Emperor And Galilean – July 2011


By: Henrik Ibsen, in a new version by Ben Power

Directed by: Jonathan Kent

Venue: Olivier Theatre

Date: Tuesday 12th July 2011

We were always going to be keen to see this rarely performed Ibsen, and this production, of a Ben Power adaptation, didn’t stint when it came to the cast or the set. Andrew Scott’s strong central performance as Julian anchored the piece brilliantly, and while the play doesn’t have a lot of laughs, our attention was hooked throughout.

It came across to me as a debate play, looking at religious conflict in general, and specifically the clash between spiritual and temporal power, self-will or God’s will, hence the title. Would Julian choose to take on the mantle of emperor to bring about the ‘third kingdom’ which would unite man’s worldly and divine natures (yes, I know, nutty as a fruit cake), or would he choose to be subservient to the will of the god represented by Jesus Christ, the Galilean? Given that these early Christians are so full of the Holy Spirit that they joyfully massacre anyone who follows a different path, it’s a tough call, especially as Julian has lived his life on the brink since Constantius had the rest of his family murdered when he and his brother, Gallus, were small boys.

Raised in Cappadocia as a devout Christian, Julian was brought back to Constantinople with his brother Gallus when they were young men, and kept close to the Emperor to prevent them from taking their revenge. Gallus appears to be honoured by Constantius when he’s given the title ‘Caesar’, and anointed as Constantius’s heir, but then he’s immediately sent to wage war against the Persians. I assume Constantius hoped he would be killed in battle, but in fact he’s victorious, and so he’s sent to Cappadocia as Governor, where he cracks down hard on the locals who’ve taken to fighting each other over religious differences. Finally, with Gallus seeming unkillable, Constantius brings him back to Constantinople, where he dies of something or other, i.e. he’s poisoned.

We hear most of this by report, only seeing Gallus himself in the opening scene. Meanwhile Julian, the nervy sensitive type, is worried about his future. He feels he has a destiny, but what is it? His faith in the Christian god is clearly waning, and he deliberately chooses to play hooky in Athens where he can study at university and find out the truth. Sadly, Athens doesn’t live up to his romantically idealised expectations, so when he hears of a local magician who has brought a statue to life, he’s keen to find this man and learn from him. His friends from Cappadocia, who’ve been with him all this while, start to leave him, and the door to madness swings wide to let him in.

Maximus, the magician, is determined to overthrow the Christian religion, and while it’s admirable that he wants to bring light into the world, and sincerely believes what he tells Julian, it’s clear things are not going to end well. Even Maximus is concerned when first Cain and then Judas appear to Julian in a drug-induced vision, but he seems to get over these concerns remarkably quickly when he finds himself advisor-in-chief to the new emperor. At the end, with Julian dead and Jovian, his general, proclaimed emperor in his place, Maximus expresses his disappointment that Julian turned out to be a dud after all, before indulging in a spot of competitive chanting with Peter, Julian’s only remaining friend from Cappadocia who’s reciting the Lord’s prayer over Julian’s dead body. Their positioning, one on either side holding an outstretched hand, and with Julian’s body down to a loincloth, evoked the crucifixion image used at the start of the play and again later. It suggested to me that the same leader, once dead, could be used by different groups to promote their own, conflicting, agendas, and don’t we know all about that today.

I don’t know if I can use the word ‘set’ to talk about the acting space, as it was anything but static. From the opening scene, with half the revolve dropped away to leave a semicircular chasm with a life-size crucifixion sculpture suspended half-way into it, the stage itself never seemed to settle into any particular format. For the most part, the space was open, and the revolve either dropped or rose to create many levels and locations. There was a low platform for Athens, with a very shallow splash pool and a screen backdrop with a view of the Acropolis. There was a throne room in Constantinople with a throne, a rug and not much else. There were the massive walls of a church, and two equally massive doors, as well as walls for other buildings, including a much smaller church in Antioch. There was one particularly gruesome setting which was on three levels, with the lowest being a kind of basement in which Maximus was evidently doing some heavy duty butchery as part of his advisory duties. The plastic bags and lots of fake blood suggested that many animals had been carved open for entrail-checking purposes, but then why had he kept the remains? Eugh.

