The RSC: 57 years of programme design

The #shakespeareathome lockdown initiative has pushed me to do something constructive with my collection of Royal Shakespeare Company theatre programmes. I have been collecting these for at least 35 years and now have a nearly complete set of post-war programmes from the Stratford theatres (if anyone has a hoard of uber-rare, early programmes from The Other Place, I need to know). 

I went to school in Stratford-upon-Avon, and have a special fondness for the RSC. Their work  influenced me in a big way when I was growing up and inspired me to start writing about theatre. I love their programmes for a number of reasons. They are the only tangible reminder of experiences that live powerfully in the memory, or the imagination in the case of the majority of shows which I did not see. They are pieces of fascinating, often unforgettable, graphic design which say a great deal about their time. And they are full of incidental detail, from the ever-present adverts for Stratford institutions such as 1980s lingerie shop Camille, local jewellers George Pragnell and the ever-aspirational Hilton, to rehearsal photos that reveal Terry Hands directing in a kung fu outfit c.1972. 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I have well over 500 hundred programmes on my shelves, but have chosen my favourites to write about which narrows it down, if only a little. The RSC was formed in 1961, and its first programmes were single folded sheets, first in red and then in a neat, mid-century yellow, grey and black design, such as The Tempest (1962). But the design was the same for each show, until a major relaunch in 1963 changed everything. Programme covers became serious works of art in their own right. However, poster designs have always taken precedence. For most of the RSC’s history, posters have carried different images from programmes, with the latter a little overlooked. 

The RSC’s new, full colour, multi-page programmes were, they claimed, the first in the world. The three 1963 shows – Julius Caesar, The Comedy of Errors and The Tempest – had bespoke, abstract cover designs that communicated the cultural excitement of the early 1960s very clearly indeed. It’s arguable that the RSC never produced anything better. The colours must have taken audiences, who were used to something much more staid, by surprise. They cleverly mirror the moods of the three plays in abstract form, and are striking statements of intent. These designs kicked off a run of exciting, ever-changing graphic art that continues more than 50 years later.

The new company made its reputation with The Wars of the Roses, when Peter Hall, John Barton and Frank Evans staged Shakespeare’s history plays as a cycle for the first time. The three later plays (with the three parts of Henry VI condensed into two evenings) formed the other half of the 1963 season. Their programmes used the same colours as the first three productions, but in a much more sinister way. No heritage theatre here, just blood, mud, struggle and death. The helpful credits identify the cadaverous statue as one John Golafre, buried in Fyfield, Berkshire.

The full Wars of the Roses sequence of six history plays came the following year and used a set of new designs – different images for each programme, apart from Richard III which linked back to the year before. Rather less menacing than their predecessors, this run has an acid-fuelled quality, medieval history glowing with a new intensity. This is a stone-cold classic set of programmes, although the title format used for Edward IV has always troubled me slightly as it does not match the others. This ground-breaking design work is all, I think, down to George Mayhew who is credited as ‘Design Consultant’. He was part of London design firm BDMW, and also designed for BBC Television in the 1960s. In the second half of the 1960s, RSC programme design was as bold, energetic and consistent as it would ever be. These are the golden years, with designs reflecting the eclecticism and imagination in the visual culture of the time. Each production has its own distinct graphic identity, with minimum apparent corporate control, but all still part of a recognisable house style that guided rather than controlled the output. It looked like the RSC. 

Peak psychedelia features on four programmes in particular. The Comedy of Errors (1965) has bolding clashing colours splashed across its somewhat unhinged cover. Romeo and Juliet (1967) must have shocked some, either through its pinkness or its nudity, which was very much on trend that year. Dr Faustus (1968) is a bit much really, but captures the play’s doomed thrills in brain-searing pink, orange and red.

Finally, Women Beware Women (1969) has Susan Fleetwood, Elizabeth Spriggs and Judi Dench in cerise and violet. The alternative cover which is equally striking but rather more oblique, using a black and white Magritte. When the RSC put out two different programme designs, it was almost always to replace the original cover with a production photo. These two versions exemplify the tussle between minimal and maximal design approaches that seemed to be going on at the time in the mind of one designer.

On the minimal side, the cover for David Warner’s Hamlet (1965) is clean, confident and the first example of another trend that would later take over – a cover based on a photo of the lead actor. The Revenger’s Tragedy (1967) is one of my absolute favourites, gleefully dark and fabulously simple like the graffiti of the Paris 1968 protests. King Lear (1968) is a restrained classic – later Lears would also use the abstracted wilderness theme, but none quite as well as this. As You Like It (1968) uses one colour, an acid meltdown green, to stunning effect. Troilus and Cressida (1968) has a great image and an unusual but effective colour combination. 

