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Doctor Faustus, by Christopher Marlowe and Colin Teevan, Duke of York’s Theatre

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I’ve been struggling the last few days to try and articulate why Jamie Lloyd’s production of  Doctor Faustus, currently on at the Duke of York’s in London, has made such an impression.

The play’s  themes are certainly timely: what makes a man sell his soul to the devil? Is all he gets worth all he loses? Could he not have achieved the devil’s promise without the devil’s bargain? Arguably, few plays raise the most salient ethical and moral questions of today as pointedly and vividly. I’m not sure the robber barons of the digital age are beating themselves up with considerations of conscience in their tropical tax shelters. But they should. The play raises questions we might individually ask of ourselves and collectively want answers to from them. Or at least those are some of the thoughts and feelings this production puts into play for me.

There’s also the beauty of the language itself, with phrasing so memorable we still use it in our every day lives:‘Misery loves company’,  ‘Where we are is hell/ And where hell is must we ever be’;  etc. But this is not simply a new production of Marlowe’s play; Colin Teevan, whilst keeping the main plot and much of the language, has rewritten the ‘difficult’ middle part and modernised the references – here we get to hear of the Panama papers, we get to see the Prime Minister’s father in hell; and Barack Obama bargaining with the Pope is performed for us as a vaudeville sketch; it’s telling too that in this version the scholar becomes a Vegas Illusionist Rock Star, a modest seeker of truth turned into razzling-dazzling the populace with lies: each of the jokes hit their mark; each laugh earned is a point communicated and accepted as true. It all adds up to a joyfully scathing critique.

 

This is already a very successful adaptation. It’s been previously staged by the West Yorkshire Playhouse and the Citizens Theatre Glasgow – where The Independent called it ‘a thing of beauty to watch.’ I’m sure the casting of Kit Harington in the title role was one of the main reasons a centuries-old play is getting a West-End airing. And both he and it have done an excellent job in this regard; the theatre was sold-out, full of young people; and the play itself still feels as startling, vital and contemporary as anything I’ve seen on stage this season.

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This production is a tour-de-force of staging by Jamie Lloyd and it’s useful to compare it to his production of Jean Genet’s The Maids, which is running concurrently at Trafalgar Studios. There, Genet’s tale servitude is played in what looks like an invisible box, with the audience looking on from back and front, and with a powerhouse performance from Uzo Aduba that thrillingly threatens to explode that invisible glass wall that separates the stage from the audience and stab you in the heart. Her performance makes of Genet’s words a weapon. Yet, in spite of that – and it truly is a great production – I felt slightly removed from its drama and its concerns; I understood them, accepted the validity of the critique but it all still felt abstract and removed to me in spite or perhaps because of the maids being cast as black: This adds a dimension of racial servitude to the film’s economic and ideological one but it also brings connotations of slavery and plantations and elsewhere. It’s interesting that Michael Billington’s excellent review in The Guardian brings up the issue of the play connoting the Mistress (Laura Carmichael from TV’s Downton Abbey) as American. I don’t mean to suggest that the play’s concerns are only theirs just that Billington’s aside made me question where my feeling of the plays’ concerns being abstract and other rather than burning questions of the here and now for me — which they should be, as they are in Faustus – comes from.

IMG_4329.jpg            In contrast, Jamie Lloyd has staged Doctor Faustus as a cabaret that could take place in a suburban housing estate of dashed hopes and truncated desires. Soutra Gilmour’s set design, inspired by the paintings of Gregory Crewdson, is sublime: everything looks like drabness covered by a layer of cooking oil. When the characters appear at the beginning, their nakedness feels dirty, repulsive, alienating. The subsequent carnivalesque ascent to fame and descent to hell will alter this. The stage changes, moves faster, revolves, moves forward, we’re even allowed to see the backstage. All with the energy and verve that accompany the play.

IMG_4325.jpgLloyd manages Kit Harington’s stardom very wittily. He avoids unbalancing the play with unneeded and unwarranted applause by having the star appear, sitting on the bog, as the audience enters the theatre and before the play begins. Indeed all entrances are arranged to prevent the show from becoming a rock concert or the church of Harington-worship; and so successfully that Harington doesn’t even get a standing ovation at the end (and this was actively managed to be so). Yet, the play is also made to seem about Harington himself. As he told Nick Curtis in The Guardian: 

‘About 25 pages in we walk into a completely modern play. It really works. My first line is: “They love me, they really fucking love me.”

