National theatre

God save us from the King

Gandalf, also known as Ian McKellen, has awarded himself another lap of honour by bringing King Lear back to London. Jonathan Munby directs. His eccentric decision to hire actors who don’t resemble their characters will baffle anyone who hasn’t studied the play in advance. The casting may be ‘colour-blind’, but the audience isn’t. Anita-Joy Uwajeh (Cordelia) evidently has no white ancestry and therefore cannot be Lear’s natural daughter. A newcomer might deduce that the king’s cruelty towards her stems from her second-class status as an adoptive child. And anyone trying to unravel that mystery will be equally baffled by Sinead Cusack’s Kent. Of the four women on stage in the

Bank account

Stefano Massini’s play opens with a man in a frock-coat reaching New York after six weeks at sea. The year is 1844 and young Henry Lehman has just emigrated from Bavaria to make his fortune. He started modestly with a general store in Montgomery, Alabama, serving local farmers. When wildfires destroyed the cotton crop on which the community relied, Lehman’s business ought to have failed but he saw his opportunity. Whatever possessions the farmers had lost they would have to purchase again. From him. He was joined by his brothers, Manny and Mayer, and they invented the profession of brokerage, ‘middle-men’ they called themselves, buying raw cotton from farmers and

Lost in transplantation

Polly Stenham starts her overhaul of Strindberg’s Miss Julie with the title. She gives the ‘Miss’ a miss and calls it Julie. The wonder of Strindberg is that his characters speak to us with such force, knowingness and candour that they seem to belong to our own era. Modernising the setting destroys the wonder. This is a textbook lesson in how to kill by transplantation. We’re in a London mansion owned by an absent billionaire whose chauffeur, Jean, is casually seduced by a trustafarian coke fiend, Julie, on the night of her 33rd birthday. Julie’s motives are lust, boredom, a need for attention and a perfunctory desire to sabotage Jean’s

The Friel-bad factor

The National has made its largest stage available to one of the nation’s smallest talents. If Brian Friel had been born in Dorset rather than in Co. Tyrone he’d have enjoyed an unremarkable career writing episodes of The Archers with the odd stint on Emmer-dale. He’s a champion witterer whose plays lack suspense, pace, depth or spectacle. His characters are constantly and infuriatingly nice to each other. Occasionally they rise to mild irascibility, or a spot of vituperative teasing, but that’s about it. When he needs a crisis he turns to external sources, to destiny or to happenstance, and his plays often end with dreadful sufferings being visited on russet-faced,

Artistic Munchausen’s

Ella Hickson’s last play at the Almeida was a sketch show about oil. Her new effort uses the same episodic format ornamented with ‘meta-textual experimentation’ (i.e. plotless confusion). The central character is a brilliant young female writer who finds that all male theatre directors are boorish cynical greedy philistine racist sex pests. In Sketch One she meets a smarmy monster twice her age who tries to seduce her with the offer of a script commission. Sketch Two is a commentary on Sketch One, which turns out to have been a play within a play. Sketch Three shows the writer cohabiting with a loser who ‘sells football boots’. The loser has

Theatrical dining

There is a restaurant on the stage at the National Theatre in London. It is called Foodwork, and it is part of the set of Network, an adaptation of Paddy Chayefsky’s 1976 masterpiece about a news anchorman called Howard Beale who goes mad and is given a new show — The Howard Beale Show — to preach the gospel of despair. If you think this sounds dull, imagine Huw Edwards threatening suicide after an item about ducks. Beale is played by Bryan Cranston — Peter Finch in the film — and the restaurant will close when the run ends. Ephemera, then; chase the art, chase the cake. I do not

Net effect | 23 November 2017

The inexplicable popularity of Ivo Van Hove continues. The director’s latest visit to the fairies involves an updated version of Network, a creaky and over-rated news satire from 1976. Van Hove appears to be unconstrained by thrift or self-discipline and he fills the Lyttelton stage with expensive clobber. It’s like a hangar full of half-tested prototypes. Centre, a TV studio featuring three cameras and an anchor man’s desk the size of a lifeboat. Behind it, a controller’s gallery with lots of TV monitors shielded by wobbly glass. Stage-rear, a vast flat-screen telly that relays the action as it happens but with an irritating quarter-second delay. To the right, a kitchen