The one colour approach reaches a dead end with A Winter’s Tale (1969) which is in white with an embossed title, for which The Beatles’ White Album is surely responsible. As the image shows, it’s tactile but impossible to photograph. It also wears very badly, but not as badly as the all black Hamlet (1970). It is both conceptually epic and ridiculous, and there is no point in even attempting to show it. 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Ghosts (1968) harks back to a time before full colour printing, as though the past had been reedited to become much weirder. The design is echoed in a couple of 1980s programmes, as a red nose – for King Lear (1982) a great Ralph Steadman design and for Peter Barnes’ Red Noses (1985), which looks like a CND poster. Steadman produced some of the RSC’s best posters, but his programme covers used different, much simpler images – Macbeth (1982) is also highly effective. The exception is The Beggar’s Opera (1992), which has everything going on.  

In 1970 the RSC programme designers got restless, and started experimenting with formats. It would take most of the decade before they calmed down again, and by then editor John Goodwin and designer George Mayhew were no longer in charge. While the format changes are heroically annoying – different sizes each year, pockets to hold loose leaf sheets, multiple inserts, or half the contents upside down so you have to read it from both ends – the cover designs entered a new phase of boldness and clarity. Some of the best images are to be found in this era, alongside others that fail spectacularly. The period is more hit-and-miss than the 1960s, but some designs are great. I have a particular liking for three of the 1974 season programmes: Richard II, King John and Cymbeline. They are as plain as programme gets (at least, without going all white): no logos, no author, just a title and an image. Usually a date too, because people just can’t resist writing on front covers. They are seriously striking, with images in black and gold that create  a sort of medieval modernism.

This approach had been developing for a while, with both Dr Faustus and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (both 1970) pulling the palette back to a minimum. The latter (for Peter Brook’s famous trapeze production) is also the first design to feature dayglo colour of any kind, and pretty much the last.

The growing heritage of programme design gets an acknowledgement on the back of the 1974 programme for Cymbeline, which was the final play in the complete Shakespeare canon staged at Stratford from 1963. It also announced a plan, never realised as far as I know, to publish the programmes for all 37 plays in a book. I expect they worked out how much it would cost. This is the only programme – before or since – that discusses the contribution of the designers and programme editors in any detail. It reveals that “all were edited by John Goodwin, working with George Mayhew (graphics), the Herald Press (printers) and in most cases ACH Smith (text).” Other individuals had been credited in various programmes over the previous decade, but none clearly linked to design. Intriguingly, Cymbeline also credits Michael Mayhew, George’s son. Michael went on to head the National Theatre’s design studio for 23 years, until 2009, and was responsible for reams of classic programmes and posters.

By 1974 not everything was designed by George Mayhew, which perhaps accounts for the entirely different approach taken for the Macbeth programme, by Ginni Gillam. The unifying house style of the 1960s had entirely broken down by this point, but this particular programme is exceptionally effective, a down-lit Nicol Williamson exuding pure theatrical evil. Macbeth (1976), one of the RSC’s best-known productions with Judi Dench and Ian McKellen, is an iconic image but I prefer the 1974 design.

The tall, narrow programmes used for the 1976 and 1977 seasons included some successful designs that heralded a coming era of high achievement. Henry 6 (sic – 1975) is by Allen/Beresford – more corporate, but continuing the modern medieval theme. King Lear (1976) by Ginni Gillan and Mark Polkinghorne is unapologetically bleak. Gillam’s Romeo and Juliet (1976) uses graffiti-style text to good effect,while her Midsummer Night’s Dream (1976) is complete contrast, apparently channelling prog rock album design. 

In 1978 the format returned, thankfully, to a straightforward foolscap and the designs immediately became more consistent in quality, with a range of designers contributing. Gini Gillam continued to feature. Ginni Moo-Young’s Love Labour’s Lost (1978) is a thing of simplicity and beauty and her All’s Well That Ends Well (1982), designed with Roger Walton, has a similar eeriness.

Chris Frampton and Jeff Jones of The Drawing Room contributed the alluring alchemical design for The Tempest and a mysterious, postmodern Antony and Cleopatra (both 1978). Allen/Beresford’s Coriolanus (1977) is a classic of the time, a compelling, repetitive design. John Kibblewhite’s Othello (1979) has a tangible atmosphere of death in the sun. Meanwhile, at the Stratford Hilton the question is ‘To eat or not to eat?’

