Tag Archives: Bunny Christie

“Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle” at Wyndham’s Theatre

Werner Heisenberg’s scientific theories provide the intellectual scaffolding of Simon Stephens’ new play. The principle – that measuring objects reveals an underlying uncertainty in physics – supplies a riff on the unexpected that’s lightly played alongside an unconventional romance. There’s little to boggle the mind here. Instead, this is a play full of laughs, affection… and a good deal of wisdom.

The relationship between Georgie and Alex is taboo-breaking because of their 33-year age gap. And both characters are pretty eccentric overall. The plot thickens (there’s a son to search for), but all the unusual behaviour is really about destabilising our expectations. It’s just two people getting to know one another – but, my, how this twists.

The couple meet by accident, of course, but each encounter contains the unexpected. It’s the distance between the characters that Stephens explores, akin to a comment Alex makes about music happening “between the notes”. Their age is one way they have different perspectives on their “shared experience”, and seeing both views makes this a two-hander of considerable depth and intimacy.

The play requires subtlety to work. Stephens’ frequent collaborator Marianne Elliott directs with an appropriately quiet confidence. The set by Bunny Christie is a stylish sliding affair with complementary mood lighting (from Paule Constable). But nothing distracts us from the quiet story of intricate observations. The performances from Anne-Marie Duff and Kenneth Cranham are superb. Both embrace their characters’ quirks to make the play entertaining. Cranham’s “wily old fox” is full of charm and intelligence, while Duff embodies Grace’s vulnerability and her quality of being “exhausting but captivating”. Uncertainty, as a principle to live by, is a peculiarly powerful idea. Few of us may be convinced by it, but this play presents the unpredictable in a charmingly determined fashion.

Until 6 January 2018

www.delfontmackintosh.co.uk

Photo by Brinkhoff Mögenburg

“The Red Barn” at the National Theatre

I am happily reading Penguin’s reissue of George Simenon’s Maigret novels, so David Hare’s adaptation of a stand-alone novel from the great author offers the chance to branch out from brilliant detective stories into a psychological thriller of a different kind. Hare’s adaptation is accomplished. Moving away from the book’s first-person narration, which details the mental breakdown of a successful lawyer, here we have a superb ménage à trois of lawyer, wife and mistress that’s better suited to the stage.

As for the production’s dressing – it is truly impeccable. Given that Simenon was concerned more with clarity than any modishness, the 1960s nostalgia goes possibly too far here. Robert Icke directs with a strong cinematic feel, creating cool that isn’t out of place… but feels almost fetishised. The stage curtains slide – up and down, left and right – creating apertures for us. With astonishing rapidity, we are taken to the different scenes of Bunny Christie’s meticulous set – homey farm, glam penthouse – and it’s a real technical achievement. Icke feels the need for a camera’s speed, which is a slight shame with a story this good, but there’s no doubt the show is gripping and the ending a real shock. No quibbles either with the soundtrack, a subtle masterpiece by Tom Gibbons that gets you slowly sliding to the edge of your seat.

The cast is stellar. Mark Strong leads, convincing us that his character, Donald Dodd, was once a decent man. It’s a single event, almost whimsical – when no effort is made to save a friend lost in a blizzard – that changes everything. The subsequent turmoil feels real and, impressively, is never overplayed. And Dodd’s pent-up frustration is more than sexual, an important point that Icke preserves throughout. By the by, Strong’s wig is superb.

Hope Davis plays Ingrid, the “serene” wife, whose husband’s paranoia makes her all-seeing. Davis skilfully brings out Ingrid’s intelligence without making her seem too cold, portraying the occasional moment of frankness with subtlety. Donald’s affair is with his former friend’s wife, Mona, played by Elizabeth Debicki, who also gets the chance to reveal layers of a character that comes to fascinate. Determined not to play the “weeping widows”, at a couple of points it’s Ingrid and Mona’s relationship that excites most. It’s with the two women in the piece that Hare makes his mark, doing justice to Simenon’s skills and creating a theatrical piece worthy of his name.

Until 17 January 2017

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Manuel Harlan

“People, Places & Things” at the National Theatre

This play should come with a health warning: following the journey of a drink and drug addict is never going to be easy viewing. Headlong’s new co-production at the Dorfman Theatre is hard work, but it is testament to Duncan Macmillan’s script and an astonishing performance by Denise Gough that the play can be described as unmissable. Gough should clear the mantelpiece for awards – standing ovations are rare at the National Theatre and I can’t remember joining one at a matinee performance.

