“Romeo and Juliet in Baghdad” by Monadhil Daood

at the Swan Theatre, Monday 30th April 2012

*The performance reviewed was a preview*

In theory, Monadhil Daood’s production of Romeo and Juliet in Baghdad, presented as part of the World Shakespeare Festival by the RSC in collaboration with the Iraqi Theatre Company, should give the play a potency which hasn’t been evident in Britain for at least the last half a century. Setting Shakespeare’s text, we’d assume, in a post-war Iraq, would at last make the overbearing nature of the parents make sense whilst the necessary stealth of the central couple would usher in a deeper tragic pathos. Unfortunately, however, whether through lack of time, funds or artistic prowess, this production fails to ever take off and is depressingly underwhelming.

Daood’s text (translated into English by Raad Mushatat and Deborah Shaw) is perhaps the most inriguing aspect of this version. Montague and Capulet are here brothers (making the lovers cousins), and have been torn apart by the war, spending the last 9 years in feud whilst their offspring long for one another. A clever touch adds a character – the Teacher – who offers the voice of reason to the characters and attempts to orchestrate proceedings though he is powerless to do so, and is countered by Paris, cast here as a Mujahadeen, who manages to gain a sick victory at the close. The language is poetic in its simplicity (though where Daood’s work ends and the translators’ work begins is difficult to tell), using such phrases as “The night should be for lovers” to revel in a new-found freedom of speech. Daood also manages to shift the focus of the tragedy, which can be found not in the fact Romeo kills himself even though Juliet is sleeping but because there is no need after all for them to be in the fateful spot where they meet they demise, seeing as their parents were close to reconciling.

The show falls apart with Daood’s disappointing direction, which fails to give the production any kind of drama and, although fast at 90 minutes, lacks anything in the way of pace. Overly-simplified images, reminiscent of my GCSE-drama days, litter the show, and images are created in which very little thought seems to have been invested (though I did enjoy the symbolic gestures which suited actions to words – something we should see more of). In dance scenes, actors move out of time, and every now and then a body inexplicably appears on a balcony only to disappear a moment later. The text, which is so bitingly political, just isn’t given the hearing it deserves.

Ali Khassaf’s score, however, which runs throughout the whole piece, is fantastic, and acts like a movie-soundtrack, suggesting emotions for us to feel. Unfortunately, it’s in a far from harmonious partnership with Jabbar Jodi Alabodi’s garish and inconsistent lighting, which has that kid-in-a-sweet-shop feel, and his stark set, with an all-but-redundant central tube.

The cast manages to inject some humour and humanity into Daood’s lacklustre production, but they generally struggle to ever find genuine emotion. Ahmed Salah Moneka and Sarwa Rasool’s Romeo and Juliet capture some teenage angst, but the stakes don’t seem to be very high and they are not together long enough for us to ever start to empathise. The early scene between Haider Monathir (Capulet) and Maimoon Abdalhamza (Montague) is truly moving, though something is surely wrong when the youngest person of the company is upstaging everyone (Ameer Hussein’s brilliant Benvolio, in a touching double-act with Fikrat Salim’s Mercutio).

That so much could have been done with this production is the most frustrating thing about it. The material and context is so rich, screaming out to be mined for further intricacies, but very little effort is taken to deal with it. Daood and his comany offer a solid and vaguely interesting retelling of a story we know so well, but its full potential is never realised.

Though my only first-hand experience of the World Shakespeare Festival has been to-date at the RSC, this is precisely my problem with the it; these artists have been given an opportunity to take the Bard’s work and try them in settings in which he’s rarely found himself, delving deep into his plays to question and challenge audiences. Why would you play it safe when you’ve got the whole world watching you? When you are given the opportunity to interrogate these gargantuan ideas on this scale, why would you shy away from it? As Daood says himself in the programme, “Shakespeare’s spirit can intimidate the politicians”. So why aren’t we intimidating them? I’m off to the Globe later this week, and this is still early days for the WSF, so things may improve, but if events continue in this safe-but-ever-so-slightly-different vein, then the whole festival will have been worthless. For once, we have the ability to open up debate on a global scale. Here’s to hoping that opportunity won’t be missed.

“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.

“The Birthday Party” by Harold Pinter

at Leighton Buzzard Theatre, Friday 20th April 2012

Pinter’s work can’t be played for laughs. It’s incredibly funny, sure, but the moment the actors are attempting to elicit a reaction of laughter from the audience is the moment all power in the play is lost. Unfortunately, Ann Kempster’s production of The Birthday Party occasionally falls into this trap, and we end up losing a lot of the writer’s intention. There are some brilliant moments, but on the whole this dark play feels a lot lighter than the words suggest.

