Posts Tagged ‘Simon Higlett’

The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, Minerva Theatre, CFT Chichester, July 2012

12 July, 2012

Bertolt Brecht wrote this play, parodying Hitler as Chicago mobster Arturo Ui, in less than a month in 1941 while awaiting his US visa in Helsinki. Other main characters represent various people Hitler either used or killed to get where he was. Its didacticism is intended for an American audience, and although the first act dragged a bit, the second proved to be far more riveting, and the acting was superb.

Nightclub musicians at the start, all images Manuel Harlan

Henry Goodman in the title role gave an extraordinary performance, showing a hunchback worthy of Richard III, and comic elements worthy of Peter Sellers. After a row among his accomplices when he says, “I want what’s best for you. And I know what’s best for you!”, he is left alone, and the scene with the piano was pure Inspector Clouseau. This is followed by a magnificent coup de theâtre brought on by the dramatic appearance of a 1930s car at night with headlights blazing.

Ui and right hand man Roma

William Gaunt gave a fine portrayal of the highly respected Dogsborough (Paul von Hindenburg), and some of the low-life Chicago accents were brilliant, particularly Michael Feast as Roma and Joe McGann as Giri (representing Ernst Röhm and Joseph Goebbels). Helpful notes in the programme tie the various scenes to historical facts from Hitler’s rise to power up until the Anschluss with Austria, represented here by the Chicago suburb of Cicero. In reality Cicero was ethnically Czech, but fiercely independent of Chicago, as Brecht doubtless knew. Lizzy McInnerny as the powerful lady of Cicero, wife of the murdered Dullfoot (Austrian Chancellor Dollfuss), made a welcome female addition to an mostly male cast, and her interactions with Hitler — I mean Ui — were carried off to perfection.

Ui on the way up

This excellent production by Jonathan Church ends with the dictator on a high podium, from which the cover is later torn off revealing the means by which he arrived there. In the meantime we have been treated to wonderful theatrical effects, well lit by Tim Mitchell, with very effective designs by Simon Higlett, and music by Matthew Scott that includes excerpts from Wagner: Siegfried’s funeral march in Act I, and the Pilgrims’ march from Tannhäuser just before the end.

The play was not staged until 1958, after Brecht’s death, but with the rise and fall of numerous dictators today — some comical like this one, some less so — productions are surely welcome. And finally the text allows Henry Goodman to remove his moustache and utter the ominous lines, “Do not rejoice in his defeat, you men. For though the world has stood up and stopped the bastard, the bitch that bore him is on heat again”.

Performances continue until July 28 — for details click here.

A Marvellous Year for Plums, Chichester Festival Theatre, May 2012

18 May, 2012

Following the debacle of the Suez crisis, Anthony Eden resigned as Prime Minister in January 1957, and he and his wife took ship to New Zealand. In this play a young Steward serves him tea, and Eden commends him on winning a boxing competition on board. They get into conversation, and when Eden asks the young man his name he gets the response, “Prescott, Sir”. The audience fell about.

Ian Fleming, Eden, Clarissa and Ann, all images Manuel Harlan

But this clever play by Hugh Whitemore is no comedy. And nor was the meeting between Eden and Prescott mere poetic licence, just a light moment amidst a serious study of political events that went badly wrong in 1956. Yet the grave nature of what was going on is relieved by a love affair, along with brief dancing interludes to excellent musical arrangements from Matthew Scott. The clever set designs by Simon Higlett allow scenes to merge from one to the next as various characters are slowly swept in or out of view by a revolving ring on the stage, aided by subtle lighting from James Whiteside, and this production by Philip Franks has great forward momentum.

Gaitskell and Ann

1956 was of course the year that Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal, and this play shows Eden’s extraordinary mishandling of the crisis. Firm in resolve to take military action, then willing to back off under American pressure even when the French told him to sleep on it first. Eden interrupts the French PM at lunch when he is discussing the formation of the European Economic Community with the Germans, and acting as perfidious Albion didn’t help Britain’s case, to say nothing of the lack of moral clarity that surely affected our response to the Soviet invasion of Hungary. What a year it was.