Jpeg 16Playing Emma is a punishing lead role and Gough delivers a raw performance that engenders anger, frustration and occasionally repulses. To add to the trauma, Emma is an actress and Macmillan uses performance, indeed the process of staging a play, as a parallel to her counselling sessions. As Emma joins a group, sitting in a circle, introductions are made, just like at the start of rehearsals, and then role-play undertaken. It feels dangerously close to the bone.

Particulars of the addicts’ stories are brief – Emma’s is obfuscated by compulsive lying – so we don’t get to the bottom of why they are in such trouble. It’s not misery that’s dissected here but recovery, with tension and a healthy amount of scepticism. No one has more reservations about her 12-step treatment than our articulate protagonist. But burning through an agenda of denial, which serves to intelligently explore AA, comes the simple desire to survive.

Carefully directed by Jeremy Herrin, the staging is particularly effective when it comes to Emma’s hallucinations, which are downright spooky. Overall, Bunny Christie’s set feels too flashy and polished – the play simply doesn’t need it. And though there are jokes and nervous laughter from the audience, I confess my sense of humour deserted me, as what was going on was overwhelmingly bleak and serious.

Macmillan doesn’t hold back; the selfishness of the addict is emphatically depicted. A final scene with Emma’s parents is particularly painful (Barbara Marten gets to play her third role of the show and is excellent in each) after observing what Emma has been through. Here’s the second side to that health warning: I don’t know if Macmillan had a didactic motivation, but I feel I learned a lot about what an addict must go through, and feel humbled as a result.

Until 4 November 2015

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Johan Persson

“Children of the Sun” at the National Theatre

One of the many creative teams who have contributed to recent successes at the National Theatre, director Howard Davies and writer Andrew Upton – whose reputation rests on a series of adaptations of Russian classics – are back with Children of the Sun. Maxim Gorky’s play, adapted and directed with justified confidence, is fresh and vital. Also re-collaborating, designer Bunny Christie has created a stunning set that makes the most of the National’s Lyttelton stage.

A perceptive psychological drama about the “fools and idiots” in and around one family, there are love affairs galore in Children of the Sun. Intense Russians might be a cliché in hands less skilled then Upton’s, but here the morbid emotions and high-flown ideals engage. The diverse characters are so well drawn and developed that the actors can truly embrace their roles. From the “great nanniness” still living with this distinctly infantile family, played by Maggie McCarthy, to the man ostensibly in charge as head of the family, Protasov (Geoffrey Streatfeild), the cast is uniformly impressive.

More than a moving family drama, Children of the Sun abounds with issues as well: it questions the role of art and science and the nature of society. Gorky the commentator, very much of his time, seems relevant with Upton on board. Hindsight is used but, thankfully for the drama, it feels as if anything might happen. The privileged Protasov is a scientist so obsessed with work that his family and the whole village suffer. The intelligentsia, to which he belongs, feel they are battling superstition – but you can’t blame the locals when it turns out they are being poisoned by his experiments. The play’s bloody, depressing conclusion shocks and stirs. The characters’ fates and the broader questions Gorky raises make for an explosive mix.

Until 14 July 2013

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Rupert Hubert Smith

Written 20 April 2013 for The London Magazine

“The Comedy of Errors” at the National Theatre

The National Theatre’s winter show is one of those twins-separated-at-birth affairs so adored by Elizabethan audiences. Staged by director Dominic Cooke as a light farce, this is a fast, funny and accessible production of The Comedy of Errors. It is Cooke’s first show at the National, and he may have taken tips from the previous comedy smash One Man, Two Guvnors: his staging is full of invention and wit, and packed with laughs, from the troubadour-style Chorus to Ayckbourn-like entrances and exits.

The big star is Lenny Henry. After his Olivier award-winning Shakespearean debut last year in Othello, this performance has been much anticipated and it’s a pleasure to praise it. Henry has great charm and, even more impressively, a stubborn will not to upstage the rest of the cast. One suspects he might do so easily, but the production benefits from his restraint. His Antipholus of Syracuse, played with an African lilt, has a touch of the naive as he encounters those living in the big city of Ephesus, his superstitions and bewilderment causing ever-increasing amusement.

