Reviews 2012

All these reviews are listed in order.  Just scroll down to find them.  –  A Clockwork Orange / Schrödinger’s Box / White Rabbit, Red Rabbit / The Overcoat / Mauve New World / Krapp’s Last Tape / Kin / Dr Faustus – The Imaginarium / Blonde Poison / And No Birds Sing / Antigone.

 

A Clockwork Orange

 

‘What’s it going to be then, eh?’

That was reassuring.  Even though it was delivered in a menacing tone by a tall, muscular thug in black vest and trousers, thumbs tucked into white braces and surrounded by three more thugs dressed the same, all staring directly at us, that opening line gave me a lot of confidence.

Like the rest of the audience, I had no idea of what lay ahead.  ‘A Clockwork Orange’ has been widely misunderstood as a book, and Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 film left out an important part of the story, horrified a lot of people who felt it glorified violence and was banned (by the director himself) for many years.  Anthony Burgess’ novel has become identified with gangs of ‘droogs’ in a drug-fuelled orgy of beatings, killings and rape, and now an all-male group were going to perform – ‘a playtime of ultraviolence and sexuality’.   It could be done as an exploitative gore-fest, or it could be done true to the spirit of the book.   What was it going to be? …

And then, there it was – ‘What’s it going to be then, eh?’.  The opening line of the novel, followed by more lines as Alex introduced himself and his three droogs, eyeing the audience from the stage of ‘The Old Market’.  Alex, Pete, Georgie and Dim gave us the text almost word for word, and they were using Nadsat – that mix of Russian and Cockney rhyming slang that Burgess invented for teenage gangs to speak in this dystopian future society.   It was the book, come to life in front of us.  Real horrorshow – (‘good’ – nadsat, from the Russian ‘khorosho’…).

God knows what the budget was for Kubrick’s film, but it was a lot of cutter – (‘money’ – nadsat, from the Cockney ‘bread and butter’…).  Even in 1971 it must have run into many millions of pounds for lush interior sets and beautifully backlit night-time exterior locations.   Action To The Word just had a line of lights over a bare black stage, bathing the actors in blue, orange or red as needed, harsh white or blue sidelights hidden in the wings, and simple white lighting from the front.  Add a basic table and a few chairs that could be moved around.  That’s all.  And it worked brilliantly.  Side lighting made the four figures stand out from the deep black around them, while blue light overhead conjured up the moonlight that shone down on the deserted street or patch of waste ground where Alex’s gang were out looking for trouble.

And they soon found it.   Five more figures moved onto the stage, these ones dressed in black trousers and white vests, with black braces.  Different coloured clothing, for this was Billyboy and his droogs.  The ensuing battle between the two gangs was very aggressive, believable and powerfully energetic.  The nine men filled the space with a storm of violence; punching, kicking, striking out with knives, bars and chains as they swung around, under and over one another. It was horrific, but also very balletic.  The action was often very graceful – an arm would swing out to strike a face, and the victim would  react to the blow by falling backwards along the same arc.  Someone would be leapt on from behind, and he would tumble the attacker over his shoulders in a curving motion that landed the man back on his feet on the other side.  Ballet – but with added ultraviolence …

Minimalism and massive amounts of energy – that’s what Action To The Word bring to this production.  Those nine immensely talented actors play more than forty parts, transforming themselves with small changes of costume, or a different posture or body language.  They are dressed almost exclusively in black and white, with the occasional small detail in orange (a hairnet, a tie, a pair of underpants…). Some of the droogs later become customers in the milk bar serving ‘milk plus‘ laced with the drugs that fire you up for ultraviolence.

As the tale unfolds, they also become –  the writer and his partner who are attacked, the old lady cat-owner who is murdered, the police, the court and prison officials and staff who incarcerate Alex, the prison chaplain who tries to persuade him away from violence, the medical team who subject him to aversion therapy to ‘cure’ him, Alex’s own parents who reject him, and finally the dissidents who try to use Alex to discredit the government.  (If you’re not familiar with ‘A Clockwork Orange’, that’s pretty much the entire story.)

A production this minimal has to make recourse to physical theatre.  When Alex is at the old lady’s house, he climbs over the table to get inside the building, while a cast member stands rigidly upright, being a sideboard, holding the bust of Beethoven that Alex will later grab to club her to death.    After he is caught, there is a courtroom scene, all bathed in red light, where the judge squats on the table (now transformed to the judge’s dais) and three jury members stand in a line at the side, like a small Chorus from Greek tragedy. The action moved from scene to scene with no breaks, just changes of lighting, table and chairs being slid into a new position,  and cast members coming on dressed ready for their next role.

One small criticism – the big scenes (the fights, the courtroom, the hospital) filled the stage from side to side, but there were one or two moments, notably between Alex and the prison charlie – (from the Cockney use of ‘Charlie Chaplin’, meaning ‘chaplain’) where the two were seated at the table at the back of the stage, thus looking rather lost and dwarfed by The Old Market’s large performance area, and furthermore were difficult to hear.  I’d have played those moments downstage, at the front…

So is this production true to Burgess’ novel?   Obviously an all-male cast means that some members must dress as women to portray the female characters, but that’s been happening since before Shakespeare.   More interesting is the homoerotic take on the story.  Ultimately, though, sex is sex, and Alex with his hand groping down a man’s pants is not that much different from his hand in a woman’s underwear.  The brutal rape of the writer’s (male) partner is achieved with a broken bottle rammed up the man’s anus (I squirmed at that, and the two women next to me in the audience did so too).  But the violence of the attack is the point, not the gender of the victim, and later it’s the (gay) writer who drives Alex to attempted suicide – avenging his partner, just as the (straight) writer avenged his wife in Burgess’ book.

Much more important, it seems to me, is that the horrors of the aversion therapy – Ludovico’s Technique – are shown in their proper context.  This was a wonderful piece of physical theatre, with Alex pinned in a seat by two attendants while another crouched behind holding Alex’s eyes open with his hands, and the doctors gave a running commentary on the horrifically violent films that he was being forced to watch (and that we the audience could not see).  The group lit by flickering light, as though by a cinema screen, with Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony crashing out almost loud enough to drown Alex’s screams,  it was horrible – and unforgettable.

Alex is successfully conditioned against violence, but a side effect of the treatment is that Alex ended with a revulsion to Beethoven, too.  There was a slight departure from the book, as the doctors explained to the Government Minister of the Interior about Pavlovian conditioning and how aversion therapy works (for the audience’s benefit as well as the Minister’s…)

Alex is turned into someone who is unable to commit any aggressive act, which suits The Government’s law and order programme, but as the prison ‘charlie’ protests during a press conference – “He has no real choice, does he? … He ceases to be a wrongdoer. He ceases also to be a creature capable of moral choice.” That is the central point of  the book, and it was well handled in this production. It was a good choice to have the dissenting chaplain speaking from the audience – one of us, as spectators, rather than as one of the characters on the stage.

Alex is only eighteen, of course (only fifteen when he carried out his violent rampages) and is still growing up.   In a final scene, after the Ludovico conditioning has been reversed and he has recovered his natural aggressiveness, we see Alex once again sitting in the milk-bar with a new set of droogs.   Several years have passed, and fashion has changed – hoodies now, not braces and vests like before – but Alex has changed too.  He wants to settle down, and we see him at the end with his arm round his lover, the two sitting side by side on the table gazing into each other’s eyes.

This scene was not included in Kubrick’s film.  That ended with Alex planning new violence – “I was cured all right.” – but this production stayed true to the philosophy of Burgess’ novel.   Human beings grow and develop at their own pace, and society has to find ways of accommodating that fact.

This production works brilliantly on so many levels.   As a faithful rendition of Burgess’ novel, as a powerful piece of physical theatre, as a mesmerising spectacle of movement and light.  It’s also got nine very hunky men strutting their stuff – I know a lot of them are probably gay, but that didn’t stop the women next to me whistling and cheering at the end.   A truly five-star event.   Real horrorshow.

Posted on  FringeReview.co.uk    Fringe UK-wide

 

Schrödinger’s Box

 

Let’s start with Schrödinger.

What, Schrödinger as in ‘cat’ ?

That’s him.  One of the main founders of Quantum Mechanics, the study of matter and energy at the sub-atomic level, where energy changes in jumps called ‘quanta’ and matter – electrons or photons – can manifest itself as particles or as waves, and often as both tangled together.   Schrödinger’s personal life was pretty tangled, too.

So in this show, Reckless Sleepers give us a biography of a scientist and a lecture on atomic physics ?

Not exactly …

In the beginning was the box.  It filled two-thirds of the stage at The Old Market –  rectangular, three-sided, with a roof and an open front facing the audience. It was dark grey, the colour of steel or of a blackboard, and throughout the performance it jumped between these possibilities. There was some furniture under dust-sheets inside, and a set of square white tables and chairs outside on both sides. Simple flat frontal lighting.  That’s all.

In the beginning was the woman.  She came on stage, opened a door at the side of the box and stepped into the enclosed space.  Weirdly, she immediately looked bigger – the low ceiling had given her the illusion of being taller.  She began to make chalk marks on the wall, and suddenly a trapdoor opened in the roof of the box and a man’s body fell through onto the floor.  A square of light from the trapdoor illuminated her as she took her chalk and began to draw a silhouette around the corpse, like a police officer at a murder scene.  Outside, another man drew a dead cat up high on the front side of the box, with a long downward-pointing chalk arrow leading to an apple that he placed on the floor.

“Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore”…   Too true; we’re actually somewhere far stranger than the Land of Oz – this is the quantum world, where different possibilities (waves or particles for example) co-exist until an observer makes a measurement, when the probabilities collapse to only one, which is the reality the observer sees. Schrödinger couldn’t accept this interpretation of quantum mechanics, and used the ‘cat’ hypothetical example to show the paradox.  As he put it:

‘A cat is penned up in a steel chamber, along with the following diabolical device (which must be secured against direct interference by the cat): In a Geiger counter there is a tiny bit of radioactive substance, so small, that perhaps in the course of one hour one of the atoms decays, but also, with equal probability, perhaps none; if it happens, the counter tube discharges and through a relay releases a hammer which shatters a small flask of hydrocyanic acid.  If one has left this entire system to itself for an hour, one would say that the cat still lives if meanwhile no atom has decayed.  The first atomic decay would have poisoned it.  The wave function of the entire system would express this by having in it the living and the dead cat (pardon the expression) mixed or smeared out in equal parts.’

According to common sense, the cat is either alive or dead, but according to quantum theory the cat remains, inside the box, neither dead nor alive until the observer opens the box.  (Don’t blame me – you’re the ones who chose to read a review about Erwin Schrödinger…)

Reckless Sleepers know all this stuff, of course, but their production is anything but a boring lecture.  The dead body in the box was quickly pulled out through another door, and the outside tables were pushed in through hatches in the side walls.   It turned out that the entire box was perforated with doors, hatches and trapdoors, through which furniture and actors passed in and out with bewildering speed, and observers stuck their heads in to see what was going on within.  There are five members in the company, two women and three men, and at times it was like a frenetic slapstick scene from a pantomime as they rushed in and out, clambered through hatches or fell in through the roof.

Another feature of the quantum world is called ‘entanglement’.  According to the theory, pairs of particles which have once interacted remain in some kind of communication, even though they might physically be light-years apart.  It’s a possible basis for telepathy and mind-reading, and a table was set up in the box with a man, head and shoulders completely covered in a white cloth, seated at it.  He held up a series of cards with crudely drawn pictures of a heart, a hammer, a ladder etc, and was attempting to name them.  Every answer was wrong – possibly because the particles weren’t entangled enough… (or maybe because this was a scientific experiment rather than a music-hall stunt).   In his cloth covering he reminded us of Magritte’s surrealist paintings of shrouded lovers.

Wrong titles appear in a lot of Magritte’s paintings – remember the pipe with ‘this is not a pipe’ written underneath.   The shrouded heads, the enormous green apple filling a room, the bottles of wine; all these are referenced in ‘Schrödinger’s Box’.  Magritte was Belgian, of course, and he seems to be a particular influence on Reckless Sleepers.  The company is Anglo-Belgian, with Mole Wetherell, the Creative Director, having spent a lot of time in Belgium, and Leentje Van de Cruys and Leen de Wilde themselves being Belgian women.  Alex Covell and Kevin Egan are British.   All gave stunning performances – as expressive actors, but also for the sheer athleticism  with which they clambered, dived and threw each other around the set.  The name ‘Reckless Sleepers’ itself comes from a Magritte painting.

Brussels, in Belgium, was the location of the series of Solvay Conferences on physics which were held in the 1920s and ’30s.  The 1927 Conference dealt with theories of quantum mechanics.   Schrödinger was present, along with Heisenberg (Uncertainty Principle) and Einstein (Relativity).   The new physics, where effect does not necessarily follow cause and where each observer sees a different reality, challenged the ‘classical’ physics of Newton, where the whole universe ran like clockwork.   These counterintuitive notions were snapped up by the Surrealists – think of those Magritte landscapes with a painting in the foreground – is the view behind the painting the same, we have no way of knowing…  Reckless Sleepers also have been hugely influenced, and use these ideas to underpin this production.

So when Schrödinger (played with a lot of pathos by Mole Wetherell) drew his downward arrow towards a large green apple, there are references to the ‘classical’ gravitation theory of Newton (apples falling), to Magritte and Surrealism, but also to another fall, the Fall in the Garden of Eden, where an apple led to sexual desire – and of course to forbidden knowledge.   In a particularly poignant section, Schrödinger shows a card with a heart drawn on it to one of the women, but she misses the meaning and repeatedly chalks ‘mountain’ on the wall as he tries card after card, all to no avail.

Schrödinger’s life was as entangled as any particle.  He and his wife Anny both had affairs, and he had the inspiration for an important quantum theory during an Alpine (‘mountain’…) tryst with an old lover, which he later described as ‘a late erotic outburst’.  Schrödinger eventually had a child with Hilde, the wife of one of his assistants, and lived together with her, the child and Anny.  With the rise of the Nazis in Germany they went to Ireland, where Schrödinger took a position at the Institute of Advanced Study in Dublin.  The prevailing moral standards meant he couldn’t go to the IAS at Princeton in the United States with ‘two wives’.  Two wives, like two quantum possibilities, but which one was ‘real’ ?

We saw all these themes played out during the performance.  A man and a woman, heads swathed in cloth, strain to embrace, only to be pulled apart.  A man holds another,  horizontal at waist height, only to drop him onto the floor dead.  People go through repetitive sequences of sitting and standing with clockwork precision while one observer calls out numbers and another records them in chalk on the walls of the box.  It’s clear that the box is both the steel chamber of Schrödinger’s hypothetical experiment and a laboratory room with blackboards for writing up data or equations.

Interestingly, the box itself plays with our notions of reality. We are used to seeing theatre with the ‘fourth wall’ absent, but here the set itself represents a closed steel box. The actors never cross the open side, always using the doors and hatches, so for us the steel chamber wall both exists and does not exist – simultaneously. We as observers choose which ‘reality’ to accept. The production made us think a lot about this. The box is also very big in relation to the stage around it, and deep too, with parallel sides. It meant that none of us could see the entire action at any time – actors were hidden on the other side of the box from us, or shielded by a side wall. No observer sees the entire reality, and in fact each of us sees a different version. Einstein would have loved it.

The last section involved increasingly frenetic drinking bouts – clear bottles of (water?) gulped down and spilled over the actors, again and again.  Manic chalking of graphs, symbols and numbers on the walls of the box as well.  Not just a few, but covering almost every inch of the walls and doors with white marks, wiping some off and writing over the half erased lines. Water splashes erasing marks too. To me it seemed to symbolise meaninglessness, the futile attempt to understand concepts that our brains are not built to accept or visualise, and which can only be handled using mathematics.  But we keep trying – the last chalking read:  IT MAY SEEM TO YOU THAT WE HAVE DONE THIS FOR THE FIRST TIME

At the end, water poured through the roof of the box, soaking the actors and washing away the chalked symbols.   Entropy is a concept of increasing disorder – the fact that systems tend to run down, from complex and ordered towards chaos and dull uniformity.  I’ve never seen a better visual example.  In fact, a lot of the imagery will stay in my mind for a long time to come.  Schrödinger’s Box is not an easy production to watch, but it kept a large audience rapt for over an hour.  You could have heard an apple drop…

Posted on  FringeReview.co.uk     Fringe UK-wide

 

White Rabbit, Red Rabbit

 

If George Orwell had written stand-up comedy about Pavlovian conditioning, it would have sounded a lot like ‘White Rabbit, Red Rabbit’.

‘White Rabbit Red Rabbit’ arrives at the Nightingale as just a text.  There are no directions other than instructions to the (single) actor from within the script, and the actor does the piece ‘cold’, completely without rehearsal.   It’s an allegorical story of rabbits, symbolising the treatment of women and of middle-class intellectuals under the Islamic Republic of Iran.  It’s also about our own personal responsibility for events.  The author can’t leave Iran, but his text uses his Actor to create a virtual presence, and to manipulate his audience almost as if the author himself was in the room.

On an almost bare black stage an actor takes a script from an envelope and begins to perform the author’s words.  He tells a kind of Aesop’s Fable about a rabbit’s visit to a theatre, and how the rabbit has to cover her ears with a red scarf.  Later he tells us about his uncle’s experiments in conditioning rabbits to attack the one who is different or more successful, and how that behaviour persists even when the original stimulus is removed – “See how the past makes the future”.  He gets audience members on to the stage to participate in performing  these stories.

In parallel with this he sets up a potential suicide arrangement, whereby the actor might end up drinking a lethal dose of poison, and the audience must make choices which determine the outcome. At this level it might almost be a piece by Brecht, with big themes and minimal staging – table, chair, ladder and a couple of glasses (for the poison). But there’s another level entirely.

The author talks directly to us through his Actor – “My name is Nassim Soleimanpour. My blood type is O positive. I am 168 cm tall and I weigh 76 Kg. I have black hair. My eyes are bluish-green. I am very hairy, like a piece of chewing gum on the floor of a barbershop”. He’s funny too.

