Posts Tagged ‘Donmar Warehouse’

Review – Saint Joan – Donmar Warehouse

December 20, 2016

These days it’s so hard to get a ticket for a show at the Donmar that I go for entire seasons without seeing a single thing. I was a bit sad, then, when I saw the promo posters for Saint Joan – a play I’d never heard of (and certainly not seen) by George Bernard Shaw, one of my favorite playwrights – and realized that unless the gods smiled very favorably upon me, there was little chance of me getting to go. And yet, there I was, the Friday before Christmas (well, close enough), rather stuffed full of panto, and there was …. not just a crummy standing seat … but a juicy front row center ticket that would be all mine if I’d just fork over the full price of forty quid. Well. That’s at the top end of what I’m willing to spend for everything, but you could hardly ask for anything better. In fact, I wound up feeling a bit like Santa had come by for an early visit. Religious fanaticism and being burned at the stake? Ho ho ho!

So … this is going to be slightly different review from my normal “I had no idea what was going to happen and this is what I experienced” write up … instead, I’m going to look at this play through the lens of someone who is a fan of Shaw, and who has seen both Shakespeare’s version of Joan of Arc as well as Theo Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc. Briefly, though, the play is given a very modern setting, as the meetings that would normally have taken place at castles or abbeys are instead held around boardroom tables by men in suits (although Joan, oddly enough, appears in Gothic garb). It’s a very effective touch, because what these people are is, really, decision makers, and I found it easy to swallow the ridiculous (miracles and religion) when framed in such an every day context.

Joan as a character needs to carry a lot. Is she an evil witch? The Brits think so (and may have truly believed so in Shakespeare’s time), but Shaw is too much of a realist to go down this path. Is she inspirational? That’s the core of Shaw’s portrayal, and Gemma Arterton embraces that, like a one-woman life coach for the entire French army, seen here coaxing the Dauphin and Archbishop as well as military men with a combination of emotion, religion, touch, humanity, and vision. She seems a dream leader … but Shaw pulls us back to the ground. In a masterful scene – typically Shaw because he’s basically speechifying at us – the English contingent reminds us about the dangers of both nationalism and religious fanaticism. Or, rather, I think Shaw is trying to remind us of where things are going to go historically … but what I heard was a voice from the past warning us that the route to fascism and religious intolerance were often hidden beneath the guise of popularity and “being inspiring.” So here’s Joan … telling people to die in the name of God and encouraging divides based on national origin. Suddenly with that filter it all seems a little more creepy.

Playing a crazed teenager who’s able to rouse a nation to war is doubtlessly not easy. Arterton has the look of someone who can see God, but I felt her sense of betrayal at the end wasn’t as convincing as it should have been (despite the nicely conjured tears). The key role of the Dauphin was also just too weak and wiggly to be convincing. Still, the power players in the rest of the cast – the religious court that sits in judgment in the second act, and the French courtiers – seem strong enough to carry the rest of the play. Overall, it was a good night, and from my front row center seat my interest never flagged. (The gentleman next to me dozed off, however, so caveat emptor.)

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, December 16, 2016. It continues through February 18th.)

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Review – Closer – Donmar Theater

March 9, 2015

I haven’t been to the Donmar much lately – it seems like I get shut out of most of the shows they do these days and have been ever since they raised the bar for being a “friend” and switched to the £10 Monday scheme. But somehow I managed to get a ticket to Closer – two, even – which I snatched up without even bothering to find out what the show was about.

So. There are two men and two women. They meet initially by chance – Dan takes Alice to a hospital where Larry works – but chemistry (and, seemingly, fate) conspire to see them dating. Dan initially seems wonderful – a thoughtful, kind man who doesn’t want to abandon the waif hit by a car – while Alice seems hard: manipulative, deceitful, a user who’s lived life hard and takes whatever she can stuff in her grabby hands, happy to use her looks to even out the poor deal life gave her. She makes a play for Dan – and suddenly he’s going from boring sub editor to Mr Throw Caution to the Wind. What? I found it hard to believe he’d risk losing his job for a shag, and even harder to believe he’d throw over his girlfriend for someone he’s just caught stealing from him. It just didn’t make sense.

