Posts tagged ‘a younger theatre’

2 November, 2010

Reviled. Respected. Revived.

I didn’t enjoy the Lyric Hammersmith’s revival of Blasted – but you’d think I was sick if I said I had, right?

Sarah Kane’s first play features rape (both explicit and implied), bigotry, despair, physical and psychological torture, the sucking-out of a man’s eyes and the cannibalism of a dead baby. What respite there is comes from the darkest possible humour. And Sean Holmes’s production both lingers on the atrocities, and punctuates them with eked-out moments of anticipation-laden near-inaction: held breaths of suffocating duration.

It’s not a play you enjoy; it’s one you endure.

When I arrive home from the theatre, the first thing my housemates ask is “Did you enjoy it?”. Taking in a show is a leisure pursuit, so it isn’t surprising that people judge the experience on how pleasurable it is. So can giving your audience a thoroughly miserable time ever be considered a valid artistic objective?

To mix my media momentarily and paraphrase Sally Sparrow from the Doctor Who episode Blink, sad is happy for deep people. Enjoyment isn’t necessarily every theatregoer’s goal or expectation; or at least, enjoyment can be reached by more than one route – for instance, via discomfort.

Stick with me.

In Blasted, the Soldier (Aidan Kelly) accuses journalist Ian (Danny Webb) of closing his eyes to the lives and hardships of the people he meets. To watch / endure Blasted, and not to turn away when (for instance) the Soldier goes to work on Ian, is to prove oneself better than Ian and the people he represents (you and I). The enjoyment to be had from the play is a kind of solemn, supercilious smugness. “I watched. I didn’t pretend it wasn’t happening. I faced it without flinching.”

But who left the auditorium resolved to pay more attention to foreign wars, or to the people sleeping in shop doorways on your way to work? Not I. I was just relieved it was over. That’s just the thing: it ends. You know it’ll end even if it seems interminable (and those dramaturgical held breaths of Holmes’s play havoc with your perception of time; it’s masterful). You’re allowed to stop facing it down – it lets you win the staring contest in a way real life never will. The victory is fiction, and the smugness is founded on fiction.

Written by Sarah Kane

Crew includes Sean Holmes (director), Stef O’Driscoll (assistant director), Paul Wills (designer), Paule Constable (lighting designer) and Christopher Smutt (sound designer)

Cast includes Aidan Kelly (Soldier), Danny Webb (Ian), Lydia Wilson (Cate)

Need a second opinion? (Or for someone to actually tell you whether the production / performances were any good?)

29 September, 2010

“Get dressed. The big fellah’s on his way.”

Everyone and mother has reviewed The Big Fellah already, but here’s the stuff nobody mentioned.

The Shadow of Sean O’Casey

Matt Wolf compares Richard Bean to Martin McDonagh and (tangentially) Harold Pinter in his review for The Arts Desk. Matt Trueman similarly calls the setting “Pinteresque” and references McDonagh’s In Bruges. Writing for What’s On Stage, Michael Coveney compares The Big Fellah to Bill Morrison’s Flying Blind.

Worthy comparisons all, but I’m surprised no one cast back beyond Morrison and McDonagh to Sean O’Casey, the master of Troubles tragicomedy. It could be because I studied it exhaustively at A Level, but O’Casey’s The Shadow of a Gunman sprang to my mind as a comparison almost immediately.

Gunman is a lot more claustrophobic in terms of scale and timeframe, but the similarities are there nonetheless. There’s the setting: a safe house in a deprived area (O’Casey’s in a Dublin slum, Bean’s in a Bronx brownstone). There’s the man seduced by the patriotic allure of the IRA (O’Casey’s Donal Davoren, who likes the glamour, and Bean’s Michael Doyle, who joins up out of a sense of duty to the victims of Bloody Sunday, fuelled by imagined ancestral pride). There’s the IRA assassin, laying low (though, okay, Davoren’s only pretending while Bean’s Ruairi O’Drisceoil is the genuine article).

The other thing Bean’s play has that O’Casey’s doesn’t is redemption, which may stem from the fact that O’Casey was reporting live, right from the heart of the Troubles, whereas Bean is charting their history (or, if we’re really lucky, writing their obituary).

“Britain’s most provocative playwright”

Aleks Sierz boldly labels Richard Bean thusly in his review for The Stage, though in the comfort of his personal blog he qualifies the assertion with a “perhaps”. I work for Aleks at theatreVOICE (full disclosure!), so I hope he won’t mind me saying I don’t agree with his judgement on this one.

