Review – The Giant by Antony Sher, Hampstead Theatre

Wednesday 7 November 2007

Christmas arrived early for the Whingers this year.

The last preview of Sir Antony Sher’s play The Giant at the Hampstead Theatre presented them with such an early feast of overdone turkey that they felt so sated on seasonal fare that they’re thinking of cancelling the real thing.

For once Phil, a fully fledged meat-eater, felt sorry for his fellow Whinger’s plight. Andrew is vegetarian and Phil pitied his vicissitudes.

And it had all looked promising…

Florence, 1501. Sher’s play centres around a competition between Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci (and someone else whose name we didn’t quite catch) to win the commission to carve a statue of David.

What a great idea for a play (setting aside the lack of suspense as to who the victor will be), thought Andrew, persuading Phil and Would-be Whinger Sue that it was sure to make for a highly enjoyable evening in the theatre.

Well apparently not. Not for the Whingers and not for Sue. And presumably the RSC decided it wasn’t quite their thing either given that – despite the fact that they commissioned it – it appears at the smaller (but beautifully formed) Hampstead Theatre in Swiss Cottage.

Hardly surprising really as it’s overwritten, over-long (nearly 3 hours) and so full of Italianate name-dropping and detail that it’s almost embarrassing (eye-witnesses will now understand why the Whingers were blushing – for the record it wasn’t the nudity. Of which there was plenty by the way).

Sher’s clearly been mugging up on the Renaissance but boy is he eager to let you know what he found. Not content with Leonardo and Michelangelo, Sher throws in a Machiavelli for good measure, The Whingers were half expecting appearances by the Borgias or perhaps Donatello and Raphael for a full set of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Bill Dudley’s set is impressive when you first enter the auditorium in a realistic, overdone sort of way.* Il Gigante, a block of Carrara marble from which the statue will be hewn, sits poised ready to be raised onto a turntable which revolves with cogs reminiscent of Leonardo’s inventions.

Unfortunately the marble looks less realistic under full stage lighting and when Michelangelo starts to chip away at it shards of unconvincing Plaster of Paris and dust fly around the stage. The fact that the post-show conversation was dominated by discussion as to how they filled in the chipped bits after each performance and what material they used speaks volumes really.

Phil was reminded of Leonardo the Musical : A Portrait of Love which was at least enjoyably bad.

Leonardo’s strange sidekick is so overly camp he makes John Inman‘s Mr Humphries look like Russell Crowe. Sher is seemingly so obsessed with sodomy that hardly a scene passes without some gag on the subject being introduced. Unfortunately they all fell rather flat -certainly no-one in the audience seemed to think that sodomy was particularly funny.

“It’s a cartoon of life” says one character, unintentionally summing up the whole evening (or, strictly speaking, half an evening for the Whingers and Sue who had seen more than enough by the interval). Carry on up the Renaissance would have been a more apt title.

Sher’s partner Greg Doran has directed the whole debacle and presumably he is rather too close to the author to get him to cut the play to a reasonable length or shape scenes into some kind of coherence. It’s a complete mess. The dialogue sometimes verges into a cod Shakesperean form of speaking which would be amusing if it weren’t so irritating. Pity Roger Allam (Leonardo) who rattles through some of his speeches as though desperate to help the audience get out before the last tube train.

Which reminds us: the Whingers hadn’t seen such a train wreck of a play since the notorious Resurrection Blues at the Old Vic.

Perhaps Sher should think about writing a play about the creation of that monstrous (in every sense) statue “The Meeting Place” (right) at the revamped St Pancras. There’s got to be a story behind the commissioning of that. As far as artistic merit goes (in Phil’s humble opinion) it would surely sit well with Sher’s playwriting – a marriage made in heaven perhaps?

On the plus side:

  • It was lovely to spend time with Sue (and thank you Sue, for the pic below, taken after the show).
  • Ditto to bump into John Morrison and his wife P at the interval. John promised to let us know what happened in the second act and is true to his word on his blog. The answer is “not much” and the highlight of John’s evening was sitting in the same row as Harriet Walter. Are we rubbing off on him? Poor man. He concludes: ” If Sher wasn’t the author, The Giant would be mouldering, quite rightly, on somebody’s slush pile of rejected plays.”
  • Even though we only made it to the interval, Andrew had a lovely long nap and emerged refreshed.
  • Phil hadn’t visited the new Hampstead Theatre before and was impressed with the foyer and auditorium, which from the outside looks like a giant fairground Wall of Death. The sight-lines are excellent (eat your hearts out Tricycle and Cottesloe) and the wooden slatted walls stylish, but Phil couldn’t help thinking they must be a buggar to dust – especially with all this fake marble dust filling the air.

The West End Whingers at Swiss Cottage


* Lest there be any misunderstanding, the West End Whingers would like to point out that they really, really like William Dudley’s work as the last thing they want at the moment is to be hounded by a vengeful theatre designer. Thank you.

4 Responses to “Review – The Giant by Antony Sher, Hampstead Theatre”

  1. I am going to avoid walking close to any large overhanging blocks of marble until the dust settles. I suggest you do the same.

  2. We’re not taking any chances. We’re fleeing to New York tomorrow. They’ll never find us there.

  3. Outside the theatre last night was a rather good French cheese-and-sausage stall, so I bought some saucisson à l’aïl during the interval and thus spent the second act secure in the knowledge that the wurst was yet to come.

  4. […] The West End Whingers lasted no longer than we did – here. […]

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