Angels in America (NT Live)

I confess I had never heard of Angels in America by Tony Kushner before the National Theatre production was announced, but after reading the hype around it I decided to see what all the fuss was about at the NT Live screenings.

It is in many ways a difficult play to describe, but put simply it is the story of 5 characters living in New York in the mid 1980s during the AIDS crisis and a conservative Reagan administration. It explores a myriad of themes, including life, death, love, sex, heaven and hell. The fear and uncertainty surrounding AIDS and homosexuality in entrenched throughout the play and shown through the experiences of many characters. Roy Cohn (Nathan Lane) rejects the label of homosexuality as he states that homosexuals have no ‘clout’. The married Mormon Joe Pitt (Russell Tovey) is unable to accept that he may be gay, and Louis (James McArdle) cannot cope with supporting his longterm partner Prior Walter (Andrew Garfield) when he is diagnosed with AIDS, and leaves him. Although thankfully in many ways things have changed for the better for gay people and those living with HIV, but unfortunately the fact that there is a Republican administration in the White House at the moment who has recently banned transgender people from serving in the military means that the play is still relevant today, not least because Roy Cohn was Donald Trump’s legal adviser.

The production itself was fantastic. All of the actors’ performances were stellar, particularly Andrew Garfield. Nathan Lane also managed to make me feel slight sympathy for such a detestable character. I also thought the staging was great, especially the revolve when switching scenes, and when the set was pulled back during one of Harper’s (Denise Gough) hallucinations to reveal the huge Lyttleton stage. The way the angel was moved around the set by ‘phantoms’ was also very clever.

As for the play itself, I’m unsure. There were things I loved about it but others I’m undecided about. I’m sure in a way the fact that the play has such a hype around it played against it because I was expecting to be completely blown away. First of all I felt it was too long, although in fairness to this production it did not feel long at all when I was watching. However, during some scenes I did wonder what they were adding to the play, such as the opening of Perestroika (part 2) with the oldest living Bolshevik. I was also confused by the angels, and especially felt that Prior’s angel’s explanation of how God abandoned them was explained clearly enough.

However, it is a play that has stayed with me and I have found myself thinking about it a lot after seeing it. I have also enjoyed listening to some of the National Theatre’s podcasts with some of the cast and the director, Marianne Elliot. I definitely would like to read it, as being such a wordy play it was easy to miss some things when watching. The play itself may not have blown me away, but the production and performances have meant that in some ways it has stayed at the forefront of my mind for a while. I’m definitely glad that I went to see it.

 

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Jane Eyre – Wales Millennium Centre

I first saw this National Theatre production of Jane Eyre at an NT Live screening and I enjoyed it immensely, so when I saw that the national tour was coming to Cardiff I knew I wanted to see it again ‘properly’ in a theatre rather than a cinema.

Although I knew what to expect this time it didn’t spoil my enjoyment. The set isn’t what you’d expect for a production of Jane Eyre at all. It’s fairly bare, with many climbing frames, ladders and wooden planks which are used extremely effectively to convey the different locations as well as Jane’s varying emotions. I also liked the soundtrack which included some original music but also some contemporary songs such as Mad About the Boy and Crazy.

The cast is small with everyone apart from Jane (Nadia Clifford) playing multiple characters including Mr Rochester’s dog, Pilot. All the performances were strong and convincing, with some particularly quick role changes.

It’s a funny and emotional production, which stays very close to the novel by Charlotte Bronte, and I love that some dialogue from the novel was used. I do feel however that it is too long. I know that when it was originally performed at the Bristol Old Vic that it was in two parts, which were cut down to one part before going to the National Theatre, but I feel some further small cuts would have been beneficial, as the first half in particular is very long. However, this was an innovative and engaging production and I’m glad I saw it for the second time.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time – Wales Millennium Centre

The National Theatre’s production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time has been a huge success since it opened at the Cottesloe Theatre in 2012. It has won Olivier Awards, moved to the West End (where it closes this month), opened on Broadway, won a Tony Award and embarked on 2 UK national tours. I have seen this production a few times, through NT Live and also in London and when it visited Cardiff previously. It is without a doubt one of my favourite things I’ve seen on stage.

It is based on the 2003 novel by Mark Haddon, which tells the story of a boy called Christopher, who has Aspergers Syndrome, as he sets out to solve the mystery of who killed the dog next door. One of the clever things about the production is the way that it presents Christopher’s inner monologue. Christopher talks to the audience but his teacher, Siobhan, also reads extracts from the book that he is writing, and there are also a few instances of breaking the fourth wall.

