Tag Archives: Review

“Our Big Land” by Dan Allum

at Ovalhouse, Thursday 20th February 2014

The relationship the ‘British public’ has with the Romany Traveller population is often, to put it delicately, unfriendly. Thanks to our lack of education and a slew of derogatory TV shows, most of us have very little knowledge of this ancient and complex people. Jerusalem may have touched on the travelling community very slightly, but never really interrogated the issue. Though Our Big Land may sometimes feel a little basic, therefore, and doesn’t quite give the intricacies of the argument you’d hope, it manages to give a genuine sense of how Romany Travellers live in the twenty-first century and excels in its use of authentic music and aesthetic.

The narrative of Dan Allum’s play is fairly basic, and focusses on the family of Oceania, whose roots travel back a long way through Romany history. Continue reading “Our Big Land” by Dan Allum

“The Bloody Great Border Ballad Project”

at Northern Stage, St Stephens on Thursday 8th August 2013

*Originally written for A Younger Theatre*

I’m so glad The Bloody Great Border Ballad Project exists. With the independence referendum looming and the possibility of an independent Scotland and (perhaps) independent England at some point in the future, it is important that we think about national identities and what it means to be a member of either country. In creating this project, Lorne Campbell (Artistic Director of Northern Stage) has found a way of bringing people together in an attempt to understand who we are. It’s a mad, huge idea, and it makes for a great evening out.

Six artists (Cora Bissett, Daniel Bye, Lucy Ellinson, Kieran Hurley, Alex Kelly and Chris Thorpe) Continue reading “The Bloody Great Border Ballad Project”

“Macbeth” by William Shakespeare

at Shakespeare’s Globe, Friday 26th July 2013

I’ve never believed that the Globe space is one which supports tragedy well. I’m aware that, obviously, many early modern plays were written for spaces just like this one, but I find the epic size and shape of the space to be stifling during the more intimate and passionate moments of tragedy, whilst the psychology of some characters gets lost in the rafters. In her production of Macbethhowever, Eve Best (making her directorial début) picks up on this failing by finding humour wherever she can so that, though we lose a rather heavy dosage of the tragedy of the text, it becomes a snappy and enjoyable – if half-baked – black comedy.

Thinking about it, I reckon Macbeth is probably one of the hardest of Shakespeare’s plays to put on stage. Continue reading “Macbeth” by William Shakespeare

“Kafka’s Monkey” by Colin Teevan

based on “A Report to an Academy” by Franz Kafka

at Warwick Arts Centre, Thursday 30th May 2012

It’s no secret that the works of Franz Kafka are concerned with alienation and entrapment. His entire body of work is built around this central theme, and Kafka’s Monkey, based on “A Report to an Academy”, is no different. But styled as a lecture given by Red Peter, a man who used to be an ape (not a monkey, tut tut Kafka), there is also something liberating about Colin Teevan’s script, ending as it does with a creature’s discovery of humanity.

Before gushing about Kathryn Hunter’s captivating performance as Red Peter, something has to be said for Teevan’s carefully crafted text. Like the original, the story is presented to us as a lecture punctuated with flashbacks. The way in which this man turns into a monkey is irrelevant; what matters here is that the human we see before us was once an ape, trapped by other men and used for their entertainment. Once learning to act human, however, Peter is able to recount this story, freeing himself from the confines once imposed upon him but implicitly buying into the way of life which once imprisoned him.

This tension between freedom and entrapment is explored by Teevan’s use of a form which lies somewhere between prose and poetry. The structures and formalities required for giving an academic talk are shattered by a more liberal approach to storytelling, as the context and content play in direct opposition to one another. Though the transformation is in the opposite direction to Gregor’s in “The Metamorphoses”, the links are clear; like Kafka’s beetle, Kafka’s monkey is not wholly at home within human skin; perhaps we’d all be better off, is the suggestion, if we deconstructed social norms to discover a more autonomous lifestyle.

Embodying in her physicality all these textual contrasts is Kathryn Hunter. Astonishingly, she captures the gait of both an ageing man and an adolescent ape, entangling gestures of both and shifting from one to the other in a second. She darts around the stage, right hand aloft, climbing ladders and pounding the floor. Her skill is masterful.

Hunter’s movement alone would be startling enough, but coupled with her wit and verve as a speaker it becomes a performance of intellect too. Every word is somehow joined to a physical trait, and each feeds into the other. At times, the monkey-business is switched off so we engage with Peter the human, who impresses us with his humour, before he bounds up to the stage again and reverts to simian physicality. The most impressive moment occurs when Red Peter discusses his relationship with alcohol, as he sits in a spotlight and looks at the audience as an ape. For a minute, Hunter is not human.

This success is partly due to Walter Meierjohann’s no-frills direction, but I imagine most of the responsibility lies with the performer’s utter power over herself and her character. And though Kafka’s story relates heavily to confinement and the ways in which we entrap ourselves and others, the sheer passion Hunter lends to this role means that we leave the theatre feeling a little more free than when we went in.

