Madame Viardot’s Salon

Madame Viardot’s Salon was an event with a bit of a difference. Hosted at Lauderdale House, a beautiful historic house in Highgate, it was presented as a theatre and music show recreating the salons of the nineteenth century. Performers took on the characters of popular composers, singers, musicians and poets of the day, as well as the salon host herself, Pauline Viardot.

The show featured an enjoyable mix of music and poetry by the likes of Chopin, Elgar and Baudelaire in an immersive setting featuring emerging composer, Gabriel Fauré, eminent and provocative poet Stéphane Mallarmé and their protégés. It was a different experience, and good fun.

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Jane Eyre

I’m always nervous about seeing adaptations of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre: it’s my favourite book and I always worry what the writers will make of it. However, I saw some excellent reviews of this Bristol Old Vic and National Theatre co-production by Sally Cookson, devised by the company, and I decided to risk it.

This is a true theatrical adaptation: faithful to the book, but using all the tricks of theatre to tell the story in a unique way. Actors play multiple characters (including Mr Rochester’s dog, Pilot); props are minimal but effective; and Melanie Marshall’s beautiful singing punctuates events at all the right moments. I particularly liked the carriage rides, complete with sound effects and assorted miscellaneous passengers.

Nadia Clifford plays Jane from birth to adulthood, crying out like a baby in the initial scene where she is born before her parents die and she is sent to live with her mother’s brother. Her uncle soon dies and she is left with her aunt and cousins, who treat her like a poor relation instead of one of their own. Sent to school, she eventually becomes a teacher until her ambition drives her to seek a governess post. She ends up at Thornfield Hall, where she meets Mr Rochester.

Clifford is wonderful in the part, convincing both as young, rebellious Jane and the older, more cautious woman. Tim Delap is superb as Rochester and the two have great chemistry. I particularly loved Hannah Bristow’s down to earth portrayal of Helen Burns, the only one I have seen which made her seem a flesh and blood girl instead of a pious bore.

There was only one choice I really questioned, which may mean nothing to those unfamiliar with Jane’s story. Why have her aunt mention her uncle in the West Indies, who writes looking for Jane, without then having Jane inherit his fortune? For me one of the key factors in Jane’s return to Rochester is her newly independent status.

Apart from this minor niggle, however, this is a wonderful adaptation. It’s three hours long but the time flew by. Recommended to fans of the book and also those new to Jane’s story.

The Ferryman

The Ferryman premiered at the Royal Court and almost immediately announced its transfer to the West End, which is where I saw the production just in time to catch the original cast. Written by Jez Butterworth, famous for his hit Jerusalem, and directed by Sam Mendes, the play is set in Northern Ireland in the 1980s.

We discover that the body of a man, Seamus Carney, has been found, several years after he defected from the IRA. The scene then switches to a vast farmhouse in which lives the man’s brother Quinn (Paddy Considine), his wife and large family, as well as Seamus’ wife and son. Once it is made known that the dead man has been found, there’s a risk that his Quinn’s past will catch up with him.

The Ferryman is many things: a thriller, a sprawling family drama, a comedy. It’s also very long, but I can forgive that, because the time seemed to go much quicker than during some shorter but less compelling plays. The facts of the family’s everyday life – harvesting, killing a goose for dinner, family banter and chat – are absorbing in themselves, they’re amusing and they draw you into their lives.

Some aspects of the play particularly stood out for me: the unspoken love Caitlin (Laura Donnelly) has for her dead husband’s brother, the stories elderly Aunt Maggie (Bríd Brennan) tells the younger members of the family of their aunt’s past, the chilling readiness of young Shane Corcoran to accept the activities of the IRA. When the members of that organisation do enter, it’s a wrench for us as well as the characters: we’ve got to know them, we want them to be left alone to enjoy their family life.
The final ten minutes or so are shocking as the slow pace of the play gives way to a scene where everything seems to happen at once. It’s a testament to the power of the play that you are left wondering what will happen to the characters afterwards.

Boudica

After not going to the Globe all year, I eventually gave in and decided to pay one visit. Not to a Shakespeare play, but to a new play by Tristan Bernays, Boudica, about the legendary Briton who led a campaign against the Romans many years ago.

