Reviews 2017

The following reviews are listed in order. Just scroll down to find them – She Denied Nothing / Dark Matter / Collapse / A Remarkable Person / Obama and Me / The Ruffian on the Stair / Wacht! / Hidden Mother / Ensonglopedia of Science / Undercover Refugee / Good Grief / Scorched / Gratiano / Agamemnon / The Writers’ Bloc / Stones / The Empress and Me / Macblair

 

The eighteen productions reviewed below are all from Brighton Fringe 2017, and were reviewed for Fringe Review    www.fringereview.co.uk

 

She Denied Nothing

We’d walked in off Exeter Street and now we were in the large space of the Hall, all white painted walls and exposed roof trusses high above us. Cardboard boxes, in stacks three or four high, scattered around the space. At one end of the room a body, its contours covered by a white sheet, lay on a gurney. It looked very much like what it was supposed to be – a military hospital, in a commandeered building in a war zone.

Obviously a contemporary war; the medical staff were in smocks and loose pants of hospital-blue, while the few military figures who were present wore modern uniforms.  This is a piece of immersive theatre, and we were meant to be ‘walking wounded’, able to move freely around the space and observe the action. Some patients were already there when we arrived; wandering around with limbs bandaged or hobbling on crutches.

They spread out across the hall, filling the space, and when they came together they formed a Chorus. Together they chanted the lines, telling us the back-story of the civil war between Polyneices and Eteocles, princes of Thebes, and how both had been killed in the fighting.

They told us how Creon, the princes’ uncle and now King of Thebes, had decreed that Eteocles was to be interred with full ceremony while the body of his brother Polyneices was to be left unburied, to rot in the yard outside. They told how their sister Antigone defied Creon’s edict, stealing her brother’s body to give it proper funeral rites, and was herself put to death for disobeying the King’s edict.

Antigone, princess of Thebes. “Antigone, with fire in her belly”, defying the law of the King to follow the Laws set down by the Gods – “To ensure that Polyneices would not stand forever outside the gates of Hades”.

Actors of Dionysus are attempting two things with ‘She Denied Nothing’. They are staging a contemporary re-telling of Sophocles’ play, showing how the moral dilemma of the individual’s conscience versus the State has remained unchanged over two and a half millennia. But they are also doing something rather in the manner of ‘Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead’ – showing what’s happening ‘offstage’ as it were, to a pair of minor characters, while the main action of the play is unfolding somewhere else.

Tom Stoppard did it to ‘Hamlet’, and here writer and director Faye Hughes, along with artistic director Tamsin Shasha, have done the same sort of thing to ‘Antigone’. So it’s a modern war, although it’s still situated at Thebes; but we never see Creon, Antigone or her sister Ismene. Instead we meet Hestia and her friend Alexandra, medical staff who process the corpses of soldiers slain in the war, preparing them for burial.

We gradually learn that, some time before, Hestia has helped Antigone to take away the body of Polyneices. This, of course, is a capital crime under Creon’s laws, and Alexandra is horrified when she realises what her friend has done. Tamsin Shasha’s Hestia is the contemporary Antigone; principled and passionately devoted to justice. “I know the laws set down by the Gods and I follow them, even if they contradict the laws set down by men. I am a woman – I follow my heart”.

Alexandra is the updated Ismene, fearful of being punished. Andrea Newland played her loud, fierce in stating her priorities as a mother – “How could you be so reckless? You endanger your family, your friends. I put my children first; that is the natural order”.

One reading of ‘Antigone’ would partly excuse Creon’s wrathful suppression of any dissent – The King has to put the stability of his city before everything else – but ‘She Denied Nothing’ casts him simply as a brutal dictator. A totalitarian regime. Huge posters – a stern-faced head and shoulders above the simple word CREON – took up one whole wall of the hospital. He’s sent an agent, Angele, to the hospital – we’d seen her intermittently, stomping around the space with her tightly belted raincoat and her briefcase. “I am come to investigate the disappearance of the corpse of the traitor Polyneices, last accounted for here, before the theft and unlawful burial”. Louisa Lawrenson’s voice was cold and her diction chillingly precise. In an added twist, Angele is the cousin of Hestia – justice and vengeance are about to cut through family ties …

This is clever and imaginative production, and as we were ushered out at the end we were given programmes, which also contained a synopsis of Sophocles’ play. It would have helped if we had been given these before the start – The Chorus were a bit ragged on some of their lines, which made it difficult to hear some details of the play’s background exposition. Similarly, characters often spoke quite quickly – speedy delivery sounds like authentic speech, but makes it harder for the audience to take in the information.

Another issue for me was the physicality of the actors. While the main characters were giving us the story; the others kept falling into stylized poses, twisting their bodies back and forth or adopting weirdly repetitive actions with a syringe or a crutch.  It reminded us that we were in a busy hospital environment, which I suppose is the point, but occasionally it felt like we were in an asylum and overall it didn’t add anything to the play’s meaning.

But, despite those caveats, this is a powerful re-rendering of ‘Antigone’. The tension built inexorably as Hestia’s actions were gradually revealed, and the performances were such that I believed in her completely as a person, likewise her friend Alexandra. I cared about them as people, sympathised with their dilemma, and was chilled by the thought of the inevitable fate that awaited them. Looking back on the performance, the immersive staging makes me feel that I was actually there with them in the hospital – what more can you ask of theatre?

 

Dark Matter

Consciousness.   Where does it arise from? Since we don’t believe in God, we know that it can only emerge from an arrangement of atoms.  But the Universe itself is also an arrangement of atoms – could the Universe be conscious?  Can the Universe be seen as a nervous system?

Although the patterns or structure may be different, both systems are arrangements of the same type of atoms.  Therefore, we must consider the possibility that not only the brain, but any material system, such as the Universe as a whole, has a consciousness, an inner life.  The planets, the stars, the galaxy clusters are the image of a cosmic nervous system – exactly the same way that the human brain is the image or the physical representation of a person’s inner life.

But then there are forces we do not yet understand – an additional factor other than just gravity is holding the galaxies together.  We call it ‘Dark Matter’, but at present it is as unknowable as God.

Those words are Alfredo’s, part of a book he wrote years ago as a Professor of Astrophysics. But he’s very old now, he’s in a care home and he’s suffering from dementia. This stuff must still be resonating in his memory, though, and as we heard his words on a slightly echoing sound track we could see his thoughts projected onto a screen at the back of the Rialto stage.

Coloured liquid, drips falling into a tank of water, spreading out into yellow swirling clouds that could have been galaxies, or the inside of a womb. Then smaller red droplets, more viscous, dropped in and descending gently through the yellow. Beautiful piano music over the words. Minimalist, repetitive – like a clockwork musical box.

And a sand table.  Lit from below, so that light flooded through between the particles of matter – hugely magnified on the video screen.  Fingers were making patterns, holes, swirls in the surface of the sand. They had eliminated any sense of scale – we could have been looking at neurons in a human brain, or the clusters of galaxies that form the large-scale structure of the Universe.

It was beautifully done. A tower of glass shelves at one corner of the stage, with several operators handling the liquids and sand, using a small video camera to produce the close-up views that we saw projected huge.  A collaboration of many hands, each working on a different part, synchronised together to create something living.

It was the same with Alfredo.  He’s about four feet tall, a little old man in his eighties, and it took three puppeteers to bring him to life.  Two women moved his arms and legs, and a man moved his head.  So lifelike – constantly turning this way and that as he talked to us in the audience, and to his carer in the home.  Alfredo was born in Italy, so the man did his voice in a gruff, heavily-accented English – and one of the women produced the higher pitched piping words of Alfredo as a boy.

His mother and father called him Alfredo – when we see them on the stage their faces are hidden by stocking masks (because he can’t remember their features any more?) and they’re concerned that he’s such a bookworm.  But his nurse in the care home calls him Alfie – see how we use the diminutive form when we make the assumption that someone is no longer competent.  She’s called Ellen, and she’s from Russia – one of the immigrant multitudes who keep our health services going.

But his dementia makes Alfie jump back and forth in his life.  Ellen leaves the stage, loses her green nurse’s jacket, and reappears seconds later clad in a red shawl as Helen, his great love from decades before. Helen worked selling fruit, and Alfie remembers their first meeting, bumping into her and spilling apples everywhere.  Sofia Calmicova really is Russian, and as Helen she sat nestled on the floor with Alfredo as he explained his theories of Dark Matter to her – and to us in the audience…  How do we best understand the Universe?   “I can see the beauty of it”, says Helen. “I need figures, numbers”, replies Alfredo.

Then she’s Ellen the care assistant again, fretting over Alfie, trying to get him to take his medication while he imagines himself to be at a scientific conference, years before.  She’s not married, and as he attempts to describe the Universe to her, she responds – “My Universe is this place”.  It’s Alfie’s too, now, of course. “Where do the stars go when they die?”, Ellen asks him. “A good question”, he answers.  As he ponders that one; tiny bright lights – blue, red, white, green – dance in the air above, held by the black-garbed puppeteers.  The lights had first appeared alongside the video sequence, and I’d seen them as atoms, swinging around each other and coming closer to form molecules.  Now I saw them as stars.  It’s all just a matter of relative scale.

‘Dark Matter’ has physical theatre, as well. When Alfredo travels to London as a student, the puppeteers arranged themselves to form an angular set of shapes, and Sofia Calmicova (she’d been his mother, too) moved a small railway engine up and over arms and shoulders, as the train crossed the Alps, heading north. Later, during a Helen episode, Calmicova became a tree, stiffening into immobility with her arms outstretched upwards to become branches. Alfredo was able to climb up her easily (with a little help …)

The writing, by Eirini Dermitzaki and Mayra Stergiou, was poignant and sad, and Stergiou’s subtle direction took us right into Alfie’s inner world.  Entropy, that gradual degradation of information towards chaos, was eating away at Alfie’s memory.  Old newscasts on the radio kept breaking up into static, losing and re-finding a signal. The stage occasionally bathed in flickering blue light.

At the end, as he died, stretched out on the floor, Alfie turned his head to look his puppeteer directly in the face.  The first time he’d done that.  It felt very tender, but also it was as if Alfie had somehow come to realise his situation – as a puppet.  Alfredo didn’t believe in God, but at the very end he came to understand that there was something outside of him.

As he lay still, there was one white light, then a blue as well, hovering over him and finally floating up and off – like Alfredo’s soul.   I was in tears.

 

Collapse

As I start to write this review, a night and half a day have gone by since I saw ‘Collapse’ – and I’m still reeling from the experience. I can’t recall any production I’ve seen that left me feeling so battered at the finish, smashed back into my pew at St Andrew’s Church.

Sweet Venues have brought over a number of European shows for this Fringe Festival, and it was a brilliant decision to place this Dutch production inside the church on Waterloo Street. St Andrews is tall inside, and cavernous, and the marble columns and surfaces produce wonderful echoes as part of the building’s acoustics.
A church is of course a kind of temple, and a temple is very much at the centre of the story of Cassandra. She was a princess, the daughter of King Priam, the ruler of Troy, but she was also a prophetess, with the gift of foretelling the future.

With one hitch. Cassandra had been given this power by the god Apollo, in exchange for sex – but Cassandra had reneged on her part of the bargain, and so in revenge the god made it such that nobody ever believed her. She warned of the destruction of Troy by the Greek army led by Agamemnon, and at the war’s end she was carried back to Mycenae as his concubine. When she got there, she once again foresaw bloody violence she could do nothing to prevent, and she and Agamemnon were both slaughtered by the King’s vengeful wife.

But that was later – we are still in Troy when we meet Cassandra at St Andrews.

