“It is a wise father that knows his own child”

The Merchant of Venice, Act 2, Scene 2

William Shakespeare

Another day, another RSC production. But this time not actual Shakespeare! In fact, not anything Elizabethan/Jacobean, but instead, an Arthur Miller classic, Death of a Salesman,blog starring Harriet Walters, Antony Sher and Alex Hassell (the latter two of whom were last seen in Henry IV parts 1 & 2). This production certainly lives up to the reputation of the famous play, and this is almost entirely due to the power and energy of the acting – in particular that of the three leads plus Sam Marks as Happy.

So this is the low down for those of you who don’t know the plot; Willy Loman (Sher) comes back from a failed business trip late at night to his Brooklyn house in 1949. He is greeted by his wife, Linda (Walters), whilst his two grown-up sons, Biff (Hassell) and Happy listen from their old bedroom. blog 2It transpires that Willy is on the verge of retirement, and that, as Linda puts it, “he’s dying” (not even a spoiler, because the clue is in the name). The whole story takes place over about 24 hours, although the time covered is much greater; Willy’s mind constantly darts back between the present, memories of a happier past, and hopes for the future so great that they become more real than reality to him.

One of the most famous techniques, in fact, is the mixture of social critique and psychological flashbacks, and this was done reliably well by director Gregory Doran, through the use of lighting changes,blog 4 where the translucent screens of terraced apartments faded into dappled green leaves. I was wondering if these screens were made this way to represent the fragility of city life and indeed the fragility of the life constructed by lies that Willy has created for himself and his family.

Walters for me was the stand-out performer of this production; although Sher had amazing variety and strength even whilst Willy was losing all of his, blog 3Walters’ speech at the end was easily the most moving part of the play. Hassell was also very impressive in playing both the confident younger boy and the tortured lost man – having seen both this and Prince Hal, I’m really looking forward to (hopefully) seeing his Henry V this winter. Marks provided some much needed comic relief at moments with his switch between Happy’s family self and his womaniser self, whilst also giving the role the necessary depth.

To be honest with you, I can’t find a fault with this production; but I can’t quite give it full marks. The acting was superb, the music was fitting and the set was well-done, but I felt like a lot of it was simply another classic production of another classic play. Unlike the Old Vic‘s The Crucible last year, there just wasn’t that wow factor, for me anyway. That being said, this is worth going to see simply for Walters’ poignant speech at the end; it’ll give you shivers.

Death of a Salesman at Noel Coward Theatre: 4.5/5 stars

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“Yet who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?”

Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 1

William Shakespeare

I’ve been wanting to see the Young Vic’s A View From The Bridge blog 3ever since my theatre-loving mum and more apathetic brother went to see it late last year and loved it. On Thursday I finally got to see the much-lauded production of Arthur Miller’s famous play in its new West End home of Wyndham’s Theatre – the same night that NT Live was broadcasting, although happily this made no impact on our experience at all (in case you’re wondering whether to book for a broadcast night).

A quick synopsis: Eddie Carbone (a caring, strong Longshoreman) lives in Brooklyn with his wife Bea and their orphaned niece Catherine, who’s 18 but still acts around Eddie like she’s twelve. There is clear unresolved sexual tension between Eddie and Catherine, but the family still seems to function reasonably well. Crisis is brought about when Bea’s cousins arrive, smuggled abroad from Italy to provide for their starving family, and have to live with the Carbones to avoid being discovered as illegal immigrants. Catherine and the younger cousin, Rodolpho, fall in love, leaving Eddie outraged that this singing, cooking, blonde, dressmaking boy could steal away his niece for what he thinks are the wrong reasons. I won’t give away the ending, but things only escalate from here…

blog 2           Mark Strong (famous for being the evil guy in tons of movies, like Kick Ass, and the spymaster in The Imitation Game) plays the lead role, Eddie, here with great quiet strength, which slowly gets more and more menacing as the two-hour play goes on. When I first heard there was no interval I was a little nervous; I tend to think anything over about 100 minutes should really have a break – if only to prevent your bum getting numb! However, the director Ivo van Hove gets away with it this time. The play absolutely would have suffered from a break in the tension, and really the only reason I sometimes wanted a break was because the seats, as theatre seats often are, were not the comfiest of chairs.

