Yvonne Korshak reviews Off-Broadway, Broadway, Film and Art

Tag: Michael Grandage

Review | Danton’s Death by George Buchner | New version by Howard Brenton | Directed by Michael Grandage | National Theatre | Olivier Theatre

… means and ends …

Buchner’s early 19th-century play (1835), in its new version by Brenton, portrays on one level the interpersonal dynamics of the reign of terror of the French Revolution, and on a deeper level the tragic consequences of an ideologue-at-work, Robespierre, who places concept over humanity.  Danton, as brilliantly played by Toby Stephens, mistakenly believes that his past services to the Revolution and his reputation as a revolutionary will secure his future.  He does not grasp the full consequences of Robespierre’s single-minded pursuit of “political cleansing”.  But, as Robespierre says at Danton’s trial, “He [Danton’s friend Lacroix] thinks a special privilege is attached to that name.  We want no privileges, we want no false gods!”

Speeches in this play are drawn from the archives of the actual events.  It’s fascinating and frightening that the things said make a kind of weird, Faustian, sense.  In the oration at the end of the trial, Robespierre’s ally on the Committee of Public Safety, Saint-Juste, whips up the assembly with fundamentalist fervor:

We still have a few clauses to complete our sentence.  Are a few more corpses going to stop us?  Moses led his people across the Red Sea and the desert and let the old, corrupt generation die out before he founded his new state.  We do not have the Red Sea or the desert, we have war and the guillotine.

In the face of the insight and dramatic ability of the 22-year old playwright Georg Buchner, who left us also the brilliant and unfinished Woyzeck, one can only wonder, what would he have achieved had he not died of typhus a year after completing Danton’s Death, at age 23?

A theatergoer in a seat at the National Theatre — yet one feels one’s witnessing the events in Paris in 1794.  At the same time, and with benefit of hindsight, we’re left to ponder that what happened then has repeated itself many times — times unknown to Danton, Robespierre, and Buchner — in Stalin’s Russia, Hitler’s Germany, and elsewhere, too many elsewheres.  I hope that this production will make the journey across the Atlantic and will be performed in the United States.  Danton’s Death drives home what happens when the call to pure reason leads to a bitter conclusion:  the end justifies the means.  It’s as immediate as today’s headlines and timeless in its revelation of fundamental human issues and patterns of behavior.  It was one of the greatest theater experiences this reviewer has ever had.

Danton’s Death plays at the National Theatre, Olivier Theatre in London through October 14, 2010.  For further information, click here.

Review | Red by John Logan | With Alfred Molina and Eddie Redmayne | Directed by Michael Grandage | Golden Theater

… the red and the black …

RED is an intimate play about a profound painter in whose soul a Manichaean battle between life and death is played out on his canvases by a struggle between red and black.  The subject is the painter Mark Rothko and the playwright focuses on a key period in his life, when he’s designing a complete, coordinated group of large paintings for the expensive, high-rollers’ Four Seasons Restaurant, under construction in NYC.  On the one hand, he’s glad to be making the big bucks and creating his first total environment.  On the other, he’s uneasy that his work, quasi religious and inspiring of meditation, as he sees it, is headed for a restaurant filled with earthbound, self-interested, fashionable people.  Hardly the right atmosphere.

But he keeps painting, and talking, mostly on a high philosophical plane to the young painter he’s engaged as a helper in his insulated studio, dominated by vast canvases with their varying balances of red and black.  The two men spar for the duration of the play, the young one, Ken, always trying to get something from Rothko — instruction, insight, fatherly attention — and Rothko resisting, reminding him he’s nothing but an employee.

