All these reviews, from Bully Beef’ onwards, are from Brighton Fringe 2018. Scroll down to find them.
An Experiment with an Air Pump / The Brighton Scratch Night / Sisterhood / Criminals! / Starfish / Bully Beef / De Fuut / Passionate Machine / Franz Kafka: Apparatus / Antony and Cleopatra / Under The Skin / About A Revolution / Antigone Alone / The Maids / The Looker / Rope / Bomb Sex / Woyzeck / Behind Our Skin / Medea / The Polished Scar / Myra
An Experiment with an Air Pump
I suspect that, like me, a large part of the audience were attracted to the play by its title. ‘An Experiment with an Air Pump’ is quite a famous painting by Joseph Wright of Derby, an eighteenth century artist who produced a series of works portraying the intellectual and technical discoveries of The Enlightenment. Almost as well-known as ‘An Air Pump’ is ‘A Philosopher Lectures on the Orrery’.
Both paintings depict a scientist – male, naturally – demonstrating a scientific principle. ‘An Air Pump’ shows the air being pumped out of a glass chamber containing a small bird, which is dying of asphyxiation. ‘The Orrery’ has a mechanical model of the Solar System – the Sun at the centre with the planets on concentric metal rings surrounding it. In both cases the demonstration is watched with rapt attention by an audience of half a dozen or so, children and adults, clustered close round with their faces lit by a single lamp or candle at the centre. This dramatic light effect was the artist’s trademark, and it gives wonderfully dramatic modelling to the characters’ features. Powerful, unforgettable; rather like a painting by Caravaggio – but this is our own Joseph Wright of Derby.
The acting area at The Lantern had been set up in traverse, with the audience on both sides. No set to speak of, just some tables and chairs. And very simple lighting, only a few lamps to catch the actors in a fashion that looked very like one of Wright’s works. As the play started a young woman in modern dress told us that she’d always admired ‘An Experiment with an Air Pump’, mainly “because there was a scientist in it”. It seems that it had been influential to her own choice of a scientific career, and she directed our attention to a large image of the painting projected onto a white sheet hung at one end of the space. As she talked, another actor gradually dressed her in eighteenth century clothing – a long dress covering her modern skirt and a shawl placed over her shoulders.
Suddenly – the white sheet dropped away, and a whole bunch of eighteenth century people tumbled through the opening into the acting space. An amazingly dramatic effect, as the painting seemed to come to life in front of us. Gold patterned frock-coats and breeches for the men; long dresses, a lot more sober, for the women. Then, to complete the effect, they recreated the painting’s grouping around a table at the other end of the space, where Fenwick, the head of the household, carried out the air pump experiment for real, in front of his wife, his daughters and two scientific colleagues. It was the younger daughter’s pet bird that was used in the procedure, and she was horrified . . .
Fenwick and his friends, Roget and Armstrong, are gentleman scientists, the sort of men who set up the Royal Society to promote the values and discoveries of The Enlightenment. Their scientific curiosity is quite obsessive – Fenwick is as oblivious to his daughter’s distress as he is to the rioting Newcastle workers who are threatening to attack his house. Science is the only thing that has any interest or value to these men.
So Shelagh Stephenson’s play is about science, the kind of people who are drawn to practice it, and the effects their discoveries have on the people around them. She’s set up a parallel situation, with another family in the same house overlooking the river Tyne, two hundred years later in 1999. This two century gap allows Stephenson to examine the enormous changes in society over that period, but also to point up those things that haven’t changed.
It’s a very feminist piece. John Prideaux’s Fenwick, in a wonderfully patrician performance, constantly patronises his wife Susannah, belittling her intellect or simply ignoring her. Claire Pontet-Piccolomini gave a moving performance as a woman slowly turning to alcohol as a solution to her frustrations. Then between scenes she would change costume – the long eighteenth century dress must have concealed jeans underneath – to reappear as another Susannah, a twentieth century Susannah this time, a research scientist working on human genetics.
This Susannah is an intellectual powerhouse – she’s developed a very precise means of detecting genetic abnormalities in the foetus, that will determine whether an individual will develop any of a wide range of conditions, anything from spina bifida to severe depression. In another neat reversal of eras, Susannah is the family breadwinner here; her husband Tom has recently lost his job.
The quest for knowledge – but are these discoveries value-free? Susannah is going to use her research working for her sister Kate’s company, who plan to monetize the results, creating commercial products that could allow parents to choose whether to abort a foetus, but also potentially selling the genetic information to third parties like insurance companies or private healthcare providers. As Kate says – “Discovery is neutral, Ethics is for philosophers.”
Modern sister Kate was played by Martina Greenwood, a dynamic performance that matched her equally spirited portrayal of Harriet, eighteenth century Fenwick’s younger daughter. (More quick costume changes as the action moved between centuries, very effectively carried out by the company). Fenwick’s other daughter is Maria, and she’s got a fiancé travelling in India, which we learn from Maria reading out their letters. Edward (the fiancé) is accompanied by native bearers, one of whom gets trampled by an elephant – so inconvenient – and The Collector. This man would have been the British official in charge of extracting taxes from the Indian population. Discovery is neutral – but those scientific and technical discoveries enabled the British to conquer and govern an entire sub-continent.
‘An Experiment with an Air Pump’ is about education, and how information isn’t the same thing as truth. It’s education that has given the modern Susannah and Kate lives and careers that would be inconceivable to their eighteenth century equivalents. But it’s not equally spread – twentieth century Susannah and Tom have a builder working on the house, an eastern European called Phil. Phil’s an intelligent and practical man, but he doesn’t have the educational underpinning to distinguish fact from rumour, and so he’s prey to the whole gamut of modern conspiracy theories such as UFOs and alien abductions.
The play’s about class, too. Fenwick and Susannah have a servant, a Scottish woman called Isobel. Unusually for the times, and her class, she can read and write, and she has a fierce sense of her own identity and independence. She’s also a hunchback – which might explain the self-reliance she displays. Fenwick’s colleague Armstrong, a physician, who is of course an upper-class gentleman, is fascinated by Isobel’s physical condition and attempts to seduce her so that he can examine her naked body close up. After all, she’s only a maid . . .
Some gentleman! Aaron Sherwood was very believable as a man whose elegant vowels couldn’t quite conceal the fact that he was a cad – his colleague Roget actually calls him “a cunt!”. And it ends in tragedy, as Isobel hangs herself when she realises she has been deceived. Shelagh Stephenson is a very clever and subtle writer – it seems to me that these events act as a mirror to the action in the painting, and with the air-pump experiment that’s carried out at the start of the play. The bird dies because it’s had its oxygen removed, and so it can’t survive. Although Isobel was ‘just a maid’, she possessed her pride and her sense of herself as an individual. Armstrong’s behaviour has destroyed all that, and so the woman can’t face living any more.
In the painting, the young girl on the right is weeping at the fate of the bird. That’s the message throughout this piece – the obsession with attaining knowledge can so easily trump human feelings and decency.
Shelagh Stephenson has packed a lot of different themes into this play, but they are so deftly handled that the result is coherent and very satisfying. A great choice for the ACT Diploma in Acting company to have attempted, and they’ve carried it off brilliantly. From now on, whenever I look at Joseph Wright’s great painting, I’ll have this performance running alongside it in my head. The artist gave me the image, and now these actors have brought it to life.
(p.s. I’ve just realised that I’ve written this whole review without mentioning the actor who played Isobel – the maid. How’s that for twenty-first century class blindness? She is Kayleigh Stubbs and she gave us a beautiful, heart-rending performance. Sorry, Kayleigh.)
The Brighton Scratch Night
What is it about Fringe Theatre that makes it so exciting? For me it’s the possibility of risk. Mainstream commercial theatre has to cover its overheads and make a profit, so there’s a necessary obsession with ‘bums on seats’ that so often drives companies to choose safer options or well-known pieces that will (hopefully) guarantee a decent audience.
Fringe doesn’t have the same agenda. There are still financial constraints, of course, but for the most part the runs are short, and the venues smaller, so there isn’t the need to seek out the comfortable or the unchallenging, that will attract big numbers. Fringe companies can take risks with their productions – creative risks with the writing, the staging and the performances. “We put on a great show, even though only six people turned up …”
There were a great deal more than six people, though, at The Brighton Scratch Night – the venue was packed for all three evenings. The event was organised by Unmasked Theatre’s Luke Ofield and Pip O’Neill, and hosted by Roger Kay and Lauren Varnfield at The Rialto Theatre. Ross Dinwiddy, from Blue Devil Productions, was also part of the team. Nine short play extracts, each performed twice over the three nights, by a group of twenty-one actors, some of whom appeared in several of the pieces. All nine works were new writing, and six of them were directed by the organisers themselves – they’ve all previously directed full length plays at The Rialto. Each night the audience voted for their favourite, and the overall winner will be produced at The Rialto for next year’s Brighton Fringe.
You’ll have to read to the end of this review to find out which one that is, though . . .
Risk. There are few things riskier than the potential state of Brexit UK, and playwrights are responding to it. In ‘English Wine’, by William Patterson, the main political parties have become so useless that Plaid Cymru have become the UK’s government. The characters are two middle-aged men living in a house, in a state of complete inertia. They can’t even be bothered to leave the ground floor rooms any more. Then a sharply dressed woman appears, telling them that their house will be demolished to make way for Blackburn Rovers’ new stadium. In fact she claims to actually be Blackburn Rovers. Bizarre. I had the feeling of watching ‘Waiting for Godot’ cooked up with ‘Hitchhiker’s Guide to The Galaxy’. Loads of ideas tossed into the mix (but not developed) made this rather an Irish Stew of a play.
Ireland itself was the setting for Lorraine Mullaney’s ‘Shamrock Empire’. It’s 2027, and the post-Brexit Brits are heading to the now re-united Republic to find work after the economic collapse at home. There were some great lines in this piece: the low-paid agricultural workers are no longer Eastern Europeans but BMWs – British Migrant Workers. There are questions of identity, too – how are they going to deal with a British person with Irish relations, who claims to be more Irish than they are themselves? The usual disputes over inheritance of land come face to face with the chant of “We are the Diaspora – the Plastic Paddies”.
Our political class has messed up so badly over Brexit that there’s a feeling that the whole bunch are useless. In Vivienne Allen’s play ‘Conchiglia’, ten year old Andy has been put in the care of the Home Secretary while his mother, Ruth Ellis, is hanged. Andy doesn’t know what’s happening, and the politician spins a web of lies (what a surprise) to keep the truth from him. “Your mother’s gone to Italy – you can write to her” This explains the title, as Andy looks up Italian words to use in his letter. It was touching, and sad, but what came across clearly was the total lack of empathy from the politician. Sympathy, yes, he’s probably a decent man, but a man with no understanding of the feelings of others, or of the damaging consequences of his evasions. Sound familiar?
Another authority figure is the subject of ‘Stone’, by Patch Harris. She’s a Health and Safety Executive official from the National Trust. The face of modern bureaucracy, in trousers, with a clip board, and an obsession with ‘risk assessment’. Dave – “Mr Hitchens” – is trapped under a rock after falling down a cliff. But the official blames him, because “accidents don’t happen by accident’. She’s intent on removing all possible responsibility from the National Trust. Having seen Dave’s wife, though, I’m sure it wasn’t an accident. Lorraine, in a skimpy dress, shrieks her way through gossip and domestic detail as she spoon feeds Dave with yoghourt. She’s his wife, but she’s a nightmare – in Dave’s place I would have jumped myself. And all the time, neither of them attempt to get him out. Dave is caught between a rock and a hard place – and another hard place …
In Stephanie Dickson’s ‘Bark’, it’s the authority figure of their Doctor that’s key. We never see him or her, in the cancer hospital where Grace and Helen are patients, but as they strike up an unlikely friendship – Helen’s 48 and the younger woman is only 17 – their existences are constrained by the institution’s rules – no leaving the building. Grace has dreams of being a television presenter, and talking about them encourages the older woman to reassess her own life and make the most of the time she has left. It looks like both of them will, in fact. Helen organises an escape to a rock concert for the two of them, and we get the feeling that this act of rebellion will be transformative. They will have stopped being passive victims and taken back some control over their lives. Carpe Diem !
‘Mission Creep’, by Bee Scott, has a wonderful authority figure too, in the person of Dr Mary. Tess and Liam are trying to be selected for an interstellar space mission, which will get them off a nuclear-devastated planet Earth. But they will have to breed – “Securing the Future of Humanity” – and it becomes clear that they will have to perform the sex act in the presence of aliens, as well as the cameras of the research team. Dr Mary was wonderfully knowing and wheedling – digging out the truth that Tess and Liam aren’t actually a couple, and in fact he’s gay and she’s asexual. Very funny, and good pacing on the plot development, with a gradual reveal of the couple’s dilemma, and lots of physicality in the non-verbal communication behind Dr Mary’s back.
Anyone in a position of influence becomes a sort of authority figure – think about the balance of power between an author and a literary agent or publisher. In ‘Naked Kittens’, by Max Wilkinson, Franz Kafka visits one Franz is poorly dressed and ascetic, while Herr Plume (Mr Pen, I suppose) is a fat bourgeois pig, with appalling manners and crude behaviour. Great body language from the actor, sprawling in his armchair, spraying food while Kafka stands. Herr Plume is obsessed with all the prurient possibilities in Kafka’s work, and how to pitch it to a modern audience. He wants to insert shocking events and sexual deviance of which Kafka has no experience. “You have no concept of the modern world”, to which Kafka retorts “I am the modern world!” Because both are right – Kafka’s view of anomie and bureaucracy define the modern world brilliantly, but he’s completely out of his depth confronted by the rapacious hyper-sexualised side of today’s culture. So has Franz actually visited the future?
Pete Barrett’s play ‘Further Education’ is set over thirty years ago, during the Miners’ Strike of 1985. Frank’s a strike picket, billeted with three female university students. The man has a wife back home, but he finds himself increasingly attracted to Emma – and the feeling is reciprocated. Her flatmate Rachel’s a feminist, and although she supports them politically she’s appalled at the casual sexism of the miners. Jake is one of their lecturers, and he’s sleeping with Claire, although, like Frank, he’s married. “it happens”. It seems that in his case it happens regularly, with each new batch of undergraduates. Jake’s a caricature middle-class Marxist, totally unaware of the realities of actual working class life. An interesting, sensitively directed, piece – it looked like it was going to be a about sexual manners, but finally it’s about the gulf in understanding between different social classes.