The early 1980s was the first time I became aware of the theatre – perhaps why this is my favourite era of RSC programme design – but the best covers from this time have undeniable presence. They are graphically strong, not constrained by house style or toned down for easy consumption. They encapsulate something about the production they represent, without making obvious visual connections. Images stand in their own right, as though they were simply the only design that made sense. This is also the point where the RSC decided they no longer had room to credit programme designers, although there was space for an ever-growing list of associates, so some of the designers who contributed most to the company are lost in the shadows. Classics from this era include The Tempest (1982) with its stunning wave motif from Japanese art; The Taming of the Shrew (1982), which could double as a heavy metal album cover; The Roaring Girl (1982), with Helen Mirren doing just that; the fearsome Poppy (1982); Twelfth Night (1983), with its deep blue cover, the RSC logo hidden in the branches of a gold tree; Hamlet (1984), which is based on a painting by Philip Core of of actor Roger Rees; Henry V (1984) with Kenneth Branagh stranded at low tide on an endless mudflat; and Love’s Labour’s Lost (1984), which is both gorgeously melancholy and very 1980s.    

The late 1980s and early 1990s featured an increasingly restrained approach. The designs seem more managed, and individual expression has to fight harder to emerge. Programmes reflect the changing culture at the RSC, as cost pressures and a greater reliance on sponsorship reined in the risk taking. Nevertheless, there are design highlights of a different kind. Richard II (1986) uses an obvious white hart image from the Wilton Diptych, which is nevertheless a great painting. Cymbeline and Coriolanus (both 1990) Richard II and Love’s Labour’s Lost (both 1991) are calm and lovely. Henry IV (1991) has an extra level of weirdness, but All’s Well That Ends Well (1991) is probably the stand-out image of the era, springing fully formed and unexplained from the imagination of an uncredited designer. The prize for impracticality goes to The Comedy of Errors (1990), the only RSC programme to feature fold-out advent-calendar-style windows. Despite that, the design is exceptionally bold.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

There was a corner of the RSC where distinctive programmes were delivered with particular consistency. At The Other Place, the small size of the theatre, more experimental repertoire and shorter runs meant that programmes vanished much more easily. It is a shame, because from 1986 the theatre switched from a standard design to individual, full colour programmes for each show. Some of my favourite RSC designs are from the decade that followed, until The Other Place closed for rebuilding in 1999. They also managed to credit the designers. Ginny Crow’s designs are a highlight: The Art of Success (1986), full of Hogarthian energy, Country Dancing (1986) with great use of colour; A Question of Geography (1987), with Gary Coyle, Indigo (1987), Across Oka and The Love of the Nightingale (both 1988) and The Duchess of Malfi (1989) are much more delicate than anything else produced for the company, and are genuinely lovely and rather haunting. Crow perhaps makes the most important contribution to RSC graphic design of anyone apart from George Mayhew.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The Duchess of Malfi was staged in the Swan Theatre, which needed a visual identity after publishing play texts as programmes during its first three seasons, a rather excitable response to the theatre’s new repertoire. Ginny Crow took on Swan programmes from 1989, and evolved a more robust style to match its excitement levels. She produced flamboyant, distinctive designs for Pericles (1989), Troilus and Cressida (1990), The Virtuoso, The Alchemist and The Two Gentlemen of Verona (both 1991). In The Other Place, Sue Rudd took up Crow’s previous style for The Odyssey (1992), which is a delight, and also produced a fabulous design for The Relapse (1995) at the Swan, which is very funny.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I once liked Debra Hubball’s design for Murder in the Cathedral (1993) so much that I own the poster, but now I think I prefer both Anita Marsden’s The Devil is an Ass (1992) and The Painter of Dishonour (1994), which couldn’t be more different from one another. Chris Moody’s design for Three Hours After Marriage (1996), on textured paper, is also impressive. Clare Booth, who was later to run the RSC Graphics Department, designed Troilus and Cressida (1998) which I dislike but can’t quite get out of my head, which I suppose is a compliment. Its alarming purple and yellow colour scheme is saved by a cunningly chosen Garry Winogrand photo, which really sums up the play’s dark mood.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The gilt and aquamarine design for Antony and Cleopatra (1992) heralds what was to come. The late 1990s were not the RSC’s best time, either on stage or on paper. The company struggled to find its purpose, and programme designs responded by falling off a cliff. Many ideas were tried but few seemed to work, and programmes became bedevilled with visual confusion and an obvious lack of conceptual confidence. Amidst the purples and the strange greens, the tastefully naked photoshoots and the default use of production photos, there is not much to recommend. Macbeth (1996), with its sinister figure wearing a joke shop mask, is a current and highly distinctive image. There is no clue as to who designed Cymbeline (1997),  but it clearly comes from a compellingly strange imagination. Hamlet (2001) makes better use of the photo-of-the-lead style (Sam West) than anything else from the time (he’s got a flick knife!) Pericles (2002) works well as a standalone idea, but has little to do with any wider company identity. Nothing about it, other than the logo, says ‘RSC’. Otherwise, there are slim pickings over ten years during which I began to question the wisdom of filling my flat with a never-ending row of programmes.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The RSC Graphics Department took over programme production in 2002 and, without reaching past levels of design consistency, introduced higher expectations and a more confident approach. At least, I think that’s what happened: it took several years before design credits returned and they emerged into the light. Season-long design concepts were introduced. Programmes became matt for the first time and were printed on higher quality paper, becoming substantial objects. They also introduced a new white-on-red RSC logo that has remained unchanged since. These decisions set the scene for a return to form, although it took several years to bear fruit and there was still room for another maddening format change for the 2004 season, which produced five programmes that are too large to fit on a normal shelf, and another in 2005 when they became mysteriously wide. However, by the 2007 the RSC was doing justice to its remarkable history. A pair of designs for Macbeth and Ionesco’s Macbett (Clare Booth and Andy Williams) stood out for the way they avoided obvious imagery to chose something much more enticing, looking like something from Berlin.

