“Henry V” by William Shakespeare

at Shakespeare’s Globe, Saturday 28th July 2012

Two years ago, following the superb Henry IVs Parts 1 and 2, I begged “for Jamie Parker as Henry V at some point in the near future”. Well, my prayers were answered (yes, I like to think this was all down to me) and I wasn’t wrong; in Dominic Dromgoole’s production of Henry V at the Globe, Parker gives a wonderful performance as the charismatic king. Unfortunately, however, the production is let down by a less than impressive ensemble and rather indulgent direction.

I don’t understand how it has become normal at the Globe to have strong central performances and weak supporting actors. Granted, it’s a hard space to master, but the likes of Parker, Rylance, Allam and Best prove it’s not impossible. Why, then, do shows consistently cast actors who feel it necessary to gesticulate wildly and lose all trace of awareness of the space? It’s all well and good to do straight-laced productions of Shakespeare, but the least we expect from that is a strong cast.

One of the worst perpetrators of this in Henry V is Sam Cox, who plays Pistol as a cross between Russell Kane and Jack Sparrow but who is let down by supreme self-awareness and seems to be working by the mantra ‘do anything, as long as it gets a laugh’. Brid Brennan’s Chorus is equally uninspiring, and speaks the lines with such anger and wide-eyed menace that it’s difficult to take her seriously; there is little chance we will imagine the scenes she asks us to with such bizarre delivery. When Olivia Ross speaks her lines as the young boy, her hands seem to be imitating an air traffic controller, though she is redeemed by her sweet portrayal of Katherine.

Nigel Cooke’s Exeter injects some charisma into proceedings and Brendan O’Hea’s Fluellen is – most of the time – hilarious. But no one even comes close to matching Parker’s affable, strong-willed, knowing Harry. He walks around the stage with such ease and converses with the audience in such laid-back tones that we really do feel part of his army. “Once more unto the breach” is delivered with searing energy and when he looks you square in the eye and says “We happy few”, it’s explicit that you’re on his side. It’s only a shame he didn’t get to play the king in the same season as Hal; I suspect his performance would be even richer in a shorter timeframe.

Jonathan Fensom’s set is a disintegrated version of the Henry IV design, and the squabbles between the nations of Britain here are brought to the forefront, showing a kingdom on the edge of collapse (with so much talk of “Britain” at the moment this play comes across as supremely English). The stylised fight scenes are also a nice addition, though more enthusiasm from certain members of the cast at these points wouldn’t go amiss.

But perhaps what’s most interesting about this production, especially considering so many aspects are taken from the previous Henry IVs, is that it shows Henry V to be very much a play which only makes sense in the context of the histories. The Falstaff scenes are lost on much of the audience and some of the characters are paper-thin in this play without the aid of previous narratives. The fact Dromgoole doesn’t attempt to smooth over these issues is an oversight, and though Parker shines, its difficult not to think he’s driving a slightly faulty vehicle.

“Democracy” by Michael Frayn

at the Old Vic Theatre, Wednesday 25th July 2012

History, supposedly, died at the fall of the USSR and the reunification of Germany. If there’s anything the ideological discussions and revolutions of the past few years have taught us, however, (and let’s be honest, some idiots haven’t learnt enough from these events), it’s that history is far from over. The ideas presented in Paul Miller’s production of Michael Frayn’s Democracy, though set before the fall of the Berlin Wall, demonstrate to audiences in 2012 that the debates which began in 70s Europe are far from over.

There is something mildly Shakespearean about Frayn’s 2003 play; an historical era is used to reflect a contemporary one, the play spans vastly over time and space, and the language has a poetic rhythm to it, elevating the central characters. But more than all this, we are treated to not one, but two tragic heroes. The Chancellor Willy Brandt and his aide Gunter Guillaume both fit into the tragic mould, for they each believe they are doing what they believe to be right even though everything around the pair conspires against them. Miller’s production is presented in such a way which mimics this epic quality, playing the text at breakneck speed and using little more than the characters and words to demonstrate time and place.

