Tag Archives: Matthew Dunster

“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

www.shakespearesglobe.com

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

www.shakespearesglobe.com

Photo 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

www.openairtheatre.com

Photo by Johan Persson

“Before The Party” at the Almeida Theatre

Preparation is often the key to both a good party and a good play. Director Matthew Dunster’s impeccable staging of Before The Party at the Almeida Theatre is clearly well provisioned: a strong text, finely executed, with the highest production values.

The action occurs before two events, a teatime affair and a dinner, with the Skinner family facing increasing turmoil and scandal as they prepare for each. The fare on offer is various – this is a sharp comedy with plenty of deliciously dark-edged plot twists.

Saving the family face makes the snobby Skinners a great target for writer Rodney Ackland’s satire, but emotions break through with a genuine touch that’s truly affecting.

Heroine Laura (Katherine Parkinson) fights for her right to party despite being only recently widowed, and that’s just the start of her shocking behaviour. Laura mortifies her mother and sister (Stella Gonet and Michelle Terry in fine comic style), and infuriates her father, portrayed with suitable bluster by Alex Price.

Special mention has to go to the costumes from a team headed by designer Anna Fleischle. Spot on for a time when post-war celebrations and a touch of provincial conservatism had to deal with continued rationing, they should win an award.

In many ways, Ackland’s play (a big hit in 1949) is pretty dated: the snobbery seems ridiculous, but current financial straits find a parallel with wartime rationing and the black market exploited by the wealthy Skinners shows that we were never really all in it together. Even if you’re not one for nostalgia, Before The Party has enough hits against hypocrisy to make you glad you attended.

Until 11 May 2013

www.almeida.co.uk

Photo by Keith Pattison

Written 8 April 2013 for The London Magazine

“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

www.openairtheatre.org

Photo by Johan Persson

Written 13 June 2012 for The London Magazine

“Doctor Faustus” at Shakespeare’s Globe

Thanks to the film Shakespeare in Love we think of Christopher Marlowe as more celebrated in his own day than Shakespeare. Now, of course, his work is performed far less frequently, making any production an event, especially when Shakespeare’s own Globe conjures up its first production of Doctor Faustus.

Director Matthew Dunster does his best to make the story of the man who sells his soul to the devil resonate with a contemporary audience. The emphasis is on magic rather than religion – a sound move in our agnostic times – aided admirably with a soundscape from Jules Maxwell.

But Doctor Faustus poses problems. With roots in morality plays, 16th-century concerns and seemingly impossible stage effects, several scenes are potentially odd to modern eyes. Dunster’s solutions are admirable, using wit, imagination and strong doses of broad humour to engage: Georgina Lamb’s choreography is a capable distraction when the Doctor meets the seven deadly sins, the Pope becomes a comic mafia don, and a castle in the air is a simple inflatable balloon that floats off over the South Bank.

Paul Hilton is a model of clarity in the title role. Fingers stained with ink, this scholar-turned-magus’s pride is painfully convincing and, if he lacks the sensual touch that comes to dominate a man “ravished” by desires, his relationship with Arthur Darvill’s commendably understated Mephistopheles is electric.

Dunster injects a huge amount of movement into what is potentially rather a static play, and his tautly controlled ensemble works hard, peopling the world Faustus plays in. Of particular note are Charlotte Broom and Beatriz Romilly as the angels who fight over Faustus’ soul with samurai swords. With flashy touches such as this, Dunster grapples with Marlowe’s mighty play in a magical fashion and does not sell Doctor Faustus short.

Until 2 October 2011

www.shakespearesglobe.com

Photo by Keith Pattison

Written 24 June 2011 for The London Magazine

“The Maddening Rain” at the Old Red Lion, Islington

When readers of The London Magazine go to the theatre in Islington, they go to The Almeida. I am just the same and quite devoted to the place. But a new play, The Maddening Rain, makes me recommend travelling down Upper Street to the Old Red Lion pub theatre for a very special fringe production.

Nicholas Pierpan’s tale of a working-class boy who becomes a City trader is so firmly rooted in the streets of London that it is instantly believable. We are swept along on a journey of success, then failure, in an exhilarating manner. Pierpan doesn’t just know his geography – he knows how to write, with imagery that is instant yet lingering and poetry of the everyday that is accessible and effective.

In this well-constructed, hour-long monologue, London is presented as alienating but full of exciting opportunities. The mix of sociology and psychology is heady, but in safe hands with director Matthew Dunster who paces the show expertly. Light and sound add atmosphere without detracting attention and Dunster maintains an intimacy that, along with Alison McDowall’s clever set, takes us behind the scenes of the City.

It’s an adventure that gets quite a telling – Felix Scott’s performance is riveting. Underneath a look as bland as any other commuter, out comes a sharp eye with a comic glint. Insights into the ‘dead time’ of work and the ‘herd’ he has to put up with endear, but Scott is accomplished enough to hold us back. His ability as a mimic becomes chilling as he transforms into the role of his boss, then frightening as the play reaches its tragic conclusion.

Scott’s character fixates on the privilege he sees all around him. It’s true that Londoners are spoilt. We never have to go a long way for anything, take seeing a great play for example – just go down the road from the Almeida.

Until 18 September 2010

www.oldredliontheatre.co.uk

Photo by Jenny Grand

Written 1 September 2010 for The London Magazine