Posts Tagged ‘Matthew Dunster’

The story of the first global spy network 400 years ago is ripe for dramatisation, and the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is the perfect place to stage it.

Sir Francis Walsingham was Elizabeth I’s spymaster. He had an international network of spies and double-agents. He spread false rumours on a wholesale scale. He sanctioned torture and execution. The master of manipulation. We don’t know whether he was doing the (possibly paranoid) Queen’s bidding or whether he was manipulating her, and the play suggests he may in turn have been manipulated himself.

Anders Lustgarten’s play, directed by Mathew Dunster, doesn’t hold back on the profanity or violence, even humour and cheeky modern references, which is where he shoots himself in the foot. Its flippancy hijacks the drama and the Queen’s language, perhaps intended to change our perception of ‘good Queen Bess’, just feels childish and tacky. Though they are funny, the cheap quips about our popularity in Europe and success at tennis, attempts at contemporary resonance, don’t help. It’s such a shame, because there’s a great story screaming to get out.

Designer Jon Bausor has created a brilliant two-story backdrop by putting screens at the front of the gallery that match the lower half, and inserting lots of drawers for Walsingham’s files. Apart from some light from the corridors, it is largely candlelit, though with fewer than usual, so its often very dark, in keeping with the story. I loved Alexander Balanescu’s music, played by a trio behind an the opaque left side of the gallery.

Only three actors play a single role, the other six playing between two and four, and this is sometimes confusing, particularly in the dark! Tara Fitzgerald has great presence but her profane dialogue weakens the characterisation. Walsingham is a big role, and he goes on a big journey, and Aidan McArdle handles it well. It’s a fine supporting cast.

A great idea, the perfect space, but for me misguided in writing and execution.

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You can always rely on National Theatre Wales to take you on a new journey or to take a new route on an existing one. This isn’t the first play on dementia I’ve seen in recent years, but unlike The Father, which messed with your head to confront the condition, this one goes straight to the heart, with it’s choir setting and lovely contemporary choral music.

Most of the play takes place in the local library where the dementia choir rehearse, though we also visit homes to see some of the realities of living with the condition for both the patients and the carers. As it establishes itself, the therapeutic power of the choir becomes clear, though social services prove less than fully committed and the library is facing an uncertain future. The divisiveness of the miners strike return as an activist miner Rocky and former policeman Evan clash once more. Early onset alzheimer’s brings the much younger Joe and his carer Dyanne to the choir. We have a brief glimpse at carer abuse and a more difficult confrontation with a representative of the result of the demise of the valleys.

It’s a touch bitty, with lots of scene changes slowing the pace (and an awful lot of chair movement!), but it handles the issues effectively and sensitively and the music, including an excellent brand new Manic Street Preachers song written specially for the show, is uplifting. The performances are deeply moving, especially Dafydd Hywel as Rocky, Desmond Barrit as his nemesis Evan and Martin Marquez as Tom. NTW have been working with choirs like this and it’s great to see some of them on stage. Anna Fleischle’s design is uber-realistic and Matthew Dunstster’s staging brings out the best of Patrick Jones’ heart-on-sleeve writing.

I continue to admire NTW’s capacity to engage, educate, challenge, provoke and entertain and was glad I was in Wales to catch this.



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In the seven years between 1996 and 2003 we had six Martin McDonagh plays, then nothing for twelve years until this. Well, the McDonagh famine is over and his distinctive quirky black comedy voice is to be heard again at the Royal Court in what might be his best play to date, and the best new play at the Court for some time.

This is the first of his plays to be set in England rather than Ireland. It’s the early 60’s, capital punishment is being abolished and Britain’s hangmen take up new careers. Former hangman Harry, his wife April and daughter Shirley run a typical Northern boozer, whose regulars include Police Inspector Fry and a group of hardened drinkers who are in awe of Harry’s infamy. He decides to tell his story to a local cub reporter and the published article is unkind to his rival Pierrepoint, who pays him a visit later in the play. His ex assistant Syd, a mousy somewhat passive character, is intent on taking Harry down a peg or two and colludes with the mysterious and menacing Mooney, who may be connected to Harry’s last victim. How this plays out is the heart of the play, which I won’t spoil.

At the interval, I wasn’t sure what to make of it as there was so much to unravel, but the second half plays out brilliantly and unpredictably with horror and humour in equal measure in a style only McDonagh could write, with some of the most un-PC lines you’ll hear in a theatre today! The cast is outstanding. David Morrisssey is terrific as Harry, with a very commanding presence, and Reece Sheersmith is the perfect foil as the hapless Syd. Johnny Flynn captures the menace of Mooney in the best performance I’ve seen him give. The ever-present drinkers are superbly characterised by Ryan Hope, Graeme Hawley and especially Simon Rouse as partially deaf Arthur. When we eventually meet John Hodgkinson’s Pierrpoint, he’s every inch the No. 1 hangman, towering over Harry’s No. 2.

