Long Day’s Journey Into Night – August 2012

Experience: 9/10

By Eugene O’Neill

Directed by Anthony Page

Venue: Apollo Theatre

Date: Monday 13th August 2012

This was a fantastic production, with two stunning performances in the central roles of husband and wife by David Suchet and Laurie Metcalf. David Suchet showed the full range of the father’s behaviour, from the charming actor through to the mean drunk who could rage at anyone with or without justification. Laurie Metcalf took the mother from the opening high of sweetness with just a hint of nerves all the way down to the depths of her addiction to morphine. I don’t know how Eugene O’Neill managed it, but despite this being nearly three hours spent watching other people’s suffering, anger, miserliness and stupidity, I not only enjoyed myself but left feeling uplifted.

Although neither of the young men playing the sons had the power of the two leads, they were good enough to keep the play in balance, as was Rosie Sansom who played the maid Cathleen. James junior (Trevor White) didn’t manage the rapid switches in the emotional journey of a drunk as well as I would have liked in the final act, but his performance was strong enough overall. Tom Railton did very well as the understudy for Edmund. His youthfulness was just right for the character, and I didn’t notice any significant slips or any imbalance in his scenes with the other characters. I don’t know when he took the part on – we heard some extra rehearsing before the doors were opened – but he fitted in just fine.

There were lots of laughs, more than I expected. The first time we saw this I think it was Timothy West and Prunella Scales as the husband and wife, and I remember it as a very heavy production with the emphasis on suffering. Another production with Charles Dance and Jessica Lange didn’t go as deeply into the characters, but this current version was very detailed, bringing out a lot of humour as well as taking us to a very dark place. Talk about dysfunctional families! We laughed when David Suchet glanced up towards the ceiling lights which he’d switched on in a fit of drunken abandon; as he sobered up, his character’s ingrained stinginess came out, and we recognised the signs even before he spoke, though his line about switching them off caused an even bigger laugh.

Laurie Metcalf’s final disintegration into a doped-up emotional wreck was difficult to watch. She lay half on the floor, curled up around the leg of the sofa, unable to relate to the other characters at all, lost in a nightmarish past. The play closed with the three men sinking into the chairs round the table and preparing for a night of drinking themselves into a similar oblivion. After the morning’s bright possibility of recovery had been snatched away, they were resigned to having lost her again. It should have been depressing, but it wasn’t. Magnificent.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Black Coffee – July 2012

8/10

By Agatha Christie

Directed by Joe Harmston

Company: The Agatha Christie Theatre Company

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Sunday 15th July 2012

What joy! Not only an Agatha Christie, but with David Suchet himself as Poirot! Heaven! And then they added a short Q&A with David afterwards! Bliss! (And I’ve used this year’s quota of exclamation marks in one short paragraph!)

This was a rehearsed reading of the only Agatha Christie play to feature Poirot. The Agatha Christie Theatre Company chose to present this reading in the radio play format, as they do with Murder On Air. Before the start, the stage had the back wall of the Heartbreak House set (very appropriate, as it turned out) with a bank of chairs in front of it, a sound effects table on the far left (the side we were sitting on) and about seven or eight microphones placed around the front area of the stage, not quite at the front. When the cast trooped on through the doors on the set, they were in evening dress, and I suspect Trevor Cooper was wearing his costume from Heartbreak House. No sign of David Suchet or David Yelland (playing Hastings), but as the butler started the play by arranging a cab to pick two gentlemen up from the station, we knew they would be arriving soon. Joe Harmston was also there in full evening dress, and he introduced the reading with a few words and gave us the opening stage directions – the library of Sir Claud Amory’s house, 8p.m.

It was a little strange at first to have the radio format when the play is meant to be staged, but I soon got used to it. Steve tried listening with his eyes shut for a bit, but it didn’t make any difference. There were gaps in the dialogue for the action, which the sound effects filled very effectively most of the time, and we enjoyed a number of these additions, especially the occasion when Jared Ashe, the Foley man, actually powdered his face to fit with the dialogue.