Much of the language is magnificent and intricate, drawn from Rothko’s own writings — and he was a prolific and subtle writer.  The interactions between Rothko and Ken can be intense, as in a remarkable, though self-conscious, scene in which, working the big brushes together to prime a huge canvas in Rothko’s russet pigment, the two painters engage in a frantic ballet.  Although there are only two human actors, the struggle between the life-affirming red and the black of death, makes the colors themselves protagonists in the play.  The struggle in Rothko’s soul is made visible through the battle of the colors we see on his on-stage canvases.  Sometimes red dominates, sometimes it seems gasping for breath under pressure from black.

The color red wins out in this play … for now.  Still, if you didn’t know that Rothko eventually committed suicide, you’d know it’s going to happen in the future, but not yet:  that’s the creative victory that’s the true theme of the play.  In other victories for “red,” the two painters reach a resolution that seems true-to-life and quite touching — Rothko teaches what’s really important for a young artist to learn, and nothing sentimental about it.  Red wins, also, in terms of Rothko’s final choice with regard to the Four Seasons commission.  And the audience wins in gaining a close look at the sheer tenacity of the creative will.  Alfred Molina is compelling as the oh-so intelligent, tormented and brutally determined Mark Rothko, and Eddie Redmayne does the job as the needy young painter.

This well conceived but relatively short, two-person play seems somewhat distant on the full-size, though artfully managed, proscenium stage.  Working with his dominant stage presence and large size, Alfred Molina does all that’s possible to off-set the discrepancy between the theater and the play, and he’s helped by the looming canvases.  Still RED, I think, would feel more natural in a more intimate theater or a theater in-the-round.  All in all, a small play in a big theater with enough strength to come through and illuminate a lot about Mark Rothko and his art.

RED plays at the Golden Theater in NYC west of Broadway through June 13, 2010.

Review | Shakespeare’s Hamlet | Starring Jude Law | Directed by Michael Grandage | Broadhurst Theater

… a two man show …

Sometimes theater goers will say of classic plays, “I saw The Seagull — or A Doll’s House — or Hamlet — recently, I’m just not ready to see another one”. Fair enough, but Jude Law puts such a distinctive mark on Hamlet that, believe me, you haven’t seen this, ever.

His Hamlet is a younger man than most seem to be (regardless of the actor’s age).  His performance is athletic, unquestionably charismatic (the audience applauds after every great scene like after an aria in an opera), and openly vulnerable.  He listens to others intensely, and his words, thoughts and actions come as genuine responses flowing from within — the script falls away and Shakespeare’s character emerges as a real, conflicted, engaged man.  He’s all over the stage.  He gives himself completely, with a great actor’s generosity, to the performance.

Law does full justice to the astonishing poetry without any archaic distance to separate us from the language — we hear the way he talks.  In this he’s helped by the production’s unobtrusive modern dress that underscores the play’s timelessness.  You hardly notice whether the actors are wearing Elizabethan costumes or not.

The youthfulness of this Hamlet lays an interesting slant on his tangled involvement with his mother, his father, and the saturated sexuality of his mother’s new marriage to his murdered father’s brother.  “Why doesn’t he kill Claudius?”  “What’s his problem?”  To the many answers to that central puzzle, Law brings what seems to me a new take — though a man physically, he’s still somehow a boy living at home caught up in youthful conflicts.  The care with which he listens to others and himself suggests he’s still formative.  He’s not yet ready for the burden that’s placed on him.

If only the rest of the actors were as good as Law!  They are uniformly routine stereotypes in the way they play their characters (Claudius, Gertrude), some seem to be thinking about something else (Horatio), some are strained (Ophelia) and some are downright dull (Laertes).  They mostly spring from London’s Donmar Warehouse theater that has a big reputation, simply not lived up to in this production.

All the weight of the play is on two men’s shoulders — Jude Law and Shakespeare.  Luckily they’re both in brilliant form!

Hamlet plays at the Broadhurst Theater, 44th Street West of Broadway, through December 6.

p.s.  How interesting that two film actors created two outstanding Shakespearean characters this year — Jude Law as Hamlet, and Philip Seymour Hoffman as Iago in Othello, reviewed by me here.

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén