Old Money

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Sarah Wooley’s new play Old Money at Hampstead theatre is full of superb performances, as well as giving its audience food for thought. It is a look at family relationships, and the role of the family, as well as inter-generational conflict. The play highlights the lack of communication and understanding that is probably at the centre of many families, especially ones covering many generations.

Forty-two-year-old Fiona (Tracy-Ann Oberman) is a member of the spoilt generation that had seen their parents prosper and expected to continue to climb the social ladder, but her aspirations are above her means. Burdened by a layabout husband (Timothy Watson), Fiona continually acts like a spoilt, petulant child and her husband is equally juvenile. The play is set in 2008, and this seems to be the first time that they’ve had to behave like adults or take responsibility – but they are failing to rise to the challenge, relying on handouts from Fiona’s mum Joyce. The play neatly captures a generation’s selfish sense of entitlement to a lifestyle that is out of its reach, but also the unfairness of the economic crisis that is hitting it hard.

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In contrast to her daughter, newly widowed Joyce (the superb Maureen Lipman) is financially independent, and blossoming as she sheds the ‘mask’ that has been stifling her since she married. Joyce was married off and had children, she is still supporting her daughter as well as looking after her grandchildren, and she is now facing the prospect of being expected to look after her mother. Yet in shedding the burdens imposed on her by others, Lipman depicts a woman who is gradually being liberated after being stifled her whole life.

In the programme Wooley reflects on how people’s sympathies might vary between these largely unsympathetic characters depending on their age, but as a 21 year old – a generation only represented by Candy (Nadia Clifford), a character not directly involved in the family dynamic, my sympathies tended to rest with Joyce. She’s clearly a woman who has reached the end of her tether in regards to giving but never getting anything back. Yet I think that this sympathy may also be due to Lipman’s remarkable performance which stood out, amongst a strong ensemble cast, as the backbone of the play.

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People

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Alan Bennett’s new play People has annoyed the National Trust, with Trust chairman Simon Jenkins writing a defensive rebuttal in the Guardian. Perhaps because I am not the direct subject of the attack, I read it as a slightly more tongue-in-cheek assault than Jenkins implies. Bennett has created a provocative play on a significant issue, and I think People raises important questions about the conservation of our stately homes and how this can, or should, be funded.

There is a fine line between maintaining integrity and taste and introducing new ideas to draw in visitors and make money. The play could be a critique of the public as much as of the National Trust – it is their taste that the National Trust is allegedly catering to.

Stewart Lee has commented on the unwillingness of the Trust to let visitors think for themselves or to decide how to experience a property. It is this fostering of a “narrative” for the house, to the exclusion of all else, that Bennett attacks in People. I think sometimes the National Trust underestimates the ability of their visitors to soak up the atmosphere of a house or garden without needing to have it rammed down their throats.

Frances de la Tour and Linda Bassett are perfectly decked out in the stereotypically eccentric garb of the impoverished upper classes, surrounded by priceless antiques but unable to afford central heating. They can only watch as their home crumbles around them. There is a strong ensemble cast, although de la Tour’s performance in particular carries the show. The set is also beautiful, although I actually preferred it in its dilapidated state – before the Trust has renovated the house to its former glory.

This is an entertaining play, and if it has also generated a renewed interest in the preservation of our stately homes and the role of conservation then it has done both the National Trust and the nation a service.

Scenes From An Execution

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Howard Barker’s Scenes From An Execution at the National Theatre paints an interesting portrait of the Venetian state as a superb propaganda machine, shaping its image both at home and abroad through the patronage of civic art; in this case a depiction of the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. The state expects an epic painting celebrating the glory of Venice and her victory, the justness of Venice’s cause. Galactia, commissioned to complete the painting, understands this – but is instead intent on exploring the horror and devastation of the battle.

The doge and his government find the picture not only distasteful and misleading, but treasonous – they throw Galactia into prison as a statement of their disapproval. These conflicting views of the War allow for an interesting debate about the morality of war, as well as the role and power of art and patronage, with the establishment represented in various forms by the doge and also by a critic.

