Spiked

Spiked, Pleasance - Courtesy of Felicite du Jeu (10) Charlotte Asprey, Daniella Dessa and Katie Clark_preview

Charlotte Asprey, Daniella Dessa and Katie Clark in Spiked. Image courtesy Félicité du Jeu.

Spiked by Félicité du Jeu – Pleasance Theatre, London

Three women sit in a hospital waiting room while their a secondary school class, brought down by something mysterious, are examined by doctors. Each has a teenager in the treatment room, and no-one will tell them what is going on. Their children may share a school, but they have contrasting backgrounds, attitudes and expectations of their offspring. Félicité du Jeu’s new play for Pepperbox Productions aims to tackle the social issues that divide and unite mothers head on. The three performers also double effectively as each other’s children in flashback scenes, creating characters with admiral ease with no more than a change of hoodie.

Spiked has good intentions and a tightly structured setting. However, du Jeu falls down through showcasing the stereotypes she intends to undermine. Joanna is a neurotic upper-middle class yummy mummy, Karen is a working class single mother, and Rozhin is a Kurdish immigrant. All three behave just as people of their type are supposed to. Joanna wraps her daughter in cotton wool, Karen refuses to tell her daughter who her vanished father is, and Rozhin is insistent on her son’s Kurdish identity. This aspect of the play tells us little about real people, and undermines the character developments that follow as the plot unfolds.

The setting – effectively a hostage situation, with the mothers trapped as something potentially terrible happens to their children – in ingenious and has great potential for escalating tension. However, this is not really the focus for the play. The central plot is used as a medium for spinning  narrative threads around each family rather than as the driving device for the action, and this seems a mistake. The play becomes a diffused meditation, and loses its power to demand attention. In this type of situation something always snaps, but Spiked leaves us instead with a shared speech about motherhood, and a soundtrack of recorded interview snippets about women’s fears and ambitions for their kids.

Spiked is at its most effective when staging the relationships between the three teens, and in scenes with their mothers. This is where the play suddenly jumps alive, and the writing sounds like lived experience. Despite the weight of parental expectation, the kids are just trying to get on with it, smoking a bit of dope and trying not to get caught. Their separation from the anxieties of their mothers is entirely natural and little heart-breaking. The play has something to say about the impossible pain of bringing up and letting go of a child. Its tendency to spell everything out wipes away ambiguity, and the play would definitely benefit from leaving more unsaid. This is an intriguing collaboration between women, with all-female cast and creatives, but lacks the subtlety or the focus to deliver the impact it clearly intends.

 

Misty

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Arinze Kené © Helen Murray

Misty by Arinzé Kene – Bush Theatre, London

Plays about the process of writing plays are very difficult to pull off. They need sharp, self-aware writing, and charismatic performance. Fortunately, Arinzé Kene, who both writes and performs Misty, has these requirements covered. An outrageously talented performer, he is subtle and direct, funny and physical, and has serious singing and rapping abilities up his sleeve. He brings them all together in a complex, intellectually rich piece which takes itself seriously while retaining its sense of humour.

Misty is an important commission for the Bush Theatre, celebrating its first year in its refurbished space, and for artistic director Madani Younis. In development for three years, it is a flagship show for the theatre’s identity under Younis, staging work about the place and the people of Shepherd’s Bush and the wider city. Kene’s play is about the expectations and assumptions on him as a black man writing an urban play. He’s developing a story about a man who gets into a fight on a night bus, but a right-on friend and his wife keep leaving him voice message critiques, accusing him of writing “a nigga play” and giving white audiences the suffering black stereotypes they expect.

Although this is a one man show, the staging is an impressive piece of teamwork. Director Omar Elerian brings characters into the periphery of Kene’s world. His older sister, played by a young girl (Rene Powell), gives him a very funny and surreal lecture on cultural symbolism. His friends Raymond and Donna record their joint voicemail messages dismissively, from behind radio mikes. A ‘hot-shot producer’ and Kene’s agent appear as dictatorial voices off. Designer Rajha Shakiry threads an orange balloon theme through the show, which illustrates the pressures on Kene and leads to two remarkable scenes – a piece of slapstick physical comedy when Kene becomes lodged inside a giant balloon, and a balloon stuffed room which, in a spectacular reveal, references Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man.

