Old Money – December 2012

8/10

By Sarah Wooley

Directed by Terry Johnson

Venue: Hampstead Theatre

Date: Saturday 22nd December 2012

We had some fun and games getting to the theatre today (weather issues), but after seeing this we were very glad we’d made the effort. It’s a very good new play which appears on the surface to be about widowhood, but which actually addresses the theme of the financial generation gap, with well-off parents finding their children still need support long after they’ve left home. In this case there was also a toxic granny (Pearl) to contend with, though we were fortunately spared the full awfulness of the fourth generation.

The set was a simple design which allowed for a wide range of locations. Above the empty stage hung an assortment of ceiling lights covering a range of styles and periods, with an appropriate light being lowered for each indoor scene. The back wall had a huge square screen showing a marble effect pattern at the start and a variety of different pictures during the performance to support each location. The left wall had one doorway with a tall panelled window above, while the right wall echoed this but with two doors and windows. For the scene outside the White Horse pub a sign swung out from the left wall, and there was a lot of sliding furniture as well as stuff being brought on and off by the cast. They slid the sofa from Fiona’s maisonette onto stage during the interval, and I thought the toy panda which was sitting on it looked particularly evil, which may explain the hesitant way the small table laden with tea things crept onto the stage on the other side. Or maybe they just didn’t want the cakes to fall off.

The play started with a brief glimpse of the funeral, with the daughter, Fiona, having to nudge her husband Graham to get him to join in the hymn – an early laugh. The grandmother’s seriously unpleasant personality was given plenty of scope in the next scene, with Joyce (Maureen Lipman) remaining silent throughout. Graham was more interested in the sherry than anything else, while Fiona spent a lot of time fending off her gran’s rabid insistence that she and Graham needed to move to a bigger house, especially with a third child on the way. Gran’s caustic observation that one child was enough came after we had learned that Joyce was her second, but the implied criticism passed Joyce by completely – she eventually left the room looking dazed with shock.

The scenes were swift and short, with the growth of Fiona’s bump giving an indication of time passing. Graham left his job and Fiona had to ask her mother for another loan (£2000 this time), while Joyce took to going out and enjoying herself and spent less time with her mother as a result, despite Pearl doing her best to turn Joyce back into the spineless puppet she’d obviously been for most of her adult life. Pearl’s eventual demise (another funeral) coupled with the imminent eviction of Fiona and Graham by the bank led to a tense situation which was finally resolved to Joyce’s (and our) satisfaction.

It was through Joyce’s excursions and her resulting relationship with a stripper called Candy (real name Jane) that we came to appreciate her background and got a hint of the darker aspects of her childhood. This came to fruition during her one and only visit to her mother, after Pearl’s stroke had left her in hospital. She said goodbye to Pearl and suggested that Fiona would put her gran in a very nice home, nicer than the place she’d been threatened with as a young woman. Her relationship with a married man had been too much of a threat to Pearl’s veneer of respectability, so Joyce had been sacrificed for her mother’s peace of mind. Fortunately, Joyce now had her life back – her ‘forced’ marriage to an older man had at least left her with plenty of money – and she didn’t intend to waste any more of her time or money on her nearest and ‘dearest’. She was off to Argentina – she looked very fetching at the end in a poncho – and the family home, which Fiona had set her sights on, was disposed of in a very suitable way. After all, there was still Granny’s little flat for Fiona and Graham to live in.

The generational differences were stark and clear: today’s young parents were shown as little more than children themselves, playing at being grown up and independent but actually still running back to Mummy and Daddy at every setback, wheedling and manipulating to get the ‘help’ they ‘needed’ so they could avoid facing reality for another month or two. Perfectly good jobs were discarded like dirty clothes, shopping sprees considered an ‘essential’ part of life. The next generation were likely to be just as bad, but without the benefit of prudent parents who would have money to spare to help them out their futures looked very bleak. Joyce’s decision to cut the apron strings from her end was probably the wise one given the circumstances, although it would be a tough choice for most people who love their kids. Fortunately, Joyce wasn’t burdened with much affection to or from her family, so it wasn’t as hard for her.

The humour was spread throughout the piece, with the darker aspects woven in very skilfully to create some contrast which made for a stronger play. The performances were all excellent. Tracy-Ann Oberman played Fiona, the brat-mother (mother of brats as well as a brat who had become a mother) very well. Her character had obviously been her father’s little darling and got everything she wanted from him, and she expected her mother to keep it up after he died. She was clearly planning to take over her mother’s house as her own – it’s what her father would have wanted – and if Mummy got too old to do the unpaid childcare she could always move out into granny’s old place. It was a pleasure to see her frustrated in her ambitions.