There is an article in the programme about the evolution of the female painter, although this is under-explored in the play – Galactia’s gender obviously influences how she is treated, but there is little direct reference to this. Yet the role of gender in Venetian society at this time is fascinating, and could have been made more prominent.

The play’s conclusion shows the Venetian government bending the situation to their advantage as they take ownership of Galactia’s painting, hypocritically using it to display their ‘tolerance’. This again plays on the question of who controls the meaning of art – the painter or the owner (the viewers seem pretty keen to accept the line of the doge, although that may be because it fits with the view of Venice that they have been fed all their life).

This is all held together by an astonishing performance by the excellent Fiona Shaw; it’s worth going to see for her alone, although the supporting characters are sometimes a bit bland and underdeveloped. Overall it’s an intriguing look at sixteenth-century Venetian art, although its ideas are more prominent than its characters.

Twelfth Night at the Globe

When I saw Twelfth Night at the National Theatre last year, I didn’t really get it. I understood the plot, and there were some good performances, but it wasn’t funny. The play got laughs, but they sounded half-hearted. To me it seemed like people were laughing just to prove that they knew it was funny, rather than as a genuine response to the rather staid action. I thought maybe Twelfth Night just wasn’t for me; this was Shakespeare at the National, directed by Peter Hall and starring Simon Callow and Rebecca Hall, so it should have been amazing. But recently I thought that I’d give the play another try at the Globe, and I’m glad that I did.

Hall’s production was skilfully played out, but slightly dull; in contrast the Globe’s production really captured the spirit of the play. It featured an outstanding all-male ensemble cast; Samuel Barnett, Liam Brennan, Paul Chahidi, Johnny Flynn, Stephen Fry, James Garnon and Mark Rylance all gave great performances although Rylance as Olivia tended to steal the scene. The decision to have an all-male cast, a replication of the Globe’s production 10 years earlier (which featured many of this cast), gave an extra dimension to the idea of dissemblance and gender. Viola is now a man, dressed as a woman, disguised as a man – as she would have been in Shakespeare’s day.

The dialogue and physical comedy were honed to perfection, really bringing the play to life. The Globe was packed, and the atmosphere really added to the experience. It really demonstrates the importance of a production; last year I was ready to give up on Twelfth Night as a rather dull Shakespeare “comedy” but the Globe’s version has converted me; it’s laugh-out-loud funny and deserves the West End transfer it will receive this Autumn.

Hedda Gabler

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In the last couple of years Sheridan Smith has certainly been busy – with recent roles on screen in Accused, The Scapegoat, Mrs Biggs and the film Tower Block as well as frequent appearances on the stage. She now takes on the title role in the Old Vic‘s Hedda Gabler. Ably supported by a great ensemble cast including Adrian Scarborough, Fenella Woolgar and Anne Reid, Smith’s captivating performance as Hedda demonstrates why she’s the actress of the moment. Her Hedda is cruel and vindictive but also unhappy, desperate and trapped – a woman desperately searching for some control in her life. Sheridan brings likeability to a character that could have been totally unsympathetic.

While throughout the play Hedda resorts to scheming and manipulation, this is the only way that she can hope to influence her life and those around her. The great tragedy of Hedda’s story is that in trying to make an impact, and to gain some control over her life, she fails and instead increases her suppression. As she falls to the mercy of the judge her only remaining option to take control of her destiny seems to be in taking her own life.

Hedda is smothered by society’s expectations of her; that her fulfilment in life should come from loving her husband and bearing his children. Her husband seems unaware of her own wishes, as demonstrated by his reaction to her announcement that she is pregnant. Sally Ledger’s interesting programme article explores the contemporary importance of Ibsen’s play in identifying the restrictions imposed by late-nineteenth-century bourgeois society. She points out that although the play was taken up by feminists as defining the unfair expectations of women Ibsen himself believed that the constrictive nature of society was actually a “problem of humanity in general”. Whether as a statement about the position of women of or on society in general, Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler certainly poses thought-provoking questions about the restrictive nature of society.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

 Having both really enjoyed the book when it first came out, the National Theatre’s charming adaptation of Mark Haddon’s novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time had a lot to live up to, but it didn’t disappoint me and my friend Amy when we saw it this week at the Cottesloe.