And last, but not least, there’s ‘But at My Back’, by Jane Sunderland. A slow burn, this one, taking a while for the actual situation to become clear. Mharaid is very recently widowed, and she’s going to have to come to terms with her dead husband’s son, Lars, who he produced outside their marriage. Then Lars, arrives: the son she never had. Mharaid resents him on principle, and even more when he crassly wants to commandeer his father’s (Mharaid’s husband’s) ashes to scatter them. But he’s got his father Jack’s eyes, and his temperament, loving the outdoors, hiking and mountain climbing. “Four points of contact”. Will she finally go on a hike with Lars?
Nine very individual pieces, often very funny, occasionally shocking, but with interesting parallels in a number of their themes. Zeitgeist – people’s resentment of authority, and of an unstable present and future. But some truly surreal moments too, as you’d expect in Fringe offerings. We were only given extracts, and part of the assessment of them was whether the situation and storyline could be expanded to produce a full length play. The overall winner of the Scratch Nights was ‘Mission Creep’, by Bee Scott. Ross Dinwiddy directed this one, and if he directs it again during Fringe it should be remarkable. The last production of his that I saw was ‘Franz Kafka: The Apparatus’ during this year’s Fringe, again at The Rialto. Funny how Franz Kafka keeps cropping up. Zeitgeist again?
Towards the end of ‘Sisterhood’, Jules Craig, one of the three actors who perform the piece (along with a musician) told us that as she got older, past the menopause, she realised that all the trappings – possessions, husband, children – that she’d been told she needed to be ‘a woman of importance’, were actually just stories. “They were just spinning us yarns.”
Yarns. At the beginning of this bit she’d come out of her Marjorie character and moved to the front of the stage to toss a ball of knitting yarn into the audience, holding on to the thread’s end. At earlier points in the play, first Jolie Booth and then Coco Maertens had done the same, with their own balls of wool. Booth told us about the trials and desperation of conceiving a child, while Maertens related her adolescence as a girl, burdened with obligations and responsibilities not experienced by the males in her family, her brother and father.
Birth. Youth. Age. I was reminded of The Fates of Greek mythology – Clotho, who spun the thread of a person’s life; Lachenis, who measured out its length; Atropos, who used her shears to cut it off. The ancients took it for granted that existence was in the hands of females.
It was a remarkable experience – three actors coming out of character to give us what I’m fairly certain were real episodes from their own lives; pointing up the sad fact that the oppressed and second-class role of women in society hasn’t changed very much in over four hundred years. With perfect timing, The Marlborough’s staging took place alongside the continuing fallout of the Weinstein story and #MeToo, and in the very same week as Brett Kavanaugh’s fractious appointment as a US Supreme Court judge. Zeitgeist, or what? Some things have changed, of course. Nowadays women who upset the patriarchy are ‘uppity’, or ‘hysterical’ – in the Europe of four centuries ago they were ‘Witches’.
Marjorie, Alice and Kitty – three women locked inside a church overnight. As the play unfolded, it became clear that they have been accused of being witches, and they’re going to be burned at the stake in the morning. Set designer Alberta Jones had created the location with the barest of elements – just a church pew at one side of the stage, and a heavy-looking door with a barred window on the other, both in off-white paint that gave the appearance of bleached wood. A tall central panel at the rear served as a screen for projections – most of the time a gothic stained-glass window image, which completed the illusion of the building interior. The women were dressed in bleached colours too. Long linen skirts and blouses with laced bodices, topped off with white mop-caps. Aprons as well – these are village women, dressed for domestic chores.
Village women – but they’ve been accused of witchcraft. This was a time when anything which threatened the authority of the Church was suspect. Following the old pre-Christian religion and folklore traditions was Heresy. Challenging the dominance of the priest, or of one’s husband or one’s father, meant that a woman was out of control, and probably ‘possessed’. To be childless – barren – was obviously the fault of the wife, never of the husband. The play presents us with all these occurrences, suffered by its three characters, but the real power of the piece is the way in which the women support and comfort each other. It’s not called ‘Sisterhood’ for nothing …
Support and comfort; with jokes, bravado, and stolen communion wine – but of course they can’t ignore the appalling fate that awaits them in the morning. Terror is lurking just below the surface, and it was given visceral form by the musical accompaniment of the fourth performer. Sophia Craig-Daffern was surrounded by a set of heavy metal bowls; brass, bronze, or something similar, and she stroked their lips with a stone pestle to produce an eerie humming – like running a finger round a wine-glass but deeper in tone – that carried across the Marlborough auditorium while still letting us hear the actors clearly. Unearthly. Unsettling. Edgy. And hugely effective.
Craig-Daffern wasn’t part of the action, but sat cross-legged at the front edge of the stage, with a short green dress and sparkling glitter on her face and bare arms, giving her the appearance of some kind of woodland sprite. She brought to mind Pan, or maybe Puck – a manifestation of the pagan folklore and of the Wild Wood.
Sisterhood. Women supporting each other. A real ensemble performance from Jules Craig as Marjorie, Jolie Booth as Alice, and Coco Maertens as Kitty. Alice and Kitty are innocent victims, caught up in prejudice and abuse that’s outside their control. Marjorie, though, might well be practising her pagan beliefs – she mentions the Celtic festival of Beltane, and misses ‘her’ jackdaw. A familiar? We were left to decide that for ourselves.
Marjorie takes the lead in keeping up her companions’ spirits, and teasing out their histories. She’s angry with the way that the feminine side of Christianity – the Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus – has been sidelined by the exclusively male hierarchy of the Church fathers. Women’s bodies, too; their biology. One of the women has been kept ignorant of the mechanics of menstruation. “The priest said ’tis the curse – ’tis not a curse, ’tis a blessing!”
Jolie Booth wrote ‘Sisterhood’, as well as performing in it. On one level her play is a powerful rant against the abuse and misogyny that women suffered, and continue to suffer. But underlying the polemic is a warm and engaging portrayal of how women can look after each other and reinforce their identity. It’s also an unforgettable theatrical experience, visually and aurally stunning, and the applause at the end was loud and long. It’s an unashamedly feminist piece, strident and challenging, but I was reassured to note that a significant proportion of the Marlborough audience was male.
There’s a line in ‘The Godfather’ where Vito Corleone, the Mafia Don, tells someone – “A lawyer with his briefcase can steal more than a hundred men with guns.”
Not only steal more, but the stealing will seem somehow less … criminal.
Not just lawyers, bankers too. Victoria Davids is a banker, and she’s got herself involved in some complicated financial dealings that have gone terribly wrong, and she’s the one who’s become the fall-guy. Now she’s hiding out in her flat and not answering any phone calls from the newspaper reporters. Louise Denyer played her on a roller-coaster of emotions, swinging between anger and frustration, never still for more than a few moments, puffing on a cigarette and reaching for a bottle from the drinks cabinet. She’s dressed in a white shirt and black trousers, a professional look, but it was the red braces that defined her as someone working in finance.
A small but very significant touch, those red braces. Minimal. Giving us information without overloading us. Anton Bonicci’s production has that stripped-down quality – just a few pieces of white furniture set in the black acting space at The Emrys Johns Studio, with simple unfussy lighting. That was enough for us to construct Victoria’s living room for ourselves; and the staging was able to relocate to another room, in a different house, simply by moving a cabinet and a chair around the stage. Elegant.
Suddenly – into the room bursts a man in a heavy coat and a mask … with a gun. Jesus! Is he going to shoot her? To rape her? The gun and the mask immediately classify this intruder as a criminal – a real criminal this time – and we forget that Victoria is herself under investigation for criminal activity.
For me, that’s the power of this production. Ana-Maria Bamburger’s writing makes us question the assumptions that we constantly make about what constitutes crime, and guilt. For it soon turns out that beneath the mask is Igor Davidoff, a Russian blini-chef whose business has collapsed, and who’s in dire straits financially. He – “normally doesn’t do this kind of thing”, but he’s desperate, and he’s hoping that he can persuade Victoria to get him a bank loan to bail him out.
Armen Georgian presumably has Russian family ancestry somewhere, but he produced a wonderfully over-the-top eastern European accent for Igor. Georgian’s body-language portrayed Igor’s embarrassment beautifully, as the man struggled to behave in a way that’s alien to his real nature. Actually Igor calls himself ‘Chuck’, as he’d watched a number of Charles Bronson films (where the honest man gets even …). He’s carrying a gun and threatening Victoria, but he’s been forced into this position because his insurance company refused to pay out after his restaurant burned down. “Sorry – it’s not covered in the policy” – more lawyers with briefcases …
So they’ve both been screwed by the system, and as the play progresses the pair become unlikely allies in a bid to get even. I’ve probably made it sound rather political or philosophical, but ‘Criminals!’ is a comedy, with a lot of very funny lines and also a fair amount of physicality, almost slapstick. Actually it’s a rom-com, a charming romantic comedy. Maybe any play featuring just a woman and a man will have an undercurrent of romance, but here it’s really just an undercurrent. If you want to know how the couple end up, though, you’ll have to go and see the show.
‘Criminals!’ is very much a play of its time. We’re still reeling from the effects of the financial crash a decade ago, although of course the bankers themselves (and their lawyers) wear suits and so it’s seen as ‘white-collar crime’. As Victoria says – “Working in finance you can’t avoid blurring the lines between what’s strictly legal, and what’s not. That line doesn’t really exist at all”. But it’s also the era of Brexit, and the rise all across Europe of prejudice against immigrants, especially those from ‘the east’. It’s good to be reminded that behind the stereotype of the masked gunman there may well be a struggling family man with impossible debts and children to feed.
There was sustained applause from the enthusiastic audience on the night I saw ‘Criminals!’, and as I write this two days later I’m still pondering the issues the production raised.
Still caring about Victoria and Chuck, too. Isn’t that the mark of good theatre?
When we hear the word ‘Homelessness’, the image that most readily springs to mind is of people sleeping rough in shop doorways, or sitting on the pavement with an outstretched hand – and a dog.
But it’s the ‘home’ part of homelessness that Richard Fitchett’s written about in ‘Starfish’. What does a home mean to someone? What’s it like to lose yours? How far would someone go to recover what’s been lost?
Cheryl and Tim are both teachers, so their days are very stressful and when they get home in the evening they just want to sink into the sofa with a glass or two of wine. But as the play opens they’ve just come in, and they realise that they’re not alone in the house …
There’s an intruder – but an intruder who’s done the washing-up and cooked them dinner! Tim’s threatening violence, followed by a call to the police, but then the man introduces himself – “I’m Eric”. This changes the whole relationship; suddenly the newcomer isn’t just an object, a category – he’s a person, an individual, and Tim and Cheryl will have to deal with him as another human being.
An unknown person arrives in a house. Sounds like something by Pinter; but it made me think of Max Frisch’s play ‘Arsonists’, where the same thing happens. Two roughly-clad anarchists arrive at the house of a bourgeois businessman, and he’s about to throw them out when – they introduce themselves. “My name is Schmitz” From that moment on Herr Biedermann has to treat them as fellow men. Colleagues, even.
‘Starfish’ is very subtly written, with a great understanding of human nature. We’ve all seen rough sleepers in the street, and as good liberals we ‘sympathise’ with their predicament , we fret about ‘the economic system’ that’s failed them and sometimes we give them money (“even though they’ll just spend it on drink”). If we’re more thoughtful we might donate to a homeless charity. What the vast majority of us wouldn’t do is to get involved personally.
But now Cheryl and Tim have to deal with Eric. Eric the human being, who hasn’t got a home and wants to live in theirs. Who offers to do all the cooking and cleaning in exchange for a roof over his head. Close up, eyeball to eyeball with a fellow human being, they find it impossible to refuse him, and so Eric is allowed to stay.
But of course every individual creates a disturbance around themselves. Eric cooks – but not the food that the couple actually want to eat. Eric cleans – but while he’s dusting he hums constantly and sings little snatches of Abba (which Tim detests). He subtly alters their furnishings to things he feels are “more in keeping with the house”. Cheryl and Tim find all this very unsettling. It’s a clever inversion – they have given Eric a home but in the process it feels like they are losing their own. The writing has a great understanding of human psychology, as I’ve mentioned, but it’s done with humour too, and there are any number of very funny and witty lines. .
‘Starfish’ is a four-hander – we also meet Karin, a friend of Cheryl and Tim’s who works with the homeless – but it’s essentially about the changing dynamic between the couple and Eric. They are teachers, remember – Cheryl tries to get Eric to open up about his earlier life; she wants to understand how he came to his present condition. Tim wants to improve Eric’s life; he works out at the gym and thinks Eric should do the same. It occurred to me that Tim is focused on the future, building up his body to be healthier, while Eric is focused on the past, altering his surroundings to better reflect his memories of his childhood.
Apart from a short scene in a bar, all the action takes place in Tim and Cheryl’s living room. It helps that the Marlborough stage is fairly small, so Chance Bliss Dini’s confident direction allowed the actors to move around very naturally. Just a sofa and a low table, with three flats making a wall at the rear, which the actors could pass round to go to the house’s kitchen or the front door. Richard Flitchett has created what’s in effect a laboratory – an isolated space where we can observe events and interactions without any outside interference.
‘Starfish’ is very much an ensemble piece. Eden Avital Alexander as Karin may not have as many lines as the others, but when she’s on she dominates the stage – a social worker with no conception of personal space, Watching her commandeer Tim’s wine glass, without any pause in her flow of words, was a joy. Sara Templeman produced a convincingly nuanced portrait of a middle-class teacher – resenting Eric’s encroachment on her domestic environment but still determined to try to understand the man and to help him.
Warren Saunders kept making me think of buildings. He plays Tim as a classic Englishman ‘whose home is his castle’. At the start he’s prepared to use violence to defend it, and he’s constantly trying to find ways to reclaim it. Even his bodybuilding (I’ll never look at blue hand weights in the same way again) is practiced because – “My body is a temple”.
But it’s Jack Kristianson as Eric who’s really quite special in this production. Occasionally his delivery of lines was too fast, making him difficult to follow, but his body language more than made up for that. Cringing with fear at the opening, then quietly, apologetically but with steely resolve, working his transformation on Tim and Cheryl’s lives, he gave a very believable portrait of a damaged, but driven, individual.
