All these reviews are listed in order. Just scroll down to find them. – Alice in Wonderland / Phone Whore / Harlequin Goes To The Moon / Shadows On The Wall / The Fantasist / Stella / The Ruffian On The Stair / The Graduate / Chain Letter / Black Venus / Betsy -Wisdom of a Brighton Whore / Holocene / Belvedere / Life, The Universe and Everything / Oedipus / In The Beginning Was The End.
Alice in Wonderland
“Why is a raven like a writing desk?”
“Because one is a rest for pens, and the other is a pest for wrens.”
According to Lewis Carroll, the Mad Hatter’s riddle had no answer, but Volcano’s production of ‘Alice in Wonderland’ has come up with quite a good one – the kind of pun that would have appealed to Charles Dodgson. There’s another good joke after the Pool of Tears; the animals are trying to get dry, and instead of the history of William the Conqueror, Alice gives them a lecture on the history of Scottish independence – “this is the driest thing I know.”
When we took our seats on the steep rake at Brighton’s Corn Exchange, we looked down on a stage filled with straw bales. The programme said there were over eighty, and they were arranged in five great mounds, the bales stacked four high. There were small gaps between bales in some mounds, and hollows in the centre of others, and in each mound we could glimpse a woman squeezed into the gap between the bales, or peering over the straw ramparts.
Within a deep, rumbling soundtrack we could also hear birdsong, cock crows and farmyard sounds. One of the women had a magnificent punk cockscomb hairstyle, a real rooster effect that reinforced the farmyard feel. A figure dressed in dark blue overalls, with a hood and dust mask that rendered their sex indeterminate, moved around the stage, checking and adjusting bales. Was this the farmer?, we wondered.
Then the lights went down, and the five women moved downstage and explained that they each play several characters in the Alice story. Five slim women, very athletic looking in skin-fitting jeans and gym tops – and so they proved to be, as they rushed and danced around the stage, clambered amongst the straw bales, climbed and balanced on ladders, and generally used a great deal of physicality in every scene.
The straw bale set, designed by Guđny Sigurđardóttir, turned out to be very flexible as well as visually striking. Bales could be rearranged quickly and easily as part of the action. At one point they were stacked to form a three metre long block, some others placed around it as seating, and suddenly we had the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, complete with the Dormouse who climbed onto the top and fell asleep. Later, bales were laid out to form a track which the actors walked along. In one scene the women each held a bale in front of themselves, so only head and limbs were visible, and were thus turned into playing cards in front of our eyes.
But, visually impressive though it was, there seemed to be no symbolic reason for using a straw bale set. The set gave the production a farmyard look, sure, but then Alice in Wonderland is not set on a farm, and there are no farmyard themes. The masked figure in dark overalls was confusing, too. In actuality this was a stagehand, moving bales around and carrying on ladders, but who was it meant to represent? Was the face mask an indication that the farmyard environment is toxic in some way? Was it a comment on modern agriculture? We were given no indication.
Volcano’s website says the production is – “about the behaviour of one generation seen through the eyes of another.” and – “it’s about the everyday monstrousness of the world around us.” Personally, I couldn’t see any connections being made between the nineteenth and the twenty-first centuries. We didn’t gain any new insights into the story. There was no psychological examination of Carroll’s imagery or his motives for writing. No sense of his relationship with Alice Liddell. In fact we didn’t meet Carroll at all.
Director Paul Davies says in the programme that he tried to avoid the debate about Victorian innocence vs. Victorian repression, preferring to ‘concentrate on the text and the performance’. The production is visually stunning, but he hasn’t given us any deeper examination of the text, and the minimalism of the physical theatre made it hard to follow the story at points.
There was quite a lot of (recorded) music in the production, but this seemed to slip between the generations, neither Victorian nor contemporary. They used tracks which referenced Alice’s world; from The Doors – Break on through to the other side… and Jefferson Airplane’s ’White Rabbit’ – Go ask Alice, when she’s ten feet tall… but these lines are from the nineteen sixties – half a century ago. Even Holly Rivers’ bleached punk cockscomb looks dated. Punk goes right back to the seventies. It’s a great look, but nowadays it’s as old-fashioned as Mods or Teddy Boys. ‘One generation seen through the eyes of another’ claims the website – does the present generation have nothing to offer on the tale? And anyway, why would you want to use another artist’s personal creative take on Alice to illustrate your own production?
The five women looked very good, and moved well around the stage, but their voice projection was not adequate for the space at The Corn Exchange. They were difficult to hear – significantly they used a microphone for the most important sections – and the lines were often rushed. Individual sections were very good indeed: when Alice grew huge and got jammed inside the house, the actors got themselves trapped inside stepladders, their jaws just able to move against the rungs.
When Alice meets the Caterpillar, Jenny Runacre made the creature squat (as if sitting on the mushroom) while actually still standing, posed like a Russian Cossack dancer. Then she gracefully knelt down and finally stood on her head, as the scene segued into the ‘Old Father William’ poem.
“You are old, Father William,” the young man said, and your hair has become very white; and yet you incessantly stand on your head – Do you think, at your age, it is right?”
and later, when the Red Queen approaches the garden, Mairi Phillips (as the White Rabbit at this point) acted out the whole procession – the knights, the courtiers and all the others.
In fact, the scenes are not clearly defined, tending to blend into one another, and there are no costume changes, so it takes a little while to realise that we have moved on. The audience would really need to know the story very well to follow the action. It seems that a number did not, as there was a steady trickle of leavers throughout the performance. At the end of the play we had the Courtroom scene. Here the five women sat in a line at the front of the stage, and whispered so quietly that it took us some time to make out the content. “Silence in Court … Silence in Court …” It was very effective, and the whole scene was played in stage whispers, while the lights dimmed slowly, finally leaving five small pools of reddish light, one on each actor, until Alice finally lost her temper and shouted – “You’re nothing but a pack of cards!”.
The lights snapped up, and the women moved off upstage to disappear behind the bales. The soundtrack gave us ‘This is the Modern World’ by The Jam – very loud. But this is another forty-year-old track – are Volcano trying to be ironic? Actually, they probably don’t care, and they certainly won’t worry about how they’re perceived – the last lines of The Jam’s song rang in my ears as the lights went down
“Don’t have to explain myself to you I don’t give two fucks for your review.”
Posted on FringeReview.co.uk Fringe UK-wide
Sometimes a change of venue can bring great benefits. The upstairs theatre at The Marlborough is being refurbished, so the performance took place in the ‘Green Room’, where the actors usually change and get ready for a show. Instead of seeing Cameryn Moore isolated on a black stage, she was sitting in her comfortable armchair at one end of the room, and we the audience just seemed to be in her apartment with her. It produced an effect of great realism, proximity, and of… intimacy.
‘Intimacy’ is not a word to be used carelessly about a show featuring phone sex – neither is ‘realism’, for that matter. Moore is American, a big woman in her late thirties, with short, light brown hair and thick black-rimmed glasses, dressed in wide red pyjama pants over leopard print slippers, and a silky green top open over a black T shirt and a black brassiere. When she takes her first call it was Steven – his first time calling – and she introduces herself, her voice rising slightly in pitch – “Hi, it’s Larissa. Here’s a bit about me. I am twenty-eight years old, I’m five-five and a hundred and thirty-five pounds. I have long wavy dark-brown hair and green eyes. And I’m a thirty-two double D…”
There’s a pause – we’re only hearing her end of the call – and she continues – “I certainly don’t get any complaints. … It’s really warm up here in my room, so I’m just wearing these pink cotton panties and a tight little pink top … Nope – no bra … You can see my nipples poking out when I get excited…”
That leads her on to nipple sucking – “You like that, don’t you?, you greedy little boy”. Larissa creates a vivid aural (that’s not a typo…) image of what she is doing, but it’s going to be difficult for me to give you the full picture without possibly causing offence. You’ll just have to use your imagination (like Steven) as she almost chokes on his “enormous cock” – slurping on her finger and gagging into the phone – before telling him she’s – “sliding your cock between my tits” and lots more detail before finally screaming – “Yes!, YES!!…” as her client has his orgasm. After she puts the phone down, Moore turns to the audience – “I bet you wish I’d put these calls on speakerphone.” – a pause – “You’re not missing much…”. She’s very funny, and ironic, too.
See how I have to allude to a lot of the material? All the ‘Phone Whore’ publicity has ‘FOR MATURE AUDIENCES ONLY’ plastered all over it, and the programme comes with a disclaimer – “The activities depicted in Phone Whore are contained in fantasy scenarios created by mutually consenting adults. The depiction of any illegal activities should not be construed as advocating for real-life enactment of such activities.” Blimey. Even when we were seated at the start of the performance, the actress warned us again about content and asked us if we were sure we were ‘mature’.
Because this stuff is real. As the show progressed it got very intense and quite uncomfortable. Cameryn Moore has worked as a phone sex operator for several years and all the show’s material is based on actual calls. It seems that a lot of the calls are repeat business – men ringing up many times to talk to a specific woman – so the women keep records of their callers’ requirements and fantasies. Moore’s character Larissa has a card index by the phone, with over 900 cards. As she says at one point – “I made over nine hundred men come…”.
She told us that she worked for a ‘no taboo’ company, where nothing is off limits, all fantasies are catered for. There was a Q&A session with the audience at the end, and Moore was asked – “Do you draw a line?”. She said that she, personally, didn’t, because it was understood that in a ‘no taboo’ company you take on ANY fantasy, and a refusal would mean finding another company to work for, and spending years building up a new bank of regular clients.
The financial inducement is obviously quite strong. I was struck by the parallels between phone sex work and other phone-based occupations – call centres filled with people doing work they don’t particularly like in order to make ends meet. Larissa is working from home, for sure, but she told us that she can’t leave the phone for a moment in case she misses a call. And if that phone does ring, she has to stop whatever she’s doing, whether she’s in the shower – or even if she’s having sex… Yep, she actually told us that. Though not in those exact words – I’m having to make allusions again.
It seems that Steven’s call is what’s known as ‘Vanilla stuff’, basic ‘normal’ sex – panties and nipples and so on. Larissa’s next call involved a homosexual encounter in the changing room of a basketball team. She led her caller – Mark – through a scenario involving ‘BBC’. “that’s Big Black Cock – it sure as hell isn’t the British Broadcasting Corporation”, quipped Moore – “I didn’t know, when I started this job, that I’d end up narrating so much gay interracial porn”. That seems to be the second most requested service. “I didn’t realise how taboo gay sex still is till I started taking calls, and heard how many people wanted it… but maybe not even admitting it to themselves… about three minutes into the call they’re – Please please please don’t make me…” Moore is American, that’s where she’s been working – the fantasy landscape may be different in Britain, and of course our racial history is very different.
Jason was next – another regular caller, he wanted Larissa to be his mother and to sleep with her. (Funny that his name was Jason, I wondered if his mother’s ‘fleece’ was golden…). Again the detail was fairly explicit, as Larissa got him his orgasm within the allotted seven minutes that he’d paid for. After he’d gone – “It always ends the same way, and then he cries” – Larissa told us that – “I have callers trying to hide the things that are components of their fantasies, even from me. I don’t judge them for it, any more than I judge the guys who want to fuck their mommies”.
“Some of my callers don’t even feel safe in their own heads. They bury desire deep, hiding it away, even from themselves, then bring it out every couple of weeks for me to help them stroke it into seven minutes of some kind of happiness”.
The last caller was Julian. He wanted a paedophile scenario, which made very uncomfortable listening – I was glad now that we were only hearing Larissa’s end of the call… “You’re being very quiet”, she said to us afterwards “That freaked you out, didn’t it?”. It certainly did, but then she told us that, after the BBC calls, “the incest and paedo calls are the next most common”.
So why does she do it? – “It’s the difference between Thought and Act. Someone may be thinking something that I personally find appalling and is actually illegal, but if they don’t ACT on those thoughts, that’s good enough for me. I don’t want anyone controlling MY thoughts, I’m certainly not going to do that to anyone else”.
“Desires are some of the most personal thoughts we can have. If we can imagine and articulate yours in a way that doesn’t endanger you or anyone else, you are already way ahead of the other 98 per cent of the people who are just walking around holding it in”.
Afterwards, in the Q&A session, Moore brought up another aspect – “Most of the guys doing the more extreme stuff in their fantasies, I don’t believe they actually want to DO it. They’re interested in the taboo, the stuff on the edges, it gives them a strong adrenalin rush – like a horror movie”. Her thoughts on the calls? – “It’s a safe space. And then we pack it up and go back out into the world. I don’t want anyone controlling what happens in your head. Your brain, your imagination, is sexy. You own it”.
