Monday, 28 December 2009


26/12/09, BBC 2

A Boxing Day telly version of the RSC's recent Hamlet starring the BBC's current superstar, David Tennant (who was all over the Christmas schedules in everything from this and Doctor Who to Desert Island Discs), thus giving those of us who missed it in the theatre (because we couldn't get tickets or because he got ill at the start of the London run and had to withdraw) a chance to see what all the fuss was about.

Penelope, whose enthusiasm for Tennant knows no bounds, has penned a review which I shall paste in immediately below. Before reading it I'll say that Tennant makes a fine Hamlet, and catches the man's antic disposition perfectly, pretending madness with tremendous wit and playfulness. He picks the text apart with almost Russell Beale-like intelligence, but lacks Russell Beale's way with the soliloquies: the superlative Simon seemed to me making it up as he went along, a Renaissance humanist philosopher at once fascinated and appalled by the directions his introspection took him in; the divine David looked tortured and spoke the lines prettily, but remained just a fine actor acting. But I did get a powerful sense from this production of just how impossible Hamlet finds action, and quite what a dreadful king that would have made him: both his father and his uncle would, you feel, have had Claudius for toast within 24 hours of the chat with the ghost.

Patrick Stewart was an equally fine and Machiavellian Claudius (I especially liked his "so it goes" little shrug when presented in the final scene with the poisoned cup); Penny Downie was a sexy Gertrude; Oliver Ford Davies a simply marvellous and definitive Polonius.

Greg Doran the director seemed to have made minimal changes for television, and those he had presumably made weren't entirely helpful. The occasional shots through Big Brother CCTV cameras didn't quite fit with the 1960s dress of the court and Hamlet's business with an 8mm cine camera during the play scene (we saw part of the play through Hamlet's camera too). But then Tennant's jeans, trainers and beanie hat in the graveyard scene, in which he looked every inch the noughties student, didn't fit with the prevailing aesthetic either and that, to judge from the publicity photos, was in the original stage production.

And it was a brave decision, I thought, given that this was family viewing time at Christmas, to leave in Tennant's shamelessly blunt take on the Elizabethan double meaning in "country matters". I wonder if they'll get complaints.

And now here's Penelope:

Hamlet was the first production I saw this year, twice, and so it’s fitting for me that it should also be the last, this time on television. One of the many magical things about theatre is that it’s live – the action unfolds in front of you. So, I was slightly apprehensive watching this production – filmed over several weeks this summer and reuniting the principal members of the RSC cast. But every time I see Hamlet, my understanding of the play is enhanced. This managed the delicate balancing act of TV and theatre without a false or clumsy note. The stage is replaced by a handful of key sites, but the essence of the original production remains; all smoke and mirrors, glitzy chandeliers, gorgeous costumes and a sense of impending doom. Added to this is a new theme of surveillance. Hamlet is often watched, and often by those who wish him harm. So there are CCTV cameras everywhere and the audience becomes the camera’s eye at several key moments. As a device, I thought it worked well.

David Tennant is Hamlet. And it’s an extraordinary performance. In the theatre, you get a distant view of the actors and you see them from only one perspective. In television, you get close ups and see them from different angles. In this case, it really helps the storytelling. Tennant has the range for Hamlet – at times quiet and tender, anguished, confused, outraged and in feigning madness. He acts with his entire body, not just that hyper-expressive face but with arms and legs too. During the ‘coward speech’ where he’s trying to decide how to deal with Claudius, he moves around the set, bare foot, waving his arms, beating his chest, covering his face while talking about his dear murdered father. Hamlets are judged by how they deliver the famous “To be or not to be speech”. I thought it was an incredibly brave decision by the director, Gregory Doran, to film the beginning of this from behind, in silhouette. So as Tennant, very quietly, starts “To be…..” we can’t see his full face. What we have are the words. And they are such powerful words. Hamlet is wretched, he cannot decide if it’s better to live or die. As he starts to ruminate about sleep and death, the camera turns to his face and Tennant looks and it (and us) as he talks about shuffling off this mortal coil. The effect was breathtaking.