Her musician husband Graham, played by Timothy Watson, didn’t seem to have much in the way of ambition. Even his band seemed to be a way of escaping real life, and although he came round to recognising that he had to knuckle down and help support their growing family, I wasn’t confident how well that would go. He was at least more laid back about the changes Joyce was making in her life, even commenting that Thailand was better than Argentina (in case Joyce has to economise and move to a cheaper country).

Men didn’t fare too well in this play; most came across as selfish and demanding, from the deceased husband and feckless son-in-law to a couple of men Joyce met on her excursions. One chap seemed quite nice, a lonely man with an invalid wife, but we didn’t see him again so presumably Joyce didn’t want to get involved with him. The other man who accosted her outside the pub saw her more as a quick shag than a human being, which was definitely not what she wanted. Both of these men were nice little cameos by Geoffrey Freshwater who also appeared in other, non-speaking, manifestations.

Pearl, the toxic granny, was portrayed with detailed accuracy by Helen Ryan. While she was of necessity the villain of the piece, we could also see that there was another story lurking behind her nastiness, some reason why she was so terrified of her own daughter destroying the respectable façade which she and her husband had created for themselves. Not for this play to explain of course, but there was plenty of hinterland to be explored another time.

Nadia Clifford played Candy/Jane with such a strong, coarse London accent that I was amazed I could make out her dialogue at all, but at least her character wasn’t kidding herself about life. With a young child to care for, she was making ends meet as a stripper and prostitute, and while she enjoyed the treats Joyce gave her – tea at the Ritz was a highlight – she refused to accept her money, determined to make her own way in life. She was also the only other character who saw Joyce as a person in her own right, and it was no surprise that she was the one who moved into Joyce’s old house at the end. I notice that they changed the ending slightly from the text – Jane was originally meant to be unpacking books from the box, but in performance she tipped out her child’s toys on the floor, entirely appropriate for a happy single mum.

All of these performances were really good, but it needed a strong central performance to bring them all together, and Maureen Lipman was totally believable as the gradually re-awakening widow, showing us how repressed she’d been and the way her confidence was growing. Dowdy at the start – I didn’t recognise her at first – she transformed very quickly into a good-looking older woman, and the red coat she wore from the fourth scene onwards was a welcome splash of colour in an otherwise drab set of costumes. I particularly liked her sudden outburst when the screams of her grandchildren (offstage) got too much for her – “why can’t they just shut the fuck up”? After the laughter subsided I could hear a woman along from me say “it worked”, and it had.

One minor inaccuracy which we both spotted – Pearl was worried about possible vandalism to the headstone only two months after the funeral. From our experience, headstones aren’t put up for at least a year to allow the ground to settle, but we’ll forgive this lapse as dramatic licence.

There was one unintentional bit of comedy at the end. When the cast came on to take their bows, Helen Ryan was struggling to remove what looked like black panties which were down round her ankles – what was going on backstage? She was able to get them out of the way eventually, but it meant we were applauding through our laughter – the actors couldn’t keep their faces straight either. The house was packed, rightly so, and I’m sure this play will resurface again in the future, as it’s themes are likely to be current for quite some time.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Judas Kiss – October 2012

6/10

By David Hare

Directed by Neil Armfield

Venue: Hampstead Theatre

Date: Saturday 13th October 2012

I didn’t find this as enjoyable as the original production with Liam Neeson and Tom Hollander. The design and the play itself were partly responsible for this, but the main flaw from my perspective was the central performance by Rupert Everett, who lacked the gravitas which Liam Neeson brought to the role. This was partly a physical thing, since with his slight frame Rupert would never convince the impersonation aficionados, while with the padding they chose to use I found him unconvincingly artificial. Even so, I warmed to him as the play went on despite his overlight touch, and with the dialogue being a little darker in the second half I felt his performance worked better. I accept that his interpretation was within reasonable bounds, but having seen what can come out of this play I found it wanting. On the previous occasion I felt moved by Wilde’s situation; today I wasn’t.

The set for the first half was dark and dreary. A bare black wall slanted across the stage on the right with a gap for a window towards the back. A large bed was against the back wall, sheets askew, and when the lights came up a little I could see a sofa against the wall, a large chair in the centre of the room, other chairs and tables in between these and lots of clothes strewn about the place. We were too far round to the left to see that side of the stage properly. Over the whole floor, and covering some of the tables as well, was a vast brown sheet, possibly velour or a fabric of similar appearance. It hadn’t been spread out fully, so there were wrinkles and folds everywhere, and to my eye it made the whole room look cheap. This is meant to be an exclusive London hotel, after all; I’d expect better carpeting at least.

