Review: Kings of War, Toneelgroep Amsterdam at the Barbican

“I did not yet know the value of the throne”

It’s well over six years now since Toneelgroep Amsterdam blew open my tiny little mind with their Roman Tragedies. Back at a time when this blog was in its infancy, back when I ‘only’ saw something like 10 shows a month, back when making the decision to see a six-hour-long Shakespearean epic in Dutch was something surprising. Nowadays of course it is second nature, I regularly visit Amsterdam to see this extraordinary company work and I’ve been to New York to see director Ivo van Hove cast his magic on Broadway too in The Crucible. But it is nice to only have to go to the Barbican to see them too and at just the four and a half hours, Kings of War is practically an amuse-bouche!

My spoiler-free review from Amsterdam is here but so much more resonated with me second time around, so we’re going deeper here folks. As with the significantly worthier The Wars of the Roses (more than twice as long in toto, less than half as good), the impetus for the storytelling comes from merging Shakespeare’s first history cycle, only van Hove goes one further and includes Henry V (and arguably a smidgen of Henry IV Part 2 too). So the overarching narrative becomes one of power – the violence of seizing it, the realities of maintaining it, the struggle to keep it – as played out over and over again in this vicious cycle of dynastic tussles.  Continue reading “Review: Kings of War, Toneelgroep Amsterdam at the Barbican”

20 shows to look forward to in 2016

2016 is nearly upon and for once, I’ve hardly anything booked for the coming year and what I do have tickets for, I’m hardly that inspired by (the Garrick season has been ruined by the awfulness of the rear stalls seats, and I only got Harry Potter and the Cursed Child tickets due to FOMO). Not for the first time, I’m intending to see less theatre next year but I do have my eyes on a good few productions in the West End, fringe and beyond. Continue reading “20 shows to look forward to in 2016”

Review: Een Bruid in de Morgen, Toneelschuur Haarlem

“Ik heb nog nooit zoiets merkwaardigs gezien als hoe die twee met elkaar omgaan”

Though considered one of the most important contemporary Belgian writers, Hugo Claus’s renown hasn’t stretched much outside of the Flemish-speaking world. So it is perhaps fitting that I saw Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s production of his Een Bruid in de Morgen (A Bride in the Morning) at the Toneelschuur theatre in Haarlem in its native language, without the English surtitles that are so usefully provided on Thursdays at their main base in the Dutch capital.

I was well up for the challenge though, not least because the show fell under the auspices of their emerging directors programme TA-2 – nurturing the Ivo van Hoves of the future – and through which I saw Julie Van den Burgh’s extraordinary reinterpretation of Blood Wedding back in 2013. This time round, it is Norwegian Maren E Bjørseth getting the opportunity to work with the ensemble company, taking the show around the Netherlands. Continue reading “Review: Een Bruid in de Morgen, Toneelschuur Haarlem”

11 of my top moments in a theatre in 2014


I’ll be doing a regular top 10 alongside all the other end-of-year totting up of the theatrical delights on offer in 2014 that will eventually be written up but I thought it might be interesting to first look at it from a slightly different angle, thinking about the single moments – rather than the productions as a whole – that took my breath away (or were hair-raisingly good…) Undoubtedly there will be some crossover between the two lists, but there are things here that crop up the mind just as often as the plays I’ve labelled my favourites so here we go – naturally, some production spoilers abound…
(c) Jan Versweyveld
The final scene of Ivo van Hove’s A View From The Bridge
I don’t think anyone who saw this would disagree that this was one of those hugely special moments of theatre that will pretty much live forever in the memory. An outstanding 1 hour 40 minutes had already passed by this point – marking out what I’ve been saying for a while now about the extraordinarily vision van Hove brings to his work – but the final scene crystallised all the operatic grandeur and scorching emotion in one excoriating, sense-assaulting image that I dare not spoil even now – the perfect confluence of Jan Versweyveld’s design and light, Tom Gobbin’s sound and an exquisitely cast company. Book for its return to the West End now and experience it for yourself, this will sell out.
Waltzing at The Grand Budapest Hotel, courtesy of Secret Cinema 
My first experience of Secret Cinema was one of the atypical ones in that we knew in advance what the film would be – Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel in this case – but it didn’t stop me from having a top night out, rounded off by one of the most thrilling moments of the year. Just before the film started, we were gathered in the circular hotel lobby and though I don’t recall exactly how it began, those of us on the ground floor started to waltz round and round as flurries of snow fell from the sky. It was a hugely gorgeous moment, not least because I’d never waltzed before (and intriguingly enough for me, I was the waltzer rather than the waltzee, which is how I always thought it would play out!)