We fast forward to a few years, and Dan is getting a photo taken for the novel he’s just written that fictionalizes Alice’s life. He’s been with her for a few years now, and yet suddenly he’s making a pass at the photographer Anna and telling her she’s the love of his life. At this point I gave up hope for this play. People aren’t constantly changing who they are based on random sexual impulses: if this were the case, you’d see people going Jekyll/Hyde/Jekyll/Hyde as they walk down the street. I feel the intrigues that developed between the characters – some due to the men’s inability to handle jealousy in any sort of mature fashion, others due to the women’s brutal pragmatism – generally held water, and there were some nice speeches about sexuality, relationships, and the workings of the human mind that might stand up over time. But this play felt entirely pasted together by someone who seemed to have ideas and situations that they wanted to make scenes out of rather than written by someone who actually understands people. For that, I’d say go see My Night With Reg, which said more with a few minutes of silence than this play did with all of its high energy dialogue. Really, Closer is entirely a waste of time and a talented cast, and I’m pretty sure it’ll die a death soon enough and join the piles of scripts that were forgotten by history as not worth the effort to produce again, once people get past their obsession with internet chat rooms and what happens when you go backstage at a strip club.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, March 5, 2015. It continues through April 4th.)

Mini-review – My Night with Reg – Donmar Warehouse

September 5, 2014

I’ve now seen three AIDS plays held up as classics: and of them, My Night with Reg is the only one that breaks my heart. As Is is full of rage but has a soap opera soul; Angels in America has lost all of its urgency as 9/11 made it a quaint recollection of a more innocent time. My Night with Reg, currently being revived at the Donmar, stays focused on what really matters in theater – human relationships – and slips in AIDS like a stiletto that slides between your ribs unfelt, taking your breath from you forever.

The plot, such as it is, is trivial; men gather together in a house and talk to each other about each other. Each scene is set in a nearly unchanging house; it’s difficult to tell that any time has past- in fact, the second scene seems like it may be “evening of the same day” after a dinner part, but as the conversations play out, it becomes clear that much time has passed, and while little seems to have changed, hearts are aging and memories are accumulating and the great, sad accretion of life (and death) is taking its toll on all present, no matter how handsome and witty they still seem, scene after scene.

The group of men around whom the play centers are all old college (uni in English parlance) friends, and when the get together – which happens rarely (and never with the invisible Reg) – you can see the exuberance and lust for life of the early twenties zinging out of them as they joke, dance, and sing with each other with the easy camaraderie (and hints of old lusts) that really only happen with friendships of a decade or more. You laugh a little at host Guy (Jonathan Broadbent), so pudgy and nerdy and supportive; admire sexy John (Julian Ovenden) while wondering if he actually has any heart under his perfectly sculpted exterior; and wish you could have Daniel (Geoffrey Streatfeild) over to your party because he really is just that funny and smart. Despite this being a reunion for the men, to me it had that timeless feeling of any friendships that resume right where the left off years ago, while also having an interesting touch of British reserve in the amount of emotional honesty the various characters allowed themselves. It still had the thick lashings of sexual honesty I see (enviously) in gay men’s relationships … but their hearts stayed hidden.

Until, well, scenes two and three. Death rises, sex becomes less a sport than a grief control mechanism, and the happiest songs in the world become paeans to the dreams we’ve all had to give up on and the banal realities that have been left behind. It all became a bit like the Japanese love of cherry blossoms – beauty is so much easier to appreciate in the face of its ephemerality. And when we’re living life, we so often don’t realize that a goodbye really is an ending, that the people you see every day will suddenly just never be there again. And for a brief period of time, those lovely, loving, lovable fonts of life were being mowed down one after another and it seemed like it was never going to stop. In the face of that, all you get is a dance and maybe a singalonga and maybe somebody to keep you warm at night, but mostly what you get is the realization that we all end up alone. Even though I had to remind myself I was just watching actors go through a script, that message was still entirely real, and beautifully conveyed. It was an excellent evening and well worth the many, many time I sat there hitting F5 and hoping someone would change their minds at the last moment and decide not to go: and even at top price it was absolutely worth every pound I paid and every minute of my time.