For a start, I hope that Richard Bean isn’t Britain’s most provocative playwright, because if all it takes to earn that epithet is to point out on the Olivier stage that Britain is historically hostile to immigrants (in England People Very Nice), British drama is in trouble. (Having said that, I’m not sure I can think who does deserve the title. Tim Crouch, maybe? Nominations in the comments, please.)

For a follow-up, I think that while England People Very Nice was a deliberately provocative play, The Big Fellah isn’t, and I don’t see the value in bringing up the playwright’s reputation for being provocative in relation to a non-provocative play, unless it’s to say “he’s usually provocative, but this isn’t”.

I suppose my issue is with the journalistic tendency to slap labels on people, as shorthand for readers (“Oh yeah, that guy”), and to apply those labels regardless of context – and not with Aleks (my editor) after all (phew!).

“Get dressed. The big fellah’s on his way.”

What none of the critical community fail to mention is Finbar Lynch’s captivating turn as David Costello, the eponymous Big Fellah. There’s also plenty of well-deserved praise for Rory Keenan as Ruairi (the main character, to my mind, and the most interesting, beating the big fellah by a hair’s breadth), though not nearly enough for Claire Rafferty as the vibrant Elizabeth Ryan.

Unfortunately reviewers’ word counts are such that, when you only appear in one scene of a two-hour production, and the quality of your performance is matched by certain of your fellow cast members, all of whom have more stage time, you get sidelined. Well, Rafferty’s performance is lively and earnest; she makes light work of some clanging mouthpiece-of-the-playwright lines; and for a few short minutes she matches the charismatic big fellah blow for verbal blow.

Now, did I miss anything?

Written by Richard Bean

Crew includes Max Stafford-Clark (director), Tim Shortall (designer), Jason Taylor (lighting) and Nick Manning (sound)

Cast includes Rory Keenan (Ruairi O’Drisceoil), Youssef Kerkour (Tom Billy Coyle), Finbar Lynch (David Costello), Claire Rafferty (Elizabeth Ryan), David Ricardo-Pearce (Michael Doyle), Fred Ridgeway (Frank McArdle) and Stephanie Street (Karelma)

Those reviews in full:

12 September, 2010

Punk Rock (2010)

Edward Franklin and Katie West in Punk Rock

Edward Franklin and Katie West in Punk Rock. Image courtesy of Amy Belson (Press Manager, Lyric Hammersmith)

Lyric Hammersmith, 6 – 18 September (then touring)

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide

If you missed Simon Stephens’s Punk Rock this time last year, now’s your chance to make good. Despite only three of the original cast having survived to join this touring production, in most important respects it’s a facsimile of the premiere.

This is not an unequivocally good thing. While ultimately rewarding, Punk Rock is a slow starter. Until the interval, little happens besides a bunch of Stockport sixth-formers chatting in the library. What’s said is often insightful, sometimes suprising, and undaunted by big themes, but offers few clues about where the play might be headed. This is intentional, but potentially makes for a meandering, purposeless first half. The original production didn’t surmount this issue, and this one, being a near-perfect recreation, doesn’t either.

By the interval, enough tension has accumulated to tauten the sails and drive the play to its heart-thumping conclusion. A large portion of that tension is attributable to Bennett Francis, the bully whose faux-congenial humiliation games seem calculated to incubate retaliatory action.

Bennett’s is the only noticeably altered portrayal. In 2009, Henry Lloyd-Hughes lent the character a genuine affability that suggested he believed his own bullshit, that to him his victimisation of poor awkward genius Chadwick Meade really was just horseplay. With a sneering Edward Franklin in the blazer instead, Bennett is intentionally spiteful rather than monstrously insensitive; his villainy is a little more clear-cut, which peels an onionskin-thin layer of nuance away from the deliberately unfathomable climax.

Written by Simon Stephens

Crew includes Sarah Frankcom (director), Paul Wills (designer), Philip Gladwell (lighting designer), Pete Rice (sound designer) and Kate Waters (fight director)

Cast includes Nicholas Banks (Nicholas Chatman), Edward Franklin (Bennett Francis), Ruth Milne (Cissy Franks), Mike Noble (Chadwick Meade), Laura Pyper (Lily Cahill), Rupert Simonian (William Carlisle), Katie West (Tanya Gleason), Simon Wolfe (Dr Richard Harvey), Juliet York (Lucy Francis)

Need a second opinion?

