Review: King Lear @ The Roundhouse

Review: King Lear – RSC @ Roundhouse ****

Coming out from under the shadow of a much lauded Donmar Warehouse production (with Derek Jacobi as the eponymous King) the Royal Shakespeare Company’s King Lear emerges victorious.

David Farr’s exhilarating production celebrates Shakespeare both as lauded poet and enthralling entertainer of the populace.  Farr’s company breathe new life into Lear evoking humanity in all its grotesque complexity. Within this tragedy comes a bubbling laughter that seeps up from an Elizabethan text and into the gurgling throats of a highly receptive 21st Century audience.

Framing this contemporary take perfectly is Jon Bausor’s thundering set. An active player in each scene it fizzles, clanks and strains as chains and steel cables shudder, always threatening to envelope each soul brave enough to stand up on stage. Bausor’s design even indulges in a couple of guilty pleasures along the way; with a flickering chandelier hinting cheekily towards that lord of commercial theatre, Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Farr keeps this healthy sense of showmanship ever present but in the midst of it all the story is told with breathtaking clarity. The whole cast is gloriously well honed, taking the kernel of truth at the heart of each line and nurturing it into something unexpected. Tunji Kasim may lack the gravitas for a true Machiavellian villain but his Edmund has the audience eating out of the palm of his hand. Movingly the moment of reconciliation between Charles Aitken’s spiritual Edgar and Geoffrey Freshwater’s honourable Gloucester gives us a poignant reminder that the young don’t always destroy the old.

With Kathryn Hunter’s shock departure Sophie Russell more than steps up to bat, taking on Hunter’s intended role admirably. Her Fool is a bitter harlequin whose canary voiced wisdom shakes our King and his audience to their very core. Her glassy eyes see everything and there is a melancholy to each flick and twisted turn that envelopes her constantly shifting form.

But last honours must go to Hicks. His Lear rails against an epic storm before even a drop of rain is felt and continues to do so long after it has dried as his age besets him.  An often underrated Shakespearian actor, his understanding of each moment is iron cast.  Hicks plays within this sinewy framework vividly, resulting in a truly unique performance at the heart of an original and invigorating King Lear.

Runs until 4th February 2011


Three Sisters @ Noel Coward Theatre

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Review: Three Sisters – Noel Coward **

Having made a bold start with an engrossing Into The Whirlwind, Sovremennik’s Three Sisters is a distinctly beige vision of Anton Chekhov’s dissection of bourgeoisie disappointment and frustration. Galina Volchek’s respectful and measured production begins with some lovely moments of play between siblings but soon begins to melt into a torpidity which refuses to shift off the shoulders of this soon to be heavy auditorium.

In the midst on this monotony a small sliver of salvation comes from a few wonderful performances and the pleasure of hearing Chekhov’s rich lyricism encased in his native tongue. Chulpan Khamatova’s spirited Masha flickers and burns with intelligent fervour, her velvet voice adding a resolute gravitas to her slight frame and anxious physicality. As her lover Vladislav Vetrov’s Vershinin is both master of his passions and a victim of them, his resigned air lending an impossible charm to this old idealist. Their fated love affair adds spice to an otherwise long second act.

Vyacheslav Zaitsev’s whirligig revolving stage spins our characters round on a futile access of movement, never getting them anywhere. But throughout the production this soon becomes arbitrary and it is never really clear why there is a bridge over the top of this troubled household. Volchek seems to have expended all her vision into a design full of superfluous bells and whistles, leaving her company (and audience) covering dusty old ground.

Into The Whirlwind @ Noel Coward Theatre

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Based on Eugenia Ginzburg’s 1967 book Journey Into The Whirlwind, Russian powerhouse Sovremennik’s first offering examines the horrifying effects of Stalinist tyranny on all who stood in its path, and most upsettingly, even those who didn’t.

By far the most political piece Sovremennik brings to London this season it is a fascinating look into this bloody period of Russian history (and an interesting one to pick in the face of the apparent closing of Russia’s contemporary Iron Fist). Ginzburg’s tale of her imprisonment marries the factual knowhow of a historian (she was a history professor before becoming a journalist) with the flair of a poet. Wince inducing facts and figures are packaged in a mixture of lyrical phrases, which fly around ones head like butterflies for hours after.

Ginzburg cleverly underscores these atrocities with a determined wit, always reminding us that these are women, not numbers. There is much gallows humour in this tragedy and she unsentimentally shows humanity’s capability for survival through this coarse laughter.

It is in these cramped prison cell scenes where Sovremennik’s impeccable skill at detailed ensemble work is shown to its best advantage. Even the smallest roles have been intricately studied and the lead voices are rich with subtle complexity, with Marina Khazova’s broken spirit particularly compelling. But to fully appreciate this vivid tapestry you need to sit very close and with the surtitles as a further distraction it is easy to miss the delicate cadences this company have worked for so many years to create.

Despite having placed this story within Mikhail Frenkel’s epic cage set, Galina Volchek has pulled intensely introverted performances from her actors. There are some stunning stage images here (the final one in particular bringing a lump to the throat) and one of the most powerful moments of oppression comes from Vladislav Vetrov’s languid physical brutalisation of Marina Neelova’s Ginzburg.

But this journey is told through the eyes and whispered words of each performer. It’s a powerful story that needs to be heard, but you will need to sit close to these story tellers to get the full force of their quiet artistry.

Review: The Overcoat

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The Brockley Jack Studio Theatre is situated in the heart of south east London. A tidy little black box space it is well worth hopping on the overland train for, although perhaps not for this sadly thread bare production of The Overcoat.

Assembly Point Productions use Howard Colyer’s pedestrian translation of Nikolai Gogol’s classic short story and are unable to emerge from its plodding structure. Chris Bearne as the bullied hero Akaky Akakievich Bashmachkin is constricted by some very pronounced stage stuttering and the rest of the cast seem unable to get into the swing with these slightly drawn characters.

