‘King Lear’ at the National Theatre

Matching each other, name for nameThere is a large photograph on the front page of today’s newspaper.  It is of Simon Russell Beale and Anna Maxwell Martin as Lear and Regan in the new production of King Lear in the Olivier Theatre, directed by Sam Mendes.  This latest collaboration between Mendes and Russell Beale is clearly considered newsworthy; and Charles Spencer, on the Reviews page gives the show four stars.

I’m neutral on the subject of Sam Mendes, but where Simon Russell Beale is concerned, I’m a fan.  I’ve seen him on stage many times, I’ve booked things that would largely not appeal to me solely on the strength of his participation, and have never been disappointed…..until now.

It’s probably a shameful confession, but here it is anyway.  So little was I enjoying the experience, I left at the interval.  I had sat through two hours, and the thought of another hour and a half brought tears to my eyes.  I had already been near weeping for the half hour or so before the break, when I was on hyper alert for the rhyming couplet that normally indicates the end of an Act; and each time I had convinced myself that it must, it just must be now, another actor would appear on stage out of the darkness, and shout some more.  Finally, during the eye gouging scene in which they poured water onto the stage, and the bloodied actor wiped his face on it, my silent cry that surely this must be the interval, if only to allow time for the wiping up, the lights went out and the stage was empty.

After sitting through some awful nights in the theatre trying to appreciate Shakespeare (yes I’m talking about you, Ralph Fiennes) I had all but given up on it. It was the National’s production of Othello last year which encouraged me to believe that Shakespeare didn’t necessarily mean meretricious tedium. That was a production of a play I didn’t know well, but which, because of it’s cleverness and the brilliance of the performances, let me understand it, and engage with it on both an intellectual as well as an emotional level.

King Lear is another of the canon that I don’t know well, apart from the broad brush strokes: the three daughters, the carving up of the kingdom, the old king going mad….. and with SRB in the lead, surely here was a production that would enlighten and entertain me.

I think my dislike of the production all stems from a single problem, which was that I couldn’t understand what they were saying.  For all the shouting and shrieking, the words were remarkably indistinct.  This, added to the frequent changing of scene, of one group of actors leaving as another arrived, I couldn’t really work out what was going on, or more importantly why.

S, my theatre companion and I, were in agreement that the only actor whose words were being enunciated clearly enough for us to hear was the one playing Edmund.  It was therefore very amusing to read subsequently (I’m far too tight fisted to buy a programme) that this was Paapa Essiedu, the understudy for Sam Troughton who had lost his voice midway through the performance of the previous day.  Maybe as understudy, he’d not yet achieved the ‘production style’.  It was very disappointing, but must have been a production decision, because I have never not been able to understand what Simon Russell Beale was saying before; and Anna Maxwell Martin’s usually mellifluous voice was lost in her awkward, shrieking harpie.

S would have probably stayed for the second half if I hadn’t asked her if the only reason for staying was that we thought we ‘should’.  Leaving was the only option once we’d acknowledged that it was the naughty thing that we shouldn’t do.

Have you seen it?  Did it get better after the interval?

‘The Amen Corner’ at the Olivier Theatre

Set in the 1950s in a rundown corner church in Harlem, ‘The Amen Corner’ examines the hypocrisy, petty rivalries and envy in a small religious community.

Sister Margaret, (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) is the leader of the small Pentecostal community, setting absolute and inflexible rules for her flock.  Unbending, she sows the seeds of resentment by preaching against the job driving a beer delivery truck that one member plans to apply for; Sister Margaret knows the path of righteousness and that would be an unholy thing to do.

When her long abandoned jazz musician husband turns up out of the blue, dying from TB, and her son is spotted hanging out with girls and smoking cigarettes in the street, the control Margaret has over her congregation and her own life begins to unravel.  Her absence out of town for a couple of days gives the church Elders the opportunity to plot against her.  Where did she get the money for the new refrigerator in her house? Why did she lie that her husband had left her, when she was the one who had left?  Even the good offices of her sister Odessa, a magnificently dignified Sharon D Clarke, can do nothing to prevent the usurping of her role as pastor.  When her husband, whom she is forced to admit she still loves, dies, and her son leaves her to go on tour playing jazz, she is left bereft, and only then realises that the only way to follow the true path of good is to love people.

The action is played out on a double-storey set; upstairs the meeting room for the church, with a cramped downstairs, dominated by the controversial refrigerator, where Sister Margaret lives with her son and Odessa.  The play begins and ends with gospel singing, even before the lights have dimmed the songs have started, and music punctuates the evening.  Even when they are not in church, songs, for which everyone knows the words, seep into everyday encounters.

But it is when they are singing in church that all the participants throw themselves wholeheartedly into the singing; their bodies bend and twist emphasising the energy and power of the message.  And this physicality is thrown into high relief when, at the climax of the play, Sister Margaret sits quietly weeping by the body of her dead husband in the downstairs flat, her vanquisher, Sister Moore (Cecilia Noble) who has morphed seamlessly from sycophantically devout follower to viciously ambitious rival, leads the congregation in an ecstatic, stomping, clapping victory chant.

I thought all the performances were fantastic, big and brash when that was needed, and subtle and affecting in the smaller yet more significant moments.  And the singing was foot tapping, hand clapping inspiring.  The nasty gossiping, the hypocrisy, and nursing of seemingly trivial grievances into justifications to topple Sister Margaret are brilliantly done, recognisable from any environment where people compete with each other for any kind of authority or preferment.

The National Theatre is on a bit of a roll at the moment, and this is another great show.

