Reviews 2016

All these reviews are listed in order.  Just scroll down to find them.  –  Trials of Galileo / Ubu Roi / The Ugly One / The Tribunal / Sweeney Todd / The Bacchae / Spring Awakening / The Unknown Soldier / Cathedral / The Bookbinder / The White Crow / The Other / Call Mr Robeson / Helen / Confessions of a Redheaded Coffeeshop Girl / Sex and God / Echoes / The Marked / Gertrude. The Cry / Golem

 

Trials of Galileo

 

One way you can sense that you’re in the hands of a superb writer is when the title is good. ‘Trials of Galileo’ is a very good title indeed – Nic Young’s play is not just about Galileo’s trial by the Vatican Inquisition, but also about the scientist’s own trials of faith, as he struggles to reconcile his religious beliefs with the new revelations that his researches have opened up.

We all know at least a bit about Galileo – a follower of Copernicus’ Sun-centred theory of the Universe, who was the first scientist to use a telescope to examine the heavens. The first human to see the surface of the Moon close up, the phases of Venus, and the four moons of Jupiter. He put his heliocentric observations and proofs into a book, ‘Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems’, supporting Copernicus against the Earth-centred universe of Aristotle and Ptolemy. But this, of course, put Galileo into direct opposition to classical learning – and The Catholic Church.

The story of Galileo’s trial by The Inquisition, and how he was forced to recant his view – that the Earth turns on its axis once a day, and goes around the Sun once a year – has been told many times. Brecht’s ‘Life of Galileo’, for example, is a rather ponderous piece of theatre, usually done with a large cast and enormous sets. On the small stage at The Rialto, by contrast, there was just an old man in seventeenth century clothing seated at a table, a few papers scattered on the floor, and a telescope at one side, mounted on a tripod.

Tim Hardy put on several decades to play Galileo as a man in his late seventies, looking back over his life and his trial. Hardy gave us a master-class in character production as he became younger, then older again, when relating different episodes in his story. The actor manages to evoke both Galileo’s scientific enthusiasm and his fear equally believably. When he explains his telescope to us, he’s like an old man tinkering happily in his shed – but when he’s said the wrong thing in an audience with the Pope, he cringes, stoops to make himself less visible to the pontiff, and his voice almost breaks down in terror.

It’s a one-man show, so Hardy plays Pope Urban VIII as well. While Galileo is at first naively over-enthusiastic, then subsequently obsequious and terrified; the Pope is unchanging – a big man, the actor holding himself erect to become taller, with a booming voice. As Hardy switched roles, and the direction of his gaze back and forth, to produce their dialogue, I had the irresistible impression that I actually was watching two people on stage.

He does it again towards the play’s ending, when Galileo is trying to find a lawyer to represent him at the Inquisition. The lawyer Hardy gives us has all the attributes of a worldly-wise wide-boy Londoner (it is Renaissance Florence, after all…), and again the actor jumps between the two characters in their conversation, as the politically naïve Galileo is made to see the hard reality of what he’s up against. ‘Trials of Galileo’ is a real tour de force – over the course of the play Tim Hardy manages to create three completely believable human beings on stage in front of us, with no tools except his vocal range and his body language. Minimal – powerful – unforgettable.

The power is in the very elegantly constructed writing, too. Tim Hardy’s three characters represent – the scientific spirit (Galileo), the orthodox scripture-based faith of the Church (the Pope), and the pragmatic realism of the ‘common man’ (the Lawyer).         Galileo’s offence was to have championed the Copernican theory in ‘Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems’.  ‘Dialogue’ is written as a conversation of three people – a supporter of Copernicus (Salviati), a supporter of the classical geocentric theories of Aristotle (Simplicio), and the ‘common man’ who is finally converted to the heliocentric position (Sagredo).    Nic Young has managed to build a play structure that mirrors the book that’s at the centre of it. Masterful.

Galileo recants because he fears torture. Tim Hardy put on an ironic smile as the astronomer described a sight of The Rack as producing a “verbal laxative”. But that’s not Galileo’s only terror. He’s a Christian, a Catholic, brought up in the belief that – “we are here, unmoving, at the very centre of this miracle of Creation.   We are, are we not?, the apple of God’s eye”. But he’s looked at the night sky through his telescope, and it’s not the same as in Holy Scripture. He’s seen the surface of The Moon, cratered and mountainous, he’s seen four new moons moving around the planet Jupiter. “It is no small matter for a Christian man to see things he cannot possibly see. It’s terrifying!”.

Faith versus scientific evidence. This may be a play about events that took place four centuries ago, but the issues it raises are still frighteningly relevant – Fundamentalist Christians are very powerful in the United States and many other countries. As I write this review it is quite possible that a Creationist will become the new US Secretary of Education.

And to great extent, most of us are still quite pre-Copernican. We talk about the Sun ‘rising’ and ‘setting’ and a lot of people couldn’t define the difference between a planet and a star. Part of the power of Tim Hardy’s performance was the enthusiasm and the awe in the way Galileo described what he’d seen. It rang so true – I have a small telescope myself, and I too have looked at Jupiter’s four moons (now called the Galilean moons) and watched them move on successive nights. I too have gazed at the close-up surface of the Moon. I too have felt the awe. On one occasion, I was showing it to a friend, and as the Moon’s image slid across the telescope’s field of view he remarked at how quickly our satellite was moving. When I reminded him that, in fact, it was the Earth itself that was turning, he gasped – “Oh God, of course!”, as if the world had suddenly turned upside down. We come to these sights after four hundred years of scientific proof, remember – just imagine how it must have been for Galileo.

He defines it as “looking into the mind of God”.

But of course, this goes against Holy Scripture. To hold or to promulgate Copernicus’ theory, or (worse) to try to prove it, is heresy. In his audience with the Pope, Galileo naively boasts that he can prove that the Sun is at the centre, and that the Earth moves. Urban VIII replies with all the power and authority of his Office – “We find ‘proof’ a very unnatural word to use in this context. Proof denies faith, and without faith YOU ARE NOTHING”. The Pope is horrified – “No! No! The Universe is a Divine Miracle, it is not a clockwork toy”.

But the Pope is not just the Pontiff of the Catholic Church, he’s a serious political player too. He needs philosophers like Galileo to bolster the intellectual and cultural standing of the Papal States and Catholic Italy against the Protestant countries of northern Europe. Countries hosting mathematician/astronomers like Johannes Kepler. So he encourages Galileo to write his ‘Dialogue’ book – as long as it remains ‘theoretical’.

This is where Galileo’s sheltered academic view of the world betrays him. He puts the classic, orthodox, geocentric views into the mouth of his character Simplicio, letting Salviati expound the Copernican position. ‘Simplicio’ sounds very much in Italian as it does in English – ‘Simple’, a ‘Simpleton’. And of course those orthodox views, in line with Holy Scripture, are the ones held by the Pope himself.

Who decided that he was being lampooned. When the naïve Galileo is bewildered at his summons before the Inquisition, his Lawyer tells him – “You wrote the Pope as a fool … You called him Simplicio – you might as well have called him ‘Holy Fuckwit’ and have done with it!”. Tim Hardy seemed to really relish these lines, as the Lawyer hammered home the political realities of seventeenth century Europe. “Outside that window, the whole world is fighting and dying for the supremacy of their faith, for their view of God and the world to triumph – in blood”.

So the Church view, the State view, had to prevail, and Galileo had to be made a scapegoat – pour encourager les autres and to keep the faith pure and undivided against the Enemy. But the offending book had, of course, already been published, in Florence in 1633. Italians read it – in their own language, not in Latin – and copies were smuggled out to other countries. This truly outstanding and very timely play bridges almost four centuries to remind us that the truth cannot be suppressed for long. To quote Galileo, sotto voce after his recantation – “it still turns”.

Published on  www.fringereview.co.uk   FringeReview UK

 

 

Ubu Roi

 

Shit!

Shit! It was the night of Storm Angus, and the November rain was coming down in stair-rods as we ran from the car to the village hall in Hassocks. Our hair was still dripping wet as we slid damply into our seats to see Squall + Frenzy’s production of ‘Ubu Roi’. In fact, ‘squall and frenzy’ described the weather perfectly. Shit !

And then the rain was forgotten because there it was, shouted on the stage – ‘Shit!’ – the famous opening line of Alfred Jarry’s play. Infamous opening line, actually – it caused a riot at the play’s first performance in Paris in 1896. The audience was violently divided, as ‘Merde!’ was a scandalous expression in late nineteenth century theatre, and the play’s opponents chased Jarry down the street, intent on lynching him. (Though of course, Jarry was careful to misspell the words as ‘Pshit’ or ‘Merdre’ in the printed script). ‘Ubu Roi’ wasn’t performed in public again for another ten years.

But Jarry had the last laugh. ‘Ubu Roi’ – (Ubu the King) – has had a huge effect on theatre, and on twentieth century culture in general. The play is seen as the first break with bourgeois tradition, influencing the avant-garde movements of Dada, the Surrealists, Futurism, and playwrights of the ‘Theatre of the Absurd’ like Beckett and Ionesco. The poet Apollinaire, and the painters Braque and Picasso, were friends and admirers of Jarry’s work.

You could say that this play was the bridge into the art of the Twentieth Century.

The actor shouting ‘Shit!’ was fair-haired, with a enormous paunch – actually a strategically placed cushion half visible under a loose-fitting shirt – and vivid orange stage makeup coating his face. Père Ubu (for it was he) is a monster. He’s a cowardly, greedy, lazy, brutally violent monster. The prescient genius of Jarry was to predict the appalling demagogues of the twentieth century: Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin, Mao. With amazingly lucky timing (or more probably, foresight), Squall + Frenzy had chosen to give us Père Ubu as … Donald Trump.

The play is loosely based on MacBeth. Père Ubu is Captain of the Guard at the court of King Wenceslas of Poland, in Warsaw, and he’s persuaded by his wife, Mère Ubu, to kill the king and seize the throne. An outsider would gain power and control of the country’s wealth. So Owen Bleach played Ubu with an American accent, and his delivery gave us all of Trump’s hectoring voice and grandiose gesturing.

Like in Shakespeare’s play, it’s the wife who pushes her husband into regicide. Mère Ubu is as gross as Père Ubu; a slattern with a harsh, shrieking voice like a traditional fishwife. But she’s a sexual creature, too. Francesca Isherwood’s bosom was capped with a pair of red and white striped pointed cones, at least nine inches long. With red tights under a white top, a huge red heart on her behind, and a vivid gash of red lipstick, she made Madonna look like a shrinking violet by comparison.

You’ve probably guessed by now that this play isn’t a serious drama about politics and murder. This is life lived as a Punch and Judy show. The couple fight, have noisy sex (standing on stage in a bed created by other cast members holding up sheets covering the writhing pair) and Père Ubu gobbles up whatever food is available.

Ubu Roi’s plot involves Ubu recruiting Bordure, the head of the army, to help with the King’s assassination. Ubu becomes king, exploiting the people with punitive taxes, but then sidelines his co-conspirator. Bordure defects to Moscow to offer his services to the Tsar, and leads a Russian army back to attack Poland.

But like in Punch and Judy, none of that actually matters very much – the point of the play is to highlight the grossness and venality of people in power. Jarry wrote the piece to be played as knockabout slapstick, as in-your-face as street theatre, a Monty Python or Marx Brothers view of the world, and Squall + Frenzy have achieved that effect brilliantly.

Apart from Mère Ubu’s red tights, all the cast are dressed in white. Long sleeved white vests and long-johns. Figure-hugging, obviously – paired with the black boots that most of them wear, they look like Max Wall rendered in negative. Always funny to watch, occasionally the effect is hysterical. Chris Gates is tall, and as the Tsar he leant forward slightly, speaking through a small black moustache he held in front of his mouth on a thin handle. With his slightly high pitched ‘Russian’ accent, it was an unforgettable moment.

Apart from Mère and Père Ubu, all the cast double up on roles. So Gates is also King Wenceslas. He and Tamsin Harding, who plays Queen Rosamund, have tall white headpieces to complement their white clothing. Hats topped with crosses – it took me a little while to realise that they were meant to be the king and queen pieces from the chessboard. But their stylised shuffling movements, always turning at right-angles, soon made it clear. In one perfect bit of staging, the royals converse, and each monarch’s speech is timed by a courtier operating a chess clock.

So there are nods to Lewis Carroll in this production, too. A topsy-turvey world. When there is battle (and there’s a lot of it) the combatants have sticks which they clash, then dance away from each other, spinning in a circle like Morris Dancers. And all the soldiers have white helmets, folded like children’s paper boats and worn sideways. At one point they dragged an audience member onto the stage, to swell the army numbers, and when she was standing at attention with the others, with her paper hat and stick-weapon, it looked just like a pantomime scene – maybe the Lost Boys from Peter Pan.

This is a real ensemble production, with six actors working together seamlessly to create a host of characters. Alexi Parkin plays the treacherous Bordure, but he also plays a bear – don’t ask! The orphaned Prince Buggerlaus is Matt Swann, but both he and Tamsin Harding also jump roles into soldiers, peasants and condemned citizens, to flesh out the populace who are suffering Père Ubu’s exploitation. The pace is dizzying – and I haven’t even mentioned the mass executions, or the horses, or the enormous cannon ball …

Ubu Roi is a romp, so it needs to be played loud and fast and the entire company manage that unforgettably. There are occasional moments though, especially towards the end, when the speed of delivery made some of the lines difficult to hear clearly. A shame, as that’s really the only thing that stops this production being outstanding.
But Squall + Frenzy’s production is certainly highly, highly recommended.

I’m always worried when I hear the word ‘adaption’, but writer Isabel Sensier has wisely left Jarry’s text almost completely untouched – she’s simply changed the names of individuals cited, replacing them with contemporary personalities and politicians. So she’s kept the anarchic power of Jarry’s writing, and director Ada Dodds has created a minimalist set and staging that lets us experience that anarchy full in the face.

Just a white sheet hanging at the rear of the stage, and a single chair that doubles as a throne, rostrum or dining room seat. Nothing to distract from the costumes, or from Jarry’s words. We are given location by a series of text slides projected onto the sheet, like in silent films. At the opening, we saw the single word – POLAND. Then that was followed by the next slide – WARSAW, POLAND. Two succeeding slides gave us – THAT IS TO SAY – EVERYWHERE, followed seconds later by – THAT IS TO SAY – NOWHERE. These are Jarry’s original (rather flowery) stage directions, which Ada Dodds has turned into evocative visuals. I’m sure the ghost of Alfred Jarry would approve.

Published on http://www.fringereview.co.uk     FringeReview  UK

 

The Ugly One

After Lette had undergone the plastic surgery operation, his face looked like a classical Greek head of Apollo.

The audience member on my right, though, probably saw him as James Bond played by Daniel Craig, while to the woman in the row behind he might have been George Clooney.