Covert Accomplice are gaining a reputation for putting on productions that engage with contemporary social issues. ‘Half Baked’ dealt with the failures of higher education, and now they’ve tackled homelessness. We need this kind of theatre – theatre that doesn’t hammer us over the head with the obvious, but which uses humour to seduce us, drawing us in with an oblique view of the situation – a different perspective that deepens our understanding.
Looking at the programme for ‘Bully Beef’, I was struck by how young a number of the cast were. Eighteen, seventeen – one of them just sixteen. There were two other older actors making up the crew of the WWI tank, but my first thought was that they’d done the show largely as a Youth Production.
Then it hit me … these would have been the actual ages of a great number of the British Tommies fighting on the Western Front. This was not a case of young people playing soldiers – a lot of those soldiers were young people.
‘Bully Beef’ takes place inside a Word War One tank. This is a Mark IV, an upgrade of the previous model, and a number of them have been deployed in their first action. It’s an assault on the German line, and the tanks’ job is to crush the barbed wire defences and support the infantry as they engage the enemy trench system.
Their tank’s called Bertie’. The name’s painted on the front of the tank’s hull, above a bulldog in a bowler hat, smoking a pipe,. They had built the exterior with the tank tracks at both ends, but the middle was cut away, like a construction drawing in an engineering magazine, so that we could see inside. ‘Bertie’ is pretty minimal – painted white, with just some levers and handles, and the butt end of what was presumably a machine gun set into the side. Sitting in the middle was a large black block with hoses and pipes attached to it – the engine. There was more room to move around than in a real tank, but when all five of the crew were inside, squeezing past each other, it gave a fair impression of the cramped conditions these men endured.
When they approach the German line, though, ‘Bertie’ breaks down. They’re immobilised, out on the battlefield with battle raging around them. The Captain – the tank’s commander – goes outside to attempt a repair and is immediately killed. So they are down to four.
The assault is a failure, as so many were. We learn later that it gained “all of twenty yards”. The British withdraw back to their own trenches, leaving ‘Bertie’ all alone in no-man’s-land. The Germans could easily destroy the tank with shellfire, but it’s a new model and so they want to examine it intact. Which means taking it from the men inside …
Writer Peter Garinder has managed to set up a very fruitful theatrical device – a small insular environment (almost a laboratory) in which to examine a whole range of themes. ‘Bully Beef” is about class, and the notion of duty, and about how people grow and develop as human beings. Garinder directed the production, too, and for the most part it’s very successful. The major problem was that the tank interior, being plywood, produced a lot of noise as the actors moved about in their heavy boots, and this, combined with some lines being delivered too quickly, made it hard to hear some sections with enough clarity.
The characters themselves, by contrast, were very clearly defined. The themes could so easily have been clumsily handled, but the Twobit company gave us something very special – intense drama that was at the same time thought provoking. I’m almost tempted to use the word ‘noble’. I believed in each of the characters, and by the end I cared about them very much indeed.
We’ve got Edward (Teddy) King, the Corporal who’s in command as he’s now the highest rank in the unit. Then there’s Smith, an older man, a Lance Corporal who deals with the tank’s mechanics. James Lovell, the vehicle’s driver, was at school with Teddy, while Jack Knibb, the gunner, is from the same part of the country as King – in fact lives and works on the King family’s estate.
So it’s a microcosm of the British class system. Teddy and James were at school together – Public School, obviously; their accents and talk of team sports made that very clear – while Jack’s family is obviously from a much lower social level. His ambition, “when this lot’s over”, is to work with horses on the King family’s estate.
“That’s bollocks”, Smith tells him, “You’ll be forever calling him Sir …”. Smith’s defiantly working class – note how he’s only ever addressed by his surname – and he’s seen a lot of the world as a soldier.
The ‘duty’ element comes because the tank is isolated, with no hope of the men inside being relieved. But it’s their post – it’s where they’ve been stationed – and it’s a terrible crime for a soldier to abandon his post. That’s certainly how Teddy sees it. He’s young, pink-cheeked, and fired with an unshakable belief in the notion of obedience to authority. (As an aside – I’m always fascinated by writers’ names for their characters. This scion of landed gentry has of course been named Edward, after another king: the late King.) There’s no way that this man would countenance surrender.
But that’s not how Smith sees it. Surrender’s their only option – apart from being killed, and Smith doesn’t think the cause is worth dying for. Or morally justified. He’s a veteran of the Boer War, and tells Jack of the horrors and atrocities inflicted by both sides in that conflict. He doesn’t mention the British concentration camps, but he has plenty of memories of burning Boer villages – “You can’t tell the farmers from the guerrillas”
After several nights of assaults on the tank which they repulse with machine gun fire, a German officer approaches to offer them the chance to surrender. Initially there’s refusal, vigorously enforced by Teddy – but eventually it’s James, Teddy’s schoolmate, who negotiates with the enemy Captain for the trapped men’s release.
At the start James had seemed nervous and insecure, very much in Teddy’s shadow; indeed their own Captain had classified him as ‘Weak’. But under pressure the boy grew quickly into a man, able to deal on equal terms with the much older German officer. Brokering an arrangement that allowed the men to return to the British lines. “It will be hard to restrain the natural instincts of my men”, the officer had said. “But they are your men”, James replied. Officer to officer, responsible for the men under their command. James knew that he was abandoning his post – a crime for which he himself would be shot as a deserter – but he had ensured the survival of those of his men that remained.
Or had he? Three of them had to walk back across no-man’s land, under the gaze of the comrades of the German soldiers they had killed. As they stepped gingerly down the auditorium aisle, I sat wincing, breathlessly waiting to see if three shots would ring out …
De Fuut is a portrait of a paedophile. Anything else do you need to know?
It’s a one-man show, written and performed by the Belgian playwright Bastiaan Vandendriessche. It won the ‘Best International Performance’ award at the 2017 Fringe Amsterdam.
It’s also the most profoundly disturbing piece of theatre I’ve seen in a very long time.
It’s because the man was there – right there, just feet away from us, sitting smoking and telling us about his life. His inner life. His fantasies and his dreams.
Or rather – not telling us, at least not directly. For almost an hour he skirted around the central object of his fixation, coming teasingly close to giving us the detail, but then retreating back into generalisations and justifications.
The narrator – he doesn’t give us his name – is obviously influenced by ‘Lolita’. By what he calls Nabokov’s ‘restless, refined’ study of sexual obsession with young girls. But he tells us at one point that all this is for a play he’s writing. Like Humbert Humbert, he’s ‘writing under observation’. He doesn’t want to give anything away.
It was a very simple set: just a chair and low table with his cigarettes and laptop. A single lamp down low at one side of the stage sharply defined his features – like a Caravaggio painting – and cast his shadow huge on the opposite wall. I came to see this more and more as the distorted twin of the ordinary-looking man in front of us.
He’s a group leader at a Sea Scout summer camp. He stood up, looking down at us in the front row, berating one of us for some misdemeanor, and we became the children in his ‘Patrol’. All the groups in the camp had the names of seabirds, and our patrol was ‘De Fuut’ – The Grebe. Admonishing us, from his position of greater age and authority. See how unequal the balance of power is in this situation.
Summer Camp is two weeks of fun and games – but some of the games are much darker than we as parents might think when we send our children off. Initiation rituals, such as older boarding school pupils or military cadets play on newcomers. Quite violent corporal punishment, as part of a system of forfeits. And sex. Sexual games played under the supervision of the camp leaders, as well as sexual exploitation of the children by some of the adult leaders themselves. It seems that concerns about Scout-masters shouldn’t stop this side of the Channel.
The narrator’s telling us how some of the leaders behave, both as a defence, and as a justification of his own actions. He explains how easy it is for people in authority to gain the trust of children. But he’s also giving us a demonstration of how easy it was to ‘groom’ some of them.
But he was grooming us too, in the audience. He’s fun. He makes up games to make people laugh. He tried to get us to dance, gyrating suggestively right in front of me. Loads of direct eye contact. (Never sit in the front row with a notebook if you don’t want to get picked on). I was laughing without intending to – I couldn’t help myself.
A woman further along our row had looked really disapproving as the show developed – but when he reached out to her she started to get up to join him, before he moved back. Even as adults, it’s very hard not to be drawn in.
He’s obsessed by two young girls. He’d first seen one of them when she was eleven, on stage at a summer camp a couple of years before. He told us he had been enthralled by her power over the audience. He saw her, even then, as – a woman.
“Am I weird to have imagined them naked? ”
Grooming them. Persuasive – telling them how special they are, how talented. Manipulative – he’s tried to isolate them, spinning them a load of cod philosophy about how society doesn’t understand the individual. Boring middle class conformity everywhere. But we are special . . .
Spinning a load of vindications, too – musing to himself as much as to the audience.
“It’s not like I’d ever act on it …” “I could never allow myself to defile …”.
I wondered how much of this was the narrator managing to convince himself, and how much was his knowledge that, like Nabokov’s character, he too was ‘under observation’.
But for me, that was what made the man exist. He gave off such a sense of self-delusion, of constantly side-stepping an overwhelming truth, that it felt horribly, dreadfully, authentic. Bastiaan Vandendrissche hardly ever raised his voice – for whole sections he seemed lost in reverie – and he didn’t employ high emotion or grand gestures; but I never for an instant doubted that I was seeing a real person, just feet away from me.
All through the production the narrator had kept circling round and round his recollections of a particular event. Tiptoeing up to the lip of it and then backing away. A sexual episode, obviously. He told us at one point that he had ‘a hole’ in his early memories, and I wondered if he himself had been abused as a child.
‘Man hands on misery to man’
See how I believe in the narrator enough to care about the details of his life.
Afterwards, Vandendrissche told me that in a number of performances he gets very negative feedback, and even abuse, from some audience members. They obviously believe in him, too. I can see why. A few years ago I saw another Fringe production that left me feeling battered and drained by the sheer realism and intensity of the lives falling apart in front of me. The director asked me afterwards if I’d enjoyed it – my reply was “I hated it … but I’ll never forget it!”
I have the same feeling for this absolutely Outstanding production.
If you’re reading this, then I must have written it.
I’ve only just started, though – I haven’t really got any idea of what I’m going to say.
One line on, and I still haven’t.
And another line …
You already know what I’m going to write, though (or at least you will in a few minutes), because you’re reading it now. But I don’t.
That’s your ‘now’, of course. Some time in my future.
Sometime in my future, you’ll read what I wrote in your past – which is my present.
That’s time as we actually experience it. Slice by slice. But what if the slices could be connected somehow, and we could move between them? Then we’d have time travel – as the science fiction writers have imagined it.
Rosy Carrick is a science fiction writer – among many other things, as you’ll see – and in a lovely moment in this show she held up a pack of cards for us. We had to imagine that the top card was Rosy as we saw her, a woman of thirty six. Then the bottom of the pack was Rosy as a young girl of six, and the rest of the pack was all the other Rosies from the years in between. She told us that the six year old Rosy used to write letters to her future selves, hoping she was ok – I found that very touching.
But the present Rosy Carrick is an academic – Doctor Rosy Carrick, with a PhD on the literature of the Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. She’s the editor of a collection of translations of Mayakovsky’s poetry, including some of her own, and she’s a published poet in her own right.
That makes Rosy sound rather forbidding – she’s anything but! She’s a very confident solo performer with a badass delivery style and a taste for the wilder things in life – including David Bowie’s ‘Ziggy Stardust’ and Mayakovsky, who she describes as ‘the only early soviet rap star’. It was just ten years ago that she discovered him, but she subsequently made friends with his daughter Yelena, and spent six years researching a thesis on the man. That’s commitment. That’s obsession! As Rosy told us – she’s a Grade A stalker …
Mayakovsky killed himself in 1930, after a play very critical of the Stalin regime was rejected and the author’s reputation trashed. The hero of ‘The Bath-house’ builds a time machine, and a woman from the future comes back to help the victims of Soviet bureaucracy to escape. (You can see why it wasn’t approved …). Carrick has based this show on someone – Rosy herself – doing the same today; going back in time to try to rescue Mayakovsky. It goes wrong, of course – otherwise there’d be less of a story. The efforts she made to make things come right are both complex and hilarious, bringing in everything from particle physics to the theme music from ‘Rocky’ …
As well as Rosy out front, there was a large video screen at the back, and her delivery was brilliantly illustrated by an amazing set of graphics – stills from time-travel movies, computer visualizations of space-time, and wonderfully vivid Instagram photos of Rosy on her travels. Talk about Renaissance Woman – Rosy put them together too !
And talking of physics. A lot of time travel has to do with ‘wormholes’ in the fabric of space-time (but you all knew that, of course …) and there’s a little slip in time where she talks about Stephen Hawking, who theorised about them, in the present tense – when the great cosmologist died a few months ago. Rosy obviously wrote this bit when she was in a different slice …
It’s quite a tall order to build a working time machine – but then this is a very tall story that Carrick’s written. A lot of it features ‘Volodya’, her Mayakovsky book, which she mentions and shows us enough times that it began to feel like I was watching her perform at a book festival. She tells us that she not only became friends with Mayakovsky’s daughter Yelena, but that on her death Yelena bequeathed Rosy something that the poet had given her many years before. Carrick managed to integrate this artefact into her story as a central element. Clever.
But Carrick can do cheeky as well as clever. A couple of the characters from her time-travel saga actually appear on the acknowledgments page of ‘Volodya’. That’s real chutzpah.
But was any of it real? A few of us hung around outside The Blockhouse venue to try to catch Carrick afterwards, but she didn’t appear. No matter – I Googled her, and discovered that most of it, certainly the time travel blog and the ‘Volodya’ book, are true. She really is what she said she was.
See? – I can do stalking, too, Rosy.
She’s also given me a taste for Mayakovsky. I’d heard of him, as a member of the Russian Futurist movement and as a poster designer, though I’d never read his poetry. But now Rosy Carrick has got me intrigued by the man, and this show has widened my horizons.
Reader, I bought her book.
Franz Kafka: Apparatus
Anything by Franz Kafka is a must-see for me. I’d already been to a ‘Metamorphosis’ that was part of this Fringe, and I was keen to follow it up with another production featuring the writer. I couldn’t find ‘Apparatus’ in Kafka’s works, so it was a great surprise to discover that this piece is based on his short story ‘In The Penal Colony’.