Brass. That was my initial impression when the lights came up. Great oblong sheets of brass, much higher than a man. Two of them standing vertical – one right at the front of the stage, the second at the rear – with a third one horizontal, making the front face of something like a bar counter, halfway to the back. The lights smashing into them from the front made them glare brightly – hard on the eyes – like sheets of gold.

Or bronze.  Remember that Troy was a Bronze-Age city.  The weapons and armour in Homer’s ‘Iliad’ are made of glittering bronze; but they had brass too, and gold in profusion. There was a constant percussive sound, a soft rhythmic drumbeat, as the show started, with a man and a woman standing behind the horizontal counter.  Then the drumbeat got louder and more insistent, and the woman moved to the brass sheet at the front.  There were two microphones hanging down at the front, on long leads from a bar high above, and the woman began singing into one of them.

“Kee Kee – Ka Ka – Ko Ko – Koo” … “Kee Kee – Ka Ka – Ko Ko – Koo”

A repetitive set of sounds, over and over, in a reasonably high pitch. While she sang, the man at the counter fiddled with what must have been some kind of sound loop machine, so that the woman’s voice multiplied, layer upon layer, to become a whole host of singers.  Overlapping iterations of the same voice mixed in with echo effects created on the machine and the real-life echoes from the church’s own acoustics.  The effect was unique, quite unearthly – I’ve never heard anything like it.

It was Karlijn Hamer, a young woman with rich reddish hair, dressed in a long black blouse over black leggings.  As she sang, her head moved side to side, up and down, in jerky movements that were rather birdlike. The mythical Cassandra is supposed to have had red hair, too, so the illusion was almost perfect. Hamer was the performer out front, but I have to mention Mathijs de Valk, head nodding to the rhythm as he operated the sound loops – he worked perfectly with the singer to bring in echoes and tones at just the right point.

‘Battered’ is the word I used at the beginning, and it’s really the only word that describes the effect of this performance. Awestruck, too. ‘Awe’ has its roots in the Greek word ‘Achos‘ – fear or distress – and that’s what Cassandra was experiencing as she saw her dreadful vision of Troy’s destruction coming true. It wasn’t just Karlijn Hamer’s voice – her whole body shook with emotion, her mouth distended as the notes came louder and louder and her eyes stared intensely, now up at the heavens, now at us in the temple in front of her.  The intensity of the singing, its sheer loudness as well as its passion, combined with the glare of the light on the shimmering brass making us screw up our eyes, left me overwhelmed.

Eventually she stopped singing and collapsed, exhausted, sitting on the floor in front of the brass sheet. She took the other microphone and began softly, sadly, to give us Cassandra’s thoughts –

“Here I am, Cassandra.
And this is my city under ashes.
And these are my prophet’s staff and ribbons.
And this is my head full of doubts.”

The words were ‘A Soliloquy for Cassandra’, by Wislawa Szymborska. I didn’t know it, but I asked later, so thanks for that, too, Karlijn.  It lasted a few minutes, and the last lines are –

“It turns out I was right.
But nothing has come of it.
And this is my robe, slightly singed.
And this is my prophet’s junk.
And this is my twisted face.
A face that didn’t know it could be beautiful.”

She was sitting side-on against the brass, and as she spoke these last words I could see the mottled reflection of her face in the sheet’s stained surface. The blotched likeness of the beautiful woman seemed to sum up perfectly all that Cassandra had suffered.

But there was more to come.  After the city was taken, Cassandra was raped by Ajax, one of the Greek leaders, in the temple of Athena. As the legend has it, he took her so brutally that he knocked the goddess’ statue off its plinth.  Athena was outraged – she caused the statue to shriek so loudly that the temple was shaken to its foundations.  So Hamer gave us more singing – though bellowing might be closer to the truth of it, waves of sound smashing over us as she seemed to re-enact the violence of the slaughter of the city’s inhabitants, and of her own assault.  The two microphones hung down on long leads, as I’ve mentioned, and at one point Hamer slumped forward, held erect by just the wires.  She looked like a puppet – but then Cassandra had always been a puppet of the gods …

There had been a euphonium sitting on the stage throughout ‘Collapse’.  Another brass element to the glittering set, and I’d wondered what it was for. At the close of the piece, when the sound and the fury had died away, the lights dimmed their brassy glare and Hamer picked up the instrument and began, not to play, but to hold it softly and sing into the mouthpiece.

The stage was dark, just the woman picked out by a side light, her murmurings modulated by the euphonium’s brass coils.  The modern euphonium is a descendant of the sixteenth century ‘Serpent’, a coiled brass instrument giving the same soft tone.  I remembered that the legends said that Cassandra got her prophesies of the future, from serpents whispering in her ear as she slept on the floor of the temple.

A beautiful touch, a perfect detail to round off Karlijn Hamer’s portrait of Cassandra, in this truly Outstanding production.

 

(Email from Karlijn Hamer  –  ‘Wauw, thank you very much for this great review.  You saw everything what’s in it!  amazing.  I am flattered.  Thanks, Karlijn’ )

 

A Remarkable Person

Why am I writing this review?

Why am I about to embark on setting down several hundred of my words so that you can read them below?

On the surface it’s simple. I’ve been to see Pernille Johnsen’s play – ‘A Remarkable Person’, and I’m writing a review so that you can get some idea of what the play’s about, and whether it’s any good.

But is that the real reason – is that all?  Do I really care enough about your cultural well-being to work hard at keeping you informed?

Maybe the real reason I’m writing this review is much more about – Me.

Because all writers have egos …

‘A Remarkable Person’ opens on a funeral service. A cremation urn and a wreath are set up centre stage at the front, and a woman stands behind, gazing reverently at them.
“She was utterly remarkable. As a person, and as an author”. Then, close to tears, she speaks directly to the soul of the dead woman whose ashes are in front of her – “I feel I found myself, for the very first time, in your book”.

Touching.   But we fairly quickly come to realise that the person speaking is the writer herself, and that she’s imagining that she’s a mourner at her own funeral.  She’s fantasising about the image people will have of her after she’s dead. It might seem a bit ghoulish; but be honest – who hasn’t at some time imagined taking a sneak peek at their own obituary? I know I have …

The writer (I’ll refer to her as The Writer) is obsessed by the images, the façades, that we create for ourselves in order to influence how we are perceived by others. She’s aware of the multifaceted nature of personality, though, and so she conjures up two other selves, parts of her own psyche, with whom to explore this slippery landscape.

The Writer herself seems to be an experienced author with decades of work behind her. But from within, she finds a younger version of herself, rather sharper and more cynical. She also pulls out a much more public persona, the mask she puts on for interviews. A male figure, this one – The Writer understands that, like Tiresias, we all have both female and male in our makeup. ‘A Remarkable Person’ could be seen as a piece of Absurd Theatre, and the three embark on a jumpy journey through the highways and back-alleys of identity – from TV studio to psychiatrist’s couch.

The Writer has come up with the concept of ‘façadomania’, or maybe ‘façade-o-mania’ – the obsession with creating a perfect image of oneself to present to the outside world.  Although in reality, of course, it’s the writer Pernille Johnsen who’s come up with the word, and ‘A Remarkable Person’ is a fascinating and perceptive examination of the concept.  It’s interesting that this play is written in the age of Facebook – social media are the perfect arena for façadomania (although the piece doesn’t seem to mention them).

The younger woman is concerned with the status that’s given by the outward appearance of things, and how they are presented. It’s not enough just to have a Buddha in your home – how can you show that it’s actually from Cambodia? But making too much of that authenticity labels one as crass, so – “How to convey that it’s authentic, without revealing that you want to convey that it’s authentic?”

Similarly, she considers that – “The function of the home is to create a portrait of the owner”. The possessions, the décor, the furnishings, become a catalogue where we can read the status of the person who chose them.  As I listened to that line I thought of my own bookshelves at home. Obviously, this goes for creative endeavours like writing, too. As I said at the start – maybe the real reason I’m writing this review is much more about me – my own status and self-image.

With the male facet of her personality, The Writer explores how we deal with our public life, how we try to assert status while remaining engagingly modest. They play out an hilarious interview, where the author (presumably The Writer at an earlier stage of her career) claims to feel ‘humble’ at having been given success with his (her) latest book. The interviewer asks – “Isn’t the fact that you’re good, the reason for your success”. Inwardly, of course the author agrees, but he responds – “That’s for others to judge”. That sounds self-deprecating enough for the interviewer to refer to the book as an ‘overnight success’, whereupon the author snaps back testily – “Not overnight!. I’ve worked for years on that book!”

Façadomania.  How finely we need to judge our approaches and responses in our interactions with others!  Each statement that we give out elicits a reply, whose meaning must in turn be dealt with by our next offering.  They reflect off each other like a fairground mirror-maze.

It’s impossible to have even a simple conversation without advertising some feature of our personality –
“I went on a fantastic skiing trip”
– Look how fit I am.
“I just wanted to get out in the wind”
– Look at the contact I have with nature.
“We should teach children about façadomania; they shouldn’t waste their lives trying to impress others”
– Look what a caring mother I am.

And so on.   That thought about wasted lives crops up again near the end, when a session with a psychologist reveals to The Writer a sad truth about the human condition – that people who don’t learn to love themselves at an early age, seldom manage to find love for themselves as adults, either.

The three actors – writer Pernille Dahl Johnsen as The Writer, and Kristine Myhre Tunheim and Espen Oestman as her alter-egos, conjured up a kaleidoscopic series of encounters, moving around Ingvill Fossheim’s set as they visited different times and locations from The Writer’s memory and imagination.  The set itself was an arrangement of wooden structures, suggestive somehow of a landscape of shattered monoliths, and at the close they underwent a totally unexpected transformation into something much more coherent and – stony.

‘A Remarkable Person’ is a remarkable piece of theatre –
Minimal.   Disturbing.   Unforgettable.

 

 

Obama and Me

It’s almost exactly one hundred years since James Joyce wrote ‘Ulysses’, his modernist masterpiece that he set in the Dublin of 1904. In the second chapter of the novel, one of the two central characters, Stephen Dedalus, is talking to an old schoolmaster –

“History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake”.

‘Ulysses’ is partly concerned with the small Jewish population of turn-of-the-century Dublin, and the schoolmaster, Mr Deasy, observes that –

“Ireland has the honour of being the only country which never persecuted the Jews. Do you know that?  No.  And do you know why?”
“Why, Sir?” Stephen asked, beginning to smile.
“Because she never let them in”,  Mr Deasy said solemnly.

‘History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake’. That phrase was ringing in my head as I left Sylvia Arthur’s polemical production – ‘Obama and Me’.
Joyce was writing about being Jewish and of immigrant stock, in Ireland at the start of the twentieth century; Arthur’s performance is about being black, and of immigrant stock, in Europe in the twenty-first century.  Plus ça change.

In both cases, there’s a refusal to see past the outer label, or skin colour, to the essential person underneath. Sylvia Arthur is a British woman of Ghanaian descent – a striking woman in her thirties, and she dominated the Theatre Box stage in a vivid red dress. She’s obviously highly intelligent: after three degrees and an early career in journalism she went to Brussels, to the heart of the European Union, as a communications consultant working on Freedom of Movement. The EU enshrines four basic freedoms – the free movement of goods, capital, services and people. “It’s telling, that only one of those is controversial” …

During a spell in local government in Britain, Arthur had experienced the ‘doubly-reinforced glass ceiling’, that barrier to career advancement that comes from being both black and a woman. But when she got to Brussels, she came up against what she describes as ‘cognitive dissonance’. When she gave presentations at meetings – “my appearance was at odds with the sounds emanating from my mouth”.

It was the casual everyday lack of empathy; from a colleague who – “claimed he couldn’t see me in the dark”, to the PA who was amazed at her competence on the telephone. “Where did you learn to speak such good English?”, to which Arthur responded – “Everyone from England speaks good English”.

