Monday, 4 November 2013

The National at 50

I've written this because I can't articulate my feelings about the NT50 celebration in any kind of social media format, and because even after sleeping on it I can't stop thinking about it.

I love the National Theatre, it's been a focus of my research for over three years now, and it's very much at the centre of my theatre going life. I admire the work done by those who work there and I think it is very much at the centre of British theatrical life. That said I am not blinkered, sometimes they get things wrong But isn't that the essence of being an arts organisation, you take risks, you get it wrong sometimes. If they weren't getting things wrong they wouldn't be innovating, so I forgive, embrace those things. And anyway one person's wrong in art is another person's just right.

Of course with all celebratory performances/programmes this could have hit the wrong tone. And that worried me. That it would be filled with sycophantic pomp and not enough content. Or that the play selections would be all wrong, that the casting from such an array of British talent would somehow get muddled and wrong. But it wasn't, it was glorious. Yes there were one or two choices I wouldn't have made either for play, extract or casting (the Helen Mirren scene springs to mind for casting) but then I'm not Nick Hytner, I trust his reasoning. I mainly trust it because there were plenty of scenes I wouldn't have expected, but that were glorious.

I held it together through Joan Plowright's interview and performance (just) a little later Judi Dench made me well up with her Cleopatra. And then Richard Eyre came on screen and said the words 'I was given a play to read, an American play that had never been performed in America' Angels in America.

Angels in America. "My Angels" as my PhD addled brain has taken to calling them, were to be back at the National. I'd known this for a while. I'd even managed to find out the casting the day before to put me out of my misery. It had been killing me, what if after all this time they got it wrong. I could forgive any other mess that this performance made, but not this. Luckily fears were unfounded. The casting was Dominic Cooper and Andrew Scott. I breathed a sigh of relief. I then managed to guess the scene from a still photograph and my breath caught. It seemed an obvious choice now, but again I was worried. One of my favourite scenes, it always has been, and of course actually one of the most important, when Prior tells his lover Louis he has AIDS.

I actually got my friend (who is perhaps the only person who shares the same love of this play I do in quite the same way) to watch it first, to assure me it would be ok. When she came back with 'I got chills' I knew it was good. I still wasn't prepared for how good. In all the analysis I've done, in all the performance recordings I've never seen it performed like that. Andrew Scott's performance showed an anger to Prior at this point I've never seen pulled out and Dominic Cooper made Louis more vulnerable against that than I've ever seen Louis. Although I have versions of these characters cemented in my brain, these were new takes new parts of them I've never seen all from just one scene. This is why theatre needs to be performed, needs to be given life, and new life.I cannot describe how important it was to me to see that performance, that tiny performance in the midst of this big celebration. For a start it validated how important Angels is to the National, out of all the plays over 50 years, Angels is still important enough. It also confirmed in my mind that it is still relevant. So many people have commented how moved they were by that one scene, how important they found it. More than ever I really hope this leads to a substantial British revival, most of all I hope the National stages that revival (and well while I'm wishing I hope that revival includes Andrew Scott) Because there is still as Prior in the play would say 'more life' to be had in that play. And last night, even for only a few short minutes it came back to life for me.

There were so many highlights both on the stage and in the film clips dug from the archives. As someone who has spent so much time with the National's archives over the past few years I have so much respect and admiration for the teams putting that together. The NT archive is vast and detailed (something for which I am very grateful) and the material used showed it to it's very best. The variety of material in film clips and performed on stage also showed the National to its best too, from the classics, to the cutting edge to the pure fun of things like Guys and Dolls or One Man Two Guvnors (not my favourite NT work but an example of the variety of work they do)  all of which showed what the National has become in the last 50 years.

