National Theatre

Review: Oslo ★★★★ – Travelling hopefully towards Middle East peace proves an exhilarating journey

You almost certainly know the venture ends in failure and tragedy but what a gloriously exhilarating and entertaining evening JT Rogers makes of the journey. It's 1991 and the US-sponsored Middle East Peace Conference is going nowhere, with the excluded PLO still ensconced in Tunis. Norwegian power couple Mona Juul, a diplomat posted to Cairo, and Terje Rod-Larsen, her foundation-running sociologist husband, get a chance to see first hand the conflict in Gaza, Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Witnessing a confrontation between a Palestinian stone-throwing youth and a similarly-aged Israeli soldier, they are struck by their similarities. They resolve to try and bring the two sides together in a fluid, non-confrontational way, luring them to a Norwegian country mansion where personal conversations over whisky and waffles work better than the institutional grandstanding of the official peace talks.

Director Bartlett Sher whisks his cast, as crisp as a Norwegian winter, through the back-channeling and clandestine meetings and the associated politics of the peace process that eventually lead to the famous handshake on the White House lawn between Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin. Sensibly, Rogers focuses on the negotiators and not the hand-shakers and the actors seamlessly break the fourth wall to move the action through time.

Peter Polycarpou invests pugnacious but charming PLO Finance Minister Ahmed Qurie with both warmth and anger, a portrait of a complex and conflicted man, eager for peace but scarred by conflict. His opposite number is Phillip Arditti's cocksure, arrogant and domineering Uri Savir, a typical prickly Sabra (native Israeli), who finds an unlikely friend in Qurie.

Lydia Leonard’s determined, grounded Mona stage-manages the action with Scandinavian cool and style. Monochrome-clad, carrying a drinks tray, at curtain-up you might take her for waitress, till she confides in the audience. Toby Stephens’ flamboyant, self-centred Terje is plausibly likeable and infuriating – and on (peace) message.

The Norwegian contingent includes Foreign Minister Holst (Howard Ward), Mona’s boss and his wife Marianne Heiberg (Geraldine Alexander) who works for Terje. "Well, Norway is a very small country!” as Juul puts it in one of her deliciously dry asides. Ward and Alexander double as Finn and Toril, the domestic staff sworn to secrecy.

The negotiations play out on Michael Yeargan’s set, a curved wall that doubles as a canvas for 59 Productions' effective projections with Scandinavian-sharp lighting from Donald Holder.

As the action rolls through the various crunch points on the way to that handshake, your hopes are equally elated and deflated at the prospect – or not – of peace. The play ends with a brief round-up of the subsequent history, but Terje’s final appeal to the audience to see his beautiful vision leaves you, heartbroken, with the dream of what could have been.

By Judi Herman

Photos by Brinkhoff Mögenburg

Oslo runs Monday 2 October – Saturday 30 December. 7.30pm (Mon-Sat), 2pm (Thu & Sat only). £18-£85. Harold Pinter Theatre, SW1Y 4DN. 0844 871 7627.

Click here to read our interview with writer JT Rogers and director Bartlett Sher from the July 2017 issue of Jewish Renaissance.

Review: Follies ★★★★★ – Fabulous production proves this Sondheim/Goldman musical is no folly

Welcome to Weismann’s Follies. Dmitri Weismann himself presides and the old gang of gorgeous gals are back for one last reunion in the theatre where they showed a leg and sang their hearts out between the wars, before it’s pulled down. It’s time to reminisce (cue for a song-list of glorious pastiches) and take stock of the ravages of the years – physical and emotional. So it’s equally the cue for a range of mould-breaking Sondheim numbers that excavate the regrets and neuroses eating away at the two couples centre-stage, former showgirls Sally and Phyllis and the stage-door johnnies, Buddy and Benjamin, whom they married. The genius of Sondheim and book-writer James Goldman is to intertwine and meld these two strands, building to a climax of ‘follies’ point numbers which become the expression of all that angst and heartache, one for each of the four, surprising, distinctive, appropriate and devastatingly revealing. The haunting of all the returnees by their younger selves, the girls in their gorgeous costumes and their stage door johnnies, acting out the past and observing their future, is another stroke of genius, another layer to this rich, complex show.