The costumes were a mixture of modern and Romanesque, which worked fine for me, and overall the production was visually stunning. The dialogue seemed very fresh, and I have no idea how much of that was the new version, and how much Ibsen. The liberal use of extras for the soldiers, students, etc, added to the sense of historical change sweeping across society, and also created a strong contrast with the more solitary scenes. Ultimately, though, the whole performance depended on how well Andrew Scott carried off the part of Julian, especially as he’s on stage for almost the whole of the play; fortunately, he played a blinder. We hadn’t seen him before on stage, but I do hope we see him again. He showed us Julian’s difficult journey through the twists and turns of political and theological upheaval very clearly, and although it would be easy to dismiss Julian’s character as a whiny, spoilt brat, I never felt completely out of sympathy with him, even when he’s being disastrously insane. Mind you, there were other examples of nuttiness to compete with his, such as Helena, Constantius’s sister, who’s been having sex with a priest believing it’s actually Jesus she’s shagging. She’s another one with the gleam of holy murder in her eye – at one point she’s egging Julian on so much I couldn’t help thinking she’d give Lady Macbeth a run for her money.

This tremendous central performance was well supported by all the cast, so praise all round for a terrific production. We were surprised to see very few gaps in the audience for the second half – for all that we enjoyed it, it wouldn’t be the easiest play to relate to, despite the topical nature of the subject matter – but I’m glad it’s getting such a good response.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

A Doll’s House – June 2009


Originally by Henrik Ibsen, in a new version by Zinnie Harris

Directed by Kfir Yefet

Venue: Donmar Warehouse

Date:  Thursday 25th June 2009

This is a tricky production to evaluate, with so much having been changed from the original. First, there is the change in setting from Victorian Oslo to Edwardian London, and the area of life from banking to politics. Then the language is also seriously changed; not just translated from Norwegian to English, but to relatively modern English as well, making the dialogue seem both anachronistic and much more aggressive. The characters don’t draw us into their lives by their restraint so much as fling words at each other, like guests on some bizarre Edwardian Jerry Springer show. This change of style lessened the impact of the emotional discoveries and changes for me, and left me feeling slightly disappointed. There was a good deal more humour as a result, which is rarely a bad thing, and but for the childish reactions of a number of the youngsters in the audience, the amount of physical sexual activity might have had more of an impact, so my sense of disappointment wasn’t just with the play.

Then there was the style of performance, which was cruder than I would have liked, although powerful in the final scene between Thomas and Nora. The actors all did a fine job with this style of production, despite occasional bouts of shouting for no apparent reason, so I will have to put any lack of subtlety in the performance down entirely to the director. Both Steve and I felt that the part of Doctor Rank was underwritten, though ably played by Anton Lesser, and my overall impression was of a ‘dumbing down’ of the play for a modern audience. It was still good, but not as good as the ‘real’ thing, and it’s hard to avoid the big question in all of this – why bother?

The set was magnificent, with a wide curved back wall completely filled with book shelves, a Christmas tree to our left waiting to be adorned, lots of packing crates and boxes everywhere, and a beautiful parquet floor. Overhead there was a large oval hole with a railing around it, suggesting a pretty impressive house, and a ballroom above the library. The costumes were all perfectly in keeping, which made the strangeness of the dialogue all the more noticeable.

Both children were on stage today, and this version certainly made it clear, through Gillian Anderson’s excellent acting, how totally she believes herself to be an unfit mother after Thomas’s scathing condemnation of Kelman’s influence on his children. The scene between Kelman and Christine Lyle, Nora’s old friend, declaring their long-held love for each other, was good, and funnier than it had any right to be, and it was interesting to see Tara Fitzgerald as the friend after seeing her play Nora a number of years ago.

It was an enjoyable afternoon, and I can’t help feeling that, with a bit of rewriting and more sensitive direction, this could be a reasonably good version of a classic play.

