All these reviews are listed in order. Just scroll down to find them. – Vacant Possession / Pulling Up The Drawbridge / Bouffe! / Hard Graft / Bloominauschwitz / Greywing House / The Twelfth Disciple / Thirst Of The Salt Mountain / The Marie Curie Project / You / Stalin’s Daughter / I Am Not Antigone / M.A.I.R.O.U.L.A. / Edith, Elizabeth and I / The Daily Tribunal / Small World & Charm el Sheikh / How Will I Know? / Lippy / Home Fires / Lysistrata / Elegy / Shackleton’s Carpenter.
‘My subject is war, and the pity of war. The pity is in the poetry.’
Wilfred Owen wrote those words as a Preface to a book of poems that he hoped to see published in 1919. He never did – Owen was killed in 1918 on the Western Front.
Sara Clifford’s subject is war, too. The pity of it, but also the mindless brutality of the military machine. And the mindless nationalism that sweeps away people’s humanity.
Her last piece, ‘Home Fires’, was about training camps in Sussex for new recruits destined for the trenches of the Great War – ‘Vacant Possession’ is partly about the First World War too, and also about the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars in the early nineteenth century.
These happenings are distant memories now. Clare Best’s poetry deals a lot with memories, and how the echo of powerful events seems to … linger.
Clare Best’s house in Lewes has been sold – her son Freddie has left home and she and her husband are downsizing. The house, ‘Brookside’, dates partly from the
seventeenth century, with later Georgian additions, and it’s being sold as ‘vacant possession’ – without any objects or occupants. ‘Possession’ is also of course a word used when something is under the influence of spirit forces. As Clare’s poems tell, the very structure of an old building is built of objects which have their own histories, their own stories.
“Wise old house, of great oaks felled
Gone to sea in ships, then back, and broken
Bringing tide, and salt – the lick of flame and blood”
There were about fifteen of us in the group, being shown round the house by Clare Best. It’s a beautiful building, with comfortable furniture and lots of paintings on the walls. It felt like a cross between an ‘artist’s Open House’ and a National Trust guided tour, as Clare stood under an arch and told us about a painting of one of her ancestors. Then she moved away, out of our line of sight, and the explanation was taken up, seamlessly, by another Clare Best, who came from behind the arch and took her place in front of the painting.
Almost identical – blonde women dressed in long white blouses and black trousers, very similar build and face, with voices hard to tell apart. An unnerving moment, and an indication that this wasn’t going to be just a simple house tour. Clare (but which one?) told us that – “Sometimes, living in the house, you feel that you’re living with all the others, in a time that goes round and round.”
‘Vacant Possession’ isn’t exactly a ghost story, but as we were guided round the house we entered rooms where the past seemed to overlap with the present, and we could see the previous occupants. It wasn’t done with stagy lighting or special effects, they were just … there, and the end result was that it felt – natural. There have been numerous ghost sightings where someone walks into a room and sees someone behaving perfectly naturally, and only later realises that they were seeing a spirit. That was very much the effect produced here.
So what did we see? Which of the previous occupants manifested themselves?
In an attic room we heard voices, and a door swung open to reveal Major Barbarie and Captain Willard. They’re soldiers – Marines, I imagine, because although in red uniforms they’ve been serving at sea for years – and they’ve been sent to provide a garrison for the town against a possible French invasion during the Napoleonic Wars.
The Major immediately orders the commandeering of what food is available, despite shortages of everything – “We must feed the soldiers first”. The Captain tries to remind him that – “We’re here to protect the town, Sir”, but his superior officer can only see the situation as one of discipline – We must stamp out insurrection at the first sign. We cannot afford to take any risks”. When a starving labourer comes to beg for food, the Major’s response is – “Don’t be ridiculous. If we give him bread we’ll end up feeding the whole town”. He orders the man to be put in irons – “this one may cause trouble with all the rest”.
Breathtaking. It’s the townspeople’s own food that the soldiers have commandeered, and now they are branded as ‘insurrectionists’ if they dare to ask for some of it to feed their families. Sara Clifford gave us the same illustration of the military mind-set in ‘Home Fires’, where army recruits who went on strike for liveable accommodation (they were in muddy tents while the officers were in dry huts) were threatened with courts martial and execution for ‘insubordination’. Nothing changes …
The Major has been at sea for long years, used to the creaking of ships’ timbers, and he can hear the same noises in this old house – “Great oaks felled, gone to sea in ships, then back, and broken. Bringing tide, and salt”. He hears something else, too, and stares down the room towards us. Is he sensing our presence, in his future, as we are seeing him in our past? As Clare Best says – ‘a time that goes round and round’.
Does anyone remember ‘The Stone Tape’? It was a 1972 television film by Nigel Kneale (who’s better known for ‘Quatermass’). It’s a ghost story, with the basic premise that what we experience as ‘ghosts’ are actually real past events, somehow encoded and recorded in the fabric of buildings, able to be picked up by those people sensitive enough to experience them. That’s what Sara Clifford and Clare Best are working with here. There’s a lot of piano music in the production, and Clare muses –
“Where have the notes gone?
Have they been cloned by the old walls?
Are they resting among rafters? under floorboards?
Will others hear them on clear mornings, in years to come?”
Clare mentioned a number of other ghostly experiences that had taken place over the years. She (but which Clare?) is a good storyteller, but the experience was made much more intense by flashes of lightning coming through the bedroom window (it was a stormy night) as she was speaking. You know you’re in the hands of a good production team when even the Gods are on their side …
Other families lived at ‘Brookside’ before Clare Best’s. Gertrude and Edmund Glover were there early in the last century, and their son Brian was killed in France during the First World War. As we moved into Gertrude’s bedroom we came across them, (or their echo, I suppose), as Gertrude was packing away some of their son’s things. She was obsessed with his memory – how would his grave-plot look?, how would they organise his memorial service?. She could only see him as a shining symbol of patriotic sacrifice, an example for his younger brother to follow.
Most of Gertrude’s bile is reserved for conscientious objectors – “those damn idiots up at Charleston; should be thrown in jail and throw away the key!”. “I could kill those dirty Objectors”. As in any war (think about the Iraq invasion), propaganda means that any questioning moral stance is seen as dissent – you are either with us, or against us. Gertrude probably saw her Bloomsbury Group neighbours as weird avant-garde intellectuals anyway, and their opposition to the war just confirmed her view. As in ‘Home Fires’, the horrors of the Western Front hadn’t been understood back in England. It was Virginia Woolf, of course, who was one of the very first writers to talk about the traumas of ‘shell-shock’, with the psychologically damaged ex-soldier Septimus in her post-war novel ‘Mrs Dalloway’.
Benjie, the younger brother, was also serving in France. “He can have Brian’s room, now, when he gets home”. I was reminded of ‘All Quiet On The Western Front’, where Franz Kemmerich’s boots are passed down through the group of doomed schoolboy soldiers as they perish one by one in the carnage of the Great War. Gertrude hasn’t had a letter from Benjie for a while, and she’s hopeful and excited when the post arrives. I just hoped it wasn’t a second black-edged envelope …
There was music; piano pieces by Erik Satie played by Clare’s husband Philip. We met Clare’s neighbour too; Mary Anne, who told of her experiences living in the house, and we visited Clare’s son Freddie’s old nursery. He wasn’t there, but in a beautifully performed sequence all his old teddy bears and toys clambered across the nursery floor and into a trunk by the door. Actors we’d seen as the Soldiers had changed into black, and along with Nicola Blackwell, the play’s director, they moved the toys so naturally that they seemed alive. As with other very skilled puppeteers I’ve seen; after a few seconds the operators just seemed to … disappear, and we saw only the rolling gait of the teddy bears as they moved across the room.
‘Chose’ to see just the bears, I suppose. Much of the magic of theatre is that suspension of disbelief that takes place in the mind of the audience. It’s the same with the ghosts. We know that they were just actors (very good ones) but for the duration of the show we chose to believe that we were seeing a manifestation of something from another time.
The writing, both Clifford’s and Best’s, the acting and the staging all worked together to make this a truly outstanding production. Having two very similar women playing Clare was a device that gave the piece an edge of unreality right from the beginning, and somehow made it easier to accept the ghostly people we encountered later on. And it really is a one-off – the house is sold, Clare and her family will no longer live there and so the event won’t be repeated. It will exist only in memory (and in this review).
But who knows? Maybe Clare Best is right, and that events and sounds do become ‘cloned by the old walls’. In a future time, will someone in the house see a group of people slowly climbing the stairs, looking around them and listening intently?. Will they hear the piano?
Posted on www.fringereview.co.uk FringeReview UK
Pulling Up The Drawbridge
The timing of some productions is just perfect.
Doing a production about the inner life of a UKIP supporter, in a month when the General Election was dominated an agenda that was anti-immigrant, anti-Europe, anti-change – anti everything, really – was both clever and pertinent.
For me, the best line came quite near the beginning of the show. George is in his little tent on a cliff-top (we’ll come to that …) and he’s got his Union Jack flag in his hands. He’s grumbling to himself about how it’s become – “Politically Incorrect” – to display the British flag, “The same brigade that want to ban Saint George’s Day – in case it offends anybody”
He’s read in a newspaper – he gets it out of the tent to show us – that the Patron Saint of England is also the patron saint of sixteen other countries. More than that – it seems that Saint George never ever set foot in England … he was a Palestinian, who served in the Roman army.
This is doing George’s head in – “That can’t be right. Somebody would have mentioned that, wouldn’t they? We’d have learned that at school, wouldn’t we? We’ve all seen pictures of Saint George, in that suit of armour, slaying the dragon”. George is in his fifties, wearing grey tracksuit bottoms and a grey hoodie. He pulls up the hood now, and jams his steel cooking pot on his head like a Crusader’s helmet, to become Saint George – rolling his Union Jack tightly round its stick and holding it like a lance.
“If he’d been Palestinian, we’d never have heard of him, would we? … Nobody famous ever came from Palestine, for God’s sake! …”
Errr … Jesus?
How ignorant can this man be? (but to be fair to him – not many people in the audience laughed, at least not out loud …)
Actually, George is right. Nobody ever did teach that the patriotic myths we were fed at school were just that – myths. We were taught about Jesus living in ‘the Holy Land’, but how many British children were taught where Palestine was? Palestine crops up in the news in quite a different context – it’s where ‘terrorists’ set off bombs, and middle-Eastern Islamic fundamentalists like Hamas and Fatah clash with Israeli settlers.
After all – Jesus couldn’t possibly be Middle Eastern, not with the clear white skin He has in the vast majority of religious paintings and illustrations. The night after seeing ‘Pulling Up The Drawbridge’ I was in a High Anglican church in Brighton, with statues of Christ and The Virgin Mary, and they both looked like they came from Surrey …
George hates all the things that make Daily Mail or Daily Express readers angry – new types of fruit with funny foreign names, young people without any sense of discipline or self-control, the demise of the traditional high street It’s easy to poke fun at George, but George is angry because he feels lost. He hasn’t really been taught anything useful about the history of his country – the history of the British Empire and its colonies, and its subsequent decline. He hasn’t been taught anything about the economics of globalisation which have put a Starbucks on every High Street – and destroyed the traditional High Street in order to do it. He just feels angry and disorientated that everything has changed.
What David Stephens has done in this piece – which he performs solo and also wrote – is to give us a man, in his fifties or sixties, who can’t understand what’s happened to the world he lived in as a boy. It’s changed out of all recognition, and he can’t see why, and he hates it and rails against it. Most importantly – its obvious nothing happens without a reason, so somebody must be responsible. George wants someone to blame.
‘They’ must be responsible. Whether ‘They’ are from the European Union, with their Brussels rules and regulations, or whether ‘They’ are immigrants from Asia, or Africa, or Eastern Europe, he hasn’t really considered. All he knows is that ‘They’ are taking over. So he’s perched on the edge of a cliff in his little tent, waiting to repel the invasion – whoever they are. “Piss Off!. We’re Full Up!“ Echoes of Dunkirk, or the Somme – “I won’t let you down, Grandad”. The wartime nostalgia that so grips British people – like ‘Dad’s Army’
David Stephens manages to evoke that ‘little Englander’ feeling in George, but he never lets it slip over into overt racism or prejudice. George doesn’t tell us that he doesn’t like non-white people, but he rants against the newly arrived species of spiders that are becoming common. They’re foreign, like the weirdly named fruit. They bite – and they’re black …
And the imagery goes deeper – just as Britain is an island, detached from the main European landmass, so George’s little bit of cliff is splitting away from the main chalk body. Far from being worried, though, George is delighted – “My island’s got a moat!” I remembered the legendary ‘Times’ headline from early last century – “Fog in Channel, Continent cut off”. The staging reinforced the writing perfectly – a raised stage gave us the cliff edge, with just the small green tent almost filling it, so George had to keep squeezing round the sides. Like the archetypical Englishman, George has his own castle – but it’s very, very small.
Stephens has created someone quite believable – not an overt bigot, just a man who’s feeling … lost. I felt rather sad for George, the way so many of his pronouncements ended with question tags – “That can’t be right, can it?”. He’s not hectoring us with certainties – he’s seeking our approval, our agreement, our reassurance that he’s not alone in what he thinks.
There was a lot of laughter during the show – there are some great gags – and I was still laughing as I left, after the applause died down. But I was uneasy, too. Some bits in ‘Pulling Up The Drawbridge’ need to be written more clearly – George’s relationship with his partner in particular – but in general David Stephens has put his finger on some uncomfortable truths. It’s easy to make fun of George, but ultimately it’s not so much what George feels, as why he thinks the way he does, that we need to worry about.
Stuff that the mainstream political parties don‘t have an answer for. Stuff that theatre can bring to our attention, make us think about.
Surely that’s one of the things theatre is for.
Posted on www.fringereview.co.uk Brighton Fringe 2015
What does Brighton Fringe make you think of?
Art and culture, certainly – but not stuffy and self-satisfied like the main Festival (Sorry!). No, Fringe is smaller scale, hugely enthusiastic, more experimental, edgier – and usually a lot more fun! In fact, the best word to describe it would be … Bouffe!
Bouffe is a form of operetta developed by Jacques Offenbach in Paris in the 1850s. Small scale, with only three or four singers, and much shorter works than the full-scale operas being produced at the time. Offenbach found a little theatre on the Champs-Élysées and started producing light, comic pieces, usually of just one act, with plots about love affairs or seductions.
‘La Belle Hélène’, ‘La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein’ and ‘La Périchole’ followed each other in quick succession over a few years, pulling in the Parisian punters off the boulevards and making Offenbach a great deal of money. They came to listen to the singing, true, but they certainly also came to gaze at the singers, and often to do more than just gaze …
So ‘Bouffe!’ is a show with all the Ps – Performance, Paris … and Prostitution. Actresses and singers of that era were generally regarded as being sexually available, and many made fortunes as courtesans, offering their favours to wealthy or aristocratic patrons. One of the greatest – both as a soprano and as a courtesan – was Hortense Schneider. Reputedly a mistress of The Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII, she had so many aristocratic admirers that she became known as ‘La Passage de Princes’ – ‘The Arcade of Princes’ – a pun on a high-class arcade in Paris.
So this is the show that RedBlonde Productions are putting on. A show featuring Hortense Schneider. And they’re doing it in a church? Blimey!
But why not? If a consecrated space is good enough for Mary Magdalene …
Actually, The Church of the Annunciation is a wonderful choice of venue, with its high wooden hammerbeam roof and its spacious interior. When the house lights went down we had warm sunlight illuminating the beautiful stained glass windows, gradually fading as the evening turned to night.
RedBlonde have done ‘Bouffe!’ as a sort of promenade performance. They’d set up a Parisian café at one side of the nave, with blue gingham tablecloths on the tables as we sat with our drinks – there was a bar, too. A waitress moved around the tables, a piano and a violin were providing background music, and then the ‘Patron’ emerged, in black tie and tails, and explained – in song – about the phenomenon of Bouffe.
Marcia Bellamy is a striking woman at any distance, close up she’s unforgettable. A great shock of blonde hair, set high above her head, her hands very mobile and expressive as she sang – she’s a great actress as well. Then the waitress took up the words, too, at the other end of the café, and we had a mezzo-soprano (Bellamy) and a soprano (Red Gray) giving us the full stereo rendition of songs like ‘Mon Dieu! Que les hommes sont bêtes’ (‘God!, men are beasts’)
And they are. We left the Café and took our seats on the pews in the nave of the church. ‘Bouffe!’ opens with an audition – the hopeful Cécile (Gray) is singing, and the theatre’s owner isn’t impressed. “We’ll let you know”. Bellamy was in grey trousers and shirtsleeves for this bit, with a cigar chomped between her teeth. She had an amazing number of costume changes in this production – she’ll need to add ‘quick-change artist’ to her portfolio.
Cécile is dismissed, and Hortense comes on next. We’d seen Lila Palmer in the café, sitting quietly at a table with her book, but we hadn’t taken much notice. Now she sang some Donizetti for her audition piece, and the theatre owner was much more interested. Not just in her singing, either. Cécile has been watching, and gives Hortense some advice – she’s still wearing her outdoor coat – “They don’t just come to hear your singing. Show more … wear less”
So the situation is set. Hortense has just arrived in Paris, so she moves in with Cécile to share her apartment. In an unforgettable scene, they celebrate their new friendship by getting very drunk. Two women, one dark haired (Palmer), one redhead (Gray). Two soprano voices, powerful but perfectly controlled, pouring absinthe into themselves and pouring the great music of Donizetti down into the nave of the church, washing over us.
It can’t last, of course. Not in opera. Cécile has a lover, Jean François, and as soon as he arrives at the apartment he’s smitten by Hortense. Jon Grave’s expressive tenor voice can do passion but it can also do innuendo, and the three launch into a song ostensibly about flying a kite – though it’s full of double entendres. This piece was written by Offenbach himself, but one of the many joys of this production is that the director, Stephen Plaice, is also a very accomplished librettist and translator, and he’s given us the words in English, which made the story much easier to follow.
Plaice has done this with a number of the songs, generally at a point where some kind of exposition is required, so we had the double benefit of beautiful singing in the original French or Italian, then reverting to English for storyline – without the usual operatic need for surtitles or scrabbling to look at our programmes. The acted, spoken bits were of course all done in English. The company made imaginative use of the space within the Church, too, with a main acting area in front of the altar, but making exits and entrances through the chapels on either side, and moving down into the nave along the aisle and even commandeering several of the pew seats.
Hortense gets taken up by Offenbach in his Théâtre des Bouffes-Parisiens, becoming renowned as a singer, but also as an alluring beauty. Jean-François is drawn to her ‘like a bee to a jampot’, and poor Cécile has to put on a brave face. Eventually, of course, Hortense is taken up by the elegant, rich Duc de Gramont Caderousse. Bellamy played this in a shimmering grey morning suit and top hat, stick always in hand. Her every expression and gesture effortlessly aristocratic. I was reminded of Proust’s great creation, Charles Swann – he was besotted by an actress, too – and he was a friend of the Prince of Wales …
You don’t really need the rest of the plot – suffice to say that Hortense got pregnant, there were betrayals and reconciliations, all the stuff of authentic operetta. Real Opera Bouffe, in fact. What you do need to know is that the musical accompaniment was provided by Ellie Blackshaw on Violin and Julian Broughton on Piano. They’d provided background in the Café at the start, and now their music filled the nave of the Church, making a perfect frame for the picture being painted by the two sopranos, the mezzo soprano and the tenor. Great performances of Donizetti, Martini, and of course mostly of the great Jacques Offenbach himself.
