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Macbeth (Olivier, National Theatre)

Life is too short for a bad Shakespeare. Rufus Norris, artistic director at the National, returns to the Bard after a long sabbatical, and unwisely places this tight drama of power and ambition on an Olivier stage which drowns it.

Rory Kinnear as Macbeth, and Anne-Marie Duff as Lady M, are both actors who have excelled in previous stage productions here, but here both seem lost in the way Norris has chosen to direct them, even to the point of mangling the rhythm of the verse.

macbeth 1

There’s a lot of plastic in this production. Severed heads in supermarket bags. Cheap and dilapidated sets. Even the witches don’t gain a sense of horror or magic.

Good things – I like Stephen Boxer as Duncan, in his blood red suit. It’s always a difficult role to pull off as it is so small, but we had the measure of him, quickly.

Making Ross and the 2nd Murderer female was interesting – although the latter was dreadful – but making Fleance a girl was pointless, as she would not succeed to the throne and so was no threat to Macbeth, even with the prophecy of Banquo “fathering a line of kings”.

Removing Duncan’s younger son Donalbain removed the constant problem of what to do with him. He contributes very little – a previous production at the West Yorkshire Playhouse gave him learning difficulties, which at least allowed the character to be memorable. Here we just have Malcolm, but in Norris’s cuts and changes to the text, his big speech with Macduff disappears.

The royal palace of the Macbeths when they reign was as decayed as they were, with signs of a front-line military occupation, with the billycans of the banquet giving it the sense of a greasy spoon affair. The ghost’s appearance though was poorly thought out, and didn’t work.

Having dual casting with Seyton and the Porter gave a new dimension with the Porter’s comedy routine consisting of snatches of plot he has overheard, about the murder of the King – this gives him some power over his employers, but as this character isn’t well-developed enough, this isn’t as developed as it could have been.

I really didn’t like the mangled verse I have already mentioned – blank verse has its own music, so use it! And the drunken dancing on Duncan’s last night didn’t work for me.

This could have been so much better, but was yet another disappointing production from this particular director’s tenure. I would have liked to have seen an intimate production based in the Dorfman, perhaps, which got to the core of the characters.


The Threepenny Opera (National Theatre)

This new translation of the Bertolt Brecht-Kurt Weill has been polarising audiences at the National Theatre, but it is a vibrant and lively production, entertaining and bawdy, and – some diction issues aside – a well-sung musical black comedy.  I’m pleased to report that Weill’s music has definitely stood the test of time.

Rory Kinnear (showing versatility with fairly successful vocal work) is Captain Macheath aka Mack the Knife, who carries round a large blade and dispatches people who cause him trouble.  He marries Polly Peachum (Rosalie Craig, last seen in the dreadful wonder.land, much better here) for her brains and to get one over on her gangster dad and her horny mum. But is his chequered past about to catch up with him?


This production, by Rufus Norris, uses a translation by Simon Stephens which focuses on a run of profanity and the ‘filthy language’ promised in the National’s publicity, alongside the ‘immoral behaviour’ which includes Mackie and Polly making their first appearance in coitus which being lowered down from the flies on a crescent moon.

Brechtian theatre shows all the nuts and bolts of the stage, and this production doesn’t disappoint, with lights, ropes, and a busy set of steps, paper doors, and liberal use of the National’s drum revolve, all contributing to the overall effect.

There are some aspects of this musical that are muddled: Haydn Gwynne’s Mrs Peachum using a fire extinguisher to mimic vomiting after a heavy night, all of Sharon Small’s songs as heavily Scots-accented Jenny, some of the lyric changes, the gay angle, and Peachum’s wig, but they are generally overshadowed by successful innovations, including Paule Constable’s lighting design.

Debbie Kurup does well as a feisty and aggressive Lucy Brown, and George Ikediashi is a camp balladeer, but Peter de Jersey disappoints in the duet with Kinnear (‘A Soldier’s Return’) and I struggled with one of Mackie’s gang being severely disabled and almost played for laughs.

Edit: I would like to expand on my final sentence following a comment I have received on Twitter, specifically honing in on the fact I had a problem following the speech of the member of the cast with cerebral palsy (his name is Jamie Beddard, and he plays the member of Mackie’s gang called ‘The Shadow’).

