The week in theatre: A Very Expensive Poison; A Doll’s House; Hedda Tesman – review | Susannah Clapp

Old Vic; Lyric Hammersmith, London; Minerva, Chichester
Lucy Prebble’s take on the Litvinenko murder swivels brilliantly between tragedy and farce, while Ibsen’s women still have much to say to a divided society

A spotlit Vladimir Putin leans out from a theatre box, implacable, scornful. A giant golden phallus rears up on stage. Handprints made luminous by radiation glow along the side of the proscenium arch. And a woman walks towards the audience to talk of her husband’s murder in a London hotel – and the dreadful delay of the British government in bringing the facts to light.

Lucy Prebble’s galvanising, messy, vital play is based on Luke Harding’s book about the killing of Alexander Litvinenko. The facts are riveting: the polonium in the green tea, Marina Litvinenko’s persistence in demanding a public inquiry, Chris Grayling’s refusal to grant her legal aid. The resonance is enormous.

Prebble has talked eloquently about the current “sudden shifts in the boundaries of what is normal” in political life. She and the director, John Crowley, have created a new theatrical babel to reflect the wildness and unlikeliness of what is going on: A Very Expensive Poison lurches from one mood and one form to another. Tom Scutt’s frighteningly fertile design alternately shrinks and blows open the stage, swerving from naturalism to grandiose fantasy. Here is a dingy yellowish Russian flat, a massive triumphalist golden arch, a plain hospital bed in which Tom Brooke’s arresting, elusive Litvinenko sits propped up, as in his familiar news photograph. Most famous when the cause of his plight was most buried.

Swerving in and out of reality has been a recurring concern of Prebble’s plays: it is her true subject and it is what makes her so truly theatrical. In Enron she put the digital and the fleshy side by side; in The Effect she put on stage manufactured emotion. Here she can make an audience think it has swallowed Alice’s delusion-inducing potion. Scale and mood flip from moment to moment. From scenes fuelled by toxic masculinity to scenes commandeered by the determination of Marina Litvinenko, for whom this is a love story and a tragedy.

MyAnna Buring barely allows a tremor in her voice: she is controlled, determined and graceful – like the dancer this widow was; as her husband’s hair starts to fall out from the effects of radiation, she calmly collects it in a plastic hospital cup. Around her is the scarcely human, the fabricated and the farcical. Bungling operatives leave their poison in a hotel room. Reece Shearsmith’s creamy, chilling Putin steals all over the theatre like a lethal gas; Peter Polycarpou’s oligarch bursts into jovial song. A professor takes us calmly through a shadow play about nuclear reactors called Ruslan and Ludymila. Giant puppets of Yeltsin and Brezhnev wander through an apartment, escapees from an axed satirical TV show. In one of the boldest strokes Michael Shaeffer finely delivers a speech about Soviet deaths in the second world war and the effects of shame: it comes just as you think your capacity for sympathy has evaporated. And just when you might think there are too many theatrical swivellings, Buring steps off the stage into the audience. Of course that is another swivel. But that is part of the point. To make you flex your feeling as well as your brain.

In a year of fracturing society and identity the theatre has reached for Henrik Ibsen. There have been multiple and varied engagements with his plays. Rewritings in period (Duncan Macmillan’s Rosmersholm), updatings (David Hare’s Peer Gynt), sequels (Samuel Adamson’s Wife). This month Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s new version of An Enemy of the People opens in Nottingham with Alex Kingston in the title role. And elsewhere there are two full-scale transplantations.

Anjana Vassan's Niru sits on Elliot Cowan's knee as he fondles her chin, in A Doll's House
No Munch screams: Elliot Cowan and Anjana Vasan in A Doll’s House at the Lyric theatre, Hammersmith. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

In her glowing first production as artistic director of the Lyric Hammersmith Rachel O’Riordan has made Tanika Gupta’s new adaptation of A Doll’s House work in an almost entirely unexpected way. Forget Munch screams, bleached light, stealth, darkness, upholstery. Replace with a rosy-lit courtyard, a banana tree, monkeys and a live thrum of harmonium, lute and dholak drum: Lily Arnold and Kevin Treacy design the set and lighting; Arun Ghosh plays his own compositions.