Not really ‘based on’, though. Re-reading the story for this review, it’s pretty much word for word. And while Different Theatre’s ‘Metamorphosis’ gave a feminist and Freudian reinterpretation of that text – in this one Blue Devil Theatre have simply acted out a performance of Kafka’s lines on the Rialto stage.
‘In The Penal Colony’ features a bizarre killing machine, used for executing condemned criminals in an unnamed European outpost somewhere in the Tropics.
Wherever it is, the temperature’s extremely hot. As the lights come up we first see a man in a white linen suit, but when a military officer appears, she’s wearing a tight-fitting full-dress uniform and tall black leather boots. She’s sweating into a pair of handkerchiefs tucked into her collar, but she tells the man that the uniforms “remind us of home”.
She’s the officer in charge of conducting executions in the colony. The Officer. She’s very clear about her status, and she takes great pride in explaining the machine’s functions to the man, who seems to be a visiting writer or an eminent traveller. I called the machine ‘bizarre’ before – maybe it’s better classified as ‘Baroque’.
There was some kind of platform on wheels on the stage with them, a complicated structure built of chrome tubing – imagine a hospital gurney designed by Philippe Starck. That’s the bit we can see – it’s where the victim is strapped in. There are two much bigger parts though, built out of metal and glass, with wheels and cogs and needles, that The Officer brought into being in the air above the stage, as she pointed them out and explained their function.
Which is to kill a man – slowly, painfully – over a period of twelve hours
Later in the piece a soldier, a private, came in leading a manacled prisoner, and it seemed we would see the machine in action. But Maximus Polling as the soldier, and the heavily bearded Luis Amália as the prisoner, had no lines to speak. By their activities they showed us some details of how the apparatus worked, but they were essentially there as mere stage props – they don’t speak in Kafka’s written version, either. Even Matt Hastings as The Traveller was very much a secondary character. This is really all about the machine itself – The Apparatus – and The Officer.
The Officer acts as its operator, she adjusts and repairs it, but it’s obvious that the relationship between herself and the machine is almost as a High Priestess to some Deity. She’s obsessed with the minutiae of the Apparatus, the tiny details of procedure and ritual that blot out any emotions she might have had for the machine’s actual purpose. (It took place in a later era – but I was reminded of Adolf Eichmann concentrating on his railway schedules, making sure the Transports ran on time, without any regard for where they were heading …)
The Officer started as the perfect functionary. She talked enthusiastically at the beginning, almost like a tour guide in a stately home, about how the procedures had been performed, about the crowds who’d come to witness the deaths, about how she herself had helped young children to the front rows of spectators so that they could get a better view …
But we learn that the institution itself, the public executions by the machine, is under threat. The system, and The Officer’s role in it, was created by the previous Commandant of the Colony; but the new Commandant wants to abandon it and has withdrawn his support. The greater part of the production was Emily Carding’s powerful performance – a long monologue in effect – progressing from functionary to fanatic as she raged against the new regime. The Officer sees The Traveller as someone who could help her case, if only she can convince him. But would she be able to?
So this story is really all about resistance to change. About fighting back, probably with little or no effect, against tectonic shifts in the nature of one’s society. I’m struck that Kafka wrote ‘In The Penal Colony’ in October 1914, just months after the first world war had broken out. Could he sense that the great European Empires, that had seemed so stable for so long, were under threat? That the old order, with its discipline, its venerable institutions where everybody knew their place, was about to be erased for ever?
It’s significant that the piece is set, not in some foreign country that the Traveller visits, but in a Colony – somewhere outside Europe that is completely under the control of a European state, as part of its Empire. You can do what you like in your colonies – think of Devil’s Island, the French penal colony; or of Roger Casement’s revelations of Belgium’s brutal rule in The Congo, which had been published not long before this story was conceived. In Kafka’s time that world still existed – but perhaps he could see the writing on the wall.
The great thing about an event like Brighton Fringe is that it gives us a chance to see work that wouldn’t normally be easily accessible. Blue Devil Theatre have given us an intriguing introduction to a lesser-known work by a great author. See it if you possibly can.
Antony And Cleopatra
I hadn’t picked up a programme before I took my seat for ‘Anthony and Cleopatra’. I only knew that Unmasked Theatre were doing it in a modern adaptation, set in London. But as the action proceeded I kept seeing parallels with the Profumo scandal of 1963.
On my way to get a post-show drink I finally got a look at one – and dammit there she was on the cover. There SHE was. Christine Keeler, the woman at the centre of the storm. Looking directly at us – posed naked but with her modesty protected by the back of the chair she’s straddling. Erotic. Challenging. A wonderful re-do of Lewis Morley’s iconic black and white photograph from the early nineteen-sixties.
The pose was perfect, but instead of Keeler it’s Jessica Flood, who plays a cabaret dancer in this version. Called, of course – Cleopatra. The real Cleopatra brought about the downfall of Mark Antony, powerful Roman politician, while Christine Keeler did the same to John Profumo, Secretary of State for War in Harold Macmillan’s government.
Unmasked Theatre say in the programme notes that Shakespeare’s ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ is the perfect vehicle to explore the Profumo story. Luke Ofield and Pip O’Neill also ask us to ‘forgive their departing from the original text and source material’. I think they’re right – both stories are about powerful men brought down by their own weakness and hubris. Like a Greek tragedy.
Talking of which – the Rialto stage was set up as a club, with intensely coloured lighting on the curtains at the back of the stage, and two small tables set down on the floor at the front. The club’s got a wonderful MC – to welcome us and to get the evening rolling. Paddy Hall played him enthusiastic, but with a touch of cynicism. There was something of a Greek Chorus in the way he commented on events.
Then two guys in smart suits came down the aisle and stood in front of the stage. Quite an immersive experience – I really had the impression of being in a club as they squeezed past us to sit at one of the tables. It’s Domitius Enobarbus, he’s a colleague of Mark Antony and he’s brought the other man to the club to introduce him to one of the dancers. Mark Antony and Cleopatra hit it off immediately – it’s obviously going to lead to a passionate affair.
We’re seeing two stories simultaneously here, of course. Well, actually three – Unmasked Theatre’s production mashes together Mark Antony’s Roman Empire with Profumo’s sixties London, and gives us their own take on top. So Enobarbus is the equivalent of Stephen Ward, a well-connected London osteopath (and – let’s not mince words here – pimp) who’s brought John Profumo along to introduce him to Christine Keeler.
Profumo was married, so a sexual liaison would have been damaging to his career in any event, but the real scandal was that at the time Keeler was also bedding the Naval Attaché from the Russian embassy in London. An obvious Cold War security risk. The furore that followed, and the hysterical press reporting of it, played a great part in the defeat of the Macmillan government the following year.
The Roman Mark Antony’s alliance with the Egyptian queen led to war with his political rival, Octavius Caesar. The modern Mark Antony in this version has rivals too; parliamentary rivals at Westminster, and there was friction and jockeying for power between him and a modern Octavius. To broker some sort of peace, Octavius offers Mark Antony his sister Octavia in marriage, to seal the settling of their differences. Later on, when their relationship has turned sour, Octavia gives the press a tearful interview skewering Mark Antony for his infidelity – “It was a bit crowded in that marriage”. Blimey! Talk about ‘departing from the source material’ – Unmasked Theatre have even stuck in a quote from Princess Diana …
They’re quite shameless in how they’ve used lots of different strands to weave together a production that’s dazzling in its range. Shameless, but very effective. Theatre is almost certainly the best medium to convey this kind of multi-layered story, and this company have used it very powerfully. High energy. Laugh-out-loud funny, but thought-provoking at the same time. Eleven actors on stage, but they kept slipping between roles and I lost count of how many characters I’d seen. Politicians, their henchmen, their supporters and their enemies, as well as journalists – all of them fighting, drinking and plotting against each other in a dizzying succession of short scenes.
The show was done almost as pantomime. As cabaret, too, with great music. Four dancers took to the stage and gave us a some fairly raunchy routines. (it’s obviously the sort of club where sex is never far off the agenda). Jessica Flood as Cleopatra performed, of course, along with Lucy Tebb, Olivia Sewell and Claudia Realer. The girls are ‘The Jewels of The Nile’ and the club’s called ‘Egypt’.
Egypt. The lure of the Orient. Exotic. Sensual. Dangerous, too. Just five years before the Profumo affair the British, along with the French and the Israelis, had invaded the Suez Canal zone, only to have to withdraw their forces in a humiliating climb-down. The Suez debacle brought down a previous Government – Anthony Eden’s. A British politician had rushed in, without thinking of the risks and consequences. Rather like John Profumo.
Politics, played as pantomime. How easily real life turns into farce. John Profumo initially denied the allegations of his affair, and it was the relentless hounding by the Press that finally brought the scandal to a head. The newspaper stories were irresistibly titillating – sex, national security, and politicians caught with their pants down. Just like today. There were hordes of press in this show – the other actors donned raincoats and formed a slithering mass of reporters and photographers, flooding the aisle and spilling onto the stage to get their quotes and their pictures.
‘The perfect vehicle to explore the Profumo story’. A morality tale – with snakes. Shakespeare’s Cleopatra killed herself with snake poison – she let herself be bitten by an Asp. Christine Keeler herself survived, in fact she only died last year, but not everyone did. Stephen Ward was convicted of ‘living off immoral earnings’ and killed himself after his Establishment friends abandoned him.
Seems to me the Press acted like a nest of vipers.
Under The Skin
At the close of the Second World War, Europe was awash with people who’d lost everything. Their country. Their home. Their family. Everything but their life. The victorious Allied armies set up camps to provide aid and shelter, and the people themselves were classified as – Displaced Persons.
Displacement is a central device in ‘Under The Skin’, in several senses of the word. Just three actors portray a number of characters in Yonatan Calderon’s play – seven in all, constantly moving between identities – and the action constantly jumps back and forth between two wars, almost fifty years apart. We could very easily have lost our bearings, but Ariella Eshed’s confident direction kept the narrative coherent – creating links across the decades like a well-choreographed ballet.
How far would you go to stay alive? How many standards and principles would you betray? It’s 1945, and Lotte Rosner and Ida Berman are Jewish prisoners in Neuengamme Concentration Camp, performing forced labour for the Nazi Reich. The Allies are approaching, so it can’t be that much longer before they’re liberated – if they can stay alive. They are starving, and the lack of food combined with the harsh conditions are making them weak and ill.
But Lotte has caught the eye of Bube, one of the camp’s SS officers. ‘Bube’ is the prisoners’ nickname for Ilsa Kholmann, a nasty piece of work even by the standards of the SS, with a reputation for violence and brutal punishments against the Jewish women. She’s a lesbian, and she singles Lotte out for special treatment; protecting her from danger and providing extra food – presumably in exchange for sex.
Ilsa Kholmann calls it ‘love’, though, and the fruit she offers (apples – how appropriate …) make all the difference to the Jewish woman’s health. But when Lotte tries to share her gains with her friend Ida, the other woman is disgusted by the food’s origin and refuses to eat it, leaving her in progressive decline.
So who was right? I wouldn’t presume to judge between them – but history is written by the winners and survivors. Suffice to say that fifty years later it’s Lotte who’s living in an apartment in Tel Aviv, while Ida’s body finally lost the battle, just as their camp was liberated. Lotte Rosner is Lotte Brod now, married after the war to another Holocaust survivor, but a widow for years.
In the camp the prisoners wear long coats – thin material, white with narrow green stripes. And their yellow stars. Bube is dressed in SS uniform and carries a truncheon – which she’s not loath to use. But then the scene freezes, and in a swirl of movement the women change their clothing, passing each other items and taking garments from a coat stand and a rail. All the transformations were done almost as ballet, with elegant sweeping movements as the actors moved past each other round the set.
At the end, the actor playing Bube has morphed into Lotte – but Lotte as an old woman – and we’re in her Tel Aviv home in 1991. Adi Loya didn’t just discard some of Bube’s harsh vocal range, she altered her whole body language and even seemed to shrink slightly in stature as she became the elderly Jewish woman.
Batel Israel, the actor who’d given us Ida, just exchanged her long prison coat for a white shawl, and after helping with the costume changes she simply hovered in the background of Lotte Brod’s apartment. Israel’s a very versatile actor – back in the Camp she also played two cameo roles as German officers.
The younger Lotte (the one from the camp) put on a dark leather jacket, and with her long blonde hair unloosened she became a young German journalist, in Israel to cover the Gulf War – but also to seek out the older Lotte.
This German visitor is Kirsten Eberhardt, and she tells us she’s come because Lotte had been an accomplished ballet dancer in Prague before the war. Natasha Lanceley – who plays both women, of course – has ballet skills herself, and in one of the play’s many flashbacks she puts on her points and tutu and Lotte dances the role of ‘Giselle’ for the camp Commandant’s party.
But has Kirsten Eberhardt come simply for that? What does she really want? The visit reopens Lotte’s carefully-buried memories of her time in the camp. Painful memories. Confused memories. Lotte and Ilsa had had … what? – a relationship? a love affair? Ilsa had called it love, and had saved Lotte’s life on a number of occasions – but how can anyone even consider what happened as some kind of love story? The power imbalance inherent in their relationship, and the threatening background of violence and death, must surely make such a suggestion grotesque. And yet … we’re all familiar with the alliances often formed between victims and their captors, the phenomenon known as Stockholm Syndrome. Could something like that have happened here?
The moral and ethical quandaries of this piece will stay with me for a long time, but what’s flooding my mind as I write this review is the production’s effortlessly fluid staging. The continual flashbacks and changes of scene were stunningly realised, as I’ve mentioned above, by the balletic choreography of Revital Snir. She’s managed to change what’s a dramatic necessity into something of breathtaking beauty – a flurry of movement overlaid by Duncan Woodford’s thirties swing-music soundtracks.
Remarkable set, too. Joanne Marshall managed to change the locations on the black stage at The Theatre Box by the most minimal means – simply turning over a length of shiny-backed fabric converted a sitting-room tablecloth into a piece of leather in the concentration camp workshop. When the women were moved by train to another camp, crammed into livestock wagons for a two day journey without any stops, they simply stacked up the wooden boxes that had formed the table and squeezed together behind them. With a single overhead lamp sending shafts of light through the slats in the boxes, and the sound of the railcars clattering over the track, we had all the cues we needed to be there with them – apart from the stench …
A final thought. Did you catch my tone of moral outrage when I described the suggestion of a love story as ‘grotesque’? That’s because I’ve got involved. I’ve identified with the situation and taken a side. I’ve believed in the characters as living, breathing beings. Isn’t that the mark of a great production?