In actual fact, of course, Lette’s face remained that of Robert Cohen, the actor playing him – but we had seen the surgery, watched the reactions of the other actors to Lette’s new, unbelievably handsome appearance, and so we each projected our own ideal face onto the actor’s (unchanged) features.

That’s the essence of Minimalism in theatre – you do away with anything that isn’t absolutely essential, all the finicky details that distract from the story in so many theatre productions, and you let the audience do the work, creating the scene for themselves in their heads. Treating them as adults.

There’s a huge bonus to this grown-up approach to theatre – vast amounts of money could be spent on creating a highly detailed operating theatre where Lette’s spectacularly ugly face is transformed, but it still wouldn’t look … quite right. It wouldn’t match my idea of the location – not to mention that of the woman in the row behind.

But – by simply having Lette slumped back in a chair facing away from the audience, with the surgeon making hand movements across his face, and the nurse handing him surgical instruments in mime, we could SEE the operation in all its detail – the glitter of the steel scalpels, the harsh lights and green cloth, the clinicians’ gowns – as clear in our minds as if they were actually there in front of us. Our own individual conceptions of that environment – and each of them … perfect.

To do this successfully, though, you have to have total command of the material. It’s like performing on a high-wire with no safety net. Lauren Varnfield carries it off brilliantly in her direction of this production of ‘The Ugly One’, and she’s supported by four actors of consummate skill. We were gripped – mesmerised – from start to finish.

Black. Imagine the theatre space at The Rialto – black walls and ceiling, black stage, and four actors, all dressed solely in black. Three men in black shirts and trousers, and a slim woman in black shirt and a calf-length black leather skirt. These four act out the tale of Lette, a designer of high-voltage electrical equipment, who is a beautiful person on the inside, but whose external appearance is – ugly.

It’s not just the locations that we have to imagine in this play. Marius von Mayenburg’s writing specifies only four actors to play eight characters, with only Robert Cohen remaining as Lette – and he of course changes his face. So Kitty Newbury gives us Lette’s wife Fanny, who loves him deeply. Well, actually she loves the inner person, the Lette inside his body, it’s just that she can’t bear to look at his face – for years she’s looked only at his left eye …

Scheffler is Lette’s boss at the equipment company. Tom Dussek is a big man, and he plays Scheffler as the arch-capitalist, self-satisfied and self-important. Lette is the designer of the firm’s new product, so he should get the recognition at a big conference – but his ugly face will damage sales prospects, so with a total lack of loyalty and humanity Scheffler sidelines the designer in favour of his assistant. He’s finally honest enough, though, to tell Lette about his disastrous physiognomy.

So Lette decides to have plastic surgery to improve his appearance and bolster his career prospects – see how this play comments on contemporary society. Newbury morphs into the surgeon’s assistant, another Fanny, in the operating theatre scene I’ve mentioned earlier. No changes of clothing or props – the woman simply alters her speech pattern and her posture, and we see her transformation into a different person right in front of our eyes.

The plastic surgeon is – you guessed it – another Scheffler. Dussek swaps self-satisfied for self-confident for the role of Scheffler the doctor. The actor seems to fill the stage, dominating the space with expansive arm gestures and booming voice, belittling Lette’s present appearance and promising vast improvement – “though anything would be better than what you have at present”.

So the surgery takes place, and Lette’s face is transformed. So is his career. With his newly wonderful appearance he is of course sent to the conference – we all know that people buy the image, not the substance, of any product. And not just Lette’s career, either. With his new face, his sexual allure is irresistible, not just to dozens of women at sales meetings who want to bed their idol, but also to the owner of the company’s major client, the seventy-year-old … Fanny.

So Kitty Newbury gives us a third Fanny, old – though she too has had extensive plastic surgery – and sexually voracious. More amazing transformations – to watch Newbury, as the younger Fanny, walk down the aisle between the audience seating, angrily indignant at her husband Lette’s erotic adventures, and then seconds later to see her return as the older Fanny, rather stiffer in her walking and ever so slightly stooped, comparing her lover Lette to her previous husbands, was a great moment of theatre.

The older Fanny has a son, Karlmann. He’s a neurotic, totally emasculated by his dominating mother. Jonathan Howlett played him as a cringing wimp, screwing up his body and hunching his shoulders as he whined about how unfair his life was. Totally different from Howlett’s brash portrayal of Lette’s ambitious assistant, who wants to take over his position in the company, and is called (of course) Karlmann. Finally, Karlmann (the assistant, not the son) has the same surgical treatment as Lette, giving him exactly the same face – and the same sexual allure. He becomes the lover of Lette’s wife Fanny – although sometimes Fanny isn’t sure whether it’s her husband or her lover she’s with.

In fact, Scheffler (the surgeon) is performing the same operation on many men – the world is filling up with Lette lookalikes. No-one is sure any more just who is who. Marius von Mayenburg’s script kept us on our toes as we navigated the twists and transformations of his amazing plot.

A brilliant farce, hilarious and fast-moving like all good farce, but also a very pointed morality play. When Lette is ugly, he’s beautiful inside – after becoming irresistible, he turns into a complete bastard. We had to imagine Lette’s new face, but Robert Cohen handled his emotional transformation over the course of the play with great subtlety. As he gradually made his voice become harder, and straightened his body posture scene by scene, the actor developed from a damaged, insecure individual to become a monster, totally given up to the pursuit of sexual conquest and money. This play is about our culture’s obsession with beauty and with success, and how easily we abandon any empathy with our fellow human beings as we chase those goals. If Simon Cowell was a made-up character, Marius von Mayenburg would have been the one to write him.

Lauren Varnfields’s production of ‘The Ugly One’ is a truly outstanding achievement. A clever script, intelligent staging and, most of all, great ensemble playing by four really talented actors.

Published on  www.fringereview.co.uk     FringeReview UK

 

The Tribunal

I don’t know how big the room was where they were keeping Clifford Allen prisoner, but it was certainly able to contain an elephant.

The Elephant in the Room, filling the space but never directly stated, as is always the case with these Elephants, is the passionate love that Catherine Marshall has for Allen. She loves him, cherishes him, wants to protect him – but they are both highly principled political activists who are fighting against the inhumanity of the military machine of a country at war.

It’s a feature of Sara Clifford’s writing that she manages to create an intensely human perspective on political and social issues. What could so easily become a history lecture is turned into something vividly personal. In her 2015 production ‘Home Fires’, at Newhaven Fort, it was the strikes by First World War military trainees against appalling living conditions and discipline, and the lack of comprehension of the realities of the War by much of the British population. These were brought to life for us unforgettably, as we watched the developing attraction of young Welsh soldier Bryn Thomas, and Grace Crismas, a telegraph messenger at Newhaven.

The setting is Newhaven again with ‘The Tribunal’. This time the characters are real people, for it’s where Clifford Allen was incarcerated in The Fort in 1916, awaiting a court martial, for his activities as leader of the No-Conscription Fellowship. Nicola Blackwell’s set was minimal, producing Allen’s cell from just a couple of dark green tarpaulins suspended from wooden stands as a backdrop, and a pair of hard wooden chairs. As we entered, the man himself was sitting hunched on one of the chairs.

Leonard Sillevis is a tall, rather thin actor, and he gave us a Clifford Allen with unkempt lanky hair and a face obviously not shaved for several days. Rough trousers, and a dirty shirt without collar or tie. He was coughing, shivering and rocking back and forth with a grey army blanket draped round his shoulders to try to keep warm. It’s December, and The Fort is bitterly cold. Allen has TB, he’s not getting much food, and worst of all he’s in solitary confinement and his guard is not allowed to talk to him. He’s desperate for his visitor – keeps asking if she’s arrived yet.

And then suddenly there she was; Catherine Marshall, tall and upright in a radiant salmon coloured skirt and jacket, crisp white blouse and with her dark hair tied severely back in a tight bun, sweeping into the cell like something from another world. Anna Darvas gave Marshall a strong, authoritative voice, rather patrician. Her father had been a teacher at Harrow School, after all, and she herself was a leading campaigner for the Suffragette movement. This woman is not afraid of authority: looking quickly round the cell she tells the guard that – “This is NOT satisfactory. He’s a political prisoner, not a common criminal. The difference must be understood”.

She’s horrified by Clifford Allen’s physical condition, starts to insist that Allen gets seen by a doctor. But he’s not having it – “I won’t have it said that I ducked out on medical grounds. I won’t!”. Right from the beginning, the writer sets up the basic dilemmas of the Pacifist movement – How much can the State demand from its citizens? How far ought you to go in opposing a brutal military machine? Should more sacrifices be asked of the leaders of a movement than of its members?

We never leave Allen’s cell, but over the course of Catherine Marshall’s visit – less than forty minutes – Sara Clifford manages to impart a huge amount of information about the Conscientious Objector movement and the people involved with it. Marshall brings news of the strikes by Objectors at Newhaven docks, and their refusal to load munitions onto ships bound for the Western Front. She tells, too, of their brutal treatment by regular troops. The pair discuss the pressures, psychological as well as physical, that are employed by the military authorities to force men to fight and kill.

We learn about the other leaders of the Conscientious Objector Fellowship – Bertrand Russell and Fenner Brockway – and their less than full-hearted support for Clifford Allen. There are references to the Bloomsbury group, public intellectuals and pacifists themselves, secure in their Charleston farmhouse, writing and painting. Only a few miles away from Newhaven, but seemingly too busy to visit and support Allen.

Not just politics – Sara Clifford gives us an insight on the class system too.  A hungry Allen fantasises about food, holding dinner parties in his head, delicious dishes washed down – “with a good Burgundy”. Marshall reminds him gently that it was she who had introduced him to fine wine – although very bright (he got a place at Cambridge) he’s just a working-class boy from the Welsh valleys. People of his class don’t drink wine, while Catherine Marshall’s father, remember, taught mathematics at a leading Public School – enough said.

Which brings us to the Elephant. Catherine Marshall is an activist, but she’s also a realist. She can see that there are limits to anyone’s capacity to fight. But Clifford Allen wants to take his fight further. He’s already desperately ill, and suffering the traumas of solitary confinement, but he wants to pressure the authorities further by embarking on a hunger strike. The writer gives us an insight into that dreadful act by having Marshall describe the pain and humiliation she’d seen suffered by the Suffragettes on their hunger strikes, force-fed by tubes thrust into their stomachs through the nose.

The woman Catherine wants to protect the man she obviously loves desperately. She’s afraid that this form of protest will kill him, but Allen can only relate to the political activist Catherine. As he says – “My body is weak, which I curse. But with so many dying, who am I to prioritise myself above the others?”. And maybe he’s right – thousands of men, most of them there against their will, are being killed every month in France. If you believe strongly enough that killing is wrong, how can you hold back from your own ultimate sacrifice?

And yet – there’s something rather obsessive about Clifford Allen. Perhaps as a man who has transcended the bounds of his class, and as a leader of an important political movement, he sees himself as something extraordinary, almost superhuman. At one point he seems to weaken in his resolve to risk his death, but catches himself with the thought – “Even Jesus was tempted…”   Clifford Allen sees himself as a martyr – and it’s very hard having a relationship with a martyr. By the end of the visit Catherine has given up on intimacy and retreated into her political shell, addressing him as ‘Comrade’.

These are real people – the writer has given us a dramatised episode in the relationship of two people who are actual historical figures. I Googled them, and discovered that after the war, the couple embarked on a ‘trial marriage’ – presumably living together. It didn’t work, and Marshall was devastated by the ending of the relationship. Having seen Sara Clifford’s play, it doesn’t seem too surprising.

‘The Tribunal’ skilfully combines the domestic political situation of the First World War with the (timeless) moral dilemmas of following one’s pacifist conscience. But it’s also a believable portrait of actual historical figures. Such a lot of historical facts, so many questions, all paraded before us in front of a tarpaulin in Seaford Library. Yet the intensity of Sara Clifford’s writing, and the talents of her actors, mean that my memory, as I write this, is of actually being in that cell in Newhaven Fort.

Published on http://www.fringereview.co.uk     FringeReview UK

 

Sweeney Todd

Sweeney Todd – the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Everyone knows at least the bones of the story (Sorry!), and we all experience a delicious frisson of horror from the gory details. Stephen Sondheim turned it into a musical, and it’s that version that’s been produced at 88 London Road.

The story originally appeared in nineteenth century ‘Penny Dreadful’ papers, and Director Conor Baum has kept that Victorian setting for this production. Baum has slashed the cast (Sorry, again!) to just eight actors, doubling up where necessary to produce all the roles. He has characters reading us details of Sweeney Todd’s doings from sensationalist news-sheets. There were generally four of them coming to the front of the stage, and they acted very like the Chorus in classical Greek theatre.

The whole musical can be seen as a Greek Tragedy. As a line at the end says – “To seek Revenge may lead to Hell”. Someone does a bad thing, and the consequences of that action echo down through the years. Benjamin Barker was a Fleet Street barber, whose wife Lucy was lusted after by Judge Turpin. The judge falsely accused the barber, sentencing him to fifteen years transportation to Australia. Subsequently the judge raped Lucy, who took poison and went insane, and he took her daughter Johannah to bring up himself as his ward.

Now the barber has returned, calling himself Sweeney Todd, and harbouring a quite reasonable hatred for the judge. But when he learns of the fate of his wife and daughter, that changes to an obsession for revenge, against Judge Turpin principally but finally against humanity in general. Sweeney Todd has his Epiphany –

“I will get him back even as he gloats
In the meantime I’ll practice on less honourable throats
And my Lucy lies in ashes
And I’ll never see my girl again”

Callum McArdle is a powerfully built actor, with a hard square face and dark eyebrows over piercing eyes. He played Sweeney Todd as a man driven beyond his limits, mounting the aisle of the seating rake to declaim to God; vowing –

“I will have Vengeance
I will have Salvation”

Sweeney Todd teams up with Mrs Lovett, his ex-landlady and owner of the pie shop. Alice Redmond gave us a multi-faceted portrait of a woman driven by the hunger, not for revenge, but for Profit. A mass of black hair (a wig?) made Redmond’s oval face much rounder, framing her large, generous eyes, and she can do comedy and cunning equally well. She put on a wistful, longing expression while comforting Sweeney Todd. She’s certainly in love with him – she’s kept his razors for him all those years – but what she wants most of all is to make enough money from her pie shop to fund a comfortable retirement by the sea. Preferably ‘married good and proper’ to Todd. In the meantime, like a proper capitalist, she’s quite happy to use his victims as cost-free filling in her meat pies – indeed it’s Mrs Lovett who comes up with the idea in the first place

It’s a musical, of course, and we were swept away by Sondheim’s unmistakable music and lyrics. I personally think that Sondheim’s lyrics are just as witty as those of W S Gilbert. In ‘A Little Priest’, for example, Lovett and Todd discuss the merits of the individuals who will be turned into her pies –

“Here’s the politician, so oily
It’s served with a doily”

“Try the friar
Fried, it’s drier.
No, the clergy’s really
Too coarse and too mealy
Then actor, that’s compacter
Yes, and always arrives overdone”

There were just a few lapses in audibility by individuals, but in the duets and the big numbers the company really let rip, filling the space and hammering home the songs. At one point, Todd and Turpin sing a duet, when the barber has the judge in his chair, and I was still humming ‘Pretty Women’ to myself for most of the next day – I’m humming it again as I write this.