References to coalition politics within the play naturally assume a relevance, but it is particularly the themes surrounding the cult of personality and backhanded politics which are most intriguing. Politics has always fetishised personalities, but it is only since the dawn of photography and subsequently television that leaders have become chosen for who they are rather than what they do. Willy Brandt sits on the boundary, keen to make a genuine difference to the lives of his citizens but fully aware that in the world of politics, the man with the camera is king. Some of the most memorable moments in Democracy are (smartly), those which recreate infamous images of Brandt whilst his advisers watch in amazement.

The underhand politics which occur, epitomised by Helmut Schmidt and Herbert Wehner (the slimy and stern David Mallinson and William Hoyland), is countered by the Shakespearean semi-soliliquies given to Brandt and Guillaume. They reject the party politics of those around them in favour of a more ideological, hopeful agenda, which Frayn demonstrates is possible even though the pair have human flaws. Craftily, the two spies of the piece – Guillaume and Arno Kretschmann (marvelously underplayed by Ed Hughes) – are the two who seem most open to the audience; though they are working behind others’ backs, at least they have nothing to hide from us. That is far from the truth in the case of Brandt’s sinister advisers.

Aidan McArdle’s performance as Guillaume is gloriously comic, allowing his humanity and awe to shine through. His stocky viciousness is contrasted beautifully with Patrick Drury’s towering, gentle Brandt; and though they rarely look into one another’s eyes, the connection clearly runs deep. Miller’s smart staging uses Simon Daw’s stylish design to high effect; though only one entrance exists, characters file in and out without pause, and an almost stylised, methodical way of moving around the stage is broken by various characters at key moments. Mark Doubleday’s lighting is ever-shifting, just like the playing spaces on which Brandt and his government act.

Democracy shows Michael Frayn at the height of his powers as a dramatist, and manages to mingle entertainment, drama and political comment to startling effect. Miller’s production offers an economically created world and is balanced in its presentation of these historical figures. And, though the realisation of this world is complete and exists in isolation, it is its relation to today’s political world which makes it so compelling.

Latitude 2012

Thursday 12th – Sunday 15th July 2012

There is an ever-pervasive sense of irony present at Latitude; tens of thousands of liberal lefties flock to Suffolk every year for a festival which boasts green and ethical credentials but which is run by the gigantic Festival Republic, charges £189 for a ticket and thrives on commercialism. All whilst teens flaunting their ‘alternative’ music and fashion tastes in tweed jackets jump up and down to Bon Iver in innumerable quantities, making their ‘alternative’ label redundant.

So getting away from this odd situation in the theatre tent in the forest is a necessity from time to time, just to make sure we’re not being drowned in irony. I hate to generalise, but the theatre on offer at this year’s festival seemed to fit into two camps (at least from what I saw): the truly brilliant or the truly awful.

I’ll start with the latter so I can finish this retrospective on a high note. Unfortunately, the theatre organisers at the festival seem to commission a lot of companies to do work for them without checking that these groups have created a work of quality. Though I understand it’s tough to do theatre outside whilst competing against sound from bands, Theatre Delicatessen’s Henry V  included only a few actors who seemed to have been trained in projection and in any case merely resembled a low-key and lazy version of the National Theatre’s 2003 production. The Just Price of Flowers, by Stan’s Cafe, attempts to make the 2008 financial crisis more digestible and entertaining by demonstrating its similarities to tulip trading in 17th century Netherlands, but is far too long, monotonous and dull. The Brechtian techniques it uses fall flat due to this repetition and the few endearing moments can be easily overlooked due to the lack of variety. Harold in Havana, a rehearsed reading of snippets of Pinter’s work which was taken to Cuba last year and including David Bradley, Adjoa Andoh and Janie Dee, suffered from the same thing; the piece ran forty minutes over its advertised one hour running time and was simply too repetitive and indulgent to be enjoyable.

Nabokov’s Symphony was also somewhat disappointing, though it did at least remember it was in a festival setting; the production is a trio of plays written by Tom Wells, Ella Hickson and Nick Payne which uses monologue and duologue to tell stories, each of which is interspersed with original songs. The pieces improve as the evening goes on, but each is let down by an abundance of cliché (understandable for a twenty-minute play, perhaps) and shoddy sound. Look Left, Look Right’s Not Another Musical is difficult to watch for the same reasons. Though it went down well with the audience at Latitude, the tongue-in-cheek humour feels lazy and not enough work has been put in to each of the four mini-musicals to make them a genuine satire of the genre.

