Theatre in London

Power and politics

d'Lëtzebuerger Land du 07.12.2018

A very very very dark matter is the latest play by Oscar-winning writer Martin McDonagh. Matthew Dunster directs this exuberant Gothic tale, with the marvellous Jim Broadbent in the role of Hans Christian Andersen, the 19th-century Danish author of fairy tales. As you walk into the airy space at the Bridge Theatre, you see that the box-office is selling King Leopold’s ghost, Adam Hochschild’s groundbreaking study on the Congo. Clearly then, this is not going to be a show about a little mermaid or an ugly duckling! In fact, McDonagh deals with what has long been associated with colonial rule under King Leopold II, namely slave labour, imprisonment, mutilation and mass murder. But he does so in his usual tone, i.e. with macabre humour and quick banter.

His Hans Christian Andersen is a creepy piece of work, a monster of cruelty who has kidnapped a young Congolese woman and locked her up in a towering attic, amidst puppets of all shapes and sizes. The woman he has decided to call Marjory sits in a box from which pages keep fluttering through a thin slot as she writes all his tales for him. Meanwhile, Andersen himself is being turned into a national hero venerated by the masses.

Strangely enough, when Andersen visits Charles Dickens in London, we discover a disturbing parallel since the latter relies on a similar set-up. Celebrity is set against cruelty, exploitation against ambition. Still, at one point the skeletons that are literally tucked away in cupboards refuse to remain silent! And as soon as two red men from Belgium, blood-soaked Dupond et Dupont figures straight out of Tintin, appear on stage, the surreal takes over.

This is a more than intriguing evening filled with manic energy and gallows humour. It takes you to very very dark places indeed, though historians may baulk at the time travel and the occasional oversimplification.

If you prefer to have a straightforward look at modern party politics, you should see I’m not running, the 17th play by David Hare that premieres at the National. Neil Armfield directs.

The action moves back and forth between present and past, between the personal and the political. We see Pauline Gibson (a very strong Siân Brooke) looking after her terminally ill mother; we also see her working as a doctor and campaigning to save the local hospital. Coincidentally, the two essays published in the programme quote the former Conservative Chancellor Nigel Lawson, who said that the NHS is “the closest thing the English people have to a religion”.

In the process Pauline becomes a national icon and enters parliament as an independent. Single-issue militancy is set against party politics. Still, she will have to join a party one day if she wants to climb up the greasy pole. And then, messy compromises are inevitably going to be on the agenda.

Oddly enough, Hare’s play has a powerful pre-Brexit state-of-the-nation feel to it since it deals with all sorts of current issues that have been on hold for over two years now.

For a grander sweep, you should head for Antony and Cleopatra with Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo in the title roles. Last time this tragedy was shown at the National, Alan Rickman and Helen Mirren failed to live up to expectations. The 1998 staging was an embarrassingly dreary affair that lacked passion.

Now Simon Godwin directs. And the Egyptian court looks like a slightly decadent Versace advert full of colourful patterns and shimmering swimming-pools. Okonedo’s Cleopatra is as flirtatious as she can be, but she is, above all, funny, which gives a fresh and puzzling edge not just to her as a character but to the production as a whole. Meanwhile Fiennes excels at being a languorous Mark Antony, who is torn between Rome and Egypt, between public responsibility and hedonistic flamboyance or what Shakespeare refers to elsewhere as sublunary love. There is a further twist at the very end, when the live snake that Cleopatra uses to kill herself quietly steals the show! Not to be missed.

A very very very dark matter, Bridge Theatre, SE1, to December 29; I’m not running, National Theatre, SE1, to January 31 (will come to Utopia cinema as part of NT Live on January 31); Antony and Cleopatra, National Theatre, SE1, to January 19.

Janine Goedert
© 2018 d’Lëtzebuerger Land