Will travel for good theatre

The culture: ‘Richard III’ by William Shakespeare and ‘Die Mutter’ by Bertolt Brecht, Schaubühne, Berlin

The cheap seats: €9 stalls ticket (student rate) in the Berlin Globe, €7.50 Studio seats (half price for Theatre Day)

I’ve seen plenty of international theatre in my time but always from the comfort of my own city. While I often have museums and art galleries at the top of my tourist to-do lists when I go abroad, I’d never visited the theatre in a foreign country until last week.

I planned my entire trip to Berlin around Thomas Ostermeier’s Richard III, a production of Shakespeare’s history play that I’ve been desperate to see since Ben Fowler spoke about the Schaubühne’s Shakespeare in a lecture at the Globe theatre. Tickets were pretty hard to get hold of, involving a lot of patience with a difficult German website on the first day of the month. Having failed to nab seats in January or February, I finally got lucky with some brilliant seats in March. It was worth the wait.

Richard III opens with loud music, a live drum beat, beautifully dressed people popping champagne and plenty of confetti canons. There’s a lot to like about this production, including a great cast (particularly Christoph Gawenda, a highlight of the Enemy of the People that visited the Barbican last year), some creepy puppet princes, and a spectacular death scene with a horrible amount of blood seeping into sand and mingling with glitter. Really, though, it’s all about Lars Eidinger, whose Richard is determined to make the play a one-man show.

Pigeon-toed and childish, like a German Jack Whitehall approaching middle age but still trying to shake off daddy issues and his huge ego, Eidinger’s crippled King hobbles about the stage with a club foot made out of black tape and a hump strapped to his shoulder. He’s utterly vulgar. Several scenes involve his favourite dish – “potatoes and soft cheese” – and he ends up with it smeared all over his face like a dairy death mask. He’s also hilarious, refusing to collaborate with the English subtitles and ad-libbing with a playful brand of anarchy, then suddenly heartbreaking and deadly serious. He delivers monologues into a hanging light-up mic with a camera like a comedian crossed with a terrifying angler fish. The production is almost three hours without an interval but it flies by, climaxing in a powerful final tableau. I must confess that I dozed off for a few minutes in the first half hour (a reflection of my early flight and a day of exploring, not of the production itself) but Ostermeier’s Richard III was one of the most exciting Shakespeares I’ve seen recently. On April 1 you will probably find me furiously refreshing my browser trying to secure tickets to the much raved about Hamlet, also starring Eidinger.

Since I was flying all the way to Berlin for a play, I decided to make a holiday of it and to catch another production at the Schaubühne while I was there. Performed in the theatre’s small studio space across the road, I almost missed the beginning after a mix up involving an eager ticket-ripping steward and my own inexcusably bad German. Safe in my seat, however, I was treated to a surprisingly enjoyable rendition of Brecht’s Die Mutter, an overtly political piece made palatable by the addition of plenty of live music, a fantastic young cast, and added scenes including one where the actor playing young revolutionary Pavel dons a glitzy gold cape and lectures on theatre as a capitalist venture before doing a little rap and the German equivalent of “I say Capital, you say ism! Capital! Ism! Capital! Ism!” I struggled a bit without subtitles, but enjoyed the Schaubühne’s trademark playful alternative style nonetheless.

 

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An experience of Uncle Vanya

The culture: ‘Uncle Vanya’, by Anton Chekhov in a new version by Robert Icke, Almeida Theatre

The cheap seats: £10 restricted view side seats (mostly fine but a poor view of the characters whenever they stepped outside of the box to soliloquise)

Even bad Chekhov hits me right in the guts. There’s something about the way he writes and effortlessly captures human experience in all its miserable beauty and beautiful misery that just reduces me to a quivering mess of existential crises every time. But the Almeida’s new Uncle Vanya isn’t bad Chekhov, it’s brilliant Chekhov, and I spent a surreal journey home on the Overground staring into the middle distance, hopeless and hopeful, surrounded by St Patrick’s Day drunks.

