Summer and Smoke

It’s been a while since I’ve been to the Almeida, but watching Rebecca Frecknall’s production of Tennessee Williams’ Summer and Smoke, I was reminded why I love this north London theatre. This powerful, dreamlike production couldn’t have been bettered.

Young John Buchanan (Matthew Needham) returns to his father’s house, next door to Alma Winemiller (Patsy Ferran). Alma, conceived by Williams to represent the spirit (her name means ‘soul’ in Spanish, as she continually tells us), is in love with John, a doctor, who clearly represents the body, carrying on an affair with a local girl and drinking and carousing into the small hours. I’ve sometimes found Williams to be a bit too heavy-handed and literal in his symbolism, but the expressionistic nature of this production removes any hint of this, instead emphasising Alma’s state of mind with a row of pianos playing discordant notes. Patsy Ferran has gone from strength to strength since her West End debut in Blithe Spirit a few years ago; she is a tremendous actress and is perfect as Alma. Matthew Needham is also superb as John, and the two have excellent chemistry; their scenes together are full of tension. Most of the other actors play more than one character; Forbes Masson, for example, plays both Alma’s father and John’s, while Nancy Crane portrays Alma’s mentally disturbed mother and a local woman.

The intensity of the scenes between the main couple is balanced with welcome small-town social comedy, most particularly in the scene of the club meeting where a would-be writer threatens to read his lengthy epic. These scenes emphasise that Alma and John do not exist in a vacuum, and allows us a glimpse into Alma’s full, but not necessarily fulfilling, social life.

The play takes an unexpected and memorable turn towards the end, which has a profound effect on both protagonists and leaves the audience speechless. It’s early days, but this looks like being one of my highlights of the year.

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Hamlet

“Oh God, not another Hamlet” was my honest initial reaction on hearing about the forthcoming Almeida production, directed by Robert Icke and starring Andrew Scott, most famous for his supremely irritating Moriarty in Sherlock. But I booked anyway, because my ticket was only £10 and I can’t seem to avoid productions of Hamlet. Just as well, as it turned out, because this was the most memorable and affecting Hamlet I’ve seen since Michael Sheen’s turn at the Young Vic, which I loved so much it inspired me to start blogging about theatre.

This is a modern, intimate Hamlet, with wide panes of glass, modern Scandi-style furniture that looks like it’s come straight from IKEA, and effective use of video, both security cameras and hand-held video cameras which emphasise Denmark as a surveillance state. Icke’s directorial choices largely make the play the unique experience that it is, even if you’re intimately acquainted with the play. The naturalistic speech delivery helps every line to sound fresh, while the wordless interactions between the characters have been developed to deepen their relationships: this is particularly apparent with Hamlet and Ophelia, while Hamlet’s embrace of his ghostly father is both shocking and tender. The relationships between Polonius, Ophelia and Laertes is a close familial one, Ophelia’s madness the product of genuine grief for a beloved father.

Andrew Scott is a revelation in the title role: quietly spoken, intensely vulnerable and utterly compelling. He is matched by the majority of the cast around him: Juliet Stevenson is a superb Gertrude, a character who, in love with Claudius for most of the play, only realises his true nature towards the end. Peter Wight’s Polonius is an amusing take on the character, while Jessica Brown-Findlay’s Ophelia is superbly judged and even Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are further fleshed out. Only Angus Wright’s Claudius seems underpowered, but even he contributes to a memorable moment when his speech of guilt is delivered directly to Hamlet, as if challenging him to do something about it.

The play is four hours long but feels half the length, as the time just flew by. I was fully engaged until the end, which is just as well because the ending is one of the most powerful finales to Hamlet I have ever seen, matching the intimate nature of the production. This is a show I don’t think I will be able to forget in a hurry.

Mary Stuart

As the audience quiets and the cast stand waiting on stage, Lia Williams and Juliet Stevenson approach from either side. After a dramatic pause, one calls heads or tails. A coin is spun in a dish, and falls to one side. The loser is imprisoned as Mary Stuart. The winner is bowed to as Elizabeth I.

