National theatre

All that jazz | 2 March 2017

It’s every impresario’s dream. Buy a little off-West End venue to try out stuff for fun. Andrew Lloyd Webber has snaffled up the St James Theatre (rebranded The Other Palace), which he intends to run as a warm-up track for new musicals. First off the blocks The Wild Party, a New York import set in the 1920s. We meet a couple of vaudeville veterans, Queenie and Burrs, whose romance has hit the rocks. To rekindle the flame they invite everyone they know around for a party. Hang on. A party? Booze, drugs, flirtation, seduction: the recipe for destroying a romance, not salvaging it. But never mind. The guests have started

The obsession with diversity in theatre risks spoiling Shakespeare

Twelfth Night launched at the National Theatre this week, with Malvolio turned into Malvolia. ‘We’ve definitely upped the gender-bendedness of the play,’ says Phoebe Fox, who is acting Olivia. Otiose, one might think, since the original is gender-bent to perfection. But Shakespeare did not have to wrestle with the strict controls now demanded in the subsidised theatre. In the same feature in which Phoebe Fox speaks, Ben Power, the deputy director of the National, tells the Sunday Times, ‘There are agendas we are aware of now, and we have targets in terms of gender and ethnicity, because we want to be as diverse as possible, speaking to our audiences, reflecting

The Spectator’s Notes | 16 February 2017

How does Vladimir Putin think about the world? It becomes dangerously important to know. I still have not seen a revealing speech by or discussion with him. I have found out a bit more, however, about the two-hour private interview conducted with him by several young Etonians last summer. One reason they got into the room, it seems, is that Mr Putin wanted to know about Eton and why it produced 19 prime ministers. The boys explained that one of the school’s great advantages was its societies — Political, Literary, Cheese etc. — largely organised by them, not by masters. They said these brought them into contact with a wide range

Hedda Garbler

Hedda Gabler is one of the most influential plays ever written. It not merely illuminated an injustice, the enslavement of women within marriage, it fomented the revolutionary achievements of feminism. It deserves to be done as Ibsen intended. This updated version from Ivo van Hove locates Hedda in one of those posh urban dream homes that resemble an art gallery. Stage left, buckets filled with flowers. Centre, an abandoned plinky-plonk piano. At the rear, a lamp the size of a traffic bollard. Scruffy off-white masterpieces deck the walls. Everything looks chic and scaled-up. Tesman is a penniless American academic married to tetchy Hedda who pads about barefoot, in her nightie,

Deplorable entertainment

Buried Child is a typical Sam Shepard play. The main character, Dodge, is a brain-damaged alcoholic cripple stuck in a Midwest shack with a half-witted xenophobic wife shrieking at him from the coal cellar. The wife makes an early speech about her son who ‘married a Catholic whore’ and got stabbed to death by her on his honeymoon. This sets the tone for the play. Every character is a shrill, chippy barbarian and every speech is an exercise in tragicomic one-upmanship. The audience for Shepard’s work consists of social voyeurs who want to gawp at the underclass from a safe distance. The play purports to be a mystery but the

Sweet and sour | 27 October 2016

Great subject, terminal illness. Popular dramas like Love Story, Terms of Endearment and My Night With Reg handle the issue with tact and artistry by presenting us with a single victim and a narrative focus that reveals as much about the survivors as about the patient. Crucially, the disease is omitted from the title for fear of discouraging the punters from mentioning the work in conversation. A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer violates all these strictures. Half a dozen characters seated in a hospital ward shout at us about their failing health. These disjointed gobbets of testimony are interspersed with repetitive zombie dances and noisy songs with lyrics

First aid

In the 1980s, supermarkets stocked a fruit juice named ‘Um Bongo’ with the strapline ‘They drink it in the Congo!’. This is the starting point for Adam Brace’s examination of Britain’s relationship with the Congolese (whose word ‘mbongo’ means money). A group of do-gooding Londoners host a festival to celebrate the Congo’s culture and history but they rapidly become mired in controversies about age-old injustices and white-to-black ratios on steering committees. The Congolese party includes a few rogue terrorists whose death threats the British publicists find rather glamorous and titillating. The characters rarely reach beyond the obvious. The Londoners are bloodless yuppie go-getters. The Congolese are suspicious, chippy and mistrustful.

