Posts Tagged ‘Ben Daniels’

December theater mini-reviews – A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings (Little Angel), Driving Miss Daisy (Wyndham’s) and Judgement Day (Print Room)

December 30, 2011

It’s nearly the end of the year and I’m realizing that I haven’t been able to keep up reviewing shows this month at all, an unsurprising consequence of thirteen shows, four dinners with friends, three parties, two full days on the road and two evening classes in a twenty-two day period. My time on trains has been used for napping; and my job has been too busy for me to write at work. What’s left? Why, an eight post extravaganza over the Christmas season. Don’t say you weren’t looking forward to it. Everyone else is doing recaps; hell, I haven’t even discussed the shows in the first place!

Right, so first off is “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings,” a collaboration between Kneehigh and the Little Angel. As a Marquez fan, I found much to recommend it: the incredible feeling of sadness (despite the chipper, English seaside setting) of both the angel and the underlying Marquez truth that people are perfectly willing to ignore magic in favor of making money; the lovely puppets; and the moments of wonderful … cinematography? (The scenes of the storm over the ocean and of the hosts of angels singing were particularly good.) It took advantage of its format to tell the story in a way that made the magical realism easy to swallow (and which would be nearly impossible to do with actors). Yet I was frustrated by the pointless songs and the occasional dumbing down of the story – both things that helped make the story more palatable for  younger audiences but which I found cluttering. Overall I enjoyed enough lovely moments in this show to find it worth the trip to Islington on a Sunday, but it frustrated me too much to really get behind it as a show. (This review is for a performance that took place on December 11th, 2011: continues through January 29th, 2012.)

Next up was Driving Miss Daisy at the Wyndham’s Theater. I wanted to see this in New York but couldn’t afford it: happily, at the end of the run, 10 quid tickets were available way up in the 2nd balcony – and for that price, I wasn’t going to complain. I mean, Vanessa Redgrave! Darth Vader – er, James Earl Jones! I knew the story generally from seeing the movie, but the undercurrent of the evolution of race relations was stronger than before – the scene where Daisy has her driver leave her at the door so she can attend a Martin Luther King dinner was particularly bitter. I couldn’t help but think of the Cracked magazine article on “Old Timey Prejudices in Movies” and its final assertion, “We Still Don’t Care About History That Doesn’t Involve White People.” This play totally seemed to be drawing from that vein of American popular culture. But still, the other story in this play – the one about aging and independence and friendship – was a joy, and I let myself be completely emotionally manipulated for the entire enjoyable ninety minutes of this show. I didn’t even care that most of the set was cheap projections of the sort that normally piss me off with their obvious cost-cutting; instead, I got into the characters and the story and even got sniffly at the end. Really, it was a perfect after work treat and I’m glad I managed to break away from Christmas programming in time to see this before it closed. (This review is for a performance that took place on December 12th, 2011. The final performance was December 17th.)

Next up was Mike Poulton’s “Judgement Day,” his version of Ibsen’s “When We Dead Awaken.” This was a must-see for me, as I love Ibsen and have never seen this play performed in any version: it got bonus must-see points for being straight through (about 80 minutes I think) and from the latter era of his writing (which I think is stronger) and in a lovely intimate space (the Print Room). However, the play is a bit melodramatic at its heart: an old sculptor (Michael Pennington) has lost his ability to create art anymore, but winds up being tracked down by the muse (Penny Downie) whom he’s convinced stole his artistic soul away – but she thinks he stole hers and is out for revenge. Meanwhile, the sculptor’s wife (Maia, Sara Vickers) is married to someone who doesn’t respect her in the least – a relationship that had me confused as it had very little to do with the central story other than to provide a contrast of a couple who is embracing life (Maia and massive jerk Baron Ulfheim, Philip Correia). The whole thing was so heavily metaphorical that it just didn’t work for me, and while Pennington was perfect, Ms. Downie just didn’t seem to get “crazy.” To be honest, I haven’t seen a crazy person portrayed believably on stage (except by Ben Daniels in Haunted Child) in so long I think maybe actors don’t actually realize how generally sane crazy people are – it’s an important survival tactic if you want to stay out of the loony bin. Anyway, I found myself still getting a bit bored despite what should have been a whip-cracking running time, so I must consider this play to have ultimately been a failure, not helped by the fact that the main characters were just painfully unsympathetic: you shouldn’t be hoping as hard as I was that they’d just fall down a cliff face and be done with it. (This review is for a performance that took place on December 13th, 2011: it closed on December 17th.)

That done, I’ve hit all of the reviews for this year I’m going to write (unless I do a round up of the Suspense Adult Puppetry festival, highly unlikely now that it’s almost two months over): time for the end of the year roundup!