If you missed this, you should be kicking yourself. Hopefully ‘Bouffe!’ will be given another set of performances. Please!
Posted on www.fringereview.co.uk Brighton Fringe 2015
When I came out of ‘Hard Graft’, another audience member asked me what I thought about it. “I wish I’d gone to see my mother more often”, I replied, sadly
“Me, too” he sighed, and as we left The Marlborough to go our separate ways there was a shared regret that seemed to act like a faint but tangible connection between us.
Something in common – a sense that we were both part of families, both a part of something bigger than just ourselves. A web of ancestors stretching back generations, giving us our roots – our identity.
That’s what David Sheppeard’s show is about. David is one of the people running The Marlborough Theatre – he’s an artist living and working in the sophisticated metropolitan environment of Brighton and London. He’s a gay man of thirty, involved in theatre in general but with a particular interest in putting on LGBT themed work. The Marlborough itself is just round the corner from KempTown, Brighton’s gay quarter. As David said at one point, he lives in a ‘queer-bubble’.
He’s impeccably middle class, too. Not necessarily well-off (who is; in fringe theatre?), but he’s university-educated, he’s cultured and well-read and he’s his own boss, working on his own creative and artistic projects.
But that’s the present moment. That’s like the single snapshot as opposed to the ten minute video. One gives us a single instant of existence, while the other hopefully provides relevant information and context. David wants to know more about his background, his ancestry, his roots. And like many men, right back to the time of Homer, with Telemachus the son wanting news of the absent Odysseus, David wants to know more about his father.
It seems that David has trouble communicating with his father – the man is in his early seventies now, and not given to opening up emotionally to his son. Like many retired men, though, he’s been researching his family tree on Google, and he’s passed on the facts to David. He’d been brought up in a small mining village in the Welsh valleys, and David told us that when his father learned of David’s interest in the whole South Wales connection, he’d assumed that David wanted to do a production – “about coal-mining from a gay perspective”
A lot of laughter at that line. Sheppeard can be very funny when he wants to be, and there were outbursts of hilarity from the audience throughout the performance. He’s quite tall, and he did the one-man show almost as a stand-up routine; on his feet at the front of the stage while he talked, or sitting on the front edge, and occasionally making use of a spotlit microphone at the side. Apart from that, the black stage at The Marlborough was empty – except for a pair of railway seats, the two mounted side by side like in a carriage, at the rear of the space.
That’s the train that David took to get to South Wales. Sitting in his seat, over a soft background sound of train noise, he told us that on the journey he kept Grindr open on his phone, checking out the profiles of gay men nearby. Nearby, but not on the train. Men in the anonymous towns and villages that the train flashed through as it sped its way to Cardiff.
A striking image of alienation, but not as alienating as when David got to Ynysybwl, the little village north of Pontypridd, which is north of Cardiff. Here, many of the locals are fat, and a lot of the men have facial tattoos. They’re very definitely working-class, except that many of them aren’t working because the mine closed years ago, and the industry and the jobs have left the village for good. He’d had to get there by bus because the Taff Vale railway closed in the 1980s, along with the pit. David told us that he felt a very long way from the safety of his comfortable middle-class metropolitan ‘queer-bubble’.
But he’s searching for his roots. The first Sheppeards arrived in the valley in the 1880s, illiterate farmers from Devon looking for work in the booming coal industry, specifically in the newly opened Lady Windsor colliery at Ynysybwl. David told us that because they couldn’t write, their name was recorded in various spellings and Sheppeard is how the mix finally turned out. His great-grandfather William (David said “my father’s father’s father” – which conveyed the time span much better) worked underground in the pit, in charge of the explosives used for blasting open the coal seams.
I lied earlier – (I was trying to set the scene for David’s train journey). The stage wasn’t completely empty, there was a large sheet of white paper with concentric curving lines drawn on it. It appeared to be a contour map of the Rhondda Valley, with the river running through the middle and the hills rising on either side. Lying flat on the stage, but with a video image projected onto the back wall where we could see it easily. When he told us of his ancestors arriving in the valley, David laid his forearm on the paper, drawing the outline of his hand over the contour lines. “We were here” – I was reminded of the hand prints of Australian Aborigines, painted on rock, often in outline like this. “We were here”. Then when David talked about his great-grandfather blasting coal, he tipped a pile of coal chippings onto the map, covering it with black dirt, like the slag heaps had defiled the sides of the valley around Ynysybwl.
William’s son, David’s grandfather, also worked at the Lady Windsor pit; but above ground, and later in the mine offices – “wearing a shirt and a tie”. Eventually he was in charge of the miners’ pay. Moving up the social scale by virtue of his intelligence. When he got to this point, David dropped a white handkerchief over the coal to partially hide it from our view.
His son William, David’s father, was born in 1943. He took the eleven plus examination and got into the local Grammar School in Pontypridd. William never worked at the pit – his father forbade him, and after school he left Ynysybwl, along with his siblings, and never went back.
David Sheppeard used the contour map rather like the Chorus in a Greek play, commenting on the action. While describing the closing of the mines, and the demise of the South Wales steel industry in the 1990s, he’d placed an arrangement of rusting metal slabs and bolts over the handkerchief and the coal, to form the shape of a hand. It looked like the hand of a robot, dumped on a rubbish tip – and when you remember that the word ‘robot’ actually means ‘worker’ in Czech … Karel Čapek used it in his play ‘RUR’ (Rossum’s Universal Robots), the image is incredibly apt. Thousands upon thousands of industrial workers thrown on to the scrapheap and left to rot.
David’s father escaped from the mining valleys – but as David asks himself – “My dad comes from working-class people like this. How does he look at me?” As an artist, hopefully – Sheppeard uses some powerful yet subtle imagery in this show. At this point he took a polished wooden hand, the kind that artists use as a lay-figure to sketch the human form, and laid it on top of the rusted steel.
He told us that, as a gay man, he probably won’t have children. Like the Taff Vale Railway serving the colliery before it was closed – the line ends here. As he said this he took a much smaller wooden hand, the kind you might find on a Victorian child’s doll, and laid that lovingly on top of the larger one.
I had a lump in my throat at this point, and that turned to misty eyes as the soundtrack brought up the Welsh National Anthem, beautifully sung by Shirley Bassey – who was of course born in Cardiff. Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau … Land Of My Fathers
Fathers and sons. ‘Land Of My Fathers’ was composed in 1865 by Evan James and his son James James, who lived … in Pontypridd, a couple of miles south of Ynysybwl.
‘Hard Graft’ is a beautifully conceived production – very funny in parts, but with an underlying sadness for things lost that can never be regained. Families move up the social scale, ‘escaping’ their working-class origins – David told us that he is ‘native’ middle class – and yet they lose that solidarity and sense of community that once underpinned the industrial heartlands.
That’s the story of Britain as a whole. When the Lady Windsor mine was operating at its peak around the beginning of the last century it was providing high-grade steam coal to power the battleships of the Royal Navy, and the great transatlantic liners of the Cunard company. That’s all passed now – along with the enormous amounts of exploitation and injustice necessary to sustain the British Empire, certainly – but somehow we’ve been left with … nothing. No direction.
David told us that the Thatcher government in the Eighties not only closed the pits, they wanted to take down the surface towers and winding gear too, so that there would be no symbol left of what had gone before. The working class in Pontypridd today can look forward only to a zero-hours contract somewhere.
Interesting that David Sheppeard’s show is presented at the same time as an election largely influenced by a UKIP agenda. Though probably not a coincidence – Sheppeard has the artistic antennae to sense the zeitgeist. My feeing is that that what UKIP supporters want most is to go back to that comfortable time when Britain was all-powerful, all-important, and ‘the sun never set on the Empire’. They can sense that they’ve lost their identity – that special feeling of being ’British’. They are seeking that nursery dream of childhood.
They are looking for their lost fathers.
Posted on http://www.fringereview.co.uk Brighton Fringe 2015
I don’t know anything at all about Menagerie Theatre Company – except that they’re very brave.
Or crazy. They’re doing a show about The Holocaust, using James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’, the twentieth century’s second most difficult book – the book that almost nobody’s read.
But maybe they’re up to the task. ‘Ulysses’ is the story of one day in the life of Leopold Bloom, an Irish Jew from Dublin, and it’s full of Joyce’s puns and wordplay.
So I was impressed that even the show’s title can be read at least four ways –
Bloom in Auschwitz … A narrative of the extermination camp, featuring a central character.
Bloom: in Auschwitz … A narrative of an individual, focusing on one event in his life.
Bloomin’ Auschwitz … Derogatory slang for the death camp.
Bloominauschwitz … As a Joycean portmanteau word.
Not a bad start to a production trying to catch the flavour of James Joyce’s writing …
(and if ’Ulysses’ is the second most difficult book of the last century, the most difficult is certainly ’Finnegans Wake’ – Joyce wrote that one too.)
The most important thing to keep in mind about ‘Ulysses’ is that often it’s very funny indeed. There are loads of gags and comic situations, and above all it’s the most realistic book you’ll ever read – the characters behave in a completely lifelike fashion. Their minds and their conversations wander from topic to topic. They chew and salivate when they eat. They fart, they shit, they masturbate – all the stuff you don’t read in classical literature. (can you imagine Jane Eyre on the loo?)
We saw Leopold Bloom on the loo at the beginning of this show – the inside of an outside loo, behind a wooden shed door at the back of Bloom’s house. In fact he spent quite a lot of time there. Eyes screwed tight, jaw muscles clenched. Straining … to remember who he was, and where he was.
In the loo – he’d say ‘in the jakes’, which he pronounces “Jax”
The jakes itself is a wooden box with a hinged lid, with the shed door behind it. And a bucket by the side. There’s nothing else on stage apart from two enormous piles of paper – square white sheets stacked up, one of them almost the height of a man.
Nothing else at all – just a black stage and the man in the black suit and hat with his trousers and pants down round his ankles, straining.
Straining to remember his name, to anchor his existence somehow. Then he somehow splits into two, and there’s another man standing looking down at him. Patrick Morris is the other man as well – it’s a one-man performance – and it seems he’s just … appeared. He’s Leopold Bloom – but a Leopold Bloom from the future, and he tells the Leopold Bloom sitting in the jakes that he’s actually a character in James Joyce’s book, trapped forever on the sixteenth of June, nineteen hundred and four.
Patrick Morris is in his thirties, with dark curly hair cut fairly short. He’s thinner than Bloom seems to be in the book, but he played both Blooms completely believably – he switched between them so quickly, looking this way and then the other, that it seemed we were able to see them both on the stage at the same time. Rachel Aspinwall’s fluid direction kept him jumping back and forth around the stage – he never stopped moving for very long.
Trapped – a character in a book. Different levels of reality. The future-Bloom shows present-Bloom the book, takes it off the top of the paper stack and opens it. It’s a pop-up book, and paper cut-outs of Bloom’s family rise up from the pages – Molly his wife, Milly his daughter, and the cradle of his son Rudy, who died when he was less than two weeks old. Beautifully done, very visual, and cleverly written, too – we were given Bloom’s family situation elegantly and effectively. His present family, and his current situation.
But there’s a duality to Bloom that’s not just the present and future Blooms on stage. Bloom is a husband, but he’s also a cuckold – his wife Molly will spend the afternoon in bed with her lover, who Bloom will keep trying to avoid all morning as he moves around Dublin. Bloom is an Irishman, but he’s also a Jew – his father Rudolf Virág was a Jew from Hungary, who left to avoid the anti-Jewish pogroms and settled in Ireland.
Virág converted to Protestantism to marry his Protestant wife, Bloom’s mother, and later Bloom himself converted to Catholicism to marry the Catholic Molly. So where does that really leave Bloom? He eats pork, he’s picked up a pig’s kidney from the butcher’s, and he’s uncircumcised, he has a foreskin – Bloom peers down into his trousers to check – but he’s still regarded by most Irish people as a Jew, an Outsider.
There’s a section in the book where Bloom is abused in a bar by an Irish nationalist – the narrow-minded Citizen, which is beautifully brought to life in this production. It’s 1904, and there’s a rising feeling against Ireland’s colonisation as part of the British Empire. But along with the increase of nationalism there’s so often a parallel rise in racial prejudice – “Of what Nation are you?” demands The Citizen. It’s Bloom’s Jewishness that he’s suspicious of. Later in the play the future Bloom reminds us that the phenomenon of ‘the Citizen’ is again on the rise …
So that’s why future-Bloom has manifested – to show Bloom where he comes from … and what lies in store for his People.
‘Bloominauschwitz’ is a show about bringing a book to life, but it’s an incredibly visual production, using physical theatre and wonderful paper constructions to show us vast events. We’d already seen Reiko Wong’s pop-up book, and now Bloom cut out a rough paper figure to address his memory of his father, Virág. Then he took a long length of white cotton drapery, and with the bucket tucked inside to form a head shape he’d produced a flowing ghost, held high so that it loomed above him like a Golem, and he seemed to bring the thing alive, speaking to him in Virág’s deep Slavic voice.
“What do you want?”
“I want to belong” answers Bloom.
So his father tells him of Jewish life in Hungary, of Szombathely, the town west of Buda-Pest where he once lived. Of the music and the culture. Bloom cut out (well, pulled out from behind the paper stacks, actually) long paper chains – figures of men and women hand-in-hand – that stretched for metres and metres, right out into the audience, and we held them as Bloom attached the other ends to the door above the jakes. Wong’s paper cutting, and Steffi Meuller’s imaginative set design, made the whole stage look not unlike a maypole, and wild Hungarian gypsy fiddle music completed the sense of festival. Bloom danced between the long chains of his People – part of the Tribe.
But then the lights suddenly changed. Side lighting made the stage very stark, and Virág told him sharply – “Before, you had to deal with the fiction. Now you have to deal with the fact”. – “Welcome to the Future … Welcome to Nineteen Forty Four”
Auschwitz. Harsh German voices bellowing commands and insults, as Bloom stripped to just his shirt and pants. Flashing lights, the sounds of marching boots and the rhythmic clatter of railway wagons, with their squealing wheels on the steel rails. There’s a hallucinatory ‘Nighttown’ chapter in ‘Ulysses’ where Bloom is confronted by accusing figures from his past and from his subconscious, all jumbled together like a nightmare. The play’s portrayal of the extermination camp had that same sense of unreality and terror.
Bloom wanted to be part of the Tribe, to be a real Jew, but faced with extermination himself he wanted to be a survivor more than to be a Jew. He denied his Jewishness – “Only a bit Jewish. Look, a foreskin” and became a Kapo, a Jewish Kapo, aiding in the extermination of others.
This is where Steffi Meuller’s design took us very close to the horrors of Auschwitz. The jakes box became an oven, orange light flooding up past the raised lid, catching Bloom’s face as he leaned over it with a pair of scissors, cutting the paper figures off the long chains – one by one – and dropping them into the flames. An incredibly vivid sight, searing into our retinas. That image – the seemingly unending line of people heading hand-in-hand towards death – will stay with me for many months.
And after Auschwitz? Obviously the Jewish people need a place of safety, and Bloom becomes a kind of Theodor Herzl or David Ben-Gurion, with the project of a Jewish homeland – a Promised Land.
The Promised Land. – “This land – is it all ours?”
The Promised Land. – “To thrive, we have to get rid of the weeds. Root up the weeds”
‘Ulysses’ is based on the structure of ‘The Odyssey’, the great narrative poem of Odysseus’ long voyage back to his home. Each ‘Ulysses’ chapter mirrors one Book from Homer’s work, and back in Dublin in 1904, the one-eyed Cyclops monster had been transformed into the narrow-minded nationalist Citizen we met earlier.
” Nation – a word with only one i ” says Bloom. Only one eye – a typical Joycean pun. In 2015 the future Bloom receives a letter from his daughter Milly, who’s living on a kibbutz in Israel. “They say it’s a homeland for Jews” Bloom’s happy, but his face falls as he reads Milly’s recounting of Settlements, of razor wire and checkpoints and incoming rockets, missiles fired at them from Lebanon.
I’ve heard ‘Ulysses’ described as the best antidote to anti-Semitism ever written – it joyfully celebrates the essential humanity of all human beings, regardless of their religion or nationality. In 1904 the Irish suffered under the yoke of the British Empire. In 2015 the Palestinians suffer under Israeli nationalism and fundamentalist religious certainty. A Promised Land. Nation – a word with only one eye.
James Joyce’s masterpiece is a book to be read, thought about, but most of all – enjoyed! If that’s too daunting a prospect, though, ‘Bloominauschwitz’ will give you a great introduction. Try not to miss it.
Posted on www.fringereview.co.uk Brighton Fringe 2015
When we spend a few days in an hotel or a guest-house, the owners often ask if we’d like to put up a review on TripAdvisor, sharing our experience to encourage other prospective visitors.
I don’t think I’ll be sending them this review …
Greywing House seems to be a crumbling pile, perched on a clifftop overlooking a rocky beach somewhere far, far away from Brighton. We never saw the outside, but the interior was sketched in quite believably on the small stage of the Theatre Box, with just a desk on one side, an old padded armchair on the other, and a section of wall with a lace-curtained window centre-stage at the back. A constant low background noise of wind whistling round the house and the sea crashing onto the shore below.
An old wooden clock and small typewriter on the desk, along with a large blotter and a little copper coloured chest, a white lace antimacassar over back of the red armchair, the mould-stained wallpaper peeling slightly beneath the window – signs of age, neglect and genteel decay. That was all we needed. Nothing’s been changed in Greywing House for years …
We were welcomed to the House by Miss Amelia Scrimshaw, who it seems had taken our bookings and was in sole charge of the establishment. Mary Beth Morossa is a slim woman in her twenties, dressed in a simple green cotton dress. Her dark brown hair tight in a bun at the back, leaving a few locks curling down the sides of her face.
A rather oval face, with whitened skin – so very, very pale – and vivid red lips made even more prominent by a very thin outlining of black to accentuate the lipstick even more. But it was her eyes that were the most striking part of her. Huge eyes, staring towards us intently, hardly ever blinking …
Not quite ghostlike, but certainly … unsettling. Amelia Scrimshaw spoke to us in very clear, precise tones, with a well-educated accent that once would have been called ‘refined’. She’s obviously lived at Greywing House for a number of years, and we soon got a sense of the state of the house – and of her mind – as she pointed to the markings below the window.
“Mould. It grows on the walls quicker than I can clean it. I scrub one patch of green and black but as soon as I have turned my back it has returned. Creeping stealth. It sometimes feels as if it scuttles over every surface of this house. Like the mould has more dominion over this place than I do”.
“The patterns it makes sometimes, on the walls, are – quite remarkable. If I look at it for long enough I can see it growing – forming shapes. Such delicacy! … a freshly painted mural every season – a stagnant bouquet blossoming on the staircase.
However small, it is a sign of something thriving – it could certainly thrive in this persistent rain. I have come to learn it is something to be cherished – no matter how repulsive it may seem on the surface”
As we looked more closely at Amelia Scrimshaw, we could see that her legs were covered in delicate mould markings. Would her calves display ‘a freshly-painted mural every season’, too?
