Posts tagged ‘national’

14 January, 2010

No excuses: theatre is affordable

Written for The Collective Review, 14 January 2010

Hey, did you see Avatar?  Did you see it in 3D?  What about IMAX 3D?  What did you pay?  I paid £12.50, plus online booking fee, to see it in IMAX 3D (at the Odeon in Wimbledon, if anyone’s asking), and I was just one of millions:  millions of people who have proven themselves willing to spend £12.50 or thereabouts on an evening’s entertainment.

If you’re one of those millions, you can easily afford a night out at the theatre.  Not nearly enough people realise this.  The expense is probably the most common excuse for not attending the theatre, but if you can afford a cinema ticket – especially in London, where a peak ticket can cost up to £11 even without IMAX or 3D or other trimmings – you can afford a theatre ticket.

No one’s disputing that the West End is expensive, but there’s more to theatre than Theatreland.  And cheaper tickets don’t necessarily equate to a poorer quality product:  thanks to a sponsorship deal with Travelex, you can see certain productions at the South Bank’s National Theatre, arguably the UK’s most influential venue, for just £10.  Production values at the National rival the commercial West End, and there are no bad seats in the theatre’s vast Olivier space; the £10 view is as good as the £40 view.

A short walk from the National, in an atmospheric vault under London Bridge, you’ll find Southwark Playhouse, whose ‘airline-style’ pricing means you can get tickets for as little as £8 if you book early enough.  A little further afield, but still in Zone One, is the Royal Court, which specialises in brand new work by up-and-coming writers; on Mondays, every seat in the house costs just £10.  A lot of the Royal Court’s productions end up transferring to the West End, where top price tickets can cost five times that sum – so see them while they’re cheap!

If you want somewhere to spend the money you’ve saved on your ticket, try the Gate Theatre in Notting Hill.  It’s a tiny but very flexible space located above the Prince Albert Pub.  They specialise in new translations of foreign plays, and tickets for the first three performances of every production are just £8.

If 100-seater spaces under bridges or over pubs aren’t your idea of theatre, you could do worse than the Lyric Theatre Hammersmith; their main performance space is an impressively ornate Victorian proscenium arch, complete with stalls, circle and boxes, and they offer £10 tickets for certain performances of every production.  Or for a less baroque experience try the Almeida Theatre in Islington – cheapest tickets £8.

As if all those affordable venues weren’t enough, if you’re under 26 you can get into some of the best performances around without paying a penny, thanks to the Arts Council’s A Night Less Ordinary scheme.  Just go to, type in your postcode and you’ll find a list of theatres, including most of the ones I’ve listed above, that you’re entitled to patronise free of charge.

Understand, too, that this is just a sampler of the venues and deals on offer.  Even the West End can be affordable (ish) if you don’t mind visiting the TKTS booth in Leicester Square in person, and I’ve barely begun to cover London’s thriving and criminally overlooked pub theatre scene.  So no more excuses:  if you can afford a cinema ticket, or three pints in a London pub, you can afford a night out at the theatre.

24 September, 2009

Mother Courage and Her Children

National Theatre, 16 September – 8 December 2009

Reviewed for the London Theatre Blog

The prospect of staging Brecht’s work on the Olivier Stage is similar to the prospect of flying an aeroplane backwards. Though in theory the vehicle is a tool designed to go where you tell it to, in practice there are certain manoeuvres it’s structurally unsuited to perform.

Brecht dictated that his plays be staged with no frills. But any director given the run of the Olivier can be forgiven for wanting to actually use the facilities on offer. It isn’t yielding to temptation, it’s making the most of a rare opportunity.

Like a glass-panelled clock, Deborah Warner’s Mother Courage and Her Children doesn’t just choose not to conceal its inner workings, it displays them, inviting the audience to marvel at the way the pieces fit together. During one musical number Courage (Fiona Shaw) drags an ASM, already quite visible at the edge of one wing, fully onto the stage, where she dances briefly with the announcer (who also dances little jigs in the scene changes), and during the interval the second act’s placards fly in and out, in and out, as if the winches are being tested.

Not trusting the audience to be satisfied with the real backstage goings-on of a National Theatre production, Warner treats us to a self-conscious, theatricalised version of them. What we see is more bustling and disorganised than backstage in any theatre I’ve worked in; a theatre workers’ self-portrait that magnifies every insignificant pimple.