Gupta has moved the action to the Calcutta of 1879, the date the play was written. Every part is recalibrated. Crucially, Nora becomes Niru, a young Bengali woman; her husband, Tom Helmer, is a colonial administrator. Niru shimmers in saris; Helmer (Elliot Cowan) is buttoned into a three-piece suit: he calls his wife his little skylark. When he bends over her is he protecting or entrapping her in the cage of his body?

Colonialism maps naturally on to patriarchy, with such visual immediacy that much of the political exchanges between Helmer and his more liberal friend Dr Rank are redundant. These are the stiffest parts of the evening. The most glorious belong to Anjana Vasan (Niru). Over the past few years she has proved her versatile talent. She has been funky as Hermia in Emma Rice’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, languorous as a blues singer in Summer and Smoke, fascinating as Galileo’s daughter. She is magnetic here as she moves – emphasising her daintiness by standing on tiptoe – from skittish to shadowed. Indeed, her feet – flicking out flirtatiously or dismissively – do as much work as many actors’ faces. Three tweaks would give her performance an extra definition. Speaking rapidly, rhythmically as if her words were dancing ahead of her, she sometimes swallows the ends of her sentences. Her actual dance cleverly becomes a trance-like meditation: I wanted more. Oh and her face-slapping is not convincing. But then I’ve rarely seen a theatrical slap that was.

At Chichester, Cordelia Lynn has ingeniously engaged with Hedda Gabler, moving the action to the present day, making Hedda some 20 years older than in the original, and her female rival not a friend but a daughter. In other ways she sticks closely to Ibsen’s plot, sometimes ensnarling herself.

Haydn Gwynne's Hedda Tesman, dressed in silk pyjamas, wraps her arms around her
‘Contemptuously commanding’: Haydn Gwynne in Holly Race Roughan’s production of Hedda Tesman. Photograph: Johan Persson

Still, there are fine new emphases: a strong undercurrent of sexual feeling (though love-object Irfan Shamji needs more lustre), an underlining of Hedda’s compulsive secrecy, a welcome attention to the life of Bertha the servant. The retitling – Hedda Tesman – is piquant, pointing to the way Hedda is always defined by a man: in Ibsen’s original she is trapped by her father, General Gabler, whose name she keeps, and whose portrait glowers here, half-unpacked in the background of Anna Fleischle’s set. Now she’s cramped by her husband from whom, puzzlingly, she can’t break. But then this woman is no feminist: she is a sophisticated infant; her imperious passion outstrips her achievements; her discontent freewheels.

In Holly Race Roughan’s pensive production, a ghostly pianist plays snatches of Clara Schumann; Anthony Calf (Tesman) is finely ruffled and earnest; Jonathan Hyde (Brack) a Weinsteinian lizard. And Haydn Gwynne’s Hedda is contemptuously commanding. She sees off the opposition (everyone) with a levelling of Daddy’s revolvers and a flounce of her Japanese-print silk pyjamas. Fleischle’s costumes – which include a nicely calculated black suit – are beautifully telling, though she has overdone the old-fashioned drabness of the aunt’s hat. And, oh, the despair on Gwynne’s face as her husband declares his love. It was part of Ibsen’s brilliance to show the excavating effect of unhappiness.

Star ratings (out of five):
A Very Expensive Poison ★★★★★
A Doll’s House ★★★★
Hedda Tesman ★★★

A Very Expensive Poison is at the Old Vic, London SE1, until 5 October
A Doll’s House is at the Lyric Hammersmith, London W6, until 5 October
Hedda Tesman is at the Minerva theatre, Chichester, until 28 September


Susannah Clapp

The GuardianTramp

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