I hope this gives you some sense of just how Gothic this whole production felt. The vivid efflorescence of the language and imagery. The lushness, the vigour, of decay and corruption. Like the jungle in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’. Like the vegetation in Rousseau’s paintings. Shades of Edgar Allen Poe. Shades of H P Lovecraft. But all very definitely Mary Beth Morossa’s original creation.
She went on to tell us how she and her husband William had inherited this house, years before, and how there had been … problems. How William, like his father before him, had had … obsessions. She also told us about some of the other tenants of Greywing House – tenants present and past, tenants alive and dead – and how none of those categories were necessarily exclusive …
She told us tales of loneliness and of loss. She told us stories of solitary little girls, growing up without friends. She told us about newly-wed brides dying, their bodies undiscovered. She told us about an old man, living on the second floor, whose sister had died, how he practised arcane rituals. Mary Beth Morossa is a very accomplished storyteller – all of this was related to us in a perfectly modulated voice, as Amelia Scrimshaw gave her guests some of the house’s history, as though all this was the most natural thing in the world.
But Morossa can be very funny, too. Not funny Ha Ha, with jokes and punchlines, but little bizarre asides dropped into an otherwise perfectly normal anecdote. Like when she first came to the house with her husband –
“… like any visit to the in-laws. Wear your Sunday best. Too much tea is drunk. You pry them away from their scientific observations. Polite chit-chat about the Old Ones, and how they will one day rise from their slumber from beneath the sea to reclaim the Earth. Slice of Battenberg. Home in time for tea”.
What!!! What kind of family is this? What kind of woman is this? The weirdness and creepiness of what we were hearing didn’t stop gales of audience laughter from punctuating Morossa’s narration. Though she of course remained deadpan throughout.
Except when she was asleep, that is. We guests were obviously spending several days at Greywing House, as Amelia Scrimshaw twice retired to bed late at night – “very tired”. Then she’d reappear from the stage wing moments later in nightdress and silk dressing gown, with a silk sleep mask over her eyes. Writhing, panting, rolling on the floor and scrubbing her arms obsessively – to get rid of the mould? – betraying the inner anguish and turmoil beneath Miss Amelia Scrimshaw’s calm daytime appearance and clear, precise voice.
Great physicality. And Marossa has a wonderful sense of the visual possibilities of theatre, too. At one point she put a lamp behind the desk blotter and it became a screen, which she employed to tell us a sad little story using shadow puppets. In a later section, she took the antimacassar (what a great word!) off the armchair and folded and tied it so it became a figure, transformed into a puppet seemingly draped in material. Then the two of them – it seemed to come to life in her arms – acted out yet another tale.
On her flyer, it says – “Mary Beth Morossa is an award-winning performer and theatre-maker”. I can see why. I’d like to spend more time in her company – though preferably not at night in a lonely old house on a cliff edge in a storm ….
Posted on www.fringereview.co.uk Brighton Fringe 2015
There’s an amusing (though bizarre) sequel to this one. The artist contacted Fringe Review to complain about the piece being sexist. Here’s what she wrote –
I’m super glad that Fringe Review was able to make it to see my show Greywing House at Brighton Fringe this weekend. I’ve read the review written by Strat Mastoris, and it’s positively glowing!
But then she continued –
Also, there’s something else that I feel compelled to comment on. To be quite honest I felt incredibly uncomfortable reading several paragraphs detailing and sexualising my physical appearance, and sections of my show. Friends have even contacted me independently to share their thoughts on how unprofessional, and frankly, sexist the writing in those sections was. I understand that your reviewers are independent contributors, but myself and my colleagues are wondering how this passed through the publishing net. Please understand that as a performer I appreciate when a critic enjoys the show and writes nice things, but it would not feel right if I didn’t highlight this particular issue and call attention to it. I am not sure what can be done about it now, but thought it necessary to voice my concern so that perhaps this can be avoided in future reviews for other performers, both from the writer’s and editor’s perspective.
Interestingly, here’s what Morossa looks like on her own website …
The Twelfth Disciple
Judas Iscariot. One of the twelve disciples of Jesus.
His follower – and later, His betrayer, selling his Lord for thirty pieces of silver.
Hated and reviled down through the centuries until his very name became a byword for betrayal, hissed through clenched teeth … “Judas!”
And yet … without Judas’ betrayal of Christ, there could have been no crucifixion, no Passion, no resurrection – and hence no redeeming of Humanity’s sins.
In fact, some early Gnostic sources state that Judas’ betrayal was done with Jesus’ knowledge, and even at His urging, as part of God’s plan for mankind.
So it may not be as simple as it seems . . .
There are steps leading down from the door into The Pit. It’s well named – a small square room with tiered seating rising up on two sides in an L, focussing in on the central space. It has the feel of a old-fashioned medical theatre, where students would gaze down at some scientific demonstration, or an anatomical dissection.
We were looking down at an interrogation.
Youssef was seated handcuffed at a wooden table in the centre of the room. He’s got dark curly hair, cut quite short, and designer stubble on his rather long face. We knew his name because he’d just given it to the man standing over him – the one asking the questions.
This man is slightly older than Youssef, and heavier built. Bearded, in a blue checked shirt and wearing the black combat trousers and boots that mark him as a security official rather than a regular soldier. He’d started by turning on a tape machine to record the interview, charging the prisoner with sedition, with being part of an anti-war movement aiming to bring down the Government – asking for names, dates, meeting locations. When Youssef refused to answer, swore at the Interrogator, he turned off the machine.
“You’re going to tell me what’s illegal!” The man retorted. “You’re in a war zone here, my friend. Legality is for the courts – and you bomb the courts” … “I may be immoral – I may be illegal – but I’m absolutely necessary”.
Toby Marriott, the writer of ‘The Twelfth Disciple’, is a student of Theology, and he’s come up with a different possibility for Judas’ actions. What if he was pressured – tortured – into helping the authorities to arrest Jesus? Marriott’s brought the story up to date, with Youssef as one of the followers of a charismatic Leader whose teachings are threatening public order and the status quo.
The writer has carefully made the setting and timing non-specific, but it can’t help but feel like Israel, with military operations against Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, bankrolled by American money and weapons; and a growing peace movement among its own citizens, encouraging them to avoid conscription into the armed forces. Gary Faulkner, as Youssef, did in fact look rather Middle-Eastern. Russell Shaw’s Interrogator could have been an Israeli from Europe – or an American ‘consultant’.
The authorities needs to get their hands on this dangerous Leader, and they’ll do whatever is necessary. We were very close to the action in The Pit, and I could feel audience members wincing (as I was myself) as Youssef was tortured. Physical beatings, carried out by a black-clad figure whose face was hidden and who never spoke – but also the Interrogator’s sly threats to the fate of Youssef’s child, and his wife ( “good looking woman …” ). The Interrogator’s superior officer was there too – she oversaw the questioning.
Alix Cavanagh was dressed in a black trouser suit over a white blouse, with a white headscarf, and she radiated the kind of calm reasonableness that comes from being in complete control of the situation. An icy authority, cloaked in a soft voice. The Interrogator and his Superior had names in the programme, but they never used those names during the performance, and that anonymity gave them another layer of menace and power.
We’ve all heard of ‘waterboarding’, but seeing it close up is very different. “In the old days we could do whatever we wanted to people like you, but things have changed since our allies got more involved – now we have to keep it clean, not leave marks”. The silent man in black is slopping a towel into a bucket of water behind Youssef, and as the Superior leaves the room she looks back – “People don’t like scars – too dirty. Water. Water’s clean …”
As Youssef choked, I came close to vomiting – it felt that real.
But to be fair to Israel – almost every State will resort to torture to protect its interests. Like the French in Algeria – extracting names from FLN rebels using blow-torches on their bodies. Or the British in Kenya – crushing Mau-Mau suspects’ genitals with pliers to get a confession. Or the Americans at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Doing whatever is necessary to keep control of the occupied, the colonised.
So Youssef talked, gave them the information they needed. Where to find him, how to recognise him. This follows the traditional story of Judas, but casts him in a much more sympathetic light – an action committed under unbearable pressure is easier to forgive than doing it for a cash reward. A modern gloss on a two thousand year old story. In this version, the Leader is actually Youssef’s own brother.
The Leader is captured, and it’s the next afternoon – yellow sunlight flooding down the stairs into the room – when the Superior informs Youssef that his brother “was offered to our Allies. But guess what? They don’t want him. They washed their hands of him”. In a brilliant bit of writing, Toby Marriott has managed to link the contemporary rendition of ‘terrorists’ to places like Guantanamo Bay, with Pontius Pilate’s refusal to pass judgment on Jesus. Pilate didn’t want any unnecessary blame to fall on the Roman occupation forces, so he handed the troublesome Christ back to his fellow Jews – to condemn Him to death if they wished it.
Here’s where ‘The Twelfth Disciple’ veers towards the Gnostic interpretation of Judas’ story. Youssef taunts his interrogators, tells them that they’ve done exactly what he and his Leader wanted – “He told me that I must do what must be done”. That he always intended to give them the information. That the Leader actually wanted to be arrested and brought to trial.
Youssef had assumed that this would lead to unrest and anger in the population, to a mass rebellion, a violent uprising that would rid the country of the occupying forces. But it seems he’s misread the mood of the population – they’re happy for the Leader to be executed. This parallels the Biblical account, where the Jewish Sanhedrin court condemned Jesus to death, and the people called for Barabbas the thief to be released, and Jesus of Nazareth to be crucified.
He has to watch the execution, gazing up the steps towards the street outside, lit by yellow afternoon sunlight flooding into the basement as his Leader, his brother, is hanged from a high crane in front of a large crowd.
But Youssef has misread the intentions of his Leader, too. In Toby Marriott’s play, the anonymous Interrogator – who is actually named as Marshall in the programme – has seen many executions, but this one is not the same. “Your man, he was different – impassive, calm. He even forgave his executioner”. He turns on Youssef – “You betrayed your Leader to provoke a revolution that you crave. But violence was never what he wanted”.
But who can ever know the mind of God? However Youssef, or Judas, have behaved – following instructions or betraying them – their actions seem to be following God’s plan. And it’s beginning. As with Christ’s crucifixion, the ripples from this Leader’s death are starting to reach out and alter people. Marshall is changed – “I’m out. I’ve had enough. Nothing ever came of violence – nothing ever could”. In a beautiful inversion of plot he has become the advocate of non-violence – travelling in the opposite spiritual direction to Youssef.
A thoughtful play, powerfully performed within the confines of The Pit, where the very lack of a large stage concentrated the focus of our attention and amplified the tensions amongst the characters. Tim Marriott’s highly competent direction meant that the story wasn’t confined to a basement room, either. Imaginative use of Matt Derbyshire’s video footage projected onto the back wall gave us a series of excursions into the world above – a landscape of burning buildings, peppered with the rattle of small-arms fire and the crump of mortars or artillery. Violence below mirrored by the violence on the surface.
The play’s writer, Toby Marriott, is still a student at Bristol University. He’s given us a piece of theatre with a gripping narrative, which manages to show us a different set of possibilities of the role of Judas. Should Judas perhaps be regarded as the best of the disciples?
Posted on www.fringereview.co.uk Brighton Fringe 2015
Thirst Of The Salt Mountain
What is this?
‘Alive without breath, as cold as death.
Thinks a lake is a mountain.
Thinks a fountain is a puff of air.
So sleek, so fair’
It’s a fish. The riddle from Tolkein’s ‘the Hobbit’
In English – and in French, of course – we have writers like Samuel Beckett to bring us face-to-face with the bleakness and the ultimate meaninglessness of the human condition. But here in Britain we don’t know very much about the intellectual life of countries in Eastern Europe, so it’s a real revelation to see a production of a work by a Romanian writer, Marin Sorescu.
Sorescu died in 1996, after the fall of Ceauşescu, but he published ‘Thirst Of The Salt Mountain’ in 1985, under the strictures of the old Communist regime, which meant that irony and allusion had to take the place of overt criticism of society. The work is actually three plays – ‘Jonah’, ‘The Verger’ and ‘The Matrix’ – published together and intended to be performed as one.
And it’s an astonishing piece of work. As we entered the cavernous space at Emporium, with its peeling paintwork and high roof disappearing up into darkness, we were confronted with some simple stage items; chairs, a table and a set of steps, all in white, and in the centre an enormous length of plastic sheeting, hanging suspended from the lighting rig like a great translucent curtain.
Three people were in the acting space – two women dressed all in white, with whitened faces, and a man, in white sea-boots and trousers and a fisherman’s smock and a woolly hat that looked like they were completely salt-encrusted. One of the women sat at a table, with a laptop, operating sound and audio-visuals, projecting video onto the back wall to help locate many scenes. Here we watched ripples on the surface of the sea.
The man was Jonah, and he’s out fishing, to feed his family, with a small goldfish bowl (complete with fish) at his feet, and the intermittent sound of thunder in the background. He’s fishing because he’s hungry, but he told us that if there are no fish he goes home and fishes from the bowl – “They’ve been caught before, so they’re cautious, but in the end one always bites … you can’t fight hunger”.
What a vivid – and awful – image of being trapped in a situation you can’t control. The fish and the man. Outside the goldfish bowl, the man is alone. Alone on the surface of the sea. Conor Baum has a remarkably expressive face and a very mobile body, his arms and hands constantly moving to convey a thought or demonstrate a point. He calls out – “Help! Help! God!”. Silence. “If only there was an echo …” Soon he was swallowed by the Whale.
Squall + Frenzy are a hugely inventive theatre company, and they produce very powerful imagery – I saw ‘Fragments of a Fallen City’ last year (there’s a review on Fringe Review) where they turned the basement rooms of a Brighton pub into the wreckage of Troy, sacked and looted after the Greek victory. At Emporium they had this enormous plastic curtain, and Jonah wrapped himself inside it as it hung, the almost-transparent material shimmering in an overhead spotlight, letting us see his distorted features through what looked like the stomach membranes of the Whale. There were wonderful dripping and sloshing noises which set the location vividly – these were produced by Ada Dodds, sitting at the sound table and doing a lot of them vocally into a microphone.
The Biblical Jonah is inside the Whale so that God can prove that He will look after him. The play’s Whale might symbolise Romanian society under Communism, but this reviewer thought that Sorescu is also getting at something much more Existential in the human condition. Jonah eventually cuts himself out of the Whale’s belly, only to find that it has been eaten by a bigger Whale. He tears some holes – “where there are no windows, they must be invented, with nails, human nails. I am a nail” – and he climbs the stepladder to look out.
“What can you see? … The horizon … And beyond that? … Another horizon”
“And what is that horizon? … A giant fish’s belly”
This is where we find ourselves, trapped inside a universe we can’t comprehend, and we try to make sense of our situation by scientific investigation – windows must be invented. But as we extend our understanding with our theories and our instruments – our telescopes and our particle accelerators – the ultimate meaning of our existence recedes away from us, discovery by discovery – horizon by horizon.
Standing on a stepladder, peering out to try to discern some meaning – this is a central image from Beckett’s ‘Endgame’, which co-incidentally I had seen performed last year in this same Emporium space. In that play it’s Clov on the ladder – Clov which translates as ‘nail’ (to Hamm’s ‘hammer‘). I wonder if Marin Sorescu had made the connection? – I’m sure he was familiar with Beckett’s work.
Trying to make sense of existence. When it can’t be done with science we fall back on older comforts – “That is all that we humans want, to hear that sacred story of Resurrection. We hear it – we feel divine – and then we go home to die. Mortal”
In ‘The Verger’, Isabel Sensier is building herself a cathedral. Literally brick by brick – white bricks laid out in a line across the front of the acting space, like stepping stones. She’s building a religion, too, it seems, lighting a big red candle that she keeps blowing out and relighting. Again Beckett came to mind – “Try … Fail … Try again … Fail again. Fail better”
It’s the Forgotten Cathedral – “People were so exhausted by its construction that they went off cathedrals. This is the last one. And I am the Last Verger”.
Sentier has a very impressive vocal and emotional range. She seems torn between defeat – “We delude ourselves because we can” – and renewed outbursts of passionate belief – “See, the flame is full of grace … I will create a Cathedral of Grace“. She can do anguish too – “Forgive me! – forgive my doubt”
A Brighton Fringe audience would probably hear all this as being about the decline of religion in an increasingly secular society. In Sorescu’s Romania, though, it must have sounded like the disillusion with the realities of Communism – that other religion which failed to deliver its promised Paradise. No wonder the author was very popular in Bucharest.
After the interval, we returned to a stage set that could have been created by Brecht himself. In a wooden chair on the right, a peasant woman was about to give birth, hands clasping her enormously swollen belly as she groaned and strained. In a similar chair on the left, an old man in a nightshirt (Baum) was groaning too – he was about to die. And in the middle, taking up the space between the two chairs, was a bed – a wooden structure made up of two white-painted pallets that had been used in the Cathedral scene earlier – but very recognisably a bed.
Ada Dodds wore a white headscarf and a grey shift for this ‘Matrix’ section – she’d swapped places with Isabel Sensier on the sound table. Dodds is not only a very convincing actor – her birth-pangs made me wince – but she’s the translator of Sorescu’s Romanian text.
The setting was breathtaking in its simplicity – the whole sequence of life stages set out in front of us – the pain of Birth, the passion and sensuality of Sex, and at the end the pain, again, of Death. The old man is the woman’s father, and although his daughter’s in great distress all he’s interested in is getting someone to hear his deathbed confession.
“I’m dying!” she screams. “No you’re not”, her father retorts. “Your grandmother, she gave birth on her way to take food to workmen in the field. She came back home with the baby in a basket, tucked in with the spoons. It only took her a moment, in a bush, by the cows – that’s how she was able to have fourteen children”. Sorescu might be an existentialist, but he can do humour, too!
Finally the old man died, and his daughter gave birth – to a strange red baby. A jointed puppet like an artist’s lay-figure with a large head, which she held and cuddled. Was the colour significant? Did it somehow symbolise the Party, born out of the labours of the Proletariat? Or maybe the Ideal Romanian Communist Comrade? I had to remember that we were watching a thirty-year-old play set in a very different society. There was also the possibility that the colour was a Squall + Frenzy design choice, though – in each part they‘d managed to insert just a single red item into the otherwise monochrome set.
They managed a ghost, too. Suddenly there was loud knocking on the door, and a truly terrifying figure entered. A three-headed creature seemingly floating just off the ground. Snake heads, and three different voices sounding slightly sibilant tones – hissing and rather echoey.
They (it?) seem to be interested in both the dead man and the newborn infant. Three voices intoned – “We came”, “We kept vigil”, “We cast our spells”. One of them kept getting her spells wrong – obviously not very bright – and while I had originally seen them as witch-like, or Furies, I think they are meant to symbolise the many-headed hydra that was the Securitate state secret police. Watching over Romanian comrades from birth to death …
But the waters are rising – another Great Flood is on its way. They had laid the huge plastic sheet across the front of the stage, and now Baum and Sensier held an end each and raised it, glistening like an incoming tide in the overhead light, higher and higher – forcing Ada Dodds and the red baby to take refuge on top of the stepladder. As the sea finally rose above her head she held the baby high above the water and her last words told us that – “I can hear the boats of the ones who are coming to save us!”.
