Tag Archives: Jon Bausor

“The Secret Theatre” at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

Running in repertory with the excellent Romantics Anonymous, this new play by Anders Lustgarten is a similarly accessible affair, with an emphasis on entertainment. Everyone loves a bit of Tudor history and this story of spymaster Francis Walsingham, impeccably performed by Aidan McArdle, delivers plenty of it. While the famed intelligencer comes to find himself trapped by “too many stories” – from the Babington plot, to the Spanish Armada – Lustgarten condenses the happenings expertly, and the exciting intrigue is perfectly marshalled by director Matthew Dunster.

We get a monarch – Good Queen Bess, of course – none other than Tara Fitzgerald rising to the task with the aid of costumes by Jon Bausor. She appears gloriously like a painting at first, in a dress that itself deserves an award. But this is a far cry from the Virgin Queen. Bringing Elizabeth I to the stage must count as the biggest challenge for both writer and performer – and it becomes their biggest achievement. It’s a new take on the queen we can recognise and enjoy: this bullying and foul-mouthed “mad dog” (Lustgarten does swearing on stage very well) is used for dramatic purposes to great effect.

Tara Fitzgerald and Aiden McArdle
Tara Fitzgerald and Aiden McArdle

Lustgarten has a reputation as a provocative and political writer. His version of Elizabeth might possibly shock if you take his contrary streak too seriously. But the politics, in the form of parallels with our own increasingly surveyed state, are neat and often funny. It’s never subtle, but if you have good point then why not shout about it? Small gripes are the piece’s lack of peril (much of the tension comes from Dunster’s brilliant use of the candlelit venue and composer Alexander Balanescu’s contribution), and that emotion is generally in short supply – although McArdle does his best. But as a spy story the history works as well as you would expect and there are strong turns from espiocrats Burleigh, Pooley and Phelippes played by Ian Redford, Edmund Kingsley and Colin Ryan.

The Secret History is historical fiction that uses the past to tell a new story about our own times. Having done his research, Lustgarten is entitled to play around – and don’t forget that there have been plenty of outlandish theories about Elizabeth. Some of the speculation here is far-fetched, and not all of it is sure-footed: Lady Frances and Sir Philip Sydney have some distinctly modern sensibilities, while a nice try at depicting a working-class perspective isn’t given time to develop. The play escalates into conspiracy theory quickly – but spies are ripe for that and it all works well theatrically. With a nice twist to solidify its thought- provoking ambitions, we are sent home happy and, just maybe, a little wiser about the theatrics behind power.

Until 16 December 2017


Photos by Marc Brenner

“Imogen” at Shakespeare’s Globe

Matthew Dunster’s new production of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline is bravely “renamed and reclaimed”. Focusing on the female lead – after all, she has the majority of the lines – is enlightening and provides a star role for Maddy Hill that she proves commanding in. This new take on Shakespeare fits well with artistic director Emma Rice’s vision for the Globe.

Praise first: Dunter’s ability to tell the story is superb. Cymbeline has a complicated plot with plenty of disguises but this production is a model of clarity. The idea of updating the play, with contemporary gang culture and the drug trade is good. The use of voiceovers is inspired. Likewise, casting a deaf actor (William Grint), signing his role as one of Imogen’s long-lost brothers, brings out raw emotions marvellously. There’s a declaratory style that some performers struggle with, and ironically feels old fashioned, but the physicality of this show is commendable.

The biggest coup comes from the work of designer Jon Bausor and choreographer Christopher Akrill. Bausor uses a giant plastic curtain and strip lights to set the scene. Purists won’t like the fact that the theatre’s charm isn’t taken into account, but the cinematic feel of the design is visually arresting and in keeping with the whole. Akrill’s dance adds poetic moments and makes the fight scenes stunning, so much so that bursts of aerial acrobatics seem unnecessary.

But while it all looks great, there’s a flaw here. Cymbeline is a notoriously difficult play, with a plot defying credulity and a final scene so full of revelations it is difficult not to laugh. Unfortunately, Dunster seems determined to play the whole thing for comedy.

