Category Archives: Nightingale Benedict

A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Rose Theatre, Kingston

  • From The Times
  • February 16, 2010
  • Benedict Nightingale

Judi Dench and Oliver Chris in A Midsummer Night's Dream

(Marilyn Kingwill)

Dench: at her hilarious best

Judi Dench is our theatrical queen, but isn’t she a bit, um, mature to be playing the fairy queen in Peter Hall’s revival of Shakespeare’s Dream? Well, there are two answers to that ungentlemanly question. First and obviously, folklore tells us that the classiest fairies may be pretty well any age, from 100 to a million. Second, Dame Judi gives a fine performance. And third, and almost as importantly, Hall sees Titania as the Elizabeth I of roughly the year 1595: an ageing monarch with the passions of a much younger woman.

It’s an odd, interesting, slightly perverse idea, though it has some academic backing. It’s been suggested that the powerful, wayward Elizabeth was indeed in Shakespeare’s mind when he created Titania. Maybe the monarch who harboured strong feelings for the Earls of Leicester and Essex could have become infatuated with “a little changeling boy”, as the fairy queen does. Yet Shakespeare was surely far too canny a bard to hint that his own Queen might end up tricked, humiliated and bettered by the husband she never had. If she’d suspected it was her alter ego who was canoodling with a weaver disguised as an ass, that bardic body might have lost its bardic head.

Anyway, the approach doesn’t prevent Dame Judi exuding the warmth she reportedly brought to the same role when she first played it for Peter Hall way back in 1962.

At the start she is seen as the red-wigged Elizabeth in all her pomp, silently ordering bowing courtiers to begin a performance of the Dream itself. Then, without changing her spangled dress, her Titania is bemoaning the treacherous weather and bringing queenly steel to the business of reproaching Charles Edwards’s elegant grandee of an Oberon. But it’s when she falls for Oliver Chris’s transformed Bottom that Dench is at her hilarious best: stroking his ass’s head, rapturously murmuring “I love thee”, and looking as enchanted as if she’s personally sunk the entire Spanish Armada.

It’s also a bit odd when Oberon tells Puck to seek out lovers he’ll know by their Athenian dress, for everyone, including himself and his fairy underlings, wear much the same Elizabethan costumes. But that doesn’t spoil or compromise a production notable, as Hall’s so often are, for its clarity and narrative momentum. It’s also funnier than most Dreams. The lovers’ crazed confusions are nicely played, especially by Rachael Stirling, a Helena who can yearn as well as expostulate. And the rude mechanicals are excellent fun, ruled by Chris’s Bottom, who clearly thinks he’s the new Richard Burbage and prolongs Pyramus’s death so inventively that, even when prone and in her lap, he manages to upstage Leon Williams’s expiring Thisbe.

Reece Ritchie gives us a Puck who runs, leaps, somersaults and squeals with infectiously mischievous glee, but I did have a doubt about Julian Wadham’s Theseus. Could this affable, earnest, decent cove really be the mythic hero who vanquished and married the Amazon queen, cruelly dumped Ariadne in Naxos, and performed glorious and inglorious deeds galore? The answer comes in Hall’s programme note. He’s no pagan warrior but a very sensible English “country duke”. Sorry, but I found that harder to swallow than Titania the Virgin Queen.

Box office: 0871-2301552, to March 20

The decade in theatre

  • From Times Online, December 21, 2009
  • “The Decade From Hell” proclaimed a recent Time magazine. Not for the British theatre

Samuel West, Tim Pigott-Smith and Amanda Drew in Enron


  • Benedict Nightingale

The Iraq war might not have been good for the world, but it wasn’t bad for the British theatre. It wasn’t just that a profoundly controversial conflict was the subject of several new works, such as David Hare’s Stuff Happens, and shaped some revivals, such as Katie Mitchell’s brilliant modernisation of Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis. It seemed to encourage a fresh interest in politics on the part of our playwrights. And the result wasn’t the clockwork Marxism of the 1970s, but a more questing and questioning drama, such as Robin Soans’s Talking to Terrorists, one of many “verbatim” plays that appeared during the decade — and a piece that meant what its title said.

Fresh British dramatists appeared: among them Simon Stephens, Roy Williams, Alexi Kaye Campbell, Rebecca Lenkiewicz, Polly Stenham, Charlotte Jones and Lucy Prebble, author of the money play Enron. But there were also worries. Apart from the dangerously funny Martin McDonagh, who is there who now has as distinctive a voice as, say, Osborne and Pinter? Who has the staying power to replace Churchill, Frayn, Bennett, Stoppard and Ayckbourn, all of whom are in their seventies?