Boats saving people. Great theatre is timeless, and seeing this image, in a month when refugees from the Third World are being plucked from the Mediterranean, brought home the vast inequalities in the human existence. The difference between our comfort and security and the human beings we choose to demonise as ‘immigrants’.
Then … nothing. The actors left the stage, the lights came up and we applauded enthusiastically, and … nothing. No-one came back on. No-one took a bow.
There was no-one there!
I don’t know whether that’s in Sorescu’s script, or whether it’s another part of Squall + Frenzy’s hugely imaginative staging, but it was a perfect ending – unsettling and disturbing – summing up visually what this whole existential piece had been about.
There is no-one there.
We are alone.
Posted on http://www.fringereview.co.uk Brighton Fringe 2015
The Marie Curie Project
The Pit at the Basement is quite a small space – three levels of tiered seating in an L shape on two sides, focussing in on the acting area so it really does feel like looking down into a pit.
Hot, too. The space was jammed full of people, and it had the feel of an old-fashioned Victorian or Edwardian dissection theatre, where students would gaze down at the Lecturer as he – it would almost certainly have been a HE – explained and demonstrated some scientific principle to them.
But we had a woman. A tall woman in a long black skirt and a black blouse with a white lace collar. Shoulder length hair swept back over the ears and held with clips. A long, rather narrow face with a strong chin – the kind of face that’s generally called ‘handsome’ in a woman …
She’s Marie Sklodowska-Curie. Born Maria Sklodowska in Poland in 1869. The discoverer of Radium, along with her husband Pierre Curie, in 1898. Pierre’s there too, sitting on a stool at one side of The Pit, with his thin moustache and a black beret – he’s French, of course.
Except … This is actually John Hinton, playing Marie Curie for us. And that’s Jo Eagle on the stool, holding an accordion. This is a production about the scientific principles of radioactivity – so obviously they’re going to do it as a musical comedy. In rhyming couplets –
” You’ll have seen a lady’s name in the title of this play / And you may have thought you’d get the chance to meet her here today
But as I’ve already made patently clear – she’s dead / And I’m afraid you’ll have to make do with me – instead.
I’m not really Marie Curie, and that person over there / Who’s playing an accordion is Jo, not Pierre.
But though she’s not my husband, and though I’m not her wife / Jo actually is my partner – in real life.”
Da-doom, da-doom, da-doom. … You have to thump out the rhythm to get the proper sense of Hinton’s delivery, and Eagle’s accompaniment on her accordion. I’d seen the pair of them do a show about Einstein in last year’s Fringe (there’s a review of that on Fringe Review) so I already knew about the songs, with their impossibly twisted lyrics, and about how Hinton’s shows cram in a lot of important, accurate science – but manage to get it across painlessly.
John Hinton is very, very funny. He does great accents too. He did Marie with a Polish (ish) delivery; but the Curies had two daughters, Irène and Ève, and Hinton morphed into them as well. He gave Irène (the elder) a gruff Slavic voice, while Ève had a little-girly French accent. So we had the voices, the music, and … nothing else on stage at all. As the song informed us –
“We’re not in her laboratory, so therefore – I’m / Planning to invoke it with the power of mime
It makes the set more portable, and shields us from the debt / We’d be in if we’d made a realistic set.”
Probably just as well. Marie Curie had do go through a tedious laboratory extraction to start with over a ton of pitchblende and end up, months later, with just a tenth of a gramme of radium. Hinton mimed the whole process for us – a repetitive sequence of stirring, pouring, heating in the laboratory oven, opening a cupboard to get out the strong sulphuric acid (Oops – nearly dropped it … a sharp chord on the accordion from Jo Eagle) to finally end up with a tiny amount of glowing radium in a test tube. It was done so believably that at the end we could almost see the tube glowing in Marie Curie’s hand.
There were two strands to the show – The chemistry of radioactivity and Marie Curie herself – and Hinton interwove them with great skill. Actually, it felt like we in the audience were doing most of the work. He talked about ‘Radioactive Decay Chains’ -the kind of topic that sent you to sleep when you were at school – but we did it with all of us being different elements or isotopes, linked together with a criss-crossing web of string. (I was Polonium 214 – I felt so important!.) It was as if Spiderman was taking the lesson – but I find that, days later, I still remember the important points. I could probably talk to you for five minutes about radioactive decay chains – but maybe another time …
We needed a bit of background to the whole history and development of atomic theory, and we got that via a lecture that Marie’s daughter Irène (also a chemist) gave, in her wonderfully gruff eastern-European voice I mentioned earlier. She talked about discovering the different types of radiation – alpha, beta and gamma, and look, I can discover them here on my computer – α β γ – If you want any more detail, though, you’ll just have to go and see the show – and that way you’ll hear all the rest of the great songs.
We learned about Marie Curie’s life, too. Pierre had been killed in a (horse-drawn) traffic accident in Paris, so I suppose that sitting on stage he was some kind of memory – that’s why he never spoke – and years later Marie went to America to receive a donation of a whole gramme of radium for use in her research. As the element’s discoverer she was feted as a great heroine – radium was being used in cancer therapy because its radiation enabled tumours to be destroyed without surgery. There was a fashion to use the element in everything, though, from toothpaste (for brighter teeth!) to ‘radium tonic’ as a patent medicine.
They used luminous paint containing radium – ‘Undark’ – to paint the figures on watch and clock faces, and a number of the painters developed cancer and eventually died. Marie Curie was horrified at this dark side (sorry for the pun) of her discovery, and Hinton used very effective lighting and mime, twisting his face and contorting his expression to show us the gradual decay of the workers’ physical condition. Lots of unsettling accordion notes from Jo / Pierre.
As with the Einstein show, all of John Hinton’s science is accurate and peer-reviewed, but he makes it so interesting and accessible that we were swept up in the sheer wonder of it all. It was fascinating, and at the end he reminded us of its relevance – one in three of us will develop some sort of cancer; and of those, two in five will be treated with some sort of radiotherapy.
I make that final tally about thirteen percent. There were around sixty people in the audience, and as we left I wondered which of them would have their lives changed as a result of the discoveries of the woman we’d just watched. A woman who, thanks to John Hinton and Jo Eagle, we felt we knew.
Posted on www.fringereview.co.uk Brighton Fringe 2015
After half a dozen pages I put the book down – astonished.
We’d bought the script of ‘You’ after seeing a performance in the upstairs space at The Rialto, as I wanted a memento of the show as well as something to refer to while writing this review.
Astonished. It was like opening the bonnet of a very sleek motor car – all smooth curves and aerodynamic form – and gazing at the engine, with its pipes, pumps, belts, cables and struts, that actually makes the thing go.
In the book I saw a character’s lines set out, suddenly jumping to become someone else’s in what seemed an impossible collision, and I remembered how, when I had watched those same lines being spoken on stage, they had just flowed so naturally.
Here I was looking at the craftsmanship below the finished product.
‘You’ is a play about adoption. Not an uncommon occurrence in our society – neither is the illegitimate pregnancy or teenage motherhood which so often precedes it – but Mark Wilson has taken the unusual step of giving us the story from the viewpoint of both the birth mother and the adoptive mother – simultaneously.
At least, that’s how it looks to me. In the notes at the front of the script Wilson states that – ‘This is Kathleen’s story and all the characters that emerge from within it come from her imagination and her memory’. Personally, I think that Vanessa and Tom have far too much inner life and detail to be simply constructs of Kathleen’s. I think that – like Pirandello’s ‘Six Characters In Search Of An Author’ – they’re living, breathing entities who have taken up residence in Mark Wilson’s play.
So who are all these people? ‘You’ is actually about the interaction of three families. Kathleen is only fifteen when she gets pregnant by Frank, a nineteen year-old soldier.
Kathleen has to deal with her parents, June and Bill, who insist that she has the child adopted – while Frank has his own problems with his mother, Margie, and her new relationship and child. Vanessa and Tom are the couple, childless after two failed pregnancies, who adopt Kathleen’s baby.
That last paragraph sounds like an average soap-opera plot – but there’s a vast difference. TV, like cinema, generally treats its audience as passive and rather childish. They need to be shown everything. The sets and lighting are designed to give the impression that we’re looking at actual people through some ‘fourth wall’.
Cinema attempts to create the illusion that we’re actually in the scene ourselves, first with colour film, then high definition images, wraparound sound and now 3D.
Theatre, by contrast, treats its audience as grown-ups. ‘You know that this set isn’t real – if indeed there’s any set at all – but you’re able to suspend disbelief while we tell you a story. If the plot requires a window, or the seat of a bus, or even a palm tree on a desert island, then this box or this chair will have to make do – and you, as an adult, can create the scene for yourself, in your own imagination’.
That’s what Mark Wilson has done with ‘You’. Seven characters, but just two performers, in an acting space set in traverse down the centre of The Rialto theatre, with audience seated on both sides, and a couple of chairs. No fancy lighting, no special effects – just those two actors telling us a story.
Kathleen’s story. A good Irish name, Kathleen, and Kathryn O’Reilly plays her with a convincing Irish accent and that protective crossing of the arms across the chest that you often see in middle-aged women who are on the edge of the underclass. As if they’re always feeling slightly cold. O’Reilly is in her thirties, with a slender body and a soft voice that catches as she sets the scene for us with a line that could have been written by Samuel Beckett. Talking to herself – “So today: Friday. Imagine. Him, coming here”
“You still have the clothes, don’t you; the ones they let you keep? Still in that drawer in the upstairs room, and the piece of faded blue card with his birth-weight and the time – blue for a boy”
The economy of the writing is stunning. In just seven lines (on the page) Mark Wilson has told us almost all the back-story that we need to know. We already have a good grasp of Kathleen’s character and her probable social class – and we know a fair amount about this hugely important event from her past.
A class and an era when an illegitimate pregnancy was something much more unacceptable than today (though how far have we really progressed?) and Kathleen’s voice morphs into her mother’s as she recalls June’s anger – “The shame” – and then immediately jumps back to her own voice again – “The way she said it sounded like the plague”.
“The shame” For Kathleen’s mother’s line, O’Reilly makes her voice much harder and louder. Then a few lines later she becomes her mother, and pulls her head back slightly too, altering her posture to give physical expression to June’s anger and horror at what her daughter has done – “How many weeks late? Look at me; how many?”
O’Reilly grabbing at her own arm as she recalls how her mother grabbed her that day – “Dragging at your arm to turn you round, hurting. You were never easy”
That last bit – ‘You were never easy’ – is Kathleen reciting her mother’s outburst, and then O’Reilly changes posture and voice back to June herself – “And now this. This. Fifteen years old. Well you’re gong to get rid of it, hear me, Kathleen?”
So we’ve got three distinct levels going on here. Kathleen in the present. Kathleen’s memories of her mother, remembering her today. And Kathleen’s mother herself, all those years ago when she discovered the pregnancy. But this is theatre, so they flow together seamlessly and the thing makes perfect sense.
Subtle writing, giving us interleaved layers of character and of time. It takes a very talented actor to carry this off convincingly, and Sarah Myott-Meadows, the director, has two of them. Kathleen’s father is Bill, a much softer, kinder man than his wife, and reflective – “So no. Being told wasn’t the worst part, Kathy. It’s this quiet that’s slid between us now like glass – thick. It wasn’t silence. There was no anger in it for silence. Just quiet”.
Stephen Myott-Meadows must be in his thirties too, dark hair cut fairly short and radiating an aura of calm and … competence. He looks like the kind of man you could rely on. He plays Bill, then later he’s Frank, the young squaddie, and he can look, and sound, youthful enough to play him convincingly.
“And didn’t I look the part? Didn’t I just look the dog’s bollocks? Forty-eight hour pass, marching down Heath Street in my uniform, kit bag over my shoulder. Nineteen. Home. Didn’t tell her I was coming, my Mum. A surprise. Not as big as the one she had for me though”.
Frank’s been displaced in his mother’s life by her new man, and their new baby. Another little family tragedy here, as O’Reilly becomes Margie, Frank’s mother, with a snappy manner and working-class accent – “You’ll ‘ave to sleep downstairs”. That’s because, as Frank tells us (straight to audience) – “The baby had my room”. Margie’s trying to make things better – “Heatley, your little brother”, to which Frank retorts, sourly – “Half -brother”.
Again, the economy of writing is remarkable. ‘Half-brother’. What a complicated back-story, what feelings of loss and resentment – all summed up those two short words. And Mark Wilson’s script allows subtle differences of viewpoint to emerge. Kathleen can give us her recollections of Frank, then Frank himself can talk to us directly, telling us his feelings, and then we see him in conversation with Margie his mother, as O’Reilly has switched from Kathleen into that role.
Both O’Reilly and Myott-Meadows are very accomplished actors. Their range of emotion is totally believable, their accents are convincing, and they occupy the acting space very confidently. Having audience on both sides is almost like doing the play in the round, and the pair kept moving position so they could play both sides equally. They kept making eye contact with us, too. There were only two layers of seats on each side, so we were very close to them and it felt quite intimate as we each received a gaze so personal that it felt like they were looking right into our souls, before it moved on to make contact with our neighbour.
I haven’t mentioned Vanessa and Tom yet. O’Reilly and Myott-Meadows play these two as a different class entirely. They’re upper middle-class – she’s a university lecturer and he’s a musician – and the couple radiate the confidence and self-assurance that comes with that background. He plays piano, and from their first meetings Vanessa addresses him as ‘Piano-man’.
But her pregnancies miscarry, and she’s pining – “But what are we going to do, Tom? No babies. No babies, piano man”.
So they adopt. On this subject, we usually hear either the sadness of the birth mother having to give away her baby, or the joy (and perhaps the problems) that the new infant brings to the adoptive parents. Mark Wilson links them in this narrative, as Vanessa goes to pick up Kathleen’s child, who she’s going to call Charlie. She’s been so happy, and now there’s a sudden spasm of panic, talking breathlessly to herself –
“Can feel it. There. Can almost touch it like a thread running and tugging between you both. Between you and that woman behind the door at the top of the stairs. As though at that very moment, at the very point of separation, its length and strength for the coming years were being tested”
“When? When do I begin to feel all right? When do I start to have permission?”
“Charlie’s mine, he’s mine now. Let go. Please, for Christ’s sake, let him go. Let him”
But ties of blood, and the need to know our roots, are very strong, and finally, after thirty years, Charlie the adopted child is about to make contact with Kathleen. Vanessa had forseen this day coming –
“I know – inevitable really – but I know that one day, when you’ll have taken me out somewhere perhaps – a day you’ll have built yourself up to, wondering where the words would come from – you’ll ask me how I’d feel about you maybe trying to trace her: your birth mother. That’s what they’re called: birth mother – how I’d feel. And, for my sake you’ll use the word ‘trace’, sensing that ‘search’ might sound too full of need; for my sake”
At the end, the actors quit the space and the lights came up, but the audience just sat there for a while, lost in our own thoughts and holding back tears, reluctant to leave.
Posted on www.fringereview.co.uk Brighton Fringe 2015
‘They fuck you up, your Mum and Dad,
They do not mean to, but they do’
Philip Larkin. ‘This Be The Verse’
I wondered why she was wearing what looked like a child’s sandals – tan, with little white socks. She’d walked on to the stage at The Rialto clutching a grey suitcase and wearing a long overcoat with a belt and a black fur collar, the material almost a houndstooth pattern but rather fussier – warm-looking. Dark brown hair tightly pulled back into a small braided bun at the back. And those rather incongruous sandals.
She’s Joseph Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana. I knew that she’d made a spectacular defection from Russia to the West in 1967, at the height of the Cold War, and that she’d written a book, ‘Twenty Letters to a Friend’, which denounced the Soviet system, and . . . that was about it. Probably the same amount as you.
I hadn’t known that she’d spent time in England, in Bristol – and yet here she was in a taxi from the airport, heading for Clifton. ‘Cliff – Tun’ she pronounced it to the cabbie. It’s a one-woman show, remember, so she does all the parts. Finally, she got out by the Suspension Bridge, and told us that Laika (her daughter?) sat for a moment on the pavement, smiling.
She’d organised herself a small flat, though it sounded more like a rather seedy bedsit – we had to imagine the room for ourselves as the only stage setting was a padded red chair and a small shelf unit. After the landlord left, and Laika threw herself on to the bed, she took off her overcoat. She was wearing a pale beige linen dress, very simple, knee-length with short sleeves and buttons down the front. It looked somehow … childlike, and together with the sandals it seemed odd on a grown woman.
The landlord had simply wanted the rent money, he wasn’t bothered about references, and Svetlana told us how it felt to have – “No name. No number. No previous address. It’s wonderful!”. A little earlier she had talked about – “remembering the dancing, and remembering that I’m not supposed to remember”.
Kirsty Cox must be in her thirties, though she’d looked older when we first saw her as Svetlana in her overcoat. Now, in the linen dress, she looked younger and curiously doll-like. Not small, obviously, but as though she was made out of some kind of ceramic. She held her body slightly awkwardly, fingers rather stiff and shoulders held back as she moved her arms to emphasise a point, and her mouth, as she formed her words with very definitive movements of her lips, seemed enormous. But it was her eyes which gripped us. Huge blue-grey eyes, unblinking as they ranged over the audience – boring into me as her gaze passed across me, and then on to my neighbour. Not creepy, but certainly unnerving.
“I remember that I’m not allowed to remember – that I should … remember something I’m allowed to remember. Something safe, because – well, because that must be allowed”
“Tomorrow I’ll make new memories”
It must be around 1990, because she hears about Boris Yeltsin, and the fall of Mikhail Gorbachev. But that would make her over sixty – so who on earth is Laika? A granddaughter? Svetlana’s calling herself Phyllis Richards now, keeping herself very much to herself, but allowing herself to develop a friendship with the local greengrocer, Vince. She’s dazzled by the colours and smells of the rich, ripe fruits in his shop, the peaches and mangos – though they seem to trigger flashbacks of traumatic events in her past.
Vince takes her to a local dance. He’s a working-class Bristol man with an easy wit – “I want to see that famous polka of yours”. Coincidence – Vince could have plucked the name of any dance out of the air, but he chose a polka, and that takes Svetlana way back to her childhood, and her father –
“… who towers over me in his grey tunic … and I know I am greatly embarrassing my father. The whole Party will think he can’t control his six-year-old daughter … if I don’t get up now, in my blue dress, and dance for Krushchev and all the other Bolsheviks, who are laughing, with big red noses and drool in their beards, shouting Svet-la-na! … Svet-la-na! … Svet-la-na! …”
The adult Svetlana’s clapping rhythmically as she recounts this. Huge eyes staring at us as her hands come together – Clap! – Clap! – Clap! – again and again. I said earlier that Kirsty Cox’s performance was unnerving, and this was the most unsettling bit of theatre I’ve seen in quite a while.
“… as I look up, and I plead with him to see my mother. His nostrils flare above his moustache and then my scalp is on fire as he drags me by the hair on to the dance floor, and I cry for my mother … who is never coming back”
They fuck you up, your Mum and Dad . . .
Her mother was dead. Svetlana had been told that she died of appendicitis, and it wasn’t until years later that she found an article in the London Illustrated News revealing that her mother had committed suicide. As the play progressed she told us of the terrible cost of being close to Joseph Stalin. Her brother Vasily – a pilot and head of the Moscow Air Force – driven to alcoholism. Her lover Alexei Kapler, a film maker her father disapproved of because he was much older than her and Jewish – sent to a labour camp. And all the other family members whose deaths Stalin arranged – Svetlana’s half-brother, her uncle Pavel, her aunt Anna, her daughter’s husband, her brother Vasily’s son and daughter.