Set in AD61, the story begins when Boudica’s husband dies and his kingdom in modern East Anglia, which should rightfully pass to Boudica and her children, is appropriated by the Romans. When the queen attempts to challenge this, she is flogged and her daughters are raped. Boudica seeks out other local tribal kings in order to put together an army to rebel against the Roman invaders.

The play has many of the ingredients that make a successful Globe play: satisfying battles, rousing speeches, a good story and a bit of audience involvement. While there’s some effective use of lighting in the battle which closes the first act, overall I missed the shared lighting of the old Globe, and I think the audience would have become drawn into the play even more had it still been in place. I loved the mix of old and new in the play: there are several nods to Shakespeare, but there are also rousingly-sung rock anthems.

Boudica herself is played effectively by Gina McKee, who completely convinces as the powerful and determined queen. There are good performances too from Abraham Popoola and Forbes Masson as fellow rulers of Briton tribes, and Joan Iyiola and Natalie Simpson as Boudica’s two daughters whose differing temperaments cause them to clash.

It would be far too simplistic to say that the play can be related directly to the contemporary preoccupation with Brexit. True, the Roman invaders are portrayed negatively, but one of Boudica’s daughters offers another interpretation, befriending a Roman woman who was born in Britain and sees it as her home. The play offers a lot of food for thought, as well as being highly entertaining.

Knives in Hens

It was a last minute decision to go and see Knives in Hens, mainly because of the direction of Yaël Farber, whose work I tend to really like. The play was written by David Harrower and originally premiered at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, in 1995. It’s a three-person drama set in a northern rural landscape in pre-industrial Britain.

Village ploughman Pony William has recently married and William has a tendency to dominate his new wife. She becomes interested in the local miller, who lives alone after the mysterious death of his wife. The two grow closer, brought together by the power of words and language, and eventually, something snaps and they commit an irretrievable deed.

Judith Roddy is superb in her role as Young Woman, while Matt Ryan’s miller is compelling and magnetic. Christian Cooke lends Pony William a towering physicality.

Farber’s production and Soutra Gilmour’s set, dominated by a giant millstone, are incredibly atmospheric, conveying the wide open spaces of the rural landscape, while the language, difficult to follow at first, conveys the character of the people in the drama. As a whole the effect is one of raising this three-person rural drama to the heights of Greek tragedy – not an easy feat.

Summer’s Last Will and Testament

Every year, the boys from King Edward VI School in Stratford-upon-Avon come down to London and perform an Elizabethan or Jacobean play in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. This year it was the turn of Summer’s Last Will and Testament, a curiosity by Thomas Nashe, published in 1600 and believed to have been first performed by boy actors in 1592.

The story is more or less straightforward – Summer is coming to a close and is gathering his fruits around him before departing in favour of the long-waiting Autumn and Winter. One by one the representatives of Summer ascend to the stage to share their proceeds, before Summer passes away, distraught at their failure to secure his legacy. Described as a comedy, it is melancholic in tone towards the end.

The whole thing is bookended and commented upon by Will Summer, or Summers (originally a jester at the court of Henry VIII), played brilliantly by one of the older boys, whose interjections offer a link between our world and the world of the play. I really hope he pursues an acting career because he really is brilliant. There are great performances too by Summer, Autumn and Winter, and the supporting cast of younger boys are superb, playing sprites, dancers and even, in one memorable scene, a pack of dogs.

The play is certainly very strange but Edward’s Boys have done a brilliant job with it, and I’d definitely be up for seeing what they have to offer next year.

The Vienna Experiment

The Vienna Experiment is an magic theatre show performed in the basement of Vaulty Towers in Waterloo. It was created by Jasper Blakeley and Frank E. Haschka, acclaimed stage magicians.

The premise is that Professor Franklin Fitzroy-Smogg and Baron Gustav von Wraith are travelling Europe seeking the truth about mediums and parapsychology. They use various methods to conduct experiments and reach the ‘other side’, enlisting members of the audience to help, and it soon becomes apparent that one of the men has his own reasons for wanting to contact the dead.

I thought the show was entertaining, if slightly predictable, and the performers drew the audience into the story. I was genuinely impressed with the tricks: they were clever and I really couldn’t work out how they were done. Overall an engaging and amusing show.