Tag Archives: Young Vic

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“Sizwe Banzi Is Dead”

at the Young Vic Theatre, Thursday 13th February 2014

*Originally written for Exeunt*

Sizwe Banzi Is Dead was written collaboratively by Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona, and in performance the text itself was often improvised by Kani and Ntshona, meaning the running time would vary from night to night. For the three collaborators, it was clearly a very personal and personalised piece of work. How, then, do a different trio tackle the play in a different context, over forty years after it was first staged? And what does this piece have to say to us in 2014?

Director Matthew Xia first creates a ‘false’ context by separating the audience into “whites” and “non-whites”, forcing us through different entrances so that we must sit apart from one another in the theatre itself. Continue reading

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“Happy Days”, or, The Irrational Optimist

In an attempt to explore Matt Trueman’s ruminations on criticism as a “team sport”, I’ve decided to try and experiment with focussing on particular aspects of certain productions. Following my first go at this considering space in The Commitments, this short essay hopes to consider the role of optimism in Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days, which has just been revived at the Young Vic. 

“The world has never been a better place to live in,” writes Matt Ridley in his 2010 work The Rational Optimist, “and it will keep on getting better.” The general mood of pessimism in the modern world, he suggests, is founded on misused statistics and a pervasive desire to see the worst in people. We should, Ridley argues, be looking to the progress which is being made and the rise in the number of people who count themselves as “happy”. It’s a deeply flawed piece of work, taking a wholly Western-centric view of the world, doctoring statistics to make a point and generally making the wealthy feel less guilty. It’s the use of the word ‘rational’ which is interesting, however, suggesting that were we being reasonable and logical, we would in fact be optimistic. He applies the same process as, say, Stephen Emmott in 10 Billion, even though they both come to entirely different conclusions. There’s a desire to cater for those who want hard facts and reason, but what about irrationality? Continue reading

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“Beauty and the Beast”

at the Young Vic, Monday 9th December 2013

*Originally written for Exeunt*

After a brief introduction, Beauty and the Beast begins as simple, innocent storytelling told through the use of an overhead projector and cardboard cut-outs. It transports us back to our childhood, to the tales we used to recount sat in circles at school. The story is familiar, even in its de-Disneyfied state. As in real life, however, storytelling turns to game-playing and subsequently loses fictional pretence, as ONEOFUS and Improbable give us a fiercely intelligent, highly ‘adult’ deconstruction of a classic fairytale. We’d love to keep the innocence of childhood, but my god debauchery is so much sexier.

The structure is one we’re used to by now – a story is re-enacted on-stage (in this case a Grimm-inspired, ageing set designed by Philip Eddols) by actors who sometimes come ‘out of character’ to give us information or tell us a story (“You said we were doing Proper Theatre!”). Continue reading

“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.

Pinterest board here: http://pinterest.com/danhutton/a-doll-s-house-by-henrik-ibsen/

“Government Inspector” by Nikolai Gogol

in a new version by David Harrower

at Warwick Arts Centre, Wednesday 25th May 2011

No play is utterly cohesive. There should always be discrepancies and arguments in theatre, asking questions and provoking thought. Sometimes, however, a lack of cohesiveness can come across as lack of thought. Richard Jones’ new production of Government Inspector tries to comment on the confusing structure of the text, but bizarre surrealism and cheap performances make it seem simply incongruous.

Gogol’s famous text is shown here to be no more than a country farce. An ambitious mayor does everything he can to appease a lodger in town who is supposed to be a government inspector. Vast quantities of roubles are exchanged and many lies told about the local amenities. Eventually, however, the townspeople discover he’s not an inspector at all, and that their time and energy has been wasted. It’s funny enough, but so many of the jokes in this production are found in base humour and jokes played without any truth.

David Harrower’s new version isn’t up to much, either. It isn’t a creative reworking, at times sounding like a word-for-word translation with a few updated idioms. A few good lines are lost among the rabble on stage and it plods along at either a snail’s pace or at the speed of light.

We are treated to a few good performances. Doon Mackichan as the Mayor’s Wife, Anna, is disarmingly naive, and Bruce MacKinnon as the town judge represents a provincial quality recognisable to us in Britain. As the ‘inspector’ Khlestakov, Kyle Soller gives a star turn with wild energy and disconcerting eyes. The name selling all the tickets, however, is far less impressive. In the role of Mayor, Julian Barratt is out of his depth. We get no sense of this official’s corruption, and he bumbles through his lines at such speed that the jokes plod without being allowed sufficient build-up; you expect more from an acclaimed comic performer. The other performances aren’t really worth mentioning; the rest of the bodies filling the stage are not much more than filler, without characterisation and with the apparent belief that they are acting in a pantomime.

The main fault of this production, however, lies in Richard Jones’ sloppy direction. Miriam Buether’s set suggests a Soviet-era setting, but there is absolutely no references to this at all in either costume or text. Surreal projections of the word “Incognito” appear in every scene change to the sound of UFO noises, black rats appear in the Mayor’s mind and sound effects by David Sawer drift from unknown places. Due to the differences in tone, performance and set, it is never clear what Jones is doing; if he’s trying to make a point about the messed up world of Gogol’s play, it doesn’t come through clearly enough. Mimi Jordan Smith’s green-wash lighting adds to the confusion, and Nicky Gillibrand’s costumes look like they’ve been sourced from an am-dram dressing-up cupboard.

There are a few genuinely hilarious moments in this production, but among the mess on stage it’s hard to pick them out. One recurring motif, the repetition of lines at the end of a scene, represents how many of the gags work; funny at first, but pushed to the extreme where they fall flat on their face. Perhaps this production will improve when it transfers to the Young Vic in early June, but as it stands at the moment it’s a wildly confused and rather flacid production which is in dire need of some cohesiveness.