“I would not be a queen for all the world”

Henry VIII, Act 2, Scene 3

William Shakespeare

Getting to see not one, but two, great, older actresses live is never less than a treat. Add the intense theatricality of these actresses switching roles on the flip (well, spin) of a coin, and you have a stagey must-see. The Almeida was already onto a winner when they cast Juliet Stevenson and Lia Williams in the same play. Luckily the actors are not let down by either the production or the script of Robert Icke’s new adaptation of Friedrich Schiller’s Mary Stuart – and the coin toss turns out to be far more than a gimmick.21995_show_portrait_large

For here, the two Queens, Elizabeth I and Mary Stuart (aka Mary, Queen of Scots), are two sides of the same coin. The former a Protestant and a calculating politician, the latter a Catholic and a fervent lover, their differences are evident. Yet the dual casting highlights their similarities on top of this. Both raised to rule, with a huge sense of entitlement, they were also both imprisoned for long stretches of time by their own family members. The set emphasises this sense of entrapment, with the audience almost surrounding a circular, boxing ring-esque stage. Even though it is Mary who is jailed in this play, as Elizabeth paces about the small space it is clear that she, too, is confined in her role.

One of the most striking scenes for me occurred towards the end, the stage revolving as Mary (Stevenson, when I saw it) was preparing for her execution, Elizabeth (Williams) to face her people. Whilst the Stuart, gowned in a simblog-5ple nightdress, was surrounded by women and taking Holy Communion, the Tudor was forced into full Elizabethan dress, complete with ruff, huge hoop, dead white face-paint and bejewelled wig, assisted only by men. The rest of the production is entirely in modern dress, making this transformation even more powerful. Before, Elizabeth’s velvet pantsuit makes her fit in with her male courtiers; we can see her as a modern female politician, and therefore her harshness and vanity are less excusable. The period costume reminds the audience of just how difficult it was to be a woman in general at the time, and particularly a woman in power. What the production gets crucially right is emphasising the complexities of these characters, retaining a balance so that, for me at least, it was virtually impossible to decide who to agree with.

With one thousand, two hundred and nineteen lines between the two main roles, learning the script alone is an accomplishment for Stevenson and Williams. In the parts I saw them play, I couldn’t fault them; Stevenson was a fiery, incensed Mary, even as Williams was haughty and turbulent Elizabeth. I’d love to see them the other way round to see how much their portrayals differ – although of course the coin-spinning element means there are no guarantees!

The rest of the cast varies. John Light is incredibly intense as the blog-4cowardly, flatterer Leicester, making his weak characteristics clear whilst also showing enough passion to make it clear why both Queens fall for him. Vincent Franklin, too, is powerful as the hard-line judiciary, Burleigh, with David Jonsson, Carmen Monroe and Sule Rimi all putting in strong performances. However, there were a couple of roles that became rather proclamatory. Rudi Dharmalingam as the young rebel Mortimer, was particularly guilty of this, the words becoming quotation-marked ‘speeches’ rather than spontaneous dialogue.

Saying this, even though this production is a lengthy one – over three hours long, including the interval – it is a tribute to the cast and crew that it doesn’t actually feel that long. When my dad and I saw the first act alone was an hour and fifty minutes, we groaned out loud. Weirdly, though, the first half breezed by; it’s the second half that starts to drag. blogIt’s the trouble with a play about real history. Most of us know Mary’s going to die at the end, so her many farewell speeches to countless admirers and handmaidens who only appear at this point begin to feel more like hindrances to action, than particularly stimulating in themselves. Just hurry up and die already!

The production is classically Almeida/Icke, especially the sound design, with almost imperceptible underlying notes subtly creating a tense atmosphere, and dramatic bass drops at every dramatic moment. There is also a curious ticking noise which appears every so often. I struggled with this. Part of me appreciated the sense of impending doom it brought, but it came in and out so randomly I feel like a spent way too long trying to figure out why it came in only at those moments, so that it actually distracted some of the time. #EnglishStudentProblems. blog-3Still, overall the soundscape adds to the tension, and Laura Marling’s songs are particularly effective (I mean, I just like Laura Marling’s music anyway!). The brick wall of the Almeida once again serves as a simple backdrop, with an added element to create the shock factor of Mary’s final execution.

