Changing Destiny

Image by Marc Brenner

Changing Destiny by Ben Okri – Young Vic, London

The Young Vic is configured in the round for Changing Destiny, Ben Okri’s adaptation of a 4,000 year old Egyptian myth. This constantly shifting auditorium seems to have gathered itself around the two performers as they renact The Story of Sinuhe, from the Middle Kingdom days of the Pharoahs, one of the oldest tales of all and often seen as the ancestor of storytelling itself. The picaresque events follow royal guard Sinuhe, who feels Egypt following the assassination of Ahmenemhet I and becomes a king in the Middle East, before an eventual return to his homeland. It deals with resentment of outsiders, prowess in battle and the pain of being separated from the place where you belong, and from your spirit. Sinuhe’s spirit cannot cross the border from Egypt so, because he takes upon himself the guilt of failing to prevent the Pharoah’s murder, he chooses exile, internal and external.

Kwame Kwei-Amah stages this piece on a striking set designed by architect Sir David Adjaye. A pyramid, centre stage, is dwarfed by its inverted twin, suspended above it. Projections swirl over its surface, of shimmering deserts, starry skies and, sometimes, accusatory faces spreading rumours. It is an impressively conceptual and ambitious set, although with the occasional hint of an Imax demonstration film. The sharp pyramid’s point helps to focus the action which is necessary, because the events of Sinuhe can be a little difficult to follow. This is not the fault of the cast, Joan Iyiola and Ashley Zhangazha who, at the start, play rock/scissors/stone to determined who plays Sinuhe, and who plays his spirit and all the other characters. They are full of energy, charming performers who fill the stage heroically as they struggle across the parched desert, muck out the stables of a Syrian monarch, fight the strongest man in the kingdom in single combat, marry the princess (Sinuhe is played by Iyiola and the princess by Zhangazha at this point, which throws a whole extra level of gender confusion in the story). They deliver an entertaining evening, appreciated by an audience who are only too happy to be able to close their eyes, as invited by Iyiola, and imagine themselves beside a campfire in the desert in 2000BC.

However, it is never entirely clear why this story has been chosen for the stage, and why now. Okri is convinced it has significant contemporary resonances, but these remain somewhat general. The title he has chosen for his version emphasises the theme of existential choice and the ability of people to determine their own destiny, which Sinuhe wrestles with. The treatment of outsiders in a foreign land is also pointed up. But Sinuhe’s motivations and the wider significance of the dream-like events that form his story are opaque. We feel far away from the Ancient Egyptian world view and, as a result, the play lacks urgency. At a time of social crisis, audiences are returning to the theatre more alive than ever to its power and significance. The tale may foreshadow many themes of later literature, but this production does not make a strong enough case for us to turn our attention to this story at this time.

Lava

Photographer: Helen Murray

Lava by Benedict Lombe – Bush Theatre, London

The lava in the title of Benedict Lombe’s new, fierce, autobiographical play is anger. It flows over the stage, filling the crevasses of the set, and through Ronkẹ Adékoluẹjo’s smouldering performance, which soon bursts into flame. The anger is kindled, initially, by bureaucracy – an annoying passport anomaly – but something apparently insignificant unravels a history of flight, from Congo to South Africa to Ireland to, eventually, the UK. The experience of Lombe’s family, is of being persecuted, whether by the dictator Mobutu, in the aftermath of Belgian genocide in the Congo, or by everyday racism in the streets of Britain and Ireland.

Anger at persistent, systemic racism and the crimes of colonialism has been unavoidable over the last two years. A movement has arisen, showing many people that a world they thought they understood is not what they imagined, and that under the surface of settled, western countries lie deep strata of prejudice and exploitation. The monologue has also become a very familiar format, for unavoidable reasons. However, Lombe’s work does not feel familiar, nor does it seem forced into this form. It feels deeply personal and unresolved, it feels important and urgent, and it feels new. Adékoluẹjo’s performance is exceptionally powerful and engaging. She draws the audience into her story in something of a tour de force, holding the stage with a natural ease for 80 minutes. Director Anthony Simpson-Pike fills the stage with his one performer, creating a production that feels like a show, not a monologue.