The situation was soon clear; Claud Amory was a scientist who had made a lot of money from his inventions. He had discovered a powerful new explosive (hence the appropriateness of the set) but the formula had been stolen, and only the people in the house could have done it. He had sent for Poirot to solve the case, but was going to give the culprit a chance to return the formula anonymously. The lights were going to go out for a couple of minutes, and if the formula was on the table when they came back on, he would send Poirot away. If not, ……

Well, the formula may have been returned, but Sir Claud’s death meant that Poirot still had a case to solve, and with various twists and turns there was plenty to sort out before Japp arrived. Hastings as usual showed his weakness for the fairer sex, while also providing the comment that triggered Poirot to find the correct answer through the mist of red herrings. Japp (George Layton) made the usual simplistic assumptions, but was more than ready to help Poirot when the crunch came, and there were lovely contributions from the rest of the cast. Susie Blake in particular was excellent as the gossipy maiden aunt who made disparaging remarks about foreigners.

I must record Poirot’s entrance, as it was a remarkable moment. The lights had gone out, there were various noises, and then the lights came back up just as the door knocker signalled Poirot’s arrival. The butler announced him, and then there was a long pause. We had realised when we saw the setup that we were likely to get a full-on version of the great detective, and so we weren’t surprised when the man himself walked through the doors to great applause. Fully in character, Poirot took his time to ensure the perfection of his appearance before accepting his copy of the script from the director; he checked his moustaches (we laughed), he checked his cuffs, and when he was sure he was immaculate, he accepted the proffered script and turned to mince to the central microphone for his first lines. I noticed he even made sure his feet were perfectly parallel before speaking.

The rest of his performance matched the start, and we loved every minute of it. There were the usual funny remarks by other characters about the strangeness of foreigners, and a huge laugh when Poirot himself commented that he was often taken for an Englishman. David Yelland gave us a fine Hastings to match this definitive Poirot, and we especially liked the way he coughed and spluttered after claiming that Poirot couldn’t blow dust in his face. It was also handy to have him there when Poirot and Doctor Carelli, another suspicious foreigner, were going to converse in Italian or French; not much use to the rest of us, but Hastings came to our rescue with a suitably funny interjection.

We pieced the clues together to figure out whodunnit before the final revelation, but it was still very enjoyable to watch it all unfold. Poirot ended the play by adjusting some papers which had bothered him with their lack of symmetry, which was a good way to end the performance, and we all applauded long and loud. A great experience to witness, and many thanks to all those involved who gave up their time to allow us to share it with them.

There was also the Q&A to enjoy, and this was undoubtedly the best attended post-show event we’ve ever seen. Some people did leave, but the house was still crammed when David Suchet and Joe Harmston came back out about fifteen minutes later. After a few comments by Joe, David made some opening remarks. He told us that he had actually trodden these very boards when the theatre was only just built, and before Olivier took over as artistic director. He had joined the National Youth Theatre, and they performed Coriolanus at Chichester (David was a Volscian general) while the builders were still there. So it was entirely appropriate in this fiftieth anniversary year to have him back. He clearly loves Chichester as a performance space, and was delighted to be here on that account, but he was also delighted to add this play to his CV, as he has made it clear that he wants to perform in every story Christie wrote with Poirot in it.

There were plenty of questions from all round the auditorium. David’s favourite part at Chichester was Cardinal Bellini in The Last Confession, a play we and many in the audience had enjoyed very much. David had been sent the script several years earlier and found it unsuitable, but a revised version came along and he found himself intrigued by the central role. He started to do his own investigation into the death of John Paul I, and realised there was something peculiar about it all, so decided to do the play. It worked very well on the Chichester stage; sadly, the director David Jones died before he could see it performed outside the UK.

