Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Henry IV, Donmar Warehouse

You come in via the back door. In this sort-of sequel to her all-female Julius Caesar at the Donmar, Phyllida Lloyd has retained the women’s prison setting. This extends to the way you enter the space. Having collected your tickets from a bar across the street the audience are made to file in up the back stairs while being brusquely instructed by ushers dressed as prison guards to turn our phones off or risk having them confiscated. Inside the lighting is stark and unforgiving, while the seating in the lower part of the theatre has been replaced with equally unforgiving grey plastic chairs. There are institutional posters on the walls and a few more guards dotted around the space. It’s the same flirting-with-immersive approach the Young Vic took to their Hamlet, but once the play proper begins there’s no further interaction.

The two parts of Henry IV have been whittled down to a taut two hours, the pace rarely flagging, the energy considerable, and as with Lloyd’s Julius Caesar there’s a framing device, the inmates performing a play within a play, which allows for a handful of moments when the performers drop out of ‘character’, mainly to swear or scrap with one another.

As a result there are times when there’s a sense that the underlying relationships between the women are being echoed in their onstage dynamics, though this isn’t explored all that much as an idea – we are never shown who these women are and what they mean to one another beyond the world of the play – it does, however, add a shading to certain exchanges, most notably when Ashley McGuire’s Falstaff makes a fart noise at the end of one of Harriet Walters’ most kingly speeches and Walters shoots her a stern reprimanding look.

And Walters is brilliantly kingly. There’s something majestic about her whole demeanour, contemplative, intelligent, quietly commanding, even in a shapeless grey tracksuit, a ratty dressing gown and a crown made of old Cola cans (As a result of having watched too much Oz at an impressionable age I was a bit worried about the presence of all this jagged metal, but most of the violence is dance-like, stylised and shank-free – until the last ragged battle between Hal and Hotspur).

In fact dance and music are central to Lloyd’s production; the whole thing is permeated with this idea that music has the power to lift people out of restrictive environments, to transport, to liberate. The cold grey brick of the back wall is frequently filled with light, star dappled, as the performers slide into song. Sharon Rooney’s Lady Percy has a particularly affecting moment, a gentle, lilting lament.

This is, let’s be clear, an inventive and exciting production, but as beautifully done as so much of it was, I couldn’t help feel that it tries to explain itself too much, to find ways of accounting for the fact that all these women are together on stage, instead of just revelling in it – because it is a thing worth revelling in. But I began to feel as if there was something almost apologetic in the prison setting. Both this and Julius Caesar have been produced in collaboration with Clean Break, a theatre company which works with women in the prison system, and this is great and commendable – and, yes, there’s a also logic to the institutional setting, in terms of the power play and the shifting allegiances and the absence of men. They definitely make the case for choosing this path, part of me just wishes – especially since this is the second time around for the concept – they didn’t feel the need to justify and contextualise the casting in this way – because, regardless of setting, the cast are amazing.

Alongside Walters, Jade Anouka’s Hotspur is a fucking force, with her red wedge of hair; she has this deliciously rangy, rolling performance style, light footed and limber, and – as her performance in Sabrina Mahfouz’s Chef showed – she has a strong poetic sense, there’s a musicality to her delivery. Cynthia Erivo is similarly physical in her performance, if more compact and contained. Like Kenard in The Wire, she’s tiny but you wouldn’t want to cross her. McGuire’s Falstaff is a wonderfully rumbling presence, using her superficial joviality as both a shield and a weapon, while Clare Dunne’s Hal is fiery but smart, clearly playing the long game

All that said, the rivalries and divisions – the Oz-like tribalism that only seems to surface towards the end – don’t feel all that well developed and it’s the tender moments that linger longest, like Rooney and Anouka’s embrace; their reluctance to let each other go.