Game of Thrones must have been great preparation for that.
At first, I thought this [Faustus] was going to be about selling yourself for fame, but actually it is about a man completely trapped in his own head. I’m not sure how much I can say…

Again, thanks to GoT, that’s the story of your life.
It really is…’

 

Later, as the play unfolds, and temptations are laid on for Faustus, the suburban sordidness turns queer, with Craig Stein as an evil angel in a nightdress with a flamenco fringe, half-muscles, half-flounce, tempting Harington. In an interesting interview with GQ, Harington reveals that, ‘At drama school in my third year I was resigned to the fate of being Young Male Rape Victim No. 2.’And that’s exactly how he seems with Stein on top of him.

jonsnowLloyd doesn’t deny the audience its pleasure. If they’ve come to see Harington, he shows them Harington; his body is prominently on display after the intermission and there’s even a buttock-clenching joke thrown in for good measure. But if Harington displays the best torso on the London stage, his performance, albeit, adequate, doesn’t live up to the part. He doesn’t have the vocal power to wring as variegated expression as the text deserves, much less to then theatricalise it verbally to the audience for full effect; and his speaking of the text is sometimes sing-songy. He simply doesn’t have the range. But what he lacks vocally, he more than makes up physically (and fans of Game of Thrones will be interested to know he still sports the hair and beard he’s contractually obligated to grow for Jon Snow).

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The actual opening set at the Duke of York’s

It’s interesting that the best part of the show is not Harington even though he might be what made the show possible. Each member of the cast gets their turn, I’ve already mentioned Craig Stein as an Evil Angel. But there’s also Forbes Masson as a zaftig devil; Tom Edden is terrific as an El Greco-ish Good Angel who gets to illustrate the seven deadly sins as a tour de force vaudeville turn (If we’d been Americans, we’d have given the moment a standing ovation). And Jenna Russell is a terrific Mephistopheles, taunting the audience during the intermission with performances of pop numbers (Better the Devil You Know, Devil Woman, Bat Out of Hell), milking the applause, being both in character but also slightly out of the play in the best Brechtian manner. But if Harington is not the best part of the show, Doctor Faustus does offer evidence of his taste, ambition and generosity.

It’s a really electric show. I loved the way the director uses the solo bit leading to the high note in Minnie Ripperton’s ‘Loving You’ as an indicator of attraction verging on love; it’s characteristic that this play deals with issues of power, fame, TV, the Postmodern condition and the price of inequality with poppy, energetic irreverence. There’s pop music, dance numbers, nudity; all deployed knowingly, irreverently but expressively, to communicate meaning as well as joy. It’s a great show and I was so excited by it that I raced at intermission to buy the program in order to find out who else aside from Harington had made it possible. See it if you can.

 

 

 

José Arroyo

Max Reinhardt and Lubitsch

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Was Max Reinhardt an influence on Lubitsh? Lotte Eisner thought so. In the The Haunted Screen she tells us that Lubitsch was ‘less sensitive to his influence than other German filmmakers’ (p.79) but also notes the Reinhardt influence in ‘the famous square market place around which Lubitsch was so fond of moving his crowds in Madame Dubarry, Sumurum and Anna Boleyn. In each of these instances, the imitation of Reinhardt effects is of an almost documentary fidelity’ (p. 76).

It is hard for us now to imagine the significance of Max Reinhardt: he was simply the most celebrated man of the theatre of his day, not only in Germany but internationally. Eisner writes that, ‘we should remember that Max Reindhart from 1907 to 1919 (when the revolution brought  Piscator and his Constructivist theatre to the fore), was a sort of ‘Kaiser’ of the Berlin theatre. He had become so important that in solid middle-class families everybody skipped the newspaper headlines to read Alfred Kerr’s article on the previous night’s performance. Berliners often went to the Reindhardt theatre several times a week, for the programme changed daily’ (p.47).

