Woyzeck

Thanks to the Old Vic’s £10 previews scheme, I get to see many more shows there than I would otherwise. Woyzeck was one of these. Adapted from Georg Büchner’s unfinished 1879 play by Jack Thorne, it starred John Boyega of Star Wars fame, alongside Sarah Greene as his girlfriend Marie and Nancy Carroll as the wife of a senior officer.

Set in Cold War Germany at the time of the Berlin Wall, the soldier Woyzeck is unable to live in barracks as he is living unmarried with his girlfriend and their baby. He is struggling to find enough money to afford their flat, and the stress of this coupled with a traumatic childhood and hints of PTSD threatens to send him over the edge. The drug trial he’s enrolled on doesn’t help matters, either.

I must admit I wasn’t too impressed with this and wasn’t entirely sure what was going on. Boyega does the best he can with what he is given, but the whole thing is rather confused and, dare I say it, dull. Reviews have been fairly complimentary so I must have missed something. I’d like to see Boyega in something else, but this particular play isn’t a favourite.

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Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

I originally saw Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead back in 2011, starring Jamie Parker who would later go on to play Harry Potter in the Cursed Child play. Coincidentally, this 2017 production, marking 50 years since the play first premiered, stars another actor who has played Potter, Daniel Radcliffe, best known for his work in the film franchise.

Radcliffe plays Rosencrantz opposite Joshua McGuire’s Guildenstern, a pairing that works incredibly well as the two play off one another. Radcliffe’s innocent expressions and calm demeanour are the perfect foil for McGuire’s energy, and the two are hugely entertaining when they are on stage together. David Haig makes a great job of the Player King, but for me, by far the best parts of the play involved just the two protagonists, their verbal sparring, games, inherent confusion, and existential questions.

Tom Stoppard’s play propelled him into the limelight fifty years ago, and it’s not hard to see why. Cleverly focusing on two minor characters from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, it helps if you are familiar with that play but it isn’t essential. Watching this, comparisons arise with Beckett’s Waiting For Godot, as the two protagonists question their existence and ask themselves what they are supposed to be doing. Intelligent and entertaining, this is another positive for the Old Vic.

Art

I’m a huge fan of the Old Vic’s £10 preview offer, which means I’ve been able to see more of their shows this year than I might otherwise have been able to. I took advantage of the offer to see Art, a play by Yasmina Reza (translated into English by Christopher Hampton) that uses modern art to explore the dynamics of friendship. The play, which originally premiered in 1994, hasn’t dated in the intervening period. This revival is directed by Old Vic artistic director, Matthew Warchus.

Serge (Rufus Sewell) has bought a new painting: a very modern white canvas that his close friend Marc (Paul Ritter) cannot see any merit in. This difference of opinion leads to some spirited – and very funny – discussions, especially when their friend Yvan (Tim Key), who has his own problems with his forthcoming marriage, is unwillingly drawn into the altercation.

In one way the play is about, well, art – is modern art like Serge’s new painting any good or not? – but on another, deeper level it is about friendship and whether it can survive such difference of opinion. It is extremely funny, too, with Rufus Sewell superb as the art-loving Serge and Paul Ritter excellent as his more traditional friend, as well as Tim Key often stealing the show as their downtrodden friend Yvan. Definitely worth seeing.

King Lear

King Lear is a difficult play for me. I’ve seen several productions and none of them have wholly clicked for me, although several have come close, not least the recent RSC production in Stratford.

Sadly, this King Lear is not one of those productions. Directed by Deborah Warner, it stars Glenda Jackson, newly out of retirement, and in fairness her performance is probably the best thing about the production, being nuanced, strong and at the same time full of frailty. I wasn’t hugely convinced by any of the other performances, though it didn’t help that Lear’s daughters looked more like grandmother, mother and granddaughter than three sisters. Nothing about the production really grabbed me: the staging was bland and uninspired, except for the storm scene which really was quite impressive.

Sometimes it’s the productions we look forward to the most that are the most disappointing. Sadly, that was the case here.

Groundhog Day

I saw Groundhog Day, the new musical from lyricist/composer Tim Minchin and book writer Danny Rubin, recently. I’ve never seen the film and I’d assumed it was a comedy, but the production – directed by Old Vic Artistic Director Matthew Warchus – was a lot darker (at least in the second half) and had much more depth than I’d expected.

I started off thinking that I wasn’t going to like the show. During the first fifteen minutes or so I thought it was going to be a kind of soppy sentimental romcom. By the interval it had grown on me and I thought, “Hey, this isn’t so bad”. Act II blew me away. The songs were better, the plot was tighter and there just seemed to be more depth to it. Even though we see the same day repeated numerous times the show never gets boring, which impressed me.

