“Beauty dead, black Chaos comes again”

Venus and Adonis, line 1020

William Shakespeare

What is it about Ibsen that inspires the most beautiful lighting design? Ghosts was gorgeous, Little Eyolf, for all its flaws, was beautiful, and now Ivo van Hove’s new Hedda Gabler is suffused with the most stunning sunlight, streaming in from one huge wall-window in the stylish white set.blog-6 Maybe it’s the claustrophobia of being trapped inside, away from nature, if I get all English nerd about it. Whatever it is, I’m in favour. The streamlined design of Hedda’s apartment, filling the entire expansive stage of the Lyttleton at the National, makes the ensuing chaos all the more shocking.

I feel like I should warn; this is the very first Hedda I’ve ever seen, so I can’t really compare Patrick Marber‘s translation to any thing else. I did think his classic mix of beautiful and brutal language worked well, was easy on the ear and yet heightened.  I also can’t do one of those extended comparisons with great Heddas of years and theatres gone by. blogRuth Wilson, however, seems to me someone whose performance everyone will appreciate. With the same passionate cruelty she shows as Alice in Luther, her Hedda is by turns raging, witty, seductive, wretched, and elated, but always always utterly mesmerising. The beauty of allowing the whole stage to be just one, largely empty, set is the really the beauty of theatre; you can let your eye wander all over the stage. You don’t have to focus on the person talking all the time, and with Wilson in the background, you can indulge this temptation to the max.
There’s always something interesting to look at. I have to say, I’m intrigued to see how this will work out in the National Theatre Live screening in the new year. Let’s hope they don’t direct our gazes too much, because that would really ruin part of the beauty of this production.

The cast supporting Wilson do not quite match her, but this is no surprise. It feels like they are taking a step back on purpose to let her shine, rather than competing for attention.blog-4 The play is named after her character after all! Rafe Spall grows increasingly threatening as Brack as the play continues, and his final scene with Wilson is classic van Hove menace. Not give anything away – but think blood and lots of it. Not quite the bucket loads like at the end of A View from the Bridge, but a fair amount. Not to sound too much like Anna Mann, but “it was visceral, it was real, it was true”. And for once I mean that non-ironically.

Against the almost sadistic cruelty of these two characters, Kyle Soller as Hedda’s husband Tesman and Sinéad Matthews as school acquaintance Mrs Elvsted bring some much needed sweetness to the stage.
Just like the set, what this production understands is that it is the light which draws attention to the dark, and this is what these supporting characters provide. I was pleasantly surprised with the independence of Mrs Elvsted; she was like a Nora liberated from her Doll’s House. Matthews’ husky voice worked well in the role, although sometimes (very rarely) it became rather too pathetically plaintive for my liking.blog-5  Soller, meanwhile, bounded about the stage, his face showing every high and every low as the emotions hit him, his childish enthusiasm for slippers and tears for his ill aunt contrasting completely with Wilson’s gleeful cruelty. As his rival Lovborg, Chukwudi Iwuji was similarly impassioned, and Éva Magyar was inscrutable as the constantly present and constantly ignored maid Berte.

This is a production of force and passion and energy, revolving around Wilson’s captivating performance. Hedda may not be someone I’m able to understand, but she is certainly someone I’m totally intrigued by. blog-3From the moment you walk into the auditorium, Wilson is there, head down, centre-stage piano, playing the same few notes over and over again. Her ennui is evident; and the repetition lulls us into the same mood, desperate for a proper melody, some proper action. Speaking of, the soundtrack to this production is great, the piano refrain returning transformed into a full song, plus excerpts of better known tunes. But really it is the set that sums up the production for me; a site of beautiful chaos, it provides a simply white background where dark and dirt can shock us even more.

Hedda Gabler at the National Theatre: 4.5/5 stars

P.S. Shock horror I just realised I used the quote in my last post “I would not be queen for all the world” on a review before! Rest assured this will (hopefully) not be happening again for a while. Blame Shakespeare for not writing enough sentences with ‘queen’ in them…

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“Wife and child / Those precious motives, those strong knots of love.”

