Saturday, April 30, 2011

Macbeth at Clerkenwell House of Detention

There has been a prison on this site in Clerkenwell since the 17th century (remembered in the main these days for an act of terrorism in 1867 by the Fenian Society that left many dead). Rebuilt a number of times over the years it was eventually torn down in the late nineteenth century and replaced with a school, which has since been palimpsested further into covetable flats: a glossy, gated space. But, beneath all that, the prison vaults remain untouched, a warren of linking rooms and tunnels and the site of Belt Up’s latest production.

Founded in 2008, the York-based company are prolific and urgent in their work, eager to experiment, to strive, to reach, even if it means making the occasional misstep, over-stretching. In 2010, during the Edinburgh Fringe, they took over a space in C Soco, named it The House Above and adapted it, filled it, staging a mini-festival of their own making.

The lure of the House of Detention as a performance space is immediately obvious. The twitch of excitement begins even as you negotiate the winding roads of Clerkenwell, still adhering to their medieval curves, and discover the small door, the narrow flight of stairs leading down. Inside, the space is part cavern, part crypt, with a damp cellar smell and the chill of old stone; the must of years. Alexander Wright’s production has not simply been parachuted in, as is sometimes the case with theatre in found spaces; it’s clear that considerable thought has gone into the choreography of the scenes and into how to best utilise the peculiar acoustics of the place. Curtains of creeping mist make it difficult to gauge the lay-out while clanks and moans drift from distant corners, grunts and drums, the scrape of a blade on the flagstone floor, voices that summon and pursue. A melancholic wailing, the chorus of the weird sisters, acts as a sickly siren song, beckoning performers and audience alike, permeating the production. These creatures, when we see them, are more like apparition than witches, timeless things, bloodied and twitching.

The space is lit by low-wattage bulbs and the flicker of candle light. The effect is visually rich, chiaroscuro, faces patterned by shadow, bodies half-buried in the murk; scenes often terminate with a snuffing out of flames.

Staged with a cast of four and hurtling through the text, Belt Up’s Macbeth is rapid and rattling. It’s also an all-male affair: Dominic Allen is quietly charismatic in the title role while company co-founder James Wilkes resists the urge to overplay as Lady Macbeth; there’s a prim quality to his performance that works particularly well and periods of relative calm are used to counterbalance the sudden bursts of violence.

The promenade nature of the production has a degree of appeal (there’s a potent sense of being led, deeper and deeper into a dark world) but it also has its pitfalls. There’s a fair amount of uncertain shuffling and neck-craning on the part of the audience. It’s all too easy to miss chunks of dialogue as one negotiates pillars and the frequent movement around the space, coupled with the repeated need to resettle, to find one’s patch of flagstone, can have a distancing effect. The ominous echoes, all those ghostly clangs and wails, at times skirt close to cliché but the final scenes (one of the few moments where the audience are penned in place, their gaze directed) have a brutal intensity, a shadowy slasher flick vibe that’s thematically apt.

The production is, ultimately, most memorable for the space itself – the adventure of it, its time-bending quality, the way in which it scratches London’s surface – but this wouldn’t be anywhere close to the case were it not for some imaginative and space-sympathetic thinking on the part of the company.

Tickets are available through the Southwark Playhouse website.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Little Eagles at Hampstead Theatre

To be indispensible is to survive. Having been released from the frozen hell of the Siberian gulag, Sergei Pavlovich Korolyov rose to become Chief Designer of the Soviet space programme, its architect and aorta. He was the driving force behind both the Sputnk and Vostok projects; his vision led to the first man being sent into space, his ambition allowed mankind to – briefly – touch the stars and when he died the programme fizzled like a spent match.

Rona Munro’s new play for the RSC (the first part of a proposed trilogy) tells the story of this pivotal but little known figure (Korolyov’s centrality and significance were suppressed by the Politburo during the years of the Cold War). It successfully condenses a complicated and fascinating story – touching on the symbiosis between the Soviet space programme and their defence programme; the training of the cosmonauts, Korolyov’s ‘little eagles’; the questioning of whether the vast sums spent on the space race could have been better utilized in, say, feeding and clothing people – but as is often the case with biographical drama, it also suffers from an overly episodic quality; it’s more of a kite-string of scenes than a cohesive theatrical experience.