Morover, ‘the links between Max Reindhardt’s theatre and the German cinema were obvioius as early as 1913, when all the main actors — Wegener, Bassermann, Moissi, Theodor Loos, Winterstein, Veidt, Kraus, Jannings, to mention but a few — came from Reindhardt’s troupe (Eisner, p. 44). Though the second part of the title of Eisner’s book is often elided, it might be worth reminding ourselves  of it here: The Haunted Screen: Expressionism in German Cinema and The Influence of Max Reinhardt. Lubitsch was not an expressionist or at least not much of one (The Doll and other films do show traces). Indeed Tom Tykwer views his later move to Hollywood as a lucky escape from Expresssionism.  But Lubitsch did not avoid the influence of Reindhardt nor indeed did he want to. He had a lot to learn; and he learned quickly.

Max Reinhardt by Emil Orlik, Prague, 1985.
Max Reinhardt by Emil Orlik, Prague, 1985.

Reinhardt was born Max Goldmann on the 9th of September 1873, in Baden, near Vienna. He was the first of a family of six children. An actor since 1890, he directed his first production in 1900, Ibsen’s Love’s Comedy. He becomes director of the Deutsches Theatre and opened his school of acting there in 1905. In 1906 he bought the Deutsches Theater and opened the Kammerspiele next door. The first production there was Ibsen’s Ghosts.

The Theatre as Cathedral of Art
The Theatre as Cathedral of Art

According to J.L. Styan, from 1910-1912, Reinhardt became ‘known throughout Europe. It was Reindhardt’s privilege to put into practice some of the thinking of the “aesthetic drama’” movement which wanted to combine the art of space and light, of music, design and the spoken word, and of acting, mime and dance. His invention of the Regiebuch (on which more later) as a master promptbook was both a monument to his work – and a necessity if that work was to be carried out’. [i]From 1915-1918 he also becomes director of the Volksbühne in the Bülowplatz, Berlin, saving it from possible extinction during the war years. His first production there is Schiller’s The Robbers. Lubitsch became a Reinhardt actor in 1911, at the height of the director’s fame.

Lubitsch's contract with Reinhardt.
Lubitsch’s contract with Reinhardt.

Alfred G. Brooks tell us that Reinhardt’s ‘creative career had spanned the birth and demise, the rejection and acceptance, of the host of forms and movements which sought to provide new perspectives in the visual and performing arts during the first half of the Twentieth Century. Reindhardt influenced playwrights, critics, painters, designers, architects, composers, dancers, actors, directors, and managers. His basically eclectic nature led him to develop an enormous stylistic range which ranged from the studio to the circus, to palaces, vast outdoor arenas, garden theatres, opera houses, small baroque theatres, and cathedral square; all the world was for him a receptive home for theatre. During his lifetime, the vast range of his activities and his widespread influence made him a natural focal point for both admiration and vituperation. Critics and historians who sought neat descriptive labels either described him as a creator of spectacles or attacked him for lack of a clearly identifiable style’[ii].

Reinhardt stages Greek Tragedy in a Circus, 1911
Reinhardt stages Greek Tragedy in a Circus, 1911

Rudolf Kommer thought Reinhardt a magician of the stage: ‘To be called a magician and to be one are two very different things. If anyone in the realm of the stage deserves this title, however, it is Max Reindhardt of Baden, Vienna, Salzburg, Belin and the world at large’.[iii]Diana Cooper, daughter of the Duke of Rutland, a great beauty and a cornerstone in British cultural life from WW1 right to the 60s, performed in his production of The Miracle in England and the US and her biographer Phillip Ziegler tells us, ‘Diana knew little about Reinhardt, except that he was popularly reputed to be a genius and probably slightly mad… (he lived) in Salzburg (in the) baroque palace of Leopoldskron’.[iv] However, when The Miracle opened in New York , George Jean Nathan, arguably the most influential critic of the day, wrote in The American Mercury, ‘The theatre we have known becomes Lilliputian before such a phenomenon. The church itself becomes puny. No sermon has been sounded from any pulpit one-thousandth so eloquent as that which comes to life in this playhouse transformed into a vast cathedral, under the necromancy that is Reinhardt. For here are hope and pity, charity and compassion, humanity and radiance wrought into an immensely dramatic fibre hung dazzlingly for even a child to see. It is all as simple as the complex fashioned by genius is ever simple’.[v] A mad genius, living in a palace who directed epic theatre on a mass scale in huge theatres and with whom none could compare. That’s who Lubitsch got a contract with in 1911, when he was nineteen, to play small roles.

Faust at the Deutsches Theatre, 1911.
Faust at the Deutsches Theatre, 1911.