The play starts with a naked romp in the bed by two of the hotel staff, one of the maids and one of the men. The arrival of their boss put an end to their shenanigans, and the tidying up process allowed for some initial exposition. Soon Ross and then Bosie arrived, giving us more information and setting up their characters: Ross the quiet, prudent, faithful type and Bosie a spoilt, petulant brat of the aristocracy with no discernible positive qualities whatsoever.

During this section the servants were making up the bed – the old sheets had been stripped off and removed. Both Steve and I found this distracting, and lost out on some of the dialogue as a result. Perhaps our sightlines made it worse as the bed was in our view all the time; people on the other side of the auditorium may have fared better.

The servants continued to be somewhat of a distraction after Wilde arrived, too. Their presence was necessary though, as they allowed us to see the different attitudes of the three men towards them. Bosie was used to having servants; his idea of the only alternative to a servant pouring his drink was that the drink should pour itself. Ross was courteous to the servants and handed out the money to them, but Oscar was both kind and generous, which explained the high regard these representatives of the ordinary man and woman had for him. Mind you, the maid would happily have taken every penny that was going, and we enjoyed her reactions when Sandy Moffat, the major-domo, refused £5 for each of the three servants; she looked away, then spoke up brightly to agree with Sandy when prompted.

I don’t remember the servants being such a distraction before, but as I don’t have notes from that far back I can’t be sure. The performance started to get into its stride once they had gone and we could focus on the central relationship between Oscar and Bosie. It was clear that Bosie assumed his cousin could either prevent Wilde’s arrest or an actual trial, and that his sole motivation, despite his protestations of affection for Oscar, was his hatred for his father, the Marquis of Queensbury. Wilde was flippant at times, but his reason for staying seemed to be solely his passion for Bosie, the same sort of destructive passion expounded by Rattigan in The Deep Blue Sea.

For the second half, the set was changed to the villa in Italy. Still with the black wall, there was a huge white drape suspended over the set and drawn back to create an overhang and a wall, with the rest of the curtain pulled back round the side. The bed was placed under this curtain, there was another chair in the middle with a small table and a small cabinet for the coffee etc. against the far wall. The window became a doorway and there were some pots around the floor to suggest décor, with a couple of other chairs against the walls to complete the setting. It was still very drab; only the lighting suggested the Mediterranean.

Wilde spent most of the act sitting in the chair, and I heard more of his dialogue during this half. Bosie and the naked Italian fisherman lay on the bed at the start, and there was plenty on display for the early part of this scene. I didn’t follow the Italian dialogue but the intentions were pretty clear, and Bosie’s petulant rant about his own suffering, while Wilde sat there uncomplaining, served to show us the young man’s least attractive qualities. The discussion with Ross was good but lacked some of the temper which can be there, while the final scene with Bosie explaining his decision to leave was very good. The young aristocrat was unpleasantly manipulative, and his total lack of understanding was emphasised by his prophecy that Wilde’s plays would be forgotten (as if!). Basically he wanted to get back to a life of luxury which meant complying with his family’s wish that he leave Wilde altogether, so he dredged up every silly little excuse he could to make his choice seem reasonable. Wilde understood this perfectly, accepted and forgave it. It was a fitting end to their relationship, and an inevitable one.

The other performances were all fine today, though the theatricality of Bosie’s mannerism took a little getting used to. Between scenes there was a beam of light sweeping around the room which looked very odd. It was specified in the text however; for the second act it represented a lighthouse beam, though it didn’t behave like any lighthouse beam I’ve ever seen. In the first act it was just “the light” moving around in a strange way. Apart from that and the very low-key set design, the production was OK, and they did get a strong response from the audience. It’s still a good play, and I would hope to see another good production in the future.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

 

Henry V – July 2012

8/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Edward Hall

Company: Propeller

Venue: Hampstead Theatre

Date: Wednesday 11th July

I may have rated this experience slightly lower than the first time we saw this production, but that doesn’t reflect just how much the performances have come on since that early part of the tour. The energy is still there, the dialogue has become much clearer, and this is definitely one of the best Henry V’s I’ve seen. The only thing affecting the rating is that there wasn’t the surprise factor this time, and that often makes an experience less enjoyable for me. The audience certainly seemed as responsive, so I don’t think that came into it.

The set was as before, as were the costumes (Alice didn’t have to sign for the bath this time, though). I think the opening had been changed slightly, with the actors taking different parts of the Chorus perhaps? Understandable on a long run, keeps it fresh. The Archbishop and Bishop’s conversation was crystal clear this time round, and as we weren’t distracted by ‘crap’ staging this time (Globe production), I was aware that the Archbishop’s offer of money for a war had been interrupted by the arrival of the French ambassador – sitting smirking on the chest behind them – and that the king was due to hear the rest of the Archbishop’s Salic law reasoning shortly. Now why can’t they always be that clear?

