Twelfth Night @ National Theatre: That Begins My Name

There’s a lot going on in Simon Godwin’s production of Twelfth Night at the National Theatre, not least a sequence that involves a drag queen in platform boots singing ‘To Be or Not To Be,’ shortly before threatening one of the characters with a bottle of whiskey during a bar fight, and vanishing through a hole in the ground. It sounds a bit ridiculous, but is an illuminating microcosm of this production’s attitudes towards sexuality and gender. It’s fluid and playful, explicitly so. The comedy is played up, the verse matched beat by beat with physical buffoonery. It’s Acting with a capital A.

That is, with a few exceptions. The first is Phoebe Fox’s Olivia, who is wonderful to watch, genuinely delightful. The other is Tamsin Greig’s Malvolia. They are the exceptions because both actresses play their characters dead straight. This, of course, is what makes them the funniest things in the show. Fox makes no attempt to reconcile the torment of her character has gone through with the elation of the ending, there is no immediate happy marriage for her. Rather, it has dawned on Olivia that she has been played for a fool, and perhaps her encounter with Sebastian offers a new beginning.

It is much the same for Malvolia.

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Twelfth Night is a play that relies on the ambiguities and artifice of gender. We watch an actress playing a girl playing a boy, and know that originally a male actor would have played a boy playing a girl playing a boy. It seems fitting then, and indeed fairly obvious, that the genders of the characters are malleable and could be played by any actor. When you have an actress with the comedic skill, physical swiftness and emotional capability of Tamsin Greig, of course you’re going to have her play Malvolio. It seems obvious.

To an extent. Before seeing the play, I got to hear her talk at an NT Platform, where she described the process of moving from Malvolio towards Malvolia. Apparently, the production arose in part due to Greig wanting to return to the National after 2008’s Gethsemane and all the other roles Greig wanted were already claimed (of note, on her wish list: Lady M and Cleopatra) and she wanted to know why they wouldn’t offer her Viola (Cue laugh from audience.) Malvolio (as it was -o at that point,) was their counter-offer.

In the first instance, Greig read the play through with Godwin without changing a word, just to see. Then she considered Albert Nobbs-ing it, that is to say a woman living as a man to hold a particular job. It was only when Godwin changed the -o to -a, the pronouns, and subsequently Malvolio’s references to his masculinity that the thing started to work. Not changed, notably, is the word ‘steward,’ as ‘stewardess’ was deemed to have the wrong implications. Also, Godwin has taken “[Olivia] hath abjured the company and the sight of men” (1.2) literally, also having Feste, and Fabian played by women, the latter now known as Fabia.

So what does this mean in performance? Well, Malvolia’s puritanism manifests itself as a complete aversion to revelry of any kind whatsoever. She is also as much a steward in the verb sense as in the noun; she keeps people on a leash, and is totally controlling. We completely take her seriously and we’re even on her side, until she threatens the revellers – throwing an impromptu party – led by Maria that Olivia shall know of their revelry “by this hand.” (2.3) She grabs Maria’s hair and yanks her head back, and a chill settles over the audience. Malvolia looks less humorously authoritarian, and slightly more fascistic. This incident also suggests that Malvolia’s distaste for revelry comes not from a place of pride (a very un-Puritan quality in the first place,) or narcissism, but rather a place of self-loathing.

Greig compared Malvolia to a popcorn kernel. A tight, hard, unknowable thing that totally transforms after the application of a little heat. That heat is the letter Malvolia receives from Olivia (in fact it is Maria playing a trick,) in which she discovers her love for her mistress is reciprocated. Malvolia suddenly becomes giddy, utterly unrecognisable. It’s a miracle any actor could make it work, but Greig can. The next time we see her, after the interval, Malvolia has fallen hook line and sinker.

To add to Malvolia’s humiliation, Maria has suggested she should wear yellow stockings in the cross-gartered style, knowing Olivia hates both these things, so it works not just as great comedy but also demonstrates just how little Malvolia knows about Olivia. The problem is, while yellow stockings on a Puritan was profoundly shocking to an audience in 1602, it doesn’t hold much weight today. To drive home Malvolia’s humiliation to a contemporary audience, Godwin has Malvolia descend a staircase in an enormous yellow dress, then perform a sort of striptease while she sings. It finishes with a sort of Madonna-bra with spinning windmill type things. Because we take Malvolia seriously, it’s like watching a dentist tap dance – it’s just wrong, but it bizarrely works because Greig sells it with everything she can muster.