The production is very well suited to Kene’s multi-faceted performance. He both explores and laughs at the social expectations of his writing. When he performs extracts from the play he is constantly fretting over, he is captivating as his night bus character and tells a story that seems both real and important.  He does this through a series of rap performances accompanied by two musicians, Shiloh Coke and Adrian McLeod, on drums and keyboards. However, the status of this narrative is uncertain – is it a friend’s experiences, or is it stereotyped fiction? Kene unpicks 21st London big questions of racial and social polarisation and of gentrification, but does so in a way that is entirely his own.

Arinzé Kene is an exceptional performer, who clearly has the makings of a star. If he can make such an ambitious, complex and individual show work, it will be fascinating to see what he does next. Meanwhile, the Bush Theatre has delivered an original and effortlessly entertaining piece about the social issues of our time, which is pretty much a definition of its purpose.

 

 

 

Our Country’s Good

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Tom Dawze and Sapphire Joy in Our Country’s Good at Nottingham Playhouse. Photo: Catherine Ashmore

Our Country’s Good by Timberlake Wertenbaker – New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich

Timberlake Wertenbaker’s breakthrough play is thirty years old, but its popularity remains high. The 1980s characteristics which give it away as a play from a different era are ones that current writers would do well to rediscover. The story of the first play – from a western point of view, of course – performed in Australia, in 1789 by convicts of the first transport ship, is politically courageous and clear-headed in a way that often evades playwrights in a more confused era. It is concise and incisive, complex but direct, and full of wider meaning which Wertenbaker has the good sense to avoid hammering home. Her writing is also wonderfully poetic but functional. She is a playwright who avoids indulgence, her drama apparently driven by a force of its own.

Fiona Buffini’s revival for Ramps on the Moon is an admirably managed and staged production, perfectly suited to the democratic New Wolsey Theatre space (one of six co-producing theatres). Boards cover the sands of Botany Bay, creating a stage for the newly arrived British officers and their cargo of prisoners. Power struggles play out over the identity of the new colony – a punishment camp or a new society – with brutal Major Ross (Colin Connor) contemptuous of naive Second Lieutenant Ralph Clark (Tim Pritchett)’s plan to stage Farquhar’s ‘The Recruiting Officer’, an argument refereed by the Governor-in-Chief (Kieron Jecchinis). The rehearsing convicts, including leading lady Mary Brenham (Sapphire Joy), threatening Liz Morden (Gbemisola Ikulemo) and pickpocket and Garrick-lover Robert Sideway (Alex Nowak) eventually find escape in playing roles that remove them temporarily from the prospect of flogging or the noose.

Ramps on the Moon stage work with casts who are 50% either deaf or disabled. Their determination to provide opportunities for actors who may otherwise struggle is impressive, but importantly the staging adds fascinating levels of meaning. The convicts are all deaf and/or disabled, while the officers, for the most part are not. This establishes a separation, reinforced by the use of British Sign Language throughout. Sometimes, cast members are on stage signing the action to one another and the audience, interpreting the officers’ actions amongst themselves. At other times, they are signing their own lines to one another or, in the case of two actors – Fifi Garfield as future-seeing Dabby Bryant and Emily Rose Salter as Duckling Smith, mistress to an officer – signing all the lines for actors who do not speak at all. This approach lends voices to those who would not have the in a conventional production while communicating the play to a wider range of audience members. It also introduces multiple layers of expression to the play, with physicality becoming as much part of the production as language.

As a result, the themes of imprisonment in ‘Our Country’s Good’ – by poverty, circumstance, class, culture and religion – are played by actors breaking through their own barriers to speak to the audience. As a progressive company, Ramps on the Moon are leading the way by showing what inclusive theatre looks like. It is encouraging that this fundamental innovation is coming from regional UK theatres: London has a lot to learn from them.

