The Chalk Garden – July 2008

8/10

By Enid Bagnold

Directed by Michael Grandage

Venue: Donmar Theatre

Date: Thursday 10th July 2008

Wow. Steve and I had seen this play before, but I had very little memory of it, as it hadn’t made much of an impression on me at the time. Today’s production was the complete opposite. Totally memorable, with magnificent performances and excellent writing.

The story is relatively simple. Mrs St Maugham advertises for a governess for her grand-daughter, and gets more than she bargained for. Of the four applicants invited for an interview, only one stays long enough to meet her prospective employer, and she seems very unqualified to take the post. The grand-daughter in question, Laurel, is one of those too-precocious-for her-own-good types, with lots of stories about how dreadful her life has been, all told in a causal, off-hand manner. There’s a manservant, Maitland, who appears to be a nervous wreck, and an elderly man who is looked after by a nurse. We never see this man, but he appears to have a strong influence in the household – he was the butler for many years – and the nurse occasionally comes down to pass on messages. Olivia, Mrs St Maugham’s daughter and Laurel’s mother, also makes an appearance or two, as she now wants to give Laurel a home with her and her new husband. She’s expecting another baby, and she clearly wants to get the family back together again.

Miss Madrigal, the one remaining applicant, seems to have some understanding of Laurel, but is reluctant to stay. She’s put off mainly by her own circumstances and is only persuaded to take the job through Olivia’s intervention. Miss Madrigal is also concerned about the garden. It’s a chalk garden, and the butler has been directing operations so badly that he’s trying to grow all sorts of plants, such as rhododendrons, that hate chalk soil. The analogy between the garden plants and Laurel is obvious, especially with a name like that. Within two months, at the start of the next scene, Miss Madrigal has restored order to both the house and the garden. Laurel is behaving herself – she hasn’t set fire to anything for a long time – and the garden is being licked into shape. The old butler isn’t happy at all, but being stuck in his room, he can’t do anything about it. The nurse does glare at Miss Madrigal when she comes down, but that doesn’t trouble her in the least.

Things change when an old friend of the family comes to visit. He’s a judge, and it turns out he presided over the one trial Miss Madrigal has attended – her own. She was a young girl, accused of murdering her younger step-sister, and her habit of telling lies to get attention backfired when nobody would believe her story at the trial. Now she’s naturally distressed to see the judge again, and convinced he’s rumbled her, she blurts out enough of the truth to jog his memory into remembering her fully.

With part of the truth out, there are ructions in the house. Olivia turns up to take Laurel away, and Miss Madrigal supports this. Mrs St Maugham wants to keep Laurel and send Miss Madrigal packing, but once Laurel has left with her mother, she finds the prospect of an empty house too frightening, and grudgingly comes to accept Miss Madrigal’s offer of companionship. The butler chap has died, just at the right moment, so Miss Madrigal can reign supreme in the chalk garden. The play ends with the two women beginning their edgy relationship, one that we know they’ll both benefit from, despite Miss Madrigal refusing to tell the other woman, and us, what we all want to know – did she do it?

Having said this was a simple story, I find I’ve taken a full page to give only a rough précis of the plot. Apart from the humour, of which there was a great deal, the enjoyment lay in teasing out the subtle clues about Miss Madrigal and her background. It became clear she’d been away from society for a long while – she didn’t have references, for example – and her ability to understand and relate to Laurel without joining in her games was a big clue. She wanted to help the child as much as she could, so she wouldn’t end up making the same mistakes as she had, the ones that led to her spending many long years in prison. Her knowledge of gardening was obviously learned there, and there’s one lovely scene where Miss Madrigal speaks out with more passion than usual for her, about taking care of the garden and the plants. It’s moving and very funny, and I must get the text as I can’t remember a word of it. Penelope Wilton played Miss Madrigal, and I suspect I’ll not see better this lifetime.