Roxana Silbert’s production does contain some memorable individual moments. A scene of wide-eyed and yokel-accented (the performers avoid Russian accents even when curling their tongues around polysyllabic patronyms) Soviet farm labourers confronted by a jump-suited Yuri Gagarin, elated after his orbit of the earth, is played, in part, for laughs. The sight of the cosmonauts-to-be competing to see which of them can hold his hand to a scalding samovar for longest contains an edge, if only an edge, of the testosterone crackle of Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff. The rivalry and camaraderie of these young me, their training, experiences and the glare of their subsequent fame, is a fascinating seam that remains only partially developed.

Silbert’s production never fully taps into the sense of wonder and vision inherent in what Korolyov achieved; it skitters on the surface but rarely digs deep. Blueprints are wafted around and a miniature Sputnik dandles on a string, but the sense of hope and magic of those early days of space exploration is only superficially evoked (at times one longs for the visual panache of something like Complicite’s A Disappearing Number, a piece which though clearly different in its objectives, succeeded in giving shape to complex theories while weaving them together with biographical information). According to one character, Korolyov “changed everything I thought and felt when I looked up at the sky”, but the audience needs to take his word for it on this. The scenes of space travel are also oddly low-key, a LED backdrop and some timid aerial work; though perhaps this serves as a decent visual metaphor for the extraordinary things that were achieved with such comparatively limited technology.

Darrel D’Silva, with frosted quiff, is gripping in the lead role, suitably bullish and driven as a man who refuses to relinquish his grip on his work even as his health began to fail him. Brian Doherty is both boorish and menacing as Khrushchev, with an amusing hint of Al Murray in his demeanour. Greg Hicks doubles as a confrontational Soviet general and the gulag ghosts that haunt Korolyov. Noma Dumazweni provides a good foil for D’Silva as a doctor carrying with her the carapace that comes from spending twenty years in the gulag. She’s the only real mirror to his character’s sometimes alienating drive and allows the audience to better understand how his instinct for self-preservation became so tangled up with the Soviet push for the stars (certainly his personal life, what we learn of it, takes a back seat to the world of his work). This is echoed in Ti Green’s set, a cold, factory-like space with grime-fogged windows and a blade of riveted steel – evoking both wing and debris – jagging down from above.

Munro’s play works best as a piece of storytelling, accomplished if a little over-long, elegantly plaiting a number of narrative strands, but as an act of theatrical trepanning it doesn’t quite come off.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Precious Little Talent at Trafalgar Studios

Ella Hickson’s second play has been considerably reworked since it first appeared at the Bedlam Theatre at the 2009 Edinburgh Fringe. The premise remains the same but certain scenes have been strengthened and lengthened since that first showing, certain points clarified.

Hickson’s three-hander begins on a New York rooftop on Christmas Eve. This is where Sam, nineteen and bursting with adolescent chutzpah, first meets Joey, the English girl in New York, flight-frazzled and fidgety in a new city. One thing leads to another and they end up dashing through the New York night, wrapped in each other’s arms beneath the chandeliers of Grand Central Station. These opening moments, with their faintly unreal, US indie movie quality - Linklater-lite - are revisited later in the play and amusingly undermined.

Joey, it transpires, is in New York to visit the father she hasn’t seen in more than two years. Having recently lost her job and feeling increasingly uncomfortable at home following her mother’s remarriage, she is trying to build bridges. George, her father, a retired academic, has allowed the ties between them to slacken because he wants to shield her from his own mental and physical unravelling.

Joey is yet to discover this; she also initially does not realise that Sam, the boy with whom she shared her rooftop liaison, is also her father’s carer. The play turns its attention on the relationships between these three people who are so intimately connected – father and daughter; patient and carer – and yet distanced from one another, emotionally, culturally.

The character of Sam has benefited most from the reworking of the play. He retains his blithe American optimism and his certainty about how the world works, but there are greater hints at the things that drive him and these are drawn out by Anthony Walsh’s confident performance in the role. Ian Gelder also gives a measured and moving performance as George, a man all too aware of his own deterioration; his life has been one of the mind and now he is losing his hold on himself and the things he loves.

