“Arcadia” at the Duke of York’s Theatre

If there is one thing in the theatre world everyone can agree on, it is that Tom Stoppard is clever.

He knows a lot about a lot and is good at explaining complicated things that leave the rest of us baffled.

The subject matter of Arcadia is a case in point – a heady brew of landscape gardening, literary studies and physics, played out in one room with alternate acts set in the 18th century and modern times. A rich mix, indeed, and one that potentially overwhelms. The cleverest thing about Stoppard is that he manages to get the audience not just understanding these subjects but also caring and laughing about them.

Credit goes to the cast. Dan Stevens plays the charismatic tutor Septimus Hodge . His role is to explain 18th-century arts and science to both the audience and his prodigious pupil Thomasina Coverly . A painful desire for his mistress Lady Croom is complicated by a touching flirtation with his pupil, and he conveys not just a passion for his studies but also a great sexual presence. Both women, Jessica Cave and Nancy Carroll respectively, present their characters with fitting complexity and make the most of Stoppard’s wonderful ear for period language to great comic effect.

In the present day, the explaining is done by mathematics student Valentine (Ed Stoppard). His brooding presence is so intense as to be unlikeable, and his irritation over the supposed simplicity of iterated algorithms sounds false. This time, explication is for the benefit of the audience and Samantha Bond ’s historian, whose performance becomes inexplicably shrill.

The love triangle in modern times is completed by rival academic Bernard Nightingale , a morally distasteful character portrayed by Neil Pearson, who has surely paid far too much attention to one textual reference about his bouncing around.

Through science and art these two worlds come together. Thomasina’s brilliance foresees the great mathematical discoveries Valentine is working on. Both historians retrace events concerning the earlier set of characters.

But, despite its humour, Arcadia is a melancholy work with a gentle sense of tragedy. The mathematics aren’t understood in the 18th century – with disastrous consequences. Both historians are blinded by their ambition for either professional advancement or to prove an ideological point and make mistakes about what really happened in the past. Attempts to created a paradise garden on earth or to explain that earth with a grand Theory of Everything are inevitably doomed to failure .

Despite all the laughs, destruction seems to be the only outcome of our investigations. What hold us are those brief moments of joy along the way – the journey through Arcadia rather than the place itself.

Until 12 September 2009

Photo by Catherine Ashmore

Written 8 June 2009 for The London Magazine

“Hamlet” at Wyndham’s Theatre

A key ingredient to the year long, highly ambitious Donmar in the West End project has been its ‘celebrity’ casting. Younger members of the audience at Jude Law’s Hamlet would certainly feel that the venture has saved the best until last.

It is always great to feel the excitement a star creates in a theatre and heart warming to see the different crowd of people that they attract. But while devoted fans are sure to have a thrilling evening, the rest of us are bound to ask if Law justifies such a charged atmosphere?

It is good to report that he does.

Jude Law’s delivery of Shakespearean verse is clear and confident. His stage presence, if not commanding, is conscientious and a real effort is made to engage the whole auditorium. He seems fully aware of the space surrounding him, in a manner many actors working mostly in film frequently forget.

And Law’s engagement with the text genuinely adds something to our understanding of the play. His approach is to show us an angry Hamlet – one of the loudest we might have seen and certainly the most potentially violent. His is not just a brooding and tortured presence but also one who really does seem capable of the play’s bloody ending. Any melancholia has a dangerous edge, which adds drama. Viewers may find this bombast unconvincing, even humourless, but it is a refreshing take on the role.

Unfortunately, Michael Grandage’s production neglects the rest of the cast. So much attention has been focused on Law that other performances appear weak. Kevin R. McNally’s unfrightening Claudius seems to have stumbled on to the throne rather than plotted his way there – we get the impression that the murder of his brother was something that happened by chance. A fine actress, Penelope Wilton sadly makes little of Gertrude. While we can see that she comes to repent her marriage, we cannot fathom her motive for it. In avoiding a Freudian interpretation of the play we are left with a sexless Queen who wears comfy looking trousers. It is difficult to feel anything for her.

One problem might be the speed of this production – commendably, it is just as fast as a thriller and often as gripping. Yet while Hamlet’s soliloquies allow him to take time, the other characters seem rushed. Nobody else in the cast really gets the chance to stand up to Law – it they did then this might have been a great production.

As things stand, we simply have a great Hamlet.

Until 22 August 2009

Photo by Johan Persson

Written 7 June 2009 for The London Magazine

“When The Rain Stops Falling” at the Almeida Theatre

With a story spanning 80 years and a cast of characters who seem to share the same name, Andrew Bovell‘s play is not the easiest one to follow. It is clear from the start that we are dealing with a mystery, half explained in a rambling fashion by a man whose sanity we instantly doubt.

This man is Gabriel York, son of another Gabriel, whose mother’s name was Gabrielle.  His father died before his was born, while searching for his own father who disappeared when he was a boy.  His mother also suffered a loss – this time a vanished brother who was abducted, abused and killed by that very same grandfather.

The mystery surrounding these two families is at the heart of the play. The characters themselves live in confusion and deal with half-remembered facts – stories are hidden, only partly revealed with tragic consequences, and ultimately fade away.

As changeable as the weather, the threads of these histories, as they are presented to characters and audience, resonate. The tragedy of lost parents and the repercussions of evil spread far and wide. Recurring events and echoing pain are reflected in the language with speeches repeated by different characters across time and space.

Through time, motives become lost.  Objects become treasured that should be abhorred.  Once precious treasures become meaningless.  Nobody understands the pain that should be attached to a dead child’s shoe or remembers a token from a lover’s first meeting.

As time devours memory, the characters themselves feed on one another.  Gabriel’s paedophile father introduces the motif of Saturn devouring his children, yet all filial relations seem to share a vicious quality and are doomed to failure.

The cruelty of parent to child is matched only by that of child to parent.  Gabrielle makes both observations at different stages of her life, portrayed with conviction by Leah Purcell and Naomi Bentley.  As she laments her child’s cruelty to her she forgets how she felt when she was young.

In the play’s most heart-rending moment, on learning of her estranged son’s death, a superb Phoebe Nichols mounts a frosty yet meek defence of her cold behaviour to him.  She warns us we should presume nothing until we know the whole story.  Satisfactorily for an audience, we do discover the sacrifice she has made for her son – one that does not fail to move us.  Tellingly, the play’s other characters never know the full story.

A Shakespeare workshop in Australia has inspired director Michael Attenborough to craft this fine production. The Almeida stage, with beautiful lighting by Colin Grenfell, manages to convey the claustrophobia of a dingy London flat and the frightening expanse of the Australian landscape.  This landscape includes both The Coorong, a dangerous wetland where sea combats with sand, and the desert around the ancestral Uluru where characters encounter the past.

Like much symbolism in the play, this may seem heavy handed but it has emotional weight and is effectively conveyed.

Until 2 July 2009

www.almeida.co.uk

Photo by John Haynes

Written 25 May 2009 for The London Magazine