When we initially meet Phil he is a rude, selfish, sarcastic asshole, but we see him grow and develop throughout the show, going from gleefully don’t-carish to despairingly suicidal before finding peace and gaining a greater understanding of himself and others. The whole show hinges on Phil’s character development and a lead actor could make or break it. Luckily Andy Karl is brilliant, very funny and able to convey his character’s feelings extremely well.

As the whole show takes place over the course of one day, there isn’t really room for any “character development” other than Phil’s because we’re only seeing one day in their lives, as opposed to many, many days in Phil’s life. Interest in the other characters comes mainly from Phil’s perception of them and how it changes over time. An exception to this is the song “Being Nancy” which I loved – both the song itself and what it says about characters and how they are portrayed on stage (particularly female characters).

This song also serves to emphasise how the “Groundhog Day” phenomenon isn’t just something that actually happens to Phil, it’s a metaphor for how many people live, repeating the same thing day in day out, consciously or unconsciously. I found the ending very satisfying: Phil has really grown as a person and I ultimately found the show uplifting and full of hope, a reminder that it’s important to care about others and life is more satisfying when you can form meaningful relationships with other people.

I would like to see this show again, if possible, and I would like a cast recording, too – I didn’t exactly come out humming any of the songs (something I rarely do anyway after just one listen/viewing) but there were several which I think could really grow on me. My favourite new musical of the year so far, and a contender for one of my favourite shows of 2016.

The Caretaker

I’m not entirely sure how I feel about Harold Pinter. I keep going to see his plays, so I must find something of value in them: but at the same time, his work somewhat bewilders me. The Caretaker, currently playing at the Old Vic, is no exception, though there was enough to intrigue me and make me glad that I had booked. This is despite the extremely long running time, exacerbated by two intervals, which I’m not entirely convinced were needed.

The play is set in the attic of a decrepit old house, where Aston, who is supposed to be doing up the house for his brother, is living. One day he brings home a bedraggled old tramp, Davies, who ends up staying for longer than he had anticipated. Adding to the dynamic, the other brother enters the fray, leading to antagonism between all three characters.

Performances are fine all round: there are shades of Peter Pettigrew in Timothy Spall’s Davies, who manages to be both immensely repulsive and highly engaging. Daniel Mays plays Aston, a quiet character with hidden depths: his speech at the close of Act 2, about his experiences undergoing psychiatric treatment, is deeply moving. George MacKay, who normally plays very different characters, impresses as the sharp, fast-talking Mick: you sense his violent nature under the surface.

Despite the fact that nothing much seems to happen, the play is compelling; the important thing is the dynamic between the characters and how they change and develop throughout. What they all have in common is procrastination: Davies constantly talks about going to Sidcup (where his documents are, supposedly), Aston is meant to be doing up the house but rarely manages anything; Mick talks constantly about his other projects but they never seem to come to fruition.

I can’t say I’m any the wiser when it comes to Pinter, but I still think The Caretaker was a valuable experience, and it’s also the chance to see three fine actors deliver superb performances.

The Master Builder

As an Ibsen completist, I was thrilled to hear that the Old Vic would be showing The Master Builder, Ibsen’s great 1892 work about a successful but flawed architect. I was even more excited to learn that Ralph Fiennes would be starring, and was lucky enough to grab a £10 preview seat. This particular version has been adapted by David Hare, an acclaimed playwright in his own right, and directed by Matthew Warchus.

Halvard Solness (Fiennes) is the “Master Builder” of a small Norwegian town, who has become the pre-eminent local architect despite having no formal qualifications. One day he is visited by Hilda Wangel (Sarah Snook), a young woman who insists the two have met before. She claims that ten years ago, when she was a girl, Solness – who had just completed a significant building project – had offered her romance and “castles in the sky”, which she has now returned to claim. Solness falls under Hilda’s spell and grows closer to her, causing complications in his relationship with his wife, Aline (Linda Emond), with whom he shares a tragic past.

On the surface this sounds like one of those tired “older man becomes infatuated with younger woman” stories, but there is much more to it than that. In many ways Solness is a sympathetic character, with tragedy in his past and a sense of guilt that his success as an architect has come about in part because of the misfortunes of others. Fiennes is superb in the part, often seeming weighed down by the intensity of his emotions. I was less convinced by Snook’s performance as Hilde: she came across as too governess-like, but she did convey the ambiguity of the character: I could never work out whether she was telling the truth or employing flights of fancy in her account of her previous meeting with Holness.

Among the supporting cast, Linda Emond brought a depth of quiet sorrow to Aline Holness, and Martin Hutson was also very good as Holness’ younger, thwarted assistant. Rob Howell’s set is impressively ambitious, and the ending of the play – even though I could see it coming a mile off – is incredibly powerful.

The Master Builder is an extremely odd play, and even now I’m not sure what to make of it – but it’s a powerful production, and worth seeing for Fiennes’ performance in particular.