P.S.    Having slept on it, I’ve had some more thoughts about this version. I realised that times have moved on, and in some ways the original isn’t as challenging and provocative as it once was, but I couldn’t see the new ideas and challenges which were being presented in this version. I didn’t see any fresh take on the situation, and I did see a number of things that weakened the main thrust of the piece, namely the moral difficulties caused by the inflexibility of the social mores and legal position of women at that time. Firstly, with the more modern style of language, Nora’s choice to leave her husband at the end seems the sensible choice, rather than a huge leap into the unknown with no chance of support from society and every chance of extreme hardship for someone who has been relatively cosseted all her life. Secondly, the portrayal of Kelman (Christopher Eccleston) removed the possibility of him being a good man forced by circumstances to commit some dodgy dealings to make ends meet. He makes it clear that he did the things he’s accused of, and while it can be a good thing that he makes no excuses for that, it does throw Christine into a morally ambiguous light for choosing to be with him regardless. Is she just a woman who’s fallen for a ‘bad’ man, or is she really able to see the goodness in him and possibly bring that back out?

Kelman’s moral choices are also the template for Nora’s. He has the money to lend her because of what he’s done, and it’s Thomas’s absolute condemnation of Kelman’s actions, with Nora knowing that she’s done the same thing, that sets up much of the tension of the final act, much of which was missing in this production. So if Kelman is definitely dishonest, a popular choice in the current climate, where does that leave Nora? Can we excuse her innocence and choices if Kelman’s are to be condemned? Is it one law for the women and another for the men? And then the penny dropped.

It is the moral ambiguity that comes to the fore in this production. How do we evaluate the choices made by Kelman and Nora, and do we deal with the actions solely on the basis of their illegality, or do we make distinctions between them based on the intentions and results? This may not have been the adaptor’s intention, of course, but it’s a view I’m willing to accept as valid for this piece. It certainly supports Ibsen’s view that women are judged by men’s standards, which is still true today.

However, I still feel the ambiguity in setting is a hindrance. The Edwardian aspect makes it easier to get away with such a clear demonstration of the oppression of women (Thomas’s comment about owning his wife got an audible reaction from the audience) while the modern language lessens the impact, although it probably helps the younger audience members understand it better. So perhaps my final comment above still applies, though without the need for rewriting.

© 2009 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

A Doll’s House – September 2008


By Henrik Ibsen, in a new version by Stephen Mulrine

Directed by Peter Hall

Company: Peter Hall Company

Venue: Rose Theatre, Kingston

Date: Thursday 11th September 2008

This was a marvellous production, with wonderfully detailed performances.  The set design was excellent, courtesy of Simon Higlett, whom we heard giving a talk at Chichester. The set was a cubic frame, with a screen for the back wall. This allowed us to see through to the entrance hall and door, and a corridor running off to the right – Torvald’s study was the first door along. The room itself was sparsely decorated, with a sofa, several chairs, some tables, a small stove, an item which looked like a large candleholder but turned out to be a lamp stand, and an upright piano. A chandelier hung from the right hand side of the ceiling, and there were three doors, one in each of the three invisible walls. (The doors were definitely visible.)

The performances were all excellent. I knew the story well enough now to appreciate some of the finer details. Catherine McCormack as Nora was all edgy nervousness. She got across that character’s attractiveness as well as her childish inability to grasp the way things work. She lives through her emotions; if she feels something strongly, it must be right, and the rest of society must be wrong. Finbar Lynch as Torvald was one of those men who’s tremendously sure of themselves, creepily so, and although he’s fond of Nora, she’s right when she compares herself to a doll that he plays with. Admittedly, he couldn’t possibly know exactly what she’s been up to, but his smugness is just asking to be taken down a peg or eighteen. I loved the way he swung from total anger when he first discovers the truth, to almost ingratiating happiness when the incriminating piece of paper turns up. After her disclosure, Nora was both remarkably still and remarkably quiet, and I could see her growing up and realising how far apart they were as she stood there. There were some other lovely touches, such as Torvald clearing some waste paper off the floor onto the sofa, only for Nora to sweep it all back again so she can sit down. Her action and his reaction told us a lot about both their characters and their relationship. Later on, Torvald wagged his finger to warn Nora not to ask Mrs Linde to stay.