Strong is really the centre of this piece, exuding a silent energy even when not actually speaking. As the ‘villain’ of the piece, I suppose, he manages to show what Miller often demonstrates in his plays – the understandable reasons behind his eventual descent, making the audience sympathise with him, whilst also being conscious of how wrong his feelings and decisions are.  However, that’s not to say the other actors don’t hold their own next to him. Phoebe Fox, in the difficult role of Catherine, strikes a good balance between innocence and maturity, between girl and women – and it’s interesting that she played Cordelia in the Almeida’s King Lear (review here), another production in which the father figure sexualised the daughter in a disturbing way.blog I appreciated Fox making it clear that Catherine didn’t really realise the effect her clingy actions were having on Eddie and Bea and their relationship, because otherwise she can seem a manipulative character, and the key thing in this play is that there is really no categorically ‘evil’ or ‘bad’ character.

Even America and Italy, compared so often they become almost like characters, show this duality; America is where the Italians come for vital work, whilst in Sicily their family is starving to death, and yet an impassioned speech, powerfully delivered by Luke Norris as Rodolpho, shows that it really isn’t that one-sided. Italy for the immigrants has everything America has, everything except work, and they can’t understand a legal system in the US that forces family honour to go undefended. I loved the way Emun Elliott showed this contrast in the character of Mario – really the most likeable character in the play (for me at least!), together with Nicola Walker’s torn Bea.

I felt like, although Michael Gould did a fine job as the narrator of the tale, the lawyer Alfieri, I didn’t completely see his relevance to the story, except perhaps to help the audience along and to provide a voice of reason? I don’t know, it just seemed odd that he was onstage most of the time, a silent presence watching on with us. It probably would have felt weirder, though, if he’d just appeared to quickly foresee terrible consequences and then vanished. Hmmm… I don’t know the script so not sure how I would have directed it, but I just didn’t really get his character.

A scene from A View from the Bridge              The set also left me confused – good confused, but confused nonetheless. A quick summary – a rectangle onstage, with audience seated either side, as well as in the auditorium. At first it appeared to be a black box, but then the sides and roof lifted off, and a white floor was revealed, edged with black and transparent rectangular seating (if that makes sense).  All the actors wore bare feet on this floor throughout, and only Alfieri ever moved outside of the box space. It was so beautifully streamlined and clean and so pleasing to the eye, and yet… for me it seemed like the clutter and claustrophobia of a small Brooklyn house is surely a key reason behind the painful tension between the relatives, and, although there was a brilliant scene with intensely strained pauses between each individual line, sometimes this chaos and resulting tension was missing for me, and that was a result of the clean, boxy set (whereas in the Young Vic’s A Streetcar Named Desire review here – the claustrophobia and lack of privacy came across much more clearly). Perhaps the space seemed much smaller closer up – Wyndham’s is a very different theatre to the Young Vic, so it’s hard to see the original intentions sometimes.

However, the final dramatic piece of setting was absolutely awe-inspiring. *SPOILER ALERT* blog 4The actors, tightly huddled in together like two rugby teams were suddenly, dramatically showered with pints and pints of blood or red rain, soaking through their hair, costumes, pooling across the stage, turning from dark pink to scarlet to almost blue, there was so much. As Strong crawled painfully across the floor, the blood would move with him, creating colours that were gone in a second. I have to say, apart from being very dramatic, it also looked so much fun. I’d love to have a go in that.

This ending brings an intense and tightly focused play to a striking conclusion. The cast are adept at bringing out the complexities in Miller’s multifaceted characters, and the set – whilst not perhaps how I would stage it – is still very impressive. However, it is Strong who is absolutely the main reason to see this production, with a powerful performance as “purely” Eddie.

A View From The Bridge at Wyndham’s Theatre (transfer from Young Vic): 4/5 stars

“‘Aroynt thee, witch!’ the rump-fed ronyon cries”

Macbeth, Act 1, Scene 3

William Shakespeare

You must have seen the insane amount five star reviews for the new production of Arthur Miller’s ‘The Crucibleblog’ now playing at the Old Vic Theatre. Starring Richard Armitage (Spooks, The Hobbit Trilogy) and directed by Yaël Farber, for those of you who don’t know, The Crucible tells the story of the Salem Witch Trials. At the time of writing, it was meant to be a massive critique of McCarthyism, which itself was like a witch-hunt, from which you either confessed or were executed/exiled.

