Hit or Miss
The National Theatre has recently mounted a pair of new productions, one of which I found mildly amusing, while the other I thought a real masterwork. The ho-hum play (for me) was a revival of Irish playwright Dion Boucicault's 1841 romp, London Assurance, directed by Nicholas Hytner, and redeemed only by designer Mark Thompson's period sets and costumes and the performances of its stars Simon Russell Beale and Fiona Shaw. Boucicault was a jobbing playwright, and the original version of the play (nicely updated for the NT) was really a vehicle for the Russell Beale and Shaw of his day. And that's still the problem with it. Despite the funny character names (she's Lady Gay Spanker, he's Charles Courtly) and hint of Restoration comedy naughtiness, it's just a trifle about money and marriage, with lots of opportunities for camp acting.
Mikhail Bulgakov's The White Guard, on the other hand, is another one of the NT's hugely successful productions of Russian plays directed by Howard Davies. The chequered history of the work (first novel, then play - or maybe not) is undetectable in Andrew Upton's new version, which brings the slang of the dialogue up to date without detracting from the historic credibility of the characters. It is the Ukraine 1918, and the bourgeois Turbin family is caught up in the civil war that followed the October Revolution. (The background is supremely well explained in the programme essay by the Oxford Russianist, Julie Curtis, one of the best such efforts I've ever read.) The large, hospitable apartment household in Kiev is held together by the sole woman in the play, Elena Vasilena Turbin (Lena, played gloriously and believably by Justine Mitchell), wife of the White Guard's (i.e., the armed force of the Tsarist White Russians) Deputy Minister for War, and her two brothers, a country cousin and several hangers-on, including her admirer, Lieutenant Leonid Shervinsky. Conleith Hill plays him as a puffed-up dandy, whose physical self-confidence would seem completely misplaced - except that Lena really is in love with him. The casting is so luxurious that the wonderful Anthony Calf has only a small role as the preposterous White leader, the Hetman. He even looks a bit like John Cleese in this part, which emphasises the Monty Python aspects of the whole staging. Which is very appropriate, for the playwright seems almost to have anticipated their surrealist streak, and joined it to a Chekhovian view of his characters crossed with the Tolstoy of War and Peace.
In the 30 or 40 plays I must have seen on the stage of the Lytteton Theatre over the course of the 17 or 18 years I've been the Wall Street Journal's critic, I've never seen the stage machinery better used than in Bunny Christie's amazing designs. The whole, vast apartment set recedes many, many metres to the very back of the outer wall of the stage, to be replaced by another huge set for Hetman's Palace - in the blink of an eye. It's breathtaking.
Bulgakov's great feat is to make a sort of comedy of this tale of the White Guard losing the war, first to the evil, Jew-torturing Ukrainian Nationalists commanded by Petlyura, and then to the Bolsheviks. The play is filled with singing, eating and vodka (and some of the best-directed drunk scenes I've ever seen); and the Turbins and their friends exude warmth and good feeling. Nevertheless the play has scenes of Nationalist violence and plentiful tragedy surfaces through the comedy in the production's second half. Cynicism seems the only possible way to protect yourself, in the end. Betrayed by his boss, the Hetman, and by their German allies, Shervinsky of course discards his White Guard uniform, When he shows up at the flat in Kiev, he's asked by Lena whether the new overcoat he's wearing means he's gone over to the Bolsheviks? "This overcoat is neutral, darling, neither Bolshevik nor Menshevik. Just essence of prole."
Declan Donellan and Nick Ormerod's Cheek by Jowl troupe are performing their spare version of Macbeth at the Barbican. I'm still in two minds about it. I love the first scene and reappearance of the Weird Sisters ("witches" is not used in Shakespeare's text) as the whole ensemble (which includes only two women) whispering menacingly in the background, the use of mime, even for the violent scenes, and the absence of props (all the daggers here are daggers of the mind). I wasn't so sure about the minimal costumes - the black T-shirts sported by most of the men make it difficult to know who's speaking.
Taking a clue from the programme again, the production seems to endorse Freud's view that Mr and Mrs Macbeth are one being split into two bodies, both feeling the same ambition, and the same apprehension, and both needing to be told to screw their courage to the sticking point. Anastasia Hille and Will Keen capture the intensity of their situation, and make very good, essentially narcissistic lovers. In this very physical production the boys can't keep their hands off each other, and in the midst of this constant homoerotic cuddling, the scenes of heterosexual love are actually a wee bit shocking. I am convinced this was intentional, because the only other woman in the cast, Kelly Hotten, plays a sluttish Porter, mini-skirted, knickers showing as she runs her metal detector lecherously over the crotches of the men seeking entry to the castle.
Does the production illuminate the play? The bar is very high, as last year we had Rupert Goold's unforgettable version of the Scottish play. Yes, I think the concept of the Macbeths as a single soul in two bodies is interesting. But if there really was a homoerotic subtext in the production, one expects to see it embodied in the relationships of Macbeth to Duncan, Macduff and Banquo; and if it was here, it somehow eluded my attention.
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