The singing was powerfully supported by a trio of musicians – led by Ellen Campbell on keyboard, with Carl Greenwood, also on keyboard, and Nicola Brazier producing deep haunting notes on cello. .

For me, the story revolves around three different types of morality.

Sweeny Todd is a very moral person; but as we’ve seen, he’s been driven to the end of his tether, and now he despises humanity in general.

Mrs Lovett, by contrast, is a totally amoral person. She really has no conscience at all

Judge Turpin is a completely immoral person. He’s quite prepared to destroy a man’s family to satisfy his lust, and now he’s obsessed by Johannah, who’s by this time a young woman. But he’s not simply a caricature evil villain – the flagellation scene gives him depth as a character; shows that he recognises that his passions are wrong, and he’s trying to punish himself for succumbing to them.

Interestingly, this scene is often cut from productions of ‘Sweeney Todd’ – it was considered too strong for American audiences in the original Broadway show – but Conor Baum has wisely included it here. It’s immensely powerful – Stuart Simons is a strongly built actor; majestic, his imperious face bearded and his eyebrows arched, and with sleek greying hair above a high forehead. Stripped to the waist, on his knees, he’s watching Johannah through a keyhole –

“The light behind your window
It penetrates your gown
Johannah   Johannah
I see the sun through your …
NO
God
Deliver me
DOWN
DOWN”

Slashing himself over and over across the bare back with a cat o’ nine tails. There’s the possibility, of course, that the self-administered whipping actually adds to the excitement of ogling Johannah’s body.

I’ve concentrated on the three pivotal characters of the story, but of course there are many others too. This was a real ensemble production, with talent shared right across the cast. Scene by scene they would become passers-by in the street, victims in the barber’s chair, lunatics in the asylum, hungry diners in the pie shop. We had Dale Adams and Charlotte Citherow as Anthony and Johannah, the young lovers; Alistair Higgins as Toby Ragg, the boy who is taken in by Mrs Lovett. Rebecca Bowden made amazing transformations between the beggar-woman and Pirelli, Todd’s barber rival. While Bowden played both characters as grotesques, Samuel Cifford gave a truly menacing performance as Beadle Bamford – Clifford has a lean face to begin with, and he set his lips in a sneer that turned the Beadle into a really nasty piece of work

How do you give an audience the Pie Shop and the Barber’s Shop, as well as all the other locations? Cath Prenton’s set design allowed the action to flow on various levels, constantly changing the focus of our attention. A wooden platform construction, seemingly built out of old bits of weathered timber slatted together –
once it was thrown into relief by the warm backlights and side lighting it produced a chiaroscuro effect, beautifully evoking the narrow streets and overhanging buildings of Dickensian or Victorian London.

The upper level could be used as the barber shop, which was drenched in a red toplight when Todd despatched his victims. They reappeared as corpses on the lower level, which could also switch seamlessly from the basement pie factory to the streets outside. With no distracting scene changes, the whole production showed the minimalism and creativity which characterises Baum’s work. As a typical example, the white cloths used to cover bits of the set could be draped round actors’ heads and shoulders, transforming them – and their location – instantly into patients in the lunatic asylum.

Sometimes, the mark of a great production is that it seems much bigger than it actually is. James Weisz has put together a cast of actor/singers with the talent to give us an unforgettable rendition of Sondheim’s classic that feels almost like a West End show. Likewise, director Conor Baum has provided the framework to let them get on with the job.

A low-resolution set, with no clearly defined edges or details, which encourages the audience to imagine most of the features for ourselves. Scene changes which flow seamlessly from location to location without halting the action. Evocative lighting that produces depth and perspective to the locations – sometimes sharply isolating a character in foreground, sometimes losing them in background gloom. And truly effective direction – blocking and movement which sometimes took actors right out of the acting space, up the seating aisle, among the audience. A really three-dimensional effect, making full use of the height and cavernous space at 88 London Road.

Published on  www.fringereview.co.uk      FringeReview UK

The Bacchae

Conor Baum looks like Jesus Christ.

Not your average Jesus, though – instead, think of El Greco’s paintings of Christ. Lean, narrow face, prominent cheekbones, long hair and intensely staring eyes that seem to reach right into your soul.

Except that Baum is playing another god entirely – the Greek god Dionysus, god of wine and of ecstatic dance. So he’s dressed in a thin brown shift, slit to the thigh and leaving his chest bare. Slim body, with slender arms that look preternaturally long as he gestures with them. Hair very long, almost to his waist, and shimmering facial makeup that gives him the look of a bronze statue.

Like a proper God, our first sight of him is up above. Edd Berridge’s innovative direction had stripped all the seating out of the auditorium at 88 London Road, leaving the stepped wooden rake completely bare. The audience stood in what is normally the acting space, waiting for the performance to begin – and then suddenly there was Dionysus, high over us at the top of the rake, his figure lit by powerful backlights as he stepped down to give us his opening lines –

“So, Thebes,
I’m back “

Euripedes’ play is about the god Dionysus, whose father Zeus had impregnated Semele, a princess of Thebes. Later Zeus was tricked into revealing himself to her undisguised – as a thunderbolt – and Semele was blasted to death. Zeus took the foetus from the corpse, protected it, and raised the infant to become a god. Now Dionysus has returned to Thebes, to the place of his conception, but where the people do not accept his story of his origin.

Gods are jealous, though, and demand respect. Since they deny his divinity and won’t worship him, Dionysus has driven the women of Thebes into a trance, and they’ve left the city for nearby Mount Kithairon. On the mountain they’ve given up their robes to dress in soft deerskins, and they spend their days in an ecstatic orgy of dancing, wine and sex.

‘The Bacchae’ has a Chorus of these women followers of Dionysus, and Brief Hiatus gave us eight women – clad just in beige underwear, not particularly skimpy, which could pass for the skins of fawns, but also sometimes left the impression that they were completely naked as they cavorted up and down the wooden seating rake. They wore pink balaklava hoods, too – just their eyes and mouth showing, rendering them anonymous and recalling the masks worn by the Chorus in classic Greek theatre.

Semi-naked women are timeless, of course, but the rest of the production seemed to be set more in the present. We first met Kadmos, the ex-king of Thebes, along with Teiresias, the blind prophet, two old men dressed in short white towelling dressing gowns, garlanded as they prepared to join the Bacchae women in worship of Dionysus. Later, we saw them both dressed in modern suits. Teiresias, sightless, was in modern dark glasses throughout, while Seth Morgan as Kadmos, with his high forehead and long white beard (his own) looked disconcertingly like Charles Darwin.

When Pentheus, the current Theban king, arrived, he too was dressed in a contemporary formal business suit. Pentheus is a younger man, dynamic and loudly opinionated, and he’s angry.  Jordan Hiscott played him as rigidly unbending, unable to accept that the new arrival might actually be a god, seeing Dionysis only as a threat to public order that he is determined to crush. Allan Cardew put years onto his actual age to make Teiresias both pleading (as an old man) and yet magisterial in his warning to the king. As a prophet, he can see that Pentheus has no inkling of the divine force that he is up against.

“Pentheus
Poor Pentheus, you will bring
Pain to us. I am a blind man,
A prophet. But what I see now
Takes no skills, no prophesy.
When stupid men say stupid things
Sorrow follows”.

When I mentioned Jesus Christ at the start of this review, it wasn’t just because of any visual likeness. The essence of ‘The Bacchae’ is the collision of two philosophies – the rational physical world of King Pentheus, opposed to the abandonment of self to the mystical, ecstatic world offered by Dionysus. But when Pentheus has Dionysus in custody, and is interrogating him, in my mind I kept seeing Christ being questioned by Pontias Pilate. The Son of a powerful God, born to a virgin, who has returned from wanderings with a new message, and wants to reclaim ‘his kingdom’. He’s seen as a threat to the existing authority, which wants to destroy him.   Sound familiar?

The colour of the lighting and the movement of the dancers produced a ravishing visual spectacle, but Edd Berridge’s direction and Conor Baum’s music choices made the production work brilliantly on another level as well. When the women were dancing and singing on the theatre rake, it was to a soundtrack of rock music which I initially thought rather inappropriate. It almost felt like I was watching ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’.
(Him again …)

But the end of the play gets very dark. Dionysus has caused Pentheus’ mother, Agave, and the rest of the women, to tear her son limb from limb and devour his flesh raw. The killing itself was done in a splash of red light, high up on the rake, and the women emerged from the melee with their limbs and costumes covered in convincing looking blood. Agave herself carried Pentheus’s head back to Thebes in triumph, and was devastated when she finally came out of her trance and realised the enormity of what she’d done. Rosanna Bini’s transformation from ecstasy to horror was as heartrending as it was powerful.

Dionysus is very clear about why he’s done this –

“Pentheus mocked my divinity”
“You denied me – I was yours – new,
A god – and you denied me”

Gods are jealous. Gods are unforgiving. Gods are harsh.
Pentheus never had any conception of the force that he was up against – he thought he was dealing with some rather effeminate charlatan.

And that, for me, is one of the great strengths of this production – at the beginning we thought we were seeing something a bit lightweight, and only realised further in that this was a very serious production indeed. We were wrongfooted – just like Pentheus.

Brief Hiatus specialise in minimal staging, and this was about as minimal as it gets. I’ve already mentioned the completely bare audience rake, but there’s a section where the Bacchae are in the waters of a river. For this, the eight women simply unrolled a long length of blue silk, holding it above their heads with an undulating motion while the river flowed, and then in an instant it was gone, folded away and hidden. Simple and beautiful.

All the other male roles, messengers, guards, servants, were given us by Robert Cohen, all military gruffness in a modern jacket and trousers, and Scott Roberts in a boiler suit. Great characterization, even of minor roles. Roberts’ report to Pentheus about the frenzy of the women on the mountain is written in the style of Shakespeare’s ‘rude mechanicals’ – but his rendering was neither rude – “Don’t worry, I saw nothing I shouldn’t have” – nor in the least bit mechanical.

Often a rating of ‘Outstanding’ means that a production was very, very good. Occasionally it means it was unforgettable. ‘The Bacchae’ is one of those times.

Published on  www.fringereview.co.uk      FringeReview  UK

Spring Awakening

Brief Hiatus produce gripping theatre, but they are also extending my library. I bought three volumes of Howard Barker plays as a result of seeing their production of ‘Gertrude – The Cry’, and now I’ve got hold of both Frank Wedekind’s and Anya Reiss’ versions of ‘Spring Awakening’.

Frank Wedekind was very much a Modernist writer. He wrote honestly and unambiguously about sex, in an age when most people cloaked the subject in layers of euphemism – if they didn’t ignore it altogether. Indeed, the whole plot of ‘Spring Awakening’ revolves around the lack of sex education for pubescent youngsters, and the tragic results that follow from that policy.

But – although he was forward-looking, Wedekind was writing over a century ago, which means that his work is inevitably a bit dated, and the dialogue can come over as rather stiff. So it’s a very wise choice by Brief Hiatus to give us Anya Reiss’ 2014 version. An important and groundbreaking play has been adapted by a talented contemporary writer.

Reiss has kept very closely to the essential plot elements of ‘Spring Awakening’, but she’s brought the story up to date with modern technology – mobile phones, the internet and Google. She’s also cut down the cast by doubling up on a number of the roles. This allows a smaller Company to take on the play, as well as showing up the contradictions and opposites that one actor can portray.

Rosanna Bini, for example, was totally believable as Ilse, the loose-living free spirit who sleeps around with artists and photographers; but then she would switch character – instantly, holding her whole body stiffly and giving her voice much more authority – to become Miss Twister, one of the teachers at the teenagers’ school. Occasionally these transformations were carried out with small costume changes, a dressing gown for example, but mostly by the actor simply changing voice and posture. A minimalist approach to character that defined the whole production.

Because minimalism is a hallmark of Brief Hiatus’ work. They had reversed the usual acting area at The Lantern, to produce a narrow stage, just wide enough for eight stackable chairs to be placed side by side in a line, and about twice as deep as it was wide. Nothing else, apart from a couple of microphones on stands, and a jumble of schoolchildren’s possessions – bits of clothing, books and folders, mobile phones – scattered around the floor.

The perspective that this layout produced was remarkable. We could look at a whole school form seated in class, all across the back wall, and then someone would bring a microphone right to the front of the stage, literally a foot from the audience, and make a speech or address a meeting. At the start, the chairs were scattered randomly throughout the stage, with heaps of clothing on each. Then the eight actors – four women and four men – came on, just in their white underwear, and started dressing. Pulling on socks, trousers, blouses, all the while miming cleaning their teeth and checking the clock, until finally they’re ready. They took the chairs down to the rear, and there they were, sitting in school. That’s minimalism for you. I know exactly what my classroom looked like – I could almost see the blackboard …

The performances were powerful, too. The whole cast managed to produce that jerkiness of movement and speech that distinguishes children from older people, so that almost immediately we saw the actors as completely believable teenagers. On the occasions when they had to morph into adults, it was taking on that very stiffness I mentioned earlier that helped us to accept the change in age and status. Real ensemble playing.

Wedekind wanted his plays to get across a message to his audience. To provoke them. He wanted theatre to be able to criticise and expose a corrupt society or social system. If that meant breaking the illusion of reality by coming out of character for a speech, then so be it. In this he was very like Bertolt Brecht, although he was writing almost a quarter of a century before Brecht. Brief Hiatus have followed that tradition in this production, with characters occasionally speaking directly to the audience.

In Wedekin’s original, Moritz and Melchior are classmates. Moritz is very insecure, terribly stressed about his studies but also completely ignorant of the facts of life. Melchior knows all about the mechanics of sex, and writes a long letter to his friend, explaining them in words and drawings. The letter is discovered, and Moritz is made to feel so guilty that he kills himself. Melchior is blamed for his classmate’s death, and he’s expelled from school. But in the meantime he’s also got another classmate, Wendla, pregnant. Her mother had given her no information about reproduction, so she didn’t know how to conduct herself sexually – “The stork brings the baby when two people love each other very much”. Wendla has a botched abortion and dies too, leaving Melchior condemned for the loss of two lives.

