Theatre Review: The Crucible, Old Vic

Richard Armitage as John Proctor in the Old Vic's The Crucible

Richard Armitage as John Proctor in the Old Vic’s The Crucible

Arthur Miller is having a bit of a moment on The Cut. Just as the gut-wrenching A View from the Bridge bows out in bloody fashion at The Young Vic, at the other end of the street, its more stately elder, The Old Vic reprises The Crucible, Miller’s tale of the Salem witch hunt.

The Crucible may just be my favourite Arthur Miller play. It’s a gem of a piece of drama – a cracking story with plenty of boo-hiss villains and honest country folk being merrily trampled by utterly nuts authority figures all told in Miller’s stylish dialogue. It’s dark and sinister, packed full of suffering, hypocrisy, bonnets and archaic speech (‘sit ye down’!).

A drama this good deserves a fantastic reprisal and this Old Vic Yaël Farber-directed production draws out the angst and the madness to deliver a play of brutal intensity.

The Crucible is, of course, Miller’s allegory for the McCarthy communist witch hunt in 1950s America, but even discounting this second layer the plot is a cracker. Nine months before the curtain rises to find Mary Warren rolling around on a bed, in the grips of a fever (which the locals have – easily – confused with being possessed by the devil) farmer John Proctor had an unfortunate rumble in the haybales with the family’s maid, Abigail Williams. While John and Abigail keep watch over the sick girl – not exactly the most romantic of situations – Abigail attempts to rekindle their former fling. Hurt by John’s rebuttal, Abigail, encouraged by her elders talk of the devil, seeks a revenge so deadly that it decimates the whole town of Salem. The rumours she starts legitimise the authorities to murder and these moralistic men are sent into increasing spirals of madness and power lust until the town of Salem lies derelict and smeared with the blood of its innocent population.

Incidentally, Salem in this production lies nearer to Manchester England than Massachusetts (a link to Lancashire’s own witch hunts?), which is probably more accurate considering it’s unlikely that these early settlers had already perfected an American accent in 1692.

John Proctor must be a fantastic role for an actor, he’s up there with Shakespeare’s great tragic heroes, crippled by a fatal flaw and only realising what he’s about to lose when it’s too late. Filling Proctor’s big clopping boots for this production is Spooks and Hobbit star Richard Armitage who is the big star draw here. Armitage has made a career of playing brooding, angst ridden men that never fall neatly on the side of either good or bad, and as Proctor he is called on to crank up the angst factor far beyond dwarf-range. If I were Yaël Farber I’d have him reign it in a little, especially towards the spine-tingling climax where the emotion gets a little lost in the shouting, but he gives a huge, powerful performance in what must be a taxing role both physically and emotionally.

As big a punch as Armitage gives, this is very much an ensemble piece with many fine performances. Fresh out stage school, Samantha Colley hugely impresses as Abigail Williams, Proctor and Salem’s downfall and one of literature’s great villains. Gosh Abigails’ bad – and so unrepentant! – and Colley plays her with that deflt innocence and malice that the part demands. In a cast of great depth, other standouts include Harry Attwell as Thomas Putnam, Anna Madeley as John’s long suffering wife Elizabeth and Jack Ellis as the ruthless Deputy Governor Danforth who could probably project his crystal clear diction across the river.

A few niggles: the Round (handily crucible shaped) may have many advantages, especially I should imagine if you’re on (in?) it, but the bowl-like shape of it means actors’ words can get a little lost in the stew of dialogue when you’re up in the Lilian Baylis. This was a preview I saw and I wouldn’t be surprise if they tightened the production up at little – at 3 hours 40 minutes you could fit two and a half performances of A View from the Bridge into it – and there were a few flabby scene-setting moments that look pretty but delivered little. That said, this is too good a production for you to notice how long you’ve been sat there (your knees may tell you otherwise).

Farber’s Crucible is pumped full of heart and passion (perhaps, at times, it cup runneth over with emotion) – and Miller’s great story is given a rapturous reprisal that’s almost matched in intensity by the ecstatic applause at the curtain call.

by Suzanne Elliott

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Theatre Review: Quietly, Soho Theatre

Declan Conlon as Ian and Patrick O’Kane as Jimmy in Quietly at the Soho Theatre

Declan Conlon as Ian and Patrick O’Kane as Jimmy in Quietly at the Soho Theatre

Football forms a background to Quietly, Owen McCafferty’s Belfast-based drama, but the odds played out on stage in this searing 75-minute play are far bigger and run much deeper than even Bill Shankly could imagine.