However, Lombe’s play becomes something greater than the sum of its parts when, near the end, Adékoluẹjo steps back and we hear directly from the author. Lombe herself appears on film, questioning the medium she is using to tell her story, the status of experiences as entertainment and, memorably, taking an unnamed Times reviewer to task for their description of an earlier piece as ‘more lecture than theatre’. How, asks Lombe, are black people supposed to tell their stories? Where is the space, neither theatre nor lecture hall, where they can expect to be heard? It is a powerful question and a theatrical coup, in which Lombe successfully undermines the expectations of her audience, and leaves them questioning their assumptions. Lava is a powerful play, from an author we need to hear, and a theatre that knows what needs to be staged.

Under Milk Wood

Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas adapted by Siân Owen – National Theatre: Olivier

The National Theatre’s staging of Under Milk Wood is far from the first time Dylan Thomas’ poem has been adapted for the stage. It’s easy to see the temptation to perform a work so packed with characters, drifting through a strange, semi-mythical setting encountering one another. Siân Owen’s adaptation puts a framing narrative around Thomas’ work, setting the performance in a care home and positioning the poem as the memories of the elderly residents brought to life by Michael Sheen’s Owain Jenkins, visiting his father. This is a partial success. The fraught relationship between father and son seems a distraction from the poem itself, which is what everyone has come to see. However, when the care home residents transform into the curious residents of Llareggub there is a definite thrill.

Michael Sheen is in his element as the narrator, making Thomas’ much-loved words his own and banishing memories of Richard Burton with a performance that brings the world around him to life. He appears to conjure the characters up, summoning them like a Welsh Prospero and becoming sucked into their lives and the place they inhabit. Under Milk Wood is almost a Welsh national text, part-incantation, part-social history, part-tall tale. If you stop to think too hard about Thomas’ writing, the piece seems increasingly odd. The tone veers wildly from lyric to intensely dark – a character who dies drinking disinfectant, for example – and includes a number of women whose portrayals seem distinctly odd. It’s also hard to follow, at times, the sequence of characters and events, and the evening tends to blur away into a general atmosphere. But that is what Thomas was so good at creating, and his descriptive sense cannot be challenged.

Sheen leads a fine cast, alongside the great Siân Phillips, always a pleasure to see on stage, Anthony O’Donnell as the blind Captain Cat, Karl Johnson as Sheen’s father, and many others. Lyndsey Turner’s staging is varied and inventive, playing neat tricks with clever moments, including quick-change cloths whisked from tables, leaving plates and cups untouched. Towards the end, Alan David and Michael Elwyn as Mr Pritchard and Mr Ogmore emerge, eyes glowing like werewolves, to be ordered about by their widow, Mrs Ogmore Pritchard. The Olivier has been reconfigured in the round, which works remarkably well. It seem as though the theatre has been trying to take on this shape since it opened in the late 70s. The shift may be mostly due to Covid, and the need to spread the audience out, but the end result is a newly democratic feel. Under Milk Wood is in most respects a treat to watch, and the return of the National Theatre flagship space is an important phase in the slow crawl towards normality, people gathering in front of stage to watch some of the country’s best actors speaking immortal lines.

Happy Days

Photo: Helen Maybanks

Happy Days by Samuel Beckett – Riverside Studios, Hammersmith, London

Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days is, as Lisa Dwan observes, often described as ‘the female Hamlet’. Dwan has played every other female Beckett lead but even she was intimidated by a role previously inhabited by Peggy Ashcroft, Brenda Bruce, Fiona Shaw, Juliet Stevenson among others. It is understandable. Happy Days, first performed in 1961, is a mighty play, and 60 years later still unlike anything you’ve seen. Famously buried up to her waist and then neck in the earth, Winnie determinedly makes the best of a situation that could hardly, conceivably, be any worse. Her husband, Willie, lives in a hole just out of her and our sight and is responsible, at least indirectly, for Winnie being trapped in the earth. The play, therefore, has almost no conventional movement and barely any dialogue, as Willie hardly speaks. All we have is Winnie, her bag of necessities, and her words.

