WHAT JOSIE DID
It's not often that the Director of a show upstages the star, but that's what happened on Tuesday night when Mike and I went to the Director's Forum performance of Sweet Charity at the Donmar Warehouse, the last show to be directed by Artistic Director Josie Rourke.
She was also aware that while she had had classical training to be a light soprano as a young woman, musical theatre is a really different craft - and there is some serious vocal talent on stage with her (and indeed there is). Josie had chosen Sweet Charity because of Cy Coleman's music, and she had a great time working on his City of Angels. This seemed like a good show to go out on. It had been a huge Broadway show, and one of the problems in bringing it into a small space is to realise the scene changes. She and designer Robert Jones had decided to evoke the era of Andy Warhol with the silver set and dark colours, and to use the ensemble to create the stage setting that makes the show.
As the discussion drew to an end, the spotlight once again turned to Josie. What had been her highlight in working at the Donmar? Without hesitation, she replied that she had enjoyed working with a permanent staff, and had gained from the support and creativity they had given her.
What advice would Josie give to others taking up a similar position? She laughed, and explained that she'd spent the evening at her old college in Cambridge talking to students who were about to take their finals, and she had been asked that very question. She told them that she wished she'd kissed more people. And then she suddenly became very serious, and dropped her head into her hands for a moment. " I think I'd say that you can't change all the things you think you're going to change. You have to recognise your limits. I remember showing Micahel Grandage round the new Bush, and he said to me, 'Think of the legacy.' Well, I don't know what part of my body I'm supposed to feel that in. I think I've just blown some rocks out of the quarry. Now others can create something out of them."
We applauded. During her tenure at the Donmar, Josie has given us a mixed programme, including great productions of Brian Friel's plays, has nurtured new talent such as Rob Hastie's revivals of My Night with Reg and The York Realist, and has given us her own excellent productions of The Weir, Coriolanus and Les Liaisons Dangereuses. We wish her well for her exciting future projects.
The appointment of Michael Longhurst wasn't a great surprise: he's one of the most successful and eye-catching young directors to have emerged in the past ten years. He has directed many - mostly new - plays regionally and on the fringe, and hasn't been daunted by mounting large-scale revivals of Gaslight (Old Vic) and Amadeus (Olivier) and has had a notable West End Success with Constellations by Nick Payne, which transferred to New York. As a group, we've been impressed by his striking productions of Linda (Royal Court), the sensational Gloria (Hampstead), Amadeus (National), Belleville (Donmar) and most recently and unforgettably The Son (Kiln). Each of these plays has been distinguished by impeccable good taste in the choice of material as well as being a distinctive and appropriate presentation. Consequently, we were eager to hear what Michael has lined up for his inaugural season at the Donmar.
A very excited yet relaxed Michael was interviewed by Fiona Mountford, drama critic from the Evening Standard, at the Donmar's HQ in Dryden Street. He declared his hand right away: as a director, he is interested in new writing, and his manifesto is to present Important Stories, Thrillingly Told - stories we need to hear, from writers with something significant to tell us, and staged by directors who can bring them vividly to life.
He agreed that he'd been under a lot of pressure to find the plays for his opening season, and told us how he'd discovered the first one. He'd been in the Drama Bookshop in New York, and was looking at their bookcase of British plays, and one called Europe jumped out at him. He'd never heard of it, and he was amazed to discover that it was written 25 years ago. It's by David Greig, the eminent Scottish writer, whose Knives in Hens made an impression at the Donmar two years ago. He read the play, and found it so compelling that he programmed it right away. It feels like it was written yesterday, he added - and now, with Billy Howle taking the lead, it should be an exciting evening .
For the second play, Michael is reuniting with a writer he's worked with before. Branden Jacobs-Jenkins wrote Gloria, which will always be high on my list of thrilling nights in the theatre (and anyone who was taken by surprise at the end of the first act will know why). Michael described Appropriate as a "dazzling" play: it's a family drama, where the estranged relatives meet after the father's death to settle the estate - and make a discovery that changes everything. The cast will be led by Monica Dolan, recent winner of the Olivier Award for Best Supporting Actress for All About Eve.
Fiona led Michael into a digression here: Appropriate will be a UK premiere - how does a theatre like the Donmar secure the rights for a new work, especially one that attracts a lot of attention? Michael laughed, and said that it was often the case that several theatres are trying to get the rights to the same play. Quick decisions need to be made, and opportunities grabbed with both hands - and often, it's the writer's choice on who wins.
The third play in the opening season sounds the most challenging, yet comes with the highest recommendation: it's <BLANK>, which started life at the National Theatre as part of their Connections project, and draws on the experiences of women in prison. It will mark the 40th anniversary of Clean Break, the theatre company that works with women affected by the criminal justice system.
Further challenges lie ahead for Michael: in 2022, the theatre has to go dark to be refurbished, and productions will take place off-site. But that lies in the future. In the meantime, we look forward to seeing what Michael has to offer us - so book now for the first play of the new era: Europe.
LAST TANGO IN THE HAYMARKET
"We'd never met till we were introduced in Joe Allen's about 5 years ago, but we've been to bed together several times," explained Anne Reid. "He looks good in pyjamas."
She was of course referring to Sir Derek Jacobi, her co-star in Last Tango in Halifax, the popular television series which gains immeasurably from the easy rapport between the actors. And Mike and I were privileged, along with several hundred others, to eavesdrop on the conversation between the two friends at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket as past of the Haymarket's Sunday evening events.
"We had dinner with Maggie Smith recently," Anne threw in, " and she said that she wished she'd gone to drama school. I said,'It's such a shame; you could have had a really successful career.'"
Derek had started acting at school in Walthamstowe, and he was fortunate that the production of Hamlet was taken to the Edinburgh Festival. He was spotted by critics James Agate and Kenneth Tynan, who had a dispute about his performance. This brought him a certain amount of attention, and his name was known when he went to Cambridge for his university interview. The Master of the college interrupted the interview to listen to the boat race on the radio; Cambridge won, and Derek was given a place.
From Cambridge, Derek went to Birmingham Rep, where he played many leading roles for three years. However, his next break came when he played Shakespeare's Henry Vlll. After a matinee, he'd got out of his costume, and Laurence Olivier came to the dressing-room he shared with the actor playing Wolsey. Olivier greeted him politely, but gave his attention to Wolsey, and left. Moments later, he returned, looked at Derek, and said, "My God! You were Henry!" This resulted in his getting a call to join the newly-formed national Theatre Company at the Old Vic.
This was indeed a golden age, with stars such as Olivier, Maggie Smith and Albert Finney giving up lucrative West End and screen careers to act in this company, with other players, such as Michael Gambon and Ronald Pickup starting out as well. Derek recalled with great amusement Anthony Hopkins's discomfort at playing Audrey to his Touchstone in the all-male As You Like It.
Another lucky break came when he was understudying Jeremy Brett as Laertes to Peter O'Toole's Hamlet. Jeremy got another job with Warner Bros playing Freddie in the film of My Fair Lady, and Derek was given the role. Things almost went wrong when Peter O'Toole made the wrong move while rehearsing the duel with Derek, and ended up with a livid mark on his face. Derek was summoned to Olivier's office, and warned that O'Toole's agent had been on the phone; O'Toole was about to start filming Lord Jim, and if he sustained an injury, the studio would sue the national for thousands. Derek was to be very careful in the duel!
Another setback came at the end of a lengthy world-tour of Hamlet. At the final performance in Australia, while Derek was waiting to go on to play the nunnery scene, he thought "What would happened if Hamlet dried up in the middle of To be or not to be?" - and when he was 4 lines into that speech, his mind went blank. He got through the rest of the performance on auto-pilot, but didn't act on stage again for two years.
Eventually, the call came from the RSC, offering him irresistible roles: Much Ado About Nothing and Cyrano de Bergerac. He realised that this was a make or break moment, and returned to the stage, and to his greatest successes.
After the interval, Anne steered Derek to talk about his screen career. He said that he got I, Claudius also by chance. The original proposal had been to do it with two actors, one older, one younger. Initially, Charlton Heston was cast as the older emperor, but that fell through. The next suggestion was Ronnie Barker, and then the writer and director remembered that Derek had aged successfully in their previous collaboration, Man of Straw. He recalled with some glee how cheaply the series was made: set decoration consisted of moving potted plants from one side to the other. He reminded Anne that at first it wasn't a success, but as the series developed it became a huge hit.
I was beginning to wonder if Derek had ever been the first choice for any role when he told us that he was cast as the bishop in the recent television serial of Les Miserables when the first choice, the 90-year-old Max von Sydow, broke his leg. But he also recalled his experience working on the comedy series Frasier, for which he won an Emmy, with great enjoyment.
It was touching to hear Derek talk about his parents, and the great affection that existed between them. He told us how they had saved up 10 shillings a week so that they could buy him a car (a red Ford popular) for his 21st birthday, a memory that still affects him profoundly
There is clearly a wealth of stories from Sir Derek's long career - "He's met everyone," commented Anne, dryly - but we had to leave it there (and I've had to leave a lot out, too). We can only hope there's an autobiograply to come.
And, oh yes, we may get another Last Tango in Halifax.
STILL HERE - AGAIN......AND A FINAL GOODBYE TO COMPANY & (perhaps?) FOLLIES
Dominic plunged straight in with the questions, asking about having two shows in London; do Sondheim's shows play differently over here? It sounds like an empty compliment, Sondheim replied, but his first appreciative notices were for the London production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. He ascribed this to the English appreciation of language - although, he admitted, this was a generalisation, like saying that all Frenchmen are great lovers. "And so many of them are," enthused Dominic, before adding, "or so I'm told."
In his work, Sondheim tends to utilise new forms of storytelling, and he said that he learned this from his mentor, Oscar Hammerstein ll, who as well as being a celebrated lyricist, was an experimental dramatist. Hammerstein instilled this work ethic in him, but he generally responds to ideas from his librettists - for instance, the idea for Follies was brought to him by James Goldman. He acknowledged that themes emerge throughout his body of work, but wryly concluded that he wouldn't himself be able to write a college thesis on the work of Stephen Sondheim.
Dominic referred to a playwright friend who had been working on the book of a musical, and who said that it was difficult to surrender the best moments to the composer. This could be a problem, Sondheim said. He works very closely with the librettist, plotting the narrative and finding the moment where the songs need to take over the telling of the story or revealing the characters. He had wanted to work with Peter Shaffer (Amadeus) but Shaffer was reluctant to yield control. The synergy between collaborators is very important, as he recalled an early experience of writing a show - Forum - which he knew wasn't working. He consulted James Goldman, and read him the script and then played him the score. Goldman assured him that the script was brilliant, and so were the songs; unfortunately, they didn't go together!
What then, asked Dominic, do you do when previews reveal that the show doesn't work? Sondheim joked that he wished he didn't have to write a note of music or a line till the show was cast and performed. Many changes are made when a show is "out of town " (i.e. before it comes to Broadway): songs are dropped, new ones are written. In fact, he said, the best songs from the classic shows were all written when the show was in rehearsal.
He gave us two examples from Follies: Yvonne De Carlo had an extraordinary voice, ranging through three octaves. He wrote a novelty number for her, Can That Boy Foxtrot - but audiences didn't respond to it. They needed a different song for Ms de Carlo, and he discussed the problem with James Goldman. The lightbulb moment came when Goldman said "...and she's still there." And so I'm Still Here got written.
And then when working on the Loveland sequence in Follies, choreographer Michael Bennett wasn't satisfied with the song Uptown, Downtown for Phyllis's follies routine; it was too static, and he wanted the star Alexis Smith to move around more. At the same time, Ms Smith was unhappy at sharing the torch song Losing My Mind with the accomplished singer Dorothy Collins, as was intended. She visited Sondheim at his home in New York, and spoke frankly: "Look, Dorothy is a terrific singer, and I can just get by in a song. Why don't you just give the song to her?". Sondheim asked in that case what she would like to do, and Ms Smith continued frankly, "Well, I've got great legs. I'd like to show my legs a bit." Hence, The Story of Lucy and Jessie got written and they then had a separate song each.
As actors such as Bernadette Peters, Imelda Staunton and Maria Friedman have been closely associated with his work, is there such a thing as a Sondheim performer? No, he replied, they just have to be spectacular! And they may get to be spectacular in a new work, based on two films of Luis Bunuel (I believe they are The Exterminating Angel and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie) which he is working on with dramatist David Ives. Who knows? English audiences may one day get to show their appreciation of these works? And Mr Sondheim may fly back again to see them on the London stage.
It was a magical experience all over again: it's a show - and a production - that gets better and better the more you see it. The intricate staging of the guests' arrival at the Weismann party is a show in itself, and I would happily watch that over and over again. The performances have grown even more confident and deeper. Janie Dee injects more lethal doses of venom into Could I Leave You? while the anguish of Alexander Hanson's Ben is even more raw. Peter Forbes has never been better in considering his options in The Right Girl. But as before, when we first saw her in this role, it's Joanna Riding discovering every facet of the Sally's fevered delusions that is so scarily compelling, reaching its climax in her devastating account of Losing My Mind.
Is this the best production ever of Follies? Is it perhaps the best production ever on the Olivier stage?
And can we please have another Sondheim festival soon?
BACK IN THE FOLLIES
As the show is about a reunion of Follies girls onstage in a theatre, it was appropriate that the four principal members of the current cast of Follies at the National Theatre should meet on the Olivier stage to discuss their roles.
Janie Dee and Peter Forbes were reunited from last year’s production, and Janie and Joanna Riding had worked together on Carousel more than 25 years ago. They had both worked with Alexander Hanson over the years – “We’ve been in each other’s orbit,” said Alex, and then revealed that he had been seen for Billy Bigelow, but didn’t get the part.