Olivia is horrified – understandably – and the next time we see Malvolia she is in some sort of dungeon, her torment continued. She is tied up and blindfolded, and is clearly distressed; this is Twelfth Night at is most brutal, where a character we don’t really dislike is being tortured apparently for our amusement. It’s also where the politics of making Malvolia a lesbian become most (ugh) problematic; this woman, whose only crime is to be a little bit creepy and controlling is being brutalised by a group of total bastards for our enjoyment. Really? I will say that this interpretation only occurred to me afterwards. I suppose within the context of the narrative, Malvolia is being punished for being an idiot, as opposed to being a lesbian. But is it worth swapping the gender of a character if it then means an under-represented sexuality is brutalised as a consequence?

If Twelfth Night ended here, and we heard from Malvolia no more, I might be inclined to agree. But it doesn’t. When Malvolia joins the final scene, she cannot bear Olivia’s touch. She flinches away. Greig plays it with a blankness, as if Malvolia no longer cares who is to blame for her treatment. She’s made up her mind before she even leaves. She removes her wig, revealing the spiky blondeness underneath, and swears her revenge “on the whole pack of you.” (5.1) But there’s an emptiness to it, not that she doesn’t mean the threat – she does – but it’s not physical. Her revenge is not to hurt them, it’s to give them no more pleasure in her torment. She leaves the stage, Olivia the only one watching for any substantial length of time. During the final song, we scroll through snapshots of what the characters do afterwards; Olivia giving Sebastian very tight shorts to wear, Viola and Orsino’s wedding, Aguecheek with his suitcase. But it is the sight of Malvolia, finally free, climbing the stairs into the raineth-ing rain that lingers. Her revenge is that she is the only one who is done with the bitter, brutal fantasy world of Illyria. The rest must linger, the question who’s next to torment is left wide open.

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Malvolia becomes the clearest representation of the revelry/puritanism dichotomy in the play. This is of course in Shakespeare’s text, but is heightened by Greig’s portrayal. Its biggest success is that it continues to legitimise women claiming these roles on national stages, so I suppose it’s an experiment that has worked. But what it does remind us, is that it is never as simple as switching the pronouns.

Roman Tragedies @ Barbican: Lend Me Your Ears

How do you even attempt to write about Roman Tragedies? It’s become one of the defining theatre-pieces of the age since its premiere a decade ago. I still can’t quite believe I got to see it.

Look, it’s brilliant. Properly, properly brilliant. Not that this is a reliable measurement, but I can count the number of truly spontaneous standing ovations I’ve been a part of on one hand – and this was one of them, which is only appropriate for a production that has spontaneity in spades. I forced myself to go in with no expectations, in fact, I had almost convinced myself it was going to be a nightmare. I’d booked my ticket quite late, I’d never seen a film entirely in another language, let alone a play – and let alone anything six-hours long. It ended up feeling like ten minutes. Ten wonderful minutes.

If you’re not familiar with Roman Tragedies, three of Shakespeare’s Roman plays – Coriolanus, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra – are cut into a single performance with hardly a break, performed by the same cast on a stage that welcomes the audience into the space. This means that after about 20 minutes you can go onto the stage, buy a drink, charge your phone or whatever, while absolute Shakespearean mayhem goes on behind you. It’s the creation of Ivo van Hove of noted tomato juice fame, designed by Jan Versweyveld and performed by the ensemble of the Toneelgroep Amsterdam, who I should say up front are as good a company of actors as I’ve ever seen.

It is an insight into modern politics. It is about democracy, or more significantly the illusion of democracy; the audience is made to appear part of the process/performance, but it is not. There are places we cannot go on the stage, roles we can never play. The performers are simultaneously character and actor, or perhaps somewhere in between. We never see the joins – Hans Kesting has the same physicality as he rights a fallen plant pot in the background, as he does when he delivers Mark Antony’s funeral oration. The gap between person and politics is incredibly blurred, as is the gap between the public and private, both at the mercy of the camera’s gaze, beaming the images up onto a massive screen above the stage.

It’s safe to say that the three central figures of these plays are characters for whom politics is a complicated business. Coriolanus couldn’t give a damn about the public in a society that has just moved away from monarchy, Brutus learns far too late that opacity allows him to be outmanoeuvred, and Antony discovers that truthfulness and emotion are to be his downfall. Three portraits of men destroyed by what could be their greatest assets: stubbornness, cunning and honesty, the recipe of tragedy.

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Coriolanus was the play most unfamiliar to me, having never seen it or read it before, so I decided ahead of time I was going to stay in the auditorium, with the ability to see the big screen and the surtitles, simply so I knew what was going on. I can’t pretend I’m still entirely sure what it’s about. It seems to me Coriolanus (Gijs Scholten van Aschat) is about a man who believes himself so entitled to power on his own terms because of his military success that he is willing to take it by force, even after he has been offered it by more democratic means. Rome is a new republic; it has broken with monarchy and it’s expanding – determined to stick to the new rules of the game. It serves to introduce the ideas of the piece; the relationships between debate and argument, and how quickly they can escalate into violence over a conference table, and how this can lead to war.

