Just me talking about costume-y kind of stuff
As I am continuing to work my way through the National Theatre Live archive, I've discovered that not all their offerings are to my taste. I know, it surprised me too. Also, there are many productions where the acting/directing are superb, but the design isn't much to write about. Not that it's bad, just that it takes a huge backseat to the performances. I've watched 15 of the 30 so far and I am realizing that I'm not going to be blogging about all of them. So here's a short summation of what you won't be hearing about and why.
Devised Productions at the Old Vic
Jan Eyre and Peter Pan were "devised productions" directed by Sally Cookson and staged at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre. They are experimental pieces that use the same acting company with minimal set and costume pieces. I didn't like these productions for the odd staging, but especially for the low tech approach, especially when the work you are adapting is a period or fantasy piece, there should be spectacle. And honestly, Jane Eyre was waaay too serious and Peter Pan was waaay too silly for me. Also, the actor playing Peter Pan looks to be a man in his mid to late 50's and is costumed like Rik Mayal in Drop Dead Fred, which just makes the whole thing really creepy to me, even with the actress playing Wendy looking to be in her mid to late 30's. She's the same actress who plays Jane Eyre, so again with the age problem of being entirely too old for the character. Reading the reviews, the critics loved it, but I couldn't get past the whole panto-esque quality to it. Perhaps it's just that I'm American and don't understand English Panto.
Tennessee Williams at the Young Vic
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and A Streetcar Named Desire were both staged at the Young Vic and directed by Benedict Andrews.
The first problem with both productions is the modernization. There are no streetcars or tin roofs in this modern world. The longing for the genteel Southern way of life that is slipping away in the world of the play doesn't translate when the time of the play is the twenty-first century and that way of life is no longer slipping away, it's dead and buried. Also,
I just think the English performers don't understand the Southern US aesthetic of cotton plantations, college football, and former beauty queens or they would realize that modernizing these plays doesn't work. And although UK training is famous for voice work, to someone who was born and raised in the South, their accents were not convincing, especially the men. Also, both Paul Newman and Marlon Brando are manly men, and although they cast well-muscled men in those roles, no amount of tattoos will turn you into Stanley or Brick. It's an attitude, a confidence, an arrogance that maybe just doesn't translate to English men. I don't know.
Specifically, I love Gillian Anderson, so I hate to say this about her acting, but her Blanche DuBois' accent is the worst of the lot. And I know that Vivien Leigh was also English, but her voice work was perfection, maybe because she did Gone with the Wind first. Also, I love Colm Meaney, but he is sooo not Big Daddy. And Maggie the Cat is supposed to be a sex kitten--duh!-- that any heterosexual man could not resist. The actress that plays Maggie in this production needs to eat a sandwich. I know our current ideal of feminine beauty is basically a heroin junkie super model, but that doesn't work for this play. I normally think British actors way out-class American actors, but in conclusion, I think these British actors should leave Tennessee Williams' to the Americans and Vivien Leigh.
Must See Performances
KIng Lear, 2011
Directed by Michael Grandage
Scenery and Costumes by Christopher Oram
Derek Jacobi as King Lear
King Lear was staged at the Donmar Warehouse.
This was not a modernized version per se, but was costumed in simple, dark robes on everyone, making it very difficult to tell the characters apart. The scenery was just whitewashed walls and floor. There were no other set pieces. The best tech in the show is the storm in Act 3 scene 2. The thing that set Derek Jacobi's Lear apart from all other Lears, is that it was clear that Lear was suffering from dementia. Now, maybe this is just my interpretation clouded by my mother's death from Fronto-temporal Dementia recently, but that's how I read it. I suppose if I went back to 1988 and watched Jeffrey Dench (brother of Judi Dench) in our Aggie Player version of King Lear, I might feel the same way about his performance.
Jacobi's Lear was a man who after making one very stupid pronouncement, was suddenly changed in personality so much so that his children and oldest friends are surprised by it and don't understand that in this state he can't be reasoned with. Once he leaves his palace and moves his retinue to his daughter's, his dementia only gets worse. He's strange and prone to angry fits, he's violent and childish, and he doesn't know himself or his servants anymore. The most interesting choice for me was the "Storm" scene which he chose to whisper his speech as an inner monologue but was amplified and echoed through the sound system while the "storm" levels receded into the background and only "raged" while Jacobi paused in his speech, until both storm and speech rose to thunderous levels by the end.
