Thoughts On: Translations, National Theatre

translations national theatre

I knew next-to-nothing about Translations, outside of the fact that it was set in Ireland, years ago. My friend was buying a lot of tickets for the new season of the National, and I decided to take the opportunity to see a play by Brian Friel.

The play is set in a small rural village in Ireland in the 1800s; when the play opens the drama is focused on the opening of a new national school in the area which would close the small village school run by the alcoholic schoolmaster Hugh (Ciaran Hinds) but sustained by his son Manus (Seamus O’Hara). The plot really begins when Owen (Colin Morgan), Hugh’s other son returns to the village after years away along with the English army, in his role as translator for a new map of the area. What follows is a play that explores in microcosm the relationship between England and Ireland, and people and their languages.

rufus wright translations

I found Friel’s thoughts on language as shown in this play to be really interesting. Naively, and probably a consequence of living in a country that exports its language, I’d never really reflected on the power that is intrinsic to language. How a sense of belonging is crafted from it, and how easy it is to take power away from people through language. When the English re-name the areas of Ireland, they are also removing the history that they have not participated in; Owen and Manus argue over the need to preserve this history, whether it is ridiculous to maintain a legend remembered by so few people, or whether it is key to retaining the land’s sense of self.

Friel also plays with the possibilities of whether it is ever possible to belong to an area that you have taken by force. Young, idealistic Lt Yolland (Adetomiwa Edun) falls for the rural area, Gaelic (despite being unable to speak it properly) and local woman Maire (Judith Roddy), despite the two being unable to really communicate, and Maire long being expected to marry Manus. However, it is made clear that Yolland could never truly belong to the community he wants to; and the arc of history and future hardships are hinted both in the text; with characters fretting about blight on the potato crop, considering emigrating to America and Ian Rickson’s staging of the final moments reminding the audience that England and Ireland’s fraught relationship is hardly a thing of the distant past.

Rae Smith’s design is mostly focused on a small part of the Olivier’s sprawling stage, but is effective at creating the poor, rural neighbourhood. Her work is complimented by Neil Austin’s lighting which can move between somber and romantic effectively.

colin morgan judith roddy michelle fox translations

The ensemble cast are all very strong. Colin Morgan and Seamus O’Hara are both very good as opposite sides of a similar coin; especially as the former begins to realise the darker implications of his work. Judith Roddy is thoughtful in her portrayal of Maire, and Adetomiwa Edun as her counterpart is warm and engaging. I also found Dermot Crowley’s performance as Jimmy Jack, a local vagrant who can recite Ancient Greek and Latin, surprisingly moving.

I’d really recommend seeing this, it’s definitely a play that has left me with much to think about.

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Thoughts On: Chess at ENO & Policing Audiences

chess eno

Chess is one of my absolute favourite musicals. The Tim Rice/Benny Andersson/Bjorn Ulvaeus (yes the guys from ABBA) show combines great music with the historic background of the Cold War, which is a period of history that I am definitely a nerd about. So when ENO announced that its summer musical would be this show (following on from Glenn Close in Sunset Boulevard and Emma Thompson in Sweeney Todd) I jumped at the chance to get tickets.

Whilst I am a huge fan of the show, I am very aware of its flaws. The book is probably where a lot of its problems lie. The show follows Russian Anatoly Sergievsky (Michael Ball), who is challenging American celebrity chess champ Freddie Trumper (Tim Howar) for the world championship. During the tournament he begins to question his loyalty to his country as he falls for Florence Vassy (Cassidy Janson), despite already being married. The focus squarely on Anatoly is a bit of a shift in this production, which whilst helping the story make sense, I did miss Florence playing a more central role (from when I saw the Craig Revel-Horwood production of show a few years ago, and from the Royal Albert Hall production). It also takes a long-time to get going; with the first 30 minutes being an awful lot of scene-setting which did seem to be testing the patience of those around me.

However, ENO’s production does place the music front and centre. The huge orchestra is on a platform at the back of the stage, and they elevate the score wonderfully. This is complimented by the strong cast. I was a bit disappointed when the cast was first announced, as I’d had pretty high hopes and Michael Ball struck me as far too old for the part. This is still the case, at least when he’s playing opposite Cassidy Janson and Alexandra Burke as his wife; but he is in great voice and ‘Anthem’ really bought the Coliseum down. I’d never seen Janson in anything but she did a great job with Florence’s tricky songs, and even made ‘Heaven Help My Heart’, usually a skip-able song, moving. Burke, who seems to attract a bizarre amount of criticism, was strong in a role that is pretty underwritten, and made ‘Someone Else’s Story’ actually quite moving (though I’m not sure what her and Janson did to the costume designer to deserve their outfits). I also enjoyed Phillip Browne as Molokov, who with the male ensemble, does a fab job of ‘The Soviet Machine’.