Speaking of which, the war scenes are thrilling. There’s no violence represented onstage, rather the war is suggested by static filled screens and thundering percussion. Context is provided on screens, covering vast swathes of history and drama in a couple of sentences. Not unlike modern news, then. The war scenes last slightly longer than you expect, and as you wait for it to end it’s like the audience is taking a deep breath in anticipation – because we quickly gather that war is followed by political disaster, and it’s the politics we see represented on stage at a human scale. No blood, only words.

This is how Coriolanus opens, with the war that demonstrates the eponymous soldier’s prowess. It ends with his death, the first of many in the six hours; we are given a countdown, and then he is wheeled into a short corridor between two glass panels. As he dies, an overhead photo is taken, freezing him forever in a public image. This is the template all other deaths in Roman Tragedies follow. From what I can glean, this is the most closely edited text of the three, and possibly due to several factors (I didn’t know the play, I was tuning into the Dutch and the Shakespeare, this ‘type’ of theatre is still slightly alien to me…) I was left feeling slightly ambivalent. I didn’t get it yet.

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Julius Caesar is another matter entirely. Now they’ve lulled you into comfort, and a vague sense that you know what’s going on – the lid gets blown off. Julius Caesar feels much higher stakes than its predecessor, as the death of one leader is immediately followed by a discussion of the killing of another. Eelco Smits plays Brutus, the youngest of the three tragic heroes. He’s physically slighter, with a sense of clinical danger about him. He may not throw a chair at you, but he’s more than willing to push a knife between your ribs. Which is of course, exactly what Brutus does. He is swayed into violence by Cassius, the suggestion being that unless he had been swayed he would have sought political means to the same ends, that is the deposition of Caesar. It’s probably worth remembering that Julius Caesar himself became Caesar through violence, although this was victory in civil war as opposed to knifing his political antagonist in the back. The Roman Republic has, by this point, become too large and too thin to apply democratic means it would seem.

But Brutus seeks diplomacy even after the point of no return, the murder. There is no question for the audience that allowing Mark Antony (Hans Kesting) to speak at Caesar’s funeral is a mistake, because as good as Brutus is behind the scenes, he cannot possibly match the presence of Antony. Not in a million years. In Smits’ performance there is a sense that even he knows this, but he has to offer it anyway. Brutus thinks it is the act that will right his wrong without letting on, and will allow politics to continue. He is dramatically wrong.

The funeral of Julius Caesar is one of the most brilliant things Shakespeare ever wrote. Brutus speaks first, justifying his actions – it goes down well enough. He steps aside and Antony begins to talk. In this staging, it becomes a press conference, Brutus speaking formally into a bank of microphones, flanked by the murderers of Caesar. He steps back, and Antony enters. He steps up to the microphone, pauses, then rips up his speech. He waits a while longer, then he removes the microphone from the stand. He lowers himself to the floor, beckons the camera over and begins to talk. Gone are the interjections from the plebians, resulting in a long, long monologue that cements Brutus’ downfall with every word more. It’s without question one of the most riveting things I’ve ever seen on a stage. Kesting begins by talking quietly into the microphone, slowly, allowing the words to accumulate in weight. As he goes on gets louder, he stands, he walks around. He stands in the auditorium, unamplified, speaking the speech. There was one moment where (I was sat on stage by this point) he caught my eye, and instinctively I felt myself look away, because when an actor like Hans Kesting looks at you, you drop your bloody gaze. His sheer physical presence, his use of his voice and the forensic nature of the camera leaves you in no doubt Antony has chosen this moment to undermine absolutely everything Brutus has tried to do on an emotional basis. There is no smooth-talking politician in him, just the grieving man with immense power and the opportunity to demonstrate it.

The conspirators collapse. War ensues. There is something slightly pathetic at how quickly Brutus allows the situation to run away from him; he can’t even ensure Octavian, Caesar’s heir, is on his side. In another political/personal parallel, his wife, Portia, has killed herself. His world is collapsing and he is utterly incompetent. The only thing he has control of is his own life, which he elects to end. He feels the most tragic of the characters; yes, the end of Antony and Cleopatra is devastating, but the ‘proper’ catharsis where pity is a fundamental sensation, comes with the death of Brutus.

