A German Life

A German Life by Christopher Hampton

Bridge Theatre / directed by Jonathan Kent

Seen on April 17, 2019

Score: 4 / 5

In what is probably her final stage appearance, Maggie Smith gives a quietly majestic solo performance as Brunhilde Pomsel, a German woman who worked as Joseph Goebbels’ secretary during Wold War II and was later interned by Russians for five years. Drawn from the real-life testimony of Pomsel, which she shared with a group of documentary filmmakers before her death in 2016, Christopher Hampton’s script takes us chiefly from her adolescence to the years immediately following her internment, with a brief coda that meditates on questions of guilt and responsibility. Full of brief digressions about both the changing shapes of German society in the first half of the 20th century and the colourful details of her own life, Pomsel’s speech, addressed overtly to an audience, imposes a dim narrative order upon a life that is admittedly a string of coincidences and unexpected swerves.

While Anna Fleischle’s set of a domestic interior moves forward incrementally and imperceptibly, Smith is fixed to her armchair for the entirety of these intermissionless 100 minutes, barely readjusting herself in it. The show is truly on her face and hands. Her delivery consistently occupies a middle ground between critical detachment and impassioned recollection: she feels and thinks with precision and grace in equal measure. Even when she’s giving an account of some of the darkest days of the Nazi regime, an air of calm and restraint pervades her words. Ultimately, this attitude culminates in a gesture towards an Arendtian “banality of evil”: Pomsel claims that if she was complicit in the atrocities perpetrated by her employers, then it was nothing but her stupidity that should be blamed. She reminds us time and again that she neither knew nor asked much. Or perhaps that’s how she’d like to think about it now, more than half a century later. We are in a grey zone, both morally and narratively, and there could hardly be a better rendering of this historical voice than Smith’s to intimate all the different shades that reside deep down there.

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Downstate

Downstate by Bruce Norris

National Theatre (a co-production with Steppenwolf Theatre Company) / directed by Pam MacKinnon

Seen on April 16, 2019

Score: 4.5 / 5

Welcome to one of the last places you’d ever want to visit: Downstate takes place over the course of a single day in a group home shared by four men convicted of sex crimes against minors. When one of their victims—now an adult—shows up with his wife for a long-awaited confrontation, the play’s fuse gets lit, its light and heat gradually enfolding all these men in a wave of belated reckoning. Bruce Norris takes the knife-edge issues of sexual abuse and trauma, and runs them through a masterfully balanced mix of levity and gravity that is nothing short of life-like.

Pam MacKinnon’s assuredly even-handed direction and Todd Rosenthal’s painstakingly realist set design imbue the play with the aura of a family drama—an effect also buttressed by the convicted characters’ quasi-familial bickering and teasing, especially in the first act. The fantastic cast are especially remarkable in how they reveal the messy humanity of each of their characters, whether it be full of aspirations, regrets, or pain—or some combination thereof. Francis Guinan and K Todd Freeman bring a particularly flavourful depth to their depictions of offenders, while Tim Hopper’s deeply traumatised Andy and Cecilia Noble’s sassily authoritative Ivy are well-tuned renderings.

Neither the topics with which Downstate deals nor the ways in which it does so are easy to unpack. At the centre of Norris’ play are four morally reprehensible criminals, whose outlooks on life and on their deeds we are not asked to forgive or redeem, but to understand. From its very start, the play does away with the idea of siding with and against certain characters. Rather, the more we hear from them, the harder it becomes to pass judgment. Note that this is not the same as coming to like them or growing more sympathetic: what happens is that we absorb more and more of who they are, what they feel, and what they want in the wake of—and in their awareness of—their crimes, and the psychological and social picture that emerges becomes ever more resistant to classification. Both charm and darkness reside in each of their psyches, and the play’s chief concern seems to be to foreground this undeniable mixture, which we, individually and as a society, may not really know what to do with or how to feel about. As such, the play itself is an invitation to an exercise in sustained listening—to the victim, to the offenders, and to the system (partially embodied by the police officer Ivy).

