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Posts Tagged ‘Nicholas Hytner’

Ibsen’s play is about a disgraced banker who’s done his time and now lives alone in the same house as the wife who will no longer talk to him as he’s disgraced the family. Sounds quite up-to-date for something that’s 125 years old. That’s largely because it’s a new version by Lucina Coxon, which gets a contemporary staging by Nicholas Hytner.

Opening with Borkman’s wife Gunhild lounging on the sofa watching TV and drinking cola, soon after it starts her estranged sister Ella arrives and we hear that her and Borkman have history, as well as the fact that Ella became a surrogate mother to the Borkman’s son Erhart in his formative teenage years soon after the scandal broke.

Borkman doesn’t show much remorse or any warmth, Gunhild is also cold to her sister and son. Ekhart moves to the city with his girlfriend Fanny and her protege Frida, with only Ella mourning his departure. She attempts reconciliation with both Borkmans, but it ends tragically.

There are excellent performances from Simon Russell Beale, Lia Williams and Clare Higgins (how good it is to see her back on stage in a leading role) and designer Anna Fleischle conjures up a bleak Norwegian winter landscape, but despite the quality of the inputs it somehow doesn’t add up to much and left me unengaged and unmoved. Sacrilegious though this may sound, maybe it’s because it isn’t that good a play?

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Ten years ago Stephen Beresford’s first play, The Last of the Haussmans, went straight onto the NT’s Lyttleton stage and was a huge success. I loved it, and have been waiting ever since for his next. We’ve had a very good adaptation of Bergman’s Fanny & Alexander, a short monologue streamed as part of the Old Vic’s lockdown season and a terrific screenplay for Pride, but this second original play has taken ten years, including two waiting to get onto the Bridge Theatre stage for the now customary reasons. It’s what I call ‘a proper play’, well worth the wait, and the cast of this premiere production is uniformly excellent.

The Church of England in Devon may not seem the most exciting prospect for a drama, but this even-handed examination of it’s role in 2022 dispels that prejudice quickly. The vicar finds himself at the centre of a storm when he refuses just one of the requests for the funeral of a child. The community, most of whom never attend his church except for christenings, weddings and funerals, turn against him. Even his loyal wife, newly arrived curate, daughter / verger and the church authorities want and expect him to give in to the pressure, but he insists its what they need, irrespective of what they want.

Not only is the debate an objective view of the church in our times, it’s also sharp-witted and often very funny, both an entertaining and enlightening piece which takes place entirely in the vicarage kitchen (designed by Mark Thompson) whilst most events occur offstage. I couldn’t wait to get back after the interval and felt deeply satisfied at the end, as only good live drama can provide.

Alex Jennings is simply superb as Rev David Highland, a flawed but well meaning man who cares for the community as a whole, church-goers or not, despite his past infidelities and issues with alcohol. The uncle of the child, finding himself in conflict with his own family, uses him; this is another fine performance from Josh Finan, who so impressed in Shook and Peggy For You. Hermione Gulliford is superb as doctor’s wife Janet, jumping on the bandwagon, the woman you love to hate. Holly Atkins is a delight as the pregnant copper on a motorbike singlehandedly trying to keep the peace.

This is great writing, excellent staging by Nicholas Hytner and a fine ensemble. The cheers said it all; lots of us have been waiting for a meaty new play that never forgets to entertain whilst it illuminates.

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David Hare is the master of (British) state-of-he-nation plays, but here he turns his hand to early 20th Century American history and one of its lesser well known personalities, the man most responsible for the USA’s urban landscape, Robert Moses. Never heard of him? Me neither. That probably makes this all the more fascinating.

It’s a monumental task to put the biography of a man whose career spanned more than forty years on stage. Hare’s solution to this is clever, though perhaps limiting too. The first act covers the success which made him, creating state parks linked to urban centres by expressways, and the second the plan which led to his fall from grace, attempting to take an expressway through Washington Square, the heart of Manhattan.