Losing the plot | 4 August 2016

Consider it commercially. So powerful is the pull of the Potter franchise that the characters could simply re-enact the plot of ‘Incy-Wincy Spider’ and the fans would swoon with joy. The stage show has been written by a two-man committee, Jack Thorne and John Tiffany, with the help of billionaire equality campaigner J.K. Rowling. Harry is now 37 and working as a Whitehall clodhopper at the Ministry of Magic. He’s troubled by his stompy bed-wetter of a son, Albus, whose tantrums cause the middle-aged miracle-worker to suffer agonies of weepy self-doubt. Together they visit Hogwarts and the multifarious plotlines start to punch each other in the face. Three kids —

Profit and loss | 9 June 2016

Bertolt Brecht took The Threepenny Opera  from an 18th-century script by John Gay and relocated it to Victorian London. This National Theatre version wants to straddle the contemporary and the antique. Mack the Knife, an Afghan war veteran who murders strangers, contracts a bigamous marriage with Polly Peachum, the daughter of a cross-dressing mastermind who runs begging gangs across east London. This laborious set-up takes an hour to establish and the drama gets started only when Polly’s mum vows to rub out Mack at a knocking-shop. A wise dramatist would have placed this threat in the opening scene. But Brecht isn’t a wise dramatist; he’s a preachy one and his

All the world’s a stage | 21 April 2016

In this much-heralded Shakespeare anniversary year, one might expect a certain respect for the works to prevail. In Holland it’s different. Under the tutelage of a Belgian, Ivo van Hove, a huge slice of Shakespeare’s history theatre has been filleted for the stage into something that might sit nicely on HBO alongside Game of Thrones. It opens at the Barbican on 22 April, a day before the official Shakespeare-death day four centuries ago. And it’s all in contemporary Dutch verse — four hours of it… Kings of War starts with a photo, on a video-screen, of little Prince George. His infant form is followed in rapid succession by that of

Deluded continent

Les Blancs had a troubled birth. In 1965 several unfinished drafts of the play were entrusted by its dying author, Lorraine Hansberry, to her ex-husband, Robert Nemiroff, who mounted a debut production in New York in 1970. Nemiroff has created a fresh version with the help of a ‘dramaturg’ (or ‘colleague’, in English) named Drew Lichtenberg who believes not only that this ramshackle script is a masterpiece but also that Hansberry belongs in the first rank of dramatists alongside Ibsen, Sophocles and Aeschylus. This does not bode well. But the result is surprisingly good. Or good-ish. The setting is a nameless African colony populated by do-gooding Europeans, angry freedom fighters

Tragedy trumped by porn

Big fuss about Cleansed at the Dorfman. Talk of nauseous punters rushing for the gangways may have perversely delighted the show’s creators but I’m firmly with the exiteers. This is barely a play and more a thin, vicious pantomime with an Isis-video aesthetic. The minuscule plot follows Grace (Michelle Terry) as she visits a prison hospital to receive news of a tortured relative. She’s immediately roped in as a victim and we’re treated to a sequence of gougings, knifings, electrocutions, rectal penetrations and tongue extractions which are bizarrely interspersed with scenes of lustful romance. Alex Eales’s design stands out. The duck-egg blue paint of the smashed-up hospital peels away to

Alice in cyberspace

Damon Albarn and Rufus Norris present a musical version of Alice in Wonderland. A challenging enterprise even if they’d stuck to the original but they’ve fast-forwarded everything to the present day. The titular heroine, a trusting and solemn Victorian schoolgirl, has been recast as Aly, a wheedling teenage grump who loathes her mum, her dad, her comp, her teachers and her playmates. ‘I hate being me,’ she announces. And as we learn more about her we’re increasingly struck by the sagacity of this verdict. To escape her distress she downloads a game from and creates a cyber-self, Alice, who goes on adventures. Hmm. A computer game. Parents have for

