Monthly Archives: January 2023


(Arifa Akbar’s article appeared in the Guardian, 1/11/23; Photo: Channelling Bette Davis … Patricia Hodge in Watch on the Rhine. Photograph: Manuel Harlan.)

Donmar Warehouse, London
Patricia Hodge stars in Hellman’s play about a liberal American family confronted by war in Europe and the dangers of inaction

Lillian Hellman’s 1941 play looks like the silver screen come to life. It is framed as if inside an old-style cinema, with a rolling prologue in period typeface, the back wall flickering intermittently – a reminder that her plays were numerously made into Hollywood films.

Despite these dated effects, this quietly incandescent play about Nazi tyranny in Europe – and the US’s inertia in the face of it – feels current in the ethical questions it raises.

We meet the Farrelly family in their refined Washington DC home as matriarch Fanny (Patricia Hodge) waits to welcome back, after a 20-year absence, her daughter Sara (Caitlin FitzGerald) who has a German husband Kurt (Mark Waschke) and three children in tow.

Impeccably directed by Ellen McDougall, with an inspired design by Basia Bińkowska, what seems like a potential comedy of manners or family friction drama becomes charged with bigger world politics and violence.

Sara and Kurt are anti-fascist fugitives who bring the war in Europe to the door of this ostensibly liberal household, albeit with a Black butler who answers Fanny with “yes’m”. Kurt describes how he was compelled to fight against nazism after watching 27 people killed in the street (the word “Jew” is rarely uttered in this play but lies just beneath its surface).

“I could not stand by and watch,” he says. That message might have been written as a wake-up call to the US which had still not entered the second world war at the time of the play’s Broadway premiere in 1941 – but it is also instructive for us in light of the Ukraine war.

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(Helen Pitt’s article appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald, 1/10/23; Photo: Swiss-French circus performer, violinist and actor James Theirree in Sydney.CREDIT:JAMES BRICKWOOD.)

When performer James Thierree’s mother Victoria Chaplin ran away at 18 to join the circus, her father, silent movie star Charlie Chaplin wasn’t happy.

Victoria’s mother was Chaplin’s fourth wife, Oona, herself the daughter of US playwright Eugene O’Neill. Yet when Victoria fled Switzerland with a French circus performer, Jean-Baptiste Thierree, 14 years her senior, her showbiz parents did not approve.

Thierree said: “They thought she was crazy. They weren’t on speaking terms for three or four years because they were afraid she was going off to work in this really raw and fragile environment. Circuses were not the theatre or movies.

“My parents started what we call today the ‘new circus’, ‘the imaginary circus’ in 1970, which at the time broke new ground with rock ‘n’ roll, music and dance and no animals as opposed to the traditional circus; they were circus pioneers,” said Thierree, who was raised in the circus and made his onstage debut with his parents aged four.

His parents’ “grand love story” with each other, and the form of physical theatre they created, continues today. His mother 71, and father 85, are preparing for a new show in April performing with his older sister Aurelia, 51.

Thierree at 48 continues in the family trade too, and is in Sydney for the first time in several years for the Sydney Festival performance of his show, Room.

Thierree says the show, which starts in Sydney on Wednesday at Roslyn Packer Theatre and continues until January 25, will resonate for everyone who has been stuck inside a room at home during lockdown.

“The room is a playground or a wild dream. It is an ode to surrealism and the beautiful British idea of nonsense.” he said.

“My take is that the world has gotten so crazy that it was interesting for me as an artist to come up with kind of a mad project. It is sort of saying, ‘Let’s make something joyful out of it, out of the chaos of COVID’.”

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(Vanessa Thorpe’s interview appeared in the Observer, 1/8; via Pam Green;  Photo:  ‘A workaday farce’: (from left) Felicity Kendal, Alexander Hanson and Tracy-Ann Oberman in Noises Off by Michael Frayn at London’s Phoenix Theatre. Photograph: Nobby Clark.)

The 1982 play stills pulls in crowds from Broadway to Helsinki, and is now returning to the West End for a fifth time. ‘I just can’t understand it,’ says its creator)

The arrival of anything by post was significant during the pandemic lockdown but, for the writer Michael Frayn, the contents of one envelope were particularly welcome. “Theatre had stopped and my income had dried up, so I was astonished when a large cheque arrived for amateur performances of Noises Off all over America. People are putting it on all the time.”

Since 1982, when Frayn, 89, first staged his fast-paced comedy about actors in a workaday farce, it has become a staple crowdpleaser around the world. This month, a touring 4oth anniversary production brings the show home to London’s West End for a triumphal fifth time, now at the Phoenix Theatre.