(I think Sylvia Arthur was being a bit kind, there – but she’d made her point …)

The main argument of ‘Obama and Me’ is that Europe is in reality a pretty racist continent, made up of pretty racist countries. Arthur describes Brussels, the capital of Belgium, the heart of the European Union. Belgium, with its ethnic split between the Walloons and the Flemish, identified by their different flags.  Belgium, with its bloody colonial history in the Belgian Congo.  Belgium, currently home to six hundred thousand Africans – Congolese, Ivoireans, Burundians, Rwandese – second-class citizens for the most part; the after-effect of Belgium’s late nineteenth century African Empire.

The Belgians were lording it in Leopoldville while the British Empire was governing the Dublin of Joyce’s novel.  The Irish were down on the Jews while themselves being oppressed by the British. The British – who also ruled Shanghai and Hong Kong, Bombay and Calcutta, and large parts of Africa.  They were the imperial power in the British Gold Coast – renamed Ghana after independence – Sylvia Arthur’s people’s homeland.  At the same time, French colonists held sway in North Africa and Indo-China.  A century later, the descendants of these formerly colonised peoples now migrate to the countries of their former rulers, countries they’d been taught to think of as ‘The Motherland’, in search of work, education and a better future for their children.  And the ‘host’ countries don’t recognise them – they’ve forgotten their own history.

‘History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake’.  After their colonial expansions, the European Empires then indulged in two devastating World Wars, culminating in the deep-freeze of the eastern European countries for half a century behind the ‘Iron Curtain’.  As these states joined the European Union they brought with them their own brands of ethnic and racial intolerance.  On an EU work visit to Bulgaria, Arthur is abused by a passport officer who assumes she can only possibly be a prostitute or her colleague’s girlfriend. When she protests, her Bulgarian colleague advises her – “You don’t argue with the authorities in these Former Communist countries”.

So there’s prejudice all over – First World to Third World, West to East, lighter skin to darker skin. On a trip to Istanbul, Arthur and a group of black woman friends are continually addressed on the street as black stereotypes – “Hey, Witney Houston!. Hey, Janet Jackson!” Finally someone shouts out – “Hi, Michelle Obama!”. Suddenly, Sylvia Arthur is being classified by a POSITIVE stereotype – the quintessentially twenty-first century positive black woman. A woman identified by her brains and her poise, instead of by her body shape and her skin colour.

Barak Obama too. “Individually the Obamas were remarkable. Together they were a potent force”. Arthur is aghast at the narrow vision of political commentators, by the way they were amazed at how articulate Obama was, how they were – “surprised that a Columbia-educated lawyer and the first black president of The Harvard Law Review didn’t speak like a rapper”.

But still – America put a black man in The White House.  For all the racism that still exists in that country, the Civil Rights Movement has produced real change.  Arthur doesn’t think that could happen in Europe at present.   Obama is too black for Europe. “That, in a nutshell, is Obama and me!”

She sees the solution in education. Education for future generations.  Obama’s father, like Arthur’s, migrated to the West, to America and to Canada, to build better lives for their children. To enrich their own futures, but also the future of the countries they end up in.  “The past is lost to us, but there’s still time to reverse the future. That’s what the present is for”.

This production felt like Sylvia Arthur really had worked in communications.  She interlaced her presentation with arresting images on a screen behind her, and short sequences of video gave us key moments from Barak Obama’s inauguration ceremony, and from an inspiring speech by his wife Michelle.  She made imaginative use of flags, too – the Union Jack, the EU flag with its twelve stars, and finally the red, yellow and green flag of Ghana.  She had the script in her hand as she was speaking – this is a work in progress and she’s still developing the script while she’s writing a book as another version of the same material.  It gave her performance some of the quality of a rehearsed reading, but that didn’t detract at all from the power of her delivery.

I called the show ‘polemical’ at the start of this review; at times it felt like a lecture, more often like a political speech.  This isn’t the most ‘theatrical’ performance you’ll see during Brighton Fringe – but coming just days before an election which will determine our future participation in the European project, framed by a UKIP agenda focused on immigration, which produced the can of worms that is Brexit – it’s certainly the most important.

 

(Email from Sylvia Arthur  –  ‘Thank you so much for your wonderful review of Obama & Me.  You place the show in such great context, and I appreciate the constructive critique about theatricality, which I can work on incorporating in future productions.   All the best,  Sylvia )

 

The Ruffian on the Stair

In Joe Orton’s novel ‘Head to Toe’ he wrote – ‘Words were more effective than actions; in the right hands verbs and nouns could create panic.’

His biographer John Lahr understands that in his plays Orton was writing farce. ‘In farce, people are victims of their momentum. Survival and identity are at stake. Characters state their needs, but in the panic of events their words are abused or unheard. Unheeding and frantic, characters rebound off one another groping for safety. Orton’s plays celebrate the joy and terror of this disenchantment.’

Lahr says that in his plays – ‘Orton was looking for a way to ‘kill’ with language, a
language of annihilation where laughter ‘knocks them dead’. … Orton offered his audience grotesques which, like the gargoyles on a medieval cathedral, forced the public to imagine Hell and redefine Heaven.’

So it’s the language that’s the important thing in Orton’s plays. It’s why I’ve always loved them. I’m a long-term fan – many years ago I saw Leonard Rossiter play Inspector Truscott in ‘Loot’, just weeks before he died, on another night of that production. The language is in that play is crystalline, some exchanges are as good as Oscar Wilde. When Hal is explaining to Nurse Fay about his friend Dennis, she asks him –

FAY    Have you known him long?
HAL    We shared the same cradle
FAY    Was that economy or malpractice?
HAL    We were too young then to practice, and economics still defeat us.

Perfect.

I especially love the beginning of ‘Ruffian’ – that quiet early morning domesticity; the man shaving and dressing and preparing to go out, the woman carrying in breakfast on a tray, and then the opening lines –

JOYCE    Have you got an appointment today?
MIKE    Yes. I’m to be at King’s Cross station at eleven. I’m meeting a man in the toilet
JOYCE    You always go to such interesting places.

What! What the hell is going on here? The verbal exchange is so unexpected that we’re thrown … and immediately intrigued.

But in this production the effect was lost. Pádraig Lynch as Mike was almost inaudible as he mumbled the words. He was clipping his nostril hair at the time, which didn’t help, but he delivered the line as if he planned to go to the corner shop for a loaf of bread. There was no sense of irony in Kiki Kendrick’s response, either. Her completely even tone made it sound like the most normal event imaginable.

I was discussing the performance later, with an actress who also loves Orton, and we agreed that, while the playwright’s situations and language are essentially Surreal, this company was playing them as Real.

Playing them as real life, with dialogue delivered completely naturalistically, like a domestic sitcom. The audibility improved later on; but all the way through, the three actors addressed their words essentially to each other, rather than to us in the audience. They spoke at normal conversation speed, too, which makes it sound real, but doesn’t give the audience (unless they already know the work) time to absorb the meaning – and the occasionally very disturbing implications – of each line, before the next one arrives.

That said – the production looked the part, with effective staging locating the bedroom on a raised platform at one end of The Lantern’s acting area, and a statuette of the Virgin Mary on a small sideboard at the back.   They made good use of the ‘fourth wall’ too; there was obviously a mirror on it, and the front door of Mike and Joyce’s flat, and it defined their living quarters very believably.

The actors themselves were completely believable as people.  Pádraig Lynch brought out Mike’s Irishness better than I’ve seen it done before – his chummy relationship with Wilson quickly developing when the young intruder claims a common background.  And the Irish Catholic dimension was beautifully evoked with his unease about Birth Control and his constant little nodding appeals to the Virgin.  Chummy – maybe too warmly chummy – I never got the sense that Mike was in reality a hit-man, a killer.

Kiki Kendrick, with her pink peignoir and her flaming orange-red hair, gave us all the brassiness of Joyce the ex-whore, and then she was able to reduce herself to abject panic when Wilson starts to terrify her. For me, her most moving scene was when she was calling out through the (fourth wall) front door, trying to convince herself that the man ringing and hammering was ‘the Assistance’ and not the intruder she feared. Heartrending.

Elliott Rogers looked very much the part as Wilson, the young man who initially arrives asking for a room. He’s tall, and dark haired, and he was easily able to dominate and threaten Joyce in their first scene together. But Rogers didn’t exude any real sense of calculating menace – I’ve seen Wilson played so controlled and cold that it was reptilian, and there was no real sense of that here. And it’s not just about menace; when Joyce tells him that there isn’t a room available –

JOYCE    I’m afraid there’s been a mistake. I’ve nothing to do with allotting rooms. Make your enquiries elsewhere
WILSON    I’m not coloured. I was brought up in the Home Counties

Rogers didn’t put any emphasis on his words, so we missed an important insight into the racist attitudes – the Colour Bar – that Orton obviously wanted to highlight when he was writing.

Emphasis. That’s what’s important in Orton. Emphasis on the ‘verbs and nouns that could create panic’. Wilson’s key speech is the one where he changes tack and reveals his hand to Mike –

WILSON     Well, I’m sorry I can’t stay. I must be going then.  Before I say goodbye would you mind telling me, as briefly as possible, why you killed my brother.

The key speech of the whole play – but it was delivered quickly and without any special power. A moment’s inattention and a listener would have missed it.

Others may (probably will) disagree; but to this reviewer, Ross Dinwiddy’s direction has been very effective at creating a believable and enjoyable situation comedy.  It’s just that, to paraphrase John Lahr, he hasn’t produced the grotesques which force his public to imagine hell and redefine heaven.

 

Wacht!

Hiske Eriks is beautiful.

No, she really is a beautiful young woman – years younger than the middle-aged security guard sitting in the art museum side-gallery at Sweet Waterfront.

You could see it was a side room, a small appendix off the main viewing thoroughfare, that holds just a few exhibits.  Grey curtains on the three sides of this one, and a single picture in a heavy gilded frame hanging on the central wall.  A rather bold Impressionist painting of a young woman, nude from the waist up, hands on her head so that her raised arms elevated her large breasts with their prominent nipples.

It’s called ‘Half-Naked’ in English, and it’s by a Dutch painter called Jan Sluijters, who was born in 1881. I know this because there was a small notice next to the frame and when I got home I Googled him. He seems to have specialised in painting women, clothed and unclothed – he was rather good at breasts.

While I was at it I Googled Hiske Eriks too, which is how I know that in real life she’s beautiful.

But here she looks about forty or more, tall and thin, with her hair in a severe parting right down the centre and then scraped back into a small bun behind. She’s wearing big round glasses and her lips are pursed because she’s got her cheeks slightly sucked in. She looks like a dried-up spinster schoolmistress.

She’s a gallery security attendant, so she’s wearing a pale blue blouse with a silk scarf at the throat, under a dark blue jacket and a loose dark blue skirt that reaches well below her knees. She’s sitting on a tall swivel seat next to the painting. And it’s not comfortable.

Most theatre involves the audience looking at the action through a ‘fourth wall’, and that’s how it was here. We sat looking at her, in reality in a room at Jury’s Inn hotel, while she sat on her seat looking out past us towards the main gallery somewhere behind. Staring straight ahead, straight through us. We’ve all seen that stare when we’ve visited museums and art galleries – the attendants are as unmoving as the artefacts they guard. Except that her seat isn’t comfortable. It’s hard wood, with no cushion, and it’s a bit too high to sit on easily – when she perches on it her feet don’t touch the floor. So occasionally she moves slightly, adjusting her position, and the seat squeaks as she does so.