At first I thought Anthony Howell as Krogstad was a bit too honest-looking, but as the plot unfolded I realised that he had to have a fundamentally good character, otherwise Mrs Linde wouldn’t have fallen for him in the first place. She has to talk him round to marrying her in a very short scene later on, and persuade him to return the bond, so if he’s a complete scoundrel, or totally corrupted by life’s hardships, that bit isn’t going to be believable. In the end, I think Anthony Howell judged it just right.

Susie Trayling as Mrs Linde had an unfortunate mismatch between her hair piece and her natural hair – I’m not sure if it was a deliberate mistake to show us the character’s poverty, or accidental. It distracted me a bit during the first act, but I found I could ignore it better after that. She’s an invaluable character, as she allows Nora to tell us what she’s done early on so that we’re in the know, and also counterpoints Nora’s own way of dealing with financial hardship. While Nora broke the law to take care of her husband, Mrs Linde has worked hard to support hers, and with little thanks, it would seem. Nora’s childish glee at how well off she and Torvald will be once he starts his new job in January shows a complete lack of sympathy on her part for her friend’s situation, but it also allows us to see how the people around Nora tend to forgive her.

Christopher Ravenscroft as Doctor Rank did an excellent job. His attraction for Nora was more clearly expressed than I remember seeing before, and the poignancy of the dual conversation after the party was very moving. For once, we got to see the children, although not for long, but it helped to make this a much more rounded production. The presence of the children in the early stages lets us see their importance to Nora, and emphasises the way she cuts herself off from them later on, after Torvald’s hugely judgemental pronouncement about Krogstad’s criminal activity, which mirrors Nora’s own.

This was a very satisfying production to watch, and made me appreciate the sort of impact this play had when it was first staged. I could see why polite Norwegian society would have been shocked, but I could also see how readily other playwrights took up this way of presenting ‘real life’. I recognised Chains Of Dew (April 2008) as a response to this play, and even saw echoes in Dangerous Corner, with the husband’s insistence on finding out the truth no matter the cost. Maybe I’ll see more connections and influences in the future. At any rate, I’ll be interested to see the Donmar’s version next year.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Rosmersholm – June 2008


By Henrik Ibsen, in a version by Mike Poulton

Directed by Anthony Page

Venue: Almeida Theatre

Date: Saturday 14th June 2008

The set was a drawing room, with scruffy walls in depressing shades of blue, a window to our left, a stained mirror, portraits on the walls, nice formal furniture, and a white tiled stove in an angled recess. There was an attractive bowl of flowers on the table, otherwise it was as austere and gloomy as an Ibsen play. (So the designer’s done a good job, then.)

The second act has the same window and stove, but the rear wall is further forward, the furniture is more relaxed, and there are bookcases and no portraits. This was the private sitting room/study off Rosmer’s bedroom. The final scenes revert back to the first set, and all the action takes place over three days.

Rosmer is one of Ibsen’s naïve, idealistic heroes. His wife committed suicide a year ago, and he is just starting to get involved again in the life of Rosmersholm, the town his family have effectively ruled over for a couple of centuries. He’s been helped by a woman, Rebecca West, who was originally nursing his wife through her illness, and who’s stayed on in order to assist Rosmer to find his true vocation. It appears nothing improper has happened, but the situation leads to rumours, and while Rosmer remains a pillar of the community they’re unlikely to affect him much. However, as he’s not only stopped being a priest but renounced his religious beliefs as well, he finds himself friendless and vulnerable to gossip and suspicion. He’s keen to support the movement for change that was surfacing in Norway at that time, and Rebecca’s support for this has been a key factor in his recovery from his wife’ suicide. Various revelations through the play make past events fairly clear to us, although the possibility of incest in Rebecca’s past is left as a suggestion only, and the final choice of the unconsummated lovers is as downbeat as one might expect from Ibsen.

The other characters are interesting. Rebecca West herself is less likeable than Ibsen’s usual women – Strindberg would have approved. She represents the kind of free-thinking women that must have been coming out of the kitchen closet at that time, but here she’s not necessarily a force for good. It’s interesting that this character has the same name as the famous writer, although the play was written six years before the real person was born.