Henry is joined by some strong comic talent that gets behind Cooke’s sense of fun for the show. The second set of twins, the servants Dromios, are marvellously played by Lucian Msamati and Daniel Poyser in matching Arsenal FC shirts. As well as a fine cameo from Amit Shah, the standout performances come from Claudie Blakely and Michelle Terry as TOWIE-inspired wife and sister, working quite ridiculous shoes, stupidly large hand bags and estuary accents to great effect.

The Comedy of Errors is a modern multi-cultural melange and I suspect we will see more like it throughout 2012. By the end of next year’s World Shakespeare Festival it will probably become rather tiring. But Cooke is way ahead of the game. This show also seems blissfully unaware of any recession, with Bunny Christie’s impressive set surely busting the budget – but isn’t that what Christmas is all about?

Until 1 April 2012

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Johan Persson

Written 2 December 2011 for The London Magazine

“The Cherry Orchard” at the National Theatre

Director Howard Davies is well known for his work on Russian classics. Last year, his production of The White Guard did phenomenally well at the Olivier Awards. His new production of The Cherry Orchard is a quality affair from a director who doesn’t rest on his laurels.

Davies is working again with designer Bunny Christie. Her set offers the first glimpse that this is something different: there’s no trace of quaint dacha here and not a samovar in sight (for that, you have to nip into the National’s bookshop for a particularly twee display), a set is a huge barn of a place, that really is dilapidated, whose owners are in dire financial straits.

Andrew Upton joins the team again with a text that is wilfully modern. Every effort has been made to make Chekhov’s story of the landowning Ranyevskaya seem contemporary. It will certainly jar on some ears. Maybe in our credit- crunched times her poverty rings a chord, but Ranyevskaya isn’t a member of the squeezed middle. She’s a frightful snob, yet her obstinate refusal to recognise the reality of her situation is conveyed with charm by Zoe Wanamaker.

There is little sense of Ranyevskaya’s journey in this production. Like her brother Gaev (James Laurenson) she seems little aware of the times she is living in. A sense of history that Chekov certainly saw as a theme of his work is diluted, the production seems more immediate and less didactic, but it’s a trade off that is debateable.

Wanamaker’s performance is generous, allowing the other characters to shine out: stories of lovers of different ages and status, all given equal weight, bring out the plays rich complexity. Kenneth Cranham is a truly revolting Firs, playing with Emily Taaffe’s Dunyasha with great cruelty. Mark Bonnar is convincing as Petya Tromfimov, one of those scholastic characters Russian dramatists love that are so difficult to perform; his impassioned relationship with Anya (Charity Wakefield) is a highlight of the evening.

Lopakhin, the merchant whose capitalism is so much at the core of The Cherry Orchard’s historic concerns, is played by Conleth Hill with passion. Hill is perfectly farouche and, if not quite believable as the businessman who could save the estate, his fragility makes his the most moving performance of the night.

All the casts’ performances are mobile, running around in a play that is usually static. The party scene is particularly raucous. These Russians know how to live it up but, of course, not how to live. The pain as they all try to find a place for themselves in their changing world easily transcends historical circumstance. Davies preserves the philosophical dilemma at the heart of The Cherry Orchard while presenting it with fresh eyes.

Until 13 August 2011

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Catherine Ashmore

Written 18 May 2011 for The London Magazine

“Men Should Weep” at the National Theatre

Josie Rourke, renowned for her work at the Bush Theatre, is canny in her choice of play to mark her directorial debut at the National. Ena Lamont Stewart’s Men Should Weep is a social drama with a large cast enacted on an intimate level. Rourke uses her experience of small venues while exploiting the Lyttelton’s resources to create the play’s larger world. Her skill envelops the audience; her talent is a fresh approach for the National Theatre.

Bunny Christie’s magnificent set reflects the claustrophobic squalor of the 1930s tenement in which the play is set. It’s impressive, but Rourke is never distracted by it. Lamont Stewart’s slice of life story receives the respect it deserves. The playwright worked in the Glasgow library and hospital during the depression and her text has an authentic feel that is captivating. The language maybe daunting, but might only prove a problem for the truest blooded Sassenach.

Men Should Weep is full of great roles for women. Sharon Small plays Maggie Morrison the matriarch of the family, around whom the story revolves. It is a demanding role performed with aplomb. Jayne McKenna is wonderful as her sister, a brittle, regretful woman. The younger generation fight against their poverty any way they can, with excellent performances from Sarah MacRae and Morven Christie. Thérèse Bradley puts in a great turn as the miserly sister-in-law, “so hard they dug her from a quarry”. These are women not to be messed with, but the mess their lives are in makes you understand why.

