Medea, National theatre – Or when revenge is anything but sweet

4-hearts

Medea which combines both filicide and fratricide is not for the faint hearted. In this production of Euripides’ play, Helen McCrory is the spurned wife who will go to extreme lengths to avenge herself.

Medea - Helen McCrory (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)

Medea – Helen McCrory (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)

Ben Power’s adaptation is set in today’s Greece and the dialogue is both precise and extremely moving. The play begins with a warning. The children’s nurse recounts Medea’s tragic situation and her fears of what is to come. For the love of Jason, Medea has killed her brother, helped Jason obtain the Golden Fleece, saved his life and fled her homeland for Corinth. She has married her lover and become a mother. Unfortunately, Jason now wants a new, younger wife, Kreusa, the daughter of Kreon (king of Corinth) and has abandoned Medea and his two sons.

McCrory comes on, unadorned, wearing masculine clothes with eyes smudged and messy hair. Here is a woman who no longer cares how she appears. He anger is all-consuming, it even makes her twitch. She is undone but still proud. This might be a Greek tragedy but it speaks to contemporary audiences as it did to Athenians some 2,500 years ago. Medea is one of the most recognised vengeful woman in literature but surely she speaks for many when she laughs at Jason’s excuses for leaving her for a younger model.

McCrory is spectacular in the role. She is loving to her children, warm to her old friend, Aegeus, desperate at her situation, devious with Kreon but above all angry at having given so much to a man who has left her. Medea articulates her grievances to Jason with such commanding intellect that Jason’s excuses crumble before our very eyes.

Directed by Carrie Cracknell, McCrory’s Medea is all energy and charisma and I wish I could say the same about Danny Sapani. His Jason is truly underwhelming. There doesn’t seem to be any chemistry between the two ex-lovers and he lacks so much emotion that even the death of his children doesn’t bring a single tear to his eyes and that is after his bride has just been killed as well. Michaela Coel, as the nurse, is convincing as the worried nanny who tries to protect the children. Dominic Rowan as Aegeus is the only kind man to Medea and their interaction allows us to see another gentler side to Medea. Unfortunately, Martin Turner, as Creon, lacks some royal panache.

The impressively large chorus of twelve women, however, brings an ethereal mood to the play as they try to warn Medea and protect her from herself. The music, by Will Gregory and Alison Goldfrapp, and the accompanying singing from the chorus was beautiful and eerily haunting. I was much less enchanted with the dancing which left me completely perplexed. Just didn’t get it. Maybe someone out there can explain it to me.

The beautiful set, designed by Tom Scutt, depicts a run-down apartment in Greece, opening onto a beautiful and stormy forest. Above is the wedding reception room where Kreusa and Jason will marry. It has the appearance of a slightly tacky modern hotel reception room from the 60s, banister included.

No matter that some of the actors are not at their best, it is McCrory’s play and she is breath-taking to the last. Hers is a tragic tale of breakup and desperation where Medea’s constant and mesmerising dialogue articulates her alternatives, voices her doubts and in the end shows her frighteningly logical madness. Bravo.

A Small Family Business, National Theatre – When thieves, blackmailers, adulterers and criminals unite!

2.5 hearts

When the National Theatre decided to resuscitate Alan Ayckbourn’s comedy, first staged a few months before 1987’s Black Monday, they must have thought they were in for a sure thing.  After all, the play did nicely the first time around and is a comment on greed, the pervasive scamming and fraud in Britain and our terribly materialistic world.  What’s not to like?   So I fear they might not be prepared for the reception to this version directed by Adam Penford.

A Small Family Business - Niky Wardley as Anita, Neal Barry as Desmond, Nigel Lindsay as Jack, Gerard Monaco as Rivetti Brother, Stephen Beckett as Cliff and Matthew Cottle as Benedict

A Small Family Business – Niky Wardley as Anita, Neal Barry as Desmond, Nigel Lindsay as Jack, Gerard Monaco as Rivetti Brother, Stephen Beckett as Cliff and Matthew Cottle as Benedict

A Small Family Business opens with a funny and embarrassing surprise party, where Jack McCracken is welcomed into the family business as the new CEO of Ayres & Graces, the company founded by his wife’s father now suffering from dementia.  Entrusted with the task of reviving the faltering furniture business, Jack vows to return the company to profitability by bringing back “basic trust”.  Jack is earnest and determined but he hasn’t taken into account his extended family.

Unfortunately for Jack, his family is corrupt and dishonest and, when his own daughter is apprehended for shoplifting, Jack is manipulated into endorsing a blackmail deal that will be his undoing.  Soon the whole lot, save for the doddering father, have been exposed as pilfers, adulterers, criminals and idiots.  Even his brother has profited from stealing from his own family business.  None of them seem to care for anything other than clothes, cars and jewellery.  Never bought full price, of course.  Everything is for sale, just name your price.

As you can expect, Jack is dragged down to their level as one crime only leads to another, until the inevitable happens.  Mr Ayckbourn seems to be saying that even with the strongest moral convictions, people can’t stand-up to corruption when it has become woven into the fabric of society.  I would add that in Mr Aycbourne’s world version, men are manipulated by schemingly clever women who get them to do just about anything they want.  “Just wait, he’ll come around” seems to be a refrain.

