Tag Archives: Soutra Gilmour

“Romeo and Juliet” at Shakespeare’s Globe

Emma Rice’s second, and sadly final, season as creative director on the South Bank opened last night with a bold, experimental show directed by Daniel Kramer. Not for all tastes, and far from flawless, the production brims with intelligence as well as tricks – if originality is what you seek, it is plentiful.

The Montagues and Capulets are made up like clowns – “alike in dignity” indeed. Missiles hang in the sky and coffins abound as doom and death pervade the arena. Subtle it ain’t. Nearly every line is wrung for all its worth, with exaggerated delivery or incidental action. Even Romeo changing his trousers can mean missing a plot point. It’s exhausting, but always engaging. And such bombast makes the masque scene unmissable: karaoke ‘Y.M.C.A’? Why not? And Mrs C’s Fay Wray fancy dress is to die for.

Some of Kramer’s ideas are a puzzle. Why does Lady Capulet double as the apothecary? And why are there so many guns when knives and poison are specified? Other ideas have unfortunate consequences: the make-up and incredible costumes, a cohesive part of Soutra Gilmour’s design, make it difficult to differentiate characters. Which leads to the production’s biggest fault – a sense of performers struggling to stand out, leading to a kind of hyperinflation.

The notable exception is Golda Rosheuvel’s Mercutio, whose recasting as a woman adds tension to her friendship with Romeo. Rosheuvel embodies Queen Mab in unforgettable fashion and her death scene is shocking. In the title roles, Edward Hogg energetically follows Kramer’s strategy, using every inch of the stage. Kirsty Bushell’s Juliet is more captivating. The lovers present some of their venerated lines as hackneyed – a startling move that accentuates the often ridiculous and embarrassing nature of teenage love.

Kramer’s vision of the play is bleak right to the end –it’s about dying kids, after all. Anger fills the show, with a lot of running around. There’s a fantasy execution of parents and in-laws by Romeo, and Juliet’s lust is violent, too. Both scenes are riveting. The only quiet moment is the marriage night, during which Bushell and Hogg magically introduce a sombre tone. These lovers are more star defying than star crossed, leaving little room for any other emotion.

Kramer’s most exciting idea is conflating scenes. Joining Romeo and Juliet’s marriage with Mercutio’s fatal encounter with Tybalt adds poignancy. Playing scenes two and three of Act III simultaneously creates a riff on the theme of banishment and death that is inspired. It’s a shame these interpretations are more successful than the production’s emotional impact. Yet they are brilliant insights, shaping the way we see the play and, in my eyes, redeeming many of its faults.

Until 9 July 2017

www.shakespearesglobe.com

Photo by Robert Workman

“Guards At The Taj” at the Bush Theatre

Reopening after a year of refurbishment and looking very smart indeed, artistic director Madani Younis’ reinvigorated west London venue is off to a brilliant new start. An award-winning play from American writer Rajiv Joseph combines with two big UK names: director Jamie Lloyd and designer Soutra Gilmour.

Joseph’s play is a marvel of economy – 80 minutes packed with ideas, emotion, comedy and tragedy. Two guards on the Taj Mahal construction site are forbidden from seeing the mausoleum before its completion, by decree from Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan. The tension between despotic whims and these average guys escalates into horrific acts that are the stuff of myths (the play has its share of gore) and raise profound questions about aesthetics and the individual in society. Yet Joseph deals with his themes lightly – no matter how dark and dangerous the drama gets.

Lloyd embraces the play’s contemporary feel, following instruction in the script that dialects are not to be used and highlighting every possible moment of relief in shocking circumstances. The performers – Danny Ashok and Darren Kuppan – both deserve the highest praise. Kuppan makes it impossible not to love his character Babur’s “fancies and prophecies and inventions”. The more pragmatic Humayun more slowly grows on us (through our appreciation of his family life) a feat Ashok manoeuvres to give full force to both men’s tragedy.

Gilmour’s industrial aesthetic, recalling for me the work of Richard Serra or Richard Wilson’s 20:50 installation, looks fantastic. Working alongside lighting designer Richard Howell, this set is a real stunner. And Beauty, with a capital B, is important here. There are moments of wonder at architecture, also nature. And a beautiful friendship: touching scenes between the two men do more than lead to the final trauma. Babur and Hamayan’s dream of a different life produces that ingredient of hope that provides a “wow” to the play as a whole.

Until 20 May 2017

www.bushtheatre.co.uk

Photo by Marc Brenner

“Les Blancs” at the National Theatre

Lorraine Hansberry’s ambitious play, unfinished at the time of her early death, has been polished to perfection for director Yaël Farber’s stirring production. Combining theatrical realism with a yen for Greek theatre that makes the Olivier auditorium a perfect venue, this is a political drama that goes to the dark heart of human nature.

