Tuesday, November 3, 2015

A Little Shakespeare, Less Pinter

HAMLET at London’s National Theatre, broadcast live around the world and captured in Queens, NY, was thrilling.

While no dramaturg was listed in the program or online, he or she had a large influence on this production, since a great deal of editing was done on the script, scenes re-arranged, as well as interesting combined characters.  From the point of view of a filmed performance, I found only one flaw:  one or two too many close-ups in what was clearly a beautifully staged production by director Lyndsey Turner.  I want to see the actors in relation to one another and whatever was happening on the part of the stage the cameras weren’t showing me. 

But that’s minor.  What I did see was scintillating theatre with fine acting in a coherent production of a great play.  The dress is modern, the time not set, the formality of the address, and dress, and Elsinore itself tells us that this world is removed from ours no matter the year.

Will he or won't he?  Cumberbatch as Hamlet. (Photo Johan Persson)
The first scene on the ramparts was skipped and instead we are met by Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet in front of the curtain, listening to a small phonograph play Nat King Cole’s rendition of “Nature Boy.”  Hamlet weeps.  Soon after Horatio enters, they jump ahead and right to the dinner scene, which is magnificently staged.  A long table is sumptuously set parallel to the edge of the stage so we can see everybody, and here begins a conceit through the play:   Hamlet comes forward (walking across the top of the table) and the action continues behind him silently, in slow motion, as Hamlet speaks directly to the audience.  

In this scene we meet the major players, including a Laertes who was clearly a friend of Hamlet’s, and who, loving his own father well, felt the sting of Claudius’ insensitive exhortations to Hamlet to forget his dead father.  No words are exchanged between them, yet a relationship is clear, as is the relationship established in the next scene with Laertes’ sister.

Kobna Holdbrook-Smith’s Laertes is not so self-absorbed here as he is often played, and is part of the court.  Siân Brooke’s Ophelia is young and in love, and the relationship between her and her brother Laertes is solidified when they sit at the grand piano stage center and play a little ditty together. This follows through later, when the piano, amid the shambles that Elsinore becomes in the second half, is out of tune and harsh.

Cumberbatch’s Hamlet is striking: he is in pain, he is in mourning. His mother Gertrude is oblivious to his pain and forgetful of her first husband since she’s so enamored of the second.  And yet we see this Gertrude, as played by Anastasia Hille, is connected to the people around her, Ophelia in particular.

Ciarán Hinds is a very good if cold Claudius.  I saw no passion for Gertrude, just affection.  He is a purely political animal.  Gertrude‘s path through the play is succinct — no dallying while her first husband was alive, this woman sees the truth only when Hamlet shows her, and finally sees Claudius for who he is. 

Hinds as Claudius in Elsinore as designed by Es Devlin.  (Photo Johan Persson)
When the Players present the play within the play, a small curtained stage is set up for the introduction of the Player King and Player Queen, then Hamlet, manic and sweating, plays Lucianus (nephew to Gonzago in the play within a play) himself. Later in his mother’s room, the same small curtained stage is used to hide Polonius behind the arras, which I found rather witty.

Karl Johnson was effective both as the Ghost of King Hamlet and the Gravedigger.  Morag Siller played a character comprised of Voltimand and Osric well, yet we miss the hilarity of a different sort of Osric.

Jim Norton as Polonius was fine without standing out from many an old man, his lines deeply edited. 

Some of the cuts were too deep, I think, but the actors made the most of them. Particular points for the work of the powerful Anastasia Hille and poignant Siân Brooke.

Act one ends with Claudius exhorting England to “Do it, England” meaning “the present death of Hamlet.”  Then an autumn wind blows across the stage….

Light and wind made for some very nice effects joining the end of the first act and the beginning of the second.  At the opening of the second half, detritus, dead leaves and dirt have been piled all over the stage, creating new levels of deterioration. 

When we see Ophelia in the first act, she carries about and uses a camera.  In the second act, she drags a trunk banging down the stairs.  Gertrude opens it when Ophelia exits and finds the trunk filled with torn black-and-white photographs and Ophelia’s camera. Seeing this, Gertrude knows what Ophelia is about and runs off after her, to no avail, of course.  In the second half, the women are a bit less well coiffed and dressed, in synch with the trappings of power that droop dwindling on the stage. 

Anastasia Hille as Gretrude.  (Photo by Johan  Persson)
After Ophelia’s death, director Lindsey Turner created a lovely stage picture of Claudius rushing after the enraged Laertes, stopping at the top of the stairs to reach back for his wife.  But Gertrude turns her back and walks away from him, barefoot through the dirt.  This Gertrude had not thought for a moment that her first husband died an unnatural death, but finally sees her nation crumbling around her and knows that something is rotten in the state of Denmark. 

In the second half, Hamlet’s cry from Ophelia’s grave to Laertes, “I loved you ever,” is a reinforcement of the friendship that appeared at that dinner table in the first half.  The fight scene is fabulous, beautifully staged by fight director Bret Yount and fought by highly skilled Hamlet and Laertes.  It brought about swift death.   

All in all an effective rendering, but close-cropped to focus on Hamlet and the nuclear family at the expense of some of other characters.  Although a slimmed down version of the play, this was a memorable Hamlet, produced by Sonia Friedman Productions.


On the other hand, when it comes to the Roundabout Theatre Company production of Harold Pinter’s Old Times, I agree completely with my friend Horvendile’s blog about it at http://www.matthewslikelystory.blogspot.com/2015/10/old-times-or-you-pinter-you-brought-er.html.  At the end of the thankfully brief performance, the first thing out of my mouth was “I don’t think that’s what Pinter meant.”  That’s all.  It was a fun evening, but it wasn’t … Pinter.