For quite a while that squeaking was the only sound we could hear. Eriks would peer out to check that no-one was in sight, then twist a bit on the seat, and then return to her motionless state. After a bit, she tried to adjust the seat’s height, leaning over and balancing horizontally as she reached down to fiddle with the lever on the central column. Then back upright quickly – maybe she’d seen someone passing the room’s entrance …

Minimal theatre. Physical theatre. When there’s nothing happening, the smallest movement takes on an enormous significance. But she’s bored, and there’s no-one around, so she starts to hum, and then sing softly.  “Do Re Mi – Doe, a deer, a female deer; Ray, a drop of golden sun …”  From ‘The Sound of Music’, which was ironic, because up to that point there’d been no music and hardly any sound.

Still nobody comes. So she gets up, does a little dance, back and forth in front of the painting. Then she seems to have a thought – she’s getting bolder – she comes to the front of the stage, past the (hopefully watertight) waste bin that’s at one side, and checks again that there’s really no-one in sight. She goes back to the painting, and for the first time we realise that there’s a line on the floor in front of it, the kind to stop viewers getting too close.

As she steps over this line, she gives a little grin, like a naughty child, and by now we’re so involved in the smallest details of her emotions that we can share that frisson of transgression as she moves right up to the painting and TOUCHES THE WOMAN ON THE NIPPLE.  It was so unexpected that there was a small collective gasp from the audience.

There’s more – much, much more to tell, as she becomes increasingly corporeally involved with ‘Half-Naked’, but I don’t want to spoil your own enjoyment of this gripping piece of theatre by giving too much away. (Though I’ve given you a small clue in the detail about the waste bin, and at one point we do get to see Hiske Erik’s own nipples.) I certainly don’t want to tell you what happens when a gallery visitor finally arrives to take a look at ‘Half-Naked’. At the end, we shuffled out shaking our heads in disbelief at what we’d just seen.

‘Wacht!’ is only twenty minutes long, and there are no spoken words apart from ‘Do Re Mi’, but in that time Hiske Eriks managed to create a wonderfully evocative portrait of the inner life of a gallery attendant.  The actor is a consummate minimalist – tiny glances to right and left made the larger gallery behind us completely believable, while her very mobile face with its occasional impish grins gave us a window onto the woman’s soul, bursting to escape its museum guard straitjacket.

‘Wacht!’ means ‘Wake Up!’. You could interpret that as some kind of ‘rude awakening’, and the piece was certainly rude. I will never look at gallery staff in quite the same way in the future.

 

Hidden Mother

There are any number of plays about insanity, but it’s only a minority of them that examine the condition from the inside. We’re used to seeing the outward behaviour of disturbed people, but not many productions give us a view from within that individual’s own perception.

‘Hidden Mother’ does give us one – very believably indeed.

Diana Denidova is a cabaret singer in Petrograd, just after the October Revolution in Russia. The black-walled acting area of the Theatre Box has the cramped intimacy of a nightclub, and she bursts onto the club’s small stage in full-on diva mode.  She’s an imposing woman, dominating the space in a black dress, floral patterned silk wrapper, black shawl round her shoulders and the most flaming orange-red hair I’ve seen in quite a while. It’s the ‘Former Persons’ club – Leon, her pianist, tells us that it’s “the place where there are no outsiders”.  At least here in the Club they’re still alive – because these are people who have fallen foul of the politics of the Bolshevik Party – “According to Lenin we don’t even exist!”

But we soon begin to realise that she doesn’t actually exist in the Club, either.   She starts to reminisce about parties in pre-revolutionary Petrograd, and Leon brings her back to earth by reminding her that in order to have such memories she would need to be well over ninety years old.  Diana retorts angrily that these are in fact her mother’s memories, passed on to Diana as a child. “My mother was a Princess!”

So she’s not actually in 1914 Petrograd at all – we come to understand she’s in an asylum, somewhere in England, and that the time is the present.  She has only Leon as a companion – he plays piano there, too, and he’s presumably another patient.  With a lurch, we realise that the Club is an hallucination of Diana’s, that this is where she goes to escape the tedium of the institution she’s incarcerated in.

But there are more facets to Diana’s jumbled existence – every so often a spotlight pins her, centre stage, like a rabbit caught in headlights, and we hear the voice of her therapist stripping away her imagined past – “My mother was a Princess” – to get her to face the truth.  But when exactly is this?  Are we hearing Diana’s therapist in the present, or are we hearing Diana’s memories of their past encounters?

Her mother, it seems, was probably an unstable woman who drank and who took numerous lovers, and whose husband eventually threw both mother and daughter out onto the street. Diana was brought up by her grandmother, and never saw her parents again. But that’s too hard to face, so Diana has constructed a more glamorous existence for herself. It’s more comfortable, living in the past – especially as an aristocrat. (Why are lunatics and ‘spirit channellers’ always inhabited by royalty like Cleopatra or Napoleon, and never by the surely much more numerous commoners and peasants?)

It’s more comfortable in the asylum, too.  They don’t have to face all the pressures and problems of the outside world.  But this is the present, and their institution is about to be closed. Leon thinks that the land will be used to build a luxury development – flats that people like them could never afford. A future of ‘Care in The Community’ seems inevitable, with therapy, if available at all, delivered by telephone from a care-agency call centre worker.  Or possibly by a sophisticated interactive computer programme – that’s even cheaper …

I believed in their situation, as people stuck in a nightmare of insecurity and dislocation, but it seemed to me that the writing couldn’t quite decide whether this play was concerned with a depiction of madness, or a plea against the dismantling of the mental health system.  It might have been more powerful to go all out in one direction.

I was very impressed with the performances.  Laura Louise Baker as Diana will be hard to forget. Her switches from dominating Diva to damaged daughter were unsettling, and when she screamed at her therapist – “I WAS MAD! … I like being angry; it means I’m not weak” – I was riveted to my seat.  Polis Loizou was sufficiently languid and world-weary to bring life to both incarnations of Leon, the cabaret pianist and the patient. I believed in the actors’ characters completely..

I believed in them as living, breathing human beings – but here’s a thing …

You may have noticed that I’ve talked mostly about Diana.  That’s because from everything I saw, I couldn’t help feeling that Diana’s insanity had yet another level.  That Leon didn’t actually exist outside her imagination and that, in fact, she was quite alone. She’s the one who talks to us. She’s the one whose therapist’s voice we hear.  What if Leon is as much a product of her fevered imagination as the 1917 audience in the ‘Former Persons’ club?    Off-Off-Off-Broadway don’t seem to have considered this possibility, at least not in their publicity; but for this reviewer it offered an intriguing extra possibility to the situation.

You’ll have to decide for yourselves.  I’d recommend you catch this production and make up your own minds.  You won’t be disappointed.

 

Ensonglopedia of Science

“I want to see it again!”

John Hinton had just finished ‘You’, his song about his daughter Thalia, with his black and white home video of the just-born child on the big screen behind him.  It was very moving, and then I heard the piping voice if a little lad sitting behind us, frustrated that it was over.

He wasn’t alone. All through ‘Ensonglopedia of Science’ I’d glanced around at my fellow audience members. The young ones, sitting with their parents, must have been seven to ten in the main – and their faces were … rapt.

Their older family members were, too – tier upon tier of enraptured faces at The Old Courtroom. At one point they watched John Hinton perform a very brief explanation of Relativity – done as Rap.  Not just the words, but the movements too. It only lasted a minute or two, but he managed to get across the basic principles of both Special Relativity – “Time is not set in stone”, and General Relativity – “Mass causes space to curve”. All backed up with colourful clock faces and TweedleDum and TweedleDee graphics on the huge screen behind him.

Hinton did this piece as Albert Einstein, putting on a heavy grey moustache and a German accent. I’d seen him do a whole show about Einstein, in this same venue a few years ago, and with that one he did a much more comprehensive explanation of Einstein’s theory (and I think I understood it!). ‘Ensonglopedia’, though, is about science in general – a whole range of topics, performed in song.

Not just in song – but in a wide range of musical genres: from rap to opera. As the show’s programme informed us – ‘You’re about to hear a song about science for each letter of the alphabet. Each song is also a genre of music, or played on an instrument (or in some cases both), starting with the same letter.’ So when we got to ‘R’, we had Relativity, done as Rap. Brilliant – but could he do it for all twenty-six letters of the alphabet?

He could. Hinton started with Atom. He did this one Acapella, and as he explained how the word means ‘indivisible’ we saw the Ancient Greek philosopher Democritus (who came up with the concept) on the screen. But then he talked about the modern discoveries of the atom’s structure – how it’s mostly empty space, with the nucleus like a single bee in St Paul’s cathedral, and how the nucleus itself is composed of smaller elements, all the way down to quarks. A cascade of images backed up the words – bees, cathedrals, schematic layouts of the electrons circling the atom. Busy – and constantly stimulating.

Moving through the alphabet, he showed us the structure of the Cell, to a Calypso melody, leading a Conga line of audience up the central steps. Then later we had Jive, as we encountered dinosaurs in the Jurassic era. Diplodocus, Stegosaurus and the rest. (We didn’t see T Rex ‘cos he didn’t come along until the Cretaceous – though there was a great silhouette of him on the screen). Later still we got up to dance a Quickstep and learn about Quantum Entanglement.

He ended with Zero – done to music from a Zither.  Zilch.  A great fat nought signifying the final end of the Universe. Or maybe not the end – as his letter ‘B’ he’d given us the Big Bang, the massive explosion that brought the Universe into being. Maybe, he suggested, it will eventually all collapse back to its starting point and the whole process will begin again.

We just don’t know.  One of the best features of ‘Ensonglopedia’ was that Hinton could talk of the discoveries still to be made, of science as an ongoing process.  When he got to ‘K’ (done as Karaoke, with a kazoo of course) he reminded us that “Knowledge is a slippery fish, a scientist only ever knows – ish”. He wasn’t making scientists out to be some sort of elite ‘priesthood’, either – he made it clear at the start that we are all scientists, even the tiniest children, in that we all examine the world around us and come up with theories and explanations of cause and effect. Which is exactly what professional scientists do, except they do it in laboratories.

Hinton was wearing a laboratory coat to do this show. White, of course, like his trousers, and both glowed blue when he came to ‘U’ – performing on a Ukulele, bathed in UV light from some small ultraviolet tubes at his feet. There was a lot of equipment on stage – a whole range of musical instruments including an electric keyboard, lights on stands to keep Hinton illuminated as he moved around, and a laptop to run the amazing graphics behind him. There were occasional glitches with the computer, and the performer had to kneel down and fiddle with it – but far from being a problem, these just pointed up the uncertainty, the experimental nature, of science. With his white coat it looked like he was a working scientist in a lab.

The nature of UV light led us on to Wavelength. ‘W’. Performed on a Wobble-board – Hinton’s musical talent knows no bounds. ‘Ensonglopedia’ is aimed primarily at younger people (though we adults were gripped as well) and what I found brilliant was John Hinton’s sheer enthusiasm for science, and how he was able to communicate the awe at the scale of the Universe, the wonder at its intricacy, that science can offer – if it’s not made dull and boring.  To really show you his range, of science topics as well as music, I’ll run through just a few of his pieces for you.

Wavelength (which we’ve already seen), on Wobble-board.   The Olfactory Orifice of the Octopus, as Opera.   Neurons – nerve cells passing information along to other neurons, done as a Nursery Rhyme.   DNA – the structure of our genetic code, whose occasional errors cause both cancer and the mutations that power evolution, with a backing of Drum ‘n base.   Entropy, and Electrons – the orientation spin of electrons in the atom, done as Electro-swing on (of course) an Electric guitar.   I’ve already mentioned Relativity, but not that he managed to include E=MC² into the Rap, forming the letters with his fingers as he pounded out the beat.   Fusion, the process that powers the Sun, and promises limitless energy in the future, was shown with video of experimental fusion reactors and performed as a Folk Song.   UV we know about already, and he also gave us  – Life, and how do we define it?  This came in the form of Limericks, six short verses on life-forms as diverse as bacteria, oak trees and silicon-based aliens.