Anthony Andrews portrayed Eden as a decent man yet inadequate prime minister, with Abigail Cruttenden entirely convincing as Clarissa his devoted (second) wife. Nicholas Le Prevost was excellent as Hugh Gaitskell, leader of the opposition, who is carrying on an affair with the delectable Ann Fleming, elegantly played by Imogen Stubbs. Gaitskell accused Eden of being the captain of a sinking ship that he steered onto the rocks, but the real opposition close at hand was Anthony Nutting, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs. Fiercely played by Martin Hutson, we see him with David Yelland as an urbane Selwyn Lloyd, successor as Foreign Secretary to Eden himself, but described by Macmillan as “a middle class lawyer from Liverpool”.

Eden and his wife

These were the days when Class counted in a way that it doesn’t now, and three of the characters in this play were Old Etonians: Eden, Nutting, and Ian Fleming, while Gaitskell went to Winchester, and Selwyn Lloyd to Fettes. Fleming appears very much as a man of the world, attractively played by Simon Dutton, and he and his wife Ann are friends of the Edens. They are with them when the telephone call comes through saying the last troops have been withdrawn from Egypt. Eden spills his drink and lets out a yell like a wounded animal. This was a man who lost two brothers in the First World War and a son in the Second. His attempt to be a man of peace brought war, albeit briefly, and humiliation for both himself and Britain.

How would it have been different if they’d pushed on? Selwyn Lloyd muses on these things, and has no answers. But towards the end, Eden’s father, an irascible baronet whose occasional stage appearances lie in Eden’s imagination, has some cutting words to say about how to live your life, “Run straight … don’t play a double game …”. Eden did and he failed. We hear Rab Butler’s gibe that Eden was “half mad baronet, half beautiful woman”, referring to his father and mother, and towards the end we even see them both dancing together.

This play is cleverly constructed, with video images adding a subtle background, and in exposing the British background to the tragedies of 1956 it is hugely effective. As to the title, you have to wait for the words of Selwyn Lloyd’s gardener, for whom international politics holds not the slightest interest. But if you are interested, this is a must-see that should surely go on to the West End.

Performances continue until June 2 — for details click here.

The Lady from the Sea, Rose Theatre, Kingston-on-Thames, February 2012

1 March, 2012

Moving inland from the sea can create a residual yearning for freedom, the wish to escape from a marriage, and this play by Ibsen has a feeling of impending tragedy. Yet given the freedom you desire, you may decide to stay on land, and tragedy can turn in a moment to a promise of stability and happiness.

Joely Richardson as the lady from the sea

Malcolm Storry as Dr. Wangel

As the husband, Dr. Wangel, Malcolm Storry portrayed an engaging, wise and sensitive man, with Joely Richardson as his troubled wife Ellida, the lady from the sea, tense and charming, yet hiding tides of emotion. They headed a superb cast, including Sam Crane as the irritatingly delusional wannabe Hans Lyngstrand, whose conceited theories of women and matrimony were hilarious. In fact this is really a comedy, and Robert Goodale as the versatile Ballested, who can do many things but always stutters on the same word, was a delight. Madeleine Worrall and Alexandra Moen were perfect as the doctor’s daughters, Richard Dillane was charmingly sincere as the Arnholm, the ex-tutor, and Gudmundur Thorvaldsson with his Icelandic accent was a threatening presence as The Stranger.

“That man is like the sea”, says Ellida at the very end of part I, and then like the tide he returns towards the end of part II saying, “From now on you are nothing more to me than — a ship in the night”. This is all in the new translation by Stephen Unwin, who also created this production, with its wonderful costumes by Mark Bouman, simple yet effective sets by Simon Higlett, beautifully lit by Malcolm Rippeth.

