The Real Thing at the Rose Theatre Kingston review ****

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The Real Thing

Rose Theatre Kingston, 10th October 2017

Thinking cap donned it’s a short hop to the Rose for the next leg in my Stoppard education. And what a fine lesson this production, (shared with the Theatre Royal Bath and Cambridge Arts Theatre), tuned out to be. Once director Stephen Unwin, (a great friend of the Rose from his tenure up to 2014), and his fine cast got into the swing of things the dexterity of Mr Stoppard’s fabrication was revealed in all its glory.

Fabrication of course being the key word since there is an awful lot of artifice on show here. First performed in 1982 this is a play about life imitating art through the fabric of love, marriage and infidelity. It was instructive to see this production the day after the new Seagull at the Lyric Hammersmith as Chekhov deals with similar themes and is TS’s inspiration. Given TS’s mighty brain I suspect the parallels are not co-incidental. That’s the thing with Stoppard. The more you think about it the more there is to think about. I sometimes wish I had a magical pause button when watching TS plays so I can just stop and soak in all the rich layers.

The action kicks off in the tastefully furnished home of architect Max and Charlotte (a perfect pitched set from designer Jonathan Fensom). Charlotte has just returned from a business jaunt. Max accuses her of adultery. Charlotte flounces out. We see Charlotte again but now she is married to playwright Henry. Turns out the previous scene was the play within a play from the pen of Henry. Called House of Cards. Doh. The real Charlotte is not best pleased with the lines given to the character Charlotte. Then the real Max (yep, you got it, he is called Max) turns up with actor wife Annie. Henry needles Annie about her involvement with cause celebre Brodie, a soldier imprisoned for protesting. Turns out though that this an act as we discover Henry and Annie are having an affair. The affair is subsequently revealed, Annie leaves Max for Henry. Henry tries to capture his feelings for Annie in a script. Act 2 and we move on a couple of years. Annie wants Henry to ghost write Brodie’s play. Henry thinks this work is awful. Annie gets cast in Tis Pity She’s a Whore. Henry visits Charlotte and daughter Debbie, who has some pointed views on monogamy. Annie has an affair with young actor Billy though this may again be a rehearsal. Henry’s jealousy spills over. Brodie pitches up and it turns out he is a dickhead but mimics Henry’s own arrogance. He leaves and we end with news of Max’s new marriage.

The play has a hefty dose of autobiography and it is not difficult to see TS himself in the character of Henry, notably in the monologue about the exactness of prose, which is a classic, and in the questioning of the politics of the left. Henry is a massive intellectual snob and a dreadful pedant. The dissection of the business of acting, and the playful structure of the drama with its echoes and returns, is so elegant it takes your breathe away. But what I found most fascinating here was the exploration of doubt in the context of love and fidelity. Nothing new about that but the way TS keeps probing Henry’s own vulnerabilities is what makes this play special and is what makes it a much more “direct” watch than some of TS’s other smartarse plays. Within this elegant fabrication of words and plot there is are real people bursting with contradictions. You might not like him, and you may find his cerebral (mandatory word in all TS reviews) elitism suffocating, but you can definitely see where Henry is coming from.

Aim high. Don’t mix up the person with his or her art. Don’t abandon the romantic ideal. Beware of politics in art. Think about how people “see” you and how people “see” themselves. These are just a few of the things I got to musing on during and after the performance. I just don’t know how TS manages to pack this much in yet still provide an entertaining, and of course, very funny story.

As you might have surmised this is only going to work if the actor playing Henry is up to the task. Laurence Fox indubitably was. It seems to me there needs to be the right length of pause before Henry delivers his inevitable “last word” in each conversation as his brain runs through the possibilities. Mr Fox seemed to get this and expressed Henry’s faint incomprehension of those around him.¬†Adam Jackson-Smith’s Max was suitably colourless. Rebecca Johnson as Charlotte and, especially, Flora Spencer-Longhurst as Annie were both impressive in the way they captured the women’s brisk efficiency of life and love in the face of Henry’s self-absorption. Santino Smith as Brodie and Kit Young as Billy were spot on with the few lines they had and I will look out for Venice van Someren, who played daughter Debbie, in future productions.