We can visualise him, and he is trying to imagine us, and the venue – “You are my future, but where are you?”. At one point he gets his Actor to mention ” the beautiful woman at the back who will smile if you look at her”, and in his next sentence he continues – “now all the women at the back are smiling”. It’s as if he really was there in the room with us, but as he says – “you can exit the theatre, but I will remain among these sentences. It’s the best place to live for a writer in my situation”.

It’s an eerie sensation. Nassim Soleimanpour remains in Iran, but his presence hovers over the stage and it feels like he’s here with us now. At one point his Actor gets an audience member to perform, and Nassim tells them – “I actually made someone make you do something”. It’s a kind of tele-presence, and I couldn’t help thinking of the remotely controlled drones hovering over Iraq and Afghanistan, their pilots hundreds or thousands of miles away, except that Nassim achieves an equivalent result with vastly less technology. Surely that’s a testament to the power of theatre and of the written word.

So how does White Rabbit, Red Rabbit work as performance? Our actor, Alister O’Loughlin, is one of seven performing this piece at the Nightingale, a different actor each night so as to come to the text completely fresh. A tall, almost shaven-headed figure, with a very mobile face and quick eyes and hand gestures, he was good at working the audience and getting participation, and at times it felt a bit like stand-up comedy. I suspect Alister may have done some. The staging is stark, with simple white furniture standing out against the black stage. Neutral white lighting too – nothing to distract from the power of the words.

I think this is quite deliberate. The effectiveness of the piece comes from the mental picture we build up of Nassim Soleimanpour and, rather like radio drama, we construct that best in our own heads, without the distractions of cluttered sets and lots of colour. I was told afterwards that there was no Nightingale director for the production, as all the instructions for staging are contained within the script, mostly as directions from the writer to the actor. Rather like a seed that can germinate and produce a plant wherever it finds suitable conditions. As Peter Brook said – “All you need for theatre is an empty space”.

Any piece of writing by an Iranian dissident comes freighted with political, religious and moral baggage, and I suspect that many of us went to see ‘White Rabbit, Red Rabbit’ hoping to gain some insights into that country from a younger perspective. What I was not expecting was the tangible presence of the writer. We laughed, not just at his jokes, but because it felt like he was in the room with us, telling them. We also got a sharp lesson in personal responsibility. “If you are a passing viewer of this suicide, you are more of a sinner than me” says Nassim, and when, near the end, the actor might have drunk poison, a few people called out “No, Don’t!”. But, significantly, they didn’t call out before he drained the glass. As I didn’t get up and kick the glasses over, preventing any possible suicide. I still worry about that, and several audience members I talked to afterwards did too.

To sum up, it was a stunning piece of theatre, thought-provoking and morally unsettling. It’s a wonderful testament to the power of words to transcend cultures and borders. It fully deserves five stars.

Posted on  FringeReview.co.uk     Brighton Fringe 2012

 

The Overcoat

 

I was shivering. It was a sweltering August night under the low ceiling of the Iambic Arts Theatre but on the stage in front of me a man was being buffeted by snowy gusts, his arms wrapped across his chest to try to keep warm while the wind pulled strips from his tattered overcoat, and it felt – freezing …

It takes a lot of talent to create that level of illusion, and Le Mot Juste Theatre have what it takes. In the space of an hour three actors conjured up nineteenth century St Petersburg, taking us inside various rooms and out on the streets, using just a couple of screens and panels, with everything else done as graphically descriptive physical movements or mime. The company is trained and influenced by the Lecoq school in Paris, and their physical theatre worked brilliantly on the small and rather intimate stage at Iambic Arts.

‘The Overcoat’ is the company’s own adaptation of a short story by Nikolai Gogol. Akaky Akakiyevich is a lowly clerk in some unnamed St. Petersburg ministry, whose work is making copies, by hand, of official correspondence. He’s poorly paid and ridiculed by his colleagues on account of his overcoat, which is worn-out and falling to pieces. Akaky takes the coat to Petrovitch the tailor, but it’s past repair and Akaky must find the funds for a replacement.

After many sacrifices and tribulations he gets sufficient money and the tailor makes him a magnificent new coat, which transforms his whole appearance and gains him the respect of his fellow workers and even of The Director. Almost at once, however, Akaky is mugged in the street and his new overcoat is stolen. He can get no help from the police in recovering the coat, his newfound status evaporates and he becomes an object of ridicule. The trauma of all this, plus the severe cold against which he now has no protection, combine to shatter his health and he dies of a fever.

This sad little tale was staged with just a couple of framework screens, which the actors moved around the stage to create walls or doors. Two smaller folding panels were set up to form the desk at which Akaky knelt to do his copying. Jon Levin as Akaky has a slim figure, with a smooth face and dark short-cut hair, slightly receding. He wore a grey shirt, reinforcing our feeling that his whole life was rather grey. He’s nervous, and rarely talks in complete sentences. His colleague brings him a stack of documents about a foot high (we see the hands, of course, not the letters themselves) and Akaky seems fulfilled. It seems he never makes a copying error. It seems, to a twenty-first century audience, that he’s fairly autistic …

Ben Hadley is the colleague who delivers the documents, and also plays The Director of the department. He’s tall, with crinkly, brilliantined hair and a small goatee beard. He wears a pink striped shirt, and when he’s The Director he smokes a cigar and holds himself proudly so as to appear even taller and more imposing. Ben is one of the two directors of ‘The Overcoat’, and this versatile actor plays Petrovitch the tailor as well. In this role he’s transformed – he stoops slightly, puts his face into a grimace and manages to make his eyes bulge slightly as he peers short-sightedly at a piece of sewing. It’s almost an Alf Garnet caricature look of malevolence – and as a St. Petersburg tailor, Petrovitch might well have been Jewish, so it’s a clever characterisation.

Petrovitch’s wife stoops too. Rachel Lincoln plays her as a slattern, then in the next scene she rises to her normal height (she’s tall) as Akaky’s department colleague and then stretches even taller, striking an aristocratic pose with dark glasses and cigarette-holder as the Tsarina Katerina (whose letters Akaky has been copying). Rachel was all in red – a calf-length red spotted dress and shiny maroon shoes – and her hair was scraped back off her forehead into a bun at the back. Like Ben Hadley, she jumped effortlessly and believably from character to character, becoming at various times the cat whose fur becomes the collar of Akaky’s overcoat (don’t ask …) and his landlady, Irina Ivanovna.

The three moved together on stage in perfect synchronisation, one altering the arrangement of the screens to change the location while the other actors were performing. It was done seamlessly and without distraction. When we were in Akaky’s attic room, one screen was held at an angle to give us the sloping ceiling, or perhaps skylight, and the illusion of the garret was complete. When they became wind or snow attacking Akaky, or dancing in the Department office, the movements of all three performers were balletic and confident, demonstrating their skill and their Lecoq training. Music was provided by a single guitarist just off the stage, Charlie Davies enhancing the scenes with melodies that sounded Russian, though which sometimes could have been snatches of gypsy tunes from Estonia or the Ukraine.

So, a very creditable result as regards performance, but what about interpretation?

When I read the advertising, I was intrigued that this piece is billed as ‘after the short story by Nikolai Gogol’. Reading that it was ‘an adaptation’ made me worry that Le Mot Juste would have changed the story to make it more ‘accessible’  and dumbed it down. Well, they have and they haven’t. Yes, they’ve changed the emphasis quite radically; and no, they haven’t lessened it in any way – in fact it’s become a deeper, richer, more coherent piece. Gogol’s original story seems to be about status, or materialism, symbolised by the coat, and about how transitory they are. Akaky’s landlady gets barely a mention.

Here, by contrast, Rachel Lincoln’s Irina Ivanovna is a major character. From the moment we meet her, showing Akaky the attic room he will rent from her, there is an unmistakeable sexual tension in the air. Each time she brings his food, or a candle, she exudes a longing for him which we the audience can sense but which Akaky himself misses completely. He misses it because she is ‘just his landlady’, as he is ‘just the copyist with the threadbare coat’ to his colleagues at the Department. After Irina spoils some of his copied documents, so losing him money saved towards the overcoat, she cares so much for him that she even gives herself sexually to The Director so that he will replace the funds. And Akaky misses it all.

This take on ‘The Overcoat’ is all about appearance. We miss out on love, as we miss out on life, if we take things at face value and can’t recognise anything deeper. Akaky is obsessed by appearance – as we saw earlier his document copies are perfect – but all he is able to do is copy, he cannot create. With his splendid overcoat he is considered witty by his colleagues, without it he is an object of derision. Physical theatre is the ideal medium for this adaptation of the story – no stage set is ever conceived and built to satisfy everyone’s taste or expectations, but with mime and minimalism we audience members visualise the sets ourselves, in our imagination, and they of course are … perfect.

‘The Overcoat’ deserves four stars for the production alone – one audience member was so taken that she returned a second time – but it deserves a fifth star for this bold and thoughtful reinterpretation of Nikolai Gogol’s story.

Posted on  FringeReview.co.uk      Brighton Fringe 2012

 

Mauve New World

 

Once you get beyond the high-tech fairy-tales of Star Wars – (“Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away …”), serious science fiction tends to concern itself more with the present than the future.  George Orwell’s ‘1984’ was actually about Britain in 1948, when it was written, with the constantly shifting alliances of the Cold War and the possibilities of surveillance and propaganda available to a totalitarian state; while Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ is about the position of women in our society, the rise of fundamentalism, and how a theocratic male elite could come to power and control rights to sex and reproduction. These dystopian tales take aspects of our present society and push the trends to their logical limits, to see what the future result might be.