It is possible that in some other version, this play might be funny but that is not the case here.   The set, by Tim Hatley, is a fantastic two-level house, giving us a view of six rooms and allowing for quasi-simultaneous scenes happening on different floors.  For some incomprehensible reason, however, the acting is very heightened and the slapstick often falls completely flat.  The tone and accent of this very British family appeared to be much more “white trash” than middle class suburban, as was the case in the original play.  The horrible costumes, possibly created to bring to mind the Alexis Carrington 80s, are just plain tacky and much less glamorous.

Ultimately, there is much physical comedy that brings no laughter and poor Amy Marston, as Harriet Ayres, must pop out of the small opening between the dinning room and kitchen on too many unfunny instances that you feel for her by the end.  That being said, Nigel Lindsay is very good as the earnest and optimistic Jack McCracken.  But did he need to don the Mafioso suit and plant kisses on both cheeks by the end.  I think we got the point.  Jack’s bossy dominatrix sister-in-law, Niky Wardley, gives a winning performance while the remaining cast try their energetic best to make this play seem alive for the 21st century. Alice Sykes, who plays Jack’s daughter Samantha, should be singled out for giving one of the best interpretations of a teenager on the London stage at the moment.   And I should know, I currently have one at home.

King Lear, National Theatre – What happens when a dictator looses everything?

4-hearts

Before I even begin my review of one of Shakespeare’s bleakest tragedy, I must disclose to being an absolute groupie of Sam Mendes.  I have followed his career from his beginning at the RSC, his work as artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse, on to his successful film-directing career and seen every production of his bridge project.

So, without further ado, here are my thoughts.

This version of King Lear now in preview at the National is still the story of an old king who disinherits his youngest daughter and hands his kingdom to the other two but finds that their love is rather thin on the ground.  But it is much more as well.

King Lear with Kate Fleetwood, Anna Maxwell Martin, Simon Russell Beale (Mark Douet)

King Lear with Kate Fleetwood, Anna Maxwell Martin, Simon Russell Beale (Mark Douet)

Mendes brings us a Lear that is fully fleshed by what happened before the play starts.  This Lear is not a silly old man.  On the contrary, he was a powerful man who ruled ruthlessly and now finds himself thrown to the elements and unloved by his daughters.  The focus on power and the illusions that leaders create around them while in power are central to this production.  What happens to a man used to deference and obedience when he has handed his power to a younger generation.  This Lear is pared back to the basics and his dialogue with the blind Gloucester is his sanest realisation but, unfortunately, there is no way to go back.

The play is set somewhere mid-20th century and the impact of one man’s decision on his kingdom, family, associates and populace is shown in all its devastation.  The play is long, at 3 hours and 20 minutes (note the earlier starts of 7pm), but moves swiftly as the incredibly large cast embark on their respective journeys (much helped by the use of the drum revolve and Jon Driscoll’s projections).  This is not a sentimental Lear though the tragic death of Cordelia and Lear’s anguished lament will remain etched in my memory.

I don’t know if Mendes has been corrupted by Hollywood but I could have done with a little less gore.   The blood does run freely and I will readily admit to being audibly disgusted with the incredibly realistic eye-gouging scene.  And, for the record, I’m also quite done with water-boarding torture scenes.  The casts are excellent though the large Olivier stage means that there is the inevitable loss of intimacy and that some of the dialogue is shouted rather than spoken.

I saw Derek Jacobi’s performance at the Donmar Warehouse in 2010 and it was overwhelmingly moving and intimate.  Mendes’ Lear is less moving and more centred on the loss of power, the disintegration of the kingdom and the effects of succession on a country formerly ruled by a dictator.  It is nevertheless very much worth a detour.

The excellent Simon Russel Beale gives a nuanced performance as the old king who descends into dementia.   Stephen Boxer’s Gloucester is pitiful as the man who chose the wrong son.  Kate Fleetwood (Goneril) is all hatred as the daughter now turned leader who won’t shed a tear for a father she loads and who never loved her.  Anna Maxwell Martin (Regan) is equally good as the duplicitous ambitious daughter.  They are joined by an incredibly large cast including fantastic Tom Brooke (Edgar), Sam Troughton (Edmund), Stanley Townsend (Kent), Adrian Scarborough (Fool), Olivia Vinall (Cordelia), Richard Clothier (Albany), Michael Nardone (Cornwall).  The large and ever changing set is designed by Anthony Ward.

New Production at the National Theatre – Booking opens Friday November 29

The National Theatre has announced further details of its November – April season.

Sam Mendes, Academy Award-winning director and Bridge Project director, will bring us a new production of King Lear at the Olivier Theatre, starring Simon Russell Beale.  I know, you’ve seen Lear already but this should be an evening to remember.

The NT has also announced a revival of A Taste of Honey by Shelagh Delaney.  Set in the 50s, the play looks at class, race, gender and sexual orientation. It is part of the kitchen sink drama genre which attempted to bring to the stage social issues that were not being presented in British theatre at the time.

Nick Payne of Constellation fame is writing Blurred Lines to be presented at the Shed.  The play will be directed by Carrie Cracknell who is Associate Director at the Royal Court Theatre and who directed the fantastic A Doll’s House (Young Vic and West End).  The play will tackle gender politics with music.

Booking opens at 8:30 on November 29th