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Review: King Lear, National Theatre

Posted on 26 January 2014 by Ruby-isla Cera-Marle

King Lear National Theatre

Following his box office success with the Bond film Skyfall and his recent stage adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Sam Mendes really is the director with the Midas touch. Naturally, upon hearing that the National’s latest production of King Lear was being directed by Mendes, I expected great things. Whether you were made to study King Lear at school, or are someone that has seen countless renditions, most people will have some level of familiarity with this canonical tale.

We find Lear (Simon Russell Beale) holding court to try and decide how best to divide his land between his three daughters. Lear believes that the degree to which each daughter loves and cares for him should be proportionate to the amount of land that they should inherit. His oldest two children Goneril (Kate Fleetwood) and Regan (Anna Maxwell Martin) are forthcoming with exclamatory proclamations and false statements that Lear is the only person that they love in the entire universe, flattery that Lear finds very pleasing to hear. However, when Cordelia (Olivia Vinall) expresses her true love for him, she speaks plainly explaining that she loves him as a daughter should. Cordelia’s honest retort angers Lear so much that he decides to disown her. A bad judgement, and one that sparks a bleak series of events that ultimately lead to his demise.

The backbone of any production of King Lear is establishing Lear as a powerful and well respected figure at the start of the piece so that his descent into madness at the end of the play is a shocking and dramatic transformation. Mendes accentuates Lear’s military prowess by surrounding him with a forty strong army of men at whom he barks orders in a manner that borders on an impersonation of Brian Blessed. However, as his power and control over his own fate begin to fade, his number of followers also deplete rapidly, until a pint-sized Beale is left exposed, vulnerable and all alone – albeit with the blinded Earl of Gloucester, the beggar Poor Tom and his Fool, who are the only men willing to stand by his side.

There is an undeniable sense of foreboding that permeates magnificently throughout this production. It is cleverly accomplished through the use of projections of dark storm clouds and the sound of thunderclaps during the scene changes, which would suddenly disappear as soon as the scene started, exploring the idea that Lear’s inevitable demise is perpetually lurking in the background. Although using pathetic fallacy isn’t a particularly subtle or novel device, in this instance it was extremely effective.

Beale is everything you could hope for in a Lear; he embodies the titular character’s psychological torment splendidly. His performance is, however, indebted to the superb supporting cast including Anna Maxwell Martin’s sultry and vindictive Regan who venomously shrieks with glee as Gloucester’s eyes are gouged out. For me, some of the finest and memorable moments were those shared between Gloucester (Stephen Boxer) and Edgar (Tom Brooke). Gloucester, blind and unaware that the man leading him and providing comfort in his time of need is in fact his illegitimate son in disguise (as the beggar man Poor Tom), makes for some very heartfelt and moving exchanges. Brooke’s unhinged and whimsical nature as Edgar is both captivating and intriguing.

This production of King Lear is tragic, comic and has a haunting quality that lingers in the air long after you have left the Olivier Theatre. It really is a stellar piece of theatre, though if you are prone to being squeamish I’d highly recommend that you look away during the scene where Gloucester’s eyes are gouged out with a spoon…

King Lear is at the National until 25 May, and will be broadcast live in cinemas worldwide on 1 May. For tickets and more information visit the National Theatre website.

Ruby-isla Cera-Marle

Ruby-isla Cera-Marle

Ruby isla Cera Marle recently graduated from Royal Holloway University of London where she studied Spanish and European Literature and Cultural Studies. Currently Ruby is working as Press and Marketing Assistant at Rambert Dance Company..

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Review: Othello

Posted on 25 April 2013 by Hannah Elsy

Othello National Theatre - Adrian Lester

In Hytner’s modern production of Othello, it is only Brabantio, Desdemona’s father (played by William Chubb) who is racist and any jibe made at Othello’s skin colour causes a flinch to ripple across the stage. By making it clear that this Othello is not set in a racist society, Hytner  removes one of the barriers that have, all too often,  produced unsatisfactory, and over- simplified productions of this play. This gives the excellent cast greater freedom to unlock the more emotionally complex layers within the piece.