‘Mauve New World’ is of course a pun on ‘Brave New World’, Aldous Huxley’s vision of conformity achieved through bottle-grown babies engineered into different castes, with hypnotic persuasion, orgies and drug-induced bliss to keep the mass population happy and productive while an elite managerial class controlled them.   Every aspect of our present world is up for examination in SF, from technology to sex, and religion to the  Women’s Institute , the good old W I …

… or rather, The Second Fenced Republic’s Institute of Non-men.  Our evening’s lecturer welcomed us to the Institute, then started her talk rustling her papers, blinking nervously into the audience and apologising that her original subject of ‘jam-making’ was ‘not appropriate’.  She proposed instead – ‘The Genius of Genealogy’, and we felt we were in for a hapless-lecturer spoof.

Short dark hair, glasses, looking awkward and nervous in a loose white blouse, dull grey-brown skirt and no shoes, she stood in front of a simple table with a old fashioned reel-to-reel tape recorder and an equally outdated overhead projector.  She made us stand while she played the Institute anthem, and then projected acetates of her husband Frank’s family tree.

But… it quickly became apparent that Frank and his grandfather (Frank the Ist) and father (Frank the 2nd) were the all-important sex, relegating the women in each generation – the wives, mothers and daughters, –  to a simple ‘Non-man’ status, with no name but simply a number.  Our lecturer was on the chart as ‘Non-man 007’.  As she says, shyly – “I’m so glad to be in the small print, even if I’m not technically of any interest”.  Society had obviously become totally skewed towards men, with women (not even women, of course, merely ‘non-men’)  having no rights at all.  Husband Frank had decided to marry their daughter,  ‘interfering’ with her despite the pain it will cause her and her mother, because – “his pure seed is his name”.

We come to realise that Frank’s male forebears have taken part in a war between genetically pure humans, robots, and various human-robot chimeras – ‘meat-bots’.  Genetics and robotics have developed to the level where different technological species existed alongside one another, and had to be put down during ‘the Meat-bot Rebellion’. Frank’s coupling with his own daughter is necessary because, as he said – “we have to violate our daughters and break the hearts of our wives to make the world safe for true men to live in”.

Non-man  007, went on to tell how she discovered the files on her own mother – “0110, a meat-bot called Emma”.   She had fallen in love with a sentient vacuum-cleaner called Hooverdroid and become a rebel, sabotaging brainwashing sessions.  Also, there were recordings where – “she sang – and it sounded so terribly, terribly … human”.  As Non-man 007 told us all this, the words gushing out faster and faster with increasing intensity, a buzzer sounded repeatedly and warning lights flashed – the authorities were aware of the crime Non-man 007 was committing by telling us all this.    Non-man 007 asked us to remember Mrs Phillips, to whom she had given the recordings, and who “understood”.   It seems that Mrs Phillips had been punished for this, and finally – chillingly – we wondered just why the subject of jam-making was – not appropriate …

This play, ‘Freakoid’, was written and performed by Emma Adams.  It, and the other pieces, are still in a process of development and rewriting which began at The Ovalhouse in London and continues at The Nightingale.   I’ve seen a number of really innovative plays here and ‘Freakoid’ and its companions push up that total by three.

Adolescence features strongly in ‘It Gets Better’, the second play of the evening, where we the audience were present at an induction session for ‘The Zone’ – a cyber existence, a sort of ‘Second Life’ it seemed,  where young gay men (women weren’t mentioned …) could spend time in a virtual environment away from hassle  and abuse.  “It locks you in, so you’re now shielded from everything outside – including your family, which in some cases can be a very good thing.”   It was unclear exactly what ‘The Zone’ entailed – the inductees had to set up their ‘profiles’, which I took to be some sort of avatar like those used in ‘Second Life’, although it wasn’t just online as it seemed that one could snap into the environment at any time, just by touching someone and using the ‘Real-Feel’ technology.

So far, so hi-tech, but the point of ‘It Gets Better’ is that advanced technology won’t, on its own, eliminate all the very human emotions that define us.   The induction briefing was conducted by Rafiq – businesslike and very much in charge, in a pale blue sweater with dark hair and heavy designer stubble an a rather hard face.  Hovering behind him was Jayson, dressed in black, with a softer face and demeanour – slightly camp.  He kept breaking in to Rafiq’s businesslike delivery, to Rafiq’s obvious annoyance, and we sensed the underlying tension – almost marital – between them.  It came as no surprise to learn later that the two had once been lovers …  Brian Mullin as Rafiq (he also wrote the piece) and Mark Iles as Jayson got just the right amount of bitchiness in the relationship.

Avatars stand in for their human counterparts, of course, and with future technology will presumably have much more of a ‘life’ of their own.  One of the current inductees has gone missing off the system – “We need to call the Admin…” but then he reappears, presumably as a virtual presence although this was not made obvious.    He’s Jason, a wet-dream jail-bait figure with fur boots, T-shirt tied up to expose his abdomen, and a fabulous blonde wig.  I think ‘fabulous’ is the right word here, because the name Jason leads us straight to the Greek legends, to the Argonauts, and the Golden Fleece.

Jason turns out to be Jayson’s younger self, who has somehow got into ‘The Zone’ system.  He’s completely outrageous, of course, but he’s also being his true self, and he wants to know why Jayson has made so many compromises, of appearance and behaviour, so as to fit into the mainstream straight world – “Why did you choose him as your boyfriend? “.   He reminds Jayson of the pain of the crush his younger self had on a high-school football player, and of all the adolescent angst that he experienced.  In a remarkable passage he compares his gayness to being an amphibian – ” Amphi, Bios. Two lives. Out of place, not a reptile on land, not a fish in water…” and finally demands – “Tell me if this gets better.”  To which his older self replies – ” I’ve been told that it does, Jason, I’d like to believe it.”

Jason was played by Leo-Marcus Wan, an inspired casting, as his smooth-skinned part-Asian looks allowed him a slightly synthetic appearance (almost as if rendered by Pixar ), but it was his voice that made the performance memorable.  He’s LOUD – really, really loud, with a slightly nasal intonation that simultaneously conjured up whining teenage angst and the synthetic sound of computer generated speech.  At the beginning, Leo-Marcus had appeared solo as himself (no wig etc.) recalling musicals with a gay subtext, and his voice was so powerful I assumed that he was miming an amplified soundtrack.    Clever lighting for this section too, with a diagonal spotlight casting his distorted profile shadow down the back wall of the stage, giving us a feeling of two individuals existing simultaneously –  Amphi, Bios. Two lives…

Gay people in ‘It Gets Better’ need a sanctuary from ‘bullying, abuse, negative judgments’ , but the (unnamed) narrator of ‘Midsummer’ discovers his own gay yearnings watching the bronzed local lads on a Greek beach – “I didn’t care if I looked like them, I just – wanted them.”   He’s on holiday, aged fourteen, to “encourage what my parents already suspected” and after  he confirms his sexual orientation they announce the fact to the whole village, and their neighbours bring gifts.

For being gay means the narrator is an important person.  This is a future world which has embraced a wonderfully realised mash-up of pre-Christian religions.   People celebrate the Midsummer Solstice, there are Cornish village Druids, festivals in Greece where naked wrestlers “writhe in the wrestling pit – home to Divinity” and “statues of male perfection are mirrored by the temple attendants, and priests, and worshippers”.  The major religion seems to be Mayan, with a shamanic priesthood staffed by gay men and referred to as ‘The Service’.  At times the monologue’s very funny – the Mayans have a Grand Temple, complete with blood-drenched altar, in Herne Hill of all places (I’m visualising the great white pyramid rising above the houses, seen from Crystal Palace – or Balham…), and when agents come at midsummer to take our narrator away to join ‘The Service’, there’s a festival in the village, with – “drugs, mushroom-based rituals and some bloodletting, followed by a disco …”

Nick Field, who wrote and performed ‘Midsummer’, is shaven-headed, with a sonorous voice and he gave off an air of authority as he told of his ascent through the ranks of the priesthood, ” scrubbing blood from the alters – being told what I wear, who I sleep with ” and ” the smell of incense, and sex “, until finally he rose to the top, only to give it all up and become an exile.  There was imaginative use of sound throughout this play, with drumming and ritual singing and chanting, and lighting which helped locate the narrative, giving us forest greens for hidden shrines and drenching the stage in red for the bloodletting sacrifices.   Nick was very physical in his performance, using the whole acting space to dance of perform ritual movements.

So – three possible futures, examining gender politics, technology and religion, to produce glimpses of how our lives might develop.

Any event called  ‘Mauve New World’ has to work as science fiction, and this does.  ‘Freakoid’ reminds me very much of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’, and Margaret Atwood’s rules for writing that book were simple – “I would not put into this book anything that humankind had not already done, somewhere, sometime, or for which it did not already have the tools.”   These plays follow that principle completely, producing believable future societies, but they work as fiction too, with information given out bit by bit, forcing the audience to pay close attention and construct the bigger picture for ourselves.

