The Physicists – June 2012

6/10

By Friedrich Dürrenmatt, in a new version by Jack Thorne

Directed by Josie Rourke

Venue: Donmar Theatre

Date: Thursday 21st June 2012

I’m wary of European writing; it tends to the obscure and dull, and while this was undoubtedly a very funny play, it did have its low points for me, superb performances notwithstanding. Three physicists are housed in an asylum; two of them are convinced they’re Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton, while the third actually is Johann Wilhelm Möbius who’s gone mad simply through being a physicist. With two of their nurses dead, and the public prosecutor getting restless, what will happen to the three men? And what has all this got to do with the debate about the responsibility of scientists in the modern world?

The set was almost completely white. The back wall was a mass of doors; the three main doors were helpfully numbered 1, 2 and 3, while the rest of the space was filled with similar doors, some on their sides to fit in the gaps. There were two stubs of brick wall on either side, with megaphone speakers high up – these were never used. Above it all were serried ranks of institutional lights, four rows of five. A table and chair were placed towards the back of the stage and in front of the middle door, while a 60s style armchair with a high curving back, and a matching footstool were on our left. Front right was another round table with a carved wooden chair, all in white. There was a muted green wastepaper basket by the table, a small light on it, and a table and light over by the armchair. The only splashes of colour were the bowl of red apples on this round table – very vivid in this setting – and a huge portrait leaning against the right hand wall. It showed an older man with wire rimmed glasses and a white moustache. The painting also had a hidden drinks cupboard.

The play began in the dark. When the lights went up, a body was lying on the stage in front of us, the body of an attractive blond in a nurse’s uniform. She was clearly dead, and the others present revealed themselves to be a police inspector, his assistants – one medical, one photographical – and a very stern senior nurse for whom all sorts of pleasure were definitely forbidden! They went through the procedures for dealing with a dead body, finally removing the corpse altogether, leaving only a red taped line to show where she had been, and there was a lot of humour all through this section. The inspector then met Newton, who also kept us entertained for a while with his intelligent and barbed comments. The ‘perpetrator’ of the murder, Albert Einstein, was unavailable at this point, though the strains of his violin playing were just discernible from behind the wall; this was his way of calming down. Newton had also murdered his nurse some three months earlier, and his residency in an insane asylum had obviously provided the perfect antidote to arrest and a different form of imprisonment.

The inspector’s investigation petered out after a chat with the institution’s founder and chief psychiatrist Dr von Zahnd, played by Sophie Thompson, recently a marvellous Mrs Hardcastle in She Stoops To Conquer at the National. Her portrayal of Dr von Zahnd involved a hump that would not have disgraced the most outrageous Richard III, and her shambling gait, pale face and clinical manner made me think of a cross between Ygor and Baron Frankenstein. She must win awards for these performances, surely! Her explanations for the murders and assurances that it wouldn’t happen again – the only other physicist left in this part of the institution, Möbius, was entirely harmless – appeared to satisfy the inspector, and the geniuses were left alone to their madness.

The first half culminated in the murder of another nurse, this time Möbius’s, following a visit from his ex-wife and their sons. She had remarried, and was heading off to some distant islands in the Pacific with her new husband, who was a missionary. She wanted to say goodbye before she left for good, and the stress of this news seemed to affect Möbius badly. He threw a fit of madness, throwing off his clothes, pouring body lotion all over himself, and generally behaving badly. His ex was glad to leave, and with Dr von Zahnd’s reassurance that Möbius would still be cared for at this expensive facility, she left with a clear conscience.

Möbius’s nurse was well aware that he’d been faking his madness, and now she wanted to marry him and help him achieve the greatness she knew he deserved. This prospect was too horrific for him and so he strangled her with her own belt, leaving her body in almost exactly the same position as the first body we saw, as outlined by one of the policemen in red tape. The second half therefore started in a similar way to the first, with a dead body on the floor (played by the same actress) and the police beginning their investigation. At least the inspector now knew where the brandy was concealed.

After this second body was cleared away, the play moved into a different phase, with male security guards, sorry, nurses, arriving to replace the women – mind you, there was only one female nurse left alive. These men set up the dinner table for the three inmates and left them to it, allowing us to hear their private conversation. It turned out that Einstein and Newton were, indeed, faking it, each having been sent to the asylum by their government to observe Möbius and learn what they could about his scientific discoveries. Newton, himself a respected physicist, was from a totalitarian country, while Einstein, another physicist in disguise, was from a more democratic country, but one where scientists had very little real power. The rest of the play was largely a debate about the responsibility of scientists for the information they discovered, and frankly this bit was rather dull. There was a final twist, not entirely unexpected, which made the whole debate irrelevant, and that was that.