Bring up the bodies | 9 November 2017

The moment you invite friends to some new ‘cutting-edge’ disability theatre or film, most swallow paroxysms of social anxiety. What if it’s dull? Am I allowed to yawn? What if I hate it? How interminably politically correct will it be? Do I want to think about ‘disability’ on a fun night out? While most objections can be overcome by a convincing performance, it is interesting to ask whether disability makes a difference to art, or does art transcend disability? If the current crop of plays and films, not to mention disability production companies, is anything to go by, the answer is yes to both, and we should want more of

Family planning

Beginning starts at the end. A Crouch End party has just finished and the sitting room is a waste tip of punctured beer cans, tortured napkins and crushed nibbles. Wine bottles lie scattered across the carpet like fallen ninepins. Hostess Laura invites her last guest, Danny, for a final glass of Chardonnay. Twitchy conversation ensues. Then she tells him point-blank that she’s fallen in love with him, even though they’ve only just met. He rejects her weird come-ons (‘Kiss me, you lemon’) with evasive hyperactivity. He dashes about the room filling a bin-liner with defunct wine bottles and pulverised cheesy Wotsits. She forces him to sit next to her on

The bad sex award

Simon Stephens gives his plays misleading titles. Nuclear War, Pornography and Punk Rock contained little trace of their advertised ingredients. Heisenberg: The Uncertainty Principle includes no information about the German physicist or his theories. This is a sentimental romcom starring Anne-Marie Duff as a giggling airhead who stalks a grunting Cockney shopkeeper played by Kenneth Cranham. He’s 75 years old and though she’s in her mid-forties she has the skittish desperation of a gold-digging pensioner trying to act the nubile bimbo. Both characters are bored loners adrift in London. And because they’re solidly working class (she’s a receptionist, he’s a butcher), they excite our curiosity as lesser beings far removed

Sir Peter Hall (1930–2017) on Harold Pinter, actors and making love

Sir Peter Hall has died at the age of 86. He spoke to The Spectator in 2009: Even at 78 and from a distance, Sir Peter Hall has the look of an alpha male. There he is about 100 or so feet away, advancing towards me across the polished boards of his rehearsal room; head forward, bear-like, with the lonely charisma of a boxing champ. As he passes, the younger members of the Peter Hall Company fall back smiling, deferring. He’s king here, a Lear (act one). He pauses to pat a gamine young beauty on the arm, stroke his beard, pull his plump lips into a roguish grin — then

Made in Port Talbot

Port Talbot, on the coast of South Wales, is literally overlooked. Most experience the town while flying over it on the M4, held aloft by concrete stilts planted in terraced streets. From that four-lane gantry, the only landmarks are the dockyard cranes and belching steelworks. Over Easter in 2011, National Theatre Wales staged a piece of street theatre that was crafted as a civic resurrection. The Passion of Port Talbot featured Michael Sheen as a Messiah-like teacher who harkens to oral memories. ‘I remember!’ he hollered on the third day, while attached to a crucifix on a traffic island by Aberavon beach, before reeling off a litany of local names:

Animal or vegetable?

Against by Christopher Shinn sets out to unlock the secrets of America’s spiritual malaise. Two main settings represent the wealthy and the dispossessed. At a university campus, an inquisitive Jesus-freak named Luke interrogates people about their experiences of violence. At an online retailer, oppressed wage slaves toil for hours and mate fleetingly during their tea breaks. Shinn’s characters also fall into two categories. The rich are eloquent, idealistic and disingenuous. The poor are earthy, impulsive and honest. The play is built around a series of formalised conversations, recorded interviews, writing tutorials, a Q&A session at a town hall, a stilted reunion between two old school-friends, and so on. In ritualised

