Theatre review: Splendour, Donmar Warehouse

Genevieve O'Reilly and Sinéad Cusack in Splendour at Donmar Warehouse

Genevieve O’Reilly and Sinéad Cusack in Splendour at Donmar Warehouse

Abi Morgan’s gripping, tense tale set against a brewing revolution held me captive  

Set in the opulent palace of a dictator (who we never meet) of an unnamed country in the grip of civil war, Splendour is a taut, tight, tense play that’s ice cool and compelling.

A photojournalist (Genevieve O’Reilly), personally invited by the dictator to take his portrait, arrives at the palace accompanied from the airport by an unreliable interpreter, Gilma (Zawe Ashton), a young jittery woman from the war torn north, hiding her real identity out of fear.

The tyrant is not there, but his wife Micheleine (Sinéad Cusack) is there to greet – admittedly not with open arms – Kathryn. Hair as rigid as her grin, last season’s Prada handbag clutched to her body, her pony-skinned heels clip-clopping on the marble floors and standing her ground even though it’s littered with bodies – Cusack’s Micheleine is like a uber-glossy Margaret Thatcher (star of course of Abi Morgan’s The Iron Lady).

The three of them are joined by Micheleine’s best friend of 35 years, Genevieve, a brittle, bird-like widow who has been held emotionally hostage by her powerful pal for reasons that become clear towards the end. She arrives dripping wet from the falling snow, dressed like a World War 2 landgirl whose dug one too many potatoes, urging Kathryn to study the painting by her late husband that hangs in the room (we never see this either).

Across the river, and seen from designer Peter McKintosh‘s huge stately windows, the south side of the city burns under a barrage of bombs. The main roads are blocked by caravans of refugees fleeing the bombing, the back roads thick with treacherous ice. The four women are locked together in this moment that may change them forever.

Splendour is a splintered, yet ultimately tidy tale, Morgan’s script employs some dexterous dialogue that skips between time and language. There’s no linear structure and parts of scenes are repeated with different characters delivering the lines, intertwined with their internal monologues. It sounds complicated, but Robert Hastie‘s neat production that punctuates each part with – literally – a bang helps bring the themes and story arc together while also reflecting the bombardment outside.

Western photographer Kathryn doesn’t speak the language of the country she’s in so relies on the translator Gilma – who, as Kathryn says “is an interpreter who can’t interrupt”. The script is all in English – there are no attempts at dodgy foreign accents – and language and concealment are key themes, while images are held up as reflections of the truth. Genevieve hides her real feelings for her friend; Gilma stashes video tapes and shot glasses in her bag while Kathryn keeps her heart locked. The real truth of how Genevieve’s husband sees his ‘best friend’ – the dictator – is revealed in his picture and Kathryn seeks to tell the truth of conflict through her lens.

The ensemble cast are all fantastic. Cusack as Elnett-fan and Imelda Marcos alike Micheleine is poised and controlled as she watches her riches and power crumble around her. I particularly enjoyed Michelle Fairley as the broken yet steely Genevieve, her performance was beautifully controlled, yet you could sense the emotion seeping through her pores. O’Reilly was cool, considered and captivating as the photojournalist, a rather weakly written character on Morgan’s behalf but pumped full of life by O’Reilly. Ashton as the jumpy, conflicted Gilma also impressed with a punchy performance.

Splendour | Donmar Warehouse | Until 26 September 2015

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Theatre Review: The Trial, Young Vic

The Trial performed at the Young Vic Theatre Rory Kinnear as Josef K, ©Alastair Muir

The Trial performed at the Young Vic Theatre
Rory Kinnear as Josef K,
©Alastair Muir

Great performances and the obvious affection for the original text, give this frantic production a heart

How do you adapt Franz Kafka’s The Trial for the stage or screen? It’s been done before of course, notably by Harold Pinter for his 1993 film version starring Kyle MacLachlan, yes, Kyle Maclachlan, then riding high on Twin Peak powers. I haven’t seen Pinter’s version, but Nick Gill, the playwright behind the Young Vic’s nervy production, has clearly gone for ‘let’s throw everything at it and see what works’ approach.

