Posts Tagged ‘Jonathan Miller’

This is the play that started my obsession with the work of American playwright Eugene O’Neill, more than thirty years ago in a Jonathan Miller production with Jack Lemon as James Tyrone and Kevin Spacey as James Tyrone Jnr. I was the same age as James Jnr. Now I’m the same age as James Snr. Subsequent productions had Timothy West and David Suchet as James Snr. The 2000 West End production had Jessica Lange as Mary Tyrone, with Olivia Coleman as the Irish maid. Now its the turn of Jeremy Irons and Lesley Manville.

It’s O’Neill’s most biographical play, which he insisted wasn’t published until 25 years after his death, and never staged, but his widow didn’t honour this wish. It’s a long play, 3.5 hours in this Richard Eyre production, part of the Bristol Old Vic’s 250th anniversary programme. It takes place over one day and night in one room in the Tyrone home. James is a Shakespearean actor, drinks a lot and is a bit of a bully. His wife became addicted to morphine during her recent illness. Youngest son Edmund is seriously ill. His elder brother has followed his father into acting, more by default than anything else. The only other character is Cathleen, the Irish maid, whose scenes bring some light relief to what is otherwise a rather depressing piece.

Rob Howell’s impressionistic design is beautiful, also lightening the gloom of the play. The performances were a touch tentative at first, but became more natural as the play unfolded. Jeremy Irons’ James is an appropriately charismatic presence as James. The wonderful Lesley Manville navigates Mary’s decline delicately, with carefully controlled emotionality. Rory Keenan plays a spiky James Jnr, under the influence of alcohol most of the time, and Matthew Beard a fragile Edmund, both excellent. I very much liked Jessica Regan’s cameo as Cathleen.

This is a high quality revival and its good to see another Bristol Old Vic production in the West End, but it didn’t engage me emotionally or maintain my attention as it should, probably more to do with me and the night I went. Don’t let me put you off.

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I first saw this piece by Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski in Jonathan Miller’s production for the Royal Court Theatre 28 years ago, though this appears to be a fresh adaptation by Colin Teevan. It featured Nabil Shaban, but I can’t remember whether he played all of the characters, as Kathryn Hunter does here – well, apart from a few mute or non-English speaking parts given to the onstage musician, whose wonderful music is one of the best things about this lovely production.

The play tells the story of the downfall of Ethiopia’s Emperor Haile Selassie, who ruled from 1930 to 1974, following a 14-year period as Regent. He was idiosyncratic, with a dubious human rights record, but was revered by many, including millions of Rastafarians who saw him as the new Messiah, a direct descendant from the bible’s King Solomon. Kapuscinski interviewed many of his retinue and interweaves their testimony to create an evocative picture of his despotic rule. Those interviewed include his valet, chauffeur & Minister of Information and more bizarre roles like keeper of his private zoo, pillow bearer and wiper of his lapdog’s urine!

Kathryn Hunter is mesmerising as she switches roles by moving to another part of the stage and adding a hat or epaulets or a cigarette. Temesgen Zeleke’s musical accompaniment is gorgeous, totally complimentary to the testimonies. In 65 minutes, you really do begin to understand the man, his power and his downfall.

A little gem you shouldn’t miss.

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Just over a month after The Orange Tree Theatre’s superb rediscovery of The Stepmother (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2013/02/16/the-stepmother), The Rose Theatre in Kingston is hosting Northern Broadsides brilliant revival of Githa Sowerby’s only successful play. Well done Surrey!

In his programme note, director Jonathan Miller says he thinks her writing resembles the best of Chekov; well, for me it’s a whole lot better than Chekov – much more dramatic and much more relevant. Her grandfather and father set up and ran a large glassworks in Gateshead, so she must have known this world well. Though Rutherford is an early 20th century northern industrialist, he could be a 21st century entrepreneur or press baron. He’s larger than life and charismatic, oozing power. He’s also a tyrant, a misogynist and a bully.

His wife is dead, his business is struggling and his children are a huge disappointment. He sees son John, returned from London with a wife and son, as unworthy of the family name. Richard, a vicar, is another lost cause. Daughter Janet, a thirty-something spinster, has had to keep home instead of marrying, starting a family and living a life of her own. His favourite employee Martin is better than the lot of them. As the play unfolds, he puts his business before everything and as a result destroys his family.

Relocated from Tyneside to Yorkshire, more to suit the company than anything else, the language becomes as rich as the tale it tells. The story has you in the grip from the start and never let’s go. There’s a realism and naturalism which transcends time and the characters are beautifully drawn. Though it all takes place in one room, it shows you a whole world of the upwardly mobile in the industrialised north. It’s always captivating, sometimes funny, and at times – such as the atitude of bankers to small manufacturing businesses – bang up-to-date!

The play was a revelation 19 years ago at the NT, but this production is even better, largely because it fits Northern Broadsides like a glove – and that’s much more than authentic accents; these actors inhabit their characters like they’re bringing their ancestors alive. Sara Poyser is wonderfully passionate and indignant as Janet. Broadsides regular Richard Standing is outstanding as ‘servant’ (Rutherford’s words) Martin. Kate Anthony plays Rutherford’s sister Ann beautifully, contemptuous of the south and forever sniping at young John’s wife Mary, who in the end is the only one who stands up to Rutherford – another lovely performance from Catherine Kinsella. Towering over all of this is Barrie Rutter’s Rutherord, every inch the industrial tyrant, a simply stunning performance.

The NT had this in its list of the top 100 plays of the 20th century and this production proves that conclusively. A deeply satisfying evening in the theatre.

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