Lee Curran’s lighting for the Royal Exchange’s Hamlet 
Though all eyes were on Maxine Peake for her mesmerising take on Shakepeare’s part of parts, director Sarah Frankcom ensured all aspects of her production were firing on all cylinders and for me, it was Lee Curran’s lighting design for the ghost scene that provided the most breath-taking moment of the evening. In amongst a tangled forest of lightbulbs, Peake’s Hamlet moved to an otherworldly place in pursuit of the ghostly fatherly figure and the eerie luminescence provided really elevated the scene into something special.
(c) Simon Annand
Helen George in The Hotel Plays 
Gethin Anthony’s thighs will be rightly celebrated in another of the end-of-year posts that will follow this one, but the thespian highlight of The Hotel Plays was Helen George’s hard-done-by mistress – the first performer I saw in this site-specific promenade piece and by far the most memorable. George is of course one of the stars of (the not-at-all-guilty-pleasure) Call The Midwife but she showed no signs of difficulty in swapping mediums as she fearlessly pinned us all down with sustained eye contact in an intimate hotel room of Tennessee Williams’ swirling imagination.
(c) Manuel Harlan
Tom Scutt’s design/the general awesomeness of the third act of Mr Burns
It is comforting to think that a show never gets better after a first act you don’t like, especially if you’ve made the decision to leave at the interval. But for those poor unfortunate souls who left at either of the intervals in Anne Washburn’s Mr Burns, which woke up audiences at the Almeida over the summer, there will be no chance for them to make amends for the gravity of their mistake. The three acts of the show differed strongly but it was the pseudo-opera of the final act that blew me away with its spectacular vision, aided by Tom Scutt’s glorious set and costumes (not taken from his personal collection, he assures me) which adroitly captured the entirely distinct worlds of each act.
(c) Marc Brenner
The general awesomeness of the third act of Our Town too
For the second time in three shows, the Almeida managed to deliver an absolute “doozy of a third act”, this time managing to cram not one but two stunning coups de théâtre into the short but superlative final segment of this all-American classic. Not having seen a production of the show before, the uniqueness of David Cromer’s interpretation might have been a little lost on me but there was no doubting how inventive and illustrative his bare-bones approach was from the start. And as the (metaphorical) curtain rose on the last act, suitably titled ‘Death and Dying’, Cromer and designer Stephen Dobay took the breath away with a first evocative piece of staging and then raising the actual curtain, went in for the kill with a second which perfectly brought home the power of Wilder’s message.

Anton Tweedale’s ‘Losing My Mind’
Sondheim revues can begin to feel a little repetitive with the enduring popularity of the composer and their frequent appearances in our theatre, and so it takes something special to really make them stand out from the crowd. And for Ray Rackham’s Just Another Love Story at Fulham’s London Theatre Workshop, it was Anton Tweedale’s beautifully bitter take on ‘Losing My Mind’ that has long stayed in my own mind and left me wishing for a recording thereof.
(c) Tristram Kenton