Margaret Tyzack as Mrs St Maugham will be hard to top as well. She got to perfection the scattiness and hauteur of the character – totally the wrong person to bring Laurel up. Some of her lines were incredibly funny, and impeccably delivered. The others in the cast were also very good, as I would expect from a Donmar production.

We were reminded both of Terence Rattigan and Ibsen in the style of the piece, with its gentle observation and symbolism drawn from nature. I’d certainly go to see this play again, though I won’t expect it to be of this standard.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Othello – January 2008

7/10

By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Michael Grandage

Venue: Donmar Theatre

Date: Thursday 31st Janaury 2008

The advantage of the Donmar is that, even at the back of the stalls, we were only four rows away from the action. I do love this theatre.

This production was pretty good too. I haven’t seen Shakespeare done in this more than intimate space before, and it worked pretty well. The down side is that there’s no room to put extra characters on stage to pad out the larger scenes, so here the Duke is in conference with only one other member of Venice’s governing body, a trifle sparse for realism. But it does trim everything down to the essentials, and some aspects of these plays come out all the clearer for that.

Here the staging was minimalist, as you might expect. A grating ran along the floor in front of the back wall, and allowed for some dripping water. There were just a few hints of a canal-based society, in the rings attached to the back wall, for example. There was a lovely effect when some golden curtains dropped down from above to create the bedroom scene – a beautiful mist of golden rain. There were also some canopies used earlier in the play, but as we were in the back row, I didn’t get a very good view of these.

I also didn’t get a good view of James Laurenson as Brabantio, as he was located above us on the balcony for the opening scene. This wasn’t a problem, as most of the dialogue came across perfectly well, and Brabantio was soon downstairs, determined to get his revenge for his lost daughter. It was an OK performance, but again I found I lost a lot of his dialogue during the play. Roderigo was good, a gullible nobleman, but not quite as stupid as some I’ve seen.

Othello’s speech to the court was interesting. I got the distinct impression he’s a real storyteller, embellishing real incidents to get the most drama out of them – a drama queen but with some basis in truth. He also seems to believe the stories he tells, and this suggested to me his readiness to believe other people’s stories. Chiwetel Ejiofor paced his performance very well. At first he just didn’t seem to get what Iago was trying to tell him, showing he was free from any suspicions of Desdemona, then as he grasped what was being said, he was all too ready to embellish it himself. This man has never learned to temper his emotions with thought, unlike Iago, who has more thought than emotion in this production. At times I felt that Othello was falling into the traps as fast as Iago could set them, and some indication of Iago reacting to his good fortune would have been welcome. However.

Back to the earlier scenes. I was aware of Desdemona’s willingness to deceive her father – despite her demureness, there’s a real spirit there, and perhaps less pure innocence than she would have us believe. I did think her love for Othello was pure, but she’s not as above board as is often made out. After all, she prevaricates about the handkerchief instead of coming clean, so she’s certainly capable of lying. I found her less convincing towards the end, although these are difficult scenes for any actress.

The killing worked well, with Othello strangling her on the floor, then putting her on the bed. As we were in the back row, we could easily hear the “noises off” – they were right behind us – including Amelia’s calls which interrupt Othello in the act. This final scene has a strange rhythm. There are lots of long speeches from Othello, while others stand around, amazed, “and know not what to say” (Hermia, Dream), which can seem a little odd. Likewise, Amelia, determined to dish the dirt on her husband, now she knows just what he’s been up to, spends most of her time telling us she’s going to tell all, before getting round to actually doing it. I did feel this time that it was touch and go as to whether the listeners would believe her or her husband, but once he’d stabbed her, it was obvious to everyone who was telling the truth. This interpretation made a lot of sense to me.

