“Juno and the Paycock” by Sean O’Casey

at the Lyttelton Theatre, Thursday 29th December 2011

During times of political unrest, it’s easy to forget about the personal. We all become so preoccupied with the bigger picture that individual stories can be easily forgotten. In Juno and the Paycock, Sean O’Casey’s 1924 play, the second in his ‘Dublin Trilogy’, we are shown the struggles of the Boyle family during a time of termoil. Each family member loosely represents a different ideology and as circumstances drive them apart they forget about their beginnings. Howard Davies’ revival at the National Theatre is deeply tragic and somehow buoyantly pessimistic, resonating for audiences in 2011.

O’Casey’s play is ostensibly a look into the dangers of wealth and fetishisation of commodities in the 20th century; after living for years in poverty, the Boyle family find they have come into a small fortune and immediately furnish their tenement building with new objects. They are still just as unhappy, however, if not more so, and they fall into even deeper depression when it’s discovered they won’t be getting any money. It’s a crippling dismissal of materialism, but O’Casey’s play also demonstrates the dangers of idealism and the need to look for new means of struggle in the creation of a new Ireland. After years of violence, things aren’t getting any better and families are being pulled apart.

Davies’ production brings the political and the personal together, presenting a familial and emotional story on stage whilst always making us aware of what’s going on outside the windows on the streets. The attention is focussed keenly on Juno and the Captain (the ‘Paycock’ of the title), with the former representing the mother Ireland figure which has given up and lets the men get on with their fickle ways; it’s no longer worth the trouble. Bob Crawley’s hanger-like set is also incredibly claustrophobic, with only one side from which James Farncombe’s superb lighting emanates.

A strong cast brings out the stunning humanity evident in O’Casey’s often poetic text. Clare Dunne as the Boyle’s daughter Mary wants to escape the stifling world of her parents, but is unsure exactly how to do so, while Ronan Raftery’s Johnny (the son) looks to the past, sitting in the corner throughout and offering words of warning. Ciarán Hinds’ Captain is despicable yet strangely sympathetic and is cast brilliantly alongside Risteárd Cooper’s almost pantomimic Joxer Daly. But Sinéad Cusack as Juno is the beating heart of the play, stoically battling on throughout and remaining the only character with any desire to keep her family together.

Howard Davies has always done a remarkable job of managing to represent political messages through a human heart, and Juno and the Paycock is no exception. His production shows that both are intrinsically linked and impossible to separate. O’Casey’s words here are reminiscent of Ibsen, the emotions with echoes of Chekhov, the politics with allusions to Brecht. But what is definitely O’Casey’s own is his anger at utter stupidity of men and the constant need to reevaluate and look within.

“Noises Off” by Michael Frayn

at the Old Vic Theatre, Wednesday 28th December 2011

In times of austerity and pessimism, we can all do with a little light relief. Laughter, it is said, helps to relieve stress and fight depression. Thank your chosen deity, then, for Lindsay Posner’s production of Michael Frayn’s farcical masterpiece, Noises Off. Even if you enter the theatre after a miserable day and find it hard to allow yourself to suspend disbelief, the Old Vic will make you snort, guffaw, chuckle, groan, giggle and collapse on the floor at some point during the proceedings (not necessarily in that order). This kind of thing ought to be prescribed on the NHS.

But first, let’s get the bad bits out of the way (there aren’t many, bear with me). I think most people would agree that the play, which sees the fictional Nothing On just before, during, and at the end of its tour, takes a while to properly get going. The first act sees the ‘director’, Lloyd Dallas (Robert Glenister) struggling through a technical rehearsal of the play’s first act, but at this point everything is fairly tame. This, of course, is necessary, but one would be forgiven for not expecting much of the second half as the ice creams are being sold. The play also seems to have dated somewhat, and one could argue that this sort of production is exactly the kind of thing the establishment want to see performed: safe, non-political, traditional farce is hardly going to make people rise up.

Yes, yes, this is “pure entertainment”, and for what it’s worth you won’t see a better farce around at the moment (except, perhaps, One Man, Two Guv’nors). What Noises Off does it does better than anyone else. The second and third acts, where we see the same play, but from the wings and on its “last legs” respectively, is pure theatrical nitrous oxide. Frayn’s play takes all our preconceptions about show business and exaggerates them a hundred fold. The ‘showmances’ which have blossomed and nose-dived throughout the tour are exacerbated and interwoven among the action onstage. It is a farce within a farce, or even a farce on a farce, and focussing on everything that’s going on takes up enough energy as it is, let alone what’s required of us to keep our diaphragms pumping along so we can laugh.

This cast must be on some kind of steroids in order to keep going. Celia Imrie is both majestic and pathetic as the ageing star Dotty Otley, and Frederick Fellowes’ tragic attempts at reconciliation are played touchingly by Jonathan Coy. Amy Nuttall and Aisling Loftus as Nothing On‘s alluring-but-thick young actress Brooke Ashton and the quiet-but-smart stage manager Poppy Norton-Taylor both fight it out (though lord knows why) for their director’s attention, who Glenister shows to be a megalomaniac control-freak. Jamie Glover, Janie Dee, Paul Ready and Karl Johnson all give wonderful turns too, and the switch between actor and character is remarkable to watch. If you find this review confusing, then it’s done justice to the whirlwind nature of the show.

None of this would be possible without Posner’s direction, which manages to make the whole thing understandable through careful characterisation and choreography with help from Kate Waters. Peter McKintosh’s living room design, complete with multiple doors, is literally turned around for the second act, giving us a stages glimpse into the backstage world. Michael Bruce’s music and Paul Pyant’s lighting are reminiscent of many trips to an am-dram farce, but come into their own when we watch the production from behind.

