Theatre Review: The Master Build, Old Vic

Ralph Fiennes shines in this uneven, uneasy Ibsen

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Ralph Fiennes as Halvard Solness and Sarah Snook as Hilde Wangel in the Old Vic’s The Master Builder

Ralph Fiennes, once so synonymous with villains and buttoned up English men, has more recently revealed his talent for comedy behind that clipped delivery. In his latest release, The Bigger Splash, he plays a mischievous, cavorting old soak with such heart, wit and merriment that it’s impossible not to love him, even though, if Harry Hawkes isn’t quite Voldemort or Amon Goeth, he’s pretty morally bankrupt. And then there was that scene stealing role as Monsieur Gustave in Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel where he was a comedy revelation as the eccentric, charming concierge.

In the Old Vic’s Master Builder, he blends his talent for note perfect wit with his long acknowledged skill for delving deep into the psyche of a flawed man. Ibsen’s late play was first performed in 1893 to muted reviews and has been adapted for this production by the unstoppable David Hare. The play starts of deceptively lightly. The first third (this is a play of three halves) is funny, almost breezy. Fiennes as Halvard Solness the master builder, practically glides around the stage, seeming a man with few concerns, joshing with his junior Ragnar Brovik and flirting with his secretary Kaja Fosli (played by Charlie Cameron, inexplicably doing a baby voice).

But this is Ibsen, a man so brooding he makes Voldemort look like a laugh. Naturally, things get progressively darker as we move towards The Final Tragedy, and ending that is so red lit that it looked like a visual interpretation of my viciously underlined GCSE copy of Tess of the D’Urbervilles.

Solness is the master builder in a Norwegian town, having built his way up – literally – from nothing. But his successful career has been founded on tragedy and his life and marriage unravel further as he seemingly sinks further into madness and paranoia. The arrival of Hilde Wangel, a rosey cheek paragon of Norwegian innocence who Solness first met 10 years before, when she was just 13,  is seemingly the portal he needs to enable him to escape; a free spirit who will help him “build castles in the sky”. But Norwegian’s finest playwright has other ideas.

If you like Ibsen (I do), you’ll love this. It’s full of foreboding, both past, present and future that smothers the original lightheartedness with full on tragedy. This production is largely very good, mostly down to Fiennes’ tremendous skill as an actor. He’s a joy to watch, effortlessly embodying the complex inner world of the flawed Halvard Solness, the titular master builder whose imminent fall from power and grace is the plot on which the play spins.

There were a few wrong notes. The two intervals may allow time for Rob Howell’s stunningly impressive set to be changed, but they do break up the continuity of the play. The interval always breaks the spell of theatre, especially in a production where the tone shifts so dramatically between each break.

While Fiennes is magnificent, he’s brilliance rather overshadows the rest of the cast. Linda Emond as his wife Aline Solness is graceful and poised, embodying a grief so heavy you can practically see her dragging it around the stage. Martin Hutson does all he needs to do as Ragnar Brovik, who is less a character more a moral compass point, but while Sarah Snook’s takes on the twee Hilde with enthusiasm, she looks self-conscious next to Fiennes effortless study of a man with a fear of literal and metaphoric falling.

Ibsen perhaps tries to ask too many questions in The Master Builder and doesn’t give the actors the tools to answer them, but this is still an arresting production with a bright star at its centre.

The Master Build | Old Vic | Until 19 March 2016

Theatre Review: Behind The Beautiful Forevers, National Theatre

Behind The Beautiful Forevers, National Theatre

Behind The Beautiful Forevers, National Theatre

Based on Katherine Boo’s non-fiction book of the same title, David Hare’s new play for the National Theatre feels both epic yet intimate, a play on a large scale that studies small human pettiness that can dominate – and decimate – our lives.

Behind The Beautiful Forevers is set in the Mumbai slum of Annawadi that exists, perilously and illegally, on land owned by the airport. Boo’s book and Hare’s play record the daily life of the residents on this marshy makeshift town that the city’s poor have made home. Day-to-day life is a struggle, many live hand-to-mouth from money made by rifling through the mountains of litter from the airport, reclaiming treasured plastics and metals for recycling. These ‘pickers’, as they are known, sell on their finds to a ‘sorter’ who in turn profits from selling on this trash.

The struggle to survive in this vast shanty town doesn’t overwhelm life’s petty dramas. Amongst the residents of Annawadi are the Husains, a Muslim family marooned between Hindus and Christians, their presence tolerated until they start flaunting their comparative wealth. The family can afford a ‘new’ kitchen thanks to Abdul (Shane Zaza), the eldest son and a star sorter, an expert at extracting the jewels from the rubbish piles in the bags the pickers bring him. He’s a peaceful, quiet boy, constantly despairing at his swearing, gobby mother Zehrunisa (an engaging Meera Syal). She is constantly squabbling with their neighbour Fatima Shaikh (Thusitha Jayasundera), an aggrieved and disagreeable cripple with a sideline in selling in her body. Their rows escalates when the Husains begin building work on their hut and soon pieces of rubble in Fatima’s rice kicks off a series of devastating events.