Years of revision by the creators and their work with successive creative teams have polished this multi-faceted gem. Director Dominic Cooke and his NT team work their own collective magic to delight and ravish. Cooke and choreographer Bill Deamer move an extraordinarily talented cast effortlessly through Vicki Mortimer’s ghost of a theatre, shabby rows of red velvet seats and make-up mirrors perching among piles of rubble – demolition already in progress as surely as the demolition of those youthful hopes and dreams.

Imelda Staunton and Janie Dee are dream casting for Sally and Phyllis; powerfully supported by Philip Quast’s Benjamin and Peter Forbes’ Buddy, they are first among equals in this genuine ensemble. All the Follies’ girls’ delicious solos, equally homage and pastiche get pitch-perfect interpretations. Dame Josephine Barstow yearns gloriously as Viennese operetta star Heidi Schiller, Dawn Hope’s honey tones ask thrillingly ‘Who’s That Woman?’, backed by the ghostly chorus helping the returnees to recall their mirror routine. Di Botcher makes ‘Broadway Baby’ a ruefully self-deprecating private moment in her old dressing room and Tracie Bennett’s ‘I’m Still Here’ is genuinely the story of survivor Carlotta Campion’s life told to a couple of chorus boys at the reunion.

Staunton’s obsessive, neurotic Sally, heartbreaking and disturbed in ‘Losing My Mind’ and Dee’s acid, knowing Sally, scintillating in ‘The Story of Lucy and Jessie’ (rightly restored here), are outstanding, beautifully supported by Zizi Strallen and Alex Young, telling as their younger selves.

Nicholas Skilbeck supervises the sizeable orchestra (of whom we get only a ghostly glimpse rear stage – though perhaps that was the intention) through Jonathan Tunick’s orchestrations, always an integral, satisfying element of Sondheim’s sound. Unmissable.

By Judi Herman

Photos by Johan Persson

Follies runs until Wednesday 3 January 2018. 7.30pm, from Sep 2pm (Sat & various Tue/Wed only; check website for details). £20-£60. National Theatre, SE1 9PX.

Broadcast live in cinemas in the UK and internationally Saturday 18 November as part of NT Live.

Review: The Threepenny Opera ★★★★ – Worth paying rather more than half a sixpence to see

The Threepenny Orchestra_4 When is an opera a play with music? When it’s Simon Stephens’ sharp new reworking for the National Theatre of Brecht’s adaptation of John Gay's 1728 ballad opera (The Beggar's Opera). The perfect match of Kurt Weill’s thrilling, chilling music and Bertolt Brecht’s update of John Gay’s comic, heartless satire seems as timely and timeless as ever in Rufus Norris’s new production.

Brecht and Weill’s ‘play with music’, based on Elisabeth Hauptmann’s translation, opened in 1928, two hundred years after Gay’s first night. Brecht and Weill continued the short and intense collaboration that produced Mahagonny, Happy End and more in the years leading up to the rise of National Socialism. GW Pabst’s film adaptation of Die Dreigroschenoper opened in the more dangerous Germany of 1931, and by 1933, the Jewish Weill and his Austrian wife actor/singer Lotte Lenya (the first Polly) had fled Nazi Germany, emigrating to the USA by 1935, followed by Brecht and his Austrian Jewish wife, actor/director  Helene Weigel (the first Mother Courage). Their ‘opera’ had pride of place in the ‘degenerate music’ exhibition curated by the Nazis in Dusseldorf in 1938.

Weill’s ‘avant-garde’ music for the show has become a vital part of our musical landscape but the unwieldy storyline has been wrestled by Stephens into a clearer plot in which London – and its underworld – pull out the stops for a coronation. There’s no consideration of financial crisis as there was in the original but it’s still a monumental fable of the corrupting power of unprincipled sex, money and violence, wrapped up in Brechtian mode for the modern audience.

Vikki Mortimer’s rough and ready design, all staircases and stage flats through which the cast hurl themselves, leaves plenty of space on the front of the vast Olivier stage for David Shrubsole's onstage band to take to that stage and for choreographer Imogen Knight to thread the 20 strong cast through the set. Her effectively grungy, louche costumes give the nod to Otto Dix’s paintings, but you might bump into any of this unsavoury lot in London 2016.

