Category Archives: Billington Michael

Through a Glass Darkly… Almeida, London

Through A Glass Darkly

Dimitri Leonidas as Max and Ruth Wilson as Karin in Through A Glass Darkly by Ingmar Bergman. Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian

Films rarely make good plays. But there is something about the claustrophobia of Ingmar Bergman‘s work, as we know from Scenes From A Marriage, that lends itself to adaptation. And Jenny Worton’s version of Bergman’s Oscar-winning 1961 movie proves to have a strange, haunting theatrical power.

Bergman’s story, originally shot on his dwelling place of Faro, shows us four people on an island. «Everything will be perfect this holiday,» blithely announces Karin as they arrive. But she appears to be suffering a bipolar disorder which throws the problems of those around into sharp relief.

Her doctor husband, Martin, is caring but ineffectual; her younger brother, Max, who aims to be a writer, is full of pubescent anguish; and her father, David, who actually is a novelist, is afflicted by the artist’s clinical detachment. The focus, however, is on Karin, who is torn between two worlds and drawn to a derelict room where she is convinced that she will have a direct encounter with God.

I don’t find it easy to determine what Bergman is saying: it is never wholly clear whether he sees Karin as a victim of religious hysteria, or as someone with privileged access to an ecstasy denied to the well-adjusted. But, as so often with Bergman, what emerges strongly is the pervasive sense of guilt. One suspects he pours a lot of himself into David – who emerges, like Chekhov’s Trigorin, as someone who observes life without experiencing it, and who inhabits his own selfish creative cocoon.

At the same time, Bergman empathises with Karin’s husband, whose loving kindness to his sick wife only serves as a form of exclusion. I was reminded of Mark Haddon’s recent Polar Bears, which also showed the burden of those who attend the mentally ill. The difference is that Bergman, for all his occasional obscurity, offers no lofty conclusions, leaving it to us to decide whether Karin’s crisis ultimately forces the family to confront its own failings.

The piece is impeccably directed by Michael Attenborough who creates, against Tom Scutt’s grey seascapes, a sense of escalating emotional tension. Ruth Wilson, with her pendulous upper lip and deep-set eyes, powerfully conveys Karin’s capacity to inhabit two dimensions. And there is fine work from Ian McElhinney, strangely resembling Bergman himself, as Karin’s semi-detached father; from Justin Salinger, as her unavailingly devoted husband; and from Dimitri Leonidas as her sexually tormented brother.

Running 90 minutes, the play is intense and demanding. But it explains exactly why Bergman endorsed O’Neill’s dictum that «dramatic art that does not impinge on the relationship between man and God does not interest me».

  1. Through a Glass Darkly
  2. Almeida,
  3. London
  1. Until 31 July
  2. Box office: 020 7359 4404

Guardian theatre critics are UK’s best, says the Stage

  • Industry insiders vote Guardian writers Michael Billington and Lyn Gardner top theatre critics in the UK

Lyn Gardner and Michael Billington

Best in the business … Guardian theatre critics Lyn Gardner and Michael Billington. Photograph: David Levene/Sarah Lee

A survey by British entertainment industry bible the Stage has voted the Guardian’s two theatre critics the most valued in the business.

Michael Billington, who has reviewed for the paper since 1971, was voted the most read critic by Stage readers, as well as the most valued critical voice in the British theatre community. His deputy, Lyn Gardner, was rated second most valued critic, and third most read, while the Guardian’s theatre blog was also recommended as a source of trusted information.

Strikingly, despite the apparently inexorable rise of blogs and online discussion, Stage readers still rate the opinions of professional reviewer extremely highly: nine out of ten respondents (89%) agreed that critics still play a valuable role in theatre, and although half of those surveyed reckoned that critics were less influential than they used to be, 80% believe that critics will still be important in the industry in 10 years’ time.

The least trusted source by far, reports the Stage, was internet discussion: only 3% of respondents rated it their most valued source of opinion, while more than half said it was their least valued. Interestingly, though, word-of-mouth recommendations were most trusted (47%), narrowly beating newspaper critics (44%) – suggesting, perhaps, that social media has yet to catch up with real-life recommendations.

Websites dominate what the Stage dubs «recommended non-print critical sources». Listed alongside the Guardian theatre blog and Radio 4’s nightly arts programme Front Row are sites including the West End Whingers, whatsonstage and two individual blogs, Matt Trueman’s Carousel of Fantasies, and Andrew Haydon’s Postcards from the Gods.