Quietly is Northern Ireland’s brutal history in microcosm set in a pub on the city’s fringes where a Catholic and a Protestant meet to play out their own linked personal and painful history.

Northern Ireland are playing a World Cup qualifying match against Poland at home. Polish barman Robert is supporting his home nation with vocal frustration. As usual, he has just one customer, regular Johnny, a morose man shrouded in disappointment resentment, seeking refuge, as he does every night, in this pub at the top of the road. But tonight Jimmy warns Robert to expect another punter and that there “may be shouting”. When the third man, Ian, arrives, there is more than just a bit of shouting, his presence setting off sparks that ignite the fire of these two men’s shared personal history throwing up confessions, half-apologies and regret as Robert looks on as referee.

This tight 75 minute long play bristles with anger, disappointment, resentment – and forgiveness. As the play reached its emotional crescendo, there was a lot of sniffling which I can’t believe was all due to hayfever. But in amongst the angst there were some lovely amusing  moments that cut through the gloom.

Quietly is unpretentious, striking and deeply moving in its simplicity, these are not men used to talking about their feelings or admitting their mistakes. Johnny and Ian’s story is one of many from a certain point in Belfast’s history and its power lies in the way McCafferty draws out the personal from the newspaper headlines. Theatre is so often about small things wrought large – an end of an affair, a family secret – but Quietly is a big story diluted to its essence; the pain of two families destroyed by hate, the effect of history on individuals.

As affecting and as nicely structured as McCafferty’s script is, it’s the actors who elevate Quietly to such an emotional place. Patrick O’Kane, an old school friend and long-term McCafferty collaborator, as Jimmy pulls out a controlled powerhouse of a performance that’s moving yet low-key. Declan Conlon is unassumingly brilliant as Ian, a man weighed down by his past and Robert Zawadzki as the barman brings a lightness of touch when most needed.

Unshowy, yet exhilarating and gripping, the brilliance of Quietly should be shouted from the roof tops

by Suzanne Elliott

Theatre Review: Skylight at Wyndham’s Theatre

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Revived for the first time in a UK theatre since 1997, David Hare’s Skylight is the first of this year’s West End star vehicles, with Carey Mulligan and Bill Nighy as the two leads and Stephen Daldry in the director’s chair.

Hare’s play, written before Kensal Rise was colonised by the Queen’s Park latte sipping, yogic overspill (which impinges a bit of some of The Points), is part love story, part political debate. Despite being nearly 20 years old, the themes that run through Skylight resonate more than ever as it showcases the cyclical argument between two sides of the political debate: are we responsible for others – for those worse off in society – or does everyone simply have to look out for themselves? Skylight also runs the gauntlet through guilt, responsibility and love.

Nighy and Mulligan play Tom Sergeant and Kyra Hollis, two former lovers who meet for the first time since the end of their adulterous affair three years ago. The two have vastly different views of the world, but can their love bridge the chasm of political differences?

The play, set exclusive in Kyra’s frigid, sparse flat, opens with her receiving her first guest of the day, Tom’s 18 year-old son Edward (Matthew Beard) bouncing in uninvited and asking her to help heal his father whose spark has left him since the death of his wife Alice, a year ago. Edward is an absolute charm and Beard plays him with an endearing naivety and laconic wit, shadows, we will see, of Nighy’s Tom. Beard’s Edward doesn’t appear again until the end, and such was the impact of his small role, that I rather missed him in the bits in between.

Later, while running a bath, Kyra is interrupted by the blare of her broken intercom announcing the arrival of Tom, and so begins a night of passion, polemics and pasta. Tom is a rich restaurateur with a chauffeur and the beginnings of a chip on his shoulder. He shouldn’t be a likeable man, but Nighy’s innate charm and comic timing ensure that you fall for him. Nighy first played Tom Sergeant back in 1996 and he’s so at home in the role that it’s difficult to see anyone but him as Tom.

Kyra, a middle class solicitor’s daughter who’s living an almost saintly life in penance for her comfortable upbringing, is a teacher in an inner city school in East Ham. She is on the side of the fence that says we are collectively responsible, although Hare doesn’t present her as an angel, after all, she happily had a six year affair with a man while living under the same roof as his wife and two children and admits to not feeling the slightest bit guilty about it. And what of her well meaning motives, is she, as Tom suggests, patronising and misunderstanding of the people she is trying to help?

