Posts Tagged ‘Stanley Townsend’

Review – Phedre – National Theatre

June 9, 2009

Tonight was my birthday treat to my friend Cate, a trip to the National to see Phedre. I didn’t know much about it (I love it when the first viewing of a show is a complete surprise, though I seemed to remember a bit of the plot) and had mostly purchased tickets on two points: first, that this was the play mentioned by Proust over and over in In Search of Lost Time, and, second, for some reason the National was restricting ticket purchases to four seats per person. Fine, then, it must be something special, or so I reasoned – possibly the fact that Helen Mirrim is playing the lead role. So I got seats long before the show opened – and for a preview performance, natch! (NOTE: It’s been pointed out that I spelled her name wrong. Oops. I’ll correct it for the rest of the review but I feel I need to leave it as stands to support the criticism.)

As we approached the theater, such good luck! Who was on the astroturf sipping a French red but Andrew and Phil of the WestEnd Whingers! Phil attempted to point out what they called “real celebrities” to me (some Dame Shawn somebody and someone from an American sitcom I never watched, details on their review), but it couldn’t distract me from the fact I had two of the funniest guys in London sitting around and shooting the breeze with me. It was really a good start to the show.

After which … well, if you’ve never seen a Greek drama, you should know there is a kind of formula they follow. A proud character announces that he is going to go against the will of the gods, and, once he leaves the stage, a messenger appears and tells you that he’s met a terrible fate pretty much before he reached the wings. It’s rather like working at a start-up web company, really, listening to people talk about how rich they’re going to be or the CEO promising what a success his unresearched product will be once it hits the market “and is properly monetized.” Phedre actually has two ridiculously proud characters (Theseus – Stanley Townsend – and his son Hippolytus – Dominic Cooper), and two characters with heavily conflicting emotions (Phedre and Hippolytus) requiring them to go against the will of the gods. All of the “action” takes place off stage, and there is (as is usual) no intermission (leading to a two hour running time, which meant no pre-show wine with Phil and Andrew).

I think a lot of your ability to enjoy Phedre will depend on how you like this formula. I remembered partway through the show that the last time I saw one of these plays, even the presence of Alan Cumming half naked could not save the evening for me. Consider yourself warned; God knows I found myself wishing I had remembered this earlier.

While there are certain problems with Greek drama in general that afflict this play, Helen Mirren has the disadvantage of representing her incestuous step mother as just too old to be convincing as a person that Hippolytus might ever consider, making all of her mewling utterly unresonant. (A Mrs. Robinson would have actually been a contender as someone with enough juice to make a lusty spring/autumn fling a possibility). Furthermore, even though her character is supposed to be mentally unbalanced, Mirren herself was having a hard time riding the line between hysteria and calculation, especially at the balancing point that would have caused me, as an audience member, to be truly sympathetic to her plight. I didn’t feel sorry for her and she didn’t seem to have a grip on the impossibility of what she wanted even if there were no husband in the way – how could I get involved in her emotions enough for this to resonate as a tragedy? I’m hoping that after the show has a bit of time to settle down she’ll draw back the performance to the right level to pull the audience in, to make them care more about Phedre (and less about “Ooh, it’s Helen Mirren on stage” looking very much like herself). Time will tell.

Meanwhile, Hippolytus is arrogant but almost immediately brought into human scale by his love of Aricia (Ruth Negga, pretty and strong); but his blustering father is utterly unsympathetic as the “I shall curse thee immediately for pissing me off” king. (It’s required for the plot, but when you see someone acting so quickly without thought, you kind of want them smacked down a bit.) That meant of the three leads, only the son was sympathetic, despite initially being a prig. He is truly an innocent in this drama, but is also, I think, the more compelling of the three actors, hitting a good middle ground between GLOOM and DOOM and just being flat. At any rate, I didn’t find him painful, which is hardly an overwhelming thumbs up but, well, it was a bit hard at times to notice him while the people around him were tirading.

