“Un peu de tendresse bordel de merde” by Dave St-Pierre

at Warwick Arts Centre, Thursday 26th April 2012

I’m know very little about dance. In fact, I’m a bit of a philistine. I don’t watch dance as much as I really ought to and if it’s a choice between that and theatre, it’s always the latter I plump for. The beauty of Dave St-Pierre’s Un peu de tendresse bordel de merde(‘A little tenderness for crying out loud’), however, is its accessibility to those of us who know next to nothing about the form, and the way in which it mixes dance, speech and play (not forgetting significant amounts of nudity) creates some of the most beautiful moments I’ve experienced in the theatre.

Much has been written about this show, most of which has focussed on the “explicit adult material” featured in the first twenty minutes, which features seven nude male dancers climbing over the audience, sticking their nether-regions the faces of audience members and generally trying to provoke us. There’s a reason for this (admittedly excessive) charade, however, for after this moment the nudity in the rest of the show isn’t the focus. This is the ‘worst’ bit, but it’s absolutely necessary in order to desensitize us and draw attention to the intellectual message.

Sabrina, our guide for the evening, tells us at the beginning that she “passionately” hates tenderness; she suggests it covers up our animalistic, brutal desires, expressed during sequences which see the dancers rhythmically slapping themselves. As the piece progresses, however, tenderness slowly manages to find its way back in, following a heart-wrenching moment during which a female dancer moves alone in a rectangle of light, being systematically rejected by the male members of the ensemble.

Sometimes, Dave St-Pierre’s production becomes indulgent, and dances go on for about twice as long as they perhaps need to; the same message could be conveyed with twenty minutes chopped off the running time. The exposes on “breaking the fourth wall” come across as pointless after the opening, and don’t add anything to the discussion of ‘tenderness’. In one section, we’re asked to join in with a Mexican wave, which is extraneous and stifles the surrounding scenes.

From my little knowledge, it’s clear the dancing utilised here is nothing short of stunning. As moves are endlessly repeated, the strength of the company becomes evident as we become aware of their sheer stamina and the sounds their bodies are making. The dances are messy but mesmerizing, almost hypnotizing us as bodies dart, glide and plod along the stage. These are by far the strongest moments of the piece, and every time the show shifts to narration, we long for the dancers to arrive again.

St-Pierre manages to offer us laugh-out-loud comedy and devastating sadness through simple use of dance and speech. Luke Jennings said that in this show, he had an encounter which was “the most unpleasant I’ve ever had in a theatre”. I can think of worse productions, where I’ve had to question my own opinion on racism, sexism and more, being challenged in a way which has made me feel broken and demeaned. Un peu de tendresse, on the other hand, does the opposite; it offers a joyous, uplifting experience which leaves us not knowing exactly what to think. Indeed, quite the contrary to Jennings, I believe that the finale of this show, which uses an image of utter tenderness, is perhaps the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen in a theatre. It’s worth going through the rest of it just for that.

“King John” by William Shakespeare

at the Swan Theatre, Thursday 19th April 2012

Arguably, it is only when witnessing a Shakespeare play in performance for the first time that we truly realise the Bard’s genius not only as a poet but also as a dramatist. This unknown quality is partly the reason for the success of Maria Aberg’s production of King John, but her superb direction is the main cause. The performance takes us everywhere theatre should, whilst throwing in some panache in the process.

The story, which deals with the turbulent relationship between England and France during John’s reign, here becomes a parable of family politics. Two families try to reconcile all by presenting the other with a suitor who shall be married to one another. From the superlative wedding scene onwards, however, individual arrogance and pride gets in the way and more than one death weighs on the minds of the participants.

By setting the play in what seems to represent a modern village hall, Aberg brings these familial tensions to the fore. The amount of rubbish on Naomi Dawson’s staired set correlates negatively with the number of people on stage at any one point, putting us in mind of those parties which wear on into the early hours of the morning, which see relationships break down and the truth spilt (though maybe not multiple deaths).

Adding to this is the decision to change the genders of the Bastard (Pippa Nixon) and the Cardinal Pandulph (the menacing Paola Dionisotti), meaning the women of this play are just as instrumental in events as the men. Although this is being deemed as the show’s USP, however, we forget the two roles were initially male; a hymn to gender blind casting if ever there was one.

More impressive is a fantastic cast who manage to give the words power without actually acting like the nobility the script dictates. The wide-eyed Nixon is fantastic, leading the audience through the twists and turns of the narrative and gaining our trust from the moment she steps onto stage to sing ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ on the ukulele (a nice touch). In Alex Waldmann, she has a worthy partner, and he portrays John with calm passion, debunking the name of ‘bad’ he has been given. Good support is provided by Siobhan Redmond’s wise Elinor, Oscar Pearce’s somewhat idiotic Dauphin, Susie Trayling’s steely Constance and John Stahl’s sturdy King Philip, while

Aberg’s stagecraft is masterful. The wedding scene is frenzied in its drunken fluidity, and it countered beautiful by the final scenes towards the end of the play, shouted across the auditorium from the balconies. John’s death scene is like no other, and the production is soundtracked brilliantly by Carolyn Downing, who uses everything from Rihanna to Dirty Dancing. David Holmes’ blazing and striking lighting adds to the feeling of tragedy.