“I can’t quite understand it. Local theatres in Germany seem to be doing it continuously,” said the playwright. “In Finland, they used the idea that a company in the north were putting on an effete farce sent up from Helsinki, while in Barcelona a controversial production had a Catalan company putting on a Spanish-speaking show.”

On Broadway, however, producers have so far stuck to Frayn’s original English setting, which sees a troupe of jobbing performers simply “putting on some dreadful sex comedy”.

Funny shows can age quickly, but when the mechanics are as finely wrought and the human confusion as universal as in this, Frayn’s biggest hit, the length of the laughter appears limitless. Very few changes to the dialogue are ever made. “I am amazed that people are still prepared today to put on a play in which a rather dim young actress spends all evening in her underclothes,” said Frayn, who lives in Richmond with his wife, the acclaimed biographer Claire Tomalin.

The author, who wrote for the Observer in the late 1960s and early 70s, has since produced a string of celebrated works, including the serious plays Copenhagen and Democracy and the admired novels Spies and Towards the End of the Morning (the latter, set in a newspaper office, is especially loved by journalists). Usually, he says, the decision to tell a story on stage or in a book comes early. “Ideas immediately suggest one thing or the other, and Noises Off, obviously, had to be a play.”

The show’s first London cast was led by the late Paul Eddington, known for The Good Life and Yes Minister on TV, as the show’s beleaguered director, Lloyd Dallas. “He was terribly good,” recalls Frayn. “Claire remembers the management had to hold the curtain for 20 minutes at the beginning of the second preview because there was such a queue for tickets at the box office.

Word had got out that we had something.” But the play’s birth had been as complicated as its layers of cross-purposes might suggest. The idea first came to Frayn while watching, from behind the scenes, a one-act play he had written for Lynn Redgrave and Richard Briers. It was a pastiche of a five-character farce which, with a cast of just two, involved silly quick-changes and theatrical illusions. “I thought I would like to write a farce seen from backstage like this. It was a simple thought to have, but it turned out to be fiendishly difficult to do,” he says.

His notion of a staging a play which deliberately unravels before the audience’s eyes has proved highly influential. Not only did it permanently mess with theatrical expectations, it also arguably laid the groundwork for a string of spoof fly-on-the-wall formats on television, each revelling in the background mishaps of, say, a ministerial department in The Thick of It. More directly, it may have inspired the The Play That Goes Wrong series, a popular stage and television franchise that Frayn says he is ashamed not to have yet seen, adding: “But I am told they are very good.”

The first version of Noises Off, which takes its title from a common stage direction, was a one-act affair put on for a charity event. Renowned stage producer Michael Codron saw its potential and commissioned a full-length version. “I could see a way to do it by separating it out into three acts so that I was not trying to show everything simultaneously,” says Frayn.

“First, you needed to see the play and get to know the cast, then we needed to see what went on backstage between the actors, and then finally you see what complete mince is made of the play. But it took me a long time.”

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(Michael Cronin’s articl appeared in the Irish Times, 12/20; Photo: Lady Gregory; the Irish Times.)

Molière became a mainstay of the early Abbey stage, but not all critics were impressed by French playwright’s characters speaking Hiberno-English

On January 15th, 1622 Jean-Baptiste Poquelin was baptised in the church of Saint-Eustache in Paris. Four hundred years later the birth of the playwright, who later adopted the stage name Molière, is being celebrated by performances, exhibitions and academic conferences in his native France and around the world.

Molière, whose posthumous reputation has fared better internationally than that of his more classically oriented contemporaries, Racine and Corneille, has indeed become so famous in French that the language itself is often referred to as the ‘language of Molière’ just as English is dubbed the ‘language of Shakespeare.’ His creation of memorable stage types (the miser, the hypocrite, the hypochondriac); the inventiveness of his comic repartee; and his resolute aversion to all forms of social pretension and hypocrisy have ensured his enduring popularity centuries after the first performances of his works, where he often played the leading role.

The attractions of Molière were not lost on one of the major figures of the Irish Literary Renaissance, Lady Augusta Gregory. When the Abbey Theatre received its legal patent in 1904, one of the conditions was that it would confine its productions to contemporary Irish drama and European theatre classics. The idea was to not antagonise the owners of existing commercial theatres, who made their money from more standard fare.

As the Abbey sought out European dramatists who might fulfil its mandate, the choice fell on Molière, because, in the words of Gregory, ‘his affinities with folk drama have made [his plays] easier to our players.’ The Italian tradition of the commedia dell’arte, with its repertoire of recognisable types, had strongly influenced Molière. This was mirrored in the folk drama favoured by Lady Gregory which drew on the recurring characters and story types of Irish folklore.

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(Olivia Salazar-Winspear’s, Marion Chaval’s, Sonia Paricelli’s and Gerome Vassilacos’s article appeared on France 24, 1/3.)