My guess is that even with all of the art that TS serves up to a director it is still possible to make a pig’s ear of this play. Thankfully Stephen Unwin and his colleagues manufactured a silk purse. Another great evening in the company of Mr Stoppard.

 

 

Giulio Cesare opera at Hackney Empire review ***

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Giulio Cesare in Egitto, Parts 1 and 2

Hackney Empire, 7th October 2017

The more opera I see, the less I want to see. Yet this does not mean I don’t enjoy opera: on the contrary, when it works, it can match the best that theatre can offer in terms of transcendent entertainment. The problem is that there are so few composers, (and even fewer librettists), who do it for me. This opportunity set narrows even further with disappointing productions. I mean to continue to try to unravel this paradox though even if it risks being, frankly, a bit bored for parts of an evening.

So we come to the English Touring Opera’s production of George Frideric Handel’s Guilio Cesare in Egitto, Julius Caesar in Egypt to you and me, at the lovely Hackney Empire. It isn’t on my back door but I have an affection for this lovely theatre, which always feels airy to me and where the views and tickets are good value.

This was my first Handel of the billions he wrote. I realised that taking on one of the old boy’s very longest operas (over four hours uncut), even split into two parts, and in one afternoon/evening, was asking for trouble. But I figured, from what I know of his music and having listened to a production as part of my homework, that the tunes were sufficiently digestible to allow me to slip a bit on the concentration front.

And so it proved. Since I don’t know the piece I can’t really tell you anything about the musical structure, but the tunes, smoothly delivered by the Old Street Band, under the baton of Jonathan Peter Kenny, are very easy on the ear. Maybe a bit too easy. The ensemble, a mix of modern and appropriate period, burbled along at the brisk pace that underpins much of Handel’s score, and the balance between soloists and musicians was spot on from where I was sitting. The chorus, in smart casual, occupied the slips, creating a nice surprise on their entry.

I also enjoyed the singing and acting to a large degree. The counter-tenors, Christopher Ainslie playing an up-right/tight Giulio Cesare, and Benjamin Williamson as the craven Tolomeo, were captivating. Remember these parts would have been castrati in original productions, along with Nierno, here sung by Thomas Scott-Cowell. Fortunately authentic performance doesn’t extend that far. Soprano Sonaya Mafi as mendacious Cleopatra, was probably the best of the bunch vocally, with Kitty Whately as her son Sesto, a little less forceful, though she captured the character’s ineffectual simpering very well. Ever the disappointment to his Mummy. There was a perhaps a little bit too much of contralto Catherine Carby’s Cornelia. Not the fault of the singer; it was just there were only so many ways she could convey her grief at the loss of brutally beheaded hubby, Pompey. The cast was rounded out by the two basses, Frederick Long as Caesar’s faithful sidekick Curio and Benjamin Bevan as Achilla, Tolomeo’s brother in arms who turns against him.

I was very struck by the elegant set and costume design of Cordelia Chisholm and by the lighting design of Mark Howland. ETO Director James Conway wisely chose to locate the production at the time of its premiere in 1724, with sumptuous Regency threads and gilt and blue hues predominating. The Romans stand in for the upright Hanoverian Protestants and the Egyptians the Catholic troublemakers. There were a handful of effective visual coups, including Cleopatra’s dissonant entrance posed as a Virgin Mary bent on seduction (!). There are some excellent essays in the programme (which also covered ETO’s other current production Rameau’s Dardanus), on the differences between Italian and French opera at the time and on the contemporary performance of Handel’s opera. James Conway also persuasively explains his interpretation of the motivations behind the characters, the sub-text relating to the Protestant succession and the pesky Jacobites, his decision to stretch the full text out over two parts and to up the seria quotient and expunge any buffa.

And this for me was where the production went slightly awry. Old Handel was never at the cutting edge of musical fashion so the structure of the opera is still firmly Baroque with some admittedly fine, showy arias, interspersed with quite a lot of dry recitative. Every character, bar the two retainers, gets a few turns. This tends inevitably towards a “park and bark” delivery. The narrative is pretty straightforward with little in the way of pace change or surprises. Caesar has pursued Pompey to Egypt. Tolomeo has had Pompey’s head chopped off. Cornelia, his now widow and her son Sesto, swear vengeance, repeatedly. Cleopatra wants to oust brother Tolomeo and enlists Cornelia, Sesto and Caesar into her cunning plan. Caesar falls for Cleopatra, and, much to her surprise she reciprocates. Tolomeo attempts to have Caesar killed but he escapes. Dirty Tolomeo is eventually skewered by Sesto. Caesar returns with turncoat Achilla and conquers Egypt installing Cleopatra on the Egyptian throne.