Ballested and Lyngstrand

Stephen Unwin is artistic director of the Rose, and is working through more of Ibsen’s naturalistic plays. His translation and direction make this home-grown production a huge success, and I look forward to more Ibsen at the Rose.

Performances continue until March 17 — for details click here.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Chichester Festival Theatre (now at the Haymarket), June 2011

1 June, 2011

To the question of whether, if God is good and omnipotent why does evil exist, the answer is free will. But is free will illusory? As Guildenstern says, ‘… if we happened, just happened to discover, or even suspect, that our spontaneity was part of their order, we’d know that we were lost’. Indeed they are lost. Opportunities arise, but they see themselves as small players in a bigger drama they don’t understand, unable to influence larger events. On the ship to England, they could destroy the letter they accidentally open, yet they don’t, not even to save Hamlet’s life. These minor characters from Shakespeare are twin axes around which Tom Stoppard’s thought-provoking play turns, and they were superbly played by Samuel Barnett and Jamie Parker — or was it the other way round?

Jamie Parker as Guildenstern and Samuel Barnett as Rosencrantz, all photos by Catherine Ashmore

The play itself is riveting, philosophical, and very funny. I love the coin tossing at the start, with 92 heads in a row. ‘Consider: One, probability is a factor which operates within natural forces. Two, probability is not operating as a factor. Three, we are now held within un‑, sub- or super-natural forces. Discuss’. Thus speaks Jamie Parker’s articulate Guildenstern. Samuel Barnett’s thoughtful Rosencrantz is also no slouch with his, ‘Whatever became of the moment when one first knew about death? … I can’t remember it. It never occurred to me at all. We must be born with an intuition of mortality’. Yet both of these spontaneously ready fellows articulate a sort of nonsense, counterbalancing the apparent nonsense spoken by Hamlet, which they try to explain, ‘I think I have it. A man talking sense to himself is no madder than a man talking nonsense not to himself/ Or just as mad/ Or just as mad/ And he does both/ So there you are/ Stark raving sane’. Their subject, Hamlet, is nobly portrayed by Jack Hawkins, effortlessly reaching heights of free will to which Rosencrantz and Guildenstern cannot aspire.

Stoppard’s play is clever and intellectual, but above all it’s wonderful theatre. The players, led by Chris Andrew Mellon, who has replaced Tim Curry, give a hyper-theatrical contrast to the confused quasi-intellectualism of the two main characters, and Mellon himself is superbly quick and ready in his responses.

R and G on board the ship

A friend said she’d love to see this Stoppard play again and take her teenage son, who’s never seen Hamlet. Quite right — you don’t need to know Hamlet to appreciate this quick-witted theatre, beautifully brought to life in Trevor Nunn’s production, well aided by Tim Mitchell’s lighting. Scene changes take place invisibly, right under our noses, and I loved the spot-lights on the faces of R and G just before and just after the interval. There was a perfection about this entire staging, with Simon Higlett’s clever but simple designs, and Fotini Dimou’s excellent costumes. Not to be missed.

Performances at Chichester continue until June 11 — for more details click here. This production then transfers to the Theatre Royal Haymarket in London’s West End, with previews starting on June 16.

Collaboration, and Taking Sides, Chichester, and the Duchess Theatre London, May 2009

3 May, 2009

These two plays by Ronald Harwood, dealing with how Germany’s Nazi regime affected the lives of two of the greatest musicians of the twentieth century, were performed on the same day, with the same actors, and the experience was riveting. The first play centred on the collaboration between Richard Strauss and Stefan Zweig, who took over the role of Strauss’s librettist when his previous collaborator, von Hofmannsthal died. The second play dealt with the aggressive questioning of conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler after the war when an American army Major was determined to find reasons for him to be prosecuted at the Nuremberg war crimes tribunal. Both plays are sympathetic to the musicians, but pass no moral judgements, and Taking Sides allows the audience to form its own conclusions and take sides. These two productions have now transferred from Chichester to the Duchess Theatre in London’s West End.