(This review is for a performance that took place Saturday afternoon, August 30th, 2014. I spent the rest of the week wishing I had time to write it up just in case someone else who’d appreciate this play didn’t know how good it was. It closes September 27th.)

Mini-review – The Same Deep Water as Me – Donmar Warehouse

August 8, 2013

I’m not one much for following an actor from show to show, but I do enjoy seeing everything a playwright has to offer. This often leads to me being first in line to book tickets for some overlooked “classic” from Tennessee Williams or Henrik Ibsen; but occasionally non-dead playwrights also get the star billing in my theater world. Nick Payne is on that list, and when his new work (The Same Deep Water as Me) was slated to debut at the Donmar, I knew I wanted in.

I’m pleased to report that The Same Deep Water as Me displays the same flair for dialogue and characterization that his previous works (that I’ve seen, Constellations and When We Were Young). The plot is markedly different: the shyster school friend (Marc Wootton) of a young attorney (solicitor? – Daniel Mays) comes to see him at work to pursue an accident claim, and, well, things don’t go as planned. The four main characters – Andrew (the young attorney), his boss, Kevin (the friend) and his wife – are all very well drawn. Kevin is especially interesting because his attitude and speech are that of a much different type of person than normally appears on stage, with his gold chain, questionable morals, and get-rich-quick visions. It’s hard to see what his wife (Niky Wardley) sees in him – but then, it’s hard to see how Andrew could ever have been in love with her, or feel so snobby about her working at Marks & Spencer. Still, the wealth of details made all of the characters seem very solid.

This, of course, leaves the story. I felt it was … well, kind of unfinished, still. Things seemed to be building up plot-wise that didn’t happen; the really interesting character conflicts that started to surface never really came to a boil (other than in one brief flash at the end, which seemed to come from out of the blue). Did some important scene get left out? It felt to me more like it was never written, especially given the snappy two hour running time. I was expecting this play to really go somewhere, and instead it spent rather a lot of a time being boring in a courtroom. Well, who knows, maybe it’ll get rewritten later and something more interesting will come out of it. It was fine as a ten quid night out (love the Donmar’s pricing!), but, despite the title, this play never got deep.

(This review is for a performance that took place on August 7th, 2013. It continues through September 28th.)

Review – The Night Alive – Donmar Warehouse

July 11, 2013

I do two basic sorts of reviews on this blog. One is a production focused review, for plays I’ve seen before or dance/orchestral performances; the other is a text-focused review. The second is for new plays, or plays I’ve never seen before. I very much like going into a play knowing as little about it as possible (other than “it’s good”). Since I didn’t study theater after high school this isn’t too hard (even for some things Shakespeare wrote), but I also actively avoid reading scripts of plays I haven’t seen. Sure, I want to see everything Pinter and Ibsen (and, I think, Strindberg) have written; but I want to SEE them, live, on stage, not try to imagine them as I turn pages. Ditto watching them on the small or large screen: I want to watch theater IN the theater.

And I want to see new plays – lots of new plays. So I was thrilled when I managed to score 10 quid front row tickets to the Donmar’s sold-out production of The Night Alive, Conor McPherson’s latest show. I’ve had mixed experiences at his plays; The Veil had me out the door at the interval, whereas The Weir had me hanging on every word and gaping at the brilliant character creation. Kinda hard to believe it was the same guy, huh? But I hoped that the genius of the earlier work would prove the rule, and the flop of the historical ghost story would be the “exception.”