There are times in Downstate when you can’t help but laugh at things that you know are extremely uncouth to hear from anyone, let alone from sex offenders. There are other times when the painful tension among the characters, particularly between the victim Andy and his former assaulter, shoves a lump in your throat and you feel you have to take a deep breath. It is this cringe- and smile-inducing honesty (and, equally important, self-deceptiveness) of Norris’ characters that drives the whole work forward in a slow but steady tempo. And it is plays like this that reaffirm your belief in the theatre’s power as a social and political force that can open up some truly thought-provoking conversations.

Three Sisters

Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov, in a new version by Cordelia Lynn

Almeida Theatre / directed by Rebecca Frecknall

Seen on April 15, 2019

Score: 4.5 / 5

“I’m bored, bored, bored.” The refrain, occasionally spoken but frequently felt, is at the heart of what Chekhov’s Three Sisters depicts over the course of its four scenes. In the wake of their father’s death, the Sergeyevna sisters feel trapped and doomed to unhappiness in a provincial Russian town, yearning for an idealised return to the Moscow of their childhood. Joined in this restlessness of spirit by their brother and a brigade stationed at their town, the three sisters grapple with virtually all the Big Problems of life: unfulfilling marriages, the search for meaning and love, woes of work, loneliness, depression, and—yes—boredom. The list goes on; characters keep on with their suffering and their articulations of it. Not much happens, but also, strangely, beautifully, everything happens. By the end, the manifold mysteries, pains, and joys of life appear to have been laid bare before our eyes in all their haunting and relatable simplicity.

This new “version” by Cordelia Lynn is not so much a critical adaptation of Chekhov’s play (of the sort that the Almeida often favours) as an unrestrained, fresh translation of it, sprinkled with a handful of additional speeches, dialogues, and nonverbal moments. Especially when examined on the page, her script—insofar as it is hers—may even appear to be too loyal to the original. Still, what Lynn does with Chekhov’s already understated language is commendable: There is a noticeable tenderness, as well as an expected colloquialism, that distinguishes her work on the play. Perhaps the greatest sign of her achievement in this regard is that for anyone not overly familiar with the original text, it would be hard to draw a sharp line between what might be hers and what is Chekhov’s. It’s as though she has put the play into a space of her own making and let it breathe and marinate there for a while, keeping its spirit and shape very much intact but invigorating its verbal texture towards a hard-hitting immediacy. Not that Chekhov’s language is in dire need of refreshing, but Lynn’s rendering refracts it through a contemporary parlance that thankfully doesn’t become too jarring. Her authorial hand is mostly absent from our sight, though we know it’s always there, lurking somewhere behind.

As in her recent Summer and Smoke, Rebecca Frecknall’s staging is at once subdued and bold, lyrical and engaging, which is supremely fitting for a play of this nature. In her hands, Chekhov’s landmark realism becomes almost exclusively a matter of characterisation and delivery, loosening its hold on scenography. Bits and pieces from what would be a conventional Chekhov production—chairs, lamps, candles—populate Hildegard Bechtler’s minimalist and punchy design, but Frecknall estranges and aestheticises them to the point of poetry, multiplying their utilities in ways that bolster the production’s choreographic vibrancy. While this reliance on certain props for such atmospheric effect is not always consistent in its logic, it does help the action stand on its own, distancing it from its specific historical setting—one that has a rather spectral presence in this take on the play.

In addition, Frecknall’s visual foregrounding of the brother Andrey’s mounting sense of isolation and entrapment is a most welcome approach to the play’s curious handling of his character in the shadow of his sisters. Chekhov might seem to prioritise the three young women both in the play’s title and in its central story, but Andrey is an integral part of all that goes on and has a tormented psyche not unlike those of his sisters. Through some thoughtful moments of visual composition, Frecknall draws our attention to this component of the play, magnifying its dormant emotional impact.

