The First Modern Man, Hen & Chickens Theatre, London N1

Modern Man

Michel de Montaigne is an interesting figure, and this is a well written and beautifully delivered play about the 16th Century French essayist. Much like the essays of the man himself, it is not easy to define. It is not quite a biography because it really only touches incidentally on his life and times, it is an imagined hour long conversation with the man, where you are introduced to a selection of his ideas and preoccupations in a seemingly disordered manner.

However, this is where the cleverness of the writing comes in, the rambling way in which the conversation takes place, is very similar in composition to the way his essays were actually written, with detours, diversions and asides taking you around many different ideas before bringing you back to the original, titular point of the piece. In this play, it serves to capture what you could think of as the personality of de Montaigne.

The Hen & Chickens theatre is a good venue to see this play, because it is intimate enough to give the feeling of a personal conversation. Jonathan Hansler takes full advantage and engages members of the audience individually – he makes Michel de Montagne chatty and affable. The author, Michael Barry, and actor have worked together well, both obviously care for the man they are displaying onstage, and their combination of talents makes him a likeable figure full of interesting concepts, some deep and insightful, some weird, but all entertaining in a quirky and engaging way.

I particularly enjoyed this play, possibly helped by knowing a little of his work before I attended. The quality of the writing and the delivery of the words ensure that there is much to enjoy here whether you have heard of Michel de Montaigne or not. The First Modern Man has that elusive and winning blend, it is a play that manages to be both enjoyable and informative. Recommended.

 

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Colette (dir. Wash Westmoreland) 2019

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Biographical historical costume drama is a relatively specific genre of movie, but one that is in vogue at the start of 2019, with “The Favourite” and “Stan and Ollie” also getting UK release in January this year. Colette captures the zeitgeist in other ways too, it is about female empowerment, we watch Colette slowly grow in confidence and competence after entering Paris as a young ingenue, the wife of a powerful and authoritarian man about town. The storyline about gender fluidity and sexual freedom is timely too, as her relationship with Missy is treated in an honest and positive manner.

The film is set in Paris and Burgundy at the end of the 19th and start of the 20th Centuries. It concentrates on the early life of Colette, the time of her first marriage, which was to Henry Gauthier-Villars a renowned Parisian socialite. It ends with the publication of the first Colette novel, although she was successful and notorious throughout the rest of her life, she was even nominated for the Nobel Prize for literature in 1948.

The film is lovingly made and the dialogue is beautifully written, Wash Westmoreland obviously cares about Colette and admires her writing, the film is directed in a manner that reflects her style, unhurried and descriptive, although aside from a few double entendre witticisms the film is less racy than her books. Giles Nuttgens is the cinematographer – the rooms, houses and gardens all look lush and inviting. The acting throughout is wonderful. Keira Knightley gives us a great performance in the title role, we watch her grow in courage and independence as the film goes on. Timothy West is brilliant as Willy, her despotic yet hugely charismatic husband. A lovely combination of good writing and good acting makes you understand how this dictatorial man held sway over Colette’s strong personality for so long.

The cast is of the highest quality throughout. Denise Gough is wonderful as the convention defying Marquise de Belbeuf, Missy. She plays the part sympathetically and with gusto. She is shown as a major influence on Colette’s courage and bravura. Jake Graf has a nice cameo as Gaston de Caillavet and Fiona Shaw is lovely as Sido, Colette’s mother.

Colette is a beautifully made and beautifully written biopic about a strong revolutionary woman. It focuses on a specific period of her life and we get the story very definitely from her point of view, however as she herself says in the film “The hand that holds the pen writes history”. The film is uplifting, inspiring and enjoyable.

Summer and Smoke, Duke of York’s Theatre, St Martin’s Lane, London WC2

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Summer and Smoke had a successful run at the Almeida theatre earlier in the year. The reviews at the time were ecstatic but tickets were impossible to get, so it was great news to hear that it had been given a West End transfer. When it was first produced, in 1948, it was the follow up to “A Streetcar Named Desire” but it did not match that play’s success. There have been revivals in the intervening years, but the only successful one has been the off Broadway version, with Geraldine Page as Alma, that was eventually made into the film with Laurence Harvey as John. Geraldine Page received an Oscar nomination for that part.

The set is a bare brick wall with seven pianos set in a semi circle facing it. These are played at the start, finish and at dramatic moments through the play. The rest of the stage is basically empty, save a few chairs brought on and removed as they are needed. The setting is the American deep south in the early 20th Century, classic Tennessee Williams territory. The story is too, a tale of unrequited love struggling against unbridled lust, set in a small American town in the sweltering heat of summer’s sultry climate.

Director, Rebecca Frecknall, has taken the decision to make this production revolve totally around Alma Winemiller. She is almost always on stage and on the rare occasions when she is not central, we are thinking about how this will affect her state of mind. This is a bold directing decision, but perfectly vindicated by Patsy Ferran’s performance as Alma. She is phenomenal, it is a career defining role and she drags us through every high and low. One of the toughest things for an actor to do is bring the audience with them when they have a life changing epiphany which totally reverses their world view, Patsy Ferran does this remarkably well, and if she does not win awards for her acting in this play, then I cannot wait to see the performance that beats it.