Ashley Martin Davis’ set design for Wonderland
Signs were ominous when the first couple of previews for Beth Steel’s Wonderland were cancelled but upon walking into the Hampstead Theatre, the breath-taking scope of Ashley Martin Davis’ transformative set design made you fully appreciate why time was taken to ensure everything was just right. Carving out a working space that stretched over three storeys, the operational mine shaft was an audacious but essential part of a thrilling production that emphasised just how much the pit itself had a part to play in forming the fierce communal bonds that Thatcher fought so hard to tear asunder.
(c) Mark Douet
The fate of Adrian Scarborough’s Fool 
Directors often enjoy finding new twists on Shakespearean classics and Sam Mendes was no exception with his long-awaited take on King Lear. The most arresting of these came with the sheer brutality with which Adrian Scarborough’s Fool met his end, the rage-fuelled fugue state that took over Simon Russell Beale’s Lear a shocking but entirely convincing extension of character and a fiercely fresh take on a well-known plot.
‘Let The Grass Grow’, hell, the whole damn score for Free As Air
Given my love for Salad Days, it should come as little surprise that I adored Free As Air which also came from the pens of Dorothy Reynolds and Julian Slade, but it does take a sure hand to ensure that the delightfully retro feel of this 50s musical doesn’t tip over into twee nostalgia. Fortunately it got this in Stewart Nicholls’ hands at the Finborough so that even by this second number – ‘Let The Grass Grow’ – my face was beginning to hurt from smiling so much.
(c) Sanne Peper

Bob Cousins’ design for Simon Stone’s Medea in AmsterdamA late entry but one I couldn’t possibly ignore as one of the last shows I saw this year ended up being one of the best and certainly one of the most fascinatingly designed. Bob Cousins matched the fearless invention of Simon Stone in updating Medea to a contemporary time and place but still keeping an abstract timelessness to his work. The huge white space of the set thus formed the perfect backdrop for the fierce dramatics and a slow-burning coup de théâtre that still gives me shivers when I think about it now.

Review: Medea, Stadschouwburg Amsterdam

“Omdat het kan. Omdat ik me herinner hoe het voelde toen ik het ontdekte, van jullie twee. En ik wil haar laten zien hoe dat voelde.”

There is something hugely exciting about the way that Simon Stone works. His contemporary recasting of The Wild Duck ruffled some feathers when it played at the Barbican in October and now it is Euripides’ turn to be excavated and explored as Stone makes his directorial debut at Toneelgroep Amsterdam with a scorching interpretation of Medea. With Ivo van Hove as Artistic Director and a long-standing repertory company of immense talent, Toneelgroep are surely one of the most exciting companies around – hence my regular trips to Amsterdam to see them – and collaborating with Stone here simply enhances their prestige with such a punishingly powerful production.

Where Stone so fearlessly succeeds is in the discarding of any notion of classical fidelity, opting instead to distil the story to its very essence and then reframing it for modern audiences. So here, through improvisation work with the company, the age-old tale of Medea is interwoven with the true life case of Debora Green, a US mother who attempted to poison her husband and succeeded in killing two of their three children. The result is a combination that simply cannot be ignored, the dismissive unreality of ‘Greek tragedy’ is pulled kicking and screaming into our world, the terrible deeds of this mother – renamed here Anna – made harrowingly believable in this striking new context.

This he achieves through a series of bold decisions. Gone is the Greek chorus and in its place Stone gives voices to Anna’s two children Gijs and Edgar and also to Clara, the Glauce figure with whom Anna’s husband is having an affair. Thus the world of the play is concentrated on the implosion of this nuclear family who now each have their role to play in the psychodramatics that drive Anna to her terrible acts. And Bob Cousins’ design provides the perfect space in which to play them out. A wide expanse of timeless white space again pulling away from classical allusions as it allows for scenes to bleed into each other, take place simultaneously, or be filmed and projected live by the children who are making a family documentary for a school project.

Continue reading “Review: Medea, Stadschouwburg Amsterdam”

Review: Lange Dagreis Naar De Nacht, Amsterdam Stadsschouwburg

Verleden is heden, of niet? Het is ook de toekomst. We proberen onzself daaruit te liegen, maar het leven drukt ons er met de neus op.”

For those new to Eugene O’Neill’s masterpiece Lange Dagreis Naar De Nacht / Long Day’s Journey Into Night, the opening image of Ivo van Hove’s masterly adaptation for Toneelgroep Amsterdam sets the tone accurately as a family drama as the four Tyrones – mother, father, two sons – embrace. But it’s a disarming sequence too, as the next three hours sees this nuclear family unit exploded as drug addiction, terminal disease, alcohol abuse and the bitter frustrations of past and present tear them apart. And they each float around the vast stage of their modern home like isolated atoms, the mind is drawn back to that opening image, reminding of the tragedy of the disintegration in front of us.