Other highlights included Roger Allam doing a monologue from 'Copenhagen' I adore this play, it hits all the right notes for this history nerd and theatre lover.  Roger Allam was the first actor I ever saw live on stage (him and Gillian Anderson to be precise in a two hander called 'What the Night is For') and for me Allam was theatrical love at first sight. His work has peppered my theatre life ever since accidentally at first (he is a busy actor!) and now deliberately I never miss him on stage if I can help it. To see this actor, who few outside of theatre know, but those who know theatre really respect and love, taking centre stage delivering that monologue with expert but understated precision made me say 'this is why I love the theatre' it also made me so pleased and proud that this actor I've loved was recognised as being a strong enough performer to deliver alone that brilliant speech at this event. Another actor I was really pleased to see taking centre stage was Jamie Parker alongside Ralph Fiennes in Pravada, I've followed Parker since his History Boys days and for me his is the definitive Henry IV/V of a generation.

I also cannot let this waffle of a blog post pass without commenting on 'The History Boys' of all the performances that was one of the most pitch perfect. The chemistry of the 'boys' (now suddenly older and making me feel my age) I shouted aloud at the sight of Alan Bennett on stage. And who else really could have replaced Richard Griffiths? Again I welled up at that, not helped I might add by my Mum who thought it useful to comment "He nearly made it didn't he?" he did, but I think he'd have been pleased with his boys too. As he said in the play 'Pass it on boys, pass it on.'

And talking of Bennett, the ending of the evening a self-reflective humorous but moving extract from 'The Habit of Art' about the National itself delivered expertly by Frances de la Tour, whose voice caught on a few notes conveying the gravity of the words under the humour. 'Plays plays plays' she said, and the plays really do speak for themselves there. It's the plays and the actors, who taking their bows according to the years they performed at the NT showed just what a variety of leading talent the National has helped to produce, many of them performing on those stages long before they were household names. The National really does know plays, and actors. And in firstly making a celebration accessible not only to Britain but around the world shows it knows its audience, it knows theatre really is or should be for everyone. Finally in  giving the technical teams the final bow of those 50 years the National also showed that theatre is made by a team, that it's more than those front of stage, and if that final mark of respect didn't finish you off watching it you're a stronger person than I am.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

The National Theatre...50 years young?

So the National Theatre is 50 years old today.

The National is an important theatre to me. All theatres are important so this one is maybe 'special'. I've spent the last three years researching a production that took place there, I've written conference papers on performances there and all but absorbed the entire history in the process. And it's also given me some great theatrical memories.

I first set foot in the National for, fittingly Caroline or Change Tony Kushner's musical in 2006. As a latecomer to theatre in general (that's for another blog) this was still fairly formative in my theatre going life. My time living in London was spent at several productions, platforms and other events. I even got to sit in on a rehearsal or two with my MA course. (seven years later and a crush on Rory Kinnear later, I curse my 22 year old self for not taking more mental notes in one of those...) And several years down the line, the National has woven itself into my theatre going life, rarely does a theatre trip to London not include a trip to the National, even if just to visit the bookshop.

A few years later I began to think about my PhD. I already knew the play (or one of them) would be Tony Kushner's epic piece Angels in America. What began as a study of Kushner's work slowly became a miniature history of the National Theatre, the more I researched, the more involved and the more in love with the history of the National I became. There is something about the interwoven repertory of three theatres, the variety and scope of all that is staged there. Added to that the physical spaces from the open vast Olivier to the traditional Lyttleton and the intimacy of the Cottesloe (now gone in its previous form and temporarily replaced by the Shed another brilliant use of space to stage a different kind of production) The thing about the National is you can see one thing, one particular kind of theatre in one space and see another entirely in the evening. Both producing classics (often with a twist) to completely new and innovative works there is always a balance, always something new and exciting.

There is a particular energy about the building too. It's a rare building that feels so open and welcoming. I feel at ease wandering in, spending time. It feels like more than a theatre. And that's good, for any arts institution but particualry one with National in the title.

My research and my experience there has given me such a passion for the work the National does. I've felt supported in my research by their archives and I feel like in my own little way I'm adding to the NT's history, with my little brick, my little plot of time and productions I've written about. I can't wait to see what the next 50 years brings, and hopefully brick by brick I might be building my way into that history too.

