The Gift at the Theatre Royal Stratford East review ***

The Gift

Theatre Royal Stratford East, 8th February 2020

Another in the lengthening list of contemporary plays where the reach of ambition exceeds the grasp of execution. Janice Okoh has set her sights on “imperialism, cross-racial adoption, cultural appropriation … and tea” with her “outrageous” play set firstly, in Victorian Brighton in 1862, and then in a present-day village in Cheshire. It has some thought-provoking, and funny, dialogue and some arresting scenes, born of its formal invention (and doubling), but it doesn’t quite hang together and loses focus, and turns preachily didactic, after the first two acts.

In the first act Sarah Bonetta Davies played by newbie Shannon Hayes is a Yoruba princess, orphaned, enslaved, rescued and then “adopted”, as was her “fashion”, by Queen Victoria, and now about to return to her African “home”. She attempts to school her unrefined black maid Aggie (Donna Berlin) in the etiquette of tea drinking before being join by Yoruba husband James (Dave Fishley), peremptory “aunt” Mrs Schoen (Rebecca Charles), benevolent Reverend Venn (Richard Teverson) and social climber Harriet Walker (Joanna Brookes). Interesting because Sarah Bonetta Davies was a real person (with a fascinating legacy) and interesting because of the way Janice Okoh uses this classic drawing play set up to explore her themes.

Then a switch to the tasteful front room in Cheshire where new white neighbours, artisan baker Harriet (Rebecca Charles) and Ben (Richard Teverson), have come to visit black professional couple James (Dave Fishley) and our latter-day Sarah (Donna Berlin), armed with muffins. Tea, of every possible hue, is taken. Through a mix of misplaced good intentions and weakly concealed racism, the white couple’s woke-ish self-image unravels and they start digging and don’t stop, especially when it comes to the subject of James’s and Sarah’s adopted, white, daughter, Victoria. James and Sarah initially pass off the unconscious gaffes but, especially when Ben’s comments turn offensive, then push back, inducing the inevitable “well if that’s how you feel” wounded umbrage from Harriet and Ben. Ms Okoh absolutely nails this scene with laugh out loud satirical writing of the highest quality.

A powerful scene follows where modern Sarah, worn out from the casual bigotry, strips and walks off rear stage through a series of light box squares. Interval. And then the return for the tea party showdown between the oblivious Queen Victoria (Joanna Brookes) and the furious Sarah BD. Great concept but tension has defused and Sarah’s arguments become too sustained. And Aggie reappears as some sort of time-lord oracle. Intentions are exemplary, but the structure becomes all too visible and the drama climaxes with a thud.

Though not for want of creative nous. Dawn Walton, who founded Eclipse Theatre, the co-producer of The Gift alongside the Belgrade Coventry, handles the detail of each act with surety, with Simon Kenny’s set, Johanna Town’s lighting and Adrienne Quartly’s sound, all chipping in, but even she can’t quite bring together each strand of the narrative. And the cast, especially Donna Berlin, (last seen by the Tourist at the Arcola in Great Apes – please give that beacon of East London culture, as well as this one here, some cash), plainly relish Janice Okoh’s dialogue.

I would still be very keen to see more of Ms Okoh’s work, particularly if she were to challenge the audience with “just” ideas and dialogue and not form as well. Nonetheless The Gift counts as another in the growing list of plays that Nadia Fell has programmed at the TRSE that talk up to its diverse audiences as well as entertain. They are coming back soon(ish) I hope. With a panto. We’ll need it.

Plenty at the Chichester Festival Theatre review ****

Plenty

Chichester Festival Theatre, 27th June 2019

Sir David Hare has written a fair few plays. Important plays. As well as TV screenplays and film scripts. I’ve only seen a handful but it’s not difficult to work out why the old boy is so important. Even if some would suggest he has gone off the boil a bit in recent years. Maybe that’s true though for me there was still much to admire in his last two plays I’m Not Running and his adaptation of The Red Barn, and in the TV drama Collateral. Is he Britain’s greatest living playwright? I think Mr Stoppard’s admirers would have something to say about that and, for me, Caryl Churchill, trumps them both.

