Our chief want in life is somebody who shall make us do what we can.
Ralph Aldo Emerson
Our chief want in life is somebody who shall make us do what we can.
Ralph Aldo Emerson
Right – got that out of the way.
It has to be to its upmost credit that the production at the Donmar Warehouse held my attention for three hours as I was very, very tired. I think a lot of that has to do with the intimacy of the venue where you can pretty much touch the actors, or feel as if you can even in the Circle, and a superb cast. Take the first scene. I happily watched it but only got hold of a little bit of plot exposition and character relations plus a few witticisms, whilst remaining lost on about 80% of the conversation between the two friends talking in a coffee house.
I better add here that I did not know a thing about the play when I sat down in the theatre. The plot is deliberately complicated and boy, is there a lot of talking. I do understand a director wanting authenticity of text, but there is no need to do any lopping here. I reckon thirty minutes could be delicately pruned at no expense to the text and to the benefit of the actors; it’s a fast-talking comedy with elements of farce and it has to keep energy and pace or it’s going to lose its audience. The first three acts pre-interval were beautifully acted. The fourth act is very funny indeed and the last act (successfully here) walks a fine line resolving itself between comedy and, if not tragedy, certainly an unexpected seriousness when characters revealed depths unseen before.
There is a lot of teamwork for the actors as in all good comedy and that’s why I think they need a shorter production. No one misses a beat in their performances, but a shorter text would bind the actors even tighter, rather than (what they must be doing) have them concentrating on saying so much the audience isn’t going to care about or understand.
I hate to gripe as this is a crack team of performers and the production is well directed with visual and vocal clarity by the very experienced James MacDonald. Haydn Gwynne had me laughing uncontrollably at her Lady Wishfort, Fisayo Akinade as Witwoud just had to walk on stage to make me smile; but again his repartee with Simon Manyonda’s Petulant would have sparkled more with some pruning. Justine Mitchell fleshed out Millamant in such a way that made me desperate to see her play Beatrice, and her chemistry with Geoffrey Streatfield’s Mirabell was perfect. I’m loathe to fail to name them all as not one actor struck a false note.
Hats off to all involved and I really mean that. In a way I’d like to see it nearer the end of its run when it will have bedded down and the actors will be even more comfortable with each other. Even if it was fire instead of fireworks, just writing about it here has brought back the many pleasures it gave me.
You can cut all the flowers, but you cannot keep Spring from coming.
There is perhaps no phenomenon which contains so much destructive feeling as moral indignation, which permits envy or hate to be acted out under the guise of virtue.
Despite having a keen interest in this play with its North Yorkshire setting (I grew up not far from York), I have never seen or read it. My expectations were high as the reviews had been glowing, and I had taken part in one of the Donmar’s Open Workshops on it the morning of the day I had seen it
– and a big plug here for the Workshop which was excellent and a huge thank you to Lynette Linton for running it with such infectious enthusiasm –
but I have to say ultimately I was left slightly disappointed, without quite being able to put my finger on why. I know that the 2002 Royal Court production of it, directed by the playwright Peter Gill, was half an hour longer than this, despite no changes to the text. (At that time it received very mixed reviews.) It is mostly a realistic play set in the kitchen and main room of a Yorkshire farmhouse, in 1962, and it is peopled with the family and local community. It is framed by a beautiful timeslip and is not a long play, short enough that I wondered if it could have done without the mid-point interval to keep it burning.
Perhaps it is too subtle; perhaps it needs more than one viewing or reading. The actors are uniformly excellent, but even so Jonathan Bailey and Ben Batt, the development of whose love for each other the play charts, are powerful players. The former a Southerner, the latter a man of the land which surrounds the cottage (Batt’s thrice repetition of “I live here” is profoundly moving), the play slightly subverts expectations in the way the men behave with each other. Even saying that, though, there is a flicker of emotion across Batt’s face as George leaves to go upstairs with John which, not visible to a lot of the audience, showed him not being all he seemed to be. As George is playing a part in the York Mystery plays on which John, up from London, is the Assistant Director – and indeed John emphasises what a good actor George is in the Plays – that flicker of emotion is therefore perhaps a telling moment.
It is a play in which much action and passing of time are not experienced directly by the audience. The Mystery Plays, which could be the unwitnessed core of the play, didn’t overshadow it enough for me. The family are united in their pleasure of seeing the Plays when they return to the cottage, and George quotes a couple of lines from it at the very end (which I didn’t hear clearly). We know George’s character in the Plays is one who torments Jesus, which seems at odd with his “real” self. For anyone not knowing anything about the Mystery Plays, then the point of them just seems prosaically to get John to meet George.