The first scene is two years earlier in prison and when the location changes, the transformation is quite a shock, and perhaps a bit over-engineered and unnecessarily expensive. There’s a third location, a cafe, which is cleverly created more modestly. There’s a real attention to period detail for the main pub set; Anna Fleschle’s design is impressive, as is Matthew Dunster’s direction.

I thought we might have lost McDonagh to films. He never completed the Aran Islands trilogy as he wasn’t happy with the third play and his only subsequent work was written specifically for New York and we haven’t seen it here, so this return is a real treat and the production and performances do full justice to a cracking play.


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In their short life, National Theatre Wales have become pioneers of unique, innovative and accessible theatrical experiences. I’ve seen theatre in my home village, which I never did when I lived there. I’ve seen Shakespeare brilliantly reinvented in an RAF aircraft hanger. I’ve explored Dylan Thomas’ adopted town, his characters and his life. So it’s no surprise to find me in a forest near Usk transported back to the First World War for an extraordinary experience and as moving a tribute as we’re likely to see in this centenary year.

We embark on our Cooks Battlefield Experience Tour, through the trenches (walking back in time?) to a French village where soldiers are embarking on a bit of R & R and an explanation by our guide of the field of battle. We follow four young soldiers from diverse backgrounds, Welsh and London Welsh, who have volunteered to fight. We meet their wives, girlfriends and mothers, their officers and the local French village girls they encounter. When we come to know and love them, we follow them out of the trenches onto the field and into the woods, and into senseless tragedy.

Though the journey is in some ways epic, the stories are very personal. One of the surviving officers older self accompanies us as guide and narrator. A Dutch man pops up occasionally with a side story about Einstein, who had just developed his most famous theory, to provide a connection with and a context of time. In the woods, the rain somehow adds to the atmosphere, whilst the tree canopy keeps us relatively dry. You feel the heartbreak of the families and the hopelessness of the situation. It’s all so deeply moving.

Director Matthew Dunster and designer Jon Bausor have solved a lot of the problems of site specific work by staging the two main sections with the audience seated, free from the typical distractions of the form. You can hear every word of Owen Sheers beautiful narrative and dialogue, using the work of the war poets, and see every scene without interference. The battlefield tour premise works well, though I was less convinced by the Einstein thread – but it doesn’t detract. The performances were all committed and engaging, some breaking your heart – for me the gung-ho but fragile young miner from Senghenydd, neighbouring village to my family home, who survived the mining disaster only to volunteer for the front.

The setting, writing, staging, design and performances come together to provide another unique and powerful experience which is also a moving commemoration of the tragedy of this and other wars – the loss of so many young lives. National Theatre Wales continue to lead the way.

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I’ve waited 18 years to see another Rodney Ackland play. During this time, we’ve had hundreds, if not thousands, of Chekov’s, Pinter’s and Shaw’s, but nothing by this sadly neglected 20th Century British playwright. Why? He wrote c.25 plays, almost half of them adaptations, and to my knowledge only two of them have been produced in London in the last 30 years or so.

It takes a while to get into the rhythm of the play, largely because the characters are like living museum pieces. They don’t make them like this anymore! Or do they? The Skinner’s are an upper middle-class family of five with three staff (only one of whom we meet). We’re in the immediate post-war period, where rationing, and attempts to overcome it, is still a fact of life. Aubrey is a lawyer seeking the local Conservative nomination. His wife Blanche is a bit useless. Elder daughters Laura & Kathleen forever bicker; Laura has returned from the Gold Coast a widow but already has a new man in her life and spinster Kathleen is lonely & jealous. Younger daughter Susan can’t understand any of them.

Aubrey, Blanch & Kathleen are dreadful snobs, more than a bit racist, contemptuous of the staff and the lower classes and obsessed with how others see them. Social climbers, their over-riding need is to conform, so they are outraged that Laura would abandon her mourning clothing and contemplate re-marriage so soon. Things get worse as the truth of her husband’s death emerges, then turn again as her boyfriend David’s pedigree becomes known. The ending is very clever.

This must have been way ahead of its time with such sharp social satire. It’s bitingly funny and occasionally shocking and you love to hate these people, whist you recognise aspects of their attitudes and behaviours in yourself and others. We never see the party, but spend the whole play in Laura’s bedroom before and after it; projected animations of the exterior of the home and the journey back from the party provide a highly original way to link to it.

