Theatre Review: 1984, The Playhouse Theatre

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‘Two minutes of hate’: 1984 at the Playhouse Theatre

London in the sunshine is a glorious place to be, especially down by the river where, looking out across the water, surrounded by the buzz of beer-fuelled Londoners, the world looks pretty much perfect.

And what a better thing to do on an early summer evening when the world looks so lovely than to sit in the near darkness watching a dystopian tale so powerful that I felt like I’d spent the night on a rack in Room 101.

The world in this adaptation of George Orwell’s classic novel 1984 may contrast sharply with London on a warm night, but in these days of Julian Assange and Ed Snowdon, government cover ups, politicians whipping up hate against minority groups and surveillance cameras on every corner, Orwell’s totalitarian nightmare novel, first published in 1949, seems more relevant than ever.

Orwell’s novel has been distilled down to its brutal bones for the stage by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan. The production transferred to the Playhouse Theatre at the end of last month from the hit factory that is the Almeida. Watching this intense, claustrophobic play in the confined space of the N1 based theatre would been punishing. For once I was glad of my Upper Circle seat.

The conceit of this production is to use the appendix in the original novel as a springboard to bookend Winston’s tale with a narrative that’s set somewhere around 2050 where the book has become a historical text. The play opens with people in some kind of book club  (book clubs, like cockroaches will probably survive an atomic attack) discussing this ‘diary’; Winston’s story, its providence, relevance, reliability and impact debated widely. Having those characters then playing characters in Winston’s story further rams home the mirror image that Orwell was holding up to us in his novel: there is no past or future.

This Almeida Theatre, Headlong and Nottingham Playhouse production makes full use of every theatrical component – the set and the staging are as vital as the tremendous acting in telling this story.  For a large part of the one hour 41 minute play the set resembles a church hall or school library; officious but perfunctory, there is nothing futuristic about it. When Winston and Julia are in the hands of the Party, the set is stripped bare and bathed in white light. Throughout the play, the theatre is plunged into pitch darkness, rocked by booming noises and illuminated with strobes.

But it’s not all crash, bang, wallop, the acting is top notch too. Mark Arends is a wonderfully juddery Winston, wide eyed with fear. Hara Yannas gives a lovely controlled performance as Julia, a character who could to be seen as cold and robotic.

Nineteen Eighty Four is a book I know and love; I’ve read it several times, but it’s a story that still has the power to surprise and shock, especially when it’s adapted with such force as it is here. That final scene was proper hand-over-the-face stuff; I had controlled my mind in a way the Party would have been impressed with to forget just how nasty things get in Room 101 (clue: more fake blood).

This is a truly affecting – and entertaining – play; I don’t think I’ve ever been so rattled by a piece of theatre.

1984 is back at the London Playhouse until 29 October 2016.

Get 64% off ticket prices here.

This review is from the 2014 production at the Playhouse Theatre.

by Suzanne Elliott

 

 

Theatre review: Medea, Almeida

A clever reworking of Euripides’s classic text that is full of rage, but never quite catches fire

Kate Fleetwood as Medea

Kate Fleetwood as Medea

I missed the National Theatre’s powerhouse production of Medea with Helen McCroy in the title role last year when a broken foot curbed my theatre outings temporarily. I am still disappointed I didn’t see it, it sounded everything a Greek tragedy should be, one that punches you in the stomach and leaves you gasping.

The Almeida’s production, as part of their Greek season is, in contrast, rather underpowered. On paper this is theatre gold with author Rachel Cusk on script duties and the Almeida’s artistic director Rupert Goold in the director’s chair, but it’s almost too clever for its own good. All brain and little heart.

Set in modern times, Cusk has, unsurprisingly, re-written Medea as a feminist text and added in a dollop of her brand of suburban nastiness. The chorus is now a group of bitchy yummy mummies, all babyccinos and sniping. They’re good actually, you’ll recognise these characters immediately and even the dancing with baby dolls was witty and tight enough to not to make me – who is very sensitive to theatrical affectation – cringe.