And there’s something fascinating and timely about the ways in which the production prods at gender identity and its construction. The prison setting is part of this I guess – the shaved heads, the undercuts, the make-up free faces, the tracksuits and gym gear. Androgyny in various guises is part of the aesthetic – Walters’ face, as Henry, looks a little bit like Jeremy Irons crossed with Marlow Moss – which calls the attention to the weight our society places on women continuing to look feminine as they age. But she is never de-sexed by this, nor is there any ‘man-acting’, rather she and the rest of the cast get to probe the interplay between their masculine and feminine traits in ways not often given room to in the mainstream. Strength is a part of this. Because these women are strong. Really bloody strong. There’s this brilliant sequence in which Anouka, Erivo and Ann Ogbomo’s Worcester do a seemingly effortless series of acrobatic chin lifts and push ups and it’s such a pleasure to watch, this focus on women’s strength – physical as well as emotional – this display of power, untethered as it is to the cat-suits and slink of comic books or the acceptable athleticism of the sports world.

So it comes as a bit of a slap when the house-lights snap on at the end and the prison guards come back in to break up the performance. It feels like a reassertion of something that was thrillingly absent during the course of the play.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Starlore for Beginners, Theatre 503

“To life, to life, l’chaim.” Robert stands baffled on his kitchen chair belting out lyrics from Fiddler on the Roof. He’s not a singer. Not even in the shower. This newfound musicality, his girlfriend suspects, is the result of something else: the dislocated soul of her late husband, a dybbuk, intent on making an involuntary Topol of her current boyfriend.

The supernatural laces its way through Samantha Ellis’ writing. This quarter of shorts also proves her point – discussed at greater length here – that the short play can also “be huge and voluptuous and intellectually rangy, at the same time as being lean and punchy, taut and fleet.” All together the four run to just three quarters of an hour and yet there’s an awful lot going on within these tiny plays: grief, love, and life – complex knotty ideas about identity and a dash of the uncanny. These supernatural undercurrents are most explicit in Unfinished, in which a couple have to deal with the returning presence of her dead spouse. The play manages to speak about what it is to begin to live romantically again after the loss of a husband while having a bit of dark strange fun with the idea of Jewish possession (it could have been worse, it could have been Yentl).

These plays while short are never slight; the way in which Ellis deploys detail is both elegant and effective, world building with a small nod here and a half-line there, trusting the audience to meet her in the middle. There’s a lot of humour in the writing as well as a vast amount of charm. The last of the four, the title play – about a woman with epilepsy slowly allowing herself to be loved, letting her walls drop and letting her new partner get emotionally closer to her – is given an extra layer of loveliness by the fact that the two characters are working backstage on a production of Mutiny! the musical.

Noura is the most grounded of the quartet, no witches, no spirits, but it too manages to unpack something complicated and intricate. Taking the form of a dialogue between a young half-Iraqi girl and her belly-dancing instructor, the play explores what it was to be from a place and how much of our identity comes from a sense of belonging, and how much of it we construct. It’s beautifully handled by Olivia Sweeney and Lydia King, the emotional terrain, the nature of their relationship, shifting several times over a brief span of time.

The opening play, Cat in a Sieve, demonstrates that the form is not limiting in terms of setting and scope, set in the reign of James, pitting the King against a ragged girl accused of witchcraft.

Ellis has a great sense of structure and shape and none of the plays hang around any longer than they need to in order to make their mark, to say their piece. While watching a series of shorts instead of a full length plays does require a small recalibration – and perhaps more could have been done with the transition between the pieces, to thread them together – this is a rich and ranging experience, more satisfying than many things double the length.

Reviewed for Exeunt

The Me Plays, Old Red Lion

In the first play in his double bill of poetic, gently introspective, semi-autobiographical plays, Junkie, Andrew Maddock’s ‘Me’, wearing an unwise Topman jumper, is readying himself to go on a date with a woman that he has only ever met online, having swiped to the right on her photo on Tinder.

