Posts tagged ‘the observer’

27 August, 2010

Sub Rosa ****

Hill Street Theatre, 5 – 30 August 2010

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide

There’s an interesting push-me-pull-you effect going on between Sub Rosa and the Masonic lodge in which it’s staged. The building’s warren-like layout and Masonic décor naturally occasion a kind of superstitious reverence over and above what the play alone can evoke. Meanwhile, the production imposes its own, slightly broader brand of eerie, haunted-house ambience on the place.

The production – initially framed as an educational guided tour – takes place after dark, and the building is dimly lit. The geometric carvings of the Masons are picked out in sinister reds and lilacs, as is the backstage apparatus of the theatre: reminding us we’re backstage, after hours, seeing things normally kept out of the public eye.

Tours leave every ten minutes, so each group is never more than one room away from the next, but the layout of the building is such that with precise stage management, the groups can be completely concealed from each other. Creaking footsteps and hushed voices, just out of earshot, feel like an intentional part of the production.

But even once it’s taken full advantage of everything the site has to offer, the production still has to make impositions in order to evoke its desired Gothic atmosphere. Hidden speakers pipe in creepy rumblings and the crackle of flames. Once space is flooded with fog. A stuffed fox leers, spotlit, from a baluster, apropos of absolutely nothing. To achieve its goals, the production engages and cooperates with this specific site up to a certain point, then, perhaps faced with a shortfall of spookiness, turns to more generic techniques that could create the same effect in any building.

Probably not coincidentally, deliberately appearing to be something you’re not is a major theme of the play. Six ghosts stationed around the building recount the tale of the Winter Palace music hall and the power struggle between its manager, Mr Hunter (a Mason) and the newest chorus girl, Flora – and it isn’t a tale for the easily-made-queasy. Nothing is reenacted, only narrated, but David Leddy’s writing and the six actors’ intense performances are graphic and distressing enough to leave more sensitive patrons bent double deep-breathing on the stairs between scenes.

It is, however, neither exploitative nor gratuitous in its brutality. The script is poetic, and every word and image – even or perhaps especially the gruesome ones – is included in the service of the story, not to cause cheap shocks.

Written by David Leddy

Crew includes David Leddy (director), Nich Smith (lighting design) and Graham Sutherland (sound design)

Cast includes Angela Darcy (Millie Merkeley), Claire Dargo (Ida McCracken), Isabella Jarrett (Miss Thorn), Isabelle Joss (Dillie Merkeley), Adam McNamara (Svaty Václav) and Benny Young (Angus MacNeil)

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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.

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11 July, 2010

The Comedy of Errors

Sophie  Roberts and Daniel Weyman in The Comedy of Errors

Sophie Roberts and Daniel Weyman in The Comedy of Errors. Image courtesy of The Corner Shop

Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, 24 June – 31 July 2010

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide

The first and final scenes of this open-air Comedy of Errors feel dashed off, as if director Philip Franks couldn’t be bothered to do much with them. This isn’t as big a problem as it might be in a different play: The Comedy of Errors is mostly middle.

Franks appears to have judged, by no means incorrectly, that the sob story Egeon (Christopher Ravenscroft) feeds the Duke (Alister Cameron) in scene one isn’t nearly as important to the audience as it is to Egeon (who is, after all, telling it in order to secure himself a stay of execution). Adoptions and shipwrecks don’t concern us. All we need to know is that two sets of estranged identical twins are about to be set loose in Ephesus and hilarity, as they say, will ensue.

So yes, the opening scene is interminable, there’s little evidence of “grief unspeakable” in Ravenscroft’s performance and as such his climactic reunion with his wife and sons is emotionally flat. But as soon as Egeon yields the stage to the twin Antipholi and Dromios, Franks and the audience alike sit up and start paying attention.

The production has a fantastic sense of fun, embracing the absurdity of the play’s premise and embellishing it with brand new absurdities, like unexpected song and dance numbers and Scooby-Doo-style pursuits with mobs racing past people hidden in convenient wicker baskets.

The contrasting relationships of the Antipholi (Daniels Weyman and Llewelyn-Williams) to their respective Dromios (Joseph Kloska and Josh Cohen) are convincingly fleshed out: Ephesian Dromio (Cohen) is beaten and put-upon by his wealthy master (Llewelyn-Williams) but they always make up in the end, while the less affluent Syracusan pair are on a more equal footing.

