The Doctor (Almeida Theatre)

Juliet Stevenson stars in this “loose adaptation” of Arthur Schnitzler’s play Professor Bernhardi. The time is the present, in the “digital age”. The place is a private institute specialising in the study of dementia. The hospital director, the professor, is still a Jew, but now a woman, too.

Robert Icke not only plays with the text of this ethical drama, but with audience perceptions as well: gender and race-blind casting means we are seeing one reality but being told of another: the priest who is excluded from his dying patient is black, but played by a white actor; the junior doctor is a man, but played by a woman.

Juliet Stevenson and Joy Richardson in The Doctor

The Doctor is a clever and intense piece of drama which considers issues of medical ethics, religious observance and tolerance, gender, sexuality, unconscious bias, and the power of language.

Realities are slowly revealed as the play progresses, and the social media hysteria builds, all from one action of a medical practitioner believing she should act in the best interests of her patient (a teenage girl brought in with sepsis, a child of Catholic parents).

There are perhaps a tad too many reveals for an audience to process, but a scene where the Doctor’s house is terrorised is well done, the freeze framing of two acts of violence is effective, and the moment she betrays her young friend in a television debate is shocking.

The company of The Doctor

Hildegard Bechtler has created a simple set of a long table and benches which occasionally revolves as arguments are thrashed out. This serves as a meeting room in the hospital, the Doctor’s kitchen, a TV studio.

Above the set is suspended a space for drummer Hannah Ledwidge, who provides percussive accompaniment throughout, sometimes between scenes, sometimes underscoring snatches of dialogue.

There are moments of humour within the intense scenes, scenes which gain in their emotional impact as the Doctor loses her status, power, influence and pride. As she is told in act two, “What is a leader without followers? Just an old woman.”

The play feels very current in its new form with discussions of antisemitism, politics, gender fluidity, abortion, political correctness, and the faults which exist on all sides – whether white privilege or not.

Naomi Wirthner in The Doctor

It is interesting that though a black woman (a touching performance from Joy Richardson) plays the Doctor’s partner, Charlie, their gender or race is never discussed.

Aside from Stevenson’s outstanding depiction of a woman slowly slipping down a precipice, good performances come from Naomi Wirther as the Doctor’s repellent male and Christian deputy, Paul Higgins as the priest, and Ria Zmitrowicz as the teenager who sees her neighbour’s kitchen as a safe space.

The Doctor continues at Islington’s Almeida Theatre, but is sold out for the rest of its run. Although it runs at close to three hours, it doesn’t waste a moment.

Photo credit Manuel Harlan.

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Mary Stuart (Duke of York’s)

Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots were both of the same Royal blood, both anointed monarchs, and both passionate.

This production plays with the similarities and differences between the Queens by having both leading actresses playing one or the other parts on the toss of a coin.

Yesterday afternoon Lia Williams played Mary and Juliet Stevenson was Elizabeth. Mary was quick, impulsive, frustrated, and every inch a queen even when imprisoned in bare walls.

Elizabeth is proud and aloof, commanding her courtiers with a click and primping her appearance with a compact mirror. A public virgin she privately romps with the duplicitous Leicester (John Light) while toying with a promise of marriage from France.

Mary, though, three times a wife, a mother, a lover. Also with Leicester, which may be her downfall, and his. She seethes at her treatment and long imprisonment when seeking asylum – this play is on the side of her innocence – but equally she seeks Elizabeth’s acknowledgement as an equal.

The meeting never happened in history but here it works well within the machinations of state and politics. Stevenson’s Elizabeth is imperious enough to recover quickly following the shock of seeing the woman who has plagued her and caused her endless worry standing before her in the garden at Fotheringay.

Mary’s gamble, hoping for the mercy of another monarch, causes her to move quickly towards execution; a misfire in which Elizabeth’s pride is worked on by a weasley Burleigh, despite the best efforts of a sympathetic yet tradition-bound Talbot (a very strong performance from Michael Byrne).

The slight amusement of early scenes evaporates in Act Four as Mary’s fate is sealed and her execution looms. A Catholic, she is allowed her last communion and to walk to the block in the company of her nurse (Carmen Munroe).

The scene where Elizabeth is garbed in her white face, boned corset and dress, pearls, ruff and wig, is juxtaposed with Mary reduced to a simple shift, majesty removed but morally victorious. It’s an emotional piece which is riveting and accompanied by a new song by Laura Marling.

Robert Icke directs Friedrich Schiller’s play, in a sparse set with modern dressed characters, an explosive script, and two very strong women who are closer together than they might think.

Mary gains a strange sense of freedom while Elizabeth remains uneasy and trapped with the guilt of her regicide. Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown, indeed.

Wings (Young Vic)

Juliet Stevenson plays Emily Stilson, a former wing-walker who has had a stroke and is trapped in a mind which stops her making associations and causes her to speak a babble which makes perfect sense to her but not anyone else around her.

Over a two-year period, this 80 minute play follows Mrs Stilson (we never see her husband, but see her son, briefly) as she starts to make more sense and to make more than transient contact with the world around her.

One moving platform, some see-through curtains, a minimal use of projections, and stellar light work which projects Stevenson’s shadow as she flies, means that the one flashy conceit – our wing-walker spends the vast majority of the play airbourne in a harness doing a staggering range of acrobatic moves that must be as tiring as remembering the complex script – the play has to offer takes most of the attention.

An uplifting play of hope, memory, and language, this is its first revival in the UK for thirty years.  It is a moving and clever play which may not be everyone’s idea of a fun night out, but which I recommend you make time to see.  