There’s a lot going on and the play is long. A white reporter and a returning local chief’s son arrive in an unspecified African country under colonial rule and become embroiled in a struggle for independence, trapped by their sense of responsibility – one to write a truthful story, the other to fight for freedom.

This isn’t a new play, so, the arguments against colonialism and exploitation are depressingly familiar. It’s in the debates intelligent presentation that the work becomes urgent while the passionate delivery makes the production excellent. The Whites of the title are impressively nuanced: centred around a hospital, doctors (engaging performances from James Fleet and Anna Madeley) wait for the return of their missionary leader, along with his wife, a magisterial role for Siân Phillips. Their opinions leak out under the journalistic gaze of Mr. Morris. In an angry performance by Elliot Cowan how much Morris has in common with the well intentioned Westerners is clear, but there’s a suspicion more subtlety could be plumbed.

The focus is the story of Tshembe Matoseh, a reluctant rebel fighter, “ravaged” by history, superbly portrayed by Danny Sapani. His two brothers (well delineated by Tunji Kasim and Gary Beadle) provide more perspective on the complexity of colonial rule. The anger and violence that overwhelms their family is firmly controlled by Hansberry’s text. A non-speaking woman, depicted impressively by Sheila Atim, accompanies Tshembe, allegorically adding to his burden, and the his inevitable descent into a tragic, you might say biblical, crime is shocking.

With all the argument in the play – several long speeches that could easily have defeated less able actors – it is a triumph that Farber has created such a theatrical and emotive show. Aided by Xhosa singers and Soutra Gilmour’s impressive set, we get not just politics but epic drama.

Until 2 June 2016

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Johan Persson

“Urinetown” at the St James Theatre

Finally receiving its London premiere 13 years after it was such a success on Broadway, Urinetown The Musical opened this week at the St. James Theatre. The dystopian satire, by Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis, earned a host of awards in the States. Although it struck me as strangely dated, a standing ovation at the performance I attended makes it clear that there’s an audience desperate to go.

The unprepossessing premise is that an ecological disaster has resulted in a world where people pay to pee. There’s surprisingly little toilet humour actually. Instead it’s a satire on politics and the musical form itself. I say it’s old fashioned since the mischief and the tastelessness now seem predictable, but the second act provides some memorable musical numbers and it’s always nice to see a musical trying a little bit of politics.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with the production – indeed it makes the show worth spending your pennies to see. Jamie Lloyd’s direction is deft and dark, Soutra Gilmour’s design crying out for a West End transfer and the performances from a top rate cast are strong.

Urine Town
Jonathan Slinger

Jonathan Slinger is a revelation as the narrator and police officer Lockstock, ably abetted by Adam Pearce as officer Barrell. Police and politicians are merely the henchmen of business baddy Cladwell, performed archly by Simon Paisley Day, who is ultimately willing to sacrifice his daughter Hope, played by Rosanna Hyland. Hyland is joined by Richard Fleeshman, whose character Bobby Strong leads a Les Mis-style rebellion (wearing a pre-shrunk T-shirt despite the water shortage), both young leads look the part and sound great. Stealing the show, though, is the excellent Jenna Russell, who gives such a spirited performance as Mrs Pennywise she stops you thinking she’s wasted in the role.

As the characters’ names will have indicated, and direct addresses to the audience make clear, Urinetown is all very knowing. The conventions of musicals are prodded mercilessly, and this joke, though performed well, tires. Maybe the final irony is that the show shoots itself in the foot – if it doesn’t take the genre seriously then why should we? It’s clever, but not that funny and sacrifices serious points. After all, it’s difficult to say that much with your tongue in your cheek all the time.

Until 3 May 2014

www.stjamestheatre.co.uk

Photos by Johan Persson

Written 13 March 2014 for The London Magazine

“The Commitments” at the Palace Theatre

The Commitments isn’t the kind of show that recommends itself to reviewers – I can’t think of a more lamentable coupling than a jukebox musical riding on the tails on a popular film. But the critics have been kind. And the public has already voted with its feet. The Commitments is now booking until September this year.

Roddy Doyle’s book (the film came in 1991) is set on a council estate in Dublin well before any talk of Celtic Tigers. A group of locals form a band and, well, that’s it, really. There’s plenty of class-consciousness and the generally inspiring idea is that music changes lives, but very little else.

It’s no small achievement that director Jamie Lloyd manages to mask how thin the whole thing is and make it entertaining. Working at a terrific pace, he brings out plenty of humour and utilises Soutra Gilmour’s stunning set so that the whole thing has a slick West End feel.

And the performances will win you over. Denis Grindel has great stage presence as the band’s instigator and manager – you really believe he could get this thing going. Killian Donnelly gives a tremendous performance as Deco, the most naturally accomplished performer, with the arrogance to match. Joined by a host of talented others, including Sarah O’Connor, Stephanie McKeon and Jessica Cervi, who all sound great, and the band’s skinhead bouncer (Joe Woolmer), who gets the biggest laughs. It’s an achievement for such a large cast to individuate themselves.

