Kings, Princes and a Musical Voltaire

It was a premier cru year for Shakespeare, benefiting from a dramatic arms race luring bankable stars to the big parts. A grand old director whispered to me as David Tennant limbered up for Richard II at Stratford, “Any director worth his salt can make a telly star do decent Shakespeare — once.” Pulling it off beyond that is the real skill, given the limitations of actors accustomed to minute twitches of facial expressions, rather than body movement, verse-speaking and the nimble panoply of skills old Will demands.

Tennant and Jude Law, both Hamlets of yore, risked second helpings of the Bard, with Tennant’s Richard II transferring to the cavernous Barbican stage at the end of 2013, and the feline Law taking on Henry V at the Noël Coward Theatre. Tennant’s Richard has been notable mainly for its quirks — the hair! The nail polish! — but the Barbican’s reprise gives him a chance to settle the flightier elements of Greg Doran’s production and find the uneasy heart of a fidgety king.

He has some very stiff competition in the star contest from Law’s Henry, the last of Michael Grandage’s productions in his foray into the West End. Four years ago, Law’s Hamlet struck me as bravely effortful but devoid of the heart and devastating sadness of the Prince. As a young king seething with bellicose ambition, manipulative yet uncertain, he nails his new part with conviction. Whether he’s rallying the troops with a blast of convenient patriotism on the eve of Agincourt or wooing Princess Katherine (a luminous Jessie Buckley) with the practised ease of a chap who has grown used to getting his way, Law is riveting.

Although, not to put too fine a point on it, the darling of the Primrose Hill Set is knocking on a bit for the role, Law has the physicality of a king who knows his power derives from his deeds on the battlefield and combines cunning and raw violence to take the laurels. He’s an actor who, in his screen life is at his best playing dubious characters (Alfie, Dickie Greenleaf) and he brings the same compulsive, rather scary quality to his Henry — with enough brio and smiting swordsmanship to keep our admiration, even as we see through the ruses of royalty.

Grandage’s production is cool and unfussy, with some extravagantly lovely costumes (Henry, we gather, was not a monarch for the austerity era). Only one character — Ashley Zhangazha’s Chorus — sports a union jack T-shirt, a deft modern touch which still allows the mood and modes of the medieval world to prevail. On this fine showing Grandage and Law (a combo which sounds like a punitive legal firm) make a very convincing stage partnership.

Meanwhile in other kingly news, Sir Nicholas Hytner departed the National with a final flourish of an Othello. Adrian Lester as the envy-infected Moor and Rory Kinnear as his bluff mate Iago were a double-act damned to cling to one another and the needy relationship was finely wrought. Kinnear’s Hamlet has established him as one of the more natural of verse speakers and here he mixed a twang of Estuary with a clear poetic awareness of the words.

Hytner’s version is set in a contemporary army base in Cyprus, a pressure-cooker of martial intent without the release of actual fighting (the war in Othello having been postponed, as they say on the Tube, “due to adverse weather conditions”).

Directors tend to apply war parallels with a trowel, but this production captured the tension and masculine insecurities of the soldiering breed without overdoing the modern angst. The scene in which Iago drives the Moor to vomit in fear and aggression at Desdemona’s rumoured infidelity was one of the most chilling of the year — enough to make you want to shout out and warn Othello.

The production has been one of the biggest successes in the National’s drive to bring its hits to wider audiences through cinema screenings. I watched one of these rather than the stage version and must eat a portion of humble pie for my initial instinct that the experiment would fall flat. Strong audiences, especially farther away from the capital, prove me wrong. I now feel like those people who told you the internet would never catch on.

But live theatre is a different texture of experience and there is some reason to worry about the arts elite in London falling into the cosy view that screenings can replace live performance in the regions. The big opera companies are also in this groove and it’s one that Peter Bazalgette at the Arts Council needs to watch.

