The last time I was at a puppet show, I was about 4. I probably cried then. I did again. Clearly, puppets make me cry.
Obviously, this is a global sensation, and rightly so. The story, of course, is a winner; I read Michael Morpurgo’s source novel almost thirty years ago with a First Year class and they were entranced, especially as it was told from the POV of the horse itself, Joey. Kids and anthropomorphism; killer combination. Generally the acting is spot on – Sion Daniel Young tugs heartstrings as young Albert Narrocott – and the script is more than competent, though sometimes it jars as a little clichéd, slightly pat, especially when Ian Shaw dominates the stage as the horses’ German saviour, Muller, and mangles the delivery a little.
But what makes this play are those damned puppets, the bestest pantomime horses ever. It’s a stunning decision to make the puppeteers completely visible and part of the action and it’s astonishing how quickly you completely ignore their presence and buy in completely to the illusion that these are real horses.
And how real. I’m with my wee sister, who’s a horsey person, and she is amazed at just how accurate every twitch of the ear, every sudden startling, even every breath is. She completely accepts the reality of their pain and suffering and, most importantly, their dignity. It’s that that is the most touching aspect of all, especially, for me, the broken Joey, head bowed, finally defeated at the end, awaiting the gunshot that will put him out of his misery until he hears that owl-hoot whistle from his master that slowly revives his shattered heart.
This is a fantastic family play, but it’s much more that that; it’s a brave theatrical experiment that could so easily have fallen flat and looked naff, but, thanks to the artistic and technical wizardry of Handspring Puppets, is quite the triumph. Loved it. Despite the snotters.
Wow. That was unbelievably wonderful.
Coriolanus’ isn’t a play I know that well: I think I read it once at university and subjected sixth year pupils to it a couple of times. I’ve never been a fan of the Roman plays and lumped this in with them; but, oh my goodness, is it something else – at least in this guise. What strikes me so much is the similarity between it and the great tragedies: I keep hearing echoes of Macbeth, especially in the scene where Coriolanus reveals his identity to Aufidius, or of King Lear’s rejection by his daughters in Coriolanus’ rejection of Menenius. My pal and I wonder when it was written, where it comes in the chronology, and we reckon it feels so fully formed it must come later; indeed it does. I’d forgotten that it was written in 1608, after the great tragedies. Seems old Will decided to recycle the best bits of his greatest hits.
It is superb. Stripped bare in the tiny Donmar Warehouse, it is staged as minimalist as possible, ladders, chairs and painted boxes on the floor. Tom Hiddleston takes the lead, and he’s a revelation. Once more, that naturalistic speech predominates; he makes Shakespearean language sound the most natural thing in the world to come out of your mouth, and it’s accompanied by the most 21st century looks and gestures, shrugs, ‘whatevers’ and ‘whatyouonabouts’ that bring a lot of laughs of recognition. He is charming, ruthless, sentimental, roaringly heroic, brutal and sexy by turn, and, as the director Josie Rourke says, we absolutely believe him as a young soldier, husband, father and son trying to make his way in the world. His raw energy and brute force dominate the stage, and it’s hardly surprising that Rourke uses that physicality in a female-fan-pleasing shower scene that is a cross between Alien and a Herbal Essences advert, Hiddleston stripped to the waist, washing the blood from his open wounds, a red fountain soaking the stage as he shakes his head.
He emotes very well, appearing to be able to shed a tear on tap or wind himself up to a fury at the stupidity of the common man; never has fascism seemed so attractive. It’s helped, of course, by the venality of the Tribunes, played by Eliot Levy and Helen Schlesinger as a couple of union officials on the make and a mission. Mark Gatiss is an excellent Menenius, all camp knowingness and laser-like insight and while Birgitte Hjort Sørensen as Virgilia has little to do, she does it very convincingly; known for her work in Borgen, she says in the pre-show interview how much it echoed with her.
However, pick of the bunch bar Hiddleston is Deborah Findlay as Volumnia, Coriolanus’ devoted mother. She is a little sing-songy in the first act as she happily declares how she’s sacrifice her son for a good name and a medal or two; however, her appeal to Coriolanus’ better nature as he prepares to ravage Rome is gob-smackingly good, wringing the tears from her son and the audience alike. She invests it with as much humanity as I’ve ever seen on stage, and it had me in bits.