There was quite a long song to cover the change of set, and then the religious pair kept the king waiting even longer. The Salic law point was dealt with quickly, but in reasonable detail, and the arrival of the tennis balls was just as before. However, this time they made sure they were all off the set before continuing! I’ve seen search terms on this blog connecting ‘Propeller’ and ‘injury’, so I suspect experience has taught some hard lessons on this tour.

The chorus bit was just about over before the balls were all cleared, and then we had the traitors bit. They weren’t taken up the stairs for their execution, just made to kneel on the stage, but they did all die from one axe stroke. Henry didn’t take the axe with him this time. London Calling was still the intro to the rougher elements of the play, but what a change in the dialogue. Admittedly we’d seen the Globe’s production only a couple of weeks ago, and they made this scene clearer than usual so I had a head start, but this was much more understandable through not only their delivery of the lines but also the actions used to indicate their meaning. Again the two scenes were combined, and Mistress Quickly, in her wedding dress, was present without having much to say; they did get the ‘prick’ gag in, though. At the end, when Pistol told the others to kiss his new wife as they left, there was a range of reactions from the crew; some made a valiant attempt, most were put off by the smell, but Nym was the saddest – he couldn’t bring himself to kiss her. She gave him one of the tennis balls padding her bra instead, which he held to his face as he ran off, overcome with emotion. This time I could see the red heart that Pistol gave her, and it had a little glowing light in it – ahh.

Another rendition of Chanson D’Amour, and then the discussion amongst the French nobility; I didn’t spot the Dauphin reacting to the mention of Crecy this time, but we were on the other side of the stage. The rest of the first half was as before, and we headed out quickly to hear the singing and joined in most of the songs.

Katherine was at her toilette when we got back, with her face all white. Just the cheeks and some lipstick and she was ready for her bath. The English lesson came across very well, and then we were back into battle. There were a few changes to the staging that I noticed: Exeter killed Bardolph himself, and the body lay flat with only the boots showing at the front of the platform. Pistol’s prisoner dragged himself onto the stage this time, and the blood sprayed on the boy was a very weak red – running out of Kensington gore? When Henry had his argument with Williams, I noticed that Bates, the other soldier who tells them “Be friends, you English fools”, was played by Gary Shelford, who also played Bardolph, the peace-keeper between Nym and Pistol earlier in the play, and with the same argument – fight the French, not each other.

Apart from a couple of oaths by Pistol that we don’t remember from before – ‘bloody Welsh’ (after the leek-eating incident), and ‘Merde’ (as the French came on to the stage for an early scene) – the rest of the performance was as we remembered, and we joined in the rapturous applause at the end, happy to have seen such a great production a second time.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Farewell To The Theatre – March 2012

4/10

By Richard Nelson

Directed by Roger Michell

Venue: Hampstead Theatre

Date: Wednesday 28th March 2012

This was a disappointment. From a quick scan of the program, I was aware that the author was writing about a period in the life of Harley Granville Barker when he considered giving up the theatre for good; this play was apparently using that situation to present a discussion of theatre’s pros and cons, but I have to say I wouldn’t have known that from actually watching the piece. If that was the author’s intention then there’s some serious rewriting to be done. I don’t mind the lack of action, and the actors all brought their characters to life really well, it’s just that I wasn’t engaged with them or their situations at any time, although the death of Frank’s wife was a little moving.

Apart from the writing, one difficulty I had was hearing the dialogue when the actors weren’t facing forward. The acting space had been opened up, removing some of the seats to provide a vast cavernous area for both the garden and the refectory scenes. This may well have contributed to the lack of atmosphere, and certainly didn’t help the actors with their delivery. I could hear them perfectly well when they were facing towards me, so the set was presumably the main culprit in the loss of volume.

Mind you, I have to confess to nodding off a bit during the early section of this play. There was so little of interest happening on stage that I just couldn’t stay awake. The energy picked up a bit when Henry arrived, and I was fine after that till the end, although it’s always rash to have an actor say something like ‘I wondered when it was all going to end’ – you and me both, sunshine. Steve confirmed that I hadn’t missed much; he enjoyed it more than I did, but still felt it lacked sparkle. It didn’t lack coughing, mind you; not the best audience today.