I enjoyed much of this play, and the performances were terrific, but the style and theme weren’t to my taste. I find this kind of discussion too ethereal, lacking pragmatism, as if going over and over these issues can somehow resolve them. The debate itself is valid and can be interesting, but I prefer to be connected to it through caring about the characters, which didn’t happen here. Still a good production, though, and an interesting choice from the new artistic director.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Recruiting Officer – March 2012

8/10

By George Farquhar

Directed by Josie Rourke

Venue: Donmar Theatre

Date: Thursday 1st March 2012

A great start for the new regime – a strong production of a classic play with some very good performances. To begin with, the Donmar has changed a bit since our last visit (Richard II) with the wall at the back of the auditorium removed and new seating with patterned cushions. I don’t know if any of that was just for this production, but they don’t usually lash out money unnecessarily so I reckon it’s an upgrade. And very comfortable we were too.

The set was very rustic, with wooden floorboards and wooden planks across the top of the stage, large round candlelit chandeliers and wooden stairs and posts in the back corners. They began proceedings before the start of the play with the band, a five-piece who also played the minor parts. They had a drummer who also strummed a small guitar, a proper guitarist, a fiddler, a flute player and a double bass player who wore his instrument like a guitar for most of the time. When we turned up about fifteen minutes before the off, they were already on stage and entertaining us all with some period music, ranging from slower ballads to lively jigs. They played a lot during the performance as well, particularly the song Over The Hills And Far Away, one of Steve’s favourites – we nearly joined in.

While they played, some of the cast came on stage to light the candles – the chandeliers were lowered for that purpose – which took some time as there were lots of candles on each one. There were also some pretend lime lights all around the edge of the stage – small electric lights inside shaped holders. When everything was ready, the band drew our attention by gathering in the middle of the stage and playing softer and softer, then breaking out into a more lively section. After that finished, they lined up across the stage and began to play some strange sounds. Many in the audience laughed straightaway, but it took me some time to recognise what they were doing – playing ring tones! I spotted the flute at the end, and we applauded when they finished and moved off the stage. When the applause died down, Sergeant Kite came on to start the play proper, and I was reminded of the ending of Our Country’s Good a few weeks ago, when this opening scene was performed in that play’s last scene.

I won’t go through the story for this one, it would take too long. There are two ladies and their suitors, a maid, a country wench, a fop, a judge and a rascally recruiting sergeant who moonlights as a German fortune teller. All end happily except for Lucy the maid, who loses her chance to marry the fop and become a lady. There are plenty of laughs along the way, and although there are undoubtedly references that would be funnier in Farquhar’s day, we didn’t feel left out by the language.

The performances were very good, although I felt the judge was showing his age a little in his hesitant manner; this weakened the performance slightly but not too much. Mackenzie Crook was fine as Sergeant Kite, but really came into his own as the fake German fortune teller, with his false goatee beard and black eye makeup. I liked the way they simply hung up a rope with a bead curtain part way along it to form the entrance to his room; a chaise longue, table and chair completed the furniture, and the table was laden with all sorts of bric-a-brac suitable for the charlatan’s trade. Tobias Menzies as Captain Plume was excellent with his smooth charm and willingness to cheat and swindle anybody to recruit more men into the army, specifically the Grenadiers. Mr Worthy, played by Nicholas Burns, was a good match for him, and I loved the way Worthy and his beloved, Melinda, had a coy little kiss at the end while Plume and Sylvia were having a proper snog in the middle of the stage.

Sylvia (Nancy Carroll) and Melinda (Rachel Stirling) were also very good. We’re accustomed to Nancy Carroll’s talent for playing men, but this time I felt she made her Wilful a little more feminine, appropriate for this production. Melinda was great fun. At the start she put on such an overly posh accent that we could barely understand her, while Sylvia made excellent fun of her ‘ears’ and graces. At the start of the second half, she spotted the Maltesers on the lap of the lady next to me and made for them with a gleam in her eye, only to stop herself at the last moment with a cry of ‘no’! The same lady was singled out later by Worthy as the person he had been coming to the park to meet, and she took in good part all the references that were made to her during this conversation and later on. Melinda also bumped into one of the posts as she made her way off stage after the reconciliation with Worthy, and did a nice job of staggering around a bit before finding her way past the posts and into the wings.