We take a tour of the spectacular shows illuminating the dark days of winter in the French capital, starting with the cult classic “Cabaret”. Robert Carsen is the latest director to adapt the musical, bringing its biting social commentary to a newly revamped venue: the Lido 2 Paris on the Champs-Élysées.

The legendary spot is moving away from its burlesque revue show reputation and embracing the appeal of musical theatre. Meanwhile, the Théâtre du Châtelet hosts another Broadway staple, as “42nd Street” zooms in on the hopes and dreams of the chorus line in 1930s New York. And contemporary dance creation “Stories” blends tap dancing with modern jazz to take the audience on a narrative journey at the 13ème Art theatre in Paris.


(Benjamin Lee’s article appeared in the Guardian, 1/1/23; via the Drudge Report; Photo: Franco Zeffirelli directing Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting in Romeo and Juliet. Photograph: REX Shutterstock.)

Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting accuse studio of sexual exploitation in nude scene in Franco Zeffirelli adaptation

The two leads from the 1968 adaptation of Romeo and Juliet are suing Paramount for child abuse over a nude scene in the film.

According to Variety, Olivia Hussey and Leonard Whiting, who were teenagers when making the Oscar-winning film, filed a lawsuit on 30 December accusing the studio of sexual exploitation.

In the suit, the pair claim that the director, Franco Zeffirelli, told them there would be no nudity and flesh-coloured items would be worn in the bedroom scene but he then later insisted they performed nude “or the picture would fail”. Zeffirelli died in 2019.

“What they were told and what went on were two different things,” said Tony Marinozzi, a business manager for the two actors. “They trusted Franco. At 16, as actors, they took his lead that he would not violate that trust they had. Franco was their friend, and frankly, at 16, what do they do? There are no options. There was no #MeToo.”

Hussey was 15 and Whiting 16 at the time of production. The complaint alleges the pair have suffered “mental anguish and emotional distress” in the years since and have lost out on job opportunities. Damages are being sought “believed to be in excess of $500m”.

“These were very young naive children in the 60s who had no understanding of what was about to hit them,” said Solomon Gresen, a lawyer for the pair. “All of a sudden they were famous at a level they never expected, and in addition they were violated in a way they didn’t know how to deal with.”

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The words and wisdom of Constantin Stanislavski:

In order to express a most delicate and largely subconscious life it is necessary to have control of an unusually responsive, excellently prepared vocal and physical apparatus. This apparatus must be ready instantly and exactly to reproduce most delicate and all but intangible feelings with great sensitiveness and directness. (AP)


(Dalya Alberge’s article appeared in the Guardian 12/31;  via Pam Green; Photo:  The gatehouse at Nottingham Castle. The site has been forced to close, despite a three-year, multimillion-pound renovation. Photograph: Ian Dagnall/Alamy.)

Rising costs have led to staff redundancies and curtailed opening hours as nine out of 10 sites fear they could close permanently

Theatres, museums, castles and other heritage sites are making staff redundant, turning down the heating, shutting rooms to the public and closing early.

The findings come from research that shows nine in 10 such sites across the UK now fear for their future.

The alarming findings reveal that 84% are having to slash costs to survive. The survey, conducted by OnePoll, was commissioned by Ecclesiastical Insurance, specialists for the heritage sector. It involved 500 “decision makers” within UK heritage organisations, including museums, galleries, theatres, hotels, castles and stately homes.

“Nine in 10 heritage leaders are really concerned about their organisation’s future,” said Faith Kitchen of Ecclesiastical Insurance. “Many heritage organisations – not just one or two – will be at risk of closure in the next few years if costs continue to rise. That’s pretty shocking and sad.”

Almost half of those questioned said they were having to make staff redundant with almost as many reducing their opening hours. Amid rising fuel and energy prices, they were limiting rooms that were open and heated (42%) and restricting public access by opening on fewer days (39%). They were also renegotiating contracts with existing suppliers (45%), which will no doubt take its toll on those businesses.

Some heritage sites have already closed, including Nottingham castle, whose trust confirmed in November that it was “saddened and hugely disappointed” to be closing, but visitors were “significantly below” the 300,000 a year projected after a three-year, £33m renovation.

“That, to me, really stands out because normally – in any other economic time – to have that refurbishment, you would then expect that to be a really successful aspect for the local community,” said Kitchen. “But because of the cost of living, the community aren’t able to support it in terms of visitors. The whole landscape is different post-pandemic.”

Other closures in 2022 include Eastleigh Museum in Hampshire. On its website, Paul Sapwell, chief executive of Hampshire Cultural Trust, states: “We are unfortunately not in a financial position to support staffing the museum and front-of-house running costs with the venue in its current form, as revenue from the existing shop and cafe is not sufficient to support the operations.”

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