The production is a fantastic ensemble piece that pits strong characters against each other without tipping over into hysteria. Rufus Norris’s smooth direction ensures the production is even more moving in its evenhandedness, although he doesn’t shield away from the harsher realities; it’s barbaric at times and Shakespearean in its tragedies (and eye injuries). Behind The Beautiful Forevers shines a light on human nature and shows that we’re not always at our best when we’re at our lowest ebb despite what art can claim. It shows that when the world is against you, we often lash out at our neighbours (both physical and metaphorical). As a judge passing a verdict on the Husain’s points out, the poor are squabbling amongst themselves when they should be fighting the authorities.

The cast are all outstanding in what is very much an ensemble piece. As standouts, Thusitha Jayasundera is brilliant as Fatima, thoroughly convincing as a sly, nasty woman while not losing sight of her vulnerability. Meera Syal also elicits our sympathies as the cocky Zehrunisa who is cruelly cut down to size by her neighbours.

While the production deals with heavy themes, there is no agenda to Norris’ production; this is a touching, powerful drama that tells a story both big and small.

by Suzanne Elliott

Behind The Beautiful Forevers, National Theatre until April 13th 2015

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

Theatre Review: South Downs/The Browning Version, Harold Pinter Theatre

The idea of a West End double bill set in two all-boy public schools sounds as appealing as a night out with the Bullingdon Club. But South Downs/The Browning Version are/is (should I be talking of them as one?) was/were engrossing, engaging and emotional.

They’re both very far from a celebration of this most English of institutions dealing as they do with the rigid conformity and snuffing out of individuality that these schools encouraged, especially in the early 60s and post-war 40s when these plays were respectively set.

David Hare’s South Downs is set in a school in Sussex that’s clearly based on his old alma mater, Lancing, a school founded on religion. The play focuses on an earnest middle-class boy John Blakemore who struggles to find and fit in with ‘the norm’. He questions everything, including the bedrock of the school’s religious belief, the Eucharist. His only friend shuns him and the masters grow weary of his continuing curiosity. But he’s given a lifeline in the form of an outsider, an actress mother of the school’s popular boy. She understands, sympathises, even encourages his differences. And feeds him cake.

It’s an outstanding first time (big time) theatrical performance by Alex Lawther as Blakemore. He conveyed teenage angst in the most controlled, compelling way, his performance unleashing the stench of those polished floors and the uneasiness of being an outsider in such a ferocious, unforgiving environment with the merest catch in his voice or furrowed brow.

The Browning Version leaps over the desk as we see school master Andrew ‘Crock’ Crocker-Harris on the eve of his retirement from a top public school (a thinly veiled Harrow, which Terence Rattigan attended in the 1920s). He’s a conformist, fiercely loyal to the school that is happy to discard him like last term’s timetable. Crock’s bullied by the traditions and rules that he so ardently conforms to, but he’s not immune to emotion. His sniff upper lip, which had shown such enormous strength as his marriage, career and friendships fell apart around him, wobbles after a small kindness is shown to him by one of his pupils in a hugely moving scene that saw me shed a tear into my overpriced ice cream. Nicholas Farrell is utterly engrossing in the role, drawing you into the mind of Crocker-Harris, getting you to sympathise with his fate even if you know he’s the kind of person you’d avoid at a party.

The ideas of rules, tradition and conformity are laced through both Hare and Rattigan’s plays, as is the belief of accepting your own fate and acting out the character and life you’ve been given. That’s not to say either play throws its hands up in defeat at the cards life has dealt you. Both refer to change; in South Downs Jeremy Duffield – the school’s leading man – proposes debating the end of public schools and the bringing down of the monarchy, two very real concerns to the establishment as the 60s got swinging. And while the changes in The Browning Version are more domestic, they are no less cataclysmic to the people involved.

I loved the subtly of both plays; ideas, truths and beliefs bubble to the surface ready to be taken up by the audience and interpreted in their own way, rather than unleashed as a tidal wave on spectators leaving them dripping with the weight of the playwright’s Opinions.

A very fine double bill then, with some wonderful performances, not just from Lawther and Farrell. Anna Chancellor is a magnificent, imposing presence not just as actress Belinda Duffield, who she plays with a relish that doesn’t tip over into campuses, but also as desperate, bored, vindictive Millie Crocker-Harris in South Downs. Mark Umbers proves he’s more than just eye-candy as suave school master Frank Hunter in The Browning Version and Andrew Woodall straddles both plays with well-observed performances as an English teacher and headmaster respectively.

Suzanne Elliott