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Review – Luise Miller – Donmar Warehouse

June 12, 2011

It’s hard to figure out how to write a one hundred percent spoiler free review for Luise Miller – the play is hardly a classic (despite being 250 years old) so almost anything I write is going to be a plot reveal (for those unfamiliar with Verdi’s version). I went into this play knowing absolutely nothing about it (other than a quick giveaway about it being 18th century and German). This is, actualy, how I like to experience my plays – totally at the mercy of the playwright and whatever ride he’s going to take me on, trying to see where his hints are (“This will all end in tragedy!” usually seems a pretty solid clue), trying to outguess his twists and turns via leaps of logic (“but if he’s in love with her, too, then he will probably ….”). This is much more of a hair-raising, visceral experience, and while I know there is much to be said for seeing a show you know inside and out so you can truly judge, say, the superiority of a performance or adequacy of a given translation, I say there’s nothing that beats getting that first night’s audience experience. This is one of the reasons I avoid reading most reviews before I go see a show: I really just don’t want to know the details, I just want to know if I should or shouldn’t go! And for those of you who want that kind of review from me, I think I can tell you just enough by saying the production reminds me of The Revenger’s Tragedy meets Sorrows of Young Werther via Dangerous Liaisons, that it’s a solid, middle of the road show that is not outstanding but still entertaining, and that it’s the plot that holds the show back from greatness as I cannot really buy into a show so driven by small-town, 18th century ethics for this play any more than I could for Faust. This is the end of the spoiler-free section of this review; if you were wanting to make up your mind based on the lightest touch of information needed to do so, you now have what you need. Scurry off as I am now about to get down to the meat of the review, and I shall be telling much more than I would have wanted to have heard before I went.

Alright, is this the rest of you, the ones who don’t mind knowing more about a show before you go? Or are you perhaps among those who sat through this tragedy of comic proportions and wanted to see if your experiences matched my own? Well, read on …

Luise Miller is about a young man of noble birth (Ferdinand, Max Bennett) in love with a young woman of low birth (Luise Miller, Felicity Jones) whom he meets while taking violin lessons from her father. The play starts with thick tragedy warnings from the start, made even more alarming once young Ferdinand appears on stage, in his officer’s uniform, with innocent, virtuous, highly religious Luise and promptly appears to be telling her every line of bull in the book about how he absolutely will find a way to make their relationship work. He was laying it on so thick I was expecting Luise to promptly dance herself to death and be brought back by the Queen of the Wilis. Three characters stand in their way: his father (The Chancellor, Ben Daniels), the neighbor in love with Luise (Wurm, appropriately enough, John Light), and the king’s mistress (Lady Milford, Alex Kingston), who wants to marry Ferdinand herself. Leaving still a bit of room for surprise, I’ll say the plot does have a few twists and turns, but ends in keeping with the early expectations, with an overblown, overacted death scene that hit all the buttons if you’re feeling spiteful about all of the sap on stage.

I had some serious problems with the script for this play. A huge gap exists between the people in the world of the court (the Chancellor, Lady Milford) and the world of Luise. On Luise’s side, religion and morality are of utmost importance; at the court, it’s power and getting what you want. And, unexpectedly, it’s the manipulative court people who actually are more interesting. I’m sure Schiller meant our sympathies to be with Luise and Ferdinand, and while I felt sorry for the way their beliefs and sense of honor were used to manipulate them, it didn’t change the fact that they came off as two dimensional. This was especially bad in the case of Bennett, who, as Ferdinand, had a wide range of emotions to cover – passion, happiness, rage, jealousy – and didn’t really seem up to the task (though he did have passion-inspiring shoulders). I wondered if it was just too far removed from his personal experience for him to “get” what he was acting. As for Jones, well, she was sweet, but in her confrontation with Lady Milford she moves beyond sugary into insightful and empathetic – giving Jones more chance to show dramatic range and winning me over as a character and an actress. Sadly, both of the young’uns were weak when they were meant to be crazy … but this was during the point when the religiosity was being cranked up to my breaking point anyway so I was checking out a bit and waiting for the God talk to be over. I’m sure, though, Schiller did NOT mean for me to be humorously indifferent to Luise and Ferdinand’s suffering …. but they did both really need to do some growing up.

Overall, this play was kind of typical of the gloom and doom style I’ve come to associate with the Donmar, but without the really brilliant script to make it all amazing. Still, I walked into the night feeling a sense of joy at having seen the destruction I’d anticipated all night wreaked so thoroughly at the end, and, given that it was just past 10PM as I headed out the door, it seemed like it had been a good evening, but one that definitely called for a bit of ice cream, so off to Scoop I went for a little bit of sweet and cold to end my evening perfectly satisfied.

(This review is for a preview performance that took place on Friday, June 10th, 2011. Luise Miller continues through July 30th.)