I’m not entirely convinced by her argument, and The ‘Daily Mail’ would have a fit, but thankfully my job is not to be your moral guardian but to evaluate a performance. As a performance, ‘Phone Whore’ is full-on – very powerful, very funny in parts and also very gross. Cameryn Moore takes the audience a long way out of our comfort zone and exposes us to a world that most of us know little about. It’s disturbing, but also fascinating and thought-provoking. I shan’t forget it for a long time.
Posted on FringeReview.co.uk Fringe UK-wide
Harlequin Goes to the Moon
“I assume this isn’t an average summer evening in Alfriston?” I asked my friend; as what seemed like a large number of very athletic characters, outlandishly dressed and wearing white-face makeup and wildly shaggy wigs, capered around in front of us on the village Green – shouting, declaring love, fighting, dancing, singing and occasionally attempting to hang themselves – all to the accompaniment of live music that they produced on a variety of instruments – guitars, violins, accordion, even by tapping on bottles. “No” my friend replied, “It’s usually only like this when The Rude Mechanicals do their summer production.”
Phew! My head was spinning just trying to keep up with the plot of the show, as characters dashed off behind the central tower of the portable stage, to be replaced by others rushing on in a seemingly never-ending torrent. Occasionally someone would deliver lines from a window at the top of the tower, giving the impression of gazing out of an upstairs room. There were actually only seven actors in the troupe, but with their painted white faces it was hard to recognise individuals as they kept appearing in different costumes to give us over a dozen sixteenth-century Italian characters.
The Rude Mechanicals have always claimed to be influenced by the Commedia dell’arte of the Italian Renaissance, but in their previous shows that influence was mainly on the style of performance – playing outside on a temporary stage, bold characterisations with a lot of physical theatre in place of complicated props, and a great deal of improvisation and interaction with the audience. Rather like pantomime; rude sexual innuendo and references to current political and social scandals, but with more character changes for each actor. Lots of slapstick comedy, too – “That’s pretty zany.” an audience member said at one point.
Zany. She was closer to the truth than she realised. We get the English word from the Italian ‘Zanni’ – the servant characters in Commedia dell’arte. They are the working class who look after their noble ‘betters’, rather like the ‘rude mechanicals’ in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’. They’re unsophisticated, but full of peasant cunning and a sense of anarchy as they outflank their masters, and they include stock characters like Harlequin and Columbina.
This time, The Rude Mechanicals (The Rudes) have done ‘Harlequin Goes to the Moon’ very much as a traditional Commedia dell’arte production, so as well as the Zanni there are also Inamorati (literally: enamoured) – a pair of young lovers (usually high-born) who are blocked even from meeting by the orders of their parents. The parents themselves are of the Vecchi (literally: the old) – the nobility, the masters. Traditionally, there was a wealthy, miserly Merchant, a pompous comical Doctor who is overeducated (though really knows nothing), and The Captain, an arrogant Spanish soldier always boasting of his sexual prowess.
The Rudes gave us all these stock characters, and more, written into a new plot. The two principal Vecchi were Il Magnifico Buco del Culo, a wealthy banker, whose rather fey son Federico falls in love with Catalina, the daughter of Il Dottore Pazzo, a crazed astronomer. You won’t be surprised if I tell you that there were lots of jokes about corrupt bankers, and I knew that ‘culo’ is Italian for ‘arse’, but it wasn’t until later, when I looked up ‘buco’ (which turns out to be ‘hole’) that the full linguistic genius of Il Magnifico Buco del Culo’s name really hit me.
Il Magnifico was stooped, wearing a bowler hat and peering short-sightedly through heavy glasses. He wore a long black cloak that flapped around a set of pendulous moneybags that dangled like testicles from a low-slung belt. He’s miserly as well as rich, and terrified that women will seduce his son Federico to get to his money. Simon Spencer-Hyde played him with a rasping but rather whiney voice, reminding this reviewer of Steptoe – the father not the son.
Tom Jude, by contrast, wore a long white coat as Dr Pazzo (‘pazzo’ being Italian for ‘mad’) and an amazing wig, all pointed white shards with gold ends, like an explosion in a meringue factory. As the mad astronomer, he topped this off with a small golden globe, nestling in his wig, and rushed around quoting the stellar constellations, astrology and the classics of Virgil in breathless high-speed gibberish. Then he’d disappear, and a few minutes later Jude would reappear as Harlequin, in a black wig and clad in his distinctive diamond-patterned costume.
Harlequin is one of Il Magnifico’s servants. He uses his wits to try to keep out of trouble, and gets persuaded to help unite the lovers. He’s quite anarchic in his dealings with people, and there’s a lot of slapstick violence as he accosts other characters. Several of the characters carry a flat stick, a little over a foot long, which they flap as they hit someone and it produces a sharp slap sound to accompany the blow. Slapstick – see?
There were women, too, of course; these people have wives, daughters and maids. In fact the sixteenth century Commedia dell’arte had woman actors while English theatre of the time was using young men and boys in the female roles. Georgina Field and Natalia Campbell played them all with equally rapid changes of costume and character. Field played Maria, servant to the daughter of the mad astronomer, who uses all her wiles to help her mistress meet Il Magnifico’s son. Then she reappeared as Angela, Il Magnifico’s wife. It wasn’t just the change of dress – Field changed her whole bearing and even altered the shape of her mouth to become the tall, proud and haughty banker’s wife. Angela’s a voracious man-eater, and the scene where she seduces the Spanish Captain (“I am Il Capitano Grandecazzo. I sleep with ten women every week – a thousand a year!”) turned into a bullfight, with the captain, head down, making passes at Angela’s red shawl which she held like a matador’s cape.
Plot, you ask? Well – the young lovers are barred from meeting, so the servants either help them or try to protect their masters’ interests. There’s a lot of going about disguised as someone else, as people try to gain entry to Il Magnifico’s house (and wife…). Finally it ends well, and the young lovers are married. If all that sounds rather like one of Shakespeare’s comedies; it’s worth remembering that The Bard was well aware of Commedia dell’arte, and used the plots and characters in plays like ‘Love’s Labour’s Lost’ and ‘Twelfth Night’. The similarities are particularly evident in farces like ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ and ‘The Comedy of Errors’, where Shakespeare makes full use of the Vecchi, Inamorati and the Zanni stereotypes. As the evening went on, it felt increasingly that we were watching one of his comedies that we hadn’t seen before.
There’s a parallel plot, as well. Paglia, one of the astronomer’s servants, wants to go to The Moon, where he’s convinced he’ll find bottles containing all the things that have ever been lost in the world, including people’s wits (rather relevant in his case…). So he, Harlequin and Colombina (Angela’s maid) steal the astronomer’s MoonShip and set sail on their Lunar quest. A beautiful piece of physical theatre, with the three swaying in a kind of conga line, holding aloft a fold of Columbina’s dress as a steering sail. As they land on the lunar surface, one of the other Rudes swapped his guitar for a woodsaw, producing an unearthly whistling sound that set the scene perfectly.
There are only the three of them on The Moon, and so the normal hierarchy of masters and servants is absent. Harlequin is quick to seize on their situation (“It’s a vacuum, innit?”) and decides to set himself up as ‘Emperor of The Moon’. Commedia dell’arte always had a political edge to the humour (one company was expelled from France for satirizing the King’s wife) and here we were shown how quickly the powerless take on the trappings of authority for themselves (and how shallow is the legality of the rulers). As Harlequin says – “Power … it’s all in the mind.”
So – a remarkable evening, made even more memorable by the small black and white cat that wandered onto the set, completely upstaging the actors. The Rudes, of course, took it in their stride – as the audience’s laughter died down Il Magnifico, sour as ever, grumbled – “I’ve been cuckolded by me wife, and now I’m upstaged by a bloody cat !”
It’s a summer evening performance, so the audience took food and drink, and a lot of us took our own collapsible seating too. Their sheer energy and commitment to performance put The Rude Mechanicals on a level of their own – we had an immensely talented troupe of actors give us a traditional theatre form with a contemporary political edge. Politics and Prosecco, al fresco on a sunny evening in rural Sussex. Think of it as Brecht meets Glyndebourne…
Posted on FringeReview.co.uk Fringe UK-wide
Shadows on The Wall
“My people need me – I am aware of that. But what I know my people need, and what they think they need – are always very different things.”
“If you want to save the country, take care of ME – I am its only hope…”
“I will tell you what our army needs to do – crush this treasonous rioting…”
That could be Bashar al-Assad last week in Syria. It could equally well be Nicolae Ceausescu in Romania over twenty years ago, or one of Machiavelli’s Renaissance rulers addressed in ‘The Prince’. Indeed, it could be any dictator, tyrant or absolute ruler throughout history. The trouble with being an absolute ruler, though, is that they become isolated at the pinnacle of power, surrounded by sycophants, yes-men and self-serving advisors – insulated from contact with the population that they claim to lead.
I assume that the play’s title is taken from Plato’s allegory of prisoners, chained facing the wall of a cave, seeing only the shadows cast by people and things passing in front of a fire which is behind them. All they ever see are the shadows on the wall, and they have to try to interpret reality from these transient flickers…
Marcus is an absolute ruler. It’s he who spoke the lines above, and in his smart black suit and short dark hair he could very well be al-Assad. But the play is carefully timeless, and he could equally well be Louis XIV – “L’Etat, c’est moi”, or Louis XV – “Après moi, le Déluge…”. Marcus is blind – a strip of red silk covered his eyes – and lame, sitting on a throne-like armchair with his stick, so he’s completely dependent on his advisors to give him information about the world outside the palace.
Marcus sat in the centre of the stage at The Warren, isolated under a spotlight with no scenery or props to distract our attention. Under the red silk, the stage makeup rendered his face completely smooth, and the frontal lighting made him seem curiously featureless- almost plastic. He was certainly not an old man, but not a youth either – I imagine that Andrew Scott, who plays him, must be in his early twenties but his character seemed curiously ageless.
At the start, he was musing about his rise to power. As so often with dictators, we learned that this had come about through the assassination of an older ruler – whether a father-figure or his actual father was unclear. He’s at pains to tell us that – “I was not the only conspirator”, and to justify the act – “I committed the sin…the necessary sin”. That ‘necessary’ reminded me of W H Auden’s poem about the Spanish Civil War, where he muses on – ‘the conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder.’
Somehow, after the killing, Marcus lost his sight – “The blade struck, I bled…and my heart wept for forgiveness”. The actor’s delivery left it unclear (the lines were rather garbled), but it seemed that Marcus had done this to himself, slashing at his own eyes in guilty repentance, and the end result was that he had become a ruler – though he had also become blind.
Marcus has three close advisors – Velia, his sister, who is in charge of foreign policy, Rivers, who is running the economy, and Tyrell, who is head of the security forces and the army. These three – played by women in their early twenties all dressed in smart black business skirts or trousers, now rushed on, swamping Marcus with updates on the state of the country, and demands for political decisions. They are obviously alert to unresolved problems across the nation, outside the palace walls, but the Ruler dismissed their competence – “Are you the ones running this country? … No, it’s me, it’s always been me”.
Blind rulers can be actually physically sightless, or merely metaphorically so – as in ‘King Lear’. Lear had his three daughters: Cordelia loving and supportive, the other two the embodiment of ambition and the hunger for power. It quickly became apparent that the physically blind Marcus had his equivalent of Lear’s daughters in these three advisors. The main action of the play involved the machinations of the women as they manoeuvred for power and plotted to replace Marcus.
Velia, his sister, had a slight American accent as she was played by Sabrina Gutiérrez, who’s Mexican. She’s been with Marcus – “since the beginning” and loves him, but she fears that he’s lost touch with the needs of the nation, and she only wants to do what’s best. She turns out to be malleable putty in the hands of the snake-like Tyrell, who gradually convinces her that she has a duty to murder her brother – “for the good of the State”. Slim, serpentine, hissing her venomous proposals into Velia’s ear with an eastern European accent (she’s Czech) Magdalena Dvorska as Tyrell was the classic evil conspirator. Her delivery needed more volume and projection, but it was an inspired piece of casting. Authors seldom choose characters’ names completely at random, and Tyrell probably refers us to Margaery Tyrell from ‘Game of Thrones’, another ambitious, calculating woman bent on the pursuit of power.