Revealing the production’s nuts and bolts works as Brecht intended, removing the emotional smokescreen that prevents critical engagement with the play; but theatricalising and calling attention to the backstage business just replaces the smokescreen with blinkers, creating a parallel drama that competes with the more important one centre stage.

Written by Beltolt Brecht (translated by Tony Kushner)

Crew includes Deborah Warner (director), Duke Special (songs) and Mel Mercier (musicscape)

Cast includes Stephen Kennedy (The Chaplain) Martin Marquez (The Cook), Harry Melling (Swiss Cheese), Charlotte Randle (Yvette), Clifford Samuel (Eilif), Fiona Shaw (Mother Courage) and Sophie Stone (Kattrin)

Need a second opinion?

25 June, 2009

Arts Futurism – the international live theatre exchange

Written for The Collective Review, 25 June 2009

At 7:00pm tonight, Helen Mirren will perform as Phèdre on the National Theatre’s Lyttelton stage.  Nicholas Hytner’s production of Jean Racine’s play has been running for two weeks already, but tonight’s performance is different.  Tonight’s performance will be broadcast live to over 250 cinema screens in 19 countries, in an initiative the theatre calls NT Live.

If this is news to you then you’re probably too late to experience Phèdre on the big screen (though it’s still on at the National until 27 August, if you can get there).  You can, however, still catch Marianne Elliott’s All’s Well That Ends Well, which will be broadcast on 1 October.  By that time, more cinemas may well have signed up to participate.

In the meantime, live theatre is coming to the small screen in the form of Sky Arts Theatre Live! Sky Arts will broadcast live performances of six new plays by well-known playwrights, screenwriters and literary authors direct to your living room, in high definition, beginning in July.

So what will audiences in the cinemas or at home gain or lose compared to those sitting in the theatres themselves?

They may lose a little of theatre’s immediacy:  that feeling cinema and television can’t reproduce, of being in the same room as the characters and the action.  In exchange, depending on how the camera work is handled, they may gain something cinema and television can do but theatre can’t:  close-ups.

Crucially, because the broadcast is live and not recorded, they won’t lose the unique, momentary nature of the performance; the knowledge that each iteration of the play is fleeting, and that no audience will have the exact same experience of the play ever again.  Unless, that is, Theatre Live! becomes available on Skyplayer.

But the most important thing NT Live’s cinemagoing audience will gain is the opportunity to see a play at the National without physically making the trip to the theatre.  There are participating screens in Australia and New Zealand, whose patrons would ordinarily have to travel halfway around the world to see Hytner’s Phèdre.

It might seem like hubris on the National’s part; Australia and New Zealand have perfectly good quality theatres of their own, after all.  But what if those theatres – and theatres in other participating countries – were to take inspiration from NT Live (or steal the idea, depending on whether your glass is half full or half empty) and arrange to broadcast some of their own productions into cinemas?

Your local cinema screen could become the National Theatre, Melbourne one night, the National Theatre of Norway the next, the Kenya National Theatre the next.  You could sample live performance from around the world without incurring prohibitive travel expenses.  You could experience ideas and emotions that British theatre hasn’t even realised it’s incapable of expressing.  We could all grow and become better people.  Will we?  Probably not.  But if we do, I’m taking all the credit.

31 May, 2009

All’s Well That End Well

National Theatre, 28 May – 30 September 2009

Reviewed for the London Theatre Blog

All’s Well That Ends Well is supposedly one of Shakespeare’s problem plays, though you wouldn’t guess that from Marianne Elliott’s production at the National (the third of this year’s Travelex £10 ticket plays).

Apparently, the play’s usual flaw is Bertram, the male romantic lead. When the King of France forcibly weds him to Helena, in return for her curing him of a fistula, Bertram’s reaction is one of extreme distaste. He proceeds to abhor his wife for the rest of the play, joining the army to avoid her and promising to consummate his vows only if she fulfils certain nigh-impossible conditions. Then, when she duly fulfils those conditions, he turns on a sixpence in the interests of a happy ending.

Here, Bertram (George Rainsford) is a snooty child of privilege whose rejection of Helena is a reactionary response to their class difference, and his sudden turnaround is the logical result of his confidant Parolles’ exposure as a coward and fraudster, which shows Bertram that his judgement of character isn’t as sound as he thinks it is. It’s then perfectly natural for him, upon his reunion with the wife he thought dead of heartbreak, to be grateful for a second chance with a woman whose praises are sung by every other character, but whom he foolishly dismissed without a second look.