The 2012 50th anniversary season was a design triumph, as though the shackles had been removed under a new director (Gregory Doran). Where a distinctive graphic identity had been so hard to come by, suddenly there was an entire season – and a long one at that – of designs that matched up to the best. Emmanuel Polanco was responsible for much of the run. Designs for Cardenio, Measure for Measure, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Marat/Sade, The Heresy of Love, Written on the Heart are full of invention and whimsy. 

Andrzej Klimovski’s Macbeth and The City Madam draw on the surrealism of post-war Polish poster art, which is always a good thing. Elliott Erwitt repurposed an cleverly chosen archive photo for The Merchant of Venice. There is much to enjoy in this new design energy, which continued the following season. A Mad World My Masters and Titus Andronicus (both 2013) by Clare Booth and Graham Rolfe, have the same spirit of originality.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Since 2013 programme designs have produced some individual triumphs, while never achieving real consistency. The tendency to default to a production photo has returned, often resulting in a design that does not add a great deal, and fails to express what makes the RSC’s distinctive and different. RSC Graphic Design has changed its name to RSC Visual Communications, which suggests an overall change of emphasis, and digital understandably dominates thinking. It’s no longer about posters and programmes – instead, images are used in multiple contexts. However, the photo approach can work when it is used as the exception. The Witch of Edmonton (2014) uses a remarkable image of Eileen Atkins in uncomfortable close-up. Tamburlaine (2018) is also unnerving, Jude Owusu looking cheerfully murderous.

The Romans season (2017), designed by Nick Farrow and Graham Rolfe, uses production photos bathed in sinister golden light for Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra and Titus Andronicus, which works rather well. One-off successes include the delicate Snow in Midsummer (2017) and King John (2019), by Graham Rolfe and Sam Jones, who may have been studying Grayson Perry. As You Like It (2019) is charming, with a miniature cast lined up on the cover, waiting to perform. 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The future of the programme is unclear. As prices pass the psychologically significant £5 mark and the arts is pressed to improve its sustainability record, online design is likely to take greater precedence. Perhaps the days of a small booklet that commemorates your trip to the theatre are coming to an end, but while they are still making them I will be buying them. There is a peculiar fascination to seeing the ideas and dreams of the past broadcast from the covers of programmes and hidden within the pages. The history of theatrical graphic design is a niche interest, but it touches on the concerns of the wider world at every point. At their best, theatre programmes are absorbing and even thrilling objects that contain the past, and reveal it on command.   

    

  

 

Treasure Island

download

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson adapted by Bryony Lavery – National Theatre (Olivier)

The excitement still builds on a Thursday night, when many of us sit down to watch theatre as though it was analogue television in the four channel era. Admittedly, the National Theatre’s shows are available for a week on Youtube, being there at 7pm seems the right thing to do. This week’s offering is from six years ago, an adaptation of Treasure Island by Bryony Lavery. The shortcomings of filmed theatre are more obvious when it involves shows staged in the cavernous Olivier Theatre, with a stage too large to fit on screen in its entirety, even in long shot. However, Lizzie Clachan’s atmospheric set makes quite an impression, making full use of the theatres extensive machinery to revolve, raise and lower vast sections of stage as the action moves from inn to dock to ship to island to tunnels. The Olivier is very well suited to shadowy corners where mad pirates and their parrots might lurk, and the staging has suitably epic qualities.

