, or both of the older men suffering from some kind of dementia, no-one really knows. This is Pinter land at it’s confusing best.

Sean Mathias’s tight production enables these two elderly actors to prove that they are far from being past their prime, even managing to ensure that McKellen resists any desire to overact.  There is a wonderful moment when Spooner’s pursed lips (the result of Hirst admitting that he slept with his wife) speak volumes.  In addition the two younger men more than hold their own in such esteemed company and play the Kray like heavies to perfection.

The two hours fly by.  I can’t pretend to understand the play, but what I do know is that those two hours are an absolute joy.  It is an enormous privilege to watch two superlative actors reprise their double handed sparring match following Waiting for Godot in 2009.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if it were to ever happen again?