The Threepenny Orchestra_1 © Richard H Smith

George Ikediashi (aka cabaret performer Le Gateau Chocolat) as the Balladeer, an imposing figure with a huge (yes, chocolatey) voice, gets the show off to a barnstorming start with the Ballad of Mack the Knife. His dark tale is told as a sort of Grand Guignol puppet show in a larger-than-life flimsy paper Punch and Judy booth – with ‘Mackie’ as a cross between Jack the Ripper and Mr Punch, his victim’s guts spilling colourfully over the booth. So the scene and tone are set for a tale that wears its heartlessness on its grubby, grungy sleeve by the time Nick Holder’s superb, exuberantly amoral Peachum gets to set out his stall, singing his Morning Song – with its delicious tune that Weill shrewdly realised he should lift straight from Gay’s original ballad opera.  Peachum ruthlessly deploys his gangs of hooded beggars (divided into types 1-4: war veterans, immigrants, teenage runaways and unhoused lunatics) integrating hapless newbie Filch just in time for the rich pickings he anticipates at the forthcoming Coronation.

He'd like to be equally ruthless with his womenfolk at home, but Haydn Gwynne’s comically cartoonish Mrs Peachum is a match for him. She's drunken and randy, bent on revenge when she discovers her errant daughter Polly has eloped with one of her own squeezes, übervillain and gangleader Macheath. And she’s all angular limbs in black stockings and garters hardly covered by the clinging scarlet swathes of her dress as she crawls up a scaffolding ladder to find Polly’s  ‘room’ at the top empty. But Polly is more than a match for both her parents – and pretty well anyone else who crosses her. The brainy, bespectacled lass in her purposeful cardie comes across as more than resourceful and articulate in Rosalie Craig’s stunningly intelligent and gloriously sung performance. Thankfully, Pirate Jenny’s Song (the tale of the servant girl who dreams of becoming a ruthless pirate who can order the deaths of the insulting bosses and customers she serves) is restored to Polly here (sometimes it is sung by the character Jenny Diver – of whom more later). It sends shivers up the spine, just as it should – no wonder Macheath’s gang listen in awe, stifling their sexist remarks and regarding his new bride with new respect. No wonder he makes her his ‘business partner’ with alacrity!

The Threepenny Orchestra_2 © Richard H Smith

Central to this play with music is the infamous Macheath, described by Brecht as a ‘short, stocky man of about 40 with a head like a radish, a bit bald but not lacking dignity, someone who impresses women less as a handsome man than a well-situated one’. Rory Kinnear makes an impressive singing debut and it’s good to see the part played as Brecht intended rather than as a lovable rogue or misunderstood bad boy. Kinnear’s Macheath is no slacker when it comes to chilling and thrilling. His casual cruelty belies his fatal attraction to and for the ladies that will prove his eventual downfall. The thrills come from the melodious rounded tones of his singing voice, in this, his first sustained singing role.

Polly is well matched, by Debbie Kurup’s comically indignant foul-mouthed Lucy Brown, her rival in love, to whom Macheath has also promised himself and gives as good as she gets in their Jealousy Duet; and by Sharon Small’s Jenny Diver, the fragile, damaged tart with a wounded heart who shops Macheath to the Peachums. Small gets to sing Surabaya Johnny, a happy interpolation from Happy End – it’s such a great number that the ‘end’ seems to justify the means.

Peter de Jersey also impresses as Lucy’s father Tiger Brown, the gleefully corrupt Chief Inspector of Police who is hand in glove with Peachum, his old mucker from the armed forces– together they make a deliciously malign double act in this pantheon of vicious characters.

Director Rufus Norris shoves in all the usual Brechtian techniques, from props labelled 'DRUGS' and the cast shouting ‘scene change’ or ‘interval’ to remind us we are watching theatre and not real-life and they palpably add to the enjoyment of the opera as entertainment. But perhaps the sheer pace of the performance gives little space to reflect on the predicament of the characters and their reality in the theatre of life. This is left to powerful actor and wheelchair user Jamie Beddard, like so many disabled actors, a natural Brechtian, whose physicality and vocal quality is a constant reminder of his reality.