Interviewer Matt Wolf asked Joanna and Alex what it was like to come into a production that was already a recognised success, and to step into roles that had been occupied by other actors. Both of them had seen the production: Joanna had dropped her children off to see School of Rock and then had started to shed tears as she crossed Waterloo Bridge and seen the word Follies on the NT’s display board. At the opening she’d had a very generous and gracious card from Imelda Staunton (who played Sally previously). Alex had been in Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, but found Follies a completely different experience in style and content.
Janie and Peter said that director Dominic Cooke got them to explore the back-stories of their characters and to analyse the relationships between their characters. Janie had come to the conclusion that people don’t change that much in the course of their lives, and cited her relationship with Joanna as being the same as when they’d last worked together. However, she welcomed the opportunity to return to the role of Phyllis, as she felt there were aspects of the character that she hadn’t finished with. She’d been distraught backstage on the last night of the previous run – Peter had had to tell her to pull herself together – and had told Dominic Cooke that she wasn’t ready to let go of the role. “I’m glad you said that,” he replied.
Matt asked them all to talk about their individual Follies numbers, which bring the show to its shattering climax. Peter laughed and said that he had to stand still on stage for 7 minutes during the Loveland sequence before dashing off-stage to do a quick change and then dive into the hyperactive Buddy’s Blues without any physical or vocal warm-up. This frenetic routine takes the audience by surprise, and it’s a triumph for Peter that he takes it at breakneck speed without losing a word of the lyric.
We were eager to hear how Joanna arrived at her startling interpretation of the heartbreaking Losing My Mind. She said that she always overthinks things, and then has to whittle away at her ideas to find a workable solution. In this case, she had an image of Jean Harlow at her dressing-table – all that was missing was a feather boa – and she knew that she wanted to do something shocking at the end to strip away the artificiality (she succeeds!).
When she presented this to Dominic for the first time, he stopped her halfway through, and commented, “It’s good, but where are you going with this?” But now it’s a version of the song that will be used as a yardstick for other performers in the future.
Janie jumped in and told us that her difficulty for her Follies number was standing back stage beforehand while listening to Joanna’s heartbreaking song. Her own The Ballad of Lucy and Jessie is the “danciest” version of the song ever – Phyllis usually does a bit of standing and posing while the boys dance around her, but not this time. Janie recalled that her agent had once told her not to do another musical if she wanted to be taken seriously as an actress, but she disregarded this advice – and was seen by Peter Hall, who gave her a lot of work over the next 9 years. She loves dancing, and had always been a dancer. However, she wasn’t included in the dancing for Lucy and Jessie until she went into the rehearsal room to see what choreographer Bill Deamer was up to. She watched the boys, and said to Bill, “Can I have a go at that?” “Well, you can try,” huffed Bill – and Janie said she learned it in 15 minutes. It’s a fast and energetic routine, and very exhausting, she admitted.
Alex has the final Follies number, which requires some dancing. He admitted that he has two left feet, so he’d written to Bill Deamer asking for early rehearsals – but it was a tight rehearsal period and the weeks slipped by. Finally, he got the call to attend his classes, and he worked with the dancers and with Bill, and soon impressed himself with his flowing movements. He stared to fancy himself as another Fred Astaire. Then he went into a dance studio with a mirrored wall, and saw what he was doing - and realised that he was a long way from Fred Astaire!
This cast are relishing their work on this great show, and when asked what advice they’d give younger performers starting out, Janie quoted Stephen Sondheim: “Preparation is opportunity.”
And they have clearly done their preparation, and seized their opportunity.
BLOOD, SWEAT AND TEARS
The tension mounted as the Donmar’s production of Lynn Nottage’s award-winning play SWEAT reached its climax. As two angry men confronted each other on the stage, someone in the theatre (honest, it wasn’t me) cried out in fear before a blow was struck.
We all flinched as the violence erupted in one of the most horrifying stage fights I’ve seen, and we were visibly shaken as the play ended.
The actors? Not so much. This was the Director’s forum performance and ten minutes after taking their bows before an appreciative audience, they trooped on again to discuss the play with us.
The action takes place in an industrial town in north-east America, and how the factory closures affect families and friends. Unpromising material for a night out, perhaps, but the Assistant Director Tom Ellerby told us that it had been a major success in the USA. Why had it been such a hit, he asked the cast, what made it so special.
The only American in the cast, Martha Plimpton, jumped in, telling us that Lynn Nottage is a highly respected writer, whose previous plays had addressed specific issues – but SWEAT hit a general nerve, touching upon a common experience of economic uncertainty. It had opened just before Trump was elected, and highlighted the rise of populism, inherent racism and how pitting people against each other results in the fear of one’s neighbours.
“That’s what I was going to say,” said Osy Ikhile wryly, when Ms Plimpton paused for breath., and Sebastian Viveros added that everyone can relate to the story of how people react when they’ve had a steady job and a steady income, and this is taken away from them.
Sule Rimi agreed, and pointed out the injustice of people having worked their whole lives, only to be denied the promised reward of a security and a pension – the non-existent pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
Martha Plimpton jumped in again. She described the de-industrialisation of the USA, and the intractability of the unions in failing to modernise. Going back to how it was before is not economically feasible; progress always triumphs. With her colleagues, she described their visit to the steel-works in Sheffield, where they were shown round the foundry by some retired workers. This factory had employed 15,000 but gradually the work-force was reduced to 1,500, and while the actors were on the factory floor, surrounded by enormous industrial machinery, they saw barely 20 people. And yet the industry had remained viable because of modernisation, progress and compromise (but at what human cost?). In the US, the unions had refused to compromise, industries were closed and jobs lost - the clock cannot be turned back despite Trump's empty promises to 'make America great again'.
Leanne Best startled me by speaking up in a strong northern accent (how did she lose that on stage?) to say that she had grown up in Liverpool in the 80s, and remembered the hardships that people experienced then. She could relate to the play, which she found both timely and timeless – but it’s not just a docu-drama: the characters are fully realised, and when she read it, she could she that it was as great a drama as the works of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams. Tom summed it up by saying that Lynn Nottage takes live issues and distils them into a group of friends meeting in a bar.
How did the actors create the warmth and camaraderie that is essential to the play before in dissipates in the course of the action? First of all, everyone heaped praise on director Lynette Linton, formerly Assistant Director at the Donmar, and flexing her muscles on this stage for the first time. Martha said that Lynette had been phenomenal, creating an environment of absolute rigor and trust among the cast. Everyone was involved in the gestation of every character. They had created a timeline for each one, using a different coloured tape for each character, and marking on it the events in their lives and where they intersected and how their relationships changed. It was a long time, said Martha, since she had experienced this type of creativity.
Martha hadn’t been in the play in the US, and hadn’t even seen it on Broadway, as she was working elsewhere. One of her friends had played her part, and she was now glad she hadn’t seen it, in case she copied that performance – to compare is to despair. I have to say that it’s a part she not only seizes with both hands, but by the throat as well.
The play seemed tailored for the intimate open space of the Donmar stage; would it play as well in a proscenium-arch theatre? Clearly, the actors wouldn’t be averse to trying that out; it had played in conventional theatres in America.
There is so much to explore and discuss in this rich play, but the discussion had to come to a close. We left the theatre on a high – but I had a profound regret that we hadn’t persuaded more of loyal supporters to join us on our earlier group visit to this incomparable work.
The question had to be asked: what was it like both rehearsing and performing two different versions of the same play? Hayley said that she hadn't been familiar with the play, apart from a few of the well-known speeches, and that it felt like a huge challenge. She had loved the process: Josie Rourke, the director, had rehearsed the same scene with her and Jack Lowden swapping their roles, and that enabled them to examine all the textures of the play. It also gave her and Jack the chance to steal from each other in their interpretations! To her, the idea was less about a gender swap than about two characters being developed in different ways.
Jack agreed: rehearsals were wonderful, but also the hardest part (as they should be). He knew of no precedent for working in this "role reversal" format, and he felt that it was great to have someone else in the room making mistakes for him. Understudies are necessary, he added; now he wants another actor to come into rehearsals to play his part, so he can watch and notice the mistakes and cherry-pick the best bits!
Clare wondered what it was like for the other actors playing the same parts while the principal roles were reversed; how did this affect their interpretation of their roles? Nicholas explained that Josie had wanted to explore the Duke's embodiment of a tyrannical ruler in the first part - he's probably read Machiavelli, and is imposing his will (Hayley interjected that the Duke is actually the villain in the play; at any point he could stop the action and put it right). The resolution comes from his exercising his power. In the second part, the idea was that the Duke has had some sort of crisis, and was running away from power, but this time the resolution is based on the love he had found for Angelo.
During the rehearsals, the actors had been visited by the contributors to the programme. Helena described how Professor Emma Smith had enlightened the actors on their difficulties with the text, and elaborated on the concepts of state and law and virtue in the context of the play and in Shakespeare's time. Dr Rowan Williams had discussed mercy, forgiveness and the risk of passing judgement on others. Justine Thornton QC talked them through the legal process in the play, and emphasised the solemnity of the court scenes. They considered the mutability of the idea of "virtue" through the ages; the concept hasn't travelled well, but perhaps we're coming back to an ideal based on self-respect and preserving our own worth.
Ben had the difficult job of convincing audiences that Frederick in phase 2 of the play would react as he did to being jilted. Audiences find it easier to respond to Marianna's parallel predicament (though Helena provides a shock element of Marianna's self-harm - they wanted to get away from the Pre-Raphaelite image of Marianna suffering exquisitely). Ben and Josie had decided that Frederick would show signs of a profound clinical depression.
The actors have been performing the play since the end of September, and unusually for the Donmar, the run has been extended by a week. Jack said that he always looks forward to this point in the run of a play: the things he worries about drop off, and he enjoys the energy and excitement of brilliant story-telling. Helena had a problem: her role requires her to react to news, and it's really difficult to make "news" new night after night!
Hayley acknowledged a certain queasiness about Shakespeare's Problem plays, such as The Taming of the Shrew, and especially at the ending of Measure for Measure, where the passionate and articulate Isabella is reduced to silent submission. This double interpretation seeks to overturn that imbalance - Isabella's howl of protest that ends Part One answers her silence in the original, now seen at the end of Part Two.
Audiences react in different ways; some audiences are quiet and intent, while others find humour in the play. Hayley admitted that she likes to know that the audience is out there, and the cast do notice different reactions at different performances. I told them that we had seen it twice, with an audience that had listened closely (when our group attended) and with a more reactive audience this evening. Raad asked which I had preferred, and my own preference was for the more intense response. Responses at a schools' performance had received shouts of encouragement and censure to the characters.
Measure for Measure is one of my favourite of Shakespeare's plays: it has a strong dramatic thrust and some powerfully-written scenes, as well as knotty moral questions to debate. I was pleased to see it without the comic excrescences that can become tedious. Here, the central performances blazed life into the play (though on a second viewing, Hayley Atwell seemed more at ease in the first part). Did all Josie's good ideas all find their way on to the stage in part two? Perhaps for some audiences more than others. As Hayley pointed out, the over-riding feeling in the production was not to answer questions, but to open them up for discussion. It's a play about judgements; let the audience make its own judgement on this too.
THE HUMANS - The family that prays together...
Mike and I weren't able to join our group on the visit to Hampstead Theatre to see the award-winning play The Humans. However, several people wrote intriguing comments on our website, so we were glad that we'd booked the last 2 tickets (yes, really!) for the sold-out run of this import from Broadway.
And we were in luck: we didn't know until the performance ended that there was going to be a post-show Q&A with the hard-working cast. Unusually, a large proportion of the audience waited for this, suggesting a high level of identification with the situation and themes of the play.
This was based on the writer's own apartment (before the success of the play! Details such as the spreckling on the wall and the hoops for the curtains left by the previous owner, and the genuine American refrigerator (imported from the original production!), all added to the authentic feel of the play. It gave us the sense as an audience that we had dropped in on a real family.
When the cast joined us, they too gave the sense of being a real family. They were engaged to work on the play 3 years ago for a 3-month run at an Off-Broadway theatre. Following its success there, it transferred to the smallest Broadway theatre and from there to a larger theatre on the Great White Way. After a successful 18-month season, it then toured the United States, eventually playing a 2,000-seater in Los Angeles before arriving at Hampstead. How did they retain the essence of the drama through all those years and changes? Jayne Houdyshell (Deirdre) said that the director Joe Mantello was a genius at re-calibrating the performances to adjust to the space that they were playing, while Sarah Steele (Brigid) added that she was 27 when she started giving her performance, and with tree years' further experience believes her perception of her character has deepened because of her own life experience.
Greg commented that the cast now have the play in their DNA, and the dialogue sounds as though it was improvised. Do the cast make changes? This brought a resounding No! Jayne said that the play was very tightly scripted, and that if you look at the text, it's written like a musical score, with indications where the actors talk over each other. She compared it to a symphony. Arian Moayed (Rich) pointed out that if any of the actors come in late on their lines, they may lose a laugh or a vital piece of information. Cassie Beck (Amy) told us that she had found it difficult to deliver her lines at the speed that Stephen Karam asked for, and that she struggled when Joe told her that she wasn't getting the information across to the audience. It was difficult to match the writer's precision.
Lauren Klein, whose performance as Momo may cause sleepless nights, had the difficult task of learning the gibberish but scripted dialogue that makes up much of her role. She studied on the bus, the train, everywhere, till she got it into her system.
The roller-coaster ride of emotions affects the audience - does it take its toll on the actors? There was a brief pause, and an exchange of glances between Jayne and Reed Birney (Eric) before he replied that it was pretty brutal. He explained that his character experiences PTSD following 9/11 and that he is wracked with guilt at his failure in the family, and that was what he needs to convey in every performance. Casiie told us that their bodies were wrung out with the emotion of the play.
