The Beaux’ Stratagem @National Theatre

The Beaux’ Stratagem is ‘a wild comedy of love and cash’ – as the poster says.

Written by George Farquhar in 1707, it’s especially a play about the failures of marriage. Compared to the vast majority of Restoration comedies, the plot is very fluid: the two beaux Aimwell and Archer lack money and decide to leave London to pursue and marry wealthy women in the countryside. The main theme of the unhappy marriage is explored through the brilliant characters of Mr. and Mrs. Sullen, whose misfortunes will be readily exploited by Archer in his own happy ending.

Simon Godwin’s adaptation doesn’t live up to the original, because this production is regrettably dull. Mrs. Sullen – supposed to embody the witty heroine – is more malicious than sharp, and the typical Restoration brilliance of language is lost in favour of an accentuated sentimental tone. Innuendos and sexual interludes, which are given plenty of space, along with an earlier appearance of Lady Bountyful as overprotective mother, work towards a much sought-after hasty sympathy in the audience. Pearce Quigley’s performance as Scrub stands out by effectively captivating the audience’s attention with perfect comic pace.

Lizzie Clachan’s set is beautiful, and quickly catches the attention of the spectator: the vibrant colours of Lady Bountyful’s house clash against the greyish and dark environments of the inn. However, as the play proceeds further, the (inevitable) continuous change between domestic spaces and male territories becomes inconveniently complex.

This production is embellished by beautiful folk music which contributes to a memorable version of the “trifle song” (a treat also for the eyes!) and to create that feeling of togetherness which Restoration audience would so often find at theatre performances.

I do firmly believe that adaptations are vital in ensuring life-long fame to (very) old plays, and that making them attractive to the modern audience is mandatory, yet there are more subtle but nonetheless stronger ways to accomplish that: although The Beaux’ Stratagem isn’t Restoration comedy at its best, the original text is pervaded with a brilliant dramatic rhythm, which is here, unfortunately, sacrificed.

Until 20 September @National Theatre

The Merchant of Venice @Shakespeare’s Globe

Directed by Jonathan Munby, ‘The Merchant of Venice’ opens Globe’s 2015 theatrical season. One of the Bard’s most controversial plays, it swings between different genres by smoothly shifting from lighter moments to highly dramatic ones. The feisty opening works as a warning: in a colourful Venetian Carnival of merry men and women engaging in dances and songs, there’s also room for an ordinary assault on two Jews.

While the long-lasting fortune of ‘The Merchant of Venice’ comes from the strong focus on puzzling characters moved by questionable intents, this production delivers to the audience an unambiguous Shylock, by refusing anti-Semitism as underlying ideology of the play: Munby manages to prove otherwise with excellent casting choices. The Jewish usurer is majestically brought to life by Jonathan Pryce, whose Globe debut lives up to the expectations, by guiding the audience through a gradual empathic re-evaluation of the ruthless old man. Shylock is verbally and physically assaulted, spat on, mocked, yet worth of consideration when needed. His rebellion against life-long abuse perpetrated by his fellow citizens can finally be realized in claiming Antonio’s pound of flesh, should the money lent to his friend Bassanio not be repaid. Although a moneylender, his greediness slides to the background as the audience can’t help but sympathize with his pain and several losses: wealth, a daughter and, most importantly, his faith.

This production of ‘The Merchant of Venice’ is skilfully split into two clear-cut strings, which are nonetheless intertwined for a successful ending. The light comic tone deriving from the ‘double couple’ Portia/Bassanio and Nerissa/Gratiano, and from the pure metatheatrical entertainment provided by Launcilot, as well as from Portia’s bizarre suitors define the merry scene of Venice as lively city of love and trade. This is constructed to foreground Shylock: not only does he deserve attention and understanding, but especially our pietas. His right to exercise the bond and to get Antonio’s pound of flesh is not frowned upon, but utterly justified. The audience’s feelings are not even affected by hatred and disgust of his daughter Jessica, whose character has been purposely kept on the side not to influence our reading of Shylock. If Jonathan Pryce delivers a superb performance, this is also due to the other performers, which contribute to make him the pivotal point of the production: Rachel Pickup’s Portia and Dorothea Myer-Bennett’s Nerissa are never out of place and always directors of the brilliant comic standard. Daniel Lapaine also conveys the right amount of mistrust his character deserves: Bassanio’s affected ways annoy to the point his love story loses centrality.