The play was set in America in 1916. There were a number of references to the war, but even so it didn’t seem to impinge too much on these people’s lives. Most of the characters were English, but had lived in America for many years. Barker himself only came to America for the occasional tour, lecturing and the like, and there was also one American student, Charles. The location was a college campus in Williamstown, where Barker was staying with Henry, a professor of English at the college, and his sister Dorothy, the widow of a professor who had apparently kept a mistress on the same campus. Dorothy had been so unpopular that no one had told her of this other woman until the day of her husband’s funeral, and since that day she had worn black all the time to compete with the other ‘widow’ in a game of mourning brinkmanship. Henry was another who had done the lecture circuit until being offered this professorship; now he was being systematically abused by the head of the English department through public ridicule and humiliation, but as he had nowhere else to go he had to put up with it. Dorothy’s cousin, George, was also staying with them; he was happy to eat the free meals and still keep in with the head of English in case there was a chance of snaffling Henry’s position – he wasn’t a nice man.

The guests included Barker himself, Frank who was a Dickens man – did readings from the books – and Beatrice, an ex-actress and lover of young Charles. Her infatuation with him made her blind to everything else, including the vicious treatment meted out to Henry after a performance of Twelfth Night by the student group, Cap and Bells. Barker was livid about it, going into all the details for Dorothy when he arrived back in the darkened refectory. I almost felt he went too far, but she needed to know, as did we. Her sharp comment later to Beatrice, that Henry‘s message was just to get her out of the room, was well deserved, as Beatrice kept going on about how wonderful Charles’s performance had been (he played Feste). I liked Barker’s bitchy comments to Charles which sounded like compliments, as by this time we’d learned that Charles had made a complaint about Henry being drunk during rehearsals in order to become president of the Cap and Bells, a post in the gift of the head of English.

As a study of the bitchiness and political in-fighting within American academic circles, a subject Richard Nelson knows well and has covered before, this was fine, but as a debate on the usefulness or otherwise of theatre, it was seriously lacking. The play ended out in the garden where it began, with the other characters giving Frank a welcome home present in the form of a Mummers’ play. It was short and livelier than the rest of the play, so we finished on a more upbeat note but it did seem to come out of nowhere, despite Barker’s little speech about recognising that theatre could do some good after all.

Although I didn’t enjoy this production much, I would be willing to give the play another chance as long as I don’t have to travel so far to see it. I would be much more interested in seeing the Granville-Barker original, mind you – hopefully some company will stage it again, as we missed the recent production at the Rose.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Richard III – July 2011

8/10

By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Edward Hall

Company: Propeller

Venue: Hampstead Theatre

Date: Saturday 9th July 2011

This was a fantastic production, with a great central performance by Richard Clothier which was well supported by a strong and balanced ensemble.

The setting was a mix of hospital and abattoir. Open metal girders on either side, curtains of plastic strips which were held back by chains, and a box frame which had assorted cutting and drilling implements dangling from it represented the abattoir, while hospital screens in drab grey, white coats on the non-specific characters, and trolley tables represented the hospital. The characters in white coats were basically those not directly involved in each scene, and they also wore masks with holes for the eyes and mouth, which made them look very sinister. When characters arrived in the middle of a scene, for example Hastings’ release from the Tower, they had the white coats pull two sets of screens across the stage from opposite sides, and when they finished crossing over, the new arrival would be discovered in the middle of the stage. This worked very effectively.

It took me longer than Steve, but we both realised that the murders in the play were being done in the manner of various horror movies, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre being the most obvious. This certainly got across the nastiness of the violence, and I suspect it freed up Richard Clothier to present the humour of Richard’s part more strongly for the rest of the time, which he did brilliantly. I couldn’t place all the other references as I’m not into horror movies, but the association was clear, even to me.

The performance began with the actors done up in the white coats and masks gradually taking up positions on the stage, silently. They were not so much menacing at this time as strangely disturbing, as they stood there gazing out at us. I don’t remember now exactly how they got into the first line of the play – I think there was some kind of mime first? –  but once started, they went along at a fair clip.

The wooing scene went very well, despite the dead body in the middle of the stage, and I felt this time, as I have before, that it’s Richard’s flattering comments about her beauty that do the trick with Anne. Jon Trenchard played Lady Anne, and made her much more feminine than Propeller usually does; in fact all the women were noticeably less butch than usual – is this a change of policy?

The two young princes were represented by puppets, which worked really well. They had shop dummy faces, which reminded me of the Autons in Doctor Who, another creepy reference. They were slightly nervous children though, hanging round their mother’s skirts a lot, except when they arrived at the Tower and the younger lad was being cheeky to his uncle Richard.

The murderers were good fun. In suits, and acting well ‘ard, they almost came a cropper with their bursts of conscience, but managed to kill poor Clarence just in time. Richard turned up just afterwards, and instead of giving them their reward, killed them both. Nasty.