Happy Days is perfect piece of theatre because it defies all conventions about what is staged and why, panders to nobody, and is one of the most absorbing and significant plays every written. Beckett seamlessly merges satire, comedy and profound drama, often in the same sentence. Winnie relentlessly keeps up appearances, holding the wilderness at bay with her endless talk: “There is so little one can say, one says it all. All one can. And no truth in it anywhere.” Her struggle is absurd, but also deeply admirable. Along the way she delivers a history of Western thought with partially remembered quotes from philosophers, notes the passersby who commented that someone should dig her out, tries to keep the bitterness out of her feelings about Willie, becomes more and more drawn to the loaded gun in her bag and, eventually, goes down singing.

Lisa Dwan may have a lot to contend of history to contend with, but her experience with Beckett means she is more than ready for the role. No-one wants to take their eyes off her, as her brittle cheeriness and absorption in the domestic trivialities of the wilderness in the play’s first half becomes something even more terrifying. Dwan focuses her performance into hallucinatory scenes of childhood terror, where her howls seems to come straight from the abyss. She is utterly convincing, not easy when you spend the entire play in a logically impossible position. Yet we believe that she really is capable of ignoring her situation, and concentrating on what matters, at least to her. Trevor Nunn’s production allows her the freedom to make the role her own and she does, triumphantly.

The Riverside Studios in Hammersmith have a strong connection with Beckett, who directed there himself. It is a post-lockdown pleasure to finally visit their new space, which is finally complete after a long period of closure for a complete rebuild. Inevitably, it is now topped with riverside flats, but the theatre and cinema spaces seem well-designed and in the spirit of the old place. The theatre is a black box, absolutely right for the Riverside, but a big, modern one. It promises a new era of experimental theatre. If Happy Days is any indication of what’s to be staged here, this will be the place to come once again.

Tarantula

Tarantula by Philip Ridley – Southwark Playhouse, online

Philip Ridley, king of the monologue, has maintained his remarkable productivity for Southwark Playhouse during lockdown. Tarantula is his second new play of the past year, after The Poltergeist which premiered in a streamed version last November. Tarantula, which is also streamed, is characterised by the same queasy, urban normality, which is always, in Ridley’s work, built on sand. Anything and everything can collapse without warning, with a stomach-dropping lurch and the closer you feel to a character, the more it’s going to hurt. Georgie Henley plays Toni, a typical East London teenager, short on confidence but meeting her first boyfriend, having a first kiss. Revealing what transforms her from this into a teeth-grindingly manic wall of positive mantras, motivational statements and “being the best you can” would be a spoiler, but it is not pleasant.

Ridley delights in the thinness of our veneers, so vulnerable to deep marks left by casual encounters, which will never be covered over. This breaking through the surface and revealing of something much less civilised is the key to the great parts he writes. Henley, performing for over 100 minutes without an interval, pulls off the kind of technical tour de force that, in a different generation, was remarkable. Ridley has written so many of these parts that we take them a little for granted, but Henley does an excellent job lulling us with a very convincing picture of a teenage girl, and her family, and a disturbing version of a gym instructor, perma-grin plastered across her face, patronising to a staggering degree, and able only to exist in a fantasy bubble. She is highly watchable, and we must hope she gets onto the Southwark’s physical stage very soon, but on camera she projects a great deal of energy

Tarantula is perhaps simpler than some of Ridley’s other work and, therefore, lacking an element of uncertainty. It’s always clear what’s going on, because we can see right through Toni’s delusion. However, it is full of images that stick, and uncompromising in the way it makes us focus on the things we really do not want to consider. It is clear-eyed, charming and nasty: unmistakably a Philip Ridley play, and a show that keeps the bar high for essential new writing at Southwark Playhouse.