No wonder she left Russia – left her children behind – she’s trying to escape from her past. But of course you never can – childhood casts a very long shadow. She’s tried to forget – to live anonymously in Bristol – as Phyllis Richards, then as Angela Buchner, then as Stephanie Hitchen. But she still gets flashbacks – three children trick-or-treating on Halloween turn into her own children, Josif, Yekaterina and Olga, in a nightmare hallucination. Strangely, though, as the years go by Laika doesn’t seem to age. Who on earth is she?
Towards the end of the play, Svetlana tells little Laika of the horrors of the Five Year Plans, and of the Collectivisation of Agriculture, that turned into such a disaster –
“special Plans which meant there wasn’t enough food to go round, and millions of animals and farmers died, and the farmers were sent to labour camps, and a year later, the Gulag was officially created.” She told Laika of the cannibalism that followed
the famine and starvation. She told her of the dreaded Beria too, the head of Stalin’s secret police.
The play’s writer David Lane has given us a kaleidoscopic image of Svetlana’s life -. enough fleeting references to make this reviewer, at least, chase up more detail of her fascinating story on Google and Wikipedia. Kirsty Cox brought the material to life in a very powerful performance. I’ve mentioned her appearance already, but it was her vocal range which was remarkable – warm and rich when she’s one of Svetlana’s Bristol acquaintances, rising in urgency and in tempo as she recounted some particularly dreadful image of life in Stalin’s ‘Mother Russia’.
And Laika? – “After my mother died, my father created a secret friend for me, a little girl in a plain beige dress. A model child, who did everything perfectly. How much my father teased me about her. He would draw pictures of her, on a horse, in a boat. Laika – my father’s gift to me”
Svetlana’s father killed millions, he drove her mother to suicide – but he created an imaginary friend so that his daughter wouldn’t be lonely. A kind of ‘daemon’ spirit companion that she’s never lost. Her father was a monster – “but we are nobody without him”
I wondered which one of them we had actually been watching, all along.
Posted on http://www.fringereview.co.uk Brighton Fringe 2015
I Am Not Antigone
I Am Not Antigone. What a strange title.
Weird. Either it’s some kind of take on Sophocles’ great play about Antigone,
the Theban princess wanting to do the right thing for her dead brother – or it’s not. And if it’s not about Antigone, then why does it have this title?, and what IS the show about?
In fact, there are two interwoven strands of running through the play, and it resonates with the echoes of European conflicts stretching back decades, if not centuries – all of which make it one of the most interesting and thought-provoking productions I’ve seen for a long time.
It was obvious from the moment we sat down in The Basement that this wasn’t going to be a traditional Greek Tragedy. The all-black performance area had three silver columns down the left hand side, right to the back wall, which was almost filled by a video projection screen. At the right of the area was a table, holding a laptop and a mobile phone. Abstract stars and flashes filled the screen, while a couple were dancing, facing the audience, to the heavy beat of disco music. Later on, the screen would carry photographs giving a scene’s location, or streams of digital data – long columns of green zeros and ones.
Vivien von Abendorff explained that she was going to play Antigone (a very modern Antigone with shoulder-length hair, wearing a short black leather dress with silver sleeves), and would also play her sister Ismene. She introduced her companion as her ‘assistant’, but said that he would also play Creon (her uncle, the king of Thebes) and Haemon (her fiancé). As Antigone, she gave us a thumbnail sketch of the situation, explaining that there had been a civil war between her brothers, the princes Eteocles and Polyneices, who had both been killed, and that now King Creon was about to bury Eteocles with full honours, while denying burial to Polyneices.
Kalki Aporos is slightly taller than von Abendorff, with long hair tied into a top-knot. He wore running shorts and a black vest, topped off with a black plastic breastplate. As Antigone talked he gave us an impression of the war, miming sword thrusts and parries, silhouetted in vivid red backlight.
Antigone’s fired up with indignation – Vivien von Abendorff compared her to Joan of Arc, to Emmeline Pankhurst, to Rosa Parks – sitting on that whites-only bus seat down in Alabama. “She is a personification of our struggle for what’s right and true”.
What’s ‘right’ is that her brother Polyneices should be given due honour, so she intends to make a protest at next day’s funeral for Eteocles. Her sister Ismene won’t help – there’s a wonderful iPhone conversation with her as the big screen shows us a grossly distorted image of Ismene on her phone – it’s actually von Abendorff playing the other woman, of course. Ismene just wants a quiet life – “He‘s dead. The war is over. He’s gone. It’s pointless being angry, now is the time to show the other side, the soft side”. All she’s concerned about is – “What are you going to wear?”.
Her fiancé Haemon won’t help either, so Antigone prepares her action alone. She changes into black leather trousers, leaving her top bare, and paints a solid black circle on each of her breasts. A paradox – she’s simultaneously hiding her breasts and covering the nipples, while drawing the eye irresistibly to them. Across her belly she prints FUCK CREON in large black letters (no easy task working upside down in half light – Aporos would make a good graffiti artist . . ). It’s going to look amazing in front of the TV cameras at Eteocles’ funeral.
Creon, of course, is horrified. By now Kalki Aporos had changed into a black suit, with a white shirt and red tie, and tied his hair back into a pony-tail to become the King. The last thing he wants is public protest, and warns Antigone that any dissent – even from a member of his own family – will result in imprisonment, with all the brutality and possible rape that that will entail.
In Sophocles’ original, Antigone stands for a moral position – doing what is right for her dead brother – while Creon stands for the maintenance of order and stability within the State. Antigone’s position is that ‘the laws of the Gods are more important than the laws of mere kings’ – and she dies for this belief.
Aporos and von Abendorff are both very accomplished actors – well able to produce the angry outbursts of indignation and emotion that the play demands. In this production, a modern-day Creon starts by dismissing his niece as a hysterical teenager. “You’re only nineteen – grow up a bit. Why do you have to protest? Why do young people always have to protest?”. She keeps screaming at him – “Bury my brother! … Bury both my brothers!” – until finally he loses patience and decides to tell her the truth.
The truth – that in politics there are a lot of ‘grey’ areas. That life isn’t as simple as it looks on the surface. “Your brothers were both the same – they’re both guilty. Equal” Antigone went very quiet as he continued – “You know they raped women. They killed children, women, the elderly. They shot innocent men, they fired rockets, grenades, they mined and bombed in every city. But worst – BOTH your brothers turned ordinary men into killers”.
Creon tells her that they couldn’t find the body of either of her brothers. That Eteocles’ coffin they will bury next day will in fact be empty. “One will be given the status of a hero, a winner – and the other will be a loser. That’s to show our country that war doesn’t pay. The world needs someone to blame”. Polyneices is being made into a scapegoat, to carry away the sins of the whole country.
Maybe Ismene was right all along.
Creon is creating a myth, for the stability of his country – like the reconciliation processes that have gone on in South Africa and Northern Ireland and (to an extent) in Spain after civil wars. I was struck that this production is done in conjunction with a Serbian company – the National Theatre Sterija, from Vršac, north-east of Belgrade.
A play about civil war, with the killing of innocents and the raping of women, carries terrible echoes of the 1990s wars following the break-up of Yugoslavia – when Serbs, Croats and Bosnians embarked on an orgy of bloodshed and ‘ethnic cleansing’ as they tried to redefine the borders and religious make-up of their countries.
These things have a long and complicated history. Remember that a century ago it was a Serb, Gavrilo Princip, (trying to free his country from Austro-Hungarian domination) who assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo, setting in motion the First World War.
Perhaps Ismene WAS right. Early on, the witty script has Antigone refer to a much older religion – “Thank Zeus, the war is over now. How it started, why they fought – everyone has a different opinion . . .”
Perhaps Creon was right, too. Stability is the best condition for any State. But if we have corrupt or brutal rulers, how do we set about replacing them? Running through the play was a critique of Facebook culture, with its ‘Likes’ and ‘Shares’. This sat a little uneasily with the main ‘Antigone’ theme of the piece, but it was fascinating in itself and made full use of the video screen and iPhones.
Vivien von Abendorff referred to the ‘Arab Spring’ in the Middle East, and how it has been called ‘The Facebook Revolution’. “But did it change anything?, for the better or for the worse, or do I just need to be more patient?”. Thousands and thousands of people connected through Facebook and Twitter, but the result (so far) in Egypt has been the replacement of one Dictator by another Dictator, and in Libya by the replacement of a brutal Dictator by brutal Anarchy.
Facebook gives us the illusion of being connected – of being politically engaged –
“I did what I could. I liked the page. I shared the post. I’ve done that – Fuck it!”.
But it’s addictive. Von Abendorff told us that Internet activities – clicking, sharing, updating, seeing a response to a post – all release dopamine, a reward hormone, giving us the illusion that we’re powerful, in control, changing the world.
But we never actually leave our room.
Two and a half thousand years ago, Sophocles wrote ‘Antigone’ as a clear and simple choice between the greater – State – good, and the individual – Moral – good. ‘I Am Not Antigone’ brings the play up to date, showing us how the ‘grey areas’ of life are more complicated than we imagined – and how difficult it is to take a stand.
A powerful play, with a thoughtful message. A play that asked questions and offered no simplistic answers. A play looking out towards Eastern Europe, and back through the decades, put on with Serbian collaboration. It well deserved the thunderous applause it received at the end. It reminded me of what a festival like Brighton Fringe is FOR.
Posted on www.fringereview.co.uk Brighton Fringe 2015
Black and red, those are the colours of M.A.I.R.O.U.L.A.
Black, and red. The colours of anarchy, the colours of nihilism, the colours of paintings of Hell.
The stage at The Basement is all black – black walls and a black floor, and as we came in there was a sofa in the centre of the space. An IKEA kind of sofa, in deep red fabric. To the right of the sofa there were two large pieces of luggage – one black, one red – and to the left there was a handbag – black.
Greek pop music was playing as a woman came onto the stage. Aliki Chapple must be in her forties, with brown hair pulled into a bun behind and wearing a red dress over black leggings. And black pumps, naturally. As the music faded she opened one of the cases and put a white sheet over the sofa, smoothing it down to regain its original shape.
Next, she took a roll of white tape from one of the bags, and knelt as she taped a rectangular outline around the sides of the stage, enclosing the sofa and the luggage.
This may sound dull, but close up in the compact space at The Basement it was gripping, as each small movement seemed magnified, and we tried to analyse its significance. As she worked, the woman looked up at us –
“I’m not really myself – not for a while now”
“I’m depressed, in a way – but not the way most people are depressed”
“No pills and stuff, and doctors – No, I’ve got my own kind of depression”
She continued talking as she put small pieces of tape near the corners of the rectangle, and then took a doormat out of one of the cases and placed it near one corner of the rectangle. What did it all mean? What was going on? She put another piece of tape on the other side of the mat, then peeled back the tape between them and rearranged it to look like a doorway on an architect’s plan.
A sudden realisation – She’s building herself a room, constructing it as an apartment blueprint. There’s a door, and the little bits of tape must be the edges of the room’s windows.
She put a rug in front of the sofa, and then she took a small folding table out of the case and set it up next to the sofa, with water, and a few magazines, and a small statue of an owl. While she was doing all this, she told us that she was waiting for Stavros to come and fuck her.
She’s waiting to be fucked, but she’s not particularly excited – it seems that it’ll be a pretty indifferent fuck. She and Stavros have been doing this for about a year, and she finds it dull and predictable, like eating a bland watermelon – it’s not exciting but it’s refreshing enough. She calls it the ‘It’s better than nothing’ approach.
“I’ve got my own kind of depression” she’d said. Damn right she’s depressed – she seems obsessed with the mediocrity of life, and she talked and talked and talked, free-associating from one topic to the next with no obvious overall direction, as all her inner dissatisfactions came spilling out. “In Greece we wish people Xronia Pola – Many Years. Surely we should wish Good Years”. Quality rather than quantity.
She takes a stack of books from her luggage, but only to disparage them – “What is the point of books? Euripides, Sophocles. Great ideas, lofty sentiments – but finally just a lot of useless knowledge”. She seems to feel that they offer no help in – “This whole project of being born, and dying, alone”
She’s sick of blandness – of society’s conventional wishes for good health, for happiness, for many children, for friendship and a home full of beautiful things.
All the sunny images that we comfort ourselves with, but she knows that eventually she’s going to die. “My mother’s got cancer. Sixty-five. It’s natural, she’s getting old”. At one point she told us – “I’m going to die. All my rebellion is so that people will say – That girl was really radical”. She made me think of Dylan Thomas’ plea to his dying father –
Do not go gentle into that good night
Rage, rage, against the dying of the light
She references Cavafy, too. His great poem ‘Ithaka’ starts –
As you set out for Ithaka
hope your road is a long one
full of adventure, full of discovery.
This woman’s response is – “Balls to the journey to Ithaka. I get seasick on ferry boats”. Not just seasick, either. She’s nauseated by the cornucopia of drinks, the multitudinous types of coffee, and breads and paninis and snacks and meals – all the consumption that’s on offer when we travel.
She’s fed up, and for fed-upness you take pills. Some to make you happy, to forget the fed-upness. There’s therapy, of course – “How many Euros do I have to give you before I’m happy to be alive?”. Better to stick with pills – and there’s a special pill to give you release from all the pointlessness. To kill you. She takes this, and she dies, there on the rug in front of us.
I’d thought that was the end, but the lighting changed, focussing in on just the centre of the stage, and we saw her ‘on the other side’, as it were.
She wasn’t having a very good time in Heaven – Saint Peter at the gate was horrible, stunted and ugly and very violent to her – “Aren’t you ashamed of yourself? Have you no shame at all? Suicide – when there are people struggling so hard to survive, when there are people whose children DIE and still they carry on”. Eventually she realised it wasn’t Heaven at all.
She was in Hell.
In Hell, with the twanging bouzouki music of a singer she doesn’t particularly like ringing in her ears – and it’s going to be like that … for eternity.
I’d thought all through the play that the woman’s angst was pretty existential, and this place is of course the Hell of Sartre’s ‘No Exit’. The whole piece can be read as a take on Sartre’s classic – for him it was people who were intolerable, for Lena Kitsopolou, the play’s author, it’s a consumerist society obsessed with quantity over quality. Counting the quantity of belongings, happiness, sex, health, economic growth, without any underlying philosophy of what it’s all FOR. A society without a direction. Kitsopolou is Greek, but the lack of values that she’s talking about affect all Western societies.
Actually, I think that the woman is in Hell throughout the play, right from the beginning. She had built the apartment room for us, created it with tape and furnishings out of a black void, in order to show us the pointlessness and hopelessness of that existence. Maybe she will carry on doing that … for eternity.
A very powerful piece, masterfully acted by Aliki Chapple in a stunning performance. An hour-long monologue of existential angst and revulsion that was gripping from start to finish. The Greek Gods might well have been watching, too – at the finish of the performance I attended, I was musing over the parallels with ‘No Exit’ when we were told that they were moving something through the theatre foyer, so we couldn’t leave for a few minutes.
No Exit, indeed.
Posted on www.fringereview.co.uk Brighton Fringe 2015
Edith, Elizabeth and I
How much do you know about Edith Sitwell?
I mean really know. We all know that there was Edith and her two brothers, Osbert and Sacheverell, and that they were rather aristocratic, and very well connected socially, and extremely avant-garde and knew Virginia Woolf and T S Eliot and the Bloomsbury set in the Nineteen Tens, Twenties and Thirties. But do you know very much more than that?
I certainly didn’t. I knew that Edith Sitwell was some sort of writer, but my only real impression of her came from the paintings and photographs done by her Bloomsbury contemporaries – that narrow face with the striking profile and the flowing clothes and turbans and the huge rings on her long, elegant hands. But I love Woolf and Eliot, and I’m enough of a literary groupie to want to see a play ‘ inspired by the life and works of Edith Sitwell ‘
The stage at The Marlborough Theatre is all black, and there were three tall, narrow shelf units flanking it, stacked high with books. A couple of black and white striped hat boxes at the front corner, and a huge profile portrait of Edith Sitwell, spotlit on the back wall. Apart from the portrait, there was no colour at all, just monochrome black and white, and then Jules Craig came on and stood in profile in front of the portrait – and the resemblance was remarkable – Edith Sitwell doubled, as if the picture had suddenly acquired another dimension.
Jules Craig started off as Edith, inviting us to tea (well, champagne, actually) at her literary salon, in a wonderfully upper-class voice – slowly enunciated patrician tones. Then she stepped downstage and introduced herself as Juliet. As Juliet she spoke much faster, slightly breathless and with a trace of a more northerly accent. Dressed all in black, ankle-length skirt, and a black hair band around her beautiful red hair – hair the colour of expensive marmalade.
Juliet explained that she (like me) had originally known almost nothing about Edith, but that her mother had pointed out the resemblance – both very tall, with a remarkable profile of high forehead and prominent, beaked nose. But they’re both proud of their appearance. As Edith said – “If one is a greyhound, why try to look like a pekinese?”
Edith could be very funny, but so is Juliet. The first time the actress saw a photo of Sitwell she knew – “I was the one who should play her – not bloody Nicole Kidman with a prosthetic nose and five-and-a-half-inch leg extensions!”. I should explain at this point that Jules Craig can be very funny indeed, and that the whole show was constantly punctuated by gales of laughter from the packed audience.
Juliet had read Sitwell’s books, and heard recordings of her reading her poetry in that stilted way that they did on the BBC in the Twenties. She wanted discover the real Edith Sitwell, and to tell us her story, and Edith herself sort of … appeared, on stage alongside Juliet, with Jules Craig morphing between the two identities.
Edith holds herself at full height, hands folded together under her bosom, and peers down at Juliet with lofty hauteur – “I am a Dame Commander of The British Empire, and therefore should be addressed as Dame Edith”. Juliet is ever so slightly stooped, arms generally apart to emphasise some point, making her shorter than Edith so she has to look up at her.
Jules Craig kept switching identities as the conversation proceeded, looking first in one direction, and then changing direction, body attitude and voice to become the other woman. It was done so well, and so seamlessly, that we could not help but see two women on the stage. In a kind of ‘persistence of vision’ (as when individual film frames flow together to give the illusion of movement) I could still see Edith standing there when it was Juliet who was gazing up at her, asking a question. Remarkable.
And Juliet’s questions, of course, brought out the facts of Edith’s life – her unhappy childhood, her early quitting of the family home to share a small flat with her ex-governess, her poetry, her literary associates, her own books – even her relationship with the Russian painter Pavel Tchelitchew – which Edith described as “Complicated!”
We were told about her ‘Façade’ performance, where she read her poems through a megaphone, while hidden behind a curtain. Poems set to musical themes by composer William Walton – “Willie gave me certain rhythms …” Juliet is a bit slow in keeping up with Edith’s exposition of Assonance and Dissonance (as was I)and is admonished by Edith (those patrician tones again) – “I am patient with stupidity, but not with those who are proud of it”. She questions Juliet’s competence, and when the actress replies that she has a degree – “and a shorthand certificate somewhere”, Edith’s icy response is – “Then take notes”.
