I have greatly admired Rebecca Hall's talents since I saw her debut performance as the daughter in Sir Peter's production of Mrs Warren's Profession a few years ago. She has fantastic looks, great charm, a beautiful voice and a scene-stealing naturalness which she deployed to great effect in the Bridge Project's productions of A Winter's Tale and The Cherry Orchard two years ago at the Old Vic. However, this production at the Cottesloe, celebrating Sir Peter's 80th birthday, sharply reveals her limitations in the role of Viola.
Charisma -- of which she has bagfulls -- can't disguise a lack of the physical skills which most young actors have drilled into them at drama school. I've been thinking about this a lot recently, watching a young and well-trained cast use body language to produce shape-shifting performances in my own play. It's painfully apparent that Rebecca Hall doesn't really know how to act with her body, only with her face and her voice. She makes a charming Viola in many ways, but she doesn't know what to do with her hands. To be brutal, her raw talent and vocal skills aren't enough. This would be a head-turning Viola if one saw it in an Oxbridge student production, but it exposes the fact that the actress never went through the boot camp training that most actors (who don't have famous fathers) have to do before climbing up the foothills of the profession. As she has a flourishing film career, it probably won't matter.
While the verse speaking in this Twelfth Night is uniformly excellent, and I really enjoyed some of the performances, I've seen much better productions from Cheek By Jowl (in Russian), at Shakespeare's Globe and at the Donmar under Sam Mendes. The comedy is underplayed in favour of an autumnal melancholy, broken only by the refreshingly boisterous Simon Callow as Sir Toby Belch. Malvolio appears to be something of a light sleeper, because the noctural singing and carousing which prompts his appearance in a nightshirt is brief and perfunctory in the extreme. So is the potentially funny duel scene. I also felt that as Olivia, Amanda Drew (one of my favourite stage performers) was holding back on the comic potential of her sudden transformation from weepy mourner into flirty seducer.
I detected a lack of physicality not just in Viola, but in the director's approach to the play. Perhaps this reflects Sir Peter's formative theatrical years in the mid 20th century, when movement was generally seen as less important than today. Actors in this production stand stock still when they are not speaking, and don't seem to react much to what's going on around them. This is particularly true in the highly complex final scene of the play where Viola and her lost brother Sebastian reveal their true identity. In Hall's production this long scene -- potentially very funny and very touching -- is static and wooden in the extreme.
The one aspect of this production which I found truly original was the casting of the veteran actor David Ryall as Feste. The theatre programme reprints Hall's 1960 introduction to the Folio edition of Twelfth Night, in which he describes the jester's role as 'the critical centre of the play'. Ryall's world-weariness and his cynical playing of the Sir Topas scene with the caged Malvolio are excellent, as is his valedictory song at the close of the play. But overall, this is an uneven production in which the crucial chemistry of the love scenes between Viola and Orsino and between Viola and Olivia is largely absent.
A MORNING WITH GUY BURGESS runs from tonight until Sunday Jan 30 at the Courtyard Theatre in Hoxton. Our fantastic cast of eight have been getting hugely enthusiastic feedback from audiences. Tickets cost £15 or £11 concessions and the play starts at 7.30. If you've seen it already, please make sure your friends know about it!
Here's the man himself standing in the foyer of the Noel Coward theatre, where the Sovremennik's short season opened last night. This is a free artistic choice by the Moscow theatre company and nothing to do with Roman Abramovich, who sponsored the visit, or Cameron Mackintosh, who owns the theatre, I'm told. Artsbridge, the production company behind the visit, emailed me to say the statue is part of the set for Into The Whirlwind, based on Evgenia Ginzburg's classic Gulag memoir, and 'is representative of the esteem held for Stalin durng this period and the realisation of the horrors later in life'. It's part of the play, in other words, and not a publicity stunt. On either side of Stalin are red banners singing his praises (see below) but no other written material or explanation.
I won't be seeing the play, alas, as I'm busy with my own production of a play set in Russia at a fringe theatre a couple of miles away. And the tickets are out of my price range anyway. So I can't judge how the display in the foyer relates to the anti-Stalinist play on stage. My initial reaction is that the statue is the kind of kitsch you might see in the kind of Moscow restaurant frequented by lesser oligarchs, but that's just my taste. When I decorated the Courtyard theatre bar for my own play with Soviet-era posters, I decided to leave out Stalin on grounds of taste -- though A MORNING WITH GUY BURGESS features a bust of Lenin on stage. You can, of course, turn images of Stalin into art, as Komar and Melamid did with their Nostalgic Socialist Realism series of dream-like portraits in the early 1980s.