Robert Icke’s new version of the play updates it and chops it into pieces. The night is three intervals and over three hours long but doesn’t feel it. It opens on a hazy midsummer day with beautiful rich people languishing in the heat at their country house. They’re a middle-class cliché. I know these people and I dislike these people but I identify with almost every one of them. As the set slowly turns round and round (and round and endlessly round, it’s a metaphor, get it?), I slip into the production, lulled into a false sense of something by the sunny lighting and birdsong, and my personality, my being, is picked apart while I’m not paying attention. I see myself in them all. As the night progresses and the characters reveal their virtues and their flaws I’m confronted by myself at every turn of that really irritating creaking set. It’s claustrophobic and disgusting. It’s fascinating. They start to fall apart and so do I. Or at least we all start to realise that we were never ‘together’ in the first place.

There’s a stunning moment in which Uncle Vanya goes mental with a bunch of autumn roses and I want to be him, thrashing everything in sight out of pure frustration. I want to be Elena, beautiful and admired and lethargic and looking on horrified. I want to be Sonya, cowering in the corner, hiding from the sheer sorrow of it all. I am all of them, even the well-dressed great aunt who barely speaks. Even that chicken with a two minute cameo. Especially the grandmother who knits and drops occasional pearls of obscure wisdom. When the hot doctor’s morphine goes missing and the tension is ramped right up to really-fucking-unbearable I realise my knuckles are white and my nails are digging into my hands. It’s really that good. Those 3 hours could have been 3 days, 3 minutes, or 3 seconds. It’s really that good.

 

Ode to Joy

The culture: ‘Wonder.land’, National Theatre Olivier; ‘The Woman Hater’ by Edward’s Boys, King’s College London Chapel

The cheap seats: £5 Entry Pass stalls seats (upgraded to centre, row D); £10 general tickets

Over the last few weeks I’ve seen some brilliant and brutal theatre, starting with Sarah Kane’s torturous masterpiece ‘Cleansed’ and then Jean Genet’s tricky drama ‘The Maids’ at Trafalgar Studios. Both had brilliant casts and powerful women galore. They were hard hitting, tackling issues of race, gender, class. They were sweary and violent but also beautiful in a twisted and disturbing way.

They were also difficult. Both plays are firmly lodged in my brain but I didn’t really ‘get’ them. I left the theatres feeling a bit floored, but not feeling like I understood the plays, and certainly not like I had been entertained. I also think I’ve gained a brow-wrinkle from thinking about them.

There’s something to be said for something that’s pure joyful fun. Last weekend I finally saw ‘Wonder.land’ at the National Theatre, the new musical based on Alice in Wonderland by Moira Buffini and Blur’s Damon Albarn. I booked before it got savaged on press night and, having seen the reviews, almost returned my tickets. But I’m so, so glad I didn’t. ‘Wonder.land’ is high-camp fun of the highest order, the kind that is usually reserved for pantomime season. Aly is a troubled teen from a broken home who enters ‘Wonder.land’, a virtual reality game where you can be whoever you like, to escape the bullies at her new school and the fall-out from her parents’ break-up at home. Yes, it was a bit patronising in places. But the theme of self-acceptance was so uplifting, there were so many inspired moments, so much glitter, and a very sexy white rabbit, that I left grinning like the Cheshire cat himself.

Sunday’s treat was a little more high-brow. As part of King’s College London’s Beaumont400 conference (an antidote to all the bardolating that’s going on at the moment), Edward’s Boys, a boys’ company from Stratford-upon-Avon, staged Francis Beaumont’s forgotten gem of a comedy ‘The Woman Hater’. The entire show was brilliantly stolen by its madcap subplot in which a glutton will do anything, including marrying a prostitute, to sample the rare delicacy of his dreams – a fish head. There was even a Dean Martin song thrown in. I’ve never laughed so hard in a chapel.

While I love a serious piece of drama as much as the next frequenter of the NT, there’s a lot to be said for fun theatre, and for revelling in childish jokes, belly laughs, glitter cannons, pimps dressed as priests, and fish heads.