Another innovate element of the production is the way it overwhelms the audience’s senses so that we have an idea of how Christopher feels when he goes outside his comfort zone, such as to the train station or on the tube. Lights, projections and loud sounds are used incredibly effectively.

The ensemble in the production play several different characters such as Christopher’s neighbours and passengers on the train or tube. In this production Lucianne McEvoy played Siobhan, and Scott Reid was fantastic as Christopher.

The fact that I’d seen the play before did nothing to wane my enthusiasm for this production. Very funny but also emotional. Brilliant.

The Deep Blue Sea – NT Live

When Hester Collyer is found in her flat by her neighbours after a failed suicide attempt, her love affair with former RAF pilot Freddie Page and her estrangement from her husband is revealed.

Helen McCrory is absolutely fantastic in this production as Hester, and her performance is so full of emotion. The playwright Terrence Rattigan has said that the play is about

“the illogicality of passion”

and McCrory conveys this beautifully. She is a completely different person when Freddie appears, hiding her inner turmoil until she is alone.

Tom Burke is a callous Freddie Page, but you do have sympathy for his as a former war hero who has found that after the war that his life is dull and has no purpose. Hester isn’t enough for him, despite her efforts. Peter Sullivan is a younger and more attractive William Collyer than I would have imagined, and you may initially wonder why Hester chose Freddie, but he does convey a lack of passion that Hester clearly craves. Other strong performances are Marion Bailey as the landlord Mrs Elton and Nick Fletcher as the struck off doctor Mr Miller.

The set design is also very clever. Although the action all takes place in Hester and Freddie’s flat in Ladbroke Grove, the designer Tom Scutt has decided to show some of the other flats above, and we see other characters moving around and going up and down the stairs. This reflects the fact that Hester knows that people are watching and listening the whole time, and the appearances that they have to keep up when in public.

An excellent production with a stand out performance from Helen McCrory.

The Audience – NT Live

This was the second time I saw The Audience by Peter Morgan, both times via NT Live. Encore screenings were scheduled last month to celebrate the Queen’s 90th birthday, along with a Q&A after the play with Helen Mirren and the director Stephen Daldry.

Every week, when both are in the UK, Queen Elizabeth II meets the Prime Minister at Buckingham Palace. The meetings are completely private and no minutes or records are kept. This play is a fictionalised account of what she may have discussed with the 12 Prime Ministers of her reign. Not all Prime Ministers are included, but the starring ones are Churchill, Thatcher, Cameron, Callaghan (briefly!), Major, Wilson, Eden and Brown.

It is an extremely well written play, moving and very funny. What made it particularly special during the original run is that the final scene between the Queen and David Cameron was updated regularly to include references to current news, such as the Duchess of Cambridge’s pregnancy. The meetings are also not in chronological order, which meant that Helen Mirren had some very quick and very clever costume and wig changes on stage. Mirren, as you would expect, is fantastic. She shows the ‘human’ side of the Queen that we rarely see in public, her nerves during her first meeting as monarch with Churchill who tries to intimidate her, her empathy with Brown who is clearly suffering from depression and Wilson when he is diagnosed with Alzheimers, and her sadness when it is mentioned that Britannia should be sold. There are several lighter moments, particularly with Wilson (Richard McCabe), who we also see at Balmoral. He is rumoured to have been the Queen’s favourite Prime Minister, which may be true as apart from Churchill he is the only PM with whom she has dined at Downing Street. I was also very pleased to see some Corgis make a brief appearance!

A wonderful play which was just as enjoyable the second time around.

A View From The Bridge – NT Live

This production of A View From The Bridge by Arthur Miller, originally performed at the Young Vic before transferring to the West End where it was broadcast by NT Live, was a fantastic portrayal of a claustrophobic family situation.

Eddie Carbone (Mark Strong) and his wife Beatrice (Nicola Walker) live with Beatrice’s niece Catherine (Phoebe Fox), who moved in with them after the death of her mother. It is clear from the outset that the relationship between Eddie and Catherine, their touches, long embraces and her wrapping her legs around his waist, is becoming inappropriate now that she is a young woman and no longer a child. When two of Beatrice’s cousins arrive illegally from Italy to stay with them, Eddie’s possessiveness of Catherine becomes more apparent after she falls in love with one of them, Rodolpho. He claims that he is uncomfortable because Rodolpho sings, dances and sews, qualities that are totally different to the stereotypical masculinity that Eddie exudes, but his jealousy is undeniable.