cassidy janson chess

So on the one hand, I really enjoyed Chess. However, English National Opera itself did a pretty tricky job of making me feel welcome. To start, the tickets where ludicrously expensive, considering it is not a show that I think is massively well known outside of theatre audiences. This was exacerbated by the fact that the affordable tickets where mostly in the balcony (where I sat), and the staging (by Laurence Connor) was such that we frequently were unable to see key pieces of theatre action; including the actual chess matches and…Michael Ball singing in both Anthem and some of Endgame. It is incredibly frustrating when directors direct for just one part of the audience; and this was exacerbated by the choice to have limited other stage business and a reliance on nifty but get-old-quickly video screens.

Yet this wasn’t the most irritating thing that ENO did; that came in their musical audience only ban on bringing drinks (including water) and food into the theatre that hadn’t been purchased there. Whilst I appreciate and understand a desire to prevent people bringing picnics with them, banning water during a heatwave seemed kind of mad. This is all made even worse by the fact that this rule was targeted purely at audiences for Chess. The inherent snobbishness in the idea that musical audiences are in some way more likely to be rowdy than their ‘normal’ opera and ballet visitors is pretty terrible. Since the news of the policy broke, and people on Twitter got angry, ENO have now expanded this policy to cover opera audiences as well, but for me the damage has been done. The arts, and especially traditional venues, still have much to do to make them more accessible to new audiences, and considering opera is something that still has a reputation of elitism, you would think ENO would welcome an opportunity to try and get return visits from new audiences by making their experience one they would want to repeat. But alas.

michael ball tim hower chess

What Did I Miss?

So, its been a minute or ten.

I mentioned a few posts back that I was offered and accepted a new job, and this first month has been a whirlwind that I’m still trying to process. Everyone I’ve met so far has been lovely, but I’ve been working with a client from Day 2 and it feels like I haven’t really had much chance to catch my breath!

March was a complete whirlwind. I turned 25, and celebrated at Hawksmoor with my family, Duck & Waffle with my housemates and in Shoreditch with all of my friends. I was thoroughly spoilt and had a lovely time at all these places. Turning 25 was something that didn’t feel that much of a big deal at the time, but reflecting on it, I think this being my 25th year has definitely been a bit of a driver in me sorting out my fitness and my financial position.

duck and waffle

I spent a lot of my final weeks in my old job recruiting for the next cohort of graduates for the scheme that I was on, which was the National Graduate Development Programme. This took me to both the LGA and to Preston to assess candidates which was a really valuable experience, and I’m hopeful that there are some really good people about to start their journeys in local government.

I also went to see Sondheim on Sondheim at the Southbank Centre which was a concert of Stephen Sondheim, featuring some of my favourite musical theatre singers including Tyrone Huntley and Julian Ovenden. I also saw Macbeth and 42nd Street, and you can find my thoughts on those by click through the links. I spent Easter at home with my family, and enjoyed a good break before starting my new job.

hawksmoor dessert

April felt like it was over in the blink of an eye. Getting to grips with a new job, longer hours and more travelling was a lot to deal with. I also saw my very first opera with my housemate via ENO’s Opera Undressed programme. Whilst I’m not sure opera is completely my thing, I do always appreciate the arts having programmes that make them more accessible.

One of my favourite bands, Arcade Fire, also toured during April and I headed to Birmingham to see them with my family. Whilst this did mean I get to wake up 5.15am to make it to work again from home, they were so worth it. Their live shows are worth every penny and the atmosphere is always electric. I’d highly recommend seeing them if you get the opportunity. Whistle-stop visits also continued when I headed to Bristol for a few hours to catch up with my work friends from Birmingham, who it was just lovely to see.


May also feels like it’s storming past, but I promise I won’t be quite so absent!

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Thoughts On: Macbeth, National Theatre

rory kinner anne-marie duff macbeth

Despite being, obviously, a hugely famous play, I have never studied Shakespeare’s  Macbeth and nor have I ever seen a production of it. So when the National announced a production starring Rory Kinnear and Anne-Marie Duff, I was all over getting tickets.

In case you’re also not so up on Macbeth, the play follows Macbeth (Rory Kinnear) who is returning from fighting for Scotland in a war when he comes across three weird sisters/witches. They tell him that he will soon receive a title, and will ultimately become king. At first he dismisses their ideas, but when the king, Duncan (Stephen Boxer) bestows a title on him he begins to think the witches might be telling the truth. When he shares their prophecy with his wife (Anne-Marie Duff), she encourages him to use more murderous means to gain and retain power.

