“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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“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