The Secret Theatre, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse (The Globe)
Sometimes you get a perfect synergy of play and venue. This is exactly the case with Anders Lustgarten’s The Secret Theatre and the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. The story of Elizabeth I’s spymaster and the shadowy realms in which he operates sits perfectly in this candle-lit jewel box of a theatre.
The setting is perfect, and the story is pretty damn good too: England lives in fear of religious-inspired terror. In an attempt to safeguard the realm and protect the Queen, Francis Walsingham plots and deploys his network of spies – but does the end justify his means? Can surveillance create real safety?
There are of course plenty of modern parallels here, which Lustgarten exploits nicely, particularly with a few jokes about bankers not paying tax and Englishmen never winning at tennis. But he also deftly captures the back-biting and shadowy Elizabethan court.
The play is not entirely flawless– I thought the end, in which we discovered the master manipulator has been manipulated himself, felt a touch heavy-handed, trying a bit too hard to hammer home the view that surveillance doesn’t create safety. I didn’t find either of the play’s only two female characters (Queen Elizabeth herself and Walsingham’s daughter Frances*) entirely convincingly drawn, though the former wasn’t helped by Tara Fitzgerald’s performance, which felt too one-note, especially in the first half.
(*Mary Queen of Scots does make an appearance, but as all she does is say a prayer in Latin before heading off to her execution, I don’t think she qualifies as a proper character.)
My reservations about Fitzgerald aside, the cast are good, led by Aidan McArdle as Walsingham, cleverly showing the paranoia of a man who has heard too many secrets, and may even be suffering from PTSD, having been traumatised by witnessing the St Bartholmew’s Day Massacre. He’s well-supported by Ian Redford as Cecil, Sam Marks as both the Sir Philip Sydney and a tortured Jesuit (both in their own ways heroic but doomed) and Abraham Popoola as Walsingham’s torturer.
Here we have not just a new play to consider, but a whole new theatre. The Bridge Theatre is the brainchild of Nick Starr and Nicholas Hytner, formerly of the National Theatre just along the Thames. It describes itself as ‘a commercial venture, but one with a mission’, which certainly sounds highly promising. In their programme note, they also say they’ve ‘tried to imagine what a 21st-century theatre could and should be like’. Does it work? Well, I am pleased to report that yes, it does.
The airy foyer makes good use of its views over to Tower Bridge and the Tower of London, but would be pleasant even without the showy neighbours. I especially liked the hundreds of bulbs with chiffon drapery which hang from the ceiling (despite the husband’s comment that they looked like ladies’ knickers…). There are lots of ladies’ toilets (hallelujah!) and plentiful water fountains, all supplied with plastic cups, to combat the Curse of the Coughing Customer. The sightlines in the auditorium are good.
Of course, nowhere is perfect. I can’t remember if I was feeling particularly poor or being unusually sensible when I booked these seats, but I eschewed my normal theatre ticket extravagance for some (relatively) cheap seats at the side of the first gallery. These feel narrower than others (we were early, we tried a few others out), and require quite a lot of wriggling past other patrons to get into, and out of again at the interval (Incidentally, who are these people who stay in their seats throughout the interval? Even if you have better bladder capacity than me (not hard, granted) surely you want to stretch your legs? Have a drink? Not have people like me fall over your feet twice within 20 minutes?). The other problem is that these seats felt like they hadn’t been screwed down as well as they could have been – there were some issues with squeaking and wobbling. But, I must admit the view of the stage was remarkably good.
One other thing to add – one of the Bridge’s pre-opening selling points was the availability of freshly-baked madeleines in the interval. Purely in the interests of journalistic research, we tried some. I am happy to report that they are delicious.
Of course, however lovely the theatre, it is what happens on stage that should really matter. Fortunately, this works too. The play – by Richard Bean and Clive Coleman – involves the exploits of Karl Marx as a young man, living a Bohemian lifestyle in London, long before he became the sombre bearded philosopher of popular imagination.
Marx is played – as brilliantly as you would expect – by Rory Kinnear, who not only has great comic timing, but captures all of the layers of Marx’s personality – not just his intelligence and fecklessness, but also the charisma that built him a following. He has a great foil in Oliver Chris’ Engels, with whom he forms something not unlike a music hall double act, with their repeated refrains of “Marx and Engels,” “Engels and Marx”. This could turn into an irritating ‘bromance’ but doesn’t, thanks to Engels’ willingness to call Marx out. Chris has a great speech about the horrors of the conditions he has witnessed amongst the poor of England, and why the world needs Marx’s work.