About A Revolution
As the lights came up on the big stage there was a young woman standing at the front, body held erect with her fist raised high in a revolutionary salute. Dressed in a blue tunic with a red bandanna round her hair. Teeth bared – set, like her face, in an expression of grim determination and defiance. Head looking outwards, over the front rows towards the back of the auditorium – or the enemy approaching over the horizon.
Behind her, against the backdrop, a man dressed very like her was waving an immense red flag back and forth. And the backdrop itself? Black, filled with a huge white circle, itself pierced by a narrow red triangle. Of course! It’s Lissitzky’s 1919 poster ‘Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge’. The thing must have been a good ten metres across.
So it’s post-revolutionary Russia, the turbulent period when the Bolshevik government was under attack both from ‘Capitalist’ Western states, and from counter-revolutionary ‘White Russian’ armies in a civil war. A crowd of Soviet workers flooded on to the stage, a flurry of blue with splashes of red on head or waist, and we listened to Lenin making a speech – promising ‘Everything for The Workers’ and that the Red Army would achieve ‘Victory or Death’.
But it’s easier to offer things than to deliver them. Despite their sacrifices, people still suffer, and the promised land doesn’t seem very much closer. So they become impatient, and restless, and sometimes they want a new leader, or to turn back the clock entirely. That’s why the Party has to be so unwavering. All the propaganda – the speeches, the posters, the flags – is to keep the Revolution’s programme on track. As is the elimination of all opposition – by any means necessary. We saw a lot of people being shot …
Those numerous tableaux of revolutionary Comrades that we saw, looking like Socialist Realist posters; those crowds storming The Winter Palace in St Petersburg, turned out to be just nine actors in total, though at the time it felt like there were dozens filling the stage. A tribute to the skill of Windmill Young Actors. I was hoping for great things after their awesome production of ‘Agamemnon’ last year, and once again they’ve delivered.
‘Agamemnon’ was located in the Bronze Age, about three and a half thousand years ago. The Russian Revolution took place just one hundred years ago, but the memories of it have faded, and after the collapse of Communism in the Nineties it seems like ancient history itself. In this production the company try to show us what it was like to live through a revolution, what were the conditions that brought it about, and (most importantly) whether it could happen again – today, here.
So the Bolshevik comrades shouted their slogans about the country being at the mercy of international finance, and the corruption of politicians and industrialists, and inequality, and social deprivation, and the rich piling up billions while ordinary citizens starved … and it all seemed horribly familiar. This is what we read about every day in the newspapers.
The action moved seamlessly back and forth between historical events and our current reality – of homeless people sleeping in doorways while others make millions out of buy-to-let property. Of a Government concerned only with money, that doesn’t care about the welfare of its poorest citizens, that allows disasters like Grenfell Tower to occur. Of Grenfell – one actor quoted a resident. “This is not a tragedy. This is a crime”. The show gave us Abi as the central figure here. She experiences the insecurity of not having accommodation where she could feel safe and, as a disabled person, having to navigate the bureaucratic maze of government agencies in order to claim any sort of benefit. And there are thousands just like Abi.
Something must be done – but it has to start with us ourselves. ‘About a Revolution’ is a devised piece, workshopped into being by the actors themselves, with historical input from writer Joe Gill. As part of this process, each of the cast delivered a short solo testament, at various points throughout the show. They talked about some event, some turning point in their lives, that had changed them and made them feel more confident and in control. Little things, big things; it didn’t matter – the important thing was that they’d experienced their own personal revolution. It was very moving.
But the big picture? Here the sad truth is that we’ve become slaves to our technology. We can see the conflicts and inequalities on TV and share them on social media. But we remain atomised – each individual Facebook member reduced to ‘Like’-ing somebody else’s comment. Those swathes of Soviet comrades were transformed into a busy crowd passing back and forth across the stage, each person’s gaze fixed on their mobile phone screen – hand open, facing inward at arm’s length. Doesn’t bode well for change – the clenched fist turning into the open palm …
Millie Mae Morris played (amongst others) Fanny Kaplan, a revolutionary socialist who’d tried to kill Lenin. She’s also written a poem, part of which goes –
I don’t feel, I click / I don’t see, I flick / I don’t talk, I share / I don’t seem it but I do care / But I’m blocked and / I scroll / and scroll / and scroll
So what should we do? The production wasn’t very clear about that. That’s partly because it’s an honest response (If I knew the answer I’d be out there doing it, and you’d probably be there beside me) and also because, as they showed us, most of the great revolutionary leaders were killed. By their rightwing enemies, by ambitious rivals, or by their disillusioned supporters.
Pretty downbeat thought. But this is theatre, and these young people are idealistic and keen, so the show finished with a great celebration of the revolutionary spirit. They filled the stage with a sea of blue and red uniforms, and the whole area was drenched in red light as David Goodman’s rhythmically driving music swelled to full volume. The effect was overwhelming. The last time I remember a performance of equal power – also about Revolution, as it happens – was years ago at ‘Les Miserables’ in London’s West End. To put on something this slick within the time and equipment constraints of a Fringe venue takes real commitment and a great deal of talent. Windmill Young Actors have created something truly great. It deserves to be highly, highly recommended.
At the very end, a single figure stepped forward, clad all in red. “Change is coming. I can feel it. Can you?” All we could do was nod hopefully – and applaud loud and long.
What is it about ‘Antigone’ that speaks so powerfully to us today?
It must be something in the zeitgeist – I’ve seen four Antigones in the last year alone.
‘Antigone’ always reminds me of a phrase from E M Forster – “If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country”. A few Antigones ago I looked up Forster and discovered that he was very interested in the Oedipus legend and that in one of his short stories, ‘The road from Colonus’ , a character even nicknames his daughter Antigone. As Antigone tells us in this production – Colonus was where Oedipus went into exile from Thebes, and I am struck that this play probably influenced Forster’s morality and his pacifist politics.
In Antigone’s case it’s a member of her family, not her friend, that she doesn’t want to betray. She’s performed the necessary funeral rites for her dead brother Polynices, against the orders of the King of Thebes, and now she’s paying the price. When we meet her she’s just been pushed into a dark cave, and left to starve to death.
It’s a very simple set at Sweet Dukebox, just a bare black stage with a large chest sitting near the centre. Joanna Lucas seems to stumble onto the stage – she’s obviously been flung into the cave – and as she takes stock of her surroundings she begins to tell us the story of how she comes to be there.
Joanna Lucas as Antigone is dressed in a long white dress, high-waisted, with golden sandals occasionally glimpsed underneath. Lucas the actor also turns out to be a consummate storyteller – she held us gripped by her narrative for close to an hour. It’s actually Michael McEvoy’s script, but Lucas made the story very much her own.
And what a story! King Creon of Thebes is Antigone’s actual uncle, not just her ruler, and she’s a royal princess. Creon’s taken on the monarchy after her father King Oedipus went into exile, and Oedipus’s two sons, the princes Eteocles and Polynices, killed each other in a fratricidal war for control of the city. In the aftermath of that war, Creon has given Eteocles a sumptuous funeral, with full honours, but decreed that Polynices’ body be left unburied, to rot outside the city and be eaten as carrion. Disobeying the decree would be punishable by death.
That sounds heartless even to us today, but for the Greeks it was devastating. Without the necessary rites performed on their body, that person’s soul could not pass into the Underworld. It would linger forever in limbo – an appalling fate, and a terrible vengeance.
So Antigone did what she felt had to be done. She told us how she’d tried to get her sister Ismene to help, but that the woman lacked courage, and so finally she’s acted all alone. Here, in the cave, she showed us how she’d taken the honey, the water and the olive branch – she took the items out of the chest – and gathered dust to cover the rotting corpse. This was when the actor’s real talent became apparent. Lucas didn’t simply tell the story, she acted out the various roles as she narrated them, moving on her knees gathering dust, then hiding behind a rock (the chest) when soldiers came to guard the body.
When they discover what she’s done, the guards argue over who will be the one to face the wrath when he gives Creon the news. Lucas – as Antigone telling us the story – managed to give us various members of the squad, turning this way and that and altering her voice as the discussion raged. She constantly slipped back seamlessly into her identity as the princess, too, giving us things from her own point of view. At times in the performance she talked to us close-up in the first few rows, quite intimate. At other moments she raised her head, and her voice, and she was addressing Creon and a big crowd in some large assembly at the royal palace, at her trial for treason.
Never still – continually altering her posture or her facial expression to convey the essence of something that was happening in her tale. But it was her eyes that truly held us, always shifting their gaze. Big eyes, staring intensely at each of us in turn, bright with highlights from the show’s simple, direct lighting. Mesmerising. Joanna Lucas is a very good actor, and this was a very powerful performance.
Antigone is sometimes interpreted as a play about how much The State should be able to demand of its citizens. About whether the duty of obedience to a higher morality – or to The Gods – should override the duty of obedience to The Ruler. It’s an argument we’ve heard increasingly over the past decade, with governments increasingly regarding individual citizens as either ‘Us’ or ‘Them’. In this Manichean world view – “You’re either with us or against us”. Maybe that’s why ‘Antigone’ is so much in demand these days.
Michael McEvoy’s script focuses much more on the family relationships. Antigone tells us that Creon supported Eteocles against his brother, forcing Polynices to leave the city as an exile, and later return with an army to reclaim his inheritance. She implies that Creon manipulated the brothers into war, knowing (from an oracle) that they would both die, in order to achieve the monarchy himself.
And this ‘Antigone’ goes further back into the family’s history. Antigone tells us of her father, Oedipus, and how he tried to escape a prophesy by leaving his home as an exile. How he couldn’t avoid his fate – nobody ever can – and eventually came to Thebes. Setting in train the horrors that followed.
If you don’t know the Oedipus legend – go and see ‘Antigone Alone’. It’s a long and complicated story, very well explained.
If you do know the story, and your Greek mythology is up to speed – then especially go and see ‘Antigone Alone’, as it’s a masterful retelling, in an unforgettable performance.
The set was beautiful. The Paris apartment was starkly defined in white – white dressing table; white ottoman covered by a white fur, sitting on a white rug centre stage; skeletal white storage racks at the rear, holding Mistress’s dresses and jewellery – all thrown into prominence by the surrounding blackness of The Blockhouse interior.
When the lights come up Claire is standing in a black slip, and in her haughty upper-class voice she’s berating Solange, who’s sitting on the ottoman, snapping the fingers of her yellow washing-up gloves. Claire’s role-playing their employer – their Mistress – and addressing her actual sister Solange as ‘Claire’. Confused? You’re meant to be.
That’s the traditional opening of ‘The Maids’ – but here, Solange is dressed in black dungarees over a white T shirt. The effect was to make her look more like a handyman than a maid – much less feminine, quite butch in fact. And my, has she got a dirty mouth. Solange’s lines are peppered with ‘F’ words and ‘C’ words as she slowly, lovingly dresses Claire in one of their employer’s gowns and then proceeds to abuse her verbally, spitting out her venom – followed by actual spittle and a slap. Working them both up into a frenzy.
It’s only when the alarm clock shatters the action that Claire’s voice reverts to her working-class accent and we realise that the whole episode has been an elaborate act. That their employer will return soon. For this is how Claire and Solange spend their evenings when they’re alone in the apartment. They act out sadomasochistic scenarios, dripping with sexuality, which should end with the killing of their Mistress, and presumably in the emotional release of orgasm for themselves. But their obsessive attention to detail means that they so often run out of time.
Genet wrote ‘The Maids’ as a vicious analysis of the class system, and a provocative exploration of sexuality. Claire and Solange have been driven into domestic service by poverty. They are exploited, but at the same time they are in awe of the wealth and sophistication of their bourgeois Mistress. Powerless themselves, they fantasise about having power over her in turn. They envy her and they want to be her. They simultaneously despise her and love her. In his book ‘Saint Genet’, Jean-Paul Sartre says – ‘In Genet’s world, we are all prisoners in a system we embrace, even as it grinds us down’.
Genet’s 1947 play has traditionally been performed using Bernard Frechtman’s 1957 translation, but Roughbrow Theatre have used a modern text, by Benedict Adams and Andrew Upton. We don’t see a lot the complex psychology in this version, though. We are given the maids’ anger, but not so much of the sense of alienation that lies behind it. When it works, it works well – Claire’ feelings of humiliation “She’s so generous. She showers us with her dead, withered flowers” – but the script’s uneven, and loses a lot of Genet’s florid imagery. A constant stream of expletives may make the piece sound edgy – but Genet himself didn’t use a single one …
The script might be dubious – but Ben Alexander’s direction certainly isn’t. He’s achieved gripping performances from Madeline Hatt as Claire and Harriet Wakefield as Solange. The women work brilliantly as a double act – prowling around the apartment, alternating vicious tirades of abuse and bitchiness with interludes where they hold each other tenderly. “Do you remember? Under the tree, just the two of us. Our feet in the sun”. Wakefield plays Solange as the more angry, more pro-active, of the pair, while Hatt gave us the sense that Claire harboured some real feelings of love for their Mistress.
Love can turn vicious, though, and Claire has written anonymous letters that have got Mistress’s lover imprisoned. Solange couldn’t bring herself to strangle Mistress as she lay in bed (love, again?) so now they intend to poison the woman with a cup of drugged tea. When their Mistress finally appeared, with her blonde hair and her white dress, I almost wanted to kill her myself. Zannah Hodson gave us an appalling monster – vain, self-centred, totally self absorbed. Her lover’s incarcerated – she spells it out to Claire as if the woman’s a child, “In. Car. Ser. Ray. Ted.”, but she’s really more concerned with what she’s going to wear when she goes to visit him.
Adams and Upton’s script may not be pure Genet, but it’s still powerfully written, and they’ve put in some funny lines. The situation is ‘Absolute Torture’ for her, Mistress tells Claire – “You’re so lucky, you two. All alone, nothing to lose. That’s The Lord’s blessing for the poor”. There aren’t a lot of laughs in ‘The Maids’, but that line certainly got one. A mind like a butterfly, constantly fluttering from one thought to another – promising that she would bear her lover’s cross “to The Ends of The Earth”, then fretting about the cost of the flowers in the apartment. Mistress swears quite a lot too, in this version. Potty-mouth, like her maids – “Where is that stupid little cunt?” when Solange hasn’t come back with a taxi. A great character-portrait from Zannah Hodson.