The titular sisters are played with controlled bravura by Patsy Ferran, Peal Chanda, and Ria Zmitrowicz: Ferran’s Olga wages a private and silent war in her mind against herself and her fate, but with a calm that is always on the cusp of dissolution—indeed, explosion. Chanda’s Masha is perpetually and visibly pained, so much so that even fleeting moments of joy have a hard time leaving an impression on her face. Zmitrowicz’s youthful and sensitive Irina gradually surrenders her optimism to a physically sickening anxiety. Both individually and as a trio, these three actors convey with impressive precision different facets of human suffering, all the while signalling the strength and resilience that they derive from each other’s company. Among the supporting cast, Elliot Levey (as Masha’s husband, Fyodor Ilyich Kulygin) strikes a resonant balance between the self-consciously comic and the silently despairing, and Peter McDonald (as the lieutenant colonel Alexander Ignatevich Vershinin) is both soulful and steadfast in his convictions. Alan Williams, too, gives a delightful performance as the jaded sage Ivan Romanovich Chebutykin. Truly, the entire company works like a well-oiled machine with a big, human heart.

Jack Knowles’ elegantly modulating lights and George Dennis’ sound design, which is equal parts animated and mellow, have a big part to play in what makes this Three Sisters so tonally rich. This is a production that knows well when to make concrete the play’s divergent sensibilities and when to let them percolate in the air, in silence and with grace. The unfaltering combination of commanding performances and searing tableaus situates us in a world where despair and hope are inextricably linked to each other—a painfully recognisable world where, even if life’s greatest puzzles may never be solved, they can at least be fiercely wrestled with and turned into great art.

 

 

 

Hamilton

Hamilton / book, music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda

Victoria Palace Theatre / directed by Thomas Kail

Seen on April 11, 2019

Score: 5 / 5

(I know I’m late to the party with this, but here it goes, short and sweet.) A consummate production with big brawns, a big brain, and a big heart, Hamilton is an artistic achievement whose stakes and borders go well beyond those we often associate with musicals. This true symphony of visual, aural, and kinetic energies works almost in the vein of a Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk. Whether the stage hosts the entire cast in one of the many scenes of vibrant, hectic choreography, or only one actor standing stiffly (but singing heartily), the effect is consistently visceral: every detail counts and works. Lin-Manuel Miranda rewrites the rulebook of musical theatre with astonishing dexterity and imagination, in ways that both interrogate and entertain the audience. The London cast, led by Jamael Westman as Hamilton, is immensely talented and could not be more comfortable in the skin of their characters. Not only Thomas Kail’s direction and Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography create magnetic fields of sincere bravura, but all elements of the design are supremely blended with one another and interwoven into the fabric of this enchanted world. (In particular, Howell Binkley’s lights set a whole new bar for his craft.) In my annals of theatre-going, neither hip-hop nor American history had never been this aesthetically pleasing and rousing. An elegantly wild meditation on history, nationhood, and the very idea of biography, Hamilton more than lives up to the hype.

All About Eve

All About Eve by Joseph L. Mankiewicz

Noel Coward Theatre / adapted and directed for the stage by Ivo van Hove

Seen on March 7, 2019

Score: 4 / 5

Adapted from Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1950 film, All About Eve brings to the theatre a story that already belongs there, that of the increasingly toxic relationship between two women—Margo Channing, a popular but aging Broadway star, and Eve Harrington, a mysterious young fan who insinuates herself into Margo’s life, progressing from being her assistant to her understudy and finally her rival. As Eve threatens Margo’s career and personal relationships, not only do the real roots of Margo’s insecurities come above ground, but Eve’s own ambition finds itself headed to a trap of its making. Ivo van Hove’s production builds up and rests on great stretches of surface tension, but without putting anything deeper beneath them.

A sort of flatness reigns over this glassy world from start to finish: evocative, certainly, of the predictable lack of depth that characterises many of these showbiz lives, but also evident in and of itself, tugging at the seams of this explicitly monochromatic production. With so much glam and glitter parading around, the underlying critique—assuming there is one—starts to get countervailed by its own means, letting itself be tempted by its very subject. Perhaps some of this has to do with the generally unexceptional performances, as moments of nuanced and muscular expression are the outliers, rather than the norm. Something is certainly missing: the energy—or the chemistry, if you will—not so much lags as never takes off in the first place.