Luke Treadaway gave an astonishing performance as Christopher, the 15-year-old boy with Asperger Syndrome who discovers his neighbour’s murdered dog and sets out to investigate the crime. His abrupt and persistent questioning unearths rather more than he had intended, and soon family issues are added to his case. Treadaway was believable and likeable as a boy who struggles to understand the world around him, and is in turn misunderstood by those he meets. While at times Christopher resorts to violence and physical coping mechanisms, he can also be very articulate as he explains his difficulties in coping with the chaos of the world.

The dramatisation of the novel, which was written as though by Christopher, means that there is more opportunity to empathise with those around Christopher, in particular his parents, who are struggling to cope with his behaviour. Both Nicola Walker and Paul Ritter gave nuanced depictions of parents who want the best for their son but are struggling to deal with the demands his behaviour places upon them, and are sometimes pushed over the edge (a metaphor that the very literal Christopher would struggle to understand). The distantness of Christopher from his parents makes the moments when they connect with him all the more poignant.

The staging was excellent, and encapsulated the ordered and clinical nature of Christopher’s world, as well as providing the backdrop for numerous changes of scene. The production was dynamic, and I particularly enjoyed the sequences depicting Christopher’s imaginary career as a astronaut and his foray into the threatening world of the train station. Both brought to life the way that Christopher experiences the world. In the programme, Mark Haddon provides an interesting commentary on his novel, while Marcus du Sautoy discusses Christopher’s interest in mathematics and Simon Baron-Cohen expands on the characteristics of Asperger Syndrome.

For those interested in autism, the BBC recently showed an excellent documentary on children with autism, which demonstrated the broad range of characteristics that the spectrum covers. It also gave the perspective of those around someone with autism, and further explores the effect that it can have on daily life.

The National’s production made use of the benefits that dramatisation brings, to tell Christopher’s story to the best advantage; it is a faithful adaptation that, while a different experience to reading the book, is equally as good and it has definitely inspired me to reread the novel.

Timon of Athens

The National Theatre has produced Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens as part of the London 2012 Festival and, as with the BBC’s Shakespearean offerings, has provided a lot of extra material that makes the play more accessible. In the Olivier Exhibition Space The Making of Timon has been produced in association with the British Museum, who is also holding an exhibition of its own – Shakespeare: staging the world. The National’s exhibition covers both the world that Shakespeare was writing in and the processes involved in the making of the new production.

While the section on Shakespeare’s world was interesting, what really caught my attention was the part of the exhibition focussing on the National Theatre’s production. It was fascinating to see how props were constructed, the designs for the set, as well as rehearsal schedules and annotated scripts. It was also interesting to hear from those involved in different capacities in the production and see their perspectives on the play and their jobs.

National Theatre programmes are always informative and good value, but the Timon programme is particularly good. There is an article by Peter Holland on the play, an extract from Simon Russel Beale on acting Shakespeare and a collection of views on Timon from contributors including Karl Marx. All were helpful, not presuming that you already know anything but not dumbing-down either.

While I have nothing but praise for the content accompanying the production, I have to admit that I was less taken with the performance itself. I found it all a bit soulless and emotionless. Perhaps the play’s focus on materialism, and the shallowness of the characters’ lives and friendships, made this inevitable. I’m not sure that the problems I had aren’t intrinsic to the play; none of the characters are especially likeable and there isn’t really much action. The National’s production, set in the modern period, was nicely designed with minimal but expensive-looking sets and Simon Russel Beale did give a good performance as Timon, with the presence to carry the production.

I think that more theatres should follow the National Theatre’s example in providing extra support material for their productions. The Globe is also very good at this, and always has excellent articles in its programmes. As someone who has only been attending the theatre for a few years, and is eager to learn more about the productions I see, I am always grateful for informative programmes. Programmes and exhibitions such as the National’s are invaluable in ensuring that everyone in the audience gets as much from the performance as they can.