 

Lubitsch had always wanted to be an actor, he loved acting and as is everywhere evident in his films – see To Be Or Not to Be – he loved actors. But Lubitsch was not, as they used to say, exactly an oil painting, and his father tried to discourage him by grabbing his face and pointing it towards a mirror hoping that would bring him to his senses. His mother, who by all accounts ran the family business and the family, supported and encouraged her youngest child. With her help and that of Victor Arnold — a soulful comedian who worked for Reinhardt, gave Lubitsch free lessons and helped get him an audition — Lubitsch finally became a Reinhardt actor in 1911.

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Lubitsch was contracted to play small roles only. Bigger parts were given to stars such as Paul Wegener whom Lubitsch later gave leading roles to in his film. But his parents were delighted because, such was Reinhardt’s reputation, that a contract with Reinhardt, even in small roles, was a signal sign of success. In fact it was an honour so great that that many like Dietrich were late to claim it falsely. Reinhardt is a figure most great émigré directors to Hollywood from the German-speaking world (Preminger, Sirk, Siodmak) had some kind of connection to. With Reindhart, Lubitsch played a variety of roles, Launcelot in The Merchant of Venice, the Innkeeper in The Lower Depths. He appeared in the legendary staging of The Robbers and in some of the iconic theatres of his day, The Deutsche Theatre, the Kommerspiele, and later when Reindhart took it over in 1915, the Volksbühne Theatre, barely 200 metres from where he lived.

 

Reinhardt by E.S. Klempner, London, 1912.
Reinhardt by E.S. Klempner, London, 1912.

Lubitsch was lucky to work with Reinhardt for many reasons but foremost is that Reinhardt, who had started as an actor himself and who, according to Otto Preminger, ‘knew more about actors and about the nature of acting talent, than anybody in the history of the theatre’[vi], also revered actors. In ‘Of Actors’, Reinhardt writes, ‘‘It is to the actor and to no one else that the theatre belongs. When I say this, I do not mean, of course, the professional alone. I mean, first and foremost, the actor as poet. All the great dramatists have been and are to-day born actors, whether or not they have formally adopted this calling, and whatever success they may have had in it. I mean likewise the actor as director, stage-manager, musician, scene-designer, painter, and, certainly not least of all, the actor as spectator. For the contribution of the spectators is almost as important as that o the cast. The audience must take its part in the play if we are ever to see arise a true art of the theatre – the oldest, most powerful, and most immediate of the arts, combining the many in one’[vii] An interesting way of looking at actors but one which would be influential to Lubitsch, particularly in the perception that the audience too was an actor and played a role in the drama.

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Reinhardt was interested in all forms of popular entertainment, not only theatre but vaudeville, musical comedy, mime, and film. Every Reinhardt actor was potentially a film actor and according to Tom Tykwer, the theatre experience with Reindhardt proved a decisive one in shaping Lubitsch. One must not underestimate the extent of this for Lubitsch has historically been credited with developing not only the concepts of kammertheatre and Massentheater but, importantly in relation to Lubitsch, the concept of ‘Regietheatre’ which gave a centrality to the director. Reinhardt was famous for directing spectacles and crowds, skills that would prove handy for Lubitsch’s historical dramas, he revered actors like Lubitsch did but often gave them precise line readings like Lubitsch was to do, but perhaps most importantly is Reindhardt’s precise attention to all elements of mise-en-scène.

From Reinhardt's production of Sumurum which Lubitsch would later adapt to the screen
From Reinhardt’s production of Sumurum which Lubitsch would later adapt to the screen

As noted earlier, Reindardt kept a Regiebuch. According to J.L.Styan, the Regiebuch, was ‘a copy of the play interleaved with blank pages. It was a workshop in itself. Prepared in extraordinary detail, and corrected and modified over and over again, it became the indispensable blue print from which many assistants could conduct rehearsals while the master watched over the results. In it he would write down every movement and gesture, every expression and every tone of voice. Diagrams of the stage plan and even three-dimensional sketches of the scene and of its characters would be squeezed into available spaces. Over the years a production lasted, he never finished adding notes in this book, often with pencils and links of different colours’[viii].