During his early career he works for state Governor Al Smith, a Democrat who later became his party’s presidential candidate. Smith fully supports his schemes as he sees them as egalitarian, though with reservations about their lack of mass transit. Smith protects Moses from the opposition of rich and establishment figures, and he becomes renowned and revered for his urban revolution, despite the fact this was totally reliant on cars, effectively shutting out the working class who were dependent on trains, subways and buses, none of which had their place in Moses’ plans.

By the time Smith had gone, succeeded by Roosevelt, the political landscape had changed too, with the middle classes determined to protect areas like Greenwich Village and Soho, supported by Roosevelt’s wife no less. These plans were also somewhat underhand, using transport as a cover for development. Moses tried to convince them he was removing slums and bettering the lives of the poor, but his real motivation was more dubious. Ironically, he turned out to be far from the egalitarian Smith thought he was supporting, his plans ignoring or even running roughshod over the working class, seemingly racist given the composition of this group, but its also ironic that the failure of his plans led to the gentrification of these areas as home to the rich and famous to this day.

He was clearly a larger than life character who gets a larger than life characterisation by Ralph Fiennes, on stage virtually throughout, commanding all around him. Danny Webb’s Al Smith is more than a match with a terrific performance, albeit only in the first half. Moses’ loyal, long suffering staff are represented by Samuel Barnett’s Ariel Porter and Siobhan Cullen as Finnuala Connell, both of whom are excellent. The rest of the roles are somewhat underwritten.

Bob Crowley designs two workmanlike sets, full of architectural detail, that create the two period offices in which most of the scenes are played out, and director Nicholas Hytner gives the show great pace. It’s not vintage Hare, but it’s an insightful piece that entertains and educates. Well worth a visit.

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The 2003 stage adaptation of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy was a highlight of Nicholas Hytner’s period at the NT, now the first book of his next trilogy is one of the best things the Bridge Theatre has done since it opened in 2017. Pullman has said the Book of Dust trilogy is not a prequel, the second part jumping forward twenty years, but this first part is. Bryony Lavery’s adaptation worked for a friend who’d read the book, another who hadn’t read any Pullman, and me – a devotee of HDM with this book waiting to be read, another lockdown failure.

It concerns the baby Lyra, daughter of Mrs Coulter and Lord Asriel and the subject of a prophesy, and the battle for her guardianship / fate up to the point she takes refuge in Jordan College. Malcolm, the 12-year-old son of the landlady of the Trout Inn seeks to protect her, with the aid of the pub’s helper Alice, one order of nuns, rebel leader Boatwright, academics Dr. Relf & Lord Nugent, a good witch and her father, whilst the all powerful Magisterium, another order of nuns, a rogue academic and her mother have other plans! It races along, but I thought it was very clear storytelling.

Bob Crowley’s design relies upon the extraordinary projections of Luke Halls, which move you from pub to convent to college and many more locations, and create rivers, storms and floods that take your breath away. With a thrust stage and a back rake this is at times intimate and at times epic. A visual treat. The daemons are puppets, the smaller of which sit on their host, with the bigger ones manipulated by actors, some of whom speak.

The exceptional cast include actors of the stature of Dearbhla Molloy, John Light, Naomi Fredericks, Pip Carter, Holly Atkins, Nick Sampson and Julie Atherton (who gamely covered Malcolm’s daemon Asta on the night I went), but it’s Samuel Creasey as Malcolm and Ella Dacres as Alice who carry the play. This is Creasey’s stage debut, one of the most impressive I’ve ever seen, with newcomer Dacres shining alongside him. The chemistry between them is superb.

I thought it was a captivating evening of storytelling, family theatre at its best. Don’t miss.

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The two ladies in question are the First Lady’s of France and the USA, thinly disguised from the present ones by changing their nationalities and a few other things. Nancy Harris’ new play is an interesting examination of the roles of First Ladies, supplemented by some insightful quotes from, and commentary on, nineteen real First Ladies from seven countries spanning seventy years in the accompanying programme.