Attempts to reflect the violence of this society are unsuccessful. Only Jonathan McGuinness in the title role manages to be frightening. The rest of the cast are hampered by too many interjections just for laughs. Matthew Needham’s Giacomo is a case in point; the disturbing scene where he spies on Imogen in bed becomes a lark. Suffering most is Cloten, played with conviction by Joshua Lacey: the role is reduced to a strutting cock (yes, we get the joke) and a character that should be terrifying becomes a lame joke.

Time after time humour deflates tension, leaving the text flat. There seems little faith in the play’s power to move an audience and the outcome is monotone if not monotonous. Dunster plays out his strategy boldly – credit to him – I just happen to disagree with it.

Until 16 October 2016


Photo by Tristram Kenton

“You For Me For You” at the Royal Court

American playwright Mia Chung’s work, for the Royal Court’s wonderfully intimate upstairs auditorium, is the tale of two sisters, Minhee and Junhee, who try to defect from a North Korean regime so sinister it is rendered surreal.

Minhee fails, becoming trapped inside a well, beginning a bizarre journey inside her own consciousness and the national identity that has psychologically entrapped her. Wendy Kweh gives a convincing performance as a tortured soul.

Brilliantly visualised and staged by designer Jon Bausor and director Richard Twyman, a vault-like stage with mirrors and projections creates a visual kaleidoscope of action and paranoia. There’s even a bunny rabbit hanging around.

As a technique for understanding the despotic state, the magical realism employed fits well with Chung’s observations on time. You might feel the need for more raw data about North Korea (although that’s hardly the playwright’s job), but the bureaucratic nightmares experienced are depressingly predictable.

Katie Leung and Daisy Haggard
Katie Leung and Daisy Haggard

Junhee’s experience is only slightly less fantastical, and America becomes a subject for Chung’s play, as she ostensibly explores the ’other’. The electrifying stroke is to show the experience of learning English – encountering Daisy Haggard in a variety of roles –moving from speaking gibberish to gradually becoming comprehensible. The technique allies us with Katie Leung’s powerfully performed Junhee, while Haggard gives a literally breath-taking performance.

A fast-paced play, this sibling story doesn’t move as much emotionally as it might. Maybe the sisters’ devotion is taken too much for granted. Possibly Minhee’s tragic backstory is revealed just a little too slowly. But the production is superb and the play highlights the desperation of refugees, from anywhere in the world, with more than its fair serving of poetic moments.

Until 9 January 2016


Photos by Tristram Kenton

“The Seagull” at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre

Given that The Seagull opens with its hero Konstantin putting on an outdoor performance, Regent’s Park feels a pretty good match for Chekhov’s play. The stunning venue is enhanced by Jon Bausor’s splendid design – a giant mirror hangs above the action, literally adding another dimension to reflect upon. Matthew Dunster’s production looks fantastic, but sadly there’s too much chasing after laughs so the play falls curiously flat.

The problem isn’t so much with Torben Betts’ new adaptation of the play – although the language is sometimes too direct, it can be good to shake up a classic. This version is easy to follow and feels modern. Rather, it’s Dunster’s emphasis on the comedy; he gets plenty of laughs but the humour doesn’t build and the play’s more poignant moments feel thrown away. Some characters suffer dreadfully: Medviedenko, the teacher, is reduced to a comedian with just one punch line, the ever-miserable Masha a wailing drunk and the young leads are simply too gauche. Matthew Tennyson and Sabrina Bartlett hold the stage as the aspiring artists Konstantin and Nina, and their naiveté gets laughs but both actors aren’t given a chance to delve deeper.

Other roles fare better. The writer Trigorin’s ego fascinates. Alex Robertson makes him funny and irritating – a petulant take on the character that’s interesting. And Janie Dee’s Arkadina manages to be at once jolly and roundly three-dimensional. Dunster is strongest with group scenes, highlighting uncomfortable dynamics as an “angel of the awkward silence” is said to descend. Also interesting are the two servants (Tom Greaves and Tara D’Arquian), who giggle at innuendo and silently respond to events.

