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!
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.
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 second series of the BBC drama Accused has been as successful as the first. It follows those in the dock, taking us back so that we see the unfortunate circumstances that led to their crime. Even though the prologue of Romeo and Juliet tells us that “A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life” it doesn’t stop the play gripping its audience, and similarly Jimmy McGovern’s drama draws you. You find yourself rooting for the defendant in the dock as the events surrounding their crime unfold.
The drama is carried by an excellent cast. Sean Bean as a transvestite in an unlikely relationship sustained his episode almost single-handedly, with support from Stephen Graham as his confused lover. Anne Marie Duff and Olivia Coleman both gave outstanding performances as mothers struggling to deal with the impact of local gang culture. Robert Sheehan nuanced performance as troubled teenager Stephen stood out as he depicted a young man struggling with mental health issues and not finding the support he needs. He was supported by Sheridan Smith as a somewhat sinister nurse who becomes Stephen’s step-mother and John Bishop, better known for comedy, who also gave an emotive performance as Stephen’s father. Anna Maxwell Martin was excellent in the final episode as an overworked prison officer who must deal with the fall-out after a prisoner commits suicide.
Accused excels in creating believable dilemmas, where ordinary people face impossible circumstances. Morality is never black and white, and in Stephen’s story not even the facts of the event are clear. We are left in suspense as to whether his suspicions about his step-mother are delusional or founded in reality. Where Accused really succeeds is in continually posing moral questions that challenge the audience; there is no right way to respond in these situations and the characters are trapped by circumstance and the actions of others. It is certainly one of the most gripping and thought-provoking television dramas of recent years.