Macbeth

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Macbeth by William Shakespeare – National Theatre: Olivier

Despite featuring two of the National Theatre’s best loved leads of the last few years, Rufus Norris’ Macbeth has been on the end of universally poor reviews. Norris has been received some bad press, much of which is unjustified, for his programming in the Olivier Theatre, an infamously fickle space which has caught out every NT director during their tenure. Using the Olivier to stage new work has annoyed prominent critics, but is surely much-needed. However, it was perhaps unwise of Norris to take on critics by staging not only his second ever Shakespeare, but the one notorious for sinking reputations. However, like productions such as Common and Saint George and the Dragon, this Macbeth isn’t the disaster that has been claimed – nor is it a success.

Rae Smith’s vast set, dominated by a swivelling bridge, attempts to turn the cavernous spaces of Olivier stage into the witch-ridden Scottish moors. It is  dramatic but confused, combining Throne of Blood medieval Japanese horror with cyber-Goth accessories and bin bag backdrops. It looks amazing in the opening scene, as Rory Kinnear pursues a rebel lord on stage and beheads him with a machete. However, Macbeth is not a play of epic battle scenes – the majority of the action is in intimate, claustrophobic settings. These have to be levered out of the huge stage spaces, and much of the play is spent in a concrete bunker or a temporary lean-to at the front of the stage, cutting out the majority of the space. While this makes sense as the architecture of a disrupted, warring nation, it undermines the poetry of the play. Balancing delicate language with grim reality is the challenge of Macbeth, and more difficult that it seems.

Rory Kinnear is caught in the same bind, a stocky, bluff military character with a tendency to choke back his lines. This is a Kinnear mannerism, usually under complete control, but his Macbeth seems less relaxed than his many previous successes at the NT. But as soon as the deed is done, a switch is flicked and he finds his groove as a possessed psychopath. It has rarely been clearer that Macbeth gives up all control of his future as soon as he stabs Duncan. Anne-Marie Duff’s Lady Macbeth is more smoothly conceived. She plays the party-loving hostess with conviction, and a chilling ability to manipulate. Her horror when she realises she no longer matters is gone is a defining moment in the play.

There a number of intelligent, enjoyable   performances in the supporting cast: Stephen Boxer’s foppish Duncan, Kevin Harvey’s angular Banquo and Patrick O’Kane’s warrior Macduff are all memorable. Trevor Fox’s strange, Geordie Porter reappears throughout as an attendant to Macbeth and as a sinister Third Murderer. His fellow murderers are effectively played as post-hippy drop-outs, and there is an illegal party theme to the staging, amusing and confusing in equal measure, which involves  Duncan spending his final night dancing on a table lit by a generator.

The over-complication that undermines the staging affects the Witches too, who combine too many ideas to make much sense as a collective, although they look remarkable perched, swaying, on tall poles overlooking the final battle. Their cauldron scene, however, is inexcusably cut. The English scene, with Malcolm testing Macduff’s loyalty is not Shakespeare’s finest moment, but cutting most of it while leaving only the start and end makes little sense.

Once the play breaks free from the complications of its set its rolls much more smoothly. With the murder of the Macduffs, Rae Smith manages to stage the action on a reasonable portion of the stage. Kinnear in particular, relaxes into his role and the final scenes are delivered with credibility. Norris’ production is messy and lacks the clarity of thought needed to stage such an unforgiving play. There is also much to like and enjoy about this production too, including inventive performances and strong ideas. However, Norris should probably play to his strengths as a director, which are many, and not feel he needs to transform into Nicholas Hytner as well.

Not I

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Not I by Samuel Beckett – Battersea Arts Centre

Samuel Beckett’s 12 minute, virtuoso monologue Not I is performed by Mouth, the only visible portion of the woman who speaks to the audience. An otherwise silent character, the Auditor, stands on stage and listens, making only four gestures during the play. The script is a ferocious outpouring of emotion, as the nameless woman  who has been prevented from speaking lets her life, marked by disappointment and mysterious trauma, flow. It is technically tough, with the pace of the language a fiendish test of capacity to breathe. It is also physically demanding, with the performer suspended eight feet above the stage and often tied, in the dark, to a sort of crucifix to ensure only the mouth can move. And Not I is formally demanding too, as the Beckett Estate is rarely enthusiastic about alterations to the author’s instructions. The performance by Jess Thom, an actor with Tourette’s Syndrome who also uses a wheelchair, is therefore not only a major achievement but something of a stage landmark.