The rest of the cast are excellent too and provide brilliant support. There are a couple of moments where music is used to heighten the drama. Both of these are chillingly good. Anjana Vasan has a beautiful blues voice, when she sings in the casino. The slow motion sequence during the shooting, which I think used a Portishead track, has an ethereal, poetic quality that raises the production to a more abstract, surreal vision than we are used to seeing in a Tennessee Williams play, and this worked very well.

I enjoyed this production, it was brave enough to approach Tennessee Williams in a more lyrical manner than usual, the added musical dimension, although lightly used was very effective and it will endure in the memory for the amazing performance of Patsy Ferran in the leading role.

A Very Very Very Dark Matter, Bridge Theatre, London SE1

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Once upon a there was a very talented author. His name was Martin McDonagh. Everybody loved his work and he wrote some wonderfully funny plays and some wonderfully clever scripts for films. However, Mr McDonagh had a terrible secret!

Do you remember Shakespeare’s infinite monkeys at infinite typewriters? Well, Martin had stolen the most talented of Shakespeare’s monkeys. He kept it chained to the typewriter and in reality, it was this monkey, who ghost wrote all of his stuff. It was really the most clever monkey, that had the brightest and funniest ideas, and all that Martin McDonagh had to do was to make sure that he edited them carefully.

Well, one day Mr Shakespeare realised that one of his monkeys was missing. He wasn’t sure which one, because he did have an awful lot of them, but he counted them up and, sure enough, he had infinity minus one! Impossible? Impossible but true! He could not let this happen so he determined to spend eternity looking for his monkey, and sure enough, after 300 years, he found that the missing monkey was living in the office of Martin McDonagh’s house.

Shakespeare decided that he would expose Mr McDonagh’s secret by putting a spell on him, which would impair his editing abilities. This would allow, just one time, the monkey’s writing to be issued straight to the world exactly as it was written, with no oversight at all. Shakespeare turned out to be a very clever magician, the spell worked perfectly and Hey Presto! in 2018 “A Very, Very, Very, Dark Matter” was issued upon the world!

As it happens, this show is not all bad. Granted, you will leave the theatre thinking, “What have I just witnessed?”, but the show is full to the brim with ideas. Some of these are funny and clever, some of them less so. It is a touch of genius using the voice of Tom Waits as narrator, his resonant, off beat tone suits the storyline perfectly.

Phil Daniels is wonderful as a foul mouthed Charles Dickens, but it is shocking to hear his young children using the same words, an interesting juxtaposition, I suppose.  Jim Broadbent plays Hans Christian Anderson as an amiable buffoon with deep psychological scars and sadistic overtones. This would be an impossible task for a less talented actor.

Johnetta Eula’Mae Ackles makes her debut here in a starring role as Marjory. This is the most troubling part in the play and she carries it off very well, you would never know that it is her first major role. Martin McDonagh is always able to attract the highest quality actors and the depth of talent throughout the cast is the strength of the show.

This play has so much going on that it is impossible to make sense of it all. At points, it seems like a random jumble of weird toys thrown together by a wayward child. It has  many different ideas running around, some of which will make you uncomfortable, but one thing you can say about Martin McDonagh is that he never plays it safe. This is probably not going to be the most coherent show you will see this year, but I can guarantee that you will not be bored.

Macbeth, RSC Barbican Season, Barbican, London EC1

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2018 is turning out to be a Macbeth fest, with 4 major productions in London at various times through the year. Spring brought a Punk style, post apocalyptic version to the National Theatre. Autumn had The National Youth Theatre’s stylish and stylized, gender fluid adaptation. Shakespeare’s Globe has a Macbeth opening just now which will run to 2019, and this, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s interpretation, has been playing in Stratford through the year and will be at the Barbican until January.

Here we have a large cast, big names and high production values. The Barbican has a huge stage which is kept fairly minimal throughout, a digital clock, ticking down the seconds, dominates the set – reminding us of the passing of time. The witches are a stroke of genius, three schoolgirls dressed identically in red dresses and shoes with white wool tights, advancing together across the set and speaking in unison. Slightly reminiscent of the film “Don’t Look Now” but certainly the eeriest Macbeth witches I have ever seen.

This is a Macbeth that emphasises the psychological horror of the story. It is a brutal and murderous play, but priority is given to the effects of the violence rather than the violence itself. Polly Findlay, as director has made a clever and thoughtful direction decision in doing this, because we get to see more deeply into the characters of Macbeth and his wife, without losing any of the malignancy of the tale.

Niamh Cusack proves herself to be one of the finest actors, as Lady Macbeth. She is the instigator of the action, she drives and encourages her husband in his moments of doubt. We are always aware that her ambition is not hers alone, it is for them both together – and when she realises that his ambition has gone past hers, that she cannot stop him and that she has lost him, her descent into despair is palpable.