11 July, 2010

One-on-One Festival

Abigail Conway in On Dancefloors, One-on-One Festival

Abigail Conway in On Dancefloors, One-on-One Festival. Image courtesy of Mobius Industries

Battersea Arts Centre, 6 – 18 July 2010

Written for the British Theatre Guide

The One-on-One Festival is a coming of age ceremony, celebrating the graduation of the one-on-one encounter from experiment to bona fide artistic genre. That the symbolically removed training wheels are replaced surreptitiously with alternative support arrangements is not necessarily an admission of weakness: some art forms are at their best when leaning on others.

Take any one-on-one encounter on an individual basis and it’s easy to see why the genre has been repeatedly accused of inherent exclusionism and insubstantiality. Encounters rarely last more than half an hour, and many little more than five minutes. For obvious logistical reasons, audience capacity is almost always severely limited.

But to consider individual examples in isolation is to be wilfully blinkered to the genre’s unique qualities – qualities the people at Battersea Arts Centre understand well, having personally supported the development of a good few practitioners through their Scratch Festivals and Supported Artist programme.

Hence no individual work is made the centrepiece of the One-on-One Festival. Instead, 30-odd artists are installed throughout the building, and a ticket gets you a sort of charm bracelet of encounters, with three appointments timetabled for you by BAC and the chance to accessorise the experience by discovering hidden extras in the interim.

Whether or not the experience satisfies therefore depends on BAC’s quasi-random allocation process, the skill of the artists and the adventurousness of the customer in roughly equal parts – which seems appropriate, given that the defining feature of one-on-one is an exchange between artist and participant.

Inevitably, with so many acts side by side, there’s still an element of exclusion: no one can see everything, and discovering something exciting only to be told you can’t experience it without an appointment is undeniably frustrating. But whereas the limited capacity of individual one-on-one works can feel unfair, like artificial scarcity calculated to drive demand, the issue here is that there’s too much to see and too little time, which is easier to deal with.

Likewise, certain of the acts are still as whimsical and weightless as spun sugar. Patrick Killoran’s Observation Deck, in which participants lie with heads and shoulders sticking out of a third-floor window for ten minutes, is something of a ‘so what?’ experience taken on its own, for example. But the One-on-One Festival experience as a whole can’t be as easily dismissed – not when it also contains Ontroerend Goed’s profoundly moving The Smile Off Your Face.

To demand that one-on-one encounters stand up to criticism when viewed in isolation is to approach them with a narrow mind. One-on-one is not theatre; the genre may have incubated in a theatrical environment but one-on-one encounters are not plays, or even necessarily performances, and it would be wrong to measure their success by theatre’s usual benchmarks.

One-on-one is collaboration. It’s exchange. It’s intimacy. It’s two people tied back to back, scaling the inside of a chimney: something neither one could do alone. Stop imagining one-on-one encounters taking place in theatres and start imagining, say, Folk in a Box installed at a music festival, or Franko B’s You Me Nothing in a modern art gallery. One-on-one will not be pigeonholed. Stop trying.

Need a second opinion?

25 June, 2010

Revolution Now!

The Gob Squad in Revolution Now!

The Gob Squad in Revolution Now! Image courtesy of The Corner Shop Public Relations & Marketing

Institute of Contemporary Arts, 24 – 26 June 2010

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide

Hey you! The people! Listen up! This is a revolution, and in the absence of any clearly defined goals for change, this is our manifesto:

1. The revolution will be televised
Clichés out of the way first. This is a multimedia revolution. Cameras both handheld and static relay images between revolutionary HQ, in the ICA theatre, and the outside world of the Mall.

We in the auditorium may feel neglected when our leaders, the ragtag Gob Squad, turn their backs on us to address the cameras and the outside world, but we may be comforted by the sight of ourselves on the screen, as the Mall sees us, behind our leaders both literally and figuratively (and if we aren’t comforted, tough; this is the way the majority of the revolution will be played).

2. The revolution is participation
The revolution cannot succeed if no one is willing to stand up, to shake hands and chat with their neighbour, to lie on stage representing a corpse or to recite poetry on camera to whoever on the Mall might be listening.

3. The revolution is ambitious
Others before us have challenged themselves to elicit willing participation from the audience, who’ve chosen – even paid! – to attend, and who presumably have some inkling at least of what might be asked of them. Having achieved this trifle in the first ten minutes, this revolution is not afraid to dream bigger.

The ultimate prize: willing participation from a random passer-by on the Mall. Someone removed from the burgeoning community spirit in revolutionary HQ. Someone who sees, not a revolution, not even a piece of theatre, but a chugger in epaulettes.