The doctor, Kroll (very close to troll?), represents the absolutist establishment view. He’s for God, King, country and keeping the peasants in their place. His friendship with Rosmer appears to be based more on the Rosmer family’s status and his friend’s earlier traditional opinions than on any great affection for the man himself. He frequently tells Rosmer how gullible he is, and is only reconciled to him once the revelations make Rosmer ready to doubt his support for change. Malcolm Sinclair gave us a wonderfully detailed performance, with many good lines delivered impeccably.

Ulrik Brendel is Rosmer’s old tutor, currently a down and out but hoping to make it big now that the political tide has turned in his direction. He talks big, but there’s nothing behind it. It’s a fetching performance by Paul Moriarty, and allows us to see how easily Rosmer can be swayed, and how kind and generous he can be as well.

Mortensgaard is the editor of the left-wing paper, and his insights are very entertaining. At first delighted to find that Rosmer has given up the priesthood, he’s quite candid about his disappointment that Rosmer has left the church altogether. He wants people still in the church to come out in support of the new ideas, so that ordinary people will listen to them. Another atheist is no good to him, so he just won’t mention that part. It’s a useful part for showing us how impractical Rosmer’s idealism is. Sitting in his ivory tower, hatching plans with Rebecca to change people’s attitudes, he’s completely unaware of how opinions are influenced and shaped. He had hoped to stay above it all, a pure radiant beacon of light showing others a better way to live, and he’s sidelined so quickly he hardly has a chance to take it all in.

This leaves the maid, Mrs Helseth, a strict but kind Christian woman, prone to believing superstitions, such as the local one about a ghostly white horse presaging death. She shows us the ordinary people who still hold the church and its priests in high esteem; she still calls Rosmer ‘pastor’, though I assume she knows he’s defrocked himself. Her view of events on the fatal footbridge gives us the ending of the play.

I felt this was a very good production of an interesting play. I enjoyed the arguments and the insight into the upheaval that Norway was going through at that time. The program notes identified this play as the crossover point between the external threats in Ibsen’s plays (An Enemy of the People), and the interior conflicts (Doll’s House). I’d agree with that, and that’s part of what made it so interesting for me.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

John Gabriel Borkman – April 2007


By: Henrik Ibsen, in a new version byDavid Eldridge

Directed by: Michael Grandage

Venue: Donmar Warehouse

Date: Thursday 5th April 2007

This was a fascinating play, and an excellent production. The intimate setting of the Donmar worked very well, as the play focused on the peculiar domestic situation of the Borkman family. The senior generation were basically a bunch of loony tunes trying to get by on their delusions, which all come to a sudden, shattering end when JGB’s son finally decides to speak up for himself, and to run off with the woman he loves (and a spare).

The set was simple. A row of windows at the back look out on to some trees, dead now in winter, as snow gently drifts down. A wide bench sofa in the middle has some grey crochet work on it, while to our left is a table and chair. Deborah Findlay, as Mrs Borkman, is restlessly sitting, crocheting, and pacing, as she waits for her son’s arrival. But the first arrival is a woman, unknown to the maid, who is obviously both well known to Mrs Borkman, and seriously disliked by her. Mrs Rentheim (Ella), is played by Penelope Wilton, and it turns out she had taken away Mrs Borkman’s son, Erhart, when JGB was sent to prison, many years ago. He’d used other people’s money to live a more lavish lifestyle than he could afford, and to speculate in the emerging market to exploit Norway’s mineral and other resources. We learn of the women’s rivalry for Erhart’s affection, and how Ella, whose money had been completely untouched by JGB’s depredations, bought the family estate, and allows them to continue living there. Mrs JGB seems particularly obsessed, repeating the idea that her son has a destiny to restore the family name. Like most of the characters in this drama, she feels she has suffered the worst, more than those who lost all their life savings, because she has suffered the loss of the family name. At the very end of the scene, Ella clarifies their relationship, as twin sisters.

Towards the end of their confrontation, Erhart arrives home, with Frida and a Mrs Wilton. They are off to a party at the Hinkel’s. Mrs Wilton is a very sociable woman, and it’s evident that Erhart is smitten with her. Frida heads upstairs to play piano for JGB, while Mrs Wilton takes her leave to go to the party. However, soon Erhart follows her, much keener for her company than his mother and aunt’s.