Joey is, oddly, the weakest point of the triangle. Her own struggle to gain a sense of her place in the world has lost some of its freshness; the play, on first viewing, gave a strong sense of what it meant to become an adult just as the rules about what exactly that means – in terms of career and security, in terms of the future – seem to be shifting dramatically. Yet this seems to have been diluted a little in the re-writes (or maybe it’s just that I have grown a little older, lived a little more). Sam’s kind manner and puppyish enthusiasm now seem to jar more with Joey’s capacity for child-like outbursts. Though the character of Joey as written gives a good account of what it is to be perched between adolescence and adulthood, Olivia Hallinan’s performance veers more towards the former. While her brittleness occasionally comes across as brattish, there is a measure of poignancy in her sudden need for her father’s reassurance, in her wish to recreate a proper English Christmas, just like the Christmases of her childhood. As a generational mouthpiece she’s on shaky ground but the character succeeds as a portrait of a confused, if rather self-involved, girl who suddenly feels at sea in the world and misses her dad.

With a longer running time, this reworking of the play is able to better flesh out all three relationships and allows for a more playful, plausible sense of attraction between Joey and Sam. The relationship between George and Joey, volatile but fuelled by love, is also elegantly portrayed in James Dacre’s new production and George’s monologue, in which he acknowledges all he stands to lose, is particularly moving (aided by Hickson’s sense of the poetic). That said, the culture clash humour can feel overplayed at times, an easy recourse rather than a source of real insight, and the final coda strikes a rather hollow note. The sheen of Washington D.C. on inauguration day and the way it feeds Joey’s need to belong to a moment, to be part of a movement, to just connect with something, all seems a trifle too neat a way to end a play that is otherwise brighter and sharper than that.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Brontë at the Tricycle Theatre

“Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life, and it ought not to be. The more she is engaged in her proper duties, the less leisure will she have for it, even as an accomplishment and a recreation. To those duties you have not yet been called, and when you are you will be less eager for celebrity.” It was with these words that the poet laureate Robert Southey replied to Charlotte Brontë after she sent him a selection of her verse. He assumed that her burning need to spill herself onto paper would – and should – fade when she married; Charlotte however, perhaps not surprisingly, was not swayed by his argument.

Following their staging of Jane Eyre, Shared Experience shift their attention to the lives of the Brontë sisters with this reworked version of Polly Teale’s 2005 production, the third part in a trilogy that also includes After Mrs Rochester, an intertwining of Wide Sargasso Sea with the life of its author, Jean Rhys.

Living a life of isolation in rural Yorkshire, the sisters’ imaginations, their creative energy, provide a means of escape both from a life singed on all sides by death – the girls lost their mother and their two elder sisters when young and the graves of their father’s parishioners loomed through their windows – and from the weight of expectation, of how a woman should be behave, of what a woman should desire. To write, for pleasure, for release was not what decent Victorian daughters did.

As in Shared Experience’s earlier work, the girls’ creations share the stage with them, as physical manifestations of deeply internalised emotions. Through repetition, both by the company themselves and those influenced by them, this device has become an over familiar one which in turn leads to it feeling heavy-handed at times; this is particularly true of a scene in which a scarlet-clad and wild-haired Mrs Rochester writhes on the floor at Charlotte’s feet as she reads a letter from her Belgian tutor; at other times it’s done with a lighter touch, such as the moment when a sickening Emily is soothed and embraced by Cathy.

This emphasis on physicality extends into the siblings interactions with one another; people spring onto tables and bodies are flung about the stage to the point where the production threatens to lose its grip on the staid routine of their day to day lives. The production seems to need to paint the sisters as being as emotionally turbulent and passionate as the characters that sprang from them, and in a brief opening sequence, it concedes this need; featuring the three actresses in modern dress, unencumbered by stays and skirts, it subtly acknowledges how difficult it is not to frame the Brontës sisters’ lives through a contemporary lens.

