where angels fear to tread

On Monday I went with my daughter to see James McAvoy play Cyrano de Bergerac. We booked the tickets last autumn as soon as they went on sale. We have already been lucky enough to see Mr McAvoy in ‘Three Days of Rain’, ‘Macbeth’ and ‘The Ruling Class‘. And, as with all those three previous plays, Cyrano is also a Jamie Lloyd/McAvoy collaboration. As it happens I have seen a traditional ‘Cyrano de Bergerac’, back in 1992 at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, with Robert Lindsay as Cyrano and also a film adaptation, ‘Roxanne’ starring Steve Martin, but my daughter came to the play completely fresh.

Neither my daughter nor I had read any reviews of this latest production although we had seen five star indications flying past whilst scrolling through social media. We tried to ignore them as we didn’t want to have any preconceived ideas or expectations. As it turned out, rather unusually for us, we both had the same response to this version of the play.

Mr James McAvoy, Hollywood A-Lister at the top of his game, guarantees sell-out performances.

This is a play about poetry, about words, and about the beauty and power of words, but this was not a radio play, or a masked affair, it was a fully cast and staged production. As is usual choices were made: about costume, street-style; about props, contemporary plastic; about lighting, harsh and unforgiving and, of course, about the sound with the use of amplification. Although it was a minimal staging in modern dress, parts of this production were also very physical. All the actors wore discrete head mics and there was additional switching between these head mics and other cordless and wired stage microphones throughout the play. This had the effect of subtly adjusting tonal quality and volume adding extra contrast and intensity to the spoken words at different points of the drama. I assume this was a most considered choice to emphasise the importance of the text.

Microphones featured prominently in the minimal staging.

Interestingly and importantly the script is a new translation by the playwright Martin Crimp. There’s no stipulation in the 21st century to provide an equivalent, literal translation of a late-19th-century French text telling a 17th-century tale. To this end Crimp composes rhyming lines of contemporary language in a rap style enhanced in part with beatboxing. The pace and the punch of the first half of the play was thrilling and the delivery was augmented by the contrasting regional accents from the diverse ensemble. The intense, vigorous Glaswegian tones of James McAvoy seemed to add an almost physical layer to the sound. (Mind you I am a lover of Celtic accents and I could listen to Mr McAvoy read the phone book.)

I don’t think we consider contemporary versions of classic, well-known plays as revivals as such, especially with a new translation, but more as ‘a newly reworked production’ of said classic. Employing and amplifying a 21st-century linguist style to make a play more relevant for modern times was very successful. And, on the night we saw the play there was an immediate standing ovation for the cast and the performances. But . . . . and here it comes, yes, there was plenty of energy to showcase the words as I have mentioned above, but . . . . what about the nose? That very famous nose. It was a decision to have Cyrano with an implied, with an ‘acted’ enormous nose and not a theatrical prosthetic. However, I admit at one point l felt like Hans Christian Anderson’s small child viewing the Emperor as I watched a stunningly, physically attractive, charismatic, A-list Hollywood star giving without doubt an intensely, passionate and poignant performance as an afflicted Cyrano yet looking like a god had landed amongst mortals.

We humans are visual creatures. Sight is our dominant sense. A play is a combination of experiences and a staged production is usually more or less dependent on words and their delivery by actors, but we, the audience, are also reading all those non-verbal communications too. Non-verbal aspects of characters including physical appearance are surely central to an actor’s performance as well. To draw on physicality in this production and deliberately choose an uplifting diverse cast and yet require the audience to be blind to McAvoy’s undoubted physical charm and charisma and not mar his face with ‘the nose’ seemed perverse to me. It didn’t have to be a pantomime nose or even be particularly unrealistic, but just big enough for the powerfully, visually-dependent brain’s response to momentarily be interrupted and diverted to think physical disfigurement and not charismatic film star.

And, as we left the theatre my daughter (mid-twenties, infrequent theatre attendee, target audience?), turned to me and surprised me with her opinion questioning why he didn’t have a big nose.

I have now read the opinions of the professional critics who are not fazed by the ‘no nose’ issue. My daughter and I are aware that great theatre with great actors can be minimalist, just the performer and the words. It is after all about the suspension of disbelief. Theatre doesn’t need big sets and fancy costumes, but perhaps in this case a big nose is central to this play. Maybe it was our fault and we didn’t work hard enough to figure out the significance of the no prosthetic choice. We are just ordinary members of the theatre-going public, but neither of us could give this production fives stars. On this occasion my daughter and I go against the grain and venture where angels fear to tread and give it just three stars.

If you’d like to read another review which I think admirably sums up more about the production and performances and is also an alternative to the mainstream reviews, have a look at meandrichard – another wordpress blogger.

This West End run of Cyrano de Bergerac closes on Saturday, 29th February 2020.

Revival of ‘The Ruling Class’ – bitingly funny

Ticket-Ruling-ClassLast week my daughter, half Scottish, and I went to see James McAvoy’s latest West End theatre performance in ‘The Ruling Class’. I read in the programme that Mr McAvoy had appeared in ‘Breathing Corpses’ at the Royal Court in March 2005, but my daughter was still in primary school and so we missed seeing this ‘exciting young talent’ (that’s a quote from the time by the theatre critic of The Independent). However, since then we have been lucky enough to see him star in ‘Three Days of Rain’ (2009) and then terrify us as ‘MacBeth’ (2013). And now, we have enjoyed watching him lead a strong cast through the revival of the 1968 satirical play ‘The Ruling Class’ by Peter Barnes.