The show is billed as part of the ‘Pink Fringe’, and so is presumably addressing issues of gay sexuality. Remember that Aldous Huxley took his title from Miranda’s speech in ‘The Tempest’ – “Oh brave new world, that has such people in it”. In all three pieces, though, I felt that the themes of exclusion or alienation were in fact pretty universal, and could also be experienced in the same way by people of a different race, religion or who are undergoing the traumas of adolescence.  That may be a weakness in the evening’s ‘gay’ identity, but I think it speaks volumes about the common experience of being a human being – gay or straight.

Posted on  FringeReview.co.uk      Brighton Fringe 2012

 

Krapp’s Last Tape

 

” What a drag it is, getting old ” – The Rolling Stones

I’d forgotten how short the play actually is.  I haven’t seen a production of ‘Krapp’s Last Tape’ for well over a decade, and I had memories of there being a lot more events in Krapp’s birthday tapes, indeed of more tapes played, and of much longer speeches.

I remembered the bananas, of course, and the boxes and boxes of tapes, and the general dissolution of Krapp himself, the minutiae of his movements and gestures, but I’d lost the density of the writing. I’d forgotten how just a few pages of script can give us such a vivid picture of the trajectory, the arc of a person’s life.

That’s the point of ‘Krapp’s Last Tape’.  Memory.  And how the past slips away from us and how difficult it is to hold on to it.  And that there’s probably not much point trying to hang on to the past anyway, because it just shows us how futile our lives have been.   It was a good move to stage this production in a room over a pub, because we needed a drink afterwards…

The basic structure of the play is simple – it’s Krapp’s sixty-ninth birthday, and he will make a tape, as he does every birthday, recording the events of the past year, along with his feelings and his general observations on his life and health.  He has done this since his youth, and they constitute a kind of annual time-capsule.

Before making this year’s tape, Krapp wants to consult an earlier one, which he identifies from an old ledger (he’s pretty anally retentive, as you have probably realised by now), and locates in an old biscuit tin – “Box three…spool five” – threads into an old fashioned tape recorder, and plays.  I’m giving you all this redundant detail because that’s how it feels in Beckett’s play – Krapp’s movements are slow, thoughtful, ponderous, and there’s loads of business with keys and filing cabinets and biscuit boxes as he shuffles around the stage before finally switching the machine on.

We hear the voice of an obviously much younger Krapp, announcing that he is “Thirty-nine today. Sound as a bell, apart from my old weakness …”.  He starts to sum up his year – “intellectually I have every reason to suspect at the …(hesitates) …crest of a wave – or thereabouts.”   But he continues – “Just been listening to an old year, passages at random. I did not check in the book, but it must be at least ten or twelve years ago.”  So we have the Krapp of sixty-nine listening to the Krapp of thirty-nine commenting on the life and thoughts of the Krapp of twenty-eight or so.

Krapp at thirty-nine finds it – “Hard to believe I was ever that young whelp. The voice!. Jesus!. And the aspirations!. ”  And he laughs briefly at the young man – a laugh (on tape) in which he’s joined by Krapp (listening) at sixty-nine.  It’s an astonishing piece of theatre – three phases of a man’s existence brought to life for the audience in just a very few lines.  The simplicity, the economy of structure of the play, is stunning.

Aidan Stephenson is well up to the task of giving us Krapp in old age.  When we settled into our seats upstairs at The Lectern I didn’t spot him at first on the darkened stage.  Then I could make out his sleeping shape hunched into his armchair next to a small table.  When the light came up and he stretched and woke we were looking at a man gone badly to seed. Grubby white shirt under a dark waistcoat, braces holding up stained dark grey trousers above dirty footcloths – no shoes.  Tousled dark hair, bushy each side of a central bald area.  Paunch hanging over his belt as he moved. He looked as though he probably smelt, and a loud fart (thankfully a sound effect) confirmed this impression.

The lighting was perfect for the situation.  A single hanging bulb with a simple shade produced a pool of light around Krapp’s chair and table.  It hung only a foot or so above Krapp’s head when he stood, harshly filling the eye-sockets with shadow and making his head look almost like a skull.  He stands a lot, fiddling with keys, peering short-sightedly at the ledger or a dictionary, peeling one of his bananas. Or just standing, with a banana sticking out of his mouth, unsure whether to masticate it or not – the banana having unavoidable phallic connotations, though the bend was…downwards.

He sighs, he coughs, he goes off behind the stage to open a bottle of drink (we hear him), he comes back on with the tape recorder, he fiddles with the tin boxes of tapes, he chooses a spool of tape – “Spool … Spooooooooooool” savouring the word in his mouth, he almost slips on the skin of one of the bananas – “Ah Jesus!” – he gazes off into the distance thinking about …God only knows what.  ‘Krapp’s Last Tape’ is only seven and a half pages of actual lines, but Aidan Stephenson made it last over forty-five minutes. (He told me later that he’s seen other actors stretch it to almost an hour …).  For so much of this play, nothing actually happens – and it’s mesmerising.

My one complaint would be the sound.  The tape recorder is perfect – an old-fashioned upright reel-to-reel model with a grooved casing that Krapp caresses as he holds it close to listen to his younger self.  And the tape is perfect to – slight crackles and gaps breaking up the younger man’s words as the signal-to-noise ratio diminishes inexorably with the years. But it’s too LOUD.  The sound came booming out of a big speaker completely out of scale to the small tape machine, and also from one corner of the room.  A smaller speaker stuck down somewhere behind the chair would have maintained the illusion much better.

So what, finally, is Krapp listening to?, what interests him?.

Sex and death, mostly.  Same as all of us.  Krapp at thirty-nine is outside the nursing home where his mother is dying – “There I sat, in the biting wind, wishing she were gone.”. But meanwhile looking at – “one dark young beauty I recollect particularly” … “incomparable bosom”.  Finally – “the blind went down, one of those dirty brown roller affairs … I happened to look up and there it was.  All over and done with, at last.”  He says nothing more about his mother.

And his (presumably writing) career – “Suddenly I saw the whole thing … The vision at last”.   “the miracle that … for the fire that set it alight”.   But thirty years later, when Krapp comes to record this year’s tape, he can only notch up – “Seventeen copies sold, of which eleven at trade price to free circulating libraries beyond the seas”.

Krapp continually returns to a sexual encounter on the thirty-nine year old’s tape.  “…upper lake, with the punt, bathed off the bank, then pushed out into the stream and drifted” … “I lay down across her with my face in her breasts and my hand on her. We lay there without moving. But under us all moved, and moved us, gently, up and down, and from side to side.”

He keeps rewinding the tape to listen again to that moment from his past.  Krapp at thirty-nine ends the tape reflecting that – “Perhaps my best years are gone. When there was a chance of happiness. But I wouldn’t want them back.  Not with the fire in me now.  No, I wouldn’t want them back.”.  Thirty years later, Krapp at sixty-nine stares motionless into the distance.

The tape runs on in silence.

Posted on  FringeReview.co.uk      Brighton Fringe 2012

 

Kin

 

Strangers become family in the city of dreams.

‘London, city of any dream’.  What a true thought, and what an evocative title for a book.  Published in 1965, it had photographs of the city by Erwin Feiger and text by Colin MacInnes, who loved London and who wrote ‘Absolute Beginners’. It was about people who had gravitated to London as the place where, they hoped, they would have the freedom to achieve their ambitions and live their dreams.

Nothing changes, and almost fifty years later, ‘Kin’ gives us three of today’s young dreamers.  Jan is a Dutch banker, in London to further his career in finance.  Luciana is from Argentina, and when she and Yan meet it’s love at first sight.  “What eyebrows!”… Luciana wants – “to have children who have children who have those eyebrows”, and he is so instantly smitten that he gives her his mobile – “Take it. I’ll call me”.  Subsequently, as a couple with a house and rent to pay, they need a lodger, and they choose Tom, recently arrived from Yorkshire. Tom is enchanted by living in London – “Getting to know a place is like learning a language, the more you learn the more you understand”.  As Luciana and Jan are trying to learn each other’s language, with passages where they speak together, over each other, and the space is filled with a mixture of English, Spanish and occasional Dutch.

‘Kin’ is staged as physical theatre by Move to Stand, on a bare black floor with minimal yet very effective lighting, and with music and sound from a single performer, Philippe Nash, squatting with a battery of instruments at one side of the stage. Music that ranges from simple but haunting guitar notes to melodies that fill the theatre, and wind and rain sounds that complement and underpin the scenes created by the actors’ physicality.  The Nightingale have taken out several rows of their usual seating, which allows the actors a lot of movement space and also gives an impression of the venue as much bigger than it actually is.

And they use the space wonderfully – sweeping arm and head movements, the three expressive bodies filling every corner with, graceful, almost balletic action and detail. When Jan and Luciana are showing Tom round the house, peering into living room and loft, the three move as a tight group, six eyes focussed on a kitchen appliance, or three heads nodding in unison – up, down, up, down – as they watch a dripping cistern in the bathroom.  It’s done so believably that we in the audience can see the drips too …

As the play develops, Tom tells us of his work archiving old photographs of London.  Standing in the light from a projector, with his shadow on the wall overlooking him, he describes his feelings about the different layers of the city, and about his fellow citizens and the predictability of their daily routines, sitting on the Tube at the mercy of Metro newspapers and billboards.  “I want to tell everyone –  Stop, Sit, Look around “.  Meanwhile, Luciana and Jan are trying for a baby. The couple cling together sinuously, miming the undressing and the act of love with great tenderness, but it’s a futile endeavour, and each time the sex is followed by a sad evocation of loss – once again no pregnancy – with the two of them rolling their hands over and over as though each swaddling an invisible child.  It’s very moving.

