25 July 2012

The Doctor's Dilemma - National Theatre, Friday 20th July 2012


The story opens on the day that Ridgeon, a prominent research doctor, is knighted. His friends gather to congratulate him. The friends include Sir Patrick, a distinguished old physician; Walpole, an aggressive surgeon; Sir Ralph Bloomfield Bonington, a charismatic society doctor; and Blenkinsop, a threadbare but honest government doctor. Each one has his favorite theory of illness and method of cure. These are incompatible--one man's cure is another man's poison. Nonetheless, they all get along.

A young woman (Mrs. Dubedat) desperately seeks help for her husband, a talented artist,  from Ridgeon, who has apparently found a way to cure consumption. Ridgeon initially refuses, but changes his mind for two reasons - Dubechat is a fine artist and Ridgeon is smitten with his wife.

When the doctors meet Dubedat, however, they find that he is a dishonest scoundrel. Ridgeon eventually decides to treat Blenkinsop (who also has consumption) and refer the artist to Bloomfield Bonington, this insuring that he will die. In the end Ridgeon justifies his behavior as a plan to let Dubedat die before his wife find out what an amoral cad he actually was. This, in fact, happens and Dubedat's artistic reputation soars.

Redpenny - William Belchambers
Dubedat- Tom Burke
Sir Patrick Cullen - David Calder
Sir Colenso Ridgeon - Aden Gillett
Minnie Tinwell - Amy Hall
Dr Schutzmacher - Paul Herzberg
Dr Blenkinsop - Derek Hutchinson
Emmy - Maggie McCarthy
Mrs Jennifer Dubedat - Genevieve O’Reilly
Mr Cutler Walpole - Robert Portal
Sir Ralph Bloomfield Bonington - Malcolm Sinclair
Newspaper Man - Samuel Taylor
Mr Danby - Richard Teverson

Creative Team –
Author: George Bernard Shaw
Director - Nadia Fall
Designer - Peter McKintosh
Lighting Designer - Neil Austin Music - Matthew Scot
Sound Designer - Gregory Clarke

Verily, we must give thanks. The sun is finally shining after months of rain and gloom (although personally I would prefer the heat to be slightly less ferocious, thank you very much). The Olympics will soon be over, leaving only a team of rubbish collectors chasing plastic bottles and cardboard cups around Stratford and Greenwich Park to get on with the long process of being dug up, built on, trampled all over and generally abused. The Accounts Department will serve Lord Coe with the final bill (“Well, that will be fifty six trillion, two hundred million, four hundred and eighty seven thousand, four hundred and eight pounds and 26 pence please. And no, we don’t take Visa”) who will then gesture towards Joe Public and say “My friends are paying”. And the National are once again showing a classic play, given it a lush production and a good cast and (for once) a decent poster.

This really is the kind of thing the National should be doing all the time (or at least a good deal more often). Presenting plays that may have fallen slightly out of fashion for various reasons, but which are worthy of being wheeled up from the morgue, being given a shot of something in the arm to perk them up a bit and exposure to the oxygen of applause. Voila, we have brought a classic play back to life, simply by stimulating its phagocytes. I mean, look at how successful London Assurance was a while back. People like this kind of stuff. It sells. And it’s a bloody good piece of writing. Its intelligent, addresses important points and is very funny, Yes, it might show signs of its age by being a bit wordy on occasion, but it honestly didn’t feel like it had a 2 ½ hour running time. In fact, the interval took me completely by surprise. And honestly, people can concentrate for that long because we’re not all idiots with the attention span of – sorry, I have to go check Facebook for a second.

Part of the productions’ appeal is its grand set design, which is wonderful. Before curtain up, a chap in the row behind us was reading the programme and gasped “Oooh look, each of the scenes is set in a different place” (perhaps he doesn't go to the theatre very often, bless him). I don’t think he was disappointed either, because no seemingly no expense has been spared. Sir Bingelybat Picnic-Hamper’s consulting rooms (really, Shaw outdid himself with stupid names in this play) are extremely grand, even if the windows do need a bit of a scrub. It’s the first time I’ve seen a dining table rise up out of the floor in the Lyttleton auditorium, even if the candelabra should have been placed parallel with the long sides rather than the short ones. And all the artist’s studio needs to make it perfect is a trio of merrily starving students (preferably a poet, a painter and a playwright) and a consumptive needlewoman expiring on the chaise lounge (which sounds like it needs to be a very big chaise lounge in order for them all to expire on it, but you know what I mean). The only gripe I have is that, in the final scene, the paintings are more or less obscured by the dropped in wall – although this does allow for some nice bits of direction as Aiden Gillet and Genevieve O’Reilly spar verbally while viewing them.

