National Theatre Live presents War Horse (2014)

National Theatre Live does it again with War Horse, an encore edition of a performance from 2014. Husband and I saw this live-filmed play at a San Antonio movie theatre on December 8, 2016. I am again going to rave about a stellar story, staging and performance (as well as the NT Live delivery system which I love more and more).

war-horseThe story, based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo, involves a horse and a boy. The year is 1912. Boy’s drunken father unwisely obtains horse while drunk, and boy is tasked with training and racing horse til it becomes saleable at a profit. The boy, Albert, names his horse Joey, and the two become very close; then World War I breaks out, and drunken dad sells Joey to the army. This is an evil thing for him to do, although he does point out later that the army would eventually have come for the horse under anyway. Joey sees battle and various masters. Albert runs away to lie about his age and join the army, in search of his beloved and noble friend.

It is a striking story with all the right emotional notes. Elements of Black Beauty and White Fang, etc., but that’s really to say that the best animal stories contain the same elements, not that anyone is copying anyone else. I cried twice (no spoilers here); but I will say that in the proverbial sense, when librarians (etc.) talk about books and ask “does the dog die?” – here, the dog does not die. This is a figurative dog, y’all. Added to the classic beloved and noble animal story is war; youth and innocence; friendship, loyalty and reconciliation; even some family dynamics. Very thorough and appealing, theme-wise.

But how does this great story with so much potential make it to the stage? Well, the first problem is working with animals, right? So the smart folks at NT Live worked with a South African puppet company, and the results are mindblowing. The horses are life-size (at least), operated by three puppeteers. As a colt, Joey is worked by three people moving alongside; but as an adult, two puppeteers stand inside the body of the puppet, and one outside operates the head. No efforts are made to hide the puppeteers. The show opened with a few lines of monologue and a song while colt-Joey explores the stage, as (I interpret) the audience gets a chance to get used to this set-up. In these moments, I concentrated on seeing the horse and not his three operators; but I quickly turned to watching the operators themselves, because what an interesting job! Immediately, this choice became a non-issue: the horses were astonishingly lifelike. They articulate complexly: every joint of the legs, the full curve of the neck, tail and ears, accompanied by the snorts and breathing provided by the puppeteer actors, as well as full-body shivers or heaving breaths – all of this absolutely brought a convincing, living horse to the stage. The actors who occasionally appear to the eye nearby (they’re there all along, but only occasionally did they appear to me, so absorbed was I in the horse himself) only add to the impression of artistry.

On top of the complicated and inspired puppetry, the company used lighting, projection and sound effects to bring a whole world to an extremely simple stage design. As we’ve seen before most notably in A View From the Bridge, the settings and props were minimal, but very effective. I won’t say too much about this part. But I think it’s fascinating how very much can be done with so little, with the not insignificant contribution of lighting effects; and here the light & sound helped to emphasize another thread of the plot, in a neat trick that I’ll leave for your viewing pleasure, because you’ll want to rush out and find this performance near you.

Of course the acting was superb, blah blah… one expects that from National Theatre Live, and they absolutely meet expectations. I’ve said it before, but the beauty is that this unique format – the live-filmed stage play on a movie theatre screen – really takes advantage of the best of both worlds. I get to see some of the world’s finest actors close-up, more cheaply than flying to London, with a pack of peanut butter M&Ms I snuck into the theatre. This is certainly one of the finest NT Live plays I’ve gotten to see, and I feel so lucky.

I don’t think the cinematography necessarily did as much as in some shows I’ve seen – fewer close-ups than I remember, that sort of thing – or maybe it just disappeared in the richness of the whole experience. This is certainly not a weakness. The shots varied and moved with the action, and it was all perfectly effective. I’m not sure I can think of a way to improve upon this performance and the way it was delivered to me in central Texas.

Perhaps the best part of all of this for me was that Husband really enjoyed it, too. Frankly I was a little worried he’d find it slow; but the emotional impact of the story, and the wild achievements of the creativity of staging & the puppets themselves, impressed him as they did me. There you go, folks, the highest praise: pleases all audiences.