As billed, The Commitments is hard working and there’s plenty of noise and action, with lots of crude gags that are more hit than miss, even if the ratio is a close call. Quickly into the second half any idea of a story is abandoned in favour of a concert. It seems an honest move that could have saved everyone a lot of trouble if adopted from the start. From hereon in, if soul music is your thing, you are bound to join in the fun.

Booking until 19 April 2015

http://thecommitments.london

Written 23 February 2014 for The London Magazine

“Antigone” at the National Theatre

As if to remind us that Greek woes are nothing new, the National Theatre’s new production of Antigone shows a state in danger of becoming incapacitated by chaos. And the bankers can’t be blamed on this occasion. Sophocles’ drama continues the tale of the Oedipus clan – it’s the story of the clash between his daughter and Thebes’ new ruler, Creon. Easily read as a conflict between the individual and the state, it could be set in pretty much any time and place. Polly Findlay and her designer Soutra Gilmour opt for a 70s feel that works well: distant, yet recognisable.

Don Taylor’s eloquent version drips with Shakespearean references: it’s speedy, clear and entertaining. But what to do with the chorus? As in many modern productions of Greek tragedy, the chorus is turned into a group of individuals with their own characters. The result here is that the commentary of this group of civil servants and military types often comes too close to office tittle-tattle. The move allows Findlay to get the most out of her ensemble and adds weight to some brief but effective observations about the sexism within the play, but despite all this, these aren’t fully developed characters and that can be unsatisfying.

But given the strength of the main performances, this is a minor gripe. Jodie Whittaker is tremendous in the title role. Full of convincing indignation about the fate of her family, she has a manic edge that gives some credence to the idea of her as “an enemy of the state”, adding drama and giving her character depth. Christopher Ecclestone’s performance as the tyrannical Creon is not to be missed. Powerful and controlled, for a portion of the play Creon seems admirably rational, and Ecclestone reveals his hubris with remarkable skill.

Until 21 July 2012

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Johan Persson

Written 1 June 2012 for The London Magazine

“The Duchess of Malfi” at The Old Vic

The stage is set for high drama at The Old Vic with Jamie Lloyd’s new production of The Duchess of Malfi. Soutra Gilmour’s set excites at first, with accomplished lighting from James Farncombe, but it quickly tires. This gothic fantasia lacks subtlety and isn’t versatile enough – at one point it seems to snow inside a palace and, worse still, it has a cardboard cut-out feel that is unfortunately reflected in some of the performances.

Placing the focus on John Webster’s text, shouting the play’s complexity and trying to challenge our ideas about Jacobean revenge stories, Lloyd creates an exceptionally clear production. Clarity isn’t usually a fault but you can take anything to an extreme: much of the cast’s delivery becomes heavy and laboured. Lloyd is too good a director to make The Duchess of Malfi tedious but what should be a gut-wrenching ride of a play is too often halting.

There are important exceptions. Mark Bonnar plays the villainous Basola with great complexity. His treachery towards the Duchess and her steward (a fine performance from Tom Bateman), whom she has secretly married, is multilayered.

In the title role, Eve Best’s performance is never less than superb. It’s clear that for Lloyd her character is more than the victim of gruesome torture – she is a shinning light of humanity. Best is impressively natural, given the difficulty of the part. Believable as a real woman as well as a symbol of dignity, her performance saves the play.

Until 9 June 2012

www.oldvictheatre.com

Photo by Johan Persson

Written 29 March 2012 for The London Magazine

“Moon on a Rainbow Shawl” at the National Theatre

The National Theatre’s revival of Errol John’s 1957 play, Moon on a Rainbow Shawl, is only the fourth time the work has been seen in London. Michael Buffong’s production is, therefore, an opportunity not to be missed: this is a good old-fashioned play with a cracking plot and an authentic voice that ensures it still sounds fresh.

A group of Trinidadian neighbours, each with their own dreams and dramas, struggle to make the most of their lives. Their humble stories have a universal resonance and the characters are wonderfully drawn. Moon on a Rainbow Shawl has its brutal moments, but is always deeply humane, and finds the humour in its protagonists’ harsh conditions.

None of the characters is a saint but each has some heroic spark. Ephraim, a trolley bus driver desperate to better himself, and Sophia, a struggling matriarch devoted to her bright young daughter, are remarkable roles and Danny Sapani and Martina Laird give fantastic performances. Ephraim’s rage when confronted is magnificent as is Sophia’s collapse when events escalate and she succumbs to exhausted despair.

It’s impossible not to note the magnificent Jenny Jules who plays Sophia’s arch-foe Mavis – their battles are legendary, their squabbling, as Ephraim points out, comes from living like “hogs”. Beneath its exotic location, this is a kitchen sink drama but the politics never detract from the emotions on stage.

