It’s True, It’s True, It’s True

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Image © The Other Richard

It’s True, It’s True, It’s True by Breach Theatre – Diorama Theatre, London

Artemisia Gentileschi, who lived in Florence during the first half of the 17th century, was a pioneer: an accomplished painter who was the first woman to be admitted to the drawing academy in Florence. Her life, full of Medicis, Baroque artists, affairs, and European travel, is a fascinating slice of Renaissance life. However, she is remembered not only for her paintings – the National Gallery has just bought her self portrait as Saint Catherine – but for the trial of the man who raped her when she was 15. The transcripts of the 1612 trial survive for the most part, and form the basis of Breach Theatre’s show.

Three performers present the events of the trial, necessarily condensed, in verbatim form, something like the Tricycle Theatre’s tribunal plays of the 1990s and 2000s. With the language updated, the events described in court sound highly contemporary, and the treatment of Artemisia disturbingly familiar. Her rape, by the painter Agostino Tassi who was employed as her tutor, came after a lengthy period of harassment and intimidation by Tassi and his friend, who used their positions of power to take advantage of Artemisia. threaten her, and use her for their own ends.

Breach Theatre stages the action on a minimal set consisting of studio equipment repurposed as docks and witness stands. Ellice Stevens, as Artemisia, keeps her anger under a remarkable level of control, determined to redress such a blatant wrong. Harriet Webb plays Tassi as a posh-boy bully full of self-regard, confident that his connections (he paints for The Pope, yeah) will get him out of any fix. Webb makes him thoroughly, convincingly, nasty. Kathryn Bond plays Tuzia, Artemisia’s friend and protector who betrayed her, as weak but understandably, unable to stand up to the threats of rich men. Artemisia is, remarkably, tortured in court with thumb screws to test the truth of her testimony to save the painter’s hands of the accused, her own art being of no consequence to the authorities. Although Tassi was eventually convicted, his punishment was light and justice was only grudgingly done.

The story in itself is fascinating and highly relevant to current concerns, but director Billy Barrett and dramaturg Dorothy Allen-Pickard have created much more than a simple retelling. The most remarkable scenes are those in which Artemisia’s pictures come to life, conventional Biblical scenes restaged as angry tableaux. Her ‘Judith and Holofernes’, the former sawing off the latter’s head, has a different edge painted by a woman while ‘Susanna and the Elders’ is case study in sexual harassment. These paintings become telling, dramatic interludes in the trial that show us what is happening to Artemisia behind what she reveals in court.

The production’s use of music is also bold and effective, cutting through the 17th century setting to place the action simultaneously in the moment. The show culminates in a cathartic rendition of Patti Smith’s ‘Gloria’, taking the place of the final, missing pages of the trial record. The key moment, however, is Artemisia’s forced declaration under torture, as she cries out ‘It’s true, it’s true, it’s true” again and again as she did in court, a moment of affirmation for her and for women facing the same ordeals today. A skilled, surprising and visceral piece of theatre, with an urgent story to tell.

Tamburlaine

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Jude Owusu (Tamburlaine) and captives . Credit: Ellie Kurttz, RSC

Tamburlaine by Christopher Marlowe – Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

For those who remember the RSC’s 1990 Tamburlaine with Anthony Sher, the revival of this once-in-a-generation play is both a rare treat and an alarming marker of passing time. Marlowe’s works are not frequently performed because, while they include exquisite poetry, their plotting, pacing and characterisation are still works in progress. Tamburlaine, dating from 1588, is a spectacular, sprawling historical epic that clearly prefigures Shakespeare’s Henry VI trilogy of only a few years later. It is flawed, but Michael Boyd’s production in the Swan Theatre makes a triumphant case for its presence on the modern stage.

Tamburlaine is a shepherd from Scythina (now Uzbekistan), based on the 14th century Central Asian emperor Timur, who conquered a vast empire. Tamburlaine defeats the Egyptians, the Ottomans and the Persians, conquering much of Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Eventually he dies en route to China. Tamburlaine’s feats are performed with an unremitting brutality: he simply slaughters anyone in his way, drowning entire cities and overthrowing the mightiest of emperors. This is a tough part to play, as there is little insight available in Tamburlaine’s inner life as he performs these colossal deeds. It requires an epic, assured lead performance, exactly what Jude Owusu delivers. With one previous appearance at Stratford behind him in a small part, this is a break-through role for Owusu who bestrides the stage like the scourge of God he proclaims himself to be. Onstage throughout, he radiates unearthly calm as, smiling, he snaps necks, slaughters virgins and murders his own son for not liking war. He speaks the ornate complex verse with a naturalness that does not undermine the delights of Marlowe’s poetry. He also takes the limited opportunities Marlowe provides to reveal the man behind the killing machine. In an astonishing scene he flails around the stage in grief, hauling the slack-limbed corpse of his wife as the audience watches in horror. It is an epic performance that drives the entire play.