I went to see Cleansed and didn’t faint

The culture: ‘Cleansed’ by Sarah Kane, National Theatre Dorfman

The cheap seats: £20 high chair Circle seats (restricted side view but distance from the horror show was much appreciated)

Ok a quick disclaimer: I am a massive wimp, and while the reports of walkouts at the National’s new show didn’t bother me too much (the middle-aged, middle-class NT regulars are usually a bit oversensitive), the faintings made me a bit nervous.Especially because the horrific opening scene (and many after) involve needles and needles send me into peak squeamishness. But you can’t call yourself a theatre fan if you give up on Sarah Kane after one bad experience (4.48 Psychosis) in a stuffy basement at the Edinburgh Fringe. And so I bravely made my way to Cleansed, performed by an incredible cast (including Natalie Klamar, Matthew Tennyson, and Michelle Terry) and directed by the inimitable Katie Mitchell.

It was an intense evening. I can’t really write about it because I feel numb, like someone picked up one of the hypodermics from sinister ‘doctor’ Tinker and injected a heavy dose of adrenaline into my heart but followed it with plenty of anaesthetic. It was by far the best thing I’ve seen in the Dorfman, the theatre that previously brought us An Evening At the Talk House.

I can’t really write about it. Luckily Dan Rebellato has already done a sterling job. Instead, here’s a few things that I won’t be able to experience again in the same way, after being well and truly Cleansed:

  • Bare feet, at least for a bit. The whole play was full of the kind of gruesomeness that you feel like pin pricks in the soles and arches and tendons in your feet, ankles, toes and so all the bare feet onstage made me feel a bit nauseous.
  • Black umbrellas, carried ominously by Magritte-y characters with lilies and urns.
  • Blondie’s Picture This, or plastic sheeting, or cardboard hospital bowls, or hand sanitiser, or latex gloves.
  • Beautiful daffodils emerging at the start of spring, because beauty happening in a hopeless place is the most tragic of things.
  • Boxes of chocolate. I used to give up chocolate for Lent but never had the willpower to abstain all the way til Easter. One particularly, weirdly nasty scene in Cleansed (it was odd that it effected me so much, in a play where feet literally get shredded before our eyes), really put me off the sickly, sicky sick sweet stuff. Bleugh.

By the end my stomach had flipped at least thrice, my hairs were on end all over, my fingertips sweaty and hypersensitive. I haven’t really got it yet. It’s still a collection of haunting images, waiting to be stitched together, a gaping wound in a waiting room.

REVIEW: The Tempest

The culture: ‘The Tempest’ by William Shakespeare, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

The cheap seats: £10 standing tickets (very restricted side view, although I managed to sneak onto an empty seat with a central sightline after the interval)

The Tempest wasn’t Shakespeare’s last play, no matter how much we wish it was. It would have been perfect – a life in art, the master of theatre’s carefully orchestrated last goodbye to the stage before burning his books and begging his audience to set him free with their applause so he could retire to the country and turn his thoughts to death. But it was not so. After Prospero exits stage right, Shakespeare would return to write Henry VIII and a collaborative play, Two Noble Kinsmen. Editing these out of the Late Works canon according to the Sam Wanamaker Winter Season creates a much neater set of plays with a pleasing narrative arch, of which Dominic Dromgoole’s production of The Tempest is the climax. The problem is that it’s not quite a climax. It’s nice: nice candle-work, nice costumes, (mostly) nice acting, and a (mostly) nice play. As a good, old-timey piece of bardolatry it’s a masterpiece, though as a piece of drama it’s hardly ground-breaking

But if you want radical Shakespeare you will have to wait for Ivo van Hove’s upcoming trilogy at the Barbican; you go to a show at the Globe for its conservative, historical approach to the Complete Works. However even by these high standards resurrecting old Will himself and planting him on stage as the well-read wizard Prospero might be a bit much. For although he has more beard and less forehead than classic portraits of Shakespeare, Tim McMullan’s Prospero is clearly meant to be an incarnation of the playwright in a production that subscribes wholeheartedly and unapologetically to the autobiographical reading of the play. This Prospero is intensely dislikable – he’s irascible, smug, and, with a female Ariel (Pippa Nixon) and his daughter Miranda (Phoebe Pryce) as his main companions, appears misogynistic until the men of Milan show up and he’s just as abrupt with them. He is a genius, but also a man who likes the sound of his own brilliant, booming voice to such an extent that it’s hard to dredge up any pity for him at all come the play’s conclusion. There’s some great character work here and if his main role in this production wasn’t ‘Shakespeare Impersonator’, Tim McMullan might have been up there with the best Prosperos I’ve seen.

