Tag Archives: Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

Romantics Anonymous at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

With her last show in charge at Shakespeare’s Globe, Emma Rice is going out in style with a musical romantic comedy that showcases her talents. This adaptation of the French film Les Émotifs Anonymes, is hilarious and heart-warming with a sense of wonder – at stories and making theatre – that is Rice’s trademark appeal.

The story of two chocolate makers falling in love sounds sickly sweet but a big dose of humour prevents any cloying aftertaste. Angélique and Jean-René are pathologically shy – émotif as the French say – and that’s the obstacle they have to overcome to find love. It’s great material for a musical: when the tongue-tied characters can’t speak, they can sing. And the scenario allows the lead performers, Carly Bawden and Dominic Marsh, to win hearts, as we fear and hope alongside them.

You’d be cold indeed not to fall for this fumbling pair. But to cater for cynics, Rice’s book for the show has a cool edge. The therapies tried (including the film’s titular support group) are viciously funny. As is pointed out, the secret of chocolate is a touch of bitterness. So, alongside all the Gallic sensitivity, we have old-fashioned English wit. Even the self-help tape Jean-René listens to loses patience with him! Great jokes and a sense of playfulness mean laughs throughout.

While Bawden and Marsh are brilliant as our emotionally challenged couple, this is the kind of ensemble piece Rice excels with. The often Breton-topped troupe takes on a range of delightful roles. Take your pick: Joanna Riding as Angélique’s uncouth mother, or Gareth Snook as two chocolate shop owners, both male and female. When the cast assemble as the misfit support group, each and every characterisation gets a laugh.

Although the comedy numbers are superb from the start, Michael Kooman’s sophisticated score gets off to a slow start and the lyrics by Christopher Dimond seem serviceable rather than inspired. But, like another description of chocolate from Angélique and Jean-René, the music has a complexity and power that builds.

Despite its everyday story, and a score of satisfying references, Romantics Anonymous is an original. It’s the first new musical at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse for a start. It glorifies in lo-fi touches, often Rice’s forte, that show each moment approached with fresh intelligence. It revels in the mechanics of theatre, creating complicity with the audience, with a novel self-deprecation. But the underlying, unabashed aim here is to create theatrical magic. And Rice succeeds so well, you feel gratitude for experiencing this great show.

Until 6 January 2018

www.shakespearesglobe.com

Photo by Steve Tanner

“Othello” at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

This is an uncharacteristically poor production from one of London’s most gorgeous and surefooted theatres. Shakespeare’s tragedy of the Moor of Venice should be pretty foolproof – hard to mess up even if you muck about with it. But director Ellen McDougall overburdens the text with trendy touches while wilfully ignoring the poetry of the play.

From the moment the cast walk onstage to don their minimalist costumes (good work by designer Fly Davis) it’s clear McDougall wants to do something new. We have pop songs a cappella, ‘selfies’ and re-writing Cassio as a woman. All this could be exciting, and there’s clearly no shortage of ideas, but the ramifications of each addition are underdeveloped. McDougall surely has her reasons, but it is too hard to see what they are.

Which brings us to rhyme. Working with dramaturg Joel Horwood, there are stumbles due to the change of Cassio’s gender. Adding the odd joke or altering Shakespeare’s insults can be justified but add little here. Maybe tackling the text should have been bolder – presenting something new, in the spirit of last year’s Cymbeline, transformed into Imogen, outdoors at the Globe? McDougall’s cast adopt a bland approach to the verse. Presumably an attempt to make it sound natural – it actually makes it dull.

Natalie Klamar’s Desdemona suffers most from this prosaic delivery – she whines. Joanna Horton’s Cassio, a transformation that should offer such exciting potential, is humdrum. Peter Hobday’s Roderigo fails to deliver comic appeal, and he is even worse when performing as Duke Lodovico, entirely lacking charisma. Sam Spruell’s Iago comes close to making his role work – a gruff delivery denies Iago the intelligence to make him truly frightening but at least he holds the stage. The notable exceptions are Thalissa Teixeira, who develops her Emilia nicely, and the lead – Kurt Egyiawan – who thankfully, sounds wonderful. At a best guest, it’s a clumsy attempt to set up a contrast between Othello and everyone else. But it leaves far too much for Egyiawan to do and the majority of the production is just tedious.

Until 22 April 2017

www.shakespearesglobe.com

Photo by Marc Brenner

“The White Devil” at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

John Webster’s play is a textbook Jacobean revenge tragedy, circling around an adultery that engenders murders in Italian courts riven with plots and poison. It’s a play about rage and, with emotions boiling (it’s lust not love on offer), needs the strong hand provided here to create a rollicking evening that should satisfy any bloodlust while providing plenty to think about.