So – I’ve found a new favourite play. When I’m asked which my favourite Shakespeares are, I’m now going to say ‘The Big Four, The Tempest and Coriolanus’; and, in some respects, ‘Coriolanus’ is the best of them all. There wasn’t a single moment I didn’t believe, not a single character I didn’t buy. I loved it.
My second NT Live and second dose of Rory Kinnear in a month, my fifth visit to a theatre production in five weeks, my third Big Will Big Tragedy this year: I think I’m becoming cultured.
This is a rebroadcast of Kinnear’s turn as Hamlet from two years ago, and it’s very, very good. It should probably be compared against David Tennant’s similarly t-shirted shot at the RSC from 2009: from what I remember of that (and I’ll need to watch it again), Kinnear’s is a more naturalistic interpretation: while Tenant goes for the moody, reflective, actory approach, Kinnear’s ‘to be or not to be’ seems to pop up out of nowhere, unheralded and unbidden. There are similarities though: I like the coward soliloquy ‘(I would have fatted all the region’s kites with this slave’s offal’ – what a fabulous line that is) and each delivers it with venomous self-loathing.
Kinnear’s naturalism comes from his apparent lack of presence: some commentators have described him as looking like a middle manager in some regional company, and it’s easy to see what they mean. He underplays beautifully, relying on cyncially-raised smirky eyebrows and that blank look of astonishment his father was such a master of: indeed, during his mad scene with Polonius, he mugs to the audience on a couple of occasions and looks exactly like Roy. It’s this touching ‘everyman’ appeal that made him so successful as Iago and in this allows us to engage with a real, live young man rather than a spoiled Prince who, in some versions, has come across as more than a little hysterical.
The production does something unusual with the plot too. Of course, the standard reading of the play is that Hamlet has a thing for his mum, and delays so long in avenging his dad because the old bastard scared the life out of him and he’s actually quite pleased he was bumped off: after all, it’s only when Gertrude is poisoned that he gets up off his arse to do something about his uncle. Here, though, that is reversed. James Laurenson (my goodness, as soon as I see his face, I’m taken back to watching ‘Boney’, the somewhat culturally insensitive but really well made Australian series about an Aboriginal detective, in the living room of my parents’ house, eating toasted rolls in the evening in 1973 ) plays the ghost as an avuncular, gentle and altogether paternal figure, while Claire Higgins’ Gertrude is a middle-aged lush poured into a leather skirt two sizes too small and ten years too young for her. Thus, Hamlet really is avenging his father, and his anger at his mother is not that she has let her son down, but that she actually has let her husband and herself down. That’s new: not a jot of the old Oedipus here.
There are irritations that are inherent in Hamlet for me. The ‘swear’ scene after the ghosts’ consultation with Hamlet is tedious and a bit daft – I never saw the need for the ghostly incantations from underground – and of course, one has to suspend disbelief to accept that two young men who had in one scene been at each others’ throat would in the next agree to a playful duel. But that’s all part of the politics of the court, and Kinnear makes that absolutely clear. Possibly the most memorable Hamlet I’ve ever seen was a performance in Russian at the old Tron in, oh, 1985? What was so good about that was that, freed from listening to the words, the audience was able to concentrate on the maneuverings of the characters around the politics of the court, and it was played as a chess match, characters moving across a checkered marble floor in and out of spotlights. The Machiavellian atmosphere came across brilliantly, and this production achieves something similar, though not so vivid, with its Secret Service agents sneaking around the place, talking into their microphones, adjusting their earpieces as they round up the players and march them off at gunpoint.
The other characters are solid without leaving me feeling gobsmacked. Claudius is a great part, and Patrick Malahide is a great actor, but, for some reason, he feels a bit like a double glazing magnate rather than a king. Ruth Negga is a lovely, winsome Ophelia, though it’s a part I’ve never really warmed to. Alex Lanipekim’s Laertes isn’t quite the full monty – there’s just a little swagger lacking, I feel. Best of the rest, I think, is David Calder’s Polonius; wandered, puffed up and verbose, he is genuinely funny and a genuine loss.
Oh, and the final sword fight was very realistic for a change, which was a pleasant surprise.