The audience is likewise typically Almeidian (new word, roll with it). Mainly older, middle-class, North London intelligentsia, there are frequent knowing titters and chuckles at any of the overt references to Brexit; and there are plenty of those. The timeliness of the production is stressed constantly – rightly so in many cases, the focus on appealing to a mass audience particularly relevant. I just found the laughter at the idea of these ignorant masses rather smug – although perhaps that’s a problem with the audience, not the production. It would be interesting to see how it would play to an audience made up of less of the metropolitan elite. This is, then, a far more timely production than one might expect of a play about the late sixteen-hundreds. The programme is really great, jam-packed with articles and photos. The coin toss is a great way of creating a tension you can only really get with live theatre and the two actresses are fabulous – this is definitely you want to get tickets for.

Mary Stuart at the Almeida Theatre: 4/5 stars

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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

“In the course of justice, none of us/ Should see salvation”

blog 4The Merchant of Venice, Act 4, Scene 1

William Shakespeare

I’ve found it quite difficult to put into words my feelings about the Young Vic’s new production of Kafka’s The Trial, hence why this review appears about a week after I actually saw it. Suffice to say it is one of the most mind-bogglingly extraordinary productions I have ever seen, heavy concept, which could get tedious, united by  some superb acting by Rory Kinnear as Josef K.

Before going any further, however, I should admit that, despite being an English Literature student, I have never in fact read The Trial, so if you’re hoping for comparisons between the book and the play, then this is not the review for you. All I knew going in was this was a famously complicated plot about Josef K, arrested and put on trial within the complex court system for a crime completely unknown to him. I did have a quick scan of the synopsis on Wikipedia as I was sitting in my seat, but it was so lengthy and complicated that my overwhelming thought was “Screw it, I’ll pick it up as I go along”.

Instead, I focused on the auditorium. The play was situated by designer Miriam Buether in the round, with a long thin stage in the middle, covered by a yellow block with a large keyhole in the middle showing us a glimpse of the travellator on which most of the play would be conducted (more about that later). Around the sides of this, the more expensive seats were laid out like wooden judicial benches, while those of us who chose the cheaper seats (only £5!!) were still given a pretty great view from up above and all around. blog 3We the audience became a character – the ‘neighbours’ who Kinnear frequently gesticulated to and accused of spying on him. I always like a production that gets the audience involved in some way, or breaks the fourth wall, and Kinnear did this with aplomb; without disturbing the action too much, and in an amusing, yet not gratuitous way.

The script, written by Nick Gill, ranged from a standard speech pattern when Josef K was around other people, to this weird, more primitive language for his private quasi-soliloquies: “ee musten trial focus”, which reminded me of A Clockwork Orange. Kinnear was excellent at showing the shift between the two, the relatively affable everyman becoming suddenly far more confident and visceral and threatening when on his own. He was on stage throughout the entire two hour performance, and yet the energy never dropped; there was always a sense that he was giving it his all.

blog 5This was matched by Kate O’Flynn who played most of the sexualised female parts, haunting Josef K’s mind from the beginning, as lap-dancer Tiffany, to the end, by way of sex-crazed schoolgirl, alluring next-door neighbour Rosa and the sexually-abused cleaner at the court. Sian Thomas was also great as a chic lawyer who won’t stop talking, and Hugh Skinner (from W1A) was also fantastic at the several parts he had to play (especially as a dog-like client, panting across the stage).

The aforementioned travellator was conceptual without being distracting, moving us swiftly through Josef’s flat to his workplace to the court etc. and strengthening the impression, also enforced by the constant phrase repetitions, that “everything belongs to the court”, and the sense that Josef K is on an unstoppable track to his destiny through his trial.

So, in case you hadn’t noticed, I think this production is absolutely amazing; even though it was two hours without interval I was never bored or hoping that it would end. It may have been one of the most confusing plots and productions I’ve ever seen, but the acting is amazing, the concept is interesting, and – well, I still may not completely understand the plot, but it got me thinking, and really, that’s what I want from theatre.

The Trial at Young Vic Theatre: 5/5 stars