I found myself a bit baffled as to the “where and when” of this play – the setting was a shabby bed sit, with papers and trash strewn everywhere and two single beds in the room – the bathroom a clapped together room tucked in the back with more crap on top of it. Based on the presence of energy drink cans and bottled water, I figured it could have been set at any time from the early 2000s to the present (although I was told that the coin operated electricity meter had been completely phased out, so perhaps this was some ten years back – I was short on cash so no program or cast list to illuminate me).

As it stands, the play reconfirmed for me McPherson’s mastery of natural speech patterns as well as his ability to create fully realized people out of text on a page. (Doubtlessly the actors have to take some credit for this too, but it’s the author who can make me believe that the person speaking on stage existed as a child.) But the plot was … elliptical (and I think the reason why the two women behind me in the ladies’ loo queue said they hated the play). It was very much “moving forward in time,” but in some ways it seems that nothing happened or was resolved … none of the characters changed much (other than falling in love).

But … I loved it. Life doesn’t always make sense of have a plot, but this play was more than just “a few scenes from the life of a tightfisted Irish scalawag” – it gave me the same elated feeling at the end as the brilliant Constellations did, and for the same reason: its message was, “In this short life that we live, all we can hope for is to make a human connection. This is rare and precious: treasure it.” I walked out feeling like Ciarán Hinds (as the scalawag) and Caoilfhionn Dunne (as Amy) had given us a tremendous gift. What a lovely, lovely play it was.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, July 4th, 2013. It continues through July 27th. Warning: contains graphic violence that I found quite disturbing.)

Mini-review – Julius Caesar – Donmar Warehouse

December 6, 2012

This has been the year for Shakespearean double vision. Not content to see Henry V, Winter’s Tale, and Julius Caesar once this year, I’ve been forced by outstanding casting, adventurous producing companies, or unusual interpretations (a musical?) to see them all twice. But none of these rewind shows has excited me as much as the all-female Caesar presented by the Donmar this winter. Though I love Propeller Theater and the Globe’s Twelfth Night pleased, I was mesmerized by the idea of women driving this most masculine of Shakespearean dramas. And what a counterbalance to all of the “traditional” all-male shows. Phyllida Lloyd, bring it!

In practice, the show delivered. The setting, a prison, prepared us with a sentiment of why the show was happening as performed; but quickly the novelty of women kissing and being brutal to each other disappeared into the solidity of the text, with only the occasional clumping of the guards overhead to remind us of where we really were: a place ruled by honor, violence, and power. Caesar convinced with both arrogance and superstition; Marc Antony was righteously wrong and a deliciously duplicitous self-claimed non-orator; Brutus was noble, heartbreaking and heart broken.

Small, apt touches punctuated the fiercesome tide of the text: the sad, weak seer, with her babydoll and pig tails; the inmates gathering to watch TV; the single snare drum pop with which Caesar, her ghost miraculously appearing amidst a percussion kit, marks the death of Brutus. And then towering above it all, the amazing battle scene as loud rock breaks out and the band is wheeled across the field (er, the floor of the prison), all pain and noise and flickering light and chaos, like War Pigs in the theater. It’s not glory, boys, it’s death and destruction, and it may just be we chose the wrong side.

And then it’s time to go back in our cells, and the night’s over, and I thought, “Fuck yeah, Shakespeare meets Black Sabbath,” and, “Why aren’t there some better plays out there about what life is really like in prison,” and, finally, “Yep, it rocked.” And I realized that I totally forgot who was playing what a long time ago. That, to me, is a sign of some damned good theater.

(This review is for the performance that took place the night of December 6th, 2012. It continues through February 9th.)

Mini-review – The Physicists – Donmar Warehouse

July 2, 2012

The Physicists is a bizarre little play, a hybrid between a farce (“Noises Off”) and any sort of, shall we say, Shavian drama (the kind where the message making becomes dull at the end and you want to kick the soap box out from under the lead character’s feet). Ooh, a bunch of physicists in an insane asylum during the Cold War, HOW DROLL! Let’s make them wear fright wigs and prance around pretending to be Sir Isaac Newton and Einstein! And they can kill some people and it will have a bit of a murder mystery air about it and it will all be SO FUN!

