Tag Archives: Donmar Warehouse

“One Night In Miami…” at the Donmar Warehouse

Kemp Powers’ play touches on the depressingly topical struggle against racism with calm sophistication. Placing four iconic African-Americans of the 1960s in one hotel room – each of them at a pivotal moment in their lives and with the US on the brink of change – it’s a brilliantly simple and effective device to examine individual legacies and question how much progress has been made regarding civil rights.

Francois Battiste as Malcolm X.
Francois Battiste as Malcolm X.

Fresh from winning his fight against Sonny Liston, Cassius Clay is about to become Muhammad Ali. Sope Dirisu gives a show-stealing peformance conveying the young man’s charm and naiveté. Clay is meeting with his mentor Malcolm X, performed by Francois Battiste with control and precision. The activist is keen on claiming prize conversions to Islam but political troubles are the tense undertone, as the bodyguards outside the door remind us.

The two are joined by football star Jim Brown and legendary musician Sam Cooke. Both are secular, independent thinkers, about to branch out into acting and political song writing, respectively. David Ajala plays Brown, easily carrying complex arguments with a deft touch of down-to-earth humour. Arinzé Kene takes the part of Cooke, conveying a fierce articulacy and with a few snatches of singing that display an exceptional voice.

Director Kwame Kwei-Armah knows what a treasure this script is and paces it judiciously, treating it with respect. The relationships are woven like an intricate dance. Tempers flare but the friendship here is firm, providing a realistically casual tone with plenty of banter. Ideas come to the fore, with a streak of melancholy around “self destructive dreams” that endanger all four. With race, politics and religion all linked with questions of celebrity and influence, this is an articulate, intelligent and educative night to remember.

Until 3 December 2016

www.donmawarehouse.com

Photos by Johan Persson

“Faith Healer” at the Donmar Warehouse

Rain is falling as we are introduced to the ‘Fantastic’ Frank Hardy, an itinerant performer, whose life and miraculous show lie between the “absurd and the momentous”. Es Devlin’s stunning set creates a box of brilliantly lit water that returns between each of the four monologues that make up this intense and intriguing revival of Brian Friel’s 1979 play.

Stephen Dillane joins a line of famous names to tackle the title role. It’s a restrained performance, uncompromisingly demanding, carefully playing with the “sedation of incantation” that runs through the script: place names visited, adventures and traumas, are repeated in the softest tones. Hardy knows whether or not miracles will happen – that his success depends on chance – so his gift is also a curse.

We meet Hardy’s mistress and manager. As the former, Gina McKee’s accent is offputting at first – we’ve been told she’s from Yorkshire, and that’s not the only lie we discover from hearing her side of the story. The detail McKee invests in her scene makes it moving and engrossing. After these hear-a-pin-drop performances there’s some respite, thanks to Ron Cook’s appealing Cockney artistes agent. Though stories about a bagpipe-playing dog are funny, this isn’t comic relief. Cook presents a tired and disappointed man with subtlety.

The performances are awe-inspiring but the material is consuming to the point of claustrophobic and difficult because of its complexity. The drama comes from having three unreliable narrators, who lived together for many years but don’t meet during the play and are talking about events in the past. We see Hardy’s wife after his (possible) murder, and his manager after she has committed suicide, but the chronology is not explicit and how much time passes between scenes is opaque. Friel’s script shifts and changes and needs the lightness of touch that director Lyndsey Turner provides. A heavy hand could damage such first-class storytelling. Rendered so impeccably, the play is absorbing.

Until 20 August 2016

www.donmarwarehouse.com

Photos by Johan Persson

“Elegy” at the Donmar Warehouse

While (seldom) questioning the subject matter a playwright chooses, some should come with a warning. With its main character suffering a degenerative brain condition, Nick Payne’s new play – brilliantly written as it is – makes for a harrowing experience. Elegy calls forth questions as topical as they are uncomfortable and nothing about this play is easy.

