Tag Archives: Nick Hytner

“Othello”, “The Low Road” and “Peter and Alice”

“If you have been entirely satisfied by something obviously mediocre, may it not be that you were searching for something less than mediocre, and you found that which was just a little better than you expected?” – Edward Gordon Craig

In the past week or so, I’ve managed to catch three of the “Big Openings” of the last month; Othello at the National (still in previews when I saw it), The Low Road at the Royal Court and Peter and Alice at the Noel Coward. They’re all perfectly decent pieces of theatre in their own right and each manage to hold the audience’s attention whilst saying something about their subject matter, but ultimately they each failed to have any kind of lasting impact on me. I’ll admit first and foremost that I’m probably not the target audience for any of these pieces. Continue reading “Othello”, “The Low Road” and “Peter and Alice”

“Collaborators” by John Hodge

at the Cottesloe Theatre, Tuesday 20th March 2012

“What if…” pieces are always intriguing, offering an alternative view of history. It’s extraordinarily tempting to imagine Shakespeare and Dickens conversing in a pub, or Newton being educated by Einstein. We love to imagine these conversations, and consider how history would be different if these conversations were possible. In Collaborators, John Hodge asks “What if Josef Stalin helped Mikhail Bulgakov to write plays and in return Bulgakov helped him with affairs of state?”  The result is a witty, intelligent play which, even though it tries a little too hard to appeal to our hearts, asks some big questions.

After the success of The White Guard, the playwright and novelist Mikhail Bulgakov is asked (read: forced) to write a play for Stalin’s sixtieth birthday (he is a huge fan of the aforementioned play, having seen it fifteen times). Naturally, the writer wants to create an artistically sound piece of theatre, whilst his paymasters wish him to make something which praises Vozhd in all his glory. After a week struggling to create anything of worth, he is summoned by Uncle Joe himself, with whom he collaborates so both of them are able to get their work done. Along the way, Stalin realises the difficulties in writing and structuring a play, whilst Bulgakov becomes implicit in some of the atrocities of the Soviet regime.

It’s not hard to see what Hodge thinks of the art question here: it is impossible to create good art if one is given preconditions – i.e., no good art can be created under censorship. I think most of us can agree on that: the hilariously awful excerpts from “Young Stalin” prove this. The interesting debate, however, is about Bulgakov’s position. After being relinquished of the shame of writing an awful play, he begins to defend decisions about grain in the provinces which are costing lives. His initial hatred of his leader becomes far less clear-cut, and we are shown that those in power don’t have the luxury of ideology that many of us do: they have to balance arguments before coming to a conclusion. In this respect, Hodge is supremely successful, and the two-handed scenes between Stalin and Bulgakov are without doubt the most superior.

Where the play falls flat, slightly, is in Hodge’s portrayal of Bulgakov’s home life. The writer and his wife, Yelena, live with a whole host of other bohemians, who are somewhat stock and serve only the purpose of allowing an emotional outlet for Bulgakov. They seem superfluous, for this exact dilemma could just as easily be communicated to his wife alone. The core argument – that of the difficulties of ideology in art – is present in the one-on-one scenes, and we gain very little from the presence of other characters in the Bulgakov household.

Nicholas Hytner’s production is beautifully crafted, taking images and techniques from Communist propaganda. George Fenton & Paul Ardiiti’s music and sound are used in an almost cartoon-style way, and Jon Clark’s lighting acts as a frame around certain scenes. The tone of Hytner’s direction shifts from grimy socialist realism to stylised choreography, and is set beautifully on Bob Crowley’s red and black scenic design, looking like its been lifted straight off of a Soviet poster, complete with jagged lines and uneven floor.

A solid ensemble is led by three superb actors. Mark Addy’s Vladimir, the chief of police, lies on the borderline of ridiculous, but manages to retain a humanity which allows us to understand how difficult he finds his job. Simon Russell Beale’s portrays Stalin as an idiotic, frail but supremely passionate man who flips at an instant. There is something supremely menacing about his quietness, and the Somerset accent only adds to the confusion we feel towards him. Alex Jennings completes the trio as Bulgakov, rarely leaving the stage and providing the narrative drive and voicing the audience’s own internal debate.