 

My Pinterest board of the production: http://pinterest.com/danhutton/kafka-s-monkey-by-colin-teevan/

“Posh” by Laura Wade

at the Duke of York’s Theatre, Tuesday 29th April 2012

When Laura Wade’s scathing attack of the upper classes was premiered at the Royal Court two years ago, things weren’t looking too bad for the Tories; they were up in the polls and after nineteen years of obscurity it looked like they were going to get their well-preened mits back in control of the country. Well, we all know what happened next. They got a pretty bum-deal  having to sleep with the Lib Dems and have spent the last couple of years doing their best to ruin the country whilst their ratings drop every month. This is the climate in which the boys of Posh now find themselves, and though most of the play remains the same, a few changes have kept the production alive and capitalised on the current state of things.

On the whole, my thoughts on the play and Lyndsey Turner’s production haven’t changed much since my last viewing, though I must admit after a couple of years at university the characters have become all the more real. Though Warwick has a relatively low intake of public school students, I’ve been unfortunate enough to come into contact with people made in the same mould, who – no word of a lie – use words like “savage” and “lad” as adjectives and genuinely believe ordinary working people are “plebs”. This, coupled with the fact the upper classes are now in power and directing public policy, makes Posh arguably more resonant in 2012 than 2010. Two years ago, it was a play demonstrating how the toffs felt sidelined and demonized by New Labour. Now that we’ve seen the way they work, however, it becomes a critique of their anger with general society and the pure selfishness and bigotry of some wealthy individuals.

The anachronistic a capella renditions of popular songs have been updated, and now include ‘Moves Like Jagger’ and ‘Pass Out’, whilst Joshua McGuire as Guy Bellingfield looks more like a smaller, scrappier Tom Hollander than ever. The cast is still superb, with Steffan Rhodri stepping in to play the part of the Landlord, offering more of a proud tone than his predecessor. Both the Henry V speech and the monologue which ends Act One with “I’m sick to fucking death of poor people” remain as stand-out moments of writing and the play is still just as funny.

Now that the Tories are in charge, there’s even more of an air of entitlement amongst these students as previously. They feel now that they have a right to take back what was theirs all along, and the chilling final line “People like us don’t make mistakes, do we?” resonates when placed in the context of our current u-turn prone government.

But perhaps due to the recent history of the masses rising up in both the UK and abroad, Posh now feels just as much a representation of ordinary people rising up as it is a savage attack on the rich. The Landlord, his daughter Rachel and the visiting prostitute all take a stand against the “ultimate extravagance” of the Riot Club and refuse to put up with their boisterous goings-on. The thrown fire-extinguisher and sprayed graffiti during the trashing scene reminds us that this class is just as prone to vandalism as the others. The only difference is they can pay for it.

Much has been discussed on the lack of sympathy felt in Wade’s play, though when the aim is to lampoon the upper classes this hardly matters. When they talk of poor people not doing any work and getting money for it, a clear hypocrisy is highlighted. Why should we feel sympathy for these people when they feel no sympathy for others? Whilst there are millions suffering and we worry about those with less than us, we can hardly be expected to consider those better off. They don’t need our love, so let’s not complain when playwrights pen plays which don’t attempt to make us feel sorry for them.

 

My first attempt at a Pinterest ‘review’ here: http://pinterest.com/danhutton/posh-by-laura-wade/

“Collaborators” by John Hodge

at the Cottesloe Theatre, Tuesday 20th March 2012

“What if…” pieces are always intriguing, offering an alternative view of history. It’s extraordinarily tempting to imagine Shakespeare and Dickens conversing in a pub, or Newton being educated by Einstein. We love to imagine these conversations, and consider how history would be different if these conversations were possible. In Collaborators, John Hodge asks “What if Josef Stalin helped Mikhail Bulgakov to write plays and in return Bulgakov helped him with affairs of state?”  The result is a witty, intelligent play which, even though it tries a little too hard to appeal to our hearts, asks some big questions.

After the success of The White Guard, the playwright and novelist Mikhail Bulgakov is asked (read: forced) to write a play for Stalin’s sixtieth birthday (he is a huge fan of the aforementioned play, having seen it fifteen times). Naturally, the writer wants to create an artistically sound piece of theatre, whilst his paymasters wish him to make something which praises Vozhd in all his glory. After a week struggling to create anything of worth, he is summoned by Uncle Joe himself, with whom he collaborates so both of them are able to get their work done. Along the way, Stalin realises the difficulties in writing and structuring a play, whilst Bulgakov becomes implicit in some of the atrocities of the Soviet regime.

It’s not hard to see what Hodge thinks of the art question here: it is impossible to create good art if one is given preconditions – i.e., no good art can be created under censorship. I think most of us can agree on that: the hilariously awful excerpts from “Young Stalin” prove this. The interesting debate, however, is about Bulgakov’s position. After being relinquished of the shame of writing an awful play, he begins to defend decisions about grain in the provinces which are costing lives. His initial hatred of his leader becomes far less clear-cut, and we are shown that those in power don’t have the luxury of ideology that many of us do: they have to balance arguments before coming to a conclusion. In this respect, Hodge is supremely successful, and the two-handed scenes between Stalin and Bulgakov are without doubt the most superior.

