Arabian Nights

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Image courtesy of Ali Wright

Arabian Nights by Nessah Muthy – Hoxton Hall, London

The gorgeous interior of Hoxton Hall is a perfect setting for a show about the exotic East. Not nearly as well known as it should be, the hall is a Victorian music hall preserved in remarkable condition, with delicate iron columns and two balcony tiers. Nessah Muthy selects highlights from One Thousand and One Nights, a popular inspiration for the Victorians who built this place. The tales chosen include Sinbad and Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, so familiar we take them for granted yet, staged here, they are revealed savage and grotesque parables, full of dismemberment, bizarre cruelty, grim monsters and fart jokes. The enfolding narrative – slave girl Sharazad tells tales to save her sister Dunzayad from enforced marriage to King Shahryar, to be followed by her execution – is the darkest of all. The production plays on the contemporary Incel resonance of a man, filled with hatred for women, who claims he kills on behalf of all men. It even argues that such a monster can be changed by love.

It is in the telling of the tales, though, that Arabian Nights really comes alive. Iris Theatre uses a spectacular array of puppets, from a towering, glowing eyed King Shahryar to birds, ships and sea monsters. Some stories are played out at puppet-size, others by the actors wearing masks. The variety is enthralling, and the characterful puppet designs by Johnny Dixon are the star of the show. However, the cast is also very enjoyable to watch. Sharon Singh and Izzy Jones as the calm and impetuous sisters, not only run the show, but are almost unrecognisable when they don masks for the tales. Hemi Yeroham scampers around like Mario the Plumber as Ali Baba, while Singh plays his wife like Olive Oyl. Muthy revels in the gore – severed limbs in a bag, shipmates roasted on a spit – while exploring the terrorising of women that drives the stories. The evening is full of invention, an excellent entertainment highly suitable for a venue that has been serving up amusements for 150 years.

 

The Lehman Trilogy

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Simon Russell Beale, Ben Miles and Adam Godley. Image by Mark Douet

The Lehman Trilogy by Stefano Massini, adapted by Ben Power – Lyttleton Theatre

Stefano Massini’s work about the origins of Lehman Brothers Bank is a domestic epic, and a remarkable evening of theatre. Over three and a half hours, three actors takes us from a clothing store founded in the 1840s in Montgomery, Alabama to the moment when a phone rings in Lehman Brothers Manhattan office on 13 October 2008, confirming bankruptcy. The role of Lehman’s in the 2008 financial crisis is well-known, but Massini’s play is about everything else – the 150 years of changing business practice leading to that point. It is rich and complex, full of drama and staged with sometimes breathtaking confidence. If any production can still justify all-male casting, it is this.

All the action takes place in a glass-walled 21st century office, acted out on a boardroom table using the archive boxes familiar from television footage of employees trooping out of offices, carrying their belongings. The plays are many things at once: a family saga, a history of immigration in America, an analysis of changing ideas of business and goods, both financial and moral. Haim arrives in Baltimore from Bavaria, wearing the shoes he has saved for America and becoming Henry at customs, and makes a living selling things people need – first clothes, then seeds for the cotton farmers of Alabama. Joined by his two brothers, their business changes as they become cotton factors, buying raw cotton and selling it to producers. It’s the start of a progression towards becoming a bank, trading in nothing but money. When Lehman’s eventually went down, taking global economy with it, trading was in ideas of money, so far removed from goods as to be unrecognisable.

However, the Lehman Trilogy is far from an exercise in confirming what we already think. It is full of family and national dynamics, large and small, very much like a US  version of Thomas Mann’s novel ‘Buddenbrooks’, an account of three generations of Baltic merchants. It is also a feast for the three fine actors who play an uncountable number of roles in the play. Simon Russell Beale, who begins as the eldest brother, starts with a weighty, familiar Russell Beale performance and blossoms in all sorts of unexpected directions, with scene stealing moments including a piano playing young lady, a tightrope walker, a crumbly rabbi. His evident enjoyment and lightness of touch may herald a new chapter in his brilliant career. Ben Miles, the more volatile of the original brothers, embodies the volcanic streak in subsequent generations, and Adam Godley is the younger, patronised brother who becomes a demonic presence in the form of the mid-20th century financial pirate, Bobby Lehman. All three range effortless across genders and ages, wearing their 1840s costumes throughout, with the addition of just a hat or a pair of sunglasses.