Director Annie Ryan shows no qualms about dealing with Webster’s text. Tidying up, with the help of Michael West, the poetry is retained while twists and turns in the plot are treated with ruthless efficiency during a swift two- and-a-half hours. There’s no sweetening the disgusting misogyny. With ahistorical steam punk touches to a scene of sorcery (“quaintly done”, indeed), there’s the warning that prejudice and violence are a perennial threat.

It’s satisfying that a policy of balanced gender casting works so seamlessly. Kate Stanley-Brennan shines in her starring role of Vittoria, particularly in the scene of her murder trial, a riveting combination of indignation and cunning. And it’s good to see Shanaya Rafaat doing well as the servant Zanche, with a writhing physicality that terrifies. Also gratifying is the part of Vittoria’s young stepson, which cleverly uses the skills of Mollie Lambert.

Jamie Ballard as Bracciano
Jamie Ballard as Bracciano

Perhaps Ryan’s embrace of Webster’s black humour is her biggest achievement. Incredulous moments are made funny – we’re going to laugh anyway – with the instant calls for revenge dealt with superbly by Jamie Ballard’s manic Bracciano. This adulterous, murdering Duke isn’t the only engaging villain on offer. Indeed, even the single sympathetic character, Vittoria’s “virtuous” brother Marcello (a good turn from Jamael Westman) falls victim to his own impetuous anger. His fate provides a pause for thought and pace, with the play’s one moment of compassion boldly handled.

Ahead of the plotting gentry and papacy (a great role here for Garry Cooper as a suave clergyman) is Flamineo, delivered with spectacular charisma by Joseph Timms, whose energy and impeccable delivery garner laughs and excitement. Timms makes his pandering and posturing crook the arch evil in a play with no shortage of demons. There are devils all around, a bewilderingly “catalogue of knaves”, and Ryan deals with them all brilliantly. Her patience with the play is truly saintly.

Until 16 April 2017

www.shakespearesglobe.com

Photos by Marc Brenner

 

“Farinelli And The King” at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

Any trip to the gorgeous Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is exciting. And it’s commendable that the programming for the venue includes brand new plays. You can see why Claire van Kampen’s work, Farinelli And The King, seemed like a good idea: it’s about the famous castrato who sang for Philippe V of Spain and is perfect for highlighting the venue’s terrific acoustics. The Playhouse doesn’t just look enchanting, the sound here is flawless, unforgiving, actually – you can hear a sweet being unwrapped from any seat. Iestyn Davies and William Purefoy have been drafted in to sing, and are joined by some fine musicians, but unfortunately the play they accompany isn’t strong enough to outshine the venue.

Mark Rylance, Van Kampen’s husband, ensures the play is a hot ticket and gives a masterful performance as Philippe, with a seemingly instinctive grasp of what the space needs. His is a remarkably understated and hugely engaging king, but the role is written far too much for laughs. Philippe’s bipolarity, dramatised as simple lunacy, fails to move emotionally. Sam Crane is wasted as Farinelli, whose the role is grossly underdeveloped – a problem shared with one-dimensional secondary parts. At times, the play is more about Philippe’s relationship with his queen, an impression bolstered by a fine performance from Melody Grove. The opportunity for a triangle of relationships is opened up too late.

John Dove’s direction is swift and forceful but the script is just not good enough, being an inconsistent mix of biography and pretension satisfying neither history nor ideas. The bare bones of Farinelli’s fascinating life are delivered dismissively, particularly at the end when the play really runs out of steam. Far too many highfalutin speculations are made about space, time and morality but none is dealt with in any depth. Throw in some lofty theorising about art and you approach incoherence. The obvious comparison with Alan Bennett’s The Madness of King George III is an unfortunate one for this first attempt at playwriting from Van Kampen, who has contributed so much in her capacity as composer for the theatre. Sadly, this is one production to avoid.

Until 8 March 2015

www.shakespearesglobe.com

Photo by Marc Brenner

Winter’s Tales at the Sam Wannamaker Playhouse

With a venue as special as the Sam Wannamaker Playhouse, it seems fitting to host a variety of events. The reconstructed Jacobean indoor theatre, which opened last year adjacent to The Globe, has already staged opera as well as plays and an eclectic mix of musical concerts. The latest idea is Winter’s Tales – a series of readings by candlelight with musical accompaniment.

Stories by Daphne du Maurier brought the season to a spine-chilling conclusion, following on from work by Anton Chekhov, Katherine Mansfield, D H Lawrence, James Joyce and F Scott Fitzgerald. Harriet Walter gave a great reading, joining a list of equally impressive previous performers: Penelope Wilton, Deborah Findlay, Roger Allam and Aidan Gillen.

