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6 September 2019

A Very Expensive Poison and Hansard: sets that make or break

Two new plays, at the Old Vic and the National Theatre, both have incredible assets – but their set designs are on the one hand too bland, on the other too busy.

By Helen Lewis

What is the point of set design? The physical dressing of a stage can situate the text in a particular time or place; it can manifest a character’s interior world; or it can simply dazzle or delight. (Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s An Octoroon reaches a climax by setting the stage on fire; Duncan Macmillan’s version of Ibsen’s Rosmersholm sees it flooded.) 

When a play doesn’t “work”, whatever that means, the set designer rarely gets a mention. But in both Hansard and A Very Expensive Poison, the staging reflects a fundamental problem with the production. 

Hansard first. The National’s second biggest stage, the Lyttelton, is a tough venue for a first-time playwright such as Simon Woods. As Tory MP Robin Hesketh (Alex Jennings) returns home to his constituency, his disillusioned left-wing wife Diana (Lindsay Duncan) is waiting for him in a standard-issue Cotswolds kitchen: cream walls, Aga, endless hidden cabinets containing decanters and other paraphernalia of upper-middle-class life. Hildegard Bechtler, one of the most talented set designers working today, could simply have handed over a Hello! spread of Liz Hurley At Home to get this result. The interior is so bland, so featureless, that it took 20 minutes – and a reference to a living Princess Diana – to situate this play in the 1980s. And really, there is nothing else to mark it out as something written in 2019, not even the reliable laugh generated by Diana Hesketh asking about the “insatiable desire of the people of this country to be fucked by an Old Etonian”. 

Diana, left at home while her husband goes on Any Questions? and votes for Section 28, has not stamped herself on the house. Neither has Robin. The staging offers us few clues about their psychology – which, being generous, is the point. They are living half-lives, stuck together, bickering endlessly, numb from an unspecified tragedy. (I don’t consider it a spoiler to say that this turns out to be the death of their gay son, because that reference to Section 28 didn’t so much telegraph the twist as Trump-tweet it.) Their fights are superficially witty – zingers are exchanged – but the realism of the tone makes them deeply unenjoyable. This is about real pain. 

The Lyttelton is a Viking long boat of a stage, and its sheer length allows Jennings and Duncan to prowl around, circling each other. That’s necessary, given that the play is a single 90-minute scene with no set changes. But the panoramic stage allows such distance between them that you wonder: why stay together at all? These people are rich enough to live separate lives. The house tells their story, and it doesn’t make sense. In fact, the only way this play does make sense is economically: aimed squarely at the National’s core audience, it has sold well. With two actors, one set and £89 top price tickets, it must help offset the theatre’s constantly declining subsidy. The evil Tories (boo!) might not triumph onstage, but in financial terms, this play represents their real victory. 

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A Very Expensive Poison (AVEP), Lucy Prebble’s account of the murder of Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko in 2006, has the opposite problem: too many sets, and to little effect. Prebble has a huge canvas: post-Soviet Russian pride, corruption, a man who cannot bear to lie despite the terrible consequences, a detective story, a love story. I read a rehearsal draft, and it had even more; some of the stubs of ideas remain in the finished version.

Prebble’s difficulty in locating the heart of the narrative – the truly essential part – is reflected in Tom Scutt’s design. It gives us an exhausting series of naturalistic settings – the Litvinenko house, an Itsu restaurant table, a hospital room – interspersed with surrealist touches such as nine-foot-high Yeltsin puppets and Vladimir Putin talking to the audience from a box. The characters constantly break the fourth wall, so why bother even to gesture at naturalism? It just means a lot of whirring and lifting and wallpaper dropping and stagehands scurrying about like they are working the counter at Argos. These sets don’t speak to each other – there is no unifying colour, or vivid detail, to give them a sense of coherence. It just feels like a lot of stuff, as does the play itself. 

Both productions have incredible assets. The lead performances are superb (though the Russian accents in AVEP are ill-advised; there’s no escaping the memory of Robbie Coltrane in GoldenEye or Sean Connery in The Hunt For Red October). Prebble is a ferociously talented writer, as the HBO series Succession has proved, and Simon Woods is no slouch for a first-timer. AVEP has a savagery and ambition that demands notice. But the productions are unsatisfying. One has too few ideas, and one too many. You only have to look at them to know it.

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This article appears in the 11 Sep 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron’s legacy of chaos