Quicker is not always better. Perhaps Beat the Devil can act as a warning of that fact to artistic programmers everywhere. After being closed for five months, the newly reconfigured Bridge Theatre (which currently seats 250 in a socially distanced auditorium, instead of its usual 900) hosts a new “Covid monologue”, as written by David Hare during lockdown and now performed by Ralph Fiennes – the centrepiece of their reopening season. What a shame, then, that it is such a disappointingly slight piece of work.Nicholas Hytner’s direction, along with Bunny Christie’s clean, sharp design lines, seeks to keep the text front and centre, without any unnecessary flourishes. The problem, however, is that the text of Beat the Devil is decidedly half-baked, despite aspiring towards the type of biting polemic for which Hare is famous.
There really is nowhere on Earth quite like Edinburgh in August. For four weeks every summer, the city becomes home to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, with actors and dancers, comedians and circus performers descending on the city in search of five-star reviews and macaroni cheese pies. It’s a gruelling month with the ability to make or break an act, but an experience that keeps performers coming back year on year.Or, at least, that has been the case until now. The news that this year’s festival was to be cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic was announced back in April with an air of caution. Many people questioned whether it would be necessary – surely this would all be over by then? – but it turned out to be a sensible decision. Sensible but devastating, that is. Now, as the city’s Royal Mile experiences a calm August for the first time, the industry’s future looks murkier than ever.
A musical based on the Life of Diana, Princess of Wales, will premiere on Netflix before its Broadway debut next year.Diana: A Musical was scheduled to open on Broadway on 31 March 2020 but was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic, before it was eventually moved to 25 May 2021.
Nothing is funnier than unhappiness,” asserts a character in the Samuel Beckett play Endgame. That may be true, but the behaviour of Donald Trump, the 45th president of the United States, suggests that this idea needs modifying. Nothing is funnier – or more tragic – than having no sense of humour.Running through a mad repertoire of mixed theatrical genres in Hamlet, Shakespeare’s Polonius applauds a troupe of actors for their proficiency in performing “tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral, scene individable or poem unlimited”. To do full justice to the Trump administration, this range would have to stretch to another hothouse hybrid. We would have to designate this as “hilaro-tragedy”, because mere tragicomedy fails to capture the edge of hysteria of this form of governing, where denial of reality is the new normal. Brazen smearing of any inconvenient fact as a “hoax” is – as any functioning sense of humour would have to concede – the biggest hoax of all.
In May 2018, with a slight grin on his face, an American news reporter asked three black members of the West End cast of Hamilton what it was like being in a musical about the winners “in the home of the losers”. They stared back, confused at the question and how it related to them. It clearly wasn’t the gotcha moment the reporter was hoping for. Many black people in the UK – myself included – who are first, second or third-generation immigrants don’t lose sleep over Britain not winning the American War of Independence, the story around which the 11 Tony Award-winning musical revolves. In fact, many of our families hail from countries colonised and torn apart by British rule and aren’t exactly filled with unbridled patriotism when it comes to Britain’s colonial legacy. Context is everything.When Hamilton arrived on the new streaming service Disney+ on 4 July (to coincide with Independence Day in the US), it gave fans the opportunity to watch the hit musical at a fraction of the cost. But its small-screen debut also reignited a conversation on whether art has a responsibility to be historically accurate. Alexander Hamilton campaigned for manumission – slave-owners voluntarily freeing their slaves – but he was not an abolitionist. What’s more, his wife’s family – and that of Washington, another hero in Miranda’s tale – owned enslaved people. Hamilton even helped his sister-in-law Angelica with the “purchase” of an enslaved mother and child. As CancelHamilton began trending on Twitter, a question arose: is it downright dangerous to oversimplify the history of the 10-dollar Founding Father, or just a flexing of creative licence – a song and dance not to be taken that seriously?
The opening scenes of the filmed version of the Broadway musical Hamilton, which starts streaming on Disney+ from today, pull you back in time to two distinct periods. The people on stage, in their breeches and brass-buttoned coats, belong to the New York of 1776. That is when a 19-year-old, freshly arrived from the Caribbean – the “bastard, immigrant, son of a whore” who shares his name with the show – makes his move and takes his shot, joining up with a squad of anti-British revolutionaries and eventually finding his way to George Washington’s right hand and the front of the $10 bill.But this Hamilton, played with relentless energy and sly charm by Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote the music, book, and lyrics, also belongs to the New York of 2016. Filmed (by the show’s director, Thomas Kail, and cinematographer Declan Quinn) in front of a live audience at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in June of that year, the movie, while not strictly speaking a documentary, is nonetheless a document of its moment. It evokes a swirl of ideas, debates, dreams, and assumptions that can feel, in the present moment, as elusive as the intrigue and ideological sparring of the late 1700s.
