Sunday, 20 July 2014

Review: Shakespeare in Love, Noël Coward Theatre

“What kind of man would you be without the theatre”

I can’t lie – I had rather low expectations when it came to the stage adaptation of Shakespeare in Love, not helped by rewatching the film recently and marvelling at how it managed to win 7 Academy Awards back in 1999. But I equally have to admit to being swept away by Declan Donellan’s production of Lee Hall’s adaptation which is set to open this week at the Noël Coward Theatre, it managing to find an identity of its own (after a relatively slow start) to try and recapture the hearts of audiences anew.

Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman’s original screenplay saw Shakespeare as a jobbing playwright, tussling for commissions with friendly rival Kit Marlowe and dealing with a particularly sticky case of writer’s block. With his unhappily married wife and kids sequestered in Stratford-upon-Avon, he embarks on a forbidden affair with noblewoman Viola de Lesseps, who has her own battles to face in being denied the career on the stage that she craves and being married off to the obnoxious Wessex. Their romantic strife thus provides the creative spark for Will to write Romeo and Juliet.

Cast of Shakespeare in Love (play) continued



DVD Review: Shakespeare in Love

“Theatre is the handmaiden of the devil”

With a theatrical version of Shakespeare in Love about to open in the West End, I thought I’d revisit the 1998 film as I’m not entirely sure that I’ve seen it since it was first released. It is still surprising to see that it managed to win seven Academy Awards and whilst I like both Gwyneth Paltrow and Dame Judi Dench, looking at their competition it is a little galling to think that they were recognised for these roles. And in the light of the huge authorship furore that erupted around Anonymous, it is interesting to see how little comparable fuss the level of invention here caused.

To be fair, Marc Norman and Tom Stoppard’s film makes no pretence to be literarily or historically accurate (given the paucity of source material, it’s hardly surprising) but because the approach here is a hugely affectionate one towards the Bard, rather than challenging popular notions about him, it is clear something of a free pass has been given here. So we see Joseph Fiennes’ Shakespeare working on a comedy called Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter and being inspired by the everyday chatter and the tumult of his personal life to amend the play and write his famous words. 

DVD Review: Stage Beauty

“A woman playing a woman, where’s the trick in that” 

Any film with Clare Higgins yelling ‘give me back my merkin’ is surely destined for stone cold classic status but 2004’s Stage Beauty seems to have slipped from people’s minds whereas I always remembered it as a film I really enjoyed, more so that Shakespeare in Love. Much will depend on your opinion of Claire Danes but this tale of the rapidly changing world of the theatre during Charles II’s reign proved much more enjoyable than Shakespeare in Love ever did, and offers a fascinating, even-handed look at how both the men and women of the stage were affected by the decision to ban the former from playing the latter.

Billy Crudup’s Ned Kynaston has become one of the top actors in town, specialising in female characters like Othello’s Desdemona in which he frequently steals the show and aided by his faithful dresser Maria, played by Danes. She has a burning desire to act on the stage herself but since the Puritans outlawed such a thing in professional theatres, she’s limited to appearing in grubby pub theatres on the fringe (plus ça change…). The thespian desires of Charles’ ambitious mistress Nell Gwynn seem set to change that completely though, along with the fortunes of all concerned.

Review: The Nether, Royal Court

“Just because it is virtual doesn’t mean it isn’t real”

There are times when an age guidance notice can seem like mollycoddling, but there are others when they are truly justified. The UK premiere of Jennifer Haley’s play The Nether by Headlong and the Royal Court is most certainly one of the latter cases, recommended for over 18s only as one of the more disturbing plays we are likely to see this year. The play is one of the more devastatingly effective looks at how the internet has shaped the way we live our lives and how society is struggling to keep up with, and govern, this fast-changing world. Writing now, a few days after seeing it, it still haunts my mind – a combination of Jeremy Herrin’s stunningly mounted production and a searingly brutal play.

Haley’s ‘Nether’ is her futuristic version of the internet where virtual reality has been fully integrated, so people are able to create their own realms like webpages. The playwright pushes that to the extreme in ‘The Hideaway’, a world created by Stanley Townsend’s Sims for him and other like-minded souls to act out their paedophiliac tendencies without actually committing any crime as it currently stands. Young detective Morris, Amanda Hale, has hauled Sims in for questioning though as she wants the details of the whole thing so she can shut it down, arguing that even online realms need to be policed, that all our interactions lead to our deeper understanding of the rules of the world.

DVD Review: Chatroom (2010)

“We can get him online”

After watching The Nether at the Royal Court, a chat with a colleague about other plays that effectively depict the internet threw up Enda Walsh’s Chatroom which played at the National Theatre a few years back (and featured both Doctor Who (Matt Smith) and Spiderman (Andrew Garfield) in its cast. It was slightly before my time of insane theatre-going so I was glad to see that I could catch a film version, adapted by Walsh himself and directed by Japanese maestro Hideo Nakata.