Monday, 21 January 2013

Reviews: A Magistrate, A horse and some Privates on Parade

A conference and working weekend in London meant I got to see some theatre (of course)

The Magistrate (National Theatre) 

I was mulling over whether to see the latest NT Live broadcast which was this play and realised I was in London for it. So as tickets were about the same price to see it actually in the theatre I decided to give it a go. My motivation was largely an interest in seeing how the live broadcasts were put together and affected the theatrical experience. And a mild interest to see John Lithgow on stage after loving him in 'Dirty Rotten Scoundrals' on Broadway years ago (the man has done over 20 Broadway plays you know!)

The play itself is a classic farce. Not I confess my favourite of genres (I prefer my comedy dark and subtle rather than big and bold and have an allergy to slapstick) luckily this play creates a true classic farce that relies on the ludicrous situations of the play for comedy rather than injecting it with slapstick as many farces tend to do. The play itself is amusing and unchallenging but the staging and the performances from Lithgow and Nancy Carroll make up for it. After seeing the latter in a similar play, the Donmar's 'Recruiting Officer' last year, I must confess I'm a little in love with this woman! Lithgow also shines, particularly in his extensive monologue depicting the events of the night before. He has a quiet comedic presence on stage that brings a nice subtly to the largely unsubtle play.

The staging and design of the play really stood out. The scenes were linked with an addition of musical numbers, newly composed but in the style of the era (sounding much like Gilbert and Sullivan numbers in fact) and performed by a troupe of four Dandy-like figures. These facilitated the grand set changes which in some ways were the star of the show. It's been a while since I've seen the National's Olivier stage used to its full potential and these grand sets that rose in and out of the drum really got me excited, not least the main house which opened and closed like a book.

All in all an enjoyable evening, and quite nice to feel my applause has been broadcast around the world as part of the NT live broadcast.

War Horse

My third viewing of this play (and Mum's Christmas present) I was worried that on the third viewing some of the magic would have been lost, but it really wasn't. Every time I've seen this the moment you see Joey the horse in full for the first time the hairs on my arms stand up and a well up.

I was worried Mum wouldn't be won over as to say she hates puppets is an understatement but within minutes she was also swept away.

It's hard to encapsulate what is so magical about War Horse. Without seeing it imagining that the bamboo and material puppets, through which you clearly see the puppeteers could be so powerful. But the attention to detail is such that the horses come to life before your eyes. The story also is compelling and doesn't patrionise its audience-don't be fooled into thinking it's a simplistic children's story, the narrative is multi faceted and adults whether well versed in history of the War or not will get much from it.

That in fact is the joy of War Horse, its a piece of theatre so theatrical and yet keeps at its core a story that is moving without being sentimental, that is real and graphic without seeking to shock. Its a balance so difficult to strike that I'd go as far to say that War Horse is a near perfect theatrical experience.

Privates on Parade

My last minute choice, more to want to see some more of the Michael Grandage season (I've booked for one more and intend to see another at least). The experience was somewhat affected by the announcement that on of the actors Sophiya Haque sadly died earlier in the week. Although I'd never seen her perform previously (though was aware of her work) and obviously didn't know her, it was difficult at times watching a play knowing the understudy is on under such tragic circumstances.

The play itself was excellent. The text on its own is quite a dated on  but has been handled wryly into an update of sorts without actually changing any of the text. It's an interesting challenge for a company to take something that is inherently of its time and in this case by default inherently racist and decidedly un-'PC' and update it enough to play well today without doing a disservice to the original material.

The play also achieves a strong balance between some serious issues and being a highly entertaining evening. The use of music song and dance are used expertly by the production, and to tread the line of in character bad singing and acting and being just plain bad successfully is quite a trick!

This play could just be viewed for its surface content only-a fun song and dance romp with Simon Russell Beale in drag (a sight to behold it is true!) but I think the production achieved a nice balance of entertainment with the slightly darker elements of the play. That said, Simon Russell Beale camping it up in a sailor outfit was worth the ticket price alone....

Oh and for anyone wondering....there were indeed some 'privates' on parade. More naked men than I've seen in a long while....

Death of a Salesman- Young Vic

Once more for those in the back Death of a Salesman was never a naturalistic drama. Once more Death ...