By Judi Herman

The Threepenny Opera runs until Saturday 1 October, 7.30pm & 2pm, £15-£45 at National Theatre South Bank, SE1 9PX; 020 7452 3000.

Review: Les Blancs ★★★★ – Beauty and terror out of Africa in Yael Farber's devastating production of Lorraine Hansberry's last play

LES BLANCS by Hansberry, , Writer - Lorraine Hansberry, Director- Yaël Farber , Design - Soutra Gilmour, Lighting - Tim Lutkin, Movement - Imogen Knight, The National Theatre, 2016, Credit: Johan Persson/ It’s not by accident that the title of this review recalls Yeats’ poem Easter 1916, so often quoted in this centenary year of the Easter Uprising in Ireland. Lorraine Hansberry was inspired to become a dramatist by seeing a rehearsal of Sean O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock at university. And she saw parallels in the struggle for Irish independence with the struggles for equality of both African Americans and the nations in Africa under white rule.

In Les Blancs (The Whites), Lorraine Hansberry was notably the first African-American dramatist to explore the African search for freedom from European colonization. The first drafts of Les Blancs came soon after the success of her landmark play, A Raisin in the Sun in 1960. Although at the beginning of 1965, she was dead from pancreatic cancer, aged 34, she left several drafts of the play. Its title is an answer to Jean Genet’s play The Blacks: A Clown Show, a ritual performance of black resentments against the white oppressor. She saw Genet’s absurdism as escapist, when realism was what was required. Her own story of being black and female in America, To Be Young, Gifted and Black, like Les Blancs, came to the stage thanks to her literary editor and former husband, Jewish publisher, songwriter and political activist Robert Nemiroff. Hansberry’s death inspired Nina Simone to write her famous song in her memory using the poignant title of her autobiography.

Hansberry entrusted Les Blancs, the work she was redrafting in hospital during her last illness, to Nemiroff to nurse into production. He continued to make further drafts based on notes and their conversations and gathered all the drafts into a production text so that it premiered in New York in 1970. Nemiroff kept polishing the script, publishing a revised version in 1983. He died in 1991 and his stepdaughter Joi Gresham, Director and Trustee of the Lorraine Hansberry Literary Trust, collaborated with dramaturg Drew Lichtenberg and director Yael Farber on the text of this National Theatre production.

The storyline is ostensibly clear enough. The people of a fictitious African nation are on the point of rising up to fight their colonial overlords and masters and establish an independent state and the action is seen through the experience of settlers, natives, and an American journalist in the waning days of colonial control.

Although she never went to Africa, what Hansberry brings to the stage in Les Blancs is an extraordinary vivid and credible account of the flashpoint of the struggle in one unnamed African country in the middle of the 20th century, which could stand for them all. At the same time, her play is also a comment on the struggles against racism and inequality in her native country two years before Martin Luther King delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech. Hansberry wanted to reflect the inequality of the African-American voice in the black/white conversation at the time and an African setting gave a useful distance from which to pillory the strategy and reasoning of American Civil Rights leaders.

In South African-born Farber, 51 years after her death, Hansberry’s play has found a director to fashion a production she would surely have relished. Hansberry writes into her play African-based folklore, chanting, drumming, and dancing, serving both to heighten the tension and reflect the ceremonial role of music and dance in traditional African life. And from its opening minutes Farber brings her play to full-blooded life with the entry of four Matriarchs, who accompany their slow, dignified passage across the stage with an extraordinary and obviously authentic chant (one of the four, Joyce Moholoagae, is Music Director) amid the heady, acrid smell of incense .  Add to this Adam Cork’s music and pretty continuous soundscape and Tim Lutkin’s lighting, almost characters in themselves, on Soutra Gilmour’s set, a skeletal mission hospital and living quarters complete with veranda, steadily revolving in the centre of the village it serves under the dark star-studded velvet of the African night sky, and there is tension, even menace, built in from the start.

