Simon russell beale

A show for politicians: John Gabriel Borkman, at the Bridge Theatre, reviewed

Clunk, clunk, clunk. John Gabriel Borkman opens with the obsessive footfalls of a disgraced banker as he prowls the attic of a shabby townhouse. On a beaten-up sofa lies Gunhild, his estranged wife, who guzzles Coke and watches TV game shows. The whole place stinks of stagnation and failure. The reclusive Borkman was once the country’s best-known banker until envious colleagues accused him of embezzlement and got him sent to jail for five years. After his release, he began a life of self-destructive solitude. The family are more riven with feuds than the royals. Gunhild loathes her twin sister, Ella, while Borkman blames both women for his downfall. His one

This play is a wonder: Bach & Sons at the Bridge Theatre reviewed

Bach & Sons opens with the great composer tinkling away on a harpsichord while a toddler screeches his head off in the nursery. The script becomes a broader portrait of a richly creative and competitive family where everyone is bright, loud, witty, inventive, good-natured and affectionate. Bach teaches the elements of composition to his gifted sons. ‘Rules provoke expression. They challenge your ingenuity.’ And the audience is unobtrusively schooled in the elements of counterpoint by four actors singing ‘Frère Jacques’. Bach considers Carl’s work good but workmanlike. Wilhelm is better, a wayward, inspired and anarchic talent. When Carl hears this verdict he falls into a jealous rage but it doesn’t

Thinking outside the box | 10 January 2019

Sweat, set in the Pennsylvanian rust belt, looks at a blue-collar community threatened by a factory closure. The script uses the flashback device. Scene One informs us that two lads were found guilty of doing a Bad Thing eight years ago. What Bad Thing? The author won’t tell us because the play needs suspense but the revelation is delayed so long that our patience is tested to the limit. The flaccid writing doesn’t help. Scene Two lasts 30 minutes and introduces us to the main characters, who visit the same bar every evening to get hammered and scream at each other. The only dramatic point in this lengthy scene is

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

Not with a bang but with a whimper

Bang! A brand new theatre has opened on the South Bank managed by the two Nicks, Hytner and Starr, who ran the National for more than a decade. Located near a river crossing, their venture bears the unexciting name ‘Bridge’. If these two adopted a child, they’d call it ‘Orphanage’. Visitors approach along the Thames embankment and arrive at a soaring cliff of glass whose revolving doors usher them into a large anonymous foyer. It feels like a student union bar or a bit of an airport. Dangling from the ceiling are dozens of light bulbs, their radiance muted with tea-stained shades that cast an absolving glow over facelifts, hairpieces

Comedy of terrors

Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin is nearly two hours of men in bad suits bickering, but if you have to sit through nearly two hours of men in bad suits bickering you would want it to be written (and directed) by Iannucci. So there’s that, but it’s still not up there with his previous film, In the Loop. It’s funny but not as funny, misfires in places, and by the end you are rather thinking: come on, one of you seize power, so we can all just get out of here. On this outing, Iannucci has substituted Whitehall and White House backbiting (The Thick of It, Veep) for Russia

Passion indeed

‘The dripping blood our only drink/ The bloody flesh our only food…/ Again, in spite of that, we call this Friday good.’ In spite of that. Anglo-Catholic convert T.S. Eliot knew a thing or two about Easter. The Passion story might end with resurrection and redemption, but it’s a celebration that we achieve in spite of agony, torture and abandonment, a tale whose root lies in the Latin ‘passio’, meaning suffering. Musical Passion settings are no different — or shouldn’t be. A performance of Bach’s St John or St Matthew Passion should disquiet, even distress, as much as it consoles. But concert performances have become a comfortable festive tradition to

Tales of the unexpected | 12 April 2017

It’s the oddest place to find a profound meditation on the death of Christ, but there it is on Radio 2 every year on the night of Good Friday, on the ‘light music’ station, and not on Radio 3 or Radio 4, where you might expect to find it. This year At the Foot of the Cross was sandwiched between Desmond Carrington — All Time Great and Sara Cox’s disco beats, the uncompromising reflections on the nature of belief adding a certain bite to the evening. Diane Louise Jordan and her host of guests at the Watford Colosseum (including the Bach Choir and the tenor Wynne Evans) created a sequence

The rite stuff

Religion remains a surprisingly popular subject for plays. It’s partly because there’s already a core of theatricality there, in the rituals, the dressing-up and the little shibboleths of piety. In one way or another, religion involves performing. And religion plays the role of Hogwarts in Harry Potter — an enclosed world, a game with rules. We know how a priest is meant to behave, so we can more quickly engage with a story about his or her struggles. Also, of course, big issues of moral principle and human frailty are close to the surface. But does theatre treat this subject with respect? Or does it tend to sneer at religion,

Foote fault

Samuel Foote (1720–77) was a star of the 18th-century stage who avoided the censors by extemporising his performances. Today we’d call him a stand-up comedian specialising in improv. He served tea to play-goers and claimed that the show was a free accompaniment to the beverages. Dogged by homosexual scandals, he was hounded out of England at least once despite the patronage of George III. A riding accident left him with a compound leg fracture (bone piercing flesh), which required amputation to prevent gangrene. The limb was hacked off in 20 minutes. Foote hobbled back to fame and fortune playing Sir Luke Limp in The Lame Lover. At his burial the