The production also has the novel device of using a voiceover for character’s thoughts. It’s certainly startling but privileges certain players too much. Frustratingly, despite being inside their heads, we don’t feel any closer to them, and this internal dialogue is used indiscriminately and again mostly just for laughs. Nice try, but this showy device is symptomatic of a production that tries hard but doesn’t hit anything… apart from that poor seagull, of course.

Until 11 July 2015


Photo by Johan Persson

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre

Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre has such a long association with A Midsummer Night’s Dream that any production of the Shakespearean favourite is highly anticipated. Director Matthew Dunster’s bold version seeks to challenge any tendency to see the play as comfortable by reimagining the setting as a gypsy camp.

There’s nothing wrong with the idea: it allows a fresh look at a well-known text and affords designer Jon Bausor the chance to create a fantastic set, full of surprises, that Laura Hopkin’s costumes look great on. Unfortunately, it’s a concept that pays few dividends and results in a misguided midsummer night.

The gypsy theme works fine for the play’s quartet of lovers. Making their entrance mid-fight, Demetrius and Lysander, finely performed by Kingsley Ben Adir and Tom Padley, are full of youthful virility. As Hermia and Helena, Rebecca Oldfield is spirited and Hayley Gullivan superb.

In comparison, the fairies are conventionally supernatural. Despite a BMX-riding Puck, they seem to have little connection with the rest of the play and this is hampered by some histrionic performances and laboured choreography. When Titania falls in love with Bottom, the result is crude and silly.

The workmen who perform for the now Gypsy King are another unhappy fit. Valiantly led by George Bukhari, their extended party scene is a surreal mix of My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding and Britain’s Got Talent that pleases the crowd but creates an unbalanced production. Their play within a play is performed in mock-operatic style with great energy, but the laughs they get become a problem as their success jars with the overall feel of the production.

Dunster makes many efforts to inject menace into A Midsummer Night’s Dream, emphasising violence from the start. Theseus’ confession to his bride – “I woo’ed thee with my sword” – remains a threat throughout: their wedding celebrations are fraught. But as a device to add tension the idea is overplayed. Dunster has to add to the play – to the extent of including a karaoke performance! Like much of the show, it’s inventive, but this is a problem that Dunster has created in the first place.

Until 5 September 2012


Photo by Johan Persson

Written 13 June 2012 for The London Magazine

“Ragtime” at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre

The Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre’s annual musical is an essential part of summer in London. Following hot on the heels of recent successes might intimidate a lesser man than director Timothy Sheader, but this year’s show, Ragtime, is more ambitious than ever. In a season crowded with events, it’s a bold and spirited affair.

Flaherty and Ahrens’ musical is a serious, dark work about American history and ideas, with a complex score that draws on the music from which it takes its title. It’s a challenging piece, taking on racism and terrorism with strong language; and there’s no playing safe for Sheader, who fights to make it relevant and broadens the work in astonishing fashion and to wonderful effect.

Jon Bausor’s excellent design is the first surprise – for last year’s Lord of the Flies he crashed a jet in the park – for Ragtime the auditorium looks like a rubbish dump with the cast entering through a derelict poster for the Obama campaign. Bausor’s work is a perfect match for Sheader’s time-bending twist on a story ostensibly set in 1906. The focus is on the power of politics to change and Ragtime’s ideals are moving ones. In true musical style, the characters’ aspirations gravitate around the world of entertainment: this is a world where dreams and drama occur “in heaven, in trouble and in Vaudeville”.

The production spoils us with strong central performances. Rosalie Craig and David Birrell are superb as a wealthy husband and wife whose lives intersect with the tragedy of a black couple, performed with great intensity by Rolan Bell and Claudia Kariuki, who makes a professional debut not to be missed. We also get a story of immigrant success, powerfully portrayed by John Marquez, and a host of historical figures that include Stephane Anelli as Harry Houdini in a scene-stealing escape act.

Sheader excels when dealing with Ragtime’s ensemble nature. The whole cast works exceptionally hard and shows great acting skill as well as doing justice to choreography from Javier de Frutos. Although one might consider Ragtime an alternative take on the American dream, it is deeply patriotic. Even though we have plenty of patriotism of our own at the moment, when this cast sings together it is sure to raise goose bumps regardless of the weather this summer – or your nationality.