The play swims between memories of adolescence – the illicit buzz he felt as a teenager when first discovering porn in the pages of a magazine – and the man he has become, a little overweight and overwhelmed, but also isolated, islanded, by the constant availability of such imagery online. He agonises over whether or not to leave a ‘x’ at the end of his texts and holds his breath during those exquisite little gaps between the moment when a message is delivered and the moment in which it is seen. In “this digital age” his socialise unease is exacerbated and it’s easier to retreat into his cocoon, his self-made cage, than to meet new people, to risk rejection. While pornography is central to the piece, it’s never laddish or casual about it; instead it explores with intelligence the appeal of such imagery in a confusing world where irl interaction is fraught with insecurity and anxiety.

Potent as Junkie is the second piece is the stronger of the two; it’s a darker, more complex play. The red jumper has been ditched for a hospital gown and paper pants, as Maddock’s ‘Me’ awaits the results of a biopsy. Similar in structure to Junkie, Hi Life, I Win skips back and forth between childhood memories and the present but the writing here is freer and more fluid. Scenes of teenage rebellion, recollections of a volatile, frustrated adolescence within a constricting Catholic education system, are contrasted with tender and reflective scenes in which he awaits the results of his tests. The levity of the flashbacks gradually gives way to something darker and harder as he mourns his grandfather and stumbles in search meaning, and there are some highly poignant passages about what it is to be the son of a single mum, the closeness of that relationship.

Both pieces are laced with cultural references – the stuff of being a teenager in the 1990s: Gladiators, the Spice Girls and MSN messenger – but it’s gently done, the writing doesn’t hang on them; they just provide pleasant moments of connection if you happen to share them.

The decision to write in verse pays off as Maddock has a strong command of his text, the rhythms of it, the shape of it. The set by Charlie Marie Austin, a Tron-like cage of fluorescent strips elegantly lit by Christopher Nairne, is simple but striking, though its potential as a backdrop seems a little underexplored. While there’s an occasional static quality to Ryan Bradley’s production, Maddock’s warmth as a performer, his openness, and the sense of exposure contained in both pieces, overcomes this.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Edinburgh 2014: Spine, Underbelly

The stage is book-thick, book-rich, beautifully book-full. Rosie Wyatt stands in the middle of this sea of shelves. Her character, Amy, has a right mouth on her. Once the words start they don’t stop. Her story is one of an unlikely friendship. Amy admits that she can be quite handful and her past behaviour -robbing houses, getting sacked from her job in a hairdresser after a spectacular outburst – has resulted in both her friends and family turning away from her. It’s at her lowest, loneliest point that she meets the woman she calls Mrs Glenda, a frail old lady in pop socks who lives in a vast Victorian house stuffed full of the books that she liberated from a library after the council decided to close it down.

Clara Brennan’s monologue, initially performed in a shorter version as part of Theatre Uncut, is full of energy; there’s anger in there but also uplift. It takes what could have been a predictable set up, what is in fact a slightly predictable set up – the education of a wayward young girl by a wise old woman whose health is fading – and turns it into something truly moving and optimistic and heartfelt. While there’s a lot to enjoy about the writing, in the way it blends the political and personal, its undercurrent of radicalism, Wyatt’s performance is also a joy; she’s full of adolescent urgency, taut with it – there’s no let up, it’s like she absolutely has to share her story with you, right here, right now, she has no choice in the matter, she needs you to hear this. Wyatt knows how to handle a monologue, how to hook an audience; she was captivating in Jack Thorne’s Bunny back in 2010 and here she plays a similarly outwardly confident young woman who beneath her mouth and bluster is quite vulnerable. The intensity of her delivery here is a little exhausting but the approach pays off and by the end both Wyatt and a large proportion of the audience are welling up.

Brennan’s play is a hymn to the written word, to the beauty of books and the power they contain within their pages, as well as to the necessity of protecting this power and making sure future generations have access to it. It’s also about community, about the need to listen to one another, to talk to one another, the things that can be achieved if people join together. Though never preachy this is a play with a message.

