Review: Much Ado About Nothing, Wyndham’s Theatre

“Man is a giddy thing and that is my conclusion”

Marking Josie Rourke’s first major piece of work since the announcement of her appointment as the next Artistic Director of the Donmar Warehouse, this production of Much Ado About Nothing is perhaps more notable, for those less interested in theatrical musical chairs, for reuniting David Tennant and Catherine Tate, one of my all-time favourite pairings from Doctor Who. It is actually the first time I’ve seen the play, though I adored the Kenneth Branagh/Emma Thompson film when I was younger, and fans of this play are being spoiled as the Globe are also mounting a production which opens in the coming weeks.

The play has been moved to the heady days of the early 1980s and apparently is set in Gibraltar. I say apparently because the first I heard of it was reading the programme on the way home in which there’s an essay about life there which I assume means it serves as the location. I didn’t see any monkeys or a big rock, but I suppose it allows for the military base to be used as a reason for putting all of Don Pedro’s men in spiffing white naval uniforms 😉 (At least I think they’re naval, military of some description anyway.) Continue reading “Review: Much Ado About Nothing, Wyndham’s Theatre”

Review: Danton’s Death, National Theatre

“I’m sick of this rigmarole”

Danton’s Death, the 1835 play about the French Revolution by Georg Büchner, marks an impressive brace of debuts: Toby Stephens making his first bow on the stage here in the title role and Michael Grandage, Artistic Director of the Donmar, making his directorial debut here on the South Bank. Setting up in the Olivier theatre for the summer, it is part of the Travelex season so there’s been plenty of £10 seats available. This was the first preview that I saw, I acknowledge this freely but stand by everything I say here.

The story is set in 1794, a period between the first and the second terrors during the French Revolution. The Committee of Public Safety has been set up in the name of the revolutionary new order and is summarily executing people whether the accusations against them are true or not. Its creator, Georges Danton, has come to regret his part in the genesis of something responsible for the killings of so many people and has been shocked at the way in which the revolution has been increasingly radicalised. His former friend and colleague Robespierre is at the head of this new faction leading the way and when Danton makes a stand for what he sees as too much, the stage is set for an almighty power struggle between the two political rivals. Continue reading “Review: Danton’s Death, National Theatre”

Review: The Habit of Art, National

“I want to hear about the failings of great men”

The Habit of Art
is Alan Bennett’s first new play since the juggernaut that was The History Boys and is his fifth for the National Theatre in total. Having sold out its first run in a matter of weeks, this world premiere has been eagerly anticipated, despite the late withdrawal of one of its main stars, Michael Gambon, due to minor ill health.

The premise of this play is around an imagined meeting between old friends Benjamin Britten (Alex Jennings) and W.H. Auden (Richard Griffiths taking over from Gambon) as Britten is seeking advice and reassurance about his new opera, Death in Venice. However, this is not all Bennett wants to talk about, so he uses the framing device of us being backstage at a theatre watching the rehearsal of a new play about this meeting, as witnessed by Humphrey Carpenter (Adrian Scarborough), a man who was later to write biographies about both of them. Thus the stage is set for an examination of the creative process of collaboration, whether between these two legendary figures or between the acting company representing them. Continue reading “Review: The Habit of Art, National”

Review: All’s Well That Ends Well, National

All’s Well That Ends Well is one of Shakespeare’s so-called ‘problem plays’, not easily classified as a comedy or a tragedy, but this production a part of the Travelex season at the National Theatre, posed no problems for me. This is a confidently-acted, stunningly-mounted, assured production which really confirms to me that the NT have hit the ground running with this season of plays.

The programme describes the play as ‘Shakespeare Noir’ which is quite an apt description for it. The comedy, and there is lots of it, is often underscored by the darker turns of the plot, and there is little frivolity of the ‘hey nonny no’ type, which can sometimes seem quite glib. The play opens with a girl of little consequence save the knowledge passed down from her physician father, arriving at the court of the King of France and healing him of his ailment. Her reward is to marry the man of her choice, but her chosen nobleman, Bertram, objects to such a lowly match and sets Helena a seemingly impossible challenge to win his heart and subsequently heads off to war in Italy, but Helena is hot on his heels in order to try and fulfil the deal. Continue reading “Review: All’s Well That Ends Well, National”

Review: England People Very Nice, National Theatre

Having had a whirlwind of publicity whipped up around it through accusations of heavy-handed racism, I was mildly disappointed to not be accosted by any protestors upon entering the auditorium for England People Very Nice, Richard Bean’s new play at the National Theatre. I was less surprised to find that I enjoyed the piece very much, and found largely most amusing, and not at all “racist”.

