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The Tragedy of King Richard The Second (Almeida Theatre)

The Tragedy of King Richard the Second. Simon Russell Beale as Richard. Photo by Marc Brenner.

This bold and taut new production of the Shakespeare classic is currently running at the Almeida in Islington, and takes inspiration both from the political landscape and playground games where one child comes out the conqueror.

In a cast of eight, Simon Russell Beale adds another major character from the Bard to his portfolio, having previously triumphed as Hamlet, Macbeth, Iago, Prospero, Richard III and Lear. During the show he has water, soil and blood thrown at him, and becomes a pitiful figure in his grief and broken arrogance.

This production is visceral, intimate and intense. The killing of traitorous courtiers is shocking in its speed, leaving the blood literally running down the walls of the sparse plasterboard box which serves as the set. The gardeners who tend Richard’s prison garden turn on him with buckets of earth raining on his head, leaving the king literally lying in the filth that represents how low his star has fallen.

There are numerous character changes with such a small cast – Saskia Reeves, for example, moves from banished Mowbray to cunning sycophant to pleading Duchess. Leo Bill, as Bolingbroke, made me think briefly of David Troughton in the same role for the RSC close to two decades ago: another modern dress production with a weak and piteous Richard, crushed by vanity and ambition, bettered by a strong and centred usurper.

The Tragedy of King Richard the Second. Martins Imhangbe, Leo Bill, Simon Russell Beale, Saskia Reeves, Robin Weaver. Photo by Marc Brenner.

Some textual changes mean the lines within the prison are repeated at both ends of this 1 hour and 40 minute production, and a bold decision is taken to end with the now King Henry’s Holy Land speech dissolving into the giggles the school bully might express after tormenting his victims.

With the cast dressed in casual clothes, the only props the crown of the king and the buckets utilised to drench various characters, the focus is very much on the game of politics, monarchy, and dominance. Joe Hill-Gibbins directs a tight piece which might not always hit the mark, but is never less than interesting.

The Tragedy of King Richard the Second. Simon Russell Beale as the King, and the cast. Photo by Marc Brenner.

To compare Beale’s Richard with others I have seen is instructive – David Tennant was full of pomp and ceremony, Samuel West a lost and petulant little boy. Beale is a bit of both, and his verse speaking is head and shoulders above some of his colleagues here (Joseph Mydell’s John of Gaunt was particularly disappointing in his well-known speech, but yet still gained sympathy is his time of death, pleading for the legacy of his banished son).

This may not be a production I rave about for years, but it is definitely worth a look, and if your pockets don’t stretch to the (admittedly reasonable) Almeida prices, this production shows in NT Live soon.

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The Lehman Trilogy (National Theatre, Lyttelton)

On paper this does not sound particularly promising – a saga of three brothers who move from Bavaria to America to make money by the creation of first a middleman business, then a bank.   A saga which runs for over three and a half hours, including two 15 minute intervals.

Eight years ago I saw Enron, the clever drama by Lucy Prebble about a corporate financial crisis.  Due to excellent performances and use of music, this was a fantastic show on a dull topic.  This is also true of The Lehman Trilogy (Three Brothers, Fathers and Sons, The Immortals), even more so as every single role is played by three actors at the top of their game – Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles, and Adam Godley.

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Adam Godley, Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles (photo by Mark Douet)

Sam Mendes returns to stage directing, as Ben Power and the company have developed this rather special piece of theatre from an Italian play by Stefano Massini.  It starts in the mid-2000s with the collapse of the Lehman Corporation, but we are quickly pulled back to 1844 and the arrival in America of the newly renamed ‘Henry’ Lehman, his ambitions beginning with a small general store (beautifully described by Russell Beale as he gestures to glass walls and office storage boxes and conjures up rows of clothes, hats, ties, jackets and more; just as he described with words like pictures his long voyage between continents).

Surrounded by the plantations of the prosperous South of Montgomery, Alabama, Henry soon welcomes his brothers Emanuel and Mayer across the ocean, and opportunity quickly strikes when they expand to offering material needed by the overseers and owners, then trading in raw cotton itself following a fiery stroke of fate.  The expansion of the business in these years of growth is indicated by the movement from one small room to a larger one, each having a black marker sign written up by the actors; over the course of “Three Brothers” this will be utilised a lot, so we can see the past within the present as the saga progresses.