The play itself is, obviously, fascinating. The character of Lady Macbeth feels incredibly modern, and her desperation for her husband to ‘be more of a man’ and follow through on what he says he will do. In a way, Macbeth is similar to Hamlet in his dithering; but ultimately becomes obsessed with retaining his position, and no matter how well he knows someone if they’re a barrier, they’re gone.

kevin harvey macbeth

But despite the great text, there is something about this production that just feels a little…off. Rufus Norris places his production in the near future; there’s been some kind of civil war and the world left behind is one that is empty and stark. Rae Smith’s set designs seem to be predominantly made of bin liners, and there is no hint of royalty coming with plush surroundings. This does place a bit of a question mark as to why the Macbeths are so desperate to gain power, aside from power itself, when it has no discernible difference to their lives (aside from Kinnear sporting a red suit). The off-kilter feel is really increased through Orlando Gough’s score which feels continually ominous. All that being said; this almost-dystopian setting meant that Macbeth’s descent didn’t feel that surprising, frankly anyone could go a bit mad in such a setting, which did detract a little from the main story arc. There’s also a bit of an odd cut for the interval, meaning that the second act speeds by whilst act one feels like it really drags.

The qualms with the production aside, there are good performances from the cast. Rory Kinnear is a compelling Macbeth, an everyman whose increasing paranoia takes him over. Anne-Marie Duff is excellent as his wife, moving from being the ambitious woman behind the throne, to being haunted by their actions. There are also good performances from Patrick O’Kane as Macduff whose grief is brilliantly portrayed and Trevor Fox in the always tricky ‘comedy’ role which is a good physical performance.

Having not seen any other productions of Macbeth, I did quite like this just an opportunity to see one of Shakespeare’s plays, but I’m not quite sure if I’d recommend it if you are familiar with the text.

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rory kinner anne-marie duff macbeth 2

Thoughts On: Summer & Smoke, Almeida Theatre

summer and smoke almeida

Summer & Smoke is one of Tennessee Williams’ less well-known plays, and when my housemate said she wanted to see this production, I didn’t need too much convincing to check out the Almeida’s latest production. And it was a really excellent surprise.

The play follows Alma (Patsy Ferran), a preacher’s daughter who has adored the wayward doctor’s son John (Matthew Needham) since she was a child. Over the course of a summer, their interactions lead to both of their lives changing.

Rebecca Frecknall’s production is just incredibly atmospheric. Despite the design being kept to a bare minimum, with the stage just circled by pianos, Angus MacRae’s music and Lee Curran’s lighting really places you in the oppressive heat of the Southern summer.

patsy ferran summer and smoke

Whilst the play was obviously written in the 1940s, many of the topics that the character’s discuss feel a lot more modern. Williams has Alma and John representing two radically different perspectives; she striving for a deep, spiritual connection with something, fascinated by the ‘reaching up’ of Gothic cathedrals, whilst he sees indulging his hungers for truth, food and sex as no bad thing.

This central conflict is made all the more engaging thanks to the performances. As John, Matthew Needham is suitably brooding and you can see why Alma would be attracted to him, he definitely has a dangerous edge of sexuality. He is also, of course, a pretty terrible person. However, this play completely belongs to Patsy Ferran. Her performance is just phenomenal. There is just something about seeing an actor completely disappear inside their character, and it just felt like you were truly watching Alma. Alma is a character who teeters on the edge of hysteria, bought about by her circumstances, and Patsy makes her endearingly awkward, her nervousness around John feels so true. I so hope that this performance is remembered during the award season.

The rest of the cast do great work in numerous roles, notably Forbes Masson as both Alma and John’s fathers who reveals a stunning singing voice, and Anjana Vasan, who plays John’s two very different other love interests.

You should definitely check this play out, I feel like this play has wrongly been neglected, and Ferran’s performance is worth the entire price of admission.

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patsy ferran matthew needham summer and smoke

Thoughts On: 42nd Street, Theatre Royal Drury Lane

42nd street west end

On my birthday I got itchy feet about spending the evening in, so my housemate and I checked out the rush options on Today Tix, and decided that 42nd Street would be a fun night out.

42nd Street is a show that feels incredibly old-school, and is based on a 1933 film, but was originally staged in 1980, so that long ago. It follows Peggy Sawyer (Clare Halse), an aspiring chorus girl from Pennsylvania who manages to get herself cast in the new show produced by Broadway impresario Julian Marsh (Tom Lister), and starring one-time diva Dorothy Brock (Sheena Easton). As this is old school musical theatre,  due to a variety of twists, Peggy is thrust into the spotlight.