This will no doubt be a boost for the West End Whingers in particular, who appear to have got under the skin of none other than Andrew Lloyd Webber when they dubbed his new musical Paint Never Dries (its official title is Love Never Dies). «What we really have to consider is all this stuff on the net,» Lloyd Webber told reporters on its opening night. «It’s a very worrying situation.»

The Stage survey was conducted online and via questionnaire, and included 346 responses.

Most read newspaper critics *

1 Michael Billington, Guardian (48%)

2 Charles Spencer, Daily Telegraph (41%)

3 Lyn Gardner, Guardian (36%)

4 Benedict Nightingale, Times (33%)

5= Henry Hitchings, Evening Standard / Mark Shenton, Stage (both 31%)

*Respondents were allowed to make more than one choice

Most valued newspaper critics

1 Michael Billington (12%)

2 Lyn Gardner (11%)

3= Charles Spencer / Mark Shenton (8%)

5 Henry Hitchings (4%)

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Judi Dench (Titania) and Oliver Chris (Bottom)

Transforming love … Oliver Chris and Judi Dench in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Photograph: Tristram Kenton

Judi Dench is no stranger to Titania. She played the role at school in York in the 1940s and on stage and film for Peter Hall in the 1960s. Now she is back as Shakespeare’s fairy queen and her performance illuminates Hall’s revival, reminding us just why she is a great actor.

  1. A Midsummer Night’s Dream
  2. Rose Theatre,
  3. Kingston
  1. Until 20 March
  2. Box office:
    0871 230 1552

Hall’s main innovation is to suggest a parallel between Titania and Elizabeth I: a somewhat tendentious idea since Shakespeare’s play is a hymn to marital fecundity and Theseus pointedly suggests the rose distilled is happier than that which withers on the «virgin thorn.» But, although Dench makes a brief appearance as Elizabeth as if sanctioning a court entertainment, the regal comparison is largely irrelevant. What really matters is Dench’s supreme ability to give weight to every word she utters.

In Titania’s great speech on the disastrous consequences of climate change, your hear Dench’s voice perceptibly harden when she tells how «the childing autumn, angry winter change their wonted liveries.» I’ve also never seen a Titania more vocally and spiritually enraptured by the transformed Bottom. Dench’s voice seems to caress the air as she breathily cries «I pray thee, gentle mortal, sing again.» And, after a night spent with the ass, Dench skips and skitters around with post-coital glee and giggles delightedly at her loved one’s every jest. Without any of the physical explicitness you sometimes find in modern productions, Dench simply conveys the ecstasy and ardour of a brief, if misplaced, passion.

Dench brings her special aura to a perfectly good, classical production that seems most at ease with the fairies. Charles Edwards is a particularly fine Oberon who brings out the sadistic delight with which the fractious immortal torments the fairy queen. He slavers over the idea of streaking her eyes to make her full of «hateful fantasies» and gloats over the prospect of her waking next to some «vile thing». But, in a play that is all about spiritual transfiguration, Edwards conveys a proper sense of guilt at the effectiveness of his ruse.

The lovers, meanwhile, are decently played with due emphasis on their verbal coils rather than physical knockabout. But the standout member of the quartet is Rachael Stirling who makes the abused Helena a paranoid, quivering figure who announces «I am as ugly as a bear» with a real sense of self-loathing. She is also excellent in the battle with Annabel Scholey’s Hermia.

My main reservation concerns the mechanicals. Hall might have made more of «these hard-handed men that work in Athens hence» by emphasising their particular crafts and occupations. But there is a very assured Bottom from Oliver Chris who has all the bumptious geniality of the star amateur actor. In short, this is a good, well-spoken Dream, played in Elizabethan dress, that reminds one that this is a play about physical and spiritual transformation.

But although many of the parts, not least Julian Wadham’s shrewd, pragmatic Theseus, are well played, it is Dame Judi who supplies the necessary magic. And, although she is be-ruffed and red-wigged, it has nothing to do with Titania’s supposed resemblance to Elizabeth I. It is all to do with the ability to invest the language with passionate emotion so that when Dench says of the ass «O, how I love thee» the words linger longingly in the air. That’s what I call great acting.