By making the play contemporary, Aberg also manages to comment on current discussions about Scotland’s place in Britain. We see that, although union between countries (like that between England and Scotland) can seem like a desirable thing to begin with, underlying tensions and differences means a permanent union is impossible (especially if one country attempts to take more control). More than anything, however, this is a deeply affecting production which reaches astonishing levels of emotion. King John is by a long shot the best thing the Royal Shakespeare Company is showing this season, and is perhaps the best thing they’ve produced since The Merchant of Venice last year. Though if you were silly enough not to enjoy that, this probably isn’t for you.

“Moon on a Rainbow Shawl” by Errol John

at the Cottesloe Theatre, Wednesday 18th April 2012

When Errol John won the Observer New Play prize in 1957 for Moon on a Rainbow Shawl, the British theatre scene was all but devoid of theatre representing working class life. The prize, set up by Kenneth Tynan following the trickle of exciting new plays following Look Back in Anger, would aim to bring a playwright to the fore who showed an audience the lives of ordinary people. In Michael Buffong’s production at the National Theatre, we see the beautiful subtlety of John’s obliquely feminist text, and are reminded of how important it is not to drop the banner of plays putting the lives of the majority on stage.

John’s play follows the lives of the inhabitants of a small yard in Trinidad over the course of forty-eight hour. The various men are suffering from bouts of worthlessness whilst the women hold the community together. Ephraim (Danny Sapani), wo seems to be modelled at least partly on Jimmy Porter, and who has ambitions to emigrate to Liverpool, feels stifled by his town and girlfriend Rosa, whilst it is partly his own melancholia which had led to this depression. At the heart of the community lies Sophia Adams (Martina Laird), who acts as mother, sister, daughter and lover variously to those around her as it becomes clear a local shop has been robbed. This description does her injustice, however, for she is by no means defined by those around her; she stands alone as an independent entity, and is given an extraordinarily strong voice.

In Buffong’s production, the beauty of John’s language is contained in Soutra Gilmour’s homely, secluded set (though the yard it represents does feel a little too ordered), is mixed with an authentic soundtrack (Pepe Francis) and rich, nostalgic lighting (Johanna Town). We are shown a picture of a community which, nuance aside, could be any on earth. Ordinary working people go about their daily business and understand that an affinity with their roots is essential, even though it can bring both joy and pain.

Forgetting a few questionable accents, we are treated to a fantastic cast who clearly have such admiration and empathy for their characters we cannot help but feel for every one of them. Sapani’s performance manages to steer clear from being a tormented, tortured soul and instead shows a truthful vision of a young man struggling to find his way in the world and understanding the unfortunate nature of his status in society. Jenny Jules’ Mavis, the woman from across the way with ambiguous sexual morality, offers some humour, and is offset by Jade Anouka’s calm, attentive Rosa. Jude Akuwudike as Charlie, Sophia’s husband and Esther’s (the energetic Tahirah Sharif) father, is a man stuck in a rut but who manages to contain his fury by caring passionately for his family. Laird’s Sophia is astonishing in its detail, and is filled with such extraordinary love for those dear to her that its unsurprising things turn out the way they do. She will no doubt be overlooked at awards season next year, but she should damn well be on those shortlists.

Whilst we are lucky in the twenty-first century to have a greater abundance of working-class plays in production, if Sundays Oliviers prove anything other than the fact Matilda is pretty good, it is that the mainstream is lacking the same sort of voices which epitomised the new wave in the 50s and 60s. Moon on a Rainbow Shawl shows just how universal these plays can be, and Buffong’s simple production takes pleasure in the ability of those living ordinary lives to take part in extraordinary narratives.

“Richard III” by William Shakespeare

at the Swan Theatre, Monday 16th April 2012

*The performance reviewed was a preview*

Richard III is one of those plays which, on the page, seems to have many issues and feels a little like it doesn’t make sense and that characters’ motives are out of kilter with their actions. But rather than go down the route of many directors who try to smooth over these imperfections through ingenious devices, Roxana Silbert, in her production for the Royal Shakespeare Company’s “Nations at War” season, shows that these difficulties are part of the play. She shows us a distorted thriller, capitalizing on Gloucester’s ‘oddness’ in the charismatic, energetic performance of Jonjo O’Neill as our tragic hero.

Silbert’s setting is pretty much timeless, and puts the action at the heart of proceedings. At first, Ti Green’s tall steely set seems straight-laced and ordered, but within moments it’s clear that the floor panels are angled to look like off-centre reflections in a mirror. A Frankenstein-inspired light fitting (in a dark design by Rick Fisher), complete with wire frame and lightbulbs, hangs over the thrust. Doors and windows are constantly discovered at the back of the set, opening up portals onto ideas not yet contemplated. Nick Powell’s music is superb, and uses the tones and rhythms of a fifties spy thriller in order to set the scene. During the final sword fight, it makes everything feel like it is performed in slow motion.