So I liked this, a lot. Despite being delayed and arriving a little late to find myself in amongst a school party (and perfectly behaved they were too) and despite a glitch in the streaming that almost ruined the coward soliloquy, this was a fine production. That’s three of the big four done by NT Live recently: I wonder who’ll be doing Lear for them next?
It’s only a couple of years since I saw ‘Dunsinane’ in Glasgow on its first run, but it’s a real pleasure to see it again and be reminded of how great a play it is. It’s clearly a real Scottish classic, and deserves to be seen and studied by as many Scottish children as possible up and down the country. Despite its setting, it has so many resonances for this generation in its portrayal of war and occupation, of what it is to be independently Scottish and the country’s relationship with its bigger, bolder neighbour.
Nothing’s changed really. There are some cast changes, with Sandy Grierson’s Malcolm more louche and suave than before, and all the better for it, while it’s nice to see old ‘pal’ Lewis Howden’s Macduff as manly as an advert for porridge. Jonny Phillips is astonishing again as Siward and Siobhan Redmond as sultry as ever as Gruoch.
On the rerun, it’s perhaps easier to notice Redmond’s centrality. At the first viewing, Siward is big and bold and all-encompassing, which kind of puts Gruoch in the shade. But expecting that bigness allows the subtlety of Redmond’s performance to shine; she seems always to know what is going on around her, seems able to read these men who whirl and careen across the stage better than the can read themselves. Just how political and manipulative she is comes across much more clearly when we can swivel our gaze away from Philip’s blustering soldier and spend some time just watching what’s going on in that quiet, sexy, understated pose of hers.
And it means there’s a different reading of the final scene available. I see it as a personal scene because I listen to Siward. Ragged and exhausted from his battle through the wintry Scottish mountains, he has come looking for the queen who abandoned him, and he stands there pleading that, as just a man and a woman, they finish what it is between them. However, my friend hears something different; she hears the bigness of it, not Siward and Gruoch but England and Scotland, Redmond uttering a generational curse that she will teach future queens of the country to harry and torment the English of the north.
Perhaps that says a lot about us. Men listen to men, men who are about their own egos, their own feelings; men burn down villages and murder children and start wars for women like Helen and Gruoch. Women listen to women, who all know life is about blood and motherhood, which is bigger than men any day of the week.
And I think she may be right.
Bloody hell, that was wonderful.
‘Othello’ is a play I love (like all Will’s biggie tragedies). I had doubts, I have to say, about Adrian Lester playing the lead. I’ve never seen a production in which Othello hasn’t been played by someone built like a brick shithouse and so handsome every woman in the audience – and a few guys too – go weak at the knickers as soon as he comes onstage. The Hollywood version of a few years back, with Branagh as Iago, had Lawrence Fishburne doing his very best Matrix voice to pretty good effect, but what was best about his performance was the sheer damned predatory sexiness of him. Lester, meanwhile, has been in ‘Hustle’ and (feel free to spit or laugh derisively) ‘Bonekickers’.
But he’s fantastic; absolutely magnificent. He has all the suaveness and superiority he needs at the beginning, charming Desdemona and the collected worthies of Venice (The Duke’s “I think this tale would win my daughter too” raises a perfectly timed laugh, one of surprisingly many), and his barely suppressed contempt for the racist insults thrown at him is terrific, restrained acting. Contrasted with that, his descent into incoherent jealousy is absolutely believable – I’ve never really gone for the epilepsy scene before now, but I buy this, absolutely – and it makes sense in a way it never has before. Even his final speech, believable as it is in its pain, also has the sneaky, self-serving edge of a man looking towards his posthumous reputation that is fresh and new and logical. A wonderful performance.
As is that delivered by Rory Kinnear, who seems to be doing just about everything at the moment, from the wonderful ‘Southcliffe’ to the rather less flattering Count Arthur Strong and a ton of 007 video games. At first, it took a while to tune into his accent, a Cockney spit that seemed to be fractured in its rhythms, but as the voice grew on me, so did his malevolent impact. More than any other production I’ve seen, Iago’s motives here lie in sexual jealousy (perhaps a little overplayed given the textual evidence for it) and his horrifyingly convincing charm once more raises laughs, though this time much more uncomfortable, as he shrugs a ‘what did I do?’ to the audience at Othello’s idiotic gullibility.