«Punk Rock» του Σάιμον Στίβενς στο Λονδίνο

  • Lyric Hammersmith

Punk Rock

«Punk Rock». Το έργο του Σάιμον Στίβενς [Simon Stephens], στο οποίο ο συγγραφέας αγγίζει το πρόβλημα της βίας σε ένα βρετανικό λύκειο, φαίνεται να ανταποκρίνεται σε πραγματικά περιστατικά φονικής βίας σε σχολεία των ΗΠΑ και της Ευρώπης. Ωστόσο, το πραγματικό θέμα του είναι η αρρώστια του φόβου και του άγχους που απλώνεται σαν ίωση ανάμεσα στους εφήβους. Η παράσταση, σκηνοθετημένη από τη Σάρα Φράνκομ, έχει εγκωμιαστεί από τους κριτικούς, που τονίζουν τη ρεαλιστική ακρίβεια του έργου και την πειστικότητα των νεαρών ερμηνευτών (Τομ Στάριτζ, Χένρι Λόιντ Χιουζ, Τζέσικα Ρέιν). Ως τις 26 Σεπτεμβρίου.[Ματιές στον κόσμο, επιμέλεια: Αγγελική Στουπάκη, Η Καθημερινή, 20/09/2009]

Tom Sturridge (William Carlisle) and Jessica Raine (Lily Cahill) in Punk Rock

Tom Sturridge (William Carlisle) and Jessica Raine (Lily Cahill) in Punk Rock at the Lyric Hammersmith. Photograph: Tristram Kenton

Simon Stephens’s remarkable new play overcomes the burden of fortuitous topicality. Dealing as it does with violence in a Stockport school, it is bound to be compared with the case in the headlines last week. But what Stephens is really addressing is the way fear spreads virally amongst the young.

Intriguingly, he takes as his setting the sixth-form library of a high-achieving grammar school. But, however articulate the pupils, they seem plagued by uncertainty as they prepare for mock exams. William is a self-doubting fantasist who befriends newcomer Lilly, only to find she is seeing another boy; bullying Bennett masks his sexual insecurity by humiliating the coldly omniscient Chadwick as well as his girlfriend Cissy. None of these kids, including the muscular Nicholas and the teacher-besotted Tanya, is unduly deprived. Yet, as they conduct their own internal power battles, the threat of violence hangs in the air.

What is good about the play is the way Stephens combines individual portraits with gathering tension. You believe totally in these pupils as people: not least William and Lilly when they engage, as a way of hiding their nervousness, in a competitive contempt for the chavs they see on the Stockport streets. Even the noxious Bennett is driven, if not excused, by doubts about his masculinity. Best of all is Chadwick, who at one point delivers an apocalyptic speech which both squashes his tormentor and skilfully leads one up the garden path. The one false note, in a play based on a compassionate understanding of adolescent angst, comes in a defence of the young which sounds too like an authorial statement.

Punctuated by nerve-jangling bursts of rock by groups like Big Black and Sonic Youth, Sarah Frankcom’s production is riveting to watch and superbly acted. Tom Sturridge, making his professional debut as William (left), intelligently uses his gangling physique to express his inner instability. Jessica Raine as Lilly offers an extraordinary blend of sexual assurance and self-mutilating panic. Henry Lloyd-Hughes as the lordly, bisexual Bennett, Sophie Wu as his panicky girlfriend, and Harry McEntire as the precocious Chadwick, give impeccable performances.

This play, co-produced with Manchester’s Royal Exchange to which it travels next, gets a new regime at the Lyric off to a cracking start. One can’t help contrast it with the earlier import of a musicalised Spring Awakening which attempted to capture the raw agony of youth, only to dwindle into sentimentality. Stephens’s play, given a wonderfully spectral design by Paul Wills, confronts young people as they really are, and builds inexorably towards its tragic and violent climax.

Punk Rock, Lyric Hammersmith, London

  • Reviewed by Michael Coveney
  • Thursday, 10 September 2009

Simon Stephens’ powerful and compelling new play – which signals a new Lyric Hammersmith regime under Sean Holmes – does not quite deliver what it says on the tin. It’s set in an old, traditional library in a fee-paying grammar school in Stockport and the music by Big Black, the Cows and White Stripes is only punctuation between scenes.

That is probably the point, or comma. The pupils are sixth formers sitting their mock A-level exams, and their number is joined by Jessica Raine’s disturbing, self-harming Lilly, on whom the Hamlet of the reform, Tom Sturridge’s blinking, oddly hair-styled William, immediately fixes.

Stephens is reunited here with his Manchester Royal Exchange director, Sarah Frankcom, with whom he brought his award-winning On the Shore of the Wide Wide World to the National four years ago; it’s a dynamic partnership, and this brilliantly cast and acted play proves both a remarkable link with the Lyric’s musical premiere of Spring Awakening last year and a mission statement of upcoming work for and about young people.

As in the Wedekind play and musical, we see middle-class pupils under peer pressure embroiled in sexual chess-playing and adolescent crisis with ultimately tragic consequences.

