Tag Archives: Sam Mendes

“The Ferryman” at the Gielgud Theatre

Superstar playwright Jez Butterworth’s latest drama was a hit before it even opened: the West End transfer was announced simultaneous to its sell-out opening at the Royal Court and a new cast will soon take the show into 2018. This long harvest day’s journey into tragedy is the story of the Carney family, farmers in Northern Ireland whose connections with the IRA haunt them. This is a big family drama – and not just due to the size of the household, but because of Butterworth’s exquisite writing.

There’s a luxurious feel to the show – although this is a working-class world – created by Rob Howell’s design and director Sam Mendes, who resists the temptation to rush a single moment. Three hours is a long running time for a new play, but every minute holds you. Above all, a huge company, including some extraordinary younger performers, are awe-inspiring. It really shouldn’t be possible to have so many characters so clearly delineated by their own compelling stories.

There’s a lot of laughter in the family, a real sense of warmth, and not a few Irish stereotypes. This has been commented on by Sean O’Hagan, better qualified than myself. To be sure, there’s a lot of whisky drinking and some gags around children swearing seem cheap, if effective. But the stories told, swirling around the discovery of a murdered family member’s body, broaden the play’s themes beyond the Troubles.

Myth and history populate the play. The past preoccupies Aunt Maggie Far Away, “visiting” from her dementia, and obsesses Aunt Pat, whose brother died in the Easter Rising: two brilliant roles engendering stunning performances from Bríd Brennan and Dearbhla Molloy respectively. Meanwhile Uncle Pat has plenty of anecdotes while, with another strong performance from Des McAleer (pictured top), enforcing the play’s theme of death, which escalates with such foreboding.

Tom Glynn-Carney
Tom Glynn-Carney

There’s a point to all the marvellously crafted yarns – The Uses of Story Telling, if you’re looking for a dissertation title. The tales form a link to violence inherited by the young. A terrific scene with four youths, led with febrile energy by Tom Glynn-Carney, shows them captivated by accounts of IRA leader Mr Muldoon (Stuart Graham) and the 1981 hunger strikers. In the shadows (there’s plenty of eavesdropping in this play – stories morph into rumour and hearsay, after all) is an even younger “wean”, skilfully depicted by Rob Malone, who is driven to desperate measures.

Laura Donnelly and Genevieve O’Reilly
Laura Donnelly and Genevieve O’Reilly

At the heart of the play is a love triangle that leads to star performances. A repressed affair between the play’s patriarch Quinn, performed with charming assurance by Paddy Considine, and his bereaved sister-in-law Caitlin, a role Laura Donnelly articulates marvellously, leads to some of the best dialogue. Although appearing relatively late, Quinn’s wife Mary is given her due through Genevieve O’Reilly’s quiet performance. The unrequited emotions of all three create an unusual love story that thrums with excitement. As Quinn’s IRA past rears its head with a tension that would please any thriller writer, Mendes’ strengths shine. The fear of what might come next hangs over the final hour of the show. Butterworth manages to juggle all this with enviable dexterity, producing a work of complexity and popular appeal.

Until 6 January 2018

www.TheFerrymanPlay.com

Photos by Johan Persson

“King Lear” at the National Theatre

The National Theatre has rolled out the big guns to start 2014 – Simon Russell Beale as King Lear directed by Sam Mendes. It doesn’t matter what the weather is doing, or what your budget is like, make a resolution to see this one.

It’s a grand production in many ways. Star director Mendes was widely rumored for the top job at the National Theatre (it went to Rufus Norris), and is clearly at home here. Behind Anthony Ward’s deceptively simple design, the Olivier auditorium is used for all it’s worth. The sense of space is appropriately magisterial and the endlessly revolving stage reflects the play’s conceit of a wheel of fortune. Lear’s kingdom is a noirish nightmare inhabited by gangsters, militia and Blackshirts.

It isn’t just the superb spectacle that makes this Lear memorable. Simon Russell Beale gives the first unmissable performance of the year. His physical transformation is striking – he seems to shrink into the role in a degeneration that accelerates before your eyes. Always an intelligent performer, Russell Beale’s frequent work with Mendes shows how well he interprets the director’s powerful vision. This Lear is scary, a potent psychopath and giving up his throne is acknowledged as inexplicable. It’s a strategy that makes sense of his rages and fills the stage with fear. In a bold move, Lear kills Adrian Scarborough’s thought-provoking fool (in this production he’s even occasionally funny) in an agony of anger.