The few minor quibbles with the nature of the production are more than outweighed by its many merits. This is farce at its very best, extracting the ridiculousness of everyday life for all to see. It reminds us that even when we believe we’re objectively watching a farce playing out by those around us, we’re likely to be just as involved as everyone else. But it’s also a damned good laugh. It’s surprising, in fact, that the Old Vic don’t have first aiders lining the aisles with extra oxygen and first aid kids, for, although laughter is most definitely the best medicine, if you watch this you may just die laughing.

“Macbeth” by William Shakespeare

at the Old Library, Monday 5th December 2011

You’d think that performing Macbeth in the dead of night would add an extra something to proceedings. The howl of the wind and the bite of the cold should send shivers down the spine, asking us to question whether or not the witches are real or figments of the imagination. Unfortunately, Sophie Gilpin’s promenade production of the Scottish Play, meandering around the enclaves of a disused and gutted community centre, fails to ever feel dramatic and leaves the audience confused about the space which the characters are inhabiting.

We follow the actors around various areas, wandering across a large central hall, down corridors and through enclosed stairwells. But whilst the venue does have a certain spooky quality and is dressed nicely enough with various piles of rubbish, it’s never clear whether this is a representation of Dunsinane or the kingdom itself. One point made by this production is that the men are like children, constantly reaching above their station, and a decision to actually set the play in the space would have aided this interpretation.

It’s an incredibly jarring production, and whether or not the patchwork nature of costumes and set was a conscious decision, it doesn’t aid the play in any way. It’s not clear what we’re supposed to think of the plot or the characters, and the promenade nature of the production is equally distracting. Towards the end of the play, the English army exit the room armed with branches only to enter the same room again minutes later. Why don’t we follow them through? Why did they come back into the room? The decision to parade the audience was clearly made simply to make the production feel more ‘avant-garde’ and has no impact on the text.

A strong cast is let down by poor verse speaking. Lines are either over- or under-emoted, with very little in between, and are spoken either too fast or too slow. This is clearly a result of a lack of discussion of what the verse means. But despite all this, there are some remarkable performances. Edward Davis’ Macduff is calm and considered, providing a perfect counterpoint to Alistair Faiers’ erratic and energetic Macbeth. Good support is given by Josh Green’s Banquo and Olly Ashforth-Smith’s Ross, but it is the women of this production who stand out. Zoe Lambrakis as Lady Macbeth is clearly maddened by the naivety of the men around her, remaining strong until the end, and Eleanor Adams in her one scene as Lady Macduff steals the show with a heartwrenching performance.

There are some interesting ideas here – projections are used for apparitions (though not nearly enough) and the witches are extremely disconcerting. But this version of Macbeth is too confused and anachronistic to ever really say something and through lack of impending doom makes it hard for us to feel anything. The atmosphere created at the beginning of the play is not sustained long enough to warrant two-and-a-half hours standing and watching Shakespeare; just like its protagonist, this production begins with a lot of promise, but very quickly falls from grace.

“The Heart of Robin Hood” by David Farr

at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Friday 2nd December 2011

Written for www.StageWon.co.uk

Origins stories are all the rage. In recent years, we’ve seen how Batman, Superman and even Sherlock Holmes came to be the heroes we know they are. Now, in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Christmas offering of 2011, David Farr revamps the classic myth of Robin Hood, giving a new twist whilst simultaneously making a comment on our current social conditions. But, although Gisli Örn Gardarsson’s production has some superb moments and clearly has a heart, overall it is somewhat lacking in intellect.

Farr’s text focusses on the traditionally placid female of the tale, Marion (Iris Roberts). After escaping the conclaves of the castle, she comes across Robin (James McArdle) and his vagabond gang in Sherwood Forest, choosing to trick them into allowing her to join as Martin, her alter-ego (they don’t allow women to be part of the gang). After much Shakespearean false-identity, child-nabbing and general-power-seeking, things resolve themselves in a joyful climax.

It’s an ingenious time to be staging such a production, which shows that, while we are told society is ‘broken’ by our rulers, it is they who are truly corrupt as they arrest innocent civilians, fiddle with taxes and shout loudly about royal weddings. But while I don’t disagree with the sentiment, Farr’s script flits between frivolous and dark like a Tory government which can’t make its mind up about selling off forests. Gardarsson’s production too often strays into pantomime too, lowering itself to cheap jokes regularly and mixing ingeneous stagecraft (instruments as animals and impressive aerial choreography by Selma Björnsdóttir) with obvious ideas. Yes, this is a family show, but the RSC has itself proved that family shows can appeal to adults and children alike if bold decisions are made.

And although the cast is strong, they all lack the character which Börkur Jonsson’s set (complete with overhead branches and a massive slide which allows for dynamic entrances) embodies so easily. We never truly believe McArdle and his Merry Men are people of the earth, and Prince John’s men, led by Tim Treloar’s Guy of Gisborne, are hardly very frightening. Roberts’ Marion does a good job of providing the emotional heart of the piece, and Ólafur Darri Ólafsson copes well with letting the audience in as her jester Pierre, but it is Martin Hutson’s Prince John who impresses most. Hutson superbly straddles the line between pantomime villain and a James Bond nemesis, and is the creator of some of the best moments in the production.

Björn Helgason’s magical lighting and Högni Egilsson’s epic sound hark back to the story’s legendary roots, while Emma Ryott’s costume has echoes of the contemporary, but just like the script and tone of the production, the design lacks a real sense of cohesion. While The Heart of Robin Hood ultimately fails to truly capture our hearts and tries to do too hard to shoehorn in lots of ideas, it is nonetheless better than most ‘family’ shows, and provides a good rubric for future shows. Perhaps we’ll see Beowolf’s Sword within the not-too-distant future.