Tricycle’s Ben Hur is magnificent in its superficiality – a masterpiece of nothing

It’s the target that makes the satire as well as the satirist. Is the subject powerful, active, relevant and menacing? Patrick Barlow’s new spoof, Ben Hur, must answer ‘No’ on all four counts. The show takes aim at two principal irritants: vain actors and the Hollywood epics of the 1950s, whose titanic scale was offered as bait to audiences besotted with their cosy new TV sets. Old Hollywood is a spent ogre these days and the foibles of the acting trade are hardly a threat to civilised life, so the show can’t embrace our immediate concerns. But the execution is compellingly assured. The cast is led by John Hopkins, an

Why is there no one at the National Theatre preventing these duds getting staged?

Wallace Shawn is a lovely old sausage. A stalwart of American theatre, he’s taken cameo roles in classic movies like Clueless and Manhattan. He’s also a playwright whose new script has received its world première at the National Theatre. Lucky chap. He spent three or four years writing Evening at the Talk House and it reveals a peculiar methodology. A play normally features a central character grappling with a personal dilemma, which leads to suffering, change and self-discovery. Shawn doesn’t bother with any of that, he just lays on a gang of theatre types who spend two hours spouting cascades of circuitous chitchat. The show opens with a speech by

All white on the night

Shakespeare’s ‘Wars of the Roses’ will have no ethnic minority actors in the cast when the shows (two Henry VI plays and Richard III) open at the Rose Theatre, Kingston upon Thames, later this month. A sprinkling of so-called BME (black and minority ethnic) actors in Shakespeare has been the norm for ages now. So the decision by the director to go with an all-white cast has caused much hurt and concern from the actor’s union Equity, the Guardian, and from various groups promoting racial diversity in the arts. From all the fuss, you’d think the plays are being directed by a hooded white supremacist. In fact they are being

Walking with cadence

I often regret that I’m writing in the past tense here, but never more than about milonga. It is such a smash show in every way that by rights it would be having a six-month run where everyone can see it, rather than five measly days at the elite Sadler’s Wells dance theatre where people aren’t put off by a choreographer’s tripartite name that takes several goes to pronounce. Tango has a way of curdling in show presentation — just to say ‘thrusting loins and stiletto toes’ is already a Strictly-type parody. Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui is something of an expert cook, however. Uncategorisable except in that mysteriously wide umbrella called

His dark materials | 4 June 2015

Have you heard the one about girlfriend-killer Oscar Pistorius not having a leg to stand on? Or what about the Germanwings knock-knock joke? If you find gags like these funny, you could come and stand with me on the terraces at Brentford FC. When we played Leeds United earlier in the season, we chanted at them, ‘He’s one of your own, he’s one of your own, Jimmy Savile, he’s one of your own.’ The general public has never wasted much time making up jokes about tragic public events. Making light of high-profile tragedies is a perfectly understandable human reaction, even if it might be frowned upon by some. And what

Pinter without the bus routes

David Mamet is Pinter without the Pinteresque indulgences, the absurdities and obscurities, the pauses, the Number 38 bus routes. American Buffalo, from the 1970s, is one of Mamet’s early triumphs. Don is a junkshop owner who believes a customer cheated him over a rare nickel so he gets his young pal Bob to steal it back. An older friend, Teach, persuades Don to ditch Bob and let him commit the burglary. That’s it. That’s all that happens in this narrow, gripping thriller, which takes the brutal male culture of the Wild West and imports it to the Chicago slums where three lonely outcasts fight desperately for scraps of cash and

Losing the plot | 30 April 2015

Enter Rufus Norris. The new National Theatre boss is perfectly on-message with this debut effort by Caryl Churchill. Her 1976 play about inequality screams, ‘Vote Ed’ at triple-klaxon volume. Not that anyone in the audience was won over. They’d made up their minds long ago. Which is just as well because the play is hopelessly ineffective on every level. Churchill must be the most over-rated writer the English theatre has produced. She has virtually no dramatic skills. She can knock out humourless preachy rhetoric by the yard but as for the rest of it she hasn’t a clue. She can’t write a plot. She can’t create a human individual or