I always recommend NT Live highly. This might just be the best I’ve seen (I don’t know, who can choose, don’t miss A View From the Bridge or Jane Eyre either). It’s playing in a number of theatres; please do yourself a favor and see if you can find a showing. Enjoy.


Rating: 10 collars.

National Theatre Live at the Pickford presents Les Liaisons Dangereuses (2016)

liaisons

I am so glad this is a text format and I don’t have to try to pronounce this title for you.

NT Live always does an amazing job, and Les Liaisons Dangereuses is no exception. The play by Christopher Hampton is based on the 1782 epistolary novel by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, and I came in with little prior knowledge of either play or novel: I did see a certain 1999 Hollywood movie based on the same plot, which I’m a little embarrassed to admit, but that’s the background I had coming in. And actually, the feel of the thing was recognizable, although the sumptuous costuming of NT Live’s period-appropriate version was a decided improvement.

In brief: this is a very sexual and sexy play. I find the Pickford‘s plot summary too perfect not to simply repost here.

Former lovers, the Marquise de Merteuil and Vicomte de Valmont now compete in games of seduction and revenge. Merteuil incites Valmont to corrupt the innocent Cecile de Volanges before her wedding night but Valmont has targeted the peerlessly virtuous and beautiful Madame de Tourvel. While these merciless aristocrats toy with others’ hearts and reputations, their own may prove more fragile than they supposed.

It is a story of sex, power, gender politics, revenge and spite. I have said before that the NT Live screenings sometimes come with too much exposition – that is, speechifying before the play and during intermission – but in this case I enjoyed and benefited from the background. Playwright Hampton makes some interesting points about the original being a feminist novel; I saw this interpretation in his strong female star, who may not be always likeable but certainly knows her own mind, and works with great awareness against the confines of her society.

This is more than a simple soap opera of who slept with whom and who was angry about it. Although I think it works, and titillates, on that level, I found it rather more political than shallow. And visually gorgeous, and emotive, and affecting; and as always with NT Live, the acting was outstanding and the cinematography perfect. Sorry, I’m raving again. But again, catch some NT Live if you can!


Rating: 8 letters.

National Theatre Live presents As You Like It (2016)

Back to the Pickford for a very fine production of As You Like It, a romantic comedy by Shakespeare which showcases his playfulness with gender reversals. This play introduces the line, “all the world’s a stage.”

photo credit: Mads Perch

photo credit: Mads Perch


I did not remember this one until we met Celia and Rosalind, and then I knew it. The plot, very briefly: Orlando is a frustrated younger son. Celia is the daughter of the new duke; her cousin Rosalind is the daughter of the banished duke. Thus they are both friends, and the respective daughters of rival brothers. Orlando makes a brave and foolhardy challenge, which he wins, but which puts him out of favor with several powers that be; he exchanges meaningful eye contact with Rosalind; the duke sends Rosalind away, and loyal Celia decides to go with her. Orlando and companion escape into the forest. Celia, Rosalind and their companion the court fool Touchstone likewise escape into the forest, in search of Rosalind’s father, the banished duke. Rosalind dresses up as a boy to help protect their little group. When she next encounters Orlando, then, he meets her as a boy named Ganymede. Ganymede convinces Orlando to court Rosalind with “him”self – Ganymede – as stand-in. In Shakespeare’s time these parts would all have been played by boys. So this is a boy actor playing a girl disguised as a boy pretending to be a girl. The play ends in the forest with a quadruple-wedding and a fascinating epilogue.

Shakespeare is a treasure, and this production was great fun. It begins modernized by an office setting, which I didn’t love but which was amusing in its own ways; but once we get into the forest it feels purely Shakespeare again, which is not to say dated so much as timeless. (National Theatre Live as usual gave us some expository narrative, which can get tiresome. But in this case I have to say: everyone who repeated over and over that Shakespeare is timeless and ever-relevant was perhaps not original, but absolutely correct.) The acting was great. Celia was played by Patsy Ferran, who starred so beautifully as Jim in NT Live’s Treasure Island. Celia is an interesting character, and Ferran is a joy to watch: she has a wonderfully expressive face. Rosalie Craig was outstanding as Rosalind/Ganymede, perhaps equally attractive in both roles.

