April 431 BCE. Day 5. City Dionysia. Athens. Aeschylus’s boy Euphorion has already paraded his dramatic wares as has arch-rival (and more successful) Sophocles. Euripides rocks up with his 3 tragedies, Dictys (no, me neither), Philoctetes (misanthropic soldier, later a winning tale for Sophocles) and, fortunately for us, Medea, as well as the mandatory satyr play, here Theristai (a p*ss take of tragedy with lots of dirty jokes performed by dancing fellas with comedy phalluses and clogs – hmm).
The audience, all blokes, no women (well maybe some but certainly not the posh wives and daughters) or slaves, knows the drill. A Chorus, here representing the women of Corinth to explain and react to the action. Incidental characters, a nurse, a tutor, a messenger, to advance the plot. Three men, Medea’s “husband” Jason, the king of Corinth, Creon, and his childless counterpart from Athens, Aegeus. And two silent boys. All played by men. In masks. With music and movement and in accordance with an established, if increasingly elastic, formal structure.
And, of course, Medea herself. A Barbarian other from Colchis across the Black Sea, sorceress trained by Hecate whose Auntie was Circe herself and whose granddad was none other than the sun-god Helios. Now she is the wife and mother of the aforementioned boys. Whisked off her feet by Jason, though hard to see why given his somewhat dick-ish qualities, there is a suspicion naughty matchmaker Aphrodite intervened. He has came from Iolcus with his crew on the Argo to purloin the Golden Fleece, which his usurper uncle, Pelias, rather rashly, had agreed to swap for the throne. (A complicated family history here involving rivers, rape, exposure on mountains, step-matricide, imprisonment, exile, a centaur as a stepdad and a missing sandal – standard issue Greek mythology).
Anyway, Jason nabbed the fleece, with a lot of help from Medea and her magic, having saved his bacon on multiple occasions, as he set about completing a bunch of somewhat ludicrous tasks set by its owner, Medea’s daddy King Aeëtes of Colchis. Unfortunately, this daddy promptly reneged on his deal and the only way to shake him off was for Medea to kill and chop up her (half) brother Absyrtus. Oops.
The run-aways, after seeing off a big bronze chap, turning Cretans into a bunch of liars, and Jason getting a fix of his Dad Aeson’s blood, returned to Iolcus. But, uh-oh here we go again, Pelias refused to give up the throne, so Medea, literally, cooked up a plan to kill him, involving his daughters, an old ram, a stew-pot and some herbs. Swift exit. Jason and Medea who end up in Corinth.
Which is where Euripides’s story kicks in. Jason plans to throw Medea over to marry Glauce, the daughter of Creon (king of Corinth, keep up). Allegedly this will secure his, Medea’s and the kids’ position in Corinth. A likely story. Medea is badass mad and doesn’t mind who knows it. Creon reckons it’s safest to banish her and the children. And chickensh*t Jason isn’t going to argue with him. However, Medea is clever, very clever. Buys some time and hatches a plan. The screw inexorably tightens. Glauce, Creon and, infamously, (surely no spoiler alert required), but still distressingly, herchildren are victims of Medea’s wrath.
All this Bronze Age myth will have been familiar to our Athenian geezers via Hesiod and the like. So presumably they settled in to see how, as Congreve would have it, “heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned, nor Hell a fury like a woman scorned”, with the Barbarian being put firmly in her place. Except this was Greek drama and this was Euripides. If it were all so simple we wouldn’t be caught up in it near 2500 years later. His predecessors Aeschylus and Sophocles, albeit through more formal structures, had already used myth and history to shine an often critical light on Athenian, and Greek, politics, society and mores. Drama was supposed to educate as well as entertain and to innovate and provoke. It is hard to imagine that Euripides, who broke the rules seven years earlier with the tetralogy which included the surviving tragedy Alcestis (one of Pelias’s daughters), hadn’t already started to get under the skin of his peers with his ambiguity, irony, sarcasm, comedy, subversion, needling, gender awareness, rounded “human” characterisations and all round meta-ness.