Aside from RashDash Theatre’s superb Set Fire to Everything, which uses song and music to comment on the difficulties of modern life, the better theatre at the festival was that which, as far as I can tell, had not been created specifically for this setting. Action to the Word’s A Clockwork Orange makes Anthony Burgess’ dreadful script work as a stylised piece of theatre, which commits completely to the all-male cast and manages to make the story relevent to our post-Soviet world. Bank Puppets’ Swamp Juice, though created for children, includes some of the most inventive and funny puppetry I’ve seen and finishes with a genuinely impressive 3D sequence. Theatre Ad Infinatum’s Translunar Paradise, which, like A Clockwork Orange and Swamp Juice, also premiered at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe, is a beautiful representation of love, devoid of cliché and featuring hypnotic movement. It is ideal for a festival setting, favouring music and visual aids over speaking and wrenching us away from the madness outside the tent.

The theatrical highlight of the festival came, for me, in the unlikely White Rabbit, Red Rabbit by Nassim Soleimanpour, presented by the Gate Theatre. The play is only given to the performer, in this case Marcus Brigstocke, as they come onto stage, and is little more than a dialogue between audience, actor and author, but it is without a doubt one of the most challenging and innovative pieces of writing I’ve seen in the past year, creating drama unlike any I have ever witnessed in a theatre. For various reasons it’s difficult to go into much detail, but trust me, if you can a chance, this is a must-see.

More than anything, the theatre at Latitude 2012 raised questions about the nature of staging productions in festival environments;  the productions which worked were simply well-made and thoughtful pieces. It was frustrating to watch so many companies trying to jump over hurdle six before clearing hurdle one; the work itself must first be of a high standard before trying to make it work in a specific environment. In a festival full of irony, the irony here was that the best performances came straight from conventional settings and weren’t trying hard to work amid the hubub outside, fuelling the idea that the best theatre can work anywhere.

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“Detroit” by Lisa D’Amour

at the Cottesloe Theatre, Wednesday 11th July 2012

Life in suburbia is something many of us have had experience of, and contains within it a conflict (most notably tha between the city and the country) which makes it perfect for theatrical presentation. In Detroit, Lisa D’Amour presents a searing satire on modern life in the suburbs and produces some laugh-your-head-off moments, but the overall narrative doesn’t seem to support the final ten minutes and much of the time it feels like Clybourne Park without the race issues.

Sharon and Kenny have just moved in opposite (at least I think opposite, the staging is a little confused) Ben and Mary, who are a little bemused by how “weird” their new neighbours are. They bond over some farcical mishaps, however, before Sharon and Kenny tempt Ben and Mary into “starting again”, like them. The play finishes with the two hippies wreaking destruction (*spoiler alert* they burn the house down) and scarpering, after which Frank arrives on the scene to explain the history of the community and the aspirations of the developers (“to start a conversation”, which clearly never happened).

It’s clear that these final few speeches of Frank’s are intended to support and tie up the rest of the play, but unfortunately D’Amour does not probe deeply enough or ask enough questions to make this obvious. The narrative is altogether too thin to support this argument and it becomes less of a critique of suburbia than an indictment of middle-class values and hypocrisy.

All this, however, is negligible compared to the pure wit of the piece. D’Amour paints a picture of these people to stunning accuracy and the dialogue remains a constant stream of jokes which hit the audience with wave after wave of uncontrollable laughter. Sharon talks about her bafflement at the “new internet” and Ben participates in an online community called “BritLand” where he is known as “Ian”. And for all their talking, these characters rarely have genuine conversations which amount to anything important. They are all so out-of-touch and self-absorbed that to do so is unthinkable.

Austin Pendleton (of Steppenwolf fame, who produced the premiere of the play in America) directs his five-strong cast brilliantly, teasing out nuanced and truthful performances. Will Adamsdale and Clare Dunne as Kenny and Sharon maintain an adolescent nonchalance and never seem menacing, even though their final act aligns them somewhat with symbolism of the devil. Stuart McQuarrie and Justine Mitchell initially seem their polar opposites, the former being a banker by trade and the latter supremely conscientious, but after time it’s clear they are merely Kenny and Sharon later on in life and with more money.