The story concerns five teenagers in various states of unhappiness who find succour in online chatrooms. Disillusioned model Eva, anti-depressant taker Jim, unhappy daughter Emily and inappropriately flirtatious Mo are swept up by highly-functioning sociopath and self-harmer William in a room he’s created called Chelsea Teens! At first they just talk smack about those they don’t like but William soon manipulates them into acting on their feelings, with devastating consequences.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

Review: Kafka’s Dick, Theatre Royal Bath

“Hey, you look really depressed”

I fly off on holiday in mere hours so the briefest of mentions for this Alan Bennett play. My second comedy in a day after a Chichester matinée and a thankfully traffic-free drive over to Bath, Kafka’s Dick is a remarkably prescient play (from 1986) which looks at our ever-increasing desire to know more about the private details of our public figures. Sydney and Linda, a regular Yorkshire couple (is there any other kind?!) have their lives disrupted when Franz Kafka, his friend and contemporary Max Brod and his father Hermann all turn up at their home.

That they’re all dead is one thing but more importantly, Elliot Levey’s Brod promised Daniel Weyman’s Kafka that he would destroy all his writings on his death but published them instead, garnering the writer unimaginable posthumous fame. And as it turns out, Sydney is something of a Kafka scholar who focused on the family dynamic of the Czech, so the arrival of Matthew Kelly as Hermann adds a surprising depth to the play, far beyond the initial comic stylings.

Review: Amadeus, Chichester Festival Theatre

“I heard the voice of God…and it was the voice of an obscene child”

Whilst the mere mention of Amadeus, for most people, will instantly call to mind something like
for a Europop-obsessed child of the 80s as I was, this was the only Amadeus in my world
so it is hard not to be just a little disappointed that the late lamented Falco doesn’t make an appearance somewhere in Jonathan Church’s production of Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus at the newly renovated Chichester Festival Theatre. Instead, it is a more prosaic look at life in the eighteenth century Viennese court where resident composer Antonio Salieri has his nose well and truly put out of joint by the arrival of a young upstart by the name of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

It is told in flashback through the eyes of the embittered Salieri and it is here that the play is instantly hobbled. I rather like Rupert Everett but his monotonous delivery of the substantial amount of narration means that there’s no variation to the character at all – villain or no, he’s still allowed to be interested but instead he’s chained to an immutable interpretation here that stultifies much of the production.

Review: Miss Julie / Black Comedy, Minerva

“Miss Julie is in complete denial about the whole thing”

Something of a random double-bill – August Strindberg’s Miss Julie (adapted here by Rebecca Lenkiwicz) and Peter Shaffer’s Black Comedy have previously been put together here at Chichester and so once again, they’re programmed as an engagement in the Minerva, partly cross-cast in a production by actor-increasingly-turned-director Jamie Glover. Each show has its merits but putting them together didn’t really add anything to the experience for me. 

Lenkiewicz’s version is solid rather than inspirational – the play has been adapted so many times now, it feels almost more surprising not to remove it from its original context. And consequently there’s no escaping the more misogynistic edges of the writing without the filter of another time. The glorious Rosalie Craig is excellent though as the titular, brittle aristocrat who can’t resist visits downstairs to bit of rough Jean, her father’s valet who is engaged to a kitchen maid.

Review: The Boss of it All, Soho

“We begin our story in Denmark. With an actor.”

Given the publicity-garnering controversial nature of much of his work, it is a little surprising that The Boss of it All actually marks the first time one of Lars von Trier’s films has made it onto a UK stage but then again, perhaps not – Antichrist the musical anyone, an immersive version of Nymphomaniac..? Jack McNamara should then be applauded for such a bold move with his first adaptation for renowned touring company New Perspectives, not least because it really is very good.

It is an astutely observed office comedy – Gerry Howell plays Kristoffer, an unemployed actor who is taken on by an IT company in dire straits to pretend to be the boss so that others can make the necessary difficult decisions under cover. It is a role to which he discovers he was born, slotting perfectly into the all-too-recognisable world of office politics with its petty rivalries and inexplicable peculiarities but sure enough, when it comes to pulling the trigger, he finds he might have gotten in a bit too deep.

Saturday afternoon music treats

Rebecca Caine, Gina Beck + Annalene Beechey – Sing For Your Supper

Friday, 18 July 2014

Review: Annie Get Your Gun, Churchill Bromley

Even with a turkey that you know will fold
You may be stranded out in the cold”

Blessed with one of the almighty scores of Broadway history, you’d think that productions of Annie Get Your Gun would be the simplest of gimmes but given that it is very much a piece of writing of its time, it’s not quite as easy as that (as I discovered recently in seeing Carousel for the first time). The gender politics therein are dubious at best and the treatment of Native Americans also speaks of severely outdated attitudes, so directors are faced with something of a conundrum. The Young Vic just went bizarre with it back in 2009 and now a major UK touring production by Ian Talbot opts for the ‘play within a play’ route, the framing device often used in The Taming of the Shrew to address similarly thorny issues. 

Elements of the show have also been removed and tinkered to further redress the gender balance but in all honesty it feels like a step too far – applying both of these patches detracts from their intentions. If it is a bit of meta-theatre, then surely it can just be played as is, as we know not to take it seriously; or if we’re reinventing the story for 21st century eyes, then just rewrite it wholesale. Instead we’re left with something which never really achieves either aspect on a dramatic level, something exacerbated by the limitations of a touring set design. Fortunately, the production sounds like a dream with a superb orchestra though and has some cracking performances in it from a cast who deliver the utterly timeless score by Irving Berlin with all the panache it deserves.