And… it does work – in places. It’s a rather ramshackle production that veers between gripping, frustrating, amusing and boring. Directed by Richard Jones – a man steadier at the helm of operas – this production is frenetic, it barely stops for air, possibly afraid that if it did it may be found wanting. The logic seems to be, that if we keep going at this frantic pace, the audience may not notice the flaws.

But while there were flaws, I largely enjoyed this production, thanks to some very fine performances and, of course, Kafka’s surreal tale as the backbone. As Nick Gill says in this interview for Exeunt Magazine “if I fucking massacre it, it’s The Trial, it’ll survive”. Gill certainly doesn’t “fucking massacre it”, but does it a bit of a thwack over the head leaving us all a little dizzy.

Despite a good supporting cast, this is Kinnear’s play. He’s so good as Josef K with his trademark low key style that sees him making so much impact with a raised eyebrow or frown. It would have been good to have seen his face more, but the rectangle stage that had the audience sitting either side as co-conspirators meant we became more familiar with his back (which could also be very expressive).

This not a diss on Miriam Buether’s set, which sees a conveyor belt run through the middle of the rectangle stage, bringing with it various bits of bland furniture – we’re in K’s office, now we’re in his bedroom, oh, and back to his office – without having to break the pace. No wonder Kinnear was sweating through his vest.

There were moments when this production really sparked, when Kafta, Gill and the characters were all working as one. But overall I thought this would have worked better as a darker, even more surreal production, one that didn’t have to play for laughs as much. I know it’s a cliche to compare The Trial to 1984 (they obviously share a totalitarian thread, but have very different tones) but what I enjoyed about the Playhouse production of Orwell’s classic was that it captured his sinister, claustrophobic atmosphere. Guaranteed, The Trial is funnier than you’d think (no really) but it’s not a book you’d read for its lolz. And lets never speak about the bit where the talented Hugh Skinner (W1A’s intern Will “ya” Humphries) had to pretend to be a dog (“like a dog!”), which was weird at first and then just boring. And weird is always better boring, but they’re not always that different.

The Trial | Young Vic | Until 22 August

Theatre review: Money Womb, Theatre503

Jon Cottrell as Peter Finch and Asha Reid as Hannah Jessop in Velvet Trumpet's Money Womb

Jon Cottrell as Peter Finch and Asha Reid as Hannah Jessop in Velvet Trumpet’s Money Womb

A darkly comic tale of dreams, failure, love and London

Full marks to the Velvet Trumpet, a small theatre company with big ambitions, who aren’t afraid to be inventive and push against the squeeze on funding and challenge the social status quo that seems to have theatre by its vice like, privileged grip.

After a string of successes, this small production company is staking its claim as “London’s finest comedy theatre company” with its original works all created, directed and performed by this band of south Londoners.

Velvet Trumpet’s latest production is Money Womb, the debut play by “man-in-crisis” Nick Smith playing at Battersea’s Theatre503. This story of one young East Midland’s boy with big dreams and small pockets, is one that many of us can relate to – maybe not the actual content which is gritty and bleak – but certainly the broad outline.

Played with force by Jon Cottrell, Peter Finch leaves his Midlands town behind to search out a future in London, persuading his girlfriend, Hannah Jessop, to follow him. It’s an age old tale, a modern day Dick Whittington, but far from finding the streets paved with gold, Peter discovers a city where the pavements are awash with powder and deceit.

Smith’s smart two-hander, which largely sees Cottrell as Peter directing bitter monologues at the audience as his dreams crumble along with his relationship, capture a London that is bigger than the people who live here. A city that will swallow you if you don’t learn to swim with, rather than against, its force. Peter becomes an increasingly desperate figure as he prowls the stage, snarling at his patient girlfriend and bemoaning his squalid east end flat and lowly status. Are we meant to sympathise with him? Understand him? Maybe not, but there is pathos in the character and Cottrell’s performance.

Asha Reid as Hannah Jessop (who also doubles up as a particularly hard-nosed benefits officer) was a softly spoken counter to Peter’s aggressiveness and I thought she captured the vulnerability and innocence of her character beautifully. Her lovely performance was helped by Hannah being a well-drawn character, a lower-middle class female who wasn’t being judged for her lack of ambition or defined by her sexuality. She was quietly strong-willed without any of the drama that can tip a female character into ‘mad cow’ territory so beloved of many male playwrights.