Wow!  What a selection. What a demonstration of the immense range of science.
I’m doing a John Hinton myself, here, so spell out that short list for yourselves.

W.O.N.D.E.R.F.U.L.

Which it was.

 

 

Undercover Refugee

After Evelyn Waugh’s masterpiece ‘Scoop’, probably the truest account of war reporting is Edward Behr’s 1978 book – ‘Anyone here been raped and speaks English?’

Whether they work for newspapers or TV, war correspondents have to tell a story that grips their audience – and what brings home the brutality of war more strongly than defenceless women being raped? But the readers and viewers at home want detail, preferably graphic and personal, and that can’t have as much impact when told second-hand through an interpreter. Hence the reporter’s habitual question – and the book’s title.

The Syrian conflict has displaced millions, from every level of that society. The refugees include simple workers as well as highly educated professional people: lawyers, teachers and scientists – people forced to flee for their lives by a brutal civil war. They’ve survived a hazardous sea crossing in overcrowded open boats. They endure hardship in makeshift camps in Greece.  Then they fall into the hands of the Mafia people-smugglers, who get them across borders – waiting for days for a train to arrive to take them onward into Croatia, Hungary and further west.      To wind up as an Uber taxi-driver in Frankfurt …

Or Oslo.  Karen Houge is Norwegian, and she wanted to be a witness to this great human tragedy, travelling with the refugees, engaging with the issues and telling it like it is – like her heroine the TV reporter Asne Seierstad (she shows us her picture -imagine a Norwegian Kate Adie).  Karen didn’t have any broadcasting experience, though, and no press card, so she decided to travel to Lesbos on her own, and film a documentary. I was expecting ‘Undercover Refugee’ to be a worthy piece, and probably tear-inducing too.

What we got was irony. Karen and her partner David Tann, both dressed in black, surrounded by white gauze curtains on the compact stage at The Warren’s Studio 3. Karen quickly donned a flak-jacket and helmet – you have to look the part to tell the story graphically – while David stood to one side doing all the other roles.  They told us they really wanted to engage with their audience, so Karen handed one of us a small flag – “Wave this if you think we’re getting too pretentious”. My friend Rowena was given a microphone and some sheets of script, and she was sat in the front row, where she was to be Karen’s occasional ‘inner voice’ – her conscience – telling her what she should be doing; making her documentary instead of flirting with aid workers or refugees.

Because this show is really all about sex. It’s a sexy scenario – young, fit, idealistic westerners spending their days pulling desperate people from the surf, then getting off with each other later in the Lesbos bars.   Like ‘Baywatch’ – but with a lot more ouzo.
David pulled off his jacket and shirt and flexed his muscles for us as he became one of ‘Team Humanity’ on the beach. Karen clung on to a small piece of white driftwood, briefly becoming a refugee mother with a baby, and David snatched the wood from her arms, holding it triumphantly wrapped in a ‘Team Humanity’ jacket and an EU flag, while Karen then videoed the scene. Humanitarian aid as a gap-year activity …

It’s a social media orgy. “How do you survive on Lesbos?” – “Facebook”. Videos, selfies – everything goes straight onto Facebook and YouTube. How many people did we help?, and how many ‘likes’ did we get?   And the reporting has to be simple, obvious, conforming to our stereotypes.  “Have you been oppressed by men? Have you been raped? No? Maybe she’s a terrorist. Are you a terrorist?”  David whipped up an audience frenzy in support of Team Humanity – “When I say ‘Refu’, you all shout ‘Gee’, OK?”

And of course we all did. “Refu”-“GEE!” “Refu”-“GEE!” Wow!

Stalin once said – “The death of one person is a tragedy, the death of a million persons is a statistic” When Karen joins a small group of Syrians, to travel west with them, the fleeing masses suddenly become very human.  She told us of Habyama, Haman and Mustashan. Habyama, 28 and very pregnant, had been a history professor at the University of Damascus.  Haman was older, a painter who’d spent time in prison for his political beliefs.  Mustashan at 23 was the joker of the three, always fretting about his appearance; his essential possession seemed to be a can of hair spray – funny how everyone has a different set of priorities. We were reminded that these are real people, with real lives, not just an anonymous crowd spilling out of an overloaded boat onto the front pages of our newspapers.

But the show’s really about sex and social media, remember. They’ve come through Macedonia and they’re on a Mafia train in Hungary – an illegal transit organised by people-smugglers. Karen’s with them, and her inner voice (Well done, Rowena …) urges her to post some selfies online – “Show people where you are. None of your friends have been on a Mafia train. Think about all the ‘Likes’” Within seconds she gets a response – “U R so brave !!!”  Earlier in the trip when Habyama had given birth, Karen received update texts from Haman every few minutes on her iPhone.

Karen takes a definite shine to Mustashan – “He has beautiful eyes” – and we sense David’s jealousy as he crashes around noisily on the side of the stage. Then we’re back in the present as she reassures him – “But that was before you and I even met! – and anyway I like masculine men” As you’ve probably realised by now – this was a deeply ironic take on the refugee crisis, and very post-modern – there’s no ‘fourth wall’ in this production. Karen and David bicker (like all couples) and they’re constantly reworking their lines to achieve the effect that Karen wants in the show.

There’s physical theatre, too, and some very inventive shadow-play, but you’ll have to see the show for yourselves to experience that. It’s also very, very funny. There had been gales of laughter throughout, but at the end they stuck up large photographs of the refugees during their trip – clinging together fearfully in the boats, then cold and crowded in the transit camps.

Real people, with real lives.   The memory of them stayed with me as we stepped out of Studio 3 to get a drink and sit in the Brighton sunshine – warm and safe.

 

Good Grief: Stories from West 88th Street

There are acknowledgments at the bottom of Terianne Falcone’s programme for ‘Good Grief’, and the last couple are for –

Spesh tank Amy Sutton for give ‘and with poster handa fly design. She’sa veddi goo’. Send he-mail if you wanna do biz widda ‘er : amy@suttons.info

Halso Bev Wills from Stone ‘Air Salon (36 Blatchington Road, Hove) makea my ‘air beautif. Shesa veddi goo’ widda ‘air. She homosexch. Lady homosexch. Dat why she good widda ‘air.

There’s no possible way I could get away with writing lines like those – I’d be crucified for ethnic and sexual stereotyping – but I can do it here because those are Terianne’s words, and that’s just how she sounds in her show. She’s written, and performs, an Italian-American character from New York: the superintendent – in Europe we’d call it something between ‘concierge’ and ‘janitor’ – of her apartment block. Here’s how Bruna introduces herself, on the show’s flyer –

Buona Sera, heverybod! Whaddayado! My name his Bruna. Bruna Giannini. Like martini. I take care of de building West 88 Stree. I’m soup of the build. Hevery morn, hima geta my hassa hup to clean, do de recyc – whaddeve dere need to be do, hima do. Hand hima take care de peep, too. Hitsa my job, Eh!

Falcone’s American, with a deep, rich voice, and she’s picked up the register of Bruna’s speech very believably. It takes a little while to get used to her unusual vowel sounds, and to her habit of leaving off the last letters of words.  Bruna keeps referring to Italy, where she was born, as ‘my cunt’ – which got a laugh each time she did it.  It took a while to get used to the sheer chutzpah of the writing, too.  The actor’s a natural as a comic, and she’s created a larger-than-life character in Bruna – there were gales of laughter all through ’Good Grief’.

Bruna’s a widow – her husband Bruno died last winter after slipping on a step outside their building that Bruna hadn’t completely cleared of ice. She feels it was her fault, although it was an accident, and tells people that – “I killed my husband by axe”.  We never hear the shocked response to this admission – but that’s because this is a one-woman show and it’s just Falcone speaking. She’s a very accomplished actor, though, and she leaves just a long enough pause that we can create her listener’s wide-eyed stare and sharp intake of breath, for ourselves.

Terianne Falcone is very good indeed at pauses. There are nine short vignettes in this show and in the third one – ‘Sleepover’ – a woman called Emily is talking to friends about her late husband. He’s only been dead a month, and Emily is describing his mannerisms. “Harry always says”… and then she tails off into silence; that yawning gap between what was, and what is, and finally she gathers up her courage and starts again – “Harry always said”. So real, so painful, it brought tears to my eyes.

Nine sketches of New York life.  Falcone says that they are all based on people she met while living in the city.  And each of them is more than just a monologue, a soliloquy – these are actual scenes, with a character talking and responding to others. Four of them feature Bruna herself, the others are linked in some way – a lot of them live in the same building.

So at the start we see Bruna in church – she’s Catholic, of course – demanding that the priest give her a penance (she keeps referring to it as ‘penis’) of sufficient ‘Hail Mary’s to assuage her guilt over her husband’s death. – “Fifty ‘Hail Mary’s! Listen, Father. I wanna go to heaven. Give me a thousand”.  Very simple staging on the small black-walled acting area of the Warren Theatre Box, just two folding chairs, set side by side with their backs towards us to make a pair of pews, and Bruna herself in a hairnet, wrapped up (it’s early on a cold morning) in a blue cardigan and a scarf.

Then she takes the chairs off, and comes back in a short while as a socially inept prospective tenant, undergoing the ordeal of trying to rent a room in someone’s apartment. A rather autistic, sheltered teacher with a pink Alice band and a little silver purse – “I have to spend evenings working on my lesson plan”. She’s terrified of the cats who live there – backs against the wall, afraid they’ll scratch her legs – “I should have got more emotionally prepared to meet the cats. Will I have to feed them?”.  When she tries to make conversation – “Is that a Monet?”, there’s a perfectly timed pause and then – “Oh – your nephew”. At the end she asked, shyly, “So – do you think we’ll get along?”.  I think we all knew …

Even the musicians knew.   There’s music between each section, while the actor goes offstage to change costume and props. A jazzy trio, taking up the right half of the Theatre Box stage. They are Purple Pudding Clause, a talented family group – Rachel Lovell on cello, Steve Lovell on acoustic guitar and 15-year-old David Lovell on drums.  Upbeat, yet slightly haunting music – beautifully performed pieces, but a little too loud and overlong to be a perfect fit with Falcone’s performance..

We meet the teacher again later, but by that time she’s in a taxi and it’s the driver who’s doing the talking. He’s a widower, eighty-six years old, with eleven children, and he cackles as he talks of getting married a second time, to his dead wife’s best friend, who’s ‘only’ seventy-four. He’d been in the war, a survivor of Pearl Harbour, for which he’s never forgiven Franklin Delano Roosevelt – “He knew! He knew the Japs were coming!”.  He recounts horrific tales of atrocities by Japanese soldiers in the Philippines – “I had nightmares for years after”.

So Falcone can do dark as well as funny.  The penultimate piece is very dark indeed – Falcone wraps herself in a blanket and hunches down in a chair as we hear the sound of a baby crying. The actor ages visibly, right in front of us, as she mumbles, sniffs and avoids eye contact with the police officers who’ve come to her apartment.  She’s the only one that can hear the baby, though, and she gradually reveals a terrible truth.  This is Edgar Allen Poe’s story ’The Beating Heart’ updated to West 88 Street.  She too lived in Bruna’s building, and Bruna’s husband had long suspected that there was something suspicious about the woman’s acoustic hallucinations.  As Bruna tells him when she visits his grave in the final piece – “You pretty smart, Bruno. Even if you dead”

You pretty smart too, Falcone!  In just over an hour I felt I’d been given a close-up view of a selection of New Yorkers, in all their rich diversity – funny and moving, happy and sad. There isn’t room in this review to tell you every story – you’ll just have to go and meet them yourselves.