This is not a play of symbolism as such. It looks to class, sexuality, conformity, change, fear and questions where we find happiness. It is left up to the audience to fill in gaps. No character is simplistic or easy to analyse. Yet, as I write this I keep coming back to the thought that it is too subtle for one viewing. Ben Batt has found his George from the text and he gives so much, some of which is almost too painful to watch on stage. He becomes George on stage, having evolved through rehearsal and continuing to do so through public performance. This thought leaves me wondering if the text of the play as a whole, like the love it contains, has been left not fully grown.
(Probably best to skip/skim read the second paragraph)
My favourite film, in the sense that it is the film closest to my heart and affects me on a personal level like no other, is Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander.
Scandinavian 19th century drama has fascinated me since I studied Drama at university, and my love of it led me into the theatre and film world of Bergman. In my twenties I had a tendency (as many others) to get obsessive, and I duly did with the films of Bergman. (I was partly “cured” by attending pretty much every film in a National Film Theatre [as was] Bergmann retrospective years ago and quickly realised what’s too much of a good thing.) Bergman’s films capture life (and death) as I understand it and as I want it to be. Fanny and Alexander, his swansong, was the film he made to retire from directing film. I have seen the cinema three hour version many times, and only once the original five hours plus TV version (now unavailable in UK, although I do have it on video and I can’t get our ancient unused video player to work). I also saw Bergman’s own directed Royal Dramatic Theatre of Sweden’s production of Ibsen’s Ghosts at the Barbican in 2003 with Pernilla August, who plays Maj in Fanny and Alexander.
I could go on and on and on…and on, so in summary: I’m fascinated with 19th century Scandinavian drama, the life and works of Ingmar Bergman, and therefore Fanny and Alexander is my desert island film. Being in a quandary as to whether to book to see this stage adaptation of it at the Old Vic, I twittered something to that effect, and a quiet Irish lady asked me why would I pass the opportunity to see the great Penelope Wilton on stage….
Why indeed? And what a fool I would have been to pass it.
In a nutshell, to save you reading any further, I absolutely loved it.
Of course Penelope Wilton as Helena Ekdahl, the Grandmother and core of the Ekdahl family whose story this is, was stupendous and held the stage and audience with barely the raising of an eyebrow. I learned only recently that Gunn Wallgrenn, one of Sweden’s greatest actors who played the part of Helena in the film was diagnosed with terminal cancer shortly after finishing filming and died the following year, which adds huge poignancy to her performance. Penelope Wilton is very wonderfully different, as are all the actors. I had been afraid that a stage interpretation of the film would weaken it for me, but the story is so strong and the acting at the Old Vic so excellent, it passed my critical test of fire. And the actors who played Fanny and Alexander were extraordinary. They are on stage for much of the the three hours. Of the four child casts, we saw Misha Handley as Alexander who has a large speaking part. Katie Simons was Fanny, younger and with less speaking but I watched her witnessing a scene where Alexander battles with his Bishop stepfather, and saw her quietly give such natural and convincing facial expressions. They both gave the adults a run for their money.
What the stage version could never replicate is the visual beauty of the film, its sumptuousness and its austerity, and wisely they had made a virtue of this in Tom Pye’s design with Alex Baranowski’s lighting. The second act in a stylised box for the Bishop’s harsh house worked particularly well. I really liked Stephen Beresford’s adaptation idea to punctuate the action simply with recited lists of the food that the Ekdahl’s eat which is so lavishly visualised in the film.
There were moments I don’t remember from the film which must have been taken from the television original. There was much cut, but nothing that bothered me. The last act is perhaps the least successful, and if I have a criticism it is that the grotesque, fantastic magic of it in the film could have had a more engaging theatrical visual language. There are effective stage illusions but I felt they were not pushed far enough. It could have been truly breathtaking.
I haven’t touched on its ideas and portrayal of the relationship between actors and the theatre, with life itself. Maybe another blog post. To finish here, Fanny and Alexander fills me with awe and wonder, if you’ll forgive that overused phrase. The fullness of life bursts out of it: the joy and pain of family, the suffering from death and loneliness, the agony of self loathing and the damage that causes, the necessity of laughter and of humour in all things, and a mixing of religion, superstition and magic into something “other”. It offers the mystery of what it means to be human