Tag Archives: Paule Constable

“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

“Angels in America” at the National Theatre

Any production of Tony Kushner’s masterpiece is a cause for celebration. Presented in two parts, totalling nearly seven hours, and combining the AIDS crisis with speculation on America’s history and its future, epic is an apt word. Add the stellar cast and it’s hard to be inured to the hype surrounding this revival on the Southbank. The difficulty of getting tickets, plus ecstatic reviews and a sense of responsibility towards the play, whose premiere at the National Theatre in 1992 is fondly remembered, create palpable anticipation. And the production is superb – a theatrical event – even if it struggles under the weight of expectation.

James McArdle (Louis) and Andrew Garfield (Prior)
James McArdle (Louis) and Andrew Garfield (Prior)

For unmitigated praise we can begin with the cast. Andrew Garfield plays Prior Walter, who reveals his HIV status at the start of the play to his boyfriend, Louis (James McArdle), who promptly deserts him. Both grippingly portray their relationship breakdown – McArdle does a great job creating sympathy for his unlikeable character. As Prior’s health deteriorates, Garfield takes the lead with a combination of dignity and no-nonsense that perfectly reflects the text. When it comes to Prior’s encounter with angels – and in this play they are real – the juggling of fear, amazement and humour is superb.

Denise Gough (Harper) and Russell Tovey (Joseph)
Denise Gough (Harper) and Russell Tovey (Joseph)

Another couple in trouble are the Pitts, two Mormons living in a sham marriage. Russell Tovey plays Joseph, tortured by his sexuality, with sensitivity. An affair with Louis comes as a revelation to him and fills the theatre with tenderness, while the betrayal of his wife, Harper, is moving and complex. It’s another triumph for Denise Gough, as the pill-popping spouse whose religious background and secretive husband are driving her insane. There’s that Kushner combination again – of humour and self-awareness – that Gough reveals expertly. Someone should save us all time and hand her another Olivier award now.

Nathan Lane (Roy Cohn) and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett (Belize)
Nathan Lane (Roy Cohn) and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett (Belize)

A final duo deserves a mention: Broadway legend Nathan Lane, who brings a startling humour to the role of closeted lawyer Roy Cohn, and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett as his nurse Belize. Their sparring matches, as Cohn lies dying of AIDS, are a highlight. Stewart-Jarrett impresses throughout, excelling as a foil to Prior and Louis, and deftly carrying the weight of Kushner’s concerns over racism.

Angels in America is hard work, especially if you are lucky enough to see both plays on the same day. It isn’t trying to be easy, of course: the emotional journey taken by its many characters is harrowing, but the scale and scope of ideas needs controlling and the fear is that director Marianne Elliot has herself become overawed. There’s not enough “mangled guts” here – the play’s visceral text, so full of struggle, is sanitised as a ‘classic’.

Connections between the characters, clear enough in the script, become laboured. There are few light touches, literally so when it comes to Paule Constable’s lighting design, which dominates Part One in particular. A claustrophobic feel, pinpointing scenes in spotlight, is presumably to create focus, but the result is soporific.

It’s not the play’s length that is the problem – the plotting is impeccable – but the pacing, which flags. The main culprit is a cumbersome set by Ian McNeil, with props moved around by a collection of ‘Angel Shadows’ who become distracting. This choreographed troupe does stronger work as skilled puppeteers with the arrival of The Angel (the always superb Amanda Lawrence). But even here their scenes feel protracted. Elliot’s reverential air brings us down to earth, even if most of her production is heavenly.

Until 19 August 2017

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photos by Helen Maybanks

“Common” at the National Theatre

With big subjects, a huge cast, and the Olivier stage to play with, DC Moore’s new play aims at being epic – and, up to its interval, it feels as if it might be. The twisting plot, following the story of Mary, brilliantly portrayed by Anne-Marie Duff, is an interesting mix of melodrama and the supernatural. The language, combining old and new vocabulary, odd syntax and lots of swearing, makes the text original, satisfyingly dense and a great deal of fun.

Set in the early 18th century, the play’s first topic is the enclosure of common land and one community’s struggle to prevent this devastating policy. The dramatic potential and importance are clear – a description of enclosure as “a dry word with a sharp end” is great – but the play seems embarrassed by its subject matter. Painful metatheatricality is thrown in with an overt disavowal of “dry historical accuracy”. But facts are fine, really – a bit of history won’t hurt a play.

Common is more interested in the superstition that filled agricultural communities. Director Jeremy Herrin goes to town with some Wicker Man horror that makes one gory scene especially good. The costumes and lighting, by Richard Hudson and Paule Constable, fit well. But there’s little sense of anything else – despite a subplot about incest that… well, I guess must have some point to it. As the action boils over, interest cools: the plot is abbreviated and the sign off comes across as trite. There’s too little concern for anyone apart from Mary, who overpowers the play. Cush Jumbo as a former lover and Tim McMullan as the local landowner have a go, but Duff is left to propel all.