Wonderful. Juliet finally wins her over by praising her poetry – “Please, do call me Edith”, and they get on to the subject of the treatment of women in society. Edith’s parents – “didn’t believe in educating gels” and it was only her brothers who went to Eton (Osbert) and Oxford (Sachie). Juliet is outraged – “Don’t even get me started on paternalism, like bloody Henry the Eighth only wanting male children!” Edith had written two books about Elizabeth I, so the Virgin Queen is close to both their minds, and suddenly she appears – it seems they’ve summoned her onto the Marlborough stage, too.
So now there were THREE women on stage, a stage dominated by the monarch. “I am Elizabeth Tudor. Gloriana”. Jules Craig gave us a wonderful demonstration of the feudal system, playing Elizabeth with a bellowing voice and hands mannishly placed on hips, while the suddenly diminished Edith Sitwell bends in subservience and addresses her submissively. Switching through three separate identities with quickfire repartee, but keeping each perfectly distinct, was something I would not have believed possible had I not seen it there in front of me.
Juliet wants to ask her about Dudley (Earl of Leicester) but Edith is horrified by the impertinence. The Queen booms on about lovers, and not having lovers, and everyone around her constantly questioning whether, and where, she had lovers.
Finally they get rid of her, as the Queen is too boorish to be decent company. But they are struck that Elizabeth had used her legendary virginity as a defence – both political and emotional – in Tudor England. Juliet has been constantly probing into Edith’s emotional life – “People said you were a sex-starved spinster who needed someone to take her to bed”. Are the books, the flamboyant appearance and the eccentric lifestyle just an elaborate defence to keep Edith’s inner life secret?. Now Edith turns the tables, asking the actress –
“So are you married, children?”
“I wanted children” – a long pause – “This isn’t about me”
“Isn’t it?” responds Edith.
Juliet’s voice goes very soft as she lays out her life as a middle-aged single woman, with no children and an unpredictable career path – “trying to work out what I’m going to do for the next twenty years” . . . “No more questions”
Three spinsters in this story – Edith, Elizabeth … and Juliet. It struck me that Juliet was trying to make sense of Edith’s life in order to make some sort of sense of her own. I couldn’t help wondering where Jules Craig herself fitted into all this.
Juliet had originally come to know Edith through her poetry, and near the end she asked her to recite from ‘An Old Woman – Harvest’. (I didn’t know it before – thanks, Google – and thanks, Jules). There had been three childless spinsters on stage, and I was very close to tears as Edith spoke the lines –
“And I who stood in the grave-clothes of my flesh
Unutterably spotted with the world’s woes
Cry, “I am Fire. See, I am the bright gold
That shines like a flaming fire in the night – the gold-trained planet
The laughing heat of the Sun that was born from darkness
Returning to darkness – I am fecundity, harvest.”
Posted on www.fringereview.co.uk Brighton Fringe 2015
The Daily Tribunal
The Daily Tribunal is full of crap.
Crap crap crap crap crap crap crap crap crap crap crap crap crap crap crap crap
filling the stage at The Dukebox – all the crap, all the lies about homeless people, that we’re given every day in the newspapers.
The Daily Tribunal is a play about homelessness. But as the programme states –
‘Fair warning from the go; this piece is devised and just like those who devised it, sometimes it just doesn’t try to be understood’
They’re not kidding. This is a nightmare trip into the world of the homeless – a kaleidoscope of impressions that manages to bring us face to face with the people we normally manage to avoid eye contact with. It’s also about society’s response, and the constant demonisation of homeless people in the press.
I’d seen Alexander John and Samuel Nunes de Souza doing three Pinter plays at last year’s Fringe, so I already knew them to be powerful actors. Here they are two homeless men, sitting on boxes on the small stage at the Dukebox surrounded by bin-liners full of their scanty possessions, wearing a hoodie and a woollen cap above their rough clothing, and fingerless woollen gloves to give them some protection against the cold. Nunes de Souza is playing on a ukulele – badly. A bit later they’re drinking booze out of cans wrapped in newspaper, but as they say – “It doesn’t really keep you warm, it just numbs you”.
They’re outraged to read an article in a local paper about a ‘sham’ homeless man, allegedly making £ 300 a week begging on the street, and then ‘going back to his home in his own car’. Some typical editorial comment followed – ‘Not an uncommon occurrence, symptomatic of an illusion of hardship for the homeless’.
They decide to send in a counter article, telling of events from their own lives, and subsequently they are asked to write regularly for the paper. One of the events they relate took place in an Indian restaurant – the underlying distrust between homeless people and the police led to a misunderstanding, followed by an argument, followed by violence and an arrest. John and Nunes de Souza each related the story from their own perspective, and we could see that there had been a clash of two completely different views of society. At the end of it we heard the policeman (Nunes de Souza) – “I didn’t get my naan bread” and the arrested homeless man (John) – “I didn’t get my phone call”. (to a soliciter, presumably – although Legal Aid has been cut, too)
As well as personal stories, they send in obituaries, and Alexander John read them out in a formal voice, with the lights down and the two men holding torches to illuminate just their faces in the darkness.
“Owen ‘Clay’ Clayton. Age 54. Former teacher, political activist and artist. From Liverpool. Moved to London in the late 90’s for career prospects. Fan of jazz music, oil painting and the films of Alfred Hitchcock. Died of pneumonia, in Shoreditch, on Thursday night”
There were others, too. Entire lives sketched out; vivid, interesting lives cut tragically short. Not exactly as the editorial had stated – ‘symptomatic of an illusion of hardship for the homeless’ . . .
But the mainstream newspapers aren’t interested in all that. They want to feed us celebrity scandal. Samuel Nunes de Souza gave up his West Indian accent and switched to middle-class RP as he told us about little Hayley Rivers – child star and TV sensation. “Five years ago, when Hayley was only eleven, she had her first hit single. Money, fame followed – not bad going for a juvenile delinquent with a family history of mental illness and substance abuse” And of course, we like our celebrities flawed – “Three years ago, she refused to go on stage because of a broken hair dryer, and 70,000 fans lost out” Finally Nunes de Souza handed us envelopes – “Photographs of Hayley. Here she is naked, here she is crying, here she is naked and crying” . . .
Red lighting on Nunes de Souza for this section – for the sort of story that fills the Red Top newspapers and magazines. And all the while, the two men kept bringing on armfuls of crumpled, torn newspapers, where they looked for responses to their own stories and were outraged by the banalities and lies that they found there. The stage was becoming deeper and deeper in crumpled paper – full of crap. They’re sleeping rough, and they are conscious of a bad smell, but I began to realise that it wasn’t just bodily odour but all the crap in the newspapers that surrounded them.
The focus kept changing. At one point they were a pair of worthy politicians, setting out a programme to deal with the problem of homelessness. “Your Country needs you. There is a problem in our society – on our streets. Poor, innocent, homeless people, living in squalor, without warmth, without food, without shelter”.
Fine so far – but then their programme began to get more right-wing as they wanted ‘the Majority – homeowners’ to be ‘for the Minority’. This soon morphed into ‘the Majority IN CONTROL OF the Minority’ and an insistence that – “Living in squalor is Wrong. Living on the street is Wrong. Living anywhere but in your own home is Wrong”. And so finally – “All homelessness is Wrong. Giving them money is Wrong. Taking away their blankets and cardboard boxes and shelters will FORCE them to find other ways of keeping warm – like getting houses” . . .
This was satire worthy of Jonathan Swift. In fact Swift was on my mind a lot in this production. The passage above reminded me irresistibly of ‘A Modest Proposal’, where he suggested that the Irish could solve their problems of famine by eating their own children. The amount of crap in the newspapers, too, brought to mind the foul shit-throwing Yahoos from ‘Gulliver’s Travels’.
They managed more of the same with their proposals to restrict the vote to older people. “Voting age of 18? How many responsible 18-year-olds do you know?
When I was 18 I was goin’ out, gettin’ drunk, startin’ fights. And at 21, I was still goin’ out, but I’d by then I’d found some proper drugs. And disabled people only want to vote for more disabled stickers and stuff”. So here’s their programme – a touch of Orwell in this one
VOTE YES TO LESS VOTES
Kaleidoscopic. The two kept jumping back and forth into different roles. At one point they got out their tins and worked their way along the Dukebox seating, begging from the audience members. (No, I didn’t . . .)
As with Rooster‘s production of ‘See no evil, Hear no evil, Speak no evil’, which you can find reviewed on FringeReview at ‘Brighton Fringe 2014‘, Laura Duffy’s set design made great use of a compact performance space. Her direction, along with co-director Sofia Nakou, kept the piece mobile and our attention engaged throughout. As a devised piece, though, I imagine that the two actors themselves had a lot of input on their movements and emotional range. Their frequent direct engagement with the audience gave it a feeling somewhere between stand-up comedy and Brecht.
At the end the two men are sitting on boxes, calf deep by then in the accumulated crap that is all the shredded and crumpled-up newspapers – full of shitty lies – and they are sipping coffee in gas masks. Sleeping rough, they’ve been complaining about the smells, but now they simply ignoring the smell by wearing masks.
But in this bit they’re wearing clean white shirts, and Nunes de Souza is wearing a tie, so they must be US. It’s us, getting on with our elegant lives while we ignore all the poisonous crap about homeless people and immigrants that floods over us every day.
Gas masks and coffee – a surreally powerful image that will stay with me for months.
Posted on www.fringereview.co.uk Brighton Fringe 2015
Small World & Charm el Sheikh
By the time we’re half-way through a play, we can usually get a good feel of what the story is about – the ‘arc of the narrative’ if you prefer. ‘Small World’ and ‘Charm el Sheikh’ are a couple of short plays put on by Jump Through Hoops Theatre, and the two attributes shared by both were sparkling dialogue – and the fact that nothing was as it seemed at the beginning.
The acting space at The Lantern is quite small and intimate, we’re very close to the actors, and ‘Small World’ started with two high wine-bar tables and seats, which gave us the play’s location, and a lower seat in the back corner occupied by a dark haired man reading a newspaper.
Pippa and Grace came in with their glasses of wine, and sat at one of the tables. They’re in their thirties, and they start girl talk about sex and relationships (what else?) Pippa is blonde, with a brownish peacock-feather pattern dress that gives her a rather young, innocent appearance, and Helen Pepper-Smith plays her with a slightly high voice – easily shocked. Grace is in black, with long black hair and a mischievous smile. Jane Elizabeth Callan plays her as a knowing and sexually active woman – she can “meet a man and be in bed with him an hour later having sex”. This is in grave contrast to the prim Pippa, who thinks that a boyfriend should wait six months before any physical intimacy – “They should know the difference between No and Not Yet”.
There’s a good deal of sexual banter between the women, some very funny lines, with the two of them all the time completely oblivious of the man sitting behind them. I kept waiting for him to react in some way, and a lot of the power of Matthew Lloyd Davies’ direction of the play was the way he kept the man absolutely still, just occasionally raising his eyes at some particularly outrageous remark. I ended up listening to Pippa and Grace, but watching the man for his reaction. . .
After a while their friend Frances arrived, closely followed by Gary. These two defined themselves for us by launching into a heated political discussion. Frances is a tax consultant, and Sally Davis made her into a spiky Conservative – “If people are poor, it’s because they piss their money up against a wall!” as she argues with Nick Moon’s liberal, Guardian-reading Gary – “Your banker friends screwed up, but it’s Joe Public who pays”.
So now we had four people in the wine bar, plus of course the man in the corner. four clearly defined characters, but four stereotypes really, and I foresaw some fairly predictable action ahead.
But Pippa had been to the bar to get drinks, and as she returned Gary recognised her, with a shock – “Hello, Wendy”. Turns out that the two had met on an Internet dating site, with Pippa going under the pseudonym of Wendy, and that neither the virginal Pippa nor the liberal do-good Gary were quite what they had seemed. In spades . . .
I won’t spoil it for you by giving away the ending, because the upheaval of everything we thought we understood about this group is a real tour-de-force. Very clever writing by Ray Anthony kept the audience laughing, but completely wrong-footed, until the final minutes of gasp-inducing revelations. The dialogue was pretty full-on throughout – we had vibrators, condoms and tampons, and at one point there was discussion of a sex act in a ladies’ loo.
That might be why a family group left hurriedly at half-time. Or it might have been because Helen Pepper-Smith appeared to strip down to just her knickers in the blue backlighting between the two plays. In fact, she was taking off her dress to reveal a swimsuit, which she proceeded to cover with a wrap for the poolside scene in the following play.
We were misled in ‘Charm el Sheikh’, too. Here Pepper-Smith became the rather sophisticated Gina, taking a much-needed break at an Egyptian resort. Gina was looking for peace and quiet by the hotel pool, but instead she got Cher, everyone’s holiday nightmare.
Jane Elizabeth Callan played Cher in this one. She’s also the writer of ‘Charm el Sheikh’ (what a talented woman) and she gave us a Cher who is shallow, completely unsophisticated, gross in her bodily habits – she gives Gina a detailed description of her intestinal problems resulting from the Egyptian food, while she’s sitting shaving the calluses off her foot – AND SHE NEVER STOPS TALKING.
Gina tried to remain aloof, but inevitably she got enmeshed in Cher’s unending catalogue of woes and problems. Her only respite was drink – the powerful cocktails served by Tony the hotel barman. Alexi Parkin (who had played the silent man in ‘Small World’) is tall, with slicked-back dark hair and he played Tony with a heavy accent and a brooding sexuality.
Cher’s hotel room is broken into and her money stolen, so she ends up sharing Gina’s hotel room, and Gina herself obviously has some kind of trouble back home – she gets a series of disturbing phone messages and threatening texts on her mobile. She can probably manage to deal with the problem – she seems like quite a tough cookie – but Cher, of course, is fearful for Gina’s safety AND GOES ON AND ON TRYING TO BE HELPFUL.
As with ‘Small World’, we were not expecting the complete turn-around that was waiting at the end of this play. None of the three characters turned out as we had assumed that they would. All the assumptions I had made turned out to be wrong and at the end there was a genuine sense of the ground being cut away from beneath us.
Both plays were cleverly constructed and well acted – my only criticism would be that the actors were a bit too fast, and also sometimes too quiet, in their delivery. When you’re familiar with the material it’s easy to forget that the audience won’t have heard the lines before – and they have to process what they are hearing in real time.
I haven’t given away the surprise endings of either of these plays, so that you can experience the same sense of surprise that I got when I saw them. I talked with some audience members afterwards and we agreed – you won’t be disappointed.
Posted on www.fringereview.co.uk Brighton Fringe 2015
How Will I Know?
We always go to the theatre in the hope of finding a little gem amongst the great piles of dross. Yesterday at The Warren I discovered two at the same time.
The Theatre Box is a tiny theatre, seemingly constructed out of four small steel shipping containers, creating an intimate space not more than six metres wide and maybe twice as long. There’s an acting area and little wings taking up the full width at the front, and they’ve managed to fit in an inclined rake of seating that can accommodate an audience of seventy. It’s painted red on the outside, and you would almost mistake it for a slightly larger version of the traditional red phone box – but inside it feels like a full-size theatre. Dr. Who meets Gulliver’s Travels . . .
And inside that, another gem. ‘How Will I Know?’ is a play about immigration into the US, along the lines of the film ‘Green Card’. This one is done as a farce, though, and the writer German Munoz has managed to pack in all the classic elements – a convoluted plot, sexual deceit, hysteria, slapstick – with fully realised characters and crackling dialogue. The pace never slackens, and at just forty minutes long it doesn’t overstay its welcome by dragging out the situation. At the end, we were left still wanting more.
Mark wants to keep his Mexican boyfriend Diego in the United States – Diego is in the country illegally, so Mark’s best friend Brooke has agreed to marry him, and now after the marriage the couple must be investigated by the Immigration Service to allow Diego to get his Green Card residency permit. (Isn’t that the thing lots of women would do for their Gay Best Friend? . . .)
It’s the night before the Immigration hearing, and the three are role-playing the questions that will be put to Diego and Brooke to check that their marriage isn’t a sham – where and when did they originally meet?, for example.
Mark is incredibly stressed, as Diego can’t remember basic stuff like dates and days. Neil Allen is tall and thin, and he plays Mark as a metrosexual, with hair very short at the sides and slightly floppy on top, and a beautiful maroon sweater. He’s always fussing – messing with a video camera he’s using to record the role-play, and shuffling his test cards back and forth as he barks out the questions that the other two will be faced with.
Added to all that, it’s almost midnight – they’re all hungry and waiting for pizza to be delivered, and as it’s Halloween the doorbell of Mark’s apartment keeps ringing. Will it be food or ‘Trick-or-Treat’ kids demanding sweets? Mark’s voice rises to a shrill squeak as the interruptions keep destroying his concentration.
Diego is much calmer. He’s heavier than Mark, with dark hair and a full black beard. Niccolò Curradi gives him a gravitas that Mark lacks, but also a boyish playfulness. When Mark berates him for not taking the situation seriously enough, he smiles engagingly as he hugs his boyfriend – “But I’m sexy, though”.
Trouble is – Diego is rather too sexy. We learn that after the marriage ceremony, Diego and Brooke actually slept together and had sex, and now Diego has a passion for Brooke, and wants to leave Mark for her, once he has obtained his Green Card.
This is a classic farce scenario. Brooke (beautifully brought to life by Anna Frankl-Duval), is horrified by Diego’s treachery, but she’s also attracted to him – he’s sexy – and so the couple keep leaping on each other as soon as Mark is out of the room. Mark, in his turn, has been trying to encourage the other two to simulate some sexual attraction to display to the Immigration official next day, so he assumes that what he sees on his return is not a passionate embrace, but some realistic acting.
Diego really is duplicitous – as the action proceeds he professes love to both Mark and Brooke in turn, threatening to betray each one to the other if they don’t do what he wants. The action is fast-paced, or maybe I should say ‘farce-paced’, with shifts and twists of allegiance, and loads of slapstick crashing around with food (when the pizza finally arrives) and condoms (don’t ask!). All choregraphed very competently by director Kanika Clayton.
It’s farce – funny, fast and sexy – but with a deeply serious underlying truth. Diego may behave appallingly, but he’s doing so because he’s desperate to find security in the United States. Like most immigrants, he’ll try almost anything to escape from the poverty of his home country. He’s prepared to offer sex (gay or straight) to gain security – other Third World people risk their lives in leaking boats or hanging under railway wagons to enter a country where they hope their prospects will be better.
This is an important message, but writer German Munoz has written something very subtle as well as very funny. His characters are very three-dimensional – Mark and Brooke are well-off white North Americans, presumably well-educated, and yet they appear mixed-up and insecure in relation to Diego, who’s poor, but who’s focussed, and a man who knows exactly what his goals are. He’s the archetypical Southerner – dark, sexually potent, powerful, uncontrollable . . .
Finally, I believed in them all as people, I cared about them, which is probably the most important result a show can produce. I wasn’t the only one, either – a number of audience members made the same sort of comments afterwards.
All in all, a very entertaining and thought-provoking show, and a great christening for The Theatre Box at The Warren.