What of the men who should be weeping? Robert Cavanah plays John Morrison. The character’s faults make him a difficult man to sympathise with but love of his family and intelligence are always behind Cavanah’s performance. John says that poverty bends a man over double and makes him like “a human question mark”.

It’s grim up north to be sure, but the play is masterfully free of clichés and histrionics. Laughter and love of the family shine forth but without a ‘salt of the earth’ touch. There are no angels or devils here – just difficult circumstances. The domestic violence and vice can be harsh and shocking, but the motivation is desperation, and humour is never far behind. The Morrison children certainly suffer, but these are the sorts of lives the Jeremy Hunts of the world should consider before proscribing how many children people should have. Our current recession differs in many ways from that Lamont Stewart experienced, but her insight into human dignity has important lessons for us all.

Until 9 January 2010

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Manuel Harlan

Written 27 October 2010

The White Guard at the National Theatre

Designer Bunny Christie has done such an exemplary job on the sets for The White Guard –  Andrew Upton’s adaptation of Mikhail Bulgakov’s masterpiece depicting the mayhem of the Russian Civil War, now showing at The National Theatre – that it makes sense to tell the story through her work.

Set first in the Turbin family household we’re drawn into the close, communal nature of their life. They are members of the Tsarist White Guard who protect a puppet politician installed by the Germans to control the Ukraine in the winter of 1918. The set gracefully retracts to the back of the Lyttelton stage, becoming distant and threatened as the story moves to the Hetman’s decrepit palace just as he is about to flee, with the vast, cold room depicting the corruption and chaos of the state. Next we’re plunged into to scenes of war; the barracks of the rebelling Nationalists, ready to fight both the Germans and the approaching Bolsheviks, and a school gymnasium commandeered by the White Guard who have come to appreciate that they have become an anachronism in a political vacuum.

This is a family drama set in turbulent times. Daniel Flynn plays elder brother Alexei Turbin with determination. He is a man of great courage but also a thinking soldier.  Flynn manages to show bravery but also fear about the future. Younger brother Nikolai is played by Richard Henders with great charm. In managing to convey ambiguity over whether Nikolai idolises his brother or the military more his fate becomes deeply moving. Justine Mitchell, cast as their sister Elena, is the only female role in the play. She manages this complex role superbly acting not just as sister but mother, friend and lover to her brother’s comrades visiting the home.

If this all sounds very worthy don’t be put off. True, The White Guard is a fascinating investigation into the impact of war and offers insight into politics. Yes, it shows the power of ideas and identity to sculpt our lives and behaviour, but Upton’s new version of the play deals lightly with all this and saves the work from any pomposity. Possibly because Bulgakov’s own adaption was so heavily censored, Upton has a sense of freedom. His writing is delightful, fast-paced, down to earth and comical with plenty of force when it comes to dramatic moments.

Best of all he has given a script that the cast can revel in and director Howard Davies uses his great experience to provide them with room and inspiration enough to result in performances that seem uniformly fresh and natural.

The visitors to the Turbin home all seem to fall in love with Elena. It isn’t just because she is the only woman around – Mitchell’s performance shows a vitally alive, captivating woman. Paul Higgins and Nick Fletcher as Captains in The Guard both convince as soldiers under pressure and men in love. Pip Carter who plays Larion, a visiting student who provides an alternative to the militarism around him, has some great comic moments. Kevin Doyle as Elena’s husband and deputy war minister serves as an effective foil to the many admirable men in her life with his amusing incompetence and self-obsession. Elena refers to them all as her boys – but the man of the piece is Conleth Hill.

Hill plays Lieutenant Shervinsky. We see him as the perfect charmer wooing Elena.  She and the audience can’t help but laugh with him. As aide-de-camp to the Hetman, he is superior towards the footman, a fantastic little role Barry McCarthy excels in, and deferential to his boss, played by Anthony Calf in great form. As the political turmoil increases we see his character adapt to survive, winning the love of Elena and revealing a deep sincere affection. His character is the man happiest to adapt to the future that the White Guard feared. His portrayal is so charismatic we are happy that he can do so. With him around the Russian Revolution becomes a lot more interesting.

Until July 7 2010

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Catherine Ashmore

Written 26 March 2010 for The London Magazine