None of the cast was familiar with the Peppermint Pig tradition that occupies a central scene in the play, where the family tells what they are thankful for. It's not widespread in the US, apparently, but it was a tradition in Stephen's own family. Reed told us that we could buy the pigs online - so here you are, http://www.saratogasweets.com/peppermint-pig, introduce the tradition to your family! The pigs can also be bought from Amazon.com. (Sorry - they don't ship to the UK!)
What has the audience response been? Jayne said many people had told her that they were going to call their Mom (she always replies, "You should."). Cassie said that she had been approached by many gay lawyers with diverticulitis (but none from Scranton). Hampstead audiences had listened closely to the play; the cast had been warned that British audiences are quiet(er) but they could hear the listening!
They all agreed that there is a lot of love in the play, and that, I think, is the quality that audiences ultimately relate to - but it is the tensions that underlie and suddenly surface that gives the play its unique realism - the outbursts from Momo, the sincere pieties of Deirdre that turn vicious when Eric has been drinking too much, the depression that Rich reveals, the myriad irritations in any family that emerge when we're all under pressure to be happy and have a good time - that are horribly, uncomfortably recognisable.
At the end, Reed hinted that there is a possibility of a West End transfer. In the meantime, all praise to Hampstead Theatre for allowing us to see this play.
The complex scenic problems of the play were resolved by designer Es Devlin in a stroke of genius, jettisoning the huge set that had been employed in productions at the Abbey in Dublin and the Lyttelton here. Nevertheless, David Dawson revealed that the actors had not only mapped out the house, but the village of Ballybeg itself. James added that they had constructed a timeline for the key events referred to in the play, including political developments in Ireland during this period.
The cast told of their private sessions with Lyndsey, discussing their characters and the back-stories that they had constructed. This had been helpful in exploring the web of secret histories that holds the family together. David Dawson had found this a sound basis to examine the strategies that Casimir constructs in order to survive.
The use of the baby alarm provoked discussion with the audience, and James revealed that he is actually in bed off-stage, and that he and Eileen play the scenes live that are relayed to the audience (in other productions, these have been recorded). The voice of sister Anne, who is a nun in Africa, was recorded (in one take) by Justine Mitchell who just happened to be visiting the theatre. Eileen drew attention to the subtle lighting, that delicately underscores the changing moods of the play.
Aristocrats has been called the play of Friel that most resembles Chekhov. On a second viewing, it brought The Cherry Orchard to my mind: every character has their own story, and their own needs which are dependent on others. These only become clear as the play unfolds. As Chekhov's masterpiece has come to be loved by audiences, revealing more on each viewing, Aristocrats needs to be viewed again and again to yield its secrets. I hope it won't be too long before we see it again
At this point, the show was nearly four hours long. Lawrence had missed rehearsals because of illness, and the leading man, Yul Brynner, had told the writers that he hadn’t had enough rehearsal time to develop the complex role of the King. When they asked what sort of performance he would give, he’d replied, “It will be good enough. It will get the reviews.”
It was and it did. Lawrence seems to have been galvanised by the opening night audience, as she had been in her previous musical, Lady in the Dark (1941). By all accounts, both she and Brynner dazzled, creating a special chemistry in scene after scene. Audiences cheered, critics applauded, and Rodgers and Hammerstein had found a formula – a spirited governess with strong opinions facing down a tyrannical employer – that they would return to with even greater success eight years later with The Sound of Music.
On this occasion, the story was solidly based on fact: King Monguk of Siam had spent half his life as a Buddhist monk and scholar. When his half-brother died in 1850, Monguk became king, and despite the efforts of European and American traders to gain influence in the subcontinent, he maintained Siam’s independence, while introducing Western ways to modernise his kingdom.
In 1861, when he was 57, Monguk wrote to his agent in Singapore, asking him to find an English lady to act as governess to the royal children. The choice fell on Anna Leonowens, a widow aged 30, with a son and daughter of her own. Leonowens was Anglo-Indian, a fact which she concealed (and which has only recently come to light) explaining her dusky complexion by claiming Welsh ancestry.
In taking up her post, she sent her daughter to school in England, and travelled to Bangkok with her son Louis. She taught there till 1867, and during her six month leave-of-absence to visit her daughter, the King died. Anna didn’t return to Siam, but corresponded with the new King, Monguk’s son Chulalongkron. She died in 1915.
In 1944, Margaret Landon wrote a bestseller, Anna and the King of Siam, based on two memoirs by Leonowens. This was quickly followed by a movie adaptation in 1946, with Irene Dunne as Anna, and that elegant and uniquely exotic Asian actor Rex Harrison as the King.
Landon’s agent sent the book to Gertrude Lawrence’s agent, Fanny Holtzmann. Holtzmann was worried that her client’s career was fading; she’d made her name in musicals and revues, and was a star both on Broadway and in the West End. She hadn’t done a musical since Lady in the Dark, though she’d had success with plays, and it was rumoured that at 51, her never-reliable voice had grown thinner over the years. She needed to re-establish herself as a musical star.
Holtzmann approached Cole Porter but he declined her invitation to write the songs, as did Noel Coward. Her luck changed when she met Dorothy Hammerstein, who had known Lawrence since they had both appeared in Andre Charlot’s London Revue of 1924 on Broadway. Both Dorothy Hammerstein and Dorothy Rodgers had read and loved Landon’s book, but their husbands didn’t think its episodic and didactic style were suitable for a musical. However they looked at the movie, and agreed that the screenplay, co-authored by Sally Benson, who knew how to control episodic material from her own stories, Meet Me in St Louis, provided a workable model.
The song writing partners had concerns about working with Gertrude Lawrence. They disliked working with stars (though this hadn’t scared them off Mary Martin for South Pacific) and they were worried about Lawrence’s limited vocal ability and her tendency to sing flat. On the other hand, she was a compelling stage performer, and showed no diva characteristics in waiving her star’s veto rights over casting and director.
And it was difficult to find an actor to fill the role of the King – someone who could sing, and match Lawrence’s stage presence. Rodgers and Hammerstein turned first to the exotic Asian actor from the movie, Rex Harrison; he had other commitments. Another equally exotic Asian actor, Noel Coward, wasn’t available either, so the part was offered to Alfred Drake, who claimed to have turned it down because he didn’t have enough singing experience. Rodgers and Hammerstein in turn said that, following his great success in Oklahoma!, Drake made too many contractual demands (possibly asking not only for a surrey with a fringe on top but a team of snow-white horses as well).
At this point, Mary Martin suggested a young Russian actor who had played her Chinese husband in Lute Song (1946). Yul Brynner had been a struggling actor and singer since arriving in the US from Russia in 1941, aged 21. He’d had an affair with the actor Hurd Hatfield, and been photographed nude by George Platt Lynes. (Search with Google for Yul Brynner George Platt Lynes then click on Images at top of page - go on, you know you want to!) He was now married and interested in making a career as a television director when he was persuaded to audition.
On reading the script, Brynner became fascinated by the character of the King. He was conscious of his receding hairline, so costume designer Irene Sharaff ordered him to shave his head. Sharaff provided costumes for the King that erred on the side of camp (she later acclaimed that her ball-gown for Anna and the King’s dance added 1,000 performances to the show) but Brynner exuded enough sex-appeal to overcome them.
It’s worth noting that at this point, the King was regarded as a secondary character in the show, and when the TONY awards were presented, Brynner was nominated – and won – in the Best Featured Actor category. It was on the strength of his performance that the two leading roles were rebalanced, and indeed no other actor seems to have made an equal impression in the role - not Herbert Lom in London, Farly Granger or Peter Wyngarde, not even Alfred Drake, who did eventually play the King when Brynner was on vacation. The role of Mrs Anna has always attracted bona-fide stars, among them Barbara Cook, Angela Lansbury and (believe it or not) Elaine Stritch.
First the writers had to address a major problem: the story of Anna and the King was not a love story, and it would have offended the sensibilities of 1950’s Broadway to suggest a romance between an English governess and an Asian ruler. Yet the chemistry of the stars was palpable and the sexual tension added to the dynamic of the play. It was impossible to write soaring, impassioned melodies for these characters, as they had for Laurie and Curly, and Julie Jordan and Billy Bigelow.
And of course, Lawrence’s and Brynner’s voices wouldn’t soar – and they wouldn’t blend either. Rodgers and Hammerstein had solved this problem successfully in South Pacific, when Mary Martin’s belting alto-soprano wasn’t a good fit with Ezio Pinza’s bass: Nellie and Emil don’t sing together in Act One, and share only a few bars in the second act (and no-one noticed).
In The King and I, the soaring melodies are given to Tuptim and her lover Lun Tha. Their songs - We Kiss in the Shadows and I Have Dreamed - are songs of longing, rather than fulfilment, just as Anna’s Hello, Young Lovers is a memory of love and passion. This enhances the sense of repressed passion that imbues the show: the audience is suspended in a state of delayed gratification: surely Tuptim and Lun Tha will gain their liberty and be free to love? Surely the King and Anna will, in best romantic comedy tradition, realise that their antipathy is founded on mutual attraction? This perpetual anticipation propels the show and the writers build the suspense until the powerful release of sexual energy, when Anna and the King finally glide into each others’ arms for Shall We Dance? The erotic charge behind this long-awaited number makes its conclusion both shocking and devastating.
The problems with the show didn’t end with the successful opening night. No-one knew that Lawrence was already suffering from liver cancer – even nine months before her death, this was not detected. Her condition was weakened by the demands of the role, by Irene Sharaff’s lavish costumes that weighed 76lbs, and by the intense summer heat. Eventually her understudy Constance Carpenter took over the matinee performances, but despite pleurisy and bronchitis, Lawrence returned to her full schedule by Christmas. Her husband Richard Aldrich asked Rodgers and Hammerstein to close the show during Easter week, to allow her to rest; they refused, but agreed to bring in Celeste Holm (their original Ado Annie) for six weeks during the summer.
Lawrence’s voice continued to cause concern, and the energy level in her performances was falling – and was being commented on by audiences. Rodgers and Hammerstein prepared a letter, advising her “eight times a week you are losing the respect of 1,500 people” – fortunately, the letter wasn’t delivered. After a matinee in late August, Lawrence fainted, and was admitted to hospital, where she fell into a coma and died on 6 September 1952.
Until Lawrence’s death, Yul Brynner’s name was listed below the title on the publicity material for the show. Rodgers and Hammerstein often told the story that when Lawrence died, Brynner finally got top billing, and he burst into tears at the news (of his getting top billing – not the news of Lawrence’s death). He eventually played the part of the King more than 4,000 times, on tour and in many revivals. Despite his very uneven career in movies, his demands became more diva-like with the passing years. During one Broadway revival, he had a special lift – big enough to fit a car – installed in the theatre. His chauffeur could drive straight in and spare the star from having to “deal with the public.”
Does the show stand the test of time? There’s no doubt about its appeal: it’s the most frequently revived of all Rodgers and Hammerstein’s shows, yet while it contains some of their most rapturous songs – Hello, Young Lovers, We Kiss in the Shadows, I Have Dreamed, Something Wonderful and Shall We Dance? (and let’s be generous and add that I Whistle a Happy Tune and Getting to Know You are both serviceable and catchy) the rest of the score doesn’t equal the team’s earlier successes. The March of the Siamese Children, without the help of Acher Bilk, is repetitive and overly cute, and The Small House of Uncle Thomas, with or without Jerome Robbins’s choreography, is interminable (I’m always rooting for Simon of Legree).
Strangely, the book by Hammerstein is extremely wordy, and as far from his stark work on the book of Carousel as Siam is from Maine. Consequently, I found myself getting impatient to move on to the next song. Another surprise is the paucity of reprises; perhaps the songwriters felt that they had stretched their credibility far enough with the number of reprises of Some Enchanted Evening in South Pacific.
The period and the location lend themselves to an extravagant production, and yet the scenic designers can get by with a fairly simple composite set. In the current production, it looks good, and certainly sounds good. Kelli O’Hara brings gravitas and dignity and all the notes that Gertrude Lawrence lacked, and Tuptim and Lady Thiang match her with their voices. Her voice soars effortlessly, and she shows reserves of empathy and experience of remembered, cherished passion in her performance. Ken Watanabe is difficult to understand (yes, even after all those performances on Broadway!) and he’s a personable actor (but no Yul Brynner).
Rodgers and Hammerstein described The King and I as a “musical play”, and perhaps this was their excuse for curbing the exuberance of their earlier successes, and concentrating on the clash of cultures through the repressed emotions of their protagonists. My enjoyment of it is deepened by my appreciation of the difficulties they triumphantly overcame in creating it.
The current revival shows it at its best. It’s a 4-star production of a 4-star show, and certainly worth a visit to the London Palladium.
IN HER PRIME
We’d enjoyed the Donmar’s production of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie when we took our group to see it, and I was somewhat puzzled by a couple of less than generous comments on the Comments page. I was pleased that my enthusiasm was matched by others in our group, but I was eager to see the play again, to see if it lived up to my initial enjoyment.
Clare mischievously asked the cast how many of them had read Muriel Spark’s novel before becoming involved in the play. Only Sylvestra had (and among the audience members, I was one of only a few who proudly raised their hand). Even Clare herself hadn’t read it before, though she is now a confirmed fan. Rona reported that it had been on syllabuses in Scotland, but had recently been taken off (and replaced with what? I wondered).
Had the cast dug into the book, in that case? Sylvestra pointed out that this was a new adaptation by David Harrower, who was working closely with the Muriel Spark estate to make sure that he respected Dame Muriel’s intentions. Their original script was a draft that was in development, so they had referred to the novel to help trace the timeline of events.
Lia drew our attention to the fact that it is a “memory play” based on Sandie’s recollections, which could make it feel slippery for the actors. She herself had been absent for the first two weeks of rehearsal, as she was alternating the roles of two queens in Mary Stuart and holding 1,600 lines in her head. In the meantime, her fellow cast members were engaged in developing back stories for their characters, including sharing memories of their own school days. Nicola, now transformed from an amazingly convincing put-upon 12 year-old into an assured and confidant young woman, said that they’d had to resist playing children all the way through the play. David Harrower had been very receptive to the casts’ problems and ideas, and the script changed during rehearsals – indeed, there were changes in previews, when the running time was reduced considerably.
