National Theatre at the Olivier Theatre
An open stage, a little like Habit of Art. Does this mean it's a work in progress, or a rehearsal ? Henry [hoover] and Yamaha [keyboard] both in use as the audience fills the Olivier. There is a tab cloth, used at the end, too.
Becket ? Wars of the Roses ? Princes in the Tower ? White Queen ?
No need to worry, since there's a helpful monarchy slide show at the start, taking us back from Elizabeth to Edward. And bold Brechtian captions to keep us up to speed.
Joe Hill-Gibbins has clearly been given carte blanche, and an impressive cast, to bring his vision of Marlowe to the National stage. It's a disquieting vision, with striking anachronisms and lavish, inventive use of technology. The structure behind the main acting area – we see only its unfinished exterior – turns out to be used for the private worlds, the intimate spaces of the play, all captured, live, on hand-held video. All the voices are amplified, all the time. There's an OB sequence, too, for the entrance of Spencer and Baldock, with some cheeky improvisation. The long interval is spent rebuilding the sacked castle, so it can't be such a random jumble as it appears.
Award-winning American exile, flavour-of-the-month Kyle Soller is Gaveston [or Gavisten, as he has it]. He is also Lightborn the assassin, a clever twist. Obviously the same player, though – he's the one who thinks "whilst" is pronounced "willst". He makes his entrance from exile through the stalls, then commands the stage from the Olivier's sweet spot. Hard to see how this "paltry boy" could enchant the king, though …
Played by John Heffernan, his comic talents largely untapped here. [There are laughs in the show, however, many of them at the anachronistic cigarettes and champagne.] It's a strong performance, though there is little regal about it, charting the tragi-comic fall from insouciant monarch – "brain-sick king" - to shambling prisoner. The most affecting scene has him reluctantly relinquishing the crown - "… let me be king till night!"
This is an equal opportunities court – "our sister Kent" – and there's a fine no-nonsense Pembroke from Penny Layden. The ensemble work is often effective – the dogs with drums, who also walk the bodies off at the end.
The costume flirts with anachronism, too. Bettrys Jones's Prince Edward wears a scarlet schoolboy blazer most of the time. I did feel there was significance here that I wasn't getting …
The big video screens are only partly successful – sometimes difficult to focus on both, and I was well placed. The lighting is wilfully ineffective, mostly from the back, with follow spots from the side, making it hard to see faces. The pace is often sluggish, the verse not well treated.
I imagine this will divide opinion – empty seats after the interval criticism of a sort – a fearlessly creative contemporary take on the play, or self-indulgent drama school posturing. I stayed in my seat, but incline to the latter view ...
production photography: Johan Persson