After Edward’s death, when the court has agreed to bring the Prince back to London for his coronation, Buckingham’s comment to Richard about being in the party that accompanies the Prince came across as the first time that Buckingham has sided with Richard against the other factions. I also felt that Richard was acting the innocent with Buckingham at this stage, allowing himself to be led in the direction he intended to go anyway. This made their disagreement after Richard’s coronation easier to understand.

At the meeting to arrange the Prince’s coronation, Richard’s accusations against Lord Hastings are clearly preposterous, but it’s equally clear than no one dares to speak up against the most powerful man in the country. Tyrrel, the murderer of the two princes, is another creepy character. He wears a grinning mask and a tool belt with some nasty-looking pieces of equipment dangling from it. I didn’t get the film reference, but I assume it must be one. After he killed the two young boys I noticed he also had a small teddy bear attached to the belt – I think it was the same as the teddy bear which Richard gave him as the token to gain access to the princes.

The alternating scenes before the final battle were also well done, with both Richard and Henry sleeping in the middle of the stage, side by side, while the ghosts lined up behind them and then came round in front to deliver their curses/blessings. The only trouble I had with this was that the dialogue overlapped, so it was hard to hear either part clearly, but as I’m familiar with this scene it didn’t bother me too much.

I also found that the production flagged a bit once Richard was downcast. His personality had driven the action and kept us entertained, and once his light dimmed, the whole energy of the piece dropped as well. This made the final scenes less interesting, and although the ensemble worked very well together, this was a production based on the central performance, and it suffered as a result. Mind you, the rest of it had been good enough to beat most other productions, so it’s not a major complaint.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Little Eagles – May 2011

6/10

By: Rona Munro

Directed by: Roxana Silbert

Company: RSC

Venue: Hampstead Theatre

Date: Wednesday 4th May 2011

For those of us who’ve been paying attention, this play offered little new information about the Soviet Union’s early space program, and although it told the story well enough, with some good performances, I could have done with more humour to lighten the fairly dark tone of the piece, especially with a running time not far short of three hours.

The set had a back wall with large, dirty windows and central double doors. Above these, a platform could be revealed when needed. To the right was a sweep of metal, curving up into the flies. Furniture was brought on and off as needed, and once or twice I felt this was a bit slow, but it worked OK for the most part. The costumes were presumably authentic for the period (they should be – with all the Russian plays the RSC’s been doing, their costume department must be bulging at the seams with this stuff).

The opening scene had Stalin speechifying from the platform about the threat from without and within. As he spoke, a couple of guards and some shambling prisoners came on to the stage, and gradually, through collective mime, we were led to understand that this was a labour camp, and conditions were really, really bad. Personally I felt they overdid this bit, with the mime looking very actors’ workshop, and although parts of this scene were useful later on, it could probably be trimmed if not dropped altogether with some rewriting elsewhere. Anyway, we met Korolyov, the father of the Russian space program, his mate Old Man, and a young female doctor who’s inexperienced in the ways of the gulag, but soon learns the ropes.

The next scene is set in the prison factory where the USSR is developing its own ICBMs, out in the back of beyond. Korolyov’s wife and daughter have just arrived from Moscow, and we learn that if Glushko, Korolyov’s current boss, didn’t shop him during the purges, his wife certainly did. This makes it a bit difficult for her to stay with her husband, especially as she wants her Moscow life, and he gets so obsessed with his work that he wouldn’t see much of them anyway.

It’s a big day for the project, as they’re being visited by members of the Politburo and they have to present them with a success story. Turns out Stalin is dead, Khrushchev has taken over, and with his right hand man Brezhnev, he’s keen to be brought up to speed on Uncle Joe’s secret little project. When Korolyov gives him the information in a way he can understand, Khrushchev puts him in charge of the whole project, and pardons all the prisoners. Not only that, Korolyov is finally able to put forward his dream of space flight, and with Khrushchev keen to beat the Americans at something, Sputnik can finally fly.

We soon get through the early years of the space program. From Sputnik’s beeping at the world we move swiftly on to the cosmonaut program, glossing over the animal test flights with a mendacious assurance to the first four test pilots that all the dogs came back alive. The reality is admitted to Geladze, the military officer responsible for selecting cosmonaut trainees, and who provides the hard line Communist perspective through to the end of the play. For example, he recommends Yuri Gagarin as the first cosmonaut because he has impeccable proletarian credentials, even though his test scores weren’t as high as at least one of the other pilots.

There’s also a glimpse of the degree of suffering which the Soviets were prepared to inflict on their own men, when we see a short encounter between Gagarin and a human guinea pig, a wreck of a man slumped in a wheelchair. He’s been through the same physical endurance tests as the trainees – heat, cold, oxygen deprivation, large g-forces – and taken to the limit of each so that the scientists know how far they can push the trainees without killing them, the implication being that some of the guinea pigs weren’t so lucky. In some ways it was harder to watch than the gulag stuff, not only because I found it easier to relate to a specific individual, but because he was so happy to be serving his country in this way. The doctor looking after him was the doctor from the camp in scene one.