So, I do wonder if the apparent shock of the children’s murder at the hands of their mother and her subsequent coup de theatre/deus ex machina escape sans chariot really was all that shocking. Maybe Euripides came third and last that year simply because the jury preferred the competition. Maybe belief in arete, eudaimonia, rhetoric, aporia, hypsos, mimesis, diegesis, pathos, nous, akrasia/enkrateia, prohairesis, phronesis and sophrosyne offset pilotimo, kleos, agon, esthlos and other such “manly” virtues. Easy enough to be temporarily sympathetic to the plight of women when you know that the patriarchy persists and you can go out and get lashed up with your mates on cheap wine when the play ends. And, by then, the Barbarians, which the Greeks used as signifiers to assert their own superiority, were anything but uncivilised, rapidly Hellenising and the source of the grain on which the polis depended.
And so we roll forward to 2023 and @sohoplace (why!!??). Perfect sightlines and acoustics in the round even if the seats are a bit of a squeeze for the fuller figure, the décor is bouji baffling and egress is a health and safety nightmare. Vicki Mortimer’s set, with off stage basement, is an elegant solution which dovetails with Dominic Cooke’s unfussy direction, albeit with a few a la mode tropes, glam metal pre-prologue, a rain shower in the closing episodes and a bit of slo-mo shuffling from Ben Daniels, who, smartly, is cast in all the male roles. A nod to Athenian practice which underlines the manifold character flaws of the three chaps; for me Euripides’s excoriation of the male gender is nearly as powerful as his exultation of the female.
Our chorus, Penny Layden, Jo McInnes and Amy Trigg, initially sat amongst us, for we are all voyeuristic Women of Corinth, and delivered the concise poetry of Robinson Jeffers’s classic 1947 adaptation, exquisitely. Music to the ears as it should be. Marion Bailey’s Nurse is the mirror of our own escalating helplessness and dread (even if you know exactly what is going to happen) and, for my money, has the best lines as she describes the deaths of Glauce and Creon.
So, given this text and performance, no excuse for even the constantly whirring brain of LB, a Greek tragedy virgin but now convert, not to be drawn in. Let’s be honest though, even with this clarity, it is only the mighty presence of Sophie Okonedo that turns this into a memorable evening. No great surprise. Check out her Cleopatra in Simon Godwin’s A&C alongside Ralph Fiennes, her Stevie, (now theirs is a wronged wife), alongside Damien Lewis in Ian Rickson’s version of Edward Albee’s Grecian homage, The Goat, or Who is Sylvia? or her Queen Margaret in The Hollow Crown: War of the Roses (where Ben Daniels played Buckingham and which was also directed by Dominic Cooke).
Barking witch or feminist revenger? And/or everything in between? Sophie Okenedo makes all readings credible, making Medea entirely human, clever, powerful, logical, desperate, passionate, pleading, sardonic, even as she commits this most inhuman act. Perspectives are subtly highlighted, Medea’s otherness is contrasted with the white skin and flaxen air of Glauce, Jason’s futile mansplaining, Creon’s prideful ego, Jason’s devastation. A shout out too for Gareth Fry’s sound design which ratchets up the tension and doesn’t recede as some contemporary designs are wont to do.
Criticisms? We are done and dusted in 90 minutes so a little more breath might have been drawn to let us savour the text. The foregrounding of plot and character left the insights into the influence of the gods and the Greek mind somewhat hanging. Some of the movement felt a little “staged” – yes I am perfectly aware how daft that sounds but I know what I mean. And camping up Aegeus continues the long tradition of viewing him as a plot irritant. But all in all I would hope that punters came out knowing that Greek tragedy, for all it’s “then-ness” can be right, slap bang, of now.
In which the Tourist condenses down 2020, in and out of lockdown, mostly watching stuff on a screen. Don’t worry he also took walks, saw punters when permitted and growled at the state of his disappointing nation, but it is only now he is back out in the live cultural realm, receiving “multiple inputs” as BUD would have it, that the cognitive slide has stopped. I know, egregious first world world privilege, but this is a blog about culture so forgive my insensitivity.
Where to start. A few highlights of the filmed performances I saw over the year I think, then the same for the “digital” theatre which I consumed and also a word on the “live” performances that snuck in under the wire as restrictions lifted and were then reimposed. Chronologically because I am naturally idle and that is easier. BTW the idea of a “freedom day” per our comedy government raises my liberal, remainer, metropolitan elite hackles but, on the other hand, it couldn’t have come quicker for my theatre ecosystem chums.