Until 8 September 2012


Photo by Johan Persson

Written 29 May 2012 for The London Magazine

“Lord of the Flies” at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre

An airplane has crash-landed in Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. With an engine planted amongst the audience and luggage hanging from the trees, designer Jon Bausor’s Lost-inspired set immediately establishes the extremity of the situation. The dismantling of the British flag of the tailfin – to make a temporary shelter for the schoolboys who have survived the crash – succinctly reflects the theme of the decline of civilisation that courses though Golding’s original narrative.

Everybody’s favourite text from school days, the 1954 book, is expertly brought to the stage by Nigel Williams. Adapting it [for the RSC in 1995] must have been a daunting task – not simply because of its fame, but because Golding’s authorial voice is so strong, his work so filled with symbolism and so marked by a scarcity of dialogue. Williams neutralises the 1950s schoolboy chat that could cause laughter: the whole production is vague about period, a move that avoids distraction in these ephebiphobic times. Better still, the script makes many of Golding’s concerns, such as the dynamics of society and the struggle between good and evil, only too clear.

Timothy Sheader’s direction is remarkable. Working with a young cast, he has fostered a collection of impressive professional debuts – London hasn’t seen the like since The History Boys. Treating the stage as a playground, then a hunting ground, the boys move with frightening agility, undertake extended fight scenes convincingly and viscerally embody the savagery they descend into.

Alistair Toovey is wonderful as Ralph, the group’s first chief, engaged in a power struggle with Jack (James Clay), a choirboy-turned-hunter who leads the boys in a very different kind of song and dance. Clay bristles with adolescent awakening. There are also stand-out performances from George Bukhari as Piggy, a moving voice of reason in the wilderness, and Joshua Williams as Simon, whose discovery of the truth about the ‘Beastie’ scaring the children has brutal consequences.

Clay does especially well in playing out Jack’s manipulation of the weaker boys through fear. As night descends on Regent’s Park, and the hunt to kill Ralph begins, the boys become the “solid mass of menace” Golding describes. Sheader makes the escalation of violence theatrically plausible but, more remarkably, his pacing and use of slow motion give the audience time to think through what is going on. This is the same privileged position Golding gives his readers, making the production a true compliment to a terrifying modern classic.

Until 18 June 2011


Photo by Johan Persson

Written 27 May 2011 for The London Magazine

“The Winter’s Tale” at The Roundhouse

The Royal Shakespeare Company’s new London season arrives with the announcement of a five-year partnership with Camden’s Roundhouse. Artistic director Michael Boyd is enamoured of the venue, describing it as both intimate and epic, and the transfer of the Stratford production of The Winter’s Tale helps us to share his excitement.

David Farr’s direction makes the most of the specially constructed thrust stage, which mirrors the company’s current home in Stratford. The format has clearly focused Farr, and his direction is startlingly clear. Jon Bausor’s design takes inspiration from the ballads of Shakespeare’s day, cleverly enforcing the telling of this winter tale and decking Sicilia and Bohemia with so much paper we might feel we are  enveloped in the Forest of Arden.

Greg Hicks’ mellifluous voice is always a delight, and he plays the jealous Leontes with a restraint that marks his maturity. Kelly Hunter is his victimised wife Hermione, tackling the role with a moving humility. Also of note in this industrious ensemble are the appealing young lovers who become the focus of the play’s redemptive power: Florizel and Perdita (Tunji Kasim and Samantha Young). It would be refreshing to encounter the role of the Young Shepherd without a Welsh accent, but at least Gruffudd Glyn’s moniker indicates he is entitled to the part, and he puts in a great comic turn.

Farr’s direction enforces the judicial themes within The Winter’s Tale, drawing the audience in to play the role of arbiter. The moving text’s complex moral exploration and emotional impact are developed wonderfully, and the staging makes escaping into the fantasy of The Winter’s Tale easy. It all bodes well for the RSC’s future at The Roundhouse.

The Winter’s Tale plays until 1 January 2011. The RSC’s London season is at The Roundhouse until 4 February 2011.


Photo by Alessandro Evengelista

Written 17 December 2010 for The London Magazine