The dramatic approach seems, on the surface, conventional. Ben Power’s adaptation tells the entire story as a voiceover, with each character describing events and their part in them. This could be alienating, but in fact it is strangely involving, drawing the audience into a family memoir that becomes the soundtrack to the great events of the modern era.  The writing is never over-dramatic, but Sam Mendes’ direction contains an incredible range of action – wars, disasters, deaths – in a glass box, with the help of Es Devlin’s digital cyclorama which locates the action across America, from cotton fields to cities. The Lehman Trilogy is an era-defining production for the National Theatre, combing over the politics of our time in a way that offers genuine insight, and gives three of our finest actors some of the roles of their lives.

Ulster American

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Ulster American by David Ireland – Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

David Ireland’s play, about Hollywood actor arriving in Britain to play the lead in a play by an Ulster Protestant writer, is a riot. From the moment bearded, open-shirted Darrell D’Silva strides on stage the audience is laughing, and it doesn’t stop, even as the humour becomes increasingly, outrageously dark. D’Silva, as Jay, has a plumb part which he attacks with relish. His character is an Oscar-winner makes up with charisma what he lacks in basic intelligence. His deeply serious, unsuccessful attempts to understand Northern Ireland are hilarious. However, his ego is always one step ahead of him, and he is a complete mismatch with his putative director, Leigh, played by Robert Jack. Leigh is nervous, northern and slightly camp, and Jack plays him with more than hint of Alan Bennett. They circle one another warily until Jay makes a macho suggestion of such heroic offensiveness that the play is blown open.

Enter Ruth, the playwright, who is late due to a set of complex and unlikely circumstances which she relates at full speed, with Irish-level candour. Played by Lucianne McEvoy, her character is instantly a match for Jay, in terms of charisma and humour. All three performances delight as the character dynamics shift, and tip into a disastrous vortex of Martin McDonagh proportions. Ireland’s play is one of the funniest pieces seen on stage for a long time, but it has more than laughs to offer. While many Fringe production wrestle awkwardly with the big issues of the moment – rape, sexism, Hollywood hypocrisy, political tribalism, the future Northern Ireland – David Ireland takes them all on at once with gleeful abandon. The two male characters are brutally skewered – the pious left-wing cliches of Leigh and the egoistic delusion of Jay (“I’m one of the nicest men in the business!”). Meanwhile, it is Ruth they should both have been watching. An irresistible play, in a triumphant production.

 

DUPed

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DUPed by John McCann – Sweet Grassmarket, Edinburgh

John McCann is a playwright, born in Portadown, but now based in Fife. Frustrated both by the bigotry of the Democratic Unionist Party back home and by the ignorance and indifference of his friends in Scotland, he sets out investigating who the DUP are, how they came to hold the balance of power in Britain and, most importantly, what he feels about them as someone who left Ulster. As a rigorous theatre-maker, he travels to Northern Ireland to interview people who have come into conflict with the DUP. He discusses the doctrines of hatred that have spawned and driven the DUP, particularly towards gay people and Muslims. A recent example involves Peter Robinson, former First Minister of Northern Ireland, qualifying an Islamophobic sermon by a local pastor, by explaining that he would trust a Muslim in certain circumstances, such as serving him in a shop.

DUPed is staged as a monologue, in a carpeted hotel conference room, with only a Bible and a megaphone. These highly symbolic props are used to good effect: whenever McCann picks up the megaphone, he becomes Rev. Ian Paisley, and it is hard to disagree with his focus on the baleful influence the late preacher still casts over Northern Ireland. McCann highlights important political questions that slide beneath the radar, as Great Britain ceases to take a close interest in Ulster. Meanwhile, religious divisions remain as powerful as ever. McCann’s discussions with those caught up in continuing cultural conflict lead him to the conclusion that there is hope. The popular majority for equal marriage and abortion rights in the Republic of Ireland is a new dynamic for change. He also feels that confrontation will resolve nothing: talking to the DUP is the only answer. The show is a low-key but important monologue, fascinating in itself but something that also feels like the notes for something bigger to come.

