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.

King Charles III, Almeida Theatre – To reign (really), or not to reign, that is the question

3 hearts

The start of Mike Bartlett’s new future history play is very promising and moody, with a beautiful candle lit procession accompanied by spiritual chanting.  I wish I could say that it’s all uphill from there on.  To attempt to portray the current royal family is always fraught with difficulty.  Some writers succeed while others fail miserably.  Do you show them to be exactly like us – mere mortals – or do you give them dialogues that sit closer to their public persona.  In King Charles III, Mr Bartlett has chosen a mixture of both but has also channeled his inner Shakespeare.  It is a history play after all.

King Charles III - Adam James as the Prime Minister and Tim Pigott-Smith as Charles III

King Charles III – Adam James as the Prime Minister and Tim Pigott-Smith as Charles III

Our dear Queen is dead and the royal family returns to their pile where Charles and Camilla contemplate his coming reign.  Soon, however, all hell breaks loose when the new Kind decides that he won’t sign a law that will curtail the freedom of the press.  As we all know, the monarch’s role in this procedure is mere rubber-stamping.  Unless of course, another Hitler like figure was to come to rule the country and then our dear monarch would stop all that nonsense.  In the meantime, however, Kind Charles III is expected to sign.

This is drama after all so things must happen to make sure we stay seated for the full 3 hours (don’t say you haven’t ben warned).  The Prime Minister, the leader of the opposition, William, Kate, Camilla, Harry, the King’s Private Secretary all opine about Charles’ obligations, rights, duty, precedents…. Even Diana’s ghost appears to both Charles and William.

There are moments of beautiful writing during the evening and then there are some real clunkers.  Many times, the audience just chuckled at what was happening on stage but I just don’t think this was the intention of the writer.  Of course, Will & Kate are the answer to all our problems, Harry is the directionless playboy who falls for a girl who takes him to Sainsbury’s (really?), the Tory leader of the opposition is a bit of a snake (facile political jab?), Camilla is eager for her prince to not rock the boat (she’s almost there after all) and what Charles really wants is to read books (and talks to his plants of course).  Did I mention that Diana appears to the heir and the spare in the most comical and embarrassing scenes?  Beneath all this, there is a good play that is sometimes even very good but not consistently so.

Tim Pigott-Smith is utterly convincing as the King who can’t for the life of him handle his duties as his mother did for so many years.  If you have been following the news recently, you will certainly know that the Prince of Wales has indeed interfered many times in the affairs of state and that his correspondence to ministers could become public after a recent ruling by the Court of Appeals.

Adam James, as the Prime Minister, is excellent while Nicholas Rowe does a fabulous job as the not so straight talking opposition leader.  Oliver Chris as William has the current heir’s shy stiffness down to a tee and is convincing as the reluctant hero of the adventure.  Lydia Wilson plays Kate with confidence but is handed a difficult pack of cards as the scheming future Queen.  Margot Leicester shows us a Camilla that is good but less convincing (and her flowing dress doesn’t help recall the always formally attired wife of our future king).  Richard Goulding is funny and irreverent as Harry but less convincing when he decides to chuck it all for a woman he only met a fortnight ago.  Fear not though, as his latest squeeze, Jess, played very well by Tafline Steen, is not on the dole but a student at St Martin’s School of Arts (one has one’s standards to uphold after all).  Do you think his salary, as a normal punter Joe Bloggs, will pay for his extravagant life style and polo playing weekends?  My companion was quite insistent that it is not his position that matters but his fame and that he cannot eschew that in the same way that Rihanna can’t decide to not be famous overnight.  We are in the 21st century after all.  The rest of the cast is all excellent (Nick Sampson, Nyasha Hatendi, Tom Robertson) but I would make a special mention for the very brave Katie Brayben who portrays Diana’s ghost amongst her three roles and who had to cross the stage three times to sniggering by the audience.  The play is well directed by Rupert Goold, the Almeida’s new Artistic Director.  The design by Tom Scutt is perhaps too minimal for my liking and not as interesting as past Almeida productions.

The Weir, Donmar Warehouse – A touching and melancholy work of humanity.

4.5 hearts

If you are anything like my theatre companion and put off by the kind of Irish theatre where women moan about their fickle drunkard husbands who spend their entire pay slip at the local pub then this play is for them.  It is Irish and men drink but there ends the similarities.  The Weir, by Conor McPherson, first performed at the Royal Court in 1997, is a beautifully crafted piece of storytelling as we rarely see anymore on stage.

The play is short in time (1 hour 45 minutes) but long in meaning and emotions.  The story, unfolds in real-time, over an evening at this Sligo pub where four men and one woman drink, banter, tease each other and tell tales.  At first the stories tend towards the supernatural but as the evening unfolds, the grim reality of events in the patrons’ lives is revealed.

We know this is a regular hangout when Jack, a mechanic and garage owner, enters the empty pub and helps himself to a draught all the while grumbling that the Guinness tap isn’t working.  He is soon joined by Brendan, the publican and then the odd-job man Jim.  Jack is a bit of a cantankerous character while Jim with his woolly jumper and big beard is a quiet mother’s boy.  The men quickly turn to the latest “big” news about their mate Finbar who has been playing tour-guide to a newcomer, Valerie, a pretty woman who has just rented a house in the area.

Brian Cox as Jack (Photo by Helen Warner)

Brian Cox as Jack (Photo by Helen Warner)

These men have known each other a long time and they all envy and dislike the locally made-good Finbar in equal measure.  When the big-talking hotelier and property dealer Finbar turns up with Valerie, the others are quick to take jabs at him.  Valerie, a wine drinking Dubliner, is a prize and the men try to outdo each other with the most interesting tale.  Valerie enters the unfamiliar surroundings eager to humour her companions, laughing at their silly stabs at one another.  We are soon regaled with stories of ghosts, hallucinations and a “Luigi” board.  When her turn comes, she delivers a personal tale of unbearable sadness touched with its own surreal twist.

Finbar and Jim depart leaving Brendan and Jack to comfort Valerie.  When Jack is asked about his unmarried status, he recounts how he made a hash of it many years ago: “And she just looked at me like I was just another guest at the wedding.  And that was that.  And the future was all ahead of me.  Years and years of it.  I could feel it coming.  All those things you’ve got to face on your own.  All by yourself.”  It’s a wonderfully tender moment from the hardened man who lets others see how lonely his life has been.

The Weir of the title is a hydroelectric dam near the pub that Finbar mentions to Valerie but tellingly symbolises the disrupted lives of the characters.  The play is warm and sad and touches upon these men’s frustrated inner lives and the missed opportunities to connect with others.  McPherson’s dialogues are beautiful and poetic, and infused with small details that reveal each character’s inner turmoil.  It is difficult to describe the play and do it justice but the Weir will surely enter into the cannon of modern classics as a beautiful, humorous and mesmerizing piece of theatre.

Josie Rourke brings out the best in the ensemble cast.  Brian Cox is fantastic as the cantankerous Jack who changes convincingly from grumpy friend to wounded lover, while Ardal O’Hanlon embodies perfectly the painfully shy odd-job man Jim.  Peter McDonald is warm and easy-going as the quiet barman Brendan.  And Risteárd Cooper plays the boastful Finbar with bravado.  Dervla Kirwan is quiet and subtle as Valerie.  The set, designed by Tom Scutt, is a beautiful, detailed vision of a remote Irish pub.  I defy anyone to remain unmoved by this touching and melancholy work of humanity.