Rivers, the third advisor, has a name which immediately recalled Shakespeare’s ‘Richard III’. Earl Rivers was the faithful courtier charged with looking after the boy-king Edward V and his brother (the princes in The Tower) and who was killed by Richard for blocking Richard’s murderous plans. Tabby Kell’s Rivers was the totally honest courtier, remaining faithful to Marcus even when he had lost trust in her and her own life was at stake. She was disgraced, tortured and finally murdered by the other two.
And so it proceeded, with the inexorable logic of a Greek tragedy. Velia stabbed her brother to death, still loving him but convinced that it was the only solution for the country. But before she could even arise from cradling his body in her arms, Tyrell had slipped her own knife into Velia’s back, and as the lights fade she stood triumphant over the dead siblings. Tyrell has achieved her goal of supreme power. She will need her own advisors, though – is the cycle about to begin again?…
The stripped-back staging in the black space made it seem very close to classical drama, with a minimalist music score, mostly Philip Glass and Michael Nyman, underpinning the sense of timelessness. I was told by the actors later that they had devised this piece themselves – they had referenced a wide selection of tropes to put together a remarkably satisfying production. The audience at The Warren was not large, but we felt that we had seen something memorable. I shall look out for Re:Conception Theatre in the future.
Posted on FringeReview.co.uk Brighton Fringe 2013
‘In the mind of the fantasist, the real and the fanciful become dangerously blurred’.
‘The Fantasist’ is a play about Louise, a woman suffering from the delusions that are a part of schizophrenia, and that’s how her situation was described on the show’s flyer.
Louise sees people who aren’t really there, and objects moving of their own accord.She sees objects move, and grotesque puppet creatures – all given life by a pair of puppeteers, completely dressed in black, with black hoods hiding their heads and faces.
Louise’s brain processes produce sensations that do not exist in reality. But we, the audience, employ another kind of mental processing to block out the black-swathed figures who move the objects on the stage. After a short while we focus on the puppets themselves and the puppeteers seem to – disappear. We have entered into a pact with the theatrical company – you will tell us a story and we will suspend disbelief while you do so.
It’s how all theatre works. We know that in reality these people in front of us are actors, and that the door at the side just leads off to backstage, but we choose to believe, for the duration of the play, that these people are lovers, or murderers, and that the door opens onto a hospital, or a garden, or a courtroom…
I’ve long felt that theatre is the only really ‘grown-up’ medium. Film tries to get closer and closer to a simulacrum of reality, with sound, then colour, followed by high definition, and now 3D. Theatre, by contrast, doesn’t try to convince us that we’re seeing reality – instead, the basic cues are sketched out on the stage, and we the audience fill in the details ourselves.
Louise’s story could be done as film, with computer-generated special effects to produce her hallucinations, but it wouldn’t generate that same degree of involvement, that wilful ignoring of the strings, and of constantly processing what we are actually looking at, to produce what we have decided – chosen – to see.
So, with ‘The Fantasist’, we have the interesting philosophical situation of an audience deliberately blocking out things that are happening, in reality, in front of them, to follow a story about a woman who is, involuntarily, seeing things that are only happening within her own consciousness.
And what a story it is. From the first moments when we saw Louise lying on the bed, hearing rasping, rumbling, screeching noises overlying the sound of a heart beating as she tossed and turned, her situation was profoundly unsettling. For one thing, the bed was upright, vertically mounted on the stage, and Louise was in fact standing up, pressed against it. It gave the impression that we were looking down at her from the ceiling, and the bed itself was not the reassuringly rectangular shape that we’re all used to, but a crazy form with every side askew.
Suddenly the bed sheet was sucked away under the woman, through a crack in the bed, which we then realised was not a bed at all, but a wardrobe in a lurid green colour – a weird piece of furniture all crazy angles, like something from Expressionist cinema of the 1920s, something out of ‘The Cabinet of Dr Caligari’. Unsettling for the woman, and for us too, as our perspective was wrenched through ninety degrees and we were now looking at a room from a normal side view.
She’d lost the bed-sheet, and then she lost the pillow, also sucked into the wardrobe through a gap between the doors. Next the chest of drawers began to act up, drawers springing open as fast as Louise could push them shut. There was an artist’s easel in the room, and a desk lamp on a seat, and the lamp began to move as well, twisting its reflector on its short swan-neck stand as it flashed on and off. This was clearly a woman in the grip of a nightmare or some serious delusions.
The desk lamp was actually moved by a black-swathed puppeteer, one of a pair who operate all the figures which constitute Louise’s increasingly powerful hallucinations.She’s evidently a painter, hence the easel in the room, and she has a small lay-figure, a human form about a foot high whose articulated joints can set its limbs in different poses. As Louise works at a painting, the lay-figure climbed down off the chest of drawers and crossed the stage towards her, giving out little squeaks to attract her attention. It took both puppeteers to operate the little figure, but they made its movements so natural and expressive that it appeared to have a life all of its own. More than just simply life – its hands were oversized, and the way they gestured – palms up, pleading – gave the figure a lot of pathos. It was funny, it was intriguing, but it was also very moving.
Catherine Gerrard and Julia Corrêa were the extremely talented puppeteers, and offstage they removed their hoods and donned coats to re-enter the room as Louise’s doctor, Josie, and her friend Sophie. The doctor is keen to administer a sedative to curb the patient’s visions, and Sophie wants to provide some company and support to her friend, but after they leave Louise is again on her own, and there’s a knocking from inside the wardrobe…
When the wardrobe door opened there was a collective gasp from the audience, as we were confronted with one of the most astonishing sights I have ever seen in a theatre. An enormous figure, at least seven feet tall, stepped out onto the stage. Black fedora, long dark blue overcoat with a red rose on the lapel, worn over a wing-collared shirt and tie, all this was secondary to his head. His head was pale blue-green, almost the colour of luminous paint, and moulded so that his prominent nose and cheekbones stood proud of the sharply angled planes of the rest. Crudely modelled, with a rawness that was offset by his rather sad eyes. Mysterious, powerful, but also exuding menace. Crude – but that very crudeness making him fantastic and unreal, nightmarish.
It took both the puppeteers to operate the man. One (presumably) supported his head, and they each had one arm in a sleeve of his overcoat, so that he had two workable hands, a left and a right, to caress Louise as he took her in his arms to dance with her, and later to pour her a measure of a mysterious blue liquid – a drug? For this mysterious figure seemed to be the painter’s muse, urging her to take up her brushes and paint.
Julia Yevnine, who played Louise, only came up to the figure’s shoulder as they danced. She was clad in a short, flower-print garment that could have been a shift or a nightdress, pointing up the ambiguity of her status as a patient. Barelegged and shoeless, her hair was pulled into a loose bun at the back which became more disordered as Louise’s disintegration proceeded. She’s French, as of course is Theatre Témoin (which translates as ‘witness’), and she delivered a number of her lines in the language. In fact, though the location is never specified, the mysterious tall figure has a distinctly French feel, too, like a character from a French ‘noir’ film from the nineteen forties or fifties.
Julia gave a mesmerising performance, pulling us into the woman’s confusion and trauma. She moves extremely well, too, dancing across the stage or cowering in fear at her fantasies. As if that’s not enough, Julia Yevnine designed and built the puppets as well – truly a Renaissance Woman…
It doesn’t end well, of course. This kind of story seldom does. Despite Doctor Josie’s sedatives, Louise is visited by a much more malign fantasy – an evil bird. If the man was her positive painting muse, the bird is definitely a manifestation of her angst and lack of confidence. “You walk down the same street – there’s a chasm in the pavement!” screeches the bird. Julia built this creature too – narrow evil head with a long nose and a long chin to match, forming an enormous beak, like a fantastically stretched-out parody of Mr Punch. Add to this a pair of vicious claws, all in the same luminous blue-green, loosely attached by a length of purple cloth. The two puppeteers moved a claw each, and one took the head, giving the creature a span of several feet as it flapped around the stage. At one point it settled on Louise’s shoulder, wrapping its cloth body around her head as the two of them gazed out at the audience, the woman’s eyes frightened and the creature’s glowing with malevolent intensity.
I haven’t mentioned the two disembodied heads in the wardrobe, nor how Louise jams one of them onto the easel, which comes alive, wooden legs stalking across the stage like some horrifying anorexic scarecrow. Or Louise’s final fate as the play ends. There simply isn’t room here to do justice to this gripping production. It’s truly a five star event – to miss it would be a nightmare.
‘In the mind of the fantasist, the real and the fanciful become dangerously blurred’.
Come to think of it, all that we really know of Louise’s world is what we see on the stage in front of us – which is presumably what she is seeing. We see her delusional characters, and we see her doctor and her visiting friend – but can we be sure that the doctor and the friend are any more real than the others? Finally, we as audience have no way of telling…
Posted on FringeReview.co.uk Brighton Fringe 2013
Do you know the paintings of Joseph Wright of Derby? If you haven’t yet seen them, have a quick look now. Google him – you’re reading this online, so it’s only a couple of clicks and you can be looking at ‘A Philosopher gives a Lecture on the Orrery’ or ‘An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump’.
Stunning, aren’t they? Joseph Wright was an eighteenth century painter, and he specialised in portraying the Enlightenment and the start of the Industrial Revolution – tightly posed groups of people learning about the new discoveries of Science, or working with the furnaces and forges that were transforming the world.
The paintings are all lit by a single light source – a lamp, usually, or a piece of white-hot iron – which gives wonderful modelling to the subjects’ features, and acts as a focus to the whole composition. I’m mentioning Wright’s works here because the lighting and staging of ‘Stella’ brought them irresistibly to mind. That, and the fact that all the scientists and experimenters in his paintings are … male.
All the great art and science has been done by men, right? You’d be excused for thinking so when you read most histories of science. The men get the credit and the name-checks, the women get written out of the story. A good example is William Herschel, the astronomer. He built the most powerful telescopes of his day, and was the first to realise that some of the fuzzy ‘nebulae’ were actually galaxies in their own right. He had a sister, Caroline, who contributed equally to the Herschels’ discoveries. Haven’t heard of her? Look, there she is, down at the bottom of the page, in the footnotes…
Playwright Siobhán Nicholas has written ‘Stella’ to give Caroline Herschel back her rightful place in the history of science. And by extension, to point up the difficulties and inequalities endured by all women in their careers, right up to the present day. So at one level it’s a feminist polemic. It also happens to be beautifully staged.
The acting space at The Old Market was all black, with a round blue carpet in the centre. There was a telescope on a stand over to the left, a small round table on the carpet, and three chairs. Georgian-looking furniture, off-white and rather elegant. A very simple set, but it managed to evoke the eighteenth century while remaining somehow timeless. There were video projections on the whole of the back wall, a series of old star maps and arrangements of the constellations as well as deep-space images of galaxies and nebulae from modern telescopes.
Nicholas tells the story of William and Caroline Herschel in the eighteenth century, through the invented characters of modern-day astrophysicist, Jessica Bell, and her husband Bill, a professional musician. Jessica is researching the life of Caroline Herschel for an article, but Bill (another William, see?) wants her to set aside her own project to support him in his new orchestral post in Hamburg. It’s done with just three actors, and the action segues back and forth between the two families and the two eras, showing us that not very much has changed over the centuries.
“Why is it always me who gives things up?” demands Jessica as the couple argue – she tall and slim, with hair starting to go grey, he slightly shorter, with long hair and a beard, both of them dressed in cardigans and narrow white jeans. Then the lights dim momentarily, and there’s a timeshift as we meet the Herschels. Jessica goes to sit at the back of the stage and Bill exchanges his cardigan for a buff frock-coat to become William. It’s cleverly done – those narrow white jeans become the breeches and stockings of a Georgian gentleman, and the coat completes the illusion.
Siobhán Nicholas herself plays Caroline, in a long white dress and a white wrap around her shoulders. The Herschels were from Hanover, and Nicholas managed to give Caroline a trace of an accent throughout the play. When the action jumped back to the twenty-first century she became Penelope, the curator of the Herschels’ house in Bath, losing the accent and exchanging the wrap for a scarf.
Like Jessica, Caroline had to give up a lot of things during her life. Her brother was a conductor and composer and Caroline originally came to England to help with his music (and keep house). She showed great talent as a singer, and was the star soprano in several concerts. But as William became increasingly involved in astronomy, he forced her to set aside that career to assist with his new endeavours. She had an immense talent for this work, too, recording their observations with great precision and also carrying out her own telescope observing. She found eight comets in her own right, and in 1800 the Herschels discovered the planet Uranus. After William’s death she produced a catalogue of nebulae which earned her a gold medal from the Royal Astronomical Society.
