May 2013: The Weir, Othello, Mies Julie, and Merrily We Roll Along

When we started this month’s writeup, there was a nice thematic link between the three best-reviewed new plays: each was a reworking of a familiar script, with its own perspective on the male-female dynamic. We’ve now got a late-breaking fourth play at the top of the table – with three reviews in, and all three of them five stars, this could be one to pay attention to quickly (even if it has broken our newsletter theme).


First up: All eyes were on the Donmar last week for Josie Rourke’s revival of Conor McPherson’s The Weir. Contemporary when it was first staged in 1997, this production now provides a glimpse back to a time when the Irish economic bubble had yet to burst, and smoking in bars was almost obligatory. Generally pronounced a modern classic, it garnered a solid 4.2-star average from nine of our pro reviewers.


Most enthusiastic were Quentin Letts (Daily Mail) and Charles Spencer (Telegraph), who both gave five stars. Spencer described Rourke’s direction as “pitch-perfect” and highlighted a “natural and understated” performance from Dervla Kirwan as the Dubliner seeking distraction among the broken dreams in a lonely Sligo pub.


Many reviewers noted that this is an ensemble piece in which nothing much happens. Michael Coveney (What’s On Stage) neatly pinpoints a “… peculiar Irish balancing act between breathtaking oddity and numbing normality that makes The Weir so utterly absorbing and beguiling”.


McPherson veteran Brian Cox’s elderly bachelor Jack won broad praise, with Paul Taylor (Independent) deeming him “magnificent”. Tom Scott’s detailed set design was also generally celebrated, with almost everyone claiming to be able to smell or even taste the booze.


Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard) summed up the production: “This is a play more concerned with atmosphere than action, and director Josie Rourke ensures it is packed with eloquent gestures. There are golden comic moments, flashes of poetry and dense silences. The result is delicate and haunting, a bittersweet pleasure.”


It also seems to have generated extra interest (as if that were needed) in McPherson’s new play The Night Alive, which he’ll premiere (and direct) at the Donmar in June. The Weir runs to June 8 – click here to add to your Playlist.


Next up:

Nicholas Hytner began his reign at the National Theatre with a modern-dress Henry V starring Adrian Lester. Ten years later, Hytner and Lester are reunited in a contemporary staging of Othello, Shakespeare’s tragedy of politics and jealousy, which also achieved a 4.2-star consensus from the pros.


Libby Purves (Times) and Charles Spencer both gave five stars, with Spencer finding this modern-day interpretation a “gripping” and “intensely painful psychological thriller”, praising both Lester’s Othello and Rory Kinnear’s Iago, and declaring newcomer Olivia Vinall “almost unbearably poignant as Desdemona, a little girl lost in a world where innocence cannot survive”.


Lester has a history with Othello, having won the Critic’s Circle best actor award for portraying Ira Aldridge, a real-life actor who was cast as Othello amid 19th-century assumptions about the Moor’s ‘essential nature’. Here, Henry Hitchings calls Lester a “charismatic, dignified Othello” who “brings a delicate grace to the role”. Hitchings seemed to be voicing the popular view when speaking of the ‘fizz’ between the two male leads.


Quentin Letts joined the general praise for Lester, but felt Iago wasn’t vile enough, while Michael Billington (Guardian) felt that Iago was too pivotal in this contemporary retelling. Paul Taylor was impressed by Kinnear’s “balding, faintly Cockney bar-room-bigot type, masquerading as a blokey you-get-what-it-says-on-the-tin merchant” with his thinly rationalised “inchoate nihilism”. As Maxwell Cooter (What’s On Stage) noted: “This Iago is no stereotypical pantomime villain but a man who has no moral compass whatsoever”.


There was general enthusiasm for Vicki Mortimer’s stark set, which switches from mess-hall to the gents’ to a shared barracks bedroom, laying out what is very much a man’s world. In this context, Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out) found Othello’s tragedy now rooted not in his race, but in his inability to understand his incongruously carefree wife.


As with many of the bard’s classics, the challenge with Othello is to overcome its inherent weaknesses; for many theatregoers, it can be hard to know when to revisit a story you already know. With that in mind we close by noting that Ian Shuttleworth (FT) declared this production to be “the strongest and most coherent” Othello he had ever reviewed. Runs to August 18 – click here to add to your Playlist.


Of other recent releases, Mies Julie, at Riverside Studios, Yael Farber’s own production of her new South African version of Strindberg’s classic of sex and class, stands out for almost universal rave reviews and an impressive 4.5 star average from nine pros. The Times declared it “shorter, sexier – and better” than most other adadptations. Henry Hitchings, the most conspicuous dissenter, praised its rawness and energy, but complained of repetitive, heavy-handed dialogue and political symbolism. Patrick Marmion (Daily Mail) called it “a visceral, harrowing and steamy rendition of the play” that “sets a new benchmark”, and Charles Spencer agreed it’s “something very special indeed… by a mile the most thrilling and explosively sexual production of the play I have ever seen.” Runs to May 19 – click here to add to your Playlist.


Finally, Merrily We Roll Along has just opened at the Harold Pinter, following a successful run at the Menier last November. It has taken the reviews table by storm, coming in at the top with 100% five-star rating thanks to raves from Paul Taylor, Dominic Maxwell and Michael Coveney. We’re pressed for time so will quote at length from Paul Taylor’s review: “This revival lays out – with a more biting (yet compassionate) clarity than any I have seen hitherto – the tricky narrative and emotional logic of an anti-clockwise story that follows three friends (a male composer/lyricist duo and their female writer-friend) as they travel backwards in the time from the cynicism of a corrupt trashy drinks party in Hollywood in the mid-1970s to (eventually) a New York City rooftop in 1957 and a tingling sense of limitless youthful possibility on the night that Sputnik was sighted.” The review closes on the drumbeat: “The show is a rare combination of the thoughtful and the thrilling. Go.” Runs to July 27 – click here to add to your Playlist.


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