The action is plentiful and Buffong’s production admirably physical. Unfortunately, Soutra Gilmour’s set feels restrictive, wasting rather than exploiting The Cottesloe auditorium’s wonderful intimacy. And the set causes problems with sight lines too – don’t try to scrimp on restricted view tickets for this one. Initially impressive, the production would have worked better in a larger space. Staging Moon on a Rainbow Shawl elsewhere would have given more people the chance to see the work – make sure you don’t miss out.

Until 9 June 2012

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photo by Jonathan Kennan

Written 19 March 2012 for The London Magazine

“Into the Woods” at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre

Into the Woods is Sondheim’s masterpiece. A musical score full of invention yet accessible, lyrics that are at once moving and hilarious, and both perfectly accompanying James Lapine’s wonderful book. Interweaving fairy stories, questioning what these tales are really about and then, after the interval, returning to the characters to find out what happens after the happily ever after; it’s one of the cleverest things you’ll ever see and one of the most rewarding.

Director Timothy Sheader gives the show a production it deserves. His new spin is to cast the narrator as a child. This adds little, but where Sheader excels is to bring out the musical’s qualities. This is particularly well executed in the way he brings out the dark side of the fairy stories we tell children – the woods are a sinister place and we fear for the babies in them.

With Soutra Gilmour’s wonderful set and some startling choreography from Liam Steel, the dynamism of the piece is given full scope. The mix of stories is hectic and a controlled chaos appropriately challenges suspension of disbelief.

The characters’ knowledge of the artificial world they are a part of, along with the lessons they learn and impart, is relished by the cast. There are some wonderful performances here. Beverly Rudd is great as the greedy Red Ridinghood, managing a tune while she stuffs buns in her mouth. Michael Xavier and Simon Thomas play the Princes with a nod to Russell Brand and get the most out of their duets.

There are three great leading ladies. Hannah Waddingham is on excellent form as the witch and Jenna Russell is as superb as ever as the Baker’s wife. Helen Dallimore’s sweet voice serves well in the role of Cinderella, whose proclamation, “I wish”, starts the whole glorious evening.

It seems obvious to stage Into the Woods at Regents Park. There must have been a collective, “ah, yes”, when it was announced, yet it is to Sheaders’s credit that it is done so well. It is great to hear the wind in the leaves accompany Sondheim’s score and see the characters retreating into the trees at the end of the evening. The only problem with this production is the short run. Given the number of wonderful touches, and surprise voice over, it would be great to see it transfer or return to the park next year. That’s my wish anyway.

Until 11 September 2010

www.openairtheatre.com

Photo by Catherine Ashmore

Written 17 August 2010 for The London Magazine

“Salome” at the Hampstead Theatre

The press night for Headlong Theatre’s production of Salome was cleverly planned to coincide with the Solemnity of the Birth of John the Baptist. It served to remind us that Oscar Wilde’s seldom performed play is a religious one. Primarily interesting in that the play shows us a very different side to a writer we all think we know, its director Jamie Lloyd embraces Wilde’s darker side and gives us a sinister, fascinating take on the biblical story.

It is uncomfortable viewing. John’s guards are animalistic in the extreme, with movement directed by Ann Yee, they prowl around the stage, quickly establishing an atmosphere of danger and distrust. They have reason to watch their backs. Not just because they fear the wild prophet, played by Seun Shote with an appropriate physicality, but because the court they work at is simply mad. Dripping with decadence, Con O’Neill’s Herod stumbles and spits his way around the stage, revoltingly pouring wine down his throat and over himself. He grabs any and every available piece of flesh – except for Salome.

Zawe Ashton’s Salome is a fascinating creature. Aware of her power, she toys with all the men on stage and revels in the danger. Occasional ineptness reminds us of her age. Jaye Griffiths is in fine form as her maligned mother Herodias. Appearing like a painted doll, her paranoia is at a constant fever pitch. Lloyd has clearly directed all the cast to mark Wilde’s constant warning to “look upon” others. The gaze communicates and increases desire – it has an uncanny power. Not a glance among the ensemble is wasted. The drama is unbearably tense and somewhat exhausting.

Sacrifices have been made to achieve a breakneck pace. Much of Wilde’s poetry seems lost. His text is flushed with colour yet Soutra Gilmour’s set is a dystopian playground and her costumes army fatigues. The symbolism in the play seems neglected – here everything is brutally direct. But Lloyd isn’t running a Sunday School. If events like these really ever happened they probably did so in an environment this crazed, with people this unbalanced. This production casts new light on the Bible story. That was probably Wilde’s aim in the first place.

Until 17 July 2010

www.hampsteadtheatre.com

Photo by Helen Warner

Written 23 June 2010 for The London Magazine