The highlights of the evening come from the lead performers. Patsy Ferran as narrator and protagonist Jim Hawkins is a treat. She is also a girl, a change from the novel that the script plays with throughout, making a light-hearted critique of the times by continually confusing the other characters. Arthur Darvill’s Long John Silver is less salty and more human than the traditional perception of the character, and therefore more sinister in his manoeuvrings. Neither plays their part for comic effect, which is the prevailing tone for the rest of the show. While there is certainly room for comedy, Treasure Island is memorable for younger readers because of its enthralling drama and life-and-death dilemmas. Too much of this has been jettisoned in exchange for a succession of sailors intended to be funny because of their single character trait – the crazy one, the hungry one, the dull one and so on. This is a mistake because the new material is not up to the standard of the writing it replaces or necessary to the story, meaning that momentum is lost in the later stages. However, this is still a show that will have left a big impression on anyone lucky enough to see it at the right age – perhaps in front of their television in a quarantined front room.

 

Jane Eyre

download (1)

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë, devised by the company – National Theatre: Lyttleton

Only the second week, but the National Theatre’s Thursday night broadcasts are already a fixed point in our adrift, theatre-free lives. I’ve often wondered how the experience of living a town with only one theatre, and seeing everything they put on, would compare to London, where there are easily ten shows you might see for every one you do. Now I know. It means that you watch productions like Jane Eyre, which did not grab me at all when it was on in real life. I’m not a fan of classic novels adapted for the stage, expectations shaped by the RSC’s leaden productions of Great Expectations and Midnight’s Children in the 2000s. But this Jane Eyre is very good, and nimbly avoids the pitfalls of novel theatre.

Guided by director Sally Cookson, the show was improvised by the company. It treads lightly, despite coming in at 3 hours, and there is never the sense that this is a secondary substitute for the real thing, or that everything from the book has to be crammed in regardless. Michael Vale designed a set of ladders and platforms, which serve to play out journeys of the literal and physical variety. Costume changes – dressed lifted off and on by the crowding cast, carry great symbolic weight. The machinery of the show is on stage for us to see, including a band installed centre stage. Music plays an important role, between scenes as shorthand for what is left unsaid and as a vehicle for the madwoman in the attic, Bertha. Silent in the book, she sings on stage with Melanie Marshall, wearing a red dress, using her beautiful voice to express the silenced.

An energetic cast is led by Hannah Bristow as Jane, always at the centre of her own story, bringing her life and destiny under control with brave, wise decisions at the key moments. Tim Delap’s Mr Rochester, by contrast, is a man trapped in his own melodrama who can only be at peace when he is no longer able to dominate. The scenes that linger from childhood readings – the terrifying, haunted ‘red room’, the death of Helen Burns at school, the fire in Mr Rochester’s bedroom, Jane’s marriage offer from a missionary – are all carefully staged, with Cookson expertly managing the devised energy that sparkles throughout. Jane Eyre is a revolutionary book in many ways, challenging the repression of girls and women at every stage of their lives, and sending out a clarion call for the primacy of imagination and romance. The National Theatre’s production does an exceptional job of staging a book that turns out, surprisingly, to be fine performance material.

 

One Man, Two Guvnors

nt-at-home_one-man-two-guvnors-2-1280x720

One Man, Two Guvnors by Richard Bean (after Carlo Goldoni) – National Theatre at Home

After the theatres closed, the National Theatre was quick to announce a free mini-season of online shows from their NT Live broadcasts, which immediately became the only evening bookings in thousands of newly empty diaries. The first Youtube show – Nicholas Hytner’s mid-2000s mega-hit, One Man, Two Guvnors – had a real sense of anticipation. It was the perfect choice for a national morale boost being, as Hytner noted, meant for nothing except to make the audience laugh and, although the only reason for showing it was separation, it proved a much-needed shared experience.

The NT at Home broadcasts are strange. They replace the live experience of watching a play with a ghostly vision from the past. We watch people experiencing something, sitting within touching distance in their thousands, on a night 6 years ago and we try to join in. Re-living the past so intensely is eerie, and it’s hard to forget that we are using it to block out the present. Later – if there is a later – perhaps there will new performances created for the medium of shared sofa viewing. But, for now, we have the comforts of Goldoni’s 18th century farce reinterpreted as English panto nostalgia, in the impossibly distant past of 2014.

Richard Bean’s version is famously set in a 1960 Brighton, among lawyers, gangsters, crossed lovers and the beginnings of a changing society. There are plenty of rough exteriors, but everyone has a heart of gold. One Man becomes something more almost entirely through the remarkable energy of the performers, who all work very hard to be as silly as possible without derailing the show. Led by James Corden (Lyn Gardner, whose live-tweet were an unexpected bonus of quarantine theatre, quoted Susannah Clapp description of him as ‘the Essex Nureyev’), the cast is on fire. Corden bounces, beachball-like, around the stage and hits his peak in the first half during the riotous scene where he tried to serve dinner to both his masters at the same time, without either knowing, while eating most of it himself. He works beautifully with Oliver Chris, as posh boy master Stanley, who is triumphantly ridiculous, and Jemima Rooper as master no. 2 Rachel, dressed as her own dead brother and oozing Brighton Rock menace. And then there’s Tom Edden’s legendary performance as Alfie, the ancient deaf waiter with palsy, on his first day in the job. His rattling progress across the stage carrying the plates and his pratfalls off the staircase are as funny now as they were then.