Two stunning performances from Adrian Lester as Othello and Rory Kinnear as Iago provide the emotional centre which helps drive the show. Initially, it seems that Lester’s Othello will be too charming as we are introduced to him polished in a smart suit and flawlessly calm as Brabantio accuses him of ‘bewitching’ his daughter Desdemona (Olivia Vinall) into marriage. However, the true strength of Lester’s performance is not revealed until the second act, once Iago has convinced him that Desdemona has slept with his Lieutenant Michael Cassio (Jonathan Bailey) and, driven mad by jealousy, Lester uses his imposing physique to brawl, fit on the floor, spit and vomit; a broken man who we cannot help but pity.

Kinnear’s soliloquies are compelling, eloquently using Shakespearean English with the ease and familiarity of a first language. Iago uses the façade of ‘the- good- bloke- down- the- pub’ to conceal his devious scheming, thus allowing him to build a hilarious repartee with the audience. He makes us laugh and therefore we like him, thus twisting our sense of morality because we are egging him on to destroy Othello. He switches rapidly from joker to madman and in the final scene, his wide- eyed and open-mouthed stare onto the bed and the three deaths he has caused sends shivers down the spine. This is a chilling portrait of a man who is fascinated by his own capabilities of evil.

Other notable performances include Tom Robertson’s wonderfully posh, stupid Roderigo and Lyndsey Marshall’s hardened Emilia. Vinall’s Desdemona is eager to please, but flits about the stage without any sense of direction. The portrayal of her as naïve and childish doesn’t sit well with the Desdemona written in the text, who has natural purpose, drive and integrity.

The Oliver Theatre is enormous. The last Shakespeare play held here, 2012’s The Comedy of Errors failed to fill the space, trying to make up what it lacked in humour with an overly elaborate set. This is not an issue with Othello. The communication of the language is simple and effective, and therefore easy to understand by all of the audience members. Vicki Mortimer’s design plays with the vastness of the stage, as pokey box- rooms lit with nasty strip lighting are wheeled on, thus narrowing the audience’s focus into a tiny area of the space and creating a heightened sense of claustrophobia that fits with the play’s impossibly narrow time-frame. At times all of the set is removed, leaving you staggered at the true depth of the space, symbolic of the scope of the military operation that Othello is managing.

This Othello is another example of what will be Hytner’s legacy: making theatre accessible to all and is an example of the most effective type of Shakespeare production; one in which you forget the actors are speaking a four hundred year old language. Hytner currently has a track record of directing excellent productions, and it looks like he will leave the National Theatre in 2015 on an all- time- high.

Othello will be broadcast live to two hundred and fifty UK cinemas and many more worldwide on 26September 2013. For more information, visit www.ntlive.comOthello is running at the Olivier Theatre until 18August 2013. For more information and tickets, see the National Theatre’s website.

Hannah Elsy

Hannah Elsy

Alongside reading English at King's College London, Hannah runs around the capital watching and performing in as much theatre as physically possible. She enjoys creating new work, and is currently workshopping new ideas with the National Theatre's Young Studio. Hannah has worked as an arts journalist for the Fierce Festival of live art and Bristol's In Between Time Festival.

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Review: She Stoops to Conquer

Posted on 02 April 2012 by Laura Turner

Witty, worldy and wildly funny, Oliver Goldsmith’s 1773 comedy of manners is brought to life with aplomb and enthusiasm in this lusty, joyous production at the Olivier Theatre. Complete with sumptuous period costume, a revolving set and some very clever scene transitions courtesy of an ensemble cast of singing servants, Jamie Lloyd’s revival of She Stoops to Conquer is a firecracker from start to finish.

Mistaken identity always makes for a frolic of a play (Shakespeare knew) and this romp certainly proves the point. Marlow and Hastings, two foppish gents down from town, find themselves lost in the country on the way to the Hardcastle residence, where they are to meet Marlow’s potential new bride, Kate. They wind up in the local drinking hole where, as luck (or misfortune) would have it, they meet a drunken Tony Lumpkin, Kate’s mischevious half-brother. He directs them to the Hardcastle house, but tells them it is a country inn where they might stay the night. Hilarity ensues and insults abound as Marlow and Hastings make themselves at home amongst the aghast Hardcastle’s fine (if rather rustic) furnishings. But one dilemma remains: Marlow is as chatty as a monkey with ladies of lesser means, but becomes a jibbering wreck when faced with a modest woman of class. Kate’s solution? Disguise herself as a barmaid of course, to entrap her potential husband and toy with him along the way.

