Anne Marie Duff

Macbeth

10/05/18

Let’s face it, Macbeth’s biggest problem is its ubiquity. Easily the most accessible of Shakespeare’s plays – and arguably one of the most powerful – we’ve seen so many average versions of it over the years (amongst which I am inclined to include Justin Kurzel’s 2015 film adaptation) that a production really needs to do something very special with the source material in order to make it an enticing proposition. I’m therefore delighted to say that the National Theatre’s latest production, directed by Rufus Norris and seen here via a live cinema linkup,  does exactly that, giving us a Macbeth that rivals the very best of them.

It almost goes without saying that both Rory Kinnear (in the title role) and Anne Marie Duff (as his manipulative wife) submit exceptional performances, giving those oh-so-familiar lines enough oomph to make you feel as though you’re actually hearing them for the first time. No mean feat.  But it’s the production design that really shines. This version takes place in what might well be a post-apocalyptic world, where a civil war has just been bloodily disputed and where everything has a grungy ‘make do and mend’ look. Severed heads are proudly displayed in supermarket carrier bags, food is served in battered mess tins and even Macbeth’s armour is contrived from found items battered into shape, which have to be literally gaffa-taped onto him before each battle. Duncan (Stephen Boxer)’s royal regalia comprises an ill-fitting red velvet suit, that might have been salvaged from a charity shop. It provides the one splash of vibrant colour in an otherwise drab and scuffed world.

Production designer Rae Smith has created a huge wood and metal arch upon which much of the action plays out. It somehow contrives to be both heavily industrial yet strangely ethereal as it swings silently back and forth. It is poised over a revolving circular stage, so that each successive scene can glide effortlessly into position. In one sequence, the Weird Sisters move with the turning of that central wheel like the protagonists of a particularly disturbing nightmare. There’s some great use of regional accents: Trevor Fox’s Porter is a dour Geordie; Patrick O’ Kane’s MacDuff a pugnacious Irishman. Oh, and the element that lets down so many stage productions – that climactic battle – is delivered here with enough zeal and gusto to be truly convincing. You’ll believe that a head can be bloodily severed.

Of course, if you’re reading this and you weren’t at last night’s showing, you’ve already missed your chance to see the live broadcast, but the good news is that the production is heading out on a UK and Ireland tour from late September, so – if it’s showing anywhere near you – do take the opportunity to see it. It will serve to remind you that Shakespeare, when convincingly done, can be truly and utterly enthralling.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

 

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Husbands and Sons

Unknown-1

23/02/16

Royal Exchange, Manchester

Welcome to the world of DH Lawrence – a world of coal and sweat, where every husband is a drunken, boorish tyrant, where every wife is a much put-upon angel, and where every mother secretly harbours an unhealthy regard for her own son.

Husbands and Sons is a curious concoction, a mingling of three early plays by Lawrence – The Daughter-In-Law, A Collier’s Night Out and The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd – all of which take place in the same village, which has allowed adapter Ben Power to overlay them, so that one piece of action appears to comment on the next. The protagonists are onstage most of the time, while the script cuts nimbly back and forth between the three households involved – the Lamberts, the Gascoignes and the Holroyds. At first, this technique is disorienting; it takes a while to settle into the rhythm, but eventually you do and things pick up.

The Exchange is famous for its sets and this one is remarkable in its ingenuity. The three households are delineated by ranks of cast iron cooking ranges, sculleries and dining tables, all balanced precariously on top of the colliery, represented by heaps of coal and a grilled floor, lit from below. It looks fantastic.

But there seems to be a lack of consistency in the style. Why, for instance, go to the trouble of creating plumbed-in taps that spout real water and cooking ranges that belch real flame, and then oblige the actors to perform a mime every time they enter a house: opening and closing invisible doors, removing and hanging up imaginary coats and hats? It just looks odd amidst all the naturalistic clutter. Another puzzling detail – two bread tins, complete with knives, are used to prise out… fresh air. In her programme notes, director Marianne Elliott claims that she wanted the audience to ‘concentrate on the people and not get bogged down in the detail of the bread or the stew or sweeping the floor,’ but the absence of these things made no sense when so many other fripperies were included. If we’re meant to concentrate on the actors, why surround them with so much paraphernalia? Or, if this level of detail is required, why not see it through consistently?

There’s no doubting the quality of the performances here. Anne Marie Duff, making her debut at the Exchange, has little to do in the first half, but really comes into her own in the second as the tragic Lizzie Holdroyd, obliged to deal with the sudden death of her boorish husband, Charles (Martin Marquez), killed in a colliery accident. Meanwhile, Lydia Lambert (Julia Ford) is trying not to feel jealous of her son’s new flame and over at the Gascoigne house, Luther (Joe Armstong) has been unfaithful to his wife, Minnie (Louise Brealy), and has got one of the neighbours in the family way. Reparation must be made, it seems but what does Minnie have to say about it?

What you feel about this production will probably depend upon how you regard the writing of D H Lawrence. There are many who think of him as a genius, a man before his time. Others simply see him as a sex-obsessed neurotic with a large chip on his shoulder. Husbands and Sons is an interesting piece that takes time to build in intensity, but we feel it is somewhat compromised by unnecessary complications, that have nothing to do with the performances or, indeed, the script.

3.5 stars

Philip Caveney & Susan Singfield

 

 

Suffragette

Unknown-3 Unknown

17/10/15

Suffragette feels like an important – and timely – film. There’s a bit of a feminist backlash going on at the moment, with cries of “feminazi” and “what about the men?” drowning out the fact that all feminists have ever really asked for is equality, which shouldn’t be too much to ask.

Suffragette brings to the screen the stories of the unknown women who fought the cause. The casting of Meryl Streep as Emmeline Pankhurst cleverly highlights this shift in focus: the most high-profile actor has a cameo role, as does the figurehead of suffrage. This film is all about the less-exalted stars of the women’s movement: working-class washerwomen like Maude and Violet (Carey Mulligan and Anne-Marie Duff) and middle-class professionals such as Edith, a pharmacist (Helena Bonham Carter). Their lives are tough and unforgiving, and they have little control over anything. Their husbands own their property, their children. No wonder they want something more, or at least the right to have a say.

But, as ever, change is difficult to effect: the beneficiaries of the status quo are reluctant to let go, and others are afraid to rock their fragile boats. Here, we see Maude vilified and reviled as she begins to speak up for herself, and the reality of what she’s lost hits home – both for the character and the audience – when we see her son adopted because her now-estranged husband, Sonny (Ben Whishaw) thinks she will corrupt the boy. Sonny is bereft too: he’s threatened and undermined by Maude’s assertion of her rights; he’s a decent man who doesn’t understand. His tragedy is real as well. Everyone’s trapped by the rigidity of societal norms: Brendan Gleeson’s Inspector Arthur Steed feels some sympathy for the women, but that doesn’t stop him locking them up or allowing them to be force-fed.

Abi Morgan’s script is well-balanced: dispassionate and informative as well as emotive and personal. It’s a truly moving tale of the past with a message for the future: as Maude says, speaking tentatively to Lloyd George, “This life… I thought there might be a better way to live it.”

4.7 stars

Susan Singfield