Reviews 2020

The following reviews are listed in order,  just scroll down to find them –

Di and Viv and Rose  /  Rebel Boob  /  Waiting for Hamlet

 

Waiting for Hamlet

 

” Alas, poor Yorick! ”

” I knew him, Horatio: a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy. . . . Where be your gibes now? your gambols? your songs? your flashes of merriment, that were wont to set the table on a roar? ”

Where indeed? When Hamlet contemplates Yorick’s skull in Act V of ‘Hamlet’, it’s been twenty-three years since his father’s old jester died, and now his bones lie in the earth of the Palace graveyard. The bones are there, but what about the gibes, the flashes of merriment that were the essence of Yorick? – what’s become of them?

Turns out that Yorick’s essence, his soul if you prefer, is stuck in limbo – unable to move on; either towards Heaven or Hell. He’s been there for more than two decades, but recently he’s had a companion: King Hamlet, Prince Hamlet’s murdered father.

King Hamlet’s corpse is slowly decomposing in his tomb, but his essence is trapped -somewhere between this world and the next – along with Yorick’s, and that’s where we find them at the beginning of ‘Waiting for Hamlet’.

And what a pair they are. Separated by rank in life, they’ve become equal in death, and they’re perfect foils for each other. King Hamlet understands that he’s dead – although he can’t bring himself to utter the actual word – but he’s desperate to go back to the world of the living, to influence events and bolster his legacy. Yorick understands that they have no power any more, that events are out of their control and they simply have to … wait.

The king is outraged by this: “Kings don’t wait!” – to which Yorick retorts: “Dead kings wait.” Yorick was the King’s Fool, but he’s used to speaking truth to power.

So they wait. The writing has a lot in common with ‘Waiting for Godot’, with two old men arguing about the point of their existence while they wait impotently for something to happen.

Apart from ‘Godot’, to which of course there’s a nod in the piece’s title, ‘Waiting for Hamlet’ reminds us of ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’, which also views ‘Hamlet’ from offstage, as it were. It’s a real hommage to Shakespeare’s writing, by a writer who obviously has a deep love for the play and has managed to give it a whole new dimension.

Talking of ‘dimensions’, there are loads of gags and puns in the piece. At one point, Yorick is trying to explain to the King that they’re – “nowhere: no Where; and out of time: no When.”

Hamlet is confused – “Explain that”

Yorick tries to elucidate – “There’s no Time.”

and we get the King’s response – “Briefly, then!”

Another – Hamlet is boasting that his job as King is “To put wrongs to right” – to which Yorick ripostes “You’ve tried to right the wrong wrongs.” Clever, sparkling writing all the way through – though to this reviewer’s ear one or two of the puns were rather painful.

Perhaps the great strength of the play is how it points up the differences between the two men – the King: pompous, completely self-centred, secure in his sense of inherited entitlement and privilege even after death – and the Fool: come up from poverty with nothing but his own talent to make his way. Hamlet is dismissive – “You made a Fool of yourself.” to which Yorick responds – “I made a living.” Hearing the two, I couldn’t help thinking of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.

David Visick’s writing is panoptic – it manages to encompass universal themes like the nature of power and privilege, of hierarchy and of how states are governed, not to mention existence itself; while simultaneously commenting on the specifics of Shakespeare’s play: about Claudius and Gertrude and their probable ongoing sexual relationship that led up to Hamlet’s murder. It’s obviously a piece (like ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’) primarily aimed at people who are familiar with ‘Hamlet’, but ‘Waiting for Hamlet’ could be enjoyed on its own, as it’s complete in itself. Hearing the play as an audio track online might in some ways be a richer experience than seeing it performed on stage – less visual distraction from the great writing.

The play’s ending really broke through the ‘fourth wall’ of drama (can you have a ‘fourth wall’ with just audio?), but you’ll have to listen to the production for yourselves to experience the frisson of recognition of Shakespeare’s lines that this reviewer did.  Tim Marriott as Hamlet and Nicholas Collett as Yorick are wonderfully cast.  Their voices on the audio recording allow us to visualise them in the flesh. Hamlet slightly younger, probably taller, higher pitched and breathless with impatience and status – “It’s a King thing!” is his rationale for any of his actions. Collett made Yorick sound older, wiser and much more resigned to his place in the Universe.

A final thought – we listen to this production of ‘Waiting for Hamlet’ because we can’t go and see it performed; we’re in lockdown and all we can do is sit and wait. Just like the Fool and the King in their ‘no-where, no-when’ existence.   And the men who both wear crowns (Yorick used to wear a joke one to amuse the King) would appreciate the irony that we’re kept captive by a Coronavirus – so named because its structure resembles the points on a … crown.

*

 

Rebel Boob

 

A cancer specialist once said that all cancers start from ‘one rogue cell’. One cell alone, of all the billions we are made of, begins to reproduce uncontrollably, departing from its normal bodily function and multiplying furiously to develop cancerous tissues that could eventually kill the body’s owner.