Hamlet pretends to be mad in order to expose Claudius as his father’s killer. Claudius (and the father) are both again played be Patrick Stewart, who is majestic, and makes Shakespearean verse sound like normal speech. Polonius has to be one of the most irritating and amusing characters and Oliver Ford Davies accomplishes both wit and grief with aplomb. I found myself once more enjoying Peter de Jersey as the ever faithful Horatio and Mariah Gale shines as Ophelia.

Betrayal, madness, murder, loyalty and love – these are the central themes of the play. Many of the play’s central characters are dead by the end. As Hamlet lies dying in the arms of Horatio, Tennant should be able to wring a tear from the hardest heart with “If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart, Absent thee from felicity awhile, And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain, To tell my story”.

Hamlet may not be conventional Boxing Day fare, but this production is very special. One can only hope that the RSC and David Tennant are reunited before too long.

Thursday, 17 December 2009


17/12/09, Donmar

1 hrs 40 mins, no interval. Alfred Molina as Mark Rothko, Eddie Redmayne as his young assistant, in a cracker of a play set entirely in Rothko's studio.

I'm writing this some weeks after seeing it, so this is what sticks in the mind.

A wonderful scene in which Rothko and his assistant prime a huge canvas with red paint.

The scene towards the end in whiuch the assistant finally tells Rothko that, by taking the commission to decorate the Four Seasons restaurant in the new Seagram Building -- a commission which clearly troubles him anyway -- Rothko has sold out: he's met with the response that, for the first time, Rothko recognises the boy as an individual and not as a cipher... and dispenses with his service.

There's a lot of intelligent stuff about Rothko's fear of being superseded by a younger generation who will do to him what he did to the giants of the previous generation; about his rivalry with Jackson Pollock; about the 9-to-5 ordinariness of the job of painting.

We loved the detail in the studio; and there was a clever device of a great frame mid-stage which could be wheeled around and on which a succession of paintings and canvases could be hung, after being transferred from the Donmar's famous back wall (which really came into it own in this show).


16/12/09, Bloomsbury Theatre

3 hrs. A curious evening for an audience of students (the Bloomsbury is UCL's theatre) and hardcore rationalists. And us. We went because A's daughter's boyfriend Steve was playing trumpet in the band.

Robin Ince, broadcaster, journalist and stand-up comedian, engaging and genuinely funny was compere. The idea seemed to be to celebrate atheism and to mock religion and other forms of superstitious credulousness (eg homeopathy). Most of the time robustly satirical, it lapsed at times into whimsy and occasionally veered towards the downright nasty. Each act got no more than ten minutes, notionally: the techies had apparently rebelled after the previous night, when it ran four hours.

Some of D's colleagues had seen it last year, when Richard Dawkins was in it, and spoke highly. Dawkins didn't appear tonight (he is promised for the big bang version on the 20th at Hammersmith Apollo); but was present in spirit (if that's the right term, given the context) in the shape of a giant cartoon on the screen at the back of the stage, parodying Michelangelo's Sistine ceiling, which showed God the creator giving Dawkins as Adam the finger, and Dawkins giving him two back.

Not surprisingly, a curate's egg whose purpose I couldn't quite fathom. Not pure entertainment. Scarcely an exercise in proselytising. Some kind of ritual bonding, perhaps, for right-thinking atheistical folk in the face of a hostile superstitious majority. Except given the general irreligion of modern society it scarcely seemed necessary.

Acts included, in no particular order:

John Otway, tall, gangling singer of Elvis Costello-like ditties on scientific themes. The second, a parody of Disco Inferno (D says) which had apparently been on ToTP, came with a scratch choir of assorted performers and stagehands singing a chorus of "Burn, baby, burn" about Bunsen burners, with Otway not only singing but playing what I think was a Messiaenic Ondes Martenot (but the Guardian says was a theremin). Towards the end he ripped his white shirt open, scattering buttons and revealing a scrawny chest.