Tightly choreographed chaos reigns in this production, but the storytelling in the hands of the hard-working cast and director Lloyd is strong and clear. Beneath the humour, after all, lies a serious subject indeed; the good name and fortune of two modest, upstanding ladies are at stake and nobody is going to stand for that, least of all the hysterical Mrs Hardcastle. Sophie Thompson is sensationally snappy and simpering as this fashion and image-obsessed housewife, and with the characters’ many asides to the audience, it isn’t hard to draw the inevitable comparisons with aspects of society today. Any scene she shares with the wonderful Steve Pemberton as her long-suffering spouse is utterly engaging. Commanding the stage, Thompson ensures that however funny she is, Mrs Hardcastle remains a well-rounded character. At no moment does anyone feel pantomime or one-dimensional.

It is a skilled cast who manage to keep the audience on side and engaged through Goldsmith’s frenzied and frisky text, which moves at a whisk. We form a relationship with almost every character, sympathising with them as well as loving to hate their vanity, pride, greed and envy. Everyone has foibles and the cast glory in them rather than shying away from the complexities of character. Kate Hardcastle is, as her name suggests, the very epitome of steely fortification, not easily won or swiftly stolen, reminiscent of an earlier, shrew-like Kate. Katherine Kelly manages to carry off her confident, almost harsh, exterior, whilst allowing the tenderness within to slowly emerge, peeping out through the cracks like sunbeams until, at the end of the play, she is positively radiant. Kelly clearly relishes, too, the chance to let loose and get rustic as she impersonates a barmaid to ensnare the quivering Marlow. Cush Jumbo as Hastings’s love match Constance Neville is equally delightful, capturing perfectly the balance of passion, practicality and prudence that so defined romantic relationships of the time.

It is the double act of Harry Hadden-Paton and John Heffernan as Marlow and Hastings that offers much of the most physical of the comedy here. Their posing and posturing is loveably ridiculous, especially when coupled with David Fynn’s kind-hearted but cheekily playful and decidedly down-to-earth Lumpkin, but as events unravel we do see another side to these frivolous fops. They do have hearts hidden deep within their gold-embroidered waistcoats and the dripfeed of change is paced beautifully within the frantic and frenetic non-stop action of the play.

Every performance in this slick production is measured, calm and completely in control of the space, demonstrating the sheer skill of the acting talent on offer. With colourful clowning around and just the right amount of boisterous, bawdy boys, this is an eighteenth-century farce with a heart: a veritable feast for the senses and a stitch for your split side.

She Stoops to Conquer plays at the Olivier Theatre until Saturday 21 April. To book tickets and for more information, visit the National Theatre’s website.

Image credit: John Persson

Laura Turner

Laura Turner

Laura trained as a writer with Hull Truck Theatre, BBC New Talent and the Royal Court Theatre. She has worked extensively with touring theatre company Chapterhouse, where she is currently Writer in Residence. Laura has previously written for BBC EastEnders: E20 and her adaptation of Jane Eyre toured theatres with Hull Truck Theatre Company at the start of 2013. She is now working on an original play for the theatre, as well as projects with Bolton Octagon, Middle Child Theatre and The Ashton Group, Cumbria. She has been long-listed for the Bruntwood Prize for Playwrighting and the Adrienne Benham Award.

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Review: Mother Courage and Her Children

Posted on 02 November 2009 by A Younger Theatre

Mother Courage and Her Children

Mother Courage and Her Children

Mother Courage and Her Children has been built into my nervous system since a young age. Programmed and modified in vigorous lessons at GCSE’s, A Level and Degree level of teaching. Therefore I think it’s fair to say that it was about time that I actually went and saw the Brecht production for myself. As you can imagine, I hold the play quite dear to my heart, and actually rather like the themes that run through it. Nothing beats an epic war spread over many years, and the loss of people to that war. Judging from several reviews of the show already it would appear not everyone likes an epic proportion of a play, and quite a few people were lost to the tragic tale.