But as a woman, she was denied any recognition until quite late in her life. When William was appointed the ‘King’s Private Astronomer’, with an annual pension of £200, Caroline had to be content to be the ‘King’s Astronomer’s Assistant’, and her brother couldn’t envisage asking for a salary of more than £50 – “After all, that’s more than a governess receives…”.
The staging was masterly. The actors moved around the central table, two playing the scene with the third usually sitting at the back, but in a sequence where an older William and Caroline revisit their house in Bath, Jessica was standing, then kneeling, very close to them, eavesdropping over the centuries. The lighting throughout was enhanced with just a few spotlights, high and from the side, which gave the actors almost the quality of sculpted marble – and made me think of the Joseph Wright paintings I mentioned at the start. Combined with the classic star maps behind, the effect was – ravishing.
Thus far, a believable and touching portrait of Caroline Herschel’s life. But the playwright has added extra stories to parallel the main narrative. Jessica and Bill have a daughter, Eve, a classics student who’s doing an internship at the new Library in Alexandria. When she Skypes her mother we get the phone’s video display projected in place of the star maps , and we see Eve and her colleagues performing their chorus chanting, in ancient Greek, extracts of the works of Hypatia.
Hypatia was a philosopher and mathematician living in seventh century Alexandria. She taught the works of Plato, and edited Ptolemy’s ‘Almagest’, the most important work on astronomy until the Renaissance. Penelope the curator tells Jessica that Hypatia – “defended the Library”, so she’s obviously supposed to symbolise learning and knowledge in the play, although her death – “her body was torn limb from limb by rabid Christian monks” – would also point us to the long-running conflict between science and religion.
Authors seldom choose characters’ names quite at random, and calling the daughter ‘Eve’ reminds us of another sort of knowledge – that of Good and Evil that Eve was tempted by in the Garden of Eden. Eve, whose disobedience caused the Fall, and tainted all humanity with ‘Original Sin’.
Siobhán Nicholas brings all these threads into the picture she’s weaving (see, even Penelope has her place here, doing her wifely duty, waiting for her husband’s return and unpicking the tapestry each night…), but really there’s too much material for the audience to process easily. I was also a little worried that she had William Herschel talking about time spans of millions of years in a century that reckoned the age of the Universe since the Creation to be measured in thousands of years at most. That concept of the immensity of time didn’t really take hold until well into the nineteenth century, with the discoveries of geology.
Near the end, Herschel seemed to have jumped a further century, anticipating Einstein – “A telescope that has the power to penetrate deep space, also has the power to penetrate deep time. Time and space, cradling light and darkness…for a fraction of an arc-second I understood it, and then it floated away, out of my grasp”. Poetic lines, but it’s rather straining credulity to attribute these musings to Herschel. (and it’s ‘second’ if we’re talking time, an ‘arc-second’ is an angle.)
Finally, Eve and her Alexandrine colleagues get caught up in the Egyptian revolutionary events that became the Arab Spring, she’s missing after a demonstration, and may well be dead. I suppose that Nicholas wanted to comment on the treatment of women in the Third World, or under Islam, but with the current anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant hysteria it just felt like name-checking the Arabs as the ‘usual suspects’ – mad, bad and dangerous to know.
Even with all those caveats, though, this was a great production. We were given a sumptuous presentation of a lot of thought-provoking material. There were (unsurprisingly) a high proportion of women in the audience, and they gave a very enthusiastic bout of applause at the end. I look forward to reading the text, giving myself more time to think about the arguments and references. I’ll be chasing them up on Google, too.
Posted on FringeReview.co.uk Brighton Fringe 2013
The Ruffian on the Stair
Joyce – “Have you got an appointment today?”
Mike – “Yes, I’m to be at King’s Cross station at eleven. I’m meeting a man in the toilet.”
Joyce – “You always go to such interesting places.”
That could only be Joe Orton. No-one else ever wrote dialogue quite like that. Pinter can look superficially the same, but he put in lots of ‘significant’ pauses and mysterious references. With Orton the delivery is completely natural, the subject matter is totally realistic, and the effect is … unsettling.
I’ve been a fan of Joe Orton for a very long time – I saw Leonard Rossiter play Inspector Truscott in ‘Loot’, in London in 1984, and I’ve seen most of Orton’s other plays. But never ‘The Ruffian on the Stair’ – it’s very seldom performed – so I was very curious to see what 3:1 Theatre would do with it.
In fact, they’ve done nothing with it. By which I mean that director Jess Barrett has resisted the temptation to ‘interpret’ it, or ‘re-envision’ it – she obviously loves and respects Orton’s script, and she’s given it to us exactly as Orton intended.
‘Ruffian’ was Orton’s first play, originally for BBC radio – and it was after the success of ‘Loot’ (his first stage play) that he re-wrote it for the theatre. He was very clear, even that early in his career, of the effect he wanted to achieve, and his notes for the first (Royal Court) production, urge – ‘Everything the characters say is true … The play must be directed without long significant pauses. Any pauses must be natural pauses. Pace, pace, pace as well. Go for the strong and natural climaxes. Everything else should be simple.’
And that’s what Jess Barrett has done. There’s nothing superfluous in this production. While we took our seats in the small theatre at ‘The Dukebox’ a man was dressing; buttoning up his white shirt, tightening his belt, pulling on braces. He was facing the audience as he smoothed down his rather lanky dark hair, gazing at himself in the (invisible) mirror that was obviously mounted on the ‘fourth wall’.
The man continued checking his appearance until we were all seated and the lights went down. Then a woman came on, wearing a loose dress in a small floral print and carrying a plastic washing-up bowl which she placed on a black box at the front of the stage. The man fiddled with a clip-on bow-tie, and looked at the woman as she gave us her first line – the one that starts this review – “Have you got an appointment today?”.
Mike and Joyce are in middle age, and have been together for two years. Joyce has apparently had a dubious past, which seems to worry Mike, while he in turn has a mysterious job which involves driving a van. It’s the normal scene-setting dialogue you get at the start of most plays, but in Orton’s hands all the facts seem out of alignment, like the planes in a Cubist painting.
Luke Morphen-Hedges gave us a convincing Mike; preening himself, sure of his sexual allure and his physical strength. I took him for late thirties on stage, and it was only in the bar afterwards that I realised he couldn’t be more than his early twenties. Ellie Markwick must be the same age, but she too brought a middle aged drabness to the character of Joyce. Slightly anxious note in her voice, as well – this is a woman who’s known a lot of failure in her life.
The word ‘minimalist’ could have been coined to describe the stage at ‘The Dukebox’.Everything is black – the backdrop curtain at the rear of the stage as well as the wing curtains at either side, and the actual acting space can’t be more than four metres across and it’s less than two metres deep. It’s tiny, and there’s nothing to distract from what’s happening in that enclosed space. For this production the only props were a chair, a small table and a coat-stand. And an unpainted pine door, set in a doorframe in the wing at the left of the stage.
Mike pulled on a long black coat over his white shirt, checked that the watch chain was properly tucked into the breast pocket, and departed for his ‘meeting’. Joyce was left alone, and suddenly there was a knocking at the door. It’s Wilson, a younger man with short hair and a battered leather jacket. As he stepped into the room we got a classic bit of Orton – and a reminder that this was written in the nineteen sixties –
Wilson – “I’ve come about the room.”
Joyce – “I’m afraid there’s been a mistake. I’ve nothing to do with allotting rooms. Make your enquiries elsewhere.”
Wilson – “I’m not coloured. I was brought up in the Home Counties.”
Matthew Martin actually looked like a man in his early twenties. He was a touch hesitant at first, but that passed, and Martin gave us an insistent, cocky Wilson, with that mixture of boyish politeness and reptilian menace that Orton wrote so well. Wilson is obviously a prototype of Sloane in ‘Entertaining Mr Sloane’.
Wilson frightens Joyce, then leaves, and on subsequent visits succeeds in setting Mike off against Joyce – terrifying the woman with sexual innuendo while playing on the man’s sympathy, his Irish background and his Catholicism. For Wilson doesn’t actually want a room, he has another agenda, and it finally becomes clear that Mike had been involved in the death of Wilson’s brother. The action gets deeper, and darker, finally ending in another death. Several deaths, actually, not all of them human …
‘ No attempt to match the author’s extravagance of dialogue with extravagance of direction.’ demanded Orton, and indeed Jess Barrett’s direction ensured that all this was played out with complete naturalism. It sounded just like normal dialogue, delivered totally straight, except that the lines themselves have a surreal quality –
Mike – “What’s your profession?”
Wilson – “I’m a Gents Hairdresser.”
Mike – “You wouldn’t have to be dabbling with birth-control devices? That’s no way for a Catholic to carry on.”
Wilson – “I don’t handle that part of the trade. My old man does it. He has the free-thinking frame of mind. I can’t approve, of course. It’s the Latin temperament which has been the curse of our religion all along.”
Sex (both straight and gay), prejudice (class and racial), religion, and of course death – all the usual Orton themes are here, and 3:1 Theatre have given us a very expressive rendering of this classic play. They had an inspired choice of venue, too. The Dukebox stage is very small, and some companies might find it cramped, but for this staging it was perfect – the actors were forced into close proximity, and that brought out the intense, claustrophobic feel of the piece. I’ll remember this production for a long time.
Posted on FringeReview.co.uk Brighton Fringe 2013
‘ Little boxes on the hillside / Little boxes all the same. / There’s a pink one and a green one / and a blue one and a yellow one / and they’re all made out of ticky-tacky / and they all look just the same.’
Remember ‘Little Boxes’, Malvina Reynolds’ song about American middle-class conformity, made famous in 1963 by Pete Seeger? It goes on –
‘ And the people in the houses / all went to the University / where they were put in boxes / and they all came out the same. / There’s doctors and lawyers / and business executives / and they’re all made out of ticky-tacky / and they all look just the same.’
Benjamin Braddock is a graduate – The Graduate – just returned home after university, and his parents have thrown a party in his honour and invited their middle-class friends and his father’s business associates. We met them first in the foyer of The Clarendon Centre, and were invited to have a drink and dance with the other guests. Then everyone was ushered upstairs to the main space on the first floor, where we the audience took our seats and the party continued on the stage.
I was reminded of the song when I saw that director Rikki Tarascas had dressed all the party guests in ‘Little Boxes’ colours – there were dresses in pale blue and pink, and jackets and slacks in yellow and green. The party guests had rather stylised movements, too, with facial expressions that were completely over-the-top and body language to match, and the overall effect made them seem cartoon-like. We’d already had a taste of this downstairs, where there were video screens running old Hanna-Barbera cartoon clips and TV ads from the sixties.
Thomas Malyon’s set design reinforced the two-dimensional feeling. The Braddock house was furnished with chairs, tables and sofas, but the rooms themselves – walls and doors – were just defined by white lines on the floor, like an architect’s plan drawing of a building. This cartoon unreality gave the set an unnatural, plastic feel (‘all made out of ticky-tacky’) and the middle-class lawyers and businessmen represented the corporate future that awaited the newly-graduated Benjamin. One of his father’s associates put his arm round Benjamin and offered him fatherly advice – “I have one word for you … Plastics. There’s a great future in plastics – think about it.”
These cartoon stereotypes of people were designed to be ridiculous, absurd. Benjamin doesn’t want to be part of this world, but in fact he doesn’t know what he wants to become, and when he won’t join the party and he exclaims to his father – “They’re grotesque, Dad. I’m grotesque, we’re all grotesque.” – we can see exactly what he means…
So Benjamin doesn’t have any agenda. But then we notice someone walking through the party guests. Blonde, drink in hand, dressed in a simple black dress which immediately sets her apart from the others. It’s Mrs Robinson, wife of Mr Braddock’s friend and business associate, and she most certainly DOES have an agenda. Sandie Armstrong plays her downbeat at first, but as she goes upstairs to Benjamin’s bedroom and attempts to seduce him, Mrs Robinson’s manipulative nature becomes apparent. You know what they say about playing with fire – Sandie Armstrong can do predatory, and her performance smouldered, always threatening to burst into open flame.
Miles Mlambo gave us the gauche awkwardness of the virgin Benjamin, jumping back and forth like a cat on hot coals as he tried to book a hotel room for his tryst with Mrs Robinson, or later, when attempting to undress her. His performance was funny, but I didn’t get a real sense of the anomie that the graduate felt about society’s ‘little boxes’.