More importantly, Bertram’s change of heart is a victory for Helena, who takes the traditionally male role of dogged suitor and stubbornly refuses to take “no” for an answer. Michelle Terry, who deftly handled multiple roles in season opener England People Very Nice, here deftly embodies Helena’s strongest aspects – her determination and her good-humoured mischievous streak. Perhaps fittingly, her performance is weakest when showing Helena’s weakness; the monologues mourning her unrequited love are drastically overplayed.

The only ‘problem’ aspect remaining is what Terry’s independent Helena sees in Rainsford’s spoiled Bertram in the first place.

None of which is to say that this is a flawless production. The stylised silent vignettes Elliott uses to cover scene changes seem pasted in, at odds with the dark gravity of Rae Smith’s imposing, tumbledown set; and Helena’s ‘resurrection’ is greeted with saccharine streams of golden light and a rain of sparkly rose petals. All that’s missing is a choir of angels.

Perhaps under other circumstances having ’solved’ All’s Well would be enough of an achievement, but this is the National we’re talking about; it’s perfectly justifiable to demand more.

Written by William Shakespeare

Crew includes Marianne Elliott (director) and Rae Smith (designer)

Cast includes Oliver Ford Davies (King of France), Clare Higgins (The Countess of Rossillion), Conleth Hill (Parolles), George Rainsford (Bertram) and Michelle Terry (Helena)

Need a second opinion?

8 April, 2009

Death and the King’s Horseman

National Theatre, 8 April – 17 June 2009

Reviewed for the London Theatre Blog

Staging Wole Soyinka’s Death and the King’s Horseman as the second of 2009’s Travelex £10 Tickets shows could prove to be an extraordinarily prescient decision by Nicholas Hytner. The first, Monsterist Richard Bean’s England People Very Nice, was a risk that predictably triggered reactionary accusations of institutional racism directed at Hytner’s National. Soyinka’s play takes a more widely accepted stance on Britain and race, namely that the treatment of Africans by white British colonialists was condemnable. Though Death and the King’s Horseman was programmed well before England People Very Nice opened and the accusations began, in context it feels like a comforting reassurance that the National Theatre does not condone racism.

The play, written in the 70s and set in the 40s, hasn’t been staged in Britain for nearly 20 years, and never before in London. This could be something to do with its message no longer being exactly box-fresh.

When the colonial District Officer, a whited-up Lucian Msamati, hears that the King of Oyo is to be buried and his Elesin (Horseman) is expected to accompany him via ritual suicide, he decrees that This Will Not Do and – through a well-meaning but heavy-handed mission of mercy – risks fundamentally unbalancing the Yoruba way of life. While regularly staging our country’s dirty colonial history is a necessary reminder that the stories of those oppressed need no longer stay buried, the idea that colonialism was wrong is no longer revelatory.

Fortunately, an examination of pig-headed white ignorance is not all the play has going for it. The Elesin, a rogueish and commanding Nonso Anozie, has his own doubts about his assigned path.

The Yoruba require the veneration of their descendants to validate their afterlife, but the Elesin’s son has been sent away to England by the District Officer to study medicine. In life, his (hereditary) position affords him the best of everything; in death he faces the ignominy of the childless, but to live on after his king’s burial is to sit with arms folded as his world careens towards a cliff-edge.

His veiled appeals for guidance, in dialogue with his Praise Singer (Giles Terera, whose clowning steals his every scene) and Iyaloja, matriarch of the market (played authoritatively by Claire Benedict), share a ritual quality with the majority of Director Rufus Norris’ ensemble production. Every point in the debate is laden with allegory and folklore, every utterance accompanied by deliberate gestures that confer a wise and premeditated significance. Ensemble movement, chants and drumming imbue the production by turns with carnival exuberance and funereal solemnity.

Whether within or despite its context in the National’s programme – whether or not staging it is Hytner’s insurance policy against Richard Bean’s crowd-baiting – Death and the King’s Horseman remains an intrinsically poetic and thematically multifaceted work. Whatever the circumstances that brought it to the Olivier, it’s very welcome there.

Written by Wole Soyinka

Crew includes Rufus Norris (director) and Katrina Lindsay (designer)

Cast includes Nonso Anozie (Elesin), Claire Benedict (Iyaloja), Lucian Msamati (District Officer) and Giles Terera (Praise Singer)

Need a second opinion?

12 March, 2009


Bush Theatre Unit 18 (West 12 Shopping Centre), 3 March – 26 April 2009

Reviewed for the London Theatre Blog

It’s all too easy to remain detached from the subject of Iraq. It’s thousands of miles away, it no longer makes daily headlines and the combined British and American military is gradually washing its hands of the place.