Henry dies, young, of yellow fever, and the Jewish brothers still steeped in their culture of home, grow their beards, shut themselves away, tear their clothing, and mourn – but time moves on, Mayer marries, then so does Emanuel (Babette and Pauline are depicted brilliantly by Russell Beale and Godley, with just a change of vocal pitch and characterisation).  Their motivation moves from doing good for their community to the movement and acquisition of money – the Civil War finally forcing an uproot to the prosperous shores of New York and the North.

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Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles, Adam Godley (photo by Mark Douet)

“Fathers and Sons” brings in the next generation, the precocious Philip, who can recite every city his family does business with, and who has an eye for the railroads, and Herbert, who starts as a playful toddler and ends as the Governor of New York.  There are other children quickly enumerated but discarded from the narrative, which races through the last years of the 19th century, into the 20th, and up to the fateful day of the Wall Street Crash.

Philip has himself found a wife during this time, but in his analytical mind he only looks for the material advantages, as an amusing vignette demonstrates, as girls are assessed against his twenty-point list for the perfect mate.  He also gains an acquaintance who climbs as high as he does, the high wire artist (Russell Beale, again, who also plays the doddery Rabbi who fights on matters of Biblical doctrine with young Herbert) who topples from his perch the day the markets collapse.

“The Immortals” starts with the suicide of stockbrokers, and the cunning of the now mature Philip and his son, Bobbie, who invest in the future – first, transportation, then the movies and television. Bobbie likes the horses, and lives to win, even capturing the divorced Ruth Lamar, who sees the dollar signs within her new husband’s heart.  By the time the trading floors open under the custodianship of the uncouth Lew Glucksman (Miles, again), we are a long way from Henry Lehman’s fabrics and suits shop of a hundred years before.

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Simon Russell Beale, Adam Godley, Ben Miles (photo by Mark Douet)

It is a tribute to the three actors involved, and their director and set designer (Es Devlin) that they create this wide variety of characters without any costume changes, and with the use of a minimum of props – those office storage boxes and glass walls, a revolving set, some chairs and a table, a bunch of flowers, a marker pen.

There is a piano, which leads to one amusing scene courtesy of Russell Beale’s Babette miming to Beethoven, Mozart, and ‘Johann Sebastian Bach’.  There are squawling children who grow to run the Lehman empire when the last family member has been laid to rest (with no mourning, no tearing of clothes, or closing of business).  And, finally, we return to the boardroom at the closure of the Corporation on that last day.

A very funny, perceptive, engrossing and well-written piece, the play moves quickly and is never dull.  There is one wickedly amusing bit about progress and music which leads to the death of one of the characters, but got one of the best laughs of the afternoon.  Ultimately this is a family saga for which you might be advised to do some background reading (and the programme has a useful chronology and family tree), but don’t let that stop you going – if you can get a ticket!

The Lehman Trilogy runs until the 20th October 2018, in repertory.  Tickets have sold out, but some may become available through Friday Rush or Day Ticket schemes, please see https://www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/the-lehman-trilogy for more details.

 


The Tempest (RSC at the Barbican)

I’ve seen Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’ on at least six occasions (including Ian McKellen at Leeds, Derek Jacobi at Sheffield, and London appearances from Patrick Stewart, Antony Sher and Roger Allam at The Globe).

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It’s a magical romance which concerns the deposed Duke of Milan (here played by the reliable Simon Russell Beale, himself a former stage Ariel), who is shipwrecked on an island ‘full of noises’ with his daughter Miranda; here they live with his library of books, a monstrous creature named Caliban who they keep as servant, and an airy sprite called Ariel who gives service to his master in anticipation of gaining his freedom.

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Gregory Doran’s production is one of flashy technical and digital effects, in collaboration with Intel and The Imaginarium Studios, including a 3D representation of Ariel – although I found this more distracting than anything else, as the actor playing the part (and causing the body movements of the character) was on stage in all his scenes. However, the technical effects ranging from the light and sound giving the impression of a moving ship at the beginning of act one, a huge depiction of slavering dogs, and the memory of Ariel’s imprisonment in the cloven pine, were impressive.

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Joe Dixon’s Caliban and Mark Quartley’s Ariel were very memorable and touching, balanced out well by the comedy of Simon Trinder’s sinister Trinculo and James Hayes’ Stephano (although the ‘two-legged monster’ routine could have been funnier than it was).  For me, Jenny Rainsford took a while to come into her own as Miranda, and I didn’t feel connected to her until the ‘brave new world’ speech near the end, and Daniel Easton’s Ferdinand was bland and uninteresting.

