theatre

Network

The 1976 Paddy Chayefsky film is something of a classic with Peter Finch’s network news anchor Howard Beale essentially having a nervous breakdown on air when the network first tries to push him out the door, and then, when ratings soar, grab hold of him and let him do what he wants. It has always been a favourite of mine, revealing the uneasy relationship between the needs of news and commerce.

“I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore,” becomes Beale’s mantra.

Now Lee Hall has adapted the film for the stage, and the National Theatre has staged something of a coup by getting Bryan Cranston to star in it. And it’s just staggeringly relevant in 2017 – perhaps even more than it was in 1976.

The stage version sticks to its mid-seventies setting, with the cast dressed up in power suits of the period. Yet the design is also very much 2017, not least with the extraordinary set. The Lyttleton’s stage is opened up to the fullest extent possible, and a working restaurant has been installed along the righthand side – real diners being served from a working kitchen at the very back of the stage. Some of the action takes place in the restaurant, including one scene that left some of the real diners a little stunned.

Along the lefthand side of the stage, the set becomes the workings of a TV studio, with a glass control booth and make-up chairs.

The centre of the stage is largely bare, but is dominated by an enormous screen that becomes a vital part of the production. Into this are wheeled a news desk and camera crews at various points in the play. Throughout proceedings, the action around a ridiculously busy set is captured by roving camera crews and fixed cameras. This is a multimedia production in the truest sense of the word – one scene even starting outside on the South Bank.

Michelle Dockery is the scheming Diana, ruthlessly pushing the Howard Beale show on sometimes initially reluctant bosses. And Douglas Henshall is Max, Beale’s producer, both appalled and party to what transpires.

I wasn’t completely won over by the music, performed live by four Kraftwerk-a-like performers each in front of a laptop, positioned high above the set. But astonishingly good use is made between actors and video screens, with the on-stage camera operators framing things beautifully, often with infinite loops of imagery caused by screens within screens.

I wish I’d picked up a copy of Lee Hall’s script (I may still do so), because there are passages in it that scream out for only the tiniest changes to make them completely relevant in a “Fake News” world.

The play also explores the corporate machinations that lead to the provision of news. News Divisions don’t turn a profit, we’re told. And that all seems extraordinarily relevant too, at a time when questions hang over the future of Sky News were Sky’s takeover to be rejected, and the rumoured demands of the US Department of Justice that Turner Broadcasting (including CNN) be sold if AT&T is to be allowed to takeover Time Warner.

But this is a tour de force from Cranston as the unbalanced Beale. At times he both holds the stage and the camera simultaneously.

Nell Gwynn

Sitting down at the Apollo with a few friends, I realised that I didn’t know a whole lot about Nell Gwynn. I knew vaguely that she’d once been a prostitute, became a stage actress – famous in her day – and won lots of admirers including the King.

Broadly speaking that’s right, and although I couldn’t definitively say that this stage play written by Jessica Swale, and transferring to the West End from The Globe, is biographically accurate, it delves somewhat more into her life.

Gemma Arterton plays Gwynn. We see her first as an orange seller sitting at the foot of the stage at the King’s Company’s theatre. This was a time when men played all the parts, and indeed playing a woman was a specialist skill. Thomas Killgrew (Michael Garner) leads the company and he sees something in Gwynn that he likes. So he gives her acting lessons, and before you know it she’s appearing on stage with the rest of the company, despite the best efforts of Edward Kynaston (Greg Haiste) who plays the default female role in the company.

Before you know it, the King himself (David Sturzaker) has spotted the charms of Gwynn, and she is being hoisted into a world of private apartments and ladies in waiting.

The play is the very definition of bawdy, from an hilarious song from Gywnn early on which she uses to win her place in the theatre, delivered with gusto by Arterton, to practically pantomine lines at various points. The audience is very much a character here. There are knowing winks and lines for the audience aplenty.

The stage we see is the stage of the Bridges Street Theatre, appearing very much in the style of the Globe where this play premiered.

The play rips along without concerning itself too much with the distasteful parts of Gwynn’s life – how young was she as a prostitute? But we do get asides suggesting that some punters paid to watch actors dress or get undressed! And at one point a production of Lady Godiva is suggested as a way of packing in audiences. I note that Mrs Henderson Presents… has recently reached the West End stage. A case of having your cake and eating it?