So, overall I enjoyed the performance, even though I found myself nodding off a little at the start of the second half (more tired than I realised, and not enough happening on stage). My main concern was the weakness of Iago. He told us that he hated Othello and why, then he did everything he could to bring about his downfall, so I have to believe he meant it, yet I couldn’t have told from his body language or delivery of the lines that he was remotely bothered about the man. I don’t need actors to writhe around in fits of agony, nor go bouncing off walls, but I do think such apparent passion for revenge would give us some tell-tale signs, especially during the soliloquies. There are people who bottle up their emotions, true, but they’re a lot less interesting to see performed on stage than in other media – we’re there, for God’s sake, so give us something to work with! Anyway, the lines were spoken well, and I understood from those what was going on inside this Iago, so that will have to do.

Almost forgot – the play started very abruptly, as is appropriate, without the usual dimming of the lights. Just Iago and Roderigo rushing on, yelling out to Brabantio. Nice touch, and it meant we were all awake for the opening scene.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

John Gabriel Borkman – April 2007

8/10

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

Don Juan In Soho – December 2006

Experience: 10/10

By Patrick Marber, based on Moliere

Directed by Michael Grandage

Venue: Donmar Warehouse

Date: Thursday 28th December 2006

This was a cracking good reworking of the Don Juan story, set in contemporary London. Don Juan (DJ) is the son of an Earl, spending his life screwing, snorting and generally having a good time. His personal assistant, Stan, disapproves of this lifestyle, but is unable to leave him to his sins. Eventually, it all goes horribly wrong, and the world becomes a quieter, if not necessarily a better, place.

First off, I have to say that I am not used to being asked directly by a character in a play if I am “fuckable”. That is my only excuse for just shrugging helplessly (of course I’m fuckable!) and grinning a lot. But that’s what you risk being asked at this sort of play in a studio space when you’re only inches away from the action. Be warned. This happened early on, triggered by a discussion on whether or not Stan should enter DJ’s latest conquest on his database. DJ’s point of view was that it’s pointless to classify people, although he did come up with the “fuckable/non-fuckable” categories for good measure. Stan is apparently non-fuckable.

The story was pretty much as usual, but with very modern twists. DJ has been shagging a Croatian model for the weekend, much to Stan’s surprise – DJ doesn’t usually go for Croatians. It’s also a surprise to DJ’s new wife, Elvira, who sends out her brothers to find her husband when he disappears shortly after their return from honeymoon “to buy a packet of fags.” She’s a real goody-two-shoes. DJ had to pursue her through all sorts of right-on places – refugee camps, protest sites, etc. Naturally she thinks he loved her, while he just regards her as a challenge. Unfortunately, he’s awakened her sexually, and she’s not prepared to give up on him just yet.

This all takes place in the hotel lobby, where Stan was waiting for his boss to appear. After a trip to the loo, DJ spots his next mark – the fiancée of a man he’s just met in the gents. The man is ecstatically happy that he’s about to be married, and he’s having a party on a riverboat that evening, so DJ decides to crash the party, literally, as it happens. He drives his speedboat straight at the party boat, causing all sorts of mayhem, and the next scene is set in the hospital waiting area, where Stan and Pete – an innocent bystander who pulled DJ and Stan out of the water – are shivering in their blankets. DJ’s being seen by the doctor – Earls get treated first in the NHS.

Pete’s girlfriend turns up with some dry clothes. It’s a lovely turn by Seroca Davis – all bitching and complaining and wanting reward money for Pete’s good deed, until DJ himself turns up and seduces her so rampantly that she ends up giving him a blow job under cover of a blanket while DJ attempts to chat up the posh bird he was after in the first place! The posh bird actually turns him down, although he is hampered by the woman attached to his appendage, and the need to moan occasionally. Once done, he’s off.

Next we see him in the park. There’s a statue there, as one might expect, and thanks to all the street performers there are nowadays, they didn’t have to resort to trickery to get the statue to move. Tim Eagle took the part here, and I really didn’t see him move before his invitation from DJ. (Maybe they could get a female living statue to do Hermione some time?) Before this, DJ tempts a devout man to deny his God by offering him his expensive watch as a gift. The man is seriously poor, but still he holds firm, and so DJ rewards him with the watch anyway. To bring it up-to-date, the man is a Muslim.