New techniques in nanotechnology and neuroscience are knocking at the door, and Payne explores their potential effect on a mind slipping into dementia. They may prove a miracle that extends life, but let’s not use the word cure. Memory is lost and anyone who’s read David Hume will know the consequences of this. Lorna and Carrie, who married each other late in life, find their romance has been surgically removed in the process of ‘saving’ the former. That the person she was is gone, akin to the effects of dementia anyway, is one cruel irony. Another – her inability to recognise her lover means the treatment has worked – makes matters peculiarly grim.

The play is performed backwards. We meet the women after Lorna’s treatment and retrace the steps leading to her surgery. Becoming increasingly involved with this couple, there’s a cruel twist that brought me to tears. The reverse technique, well served by Josie Rourke’s direction, builds tensions and allows three excellent actors to give mind-boggling performances. Zoë Wanamaker’s struggle with the illness is as frank as it is moving. Barbara Flynn is a revelation as her wife: engaging, appealing and torn apart. They are joined by the superb Nina Sosanya as a doctor who slowly reveals her personal motivations behind her professional mask.

It’s Payne’s superior skill with dialogue that’s the jewel here. Painful conversations feel fresh, characters’ attempts at humour and their struggle to comprehend, believable. Particularly in rendering the incoherence of stumbling, confused and truncated speech, the economy and precision of language is brave and haunting.

Science has long been a theme of Payne’s – putting people into the equation is his skill. Elegy ups the stakes and demands a great deal. At its heart is the complex question of what makes us human, encompassing faith, love, history and our responsibilities to each other. The fear that we’re on the brink of unknown territory is palpable. Away from dystopian fantasy, this play feels real enough to give you nightmares, propelling us into the messy heart of a dilemma with piercing skill.

Until 18 June 2016

www.donmarwarehouse.com

Photo by Johan Persson

“Les Liaisons Dangereuses” at the Donmar Warehouse

It’s odd that Christopher Hampton’s hugely successful adaptation of Choderlos de Laclos’s epistolary novel is receiving its first West End revival since it opened back in 1986. Josie Rourke’s production provides an opportunity to see a brilliant transformation to the stage that shouldn’t be missed. Hampton’s delight in the plots of seduction, betrayal and sexual politics, along with the exquisite characters and dialogue, are blissful.

It’s a testament to the strength of this text that Rourke’s direction disappoints by not getting the maximum from it. Arch plotters Valmont and Merteuil, planning love affairs for fun and revenge, are played by Dominic West and Janet McTeer. And, it should be stressed, they are played very well indeed. West brings a forceful sexuality to the role that makes it easy to believe in his character’s success as a lothario. McTeer’s is a more layered performance, having a great deal of fun as she uses Valmont’s sex, as a weapon, against himself. McTeer is playful, a cunning coquette, but when she needs to, reveals the uncomfortable truths Laclos highlighted about the position of women in society. So where’s the problem? Very much star vehicles, West and McTeer dominate the production too much.

True, the other characters are creatures in their games, but smaller parts, especially their main victims Cécile and Madame de Tourvel, should stand out more. Morfydd Clark and Elaine Cassidy struggle to leave a mark, creating surprisingly little sympathy as their characters’ respective innocence and piety are broken. The production makes it hard to believe that Valmont finally falls in love and is uncomfortably blasé about the creepy seduction of a 15 year old.

LES LIAISONS DANGEREUSES BY HAMPTON, , WRITER - CHRISTOPHER HAMPTON, Director - Josie Rourke, Designer - Tom Scutt, Lighting - Mark Henderson, The Donmar Warehouse, 2015, Credit: Johan Persson
Dominic West

Which indicates another problem, albeit an unusual one – the production is too funny. The deliciously wicked Valmont and Merteuil gain plenty of laughs. It’s superbly done – Valmont’s brazen hypocrisy is a delight and McTeer makes nearly every line a quotable gem of bitchy cynicism. But there’s a penalty for this, with little tension between the two of them and too little time for the play’s darker overtones. Nearly all end badly but, rather than tense, the evening is simply deflating. Though much of the production is brilliantly done, these liaisons aren’t really dangerous enough.

Until 13 February 2016

www.donmarwarehouse.com

Photos by Johan Persson

“Teddy Ferrara” at the Donmar Warehouse

Contemporary American campus politics drive Christopher Shinn’s play, which sees the suicide of a gay student appropriated by college interest groups for their own ends. This university life is disorientating in its modernity and, for a serious, emotive topic, engenders a curiously cold work.

