The best place to see a cinema star these days is often the theatre. Both Kristin Scott Thomas and Lindsay Lohan recently came out from behind the screen in London. Between films, Scott Thomas has been a frequent theatre performer, including in Chekhov’s The Seagull and Pinter’s Old Times for Ian Rickson, who now directs her in Electra at the Old Vic. Lohan, though, is making her stage debut in a revival of David Mamet’s Speed-the-Plow at the Playhouse. Such have been the young actress’s past troubles with substances and punctuality that you suspect the producers may have had to lay out huge premiums to get the show insured.
The roles that they have chosen must be among the most emotionally contrasting parts there are. Sophocles’s Electra, grieving for years over the disappearance of her brother Orestes and the murder of her father by her mother, is desperately expressive: the challenge for an actress is to find a place to breathe. Mamet’s Karen, a temporary secretary working for the new Hollywood studio boss Bobby Gould on the day the producer Charlie Fox pitches him a brainless prison thriller, is, as demanded by the stage directions, terrifyingly impassive and blank: the challenge for an actress is to find somewhere to smile.
In any direct comparison, Scott Thomas holds the advantage over Lohan in talent and character. Her Chekhov and Pinter roles showed an unusual ability to act with her whole body and Electra is thrillingly physical. Through cosmetics of a realism more common in film, she genuinely resembles someone whom grief has robbed of sleep and eating. Told that her brother is dead, she enacts a terrifying stamping haka across the stage but also finds cruel humour in the part, throwing a look of sarcastic incredulity when her mother, Clytemnestra (Diana Quick), asks if she has no shame.
It was fascinating to watch this Electra so soon after Maxine Peake’s Hamlet in Manchester because both Frank McGuinness’s text and Scott Thomas’s performance make explicit the role’s overlaps with the Danish ditherer: here is another child desperate to avenge a father’s death and a mother’s sexual betrayal.
Lindsay Lohan, in her music career, has little hope of earning the review “better than Madonna” but, in theatre, she empirically is. The part of Karen was created in 1988 on Broadway by Ms Ciccone and she has subsequently almost always been played by inexperienced stage actresses, including Laura Michelle Kelly and Elisabeth Moss. It suits ingénues because Mamet demands nervous naivety in the opening scenes and the biggest speeches by the secretary can, in an emergency, be read from the book onstage.
If anything, Lohan brings a little too much charisma and humour to the role and is the main reason to see this Speed-the-Plow. Her more experienced co-stars – the English Nigel Lindsay as Fox and the American Richard Schiff as Gould – are oddly slow and low-key, the former struggling to keep the accent, the latter to locate a character who needs to be satanic. (There is a later Mamet one-acter called Bobby Gould in Hell.)
Lohan has to deliver a line that is a hostage to audience reaction: “I know what it is to be bad; I’ve been bad.” Here, however, she’s good, although, across town, Kristin Scott Thomas is showing what it is to be great.
Hiding in plain sight
Born decades, oceans and cultures apart, Sir Winston Churchill and Ai Weiwei seem an odd couple but make a passionate marriage in a magnificent exhibition (until 14 December) of the Chinese artist’s work at the British war leader’s stately home of Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire.
Churchill was a part-time artist and both men became symbols of democratic fights. Through the imagination of the artist and the co-operation of the Blenheim curators – collaborating at long-distance with a dissident confined by the authorities to Beijing – the exhibition thrills by placing the work amid the Churchill furniture and memorabilia, rather than confining it to a room or gallery.
As a result, viewers play an exhilarating game of “Where’s Weiwei?” Some of the ambushes are blatant, such as the clothes-hanger shape of a hanged man suspended above Sir Winston’s bed. Other works are more oblique – a marble gas mask placed in a fireplace – and, in one display case, almost invisible, next to shelves of Sèvres porcelain, Ai has placed perfect imitation plates with his own pattern.
It is in this Chinese china that the visual and verbal punning loved by the artist reaches new levels of complexity and the deeper meanings of the spot-the-imposter sport of the show become clear. This is an exhibition about conformity, intervention, hiding in plain sight and the foreign as more congenial than home – the great themes of Ai Weiwei’s brave life and art.
This isn’t the easiest show to see, viewers needing to contend with the static traffic Blenheim naturally creates and pay a full house-and-grounds entry fee of £22.50, even just to see the art. But the artist, heinously under house arrest, has produced the most arresting exhibition of the year.