LES BLANCS by Hansberry, , Writer - Lorraine Hansberry, Director- Yaël Farber , Design - Soutra Gilmour, Lighting - Tim Lutkin, Movement - Imogen Knight, The National Theatre, 2016, Credit: Johan Persson/

Then there is the striking, etiolated figure of Sheila Atim’s Woman, slowly stalking around the set under the burden of a flaming firepot. Hansberry originally planned to have a female protagonist, but revised the play so this, the only black woman, has no name and no lines. And yet the impact of Atim’s presence is unsettling from the start and eventually devastating. An  accusing mother Africa indeed.

By the time a procession of white characters enters from the audience to the contrasting plangent western strains of a cello (one of them is indeed carrying, though not playing, a cello – the chosen instrument of the Albert Schweitzer-like figure who founded the mission), before a word has been spoken, Farber has established her credentials.

And yet this is nothing if not a wordy play, a play of dialectic and conversation, as well as action and ceremony. There is an elegant pairing of characters – offstage that legendary missionary who has founded the mission, away visiting his flock and the village tribal elder on his deathbed; arriving in the village, journalist Charlie Morris, keen to write about the success of the white man’s mission in both senses of the word and Tshembe Matoseh, eldest son of the dying elder returning home from London, where he now lives with his wife and child, to attend his father’s deathbed.

Morris is of course a useful ‘outsider’ lens through which to ‘meet the natives’, both black and white. Elliot Cowan makes of Morris a wonderfully persistent and resilient terrier resolutely going for the killer interview, even when he is by turns sent up and scorned by Danny Sapani’s toweringly intelligent and complex Tshembe.

When he tries to ply Tshembe with whisky and cigarettes, Tshembe retorts with a series of telling put downs. It’s hard to come back from “Do you really think the rape of a continent dissolves in a wreath of cigarette smoke?”, but Morris does his best even if he is not quite a match for Tshembe. It’s a long exchange but a telling and a gripping one and it’s at the heart of this play.

Morris fares better with the missionary doctors, Anna Madeley’s hard-working idealistic Dr Gotterling and James Fleet’s disillusioned, Chekovian Dr Dekovan (another of Hansberry’s neat pairings) - both excellent. And he is welcomed with open arms by Madame Neilson, the absent missionary’s elderly, almost blind but resilient wife (a wonderfully detailed performance from Siân Phillips), embodying the hopes and dreams of the long-term white settler who has thrown in her lot with the continent and done all in her power - and with her mindset - to make bridges with its people. Her blindness is symbolic and indeed she even declares that she is pleased not to be able to see the horrors going on around her as the events of the play become ever darker.

This is down in no small part to Major George Rice, representative of white rule and the British army, first seen dragging behind him a tortured and bleeding native whom he has been interrogating. Clive Francis plays the terrifying racist martinet to the hilt, spitting out the word boy he uses to address the black villagers. It’s a chilling counterpart (again a pairing) to Madame Nielsen’s love of this continent to hear him speak lyrically of the land on which he has settled, when he clearly regards its inhabitants as sub human. There are shades of Steve Biko, whose  death in custody in South Africa caused armed insurrection, when a similar case gives those inhabitants all the incitement they need to rise up against The Whites of the title.

Hansberry ratchets up the tension by condensing the action into just a matter of hours, almost into real time. No sooner is his father dead than Tshembe is caught between two worlds – the West that he has left behind and his native village where he trapped by an insurrection he is urged to join. And then there are his two brothers, desperately sincere Abioseh (Gary Beadle), who has found his home in the church and Eric, the anguished illegitimate product of mixed race parentage (a heartbreakingly convincing performance form Tunji Kasim). All three are damaged and defined by the rape of their native land and the bloody struggle it is undergoing.

By the time the play reaches its stunning, terrifying climax, Tshembe has evoked Anne Frank, Auschwitz and Dachau. Hansberry’s vision, realized by Farber, Lichtenberg and Gresham, has a terrible beauty indeed.

By Judi Herman

Les Blancs runs until Thursday 2 June, 7.30pm & 2pm, £15-£35, at National Theatre, South Bank, SE1 9PX; 020 7452 3000.