There were strong performances from all, and there was a fantastic scene after Eddie had become aware of Catherine’s relationship, with all the characters in the Carbone household present, where you could have cut the tension with a knife. I feel that the choice not to have an interval also added to the intensity of the play. I did however find Phoebe Fox difficult to understand at times – her accent sounded different to Strong’s and Walker’s, and she also spoke very quickly.

The set was very simple – just a square box with the audience sat on three sides, reminiscent of a boxing ring or a prison cell, but it conveyed the claustrophobia of the play excellently.

I was completely unfamiliar with the play before this production and it was a fantastic introduction to it. Thank you NT Live!

As You Like It (NT Live)

As You Like It is one of my favourite Shakespeare comedies, it’s full of romance, funny characters and it has a rather silly plot. Last night’s NT Live showing from the Olivier Theatre did not disappoint.

The set in this production was very impressive and extremely clever. The opening scenes of the play set in the court were in an office. I wasn’t overly sure about this at first, especially during the wrestling match, as it didn’t seem to fit. However, when the setting was transformed to the forest of Arden, the tables and chairs were lifted up by strings to form the trees and shadows. It was excellently designed by Lizzie Clachan but I kept thinking that it must be a nightmare to reset all the furniture again for the opening scenes! There was also a small choir, who were sat one some of the chairs and sang some forest animal sounds, spookily during the first half. In the second half, they created more positive and musical sounds, particularly to show the love at first sight between Celia (Patsy Ferran) and Oliver (Philip Arditti). Although this was effective, at times I felt it was a little distracting from the dialogue, particularly when they were making bee like humming noises. This may only have been relevant when seeing it at the cinema as I’m guessing they were miked, it might not be as loud or obvious when watching in the theatre.

Rosalie Craig was an excellent, strong Rosalind, and the chemistry between her and Ferran was brilliant. Having listened to a podcast interview with them both earlier in the week, where they discussed that the play is as much about love between friends as it is romantic love, this was evident in their performances. I also really liked Joe Bannister as Orlando, making him a nervous but extremely likeable character. One of my favourite moments in the play will sound strange, but it was during a scene between Touchstone (Mark Benton, very good) and the shepherd, when the rest of the cast were pretending to be sheep. It was much better and funnier than it sounds!

My slight criticism of the play is going to be about the music, but I am being quite harsh. I last saw As You Like It a few years ago in Stratford-Upon-Avon with the RSC where the music was composed by Laura Marling. I left the theatre humming the songs and subsequently bought the soundtrack. The songs in this production weren’t particularly memorable, and although the dance scene during the wedding at the end was fun and entertaining, 24 hours later I have no memory of the song at all. However, overall this was an enjoyable production and I definitely would like to see more of Rosalie Craig and Patsy Ferran on stage.

Les Liaisons Dangereuses (NT Live)

Deceit, revenge, power and sex, is what I would say if I had to sum up Les Liaisons Dangereuses in four words. La Marquise de Merteuil (Janet McTeer) and Le Vicomte de Valmont (Dominic West) use their powers of seduction to ruin other people’s lives for their own entertainment, reporting back to each other on their conquests and setting each other new challenges. Their relationship turns sour however in the second half, when Merteuil begins to suspect that another woman has taken her place as Valmont’s favourite.

The shift in the play was conveyed excellently in this production by the Donmar Warehouse, directed by Josie Rourke. The play was partly lit by candlelight, with four chandeliers hanging above the stage. At the turning point in the play, the chandeliers were lowered and the candles were all extinguished by the cast, with Merteuil blowing out the final candle. Another example of clever design was the use of portraits; during the first half there were many romantic nude portraits scattered around the set, reflecting the seduction that was taking place. Towards the end of the play when a tragedy occurs, there was a portrait of the Tricolore flag in a scene of war, foreshadowing the French Revolution that was soon to occur, and the end of the aristocratic society in which the play (adapted from Choderlos de Laclos’ novel by Christopher Hampton) is set. I wish I’d paid more attention to the portraits throughout, as I wonder whether I missed any other subtleties!

The cast all gave very strong performances, with Dominic West still managing to be somewhat likeable despite playing a rather detestable character at times. Janet McTeer however, was outstanding. Seductive, sexy, powerful…wonderful. The script was extremely witty, with excellent banter between Merteuil and Valmont, and the costumes were beautiful.

