June 14, 2012: Antigone, The Witness, Henry V, Gatz, Operation Greenfield, A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Another catching-up-on-the-past few weeks blog post from all of us at StageScan, after an outing to New York. Back in London, there’s something in the air, and it’s not comedy; the top-rated shows over the past few weeks have had a lot of revival and/or war about them.


First up is Antigone at the National Theatre, which pulled a four-star average across nine publications’ reviewers – recently a very hard thing to do as a straight play.


Ian Shuttleworth of the FT gave a rare-for-him five stars. The production is set in a modern government office, and yet, he says, “There is no modishness to the staging or to the interpretation. This is a simple, clear, modern-dress production which is both faithful to Sophocles’s original (in Don Taylor’s unadorned 1980s translation, neither florid nor blunt) and speaks vividly to our contemporary experience. It shows admirably why such classics are cherished for their timelessness and paradoxically also for their continuing urgency.”


Why so contemporary? Speaking of Christopher Eccleston as Creon – the king who won’t allow a his niece’s rebel husband a proper burial – Shuttleworth lays it out: “There is no diplomatic way of putting this: he is Tony Blair. This is nothing so crass as an impersonation, with all those strange, rigid hand gestures. But Eccleston’s Creon is driven, like Blair, by a conviction that personal certainty can and should override any amount of popular opposition,” and that parallel makes the play resonate even two millennia after it was written.


Though raving over her production, surprisingly few reviewers noted that this was the Olivier debut of the director, Polly Findlay, and that she achieved this at the ripe old age of 29. Runs to July 21, but close to selling out.


The other big play of note over the past few weeks was The Witness, upstairs at the Royal Court, by Vivienne Franzmann. The witness in the title is Danny Webb‘s war photographer Joseph, who rescued a baby girl while shooting in Rwanda; that girl grew up to be Pippa Bennett-Warner‘s Alex, who has dropped out of Cambridge at the start of the play but not told Joseph. Pippa wants to learn more about Rwanda and Joseph’s work there; Joseph, with good but not noble reason, wants her not to ask.


Fiona Mountford (Evening Standard) gave five stars, saying “It’s audacious to make such a prediction in mid-June but I’ll go for it anyway: if there is a finer new play than The Witness this year, I’ll be astonished,” calling Franzmann “a master handler of both mood and tension, as she worries thrillingly at ideas of family and belonging” and Bennett-Warner “one of our best young acting talents.” The eight publications that reviewed it gave an overall average of about four stars, with Libby Purves (Times) also giving five. However Michael Billington (Guardian) gave two, seemingly because he felt the war photographer’s job is a necessarily unpretty one and that Joseph is here set up to fail.


To break the tie in sentiment we looked to Quentin Letts (Daily Mail), who is generally quick to castigate any Royal Court playwright whose perceived liberalism colours their view of what he (or the Mail) take to be life’s essential grimness. Sloppy plays which say society is going down the tubes often get four stars, while sloppy plays which lay the blame for this at the foot of any white man often get told to stop whinging. And yet Letts gives this one four stars, which to us suggests the quality of Franzmann’s play trumped the Mail’s house style. Runs to June 30.


The other recent openings with strong 4-star averages are Henry V at Shakespeare’s Globe, running to 26 Aug and starring Jamie Parker, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park, running to 5 Sept and directed by Timothy Sheader. Both achieved their score by getting four stars from all reviewers, but no fives, suggesting they would be solid if not spectacular choices for your theatregoing pound.


On top of this┬ároundup, we can give personal recommendations for the quirky Operation Greenfield, at BAC until 23 June, and the groundbreaking Gatz at the Noel Coward Theatre until 15 July – but only if you very much enjoyed the book.


Enjoy your shows below,

-Your StageScan Team


PS: As an aside, in New York we caught the big-time Death of a Salesman on Broadway. Philip Seymour Hoffman in the title role was good as expected, but the big surprise was, as elder son Biff, Brit Andrew Garfield – rounding out a remarkable two-year run which has seen Garfield play Facebook co-founder Eduardo Savarin in The Social Network, and next month sees him take over the role of Spider-Man in next month’s big-budget film. He was nominated but did not take home a Tony Award this week (the way James Corden did), but still, one to watch – and nice to see a proven big-screen star electing to continue to hone his stage chops.