Boyd’s direction makes reference to his famous cycle of Shakespeare’s Histories for the RSC. The many killings are stylised as characters are daubed with blood, or have a bucket of it emptied over their heads by a small boy. When their scenes are done they rise and walk from the stage to join the swelling ranks of ghosts. Recurring performers help to make sense of the repetitious events, as successive mighty emperors are overthrown. Mark Hadfield plays self-satisfied, cowardly rulers inclined to foot-stamping tantrums. James Tucker reappears under several regimes as an unscrupulous, opportunistic civil servant. Sagar I M Arya delivers a fine performance the grandest of all the rulers, Bajazeth, who falls the furthest, bashing his own brains out on the bars of his prison cage, in an infamous scene. Even more striking is Zanab Hassan as his wife Olympia, whose death in the manner follows a wild, hallucinatory soliloquy. Tamburlaine’s henchmen, especially David Rubin, are violent, physical assured presences.

Rose McEwen, who plays Tamburlaine’s queen Zenocrate, kidnapped and forced to marry him, succeeds in suggesting an ambiguity that overshadows her role as wife, a tough ask in a play that seems to pass over her violent abduction. In a powerful moment, Boyd has her stiffened corpse jerk back in to life and become Callapine, Bajazeth and Olympia’s avenging son. The play is staged against little more than a backdrop of plastic sheets, but the characters and set pieces provide the scenery in Tom Piper’s design. Doomed kings wear gilt brocade in their coats and their golden circlets tumble from their heads as Tamburlaine’s desert camouflaged thugs cut them apart. In a famous scene the stage becomes a calvacade of death as defeated Asian kings, harnessed to Tamburlaine’s cart, draw him like horses followed by his capering retinue and the embalmed corpse of his dead wife, seated in a chair. This grim carnival brings the wonder and the terror of Marlowe’s shepherd emperor to life in a production that gives an almost faultless account of a defective but fascinating play.

A Very Very Very Dark Matter

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Jim Broadbent as Hans and Johnetta Eula’Mae Ackles as Marjory in A Very Very Very Dark Matter. Photograph: Manuel Harlan

A Very Very Very Dark Matter by Martin McDonagh – Bridge Theatre, London

Martin McDonagh has made his impatience with theatre clear in the past, chafing at the constraints of the medium, its conventions and its expectations. Apart from Sam Mendes, few recent figures have made such a triumphant transition from the British stage to Hollywood. ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’ was nominated for seven Oscars earlier this year, winning one. So what brings him back to the stage? Despite his frustrations, theatre still seems to be the medium he needs to confront, provoke and assail his audience and critics. ‘A Very Very Very Dark Matter’ is perhaps the least complete of his plays, but its fierce anger and gleeful South Park-style offensiveness makes it unlike anything else on a stage right now, in London or anywhere else.

Even an explain of the premise is both hilarious and offensive: Hans Christian Andersen keep a Congolese pygmy woman, who he insists on calling Marjory, imprisoned in a cage in his attic so she can write his stories. Immediately, we’re in the realms of of political metaphor and of the fairy-tale-gone-wrong. McDonagh is venting uncontrolled fury at the depredations of 19th century colonialism in general, and the genocidal Belgian Congo regime of Leopold II in particular. Hans Christian Andersen and, later, Charles Dickens, are written as grotesque parodies whose flailing, self-obsessed, child-like behaviour renders the society they symbolize absurd. This aspect of the play is expressed through streams of sweary, gasp-inducing dialogue which has the audience unsure whether they can laugh without transgressing the limits of acceptable behaviour.

The play is short and, in truth, underdeveloped. The connection it draws between literary theft and cultural oppression is strongly stated but hard to pin down, floating somewhere within McDonagh’s fantastical rewriting of history. The acting talent on display goes a long way, though, to make up for these shortcomings. Tom Waits provides a deliciously drawling narration, sadly not in person. Jim Broadbent plays Andersen as a beaming, dementedly self-centred child of a man, unashamedly brutal and cruel. He is also very funny, and much of the play resembles Armstrong and Miller’s sketches about uptight Second World War pilots who talk in incongruous street language. A scene when Broadbent reads a letter from ‘the King of the Spanish’, who entirely misses the point of Andersen’s ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ and does so like a very rude 10-year old, is hilarious. His visit to Charles Dickens (who he repeatedly calls Charles Darwin) brings in Phil Daniels, as an especially foul-mouthed version of the author, to great comic effect. His wife and children family behave in the same vein (his young daughter, for example, exclaims “Is daddy banging the broads again, mummy?”). The scene is in fact based on a genuine visit Andersen made to Dickens, in which he stayed for five weeks despite Dickens’ increasingly desperate hints.

This shock and awe comedy would be fairly pointless without the character of Marjory, played by Johnetta Eula’Mae Ackles, making her professional debut. She is African American, small in stature, and has one leg. Her performance is a sharp reminder that people fitting her description do not generally appear on stage. The absurd lengths to which McDonagh has gone to create a role for her makes this point even clearer. Marjory (not her real name) has been kidnapped from the Congo to write Andersen’s tales, which he occasionally edits for European consumption (notably ‘The Little Black Mermaid’). This being McDonagh, there is vengeance and gore: two blood stained Belgians stalk the play and, eventually, Marjory marches off, heavily armed, to rewrite history back home.

Anna Fleische’s puppet-ridden attic provides a delightfully unpleasant setting. Matthew Dunster, who directed McDonagh’s previous play, ‘Hangmen’, presents the nasty events with sickening polish. ‘A Very Very Very Dark Matter’ is a much slighter play than its predecessor and lacks the clarity and precision of the context that gave ‘Hangmen’ extra weight. It is, nevertheless, outrageous, establishment-baiting and very very very funny, and possibly the only logical response to the bizarre political context of the late 2010s.

Macbeth

macbeth-1Christoper Eccleston and Niamh Cusack in Macbeth at Royal Shakespeare theatre. Photograph: Richard Davenport/The Other Richard

Macbeth by William Shakespeare – Barbican, London

In contrast to Rufus Norris’ National Theatre’s Macbeth, with Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff, the RSC’s current production is focused and direct. This ensures that it is more of a success, but also proves its weakness. Polly Findlay’s production is certainly the more coherent, and features strong leads. Christopher Eccleston, making his RSC debut, is a warrior through and through. Since the Stratford run he has lost his beard, and appears even more like the kind of man you would not like to run into in a dark glen. He radiates physicality, self-assurance and an ability to confidently misread a situation. David Acton plays Duncan as an aged and capricious, wheelchair-bound king, an annoying and eminently murderable figure. He snubs Macbeth in the act of congratulating him, lavishing the greater praise on Macduff whom he clearly prefers. Eccleston steps forward expectantly as he names his successor, and the combined disappointments lead directly to what follows.

If this seems a little directive, it is. Findlay leaves nothing to chance and, as a result a significant amount of subtlety is stripped from the play. Macbeth is short but layered, difficult to do well because there is no space to recover. Therefore, the device of placing a digital clock on stage that counts down from Duncan’s murder to Macbeth’s death, undermines  the actors, as well as proving highly distracting to the audience. It is a case of show not tell. The advertised pace has a problematic effect on performances, not least Niamh Cusack’s Lady Macbeth. While highly watchable, as always, Cusack seems hampered by the decision to play the character as wired and manic from the very start. She appears more unhinged than calculating, leading ultimately to a great deal of rushing around the stage during the sleepwalking scene, which reduces its impact.

Eccleston delivers a highly creditable performance, once which is in many ways a success. However, it too is limited by an uncomplicated style. As his plans implode, he becomes mocking and fatalistic, and delivers the ‘brief candle’ speech as a piece of deep sarcasm, driving any ambiguity or wider resonance from the speech, a moment of connection beyond the play from a character who is, at least in this version, entirely unsympathetic.  Findlay’s idea of a cycle of violence, implying at the very end that Fleance will continue the line of tyranny, also seems strange, suggesting that there is nothing special about the Macbeths after all – sacrificing the gimlet gaze of the play for a much vaguer message.

However, the director’s sometimes scattershot invention includes some effective touches. In a strange echo of Norris’ Macbeth, the Porter (Michael Hodgson) is also a Geordie and also appears throughout. He is a murderer and a general overseer of the action, chalking up deaths on the wall or, seated next to a water cooler, just watching. He is truly sinister. Edward Bennett’s Macduff is a bureaucrat not a soldier, making his eventual agony the more powerful. The witches are played by three young girls who, Shining-style, are dressed identically and speak in unison, which both connects to horror film tropes and works in its own right. Background scenes take place behind a glass screen in an upper gallery which, as in Robert Icke’s Hamlet, underlines the psychological alienation of the main character. Strong performances throughout also include Mariam Haque’s Lady Macduff, furious at her husband’s betrayal, and Raphael Sowole as a ragged and powerful Banquo. Findlay’s production is an enjoyable evening, with much to admire, but sells the play somewhat short.

The Lover / The Collection

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David Suchet, image copyright Marc Brenner

The Lover / The Collection by Harold Pinter – Harold Pinter Theatre, London

Both these plays, part of Jamie Lloyd’s ingenious idea for a complete season of Harold Pinter’s short works, are from the early 1960s. Nearly 60 years later any normal playwright’s work would be showing its age, but as time passes it becomes increasingly apparent how effortlessly Pinter’s writing transcends its time. Both plays remain thoroughly disconcerting, gleefully dismantling conventional assumptions about sexual and power relations. They are also both very funny, and Pinter’s under-rated humour is given more space than usual to breathe in a pair of sharp, fresh productions, both directed by Lloyd.

The Lover, the better-known of the two, is a two-hander in which it quickly becomes clear that the perfect couple can only express themselves through their elicit alter egos. Set in a pink-walled, ideal home box of a living room, Lloyd consciously locates the piece in its specific era. He directs the piece as something nearer to a farce than the usual, slower pace and brooding naturalism that is standard for Pinter. It’s a controversial decision but a clever one, highlighting an affinity with Joe Orton while also taking the play out of its customary, setting in the sort of internal Pinter time where his plays are usually located. If Pinter’s plays are to remain current, new approaches are needed to test the possibilities and limits of the text. In The Lover, John Macmillan and Hayley Squires perform with a self-consciousness verging on the frantic, which jars at first. However, the style soon jels with the text which conceals complete desperation behind a very brittle curtain of normality. Squires is the calmer presence, in control of the situation throughout, initiating and directing the uninhibited sexual transgression that hilariously mocks and subverts the basic concepts of a conventional relationship.

The relationships are even less conventional in The Collection, a four-hander which takes three men and a woman and draws desire line between them with no regard for the socially acceptable, or even definable. Again it’s the woman who is at the centre of the sexually fluid scenes, enabling the boundaries to be broken. Squires seems to have slept with Russell Tovey’s Bill, at a threateningly banal Pinter-esque conference in Leeds Bill lives with bitchy, older dress designer Harry (David Suchet). Husband John Macmillan comes round to play the heavy, but his interest in Bill is not that of a rival. The play contains some irresistible parts in which Tovey and Suchet, in particular, revel. Tovey is a classic, cocky, muscular Pinter thug who provides both needle sharp put-downs and the promise of physicality, whether violent, sexual or both. Suchet makes absolutely every line count, rolling his description of Bill as a ‘slum slug’ around his mouth with equal portions of disgust and relish, and playing power games over a morning newspaper. A delicious set of performances cap an evening that makes a very strong case for seeing how  Pinter’s other short plays seem when presented afresh.

Arabian Nights

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Image courtesy of Ali Wright

Arabian Nights by Nessah Muthy – Hoxton Hall, London

The gorgeous interior of Hoxton Hall is a perfect setting for a show about the exotic East. Not nearly as well known as it should be, the hall is a Victorian music hall preserved in remarkable condition, with delicate iron columns and two balcony tiers. Nessah Muthy selects highlights from One Thousand and One Nights, a popular inspiration for the Victorians who built this place. The tales chosen include Sinbad and Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, so familiar we take them for granted yet, staged here, they are revealed savage and grotesque parables, full of dismemberment, bizarre cruelty, grim monsters and fart jokes. The enfolding narrative – slave girl Sharazad tells tales to save her sister Dunzayad from enforced marriage to King Shahryar, to be followed by her execution – is the darkest of all. The production plays on the contemporary Incel resonance of a man, filled with hatred for women, who claims he kills on behalf of all men. It even argues that such a monster can be changed by love.

It is in the telling of the tales, though, that Arabian Nights really comes alive. Iris Theatre uses a spectacular array of puppets, from a towering, glowing eyed King Shahryar to birds, ships and sea monsters. Some stories are played out at puppet-size, others by the actors wearing masks. The variety is enthralling, and the characterful puppet designs by Johnny Dixon are the star of the show. However, the cast is also very enjoyable to watch. Sharon Singh and Izzy Jones as the calm and impetuous sisters, not only run the show, but are almost unrecognisable when they don masks for the tales. Hemi Yeroham scampers around like Mario the Plumber as Ali Baba, while Singh plays his wife like Olive Oyl. Muthy revels in the gore – severed limbs in a bag, shipmates roasted on a spit – while exploring the terrorising of women that drives the stories. The evening is full of invention, an excellent entertainment highly suitable for a venue that has been serving up amusements for 150 years.

 

The Lehman Trilogy

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Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles and Adam Godley. Image by Mark Douet

The Lehman Trilogy by Stefano Massini, adapted by Ben Power – Lyttleton Theatre

Stefano Massini’s work about the origins of Lehman Brothers Bank is a domestic epic, and a remarkable evening of theatre. Over three and a half hours, three actors takes us from a clothing store founded in the 1840s in Montgomery, Alabama to the moment when a phone rings in Lehman Brothers Manhattan office on 13 October 2008, confirming bankruptcy. The role of Lehman’s in the 2008 financial crisis is well-known, but Massini’s play is about everything else – the 150 years of changing business practice leading to that point. It is rich and complex, full of drama and staged with sometimes breathtaking confidence. If any production can still justify all-male casting, it is this.

All the action takes place in a glass-walled 21st century office, acted out on a boardroom table using the archive boxes familiar from television footage of employees trooping out of offices, carrying their belongings. The plays are many things at once: a family saga, a history of immigration in America, an analysis of changing ideas of business and goods, both financial and moral. Haim arrives in Baltimore from Bavaria, wearing the shoes he has saved for America and becoming Henry at customs, and makes a living selling things people need – first clothes, then seeds for the cotton farmers of Alabama. Joined by his two brothers, their business changes as they become cotton factors, buying raw cotton and selling it to producers. It’s the start of a progression towards becoming a bank, trading in nothing but money. When Lehman’s eventually went down, taking global economy with it, trading was in ideas of money, so far removed from goods as to be unrecognisable.

However, the Lehman Trilogy is far from an exercise in confirming what we already think. It is full of family and national dynamics, large and small, very much like a US  version of Thomas Mann’s novel ‘Buddenbrooks’, an account of three generations of Baltic merchants. It is also a feast for the three fine actors who play an uncountable number of roles in the play. Simon Russell Beale, who begins as the eldest brother, starts with a weighty, familiar Russell Beale performance and blossoms in all sorts of unexpected directions, with scene stealing moments including a piano playing young lady, a tightrope walker, a crumbly rabbi. His evident enjoyment and lightness of touch may herald a new chapter in his brilliant career. Ben Miles, the more volatile of the original brothers, embodies the volcanic streak in subsequent generations, and Adam Godley is the younger, patronised brother who becomes a demonic presence in the form of the mid-20th century financial pirate, Bobby Lehman. All three range effortless across genders and ages, wearing their 1840s costumes throughout, with the addition of just a hat or a pair of sunglasses.

The dramatic approach seems, on the surface, conventional. Ben Power’s adaptation tells the entire story as a voiceover, with each character describing events and their part in them. This could be alienating, but in fact it is strangely involving, drawing the audience into a family memoir that becomes the soundtrack to the great events of the modern era.  The writing is never over-dramatic, but Sam Mendes’ direction contains an incredible range of action – wars, disasters, deaths – in a glass box, with the help of Es Devlin’s digital cyclorama which locates the action across America, from cotton fields to cities. The Lehman Trilogy is an era-defining production for the National Theatre, combing over the politics of our time in a way that offers genuine insight, and gives three of our finest actors some of the roles of their lives.