City of any dream… but what if the dreams no longer coincide?   While domestic life in the house goes on, and the three are becoming more of a ‘family’, more like ‘kin’, their individual projects are moving continents apart.  Luciana wants to return to Argentina with Jan, to be with her own kin, and she can’t understand why Jan is obsessed with staying in the capital.  Merce Ribot, small, dark-haired and intense, captures Luciana’s growing frustration by injecting sharp bouts of snappiness which cut into her usual happy nature, and also her increasing moodiness at her unfulfilled motherhood, symbolised by a baby shoe she has found in the street and now cherishes.  Martin Bonger, tall and thin as Jan, gives us a man driven by career success – “I’m in a good position. My boss says I’ll head up the next portfolio”, and its rewards – “My suit cost three hundred pounds …”.  He’s happy with his life in London – “We fought to be here”, to which Luciana retorts – “I fought to be with YOU”.

Richard Keiss as Tom could do little to help.  He was enchanted by London as city, but he shared a love of the outdoors with Luciana and I wondered if the play’s resolution would be a shift in her affections.  When it came, though, the ending was different and much more profound.  Having left the house to give the couple space to finish an argument, Tom is killed by a car in the rain-filled street outside.  The event was as unexpected as it was shocking.  Jan threw himself across the stage, racing from the stage wall into the audience and back again several times, flashing through the light and slamming into Luciana each time he passed her.  It was as if we were seeing, simultaneously, the car smashing into Tom and the panic of the couple as they witness the accident from inside their house.  My memory of it now has an almost Cubist quality, rather like Duchamp’s ‘Nude descending a staircase’.  Physical theatre at its most exciting.

Thrown together by sadness and mourning, Jan and Luciana make love and afterwards their hand and body movements tell us that, this time,  they have produced the pregnancy they yearn for.   Which poses some interesting questions –

– Will the new baby be in some way a reincarnation of Tom?. Have the couple finally conceived through the intervention of Tom’s ‘spirit’?. Or is it part of some greater cosmic order,  that takes one life while giving another?.

– Did Tom in fact die by accident?. Did he perhaps step in front of the car deliberately in order to bring his friends back together again?. (Greater love hath no man…).

-Tom stepped into the road to pick up Luciana’s baby shoe.  Why was the shoe out in the rain? Was the shoe in some way connected to Tom’s death and the subsequent pregnancy?

– In fact, there’s so much doubt surrounding the circumstances of Tom’s death, it’s interesting that the character is named – Thomas.

The programme notes tell us that this piece was devised by the company themselves from their own experiences – ‘of feeling lost and foreign in London; of wanting something in a way that hurts; and of tragedy living beside hope’.   Sometimes devised pieces can end up self-indulgent and forget about the audience.  That’s absolutely not the case here – the lives created seemed real, the action was believable – so many memories of house-shares and relationships…  We were gripped from start to finish.

Posted on  FringeReview.co.uk      Brighton Fringe 2012

 

Dr Faustus.  The Imaginarium

 

Seven Deadly Sins – Collect ‘em all …

… So we’re going to take a four-hundred year old play about selling our soul to the Devil, by a gay Elizabethan playwright who was also a spy, and we’ll put it on in a modern office block that’s turned itself into a spiritual centre offering to – ’empower us through knowledge, and put us in the driver’s seat of our brain’.  There are about forty-five different characters (give or take a few devils), and most of them end up having some kind of sex with each other – usually orgiastic or deviant.  And there are lots and lots and lots of books… Yeah – that should work for the Brighton Fringe …

That must have been the pitch, and ‘Dr Faustus The Imaginarium’ delivers the goods – in spades.

The Four of Spades, as it happens… When the audience first assembled, we were given a demonstration of ‘Three card Monte’ (or ‘Find the Lady’) by a con-man cardsharper who dazzled us with sleight-of-hand and ended up with three cards, each one the Four of Spades.  It set the tone perfectly – sleazy, slick, leaving us not trusting our senses – for what followed.

The Happy Cell office block is an inspired choice of venue.  The meeting rooms are long and narrow rather than square, and the audience of about 35 or so were seated down the long walls on both sides, leaving an acting space almost like a catwalk down the middle.  It meant that we were never more than a few feet from the performers.  The ceilings are quite low too, which gives a slight feeling of oppressiveness and also makes the characters look larger. The second half was staged in a basement room, with several entrances and a slight, but distinct, echo.  The rooms are not dressed in any way, just left with the pale walls and meeting-room seats.  Lights – splashing red over Mephistopheles or a producing a white backlight for Lucifer – were simply hung off stands.  Music was by live instruments – guitar, percussion – played from a corner of the room. It was used to great effect to create mood and heighten tension.

The pace of the production was set right at the start when a wall of books, piled high at one end of the room, collapsed with a sudden shock revealing – Dr Faustus.   He, of course, is the scholar who is dissatisfied with the study of logic, medicine, law and divinity. He wants more knowledge than conventional learning can give him, and he begins to dabble in the occult.  Pretty soon he raises two Angels – a Good Angel in flowing white with bare feet and loose hair, and a Bad Angel.  The Bad Angel was all in black, tight skirt and enormously high boots and Jeeeeeeeezus was she tall…  Honour Mission is a big woman, six foot two in stockinged feet (which I’m trying to not even THINK about…) and her severe black hair seemed to brush the ceiling.  She gave me goosebumps as she walked past. (Terrifying, and only a few feet away, remember).

I hope there’s a lot of headroom in Hell, because they need it…  Mephistopheles, when he appears, is even taller.  Gordon Winter is a really big man, and dressed in a very good suit that only a gangster (or a banker – same difference …) could afford, he brought to mind the Stones’ ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ – “Please allow me to introduce myself – I’m a man of wealth and taste …”. With his sleek hair and fixed smile he also reminded me of Razors, Bob Hoskins’ minder in ‘The Long Good Friday’.  Evil, with loads of style.  Likewise the five female devils who accompany him.  Pinstriped suits, tight skirts, clipboards and mobile phones, these are devils with attitude, and they’re HOT.

When I saw the title of this production – Dr Faustus The Imaginarium – I had misgivings about what it would be like.  So often a company will take a classic text and bugger it around ( Sorry – ‘interpret it’ ) so that the meaning is changed out of all recognition.  Also, I’ve been to ‘site-specific’ shows (some of them award winners) where the experience was meant to be ‘immersive’ and the audience have to piece the story together from scattered impressions.

So it was a wonderful relief to realise that Tanglehead were going to do the play just as Christopher Marlowe wrote it.  Scenes in proper sequence, virtually word for word with the ‘A’ version of the play (there’s a later ‘B’ version), and with all the Elizabethan comic scatological bits left in.

(Disclaimer – Rant, if you’d prefer.) – I’m a great believer that the business of theatre is to tell the story that the author has written.  Theatre makes the text come alive, but the story is key. This production has haunting music, emotive lighting, amazing costumes and makeup, completely over-the-top performances and it’s very funny.  But – and most importantly – it also gives us the story, the tragedy, the moral of Dr Faustus.  It makes us think about the play.

(Second Disclaimer.) – I’m a recent convert to Marlowe, after I read the wonderful book about him – ‘A Dead Man in Deptford’ – by Anthony Burgess. Read it if you get the chance. His life was complicated, immoral, gamey, irreverent and hugely creative – just like this production.

Sixteen actors giving us forty-five characters involves an awful lot of quick changes.  I can’t mention the whole cast by name, though all were excellent. Trevor Scales (another big man, or maybe those ceilings are lower than they appear) gave us the Emperor Charles V in a blue silk dressing gown, a very camp Cardinal of Lorraine, and the Hot Whore Wife from Hell (hairy arms and torn stockings – don’t ask…).  Miranda Morris came on as Robin the clown, in one of the comic interludes, then a black-gowned Scholar, and all in yellow, including a plastic yellow wig, as Lechery, one of the Seven Deadly Sins,  Actually she was one of two Lecheries, like there were two Prides, so there were eventually NINE Deadly Sins on the central ’catwalk’ – all we were missing was Anna Wintour in the front row…  We never knew what would appear next, and I have a vivid memory of an audience member opposite, a woman probably in her late twenties, eyes wide in amazement at something unexpected, holding her hands to her mouth like a girl of six or seven.  She wasn’t the only one.