Collaboration starts with Strauss’s desperate need to find a new librettist after von Hofmannsthal’s death. He hasn’t the confidence to ask the great writer, Stefan Zweig, but his wife Pauline, irritated by his indecisive insecurity, takes matters into her own hands. Zweig is only too delighted to assist a man he regards as the greatest composer on earth, and the two of them hit it off brilliantly, and form a close relationship. Strauss is enamoured of one of Zweig’s suggestions, namely Ben Johnson’s 17th century play The Silent Woman, which they turn into the opera Die Schweigsame Frau. The story of its luckless premiere in 1934 is well-known, with the Nazi authorities deleting Zweig’s name from the playbill, because he is Jewish, and Strauss insisting they reinstate it. Zweig’s later insistence that he can no longer be Strauss’s librettist, though he will help whomever Strauss chooses, is followed by his subsequent departure from Austria, and later suicide in Brazil. These events are well portrayed, as are the Nazis, represented by ministerial official Hans Hinkel. He puts pressure on Strauss by making threats against his Jewish daughter-in-law, to say nothing of his half-Jewish grandchildren, compelling him to remain silent and simply get on with his work. When faced with Allied soldiers at the end of the war, and questioned about possible collaboration with the Nazis, he repeats his distress at Zweig’s suicide, which could itself be seen as a kind of collaboration. The use of music from Strauss’s Four Last Songs at the end left the audience with a powerful feeling for this remarkable genius who wrote sublime music, even if he was unable to manipulate the Nazis as they manipulated him. Despite these well-known facts, and his despair at losing Stefan Zweig, there are still people — I’ve met them — who condemn Strauss as a Nazi. This play, and the next, should show even the dimmest of bigots that life is not so simple.

Taking Sides is a highly charged encounter between American army major Steve Arnold and Wilhelm Furtwängler. Major Arnold was an insurance assessor good at detecting fraud, and was charged with the job of uncovering Nazi collaboration by Furtwängler. Arnold has no appreciation for classical music, though his two assistants certainly do and resent his insolent treatment of the great conductor, or ‘band leader’ as he refers to him. Clearly Furtwängler helped numerous Jews, but Arnold is sincere in seeking motives as to why he remained in Germany. Arnold has nightmares and mentions the smell of burning flesh, yet Furtwängler comes through it all with dignity and integrity. Eventually Arnold’s secretarial assistant Emmi, whose father was executed after the failed plot to kill Hitler, lets out a piercing scream. She has had enough of this bigoted interrogation, and yells at the Major that her father only tried to kill Hitler after it became clear they would lose the war if they carried on this way. The other assistant puts on a record of Beethoven’s 9th conducted by Furtwängler, and refuses to take it off. The major gets on the phone saying he knows a journalist who will tell them what they need, but this and his earlier use of a Nazi informer in Furtwängler’s Berlin Philharmonic, who makes some unsubstantiated claims about his earlier master, undermine Arnold’s investigative techniques. You cannot use bigotry to condemn bigotry, yet retain the moral high ground.

The direction of both plays by Philip Franks, with designs by Simon Higlett, was excellent, and the use of music was superbly done. The acting was extremely good. Michael Pennington as Strauss in the first play and Furtwängler in the second, was emotionally and visually convincing in both roles. David Horovitz as Zweig in the first and Major Arnold in the second was equally convincing, a calm and controlled European in one and a brash American from Minnesota in the other. They were ably assisted by Martin Hutson as the awful Nazi official Hinkel in the first play, and Arnold’s junior officer in the second; by Sophie Roberts as Zweig’s secretary and later girlfriend in the first, and Arnold’s assistant Emmi in the second; and by Isla Blair as Strauss’s wife Pauline. The performers in both plays, particularly Pennington and Horovitz, showed how a good actor can portray different emotions in different roles, though it must have made for an exhausting day. I applaud them and the rest of the cast for their interpretations, and Harwood for creating such excellent and thought provoking theatre.