There are also excellent performances from the play’s two female characters – Nancy Carroll as his long-suffering wife Jenny, and Laura Elphinstone as no-nonsense (except when it comes to Marx himself) housekeeper Nym. I’d have liked to have seen them and their relationship given more stage time.
This is a very funny play, which is at its best when it’s at its most knowing – whether about the unlikeliness of a revolution which would bring Marxist government to Russia, or having fun with the then newly-formed police force. This latter features a line from a policeman promising a lack of violence because “I’ve been on a course” – cue huge laugh. Mark Thompson’s clever, evocative set, complete with smoking chimneys, transforms itself into a variety of locations, from the Marx family’s small Soho flat to the reading room of the British Museum. My only criticism might be that the whole thing feel curiously filmic, and perhaps didn’t have the effect it might have done as a result.
But that’s a minor quibble – between them Young Marx and the Bridge Theatre provided an excellent afternoon, madeleines and all.
Young Marx is at the Bridge Theatre until 31st December, and will be broadcast live to cinemas on Thursday 7th December: https://bridgetheatre.co.uk/
Coriolanus is one of my favourite Shakespeare plays. I am aware that this probably puts me in the kind of minority that can usually be found looking for very specialist websites, but there it is. Partly this is because one of the great formative theatre experiences of my teenage years was seeing Toby Stephens play the title role (also for the RSC), but, barnstorming performances aside I think the play contains some of Shakespeare’s most exquisite language.
As it’s infrequently performed, I had high hopes for this RSC production – which in the event, does contain one magnificent central performance: from Haydn Gwynne as Volumnia, Coriolanus mother (we’ll come to Coriolanus himself in a minute). Gwynne is wonderful – she has complete mastery of the language, and takes her character from unsympathetic pushy mother to heart-rending despair, as she realises she has saved her city but probably killed her son. Volumnia is one of the few great Shakespearean roles for older women – surely another reason to dust off Coriolanus a little more often?
Like Hamlet without the prince, you can’t have Coriolanus without the man himself, and here lies the problem. Sope Dirisu certainly looks the part of the great soldier, but his performance for me falls flat. The text sometimes seems to be speaking him rather than the other way around, and he lacked the necessary charisma to make him believable as a leader of men. The lack of charisma sucks much of the life out of the play, as it makes it hard to care what happens to Coriolanus. It’s not that this is a bad performance – it has some lovely moments, such as when he finally breaks down in the face of Volumnia’s pleading – but for the production to work it needed to reach a higher level. I found that I was much more interested in James Corrigan’s Tullus Aufidius, which is a subtle and clever performance.
Perhaps part of the problem with Dirisu’s performance comes from the production itself, which can’t quite seem to make up its mind about things. Despite the modern dress, it doesn’t seem to want to commit to drawing parallels with contemporary events, but equally doesn’t quite commit to making it a personal or a family tragedy – or indeed anything else – either. Was Jackie Morrison’s tribune of the people meant to have shades of Nicola Sturgeon, or am I just looking for meaning where none exists?
I may possibly be making this sound like a disaster, which it wasn’t at all. I did enjoy it, and in Haydn Gwynne’s Volumnia it has one truly great and memorable performance. It just felt like a missed opportunity.
Coriolanus runs at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until 14th October. It can then be seen at the Barbican, London 6th-18th November.
If you are looking for a pretty frocks type of adaptation, then Sally Cookson’s version of Charlotte Bronte’s tale is probably not for you. It is not conventional. Cookson’s approach was to strip the novel back to its bare bones, to liberate it from under flounces of petticoats.
This is done using a highly physical approach, on a set made of platforms and staircases of wood, and iron ladders, like a child’s climbing frame in the days before health and safety. Although the characters still wear period costume, even these are stripped down versions. The whole thing has the kind of ingenuity I generally associate with smaller-scale and lower budget shows. For example, all of the cast play multiple roles (even the small band of musicians), indicating changes in character with simple additions like shawls or hats. This extends to the physical performances as well. With only one set, the characters run on the spot to give a sense of travelling to another location. It may sound odd, but it’s weirdly effective.