To make the two parts, titled The Death of Pompey and Cleopatra’s Needle, work independently, Mr Conway gives us a near hour of overlap at the start of the second part. As I say, given the fairly even pace of proceedings, musically and dramatically, this was a little frustrating, especially as the scenes which follow the overlap are about as dramatic as the whole affair gets. It also means we end up with a surfeit of Cornelia and Cleopatra, but not when they are most interesting (from the plot, and for Cleopatra musical, points of view) in the final scenes. And we are hours in before we get to Caesar and Tolomeo’s most exciting turns. My fault. I should have found out more about the structure ahead of the production.

So a nice to be there rather than a must see. and probably enough to persuade me not to add Handel to the small list of opera composers I have to seek out: Monteverdi if the director takes some risks, Mozart, if the production can make sense of the misogyny and any daftness, Fidelio obviously, Janacek, Berg, Stravinsky, Britten and some modern/contemporary stuff.

However, if the Baroque twirls of Handel get your juices flowing, and you are appraised of the production length, then this is definitely worth a shot. At the time of writing this I see that the good people of Portsmouth, Norwich, Buxton, Durham, Saffron Walden, Bath, Exeter, Keswick and Great Malvern, are all due a visit from these exemplary troupe.

 

The Seagull at the Lyric Hammersmith review ***

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The Seagull

Lyric Hammersmith, 9th October 2017

Right where I come from seagulls are a bloody menace. There are times when I feel the same way about Chekhov. You sit there thinking all his people are self-indulgent, lovelorn whingers who just need to lighten up and get a grip. But slowly, or more rapidly if it is class production, the lines pile up, you begin to understand and care about the characters, and the unsettling mix of everyday tragedy and comedy wields its magic. Life probably is a series of frustrations and missed expectations, which can sometimes get out of hand. When an audience collectively connects with one of AC’s characters mid-monologue it is one of theatre’s greatest pleasures. But this “theatre of mood” isn’t always the easiest of drama to pull off so I get why some people approach our Anton with trepidation.

I always think of AC’s four “great” plays as a sort of theme, more accurately themes, and variations. An impoverished landowner, the beautiful, and sometimes ageing woman, maybe an actress, who returns, and is constantly seeking validation, maybe a matriarchal dame, a young idealist/artist head over heels in love, the frustrated sibling stuck in the country, the young innocent woman (one or both parents lost to her) in love with the wrong bloke, a successful artist/writer/academic looking back to his youth, a discontented schoolteacher, maybe cuckolded, a wise doctor, a faithful retainer, soldiers of various rank, various lippy servants. You can mix them all up and they vary in each play, and Three Sisters deviates a fair bit, but these egotistical archetypes of Russian society populate the plays.

We are normally a long way from the city, to the frustration of all and sundry, and money, getting it and keeping it, is a big issue. Always bubbling away in the background is the ossified nature of the Russian society and economy at the time and the fact that this could not continue. The disparities of wealth and opportunity between AC’s characters is acute, remember these are provincial bourgeoisie so not the very richest, and serfs are generally absent or incidental. The life of the mind, and therefore some riffing on the nature of life and art (and specifically the theatre in The Seagull), will usually get worked over by AC. And, of course, love, romantic and familial, permeates the whole.

And that gun, real or metaphorical.

Back to this Seagull. You may have guessed from the above that I don’t like my Chekhov to shift too far from the socio-economic backdrop against which it was written. That doesn’t mean I need naturalistic sets and costumes. Just that the class structure should be articulated and the sense of place palpable. AC was a father of naturalism, and the plays to me are more about theme, character and rhythm than plot or spectacle. In this production, director Sean Holmes and designer Hyemi Shin have opted to shake it up a bit visually which I think de-emphasies the context I describe above,

I also found the performances a little variable in tone which meant that the whole took a bit longer to get going than normal. This is definitely not the fault of Simon Stephens new adaption which I thought was terrific. It just seemed to me that the actors approached the characters in slightly different ways, so that the multiplicity of love triangles was a little veiled at first. However after our poor seagull puts in his appearance things started to coalesce.