Nancy Meckler’s production has an episodic, almost bitty quality, which intensifies towards the end as tragic death follows quickly after tragic death requiring frequent fades to black. There are so many scene shifts in the second half that Anne’s demise barely registers; there’s a cough and the sound of the waves at Scarborough and suddenly she’s gone. Kristin Atherton’s performance complies with Teale’s reading of Charlotte as a woman wonderfully unwilling to be meek and still, but also at times pinched and rigid and full of self-disgust; steely too and selfish, especially in her relations with Emily. (Charlotte’s brief flicker of a marriage to her father’s curate is also dealt with in a rather off-handed manner).

Elizabeth Crarer gives a remarkably controlled performance as the wilful and slippery Emily, the most unknowable of the sisters, and Flora Nicholson successfully conveys Anne’s warmth, calm and practicality, though her character is somewhat edged out, her inner life less fully explored. Mark Edel-Hunt is suitably brash and boyish as Branwell, sunk by the pressures inherent in being the only son. It’s hard to know what, if anything, Meckler is saying in casing Stephen Finegold not just as the dour Brontë patriarch, but also as Charlotte’s eventual husband and her married tutor, M. Heger, the object of her affection.

Ruth Sutcliffe’s minimal set consists of a black back wall and a single door. While this can’t fully convey the sense of isolation and the power of the surrounding moors, the blackness instead becomes a canvas for the girls’ imaginings. Yet while the performances are particularly strong and the production contains a number of resonant moments, a distance remains; the sisters remain remote figures against the black.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

The Quiet Volume

Think for a moment about your ‘reading voice.’ That inner voice that accompanies the reading of a novel or the composition of a letter; is it related to your speaking voice, does it have a particular ‘sound’? The Quiet Volume invites its participants to do just this, to let that voice join with other voices, to become part of a larger choir.

We are in the Bishopsgate Institute Library, an attractive building near the chilly, gutted hull of Spitalfields Market, a building which since the late nineteenth century has been a place for debate, for the exchange of ideas. In the library the walls are lined with glass fronted-cases, home to their collection of books on the history of London and on the labour, co-operative and humanist movements. This is the backdrop for a piece of audio-theatre co-created by Rotozaza’s Ant Hampton and Forced Entertainment’s Tim Etchells, a piece designed for libraries, a “whispered, self-generated performance for two at a time” taking place as part of the London Word Festival.

Participants are paired up and given mp3 players. We sit side by side at a library table and don the headphones; a voice invites us to listen to the sounds around us, to the particular music of libraries worldwide, the muffled cough, the bags being unpacked, the turning of pages.

A stack of books sits at each person’s elbow from which we are invited to read, to run our finger under the lines of text as we once did at school. In this way the very act of reading becomes defamiliarised. We are invited to consider how we read and why we read from a position of distance; to examine the process of absorbing these words, of gleaning meaning from the lines of black ink on white.

We are made to study our own skin, to read our own stories and those of the people around us: we find ourselves watching the stylish woman sitting to our right with her shoes cast off under her table, the white-haired and grey-suited man sitting beside her and concentrating deeply on some kind of map. We are also invited to think about what it is to not have this ability; the words are made to dance, to fade to white.

The voice is at times soothing, at times unsettling. The resulting experience is both meditative and playful. The chosen passages in the chosen books echo one another, describing scenes of loss and destruction. We are invited to close our eyes and think our way into these scenes; from our table in the library we are transported to shattered cities. By placing participants in pairs, a solitary activity becomes a shared one in a manner that is again reminiscent of being at school, hunched over a single volume, suddenly rather conscious of the speed of your own reading.

The experience takes less than an hour, but it lingers in the memory. The next occasion you take up a book, in the tube on the way home say, or later that evening in bed, it is difficult not to do so with a greater degree of wakefulness, to enjoy the weight of the book in your hand, the feel of it, the strength of it, and to pay much closer attention to your reading voice.

Following its run at the Bishopsgate Institute Library, The Quiet Volume will tour a number of contrasting library spaces across London including Hackney Central Library and the University of London’s Senate House Library. 

Reviewed for Exeunt

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Interview: Ella Hickson

A quick link to my interview with Ella Hickson for Exeunt. Her first full length play, Precious Little Talent, which I saw and loved in Edinburgh in 2009, is transferring to the Trafalgar Studios this week in a new production directed by James Dacre.