But Orlando was my favorite, played by Joe Bannister who was too adorable as well as passionate, expressive, silly and dreamy. It’s a deep cast, both of great characters (Touchstone, Jacques, the Duke, Phoebe and Silvius – wonderful! – Audrey, on and on) and of fine acting. The singing Amiens was handsome and talented.

I like to study the plots of these plays before I see them. I think of that as being the right preparation for fully appreciating all the nuance. This time, I just fell down, and went in nearly blind: I had read this play before but it had been many years. But it cost me nothing. Shakespeare’s themes, emotions, passions and politics always feel fresh, and his work with language – well, he helped make English as we know it.* He coined or popularized many figures of speech we all take for granted today; and the dialog in his works, which sounds awkward to the modern ear for the first ten minutes, lapses into a very easily absorbed dialect in the next ten. He is still so funny – laugh out loud funny, which we don’t see all that often. (Mark Benton as Touchstone contributes significantly to that, too.)

A National Theatre Live review wouldn’t be complete without me mentioning, again, the cinematography. The more of these productions I see, the more I feel glad that I am sitting in a movie theatre, getting all the benefits of close-up shots and artistic angles, rather than the (considerably more expensive) single-angle view of the live audience. I’m not saying I wouldn’t attend live: I would love to. But I really appreciate the affordability as well as the high quality of this hybrid form. Oh, and set design: the transition from modern office to spooky forest is surprising, arty and intriguing, and surprisingly effective. I won’t ruin it for you.

Shakespeare and NT Live continue to make a winning combination. Don’t hesitate.


Rating: 8 necklaces.

*If you haven’t already, check out Bernard Levin’s “You Are Quoting Shakespeare” (text here; performed by Christopher Gaze here). There is also the perspective of this grumpy guy, who points out that Shakespeare was not the originator of every one of these phrases. I still think it matters to us that Shakespeare gave them to the world. For example: The Telegraph acknowledges the concept.

National Theatre Live at the Lincoln presents Jane Eyre (2015)

Pops suggested this stage production of Jane Eyre to me, and I confess that I was at first hesitant. Jane Eyre is not among my favorite novels. Perhaps in juxtaposition to Wuthering Heights, I at some point developed some rather negative feelings about it. (Recall my discussion with Erin Blakemore, here.) But it was an intriguing concept, this adaptation to the stage; and I have been nothing but impressed with past National Theatre Live performances (Treasure Island; A View From the Bridge). So we went.

The Lincoln Theatre in Mount Vernon (a town about 30 minutes south of where I live now) is always a treat, and we found a tiny hole-in-the-wall Thai place beforehand that was worthwhile, too. And I had rearranged my mindset by the time we got there. It has been years since I read Jane Eyre. And I love the stage. This will be great, I thought. Of course it was!

JaneEyre

As we have seen at past NT Live shows, the set design was innovative and well done: so extraordinarily simple, just a few platforms and levels of planking, with lots of stairs and ladders throughout, so that the players create the impression of distance covered by sort of doing laps. And because there was no decor, any space could be anyplace at all. Same with the actors: I believe it was a crew of about six who played every character in the story, by simple costume changes and adjustments in accent and attitude; we never had trouble following along. Another less-is-more approach, which is always a clear winner with me. I think I’m done with elaborate costuming and set design. (She says, until the next beautifully elaborate production comes along.)

I was taken with the way they put together this adaptation, too. The company did it cooperatively, through improvisation: they all read the book, got up and freestyled. There’s a great clip, Devising Jane Eyre – and you get a glimpse of some of the actors there. (Then check out the trailer.) It’s a stripped-down version this way, purified if you will. This is not the Jane Eyre I remember. I remember Jane Eyre being a rational, thinking woman’s novel, almost austere, where Wuthering Heights was all passion; but this play was steeped in passion, as well as that groundbreaking feminist thought that we recall Jane for. She still makes (the same) choices of self-deprivation, but they are made with passion. I loved this woman. This company made of Bronte’s work something different – and, for me, better. (I can hear the novel’s fans gasping. They’re just personal reactions, folks.)