4. The revolution does not recognise the possibility of failure
Some will interpret twenty fruitless minutes failing to persuade passers-by to forsake their trains and buses for the sake of revolution – twenty minutes culminating in the impromptu recruitment of playwright Tim Crouch from the ICA bar, to stand in for the People – as the failure of the revolution. But to implement a contingency plan or exit strategy would be to countenance failure, and that would run counter to the spirit of the revolution.

5. The revolution is perception – of yourself, your peers, your context and community
Those of us who were there will likely say that whatever failure occurred was on the part of the People, not of the revolution. The People are hostile, the People are suspicious, the People are closed off, unwilling to give anything of themselves.

But the People are also eloquent, politically savvy, friendly and socially responsible; all those contrasting things in the space of twenty minutes at one spot on the Mall. Just because the People won’t come inside and wave the flag doesn’t mean the People aren’t revolutionary.

Written by Gob Squad

Crew includes Gob Squad

Cast includes Gob Squad

Need a second opinion?

23 April, 2010

Austen’s Women

Rebecca Vaughan in Austen's Women

Rebecca Vaughan in Austen's Women. Image courtesy of Mobius Industries

Leicester Square Theatre, 21 April – 9 May 2010

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide

The extracts that make up Austen’s Women – each one taken near enough verbatim from Jane Austen’s novels – have been selected to show off the range of adapter-performer Rebecca Vaughan’s acting ability just as much as that of Austen’s female characters.

In fact, it’s possible Vaughan prioritised keeping herself entertained, with as wide a variety of temperaments and mannerisms as possible, over celebrating Austen’s women. Though her adoration for the material is palpable, the whole 70 minute monologue has the air of an audition piece, designed to impress on an agent the performer’s versatility – and to be fair, she is versatile – in as short a time as possible.

So while we get to see Vaughan being austere as Mrs Norris, conspiratorial as Emma Woodhouse and in pieces as Marianne Dashwood all in the space of ten minutes, over the course of the fourteen extracts banal and trivial observations are disproportionately represented.

For every Mary Stanhope – who in her naivete unwittingly embodies the transactional nature of marriage at the time – there’s a Miss Bates, who prattles uninterestingly about the guests and the décor. For every socially conscious Lizzy Bennet, there’s a vacuous Diana Parker. Banality may have been women’s reluctant lot in the 18th century, but Austen is still celebrated today partly because her heroines struggled against that.

Austen was a novelist, not a dramatist, so her prose speeches aren’t guaranteed sparkling life on stage. While he successfully identifies this pitfall, director Guy Masterson solves it – as he does most things script-related – by having his star lay on the tics and mannerisms with distracting vigorousness.

Harriet Smith gets Tony Blair’s fractured diction; Mary Stanhope is noticeably blinky; Mary Musgrove and Mrs Elton both get a fan to occupy their hands; and every line is assigned a rigid pattern of pause, emphasis and acceleration that mask meaning like explanatory sticky-notes all over the pages of a novel.

Unsurprisingly the most affecting extracts are those with the least directorial interference. While Marianne’s sobbing and wailing make it hard to follow what she’s actually trying to say, the deadpan, uninflected verbal cataracts of Mrs Norris erode all obstacles between the audience and Austen’s still-enduring sentiments.

Written by Rebecca Vaughan after Jane Austen

Crew includes Guy Masterson (director) and Kate Flanaghan (costume designer & maker)

Cast includes Rebecca Vaughan (various roles)

Need a second opinion?

24 March, 2010

4.48 Psychosis

Magdalena Cielecka in 4.48 Psychosis

Magdalena Cielecka in 4.48 Psychosis. Image by Stefan Okołowicz

Barbican, 23 – 27 March 2010

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide and cross-posted to The Collective Review

4.48 Psychosis is a gift for a director. Kane’s text – her last – is more prose poem than script, lacking stage directions or delineated characters: a nearly blank slate onto which a director can impose context, character and narrative. To Grzegorz Jarzyna, of Polish company TR Warszawa, that creative freedom is a double-edged sword: by over-exercising it in certain areas, he almost crowds out the strongest elements of his interpretation.

Every scene of this Polish language production has its conceit. In one, pills rain from a table onto the floor. In another, lead performer Magdalena Cielecka is silently mirrored by a small girl. Later, a naked old woman circumnavigates the stage while Cielecka speaks. These images are more of a visual accompaniment to the dialogue than an interpretation of it, and actually serve to distract from the production’s main strengths.