Or so went the first act. Yes, I could see the ending coming from a mile off, and while watching the Hans and Franz children of Dr Moebius play a recorder duet was really about the height of insanity, I was just kind of wanting it all to be over long before the musical instruments were removed from their cases. I found the first act hateful and not at all funny. Why the hell had the Donmar chosen to remount this disaster?

Then act two came around and while the tone changed to Much More Serious Now We Talk About Ethics and Make a Big Point I just didn’t care anymore. Ooh ethics. Ooh cold war. OOH I AM SO OVER ALL OF THIS PLEASE JUST MAKE IT BE DONE. I sat there coldly watching the actors emote through their lines in fine I Got Taught To Do This In London style and just hated it all. YAY A TINY BIT OF SOMETHING REAL oh wait no not really we’re back to the farce. Amazing how even a short show can seem so long under the wrong circumstances …

I’m sorry. There must have been something redeeming in this night. But after seeing Noises Off so recently, I thought this play just deserved the dustbin. And I blew it and got the expensive seats for once. Argh! To think I could have been off seeing the Print Room’s Uncle Vanya instead! At least my friend liked it …

(This review is for a performance that took place on June 28th, 2012. It continues through July 21st. It was not my cup of tea.)

Review – Making Noise Quietly – Donmar Warehouse

May 2, 2012

This year marked a big change at the Donmar, as long-time director Michael Grandage departed to make room for Josie Rourke. This kind of change wouldn’t normally be something I noticed or cared about, only since I moved to London The Donmar has become the theater to attend, both for outstanding productions and great prices. Tickets became hard to get as the Donmar did more and more celebrity casting – Ewan Macgregor one year, Rachel Weisz another – not to mention a whole season at Wyndham’s with big-name movie actors that, more and more, made getting affordable tickets – or any tickets at all – near impossible. Yippee hooray for all of the Oliviers Grandage pulled … but as time wore on I found myself drifting away from the Donmar. What was the point of getting excited about something you could never see? It all seemed to be getting rather formulaic, anyway, gloomy realism with sets that seemed to be getting a lot of reuse (for the shows I did manage to get into), you know, sour grapes mutter mutter.

So now Rourke has taken over and I’ve come back, finding it easier to get tickets and wondering where The Donmar will go. The Recruiting Officer seemed right out of the Grandage hat (if more cheery than usual), but Making Noise Quietly was quite different: a series of short plays, something I hadn’t seen in the last 5 years (though I could have missed it if it did happen). I arrived with my usual lack of preconceptions, and this is what I saw.

First, there is “Being Friends,” a play about two young men, strangers, meeting in the English countryside during World War II. One (Matthew Tennyson) is gay and physically broken; the other (Jordan Dawes) is a conscientious objector (Quaker) and physically quite fine. They talk about their lives while sharing a picnic; at the end, they strip off and sunbathe. The straight boy is flirted at terribly; in return he flirts tentatively with the other young man. In essence, what happens is the wonderful nothingness of them both accepting each other; even the bomb that exploded didn’t really create as much tension as waiting to see if either would make a pass at the other. Ultimately: it’s all a damp squib.

Second is “Lost,” a mini-play about a Naval officer coming to a woman’s house during the Falkland Islands War to tell her of her son’s death (and a few other secrets). There’s a question as to why the dead man was so estranged from his parents that I felt was never really answered (although my companion said if you were familiar with English style social climbing it was all right there in front of you): but I found it a complete mystery and not really emotionally affecting. Two people conspire together to not feel anything. It’s not my idea of a satisfying play.

And, well, there we were at the interval. I was actively bored. Nothing had really happened; no one had had any kind of self-revelation. Should I leave? I was tempted, but we were promised sweet release at 9:30, so I soldiered back on in to get through the last playlet of the night. And I’m glad I did, because the eponymous final play was very fine: a tale of a soldier (Ben Batt) trying to deal with his autistic son (actor unknown) with the help of an elderly German woman (Sara Kestelman). Here we had three strong performances that caused me to lose the distance between myself and the stage: I was no longer watching actors go through a scene, but people struggling with a problem, and each other. Watching Frau Ensslin struggle to get the young boy to respond to her was completely compelling; seeing her struggle with the boy’s violent father was nearly so. I really cared about her success with both of them by the end of the night, and that’s quite an accomplishment given where I was before the interval.