However uneven, Mary is a brilliant creation that Duff makes a joy to watch. A romantic rogue (her self-description is a good deal more colourful) returning to the country after a debauched life in London, Mary’s psychic abilities and supernatural invincibility batter credulity – even before a crow starts talking to her. But like all devils Mary gets great lines – Moore’s expletive-ridden insults are quite something. It’s a shame the “jigsaw” of Mary’s story isn’t solved satisfactorily. Too quickly moving from the people’s saviour into a “blight” ruining their lives, the role is overburdened – and since Mary is the only thing rooted in the play, the overall harvest is poor.

Until 5 August 2017

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photos by Johan Persson

“The Threepenny Opera” at the National Theatre

While the chance to see Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s famous work is welcome, regrettably, this production isn’t the finest hour of anyone involved. There’s nothing embarrassing – there are even good bits – but Simon Stephens’ new adaptation lacks charge, while Rufus Norris’ direction of his talented cast is low voltage.

Of course it’s fine to change the original setting (Brecht and Weill used John Gay’s earlier work themselves). Mack the Knife, aka Captain Macheath, the libidinous crook whose adventures we follow, is recast as an East End gangster. Neat enough. But not specifying a time period for this ‘updating’ diminishes its power. The dark reflections on human nature are robbed of satire, falling into a generic gloom that fails to challenge. Stephens’ lyrics are admirably clear, but they can’t shock – no matter how many expletives are crammed in – as it feels those involved would like them to.

The Brechtian staging of the work is tokenistic. There are knowing gags, including Keystone coppery and Buster Keaton, but the production feels lost or, more specifically, better suited to a smaller stage. Regular visitors to the National Theatre will know how powerful the Olivier can be – even empty – but here, Vicki Mortimer’s set of stairs and paper screens feels both slim and cumbersome. And there are a lot of signs to read – tricky from the circle. Impressive moments of staging have to be ascribed to Paule Constable’s lighting.

Haydn Gwynne and Nick Holder
Haydn Gwynne and Nick Holder

The biggest disappointment here is the cast. There are good performances when you’d expect great ones. Rory Kinnear takes the lead, his singing voice a pleasant surprise, but even his brilliant acting can’t hold things together. The excellent Rosalie Craig, as his young bride Polly, fails to bring her normal shine (maybe the interpretation of the role as an accountant hampers too much), while Sharon Small, as one of Mack’s many former lovers, sounds painful. The show belongs to the Peachums, Macheath’s enemies, played by Nick Holder and Haydn Gwynne. With this malicious Mr and Mrs, exaggerations in the piece pay off. Elsewhere, this Threepenny Opera feels deflated.

Until 1 October 2016

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photos by Richard Hubert Smith

“Danton’s Death” at the National Theatre

As anyone who has attempted Hilary Mantel’s supernovel on the theme will know, revolutionary France seems to have been a fairly confusing place. All those factions and ideologies and decapitations make our current coalition government look dull. And they can be hard to follow. Fortunately, Howard Brenton’s new version of Büchner’s classic, Danton’s Death, cuts to the chase and is light on history and politics.

It is Danton the philosopher that we meet at the National Theatre. His meditations on mortality and fame just happen to have political turmoil as a background. Unfortunately, thinking and politics don’t mix well for him.

Toby Stephens plays Danton. He shouts against corruption superbly but excels when showing the mania of his complex character. Charges of libertinism seem well founded but he is so full of life and charisma that he is appealing. Stephens is magnetic whether on the soapbox, in the bedroom or in prison with his friends.

It is clear we should be following him. Anyway, the opposition are a tiresome lot. Elliot Levey’s Robespierre is a sibilant schoolboy who holds your interest but is hardly terrifying. His followers do far too much arm waving to rise above pantomime.

More disappointing than our hero’s enemies is his wife. Danton’s philandering doesn’t seem to have disturbed Madame at all. I am not sure what would fluster her, as Kirsty Bushell’s performance is so understated as to be soporific. She might be annoyed at the mess he’s going to make of his collar, but that’s about it.

Thankfully the spotlight is on Danton most of the time. And what a spotlight it is – Paule Constable’s lighting for the production is stunning, working perfectly with Christopher Oram’s cliché-free set and aiding director Michael Grandage’s clear, fast-paced production.

Danton’s death comes quickly and the props department’s stunning guillotine is truly convincing. I panicked for a moment, thinking Toby Stephens had been sacrificed for the sake of his art. That would have been a tragedy indeed – this production can’t afford to lose him.

Until 14 October 2010

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Johan Persson

Written 2 August 2010 for The London Magazine