It’s that sense of ‘going rogue’ that’s the theme of ‘Rebel Boob’ – the idea that a woman’s breasts, evolved to provide nourishment for her offspring, along with sexual pleasure; can turn against her, and end up destroying her life instead of enhancing it.

All the audience members – the men as well as the women – watching ‘Rebel Boob’ know what breast cancer is; some may have developed it, or fear developing it in the future; others may have watched their friends or their partners suffer from it. But in the end; the personal, lived, experience is different for everyone, and everyone has their own way of dealing with it.

Angela El-Zeind was diagnosed with breast cancer a few years ago. After her treatment and recovery, Angela’s way of coming to terms with the experience was to try to show the rest of us, female and male, what it’s like to be in that situation. Not just her own feelings, of course, that would be too narrow; El-Zeind interviewed a number of women who’d suffered the disease, and gave their words and stories to a small group of actors to perform verbatim.

Just five women, seated on a set of black boxes ranged across the stage before coming forward one by one into the light to give us a taste of someone’s experience, and then returning to sit with her sisters. A large screen behind them showed visuals – moving patterns mostly, completely abstract but powerfully evocative of biological forms, cells perhaps, moving and multiplying. There was sound too: music, but also short clips of women being interviewed, and sometimes the hollow sound of what felt like voices from the women’s own memories – or nightmares.

Doctor’s voice – “Those are cancer cells …”

Five women, giving us the experience of many. It always seems to start the same way – unexpected. “I was forty three, there was no history of breast cancer in my family. I was taking a shower, just doing the usual routine, and I found a lump on my right breast” . . . “He pulled out the needle and said ‘We’re going to need to see you again’. I burst into tears at that point. and thought ‘Oh Fuck. That’s not what I wanted. Oh fuck’.”

We’ve all heard or read about the initial shock of a cancer diagnosis, but Andrea Kelly’s performance gave us an unforgettable sense of the reality of it – the floor falling away beneath her feet, a sudden realisation that life isn’t going to be the same any more. Chess Dillon-Reams portrayed it well – “The doctor, a woman doctor, called me in the room, and without any kindness or anything just said. ‘You have cancer’. You know how they describe in books that the room starts spinning? At that point, that’s how I felt. I suddenly saw the room spinning. And I couldn’t hear the voice. That’s exactly what happened to me. She was talking to me and I remember I lay my head on the wall. And I was catching one word every 10 words or every 20 words.” Later, we got anger. “I was so angry. So angry. That this was happening, and not in a ‘Why Me?’ way. Just in a ‘Fuck You Universe!’ What the fuck do you think you’re doing to me and my children? “

Anger is a powerful way of dealing with trauma, but Angela El-Zeid gave us another woman’s way of coping. “After I was diagnosed with a faulty gene, my mother got tested too. I think she feels really guilty for passing the gene on to me. I tell her that she passed on a lot of other good genes too.”

Supporting her mother, but also supporting herself; refusing to be defined simply by her disease. Because most women don’t embark on this journey in isolation, they have family around them. Aurea Williamson portrayed a woman whose husband – “was so

incredibly strong. I think it can go one way or the other, he really stepped up to the mark and he learnt not to try and fix things and when I was having my three weekly sobs he’d just be there, I’d just need someone to listen and not to say anything, you know, to hear me, just so I could feel heard and understood.”

But Chess Dillon-Reams showed us that it can be the other way. ” My partner doesn’t want to touch my scar, where my nipple used to be. Or look at me naked. He looks away when I undress. I’ve thought about getting a tattoo, to, you know, make it look a bit better.”

Along with the physical effects of the illness and the treatment, there are also the psychological repercussions. “I’ve got hideous amounts of guilt, just hideous amounts. Guilt that I was a burden, guilt that your loved ones have to watch you get sick, guilt that

you think you’re going to die, or the guilt that you are going to die and your parents have to watch you go through that…” As Hermione Purvis spoke these lines she slumped her body sideways, as if weighed down by the immensity of it all, but Chess Dillon-Reams was there to catch her, support her, and lower her gently to a comfortable position lying on the floor. Dillon-Reams is a very accomplished dancer as well as an actor, and the elegant fluidity of her movements (beautifully choreographed by Katie Dale-Everett) added an extra background dimension of emotion to a number of the women’s monologues.

If there’s an underlying theme to ‘Rebel Boob’ – it’s that there is no single response to breast cancer. Everyone travels her own journey. Near the end, Angela El-Zeid gave us one woman’s experience (her own?) – she’d lost her hair as a result of the chemotherapy, but decided to leave her scarf behind and go out bald. “As I walked on the beach, a woman on a bicycle passed me by. She looked directly at me and raised her fist in the

gesture of solidaritysometimes all it takes is that complete stranger who once stood where you are now, to give you the strength to hope.” Angela raised her own fist as she continued “I pledge allegiance to you, my bosom buddies; my bald eagle cronies; my breast friends; my flat sisters; my areola allies, my titillating comrades; my nippleless amazon warriors; my fellow rebel boobs! We are the club that no-one wants to join, and I pledge allegiance to you all.”