So, to this reviewer – a flawed translation / adaptation of Genet, but a sparkling production by a very talented company. Go and see it if you get the chance – but if you want the real Genet then try to catch a Bernard Frechtman version.
Adams and Upton’s most serious deviation from Genet is near the end. Mistress has escaped the poisoned tea, and gone off to greet her Lover. But they’ll be back in the morning … The script has Solange urging flight – “We’ve no choice now but to make a run for it!” “We can’t stay here. Get a train or a bus. We’ve no money – let’s just grab the silver and go!” and Harriet Wakefield is very convincing in the line. But Solange wouldn’t say such a thing – it’s a total distortion of the woman’s psychology. They are going to be found out, but they won’t move. As a character from Genet’s play ‘Deathwatch’ notes – “It’s by its sweetness that we recognise catastrophe”. They will stay put, and Claire will drink the poisoned tea.
This apartment is their prison, and only Claire has found the means of escape.
It’s not often I start a review with – ‘How am I going to start this review?’, but that’s where I am with this one.
But that was then – at the start. I must have finished it eventually, or you wouldn’t be reading it now. Whenever it is that you are reading it.
For you are in my future – reading what I wrote in your past – which is my present …
Complicated, isn’t it?
There were three women on the stage at The Spiegeltent, and they would have agreed with me. “Time is very complicated”, one of them said. “You think it looks like this” … Her colleague posed as if pulling back a longbow – Time’s Arrow, of course, proceeding straight ahead in one direction.
“But it looks like this”. Now the colleague crouched a bit and twisted her arms and fingers sinuously upwards, like a tree branching or some creature spiralling round and back upon itself. Time moving in anything but a straight line.
“It’s almost impossible to completely understand it, because we can only experience it – slice by slice”.
Blimey. It sounded like a serious lecture on physics or philosophy – but Vida was there as well, on stage watching the demonstration. Vida’s about a metre tall, with red hair, and when we first entered the performance space she was writing a letter. Actually, three of them were writing the letter, because Vida’s a puppet and it needed the other two women to move her hands and her head, as she put her pencil to one side and ran her eyes over the lines she’s just written.
Vida works in a call centre. She spends her day phoning strangers and asking them about their consumer activities. Vida finds her present existence pretty pointless, so she writes letters to herself in the future. She leaves phone voice messages for herself, too. She’s been there far, far too long, so one day she just decides to walk out …
‘The Looker’ is intensely visual. As well as Vida, there are a host of other puppets and animal costumes. There are sheep, lots of sheep, and a trio of ‘radio dream analyst’ puppets, who looked like the Rhine-maidens from Wagner’s ‘Ring’. There’s very witty physical theatricality, some quite suggestive playing around with fruit, and wonderfully over-the-top voices and sound effects. So it’s very much a show for children, and there were lots of them at the performance we saw. But it’s also a quite philosophical production, as the bits about time demonstrate, so it works for an older audience too. A number of scenes dealt with alienation, with the pointlessness of existence, and the frantic over-production that a materialist consumer society demands. Stuff, stuff, stuff. “We couldn’t stop making stuff – it’s just who we are”.
That last quote is from a dustman at a rubbish dump where Vida pitches up for a while. Consumer goods have their own life-stories, and this is where all the stuff ends up. As he speaks about ‘stuff’ – it’s actually Sarah Ratheram in a high-vis jacket and cap – he’s stuffing discarded bric-a-brac down the front of his (thankfully opaque) grey tights. There were squeals of delight from a lot of the youngsters, and as I glanced down at the two young girls on the end of our bench they were transfixed – open mouthed and saucer-eyed.
Sabotage Theatre have put together a show that manages to reach every member of its audience – though not necessarily all at the same moments. Vida meets a butterfly – Caroline Bowman, arms outstretched holding a swathe of blue-green silk as gorgeous wings. The youngsters loved the colour and movement as Bowman fluttered and swooped. But then Vida asked – “Do you remember what it was like before? When you were a chrysalis, do you look back at all?” The butterfly replied crossly – “I AM a butterfly, and I’m incredibly busy, and I don’t have much time”.
Wow! What a telling comment on the human existence – on our narrow perspective and our short lifespan. Locked into the thin slice of time that is ‘now’, with no sense of how things got to be how they are. Most of the children would have missed that, but it struck home to us adults. That’s the skill of the writing here – there’s something for everyone, in very quick succession.
Vida had a green dress and apron to contrast with her red hair, and later in the show Zoe Hinks, the second puppeteer (and Artistic Director of Sabotage) became a taller Vida for us. Zoe had red hair, too, so the substitution was almost seamless – as believable as when the cast donned sheep heads to point up the lack of individuality in the human species. After all – “I’ve sometimes believed six impossible things before breakfast!”, as another girl in a dress and apron once said …
Vida the woman can talk to us direct, and we can read her expressions. Vida the puppet can fly. And be free. It took both Vidas to perform Sabotage’s amazing show – funny, subversive, deeply philosophical, and beautiful. Imaginative lighting, and Sarah Ratheram’s haunting clarinet playing, took us far, far away from Brighton’s Spiegeltent. At the end, as the applause died down, I looked at my watch and an hour had gone by. An hour! Surely not. Time really is very slippery and complicated.
What makes someone commit murder?
It’s interesting that two out of three Pretty Villain productions in this Fringe Festival are about killers. Two very different treatments, though. ‘Myra’ gave us what purported to be the ‘real’ Myra Hindley, there on the stage in front of us; while ‘Rope’ gives an outing to Patrick Hamilton’s 1929 play about a different sort of killing.
Both offerings concern sensational events. The 1960s Moors Murder killings have become deeply embedded in the British psyche, with Myra Hindley’s photograph, eyes staring defiantly towards the viewer, achieving iconic status. Patrick Hamilton based ‘Rope’ on the 1924 ‘Leopold-Loeb’ murder, where two wealthy students at the University of Chicago killed a fourteen-year-old in what was talked about at the time as ‘The Crime of the Century’.
Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb murdered the youngster simply because they thought they could. They considered themselves sufficiently intellectually superior to be able to commit the perfect crime. Taking a life, without any motive or profit, just for the thrill, and because they could – like Nietzchean Supermen.
Hamilton’s play moves the action to London, where a smart Mayfair flat is occupied by two wealthy Oxford students, Wyndham Brandon and Charles Granillo. They are stylish, clever and intellectually self-confident. They may well be lovers, too, bound together against the outside world. Like the Americans, Brandon in particular seems to be a disciple of Nietzche, convinced of his personal superiority to the rest of humanity.
When the play opens, they have strangled a fellow student, Ronald Kentley, and hidden his body in a large wooden chest. Because they could. Brandon wants to cap their action by hosting a party for their friends, with the body still in the room. How’s that for hubris?
Hamilton’s play has quite a dated style. The identity of the killers is known from the outset, so the only suspense lies in whether they will get caught – a cat-and-mouse game of spotting tiny clues and deflecting lines of questioning. ‘Rope’ has some of the same feeling as his later play ‘Gas Light’. It’s all upper middle class social mores, with chaps mostly addressing each other by just their surnames – the same between-the-wars world portrayed by Terence Rattigan. Rattigan lived in Brighton for a long time, if we’re talking Brighton theatre connections; and Patrick Hamilton was from Hassocks, so he was a local boy too. His novel ‘The West Pier’ was described by Graham Greene as ‘the best book written about Brighton’. Praise indeed from the author of ‘Brighton Rock’.
So putting Hamilton’s play into Brighton Fringe makes sense, and director Roger Kay has cleverly decided not to attempt any kind of an update of interpretation or staging, but to give us ‘Rope’ very much as a pre-war audience would have seen it.
Just the one set throughout, with the large wooden chest centre stage. A lot of Rialto productions go for minimalism, with almost no clutter on the bare black stage. For this one, though, we had a number of chairs, a standard lamp, tables for telephone and drinks – a busy location for the cast to navigate.
A large cast, too, for the space. Seven in all – (if you exclude the body in the chest). At the beginning it’s just the two murderers, and Brandon can barely conceal his glee at his own genius. Not only have they done the deed, but as an extra frisson they will use the wooden chest as a table to serve food and drink to the victim’s father, just inches above his son’s body. (That’s worthy of a Greek Tragedy – something written by Aeschylus, perhaps). We’re told all of this at the very beginning by the main characters – reminding each other of the action that they can only just have completed. The author obviously lived before today’s Creative Writing mantra of “Show – Don’t Tell”.
Brandon’s a supremely self-confident individual; sleek fair hair, sports jacket and cord trousers. Student at Oxford ‘Varsity’. Graeme Dalling played his lines loud, with the clarity of tone of the English upper classes. By contrast, John Black’s Granillo is unnerved by the risks they are taking; never still, fidgeting nervously. Black’s dark hair was slightly lank, and his black waistcoat was worn over a shirt with sleeves rolled back and secured with armbands. He looked much less at ease than his companion – not happy at all.
I’m always fascinated by the names authors give their characters. Granillo. Does it sound just a bit – foreign? Italian, probably. Interesting that he’s the one who’s cracking under pressure and seeking relief in drink. Remember that Hamilton wrote this piece in the nineteen twenties, when the Empire still lorded it over ‘Johnny Foreigner’. And while we’re on names – the maid, when she finally appears, is called Sabot. A name with deep working class associations. Sabots were the wooden clogs that French workers wore, like the Dutch, because they couldn’t afford leather shoes. Weavers threw them into the mechanical looms to destroy the threat to their livelihood. It’s the origin of the word ‘sabotage’. In the play’s first productions, Sabot was male – a butler not a maid. The director has increased the female presence in this one, and Karine Mills gives an intriguing performance – I couldn’t decide just how much she knew about her employers’ activities.
Then the guests appear. Kitty Newbury’s Leila is a Twenties vision, in a clinging pink gown and long string of pearls. Raglan is another Oxford student, and Rick Yale plays him as a blond-haired Hooray Henry, complete with garish striped blazer and a repartee largely about sport. These two are straight out of something by Noel Coward – ‘Hay Fever’, perhaps – and they lose no time starting to flirt with each other. ‘Raglan’ is another name that carries upper-class associations – is he related to the Lord Raglan of Crimean War fame?
When Robert Cohen as Sir Johnstone, the boy’s father, arrives, he’s come formally dressed for dinner. All in black – he’s the only one – terribly poignant as we already knew the unspeakable horror that was hidden so very close. Closely followed by Cadell, a big man in an almost white linen suit. Names again. ‘Cadell’ is a Welsh word meaning ‘battle’. The author is preparing us for the verbal battle at the end, when Cadell clashes with Brandon and finally gets to the truth.
Neil James as Cadell is the nemesis in this play – he’s the one who senses that something isn’t right, and whose forensic questioning picks up on tiny clues that finally expose the murderers. He reminded me of Martin Bell the war reporter, in his trademark white suit. (they’re rather similar facially, too). The whiteness seemed to evoke Justice, in opposition to Sir Johnstone’s association with Death. Director Roger Kay has achieved some powerful symbolism in this production.
He’s done more than that. Hamilton’s play be clunky and stiff by the standards of modern theatre, but this production of ‘Rope’ gave me a sense of how exciting it must have looked all those decades ago – it’s almost ninety years old, after all. Rather like going for a ride on a restored steam railway. Evocative. And a perfect foil for ‘Myra’.
Do you remember the 1980s?
Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister. The Miners’ Strike. Punk Music and purple Mohican haircuts. Big shoulder pads and ‘Dallas’ on TV. There were IRA bombs going off in Northern Ireland, and on mainland Britain too, while the City of London had deregulation of finance – its own ‘Big Bang’
The meaning of the IRA terrorism depended on who you asked –
Ask an Englishman, and it was about religion.
Ask an Irishman, and it was about occupation and the lack of civil rights
After the big bomb at the Baltic Exchange, which destroyed the facades of so many buildings in the City of London, the City streets were clogged with the vans of building firms doing reconstruction – Delaney, O’Connell, Cappagh, O’Leary – and I couldn’t help wondering whether it was more about job creation than politics …
For Fintan Shevlin it was largely about sex.
Upstairs at The Broadway Lounge it’s a long, narrow space with a small stage at one end. They do a lot of stand-up comedy there, and on the surface this felt like one of those nights. But Fintan Shevlin gave us a lot more than just laughs – though God knows there were enough of those.
Actually, God came into the show quite early on. ‘Bomb Sex’ is a series of short sketches featuring eight individual characters, all involved in some way with the effects of the IRA campaign. First up was a teacher, probably a priest himself, in a Catholic school. His pupils are quite young, and he’s trying to teach about human reproduction. Shevlin broadened his Northern Irish accent as he addressed the class – “Everything is based on love – and who loves us the most? God. So let’s invite God into the classroom today, to help explain our bodies”
“When you’ll have a husband, you will do something called ‘love making’. That basically consists of making your husband happy. You will hug a lot – sometimes you’ll hug for a long time, and sometimes you’ll hug for a short time … ” ( a ripple of laughter – mostly from the women in the audience …) “And that’s where babies come from”. At the start of the lesson, he’d been asked by a young girl about the meaning of ‘fellatio’. (If you want the punch line to that one you’ll have to see the show!)
The contortions of language that religion leads us into!. Physical contortions, too, as Shevlin twists his arms and his face into a tangle of embarrassment. He’s tall and thin, and as well as his body language, the performer skilfully changes his voice to give us all the people in a scene. He moves from the measured clarity of the teacher’s delivery reaching to the back of the classroom; to the little girl who’s one of his pupils; and on to the breathless high pitched speech of a young lad telling us of his obsession with Duran Duran. He can do the slow speech of a rural Irish farmer who’d been part of the Civil Rights movement years before, as well as a third-generation Irish immigrant woman who lives in Liverpool and who worships Margaret Thatcher.
