Posts Tagged ‘Ellen McDougall’

American playwright Lillian Hellman has a much higher profile than you’d expect for someone who only produced eight original plays and three adaptations. This is partly because of her other work – screenplays, memoirs, a novel and the original book for Bernstein’s Candide – but also because of her politics; she appeared before the Committee on Un-American Activities and was subsequently blacklisted by Hollywood.

I can only recall revivals of two of her other plays in my 40 years of theatre-going in London – Little Foxes in 2001, also at the Donmar, directed by Marianne Elliott with acting royalty Penelope Wilton, and The Children’s Hour ten years later in the West End, directed by Ian Rickson, with Keira Knightly and Elizabeth Moss.

The play is set in 1941 in the home of a wealthy family near Washington DC, widow Fanny Farrelly and her single son David, a lawyer. The US has yet to enter the 2nd World War. Fanny’s daughter Sara has been in Germany for 20 years, married to Bavarian Kurt, with three children. Kurt has been active as an anti-fascist in both Germany and Spain. As war approaches, the family make their way to Sara’s homeland, which her children have never visited, to see the grandmother they’ve never met.

Fanny has long-term guests, down at heel Romanian Count Brancovis and his American wife Marthe, whose marriage is on the rocks and who seems to be carrying a torch for David. Despite being European, Brancovis’ politics and sympathies seem very much at odds with Kurt’s and they clash, before the Count sees a way of making money quickly from the situation, through blackmail.

It’s an interesting piece, though it feels its age and creaks more than a little. The first part contains a lot of background and scene setting, but it does evolve into more of a thriller after the interval. Ellen McDougall’s production serves the play well. It’s framed by a giant period TV set (designer Basia Binkowska) and starts and ends with brief projections, as if we’re watching an old black & white TV programme.

I was looking forward to seeing Patricia Hodge on stage again, but her understudy Jane Lambert provided excellent word perfect cover. It was good to see favourite Kate Duchene again though, as Fanny’s French housekeeper. Both Mark Waschke and Caitlin Fitzgerald give passionate performances as Kurt and Sara, and the three children are outstanding.

It isn’t a great play, but its a welcome revival given an excellent production.

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This is the fourth and last of my late February Shakespeare binge, in the lovely candlelit Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. It turned out to be a bit of a mixed bag.

It started well with full candlelight, period settings, in period dress (though with what seemed like joke ruffs and codpieces). My heart sank when all of the candles were extinguished for the first scene, each character illuminating himself with a single candle lamp. For the rest of the evening the candlepower changed frequently and I have to admit rather effectively. 

Ellen McDougal’s Big Idea (every director has to have one, it seems) is to change Cassio into a woman, Michelle Cassio to be precise. This made for some interesting sexual connotations. Having Othello & Desdemona’s bed on stage throughout was a bit distracting and took something away from the scenes elsewhere. I liked the music until it turned a bit too contemporary lyrically. The post-death ending was gimmicky and crass.

I admired Kurt Egyiawan’s Othello, though he didn’t die too well, and Natalie Klamar’s Desdemona too, but I thought Sam Spruell too flippant and nowhere near malevolent and machiavellian enough for Iago.

There was much to enjoy, but enough to irritate too, and it left me feeling it could have been a lot better.

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I saw this play about the treatment of gay people in Uganda at the end of a week when the Anglican church was again pandering to the homophobia of African Anglicans; beat that for good timing. I was very impressed by playwright Chris Urch’s first play Land of My Fathers. This second play more than fulfils that promise; it’s stunning.

The relationship between young doctor Sam and student Dembe is the heart of the play. The problem is they are in Uganda where homosexuality is illegal and vigilantes out those they think are gay and subsequently persecute, even kill, them and ostracise and torment their families. Dembe is from a religious family, close to his twin sister Wummie and elder brother Joe. Their father has recently died and Joe has become pastor of their church. Family friend Mama is like a surrogate mother who has always thought her daughter Naome and Dembe were intended for one another. Sam is from Northern Ireland but has a Ugandan mother, hence his move to Uganda to practice medicine in her homeland.

The outing and persecution of gays begins and this tests relationships and challenges loyalties to family, friends and religion. A family friend is outed and killed and Joe refuses to officiate at his funeral for fear of reprisals. It’s hard to differentiate between attitudes and actions determined by fear and those determined by genuine beliefs and it becomes a complex web of responses to the horrific circumstances these people find themselves in.

Simply staged by Ellen McDougall in the round, the intimacy brings extraordinary audience engagement; you often feel part of the debate, having to resist the temptation to respond yourself. This is largely due to six brilliantly passionate performances. When Sule Rimi as Joe is preaching, you are the congregation and its riveting. In Julian Moore-Cook’s Sam and Fiston Barek’s Dembe’s more intimate moments, the relationship is so believable you feel uncomfortably voyeuristic. Faith Omole has real sibling chemistry with her stage brothers, Faith Alabi is brilliantly convincing as largely mute Naome and Jo Martin has great presence and charisma as Mama. Three of the cast are new since its run in Manchester last April, but on their second performance you’d have thought they’d all been together for a long time. Wonderful performances.

A well written play on an important subject, impeccably staged and superbly performed. What else can you ask for? GO!


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