Unfortunately, a few performances are over-acted. Pippa Nixon’s Lady Anne is not quick enough to match up to O’Neill’s Richard, and she is somewhat too liberal with her gestures. Likewise, Mark Jax’s Edward IV falls a little flat and Sandra Duncan’s Duchess of York verges on dull. Nevertheless, we are treated to solid performances from Edmund Kingsley’s Clarence and Alex Waldmann’s Sir Catesby, whilst Brian Ferguson’s Buckingham and Siobhan Redomond’s Elizabeth offer some impressive foils to this production’s Richard.

Jonjo O’Neill in the title role is, for me, nigh-on definitive. He moves away from so many actors’ decision to play the tormented prince as someone who is jolly in the presence of characters and sullen in the audience’s gaze. Instead, he is perpetually charming, and woos us with his skills as a comedian and presenter. We are entirely implicit in his rise, and when he addresses the citizens, we can’t help feeling we’re egging them on as Richard’s minions. The verse builds up in his mouth before being spat out, his tongue gliding over the vowels and dancing over the consonants. I haven’t ever heard these speeches spoken with such relish.

What’s particularly striking about this production is the number of times we find ourselves laughing. Right up until the incredible final sword fight (haven’t seen a proper one of those in a while), we are laughing along with Richard. It is this, matched with his oddity, which makes his demise so tragic. It feels like he may just joke his way out of execution, but just like him we’ve been able to see deep down the pain which would culminate with death. Richmond (Iain Batchelor) tries to take over by appealing to us near the end, but we can’t help feeling that with Richard dead, the state will be a far less interesting place to live.

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” by William Shakespeare

at the Deutsches Theater, Berlin, Saturday 31st March 2012

German translation by Frank Günther

When we watch plays in translation in the UK , it’s easy to forget that what we’re hearing could be very different in tone and style to the writer’s original intentions. Watching a well-known play in a foreign language highlights this fact, especially when said play takes the liberty of adding in new scenes to highlight a point. Andreas Kriegenburg’s production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (‘Ein Sommernachtstraum’) begins with an entirely original scene which sees the rude mechanicals on their lunch break discussing dream theory according to Sigmund Freud and Walter Benjamin. Immediately, we reconsider our opinion not only of these players but of the entire play. The tension between the two theories, between visual and aural, between instinctive and reasoned, underlines every moment of the following 180 minutes.

This is a production set entirely in a dream world, where nothing makes complete sense. The world on stage is experienced just like the world of sleep, featuring spirits with grass for heads or well-dressed individuals dancing. Puck and Oberon, here portrayed as twins, are the masters of this universe, and seem to control every moment of the Athenians’ lives. Their brotherly feud is the cause of this disruption, permeating its way into the forest and the city. Played by Daniel Hoevels and Ole Lagerpusch respectively, the energy harnessed from their spat drives the play and wreaks havoc.

They are omnipresent, especially during the later fight scene between the lovers, which is choreographed carefully to become ethereal. Berd Moss and Jörg Pose as Lysander and Demetrius are powerless compared to the might of the fairies and seem even more pathetic in the company of Natali Seelig and Judith Hofmann as Hermia and Helena, who are astonishingly passionate and seem to incur the strength of  genuine gods in order to reach the height of emotion in this scene alone.

As the play ends with Thisbe’s death, before comments from Theseus, the rude mechanicals serve as an entirely separate storyline. We watch as they descend from being impressive, intellectual debaters at the beginning to useless, embarrassing luvvies at the close of the play. Perhaps, then, they are the main victims of Oberon’s magic. Markwart Müller-Elmau’s Bottom is the strongest of the five (Starveling has been cut), for the other men (played by women in mustaches with no pretence at deluding us of their actual gender) sometimes get lost in self-indulgence.

But for all his comments on the text and the nature of dreams, Kriegenburg is concerned mainly with how this production looks. It is visually stunning, and evokes emotions I had no idea design alone was able to engender. Kriegenburg’s set is able to transform itself and be transformed; two glass-bricked walls stand in parallel on either side of a revolve and a central wall is able to be wheeled along the length of the corridor between, creating vast spaces and small rooms. Light beams through the glass, placing shapes daintily on the floor as the set moves. A copper colour-scheme is complemented by forest greens and soft pinks; we are watching our dreams enacted on stage.

The actors move in a way which is effortless and strays into the realms of dance. At one point, Oberon ‘walks’ along the back wall as it journeys towards the audience, and at another Puck leaps around as if on strings. The beguiling movement alone is enough to portray the relevent emotions, and it is improved only by a ghostly cinematic soundtrack which transports us to a sleepy realm.

It is a shame there isn’t such an unabashed focus on visual stimulation in the English mainstream, for our obsession with the spoken word often forces us to forget the nature of theatre as a medium which is watched as well as listened. The Deutsches Theater here shows the power of the ensemble (the less said about the frankly shambolic curtain call the better) to create a theatrical experience which draws on impulse and intellect in equal measure – this production has been playing in repertoire since September 2010 – and we need to beg for a similar system somewhere in the UK which isn’t just the half-baked version of Boyd.