You all know the story, of course. Charles Webb wrote the book in 1963, Mike Nichols made it into an iconic film in 1967, and Terry Johnson drew on both the book and the film to write this stage adaption in 2000. Benjamin has a secret affair with Mrs Robinson, while his parents fret about his lack of plans and push him into a date with her daughter Elaine. Of course, Benjamin falls in love with Elaine (it’s a rom-com), and the recriminations begin …
I should tell you more about Elaine. When we first see her she’s dressed in a pink jacket and speaking in a mummy’s-little-girl voice, and she seems to be one of the plastic cartoon figures that Benjamin is so revolted by. He’s determined to wreck the evening, so he takes her to a seedy strip-joint, full of low-lifes and loud music. There’s a burlesque dancer whose behaviour reduces Elaine to tears (a great performance from Honour Mission – she played this with silver lurex and nipple tassles, and she also played Benjamin’s mother, in an enormous beehive hairdo), and Elaine’s distress changes Benjamin’s view of her, and ignites his love.
Tegen Hitchens gave us a wonderful portrayal of Elaine’s transformation, as she revealed the social conscience beneath the preppy, middle-class exterior. Benjamin considers that his life -“is bullshit”, and that he knows it’s bullshit – “Because I’ve had a very good education”. He doesn’t want to be put into one of the ‘little boxes’, but Elaine can see the bigger picture – “Then be grateful – there are people FIGHTING in Alabama – fighting State Troopers for a good education. Do you think THEY think life is bullshit?”. Hitchens brought out the steel in Elaine’s character, as well as the idealism of nineteen sixties’ social and political activism.
Later on, when the facts of the affair were revealed, Armstrong and Hitchens played an unforgettable scene where Mrs. Robinson and her daughter deal with the situation by getting completely drunk together. Difficult to act convincingly ‘stewed’, but these two brought it off. (Elaine almost brought it up, too, a couple of times…)
Tanglehead Productions are known for their site-specific work, making use of venues that are not primarily designed for theatre, and it was here that I thought that the production was misconceived. The upstairs space at The Clarendon Centre was simply too big. I’ve mentioned the architect-plan set already, with the rooms drawn out on the floor – now visualise that inside a space bigger than a tennis court. The acting area was dwarfed by the unused empty space around it. Worse, the set was stretched out, two living rooms wide and with the bedroom on a raised section at the rear, so that the actors had a lot of walking to do just to get to where they were needed. This staging spread out the action so much that the intensity was diminished.
There were sixties TV ads running on two screens at the back, showing the glories of consumerism and the American Way of Life , and it occurred to me that this was also the era when America was developing and testing atomic bombs. To get a nuclear explosion, you have to squeeze enough plutonium into a small enough volume to achieve a ‘critical mass’. If you don’t achieve critical mass, if the material is too spread out, you don’t get a fission chain reaction and an explosion, just a damp squib. I felt that that was the case here – there was lots going on, but there wasn’t that tight focus of attention that makes for really gripping theatre.
( I’ll bet that’s the first time anyone’s put a lecture on nuclear weapons design onto a fringe theatre website…)
Another staging problem – putting the bedroom at the rear of the acting area meant that the actors in that location were always a long way off. It felt like we were seeing them on a small TV set from the early sixties. I liked the backlit screens, where we saw the sex scenes in silhouette – black shadows against torrid crimson light – but when these same screens had to be physically moved around to produce different locations it felt… clumsy. There was some beautiful continuity music from Rotait – two musicians on guitar, drums, cello and vocals – though a number of us found Jareth Tait’s guitar interludes overlong. Perhaps they had to be, though, giving the actors time to get themselves to where they needed to be within the enormous space.
The Graduate deserves three and a half stars, really. It makes that fourth star on the strength of stunning performances from Tegen Hitchens as Elaine and Sandie Armstrong as Mrs Robinson. So here’s to you, Mrs Robinson.
Posted on FringeReview.co.uk Brighton Fringe 2013
My mother always told me that hard work brought results – and, do you know what? … she was right! We were on our way to see an early Fringe show, and suddenly there on the street, leaping out in front of us, was Ben Van der Velde, handing out flyers for his own show, which was going to be on two hours later. I don’t know how many audience members he pulled in that way, but I’ll bet it was more than just us three.
Ben doesn’t just rely on posters, or a listing in the Fringe Brochure; he’s out there in person, with a very engaging manner, and that approach gets results. It’s hard to be indifferent to a personal appeal – and that’s really the basis of Ben’s show.
When you write someone a letter it’s really personal. “Emails are just a series of zeros and ones. When you get a letter from someone, you get their actual handwriting. Inside, maybe you get a present: maybe some sweets – maybe a finger…”.
Maybe I should have mentioned that Ben is a stand-up comedian – but now you know that anyway. He had about forty of us in a small dark room above The Hobgoblin and he talked non-stop for an hour. Absolutely non-stop, at high speed, cramming the words in to get his material across. He doesn’t just work hard out in the street – Ben Van der Velde on stage is a real motormouth.
And he can work an audience, too. He asked what handwritten letters we had received recently, and when someone mentioned a Valentine’s card, Ben was straight into a story about a little West Indian girl he’d liked at his primary school. “I didn’t really understand Valentines, that you put XXX for kisses. I thought that you would use the letter K to do a kiss …” He’s quite shameless, as well as very funny.
But this show is about more than just being funny – it’s quite poignant, too. Rachel, a friend of his, had got a letter from her grandmother whom she hadn’t seen for a long time, and it had ‘meant the world’ to her. Ben realised that, as a 29 year old, the last of the pre-digital generation, it was up to him to save the handwritten letter. But then the comic in Ben reminded us that – “It didn’t matter that the inspiration to save the handwritten letter had come from a Facebook status…”
His project to get people writing letters led him first to consider chain letters, and we got a potted history of the postal service. It’s an amazing fact that if a chain letter was sent to twenty people, and everyone who received it sent it on in turn to another twenty people, at the end of eight days it would have reached everyone on the planet. Phew!
Ben wanted something a little more personal, though, and decided to write to a few people that he’d lost touch with, asking them to write a letter to someone that they in turn had lost touch with – and that Ben himself would deliver the letters. At the beginning it didn’t work too well, and the person Ben wrote to didn’t write on. – “I’d succeeded in carrying out the world’s shortest chain letter – of one link”.
But he persevered, and his one-man postal service led Ben to Madrid, then through Nottingham, Leeds, Middlesborough, Belfast, almost to Minsk (as far as the Belorussian embassy, anyway…), back to Belfast and finally to Galway. There were anecdotes about each location – some of them very moving – Clare’s Gran in Middlesborough couldn’t send a letter on to any of her friends -“Because they’re all dead”.
Finally, Ben read out a letter he’d delivered to Damian, in Galway. Damian had been Best Man at Paddy’s wedding twenty years before, and Paddy’s letter mused – “…What does seem incredible is the time that has elapsed, and how frightening it is to think of what we’ve done, and not done. So much of what we do is certainly not done by choice. … Mostly the humour’s still intact, but I do allow the dark clouds to crowd in, hopefully I’ll do that less in the future. … It’s good to be back in touch, old friend. Make sure you write back.” There was absolute silence in the audience as Ben finished reading, and he looked a little blurred to me as tears began to well up in my eyes – not only my eyes, I’m sure.
The comedy had suddenly turned profound – maybe comedy’s ultimate role is to cover over just how fragile are our hopes and dreams – we’d just been allowed a little glimpse of somebody’s life, which obviously hadn’t been all plain sailing. Maybe, just maybe, Ben’s chain letter project had helped Paddy to turn some kind of corner. I hoped so.
Posted on FringeReview.co.uk Brighton Fringe 2013
Waiting to go in to see ‘Black Venus’ in the spacious bar at Concorde 2, we were told that the day of the performance, May 20, had in the nineteen sixties been designated ‘Josephine Baker Day’, in honour of the singer’s work combating racism. She had also received the Legion d’ Honneur for her work for the French Resistance during WW2. The show was billed as – ‘Josephine Baker, black cabaret artist, and Hermann Goering, Hitler’s no.2, meet over dinner in occupied Paris. Love, racism, live music’. Sounds irresistible – sex, Nazis and the glamour of Paris – what’s not to like?
Step forward just nine days, to May 29, and it’s the centenary of the first night of ‘The Rite of Spring’, which also took place in glamorous Paris, that spring evening in 1913. Stravinsky’s music and Nijinsky’s dancing caused outrage, with uproar in the theatre and some audience members leaving in disgust. We had someone leaving in vocal disgust at the end of this show, too, and a lot of disquiet and confusion in the audience, but there the similarity ends. ‘The Rite of Spring’ was a work of genius – ‘Black Venus’ made me think of ‘Springtime for Hitler’.
‘Springtime for Hitler’ is of course the name of the show in Mel Brooks’ great film ‘The Producers’. The eponymous producers want to stage a Broadway production that’s bound to fail, as a financial scam, and they find a script for… a musical about the life of Hitler. It’s a disaster, of course, but finally the show is so over-the-top awful that it becomes a raging success. An important point to remember, though, is that these producers raised the money BEFORE they put on the show.
Brighton Theatre did this staging of ‘Black Venus’ as a shorter ‘showcase’ version, to raise awareness and attract funding for a projected longer production to open next year. Richard Crane, dramaturg to the project, explained that the actors had had very little rehearsal time and so would be performing with the aid of onstage scripts. The programme asked potential Angels to contact the company if they had enjoyed the show, which was therefore something between a trailer and a pitch. The audience in the Concorde bar was significantly older than is usual at the Fringe, (a lot of white hair in evidence) and looked very middle-class. Good sponsorship material…
Mel Brooks’ producers found their script written by an unreconstructed Nazi and fanatical Hitler loyalist. ‘Black Venus’ author Jonathan Cash seems to have found his source material in Stephen Papich’s 1976 biography of Josephine Baker – ‘Remembering Josephine’. The book has an anecdotal account of a dinner at Baker’s house in the occupied Paris of 1940, which had been requisitioned by Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering as his headquarters. Baker was intelligence-gathering for the Resistance, and was married to a French Jewish husband, Jean Lion, and so Goering decided to murder her with cyanide in a poisoned fish at dinner. She escaped via a laundry chute, and was saved by having her stomach pumped by her comrades. So far, so anecdotal and unsubstantiated. But since when did an unbelievable story stand in the way of a good musical?
At the start we learn that the Reichsmarschall is tempting Josephine Baker’s attendance at dinner with an offer to let her perform publicly in the theatres of occupied Paris. She’s barred, of course, as a black person, due to the Nazis’ racial policies. She, in turn, is trying to collect information to pass to the Resistance. A potentially fascinating duel of wits – but straight away it struck the wrong note.
Goering was waiting with his subordinate officer, Hans, who was in charge of his Paris HQ. But these people didn’t FEEL like German officers. They had none of the formality and correctness of address. In fact they didn’t act like officers from any army, let alone the second-in-command of the entire German Reich – deputy to Hitler himself. When she’s late, and Goering reassures himself – “I’ve put a story in the press, she wouldn’t dare let me down now”, the subordinate Hans asks simply – “What story?”, as casually as if they were two privates on sentry duty.
When she finally appeared, Josephine, played by Anna-Maria Nabirye looked fantastic – very tall, with enormous eyes and long legs, her dark skin contrasting brilliantly with a short spangled dress in a green so vivid it burned our retinas. She was very sexual, and obviously fearless, and she greeted the Reichsmarschall with – “Welcome to my house. I mean it – welcome to MY house”. Brave, and a pointed reminder that her house (and by extension all of Paris) was in fact occupied. But then the mood was broken when she asked him – “Are you pleased to see me?” and Goering glanced down towards his genitals. Bad enough, though the line got a titter, but the joke was then stretched far too far as she asked him – “Or is that a gun in your pocket?” as if we’d never heard of Mae West.
Josephine’s there to gather information, but her espionage style is anything but subtle. She gets Hans sitting with her on the chaise-longue. “Remember, Hans, it’s not Miss Baker, it’s Josephine. So, are you close to Hermann?” … “He’s my employer.” … “And does he share his secrets with you from time to time, his – plans?”… “Not with me.” … “Well, that’s a shame, but he must tell you – something.” … “Not to me, I’m afraid.” … “Is it just me or is it a little – warm – in here?”
Breathless, isn’t it? As dialogue, I mean. We get information given to us in digestible chunks, like in an airport novel. “What is it you do?” … “I guard the property of the Reichsmarschall.” … “Do you guard the Reichsmarschall’s collection of stolen art?”. Blimey, so that’s what those Nazis were up to…
And Hans? Hans had nice hair, very sleek, with a parting. The programme informed me that it was done by Simon at Simon Webster Hair.