So to this revival of Plenty. It wasn’t Sir David’s first success in the theatre. Slag from 1970, performed at the Royal Court, was the breakthrough with Knuckle, Brassneck, (written in collaboration with Howard Brenton as was 1985’s Pravda, a truly great play which is still lodged in my mind), and, especially, Fanshen, the Joint Stock workshopped production about land reform in revolutionary China, all attracting considerable attention. But Plenty stands as one o the clearest expositions of his talent. At least so I was told by those in the know. So I leapt at the chance to nip down to Chichester to see this new production. Especially as the CFT had handed the keys over to a talented, but not big name, cast (with maybe one obvious exception) and creative team.

Mind you director Kate Hewitt had already shown her gifts to the good people of Chichester in last year’s revival of Mike Bartlett’s Cock in the Minerva and again, at the Young Vic, with Jesus Hopped the A Train. Designer Georgia Lowe also worked on Cock and has come up with some grand designs for recent ETT productions and An Octoroon which the Tourist has enjoyed. For Plenty she has produced a lean but richly toned representation with further depth courtesy of Lee Curran’s lighting, Giles Thomas’s sound and Nina Dunn’s backgrounds and close up live video. There are a lot of scene changes in Plenty as the action flips from 1943 to 1956 and 1962. Every scene looks the part in this production and none of these changes get in the way of the story.

The title was inspired by the idea that post war Britain would be a land of “plenty”, an idea that Sir David has always been keen to contend. In Plenty he does this through the life of Susan Traherne, a heroine in the wartime Special Operations Executive whose life after the war is blighted by disappointment and regret. As the wife of a repressed career diplomat, Raymond Brock, she cannot replicate the rush of her secret missions behind enemy lines and, as depression sets in, she in turn drags down her husband. Their childlessness being the most crushing outcome both literally and metaphorically. Apparently 75% of the women engaged by the SOE divorced soon after the war. Susan’s own decline is intended to mirror that of post war Britain with Raymond’s postings and specifically his actions alongside boss Sir Leonard Darwin at the time of the Suez Crisis creating a brilliant counterpoint.

This is what Sir David does. Mixes the political and the personal. The way in which an individual’s life is intertwined with the, here, upper class, repressed British society into which they are thrust. Fair to say he is not the only dramatist who has ploughed this particular furrow. But he is amongst the best. Because he has the gift for the gab. Lines spill effortlessly out of the mouths of his characters. Any exposition, and with all these big themes lurking in the not-so background, a lot of ground needs to be covered, flows naturally in the dialogue. OK so maybe they get to the big picture arguments a bit too rapidly but then again in Plenty, as in his other plays, his people actually live in the big picture.

But this never detracts from the interior journey of the main protagonists. Here Susan and Raymond. Sir David may be a Chekhov groupie like so many of his illustrious peers but Susan Traherne might have stepped straight out of the pages of an Ibsen classic. In reverse trajectory. And with a nod to Rattigan’s Hester in The Deep Blue Sea which CFT also revived earlier in the year. Same class, same period, (though TDBS is set over one day compared to the 20 years of Plenty), same frustrations. This is a woman trying to revive the agency of her past life whilst surrounded by men determined, for reasons moreorless deliberate, to thwart her.

You have probably surmised that Susan Traherne is a gift of a part but it takes an actor of rare skill to do justice to it. Rachael Stirling is just such an actor. (Mind you if your Mum is Diana Ring I guess you wee genetically predisposed to be brilliant on stage). She refrains from laying on too thickly ST’s descent into depression and, maybe, psychosis, and handles the shifting time frames with ease. The bitter sarcasm she levels at, most memorably, the dinner party guests at the height of the Suez crisis and, then again, in 1962 at Raymond’s bosses at the FCO, is not entirely absent even at the outset when she meets “Codename Lazar” (Rupert Young) and “A Frenchman” (Raphael Desprez) in occupied France. She’s brutally honest in a social and political milieu that doesn’t want to listen. Which is what makes the play so popular with us lefty, liberal types though in far too subtle a way to register with the gammons, then and now. As it happens I am not sure I share Sir David’s implied pessimism about the direction of GB’s travel since the war. There have been periods of ascent over the past decades, but I do think this is usually despite, not thanks to, the c*cks who are generally in the box seats.