Although the lead character is ostensibly Sir Colenso (which to me sounds like something you would pour down a drain to unblock it), he is actually somewhat of a minor character in the play. Most of the best lines are given not to him but to one of the other three medical men – personally I think that Malcolm Sinclair walks away with the entire evening purely because he has the most perfect comic timing, and looks like he has just stepped out of an Edwardian painting of a doctor (I initially thought the one I was seeing in my minds eye was that by Sir Luke Fildes, but it turns out I am wrong.  The one I am thinking of can be seen in the Hogwarts Infirmary with its companion piece called "The Nurse" but I can't remember who it is by.  Answers on a postcard please). There is the opportunity for a number of minor characters to have their time in the spotlight – notably Emmy, Sir Colenso’s housekeeper, lumbering up and down like a kindly old elephant. All that Maggie McCarthy is missing in this role is a glass of warm milk and some digestive biscuits on a tray (I did wonder whether it was implied or whether I just imagined it that this character was once Sir Colenso’s Nanny?). There is a fine cameo of an incredibly insensitive reporter by Samuel Taylor and Tom Burke is louche, caddish, completely reprehensible but devilishly sexy as Dubedat, handling the switch from pathos to bathos and back again particularly well in his deathbed scene. The only weak link is Genevieve O’Reilly’s Mrs. Dubedat – I found her shrill, unconvincing and far too “theatrical” in her performance – if she had been playing an actress her performance would have been great, but to me she seemed both shallow and completely over the top. In fact, I would say that in her case, you could actually see her acting. Listen for the susurration from the audience when she slips off her robe and strides about naked – its very funny and sounds like the audience are not entirely sure whether they should be scandalised by her nudity but then decide that its ok for a woman to get her baps out because this is a play by GBS, after all, and therefore acceptable.

I do have a gripe about her costumes, too. They are extremely pretty and very “period” – but she wears them at incorrect times. In the first scene, which takes place mid-morning, she is wearing pretty walking outfit, but appears in it again (with the addition of a long motoring coat) at the evening dinner party, when she should be in evening dress. She finally appears in an evening dress at the end of scene four – but has apparently managed to lace herself into a corset and a tight fitting bodice without any human assistance. Yes, yes, I know, I’m a nitpicker. Live with it.

And finally, finally, run to the roof and shout hurrah; the National Theatre Publicity Department have seen the light and have designed an appropriate poster/programme cover for this production. A couple of years ago, if not more, the decision was taken (I believe by Nick Hytner) that all NT production posters would henceforth be photographic, in an “in house” style and with a standardised, sans serif font in gaudy paintbox colours. This has led to many hideous, boring images that really have very little to do with the productions they advertise. Thankfully this policy has been rescinded and the production is graced by an appropriate, painted image. However, one wonders, as the production was planned two years ago, and casting presumably sewn up shortly after that, why the image doesn’t actually show Genevieve O’Reilly? As one of the themes of the play is Dubedat’s almost obsessive need to draw and paint his wife, surely an image of the actress playing her would be appropriate?

Aaaaanyway, minor carps aside, this is a good solid production which achieved the practically impossible – it cheered me up after a major domestic the night before and for that alone it is worthy of commendation. People who haven’t rowed with their Other Half will still enjoy it.