Reiss’ contemporary version keeps the main story elements, but the teenagers are constantly texting and Skyping each other, and Melchior encourages Moritz to Google the sexual information he’s looking for, and guides him towards internet sex sites. After Moritz’s death, Melchior is accused by his teacher Miss Twister – “…relentless onslaught of emails including explicit descriptions of fantasies and links to illicit sites … Cyber bullying.”

But the boy’s response – which his teachers don’t want to hear – points up society’s double standards – “It’s out there. I didn’t send him to illegal sites. I didn’t tell him things that weren’t true. It’s out there. It’s not made by me, I didn’t invent this stuff. You made all this, you made this world then I’m punished for living in it?”

Good casting, especially for the central characters. Ben Baeza is dark haired, slightly stocky. He plays Moritz as anxious, preoccupied, rather central European. David Fenne as Melchior is by contrast taller, with longish fair hair, almost blonde, and an athletic looking physique. He looks rather Aryan, or like an English public schoolboy. (who remembers the rebellious teenage character from ‘If’, on the school roof with his machine gun?). Rebecca Elizabeth was a tragic Wendla – an innocent being pushed into adulthood too young; wanting so, so much to believe her mother’s lies and evasions, and ultimately paying the price

I mentioned Brecht and Wedekind earlier as sounding a bit – stiff. That’s not a word you could use for this production. This production is high-energy theatre from start to finish. Angry theatre. In-your-face theatre. I-can’t-believe-he’s-doing-that theatre.

Near the start the class are on a visit to an art gallery. We hear the gallery art historian’s explanation – “to the left now there is Palma Vecchio’s Venus, painted in 1520 … nudes, in particular those painted under the guise of mythological figures, had become a popular subject during the Italian Renaissance”. But the monologue gets hijacked – “…from the lighter brush strokes around the vagina we can discern that Venus’ pussy is in fact wet. It’s fucking glistening, viewer”. As we hear all this, we’re watching Hans sitting on a chair in his white underpants, masturbating furiously with what’s obviously an enormous erection. He’s in the gallery lavatory gazing at an illustrated art catalogue. Edd Berridge plays Hans with a manic intensity, and it’s a wonderful swipe at the pretensions of a lot of art history. There’s nothing stiff (well, not much) about this performance …

Later Berridge changes role to become Mr Sonnestisch, the unforgiving teacher who condemns Melchior. He plays the teacher completely straight, upholding morality, but we can’t help remembering that Sonnestisch himself was probably in that gallery lavatory, years ago. Maybe it’s the repression of that memory that’s making him so unforgiving now.

Very competent staging. Imaginative lighting helped convey mood, and provided a route into the afterlife for the two who die. One of my favourite moments was when Rosanna Bini as Ilse was talking late at night on Skype. She sat cross-legged on the floor with her laptop open in front of her, and the screen light cast an enormous shadow of her onto the back wall. She was here, but also there. Real, but also a fleeting, insubstantial image. It illustrated the internet perfectly.

It illustrated Conor Baum’s skill as a director, too. As they did in ‘Gertrude – The Cry’, the company manage to create a credible reality out of just a bare room and a few chairs. In the last scene the actors came on in their white underwear again. They stood along the walls and became gravestones in a cemetery. Because the actors believed in the graveyard, we as an audience chose to believe in it as well, and so the graveyard rose up before us. The magic of theatre never ceases to astound me.

Published on http://www.fringereview.co.uk     FringeReview UK

The Unknown Soldier

How do you even begin to show the horror and sacrifice of the First World War?
In these centenary years there have been many attempts at dramatic portrayals of those events, but the difficulties of recreating the Western Front on a theatre stage often leave them looking about as convincing as a school Nativity Play.

The problem isn’t just realism – some subjects are just too painful, too far removed from our modern experience, to be faced head-on. They need to be approached obliquely, and at a safe distance.

That’s what Ross Ericson has done with ‘The Unknown Soldier’, which he both wrote and performs. All we see on the stage at The Dukebox is the inside of a room in Jack Vaughn’s billet in France. There’s just enough space for a camp bed, a travelling trunk and a stove, and a couple of chairs. Nothing else – just the black back of the stage, and the sound of rain, continually falling outside.

Jack’s a Sergeant in the British Army – we see his stripes when he takes off his rain cape and starts talking to us. Well, talking to his mate Tom, actually. It’s a one-man show, so Tom must be sitting somewhere in the room and Jack talks to him throughout.

Jack’s not a youngster, he’s a big Devon man in his early forties, a veteran, and he’s volunteered to stay on after the end of the fighting two years ago, to collect bodies for identification and burial. There are thousands out on the old battlefields, lying in shell holes or buried in makeshift graves, and the authorities want them interred in proper military cemeteries.

See how cleverly Ross Ericson has written this play. We’ve all seen photographs of Tommies in the trenches, or going ‘over the top’, and other pictures of the immaculate war cemeteries – row upon row of crisp white stones. Jack, though, takes us very close to the stink of rotting bodies – “The worst ones were those that had been lying in a water-filled shell hole. Big bloated things they was, and they’d come apart on you when you tried to lift them up, just like wet paper”.

That was two years ago; these days – “we’ll be lucky to put a name to half of them. It’s rare they still have their identity discs, and if they do we have to search amongst their very bodies to find them”. Almost unimaginable horror, but the sergeant relates it calmly while sitting rolling a cigarette, and so we can bear to listen – we’re at a safe distance.

Later the author employs the same kind of technique for trench warfare itself. We don’t see some dramatisation – we just see Jack, rearing up from his bed in the middle of a nightmare, bathed in red light, acting out his memories.

An incredibly loud soundtrack surrounds us with an artillery barrage, very close, and Jack throws himself against the bed, hiding from the shellfire.  Then it’s the attack and he’s sleepwalking the action – using his rifle, aiming and shooting again and again until the Germans burst into the trench and he has to use his bayonet to defend himself. Finally that’s lost, and he’s flailing around with a trench spade, slicing into heads and arms …

At the blackout that closes the scene, we realise how badly Jack is shell-shocked. He’ll probably have these nightmares for the rest of his life.

Ross Ericson wants us to experience the Great War, but he also wants us to understand the aftermath. How, after all their suffering and sacrifice, the soldiers returning to Britain never got their ‘Land Fit for Heroes’ that they had been promised by Lloyd George. Many of the pre-war injustices and inequalities not only remained but got worse, and although the dead were remembered with monuments; the living, and especially the mutilated, were forgotten.

“The only land they gives to heroes is six foot down. Bugger the living. Don’t for God’s sakes come back alive, ’cause we don’t want to see your ugly stumps and your ugly scars, we don’t want to hear your midnight screams and tales of hell”.

War memorials for the dead – poverty, unemployment and broken lives for many of the living. He tells us of riots in Luton in 1919, when war veterans burned the Town Hall in protest at victory celebrations that included only the town ‘worthies’ and excluded the fighting men themselves.          Google it – I did.

So the central theme of ‘The Unknown Soldier’ is that the authorities want to take the body of an unidentified soldier back to Britain, to be entombed in Westminster Abbey as a symbol of the heroism and honour. The French will do the same thing, at The Pantheon in Paris on Armistice Day.

Jack hates the whole concept, thinks it’s a hollow gesture, a politician’s trick. But he’s ordered to find a body, exhume it, and transport it to the coast for shipment to England. To find out how he did that, and how all this also involves his mate Tom, you’ll have to see the play for yourselves.

You won’t be disappointed.  Ericson is an outstanding actor – Sergeant Jack Vaughn was a very believable portrayal.  He filled the Dukebox space with his powerful presence and a rich West Country voice, and the writing also dropped in enough details about his family and his Devon background to make the character a completely rounded creation. Michelle Yim’s sensitive direction brought out every nuance of the piece.

And Ross Ericson himself is a radical champion of the rights of working people. The playscript was on sale and I bought a copy – I wanted to look deeper at this production. As part of his reason for writing ‘The Unknown Soldier’, he writes in the introduction –
“I hope once you have read it and you see our current out-of-touch elite standing at the Cenotaph with their poppies in their lapels, and you hear their talk of patriotism and sacrifice and their empty promises of honouring the dead, you will understand why I thought it necessary to write one more play about the First World War”.

Published at   http://www.fringereview.co.uk   Brighton Fringe  2016

Cathedral

The flyer said that ‘Cathedral’ is inspired by a Raymond Carver short story of that name. Personally, I couldn’t see very much connection – apart from somebody remembering their past, which isn’t the main point of Carver’s story. Perhaps linking it to a ‘serious’ writer gives a play some gravitas.

What ‘Cathedral’ did bring to mind, though, was a passage from ‘Justine’, the first volume of Lawrence Durrell’s ‘Alexandria Quartet’.  There, the main character is describing an old sailor called Scobie – “One by one his memories leak through the faulty machinery of his mind until he no longer knows them for his own. Behind him I see the long grey rollers of the Atlantic at work, curling up over his memories, smothering them in spray, blinding him” … “He tries to remember, but the grey rollers intervene, the long effortless tides patrol the barrier between himself and his memory”.

‘Cathedral’ is about memory, and the difficulty of keeping memories organised and faithful while the entropy of the passing years gradually degrades them towards chaos. It’s about the sea, too – the stage at The Warren was black and completely bare, and as we sat down there was the rhythmic sound of surf crashing on sand or shingle, each time followed by that scraping noise as the water retreats, before rebuilding itself into the next breaker. Incredibly bright backlights shone straight into our eyes, dazzling us like sunlight on a bright midsummer day at the seaside.

But then it went dark, the whole stage becoming inky black. All the action was taking place inside the protagonist’s head. We just heard the man’s voice out of the darkness, on an amplified soundtrack, as he recalled events that had taken place with someone, presumably a lover, years before.

Fragments of events, actually. This wasn’t a coherent narrative – we got small snippets of what the narrator remembered, but they would be counterbalanced by different versions of the same events. An alternative perspective? – or perhaps it was a another time altogether, a different recollection jostling with the first? Was there perhaps more than one lover, one long-finished relationship, surfacing from the depths of his memory? Sometimes the voice broke up into a cacophony of bangs and static, as though the tracks of memory had become corrupted over the years.

The first light on the stage came from a small hand lamp, held by a woman in a dark summer dress. Just short flashes, as if from a lighthouse at night – the sea again – but enough to show us the presence of the actor in the darkened space.

Then there was a second woman on the stage as well. As the crepuscular side-light brightened just enough to show us both their outlines, we could see that she was wearing a similar dress, though paler. We could hear their voices, too, on the soundtrack – splinters of past events, repeated and jumbled like the man’s.
Sometimes just the small lamps they held lit each woman momentarily, focussing our attention this way or that, before being extinguished, leaving us once more in darkness.

With similar clothing and hair, were they in fact different recollections of the same woman? The Fye and Foul company didn’t give anything away – we had to make our own judgment. That’s the power of this production – it managed to immerse us in the jumbled inner life of the narrator. We heard the women speak about some occasion – a meeting, a parting, a family event, a sexual act – but what we were actually hearing was the man’s memory of their words. Perhaps he’s remembering them accurately, possibly he’s forgotten the detail, or conceivably he’s actually repressing something that is too painful to confront. We don’t know which – but then of course neither does he.

Maybe the past is always like this – another country, glimpsed indistinctly, fading as it recedes away from us through time. Fye and Foul managed to convey that recession physically, too. Sand, fine as flour, falling from above in thin streams, as if the women were somehow inside an hour-glass. Sand, catching the light from the small lamps as it cascaded over them, veiling their features as if they were behind water or silk. The sand of beaches, where children make castles, and lovers make love.

This company know how to engage an audience’s attention – we were held spellbound for almost an hour. Subtle movements, beautifully orchestrated and perfectly controlled, as the women moved around the stage in the dim light. They weren’t easy to see, we had to strain to make out detail.

Beautiful – though not all of the stage work added to the narrative. I felt occasionally that we were seeing movement for its own sake, while the meaning of the production was conveyed by the voices on the sound track.

But then suddenly an upward facing lamp would light a thin stream of falling sand, producing the impression of a solid column. Like in a cathedral … Enchanting images. Unforgettable.

Some productions lead the audience by the hand, but not this one. We were treated as adults, made to confront the messy reality of someone’s consciousness, and forced to draw our own conclusions – based, as in real life, on incomplete evidence. An exhilarating experience, immersive and challenging. Theatre to make an audience look deeper at life – and at ourselves.

Published at  www.fringereview.co.uk   Brighton Fringe 2016

The Bookbinder

‘The Bookbinder’ is billed in the Fringe Brochure as ‘storytelling’, and to be fair, that’s what we got. But we got a lot more than just a recital of some words. The show managed to create a little self-contained world, like a jewel nestling on a velvet cushion, where a present-day Homer spun us a tale of mystery and adventure.

Ralph McCubbin Howell was sitting at his desk as we went into the Dukebox. An old-fashioned desk, with a Victorian desk lamp on it, and a standard lamp in the same style off to one side. Lamps at either side of the stage, too, on small tables, all casting pools of soft warm light. He’s in his late twenties, with dark hair and a luxuriant beard and moustache – the full set. An old fashioned gramophone, the kind with a big horn, was playing music as we came in, then stopped, with a ticking sound as the needle ran round the inner track. “Bloody newfangled technology”, said the man, as he changed the disc to another 78 – which neatly told us which era we’d stumbled into.

The man had on a brown craftsman’s apron – he’s a bookbinder. There was a sign on the front of the desk – ‘Apprentice Sought’ – and it seems that we were applying for the post. A heavy volume sat on the desk in front of the him, bound in tooled red leather. He ran his hands over the cover as he told us that bookbinding is a trade where you have to take a lot of care – “things can go awry for those who get distracted”.

The Dukebox is a small venue, and the bookbinder was able to make eye contact with each of us as he opened the weighty cover of the book – “You can get lost in a good book – but it’s worse to get lost in a bad one …”.

Howell is a very accomplished storyteller. His voice had a rich, warm timbre as the narrator; he’s obviously from New Zealand, but he slipped effortlessly into a range of different accents and registers to become the various characters in his tale. And what a variety! – we were introduced to the young apprentice himself, but also his family, rough sailors, exotic foreign women, and a whole range of animals who help him in his quest. Because of course this is a classic quest, a fairytale – there are obstacles to be overcome and dangers to be faced, before a final resolution. I wasn’t joking when I talked about Homer earlier – Howell’s tale had many features in common with ‘The Odyssey’.

There are many storytellers – what made this storyteller different was the book. As he turned the pages, paper cut-outs and drawings popped up to illustrate a location or a character. They were created by Hannah Smith, who also directed the show and co-wrote the original story – clearly a talented woman.   Beautifully done, like the wood-block engravings made centuries ago – heavy lines, rich black against the yellowing paper of the leather-bound volume.