Shakespeare’s Sonnets (Royal Festival Hall)

A rare opportunity yesterday to hear the whole cycle of Shakespeare’s sonnets, read in two sections.  The Royal Festival Hall ended a day devoted to ‘the poet’s sonnets’ with this reading, featuring ten actors (Simon Russell Beale, Harriet Walter, Guy Paul, Victoria Hamilton, David Harewood, Maureen Beattie, Paterson Joseph, Deborah Findlay, Oliver Ford Davies and Juliet Stevenson).  The notes handed out as we went in warned us we might even hate some of the evening (!) but this did not prove to be the case.

I’d like to single out some of the readings for particular praise – Simon Russell Beale put across sonnets 143 (“Lo, as a careful housewife runs to catch”), 126 (“O thou, my lovely boy, who in thy power”), 42 (“That thou hast her, it is not all my grief”), and 138 (“When my love swears that she is made of truth”) with an emotional connect that reached through the centuries since this cycle was written.

The ‘greatest hits’ of the sequence went to Harriet Walter, 18 “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day”, and David Harewood, 130, “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun” and served well as anchor points for a change of mood.

Oliver Ford-Davies read well, but the one I remember the most is 37 “As a decrepit father takes delight”; while Deborah Findlay did well with 71, “No longer mourn for me when I am dead”.  The night was almost stolen in terms of pure performance and wit though by Paterson Joseph, who interpreted the pair of sonnets 135 “Whoever hath her wish, thou hast thy Will” and 136 “If thy soul check thee that I come so near”, and 144 “Two loves I have of comfort and despair” extremely well.

I liked the way the Royal Festival Hall provided a big screen so everyone in the hall could clearly see the readers as they shared the sonnets with us, but as a viewer from the stalls it was interesting to see who was following the text from the book and who was paying attention to their fellow performers.  It was also interesting to see a definite chemistry between adjacent readers Paterson Joseph and Juliet Stevenson (who also read beautifully), and to note some pairings both professional and personal on the stage – David Harewood played Othello to Simon Russell Beale’s Iago at the National Theatre, Juliet Stevenson and Deborah Findlay played sisters in the film ‘Truly, Madly, Deeply’, Harriet Walter and Guy Paul are married in real life.  These kind of things keep a viewer engaged during the slower passages of verse.

If the sonnet sequence does not fully sparkle throughout, then there are certainly enough highs and enough memorable lines of verse to make this marathon well worth attending.

 

 

 

 

 

Happy Days (Young Vic)

Samuel Beckett’s play is often said to contain one of the greatest roles for an actress in Winnie, who delivers practically a monologue while buried up to her waist in Act 1 and to her neck in Act 2.   Indeed, the role has sometimes been described as the actress’s King Lear.  And so we have a new production at the Young Vic, directed by Natalie Abrahami.

Winnie on this occasion is Juliet Stevenson, who has always been one of my favourite screen actresses but until today I had not had the pleasure to see her on stage other than one of the multiple readers in the Sylvia Plath’s Ariel reading at the Royal Festival Hall last year.  She gives the eternally optimistic Winnie a heart and soul and makes her as funny as she is eventually heartbreaking, especially in her constant chatter and bawdy interactions with her husband Willie (rarely seen, and rarely audible – and we hardly ever see his face, just the back of his head – but nevertheless well played by David Beames who gives this thankless part life).

‘Happy Days’ can be read in many ways.  Why Winnie has found herself buried in the earth (in this production, rocks and grit, rather than the usual sand) is never disclosed, although she does remember a time when she had the use of her legs.  The time and place is unclear, and we do not know why Willie lives in his cave and why, as he appears to be able-bodied, he doesn’t leave or help free his wife from her predicament.  Is the play a meditation on the uselessness of life, about the breakdown of companionate marriage, or simply a post-Apocalyptic fable?

Winnie chatters on about the minutiae of life as she searches through her bag for small items which bring her pleasure or small nuggets of memory (a brush, a comb, toothbrush and toothpaste, lipstick, glasses,  tonic, a music box, a gun).   Her life is regimented by a harsh bell which rings for waking and sleeping, although the light (daylight or sunlight, one presumes, but here a harsh artificial light, in keeping with Beckett’s original stage directions for everything to be as unrealistic as possible) is constant.

Stevenson makes this woman almost beautiful, although it is unclear how she is sustained without food or drink, and how she retains her energy.  Her one piece of protection, her parasol, burns up in act 1.  In the second half she looks haggard and pale and her chatter becomes more desperate and her refrain about everything being ‘wonderful’ sounds more and more hollow.  When Willie finally appears (in the stage text he is ‘dressed to kill’) in top hat and tails, crawling across the rocks, we don’t know whether he is heading for his wife or for the gun which will bring release to both of them.  It’s enough that he is on the move and within her sight again, and as she sings lines, brokenly, from ‘The Merry Widow’, this play of contradictions comes to a close.

‘Happy Days’ has sometimes been performed with regional accents or a bit of humour even in the second act, but here, Stevenson’s genteel lady in the printed dress puts across the desperation of her situation in a way which makes the play much more disturbing than, for example, the version which was filmed for the ‘Beckett on Film’ project.   It may be something about the harsh sound of the bell (which doesn’t allow Winnie to close her eyes at all in act 2), or the wild eyes of the woman in pain, unable to move her head, or the weird empty silence as she cries out for her husband, or the disturbing story of the mouse and the doll, but this version of the play really packs a punch.