A (white) American rapper and improviser called Baba Brinkman.

Brian Cox, 41-year old CERN physicist and co-presenter, with Ince, of Radio 4's The Infinite Monkey Cage (which resembled this in being an intermittently entertaining and stimulating but hard-to-categorise scientific romp). Cox showed us photos of the earth from space, getting ever smaller (one, spectacularly, showed a tiny earth seen through the rings of Saturn), and a Hubble telescope photograph of tens (hundreds?) of thousands of galaxies, reminding me at least of quite how profoundly, utterly, extremely, terrifyingly insignificant we are.

Richard Herring. Who read us some stories he'd written when he was six.

Simon Singh. Who resisted the temptation to talk about That Libel Case and instead, while referring us in passing to, rubbished some American fundamentalist's claim to have found hidden coded messages in the Bible by entertainingly demonstrating you could do exactly the same with Moby Dick.

Ben Goldacre. Who was rude about homeopaths. D thought he was dreadful; I thought he was amusing.

Stewart Lee. Who got lost in an improvisation about an evangelist turning up on his doorstep.

Johnny Ball, Zoe's dad and telly science populariser. Who got the tone wrong and patronised the audience but didn't get booed off like he did the night before, either because he overran (Steve the trumpeter) or because he rubbished manmade global warming (the Daily Telegraph).

Alan Moore. Who wrote the Watchmen comic book series, looked like Dumbledore and told us in a surprisingly dry and amusing deadpan style and Midlands accent why he believes in a 2nd century human-headed snake god.

Chris Addison.

An indifferent singer-songwriter-guitarist with a female accompanist on the musical saw: not something you see every day.

A man who did a routine about "dancing" on trains while listening to an iPod while making almost no movement.

Josie Long.

Monday, 14 December 2009


14/12/09, National (Cottesloe)

2 hrs 30 mins. A Katie Mitchell production of a Martin Crimp version of a Ferdinand Bruckner original more correctly translated as "the illness/disease of youth" and written in 1929.

The publisher's synopsis reads: "Vienna, 1923. A discontented post-war generation diagnose youth to be their sickness and do their best to destroy it. Promiscuous, pitiless and bored, six sexually entangled medical students restlessly wander in and out of a boarding house, cramming, drinking, taunting, spying. Freder sets about savagely experimenting with the young, pretty maid, with half an eye on his former lover Desiree, a wild, disillusioned aristocrat. Petrell abandons Marie for the ruthless underdog Irene. Marie doesn't waste any time weeping - Desiree wants her."

Or: "The sort of play written once in every generation, depicting the moral corruption and cynicism of a frustrated and disillusioned youth in a world that is hopelessly out of joint."

Way over the top but rivetting and not unconvincing. They all had tics, hang-ups and neuroses galore: checking their watches, looking over their shoulders, teasing and taunting and probing and provoking one another. This was, after all, the city and era of Freud. It's the sort of play in which someone says: "Bourgeois existence or suicide. There are no other choices."

The cast doubled as stage hands, in grey suits and white gloves, taking props on and off as the action froze and the lighting changed, covering furniture with plastic sheeting, introducing and removing glasses and clothing in plastic bags: detectives at the scene of the crime, or perhaps museum curators handling fragile artefacts. In the first part I didn't see the point. In the second part it served to highlight some important stage business, including a crucial overdose.

The fashions were elegant: splendid ladies' underwear, hats, frocks. And pyjamas! (Not for sleeping in, though: they had nightgowns for that.) There was a great deal of smoking (in one case of attractively aromatic cigars) and a great deal of shouting.