Rory Keenan never loses sight of the fact that Raymond Brock is a bit of a dick imprisoned by his own values and upbringing but he still offers emotional support above and beyond for the woman he loves. Yolanda Kettle offers light(-ish) relief as ST’s life long chum Alice Park, an archetypal toff playing at the bohemian, but with a freedom ST years for, and Antony Calf and Nick Sampson also shine as the two knighted diplomat, the latter more sceptical of the Establishment system than the former.

“State of the Nation” and, for want of a better phrase, the dramatisation of institutional structures, is what we have paid Sir David Hare to deliver over the last five decades. Too many lightly sketched characters? Too many targets for his ire? Or too preoccupied with fighting the battles of previous years? A sometimes uncomfortable shoehorning of the personal into the political. All maybe true but this ain’t easy and, with line after line, Is David shows us why he is as good as it gets with this sort of stuff. And Plenty is about as good as it gets as an example of his sort of stuff.

Small Island at the National Theatre review *****

Small Island

National Theatre Olivier

If you know Andrea Levy’s Small Island either from the original 2004 book, (not me I confess), or the 2009 Two part BBC adaptation with script from Sarah Williams and Paula Milne and starring the inimitable Ruth Wilson and Naomie Harris then you will know roughly what to expect from Helen Edmundson’s adaptation directed by NT head honcho Rufus Norris. This is an epic social history, set in post-WWII Jamaica and London, and centred on the lives of two ordinary couples, or more specifically two, extraordinary, women, Hortense and Queenie.

It is a brilliant story, brilliantly told, but, even with the NT’s formidable financial and creative resources to hand, it was still an ambitious ask to bring it to life on the stage. Now I reckon Rufus Norris has been unfairly pilloried in some quarters during his stewardship at the NT. Not all the new commissions have come off but there have been some absolute belters as well. Keeping the progressive and conservative stakeholder congregations onside at the NT would test the patience of a saint, especially in these interesting times, and I reckon RN has had a pretty good stab at it. And a couple of the projects where he has taken the director’s helm himself, Everyman and Mosquitos, were superb. Yet for me he is at his best when pulling together multiple narratives and kaleidoscopic forms; as long as the writing on which any work is created is up to snuff and the stories he helps tell make an immediate emotional connection. London Road, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, The Amen Corner, Feast, (both of which I missed), Festen and, I gather his takes on Cabaret, all fit that bill. So I was pretty sure this would work and fill the Oliver stage with technicolour life again.

And it does. Superbly. We first meet Hortense (Leah Harvey) in the Jamaican school she teaches in alongside glamorous American Mrs Ryder (Amy Forrest). A hurricane is coming. Michael (CJ Beckford), the rebellious son of Mr Philip (Trevor Laird) and Miss Ma (Jacqueline Boatswain), who are also Hortense’s, very strict, stand-in parents, (she is the illegitimate daughter of Mr Philip’s affluent white cousin). arrives. Hortense loves Michael but he has eyes only for Mrs Ryder. Cue a brilliant set piece prologue, bravura lighting (Paul Anderson), sound (Ian Dickinson) and, especially, projection design from Jon Driscoll, taking us through the storm, interspersed with Michael and Hortense’s childhood, (not sure who played little M and H but blimey they are brave), and an explosive argument at the dinner table. In this Tempest-ian prologue it soon becomes clear we are in for an aural and visual treat thanks to these creatives in tandem with the sedulous stage and costume design of Katrina Lindsay, music of Benjamin Kwasi Burrell and movement of Coral Messam. Heaven knows how many hours they all put in but not was worth it.

This is worth the ticket price alone. Especially if, like the Tourist, you only pay £15. The proper reviews have come in and they are excellent. If Billers at the Guardian and DC at the Telegraph both say 5 stars then you would be a t*t to miss it. There are plenty of tickets left towards the end of the run from which to take your pick. With acting of this level and stories with this much passion I would happily have paid £75 for centre front stalls but trust me, with stagecraft of this quality and scale you’ll be fine in the cheap seats as well.

Now the characters do take a little time to fully come to life. The setting does dwarf the actors a little in the prologue and, in the preview I attended, the delivery of the dialogue initially lacked a bit of fizz. But when we move to England, the “mother country”, to meet Queenie (Aisling Loftus) and her awkward, repressed suitor, bank clerk Bernard (Andrew Rothney), and then track the progress of Gilbert (Gershwyn Eustache Jnr), during the war as an airman and then when he returns after the war, with Hortense who has married him to realise here dream of escape, things really begin to crank up.

