The Theatreguide.London Reviews
For the archive, we have filed our reviews of several National Theatre productions from 2000 on this page. Scroll down for the one you want, or just browse.
Albert Speer - Blue/Orange - Heiress - House - Garden - Peer Gynt - Waiting Room
Theatre, Spring 2000
Albert Speer was Adolph Hitler's pet architect. He designed grand buildings, most of which were never built, and later became Minister of Armaments, using his talent for efficiency, along with thousands of slave labourers, to build the Nazi war machine. Convicted at Nuremberg, he spent 20 years in Spandau Prison, and then wrote two best-selling and self-serving memoirs, in which the most he would admit was that he should have known about Nazi atrocities but didn't.
David Edgar's play, based on Gitta Sereny's psycho-biography of Speer, pretty much lets the man have his say. Through most of its three and a half hour length, it accepts Speer's version of events: young and ambitious, he fell under the sway of Hitler's personal charm, and only came to his senses after the war. To this, Edgar adds Sereny's theories that Hitler served as a substitute for Speer's cold and unloving father, and that his memoirs were a process of admitting to small guilts in order to hide the greater ones from himself.
It is, of course, a deeply offensive play. Throughout the first act, which covers the Nazi years, Speer (who narrates his story in a "confession" to the prison chaplain) is allowed to present his case without question. And even when the play begins to expose his lies in Act Two, it morally equates snubbing an old friend with war crimes. When Speer finally acknowledges his complicity in the Holocaust (in a clumsy dream sequence), the play doesn't condemn him, but tries to turn this banal little man into a tragic hero.
But of course art has the right to be offensive. The real problem with the play is that it is dull. Purely linear in structure, it is a string of awkwardly-staged scenes filled with characters who are barely sketched in and usually never reappear. In Act Two there is what is meant to be a touchingly awkward scene in which Speer, released from prison, meets his children after 20 years and is not sure who's who. But we haven't met these people before either, and won't again, and so we don't care.
Trevor Nunn's staging occasionally attempts to capture some of the dark grandeur of the Nazi years or the ugliness of war, but he is reduced by the end to projecting films of concentration camp victims over the actors in a desperate attempt at irony.
As Speer, Alex Jennings does have the steely energy to hold the stage and our attention, and to convince us that this man is working hard to sustain the cover story he has created for himself. In a flashy performance that will undoubtedly win awards, Roger Allam captures Hitler's demonic energy and personal magnetism. None of the others in the large cast have any opportunity to be more than serviceable.
Twenty years ago David Edgar and Trevor Nunn created the Royal Shakespeare Company's dramatisation of Nicholas Nickleby, one of the two or three greatest theatrical experiences of my lifetime. But they did it by inventing a whole new theatrical vocabulary to carry their epic vision, one that has been borrowed and quoted from hundreds of times since.
Albert Speer is, at its core, a very clumsy narrative only adequately told; and in the absence of theatrical excitement, the story's distastefulness is all that one comes away with.
Blue/Orange Cottesloe Theatre 2000, Duchess Theatre 2000-01 (Reviewed in original National Theatre production)
Joe Penhall's new play at the National Theatre is a moral and intellectual teaser that sucks you in, tosses you about, and then leaves you to wrestle with the questions it has raised.
A young doctor in a mental hospital is treating a young black man diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder, which is shrink-speak for "not quite crazy enough to lock up". The doctor disagrees - among other symptoms, his patient is convinced he's the illegitimate son of Idi Amin, and sees oranges (the fruit) as blue.
An older doctor says the patient must be released for policy reasons (Care in the Community, and all that), economic reasons (not enough beds) and medical reasons. He's exploring a theory that our definitions of mental health are ethnocentric, and that what may seem like madness in, for example, black men, may be healthy in their cultural context.
If that sounds a bit hippy-dippy, the older doctor is indeed an aging flower child, given to quoting Allen Ginsburg as his authority. And so, as the debate goes on, with each doctor taking turns seeming reasonable and suspect, we are pulled back and forth.
Is the younger doctor ethnocentric and implicitly racist, or does he simply know his patient better? Is the older man motivated by the chance to prove his theory, or are his ideas patronising and thus implicitly racist? Is it simply that one (which one?) knows more than the other? Are both motivated more by hospital politics and careerism than by sincere medical concerns? And what about the poor bastard in the middle, his unstable mind being confused even further every minute?
Between the intellectual debate on the nature of sanity and our definitions of it, and the moral revelations of the mixed and impure motives of the doctors, the play stretches and challenges an audience in exciting ways. With Roger Michell's direction keeping the energy and tension levels high, no play since Freyn's Copenhagen has so successfully made thinking theatrical.
It doesn't all work. At one point one of the doctors is brought up on formal charges based on what we know to be a gross misrepresentation of events we watched, a device stolen bodily from David Mamet's Oleanna and too melodramatic for this setting. And those blue oranges turn out to be a red herring.