First out of the block was one of Schaubuhne Berlin‘s performance streams, namely Hamlet filmed at the Avignon Festival, with Thomas Ostermeier in the directorial chair and Lars Eidinger as the eponymous prince, so mad with toddler tantrums that he couldn’t be mad surely. Bordering on the slapstick, with earth, blood and water liberally splashed around, breaking the fourth wall, cuts galore, extra, incongruous lines, “to be or not to be” a drunken rant, Gertrude and Ophelia psychosexually doubled up, by playing up the comedy and meta-theatre in Hamlet, Ostermeier locates new truths in the greatest of plays (?). Elsinore as excess. Not for those who like their Shakespeare all sing-song verse and doublets. I bloody loved it. As I did later in the month with the company’s take on Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People. The scene where the audience is invited into the central political debate, after Stockmann’s prescient rant about liberal hypocrisy, is electrifying. Even in German. What I would have given to see this when it came to London in 2014. What a tit I was for missing it. This is utterly contemporary, Stockmann and mates even have a rock band rehearsal, the conflicts personal as much as political. I am biased since this is one of my favourite Ibsen’s but it is enthralling and a perfect vehicle for TO’s brand of “Capitalist realism” theatre. Finally there was SB’s take on Orlando this time with Katie Mitchell directing with Jenny Konig superb as Virginia Woolf’s eponymous hero/heroine in an adaptation from Alice Birch. This was due to come to the Barbican in this very month but, perforce, was cancelled There are times when I find KM and AB’s aesthetic baffling (The Malady of Death) even as I absorb the provocation, but here it all comes together. And, thanks to the customary live narration and live and pre-recorded video projection, it works brilliantly on the small screen where an expert is guiding your eye (not always the case with KM’s regie-theatre). In contrast to Sally Potter’s lush film version, also brilliant in part thanks to Tilda Swinton’s performance, KM works the comedy, almost rompishly, and revels in the anachronistic artificiality of the story. I hope that SB will be back in London soon but, in their absence, the Tourist will have to live up to his name and get on the train to Berlin.
Another highlight was the filmed version of the Old Vic production of Arthur Miller’s Crucible with Yael Farber at her very best directing and Richard Armitage as John Porter showing he can act as well as well as take his shirt off and shoot up baddies. YF’s brooding atmospherics and measured pacing bring a real sense of paranoia to Salem adding to the petty vengeances. The trinity of Procter, wife Elizabeth (Anna Madeley) and scheming Abigail (Samantha Colley) have real strength and depth, and the thrilling power of the final act is full beam. The political allegory takes a back seat to a critique of religious intolerance and hypocrisy. It is also brilliantly shot and edited, something you can’t say about all filmed productions. Well worth seeing.
Other standouts in a busy viewing month (ahh the novelty of armchair viewing, tea, biscuits and pee breaks) were Breach Theatre‘s It’s True. It’s True, It’s True dramatising the rape trial of Artemisia Gentileschi and Imitating the Dog‘s Night of the Living Dead REMIX, the live frame by frame reconstruction of the George A Romero Zombie classic satire. Genius. Both are available still to watch.
Also of note. The Peter Grimes filmed on the beach at Aldeburgh from the Festival, Sophie Melville’s firecracker of a performance in Gary Owen’s Iphigenia in Splott, the Glyndebourne Fairy Queen, Maxine Peake’s Hamlet, an RSC Two Gentleman of Verona (a play I had never seen before completing the Bard set) and a revisit of Simon Godwin’s Twelfth Night at the NT with Tamsin Greig. Pretty sure the enterprising amongst you can find all of these to stream.
More Schaubuhne Berlin. This time Thomas Ostermeier’s take on Hedda Gabler. Ripped out of its buttoned up C19 Norwegian context this petulant, anomieic Hedda, brilliantly captured by Katharina Schüttler, can’t be satisfied by men or material, rails against her bourgeois cage, here a modernist glass house, but can’t give it up. So her suicide is more “you’ll all be sorry when I’m gone” than her only escape from masculine tyranny. And no-one notices. OK so a lot of Ibsen’s delicious text is lost but this is still a thrilling re-imaging of a classic.
