The COVID-19 pandemic has shut down the entertainment industry, which relies on people leaving their houses and paying money to be distracted from the world for a few hours. Theatres in the UK responded by putting some of their plays online for a week at a time, helping people to distracted in these unprecedented times while also asking for donations to help theatres and other live performance industries. The two big names here in the UK were the National Theatre and the Hampstead Theatre; I thought I’d share my thoughts on the plays I watched.
This was the first play from the Hampstead Theatre as part of its ‘At Home’ experience. It’s a fictionalised story of Edward Snowden’s escape to Russia after his exposure of US government secrets. The play is set in a bedroom in a hotel room in Russia, with Andrew (the Snowden-like character) being talked to in turn by several people who may or may not be trying to help him. Written by Mike Bartlett, it’s darkly comic and scary and raises the issues of technology and the state and our rights, and it has a wonderful twist in the viewing experience at the end, which must have been even more mind-blowing seeing it happen live in the theatre.
One Man, Two Guvnors
The launch play for the National Theatre’s At Home YouTube channel, this was the hugely successful show written by Richard Bean (based on The Servant of Two Masters by Carlo Goldoni) and directed by Nicholas Hytner that launched James Corden to a different stratosphere with his performance in the lead role. It’s big and broad and contains large sections of farce and involves various characters pretending to be other people. It’s entertaining theatre, with Corden holding it all together, including interactions with the audience, and with able supporting cast (I particularly loved Daniel Rigby’s ‘WOOLWORTHS!’ delivery). It’s not the sort of thing I would go to see in the theatre, but I enjoyed it at home in the midst of a lockdown.
Fleabag, the award-winning television show written by and starring Phoebe Waller-Bridge, started out as a solo show at the Soho Theatre. She decided to allow the original recording at the Soho Theatre to be used as a charity-raising streaming show, with a minimum donation of £4, to raise funds to help all those in the live-performance field. The monologue is the basis for the first series of the TV show, with Waller-Bridge performing (with some recording of other dialogue) in the same funny and emotional fashion but with her holding all the attention. It’s entertaining and a fascinating insight to the origins and development of something that became a global phenomenon.
It was probably a good choice to present Tiger Country as part of the At Home performances: Nina Raine’s show is a meticulously researched piece about working in an NHS hospital in everyday life, so one can only imagine what it must be like during the pandemic (and why the nation claps on a Thursday evening, in lieu of the monstrous Tory government cruelly underfunding it for so long). The most well-known actor in it is Indira Varma, but her character is not the main character; the show is an ensemble piece about various doctors at different stages of the career and what it means to deal with death on a daily basis when the original urge is to help people and the effect it has on people and their relationships with others. The show is wonderfully staged, with the set design constantly changing on the main stage to move through different areas of a hospital.
The next big National Theatre production I tuned into was Twelfth Night for two reasons: I studied Twelfth Night for English Literature so was familiar with it, but it was mostly to see Tamsin Greig as the transformed character of Malvolia, because I think she is a brilliant actress and really wanted to see her in the role. She was, as expected, fantastic, and the whole show, directed by Simon Godwin, is a wonderful production of the Shakespeare mistaken-identity comedy. The large, rotating sets were beautiful, and the cast did a fine job (Daniel Rigby appeared again in fine form as Sir Andrew Aguecheek, and it was nice to see Doon Mackichan as Feste) that captured the spirit and kept the energy up throughout the performance.
The Arrest of Ai Weiwei
The concept of the arrest and detainment of artist Ai Weiwei in China as he tried to leave the country in 2011 doesn’t conjure the idea of an entertaining theatre production. However, to the credit of all involved, this was managed in this play. Written by Howard Brenton, based on Weiwei’s own account in Barnaby Martin’s book, Hanging Man, it tells of Weiwei’s detention at the hands of the Chinese government for 81 days, for what was eventually claimed to be ‘related to tax evasion’. Benedict Wong plays the lead, as he tries to cope with the imprisonment and the questioning without being told why he is being kept captive. Directed by James Macdonald and maintaining the Hampstead Theatre’s imaginative production design, the play is scary but also funny and leaves you with mixed feelings of anger and sadness at Weiwei’s treatment but also hope and happiness at his survival and continuance as an artist.
The National Theatre continued mixing lesser known productions with the big guns: this 2011 version of the novel by Mary Shelley, adapted by Nick Dear and directed by Danny Boyle, starred Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller as both the monster and the creator, alternating the roles each night. The option to watch both was available; I went against the grain and opted for Miller as the monster (I’m sure the Cumberbatch version was the most watched), because I thought he would be the most interesting take from the two actors who have played modern-day Sherlock Holmes. Miller’s performance was as good as I expected, guttural and raw and twitchy; Cumberbatch slotted into the role of the creator very easily. The most impressive feature was the production design, which was beautiful and dirty and mechanical; the other aspect was the filming of the live show itself, which was more cinematic and thus different to the other productions viewed as part of the At Home experience. I presume Boyle had a strong hand in the camera moves and the close-ups to make the live show more filmic, and it worked admirably.