Macbeth, Act 4, Scene 3

William Shakespeare

Little Eyolf is an Ibsen play I’ve never actually heard of before, but the five stars I gave director Richard Eyre’s previous Ibsen production at the Almeida Theatre, Ghosts, meant I expected much from the same writer-director-theatre combo.

Indeed, many elements of the production are very similar. blog 5In the script there’s the classic themes of family, claustrophobia, marriage, women and, oh yeah, a love bordering on incest. Not sure I really want to know why Ibsen was quite so preoccupied with this theme… but I think it’s best to move on quite quickly. The set design, meanwhile, is also similar in its use of a single unchanging room and a dramatic sky in the background. As the show begins, we are greeted by a cool, spacious, pale wooden patio, a lower path behind, and dramatic, changing sky behind. A glowing sun rose from behind craggy mountains, and then was speedily covered by darkening clouds. Light, as in Ghosts, is used by Eyre, designer Tim Hatley, and lighting designer Peter Mumford to dramatise the domestic.

To summarise for those who, like me, had no idea what the plot of Little Eyolf is about; Alfred Allmers (Jolyon Coy) returns to his wife Rita (Lydia Leonard), sister Asta (Eve Posonby) and disabled young son Eyolf (Billy Marlow) from a trip away in the mountains, having experienced an epiphany; Eyolf is the most important thing in his life, and he will stop working, stop writing, in order to spend more time with the boy. But if you’re thinking “wow, this sounds ideal, what a great father” thenblog 1 think again. The tension between Rita and Asta, and Alfred and Rita, is palpable from the very beginning, and Alfred’s decision, followed by devastating tragedy, serves as a catalyst, letting all the bitter heated friction come pouring out in floods.

Now, I personally don’t think that this is one of Ibsen’s greatest plays, but it still has some striking themes. However, Coy as Alfred Allmers really let this production down. If you look back at my reviews, I’m not generally one to criticise actors – perhaps because of my sense of the director’s ultimate power, perhaps because the acting standard is so high nowadays, perhaps because I’m a softy.

But this stilted and proclamatory performance was flawed enough that all three of my companions commented on it immediately after the drama ended. blog 3The was Coy played Alfred as this buttoned-up man suddenly dealing with unexpected emotion made no sense when you thought even a little bit about the character’s backstory; Eyre must also be partly to blame here.

Luckily for Eyre, Coy, and us, the two female leads are excellent, and the strength of the production lies predominantly on their capable shoulders. Leonard plays Rita with unspeakable bitterness, and yet her unmotherly emotions, usually an instant cause for condemnation of a character, are expressed with such passion and conviction that, whilst we may not empathise, we can certainly sympathise with her suffering. Posonby, meanwhile, plays a far more sympathetic character and skilfully is able to make the ‘goodness’ of Aster still interesting; the little sister of Alfred, devoted to him, and Rita, and Eyolf, she could so easily be bland or take second place to the fascination of Rita, and yet it was Posonby my eyes were constantly drawn to, even when she had no lines.blog 4

The supporting actors have little to play with really, but the actors did well with what they were given; Sam Hazeldine is likeable as Bjarne but overshadowed by Eileen Walsh’s magnificent Rat Woman, complete with heavy Irish brogue, handbag chihuahua and blackened teeth. Billy Marlow as the eponymous Eyolf was one of the cutest children I have ever seen onstage, and played his surprisingly minor role with piping clarity.

blog 2This production, then, stars several superb performances from the female actors, and a slick stage design, but is let down by both by the script itself, which seems to me doesn’t explore all the issues it raises properly, and by its stiff leading man. Worth going to see for the issues and for Leonard and Posonby’s performances, but not near the standard of the Almeida’s recent productions (Ghosts, Oresteia, Medea).