Already acclaimed in Edinburgh for this and previous shows, Jess Thom was given permission to perform Not I, as she explains in a post-show discussion, with none of the anticipated problems. To their credit, Beckett’s descendants saw the close connection between the play, an involuntary explosion of language, and the multiple involuntary words that punctuate Thom’s life. Her tics – frequently the word ‘biscuit’ – are for the most part kept at bay by the monologue, which replaces the language she cannot control with uncontrolled language that, paradoxically, puts her in charge. At times Thom’s exclamations seem an extension of the play, not least when she declares “I am an umbrella stand”. The performance is relaxed, designed to accommodate anyone with conditions that might usually prevent them from going to live performances. As Thom points out, the only way she has been able to attend regularly is by appearing on stage.

Staging work so it can be seen by those normally excluded is admirable, but Thom’s performance does more than that: it takes us to the heart of the play, and reshapes. She shines a spotlight on the hierarchy of communications: on those who do not have the means, or the right, to speak. . The staging makes the theatrical seem natural and inevitable, with performance the only means of communication available for those struggling to be heard. Thom brings something entirely different to the work, a direct response invited by Beckett’s experimental writing. She is partnered by Charmaine Wombwell, as the Auditor, who signs the entire performance in BSL, a feat of physical dexerity comparable to Thom’s performance. The combination is entirely compelling, and even funny, as the audience quickly learns the BSL sign for ‘biscuit’. The evening, complete with pre-show exclamation, performance, short film, audience discussion and noise-making ‘splurge’ is over in an hour, but it is an exciting, significant and rewarding hour. In adding herself to the short list of actors who’ve tackled Not I, Jess Thom has made a powerful statement, one which challenges conceptions of what theatre is, and what it can do.

 

Jubilee

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Toyah Wilcox as Elizabeth I. Image by Tristram Kenton

Jubilee – by Chris Goode from the screenplay by Derek Jarman and James Whaley

Forty years on, the Silver Jubilee year of punk and pageantry seems an increasingly mysterious and distant time. Derek Jarman’s film ‘Jubilee’ epitomised the way that underground lurched into the mainstream and, just for a moment, the freaks were in charge. At least, that’s one version of the story. In a test of the contemporary meaning and relevance of such myth-making, Chris Goode has adapted Jubilee for the stage. Taking on such a notorious chaotic film for the stage is an act of sink-or-swim bravura. Fortunately, although it is hard to measure ‘Jubilee’ by conventional markers of stage success, this production achieves something distinctive, becoming a piece of event theatre and an affirmation of alternative culture a generation on.

Questions could certainly be asked of ‘Jubilee’. The Lyric has gone to considerable trouble to insert a new, smaller auditorium inside its existing theatre, with much of the audience seated on the stage on either side of the performers. It’s a shame then that Goode, who also directs, delivers a production much better suited to the proscenium stage it is attempting to subvert. However, where the production falls short, the audience steps in. It is hard to tell where the punks, anarchists and queers on stage stop and the audience begins especially when, for example, the woman in a jumpsuit and centurion’s helmet with full crest in the front row turns out not to be in the play. There is a beautiful synchronicity between ‘Jubilee’ and the people who want to see it, who are the real thing unlike the performers they are watching. This is almost enough justification for the play on its own. However, it does have plenty more to offer.

Jarman’s film blended the occult with subversive history, domestic terrorism and resistance to oppression. Elizabeth I (Toyah Wilcox), commands John Dee to conjure up angels, and we are transported to a 1977 squat. Mad, Toyah’s part in the original film now played by the machine gun-wielding Temi Wilkey, commands the audience “Alright you motherfuckers, listen up!” The MC is “England’s last remaining hope and glory”, drag queen Amyl Nitrate played by the commanding Travis Alabanza. From here on in it’s all about the atmosphere and not so much about plot, although a cohort of anarchist revengers including Mads, Crabs and Amyl do murder a couple of representatives of the male, normative hegemony. There is cheerful chaos throughout, very much in the spirit of the film, but also a self-consciousness that prevents a simple nostalgia exercise. Everything is updated, and phones and Youtube feature, while the punk look is less safety pins and more 21st century cyber. Some aspects of this experiment work well, such as the alternative history being written by Mad, without kings, queens and the powerful, which seems no less relevant now than forty years ago. On the other hand, the squat setting for the play seems a relic from a different era, when property was cheap and unwanted.

