Posts Tagged ‘Wyndham’s Theatre’

Clybourne Park, Wyndham’s Theatre, London’s West End, February 2011

6 February, 2011

The title of this play refers to an area of Chicago (about 1400 north) around the junction of Clybourn and Larrabee. It’s a little southeast of the Steppenwolf Theatre, home to the playwright Bruce Norris, and just north of the infamous Cabrini Green housing estate. The general area is often referred to as Old Town where, in the late 1950s and 1960s, there was an exodus of white residents as black families started to move in. Many years later a process of gentrification started on the north side of Chicago, and by the early 1990s it was beginning to take hold in Old Town as block by block young professionals started buying up the lovely frame houses and remodelling them.

Bev (Sophie Thompson) tries to give her maid (Lorna Brown) some unwanted junk, photo by Donald Cooper

The new buyers had to keep within the city’s planning laws, and the second part of this play starts with a meeting between realtor, lawyer, buyers and local (black) residents. The buyers are so-o-o keen. The young pregnant wife is so liberal (“half my friends are black”) and so frightfully wary of offending the black people, but she just doesn’t quite get it. In fact hardly anyone gets it — they’re all so desperately keen to talk that no one listens, so they simply talk over one another when it suits them.

The audience in the theatre loved it when the participants got heated and started telling racial jokes, two of which were quite nasty. The trouble started when the black lady politely tried to say something several times, and eventually got it off her chest, saying she was concerned about the neighbourhood changing its character. But the innuendo was clear and when she got a reaction, her husband bristled with a counter-reaction, and things deteriorated. Ironically, the black lady’s parents had worked for the couple who sold the first house to a black family in 1959 — and it was this particular house.

That happened in Act I where we learn that they defied the local residents’ committee. They did this because their son had committed suicide after getting nasty jibes from his neighbours, following his return from the Korean War. Then in Act II the young husband tries to make peace with the black residents by saying he hates his current neighbours in the suburbs, with their yellow ribbons on their cars. A yellow ribbon shows you’re the proud parent of a someone serving with US forces in Afghanistan or Iraq, and the young husband thinks he’s being liberal and therefore in some confused way anti-racist. The black husband however has three sons serving overseas, so the white man is coming full circle to the issue that led to the original sale to a black family.

The trouble with these people is that they think they know more than they do, which the playwright Bruce Norris makes perfectly clear in both acts with definite statements about capital cities and the origin of the word Neapolitan. In Act I the wife says it means new city, which is correct, and her husband says it means from Naples, which is also correct. They argue. In Act II both parties are in agreement about the beauty of Spain, but then that drifts to Morocco, and the husband asserts its capital is Rabat (correct) while others think it’s Marrakech or Tangier. He’s right, but the point is that while everyone is reasonably well endowed in the IQ department, their emotional intelligence is lamentable.

Both acts end with people angrily leaving through the door, but at the very end a letter surfaces, as do ghosts of the past.

Direction by Dominic Cooke kept the action moving at a great pace, and with excellent designs by Robert Innes Hopkins, very well lit by Paule Constable, this was a fine production. Acting was more variable. Lorna Brown and Lucien Msamati were very good as the black couple, Sarah Goldberg was brilliant as the young wife in Act II, and her husband was very well played by Stephen Campbell Moore. Having lived in Chicago for thirty years, I found some of the accents didn’t quite ring true, and one or two portrayals seemed a bit over the top. When things got over-heated and the angry racial jokes started, most of the audience seemed relieved to burst into loud laughter, but that was their issue not the actors’. It’s a clever play, using the housing market to expose the repressed anger of many black Americans and the self-satisfied ‘liberalism’ of many white professionals.

After transferring from a sell-out at the Royal Court, performances at Wyndham’s Theatre continue until May 7 — 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.

Madame de Sade, in a Donmar production at Wyndham’s Theatre, May 2009

15 May, 2009


The interesting question about this production is why the Donmar decided to devote their excellent creative energies to this play, which is such poor theatre. Indeed it’s not so much a play as a sequence of philosophical discussions concerning the Marquis de Sade and why he had such a strong influence on some of the women close to him. There is little action. All conversations take place in the house of Madame de Montreuil, who was brilliantly played by Judi Dench. She is the mother of de Sade’s wife Renée, excellently portrayed by Rosamund Pike. There are four other actresses, and no male actors. Fiona Button plays Reneé’s sister, who waltzes off to Venice with de Sade at some point in the recent past, but we only hear of this, never see any of it, and the same is true of the rest of the non-drawing room activities. Frances Barber as the Comtesse de Saint-Fond starts the play out by cracking her riding whip, showing a fascination in all forms of sex, and it looks as if this may make interesting theatre. But her later death during a riot in Marseilles, in the early years of the French Revolution, is only recounted in conversation, describing how she became a street girl, a darling of the people, whose dead body was seen to show her as far older than her pretended age. Her original interlocutor Baroness de Simiane shows a prurient interest in the countess’s gossip, and eventually reappears as a nun who will take Renée into holy orders, but none of this works as theatre. The interaction between Judi Dench’s Madame de Montreuil and her daughters is very well done, as is the interaction with Fiona Button as the maid, and the costumes and sets designed by Christopher Oram are lovely. But without action there is nothing to hold our attention, and the only blessing is that it lasts no more than an hour and three quarters, without an interval. If there had been an interval the audience would very likely have diminished, and I’ve heard that Judi Dench and Rosamund Pike, who have the largest roles, are counting the days to the end of the run.

So why did they put this strange 1965 creation by Yukio Mishima, translated by Donald Keene, on stage? Apparently the director Michael Grandage found it fascinating, and having seen his recent work on Ivanov and Twelfth Night I was expecting something really engaging. But while de Sade himself may have appealed to masochists, I did not realise you had to be a theatrical masochist to sit through this stuff.