It wasn’t only the script that changed. The set presented problems, as there are 26 scenes in Act One alone. Although the bells were always an integral part of the design, the actors had to move a lot of furniture. Nicola told us that actors like to have “stuff” to work with in rehearsal, but Lia (to whom they were eternally grateful) suggested getting rid of the furniture, and this cleared the acting area; the actors retaining the set in their heads!
Although the film of Jean Brodie was released in 1969, the shadow of Maggie Smith falls heavily over this play. Lia was asked if she had been influenced by Dame Maggie’s performance. She acknowledged that Maggie Smith’s performance was phenomenal, and that Maggie Smith herself is a force of nature. However, she approached this adaptation as a new work, and her performance was developed to enhance it (and indeed she banished thoughts of the film from my mind).
Sylvestra revealed that as a young actress, she had gone up for the movie, but she was too young then. She had resisted looking at the movie again, but she got cold feet about getting the accent right the night before rehearsals began. She watched a short section of the DVD; enough to remind her of small details in Celia Johnson’s performance as the Headmistress – and then she switched it off before any influence crept in.
Members of the audience reported different responses among friends to the character of Jean Brodie, and the actors agreed that that is true to the book - she is a character who provokes strong reactions. She will continue to do so in this fine interpretation in this meticulous production.
Yes, all very Guardian, a question posed to be heard rather than answered - there's always one questioner fond of their own voice. However, Kit Young answered succinctly, intelligently, and with forebearance, I thought. The script and book gave little clues to such answers and although such matters could be surmised, that had little bearing on the performance required of him. So there!
. Now the contemporary American playwright Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins has written a play called An Octoroon, and it’s currently playing at the National’s Dorfman Theatre. I quote from the National’s brochure: In 1859, white Irish playwright Dion Boucicault writes a hit play about America. Today, a black American playwright attempts to do the same. Both old and new, An Octoroon gleefully remixes a Victorian melodrama set on a Louisiana plantation into ‘a dazzling deconstruction of racial representation’ (WhatsOnStage).
It sounds mindblowing, and I’m looking forward to it. I was very impressed with Gloria by Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins when we saw it at Hampstead Theatre last year, and this promises to be even more inventive.
We had a short break, and I had an interesting conversation with a fellow-country-woman, and like myself, an immigrant. She was from Kilkenny, but now lives in Cardiff with her Greek husband. (and Anna lives in Reading with her American husband; is there a pattern here?)
On, then, to Brian Friel, quite a different dramatist but one who is as careful of his stagecraft as Boucicault and Jacobs-Jenkins. Anna introduced two actors from the company of Translations: Seamus O’Hara, who plays Manus and Niamh McGowan, who understudies the three female roles in the play. They were accompanied by the twinkley Staff Director, Shane Dempsey.
The play is about language and communication, and Anna started by asking the actors to read the tense opening scene, when Manus coaxes the mute Sarah into speech. This brief scene was incredibly moving in Niamh’s hands. Anna then coaxed us to explain why Friel chose this scene to start his play. We agreed that it was to show how important language is, and how disadvantaged we are if we can’t use it (or, hinted Niamh, refuse to use it). This theme runs through the play, and Friel provided several startling moments to illustrate it.
Anna set the background to the play; it’s 1833. The uprising of 1798 in the south-east of Ireland has failed, and has been succeeded by the Act of Union of 1800, uniting Ireland and England under one rule. Under the terms of this act, the Irish language can no longer be taught. The Ordnance Survey is mapping Ireland, and place-names are being Anglicised.
Does it sound like a dry history lesson? It isn’t; it’s an absorbing and moving play, and explores the moment when large-scale political events have an impact on ordinary lives. The actors showed us this again, in the climactic scene that ends the first act, one of the most romantic and beguiling in all drama.
We quizzed the actors about rehearsing the play, and Seamus told us that this is the fourth time that Dermot Crowley has been cast in it, so he was regarded as the oracle. In answer to a question on the difference between English and Iris grammatical construction, Niamh translated a line from the play from English into Irish. I was impressed; I’d struggled with the language at school.
Am I any more enlightened about Irish drama? There are still huge gaps in my education, but I feel better equipped to enjoy Translations and An Octoroon. Anna did a great job – and my new friends agreed.
At last the casting has been announced for Alan Bennett's Allelujah! at the Bridge Theatre. In no particular order of either age or alphabet, but just as they come to mind are -
Gwen Taylor, Simon Williams, Samuel Barnett, Sacha Dhawan, Deborah Findlay, Jeff Raule, Julia Foster, and Peter Forbes, plus others as seen in the photo below, surrounding Alan Bennett himself. I don't recognise many of the 25+ cast here but I'm sure they will make the right impression on stage. The play features inmates of the Dusty Springfield Geriatric Ward in an old fashioned NHS hospital, a perfect casting opportunity for the older generation of actors, plus some younger parts of those immigrant doctors and nurses that Brexiteers are so keen to keep away from our shores.
The obvious question: is a new adaptation necessary? The Casting & Creative Assistant Christopher Worrall pointed out that the film, dominated by an indelible performance from Maggie Smith, was a rose-tinted version of the book, and I agree. It failed to capture the more acerbic tone of the original, and.was missing a perspective that Spark's narrative supplied. Chris added that director Polly Findlay wanted to restore a sense of danger to the volatile relationships that are found in girls' schools. The casting of the 'Brodie set' was crucial, and the casting directors had met between 60 and 70 young actresses, from whom they selected 30 to present to Polly Findlay. They had all done a reading: everyone read the key role of Sandie, (spoiler alert! Miss Brodie's nemesis) although they were being auditioned for about half-a-dozen other roles. This process yielded a distinctive, dynamic and diverse group to support Lia Williams in the leading role.
Kate then turned her attention to the second play in the season: Aristocrats by Brian Friel. Kate told us rather touchingly that she and Artistic Director Josie Rourke were proud to have brokered the artistic partnership between director Lindsey Turner and the genius of Brian Friel. Josie had had a great affection for Friel's early success Philadelpia, Here I Come! She entrusted it to the aspiring and relatively inexperienced Lindsey, and Mr Friel was delighted with the result. Lindsey is now a highly-regarded director. Mr Friel is no longer with us, but before he died, he saw another of his plays, the neglected Turgenev adaptation Fathers and Sons, staged by her at the Domar. After his death, Lindsey directed his extraordinary play Faith Healer, with a mesmerising performance by Stephen Dillane.
Which play is Friel's masterpiece? Is it one of the above, or is it Dancing at Lughnasa? Or is it Translations, which we're going to see next month at the National? Aristocrats is a masterpiece, said Kate, without hesitation. It was previously performed at the National Theatre,on the huge Lyttelton stage, which accommodated the crumbling mansion of the aristocratic Irish family comfortably. It will be difficult to emulate that on the much smaller Donmar stage, but Lyndsey is working again with designer Es Devlin, who provided the unforgettable curtain of rain for Faith Healer. Kate tried to stop Resident Design Assistant Alice Hallifax from revealing too much about the surprises Es has in store for us with the set, but Alice assured us that it would take us beyond the naturalism of the play and into the psychology of the characters. The play centres around members of the aristocratic family who have escaped from the domineering influence of their father. They return to the family home for a wedding, and buried tensions come to the surface again. I can't wait!
The final play in the season is Measure for Measure, generally regarded as one of Shakespeare's Problem Plays - and this is not just because it centres round a difficult situation, but because the moral resolution of the play causes a difficulty for modern audiences. However, several members of the audience proclaimed that it was their favourite Shakespeare play - and indeed it does contain at least two scenes that equal anything else he wrote in intensity and dramatic power. It seems particularly relevant in these #MeToo days, and I suspect this might transform into the most controversial play of the year! It will be the last Shakespeare play that Josie Rouke will direct before she steps down as Artistic Director at the Donmar next year. Josie had a great success in turning the slightly untidy Roman play Coriolanus into a tight political thriller, so I'm eager to see what she does with Measure for Measure. Kate told us the minimal amount about this production, as Josie's ideas are still in a state of development but we do know it will be set in time past and time present. Education Manager Phil McCormack has firm plans about engaging schools in the debate.
Exciting, innovative, intriguing! And you can join in. We're sold out - and so is the Donmar itself - for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, but our booking is now open for Aristocrats. Our date for Measure for Measure will be announced soon. Don't miss this fabulous season!
The reception took place in the elegant Donmar nerve-centre in Dryden Street (elegant, yes, but with the most uncomfortable couch I've sat on in a long time!) and we caught up with our friends on the Donmar team before the presentation started.
Literary Manager Clare Slater introduced cast member Jenny Jules, and welcomed her back to the Donmar. Jenny's previous appearance on the Donmar stage had been playing Cassius in the all female Julius Caesar, and she recalled the nay-sayers telling her that it would never work - and of course, the production was a groundbreaking success, eventually travelling to New York. On this occasion, Jenny is very firmly in a female character, as Mrs Marwood, one of the scheming characters in Congreve's complex play.
It's obvious why directors like working with Jenny Jules. She has a quick intelligence, is analytical and articulate and her natural elegance gives her a dynamic stage presence. When Clare asked her what kind of muscle is required for Restoration comedy, she admitted that she had spent two weeks trying to understand just what the characters were saying! She even tried to find a modern English translation for the play, as our language has changed since Congreve's day. In fact, she commented, contemporary English is more like Shakespeare's language than Restoration expression. Thank God, she added, for 'Cliffs Notes'.
The director Jamers MacDonald had coached the cast into fluency with the language, so that they understood what they were trying to express, and this in turn provides a key for the audience. And the Donmar audiences had been responding well to the comedy, as well as to the twists and turns of the plot.
The other key had been provided by the sumptuous costumes. These had not been available in rehearsal, but
the women in the cast had all worn long skirts and corsets to accustom themselves to how they would move with restrictions. Jenny is so tightly corseted in performance that she thought she would faint! The added difficulty is the amount of breath needed for the elegant dialogue in this play. And she owned up to being an actress who likes to point, but she had been forbidden from doing this by James; in restoration times, this was considered rude. Clearly, Jenny enjoys exploring the tension between restriction and flamboyance.
James had refined her performance as Mrs Marwood in other ways. Jenny had felt inclined to go for the full villainess approach, and was doing a full Lady Macbeth. James told her to tone this down: Marwood is simply a creature of the world, of the play, living on her wits to survive. Another clue came from an economic historian, as Jenny was puzzled about her character's background, as an independent woman in this period. She would have come from the country, she was told, with independent means, or a woman who had created a small business that had thrived. This is an important point in a play that pivots on economic dependence.
At this point, the Resident Design Assistant Alice Halifax allowed us to examine pieces of furniture that had been created for the model box of the set for this show. We handled these intricate and delicate miniatures with some delight, and Alice's description of the set makes it sound like a giant doll's house.
Although Restoration comedy has been relatively neglected of late, by coincidence, two other plays from this period opened the same week. Clare told us that the Donmar had programmed it because it has always been a favourite of Artistic Director Josie Rourke, and that James MacDonald had also proposed it when he was invited to direct at the Donmar.
At this point we should have headed for the theatre in Earlham Street, but Kat Osborn, the Development Manager, had a disappointment for us: one of the actors was ill, and the performance had to be cancelled. This was clearly a major decision, and a setback for this enterprising theatre. We stayed and chatted to our friends, not realising the import of what had happened. Two days later, we heard the sad news that cast member Alex Beckett had died suddenly, at the tragically young age of 35. The play was cancelled for the rest of the week.
Performances resumed on Tuesday 17 April, dedicated to the memory on Alex Beckett.
It’s a tense moment when you go to see a new production of a play that you’ve enjoyed in the past, especially one that made an indelible impression, and that lives vividly in the memory.
When Peter Gill directed his own play The York Realist at the Royal Court in 2001, its critical success launched it into the West End at the Novello for a successful run. Mike and I saw it in both theatres, and it seemed to get better on each occasion.
Would the new production at the Donmar live up to our memory of it, or would we be disappointed? We’d been assured by trusted friends that it was good – but how good? We needn’t have worried. From the moment we set eyes on Peter McKintosh’s set, we were swept back to a Yorkshire farm around 1963, and every detail of the production – people disappearing into the kitchen to make tea, the kettle whistling as it comes to the boil, the rattle of the biscuit tin being opened in the pantry, the clothes airing on the drier – created the world of the play: the world that George, the leading character, has made his own and feels secure in.
As the familiar story unfolded, with expert character work from a flawless cast led by charismatic Ben Batt as George, we were once again absorbed and moved by the depiction of life on a Yorkshire farm. When the thunderous applause died down, the Executive Producer of the Donmar Kate Pakenham introduced director Rob Hastie, and asked him about his history with the play.
When Rob was a drama student in 2001, his flat-mate Josie Rourke – subsequently Artistic Director of the Donmar – was Peter Gill’s assistant on the first production of the play. While they were casting it, Josie asked Rob to read in at the auditions, so he bunked off college for a day and sat behind the desk with Peter and Josie as the actors came in to read for the parts. Although he got to know Peter quite well, he was always a bit scared of him, but he has always loved The York Realist, and wanted to direct it.
Kate was interested to know how present Peter had been at rehearsals. He had been very gracious and perceptive, and had kept his distance – initially. Then he had popped in, and after that he was around a lot. The company welcomed this, and the actors enjoyed watching his eyes light up when he recalled his days at the Royal Court.
