The Genius of Michael Grandage

With the Michael Grandage Company’s season at the Noël Coward Theatre, Michael Grandage has come up with an idea so obvious that it’s amazing nobody has done it before.

It’s a shame that it’s how the world works, but marketing a season purely around its headline stars is a sure-fire way to ensure its commercial success. It doesn’t matter what the play is, or how good the production, if it stars Daniel Radcliffe or Jude Law people are going to go. The teenage girls sitting next to me when I saw The Cripple of Inishmaan spent the interval looking at the programme’s opening double-page spread (featuring a line up of all of the season’s stars), stroking Daniel Radcliffe’s face and swooning over Jude Law. Looking down into the stalls it was striking how many programmes were open at this page!

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But crucially, the stars that Grandage has chosen (also including Simon Russel Beale and Judi Dench) have not only commercial appeal but also the talent to give a quality performance. Alongside Grandage lending his name to the company, the reputation of its stars will surely make the season as appealing to theatre buffs as Harry Potter or Jude Law fans. This is backed up by the array of four- and five-star reviews received by the season so far. What could have been a gimmick is instead the foundation for a serious season of quality drama.

By removing any direct reference to each individual play (other than the title) the Grandage season has created coherent and distinctive marketing for a season of unconnected plays. It’s impossible to know what any of the plays are about from the posters, but they are certainly striking. And while I find it a bit depressing that star casting is almost a necessity for any West End play, it’s undeniably beneficial if it makes the staging of more obscure plays viable, and introduces audiences to something new.

Northern Ballet – The Great Gatsby and Mixed Programme

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A couple of weeks ago I saw Northern Ballet’s The Great Gatsby at Sadler’s Wells. It was a vibrant production, encapsulates the spirit of the jazz age, and the choreography allowed the company to demonstrate their versatility and acting ability. We were sat at the back of the large Sadler’s Wells auditorium, but the production carried to the back of the Second Circle – the simple sets allowed the dancers and choreography to really stand out.

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Northern Ballet always takes interesting and varied subjects for their full-length productions – their repertoire includes Hamlet, Cleopatra and Wuthering Heights. Yet they translate these complex stories into dances that are surprisingly easy to follow. David Nixon’s choreography, and the acting ability of the dancers, means that Northern Ballet excels at narrative-led ballets. While it’s impossible to translate the language of Fitzgerald from the page into an entirely visual medium, as a standalone production it is highly entertaining.

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The emotional capacity of the Northern Ballet dancers also translates into their forays into non-narrative works. The company’s recent Mixed Programme at their Stanley and Audrey Burton Theatre featured Mark Godden’s Angels in the Architecture, a beautifully simplistic piece inspired by the Shaker people, using brooms, chairs and skirts, and Hans van Manen’s powerful and dynamic Concertante.

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But the piece I was most looking forward to was Luminous Juncture, a new piece by Kenneth Tindall. Before seeing his debut piece Project #1 last year I didn’t have any preconceptions, and the piece left me stunned in my seat at the emotion and physicality of the performance. I haven’t seen anything as good since, and so I was slightly worried that Luminous Juncture wouldn’t live up to my (now very high!) expectations. But after an explosive start which certainly grabbed the audience’s attention, it had me as captivated as Project #1 had the year before, and more than once I had to sit back having found myself leaning forward to the edge of my seat.

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The combination of music, movement and light led to a sublime piece of dance that was thoroughly engaging. Often when choreography is overly demanding it can lead to movements which, though very impressive, can detract from the overall impression of the piece and leave it more like an acrobatic circus feat. Yet Luminous Juncture featured seemingly impossible balances and lifts, expertly performed by the dancers and woven seamlessly into the choreography, creating beautiful and striking phrases and images.

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Perhaps because he is still dancing, Tindall’s choreography brings out the best in his dancers, showcasing their abilities. Up close in the Stanley and Audrey Burton Theatre the dancers can really showcase their emotional range, and you can appreciate the full force of their strength, flexibility and athleticism.

Northern Ballet are consistently producing high-quality, inventive and entertaining work, in Leeds and on tour. Now I’m looking forward to seeing A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the summer.

The Globe – A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest

On Saturday I took advantage of the sun and spent a day on the Southbank at the Globe with a Shakespeare double bill. I’m not normally a fan of A Midsummer Night’s Dream but, as with Twelfth Night last year, the Globe’s production has led me to reassess my preconceptions. It featured some excellent performances, and really drew out the comedy of the play. Joshua Silver as Demetrius and Luke Thompson as Lysander wrung the comedy out of their characters infatuations with Hermia and Helena, Pearce Quigley as Bottom had the audience in stitches, and Michelle Terry delivered a strong performance as Titania and Hippolyta.

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The programme talks about the bawdy nature of the play, and how modern conceptions of the play are based on sanitised Victorian editions, altered to meet with contemporary sensibilities and establish the play as particularly suitable for children. The Globe’s version certainly re-establishes the play’s sexual elements, although not to an extent shocking to a modern audience.

After A Midsummer Night’s Dream I had two and a half hours to wait before The Tempest, and decided that the groundling queue was as good a place as any. I therefore found myself settled unwittingly amongst some very excited Merlin fans, waiting to see Colin Morgan’s performance. They were very friendly and sociable though, entertaining themselves for the whole 2 hours we were queuing with animated discussion of Merlin and Doctor Who.

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Although tough on my feet, cramming two Shakespeare plays into a day meant that by the second my brain was already attuned to the language and I got into it a lot quicker than for some productions I’ve seen. Seeing the plays back to back, I was struck by the physicality of both productions.  A Midsummer Night’s Dream featured Oberon and Puck rope climbing, and a hilarious slapstick performance of the ‘play within a play’, while in The Tempest we saw Colin Morgan cartwheeling, monkey-barring and generally climbing around the set. It’s the visual spectacle of the Globe’s productions, alongside the excellent performances, that give them a sense of life – the Globe always manages to avoid academic, wordy renditions of the Bard’s works.

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While all the performances were excellent (with Roger Allam as Prospero and Jessie Buckley as Miranda), the performances of Colin Morgan and James Garnon really stood out. As Ariel, Morgan demonstrated a surprising physical dexterity and brought a captivating, ethereal quality to the part. While I’m usually a fan of Garnon for his interpretation of Shakespearean language, the role of Caliban allowed him to demonstrate his versatility, with a physical and vocal performance redolent of the creature in the National’s Frankenstein.

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Both productions are strong, and are representative of the high standard the Globe consistently demonstrates. With £5 groundling tickets for those who can stomach three hours of standing, and the opening of the Sam Wanamaker indoor theatre at the end of the year, the Globe is steadily establishing itself as a must for London theatre fans.