Their husbands / the Presidents are at an emergency summit on the Cote d’Azur following recent terrorist outrages, trying to agree on an appropriate response. The two ladies have been taken to a side room following an incident when a protester threw something at one of them. Whilst the clean-up takes place, and their assistants discuss and reschedule their day, they share their respective husband’s positions, one seemingly in agreement with hers, the other more radical than her husband.

They also share information about their respective lives and feelings, sometimes willingly, sometimes coerced. It takes some interesting turns, some a touch implausible perhaps, but it does make you think about their roles and potential to influence their husbands and thereby world events. As Ladybird Johnson put it, they are ‘an unpaid public servant elected by one person, her husband’. It holds you in its grip for 100 minutes.

It’s somewhat limited dramatically by its confinement to one room, with views outside to the corniche from one side and to the corridor from the other. Zoe Wanamaker and Zrinka Cvitesic play their respective roles well and are very good together, sometimes in conflict, sometimes in concord. They are occasionally joined by their assistants, Yoli Fuller as diplomatic Georges and Lorna Brown as assertive Sandy, both well played, plus Fatima the maid, Raghad Chaar, whose role goes way beyond serving drinks.

Hopefully neither president will sue!

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The Bridge Theatre’s biggest success so far was probably their promenade Julius Caesar last year (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2018/01/29/julius-caesar-bridge-theatre). This even more immersive promenade staging of A Midsummer Night’s Dream proves how suitable the space is for this style of performance. I found it captivating from start to finish.

They’ve really cracked the promenade form at the Bridge, largely because of their ability to bring platforms up from the floor, and this time flying in the space above. There are no sightline issues for either promenaders or those looking on from the galleries, and the marshalling is very unobtrusive. This Dream starts in serious tone with Athenians dressed like puritans as Hermia’s arranged marriage is confirmed, emphasising its unacceptability like I’ve never seen before, before we’re whisked away to the forest.

The very acrobatic fairies swing above the promenaders and the lovers and royal couple move along platforms with leaf-strewn beds on. The simple change of spell from Titania to Oberon heightens the comedy greatly. The lovers are particularly feisty and modern, and Puck is a marvellous creation, looking like a punk, wicked, funny and brilliantly athletic. The use of music is terrific, with the promenaders, seemingly unprompted, breaking into moves in unison. They take a lot of liberties with Shakespeare’s words, and there are ad libs and audience involvement, but they are all completely justified by the result.

Gwendoline Christie has great presence as Hippolyta / Titanya, towering over Puck and the fairies in a long green dress. Oliver Chris brings his considerable gift for comedy to the role of Oberon; his scenes with Hammed Animashaun’s Bottom, as great a performance in this role as I’ve ever seen, are positively sublime. David Moorst continues to deliver on his early promise with a simply terrific Puck and a contrasting Philostrate. It was great to see half of the rude mechanicals played by women, with Ami Metcalf’s butch Snout feared by all.

The Bridge must do more in this configuration, with the unique possibilities the building affords. Director Nicholas Hytner and designer Bunny Christie have created a magical tale with a great sense of fun, a Dream for our times. Take every young person you know as it may convert them to live theatre for life. They were still partying as we left.

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Even though this isn’t a classic Tennessee Williams work, it’s the third major London revival in thirty years – Peter Hall’s with Vanessa Redgrave in 1988, Nicholas Hytner’s with Helen Mirren nineteen years ago, and now Tamara Harvey directing Hattie Morahan and Seth Numrich in a co-production by the Menier Chocolate Factory and Theatre Clwyd. It’s inspired by the Orpheus myth, but it’s an uneven play, with a dull first half and an action-packed second. It’s also not easy for modern audiences to swallow the racism, however authentic it is of the period. The production, though, is first class.

