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Taken at Midnight – Review – Theatre Royal – Haymarket – London

As previously mentioned, every time I go to work in London I make a point of going to see something in the theatre that has a link to either law, criminal justice, politics, psychology etc. In other words, something that has a link to my broad academic interests. I was extremely fortunate that whilst in London this past week there were two productions that caught my eye, and so I was sure to set aside the time to go to both.

First of all there was ‘Taken at Midnight’, at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket. In a way I was lucky to see the show on this particular night (Wednesday 18th February 2015) as during the show we were faced with a rather unique issue. Still – more on that later.

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The play follows the real life story of Hans Litten. Some of you reading this blog may already know the background here. Hans Litten was the lawyer who in 1931 subpoenaed Adolf Hitler to appear as a witness at a trial of four storm troopers accused of murder. This action, or rather the skill he displayed in running circles around Hitler during the trial, would prove to be his downfall, as in the aftermath of the Reichstag fire he was taken from his home and placed in ‘protective custody’ by the Nazi regime. Following various moves from concentration camp to concentration camp (in part due to Jewish blood in his family history), he eventually committed suicide in 1938 after refusing to assist the Nazis with their attempts to have various offenders’ (found guilty of offences before they came to power) convictions overturned.

The show itself was produced in a very clever way, with the set design split in two (shortly to cause a problem that I sadly predicted!) on the main stage. As you will be able to see in the picture below, the foreground played various office, home, and outdoor locations, with the background playing out the various concentration camp scenes. For all foreground scenes the story circulated around Hans’ mother Irmgard Litten, played with an exceptional performance by Penelope Wilton. These scenes were almost 50/50 split between Irmgard’s monologue and live action between her and the other characters including her husband Fritz (Allan Corduner), SS officer Dr Conrad (John Light), and British diplomat Lord Clifford Allen (David Yelland). Wilton plays her role masterfully, moving between distraught mother, cunning strategist, and strong opponent to the male protagonists of the piece with ease. Her ongoing struggle as she fights on behalf of her son is engaging from start to finish, and the director quite correctly made the decision to have her strong to the last – it would have been easy to have her character fall apart following the death of her son after a 5 year battle – this would have been the stereotypical ‘dramatical’ approach. BUT, this would not have been in keeping with the overall portrayal of Irmgard, who had been shown to be a rock throughout. It would have been easy for the performance from a lesser actress to have come across as unemotional, yet Penelope Wilton managed to get it just right – showing strength, yet still garnering sympathy and empathy. Her performance came across as being a sort of ‘dignified agony’.

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As Hans, Martin Hutson was excellent…. whilst he was there….

In various scenes, his dialogue, in particular with Erich Muhsam (played by Pip Donaghy), was exquisitely delivered, whether showing pain from his torture-inflicted injuries, or humour during his (ill-fated) re-enactment of the court scenes whilst he popped on a false moustache and pretended to be Adolf Hitler….

So now to stop being cryptic and outline the ‘disaster’ that I have hinted at during various comments in this review. Mid-way through the fist act, during the aforementioned courtroom re-enactment, there were crates on stage, one of which Martin Hutson was to stand on as though he were in the witness stand. The problem was that these crates were placed right at the edge of the split in the stage where there was already a 1-2 foot jump down to the lower part of the stage. As these crates were placed prior to the scene in question, I thought to myself ‘If somebody were to fall from there (the 1-2 feet plus the further foot or so from the crate), it could be a bit nasty’. Fast forward to 10 minutes later, and as the scene called for, whilst re-enacting the court scene, the guards burst in to the room, and the main characters were supposed to quickly disperse so as to avoid suspicion. It was at this point that in reality, not part of the show, Martin Hutson lost his footing and fell to the second stage below. He very quickly got up and got on with it – many in the audience may not even have realised that it wasn’t supposed to happen as the scene was certainly supposed to be a bit chaotic. Regardless, being a true professional, Hutson continued to the end of the act seamlessly.

Then at the half-time interval, a gentleman came out (he did not introduce himself so I do not know if it was the director or the theatre manager) and announced that Martin Hutson had hurt his leg and had to go to hospital, and so the understudy Marc Antolin would stand in as Hans Litten for the remainder of the performance. And he was superb. It must have been incredibly difficult to be thrust into the production at that point – it wasn’t under normal circumstances of the lead actor having a day off, or being ill before the production. Antolin would have had not idea whatsoever that he was to be called upon until a few minutes before he went on. And so if ever a performance displayed leading man qualities it was this one. Antolin played the part of Hans during his slow spiral into depression and illness, and did so as a true professional.

Overall, the production raised a number of question about the relationship between law and politics, the pressures and fear of reprisals that lawyers and barristers can have, especially when operating under sensitive regimes. Thankfully, the production showed the profession of law in a sympathetic light, outlining the ethical struggles that a true professional lawyer has to go through when faced with difficult questions being asked of him. Hans Litten remained an ethical professional to the last.

This was a 5 star production, which in spite of the problems that cropped up managed to continue without missing a beat. It was heartening to see during the curtain call that all of the actors, individually gave Marc Antolin a round of applause. I just wonder if the set designers / producers might have a bit of a rethink regarding the placing of those crates given the obvious hazardous situation that the placement created – I actually find it quite hard to believe that nobody else foresaw the obvious danger that I did within moments of seeing how it was laid out. Still – excellent all round!