If this all sounds rather heavy and Issue Driven, it’s not. Skylight is far more fun than that, Hare’s script is full of humour and lightness of touch inbetween the bigger points and it’s delivered on with assurance and wit by the cast.

The living set was a lot of fun, with Nighy and Mulligan being called on to muster all their acting dexterity to actually cook on stage (do not go and see this play on an empty stomach). Watching the actors chop, grate and stir, the tomato sauce bubbling away on the stove while Tom and Kyra trash out their world views, added an extra element of realism while the off-hand cooking disagreements softened the more intense dialogue.

As much as I enjoyed Skylight, I couldn’t help think that in less able actors’ hands, Hare’s script would have been in danger of being overly plummy and self-conscious. That is, of course, part of Hare’s appeal; he writes witty, captivating dialogue that has its roots in realism but is unashamedly heightened and dramatic and as such is full of potential theatrical potholes which a top bill cast like this deftly avoid. Not surprisingly, Nighy is particularly as ease with Hare’s dialogue and his undeniable stage presence rather dominated the duals between him and Mulligan. Mulligan is quietly great, but part of Kyra seems oddly slight, for all her firebrand opinions and self-possession she seems a little slight.

Skylight is an elegantly written and slickly performed play which stirs up some well-worn themes with a fresh voice.

by Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: High-Rise by JG Ballard

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JG Ballard’s world of dystopian urban landscapes set somewhere in the near future has become so recognisable that he’s gained his owned adjective: Ballardian. These Ballardian novels evoke collapsing societies set against shiny modern worlds that are at once a sci-fi step removed from us and yet all too recognisable. In Ballard’s world, the collapse of our so-called civilised society can be sparked by something as simple as a smashed champagne bottle.

Ballard understood the fragility of the human psyche better than most. His teenage internment in a Japanese prisoner of war camp in Shanghai, described in his autobiography Empire of the Sun, shaped his view of human nature and, in turn, his novels. High-Rise is the second in Ballard’s urban disaster trilogy, book-ended by Crash and Concrete Island and follows the professional middle-class inhabitants of a flashy newly built, upscale tower block as they revolt against it.

I first read High-Rise years ago during my “Ballard-period” (I used to have a habit of reading an author’s oeuvre consecutively, an excellent way of killing your love for a writer) back in my pre-London days. Its tale of professional people descending into anarchy within a 40 storey tower block has loomed large in my mind ever since, especially now I live in London and am under the shadows of tenement blocks that are increasingly owned by high-earning white collar workers. (The Erno Goldfinger designed Trellick Tower in Ladbroke Grove, which is said to be one of the inspirations of High-Rise and was originally built solely for council tenants, is now one of London’s most sort-after addresses. Art, life etc).

Ballard begins the novel at the end with one of literature’s most enduring sentences before rewinding to the moment Dr Robert Laing pinpoints as the trigger that set off the building’s decline into a violent, lawless society with its primitive class system and clan-led brutality (that champagne bottle).

Amongst those sharing Laing’s experiences of a civilisation gone to ruin high above the streets of London are Anthony Royal, the building’s architect, a modernist Bond villain-like character presiding over his kingdom like a deposed despot – or your average London landlord. Then there’s Richard Wilder, a burly TV director on whom perhaps the building has the biggest impact, his madness gaining currency as he climbs the floors in a bid to conquer his concrete mountain. As the swimming pools fill with the carcasses of dogs and the air-con vents are blocked by faeces, the three men attempt to seize control of their minds – and the building.

Ballard’s vision of the impact architecture has on the individual runs through many of his novel and it’s particularly obvious in High-Rise where the building is as much a character as the tenants. But while the middle-class inhabitants of the tower block desend into anarchy, Ballard’s not dismissing this return to a simpler life as a bad thing. Are, he seems to be asking, Laing and his neighbours simply de-evolutionising back to where we should be? See how easy our primeval power makes it for us to adapt to less sophisticated situations (this is the same logic I apply to music festivals). And while High-Rise is often described as a vision of urban dystopia, when we first meet Robert Laing, he’s having a jolly old time gnawing on a dog’s barbecued leg amongst his rubbish strewn balcony, describing himself as the happiest he’s ever been. So perhaps it’s the world outside the high rise that is getting it wrong?