The Government's guidelines on easing the coronavirus lockdown in Britain are evolving, with cinemas such as Cineworld reopening from July 10, and the revival of live performances in the works. On Wednesday 17 July, Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Oliver Dowden said the Government was applying the model used to bring sport back to the performing arts in the UK. "I know they face enormous challenges, particularly given the impact of social distancing on live venues," he said. The Government is "looking hard" at how to solve these issues and working "extensively and intensively" with stakeholders across the country, he said. "An important part of this is to get performances back up and again." The Government will convene culture and health experts over the next week to develop a "roadmap" that could allow live performances to take place. Most arts venues are currently in "Step Three" of the official lockdown plan, which designates them "higher-risk businesses" on account of the threat of coronavirus transmission within enclosed spaces. A few events are already taking place behind closed doors. The BBC have been broadcasting classical concerts without an audience at Wigmore Hall since the beginning of June. The Proms will follow suit, beginning on July 17 and ending with the Last Night on September 12. Commercial art galleries were permitted to re-open on June 15, as they are classed as "non-essential retail"; larger galleries and public institutions, however, remain shut. As the regulations currently stand, social distancing is planned according to the "two-metre rule". Controversy about this rule, however, continues. As in the hospitality industry, such measures would dramatically reduce venues' takings, and therefore their financial viability. Whereas a number of major sporting events such as the Premier League are restarting behind closed doors, playing solely to an online audience, very few arts institutions or events can survive without live spectators and the revenue they bring. Theatre Theatre insiders told The Telegraph that the autumn was the industry's general target for re-opening. In America, Broadway will remain closed until September 6 at the earliest. If the closures last beyond autumn, even large theatre operators will struggle to survive. But Cameron Mackintosh, the producer of Les Miserables and owner of eight West End venues, has suggested that the difficulties involved in preparing a production mean that many theatres are already facing closure until 2021. Christmas pantomimes are unlikely to happen this year. Mackintosh has also warned that the idea of social distancing in the auditorium "doesn't add up" financially. Under the new guidelines, it is unclear how theatres would be permitted to reopen at any point without accepting a drastic reduction in audience numbers. Some major theatres have been streaming videos of their past productions during the pandemic. To continue doing this with new work, however, would be a financial strain that few venues could bear. Read more: When will lockdown end? Cinema Cineworld is the first cinema to reopen post pandemic, and will reopen all of its theatres over the course of July, with its UK and US screens pulling back the curtains on July 10.
Any number is a shock” – when it refers to cloned humans. Caryl Churchill’s A Number, which tackles the very modern debate over cloning and genetics, is revamped by Polly Findlay in a brief and unsettling performance at the Bridge.A father places a heavy hand on his son’s shoulder and tells him that he is not his biological son. A surreal play of five acts follows, where he speaks first to his cloned son, then to the original and finally to one of ‘a number’ of the unintended additional facsimiles.
What a strange spectacle The Visit is. Tony Kushner’s take on Friedrich Durrenmatt’s 1956 tragicomedy is a camp, cartoonish pantomime, a vaudevillian nightmare spread – inexplicably – over three-and-a-half hours.It is an unforgivable running time – the decision, presumably, of director Jeremy Herrin – though time does fly whenever the magnificent Lesley Manville is on stage. She is Claire Zachanassian, “the richest woman in the goddamn world”, who makes an ostentatious return to her hometown of Slurry, New York.
Sadler’s Wells Sampled is a dance selection box, a bright assortment of styles and flavours. With special low ticket prices, extra workshops and demonstrations all over the foyer, it’s designed to give audiences a chance to try something new. From tango to hip hop to circus, it highlights the range of the London dance venue’s work.The show starts by putting online dance on stage. (La) Horde’s To Da Bone is a jumpstyle showcase, with 11 tracksuited dancers stomping in hard, fast unison. This style is usually driven by the speed of the music, 150 beats per minute, but this group dance in silence – nothing but the thump and squeak of trainers. It’s a smart opening, quick and sharp.
The plant-invaded living room that frames Ian Rickson’s production of Uncle Vanya is a little like the characters themselves – beautiful, dilapidated and a little depressing. Pessimism and misanthropy hang in the air in this gripping, if somewhat suffocating, adaptation of the 1898 Chekhov classic.McPherson has nimbly stripped back any lofty language from Chekhov’s script. A period piece in all other aspects, his Uncle Vanya nonetheless modernises the way the characters speak, rendering more accessible the psychologically complex original. There isn’t a huge amount of action – Chekhov was a bit of a pioneer in the “play where nothing happens” genre – but when it comes to nuanced character studies, Uncle Vanya is an embarrassment of riches.