So, overall does this approach work? For me, wholeheartedly yes. It gives fresh life and heart to the characters, and to the story itself, although it did take me a little while to settle into it. The first twenty minutes felt a little little disjointed, and if you’re usually a viewer of more conventional theatre, the style takes a bit of getting used to. However, by the time Jane bids farewell to her dying childhood friend Helen Burns I was definitely snivelling: the show had me, and it continued to sweep me along from there on in. Another unusual aspect of this production is its use of music – as well as the on-stage band, a variety of numbers are performed by Melanie Marshall’s hovering Bertha Mason. This music includes renditions of Gnarls Barkley’s ‘Crazy’ and Noel Coward’s ‘Mad About The Boy’, as well as more traditional numbers. I really loved the incongruity of the modern songs – again, it gives characters we all thought we knew a fresh jolt of life. The almost constant presence of Bertha reminded me – in a good way – of one of my undergraduate essays, which suggested that Bertha almost represents the wild side of Jane’s personality, with both frequently associated with fire imagery.
Of course, with this kind of stripped-down approach, you need a good cast: fortunately, we’ve got one. Nadia Clifford is excellent in the title role, developing convincingly from the angry child to the passionate woman. Tim Delap brings just the right kind of brooding charisma (and a very impressive beard) to the role of Mr Rochester. The rest of the cast play multiple roles, with special mentions to Hannah Bristow as Helen, Adele and others, and Paul Mundell, one of whose roles’ is as Pilot, Mr Rochester’s dog.
So, it may not be your average adaptation, but if you love the novel, and want to see a version of Jane Eyre which captures the fire at the heart of the original, go and see this with an open mind, and let it work its magic.
Sometimes you just get the theatre you need. This seems to be particularly true of my relationship with the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park. Last year, days after the EU referendum I saw Henry V starring Michelle Terry there – a nuanced piece which spoke of the complex relationships both with Europe and between the different parts of the UK. This time, after the horrible events in Manchester I got the slice of pure theatrical joy which is On The Town – the all-singing, all-dancing tale of three sailors and the three women they encounter – and the mayhem they create – during 24 hours shore leave in 1940s New York.
In the spirit of sisterhood, let’s start with the girls – especially as they’re all good performances. Siena Kelly is a sweet and beautifully danced Ivy, torn between making something of herself and a youthful desire to have fun now; Miriam-Teak Lee has a gorgeous, operatic voice and great comic timing as Claire; but my personal favourite was Lizzy Connolly’s sassy and sexy Hildy. It struck me how sexually liberated these women were, for a piece which comes from the time in which it’s set. I’m not sure whether a piece written now would feature a a character like Hildy, gleefully pouncing on a man she’s never met before and inviting him to (to quote one song title) ‘Come Up To My Place’, without later punishing her or giving her deep-seated psychological problems as background. Progress? Hmm.
The girls are well-matched by their men. Most of the attention in the press has focused on Hollyoaks and Strictly Come Dancing alumnus Danny Mac, in the role of Gabey (played by Gene Kelly in the film), and very good he is too – his Gabey is utterly charming and, of course, he dances like a dream. Samuel Edwards is very funny as Ozzie – his duet with Claire ‘Carried Away’ was one of my favourite moments of the show – and Jacob Maynard brings a nicely wide-eyed quality to Chip, the small-town boy in the big city for the first time. A particular tip of the hat to Maynard, who stepped up from the ensemble after one of the original leads broke his foot.
This group of triple threats are supported by a great ensemble, and a great cast in the minor roles, especially Maggie Steed proving she can still shake her tail feather as Madame Dilly. The set, with its multiple levels and staircases does a good job of bringing New York to this most English of settings.
There is sometime a certain amount of snobbery about the musical, especially ‘classic’, non-edgy ones like this, but you cannot beat the pure joy they create (and that’s without considering the amount of hard work involved in them, especially on a very hot day in Regent’s Park).
The Broadway original of this was staged – and set – during the war but there’s little evidence of it. There are references to past heroism of Gabe, and presumably Hildy is driving a cab because so many men are absent, but war is very distant from this sunlit and celebratory show. One of its songs describes New York as ‘a helluva town’: this is a helluva show. If you feel like you need some joy in your life, go see it.
Antony & Cleopatra, Royal Shakespeare Company live from Stratford Upon Avon
It’s rare that a production – especially a production of Shakespeare – leaves me feeling just a bit ‘meh’, but that was the case with this one.I’m aware that’s not the most eloquent response, but it’s the best I can do for this production, which is a shame as it’s not without it’s good points.