Gillian Anderson delivers a needlessly mannered performance that flirts with hyperbole, though at her best, she tantalisingly offers peeks of Margo’s hidden depths, assuring us that they are there, but not to be delved into. For a play that sets much store by the allure of its titular character’s evasiveness, the casting of Lily James as Eve speaks of poor judgment: James does anger very well, imbuing two of the play’s most crucial scenes with a charmingly alien menace, but the remainder of her performance is consistently stagnant and disappointing, devoid of any convincing complexities. But we are, thankfully, treated to the endless wonders of Monica Dolan, whose dynamic rendering of Karen is one of the absolute highlights of the production. Julian Ovenden and Stanley Townsend follow closely behind: Ovenden is magnetically alive as Margo’s partner Bill, and Townsend renders with surprising vigour the critic Addison’s ultimate transformation into a melodramatic force of evil.

All About Eve plays host to many of Ivo van Hove’s signature theatrical gestures. Most of the scenes feature live recordings of on- and off-stage action projected on a big screen, which pulls our attention in several directions more than it provides us with the luxury to get beneath the skin of certain moments. A strong emphasis on simultaneity thus undergirds the play; we are often given access to scenes that unfold concurrently but in different spaces. It’s worth pointing out the slight overuse of projections: it’s not always clear what purpose they are meant to serve. When we see close-ups of Margo’s and Eve’s faces reflected on the mirror, for instance, the effect is stark and the dramaturgical intent clear. Yet our prolonged exposure to, say, the silent goings-on in a kitchen during a party rarely amounts to much.

Jan Versweyfeld’s expansive set reinforces the play’s self-reflexivity; it lays bare the artifice of the theatre in elegant ways, alternately exposing and hiding the brick walls and slight clutter of the backstage. An D’huys’s costumes are anachronistically sleek reflections of the characters’ taste and class, while Tom Gibbons’ sound, which plays for long stretches of time as a sort of ambient noise, creates permanent tension (sometimes at the expense of clarity). The look of the whole is undeniably velvety and lustrous, though it has a disquieting coldness of its own. The vanity mirror that often stands centre stage works superbly: as the lights around it glow with intensity, it almost creates another experiential realm within the world of the play. Ivo van Hove’s longstanding interest in creating deeply resonant, even painterly, stage images comes to the fore here most forcefully when our perceptual angle is anchored on this mirror.

In terms of story, All About Eve neither promises nor delivers any mind-expanding substance. This is a melodramatic tale that knows itself and does little to play with its own bounds and rules, whether seriously or light-heartedly. It would, of course, be marvellous if what started out as a plot of ambition teetering on (self-)destruction had taken slightly different directions and thrown us off a bit. But we end where we start, both thematically and structurally. It appears that we already know, more or less, somehow, how things will end. So that final tableau is far less surprising than it is aesthetically moving. Maybe that’s a statement in itself, maybe not.

Medea

Medea by Simon Stone, after Euripides

Internationaal Theater Amsterdam & Barbican Centre / directed by Simon Stone

Seen on March 8

Score: 5 / 5

Simon Stone’s radically reimagined and decluttered Medea is a visceral take on Euripides’ classic tragedy. In this bold and minimalist adaptation, in which Medea has become Anna, she and her husband Lucas are medical scientists living in a world of YouTube videos, McDonald’s, and sexting (each of which finds its way into Stone’s elegantly written script at pivotal moments). The play is firmly embedded within a contemporary milieu, but its scenic backdrop is none other than Peter Brook’s empty space taken to its lyrical extreme, as timeless as it gets: an all-consuming sea of whiteness, upon which, at some point, the ashes of Anna’s tragedy begin to fall with ominous grace. Even though our attention is occasionally diverted to projections that capture close-ups of the onstage action, in ways that are narratively integrated into Stone’s version, it is the razor-sharp performances of the actors that claim the entirety of our focus, charging this production with its unadulterated power. And that without any grand gestures: a near-geometrical but poetic sense of blocking and physicality infuses the actors’ ownership of this disquieting space. Marieke Heebink, as Anna, is especially dazzling: in a performance that throbs achingly with life, she unleashes and contracts, lets go and takes it all in.