Reinhardt's promptbook for Hofmannsthal's Everyman (Jedermann), Hollywood, Jan. 25-Feb 7, 1940
Reinhardt’s promptbook for Hofmannsthal’s Everyman (Jedermann), Hollywood, Jan. 25-Feb 7, 1940

Lubitsch started making films in 1913. He never once performed in a starring role on stage for Reinhardt but continued working for the Reinhardt ensemble in small parts until May 1918. Could there be better training for a director in the making than to be working for ‘the first theatre man in the world’ who worked in a way so interestingly transferable to cinema? ix

compare Reinhardt's Regiebuch to Michael Mann's densely annotated script for Heat.
Compare Reinhardt’s Regiebuch to Michael Mann’s densely annotated script for Heat.

 

José Arroyo

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[i] J.L. Styan, Max Reinhardt, Directors in Perspective Series, Cambridge: Cambridge University press, 1982, p. xv

[ii]Alfred G. Brooks, ‘Foreword’, Max Reindhardt 1873-1973: A Centennial Fetschrift, Edited by George E. Wellwarth and Alfred G. Brooks, Archive/Binghampton, New York, 1973, p. i.

[iii] Rudolf Kommer, ‘The Magician of Leopoldskron’ in Max Reindhardt and His Theatre’ ed. by Oliver M. Sayler, trans from the German by Mariele S. Dudernatsch and others, New York/London: Benjamin Blom, 1968. First published in 1924. P.1

 

[iv] Philip Ziegler, Diana Cooper: The Extraordinary Life of the Raffish Legend who Charmed and Inspired a Society Through Two World Wars London: Hamish Hamilton, 1981, pp. 128-130.

[v] Cited in Max Reindhardt and His Theatre’, op cit., p. ix.

[vi] Otto Preminer, ‘Otto Preminger: An Interview’ Max Reindhardt 1873-1973: A Centennial Fetschrift, op cit, p.11

[vii] Max Reindhar, ‘Of Actors’ in Max Reindhardt 1873-1973: A Centennial Fetschrift, op cit., p.1.

[viii] J.L. Styan, Max Reinhardt, op. cit., p. 120.

[ix] Sylvia Jukes Morris, Rage for Fame: The Ascent of Clare Booth Luce New York: Random House, 1997 p. 110

Additional Bibliography

 

Lotte Eisner, The Haunted Screen, Expressionism in the German Cinema and the Influence of Marx Reinhardt, London: Thames and Hudson, 1965.

Angela Lansbury in Blithe Spirit, John Gielgud Theatre

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angela 1Angela Lansbury’s mere entrance in Blithe Spirit last night was greeted by an eruption of wild applause. We wanted to thank her before she’d even done anything. Or rather for all she’d done for us thus far; all she’d made us feel and think and dream of; for the role in our lives that she continues to occupy and that we continue to treasure. She provides the comfort of Jessica Fletcher in Murder, She Wrote, the artistry of her musical triumphs on stage (Gypsy, Mame, Sweeny Todd) and some of the most complex and/or appealing and/or comforting performances in a long and varied film career. Take your pick from The Manchurian CandidateGaslightBedknobs and Broomsticks and so very many others.

Pauline Kael famously said that she didn’t think she could be friends with anyone who didn’t love her Sibyl Vane in The Picture of Dorian Gray. I always misremember that and cite it incorrectly as the young maid in Gaslight. She’s so delicious in both that perhaps I can be forgiven for the error. We probably all have our own favourite Angela Lansbury moments. Mine begin with her saloon ‘hostess’ in The Harvey Girls, my first memory of either her or Judy Garland, seen on a little black and white television and the beginnings of my love for both. This is one of my all-time favourite moments on film (though Angela, unbelievably glamorous, appears only towards the end of the clip). There’s something about Judy’s fear in going into the saloon and then the way she blows into the smoking guns that is a comic delight. And of course all of this is followed by Lansbury’s bad-girl sashay at the end. Who could remember that Lansbury was a bad girl or that she could move and pout like that? Too much Jessica Fletcher has made most of us forget. But not I. It’s how I first got to know her.

Blithe Spirit is the perfect theatrical vehicle for an 88 year-old star which is to say it is the perfect vehicle for Angela Lansbury now. The play is from Noel Coward, one of THE great and most long-running of West End hits during WWII, and there’s not a single creak in it. It’s still a marvel of theatrical mechanics. The introduction of the characters, the entrances and exits, the curtains, the spectacle provided by what beings from ‘The Other Side’ can do on our world – all work superbly; thus all the actors get their laughs and a chance to shine, and thus is less of a  burden is placed on the undisputable but aging star of the evening. She appears in only a few scenes but they are key ones; they were enough to  make Margaret Rutherford a star. It’s a cracker of a role.