The Cherry Orchard

The Cherry Orchard by Anton Chekhov – Druid Theatre, Galway, online

Garry Hynes’ production of The Cherry Orchard for Druid Theatre is a streaming delight. A fine cast, a strange mix of oddball characters, brings life and energy to Chekhov’s ensemble masterpiece. There are so many characters, each entirely real, that a Cherry Orchard cast have opportunities probably unrivalled in theatre. They make the most of it. From Derbhle Crotty’s Ranyevskaya, the lady of the house returned unwisely home, to Helen Norton’s Germanic companion, equipped with conjuring tricks, the characters bounce off each other from the very first moment.

The late Tom Murphy’s adaptation, performed her for the first time, refracts the Russian setting, through funny and direct Irish dialogue, making the play seem a natural fit in Galway. Francis O’Connor’s set is a stage on a stage, a dilapidated living room that conjures up an entire estate, crumbled past saving, and places the characters under a domestic proscenium arch. Hynes has highlighted the physical nature of the play, which seems full of slapstick and pratfalls, in a way that would have made sense to Samuel Beckett. The characters, all of whom are hopeless at life to a greater or lesser degree, are on a literal collision course with one another attempting, clumsily, to relate to one another but consistently getting it wrong.

There is kindness in this version of the play too, balanced against the slow motion emotional disasters. Aaron Monaghan’s Lopakhin, the son of a serf who buys the estate from the family who once owned his father, is not an avenger but a reasonable man, who wants to help people who don’t understand how to help themselves. Unfortunately, he cannot help himself either, and the endless silence as he fails to propose to Rachel Feeney’s Anya, desparately in love with him, is heartbreaking. Meanwhile Ranyevskaya has clearly sought refuge in an irresponsible Parisian life from the pain of losing her son, drowned in the river as a boy.

The show is a confident and absorbing, with performances to revel in. Alongside Crotty and Monaghan, Siobhán Cullen’s Varya, beset with worry and love for people who will never stay, stands out, but there is much to enjoy. The company performs as a unit, essential for a play with twelve characters, and gives the themes of power, ownership and social change a strong, contemporary resonance.

Once Upon a Bridge

Photograph: Emilija Jefremova

Once Upon a Bridge by Sonya Kelly – Druid Theatre online

There are three characters in Sonya Kelly’s new play, streamed by Druid Theatre: the jogger (Aaron Monaghan), the woman (Siobhán Cullen) and the bus driver (Adetomiwa Edun). They are the protagonists in a real life incident from 2017, when a woman walking over Putney Bridge was barged into the road by a man running past and narrowly escaped going under a bus. The video footage remains in the minds of all those who saw it on the news, but the man was never found and no-one knows why he did it, or why he ran on. Kelly makes an excellent job of opening up the lives of those involved, examining who they might have been and what the incident, over in a moment, did to them.

We hear monologues from each in turn. Cullen’s character is young, Irish, and on her way to a job interview. For her, the casual brutality of her near-death experience is sign that London is not on her side. Monaghan’s jogger is a high-flying financial analyst, fighting for promotion and resentful of women he thinks are taking his place. Kelly suggest, cleverly, that the identity of a man whose photograph was published everywhere remained hidden because his colleagues simply suppressed it, taking their own measures rather than going to the police. The private justice of those in powerful positions make as likely an explanation for what happened as anything. The most interesting character is, perhaps, Edun’s bus driver concerned with his boss, his timetable and the job he needs to support his family. He is haunted by how, if he had not swerved to avoid Cullen, his life would have fallen apart.