I enjoyed lapping up Ballard’s hugely imaginative and sinister world again, although I remembered half way through High-Rise that bingeing on Ballard had given me a distaste for his very distinct writing style. He writes with economy and little emotion, his prose as brutal and cold as a tenement block in November. Similarly, his characters are broadly sketched and his prose remains at a constant, middle-lane pace. Of course the simplicity of his writing hides his brilliance as a writer, the shocks of violence all the more brutal told with minimal fuss, while the juxtaposition of events are more sharply felt by the blandness of his description.

As a vision of an urine-soaked hell, High-Rise is an all too real one, and, like all Ballard books I’ve read, it’s a compulsive and powerful novel that lingers on the mind like the stench of a rubbish strewn hallway on a summer’s day.

by Suzanne Elliott

Book Review: On Beauty by Zadie Smith

On Beauty by Zadie Smith

I have frequently claimed to anyone that cared to ask that Zadie Smith is one of my favourite authors. But it struck me recently that this claim is a little overstated; I’ve only read two of her novels, White Teeth and The Autograph Man. And I didn’t much like The Autograph Man.

Sure, it’s a 25 per cent hit rate (I also claim J.G. Ballard as one of my top 10 authors despite having only read about a quarter of his output, and loved about a fifth), but when I suggest Zadie Smith is one of my favourite authors, what I’m actually saying is she’s one of my favourite-people-who-I-don’t-know, a well-known person who I’d invite to one of those imaginary dinner parties we’re always being asked to attend.

Eager to boost my Smith claims beyond pretend dinner parties, I was keen to read her most recent, NW. But a copy of On Beauty had sat accusingly on my bookshelf for so long that, I discovered, it contains references within its dusty covers that are now consigned to the technological dustbin (there’s a plot device featuring a Discman) and it looked like it needed some love and attention.

Which is exactly what most of the characters in Smith’s transatlantic family saga need. Ostensibly, On Beauty is about two warring families, or rather warring fathers. On the left is white Brit Howard Belsey and on the right is African-American Sir Monty Kipps, two art history academics embroiled in a bitter war of words about Rembrandt and politics, a rivalry that crosses the Atlantic and embroils both their families.

But the relationship between Monty and Howard is set to mute for most of the novel, their disagreement simply a catalyst to drive the novel on its way. This isn’t a book about two grown men squabbling; it’s about everything but, covering marriage, race, class, friendship, morals, first love, betrayal and politics across two continents.

The transatlantic conceit – the story skips between London and Wellington, a well-to-do town near Boston – is perhaps a little clunky, although I love Smith’s descriptions of our city so, for me, it was a niggle with an upside. And skipping back to England half way through the novel was a convenient way of introducing Howard’s working-class pre-academic roots and giving him a much needed framework.

There’s an impressive cast of characters, but the real stars of the book are Howard and his brood. The Belseys are a sweary, liberal, chaotic mixed race family; there’s Howard who treats life and those around him like one big joke who for all his huge brains (or perhaps because of them) makes some appalling decisions. His three children – upstanding Christian (against his liberal Dad’s wishes) Jerome; strong-willed, determined if rather unpoetic Zora (a nice little nod to one of Smith’s favourite books, Their Eyes Were Watching God) and Levi, with his box-fresh trainers and street talk who is frankly adorable, even when – especially when – he’s trying to play the bad guy. Watching over them with love and exasperation is Howard’s wife; big, beautiful, black Kiki, who looks on with patient eyes and a determined mind. It’s her unlikely friendship with Monty Kipps’ sick wife, the brittle in every way Carlene, that sparks a chain of events that knocks the family’s life off kilter – and more than one person off their high-horse.

Like all the best books, On Beauty doesn’t have a plot-line turned up to 11; loads happens while simultaneously nothing happens. There’s a death, people have sex with the wrong people, teenagers fall in love and in with the wrong crowd, there are affairs and break-ups and the odd Powerpoint presentation.

Perhaps it was the academic setting, but On Beauty had something of the Lucky Jim about it, Howard a kind of Jim Dixon with even worse judgement. Smith’s novel is always teetering on the brink of silliness, threatening to descend into the ridiculous, but Smith, like Kinglsey Amis, is too good a writer to let the story or the characters tip into farce or caricature.

Smith definitely deserves to lorded as a favourite author. She’s a dexterous writer who can deftly skip tenses and perspectives, flip from characters’ external thoughts to their internal monologues with a flick of her pen. But it’s her dialogue, her ear for language, her understanding of human beings that makes Zadie Smith such a wonderful writer to read and, I imagine, a great dinner party guest.

by Suzanne Elliott