The cast pull each other up to the same level of excellence, so it’s not all about Corden. The show has mostly aged well, but in Bean’s adaptation women have neither equal stage space nor the best parts. Now, they probably would. The nostalgia also depends on fading memories of a pre-60s world, which are losing their direct currency. It’s funny to think that the problems of Goldoni’s original, which makes little sense to 21st century audiences, will visit Bean’s version too. But just now there’s every excuse to enjoy ourselves and not worry about the future, which will come soon enough.

 

Afterplay

 

4676

Rory Keenan and Mariah Gale in Afterplay. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/the Guardian

Afterplay by Brian Friel – Coronet Theatre, London

I’ve been putting this review off, for lots of reasons. Theatre is, amongst other things, what I do. Although I was well aware of the turbulent history of the stage in this country, interrupted by plagues and politics, it had never crossed my mind for a moment that I would find myself writing in a time when the theatres were closed. If audiences feel bereft, the effect on performers, writers, producers and all those for whom this is both life and livelihood is hard to imagine. But we are all in the boat, waiting for something that may happen in the unforeseeable future. In the meantime, I still have one last play to write about, from before the theatres closed. I went out on a high.

Afterplay, at the lovely Coronet Theatre, was a revival of Brian Friel’s one-act play imaging the aftermath of Chekhov. Two characters from different plays – Sonya from ‘Uncle Vanya’ and Andrey from ‘Three Sisters’ – meet by chance in a Moscow cafe in the 1920s, in a different time. after the Russian Revolution. They both sense something in common and together they compare and explore their experiences, before going their separate ways. It is a perfect miniature with the precision of writing and thinking that Brian Friel often produced – drama without a flourish, just clear-eyed, razor sharp character study. To describe this as ‘slight’, as one reviewer did, is to suggest that a short storey is a waste of time compared to a novel. Something about Chekhov’s endings, which leave everything and nothing possible, evidently nagged at Friel, as did these two characters. At the end of their respective plays, both are trapped – Sonya rejected and stuck on the estate, Andrey a disappointment to his sisters and himself.  Afterplay updates their stories, explaining their presence in Moscow and dismantling the fronts they have both erected for others.

The two performers, Mariah Gale and Rory Keenan, are well attuned to their parts. Keenan is a highly convincing combination, caught between the old pomposity and a genuine interest in Sonia. Gale is kind and vulnerable, without bluster to protect her, and ultimately just as desperate if not more so. Both performers are excellent – unshowy but entirely engaging, just as the play demands. The production by John Haidar is, was, finely paced and nuanced, bringing out the depth of writing experience that placed Friel in a position to follow up his hunch, that Chekhov’s characters had something more to tell us.

Friel does not suggest time would have solved Sonia’ or Andrey’s problems, or that anything would. He doesn’t provide a different ending for either – there is hope, but as always it’s in the future. But he provides a story, a coda that tells us that if nothing else both Andrey and Sonia are still alive, and that is worth our attention. Of course, like all theatre it tells us – the audience – that we are alive too. We will have to find other ways to remind ourselves of this, the only thing that matters, over the next few months.

The Cutting Edge

The Cutting Edge 2020 Maggie Steed, Jasmine Hyde (c) Alex Brenner, no use without credit (_DSC0358-dxo)Photo © Alex Brenner

The Cutting Edge by Jack Shepherd – Arcola Theatre, London

Jack Shepherd is the author of some impressive plays (including the excellent ‘In Lambeth’ – a meeting between William Blake and Thomas Paine) as well as a much-loved actor, a director and a jazz musician. He has more going on than most which is, perhaps, why ‘The Cutting Edge’ is his first new play for 13 year. It has a high calibre cast, but  is unlikely to be remembered as one of his best. A middle-aged couple have left the rat race for a farm where they struggle to become self-sufficient. Their exhaustion and uncertainty is disrupted by the intrusion of a pair of ageing rebels who arrive on a motorbike, drink all the gin and generally add to the stress of preparations of a party later that evening. It sounds like a set-up for a drama of crisis and resolution but, unfortunately, not that much happens.