On the subject of flawed heroines, and currently the subject of intense study by the Tourist, next up was Blanche Dubois in the form of Gillian Anderson in Benedict Andrews’ 2014 A Streetcar Named Desire at the Young Vic. Ben Foster as Stanley and Vanessa Kirkby (showing why she was destined for higher things) as Stella are superb but Ms Anderson, who doesn’t always get it right, was perfectly cast, capturing the many , and there are many, sides of our Blanche. Treat yourself. It’s on NT at Home. As is the NTFrankenstein double header with Jonny Lee Miller and Benedict Cumberbatch alternating as creature and doctor under Danny Boyle’s explosive direction. (Also now on Prime I think). Missed this on stage so was overjoyed to catch this and was not disappointed.
Also of note. A Wozzeck from Dutch National Opera, Alexander Zeldin’s LOVE at the NT, revisits of Simon Godwin’s Antony and Cleopatra at the NT, Complicite’s The Encounter and Simon Stephens’s Sea Wall with Andrew Scott. Midnight Your Time from the Donmar Warehouse was a pretty successful Zoom based revival from Michael Longhurst with script by Adam Brace though largely thanks to Diana Quick’s turn as the lonely, domineering do-gooder mother Judy. Oh, and Bound from the Southwark Playhouse, a pretty good play written and directed by Jesse Briton (though terrible footage) which tells the tale of trawlermen in Brixham. Yey.
The above is just the best of the best from a couple of months of intensive “digital” theatre. By June I can see that the sun had come out, I started taking my cinematic responsibilities more seriously and the theatre online opportunities diminished. Schaubuhne Berlin‘s take on Arthur Schnitzler’s Professor Bernhardi was another highlight but didn’t match Robert Icke’s electrifying, and subversive, adaptation at the Almeida from 2019. I wasn’t quite as taken with the Donmar Warehouse Coriolanus as I had hoped, with Tom Hiddleston as the eponymous kvetch directed by Josie Rourke but it was still worth the long wait.
Otherwise a pair of revisits stood out. This House, James Graham’s breakthrough political comedy at the NT and The Madness of King George with Mark Gatiss from the Nottingham Playhouse.
The BBC’s anthology of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads was the standout in July. Some new additions to the canon but my favourites were Imelda Staunton, Harriet Walter, Lesley Manville and Monica Dolan, though they also happen to be my favourite actors from an enviably talented dozen.
Otherwise there was the Glyndebourne Billy Budd and a revisit, with BD and LD who loved it, of Nick Hytner’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream from the Bridge as well as the NT Amadeus with Lucien Msamati.
And our first “live” event for a few months. At the Garden Museum. Derek Jarman: My Garden’s Boundaries are the Horizon. Mind you there wasn’t much too it but it was good to tick something off.
Amongst the welcome staycation action there were a fair few digital entertainments of note. A magnificent Turn of the Screw at Garsington Opera with a perfectly balanced cast and a striking set from Christopher Oram. I will definitely need to look out for the work of director Louisa Muller. I see it is a highlight of their 2022 season but I can’t be doing with the faff of getting there, the price they charge and the dressing up like a toff. Followed by the RSC Timon of Athens with Kathryn Hunter in the lead. Directed by …. yep, Simon Godwin once again. Timon of Athens as a play makes perfect sense to me as did this production and not just because of Ms Hunter’s performance. The very different Simon Russell Beale also convinced at the NT under Nick Hytner. The knotty parable of a rich man who falls and then, through a process of ironic self-enlightenment, turns on the commercialised society that made him works as well in C21 London as it does in ancient Athens. Yes there are a few plot holes and unexplained appearances/retreats but that is the case in a lot of Shakespeare.
And then there was the classic Glyndebourne The Rake’s Progress with designs by David Hockney and directed by John Cox. More opera. Well bits of. Namely extracts from the Holland Festival/Dutch National Opera/Royal Conservatoire The Hague staging of Stockhausen’s Aus Licht. Itself a selection, over three days mind and covering 15 hours, from the total seven day opera which runs to 29 hours. Mind blowing. Another reason why Holland might just be the greatest country on earth.
The first appearance of theatre made to be streamed. First out of the blocks, the Old Vic with Three Kings a monologue written by Stephen Beresford delivered by Andrew Scott as Patrick. BD and SO sat in and we were all transfixed by this eloquent “sins of the father revisited …..” story. Better still was Faith Healer, Brian Friel’s triple memory monologue play which is both a) brilliant and b) made for the Zoom format. Especially when you have the fantastic Michael Sheen playing the fantastic Francis Hardy, in full on Welshness, Indira Varma as his long suffering wife Grace, and David Threlfall as an uber cockney manager Teddy. Loved the play, love the production.