Kevin Depinet’s simple set allows the words to take centre stage, with the contrasting facades of the house looming over the action. Mark Henderson’s lighting shows the changing times of day without being overbearing and Anthony Capel and Matthew Scott’s music becomes integral to the plot in later scenes. Under Pendleton’s direction, Detroit is a comedy first and foremost and a social comment second, and though a deeper questioning of suburban life would have been welcome, D’Amour is shown here to be a master of comedy.

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“A Doll’s House” by Henrik Ibsen

in a new version by Simon Stephens

at the Young Vic, Wednesday 11th July, 2012

Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House has, for me, always been a play whose importance I have been aware of but whose power as a piece of theatre has generally passed me by. It’s late nineteenth century realism and the central narrative arc has never effected me as an audience member or reader, and the progressive subject matter was overshadowed by what I deemed to be a rather dreary structuring. In Simon Stephens’ new version of the play at the Young Vic, however, under the direction of Carrie Cracknell, the play is viewed anew and comes across as an extremely modern take on gender relations.

Ian MacNeil’s revolving set is here a character all on its own, injecting some much-needed energy into the text and drawing attention to the themes of domesticity which run throughout. It is the doll’s house of the title, as we watch (in a sort of postmodern kind of way) puppets moved around and being told what to say by others. Nora, by extension, is merely the plaything of Torvald, for he has command of this ever-moving space whilst she whirls around it like a mouse in a maze. It is lit expertly by Guy Hoare, who allows us glimpses of certain things we shouldn’t see or goes dark just as we may learn new details.

Stephens’ text keeps the play intact, but updates some of the dialogue to make more sense to modern ears. Surprisingly, the dark images one may expect Stephens to insert into the play aren’t present, as he allows the play to speak for itself. The threats of doom instead come from Stuart Earl’s bass-laden music, which thunders through the auditorium to highlight the gravity of the situation (though, if I’m honest, it does seem a lot of fuss to be making over one forged signature. Just saying). Moments of comedy – the scene immediately post-party particularly – highlight the tragic sections.

Hattie Morahan’s performance as Nora steals the show, as she depicts a woman in the pits of despair with strength and reason. Though the references to madness sometimes go a little too far and tongue-acting sometimes becomes distracting, Nora’s dilemma makes sense. The final speech is delivered with such passion that it feels half the audience is going to get up and begin protesting for women’s rights. Good support is provided by Dominic Rowan’s condescending but still affable Torvald, Steve Toussaint’s gentle Doctor Rank and Susannah Wise’s smart and composed Kristine.

One hundred and thirty years after its original performance, A Doll’s House was in danger of becoming a text simply studied at school and sentenced to many straightforward run-of-the-mill future productions. Fortunately, Stephens and Cracknell demonstrate that Ibsen’s play is still a masterpiece and can still speak to us providing the time is taken to ensure the play makes sense to contemporary audiences. Even this many years later, the gender divides within the play are still maintained and traditional hierarchies in relationships show no signs of disappearing soon.

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The Call for an English National Theatre

Whenever I announce suddenly in conversation that I think we ought to have an English National Theatre (because that’s what I do), I am given a look which suggests the listener believes me to be in desperate need of medical attention. “Haven’t you seen that massive Soviet structure on the South Bank?” they seem to be saying, “The one which is called the National Theatre?” I smile. “English” I repeat, “We need an English National Theatre”. If you haven’t guessed, the key word is English.

As of next year, it will be 50 years since the Royal National Theatre of Great Britain and Northern Ireland was founded. Hooray. Half a century of one of the leading theatre companies in the world producing top-class work. It’s certainly something to celebrate. The year after that, however, Scotland is due to hold a referendum on independence, meaning the very entity which the South Bank building represents, Great Britain, will be all but nonexistent.

For, while Scotland and Wales have been undergoing a redefining of national values over the past couple of decades (ever since devolution began), the notion of Englishness has been pretty much inseparable from ideas of Britishness. And as Britain begins to disolve, we in England will be forced to decide on our national ideals and the way our political and social lives will have to be restructured to create stability.