 

Scorched

Funny how life loops round and catches up with itself. Watching ‘Scorched’ brought up the memory of a passage from ‘Justine’, the first book of Lawrence Durrell’s ‘Alexandria Quartet’. The book’s set in Alexandria during the Second World War, and there’s an old policeman called Scobie, very old now and living almost completely alone with just his memories, but –

‘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. When he speaks of the past it is in a series of short dim telegrams – as if already communications were poor, the weather inimical to transmission … the long effortless tides patrol the barrier between himself and his memory.’

Jack Dobson had been a policeman too, a lance-corporal in the military police in Egypt during the war, sometimes even in that same city of Alex, but now it’s the early nineties and he’s in a care home somewhere back in England. The Gulf War has started, Operation Desert Storm, and on the TV they’re bombing the shit out of the Iraqis. As the light from the television flickers over his face, the sounds of the war reporting take him back to the desert fifty years before.

When we talk of dementia, we almost always look at it from the outside. ‘Scorched’ takes us inside, into Jack’s world, and it’s a surreal place – nightmarishly unstable.
It’s a desert world; there’s sand everywhere, covering the whole Rialto stage, and Jack’s armchair and the TV are set down in it, along with a few small bits of furniture – a standard lamp, a tiny table and a piano stool with handles. They’re all decorated in warm ochre colours, rather as if they’ve been camouflaged. He often talks directly to characters in his past. Occasionally he responds to people who must be in the room with him, other residents or staff, but they’ve become incorporated into his memories too.

Jack’s made a paper aeroplane, and as the sound of the bombs fills the room he flies it round in his hands like a small boy before crashing it down into the sand. Then he’s down on all fours, peering across the dunes at the broken fuselage of the crashed plane, looking for any survivors. None. So at last he goes back to his armchair and takes up a cup of tea. He doesn’t drink it, though – just tips it sideways so that a stream of sand pours out to form a small pile between his feet.

Jack instructs his comrades in desert survival – “The sun’ll burn the fight right out of a man”, fretting that – “the magnetite in the rocks affects your compass like the sun does your mind” Robin Berry plays Jack with a convincing Geordie accent and the hard voice of a working-class soldier.  But that’s only in his memory, of course.  When he returns fleetingly to the present he’s frail and stooped and his voice quavers.  Berry was completely convincing each time he moved back to his chair and the decades piled on to the aged body.

As the young Jack, there’s a canvas holster on the arm of his chair and he pulls out his service revolver to threaten someone – “Why are you smiling?”  There are sounds of battle as he moves around the stage. “And if a tank got hit by an eighty-eight” – there’s a huge explosion at this, filling the space and deafening us momentarily. Then it’s exercise, boxing with his men, feinting and dodging before delivering a knockout punch. The action segues, and suddenly he’s actually boxing with his brothers, being encouraged by his father – “I cannot abide weakness, I taught you to look after yourself” – but that must have been years before …

‘Scorched’ is a hugely inventive production. Each piece of furniture played several roles – at one point Jack hid behind the armchair to escape enemy fire, then pushed up the seat from underneath like it was a hatch-cover and stuck his head through as the crew member of a tank. Another time they’re leaving Tobruk in a truck, and Jack’s sitting up on the arm of the chair, shaking with the vibration of the vehicle over the rocky road, as he lights a cigarette and passes it to a comrade, to light his.

The frequent light changes were disturbing, lamps flickering as explosions rocked the space. At one point he distils some very potent alcohol and gets drunk – the whole stage illuminated from first one side and then the other, back and forth, and the music got louder and louder to produce a visceral disorientation as the room itself seemed to be rocking. But that must have been later, when he was back home with the children, because then he took a strap and beat his wife…

Jack’s memories jump back and forth. He’s built a gypsy caravan for his kids, he moves the piano stool in front of the armchair and he’s up sitting on the back, slapping the reins of the horse as he takes them into the country. Opens the door and “let them run wild – I sat and smoked and I never knew such peace”. But in a later sequence he’s just got home from the war, demobbed, and he gets himself a motorbike. – “a reconditioned three-fifty Enfield”. Jack knelt over the piano stool and it became his bike, leaning into the bends as he headed north from Newcastle – he’s a Geordie, remember.  “I stopped for something to eat, and a girl called Peggy put salt on my chips”.

In that way of things – we soon see Jack with a child, a baby, a small screaming bundle he picks up from the side of the stage. Then there are two more and he’s rocking three in his arms – these must be the children he remembered earlier, in the caravan …

There’s puppetry, too, and very convincing physical theatre. I won’t spoil the effect for you (you’ll just have to go and see the show) but a bunch of sandbags become a human figure; a prisoner Jack’s escorting to Alexandria by train. The prisoner manages to free himself and escape, and as he looks for him Jack balances himself with one foot each on the small table and the piano stool, rocking with the motion of the railcars as he’s peering up and down the track.

I haven’t mentioned Jack’s horse that dies, or the tattoos of the Egyptian girl he loved in Alex, or the little island that became home, which he built from a small mound of sand with a castle and little houses – “all built from the same stone as the castle, rub it with your hand, warm and gritty. Sandstone” It was close to the front of the stage, lit by a warm yellowish lamp like a sunset, and the perspective made Jack’s face loom over it, almost like a god looking down at his creation. As the light faded down I was close to tears.

I haven’t mentioned the music, either. Music seems to cling tenaciously in memory, and Jack’s memories were heightened by a very evocative sound track: from forties jazz and swing to English pastoral and Scottish pipes.  Director Claire Coaché has really brought Lisle Turner’s writing to life.

It’s ironic – how a show about failing memory should be unforgettable; but it is.  ‘Scorched’ is a truly outstanding production.

 

Gratiano

As I left the Rialto Theatre after watching ‘Gratiano’ I couldn’t help thinking of the similarities to ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead’.  Tom Stoppard’s play takes two minor characters from ‘Hamlet’ and lets us see Shakespeare’s great work through their eyes. While we watch them on the stage in front of us, the main developments at Elsinore are taking place offstage. They are almost two halves of one person – Rosencrantz takes things very much at face value while Guildenstern worries much more about the deeper meaning, and about the consequences of his actions.

Ross Ericson has done much the same in ‘Gratiano’.  He’s taken a secondary character from ‘The Merchant of Venice’ and put him centre stage.  It’s Sunday morning, and Gratiano’s been pulled out of his bed by the Venice police, and taken in for questioning about the murder of Bassanio. As he rambles on and on at the police station – Gratiano’s not the sort of man who can keep silent for even a minute – he gives us a twentieth century retelling of Shakespeare’s play.

There’s more. This is Venice in the nineteen fifties, and the echoes of Italian Fascism still reverberate. Gratiano had been a member of Mussolini’s Blackshirts, and he’s got memories of marching with ‘the legionaries of the New Roman Empire’, arm outstretched in a Fascist salute, chanting “Hail, Duce! Hail, Duce!”. He’s not the only one, by any means; he taunts his police interrogator with reference to his past – “All that stuff that went before, rather leave it lie, eh?. Leave the past alone”.

But the other side of Gratiano’s personality remembers the anti-semitism of Italian society, and the rounding up of the Jews for transport to extermination camps in the Holocaust. He’s trying to understand how prejudice and racial hatred develop, and how they corrode individuals and society. Gratiano may be a minor character, but in Ross Ericson’s hands he’s a complex individual.

Venice lives off tourism now, but in its heyday it was the throbbing centre of an Empire based on trade and backed up with military force where necessary.   Just like London, warts and all. Wharves and warehouses, commerce and courtesans, dungeons and the Doge.  Gratiano’s no aristocrat, of course, so he speaks to us in a very working-class, East End English. We see him morose in a bar, clutching a beer as he remembers the comradeship of the old days, waving the bottle to emphasise some point. Then he crosses the stage to sit on a high police station stool under a single hanging light and he’s over familiar with his questioners (who we never hear) –  very much the wide-boy Cockney as he tries to deflect suspicion for Bassanio’s murder.

He’s contemptuous of his old fellow Blackshirt – “we hardly move in the same social circles” – as someone who moved out of his class by marrying a rich heiress – “He married Portia fifteen to twenty years ago, before the war”. But to get the funds to woo Portia, Bassanio had to persuade his merchant friend Antonio to borrow money from Shylock, the Jewish moneylender. Ericson goes deeper than Shakespeare, suggesting that Antonio was gay, providing Bassanio with a means to pressure or blackmail him into helping. Bassanio seems to have been a nasty piece of work – “The bastard didn’t even invite Antonio to the wedding!” and later he managed to get Antonio exiled from Venice. At the time of his murder Bassanio had been a politician, running for the Italian Senate as a Christian Democrat.  “As a Christian Democrat! – Mussolini must be spinning in his grave”

Though he puts it in a different historical setting, Ericson keeps Shakespeare’s play intact, with the trial scene over Antonio’s ‘pound of flesh’ almost drowned out by Gratiano and his mates chanting, baying for Shylock’s blood – “It was no longer a court of law, it was a bear-pit”.  Shylock’s daughter Jessica eloped with another of Gratiano’s friends, Lorenzo, and he tells us gleefully of “the great love story, a Blackshirt running off with a Jewess”

Jewishness is at the heart of both plays. ‘The Merchant of Venice’ is often condemned for its anti-Semitism, while apologists cite Shylock’s great speech – “If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh?” – as being one of literature’s most powerful arguments against racism.  In this version Gratiano seems to have been affected by the suffering he saw inflicted on Jewish people during the war, and by the way many of his fellow Blackshirts, Bassanio included, found themselves safe positions far from the fighting.

He hates the way that so many Fascist politicians were able to emerge unscathed after the war- “crawling out from under a rock after the storm” – and continue their careers in Italian public life. And not just in Italy, of course… He rails against voters who have little knowledge of the world and very short memories of politics. Voters who can so easily be infected by prejudice and swayed towards hatred and fear of ‘Them’, of ‘The Others’ – people who have a different skin colour, or religion, or culture.

“That’s how we ended up with Benito”
“That’s how the Germans ended up with Adolf”

So this play is a passionate cry against racism and xenophobia in every country, in every century; it speaks to us very clearly today. Don’t for a moment imagine, though, that this is a worthy lecture on morality – Ross Ericson has created a living, breathing human being in Gratiano. A complex character, as I said above; one of the minority of people who has been able reflect on his experiences and change his opinions. He’s obviously very much a vehicle for the political message his author wants to get across to us, but I believed in him as a man.

Ericson occasionally delivers lines a little fast for easy hearing, but their meaning is always clear from his very expressive facial expressions and hand movements. His body is never still – constantly leaning towards the audience to emphasise some point, or raising his palms towards us to distance himself from some allegation.  He’s a joy to watch.

 

Agamemnon

On a trip to Greece last September we visited Mycenae, so I have stood at the top of the citadel, looking down across the plain of Argos towards the sea.   From that vantage point it’s obvious that Agamemnon’s fortress was located there so that it could dominate all movement through that mountainous region, and three and a half thousand years ago signal fires on the mountain tops would have carried the news of the fall of Troy …

We were sitting in the converted shipping container that constitutes Studio 2 at the Warren, and in front of us two watchmen climbed on a chair and strained their eyes to make out a distant speck of flame. A slight glimmer of light on their faces, which faded for a few seconds, and then it came back, stronger, and they had it – the message that Mycenae had waited ten long years to receive.

Just a chair to give us the watchtower, and the bare walls of the shipping container behind them hardly visible through the wreathing smoke. There’s smoke aplenty in this production – a permanent haze, often turned blue or a violent red as the action changed – and it felt like we were peering back across murky millennia to glimpse the characters of Aeschylus’ play.