Little Eyolf at the Almeida Theatre: 2.5/5 stars

“The wheel is come full circle, I am here.”

King Lear, Act 5, Scene 3

William Shakespeare

Yet another amazing transfer from the Almeida Theatre to the West End. ‘Ghosts’, starring Lesley Manville and currently playing at the Trafalgar Studios, is a must-see.Ghosts poster

A quick blurb (cheekily copied from the website!): Helene Alving has spent her life suspended in an emotional void after the death of her cruel but outwardly charming husband. She is determined to escape the ghosts of her past by telling her son, Oswald, the truth about his father. But on his return from his life as a painter in France, Oswald reveals how he has already inherited the legacy of Alving’s dissolute life.

Ibsen‘s claustrophobic classic is performed in an uninterrupted 90 minute stretch; as the tension rises to fever pitch, and the characters get more and more distressed, the climactic ending leaves the audience in shock – one can only imagine how Manville deals with the aftermath every evening. The tears were still rolling down her cheeks and she could barely muster a smile as she bowed to the loud and heartfelt applause with the rest of the five-strong cast.

ghosts mother and sonHowever, whilst naturally Helene is probably the most demanding part, going through such emotional turmoil as she does, the rest of the cast also have a lot of the play to bear on their shoulders. Jack Lowden as Oswald gives a very impressive performance of a son trying desperately to pretend to himself and others around him that all is well whilst concealing a soul-destroying secret. (A small, incredibly shallow, side note – my friend Megan and I were particularly dazzled by Lowden’s ability to pop champagne corks so smoothly he could have been a bartender. Now that is skill.) Charlene McKenna was likewise sincere and also comedically tragic in her role as Regina, the maidservant who is infatuated with Oswald, but who doesn’t know the darkness the lurks in her past and threatens her future happiness. Her ‘father’, Jacob (Brian McCardie) shows himself over the course of the play to be so much more Christian and kind than the pastor, Manders (Will Keen) who is just the most hypocritical, pathetic man there ever was.

The actors really show Ibsen’s unusual (at the time of writing) sympathy for women and the lower classes; like in ‘A Doll’s House (which you can see my review of here), the wealthy, powerful man is shown to be much weaker than the women who sacrifice their lives and happiness for them and get little, or nothing, in return. It is a play of thwarted human potential, in each and every character. As you can imagine, it is a play ahead of it’s time, dealing with feminism, sexual morals, arranged marriage, incest, sexual disease and, finally, euthanasia, as the play ends with Helene having to make one of the most agonising choices a person, and particularly a mother, could ever have to make. Not to give it away or anything. (Although, if anyone has already seen the play, I’d be interested to here what you thought she was going to do; would she have gone through with it? Personally I think yes, though others I’ve spoken to thought the exact opposite – probably something to do with age and experience.)ghosts finale The finale was one of the most spectacular things about the play; as the stage was flooded in violent, passionate reds and oranges, and Oswald’s pitying cries combined with his mother’s desperate sobbing.

The set was perfect, in my opinion – closed and claustrophobic, isolated and dark, with the rain hammering down outside, it’s easy to see why this sombre and depressing atmosphere would affect its residents. The audience are fully drawn into the enclosed world through this setting, and the expert and extraordinarily intensive acting which is only heightened by the close proximity of the audience to the action. The translucent wall behind the main part of the stage allowed us a view of what goes on behind closed doors and cleverly evoked the eponymous ghosts that haunt Helene. ghosts lesleyMy only small problem was a tendency to melodrama, especially on Helene’s part, though this was more a fault with the script than the acting. And perhaps I’m just cold-hearted, unsympathetic and overly-critical…

Although, saying that, I’m still going to give this production maximum marks; tense, thoughtful, dramatic and superbly acted, it well deserves its West End-transfer. Go and see it if you possibly can.

Ghosts at Trafalgar Studios (Transfer from The Almeida) – 5/5 Stars