Much like An American in Paris, Mark Bramble and Michael Stewart’s book is not particularly ground-breaking, and at times made me come quite close to rolling my eyes, and the first act in particular feels quite long. I could have also done without the weird quasi-romantic plotline involving Peggy and another character, which in these days of Weinstein felt a bit…creepy. However, Harry Warren and Al Dubin’s music is played wonderfully by the orchestra and you can’t help but hum along to the score as you leave the theatre.

clare rickard ella martine jasna ivir clare halse emma caffrey 42nd street

Again, like the other show, the real star of 42nd Street is the dancing. The curtain opens on the cast’s tapping feet, and the ensemble in particular seem not to stop dancing for the entire show. Randy Skinner’s choreography is just excellent, and the cast just seem to have boundless energy, there were plenty of moments where I almost wanted to clap in the middle of the routines.

In terms of performance, Clare Halse is great as the endlessly perky Peggy, and is a great dancer. Stuart Neal is also a lot of fun as Billy Lawlor, the self-important lead actor of the central show, and I loved the chemistry that he and Halse had in the ’42nd Street’ tap routine. Sheena Easton is in great voice, and does well with a character that is slightly weirdly written, and I’d admit that I found Tom Lister fairly one-note as Julian.

There is great supporting performances from Emma Caffrey, Clare Rickard and Ella Martine as some of the chorus girls who take Peggy under their wing, and I thought Martin McCarthy who was on as show choreographer Andy Lee was also excellent. Really, I wish I could name check the entire ensemble who work so hard, and really make 42nd Street the fun night out that it is.

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clare halse 42nd street

Thoughts On: Hamilton, Victoria Palace

hamilton poster

Hamilton is a true theatrical phenomenon. Originally opening off-Broadway in 2015, the hype around has just grown and grown, with the show finally appearing in the West End late last year. I bought my ticket over a year ago, and boy, was it worth the wait.

In case you’ve been living in a place with no internet; Hamilton is the brain child of Lin-Manuel Miranda, and tells the story of the first Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton’s life. Hamilton rose from poverty to being a Founding Father, until fading into relative obscurity in comparison to his contemporaries Washington and Jefferson. Rather than mimicking the likes of 1776 and using classical musical theatre to tell this story, Miranda re-imagines the show in the medium of rap and R&B, with a cast of majority non-white actors telling the story of the founding of America.

rachelle ann go rachel jon christine allado hamilton

The original cast recording has been a bestseller, so I had a level of trepidation about seeing and hearing an entirely new cast approach the score. However, I should have had no worries whatsoever; the West End cast are all excellent. As Lafayette, the French revolutionary and Thomas Jefferson, Jason Pennycooke delivers excellent comedic performances and Tarrin Callender, who only recently graduated, is great as Hercules Mulligan/James Madison. Ash Hunter, who usually alternates as Alexander, was on as John Laurens/Philip Hamilton at our performance, and has an excellent voice which makes me keen to see him as the main man. Michael Jibson as King George also comes dangerously close to stealing the show despite his relatively minimal stage time; and Rachel John basically earns an Olivier nomination in five minutes.

In terms of the real leads of the piece, Giles Terera plays Burr in a way that feels as though it differs from the interpretation that you may gain from the cast recording. His Burr seems keener to gain Hamilton’s approval, and his reaction to the events in the election of 1800 is just excellent.  Of course, the titular character is a role that the show really revolves around and Jamael Westman really just inhabits the role. He captures  Alexander’s enthusiasm and confidence, and unwavering commitment to doing what he believes is right. Westman is also ridiculously at ease with both rapping and singing, and it’s crazy to think that he is just 25. Definitely a star in the making.

giles terera hamilton west end

With a score as known as Hamilton‘s, the staging is really the focus for the audience. Whilst the set and costume design is fairly simple, Thomas Kail’s direction is excellent. There are moments of stage craft, enhanced by Andy Blakenbuehler’s choreography, that were just great to watch. The entirety of ‘Satisfied’ was just a stunning moment, and is a real standout from the production; I similarly thought the staging of ‘The World Was Wide Enough’ was really moving.

Hamilton is just a magical experience. Whilst Miranda’s score is undeniably modern; the show has so many nods to musical theatre history, from Gilbert & Sullivan and Rogers & Hammerstein to Les Miserables and The Last Five Years. If you can manage to get hold of a ticket either for the new booking period or through their lottery, you will not be disappointed.

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