Adapted by Don Taylor
Directed by Polly Findlay
Scenery and Costume Designed by Soutra Gilmour
Jodie Whitaker as Antigone
Christopher Eccleston as Creon
There was more to the design elements in this production than the other two, but still not much to speak of, compared to the acting. Antigone was a modernized adaptation, turning the Trojan civil war to the Cold War. Reading the rehearsal notes, I learned that the inspiration for the setting was Churchill's War room, which the cast got to go and visit for research. The chorus no longer speaks in unison as in the original, but has become the essential workers in the war room, each with their own jobs and viewpoints. That was perhaps the most impressive piece of the puzzle, the constant movement and stage business with all the chorus running around doing all their very important jobs and handling so many props. Together with the lighting and sound, the buzz of the war room really came alive.
Jodie Whitaker vs Christopher Eccleston is the Doctor Who grudge match of the century and Jodie wins. Also, kudos to Luke Newberry as Haemon, Creon's son. You might remember Luke from the British TV show In the Flesh, where he played the lead, Kieren Walker, a rehabilitated zombie.
Directed by Nicholas Hynter
Scenery and Costuming by Vicki Mortimer
Rory Kinnear (Penny Dreadful) as Hamlet.
After reading the rehearsal notes, I learned that the inspiration for the setting was a fictionalized former Soviet republic, specifically the Eastern European Christian ones, where the populace is subjected to routine surveillance, human rights are ignored, and freedoms are restricted, and the secret police make dissidents disappear. Basically, spying is standard procedure here. It's a modern dress version with minimal scenery consisting of white walls that reconfigure to create different acting spaces. However, with acting this good, you don't need tech at all. Just lights to see by. That doesn't mean that more lavish period sets and costumes wouldn't have made it better. It would have. Especially since in this version all the costumes were in the navy/black/grey range. Having Hamlet still in mourning dress among courtiers who've had to transition to a wedding rather quickly and would have therefore worn colors, would have made Hamlet's "melancholy" stand out much more severely, as it should have done. But honestly, the tech isn't the reason I'm writing about this show, so the tiny criticisms I have are NOTHING compared to the acting genius that is Rory Kinnear.
I have seen many Hamlets and Rory Kinnear is the best one. Fight me. And as much as I love David Tennant in everything he does, Rory Kinnear's Hamlet is better. He's better than all the "modern" Hamlets--Mel Gibson, Kenneth Branagh, David Tennant, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ethan Hawke--and he's also better than Olivier, there I said it. If you don't believe me, watch it for yourself. Even his ugly blue sweat pants and OD army shirt can not diminish the power of his passionate performance.
I had several thoughts while watching him, things that never occurred to me while watching any other Hamlet actor. First and foremost that he's "acting" like he's crazy and not actually crazy when he's with a character he decides he cannot trust and that is the "method in his madness". So simple and yet so brilliant. You can see this especially in the scene where R&G show up unannounced. At first he's glad to see them and is behaving appropriately, but as soon as he find out that they were sent for, he immediately distrusts them and starts "acting crazy". No second chances, no explanations, he's just written them off as allies. Second, that he was actually in love with Ophelia until he decided he couldn't trust her so he pushes her away. Third, that Horatio is with him all the way right up until Hamlet reveals that he has rewritten Claudius' edict, condemning R&G to death. Horatio is horrified to find out that Hamlet would feel justified in punishing his friends with death for being Claudius' pawns. Fourth that Hamlet truly regrets both his treatment of Ophelia and his "accidental" murder of Polonius upon learning that it was entirely his actions that let to her suicide, and because of this, he is truly trying to reconcile with Laertes before the fencing match.
And fifth, the problematic scene with Gertrude that everyone else seems to want to make sexual or weird isn't problematic in Rory Kinnear's hands. Part of the reason this works is because in this version, Claudius is played by an actor who looks weak and snively, rather than sexy, heroic Patrick Stewart or even sexier, younger Kyle MacLauchlin, or friendly grandpa Alan Bates or Derek Jacobi. The audience should be able to see the difference themselves in the two portraits that Hamlet shoves under Gertrude's nose. Old Hamlet should be kingly and heroic and in comparison, Claudius should look weak and sinister. Lion King is the only production that got this right. So when Rory Kinnear was upset with his mother for marrying too quickly, we see that it's not only that it was too soon (everybody gets that part right) but that it also should have been obvious to her that Claudius' wooing of her was an outright power grab, that she was being used, and not only is she being unfaithful to her dead husband by neglecting her duties to be in mourning for at least a year, that she has been an idiot not to see through Claudius' motivation and allowed him to rob her own son of his succession to the throne. And moreover, to Clare Higgins (Gertrude) who was the first actor that I believed finally saw the light and was in fact promising Hamlet that she would not sleep with Claudius again. After Hamlet leaves her bedroom, we see Claudius go in for some neck nuzzling and Gertrude firmly pushes him away.