Stovepipe aims to pick us up off the sidelines and deposit us bodily into the midst of the relief effort. Based out of the Bush Theatre’s new bar venue, Unit 18, the production transforms the boiler rooms and dead spaces below the West 12 shopping complex into a promenade performance space.

Designer takis’s sets are nothing short of lavish – and little wonder, with Hightide, the Bush and the National Theatre all backing the play in some capacity. There’s a conference centre, a hotel room, a café bar, a war-torn city street and more, and every new environment is further evidence of high production values and attention to detail. With the audience free to roam, everything – from the posters promoting fictional investors in the rebuilding programme to the papers in the office in-tray – must stand up to close scrutiny, and it does.

The performances, too, are consistently convincing and engaging. Shaun Dooley doesn’t quite reconcile British mercenary Alan’s caring and violent sides into a unified character, but as our guide it’s important he remain sympathetic, and keeping the lid on the violence helps achieve that. Eleanor Matsuura, meanwhile, infuses every female character in the show with distinct but equally potent varieties of strength, independence and (occasionally) warmth, in the hands-down best performance of the night. As Sargon Yelda’s Arabic interpreter puts it, “the Americans have a phrase: ball-breaker.”

So why does Stovepipe still fail to suck the audience in?

Maybe it’s because the design is too slick. The bar and office furniture looks like it was bought yesterday, brand new. Maybe it’s because the one time we actually visit Iraq is the one time the staging is necessarily representative rather than realistic, and the rest of our time is spent in Amman, Jordan, a staging post for forays into Iraq; like Alan, we feel like we’re between places, waiting for the real action to begin.

Or maybe it’s because of the play’s scattergun chronology, which flashes backwards and forwards with nearly every scene and offers very few narrative signposts to help us find our place in Alan’s story. Trusting the audience’s intelligence rather than patronising them is always the right call, but in this case the complexity of the plot requires us to keep disengaging from the moment in order to look at the bigger picture and see where the latest piece slots in – and getting lost in the moment is what allows us to care.

Written by Adam Brace

Crew includes Michael Longhurst (director) and takis (designer)

Cast includes Christian Bradley (Andre/Grif), Shaun Dooley (Alan), Niall MacGregor (Eddy/Harry), Eleanor Matsuura (Carolyn/Masha/Sally) and Sargon Yelda (Saad/Marty/Rami)

Need a second opinion?

12 February, 2009

England People Very Nice

National Theatre, 4 February – 30 April 2009

Reviewed for the London Theatre Blog

The National Theatre is billing England People Very Nice, the first show of 2009 to offer Travelex £10 tickets, as playwright Richard Bean’s state-of-the-nation play. Well, according to Bean, the state of the nation is the same as always: reactionary and xenophobic.

Covering four waves of immigration – French Huguenots, Irish, Jews and Bangladeshis – Bean points a flashing neon finger the size of the Olivier Theatre at our national tendency towards intolerance.

The play does a great job putting the problems of today’s multicultural London in perspective, as each generation of immigrants eventually integrates into British life and then takes its turn oppressing the next. It’s enough to make anyone wonder why we’re still considered a go-to nation for anyone fleeing persecution and adversity.

Yet Bean somehow houses this damning admonishment in an epic, centuries-spanning romantic comedy, throughout which the successive reincarnations of a pair of lovers try again and again to love one another despite cultural divides and running gags. And as if that plot weren’t enough, it is itself embedded in a fairly iffy piece of metatheatre.

The immigrants in the detention centre in 2009, you see, have devised the centuries-spanning romantic comedy while waiting on their applications for leave to remain. At its best, this framing device salts the open wound of British hypocrisy: citizenship exams, testing the loyalty of potential immigrants to the nation that banged them up as soon as they arrived? Such exquisite irony. So quintessentially British.

But the cynic in me can’t help seeing the play-within-a-play as a Get Out Of Jail Free card Bean dealt to himself under the table, allowing him to neatly sidestep criticism with the excuse, “that’s how the characters would have devised it.” And at its worst, the device is a megaphone through which Bean can announce (in case we’re a little slow on the uptake) that it doesn’t matter if a character lives through the Blitz and still looks twenty-five in 2009, because that’s the magic of theatre.

