Medea: The Almeida Theatre

Medea is the third and final play in The Almeida’s acclaimed Greeks series and, although both other plays in the series were also excellent, it is probably the most memorable.

As the production opens, lights come up on what resembles a chic minimalist modern home, the type common in The Almeida’s Islington neighbourhood. An upper mezzanine floor divides the stage horizontally.

Standing at a collapsing kitchen sink and counter cruelly cleaved in two, Amanda Boxer’s nagging Nurse, proper almost to the point of stereotype, talks harshly, her voice grating as she bemoans Medea’s current situation. Andy de la Tour’s Tutor chimes in occasionally with his crudely male perspective while Kate Fleetwood’s Medea stands centre stage between.

This literally and figuratively sets the scene for the next 90 minutes because at it’s heart this is a play about duality: male and female; mother and father; woman and wife; love and hate; forgiveness and vengeance. The cut collapsing kitchen the perfect metaphor for Medea’s broken home.

Director Rupert Goold’s brilliant modern dress production makes full use of Ian MacNeil’s clever stark set where everything appears too perfect. Only both Neil Austin’s evocative lighting and Adam Cork’s sombre sound indicate scene shifts. All combine to leave the audience feeling something is very wrong almost immediately.

Although the entire cast is superb, Fleetwood’s Medea is a revelation. Torn in two by her love for her sons and the knowledge of how her behaviour hurts them, you can see Medea’s internal struggle.

Obsessed by husband Jason, a swaggering selfish Justin Salinger, and his love for another younger woman, she wrongly believes she can still win him back. Medea is a powerful intelligent woman. Using every resource available: reason, anger, threats, deceit, sex and even the children themselves, she cannot accept the only person she really controls is herself.

Jason and Medea fight dirty and as their slanging matches become more personal, she becomes increasingly desperate. Blind with rage she refuses to heed Michele Austin’s Cleaner’s harrowing stories as the warnings they are, seeing them instead as ideas for new weapons to use against her husband.

Her fury builds as Creon, Jason’s lover’s father and the Chorus of women she is ostracised from criticise her behaviour. Goading her on to the unthinkable, she spits venom at the audience before the play moves towards its inevitable heart-breaking climax.

This is an exhausting but unmissable night of brilliant theatre.

Attenborough shows The Hunt is on in BBC1’s newest nature programme

The Hunt, BBC Natural History Unit’s latest animal extravaganza began on BBC1 Sunday night.

Like the wildlife he discusses, David Attenborough proves again he is master of his own skill – narration, building tension as carefully and cleverly as his subjects stalk prey. Despite yourself you discover you are soon rooting for the leopard and feel her frustration as an impala hunt ends in failure.

leopard_stalking

Image courtesy: flickr.com via Creative Commons

From larger mainland African predators to the island wildlife haven of Madagascar, focus shifts swiftly to chameleons as easily as these tiny reptiles’ eyes move in different directions but becomes no less absorbing. Attenborough is equally sympathetic to predator as he is to prey explaining the enormous odds they must overcome simply to sustain themselves and their young with food.

As wonderful as Attenborough is however, it’s the wildlife that are the real celebrities and so the skills of countless professionals behind the scenes who spend many months working to bring these stunning struggles into our front rooms. From a small spider in Madagascar spinning silk stronger than steel into a two-metre web, to a cheetah on the African plains: it all makes for riveting television.

Anyone who doubts the BBC’s relevance and importance as a public service terrestrial broadcaster in today’s turbulent digital landscape needs only watch this to be convinced otherwise. This is what the Corporation was designed to do and does better than its rivals.

Engaging, informative, entertaining, with unrivalled production values, it settles the license fee argument firmly in the BBC’s favour.

Berlin’s best showcased in Shoreditch pop-up.

Berlin Pop-Up Interior (Courtesy: be Berlin)

Berlin Pop-Up Interior (Courtesy: be Berlin)

While Boris was busy in Manchester this week the Germans invaded London. This time, however, there was no tank or football fan in sight. Instead a pop-up store, opened in Shoreditch on Monday for be Berlin, the marketing campaign for Berlin Partner for Business and Technology, the German capital’s official promotional arm.
Arriving fresh from a similar sortie to Stockholm last week, London’s the second of five European capitals the Germans are trying to capture, opening for a week each in similarly hip inner-city areas of Amsterdam, Vienna and Paris immediately after.
Berlin Partner for Business and Technology, showcases innovative Berlin brands and start-ups in design, fashion, furniture, food and technology. Something of a Berlinophile myself, I went along to investigate.

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Chat show king Graham Norton says: ‘I think I’m meant to be single’

Graham Norton believes he will probably be single forever but the chat show king has no regrets.

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Orson’s Shadow: Southwark Playhouse

The Orson’s Shadow programme Introduction by playwright Austin Pendleton explains little is known about his play’s true story.

This is the potentially fascinating meeting between two titans of stage and screen, Orson Welles and Laurence Olivier, to discuss Welles directing Olivier in Ionesco’s Rhinoceros at London’s Royal Court.

Set during a tremendously turbulent time in Olivier’s personal life and, with Vivien Leigh and Joan Playwright central characters it should be theatrical heaven. Unfortunately it isn’t, at least not in Southwark Playhouse’s production. I doubt this play would work anywhere.

John Hodgkinson physically fits Welles but there any resemblance ends. Although assistant Sean (Ciaran O’Brien) was far better, well-played and amusingly gormless, this is taken too far under Alice Hamilton’s clumsy direction.

The dialogue’s filled with obscure film references, which from most of the audiences’ reaction, or lack of any, miss their mark. Jokes about Welles’ weight were more obvious but equally unfunny. Theatrical superstition equates Macbeth with bad-luck so perhaps this play shouldn’t mention it so early on.