Tales of the unexpected | 24 September 2015

Two significant anniversaries, each very different but both reflecting the BBC’s mission and the reasons for its continued success. From Our Own Correspondent has been on air for 60 years, reporting on events across the world not just as news but to fill in the back story to the headlines. Instead of bombs and bullets, we might find ourselves listening to a Russian-born piano teacher in Gaza who at last finds a grand piano and begins entertaining her neighbours with Chopin. A single episode might take us from shallots in Mali to the strange ways in which Norwegians celebrate midsummer via China’s new passion for shopping, playing roulette in Russia,

Close encounters | 4 June 2015

In October 2011 anti-capitalist vagrants built an open-air squat outside St Paul’s within shrieking distance of London’s financial heart. The City thrummed all night with the dob-dob-dob of bongo recitals while the rebels held angry debates beneath their plastic canopies and declared the Square Mile knee-deep in ordure. To press the point they used nearby alleys for their ablutions. This half-forgotten protest has become a play in which the central figure, the dean, has to choose between evicting and accommodating his crusty tenants. Conscience informs him that the noisy campers are Christ’s spiritual heirs. But temporal responsibility obliges him to heed his Square Mile parishioners and sweep the ragamuffins from

All the men and women merely players

How many books are there about Shakespeare? A study published in the 1970s claimed a figure of 11,000, and today a search of the British Library catalogue yields 12,554 titles that contain the playwright’s name. But good short introductions to Shakespeare’s life and work are not exactly plentiful. Students and teachers are therefore likely to welcome this up-to-date overview from Paul Edmondson, a Church of England priest who works for the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Although Edmondson covers the biographical ground succinctly, as well as discussing the plays and poetry in a style that’s discreetly authoritative, his approach is unconventional. Thus he dwells longer on the early, flawed The Two Gentlemen

Radio 4’s War and Peace: almost as good as the book

To have listened to Radio 4’s marathon ten-hour adaptation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace as it was being broadcast on New Year’s Day must have been both wonderful and a bit weird. Like soaking in an ever-replenishing warm bath, indulgent, luxuriant, all-absorbing. Yet at the same time I imagine it was quite hard by the end to step back into your own world after being so taken over by the fictional cares of the Rostov, Bolkonsky and Bezukhov families. Needless to say, I caught barely one episode on that day (how many, I wonder, did listen all the way through?). Fortunately, there’s a chance to catch up in the old-fashioned

Sam Mendes’s King Lear is a must-see for masochists

Directors appear to have two design options when approaching a Shakespeare tragedy. Woodstock or jackboot. Woodstock means papal robes, shoulder-length hair and silver Excaliburs gleaming from jewelled belts. Jackboot means pistols, berets, holsters and submachine-guns. Sam Mendes sticks the jackboot into King Lear in an attempt to find ‘a modern understanding of the story’, as he puts it. What this ‘modern understanding’ reveals is that Shakespeare’s opening scene allows the dramatic focus to move between the personal and the political with invisible fluency. Mendes destroys this asset by laying on a televised show trial. Lear’s daughters, surrounded by scowling commandos, are arraigned at miked-up tables as if accused of treason.

Ed Balls thrives in bourgeois version of ‘I’m a Celebrity’

Seeing the great and the good, from Edward Fox to Edward Balls, play Schumann on the piano in front of a packed house at King’s Place was rather like watching a live pitch for a bourgeois version of I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here. Instead of reality stars (Joey Essex), or people from your distant youth (David Emanuel) doing utterly terrifying things such as eating bugs, this had thespians (Simon Russell Beale) and people from your distant youth (Fox) playing a Steinway grand in public. Which option was the more ghastly? I don’t know, but both were fascinating, since with both, you were utterly transfixed, simply thinking ‘Thank

What Jackie did after JFK was assassinated

A surfeit of anniversaries this week reminded us that on the day of President Kennedy’s assassination, C.S. Lewis (born 1898) and Aldous Huxley (born 1894) also died. Three such different figures are hard to imagine — Kennedy, the wily politician, Lewis, the tortured academic, Huxley the cool intellectual. Lewis is the one whose image and personality don’t fit; a man who appears cast from a different age from Kennedy and also from Huxley, who you can well imagine wielding an iPod and Twitter account. Yet it’s the pipe-smoking, tweed-suited Lewis who has been given the celebrity treatment this week, while the coolly cynical Huxley has been silenced, with not a

Come to the Spectator office, Gareth Malone, and hear our ‘Carmina Burana’

They’re now televising proceedings from the Court of Appeal. Great. As if I didn’t have enough to do already, keeping tabs on Strictly Come Dancing and EastEnders, I now have to monitor what’s happening within the hallowed judicial temples of the land. The broadcasting of court cases has been much debated, with people fussing about whether it will influence the meting out of Justice, and the implications for Law and Order once these are exercised in front of the cameras, and other high-minded issues. My own worry is about my job scope. Everything is televised these days, which means everything can be reviewed. There are the main channels such as