The performances are strong, and the monologue format of Kelly’s play makes for an excellent piece of online drama. Her writing is a fine example of the role dramatists play in poring over moments that seem to have a particular significance for the times we live in, showing us what they mean and why they matter. She uses the Putney Bridge incident to peel apart the levels of inequality that make up a modern metropolis, and the distorted power relations – gender, race, class and money – that allow a man to decide, in a split second, that a stranger’s life has no value.

The Long Goodbye

Photograph: Kelly Mason

The Long Goodbye by Riz Ahmed – Manchester International Festival online

The live broadcast of Riz Ahmed highly personal piece, The Long Goodbye, is set back stage at an empty San Francisco theatre. Ahmed is on tour, which is indistinguishable in Covid times from being stranded. He is waiting for an audience that will never turn up, at least not in the flesh. The frustrations of keeping a performing career going during global lockdowns is just the start for Ahmed. A cultural figure with a growing profile and a current Oscar nomination, he has had time recently to look inward and to find a new way to express himself, as a rapper. The Long Goodbye is a cunningly filmed, unmissable performance driven by anger – at Britain, in particular, and the forces of empire that drove his father out of his home, in newly partitioned Pakistan, into a life of hanging on and making do in London.

Ahmed’s father died of Covid, made vulnerable by the factory work that had damaged his lungs. The racism he and his family experienced is the common immigrant experience in modern Britain, and Ahmed rages against the multiple levels of abuse he considers those from his country experience in the supposed motherland. The Long Goodbye is a live performance of the tracks from Ahmed’s album. He drifts through the empty theatre spaces, reclaiming them to spit out his message. The music uses hard electronics with Pakistani instruments, and fills the dressing rooms, backstage toilets and the theatre balcony. Ahmed does not hold back. His anger, so clearly genuine, is distressing but also compelling. This feels like a moment of catharsis, and the way forward can only be real change. Whether that comes is another matter, but The Long Goodbye is a show that comes completely from the time it was made, and it eloquently and skilfully expresses the experience of feeling like an immigrant in the country of your birth.

Hymn

Hymn by Lolita Chakrabati – Almeida Theatre online

In an empty Almeida, two heavyweight actors – Adrian Lester and Danny Sapani – bring serious male energy to Lolital Chakrabati’s new play about black friendship. Sapani’s Benny arrives in the lives of Gil (Lester) and his three, dominant, off-stage sisters in an unexpected and not entirely welcome manner. Gil is aloof and confident, while Benny is socially out of his depth. But, in a series of jump-cut scenes, the two hit it off in a way that could be the making of them, or their downfall.

Chakrabati, Lester’s wife, has written a play with a lot to recommend it, even if it finally lacks the level of credibility. The two characters seems a little like types rather than individuals at times, although in the hands of the two performers they are both fascinating to watch. Sapani, in particular, is excellent as a many who has rarely trusted others, but could be persuaded to trust this newcomer who is the brother he never had. The same seems to go for Gil, whose relationship with his sisters, more confident and more successful than him, combines with his father’s ambiguous legacy to leave him adrift. Benny, at first, looks like the man he’s been waiting for.

The play deals every effectively with the experience of being black and male, rather than just male, in 1980s and 90s Britain. Scenes are punctuated by black music of the era, which the two perform in various ways, including home-made karoaoke and with Sapani’s powerful voice, and delightedly reminisce over. It’s not the musical heritage we see on Top of the Pops revival show. And there are passing references, such as Benny’s memory of his boxing gym mentor, as “A bit of a racist, but he meant well.” This rings very true, and Chakrabati tells the story from a perspective that still makes only occasional appearances in the mainstream.

If Hymn is not a perfect play, it is certainly very good. The atmosphere conjured up by Lester and Sapani, two of the country’s top performers, is powerful and they bring drive, emotion and focus to the drama. The writing is nuanced and structured, and the full circle ending very affecting. And, of course, every credit must go to the production team for transferring a play scheduled when we thought theatres would be open again, on to the small screen with complete confidence. I cannot wait to be back in the Almeida, peering around a pillar, enjoying actors of the calibre of these two.