City of Angels

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Seen January 3 2015

Donmar Warehouse, London

Book by Larry Gelbart

Music by Cy Coleman

Lyrics by David Zippel

Directed by Josie Rourke

Cast: Sandra Marvin, Jennifer Saayeng, Kadiff Kirwan, Jo Servi, Rebecca Trehearn, Tam Mutu, Katherine Kelly, Hadley Fraser, Peter Polycarpou, Rosalie Craig, Tim Walton, Nick Cavaliere, Adam Fogerty, Marc Elliott, Cameron Cuffe, Mark Penfold, Samantha Barks

On the first Saturday of 2014, we started our theatre year with Josie Rourke’s Coriolanus at the Donmar Warehouse. The plan was to spend the first week of 2015 in London again anyway, so we decided to start a new tradition. Even if City of Angels turned out to be the second play we saw this year instead of the first, we still happily spent Saturday evening at the Donmar.

I’m not the biggest fan or connoisseur of musicals, but I’m always willing to try something new and in this case I was once again glad I did. I also detected a pattern of liking the ones where someone dies and being the musical version of a film noir, City of Angels ticked that box too.

Josie Rourke’s first musical production is stylish, funny, well acted and even better sung. From the costumes – I had some serious wardrobe envy, especially concerning the green dress, but I digress – to the stage setting that mainly consisted of piles of scripts and easily changeable features that allowed to switch not only to different locations in record time, but also between the world of philandering writer Stine – who has to deal with marital troubles, a movie producer and said producer’s cunning secretary – to the world of his creation Stone, a private eye hired to find an heiress under questionable circumstances with the LAPD on his heels.

The entire musical was a masterclass in lighting design. Stone’s film noir world was lit in black and white, Stine’s Technicolor. When the two men started fighting for dominance on stage during ‘You’re Nothing Without Me’, the colour scheme was a third character on stage that contributed a lot to the scene.

Hadley Fraser seemed a lot more at home as singing writer Stine than as Aufidius last year and Tam Mutu’s Stone brought a Cary Grant like presence as well as a serious set of pipes. In fact, the entire ensemble was fantastic, most  of them playing several roles in the parallel worlds and some of it even in reverse when Stine changed the script. I really would have loved to see rehearsal footage of the rewound scenes.

As for the musical numbers, they are catchy to the point that reading the song titles now when I checked if I had them right, the chorus of each title popped into my head immediately. I have no idea why this gem of a musical isn’t performed more often. Oolie/Donna’s ‘You Can Always Count On Me’, performed tongue-in-cheek by Rebecca Trehearn is another one that stayed in my ears for a few days.

If there was a cast recording and/or DVD of this production, I would buy it in a heartbeat. There might even have been singing and humming on the way back to the hotel.

The Weir

The Weir by Conor McPherson
Wyndham’s Theatre (West End transfer from the Donmar Warehouse)

Directed by Josie Rourke
Risteárd Cooper, Brian Cox, Dervla Kirwan, Peter Mc Donald, Ardal O’Hanlon (nominated for 2014 Olivier Award as best supporting actor)

Seen 26 February 2014DSCN1525

Location, Location, Location….

When I learned I was going to go on a business trip to Liverpool and London, one of the first things I did was checking if there were any tickets to shows I had grumbled about not being able to see. Fortunately, the West End transfer of the Donmar Warehouse production of Conor McPherson’s The Weir had just begun, and I was lucky.

A few weeks later, and I really wished someone would finally manage to beam entire human beings (and not in a Galaxy Quest way if possible), so seeing shows at their original venue was possible more often. While I did think the play was very well staged and acted, I thought it got a bit lost in the bigger theatre.

The Wyndham’s fits 970 versus the 251 person capacity of the Donmar. The Weir is basically a chamber play – four guys and a mysterious female newcomer from Dublin talk in a pub – so not being able to properly read facial expressions from the first row of the Grand Circle took away quite a bit from the experience. It would be interesting if and how the opinion about the play changes from being seated in the stalls/royal circle/grand circle/balcony.

The play itself is quite funny and the conversation very natural. I could imagine most of it taking place in the last pub in Dublin I visited – if the patrons there actually had had full sets of teeth. This was only the second play directed by Josie Rourke I saw, but I do get the feeling that she is more interested in people, their actions, reactions and flaws than in flashy productions which I do appreciate a lot. By foregoing the interval (the play clocks in at 1hr 45min, so it should be possible to sit through it even for the most weak-bladdered), the risk of ripping the audience out of setting and story is also cleverly eliminated.

The one big disappointment for me comes down to marketing. I am so used to watching Shakespeare plays and the likes that I ususally know the story very well before watching the play, so I decided to go ‘spoiler-free’ for this one. Or would have, if the promo text plus the artwork for the poster hadn’t been such a dead giveway that reading the playtext beforehand wouldn’t have made a difference.

