I always say that my passion and my job are happily one and the same thing: there’s (usually) nowhere I’d rather be than inside a theatre.
I don’t mind the occasional respite on a Caribbean beach, chosen specifically because there’s no possibility of going near a theatre so it enforces my abstinence. But my more usual breaks are taken in New York, simply because I can do more of the same that I do here – it’s my home-from-home in every sense now.
So it won’t be a surprise to you that sometimes when I want to relax and be sure of a good time, I like to listen to my own recommendations and revisit shows I’ve seen before. Last week, as well as fulfilling my reviewing duties with new productions at Leicester Curve, the Donmar Warehouse and the Royal Court Upstairs, I revisited no fewer than five shows I’d seen before – though one in fact was actually a critical duty, too, as we’d been invited to see James Graham’s This House again as it moved from the Cottesloe to the Olivier.
That was itself a fascinating exercise, seeing what had been an intimate occasion (in which we became members of parliament, seated with the actors amongst us on opposite sides of a brilliant mock-up of the House of Commons) expanded into the big public event that the play should, in fact, be. I loved it even more in the Olivier, partly because I was able to enjoy its intricacies of plot and character even more the second time around (which is always the case when you return to a play that has a complex rush of events like this), but also because it was also far more precisely compartmentalized on the bigger stage.
While the recreation of the House of Commons chamber was maintained with some members of the audience seated on moveable onstage risers that were shifted to face each other when required, but opened up at other times to allow those audience members to fade into the background and see the rest of the play better, you realised that it had actually been a bit misleading for the play to be set entirely there before. The real drama is played out in the whips’ offices of the Government and the opposition – the “engine room” of parliament, as it is described. Putting that on the forestage of the Olivier, rather than being played in the middle of the Lyttelton’s traverse staging, isolated it better.
Returning to Kiss Me, Kate on Friday also offered a change of perspective, in every sense. I’d previously seen Trevor Nunn’s production last summer at the thrust stage Chichester Festival Theatre, whereas its London transfer was to the conventional proscenium arched Old Vic. Though designer Robert Jones had introduced his own pros arch within his design to make sense of the show within the show, it looked even more beautiful framed behind a real pros arch.
As I mentioned yesterday, however, I’m not sure how beautiful Hannah Waddingham looked for the London transfer, as she wasn’t on last Friday when I saw it. Strangely enough, though, this wasn’t the first time I was seeing Cole Porter’s wonderful musical at this address: an Adrian Noble production for the RSC also transferred here in 1987, on that occasion with the glorious Nichola McAuliffe as Lili/Kate.
The other repeats I saw last week were in the same productions and places I’d seen them before at, though two of them were revisits of previous productions that each director had themselves done in earlier incarnations. Last Wednesday afternoon I saw Privates on Parade again in the opening production of Michael Grandage’s season at the Noel Coward – a show he’d previously directed in 2001 at the Donmar Warehouse, before he took that theatre over a year later. His affection for the piece is palpable, and so is the irresistible rush of tenderness and sadness that permeates Simon Russell Beale’s performance as Captain Terri Dennis.
But there was another reason to be sad seeing it again; one of its original cast Sophiya Haque was diagnosed with cancer just before Christmas, and had to withdraw from the production before dying on January 16, aged just 41. But as Privates on Parade itself exemplifies, the show must go on; and it did, with the rest of the run (which ended last Saturday) dedicated to her memory.
Another director returning to a play she’d previously directed is Marianne Elliott with Simon Stephens’s hauntingly beautiful Port, which she first staged at Manchester’s Royal Exchange in 2002. I never saw it there, but seeing it for a second time on Saturday afternoon in the expansive Lyttelton where it is running now, I can’t imagine how it would have played in the round. But I did wonder the first time I saw it if it might have benefited, in a reverse of what happened to This House, from being seen in the studio setting of the Cottesloe instead of a high, wide stage like the Lyttelton. As Susannah Clapp noted in her Observer review, however,
More timid directors than Elliott and Nicholas Hytner would have put Port, whose scenes are mostly two-handers, on to a small stage. It was the right, exhilarating decision to use the larger Lyttelton. This story reaches further than one girl in Stockport. The characters look physically vulnerable but they are not psychologically diminished.
Placing these small lives in a large frame shines a particular spotlight on them. Kate O’Flynn’s extraordinary, alternately damaged and radiant performance in the centre of it gives what happens to her real weight.
Finally, last Saturday evening I also went to see the Young Vic’s exhilarating Feast again, for its performance. Watching this exhilarating show in a packed, cheering house again – amongst a truly multi-racial crowd that you seldom see in London theatres – was to know that black audiences can be brought to the theatre in large numbers, as long as the shows have relevance. But the great thing, as ever, about great theatre is that it has resonance for everyone.