Lady is a southern belle of Sicilian descent. Her father, a street performer back home, came to the US and became a bootlegger in prohibition times. He was murdered when he crossed a line that was unacceptable to the white locals. After a relationship with David Cutere, who left her, Lady ends up marrying store owner Jabe Torrence. As the play begins, he returns from major surgery at the hospital in Memphis, but the prognosis isn’t good.

In comes drifter Valentine Xavier looking for work, and Lady employs him, the sexual chemistry obvious from the outset. The relationship develops whilst Jabe stays upstairs with his nurse and sisters, the locals gossip and David’s sister Carol, a persona non grata in this community, seeks to lure Val for herself. Other characters, including Jabe’s friends Pee Wee and Dog, Sheriff Talbott and his wife Vee and local gossips Beulah and Dolly, come and go and another, Uncle Pleasant, becomes a sort of narrator, who occasionally gives us TW’s stage directions.

The problem with the play is that the 75 minute first half is virtually all scene-setting, and plays out so slowly that it risks losing the audience. The second half is a complete contrast as Lady discovers more about her father’s murder, makes a confession of her own and Val, who just about every woman in the neighbourhood is now smitten by, is driven out of town by their men, as the play is propelled to its tragic conclusion.

With the audience on three sides and just the back of the shopfront as a backdrop and a few tables and chairs for props, the Menier space seems vast, and is used very well in this staging. The ensemble is uniformly outstanding, led by terrific performances from Hattie Morahan as Lady and Seth Numrich as Val, with great chemistry between them. Jemima Rooper is superb as Carol and Carol Royle makes much of the strange character of god-fearing Vee. The supporting roles are all well cast; I was particularly impressed by Catrin Aaron and Laura Jane Matthewson as gossips Beulah & Dolly.

Despite the play’s problems, the fine production and exceptional performances make it worth seeing again.

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A hit new play at the Bridge Theatre? I’d say so. A proper play, too. Remember those? Stories, plots, characters. Something that takes you on an enjoyable journey to somewhere. It’s a stage adaptation of Harriett Lane’s novel by playwright Lucinda Coxon, and jolly good it is too.

Frances works for the arts supplement of a Sunday paper, specifically the Books section. She’s very put upon – fetching coffee, fixing couriers – someone always in the background. Returning home from Christmas with her family, she witnesses a fatal car accident, the last person to speak to its victim Alys, whose family ask the police if they can meet her. She declines at first, but when she discovers Alys’s husband is famous author Laurence Kyte, she changes her mind.

Frances’ boss Mary is surprised to bump into her at Alys’ memorial service where she is seen speaking to her family, as a result of which her currency at work rises sharply, and she gets books to review and functions to attend. At the same time, she inveigles herself into the Kyte family, at first as a confidante for Alys’ daughter Polly, but becoming much more. Underneath the cloak of invisibility lurks a rather cunning, determined, intelligent and somewhat manipulative person, who creates a future for herself and cleverly navigates the journey towards it.

Nicholas Hytner’s staging is very well paced, drawing you in and keeping you engaged with Frances’ story. Bob Crowley’s design, with video projections by Luke Halls, allows the action to move swiftly and fluidly from offices to rooms and gardens in a handful of locations. I thought Joanne Froggatt perfectly captured the seemingly unobtrusive Frances, revealing what’s really going on in her head by a subtle glance or a hint of a smile. The supporting cast are first class, with Sylvestra Le Touzel giving another of her nuanced performances as Mary, then turning up virtually unrecognisable as Audrey.

Five week run? I smell a transfer for this thoroughly entertaining tale.

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Alan Bennett’s last play, People, at the NT six years ago, was about the heritage ‘industry’. It tried to cover so many issues that it lost focus and proved a bit of a disappointment. He covers a lot of ground here too, but it’s more cohesive, a homage to the NHS with a swipe at the decline in our sense of social responsibility for good measure.