The final scene (no spoilers allowed on this blog, as usual!) is in line with the overall tone of the play: it is pregnant with deep implications, it is deeply touching and exceptionally unforgiving. The abrupt and hasty closure leaves the audience with a question: who’s the bad character of the play? And what makes them so? Rather than redefining the debatable concepts of justice and mercy, Globe’s new season tag line, this production prompts spectators to face timeless and endless disputes on the meaning of humanity, tolerance, and faith.

Until 7 June @Shakespeare’s Globe

Trainspotting @King’s Head Theatre

A stamp on the back of your hand, a glow stick to hold, and you’re good to go. A rave party welcomes you in a small and grubby room: a filthy toilet, a dirty sofa, sloppy table and chairs, stained walls. High ravers dance against this set. Disturbing from the very beginning, ‘Trainspotting’ at King’s Head Theatre painstakingly works towards a total discomfort of the audience.

Brought to London by ‘In Your Face’, after a sell-out season of Edinburgh Fringe, this production does what it says on the tin. Advertised as suitable for 16+, this play is not recommended to easily offended people either; it features strong language, nudity, violence, sex, and needle use: all in your face. In a dark and almost seatless room, characters, space, and pace are physically and figuratively defined by the precise and very well planned lighting. The set contains familiar elements both for the novel readers and for the Boyle’s film fans. Irvine Welsh’s novel doesn’t lack in realism, but this production manages to push the story towards a harsher visual and auditory evolution by cleverly exploiting the audience.

Twenty-one years after meeting Renton and friends for the first time, spectators are again brought to Edinburgh among this reckless group of young friends addicted to heroin and self-destruction, and prone to denial of adulthood. Renton, the main character, enacts the collective voice of his group, and of an entire generation.

Within fifteen minutes from the beginning, there’s a striking change in the comic tone: after being (literally) put on stage for a quick introduction, the audience becomes more and more involved in a whirlwind of unsettling lifelike tragedies. Paradoxically unconcerned by the audience’s reactions, the characters play with it throughout the whole development of the story: here lies this production’s strength. If you’re faint-hearted, and you’d rather sit and passively enjoy a tranquil show, this one’s not for you. Dragged into sympathetic frustration, anger, and loneliness, it’s easy to experience terror, eventually leading up to a sense of unescapable claustrophobia. One example for all: when the brilliant Chris Dennis’ Franco Begbie is pointing a knife at your face, you might want to run away.

But if you truly know and share the ultimate meaning of theatre, this unique production is just for you. Forced into a realistic experience, pain, struggling uncertainty, depression, the will to change, inevitable failure, disappointment, a sense of loss, withdrawal symptoms will lead you through a precious dramatic involvement. A remarkable soundtrack, consisting in Oasis, The Cure, Pink Floyd, and Supergrass among others, helps defining a movie-like experience.

The small venue contributes towards a fulfillment of visual harshness and strong language: this perturbing adaptation of a 21-year-old Scottish novel owes its freshness to a very young cast, and to Greg Esplin, a very talented artistic director.

Go and get lost in this immersive production: this is what theatre is all about. And stay until the end, when ‘Born Slippy’ will accompany you out of this unique experience.

Until 11 April @King’s Head Theatre

The Broken Heart @Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

If there’s one thing you learn from ‘The Broken Heart’ is not to meddle in your relatives’ love affairs. Written by John Ford during the Jacobean era, this tragedy is a stimulating reading of the female condition in a patriarchal society through its tragic consequences. The scene is Sparta, echo of the Greek tragedy, but more importantly a straightforward connection to the Greek exemplary government which clearly clashes with the passion-driven characters portrayed. The outcome of two different eras combined together is expertly emphasized by the costumes: Elizabethan ruffs blend in harmony with Greek sandals.

The opening sets the grandeur of the production straight away: Penthea is betrothed to Orgilus, but forced apart by her brother Ithocles, and hastily married to a wealthier nobleman, Bassanes. The beautiful music cleverly intensifies the tragic colour of the condemnation of Penthea to her ‘burial-bed’. Through a fascinating and engaging combination of candlelights and music, the spectator is already projected into the story. The first three acts build up to the gruesome mood of the last two: we are introduced to the court of King Amyclas and his daughter Calantha, who will grow fond of Ithocles; and we get to follow Orgilus’ plans in his transformation from tormented to tormentor.