The curtain opens on a smart, 60s-style set, complete with mould and patterned wallpaper. In this understated guest room, all the action of the play will take place, but from the off there just isn’t the undercurrent of menace that we desire from the play. Barbara Springthorpe as Meg, I worry, doesn’t actually believe the lines she’s saying, as she dallies around her home talking what sounds like nonsense, but actually perfectly mimics everyday conversation. Nevertheless, here we find a charming mother figure who is just annoying enough to allow us to understand her co-habitants frustration.

As soon as Stanley (Andrew Meadows) walks down the stairs, however, the tone changes. The decision has been made to portray Stanley as already emotionally damaged even before Goldberg and McCann enter, suggesting that it is not in fact their interrogation (which, by the way, is terrifying) that breaks him but his nervous disposition. Meadows’ performance shows Stanley as a growling menace, meaning that although we lose empathy for him, his eventual breakdown seems positively inevitable. John Stone and Bob Kempster show Goldberg and McCann to be closer to the Marx Brothers than the Kray Twins, but some bravura and flair shifts the attention to them, making it their story rather than Stanley’s.

My main issue is the dominant lightness in this production, both aesthetically and emotionally. Characters look to the audience (with no awareness of what they’re looking at on the fourth wall) and seem to alter their performances after big laughs. Humour in Pinter comes from the high stakes the characters face playing in tension with the frequent inanity of their speech. More could also be made of silence in this production, for pauses end before we even realise they’re there, meaning all those unspoken conversations disappear and some of Pinter’s ‘language’ is lost.

Nevertheless, Kempster’s production offers up some interesting ideas and forces us to reconsider the play and its implications in the 21st century. Now, more than ever, we are being watched when we least expect it, and Pinter’s ideas about surveillance plays on that continual fear. Perhaps with an extra couple of weeks and a more versatile space, more could have been done with the play, but this is a solid production which shows the importance of local drama groups performing texts different from their usual fodder. Oh, and one last thing: I think I’m going to start a campaign banning curtains from theatre where they’re not justified. Hearing that click and buzz before waiting ten seconds for the damn things to shut is not a good way to end any production, no matter how good.

“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.

“The Duchess of Malfi” by John Webster

at the Old Vic Theatre, Wednesday 18th April 2012

Okay, so we should all be able to agree that part of the pleasure in watching Jacobean tragedies comes from the sheer excess of deaths in the final acts. Without a bloodstained stage at the end of proceedings we’d feel as if we’d been somewhat shortchanged. Unfortunately, however, Jamie Lloyd’s production at the Old Vic takes this a step further and makes the deaths ridiculous in themselves. Whilst the rest of the production revels in the images created by Webster’s language, in the last twenty minutes the language isn’t allowed to speak for itself as each character gets picked off in deaths which are simply over-the-top, undermining the work done previously.

Soutra Gilmour’s towering set, which looks like a sketch by M. C. Escher drawn during the middle of an apocalypse, provides the perfect frame around which actors can throw their words and coil their lines. Many entrances allow for a fast-paced scene-changes and the only shifts in scenery involve beds and a curtain. During the first act, the company are allowed to let the words speak for themselves, and events hurtle towards the halfway point. After our break, however, things slow down and actions start becoming more important than words, as final lines are lost amid the superfluous flailing of limbs.

Lloyd’s production moves away from the idea that the fall of the Duchess and those around her is the handiwork of her brothers, and instead prefers to exhibit the general dark and twisted world in which these characters find themselves. Sometimes, however, things are not quite pitched correctly, which merely allows the faults with Webster’s texts to be made clearer. When the Duchess if wooing Antonio, for example, there is no hint of lust in the build-up, making the eventual marriage come out of nowhere before the pair have even had a chance to properly look at each other. I also question the decision to make Mark Bonnar’s Bosola a loud, angry spy-cum-jester rather than the malcontent commentator which the script finds him to be.

It’s also hard to buy Harry Lloyd’s effeminate Ferdinand, which is devoid of any real intensity and whose madness is hard to buy. The incest between him and the Duchess is made explicit early on, which means he can no longer taunt her with the idea that he loves her. As their brother, Finbar Lynch is quietly menacing and stage manages the whole affair. Everyone pales in comparison, however, to Eve Best’s superb performance in the lead role. She brings humour and truth to the Duchess, and manages to remain stolid until her very last moments. The words don’t feel at all archaic; she is saying them for the first time.

And although too many characters aside from the Duchess and Bosola address the audience (a pet peeve of mine at the moment), the characters all have a sense of where they are. Anne Yee’s ghostly movement, choreographed to Ben and Max Ringham’s brooding music and sound, makes it feel we are in a dream-world. It is difficult, however, to forgive the final act’s demeaning of Webster’s tongue-in-cheek slaughterhouse. It’s refreshing to see the language given such weight until this moment, but all too dramatic deaths mean we begin to lose faith in the production.

“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.