I’ve held off saying anything about this but it was press night last night so I see no problem. It’s 3 hours 20 minutes, plus one interval and Ralph Fiennes is on stage for almost the whole of it, talking for a good half of that, and he is perfect. It’s unfair to concentrate on him though, as there’s not a dud performance in it. OK, there were a couple of minor glitches but it was a preview. They may well add more performances – keep an eye out and grab it if you can.
These are three brand new short plays about death but they could hardly be more different from one another. The first, Closer Scrutiny, deals with a dying astrophysicist talking to his cellular biologist daughter. The second, Duck, Death and the Tulip, is a sweet children’s story about the character Death making friends with a duck told with the use of puppets. The third, Skeletons, by David Lewis who wrote Seven Year Twitch, looks at the impact on a family six months after the father has died. It looks at the three adult children, variously screwed up sa a result of their mother’s Roman Catholicism and their father’s alcoholism, now trying to cope with each other and with their mother’s Alzheimers. Somehow, it manages to balance humour and sadness very cleverly and very entertainingly.I keep changing my mind whether Closer Scrutiny or Skeletons is the better play – in fact they are both excellent, with the lighter interlude taking us away from tense family relationships. A marvelous triple bill and a wonderful farewell to Sam Walters retirement as Artistic Director. The Orange Tree has given me great pleasure for at least 30 years and I can only hope that his successor will build on that achievement.
The big event finally arrived and it was terrific. It starts with carnival parade from the Cutty Sark, so do dress up and join in. I got a sash for wearing one of the eight best costumes but missed out on the draw for a prize. If the parade seems a bit amateurish, don’t worry as the play itself is very professional. Ashley Zhangazha and Ferdinand Kingsley are superb as Jaffier and Pierre, with great performances from Jessie Buckley and Ayesha Antoine as their partners Belvidera and Aquilina. Pip Donaghy is hilarious as Antonio, the lecherous old senator lusting after Aquilina. I read the plot synopsis on Wikipedia first and would recommend it as the plot is complicated, with love and rebellion, revenge and tragedy, plus some extremely bawdy comedy. Don’t worry about spoilers as the title gives the ending away – imagine if Shakespeare had written Romeo and Juliet Have Kill’d Themselves! Make sure you wrap up warm as some of it is performed outdoors. We went in the afternoon so did not need to eat but the food looked lovely – the wine was certainly nice. The power for the lighting failed which was a shame but luckily it was a matinee so it did not spoil the fun – that’s what previews are for.
I realised this was going to be more than just a play but wow! I usually write about shows after I’ve seen them but this has already started. First there was the census to complete, then came a mask to print out. There’s a costume to make and now I seem to be involved in some sort of conspiracy, establishing a secret place to exchange messages. Even worse, my wife seems to be on the other side. Punchdrunk take note – this is real immersive theatre: I’m already immersed and I haven’t even reached the event yet. I’ll report on that when I get there at the weekend but it’s already become the theatrical event of the year.
This was a preview, so I imagine there will be a bit of tweaking before press night, but it hardly needs it. Simon Russell Beale who was so good as Timon last year is astonishing as the King, his authority, his voice and his body shrinking through the play as his madness takes hold. The direction by Sam Mendes is faultless although, like so many directors in the Olivier, he does love using that revolving stage a little too much – perhaps he will calm that down before it opens. All the acting was first class so it seems a bit unfair to pick anyone else out, although Olivia Vinall, who was so good as Desdemona in the NT’s Othello last year is a superb Cordelia. For someone still at the start of her career, that promises much to come. I won’t say any more as it would be unfair before press night but this really is unmissable.
Katie McGuinness was again superb as the title character after similar successes in Nan and Mary Broom (both also at the Orange Tree), whilst Christopher Ravenscroft plays a much nastier and more complex character than the nice DI Burden he played in Inspector Wexford. As it was the first preview, a couple of slight glitches in the first part are easily excused, especially as the director, Sam Walters, was in the audience ready to pick them up and make sure they are sorted by tonight. There was not a single fault in the second part which was sheer joy, the plot and performances picking up and driving forward to a perfect (but not predictable) ending.
I used to live closer to the Orange Tree Theatre, going regularly, and still try to go when as often as I can. Sam Walters specialises in finding relatively unknown, well-constructed plays from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It is a crime that this play, written in 1924 by Githa Sowerby, has never been performed in the UK. As with many of his other finds, what surprises is not how dated these plays are but how they resonate with our current time. It may seem odd that the only purpose-built true theatre in-the-round that I know of in London should offer such a good home for 100 year old plays.