‘Jubilee’ is an uneven experience by its nature, but the success of the evening can be judged in the reaction of the audience. It was made for them, and they love it. Intentionally or not, Goode has tapped into a desire for alternative political expression which can, at the very least, fill a theatre and bring a generation who were there the first time around out alongside a generation  still shaping its equivalent.

The Ferryman

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Image by Johan Persson

The Ferryman – Jez Butterworth, Gielgud Theatre, London

Ten years ago, Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem was the play of the moment, the break-out new writing everyone had to see. Remarkably, Butterworth has done it again with The Ferryman, winning a fistful of Olivier Awards and breaking Royal Court box office records. Now The Ferryman is installed at the Gielgud Theatre with a new cast, as the beacon of new British writing. This is the play that will define 2010s theatre for the many people who only see straight drama once in a while. The problem is that the play is not nearly as good as everyone would like to believe.

From the very start, the scenario seems very familiar – an multi-generational Irish family drama set in a farm house, mildly disfunctional yet loveable characters, charming dialogue spiced with swearing, and a visitor from outside who will unlock the dark secret that naturally, lurks below the surface. And beyond the apparent safety of the kitchen walls, politics threatens and impossible choices must be made . Irish drama is defined by plays in which family and national politics collide, from Sean O’Casey through Brian Friel to Enda Walsh. It is a rich and characteristic vein of writing, a national theme that matches political disaster with the storytelling that reworks and fuels the myths in a perpetual cycle. The Ferryman is set in 1980s Derry (although there’s a confusing suggestion at one point that the setting is Armagh) during the hunger strikes, but it could be set anywhere in Ireland, any several other points of the 20th century.  Butterworth mines the farmhouse kitchen stereotypes for all they are worth, introducing a comically large number of characters, but fails to deliver fresh insight into Ireland or the dilemmas of love and war, or anything beyond the familiar.

Butterworth is happy to play knowing theatrical games, with the central Carney family featuring seven children, a baby who appears on stage, a live goose and number of rabbits. However, this insight does not extend to the wider drama. The cast shows a tendency to burst into spontaneous folk song, to dance and to recite poetry. Some characters provide folksy Irish scenery, such as Uncle Patrick with his tendency to read Virgil out loud over a nip of Bushmills, and Aunt Maggie Far Away who sits in a wheelchair, capable of occasional lucidity which she fills with picturesque tale-telling. Aunt Patricia is another, equally familiar type, a ferociously unpleasant old lady who has never recovered from the Easter 1916 Rising. But the least excusable character is surely Tom Kettle, a stray Englishman who is soft in the head and does not know the strength of his own hands. You can almost hear an angry John Steinbeck yelling, ‘Hey!’

This complete lack of realism is the setting for a story examining recent, grim history:  the terrible burden carried by the relatives of the disappeared, those executed as informers by the IRA, which would then engineers false sightings for years afterwards, to conceal the crime. The plot is intertwined with a further theme about conflicted love, Quinn Carney in love with his sister-in-law while his wife languishes upstairs, feigning illness to escape the grim reality (and having several babies, despite the years of distance between them).

The country dancing, literature-loving, dram-sinking extended family  has to confront both internal and external troubles, but while dramatic events play out, by the end of the play nothing unexpected has happened. The uncomfortable Irish stereotypes are not deconstructed, and the characters behind the dark family dynamics have plenty to say, but remain opaque. There are many people in this play – and the cast is excellent – but, for all its production fuss, the play seems to have very little to say. It neither challenges our assumptions nor adds to our understanding. Butterworth has written a highly conventional drama, certainly compared to the current, experimental work of contemporary Enda Walsh, which does not press the audience beyond their comfort zone, and even features a song or two. That may be why The Ferryman has proved so popular, but it feels like a play from a different time rather than the future of British, or Irish, theatre.