It does feel at times like Collaborators is trying to tackle a few too many questions without ever fully exploring any of them, but what Hodge shows us is a world in which it is impossible to say what you feel openly. Although it is entirely fiction, the meetings between Stalin and Bulgakov feel extraordinarily real, and we are forced to ask ourselves whether the old maxim suggesting that artists would be better at politics than politicians is true after all.

Is it theatre? Is it cinema? No! It’s NT:Live

It seems that once again the National Theatre is well on its way to revolutionising the way in which audiences view theatre. The first season of NT Live concluded yesterday with London Assurance and did not fail to entertain. Dion Boucicault’s play is human and touching, but above all a good laugh. This being my second viewing of the play, I feel that I have some justification for comparing and contrasting the two. NT Live is not theatre. Nor is it cinema. It has the potential to be a new form of art which takes the best aspects from each and mixes them together to form a very entertaining evening.

Walking into the cinema, we feel a real sense of spectacle. Already a circus act is performing on the outdoor stage at the National Theatre and we are able to watch to watch them live, chatting amongst ourselves and getting ready for the main event. An audience is gathered on the lawn on the Southbank and somehow we feel a connection with them. Everyone is watching the same thing and everyone knows that elsewhere a further 150’000 people are doing exactly the same thing. This is something that strikes me about NT Live; we get a real sense of event and spectacle. The audience all over the world is part of something special and it is this intimacy and immediacy which allows us to understand we are watching theatre. Anything could happen and we will all be witness to it.

What NT Live has that theatre doesn’t, however, is the ability to see the actors’ faces in glorious HD, 20 feet high on the screen. We can see every bead of sweat and flicker of the eye – something that isn’t possible when sitting in the back row of the Olivier. It does sometimes, however, feel that we may be losing out, for only having one camera on one actor means we miss the reactions of other members of the ensemble. Having these close-ups also mean that some jokes are completely lost. When a rat comes gliding across the stage in London Assurance, for example, all we see is the reaction of Sir Harcourt Courtly and we are unable to understand why his mouth is agape and the audience in the Olivier is laughing joyously. A fleeting glimpse of the rat is seen but the joke is over by then. It is a shame that such visual gags should be lost when we have that most visual of mediums on hand; cinema.

Whilst I understand that this is a live transmission of a play and not a film for cinema, it often felt that we were getting the raw end of the deal. All the camera angles were the same, meaning there was no variety in picture. It would be useful, perhaps, to have a roaming cameraman on stage to catch intimate moments and shrewd asides. The use of direct address should also be looked at. Every time characters addressed the audience it was to the live congregation and not the 150’000 watching around the world. Occasionally, when actors looked down the lens of the camera for fleeting moments, we felt an immediate connection with them and longed for more. Of course, this has probably been trialed already by the National Theatre but it would be interesting to see the difference it would make.

I also wonder what the etiquette is for these sort of transmissions. When watching a film, we may laugh quietly to ourselves and share tearful moments with our friends. At the theatre, the audience is one being, laughing and crying together and not afraid to express how they feel about the performance. In Milton Keynes, where I viewed the play, the audience seemed to be split down the middle. Some were happy to keep themselves to themselves and indulge in the occasional chuckle whilst others (including myself) were not afraid to laugh heartily away and let ourselves believe we were in a theatre. Of course, learning how best to behave at an NT Live transmission will come in time, but in the meantime I assume there will be a few more awkward moments in dingy cinemas the world over.

It is that final point which excites most about NT Live. A new platform has been created for audiences all across the globe and we could see this working as an entirely new art form in itself. We cannot see our fellow audience members, but we know they are there, enjoying the same moment as we are. Those in the unfortunate position of not being able to see National Theatre productions now have the ability to view the brilliance of Nick Hytner and his team. So much more can be done with this form, and I’m sure in time those avenues will be explored. For now, however, I am more than content with being able to watch some of the greatest actors in the world on the big screen and at a cheap price. I, for one, can’t wait until next time.