Nicholas Gleaves’s Boris started off in slightly diffident fashion but once he got into the monologues lamenting the fate of the writer, and the prison of the creative impulse, he found his stride. Lesley Sharp’s self-obsessed Irina, unsurprisingly was on the money from the off. Brian Vernel’s Konstantin was initially more petulant than idealist, and I wasn’t entirely persuaded by his passion for Nina, but his final scenes were very persuasive. I have seen more guileless Nina’s than Adelayo Adedayo’s, but that made the scenes with Boris more tenable. Paul Higgins’s Hugo and Nicholas Tennant’s Peter were striking but the other “minor” characters seemed a little less vivid than in other productions.

Now I hasten to say that once I had adjusted to the shape of the production it did the business, such that by Acts 3 and 4 I was firmly in the Chekhovian zone. If you fancy a Chekhov fix then this is certainly one to see. I just prefer my Chekhov to be a little more obviously rooted in its time and place, and for all the instruments in Chekhov’s orchestra to be in the same key if that makes sense. The version of The Seagull offered up at the NT last year, as part of the Chichester Young Chekhov trilogy, was certainly in the groove, and I also preferred the one served up at the Open Air Theatre a couple of years ago. Mind you the performance I attended there was interrupted by the noise from a party at the US ambassador’s gaff next door. I could just about forgive the near hour long break in my entertainment but not the fact that the Yanks had chosen Duran Duran to colour theirs. Appalling taste.

BTW. I remember seeing Duran Duran in the early 80s. Backcombed hair and full on make-up. Me that is. Meant I ditched the specs to preserve my illusion of New Romantic glamour. Which then meant I couldn’t see a thing. Which then meant there was nothing to detract from the music. Purgatory.

Second BTW. Has anyone else noticed the preponderance of Lesser and Greater Black Backed Gulls popping up all over London. Herring and Black Headed Gulls are ten a penny but these big b*ggers shouldn’t be here should they? Maybe Hitchcock was on to something in The Birds. Other than fawning over Tippi Hedren of course.

Third BTW. Talking of Hitchcock and Ms Hedren I see there are still a fair few tickets fat the ENO for Nico Muhly’s new opera Marnie based on the Winston Graham book which Hitchcock committed to film. I think this will be a belter. And I hope the new ENO season can pull in the punters and get the haters off their backs.

 

Ninagawa’s Macbeth at the Barbican Theatre review

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Macbeth

Barbican Theatre, 8th October 2017

When I was a young’un, come to make my fortune in the Big Smoke, I was lucky enough to secure free or cut price tickets to productions at the Barbican and NT. But then, as now, I am afraid I was more “Dick” than “W(h)it”-tington, (how laboured was that), as I am pretty sure I passed on the opportunity to see the original version of this famous production of Macbeth at the NT because a) it was/is in Japanese and b) it was Shakespeare, which at that time I would only watch to impress others.

So it was a joy to see that this production, which has gone into the annals of theatrical history, was coming back to London, and that I could therefore atone for the sins of my younger self. The eponymous founder of the company, Yukio Ninagawa, unfortunately passed away last year, but his legacy is alive and kicking with the backing of producers HoriPro, Saitama Arts Foundation and the legendary Thelma Holt CBE.

So a packed house at the Barbican awaited a massive cast of 33, I think, actors with the proverbial bated breath (actually lively chatting but you know what I mean). Now I had expected a visual spectacle. I had expected dramatic, even melodramatic delivery. I had expected a massive soundscape. I had even expected a decent play (it’s Macbeth after all). But what I had not expected was such a surgical (no pun intended) delivery of the story. Nor had I expected such an adept translation, which was true to the key passages in the text and which highlighted the poetry of the repeated motifs and words (though there were a couple of inadvertently funny missteps). Chi, anyone? And I certainly had not expected to be sucked into the emotion of it all. In particular I reckon Keita Oishi’s Macduff was the best I have seen. Vengeance indeed.