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I’ve often read that Antony is not a good part for an actor, particularly when compared to Cleopatra. I can’t help but feel this is something a bad actor would say, particularly after seeing this version of Antony and Cleopatra. If I ever see another as good, I will be incredibly lucky. Maybe it helps that it has the weight of four hours of drama preceding it, maybe it’s because Kesting finds his match in the utterly superb Chris Nietvelt as Cleopatra, maybe it’s the wit to the staging… whatever alchemy it is, it’s fantastic.

Admission time: I still had this stupid and unfounded belief that ‘European Theatre’ (whatever the hell that is) is a far more intellectual experience than emotional. This is because I’m still hugely ignorant to just about everything about ‘European Theatre.’ Antony and Cleopatra absolutely destroys this assumption. It takes a fecking baseball bat to it. It smashes that assumption into tiny little pieces and then it dances all over them to the Red Hot Chilli Peppers. There was something profoundly emotional about Antony and Cleopatra saying goodbye to the strains of Bob Dylan’s Not Dark Yet and in the raw, visceral grief of Cleopatra as she pummels the glass separating her from her love, and her screams over his dead body.

Nietvelt’s Cleopatra is a bit of a hot mess. She runs around in a slip, hair wild, physically craving Antony. There is a scene where she is informed that Antony has made a political marriage to Octavia. Cleo (if I may) is infuriated, attempting to physically attack the messenger, needing to be placated by her women, calming down, and then reacting in an identical way again, and again. It’s very, very funny, but you also completely understand why Antony is enthralled by her. She’s passionate, committed, and dangerously impulsive. She dances to Hump de Bump, sexuality is made freer in Egypt, the comedy is turned up in the mix, and all this makes their deaths an hour or so later incredibly moving.

Even as the tragedy sets in at the advent of Empire, there is a joy to Antony and Cleopatra. Of all Shakespeare’s characters, perhaps the only two that know each other as well are Benedick and Beatrice. The joy we feel as an audience when Benedick and Beatrice are married is mirrored by our grief at the deaths of Antony and Cleopatra. This sense of completion in the characters is mirrored by a culmination in the production. Music, video, politics, imagery are all used at their very best; it feels genuinely celebratory, a fascinating juxtaposition with the bleakness of the play’s ending, as the Republic dies.

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If there is a sacrifice made, it’s in the language. I don’t speak Dutch, and I’m not sure how literal the translation in the surtitles was, but it seems to me that the language is pared back to allow the motivation of each line to come to the forefront. Some of the poetry survives, as do the iconic lines, but never at the expense of immediate clarity.

The brilliance of Roman Tragedies is in its immediacy; it feels dangerous. It feels like the fourth hour of a party, like being in a nuclear bunker as the war rages above, like a total sensory overload. It shouldn’t be an endgame, and I don’t think it is. It’s more like an opportunity, or a suggestion. This can be an answer to theatre in the contemporary era. This is how things can be done, rather than should, or must. Van Hove leaves us with a scrolling list of questions as we leave the theatre. Roman Tragedies offers no definitive answer; it is a proposal, one I very much hope theatre-makers accept.

My Brilliant Friend @ Rose Theatre, Kingston: Don’t Write About Me

“As usual, she was taking on the job of sticking a pin in my heart not to stop it but to make it beat harder.” – Elena Ferrante, The Story of the Lost Child, p. 94.

The Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante are widely considered classics of contemporary literature. They chart a friendship between two women and span decades from the 1950s to 2010. Their relationship – intertwined with Italian politics of the post-war period – is complicated, brutal, manipulative, and yet they are somehow inseparable. There’s nothing like it, certainly nothing nearly as ambitious in the contemporary literary world. Ferrante is notorious for her anonymity – possibly destroyed by a NYRB investigation that I refuse to read – presumably because the novels are highly autobiographical and she (I’m using she because I see no reason to believe otherwise) wants to protect the community it is based on.

It was inevitable then, that there would be those lining up to adapt it for other media, I believe there’s an Italian television series in the works. Here, the task of adapting the 1700ish pages for the stage falls to April De Angelis, under the direction of Melly Still. A two-performance, five hour epic with a cast of twelve, the story becomes plot driven. In the books, it often feels as if nothing is happening in a rather Chekhovian way, but the effect of contraction is that the play unfurls in a series of short, sharp scenes, far more in the vein of Shakespeare and shot through with sex and violence.