David also discussed his filming commitments for the remaining Poirot stories on TV. He’ll be filming until July next year, and as these will be the last stories to be done, he knows there will be sadness and a feeling of bereavement to go through. He has a lot of gratitude for the benefits he’s received through doing Poirot, and reckons he will feel a sense of accomplishment at having recorded the complete set of stories to a standard that will keep them available for future generations. Knowing that it will be a difficult process, they’re filming Curtain first, a wise choice I think.

He doesn’t take Poirot home, though he did find it hard to drop a character in the early days of his career. His process, which is intrinsic to him, is to completely immerse himself in the character, to give the writer a voice which otherwise they don’t have. He looks for the significant contribution that his character gives to the overall piece, and when he finds that, he can proceed with confidence. He doesn’t act for himself, which he finds boring, but only to serve the work of the writers as best he can.

He will come back to Chichester if the right play comes along, but he won’t be doing Black Coffee again. We have seen the one and only performance. The choice of the radio play format was explained by Joe, and it was based on the desire to give a good performance while only having a few hours to rehearse. David is currently in A Long Day’s Journey Into Night in the West End, so this was how he spent his only day off this week – and we’re immensely grateful.

His background is not French or Belgian, sadly; he would have liked it to be. But in Who Do You Think You Are he discovered that his grandfather had lied about his background, and the final conclusion was that David is two-thirds Russian and one-third Sandwich, Kent. His favourite Poirot is The ABC Murders, due to Poirot’s lateral thinking, but Murder On The Orient Express is coming up fast in the inside. He likes the way that Poirot’s otherwise clear-cut morality is challenged by the realisation of what has happened, and the effect he could have on so many people’s lives. The book itself is quite dark, and he’s pleased that the production company allowed the film to reflect that. He’s hoping that Hugh Fraser and Philip Jackson will be available to reprise their roles for these last Poirots; that’s currently under discussion. With some final comments about the brilliance of Britain’s waterways, he finished the Q&A and we gave him a standing ovation. It was a real honour to be at today’s event; a memory I will treasure.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Last Confession – May 2007

8/10

By: Roger Crane

Directed by: David Jones

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Thursday 3rd May 2007

This is a world premiere of the first produced play by a New York lawyer in his fifties. It has seventeen speaking parts, only one double, and has taken ten years to be staged. It was an amazing debut, a fine play, and also proves the Chichester Festival Theatre management are still willing to take risks.

We attended a pre-show talk by the author, which was very informative, and entertaining, although I didn’t manage to hear everything. I’m hoping to eventually download their podcast to re-hear it all, but for now I’ll just mention that it was very funny – he has a good sense of humour – and didn’t give anything away about the plot, apart from suggesting that there’s a twist. Apparently someone had been coming on in a different costume at the end, and people weren’t recognising who he was, so now he comes on in the same costume, and people get it, whatever “it” is. Roger also stressed that he would be available at the end of the performance tonight, and positively encouraged us to come up and tell him how it went. We did so, and he kindly signed our copy of the play text. Wonderful. Now for the play itself.

The play tells the story of the year of the three Popes, as seen by insiders in the Vatican. It’s a story of the power struggle within the Catholic hierarchy (not that different from power struggles anywhere, it must be said), but heightened by the possibility that a Pope has been bumped off to make way for a more malleable or even reactionary pontiff, one who will unravel the gains made by the liberal reformers of recent years. We see the developments through the eyes of Cardinal Benelli, played by David Suchet, who is making his final confession to a monk/priest, and insists on going over the sad events of 1978. He appears to be confessing to killing the emissary of God, but experienced theatregoers such as ourselves take this sort of thing with a large chunk of salt, and don’t assume it’s literally true. (One of these days it will – won’t we be surprised!)

Benelli himself rejects being elected as Pope once Paul dies, and instead engineers the election of Luciani, who takes the name John Paul I. He is a saintly man, more Christ-like than anyone else in the play, or even in the entire Vatican, for that matter. His ideas shock the Curia, the Vatican establishment, and he even plans to replace many of those in positions of power. It is as these plans are being made that the Pope is found dead, in bed, with a heart attack being declared to be the cause of death. Benelli insists on an investigation, but it soon becomes clear that it’s just a superficial attempt to allay public suspicions. No autopsy is done, and there’s a clear possibility that the Pope may have been denied his medicine at a crucial time. In any case, murder cannot be proved, and cannot be ruled out.