But there was a problem – the detail was too small to make out clearly.  The scale of the illustrations was dwarfed by the size of the desk and of the Dukebox stage. The bookbinder would talk, and the scene would rise up from the page – but even from just two rows back I could only make out a confusing jumble of small shapes.  Howell invited us up to the desk at the end of the show, to look at the book close up, and the cutting and illustrating was indeed enchanting. But we’d missed out on all that detail during the narrative itself, which made the experience far less satisfying.

Ralph McCubbin Howell himself doesn’t simply narrate.  As the tale progressed he occasionally leaped up from the desk with a puppet or a cut-out in hand, to swoop around the stage. Even when seated at the book, every bit of his physicality – body tension, eye movements, hand gestures – put extra meaning and emphasis into his words.  Trick of the Light are from New Zealand, and there were often little informal asides to the audience.   At one point Howell is talking about tears – “…floods of tears, literally floods. And when he said ‘literally’, he meant it, because a lot of people don’t”. Great stage presence.

A great sound track too, by Tane Upjohn Beatson – a haunting assemblage of electronic music, weird ethereal tones evoking the mythical locations of the story. Together with the soft pools of light I’ve described earlier, it felt like we were peering through some gap in the fabric of time, back to an earlier world. Ideally, the show would work better in a smaller space – we’re told it premiered in the back room of a bookshop – but try to catch it wherever you can. A gem.

Published at  www.fringereview.co.uk   Brighton Fringe 2016

The White Crow.  Eichmann in Jerusalem

Ken Livingstone should really have been in the audience.

During this year’s election campaign for the London Mayor, Livingstone was vilified for his ‘Hitler’ remarks – claiming that the German Führer had initially intended simply to expel the European Jews to Palestine or East Africa, and had discussed this with Zionist leaders. There was predictable outrage from many quarters, yet there is ample historical justification for Ken’s comments, and some of this forms an integral part of ‘The White Crow’.

With wonderful synchronicity, Bootcamp Theatre were preparing this play for Brighton Fringe at the same time as Ken Livingstone was speaking into that microphone at the end of April …

The Theatre Box stage is quite small, with dark grey walls and a low ceiling. It was cluttered, with several chairs and a few easels carrying large photographs. And there were documents everywhere – some stacked in neat piles while others lay scattered around. The place had the oppressive feel of an underground interrogation room, or maybe a bunker.

A door must have opened off to one side, and a hooded man was guided in by a soldier in military fatigues. He was tall, in civilian clothes – a dark sweater and trousers – and when the hood was removed he blinked in the light and smoothed his receding hairline. It’s Adolph Eichmann – recently kidnapped by Israeli agents in Argentina and brought secretly to Israel to be tried for war crimes. During the war, he was SS Obersturmbannführer Eichmann, with a major responsibility for the deaths of millions in the ‘Final Solution’.

Then a middle-aged woman entered and introduced herself – she was in military uniform like the other soldier, dark blonde hair pulled back into a bun, and wearing a holstered side-arm on a webbing belt. “I am Dr Baum, serving temporarily on special assignment with Bureau Six of the Police of the State of Israel”. Heather Alexander gave her a clear direct voice, but from her bearing and her words it was already obvious that Dr Baum was no ordinary soldier. Was she a lawyer? Was she a psychologist?

Steve Scott had an equally clear voice, rather hectoring, and the actor managed to give Eichmann the mannerisms of a German officer without descending into parody. He stiffened a bit, didn’t quite click his heels, and addressed the woman as “Frau Captain Professor Dr Baum”. Right from the start it’s clear that Eichmann cares a great deal about status. “I was led to believe that Chief Prosecutor Hausner was to personally handle my case”. He doesn’t want to be dealing with some underling.

This is the man who ‘wasn’t responsible’. He sent millions to their deaths, but he tells Dr Baum that his job was – “Evacuation, deportation – railway timetables. I never decided the fate of one man after he reached his destination”. She tries to make him see the overall picture, the monstrous illegality of what he was involved in, but Eichmann responds – “When you are in uniform, there are no ‘illegal’ or ‘legal’ orders. There are only orders”.

He’s always justifying himself. He tells Dr Baum that in 1939 he met Zionist leaders, planning to send as many Jews as possible from Germany to live in Palestine. Later they came up with projects for Jewish resettlement in Poland – in an enclave to be known as Nisko – or alternatively in Madagascar.

But by 1941 the Nazi attitude changed, and SS leaders laid plans for the ‘Final Solution’ to the Jewish people at the infamous Wannsee Conference. As secretary to the Conference, Eichmann himself wrote the minutes. Now he tells Dr Baum that when he saw ‘respectable’ officials – his superiors – endorsing genocide, he could become “like Pontias Pilate, and wash my hands” of any personal responsibility.

Great theatre can give us a ringside view of difficult or challenging issues.- that’s the power of the medium. Bootcamp Theatre have had the courage and skill to take on a complex set of moral and legal arguments, and run them in front of an audience for over an hour. It could have felt like a philosophy lecture, but it didn’t – we were gripped from start to finish. There was an intensity to the performances that made it impossible to look away.

Both Steve Scott and Heather Alexander brought the characters to vivid life. Donald Freed’s script has a lot of fascinating historical detail, but it was the emotional portrayals that made it believable. Eichmann’s voice suddenly stopping in mid-sentence, when he comes up against a fact, a memory, that he doesn’t want to remember. Or Dr Baum coming close to losing her temper, and then the slight clenching of fists as she forces herself to calm down, to keep her cool, to do her job. (but what exactly is her job?)

Small examples – the minutiae of the actor’s craft – but these two carried them off flawlessly, and because the characters became flesh and blood, the issues became real and relevant as well.

Very assured pacing, too. ‘The White Crow’ simply has the protagonists circle one another, throughout the play, as Dr Baum tries to break through Eichmann’s defensive shell. They’re locked inside this small space – a hot and stuffy basement room that starts to feel like the inside of a pressure cooker as emotions rise. The two gradually ratcheted up the tension, but the increase in intensity wasn’t constant, so the audience was kept on its toes throughout.

We were given a close-up insight into an appalling period in recent history, but there’s also some mystery running through the play. Who is Dr Baum? What motivates her? What are her orders? Although she is a fictional creation of the playwright, put there to give us a window into Eichmann’s psychology, Heather Alexander played Dr Baum with such intensity that I believed in her completely as an historical figure.

I believed in the reality of interrogation room, too. It wasn’t particularly warm in the Theatre box, but as we left the space I wasn’t the only audience member taking in great gulps of fresh cool air.

Published at  www.fringereview.co.uk   Brighton Fringe 2016

The Other

What is War?

War is when a cloud of dust falls from the ceiling.
War is when there are loud bangs.
War is when men come to our village and burn my house.
War is when my mother and I have to run away
War is when I have to run away on my own.
War is when I don’t know where I’m running to.

War is completely incomprehensible to a child. An overwhelming, jarring pandemonium of sounds and sights.

They had hung a white sheet at the front of the Marlborough stage, pegged to a clothesline to form a back-projection screen, with a lamp behind. A mother – we saw her shadow cast against the screen – was trying to reassure her daughter, stroking her head to calm her fears. The woman was real, but the child was a cut-out shape producing a black silhouette on the sheet, and the two worked together to give us a sense of fear turning to panic – the world turned upside down.

Then we saw the soldiers – simple, crudely-rendered shapes of figures with helmets and guns. Then we saw the huts of the child’s village, and then the star shapes of explosions and the jagged triangle arrangements of the flames where the buildings were being torched. Hidden from our view, the lamp behind the screen was actually an overhead projector, an OHP, and the woman was laying the cut-out shapes of all these things on the glass to project them onto the sheet.

The woman didn’t always leave the cut-outs on the OHP – sometimes she held them in the light as she moved back and forth between the projector and the screen, so the shadows changed in size, or altered their form as she turned them sideways. Of course she changed her size, too – when she moved close to the projector we sometimes saw the shadow of just her face, filling a full third of the screen.

There was sound, too. A cacophony of explosions, gunfire, and the harsh crackle of burning buildings. With the stark visuals and the constant changes of size on screen, the overall effect was overwhelming. Unimaginable. Another world …

Another world, indeed. At the very start of the show, the screen was completely dark and all we saw were two spots of light, blue and orange, circling one another. The actor, invisible behind the sheet, held two small torches to create the effect, and told us of the two Planets – the Red-Yellow Planet and the Blue Planet. Two different Worlds.

The Blue Planet is of course Western Europe or North America, cool and verdant; and most of us who live here have known only peace and prosperity, for several generations. But for people from the Red-Yellow Planet it’s a haven of security, a beacon of hope that they’re trying desperately to reach. Because the Red-Yellow planet is all those places that are hot, sandy or rocky, and poor, and angry.

Gaël Le Cornec’s father is from Brittany, but she’s half Brazilian, with dark hair pulled tightly back into a bun behind her head. She’s lightly built, with a fresh face that could make her thirteen or thirty, and this show is her creation. In silhouette behind the screen she was the mother, but then she squeezed under the sheet – a border fence? – to become a refugee child, Mana.

Mana’s journey, like countless other refugees from war zones or oppressive regimes, is fraught with danger and hardship. The power of Le Cornec’s production is that she doesn’t attempt to show us the reality – brutalised child soldiers, or the risks of abuse or falling into slavery, or the rigours of clandestine voyages and border crossings. Instead we see from a child’s viewpoint – there are giants, and dragons, and unicorns, and shooting stars that you ride on. Dreamlike images, unforgettable – many of them done with the distorted perspectives that she produces with the projected images on the screen.

Brilliant lighting design, by Pablo Fernandez Baz, produced a heightened sense of unreality. The screen could be lit blue or red instead of just white, and after the actor pulled it down we could see the whole stage alternately drenched in fire or moonlight in vibrant primary colours. Bright white backlighting picked out Gaël Le Cornec as she moved around the space – elegant movements, fluid as a dancer.

She’s lost her mother, but she finds a doll and – like all little girls – in looking after it she takes on some of the status of motherhood herself. Le Cornec was clad in a yellow top and a red flowered skirt, while the doll had a jacket in the same yellow, and red leggings. With the doll’s black hair pulled back like the little girl’s, they seemed to be different-sized versions of each other. Mana looks after the doll, as her mother had tried to protect her, and the effect was of seeing the same story, but from a different level of reality.

Finally, she reaches the Blue Planet, and she’s ecstatically happy to be safe – at last.

But of course, we who live on the Blue Planet are very anxious about our security. We’re very worried that they are going to attack us, or infect us somehow with their poverty, or their cultural values. So we’re very careful to only let in those of them who’ve got very good reasons for leaving their country.

So the last part of ‘The Other’ finds little Mana being interrogated by an invisible Immigration official – probably a computer programme in actuality – bombarding the child with the repetitive administrative questions and demands that the Security State increasingly needs.

“You must answer the following questions fully and truthfully. Failure to do so may damage your credibility and affect the outcome of your stay on the Blue Planet. You should be aware that making a false statement or representation may constitute an offence under the Blue legislation and render you liable to prosecution and imprisonment”

This litany is repeated mechanically with every batch of questions.  Questions like –

“Do you have any medical condition?”
“What was your mode of transport to the Blue Planet?”
“What are your reasons for coming?”
“Have you ever committed any offence?”

The child doesn’t understand the questions, or hasn’t the language to answer correctly, so she mutely pulls down her yellow top to expose the word CHILD written at the top of her chest. To other questions she pulls the top up, to show the word WAR written on her stomach. On her right arm she has DON’T KNOW written. She shows that one to a lot of the questions.

The Blue Planet may be safe – but it isn’t kind. They make Mana give up her doll – “Security Procedure” – and strip off her own clothes – “Security Procedure” – in exchange for anonymous blue sweats. She’s never addressed by name – they provide her with an identification number written on a sheet of paper. As the lights went down at the end, the final image is of the little girl sitting, alone, tearing up the paper to fashion a small human figure.

She’s made herself another doll.

Published at  www.fringereview.co.uk   Brighton Fringe 2016

Call Mr Robeson

The stage at The Marlborough is entirely black, and all we could hear was the scratchy sound of an old bakelite 78 record, with a ticking noise about every second as it tracked along its inner groove at the end of a play. Then the lights came up, and in the back corner a slim young woman, dark haired and elegantly clothed in a black dress and fine check jacket, commenced playing piano. A short medley – I could pick out the unmistakable notes of ‘Old Man River’ before it segued into something else – which tapered off as we heard singing starting from outside the auditorium door.

“Tote that barge / lift that bale / You get a little drunk / and you land in jail”. As he came through the door, it was Paul Robeson, bent under the burden of a chair over his shoulder – as though it was a heavy bale of cotton. Robeson went up onto the stage, put down the chair and sat on it, and the show began.

Tayo Aluko is a tall black man in his fifties with a rich bass voice. He was wearing a beautiful grey double-breasted suit. Good shirt, cufflinks, and a classy grey tie. Hair cut really short, almost to stubble; he bore a striking resemblance to the Paul Robeson we see in photographs from the nineteen fifties and sixties. Whether he was singing in concert, speechmaking at civil rights rallies, or appearing in front of Joe McCarthy’s anti-communist Senate hearings, Robeson was always elegantly dressed, always charismatic.

Aluko grew up Liverpool – he moved there from his native Nigeria as a small child – but he put on a convincing American accent for this show. He put on the mantle of Robeson’s magnetic personality too. Sometimes Aluko moved downstage to make a point with expansive hand gestures and loads of eye contact with the Marlborough audience – at other moments he stood on a couple of small boxes, as though at a podium, and spread his arms wide to address thousands of listeners in some stadium.

I knew a little about Paul Robeson – that’s why I wanted to see this show, to learn more about his life. And what a life! I had no idea just how varied and rich it had been. Robeson’s father was born a slave, but escaped, then graduated through university to become a church Minister, while his mother came from a Quaker family who worked for the abolition of slavery. Paul obviously inherited their intelligence and determination, and he himself went to Rutgers University to study law.

Robeson turned out to be a star athlete as well as a scholar, but he had to overcome racial aggression from fellow students to become a member of the university football team. He also started to sing, initially to help his student finances. After graduation he worked for a while as a lawyer, but then turned to acting and singing professionally – he starred in the 1927 London production of ‘Show Boat’, which featured the song ‘Old Man River’.

Robeson obviously knew all about racial prejudice, but as Aluko told it, it was the lyrics from the show’s song ‘Old Man River’ that opened Robeson’s eyes to black people’s predicament. “Niggers all work on the Mississippi / niggers all work, while the white boys play / Gettin’ no rest from the dawn till the sunset / getting’ no rest till the Judgement Day”. Robeson hated that, and later changed the words to ‘Coloured people work on the Mississippi’ whenever he sang it, insisting that the ‘N’ word recalled the worst excesses of slavery. But of course, even though slavery was over, race hatred and segregation were still endemic in American society in the nineteen thirties.