One of these is the oppressive atmosphere, sustained largely by the monotonous bass drones and seasick pitchshifted showtunes of Piotr Dominski’s soundscape. Combine that with lighting designer Felice Ross’s palette of confining spots and sickly washes and even the 1,166-seater Barbican Theatre starts to feel claustrophobic.

But the production’s stand-out, defining feature is Magdalena Cielecka’s performance. Her every twitch, tic and gesture is more fascinating and meaningful than the production’s whole complement of devices and visual metaphors.

As she details her planned method of suicide, she clutches her belly, or wrings her hands together masturbatorily through her trouser pockets. Eloquently but venomously she rails against the doctors that rattle off easy chemical fixes for her every symptom, and against the people and circumstances she blames for them.

It’s clear without any supplementary imagery that this person is grieving rather than self-pitying, that she’s damaged as much by unfeeling diagnoses and labels as by whatever’s happening inside her, and that, far from taking the easy way out, she’s desperate to free herself by any means, however extreme.

It takes until the play’s final passage for Jarzyna to whisk away all the window dressing. Here Cielecka’s face, softly illuminated by a narrow spot, is all that’s visible on an otherwise darkened stage; Jarzyna decodes Kane’s final lines solely through the medium of his star’s delivery and countenance. It’s revealing that this understated moment, rather than, say, Cielecka’s earlier crazed, blood-drenched assault on the cyc, is the production’s most enthralling.

Written by Sarah Kane

Crew includes Grzegorz Jarzyna (director), Małgorzata Szczęśniak (set design), Piotr Domiński (music and sound design) and Felice Ross (lighting design)

Cast includes Mariusz Benoit, Janusz Chabior, Magdalena Cielecka, Katarzyna Herman and Rafał Maćkowiak

Need a second opinion?

14 December, 2009

Lady Julia

Annabel Topham and James Kenward in Lady Julia

Annabel Topham and James Kenward in Lady Julia. Image courtesy of In The Lamplight

Hen and Chickens Theatre, 1 – 19 December 2009

Reviewed for the London Theatre Blog and cross-posted to The Collective Review

In The Lamplight’s Lady Julia brings August Strindberg’s seminal Miss Julie bang up to date, throwing together high-born Julia (Annabel Topham) and her father’s valet John (James Kenward) on New Year’s Eve 2008. It’s possible the company are hoping to replicate the success of Patrick Marber’s After Miss Julie, which updated the unlikely lovers and their tragic liaison from the 1874 of Strindberg’s play to 1945, but Lady Julia takes poorly to its new 21st century context.

The daughter of a Duke (or an Earl; James and Ben Kenward’s modern vernacular translation contradicts itself on this point) having a one night stand with the hired help just isn’t the life or death matter it would have been in 1874, or even 1945. John and Julia seem more concerned with the jeers of the other household staff (who hilariously sing Ali G and Shaggy’s ‘Me Julie’ from offstage) than the media or the Duke’s reaction. Modern culture is tolerant enough of sexual indiscretion that the stakes for Julia and John never seem high enough to justify her second act histrionics. They’re certainly too low to justify suicide.

Finicky contextual details like this would be easier to overlook if the whole production were as engaging as the first act. From her first entrance, Topham asserts herself as a flighty but nonetheless confident and commanding celeb-aristo, forever drumming her fingers to dissipate nervous energy, in contrast to Kenward’s stoic John. But once the deed is done and contemporary attitudes to sex and reputation actually become relevant to their predicament, the incongruities become harder to ignore.

The downward slide begins with an incongruous physical theatre sequence, the only dramatic purpose of which seems to be to suggest the passage of time (which could be achieved with a blackout) and how John and Julia are spending it (which becomes apparent soon enough anyway). A scattershot and repetitive second act follows, in which director Gabriella Santinelli makes use of Topham’s impressive emotional range by having her change mood instantaneously every three or four lines. Each moment is believable in itself, but when strung together the impression they give is that Julia is bipolar, rather than simply tired, drunk and naturally skittish.

Amy Rhodes provides welcome relief as Christine the cook, delivering a comparatively understated and consistent performance, and refreshingly calling John out on all the bullshit Julia willingly swallows. For Strindberg, the character represented everything he despised: a peasant without aspirations to higher things. In this production, her unambitious pragmatism actually seems an attractive alternative to the others’ flights of fancy.

Written by James and Ben Kenward after August Strindberg

Crew includes Gabriella Santinelli (director)

Cast includes James Kenward (John), Amy Rhodes (Christine) and Annabel Topham (Lady Julia)

Need a second opinion?

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