Starting block

Conor McPherson’s new play is set in dust-bowl Minnesota in 1934. We’re in a fly-blown boarding house owned by skint, kindly Nick who has designs on a sexy widow with a big inheritance coming. Good opening. Roll the story. But there’s more. Nick’s useless son is a depressed novelist entangled with a beautiful governess betrothed to a rich man she doesn’t love. An even better opening. Roll the story. But wait. Nick has a black maid called Marianne whom he rescued as a baby and raised as one of the family. An interesting complication. Roll the story. No wait. Marianne claims to be pregnant but declines to reveal whether the

The good Palestinian

Shubbak, meaning ‘window’ in Arabic, is a biennial festival taking place in various venues across London. The brochure reads like an A to Z of human misery. All the tired phrases from the Middle East’s history lurch up and poke the onlooker in the eye: ‘revolution’, ‘dystopia’, ‘cries of pain’, ‘ruins’, ‘waking nightmare’. The agony is leavened with slivers of earnest pretention. Corbeaux is a ballet designed for Marrakesh railway station by dancers who ‘take possession of public spaces’. Ten women with hankies over their hairdos move in ‘geometric alchemical arrangements’ making ‘piercing sounds and extraordinary cries’. I decided to give that a miss and plumped instead for Taha at

Party piece

The National Theatre could hardly resist Barber Shop Chronicles. The play shines a light on a disregarded ethnic community, black urban males, who like to hang around in barber salons seeking friendship, laughs and tittle-tattle. Setting the play in a single venue would just be a sitcom, like Desmond’s, so the show establishes a series of shops stretching from London to the capitals of various sub-Saharan nations. This makes it a global epic. In theory, at least. In fact, it’s still a sitcom with some melodramatic bits on the end. The disjoined structure is tiresome at first as the action keeps legging it from Britain to Nigeria and Ghana and

Sado-erotic review

The Olivier describes Salomé by Yaël Farber as a ‘new’ play. Not quite. It premièred in Washington a couple of years ago. And I bet Farber was thrilled at the chance to direct this revival at the National’s biggest and best equipped stage. She approaches the Olivier’s effects department like a pyromaniac in a firework factory. She wants everything to go off at once. And it does. Goatherds yodel. Bells bong. Flutes warble. Birds parp. A revolving conveyor belt twirls spare actors around the stage in dizzy circles. Chord surges swell and fade on the soundtrack. Kneeling shepherdesses sift mounds of soap powder into mahogany salad bowls. Overhead, the prog-rock

Law in action

It’s like Raging Bull. The great Scorsese movie asks if a professional boxer can exclude violence from his family life. Nina Raine’s new play Consent puts the same question to criminal barristers. We meet four lawyers engaged in cases of varying unpleasantness who like to share a drink after a long day in court. They gossip about the more horrific behaviour of their clients with frivolous and mocking detachment. But when their personal relationships start to falter under the strains of infidelity, they’re unable to relinquish their professional expertise, and their homes become legalistic battlefields. This sounds like a small discovery but Raine turns it into a grand canvas. At

Royal prerogative

No one should complain that My Country; a work in progress is a grim night out. It’s rare for a good play to be written by royal command. The co-authors are the Queen’s personal minstrel, Carol Ann Duffy, and the director of her Royal National Theatre, Rufus Norris. These inspiring artistes have sent their vassals beyond the security of London to annotate ‘the words of people across the UK’ in the hope of understanding a humanitarian disaster: Brexit. The show makes its prejudices clear by dedicating the script to a Remain voter, Jo Cox, who was murdered by a Leave supporter. And it promotes the view, common among Remainers, that

Changing of the Bard

Hamlet was probably written sometime between 1599 and 1602. The Almeida’s new version opens with a couple of security guards watching surveillance footage taken in a corridor. Well, of course it does. Nothing says ‘late medieval Denmark’ like closed-circuit television. Hamlet (Andrew Scott) appears. His black shirt and matching trousers suggest a snooker pro at the Crucible or a steward on a Virgin train. Scott is known as a ‘character actor’ (code for ‘baddie’) rather than a leading man. His petulant, squelched-up face and his Ronnie Corbett physique make him perfect casting for Third Crackhead in a squat melodrama but he hasn’t a chance of capturing Hamlet’s lordly despair, his