Faustus himself was played by two –  Jason Kennedy as the young scholar, crew-cut, thin and intense as he prepares to renounce normal morality and sell his soul, and in the second half by Mike Rawlings as the older Faustus, round faced and bald in a good quality check suit, obviously enjoying his life and his powers.  One of the things this production brought home to me was just how banal and limited Faustus’ desires finally were.  With Mephistopheles at his beck and call, able literally to – “Join the hills that bind the Afric shore / and make that land continent to Spain / and both contributory to my crown” – he spends his time fetching grapes in winter for Duchesses and raising the shade of Alexander the Great for the Emperor to see.  Parlour tricks for those in power.  When he gets to Rome, he does the sights like a package tourist and then causes havoc at a Papal banquet.  Don’t seem activities worth paying for with one’s soul… Elizabethan audiences were very different, of course.  For us, ‘Rome’ means an easyJet flight – for them, it was a long difficult pilgrimage made by very few.  And in Marlowe’s time, poking fun at the Catholic Pope would have gone down very well with his Protestant public.  As I said above, this production makes us think deeply about the play.

I looked up ‘Imaginarium’ and it’s defined as – ‘a place devoted to the imagination….to stimulating and cultivating imagination towards scientific, artistic, recreational and spiritual ends’. The right word for this production, then, and why it deserves five stars.

Posted on   FringeReview.co.uk      Brighton Fringe 2012

 

Blonde Poison

 

Why is this is a difficult production to review?   Partly because it’s about a big, emotional  subject – they don’t come much bigger than the Holocaust – and we all feel we have to tread very carefully while walking around it.

Partly because it’s not quite clear what I’m setting out to review.  We spent an hour watching an actress portray a woman, Stella Goldschlag, who became a ‘Greifer’, betraying her fellow Jews to the Nazis, and we’re fascinated by how and why she could do such a thing.  Sufficiently fascinated that at least half the audience stayed afterwards for a discussion with the director of the production, the author of the play, and the actress herself, Elizabeth Counsell.

So… am I reviewing the actress’ performance – her portrayal – or am I attempting to explain how Stella Goldschlag could have done the things she did and justify them to herself?.   Or am I sitting in judgement on Stella and giving an opinion as to whether the situation she found herself in justified those actions?  And of course, the underlying question in all Holocaust material – the elephant in the room- if they behaved that way could I have done so too?

Gail Louw told us that she wrote ‘Blonde Poison’ pretty much from Stella Goldschlag’s own words – the journalist Paul, the one she’s waiting for in the play, did actually talk with Stella and it seems that none of these lines are made up. So I’m going to start by looking at what kind of person Stella was, and then see what Elizabeth Counsell did with the material.

I think Stella was able to betray her community because she had never really belonged to a community.  She was young, and good-looking, and blonde, and she wanted to identify with life’s winners – “A good German family. A real German family…. We had culture. We had Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart. All of them”.  With her lover Manfred and their jazz music and their modern style – ” Here it is. The two of us. We were, good looking. Both blonde. Both looked, how shall I say it, not Jewish!.”

Not Jewish… Elizabeth Counsell gave us Stella’s scorn and distain, the sophisticated Western Metropolitan spitting out the words in a guttural Germanic accent – “We had nothing to do with those primitives, those eastern ones, those scraggly, smelly, oh, they were disgusting. Their beards, those hats, those hats they wore. Big things, big black things. Look at me, I am Jewish. Jewish, Jewish. “

But she didn’t really belong to her family, either.  Despised her father, her Vati – “You with your lieder, going to little concerts for Jews, to sing your lieder. Excited, like a little boy. You had so many you wanted to sing. They almost clapped, almost politely. But sniggered behind your back. You didn’t know that, did you Vati. I didn’t want you to know that. Mutti knew it. It made her despise you that little bit more.”  Despised her father too, for not having enough money – “… we’ll save you, because you are not just people, you are people who are encased with money. Money covers you, all round you, your eyelids, your heart’. But Stella, you and your Mutti and your Vati. Where is your money?  No?  Pity.  What a pity.”

There were no cultural or family restraints to stop Stella’s head being turned by the glamour and the power –  “I lived in an apartment in that complex, furnished and immaculate, me and Hans, and I had a green pass that I could flash at anyone who stopped me or questioned me or tried to get away from me, that and a revolver. My own revolver. And best of all, I did not have the Jewish star.  I was the queen. I was the boss.  I was the one causing all those vermin to hide, to run, to scuttle.”   Vermin, see.    This woman has managed to dehumanise Jews.  They are no longer human.

Finally, Stella is completely self-centred – she puts a safe emotional distance between herself and everyone else, even a lover… ” He’ll ask me about you. He’ll say, what happened to Manfred. I’ll say you were deported. He’ll say, how. I’ll say, how? What do you mean, how? How they all were. And he’ll say, but why not you? …Why not me? Because I’m clever, that’s why not. …My philosophy in life is this; if you can, you do, and if you can’t you don’t cry.”

Elizabeth Counsell is tall and slender.  Blonde curls above a white blouse and a black velvet jacket. Well-cut grey slacks. There’s a faded elegance about her that’s mirrored by the apartment she lives in.  The set is simple – black stage surrounding, with furniture in the middle, quite flatly lit  Rather old-fashioned furniture – 70s sideboard with a mirror, and a pair of armchairs in pale cream material with polished wooden details on the arms.  It looks – safe, and I wondered what the jazz-loving Modern woman that Stella had been in her youth would have thought of it …

She’s still completely self-centred.  For the duration of the play she’s waiting for the journalist Paul to arrive to interview her.  She frets, like older people do, over details – when should she put on the coffee? – is her hair ok? – checking her lipstick in the mirror.  Interestingly, the character the actress is portraying is behaving like an actress, trying out lines for an audition, choosing which bits of her script she wants to perform, what impression she wants to give to her visitor.  She doesn’t have visitors – “I’m busy never seeing anyone” – so she’s not used to dealing with people, and her self-justifications get faster and louder and shriller and… suddenly she’ll catch herself and bring her voice back under control.

She keeps that safe emotional distance from anything too difficult, finding ways to block painful ( Stella would probably say ‘inconvenient’ ) memories –  “You see how I am accused. How I am not understood. I only did it for my parents. Yes, that’s what you say, but then why did you carry on after your parents were deported?… …I’m so tired. Maybe I’ll just put my head down a minute, here, in the armchair. A few minutes, just to sleep a bit, not to think a bit.”. Elizabeth Counsell was superb with this material, her voice ranging from a whisper to shouting, hectoring her (imaginary) audience before dropping back to normal. My only criticism would be that the quiet bits were too quiet.  I was only three rows back and it was difficult to distinguish some lines.

So how much should we blame Stella?   She was under extreme duress, but so were many others and they didn’t behave in the same way.   Her daughter, conceived at the very end of the War, refused to have any dealings with her, regards her as a Nazi, and herself as completely Jewish. “She lives in Israel. I don’t know what she does. I don’t know anything about her. …She has a son. He is ten.”  At the end of the play it seems that the journalist is knocking at the door, and Stella, finally unable to cope with the past that the interview will unearth, shoots herself ( my own revolver…).

At the play’s opening, though, Stella had received a letter from her daughter, which she keeps glancing at throughout the play, and finally reads out – “I have a dream. The rifle in my hand is pointed at you and I walk through the streets of Germany until I find you. And when I do, I point the rifle directly at your head and pull the trigger. And only then will I stop atoning for the sins of my mother. I am Klara who had better not have been born.”.  Perhaps finally it was her daughter that Stella would have been unable to face …

Posted on  FringeReview.co.uk      Brighton Fringe 2012

And No Birds Sing 

 

Victorian theatre for the search-engine generation.

I’m writing this the day after I saw ‘And No Birds Sing’, and yet in many ways the performance still isn’t over.  I’ve spent the morning making mental connections among many of the things I saw and heard last night, chasing up references on Google, and putting a (literally) museum-full of impressions into some sort of order.

Strange Beast have staged this show at The Booth Museum very much as a site-specific production, making full use of the exhibits and of the museum space itself.  The Museum houses Edward Booth’s nineteenth century collection of taxidermy and preserved animals – stuffed birds, dried insects and mounted skeletons – housed in long narrow aisles of high-stacked glass cases.  It’s done in promenade, and our group of about a dozen was led, following the action, past all these silent bodies…

At the start we met Booth himself – James Lloyd Pegg, who also conceived and directed the show – and he looked very much the Victorian collector-scientist with a long dark coat, fingerless gloves, muffler and thin-rimmed spectacles. As Curator, he took us deeper into the building and it was while examining the bird cases that we first heard the wailing and the screeches…   Five women, in long Victorian dresses, stumbled and lurched along the aisles and pressed themselves up against the cases.  Arms twisted, heads askew, taxidermy labels hanging round their necks, they seemed to represent the spirits of the stuffed birds.

For this production is all about death – a subject which obsessed the Victorians. As we were guided past the display cases there was music, long haunting chords, echoing through the usually silent museum.  One of the women/spirits pointed to the birds’ plumage, muttering – “Amethyst, for Devotion.  Emerald, for Hope.  Lapis Lazuli, for Truth – and Black Amber, for Mourning”.   Another of the women was contemplating an owl, stiff and blue-lit in its case – “nothing moves for this lonely hunter…under silent moonlight, under stars”.    Later we passed through a gallery of moths, case after case of small dried corpses, some drab, some brilliantly coloured, and their common names – “Each moth has a name” intoned the Curator – reverberated through the space as the five women peered in at them and made moth-shapes with their hands against the glass.