 

Blackthorn

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Blackthorn by Charley Miles – Roundabout, Summerhall, Edinburgh

Charley Miles’s debut play was first staged in 2016 and she has already received recognition for it. Decor-free and in-the-round at Summerhall, there is no place to hide, but Blackthorn stands up as a well-structured and powerful work. The two characters, Him and Her, appear as children, the first born to their Yorkshire village for 20 years, and then in scenes that leap forward in time as their turbulent relationship plays out. While Him (Harry Egan) stays in the village and becomes a farmer, Her (Charlotte Bate) struggles with the restrictions of village life, leaves for London bu eventually returns. Their failure to connect despite their deep links, recurs again and again over thirty years and more. It embodies the deepening disconnection between urban and rural in Britain, and the uprooting of generations from the place where they were born, whether they stay or not.

Miles’ themes would not work unless they were embodied in believable, complex characters, and they are. Egan’s character is aggressive, confrontational and unable to communicate, while Bate’s is self-deluding and incapable of settling. The two actors put in performances that are a joy to watch, effortlessly using their physical presence to transform the small stage into a field, a pub, a wedding.  Their roots, like the blackthorn, are invisible but every bush is connected under the surface by a network that is very hard to drag from the earth. Miles has written a harsh, tender and, at times, heart-breaking play which identifies her as one to follow.

Prehistoric

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Prehistoric by Marcel Dorney – Summerhall, Edinburgh

It is not well known in Britain that Queensland, in the late 1970s, was run by an   authoritarian state government lead by right-wing governor Joh Bjelke-Petersen. His police task force tackled anything they saw as youth rebellion by stripping off their badges and wading in with their fists. The sinister oppression, which Marcel Dorney’s play claims went as far as rape, coincided with the rise of punk in the western world, of which Australia felt itself a part. Prehistoric tells the story of the era through two girls and two boys who form a band, bringing them into conflict with the out-of-control police state.

The play features live songs, and is performed muscially and dramatically with great conviction. The four actors – Grace Cummings, Brigid Gallacher, Zachary Pidd and Sahil Saluja – are accomplished performers who create distinctive, contrasting characters from a range of backgrounds. The play is a wild ride, taking the audience from awkward teen encounters to the sweaty terror of raided gigs. A wide range of political issues are brought naturally and cleverly into the drama, from attitudes to race and sex discrimination in the workplace to the conflicted identity of Australians all too aware of  colonial privilege, while cut off from most of its benefits. Prehistoric is an impressive drama, which delivers a forgotten history as part of a compelling account of growing up, physically, culturally and politically.

Cezary Goes to War

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Cezary Goes to War by Komuna/Warszawa – Army Reserve Centre, Edinburgh

Four men in an Army drill hall, clad in Adidas tracksuit tops and shorts, sing lieder and dance in an athletic, chorus line fashion. A woman accompanies them on the piano. All five claim to be called Cezary, and they have a bone to pick with the Polish military c.1994, which has classified them as ‘Category E: unfit for military service.’

Cezary Goes to War is a strange and unforgettable piece that combines high camp with the songs of Polish composer Stanisław Moniuszko. It is often funny, as the performers cartwheel across the stage while singing or line up for physical inspection in their pants. However, its awkward, endearing surface conceals a piece with strong political purpose. The story is autobiographical, written by classical musician and director Cezary Tomaszewski, who is also one of the performers. The criteria for physical categorisation which flash up on the screen are both absurd and disturbing, with echoes of the Nazis. The underlying assumption is that Cezary was rejected by the army because he is gay. This show is a clever, unclassifiable queer response, identifying and examining discrimination while delivering some very fine songs. The Army hall setting, with uniformed territorial personnel tearing tickets, only adds to the impact.