Tag Archives: Richard Goulding

“Saint George and the Dragon” at the National Theatre

The always excellent John Heffernan takes the title role in Rory Mullarkey’s new play and gives a truly heroic performance. But can he save the day and the play? Almost… yet not quite, although it’s still a pleasure to see him on stage. Looking at our national legend at the nation’s theatre is a neat idea, as is writing the story as a contemporary allegory (in three chapters). Unfortunately, this brave effort delivers too little.

The opening act, set in a parodied mediaeval world, gets the show off to a great start. With Pythonesque touches, Heffernan makes the foppish George a figure to laugh at, while retaining just the right amount of dignity. His damsel in distress in updated effectively by Amaka Okafor, making their courtship a lark. As for the Dragon, Julian Bleach has a great deal of fun playing his earthly form, camping it up terrifically. It’s all staged slickly by director Lyndsey Turner, with Rae Smith’s design looking great. It’s silly but it’s funny, charming even, and very enjoyable.

After a year George returns to his island home, which has undergone an industrialisation that has enslaved its people. The Dragon isn’t a monster, but “every system needs a master” and, suited and booted, he is bureaucracy incarnate. It’s another great turn from Bleach and his now imprisoned former henchman, played by Richard Goulding, does well from the confines of a prison set. But this time the dénouement is thin and unconvincing; the Dragon too easily vanquished. It’s simplistic and too predictable.

To continue with a lack of surprises, after another year, George returns again – this time to a version of the present. Cue skyscrapers descending on to the stage in a This Is Spinal Tap moment that Smith has had enough experience to have avoided. And that’s the least of the problems with this unhappily ever after ending. The Dragon continues incorporeal – his evil inside us all – and there’s no place for saints, nowadays. Heffernan excels as a George out of time and perfectly reflects the play’s questioning of heroes and heroics. But this is slim stuff for a long play, as the repetition indicates, as well as being bleak and naive. Both Mullarkey and Turner lose control with an overblown finale that’s uncomfortably messy. And really just downright silly.

Until 2 December 2017

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Johan Persson

 

 

“They Drink It In The Congo” at the Almeida Theatre

Adam Brace’s new play looks at the troubles of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and its first achievement is not to make the awful history, and terrible current conditions, overwhelming. A politically charged piece, its masterstroke is to set debate in the UK. The characters include a violent fighter against the Congolese government, performed with charisma and intelligence by Richie Campbell, and those working to help their home country, with the lead campaigner given appropriate dignity by Anna Maria Nabiyre. The point of conflict is a Congolese festival, organised by a well-meaning PR, Stef, who co-opts her former boyfriend (a great role for Richard Goulding). ‘Congo Voice’ is to be an awareness-raising, ‘non-political’ but PC-riddled arts event. Disaster, predictably but entertainingly, ensues.

Richard Goulding & Fiona Button
Richard Goulding & Fiona Button

Brace’s play is well constructed and director Michael Longhurst has done a smart job. We are in PR land with some comfortable satire and good jokes. The audience is forgiven potential ignorance surrounding the DRC and there’s a potted history to get us up to speed (thank you). Best of all is the well-written heroine; sharp as a knife, and a brilliant role that Fiona Button excels in. I fell for her totally.

Naturally things get grim. A harrowing scene, set in the Congo, is necessary if difficult to watch. And we get a flashback that fills in Stef’s story swiftly. After the interval, the incongruity of being back in party mode is a good twist, although violent threats to the festival lack tension. Better dealt with is the play’s grown up cynicism – healthy but never overpowering. Further comment comes from a chorus figure, a kind of master of ceremonies, who follows Stef around but is not seen by the characters. Sule Rimi (pictured top) cuts a dash in the role but it seems superfluous, possibly a kind of living Nkishi for those who study comparative religion?

It isn’t giving too much away to say Stef’s event doesn’t happen. The play has too realistic a tone to allow that. But there is a traditional festival of sorts: a Congolese wake for a father, an absent figure whose paternal influence mirrors Stef’s complex relationship with her own history. For his strong female roles, Brace roots his play in the universal of the family, bringing this complex work closer to its audience as well. He does what (little) a dramatist can, carefully manoeuvring the difficulties of a European commenting on Africa. There are faces and stories attached to this country now. Something to celebrate.

Until 1 October 2016

www.almeida.co.uk

Photos by Marc Brenner

“Charles III” at Wyndham’s Theatre

Mike Bartlett’s biggest hit to date, Charles III, has made a much-deserved transfer to the West End after rave reviews at the Almeida. Billed as a ‘future history play’, Bartlett imagines Prince Charles ascending to the throne and a constitutional crisis that arises when he refuses to sign a bill privileging privacy over the freedom of the press.

As well as being topical and very funny, the ideas are so outlandish – especially the presence of Princess Diana’s ghost – that it might all have turned out a bit silly. But it works. Royally. With a set of buzzing performances headed by a superb Tim Pigott-Smith in the title role, all the actors manage a fine balance between impersonation and a deeper intent. There are laughs at first, but these are well-developed roles and the serious subject matter is fascinating. Director Rupert Goold is uncharacteristically restrained; he knows the play speaks for itself.

Bartlett takes on the Shakespearean mantle with courage and panache. The play is written in verse, a demanding choice that adds humour and holds the attention. References to Shakespeare’s plays are light; it’s not so much the form and language that Bartlett borrows from the Bard as those ambitious themes of responsibility, family and identity – all of which are dealt with so intelligently that the royal soap opera is left far behind.

Not that the house of Windsor doesn’t make great raw material. The drama of youth vs experience, so ably depicted by Princes Harry and William (two sides of Shakespeare’s Hal?), is embraced by actors Richard Goulding and Oliver Chris. Imagining future events in such a fashion makes the heritage of Shakespeare’s history plays a kind of prism, creating layers of speculation. Bartlett handles the possibilities with wit, ensuring that Charles III  is both entertaining and unpredictable, while raising big questions and creating real pathos.

Until 31 January 2015

Photo by Johan Persson

Written 23 September 2014 for The London Magazine