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Simon Russell Beale’s Prospero is the highlight of this production, his small, stocky statute mirrored by that of Jonathan Broadbent’s little ball of hatred as his brother Antonio.  What this Prospero brings to the text is sometimes missed by his colleagues, and the final speech is truly touching as the audience is released (‘let your indulgence set me free’) – if this was Shakespeare’s way of saying goodbye to his beloved theatre, it is an effective one.

 


Mr Foote’s Other Leg (Hampstead Theatre)

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A dark dramedy at the Hampstead Theatre passed the time this afternoon, in the story of Samuel Foote, low comedian, crossdresser and media-bait.  Played with flair and fuss by Simon Russell Beale, Foote could slump into caricature but does not, mainly due to the skill of both actor and writer in making the character a rounded one, in some ways a fool but in other a figure of sympathy.

We first find Foote in a backstage elocution class with the other major characters of the play – Midlands-accented David Garrick (Joseph Millson, who catches at chances of comedy and moments of pathos with ease), Irish Peg Woffington (Dervla Kirwan, vulgar and finally pathetic), Scots Jock Hunter (Forbes Masson, who perhaps overdoes the accent), and mute Miss Chudleigh (Sophie Bleasdale).

Their coach, Charles Macklin (Colin Stinton, who reappears later as Benjamin Franklin and is good in both roles) quickly tarnishes his character by accidentally killing a fellow actor, and Foote and friends start their own company, with Jenny Galloway as their jaded tour manager and Micah Balfour as proud free-man and former Jamaican slave Frank Barber.  Foote plays grotesque distaff roles while Peg plays young britches parts or gartered tarts (and off-stage works her way through the beds of various luminaries including the eldest son of the King, Prince George, who is played by the play’s writer, Ian Kelly).

This is a strange play, one which has ribald belly laughs alongside moments of desperation, and one gut-churning scene which deals with the aftermath of a horse-riding accident which leads to Foote having his leg amputated in graphic (verbal) detail on stage.  The tensions between the comedy and the tragedy may not always work, although in pockets and scenes the mix is effective (for example, a piece of tenderness between Garrick and Peg).

Directed by Richard Eyre, it is not a typical piece you would expect from him, and some may balk at the large use of profanity throughout the play, but with a little tightening of scenes and a slightly less sluggish pace this could be an extremely successful production.


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.

 

 

 

 

 


King Lear (National Theatre) review

This much-anticipated production by Sam Mendes of Shakespeare’s greatest tragic play stars the actor Simon Russell Beale, who at fifty-three may be on the younger side of Lears, but who is undoubtedly one of our most gifted classical actors.

Mendes and Russell Beale have worked together on numerous occasions before (notably in ‘Othello’ (SRB as Iago) and The Tempest (a startling Ariel opposite an imposing Alec McCowan’s Prospero) so there must almost be a shorthand of technique between them as they created this excellent version of what becomes in their hands the story of a military dictator who is pitched into dementia by the harsh treatment of his two eldest daughters (Goneril, played here by Kate Fleetwood; Regan, played by Anna Maxwell Martin), and the slow burn of guilt following the banishment of his youngest ‘jewel’ Cordelia (Olivia Vinall).

Now and again the production may stray into a flashy cinematic flourish (the rising ramp Lear and his Fool walk on, the out of character rage from Lear leading directly to the demise of the gentle Fool (Adrian Scarborough, very good indeed)) but its strength is in the performances, notably that of Russell Beale, from his strutting yet tiring despot of Act One through to his hopeless flower carrying fractured spirit of the scenes immediately following the interval.

As Gloucester, Stephen Boxer is very touching in the scenes where he is reconciled with his wronged son Edgar (Tom Brooke), albeit without knowing it.  Brooke himself makes an excellent Edgar, taking the references to the ‘naked fellow’ literally in his first appearance as ‘Poor Mad Tom’, but keeping the dignity of the exiled gentleman.  Rounding out the cast of principals is Sam Troughton as an Edmund who has expressive eyes and a knowing smirk, especially once he has the attention of both the wicked sisters.

This is not a perfect Lear, nor the best I have seen, although Russell Beale does not disappoint (unlike some reviewers I do not see his small stature as a problem, and his interchange with Cordelia when they are reconciled is deeply moving, as it should be, but often is not) and the modern setting makes us think of overthrown dictators and aged rulers.  Unlike the Almeida production of two years ago this production does not imply incest between Lear and his children, although the sisters remain highly sexed and this remains their eventual undoing, two harpies destroyed by jealousy.