But it’s Arterton who shines here. She’s perfectly cast in the role with song, dance, and knowing glances at the audience a plenty. Well worth seeing.

The Encounter

The Encounter is a tour de force piece from actor, writer and director Simon McBurney and the Complicite theatre company. I confess that I mostly knew McBurney from his acting roles including the excellent Archdeacon Robert in the wonderful Rev with Tom Hollander, but you soon realise how accomplished he is simply from this one production.

It is simply overwhelming, and all the more remarkable for being in essence a one-man show. It makes remarkable use of enveloping the audience in binaural sound, taking us on a journey into the depths of the Amazonian rainforest.

McBurney begins very casually, the houselights are still-up and he notes the latecomers still finding their seats. We are warned once again (we’ve already had many warnings) that we really should turn our phones off or put them in airplane mode. The reason is not just as a courtesy to the actor, but because phones will inevitably cause interference on our headsets if audience members are receiving calls or texts.

And slowly we drift into the story. McBurney is going to tell us about the National Geographic photographer Loren McIntyre, who in 1969 was dropped off deep in the jungle by the side of the river on assignment to photograph the Mayoruna people. Very quickly he found them, or rather they found him, but he foolishly got lost, having left most of his kit by the riverbank. He realised that he was going to have to rely on this tribe that he shared no language skills with in order to survive.

The play is based on the book Amazon Beaming by Petru Popescu which records McIntyre’s story. But we’re also getting McBurney’s own telling of the story including “interruptions” from his daughter as he tries to deliver it.

This is fundamentally a play that uses sound remarkably well. As I mentioned, it uses binaural sound, but it also mixes in elements of pre-recorded music and speech, live sound effects, pre-recorded sound effects, and a whole host of different microphones both worn by McBurney but also placed at a table on the stage in an almost studio setting.

At the start of the show the technology is explained a little to us. The audience is suddenly in awe of the power of binaural audio, the incredible ability it offers via our brains to “place” the audio source around our heads, and the way we can be tricked into experiencing things that aren’t there. Then pre-recorded elements are added. And there are loop machines on the floor to create broader multiplying sound mixes. As well as a theatrical experience this is all a technical accomplishment.

As the story gets deeper so the sound becomes more all-encompassing. It’s clear that Mayoruna people have some very different beliefs, particularly in relation to time. At certain points we’re suddenly brought back to the present with recordings of the familiar sound of Professor Marcus du Sautoy talking about time in relation to physics. At other points, McBurney uses a phone to play back clips of conversations with Petru Popescu relating what McIntyre had told him.

McBurney has also been to Brazil to meet some of the descendants of the people in McIntyre’s book. All of this is infused throughout the piece.

A word on the technology. This does not look to be a simple undertaking. Both the wing’s of the circle at the Barbican Theatre were taken up by massive units that deliver the sound to the audience. The audience itself is some 500-600 and each member has a pair of Sennheiser headphones wired into their seats to listen through. Test audio is played on a loop at the start of the show to ensure that everyone gets their left and right the correct way around, and ensuring that duff headsets can be replaced ahead of the performance.

The headphones are Sennheiser HP 02-100s, and the sound quality is excellent. While wiring is fiddly, you don’t suffer from the hiss that wireless headsets often include. Indeed Sound Designer Gareth Fry explains that he didn’t believe that wireless provided the quality he was after with this production.

Centre stage is a dummy head – made by Sennheiser. It sits on a microphone stand and clearly has some very sensitive microphones places within it, because the effect is superb. More effects are delivered using, for example small speakers playing a mosquito sound and then waved around the head. And when at one point McBurney blows softly into one ear, you “feel” it through your headphones.

Additionally McBurney uses a pair of skin coloured theatrical microphones, and a couple of other microphones used for closer work. One of them has an effect applied to lower his tone and deliver the voice of McIntyre. The technicians and producers who are mixing all of these live microphones along with pre-recorded material that has to be carefully timed to match with McBurney’s live narration are superb. They are rightly recognised at the end of the show.