The setting is hugely effective, and the featurette explains the care taken to recreate the ennui of a garrison camp; the effect is to update the tale to one from Bhagdhad’s Green Zone or Helmand province. I once had lunch with a researcher who told me horrific tales of the rape of nurses, journalists and aid workers by Allied troops in the Middle Eastern theatre, knocking on the head claims that Abu Ghraib and the rape and murder of Abeer Qassim Al-Janabi are perpetrated by ‘bad apples’. There is clearly a sense here of that kind of hyper-sexualised machismo, Bianca the whore a potent image of the disposability of women: a military adviser to the play casually admits that boredom and alcohol are major factors in the life of a garrison. So it perfectly believable that Othello would see all this happening around him and be easily convinced his wife was involved somehow, making perfect sense of the lines“I had been happy, if the general camp,
Pioners and all, had tasted her sweet body, So I had nothing known”
There are a few minor, minor issues. Given such two towering performances at the core of the play, light tends to fall harshly on others. Desdemona (Olivia Vinall) doesn’t quite convince at times (she’s a little tomboyish in denim), and nor does posh-boy Cassio (Jonathan Bailey). Tom Robertson is initially great as woosy Roderigo, but the foppishness wears a little thin. But these are difficult parts to get totally right anyway when such a central dynamic occupies the stage like a whirlwind. There are also a couple of tedious extended scenes: the arrival on Cyprus goes on a bit for instance.
But with much of the action thereafter taking place in the interiors of portakabins, the claustrophobia that the play demands has never been quite so stifling, and that results in the most visceral, believable murder I’ve ever seen on stage. The level and extent of domestic violence meted out to Desdemona is cringingly difficult to watch and perfectly captures the horror of what is done to Desdemona, Lester and Vinall nailing it to the point where I was squirming in my seat. Like Branagh’s ‘Macbeth‘, the language sounds and the characters feel surprisingly modern, and I sensed I was watching the kind of brutality that goes on in married couple’s bedrooms all over the country, ending up in A&E or the morgue. ‘Othello’, always cited as the most domestic of Shakespeare’s plays, has never felt so uncomfortably so.
Next stop is a revisit to the wonderful ‘Dunsinane‘ and then – hopefully joy of joys – Kinnear’s NT Live ‘Hamlet’ rebroadcast later in the month. Cannae wait.
A mammoth, two-and-a-half hour adaptation of one of the most influential novels of all time (and one that I haven’t read!), this could have been an evening of dreary Russian speechifying but turns out to be a real gem. Chris Hannan’s script is actually really pacey, and the action cracks on, giving it the distinctly modern feel of a crime movie. With exceptional performances too, this is a great night out.
The play is obviously dominated by Raskolnikov’s existential debate with himself as he tries to place his pointless and motiveless murders in a wider cosmic context, a task he inevitably fails in as soon as love rears its redemptive head. Adam Best is quite brilliant in the lead role, carrying the bulk of the script and the emotive drive of the play. His physicality as he wrenches the ideas within him into some sort of shape is utterly convincing. One of the performances of the year for me.
He’s helped by a generally terrific cast – Cate Haymer as Raskolnikov’s mother and George Costigan (Bob of “Rita, Sue…”) providing comic relief that sometimes borders on the sinister are especially effective. Best of the support is Citizens’ intern Jessica Hardwick as Sonya; she captures her innate goodness and the desperation of her poverty -driven prostitution in a performance that is both sweet and erotic. She shines, quite frankly, and yet may well be the least experienced member of the cast.
Setting is great too, the actors on-stage for the whole production (prior to the start and during the interval too), perhaps emphasising the seething humanity of St Petersburg. An ensemble aesthetic is created (are they all in this together) that works well. One staging gimmick that jars at the beginning but grows on me is the swishing of doors on and off stage to corral the action; another that doesn’t seem to have much purpose is the use of microphones at various points, actors vocalising Raskolnikov’s panicked breathing or the conversations of characters outside doors. But that’s a minor niggle.
There has obviously been a lot of compression of the book’s narrative, and that means that Raskolnikov’s relationships with his sister and his best friend aren’t really fully realised; as a result, Ameira Darwish and Obiama Ugoala, beautiful though they both are, don’t really engage; they feel like broad brush strokes.