But it’s Steven Berkoff’s modern adaptation that Windmill Young Actors have taken on, and so the actors are all dressed in military fatigues. When they fill the stage it feels like there are dozens, but in fact ‘Agamemnon’ has a cast of just eight. Most of them have character roles – Clytemnestra, Iphigenia, Cassandra and the rest – but they all double up as The Chorus, so we had sequences of well-orchestrated chanting and perfectly-drilled, stylised movements.

The whole production is very physical. Apart from three chairs on the stage there’s no scenery at all, so when setting sail on a ship, for example, the eight actors come together with perfectly choreographed movements, reaching up and pulling down as they haul the ropes that raise the sail. Or in battle, on the plain in front of Troy, they square off, four against four, lunging and parrying. With their bodies silhouetted through the haze against the vivid red backlights they looked very like the stylised figures on a Greek vase – black on red – come to life in front of us.

This production could serve as a textbook for physical theatre. No scenery, as I’ve said. As Iphigenia is being sacrificed at Aulis – to appease the gods and produce a wind for the fleet – two cast members go down on all fours to form an altar, and Agamemnon’s daughter lies supine across them, head back to expose her throat to us – and to her father’s knife. It was all done in mime, but so believably that we could almost see the flash of the blade and the gushing of the blood.

Certain characters are of course more dominant in any play, but this was a true ensemble production with powerful performances from every member of the cast. When they stood staring ahead as The Chorus, chanting Berkoff’s lines and stamping out a rhythm for emphasis, they were a perfectly drilled unit. They all deserve recognition so I’m going to name them –

Zoe Alexander, Jonny Davidson, Sarah Elliott, George Jasper Kelly, Phoebe Owen, Cerys Salkeld-Green, Morwenna Silver and Henry Touray.

Windmill Young Actors works with young people from five years old to twenty, and these were obviously at the top of that age range. But that said – the power of their delivery, the emotional intensity they brought to their roles, and the clarity and audibility of their diction made them seem like a much older and more experienced group of actors.

The word ‘awe’ derives from the Greek ‘achos’ meaning fear. Aeschylus’ play about the House of Atreus is meant to produce fear in its audience, and I was in awe of the power of this production. At the opening we peered through a blue haze at the seated figure of Aegisthus – Henry Touray all in black, with wildly curly black hair – slowly spooning stew into his mouth. Then three attendants appeared from behind him, feeding him slowly, deliberately, rhythmically, with the cooked bodies of his own children.  “Here’s the bone of an animal I don’t recognise …”

So Aegisthus has reason to hate Agamemnon’s family, as does Clytemnestra when her husband slaughters their daughter.  Morwenna Silver as the Queen wore a clinging sheath of a dress over her fatigue trousers, and a gash of vivid red lipstick. She oozed sensuality as she waited to exact revenge on Agamemnon – always lit in her own pool of light, observing events from the side of the stage when she wasn’t at the centre of the action.

This being a Berkoff adaptation, the text was brought up to date with a lot of modern references. George Jasper Kelly played the Herald, who arrives at Mycenae with news of the battles at Troy. Kelly gave a bravura performance of a typical Berkoff riff on war – very physical, bouncing across the stage making the noises of gunfire and bombs and machine-gunning everyone in sight. Awesome.

When Agamemnon finally returned, Jonny Davidson very tall in uniform and accompanied by Cassandra, the Trojan princess he’s brought back as booty, Clytemnestra’s hatred and jealousy of the King and his new bedmate flashed across to the audience and pushed her even closer to their murder. Cerys Salkeld-Green’s Cassandra, tall and slender with her hair in straggly ringlets and blood already coating her arms, could see immediately what her fate was to be. She was a prophetess, remember, forseeing the destruction of Troy, but no-one ever believed her. She was correct this time, too, as she and Agamemnon stepped on to a long strip of red silk that snaked across the stage, leading to the fatal bath (also done in mime) where they both met their end at Clytemnestra’s hand.

If it’s well done, the magic of theatre allows an audience to see a distant world come to life just a few feet in front of us.  Tanushka Marah has assembled a very talented group of actors, she’s directed them brilliantly and created visual effects and settings that took my breath away – and then she’s let them loose to get on with the job.  I can’t recall a piece of theatre as gripping as this production of ‘Agamemnon’.

 

The Writers’ Bloc

‘The Writers’ Bloc’ is a play which sets the creativity of the individual artist against the needs of The State and of the masses of citizens who constitute society. It’s a play which takes a hard look at those who consider themselves an ‘elite’.  It’s a play about ‘populist’ politics, where powerful groups claim to speak for ‘the majority of the people’. It could be the perfect play for the political climate of Brexit and Trump.

It could be – but it’s actually set in Soviet Russia, in 1937. There’s a sense of war building in the air, and Stalin needs a great masterpiece of literature about The Party. A book to put on every desk, in every hotel room, to inspire every Soviet citizen. As the Minister responsible says – “We want a story to make people proud to live now, to live here, under this Party’s unerring and unyielding protection”.

To achieve this, he summons five prominent Russian writers to an unnamed location and gives them their brief.  They must put classics like Tolstoy behind them – they are to collaborate on creating the great Soviet novel. He also makes clear that they do not have any choice in the matter. He’s assembled Mikhail Bulgakov, Osip Mandelstam, Vera Panova, Boris Pasternak and Yevgeny Zamyatin.  They are all well-known literary figures, and except for Vera Panova they have all been censored or had their works banned. Mandelstam has just returned from exile to the Urals.

Banned, but they have enormous talent, which is why they’ve been chosen for this important project. The problems, though, become apparent from the start, where we see Zamyatin at his desk at home, quoting from his own work – “True literature can only exist when it is created, not by diligent and reliable officials, but by madmen, hermits, heretics, dreamers, rebels and sceptics”

Hmm.  Hardly the attitude conducive to producing uplifting literature on demand.  And then, of course, writers have outsized egos and personalities. Within the group there are clashes about the relative importance of novels or poetry, personal feuds (Mandelstam blames Pasternak for the betrayal which led to his recent exile), while each writer has a different vision of how the project should proceed – and all the time the clock is ticking, with The Minister frequently checking on their progress. He’s scathing about them – “What right do they have to think themselves better, or more enlightened, or more intelligent than the next?  Their art will never be as important as the work of the masses”

Writer Luke Ofield has cleverly set most the action in the pressure-cooker atmosphere of the room where the five writers are working. He’s also written a pair of guards, who move the action along by hauling individual writers off for interrogation, or intervening to break up arguments in the room. They act as a kind of Greek Chorus, too, commenting on the situation from their own perspective. They are diligent working-class Comrades, and they certainly see the writers as a privileged elite. There’s famine in the Urals, and yet the writers are being plied with vodka and scarce cigarettes – “These writers are so far away from the famine” … “How can you focus on art and meaning when you’re wondering where your next meal is coming from”.

The writers are aware of the irony of this – “There are people starving and dying in the Urals – and they are paying us to write a book”. And to be fair to them, they didn’t ask to be in their present situation. They are working on something they don’t believe in, but the alternative is much worse …

“If we are no longer creating art, then we are no longer artists”
“Then who are we?”
“We are alive”

‘The Writers’ Bloc’ is a real ensemble production. Great performances from all eight actors – not just the writer characters but also the guards, who had far more personality than the average Chorus. If there’s any special mention it should go to Pip O’Neill. She played one of the Guards as well as Zamyatin’s mother, and she is the musical director on the production. She’s also the co-founder (with Luke Ofield) of Unmasked Theatre.

Vigorous direction. The action constantly developed, with characters being hauled off the stage and reappearing, fighting amongst themselves on stage – and having sex.
My only caveat would be – that in a play of ideas, there were rather too many points of view being put forward, at breakneck speed. Plus, an audience would benefit from at least a basic knowledge of Russian writers, It’s very cleverly written, mixing invented situations with quotes from the writers’ own works, but there were times when it felt like watching two Tom Stoppard plays simultaneously.

Not that that is necessarily a criticism …

At the end, of course, political priorities change and the project is terminated.  No great Soviet novel.  No Minister – “Valery Mezhaulk was shot yesterday”.  Finally, no Soviet Union, either. No-one today has heard of Valery Mezhaulk, but we still read the works of Bulgakov, of Mandelstam, of Pasternak and Zamyatin. A few academics even read Panova. So the final victory goes to the creative elite, the writers.   We might say that in the end, History was on their side.

 

Stones

Half way through ‘Stones’, Rose tells Jasper a story about a species of Indonesian moths, whose habitat is changed by the eruption of a volcano. It’s covered in dust, and so their colouring makes them stand out and become easy prey for birds and other predators. So over a number of generations they adapt, changing to become dust-coloured themselves, and much less conspicuous and vulnerable.

That’s evolution in practice, and it’s the underlying theme of ‘Stones’. How do we adapt to changed circumstances, and will our survival strategies be effective?

At the play’s opening, the lights come up on a man, chained to a column at the left side of the stage. There are two other shorter columns, stumps really, in the middle, and there’s a wooden bucket to the right. Then there’s a thudding slam of a heavy door, and a woman is hurled into the space. She’s clad in a long dress in thin cotton, and a thin grey cardigan, the man is in stained yellow trousers and a loose white cotton shirt. He also has a bag covering his head.

The magic of theatre is a bit like evolution – the chains, the crash of the door all tell us that this is a prison cell, while the actors’ clothing suggests that this is probably the seventeenth century. So as an audience we adapt to that environment very quickly – a few seconds into the play and we have built the rest of the location inside our heads. The woman won’t initially tell the man her first name – “Hardly Proper!” which hinted that they were probably English (how’s that for stereotyping?) but after removing the bag from his head she relents and we learn that they are called Rose and Jasper.

Jasper has been locked in this cell for the last seven months. He’s a prisoner of war, captured in some battle along with his two brothers. Ostensibly the play is timeless, but the details I’ve mentioned suggested the English Civil War to me. We learn that initially there were the three of them in this cell – Jasper himself, Peter his elder brother and Lucius his younger. Now they’ve died, leaving Jasper alone.  But what does ‘alone’ really mean?

For Jasper, his brothers still inhabit the cell and he can see and hear them. Thanks to him, we can too, as they argue with him, or replay events from earlier months in the cell when they were still alive. Peter was the true soldier among them, vigorous and unyielding. He can’t come to terms with his loss of freedom and fairly quickly starves himself to death. Lucius survived longer; he was full of hope that they would be liberated, and only died of heartbreak when that unrealistic vision began to fade. It’s Jasper who seems to have adapted best. He’s overcome the crushing solitude by conjuring up these companions. Peter and Lucius are mostly hidden in the wings, and only come onstage when Jasper sees them.

Rose of course cannot see them at all initially. She seems like a beam of sanity into this murky madhouse, and there are some funny exchanges where she thinks Jasper’s addressing her when in fact he’s replying to one of his brothers. At first Rose is very optimistic, confident that she will be able to adapt to her new circumstances. As time passes, though, she changes in more worrying ways – she becomes obsessed with the ants that forage across the cell floor. By controlling and guiding their movements she feels able to be in a position of control, on some higher level, stepping outside her actual dimension of containment – she’s built a cell within a cell. Later still she begins to be able to see Jasper’s brothers for herself. By the end she’s talking to them as well.

Jasper discovers that Rose isn’t a prisoner-of-war like himself; he sees her committal papers to an asylum – so is she really mad? Is it an adaptation to her situation, or has she been insane from the start?  But as she says in response – “We’re all mad, but some of us have it in writing”.

Adaptation. Rose calls it ‘institutionalisation’ at one point. When release finally comes and the outside world beckons (but you’ll have to go and see the play to find out how) the open cell door manages to appear simultaneously tantalising and forbidding. I wasn’t sure whether they would finally leave, or choose to stay inside.