Walters read The Happy Valley, a surreal ghost story set in Cornwall, and The Birds, which was surprisingly just as taut and exciting as Hitchcock’s film. Being read to is an incredible indulgence – the perfect Christmas treat. And while the dark nights really add to spooky stories, it’s to be hoped the theatre continues these events so we can have this blissful experience all year round.

www.shakespearesglobe.com

Photo by Peter May

“The Knight of the Burning Pestle” at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

The second production at Shakespeare’s Globe’s Wanamaker Playhouse is Francis Beaumont’s The Knight of the Burning Pestle. Written in or around 1607, if you haven’t heard of the play, its startling post-modernity will blow you away. For those already in the know this is a clear, clever choice for the new theatre that shows it off to its very best. And just in case you aren’t interested in literary history, it’s also a cracking night out that will have you in fits of laughter.

Taking their seats in the pit two citizens, played by Phil Daniels and Pauline McLynn, take objection to the entertainment on offer. “Something troublesome” in their ignorance of the performing arts, they’re the first source of fun. One couple you don’t mind making a noise in the theatre, offering around grapes and sweets, a restrained performance from Daniels allows McLynn’s to shine as the adorable, if occasionally blood thirsty, matron who invites us all to her house for a drink afterwards.

Commandeering the stage the stage, they want something that praises their profession and enlist their apprentice Rafe (endearingly portrayed by Matthew Needham) to take on a chivalrous role. And since they are grocers he becomes the titular Knight of the Burning Pestle. Beaumont’s satire on chivalric romances could easily be niche, but director Adele Thomas uses great comic performances from Dennis Herdman and Dean Nolan, co-opted as his squire and dwarf, to get the giggles; Pythonesque touches and acrobatic slapstick – anything and everything to make you laugh.

At the same time, the players valiantly continue the original play, about a London merchant. Another contemporary satire, its critique of greed in the city is sure to hit home today. A story line about an apprentice in love with his avaricious master’s daughter, is hammed up marvellously by the talented John Dougall and the superb Sarah MacRae. Their duet in song is a real highlight of the night. All the interruptions create an improvised feel full of fun, and frequent musical intervals add to the jolly atmosphere.

Believe it or not, with all this going on, there’s another important theme within The Knight of the Burning Pestle. Again commented on by the citizens, again brought out marvellously by Thomas: the character of Merrythought, performed commendably by Paul Rider, is a mysterious figure of mis-rule, anarchy even, dedicated only to mirth. Thomas identifies this as the play’s keynote and makes it a deep, sonorous one. Remarkable musical numbers are just one element of using the new playhouse at its best; Thomas is like a child with a new toy – an entirely appropriate way of dealing with this text. A fascinating play fantastically directed.

Until 30 March 2014

www.shakespearesglobe.com

Photo by Alastair Muir

Written 28 February 2014 for The London Magazine

“The Duchess of Malfi” at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

2014 is off to a great start for lovers of the stage, as the late Sam Wanamaker’s visionary plan for an indoor theatre, next to Shakespeare’s Globe, is now open. Deservedly taking Wanamaker’s name, this reimagining of a Jacobean indoor theatre is an exciting opportunity to see plays of the period in an authentic context.

So what’s it like? In a word: fascinating. The tiny space is instantly appealing. Candlelit, it is full of charm and even smells wonderful. The acoustics are shockingly good; this will surely be its major contribution to our understanding of Renaissance theatre. That it’s lit so differently to the theatres we are used to, and you can hear a pin drop, makes for a very different interaction between the audience and the play – one that, for me anyway, felt heightened and cerebral. It is also, it has to be admitted, rather uncomfortable. Bench seating is never luxurious and the theatre is crowded, potentially hot, with some awful sightlines. Go, but avoid the restricted view seats.

The first production is John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi. The gore filled revenge story unexpectedly benefits from being staged in this space. It all seems much quieter than we are used to. Much more about listening to the horrors inflicted on a widowed Duchess who dares to marry again than seeing blood splattered everywhere. First directorial honours go to the Globe’s boss Dominic Dromgoole, who does a superb job embracing the new theatre. The famous scene where the Duchess is visited in the dark, which here really is pitch black, is thrilling.

Inevitably there’s the sense of a company still finding its feet. Gemma Arterton’s performance as the Duchess is understated and seems spot on as a result. But her wicked brothers, played by David Dawson and James Garnon, who oppose her marriage and then torture her when they discover it, seem overplayed as the play progresses.

Webster’s exuberant language often raises a smile nowadays but playing it for laughs (a common way of dealing with his wild metaphors) seems a missed opportunity here. Duke Ferdinand’s insanity certainly isn’t supposed to be funny nor, I am sure, are the mad people sent to live with the Duchess as part of her punishment. Just possibly, this is the place to play the text straight.

But these reservations only serve to support what is so exciting about this new old theatre. The chances it offers to explore well-known plays, and hopefully soon to rediscover lost works, make the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse brim with potential. London has a new star venue.

Until 16 February 2014

www.shakespearesglobe.com

Written 17 January 2014 for The London Magazine