Monday, 17 September 2012

The Judas Kiss - Hampstead Theatre - Monday 10th September 2012

Oscar Wilde’s dangerous philosophy leads him on a path to destruction. The Judas Kiss describes two pivotal moments on that path: the day Wilde decides to stay in England and face imprisonment, and the night, after his release two years later, when the lover for whom he risked everything betrays him.
Moffat - Alistair Cameron
Galileo – Tom Colley
Oscar Wilde – Rupert Everett
Bosie – Freddie Fox
Arthur – Ben Hardy
Robbie Ross – Cal Macaninch
Phoebe – Kirsty Oswald

Creative Team:
Director - Neil Armfeld
Writer - David Hare
Designer - Dale Ferguson
Costume Designer - Sue Blane
Lighting Designer - Rick Fisher
Composer - Alan John
Sound Designer - Paul Groothuis
Casting - Cara Beckinsale

Don’t take Grannie to see this. There’s more tits, arse and cock than I think I have ever seen on stage since I began this blog. Don’t get me wrong – there’s nothing wrong with tits, arse and cock, and I imagine that Rupert Everett is very appreciative of the fact that he is getting paid while looking at it all. For the entire second act, he has nothing to do except sit in a chair centre stage and watch arse and cock all night (oh, and come up with quite a few lines, as well). And if you like your plays complete with tits, arse and cock, you will have a wonderful evening. But don’t take Grannie, OK?

I’m going to start with the performance of one of the minor characters When your sole function in a play is to look good with your kit off, make a bed and lay a table,, you should at least learn how to make a bed and lay a table properly. Ben Hardy looks great with his kit off, but when you watch him make the bed after shagging the Chambermaid (OK, he is wearing distractingly tight trousers and has a gorgeous backside so you might miss the actual process of bedmaking), you can see that he has never studied how to make a bed. An Edwardian bed, with a bolster, pillows, sheets, blanket and counterpane. In this age of duvets, bed making is very much a dying art, but Hardy’s bed looks like a dog’s dinner by the time he has finished with it. It is probably a minor quibble (although I do quite like minor quibbles) but in the Cadogan Hotel, in which Act 1 is set, a manservant would not make the bed anyway. It would be done by a chambermaid. Kirsty Oswald is so underused as Phoebe the Chambermaid that I wonder why the Director couldn’t have got her to do it. In fact, one of the backstage staff could have come on in a chambermaid costume and the two of them could have made the bed. Properly. Said manservant then proceeds to place a large, heavy trunk ON the bed – which again would have been unthinkable. I’ve seen enough episodes of Downton Abbey to know that an Edwardian suitcase goes on one of those fold out springy table things with webbing instead of a tabletop, which you carry in, unfold, put at the end of the bed and put the case on it. You don’t put the case on the bed, for petes sake. Particularly if you have just made the bed.

Neither, unfortunately, can Hardy lay a table in the correct way. He makes such a dog’s dinner of it that any well brought up dog would probably refuse to eat its dinner off said table. You don’t put the spoon ABOVE the plate, you put it to the RIGHT of the plate, with the knife further out with the blade facing TOWARDS the plate and the fork on the left. And then you put the wine glass to the RIGHT of the knife, in line with the tip. And you put the vase of flowers on the table LAST, not FIRST. Honestly, has Neil Armfield never watched Downton Abbey? Apart from that, I didn’t notice much of Hardy’s performance as Arthur because I was too distracted by his arse in those trousers. He can come and turn down my top sheet any time, and afterwards I will teach him how to make the bed and where to put a suitcase and how to lay a table. If there is sufficient time before Him Indoors gets home.

It cannot be denied that Everett makes a fine Wilde. I was thankful that Hare avoided the trap of having him speak in endless aphorisms. Unfortunately this cannot be said for act 2, when the bon mots come thick and fast, (probably the best is (in describing an incredibly buff Italian fisherman ) “All the native arrogance of his race and a cock like a length of rope dipped in tar”, and the script loses all its urgency Having Everett confined to a chair centre stage for the entire act does focus your mind on the fact that there is an awful lot of verbiage. I noticed with great amusement that it seemed to be Everett’s eyes that followed Tom Colley’s (again very fine) naked arse across the stage rather than Wilde’s.