Superb ensemble headed by James McAvoy taking their bows at the end of 'The Ruling Class'.  Directed by Jamie Lloyd.
Superb ensemble headed by James McAvoy taking their bows at the end of ‘The Ruling Class’.
Directed by Jamie Lloyd.

The play has not been given a 21st-century updating, but deliberately offers us the looks and, more importantly, the voices of the 1960s, all strangled received pronunciation (aka the Queen’s English or BBC English). Although I’m not old enough to remember the class politics of the late 1960s, I did recognise and understand the overall context and its resonance for a 2015 audience. As a piece essentially poking fun at the British class system I wondered what many of the younger, overseas visitors made of the play. I was sat between my daughter (21) and a lady who I think had seen the original 1968 production. I think the older lady and I enjoyed the whole experience considerably more than my daughter.

Electrifying - Forbes Masson and James McAvoy. 'The Ruling Class' publicity photograph by Johan Persson.
Electrifying – Forbes Masson and James McAvoy.
‘The Ruling Class’ publicity photograph by Johan Persson.

James McAvoy’s performance as Jack, the 14th Earl of Gurney, grabs the audience round the neck and shakes it this way and that as he energetically channels his immense charisma into this larger than life character. The play is funny, the humour dark and vicious, and McAvoy appears to relish playing such an unstable, fluid character. It is no wonder he has been nominated for a Best Actor Olivier Award.¬†Almost equalling McAvoy’s mesmerising performance is another Scot, Forbes Masson, who was both versatile and brilliant in the various parts he played. Indeed, the whole talented cast made for a highly entertaining evening particularly if you enjoy a dose of black humour. The play is on until April 11, 2015 at Trafalgar Studios.

And, finally, if you would like a straight from the horse’s mouth comment on the current controversy about elitism in theatre – have a look at this two minute video filmed at the opening night.

James McAvoy – Three Days of Rain, Macbeth and Filth

McAvoy-Filth-Sept13For me visual culture absolutely includes film, I love the big screen and will go whenever I think a film might be aimed at just a bit more than the teenage-boy demographic. I love intense or spectacular and preferably both and that’s probably why ‘Melancholia’ directed by Lars von Trier is one of my favourite films. Now, I’ve just been to see ‘Filth’ directed by Jon S Baird from the novel by Irvine Welsh and starring James McAvoy. It is challenging, adult viewing, funny in parts in a grotesque, outrageous way with the black humour lessening the pain of watching the meltdown of a very flawed human being.

My daughter (half Scottish) is a huge McAvoy fan and we’ve seen most of his films and some of his stage work. For my sins I’ve hung around the Apollo Theatre Stage Door with her waiting for her to meet ‘the Star’ and get his autograph after seeing him in ‘Three Days of Rain'(2009). He was very pleasant to the fans and signed all the programmes that were excitedly shoved in his face.

So, Mr McAvoy a ‘nice kinda guy’ actor becomes, in ‘Filth’, Bruce Robertson – a totally repugnant and disgusting character, brutal, slimy, misogynistic, homophobic and most of all treacherous. And, he does look terrible, as McAvoy himself said his face looks “like a bag of smashed crabs”. No doubt some of his fans won’t like this, but commenting in a BBC Scotland interview yesterday, he also said, “audiences just can’t have it easy all the time”. The character of Bruce Robertson is central to the film and McAvoy gives an amazing energetic yet intense performance portraying an alcoholic, cocaine snorting and pitifully disturbed individual. There is also great support from a rich cast including Joy McAvoy, James’ sister.

What intrigues me about the sentiment of modern film/theatre goers is that there are people outraged by contemporary portrayals of disintegrating, deranged individuals in a gritty film such as ‘Filth’, but who will watch a not dissimilar moral breakdown in Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’ and find it acceptable. Earlier this year on 4 April, my daughter and I saw McAvoy play Macbeth at the Trafalgar Studios in London. It was another dynamic performance with plenty of ‘blood’ splattered around so much so that as we took our seats, close to the action, a member of the production team came to explain that any red splashes on our clothes would wash off!! But, it wasn’t the visual effects that were shocking it was the menacing, terrifying and manic central performance by McAvoy. In this production there was a scene where Macbeth stalks round a room knowing that hiding in a wooden cupboard is the child son of Macduff. He circles the wooden casket and you realise that he is going to murder the boy, and then suddenly it happens he repeatedly thrusts his knife into the cupboard with intense, dark glee, killing the boy. It was stunningly shocking.

Macbeth 2012 Trafalgar Studios

As humans we make culture in order to express aspects and qualities of our humanity and it isn’t all going to be pretty, pretty and smelling of roses. Shakespeare certainly liked to delve into the darker side of the human psyche and explore our foibles. This film is a hard-nosed, 21st-century look at our imperfect nature in our imperfect world. A film like ‘Filth’ with characters like Bruce Robertson give us a magnified, supercharged reflection of a real world. It’s controversial, harsh and at times a difficult film to watch, but if you’re outraged then engage, respond and talk about it.

And, finally a little plug – James McAvoy supports the charity Retrak helping the street children of Africa – take a look, Retrak