Monday 29 May 2017

Julius Caesar

Crucible, Sheffield
27th May, 2017, matinee

Apart from the basic plot (thanks to Sparknotes) and reviews of the toga-fest that is the RSC’s current production in Stratford-Upon-Avon, I knew hardly anything about Shakespeare’s play before seeing this production. New Artistic Director Robert Hastie’s contemporary set Julius Caesar allows us to invite comparisons with contemporary politics without him having to crowbar an ill-fitting concept onto it. The result is a fast moving production that reveals the power of rhetoric to win or lose a crowd and that we too easily make politics into a case of binaries. Modern dress highlights the play’s themes that are at stake in today’s world: the nature of democracy, political betrayal, deceit, populism, and the power of acting to the career politician.

For the first three acts, Ben Stones’ design creates the ugly neutrality and professionalism of a senate. The semiotics are those of 21st century politics: imposing furniture and plush boardroom aesthetics. The Crucible’s usual lights that glitter like stars over the auditorium are replaced by rows of strip lights. The stage is a red tiled carpet surrounded by sunken desks with microphones and leather office chairs. Wooden panels complete with a Roman insignia stretch out into the auditorium and even the front of house staff’s black uniforms with red sashes possibly match the senators’ garb. Hastie’s aim, I guess, is to bring us right into the action. The house lights are on during some of the senate scenes and characters from crowds to soldiers to Mark Antony when delivering his great funeral speech roam the audience. I’m not fully convinced at how successful those efforts were to make the audience complicit however it shows Hastie experimenting with the possibilities of the space in what is a very confident and accessible first production. In the second half, the design reflects the messy chaos of Rome after Caesar’s death: the curtains are thrown back, lights flicker, rubbish and piles of broken office chairs cover the stage. And perhaps most startling: the bodies of three conspirators hang from above (aesthetically not unlike those in the first episode of The Handmaid’s Tale). Johanna Town’s lighting goes from impressively bathing harsh white light onto the characters, reflecting the exposure of public life, to sometimes casting shadows onto the back walls.

There is some particularly neat casting in Hastie’s production. Samuel West returns to the Crucible for the first time since he was AD, his first production being Brenton’s The Romans in Britain. His Brutus is complex and slippery. When we first see him, he is composed, articulate and seemingly balanced. Later, in the private space of his home, he’s less sure. Barefoot and dressed in sweats, toing and froing tormented by his decision and its political consequences. And when the deed is done and he’s giving his speech at Caesar’s funeral, he’s no longer confident. Fumbling with cue cards and way above the crowd on a balcony, he is not the orator that we hear he is. Compare this to Mark Antony’s speech, and we see why the crowd are won over by his rhetoric. Firstly, he’s on the same level as the revellers; he is of the people. Roaming amongst them – and us – he manipulates them skilfully, holding up Caesar’s supposed will and at one moment opening the coffin lid and holding the ghastly corpse of the stabbed statesman. It’s a brave move which shows his confidence and adeptness of being able to win over the crowd. It’s a scene wonderfully performed by West, Elliot Cowan and a committed community company.

But even though we can draw parallels with Trump and Brexit (for example) there are easy answers in the play. As Emma Smith asks in her programme article (there are a couple of excellent pieces in the programme), are Brutus and Cassius terrorists or freedom fighters? What exactly are Caesar’s motives? Here, he seems honourable as portrayed by Jonathan Hyde. He even seems a bit pathetic at one point, chasing his younger wife around trying to get his shoes from her. Zoe Waites presents Cassius as having the raw ambition (perhaps slightly hot headed) which she knows she needs to pair with Brutus’ experience.

Doubling Brutus’ wife, Portia, and Octavius (Chipo Chung) is a nice idea. It hints that Brutus’ betrayal is more than a political one. It also begins to solve the problem of what exactly happens to Portia, who otherwise disappears apparently so distressed from Brutus’ recent aloofness. There’s a hardworking company also made up of Pandora Colin, who speaks verse so naturally, and Royce Pierreson. Lily Nichol’s soothsayer (depicted here as a single mum wandering the streets) also stands out amid all the suits.