Goering himself was played by Ross Gurney-Randall. He’s a big man with a shaven head that made him look disconcertingly like Mussolini, which was interesting as he had played the Duce in ‘The Humble Solace’ in 2004. His delivery was more Whitehall than Beerhall (as in Putsch) and when he fielded Josephine’s fishing – “It’s rumoured that you’re building bombs that can wipe out entire cities” with the line – “I couldn’t possibly comment on my colleagues’ endeavours”, it sounded like Sir Humphrey in an episode of ‘Yes, Mein Fuhrer’.
It could have been a riveting moral examination. Josephine Baker was barred from performing by the Nazis because of their Fascist policies of racial intolerance. Yet she had left democratic America because of – racial intolerance. But this point was missed completely in the script. Goering took a quick swipe at American capitalism – “Infinite misery, with only a few that swim around at the top”. And then rushed on to berate artists in general so that he could get to the quote – ” Don’t get me wrong – when I hear the word ‘culture’ I DO reach for my gun”.
Oh, and there was Gerta the cook, and the pianist who played nice music too loud, making it very hard to hear some of the dialogue. At the end the action split between Goering reading from his defence speech at the Nuremburg Trials, and Josephine singing her final song – at the same time. The addition of the piano made it impossible to make out any of it.
I wondered if there was any cyanide left.
Betsy: Wisdom of a Brighton Whore
I didn’t want to give this show five stars. The story is a bit thin, and there are inconsistencies in the plotting. Plus, the lighting is rather rudimentary and the play took place in the Old Police Cells under Brighton Town Hall, which was very difficult to find, without enough signage, and when we finally got there the walls had damp patches and the seats were hard.
I really didn’t want to – but finally I couldn’t help myself…
“I couldn’t help myself…”. I imagine that’s what a lot of Betsy’s customers told themselves after they had experienced a bout of passion with her. For Betsy is a whore – a Brighton whore from the nineteenth century. She’s sexy, and rude, and outspoken, and brave… and this was her story.
Right from the start she blew us away. Rachel Guershon is quite tall, with shoulder length dark hair and wonderfully arched black eyebrows, and she played Betsy in a loose white blouse and a corset, above a red dress that (some of the time) covered her petticoat and her calf-length white knickers. The Old Police Cells is a pretty small venue, and none of the audience was more than ten feet from the actress – we could see her close up, and she was able to eyeball us one by one, and she did.
She’s a working girl, of course, and she spoke, not exactly Cockney, but certainly with an EastEnd accent – presumably migrated down from London to service the nobs (pun intended). She put her hands on her hips and leaned slightly forward towards the audience as she accused us all of hypocrisy – “I know what you’re thinking – I can see it on your face”. Then – “Don’t judge me. You think it’s easy, do you, to live the way I live? You ever been in a workhouse? Well I ‘ave – born in a workhouse, lived in it, grew up in it, seen my friends die in it. Not a life.”
Grinding poverty driving women into prostitution; not much has changed in a hundred and fifty years. The moral climate hasn’t changed much, either – “You want me to stay cooped up then. Keeping me off the streets so you don’t have to think about me. Course you bloody do.” Then Betsy stared very hard at us – “Your men, when they pay me, they might – prefer me – to you. They can’t get enough of what I’m willing to do for ’em.” She finished this line with a swing of the hips and a contemptuous toss of her head. Bold as brass.
Bold. I suspect that Rachel might have done stand-up as well as conventional theatre, able to ad-lib and deal with hecklers. She spotted me taking notes and she was onto me like a flash – “You still think you’re better than me, with your pen and your little pad? That what you’ve got in that little pad is better than me? That what I’ve got between my legs is nastier than the thoughts you’ve got between your ears, or down your little pants?” Blimey! – I bet you all thought that theatre reviewing was a safe occupation.
Rachel Guershon had given us a vividly drawn portrait of a prostitute, but thus far it was still essentially stand-up. After Betsy got pregnant by one of the town worthies, the corrupt Bintshaft (what a wonderfully evocative name to roll around the tongue…), she gave birth in the sea on the Brighton shingle. Now the performance became physical theatre, as Rachel squatted, groaned and strained through the agony of the birth-pangs, with a Scotswoman acting as midwife urging her to – “Push, Push.” Rachel did the woman’s Scots accent along with Betsy’s, and it was hard to remember that we weren’t actually watching two people on the small stage.
This theme was carried further, as Rachel gave us a series of women, each recounting her squalid birth – in a textile mill, on the beach, or – “on the floor of the poorhouse, by the loom itself.” Different women, with accents from all over the country, but with a common experience of poverty and degradation. Rachel did them standing, squatting and lying on their backs, and each one seemed to appear like a ghost out of the shadows, giving testimony before fading back into the darkness. At least half the women just gave us the bare story, but towards the end they gave us their mothers’ names, too. “Her name was Anne” “Her name was Lizzie” “Her name was Daisy”. The sequence lasted less than three or four minutes, but I know it will haunt me for years.
The underlying story of ‘Betsy’ is a Victorian melodrama, with the corrupt Bintshaft and his evil henchman doing dirty deeds. It’s also the prequel to ‘The Well’, and gives the history of some of the characters in that piece. At one point Betsy is saved from an assault and taken to her rescuer’s room to recover. This was a truly astonishing piece of physical theatre, Rachel lying in a chair, panting with fear and the after-effects of strangulation, and at the same time giving us the gruff voice and comforting gestures of her saviour. Once again, it was very difficult to keep in mind that we were watching a single performer.
So – we got melodrama, we were made to confront our own moral positions, we heard a lot of very funny lines (the script is by Jonathan Brown, who also directed this production) and saw an awesome piece of physical theatre in an intimate space that put us really close to the performer. Rachel Guershon is truly a woman to watch. Try to catch her if you can.
Posted on FringeReview.co.uk Brighton Fringe 2013
David Sheppeard says in the programme notes that ‘Holocene’ is not the right title for this show, but I think he’s wrong. I think ‘Holocene’ is perfect – if ironic.
The Holocene is the geological period starting at the end of the last Ice Age and continuing up to the present time. The Earth has enjoyed a temperate climate, and humans have been able to develop agriculture, cities, high technology and a global civilisation. It’s all we’ve ever known, and it may not be the Garden of Eden, but we live comfortable lives in pretty stable surroundings, don’t we?
Well, actually – No. It may look unchanging on a day-to-day view, but on a longer timescale the planet is remarkably unstable. Yellowstone National Park in the US, holiday destination for beautiful wildlife and stunning landscape views, is actually the site of a supervolcano – a linked ring of volcanoes that last erupted 640,000 years ago, pumping two hundred and forty cubic MILES of dust and ash into the atmosphere. Next time that happens – and it will – it could plunge the whole world into darkness for five years. And the next eruption is forty thousand years overdue!
David learned all this aged eleven, from geology videos shown him by his mother, Helen. She’s a geography teacher, with a fascination for geology, but when David asked – “What would happen if it erupts?”, and she tried to reassure him – “Don’t worry, I’ll look after you”, it was obvious to the boy that – “she was lying – quite blatantly”.
For David is a worrier. And constantly afraid. He’s a rather slight figure, and he appeared on the stage in a thin yellow anorak, black trousers and no shoes. He addressed the audience directly, and his mimicry of characters in his monologue – especially Americans – was witty and occasionally very barbed. He’s a good story-teller. There’s a table on the stage and David sat on it, isolated by a single spotlight, reliving the fear of the high diving board at school, and the shame of climbing back down – “I’m not doing it …”. At age eleven, the realisation that – “As well as being born gay, I was born scared. Thanks, God.”
He’s obsessive-compulsive. At sixteen – “My first forays into adolescent cottaging”, David took seven HIV tests – “to make me feel better”; and at seventeen, convinced that the house would be burgled, he used to go downstairs in the middle of the night to check the locks – seven times… At twenty-one he had a full breakdown. His treatment included seeing illustrations of OCD sufferers and their obsession with cleanliness, germs or whatever. David realised that – “I was part of a special group of people called ‘mentally ill people’, and we got cartoons drawn about us”.
These cartoons were projected on a screen at the rear of the stage area. The seating at the Nightingale had been reduced so that almost half the theatre was given over to the acting space, with almost no set, just the screen, the already-mentioned table, and a single chair. Simple flat lighting over the whole stage, with a few coloured overhead spotlights to isolate the actor for a particular situation (like on the diving board). Nothing distracting us from David’s monologue, and from the video projection which was used as both as background to the actor and as stand-alone film footage.
The videos were of erupting volcanoes, and the people who study them. David had learned about the Yellowstone volcano, but that’s just one example. Beneath the placid Eden of The Holocene, the tectonic plates that support the continents are in constant motion, at about the speed that your fingernails grow – five centimetres a year, fifty metres in a thousand years, almost a kilometre during the last twelve thousand years. All driven by convection currents in the molten rock of the interior of the Earth. This is the engine-room of the planet, and at the spots where the lava reaches the surface we can get a glimpse of the unimaginable forces and pressures at work beneath us.
It’s all a matter of perspective. Some people are fascinated by this stuff, many -perhaps most – others aren’t. David is one of those who wants to see eruptions up close, but a lot of his story is about his failure to get near. He’s on a sightseeing trip to the Pacific Northwest of the US, to see Mount St. Helen’s (though partly because – “it was my mother’s name”), but the ‘prissy sixties queens’ in the car are only interested in gay bars in Portland where “the boys wear silver pouches” and David doesn’t have the forcefulness to make them wait for the mist to clear to get a view of the volcano. Just as at a later eruption, of Mt. Kilauea in Hawaii, he’s stuck, fifty miles south, with rich kids Britney and Sarah, who would rather stay in watching ‘Gone With The Wind’.
It’s not enough to want to see volcanoes, you have to want to see them ENOUGH. You have to have the emotional drive to do what it takes to get close. The videos (which are fabulous close-up footage of craters belching lava) are by a French couple, Maurice and Katia Krafft. They lived for volcanoes – they filmed the eruption of Eldfell (Mountain of fire) on Heimaey in Iceland, where, as Maurice said -“The explosion rose to a height of twenty-three kilometres. It was marvellous – one of the greatest moments of my life.” ( Confession – I did wonder about the sexual symbolism of immense pillars of fire, and its effect on the Kraffts’ sex life.)
Wearing heat-proof silvered suits, treading carefully so as not to fall through the lava crust, they say that it’s a perpetual adventure – “Like being on the back of a large dragon that is moving”. Katia doesn’t worry – “For me the danger is not important – I am afraid when I go in a car. Among the volcanoes I forget everything.” And from Maurice again – “I am never afraid because I have seen so much (sic) eruptions in twenty-three years. Even if I die tomorrow, I don’t care.” And in fact they both did die, the day after he said that, along with a number of other vulcanologists, in an explosion at Mt. Unzen, in Japan, in 1991.
Maurice and Katia died, but they died doing what they wanted. How many of us can say that we are truly doing what we want to do? At the end of the play, David dons his own (rather thinner) silver suit, preparing for a trip to Iceland in 2013. He’ll be travelling alone this time, and he’s – “Finally going to see one, up close”. He recalled being six, dancing madly to Belinda Carlisle songs, and his first stirrings of adulthood (or his Superego) taking charge – “And then it dawned on me, you look like a fucking idiot. You should stop doing this… But before that happened, I felt totally and completely free. Maybe this is what Iceland will feel like”.
I hoped that the trip would work out for David. Obviously the Icelandic volcanoes are symbolic of self-determination, of him becoming comfortable in his own skin. Possibly it’s about being comfortable with his sexual identity, too, although this theme wasn’t developed very far. He told us that during his breakdown he had fantasised about accompanying the Kraffts to see the Iceland eruption, and presumably seeing the volcanoes for real would be a measure of his increasing control over his life. It’s a measure of David’s performance, too, that I believed in him enough to care about his trip.
David Sheppeard’s performance was a little rushed at times, and some moments were hard to hear clearly, but he gave us a very believable portrait of a man trying to come to terms with his life. I’m also immensely grateful to David, and to director Emma Kilbey and video editor Duncan Jarvies, for pointing me towards Maurice and Katia Krafft. They were an inspired choice – their enthusiasm and zest for life providing a counterpoint to David’s lack of drive. The video footage was incredibly powerful, and gave another rich dimension to David’s journeys, both his physical wanderings and his interior odyssey. The play is about attaining a perspective on the world, and seeing further, and deeper, than the mundane everyday.
Posted on FringeReview.co.uk Brighton Fringev 2013
The theatrical convention of the ‘fourth wall’ means that we the audience look into a space through one side of it which is rendered completely transparent. In the case of ‘Belvedere’ the space is very small indeed – about the size of a prison cell. The set had the bare look of a cell, too, with a set of blocks forming a bench on which a man lay, smoking a cigarette while doing a newspaper crossword.
