Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Theatre Review : The School for Scandal by Richard Brinsley Sheridan - Barbican Theatre (dir Deborah Warner 7/6/11)

Deborah Warner is one of my favourite directors. Her vision of Mother Courage at the National Theatre was undoubtedly one of my theatrical highlights of 2009 – musically inspired, funny, biting. She is one of the few directors consistently able to stage exciting and visionary reinterpretations of Shakespeare, such as her big-scale Julius Caesar, and an extraordinary Titus Andronicus. So it was with eager anticipation that I went to see her interpretation of Sheridan’s School for Scandal at the Barbican.

On entering the auditorium to thumping rock music, the actors are taking part in what appears to be a modern fashion shoot, gossiping and taking pictures of the audience with their mobile phones. Signs are held up, which presumably highlight some of the character traits we are about to see in the play. When the action proper begins, Lady Sneerwell (Matilda Ziegler) and Snake (Gary Sefton) are both in 20th Century underwear being dressed with 18th Century clothes. So far, so very Brechtian.

The problem, however, is that this is not a play by Brecht. Brecht’s plays are generally quite linear in exposition, their plot lines relatively simple. This is not the case with Sheridan – his plot lines are famously convoluted, and rely on some heavy exposition early on to make them work. This is where this production failed, on two levels. Firstly, there were too many distractions that diverted attention to what was being explained, and secondly the delivery by several of the cast was so flat that it was difficult to focus attention on the explication. So by the time the action picked up towards the end of the first half, I was utterly bewildered as to what was going on (I was not previously familiar with this work) and the humour was passing me by. This was a pity, as, by the third act (we have the numbers of the acts and scenes on banners on the stage, naturally) the momentum had picked up and the stage-business was becoming very amusing.

At the interval, I repaired to the bar and read the synopsis in the program which enabled me to work out who was doing what to whom and why, which meant that the second half of the performance was significantly more enjoyable than the first – but it was too late for many fellow theatregoers, judging by the empty seats after the break. One shouldn’t need to rely on a program synopsis - if Deborah Warner had focussed attention on Brechtian devices which enabled a clearer exposition of the plot, then this could have been a triumphant production.

It seemed to take the cast a while to get going as well, as if they had been put off too by the silliness at the start. The Surface brothers (Aiden McArdle as the devious Joseph and Leo Bill as the dissolute Charles) stood out. Once the momentum picked up, both extracted maximum humour from their roles, ably and effortlessly assisted by a gruff but sensitive Alan Howard as Sir Peter Teazle and John Shrapnel as Sir Oliver Surface carrying on regardless of what was going on all around him. Gary Sefton proved a visual stand-out in the unpromising role of a drunken Gentleman with elastic limbs and Katherine Parkinson was a suitably flighty Lady Teazle, although generally – and surprisingly - the female characters did not come over very strongly.

Like any good Regency comedy, this production resolves to a satisfactory conclusion, and the second half is splendid entertainment. It is such a pity that so many of the audience had been lost – physically or emotionally – by this point. Sheridan is a playwright who is still funny and relevant today, and this production represents a lost opportunity to bring home this relevance to a contemporary audience. There is nothing wrong with an adventurous modern production, but that cannot be at the expense of proper pacing and clear exposition. It’s such a shame, as this was so close to working so well.

Theatre Review : Government Inspector by Nikolai Gogol - Young Vic (dir Richard Jones 20/6/11)

Comedies of confusion appear to be à la mode in London this summer, but whereas Carlo Goldoni’s A Servant of Two Masters, so successfully transformed into One Man, Two Guvnors at the Lyttleton, is essentially a piece of highly entertaining fluff, Nickolai Gogol’s vicious satire Government Inspector was sufficiently provoking to the Tsarist government for it to ban the play and send its author into exile.

The basic premise is simple. The mayor of a provincial Russian town hears that a Government Inspector is due to visit his town, and is worried that he might arrive incognito. When he hears that a gentleman from St Petersburg has arrived at the Inn he assumes that this must be the Inspector. However, it is in fact the penniless chancer Khlestakov, who is at first bemused when the mayor pays off his debts, but quickly works out how to turn the situation to his advantage when he learns that the townspeople wish to shower him with bribes and the mayor’s wife and daughter are overcome with the wit and sophistication of the gentleman from St Petersburg.

Gogol’s original play is sublime, spearing the corruption and pretensions of mid-19th Century Russia. However, this wonderful new production by Richard Jones, based on a fresh translation by Ian Harrower, takes the play into a new dimension entirely. This is Gogol-as-cartoon, fast and brash and bright and stylish. The set is the interior of a house which disappears rapidly into an impossible perspective, the costumes are from CbeeBees, the characters grotesques. Visually it was superb, every angle and mannerism maximised for comic effect. But it captured the manic surreality of Gogol perfectly, and the exaggerated movement allows the action to hurtle along at a cracking pace.