The Telegraph’s review claims that this casting was inspired and makes the audience implicit in Macheath’s eventual frustration and mockery, but for me this didn’t work.  I was frustrated enough with not being able to follow the lyrics at times without having to decipher a speech impairment as well; nonetheless, Beddard did well and was particularly amusing in the black scene where Polly, the new bride, seems in danger of a nasty assault from the gang.

I am afraid, though, that I felt this particular piece of casting was a stunt which did not work in the context of the whole musical, and it weakened the fabric of a show which was already not entirely successful, by overbalancing scenes and musical numbers with an additional burden on an audience who were already dealing with an assault on the senses from the revised lyrics and situations, and could do nothing but react with uncomfortable laughter.  I hope this makes my comment clearer.


The Trial (Young Vic)

I am familiar with Kafka’s novel about the mysterious Josef K and his unexplained arrest, with a claustrophobic series of locations and larger than life characters populating this piece of absurdist fiction.  Theatrical adaptations have been problematic, notably the production by Steven Berkoff back in the 1970s (which did get a sense of both the absurd and the ever diminishing sets).

Fast-forward to 2015 and this new adaptation by Nick Gill, directed by Richard Jones, and I really don’t know what to make of it.  Once you are admitted into the Young Vic’s auditorium, as an audience member you sit in the reconfigured stalls in a jury bench setting on either side of the stage, which is initially presented as a large red box with a keyhole in the top, lifting once the show starts to display a travelator on which cast members walk, kneel, thrash around, etc.

Locations do not feel small or cramped in any way, and are restricted to K’s flat (and his neighbour Rosa’s), K’s place of work at the bank, lawyer Miss Grace’s house, and various areas of the court.  There are doubling up on characters (with Kate O’Flynn convincing across six roles), but really the stand-out performance is that of Rory Kinnear as Josef K who must be absolutely exhausted by a two-hour piece where he is never off-stage and has to work both physically and mentally hard throughout, due to Gill’s decision to put K’s interior monologues in a weird broken Pigdin kind of English, largely fixated on matters of sexual problems and (false?) memories from the past.

This aside, and some good supporting performances (Sian Thomas as Mrs Grace/Doctor, Richard Cant as Male Guard/Assistant/Tudor), I wasn’t sold on the changes that had been made to the original text – why change the portrait painter to a disco dancing tattooist?  That set, too, although intriguing at the start, wasn’t fully utilised, although having a moving walkway helping characters along (and holding them back) is fun.

Theatre review: Othello (National Theatre)

Over to the National last week for Nicholas Hytner’s modern version of ‘Othello’, set in the present-day army but keeping the majority of the text as Shakespeare intended.

Adrian Lester, a fine stage performer who has played Hamlet for Peter Brook and Bobby in the musical Company for Sam Mendes, is probably best known now for the TV series ‘Hustle’. His Othello doesn’t have the majesty of an Olivier or a Willard White (both classic stage-screen Othellos), but his modern general appears bored with the casual racism of his regiment and enamoured of his new young wife, the ‘gentle Desdemona’.

Rory Kinnear, whose career has ranged so far from screen appearances in ‘Women in Love’ and ‘Black Mirror’ to a National Hamlet, is a mean and devious Iago, with a lower middle-class swagger, crude and bitter. How his peers can view him as an honest man remains a mystery, and although he is good, I would have liked to have seen a bit more definition between his actions when with those he deceived, and his confidences with the audience when in soliloquy, but all in all, his is a good portrayal of this complex character.

There are gems in the supporting performances. Olivia Vinali as Desdemona and Lyndsey Marshal as Emilia (an enlisted squaddie in uniform) are memorable, and Jonathan Bailey is a strong Cassio. Less successful is Tom Robertson as Roderigo, too much the fool to be believable, but even he has his moments, as do the smaller roles like Brabantio (William Chubb).

My main issue with the modern setting of this production is that the main plot point of Desdemona making a grievous error in marrying outside of her race doesn’t have an impact other than making the insults (‘thick-lips’, ‘black ram’) sound inspired by racism. Neither would a modern soldier be permitted to take his wife into an area of combat. But these are small points.

A good production, and still powerful when a silent and unrepentant Iago stares at the bed loaded with death that he has caused in the play’s closing moments.

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