In this reboot, Medea is a successful writer, her husband, Jason (Justin Salinger) a less successful actor. He’s left his wife and moved in with a young, rich model with an indoor swimming pool, leaving Medea with the children. Jason is a weasley spineless twonk – again he’s very recognisable. Medea is obviously a handful, but he is unwilling or unable, to accept his part in the devastation he’s caused. “I fell in love with someone else, that’s all,” he says at one point. Unlike the Euripides’s original, he’s not doing this for the greater good and, at least, doesn’t propose picking up Medea as his mistress once things settle down.

Jason’s downfall is guaranteed the minute Medea makes a pact with the lovely Richard Cant, who plays a Hollywood producer – a modern stand in for the childless King of Athens in the original – struggling to write the book that he has promised to his publishers by the end of the month. Medea says she will write it for him on the condition he gets a script she has written made. The show will go on to be a smash hit and weave the story of Jason’s – and ultimately Medea’s – disgrace. Art imitates life as life starts imitating art.

Gender plays a huge role in this re-write. In Cusk’s (very good) hands it’s a feminist play, although the balance does tip precariously towards gender sniping. There’s a lot of ‘that’s the problem with you women’ and ‘all men have a wandering eye’ etc. Cusk’s absolutely hit the nail on the feminist head with the father of the unnamed mistress who comes to Medea to tell her to back off. His misogyny was horribly recognisable, berating Medea for not being young or beautiful enough and, worse, daring not to care. Not that women come off unscathed – Cusk would never allow that – they are complicit in the trappings of their gender, accepting of their fate as objects of the male gaze, happy, as Medea says, in their “soft bed of compromise”.

Cusk and Goold’s Medea may dig deep into gender politics and attempt to dissect what it is to be a wife and a mother, but ultimately this play is a blood bath. It’s about revenge and one woman’s determination to destroy the man who has betrayed her. Kate Fleetwood as Medea puts in a fine performance, her eyes a blaze with rage for the full 90 minutes, her impressive cheekbones seemingly sharpening with every angry exchange with her ex-husband.

Echoes of the play’s Greekness remain in the costumes that combined jeans with flowing Grecian things. This sartorial mash-up did kind of work, although I disliked the final chorus’s black/white, masculine/feminine costume that seemed curiously half-baked. The production, generally, went a little wayward towards the end, the final 15 minutes rather lost me. We had been transported from the urban modern surroundings we had been in to somewhere else, but I must have missed where – there were mountains. Cusk and Goold duck out of Medea actually killing her children; she does it metaphorically in a scene where the chorus recites the final tragedy. We learn the boys took their own lives (or maybe that’s what everyone is meant to think as in the original? – told you it was confusing). 

Despite the tragic ending, I was rather unmoved – this production may have given me a great deal to think about, but little to care about.

Medea | Almeida Theatre, N1 | Until 14 November 2015

Theatre review: Game, Almeida Theatre

Jodie McNee and Mike Noble in Game at the Almeida Theatre

Jodie McNee and Mike Noble in Game at the Almeida Theatre

The Almeida reputation as a company that pushes theatrical boundaries continues apace with Game, the new play by Mike Bartlett in which the audience are voyeurs in an unorthodox response to the housing crisis.

The game in Game places a young, unemployed, homeless couple in a brand-spanking new house complete with a hot tub. The catch? They consent to be shot with tranquiliser darts by people behind glass panels who have paid for the sheer pleasure of using poor people as target practice. Carly (Jodie McNee) and Ashley (Mike Noble), who are keen to start a family, decide that this is an inconvenience worth putting up with for the sake of a roof over their heads – and, of course, that hot tub.

As the audience, we are part of the game, viewing Carly and Ashley’s life through the glass panel and the CCTV monitors above our heads as the punters stand amongst us to take their pot shots. In the beginning, Ashley and Carly are protected by rules that allow them some privacy and limit where and when they can be shot. But the novelty of the game soon wanes for the snotty snipers and the ante is upped to appeal to an increasingly bloodthirsty audience. Watching all this with weariness and disgust is David (Kevin Harvey), employed to train and oversee the shooters. David is a laconic former army man who struggles in the face of this new conflict, his revulsion helping to prevent the audience slipping into neutral.