Rob is now Artistic Director of the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield, and this play is going there when it ends its run at the Donmar. Because of that, the company had gone on a field trip to Yorkshire, to look at the locations of the play, and meet local people. Ben said this acted as a bonding experience as well, and Rob added that it was important to get the look and sound and accents of the play exactly right: approximation would not do. Lucy Black, who plays George’s sister Barbara, is the only authentic Yorkshire person in a cast dominated by actors from Lancashire. Matthew Wilson commented that they had to work to get the accent just right as the Yorkshire and Lancashire accents are so close; the Lancashire tone is a bit warmer, and can be slightly camp we were told (I must listen more closely).
This production runs 30 minutes shorter than the original, and Rob insisted that nothing had been cut. In fact, the first read-through had taken less than an hour. “I love a pause,” added Ben, “but there was no way we could have made it that long.” It’s a play where the business of making tea, hanging up coats, and tidying up adds to the texture of the drama, so they had special “tea rehearsals” so that those scenes could be carefully choreographed. In fact, one of Ben’s friends had pointed out an inconsistency in his adding sugar to his tea, and when Ben tried to correct this at the next performance, it threw him for about 15 lines! This led to an animated debate about which is correct: putting the milk in before or after the tea – someone should write a play about it.
Who is the realist in the play? Brian Fletcher, making his professional stage debut as the youngest member of the family, claimed that it was his character. But maybe they are all realists? Rob told us that he and Peter McKintosh (designer) had presented Brian with a miniature door from the set-model as a souvenir of his first stage appearance.
A question left floating was whether Peter Gill's play is autobigraphical? The cast had investigated and discovered a programme for a production at a Yorkshire theatre in 1961 which listed Peter Gill as an Assistant Director, just like his character John in the play. However, the man himself has stated that the plot is not based on him although some of his own experiences were used in the writing.
The play leaves us as it began, with an unexpected reunion, questions to consider and issues to discuss - will George and John get together? In London or Yorkshire? Can the cultural gap be bridged? And, cliche though it is, can love overcome all? There have been some suggestions that this production is more optimistic than the original. I know Mike would like to think so, but I’m afraid he’s wrong. (Oh no he isn't, adds Mike!) We’re looking forward to taking our group, and hearing what they think.
This verse from the Billie Holiday song was co-written by Arthur Herzog Jr, the grandfather of Amy Herzog, the writer of Belleville at the Donmar Warehouse. It seemed particularly apt when Mike and I viewed the play for a second time at the Director's Forum performance. The subtle gradations of power and control in the shifting relationship between Zack and Abby seemed even more apparently based on mutual dependency than they did the first time around, and the pain in the finely interlocking performances of James Norton and Imogen Poots was palpable.
Josie Rourke introduced these two actors, and Faith Alabi and Malachi Kirby, who played the landlords, and assistant Director Lynette Linton. Josie revealed that the cast had enjoyed a field-trip to Belleville in Paris. As a shrewd Artistic Director, she queried if this had been a useful exercise, or just a jolly? James said that Amy had been very specific about the location, and they were able to take pictures of the view outside the window of their flat. Imogen defended the visit: it had given the actors a feel for the area, which is a bit trendy, like Hackney, full of hipster bars i.e. really expensive coffee. The two couples had stayed in two AirBnb apartments, and had improvised the off-stage scenes - James had really broken into the apartment occupied by Faith and Malachi to look for weed, and Malachi had chased him on to the street, causing some local excitement.
Josie admitted that as a director, she sometimes feels guilty asking actors to improvise, but Lynette said she uses this technique a lot, to help the actors own their characters and their motivation.
In the play, Faith and Malachi use French a lot in their dialogue; are they fluent in the language? Malachi said not at all; he had planned to take French lessons, but then he realised that he could hardly speak English, so he abandoned his attempt. Faith has some French, and said so at her interview, but admitted that she had perhaps exaggerated this, with the result that when they went to Paris, the company assumed that she was a native French speaker. Josie asked them what was the worst lie they had ever told to get a job. Imogen immediately owned up to having recently said that she could play drums - and horse-riding was another skill she had claimed. They all owned up to claiming proficiency in certain skills if they thought they could learn them in three days. Josie rather acidly said that many actors (never actresses) declare proficiency in driving in their Spotlight profile.
James and Imogen were asked what they thought of their characters, and James conceded that they were pretty annoying, but as an actor, it helps to learn to love them. Imogen added that it helped to understand why they behaved the way they did, and Josie asked if their malaise was based on their being Millenials, with all the expectations and sense of entitlement that that suggests. Amy Herzog described her play as concerning the end of empire: her Americans arrive in a foreign country, and don't integrate with the native population, and are disorientated by what they find. Their cultural imperialism contributes to their downfall.
It would have been impossible to discuss the play without reference to the enigmatic last scene. Josie said that this had divided audiences (and I sensed that she wasn't entirely convinced herself). Mike and I disagreed on this ourselves, and I expect, like the play, there will always be dissension about it. It either means something to you, or it doesn't; if it does, don't explain.
With thanks to Peter Richards for introducing me to Arthur Herzog Jr's lyric.
The Donmar's Lady from the Sea
There’s a small number of Shakespeare’s plays – Measure for Measure, All’s Well that Ends Well – that are collectively known as Problem Plays. Social and moral issues are explored, and the resolutions are strangely unsatisfactory.
In his many plays, Ibsen also raised thorny questions about the oppressive nature of his society and the subjection of women in marriage, and the often tragic conclusions have led to him (rather unfairly) being dubbed a prophet of doom and gloom.
Nikki Amuka-Bird, who plays Ellida, the Lady in the title, said that she had longed to play Ibsen for some time. As a classically-trained actress, she was eager to flex her muscles on his work, because of his complete understanding of women. She also believes that the issues raised in the play are eternal. She had had struggles with Elinor to retain more of the original text (Note: there are very few plot changes from the original) and they had debated how to hold on to the essence of the play. In the end, she found that Elinor had heightened some themes. As a result, Nikki found herself pushed further into her performance than she ever expected.
Elinor had wanted to make it clear that men are bound by social conventions as well, and Johnny Holden pointed out that they were fortunate to have the writer with them in rehearsals, both to answer questions and to give them freedom to make the characters their own.
All the cast spoke enthusiastically about their director, Kwame Kwei-Armah. Kwame made them all attend all rehearsals, whether they were in the scene being rehearsed or not. He wanted the play to be a collaborative effort; everyone could ask questions and make suggestions.
The commitment of the actors to the play was very apparent, though it remains a strange blend of social realism and romantic comedy, with an added touch of mythology (think The Flying Dutchman and The Little Mermaid). It’s a rare Ibsen. In every sense.
Can you see what I'm saying?
For all of us who sometimes can't hear the actors up there on stage at the National Theatre, there is good news from the NT's artistic director, Rufus Norris. They are developing a new system of 'smart glasses', described as "a mobile phone on the face", which will unobtrusively project captions synchronised to the on-stage dialogue. I'm not sure where the captions will be projected, maybe onto glasses which we shall wear, but the Times reports that this is just one of several new projects which the NT is testing. They are also developing a system for audio descriptions to assist the visually impaired. As so many people these days have a mobile phone against their face, this development may not be as strange as it seems, nor as uncomfortable. These gadgets may be available at the NT as early as next year, but in the meantime I recommend using the FREE audio system headphones which I have sometimes found very useful. I have to tell myself - It's not the actors nor the acoustics, it's my ears! Click HERE for more info.
Fredo's FOLLIES - “Some try to be profound”
Audiences entering the Winter Garden Theater on Broadway in 1972 would have known who was the current resident in the White House and may feel, with Carlotta, that they've seen all their dreams disappear.
Yes, it's a show about theatre, but theatre is a metaphor for the dreams and aspirations of the guests - their youthful follies contrasted with the glamorous Follies they took part in. And the actual building is a metaphor, already derelict and crumbling as it awaits the wrecker's ball.
The pastiche Follies numbers are charming, but become increasingly dislocated, veering from the joyful innocence of The Rain on the Roof to the exaggerated worldliness of Ah, Paris and the thwarted ambition of Broadway Baby. There's a hint of schizophrenia in Who's That Woman? that foreshadows Phyllis's split personality in The Ballad of Lucy and Jessie, where she identifies the conflicting aspects of her personality. They're fun, but you can feel a chill running over them.
They're survivors - mostly - these formerly beautiful girls. They've left the Follies behind and carried on with their lives: they've opened a dancing school, they own a store, they've gone into cosmetics: "Magic! By Solange!" declares Solange, producing a lipstick out of thin air.
Only Carlotta eschews a follies routine. Her anthem I'm Still Here is no victory parade, but an index of obstacles that she has lived through (some personal, some with her fellow Americans) and she has paid the price for her survival. No wonder her name - Campion - is only a typing error away from "champion". She's beaten and bowed as she stumbles from the stage, but she can still proudly tell Ben "I don't cheat."
Carlotta has seen all her dreams disappear. So have Sally and Buddy and Phyllis and Ben, and they're in a state of denial. But, as Heidi tells us in a chillingly romantic waltz, "All dreamers must awake/ Never look back/ Or your heart will break." This quartet is at the centre of the stage, and in this production their delusions and disappointments are mercilessly explored. Watch the misery spread over Imela Staunton's features as she ends In Buddy's Eyes; see the fury that she and Janie Dee display as Ben and Buddy conclude The Girls Upstairs with "Thank you, but never again."
It's the richness, the lushness, the heady romance that cause audiences to lose their minds to Follies, but it's the practical and emotional truth and reality that give it substance. I think for Americans it should have a special resonance. For the rest of us, it's a reminder of "the roads we didn't take, of the best we ever thought we'd be", and the cost of compromise.
It's a heartbreaker. It's a masterpiece.
And yet at the end we were left feeling elevated, as by a mysterious alchemy the actors and the creative team had let us share an elemental experience. "What did you make of that?" I asked the woman next to me. "I'm still trying to process it," she replied.
This was a Director's Forum performance, and we were privileged to have the entire cast - Judith Roddy, Christian Cooke and Matt Ryan - join us for a discussion. Clare Slater, the Literary and Editorial manager at the Donmar, asked them if they'd been familiar with the play before they were asked to audition for it. None of them had, and had a shared reaction of their first reading: they had fallen in love with the stark language, and had been aware of a dark subtext which only emerged on subsequent readings. Christian hadn't heard of the play, but immediately he was struck by the rhythm of the text - a rhythm unfamiliar in speech or reading.
Judith had been in David Harrower's equally demanding Blackbird - another play where she doesn't leave the stage. She had been struck by the disjointed and very specific language of the play, which is a vital element, as her character is empowered by the discovery of words. The strangest thing she found was that the stage directions in the text are given after the dialogue, as though Harrower hadn't wanted to interrupt the flow of thought with action.
Clare asked Judith how she leaves the modern world behind each night to enter the world of the play. Having experienced the concentration and commitment of Judith's performance, I was surprised by her matter-of-fact reply: it's busy backstage, and there is a good rapport with her fellow-actors. Then they go on stage, and focus on the play as it unfolds moment by moment. Matt and Christian added than Yael had directed them to work closely together. Their rehearsals had contained a lot of physical work with the Movement Director Imogen Knight to get them into the bodies of the characters, to get them to be at ease with who these people are.
Matt described how the morning rehearsals started with Imogen working on scenes without dialogue and suddenly they would hear Yael's voice, and realise that she was in the room and that a transfer of authority had taken place. Judith added that the work was concentrated in rehearsals - the actors had no social relationships outside their work on the play, and in rehearsals no politeness: just get on with the work.
During the 5 week rehearsal period, Yael asked them not to discuss the play outside their work, not even among themselves. Somehow, this had created a strong bond of empathy and trust between them, and they spontaneously burst out laughing at the thought of the tensions that might erupt if there was disagreement in a 3-actor play. Judith said that this is the third 3-character play she has appeared in this year, and that it's hard work - when there's a bigger cast, there are times when you can go off and have a cup of tea!
David Harrower had been to the press night of the play; Clare had sat with him, and told us that he was as nervous as any new writer at a world premiere. Matt regretted not having met him at the after-show party. Christian confided that Matt was drunk, but Christian had met David and thanked him for the play. Though, Matt added, Christian was drunk as well.
Even following such a draining performance, the actors seemed reluctant to let the play go, and continued talking to us after Clare had called time on the discussion. I can understand why; it gets under your skin, rather like knives in hens. We wanted to ask about the ambience - the darkness, the smell of burning wood, the candlelight, the feathers, the rumbling soundscape and bursts of music - but time ran out.
Prepare yourself for something primeval, earthy, erotic and challenging, emerging from the darkness.
It's wonderful not knowing what's going to happen next. In an otherwise quiet week, Mike and I suddenly received two invitations to the same event for Heisenberg, and then won a ballot for tickets to a Follies event too!
Delfont Mackintosh and the producers Elliott & Harper were launching their inaugural production, and we were among the very few to attend this occasion in the bar at Wyndham's Theatre. We were welcomed by producer Chris Harper, who told us briefly about their first production, Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle, a play which he considers to be both moving and profound. He introduced the playwright Simon Stephens and the director Marianne Elliott both well known for his dramatisation and her direction of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.
Simon's excitement was palpable: he was excited to be working in the West End at Wyndham's Theatre, and he was excited to be reunited with director Marianne Elliott, with whom he'd collaborated on Curious Incident and other plays - and who use to catch the same bus as him to school back in their youth in Southport.
But was Simon going to excite us about his play? The title doesn't reveal much - but I recall that Time magazine predicted that the title Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? wouldn't light up many marquees.
What then is the Uncertainty Principle? Simon admitted that like many people in the UK, he felt that science was for geeks and weirdos - until his own son fell in love with science. This introduced him to Heisenberg's theory of uncertainty, which in summary is that if if you know where an atom precisely is, you cannot predict where it is going - and conversely, if you can track its course, then you cannot know where it is at any moment.
Apply this to human beings and their relationships, and the possibilities are infinite: people will always take us by surprise - what a thing it is to be alive!