Let me set the scene, the Olivier Theatre at the National Theatre, a vast stage exposed to the audience, blasts of sound effects and sound scopes echo around the auditorium. Stage managers, actors, scenery, and props are littered everywhere and anywhere. This is the start of a war, and Mother Courage the protagonist of Brechts play leads her cart of war supplies across what we know now as Europe with her three children, from three different fathers. This opening scene is quite dramatic, explosions going off, lights whirling beams around the stage, and Fiona Shaw standing on top of her cart singing an almighty song of war.

The production is going to epic, I could just tell, but the real question is more, did it live up to the epic proportions of the play that Brecht once wrote?

Mother Courage
Fiona Shaw as Mother Courage

What I admire about Deborah Warner’s production of Bertolt Brecht’s, Mother Courage and Her Children, is how true she sticks to some of the Brechtian methods of alienation and distancing of the audiences, at no point is there a cause for emotion when Brecht is around. Huge banners and voice overs announce the start of new scenes and what happens within. “…her honest son dies” – This is what I love about Brecht, the fact you are told beforehand what to expect, and thus when it happens you are absent minded about any form of emotion.

Warner’s direction of Mother Courage for me stays true to the ways of Brecht, even down to the bursting of songs, which are delightfully played by Duke Special and band. Perhaps it’s all a bit theatrical, with the use of hand held microphones, but then once again it reminds us that we’re just watching a show, and as Brecht said: “I don’t want the audience to come into the theatre and hang their minds up with their hats”, or something close to that nonetheless.

Warner has brought the production up to speed rather (despite the three hour running time) with a contemporary feel to the production. It’s something about the staging, the scenery that is erected to symbolise but to not actually fulfill. It’s in the costumes and props, and maybe down to the swearing that is littered in Tony Kushner’s new translation.

Despite all of this, I can’t help feel that there is something missing from Mother Courage and Her Children, it lacks a heart, a keystone that completes the show. It’s as if it is missing a limb that it can’t function without. Don’t get me wrong, there is much to praise in this slightly risky production for the National Theatre, but after 3 hours I wanted more. I wanted full on explosions and blood and guts. I wanted to see the despair of Mother Courage as she loses her last child.

I just wanted more.

From a production with such epic proportions, you would have thought Warner would have pushed the piece beyond the comforts of ‘let’s keep this nice for the audience’.  Alas, that wasn’t the case.

Mother Courage2
Mother Courage and her Daughter

Fiona Shaw plays the lead here, and she does so with compelling conviction. She is rugged, and honest, witty and smart. I actually rather liked her singing, compared with some of the comments I’ve read! Personally I think she makes a fine leading lady and I can’t help but to feel that the pressure was on for her to push this piece constantly forward as she is rarely off the stage during the show. However she does so commendably, and I’d actually rather like to see her in future shows, she is certainly one to watch.

Another person to shine in this production comes from the slightly stupid and forgotten character of Swiss Cheese, played beautifully by Harry Melling. He manages to capture everything possible about this character, from movement, voice and presence. At times I found myself caught in his performance more than I did of Fiona Shaw.. and that’s something!

A note on the length of the production. It has been discussed at length at how long this production of Mother Courage and Her Children is. Yet I approve of the running time, it easily reflects that of the context of the play, being set over a war that lasts years upon years. A war that never truly ends. The length of the production reflects that of the length of the lives of the characters living through a war that never ends.

My advice to people would be to check out the performance, it’s entertaining, fresh and really bold, just don’t expect to be completely drawn into the action and leave bowled over by the magic of theatre, because if anything, Brecht is far from making theatre like this.

A bold and challenging piece that brings the light out of a classic Brecht play.

Mother Courage and Her Children is playing in the Olivier Theatre of the National Theatre until 08 December 2009. Check the National Theatre website for details

A Younger Theatre

A Younger Theatre

A Younger Theatre (AYT) is a platform for young people to express their views on theatre and performance. The site is maintained, edited and published by under 26 year olds who all have a passion for theatre.

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