Andrea Levy’s story, replayed deftly by Helen Edmundson, is built on memorable episodes which together create an irresistible momentum topped, at the end of the first, long, half by the arrival of the Empire Windrush, and then in the shorter, more constrained second half, set in 1948, by the return of Bernard and the momentous decision which finally binds the two couples. Queenie’s date with Bernard in the cinema, her first encounter with Michael’s irresistible charm after he too arrives in GB to fight for Empire, Hortense mistaking Gilbert for Michael on first meeting, the ill-fated fight in Yorkshire, Hortense’s desperate betrayal of best friend Celia (Shiloh Coke). Queenie’s tender care for her traumatised father-in-law Arthur (David Fielder), the overt racism Gilbert and Hortense encounter, as postie and would-be teacher, (audience visibly outraged), and from Bernard after he returns. And many more. Each scene is expertly navigated and beautifully mounted.

Small Island is, of course, primarily about race and prejudice, and the journey that the protagonists take, both geographical and emotional. It reflects Andrea Levy’s own, mixed race heritage, and the legacy of Empire. In this adaptation though, and maybe just because of the brilliance of Leah Harvey as the proud, uptight, determined Hortense and Aisling Loftus as the openhearted, optimistic but tough Queenie, I was particularly drawn to the compromises the women had to make to carve out any sort of meaningful life for themselves. All the main characters have dreams that, in order to be realised need to confront unpalatable realities, but the two women, in their own, intertwined, ways have so much more to overcome. This, ultimately, is what makes them so sympathetic and the story itself so warm, uplifting and, dare I say, inspirational.

Without the somewhat syrupy narration, and with the exuberant, (even in some of the darker passages), innovation which was required to bring each scene to life, this stage version is more moving and satisfying than the TV version. It is around three hours, even without the interval, but it never feels like it and, though I can’t be sure not having read the book, it seems to offer a more than faithful distillation of Ms Levy’s intention. Unfortunately she passed away in February before the play opened so we can’t be sure but she was apparently fully signed up to director and adaptor’s vision . The programme contains an extract from her 2014 essay “Back To My Own Country”. Everyone should read it.

“We are here because you were there.” I was particularly struck by this quote from Ambalavaner Sivanandan, prime mover in the Institute of Race Relations, highlighted in the programme notes from Leah Cowan. Remember everyone who came to Britain from Jamaica and elsewhere was a British citizen. Same rights as my grandad. Who just happened to be, I knew even as a child brought up in an entirely white monoculture, an ugly, visceral racist. He’s long gone. Yet it seems the open abuse he habitually lobbed at his black neighbours still hasn’t.

Small Island with bowl you over as a piece of theatre, make you laugh and maybe even cry, but it should also make you think long and hard about our shared history. Do go.

(As an aside can I beg Naomie Harris, Hortense in the TV adaptation, to return to the London stage. You will know her from her film roles as Eve Moneypenny in the last few Bonds or Moonlight, amongst others. I think the last time she was in the theatre was in Danny Boyle’s amazing sounding Frankenstein which I never got to see. Come to think of it it would be good to see Mr Boyle’s boundless imagination let loose again on the Olivier stage. He would fill it I am sure. As for Ruth Wilson, Queenie in the TV Small Island, anyone who saw her magic in Ivo van Hove/Patrick Marber’s Hedda Gabler will be counting the days to her UK stage return).

I Am Ashurbanipal exhibition at the British Museum review ****

I Am Ashurbanipal King of the World, King of Assyria 

British Museum, 15th February 2019

Crikey. Those Assyrians had a way with reliefs carved in gypsum/alabaster. Even if it was primarily all in the service of terrifying aggrandisement. The King hunting, the King and his soldiers slaying his enemies, the King relaxing with the ladies. It is all about the big man. Seeing these panels adorning the main rooms of the Empire’s palaces, painted in bright pigments, you certainly would have known who was the boss.

