There’s something a bit superfluous and a bit naive and a bit daft about this post. But after last night and this afternoon I just want to express how much at present I love the theatre. Of course I am deeply involved with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the thrilling and thoughtful and hilarious pair of Henry IV productions (coming soon to cinemas on 14 May and 18 June). But I want here to hymn two other productions that have excited me and moved me and provoked me and prompted tears from me over the past twenty-four hours. One is A View from the Bridge by Arthur Miller, directed by Ivo van Hove (the link is to an excellent Guardian backgrounder) and still in previews at the Young Vic (until 7 June). The other is Much Ado About Nothing which is directed by Maria Aberg and has just opened at the Royal ExchangeTheatre, Manchester (until 3 May, above). Both, in their different ways, left me touched with wonder.
Maria Aberg directed a revelatory King John in The Swan in 2012 and a glorious As You Like It in Stratford’s main house last year. She returns to the RSC to direct John Webster’s The White Devil this summer, but in the meantime she has been in Manchester making a thoroughly delightful and moving Much Ado About Nothing. The last time I saw the play was at Wyndham’s in that coarse farrago with David Tennant and Catherine Tate. Thankfully, this production is so much more nuanced and complex, and as a consequence both funnier and far more moving.
Marty Cruikshank is a wonderful Leonata (Maria Aberg enjoys playing with the genders of key characters) and I really admired Paul Ready as Benedick, while Ellie Piercy as Beatrice at times looks disconcertingly like a young Emma Thompson (who played the part in Kenneth Branagh’s film version) and emerges as a fine actress. I have never seen the Dogberry scenes work in the way that they unquestionably do here and the post-World War Two setting is sometimes provocative and never intrusive.
In the video Maria Aberg says,
For a play as joyous as this – in which community and celebration is so important – the Royal Exchange may well be the perfect theatre. Audiences can expect joy, belly laughs, hopefully the odd teary eye – a surprising and heartfelt evening about the rough and irresistible magic of falling in love.
Which just about sums up my response – a lot of laughs, tears trickling down my cheeks for the last 15 minutes and a glorious sense of joy as I left the theatre. Part of this, of course, derives the glory of some of Shakespeare’s most beautiful verse. Part comes from the overwhelming sense of the redemptive power of love. And part is the delicacy and beauty that the cast and the creative team achieve, not least with the transformation of the theatre space before the final scene. After this, my anticipation of The White Devil has ratcheted up yet one more notch.
The final scene of A View from the Bridge is also spectacular – and shocking and, in its way, redemptive. But I fear by writing this that I have already revealed too much. Certainly I was happy that I went last night without any sense of what the production would offer – and that innocence will be harder to maintain after the reviews come out later this week. Similarly harder then will be securing a ticket, because I will be very surprised if raves don’t cause a rush at the box office.
Miller’s play is both of its moment and entirely contemporary, Mark Strong is simply magnificent in the main role, and there is a simplicity and a clarity and a fierce intelligence driving the production forward. As I sat through the two hours (no interval) I felt excited and fearful and troubled and pummelled and wondering and astonished and ultimately exhilarated. Just at the moment these are all emotions that the theatre is offering often, albeit not with the intensity of last night. As for the other art forms… well, let’s say, not so much.