The second act is set in the upstairs room where JGB spends his days, pacing up and down, and occasionally being entertained by Frida. She plays Danse Macabre – his favourite, apparently. The room is similar to the one downstairs, but the windows are shuttered, and the furniture is different, with several piles of books dotted about the place. After she leaves, by the back stairs, her father, Vilhelm, arrives. He spends his spare time trying to be a poet, and writing a play. From JGB’s reactions, it’s clear he doesn’t think much of these efforts, but he does need an audience for his own views. As we need to hear them too, we’re treated to his megalomaniac diatribe against the forces which brought him down, specifically a lawyer whom he considered a friend, and to whom he’d confided too much. The lawyer, Hinkel (yes, the same one), passed some letters on to the authorities, and JGB was doomed. He’s spent the last eight years going over and over the trial – the evidence, the prosecution’s case, his own defence – and time and time again he comes to the same conclusion – he’s innocent! Yet again, we have a character who feels “more sinned against than sinning”. I suspect Ibsen is having a go at the older generation, perhaps those who seem to be constantly passing the buck for their decisions, and expecting the next generation to make everything better. I don’t know any historical context for this play, but that seems to be the message.

JGB and Vilhelm quarrel, and after Vilhelm leaves, JGB is visited by Ella. She’s determined to have Erhart for her last few months on earth, and she wants JGB to help her convince Mrs Borkman to let him go. When he attempts to help out (and this involves going downstairs, something he hasn’t done since he came back from prison eight years ago), everything falls apart. Mrs Borkman sends for Erhart, to force him to decide between them, but he drops a bombshell of his own. He’s leaving that very night, with Mrs Wilton and Frida. They’re travelling to Europe, where Frida will get further training in music, and probably some other things as well. Mrs Wilton is quite frank about the inevitability of their relationship ending, and Erhart’s eventual need for a replacement – she’s just making sure he’s got one handy. At last Erhart speaks up for himself and renounces all his elders’ plans for him. By this time, even JGB is planning to re-enter the world and rebuild his life, and wants Erhart to go with him. But Erhart will have none of them. He doesn’t want to work, he just wants to have fun. So off they go.

The penultimate scene sees the three older folk outside, looking for the sleigh that will carry Erhart away from them for good. They hear the ringing of silver bells further down the hill, and then Vilhelm appears. He’s come from his house to tell them the good news; that Frida’s off to study music in Europe. Mrs Wilton’s taken her, and there’s a tutor to teach her other subjects as well. JGB explains what’s happened, and he’s delighted – unlike the others, he seems to see good in everything that happens. He was even knocked down by the very sleigh that was taking his daughter away, an event that doesn’t bother him – he’s more impressed by the fact that the sleigh had silver bells, showing how wealthy Mrs Wilton is.

The final scene is JGB and Ella walking through the night to a bench they used to spend time together on. He’s refusing to enter that house ever again. He talks of the opportunities he can feel in his blood, the ores and other riches lying in the cold ground, calling to him to release them and let them fly. His one regret is not having been able to do that. He dies, from the cold, and slumps down on the bench. Mrs Borkman arrives, with the maid, and sends her for help. The two sisters talk, their animosity apparently at an end, but although they speak of holding  hands over the dead body, I noticed that this staging had them at either end of the stage, and showing no signs of getting any closer. (According to the stage directions in the text, they do hold hands over JGB’s dead body.) Interesting.

There’s a lot of good stuff in this play, and the actors portrayed the various characters brilliantly. Their willingness to show total obsession, rampant megalomania, and all sorts of other less popular traits, was admirable. Not a family you’d want to spend time with, but absorbing to watch on stage. None of the characters is appealing, although Ella does at least seem to be more concerned that Erhart should live his own life than any of the others. She was JGB’s great love, but he left her to Hinkel in return for the position at the bank which would allow him to carry out his schemes. She loved JGB, and was devastated when he renounced her. More unnecessary suffering.

I liked the honesty and humour of the production, and the symmetry of the opening scenes – three women confronting each other, and then three men, although Hinkel isn’t physically present. I found my sympathies changing a bit over the performance, though nothing could make JGB remotely likeable. A very enjoyable afternoon.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me