Everyone seemed to be playing games of control and dominance with everyone else. Feder was monstrous and spooky and clearly very ill, physically and mentally, as played by Geoffrey Streatfeild (whom we saw as Prince Hal/Henry V in the RSC Histories); he took delight in corrupting the housemaid and sending her out "on the game". A insisted at the interval that Desiree (Lydia Wilson), or Dizzy, the aristocrat who was so clever she scarcely needed to revise for her exams and seemed to have extraordinary sexual allure for men and women alike, plus an alarmingly suicidal bent, was also "on the game". We pooh-poohed that, insisting that she just slept around; but in part two she suddenly announced she too wanted to try walking the streets with the corrupted maid (she was prevented and promptly took a fatal overdose) so A was effectively right and we were wrong.

Marie's lover, Petrell (or "Dolly"), was weak and spineless and easily seduced by the self-made, waspishly self-defensive Irene (or "Sally" as her janitor father had originally named her). The dominance games seemed to involve quite a lot of class (the maid was delighted to discover that she and Marie both came from Passau and that her father, a carpenter, had worked for Marie's father, a bourgeois builder). D also thought they involved gender role-playing and the notion that women could only be happy and fulfilled if they had a man, perhaps because at the end Marie was taunted by the monstrous Felder into marrying him. I didn't get that: indeed, the women generally seemed admirably independent and un-dependant. They were, after all, professionals in the making (though I'm jolly glad none of them were my doctor).

Marie was Laura Elphinstone, first class: we saw her in Lysistrata at the Arcola and possibly Tom and Viv at the Almeida.

Saturday, 12 December 2009


11/12/09, Royal Academy

Last night of the blockbuster exhibition, apparently the most successful by a living artist ever staged at the RA. They were queuing for an hour and a half in the Burlington House courtyard; luckily D had booked timed tickets in advance so we skipped the queue in the cold, though we still had to queue for the cloakroom and the final room, in which a large cannon fired a slug of red wax into a corner of the room every 20 minutes (we missed the firing).

Entertaining but not especially profound. There was a miniature version of the trumpet at Tate Modern in the first room in rusty metal (or possibly fibreglass meant to look like rusty metal: I obeyed the notices and didn't touch). I say "small", but it filled the space.

The next room was filled with structures made from gobbets, chunks and extruded sausage-like lengths of potter's clay, mainly pale grey. Each stood on a pallet. Some looked like great piles of wormcasts, others huge piles of pooh. Some looked like towering sand castles.

There was a room with a huge twisted trumpet with a shining dark red vulva-like opening, the tubing made of pale fibreglass with lines drawn on it to look like the borders of prefabricated panels or a technical draughtsman's sketches.

There was a room with exceedingly sharp giant distorting mirrors. You could see yourself looking short and fat, alarmingly large (about 10pc bigger than life-size, enough to be quite disconcertign), upside down. There was one which turned everyone into thin strips of colour: a shame it was winter, when so many people wear black; it would have been more effective if we'd all been wearing brightly-coloured summer kit. A funfair hall of mirrors for the arty classes.

Stretching all the way from end to end of the four rear galleries was a red wax trackway carrying a great block of equally red wax carved so it just fitted through the three monumental doorways en route and moving at 6mm a second (or something: very slowly, anyway).

Most disappointing was the last room, with three-dimensional geometric shapes covered in incredibly bright red and yellow and blue powder paint.

We were out in 40 minutes. If I were being kind I'd say it had a wonderful charm and innocence and playfulness, which depended for its impact on its size and shininess. If I were being unkind I'd say it was glib and superficial.

Update (a few days later)

A and Dr T, it turns out, had both seen the exhibition. Both were pretty contemptuous. A thought the cannon in the final room ridiculously phallic, and told us only men had been hired to fire it. Words like "superficial" were used. A fraud on the paying public was hinted at. I didn't think it THAT bad, but I could see their point.


7/12/09, Bush

Two one-man shows which started life at Edinburgh. In the first an 18-year old meets the girl of his dreams in a pub and they go on the most wonderful date (to Wilmslow dog track) until she tells him she's not drinking because she's pregnant and leaving for Hong Kong the following day. Beautifully captured the awkwardness of young adulthood and the intensity of first love. When she asks if he wants to kiss her he throws open a suitcase full of "Yesses" on thousands of scraps of white paper.