Shevlin can do English people as well. Almost the only prop he uses is the yellow and black striped jacket he wears as a Stock Exchange floor-trader. Now it’s a Cockney accent he gives us – these guys used to be known as ‘barrow boys’ (like the traditional street traders) for their lack of polish and education. But they could do the maths, and after ‘Big Bang’ his kind made shed-loads of money. Spent it, too – tells his wife that he works hard and needs to relax. His main concern with the IRA is that a bomb scare made him late for a sexual encounter at a ‘Gentleman’s Establishment’. When he finally gets there, turns out that dominatrix Kate is from County Cork – “That’s the only time I’ve ever let a Paddy walk over me …”
Back in Northern Ireland Shevlin gives us both sides of the military campaign. A launderette owner on the Shankill Road is given a bag of bloodied uniforms to wash – they’re for ‘The Boys … Our Boys’. The Loyalist UVF. She’s stimulated by the balaclavas, by not being able to see their faces. “I do love a man in uniform – even if he’s a terrorist”
There’s a British squaddie from Liverpool. His mum worries about him – “Them Irish have a lot to answer for, putting our young men in dangerous situations”. When he gets to Belfast he just wants to get his leg over, which he does. But she’s a Catholic girl, and her community doesn’t approve. On patrol the next weekend he sees her tied to a lamp post. “Sleeping with soldiers, it’s not the clap you need to be worried about, it’s the tar and feathering”.
For this reviewer, who lived through those times, Shevlin has really captured the madness and absurdity of Britain’s relationship with Ireland in the nineteen eighties – when fundamentalism clashed head-on with imperialism, and people talked past each other without any understanding. .
‘Protean’ is probably the best word for Fintan Shevlin’s performance. He constantly changes appearance as the stories demand, slipping seamlessly from character to character by vocal changes, as I’ve mentioned, but also by way he holds his body or moves his arms or hands. Sometimes it’s as subtle as the raising of an eyebrow or the pursing of a lip. The night I was there, the audience gave him a standing ovation at the end. We felt we’d been in the presence of something very special.
So many characters. So many stories. (I won’t even mention the TV encounter between Margaret Thatcher and Gerry Adams, both with their voices dubbed – as Gerry Adams was throughout the Eighties, to deny him ‘the oxygen of publicity.). All of them concerned in some way to the IRA campaign, and most of them linked to each other. There’s a death in the last scene, whose victim we’d met in an earlier segment. When I realised just who it was, and I could connect it to what had gone on before, the inevitability – or maybe just the bad luck of it as the universe fucks us up – left me close to tears.
I haven’t been inside the head of a madman before.
I’ve seen Squall + Frenzy’s production of ‘Ubu Roi’, and been blown away by the grossness and the mayhem – but that was happening at some distance in front of me, safely separated by the division between audience and stage.
‘Woyzeck’ was right up close. No – even closer than that … I was there!
The Dukebox space isn’t very big, and Squall + Frenzy have chosen to do ‘Woyzeck’ in the round, with a small acting space in the middle and audience on all four sides, just about six seats wide. So we were very close.
Close enough to touch them. Or be touched. When the drunken Drum Major insisted – “Drink up! Everybody has to drink!”, he leaned right across the front row to point his finger just inches from the face of the person sitting behind me. “I’ll rip the tongue from your throat and strangle you with it, you bastard!”. I could see every tiny hair of the badly shaven stubble on his chin.
He swaggered across the space towards Marie – he’s a powerful, cocksure nineteenth century soldier, clad in a blue military coat with two rows of silver buttons, his long hair tied back in a ponytail. “I’m a man!” Then he grabbed her round the waist and pulled her to him – “And you’re a woman, Marie. I’m going to fill your belly full of Drum Majors!”
Ah, Marie. She’s Woyzeck’s woman, and they have a baby. But as they aren’t married it hasn’t been blessed by The Church, and when we first see her she’s singing softly to the infant, finishing with – “You’re only the child of a whore”. When Woyzeck comes in he’s dishevelled – his vest soiled and lanky hair matted all around his face, his words disjointed. “There was something there again, Marie. A lot of things. Isn’t it written? – And Behold There Came Forth Smoke From The Land, Like The Smoke From An Oven. It followed me all the way to town. What does it mean? …”
Marie loves Woyzeck deeply – but he’s very disturbed and she’s finding solace in the attentions of the Drum Major.
Robert Wallis, playing Woyzeck, is actually the same one who plays the Drum Major. It’s a small cast and they’ve doubled up some roles. This hugely talented actor gives us two completely different characters. It isn’t just the changing to the ponytail and the blue coat; Wallis alters his entire posture and way of moving, and the contrast – within the one body – may help to point up Woyzeck’s disintegrating mental state better than employing two different people would have done.
And while the two characters are very clearly defined, what it did for me was increase the overall sense of unreality of the piece. We were in close proximity to them, as I’ve said, and as the characters made their entrances or exits, perspective made them seem huge as they loomed above us when they passed our seats. It produced an odd sense of twisted reality, of things seen in a dream or an hallucination.
Georg Büchner wrote ‘Woyzeck’ in 1836 – which explains the flamboyance of the Drum Major’s uniform – and it’s based on the true story of a working-class recruit doing his military service in a small German town. As a poor man, with a small family to support, he earns extra money by acting as a kind of batman to The Captain, and also by taking part in medical experiments for the unit’s Doctor.
The Military have always regarded common soldiers as expendable, or as suitable subjects for arcane research. Think of the trials by the US Army, administering LSD to combat troops in the 1960s to assess its effects. Here, The Doctor wants to see what happens if someone eats only peas. Literally. Only. Peas.
Rather unsurprisingly (but The Doctor would of course say that we wouldn’t have known without the experiment …) the diet is sending Woyzeck off his head. Apocalyptic visions. Biblical manifestations. And his own personal Avatar.
This is the other doubling up of cast that the production employs. Isaac Finch is The Captain, a powerfully built man, sure of himself as an officer, confident in his social position and his wealth – this early in the nineteenth century his family would have had to have purchased his commission. He regards morality as a function of money and class, and constantly denigrates the poverty-stricken Woyzeck.
As The Captain, he’s dressed in a military shirt, but then he dons a heavy leather coat offstage and reappears as Woyzeck’s vision – a weird mixture of Archangel and circus Showman, speaking to him like an Old Testament prophet – “Brethren! Think about the wanderer who stands beside the stream of time; the seething, the wisdom, of God!” With a Christian name of Isaac, Finch must be the perfect actor for this role …
They all exploit Woyzeck, each using him in their own way. The Captain uses him to emphasise the gulf in wealth and sophistication between them. The Doctor uses him as a subject for his bizarre medical research, and his mental state as an illustration for his lectures. The Drum Major just uses his woman.
Finally, all these pressures are too much for Woyzeck, and it ends in tragedy.
Chris Gates adapted and directed this production, with a cast that includes Verity Williams as Marie and Cyril Cottrell as The Doctor. Gates played a number of roles in ‘Ubu Roi’ when Squall + Frenzy recently staged Alfred Jarry’s masterpiece. Now, with ‘Woyzeck’, the company are gaining a reputation for giving us important European theatre works that are rarely seen in this country. A wonderful addition to Brighton Fringe.
But don’t go and see ‘Woyzeck’ because it’s ‘Important’. Go and see it because you want a unique insight into how human beings treat one another – the workings of a social or military power structure. And go and see it for a giddying trip inside someone else’s head.
Behind Our Skin
I wonder if the Bertreau sisters know the Cockney slang – ‘Skin and Blister’ ?
It rhymes with ‘sister’, of course, which is what Anne and Sophie are – and like most rhyming slang it’s used as a kind of code, a special language that ‘We’ understand but that ‘They’ don’t. Language that keeps us with our own identity, one that outsiders can’t penetrate easily.
Identity is so often based around language, but it’s based around culture too – and the colour of someone’s skin. Behind our skin we are all human beings, but at the surface level – of skin pigmentation or of the words that we use – we erect barriers that can be very hard to break through.
On their show’s flyer, Anne and Sophie Bertreau look almost identical. Like twins – hair cut the same, bright red lipstick and wearing very similar white lace dresses. Immaculate. So it was a surprise to see them on the small stage at Sweet Werks as two separate women, unrelated – Julie and Camille. Anne Bertreau plays Camille with a softer, more hesitant voice than Sophie’s very outgoing portrayal of Julie. Anne’s English is more accented too, so there was occasionally slight difficulty in making out some of her phrases.
Julie had her hair curled, she was dressed in jeans and a Mickey Mouse T shirt. She told us that she works at Disneyland Paris. It’s a fairly new job for her, and she gave hints of previous jobs that didn’t end well, and of problems managing her anger, but now she seems more settled. She’s arrived, she’s at Disneyland – ‘a dream world, the happiest place on Earth …”
On the other side of the stage was Camille. Her hair was left straight, and she wore a dress and a jacket. She was fiddling with a tape measure while Julie was telling us about herself, and when Camille started talking in her turn we learned that she’s pregnant, measuring up a room of her flat which will be the baby’s room when the child is born. Camille is from Nice – her husband Pierre is still there, but she’s come on ahead to London to get settled. So she’s an immigrant, an outsider, finding the language very difficult. Camille certainly wouldn’t know what someone meant by ‘skin and blister’.
Julie’s French too, working in Paris, so she’s not ‘an outsider’ as such, but the Disneyland job isn’t easy and it takes time to learn the ropes. At the beginning she’d been given a lot of support by Nayssam, who’s been there a while. Nayssam’s from Morocco, so she’s a real outsider. Not by language – she’s a French speaker like most educated North Africans, a legacy of French imperialism – but by her nationality, her culture, her religion, and by the colour of her skin.
Identity. Immigration. Assimilation. Belonging.
‘Behind Our Skin’ examines these interlocking themes through Julie and Camille’s parallel lives. The women don’t move around the stage very much, they simply stand and relate the events., but it was very engaging and we quickly got involved in their stories. It’s a beautifully written piece; the narratives overlapping at times, so that when Julie tells us that her job at Disneyland, smiling at everyone – “makes you the reason for the visitors’ happiness.”; we cut instantly to Camille, struggling with her English in London shops. She wants to smile, but – “it’s an act. I’m so unhappy.”
But – like most immigrants – they adapt to their new surroundings. Camille suffers from a sense of isolation initially, but she gradually makes friends with her neighbours.
Easier for some than others. As Julie tells us – Nayssam suffers from the ingrained racist attitudes of her French colleagues and of her manager. She’s suspected of a theft at work, questioned far more closely than her colleagues – “It’s not the first time I’ve been accused”. Nayseem must have come to France as a student – “the country of The Enlightenment. I discovered French philosophers and the world opened up”. But now – “I’ve given up on this country!”. At one point she rips down and pockets a card advertising a room to let – “With my name – I don’t have a chance to get this room unless I’m the only one applying”.
Watching this production, especially now, in the wake of the ‘Windrush’ scandal, made me think of our own British racist attitudes – and of the ‘No blacks. No Irish’ signs that adorned boarding houses in this country, not so long ago. At the end, Julie introduces Nayssam to her parents. “Mum, Dad. This is Nayssam.” A pause, while the older people don’t look directly at the Moroccan woman – “My friend.”
If theatre has any meaningful cultural function, it must be to point up moral and social problems and to make us aware of the possibilities that exist for our response. Immigration is an issue tearing our country apart at present, and I’m really pleased that Sweet Venues are hosting a European company like Yosis Theatre to take part in a festival like Brighton Fringe – and that a number of other foreign companies’ productions are here too, engaging with the same important themes.
‘Behind Our Skin’ could feel over-contrived, but the writers manage to keep the lessons believable – just. The final scenes take place on Bastille Day, 2016. The fourteenth of July.
In London, new mother Camille is in hospital with her husband, who’s recently arrived from Nice. In Paris, during the celebration fireworks, Julie and Nayssam are violently attacked by racist thugs, incensed by the Muslim woman’s headscarf. Shouting at her that all muslims are killers and that she should go home. Meanwhile, in Nice, Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel drives a 19 tonne truck into crowds of revellers on the Promenade des Anglais, killing 86 of them and injuring hundreds more.
How do we begin to deal with stuff like this? We can be hopeful. We can look at the bigger picture. We can thank the mysteries of fate – if Pierre hadn’t been with his wife, he’d have been out on the Promenade in Nice. Or we can work at it – we can stand together with Julie and say to people – “This is Nayssam. My friend.”
Jason is a shit.
This is the Jason of ‘Jason and the Argonauts’, the Greek hero who took the Golden Fleece, overcoming terrible dangers – fire-breathing oxen and armed warriors grown out of a dragon’s teeth. A proper Classical Hero.
What’s less known is that Jason had been seen as a threat by his uncle King Pelias, so he sent him off to look for the Fleece on what was effectively a suicide mission. It was the possession of the King of Colchis, a kingdom at the eastern end of the Black Sea, and Jason only achieved success by seducing the king’s daughter Medea, a sorceress as well as a princess, who gave him the magic potions and spells to enable him to succeed. So Medea betrayed her father, and then to aid their escape she murdered her brother too. When they got home they tricked his own children into carrying out the killing of Pelias – seems he was right to have been wary of Jason.
Nice couple. Along the way they had two children of their own, but since then they’ve settled in Corinth, and now Jason intends to dump Medea and marry the daughter of Creon, the Corinthian king. Medea feels completely abused and abandoned, and she plots revenge …
Euripides’ play concentrates on Medea’s feelings of betrayal. It’s all about their relationship, and how she’s driven by such extreme anger that she kills not just Creon and his daughter but even her own two children – such is her desire to destroy everything that Jason holds dear. In this production, though, Wretched Strangers have given us Jean Anouilh’s take on the story, written in 1946. In Anouilh’s version, it’s much more about Jason wanting to regain his royal status in his homeland of Greece, and where Medea is seen as ‘Other’ – as a ‘barbarian’ from a land far away.
Wretched Strangers was started in 2017, as a European theatre company which aims to give a voice to foreigners living in the UK. The actors, along with the show’s director Paloma Jacob-Duvernet, trained at the London School of Dramatic Art.
For a European theatre company to be taking on this ‘Medea’ seems very appropriate. Today’s Europe is fixated on the problems of immigrants and refugees – of people from ‘there’ coming to settle ‘here’. Ignorance, fear and anger are everywhere, and this play confronts this right from the start.
Medea and her children are living in a caravan just outside Corinth, while Jason is ensconced comfortably within the city. Once it is announced that his marriage is to be the next day, King Creon arrives to tell Medea that she must leave the country. Massimo Guasti is tall and bearded, and in his smart blue suit he looked every inch a ruler. “I have put up with your caravan in this place, but now you must go”.
