Friday, 26 September 2008

Review: Ivanov, Wyndhams

I have long struggled with Chekhov, I’ve never really seen the attraction or seen a production that made me understand why he is so well regarded as a dramatist. So when the Donmar Warehouse announced a hugely star-studded season of plays to be performed in the West End, at the Wyndhams Theatre, my heart sank a little bit to see that the first play was Ivanov, by none other than Anton Chekhov. But in a new version by Tom Stoppard, directed by Michael Grandage and featuring the return to the London stage of Kenneth Branagh, this emerged as a production that might actually have convinced me that people are onto something here!

The key to my enjoyment here was all about the humour that is threaded throughout the evening so that the dour tragedy that is something of a trademark is leavened with something else and introduces a wider palette of emotion so that the ‘tragedy’ becomes well, more tragic for being contrasted with something else on offer. So Ivanov, seeking escape from his TB-ridden wife whom he no longer loves, rocks up at the neighbours’ house on a regular basis despite owing them money and a daughter there who has designs on him. When discovered together, society turns it disapproving eye on him but it turns out there’s a far harsher critic in Ivanov himself.

Branagh is simply superb as the title character, capturing so much of the ridiculousness of what he is like and what is going on but also acknowledging how serious the predicament is. The ensemble around Branagh is stuffed full of brilliantly observed performances: Gina McKee is heartbreaking as Anna, the woman who has sacrificed huge amounts to be with the man she loves despite his shortcomings, Andrea Riseborough’s Sasha traces a highly affecting journey from innocence to a much more worldly-wise viewpoint and there’s an excellent company of maudlin drunks and odd sorts played by the likes of Malcolm Sinclair, Kevin R McNally and Lorcan Cranitch.

It looks and sounds beautiful, very much the Donmar sensibility just amped up to fill the expanded space and it very much works here. And combined with a stunning central performance from Branagh with a top-notch ensemble around him, this was a highly revelatory evening for me: I liked a Chekhov play!

Thursday, 25 September 2008

Cast of Ivanov continued

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Review: Her Naked Skin, National Theatre

Much of the talk about Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s new play Her Naked Skin has focused on the rather shameful fact that it is the first play by a female writer to be staged on the main Olivier stage at the National Theatre. Which whilst true and a definite achievement in itself, should not detract from the fact that this is a really rather sensationally good play.

Set in the Suffragette Movement in London in 1913 with excitement in the air as victory can be tasted, but times have never been more frenzied or dangerous as militant tendencies are at their strongest and many women are experiencing jail time on a regular basis. Lenkiewicz pitches the continuance of this struggle against the more personal story of Lady Celia Cain, bored in life and with her traditional marriage and family, who launches into a passionate lesbian love affair with a much younger, much more lower-class seamstress whom she shares a cell with and soon much more. As the affair hots up, so too does the political climate as emancipation comes closer to becoming a reality.

It is so effective on so many levels: the horrors faced by the women in prison, included a most brutal instance of force-feeding that is seared on the memory; the struggle against the establishment that they faced in trying to get their message across, resorting even to violence; the changing political climate with even men publicly calling for women to be given the vote. On top of all of that though is the class struggles that nevertheless persisted and one wonders if it would have been the lesbianism or the social mismatch that would have caused the most scandal in Celia’s social circle. It is a heady mix but one which captivates.

Lesley Manville is perfect as the upper class Celia, ruthless in her pursuit of what she wants both on the personal and political scale and so very brittly effective. Jemima Rooper’s piece of rough Eve plays off her well, habitually out of her depth with her love who is more experienced in love, in life, in everything. Susan Engel is a frequent scene-stealer as an acidly funny blue stocking Florence Boorman, more intelligent than probably anyone else around and utterly devoted to the cause. Adam Rawlins does extremely well as the husband put aside by Celia with a sympathetic portrayal showing that it wasn’t just women who were the victims, there were men and children affected by their actions too.

It is effectively staged with Rob Howell’s design, the cells being the most striking image, played off with the dullness of the potato peeling they have to do and the sheer horror of the force-feeding scene which is truly harrowing and difficult to watch. The projection of film and images of real suffragettes like Emily Wilding Davison adds a real poignancy to the production and serves as a reminder that whilst these are fictional characters, their struggle was all too painfully real.

Her Naked Skin offers up a highly revelatory dramatisation of the suffrage era, showing the courage and passion of those involved, the relentless merry-go-round of militant campaigning and subsequent imprisonments and the sheer determination of a group of women who could finally see the light at the end of the tunnel and would not give up until the prize was theirs.

Cast of Her Naked Skin continued

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Review: in-i, National Theatre

in-i marks a remarkable collaboration between dancer/choreographer Akram Khan and actress Juliette Binoche in which they dared each other to push personal and professional boundaries and create a work of art stretching over both their disciplines. The result is in-I, an 70 minute piece of intriguing dance theatre.

It purports to take us through the 14 different words that the Greeks have for love, but for me it felt like one could trace the turbulence of one relationship throughout. Taking us on a journey through this relationship, heavily influenced by his religious upbringing, her fears of domestic violence, as the couple come together, clash, separate, reunite and over again as they both struggle to deal with their innate fierceness.

The third collaborator Anish Kapoor’s set design is really interesting: a wall that moves slowly but is lit by a beautiful array of colours, reflecting the changing moods of the dance. It also serves as a backdrop to the various vignettes that are played out, like the opening scene set in a cinema.

There’s no denying that there are limitations to this exercise: Binoche has trained intensively for six months but does not have the full range and fluidity to be a true companion to Khan when they dance together, likewise Binoche’s immense stage presence sometimes threatens to overwhelm him during the acting sequences. But that is if one approaches this with a fully critical mindset: there are some beautiful moments here as well when the production plays to the strengths from each of its participants. Khan’s storytelling and Binoche’s vulnerability inthe cinema scene with Binoche as a teenager fantasising about an older man, represented by a whirling Khan is magnificent and I loved the imagery of pinned back onto the wall later on.

For seasoned fans of dance, I imagine this might be a bit of a disappointment as this isn’t the most highly technical of dance pieces. But to me it feels like so much more. It is so rare to see an artist at the top of her game in her own field putting herself through such a challenge in pursuing another, and in front of live audiences too. It is a risky experiment, but one I found to be highly fascinating, plus the opportunity to see Juliette Binoche on stage for the first time was one I could never have turned down even if she was just sitting there!