Pinter is not about shouting and emoting; it’s about repressing.  The play is under and between the lines.  Pinter knew that shouting reduces the efficacy and impact of anger, diluting its power.  Pinter must be underplayed.  Director Douglas Hodge should know that, whatever his credentials.  Surely the three wonderful British actors (Kelly Reilly, Clive Owen, and Eve Best) must know that. 

L-R Reilly, Best, and Owen. (Photo: Joan Marcus)
As for the rest, the immediate assault by light (Japhy Weiderman) and sound (Clive Goodwin) started us off poorly.  The set design by Christine Jones was quirky and odd and I did wonder if it signified being at the edge of the world….perhaps a bit distracting.  While costumes by Constance Hoffman were fitting, music was ill-chosen by Thom Yorke.

This is not to say I’m not glad I saw it. I’m glad.  But it wasn’t ….  Pinter.

~ Molly Matera, signing off, recommending National Theatre’s HAMLET (still playing at select theatres, see http://ntlive.nationaltheatre.org.uk/) and not so much the Roundabout Old Times.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Mercury in Retrograde at the Theatre

It was the last week of September, and Mercury was still in retrograde. 

I had looked forward to my first theatre outings of the BAM Next Wave autumn season.  The first production for which we had tickets was Sophocles’ Antigone in a new adaptation by Anne Carson directed by Ivo Van Hove, playing at the BAM Harvey.  It’s catch-as-catch-can with van Hove – sometimes his productions are exhilarating, sometimes exhausting.  I’d enjoyed his 5 1/2 hour Roman Tragedies, Shakespeare’s three Roman plays (in Dutch)  (http://www.mollyismusing.blogspot.com/2012/11/friends-romans-dutch.html), but could not say the same for others.  This time around, the British cast is led by Juliette Binoche, who, while she looks better than most women look ever, cannot pass for the essentially teenaged — in body and mind — Antigone.  Whoever plays her, Antigone should be young and impetuous and passionate, whereas Ms. Binoche merely shouted her frustration. 

Kirsty Bushell as Ismene and Juliette Binoche as Antigone.  (Credit:  Julieta Cervantes for The New York Times )

The production includes a beautiful backdrop with alternating sun/moon/eclipses happening back there, although at some points the desert sun was just too bright.  While I understand the fiscal sense of double-casting in a traveling production, only Eurydice (Kathryn Pogson) consistently differentiated her “Chorus” character from her wife of Creon character.  When the audience cannot tell if the actor is playing Ismene (Kirsty Bushell) or Haimon or members of the Chorus, clearly some doubling just doesn’t pay.  Antigone is an interesting story, with valid problems to probe, but the actors in van Hove’s production were so busy emoting that the right questions weren’t asked.  Ms. Carson’s adaptation and Mr. van Hove’s production added nothing to the canon of Antigone.


The next evening we went to BAM’s Opera House to see James Thiérée and his company perform a piece called Tabac Rouge. M. Thiérée and his company are marvelous performers, extraordinarily skilled in circus gymnastics and dance.  Unfortunately, that evening things went wrong.  The performance (not the first time in the space) started ¾ hour late and played ¼ longer than originally stated.  It was dark, visually and presumably thematically as well.  It began so very slowly, which is not unusual for the troupe, but when the non-narrative dragged on in the same vein, I waited, needing the performers to pull me in.  They did not, despite some unfortunately few and far between magical moments.  I’ve seen this company perform several times, and have generally enjoyed whatever they gave.  The company does not do linear pieces, and we are talking weird: the audience must and does surrender to whatever vision comes forth.  But Tabac Rouge just didn’t work for me.  Sadly, I was bored to tears, the confusion and darkness lulled me into nodding off more than once.  I’ve already apologized to my friends for waking with a snore, and now I’ll happily apologize to other members of the audience for the disturbance.  But that’s all I can do.   

(Credit:  Julieta Cervantes for The New York Times )
Tabac Rouge appeared to be a Steampunk “Lord of the Flies,” but the island was wood and metal and filled with screaming feral females, all gathered 'round the dominant male, Monsieur Thiérée.  All the performers are extraordinary, twisting and turning their powerful bodies this way and that, but I really didn’t like the show at all.  

Two unpleasant theatre experiences in a row, for both of which I had high hopes.  Not a good way to start my fall season.


But then, despite the fact that Mercury was yet in retrograde, the weekend served up something jollier when a friend and I attended “Hand to God,” expecting an amusing evening and no more.
Steven Boyer (and Tyrone) and Sarah Stiles (Credit: Sara Krulwich for NYT)
Hand to God is very, very funny.  Every performance is excellent (as are the set, lights, sound, all), and the “understudy” we saw in the female lead was fully integrated with the rest of the company and quite marvelous.  There’s little time for thought during the evening, as the audience continually roars with laughter, so you don’t worry about things like “is it a play or a sketch.”  Hand to God presumably started life as a more than clever sketch that someone told the playwright to expand into a play with a through-line.  He did, and that made the second act a bit unbalanced with too much denouement, but it was brief, and the evening‘s performances kept the audience gasping for breath between laughs.  The language and story are utterly profane, the psychology perhaps juvenile, but sometimes there is just no need to think about such things.  Bravo to playwright Robert Askins and director Moritz von Stuelpnagel for a fun evening at the Booth Theatre with stellar performances from Steven Boyer, Mark Kudisch, Pamela Bob, Sarah Stiles, and Michael Oberholtzer.  Whatever Hand to God is, it sure is funny.

Happily, Mercury is no longer in retrograde, so we can all go back to the theatre in safety.

~ Molly Matera, signing off to prepare for some Pinter