A crew of bland and earnest characters talk at, rather than to, one another. Debate infiltrates their personal lives, fuelled by self-obsession. Although the performances, strictly controlled by director Dominic Cooke, are fine, the cast struggles to leave impressions: the jock and his girlfriend, the guy in the wheelchair, the radical black professor – we get the point that diversity brings challenges. Shinn pokes fun rather than saying anything new.

Ryan McParland (Teddy) in Teddy Ferrara at the Donmar Warehouse - photo by Manuel Harlan
Ryan McParland

Luke Newbury, in the lead role of Gabe, who occasionally expresses contrary opinions, provides the most appealing character. And Ryan McParland is impressive as the awkward titular character, bullied and living out his fantasies online. But the only roles that really stimulate are the college president with bigger ambitions – a nice comic job for Matthew Marsh ­– and a “controlling” student journalist, played by Oliver Johnstone, who provides the majority of tension in the play.

While the plot of Teddy Ferrara is a touch predictable and the sexual politics presented too bluntly, the way people currently communicate is cleverly revealed: there’s a lot of broadcasting and not enough conversation. As Gabe says, “the texting never stops” and nor do political slogans or buzzwords – “micro-aggression” was a new one for me.

Oliver Johnstone (Drew) and Luke Newberry (Gabe) in Teddy Ferrara at the Donmar Warehouse - photo by Manuel Harlan
Oliver Johnstone and Luke Newberry

The dialogue consists of an uncomfortable, often amusing, mix of cliché and jargon, teen vlog and academic journal. This is particularly noticeable in scenes of romance – for a play so much about sexuality, Teddy Ferrara takes pains to be unerotic. Everything the characters say sounds familiar, whether through social media or web cams, the committee room or a speech, self-help books or pornography.

Christopher Imbrosciano (Jay), Griffyn Gilligan (Jaq), Oliver Johnstone (Drew) and Matthew Marsh (President) in Teddy Ferrara at the Donmar Warehouse - photo by Manuel Harlan

A memorial for Teddy, who none of the characters knew, leads to a clever conclusion. The remembrance silence, when everyone at last shuts up, makes for the most eloquent moment of the evening.

Until 5 December 2015

www.donmarwarehouse.com

Photos by Manuel Harlan

“Splendour” at the Donmar Warehouse

Abi Morgan’s play imagines a strained meeting between a dictator’s wife and her best friend, while they wait with a photographer and interpreter for a portrait shoot that’s running late. The location is an unspecified imitation democracy on the brink of civil war. It’s not a bad setup to explore politics and art, and Morgan does both with insight. The fact that all four characters are women makes a welcome change.

Morgan’s style might rankle some: the characters voice their inner thoughts and memories, while scenes are repeated, at different speeds with cuts to the dialogue. Remarkably, Morgan makes the play easy to follow and, for my money, the technique is a success. Knowing what someone is thinking, hearing them play with the presentation of events, alongside confusion over language in a very literal sense (the photographer doesn’t speak the local tongue), enforces unspoken communication and inner turmoil marvellously.

Genevieve-OReilly-Kathryn-in-Splendour-at-the-Donmar-Warehouse-photo-by-Johan-Persson-700x455
Genevieve O’Reilly

The four strong roles have attracted four great performers. The outsiders on the scene are Genevieve O’Reilly, who plays the hard-nosed photographer, managing to make this cool observer compelling, and Zawe Ashton, who acts as her interpreter, with an eye on the make. Ashton’s role is tough – she has to show us the desperation of regular people living in this toppling state, and this is done without making her seem a device. But the really interesting dynamic is that between Sinéad Cusack and Michelle Fairley, the president’s dolled-up wife, who might just be the power behind the throne, and her browbeaten best friend. Both actresses give tremendous performances.