Weird is home ground for Belgian physical theatre company Peeping Tom. The Olivier award-winning company returns to the London International Mime Festival with Child (Kind), completing the trilogy started by Mother and Father. It’s an unnerving look at identity and child experience, through a peculiar, sometimes gruesome mix of hyper-naturalistic scenery and very bendy bodies.Directors Gabriela Carrizo and Franck Chartier start with a child living a friendless existence in a forest. Justine Bougerol’s set is huge and detailed, with looming cliffs and bristling pines, full of places for danger to emerge.
The appeal of John Cranko’s Onegin is its leading characters, star parts with stormy emotions for dancers to get their teeth into. It returns to the Royal Ballet with a fascinating mix of established names and rising artists, from Natalia Osipova’s impassioned Tatiana to young Reece Clarke, making a terrific debut in the title role.Created in 1965, Onegin takes its story from Pushkin’s poem, via Tchaikovsky’s opera. The bored aristocrat Onegin visits his friend Lensky in the country, where the bookish, romantic Tatiana falls in love with him. Rejecting her harshly, he flirts with Lensky’s fiancee Olga, leading to a duel and Lensky’s death. It’s not until he meets Tatiana in St Petersburg, grown into an elegant married woman, that Onegin falls in love with her, much too late.
“What must I do to be taken seriously?” bellyaches the Prince of Wales in the film version of Alan Bennett’s The Madness of George III.“I tell you, sir, to be Prince of Wales is not a position. It is a predicament.”
Matthew Bourne’s The Red Shoes is a love letter to more than one art form. Based on the 1948 Powell and Pressburger film, Bourne’s danced production is a gorgeous swirl of storytelling and style. In its first revival, the show is even sharper than before – and now it has Adam Cooper, original star of Bourne’s groundbreaking Swan Lake with male swans, as the impresario Boris Lermontov.The movie created a generation of ballet-lovers, and was smitten with the possibilities of film as well as dance. Bourne’s version adds a passion for theatre to this story of a ballerina torn between the demands of love and art.
Edmond Rostand’s play about the eponymous and nasally over-endowed poet has been endlessly revived and recycled since its premiere in 1897. Derek Jacobi and Gerard Depardieu have excelled, the former on stage, twanging the heartstrings as one of nature’s great go-betweens – swordsman and virtuoso, bearing a rapier wit in more senses than one – the latter on screen, putting a real sense of the outsize into Cyrano’s verbal rodomontade and urgent desire for rhinoplasty. You could well argue that since its emergence, the play has been destined to be set in a world of rap. Verse is used to compensate for a perceived physical deformity in Rostand’s drama, and for the intolerable silence of the oppressed in the art form’s black roots.Certainly, Edwin Morgan thought so in his racy Glaswegian-accented version for Communicado in the early 1990s. “I cannae rap,” revealed one of the fractious male divas of the play’s world of white factional politics and literary infighting. Roxane – the cousin whom Cyrano adores but feels too shy and disfigured to woo except by proxy – colloquially captured the link between the hero’s testy idealistic drive and the streak of low self-esteem occasioned by his conk when she said: “Inaction/ Get right up his nose, right to distraction.”
McGregor + Mugler does not add up. A collaboration between choreographer Wayne McGregor and fashion designer Manfred Thierry Mugler, it weighs its stars down with plumed wigs and shiny codpieces, gesturing at concepts that never come into focus.You’d think fashion and ballet would be a good fit. They’re both visual forms, both work with the body, both skilled in fantasy and glamour. Yet collaborations often come unstuck. Designers pile detail onto bodies that need to move, like the time Karl Lagerfeld decided what The Dying Swan really needed was a feathery neckbrace.
Taking a break from The Nutcracker, the Royal Ballet turns to another 19th-century classic for the festive season. Coppélia is a splendid alternative, a tale of dancing dolls and quarrelling village lovers. It’s revived much less often than the big Tchaikovsky classics, even though it has a lilting Delibes score and a cracking role for a ballerina. On opening night, Francesca Hayward showed her sense of comedy and mischief, while finding tenderness in the most formal ballet steps.Hayward is one of the Royal Ballet’s brightest young stars. Already hitting the heights in the classical repertory, she’s also appearing in the movie Cats, complete with “and introducing” credit in the trailers. In Coppélia, she dances the village girl Swanilda, dealing with her boyfriend Franz’s roving eye and with the antics of the toymaker Dr Coppélius, who creates dolls so real that they can be mistaken for people.
Cross-dressing was rife on the Shakespearean stage. Women were not allowed to perform in plays, so men and boys had to do a kind of “restrained RuPaul” to bring the Bard’s marvellous heroines to life. And these female characters (Rosalind, Portia, Imogen et al), when plot and occasion demanded, would slip into the drag of male disguise: men dressed as women dressed as men.They did not come across the same difficulties as Dennis, the 12-year-old modern-day hero of David Walliams’s best selling children’s book, a much-loved classic now given a theatrical makeover by the Royal Shakespeare Company for its main-stage Christmas attraction.