Louise Brealey (Maria), Doon Mackichan (Anna)
 and Julian Barratt (Mayor) in
Government Inspector at the Young Vic, London

Photo: Tristram Kenton

Kyle Soller as Khlestikov is superb, his increasingly manic machinations driving the comedy, and he is well matched by Doon Mackichan and Louise Brearley as the mayor’s wife Maria and daughter Anna, Anna tottering in her short skirt and high heels or slumped on the seat in teenage ennui, Maria with fan and leg outstretched indulging in “sophisticated” small-talk. The bit when they hear that the so-called Inspector from St Petersberg will stay at their house and both run around screaming is perfect. All the supporting cast are very good, hamming it up for all they are worth, Amanda Lawrence as the inquisitive postmaster in particular.

The only disappointment, however, was Julian Barrett as the Mayor. Barrett’s previous experience on stage is as a comedian, and on television. As far as I can discover, this is his first major theatrical acting role, and one could tell. He looked the part, his movement was very good and some facial expressions very funny, but his delivery was a bit flat and lacked conviction when compared to the manic, exaggerated projection of his fellow actors. In other productions this may not have mattered, but here he was exposed and it left a bit of a hole in the middle of the show.

However, this was the only weakness in a tremendously good production, one which was as visually striking as anything I have seen in years. Fast, funny, clever, stylish, this really demonstrated – vide my comments on Deborah Warner’s School for Scandal – how to make an old play relevant for the 21st Century, as all the youngsters around me seemed to love it.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Theatre Review : Emperor and Galilean by Henrik Ibsen - Olivier Theatre (dir Jonathan Kent 13/6/11)

The Olivier Theatre is the best theatrical space in Britain, the thrust stage bringing the audience up close to the performers, the sightlines perfect (except from the very back) and the hydraulic revolving stage allowing directors and designers tremendous flexibitity in how they present large-scale dramas. Seldom have I seen it used to better effect than Jonathan Kent's creation of the Roman Empire from glittery Constantinople to darkest Gaul in this striking production of Ibsen's Emperor and Galilean.

Apparently, this is the first time that this sprawling historical drama has been produced on the British stage, Ibsen's original Closet Drama (i.e. having not been written reading and not for performing) about the life of the Roman Emperor Julian the Apostate having been trimmed from a mighty eight hours to much more manageable three and a half. But three and a half hours is a long time to sit in the theatre if the play is a duffer - after all, there must be a reason why it has not been performed over all these years. However, there was no reason to worry. Jonathan Kent and designer Paul Brown were not going to stint on any opportunity to maximise the spectacle on show as the drama moved from the Christian Court of the Emperor Constantius to sacrifices to the gods in Ephesus to the final battle in the Persian Desert.

The play is frighteningly topical. It is an examination of the nature of faith and freedom in the context of State power. Emperor Constantius (Nabil Shaban) has a tenuous grip on a newly Christian Empire, and keeps his nephew Julian (Andrew Scott) under close suveillance. Julian has doubts about his Christian faith, which are confirmed by the pagan priest Maximus (Ian McDiarmid). When the Roman Legions overthrow Constantius and propel Julian to the Imperial throne, he promises a return to the pagan religion whilst tolerating Christianity. However the corrupting nature of power corrodes these ideals, and soon the Christians of Antioch are being subject to persecution. Having been told by Maximus that he will fall on the field of Mars which is in Rome, Julian becomes convinced of his infallibility and invades Iraq. Needless to say, tragedy ensues.

Ibsen refers to this play as his most important work, and one can sense glimpses of his conception of the nature of individual freedom, however the play does not articulate these clearly. Having not read the full script I cannot say if this is a shortcoming on the part of Ibsen or Ben Power who made the adaptation. In fact towards the end, the play sounds like a paean for the Christian faith which I don't think was Ibsen's intention at all. It is structured as a tragedy, but in comparison with Shakespeare's great historical plays (think a combination Richard II's idealism with Richard III's megalomania) the characterisation of Julian falls a long way short, and the tragic denouement is weak.

However, this does not detract from a spectacular theatrical experience. Andrew Scott brings power and presence to Julian and Nabil Shaban is a striking Constantius. The staging is dramatic, beautifully designed with striking use of music, metal and fire. It's difficult to depict pagan celebrations without resorting to cliched cavorting, but the powerful scene where the Roman Army persecutes the Christian villagers in Syrian Antioch had a contemporary resonance which Jonathan Kent could not have foreseen. As the production ended, I was surprised that the audience reaction was somewhat muted. On the contrary, I felt that Jonathan Kent, Ben Power and Andrew Scott had triumphed in making a spectacular, accessible and thought-provoking evening with such difficult material.