Upstairs at Three and Ten is a narrow, low-ceilinged theatre with the stage at one end, and that very narrowness seemed to extend the cramped space out over the theatre seats to incarcerate us alongside the cell’s inmate. I thought of the irony in the title – ‘belvedere’ coming from the Italian ‘bel videre’ meaning ‘beautiful view’. Whatever facilities the cell’s inmate had been provided with, a view was not one of them …
The cell wasn’t completely bare, though. The wall was white, with a crossword grid painted on it. The grid was on the bench blocks, too, and a number of squares had been filled in with letters, giving us words such as MEMORY, FIGMENT, OUT, CONDITION, MASHA and THE SEAGULL. Halfway up the wall a small shelf supported a goldfish bowl containing one fish, the small orange prisoner circling slowly inside its own transparent cell.
A lot of the fascination of theatre lies in making connections from available clues, and a good playwright will provide just enough information to allow the audience to construct a believable scenario. Ana-Maria Bamberger would seem to be a very good writer indeed – in the opening moments she and Genevieve Girling, the show’s director, had given us a character (obviously literate), a location (some kind of institution), and a set of keywords leading us towards both Chekhov (his sister was called MASHA) and psychology (words like ‘FIGMENT’ and ‘ANA G’ pointing me, at least, towards Freud). All before a single actor spoke.
So it was no great surprise when the door opened and a middle-aged woman entered. Brown trouser suit, striped blouse, glasses, hair scraped back into a short bun; she hardly needed the file case that defined her as either a lawyer or a doctor. Once the man had acknowledged her as ‘Dr. Defoe’ the roles were clear. He was indeed a patient and she was his doctor. She called him Anton, and though it’s never made clear whether he actually believed himself to BE Chekhov, the man cemented the link to Chekhov by quizzing her about details of the Russian author’s life which had come up in his crossword.
It turns out that Anton is delusional, and his doctor is studying him for her scientific paper on – ‘Schizophrenia and Art: The Hallucination – between Creativity and Psychopathology’. But, like a good many delusional patients, Anton seemed to be the dominant one of the pair. He browbeats Dr Defoe, and in fact Defoe might not even be her name – Anton constantly heaps abuse on her, accusing her of not hearing properly, and he may well be taunting her with the insult ‘Deafo’. She’s nervous, too, and Anton points to her habit of nail-biting and throws doubt on her memory and her qualifications. He’s a powerful, highly intelligent individual, and there was more than a hint of Anton evoking sexual attraction in the doctor.
So the scene was set, and when Dr Defoe left the room I foresaw the play being a battle of wills between this pair – Anton not only claimed to be completely cured, he actually sounded the more logical of the two.
But suddenly there was a knock at the door and a younger woman came into Anton’s room. Shoulder-length hair, wearing a buff cardigan and carrying a bunch of yellow flowers, she seemed shy and awkward, and it took me a few seconds to realise that it was the same actor as before. She introduced herself as Stephanie, telling Anton that they had known each other as students years before. At first he didn’t recognise her, but sitting alongside him on the bench, she teased out his memories of their past relationship. She seems to have come from nowhere, and she’s obviously an hallucination of Anton’s. It seems he IS delusional after all, and the fact that Stephanie is the same woman as Dr. Defoe makes it probable that she is a projection of his subconscious desire for his physician.
So far, so surprising; but when Stephanie leaves, and Dr Defoe returns to question Anton about the raised voices in his room, she initially suggests to him that the younger woman is a figment of his imagination, and later even starts to become jealous of Stephanie. At this point the true existential nature of this piece became apparent – if Anton remains inside his room and has no knowledge of what is happening outside, then if Stephanie is an hallucination, why not the doctor also? All we really know about Anton and his predicament is what he seems to see. People come in through the door, but we have no way as audience of knowing what is real and what is unreal. And neither does Anton. We’ve already had a brush with Freud, and now it’s the spirit of Einstein that seems to be present.
The shock of realising that there’s another whole dimension to this play was deeply unsettling. ‘Belvedere’ has a truly brilliant structure that sets it apart from most current drama. Ana-Maria Bamberger’s scene-setting and plotting are faultless, but it was her actors who brought the piece alive for us. Both actors had wonderful clarity and projection in their delivery; Steve Wickenden giving Anton a pugnacious intelligence and self-belief, but also reflective moments where he tried to gauge the reality of what he’s seeing. Kathryn Worth gave us two (differently) damaged women, both very believable in voice and in body language. Remember, also, that she had to change between them several times, making her performance even more technically challenging.
But there’s yet another level to come. Anton is a creative writer, and he begins to anticipate the women’s lines – in exchanges with Dr Defoe he’s actually writing them on the crossword grid before she has said them. The play is even more self-referential and convoluted than we had thought, and we finally realise, with a further unsettling shock, that Anton has been writing a play all along, and that both the women are his characters.
As Anton himself must therefore be. Or is he standing outside this level of reality?
The play curls back on itself like a Moebius Strip, and at the end I realised that the title must come, not from the Italian, but from M C Escher’s lithograph of the impossible tower – ‘Belvedere’. That building is architecturally impossible, with the perspective completely skewed so that columns at the front are seen as though they are also behind structures further back. You can draw it, but you couldn’t build it. (Escher also produced engravings of Moebius Strips, come to think of it.) There is something addictive about perspective flipping between two alternative states, and some of that sense of unease – the lack of firm ground beneath one’s feet – pervades this play. This is a real five-star production. Try to catch it.
Posted on FringeReview.co.uk Brighton Fringe 2013
Philosophy Garden: Life, the Universe and Everything
Life, the Universe and Everything … Douglas Adams, of course, thought that the answer to this one was ’42’, but I went to the Philosophy Garden at The Warren to see if I could get a more up-to-date explanation from two talks by Richard Robinson and Professor Steve Jones.
It sounded irresistible – Steve Jones has a new book out (‘The Serpent’s Promise’) which he described as – ‘an attempt to treat the Bible as though it was a scientific textbook’, looking at how it attempts to explain such questions as ‘Where do we come from?’, ‘How did the Universe start?’, ‘Why do we grow old and die?’. Questions that have been asked throughout human history, and which are now being answered by science.
I was expecting a knockabout performance attacking Creationists and those people taking a literal reading of religion, in the style of Richard Dawkins. Another possibility (the one I’d actually hoped for) was that the talk would be an examination of how these fundamental questions are approached differently through the ‘revealed Truth’ of a religious text and by the Scientific method of constant testing and reformulating our theories and explanations.
What we finally got was a lecture on genetics, pure and simple. Very worthy, and very interesting as Steve Jones is an engaging lecturer; but what we came away with was a lot of information on things like the heritability of height, why IQ testing was misused, how a simple change of one letter of the DNA alphabet can make someone prone to violent behaviour, and so on … Just genetics, and only genetics. Nothing about the opposing methodologies and mind-sets of Religion and Science.
I can’t actually tell you much about ‘The Serpent’s Promise’, other than that the title comes from Genesis, where the Serpent in the Garden of Evil tempts Adam and Eve by promising – “Ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil”. There was very little about the Bible or theology in Steve Jones’ talk, and in fact a number of the genetics examples in this lecture have already been published in his 1996 book ‘In The Blood’. (those of you who have read that book – it’s very good – will be interested to know that Stephen Mobley, an American murderer on Death Row whose case featured over several pages, has subsequently been executed …)
Indeed, Steve Jones seems to be very wary of controversy, and he made it clear at the start that his book is – “popular science, not an attack on religion”. Though he did seem just a touch annoyed when he mentioned that Dawkins’ book ‘The God Delusion’ has sold “three and a half million copies…” But those millions of readers are presumably interested in what science has to say about morality – a subject that has always been left to religion. Steve Jones talked about morality, and the concept of ‘Original Sin’, but he sidestepped making any judgment. He seems to see a clear divide between scientific facts themselves, and how those facts might be used to provide an ethical framework for society. His final point was – “What we need is not more scientists, but more professors of theology.”
Richard Robinson has no such qualms. At the start of his talk he defined the early religious beliefs as “the best scientific descriptions we had AT THE TIME”. Human beings are logical, believing in cause and effect, so it seemed that natural phenomena like floods etc must have a cause. On a human scale, things are done “by chaps like me”, so these larger events must be caused by “a much bigger Chap”, who “I can’t see, because He’s hidden behind a hill, or in the clouds”… “and so they created Gods as the obvious explanation”.
He went on to describe the deluge of scientific discoveries over the last century, utilising the telescope, microscope and other tools to see further into space and time, as well as deeper into the interior structure of matter. Richard Robinson explained that the Universe, which the Bible stated was created a mere six thousand years ago (4004 BC, at nine o’clock in the morning…) has actually been calculated to be 13.72 Billion years old. Or rather, he continued, “recently recalculated to 13.82 Billion years old – I love that point eight two, it makes it seem so precise.”
Our lecturer had set himself the task of giving us the entire history of the Universe in 13.82 minutes. That’s a billion years a minute, so he was obviously going to have to talk very fast, andhedidtalkfast,veryveryfastindeedwithhardlyanypausesforbreath. Richard told us that his talk was originally intended for children, but the majority of his audience were adults – not that that stopped all of us gaping open-mouthed in wonder as the images and examples flashed in front of us. Like a magician at a children’s party, he used simple everyday examples and analogies to illuminate quite tricky concepts.
He divided Creation into three sections – Catastrophe, Chaos and Co-operation.
Catastrophe was the Big Bang, followed by exploding stars -supernovae – creating the elements that we are made of. “You are literally stardust…”
Chaos is matter or energy without order or structure, and Richard showed how structures self-assemble by forming the most stable arrangements available. He started with a muesli packet shaking itself so that the larger flakes end up at the top, and carried the analogy up atoms assembling themselves into simple molecules (like water) all the way to long chains of protein and eventually to the DNA helix itself. I don’t think I’ve seen a clearer demonstration of DNA replicating itself, and it was all done with coloured wooden blocks and magnets…
Co-operation took us from proteins combining to produce bacteria, through increasing levels of complexity (amoebas, slime mould, ants forming supercolonies, all the way to human beings covering the planet’s surface and speculatively creating a future network of linked brains or intelligences.
Did he miss out much? Of course he did. Richard missed out gravity, natural selection and a lot of other essential topics. Did he pitch it right? I thought it veered between too sketchy for an audience without sufficient background knowledge, and too long-winded on topics like the mathematics of bacteria multiplying themselves. But as I mentioned earlier, as I looked around the room his audience members, young and older, were entranced. After the talk he gave a further illustration of order emerging out of chaos, sitting in the beautiful garden space at The Warren and demonstrating wave patterns forming in a vibrating paste. Another example which captivated children and adults alike.
A final thought. Richard Robinson’s subject was the Universe – thirteen billion years of it. If that length of time was represented by this review, all eleven hundred words or so, then the whole history of Man, from the earliest human fossil out of Africa, would be represented by a single letter. And all human history that we have records of, right back to the invention of agriculture and the first cities, would be represented by a tiny fraction of a single full stop. This one.
Posted on FringeReview.co.uk Brighton Fringe 2013
It could have been Basra, or Beirut, or maybe Belfast. As we entered the darkened performance space at the Blue Elephant the whole area was shrouded in smoke, but at the side we could just make out the jumble of rubble of a temporary dug-out, and a soldier in modern battledress, seated on broken timbers, writing a letter home. Nothing else was visible, and all we could hear was rather ethereal music at low volume, out of which there seemed to be the faint traces of voices singing.
Gradually the music died away and the voices gained in volume, filling the space and becoming finally a full-throated anthem sung by what sounded like a large group. Lights slowly came up at the back of the stage, turning the darkness opalescent, like sun through fog, and we saw a line of soldiers and nurses stretching right across the stage as they marched towards us. Indistinct silhouettes at first, becoming sharper and clearer as they advanced through the smoke singing.
That first image really sums up this production. Misty figures, illuminated from behind and occasionally from the side, the harsh lighting giving them a dramatic presence but keeping their faces always partly shadowed. The stage never clearly lit, and the smoke making it seem as though we were watching events across a gulf of time, perhaps centuries. The costumes were pretty timeless, too – this ‘Oedipus’ is certainly set in our era, but while the camouflage battledress looks modern, the soldiers’ greatcoats, and also the nurses’ uniforms, have a distinctly Second World War look.