We open on Elena, our 60-something-year-old narrator, as she discovers her childhood friend, Lila, has disappeared. We move backwards in time to their first encounter, and work back to the start, with a few jumps forwards, illustrating how certain words and incidents send their echoes through Elena’s life. Elena ultimately becomes a writer, while Lila stays in Naples, in a series of unhappy jobs, unable to afford continued schooling. The thought that haunts Elena is that Lila may well be better than her, held back only by lack of opportunity. In the books (I would say I’ll stop comparing soon, but I don’t want to,) the plot accumulates like dust in the corners of a room; nothing there until someone disturbs it. This means that it isn’t until the end of the third book that you can get perspective as to the scope of the thing, and where it is going. In this adaptation, we are sent hurtling through story after story, incident after incident, scene after scene, so that the culmination seems inevitable. It’s not less good, just a very different sensation.

There are always sacrifices and trade-offs made in adaptation; gone are most of the intricacies of Elena’s neighbourhood, all the back-stabbing and dealing. The lives of Elena’s classmates are largely cut. Gone too, is Ferrante’s gorgeous examination of female physicality, and Elena’s terror at becoming her mother physically (Kate Maltby write about this beautifully.) Angelis cuts away everything superfluous to the central pair, and Soutra Gilmlour’s evocative set focuses out attention further on the scale of the humans at the centre of this sprawling tale. Elena and Lila are absolutely the centre of the story, placing huge demands on the actresses. Niamh Cusack’s Elena barely leaves the stage, constant in her blue smock as Catherine McCormack’s Lila shifts from costume to costume.

The title of the play is an interesting one, mainly because all three of the words are up for grabs. ‘My,’ the story is told from Elena’s perspective, so does this make Lila the central figure, Elena’s possession? The ‘Brilliant’ certainly seems to be at least partly ironic, the Italian translates more specifically to ‘ingenious,’ which is probably more accurate. And as for ‘Friend’… There are certainly times that Elena and Lila could not be further from friendship and confidence. Moreover, there is a distance that haunts them their entire lives; Lila may well be the person to whom Elena is closest, but she remains still completely unknowable.

Speaking of Lila, Catherine McCormack is fantastic. Totally different from what I had imagined, and yet within ten seconds I bought it. Lila moves between glee and rage in seconds, from a very young age. McCormack embodies this entirely, and it riveting to watch. There is a moment at the end of the first act, where Lila and Elena rip the eyes from the Solara brothers in a moment of fantasy, Lila’s wedding dress becoming bloody, and they run away up a towering staircase, only to return as reality resumes, and Lila ends the marriage almost immediately after its begun. McCormack plays the fantasised violence with relish, and then delivers the reality with a chilling clarity. You’re left in no doubt as to why Elena is enthralled by her.

Elena and Lila are not the same, nor are they polar opposite. Ferrante has made it clear that she structured the novels to never permit the pair to be considered so. Rather, they seem to be different instruments playing the same score, with Elena always a couple of bars behind. She’s terrified of being left behind; when she is the first to get her period, she revels in it. She is also horrified when she realises in the final act just how far ahead Lila has always been. Their relationship is fundamentally built on a twisted form of competition. It feels a daring way to portray woman on stage, scheming, manipulating and competing – and behaving like this without apology.

It also feels like the politics has been turned up in the mix. I don’t mean there’s more, I just mean that it’s more concentrated, Lila addressing the crowds protesting outside the sausage factory feels particularly potent. The feminism is also more explicit, Elena’s husband feels all the more disgusting in the flesh; when Elena asks for him to look after the children for some time so she can return to writing, he says no, as her liberation should not come at the expense of his freedom. “For fuck’s sake,” is her only response. This piece really draws attention to the hypocrisy of a particularly male liberalism. A desire for equality, as long as nothing changes. As Lila says, there can never be an equilibrium, as those on the top aren’t willing to move down, and those on the bottom will never be satisfied enough to stop climbing.

The books have certainly struck a chord with women, and Ferrante has expressed her happiness that her readers are first and foremost women, especially among older women. It certainly seemed that way in the auditorium; I’m not unused to being the youngest in an audience, but this was an extreme example. It reminded me of the time I saw 9 to 5: The Musical on a Saturday matinee at the Liverpool Empire. Jeesh.

As I looked around the Rose however, it was interesting to see how few men were watching on this particular Saturday. The audience was overwhelmingly female, probably 10 men in the stalls in total. There is an audience for genuinely complicated women on stage – and I mean genuinely ‘The Honourable Woman’ sort of complicated, not superficially complicated. But more of them need to be written, and more people – including men – need to see them.

My Country @ National Theatre: Responding to a Response

When I moved to London 18 months ago, I had a list of places to check off; Shakespeare’s Globe, the Royal Court, the Almeida… Top of the list was the National Theatre. It stands, rightly or wrongly, as the figurehead for this country’s theatre making, it is expected to be the best. My first trip there was to see People, Places and Things, so perhaps my expectations for future visits were raised impossibly high. Regardless, I see everything there, expecting it to give me some of the best standard of theatre in the country, and also tell me the story of what it means to be in Britain today. Maybe that’s unfair. But that’s how I see it.