The acting was magnificent, and I will say that this version of Rochester was a heartthrob (also something I do not recall from the novel). But all the acting was magnificent. The woman who played Jane’s friend from boarding school, and later played the pastor Rivers who proposes, was perfect in every role; and the woman who played Jane’s mother, then the maid, then Rochester’s girlfriend, was stunning. Even Rochester’s dog, Pilot, is a joy to watch, played by a man (great fun). The communication of Jane’s inner thoughts – always a problem in adapting books to screenplays or stage plays – is solved with pure genius: a group of (I think) 4 actors gather round her, all talking at once, like a Greek chorus inside her head. She dialogues with them. Pops and I were both mesmerized by this inventive and entertaining solution.

Another unique angle we observed was gender- and race-bending (if you will). There were two black actors who fit right into the story without comment or need for explanation; we both liked that introduction, a modernization if you will, since historically Jane Eyre’s mother was decidedly not black; but we were happy to see it fit right in. And during Jane’s stay as a student at Lowood Institution, a boarding school for girls, all the same actors played her classmates – including two men, one of them bearded. But we understood: in this scene, these are all little girls. I think we were both tickled by these new angles, and happy to play along.

The cues used to switch us from Jane as newborn baby, to Jane as young girl, to teacher, to governess, to bride, etc. were simple but effective. She never left the stage, I don’t think, in the whole performance; she made tiny costume changes onstage, not hidden but as part of the action. Her Greek chorus helped her changed into her wedding dress and then back again into the costume of her lower social standing, and this was a symbolic and important part of the story. I liked this new way of signalling changes in time, place and action. Again, minimalist but effective.

The stark simplicity of stage and costuming, and even in the number of actors involved, and the distillation of the novel to its most powerful, moving, and passionate elements, was supremely successful. I regret my hesitation: I will see anything produced by National Theatre Live. And on that note, let me point out that all those fine folks in the Bristol audience paid a lot more money than I did to see this play in person; but I got close-up shots and all the right angles. The invisible element to the National Theatre Live format is cinematography. They claim, and it is true, that each of us at the Lincoln Theatre in Mount Vernon, Washington had the best seat in the house. What a deal.

And now the question of whether to reread. When I try a beer again after years, that I used to love, and I no longer like it: have my tastes changed, or my very taste buds; or have they changed the recipe on the beer? When your professionally-fit bicycle no longer feels right, has the bike changed? No, your body has aged. I wonder if I would appreciate the novel more today because of my age, maturity, life experience then I did when I was… I think I read this as a teen and again in my early twenties. Or is it just this production that worked so well for me? What do you think?

Not in question is my rating of this theatre experience. Go find yourself some NT Live: it’s worth it.


Rating: 10 fires burning brightly.

National Theatre Live at the Lincoln presents A View From the Bridge (2015)

I recently reviewed A View From the Bridge in preparation for this performance, which like Treasure Island was performed onstage in London, recorded, and then screened at the Lincoln Theatre where I saw Romeo and Juliet (whew).

view bridge

It was outstanding, a truly special experience. The screening opened with a short video incorporating interviews with some of the behind-the-scenes folks involved: the director, set designer, and art director, if memory serves; and scenery video of London (where the theatre is) and Amsterdam (where the director lives). My father, who was my date for this show, commented that it made him miss both cities. We learned a little about the theatre, the director, and the concept for this show: to find a way to surprise the audience even with a play that audiences are expected to know fairly well. I shall avoid spoiling both the play and this production, and only say: they surprised me.

This production was mind-blowingly good, and expertly suited to Miller’s original work. They did deviate from his set design tips: there were no furnishings, just a stark white vinyl floor and wall with a floating glass bench wrapped around the three remaining sides. Costumes were nondescript, neutral or earth tones, and there were few costume changes: Katie changed her shirt when she stood up to Eddie and grew up; and the immigrants changed upon their arrival. This ultra-minimalist lack of color, furniture and set decor left just the actors to carry the story, which they did. The acting was unspeakably good. And the cinematography did it justice: I don’t even recall noting cinematic choices in Treasure Island, which mostly held back and provided panoramic views of the stage – a fine choice, since the stage set in that case was so impressive; but here we relied heavily on close-ups, and the framing really caught my eye. Many shots were close-up of actors’ faces, or scenes involving a few people, say, waist-up; these scenes were then framed by the borders of the white stage set, or framed around one or two props (the chair Marco holds aloft, for example). The whole thing was artistically very fine.

