“The commons, like an angry hive of bees that want their leader, scatter up and down”

Henry VI part 1, Act 3, Scene 2

William Shakespeare

If there was ever a political year we can be certain will be dramatised, it’s 2016. One can only hope it will be James Graham writing the script, given the poignancy and wittiness he lends 1970s politics in This House. blog-3First produced in the National in 2012, this revival was clearly calculated to highlight a growing sense of political déjà vu – see the first three lines of the blurb for details: “Is a political revolution coming? Will the Labour party collapse? Can the kingdom stay united?”

Set amongst the Whips’ offices in the heart of parliament, the play sees the harassed and strained Whips attempt to control a bunch of chaotic and unruly MPs in a government which is hanging by a thread. Sick and dying politicians are wheeled in for motion after motion because each and every vote matters like never before. It’s this atmosphere of chaos, the real drama of politics, which the play captures so well.

The protagonists are the two Deputy Chief Whips. Steffan Rhodri (aka Dave Coaches from Gavin and Stacey) plays the Labour hardman Walter Harrison, whilst Nathaniel Parker is his slickly spoken Tory opponent, Jack Weatherill. Both of these characters were engaging and, crucially, likeable. blog-4As a rule, it’s the unlikeable characters who create better theatre (see Hedda Gabler, Richard III, A View From the Bridge for details). Here, however, it felt important to give both men some sort of integrity, perhaps because of the political subject. It’s refreshing to see people with contrasting opinions and world-views represented as equally understandable, and equally human. It’s not that the stereotypes of stuck-up Tory and chippy Labourite weren’t there; Malcolm Sinclair was gloriously pompous as Conservative Chief Whip Humphrey Atkins, whilst as his Labour counterpart Phil Daniels was equally gloriously foul-mouthed a la Malcom Tucker. But whilst showing the ludicrousness of British politics in abundance, This House also paints an overall picture of the nobility at the heart of the system. Throughout the play, frazzled MPs complain about the presence of people messing up an otherwise perfect way of government. And whilst that may be true, the ending shows the flipside; that human emotions, codes of conduct, and honour systems, are also part of the beauty of the British political system. blogYou come away with a deep sense of respect for the people behind-the-scenes, who dedicate their lives to making sure the party they believe is right remains in power – even if a sense of futility often haunts their frantic manoeuvrings.

Phew. That’s enough lyricism for one review. Back to the practicalities of theatre. The staging at the Garrick Theatre is mostly well done. There is a sense of streamlined chaos to the people pacing back and forth within the two Whip offices onstage. The best bit of direction is having the Speaker of the House announce each character by their title as they enter (e.g. “the Member for Oxfordshire East”). A small issue was that the Speaker changed after the interval – in itself not a problem, but it made it appear like this new Speaker was a character who’d already appeared. Which he wasn’t. Just a bit unnecessarily confusing.

I also had a big problem with a part of the staging. The blog-6offices are surrounded by the wooden walls of the House of Commons, with a whole upper level of green seats filled with audience members looking down on the action. This in itself is a great idea, an attempt to recreate the intimacy and audience engagement of the Dorfman. However, any action on this upper level was completely invisible to those sitting in the back half of the stalls (like me). The majority of the drama, to be fair, took place on the mainstage, but quite a few scenes (including one immediately after a key character’s death) were totally hidden from view. I understand transfers are difficult, I understand older theatres are built with different requirements, and I understand this may have looked fantastic to the rest of the audience, but theatre is expensive. Just getting there takes effort and time and money, and I think directors like Jeremy Herrin should factor in the view from every seat when they produce a show. That’s not to say everyone has to have a full view at all times – that’s just unachievable – but it shouldn’t be physically impossible for a whole section of audience to see entire scenes.

Anyway, rant over. Despite these flaws, this is an engaging, informative and witty political drama, with an important sense of poignancy throughout.blog-5 The ensemble cast are excellent; I particularly liked Lauren O’Neill as Ann Taylor, the only female Whip, and Kevin Doyle as her boss Michael Cocks. For someone who knew virtually nothing about this period of politics, the anecdotes and stories that feature (including Michael Heseltine seizing the parliamentary mace and John Stonehouse’s fake disappearance) seem almost unbelievable. But funny. The blackly comedic atmosphere is what this play gets right. It makes for an entertaining and powerful night out – just don’t sit at the back of the stalls.

This House at the Garrick Theatre: 3.5/5 stars

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“Beware the ides of March”

Julius Caesar, Act 1, Scene 2

William Shakespeare

Sorry I haven’t written in a while; I was plannig to blog over the weekend, but my wi-fi wasn’t working, I had lots on, blahblahblah. Anyway, here I am with functioning internet in the school library (in one of my free periods, don’t worry, I’m not skipping lessons!) and I can finally write about the African ‘Julius Caesar’ directed by Greg Doran that I saw about a fortnight ago.