Look away NOW and scroll down to the next paragraph if you don’t want to  know the big secret. For those still reading: woman with mysterious past+girl under water+ghost story=ghost of dead daughter hunting mysterious woman causing her to leave Dublin and flee to the countryside, right? My sister’s opinion on this is that I am just weird and have – thanks to jobs past and present – watched way too many TV shows and movies.

I do hope the pubs in walking distance of the theatre send thank you notes to the production team and cast. If you walk out of the play without having the strange urge to drink some thrice distilled goodness from Bow Street or its brewed, dark cousin from St. James Gate, you have my utmost respect. If the actors really had to drink what it says on the labels, evening shows after a matinée should be a hoot. Maybe they should take this into consideration for their dernière 😉

 

 

On both sides m…

On both sides more respect
– Menenius, Act III, Scene I

Coriolanus – Donmar Warehouse, London
CoriolanusSeen: January 4, 2014

Coriolanus is not an easy one. To quote the great philosopher Kris Kristofferson, he’s a walking contradiction, partly truth and partly fiction, taking every wrong direction on his lonely way back home.

On the plus side, Coriolanus is a principled guy and I think he’s right in what he is accusing the people of. On the other hand, he’s arrogant, his mother’s puppet (to a certain extent) and easily flies off the handle. What bothers me the most is that upon being banned (or, in his eyes, banning Rome from him), he immediately seeks out Rome’s biggest enemy to take revenge on his former home and everyone in it, including his family and friends. I have this weird thing for loyalty, so this always ticked me off and is in my opinion the crux when casting the title character.

The actor needs to be believable as a force of nature who can charge into a city alone (and come out alive and the victor), an arrogant ass, great soldier but horrible politician, principled but a vengeful traitor, while likeable and mature enough to have a devoted family, friends and supporters instead of having been murdered in his sleep years ago. There is definitely a danger of the audience turning indifferent to the ‘hero’ and checking out emotionally, thinking he’s had it coming. That was not the case in this production; there was crying and sniffling in the audience as well as shocked reactions to his bloody end.

Josie Rourke found the perfect fit in Tom Hiddleston, who seemingly effortless goes from humbly declining a bigger part of the spoils and asking for pardon of his former host (whose name he either can’t remember because of an adrenaline crash or because he never cared enough) and painfully cleaning himself up in private instead of being celebrated, to sharp-tongued, mocking arrogant snob who would rather be cast out and leave his family behind than apologize publicly and acquire some diplomatic skills.

The only gripe I had with Hiddleston’s performance was that I was cringing internally every time he waved his left arm around. While the people of Rome weren’t allowed to see the wounds acquired in battle, the audience did get to see them (nice make-up job and audible reaction from the audience) and that cut should have made moving the slinged arm only possible under considerable pain. Then again I also talk with my hands, so who am I to judge.

Mark Gatiss is brilliant as Menenius, the voice of reason and wise man who knows that some people are best asked for important things when their blood sugar levels are high. I really can’t remember the actor playing Menenius in the last production of this play I saw, this is definitely not going to happen here.

Deborah Findlay was one scary Volumnia – in a good way. Although a lot more politically savvy than her son, she is a woman of equally strong opinion who is not willing to suffer fools. I don’t think I have ever seen someone breathe fire so elegantly before.

Birgitte Hjort Sørensen not only delivers as Coriolanus’ devoted wife and mother to Caius jr., I never would have guessed she wasn’t a native English speaker or a novice to Shakespeare.

Helen Schlesinger and Elliot Levey are deliciously weasly as schemers Sicinia (Sicinius in the original text) and Brutus.

I don’t agree with the criticisms I read about Hadley Fraser’s portrayal of Tullus Aufidius. What did bother me was that I didn’t believe Aufidius’ anger after Coriolanus’ betrayal. This might have been in part facilitated by the earlier scenes in which the part of the cast not currently actively engaged on stage were put in neutral at the back. For me, it took away from Aufidius standing there, listening to Coriolanus being swayed by his family after all and realizing he would be the fool once more. It’s also possible that his reaction felt flatter than the thrown chair’s short flight because Deborah Findlay and Tom Hiddleston really pulled out all the stops just seconds before.

There really is no weak link in the cast or badly directed part of the production and I couldn’t think of anything that was cut in the text that would have been missed. For example, a nice chunk of Act IV, Scene V is substituted by Aufidius’ servants just looking at each other and then to the audience. The play isn’t exactly full of chuckles, but that was quite a laugh, along with others thanks to the skilled and natural delivery of the lines by the entire cast.

The scarce stage setting fits brilliantly both the production and the venue. This was my first visit to the Donmar, but hopefully not my last. The only disadvantage of such an intimate theatre is that performances sell out quickly.

I thought Josie Rourke’s take on the play and direction were impressive and am really looking forward to seeing The Weir the next time I am in London.

In the meantime, I am curious to see if and how the play has to be changed for the NTLive broadcast into cinemas January 30 to fit the cameras. While nothing beats seeing a play live in a theatre, this is a great way for those not able to get tickets or travel to London. I hope most of the atmosphere can carry across the screen and would definitely recommend this production.