Hastie’s production is sharp, has the pace of a thriller and brings Shakespeare’s play down from the gods to the murky world of politics.

Julius Caesar plays at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre until 10th June.

Friday 19 May 2017

The Red Shoes

Curve, Leicester
16th May, 2017

He’s done it again. Britain’s most prolific choreographer, Matthew Bourne, has worked his magic on a classic story and the result is a sumptuous feast for the eyes and ears. Based on the 1948 film of the same name, itself influenced by Hans Christian Andersen’s dark fairytale about a young woman possessed, both physically and psychologically, by the titular red ballet shoes, Bourne enriches the well-known fable through the music of Bernard Herrmann.

Aspiring dancer, Victoria Page, is offered the role of a lifetime when Prima Ballerina, Irina Boronskaja is injured. Spotted by impresario, Lermontov, Vicky is whisked into a whirlwind of glamour and fame as the leading lady of ‘The Red Shoes’, a new ballet by young composer, Julian Craster. However, when Vicky falls for Julian, much to Lermontov’s resentment her life begins to mirror the twisted tale of the ballet, with tragic consequences.

Herrmann’s music is powerful and resounding, abundant with drama and wistfulness in equal measure. While Bourne’s choreography is perhaps not quite as witty as his previous efforts – although the jaunty pharaohs in act 2 certainly upped the humour – it remains as tender and eclectic as ever. From the angular modernity of the ensemble numbers in ‘The Red Shoes’ sequence, to the silky duets between Vicky and Julian, Bourne’s creativity is a joy to behold. I particularly enjoyed the meta aspects of much of the choreography, from routines based on dance auditions and rehearsals, to a lovely sequence following Julian’s journey through musical composition. All this metatheatricality heightens the sense of life imitating art, especially considering the blood, sweat and tears I can only imagine went into creating a narrative dance production of this size. The red shoes compel Vicky, as I’m sure they compelled Bourne, and likewise compel us. The real skill lies in both Bourne and the dancers’ ability to make a small, seemingly non-threatening inanimate object come to vibrant, sinister life.

Furthermore, the production is sumptuous to look at thanks to Lez Brotherston’s set. It is testament to his and Bourne’s long time collaboration that the design is as much as a part of the fabric of the piece as the dancing is – it is more than a mere set on which dancers dance. Brotherston opens up many layers of meta and theatrical frames. We effortlessly go back and forth from front of house to backstage in a theatre. A whirling proscenium arch and curtain – what a feat of engineering and automation that is! – is integral to the piece. At the opening it sweeps forward as if a cinema zoom, and we are transported into the golden age of Hollywood.

In fact, much of the design pays homage to the production’s cinematic roots. The monochrome modernity of the spectacular Red Shoes ballet segment – the kaleidoscopic introduction was a simple, but breathtaking effect, focusing our attention in onto a new world-within-a-world – juxtaposes gothic graphics with the brilliant white backdrop, recalling the silent movies of old. Conversely, the melodrama of Lermontov’s sexual jealousy is played against a backdrop of plush velvets and golds, just what one would expect of post-war cinema’s promise of a ‘technicolor’ marvel. That Brotherston’s set transitions so smoothly between locations diverse as Covent Garden, Monte Carlo, a high society ballroom and a rough London apartment, further demonstrates his ambitious scope and keen cinematic eye in what is, essentially, a love letter to Hollywood.

A minor – and I mean very minor – sticking point imposed by Bourne’s nostalgic ode to tinsel town, is the slightly old fashioned plot. We could draw criticism from the rather anti-feminist career vs. love trope, but as the piece is so fundamentally shaped by both a by-gone era and the original fairytale (and we all know how un-PC they can be), I feel this can be somewhat overlooked in favour of the efficacy with which Bourne tells this most magical of tragedies.

Amidst the strong performances we’ve come to expect from the New Adventures company, Ashley Shaw is astounding as Vicky. Barely offstage, she is utterly mesmerising even in ensemble scenes; I found my eye continually drawn to her. She has a beautiful ethereal quality as she floats on air during her many en pointe routines (forgive me, I’m not au fait with dance terminology), and effuses emotion from every fibre of her being. In a relatively small but memorable role Michela Meazza is wonderfully wry as the glamourous diva, Irina, and Dominic North’s Julian is an endearing romantic lead.