Entertainingly, the backdrop of the set has the look of an anechoic chamber – a room specially designed to be soundless. It’s used to good effect with light projections, if not to completely dull the sound since theatres are designed to do the opposite, and in any case, the production can solely be experienced through headphones.

I can’t say enough good things about this production. Regardless of your interest in the technical aspects of it, it’s simply a wonderfully powerful piece about a remarkable people, and their beliefs. Sound is used fulsomely to deliver some of their rituals, and as an audience you are simply captivated.

Superb!

The entire run at the Barbican is now sold out but The Encounter is going to be live streamed on Tuesday 1 March on the Complicite YouTube channel at 7.30pm GMT. Don’t forget that it’s essential to listen via headphones! I’d also recommend settling down in a nice quiet room with your other devices turned off and no interruptions. I’ve no idea if it’ll stay there on-demand afterwards, so I’d recommend being there for the performance if you’re going to watch and listen.

Complicite also has an excellent resource section on its website.

A Streetcar Named Desire

Desire
The corner of Royal and Desire in New Orleans. There really was a streetcar that ran along Desire…

It seems that this has been one of the hot tickets of the season, which just makes it bit odd that I managed to buy a pair of tickets for a Saturday night a couple of weeks ago, purely by logging onto the Young Vic’s website after the reviews came out when I idly though I might go. I guess that other people cancel going to even the most popular shows, so it’s always worth checking (Yes – this is how I got to Kate Bush too – try checking around 11am if you’re after tickets for that). Anyway, enough of the smugness, what about the play?

Well it was fantastic.

I first saw A Streetcard Named Desire years ago – sometime in the eighties or nineties. Try as I might, I can’t remember who played Blanche, although I’m sure it was a starry West End cast. (Where’s the equivalent of IMDB for plays?)

This time around we have Gillian Anderson as a terrific Blanche Dubois, arriving to stay at her younger sister’s home in New Orleans. She totter slowly onto the stage trailing her baggage and wearing large sunglasses. This can’t be the right place.

Her sister Stella (Vanessa Kirby) isn’t home at first, and she hasn’t mentioned to Stanley (Ben Foster) that her older sister was coming to stay.

The heat of the summer is making people angsty. Blanche expects more than she’s getting. Stanley doesn’t trust her.

The play is given a contemporary setting – a cordless phone, and cans rather than bottles of beer and (Diet) Coke. But it doesn’t really matter. It all still holds true nearly 70 years after Tennessee Williams wrote it. And the design is fascinating, with a stage that is in constant motion, slowly revolving while the audience watches in the round. For the most part this works, with the direction meaning that you naturally flick around to different parts of the set for different scenes. But occassionally your vision is blocked at a crucial scene by a door. Or you can’t fail to notice that they’ve had to speed it up so that actors can enter and leave on cue.

But it’s all about the performances really. Anderson is superb, not overdoing the alcoholism, although you can see it in her eyes, and her manner. She gets the laughs, and the sadness. Life has not gone as she’d planned. But she knows how to work men, or at least she thinks she does. Her seduction of a paperboy, from a 21st century perspective, is quite shocking.

Foster’s Stanley is still macho, but somehow not quite as much of a bruiser as I’ve seen him before. I’m pretty certain he must have bulked up though, since he played Lance Armstrong in the forthcoming Stephen Frears film about the man. The lines about him not being a “Polack” seems very relevant in today’s society too.

Stella just can’t help herself, and forgives the violence that sometimes erupts – seemingly across the whole neighbourhood. There is definitely pent up sexual tension here. And you can see why the 1951 film was so heavily censored.

Overall the performances are exceptional, and I loved it.

This is the last week to try to catch it in person, or go see the NT Live showing tomorrow!

Medea

Medea at the National is a superb new production of Euripes’ classic tale – first performed in 431 BC. Medea (Helen McCrory) has separated from her husband Jason (Danny Sapani), and been banished to some far flung part of Greece with her two sons. Jason is to marry the daughter of Creon, King of Corinth. She’s mad with rage and wants revenge.

It’s just a question of what she’ll do to get her revenge – and how far it’ll take her.