‘Shakespero’ aside, the production doesn’t do much out of the ordinary (although it does feature some fabulous dinosaur dogs in the second half). With the exception of halfwit drunkards Stephano and Trinculo (affable Globe favourites Trevor Fox and Dominic Rowan, who take considerable liberties with their scripts and ad-lib with all kinds of brilliant modernisms), this Tempest is a usual doublet-and-hose affair with traditional values and a jig at the end, just what the Globe does best.

I found my eye drawn to the musicians’ gallery several times (and not just because of the startling thunderclaps), to Dominic Dromgoole’s smiling face which looks down at the audience, immortalised, painted atop the wings of a cherub. This truly is his swan song. Like Prospero and Shakespeare before him, Dromgoole is saying goodbye to the thing he has loved and invested so much in. His Tempest is about as subtle as a sledgehammer, but as well as being a solid production it’s such a fond farewell from, and to, that marvellous director and master of bardolators that, however much I disliked it, I have to admit that I admired it hugely too.

Lagers and Trombones and Bears, Oh My!

The culture: ‘The Winter’s Tale’, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse; ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’, National Theatre Lyttelton; ‘Iphigenia in Splott’, National Theatre Temporary Theatre

The cheap seats: £10 standing tickets at the Sam Wanamaker; £5 Entry Pass in the Circle for ‘Ma Rainey’ (which gave me a great view of the set); £20 full price side view for ‘Iphigenia’ (Entry Pass ones had sold out but I’m so glad I splurged).

I’ve seen a lot of beige theatre lately, stuff that’s not got me excited enough to write about, stuff I’ve neither loved nor hated. To be honest I was worrying that, after a dodgy tail-end of 2015 (I’m looking at you, Young Vic Macbeth), 2016 was going to be a duff one. But in the first grey and miserable week of February I scored a hat-trick. Here’s my week in review, and it’s full of strong women, powerful words, and brilliant theatre.

Tuesday: The Winter’s Tale by William Shakespeare, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

The ‘Late Shakespeare’ winter season at the Globe’s Sam Wanamaker Playhouse has been an interesting project so far. After a strong start with Dominic Dromgoole’s Pericles, I was a little disappointed by a Cymbeline (dir. Sam Yates) that although clear and beautiful lacked the magic and wow-factor of its predecessor. Michael Longhurst’s Winter’s Tale, the third production in this repertory, is gripping, dark, and powerful from its opening moments. The first half ends with the auditorium plunged into a chilling darkness, populated by bears and lonely candles, before the second half lifts the spirits from the depths of despair, gathering everyone round the fire for a good old-fashioned knees-up and a hey-nonny-nonny sing-song led by James Garnon’s cheeky Autolycus and a whole flock of ruddy-faced country folk. There’s some weird, primal sheep dancing that is really best buried somewhere deep in your subconscious where you’ll never have to encounter it again, but overall this Winter’s Tale is a joyous production of my new favourite Shakespeare play and worth seeing for Rachael Stirling’s Hermione and Niamh Cusack’s passionate Paulina alone.