Perhaps Money Womb runs on a little too long (an interval could have worked) and the over reliance of cocaine as a metaphor for London’s dark heart could have been side-stepped for something more original, but this is a thought-provoking play from a theatre company committed to finding a contemporary voice in London.

Money Womb | Theatre503, Battersea | Until 8 August 2015

Theatre Review: Measure For Measure, Shakespeare’s Globe

Dominic Rowan as Duke Vincentio in his Friar disguise and Brendan O'Hea as Lucio in the Globe's Measure for Measure

Dominic Rowan as Duke Vincentio in his Friar disguise and Brendan O’Hea as Lucio in the Globe’s Measure for Measure

A breezy performance of Shakespeare’s notorious problem play on a hot summer’s day

There are few places I’d rather be on a hot Sunday afternoon that Shakespeare’s Globe. Sure, it’s one part tourist attraction, one part theatre, but that’s partly what makes it such a thrilling place to be. People come here from all over the world to watch a play they may not understand. And everyone loves it, especially the cast who always looks like they’re having the best time even when scowling at helicopters and sweating in their polyester doublets.

In an era of spectacular sets and elaborate immersive theatrical experiences, there’s a real thrill to watching very good actors, dressed in what look like costumes from the RSC reject box, on a bare stage performing works first played on this very spot 500 hundreds years ago. But despite being on the tourist trail, and retreading a London of half a millennium ago, there’s nothing of the museum about the Globe. It pulses with more life than many other London theatres,  and feels fresher than a lot of them too.

There is often something of the pantomime about Globe performances (and I don’t mean that as a criticism) and Measure For Measure, artistic director Dominic Dromgoole’s swansong for the Globe, is no exception.

Measure For Measure is one of Shakespeare’s problem play. Not only does it not fall neatly into the comedy bracket it’s assigned to, but the plot is nuts. For those that don’t know *Sparknotes klaxon* Duke Vincentio, fed up with the debauchery  in his city of Vienna pretends to leave town (he actually temporarily dresses as a Friar to watch the town’s antics in disguise. Because, Shakespeare)  and leaves his very uptight deputy, Angelo in charge. Angelo is not standing for any of this naughty nonsense and immediately stamps his authority by sentencing Claudio, a young man who has got his girlfriend Juliet pregnant, to death. *Gasp*.

Claudio’s sister, Isabella, is unrelentingly virtuous and pretty – as Vincentio as the Friar observes, “the hand that hath made you fair hath made you good” – a combination that Angelo can’t resist. He promises to release Claudio if Isabella gives up her virginity to him. But, fear not, the Duke/Friar is on hand to hatch a cunning plan which won’t involve Isabella having to sleep with Angelo nor Claudio dying.

Alongside the WTF plot and the dark vein of cynicism that Shakespearean spins through the text, Measure for Measure is a study of patriarchal authority, of male manipulation in a world where women are a commodity, useful only for their bodies which, if they are not going to offer up to men at a price, will have to be blackmailed into it. Obviously this was largely how women were viewed in the early 17th century, and indeed are all too commonly seen today, but it can be uneasy viewing at times.

Dromgoole neatly sidesteps the play’s bigger issues without being flippant and pulls off a great production with plenty of proper hearty laughs (rather than smug English grad Shakespeare guffaws). And there is a happy ending of sorts (although, honestly, if Dominic Rowan as Duke Vincentio/the Friar wasn’t so charming, I would join the rest of the world in not filing this ending under ‘happy’).

Rowan’s Duke/Friar is a delight among a cast not short on great performances. Globe regular, Brendan O’Hea, who plays flamboyant Lucio, threatens to steal the show, but is given a run for his money by a quick-witted Trevor Fox as Pompey (full marks for the improv when catching a groundling reading the text) and Mariah Gale as an emotional and compassionate Isabella (a tricky feat in a character so defined by her religious doctrine).

All tremendous fun, if not one of the problem play purists (if such a thing exists).

Measure For Measure | Shakespeare’s Globe | Until 17 October 2015