I know I’ve written a lot about this production in this blog, as there have been countless articles, reviews and interviews about it, as well as a television-film production on BBC 1 earlier this year (which I have taped but decided to leave until after I saw the actual production, rather than spoil it for myself). I saw a different RSC version of ‘Julius Caesar’ last year at the Roundhouse, so it was interesting to compare the two.

You are thrown into the world of Rome, Africa from the moment you reach your seat at the Noel Coward Theatre; the ground is dusty; the heat is heavy; the drums and afrobeat music are rhythmic. There are actors dancing and moving to the music on stage so that you are truly thrown into the world you will be spending the next 2 and a half hours in. This is actually vital, as there are none of the usual “switch off your mobiles” and “5 mintues until curtain up” announcements. Instead, the theatre suddenly goes pitch black and the action begins.

I have to admit that I didn’t toally understand the first few lines that were said, as my ears took a second to adjust to the lilting African dialect. However, after that the accent in fact made the lines sounds more realistic. The African setting was totally believable  and made the play more relevant; in the production dir. Lucy Bailey in 2011, the play was filled with gore and violence throughout, which worked just as well at making the production engaging, but this version was probably a little more credible. Paterson Joseph was excellent as Marcus Brutus; you could see why he made the decisions he did as he reasoned it out and yet you were horrified at his smug self-regard and the madness that seemed to creep up on him as soon as he was propositioned by Cassius.

Cassius (Cyril Nri) was also very well acted as someone who really did fear the worst if Julius Caesar was able to become King. In Bailey’s production, Cassius was a little more sinister, who seemed more concerned with his own ambition than with the good of a society. Nri’s choice in playing him meant that it seemed more realistic that Brutus would choose to accept his offer and regard him as such a close friend. One of my favourite actors has to be Ray Fearon as Mark Antony. The review that described him as “a raging bull” was certainly accurate. He storms across the stage, clearly using the full power of his rhetoric to whip the crowd into rebellion and yet he does seem genuinely distraught at Caesar’s death. A small part I also loved was Lucius, Brutus’ servant (Simon Manyonda). Although he had barely any lines, he made the most of his part, gaining lots of laughs and also showing his emotion at having to help his master to commit suicide.

The staging was excellent; there were no scene changes at all, yet the set managed to become a senate, a stadium, a house, an alleyway, a tent, with very few props brought on. There was the typical ‘dictator’ statue at the back which fell dramatically when the Caesar appeared as a ghost to Brutus. The lighting also added a lot to the performance; it wasn’t too over the top, but gloomy and stormy enough to be chilling on the night that the Cassius finds all of the conspirators. The soothsayer was almost constantly on stage during the first act perched on top of the entrance and exit int he middle of the stage. Although he worked well as a witch doctor, I wasn’t sure about his constant prescence; I didn’t feel he added anything by being there, but then again, he didn’t detract from the experience, so no harm done.

The only criticism I have really is that the ending seemed to come about much too abruptly. Of course, this is partly because of the way Shakespeare wrote it; one moment Cassius has killed himself mistakenly, yet Brutus’ armies are winning and the next it has all gone wrong and Octavius Caesar and Mark Antony are victorious. Most of my friends also mentioned this; Cassius died, Brutus died, there were a couple of lines more and then it was all over. I don’t know the play well enough to know whether parts were cut out or not, but if so I think it could have been slightly better had they been left in.

‘Julius Caesar’ isn’t a play that well known for its female parts, and I felt this production didn’t really change my opinion on this. Although Portia and Calphurnia were well acted, at times they came across merely as hysterical women, which I suppose is exactly the mistake that Caesar and Brutus make, but I felt that, even though one knew what was going to happen, you still doubted their word and wrote them off as mad.

Saying this, overall it was a great piece of theatre and it was interesting to see how Shakespeare can work just as well in a foreign setting; a point already proven by the ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ set in India that I’ve already mentioned and which, coincidentally, is coming to the Noel Coward Theatre next. One small thing to the costume department though; the black togas worn in the killing of Caesar scene (I can’t use the word ‘assassination’ as it hadn’t been invented then – Shakespeare used it for the first time in ‘Macbeth’) looked frustrating for the actors to wear; they were constantly coming undone and falling off. In addition, call me bloodthirsty, but I would have preferred a little more blood in that scene. There was none at all until the conspirators dipped their hands in it, which is pretty gory in itself, but I feel it might have made more of an impact had there been a little bit more corn syrup splashed around!