The play concerns a chance meeting between a man and a woman of different ages, and in the course of six scenes, their lives are changed forever. Simon had never written a play for only two characters before, and although he usually plans his work carefully, this time he wrote instinctively, at first not knowing where his characters would take him. They want to control their lives, and the lives of the people around them, but their chance meeting opens up vistas of uncertainty to them.
Marianne told us that she was drawn to this play, which has already been a huge hit on Broadway, because
Simon's writing offers layers of meaning beneath the lines, and she felt a well of yearning within the text. As a renowned director - and we recalled War Horse and Saint Joan at the National - Marianne gets offered scripts all the time. She knows which ones she wants to work on because they inflame a sense of possessiveness in her; she knows she couldn't bear to see someone else work on it.
With Heisenberg, she has chosen a world-class creative team for design and lighting (I'm expecting to be astounded, as Simon said the designs are heart-stopping) and two of the best actors in the country - and therefore, in the world - Anne-Marie Duff and Kenneth Cranham. You can't get better than that. Simon read us two speeches from the play, and if his actors do it as well as he did, we're in for a feast.
One thing is certain: you can book your tickets now for what is bound to be a major theatrical event this year.
I wonder what Stephen Sondheim thinks about the Uncertainty Principle. When he was 80, Mr Sondheim announced that he had made his last visit to London. Now, having celebrated his 87the birthday, and having made a number of visits to this city since, here he is again to see the National Theatre's new production of his masterpiece Follies.
At the last possible moment, the National announced that he would be interviewed at their smallest theatre, the Dorfman, and to add to the uncertainty, tickets would be allocated by ballot. Living as we do in a spirit of optimism, Mike and I applied for tickets - and we were successful!
Though the setting was far from ideal, as Sondheim and his interviewer Jeremy Sams sat in the middle of the theatre, with a section of the audience behind them (and the interview was filmed and projected on to a section of set overhead), it made a fascinating 45 minutes. We've heard Sondheim talk about his career and individual shows many times over the years, so was there anything fresh that we hadn't heard before? Indeed there was.
Jeremy asked about the genesis of Follies and Sondheim revealed that he'd actually started work on it before Company, the show that eventually preceded Follies on Broadway. He had met the writers James Goldman and his brother William (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) through the lyricist Fred Ebb, and it was James Goldman's idea to do a show based on a reunion of retired showgirls from the Ziegfeld Follies. They attended one such party, to honour the younger - much younger - performer Donna McKechnie, who was the only woman there under the age of 70 - one of the "girls" had been in the Follies of 1908!
The original idea had been to build up to a climax where a murder was committed, and Sondheim and Goldman had this wonderful image of the shooting taking place on stage. As they worked through the many drafts of the script this idea was (thankfully) abandoned, and Sondheim, having already written the songs One More Kiss and Waiting Around for the Girls Upstairs, interrupted his his work on this show to concentrate on Company.
Company was his first collaboration with director Harold Prince, and flushed with the success of that show, they turned their attention to Follies again, this time without a murder. Sondheim said that it had always been his intention to create pastiches of songs from earlier songwriters, and gleefully cited examples - Beautiful Girls is stolen from A Pretty Girl is like a Melody, while Buddy's Blues is a generic vaudeville number. Jeremy asked if he had ever seen an actual Follies show, and Sondheim replied that in the 40s he had seen an edition out-of-town with Tallulah Bankhead , and on Broadway a New Faces of 1956 with alarmingly Maggie Smith and Eartha Kitt.
Harold Prince had felt strongly that Follies needed some old-fashioned glamour to adorn it, and wanted Hollywood actress Yvonne de Carlo in the cast. Ms de Carlo had a surprising range of three octaves, and Sondheim wrote a song to show this off, based on his experiences of trying to accompany Elaine Stritch on the piano towards the end of parties where the alcohol had flowed. This number, Can That Boy Foxtrot! lasted seven minutes, and seemed much longer - and was subsequently dropped from the show. However, Ms de Carlo was consoled with a much better song, I'm Still Here, based on the very long career of Joan Crawford.
Although this is the first London revival of Follies (and Heavens, it's been almost 30 years) other Sondheim shows have ben frequently revived. Has he ever vetoed a production? The reply was a firm Yes, and Sondheim added that director John Tiffany had wanted to do an all-male and gay version of Company. They'd done a workshop, and it hadn't worked; Bobby, the leading, commitment-phobe character, is not gay, and the tone of the show was wrong for this interpretation.
However, Marianne Elliott now working on Heisenberg; the Uncertainty Principle - she is "one of the greatest directors in the world" said Sondheim - has an idea for Company with a female Bobbie and Sondheim approves of this. That is an exciting prospect
It was thrilling to find that Stephen Sondheim is still here, and still over here, and in such fine and affable form. Rumour has it that Follies is sensational, and we're looking forward to our two group bookings!
And indeed there were. But this is a verbatim musical, and the text is drawn from the exact words that were said during The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee Takes Oral Evidence on Whitehall’s Relationship with Kids Company (to the give the play its proper long and unwieldy title). There were never going to be complete answers and conclusions, and such is the nature of these hearings.
Josie Rourke, the Artistic Director of the Donmar, had taken an interest in the proceedings, having run a charity herself, and because of the strange connections that take place in her mind, had had the idea of setting it to music. She presented the idea to Kate, who agreed that this was the sort of challenging and investigative work that they want to present at their theatre. They engaged actor Hadley Fraser to work on the book and lyrics with Josie, and brought composer Tom Deering on board to set it to music.
Tom, still clearly energised by the project, spoke excitedly about this opportunity to respond to the political event, with the people discussing issues relevant to governance and government. He pointed out that the hearing had lasted 3 hours, and this was a very narrow prism through which to examine the complex issues that the case raised.
Kate asked how he had differentiated musically between the various voices on the committee. Tom recognised that the most passionate arguments belonged to Camila Batmanghelidjh, the founder and CEO of Kids Company, and therefore she occupied a very specific musical space. Her counterpart, Alan Yentob, has strong connections to the arts world, and Tom shaped his music more classically, with a Vaughan Williams sound. Each character was given a theme.
Jazz singer Sandra Marvin gives voice – a strong, powerful voice – to Camila, and Kate asked her what it was like to step into that lady’s Crocs. Sandra, more svelte out of Camila’s costume, told us that her preparation for the performance was to remind herself of Camila’s purpose: to bring the plight of the children to public attention when existing support structures had been removed. She sees each night as a fresh battle, where she has to hold her stance. She laughed as she described how she is aware of each audience’s reactions to Camila: some are on her side, and others definitely are not - even Mike and I responded differently!
On the other hand, Omar Ebrahim gives Alan Yentob a strikingly patrician air, as well as ringing operatic tones. Omar found the character in the verbatim report; the clues were scattered in the way the people spoke, and in their use of language, and he noted the rising level of aggression in Yentob’s evidence. Sandra agreed that you could read a lot between the lines in the hearing, and that there was a great deal of tension.
Anthony O’Donnell relished the chance to play Welsh MP Paul Flynn (they went to the same grammar school in Cardiff), while Joanna Kirkland had fun as the Clerk who introduces the people on the committee. She said that the opening had changed 3 or 4 times in development, from a stand-up comedian presentation to something more subtle. Like all the cast, they had risen to the challenge of bringing the purpose of the charity, and the hearing, to the audience.
But what was the purpose of the hearing? A member of the House of Lords in the audience, who has been on select committees and has also chaired one, told us that he had queried the effectiveness of these procedures, because nothing happens as a result. This – like the show itself – was an eye-opener to the audience.
Mike and I are often surprised that only a small proportion of the audience stay to hear the discussions at Director’s Forums, but this one kept a higher number than ever in their seats, and the debate continued as we left the theatre. It was a stimulating evening, and the best of theatre; elegantly produced and performed by a skilful cast, with provocative arguments to take home.
It isn't every night of the week that Mike and I find ourselves in a lowdown speakeasy, with gangsters and their molls getting a bit too close for comfort.
We'd arrived at the Donmar to see The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui by the German writer Bertholt Brecht, and instead of sitting in the familiar surroundings of this intimate theatre, we were whirled back in time to a smokey, hazy Chicago in the 30s. It wasn't quite all that jazz, but if Roxie Hart and Velma Kelly had turned up, we wouldn't have been surprised.
After the performance - and I won't give any spoilers about the audience's collusion in how the show ends - the Executive Producer of the Donmar, Kate Pakenham, welcomed Director Simon Evans to discuss his production. Many of us remember Simon as a very friendly and enthusiastic Resident Assistant Director at the Donmar, who joined us for a discussion after many performances there. Since then, Simon has been busy directing plays at smaller theatres such as The Print Room, the Park Theatre and Hampstead Downstairs. He's also been involved with the Secret Cinema, an immersive experience for movie-goers to join in the world of the film. However, his most ambitious project has been his season at Found 111, an acting space, a fairly rickety space, at the top of the former St Martin's Art College in Charing Cross Road. Here, Simon attracted stars and capacity audiences as well such as Andrew Scott, James Norton, Kate Fleetwood, Joanna Vanderham and David Dawson.
Arturo Ui is a political satire, and Kate explained that the Donmar planned to stage it before any of the game-changing political events of the last twelve months. They'd applied for the rights, and were granted them on the day of the Brexit decision. At that point, no-one knew that Donald Trump would be elected President (in fact, Kate had a bet with Artistic Director Josie Rourke that this wouldn't happen), and the play was in rehearsal when Theresa may called a General Election.
The play is set in Chicago, and to give it the authentic Windy City flavour, the Donmar approached Chicago-based playwright Bruce Norris to adapt it. Despite his commitments to the Steppenwolf Theater Company in his home-city, Bruce agreed to take it on. Simon explained that it was important to present the play as if it were written for the present - although Brecht had written it very swiftly in response to Hitler's rise to power, he had not expected it to have an afterlife in the repertory of the world's theatres. It's a fluid work, that is hospitable to different settings and political regimes. Simon's decision was not to stage it as a reminder of a bygone era, but to draw parallels with the here and now. It's a satire, and he wanted to build an atmosphere where the audience laughs, and then realises that they have become complicit in Arturo's resistible rise. It's all too easy, given the charismatic central performance by Lenny Henry, to allow ourselves to be taken in by Arturo and his henchmen.
Brecht's plays are often disjointed in their structure. This is deliberate, as he wants to involve the audience in filling in the gaps in his narrative. This version follows Brecht's basic design - his estate had been co-operative in allowing some tweaking.
Simon agreed that at times the characterisation in the play is cartoon-like; Brecht wanted us to laugh at his characters. But Simon's intention was to create a gangster musical, with a sinister undertone - and Bugsy Malone it ain't.
Will you support Arturo's rise? Take your seats in the speakeasy; join in; enjoy!
I'm depressed - the Olivier Awards have been announced, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child has snatched a record number of nine awards and I haven't seen it! Trouble is, I know no-one else who has seen it either. All the Harry Potter fans have spent all their pocket money on these two theatre dates, and with high prices (x 2) and no group discounts, regular theatre-goers like us don't stand a chance. I understand the current run is totally sold out so we shall have to await another cast, another extension, another year. It's good that this production is apparently attracting a new audience to the Theatre (60% of the audience have never been to the theatre before, they say) but what concerns me is this new audience will think the Theatre is just about magic illusions and very high ticket prices (Yes, OK, maybe it is!) but there is so much more to enjoy inside every auditorium - all human life is there. However, I'm please Jamie Parker won his Best Actor award playing the Harry Potter lead, and I'm pleased John Tiffany won the Best Director Award for his Cursed Child - both have great CVs of theatre work behind them. Matthew Bourne picked up two awards for his Red Shoes, and other shows we have taken you to see were winners as well - Groundhog Day; Funny Girl; The Glass Menagerie; Half A Sixpence - altogether a good spread - you can discover who won what by clicking HERE.
Clare Slater, the Donmar's Literary manager, asked them the obvious question: what was it like to play real people while those same people were sitting in the audience? "It was absolutely terrifying," admitted Tom. Before rehearsals had commenced, the real David and Debbie Owen (in the play, Tom with Natalie Armin) had invited them both to their home in Limehouse, where the play is set. They still live there after all these years and were excellent hosts - Tom had been advised that David Owen might still feel a lot of anger, but they were very helpful. Tom realised that it wasn't just the events of that one day in 1981 that he had to represent; he had to channel the events of the previous 18 months into his performance.
Paul's experience had been more unnerving. He hadn't met Bill Rogers, but had read his autobiography Fourth Among Equals. In the middle of his big speech on the press night, he suddenly caught sight of Bill Rodgers in the audience! At least this distracted him from the scratching of the critics' pens. Later, Bill had clasped him in his arms, and said his costume was wrong: Bill had been wearing corduroy on that important day.
Shirley Williams also had a fashion story to tell Debra. The two women hadn't managed to meet, because of Shirley Williams's busy schedule. Debra had forgotten that the politicians were coming to the press night, so didn't feel the pressure that her colleagues shared. She met her after the Press Night and was pleased that Shirley had found her performance true, and told her to keep it up. In the play, as in life, Shirley Williams borrowed a blouse from Debbie Owen for the famous photograph of the gang of Four, and Shirley said that 36 years later, she still has that same blouse!
The actors agreed that it was a great honour to met these three survivors, and had left them at the show's after-party - Bill Rodgers had taken to the floor and, aged 87, was dancing! Then the three of them were on Radio 5 early the following morning to talk about seeing the play.
This play had come about because Josie Rourke, the Artistic Director of the Donmar, had asked Steve Waters to write about current political events, and he had come up with this idea instead. Steve had written the play very quickly, and Josie programmed it in the first available slot, so that from commissioning to first performance was less than a year. In development, and in rehearsal, the play had changed a great deal. Tom said that he always chooses to work on new plays, as he enjoys the thrill of having the writer in the room (and after all, when Shakespeare's plays were written, they were new plays then and the writer was part of the company).