Never in my life have I been so gripped and personally invested in a plot; I’m surprised I have any nails left at all; my hands were raking through my hair almost continually; I even actually spoke (whispering under my breath of course, this is a theatre after all!) out loud, I was that into the drama. I had thought I knew the story before… Turns out I only remembered the first act, meaning the whole of the incredibly suspenseful second half was a complete surprise.

I have also never wanted to kill quite so many characters as in this play; Abigail Williams (Samantha Colley) is a shrieking banshee, accusing blog 3practically the whole town of being a ‘consort of the devil’ in an effort of divert suspicion from herself and take personal vengeance on farmer John Proctor (Armitage) and his honest, upstanding wife, Elizabeth (a poised, dignified Anna Madeley, who was also the Governess in ‘The Turn of the Screw’ last year). Abigail and John had a brief, passionate fling a year earlier, during Elizabeth’s long illness, and Abigail was summarily dismissed and kicked out of the house. Now she, and the other ‘children’ (teenage girls) in the village, are using their new-found power, which no one can truly disprove, to accuse everyone and anyone they choose of witchcraft.

However, this is not only a tale of private revenge, but also one of the conflict between the individual and the state. Despite some of the most religious and virtuous women in the town being accused, no one will believe John Proctor or his easily swayed, hysterical servant, Mary Warren (Natalie Gavin) that theblog 2 girls’ ‘fits’ are fraudulent pretence. The most distressing thing for me was that you could see the authority figures, like Deputy Governer Danforth (an excellent Jack Ellis) and Reverend John Hale (an equally brilliant Adrian Schiller), genuinely thought they were doing God and the Law’s work; that they were being just and logical, even though they’d basically chucked logic out the window.

The cast overall are completely incredible. One of my favourites was William Gaunt as Giles Corey, the ‘old man’ who initially brings some comic relief, but later reveals himself to be smart, determined and indomitable.
Armitage himself was fantastic as the complex hero of the piece; brooding and troubles blog 4but genuinely shameful for his ‘lechery’ and truly loving of his wife and family. I loved the way Elizabeth had her hair hidden by a scarf for almost the whole piece, making her seem somewhat cold and less human, but that it was finally taken off at the very end; she both revealed her vulnerability and her humanity in her love and understanding for her husband. The other girls also wore headscarves which would fall off when they showed their personalities during fits of rage or ‘spiritualism’ – this was a really nice touch, and, I thought, suggested an uncontrollable animalistic nature hidden underneath society’s restraint. The ‘good’ women of the play never removed their scarves (excepting, of course, Elizabeth), as though they had entirely controlled this spirit inside themselves. The ending of the piece was poignant; Proctor could finally call himself a ‘good man’… but at a price. It was especially moving because it became clear the ‘authority figures’ didn’t really want to see anyone die, but couldn’t stop the course they themselves had set without losing face.
The girls in the ensemble also deserve special mentions; their supposed ‘fits’ could easily have slipped to the side of ridiculous, but they were instead deeply disturbing.

With sparse wooden furniture, menacing music and mist, the staging also contributed massively to the ominous atmosphere. blogI really like the whole ‘In-the-round’ thing the Old Vic’s got going on, even though, being high up, it didn’t have that big of an impact on me personally. All the different access points really make the action more dynamic, and Farber makes full use of every inch of the stage. This production is over three hours long (even longer than most Shakespeare!); the actors take their time on the stage, allowing us insight into their daily life, their rituals… The silent presence of actors helping to removing and adding furniture between scenes felt almost threatening at times, and also served the emphasise the isolation of a character once they all left. The lighting was clever too, placed below when it was an attic setting, above in the farmhouse, growing colder and warmer as the tension changed.

I think you can already tell, this is a fabulous production of a great play. Despite its length, I wasn’t bored for a second. One cannot help but be gripped by the uncontrollable chaos that sweeps the town of Salem and its residents. Both the acting and staging are superb, heightening the tension to an almost unbearable pitch, with the tragic ending leaving you wanting more. If you can possibly get tickets, I urge you to go! You will not be disappointed.

The Crucible at the Old Vic Theatre: 5/5 stars