In the second, set for some reason in 2056, a successful actor looks back on his marriage to a woman he insists on calling "Pudding" and their baby, who died of cot-death, after which it all went downhill. Less successful. There wasn't a moment which matched the suitcase of yesses, though our man did go off stage briefly at one point and return with a trombone on which he blew a few sad notes; and at another point, when recalling the endless presents he bought to try and cheer up his desolate wife, he went off and came back with an armful of presents which he threw to the ground, returning for more again and again and again: too many times.

The first (for which he wore a grey hoody with the hood down) was brilliant and worked beautifully: the central character was called Stefan Golaszewski, so it might have been genuine autobiography. SG told us at one point that since his encounter with Betty he's been in a sketch comedy on BBC 4, which the real SG has. The second (for which he wore a white suit and tie) was a brave misfire.

One to watch.

Sunday, 6 December 2009


4/12/09, National (Olivier)

3hrs 10 mins. Brecht's classic in a new translation by Tony Kushner. The production, by Deborah Warner, had a troubled genesis. One preview had to be abandoned. Jane at work said she saw the press night performance, a fortnight after it was originally scheduled.

Fiona Shaw in a sprawling, noisy, intermittently moving but generally unsatisfactory affair. Hard to tell if this was Brecht's fault or the fault of Ms Warner and co. D thought Fiona Shaw's performance was magnificent. I thought it was OK, but I felt rather detached from the whole thing. There was only one moment I thought the theatre fell truly still, when Mother Courage mourned the death of her second son.

Great white sheets dropped down with the details of each scene, also intoned in voice-over by Gore Vidal (of all people). Additional information was supplied by a soldier in combats and shorts speaking into a mic at one side of the stage; when we arrived he was doing close-miked shooting/explosion noises and he also had a footpedal which produced a (very loud) explosion noise which became very annoying as the evening wore on. All good Brechtian alienation.

There was also some deeply alienating music by someone called Duke Special: dull, characterless stuff. We agreed the pace slowed drastically when he was on. During some of the songs a video camera showed a close-up of his face, projected onto one of the sheets, but like a number of things about this production (G Vidal's presence was another) it felt like an idea that hadn't been properly developed.

There was a large cast and the show was long (it might have been longer, but the cast list included characters in at least one scene who didn't appear). On the other hand, the shape and narrative of the piece was much clearer than when I saw it previously with Kathryn Hunter at the New Ambassadors. Though much of what happens, in any version, is bound to seem arbitrary because that's the way it's written and that's the way war is.

Mother Courage's problem is that she loves her children but she loves making money too. One son dies because she bargains too hard for his life. The Catholics catch him and kill him and her grief when she sees his bloodied body laid out on a bier was very affecting (S thought she detected visual hints of the dead Christ and a thousand pietas).

The second son enjoys soldiering and violence too much and pays the price, calling for his mother as he's executed.

The dumb daughter is raped(?) and dies banging a drum to alert her mother, away doing deals in the besieged city, that the enemy are at hand. They shot her down from the roof with a very real-looking and very loud general-purpose machine gun.

The cart was splendid: a square framework on wheels, surrounded by a white sheet, which became a double decker at the height of her pomp and success as a profiteer, and then a tattered old thing at the end.

The performances largely forgettable: this isn't a play which welcomes subtelty in the actors. But we warmed to Stephen Kennedy (the nice Ian in The Archers) as a Protestant chaplain forced into civvies as a Mother Courage fellow-traveller.


2/12/09, Cadogan Hall

English Chamber Orchestra, Howard Williams and "Choir of the 21st Century" which someone said was born, Phoenix-like, from the ashes of the Tallis Choir and which numbers my old friend A's university friend DL among its basses. We met him in the bar beforehand where he'd just met a man he knew who turned out to know Dr T. Then during the interval I met a man I knew at university. Small world.