It’s no accident that the Columbine High School massacre (echoed on our own doorstep the other week) also centred round a library, a terrifying update on the tradition of school plays stretching from Barry Reckord’s Skyvers at the bottom of the education heap to Julian Mitchell’s Another Country or Alan Bennett’s The History Boys on the brink of future success.

These were not the happiest days of anyone’s life, and it’s a lovely coincidence that Tom Sturridge’s father, the director Charles Sturridge, made his acting debut in Lindsay Anderson’s If…, the first film to prophesy the sort of nightmarish scenario almost commonplace on school and college campuses these days.

Young Sturridge makes an astonishingly assured stage debut as a slightly more neurasthenic Ben Whishaw type, with a bob of unruly hair, a gangling physical expressiveness, a deliberately shaky grasp of his own domestic orientation – one minute he’s an orphan, the next the son of a thriving oil millionaire – and a neat way of knowing that he’s «the cleverest and funniest person in Stockport.»

The other sixth-formers, kitted out in blue blazers and grey slacks or skirts, include the regulation Steerforth school bully, Bennett (done with a wonderful ambiguous coldness by Henry Lloyd-Hughes), whose campaign of belittling sexual taunting is rebuffed by Harry McEntire’s Chadwick, the class swot, with a dazzling rhetorical speech of apocalyptic prophecy that destroys his opponent and wins a round.

Lilly’s arrival is the axis on which the play turns, and Stephens’ sly way of stretching the time span allows for a development of relationships within the group that prosecutes the outcome as the exams loom larger. Settling in, Lilly is drawn to the sexually charismatic figure of the blond muscleman Nicholas – another remarkable stage debut, by Nicholas Banks – while Tanya Gleason’s friendly Tanya and Sophie Wu’s hard-edged Cissy stir the pot by behaving just as you’d expect them to.

Stephens sounds few false notes in giving all of these kids great dialogue and solo riffs, though I did wince at Lilly’s speech about most young people living decent and admirable lives – she started to sound horribly like David Cameron – but I concede that the playwright, an associate director to Holmes at the Lyric, is passionately committed to young people’s theatre. Good for him, and for Holmes, and a great start to the new Lyric campaign.

To 26 September (0871 221 1729;

Punk Rock at the Lyric, Hammersmith, W6

  • Benedict Nightingale
  • From The Times, September 10, 2009


Hearing that a teacher has had a heart attack, one of the Stockport sixth-formers who gather in the library where Punk Rock is set isn’t at all surprised. “They wander round like trauma victims,” she says of the staff. “They sweat, they’re getting ulcers, they’re terrified.”

To which the proper response is: no wonder, given the atrocity that comes at the close of Simon Stephens’s cracking new play. Sadly, I mustn’t reveal what this is, only say that it echoes sensational incidents reported from other countries, notably America.

The rationalist in me says that Stephens doesn’t prepare for it too well. Yet the rationalist in me should probably take a walk, because his point is that irrationality, unpredictability, confusion stalk the places frequented by those about to take their A-levels. And that’s why his play might be summed up as The History Boys meeting Spring Awakening, Wedekind’s tale of adolescent alienation and angst — and both of them meeting Stephen King.

The six kids in Sarah Frankcom’s superbly acted production are Britain’s future: bright, in one case maybe brilliant, but also mercurial, turbulent, lost, even despairing. For a long time it seems that the main emphasis will be Jessica Raine’s Lilly, a new arrival who is sharp, sexually smart, a bit cruel and contemptuous, saddled with an alcoholic mum and into self-harm. But as the evening proceeds she moves away from centre-stage, letting us pay more attention to the others, notably Harry McEntire’s small, aloof Chadwick, who is being so bullied and humiliated by Henry Lloyd-Hughes’s casually malicious Bennett that, when he turned, the first-night audience applauded. But that turning is strikingly unusual, consisting as it does of an apocalyptic speech in which he declares that human beings are “pathetic” and, citing flood, famine and much else, prophesises the end of the species. What will be his fate?

But then Stephens has enough command of sassy dialogue and tense situation to keep you wondering as much about his fellow-pupils, especially Sophie Wu’s Cissy, who is scared that her failure to get straight As means she’ll always be stuck in awful Stockport with a reproachful mum, and Tom Sturridge’s William (pictured above left, with Lloyd-Hughes), a lively mind whose fantasies are verging on the delusional, who has the unrequited hots for Lilly and who worryingly combines swank with self-hatred.

Does Stephens explain, say, the Columbine school massacre? No, he doesn’t. He’s too honest to pretend anything of the sort. But he does see the bafflement, the contradictions, the hope, the despair. He’s worried — and so, after seeing his play, should we be.

Box-office: 0871 2211729 to Sept 26