Director Eero Suojanen is unable to capitalise on the inherent tensions within this tale of a man made human in the eyes of society by a fancier second skin. Or to fully utilise the powerful punch that Akaky’s ghost brings to the finale.

Going a small way to fill this void are some clever musical choices including artists such as Gogo Bordello which have been used to nice effect, and William Ingham’s lighting is neat and to the point. But Suojanen simply hasn’t been able to fully get into this Overcoat and as such this production is as scrappy and light weight as Akaky’s original garment.

Running to 29th January 2011

Twelfth Night @ The National

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Review: Twelfth Night – National ***

Peter Hall celebrates his 80th birthday with a return to the theatre he used to run, so it is fitting that his Twelfth Night is a reflective affair. In fact it is so reflective if it were a record it would be turning at least 4 speeds too slow. For whilst this is an undoubtedly elegant production, you leave with the sneaking suspicion that Twelfth Night should be lighter of foot than this.

It is a visual feast however with the modern setting clashing beautifully with the strict period dress that the poised cast wear with graceful aplomb. And calm it may be but it isn’t dull, each moment is performed richly, seeped as this production is in the wealth of knowledge and experience that Hall’s ‘friends and family’ cast bring to the text.

Shakespeare enthusiast Simon Callow as Sir Toby Belch is surely the male star turn here (the female being of course a doe eyed, silken Rebecca Hall) but it is the lesser known Charles Edwards as a delightfully cheeky Sir Andrew Aguecheek who steals their mischievous scenes. Simon Paisley Day is a wonderfully wounded Malvolio whose torment reaches a genuinely disturbing climax and David Ryall makes a gently charismatic Feste, singing us out with heart rendering delicacy.

In keeping with Hall’s great age this feels a very wise production and the storytelling is faultless. It is the work of an old giant of theatrical history, performed with reverence by an estimable cast. But where is the raucous celebration? Parties in the Hall household clearly take a much more sedate form. This refined experience is enjoyable, but sometimes you need to let your hair down. Shakespeare’s celebratory play is such an excuse for a knees-up, it seems a pity that Hall has decided to turn it into a soiree.

Runs until 2nd March 2011

Sovremennik Season at The Noel Coward Theatre

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Into The Whirlwind

Home to arguably the father of modern theatrical practice Constantin Stanislavski, expressionist master Vsevolod Meyerhold and of course Anton Chekhov, it’s fair to say Russia has a strong theatrical tradition.

Tonight marks the opening of a new season which will allow British theatre goers a glimpse at the state Russian theatre today. Sovremennik (literally translating to ‘contemporary’) will be performing three plays over a nine day run at The Noel Coward Theatre. The strictly limited run has been funded by Chelsea football club owner, Roman Abramovich and promises lavish sets and an ensemble of 50, an extraordinary number in the middle of a worldwide recession.  The season will be the first time that a major Russian theatre company has come to London in 20 years but seems a logical step for this internationally touring company.

The first foreign company to win an American Drama Desk Award they are led by Galina Volchek, a leading figure in the Russian theatrical landscape, and boast a number of film and television stars in the troupe.

The season which will be performed in Russian with English surtitles and will comprise of two Chekhov pieces, Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard. Tonight marks the opening of the third play, a modern piece penned by journalist Eugenia Ginzburg’s documenting her imprisonment in the Gulag, titled Into The Whirlwind.

Tickets prices go up to £49.50 but for students can be as little as £7, a perfectly reasonable amount to see what modern Russian theatre is made of.

Performance information:

21-22 Jan Into the Whirlwind by Eugenia Ginzburg

24-25 Jan Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov

28-29 Jan  The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov

Time: Time: 19.00

Venue: Noel Coward Theatre, St Martin’s Lane, London, WC2N 4AU

Ticket Prices:         £49.50 – £12.50 ( £7.00 with a student ID card)

Box Office:  0844 482 5140 /

As You Like It @ The Roundhouse

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Review: As You Like It – RSC @ Roundhouse ***

There’s something very adult about Michael Boyd’s smooth production of As You Like It, currently wooing audiences at The Roundhouse. Boyd takes Shakespeare’s pastoral comedy and turns it into a corseted lover; inside this sophisticated production there’s an exuberant play wriggling to get out.

It all looks and sounds gorgeous of course with Tom Piper’s design and Struan Leslie’s delicate choreography gracefully encasing this genteel beast. It’s a floating concept and you feel in a bubble as our characters traipse Piper’s minimalistic set, their clothes shifting from period to modern dress. This is perhaps to reflect the magic environment of the forest of Arden but it’s all terribly cerebral.

The performances are all also set squarely above the shoulders. This is a consummate company with each performer playing their role prettily, but in this firmament of well-crafted souls only a few truly shine. In a show that prizes earnestness over frivolity it is perhaps fitting that Jaques should be one such star. Forbes Masson has a stunning alto voice and a beautifully neat ankle. Masson languishes around the stage wittily and pointedly highlighting each ridiculous moment with Byronic flair but his purple eyes reveal an oddly moving anguish.

Katy Stephens’ Rosalind is vivacious and bold if a little hyper, her constantly glistening eyes betraying an anxious nerviness at odds with this light hearted romantic comedy. She and Mariah Gale play like tiger cubs and their love for each other is palpable. If Rosalind and Celia are usually sun and moon, here the pale moon shines just as brightly as it’s brash cousin with Gale turning in a complex, moving performance as the loyal sidekick.

That Boyd has given us an intelligent As You Like It cannot be denied.  But it never transfers from the head to the heart and though there are laughs to be had here, there is strangely very little joy.

Runs until 5th February 2011.