Bill Nighy has the showier role as the senior doctor, prowling the stage and fast-talking with a nervous energy that suggests that he still hasn't come down from some '60s-era high. Andrew Lincoln has the more difficult job of portraying the younger man to whom all is clear at the start, having to catch up in a power struggle he only belatedly realises is going on. The role of the patient is more a plot device than a fully realised character, but Chiwetel Ejiofor does keep reminding us that there is an unhappy human being there, not just the beanbag the other two try to make of him.
Heiress Lyttelton Theatre 2000
The 1947 stage adaptation by Ruth and Augustus Goetz of Henry James's Washington Square has a curious history. A nice journeyman job, it had successful runs in New York and London, and made a good film, and then should have sunk into the relative oblivion of the amateur theatre repertoire like dozens of other plays of the same sort.
But in the past fifty years this particular journeyman job has developed the status of a minor classic. It is revived frequently, and always wins awards for its actors. Philip Franks's new production for the National Theatre, which has been touring and will go back on the road after a short London run, makes it clear why.
The Heiress is a very skilfully constructed play. It has four strong characters (and showy acting roles), solid plot development, strong emotional climaxes, fascinating ambiguities and engrossing suspense. Other dramatists may be more original or inspired, but a lot of them could learn their craft by studying this - to use the term with no disparagement whatever - well made play.
James's novel is of a mousy young woman, the man who courts her, and her father's conviction that the suitor is just after her money. The Goetzes explore the emotions and psychology of the three characters (and of a loving aunt) more explicitly and melodramatically than the reticent James did. Some James fans find this a coarsening, but it makes an essentially nondramatic novel effective theatre.
Alan Howard gives the father, whose protectiveness is not as benign as it seems, an unexpected element of sardonic humour, as he bemusedly observes the foibles of those around him. Because he is so nearly charming much of the time, his sudden flashes of unspeakable cruelty are all the more gasp-inducing.
Ben Porter plays the suitor with exactly the right ambiguity, so we are never quite sure whether we are being seduced by a scoundrel or wrongly suspecting an honourable man, and he sustains the uncertainty right up to the play's final seconds. As the sentimental aunt who tries to help the young couple, Maggie Steed has occasional flashes of Maggie Smith in her delivery, and also hints of an inner hardness that prepare us for the revelation that she is not quite the romantic fool she appears.
In the central and most difficult role, Eve Best must begin as so shy that she can barely look another in the eye, and then blossom into radiance as she feels loved, and then harden into something frightening by the end. She is most successful at the first and third; while we never quite see the lost opportunity for happiness in the middle, the alteration from her opening scenes to play's end is heartbreakingly believable.
If I were teaching a course in play writing, I would have the students analyse this play instead of any classics, in order to learn how to make an effective piece of theatre. Those who don't care about such technicalities should just come for the totally satisfying emotional journey.
House Lyttelton Theatre
Alan Ayckbourn's two latest plays have all the characteristics we have come to expect from him: they're funny, they offer surprisingly deep examinations of middle-class marriage, and they have a staging gimmick.
To take the last first, the plays, performed simultaneously in the National Theatre's two auditoriums, present simultaneous events in two parts of a country estate with - get this - the same casts. The two plays are structured so that a character going offstage in one has just enough time to race around through the National's backstage corridors and come onstage in the other play. (To be honest, he cheats a little bit: each play has characters who make only token appearances in the other, though a satisfying number of them do have to make the journey several times.)
You might call this a shameless device for selling twice as many tickets - while each play stands alone, everyone will want to come back tomorrow to see the other - but it sure is fun. Whichever you see first, you're vaguely aware that bits of the story are going on elsewhere; whichever you see second is enhanced by remembering where each entering character is coming from.
Inevitably, the plots are complicated. Businessman and compulsive philanderer Teddy (David Haig) is having an affair with neighbour Joanna (Sian Thomas), and for this and other sins his wife Trish (Jane Asher) is giving him the silent treatment - she is likely to walk into the room when he is talking to someone and apologise to the visitor for leaving him on his own. Teddy is being considered for Parliament, and old friend Gavin (Malcolm Sinclair), a slimy sort who will seduce anything in reach, is here to check him out.
Meanwhile, down in the garden, preparations for a summer fete are complicated by the fact that Joanna has gone loopy, convinced that her husband Giles (Michael Siberry) is an alien. We meet another couple as well, sexist Barry (Adrian McLoughlin), whose every line is an unconscious insult to his mousy wife Lindy (Suzy Aitchison).
Are you with me so far? Well, add in Teddy and Trish's daughter Sally (Charlie Hayes), who can't decide whether she wants to be Margaret Thatcher or a slut when she grows up, her hopeless swain, an alcoholic French starlet, the household staff (with their own soap opera) and a couple of rainstorms.
By the end of both plays, two wives have left their husbands, one totally dysfunctional family has been more-or-less sorted out, one person has had a nervous breakdown, one loyal husband is on the road to straying, one political career is down the drain, and an irresponsible flirt has gotten her comeuppance. In short, in trademark Ayckbourn fashion, the humour has been leavened with a little more seriousness than farce can normally handle, and with no loss of laughter.
Each play has marvellous set pieces that combine comedy with darkness: in House, a sequence in which everyone talks French to the starlet, unconsciously joining Trish in the process of freezing out the monolingual Teddy; and a seduction scene that goes in a startlingly unexpected direction. In Garden, Giles, dressed in his Morris dancing outfit for the fete, must go through some serious scenes while jingling with every move; and we wait with increasing tension as Barry piles insult upon insult on Lindy.