Sophocles’ play would have originally been performed with a Chorus of twelve or fifteen, standing to one side explaining the back story to the audience and commenting on the action as the play unfolded. Here it’s Oedipus’ soldiers who surround him as they recall his actions as ruler, and how he came to be king of Thebes, while the nurses in their white aprons take on the role of temple priestesses, chanting appeals to the gods to spare the city the horrors of war and plague. It’s a very imaginative deployment of the Chorus, although the members tended to form a series of rather wooden tableaux as they stared, immobile, framing a main character who was making a speech.
This ‘Oedipus’ has been set as a modern telling of the original story – the Lazarus company have added a few extra lines at the beginning and the end, but it’s basically the play as written by Sophocles. The language is completely contemporary, with a fair amount of swearing (but these are soldiers, after all). I was slightly jarred, though, when, after numerous appeals to Apollo and Zeus, a character exclaimed – “Jesus Christ !”. Something was hundreds of years adrift …
In a similar vein, my understanding of the play is that Oedipus learns of a curse on the city of Thebes, and his brother-in-law Creon brings a message from the Oracle at Delphi that it’s due to the unsolved murder of Laius, the previous king, whose widow Jocasta Oedipus has married. The king consults the blind seer Tiresias, who tells him that it is Oedipus himself who is the killer and the cause the city’s troubles. Oedipus initially suspects Creon of treasonably influencing Tiresias to make these claims, but as he learns more he realises that it is the truth – he has unknowingly killed Laius, who was in fact his father, and thus subsequently married his own mother. A prophesy that his parents, and Oedipus himself, tried to avoid has come to pass – you cannot escape the plans of the gods.
This production, though, seemed to stress the rivalry and distrust between Oedipus and Creon. It raged on in speech after speech, making the focus of the play much more about political and personal conflict of two men, and less about human helplessness in the face of the gods. I suppose it’s inevitable that a contemporary take on Sophocles will want to examine the motivation and psychology of the characters, but at times this felt more like the rivalries of ‘Dallas’ or ‘The Sopranos’ than something under the control of Mount Olympus.
At the finish, after Oedipus has departed into exile, Creon the new king addresses his subjects, praising them as “a band of brothers” in exactly the same words that Oedipus had used to his troops at the opening of the play (and that Shakespeare gave to Henry V at Agincourt…). The king is dead – Long live the King! It’s neatly done, though it puts the focus back on to Creon where Sophocles left it on Oedipus.
But – don’t let these criticisms obscure the fact that this is a great and bold production. It’s visually stunning, with minimal resources (there can’t be more than a dozen lamps in total) creating the sort of effects that cost Ridley Scott many millions to produce in ‘Alien’ and ‘Blade Runner’. Rachel Smith’s lighting is the most exciting I’ve seen for a long time. I’ve already mentioned the broken timbers and rubble, and – that’s it. Nothing else, just a bare black space, with the mist obscuring the rear so that the actors emerge as if from a void.
Robin Holden as Oedipus gave us a man who is sure of his own capabilities. There was almost a smugness in the confidence with which he assured his people that he would solve the mystery of Laius’ murder. But then Oedipus was constantly overcompensating – the prophesy of his childhood always lurking below the surface as he pushed obstinately to get at the truth. Later we saw him badly shaken by the unravelling revelations about his past, and finally the broken, blinded man who clung to Creon was heartbreaking. I will take a long time to forget watching him shuffle off into exile, his figure, with the red of his bloody bandages, fading to black and then to an indistinct grey silhouette as he disappeared into the smoke.
Sam Andersen as Jocasta started majestically; tall, blonde and imperious as she castigated Oedipus and Creon for their argument. Then her maids (the nurses again) slid off her long green gown in a remarkably erotic sequence and she played a tender love scene (in a white shift) with her husband. As the facts become clearer she showed a more nervous side, pleading with Oedipus to give up searching for the truth. Nervous, true, but Andersen gave us a steely core to the woman. After all, this is a queen who had years before tried to kill her son to prevent a prophesy, and well understands the workings of fate. Speaking of Oedipus’ abandonment on a bare mountain as a baby, she tells us – “He was left in the hands of the Gods.”
Alec Parkinson is the same lithe, compact build as Robin Holden, and both men had their hair cropped almost bare, but there the resemblance ends. Parkinson’s voice is lower and slightly hoarser than Holden’s. His Creon is less driven by personal achievement and more by what he sees as good for the State, and he produces a realistic sense of outrage that he is being accused of treason. He was able to give us a sense of Creon as compassionate, too. At the end, holding the blinded Oedipus in his arms, he gently reminds him – “It was wanting control that was your downfall.”
These three actors, along with Joseph Tweedale’s barefoot, blind Tiresias, body twisted convincingly, but who seemed to me a little young for the part, gave us Sophocles’ play in a believable form, with realistic, three-dimensional characters that we could identify with.
As for the Chorus – they were sometimes rather static, but when they moved, they moved very well indeed. Some of the war scenes had the nurses/priestesses just lit on one side of their faces by portable spotlights, sharply defining their features as they called on the gods, twisting and grimacing with emotion. During one battle section the whole line of soldiers and nurses were entwined round each other, arms stretching to the heavens, those in the middle of the group reaching higher, arranged like the figures on the pediment of a Greek temple.
Lazarus Theatre describe Oedipus’ world in the programme as – ‘visceral, earthy and aggressive’. I can only agree. Greek tragedy may be thousands of years old, but the themes (like the gods) are timeless.
Posted on FringeReview.co.uk Fringe UK-wide.
In The Beginning Was The End
As we left ‘In The Beginning Was The End’ we were handed a programme for the production, with an epigraph from the Book of Revelation – ‘I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last.’ Beginnings and ends are what this piece is all about – the birth-to-death lifespan of an item of consumer technology.
The item in question is an interactive stress-management device, about the size of a public phone set (remember them? …) that you rant your frustrations at. The device has voice recognition to upload the invective, then comes back with a set of insults so totally over-the-top that you can’t help but burst into giggles, relieving the original stress (like the French soldiers from Monty Python and the Holy Grail). We all need one of those, right? Well, maybe… Just so we the audience get the message, the piece of kit is labelled: ‘Tension Negation Technology’, and actually branded with the letters ‘TNT’ – as in the high explosive.
dreamthinkspeak show us the research and development of this device as we are guided through electronics laboratories in the basement rooms of Somerset House, the building where the show is staged. The company specialise in ‘immersive theatre’, using whole buildings rather than just a single space, and they had filled the ‘labs’ with several hundred working oscilloscopes and twenty-year-old computers piled on one another like every schoolboy’s fantasy of mad science. There were even two mad scientists in residence – white coats and bow ties, naturally. One, bald, dome-headed and bespectacled, fretting over the computers, while a younger colleague with long black hair tutted to himself as he chalked impenetrable equations on all four black walls of a small side room.
The labs were rather dingy, but moving on we found ourselves in the offices of ‘Fusion International’. This was all shiny white, with pale green for panel edges and the Fusion logo itself (as if BP moved into the toothpaste market …). As visitors (buyers?) we were shown a series of Fusion products by white-coated, clipboard-bearing demonstrators. Their sales pitches were lengthy, enthusiastic – and mostly incomprehensible as they were delivered in German, Polish (I think), or French. In fact, this communication shortcoming wasn’t finally a problem, as the emotional tone and body-language of their delivery made the presentations very clear and easy to comprehend. Full marks to the actors here, well deserved.
But – it was soon glaringly obvious that there were serious problems with the entire Fusion product range. The ‘Tension Negation Technology’ couldn’t understand the user’s speech, the anti-intruder weapon was pathetic, and the demonstration ‘PetBot’ robot pet wouldn’t obey any commands – in fact, a whole room of them were soon spinning round out of control …
dreamthinkspeak are using several floors of one side of Somerset House to create various areas of the Fusion headquarters, and we were guided through a number of conference rooms where acrimonious finance or marketing meetings were taking place. A series of steep stone stairways brought us to the Complaints Department. It looked and felt like visiting a call-centre, peering over shoulders at vast computer screens as Fusion staff typed reply letters to customer complaints. ‘Replies’ is the right word here, not ‘help’ or ‘advice’, as all the complaints were being dismissed or evaded and all Fusion corporate responsibility denied.
The final section was an overview of the whole process. Various rooms off a corridor, that we could explore, each giving a different experience. In one, an array of video monitors showed happy, smiling Fusion staff and a beaming CEO. In the next, a solitary Tension Negation Technology machine was mounted in a public booth, just like a telephone callbox, sporting its TNT logo – and a slot for credit card insertion.
Moving down the hall, another room was running a TV advert for the TNT machine in a home setting (A couple argue – she walks out – he turns to the wall-mounted stress machine…); it didn’t sell it to me. Or to many other potential customers, it seems. Next door we watched a wall-sized video of a business meeting. As they discuss a project, the participants don aqualungs and water fills the room. They continue the meeting completely submerged, exhaled air bubbling from mouthpieces as they shake hands to seal some deal. A company in deep water? I think so.
Several rooms along, another (the same?) TNT booth stood vandalised, glass starred by blows and the machine itself ripped out. The only bit remaining was a small loudspeaker emitting a plaintive “Sorry … Sorry …” At the end, Fusion staff were jumping from upper floors, falling slowly past a window as we walked down the corridor towards the final exit.
So – the production has a beginning and an end, but I’m not sure it needs the Book of Revelation – ‘I am Alpha and Omega’ – to get the point across. Is God supposed to be the narrator or director of this piece?
In similar vein, the programme then tells us that the starting point for the production was a Leonardo da Vinci drawing titled ‘A Cloudburst of Material Possessions’, which it calls – ‘a surreal and apocalyptic vision depicting a torrential downpour of man-made objects. It is an image of man’s obsession with materialism and mass production at the expense of spiritual growth’. But if you wanted to illustrate the excesses of capitalism you have only to step outside Somerset House and look downriver towards the City of London. Or at the cars passing by along The Strand. Using an obscure Renaissance drawing felt affected and grandiose.
As well as Leonardo’s 1510 drawing, the programme has references to John the Baptist, a ‘key prophet in both The Koran and The Bible’, and the programme asks – ‘Is he pointing the way to The Second Coming, to our death, to the end-of-world, or is he a false prophet who leads us on then abandons us to a uncertain fate?’. Personally, I don’t know, because I didn’t spot anything about him in the production. People were immersed in water, as I mentioned above, but to me that spoke of deep water symbolising trouble, or pressure, or Stevie Smith’s ‘not waving but drowning’ poem. Biblically, There are possible thematic references to the Tower of Babel, with the multilingual product demonstrators, but I was much happier seeing them as part of a multinational business in a globalised economy.
It’s all down to interpretation. To this reviewer the piece is about company management; how the (often underfunded) research departments can’t match the demands of the managers in sales and marketing – those Fusion products were obviously not fully developed. Or it could be about the recent financial crisis; how the ‘brilliant’ schemes thought up by the banks were not viable, causing the economic melt-down we’re all still living through. Or again it could be about how our dependence on technology fixes is unsustainable. But overall the treatment felt rather simplistic. The use and misuse of technology is a perfectly valid, even necessary topic for examination by theatre; but here the ‘boffins’ and the ‘suits’ were so stereotypical as to be almost cartoons. And calling a stress-management machine ‘TNT’ is a pretty lame joke.
dreamthinkspeak make good use of the space – we were led through basement corridors and up magnificent staircases, and large areas are subdivided to form disorienting warrens of smaller spaces. And they use video extremely well; whole banks of monitors overwhelming the visitor with corporate imagery as well as single screens that allowed us sneaky peeks into meeting rooms. They play with our experience of scale, too. A conference room or a tunnel that we had already visited reproduced in miniature inside an oscilloscope casing. Or, near the end, one of the foot-high PetBots grown to Brobdingnagian dimensions that filled an entire room, so we gaped like Gulliver, unsure suddenly of our own size …
I’ve seen a lot of immersive and site-specific theatre over the last few years – I saw dreamthinkspeak’s ‘Before I Sleep’ in a disused Brighton department store two years ago – and the companies who practice it, including Punchdrunk, are very adept at creating fully fleshed-out environments. Brechtian theatre is largely about getting rid of ‘the fourth wall’ limitations of proscenium-arch theatre, and these productions blow away the other three walls as well.
But – Brecht always gave his audience a story. He had a message, and the medium was used to get that message across. Immersive theatre seems to require us to provide our own explanations – often there’s no linear thread to follow and the audience has to pick up possible stories and meanings from various fragmentary impressions. That’s fine, but should we still be calling it ‘theatre’? To my mind it has more in common with an art installation.
Posted on FringeReview.co.uk Fringe UK-wide