The two productions that have bookended Nicholas Hytner’s decade as artistic director of the National Theatre, Henry V and Othello, have much in common. There’s Shakespeare, Adrian Lester in the title roles and an ability to do that thing which Hytner has said National Theatre productions should strive for — holding up a mirror to the nation.
This new work by international company Theatre Témoin takes as its source material the testimony, compiled by director Ailin Conant, of fighters from countries of conflict including Israel, Rwanda and Lebanon.
Howard Brenton’s play is based on the artist Ai Weiwei’s account of 81 days of detention by the Chinese authorities, as described in journalist Barnaby Martin’s book The Hanging Man. Director James Macdonald presents it as a piece of modern art. The theatre’s stage has been stripped back to whitewashed walls.
The inaugural play in the National’s temporary, very big and very red new venue is high on concept, but on contrivance also. The big idea underlying Tanya Ronder’s offering is that of the kitchen table not only serving as the surface on which we eat, work and occasionally have sex, but as witness to a family’s trials and tribulations.
Unlike his contemporary Chekhov, it’s not only Russia’s pre-revolutionary privileged class who populate Maxim Gorky’s plays but a hostile and starving proletariat. This work, which the political dramatist and activist wrote from his St Petersburg prison during Russia’s aborted 1905 revolution, gives a sense of them circling the home of scientist Protasov.
This is the tender little acoustic romance that kicked the hell out of bigger, brasher shows at New York’s Tony awards. And it is easy to see why. Once is based on the Oscar-winning Dublin-set film and uses the same, sometimes devastatingly beautiful soundtrack composed by Glen Hansard, of the indie band, Frames, and Marketa Irglová.
Someone described as a “leading media liberal” was reportedly overheard in the foyer asking “why has nobody called this show racist?”. I wish someone had replied, “why has nobody called you stupid?”. This long-anticipated Broadway musical may offend in many ways, but being racist isn’t one of them.