Having said all of that it is how this Macbeth, re-imagined in a Samurai Japan, looks which remains the most extraordinary thing about it. The butsudan that frames the action. The ancient women who tearfully observe the action throughout. The cherry blossom, the traditional Japanese symbol of the ephemeral nature of life. The giant red sun which turns cold blue when Macduff finally biffs Macbeth. The bronze warrior statues when Macduff and Malcolm meet in England. The Samurai knights hollering in unison. The Kabuki witches – well played lads. The eight kings. Banquo’s ghost – you know he is coming but even so – OMG. The swooshing sword play. The Ninja assassins despatching Banquo and then, you bastards (!), Lady Macduff and the kids.

Now I do admit that a tiny part of me, call it a couple of per cent, couldn’t shake off the idea that is was a bit over the top. The make-up is caked on. The delivery is full on shouty declamatory. The music, with the Sanctus from Faure’s Requiem and Barber’s Adagio for Strings featuring heavily, doesn’t hold back – out damned minor keys, as it were. Masochika Ichimura as Macbeth and Yuko Tanaka as Lady Macbeth are giants of Japanese stage and screen but are no spring chickens. Yet in the scene ahead of the banquet, as they try to pull themselves together, they looked so vulnerable, and a lump came to my throat. I guess the point is that Ninagawa-san knew that Will S, through all the Jacobean flattery and the lecture on the perils of “vaulting” political ambition, still retained a deal of sympathy for the power-mad couple. The absence of the child is so keenly felt by this ageing pair. Anyway being sniffy about the melodrama, as some proper reviewers were, just seems discourteous to me.

So overall, whilst I wouldn’t want to give up on the stripped back Macbeths played out in Stygian gloom and occasional spotlights, I really, really enjoyed this operatic spectacle. Turns out that feudal Japan and Scotland are not so far apart. Sound and fury signified quite a lot as it happened.

I look forward to seeing another production from this marvellous company. I am an arse for not having seen any of their previous work.

My Name is Rachel Corrie at the Young Vic review ****

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My Name is Rachel Corrie

Young Vic, 6th October 2017

I have raved about actor Erin Doherty in the past. She was the lynchpin in the excellent ensemble for Jack Thorne’s Junkyard (Junkyard at the Rose Theatre review *****), and was unbearably poignant in Katherine Soper’s excellent debut play Wish List. I gather from the reviews that she is the best thing about the possibly misconceived The Divide, Alan Ayckbourn’s new play. I will make my own mind up when it comes to the Old Vic.

Ms Doherty seems to have that rare ability of making an immediate emotional connection to an audience. There are plenty of other qualities that the best stage actors possess and I get that sometimes we may not need, or want, that emotional connection to the actors on stage, depending on the play, but when we do, it is genuinely thrilling and quite rare in my experience.

My Name is Rachel Corrie premiered at the Royal Court Theatre in 2005, and has popped up around the world ever since. It was written by the generous Alan Rickman together with Katharine Viner, now editor in chief of the Guardian (she is the one who begs you for a contribution if you read the Guardian content online – just pay up if you don’t want the digital world to end up full of crap content provided by idiots like me). It is based on the diaries, journals and e-mails of Rachel Corrie, an activist who was killed in contentious circumstances in the Gaza Strip when protesting the demolition of the home of a Palestinian family.

Ms Corrie was clearly a young woman of immense talent and passion. Her parents, who Ms Doherty sketches with great skill, her education and her location in liberal Washington state (“a place for hippie kids”), combined to create a world view that she determined to explore through action and not just words. Her writings reveal a woman who was anything but dull and worthy, they are shot through with poetry, humour and self-awareness. She was also no political ingenue, as some might have you believe, and constantly questioned her views and the legitimacy and value of her protest. She did have a strong view on the plight of Palestinians, which deepened with engagement after she joined the International Solidarity Movement, and this is fully exposed in the play, which also has little truck with the Israeli view of her death as an “accident”. This firm, but remember still personal stance, is what has led to continued complaints about the content of the play by Israeli advocate organisations.

I found the passages from Ms Corrie’s precocious early life (“everyone must feel safe”), and from the days before her death, most intense, as she seemed to determine how and why her life, and possible death, would have an impact. The last e-mail home sums it all up. The need to get things done, made transparent in her constant list writing, and to get others to listen, pervades Ms Doherty’s energetic performance. The set design from Sophie Thomas is minimal, just a wooden wall, with a handful of props. Ms Doherty even gets to change some of Joe Price’s blunt lighting design. Kieran Lucas’s sound design is equally direct. Wisely then, director Josh Roche, who chose to stage this play as the winner of 2017 JMK Award, leaves his actor alone to find Ms Corrie’s voice. Which she does. Brilliantly.