Posted on http://www.fringereview.co.uk Brighton Fringe 2015
“No, No!” said the Queen. “Sentence first – verdict afterwards”
That ‘Alice in Wonderland’ sense of discontinuity ran all the way through ‘Lippy’, starting from the moment the lights went down and the audience quietened. We’d watched a tall man set out chairs in front of a screen which stretched across most of the stage, and check sound levels with an engineer at the side. Finally he picked up a microphone and began.
“Hello. Thanks for staying behind. You don’t usually get this many people for a post-show talk”
What? . . . There was some nervous laughter as we started to realise that this might not be quite as straightforward as we’d assumed. Bush Moukarzel (for it was he) explained that he’d been brought in to host the Q&A session with two of the show’s actors – David Heap, who now walked on to the stage, and Allin Kempthorne (of whom more later).
David Heap is a rather lean man with a sharp-featured face, and he talked about acting, both in principal roles but also as an extra. There were faint echoes of Alan Partridge as Moukarzel – his facial expression set to ‘profound’ – steered the conversation towards the subject of lip reading. It turns out that Heap is an accomplished lip-reader. The screen now showed videos of people talking – their lips moving – but of course one mouth shape can frame a number of different sounds and Heap produced some very funny examples of new dialogue being run over existing film. Literally putting words into people’s mouths.
Confusing. … The show I’d come to see was supposed to be about four Irish women who had killed themselves, so I’d assumed that ‘Lippy’ referred to their lipstick. This show was something else entirely, as Heap, ears blocked with an iPod headset, tried to lip-read Moukarzel from across the stage. With varying degrees of fidelity – Moukarzel‘s “I haven’t really prepared anything” became “I had a dream about a thing”, and later, his “become an old man” was read as “I know about her arse”
Quite a good show in fact – although not what I’d expected, it was funny and ironic. Heap mentioned that he occasionally worked with the Gardai, the Irish Police, trying to recover dialogue from CCTV images. He gave as an example … the four Irish women who’d killed themselves. “These women had made an incredible decision, and if you read their lips you are being asked to provide an interpretation, a meaning”.
So what on earth was going on? What was this show actually about? I’m sure I wasn’t the only one confused, as the lights dimmed and the chairs were taken off. David Heap stood at one side of the stage, and told us how the women’s bodies were found, how they’d sealed themselves inside their house, which had to be broken into to gain access. How they had starved themselves to death, and shredded all their personal documents into bin-bags in an attempt to erase every trace of their existence.
I’ve led you into this review fairly slowly, because what happened next was one of those moments of revelation mixed with disbelief that you can go to the theatre for years and not experience. Dim blue light came up behind the screen – it was actually a gauze so we could see through it – and the women were standing there in the room behind.
They were in dark hoodies, facing the audience, with black bin bags strewn around, and each woman had a bulging bin bag floating above her on a string. One by one they cut the strings – releasing their souls? – and walked silently out of the door at the rear.
As the gauze lifted and we could see into the room directly, we were going to be given their story – or, rather, the Gardai’s interpretation of it. For who can really look that clearly into other people’s motivations?, and anyway we’d already seen that David Heap wasn’t the most reliable lip-reader.
Discontinuity. The action jumped back and forth in time, as police forensic investigators, in white coveralls and blue latex gloves, sifted through the room’s contents, fishing out crockery and cutlery from the bin bags and gradually returning the room to normality. Then they took off the protective clothing, and it was the women themselves standing in the room. Three sisters in their thirties, in skirts and thin cardigans, along with their mother, the older woman in a pale blue dress.
It seems they had taken forty days to starve themselves to death. The forty days of quarantine, or of Jesus’ temptations and fasting in the desert. We watched them, and as time moved on they got weaker, and more dishevelled, and the room became more disordered. They tipped cutlery and crockery into the bin bags (again, or before?). After one final trip outside, to get flowers and buckets, they remained sealed inside their house.
A few years ago at The Old Market I saw ‘Schrödinger’s Box’, about the physicist’s famous thought experiment where a cat is sealed up in a steel box with a lethal poison that may, or may not, have killed it. The idea is that, until the container is opened and the result checked, the cat has a kind of half-existence, neither dead nor alive. The actors in that production inhabited a large box on this very stage, and I was struck that these Irish women were in that same ghostly, not-dead not-alive state.
David Heap was our guide – our interpreter. It had been his deciphering of their words from the CCTV, and now he broke into the room to be with the women. Describing and explaining, but also seemingly coming to symbolise the sisters’ father. They spoke to us, but increasingly Heap spoke their words for them as the women simply mouthed the syllables. An unsettling image, an emaciated body emitting a deep masculine voice.
As they slid further into the abyss, they propped the table up against the back wall and rested slumped against it. We got the impression of looking down at them from the ceiling – more discontinuity, like Alice grown enormously tall, or perhaps by this stage they’d lost the sense of being inside their bodies any longer.
Deeply unsettling, this sense of the fragility and decay, yet with a steely determination to carry on with it to the bitter end. The effect of almost hallucinating was massively enhanced by Stephen Dodd’s lighting, alternating between gloomy dimness and floods of bright light that washed over the pale blue set as if seen through feverish eyes. Adam Welsh’s sound was equally destabilising, passages of repetitive chords broken up by machine-like buzzing and echoing notes that filled the performance space.
Finally only one sister was left. Alone in the room with the bodies of the others. “I am alone. I am the last to live. I wish I were dead. … Why am I being tested? My sisters gone – those carcasses”. And, speaking to her dead sister – “Josephine, tell me. Why did we begin this ending? … To forget things”
She’s talked earlier about how – “the Devil is always a man”. Now she starts to tell us about her own father, how as a little girl when she was sick and – “burning with fever, he carried me up. My face burning his neck, his skin rough on my cheek. … Warm, in fact. And safe – almost”
This last whole section, several minutes long, was done as a monologue, by just her mouth. An enormous video close-up of her lips and teeth filling the screen right across the stage. The lips moving (could David Heap have lip-read them?) with the teeth opening to give an occasional flash of tongue as they form the syllables. Like Samuel Beckett’s ‘Not I’, with the mouth alone in the centre of the stage, but hugely magnified.
A holiday in the south of Ireland. The father walking in the evening dew with the girls. “Your legs are wet too. We’ll wipe ’em down inside”.
A long, long pause, the lips slightly quivering, and finally she starts again –
“And then … And then …”
“What she saw … I saw …”
I think it’s clear what it is that they are all determined to forget. And where was their mother?
And yet, of course, she’s saying words that Heap has put into her mouth. It seems that her life was influenced and distorted by her father, and now her attempt at erasing that existence is being frustrated by another man.
This was a production that took risks with its audience, pressing hard against the boundaries of theatrical convention. At the end, the audience gave the cast, including Bush Moukarzel who is also the writer and one of the show’s two directors, very enthusiastic applause. I for one, though, was left with a nagging feeling that, even though they are long dead, by forcing our own meaning onto their lives we had stolen something important from these women.
Posted on www.fringereview.co.uk Fringe UK-wide
Say the words ‘First World War’ and what images spring to mind? Trenches and mud, probably, with groups of steel-helmeted ‘Tommies’ seen grinning at the camera over mugs of tea, or photographed in silhouette as they go ‘over the top’ into a storm of shrapnel and machine gun fire. But how did they come to be on the Western Front?, and what about the people they left behind in Britain?
….. KING ….. YOUR DUTY ….. GO ….. ENGLAND EXPECTS ….. EVERY MAN ….. TAKE YOUR PLACE ….. GO NOW ….. FIGHT …..
We saw these words projected large onto the earth banks of a gun emplacement at Newhaven Fort, as a music-hall recording of the time sang about – ‘the Hun, on the run’. Propaganda, doing its bit. A youth in a soldier’s tunic and cap was crouching on the gun platform, holding a broom as a rifle and pretending to shoot at the enemy.
He’s Johnny Cooper. His father is in Belgium with the British Expeditionary Force, and although Johnny’s too young to enlist he’s desperate to go and ‘do his bit’. He’s already wheedled a uniform out of the soldiers from the nearby camp, troops awaiting embarkation for France.
‘Home Fires’ takes its title from the patriotic song by Lena Gilbert Ford, and her lines are nothing if not upbeat –
Keep the home fires burning, / while your hearts are yearning. / Though your lads are far away / they dream of home. / There’s a silver lining / through the dark clouds shining, / turn the dark cloud inside out / ’til the boys come home.
Johnny’s mother Clara would enjoy singing this – she has to run the family butcher’s business while her husband’s away, but she’s proud of him for doing his duty, and anyway, “he’ll be back by Christmas”. It’s one of the soldiers from the camp who sees the reality – that the ‘great victory’ at Mons cost fifty-eight thousand British casualties.
Those thousands would have been killed or wounded, but we’d seen a different kind of casualty in the tunnel leading to the gun emplacement. A soldier faced us, holding a lamp, and moved backwards to lead us in. Then we noticed that he was staring fixedly ahead, looking straight through us, and at the top of the tunnel he collapsed into a narrow alcove. As we passed on towards the sounds of ‘the Hun on the run’ the soldier rose up and rushed back towards the open air, his boots clattering on the passageway’s stone floor. It was obvious that we’d been looking at a case of ‘shell-shock’, although of course it wasn’t recognised as that in 1914.
Sara Clifford has written ‘Home Fires’ as an attempt to show us the attitudes to ‘The Great War’ of those who took part – both as combatants and those left at home. She’s used real events (the soldiers’ strikes, for example), real facts, and real people’s experiences and memories – only her characters are made up, to tie the narrative together. By examining how the world looked to Britons in 1914, of course, she’s also demonstrating the enormous social changes that have taken place over the last hundred years, a lot of them brought on by the necessities of the War itself.
Johnny’s girl Grace is a telegraph messenger, on her bicycle with her smart uniform jacket and calf-length skirt, delivering official communications. “They trust me. … Who wants to be a dairy-maid, or a scullery-maid, or a shop-girl?”. Wider horizons are opening up for Grace, and she starts to develop a social conscience, too, when she realises how badly the soldiers are being treated in their camp.
She’s met Bryn Thomas, a young Welsh soldier who tells her that -“The camp is a mud-bath. We didn’t expect to be standing about in cold mud. In France, maybe, but not here” The camp is holding thousands of troops, but they are forced to live in tents, in the mud. There are rats, and lice, and great piles of rubbish. “The officers – they’re in huts, you see … Always the way – you think things will change, and then they don’t, even in war”.
Bryn is a radical, a Socialist. He’s helped to organise a strike by the soldiers in the camp, to get better conditions. The action is eventually called off because – “They threatened to execute any strikers – for treason”. The military authorities insist on discipline, and crack down hard on ‘disruptive influences’. Bryn has previous experience of this – “Strikes all over. Big strike in Llanelli three years ago, about the railways. There were hundreds of us, picketing the station. They sent the troops in and my mate got shot, see. Shot dead. You won’t have heard of that, nobody did”. Bryn is happy, though – “But we won! They’re building huts now – proper huts”.
‘Home Fires’ is done as a promenade production, with the audience moving around the different areas of Newhaven Fort, and after leaving the gun emplacement we returned to the square parade ground. This is bordered on two sides by bricked-in arches leading to rooms which would once have been accommodation, or stores, or workshops. For ‘Home Fires’ they had become a munitions factory – half a dozen of the entrances had pairs of women standing, miming the motions of operating machinery, arms moving in mechanical repetition as if assembling artillery shells. Probably filling shell cases with cordite or high explosive, as they wore long brown aprons and elbow-length black gloves. Doing ‘men’s work’ – wider horizons indeed.
Powerful images. As we peered in through one doorway, Grace the telegraph messenger was seated on the floor, reading soldiers’ letters from a vast pile which stretched right across the room. Had they not been delivered? Were the intended recipients dead? The sense of loss and isolation that the letters exuded, and the sheer numbers of individuals caught up in the war, was very poignant.
Sara Clifford is the writer of ‘Home Fires’, and she has collaborated with Veronica Stephens’ company Zap Arts to bring this material alive, employing a wide range of techniques to get its message across. There were thirty or forty cast in the show, changing roles as soldiers or civilians and guiding us through the story. The production was keen to involve local people, especially dance groups, and at the very beginning of the performance there was a dance on the parade ground, and later another in a Nissen hut decked out with Union Jacks and red, white and blue bunting. Couples waltzed each other around the floor, the women in long skirts and shawls and the men in waistcoats and working-class flat caps. At the show’s end, though, there was a final dance, “an Entertainment, to raise money”. This time there were only a few older men present, and the floor was filled with women dancing sadly together.
The Nissen hut is an existing part of the Fort, but they had set up the Coopers’ butcher’s shop and their living room on open-air staging on the parade ground. For me, this was the least effective element of the production – it was hard to hear the actors in the open air, and hard too to get a sense of an intimate domestic setting.
As we were moved around the fort, we passed through various underground bunkers and ammunition magazines. At one point, forced into single file by the narrow passages, and then stopped at the entrance to a room by an unsmiling soldier, we got some of the feeling of life under the constraints of military discipline.
When we were finally allowed to enter, the whitewashed, windowless chamber seemed to be set up as a model of a battlefield. Small twisted branches, no more than eighteen inches high, stuck up out of piles of gravel. In one corner, under a larger tree, a pair of boots and puttees stood empty, with a soldier’s steel helmet hanging a few feet above them. A lamp cast the helmet’s shadow higher onto the wall, and we could sense the absence of its owner. Another spot lamp, this one rotating, cast a moving circle of light onto the walls, like a searchlight, while the distant sound of shellfire was momentarily drowned out be the roar of an aircraft passing low overhead. No mud, no blood. Poignant, but finally rather antiseptic. Like, I suppose, the view of the war that was being fed to the people back home.
But the reality of the human costs of the War, and that it would not be over quickly, were gradually becoming clear. When Clara’s husband Joe returns from Belgium he’s clearly suffering from shell-shock. “He came apart in my hands, as I held his head”. Joe keeps repeating this, and over sad notes from an accordion he mumbles – “I did try and call. I called … but no-one could hear me … ‘cos I was whispering”. He won’t go back, and Clara wants him to tell her the reality of what it’s like – “They say you’re a coward. Tell me, so I can tell them”. Joe can’t, though. Either to protect Clara from the truth, or himself from his memories, he won’t – “Better not. … Best not”.
Symbolic images, running through the narrative and resurfacing. We were not shown the battlefield carnage direct; but the Coopers are butchers, used to dismembering flesh. In one of the underground rooms we had passed Clara cutting up meat, and in the next alcove there was a chopped-up pig, its head lying on the floor facing us. At the end Joe has run away, and Clara sits, distraught, hugging a side of pork in her arms, the meat staining her clothes. Pining for her old life? Finally realising the horrors the war has produced? Many possibilities – that’s the power of the writing.
The sound and visual effects on the production were very effective. While we listened to Joe’s anguish about his dead comrade, a large screen behind showed an eye – just an eye, enormous and blinking, reflecting barbed wire and a trench edge in its pupil. We felt we were looking into the man’s soul. The accordion I mentioned was part of a small military band that played during the dance sections, and accompanied us as we were moved around.
They were projecting video onto the semicircular end wall of the Nissen hut, too, overlooking the parade ground. At the end of the show, a series of faces – soldiers from the Great War in their uniform caps or steel helmets – were flashed up and quickly dissolved, melting away as we watched. In the final sequence, the faces didn’t dissolve but simply – receded. As the images got smaller we saw the soldiers in their entirety, dwindling to nothing, to be replaced by others. At the very end they were no longer soldiers from the Great War, but from the Second World War, the Cold War of the Sixties, and finally men wearing the modern battledress and equipment of today’s Iraq and Afghanistan wars. We shivered as we left the Fort, but it wasn’t just the cold weather.
Posted on www.fringereview.co.uk Fringe UK-wide
Lysistrata’s director, Alice Sillett, has made a slight mistake – but don’t worry, it’s the only one she’s made in this production. In her programme notes, she talks about ‘the challenge of presenting a thousand year old comedy with a very serious subject at the centre of it’.
That’s not the half of it. As I’m sure Alice knows, ‘Lysistrata’ was first performed in 411 BC, almost two and a half thousand years ago – twenty-four centuries separate us from Aristophanes’ Athens. And yet the play’s humour feels so modern, and its themes of pacifism, feminism and collective action are so contemporary, that it speaks very powerfully to us today.
I know a lot of people – you probably do too – who “Don’t like Greek theatre, it’s so old-fashioned and difficult”. But the great Tragedies are driven by motives of ambition, hubris, duty and revenge that are easily recognised by modern-day psychologists; while the Comedies show us that human beings’ greed and gullibility, their capacity for cheating and cuckoldry, deceitfulness and self-delusion, haven’t changed much over two and a half millennia.
What makes ‘Lysistrata’ so extraordinary, though, is that the play takes the usual tropes of Comedy and uses them to make some very serious social and political points.
Aristophanes wrote the play in the twenty-first year of the Peloponnesian War against Sparta. A generation grown up in a state of war; spectacular victories alternating with stunning defeats, the whole economy of both Athens and Sparta on a war footing, and no end in sight. Rather like the perpetual state of war in Orwell’s ‘1984’. Something needs to be done, but a different policy isn’t going to be tried by the old men in power – they can only think more of the same. Aristophanes saw a similar situation to poets and writers in the 20th century AD – ‘young men dying in old men’s wars’.
It’s unpatriotic, and probably treasonous, to challenge the militaristic city government head-on, so the playwright gives us Lysistrata. She’s an Athenian housewife who pines for her own husband, away at the battlefront – “Seven long months since mine left me for Pylos”, and for the other women – “The fathers of your children are at war, and do you not feel lonely and abandoned?”. And even worse possibilities – “Are they of any use to you dead?”. She comes up with the idea of a ‘sex-strike’, by the women of both Athens and Sparta along with their allies, to force their husbands to negotiate a peace instead of continuing to fight. They must deny their husbands sexual pleasure, and then – “You must ask for peace. They will be like wild animals, ready to take you, and you must convince them that if they sign for peace, they may have you as much as they like”.
A revolutionary idea. But like modern feminists, Lysistrata first has to fight against the inertia of her own sex. “Women could save Greece … What if we were the answer?” she cries, to which her neighbour replies sadly – “Then our country’s salvation dangles on a very thin thread. … I admire your tenacity, but we’re just girls”.
Finally, though, she wins the women over – all together they work to oppose the State, and this is where the play feels so modern. Most Greek theatre is about the individual, living out his or her Destiny in conflict with Gods or family, but here we have a strike, a collective action designed to achieve a political goal. People taking action on their own account, not as followers of some ruler. That’s a modern concept, certainly post-Enlightenment.
But as well as that, it’s a feminist action, designed to oppose and bypass the traditional male leadership. Women setting the political agenda – surely that’s a Twentieth Century phenomenon. In her meeting to persuade the other women to join her, Lysistrata sounds exactly like a Suffragette leader from the early 1900s.
You can get away with a lot if you make people laugh, and Aristophenes wraps these incendiary ideas in knockabout comedy and broad sexual innuendo. The text has been adapted by Venetia Twigg, the Company Director of Theatrical Niche, and she’s done a great job in keeping the pace of the dialogue going while also making the meanings and jokes very clear to a contemporary audience. During Lysistrata’s meeting one woman confessed – “I’ve not even had the whiff of a lover … not even a quick grope for us young widows. I am strong, but young blood runs through me, and this denial feels like a punishment – and not a good kind of punishment!”. Shrieks of laughter from the other women, and one commented – “I didn’t know you had it in you”. “I don’t have it in me!” retorted the young widow, desperately.