Paul Robeson came to realise that the inequality suffered by black people in America was shared by working people the world over. He’d met Welsh miners while he was in Britain in the twenties, and as a famous celebrity he became an outspoken activist for socialism. He was appalled by the rise of Fascism – at a rally during the Spanish Civil War he made a speech that was reported around the world – “The artist must fight for freedom, or for slavery. I have made my choice. I had no alternative”.

Robeson worked tirelessly for the Civil Rights movement, and spoke out against the colour bar at his concerts – “I have insisted I will not sing to segregated audiences”. Tayo Aluko made those words ring out, and reminded us that negro spiritual songs are about hardship as well as about faith. When he sang ‘Joshua fought the battle of Jericho’ and ‘Didn’t my Lord deliver Daniel?’ the singer took us right back to the plantation slavery of the Old South. Many white people hated him for this, of course, and there were often threats of violence. At a concert at Peekskill in New York State, there was rioting, and the event had to be protected by a force of trade unionists – “Black, White and Latino”.

Aluko’s powerful voice boomed those words from the Marlborough stage. The actor gave us a fine sense of the passion of Robeson’s political beliefs, but he also produced a vivid portrait of a man who seems to have had no self-doubt at all!  Star athlete, lawyer, successful singer, civil rights activist, socialist figurehead – was there nothing this man couldn’t do? He’d studied at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies and spoke more than a score of languages. He was friends with Nehru and Einstein, had a long-standing marriage and a son, yet still found the time (and energy!) to engage in a long series of hotel-room trysts with women he described as ‘good friends’ …

Paul Robeson saw himself as a citizen of the World. The stage had boxes and stands draped with a number of flags – British, American, Welsh, and the hammer and sickle of the Soviet Union. Aluko made use of these as visual aids as he recounted Robeson’s internationalism. During the Cold War the singer spent a number of years living in Russia – he loved the fact that the Soviet system didn’t discriminate against black people. “It is unthinkable that American negroes would go to war on behalf of a people who have oppressed us for generations, against a country which, in one generation, has raised our people to the full dignity of mankind”.

All this activity meant that in 1956 he was called to testify to HUAC – Senator Joe McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee. They asked why the singer was a supporter of Russia; and, sneeringly, why the singer hadn’t stayed there, if he liked it so much. Aluko gave us Robeson’s powerful replies. “Because in Russia I felt like a full human being for the first time in my life. No colour prejudice like in Mississippi” … “Because my father was a slave, and my people died to build this country – and I’m going to stay here, and have a part of it, just like you”.

Tayo Aluko is touring this show, using a local pianist to accompany his songs at each venue. We were lucky enough to have Ana Sofia Ferreira, Portuguese-born but living in Brighton. Her southern European background complemented Robeson’s internationalism, and her spirited playing was a fine match for the actor’s powerful bass singing.

At the end Robeson was old, and becoming tired and frail. The actor had gradually made his movements slower and more painfully tentative, wincing slightly as he sat or stood up. He finished with a haunting rendition of ‘I’m going Home’, then picked up the chair and shuffled off out of the auditorium. To return moments later to thunderous applause.

A wonderfully uplifting and inspiring performance. I saw ‘Call Mr Robeson’ just a month before a Referendum will decide if Britain is to become insular and xenophobic, fearing foreigners and in thrall to bankers and big business. Paul Robeson and Tayo Aluko showed that there is another possibility – a different vision of how we can be.

Published at  www.fringereview.co.uk   Brighton Fringe 2016

Helen

In the opening stage of ‘Helen’, Tamsin Shasha, playing the eponymous central character, was wearing what looked like a surgical mask. She was lying on a huge bed in white silk pyjamas, surrounded on all four sides by a four-poster structure draped with filmy white gauze hangings. Helen’s head was almost completely hidden. All we could see were a few tufts of her hair sticking out, and three round holes framing – and drawing all our attention to – her mouth and her enormous eyes.

‘Was this the face that launched a thousand ships / And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?’. Christopher Marlowe’s Faust knew that she was the most beautiful woman in history – the Queen of Sparta, who’d left her husband to run away with the Trojan Prince Paris. The betrayal which led to the Trojan War, ten years of bloody slaughter as the Greeks destroyed Troy to get Helen back. And now – was Helen’s face burned, or scarred in some way?

Helen was badly scarred – but not on her face or body. When she removed it, the mask turned out to be some kind of cosmetic aid helping to keep her skin fresh. Because this is an older Helen – it’s been twenty or thirty years since she returned from Troy with Menelaus after the war and she’s middle-aged now. Helen’s scars were all inside her mind.

Actors of Dionysus have updated the Helen story to a contemporary setting – it could be today’s Middle East. Helen’s husband is the President, and his country is in the throes of a revolution. He’s away somewhere, maybe dead by now, and the rebels have taken control of the TV station. Helen’s in her bedroom in the Presidential Palace, it seems – alone apart from a solitary male aide – and she’s drug fuddled and in complete denial.

All the action takes place in and around the four-poster bed, and there’s obviously a large television set somewhere in the room. When they clicked the remote, clever lighting gave flickering illumination on the two actors, and we heard indistinct TV sound of someone making a speech, and later of people chanting slogans in the streets. It’s like the Arab Spring protests in Egypt or Algeria.

Or in today’s Syria. At the close of the performance, Actors of Dionysus made a collection for Syria Relief, and I was struck that if that revolt finally brings down Bashar al-Assad, it might well be his wife Asma hiding in the besieged palace …

Helen is raging at the TV – “They’re animals, barbarians … Bomb them into submission. Take back the suburbs!”. But she’s also fretting about a party that will have to be cancelled, while at the same time planning great victory parades. She’s in absolute panic – she orders her aide to find the list of party guests on his laptop, and then selects a few diplomats and politicians to contact, begging them for asylum. But even here, her email text as she dictates it is sensual and coquettish. Helen is used to getting her own way, and she’s offering sex in exchange for sanctuary.

Helen’s aide never speaks – his tongue has been cut out – and we’re not given his name. Tyler Fayose who acts him is tall and powerfully built, wearing a black t-shirt and military fatigue pants. He’s a soldier – he salutes at the TV when somebody (the President?) is speaking. He’s her secretary, hence the laptop – but he’s also some kind of medic, so he restrains Helen when she thrashes around in uncontrollable rage and terror, and injects her with sedatives to calm her. There’s a strong undercurrent of sexuality between them – at several points she attempts to seduce him – but it’s never clear whether he is in fact her jailer, too.

The physicality of this production was beautiful. The light as very white and cruelly bright as Helen surveyed her ageing body in a mirror, but then it softened to warmer tones as she returned to the bed to recount her conception. Helen’s mother Leda was seduced by the god Zeus, who disguised himself as a swan to mate with her. As Helen sat on her pillow speaking to us, her aide stood close behind her, back to back, hidden except for his arms, which he reached behind to wrap around her sensuously. Then he raised them above her like the great wings of the swan God – a powerful and unforgettable image.

This episode reminded us of Helen’s mythical status – a semi-god, irresistibly beautiful. But she’s been blamed throughout history, from Homer onwards, for her infidelity as the cause of immense suffering; her hands – “drenched in the blood of women and children”. Tamsin Shasha and her co-writer Jonathan Young put a different spin on the Trojan War, as today’s Helen screams at the TV that – “it’s ridiculous to open up old wounds from twenty, thirty years ago”, and that all the charges against her were unproven. She’s innocent – “The war was about resources: oil and minerals“. Oil and minerals provide a direct parallel to the Iraq War, where fictitious ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction’ were used as an excuse for going to war for control of oil resources.

That’s exactly what this reviewer has long thought about the Trojan War. If you consider the location of Troy – at the very entrance to the Dardanelles, able to control and tax all the trade from the Black Sea into the Mediterranean – it seems obvious that the city posed an economic threat which needed to be eliminated. A war about resources, in fact. And what better excuse for starting a war than to recover the ‘abducted’ wife of a Greek King? What if the seduction of Helen was a complete fabrication, used to drum up support for the conflict?

Helen of Troy as a ‘Weapon of Mass Destruction’.

So there are politics and mythology in this piece, but my overriding impression is of achingly sensual movement and light.  Tamsin Shasha is an aerialist as well as an accomplished actor, and later in the play she used the hanging gauzes as silks, climbing up and wrapping them round her waist to support herself as she swung from the poles of the four-poster structure. For an extended sequence she hung there, body horizontal and feet against an upright, as the man pulled her gently round through several revolutions. When he released her, the silks unwinding round the post gave her the impetus to rotate completely unassisted – as though she was flying. It was like watching a ballet in slow motion – astonishing and unforgettable.

So many ravishing moments.  At one point the man tried to escape, climbing up high, and got shot by a rebel.  As his body lay draped on the poles above the bed, the bluish light on the gauze drapes turned oh-so-gradually to red – so sadly, so subtly. In fact ‘subtle’ is the only possible word for Ric Mountjoy’s lighting – it changed in colour and intensity throughout the production, matching each plot development perfectly, and bringing out all the shimmering delicacy of Dora Schweitzer’s set.

The man’s now a corpse lying on the bed, and Helen will have to make her escape alone.  He couldn’t speak, remember, but he’d kept a diary of his dealings with Helen. She goes through it now, tearing out the pages with events she doesn’t want to be seen, and cramming them into her mouth to swallow. An amazing image – the dead man’s words, which he couldn’t get past his own lips, now stuffed into somebody else’s mouth.

Finally, she rummages through the travelling case she’s packed, and puts on a pale blue nurse’s dress. Helen is beautiful, sexual, demanding – but above all she’s a survivor. No-one will be looking for a simple nurse in the confusion when they come to sack the Palace, and she will move on to her next role. As she says – “I’ll outlive you all”.

Published at  www.fringereview.co.uk   Brighton Fringe 2016

Confessions of a Redheaded Coffeeshop Girl

‘Coffeeshop Girl’ was billed in the Fringe Brochure as – ‘Anthropology grad Joanie is stuck working as a barista. Much like Jane Goodall did with the chimps, this upbeat Miss studies her available subjects: the customers.’ So I was expecting a few jokes about how people have some animal characteristics, and maybe a bit about Jane Goodall (of whom I’m a huge admirer). But it turned out to be so much more!

The production is a full-on showcase for the multi-talented Rebecca Perry. This woman can do it all – stand up, storytelling, romantic comedy, physical theatre … and she’s a great singer too!

The Sweet Waterfront venue is in a large modern hotel with numerous conference rooms, and ‘Coffeeshop Girl’ used a fairly long and narrow one, maybe sixty seats, with black curtains round a stage area at one end. They’d set up a little counter with an espresso machine on it at the back, and there was a small table and chair at one side. Nothing else – but who needs more? This is minimal theatre, and Rebecca Perry proved quite capable of bringing the coffee bar to life in our imaginations.

In her show, she’s Joanie Little, an Anthropology student who graduated into the economic recession and can’t get a research post. So she gets a job in a Toronto coffee bar.

“Neeexxxt!”.

It’s early morning, and the customers are queuing for their coffees. Joanie classifies them into different jungle animals – slinky jungle big cats, timid indecisive deer, wild turkeys, zebra – Joanie spots all these species as she serves them, and she does great impressions of their movements and their speech patterns. Her voice goes shrill or husky by turns, and we can almost see the whole menagerie filling the stage, some hesitant, some jerkily demanding – desperate for their coffee fix.

Joanie’s boss at the coffeeshop is Gabe, who seems to have the character of a silverback gorilla – she comes from behind the counter to show him to us. Rebecca Perry is a talented physical performer, and as she leant forward, swinging her arms from side to side with exaggerated, ponderous movements and then took on Gabe’s deep, gruff voice, it felt like watching a David Attenborough documentary.

There are loads of great jokes – which I won’t spoil for you – and then who should come into the shop but the handsome newcomer who turns out to be … Marco. Now the show turns into a romantic comedy, as eye contact is made and hearts start to flutter. Joanie has red hair, of course, with the pale sensitive skin that blushes soooo easily – “When you’re a redhead, you’re a little on fire to begin with. You’re a dermic powder keg, basically!”.

Musical romantic comedy, that is. Joanie’s in love, so a piano track starts and she breaks into ‘Zing went the strings of my heart’. Perry has a really good jazz-singing voice, and gave this 1934 Judy Garland song a proper run. The song’s got lines like – ‘all nature seemed to be / in perfect harmony’, so it’s well chosen for the jungle coffee shop location.

The jungle connection continues in Joanie’s tiny apartment above the coffee shop, which she shares with Jane Goodall.   See!, the Fringe brochure listing was correct – Jane Goodall is involved in this show – but you’ll have to see the show to find out how. Jane gives Joanie some useful relationship advice on how she should behave on her date with Marco (but Jane Goodall studies chimpanzees, remember, so you’re certainly not going to read that in this review …)

It’s a musical, don’t forget; so the next scene features an open-mic evening at Gabe’s coffee shop. This lets Rebecca Perry sing us some more jazz, and we became the open-mic audience. Joanie carried a stand microphone onto the stage, and proceeded to give us some coffee-themed classics from Ella Fitzgerald and Sinatra. As well as the usual theatre lamps lighting the stage, they’d put a line of tiny footlights along the front, and these lit up Joanie’s face, as if she was in a club, as she sang ‘Black Coffee’ and ‘They’ve got an awful lot of coffee in Brazil ‘

At the end, Joanie and Marco are deeply in love, and their future may be opening up in front of them. Joanie has been offered a job in anthropology and her life has turned around totally. As she says – “My name is Joanie Little, but there’s nothing little about me. My story starts now”. The music comes up again, and she gives us a haunting rendering of ‘Rivers and Roads’, from the 2010 album by The Head and The Heart. Unforgettable – it sent shivers down my back.

It’s totally unrealistic, of course – but that’s part of the attraction. ‘Confessions of a Redheaded Coffeeshop Girl’ is the perfect feelgood show.   As we left, (after a lot of applause), the audience were smiling happily and I know I wasn’t the only one humming ‘Rivers and Roads’ to myself.

Like all musicals and romantic comedies, Rebecca Perry’s show is frothy, bittersweet, uplifting and hugely satisfying.          Just the same as coffee.

Published at  www.fringereview.co.uk   Brighton Fringe 2016

Sex and God

One of the best things about a festival like Brighton Fringe is that we are exposed to new writers, and work we knew nothing about. I’d never heard of the Glasgow-born author Linda McLean, or of her play ‘Sex and God’. So I was stunned by Cuts and Grazes’ powerful production of her kaleidoscopic overview of women’s lives through the course of the last century.

How do you attempt to portray the challenges – and changes – faced by women? Social and sexual standards have evolved over the decades, and every woman is individual, with a different psychology and personal history.