The first three acts also succeed at balancing the comic potential of Bassanes against the crescent sadness in Penthea, but warn about the future development of the plot with the first of the three topical scenes: dim lights skilfully stress the moment of female confidentiality between Penthea and Calantha, setting the tone for what’s following.

After the break, the tone turns from dark comedy to pure Jacobean tragedy, as the audience plunge into an impending feeling of dark discomfort. Not even a new meeting with her lover Orgilus is going to save the depressed and sleep-deprived (and anorexic?) Penthea. The fast pacing in the succession of events is striking and there’s no time for spectators to stop and reflect, as they are fast involved into a climax of dreadful events. The second of the three topical points expected by the audience takes place in the second half of the tragedy; the chair-trick (spoilers not allowed for this superb scene!) which condemns Ithocles and fulfills Orgilus’ revenge is a clear example of theatrical use of space at its best: exploiting all the available room provided, and letting the cast speak from the galleries and from the pit enables the audience to be part of a performance which goes beyond the stage. The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse is certainly a fascinating venue, but the space provided must be carefully used: the continual strategic trick of looking up of the actors ensures a satisfactory experience for the audience.

The high standard of dramatic performance set from the very beginning by the director Caroline Steinbeis doesn’t fail to accompany the audience through the third pivotal point. As the characters engage in a formal dance, Sarah MacRae’s Calantha receives three terrible pieces of news: her frantic dancing is disturbingly out of tune, as she choses not to let the public sphere to be corrupted by private affairs, and at every piece of news the dancing becomes more and more hysterical. Calantha, up to this moment an ethereal woman wrapped into a beautiful white tunic, becomes ‘the broken heart’.

Great performances are delivered by the whole cast, although Brian Ferguson’s brilliant interpretation deserves special praise: his Orgilus is surprising, entertaining, full of life, never boring in his scheming, and nails every single line; the tone is each time determined by his adaptation to comic or tragic values.

The superbness embodied by music and acting is framed by a very simple set, which admits no frills, but plenty of space for emotions. A praise also goes to Simon Slater, for the ever so moving and dramatic compositions: Tecnicus’ speech about ‘the broken heart’ easily makes an impression on the spectator’s mind because of the meticulous musical accompaniment.

The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse’s ‘The Broken Heart’ is a feast for the eyes and ears. It is rare for the spectator to experience such wonderful combination of theatrical knowledge and dramatic power: costumes, music, and acting make this production a must-see.

Until 18 April @Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

Closer @DonmarWarehouse

Patrick Marber’s powerful play on love, lust, and truth returns to the London stage. An emotional insight into the failure of truth as objective moral value, ‘Closer’ succesfully premiered at the Royal National Theatre’s Cottelstoe in 1997, and was then followed by worldwide theatre productions and by a popular film adaptation in 2004.

In contemporary London, the lives of four characters become intertwined in a web of love and lust: Dan, obituary writer and failed novelist, meets Alice, former stripper. The couple will be happy until he meets Anna, a more mature photographer, who, in turn, will betray her husband Larry, a dermatologist.

Brilliantly directed by David Leveaux eighteen years after its first premiere, ‘Closer’ still appeals to the audience for the brutal and honest portrayal of potential love relationships disrupted by denial of h as higher principle. The attention is all for the characters’ words, gesture, and feelings, also skilfully emphasized by Bunny Christie’s simple, but effective set – which fascinatingly splits into two different rooms for the crucial turning points in the plot.

Rufus Sewell’s impeccable interpretation of Larry hits the nail on the head providing a genuinely uncomfortable cheater, well aware of  his own and others’ deplorable behaviour. Anna’s struggle between Larry and Dan is powerfully projected onto the audience through Nancy Carroll’s expressiveness. However, Oliver Chris and Rachel Redford’s performances are probably less poignant: ‘delicate young woman’ Alice is certainly less incisive than ‘plain Jane Jones the stripper’ Alice.

True to its original 90’s set, as clearly suggested by the famous chat room scene, this production of ‘Closer’ shows that the language used in the original script cannot result very forward in 2015 anymore. But it doesn’t fail to prove the strength of such play –  still topical in its analysis of the (un)predictable outcomes deriving from this game of truth and dishonesty. Its highest merit lies in captivatingly addressing highs and lows of lust through fascinating characters – which makes of ‘Closer’ an immortal story.

Until 4 April at the Donmar Warehouse