Theories abound as to the identity of Elena Ferrante. Thanks to the Neapolitan novels author’s aversion to publicity, some believe her to be the alter-ego of male writer Domenico Starnone. April De Angelis – who has adapted Ferrante’s novels into a lively, generous four-part play – doesn’t buy it. “It’s so female,” she said of the story. “The passions, the menstruation, and f***ing from a woman’s point of view. Women live secret lives and they are never allowed into the big narrative of what it means to be human.”This five-hour National Theatre production – which has transferred, with a few tweaks, from The Rose in Kingston – deftly brings those secret lives into the open. Growing up in 1950s Naples, Lila and Lenu start their friendship with a betrayal. Lila (Catherine McCormack), headstrong and fearless, persuades Lenu (Niamh Cusack) to trade dolls, and then coldly drops Lenu’s through a dark grate. When Lenu instinctively does the same, Lila leads her by the hand to retrieve them.
“What if Juliet... didn’t kill herself?” asks Shakespeare’s wife Anne Hathaway (Cassidy Janson) in this gloriously silly, unexpectedly poignant jukebox musical. “I mean, what do I know, but it seems like she’s got her whole life ahead of her, she’s only had one boyfriend…” It’s a fair point. Will gets to work on a rewrite.& Juliet, built around the music of songwriting savant Max Martin, takes this wry premise, douses it in glitter and runs with it. Every moment of the Luke Sheppard-directed production is soundtracked by one of Martin’s power-pop hits – songs made famous by Katy Perry, Ellie Goulding, Kelly Clarkson, Robyn et al.
“You can’t arrest the internet,” exclaims the bereaved father in this superb Tony-winning musical. The primary meaning of his words is that you can’t apprehend it as if it were a criminal. But the secondary meaning has here become the primary one: you can’t stop dead a phenomenon that is as weightless as the ether, and yet can crush individual lives like a conscienceless juggernaut.Steven Levenson’s script is unflaggingly wily and kicks off from a very intriguing premise. It focuses on a socially awkward teenage boy (the eponymous Evan, played by Sam Tutty) who, at the suggestion of his shrink, tries to raise his spirits each day by sending himself a pep talk email.
No play by this acclaimed young American dramatist is ever going to be caught breaking the speed limit. Annie Baker’s much-deserved relationship with the National Theatre began in 2016 when it produced the English premiere of her Pulitzer Prize-winning off-Broadway piece The Flick, a studiedly downbeat, very unrushed and ruminative look at three minimum-wage misfits as they go about their routine work cleaning a fleapit cinema. The era of traditional celluloid was about to give way to the digital world.Relatively snappy at two hours straight through, this superbly cast production of The Antipodes, directed by the author and Chloe Lamford, makes us privy to a succession of brainstorming sessions about how to pitch a particular story. It’s arguably left too moot and unspecified. Aficionados of the characteristic Baker rhythm – uptight fretful lassitude, which occasionally breaks into laugh-out-loud hilarity – will not be disappointed.
The mistake people made with the election of Barack Obama,” says Wendell Pierce, staring intently, “was claiming, ‘We are post-racial.’ What? Tell that to all those guys who just got killed by police during traffic stops.”Sitting in his dressing room at the Piccadilly Theatre, where he is about to embark on a 10-week run as the star of Death of a Salesman, the 55-year-old is an engaging mix of humour and gravitas. One moment, he is doing a witty impression of New Orleans jazz legend Sidney Bechet; the next he is suddenly intense and forthright, particularly when he is talking about racism in America, a problem ingrained “since the original sin of slavery”. He says the US is still blighted by discrimination. “We keep people enslaved under the false pretence that they are free. We have a criminal justice system that, over the past 150 years, was all about criminalising an under-class. To this day in Louisiana, our penitentiaries are working plantations.”
Mary Poppins sniffs as if at a slightly improper suggestion when Mrs Banks brings up the subject of references. “I make it a rule never to give references,” she declares airily to the mother of Jane and Michael Banks in the stage musical, now in previews at London’s Prince Edward Theatre. “A very old-fashioned idea to my mind,” she adds, with a faint hint of Lady Bracknell. “The best people never require them.” She’s not being rude, exactly, but her tone leaves little doubt about who is interviewing whom in this encounter.This suggestion of inscrutability – of the stern, slightly droll briskness with which she refuses to explain herself to anybody – is a characteristic which literature’s predominant diva of the nursery shares with her creator, PL Travers, who first wrote about her in a book published in 1934. It’s not that Mary Poppins needs to fear adverse testimonials from previous employers. It’s more that a testimonial might well expose those glaring, imponderable gaps in her back story. How would you get your bearings on a figure who seems to have blown in on the east wind, “to have existed as long as recorded time and to be friendly with the powers of the universe”? That’s how she’s described by Richard Eyre, director of the stage-musical version.