So: a weak night overall, with the best show last. I got my ten quid worth, to be sure, but I can’t really recommend this as a good way to spend two hours. We’ll see how the next show goes; but this, based on the number of tickets still available for it, does not seem to be as well received as its predecessors.

(This review is for a performance that took place on April 26th, 2012. It continues through May 26th.)

Review – The Recruiting Officer – Donmar Warehouse

February 21, 2012

As I walked into the Donmar Warehouse for The Recruiting Officer, I was amazed at what I saw: the theater was joyous inside! There were people lighting scores of candles and singing (and playing music) while they did so. It was like a party – soft golden candles, jolly music – had I gone into the wrong theater? No, same wooden floor, same shallow back, same crammed seats on the sides – it was certainly the Donmar I’ve formed a close relationship with over the years, only without the heavy overlay of gloom. What, was I not going to be getting a play about incest, obsession, and/or lies? I guess it just didn’t seem like the same old Donmar, but I was willing to give it a try.

As my reward, I got a positively jolly evening being walked through a classic play performed by a group of real pros who were entirely capable of making a 300 year old play come to life. Sure, some of the specifics have changed – recruiting officers don’t go into town stealing away the local labor force with a series of questionable promises now that they’re likely to get sued for breach of contract – but much of the underlying sentiments of loyalty to one’s gender and to one’s job over one’s affections seemed to hold true. I could see it being just as much a play set in Austen’s England, and, while it couldn’t really be done today (there’s not so much concern about finding a marriage partner with inheritable wealth, or the distinctions of behavior based on gender), the rules under which they were operating were laid out pretty clearly and then it became a bit of an anthropological study in the mentality of the time and how people sought to bend the barriers that constrain them in order to achieve their goals. And the goals are in high conflict (and high contrast): we have a woman and a man who want to get marriage proposals in from people they love (both flawed and undesirable in my eyes); then we had people (female and male) who sought to achieve social advantage over others. Finally, the recruiting officers seemed to have simple goals, which were, by hook or by crook, to get people to enlist in a volunteer army. This provided a far clearer picture of the times than poor old Bingo at the Young Vic: we had people who wanted to escape bad marriages, people who wanted money, people who didn’t want to fight at all but were clearly tricked, and people who had fantasies of a better future (aided in this case by a crooked fortune teller) that they thought would be theirs in the army.

Meanwhile the recruiting officers themselves came off as an immoral pack of crooks, willing to tell nearly every lie (to man and magistrate) to fill their ranks: I’m sure it was all exaggerated (and was certainly comic) but it all had an undertone of truthfulness that was chilling. Yet they created a compelling counter-drama to the typical “oh will this warring couple finally get over it and come together” as well as the “seen this before” trope of “woman dresses as a man and is completely unrecognized by all and sundry” that could have made this a cookie-cutter drama lost in the slop called “Restoration Comedy.” I had a darned good laugh at it all, especially Mark Gatiss’ foppish Mr Worthy (with audience interaction) and the sharp Nancy Carroll as Silvia (did her father really recommend she just “hook up” with an officer?). Tobias Menzies, however, came off most unsympathetically in the role of Captain Plume – not that he wasn’t a believable jerk but I couldn’t see why Silvia had any interest in him. And the first half of the play seemed a bit slow and I was drifting off just a bit while the officers were working their way through bamboozling the local underemployed. However, it all ended quite nicely, I enjoyed myself greatly, and I felt like the 15 quid I spent on my side view seat was rewarded with top performances. All this and I got to leave at 10:10? Well played, Josie O’Rourke, well played.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Thursday, February 16th, 2012. The show continues through April 14th.)

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.)