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January 23 2011

Twelfth Night; Tiger Country; The Painter – review

Cottesloe; Hampstead; Arcola, all London

To celebrate his 80th birthday, Peter Hall has returned to the building he once ran and directed a sweetly autumnal Twelfth Night. His breeches-and-farthingale production, set under a canopy flecked with russet-coloured leaves, doesn't break much new ground – there's hardly a moment when it shows you something you'd never suspected was there – but, at its best, it does better than that: it seems completely natural.

Take Simon Paisley Day's icily exact Malvolio, who walks as if he were skating, and whose head lies so still on his ruff that it could be a severed bonce on a platter. Or his polar opposite, Simon Callow's Toby Belch: pink-faced, wobbly cheeks, a belting old fruit. He is every flabby inch the ramshackle roisterer, who announces the keynote of his unbuttoned, spilling-over performance in his spluttering rejection of the notion that he "confine" himself. Yet just as that looks too easy, he finds another register.

Usually it's the wistful absurdity of Andrew Aguecheek's "I was adored once" that brings a plaintive note into the clash of tankards. Here, though, it is Callow's crumpling face, as he declares that Maria adores him, that ushers in a sudden change of temperature.

There are some duff stretches. The yellow stockings sequence is neither funny nor disturbing. David Ryall's Feste is not so much melancholy as down-in-the-dumps: he wanders on like Mole after a bad day's spring cleaning in The Wind in the Willows. And as Orsino, Marton Csokas is preposterous: a wrist-bending, knee-pleating, over-expostulating, neck-bridling gazer into the middle distance, he seems to be taking off a Victorian pantomime villain.

Still, the centre of the play is gracefully delivered by the daughter of the director, Rebecca Hall. Her velvet-voiced androgyny supplies its tender heart. Lightly soulful as she trembles between tearfulness and merriment, she looks, in knickerbockers and buckled shoes, like an older version of the boy in When Did You Last See Your Father? A question to which she could provide the right answer.

As could her brother, Edward, the newish artistic director of Hampstead. It's taken Hall the Younger a little time to show the fighting form needed to put his beleaguered theatre on the new-writing map. Still, with Nina Raine's medical play, directed by the dramatist, he has something that can be judged by the high standards set by the Royal Court. On press night people were swearing they could smell disinfectant wafting from the stage.

Tiger Country was actually started before Tribes, which remains Raine's best work so far. It has the metro wit and banter of her first play, Rabbit, but a bigger canvas and more elaborate movement. Set in a big London hospital, it closely observes diagnostic skill, failed attempts at resuscitation, a bungled operation, great gentleness in dealing with a dying patient, and an impatience with the idea that "caring" means a caressing manner. This is not an obviously political play. It is not about NHS cuts, though it does have things to say about shortage of time and staff, and about constant fatigue: "I'm losing patience with the patients.'"

Alongside zeal and high spirits, it shows bullying, frustration and prejudice among the clinical staff: an Indian doctor, fresh from sneering at a West Indian nurse, complains that she has spent her career trying to sound hyper-British and to behave as if she were a man. It also drops little nuggets of information. A young doctor hoards swabs to take off her makeup; a surgeon explains that the same neurones in our brains are activated by eating sugary things and by settling a score: "In other words, revenge is sweet."

You are in tiger country in an operating theatre when you take a knife close to an artery. Raine's achievement is to stage a world governed by the laws of that country. Everyone rushes; everyone is on the edge. Huge images of a pumping heart swim around the walls of the stage as if in an underwater landscape; characters in sea-green gowns weave frantically around each other. And when they take off their gowns (and settle down to watch Doctors on the telly), their love affairs are arrhythmic, as if they too are moving to a hospital beat.

Follow the director and impresario Mehmet Ergen and you're likely to end up in the theatrical thick of things. In 1993 he helped to found Southwark Playhouse, on a South Bank that was innocent of edgy theatre; he slept in the building. Nowadays you can't move there for dramatic life. Eleven years ago he snatched an old textile factory in Dalston, east London, from the hands of developers who wanted to turn it into a snooker hall and founded the Arcola, to the dismay of some critics who considered the area alarming.

That building is now being turned into deluxe flats, Dalston has become a transport hub, and Ergen has taken his vision – which includes programmes for schools, and plays designed to encourage co-operation between local Turkish and Kurdish residents – into a beautiful industrial mansion: an 1868 factory built by Reeves, the paint manufacturers, a vaulting space with exposed brick (and currently rather over-exposed lavs), iron pillars, a smell of sawdust and possibility.

Here he has directed Rebecca Lenkiewicz's play about JMW Turner, who used the cakes of paint made by the firm. As a series of historical vignettes, The Painter is a fine thing. Rumpled, furrowed Toby Jones works at his golden sunsets and swirling storms in a studio meticulously but not too doggedly reconstructed in Ben Stones's design with bottle-green stove, clutter of paints and chamber-pot-concealing screen; the brickwork and rough floorboards of the new Arcola wire the 19th century into the 21st.

Alongside the artist, though never quite impinging on him, are his mother, who goes mad and is taken to Bedlam; Sarah Danby, by whom he had two children, who cleaves to him; an ex-prostitute (impressive Denise Gough) who befriends him; and his father, who cooks for him. Turner talks of the sublime; others talk of the pleasures of wig-making, the fascination of snake-swallowers ("you just pinch their tail and they'll hop in there") and the ploy of putting leeches inside young prostitutes to make clients think they are having a virgin.

Adrienne Quartly's soundscape sends husky notes from a bass clarinet curling between episodes; superb lighting by Emma Chapman makes each scene a small adventure in illumination and obscurity. What's odd is that the different light of Turner's own paintings doesn't infiltrate the play. The gap between domestic life and activity on the canvas is hinted at but not explored. The play drifts. Not so much The Fighting Temeraire as a trim little dinghy. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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