First-class tenor, Nicholas Mulroy. Under-powered mezzo, Mae Heydorn. A bass called Hakan Vramsmo I thought was also underpowered until The Trumpet Shall Sound which he did jolly well. A very showy soprano called Ida Falk Winland who shoved in loads of decoration (is this appropriate in one of Handel's more religious items?) and wore a backless almost-strapless dress (it had a strap over one shoulder but was cut right down to the panty line) only held up by her bony shoulders ("flat as a washboard," said D) and what Kate calls tit-tape. She made a big impression on me, anyway, and could sing. Her biog shows she did Cleopatra in a Swedish Giulio Cesare; I'd like to see her as Semele.

It started indifferently. It got better as it went on. It dipped, as usual, in part two, but you really can't go wrong with part three and the end.

Vramsmo and Winland are both Swedish, Heydorn is Swedish-German. They looked amused/bemused when we all stood for the Hallelujah Chorus (I don't and didn't, a fact noted by DL).

We were in the balcony round to the side and may not have had the best of the acoustic: the band (22 players, plus two trumpets and timps) often seemed to drown the soloists.


27/11/09, Barbican

The Coen Brothers' latest. A social satire, a bleak comedy, not violent (except for one brief and shocking scene, part of our hero's nightmare, in which his idiot brother is shot by the redneck neighbours while attempting to escape in a canoe to Canada), but very black.

Michael Stuhlbarg (who is apparently a hot, Tony Award-winning New York stage actor who seems to have done very few movies) plays Larry Gopnik, a Minnesota maths professor in 1967 whose life falls apart. His wife announces she's leaving him for an oleaginous friend and throws him out; his teenage son is smoking pot and running away from the class bully and dope dealer to whom he owes $20 he can't pay, while insisting Dad fix the TV aerial so he can watch F-Troop; his hopeless brother Arthur is sleeping on the couch and getting into trouble with the authorities for gambling (and homosexuality?); he is being harrassed by the Columbia Record Club for payments on records he hasn't ordered (his son did). The official synopsis continues:

"While his wife and Sy Ableman blithely make new domestic arrangements, and his brother becomes more and more of a burden, an anonymous hostile letter-writer is trying to sabotage Larry's chances for tenure at the university. Also, a graduate student seems to be trying to bribe him for a passing grade while at the same time threatening to sue him for defamation. Plus, the beautiful woman next door torments him by sunbathing nude. Struggling for equilibrium, Larry seeks advice from three different rabbis. Can anyone help him cope with his afflictions and become a righteous person -- a mensch -- a serious man?"

This is the world of the Coen's own youth, lovingly recreated. The whole thing is a shaggy dog story which, just as things seem to be looking up (Sy Ableman is killed in a car crash, Larry's wife returns, his son gets his confiscated cassette player complete with Jefferson Airplane tape and $20 back from a senile rabbi, the third of the ones Larry tries to consult, Larry gets tenure) his doctor rings to tell him the X-ray we saw him having near the start of the film has shown something truly alarming.

It begins with a shaggy dog story: in 19th century Poland a traveller brings home an old man his wife insists is a dybbuk; the wife stabs the visitor; the visitor laughs, apparently unaffected, then rises to leave a couple of minutes later just as a blood stain starts to appear on his shirt front. So is he a dybbuk or not? We never find out.

And in the middle of the film is another wonderful shaggy dog story, told by the second rabbi, about a dentist who finds Hebrew letters spelling out the phrase "Help me" etched, out of sight, on the teeth of one of his (gentile) patients. Trying to solve the mystery drives the dentist bananas: he goes to the rabbi; the rabbi in effect tells him to forget it. The dentists recovers. Larry, who has gone to the rabbi himself for advice about his predicament and is sitting in the exact same chair as the dentist, asks about the teeth: "Who cares?" says the rabbi. From which I take it that the ways of God are impenetrable to man and that worrying about it only makes us unhappy. When Larry asks for concrete advice and puts forward some suggestions the only one that gets a positive response from the rabbi is trying to more good in the world: "Doing good? Can't hurt," the rabbi says.

Self-consciously clever, often funny, thought-provoking.