Miller’s humor shone through, but most notably the tension, sexual and violent. There was a percussive gong employed in a few scenes, a slow-paced, low, metronome-like sound that ramped up the tension beautifully, like the tick… tock… of a clock in a silent, anxious room. Somebody in the pre-show video (sorry, I can’t recall who) made an excellent analogy about the play itself: he said that it was like we are watching two cars approach each other at high speed, knowing what is going to happen and then… boom. That is a great description of Miller’s work. It is the story of an inescapable tragedy that we all see coming but are powerless to halt. (This is emphasized further by Mr. Alfieri, the lawyer who acts as chorus, and his foreknowledge and sense of foreboding throughout.)

All in all, in my reading and my watching of this play, I’m deeply impressed: with Miller’s original*, and with this production. If you have a way to access National Theatre Live, don’t miss it. This is some of the finest theatre I’ve ever seen.


Rating: 10 pillowcases.

*I slightly misspeak: as it turns out, Miller’s original was a one-act play. The two-act version that we know best today was actual a reworking, according to Wikipedia.

National Theatre Live at the Pickford presents Treasure Island (2015)

The Pickford Film Center regularly offers this format: live-taped broadcasts from the National Theatre in London, of plays performed on the stage there. I was originally skeptical about the concept; would it translate? The answer is yes, and I will be seeking out more.

treasureI was interested because I have fairly recently read (listened to) Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. This adaptation for the stage by Bryony Lavery was astoundingly good – on which more to come; this is mostly a rave review – but I don’t know why I’m always so surprised at how much they change from the original. (This is why they call it an ‘adaptation.’ I know the compression/acceleration is necessary, but I’m always taken aback and disappointed. When will I learn?) In this case, most notably from the start: Jim is parented not by his mother but by a grandmother, both of his parents being dead; and Jim starts out as a gender-bending youth, and then becomes clearly a girl. The former, the grandmother for the mother, remains inexplicable to me. She provided some comic relief; maybe the mother from the original, rather a serious, even dour character, was deemed too sober. But I didn’t find the grandmother so much better as to justify making the change.

Jim as a girl, though, was totally amusing and fun, and provided another element. She’s every bit as boyish as the Jim we know and love; it is mainly just a poke at the original, and an inclusion. I dug it. And the gender-bending confusion here and there is good fun. Maybe it’s strange, that the apparently huge change of the protagonist’s sex bothers me less than the substitution of one female relative for another, but there it is.

This format, of stage-on-film? Completely outstanding. I loved that it captured the best of both worlds: the theatricality of the stage with the informality, convenience, and affordability of the big screen. The music & sound effects were great. And the set! My word, this is the finest set I’ve ever seen onstage: the stage itself was round, and the set lifted up from a flat to a multi-story, and also rotated on demand, so that there was no need for darkened figures hurrying to replace scenery while the audience was distracted: they simply turned the stage around, the actors meanwhile performing in our view, and changed what was behind (or took it underground to change it there). Transitions were perfectly seamless, adding to the drama rather than taking away from the momentum of the play, because there was such a sense of movement, of action. I am blown away.

Jim herself, portrayed by Patsy Ferran, was possibly even more astounding than the astounding set. She was delightfully expressive and sort of puckish, and pulled off that gender confusion early on. Lavery’s adaptation keeps Jim as the narrator of the story, so she speaks directly to the audience lots throughout. I loved the emotion and delivery: action, drama, adventure, humor.

As for some complaint about the “feminist twist”: I have to disagree with the Spectator blog. I don’t feel that the play was feminized aside from the change of Jim’s gender; she goes on no feminist tirades; she’s not a particularly feminine girl by any means. It was more of a nod than anything else, and takes nothing away from Stevenson’s original. The tone of that original is unchanged, except in that this version is a little funnier – which has nothing to do with Jim’s nominal gender. If we’re going to take issue with the fact that the play is not precisely the original novel, I think we have bigger beefs than Jim’s gender, frankly: the ending is changed, for example.

This play was even better than the original book, to which it is not completely faithful – for the best.


Rating: 8 apples.
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