From the opening scene where we see Medea howling and screaming in the woods, we can see that all is not well with her. And it’s the beautiful shifts in mood and tone that give rise to a schizophrenic Medea. She is sometimes calm, but something will anger her and her blood boils up.

It’s all beautifully played by McCrory who puts everything into her part. It must be an incredibly demanding piece to perform night after night. The play may only run 90 minutes, but by the end McCrory looks completely drained.

The chorus are a fascinating part of this story – part essential to Greek theatre, but part watching audience. As Medea’s revenge, and madness begin to take shape, the chorus begins to be culpable. Why did they not stop Medea doing what she was going to do? We can sometimes look at ourselves today and say the same thing. A tragedy in slow motion being watched under our own gaze.

There’s a dance element to this production, with the chorus and others bringing some abstract movement to the piece. The strange jerkiness in some of their movements was odd, but perhaps indicative of the mixed up world we were in.

The set is a terrific rundown 70s building – concrete and open – with a room above it that acts primarily as the setting for the wedding of Jason and Glauce. Through the back are the looming woods where Medea goes to find peace from her inner anguish.

I also loved the music by Will Gregory and Alison Goldfrapp, but then I’m a big Goldfrapp fan anyway. However, it definitely added to the atmosphere and it worked well with the dance elements of the play.

In the shocking final act – this play may be getting on for 2,500 years old, but I won’t be the one to spoil it for you – a woman next to me put her hands over her face as though in a horror film.

This is all about McCrory and her tour-de-force.

Medea is on at the Olivier until 4 September when it’ll be broadcast to cinemas as part of NTLive. And there’s a great piece in The Guardian with McCrory and Diana Rigg relating how they each play(ed) the part.

Great Britain

Here’s something a little unusual – a play that was written and rehearsed in secrecy, only being revealed at the culmination of the hacking trial, with the first performances at the National Theatre taking place just a week later.

This certainly ticked all my boxes with the subject matter.

This a fictionalised account of the phone hacking scandal, from Richard Bean, with everything happening at The Free Press, a tabloid paper edited by Wilson (Robert Glenister) and with a newsroom led by the ambitious Paige Britain (Billie Piper). In a story that parallels, but doesn’t quite replicate reality, Britain learns from a concerned reader that it’s very easy to listen into other people’s mobile phone messages – especially if you know the network and the default PINs.

Throw in an Irish proprietor with big television ambitions, a corrupt police force subservient to the press and willing not to investigate unless they really have to, an MPs’ expenses scandal, an inept Metropolitan Police Commissioner, a journalist looking to get scoops by dressing up as an Arab prince (amongst others) and a PM who’s desperate to win the support of the press, and you have… well… something that’s not a million miles off the truth.

Oh yes, and there’s an editor with long curly hair, who simply has no idea how her paper’s stories are being generated and is genuinely shocked when it all comes home to roost!

This is a rambunctious play with everything dialed up to 11. If you’re looking for delicate performances then this really isn’t for you. It’s only a few steps away from some kind of pantomime for Guardian readers (See – I told you it ticked all my boxes). In tone, imagine an elongated version of Drop the Dead Donkey set in a newspaper rather than TV newsroom.

Piper is great playing an over the top, stop-at-nothing career obsessed news editor, never overly concerned with morals, and nearly everything else is played for laughs.

There are some great comic moments. Glenister’s news conferences are basically excuses to crack lots of bawdy gags, and that’s no bad thing. Meanwhile Aaron Neil’s Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sully is just goes from disaster to disaster. Every time he gives a press conference or television interview, you know you’re in for a treat.

The production design is simple but very effective with glass walls doubling as office dividers and projection screens for interstitial videoed sequences. These include Free Press TV ads (“Is your vicar on gaydar? We have the answers.”) through other newspapers’ headlines (“Guardener: We think, so you don’t have to,” and a Daily Wail who’s headline has to include the word “Immigrant” regardless of the story), and short video extracts from TV news or in one wonderful scene a select committee.

Overall, it’s a very fun way to spend an evening, even if it’s not the greatest piece of work ever. It encapsulates the madness and hideousness of the whole phone hacking debacle, and is generally a good night out. The rapid response nature of the production feels smart too. So it’s perhaps not surprising that there’s already a West End transfer taking place.