I don’t know how sympathetic Ms Doherty is to the message of the play, nor do I care. She is an actor. It is her job. But I do think she had real sympathy for her character which informed her impassioned performance. I await her next role (after the aforementioned Divide) with real interest.

 

Soul of a Nation exhibition at Tate Modern ****

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Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power

Tate Modern, 5th October 2017

I seem to have taken an age to get around to seeing Tate’s survey of African American Art through the vital twenty year period from 1963. There are a couple of weeks left to see it however should it be on your radar. It is, like the recently ended Queer British Art exhibition at Tate Britain (Queer British Art at Tate Britain review ***), an insightful overview for the uninitiated like me. Here we get a broad investigation of the Black American experience through these turbulent times and the artistic response to that experience.

It is focussed almost exclusively on the work of Black artists, with one or two exceptions (including a Warhol portrait of Muhammad Ali), and does an exemplary job in highlighting what it meant to be a Black artist in these decades of heightened Black consciousness. It groups artists from different regions, cities, collectives, exhibitions, and sometimes, movements, in order to map these responses which, on the whole, works, though perhaps makes it a little trickier for the dumb observer like yours truly to track the work of individual artists through the rooms.

For me the most interesting and effective art here was the most obviously political. The work that set out directly to highlight the impact of social and cultural change on African Americans, and specifically to attack the injustices meted out to African Americans both in the 1960s and 1970s but also stretching back through American history, was extremely affecting. Contemporary art with vague political entreaties can often seem naive to me. Here the anger, particularly in the work from the 1960s, was visceral.

The curators (Mark Godfrey and Zoe Whitley, who have clearly put a lot of work in here) were, I think, keen to explore the question of whether there was a Black Art independent of the subjects. There were certainly some fine works in the exhibition which portrayed Black American cultural and political “heroes” but I am not sure I understand how this necessarily related to notion of a bounded Black Art. I did however see how disagreements about this concept were debated, and it did help me in my thinking about how cultural superstructures more generally are defined and articulated. It was also interesting to see how the materials and techniques which inform contemporary art (and more specifically the increasing absence of paint) meant that the overtly political narrative seen in the works from the early 1960s became far more diffuse by the time we got to the early 1980s.

It also got me to thinking why I didn’t know any of these artists. OK so I am only a moderately interested observer/consumer, though my awareness has come on in leaps and bounds in the last couple of years. It is also fair to say that it is the job of curators in public galleries to expand the modern and contemporary art canon to our advantage, exactly what they are doing here. And, at the end of the day, it is they, and the rich who buy the works, who chose what we see. In essence if they don’t tell us, we won’t know. But to not really know any of these artists from the country which, I am loathe to admit, has dominated plastic arts in the 70 years, suggests that access to the public consciousness for many of these artists was a problem then and may still be now.

What about the works? Of course there was a fair bit of stuff here which didn’t do much for me. But there was other stuff which really did work on many levels. For what it is worth (precisely nothing) here are my highlights.