But lo. There was more. Some live theatre. As the Bridge brought the Bennett Talking Heads monologues to the stage (****). We opted for The Shrine (a new addition) with Monica Dolan as Lorna who discovers there was more to husband Clifford than met the eye after his fatal motorcycle accident. Very funny. And then A Bed Among the Lentils with Lesley Manville utterly convincing as vicar’s wife Susan who seeks solace at the corner shop. Just glorious.
It didn’t end there. Two live exhibitions. The Andy Warhol at Tate Modern (***) which was good but I guess lacked discovery and the Electronic: From Kraftwerk to The Chemical Brothers music history at the Design Museum (**) where I sort of lost interest after Kraftwerk and 80s synths but BD was very enamoured.
There was a cracking Prom broadcast with the London Sinfonietta serving up an eclectic programme of modern.contemporary faves including Philip Glass’s Facades, Julia Wolfe’s East Broadway (for toy piano) a couple of Conlon Nancarrow Player Piano Studies, Tansy Davies’s funk workout neon, Edmund Finnis in situ, Anna Meredith’s Axeman for electrified bassoon and Steve Reich City Life. Tremendous.
But amongst the screen viewings to my surprise the highlight of the month was La Monnaie/de Munt‘s recording of a 2107 production of Luca Silla. Director Tobias Kratzer carved out a jewel from relatively meagre materials by Mozart’s standards in this early opera (composed at just 16) which tells the story of the rise, fall and redemption of a Roman tyrant. BUD, who accommodated with grace all my suggestions for shared lockdown viewing, strongly agreed.
No live theatre this month. You never quite know where you are with our callow cabinet. A couple of exhibitions however. Young Rembrandt at the Ashmolean (****), proof that even the very greatest have to work hard to exploit their talent. All sorts of stuff that I am never likely to see again. So glad I got to see it. And joy of joys we got to see Artemisia at the National Gallery (*****) which I thought we had lost to the pandemic. To be fair there were a few Biblical group scene commissions which to me were less impressive and, understandably a few omissions, and I have already gone out of my way to look at her paintings on show in venues that I have visited, (the NG itself, Palazzo Pitti, Uffizi, Prado, in Bologna, Seville, Pisa), but that still left a clutch of stunning works to take in. Don’t like the underground space in the NG (I know it is perfectly lit), too hot and busy, but still stopped in my tracks by St Cecilia, Mary Magdalene and Cleopatra, for it is in the portrayals powerful women that AG excelled.
A couple of live streamed theatre treats, the Mark Gatiss (with Adrian Scarborough) Ghost Stories from the Nottingham Playhouse which cut the muster and a revisit of ITA‘s Medea which once again astounded. A fair few streamed concerts this month. Igor Levit went out of his way to entertain during lockdown, I caught a Beethoven recital from Wigmore Hall, finally saw the RSC production of Tom Morton-Smith’s play Oppenheimer and the whole family enjoyed the interactive online adventure The Mermaid’s Tongue (and went on to its precursor Plymouth Point) from a couple of Punchdrunk alumni.
By now the live or specially made for streamed theatre was coming thick and fast. Now I am firmly in the camp that sees recordings of theatre productions, or live streamed events, as additive to, rather than a substitute for, live theatre. I appreciate if you can get get to a live show, or missed it, then of course, you should see it on a screen. I understand that your armchair is way better for back, bum and neck than most theatre seats and refreshments come better, quicker and cheaper. And don’t get me started on the toilets. After all I have wasted more than enough text complaining here about West End theatres. I also believe that some of the made for streaming theatre of the past 18 months or so has been interesting and innovative in its use of technology. But it’s just no the same as sitting in a dark room with other punters wondering what is going to happen next on that stage. I had forgotten just how much I miss the electricity and the immersion.