So far, so site-specific; but there are more intricate connections. The Curator, as taxidermist, talked about creating a Mermaid out of bits of other specimens, and passing it off as real – “I assembled her so carefully, did all I could to ensure that she was recognised in only the most distinguished zoological circles”.   This immediately brought to mind the Booth Museum’s own Merman, the nineteenth century fake that is probably their weirdest exhibit – and that we could see right there.  But on reflection, I thought too of Piltdown Man, the fake ‘missing link’ fossil with skull and jaw from different species, which fooled ‘the most distinguished zoological circles’ for years.  Turns out that Piltdown (where it was ‘found’) is only twelve miles north of Brighton…

“Who would be a Mermaid fair? ” asks the Curator, and (Thanks, Google!) we’re led to Tennyson’s poem  ‘The Mermaid’.  Tennyson also wrote ‘Mariana in the South’  which has the line- “I sleep forgotten, I wake forlorn”.  Which the Curator quotes when he holds an empty bird cage and talks about the Pre-Raphaelite artist’s model (and wife of Dante Gabriel Rossetti) – Lizzie Siddal.    Lizzie with the hair ‘like spun copper’, who died alone and addicted to drugs.

Lizzie Siddal is the central motif that holds this production together.  She was model for Millais who painted her as Ophelia, model and wife to Rossetti, who drew her as ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’, which was also a poem by Keats, and has the lines – “The sedge has withered on the lake, And no birds sing.”

Which, of course, is the title of this production  –  that one line, hovering on the edge of recognition, waiting for something to put it into context.  It could have simply meant the stuffed birds in their cases, but now it triggered a host of new associations.  None of this was made obvious during the performance, but as we left we were handed a programme sheet which referred to Siddal, and how Rossetti – ‘became convinced that her soul had migrated into a bird’s song’. Lizzie was depressive and addicted to laudanum (essentially opium), and spent time in Brighton recovering from illness, so there’s a local connection with her as well as with Piltdown Man.  Once we had the key, all the seemingly unrelated performance elements began to slot into place.

The production is steeped in the nineteenth century; one of the women gave us lines that brought to mind Lewis Carroll – “My bird had a mirror, she never felt alone. She spent a lot of time with her friend on the other side of the glass”, and another quoted Emily Dickinson – “Hope is the thing with feathers / that perches on the soul / and sings the tune without the words / and never stops at all” (Thanks to Wikipedia for this one).   Charles Darwin’s ghost surely hovered over one of the women as she delivered her lines standing next to the skeleton of a large primate as tall as she was.  When I had seen the shuffling bird-women my first impression had been of Zombies, and then of course I conceived them as spirits, but by the end I saw them also as the shambling half-human creations of H G Wells’ mad scientist – Dr Moreau.

So does it work as theatre?   The women look good in their Victorian dresses, but close-up in promenade it’s hard to keep the illusion of otherworldliness.  Too often the action just looked stagy and the illusion was lost.  Several of my fellow audience members commented on that later.   I think it was a mistake, too, to save the material on Lizzie Siddal till the very end, in fact till we were leaving.  A lot of the earlier scenes would have made much more sense if we had had her as a central theme running through the production.  Strange Beast have made very imaginative use of the museum environment and its contents, and I loved looking up the references and making discoveries and connections, but I wonder –  how many other audience members will be doing the same?

Posted on  FringeReview.co.uk      Brighton Fringe  2012

 

Antigone

 

Incest,  jealousy,  treachery, sibling rivalry,  murder.  –   Families!   Don’t you just love ’em?

Oedipus, who as we all know, unwittingly married his mother Jocasta, has died in exile from Thebes, and his two sons, Eteocles and Polynices, have killed each other in a fratricidal war for control of the city.   Eteocles had remained in Thebes, while Polynices was driven out and later returned with a foreign army to sack the city and reclaim his inheritance.  Now both are dead, and the monarchy has passed to Creon, their uncle. He has decreed that, as a traitor, Polynices does not deserve the honourable burial that his brother will receive, but that his body should be left to rot outside the city.   Antigone,  Polynices’ sister, cannot accept this judgment, and sets herself against the king and the rule of law to do what she believes to be her duty, giving her brother proper funeral rites.     Families!  Don’t you just love ’em?

‘Antigone’ is one of the most thought-provoking of all the Greek tragedies. A whole set of themes – the relationship between the individual and the State, the role and status of women in society, the power dynamics within a family and the different perspectives of humans and Gods – are all examined in this highly compressed and relatively short play of Sophocles.   It’s even further compressed in this production by Theatre Rheo, with just two actresses taking on all the major protagonists and the role of the Chorus too.

Theatre Rheo describe themselves as a ‘physical theatre company’, and that was evident in ‘Antigone’.  Upstairs at the Temple Bar is a small venue, and the set was stripped back to just a small platform, less than six inches high, and a creased black curtain as a backdrop. Simple frontal lighting made no attempt at mood or subtlety.

But we had no need of subtle staging effects – the two actresses dominated their space, dressed in clinging white tops over black leggings, with wide belts at the waist giving them a Classical look – think of the statue of the Charioteer of Delphi.  Their movements, posture and gestures clearly defined each one’s situation and character, whether it was King Creon, proud and unbending, or Antigone strangling in her noose near the play’s end.   The pair slipped seamlessly between characters and The Chorus, which was a little confusing until we realised what the play’s conventions were, but allowed them to retain the Greek dramatic structure.  As the Chorus, they gave us big sweeping arm and head movements, showing us soldiers with spears and crested helmets, chanting the text or ululating with grief.  The two women sang too, acappella singing, just notes not words, producing a vivid accompaniment to the stylised, exaggerated gestures of grief and despair.

Susanna Hook, tall and rangy with short dark hair, showed us an Antigone desperate to do the honourable thing for her brother.  At the start we saw her gathering up ashes to scatter on his corpse.  Proper white ashes, not just grey dust – ashes have always symbolised spiritual cleansing (think about sprinkling ashes on the head on Ash Wednesday) and sitting among the ashes as a sign of mourning is mentioned as far back as ‘The Odyssey’.  The fine white powder was occasionally blown towards the audience, and progressively whitened Hook’s black leggings as the play proceeded.  At one point her fingers left long white lines across the platform as she clawed at the earth to bury her dead brother.   She also portrayed the oracle Tiresias, who tells king Creon that his decrees are not acceptable to the Gods, and here she gave us the anguished writhing, stamping and grimacing that comes with supernatural possession.

Mimi Findlay is shorter, black, with a compact athletic body and wonderfully braided black hair.  She started as Antigone’s sister Ismene, the conventional, law-abiding sister who doesn’t want to risk the king’s wrath.  I thought she was rather dull and lifeless, but then she became Creon and suddenly she was imperious, dominating the space with a steely stare of enormous eyes.  She held herself like those statues of Egyptian pharaohs (apologies for the wandering cultural references) and I heard myself mutter – “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings. Look upon my works, Ye mighty, and despair”.   Creon is obsessed with the security of The State and resolute that he must crush any dissent.  Mimi was completely believable in this role.

For this is a play about how much The State should be able to demand of its citizens.  King Creon is adamant that the security of Thebes comes before any other consideration, and that harsh punishment for treason will discourage other potential dissidents – “Whoever places a friend above the good of his own country, he is nothing – I have no use for him”.  It’s an argument we’ve heard increasingly over the past decade, with governments increasingly regarding individual citizens as either ‘Us’ or ‘Them’.  In this Manichean world view – “You’re either with us or against us” (George W Bush)  there is no room for the individual conscience.

So, a very timely play.   About state power, but a play about gender too.  Antigone is a royal princess, but as a woman she cannot inherit the kingdom.  Ismene her sister justifies her own inaction – “We must be sensible, we’re not born to contend with men”.   A lot of the unbending fanaticism shown by Creon comes from the fact that he is being opposed by a woman. Although he is obsessed with security – “Our country is our safety” – he needs to uphold the status-quo as a man as well as a king.  It’s also about the conflict between human decisions and an overarching moral framework.  When condemned by Creon, Antigone retorts – “Nor did I think that your edicts had such force that you, a mere mortal, could override the Gods”.

The downside?    The physical theatre was sometimes a little unfocused – some of the emotional movement didn’t seem to mean much except – “We’re emotional”, and the Chorus voices were not always quite in synchronisation. Susanna Hook told me that she and Mimi Findlay directed themselves in this piece, and a few audience members I talked to later said that another pair of eyes, looking at the action from off the stage, might have been useful to tighten up the action.  It was sometimes difficult to hear, too, with the sound of the venue’s ventilation system producing an underlying rumble.

Overall, though, a memorable evening.   I shall not easily forget the stretching,twisting figures against the stark black stage, the haunting notes of Mimi Findlay’s singing, or the long white lines of ash across the floor, so reminiscent of the marks of a whipping or from a cat-of-nine-tails, tracing Antigone’s anguish.

The whole production, and certainly Creon’s speech about treason, brought to mind a phrase from E M Forster – “If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country”.  When I came to write this review I looked up Forster and discovered that he was very interested in the Oedipus legend and that in one of his short stories, ‘The road from Colonus’ , a character even nicknames his daughter Antigone.  Colonus was where Oedipus went into exile from Thebes, and I am struck that this play probably influenced Forster’s morality and pacifism.

Posted on  FringeReview.co.uk      Brighton Fringe  2012

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