Matching him in menace, Lear’s daughters are clearly from the same mould. Fantastic casting is made the most of with Kate Fleetwood’s Goneril and Anna Maxwell-Martin’s Regan stealing many of the scenes they are in. Vampish and vicious, they are full of manoeuvres. Olivia Vinall’s Cordelia is also defiantly active, donning army fatigues as she leads an invading force to rescue her father. This Lear is action packed throughout. The plot fuels the tragedy in a way that emphasises that justice isn’t abstract, or the twisted sport of a divinity, but the work of man. From this, the end is even more tragic than usual, with a near unbearably moving performance by Russell Beale.

Until 25 March 2014

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Mark Douet

Written 27 January 2014 for The London Magazine

“Richard III” at The Old Vic

Kevin Spacey’s Richard III has been London’s most anticipated play for a while – there just seemed something so right about the casting. And for once you can believe the hype, since Spacey is superb as Shakespeare’s villainous king.

This Richard is a spin-doctoring politician. Not a subtle one, which gives rise to plenty of humour, but the tin-pot dictator of a nation ravaged by civil war. Sounds familiar? It’s supposed to – the surtitle that welcomes us at the Old Vic proclaims the winter of our discontent to be NOW. Spacey is an actor with his eye on the news, and bringing Richard’s mad-dog qualities to the fore gives his performance plenty of bite.

Surtitles also serve to introduce scenes with the names of Richard’s numerous victims, giving each episode a focus. It’s a simple, bold device on the part of director Sam Mendes that aids comprehension and adds tension. It also allows the women in the piece to shine through. Annabel Scholey as Lady Anne, who Richard woos in such bizarre circumstances, and his nemesis Elizabeth (Haydn Gwynne) both give striking performances.

Mendes infuses his production with the supernatural, courtesy of Gemma Jones in the role of Margaret. Victim of a previous coup in the Wars of the Roses, she’s not just full of curses but capable of enacting them, even making an appearance on the battlefield. Mendes’ treatment adds a fascinating dimension to the play – martial drums, used so effectively, double up in a chilling ritual of revenge.

So it’s really Sam Mendes who is the star of the show. Richard III marks the culmination of the Bridge Project, and taking the lead in this last production reflects Spacey’s dedication as part of the massive touring company. Uniting together British and American talent on a global stage brings out the best in both men and has resulted in a magnificent and long overdue rematch.

Until 11 September 2011

www.oldvictheatre.com

Photo by Tristram Kenton

Written 5 July 2011 for The London Magazine

The Bridge Project at the Old Vic

For the second year running Sam Mendes has achieved something remarkable with his Bridge Project, bringing together artists from both sides of the Atlantic for a world tour that finishes at the Old Vic.

Pairing The Tempest and As You Like It invites rich comparisons, but these are never forced. The stories focus on the trials of love and justice. The Tempest seems more of a romance than we might be used to and As You Like It more complex. In both cases, Mendez has employed an even hand with his able cast so that some often neglected roles shine out.

The more startling interpretation comes with As You Like It. This is a dark affair, set in winter and with the Forest of Arden a frightening place. Edward Bennett as the evil brother Oliver gets the chance to really show us why Orlando leaves for the forest and Michael Thomas (who plays both Dukes) gives Celia and Rosalind a real reason to flee. Later on there’s even a torture scene – certainly not something you’d expect of this play. But As You Like It still retains its charm, mostly because of Juliet Rylance who plays Rosalind as a bubbling yet sophisticated schoolgirl. Her trial of Orlando hits the perfect balance between comedy and sincerity.

Prospero is always the key to The Tempest. Stephen Dillane’s understated performance is intoxicating, his thaumaturgy never doubted. He is the conductor of events, with his famous book placed on a music stand and the other characters  his instruments. If dramatic tension is somewhat sacrificed because of this, a complex performance gives us a very human image. There is a wonderfully caring relationship to watch as he deals with an ethereal Christian Camargo as Arial, and his reunion with Gonzalo (Alvin Epstein) moves. The lovers here are Rylance and Bennett and both excel. Cleverly mirroring each other’s movements, they create some of the most beautiful images on stage.

Careful attention to movement is aided by the action taking place within a circle of sand. The audience is drawn in to Prospero’s realm from the beginning and, with no interval, it is utterly absorbing. Along with wonderful lighting and excellent music from Mark Bennett this production of The Tempest is certainly the most beautiful I have ever watched. While Mendes’ As You Like It may excite because it is such a novel interpretation of the play, it is his journey to Prospero’s island that is unmissable.

Until 21 August 2010

www.oldvictheatre.com

Photo by Joan Marcus

Written 23 June 2010 for The London Magazine