What the critics said:

16 July 2012

Timon of Athens - National Theatre, Friday 13th July 2012

Timon of Athens likes nothing better than to please his friends. He lavishes gifts on them, holds entertainments for them, grants dowries to them. The word around Athens is that if you ask Timon for something, you shall receive it in abundance. Give Timon a gift, and he shall give you one with triple the value. So it is that the citizens of Athens flock to him to flatter, praise, and esteem him.
One citizen, the cynical philosopher Apemantus, warns Timon that his friends are parasites who care only for his gold. If Timon continues to squander money on them, Apemantus says, he will bankrupt himself. Timon’s honest and loyal steward, Flavius, also cautions Timon that his extravagance will one day lead to his ruin. Ruin eventually arrives in the form of unpaid bills.
When Timon turns for help to the very people upon whom he showered his favours, they give him only cold shoulders and excuses. Their friendship, it seems, is as empty as Timon’s purse. He then announces a great banquet and invites these same people to partake. Believing he must have come into new wealth, they gladly accept his invitation. However, after they arrive, Timon serves them only rotten meat and cold water, Throwing dishes at them, he drives them out of his house and then quits Athens vowing never to return. Turning to look at the wall of the city one last time, he heaps a soliloquy of curses upon Athens and its citizens.
Taking up residence in a cave near the sea, he lives off the land and spends most of his waking hours bitterly denouncing fickle humankind. One day, while digging for roots to eat, he finds gold, a great cache of it. He is rich once again. It so happens that General Alcibiades, who has also been wronged by the Athenians and has been banished from Athens, comes upon Timon in the woods near the cave.. When Alcibiades mentions that he is gathering an army to make war on Athens, Timon sees an opportunity for revenge and gives him gold to finance the venture.
Word of Timon’s new-found gold spreads, and three bandits descend upon the cave to it. Timon does not shrink from the robbers; nor does he try to protect his cache of gold. Instead, he willingly gives them gold. His hatred for humankind is so strong that it nearly shocks the bandits into becoming honest men. After the bandits leave, the good and worthy Flavius arrives at the cave seeking the company and love of his master. At first Timon rebukes him, too. Later, when he realizes that Flavius has come in search of companionship, not gold, Timon praises him as the only honest man on earth, then gives him a large portion of gold and bids him adieu.
Representatives of the Athenian senate arrive and praise Timon and then ask for gold to purchase the means to shore up their defenses against the invading army of Alcibiades. But Timon dashes their hopes when he explains that the kindness he has in mind is an invitation to Athenians to come out and hang themselves on a useless tree that he plans to cut down. Timon then dismisses the senators. Thus, their only recourse is to prostrate themselves before Alcibiades and beg mercy. Back at the walls of Athens, Alcibiades agrees to spare the innocent and destroy only those who wronged him and Timon. A soldier then arrives with news that Timon has died.
Timon of Athens – Simon Russell Beale
Flavia, his Steward – Deborah Findlay
Flaminia – Olivia Llewellyn
Servillius – Tim Samuels        } Timon's staff
Philotus – Alfred Enoch
Lucillius, an errant slave – Stavros Demetraki,Apemantus, a philosopher – Hilton McRae
A poet – Nick Sampson
A painter – Penny Layden
A jeweller – Jo Dockery
Lucullus, a banker – Paul Bentall
Sempronia, a politician – Lynette Edwards
Alcibiades, a rebel – Ciaran McMenamin

Creative team:
Director: Nicholas Hytner
Designer: Tim Hatley
Lighting: Bruno Poet
Music: Grant Olding

No doubt you will have heard me rant on about modern-dress productions of Shakespeare before. If so, you won’t need to be reminded that I don’t generally approve, believing as I do that it’s a cheap and easy cop-out by a director not only wishing to ease up on his costume budget but who has scraped the bottom of the barrel for some production ideas and hasn’t really come up with anything, glossing over this fact by saying “it makes the play more relevant to today’s audience” (I wonder why nobody has ever set a Shakespeare play in the future? You know, by having the TARDIS appear on stage and a couple of lost time-travellers staggering out of it to start the action of the story rolling?). So my heart sank like the proverbial stone when we pitched up at the theatre to find that this was yet another modern-dress production. And then….some magic happened. The play started and it was about today. A small army of the dispossessed live in tents while bankers, commercially-successful artists, celebrities and politicians quaff champagne and nibble canap├ęs, pat each other on the back, and attend glamorous receptions in art galleries. A man over-reaches himself financially through lavish entertainments for people he thinks like him, goes to those friends for a short term loan and finds himself turned down for credit by all and sundry. Forced to admit that his “friends” are worthless parasites, he has to lay off his staff, sell up his home and sleep rough, while the dispossessed riot in the streets. Inside the barricades, the parties continue unabated as the bloodsuckers find fresh victims to suck dry.