That’s one of the joys of this play. It’s good at presenting the facts as far as they are known, with some reasonably inferred glosses, but leaves us entirely to make up our own minds. However, it’s clear Cardinal Benelli’s sense of guilt relates to his manoeuvring Luciani into the Papacy, to whose pressures he then succumbed. We then have the delight of seeing the various political groupings within the Cardinals locking horns over John Paul’s successor, and eventually compromising on the first non-Italian Pope for 500 years, John Paul II. Benelli has lost his chance to be Pope.

There is so much material in this play that it takes a while to absorb a lot of the details. The characters of the various Cardinals are beautifully sketched in – each has their own agenda, and to an extent they overlap, but I felt that dissension and rivalry could burst out anywhere, at any time, over the slightest thing. There was no serious commitment to serving God in any of them, other than Luciani. The Catholic religion was merely the product the Church was selling that year; given time, they might have moved into many other areas, as Marcinkus was doing with the Vatican Bank. Roger Crane mentioned that one senior Church Official, who read his play, considered that he was trying to bring down the Catholic Church. I certainly didn’t get that impression from this production, but in any case, he couldn’t do nearly as good a job as the people in charge of it are doing.

Now for the details. The set was all cages – right angles of iron bars which could be moved around easily to create offices, open spaces, etc. They made the Vatican seem like a prison – heavily fortified, an effect referred to in the text when someone mentions the Pope as being a prisoner in his own apartments. The desks and chairs, etc, were fairly plain, and costumes were naturally based on actual designs – I’m still not sure why some cardinals wear red, and some wear black trimmed with red – perhaps my resident Catholic will enlighten me. (Speaking of which, he gave me a very useful run down of the three Popes storyline before the off, which came in very handy as I didn’t have time to read the program notes beforehand.) [P.S. no, he doesn’t know why there are different colour schemes either.]

Performances. David Suchet was excellent, as always. He oozed power and intelligence, reminding me a bit of the Robert Maxwell portrayal by Michael Pennington (not that weird, we just haven’t seen David Suchet’s version yet (on TV)). Maxwell was the sort of person who might happily have made someone into a Pope, too. Michael Jayston as the confessor had a more difficult job, as he mainly seemed to be devil’s advocate (sorry) to Benelli within the structure of the play, to get him to expand on his views. His character develops in unexpected ways, however, and I thoroughly enjoyed seeing him on stage again.

Luciani (Richard O’Callaghan) was superb. His simplicity and strength made the piece work. Roger Crane made some reference to the question of how the Christian churches would react if Christ were to return, and that he feels his play addresses that issue. It certainly does, as Luciani is as close to Christ as you’re likely to get in the upper strata of any major church nowadays. I felt he was a lamb to the slaughter fairly early on, though it was good to see him standing up to the lions and doing a bit of roaring himself. Of the other cardinals, Baggio and Felici made the most impression, although that’s not to diminish my appreciation of the others. Baggio (Bruce Purchase) was the most blunt, and the only one to openly defy the new Pope. Felici (Charles Kay) was more suave, a real politician, who had seen much over the years and learned how to finesse each opportunity to his, or rather the Church’s, greatest advantage.

One final mention for Sister Vincenza (Maroussia Frank), a stroppy nun who really knows how to serve, but doesn’t see any need to soften the blow.

Finally, I must just emphasise how entertaining this was. Often funny, it was also tense, gripping and invariably powerful. The insights into human nature were accurate, and the drama built to a very satisfactory conclusion, in the sense that we knew when it was finished, and felt complete, rather than we thought it was a happy outcome for all concerned. Life’s like that.

I thoroughly enjoyed the evening and would happily see this play again. Hopefully other managements will be courageous enough to stage it, now they know it’s a hit.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me