Perhaps that compression is also responsible for the feeling that Raskolnikov’s final conversion to the side of morality and empathy seems a little pat. Bursting out his confession to protect Sonya works well enough, but thereafter it feels like there are a few gaps in his journey.
That, though, is probably my fault. At the end of a long, busy week and a long, busy Friday, I find my head swimming with exhaustion at times, and the script – intelligent, erudite and packed full of big, big ideas – loses my attention occasionally. I enjoyed this immensely, but perhaps I need to see it again when I’m really on the ball to squeeze everything it has to offer from it. A terrific play, a terrific production.
I’ve written about Macbeth before, about my search for the perfect version of my favourite play. Is this it? No. Is it the best ever production I’ve seen, though? In many ways, yes.
Let’s run through the many plusses. Branagh is wonderful as Macbeth. Another favourite, Patrick Stewart, delivered it with that Shakespearean gravitas you’d expect from him, all deep resonance and perfect enunciation. Branagh’s is a much more human, naturalistic delivery: he makes Shakespeare sound like ordinary speech most of the time, and that takes enormous skill. His reading of the character is quite superb. In the pre-show interview with co-director Rob Ashford, he stresses the relationship between Macbeth and Lady M, that there was good there before they chose the path of evil, and that they do what they do for each other. Branagh gets that spot on.
And Alex Kingston is perhaps the best Lady M I’ve ever seen. She’s an extraordinary actress, but she’s associated with a particular type of role, and I wondered how she’d get what I was looking for in the character. I have always seen Lady M as her husband’s victim, as a woman doing what she has to do for the love of her life and being made to suffer monumentally as a result: I have absolutely no time whatsoever for the one-dimensional Victorian psycho Jezebel so many bone idle teachers settle for when they study the play with youngsters who deserve so much more kaleidoscopic a view: I might say more about that in the future. But, with that focus on the relationship, I do indeed see a very different character. The ‘unsex me here’ speech is wonderfully done as an appeal for help in doing what she knows she cannot do, the words surprising the hell out of her when they come out her mouth, then growing in confidence as she picks up the theme; a dark version of a ‘God help me’ moment. Furthermore, dashing her baby’s brains out has never felt so anguished; this is not an image that comes easily to her mind, and she wrenches it out from her belly knowing full well the mere utterance of it will damn her, a price she is willing to pay for her husband. This is the most believable version I’ve ever seen. I’ve always said I’d marry Lady Macbeth; in this case, I should be so lucky.
Best Macduff too. I’ve always loved that part; it has so little stage time, and yet is so powerful and pivotal. It’s the part I’d want to play. The scene where he is told of the murder of his wife and children should be raw: well, Ray Fearon rips the heart out of the entire audience. It’s the most primeval wail of utter anguish I’ve ever witnessed, preceded by a swirl of disbelief and absolute hopelessness. It is the best of several stunningly tragic moments: the sleepwalking scene, the murder of Lady Macduff (a supernaturally beautiful Rosalie Craig), Macbeth’s reaction to his wife’s death: this is a play that goes for the emotional jugular.
Best staging? Check. A disused church in Manchester is turned into a muddy, bloody battlefield, the action played up and down the central aisle, stabbing its way through the audience. It is absolutely fitting, bringing the actors up close and personal with the audience. It just beats Patrick Stewart’s version of a disused hospital. Perhaps the best witches too, though that wasn’t a unanimous decision in my party. I like their charred appearance, their fractured diction and mangled vowels, their jerky epileptic marionette movement; they are like figures from some nightmarish silhouette show. And I like too the way Kingston echoes that in the sleepwalking scene.
So, all good – nay, great. Just a couple of problems. Before Duncan’s murder, I get exactly what Ashford and Branagh are doing with the couple, and their interdependence is palpable. And that bond is brought back to the fore in the ‘she should have died hereafter’ speech, Branagh choosing to deliver it with all the intensity of passion for his dead wife that most productions eschew. So that leaves a disconnect. What is the motivation for Macbeth distancing himself after Duncan’s murder, the separation that dooms them both? It’s as if the Macbeth of the first and last third is replaced by some Kagemusha-type changeling, a Doppelganger who unravels the couple’s relationship and reign. What’s very convincing is Lady M’s growing astonishment at the sudden waywardness of her husband’s mental state, though the “Nought’s had…” speech at the beginning of Act 3 scene 2 doesn’t quite work for me: it should be a soliloquy and therefore about her, but becomes a description of Macbeth as she watches him fall to pieces. And why that happens just doesn’t really make sense to me. So the reading is brave and unusual – but perhaps a little disjointed.
