Phil Willmott travels through theatreland…

The Observer, A Dolls house, Duet for One

London can boast of an unusually fine array of meaty drama at the moment. In particular the National Theatre has just staged a very good new play called The Observer which is as fast moving as a good TV thriller and packed with lots of provocative ideas.

It’s about a United Nations employee sent to a fictitious West African country to ensure that the first elections there are free and fair. Unfortunately she finds that even the smallest of interventions, motivated by the best of intentions can have a profound effect on the delicate balance of a democratic process. The staging by veteran director Richard Eyre powerfully evokes the isolation and strangeness of a third world country and Anna Chancellor as the central character perfectly portrays a composed English bureaucrat plunged into uncertainty and doubt and unravelling under the pressure. Everything’s brought to simmering point by her romance with an idealistic translator (Chuk Iwuji) and a host of crooked misfits that make up the expat community. It’s exhilarating to spend an evening considering such big ideas dramatised in such a powerful and engaging way.

One of the past masters of provocative drama was the ninetieth century Norwegian Henrik Ibsen who grippingly depicted individuals trapped by family circumstances or the injustice of society. The Donmar Warehouse Theatre in Covent Garden is currently home to a revival of one of his best known works, A Dolls House. During the course of a traumatic Christmas a young spoilt wife comes to realise that her marriage is a prison when her attempts to help her husband spiral into disaster and she becomes the victim of a blackmail plot that brings out the worst in him.

The current production has been given a bit of a make over by Playwright Zinnie Harris who has, amongst other things, rewritten the husband as a politician in Edwardian London. So what was once a domestic tragedy now becomes a political thriller as fear of public disgrace becomes a factor.

I thought this blunted play. It affords us a few good laughs as we enjoy the similarity between corrupt politicians then and now but this is cheap stuff and the wife’s suffering gets eclipsed. It’s well worth a visit though to see one of the starriest casts in London. Former Doctor Who, Christopher Eccleston, is mesmerising as the desperate blackmailer, handsome theatre god, Toby Stephens is the dashing insensitive husband, X Files’ Gillian Anderson gets all harassed and then glacial as the wronged wife and premiere leaguers actors Anton Lesser and Tara Fitzgerald provide excellent support as family friends trapped in the web.

I sent my colleague Tim Newns to see the other big drama of the moment, Duet for One (pictured). Here’s his reaction to the compelling play based on the life of MS sufferer, the musician Jacqueline DuPres.

“Matthew Lloyd’s masterful production, which recently transferred from the Almeida Theatre, is a truly profound and charismatic piece. Powerful acting combined with Tom Kempinski’s incredibly thought provoking and at times brutal writing left me speechless when the visibly exhausted actors took their final bow.

Juliet Stevenson is superb as Stephanie Abrahams, a once accomplished violinist now wheelchair bound with Multiple Sclerosis and struggling with the loss of her ability to make music. She seeks the help of Dr. Feldmann, a German psychiatrist boldly but eloquently portrayed by Henry Goodman. We witness six therapy sessions between the two and my sympathies kept jumping from character to character as Abrahams became more hostile in her desperation and Dr Feldmann tested our nerves with quintessential therapist questions like “How do you feel?”

Both performances are unique and highly creditable in their own right. Stevenson is at times incredibly moving, filling the room with her rhythmic and mesmerising tone – similar to the Bach and Beethoven that merge the scenes together. Goodman starts off quiet and brooding in a rather quirky performance that climaxes to an astounding turn around when he confronts his patient

This is soul searching at its best. An exhausting evening which forces you to confront your own inner demons and asks you to consider what life holds when your purpose, your bread, your music, your passion is suddenly taken away”

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