If parts of the second act feel a little rushed and episodic, it is in part due to the generosity and lushness of the extended theatrical sequence: the incredible ballet routine at the end of act 1 is worth the admission fee alone! The Red Shoes is another triumph to be added to the Bourne canon, and I await with eager eye and ravenous heart to see what he treats us to next.

The Red Shoes is on tour throughout the UK. For full dates and details visit

Sam Archer as Boris Lermontov and The Company. Photo Credit: Johan Persson.

Wednesday 3 May 2017

The Ferryman

Royal Court
29th April, 2017, matinee*
* Please note this was a preview performance.

‘Harvest time’s a fine time of the year, so it is’ – The Ferryman.

Virgil takes a key role in Jez Butterworth’s new play, the title being a reference to Charon the ferryman in Virgil’s The Aeneid. Of course, it was the Virgillian idea that the country is a place of harmony that Butterworth has previously played with and shattered (just as Crimp did in The Country as mentioned by Billington). The rural setting in The Ferryman is familiar ground for a Butterworth play. Yet this County Armagh farmhouse is far from the Edgeland or Hinterland-like settings of his other plays.

The idea of the countryside being a dangerous place pervades Butterworth’s work. Even in Mojo, set in a darkly comic gangland Soho, one of the longest and most brutally vivid speeches in the play is Baby’s memory of a childhood trip to the countryside with his dad spent killing a cow – a similar idea of sacrifice is also resonant in The Ferryman. Elsewhere, social pariahs are common in Butterworth’s rural settings. In The Night Heron, for the religious Wattmore, fired from his job as gardener at Cambridge University, the remote cabin in the wilderness of the Fens is a place of banishment from his own idea of the Garden of Eden. In Jerusalem, the intoxicated and intoxicating Johnny Rooster Byron provides a place of revelry and refuge for the young. Compare Jerusalem’s setting to that of its sister play Parlour Song, which is geographically undefined and dominated by suburban identikit housing estates. It could be set anywhere in middle England. Indeed, the 78 identical houses on the new estate near Ned and Joy’s house could be the very same ‘seventy-eight brand-new houses’ on the new estate in Jerusalem. In Parlour Song, the sense of placelessness reflects a nightmarish sense of middle aged inertia. In The River, The Man takes solace in trout fishing by ‘the cabin in the woods by the river’. Trapped in a cycle – perhaps an annual ritual – The Man’s ability to find love can’t seem to match his love for fishing (I realise this massively simplifies what is a beautifully rich play that could be as much about writing as it is fishing). In The Winterling, the exiled hitman West has taken over a deserted farmhouse in the middle of the ancient and cruel Dartmoor landscape, a place where badgers are likely to maul your face off. The countryside, then, welcomes outsider characters and its landscape is an escape from the rigid structures and uniformity that so often dominates modern life. But rural landscapes in the plays also demand a respect (for example West mentions a Welsh Young Businessman of the Year who was found dead in the snow); it has a distinctively raw and unforgiving aura.

But in The Ferryman, order and continuity are highly regarded. We meet the Carneys on the morning of the annual harvest. Rob Howell’s design creates the Carney’s home (and it is homely) with fine detail: magnets on the Aga, old birthday cards and kids’ drawings strewn about all over, mismatching furniture. But you feel that everything also has its place, that it is organised chaos. It is a day of ritual that involves bringing in the crop followed by a feast: Mercy blows the horn to mark the start of the day; everyone is up before 6am; cousins come to help with the harvest; songs are sung; a fattened-up goose is to be killed.

But this harvest, things are different. The goose goes missing, perhaps an omen for later events in the play. It’s also ten years since Quinn Carney’s brother Seamus disappeared following his involvement with the IRA. Seamus’ wife Caitlin (and her son Oisin) is living with Quinn’s family, perhaps a bit too closely for Quinn’s wife’s liking. At the start of the play we hear that Seamus’ body has been found in a bog, preserved like the ancient figure in Seamus Heaney’s The Tollund Man, and it sets off fears that the IRA’s gangster reputation could jeopardise their cause. Tension, little by little, rises until its violent, tragic end.