I mentioned the ‘magic of theatre’ at the beginning. We suspend disbelief in the obvious artificiality of the stage setting, in order to believe in the story itself. But that can only work if the creation itself is strong enough. Katy Matthews’ writing and Judey Bignell’s very confident direction allowed that prison cell to exist in front of us for over an hour. Rose and Jasper were there for much longer, of course, and Hannah Baxter’s haunting music carried us through the intervening weeks between scenes. That cell is still hanging in my memory as I write this.

Actors have to bring the creation to life. Chris Gates as Jasper portrayed the frustration and anguish of incarceration vividly, while still managing flashes of humour in his interactions with Rose. Rose; who was played sympathetically by Emma Howarth. She managed the transition from prim ice-maiden to muddied obsessive very believably. There was a lot of emotional ambiguity in her dealings with Peter. Here we had a visceral performance from Trefor Levins. His costume included a tattered soldier’s jacket, but we didn’t need that to experience the rage and frustration of the caged man-of-action. John Black, by contrast, gave us a Lucius who was much more a mother’s boy – not a baby or a coward but a man desperate to do the best for his family. I believed in them all.

Finally – I’m always fascinated by the names writers choose for their characters. Think about these ones. Jasper is a crystalline form of quartz, a gemstone. A stone, like the title of the play. Peter is another stone, a rock, petros, in his case, hard and unyielding. Lucius, the younger brother, is full of hope and optimism for the future. His name means ‘light’, of course. As for Rose – She was wilful but married to please her family. Outspoken enough, in a pre-feminist age, to be incarcerated in an asylum. Now she’s insane, or is she?  She has adapted so that she can see Jasper’s brothers.  Truly – ‘A Rose, by any other name, would smell as … mad?’

 

The Empress and Me

One of the best things about a Fringe Theatre festival is that we get exposed to material that we wouldn’t otherwise see, and probably wouldn’t search out for ourselves. Productions which give their audiences an insight into different countries and historical periods, exposing us to different cultures and political systems.

Grist To The Mill do this very well. I was very keen to see ‘The Empress and Me’ after seeing their production of ‘The Unknown Soldier’ at last year’s Fringe. (‘Outstanding Show’ – Fringe Review). That one took us back to the aftermath of World War One, exposing the cynical machinations of politicians and the breaking of promises that had been made to the working-class Tommies who had fought and suffered. What would ‘The Empress and Me’ be about?

A very simple set on The Rialto stage – just a black-lacquered Chinese screen at the back, a heavy armchair made from some Eastern hardwood, teak maybe, and a couple of steamer chairs on the other side of the acting area. And then there she was – Princess Der Ling. Lizzie Der Ling; daughter of a high-ranking Chinese diplomat, educated in French and English, who spent several years at the beginning of the last century as the chief Lady-in-Waiting to the Dowager Empress Cixi, the de facto ruler of China.   Gosh!

Michelle Yim is of medium height, but she made Der Ling look tall and commanding in a floor-length robe and an enormous gold headdress. A robe in red silk, picked out in gold thread, with a gold-embroidered peacock over most of the front; it took a few minutes to notice the white block shoes just visible under the hem, their wooden cubes adding at least another three inches to Der Ling’s stature.

So far it looked rather like a spread from ‘Harper’s Bazaar’, and this impression continued as Der Ling recounted the daily rhythm of the Dowager Empress’s life inside the Forbidden City in Peking. The clothes, the rituals, the imperial audiences, the elaborately costumed eunuchs – detail after exotic detail gushed out in a tale of riches, privilege and exclusivity. The Summer Palace. The Garden of Harmonious Pleasure. She talked about the realities of government, too – the Emperor Guangxu had ascended the throne at only four years old and the Empress Dowager, who had been a concubine of the previous Emperor, ruled in his place as a powerful and politically astute Regent.

Der Ling’s delivery was a little stilted, though – it felt less like the lady was speaking to us personally, and more like she was delivering a lecture. Then suddenly there was loud applause (on a soundtrack) and it became obvious that this was in fact a talk that Der Ling had been giving. She moved across the stage to take off her enormous headdress and revealed that we were in Twin Falls, Idaho, on a lecture tour of the United States, and that all those events in Peking had been several decades in the past.

Lizzie Der Ling had a remarkable life, and to tell each different phase she would retire behind the screen to change her clothes. So we saw her in a green silk kimono as she recounted travelling to Japan with her diplomat father and the rest of her family as part of the Chinese legation in Yokohama.  Then later, when she was fourteen,  he was posted to Paris, as the Chinese Minister to the French Republic.  Her father believed strongly in the equal education of girls and boys, and Lizzie and her sister Nellie received an important part of their schooling in that city. She studied dance with Isadora Duncan, and met Sarah Bernhardt.

Michelle Yim’s movements and gestures were always elegant and evocative.
When Der Ling relived her encounter with Isadora, her raised arms swayed like a willow in the wind as her body seemed to remember movements she had made decades before. It was beautifully done, and so evocative of the photographs we know of the great dancer.

Then she changed into a dark grey western-style dress as she told about meeting “T C”. This was Thaddeus C White, who she eventually married.  Hence the American lectures.  She told of her travels and talks all across the United States. In Idaho she was wearing a brown coat with a luxurious pale fur collar as she confessed to being happier among Europeans than with Chinese. It’s an interesting thought that Der Ling’s upbringing and education had left her deracinated, not fully at home in any country, while at the same time her aristocratic social status cut her off from any meaningful contact with the great mass of the Chinese people.

When her father was recalled to China, she began the two years in Peking with the Dowager Empress in The Forbidden City. We were told about the political situation of the times, with the Boxer Rebellion by anti-foreigner and anti-Christian elements in Chinese society, and the eight nation European/American invasion force which defeated them and restored order. There was a lot of foreign penetration into China – remember that the Opium Wars, forcing China to accept the import of British opium from its Indian empire, had only taken place fifty years before.

The weakness of this production is that, in the final analysis, it actually is simply a lecture being delivered. Michelle Yim changed her clothes and always moved beautifully, but all she did was – talk. She didn’t put dates to any of the events that she mentioned, either. I’d heard of the Boxer Rebellion, but I had no idea it took place between 1899 and 1901. Similarly, she talked of there having been a war with Japan, so a lot of hostility when the family were in Yokohama, but there was no detail of what happened, or mention of when that might have been.

Later she mentioned the anti-Chinese racism in America, and the difficulties with the US immigration authorities – plus ça change – but it was not made clear that this was the 1920s, when Der Ling was doing her lecture tours, by which time she was Mrs Thaddeus C White.

Even with these caveats, though, ‘The Empress and Me’ was absolutely fascinating – a window onto an early twentieth century culture now lost for ever. But in the twentyfirst century we have Google, and a few clicks opened up a mine of information about Der Ling and her life. And that’s the point I made at the beginning – I wouldn’t have learned what I now have without seeing the show.

So thank you, Grist to the Mill.

 

Macblair

It’s a bit of a tight crush in Studio 3 at The Warren – or if you prefer, it’s an intimate venue where the audience is in close proximity to the actors.  Either way, it takes imagination and skill to shoehorn in all the elements that make a performance feel like it’s taking place in somewhere much bigger.

Falling Sparrow used the space brilliantly with their acting and staging, and in the clever writing too they managed to squeeze together chunks of Shakespeare with an account of Labour Party politics from the last few decades. ‘Macblair’ isn’t a completely accurate rendering of Tony Blair’s leadership, neither is it a faithful transposition of ‘bloody, bold and resolute’ Macbeth, but it’s a bloody good piece of theatre.

If the media control and shape our view of the world, then reporters – hacks – influence what we think, and thus also what politicians say and how they act.  ‘Macblair’ begins with Macblair and Macbrown, up-and-coming Labour MPs, meeting a trio of hacks on a Westminster stairwell. The hacks are the hags – the witches from the opening of Macbeth – and the first one greets him – “All Hail, Macblair. Hail to Thee. Leader of the Labour Party”. The other two hail him as Prime Minister and then as King of The World.

And so begins Macblair’s ascent to power. Straight away there’s friction between him and Macbrown – “We both know I have the superior brain, I am the obvious choice for Leader” – and the start of the poisonous enmity between the two. This of course casts Macbrown as Banquo if we’re staying true to Shakespeare, but in this version Macbrown isn’t murdered or eliminated. The ghosts are of other people entirely, as we shall see.

So Banquo isn’t murdered, but neither is King Duncan. It’s Iraq where Macblair goes in for the kill, in thrall to George Bush – “Yo! Blair” – and he plots with Alistair Campbell – “Don’t ask me, I just deal in appearances” – to mislead Parliament and invade the country to destroy Saddam Hussein – “If it were done; when ’tis done, ’twas well it were done quickly”.

That line, shamelessly stolen from ‘Macbeth’, got a great laugh for its sheer chutzpah, as did a lot of other bits that we recognised. But it wasn’t just The Bard’s own words – a lot of lines from ‘Macblair’ were rendered in Shakespearean blank verse, producing a hilarious mash-up of Elizabethan and contemporary cultures.

Some sections were played as rap, with the actors in baseball caps, hammering out the beat as they made speeches in Parliament or when out electioneering. At other times, the rhythm slowed a little, but the words got more complex, and it sounded almost like passages from a Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera.

So who did all this? Who played this multitude of larger-than-life characters?

Just four actors – though at times it seemed like there were twice that number as they quick-changed costume to give us a kaleidoscope of different roles. The Studio 3 stage is quite small, but they managed to exit and reappear from different sides in a tempo that kept us constantly on the edge of our seats. And larger-than-life they certainly were. We were very close to the stage, as I said above, and James Sanderson loomed menacingly above me as Macbrown, suit tightly buttoned up and managing to sneer in a Scottish accent. He had been a hack at the very start, then in a later scene he was George Bush in his leather flying jacket (you’ve all seen the pictures …), drawling away as a convincing American. In between, he made a brief appearance as the melancholy ghost of David Kelly, the (possibly murdered) WMD weapons expert, in Macblair’s guilt-ridden dreaming.

Lorna Shaw was one of the hacks at the opening, all business-like, staccato speech, hair tied back and dark blue skirt and jacket, but then she donned a black wig and made her posture more clingy, to become Cherie Blair. She was in Macblair’s dream too, a quick cameo in a headscarf and low voice as the mother of an Iraqi soldier killed in the war.  Shaw’s acting was perfect, but her Cherie character, as written, was over-cautious and fearful. It had none of the pushiness of the real Cherie Blair nor the steely, murderous ambition of Lady Macbeth.

You can’t have Blair without Alistair Campbell, of course. Matt Morrison portrayed him as a mixture of worldly and world-weary. He advises Macblair to tell people, including Parliament, only what they need to know. Not lying – being ‘creative’.  As a hack, Morrison seemed hyper-charged; as Alistair Campbell he managed to make his posture much more languid and relaxed.

Macblair himself was played by Charlie Dupré, who also wrote the piece. The actor is tall and thin, with dark curly hair, intense eyes and a slight, but visible, shaving stubble on his cheeks. Dupré managed to look both macho and boyish at the same time. He gave us a Blair who looked and sounded gripping on the stage, but written as a character who was rather an empty vessel, easily swayed by people like Bush, and frightened of Gordon Brown. The real Blair is surely driven by intense ambition, and appears to genuinely believe himself divinely appointed to do great things – this one seemed to simply be dazzled by the promise of the three hacks/witches.

But that might not be the point. The point it that ‘Macblair’ is bloody good theatre –
vividly drawn characters, constantly moving staging and haunting music, and some shameless theft from the Bard. I’ll forgive anyone who gets Cherie Blair to take Lady Macbeth’s line, as she fretted over the outcome in Iraq, and muse – “Who would have thought the country had so much blood in it”