Posts Tagged ‘Adam Cork’

Danton’s Death, National Theatre, NT Olivier, August 2010

14 August, 2010

This play by Georg Büchner deals with a two-week period during the terror following the French revolution. The events he describes were but forty years in the past, and Büchner knew many of the speeches by Robespierre and Danton by heart. He was born in 1813, the same year as Wagner, so both these brilliant artists were at a very impressionable age when the 1830 revolution in France brought the ‘citizen king’ Louis-Philippe to power, and both became young revolutionaries. But while Wagner lived to create great operas, Büchner died at 23. This play was written in 1835 when he was just 21.

Robespierre and Danton, photo by Johan Persson

The main characters are Danton, Robespierre and Saint-Just. In an interesting essay in the programme, Ruth Scurr writes that “Büchner presents a brilliant portrait of Robespierre as a cold-blooded hypocritical fanatical prig”. Does he? If so this production didn’t quite show it. Robespierre is a background figure in the second half of the play, and seems to show serious reservations about condemning Danton, while Saint-Just is the prime mover in getting him convicted and guillotined. In this sense I thought Alec Newman gave a strong performance of Saint-Just, while Elliot Levey gave Robespierre a wrather camp feel, as did Chu Omambala with Collot d’Herbois, but that was presumably the intention of director Michael Grandage. It did however create something of a Monty Python feel to the whole thing, except that it wasn’t funny. It was dull and unrelenting, and while Toby Stephens’ extremely emotive portrayal of Danton may have been convincing, it didn’t elicit my sympathy.

Saint-Just in public mode, photo by Johan Persson

Paule Constable’s lighting, and the music and sound by Adam Cork, were wonderful, as were Christopher Oram’s designs showing enormously tall doors and windows that made the revolutionaries look small. Robespierre’s remark that ‘Virtue must rule through terror’ is often repeated, and the play has plenty of youthful energy from its young cast, but feels a bit like a history lesson. It only had its first performance 65 years after its author’s death, and Büchner went on to write deeper things, particularly Woyzeck, which was later used by Alban Berg in his opera of that name. Of course it’s always worthwhile to recall the history of the French terror in the early 1790s, but if one wants to recreate a sense of idealism, and revolutionary energy run amok, Giordano’s opera Andrea Chenier is the thing to see — Covent Garden and the ENO please note.

The four acts of this play are performed without a break — lasting about an hour and three quarters — and near the beginning we hear Robespierre saying (in Howard Brenton’s new version), “Only by your own self-destruction can you fall” (German: Du kannst nur durch deine eigne Kraft fallen). Robespierre fell just a few months later, but at the end of this play it is Danton and his friends who go to the guillotine, and that final scene is a brilliant coup de theatre. Whether it’s worth waiting for, I’m not so sure.

Performances continue until October 14 — for more details click here.

Hamlet, Donmar production, Wyndham’s Theatre, August 2009

12 August, 2009


This was an excellent production by Michael Grandage, with large plain sets and modern costumes by Christopher Oram, well lit by Neil Austin, and the music and sound by Adam Cork was very effective. Jude Law was an anguished Hamlet, and though not a traditional Shakespearean actor he managed the part well, but I found little joy in his speeches. They seemed to be delivered too fast, or with inadequate breathing, to have the cleverness one often associates with Hamlet. Penelope Wilton was wonderful as his mother Gertrude, changing gradually from calm sympathy with her son to being an appalled accomplice in murder. As one critic said, she did look awfully like the ex-home secretary Jacqui Smith, but her increasing self-awareness left Ms. Smith in the narcissistic shadows inhabited by more than one of our modern politicians. As the king, Kevin McNally was robust and confident, a clever schemer well shown to be hoist on his own petard. One can hardly imagine him putting up with a doddering Polonius, and indeed Ron Cook portrayed that role with more vigour than is often the case. As Ophelia, Gugu Mbatha-Raw was lovely, but not entirely convincing in her descent to madness. Alex Waldmann was her brother Laertes, and I thought Matt Ryan was a wonderfully warm-hearted Horatio. The ghost of Hamlet’s father was very strongly portrayed by Peter Eyre, who also acted well as the player king.

Altogether this was a good production, well worth seeing, but I wish Hamlet’s speeches had been given with less force and more subtlety. And I did not quite see the point of having the soliloquy “To be, or not to be” given alone on the stage in a snowstorm.

Phèdre, National Theatre, June 2009

21 June, 2009


This play by Racine, originally performed in 1677, was presented here in a 1998 version by Ted Hughes, originally staged just weeks before he died. The story is based on the ancient Greek legend of Hippolytus, who was the object of unremitting desire by his father’s wife, Phaedra. In the Greek original, well expressed in Euripedes’ play Hippolytus, the young man is a devotee of the chaste goddess Artemis (Diana in the Roman version), and Aphrodite takes revenge against his rejection of erotic love by inspiring his step-mother with insatiable desire for him. His father Theseus, king of Athens, and of Minotaur fame, believes Hippolytus has forced himself on Phaedra, and calls down a curse from Poseidon. Only after the curse has taken effect, and Hippolytus has been killed by a bull-like monster from the sea, does Theseus realise his error. Racine’s main change to this legend is the creation of a new character, Aricia with whom Hippolytus is secretly in love, and she with him. This removes the misogyny from Hippolytus, and since Aricia is the daughter of an earlier king of Athens, it creates a political dimension. The other important difference is that Euripedes has Phaedra commit suicide after writing a note accusing Hippolytus of rape, whereas in Racine the accusation comes from Phaedra’s nurse while her mistress still lives.

In this performance, Phaedra was played by Helen Mirren, portraying an insecure woman only too conscious of her own inadequacies. Her stepson Hippolytus was played by Dominic Cooper, calm and secure in his own feelings, and her husband Theseus was powerfully played by Stanley Townsend, roaring his anger at Hippolytus and summoning Poseidon to avenge him. These three made a strong cast of principals, well supported by Margaret Tyzack as Phaedra’s scheming nurse, Ruth Negga as a sincere Aricia, and John Shrapnel as Hippolytus’ counsellor, whose speech describing the young man’s fearful death was very dramatically rendered. In fact this superb Nicholas Hytner production, with designs by Bob Crowley, lighting by Paule Constable, and an excellent sound score by Adam Cork, ends dramatically with Aricia dragging the dead remains of Hippolytus in a bleeding sack from stage rear to stage front. The broad trail of blood on the clean wooden stage is very effective.