Harvest day is all based on tradition. Indeed, there’s a kite and a goose just as there are in one of Uncle Pat’s stories of his first harvest of which Aunt Pat complains: ‘“Sixty straight harvests and I’m still clogging up the way”’ she mocks of him. Great emphasis is put on the importance and weight of family life. A photo of Big Jack looks over the house and his presence is still greatly felt even in the younger members of the family who never knew him. The idea of passing knowledge, the ‘Treasures of Yore’, down from the older generation to the younger ones is a key one. All the family chip in with the harvest and there’s even a resemblance of Game of Thrones’ Ned Stark in the way Quinn stresses the importance of family duty. ‘A man who takes care of his family’, Quinn toasts, ‘is a man who can look himself in the eye in the morning’. There is also a fascination with stories at play here: the construction of jokes, the choice of words, the arc of stories, and the currency of memories in old age.

The end image of act one of the lights going down on Oisin and the dead goose hanging up is one which invites comparisons with the brace of duck hanging up at the start of The Winterling. That idea then grew into his one act, Leavings, which features a story of a pair of ducks tied together, one of them dead and the other alive. I saw the dead goose at the end of act one, with Horrigan’s warning of ‘[Muldoon’s] not finished with you’ to Quinn still in my mind, and connected the goose to the Carney brothers. The way it glistened in the light slightly echoing Silver Johnny hanging upside down in Mojo, it is an ominous end to the act. What will happen to Quinn? And Oisin and Caitlin? Will Quinn leap into action? Will the harvest feast go ahead as it has done for generations?

The Ferryman feels like a more mature piece of work. The language isn’t as flashy and double acts don’t dominate bits of the action like in Butterworth’s earlier work. It’s still incredibly funny, from Tom Kettle’s knack for producing apples and rabbits out of his coat to the Carney family craic. But overall this play has a large family of characters, a family saga in 3 acts, all of which Butterworth and Sam Mendes handle masterfully. Watching it, I thought there were subtle echoes of Chekhov, Marina Carr, David Rudkin, O’Casey, perhaps even O’Neill.

Mendes and The Royal Court have assembled a great cast. Paddy Considine (making his theatre debut) embodies Quinn Carney, a diligent farmer and a passionate family man secretly in love with another woman. Laura Donnelly also does excellent work showing the different sides of Caitlin. There is a bit where she is drunk and dancing and you feel it is a sheer release of built-up pain. Dearbhla Molloy’s Aunt Pat is cold and sour-faced but we also see her hunger and trembling passion for Ireland and her love for the family. Considine, Donnelly and Molloy are part of a faultless ensemble including experienced actors who have won Tony and Drama Desk Awards for their work in Irish drama, right down to drama school students and actors making their professional theatre debut. John Hodgkinson is endearing as the only English character, Tom Kettle, a simple but kind factotum. Even his name is flat and lacks the poetry and wit of the Irish characters.

This is a play which works on so many levels. Analysis aside, there was an instinctive and emotional connection that I felt with The Ferryman. There’s a mythic, beating heart at the centre of it. Yes, it’s a play about Ireland and the Troubles, a play about family, a play about loyalty, but it’s also a play – although grounded in a tangible family setting complete with a baby, a goose and a rabbit – that conjures the sacred and the uncanny. The last few moments are tense as Nick Powell’s pulsing music intensifies and everything in the play comes together. Butterworth has often described his method as being natural; there’s rarely any talk of technique. He follows what excites him, what most gives him goose bumps. I think that translates to the audience. The banshees coming at the end of The Ferryman, like the giants approaching at the end of Jerusalem, is unsettling. I don’t necessarily understand why or what it means, but as Aunt Pat shouted ‘What have you done to this family’ amongst all the action, I felt generations of the Carney family – past, present and future – and Ireland’s history crumbling.

Breadcrumbs have led Butterworth to another masterpiece.

The Ferryman plays at the Royal Court Theatre until 20th May and then transfers to the Gielgud Theatre from 20th June to 7th October.

Laura Donnelly (Caitlin Carney) and Paddy Considine (Quinn Carney). Credit: Johan Persson