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Posted by on February 21, 2015 in Uncategorized

 

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Great Britain – Review – Theatre Royal – Haymarket – London

An unusual post for my blog, but one that I think is appropriate. Every time I go to London on external examiner duty for the University of Westminster, I make sure that I get the chance to see something at the theatre. Usually I’ll try to see something that is either political / legal in nature if there is anything in that genre. Luckily when I was in London on work during this past week, I was able to get a ticket to see the opening night of ‘Great Britain’ at the Theatre Royal on Haymarket on Tuesday 9th September.

 

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The production, written by Richard Bean, had previously held a successful run at the smaller Lyttelton Theatre during the summer months, and I was interested to see what all the fuss was about. Essentially the production is a satire on the ‘News of the World’ scandal and Leveson inquiry, however it has strong elements beyond this that focus on both political and police corruption and incompetence. As such, whilst the humour is excetionally strong, equally for those that choose to see beyond the comedy, there are real moments that give you pause for thought regarding both individual morality and modern human nature in general.

The way the production is structured is that the majority takes place in the newsroom of fictional tabloid newspaper ‘The Free Press’, with characters including the Murdoch-esque Proprietor played by Dermot Crowley, the vulgar editor played by Robert Glenister, and arguably the main character – Paige Britain (played by Lucy Punch), who is a ruthless up and coming news editor, who has frighteningly high ambitions to go as far as running the country from the murky shadows of the press by┬ámanipulating the leader of the Conservative party (Rupert Vansittart). Paige will stop at absolutely nothing to further her career and personal aspirations. Her journey takes us through initially minor areas such as employing people to go through the bins of celebrities, to more serious areas such as blackmailing members of the ‘Leveson’ committee who were investigating her conduct. The out of control spiral leads to the corruption of the previously clean Assistant Commissioner of the Police (Ben Mansfield), and eventually being caught after hacking the phones of fictionally abducted and killed twin children, and the suicide of their father after he was mistakenly arrested for their murder based on news reports stemming from Paige and her publication.

 

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All of the cast without exception were perfectly cast in their roles – there was nobody who was utterly dislikable or without some sort of redeeming quality, even if it was simply admiration for having such courage of their convictions that they were if nothing else entirely honest with themselves. Undoubtedly though there were two stars of the show – Lucy Punch as Paige Britain, and Aaron Neil as the Police Commissioner. Whilst I have said a fair amount about Paige, as yet I have not discussed the Commissioner, who is characterised as little more than a puppet, but one who is unaware that this is the role he plays. He genuinely tries his best, but is simply clueless and in over his head. By far and away the best one-liners come from the Commissioner, and Neil’s delivery is absolutely first class. Little bits of detail such as the playing on the screen of modern phenomena such as ‘youtube’ videos that people have edited of his press conference announcements in the form of a mocking ‘music video’ genuinely add something to the performance, and had the audience in hysterics.

As mentioned earlier however, it is not all about the comedy. There were undertones of morality and reflections of real life corruption present, undoubtedly deliberately, throughout the show. Most of these were genuine areas that would make you think, such as; were the police really that terrified of the media prior to Leveson that they would have evidence but cover it up for fear of being portrayed in a bad light? Is whistleblowing, when made to the press and not the authorities truly ‘corruption’? (This I think I could write a blog on its own right in, so I’ll not answer the question) What really are the limits of freedom of expression and the ‘public interest’? In particular we have to reflect on the lengths some people go to just to achieve fame, and where does it really lead when we are faced with the character of Stella (Kellie Shirley), a young aspiring glamour model, who starts off agreeing to drop a dress size and have cosmetic surgery before being given a contract as a ‘page 7’ model, and eventually is accepting a large fee for the newspaper to have exclusive rights to her death inevitably coming as a result of an eating disorder.

One area that I do think was misguided, and for me did not really work was late on the performance when Paige took centre stage to ‘tell’ the audience that we didn’t really care about phone hacking when it was all about the celebrity gossip, and we only cared when there was a moral outrage over the eventual hacking of the dead children’s phones. Paige laments that had the hacking resulted in the children being found alive then she would have been a hero, but as in reality it only led to headlines and the arrest / suicide of the father she was painted as a villain. This monologue is an attempt to make the audience feel uncomfortable about their morality as it forcefully asserts unequivocally that we ‘all’ were guilty of this. I for one have never thought celebrity gossip of the nature put across by the tabloids is okay, nor have I ever thought that phone hacking etc. were ever acceptable as I believe that people have a right to a private and family life. Perhaps however this is due to my roots as a lawyer, and the fact that I have taken an active interest in issues relating to press activities and regulation since I taught media law for three years, and still act as an external examiner in the subject.

 

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Of course, eventually it all comes crashing down around Paige, the Commissioner, and most of the other characters who had been corrupted, though the twist at the end is shown as Paige, following her inappropriately lenient punishment, manages to find huge celebrity herself as the host of a US talk show purely as a result of her former infamy, making the audience wonder, is there ever truly a way out of the sleaze, or will the cycle forever be perpetuated.

Overall, this was a superb production that should appeal to a wide demographic (though definitely NOT appropriate for children due to both the subject matter and the coarse language throughout), with a number of levels of comedy, satire, political commentary, and self-reflection. If you are in a position to see this, take the chance while you can.

I would definitely rate it as five out of five.

 
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Posted by on September 12, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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