Although Harvey’s stoic performance didn’t entirely prevent me from feeling the same fatigue as the amateur snipers. Game leaps out of the starting blocks and at the beginning it is tense and thrilling. But Game’s clever conceit is also it’s problem and it soon plateaux; like the characters in the house, there is no where for it to go. And I was confused by its theme – it’s billed as a play about the housing crisis, but I felt that was more a comment on the class system. Choosing to have an unemployed couple from Liverpool seemed a deliberate decision to shine the spotlight on the disparity of the class system, a point further compounded by the shooters being largely parodically posh.

Bartlett’s writing is as on point as ever, the Shakespearian tone of Charles III swapped for a realistic, pared down dialogue. The acting is excellent across the board, but Game was rather one note and the helplessness of Carly and Ashley was frustrating. Would they not have discussed their options once life became unbearable? Were there really no avenues available to them to even contemplate? When it was on form, Game was entertaining and shocking, although it’s not so much the violence that appalls, but the attitudes of the shooters themselves – spoilt, rich, stupid and banal, they could have been shooting rabbits (only one participant did have the decency to question her actions).

Mike Bartlett clearly has a bee in his bonnet about the housing crisis; he’s written about it previously in the rather irritating Love, Love, Love. Game is a far more penetrating piece of work and his leads far more sympathetic, but I’m still not sure he’s quite got to the heart of the matter, although he does nearly hit the mark this time.

by Suzanne Elliott

Game | Almeida Theatre | Until 4th April

Theatre Review: Charles III, Almeida Theatre

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Charles III was a very different play to the one I was expecting to see. I had read the (glowing) reviews and seen the promo pictures of the characters in Spitting Image masks and assumed it was a farce with a biting satirical edge. There was even a time that I thought it was a musical.

Maybe the real life Prince Charles was partly to blame for my pre-show assumptions,after all if any member of the royal family is rich for satire and mockery it’s our heir to the throne with his bah-humbug attitude to modern architecture (modern anything?) and his infamous convos with plants. But Mike Bartlett’s penned Charles III is far better than a rollicking farce – although it is often crying-with-laughter funny – it’s played with a seriousness and realism that surprised and impressed me.

Jocelyn Pooks rousing, majestic music accompanies the dramatic opening scene as the royals and assorted big wigs assemble for Elizabeth II’s funeral, setting the tone for a play that is compelling, emotional and thrilling. His mum still barely cold, Charles, even before he’s officially got that longed for crown on his head, is kicking up a fuss about the seen-and-not-heard nature of his role as head of state. Things go from awkward to very messy in a few days and by the second half it’s gone a bit V for Vendetta.

Everything about this new play by Barnett is brilliantly realised, from the instantly recognisable royals who grow out of their media-given straight jackets as the play develops, to the scenario of a tank in the grounds of Buckingham Palace. None of it seemed ludicrous even when we were laughing at what seemed absurd (I admit to laughing at the tank bit with some trepidation; would I look back at this moment when there was an actual tank sitting on the foreground of Buckingham Palace and wonder what was so funny?).

I loved, loved, loved Richard Goulding’s Prince Harry who grew from the tabloid fool we know (and in many cases, love) him for today, to a sensible duty-first second son, sprouting heartfelt blank verse like his name sake Prince Hal after he’s dumped Falstaff and is trying to get into his dad’s good books. And talking of Shakespeare, his influence is all over this, from Hamlet to Richard II and, in my mind most of all, King Lear, his poetry and supernatural plot lines haunt Rupert Goold’s production. Perhaps Shakespeare is most apparent when the political turns personal, because like all stories about princes, it’s the torment of the man versus the royal figure that ultimately leads to their downfall.

Tim Piggott-Smith is brilliant at playing parts where he’s both sympathetic and enormously frustrating, a skill he’s once again called on as Charles III. He’s fantastic as a man who is led by principle to the detriment of all else. He’s confused, bordering on the brink of madness, unable to comprehend the world around him like a better dress Lear. His face as he realises he’ll never be the king he’d hope to be is heartbreaking.

Lydia Wilson gives Kate Middleton a voice for the first time and what a voice; in Mike Bartlett’s play the future queen is a steely intelligent tour de force behind that glossy hair. I thought her character was brilliantly brought to life and completely believable. I hope the real Kate has half as much drive and intelligence as Wilson’s. Oliver Chris’ William was at first a Tim-nice-but-dim who soon stepped up to do his duty, politely of course, again squeeze your eyes half shut and he could have been Wills (with rather more hair).

Charles III is the kind of play we need right now, clever, witty, full of spark, critical without being sarky. Its triumphant run at the Almeida Theatre ends in two days, but I don’t think we’ve seen the last of this play.

Charles III finishes at the Almeida Theatre on Saturday 31 May, but returns to the Wyndhams Theatre in the West End briefly in September. For more information visit http://www.almeida.co.uk/event/kingcharleswe.

by Suzanne Elliott

Theatre Review: Ghosts, Almeida Theatre, London

Lesley Manvile as Helen Alving

Lesley Manvile as Helen Alving

Richard Eyre’s production of Ibsen’s 1881 play Ghosts at the Almeida Theatre is 90 galloping minutes of incest, STDs, adultery, fire and death punctuated by some unexpected black humour (although don’t go expecting knock-knock jokes).  

Stranded on a blustery island in the middle of nowhere (although, my guess would be somewhere in the North Sea), Helene Alving  has a past that she’d very much like to forget. The past, however, isn’t quite so keen to let go of her, and its ghosts rattle around the empty rooms of Helene’s gloomy house, haunting her unhappy present.

After years of suffering and deceit, Helene hopes to exorcise her demons by revealing the brutal truth about her late husband to their son, Oswald who’s back home after living it up as an artist in bohemian Paris.

This being an Ibsen play, Helene’s idea to erase the past with some good old fashioned truth-telling goes awry as soon as the theatre lights dim. The dirt gets raked up before I’ve barely taken a sip of my wine by bossy boots Pastor Manders (Will Keen) who manages to bully the strong, yet fragile Helene (an amazing Lesley Manville) into revealing some of the murkier bits of her past. Accompanying this showdown is the pattering of rain that provides the perfect glum soundtrack  as Helene spills her demons much to the astonishment of the thought-he-knew-it-all Pastor . We learn, before they do, Oswald and Regina the maid (Charlene McKenna), who are making lovey-dovey eyes at each other, have a little more in common than an interest in French.

And then Oswald (Jack Lowden), a great hunky slice of Scandinavian blondness who looks like he could take all the slings and arrows of outrageous Norwegian misfortune, falls foul of syphilis, an inherited gift from his drunk, womanising father (thanks dad!). A particularly nasty sort of ghost.

The 90 minutes of gut-wrenching theatre plays out on largely dimly lit stage, the soft patter of rain setting the rhythm of the play. By the end, everyone and everything is in ruins, expect the man that Regina believes to be her father, Jacob Engstrand, who at least has his Home For Seamen (for now). Poor Lesley Manville looked traumatised as she look her well deserved bow.

The ghosts are all metaphysical, but Tim Hatley’s clever stage design separates the front of the stage from the back with a sheer screen, showing the characters in phantom  form when they’re not ‘in action’.

Back in staid old Victorian England (and even Norway may have been a little bit uptight in the 18th century) the themes in Ghosts (sex, syphilis and sibling flirting) would have had audiences reaching for the smelling salts. The play’s shocks are different for a modern audiences, but it stills leaves you reeling – the brutality of life, the powerlessness of the wife, the deception, the betrayal – I needed more than just that glass of wine afterwards.  But for all its doom, gloom and emotional brutality, Richard Eyre’s Ghosts is an engrossing and massively enjoyable hour and a half of heart-wringing theatre that will play in your head and heart for weeks to come.

by Suzanne Elliott