Splendour has a simple plot that, a little like the characters, comes close to predictable. But what Morgan does with her, often startling, technique is the real source of interest. If all the stopping and starting of scenes sounds a little pretentious, the structure and rhythm of the text has a very down-to-earth function – to create tension. Weapons sound, but in the distance, specifics of time and place are never mentioned and no politicians or revolutionaries, as such, appear on stage. Yet Morgan has created a unique… OK then… splendid, political thriller of great originality.

Until 26 September 2015

www.donmarwarehouse.com

Photos by Johan Persson

“Temple” at the Donmar Warehouse

An exercise in erudition, Steve Water’s fictional account of 2011’s Occupy London movement is accomplished but unsatisfying. Remember how a cluster of tents formed outside St Paul’s? Water’s focus isn’t on those camping – you learn little of their political aims or ambitions – but on those running the cathedral and how they feel about their unwanted guests. It’s an angle that might strike one as oblique. And, while the central dilemma – hinging on a Dean asked to put his duty above what he may actually feel – is interesting enough, the play is stubbornly devoid of tension. Scenes of intelligent talking heads (I could have done with a dictionary) make Temple feel like a worthy radio play. The idea of the meeting chamber, where all the action takes place, as a “panic room” is almost laughable, given the lack of excitement.

The show is saved by the central performance of Simon Russell Beale as the Dean, convincing us of his turmoil as a good man blessed with a prodigious amount of self-knowledge. Unfortunately, the Bishop of London and his too obvious counterpart, a radical Canon, are sketchily drawn – one too comic, the other overly sincere – for Malcolm Sinclair and Paul Higgins to show us their talents. Likewise the role of a secretary on her first day in the job is a crude device that Rebecca Humphries struggles valiantly with. The central problem is the tenet of Church as ‘the establishment’. Although such presumed power is questioned, by the time a couple of choir boys come in to cheer the Dean up, it’s all too much like something from Anthony Trollope. Religion’s shaky relevance to lives today makes for a stumbling block that Waters doesn’t get over.

Until 25 July 2015

www.donmarwarehouse.com

Photo by Johan Persson

“Henry IV” at the Donmar Warehouse

The Donmar’s all-female production of Julius Caesar was one of the theatrical highlights of last year. Now director Phyllida Lloyd returns with Henry IV, set once again in a women’s prison. An amalgam of Henry IV Parts I and II, the text is performed by the ‘inmates’, making this two plays in one in more than one sense, since we have Shakespeare and also the staging of Shakespeare. It’s layered, obviously, but what makes the production fascinating is the weight given to the prisoners’ own staging – is it the focus or just an addition? The question is open for the audience.

Henry IV is a riveting evening, not least because you want to know what has been done to the text. But it starts out dreadfully. With a nod to the trend for immersive theatre, the audience waits over the road in the Seven Dials Club, where you can use the bar and the loo (don’t forget this – there’s no interval and the show is two hours plus) before walking over the road and entering via the back stairs. Punch Drunk it ain’t. Although a few prison posters threaten punishment for those using phones – incarceration is too good for them after all – the whole effort seems feeble.

Once the acting starts, Henry IV is magnificent. Clare Dunne plays Prince Hal, the hero of both plays, with startling energy. Caught between the responsibilities inheritance brings, embodied by the superb Harriet Walter in the title role, and another father figure – Falstaff. As the rogue knight, Ashley McGuire gives a tremendous performance, fully embodying the ambiguities this production offers – it’s a great Falstaff but the sense of a disturbed woman in prison who is taking on the role is tangible. This triangle of ‘men’ is the focus of the production and the ramifications, when performed by female characters in a jail, positively outshine any episode of cult women’s prison drama Orange is the New Black.

When Shakespeare and the performance being staged by the prisoners intersect, Henry IV is electric. Some adlibbing results in an emotional break to the action, highlighting the sexism of the original text along with the cruelty of prison life. And the whole evening is abruptly cut short by the prison guards – leaving you feeling somewhat shell-shocked. The lives of the characters performing these famous roles provoke speculation; ‘Hal’ reveals she is to be released soon, and the whole cast have worked to create back stories. The prisoners’ own production is deliberately lo-fi – their props have to be improvised and costumes are minimal, adding to a sense of raw immediacy. What shines through is the strength of Shakespeare’s story, magnified by these imagined lives and made all the more powerful for it.