I had my first trance when I was four years old...what an exciting day that was!
I had my first trance when I was four years old…what an exciting day that was!

The music, many of Coward’s greatest hits plus Irving Berlin’s ‘Always’, is a treat; and the producers are aware of the element of nostalgia in all of this and milk it; the stage is framed as if it were a silent film and as if we are all longing  for a Cowardesque past of elegant living, witty sayings, perfectly made plays and great stars – which we, or at least the audience last night and certainly myself at any time, certainly are.

The Gielgud is also a perfect venue for a Noel Coward sophisticated drawing room comedy —  intimate, gilded, bijou-y, decorated with caricatures of Coward and Gielgud and Ivor Novello, Beaton photographs of Binkie Beaumont, and an oil painting of Margaret Rutherford. The bar, a round rotunda balcony from which you can lean over with your gin and ogle at the people coming in through the box-office is itself worth the price of admission.

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Lansbury’s character, Madame Arcati, is forever associated with Rutherford so Lansbury is not without a challenge on her hands. She only appears in a few scenes and needs to not only get her laughs but also try to efface the memory of Rutherford, one rendered more vivid by being immortalised in David Lean’s film of the play. Lansbury appears dressed like the salacious Salome Otterbourne she played in Death on the Nile but acting like Maggie Smith’s curt companion to Bette Davis in the same film, all brisk common sense. She was a bit wobbly on her lines  and her voice was lighter than that of the other actors. To me, she did not efface the memory of Margaret Rutherford in the movie, particularly the relish with which Rutherford pursed her lips and rubbed her hands before starting her communications with ‘The Other Side’. But Lansbury still got all her laughs  plus a few more that weren’t there for a marvellous quasi-Egyptian dance she does when she goes to turn off the lights for her séance. At the end, when she got that standing ovation it was not just due to the audience’s gratitude for a lifetime of lovingly remembered work —  her career is like a huge box of assorted  movie madelaines — as it could be said to have been at her entrance, but for still owning that stage like the star and actress she proved to be; for giving us another reason to love her; and for giving us the chance to show our gratitude personally.

Seen on 1st of March, 2014.

Jose Arroyo

Jude Law in Henry V

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The production feels like Shakespeare for tourists: — too bare a design, too sparse a company – as if all the money had gone into the West End venue or Jude Law’s pocket, leaving but short change for all else. What with Scottish separatism, Welsh nationalism, migration into the UK and the role of Britain in Europe all currently hot topics, it’s in some ways a timely production, though what Shakespeare’s most rousing take on English nationalism, however inclusive, can contribute to the current debate is  still up for grabs, even after seeing the play.

This Henry V has been chopped up and shortened; probably in an attempt to render it palatable to an audience who really couldn’t care less what the play was about, the reasons for staging it now, or even the fact that it is Shakespeare. They’d just come to see Jude Law. And they don’t leave disappointed: He’s magnificent.

Seeing Jude Law recently in films such as Side Effects (Steven Soderbergh, USA, 2013) and Anna Karenina (Joe Wright, UK, 2013), highlighted how, as he was beginning to lose his looks, to grown into a baldy, baggy-eyed middle-age, he seemed to be gaining in stature as an actor. On film, he’s simply never been better. He’s no longer pretty in Side Effects  but who cares about pretty when he can play human and swayed and slightly weak but pushed to fight back and sometimes all of these things simultaneously and transparently? In Anna Karenina, as Anna’s cuckolded husband, Karenin, he seem to finally allows the audience to discover him as a great actor. Of the protagonists, he’s really the only one who conveys a recognizable person and a way of life. It’s interesting because the role is historically a dud (few actors win kudos for playing middle-aged, dull, and respectable). Yet, Law makes us believe him in the part, quite an achievement when one considers his career and persona.