“Now you must go.” – the never-ending demand of the settled to the itinerant. And a caravan is so insubstantial, so temporary – like a tent, so symbolic of the refugee and the marginalised. Travellers. Gypsies. Tinkers.
“What have I done to your people?” Camille Wilhelm as Medea , tall also, all in black with dark hair, has a powerful voice and here it’s angry and indignant – “Have I looted their farms? Have I poisoned their wells?”. “Not yet”, Creon replies, “but all these you may do one day”.
The fear of violence from ‘The Others’. It’s what we’re hearing all across Europe, from Hastings to Hungary. When Medea tries to remind Creon that Jason is equally complicit in their crimes and murders, the King retorts that – “Jason is one of us. The son of one of our kings. His youth may have been wild but now he does as we do”.
One of us. How often have we heard that phrase in recent years? Unlike how he sees Medea – “You alone came from afar. You alone are a stranger, with your hatred and your witchcraft. Go back to your Caucasus, and leave us here in this rational land”.
It’s interesting that the ‘rational’ Greeks regarded anyone from outside the Greek world, who therefore didn’t speak Greek, as speaking a kind of ‘Ba Ba’ babble – in short, a barbarian, obviously inferior.
Jason says very much the same when he arrives – Piotr Mirowski in pale trousers and waistcoat, and a dress shirt, obviously come from the wedding celebrations in the city. He just wants to settle comfortably back with his own people. Medea is very sexual, but she’s also very dangerous. He’s looking forward to a quieter life with the princess Glauce – “She’s new, she’s simple, she’s pure. I expect humility”. He wants to put Medea firmly behind him. If only.
The play proceeds – inevitably – to its shattering conclusion, with all the main protagonists dead and Jason deranged by the loss of everything he held dear. The only actors left are Medea’s Nurse (Carole Le Clanche) and the Messenger (François Carpentier). These had been minor roles in the main action, but at the end Anouilh gives us a short scene reminiscent of Shakespeare’s ‘rude mechanicals’. The aristocrats are all dead, but life goes on.
Medea’s caravan, with its bodies, is still smouldering in the background, but the Nurse is philosophical – “After the night, the morning comes, and there’s coffee to make. It will be a beautiful day”. The Messenger (I wondered if they would get together) replies – “It will be a good year. There will be sun, and wine and the harvest. There will be bread for everyone this year”.
The stage at The Purple Playhouse is not very big, so there wasn’t much room for movement, which gave a certain amount of stiffness to the production. Also, as a company of actors whose first language is not English, some lines were not as clear as they could have been. But the intensity and enthusiasm with which they took on Anouilh’s text overcame all of this, and the end result was a thrilling performance.
A European theatre company, performing a French play about Greek attitudes to ‘outsiders’, at a time when refugees and immigrants are of increasing concern (both positive and negative) all over the continent. It seems to me that this sort of event is exactly what Brighton Fringe should be doing. I am so pleased that they are. Remember that Jean Anouilh wrote ‘Medea’ in 1946, just after World War Two, when the whole continent was flooded with millions of refugees and ‘displaced persons’.
I’m remembering Massimo Guasti’s Creon, voice booming as he denounced Medea as a barbarian; and Carole Le Clanche’s Nurse, sitting with her Tarot cards while feeding Medea her sly observations. But in truth it was Camille Wilhelm who lifted this production into something really special. Her English is flawless, which certainly helped, but it was the sheer power with which she embodied the anger and rage of Medea that I won’t forget. “I am Medea”, she declaimed on a number of occasions – “A princess and a sorceress”. I was not inclined to disbelieve her.
The Polished Scar
By my count, there were at least twenty-five characters crossing the Rialto stage for ‘The Polished Scar’ – it’s a busy show with lots of short scenes, telling the life story of a senior politician.
That’s a lot of interactions and dialogue – yet there was only a single actor on the stage the whole time, as Duncan Henderson performed solo in one of the most remarkable theatrical productions I’ve seen in years.
Duncan Henderson is a truly protean actor. In the flesh he looks to be in his early forties, with a rather angular face, ever so slightly craggy. But a few years ago when he grew a beard to perform as The Librarian in ‘Underneath the Lintel’ – a one-man show, like this one – he managed to look at least twenty years older.
In this production Henderson’s face seems somehow rounder and smoother. Unlined. He smiles a lot – the innocent happiness of a small child and then later on the well-fed smugness of a member of the Establishment, a successful politician in one of the main political parties.
Remarkable. Just a chair in the centre of the stage, with a table off to one side. As the lights come up he’s on his feet – dark suit, white shirt, striped tie – making a speech in what soon becomes clear is the House of Commons. We quickly understand this from the context of his words – he’s a government Minister, putting down “The Honourable Lady” from the party “on the far side of The House”. He’s vigorously defending the actions of his Department, and concludes his speech with – “Nobody likes to be treated as a child”. As he sits down he slumps backwards – the chair is obviously a green Parliamentary front bench – and turns to wink at the colleague to his right. Speech made. Opposition trounced. Job done.
This is minimalism of the highest level. Apart from a sound effect of The Speaker demanding – “Order … Order … Order” to start the scene off, there’s nothing else. No scenery, no props. Just Henderson’s parliamentary phrasing, his powerfully raised voice obviously addressing a large number of MPs, his body language as he leans slightly forward to emphasise a point, and finally that private little wink as he sits down. We are given sufficient cues that we can see his front bench colleagues, and the dark Rialto auditorium becomes a cavernous Parliamentary chamber, stretching out around us. In my mind’s eye I could see the Minister on his right mouthing – “Well done!”.
Minimalism. Unlike film or TV, which employ all sorts of technical wizardry to make viewers believe they are actually there; theatre treats its audiences more as adults – you suspend disbelief and we’ll tell you a story. Given the right context, a single chair can become a Parliamentary front bench, then later on it can become something else, as long as you choose to see it and believe it.
“Nobody likes to be treated like a child”. The lights darken and he puts the chair to one side, and as they come back to brightness Henderson is playing with something small in front of him, miming picking it up and examining it. Then he turns, with a rather goofy smile, to show it to someone. They must be very tall, as he’s gazing up towards the roof. When he speaks, it’s with a rather hesitant, softer-pitched voice, and there’s a giddying lurch of perspective as we realise that they aren’t tall – it’s just that he’s very small.
A sudden realisation – he’s a child. Two of the twenty-five other characters I mentioned before are there too. We quickly learn that they are his parents – and that they are about to send him off to boarding school – from the context of their conversation with the child. Or rather, from his side of the conversation. This show isn’t just about minimising on props, all the dialogue is cut back to just Henderson’s half of it.
Nobody likes to be treated as a child. As an audience we are made to work very hard during this production – we have to visualise the scene and the props, and we also have to piece together the other half of each of Henderson’s conversations. It’s a remarkably engaging experience. As a seven-year-old newly arrived at school he’s trying to telephone home. He’s little, so he has to stretch up high to put the coins into the callbox, and we hear his side of the call, and when the money runs out we hear the beeps going as he drops his remaining coins on the floor and has to scrabble around for them before the line goes dead on him. So much more effective – more involving – than if there had been an enormous public telephone mounted somewhere on the stage.
So that’s how it’s done – though it takes an artist of the calibre of Duncan Henderson to do it as convincingly as this production manages to. I use the word ‘artist’ deliberately, because Henderson also wrote this show – it’s his complete creation. And having engaged us, what story does he want to tell?
As I mentioned at the start, it’s about the British Establishment. It’s the arc of the life-story of the upper classes and their progression through Public School, then Oxbridge, and on to a career in Politics, the upper reaches of the Civil Service or as a Captain of Industry. That they would be white and male should go without saying. It’s about learning to hide any weakness you might have, burying it deep and always being a successful ‘member of the team’ – ‘one of the boys’.
So our small child goes off to Public School where he’s is bullied and humiliated. Survives, to bully and humiliate others in his turn. Meets the contacts who will ease his passage to Oxford, (disproportionately attended by the privately educated) where other privileged students will assist his Chairmanship of the Oxford Union, and provide the contacts that will secure him a job with a political Party. Probably as an intern research assistant to start (no need to worry about earning money) and then on to become an MP in a safe seat. Then a party Whip. (there’s a wonderful scene where he’s getting an MP to confess to some sexual misconduct). If he can outwit enough people (or stab them in the back) he might even become a Minister.
Gilbert and Sullivan understood about team players. I’m reminded of the lines from ‘HMS Pinafore’ –
“I always voted at my Party’s call / And I never thought of thinking for myself at all / I thought so little they rewarded me / By making me the Ruler of the Queen’s Navy”
So predictable. So common. So British. In time he’ll marry and have a small son of his own. The cycle starts to repeat itself and we see him sending his seven-year-old son off to school, and then later taking the telephone call. This time, of course, Henderson is looking down rather than up – he’s the adult now, and we’re hearing his side of the conversation, the half we had to imagine earlier.
Sometimes, of course, things don’t turn out as we plan. All through life, sometimes there are tragedies. When that happens it’s all about keeping up appearances. Hiding the hurt, burying it deep. Keeping the scars well polished.
Maybe the best way to approach Myra Hindley is as theatre.
Myra is a true twentieth century icon – ‘Evil’ personified. The newspaper photograph of her stern face and blonde hair is seared into the British psyche, so much so that when Marcus Harvey’s large painted reproduction (built up out of children’s handprints) was exhibited at the 1997 ‘Sensation’ exhibition there were angry protests and the artwork itself was damaged. That photograph makes Myra look like an SS concentration camp guard, and indeed Myra and Ian Brady had developed a taste for Nazi atrocities and torture, reading ‘Mein Kampf’ and the Marquis de Sade, while Myra bleached her hair to look more ‘Aryan’.
But this is also the devoutly Catholic woman Lord Longford found to be ‘a delightful person’, and who formed deep romantic and sexual attachments to several fellow prisoners, and prison officers, during her incarceration. In 1979 she wrote a 30,000 word ‘confession’ as part of an attempt to get parole from her life sentence, only to dismiss it nine years later as ‘a pack of lies’. A fellow prisoner described her as ‘a chameleon figure who could be whatever people wanted her to be’ . . .
It seems to me that we must always regard Myra Hindley as an actress.
As we entered the theatre the stage was completely bare apart from two black cubes, each big enough for Myra to sit on. All in black, with her platinum-blonde hair cut rather shorter than Hindley’s photo, hands in her lap and looking down at her feet. Then the lights came up and she started to tell us about herself. Lauren Varnfield has played icons before. A few years ago on this same Rialto stage she gave us a drug-ravaged Marilyn Monroe, trapped with Arthur Miller in their disintegrating marriage in ‘Reno’. Another blonde; that one was an actress – was this one an actress too?
Varnfield wrote this piece as well as playing the character, and most of it is in Myra’s own words, so we must assume that she drew on the long confession which Hindley wrote in prison. She talked about the killings of the five children, but always with herself in a minor role – enticing the target into the van, then sitting waiting while Ian Brady took them off to kill them.
Varnfield is slimmer than Hindley looks in photographs, but she put on a light though convincing Mancunian accent to become a very believable Myra. Never still for long – restlessly moving around the stage, sometimes staring intently at the audience to convince us of some fact, then looking down or away as she was forced to remember a more painful event. A monologue, but broken up into short phrases with pauses between as she seemed to search for the right words – or maybe navigating rounds bits of memory that couldn’t be faced full-on. Sometimes her voice became very quiet and she seemed terribly vulnerable. She told us that she was just eighteen when she met Brady and they had sex, although it seems that it was more like a rape – “That was my first time”. As Brady left, he’d turned to her and said “You’re mine now, Myra, and you’re going to do exactly as I say. Do you understand?”
She fell completely under Brady’s spell. “Pleasing Ian Brady was what I lived for”. “When you make someone happy, nothing else matters, because I feel like I’m the only person that could do it”. These are the classic symptoms of low self-esteem, intensified in Myra’s case because Brady was a very violent man, to her as well as to others. But she found it intoxicating – “You really know you’re living, when you live in fear. It makes you awake, alert, alive”. The low self-esteem that keeps so many women tied in abusive relationships – and that leads to the deaths of many at the hands of their partners. At one point she listed the victims – “Pauline, John, Keith, Lesley-Ann, Edward”. After a short pause she added … “Myra”.
What’s clear is that Myra was pliable enough to fall in with whatever Brady wanted, while having someone accept his behaviour unconditionally encouraged the already brutal man to develop his passions even further. A vicious circle of reinforcement. By the time she was twenty-three, the couple were prepared to kill people.
I wanted to know more about her early life. Lots of women are in abusive relationships but very few of them become killers. What made her disposed to murder? It seems that her father was a ‘hard man’, an ex-soldier who toughened her towards violence. Hindley doesn’t mention any of this, though, and Varnfield doesn’t speculate, or indeed give us much information at all except that Myra was brought up by her grandmother and didn’t see much of her mother.
But – almost all the production’s lines are taken from Myra’s own words, so can we trust them to be true? This is the woman who claims she simply ‘waited’ while Ian Brady did the murders, yet she’s heard on tape helping with the torture of Lesley-Ann Downey. She’s been accused of being a very manipulative person and I think we have to accept that.
The power of this play is that Varnfield gives us Myra exactly as if it was the woman herself, justifying her actions. Towards the end she tells us that she’s found God – “Nobody on this Earth will forgive me … God will”. If Myra is deceiving us, then that’s what Varnfield’s giving us – Myra giving a performance. Like most of us, I was raised on the iconic black and white photograph of Myra Hindley, it was uncanny to see the woman there in the flesh, in front of us.
For this reviewer, that gives a whole extra layer to this production. Lauren Varnfield creates Myra on stage – very believably – but the Myra she brings to life is probably a false Myra, a lie constructed by Myra herself to absolve the real Myra from her guilt. Myra needed us to be convinced of her (relative) innocence – she probably needed to believe it herself, too. It’s gripping theatre. Gripping enough that a friend and I spent over an hour intensely discussing what we’d just seen. We weren’t the only ones.
So, do you want to see a very talented actor playing an iconic figure? – Go and see ‘Myra’.
Will you learn anything about what made the real Myra tick? – That’s something that only Myra herself could have told us – if she had chosen to.