The maid and Rose, the country wench, were also fine, and we noticed that Plume was very gallant when Rose came on with her skirt all rucked up; he kindly sorted it out for her so she wasn’t showing off her knickers to all and sundry, although from the way she was behaving earlier we weren’t sure if that was part of the performance or not. And finally Mark Gatiss as Captain Brazen was an excellent fop, the sort of man you’d run a mile to avoid, but very funny when you only have to endure him from a comfortable seat in the auditorium. He was very civilised, though – he kept handing his hat or cane to people in the audience to hold for him while he enacted a scene, and always thanked them most graciously when he took those items back again.

The dialogue was very clear throughout, and made more sense than usual; the language of this period can seem very dated if not delivered well, but today it was fresh and understandable, which helped to make the production so enjoyable. The pace was good too, with two and half hours skipping by like frisky spring lambs. It was nice to see this play again, especially so close to Our Country’s Good, and we’re looking forward to the Donmar’s next offering.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Much Ado About Nothing – July 2011

7/10

By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Josie Rourke

Venue: Wyndhams Theatre

Date: Monday 11th July 2011

I was a bit disappointed with tonight’s experience, not so much due to the production as the audience. With so many David and Catherine fans, the laughter came all too easily, and while some of it was very well deserved, there were times when it swamped the dialogue, times when it was strangely absent, and times when it came for no apparent reason at all. This was not your regular Shakespeare audience, and while I’m glad this run has been so successful, and hope that it will turn one or two youngsters on to Shakespeare’s work, I found that the uncritical adulation spoiled my enjoyment a bit.

The set was excellent, with four big pillars on a revolve surrounded by slatted panels and doorways suggesting the warm Mediterranean location perfectly. The costumes were also excellent – modern dress, with military costumes and formal suits rubbing shoulders with scruffy dungarees and T-shirts. Benedict’s costume for the masked ball looked like a cross between Lily Savage and Olivia Newton John in the final scene of Grease, Hero’s wedding dress echoed Diana’s, and Dogberry wore military fatigues with the word ‘officer’ across his chest.

The parts that didn’t work so well for me included the second part of the eavesdropping scene and some of the ruined wedding scene. The eavesdropping scene was staged with a couple of decorators bringing their trolley on stage and touching up the paintwork on a door and then one of the pillars. This allowed Benedict to get white paint on one hand, which then ended up on his face, clothes, etc. All this was very funny, but the trouble is there’s another round of eavesdropping to go, and Beatrice not only has to do something different, it really has to top Benedict’s efforts or the energy will flag. Tonight, Beatrice’s comic business involved covering herself with the painters’ tarpaulin, then groping her way towards the back of the stage where she could be attached to a hook and lifted up. All well and good, and very funny to start with, but then the laughter just drowned out the dialogue and I switched off very quickly. I’ve seen this done better.

The wedding scene started very well, with a nice change of pace into the darker phase of the play. Benedict’s reactions were particularly good here, making it clear that even this joker recognises the enormity of the Prince and Duke’s accusation. Then when Beatrice and Benedict are left alone, the humour of their mutual admissions of love were funny, but the excessive audience reactions jarred with the previous mood, and when Beatrice tells Benedict that she wants him to kill Claudio, this was also greeted with laughter, which is so wrong and certainly not how it was played. Even so, I was very moved by this scene, not as far as needing a hanky, but my eyes were definitely wet. This sort of insensitive response detracts from the performance for me, although not completely, thank goodness.

Other negatives in the staging included the strange bit after Claudio has read the poem over Hero’s grave. He has a portable CD player and some booze with him for his all-night vigil, and by dint of playing loud music, swigging the booze and throwing himself around a lot, I deduced we were to understand that he was truly sorry for what he’d done. In case we hadn’t taken the hint, he even took out a gun, and was about to shoot himself when Hero walked in, dressed in black. He’s so amazed by her appearance that he collapses on the floor, where the Prince finds him the next morning. Neither Steve nor I could figure this one out. Was it Hero herself stopping him, in which case how did she get there at just the right moment, or was it a vision he was having, in which case why was she in a completely different outfit? I’m all for ambiguity, but this was just vague.

I was also suspicious of the semi-corpsing when Beatrice came to call Benedict in to dinner. We’ve seen this sort of rehearsed improv before, and it didn’t ring completely true for me, while Steve was out and sure it was a fake. I noticed tonight that Catherine Tate reappeared in the wings briefly after her final departure – no idea why.