Brilliant in the midst of all of these histrionics is Theramene (John Shrapnel), the messenger who comes in to tell of Hippolytus’s death. His outrageous tale of a wave that becomes a sea monster that doesn’t kill Hippolytus but instead leaves him free to be dragged to death by his horses (a tale so drawn out I was sure it was providing cover for Hippolytus to actually get off of the island) reallly came to life, finally providing a sharp moment for all of Ted Hughes’ glorious verbiage (especially alliteration). Sadly it was brought down almost immediately by Theseus, who fell to his knees and said, in stentorian tones worthy of the Prince Vultan of the Hawkmen, “My son!” (Later Aricia drags his bleeding, bagged body onto stage for the final scene, and when the curtain open for bows, my comment was, “My, he sure did get out of that bag quickly!” But, you see, we were all in need of some laughs at that point.)

My companions said: “It was painful, but I’m glad I got through it – kind of like a mammogram.”
And: “Phedre – is that Greek for ‘house full of nutters’?”

Afterwards we sat down and actually had some wine, and it was very pleasant. Soon, the experience will fade from all of our minds, though hopefully I’ll remember that I really just don’t enjoy Greek drama and shouldn’t go, no matter how much Proust has written about the play in question.

(This review is for a preview performance seen on June 8th, 2009. Phedre continues at the National through August 27th.)

Review – Gesthemane – National Theatre

December 2, 2008

Last night by uncle and I took advantage of the 10 pound day seats offer and were squeezed into a performance of David Hare’s new play, Gesthemane. It was quite a challenge to get these days seats, however, as there were already 8 people in line at 8:30 and then another 30 in line when the box office opened an hour later! So I feel my uncle actually worked to get these supposedly cheap tickets, but given that the show is sold out until February, it was the only way to see it at all and both of us were quite interested in checking out the latest by this playwright. (Okay, I admit, I’ve actually never seen anything by him before, but I thought that, given how prolifically he writes and how very many of his shows get produced, there was probably something there worth taking note of.)

The show was billed as being about politics and the “loss of idealism,” but it seemed to be to be a direct blast right at the Labour government that is really hitting the target now that the economy has tanked. “How long can this [incompetence/bullshit] continue?” “As long as the money does,” said two characters, and I had myself quite the laugh in this Last Action Hero – like moment of theatrical prescience. The story is something about a minister (Meredith Guest, played by Tamsin Greig) who is struggling because of the hijinks of her husband (financial) and her teenaged daughter (sexual), along with a parallel story of the party fix-it man, Otto Fallon (played by Stanley Townsend) who fundraises and manages things behind the scenes. In a bid for attention, the daughter Suzette (Jessica Raine, positively brilliant) decides to spill some dirt about Otto to the tabloids, putting her mother’s political career in jeopardy.

While this “story” is of some little interest, the play is more sharply focused on the conflicts between the various characters, many of whom provide Shavian speeches that pepper the ends of scenes. The characters argue about what they value (Minister Guest: more concerned with the party or her family?), who they trust (Prime Minister Beasley: in the pocket of his money man, or focused on his political allies?), and the sanctity of personal life versus fame (journalist Geoff Benzine – he chooses fame and notoriety). As the lights come down, they address us on topics as varied as religion (are political leaders more naturally zealots), keeping state secrets (you must trust that we as politicians are looking out for your best interests – and I do mean trust, blindly!) and proper party fare (my personal favorite – why not to serve neither chicken or salmon sandwiches, ever).

I continually felt during the speeches like I was being addressed by the playwright himself, and, though I mostly found myself agreeing with his points (as also delivered by Nicola Walker as disillusioned school teacher Lori Drysdale), the fact of the matter was that these screeds were already feeling like they were dated by the current economic collapse. They are already talking about the good old days, when the rich were getting richer and the poor were getting poorer, but at least there were some jobs out there. To be honest, I would have preferred to have seen a play that was a bit less topical and a little more long lasting, something that would be a permanent addition to the canon rather than a flash in the pan only interesting as long as the issues it cares about are current. Suzette’s desperate angling for her mother’s attention? Timeless (and brilliantly acted to boot). Meredith’s fight for her career with her former friend, Beasley? Not as razor sharp as David Frost taking on Nixon, but a good depiction of politicians under pressure nonetheless. (This scene was rather sadly held back by Anthony Calf’s performance – he never looked to me like anything but an actor on stage pretending to be a prime minister.) But this wasn’t enough to make up for the rest of the play, which had dramatic tension but not enough drama and certainly not more than two characters that were worth paying attention to. It’s a shame, really, but maybe we’ll get lucky and next time Mr. Hare can get on with a good family feud a la August, Osage County and save the speeches for his personal appearances.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Monday, December 1st, 2008.)