And though Jan Versweyveld’s beautiful set stretches across a wide and deep space with just the minimalist touches of design, van Hove’s production swells to fill it to the brim with the bruised pain, aching recriminations and crushed dreams of these four who are lost in this world, their inescapable own little worlds in fact, that simultaneously keep them trapped here yet unable to interact in a meaningful way. That opening embrace is inspired by Mary’s return from treatment for her scarcely acknowledged morphine addiction but over the course of the day that follows, the ‘long day’ of the title, her return provokes the subtlest of shifts in their collective self-delusion. Continue reading “Review: Lange Dagreis Naar De Nacht, Amsterdam Stadsschouwburg”

Review: Antonioni Project, Toneelgroep Amsterdam at the Barbican

“Wie tegenwoordig voor mooie dingen geeft?”

Featuring the return of Toneelgroep Amsterdam to the Barbican, Antonioni Project is another multimedia extravaganza from the Dutch theatre company who blew many, including me, away with their six-hour Shakespeare epic, The Roman Tragedies. Under Ivo van Hove’s direction, they have built up a sterling reputation as one of the leading European companies with their innovative blending of film-making techniques into more traditional theatre and creating a whole new theatrical experience for the audience.

This work pulls together three of Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1960s films, L’Avventura, La Notte and L’Eclisse, with their common themes of couples struggling to reconcile notions of love with the reality of sex in a changing world that they feel estranged from due to their extreme materialism. The narratives of the three films are mixed, with characters from each interacting, I’d recommend reading the programme beforehand whether you know the films or not just to give you a bit of context that will prove invaluable. Continue reading “Review: Antonioni Project, Toneelgroep Amsterdam at the Barbican”

Shows I am looking forward to in 2011

My intention is, honestly, to see less theatre this year and try and regain some semblance of a normal life again on the odd evening. But the curse of advance booking and grabbing cheap(er) tickets whilst you can has meant that there’s already an awful lot of theatre booked for 2011. Some have been booked without a huge deal of enthusiasm, but others have a dangerous amount of anticipation attached to them…and so I present to you, the shows I am most excited about seeing this year (so far).

Antonioni Project – Toneelgroep Amsterdam at the Barbican

The Roman Tragedies was hands down one of the most exhilarating and refreshing theatrical experiences of 2009 and possibly my life, I’m even headed to Amsterdam in May to see a surtitled production of their Angels in America. So when I heard that the same Dutch theatre company were returning to the Barbican in February, tickets were booked instantly and I am feverishly over-excited for this now! Continue reading “Shows I am looking forward to in 2011”

Review: The Roman Tragedies, Toneelgroep Amsterdam at the Barbican

“Who amongst us here would not want to be a Roman?”

At first glance, this might not seem the easiest way to spend an evening: three Shakespeare plays back-to-back, lasting six hours and performed entirely in Dutch. However The Roman Tragedies is probably one of the most exhilarating theatrical experiences of the year. Presented here at the Barbican by Toneelgroep Amsterdam, the foremost Dutch theatre company, Coriolanus, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra are performed consecutively, as per their timelines which gives a pleasing flow to the evening: there’s a real sense of a grand narrative to the whole evening, of the developing nature of politics and democracy and how it is communicated to the masses.

It opens on a large stage with the cast spread over a number of sofas and ministages, and the play is delivered in a normal fashion with surtitles provided on a large screen above. Then as the first break approached, some consuls appeared in the middle of the audience to deliver their scene, giving you the first indication that this would be no ordinary production. During that first break (rather than normal intervals, the action is interspersed with short breaks), the audience were invited to come onto stage and watch from the sofas: there was also a bar where you could buy a drink and computers to check your email, you could really immerse yourself in the action and become part of the play, a citizen of Rome if you will, whilst the political debates of war and democracy rage around you. I particularly loved the scrolling news flashes which reminded us of the length of time until the deaths of each of the key characters, it was so witty I didn’t even mind that it was 295 minutes until Cleopatra’s death! Continue reading “Review: The Roman Tragedies, Toneelgroep Amsterdam at the Barbican”