Freddie Fox does an excellent job with an extremely unsympathetic character. “Bosie” seems to have been so shallow that he made a puddle look deep and a petulant little queen to boot, and Fox captures this so well that it was as much as I could do from stomping onto the stage and giving him a damn good smack in the face. Cal Macaninch was very good as Robbie Ross (although I would raise the point that the actual Ross had a moustache whereas Macaninch’s Ross doesn’t. It was annoying to see him appear in Act 2 in the same costume he had worn in Act 1 – an Edwardian gentleman would NOT travel down to Naples wearing full morning dress.

Dale Ferguson’s set makes The Cadogan Hotel seem dark and claustrophobic, and having an enormous drape forming the canopy of the bed and then cascading down to cover all the rest of the furniture and the floor struck me as a) practical in that it did away with the need for period furnishings and b) daft because it obviously makes the stage incredibly slippery and, when you are hopping about on one leg trying to get your trousers back on after being caught fucking the chambermaid, quite dangerous. I imagine that the haberdasher from whom this enormous length of cloth was purchased had an attack of the vapours when it was ordered (“Doreen, gentleman from the Hampstead Theatre wants to buy 40 yards of the dark brown sateen with the paisley pattern. And quite a lot of that stuff you put under rugs to stop them from creeping”) and then smiled slowly and went online looking for villas in Tuscany when they realised how much the invoice was going to be. The second act, the Neapolitan house is, by contrast, basically white walls, a few odds and ends of battered furniture, a lot of carefully directed lighting and an awful lot of cock and arse.

This is what I would call a wordy, worthy play. It’s quite long and full of speechifying. Not much happens. I think I dropped off for a couple of minutes (it had been a busy week) and I can honestly say I don’t think I missed anything of import. I do wonder why David Hare wrote it. It tells us nothing new that we didn’t already know about Wilde. Its very, very wordy. And the entire point of the play comes in the last 20 seconds and you could save yourself a good two hours just by popping in at the end for the last line. Hare’s point, delivered through the mouthpiece of Wilde, is the irony that Christ was betrayed by Judas, the disciple he knew and cared about the least. To make a better story, says Hare/Wilde, Christ should have been betrayed by John, the man he loved best. That, as far as I can see, is the sole message of this play. The stupid thing is, the play is called The Judas Kiss but Wilde is betrayed by the man he loves best. So it should rightly have been called John’s Kiss. So there. And don’t take Grannie.

What the critics said:

Sunday, 9 September 2012

Hedda Gabler - The Old Vic - Thursday 6th September 2012

Hedda Gabler, daughter of an aristocratic general, has just returned from her honeymoon. Her husband is Jørgen Tesman, an aspiring, reliable (but not brilliant) academic who has combined their honeymoon with research for his next book. The reappearance of Tesman's academic rival, Ejlert Løvborg, throws their lives into disarray. Løvborg, a writer, is also a recovered alcoholic who has wasted his talent until now. Thanks to a relationship with Hedda's old schoolmate Thea Elvsted (who has left her husband for him), Løvborg shows signs of rehabilitation and has just completed a bestseller in the same field as Tesman.
The critical success of his recently published work transforms Løvborg into a threat to Tesman, as he becomes a competitor for the university professorship Tesman had been counting on. The Tesman's are financially overstretched, and Tesman tells Hedda that he will not be able to finance the regular entertaining or luxurious housekeeping that Gabler had been expecting. Upon meeting Løvborg, however, the couple discover that he has no intention of competing for the professorship, but rather has spent the last few years labouring with Mrs. Elvsted over what he considers to be his masterpiece, the "sequel" to his recently published work.
Apparently jealous of Mrs. Elvsted's influence over Løvborg, Gabler hopes to come between them. She provokes Løvborg to get drunk and go to a party. Tesman returns home from the party and reveals that he found Løvborg's manuscript, which he has lost while drunk. When Gabler next sees Løvborg, he confesses to her, despairingly, that he has lost the manuscript. Instead of telling him that the manuscript has been found, Gabler encourages him to commit suicide, giving him a pistol. She then burns the manuscript and tells Tesman she has destroyed it to secure their future.
When the news comes that Løvborg has killed himself, Tesman and Mrs. Elvsted are determined to try to reconstruct his book from the comprehensive notes, which Mrs. Elvsted has kept. Gabler is shocked to discover from Judge Brack (a friend of Tesman's), that Løvborg's death, in a brothel, was messy and probably accidental.  Worse, Brack knows the origins of the pistol. He tells Gabler that if he reveals what he knows, a scandal will likely arise. Gabler realizes that this places Brack in a position of power over her. Leaving the others, she goes into her room and shoots herself in the head.
Darrell D’Silva - Dr. Brack
Buffy Davis - Bertha, the maid
Daniel Lapaine - Eilert Loevborg
Anne Reid - Aunt Julie
Adrian Scarborough - Tesman
Sheridan Smith - Hedda Gabler
Fenella Woolgar - Mrs. Elvstead