The quality of acting remained undiminished, with Simon Russell Beale, Fiona Shaw, Clare Higgins, Mark Rylance, Henry Goodman, Janet McTeer, Harriet Walter, Greg Hicks, Roger Allam, Jennings and other middle-aged thesps reinforcing their claims to the thrones occupied by Ian McKellen, Derek Jacobi, Eileen Atkins and Judi Dench.

Was it possible to discern a new physical power in an acting community once critised as over-reliant on vocal beauty? With the rise of a robust younger generation that includes Eve Best, Victoria Hamilton and Rory Kinnear, maybe so. In the digital age there will be a growing appetite for human contact, for the sheer immediacy of theatre, and our performers must satisfy it.

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Not that technology is necessarily the enemy. More and more directors profitably embraced it during the decade. Think of Mitchell’s experiments at the National, Rupert Goold’s wildly inventive Six Characters in Search of an Author, and Complicite’s marvellous The Elephant Vanishes. That’s a trend that will continue, but needs watching, in case it substitutes for the lower-tech inventiveness of, say, the National’s War Horse or Robert Lepage’s Far Side of the Moon, a piece that did what theatre now must: exercise our most underused muscle, the imagination.

It was increasingly evident that the West End, like Broadway, was a home for musicals, not straight plays, most of which opened in subsidised theatres. Impresarios tried with mixed success to lessen risk by importing film and TV stars: a trend that, with imports varying from Christian Slater to Macaulay Culkin, David Schwimmer to Kathleen Turner, became more marked during the decade. And yet, despite a fearsome recession, the commercial theatre flourished, with the West End likely to end 2009 by breaking box-office records for the fourth year running.

Meanwhile, it has been a decade of successful takeovers at Britain’s principal subsidised theatres: Nicholas Hytner at the National, the Michaels Grandage, Attenborough and Boyd at the Donmar, Almeida and RSC, the last-named rescuing his company from the doldrums and soon to reopen a Stratford theatre that is having a £100 million makeover. “The Decade From Hell” proclaimed a recent Time magazine. Not for the British theatre.

  • Face of the decade: Nicholas Hytner

He had successfully staged work from The Madness of George III to Miss Saigon but never run a playhouse when he took over the National in 2003. Since then he has not only directed memorable productions, such as The History Boys, but programmed ambitiously and often daringly, introduced the £10 Travelex ticket scheme that has brought new and younger audiences to the Olivier, and launched NT Live, transmitting performances to more than 300 cinemas in England and abroad.

The Misanthrope, Comedy Theatre, London SW1

  • From The Times
  • December 18, 2009
  • Benedict Nightingale

Keira Knightley as Jennifer in The Misanthrope

Keira Knightley: lacks the assurance that more time on stage may bring her

The would-be lovers in Molière’s comedy are a blunt Parisian who enrages sophisticates with his compulsive honesty and a gorgeous young flirt who bitches about them behind their backs.

But Martin Crimp’s often witty, amusingly rhymed reworking of the play whisks both of them from 17th-century France to today’s smart-set London, making Damian Lewis’s Alceste a surly playwright who hates Stoppard and “David f******* Hare” and turning Célimène into Jennifer, a glamorous Hollywood actress played by Keira Knightley.

She catches the waywardness, occasionally the steel behind the velvety manner, the narcissistic love of attention, but not the authority to explain how she can dominate a gathering by more than beauty. Partly the reason is physical. She’s so wispy she could fit into an umbrella stand. Partly it’s a want of vox, partly a lack of the assurance that more time on stage may bring her.

As for Lewis, he’s the fierce obsessive, the pale-faced absolutist happiest when denouncing triviality, hypocrisy and a human race he wishes was extinct. But Alceste’s contradiction is that he loves Jennifer, who is trivial on principle. Hence he comes to seem a bit mad, a pale-faced stalker determined to transform her into someone she isn’t. The central irony of Thea Sharrock’s production is that the principled truth-teller is also a self-deceiver.

In his avidity to update, Crimp sometimes diminishes Molière.

Yes, there are entertaining references to Derrida, post-modernism, long-lensed photography and artists who love excrement. Yes, there are sharp lines like (of a director in LA) “he’s a born-again, low-carb, high-maintenance, hysterical Californian”. But in Molière’s original the poet Oronte actually tries to get Alceste imprisoned for badmouthing his literary efforts. Here, he’s a theatre critic, mischievously renamed Covington and played with slimy pomposity by Tim McMullan, who feebly threatens a libel suit. I wouldn’t say that Crimp succumbs to the knowing insularity that he and Alceste condemn; but the stakes are never as high as in Molière.

Yet Alceste himself does seem the ambiguous figure he should be.

He’s paranoid, self-righteous but also correct about a Britain in danger of sinking giggling into the sea, taking Knightley’s pretty Hollywood star with it. Neither moved me. I didn’t care too much about either’s fate. But they did keep me engrossed for two hours.

«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