The problem with Shepherd’s play is a lack of focus. It is never entirely clear what the real driver really is. Several themes are aired: the naivety of moving to the country to get away from city stress; the unequal burden of looking after a partner who is depressed; women’s choice between responsibility or escape; and the indignity and emptiness of being a drop out in old age. The play is ostensibly about art and commodification. The couple whose in whose kitchen we spend the evening, Anna and Chris, met on an art magazine. He was a high flying critic who had a breakdown when he came to see his work as empty. However, the wide-ranging speeches about modern art seem hackneyed, and leave the audience none the wiser about what really matters to Shepherd. The era the play addresses is also confusing. The action explicitly takes place in the late 1980s, but it features props that appear 21st century and there is no sense of social context to help locate individual dilemmas.

The evening is enjoyable for its cast. Maggie Steed as artist Elvira, visiting the house where she was happy as a child, now sits in front of bars rather than easels. Her version of herself is a couple of decades out of date, and Steed is fabulously fragile, a walking liability it’s hard not to love. In contrast, Jasmine Hyde is excellently long-suffering as Anna, making soup live on stage throughout the first half. She cleans up after everyone literally and emotionally, her cheerful facade is in constant danger of collapse. Michael Feast, as her biker companion Zak, is brilliantly committed and convincing – a chancer too old to get away with it any more, but still working the charm. However, despite the combined skills of its performers, ‘The Cutting Edge’ lacks pace and drive and the key moment of crisis, which always seems around the corner, never arrives.

 

 

Nora: A Doll’s House

jCCXHWTA-600x400

Nora: A Doll’s House by Stef Smith based on Henrik Ibsen – Young Vic, London

Henrik Ibsen’s play ‘A Doll’s House’ has one of the most famous endings in theatre, deeply shocking when first staged, as Nora walks out on her husband and children. She leaves only the faintest of hints that marriage, perhaps, has a future. It is typical of Stef Smith’s reimagined version at the Young Vic that this climactic moment is then deflated, with three third party narratives about what happened next. In ‘Nora’ nothing is left to the imagination, everything is signposted and the focus and impact of the source material goes missing along the way. It is the culmination of a frustrating evening that fails to improve on Ibsen’s original either in terms of coherence or dramatic impact.

Smith has written about three version of Nora, each 50 years apart, living in parallel marriages – equally stifling and oppressive – in 1918, 1968 and 2018. The three women replicate the same dilemmas in their three eras suggesting that, although circumstances have changed, the position of women has remained fundamentally the same. This is an interesting thesis, but unfortunately ‘Nora’ does not explore it with sufficient clarity. Instead, there are constant, unsubtle references to social issues of the time – women getting the vote, contraception, legalisation of homosexuality. These give the impression of a checklist, diluting the play’s focus, while variations on the original plot also confuse. Nora (1968) leaves with her friend Christine, after discovering the courage to declare her hidden love, a twist which is parachuted in late on. Nora (2018) has nowhere to go because, as she mentions for the first time during the final 30 seconds of the play, cuts have closed the local shelters.

Nora’s dark secret – the fraudulent loan she has taken out – carries particular weight in Ibsen’s play because women did not then have the right to make their own financial arrangements. This absolutely crucial fact doesn’t make sense in all three of the time periods in ‘Nora’, so the reason for the fraud is lost. The play’s fragmentation has the effect of dissolving its inherent drama, with all three Noras on stage throughout, interchanging arbitrarily, and scenes that constantly flip eras. This leaves husband Thomas particularly exposed as he is required to change character in the middle of key scenes, becoming earlier or later versions of himself. This structure no doubt contributes to a performance style that relies too heavily on people from the past speaking in funny voices. The tension that Ibsen builds so effectively, is scattered to the three winds. On paper, the concept of using ‘A Doll’s House’ to explore women’s experiences in the subsequent century makes sense, but in practice ‘Nora’ does not work. Ibsen’s play is regularly revived because it still packs an unrivalled dramatic punch, and ‘Nora’ only succeeds in showing why intent alone does not make good drama.

The Welkin

the-welkin-review-national-theatre-lucy-kirkwood-maxine-peake

The Welkin by Lucy Kirkwood – National Theatre: Lyttleton

The title of Lucy Kirkwood’s new play is an antiquated term for the heavens – both the sky itself, and the heavenly judgement beyond. The condemned woman at the heart of this ambitious enthralling show, in the words of Haydn Gwynne’s Lady Cary, has no recourse on earth and “must look to the welkin” for her salvation. The year in 1759, and Lady Cary is one of a “jury of matrons” brought together to examine Sally Poppy (Ria Dmitrovic). Convicted of the brutal murder of a child, which she admits, she has “pleaded the belly” and twelve local women are summoned to confirm or deny her claim.

