Monday, March 21, 2011

'King Lear' by William Shakespeare

21 March 2011

Week three of my theatrical hearing test: last Thursday we were back at Milton Keynes Theatre to see the Donmar production of ‘King Lear’ with Derek Jacobi, directed by Michael Grandage. We were sitting right at the back of the upper circle, even further from the stage than for ‘Hamlet’ a couple of weeks ago. Concerned about whether we would again have difficulty hearing the actors, we were delighted to discover that the performance was to be captioned by Stagetext, only to realise that we were sitting so far back that we could barely read the captions! Once the play got underway, however, we realised we needn’t have worried: the acting was excellent and we could hear everything without any difficulty (though the Stagetext captions were incredibly helpful in identifying which character was which). This production used a bare, boarded set with hardly any props or furniture – the changes of scene being signified by a very creative use of lighting. Inventive as this was, towards the end of the play (which ran for just under three hours) the scenes did begin to blur together. But the storm scene – conjured by flashing lights shining through the gaps between the boards on the floor and walls of the stage and freezing to silence for Lear’s spookily amplified whispered speech – was great. Derek Jacobi was fantastic as Lear – playful, spritely and capricious: a relatively young old man whose descent into madness was believably painful. And Gina McKee was stunning as Goneril – commanding the stage with an icy determination.

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Thursday, March 17, 2011

'Frankenstein' by Nick Dear based on the novel by Mary Shelley

17 March 2011

On Saturday we were at the National Theatre in London to see ‘Frankenstein’ – a new play by Nick Dear based on the novel by Mary Shelley and directed by Danny Boyle. This certainly felt like a major theatrical event – a complete sell-out with a real buzz in the foyer and high expectations all round (we were feeling very smug having booked our tickets months ago!). Inevitably it was always going to be difficult for the show to live up to all the hype but it was very impressive. The set, lighting and effects on the massive revolving stage in the Olivier Theatre were amazing and there were some truly jaw-dropping moments. The acting was excellent: we saw Benedict Cumberbatch as The Creature and Jonny Lee Miller as Victor Frankenstein (the two actors are alternating the parts). Benedict Cumberbatch’s physical performance, particularly in the opening scene where The Creature comes to terms with his new body and gains control of his limbs, was amazing. The care given to making this opening realistic and believable did, however, make it quite a slow start and it felt like the show only really got going when Jonny Lee Miller’s Frankenstein became involved. I thought he very effectively made Victor Frankenstein obsessive and unfeeling while also making us sympathise with his impossible moral dilemma. The decision to run for two hours without an interval seemed odd – I think the play could have taken a break without too much detriment. Some of the set-piece scenes – Frankenstein confronting The Creature on the mountain-top, the Frankensteins’ bedroom on their wedding night etc – were thrillingly handled. And Naomi Harries played Elizabeth as intelligent and brave – no hysterical screaming here. The fact that the play was fairly faithful to the original novel, rather than following the melodramatic horror of the Frankenstein films, strangely seemed a bit of a missed opportunity given the scale of the production which could have produced something spectacularly scary. It also suffered from the fact that, although Mary Shelley came up with a brilliant concept, her novel isn’t the greatest narrative. The plot is very episodic and Frankenstein does seem to spend half the novel being pursued across Europe by The Creature and the other half pursuing The Creature. But it was a stunning theatrical experience – and we could hear every word!

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Monday, March 07, 2011

'Hamlet' by William Shakespeare

7 March 2011

On Saturday we were at Milton Keynes Theatre to see the National Theatre production of ‘Hamlet’, directed by Nicholas Hytner and starring Rory Kinnear. When I bought our tickets, the girl at the box office looked nervously at me and said “I have to warn you, it’s in modern dress – is that okay?” I’m not sure what they would have done if I had said no but actually it was very okay. The modern setting (early 1990s I would say, from the size of the computer monitor on Polonius’s desk and the absence of mobile phones) worked well with Elsinore crawling with suited secret agents wearing dark glasses and walkie-talkie headsets. And the sight of soldiers flooding into the palace firing machine guns was thrilling and quite scary. The set and lighting were great – in the opening scene the ghost miraculously disappearing into the shadows was stunning. And Rory Kinnear was a wonderful Hamlet – more cerebral than soldierly. He reminded me of Simon Russell-Beale’s interpretation of the part for the National Theatre some years ago. Rory Kinnear was a frustrated and irritated Hamlet, toying with the fools around him and managing to turn his mood on a sixpence. I also liked Patrick Malahide’s sinister Claudius and David Calder was particularly good as Polonius, reminding us that there is much more to the character than the bumbling fool we often see him as. This was a substantial Hamlet – running at more than three and a half hours – and I did feel the pacy contemporary style, set and music might have better fitted a shorter version of the text. We also had some difficulty hearing a lot of the dialogue. Maybe the National Theatre has better acoustics (and fewer people coughing!) than the Milton Keynes Theatre – and admittedly we were in the cheap seats at the back – but it’s quite difficult to sustain your attention for more three and a half hours when you can’t hear what the actors are saying. This was a shame as the production looked great and started thrillingly. But I did very much enjoy Rory Kinnear’s performance.

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Friday, March 04, 2011

'Great Expectations' by Charles Dickens adapted by Tanika Gupta

4 March 2011

Last Saturday we were at the Watford Palace Theatre so see the Engish Touring Theatre production of Tanika Gupta’s stage adaptation of ‘Great Expectations’ by Charles Dickens. Relocating the story to India (though without changing the late Victorian period), Tanika Gupta emphasises the class divisions by making the villagers Indian while Miss Haversham, Jaggers and Herbert Pocket embody different aspects of the British Raj and Magwitch is a black convict from Cape Colony. This cleverly both simplifies the story and adds new elements of racism and colonial oppression. I thought it worked well and the set, costumes and music were spectacular. The decision to have the same adult actor play Pip as man and boy made the initial childhood scenes a little cartoonish but the second half of the play was darker and more realistic. Inevitably, dramatising a long and complex novel results in a rapid procession of short scenes and it was hard to forget that this was the play of the book. But it was an enjoyable and epic production.

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