Where the play falls flat, slightly, is in Hodge’s portrayal of Bulgakov’s home life. The writer and his wife, Yelena, live with a whole host of other bohemians, who are somewhat stock and serve only the purpose of allowing an emotional outlet for Bulgakov. They seem superfluous, for this exact dilemma could just as easily be communicated to his wife alone. The core argument – that of the difficulties of ideology in art – is present in the one-on-one scenes, and we gain very little from the presence of other characters in the Bulgakov household.

Nicholas Hytner’s production is beautifully crafted, taking images and techniques from Communist propaganda. George Fenton & Paul Ardiiti’s music and sound are used in an almost cartoon-style way, and Jon Clark’s lighting acts as a frame around certain scenes. The tone of Hytner’s direction shifts from grimy socialist realism to stylised choreography, and is set beautifully on Bob Crowley’s red and black scenic design, looking like its been lifted straight off of a Soviet poster, complete with jagged lines and uneven floor.

A solid ensemble is led by three superb actors. Mark Addy’s Vladimir, the chief of police, lies on the borderline of ridiculous, but manages to retain a humanity which allows us to understand how difficult he finds his job. Simon Russell Beale’s portrays Stalin as an idiotic, frail but supremely passionate man who flips at an instant. There is something supremely menacing about his quietness, and the Somerset accent only adds to the confusion we feel towards him. Alex Jennings completes the trio as Bulgakov, rarely leaving the stage and providing the narrative drive and voicing the audience’s own internal debate.

It does feel at times like Collaborators is trying to tackle a few too many questions without ever fully exploring any of them, but what Hodge shows us is a world in which it is impossible to say what you feel openly. Although it is entirely fiction, the meetings between Stalin and Bulgakov feel extraordinarily real, and we are forced to ask ourselves whether the old maxim suggesting that artists would be better at politics than politicians is true after all.

“Decade”

at Commodity Quay, Saturday 10th September 2011

Anyone who believes that there are certain issues which art shouldn’t tackle is wrong. End of story. Just as there can be bad art about the most basic of issues, there can also be extraordinary art which tackles the most profound questions. Headlong Theatre has proved that no stone should be left unturned in the quest for truth, representing a wide selection of viewpoints on the World Trade Center attacks. Decade is a provocative, exciting and entertaining piece of theatre which never once shies away from the subject matter.

Rupert Goold has taken a collection of short plays from several writers and meshed them together. One thing unifies them; they all represent in some way an opinion on 9/11, delving into the lives of survivors, widows, historians, nurses and politicians who were affected, directly or indirectly. Lively, pedestrian choreography from Scott Ambler and brash, loud music by Adam Cork mix with Goold’s direction to mirror theatrically the cacophony of voices which fight to be heard. Yet even before we enter the space, the point is made that the voice of authority is always the one which prevails, as we are searched and questioned in a customs-style process – although those in power want these to be the only voices which are heard, the real human arguments cannot be suppressed.

Perhaps the most successful playlets are the monologues. Simon Schama’s Epic and Recollections of Scott Forbes, edited by Samuel Adamson, give the most direct and clear opinions, and are performed as wholly believable lectures by Tom Hodgkins and Tobias Menzies respectively.Ella Hickson’s Gift, about a gift seller who capitalises on the emotions of women after Ground Zero tours, and Harrison David Rivers’  not resentful at all give some humorous opinions on the aftermath.

We are also shown vignettes which highlight how tolerance has been compromised post-9/11. The Odds, by Lynn Nottage, shows Islamic members of the community slowly becoming ostracised, and Rory Mullarkey’s Trio with Accompaniment suggests we are all guilty of prejudice on public transport.

One storyline which runs throughout, Matthew Lopez’ The Sentinels, charts the progress of three women who were made widows by the attack as they meet on September 11th each year. We watch as the years go backwards from 2011 to 2000, seeing how their lives have changed and subsequently asking what life was like before the towers were brought down. The performances of Emma Fielding, Amy Lennox and Charlotte Randle here are mesmerising.

But Decade is far more than the sum of its parts. For, while each play makes a point on its own, it is together that they resonate. The scene changes are among the slickest and most engaging I’ve seen; Ambler’s choreography is seared onto the mind, just like the images of citizens jumping from windows. The final moments include a chilling song created by text messages sent on the day, reminding us of Cork’s recent success in London Road and asking us to feel emotion where before we were asked to think.

Miriam Buether’s design is staggering. We are in Windows on the World, the restaurant at the top of the North Tower. On each end of the room are views of Manhattan, and on another a glass-fronted walkway which is used to great effect. The attention to detail is astonishing; we are even given a menu to peruse before the play begins. It is lit with flair by Malcolm Rippeth, and the dust on the shoulders of Emma Williams’ costumes completes the startling picture.

Decade is collaborative art at its best. Goold brings together a selection of sources which sometimes disagree and sometimes overtly contradict, yet the production never feels anything but cohesive. There is glue in the desire to question and debate one singular event, and no one is ever deprived of their right to speak. The epic is made human and vice versa, and spectacle is never far away. This is theatre.