Having said that What a Carve Up!, based on the Jonathan Coe novel, a co-production from The Barn Theatre in Cirencester, the New Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich and the Lawrence Batley Theatre in Huddersfield was a triumph and by some way the best digital theatre work we saw during lockdown. Coe’s novel is a satire which examines the workings of power during the 1980s through the lens of the predominantly unpleasant upper class family the Winshaws. But it is also a whodunnit as Michael) Owen, at the behest of Tabitha Winshaw is tasked with documenting the murky family past. And it is this thread that Henry Filloux-Bennett, the AD at the Lawrence Batley Theatre, and director, Tamara Harvey from Theatr Clywd, wisely chose to pull on. What a Carve Up! not only switches in time but also employs multiple narrators, in first and third person, across different genre styles. And its protagonist spends a lot of time holed up in his flat shuffling papers and watching videos. A narrative collage if you will that is perfect then for splicing between “live” interviews, direct to camera Zoom addresses, film excerpts, TV and radio clips and photos. Especially as HF-B reverses the “chronology” of the story, starting with the murders, and filters out material not relevant to the central mystery. More inspired by, than faithful interpretation then, but gripping nonetheless. Especially with a cast that includes Alfred Enoch, (a new character Raymond, the son of Michael), Fiona Button and Tamzin Outhwaite as well as the voices of Derek Jacobi, Stephen Fry, Griff Rhys Jones and Sharon D Clarke. Is it theatre? Who cares when it is this good.
Not quite in the same league in terms of story, structure and execution, but still engrossing and technically adept was the Original Theatre Company’s Apollo 13: The Dark Side of the Moon which dramatised that il fated expedition predominantly through close ups of the three astronauts as well as video footage and an imposing score from Sophie Cotton. Writer Torben Betts also explores the racial tension between Michael Salami’s Fred Haise, here cast as an African American, and Tom Chambers as the rightwing Jack Swigert. Credit to directors Alastair Whatley and Charlotte Peters and film director Tristan Shepherd for their realisation.
By way of contrast Little Wars by Carl McCasland from Ginger Quiff Theatre was limited to the simple Zoom reading format though the story, an imagined dinner party involving Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, Dorothy Parke, Lillian Hellman, Agatha Christie and anti-fascist freedom fighter Muriel Gardiner and the cast, Juliet Stevenson, Debbie Chazen, Natasha Karp, Catherine Russell Sarah Solemani, Sophie Thompson and, best of all, Linda Bassett went a long way to overcoming this.
We also saw a slew of excellent filmed live productions, in order of impact: Sarah Kane’s Crave at Chichester Festival Theatre, a powerful and surprisingly lyrical evocation of love, pain and pleasure, under Tinuke Craig’s potent direction, with committed performances from Alfred Enoch (hello again), Wendy Kweh, Jonathan Slinger and, especially, Erin Doherty; Who Killed My Father, a current favourite of Continental European directors, a monologue from ITA based on Edouard Louis’s impassioned testament to his own father and the treatment of the poor and marginalised in France, with the world’s greatest actor, Hans Kesting, at the top of his game; Death of England Delroy, part 2 of Clint Dyer and Roy Williams’s ongoing NT trilogy examining race, masculinity and other state of the nation gubbins, with Michael Balogun commanding (we missed this live thanks to a period of isolation, bah); and 15 Heroines, the inspired collection of 15 short monologues by women playwrights shaping narratives to the voices of Ovid’s women brought to us by the enterprising Jermyn Street Theatre.
I expected Daniel Kitson wouldn’t be able to resist the opportunity to used the pandemic as material and an opportunity for formal experimentation. In Dot, Dot, Dot, he toured the nation’s theatres performing to an audience of …. no-one. At least not live. I picked the stream from the Tobacco Factory to hear his alternatively poignant and hilarious dissection of the impact of lockdown on our everyday lives and human connections, the schtick being a table of Post it notes acting as prompts. Maybe not vintage Kitson but good enough for now.
There was enough in the filmed performance of Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s Emilia from the Vaudeville Theatre to persuade us of its many merits but the quality of the stream was just too poor, though we were warned. In contrast the filmed performance of Richard Eyre’s brisk Almeida Theatre production of Ibsen’s Ghosts from 2013 was exemplary both technically and dramatically, and not just because Lesley Manville played Mrs Alving.
A few other plays and concerts but nothing to write home about so on to December and that bizarre British obsession with Christmas.
A couple of live productions managed to sneak in before doors closed again. A fine revival of Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter at Hampstead Theatre (****) with Alex Newman as Ben and Shane Zaza as Gus, directed by Alice Hamilton. Not quite up to the Jamie Lloyd Pinter season version from 2019, or the more recent Old Vic offer, but it is too good a play to disappoint. And, at the Rose Kingston, Shit Actually (****) from fringe favourites Shit Theatre, aka Rebecca Biscuit and Louise Mothersole, whose deconstructed tribute to Love Actually’s women is way funnier and more thought proving than we had any right to expect.
