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

“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.

2010 Theatre Round-Up

The last twelve months have been pretty manic for everyone. Trying to battle our way through the recession, a general election, subsequent cuts and countless natural disasters has tested the best of us. Personally, this year has been especially busy, culminating in a move to university. It’s also been a pretty big year for me theatrically, being lucky enough to direct The Winter’s Tale, start writing my first play and winning the Harold Hobson Award at the National Student Drama Festival, giving me the impetus to start this blog and review on a regular basis. Since April I’ve reviewed each of the forty productions I’ve seen and the ones watched in the period before that bring my total number this year to sixty-four. So in true end-of-year style, here’s my round-up of theatre for 2010.

For me, the year started with a show of how brilliant our two major subsidised theatre companies are. Kicking off was Every Good Boy Deserves Favour at the National, followed by the RSC’s Twelfth Night at the Duke of York’s. The former was a beautiful insight into how music can be a key to the soul, while the latter showcased the comic genius of the Bard of Avon with ease. The following few months also unleashed Pat McCabe’s intensely paced and insightful The Dead School at the Tricycle and the chilling Ghost Stories at the Lyric Hammersmith, written with wit by Jeremy Dyson and Andy Nyman.

Every year for a week in March the entire population of theatre students up and down the country camps out in Scarborough for the National Student Drama Festival. This was my second outing to the event, and although the general calibre seemed to have waned somewhat from the previous year, a handful of the shows on offer far surpassed anything from 2009. 4 Bar and Rising showed the pains each of us go through on a daily basis and was almost Beckettian in its style, while promenade production The Whitehouse Institute was a hilarious indictment on the nature of modern art and protest. Excellent productions of both Sarah Kane’s Phaedra’s Love and Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman were also on offer, but the stand out production was Warwick University’s take on Marina Carr’s By The Bog Of Cats (no bias here – promise!).

On the same subject, being now based in Warwick I’ve been fortunate enough to see a lot of the touring companies making their way through the regions. Kneehigh have as always been making their mark, exhibiting their dark takes on The Red Shoes and Hansel and Gretel, once again teaching the rest of us a lesson in how storytelling should be done. Simon Stephens’ extraordinary account of teenage life Punk Rock also found its way to the midlands, as did Propeller’s macabre and bloody interpretation of Richard III. Less impressive were Forced Entertainment’s The Thrill of it All and Cupola Bobber’s Way Out West, The Sea Whispered Me, both of which proved that simply being silly on stage is never enough to make a good piece of theatre, even if you are ostensibly making some semi-prophetic point on existentialism.

A vast amount of new work has been on offer this year, and as always the Royal Court have spearheaded the campaign to get more playwrights in work. 2010 marked my first visit to the Royal Court, being treated to Laura Wade’s cutting and perfectly timed Posh, perhaps the most bitingly satirical play on our stages this year. Dominic Cooke et al also had a stonker of a hit on their hands with Clybourne Park, Bruce Norris’ pant-wettingly funny consideration of property and racism, considering also the nature of offense, including star turns by Sophie Thompson, Steffan Rhodri and Martin Freeman. It receives a welcome West End transfer next year. I also managed to see the Royal Court’s two hits from last year, Jerusalem and Enron, before they closed and changed cast respectively, and both more than lived up to the hype.

It seems this year has been the year of the epic play, specifically at the National Theatre, which has seen a multitude of productions spanning vast quantities of space and/or time in a few hours’ stage time. Mikhail Bulgakov’s The White Guard set the tone in April, and under Howard Davies’ superb direction we saw a country in turmoil, savaged by war. Unfortunately, I was unable to see Davies’ acclaimed production of All My Sons, but managed to get myself along to the Lyttelton again for his take on JT Rogers’ Blood And Gifts, another sprawling play considering the rights and wrongs of trust and loyalty in war. These plays alone show Davies to be the director of the year, although he is closely followed by Rupert Goold, who just about managed to tame Mike Bartlett’s messy, and again epic, Earthquakes In London into something extremely watchable. The hilarious London Assurance and stirring Welcome to Thebes also seemed somewhat epic in their scope, one crossing from city to country and the other showing a Greek tragedy in an African setting. Another hit for the National was Terrence Rattigan’s After The Dance, exhibiting some of the best acting of the year in Benedict Cumberbatch and Nancy Carroll under the skillful direction of Thea Sharrock.

But while we had hugely ambitious plays at the National, we were not hard-pushed to find more minimalist productions elsewhere. At the Arcola, Thomas Bernard’s Heldenplatz explored the idea of anti-Semitism in Germany fifty years after the Holocaust, and Breathing Irregular at the Gate simply used dance and voice-over to tell stories of 999 phone-calls. Even larger theatres such as Milton Keynes saw smaller-scale productions such as the beautifully understated productions of Bennett’s Enjoy and The History Boys. The National also got in on the act, acquiring from the Royal and Derngate Laurie Sansom’s exquisite revival of Tennessee Williams’ Spring Storm, and we even saw plays such as Tim Crouch’s The Author without any set whatsoever which challenged our very thinking of what a play ought to be.

It’s been a pretty good year for Shakespeare as well. Although Lucy Bailey’s production of Macbeth at Shakespeare’s Globe lacked much weight in terms of the performances it offered, only a few months later Dominic Dromgoole brought us his superb productions of Henry IV Parts One and Two with Roger Allam in the role of Falstaff proving himself to be one of our great stage actors. At the National in September, however, Rory Kinnear gave Allam a run for his money in the race for actor of the year when he played the most sought-after of all roles, the Danish Prince Hamlet. Once again, however, it’s the Royal Shakespeare Company who have come out as the leaders in producing Shakespeare, continuing with the ensemble we have all come to know and love from last year. Beginning with David Farr’s warehouse-bound King Lear, moving from Boyd’s accomplished but somewhat lacking Antony and Cleopatra to Goold’s astonishing Romeo and Juliet and bringing back into the repertoire Julius Caesar, As You Like It and The Winter’s Tale from 2009 all while completing and opening the new theatre, the RSC has had a bumper year. Not to mention the success it’s had with new works Dunsinane, The God’s Weep and, most recently, the joyous Matilda, A Musical.

All in all it’s been an impressive year for British theatre, especially in the face of outrageous cuts from the new government. For yet another year we’ve seen the potential of the subsidised sector to create far better theatre than the commercial sector. Granted, companies such as the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company are subject to bureaucracy and aren’t without their faults but we see time and time again their ability to offer us unforgettable theatrical experiences. 2010 has been fairly understated in comparison to previous years, being void of any major celebrity-centred hype which we saw with David Tennant’s Hamlet and Stewart & McKellen’s Waiting For Godot, proving that the theatre sector is capable of making hits without too much media invasion. It would be lovely to say we can get used to it, but sadly in a few years time we will no doubt look back on this year as the last in a Golden Age of British theatre.

And on that depressing note, it leaves me to wish you a happy New Year. Thank you for sticking with me over the past twelve months. See you in 2011.

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.