It’s an appropriate beginning to a play about two queens whose fates could really turn on the spin of a coin, the chance of a minute. Elizabeth may be the one in power, but as Mary points out to her, the pair are the same in many ways. The two actresses present as identical, with short haircuts and simple suits: they look the same for most of the play, it’s only at the end that Elizabeth is clad in the imposing regalia she was famous for, while Mary is reduced to wearing a simple shift as she awaits her execution.

Schiller’s play Mary Stuart, based on the real-life drama of Queen Elizabeth and her imprisoned Catholic cousin the Queen of Scots, compresses the action into a couple of days and imagines a meeting between the two that in real life never took place, yet makes for some pretty good drama. Robert Icke’s new version is sharp and modern, and in conjunction with the modern dress of the production emphasises the twenty-first century relevance of the subject matter, with its religious conflict, political intrigue and references to refugees.

Performance-wise, the play is a masterclass in acting, with the added frisson of not knowing who is playing the main roles until the performance begins. If I’d known, I’d have booked a matinee and an evening performance – on two-performance days, the actors spin a coin for the matinee and swap roles for the evening – in order to see both actors in each role, but never mind. At the performance I saw, Juliet Stevenson played Mary and she was superb, alternately loving, angry and resentful, appealing and inspiring of great loyalty. Lia Williams if possible was even better as Elizabeth, strong, proud, politically astute and manipulative. The pair are supported by a strong cast, including an excellent John Light as Leicester and Vincent Franklin as Burleigh. All involved manage to capture the rhythm of Schiller’s language (well, the English translation of it, anyway).

Mary Stuart was the first show I saw in 2017 and I certainly hope it sets a precedent for the rest of the year: profound, clever and superbly acted, a triumph for the Almeida.

Richard III

The Almeida’s Richard III, starring Ralph Fiennes, was one of this year’s hot tickets, worth braving the theatre’s less-than-brilliant website to be sure of grabbing a ticket. Was it worth it? Well, yes, I thought. Fiennes gives a strong performance as a mad, manic king, commanding the stage and sending shivers down the spine of any audience member lucky – or unlucky – enough to catch his eye. His Richard is someone who revels in his evil, taking revenge for the way in which he has been treated thanks to his hunched back (Fiennes’ back must be agony, surely, by the end of the performance, judging by the way he holds it crooked all evening). As his murderous tally grows larger, skulls light up one by one at the back of the auditorium (the Almeida’s brick wall), eventually forming the constellation of the Boar (which was Richard’s emblem).

Rupert Goold’s production begins with the recent excavation of Richard’s body in a Leicester car park, before the archaeologists and their spotlights back away to reveal the living king, a strong conceit spoiled by the fact that the cast wear modern suits and mobile phones. Not that this is a problem in itself, but the modern costume and the play’s beginning seemed to belong in two different productions. Still, it’s particularly amusing to watch Lord Hastings (Globe regular James Garnon) grow increasingly panicked at the content of the texts he receives on his smartphone.

Among the rest of the strong supporting cast, Joanna Vanderham does a good job as Richard’s unlucky queen Anne, and Vanessa Redgrave impresses as the older Queen Margaret in a quiet but impressionable portrayal of someone who has lost everything.

A memorable production, this is another example of what the Almeida does well: reinvigorated classics that always offer something new.

Uncle Vanya

There is something very English about Robert Icke’s new production of Uncle Vanya. Characters sit about drinking tea, talking about the weather, and using black humour to get through the day. “A fine day for hanging yourself”, says Vanya. To add to the illusion, the characters’ names have been Anglicised: Vanya, for example, is “John” or “Uncle Johnny”, the latter used either in affection or supposedly in a derogatory way.

Despite this, though, the essence of Chekhov’s play shines through: its Russian-ness but also its universality. The tale of a man who comes to the realisation that his life has been a waste will resonate with many, and Chekhov has assembled a rich cast of characters of all ages, from the young Sonya to Vanya’s elderly mother. Indeed, if it wasn’t for the absence of mobile phones and all other forms of technology, the play could have been set – or been written – today: the doctor concerned about environmental destruction, the woman reading up on feminist theory, the academic who has become outdated and irrelevant.