Until 29 November 2014

www.donmarwarehouse.com

Photo by Helen Maybanks

Written 15 October 2014 for The London Magazine

“My Night With Reg” at the Donmar Warehouse

The Donmar Warehouse’s revival of Kevin Elyot’s 1994 play, My Night With Reg, opened this week. With strong direction from Robert Hastie and a superb cast, the production serves as a fitting tribute to the recently deceased author of this sensitive and sensationally funny play.

As a group of gay friends meet over the years, first in celebration then in the wake of the devastating AIDS crisis, their promiscuous lives are observed in a quietly profound and structured way. Questions of love, life and death come to the fore in a play about the passage of time and the importance of truth.

This should be a grim night out. Even the weather, in each of the three scenes, is the perpetually wet English summer. Yet Elyot’s triumph is to make My Night With Reg so funny. With a nod to classic farce and plenty of blue jokes, the laughs come thick and fast. Underneath the wickedly funny crudity, there’s great skill: switching between comedy and tears with the speed of a lightning flash.

Geoffrey Streatfeild (Daniel) and Lewis Reeves (Eric) in My Night With Reg. Photo by Johan Persson.
Geoffrey Streatfeild and Lewis Reeves

The characters are finely drawn and the acting lives up to Elyot’s writing. The plot pivots around the never seen Reg – the lover of so many – but our perspective comes from the floppy-haired, ever cautious Guy, made so endearing by Jonathan Broadbent that he becomes a real hero. Guy’s university friends are appropriately irresistible, played by Julian Ovenden and Geoffrey Streatfeild with both charisma and convincing depth. There are also talented turns by Matt Bardock and Richard Cant, while Lewis Reeves as Eric, the youngest character, gives another strong performance, bringing intergenerational insight to events.

As the play’s first major revival, the big question is, inevitably, how well it has aged. Despite being very much rooted in its times, addressing a specific community that has changed a great deal in the past 20 years, it’s a pleasant surprise to see how fresh My Night With Reg feels. Unrequited love is a universal theme, after all, and Elyot explores deep emotions in an appealingly uncensorious way. Best of all, the humour, while too blunt to describe as sparkling, still shines.

Until 27 September 2014

www.donmarwarehouse.com

Photos by Johan Persson

Written 6 August 2014 for The London Magazine

“The Weir” at Wyndham’s Theatre

With queues for Josie Rourke’s Coriolanus starting crazily early, adding to her string of hits as artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse, she now has a West End transfer to boast about with The Weir, which opened at Wyndham’s Theatre last night.

This much admired and awarded play dates from 1997 and sees various ghost stories told by its misfit characters in a small rural pub. Fortifying this tried and tested concept are Conor McPherson’s beautiful writing and mythic undertones: suggesting our longstanding psychological connections to storytelling and the supernatural.

Rourke’s production is spookily precise. Like one of the play’s characters, Finbar, she clearly has “an eye for the gap” – pauses are perfectly measured for both comedy and tragedy and space is created for the captivating stories. The pace is wonderfully controlled, and the banter in between, the majority of which is very funny indeed, fills out the characters, adding further layers to the play.


Ardal O’Hanlon

Each of the roles is interesting and exceptionally well acted. Risteárd Cooper and Peter McDonald give fine performances as a local entrepreneur and the landlord of the pub. Their different ambitions are just one example of a cleverly injected sense of community, covering the petty differences of life in the country and a network of personal histories. Crowd-pleasing Ardal O’Hanlon joins them as Jim, a bashful handyman who still lives with his mother.

Upsetting the group’s equilibrium is Valerie, a new arrival or “blow in”, who soaks up local folklore then reveals her own ghost story. In the role, Dervla Kirwan delivers the most moving moment of the evening, bringing home the pain and loneliness all feel and fight against. But it’s Brian Cox – as the finest storyteller and bar room wit – that you can’t take your eyes off. Playing an ordinary man with a quiet sadness slowly revealed with great skill, Cox heads a high-powered cast that’s sure to really pack them in. And deservedly so.

Until 19 April 2013

Photos by Helen Warner

Written 22 January 2014 for The London Magazine