But each also has brilliantly structured and controlled gags. Watch, for example how Ayckbourn (who also directed) sets up a scene with a plate of food left on a sofa, and then teases us interminably before finally giving us the payoff. Or possibly the biggest laugh of both evenings: as soon as it is established that Trish isn't speaking to Teddy, we know a gag is waiting to be sprung. And when the scene finally comes, we know exactly what will happen and when. And then Ayckbourn makes us wait just a few seconds more before the inevitable, which knocks us out.
David Haig manages, with superhuman effort, to be the comic backbone of both plays, in a performance that had better win all the awards this year. Jane Asher, hardly in Garden, provides the emotional spine of House by playing her part absolutely straight. Charlie Hayes takes the daughter through some startling and sobering emotional changes, while Malcolm Sinclair oozes such cool villainy that it is clear even in Garden (to which he is only a brief visitor) what a slime his character is.
If you can only see one, I'd say House, since it has a stronger emotional core, and it is easier to guess what's going on offstage. But - should these plays ever be done again, since it would need a two-theatre building like the NT - you really have to see both.
Peer Gynt Olivier Theatre Autumn 2000
Ibsen's early poetic epic of an amoral man whose only creed is being true to himself, only to discover near the end of his life that there never was a self there, is one of those unproducible plays that producers can't resist. Not only does it sprawl over an entire life, and travel from Norway to Africa and Asia and back, but its cast includes the King of the Trolls, the voice of a mountain, the devil and a button moulder who recycles wasted souls.
The Royal National Theatre's production was haunted by reports and rumours of trouble before its opening - a delayed premiere, word of director Conall Morrison acting bizarrely, whispers that NT director Trevor Nunn had to step in for last-minute repairs. Inevitably the critics were gunning for it and audiences stayed away (so that the NT has curtailed its planned run), but it turns out to be not bad - which is, unfortunately, not good enough
One can see the thinking behind Conall Morrison's decision to divide the role of Peer among three actors - it allows each to use his strengths in the disparate parts of the play that only an extraordinary actor could be equally effective in. So Chiwetel Ejiofor, whose Romeo was the best thing in this season's R&J, brings youthful energy and unwavering optimism to the role of the young Peer, while Patrick O'Kane is all oily confidence as the rich world traveller (though he and his dialect coach can't seem to decide whether he's American or Irish), and Joseph Marcell embodies the weariness of the aged Peer.
The danger, of course, is that we lose an identification with Peer Gynt through the whole arc of his adventure, and without an emotional core to the sprawling play, it becomes a rather cool and distant series of episodes rather than a spiritual journey. The play's structure allows none of the other characters to hold our attention for long. Sorcha Cusack has a couple of strong scenes as Peer's feisty peasant mother, but disappears early, while Ronald Pickup drops by in the last ten minutes for a less-than-cameo as the Button Moulder.
As Solveig, the girl Peer meets briefly at the start but whose abiding love saves him at the end, Olwen Fouere has an almost unplayable role, but her own natural coldness and intellectuality makes the character even less believable and effective. Frank McGuinness' new adaptation gives the play an Irish lilt that enhances its folk tale quality, but is otherwise unable to give it shape.
The result is much like the brief plot summaries they sometimes print in programmes for Shakespeare plays - it takes us through the plot clearly, but with little evocation of the play's poetry or emotional power.
Waiting Room Cottesloe Theatre,
Developed through the Springboards programme for young writers, Tanika Gupta's new play is the latest of a fruitful five-year association with the National Theatre.
The Waiting Room of the title is where recently deceased housewife Priya (Shabana Azmi) must go before moving on to the afterlife proper. Understandably she is a little reluctant and so, helped by an angelic guide (Kulvinder Ghir) who appears to her in the guise of Bollywood idol Dilip, she is permitted first to resolve some niggling problems back home.
And so the ghostly Priya observes her family gathered for the funeral, each bringing a secret that adds to their grief at her passing. The premise may be more than a little familiar, but Gupta gives it a wealth of intriguing new twists.
Azmi gives a passionate portrayal of an intelligent woman who, denied her own chances, wants the best for her loved ones. Joining her are Nadim Sawalha's suitably dignified husband Pradip, Paul Bazeley's tortured son Akash, Lolita Chakrabarti's suave daughter Tara and Raad Rawi as worldly family friend Firoz - all watched over by Ghir's bemused star.
Director Indhu Rubasingham does a good job but could achieve more by allowing the immense pool of the cast's talents to shine a little more. Certainly adding shine, however, is Nitin Sawhney's vibrant music, played live by Paul Higgs on keyboards and Sirishkumar Manji on tablas.
The Waiting Room is at times moving, at times suspenseful and always entertaining.
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Review - Albert Speer - National 2000 Review - Blue/Orange - National / Duchess 2000 Review - The Heiress - National 2000 Review - House / Garden - National 2000 Review - Peer Gynt - National 2000 Review - Waiting Room - National 2000