Review: Hedda Gabler, National Theatre

“I’ve never felt at home”

With Hedda Gabler, the ever prolific Ivo van Hove is making his National Theatre debut, so you can forgive him returning to a production which he has launched twice before – with the exceptional Dutch actress Halina Reijn in Amsterdam and with Elizabeth Marvel in New York. This time however, he’s working with a new version of Ibsen’s play by Patrick Marber and has the equally extraordinary talents of Ruth Wilson leading his company. And as with his revelatory A View From The Bridge, this is a contemporary reworking of a classic that will frustrate some with its froideur but left me gasping at its gut-wrenching rawness.

As ever, van Hove’s spatial intelligence lends itself to a re-appreciation of the theatrical space in which he’s working. He’s invited audiences onstage at the Barbican, and backstage too and here in the Lyttelton, the wings are closed off by Jan Versweyveld’s gallery-like white box and so characters make their entrances and exits through the same doors that we use – Judge Brack even arrives via the rear stalls at one point. And van Hove keeps things off-kilter onstage too, often pushing the action out to the far edges, focusing the eye on unexpected details like the eloquent sweep of Hedda’s back, the tapping foot of a nervy ever-watching Berthe. Continue reading “Review: Hedda Gabler, National Theatre”

Review: Hedda Gabler, Salisbury Playhouse

“Every so often a dark impulse takes hold of me”

Brian Friel’s translation of Hedda Gabler was first seen at the Old Vic in 2012 when Sheridan Smith took on the lead role but Anna Mackmin’s production struggled somewhat with the humour that the Irish playwright introduced. A few years later though, Gareth Machin takes the same adaptation for his Salisbury Playhouse with greater success, finding an ideal balance of tragicomedy that might not always feel entirely Ibsenesque but remains convincing nonetheless.

Matters are also helped by casting the excellent Kirsty Bushell as Hedda, present on the not-inconsiderable list of actresses I really rate but well worthy of the place. With a whip-smart wit that lacerates too easily (her husband’s ageing aunt and their servant bear the brunt of this) and a sensuality that she deploys on seemingly every man but the one she’s wed to, Bushell gives us a real woman with a real sense of all the capricious vivacity that she believes will no longer be a part of her humdrum married life. Continue reading “Review: Hedda Gabler, Salisbury Playhouse”

Review: Little Eyolf, Almeida Theatre

“Is it just road-making that’s put you in such a good mood?”

Richard Eyre’s revelatory take on Ibsen’s Ghosts was a deserving multiple Olivier winner last year so it is little surprise to see the Almeida asking him back for more, this time taking on one of his later plays Little Eyolf. And as with Ghosts, the play has been coaxed and condensed into interval-free intensity, the perfect frame for its arresting modernity.

And it is surprising, as though written in 1894, its portrayal of fraught sexual tension in a marriage is as direct and frank a exploration of female sexuality (and sexual desire) as any playwright has come up with since. In the cooling calm of Tim Hatley’s set, Rita Allmers is a wife and mother but finds those roles in conflict as she resents son Eyolf for distracting husband Alfred’s attentions away from her. Continue reading “Review: Little Eyolf, Almeida Theatre”

Review: The Wild Duck, Belvoir Sydney at Barbican

“There are things not everybody needs to know”

You’ve got to love an adaptation that ruffles a few feathers and Simon Stone and Chris Ryan’s take on The Wild Duck for Belvoir Sydney certainly does that, quite literally in one case as the show features a live duck that paddles the stage in a striking opening image. Part of the Barbican’s International Ibsen festival, this is a startlingly contemporary look at the Norwegian classic which strips it to its spine (as Stone says in a programme note) and reimagines it significantly as a modern fable about secrets and lies (and a duck).

Encased in the confines of Ralph Myer’s clear perspex box and dramatically illuminated by Niklas Pajanti’s utterly complete lighting design, the family drama of the Ekdals and the Werles play out to levels of intensity normally associated with Greek tragedy. And under this scrutiny, there’s nowhere for them, or us, to hide – the private grief of Anita Hegh’s catatonic Gina is exposed like a raw wound for nigh on 20 minutes, the uncontrollable anger of Brendan Cowell’s Hjalmar literally bounces off the walls, the target for Hedwig’s shotgun practice is quite simply the audience.

Continue reading “Review: The Wild Duck, Belvoir Sydney at Barbican”

Review: Ghosts via Digital Theatre (plus thoughts on the filming of theatre more generally)

“You have no idea what this has cost me”

There’s something a little ironic about the fact that many of the people who write about the filming of theatre shows are precisely those who need it the least, myself included. I am in the fortunate position that all the shows I’ve wanted to see that have been broadcast in cinemas through NT Live or captured on Digital Theatre have been shows I was able to see live. To poke at too easy a target, Shenton’s assertion that these are for people who are “not organised enough or connected enough or rich enough to get your hands on a ticket” feels misguided in light of the news that the recent live showing of Billy Elliot topped the UK box office the audience is clearly there, just not necessarily in London’s IMAX screens.

It can be easy to forget that for people who do not live in London, the expense incurred in sorting out a trip to the theatre, especially for a high-demand show, verges on the ridiculous. Train timetables now work against anyone hoping to catch an evening show, the steady rise in ticket prices means taking a family to see something is increasingly expensive, etc etc. So the option of going to the local picturehouse offers something of a solution, not a replacement but a widening of the opportunity (as Shenton does acknowledge before the above quote). Continue reading “Review: Ghosts via Digital Theatre (plus thoughts on the filming of theatre more generally)”

Review: Reptember – Triple Bill C, New Diorama

“You would like to hear that one wouldn’t you”

A second trip this week to Reptember at the New Diorama saw me take in another of The Faction’s triple bills after a strong start with programme A. For me though, programme C didn’t quite hit the same mark with its collection of solo performances. Whether connected or not, these were all new pieces for me so I wonder if that lack of familiarity played into my mindset. Additionally, it didn’t feel like there was quite as much directorial innovation at play here, previous work from The Faction having raised the bar in terms of expectation.