Directed by Bethany Pitts, the production can feel a bit one-note at times, a bit relentless. There’s no pause, no respite, but by the end as Amy starts to contemplate her legacy and to appreciate the importance of what has been passed on to her, the warmth and sincerity of the piece and Wyatt’s giddy, galloping performance come together to create something moving and memorable.

Reviewed for Exeunt

Edinburgh 2014: Backstage in Biscuit Land, Pleasance Courtyard

One of Jess Thom’s friends once described her Tourettes Syndrome as a “crazy language generating machine” and that’s pretty much the perfect encapsulation for the neurological condition which causes a range of involuntary verbal and motor tics, and makes her say the word ‘biscuit’ anything up to 16,000 times a day. In addition to all those ‘biscuits,’ common tics include ‘hedgehog,’ ‘cats’, and ‘hello’, as well as a wide range of expletives – though as she points out only a small percentage of people with Tourettes have swearing tics, she just happens to be one of them.

Her show is designed to explore what it is to have Tourettes, how the tics affect her day to day life and how isolating it can be at times but also to celebrate the creative energy of them, their playful poetic quality. She’s assisted in this task by ‘Chopin’, the show’s co-creator who’s there to help keep her at least vaguely on script, but who also serves as a verbal dancing partner, improvising and riffing on Jess’s more surreal outpourings. On the day I saw it, one of the audience members also had Tourettes so there was a further unpredictable element in the room which added to the experience.

The show as a whole is insightful and engaging, demonstrating how normal tasks like making a cup of tea can be pretty tricky if you have a tic-driven tendency to hit yourself in the face, but it also genuinely makes you think about spontaneity, imagination and the creative process. There’s a wonderful linguistic richness to her tics. Between the biscuits she will suddenly come out with a “trigonometry anthrax” or a “Keith Chegwin is dead” or some “Roman Catholic sheepdogs.” Chopin’s mother’s tits are a frequent subject of analysis. And sometimes she’ll launch into an absurdist word-wave, an insta-poem of surreal magnificence. I was reminded of Oliver Sacks’ essay, dated now but still fascinating, about Witty, Ticcy Ray who relished his wild, Tourettic energy and channelled it into music.

Thom’s tics are often very funny and at the start she ensures the audience they are welcome to laugh at them, but they also allow her to view the world and there’s a lovely moment where she describes the way her tics latch onto things that she might otherwise miss, that they make her more aware of the beauty of the world around her, the changing seasons. She talks about her tics as if they have their own force of personality, a kind of co-habitation; her tics are excited by squeaky noises, they have a mischievous quality.

She also uses the show to make a serious point about the arts and accessibility. Her tics have in the past made visiting the theatre difficult and she was once asked to sit in a screened-off sound booth to avoid disrupting a performance, an event she found deeply humiliating. Theatre needs to be more inventive in the way it deals with this, instead of issuing finger-wagging charters, it should be look at finding models that include and welcome everyone. Thom’s been trying to see more shows while she’s in Edinburgh – she writes about the experience in more detail here – and she happened to be in the audience of the Secret Theatre company’s A Series of Increasingly Impossible Acts on the night I went to see it, a show which was able to fold her tics into its own flow in a really exciting way and included a particularly beautifully timed deployment of the word “Nando’s.” I also think, in a strange way, Thom’s show would be a great one to see following Ross Sutherland’s brilliant Standby for Tape Back-Up, because in a way there’s a degree of overlap in the way they explore patterning and language and the place where poetry comes from. He doesn’t end on a song about animal sex though.

It would have been interesting to see more made of the backdrop – a collage of objects inspired by Jess’s tics including a highly unsettling Babygro – to see more interplay between the visual and the verbal, but the verbal is pretty thrilling in its own right.

All this, and you get a biscuit.

Reviewed for Exeunt