This is an absolutely minimalist production. The stage at the Warren Theatre Box is all black, and at the start there was just a stack of five white stools at one side. After a minute or so of fast-paced percussive music, four women marched down the aisle and onto the stage. Initially they stood together in a tight group across from the stools and began to speak. Not whole lines, and not with any obvious link between one woman’s words and the next. Some lines were shared, spoken simultaneously by several  women. Suddenly two of the women reacted sharply – slapped by an invisible hand.

What on earth was going on? Just before the blow, one of the slapped women – she’s tall, dressed in black with a maid’s white apron, let’s call her Jane – had given us the line – “Brought up? I say. What do you know about how she’s been brought up?.”

Then after, a third woman – dressed in jeans and a blue tied-shirt top, let’s call her Fiona – asks – “Why do you stay?”, and the second woman who’s been slapped – jumper and patterned skirt, let’s call her Sally – replies – “Eh? Eh?, he says. Is this the silent treatment? Are we getting the silent treatment? Talk.”

I hope you find all of that confusing – those of us in the audience certainly did. One of the joys of theatre, though, is that we quickly start to tease meaningful patterns out of what was initially a chaotic mass of words. It soon became clear that we were watching four separate monologues, spoken by four women at different periods in 20th century history, intercut with each other and occasionally interacting one with another.

In the slap episode, Jane had been arguing with her husband about their daughter, and he’d hit her. Sally had just been hit too, in her case presumably for not replying to some demand from her man. Fiona’s question – “Why do you stay?” was directed to both Jane and Sally, in their different existences, questioning why they remain with obviously abusive partners

You can see now why I described ‘Sex and God’ as kaleidoscopic. As it unfolds, we have to keep track of events and scenes from four lives, given to us in reported speech as each woman tells us about things that have happened to her.. Linda McLean’s writing gives us fragments that we have to piece  together – and often individual lines will be linked by a shared word. A number of writers – notably Caryl Churchill – write lines which overlap, but it’s this use of a significant word to spring the focus from character to character that’s special, and very effective.

Here’s an example: the fourth character – dark haired, in a clinging maroon dress – let’s call her Lizzie – is deeply, passionately in love with her man. “…I only feel his breath on my hair and on  my neck and I’m not listening to anything else, nothing, no words come close to this listening in my skin.” As Lizzie finishes, Jane starts up – “As if she’s the only one who ever felt the skin of a man’s body, and his need, and wanted it on her…” But Jane starts her lines before Lizzie ends; they talk over each other for a second or two, and the key word – ‘skin’ – is delivered simultaneously. That gives the word ‘skin’ twice the volume, twice the importance. It also points up the shared sensuality of physical touch that both women experience.

Another example: Lizzie is talking about the number of babies she’s had. “…if there wasn’t already one already growing in me he’d make another one now. It’s a gift and a curse all at the same time. How many? How many?? ” Then we cut to Fiona, who’s at university and is musing on the number of men she’s had sex with – “Seven at the last count. Not that I’m keeping count but someone asked me and I had to go through them in order …” That ‘How many?’ seamlessly linking the two monologues – and cleverly demonstrating the difference in the lives of Lizzie, who lived before the era of easily available contraception, and Fiona, a modern woman who sees control of her own sexuality as her right.

Achieving these effects demands precision in line delivery, which the actors managed faultlessly time and again. Director Tonje Wik Olausson got superb performances out of her cast – not just the spoken words but also the movement and interaction of the four bodies in the acting space. Separate or together. Jane on her knees, scrubbing the floor while the others watch. Or Lizzie, quivering in the throes of orgasm. Or Sally, bent over a stool, flinching from her husband’s blow. Or Fiona in labour, sitting with legs spread through the upturned stools while the others hold her.

‘Sex and God’ attempts to give us a sense of what it’s like being a woman. As a man, this reviewer was made to think about what makes up that tangled mix – parental responsibility, love, economic subjugation, sexual desire, physical violence and oppression, religious fervour, personal development. All these events were given as monologue, or portrayed as physical theatre with consummate skill by the actors – their only props were the white stools, all the rest was done with body language and tone of voice.

So there they were – Jane, a Scottish housemaid from early in the last century, oppressed by her husband, and having to conceal her child from her employers. She finds solace and meaning in religion and the Temperance League – “Whisky is the Devil’s work”. Then there’s Lizzie, constantly having babies with her adored man, but unable to provide for them and drifting into alcohol and drug addiction (maybe Jane was right about the whisky).

Sally’s from a later era, probably the sixties, wanting a career of her own while her husband resents her independence – “I’m the one with the job. I’m the one with the job I hate. We don’t need a wife with a job”. And lastly Fiona, the first in her family to go to University. Later she travels – discovers poverty in South America and experiences religious miracles in Italy. In Israel she comes very close to death – “I get off a bus in Haifa. There’s a woman who looks pregnant behind me. I stop to let her go before me but she signals her stomach and waves me on”. In a last act of kindness or solidarity, the suicide bomber spared a fellow woman.

A truly international production – the Norwegian director had Ailis Duff (English) as Jane, Anna Carfora (Italian) as Lizzie, Eva O’Connor (Irish) as Sally, and Anne Bertreau (French) as Fiona. The actors delivered their lines quite fast, and that occasionally made them difficult to follow. That’s really the only thing holding ‘Sex and God’ back from being an Outstanding production.

So many fragments, so many connections to arrange and rearrange in my mind. So many facets of life over the last hundred years – caught and displayed in this production like in a masterpiece of Cubist painting.

Published at  www.fringereview.co.uk   Brighton Fringe 2016

Echoes

‘Echoes’ has a very relevant title – which we’ll come to – but it could equally well have been called ‘Reflections’. It’s about two women, born 175 years apart into very different societies, whose lives nevertheless bear startling similarities and parallels. Almost mirror images of one another.

Mirror images are identical, but they are also reversed. As the lights came up we saw two women appear out the darkness, equally tall, standing facing us on the all-black Rialto stage – the acting space completely bare except for a low bench and a box like a travelling trunk.

One woman all in white, a beautiful Victorian ball gown showing off her elegant figure, her neck and arms bare and with her dark hair put into small ringlets that frame her temples. She’s Tillie – she’s about eighteen, it’s 1841 and she’s from Ipswich.

Across the stage, the other one all in black, swathed in the robe and headscarf that denote an observant Muslim woman. We can see her whole face, her dark eyes, but we can only guess at her figure and her hair colour under the black cloth. She’s Samira – she’s about eighteen, it’s 2016 and she’s from Ipswich.

Opposites, but also parallels. Both women are well educated – Tillie comes from an upper-class family, she speaks French and Latin, and she’s fascinated by the study of insects. Samira is still at school, but her first or second generation immigrant family are upwardly mobile and she’s destined for University and a professional middle-class career.

And they are both idealists. They want to do good, to make the world better.

Victorian values dictate that Tillie must be married, but she’s bored by the dull burghers of Ipswich so she decides to travel to India. She will hopefully find herself a husband – “Lots of eligible bachelors in India” – and she can pursue her entomology with new species. Perhaps most importantly, she can do her duty of spreading the Gospel – the Word of God – and showing ‘the natives’ the values and benefits of the British Empire. “My Christian desire was to produce children for The Empire”

Samira is at the other end of that Imperial project, of course. The British abandoned the ‘Jewel in the Crown’ of the Empire in 1947, and split off a Muslim Pakistan from Hindu India. Millions died during Partition – the enforced separation of populations. Samira’s Muslim, so her family would have been moved to Pakistan, and most likely came to England sometime after. To endure the racism – the catcalls of ‘Paki’ – but gradually to find their way in ‘the Mother country’.

First generation migrants just want to survive in their new surroundings, but Samira’s generation won’t put up with being second-class citizens. Samira’s chosen to be open about her Islamic faith, to live by the Word of The Prophet. She’s horrified by the anti-immigrant and Islamophobic outpourings of the British Press – “in the election four million people voted for Nigel Farage!” – and is drawn to the plight of Syrian refugees.

To find out more about them she looks on the Web, and is gradually drawn into the online world of Jihadist Islamic groups in Syria. Samira and her friend Begum are both dazzled that these young Syrian men are fighting oppression in the name of The Prophet, and the two decide to go off together to Syria, where Samira plans to marry a young fighter she’s never met, but who has courted her online via Skype.

Henry Naylor’s writing made these women real for us – their musings on what it means to be a woman, and their frustrations with the societies they found themselves in. But it was the actors themselves who truly brought them to life. Filipa Braganca made Samira very much a young woman of 2016 – little skips and snatches of rock lyrics, between outbursts of revulsion at the contents of the Daily Mail she has to sell at her weekend job in a newsagent’s. Braganca didn’t do any fanatical political analysis – she was completely believable as she beamed out a burning desire just to make the world better, to be part of a Movement. A Crusade, if you will. (irony intended)

Felicity Houlbrooke as Tillie had a more difficult job, and she was magnificent. She had to manage a nineteenth century English upper-class voice, with its clear diction and its snatches of French and Latin, which defined her background immediately. She held herself erect, moving as though she had spent years in floor-length dresses, as she related events on the voyage out to India – clearly a young woman born to help govern an Empire.

It didn’t work out as they’d planned, of course. In either case. Tillie got married to a Lieutenant and they were posted to Kandahar, in Afghanistan, protecting the North West Frontier of India from the Russians. Her British Empire turned out to be brutal, racist, misogynist and sexually predatory. Naylor’s script lets Tillie tell how the British destroyed the local agriculture, forcing Afghan farmers to grow opium, which was then sold into China at vast profit. Her Christianity got trampled, in the name of ‘Free Trade’.

Samira’s Syrian experience wasn’t much different. She got ‘married’ to a jihadist fighter in Raqqah who already had a first wife, a thirteen-year-old female slave, and a habit of watching beheading videos – before taking a stroll to look at the real heads stuck on spikes near the marketplace. The brutality and oppression of the Syrian women was almost total. When Samira asked why they have no voice, she was told – “because the men have the guns”.

Braganca and Houlbrooke didn’t act out roles as such – they simply related their stories to the audience. But they took on the voices and mannerisms of the men and women they were describing, and it was done so artfully and with such power that it seemed as if the stage was filled with a whole cast of Afghans and British.

Henry Naylor doesn’t go too deeply into the history, but it’s significant that he chose to set Tillie down in Kandahar. It was the rapacity of the British East India Company that led to a series of revolts by the Afghans, although in the nineteenth century the motivation was largely Nationalism. The Afghans fought the Russian invasion of the nineteen eighties for the same reasons – supported and supplied by the US, who felt they were fighting Godless Communism. But it was orphaned Afghan boys in refugee camp religious schools who became radicalised to Islam and created the Taliban. The Taliban, as a formal organisation, actually started in – Kandahar. Those same Jihadists have since diverged into insurgent groups like Al Quaida and ISIS in Syria, which pulls the threads of the story full circle.

Both Samira and Tillie became radicalised by their experiences. Radicalised in their own identity as women, and also on behalf of the injustice they saw meted out to the people around them. They each achieved a personal liberation, but at terrible cost. Naylor’s writing is subtle – he let his characters show us that most of the British women in Kandahar were as narrow-minded as the men, and that the women in Raqqah seem to acquiesce in their own oppression. “We do these things because we are acting on The Word”

This is where the show’s title achieves its meaning. In both situations, the beauty and simplicity of The Word – of Christ or of The Prophet – has been subverted by greed and the lust for power. As Samira says – “We hear the Divine voice, and we try to replicate it, but we can’t. We’re mortal, saddled with self-interest. The best we can do is produce an echo – a distant distortion of sound, blurred, imperfect. Repeated with flagging confidence, fading to nothing”.

Published at http://www.fringereview.co.uk   Brighton Fringe 2016

The Marked

‘They fuck you up, your Mum and Dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.”

Philip Larkin

‘The Marked’ is a show about how childhood traumas persist into adulthood, as personal demons that we find it incredibly hard to exorcise.

Jack was only ten when his mother fell victim to alcoholism and her behaviour and her treatment of him changed completely. Now Jack’s twenty, and he’s left an impossible home life to become a rootless drifter on the streets of London.

We are given Jack’s back-story through a series of childhood memories and flashback images – his mother as ‘The Good Queen’, who’s kind and beautiful, but who then becomes ill and turns into ‘The Evil Witch’. It’s done with puppets and grotesque masks, intensified by clashing music and dramatic lighting.

And what puppets! The Good Queen is clad in a long white hooded robe (we never see her face) while the Evil Witch is a terrifying concoction (worn by a live actor) of matted strips of shredded black plastic and red cloth. She has long, birdlike, black claws, and streams of red and black strips pour out of the eye sockets of her horribly distorted mask face. The overall effect is rather like an explosion in a bin-bag factory, and this is carried over into the set.

It might be the rubbish dumping area of a shopping mall or supermarket – waste bin and wheelie-bin at either side of the stage, backed by a wall of rough boards and a shattered corrugated iron fence, all thrown into relief by harsh bluish lighting. The Evil Witch would sometimes reach into a bin (which belched green light when she opened the lid) and take a gulp out of a green bottle – gin, most likely – before moving towards Jack to attack him.

Having the human actor who plays Jack interact with these monstrous figures makes the points that this is fantasy, set in Jack’s childhood past, and that these monsters chasing him are in fact his own traumatic memories, which have become his personal demons.

The adult-Jack actor sometimes works with a child-Jack puppet, moving the puppet’s limbs and body while the youngster attempts to fight off the Evil Witch. Initially this was confusing, as I thought I was simply seeing a puppeteer moving a model figure. It became apparent, though, that we were actually seeing the adult Jack reliving his past – presumably his childhood battles with his mother.

Because this piece is all about childhood, and its effect on adult life. Later in the play Jack is visited by huge birds. Live actors in wonderful pigeon masks, with long tattered overcoats and more strips of black plastic as feathers. They bring him messages – addressing him as ‘King’ and telling him that it’s time to fight the battle to retrieve his kingdom. How many of us (certainly this reviewer is one) have had these ‘changeling’ fantasies as children? – dreaming that we will eventually be recognised for the important rulers that we really are. It made Jack’s character much more real for me.

Because why in fact did Jack’s mother descend into alcoholism? She obviously wasn’t horrible earlier in Jack’s life. What happened to Jack’s father? Jack must have had one – did he die, or simply leave Jack’s mother? Whatever took place, it had its effect on Jack’s mother and now it’s still taking its toll on him.

He’s become a down-and-out, and as the play progresses the waste ground of the stage set, with its bins and rubbish, is inhabited by a transient population of the homeless, staggering through with ragged coats turned up against the cold or sleeping curled up against the broken walls. It’s here he meets Sophie and Pete – a young homeless couple with a baby on the way – beaten down by who knows what traumas of their own, and teetering on the edge of drug and alcohol addiction.

It seems that the cycle is about to repeat itself. Will Jack be able to escape his fate – can he fight hard enough to overcome the memories of his Evil Witch mother that torment him? For me, the key message was delivered to Jack by one of the birds – “She cannot die if you keep running”.