So with Aeschylus‘ Prometheus in a new version by Will Gore, director Rachel Valentine Smith has Faction AD Mark Leipacher up a stepladder, bound there by the dark deeds and secrets of his past but though it makes for an arresting initial image, the static nature it enforces on the piece leaves it feeling a little flat. Like with Borkmann, adapted by Leipacher from Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman, Alexander Guiney’s self-flagellating banker never managed to capture my imagination as he addresses the empty chairs that represents the family he’s let down. Continue reading “Review: Reptember – Triple Bill C, New Diorama”

Review: An Enemy of the People, New Diorama

“If we took a vote now, whose side would you be on?”

The works of Henrik Ibsen are often cited as some of the greatest committed to paper but though his plays are frequently performed, they are rarely adapted, seldom excised from their 19th century Norwegian settings to explore how they might resonate in a more contemporary context. David Harrower had a go at putting Ibsen into the 1970s with Public Enemy for the Young Vic earlier this year but Rebecca Manson Jones has brought the same play – An Enemy of the People – bang up to date with this new adaptation which is now playing at the New Diorama Theatre after a tour of London and the South West of England. 

She places the play in a modern-day but fictional small town on the Cornish coast – Porth Kregg – which is finding its way out of economic depression through a co-operative owned health spa, run by the Stockmann siblings. But when the ethical business ethos of one is compromised by the environmentally unsound supplier found by the other, the convictions of all concerned are challenged as the whole community is forced to identify what they consider to be more important – the health of the planet versus the weight of their purse. And it’s a question that we as the audience are also asked to contemplate, in a way that shapes the play itself. Continue reading “Review: An Enemy of the People, New Diorama”

Re-review: A Doll’s House, Duke of York’s Theatre

“I’m afraid they’re going to have to get used to not having me around quite so often any more”

Not a huge amount to say about a return visit to this excellent Ibsen adaptation which I first saw back in July last year – since then, A Doll’s House has won multiple awards, mainly for its leading star Hattie Morahan, returned to the Young Vic for a repeat run, moved into the West End for a further extension and announced a transfer to Broadway, not a bad piece of work really. I loved it first time round, against all expectations, and wasn’t intending to revisit but the canny pricing of the transfer meant tickets in the front rows were a bargainous £10 and so I booked for the end of the London run.

And I enjoyed it more or less just as much as last time. Being able to revisit a show, especially a play, after more than a year is a rare pleasure indeed but it was one that paid dividends as Carrie Cracknell’s production continued to deliver its excellently compelling take on the Helmers’ marriage. Though still set closer to Ibsen’s time than ours, Morahan and Dominic Rowan make Nora and Torvald into living, breathing people with the flaws that we all carry in one way or another and deserving of our empathy, if not necessarily our sympathy, as Nora finds the strength to take on society and pursue her own radical destiny. New York should embrace this production with open arms.

Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 26th October 

Review: Ghosts, Almeida Theatre

“I want the kind of love a mother cannot give”

Like the dose of the clap on which it is centred, productions of Ibsen’s Ghosts appear with alarming regularity – indeed Stephen Unwin premiered his own new version for the Rose Kingston and English Touring Theatre just a couple of weeks ago – and for someone who has largely remained immune to Ibsen’s charms, the claims that this is one of the dramatic pinnacles of the theatrical canon have always bemused me somewhat. Unwin’s detailed period production laboured heavily under its respectful approach that ended up almost dull in its restraint but Richard Eyre’s interpretation, which he has adapted and directed himself for the Almeida, is fresh and raw and as appallingly exciting as this play could ever hope to be.

Lesley Manville has rarely been better than as Helene Alving here, a woman caught up in the cocoon of protective lies she has told to protect her son from the knowledge that his father was a philandering ne’er-do-well who carried the pox, to protect her family’s reputation from the moralistic gaze of a fiercely hypocritical society, to protect herself from the inherent misery of the life that society has deemed appropriate for her. The minute that cocoon starts to unravel, so too does Manville, coils of hair break free from her coiffure and tightly bottled emotions start to spill forth. It’s a freedom of sorts with an exhilarating compulsive energy but it spirals out of her control, as she realises she can’t escape anything from the past, it is utterly heartbreaking. Continue reading “Review: Ghosts, Almeida Theatre”

Review: Ghosts, Rose Theatre Kingston

“In other words, you have no idea what you’re condemning”

London has long thrived on its paranormal industry – spooky tours, famous cemeteries, Jack the Ripper and his ilk and now in its theatres, a double helping of Ghosts, albeit of Ibsen’s variety. Richard Eyre will direct his own version for the Almeida which opens next week but sneaking ahead is Stephen Unwin’s adaptation, also self-directed, for the Rose Theatre, Kingston. A co-production with English Touring Theatre, it marks the twentieth anniversary of that company but perhaps more significantly, it will be Unwin’s final production at the Rose where he has served as Artistic Director for six years.

He has a clear affinity for the Norwegian playwright – Ghosts is the second translation Unwin has written and the seventh of his plays that he has directed and upping the authenticity ante, the look of the show has taken direct inspiration from the stage designs of Edvard Munch, who designed a production in Berlin in 1906 and which have never been seen since. And the result is an extremely classy piece of theatre, one which coils up the intensity of its acting for an incendiary final act but sometimes feels like it is taking an age to get there. Continue reading “Review: Ghosts, Rose Theatre Kingston”