Austerity has been extremely tough on theatres outside the major centres so let’s give due praise for those who’ve kept their tin hats on. Reviewing the Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury shorty after its plush reopening in 2011, I worried about the tendency of local councils to plough money into posh cultural buildings without much clue about what would happen next.

Two years on, I took pot luck and ended up watching Paul Merton’s Impro Chums. This is now your classic out-of-London Saturday night fare (if it’s not Mr Merton it’s the sly Geordie stand-up Sarah Millican, who seems to be performing simultaneously in about a dozen provincial venues). Bookings like these ensure stalls brimming with teenagers, dads and grandparents doing what people long to do at the  theatre — shouting out suggestions, quips and objections without being told off. I like to think Marlowe would have liked the rowdy participation, even if the Mertonesque improv numbers (involving laggardly Tesco  staff, a Brillo pad and a sheep) might have eluded him.

This year is the 450th anniversary of Marlowe’s birth in Canterbury, and Fourth Monkey, an ambitious training company, will be performing some of the plays, including the neglected Faustus.

That’s fine, I guess, though it is a bit disheartening not to have a major Marlowe-in-Canterbury production. Mark Everett, the artistic director, can’t be faulted for an eclecticism which brings short stays of Shakespeare (next up, this spring, is a Comedy of Errors by the all-male Propeller company) and for running one of the more inventive “learning and participation” programmes (or education, as we used to call it). But I would still urge aiming just a bit higher on yer actual dramas. You never know: some of the improv fans might learn to like it.

One place where regional theatre has the advantage of more generous funding and a keen inter-regional competition for new work is Germany. I’ve been nosing around the theatres there for a Radio 3 documentary, which gave me a grand excuse to find out why Simon Stephens, Britain’s most performed playwright in the Fatherland, often launches his new plays like Pornography (about the 7/7 bombers) there, rather than in front of his home crowd.

His thesis was that British directors and audiences are too firmly in hock to the “curse of dirty realism” and that German directors feel freer to add dimensions to the work.

The Deutsches Theater in Berlin, for example, has staged Ödön von Horváth’s 1931 play Tales from the Vienna Woods, which charts the social and moral collapse of a spirited young woman in a vortex of forces from the political to the economic and sexual, which destroy her.

In Michael Thalheimer’s production, the cast of exploiters, two-timers and cynical bystanders gradually had boxes put on their heads as they succumbed to cruelty or indifference. In the final scene, the heroine adds her own box and kinks out a hip in a tiny gesture of submission to a living death. There are also moments of wonder: a dancer pirouhetting wildly out of control in a whirling snowstorm and the Vienna waltz, played at ear-splitting volume as social norms fracture. It’s a level of visceral experience we see too rarely on the stage at home: unsettling and fascinating to behold.

 You may rightly object that this is very unfestive and even Austrians have to lighten up sometime. Having suffered enough panto to merit an early release scheme from Jacks dressed as Jills and bi-curious Buttons, I have diverted my young to musical theatre.

At a different end of the taste-spectrum you could go for The Commitments at London’s Palace, a big, brash reincarnation of Alan Parker’s poignant film the tuneful ambitions of Dublin’s soul-meister Jimmy Rabbite. It rocks along with scant concern for plot, character or narrative cohesion. Sutra Gilmour’s designs cast us back to the gimcrack music haunts of 1980s Ireland and the sweet sound of soul just about holds it all together.

If however you prefer a dose of anti-Leibnizian philosophy (and who doesn’t, now and then?), head instead to the Meunier Chocolate Factory for Candide, which runs till February. It’s based on Leonard Bernstein’s late-Fifties musical, with a mixture of Voltaire’s instruction on the dangers of moral complacency and some cracking black humour; “What a day what a day for an auto da fé.” 

At the Meunier, the song and dance is tumultuous and genuinely immersive. There’s a good chance of finding a cast-member in your lap. True, the more pointed parts of Voltaire’s message for mankind get lost in the jollity and absurd picaresque story. They make up for it by shredding a copy of Leibniz’s work at the end. You don’t get a denouement like that at Cinderella.

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