After a half-hour, I was still unsure where this was going. Welles wallows in self-pity taking fading fame out on poor Sean, by now a one-joke wonder.

The scene with Olivier was better; Adrian Lukas captures his clipped consonants. Louise Ford gives a strong performance as Plowright and it was interesting to see their relationship before they marry but by their reactions the audience were still confused. One potentially poignant scene discussing Olivier’s son is squandered as an excuse for another unfunny attempt to amuse.

The action finally begins when Edward Bennet as arch critic Kenneth Tynan arrives. Both Olivier and Welles share grudges against him, albeit for separate slights. This also causes a further rift in Joan and Larry’s complicated relationship.

Any progress though is destroyed with the entrance of Gina Bellman’s appalling Vivien Leigh whose attempt at ice-cool glamour is at best a little girl playing dress-up. At her most paranoid and coping with the horrors of Leigh’s manic-depression the scene between Olivier and Leigh should bring brilliance but lacked any of the vulnerability required by Bellman. Confused, convoluted, much of the blame rests with the awkward direction, though awful lighting and milking every joke for all it’s worth doesn’t help.

The second act’s tighter but Hodgkinson’s accent, which was barely mid-Atlantic has been completely lost at sea.

When the long-awaited confrontation between Welles and Olivier finally comes everyone’s too confused and/or bored to care. Like poor put-upon Sean by now the audience has endured plenty of punishment. Although we’ll probably never know, would Olivier really put up with the abuse he gets from Welles? The scene between the two goes on forever.

More Marilyn Monroe than Vivien Leigh, Bellman steals every starlet stereotype imaginable: big dark glasses, full-length fur, stilettos – you could forgive the two-dimensional costume if her acting wasn’t so one-dimensional. The scene between her and Welles is embarrassing.

An interesting story, this could have been brilliant but sadly like the play it purports to portray, too many obstacles stop it ever coming together. The principal’s are caricatures and too much detail’s forced in.

The sub-plot about Tynan’s health, although a big part of the critic’s own story adds little to the play and seems tacked on. Yes the breath is probably an actor’s most important instrument but I doubt many in the audience care. I certainly didn’t.

Welles bellows: “We need to reach a decision about who’s directing it, that’s the problem!” I know how he feels.

Commuter rage

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Dinosaurs

Dinosaurs burst free to take over station

Commuters at Waterloo Station were diverted from their usual journeys travelling to another world.

A large crate mysteriously appeared this month on the station concourse with stickers warning: Danger! Predatory Livestock – Trained Handlers Only.

Train travellers found the container had “burst open”, releasing its cargo of four ferocious velociraptors.

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Death of A Salesman: Noel Coward Theatre

Sam Marks, Harriet Walter, Antony Sher and Alex Hassell (Image: Creative Commons)

Sam Marks, Harriet Walter, Antony Sher and Alex Hassell (Image: Creative Commons)

Even before Antony Sher first shuffles onstage as Willy Loman Brooklyn never looked bleaker. The fatigue found throughout Miller’s melancholy masterpiece seems to spill off the stage in Gregory Doran’s brilliant production for the RSC.

Sher is superb as Loman. Trapped like a hamster on the wheel of a life which, although he may hate, he’s also hooked. He hopes for another hit of the adrenaline it once offered – a junkie whose fix no longer works.

Returning home from another unsuccessful sales trip to Linda, his ever-patient wife, (played perfectly by Harriet Walter), he wants to immediately escape again. Although, as she accurately observes, Willy’s mind is indeed “overactive”, it’s also worn out.

Demanding she open something in the tiny kitchen, she explains the windows are open.

“Bricks and windows. Windows and Bricks,” is Willy’s reply. Summing up his state of mind, it should be his motto, helped enormously by designer Stephen Brimson Lewis’ cleverly cramped set, complemented by Tim Mitchell’s evocative lighting.

The world has changed and Willy’s a relic clinging to the familiar, but Biff his eldest son is a disappointment. His hope of leaving a Loman legacy, Biff (Alec Hassell, the all-American athlete) refuses to play the part his father’s cast him in.

Youngest son Happy also lacks purpose: “I don’t know what the hell I’m working for.” Sam Marks captures Hap’s easy charm who, despite grabbing girl after girl, is lonely. Biff isn’t interested in money but, like his father, that’s Hap’s only measure of success – that and women. Even casual conquests lose their thrill though, now an easy way to compensate for his business inferiority.

Willy switches between past and present like others change radio stations. This makes processing the present even harder, reminding him of unfulfilled promises.

In one flashback, warned by Biff’s neighbour and classmate Bernard, a nerdy Brodie Ross, about Biff’s lack of exam preparation, Willy laughs it off announcing to both his boys: “Be liked and you will never want.”

To him, being liked is everything so, seeking an answer for his current state, Willy is drawn increasingly to Biff’s high-school glory-days.

Neighbour Charley’s (Joshua Richards) gruff realism is unfathomable to Willy. His dead brother Ben (Guy Paul) drifts on and offstage like smoke and Willy begs him to stay, seeking his big brother’s approval as reassurance.

Where Willy is obsessed with other’s opinions, Biff couldn’t care less: “I hate this city,” he screams at Linda.

One thing Willy is incapable of is listening. To him image is everything. The flat, falling to pieces around him, is analogous for his state of mind and current situation.

Charley, despite his frivolity understands the need to concentrate on what’s possible.

When the brother’s business plan fails following Biff’s rejection, he and Hap wake from the dream their father ‘s trapped them both in for 15 years.

Only Willy refuses to, until the past pushes into the present. Forced to face his greatest failure the play is brought to its heart-breaking climax.