Why? It shouldn't be necessary to remind people of Stalin's status as one of the 20th century's two great mass murderers, though some veteran supporters of the Soviet system like Eric Hobsbawm might prefer to gloss over his crimes. Read Robert Conquest's classic books or Timothy Snyder's outstanding new history Bloodlands about the joint destruction of eastern Europe by Hitler and Stalin, and it's impossible to part the two dictators with a cigarette paper. This moral equivalence was very much in my mind as I wrote the story of Burgess, who spied for Stalin for nearly two decades but hated life in the Soviet Union. So the question remains -- would it be okay to put a portrait of Hitler up in the foyer of a theatre for a production of an anti-Nazi play such as Brecht's Arturo Ui? Personally, I wouldn't, though I accept other people who share my views on the dictators might make a different choice.
I'm not advocating any kind of censorship here, and I'm all in favour of the artist's right to offend and disturb. But images such those of Hitler and Stalin are extremely powerful, and I'm left a bit queasy when they are used to help sell anything -- even theatre tickets.
Make up your own minds.
Here are the slogans:
'Long live comrade Stalin - father of all peoples, our friend and teacher'
'Let us elect to the Supreme Soviet of the USSR the best people, devoted to the end to the cause of Lenin and Stalin'
Unofficially, I'm told this is all to do with the Sovremennik, not Abramovich or Delfont Mackintosh, and it's part of a display with other mementos of the Stalin era. So I shall go along and see for myself. The reason I'm interested is because I have also been doing a bit of Soviet-style decoration in the Courtyard Theatre for my play about Guy Burgess. I decided to leave out pictures of Stalin as a matter of taste. I'll try to update when I've seen the theatre foyer and the context.
Are we witnessing a classic self-inflicted public relations disaster? Who thought it might be a good idea to install a six-foot statue of the 20th century's greatest mass murderer in the foyer of the Noel Coward theatre in St Martin's Lane? Thursday's Evening Standard has the story.
I've sent emails to Roman Abramovich's PR company and to Cameron Mackintosh (whose company Delfont Mackintosh runs the theatre) to ask what is going on. The renowned Sovremennik company from Moscow open their run of six performances in the theatre tonight, partly funded by Mr Abramovich. I can't imagine putting a bust of Stalin in the foyer has anything to do with the theatre company. So which insensitive bright spark thought up this idea? I don't remember anyone in theatreland putting up a statue of Hitler to publicise Bertolt Brecht.
Just in case anyone needs reminding of a few salient facts about friendly Uncle Joe, a recent review of an excellent book about him I read recently includes a few basic facts. I shall update this post if and when someone gets back to me about what's going on here. Perhaps there's an entirely innocent explanation connected to the Sovremennik's production of Into The Whirlwind, a play about the Stalin era. Let's wait and see.
‘A man who betrays once can do it twice. The second time is easier.’
After dishing out my views about everyone else's plays for the past three years or so, I'm now putting my head over the parapet by co-producing one of my own. It opens on Tuesday Jan 11 at London's Courtyard Theatre in Hoxton and is directed by Dimitry Devdariani, who is doing a fantastic job with a highly versatile cast of eight actors. This play had a reading at Player-Playwrights a year ago but in Dimitry's production I am discovering new aspects to every scene.
A MORNING WITH GUY BURGESS
‘Most people who come here adore the Russians but don’t like the system. I’m the other way round. I think the system is wonderful but the Russians drive me up the bloody wall.’
A summer’s morning, Moscow 1963. As the Soviet Union’s first woman cosmonaut is feted in Red Square, exiled spy Guy Burgess refills his glass and decides that twelve years in the socialist paradise is enough. His liver has reached the point of no return, his Soviet controllers have lost interest in him, and even the prospect of umpiring Donald Maclean’s cricket match no longer appeals. But his dreams of returning to his old haunts in London are interrupted by an unexpected visitor -- who also has a story to tell. The play tells the story of a spy who never really wanted to defect at all, and asks wider questions about the nature of belief, loyalty and betrayal. Above all, it explores Burgess's tortured relationship with his new homeland -- Russia.
‘Think of me as an English sputnik sent into the wrong orbit. Or a misdirected parcel from the Cold War. I have reached a destination of sorts, but it was not the one I intended.’
A Morning With Guy Burgess draws on new information that has emerged from KGB archives in the last 20 years, as well as my own conversations with people who knew Burgess, including the Soviet spy who controlled him in London in the late 1940s and helped arrange his spectacular defection in 1951.
"Nobody could possibly suspect me of being a spy. My fingernails are dirty. My flies are undone. It’s the perfect cover.’