Christopher Ecclestone is Macbeth, he plays him as a modern day fighter, comfortable in battle fatigues, yet ambitious enough to don a dinner suit to schmooze at parties. His acting is a tour de force, we see him grow in ambition as the play moves on. The first undefended murder hits him hard, but each death gets easier and less affecting, until near the end they all just chalk marks on a blackboard, made by the watching porter.

This is a cold and dark Macbeth, perfect for a winter night, one that will stay with you as you sip your whiskey in the pub on the way home from the theatre. A great production of a chilling play. My favourite Macbeth.

 

 

 

Macbeth, National Youth Theatre, Garrick Theatre, London WC2

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This is the third of the National Youth Theatre’s West End season that I have seen, after Consensual and Victoria’s Knickers, which were on last month at the Soho Theatre. I am pleased to say that Macbeth maintains the high standard set by the first two.

This is a contemporary and stylish version of the play. It was interesting to see Macbeth, Lady Macbeth and Duncan, all as women, it was good to see how little it changed the dynamic of the piece. Of course, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth are both ambitious, determined characters and this setup underlines that each has their own portion of the guilt to bear. Isabel Adomakoh Young as Lady Macbeth does a fantastic job of displaying her ambition when strengthening her partner’s resolve at the start, and then showing her despair when she feels it has gone too far. Olivia Dowd as Macbeth makes us see  how difficult it is to carry out the first undefended murder and then shows us that each successive one becomes more easy, until by the end she doesn’t care how many lives it costs as long as she keeps her power.

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The witches in this Macbeth are fantastic. They look both dramatic and other worldly. Their movement and utterances are chilling, perhaps the best realisation of the witches I have seen, in a perfect combination of costume and delivery. The direction with regard to the apparitions is masterful too, they appear as though spawned by an archfiend that the witches have conjured up. This is a Macbeth where the effects of the supernatural world are strongly felt.

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Back in Scotland, Jay Mailer is good as Ross, Oseloka Obi is a strong and sturdy Macduff and Jamie Ankrah is great as a soldierly Banquo. This is a very accessible Macbeth, Natasha Nixon as director has been clever in managing to convey the horror of the tale while minimising the blood and the gore. I really enjoyed this stripped down, stylized telling of the Scottish play. Its on Tuesday, Thursday and Friday afternoons at the Garrick Theatre until the 7th December.

It has been most enjoyable to see 3 of the NYT West End shows this winter, the standard of acting has been very high and I am looking forward to seeing many of the actors on stage or screen again in the near future. If you are in town when the next year’s season is announced, it is worth looking up – the tickets are such good value for a west end show and the productions are excellent quality.  I have to say that, for me, The National Youth Theatre Rep Company’s West End seasons are a highlight of the theatre year.

Consensual, Soho Theatre, Dean Street, London W1

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Consensual is the latest production from the National Youth Theatre of Great Britain. Set in an urban modern school, it deals with very current issues. It was first performed three years ago, but following the rise of the #metoo movement in the intervening time, it catches the zeitgeist even more today than it did at the time.

The thrust of the play is about the what exactly constitutes consent and where the abuse of power begins. The play wastes no time getting into the subject matter.  A teacher is discussing the “Healthy Relationships” curriculum in  class, then after school, she is confronted by a relationship that she had with a student seven years earlier when she was a teaching assistant. She believes that the student took advantage of her naïveté at the time. He believes that she groomed him while he was underage.

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These two, Diane and Freddie, nicely played by Marilyn Nnadebe and Fred Hughes-Stanton, are the main protagonists of the story. The are supported by a cast of pupils, teachers and family who highlight the blurring of the lines, between their opposing points of view. There is a host of great cameo performances among them, the play is sharply observed and cleverly written, so there are some nice characters and some excellent lines to be delivered. I particularly like Alice Vilanculo as Georgia, who manages to convey a begging for help by resolutely deny that she needs it. Jay Mailer is also outstanding in his one scene as Jake, Freddie’s brother, his exasperation giving way to  grudging support in the end.

The direction is clever, the dark subject matter and deep conversation is interspersed with musical breaks and funny moments.  The song where the school boys deliver a song in the manner of the Pussycat Dolls or Destiny’s Child is a highlight.  There are some very witty exchanges between classmates and these lines are delivered fast and the scenes are short. Jamie Ankrah, Muhammad Abubakar Khan, Olivia Dowd and Simran Hunjun deliver nice brashness and impudence, they keep the mood upbeat and the pace brisk.

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The set is sparse and inventive, allowing the direction and writing to shine. I did love the way the cast quickly make a car from school benches. Consensual is a thought provoking show, it tackles a difficult subject in an entertaining way. It could not be more topical.  It has some great acting, keep your eyes on the cast list – I’m sure we will be seeing more of these actors in the future!