The comedy does work. It tempers the worthier observations and keeps the play from turning into art as social work for the nation. So does the star-cross’d romance. After all, the truest measure of a country’s receptiveness to new cultures is the rate of intermarriage. But I don’t need Olivia Colman’s immigration officer Philippa to face front and tell me so before I can appreciate the point.

Bean could do with worrying a little less about whether people will pick up on his meaning. It’s clear enough without all the highlighting, and in overclarifying himself, he runs the risk of closing down alternative interpretations, yanking the subtext into the foreground and robbing the play of depth.

Written by Richard Bean

Crew includes Nicholas Hytner (director), Mark Thompson (designer), Pete Bishop (director of animation), Neil Austin (lighting designer), Grant Olding (music) and Scarlett Mackmin (choreographer)

Cast includes Olivia Colman (Philippa/Anne O’Neill/Camilla), Sacha Dhawan (Norfolk Danny/Carlo/Aaron/Mushi), Trevor Laird (Yayah/Rennie), Aaron Neil (Iqbal/De Gascoigne/John O’Neill/Chief Rabbi/Attar/Imam), Sophie Stanton (Sanya/Ida) and Michelle Terry (Camille/Mary/Black Ruth/Deborah)

Need a second opinion?

23 June, 2008

The Revenger’s Tragedy

National Theatre, 4 June – 28 August 2008

Reviewed for the London Theatre Blog

The National Theatre’s Olivier stage is set to fulfil our dullest expectations of Jacobean tragedy. Faded squares on the drab brown walls suggest paintings sold to stave off poverty. The only work remaining is Caravaggio’s Saint Jerome, depicting the solitary saint accompanied by just books and a skull.

Then the play opens to crashing drum’n’bass interwoven with folk violin. The Drum Revolve turns and behind the high walls of the pauper’s study we discover a timeslipped world of suited and medallioned playboys grinding with whores in hot-pants on red leather sofas, watched over by classical murals and a bronze statue of the Virgin, while yet more fashionable revellers masturbate and mug each other in the alleyways between sets. Within a minute director Melly Still’s production has yanked the audience as violently and spectacularly up to date as it has The Revenger’s Tragedy itself.

It’s a play that’s historically prone to split personalities. Originally attributed to Tourneur, now to Thomas Middleton; currently running at both the National Theatre and Manchester’s Royal Exchange; and, in this incarnation, caught between ages. Jacobean squalor exists parallel with contemporary high-society sleaze. Every designer suit is accessorised with a sword, and high-class, high-heeled prostitutes accompany masked and pantalooned nobles at the revels.

Such an ambitious vision demands some impressive ensemble set-pieces to prove just how successfully realised it is. Thankfully these are frequent, breathtaking and varied in tone, from the climactic sword dance, which marries disco and break to Elizabethan formal dancing, to the subdued, funereal coronation of the new Duke, which complements the courtiers’ grave faces with freezing fog and a plaintive lament.

The performers play a comfortable second fiddle to the production elements. Rory Kinnear’s performance as the titular revenger Vindice probably won’t win him another Olivier award, but it’s certainly cause for discussion. Kinnear’s Piato – the puffa-jacketed pimp persona, adopted by Vindice to facilitate his revenge against the lecherous Duke that poisoned his lover – is an entertaining caricature of a cheeky Eastender, while his Vindice is nothing more than an eloquent thug with delusions of noble purpose. No one could imagine Vindice vindicated after Kinnear’s performance; he’s cavalier with the skull of his beloved, and delights more in the act of bloodshed than in its supposed justification.

An unfortunate side effect of this interpretation is that the Duke’s louche son Lussurioso, played charismatically by Elliot Cowan, seems almost sympathetic by comparison. Lussurioso lusts after virgins, especially Vindice’s chaste and virtuous sister Castiza (a righteously indignant Katherine Manners), but is never seen to molest one on stage, instead sending ‘Piato’ to do the sleazy wooing for him: which in turn makes Vindice all the more detestable.

Kinnear’s Piato and Cowan’s Lussurioso are just two of many excellent comic performances on display, but there’s nothing recognisable as a great tragic performance. In this the play favours its modern persona over the classical. The magnificently unrepentant may be morally reprehensible, but they’re much more entertaining to watch than righteous ‘emos’ like Hamlet.

Written by Thomas Middleton

Crew includes Melly Still (director), Ti Green (designer) and Adrian Sutton (music)

Cast includes Billy Carter (Spurio), Elliot Cowan (Lussurioso), Rory Kinnear (Vindice) and Katherine Manners (Castiza)

Need a second opinion?