However, very often, the Royal National Theatre of Great Britain can feel very like the Royal National Theatre of London. I can remember only a handful of times a regional British accent was used on its stages by a character showing any signs of intelligence (to put it loosely.) There was The Plough and the Stars (included because the Dublin of 1916 was part of Britain,) written damn near a hundred years ago. Mark Benton’s Touchstone in Polly Findlay’s As You Like It was also thoroughly Northern, although if we’re being limited to O’Casey and Shakespearean clowns I’m not exactly impressed. Ha! I’ve got another; James McArdle’s excellent Platonov. It’s disappointing, but nevertheless, this is not a phenomenon isolated to the National by any means, and God knows I’ve seen more insulting examples, but a National Theatre should be trying harder.

So, when the National Theatre declared in the aftermath of the referendum on Europe it was producing a verbatim piece in response, I was probably more optimistic than most. Finally, I naively thought, I get to see people that talk like I do get taken seriously on our national stage. Needless to say, that is not what happened. I’m not even specifically talking about the fact that the North-West of England was left out entirely from the discourse of the play, although it pissed me off. Yes, we get to hear regional voices taken seriously, but the nature of a) verbatim and b) this piece in particular, mean that the results are somewhat tepid.

The piece, created by Rufus Norris and Carol Ann Duffy and directed by the former, takes as its story a meeting of the regions under the instructions of Britannia. It’s a bit like the Angels in Heaven scene in Angels in America, but not like that at all. Basically, the regions are personified, with actors portraying them and their inhabitants to create an audio collage that is at times theatrically interesting, but more commonly, the actors are left monologuing as the people recorded from across the country, often in static staging.  The South East is mercifully left out for a change, but more puzzling is the exclusion of the rest of the Midlands and the North West. Huge swathes of population are left out, and yes, I know there are constraints; not least of which is time (the play runs 80 uninterrupted minutes,) but if you’re calling a play ‘My Country,’ you’d better be clear about who the ‘My’ refers to.

We are given endless perspective – most of which you can hear if you watch the news every now and again – and only some of it is made theatrical. There are moments when Duffy remembers she’s our national poet and actually gets involved in the text, giving Britannia speeches mourning for her country, talking of the scars left by the twentieth century. These moments are by far the strongest, and perhaps it would have been ‘better theatre’ had the whole piece been imagined thus. Incidentally, Penny Laydon, as Britannia herself, is quite brilliant; her Boris Johnson is certainly something to behold.

Benedict Andrews writes that a nation is an imagined community with fixed geographic limits. It is fortunate that at least the National is remembering its geographic limits stretch beyond the M25 and are touring this piece through July (they’re also touring Hedda Gabler later this year, so perhaps they’re getting that NT Live is not in itself enough to be a truly National Theatre,) but the National should not only be sending its own work onto the stages of the country, it should be bringing the voices of the people onto its main stages, in their own voices.

There’s politics under My Country somewhere, but I’m not sure what they are. And perhaps that’s only fitting.

Hedda Gabler @ National Theatre: Gunmetal and Tomatoes

I have a feeling that the litmus test for finding out if an actor is any good is if you believe them when they make a threat. In other words, if they threaten to break somebody’s face, I’d better believe them, or I will become incredibly bored incredibly quickly. Thankfully, when Ruth Wilson’s Hedda declares ‘I’m going to set your hair on fire,’ you believe her. It’s mildly alarming.

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In Ivo Van Hove’s production of Hedda Gabler (my first, incidentally,) what could be calculated, removed and inevitable is made impulsive and dangerous. I don’t often leave a theatre shaking. Or with tomato juice on my trousers, to be perfectly honest. The text is made visceral in the moment by a cast that is without a weak link, on a stark, blank concrete stage, suggestive of a hospital ward, or the white out of a snowstorm. Against this canvas is thrown Hedda, a thoroughly bored, clever, sarcastic, arguably wicked woman. She clearly hates herself, and there’s a (self?) destructive impulse in her internal make up. She’s fascinating to watch, enhanced by Ruth Wilson’s acerbic, witty performance. It’s always a privilege to watch an actor jump off a cliff.

It can be far more interesting to watch someone act on the verge of panic, that it is to watch someone act panicked. Ruth Wilson gives you both. There is a moment at the end of act three, where she spins across the stage, an act of pure freedom, liberation even. She’s about to burn the manuscript, a singularly wicked act, but there’s almost a joy in it – I’m not going to call her a psychopath, because her freedom is not so much in the wickedness, but in the fact she has the agency to do anything at all. I think it’s a mistake to say that she is manipulative, because it seems to imply she has a long game, or some sort of objective view. She does not. Everything she does is improvised, something she decides to do in the moment, and then chases where it leads her. It is no surprise then, that Hedda’s final act is one of determination, and after all, she has always taken solace in gunmetal.