The Neo-Assyrian Empire took in most of modern day Iraq, Syria and Iran from 911 BCE to 612 BCE and Ashurbanipal was in the hot seat at its zenith from 668 BCE to 627 BCE. One way or another the Assyrians had been a big noise in the region for the previous 1500 years or so but it is only when the factions came together, and decisively defeated their neighbours, that the Empire was able to take in Cyprus, the Eastern Mediterranean, Eastern Turkey, Egypt and the Persian Gulf. The Neo-Assyrian Empire kicked off with Adad-nirari II but it was Ashburanipal’s daddy, Esarhaddon, the son of a “palace-woman” not the Queen, who did the blood-thirsty groundwork for his favourite son. Even so little Ashurbanipal had to initially share with big brother Shamash-shum-ukin who ruled the rebuilt Babylon.

Whilst Ashurbanipal’s geographical inheritance was vast it needed looking after. First he had to take on the various Empires in Egypt including the Nubians. Then he had to decisively crush the Assyrians’ arch-enemies, the Elamites, and finally he had to take on his own older brother when Babylon rebelled. There is plenty of pictorial and written evidence to show just how cruel Ashurbanipal could be when it came to waging war but, as all you students of ancient history know, you can’t build an empire on brain-dashing alone. You needs brains that stay in heads as well. And this is where the exhibition steps in showing just how learned the great king was, (he had been trained to rule, and to spy and intrigue, from an early age), as he amassed his great Library, oversaw an unrivalled system of communication across the Empire, negotiated treaties and vassalships too hold together his various, proud peoples and turned Nineveh into the greatest city on Earth. He wasn’t troubled by modesty mind as the translations show. It all went to sh*te when he died, isn’t that always the way, but what is on show graphically reveals just how magnificent, (assuming you were on the right side, and ideally you weren’t a lion), it all was at its peak.

Now the British Museum has the lion’s share (haha) of the world’s Assyrian artefacts so curating this exhibition wasn’t too much of a struggle, I imagine. Even so much of this material is not on permanent display, there are plenty of astonishing loans on show and the way the story is told, as is usual at the BM, is superb. Most Assyrian art was lifted in the mid C19, (the Victorians went mad for it), having previous been ignored by scholars in Europe and the US. You can argue about the ethics of such an enterprise, but then again you might also want to consider the centuries before when the exquisite calcite alabaster palace reliefs, lamassu and large scale statuary went walkabout, and you also need to think about the wholesale destruction of what remained in situ by ISIS especially around Mosul. At the end of the exhibition this part of the story is highlighted including the work of the BM in supporting and training local archaeologists to examine and conserve what is left.

Highlights? The small-scale lion hunts, (though I reckon, based on the casual manner in which Ashurbanipal is despatching the beasts, that these reliefs may incorporate a little poetic licence even if they are anatomically perfect) . The Garden Party in the palace of Nimrud. (Let us hope Queen Liz doesn’t take up the custom of decorating the Buck Palace gardens with enemy heads). The wall of cuneiform on clay tablets, a summation of the Knowledge of the day, (a word to the wise – if you want your library to resist a fire, use clay). The copy of the Epic of Gilgamesh, the first ever work of literature. The battle scenes illuminated with modern technology. The “painted” relief similarly enhanced. The lamassu, the human headed bull/lions with wings that stand guard. (How do you move these things? With great care I should imagine and without enlisting the services of the congenitally weak and clumsy like the Tourist). The sphinx of his arch-enemy. Taharqa. The imported Nimrud ivories. The decorated bronze helmet.The tiles. The obelisks. The statue of the big fella himself, alongside his bro. The Elamite art, pedestrian when compared to its Assyrian overlords.

The thing with the reliefs is that not only are they historically and aesthetically pleasing and interesting but they also tell an immediate story. It is this clear, (well, with a bit of help from the curators comments), narrative which makes this art and this exhibition special even if you aren’t normally one for the “dusty” as LD terms most History. Obviously some of the content, the pre-flaying, tongue-ripping, the bone-grinding, the beheading, appeals to our voyeuristic cravings, (don’t worry it isn’t TOO realistic), but it is the muscle, the movement, the energy, the vivid impression of something happening (even if the perspectives are that odd mix of profile and frontal/three-quarter that characterised pre-Grecian art), that makes it special.

And a lesson to all would-be tyrannical despots. If you are going balls-out to subjugate your people, do show an interest in reflecting your “glory” in art. Otherwise no-one will remember you.