This means that when the Antipholi unwittingly swap Dromios or vice versa, as they inevitably must, there’s an extra level of humour to enjoy. One Dromio leaves in search of bail money for Antipholus and another returns with a bit of rope – that’s worth a giggle. But when Ephesian Antipholus, used to getting his own way, is faced with a Dromio who isn’t used to taking orders, hilarity ensues.

Perhaps if Franks had paid as much attention to Egeon’s characterisation as to the twins’, the production could have gained yet another layer, this time of poignancy. But this production gets belly laughs from a capacity crowd using Elizabethan dialogue, so I say, who needs depth when hilarity is ensuing?

Written by William Shakespeare

Crew includes Philip Franks (director), Gideon Davey (designer), Quinny Sacks (movement director), Paul Frankish (musical director)

Cast includes Alister Cameron (Duke), Josh Cohen (Dromio of Ephesus), Joseph Kloska (Dromio of Syracuse), Daniel Llewelyn-Williams (Antipholus of Ephesus), Christopher Ravenscroft (Egeon), Daniel Weyman (Antipholus of Syracuse)

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23 June, 2008

The Revenger’s Tragedy

National Theatre, 4 June – 28 August 2008

Reviewed for the London Theatre Blog

The National Theatre’s Olivier stage is set to fulfil our dullest expectations of Jacobean tragedy. Faded squares on the drab brown walls suggest paintings sold to stave off poverty. The only work remaining is Caravaggio’s Saint Jerome, depicting the solitary saint accompanied by just books and a skull.

Then the play opens to crashing drum’n’bass interwoven with folk violin. The Drum Revolve turns and behind the high walls of the pauper’s study we discover a timeslipped world of suited and medallioned playboys grinding with whores in hot-pants on red leather sofas, watched over by classical murals and a bronze statue of the Virgin, while yet more fashionable revellers masturbate and mug each other in the alleyways between sets. Within a minute director Melly Still’s production has yanked the audience as violently and spectacularly up to date as it has The Revenger’s Tragedy itself.

It’s a play that’s historically prone to split personalities. Originally attributed to Tourneur, now to Thomas Middleton; currently running at both the National Theatre and Manchester’s Royal Exchange; and, in this incarnation, caught between ages. Jacobean squalor exists parallel with contemporary high-society sleaze. Every designer suit is accessorised with a sword, and high-class, high-heeled prostitutes accompany masked and pantalooned nobles at the revels.

Such an ambitious vision demands some impressive ensemble set-pieces to prove just how successfully realised it is. Thankfully these are frequent, breathtaking and varied in tone, from the climactic sword dance, which marries disco and break to Elizabethan formal dancing, to the subdued, funereal coronation of the new Duke, which complements the courtiers’ grave faces with freezing fog and a plaintive lament.

The performers play a comfortable second fiddle to the production elements. Rory Kinnear’s performance as the titular revenger Vindice probably won’t win him another Olivier award, but it’s certainly cause for discussion. Kinnear’s Piato – the puffa-jacketed pimp persona, adopted by Vindice to facilitate his revenge against the lecherous Duke that poisoned his lover – is an entertaining caricature of a cheeky Eastender, while his Vindice is nothing more than an eloquent thug with delusions of noble purpose. No one could imagine Vindice vindicated after Kinnear’s performance; he’s cavalier with the skull of his beloved, and delights more in the act of bloodshed than in its supposed justification.

An unfortunate side effect of this interpretation is that the Duke’s louche son Lussurioso, played charismatically by Elliot Cowan, seems almost sympathetic by comparison. Lussurioso lusts after virgins, especially Vindice’s chaste and virtuous sister Castiza (a righteously indignant Katherine Manners), but is never seen to molest one on stage, instead sending ‘Piato’ to do the sleazy wooing for him: which in turn makes Vindice all the more detestable.

Kinnear’s Piato and Cowan’s Lussurioso are just two of many excellent comic performances on display, but there’s nothing recognisable as a great tragic performance. In this the play favours its modern persona over the classical. The magnificently unrepentant may be morally reprehensible, but they’re much more entertaining to watch than righteous ‘emos’ like Hamlet.

Written by Thomas Middleton

Crew includes Melly Still (director), Ti Green (designer) and Adrian Sutton (music)

Cast includes Billy Carter (Spurio), Elliot Cowan (Lussurioso), Rory Kinnear (Vindice) and Katherine Manners (Castiza)

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