This is the point where we see the best side of DJ. He spots a man being attacked, and goes to help him. The man turns out to be none other than one of his brothers-in-law, Colm, while the other brother, vicious Aloysius, isn’t far behind. Given that DJ has saved him from a bad beating or even death, there’s a stand-off for the time being. Then comes the rash invitation to the statue, which leads to the usual warning about mending his behaviour.

Following the statue’s warning, DJ returns to his flat? house? and proceeds to entertain two lovely ladies of the professional persuasion. His father arrives, having driven all night, to tell him to get back with his wife, and turns out to be quite a sweetie. Bit traditional, of course, but that’s what parents are for. The wife also turns up, to get her clothes, but ends up leaving in disgust, as she realises he’s got the two prostitutes in the house. Once she’s left, the two girls, sent to wait for DJ in the bedroom, also run out of the house, screaming – they’ve seen the statue and they don’t need telling it’s a bad sign – smart girls. DJ may be rattled, but he’s reluctant to give in.

After a long sleep, he meets Stan and his father at the father’s club, and makes a good stab at playing the penitent. A very good stab. His father goes off, much relieved, leaving DJ to inform Stan, and us, that it was all a performance, and that he intends to go on as before. He sets off for Soho (he’s told us earlier that “soho” was a hunting cry, and that the area was originally used for hunting) but the rickshaw he gets on is being driven by the statue, and it all goes a bit surreal. Eventually he’s left in a dark, empty place, with no one for company but the two brothers-in-law who are intent on his murder. They stab him, and it’s all over, bar Stan finding the body.

This was a great version of the story. It not only covered the usual plot well, the translation into the modern idiom and contemporary setting was excellent. Rhys Ifans was superb as DJ, totally suave and louche, with no concerns about his behaviour, apart from a bit of fear when the statue came to life. All the performances were excellent, and it’s not surprising the run was almost sold out. A great way to end the year’s playgoing.

© 2006 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Frost/Nixon – October 2006

Experience: 10/10

By Peter Morgan

Directed by Michael Grandage

Venue: Donmar Theatre

Date: Thursday 5th October 2006

This was an excellent play brilliantly performed. There was a remarkable degree of dramatic tension, even though the outcome is already well known. I hadn’t known about the events leading up to the interviews, so there was a lot to learn. This is a dramatised account, of course, so you have to make allowance for artistic licence, but even so this was a great piece of theatre.

The Donmar is so small, there’s rarely much to the sets. A 6×6 bank of TVs on the back wall gave us any documentary footage or close-ups as needed, otherwise it was just chairs, desks, etc being brought on as required. We saw the development of the idea to interview Nixon, and some of the difficulties that had to be overcome, for example Nixon wanted a significant amount of money to do the interview, which David Frost apparently paid out of his own pocket. Nixon’s focus on the money side, obsession almost, was very clearly demonstrated. His abilities as a politician were also evident, and it was clear that the interviews were not going Frost’s way until the final session. Extra information had come to light, or rather been spotted by one of his researchers, which allowed Frost to combat Nixon effectively over Watergate. We could see the former president crumple before our eyes (and on the big screen as well). It was very powerful, and felt as if we were actually watching the real event unfold before us.

The differences of opinion between the Americans and Brits were also news to me, and added to the build-up of tension. There was also plenty of humour to help the two hours along. The two central performances were stunning. Michael Sheen was totally believable as David Frost, and caught his mannerisms to perfection. (He even appeared on Bremner, Bird and Fortune recently doing his David Frost as part of a sketch – pretty impressive.) Frank Langella wasn’t as jowly as Richard Nixon, but he conveyed the powerful presence of the man very well, and his delivery was excellent. All the support cast was good, and I hope this gets the transfer it deserves so more people can see it (and we might even sneak in a repeat performance ourselves).

© 2006 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me