Oh Shakespeare, you clever clever man, you really did have a TARDIS all the while, didn’t you? You travelled forward in time, saw what was happening and left us a clue to show you had been here. For once, the dark suits, modern hairstyles and contemporary settings became starkly relevant to the action as the story unfolded, and I found myself literally clinging onto the timbers of the raft as it swept downstream through the white waters of the first act, throwing me up against a sandbank signposted “INTERVAL” and leaving me gasping for breath and picking twigs out of my hair. The lights went down, I took a deep breath and plunged back in – and found no rapids but a slow, eddying pool of murky and slightly rank water in which I bobbed up and down for the next 45 minutes and barely moved.

For this is a strange chimera of a play. A note in the programme explains that:

“In 1623 the publisher of the first collection edition of Mr. Shakepeare’s Comedies, Tragedies and Histories was having trouble securing the rights to print Troilus and Cressida which was supposed to follow Romeo and Juliet in the “tragedies” section. The printers delayed as long as they could and then grabbed Timon of Athens to fill the gap. Apparently never polished into a final version, perhaps long forgotten, probably never performed, possibly never intended to be in the First Folio, this odd play [was] written by Shakespeare and his younger contemporary Thomas Middleton”
So what we have here is a botched committee job, only half formed, sent into the world before its time. And by god does it show. The first half of the play is electrifying, scarily relevant to early 21st century London and could have been written yesterday. The second half of the play descends rapidly into weary and tiresome speechifying that reminded me of the worst excesses of Beckett's Waiting for Godot – not that I have ever seen Waiting for Godot but this is what I imagine the worst excesses of it would be like. You know, one mad, shambling old tramp maundering on to himself, finding a horde of buried treasure and then killing himself. Rather than, as I found myself fervently hoping, taking back his place in society, shouting “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you” and doing so in a variety of interesting and humiliating ways. Damn. Timon doesn’t even have the good grace to stick around to the end of the play, merely shambling off stage and topping himself. What a cop out. I felt like going to the box office and demanding half my money back.

The first half moves along at such a pace that it is hard to keep up with the clever, yet simple set changes. An enormous picture (El Greco, if anyone should care to remark that the play is set in Athens) is covered with lavish drop curtain which then rises to reveal that the picture has disappeared and that the frame is now the proscenium of a small stage, which then disappears and the picture frame becomes a window frame, through which can be glimpsed the shining towers of Canary Wharf or the Houses of Parliament (confusingly pinning the play’s location to London instead). A dining table set for 14 glides on and is serviced by an elegantly choreographed team of waters. A couple of elegant leather sofas cleverly mark out a location as the reception area of a posh-git hedge fund. Its all very spare, yet very elegant in a reductive 20teens way. Costumes are the usual blend of sharp city suits and elegant designer dresses (a style which would normally bring on a fit of the heebie jeebies for me but which is here entirely and frighteningly appropriate, for possibly the first time in my theatregoing experience).

And the cast, with one or two notable exceptions, is really good. Yet there remains the problem of the second half, which is a problem that cannot be overcome. It really is a play of two halves; one is fast-paced and exciting in a way that I have rarely experienced before (and extremely rarely in Shakespeare) and the other is a rambling disappointment. After a good half an hour of maundering, the ending feels rushed, tacked on and incomplete. If I had had to leave at the interval, I would have come away feeling cheated of the rest of the evening. As it is, I saw the second half and felt cheated of what could have been Shakespeare’s most exciting play had he ever got round to finishing it.