First, let’s destroy the notion that “English nationalist” is a dirty word; though it has connotations of the EDL and far-right groups, to be an English nationalist means to look forward to a separate English nation which does not impose its own national identity on other members of the United Kingdom (see: pretty much anything written by George Orwell). It is not an aggressive stance but one which looks inwards and attempts to separate things which are English from things which are British.

As support for an independent England (or, at the very least, an English parliament) grows, it becomes ever clearer that a space to represent the new England theatrically is necessary. To help us decide how best to implement an English National Theatre, we can look towards other national theatres in the British Isles and their respective missions.

The Southbank venue “aims constantly to re-energize the great traditions of the British stage and to expand the horizons of audiences and artists alike. It aspires to reflect in its repertoire the diversity of the nation’s culture”. The general notion that “British” can be transposed with “English” is accurate here; perhaps I’m missing something but not one of the plays I’ve seen performed at the National has been performed according to Welsh or Scottish ideas or techniques. Most of what Nick Hytner has done in recent years has either been internationally based or very clearly English (One Man Two Guv’nors and The Habit of Art being clear examples). There is clearly an appetite for English plays, but we are fooling ourselves if we believe that the NT is producing work which can speak to the whole of Britain.

The National Theatre of Scotland wishes to “create theatre on a national and international scale that is contemporary, confident and forward-looking”, whilst the Abbey in Dublin hopes to “Sustain and re-imagine the repertoire of Irish plays”. The Lyric in Belfast wishes to create shows which “are truly indigenous products of Northern Ireland” and the National Theatre of Wales “creates bold, invigorating theatre in the English language, rooted in Wales, with an international reach.” It is clear, then, that all of the nations of Britain have a national theatre rooted in the country it represents which hopes to encourage debate about that particular nation.

Except England. Granted, we have two near-misses in the English Touring Theatre and the English Stage Company at the Royal Court, but the former merely uses the word “England” to demonstrate its location whilst the latter is more interested in “finding, developing, and producing writers from all over the world” than its home territory. Aside from these two examples, there is no theatre in England today interested in specifically England and its identity. As Britain and the last remnants of Empire begin to collapse, this must be rectified if the theatre scene in this country is to continue to be healthy.

All very well diagnosing the problem, but what of the cure? What I propose is little more than a rebranded National Theatre (crucially still with a remit to produce international work; if we are to have any hope of redefining our nation we must see ourselves in context), with a change from “of Great Britain and Northern Ireland” to “of England”. This new title will shift the focus of the work produced and allow dramatists and directors a different space in which to breathe. Naturally, Henry V would come up in the first few years, but the Henry VI plays feel more apt for gaining a sweep of an England struggling to define itself. The closest any playwright has come to writing a particularly English play in the past few years is Jez Butterworth with Jerusalem, and by the time this proposed rebranding has occurred a new production would be timely. Alongside these two projects would sit a number of smaller plays about English life by both young and old playwrights interested in examining those character traits we deem to be “British” and sifting through to find the habits which are specific to England (Polly Stenham and Arnold Wesker would be perfect candidates). To finish off the season a Three Kingdoms-style (yes I’m still going on about it) collaboration between English and international practitioners would consolidate this new theatre’s place on the world stage. By finding a new context in which to create theatre, then, a perceptible renaissance would inevitably occur to reflect the new country inhabited by practitioners. To suggest an Artistic Director for this establishment would split opinion too much, but we’re in the fortunate position of being spoilt for choice at the moment so this point isn’t too problematic.

This post will undoubtably be criticised for being too patriotic and somewhat reactionary, but the search for a new England and the desire to have its existence staged and debated is the complete opposite; in less than two years, Great Britain as we know it may have collapsed, meaning we must begin to look ahead to how our nation will look at that time. The “British” prefix attached to many of our great institutions will become obsolete, and if we’re not careful a long period of confusion about our nationality will follow. The theatre, that most forward-looking of art forms, must lead the way, giving a stage on which to rehearse the blueprint for our new country. And only then will we have a truly National Theatre.