The Gagarin launch scene was done in an unusual way, and I’m still not sure if I liked it or not. With various people scurrying around the stage, and tempers fraying as the deadline approaches, Gagarin was up on the platform waiting, while his backup was in his flight suit on the stage, hoping his chance would come. It didn’t. Gagarin was given the go-ahead, and came down onto the stage, where he was attached to two wires. As the spacecraft took off, he was gently lifted up, while the other actors peered upwards as if watching the rocket disappearing into the sky. The stage was darkened, small blue lights shone out all across the back wall and the sweep of metal, and when the rest of the cast left the stage, there was Yuri, swinging around in space, telling us all how beautiful it looked. It was a fairly effective piece of staging, though rather spoilt by cast members coming on once or twice to set Yuri spinning – this was when he was making his re-entry.

His landing in a country field was well done, though, with two women working in the field and being understandably suspicious of a strange chap parachuting in. Gagarin’s keen to take them, and some other farm workers who turn up, for a drink before the official welcoming party arrive, but he’s too late, and the officials whisk him away to see Comrade Khrushchev as quick as you like.

I have no idea what the scene with Khrushchev and Gagarin waving to the crowds from the balcony was intended to give us. With those two at the back of the stage, we were left with Mrs Gagarin and Korolyov having a conversation, and I found a good deal of this dialogue incomprehensible due to Samantha Young’s delivery. I did get that she thought their reception was an honour, and that she was shy, but not much else.

After the interval, we had another speech from the platform, this time by Khrushchev. I nodded off for a bit during the next scene, but I gathered that it covered Korolyov’s remarriage, a major disaster with long-range missile testing, the Soviet side of the Cuban missile crisis, and the increasing rivalry between Korolyov and Glushko. With mounting pressure to beat the Americans, deadlines become ever tighter, and finally Korolyov is facing a crunch moment. Brezhnev, now in charge, arrives to sack him and put Glushko in charge. The evidence mounts against Korolyov – his ill-health, dubious decisions, etc. – until finally he makes Brezhnev a guarantee that he will have his Soyuz rocket ready to launch in eighteen months. With this chance to regain the competitive lead over the US, Brezhnev leaves Korolyov in charge, and now things get even tougher for his team.

We’ve seen him before being ruthless and tyrannical, insulting people and driving them to do their best, then being best buddies with them when things are going well. Now he’s much worse, even using the idea put forward by Geladze earlier that they can get by with only six hours sleep in every forty-eight. Some clamps are discovered to be defective, but with such tight deadlines and a limited budget, there’s no opportunity to change them. As a result, the cosmonaut’s capsule fails to re-enter properly, and he’s blown up. This was another use of the wires, with much more spinning this time, and although I experienced the emotional effect of knowing this chap won’t survive, I didn’t feel this staging worked as well as the first time.

Just before this, Korolyov was sent to Moscow for surgery, and in the final scene, we learn that he died during the operation due to problems caused by the beating he took way back in the gulag. The doctor has defected to America, and this scene is part of her debriefing. She’s still obsessed about getting an apartment, and there’s some humour in the US airman’s comment “everyone gets an apartment”. After the airman leaves, Korolyov’s ghost appears, and the final lines are a question from the doctor about the meaning of Korolyov’s achievements.

It was an OK ending, but I still feel the play hasn’t quite come into focus yet. There’s the historical stuff, of course, and that story’s pretty well told, but the use of ghosts was a bit clunky at times, and there’s too much done with Gagarin’s character in the middle section which takes the attention away from Korolyov needlessly, I feel. I’d prefer to see the first scene cut, with the information conveyed during later scenes, which would give us more personal time with these characters as well, but then I’m not a dramatist, just an enthusiastic observer.

Decent performances all round. Greg Hicks was excellent as Geladze, doubled with Old Man, while Brian Doherty as Khrushchev and Phillip Edgerley as Brezhnev gave nice little cameos. Noma Dumezweni was perfection, as usual.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Dunsinane – February 2010

Experience: 8/10

By David Greig

Directed by Roxana Silbert

Company: RSC

Venue: Hampstead Theatre

Date: Wednesday 24th February 2010

We’ve come to expect very little from the RSC’s new writing in recent years – interesting ideas, good performances, but the plays need work (sometimes a lot of work). So it’s a delight to find that this new play is not only interesting and not only has some great performances, but is also a fully fledged piece which I would like to see have a longer run, preferably at Stratford (in the Swan, please).