Kirkwood has lighted on a clever device, a little known historical setting that allows her to write a sort of ‘Twelve Angry Women’: a tightly woven, tense drama played out in a single room, with a cast consisting principally of twelve women. They are supervised by a male employee of the court who, symbolically, is forbidden to speak. Kirkwood’s writing is impressive, and she clearly relishes the task of teasing out the characters of the twelve and of using – and not over-using – the rich language of the time. From Maxine Peake’s midwife, Lizzy Luke – a woman in a position of responsibility, with more on her mind than she admits – to Mary Middleton (Zainab Hasan), who believes her house contains a haunted tankard, every character is real and often funny, as well as heart-breaking. It is difficult to single out performances, because the exceptionally strong ensemble work is the point of the show, but June Watson is inimitable as Sarah Smith, whose wisdom is based on experience.

The Welkin is a tragic story and the setting, with women in charge, is at odds with everything else outside the room. It provides a temporary respite from beatings, childbirth, never-ending hard work, and a constant status as a second-class being. Kirkwood uses this lens to focus important themes, but allows them to emerge naturally from the pressures placed on the women in the room, and the way they talk when they are alone together. Peake is excellent as the conflicted Lizzy, the play’s moral compass, while Ria Dmitrovic adds to her fast-growing reputation as a key actor of her generation with a performance full of spite and vulnerability. Haydn Gwynne is also a fine, haughty presence although her story arc is, perhaps, the play’s weakest aspect. Expertly directed by James Macdonald, the play opens with a tableau of women doing the domestic tasks from which events to come provide a brief respite, and is calmly staged with space for characters to breathe and the occasional, well-judged coup de theatre. These include an extraordinary scene with  the cast, in the only breach of the play’s setting, singing an home-made acapella version of Kate Bush’s ‘Running Up That Hill’, asking for the ‘deal with God’ that can never come. It is a moment of wonder, in a play that delivers on many fronts: as an epic, as a comedy, as a historical drama, as a voice for the voiceless, and as a thoroughly entertaining night out, with performers of the highest quality. Rufus Norris has just signed up for five more years in charge of the National Theatre and, judging by The Welkin, his mission to stage serious, new writing by women is properly on track.

 

The Incident Room

The incident Room Production photos.

The incident Room Production photos.

The Incident Room by Olivia Hirst and David Byrne – New Diorama Theatre, London

The grinding, five-year Yorkshire Ripper investigation was an essentially a filing problem. At the very end of the pre-computer age, even the largest inquiry team ever assembled could not find the answer, hidden all along in the mountains of data. Instead, West Yorkshire Police went through a  collective breakdown that laid the bare the failings of the 1970s social order, particularly the treatment of women, as brilliantly documented in Gordon Burn’s book ‘Somebody’s Husband, Somebody’s Son’. The Incident Room, acclaimed at the 2019 Edinburgh Fringe, takes us into the claustrophobic Millgarth Incident Room at the heart of the case, where the horrifying, and bizarre real life drama played out.

The play, devised by the whole cast, focuses on Megan Winterburn, an investigating officers and one of the first women on the West Yorkshire force. Hers is a story based on real life, just like the rest of the drama, and we eventually discover she went on to hold senior rank. In 1975, though, she is an overlooked for promotion in favour of inferior male colleagues, her contributions are overlooked and she is asked to do the typing. Her position in the force reflects the situation outside, where the police only start to take Peter Sutcliffe’s brutal murders seriously when he beings attacking ‘innocent women’ rather than prostitutes. As the killings continue and public panic grows, Assistant Chief Constable George Oldfield loses his perspective and makes disastrous decisions, driven by personal obsession. Women take the brunt and are subjected to a police curfew to keep them safe rather than, as is pointed out, the men who might attack them. The exponential growth of information that packs out the set, made principally of a floor-to-ceiling filing stack, represents the staggering proportion of men in the north using prostitutes.

Simply recounting the events of the time is fascinating. It is a time that seems stranger and further away by the moment. However, in Beth Flintoff and David Byrne’s production, The Incident Room does much more than that. A strong ensemble cast drives the show forward. Charlotte Melia, as Meg Winterburn, is on stage throughout – a strong, sympathetic pivot for the evening. Colin R. Campbell is excellent as the beleaguered Oldfield whose arrogant tips him over the edge. Kay Brittan puts in a pair of show stealing performances as an investigator and a victim – Maureen Long, the only person to survive an attack – who is tiny, fierce and heartbreakingly lost.  The writing is sophisticated, explicitly avoiding simplistic judgements and leaving the audience space to see the layers. Meg is dogged by a female journalist – played by Natasha Magigi – who constantly questions her decision to work within a failing, male-led system. The play frames events as a retelling, many years later, allowing Meg to ask why she didn’t question the way she was treated at the time, as the Hollywood version would have it.

The Incident Room is not only dramatic and engrossing – recreating the fevered claustrophobia of the time – but also multi-layered and satisfying drama, a proper assessment of a story that gripped, terrified and obsessed the nation. This excellent production confronts our dark past head on.