Very gross, and very funny. Like pantomime, which is the effect that Venetia Twigg and Alice Sillett were aiming for. Lots of sexual banter, oblique references to ‘hard’, or ‘stiff’ objects, and little asides and knowing glances from the actors to the audience. It felt like good pantomime, too, in that there were constant gales of laughter, and then all of us would call out “Oooh” at some particularly suggestive phrase. The performance space at the Lantern Theatre is quite small, so the audience felt very involved in the action – sometimes we were addressed directly, as slaves or as Athenian citizens. There were five in the cast, though it felt like many more as they each switched among several roles, and they also came on behind masks, creating a whole different set of characters as The Chorus.
Aristophanes has two Chorus groups in ‘Lysistrata’. A group of Old Women have gone to the Athenian Treasury at the Acropolis, to take control of the city’s wealth and stop it being used to continue the war, and a group of Old Men arrive to oppose them. The masks were pewter-grey, obviously descended from traditional Greek theatre but with twisted and warped features that suggested a detour via Picasso. Each mask topped a spindly puppet figure made largely out of tattered grey rags and ribbons, giving a kind of scarecrow effect, the puppet’s words accentuated by moving one arm and claw-like hand, which the Chorus actor operated with a stick.
With an actor changing his or her voice as Chorus, it was hard to remember that we were looking at just five on stage. This was real ensemble playing, every cast member demonstrating great physicality as they moved, fought and danced through the production. I’ve mentioned the subtlety of the knowing asides and innuendo earlier, but it made the show a real joy to watch. It would be unfair to single out an actor for special praise, but we must remember that the production’s writer Venetia Twigg also played Lysistrata, and that director Alice Sillett also designed the masks and puppets.
Twigg’s adaption of Aristophanes’ text has cut out a lot of the insults and bandying between the Old Men and the Old Women, concentrating more on the younger women and their arguments with The Magistrate. It’s interesting that the playwright in 411 BC reminds his audience of the importance of finance – “We have seized the Treasury to stop the war. No money, no war. Simple!”. After one naval defeat the Athenians spent lavishly to rebuild their fleet – these days we would talk about ‘the military-industrial complex’.
The Magistrate represents the patriarchal Government of the city state – the guys who vote to spend the money to buy the weapons. He just sees the women as troublemakers, but Lysistrata tells him forcefully – “When we meekly asked you whether you have voted for peace, you hushed us, told us to mind our own business, not to speak about matters that don’t concern us, that war is man’s business. Well, we will no longer be treated like barbarians. War is everyone’s business”.
This is truly subversive material, but Aristophanes coats it with slapstick comedy involving the Magistrate and his Officer getting tied up and insulted; and then later, with incredibly prominent erections lifting the men’s clothing as the sex strike takes hold (as it were … I’m getting into innuendo myself here) and all the men are becoming increasingly desperate for sexual release.
Great credit to Theatrical Niche; they managed to balance the politics with the comedy in a way that kept their audience truly engaged and hugely enthusiastic throughout. A powerful production – an evening to remember.
Posted on www.fringereview.co.uk Fringe UK-wide
I talked to Douglas Rintoul, the writer of ‘Elegy’, after seeing the show, and he said it felt quite strange to have produced a piece of work in 2011, essentially about Iraq, which has even sharper resonances today, with the breakdown of community in Syria over the last few years. ‘Elegy’ is about the persecution and killing of Iraqi gays, and about their experiences as refugees after they fled the country, but to me there were additional strange coincidences and juxtapositions.
We had sat, drink in hand, in an LGBT-friendly theatre on the edge of Brighton’s gay quarter, watching an actor deliver a monologue about sexual intolerance. But the piece is also about the prejudice faced not just by gays but by all refugees and asylum seekers, a reminder that we were only weeks away from an election whose agenda is being led by the xenophobic policies of UKIP.
There’s more. Elegy’ makes the point that the breakdown in civic order, and the rise of sectarian militias full of religious fanatics, is a direct result of the Western invasion of Iraq and the catastrophically misguided attempt at ‘regime change’. And just the week before the show Jack Straw, who as Foreign Secretary duped hundreds of British MPs into supporting the invasion with his fictitious ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction’, was exposed as abusing his position, trying to sell access to Government, in a TV documentary ‘sting’.
As they say – you couldn’t make this stuff up . . .
But probably the strongest emotion we felt after seeing ‘Elegy’ was simply – gratitude. Gratitude that we in northern Europe live in a bubble of relative security and wealth that protects us from the horrors and privations that engulf citizens of so many countries. There but for the grace of God (or Chance – I’m not religious) go I.
Of course, that stability makes Northern countries a magnet for asylum-seekers, and there is a race between the increasingly draconian strategies that states employ to keep refugees out, and the desperate measures people use to try to get in. ‘Elegy’ tells how it feels to be part of an ‘under’ class – under threat of torture or death for your sexuality or religion; under suspicion by the authorities you are trying desperately to convince to let you into their country; under the profiteering demands of the people traffickers; under the physical risks and dangers of crossing borders illegally.
The stage at The Marlborough is all black, with just a single chair, and actor Adam Best paced around it for almost an hour as he brought this underclass to life for us. He’s white, Irish, slightly stocky with a closely shaven head, wearing a thin grey hoodie, rumpled jeans and nondescript trainers. He could be a Bulgarian fruit-picker on a Kent farm, or an Irish hod-carrier on a Birmingham building site. He could be gay or he could be straight. He could be Iraqi or he could be Senegalese. It’s done as a monologue, and all the people he shows us are referred to in the third person. Best has a tremendous emotional range, able to take us from the soft sadness of remembered loss through to the screaming of anger and alarm when he recounts some particularly traumatic event. He’s meant to be Everyman, he could be anyone – that’s the point.
‘Elegy’ is written as a kaleidoscopic rush of impressions. We jump around memories, flashbacks and impassioned narrative as this man tells us about life as an asylum-seeker. At one point he’s being interviewed by immigration officials, six hours of questioning by people who are suspicious because he’s very reticent about his sexuality. “You’re in a safe country, why didn’t you disclose this to me?” They can’t see that where he comes from, that kind of disclosure can get you killed. His narrative is broken up by the buzzers and cell door slamming of the Detention Centre, from which he’s eventually bundled off to an airport holding cell, to be thrown onto a plane to Iraq. “He’s being deported, without a hearing. If they send him back, they will torture him, kill him, because his name is on a list”.
He – he never gives us his name, and refers to his friends and lovers only as ‘J’ and ‘N’ – tells us about the invasion of Iraq. He tells of the tanks and the helicopters, as we hear the crump of massive bomb explosions. “His country is being liberated – and whether he loved the previous regime or hated it, it tears him to pieces, because his city is burning”.
Helen Atkinson’s sound tracks were perfectly balanced to the production. We heard distant sounds of war, and the jarring of the buzzers kept jerking us to a new flashback or traumatic memory. There was music, too – Raymond Viu’s haunting sound track, played by Stephen Upshaw. Short violin backstrokes created an atmosphere that managed to be menacing while also evoking a constant sense of loss.
Because ‘regime change’ was such a disaster, it produced a power vacuum which was quickly filled by militias – mostly Sunni, but increasingly Shia too, and ever more fanatically religious. Women’s freedoms are tightly restricted – now they are only allowed onto the streets if accompanied by a male relative. And the militias are virulently anti-gay. The newspapers talk about “tackling a serious illness that has spread through our community”. It was never an issue until the occupation, but now the communities are becoming divided, and any ‘outsiders’ are shunned. “They don’t believe in live and let live”. Unsettling, too, to hear an Irish voice tell us that – “Every religion has its extremists. In times of chaos and disorder they flourish”.
So he has to escape from his country. Dani Bish’s lighting had small lamps on the floor, casting large shadows that loomed over Adam Best as he described swimming across a border river, and how some members of the group were swept away by the water. The lighting designer put harsh blue backlights too, lifting the actor from the background and evoking moonlight, or street lighting, or – possibly – searchlights. Then in a later scene, he’s hidden with others in a truck-load of Christmas trees, all of them with plastic bags over their heads to evade the carbon dioxide breath detectors at the border control. That image leads him into a flashback of torture, back in Iraq, tied to a chair while a plastic bag is knotted round his mouth to choke him.
Spending time hiding out in an abandoned wooden beach hut on the Calais shore, gazing across at the cliffs of Britain – so tantalisingly close. And then finally, in Britain or maybe still in France, working illegally, long shifts in a mobile phone repair centre. “He can’t complain about the low wages, because he doesn’t have any rights. His Degree in computer science seems like a waste of time, and money, now“.
Powerful acting from Adam Best, but beautiful writing, too. There’s an early scene where he’s being taught to swim by ‘J’, naked with each other for the first time as they enter the black water. “We had moved into new territory” The river as a rite of passage, but also a kind of baptism. Then later, when he’s fleeing Iraq, he swims through ‘the black water’ of another river until his feet touch ground on the far bank. New territory indeed.
And the shoes. Early on he’s given a beautiful pair of Italian leather shoes. They seem to symbolise luxury, and ‘J’s love. The shoes are eventually stolen from him by a group of men in France, but before that there’s a scene where he’s about to flee his city. “He needs to pack – what should he take? What kind of clothes, what books? When you go on a trip, you know where you’re going, and when you’re coming back. But he doesn’t know where he’s going. He doesn’t know if he’s coming back”. He takes some clothes, his gold chain, his mobile phone – “but the bag is still half empty. He takes the Italian shoes”.
‘Elegy’ raises the important issues of sexuality and economic deprivation faced by asylum-seekers, but it’s details like the Italian shoes that elevate this piece into something quite extraordinary. I was reminded of ‘All Quiet On The Western Front’, where Franz Kemmerich’s boots are passed down through the group of doomed schoolboy soldiers as they are killed, one by one, in the carnage of the First World War.
It wasn’t a big audience on the night we saw ‘Elegy’, but the applause was thunderous and long-lasting. Adam Best took a quick bow and left the stage. He didn’t come back on even though we were still clapping, which somehow felt very appropriate. This is a real five-star production. Try and catch it if you possibly can.
Posted on http://www.fringereview.co.uk Fringe UK-wide
2015 is a very appropriate time to see ‘Shackleton’s Carpenter‘. It covers events that happened exactly one hundred years ago on the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, from 1914 till 1916. Last year was of course the centenary of the start of the First World War, and this play gives us a glimpse of social and political attitudes at the opening of that ‘Great War for Civilisation’.
Gail Louw is a very political writer. Her 2012 play ‘Blonde Poison’ is about the Holocaust, but also about class and identity – how a metropolitan Jewish woman in Germany before WW2 could learn to despise the ‘dirty’ eastern European Jews and become a ‘greifer’, betraying them to the Nazis.
Then last year she presented ‘Duwayne’, about the killing of black teenager Stephen Lawrence and the deep-rooted racial prejudice in the Metropolitan Police. (you can find my reviews of both these plays on Fringe Review)
And now we have ‘Shackleton’s Carpenter’, and Gail Louw has structured her play very cleverly. It’s a one-man show, ostensibly about Harry McNish, who was the Carpenter on board the expedition’s ship ‘Endurance’. He’s the one doing the speaking, but the piece is really a portrait of Ernest Shackleton himself, and the British class system of the time, with its deep divide between officers and ‘other ranks’. Lesser artists tell a story by painting a vast landscape, cramming in every possible element. Greater artists allow us to comprehend a large truth by closely examining a small detail, and that is what Louw has done here.
The expedition to cross the Antarctic came to grief when ‘Endurance’ became stuck in pack-ice in the Weddel Sea. The vessel was crushed by winter ice and sank in the spring thaw, and the crew of 28 had to use the ship’s lifeboats to reach the nearest land – the uninhabited Elephant Island.
From there, six of them, including Shackleton and Harry McNish, sailed six hundred miles to South Georgia in one of the lifeboats, which the carpenter McNish had specially converted and strengthened. From the whaling station on South Georgia, Shackleton organised a rescue which recovered all of his crewmen from Elephant Island. He did not lose a single man, and he has been feted as a great and inspirational leader.
All of the expedition members, except four, received the prestigious Polar Medal.
One of those left out was Harry McNish. Why?
Director Tony Milner’s set at The Old Market was quite stark and minimal. Just a wooden rowing boat at the left of the stage, covered by tarpaulin, and a small wooden crate on the right, both resting on small piles of shingle and simply lit from overhead. Suddenly the covering was pulled away and Harry McNish appeared from where he’d been sleeping inside the boat.
He’s old now, it’s fifteen years since he was on the expedition and he’s living destitute in Wellington, New Zealand. He’s actually only 56, but actor Malcom Rennie made him look at least ten years older, with shadowy unshaven stubble, head balding in the centre with blown strands of hair standing up on both sides. McNish fumbled with his clothing, finally pulling on shirt, trousers and boots over vest and long-johns. His deep-set eyes looked haunted as he stared out at us.
He fussed and grunted in the manner of old people that you sometimes see talking to themselves, and it soon became obvious that he’d reached the stage where a large part of his existence was taking place inside his own head. Then he made a sudden start – “Who’s there?” and he was seeing Ernest Shackleton. But Shackleton was long dead – “Are you a ghost, come to haunt me?” From this point, the play consisted of his conversation with Shackleton’s ‘ghost’, often mimicking the expedition leader’s voice and mannerisms. Malcom Rennie handed the accents very well. He got Shackleton’s social origins perfectly, his clipped upper-class speech contrasting vividly with McNish’s broad working-class Scots.
For Shackleton was the son of Anglo-Irish landowners, an expedition leader known to his men as ‘The Boss’, and he possessed all the attitudes of the Edwardian officer class. The voyage set off in August 1914, coincidentally the very month that the European empires began the opening moves of the Great War. Shackleton had named it the ‘Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition’ so that – “Not only the people of these islands, but our kinsmen in all the lands under the Union Jack, will be willing to assist towards the carrying out of the programme of exploration.”
The British officer corps in WW1 may have been rigidly middle and upper class, but these men were not afraid to lead by example, going ‘over the top’ armed with just a pistol, shouting “Follow Me!”. Shackleton, too, didn’t shirk responsibility – on the voyage to Elephant Island he stayed awake for five consecutive nights keeping watch while his men slept fitfully. But he was rigid in command – “Discipline. Order. Everyone has a job and everyone knows what to do. We will get out of this alive. We will survive.”
McNish mimics The Boss’s enthusiasm, urging his men on in some task – “Come on, Boys. We can do it!”. Shackleton was Public School educated, and I’m reminded of lines from ‘Vitai Lampada’ by Henry Newbolt, who considered school cricket to be character-building for soldiers – And it’s not for the sake of a ribboned coat, / Or the selfish hope of a season’s fame, / But his Captain’s hand on his shoulder smote – / “Play up! Play up! And play the game!”. . . . The river of death has brimmed his banks, / And England’s far, and Honour a name, / But the voice of a schoolboy rallies the ranks: / “Play up! Play up! And play the game!”
Shackleton was popular with the men, but at one point McNish says to him – “What I don’t understand about you is – you’re part of the boys, and yet – not part. You laugh with them, you bring them tea, you play football with them. You’re one of them, and yet, not.” Popular, but apart. “All those months on the ice, you never once asked, never bothered to find out, Where do you come from? McNish, McCohn, who are your people? “ And later. “When we got back to Buenos Aires we men had to find and pay for our passage home, but you, the officers and scientists, are given a liner to sail you back to London.”
Set against this man is Harry McNish. Working class with strongly-held Socialist views, which he is not afraid to voice. A Scottish Presbyterian, deeply religious with a hatred of bad language. A time-served ship’s carpenter, confident of his own abilities and judgment. He was upset with the expedition’s leader for not organising religious worship on board ship, and probably also resented the fact that ‘The Boss’ had an American mistress as well as his English wife. Harry McNish himself had divorced his third wife to be with another woman – doing the ‘right thing’ by them. Both his previous wives had died, the first when McNish was only 24. “So many women died in childbirth – it wasn’t unusual.” Probably a greater percentage of working-class women died, though, from a lower standard of medical care.
But the main tension between the two men followed an argument about Shackleton’s order to haul the ship’s boats across the ice floes, which would have damaged them, the only means of survival. McNish vehemently disagreed with the plan. He’s reliving that time now, still arguing with ‘The Boss‘ – “I was right!” “You ordered me to take the boats across the floes when I knew that that’s wrong. Tell me I was right. You never said I was right.” Then he gives us Shackleton’s clipped tones “You shouldn’t have challenged me!” “It was life and death out there – we couldn’t have insubordination.” The same officer mindset seen at The Somme offensive a year or so later.
And then later on Shackleton killed McNish’s cat, Mrs Chippy. This event is still at the forefront of Harry McNish’s mind fifteen years later. “You shot my cat!” He was devoted to Mrs Chippy (who was actually male) and attacks Shackleton about the killing a number of times. We assume that his memory is good. After all, he was prevented from getting the Polar Medal, when he obviously deserved it. And it seems that Shackleton did shoot his cat.
The play points us to a more vindictive side to Shackleton’s character. Harry McNish was clearly pivotal to the men’s survival. As the expedition’s doctor, Dr Macklin, commented – “No-one deserves recognition more than the old carpenter”. But we may also be looking at simple class prejudice and a dismissal of ‘techies’. Remember that Shakespeare’s craftsmen in ‘A Midsummer Night’s dream’ are referred to as ‘Rude Mechanicals’.
Gail Louw has given us a picture of British society at the beginning of the Great War, but she lets Harry McNish describe the winter in Antarctica very vividly. Presumably this section was taken from his diaries – he’s been there and we experienced it through his eyes, almost at first-hand, it seemed. We’ve all seen photographs of the ship in the ice, and we know (at least intellectually) about the cold. But the unending darkness – “Dark. The colour of the berg under the surface of the water – aquamarine. Blue – no green, no red, no orange, just blue – but dark, just a hint of light in the hours around noon.” – was something I hadn’t really considered before.
And while the expedition photographs are silent, McNish tells of – “The bangs of the floes – piling up like boulders … piled one against another, not planned, like God chucked all his toys.”
‘Shackleton’s Carpenter’ is a real tour de force for one actor. Not least because Malcom Rennie is often bellowing the lines, shouting at his phantoms. Perhaps Rennie’s delivery was a bit too loud a bit too often. But I don’t want to diminish the scale of his achievement in bringing Harry McNish to life for us.
Of course, Gail Louw makes McNish create a ghost inside his head to bring Shackleton alive too. Later in the play McNish starts to see more of his old shipmates from the Endeavour – it’s plain that his mind is going, and he seems to be near the end of his life. I was reminded of the chorus of dead sailors in ‘Under Milk Wood’. The stage was full of people – it was just that we couldn’t see them.
At the end, the Old Market audience gave thunderous applause for what had been a very powerful production of a clever, elegantly constructed play. Getting one character to create several others on stage is no easy task, but Louw’s writing and Rennie’s performance made the illusion really believable. As the actor moved through his performance, mixing wistful reminiscences with angry accusations, I was totally immersed in the Antarctic world of ice. But of course I was actually looking at the vanished world of the British Empire – before the Great War.
Posted on http://www.fringereview.co.uk Fringe UK-wide