There seems an inverse correlation between his looks and, if not his acting per se, then perhaps our appreciation of it. But onstage, our first image of him as Henry V, crowned, robed and bathed in amber light  — a sight that incites  a collective intake of breath — is  one that has more to do with how we first saw him in the movie all those years ago than on our experience of seeing him in the movies now. At that initial moment, Henry’s introduction to the audience, he’s as beautiful and golden as he was in The Talented Mr. Ripley (Anthony Minghella, USA, 1999), looking divine in both the literal and slangy senses of the word.

Later, when he comes on-stage to receive the Dauphin’s tennis balls and begins to talk of the balls he’ll hang in Paris, he seems sexier than he ever has, manly, powerful. He’s dressed in a leather sleeveless jacket that is not quite a waistocat, tightly buttoned to accentuate broad shoulders and very slim waist, the jacket flaring slightly  just above the hip and overhanging a too large cod-piece. He wears green hipster trousers over boots of the same colour to lengthen the leg. The ensemble allows his body a full range of movement, and he’s an actor who can command his body to expressive purposes dramatically and with grace.  The contrast between how he looks and what he conveys on stage in Henry V and how he looks and what he conveys in the trailer for the forthcoming Dom Hemingway (Richard Shephard, UK, 2013is in itself a coup de théâtre

The Agincourt battle scenes give him a chance to heave, run, rant and eulogise, which he does effortlessly.  His ‘Saint Crispin’s Day’ speech is very fine though it doesn’t quite make you forget that this is the way ideology works, getting people to give up their lives for an idea at great risk and no material benefit to themselves, an idea underlined later by the troops he talks to when he disguises himself as an ordinary man and walks incognito through the encampment. Maybe we’re too cynical now to buy into it in the same way we imagine wartime audiences for Olivier’s film of Henry V  (1944, UK) did, or perhaps Law doesn’t quite pull it off. I any case one can imagine it being rousing without quite succumbing and allowing it to be moving. However, later on, Law pulls off the masculine mateyness required of him with the same élan that he did the regal, the imperious, and the lordly near the beginning when condemning the traitors to death.

IMG_7890Law’s obviously very good in the action sequences and he speaks the verse fluidly and well. He makes the stage crackle by his presence; proceedings seem to pick up pace and energy, though his voice lacks the power of Olivier and his speaking of the verse does not seem as varied as Branagh’s  (1989, UK) in the two film versions of the play that I have seen. However, as the play proceeds other actors rise to Law’s challenge and the play picks up pace. Ron Cook as Pistol and Matt Ryan as Fluellen in particular also got a round of applause from the audience for their comic playing, both excellent with the verse; the latter perhaps because of his youth, also bringing energy and physicality to his comedy playing. He gets his laughs without clowning but with verve. Ashley Zanghazha is also excellent as the one-man chorus who set the scene and dramatises the play’s self-reflexivity.

There’s a comic interlude in the play, an English lesson where Lady Alice (Noma Dumezweni) teaches Princess Katherine (Jessie Buckley) English, and probably inserted merely to allow the boys a costume change,  that nonetheless is very well thought through and directed and is funny and graceful whilst narratively setting up the final wooing of Princess Katherine by Henry.

That final wooing scene is the crowning glory of Law’s performance. He’s been charismatic, graceful, dynamic and moving throughout the course of the play. But nothing surprised as much as the comedy in his wooing: he gets laughs by letting the audience in the joke, the speech least likely to have been written about Law himself:

‘therefore was I created with a

stubborn outside, with an aspect of iron, that, when

I come to woo ladies, I fright them. But, in faith,

Kate, the elder I wax, the better I shall appear

But in his performance there is also the way he positions his leg, and the speed at which he gets up. The speech also allows him range. He’s simulatenously moving, embarrassed, flirty, arrogant and kingly; then a man wooing a woman and on the verge of doing wrong and almost apprehended by his beloved’s father as the French King walks in to the ratify the treaty.

He’s truly great. It’s hard to think anyone of his generation offering a better Henry V. And he gives the audience what they came for; not only the chance to see a movie star, but the thrill of seeing a movie star act live; a thrill in some cases charged with a more personal frisson (my friend, a fan, measured the distance from our seats to the stage and said, ‘I’ll probably never be this close to him again in my life’). When at the end one has seen a movie star give a great performance on stage  in one of the most challenging roles in the repertoire, then the joy is complete. Too bad Michael Grandage’s production doesn’t rise to the level of its star.

José Arroyo

Seen at the Noel Coward Theatre, London, 18th December, directed by Michael Grandage