Creative Team:
Director - Anna Mackmin
Designer - Lez Brotherston
Lighting - Mark Henderson
Music - Paul Englishby
Sound - Simon Baker
Casting - Sarah Bird

Once upon a time, when the world was young, you went to drama school and then learnt the nuts and bolts of your craft in the theatre. You started out playing maids or butlers, progressed to small supporting parts, and eventually played the lead. Then your agent sent you off to audition for a TV programme or a film, and you took all that you learned in the theatre and hopefully made a success of your latest exciting venture. Now it seems that you finish drama school, do a soap or a sitcom, become an overnight success and then head back to the stage to show how in touch you are with your artistic roots. Unfortunately, what you learn dong a soap or a sitcom often doesn’t stand you in very good stead for the rigours of the stage. There are no retakes, no opportunity to cover up your lack of stage experience, no technique to fall back on if something happens in the auditorium and distracts your attention. Stage fright? Tough. You are on your own. If you are lucky, you are part of a cast of experienced actors who can support your performance and help you look better than you really are. If you’ve got any common sense, you don’t tackle the classical repertoire until you’ve got a good few years stage experience under your belt, at which point you may decide that you have always longed to play Hamlet and that now is the time.

Before taking on this part, Sheridan Smith freely admitted in a Time Out interview that she had never heard of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler. In fact, she had to look it up on the internet, and was almost put off playing the title role by what she read. Would that she had listened to that inner voice that said “Now is not yet the time”. A reasonably competent actress she may be, but now is not the time that she should be playing Hedda Gabler. She should have left it to someone with a bit more training, a bit more experience, a bit more technique. She should have taken a supporting role (there is an ideal role in which she could have excelled in this play), watched the actress playing Hedda carefully and learned from what she saw. And then waited her opportunity to play the role with all guns blazing. She certainly shouldn’t have admitted to her ignorance in an interview. But what the heck, the Casting Director must have thought. She’ll fill the theatre with people who liked her in Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps or Legally Blonde and who will come to see her rather than those who have come to see Hedda Gabler. In terms of bums on seats, it’s a winner. In terms of artistic success, it’s a definite maybe.

In terms of the audience, it’s a mistake. Yes, the theatre was full. But (as an apocryphal story about a returning WW1 solder goes) “My dear, the people! And the noise!”. I don’t think I’ve ever sat in such a badly behaved audience. There were those who can’t sit for 15 minutes without checking their mobile and those who didn’t have the intelligence or the courtesy to turn them off before the performance started (of course, their phones always start ringing just when the drama is at its height). There were the sniffers without handkerchiefs, the constant fidgeters during the wordy bits, the people who think its appropriate to chat to their friends during the performance. The sweet wrapper rustlers. Those who think that the leading lady should be roundly “whooped” at the curtain call. You know, those people who think that going to the theatre is the same as watching something on the TV. All, without exception, under 30. There to see Sheridan Smith and with little or no appreciation or understanding of the play. Thankfully, Him Indoors explained their presence with the immortal line “She [Ms. Smith] has a large following among The Youth”. Honestly, all that was missing was a string of pearls and a lorgnette.