Thursday: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom by August Wilson, National Theatre – Lyttelton 

Another one for those who like their theatre with a strong kick of feisty femininity, Dominic Cooke’s production of August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, starring Sharon D. Clarke as the titular Mother of the Blues, has a woman calling the shots in a music world dominated by white men. The story follows a diva’s battle to get control of her music in 1920s Chicago, and her band’s own struggles as black men in America. It’s an incredible story inspired by real-life and told with a whole lot of soul in this adaptation. The cast is faultless and it is so refreshing to see such diversity on a National Theatre stage. The two young black guys sitting next to me were, tellingly, not discussing the current whiter-than-white repertoire (As You Like It, Waste) but remembering their last trip to the National (Amen Corner, the last time I saw so many non-white faces on this patch of the South Bank) and getting excited for their next theatre trip – Red Velvet at the Garrick. This just goes to show that all the NT need to do to improve access and participation is to finally put more brilliant, diverse work in their programme!

Friday: Iphigenia in Splott by Gary Owen, National Theatre – Temporary Theatre

This was absolutely the jewel in the crown of my week of great theatre. Gary Owen’s one-woman play – furiously, movingly, beautifully brought to life by Sophie Melville’s phenomenal performance – is a battle cry for the NHS, screaming in the face of the Tory government and laying bare the bruises and bodies caused by Conservative cuts under stark neon lights. Effie is the kind of girl that seems more likely to be doing heroin down a dark alley of her rundown hometown than acting like a national heroine. She gets so wasted that she’s wiped out for the rest of the week just to pass the time. She staggers about with a two-day hangover, barely surviving on 25p instant noodles, smoking weed with her good for nothing boyfriend Kev. She’s a horrible symptom of a sick nation riddled with unemployment and weakened by a toxic drinking culture. We are repelled. She owns it. Effie aggressively confronts our prejudice against her before telling her story in her own words. It’s bitterly tragic and harrowingly told. By the end our horror isn’t focused on the ballsy, bad-mouthed, bleach-blonde Effie but on ourselves, our privilege, our ignorance of a country in tatters and a whole section of our society forced to be heroic because there’s no other way to keep going. I cried big ugly tears, gulping down sobs, like so many others were, so we wouldn’t ruin the stunned silence smothering the Temporary Theatre. What Iphigenia in Splott does in 75 minutes is more than most plays can do in three hours. This is what theatre is supposed to be like. I’m getting a bit emotional just thinking about it.

REVIEW: Jane Eyre

The culture: ‘Jane Eyre’ dir. Sally Cookson, based on the novel by Charlotte Brontë, National Theatre’s Lyttelton

The cheap seats: lovely £5 Entry Pass seats in the centre of the stalls, row B.

Telling the story of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre on stage was never going to be an easy task. It’s a huge book, to start with, and has just under 170 years’ worth of readers with their own ideas of Jane, Mr Rochester, and their turbulent journeys of love and loss. A production could have gone over the top, à la Barbican’s CumberHamlet, with lavish sets and starry casting. It could have condensed it down to a slim and sleek 2-hour affair, stripping the story to its bones.

The take on Jane Eyre currently playing at the National Theatre manages to achieve the perfect balance in its adaptation. A carefully pruned version of the Bristol Old Vic’s two-parter (which ran for 4.5 hours total), Sally Cookson’s production comes in at 3 hours 20 minutes. Many audience members were a bit aghast at the sight of that running time in the programme, but every second is necessary and every minute is magic.

Storytelling at its finest, and loyal to the plot in spite of (or perhaps because of) its quirkiness, women play men, adults play babies, and Craig Edwards even acts the part of Rochester’s dog, Pilot. The bare stage – all metal ladders, timber frames and atmospheric lightbulbs – has a captivating kind of rough beauty against which the talented cast scrawl Brontë’s story and a live band bring a haunting (and often funny) score to life. It’s endlessly inventive and really does justice to the book. This is high praise indeed coming from a literature student; Jane Eyre was the first book to make me cry, and I had tears in my eyes as I joined the standing ovation.

The energy and emotion the whole cast, but especially Madeleine Worrall as a refreshingly strong Jane, pour into the show is incredible. It burns – literally as well as metaphorically – with passion and creativity. It’s more like a thrilling recreation of Jane Eyre than a stage adaptation. I was awestruck from the very first scene of Cookson’s gorgeous, feminist show, and covered in goose-bumps from start to finish.