He told us that it became apparent that the play couldn't be propelled simply by the four politicians, and the part of Debbie Owen was enlarged to allow for more questioning and to move the drama along. Paul agreed: Steve had been remarkably generous to his company, and he and director Polly Findlay had really listened to the actors' suggestions. And then they had to hold their nerve during previews, and not get too attached to any piece of business in case it had to be jettisoned.
As it now stands, we wouldn't want to take a word out of the gem of a play that LIMEHOUSE is.
It's the first of three plays that Josie has branded THE POWER SEASON - the others are The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, and Committee. Producer Kate Pakenham told us that at first she had resisted Josie's idea of branding the season this way, so they made a bargain: Kate was confident that Donald Trump wouldn't be elected President, so she told Josie that if he was, then THE POWER SEASON it would be - he was and it was. A week is a long time in politics.....
REGRETTABLY THE ILLUSTRATIONS TO THE ARTICLES BELOW HAVE BEEN LOST
"Wizard! A cod-piece special. Get thee to a ticket office."
"Sorry but I'm not going to see a play where I know the two main characters are already dead."
"Radcliffe? Permanently overrated. "He doesn't have the range, darling.""
"Went to see this play once. Self-referential, knowing, deliberately confused, the length of a glacial epoch - what's not to like (other than all the above)?"
"Ahhhh . . . . . Stoppard, the amateur philosopher who thinks, like the average teenager, that no one else has thought of these things."
"Roz&Guil should be essential reading for all teenagers as an introduction to the rudiments of philosophical questioning. Read it once more last year and it left me thinking about life all over again."
"I rarely enjoy shows with stars. They seem to attract total dolts who, in this case, "want to see Harry Potter on stage"."
"Daniel Radcliffe is one of the coolest dudes on the planet."
"I can't stand this script. It feels like a student trying very, very hard to be Waiting for Godot and not quite getting there because it has already been done."
"Lastly, I'm pleased that Radcliffe has finally got some decent reviews. I feared he might go the way of so many child actors and be lured by the dosh into 'B-movie' purgatory. And it's delightful that Stoppard's light is shining brighter than ever before for a new generation of theatre-lovers."
The results may not be in yet but the nominations are - the short list of the 2017 Olivier Award nominations has been published and we are pleased to see quite a wide spectrum of names and shows listed. A surprise and a welcome one is to see 'groups' of actors honoured for ensemble performances which it would be unfair to pick apart for individual recognition.
The six Calendar girls have all been nominated jointly for a Best Actress in a Musical award, along with three other leading actresses from other musicals. In addition, the young female cast of Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour have all been nominated for the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award, also with three from other shows. This is particularly strange as Our Ladies could also be regarded as a musical (it is full of songs, all beautifully sung whether rock or anthem) and the eight nominees have equal roles supporting no-one. Ah, the problem of trying to fit so many deserving performances into limited award categories!
It will be a difficult choice for the Olivier panel members to choose between so many deserving names - Andy Karl (Groundhog Day) or Charlie Stemp (Half A Sixpence); Sheridan Smith (Funny Girl) or those Calendar girls (The Girls); Travesties or The Glass Menagerie; The Truth or Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour; Freddie Fox (Travesties) or Rafe Spall (Hedda Gabler); Tom Hollander (Travesties) or Ian McKellern (No Man's Land); Glenda Jackson (King Lear) or Ruth Wilson (Hedda Gabler)? All these, plus others, are in competition with each other in different categories. John Tiffany is even in competition with himself, having been nominated twice for directing both The Glass Menagerie and his Harry Potter plays. The Harry Potter double is also distinguished for being listed in eleven categories, breaking the Olivier record for the most nominated show. The Olivier Awards ceremony is on Sunday 9 April. You can see the full list of nominees HERE. Good Luck to them all!
DONMAR INSIGHT - THE NEW SEASON
It's always interesting to get a preview of coming attractions (I love watching trailers) so Mike and I hurried along to the Donmar nerve-centre in Dryden Street to hear Artistic Director Josie Rourke talk about the new season.
Josie is charming, articulate and clever, with very clear ideas about the plays she's presenting at one of London's most reliable and stimulating theatres. Starting next week, her season consists of two new plays, and a modern classic, and she explained to Casting Director Alastair Coomer how she chose them.
The first play is LIMEHOUSE by Steve Waters, and is about the Gang of Four breaking away from the Labour Party to form the SDP in 1981. Steve wrote TEMPLE, about the crisis at St Paul's caused by the Occupy movement, and this was a great success at the Donmar in 2015. Josie had suggested to Steve that the current developments in Labour would be a good subject for a play, and two weeks later he came back to her with this idea. Nobody was giving anything away about what type of play it is - it's currently in rehearsal on the Donmar stage, and there were smiles all round whenever it was mentioned. James Graham, who wrote another hugely successful political play, THIS HOUSE, had been to see it, and was very complimentary. We found out that the set designer had been to measure up David and Debbie Owen's kitchen in their home in Limehouse. Josie added that Debbie Owen had been Delia Smith's book agent: there may be cooking on stage! And apparently, Roger Allam, playing Roy Jenkins, has a bit of stage business that Josie said she would watch all day long if it was on YouTube. I look forward to an evening of sharply observed political character studies, with some provocative arguments in the mix.
The second play in the season is The Resistible Rise of ARTURO UI, written by Bertholt Brecht when he was a refugee from Hitler's Germany. Brecht was obsessed with American gangster films, and in his play, Chicago gangsters have direct equivalents with Hitler's cabinet and allies. How does it relate to our world today? Josie noticed when she was rehearsing PRIVACY in New York that surprisingly none of the American actors were discussing the news or the Presidential campaign. She had the idea of staging ARTURO UI as a response to the political events that were unfolding, and when she returned to London quickly obtained the rights. There was a complication: Brecht's last son had just died, and the curation of the estate had passed to his grandson, Sebastian, so she had to persuade him with his newly acquired authority to allow her to produce the play.
Because ARTURO UI is set in Chicago, Josie wanted a playwright from the city's prestigious Steppenwolf company to adapt it. She approached Bruce Norris (CLYBOURNE PARK) but he said he was too busy. However, they met, and she introduced him to director Simon Evans, who talked him into it. (Some of you may remember Simon, who used to be a Resident Assistant Director at the Donmar, and who spoke to us many times after performances).
Alastair told us how he had seen Lenny Henry riding his bike in Walberswick, and had asked him what he was doing next. Josie sent Lenny the script, he agreed, and the play was scheduled for production. And it sounds like a very special production. The stalls seating will be replaced by tables and chairs, cabaret style (or even, for those of you who remember the Donmar's production, CABARET- style), with additional music to add the flavour of the 30s. Yes, our tickets are in that area of the theatre!
The final play in the season could be the most unusual. It's a new, documentary musical called COMMITTEE (for short!) and it's based on the Constitutional Affairs Committee's hearing on Kid's Company. This charity was wound up after the government awarded it £3 million which the civil servant in charge had asked Oliver Letwin's written authority for. This led to an investigation into the charity run by Camilla Batmanghelidjh. Josie had followed this in the press, and listened to the proceedings of the Select Committee. She immediately heard music in it: the music of conflict, opposition and argument. With Hadley Fraser (recently Dunois the Bastard in SAINT JOAN) she has fashioned a verbatim libretto set to Hadley's score. This had been an interesting exercise, consulting the participants and finding out how parliamentary proceedings work. Clearly enthused by the project, Josie exuded a sense of personal commitment about this undertaking. She was delighted when her father alerted her that it has been reported in Private Eye that Alan Yentob had requested a meeting to find out how he was going to be portrayed. She in fact met Mr Yentob, and has spoken to others who will be portrayed too. This will be a must for anyone interested in child poverty, the workings of charities and government....and in a new work pushing the boundaries of musical theatre. It's an unlikely topic for a musical play and for this reason is likely to be both popular and controversial - all eyes will be on the Donmar once again!
This season has been branded the POWER SEASON. It's about democracy and how it works. In response to the question - Which comes first: Art or Politics? - Josie replied "Art IS politics." Earlier in the day, a notice in a bookshop had caught my eye - "Fiction is the best way way of telling the truth." So is drama.
It's an exciting season. We can't wait! All our tickets for LIMEHOUSE have gone, and we are currently booking ARTURO UI. The musical COMMITTEE will be offered later. Don't miss out!
I think his words are equally relevant to plays as well as operas, so they are worth repeating here - Kaufmann thinks we need experimental productions because...
"Sometimes the problems on stage as written don't touch a modern audience - they think this is nothing that could affect me - so you need another context which somehow explains the extremity of emotion that the music (or play) provides. You see the problem is we are stuck in an art form that was defined (many years) ago. So we still live on the success of our ancestors who left us these fantastic masterpieces. But does this mean we just show the masters over and over again in the exact same productions like in a museum? No. We must try to recreate the same piece, but make it somehow different in order to make it interesting. Because now we have the television, the cinema, the internet, all kinds of competition for where our audience will go."
So true - we must adapt our responses for today and not just expect repetitions of yesterday's fashion. Every director is entitled to put his own stamp on any established classic, to put its theme across to an audience who may not have seen it before.
Had she done violence to the play? It certainly emerges as a leaner piece, and makes Shaw's points about the ambivalence of politics hit their target with deadly accuracy. It had been difficult to cut, and her final version had been approved by Shaw's estate, even though it meant losing some minor characters. It was important not to lose sight of what Shaw was saying. Was he anti-clerical? Probably, and like all auto-didacts, he was not afraid of things he didn't know. His satiric wit was at its most bitter here, and with a cast that includes Hadley Fraser, Niall Buggy, Rory Keenan, Elliot Levey and Jo Stone-Fewings, the play is delivered forcefully on the Donmar stage.
Nevertheless, it depends on the charisma of Gemma Arterton in the title role. "We're all in love with Gemma," said Josie, and Syrus Lowe told us that in the trial scene, when he has to renounce Joan, Gemma had moved him to tears, even though they are old friends, (they trained together at drama school).
Syrus and Fisayo Akinade play the two characters who get most laughs, and Fiayo said it was exciting for him to join the impressive list of actors who had played the Dauphin, including Kenneth Williams and John Malkovich. All the characters are vital, with much intricate exchanges taking place between them. In rehearsal, they had debated the Dauphin's actions in the trial scene, when he felt that Joan had exceeded her mission and almost become a war-junkie. It's interesting how partisan actors become about their roles!
Josie had wanted to remind us of the period when the play was written, soon after the First World War, and has the military personnel wearing poppies, a recurring symbol. She also wanted to make an epic gesture to match the epic quality of the play, so she has set it on a revolve, to mimic the sweep of history and the changing fortunes of Saint Joan. This perspective strips away the comfortable remove of history, and places it abrasively in our own post-truth era. At the finish, in a nod to Shaw's epilogue, Josie gives us a traditional theatrical flourish to underline Saint Joan's and Shaw's final message.
A week is a long time in politics, and in the week following the shock result in the American presidential election, it was sobering to watch the shock waves spread. By coincidence, Mike and I had planned to see shows that had strong American connections, and each of these gained resonance from recent events.
Our first visit was to a cabaret by American singers, who cheerfully introduced themselves as Britain's newest citizens, and joked that the peculiar smell was their passports burning. We'd read that their first show after the election was a tad subdued; now they were on form, and fighting back.
Josie Rourke, the Artistic Director of the Donmar led the post show discussion with Jack Sain (Resident Assistant Director) and cast-members Sope Dirisu (Cassius Clay), Arinze Kene (Sam Cooke) and Dwane Walcott (Kareem). Had their experience of the play changed since Trump won the election? Arinze was sure that it felt like a different play, and even the recent historical setting was less remote. The first matinee after the election was very intense, with a noticeable change in audience reaction. Dwane agreed: the play has inevitably become more poignant, especially with a sense that freedom of speech may now be hindered.
Another factor that had affected the play was the death of Muhammed Ali after the play went into rehearsal. Sope had the unbearable weight of this legend, but reminded himself that at the time of the play, Ali was only 22, and was not the charismatic, universally applauded hero that he became. He read biographies, watched documentaries, and spent many hours training in the gym!
The audience for the play at the DF performance was predominantly white, but the actors said the audience had been more diverse at other performances. Does the story connect with the multi-cultural London of today? Arenze and Sope spoke of their own experiences, and how any successful black person should see themselves as a role-model for young black people.
Jack pointed out that the director Kwame Kwei-Armah had stressed in rehearsal that the ideas of identity and struggle were universal themes, and had emphasised the sense of hope pervading the play. This note of optimism echoed Lynn Ahrens, the lyricist of RAGTIME, who had rediscovered the hope that that work contains.
The struggle doesn't end. The future? Don't lose hope.
STAIRWAY TO PARADISE
You can tell if a show is going to be a hit by the amount of hugging and kissing that takes place at the press launch. We had been invited by the Delfont Mackintosh organisation to attend the launch of AN AMERICAN IN PARIS, the hit Broadway show that we're taking you to see (3 sold-out visits) next year. When Mike and I entered the Members' Bar on the top floor of the Picturehouse Central in the West End, the scene resembled hostages being reunited with their loved ones. The buzz of excitement was mounting by the minute.
The bar was decorated with costume designs from the show, and I predict that a vast workshop will have sewing-machines whirring between now and 4 March, when the show opens. We only recognised one or two faces at this stage - but who was that slender woman over there in the attractive blue dress? Could it be? - yes, it definitely was the ever-youthful Jane Asher, looking stunning. What age is she now? The Stage critic Mark Shenton ungallantly whipped out his i-Phone and told us. But we're not telling you!
After a glass of wine and...er...Maltesers, we were invited to take our seats in the plush Screen 2 of the cinema complex. A pianist was playing a medley of Gershwin tunes to set the scene, and graphics from the show were projected onto the screen.
