What a wonderful song Richard Hawley made in Standing at the Sky’s Edge. Searing and soaring. Now his vision (the track featured on his 2012 album of the same name) fuels a glorious musical. You might think Robert Hastie’s production, set in the Park Hill estate – the tower blocks on the hills above Sheffield – was a local matter: the audience appreciated details (Henderson’s Relish) in Chris Bush’s script that had to be explained to this London critic. But local is not the same as limited. As Hawley has proved in the music, with which he has lit up the nooks of his city: the more specific, the more penetrating.
Park Hill appears here as a political barometer of this disunited kingdom. Opened in 1961, intended as egalitarian, efficient housing, it fell into neglect in the 80s. Now partially redeveloped, it has been discovered by the socially aspirant. Yet it also lends itself to the poetry of those wanted to build “streets in the sky”.
Ben Stones’s design is high-rising but wide-reaching. It is grey and unadorned, waiting to be enriched not by architectural detail but by the lives of inhabitants. Three generations weave in and out of the same flat. In 1970, a woman with flick-ups and a hubbie working in steel. In the 80s, a family from Liberia is condescended to by the bloke showing them around (“you know what a fridge is?”). In the more or less present, a Londoner (“do they have Ocado up here?”), halloumi-eating with a vivid romantic life.
The plot floats on Hawley’s music (three new songs alongside many classics): brooding and broody, alienated and homespun. Lynne Page’s choreography is imaginative and muted, as if everyone was gradually dancing out of their lives; in one sad, small scene, a couple break up without words, across a tea table – wrists and elbows flying apart from each other. The show gets some standout voices – Maimuna Memon is unforgettable as she hollers Open Up the Door. But the lovely thing is that the show enacts its heart: individual romance is mixed with communal solidarity; whooping single performances are continually joined by choruses. Despite Margaret Thatcher, there is such a thing as society.
You can’t say political theatre is dead when this happens. Or when Bruce Norris – at the opposite end of the spectrum from this open-hearted panorama – is systematically unpicking the knottiest of western (mostly American, but with a UK overlap) social snarls, deceptions and horrors. He did so unnervingly in his Pulitzer prize-winning Clybourne Park. His new play, a joint production by the National and Steppenwolf, is a prime example of his corrugated plotting and nimble intellectual confrontation. He manipulates an audience’s expectations, confronting them with their prejudices, like an old enemy suddenly bumped into at a corner.
Downstate is set in Illinois, in a home for convicted paedophiles: one has abused a 14-year-old boy; another has raped his own daughter; all are increasingly restricted in their movements as neighbours complain about seeing them at large. They complain about lavatory arrangements; observe each other’s biscuits – and look out for each other. And then a middle-aged man, who was as a teenager fondled and penetrated by one of these men, turns up, seeking a letter of reconciliation, a detailed, apologetic description of what happened. His accusations – well, most of them – are not disputed, but the exact damage, which he says ruined his life, is more difficult to assess.
The accuser (Tim Hopper) is raw and disturbed. A wound with hardly any personality wrapped around it. His rage seems to guarantee his authenticity, but does not make a cogent argument for further retribution. The accused (terrible, delicate Francis Guinan) is avuncular – and in a wheelchair. He plays Chopin and addresses everyone – quavering voice, unfocused look – as if he were bestowing a blessing. All this makes him look plausible – but not innocent.
Norris has said the play is about forgiveness. Which implies there is something to forgive; there is no mitigation of horrors. Yet the really intricate and disturbing contention is not that paedophiles may have feelings, guilts and terrors while doing terrible things. It is the play’s tackling of a profound shibboleth: the idea of the victim. Everyone here thinks of himself as exactly that. Bar one– in a terrific, serpentine performance, K Todd Freeman plays the cleverest person on stage with an aloof elegance born from a horrific history. Oh, and Cecilia Noble, as the weary, forceful police officer in charge of them all, proves she is one of the strongest actresses of the decade.
It’s a piquant notion to reopen the theatre at Alexandra Palace, closed for 80 years, with Richard III, a play about a disrupter of palaces, a celebrated royal destroyer. And when would you be more confident that the words “winter of discontent” would provoke a murmur of recognition from an audience.
How wonderful that this capacious arena, with its mind-expanding views and its vaulting Victorian confidence, has been so beautifully restored. In John Haidar’s Headlong production, Elliot Griggs’s lighting splashes out over the stage so that alongside Shakespeare’s murky action you see bright patches of exposed brickwork: layers of regal history one on another.
As Richard, Tom Mothersdale yanks his audience to a new understanding of his theatrical range. After the detailed naturalism of his performances in John and Dealing With Clair, he becomes an antic cartoon villain: a titanic, lurching tripod, who casts the huge shadows for which Richard is famous. It is hard to imagine a prince for whom “bottled spider” looks less like metaphor and more the simple truth.
He is damned from the beginning: the production, which draws on some scenes from Henry VI, Part 3, opens with murder; his famous soliloquy is deferred. Though he gives glimpses of a sadness that drives his ire, this is not Crookback restored. Nor is it the play entirely revisited. There is smoke, darkness, electric fizzling. Chiara Stephenson’s ingenious design sets the action in front of arches that can become mirrors or present Richard’s victims like installations. Yet for all the hurtle, the speed often droops. Not so much dynamic as dynastic.
Star ratings (out of five)
Standing at the Sky’s Edge ★★★★
Richard III ★★★