Maybe that’s because I’m looking for my own reading, my Macbeth. I see the whole play as twin journeys of revelation: the revelation of Macbeth as ‘fair is foul’ and Lady M as ‘foul is fair’. The theme of duplicity, established so early and hammered home through image after image and character after character, means, I think, that Shakespeare wants us to question everything and everybody we see in this play. So when we see Lady M apparently manipulating her husband into murder by slagging off his manhood – well, think again, folks, about what just might really be going on.
And that brings me to another slight problem for me with this production. I’m not keen on much of the first act – the reporting of the battle to Duncan, the ‘Bellona’s Bridegroom’ stuff – being jettisoned for an action sequence in the rain (everyone’s taking a leaf out of ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ in the West End, and pretty soon live rain will be de rigueur for any production, even ones set wholly in a drawing room). I think we need all those words to establish Macbeth as the ‘fair’, we need to hear how he is perceived so that we can say, ‘uh-huh, something fishy about this bloke here…’
I could go on and on about my theory for hours (and have done), but it is just a theory, just one possible interpretation as dubious as any other. Well, nowhere near as dubious as the teacher of a friend’s son I tutored a few years back, who told his class the play was all about ambition, nothing else, and that the greatest playwright the world has ever seen wrote a play in which one of the most complex characters theatre has ever seen had only that one ‘fatal flaw’. Well, thought my friend’s son, okay, but that doesn’t make sense, because if he’s just ambitious, why does everything go to shit after he’s crowned? Upon writing a speculative but thoughtful essay postulating that perhaps Macbeth might actually also lack a bit of self belief in his abilities as king, his teacher gave him 7/25 and wrote ‘Didn’t you listen to me in class?’ at the end of the paper. Yes he did listen, sir: he also had an independent thought while he was doing so. And you crushed it.
So it’s hugely refreshing to see a production that takes a different, more complex approach – Ashford explicitly puts the ambition theme aside - that sees both characters as quintessentially human beings, complex, loving, capable of supreme stupidity and, ultimately, evil. So, a big, big round of applause. Almost, almost my perfect Macbeth.
A little bit of Chekhov (I’m not going to do the “nuclear wessels” joke again), reimagined by John Donnelly and staged by Headlong Theatre / Nuffield and directed by Blanche McIntyre. And I’m not quite sure what to make of it, frankly.
I like it. I do. It has some laugh out loud moments, and the cast is slick and, on the whole, convincing. There are a couple of standout performances too. I particularly liked Jenny Rainsford in the relatively minor role of Masha, a fucked up dypsomaniac who is in love with the wrong man and who marries a different wrong man and who spends the entire play in a boozy dwam of spite; even as they take their curtain call, Rainsford looks pissed and furious. Pearl Chanda appropriately lacks gravitas as the young and flighty Nina, but, after being shat upon from a great height by the odious Trigorin (Gyuri Sarossy) falls apart to Kostya in a final scene of real pathos. Abigail Cruttenden is waspish as Arkadina, meaning the best performances of the night, for me, all come from women, other than one memorable soliloquy from Trigoron about the trials of being a writer (“You think this is easy?”). The set is sparse and worked well by the cast, Donnelly’s rewriting is economical and punchy and the plot is never obtuse. But…
It does retain that big Russian melodramatic feel with lots and lots of talking and talking and yada yada yada. Consequently, I feel a bit weary at those times I’m meant to engage myself emotionally and I can’t help feeling distant from characters I want to feel more for. And of course, it’s an ensemble piece: I suppose we are meant to see Kostya as the centre of it all, yet it is Nina who is the seagull and Trigorin and Arkadina who are the catalysts for all that happens, and then Masha’s love for Kostya drives the subplot of her disastrous marriage to Medvedenko, and there’s the doctor’s affair with the estate manager’s wife going on and… and by the time Kostya shoots himself, quite frankly, I don’t really care. My patience has already been stretched by all these callow young and youngish things going on and on about theatre and new theatre and the torture and joy of writing when they’re not having pointless arguments about horses, and everyone at the drop of a hat is a failed writer or a successful writer or wants to be a writer or knows a writer or has shagged or is shagging a writer and is being miserable about it. Gimme peace, being a writer is neither that important nor that glamorous. The characters have all the sincerity and zeal of the best East European Anti-Bourgeois Revolutionary Theatre, and it’s just so bloody, bloody tiresome.