We’re in a Yorkshire general hospital, led by trust chairman and former Mayor Slater, that’s facing closure. They’re campaigning against it, and in the geriatric ward they’ve set up a choir as part of the campaign. There’s an omnipresent film documentary team, which Slater hopes will aid their campaign. Dr Valentine (anglicisation of his real name) is a caring doctor with a gentle bedside manner and genuine affection for his geriatric patients, but he’s facing deportation. Sister Gilcrest is old school, obsessed with continence and cleanliness. Nurse Pinkney is more focused on contentment and happiness. The real interest of Salter is his own career. Amongst the visitors, patient Mrs Maudsley’s family are predatory fortune hunters and coal-miner Joe’s son Colin is up from London, exorcising his fraught relationship with his dad; he’s a Management Consultant advising the Health Minister, an architect of closure plans. Just before the interval it takes a sinister turn.

Bennett’s acute observation of people shines again with finely drawn characterisations, delicious turns of phrase and a very clever unfolding narrative. I couldn’t stop smiling at the new ward names, changed at the suggestion of the minister. The twelve geriatric patients each have lovely back stories, which they share with us between songs. Our attitudes to the old, patient abuse, bed blocking and the obsession with targets, specialisation, outsourcing and privatisation are all covered. Of course, its very funny, but its also poignant and bang on target much of the time. Valentine’s final words direct to the audience pierced my heart.

The twelve patients are a delight, veteran thespians relishing such great writing. Deborah Findlay is brilliant as the cold but seemingly loyal, hard-working ward sister who becomes positively chilling. Sacha Dhawan has genuine warmth and empathy as Valentine. Samuel Barnett’s character Colin is rather unsympathetic, but he spars with Jeff Rawle’s brittle dad and both do eventually melt. There’s a lovely cameo from David Moorst as work experience affable Andy, who also turns unexpectedly. Peter Forbes makes a great job of the pompous self regarding Salter. Director Nicholas Hytner and designer Bob Crowley have worked with Bennett a lot, and they continue to serve his plays well.

I think the play divides people in many ways, with older audience members, NHS advocates and lefties the most positive. I loved it!

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I’ve lost track of the number of productions of this play I’ve seen. In the last five years alone there’s been the RSC’s African one, Dominic Dromgoole’s ‘inside and out’ at both The Globe and the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, the Donmar’s all-female prison setting and the RSC’s classical take earlier this month. Could the new Bridge Theatre add anything? Well, as it turns out, it does. It proves to be a very versatile space, transforming into a sort of indoor Globe, without the restriction of a stage and with a very flexible floor which solves sight line issues for smaller promenaders!

Nicholas Hytner’s production is very raucous, at times feeling like live news unfolding. There’s live heavy rock as you enter, the promenade audience swaying and swelling as the start time approaches. As the band leave, the crowd swells again, this time with Romans cheering the return of their new hero Julius Caesar. The staging is particularly effective with crowd and battle scenes, with the audience expertly marshalled, acting as extras, but the more intimate conspiratorial scenes work well too, making you feel like you’re eves-dropping on the conversations. One of the most striking things about it is how the verse feels totally naturalistic and contemporary. I felt that I absorbed more than ever, and like the RCS’s a few weeks ago, the contemporary parallels are extraordinary, without being heavy-handed or loaded with gimmicks.

Cassius and Casca are women, with Michelle Fairley giving a particularly fine performance as the former. Ben Wishaw’s intelligent characterisation of Brutus is introspective but with steely determination. David Morrisey commands the space as Mark Anthony, putting on the swagger before the play even starts. David Calder is a more complex Caesar, enjoying the adulation yet somehow uncomfortable with all its trappings. Luxury casting indeed.

My only gripe was the distraction and disrespect of people coming and going from the pit, with ushers talking to them as they did. They need to be firm about no re-entry, which could be helped by ceasing to sell drink in the space, which no doubt contributes to their need to leave during the unbroken two hours!

An unmissable Julius Caesar for our times.

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