Highlighs from the Chicago 2009 Festival of Shakespeare production:

03 July 2012

A Doll's House - Young Vic, Thursday 29th June 2012


Nora Helmer is, for once, enjoying life. Mrs. Linde, an old friend stops by hoping to find a job. Nora's husband Torvald recently earned a promotion, so Nora recommends Mrs. Linde’s services to her husband, Torvald. Nora, however, is carrying a dark secret. When Torvald was very ill, she forged her dead father's signature in order to illegally obtain a loan to support the family, and has secretly been paying back the loan in small installments saved from her housekeeping money.
Nils Krogstad, an employee at Torvald’s bank, collects the debt payments and knows Nora’s secret, as he has a copy of the loan agreement. Trying to consolidate his position at the bank, which he has obtained with difficulty after being arrested himself for forgery in order to gain money, he attempts blackmail. Nora manages to conceal her guilt from her husband and from Dr. Rank, a kind yet sickly friend of the Helmers.
Suspicious that Krogstad has criminial tendencies, Torvald attempts to remove him from his post and replace him with Mrs. Linde; Nora is forced to try to dissuade him. She attempts to gain Dr. Rank’s confidence and help, but is repulsed when she finds that Rank has always loved her.
Mrs. Linde tells Nora that she had a romantic attachment to Krogstad in the past, and that she can perhaps persuade him to relent. However, Krogstad does not sway in his position. It seems that Torvald is bound to discover the truth and Nora contemplates suicide. She believes that if she does not commit suicide, Torvald will bravely assume responsibility for her crimes, going to jail on her behalf.
Krogstad and Mrs. Linde are reconciled, and the loan agreement is destroyed. However, Krogstad’s letter of denciation is still in the glass-fronted mailbox, where Nora can see it but not retrieve it.
After returning from a party , Nora and Torvald unwind at home. Torvald discusses how he enjoys watching her at parties, pretending that he is encountering her for the first time. Dr. Rank interrupts them, hinting that he will be shutting himself up in his room until his sickness finally wins.
Torvald discovers Krogstad's incriminating note. He declares that Nora is immoral, unfit as a wife and mother. The irony is that moments before, Torvald has been discussing how he wished that Nora faced some sort of peril, so that he could prove his love for her. Yet, once that peril is actually presented, he has no intention of saving her, only condemning her actions.
Krogstad drops another note saying that he has rediscovered love, and that he no longer wants to blackmail the Helmer family. Torvald rejoices, declaring that they are saved. He then, in a moment of sheer hypocrisy, states that he forgives Nora, and that he still loves her as his little "caged song bird."
In a flash, Nora realizes that Torvald is not the loving, selfless husband she had once envisioned. With that epiphany, she also comes to understand that their marriage has been a lie, and that she herself has been an active part in the deception. Torvald desperately begs her to stay.

Torvald Helmer, a banker – Dominic Rowan
Nora, his wife – Hattie Morahan
Helene, their maid – Yolanda Kettle
Anna, their children’s nurse – Lynne Verrall
Dr Rank, a family friend – Steve Toussaint
Nils Krogstad, a junior colleague of Helmer – Nick Fletcher
Kristine Lind, an old friend of Nora – Susannah Wise

Creative Team
Original text by Henrik Ibsen
Adapted by Simon Stephens
Director – Carrie Cracknell
Design – Ian MacNeil
Costumes – Gabrielle Dalton
Set by Miraculous Engineering

This play is set in Norway. This may well explain why the Young Vic had the air conditioning turned up to such an extent that people were sitting in the auditorium shivering with the cold. Take a coat. Or a blanket. Or both. Try not to laugh ironically when one of the characters complains “how hot it is tonight”.

This play also has a baby in it. A real live baby. Get ready for the baby’s appearance as you will be able to coo appreciatively with the vast majority of the rest of the audience. Comments elsewhere on this blog about live animals in productions are now superseded in favour of the appearance of a human baby on the set if you want your audience to go home talking about the show.
“What was the play like?”

“It was OK. But there was a BABY in it! A REAL baby! It was soooooooo cute! It was being carried by someone! In a blanket! It was soooooooo cute! It had a nose! And eyes! And little hands! And some hair!”