She constantly shifts the goalposts, making it awkward for people in an annoying way, as opposed to outright malicious. Where does her request for a horse come from? When she laments about the horse, Tesman and Hedda are sat next to each other on a sofa. They talk to the opposite wall, not to each other. Whatever intimacy may be longed for is lost in the vastness of the space. Tesman seems to be gritting his teeth, Hedda seems to be rather enjoying playing the mopey wife, chameleonic as she is. And still, in the huge, empty, cold room, the walls looking like a washed-out Rothko, she is furiously seeking romance. She corrects somebody’s language, she doesn’t mean day and night, she means ‘always and eternally.’ It’s more floral.

Speaking of which, she is immune to the superficial romance of existence, which is nonetheless where she chooses to exist. She trashes the bouquets of flowers, throwing them violently across the space, then slamming them into the walls with a staple gun. It’s a startling moment, the first indication that this woman is capable of acts more violent in nature than a well-placed barb aimed at a relative. She is deeply nihilistic; if the manuscript is, as Lovborg says, ‘the future,’ then she has burned exactly that. Moreover, there seems a total jealousy of Mrs Elvsted, Hedda’s mirror in every way. Elvsted has left her husband and has chosen to live deeply. The contrast is heightened by the costuming; Hedda in a nude slip, Mrs Elvsted in a sort of knitted dress with colourful stripes. And there’s the whole thing with Lovborg that I’m still trying to unpick.

Basically, Hedda is brilliant. I kinda love her.

*

It’s probably this that makes the final act so utterly upsetting to watch. It’s without doubt one of the most profoundly upsetting things I’ve ever seen on a stage. Even if you don’t like Hedda, she is fascinating, so I’m sure some sort of affection crops up between her and the audience. Particularly when she’s done the worst thing imaginable, burnt a man’s hope and then sent him to his death, she comes to a sort of stop. She seems at peace, completely clear. Watching this woman’s last remaining agency get torn away from her is heart-breaking.

The staging of the sequence where Judge Brack informs her of what has really happened to Lovborg has been given a lot of coverage. It involves Brack dribbling a can of tomato juice down the front of Hedda’s slip, before spitting a whole mouthful of the stuff over the side of her face. He then empties the rest of the can on the floor, and pushes her down into it. Not quite finished, he shakes whatever is left in the can over her back (stalls A25 is in the splash zone, by the way.) Hedda is left brutalised, hair matted, completely ruined by the encounter. She, not surprisingly, is appalled by this man holding power over her, and after seeking satisfaction in one last barb by mispronouncing Mrs Elvsted’s name, shoots herself. It is, like Andrew Scott’s Hamlet, a very violent death. Apparently Van Hove told Wilson to ‘die like a fish.’ That’s certainly what it looks like. It is a production entirely without sentiment; I found it interesting that I never thought of it as a modern dress production, rather it is without period entirely, but with a sort of sick realism to it nonetheless, and that’s not just because I have the same jeans as Lovborg.

The production is made into the maid’s memory play; there is a sense that we are watching the maid’s impressions and memories of the characters. By doing so, the production resists the urge to make Hedda exist entirely without context. There’s something vaguely conspiratorial in the final tableau, as the character move towards Hedda’s body, commenting on it, almost unmoved by the sight. Being without period does not make something without politics, after all.

Hedda Gabler is an excellent character in an excellent play, here presented in an excellent production. I loved it.

The Glass Menagerie @ Duke of York’s Theatre: The Gentleman Calls

This is basically 1000 words of me geeking out over the gentleman caller scene. Consider yourselves warned.

*

There are many reasons to see this production of The Glass Menagerie. It’s pretty wonderful.

Chief among them is Cherry Jones’ acclaimed performance as Amanda Wingfield. You can’t wrench your eyes away from her; there’s whole scenes where Tom (the really quite brilliant Michael Esper) is talking, and you only want to watch Jones’ face as she reacts. She’s big, and she’s theatrical, waving her arms around to emphasise her points. It’s a classical performance, far from the recent trends of naturalistic acting, and possibly even from psychological realism. What is brilliant is that it still feels completely real. I recognised this woman, and I did so because of the theatricality, not in spite of it.