  • In Room 1 the work of the Spiral group active through 1963 to 1965 in New York is represented. They chose only to work in black and white in their only exhibition which lends real drama to, for example, Norman’s Lewis two near abstract oil canvases, Procession (which is is a theme he has explored in later works), and Alabama, which is a genuinely chilling depiction of Klansmen at night. The collages of Romare Bearden, a co-founder of Spiral, are nearly as affecting in a different way. This group sought direct engagement with the Civil Rights movement and created a powerful legacy for the next generation of African American artists.
  • Room 6 contains works by Charles White, David Hammons and Timothy Washington from their 1971 exhibition, Three Graphic Artists. White’s harrowing but dignified drawings, including his Wanted series of posters, detail the bloody history of slavery. Hammons’s body paintings were a revelation to me, in terms of the technique and their power. Injustice Case, which shows Bobby Seale, the founder of the Black Panthers, bound and gagged at his trial, will punch yo right in the gut. Hammons’s later engaging conceptual work is also featured at the end of the exhibition. Timothy Washington’s One Nation Under God engraving has multiple layers of meaning. This, along with the Spiral room, was the most compelling for me.
  • I think I could safely ignore the abstract artists in room 7 with the exception of Frank Bowling (born in Guyana) whose large canvas here, (sorry I lost my note of the title – note to self: perhaps this would be a reason to use a phone), refers to his birthplace and whose meditative canvas Texas Louise graces Room 10,
  • In Room 8 there is a wall of black and white photographs from Roy DeCarava which I guarantee will draw you in. The exposures are generally very dark which forces you to look very closely, especially at the portraits, whether they be everyday folk or famous Black musicians. On that note I also found myself fascinated by an OpArt portrait, maybe in Room 2, not because it was an especially powerful painting but because it was the divine Miles Davies.
  • Room 9 is comprised of Black Heroes and my eye was immediately drawn to the ironic self portraits of Barkley Hendricks, one as Superman, its sub-title Superman Never Saved Any Black People referencing a courtroom quote from Bobby Seale, and one nude responding to a critic’s comic (I won’t spoil the joke). His portrait What’s Going On comprised of four men in early 70s high camp white (mocking our expectations of “cool”) and one nude woman in acrylic and oil, refers to the classic Marvin Gaye song which was penned in response to the brutality of the response by police to the Berkeley protest through the 1960’s.
  • Room 10, Improvisation and Experimentation, shows just how diffuse art practice became in the 1970s and into the 1980’s and it is hard to see how this reflects any notion of a shared Black aesthetic. However the screen of barbed wire and chains which makes up Melvin Edwards’s Curtain screams incarceration even if the artist apparently claimed an entirely abstract intent.
  • Room 11 is devoted to the assemblages of Bettye Saar, now in her 90s. Her work also appears in Room 4 I think. The ideas and materials she employs are intriguing and create a link, which others have productively employed, back to African art.

 

Angel at the Arcola Theatre review ****

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Angel

Arcola Theatre, 4th October 2017

I had been hoping to get an opportunity to see Angel after reading a review of the premiere at the Edinburgh Festival last year. I had read of the very sad death of the actor, Filipa Branganca, who had played the role of the eponymous Angel of Kobane, Rehana Ghazali, in that original production. So I am glad it was able to transfer eventually to the Arcola with a new lead in Avital Lvova.

The play is largely set in¬†Kobane, a small, sleepy town, in the far north of Syria on the border with Turkey. In mid 2012 the Kurdish YPG took control and declared independence for West Kurdistan. In mid 2014 the town came under siege from ISIS as Syria collapsed and the legend of the Angel of Kobane was born. She was a law student who became a crack sniper. Not much else is known but writer Henry Naylor takes the story as the basis for an hour or so play which examines through her story, the conflict in the region and the role of women in that conflict and in Kurdish society. Angel is part of a quartet of plays (The Collector, Echoes and Borders alongside Angel), named Arabian Nightmares, which Henry Naylor has written about the “war on terror”. They have won multiple Fringe First awards at Edinburgh. It is pretty easy to see why.

We see fragments of Angel’s childhood and meet her parents. Angel wants to be a lawyer but her schooling is disrupted by the Kurdish uprising. Her father, who I understood to have fought in the Kurdish uprising in 1991, teaches her to shoot and, in another important scene, faces down some local hoodlums. The family eventually has to flee but Angel’s Dad stays behind. She decides to return to find him and this is what eventually leads to her joining a group of women fighters to take on ISIS in her home town.

Avital Lvova assumes all the parts, her parents, and the various characters she meets on her journeys. The text is nimble and immediate (and at times surprisingly amusing) allowing Ms Lvova to paint a very vivid picture of these characters and her adventures. The lighting design by Andy Grange in the smaller Arcola space is brilliant. The props are minimal, just a barrel, and the brick wall at the back of the stage. What is most striking however is the sheer physicality of Ms Lvova’s performance: this is what draws you into her story and adds realism to the scenes.

This is a powerful piece of theatre with a performance and staging from director Michael Cabot of real passion. You will be drawn in and you may, like me, learn a little more about the conflict it portrays. I have no doubt it will pop up elsewhere. If it does, take a look. I am keen now to see the sister plays which accompany Angel.