Powerful stuff – but as the light faded, another woman came forward with a different agenda – “What if I don’t want this anymore? What if I just want to move on and not think about it again? Breast cancer shaped me, but I don’t want to let it define me. Not anymore.”

No single response. Just five very talented women providing us with a kaleidoscopic vision of the experiences of millions. It was a remarkable performance – full of hope as well as despair, and joy as well as suffering. The Old Market audience responded with a standing ovation at the finish. This reviewer left feeling emotionally battered, drained, humbled – but also uplifted by this glimpse the power of women’s spirit and resilience.

I shall not forget this performance for a long time.

*

 

Di and Viv and Rose

 

So a nymphomaniac, a lesbian and a sociologist walk into a bar …

Sounds like the opening line of a rather hoary old joke, but it’s a situation that takes place in ‘Di and Viv and Rose’ . The three eponymous characters are students, at Manchester University in 1983, and in one scene they’ve come back to their shared house absolutely trashed, bouncing around the room, still dancing to the music they’ve spent all evening listening to.

Rose is studying Art History, and she’s at least a social class or two above the other pair, with her breathless enthusiasm and her cut-glass accent. She’s on the phone to her stepfather, telling him about another student who goes to Asda – “That’s a supermarket …”. But what she’s really excited about at University is – “Boys!” Sex with boys. Lots of them.  She tells Di that it’s like being on holiday in France or Spain, places that are full of available males.

“I’ve never been abroad” replies Di.  Di’s from somewhere up North, she’s obviously from working-class stock, the kind of people who don’t do ‘abroad’, and she’s gay.  She’s studying English, intent on improving her life, and she’s obviously the first one in her family to get to University.  It’s the eighties, remember, so unlike back home there’s a flourishing gay scene, and Di has to deal with the social and sexual pecking-order on the canteen’s Lesbian Table.

The third one’s Viv. Viv is Scottish, and she doesn’t seem interested in sex at all – but she’s fascinated by the social and political attitudes of the other students, writes long essays about ‘economic signifiers’. While Di has joined the campus sports teams and lives in a tracksuit, Viv prefers loose-fitting dresses in rather sober colours, a fashion choice that Rose describes as being “from the Second World War”.

Not an obvious grouping then, but maybe that’s a lot of the point of University – that you’re thrown together with very different people, and sometimes it works and you become friends despite (or maybe because of) the differences.  Amelia Bullmore’s play follows the lives of the women over almost three decades, and it’s a warm and funny portrait of female friendship, with its ups and downs, its triumphs and its tragedies.

Such a long-term look at people’s lives gives the piece the feel of a family saga – the kind that fills a fat paperback for summer beach reading, or long winter evenings in front of the fire.  I hope I’m not giving too much away when I tell you that there are friendships broken and repaired, births and a death, and a range of locations from Manchester to New York.  It’s very funny in parts – Ruby Tiger’s staging at The Rialto got a great number of laughs, but there were more than a few tears too (I know – I asked my neighbours afterwards) at some of the things that happened.

Very much a bare-bones production on the black stage: no background scenery, the set little more than a sofa, a few chairs, and the bare minimum of other props.  There are a lot of phone calls between the women themselves, and their families, and for these sequences each actor simply stepped into a spotlight at the front of the blacked-out stage.

The acting – Sophie Dearlove as Di, Emmie Spencer as Viv, and Mandy Jane Jackson as Rose, was almost faultless (occasionally a few lines were delivered a bit fast, making it difficult for the audience to keep up). Claire Lewis’ confident direction allowed the actors to use every inch of The Rialto’s fairly small stage, and Dan Walker’s cleverly focused lighting defined the changes of scene as we moved from place to place and year to year.  In all really good theatre, the audience lose the sense of artifice, of actors performing in front of them, and here I quickly got the impression that I was watching three real people.  More than just watching them – I cared about them.

My main criticism of Di and Viv and Rose is with the writing itself.  The three characters are brilliantly defined, and cleverly contrasted as a group – but each one felt rather two-dimensional. It’s hard to avoid the feeling that they are stereotypes – Di is everyone’s idea of a lesbian, Rose a typical Home Counties Sloane, Viv’s a brainy woman driven by a need to achieve success.  I wanted to know more about their back-stories – their politics, their beliefs, their home backgrounds.  We were given a few hints, but not sufficient to flesh out fully believable human beings.

What this production excelled at, though, was the sense of time passing.  We first meet the women as eighteen, ditzy and hedonistic, and by the end they’re middle aged, with life’s experiences and tragedies behind them.  It’s a measure of the skill of the actors and the director that what we were seeing never felt false, or artificial.  The characters were young, and then later they were old, and part of the magic of great theatre is that we accepted all parts of it as being … true.