It’s also beautifully designed by Bob Crowley, the set stretching away into infinity, the characters reflected in the floor and refracted in Tom’s memory. It never gets in the way of the text, and (thank GOD,) disposes with the legends and slides Williams suggests in the text. It’s playful, with a sense of humour; Laura emerging magically from the sofa. It seems to suggest that this world is imaginary, no matter how real the characters may seem. But they’re not imaginary; we know that much of this play is drawn from Tennessee Williams’ life, his family. So, if it’s not imaginary, it deceiving. And so are the characters.

*

I love American drama of the mid twentieth century, O’Neill in particular. The plays are about sons wrestling with the ghosts of their fathers. I love American drama of this period because it seems so utterly unconcerned with time, by which I mean there’s no need to cram everything into 90 minutes, and they’re not worried about spending 4 hours with a handful of characters if needs be. Everything takes exactly as long as it needs.

This means that everything can unfold in normal conversation. When it’s good, it’s never forced. The second half of The Glass Menagerie, largely consisting of a single, painful scene concerning the visit of a long-awaited gentleman caller, is an breathtaking example of this, performed with beautiful tenderness by Kate O’Flynn and Brian J. Smith. Laura Wingfield is disabled; she walks with a post-polio limp and appears to have intellectual difficulties. The gentleman caller, Jim, is ambitious, Irish-Catholic and completely charming. It’s a clash on social, economic and intellectual levels. Williams writes that this scene is unimportant to Jim, but utterly climactic for Laura. It certainly feels like it. Jim is sent into the room to keep a recently-passed-out Laura company, having just been put to work looking for a blown fuse. He is the ‘man’ present.

Amanda gives him a candelabrum, slightly molten after a lightning strike-induced fire. When Jim invites Laura to sit on the floor with him, it’s a completely nonchalant gesture for him, he’s chewing gum for God’s sake. He is completely at ease, Laura is not. O’Flynn conveys Laura’s paralytic nervousness beautifully; her voice grows louder, her shoulders soften, she shuffles closer to the candles and to Jim. She is embarrassed by her memories, those of him singing at school and her ‘clumping’ along. His autograph was unattainable; he was unattainable – and now suddenly he’s there, being friendly to her. No wonder she’s terrified.

The play draws repeatedly on the tricks of memory. The gentleman caller scene is conjured from Tom’s memory – but he is not there, so I it imaginary? Is it an excuse? Is it him giving Laura a moment of happiness before the illusion comes crashing down? Memory is increasingly malleable, what people remember is not what happened, but more interestingly, what they need to survive in the present. Laura needs to remember the times in singing class for than Jim, or at least she needs to think she does. She needs to think Jim is engaged after graduation, because that makes her loneliness understandable. She needs to know that he is engaged now, because that way it’s not her fault he leaves. Am I getting across how bloody sad this play is!?!?!?

Jim, being confident and self-conscious (in other words, he’s more than capable of lying,) moves the conversation towards Laura. He is interested in the glass, and Laura becomes enthusiastic. She shows him the glass unicorn, presumably belonging to her since the polio. It is fragile, a fragility Laura has cultivated since her illness – but it shines. There is a magic to it. And Laura and Jim start to dance, they start to court. They spin around the room listening to a record – when they knock the table and the glass unicorn smashes. The theatre gasps. The pieces are picked up, Laura seems unconcerned, it’s okay she says, and it probably would be if they carried on dancing. But they don’t.

And it’s now, now Jim has Laura enthralled and he knows it, that he becomes inarticulate. He fumbles, as if he’s besotted. He says ‘I wish you were my sister,’ which is played for laughs, as if he really didn’t mean to say that. It’s followed by ‘You’re – pretty.’ He knows he’s about to break her heart. It is he who brings up the idea of artifice, that Tom ‘made a mistake’ and that’s he’s not ‘the right type.’ In other words, he’s about to lie through his teeth.

Jim says he can’t/won’t come back, then starts to get more specific without needing to be prompted. He’s almost too eager to give his excuses. He becomes absorbed in his own memories and fantasies and Laura’s world collapses. She understands, or at least, that’s what she tells him. She gives him the broken unicorn – why? Is it bitterness? Hurt? Or just childlike affection? I’m not sure Laura believes him. I’m not sure Amanda does either. No one else knew about the engagement? It seems unlikely. So why is Jim doing it? It doesn’t seem malicious, and it does remind us of the link between Tom and Jim; are they even friends, or does Tom just admire from afar? Tom is just as surprised as anyone else at the news, after all.

So then, what is artifice and what is not? What is the creation of memory and what is truth? The production doesn’t answer these questions. Rather, it sends a bolt of lightning straight through the house – just like the fire escapes stretching into nowhere – throwing everything up in the air, leaving everyone scrambling for truth and understanding in this world ‘lit by lightning.’ You doubt that they’ll ever find it.