Really? Wow!”
Try not to mix this play up beforehand with other Scandinavian plays by the same author. Ones about syphilis. You will be disappointed when it is not mentioned. Acknowledge the fact that he was well ahead of his time in a) writing great parts for women and b) tackling important social issues from a female point of view. Afterwards, try not to snigger as Him Indoors says that “The play sees life through a different prism”. Try not to get pissed off when Him Indoors says “Have you never seen another Ibsen play? Well, its not surprising; after all, you don’t have any theatrical pedigree do you?” Remind him that you did, in fact, once see Juliet Stephenson playing Hedda Gabbler at the National.

Admire the set. It is very, very lovely and very clever. It is another revolving house, and allows parents to play games of hide and seek with their children and suchlike, while opening up the action from what could be a very static production if done on a set representing only one room, as the original stage directions dictate. It also allows you little glimpses of what is going on elsewhere in the house which add to your appreciation of the plot, and also becomes a character in the story in its own right. It is elegant, yet claustrophobic (there is a marvellous scene played out in the cramped confines of the hallway between Nora and Krogstad), and the inhabitants are permanently on view, both to ourselves and to the other inhabitants. There is little privacy. It is, in fact, A Doll’s House. Try desperately not to get irked by the fact that, although it is 1878, there are incandescent gas filaments along the hall but both an electric light switch on the wall of the main living room and a modern table lamp on the bedside cabinet, the flex of which can be seen clearly coiling under the bed. Try to screen out the hideous modern plastic Christmas tree, lest you be thought a nit-picker. Try to blank out the articles of furniture which are obviously modern and instead convince yourself that they are from the 1877 IKEA catalogue and that the Norwegians were obviously 120 years or so ahead of everyone else in terms of furniture design, because the set is still very pretty and very clever regardless of these points. It allows for some very clever and “filmic” direction because, as it revolves, you will be able to see someone’s back as they walk from one room and then their face as they stick their head round the door to speak to the occupant of another room. Try not to hope desperately that, as the set revolves, two characters who are entering the house will miss the front door as it passes and have to wait for it to come round again, because that would be childish. Admire and applaud the director for their set design and for cleverly incorporating 360 degree directing into the play, bringing a sense of film to the theatre stage.

Amuse yourself for a couple of seconds thinking how much piss the West End Whingers are going to take of the “on stage meal” (they are obsessed by these, and also by garden benches, for some obviously Freudian reason) when said on stage meal consists of a single slice of smoked salmon wiggled onto a plate. No lemon juice? No black pepper? No brown buttered bread? Tight bitch.

Try frantically, but vainly, to blank out the fact that a major plot device is a lockable mailbox with a clear glass front, through which an important letter can be seen but frustratingly (and vitally important to the plot) not retrieved, because you will not locate the mailbox anywhere on the set, but only see a modern front door with a letterbox from which the covering metal flap has been removed and replaced with a strip of Perspex each side. This is apparently now the lockable mailbox, and although it is only 9” or so wide and the thickness of the door in which it is set, it is apparently capable of holding about three days’ worth of post within it. Do not mention this point to Him Indoors afterwards as you will be told you are a nit-picker.

Do wonder why the male characters are wearing business suits of a 21st century style and cut, and whether women’s fashions of the year 1878 really did consist of tightly fitting bodices with no sleeves. Wonder why a period-correct costume is being worn by the female lead on the cover of the programme when she is not wearing one on stage. Do, however, admire the costumes which are of the correct style and cut for the period.

Do applaud the stunning performance by Hattie Morahan as Nora, as it will leave you wondering how anyone would be able to give such an intense performance of roller-coaster emotions 8 times a week for the next month and not need psychotherapy (or at least a damned good holiday) afterwards. Do wonder if Nick Fletcher is playing his part that way because he thinks that villains should be cold, inaudible and emotionally sterile or whether it is merely because he is the worst actor you have ever seen on stage and has all the acting talent of a potted chrysanthemum. Do wonder why the character of Dr. Rank, who is apparently old and frail and dying of some terminal illness, is played by a youngish man seemingly in complete and vital full health according to the way in which he bounds around the stage. Do bemoan the fact that Ms. Morahan is not given a solo bow at the end, but has to take her bow with the entire cast, even though some characters have five lines or less in the entire evening. Thank your lucky stars that the baby does not come on to take a bow.

Enjoy your evening. But get your tickets quick because this looks like a hit.  Wait a couple of days for the opening night reviews.