Despite the novel being written in 1782, and this production was also set in that period, in many ways it is very modern, and this was discussed during the interval by Josie Rourke and Christopher Hampton. The play has strong feminist undertones, with Mertreuil explaining how as a woman publicly she doesn’t appear to have any power, but she can manipulate and flirt and seduce, and as she explains to Valmont

‘I was born to dominate your sex and avenge my own’

The play began and finished with a card game, and despite the tragedy at the end of the play Mertreuil was still holding her cards, ready to continue playing the game. The characters in the play also discussed the difference between love and sex, and revolutionary for the time discuss the pleasure that both men and women can have from sex. Again very modern.

One difficult scene to watch in the play was Valmont’s seduction of the young Cécile (Morfydd Clark). I think it would be a very good scene to show young people in order to discuss the meaning of ‘consent’.

This was an excellent production of a witty and dark play. More please, NT Live!

 

Favourite theatre of 2015

I’ve been a frequent theatre goer since I was little, and one of the reasons I wanted to start this blog is that I see so many productions that it’s easy to forget details about them, so I thought that writing mini reviews would help with that. I have been incredibly lucky to see some more great theatre during 2015, and I thought I would mention some of my favourites as it’s New Year’s Eve. I won’t be mentioning any shows that I’ve seen at work (I work as an usher at a theatre) unless I actually paid to see them!

First of all, here’s a list of what I can remember seeing in 2015, including NT Live productions.

The Beaux Stratagem (NT Live), Ar Waith Ar Daith, Coriolanus (NT Live), Henry V, A Murder is Announced, A Doll’s House, Broadway to the Bay, Land of Our Fathers, Of Mice and Men (NT Live), The Shawshank Redemption, The Winter’s Tale (NT Live), Jane Eyre (NT Live), Hamlet, Shakespeare in Love, Treasure Island (NT Live), Love’s Labours Lost, Love’s Labours Won (both NT Live), Death of a Salesman, Peter Pan Goes Wrong, Dead Simple, The Merchant of Venice, Othello, The Elephant Man, Dirty Dancing, Oklahoma.

Here are my favourite five, in no particular order.

Ar Waith Ar Daith, Wales Millennium Centre

This was an outdoor performance to celebrate the Centre’s 10th birthday. It was based on the story of Taliesin, and it featured Shan Cothi as the witch, with huge puppets, choirs, quad bikes, rowers and fireworks. It was wonderful, and I felt so happy and proud that Wales gets and creates experimental theatre of this high standard. It was also refreshing that the Centre did something different to celebrate its birthday, rather than a more traditional concert.

Broadway to the Bay, Wales Millennium Centre

Another part of the Centre’s birthday celebrations, but this time more traditional. The Centre has had similar ‘Night at the Musicals’ concerts before but this was bigger and better! Featuring West End stars such as Kerry Ellis, Ruthie Henshall and John Owen Jones, it was an evening of musical favourites from all the big shows like Les Miserables, The Phantom of the Opera and Wicked to name but a few. What I loved most was at the end of the show the stars ‘passed the baton’ to the next generation, starting with students from the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama down to children from local drama groups, singing Our Time by Sondheim. With an orchestra and dancers, it was a fantastic evening. I’d love it to be an annual event!

Land of our Fathers, Weston Studio

This was a play about 6 miners who got stuck underground. It was intimate, moving, funny and extremely memorable. There was strong characterisation in the writing and the performances. Brilliant.

Shakespeare in Love, Noel Coward Theatre

This was an excellent adaptation of the film, telling the story of William Shakespeare being suddenly inspired again following writer’s block after falling in love. It was fun to spot all the references to Shakespeare plays during the performance. Romantic, funny and a dog. Wonderful.

Jane Eyre, NT Live

I’ve put this last not as it’s the most recent, but because as I saw it via NT Live I’m aware it’s never quite the same as seeing it live in a theatre, although it’s definitely the next best thing. The most impressive element of this production was the staging, it was very simple but it managed to convey all the different settings of the story effectively. There were only 6 actors playing all the parts, with Madeleine Worrall playing Jane from a child to an adult. There were some very funny moments, including an actor playing a dog, and all the best dialogue from the novel included. It was very moving, and has made me want to reread the novel.

I hope I’m as lucky to see as many great productions in 2016!