I must confess to being disappointed with ‘The Marked’. We were told on the way in that this is a work still in progress, and that it will develop, but I had enormously high expectations as I’d seen Theatre Témoin’s production ‘The Fantasist’ at The Warren in 2013. That was a truly awesome show, with a schizophrenic artist surrounded by her hallucinations, which were created by grotesque puppets – some tiny and some enormous and terrifying. Incidentally, ‘The Fantasist’ was wrongly categorised in all the publicity as being bi-polar, a different condition entirely. Theatre Témoin are very interested in subjects like schizophrenia and addiction, and how they affect people’s lives.

‘The Marked’ seemed to me to be trying to cover too many areas at once, with the resulting loss of sharpness and focus to the story. Also, it’s not clear just what age group the production is aimed at – the story was probably too subtle and the puppets too frightening for a very young audience, while those same elements are a bit simplistic and tame for an adult production. The monsters and masks were well done, but they didn’t produce that shudder of terror or awe that ‘The Fantasist’ achieved.

I understand that ‘The Marked’ is a devised production, presumably workshopped with homelessness agencies and others, and that there were a number of script consultants as well. This produces a balanced, comprehensive production, of course, but I wonder whether such an approach ends up underachieving – by trying to achieve too much. But – this is a piece still to be fully developed. It’s still well worth seeing, and knowing what Theatre Témoin have achieved with their other productions; by the time it gets to Edinburgh it could very likely become a truly outstanding show.

The cast of Dorie Kinnear, Tom Stacy and Samuel Fogell were very good – I believed in them as people – and Ailin Conant’s direction kept the movement flowing. The stage was always busy – Zahra Mansouri’s imaginative set allowed plenty of locations for the action to develop. When the cast took bows at the end, we were quite shocked to discover that there were only three of them! But then that’s the magic of theatre.

Published at  www.fringereview.co.uk    Brighton Fringe 2016

Gertrude. The Cry

Something is rotten in the state of Denmark …

At first glance it’s the peeling paint and damp, crumbling brickwork surrounding the acting area at 88 London Road. There’s a man lying face down asleep in the centre of the stage, and a dark-haired woman in a white silk dressing gown is standing against the wall at the back.

Nothing else. The space is completely bare – the high walls make the figures look small, isolated. Greenish lighting adds to the sense of neglect and desolation. In actual fact a lot of the decaying walls are a trompe l’oeil effect and the venue used to be a chapel, but the overall effect is of being in a vast abandoned space, a ballroom perhaps, in a castle or a palace.

Conor Baum’s work is becoming more and more minimalist. He did ‘Thirst of The Salt Mountain’ in this same space last year; the stage white with what appeared to be caked sea-salt and almost empty of props except for a huge tube of translucent plastic sheeting hanging from the roof – the stomach membranes of the whale that swallowed Jonah.

Now, as Brief Hiatus, with his co-director Edd Berridge, he’s tackled Howard Barker’s visceral take on the Hamlet story. For ‘Gertrude. The Cry’, the only stage dressing is a few basic wooden chairs. Simple lighting too – greens, with some white spots occasionally providing sidelight through the doors at the sides of the acting space. Nothing else at all. Absolute minimalism.

Less is More in Elsinore.

As the play starts, the woman comes downstage, and another man enters. It’s Claudius, the brother of the sleeping King Hamlet. We are familiar with the Shakespeare play, but right from the off this is a very different Gertrude … “Kill my husband then – kill him for me”

Claudius commands her to strip naked, which she does. Claudius gazes intensely at her body (as do we) and tells her –

“and if he stirs, if his eyes open in his agony, show him the reason he is dying. Let him see what I have stolen. What was his, and now belongs to me.”

Gertrude, completely nude now, squats over the sleeping man. As Claudius pours poison into his ear, and King Hamlet writhes in agony, his wife and his brother fuck passionately, straddled above his twisting body, their cries of ecstasy mingling with the dying man’s screams.

That’s really all you need to know to catch the essence of this production. Howard Barker’s Gertrude is a woman driven by sex. By the overwhelming need for sensuality. For the sex itself, the shattering release and cry of orgasm, and also by the power it gives her over others. She fucks family, strangers (she fantasises being a prostitute), her servants, her son Hamlet’s friend Albert, the Duke of Mecklenburg – and if they die as a result that simply heightens the experience. Maybe it’s not for nothing that the French refer to orgasm as ‘the little death’ …

But she’s also a mother. She’s the mother of Hamlet, certainly, and then she’s pregnant with Claudius’ child – Prince Hamlet’s half sister. Gertrude gives life as well as extinguishing it. By the end she’s married to Albert of Mecklenberg and carrying his child.

Because this is a play centred on women. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet the women are secondary characters – in Barker’s version they wield the power. As well as Gertrude, the playwright gives us Isola, the mother of Claudius, and of King Hamlet too of course. She’s important not just as a nagging foil to Gertrude, but to remind us forcefully that the two men were actually brothers, with parallel childhoods overseen by this woman. Full brothers born from the same mother. Somehow this makes King Hamlet’s fratricidal murder even more dreadful, and shows the power of the sensual hold that Gertrude has over Claudius.

Ophelia is replaced in this version by Ragusa, who’s a lot harder-headed than Shakespeare’s original. She knows the power of women. After Claudius has poisoned Prince Hamlet, which he has done out of his passion for Gertrude, Ragusa tells him – “Poor woman, take her to bed”. But she knows how men’s minds work, the power of her own femininity, and so she continues – “I’ll be there, however, I’ll be in the bed”. She means she will be in Claudius’ thoughts – “Already you betray her”.

Cascan understands all this very well. He’s a servant / butler, the most philosophical of the male characters. Edd Berridge plays him with a world-weary knowing and sadness, commenting on the action like a Greek Chorus. He tells Ragusa of the two moments of greatness in a woman’s life. The day she gives birth, and – “the day on which … out of a terrible hunger … she lies to her husband”. He means the hunger for another man. Cascan understands women very well – it seems he too sometimes sleeps with Gertrude.

Powerful stuff. Barker’s playwriting is epic – the language is quite formal and the line construction feels like the words are chiselled into stone. On a memorial, perhaps.

All the characters are, not exactly caricatures, but somehow heightened versions of the people they represent. And they’re very well cast in this production. Penny Scott-Andrews’ Isola is thin and beanpole tall, perfect for the nagging mother-in-law. David Fenne plays Duke Albert as a youth consumed by passion for Gertrude, like a small boy with his face pressed up against a sweetshop window – though in his case he‘s bent double in the throes of pleasure with his nose buried in Gertrude‘s discarded knickers. But then at the close, as Gertrude’s husband, he’s matured into authority. Looking back at the pile of Elsinore bodies there’s a coldness as he orders – “Burn these. Burn and scatter these”.

Conor Baum’s acting face is incredibly mobile. As Hamlet, he twists his body and his mouth grimaces as the Prince/youth struggles to mature – to adjust to his new role of King/adult. Baum is tall, but he stoops forward just a little to accentuate the intensity of his puzzlement and anguish as he speaks directly to us in the audience – trying to come to terms with what is happening to his family.

“I’m saying less
suffering more and
saying less”

Gertrude couldn’t be more different. Rosanna Bini spent a lot of the production naked, but she clothed the character in an aura of power and authority. Gertrude’s the pivot around which the whole play revolves, and whether she’s fretting about her stockings and raincoat (“the kind a prostitute would wear”), displaying her body to various lovers, or clad in a tight black dress arguing with her mother-in-law, Bini always gripped our attention. Her delivery was sometimes a little too fast and inaudible to make out the words clearly, but her stage presence and body language managed to convey the power of her lines perfectly.

Minimal, as I said above. Gripping performances by the actors, but powerful staging and design also. Just a few chairs in the acting space, allowing each of us to create our own palace of Elsinore – I know what mine looked like. The graveyard too, where Claudius’ funeral takes place – three chairs lined up, with the body laid out across them. The mourners came down to the stage through the audience, holding umbrellas high over their heads. With their dark outdoor coats and Cascan’s formal tailcoat and white gloves it looked astonishingly like a Jack Vettriano painting come to life in front of us.

Minimal. Visceral. Unforgettable.

Published at  www.fringereview.co.uk    FringeReview UK

Golem

Most theatre companies attempt to create the illusion of reality on stage. They try to produce the effect that the audience is looking through a ‘fourth wall’ onto a three-dimensional setting – be it a room, a street, or indeed the open air. They want us to believe that the actors are moving around a real location.

But not a company like 1927 …

The stage at The Old Market must be ten metres across at least. It was completely filled at the front with a huge screen, illuminated by a powerful video projector – yellow, with primitive black line drawings and graphic images jumping around on it. At the front of the stage, on either side of the screen there were musicians sat playing: a percussionist to the left and a keyboard player to the right – dressed in black, like their instruments, but wearing loose tops in bright scarlet. Scarlet hats too, in a style that reminded me of caps worn by medieval students in some Mitteleuropean city … like Prague, for instance.

Then the musicians moved onto the stage, in front of the screen. Two more actors appeared, and the four became a band – ‘Annie and the Underdogs’. The screen was black now, with the band’s name at the top, and simple red graphics depicting rising rockets with flaming exhausts streaming down below. Like four narrow triangles of scarlet flame, with a band member stood in each red light, becoming part of the overall image filling our field of vision.

Because there was no depth to the stage, we quickly accepted the actors – there were finally five in all – as an integral part of the images on the screen. And what images!

They seemed to inhabit a sleazy area of the city; so crude, garish images of bars and cheap eateries flashed across the screen. Sometimes we watched them pass in front of run-down store fronts, the actor performing the walking action on the spot, in a patch of neutral light surrounding just him, while the crudely rendered street scene scrolled across the screen around him. The illusion was so cleverly realised, and the actors’ movements so accurately synchronised, that we saw the live characters walking or running as an integral part of the cartoon.

And in a cartoon, anything is possible. The screen would suddenly shrink to a small circle of light just enclosing an actor’s head, like a Tom and Jerry sequence, or the whole street scene would tilt suddenly, tipping the actor (it seemed) off balance or sliding down a slope. A sleazy part of town, so we saw the neon signs – EATS … BAR … GIRLS GIRLS GIRLS – along with symbolic icons of bottles or hamburgers, all rendered in vibrant colours. The range of images, and the jumpy pace at which they kept changing, reminded me of Terry Gilliam’s more surreal sequences in ‘Monty Python’.

A masterful fusion of animated graphics and live action. In one scene, a (live) singer in a bar sits leaning forward on a stool, while wisps of (cartoon) smoke curl up the screen from his cigarette. The screen itself had doors and small hatches set flush into its surface, allowing the actors to pass through a (cartoon) door in a building or room, or enable their heads to appear high above the floor. When a central character goes onto a dating agency (patience – we’ll come to that …) he’s centre-screen, surrounded by a huge flashing yellow circle like some demented game show, and flanked by two enormously elongated (cartoon) women – but the women’s heads are real, actors’ faces poking out through the hatches above.  Seamless. Shocking. Superb!

Paul Barritt’s amazing animation was perfectly balanced by the faultless synchronisation of Suzanne Andrade’s direction. Andrade and Barritt are founder members of 1927, and their creation, hugely enhanced by Lillian Henley’s weirdly jarring, echoing music, kept us spellbound for ninety minutes. Not that I could have given you any idea of time passing – the huge screen filled our field of view, and the ceaseless cascade of images and sounds left us reeling with sensory overload.

So what did 1927 actually do with all this artistry and technology? What story did they tell?

The Golem is a sixteenth century tale from the Jewish Ghetto in Prague, where a rabbi builds a humanoid figure out of clay, and brings the thing alive by inscribing the Hebrew word for Truth – EMETH – on its forehead. The Golem can be put back to sleep by erasing one character to just leave – METH – Death. Of course, the creature gets out of control and runs amok, causing great destruction.

A central trope of a lot of modern science fiction. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein builds his own creature, which goes off on a rampage, in the book published in 1818. Just over a century later Karel Čapek, who himself lived in Prague, wrote ‘RUR‘ – ‘Rossum’s Universal Robots’. A play, about an inventor who creates synthetic humanoid workers (‘Robot’ is the Czech word for ‘Worker’) who, again, get out of control and take over the world. Any number of twentieth century ‘Mad Professors’ create some technology and then can’t control it. It seems to come from our inherent distrust of something new and something that we don’t really understand.

What happens in ‘Golem’ is that Robert, the central character, has a friend called Phil Sylocate, who invents a clay humanoid (with a dick). He calls the thing a Golem, and advertises his business as – ‘PHIL SYLOCATE’S GENUINE GOLEMS’. This is so close to ‘Rossum’s Universal Robots’ as to leave little doubt as to the idea’s origins. For this reviewer his name also seems very close to ‘Silicate’, the group of compounds that make up the composition of clay. So Mr. Sylocate builds a clay man out of silicates. Neat.

Clever, and thought-provoking, too. Silicate is the oxide of the element silicon, and it’s silicon that is the basis of the semiconductor industry and computers – Silicon Valley. What Phil Sylocate has actually created is a Personal Computer made out of clay – like Steve Jobs building the original Apple PC in his garage. It does the repetitive drudge work for Robert, but pretty soon it learns to do much more to help Robert in his daily life.

And here’s the problem. The Golem learns very quickly: to speak, to read and to absorb contemporary culture, especially the irresistible culture of advertising, and it’s designed – it wants – to make people’s lives better and more fulfilling. Because it’s so useful there are soon many, many more until almost everyone has their own personal Golem. Making their lives ‘better and more fulfilling’.

Golem browbeats Robert into changing his clothing – “The Modern Man should dress to impress”. Robert ends up in a weird jacket and the kind of breeches they wore in ‘Metropolis’, very wide at the thigh – all in vivid yellow. In fact a lot of the interior backgrounds, including the office where Robert works, have the Expressionist style of Fritz Lang or of Chaplin’s ‘Modern Times’. He’s wearing this outfit when Golem ‘suggests’ he change his relationship – “The Modern Man can have more than one woman” – and he enters the dating scene I mentioned earlier. And Golem never stops.

The twentieth century produced two outstanding dystopian science fiction novels – ‘Brave New World’ and ‘1984’. George Orwell predicted that society would be controlled by State violence – “A boot stamping on a human face – forever”, but it was Aldous Huxley’s realisation that we would be more easily enslaved by our every desire being met that seems to have come to pass in consumer culture.

In the twenty-first century consumer culture fused with the computer, to provide a total, all-embracing, cosseting 24/7 experience, reinforcing all our desires. Evolving in power day by day. And it learns so fast – “Golem just knows what I want before I do” …

Google, anyone?

Published at http://www.fringereview.co.uk     FringeReview UK