Both Stone’s text and Heebink’s rendering portray Anna as a rightfully unhinged victim, but without brushing over the extremities of her cunning and steadfastness. Save for a few moments in which she knowingly pushes Lucas’s buttons, we are mostly asked to sympathise with her, and we are given such a finely wrought perspective into her feelings that her subsequent actions gain a tender luminosity. “I have given you everything!” she exclaims at one point to Lucas, who appears to have squandered all her love and support for the sake of a girl half his age. Over the first half of the play, it becomes clear that Anna, recently discharged from psychiatric treatment for having poisoned her adulterous husband, genuinely wants to make things better, pick them back up and put into order. Heebink’s eyes glisten with the intensity of her desire for a return to normalcy, to a loving family. Because we witness her sincerity and insistence in this attempt, the eventual downfall unfolds even more disturbingly, with a sense of utter inevitability on Anna’s part, and one of strong culpability on Lucas’s.

This humbly handsome production runs for no more than 80 minutes, but by the end, it feels as though we have been in this scorching world for much longer. And what a world it is—bare, bleak, but fully alive.

The Son

The Son by Florian Zeller

Kiln Theatre / directed by Michael Longhurst / translated by Christopher Hampton

Seen on March 7, 2019

Score: 5 / 5

Transfixing and electrifying, Florian Zeller’s The Son is the sort of play that puts a lump of unease right into your stomach and doesn’t take it back even after the curtain falls. Yet as the haunting reach of this feeling grows, the play rarely lets you forget how deceptively simple its story is. Deceptive, because it’s virtually impossible to process and give an account of the plot without making certain interpretive leaps, without taking sides. From one perspective, The Son is about a divorced couple’s inability, due to their shocking self-absorption, to manage their adolescent son’s severe depression and suicidal tendencies. From another, it’s about their inadvertent—indeed, universal—encounter with the vexing question of how much their love for him can actually help him heal.

If these descriptive alternatives take the focus away from Nicolas, the tormented, struggling soul responsible for the play’s mounting tension, it’s not at all because his complex character is not central to it, but rather because Zeller’s chief preoccupation is how his parents respond to his illness. Partially blind as Anne and Pierre seem to be to it, the pressing gravity of Nicolas’ depression is actually all too evident: the play rather pulsates around, and chronicles, the ways in which they do and do not deal with it. I, for one, have found myself, at several times, audibly gasping at their selfish misguidedness, but not without the awareness that the play easily accommodates opposing tendencies to approach their parental challenge from a more tolerant perspective. Though the plot gets a bit predictable towards the end, Zeller’s treatment of his characters is anything but so, particularly when it comes to the words with which they try to bridge the gulfs separating them. Zeller’s language deftly combines the prosaic with the profound (in ways that reminded me of Duncan Macmillan’s People, Places & Things), and Christopher Hampton’s fluid translation is obviously integral to this effect.

As richly textured as Zeller’s play is, it owes a good deal of its cumulative impact to Michael Longhurst’s searingly calibrated production. This is, all in all, a work of great finesse: The cast is uniformly brilliant—especially John Light as the slowly unravelling, smugly controlling Pierre and Laurie Kynaston as the pained and manipulative Nicolas. Longhurst stages this Ibsenite tragedy in an environment of estranged realism, designed superbly by Lizzie Clachan. A chic but spare living room accommodates all the scenes, even when exact locations change. What at first appears to be painstaking realism gradually subverts itself: as the material signs of Nicolas’s disturbed, disruptive behaviour invade an otherwise ‘logical’ space and accrete grotesquely upon it, the increasingly off-kilter set becomes a visual counterpart to the story’s disturbing trajectory and embodies its tame uncanniness. Lee Curran’s lighting, which subtly helps the play oscillate between its moments of filial warmth and clinical despair, contributes to this strange but powerful tone. The sonic background to much of this, composed and designed by Isobel Waller-Bridge, is indispensably ambient; razor-sharp in its timing and changing dominance, it keeps exhaling wafts of harrowing beauty through the entire piece. Orchestrated with sensitive precision by Longhurst, all these elements harmonize strikingly and testify to the whole team’s meticulous engagement with the play’s covert rhythms.

Even when The Son comes daringly close to luxuriating in the pathos of some of its scenes, it manages to keep its distance from that realm of directness. Instead, a sense of unassuming ambiguity runs through it all, and does so with gusto, capturing something both ineffable and familiar. It’s at once delightful and frightening to be so engulfed by it.