All in all, a triumph, with Stanley Townsend’s bruiser of a Kent also worth a mention.  This is a Lear which does not pull its punches, and sometimes it veers into violence which seems to jar with everything that has gone before – but yet, a despot who has towering statues of himself across the city may, if his eyes are pecked at long enough, might simply cease being able to see clearly and take responsibility for his own actions?  Only the return of his beloved youngest child can bring Lear back to a semblance of sanity, but too late.


Timon of Athens (National Theatre)

This production of Shakespeare’s oddest play by Nicholas Hytner is part of the World Shakespeare Festival, and is set firmly in the 21st century. Timon opens a new gallery wing and his fawning friends tell him how wonderful he is, just so they can get more money out of him. For every minor gift they offer, he gives back something far more valuable, and so thinks in this way he has loyal friends. Of course when he falls on hard times and needs something from these ‘friends’, they all find ways of denying him – the rich banker, the crook who with Timon’s cash has set himself up in a rich court, the lady senator.

HSBC backdrops place this story firmly in the times of Canary Wharf (which makes mention of Athens a little spurious, as well as amusingly relevant to the Greek economic crisis). There have been other subtle changes, such as making Timon’s steward a woman. The thieving rebel gang are drop-outs like those who took over St Paul’s Cathedral square last year, the final banquet Timon offers his friends is somewhat more scatalogical than simple water. Most of this works well, and the verse of the play is supplemented by additional lines from other Shakespeare works.

How are the performances? This is yet another Shakespeare must-see from Simon Russell Beale. We might not be seeing his Lear just yet, but this Timon follows Richard III, Hamlet, Iago, Benedick, Ariel, and Leontes, and all were exceptional. This man remains one of our greatest classical actors, and even with a plastered finger (broken during a performance last week) his portrayal of the rich man who grows to hate his fellows is strong within a fine cast which includes Deborah Findlay as the aforementioned steward, and Hilton McRae as the jaded philosopher.


Theatre review: Collaborators

In 1939, the great Russian playwright Mikhail Bulgakov was commissioned to write a play about the country’s dictator, Josef Stalin.  This was in many ways a poisoned chalice: many of Bulgakov’s plays were banned under the Soviet regime (except The Days of the Turbins/The White Guard, a personal favourite of Stalin’s), and as an opponent of all the regime stood for it was his most difficult commission.  The play was completed (called Batum) but never passed for performance; it is considered his weakest work.

This commision is the seed for John Hodge’s new play, ‘Collaborators’, which is currently showing at the National Theatre’s Cottesloe (and then transferring to the Olivier), directed by Nicholas Hytner.  We first meet Bulgakov (Alex Jennings) in the small apartment he shares with his wife Yelena (Jacqueline Defferary), young worker Sergei (Pierce Reid, who lives in the kitchen cupboard, bare as the house has no food), former aristocrat Vassily (Patrick Godfrey) and Praskovya (Maggie Service), a teacher of history.  They are poor but defiant.

Into this life we hear of Bulgakov’s uneasy dreams about Stalin, and his declining health – flagged in an amusing interlude with a dotty doctor (Nick Sampson).  Once secret policeman Vladimir (Mark Addy) visits and asks for a play to celebrate the 60th birthday of Stalin, things start to change for the writer – and he starts to change to, following a series of visits where he collaborates with his own subject (Simon Russell Beale), to the point where they start to become each other – Bulgakov mouthing the propaganda of his leader in casual conversation, and Stalin excitedly shaping ‘Young Josef’ for the stage.

‘Collaborators’ might be initially read as a comedy, and Russell Beale plays off Jennings very well – with some sharp scenes of comedy.  But after the interval the play takes a darker turn, becoming a black comedy, and a tragedy too.  The performances throughout are uniformly excellent, although much of it is a two-hander between two masterful actors at the top of their game.

The concept of ‘Collaborators’, especially in its staged scenes from the banned Moliere play, brings to mind Bulgakov’s most well-known work, his novel The Master and Margarita, which is a thinly-veiled critique of the Stalinist regime and all its horrors, where people are tried and shot according to quota, where people go to work and never return home, where further enquiries are catastrophic.  This novel was a sharp satire with a sense of the ridiculous – and this is where Lodge’s play succeeds, in presenting a monster in a black comedy coat, and the collapse and tragedy of a man and a nation with smoke and mirrors.


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