Now, before the Sheridan Smith fans give me the same treatment as the James Corden fans, I’m not saying that she didn’t make a game stab at the role. But the role of Hedda has been described as “the female Hamlet”. The role belongs to the Juliet Stephensons, Maggie Smiths and Maria Ewings of the acting world. You need the solid weight of experience behind you to fully make it yours. And, as yet, she doesn’t have it. There are times when she is on very uncertain ground, and its evident. Playing a role is not merely following your Director’s instructions and learning the lines, and there are many occasions when Ms. Smith is simply doing both. Her inexperience and uncertainty shows. Now is not the time. OK, this was a preview performance and Ms. Smith may have the good luck and/or the nous to follow a very steep learning curve during the run, but the work should be evident at the first performance, not the last. Her projection needs a lot of work (but then, to be fair, so does the projection of a lot of the cast. Anne Reid, in particular, should know a lot better because a lot of the time she is barely audible). Hedda is a power-player, a manipulator, but on many occasions Smith’s Hedda is a pawn, not a queen. She’s a bit frigid as well; there is no evidence of sexual tension between her character and Darrell Da Silva’s Judge Brack. When Fenella Woolgar is on stage with her, Woolgar is the one you are watching, because she can act with her body as well as her voice. She doesn’t need to even open her mouth before you can tell that she is pulled taught as a bowstring and is ready to snap. Woolgar knows how to fiddle with the handle of a bag, smooth back an errant lock of hair, stand there in awkward embarrassment. This is the role that Smith should have been cast in; a role which makes an impact but doesn’t have to carry the full weight of the play. One gets the feeling that when Smith hasn’t been told to do something, she doesn’t do anything, and the performance dips and peaks accordingly. Woolgar, in comparison, doesn’t stop. If she’s on stage, she’s acting.

Adrian Scarborough gives a full throttle Tesman – bumptious, tedious, irritating and petty, and its obvious why Hedda comes to loathe him; she’s like a clever canary which has the cat right where she wants him. Daniel Lapaine does his best with the difficult and near-impossible role of Loevborg (a part that is given such a build up before he appears on stage that it is apparently an uphill struggle to justify it afterwards). Anne Reid is a competent Aunt Juliana, but was practically inaudible in many places (particularly the second act). There is, however, little you can do with the part I would imagine other than be a fussy old spinster. I was shocked that she was not given a second costume; at the end, when her sister’s death is discussed, Aunt Juliana should be in full mourning. In this production, however, the character is simply wearing a black paletot (a kind of three-quarter length jacket worn over the bodice of an Edwardian day-dress) over the costume she wore in Act I. This is particularly noticeable as Smith is at that point dolled up to the tens in a slinky mourning dress worthy of Scarlett O’Hara – or perhaps Vampira.

Him Indoors accuses me of never noticing or commenting on direction, but even I noticed various points where direction was awkward or superfluous. There are many doors on the set, which is designed to be a “room within a room”, and several times characters seemed to do a full tour of the entire set to reach a particular door when in reality they would have simply entered or exited by the nearest one to hand. There is a certain “filmic” quality to some of the direction, particularly that before the dialogue starts; the play is almost told in flashback so that what you see at the very beginning is actually the very end. The lighting is very pretty and effective, but to me it felt as if the lighting technicians hadn’t quite mastered their “daylight quality” until the second act.

The Brian Friel version of Ibsen’s text is a bit clunky and peppered with constant references to Americanisms, along the lines of “What a corker, as I think the new-fangled American expression is”. Do I suspect a certain sense of wishing to amuse our Colonial Friends in the audience, or is it something to do with the fact that a trip to the Old Vic is now more or less a corporate experience with “American Airlines” plastered all over the building in various guises? Whoever decided to put that “American Airlines Bar” in the main foyer, right at the bottom of the stairs is a fool; it obstructs what is already a very cramped space (you really do have to fight your way through the champagne quaffers before the performance) interrupts the flow of the audience coming down the stairs afterwards. In case you miss your opportunity to buy a vastly overpriced drink in the foyer, there is another “American Airlines Bar” on the lower ground floor which obstructs the queue for the toilets. I doubt whether Lilian Baylis, founder of the Old Vic, would have approved, and I certainly disapprove of her portrait being relegated to the very top of the staircase where only the brave souls mountaineering up three floors to go to the toilet will ever see it.

And now, let us stand back and wait for the Sheridan Smith fans to pour scorn and vitriol on my review of their heroine.

This was a preview performance, pro reviews posted after opening night.