The play is set up as being performed by a group of asylum seekers awaiting the results of their appeals for residency, and tells the story of wave after wave of immigration of different ethnic groups into Bethnal Green throughout the last few centuries. So we see the French Huguenots arrive and face resistance to their arrival on a number of levels: on culture, on religion, and more materially on housing and on jobs, but yet also finding time for love. Time passes by and as a new wave of immigrants arrive, this time the Irish, so the French find themselves guilty of the same attitudes that were held against them upon their arrival. Continue reading “Review: England People Very Nice, National Theatre”

Review: Henry IV Part II, National Theatre

Continuing from Part I, Henry IV Part II lends itself to a lighter interpretation due to the even higher comic content in its examination of the quirks of the human being, in particular of the Englishman. With one insurrection quashed by Hal’s victory over Hotspur, another mounts up to threaten England and in quashing it, Henry IV hastens his own death. The young Prince Hal now has to step up even further to the mark as his heir, all the while resisting the ever-present grasping hands of Falstaff who wants to milk his relationship to the future King for all it is worth.

I’m not sure what it was about this show that made me like it so much more than Part I, but I felt that the whole ensemble was pulling together much stronger: Susan Brown as Mistress Quickly and Eve Myles as Doll Tearsheet,the two women hankering after Falstaff were both good, Jeffery Kisoon as a fading Lord Percy roused great emotion for his fallen son and Gambon continues his excellent comic work. Continue reading “Review: Henry IV Part II, National Theatre”

Review: Henry IV Part I, National Theatre

Forming a six hour epic, Nicholas Hytner’s productions of Henry IV Part I and Part II take up residence in the Olivier auditorium at the National Theatre. You can see them on the same day if you so desire (and your bum can take it) but we went on different days as a small thing called work got in the way!

The plays deal with the troubled reign of King Henry IV as he deals with rebellion and civil war, while his son and heir, Prince Hal, prefers to hang around East London with small-time criminals led by the aged, corpulent alcoholic Falstaff. They cover the whole breadth of English society at the time they were written, from aristocratic infighting right the way down to sleazy prostitution. Continue reading “Review: Henry IV Part I, National Theatre”

Review: His Dark Materials Part II, National Theatre

Most of what I wanted to say about His Dark Materials have been made in the earlier review of Part I, but I wanted to separate the reviews out as they are treated as separate plays although I can’t imagine anyone would just see Part I, especially with its cliff-hanger ending, and I know I couldn’t have waited any longer than the couple of hours that we did to see Part II on the same day.

This part is where some of the more obvious changes to the original books are more evident. Much of the third book has been excised, the character of Mary Malone not used here and the amber spyglass becomes less important as a result. But the story still works nonetheless, and the trip to the Land of the Dead has to rank as one of the most beautifully realised pieces of theatre I’ve ever seen, haunting and incredibly moving. Likewise, the ending to the whole story was devastatingly done, leaving me crying for a good 10 minutes after we had left the theatre even though I knew what was coming. Continue reading “Review: His Dark Materials Part II, National Theatre”

Review: His Dark Materials Part I, National Theatre

The National Theatre revived their adaption of His Dark Materials for a second run in answer to my prayers, or so I like to believe, in order to let me see it. The novels by Phillip Pullman are among my all-time favourites and though the idea of translating them to the stage caused me a little trepidation, I was immensely glad of the opportunity of the chance to see the shows.

Adapted with love and precision by Nicholas Wright who has been daring enough to make the judicious cuts necessary to create a workable piece of theatre out of the at-times-sprawling works of literature that form Pullman’s trilogy, the story that is told here is strong and cohesive and told with a sensitive clarity (although I can’t be sure how clear it actually is to anyone who hasn’t read the novels, truth be told). We follow the coming-of-age of two children, Lyra Belacqua and Will Parry and their adventure across a set of parallel universes as they search for answers to huge questions they both have, a journey that causes them to cross paths with polar bears, angels, witches, Texan explorers and in one of the most contentious of the strands of Pullman’s work, the organised might of the Church. Continue reading “Review: His Dark Materials Part I, National Theatre”