So, a worthy and worthwhile play, but at the end of the day, as much as I’m glad I saw it and as much as I admire it – it leaves me a little colder than it should. Russian drama aint really for me, it seems.
This is a retrospective of last year’s smash Danny Boyle production which starred Benedict Cumberbatch and Johnny Lee Miller alternating in the main roles as the good Doctor and the hideous Monster; this time round, Cumberbatch gets to do ugly.
Frankenstein isn’t a story I feel particularly strongly about. To me, it’s too old-fashioned, despite all the connections people make with genetic engineering. Naa… it taps in too much to the ethic of the travelling freak show for me, and it was quickly left looking outdated by the real breakthroughs in science, medicine, evolution and psychology that thundered through the rest of the 19th century.
I have to confess, too, that I don’t particularly enjoy Miller or Cumberbatch as actors; Miller has been in some clunkers like Dracula 2001, while I found the rebooted Sherlock really irritating and a terrible under-usage of the excellent Martin Freeman. I’ve also not really got into Danny Boyle films either – it’s heresy in Scotland to admit you can’t stand Trainspotting – so I have to say I wasn’t convinced I’d be blown away in the way the critics and last year’s audiences seem to have been.
However, faults aside – and there are a few – this was pretty damned good. The central role is clearly the monster, with Frankenstein reduced to a bit of a cardboard cutout sexually inadequate egomaniac. There is much to admire about Cumberbatch’s performance (and, presumably, Miller’s on the nights he got the role) in that it generates real sympathy, and there are moments when creation appears far more wise and mature and intelligent than the creator (“Don’t be so… inconsistentttt…” he admonishes the Baron at one point). In his erratic pleading and threatening and wheedling for the mate he so desperately needs to make him whole, he captures the emotional fragility of the man /child /monster very well indeed. Especially good, though, are his scenes with Karl Johnson as De Lacey, the blind, impoverished university professor who teaches him to read Paradise Lost and introduces him to the concept of morality and who inadvertently unleashes his taste for revenge.
It’s a little unfair to describe Miller as a cut-out. There is a definite sense of the maniacal self belief that he feels gives him the authority to pull everyone’s strings, including those of his fiancée Elizabeth as he baits a trap for the monster, in his barking, flat prose. The two actors obviously work well together, so much so Miller is appearing in a future Sherlock storyline.
But there are significant issues, I feel. The long opening spell, with the monster rolling around the stage as it learns to control its limbs, is overwrought and far too long. I also think it weakens the story that the Baron doesn’t appear until that process is almost over; the monster should imprint on his “master” the way a bird imprints on its mother if we are to believe his investment in and connection to Frankenstein.
In addition, the staging is far too filmy, I feel. There are big effects that are so underused they seem intrusive, especially a steam-punk train that represents the industry of the town the monster first flees too (I think) that appears onstage for about two minutes, then chugs off. Not enough bangs for very big bucks. And there are some clumsily stereotyped stagings, such as a grinding rock track to represent the city immediately followed by a pastoral choir to indicate a change of setting to a countryside complete with flocks of birds flushing from hayricks. The set is also dominated by a huge cone of lights suspended over the stage which does various things from twinkling starlight-like to burning achingly bright, and I kept being reminded of Boyle’s sci-fi acid-trip borefest Sunshine.
The central characters totally dominate the play, and so other actors don’t really get a look in. Even so, some of them don’t convince, and the part of Elizabeth is a shockingly inadequate vehicle for an actress of the quality of the beautiful Naomie Harris. Finally, there are some moments of real humour but some badly misjudged episodes, including a teeth-grindingly offensive caricature of a couple of Western Isles yokels.