They’ve Called it The Shed

2013-04-09 17.34.59There’s no missing the new structure that’s been built beside the National Theatre on the Southbank.  In the land of grey weathered concrete, The Shed shouts out its difference.  It’s wood, and it’s red, bright red;  it looks sort of upside down with four feet sticking into the air, and at the moment it is still smelling woody.  It’s just got to be visited.

It’s been built to house new productions suitable for a small house, while the Cottesloe Theatre is being remodelled.  I’ve not been inside yet, but rest assured I will get around to booking to see something, if only to satisfy my curiosity, and to be able to say that I’ve been inside.

Meanwhile, I’m enjoying the serendipity that caught a plane in my snap.

‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time’ at the Apollo Theatre

2013-03-05 09.36.02A number of the seats in the auditorium at the Apollo are covered in white fabric, with a pocket on the back containing a card.  The white covers appear to be randomly sprinkled, but they’re not, and, initially, my heart sank when I saw that my seat was draped, but, after I’d read the card, I was intrigued enough to see if I would get a prime number if I ‘added up’ all the letters in my name, to match the prime number location of my seat.

This game is all part of the experience of entering into the world of 15 year old Christopher Boone.  Brilliant at maths, but finding most things about the world, especially other people with their tendency not to tell the truth, confusing, Christopher decides to investigate the death of Wellington  his neighbour’s dog.  In pursuing that investigation, Christopher learns the things his father hasn’t been entirely truthful about.

Adapted from the novel by Mark Haddon, the strength of this production is in its visual inventiveness.  The stage is set a square box lined with graph paper, setting the regular lines and patterns that Christopher needs to feel secure and calm. And with clever use of lights and projections as well as the simple use of chalk, we have an insight into his thought processes.

Opening with a tableau of the dog lying dead, pinned beneath the prongs of a garden fork, the play is structured first as the book Christopher has written about his investigation, and it then morphs into the school play based on that story.  Without being overly mannered in its execution, this story within a play convention allows a little exploration of the divide between the creation of fiction and Christopher’s insistence on facts and forensic accuracy.

It is possible for us all to sympathise with one or more aspects of how the world seems determined to mystify and thwart him; the aggressive noise and crowds of London to those unfamiliar with it, the nuisance that other people can be when they step over the boundaries of what we are prepared to allow them, and the absurdity of the way some people speak and express themselves.

The performances from the ensemble cast are excellent.  There are some changes from the original production at the National Theatre, and I’m afraid as I was too mean to buy a programme, and as I’ve not been able to find the cast list online, I can’t name them.  Many play multiple parts and engage in the choreographed dance like elements; I particularly enjoyed a scene in which Christopher, dreaming he is floating in the stars, too numerous to count, is carried shoulder high, twisting and somersaulting through the air.  Knowing how much strength must have been required to achieve this, made the joyful effortlessness of it look even more impressive.

I could have done without the live puppy brought on to sentimental oohs and aahs from the audience, although, inevitably, so tiny was it, I did start to wonder how many puppies would be needed for an extended run, and how big each one would need to be before it was replaced.

2013-03-05 09.36.13Sadly, 129, the total I arrived at for my name, isn’t a prime number, but, as I recall from my school Maths Club days, and I’d like to think that Christopher knows this too, it is the sum of the first 10 prime numbers. So, no prize, but a satisfactory answer none the less.

‘This House’ at The National Theatre

A sell-out last year in the Cottesloe, This House, has just opened in the vastly bigger space of the Olivier.  Set entirely within the back rooms of the Palace of Westminster, it tells the story of the UK government between 1974, when Edward Heath lost the general election, and 1979, when Margaret Thatcher came to power.

I was a teenager during that period, so have a memory of a time of grim industrial upheaval involving power cuts, streets full of rubbish and endless footage on the news of trade union leaders shouting through megaphones at mass meetings of striking workers.  There also seemed to be more frequent elections than seemed entirely right.  When Heath called the election in 1974, he asked the question, ‘Who governs Britain?’, and the electorate answered ‘Dunno, but not you.’  No party had an overall majority, so although Labour was in government, it had to ally itself with the smaller parties (the ‘odds and sods’) in order to get their legislation through the House.

Hoping for a more substantial majority Harold Wilson called another election within the same year, in which he won one, but only by three seats.  This put massive pressure on each MP to attend every vote, involving the Whips (the Parties enforcement teams) in persuasion, bullying,  bribery and blackmail, and in the wheeling in of ill MPs on their hospital beds.  When a dispute arose about an apparent  welching on a ‘pairing’ deal (the practice by which one party agrees that a member won’t vote if a member of the other party is unavoidably away from the House), the Opposition refused to continue the practice, leading to even greater pressure on everyone.  The fact that Labour members seemed to keep on dying made the maintenance of a majority even more difficult.

Set on a stage done out to look like the inside of the House of Commons, with some members of the audience on benches, the action of the play is entirely focussed on the dark arts of politics, in small smoke filled rooms, late at night, by tired, angry people.  There are moments of dark humour, music and dancing, the telling of famous incidents from the time, like Heseltine waving the Mace around, and Stonehouse faking his own death, but mostly it’s about the Whips reckoning the number of votes on which they can count, and then strategising  about how to get people to vote the ‘right’ way.

There’s a certain amount of exposition in the early part of the play about how Parliament works, but this is probably necessary to make sure that everyone understands the significance of what is unfolding in the drama.  And it might be that the characters are a little stereotyped, ‘working class’ and sweary on one side, and toffy-nosed and too well dressed on the other, but they are meant to be ‘representative’ so it didn’t detract from my enjoyment.

I found it entirely gripping, and was amazed at the end, to see how much time had elapsed and how late it was.  It’s a historic tale, but it’s all too easy to see the parallels in the wheeling and dealing that is necessary to keep the current Coalition Government in power.

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