The Hampstead Theatre’s auditorium was seriously remodelled for this production. The first three rows of seats were removed, and placed on the right hand side of the stage, which cascaded out in a triangular shape into the space between the seats. From the left of the stage, now the back, a set of irregular stone steps flowed down from a high point, topped by a Celtic cross. The ground below was fairly neutral, both in colour and texture. There was one fire pit opened up during the second half, otherwise it stayed the same (as far as I can remember). There were three ‘chandeliers’ hung across the stage – basic flat wooden circles with numerous candles – and in the second half some bare tree trunks with a few branches were planted here and there. Centre back were some doors, removed in the second half. Furniture was brought on as needed, and the removal men were very efficient. Costumes clearly reflected each ‘side’ or nationality, with the English soldiers wearing chain mail covered by white tabards with the red cross, and the Scots being dressed in leather tunics, cloaks and woollen breeches, apart from the women, of course. The queen wore a lovely deep blue gown which set off her long red hair beautifully, while her women looked more like nuns in their simple clothes. Almost forgot – the band were at the very back, looked like a three-piece.

The play began with a young English soldier telling us of his experiences on the way to Scotland. He spoke to us a few times during the play, as if he were writing letters to his mum. The next thing, all these other soldiers trooped on carrying skimpy bits of branches with leaves. The sergeant handed a branch to the young lad and told him to pretend he was a tree. He then gave the group some coaching in how to look like a forest. It was a very funny scene, and got us off to a good start. To the RSC’s credit, they put enough bodies on stage to make a credible army which really helped the performance, especially as they got them on and off remarkably swiftly.

Next we saw the queen and a couple of men, but as they were speaking Gaelic I haven’t a clue what they were saying – no surtitles. She hugged one of them and he headed off while the other chap, who’d been shooting arrows through the window of the door, stayed behind. When the English soldiers turned up he was soon killed, and pretty quickly the fighting was over. Siward learned of the death of his son, while another Englishman, Egham, entertained us all by doing his man-flu routine over a minor arrow-in-the-shoulder injury. Siward pulled it out for him, not that he got any thanks as Egham passed out from the pain.

Now we were into the post-war phase, or peace, as Siward liked to think of it. Trouble is, it turned out that not only was the queen still alive, she has a son who was now in hiding (the chap who ran off earlier) and not all the Scottish nobles are straining at the leash to shower Malcolm with their vows of allegiance. When Siward raised these points with Malcolm, he was given a wonderfully funny lesson on the Scottish way of using language, which seemed to involve a fairly liberal use of the word ‘seems’. In other words, Malcolm told the English what they needed to hear to get them to invade, but calling Malcolm a liar to his face will get you into trouble. Ring any bells?

After this, Macduff gave Siward an explanation of Scottish politics that made my head swim, never mind his, and I knew a little bit about the setup beforehand. Basically, there were two royal houses in Scotland, Moray and Alba, constantly at war with one another. Gruach, the queen who is still alive, is the highest ranking princess in the Moray line, and whoever she marries becomes king, while her children are the heirs. Personally I think passing the kingship through the female line is a much more sensible approach, since before DNA testing it wasn’t always possible to know who the father was, but the mother was pretty obvious. Of course, even now there can be doubts about royal bloodlines, despite our modern technology, but that’s another story.

Back to the historical situation. Malcolm is the heir of Alba, and apparently unencumbered with wife and kids, so Siward’s proposal at the end of the first half that Gruach and Malcolm marry to unite the two houses must have seemed like a really good idea at the time, at least to him. My first thought was, who’s going to kill who first? The festivities had scarcely got under way when Gruach’s followers invaded the castle, killed a load of people and took her away, a fitting climax to the first half.

The second half was less funny, but then there was more killing, including the execution of Gruach’s son, and Gruach herself wasn’t around till the final scene as we were seeing the action from the English perspective. Questions about the English reasons for still being there abounded, as they now indulged in great brutality with no clear purpose in view. Siward wanted ‘peace’, but hadn’t grasped that there are some wars you can’t win in a pitched battle, the simple way. They need a devious kind of political understanding, and even then the deep rooted loyalties keep getting in the way, even when these allegiances are always shifting and ephemeral. The best option all round was for the English forces to get out, but we didn’t get to see that far in this play. Instead, we were left at the end with Siward delivering Gruach’s son’s mutilated corpse to her, and her showing Siward her grandchild who is, at least in her view, the next king of Scotland. When he couldn’t bring himself to kill it, to try and create some kind of unity out of the mess that he’s helped to bring about, Siward headed off, leaving Gruach alone on the stage, a dramatic and powerful conclusion.

There was much more humour than this description brings out, and I really enjoyed myself this afternoon.

© 2010 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me