All in all, though, this was a quality production that didn’t reach the heights for me that it seems to have done for many others. There is a huge number of teen thesp types in the audience tonight – I overhear one saying she hadn’t been to see anything in the theatre she wasn’t in herself for ages, and one lad goes out the door dreamily saying “Ben, what a man he is, what a man, what a man…” – and I get the sense they are encouraged here by the triumvirate of the three big names from TV and film, Boyle, Miller and Cumberbatch. That’s fine, and they all deserve big plaudits for this; but, really, they didn’t quite carry it off, I think.
Whoa. If David Hayman’s recent “King Lear” was a bit out there, this is somewhere the far side of Azerbaijan.
I love “Macbeth”. It is probably my favourite play of all time, and I have some extraordinarily odd views on it that I may share in the future that revolve around me wanting to marry Lady Macbeth. As such, productions almost always disappoint, and I’ve seen some real clunkers in my time; one of the most shockingly bad starred Mark McManus. Selling bucketloads of tickets on the back of his “Taggart” starring role, he was obviously a TV actor totally out of his depth on stage, to the extent that, at one point, he was delivering his “vaulting ambition” soliloquy from behind his cloak, a lá Dick Dastardly. One of the best I’ve ever seen was Patrick Stewart and Kate Fleetwood in London a few years back, which was filmed and broadcast on BBC a couple of Christmases ago; it had some real vivacity about it, Stewart was terrific and the director Rupert Goold did something with the “hold enough” line that totally transformed the play. Great stuff – but still a nagging feeling I hadn’t yet seen my perfect “Macbeth”.
This isn’t it either, but then again it isn’t really “Macbeth”; what it is is a stunning re-imagining of it and an outstandingly impressive performance by Alan Cumming. Here, Macbeth is locked up in an asylum, reliving the horror of his rise and fall day after day, all the characters of the tragedy part of his interior landscape. Cumming’s performance is a tremendous feat of memory if nothing else – he must recite 2/3 of the text – and he differentiates between the characters extraordinarily well, despite, on a couple of occasions, it slipping into caricature, such as Duncan’s mangled-vowelled English aristocrat. There are moments of real insight and brilliance – of course the “if it t’were done” scene should end in steamy, angry sex, “bring forth men-children only” taking on a whole new aspect as the two characters played by one actor writhe on the bed. I also liked the “unsex me here” soliloquy, Cumming’s Lady Macbeth luxuriating in a bath with a gin and tonic to give it a lightness I think is totally appropriate; and Macduff’s reaction to the slaughter of his wife and children should be a heart-stopping moment, and Cumming pretty much nails it.
What I especially liked are the moments of real vulnerability which Cumming does so, so well. Tearing himself apart after Duncan’s murder, a silent doctor and orderly come in to pacify him and put him ever so gently to bed, a scene echoed several times through the play. Thus, there is a real sense of a mind in utter agony, too fragile to cope with the enormity of what has been done, what has been lost and won.
The staging is fantastic too. Particularly effective are the three video screens which ostensibly show the CCTV security footage of Macbeth’s room / cell. However, they bring Cumming’s three witches eerily to life. In addition, they are used for spooky moments of dissassociation, such as when Banquo’s ghost appears on stage but is absent from the footage, or when the sleeping Cumming, alone on stage, is watched by a sinister suited figure on-screen. Credit also has to go to a brilliant ambient soundtrack, including a beautiful solo cello.
There are a couple of oddities. That silent doctor and orderly are a great conceit at the beginning, mouthing unheard diagnoses beneath the discordant noise that fills Macbeth’s head. I wondered, therefore, what the purpose of having them interact with Macbeth’s world in the final Act was: they take on parts, discuss Lady Macbeth, speak with Macbeth. I have to say, I didn’t understand the need for that change.
But, another clear triumph for the National Theatre of Scotland. And yet – it isn’t Macbeth, is it? It does raise all sorts of existential discussion points my pal Ian and I mulled over in the pub afterwards, and it all comes down to the question of just who the guy on stage really is. It is Macbeth? In that case, the narrative has been changed, and Macbeth is not killed at the end. But if it’s not, then who is he? Are we actually watching the psycho-drama of a bloke with a Napoleon complex? If he really believes he is Macbeth, and has his words and memories, is he therefore Macbeth? What we are left with is the possibility that we are seeing a “Shutter Island” Shakespeare, and I’m not sure I’m completely okay with that.
But it doesn’t matter, because once again it’s got me thinking, and thinking hard, and that’s never a bad thing.