Darcey Bussell welcomed us to the afternoon, and we caught a glimpse of her on screen in a rehearsal room. "That was taken a long time ago," she explained. "That's a very young me being worked hard by Christopher Wheeldon." She recalled how she and Chris had worked together at the Royal Ballet - he had created 4 ballets for her, and he was a long-term friend as well. "We've known each other for nearly 30 years," she reminded him. "I knew you when you were a chubby little boy." Wheeldon, whose chubbiness is a distant memory, responded that Darcey had been an inspiration to him in his career, which took him to the heights of chief choreographer at Covent Garden, and at the American Ballet. He has now directed An American in Paris.
How did it feel to go from ballet to a big Broadway musical? Chris said that he had been terrified, and initially said No; he had never directed a show that required singing and dialogue, and wasn't sure he knew where to begin. And this was going to be a mega-musical, based on an iconic movie . Where to start?
Once he was persuaded to take on the challenge, his priority was to find dancers who could sing as well as dance - and not just carry a tune. He had worked with Robert Fairchild at the American ballet, and had heard that he could sing. When Robbie arived for his audition, he asked, "Chris, I know we're friends, but do you mind if I sing into the corner?" He was too nervous to face the music!
Leanne Cope's audition was strangely similar. Chris had been told that she could sing, and he accosted her when she came off stage at the Royal Opera House in the interval of SWAN LAKE. She still had the head-pieces in her hair, and was hot and perspiring when he asked her to sing. She told him that she could only sing in the shower, so he marched her to the dressing-room, and stood her in shower (fully clothed). She sang The Man I Love, and got the job.
Chis showed a video he took of Leanne's first reading, which he filmed without her knowledge. He apologised in advance for his own acting! I was impressed that Leanne had the gamine looks for the role of Lise, and already had mastered a French accent!
At this point, Darcey invited Jane Asher (who's in the show) to give us a wave, and three of the male leads sang 'Swonderful. They were joined by Zoe Rainey who sang Shall We Dance? We had a chat with the friendly Ms Rainey afterwards, and she told that she has two songs, as well joining in ensemble numbers. And the costumes? "I have a different dress in every scene. It's a parade of haute couture from start to finish."
Darcey had seen the show on Broadway, and said that she had worried on Chris's behalf that the undertaking was too great. In the event, she was swept away, and forgot that she was watching a show directed by someone she knew. Chris said that the journey from the cold sweats of the early rehearsals right through to standing on the stage at the Radio City Music Hall accepting the Tony Award for Best Musical had been incredible. Now he was excited about coming home to London and presenting it to the West End audience.
He's excited? We're beside ourselves!
ACT OF FAITH
There is only one thing better than seeing Stephen Dillane in FAITH HEALER and that it is seeing it for a second time. This allowed us to appreciate the detail of his mesmerising performance, and to piece together the often contradictory details in the narratives that make up Brian Friel's compelling story. And at the Director's Forum performance, Mike and I had the benefit of hearing director Lynsey Turner and Ron Cook, the definitive Teddy, discuss the play with Assistant Director Jack Sain.
On this occasion, we were already aware of the shock element of the torrents of rain on the stage (very expensive, we were told in a confidential whisper) and for the audacious format of the play - four individual narratives by three characters linked by the same tragic fate - and were alert to the clues planted by Friel in the rich language of his dialogue. From the opening incantation of the names of Welsh villages, Stephen Dillane caressed the words chosen so precisely by the playwright with obvious sensuous pleasure, and soon had the audience spellbound. Then Gina McKee's forlorn Grace took up the story, all the more heart-breaking in her understated yet vivid delivery that left us in no doubt of the state of Grace and her fragile hold on reality.
Ron Cook's extended account of Teddy's career in show business was a vaudeville turn, but carefully calibrated by the writer and the actor to counterpoint the horror that Teddy witnesses in the lives of Frank and Grace. This was a masterclass in acting and in playing the audience, and ratcheted up the tension even further. Finally we were rendered breathless with suspense and expectation as Stephen Dillane led us through the play's closing moments of fulfillment and exultation.
We were still trying to return to the real world when Jack led Lynsey and Ron back on stage. Lynsey apologised that Stephen and Gina weren't able to join us. Both live on the beleaguered Southern Rail, and are experiencing difficulty getting to the theatre and going home afterwards. It was difficult to imagine that they had lives off-stage at this point!
Jack asked Ron if the play had changed since press night. Ron replied that the play is so rich and dense that it changes as he discovers new aspects to it. As well, it alters with the audience and their responses every night. He added that on the previous evening, he/Teddy had got angry during the performance: a couple sitting in the front row weren't engaged and weren't paying attention, so he directed many of Teddy's comments to them!
As director of the play, Lynsey comes in once a week, to tighten a few screws - but not to tell the actors to aim for particular reactions from the audience. She has never worked on a play that varies so much according to the mood in the room, and trusts the actors to respond to this: they are as ambitious as she is for the success of the play. Ron interjected that Lynsey gives brilliant notes.
Lynsey described her approach as working out from the play. This is the non-negotiable starting-point. She pointed out that the intimate space of the Donmar magnifies detail that might be lost in a bigger theatre. An actor picking up a bottle and crossing the stage has a greater significance here that in a larger house. She wanted the actors to play to the audience, and after the second preview, she asked the lighting designer Bruno Poet to light the audience, so that the actors could see them.
Jack asked (and we all wanted him to) about the set. Lynsey - a friend and great admirer of the late Mr Friel - admitted that great dramatist that he undoubtedly was, sometimes his stage directions were shitty. This play was written for a proscenium arch theatre, not a thrust stage, and was to be dominated by a backcloth advertising the Faith Healer. This would have overwhelmed the Donmar stage. She abandoned that, giving each character their own world to inhabit. Knowing that late arrivals at the Donmar sometimes step across the stage, she also wanted to create a moat to isolate the actors.
Mike asked how the actors rehearsed this play without an audience, as the actors have to play to an audience instead of each other. Ron said that it was difficult to complete their work until the audience arrived. Until then, they had had to play to Lynsey, Jack and the stage manager, each pretending to be 70 people! Each audience brings the fresh response of hearing the story for the first time. Initially, the three actors worked together, creating timelines for their characters on different coloured cards, and seeing where the discrepancies occurred. After that, they developed their own interpretations.
Lynsey believes that there is a way of directing this play simplistically - memory just plays tricks. But it's more complex - we all select and edit our memories, and construct our open acceptable version of events. Grace has convinced herself that Frank, not Teddy, made the cross for the grave of her stillborn child. It's what everyone does, to make memories bearable.
This production marks a return for Ron Cook to the role of Teddy after 26 years. It's the only part he has ever wanted to return to; he desperately wanted to do it again, as Teddy had lived within him for all those years. He compared this second visitation to reading a book as an adolescent and then rereading it with 26 years more life-experience.
Afterwards, Lynsey told Mike and me that she thinks this play is The Masterpiece, and it clearly is her tribute to the great Brian Friel. She rejoices in her cast: the great Ron Cook, and Gina McKee - "the best in show." We agreed; she's the best Gina Mckee in the business. And Stephen Dillane? "He's a magician," said Lynsey.
So is she.
Just as there are those who think (or thought) that Francis Bacon was Shakespeare because the plays display so much arcane knowledge that a mere provincial grammar-school boy could not possibly have absorbed, those speaking on film believe that it is not possible for someone who never travelled beyond Stratford and London to know so many local Messina sayings, locations, trade practices and so on. "I would eat his heart in the market-place!" yells Beatrice of Claudio in a turbulent scene in Much Ado, set in Messina, (Act IV. 1) - an imprecation still to be heard in Messina today (just add salt). Proof indeed that the writer was or had been a local boy!
There is more: the man known to posterity as William Shakespeare came from a distinguished Sicilian family, the Scrollalanza (scrolla = shake, lancia = spear), collaterals of Michelangelo - Florio and his son Giovanni (John) who as Calvinists fled from Catholic Messina to Protestant England in the mid-16th century. There, John, after an Oxford education, became a distinguished translator, not only of Montaigne's Essays (1603) but also of a raft of plays written (in Italian) by his father. In the spirit of all those characters who disguise themselves or switch identities or in other ways indulge in shape-shifting, John Florio also turned the family name into Shake-speare (geddit?) and attached that name to the plays. That is why "Shakespeare," even if he didn't know much about Bohemia, was very familiar with the topography of Messina, Venice et al., even down to street names and buildings.
So persuaded are the residents of Messina of this identification that The Bard has been declared an honorary citizen. If you are not yet convinced, take a closer look at The Tempest: it is clearly set on Vulcano, one of the Aeolian islands north of Sicily, which is volcanic and full of sticky pools and pungent sulphurous odours.... Yes: we remember the very ancient and fish-like smell.......
The film delivers all this deadpan and with some stylish and beguiling location shots. While many of the assertions are not exactly new, the young director presents them with charm, herself seen (always from the back) as a mysterious explorer, setting off nice views of those cities which now have a further layer of associative richness on which the literary tourist may feast.
[Shown at the Italian Cultural Institute 19 July 2016].
You can see two extracts from the film by clicking HERE (a part of Venice we know well); or HERE (closer to home).
Fortunately, Jack addressed his first questions to Nick. How did the play come about? Nick explained how he had read a book about the brain and procedures on the brain in animals, and that he had developed the idea of the play, which he showed to Murray. He then read a preface written by Rowan Williams to a new edition of C S Lewis's A Grief Observed. The Artistic Director of the Donmar, Josie Rourke, knows Rowan, so he contacted him to have further discussions. Another member of the Donmar team suggested seeking support from the Wellcome Trust, and that was how he came into contact with Anil Seth. Nick added that he usually does his research before he writes his plays; it's the social part of the job, and he enjoys meeting people.
Jack identified recurring themes of grief and science in Nick's work, and Nick laughed, and agreed that he was hooked on it. He considers that his best known play, Constellations, is about death (though for obvious reasons that wasn't advertised on the poster!).
Jack drew the rest of the panel into the discussion by asking about consciousness as an abstract concept. Murray pointed out that the study of consciousness as a science is relatively recent, and Rowan added that this was both a fertile and dangerous area - dangerous because of a huge number of conceptual muddles. He admitted that the heritage of philosophical theory is struggling to catch up with this new science.
The ensuing discussion was fascinating, as these three heavyweight intellectuals dazzled us with their analytical prowess. Anil shared with us his awe at the mapping of the brain, and described how neuroscience can now determine levels of consciousness in coma patients. In answer to Jack's question "Is science an intrusion into selfhood?", Murray and Anil agreed that neuroscience is awe-inspiring, and yet there is still a need to worry on the psychological and social level. Rowan cautioned that the problem was not with the scientific mapping, but with thinking that that is all there is, and drew a wonderful analogy: it would be like describing a concert as merely the mechanical playing of the individual instruments.
Turning their attention back to the play, it was clear that all three had tested Nick's logic, and found it sound, and had granted him dramatic licence in the plot devices he had employed. Only the most literal-minded would have queried that.
In answer to the question about Nick's decision to run the play backwards, Rowan suggested that the form reflects the theme, and Murray thought that this was the best way to explore Nick's ideas. Having read the play before it was staged, Anil found it a real page-turner. Nick explained that he didn't want the question of the play to be "What happens next?" but he wanted the audience to experience the consequences of the choice that had been made. It was, he said, always in his head to run it backwards - partly instinct.
No, Nick, it wasn't. It was inspiration.
Our thanks go to the Donmar for arranging such an impressive event, and to Jack Sain, who revealed previously unsuspected knowledge of philosophy and neuroscience.
How to behave - the Theatre Etiquette reports
If you have read the reports on Theatre Etiquette on the WhatsOnStage website, you will have had your eyes opened to the excesses of what happens when the lights go down. We all have tales to tell I'm sure. I remember someone in a Broadway theatre phoning for a cab a few minutes BEFORE the end of a show, so they didn't have to join the throng hailing cabs outside afterwards. And then there were the young women joining in the songs, and even the dialogue, at Dirty Dancingbecause, hey, it's a fun night out, innit? They even explained the plot to us as it went along from the seats behind. Those fans were threatened with expulsion from the theatre if they didn't quieten down. The usher knew his job and responded appropriately.
And there's always those sitting just behind rustling things on their lap, or zipping bags, not realising that the noise is nearer to the ears in front than their own. A look, and a finger in front of lips, usually works. But generally most audience members do know how to behave, even though the offending minority are maybe getting worse.
I did not intend to add my own views here, but then I read An Usher's Viewpoint (below) and decided someone has to stand up for the accused. She thinks that only 20% of audiences know their manners and school parties are the worst. I guess that it depends on the show, but in my experience most school parties do knowhow to behave, especially at a play which perhaps they are studying at school or college. Maybe they chat loudly before curtain-up, but then they respond with enthusiasm, especially if it's a play new to them. I remember seeing Sheridan Smith in Hedda Gabler, and a silently engrossed school party responded with a shout and mass intake of breath at the shocking climax. Ah, the joy of seeing classic plays for the first time and being able to show enthusiasm. Of course a good teacher will prepare the class for visiting a theatre, but not all teachers are good ones and the same applies to ushers.
It seems Madame Usher (No.7 below) is having a bad time in the theatre, is disillusioned with her job, is over-stressed and underpaid. And is not supported by the management. One teacher, arriving late with a school party and presumably stressed herself, called the usher "a stuck up cow", surely an unnecessary over-statement but, from the tone of her article and the long list of complaints about so many aspects of theatre, perhaps it's time she left theatreland. "Some schools are brilliant. Most are awful." she says. Well, some ushers are brilliant, and some are...less brilliant, but most are helpful, and only a small percentage resent the audience being there as Madame Usher seems to. Time for her to leave the auditorium?
Fredo adds - When we saw A Doll's Housewith Janet McTeer, I was sitting next to the teacher of a school party, and they were so attentive that I commented to her at the interval. And when the play ended, I heard one say, "Can we read that in class, miss?"