Director Matthew Dunster is lucky to have such a terrific cast. Michael Thomas & Stella Gonet bring alive the period values brilliantly. June Watson is a treat to watch as Nanny, seemingly loyal yet with an undercurrent of contempt. Michele Terry, playing perhaps the most conservative of them all, captures but contains the repressed feelings of Kathleen. Laura is a psychologically complex character and it must be hard to find the right balance, but Katherine Parkinson does this beautifully. I loved Anna Fleischle’s period perfect design which somehow brought the stage towards you so that felt very close to it all.

The extraordinary production of Absolute Hell at the NT in 1995 should have prompted lots more Ackland, but it didn’t. Lets hope this fine revival does better.

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Why didn’t the director Jeremy Herrin or the Almeida Theatre’s artistic director / literary manager / dramaturg reign in the excesses of Matthew Dunster’s writing? I think there is a good play hiding in here, but I’m afraid it gets lost by throwing in a housing estate full of kitchen sinks!

The core idea is very good. The play follows the lives of actor’s Michael and Gordon, who meet at drama school, and their alternating fortunes. At first Gordon’s successful and  a struggling Michael & his first wife take refuge in his home. Then Michael’s rise to fame as Mr Saturday Night TV makes him the benefactor of Gordon, his wife Sally and daughter / god-daughter Effie; something they ultimately exploit. Then Sally gets soap stardom as scandal puts pay to Michael’s career, though he gets short shrift when he needs help.

Along the way, lots of political / moral / ethical issues get thrown in – gas flaring in the Niger delta, (un)fair trade, Zimbabwean totalitarianism, environmental damage by the oil industry on Sakhalin Island…….and this just swamps the play and gives it a tone of preachy artificiality. You can almost hear the playwright saying ‘I know, I’ll put something in about child labour now’. However worthy the causes he’s trying to highlight, they ultimately detract from the worth of his play and by the third act the melodrama wears you out; as the actors shouting became relentless, I came very close to shouting ‘shut the fuck up!’

They’ve gone to a lot of trouble to create three completely realistic homes on the Almeida stage, but this realism is soon challenged by unrealistic characterisation (caricatures). I felt very sorry for a perfectly good group of actors who appeared to have been instructed to go so over-the-top there would be no way back. It was all so heavy-handed that I felt I was being continually thumped in the hope I would submit. I didn’t – I just got more and more irritated.

Maybe if someone had challenged the creative team, we’d have got something a whole lot better from the same ideas.

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This ‘new ballet’ is really a dance drama with, as someone we met after the show accurately pointed out, not enough dance!

It’s based on a Hans Christian Anderson short story, but even with polymath Matthew Dunster on board as Dramaturge, it wasn’t always clear how what was happening on stage related to the story. It was only after I read the story (as opposed to the synopsis, which doesn’t really help) in the programme after the second part did I really understand the second part! This narrative flow isn’t helped by the two intervals (presumably in order to facilitate scene and costume changes and dancer rests) and a lot of moments where a screen comes down and you are left with just projections.

That said, I liked the Pet Shop Boys score, which alternated between technopop and orchestral and technopoporchestral and Katrina Lindsay’s designs and Tal Rosner’s projections, with a nod to Rodchenko, are terrific. What dancing there is is good, but in truth the talents of Royal Ballet star Ivan Putrov, New Adventures Aaron Sillis and the lovely Clemmie Sveaas as the Princess aren’t really exploited.

Choreographer Javier De Frutos has created a dance drama spectacle which was always watchable and listenable but only occasionally fluid. If it comes back (which, based on a sold out 10-day run, it inevitably will) and you go, be sure to read the story first.

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This play isn’t set in that Somalian town; in fact, it’s set in a London secondary school and has nothing to do with Mogadishu or Somalia at all. What it is, though, is very well written, very topical, very thought(and debate)provoking and very entertaining. The fact it is the playwright’s first play makes this all the more astonishing.

A white female teacher initially refuses to report the violent act of a black pupil with whom she empathises because she doesn’t want to get him into trouble. The Head persuades her to do so, and this unleashes a counter-story of racist abuse spun by the boy with the collaboration of his friends. By the interval, my companion had taken sides and we had a heated debate about the unfairness of the teacher’s treatment. In the second half, the play achieves an extraordinary balance by revealing the back stories and refuses to take sides. The consequences of the event itself develop a life of their own in the hands of people and organisation who know neither the teacher nor the boy.

It may be some time before we see writing as good as this again. The situation, characterisation and dialogue ooze authenticity, no doubt because writer Vivienne Franzmann has been a secondary school teacher for 12 years. Actor-turned-Director Matthew Dunster has staged it brilliantly with just a few props inside movable wire fencing surrounding the school playground. There is a uniformly fine ensemble of 12 actors, from which I would single out Malachi Kirby’s assured and passionate Jason and Hammed Animashaun as his crucial (comic) sidekick Jordan.

A triumph for original producers the Royal Exchange Manchester and the Lyric Hammersmith. Don’t miss it.

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