The other main problem I had with the performance was Catherine Tate’s weak delivery. She started off well, but in any prolonged speech she tended to lose energy and volume. This wouldn’t have been a problem in a more average production, but with such high-powered performers around her it was very noticeable. I also found Don John and Borachio hard to follow, Don John because of his rather jerky delivery, and Borachio because I couldn’t tune in to the accent he was using. Choosing to replace Leonato’s brother with his wife was an interesting move – trying to balance up the sexes perhaps? – but her part was seriously underwritten as a result, with nothing to say in the wedding scene, and no threat to fight the Prince either. Her delivery was even weaker than Catherine Tate’s, so perhaps it was a blessing she had so few lines.

So what did I enjoy about the play? Well, the other performances were excellent, and even Dogberry came out funnier than usual. John Ramm still struggled with that first scene – when no-one is pointing out the errors it can fall a little flat – but his later appearances went down well, especially his final leave-taking of Leonato. He had a thing with his sidekick, Verges, where they put their fists together and said ‘boom’. He tried to go through the motions of this with Leonato as well, but realised it wasn’t going to be reciprocated, or appreciated. His insistence on being ‘written down an ass’ went down very well with this crowd, which made up for them missing some of the other gems.

David Tennant was, as expected, excellent, with great comic timing and clear delivery of the lines. I noticed he was more static than in his RSC roles, but that’s probably the proscenium arch for you. He did have to mug it up a bit for this audience, but he does that so well, who cares? Both Adam James as the Prince and Tom Bateman as Claudio were very good, and I was impressed with what I could hear of Sarah Macrae as Hero – her part suffered the worst from the excessive laughter. I enjoyed Jonathan Coy’s excellent Leonato, and although I couldn’t always make out Don John’s dialogue, I appreciated Elliot Levey’s portrayal of the part. It reminded me of Richard Nixon, all stiff and formal, and with inappropriate attempts to be one of the boys, including offering a cigarette to the young lad.

The pre-wedding stag and hen nights were a very good piece of staging, and allowed ‘Hero’s’ infidelity to be staged as a shag against the wall in a dark space with Margaret wearing Hero’s bridal veil. It also allowed Don John to craftily get both his brother and Claudio well drunk before showing them the ‘proof’.

When the Prince proposed to Beatrice, he was in earnest, and her embarrassment when she realises this was evident. He’s clearly hurt by her rejection, and Leonato’s request for her to ‘look to those things I told you of’ is solely an excuse to get her out of there, for which she’s very grateful.

The young boy was excellent, too – don’t know which one it was tonight, their pictures in the program are too similar. He brought the book back just at the wrong time, and finally Benedict threw it off the stage to get rid of it and him. Later, when Benedict is attempting to compose a love-song to Beatrice using an electronic keyboard, he pushes a button which starts the machine playing some music, and can’t get it to stop. Needless to say, when the young lad walks across the back of the stage, he sees that Benedict’s in trouble, and with the resigned air of the technically savvy youth, walks over, pushes the right button, and leaves. Beautifully done. Benedict then starts checking out some of the other options, before giving up entirely. I think this scene was put before his request to Margaret to fetch Beatrice, but I can’t be sure.

During the wedding scene, the reactions from Don John and Margaret were easy to miss, but well worth catching. Don John was smirking a bit when Hero was accused, while Margaret looked shocked, then worried, then guilty, and her mother hustled her out of the church quickly at the end.

Overall, it was a lively and fairly straightforward interpretation of the play, with lots of humour and affection between the characters, and despite the audience reactions, I enjoyed it very much.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

King John – September 2006

Experience: 3/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Josie Rourke

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Saturday 9th September 2006

I found a lot of this terribly dreary, and could hardly keep my eyes open. The Swan felt very stuffy and I longed for a breath of air. The repetitive wordiness of the play just started to wash over me, and there wasn’t enough business and action to keep my attention. Like the bastard Philip, dubbed Sir Richard, I became frustrated that nothing was going on.

This was a disappointment, as much of the cast are also in Much Ado, which was excellent. This is not a criticism of the actors, as they were giving perfectly good performances – the production just didn’t have that sparkle about it. The bastard was definitely the best role, and Joseph Millson got a good deal of the humour out of the part. In fact, I thought there was more humour in his performance, if only the audience would have appreciated it better. Maybe it wasn’t so much a leaden production as a leaden audience. But I have seen it done better, especially the Cardinal. It’s as if the cast haven’t yet found out what a good play it can be.

Good points? The bastard, desperate for a fight, constantly being frustrated by all the peace treaties that get agreed! His comments on the “wooing” between Blanche and the Dauphin were entertaining. Blanche was good – it’s a small part, but she made her presence felt. As she was talking about her divided loyalties pulling her in two different directions, Eleanor and the Dauphin were actually holding a hand each – a human tug-o-war.

Not so good points: Constance’s grief at losing her son did go on a bit.

© 2006 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me