The play is distinctly longer than usual: I’m not impressed with the Almeida for keeping the start time as 7.30, when 7 would have worked much better. However, the length, the pauses and gaps work well in conveying the stifling atmosphere and crushing boredom of the estate.

Not that the play itself is boring: far from it. There are some excellent performances, notably from Paul Rhys as the title character, who wonderfully conveys his character’s sadness and frustration. I was also impressed with Vanessa Kirby and Jessica Brown Findlay as Elena and Sonya, both of whom fully inhabited their characters. Their scene together in particular was very moving. I also liked Tobias Menzies as the doctor.

The sparse set worked well, except for the rotating stage which creaked overwhelmingly: at times the noise seemed to overshadow some of the quieter and more poignant speeches. I did like the device which saw characters leap off the stage and deliver monologues directly to the audience.

Altogether, despite a few misgivings, I rated this production pretty highly, and I’m glad I ended up going.

Little Eyolf

As a lover of Ibsen, I was keen to see Richard Eyre’s new production of Little Eyolf at the Almeida Theatre. Displaying the playwright’s talent for exploring troubled marriages, it tells the story of Alfred and Rita Allmers, a couple whose relationship is in crisis. After spending some time away, Alfred has decided to give up on his idea of writing a book in favour of focusing his attentions on the education of his son, Eyolf. This decision leads to jealousy on the part of his wife, who confesses she wants Alfred all to herself, and admits that she wishes Eyolf had never been born. However, tragedy soon strikes.

I was hugely interested in this play, which started off as a domestic drama and then became something else entirely, as Alfred (Jolyon Coy) and Rita (Lydia Leonard) have to confront their guilt and the difficulties of their mixed feelings towards one another: we learn, for instance, that Eyolf was permanently crippled after falling from a table while the couple were making love. We discover that Alfred only married the wealthy Rita to ensure that his sister Asta (Eve Ponsonby) would be comfortable, and there are hints of incestuous feelings between the siblings.

The set is stark and rather IKEA-like, but I thought it worked well against the beautiful backdrop of the lake. The play also features a dog, brought on by the Rat-Woman (Eileen Walsh) who uses it to hunt rats in the neighbourhood and who attracts the attention of Eyolf – rather like the Pied Piper, I thought.

This is a short production but it is an emotionally affecting one. Definitely recommended.

Medea

I finally completed my Almeida Greeks trilogy when I saw Rupert Goold’s new production of Medea. Like the two previous plays in the season, it’s a fairly radical new version of Euripides’ classic; a loose adaptation rather than a close interpretation. Novelist Rachel Cusk has set her version in the modern day: Medea, played with firm intensity by Kate Fleetwood, is a writer devastated by her husband’s betrayal. As he plans a future with his new, younger lover, she is left to look after their two young children alone, forced to move out of their home and facing criticism on all sides.

At its heart, the play is about one woman’s suffering, and Cusk does a good job of allowing us to empathise with Medea. The play opens with her in the middle of the stage, standing silently, hair over her face, as her parents, sitting on either side of her, comment harshly on events and seem to suggest that Medea is in some way responsible. In some respects it has a distinctly feminist slant, as Cusk suggests that men leave their women to bring up the children and run off when they get bored, but the women don’t get off lightly either, with the chorus of yummy mummies repulsive in their smug judgement of Medea.

I was particularly impressed with the child actors, who were painfully believable in their behaviour: the youngest railing against the injustice of having to leave his big house, declaring “I hate you!” to his mother; the eldest, more aware of his mother’s feelings, trying to quench his little brother’s moaning and declaring support for his mum.

The play did seem to lose its way during the last twenty minutes or so, with a confusing explanation from a dual-natured Messenger as to what happened next. However, the final revelation was, to me, entirely unexpected yet totally in keeping with what had gone before.

While far from perfect, this play got me thinking about the roles of men and women – society’s pressures on women in particular – as well as the profound effect emotional upheaval has on children. I’m glad I completed my Greek trilogy.