Let’s be positive and start with one of those good points. Antony Byrne is one of the actors I’ve really enjoyed watching at the RSC over the last few years (I especially loved him as Kent alongside Antony Sher’s Lear) and it’s good to see him get a proper lead role.As I’d expected, he does a good job as the noble old soldier, with a nicely nuanced but still passionate performance.
Josette Simon is a magnificient actor (the way she howls after the death of Antony was heart-rending) – but I found it hard to warm to her Cleopatra. Indeed, near the beginning, I found her more than a little irritating. In the pre-show interviews, Simon spoke about Cleopatra as being one of the great politicians of her age, but I didn’t get that from her performance. Her Cleopatra seemed to be a woman detached from reality, playing at being queen. Fascinating, perhaps, but not evidence of a great political brain.But amazing performance, even if I wasn’t sure about the interpretation.
I also liked Ben Allen’s Octavius – austere with nice touches of the sociopathic, and clearly a man better suited to the times than poor old Antony. But for me, the acting honours of the night went to Andrew Woodall’s Enobarbus, the great cynic and observer, who still despairs of the way his friend Antony has fallen from grace. I’ve never noticed before, but he really does get a lot of the best lines: Not only “Age cannot wither her…” but the beautiful speech describing Cleopatra and Antony’s first meeting: “The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne, burned on the water…”
But, good performances aside, this production really didn’t do it for me. Perhaps it was too reverential, too conventional.The togas and Egyptian robes felt a bit too much like an undergraduate Ancient Civilisation-themed fancy dress party, and the pillared set was pleasant but dull. There were also some odd characterisations. Was the Soothsayer really meant to look and sound like Neil from The Young Ones? I presume not, but that’s all I could see from the moment he opened his mouth.
Much has been made of the fact that the music for this production has been composed by former chart-troubler Laura Mvula. How was her music? It was…fine. I liked quite a lot of it, I found some of it a bit intrusive. But it didn’t add a great deal, it didn’t give the production the extra dimension it lacked.
A couple of wobbles and a few odd camera angles from the usually flawless Live From Stratford team didn’t help, but, in the end, this production felt like less than the sum of its parts. For me, it just didn’t catch fire.
It was slightly tucked away on a workaday Wednesday, but BBC2’s televisation of Mike Bartlett’s play was eagerly anticipated by theatre lovers. Partly this was down to an eagerness to see how a very theatrical play translated to television, but mostly to see what proved to be the last performance of the much-missed Tim Pigott-Smith in the title role.
And what a towering performance it was, by a man who seems to have been born to play kings – and this performance rightly had a touch of Lear about it, especially at the moment Charles realises he will have to give up his long-awaited throne. It was a detailed performance too, with the slowness of his hand as he signs the abdication a telling touch.
He has good support from the rest of the cast too, especially Oliver Chris and Charlotte Riley as William and Kate (or the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge as they should be addressed by us plebs). Riley does a good job of conveying both the human and the scheming parts of Kate’s nature that lie beneath her blandly perfect exterior. Oliver Chris’ William starts by being a bit wet, with his wife pulling the strings, but gradually finds his own resolution and ambition. The sheer viciousness that he puts into the line “You have felt your age” is magnificent.
The play does a great job of illustrating the corrosive and corrupting nature of power, but I’m not entirely convinced by the translation to television… I preferred the stage version. There are several reasons for this – firstly, to make the two hour plus play into an acceptable length for television, many of the speeches have been cut down, losing some of the rhythm and beauty of Bartlett’s verse. I also found I missed the stylised set, with its brick walls. Perhaps it’s just a case of something imagined being more powerful than something actually seen, but I found the exquisitely choreographed stage riot/protest scene which began the second half of the play to be more powerful than the ‘riot-lite’ montage of the TV adaptation. I also found some of the background music a bit much at times – and I wish they’d let Charlotte Riley’s Kate stay still while delivering her Lady Macbeth-like soliloquy about power and ambition. The movement they added made it look like they were trying too hard to make it ‘televisual’, and stripped the speech of the concentrated power it had on stage. With an actor of Riley’s talent, you don’t need fuss.
There are of course compensations for some of the losses in translation from stage to screen: the lovely cutaway of young Prince George chewing happily on a croissant while his horrified parents watch Charles’ dissolution of parliament on an iPad, the fantastic close ups of Oliver Chris and Tim Piggott-Smith as they confront each other during the coronation (for which I’m glad they kept the Latin Te Deum). And, of course, the great compensation is to have a record of Tim Pigott-Smith’s magnificent interpretation of the lead role in a great modern play.