Unfortunately the streamed theatre the Tourist took in this month wasn’t up to much; the NT production of panto Dick Whittington felt a bit rushed and predictable, and the RSC Troy Story, which I had high hopes for, turned out to be no more than a fairly mediocre and static reading.
In contrast, with limited means at their disposal, Grange Park Opera made a powerful case for someone to create a full blow stage production of Benjamin Britten’s pacifist “TV” opera, Owen Wingrave, and VOPERA, along with the LPO, produced the definitive virtual opera in Ravel’s L’Enfant et les Sortilèges, designed by Leanne Vandenbussche and directed by Rachael Hewer. Do try and track it down.
I would repeat that advice for Jack Thorne’s A Christmas Carol at the Old Vic which is about to open on stage and for Blackeyed Theatre’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde which is currently on tour.
It is not difficult to see why theatre-makers, and audiences, continue to be drawn to drawn to Ibsen’s masterpiece, now over 140 years old. First and foremost, there is the still extraordinarily powerful message. Just think what old Henrik would have written if he had actually set out to write a feminist manifesto and not used the real-life experience of a family friend. Then there are the complex fully rounded characters, not just Nora herself, but Helmer, Rank, Kristine, Krogstad and Anne Marie, a mixture of good, bad and indifferent, shaped by, and shaping, the society they are immersed in. Of course, our sympathies are drawn towards the women’s predicaments, with indignation reserved for the patriarchal men and the way they treat those women, but, as ever with Ibsen, there is plenty of grey to ponder in between the black and white. Then there is the plot. Enough twists, believable disclosure, that ending, getting close enough to melodrama to please even the casual theatrical punter but offering enough pleasure to those who seek repeated viewings.
And then there is its seemingly infinite elasticity. We may have moved on from the stifling morality of late C19 Norwegian society and the “exclusively male society, with laws made by men and with prosecutors and judges who assess feminine conduct from a masculine standpoint” that HI observed, but his skill and intention in framing a more universal message of personal freedom and self-expression is, if anything, even more relevant in our world today. As last year’s queer reworking of the play, in Samuel Adamson’s Wife at the Kiln Theatre, demonstrated. (He has previous with reinterpretation of the play, though with psychology rather than gender, in his 2003 adaptation at the Southwark Playhouse).
I am still most drawn to those interpretations which stick closely to Ibsen’s structure, plot and characters though am always up for an interpretation that shifts time, place and/or look. The best of the recent crop was Tanika Gupta’s resetting to colonial India at the Lyric Hammersmith, recently streamed for one day only. Going further back I gather the 2009 Donmar production from Zinnie Harris was a bit of a damp squib despite a stellar cast, (Anderson G, just seen on the NT/YV stream as a peerless Blanche Dubois, Stephens T, Lesser A, Fitzgerald T and Eccleston C). I would certainly have liked to have seen Thomas Ostermeier’s hand grenade reworking based on what he did with Hedda Gabler just shown on the Schaubuhne Berlin streamfest.
Mind you, from the sound of it, the Royal Exchange outing from 2013 sounds like it would have been my glass of akevitt, with Greg Hersov in the director’s chair using Bryony Lavery’s reliable adaptation and with Cush Jumbo as Nora. (I do so hope we will get to see her Hamlet at the YV though I am not holding my breath – oops quite literally as I write this they have had to can it pro tem). Completing the history lesson Nora’s last visit to the Young Vic itself was in 2012 I believe with Hattie Monahan courtesy of Carrie Cracknell which I will watch one day soon on a streaming service near me.
And so to Nora: A Doll’s Hose. This re-think, from Stef Smith (Human Animals, Royal Court), by way of Glasgow Citizen’s Theatre, offered more than enough to chew on. As you probably already know , this comment coming a full 2 months and change after the production closed, (just a week or so early as the curtains came down everywhere), her big idea is to offer us three different Noras: from 1918, the year women finally git the vote, 1968, the “Sexual revolution” and the introduction of the pill, and 2018, the dawn of MeToo., against a backdrop of austerity Britain Though with one actor, Luke Norris, as husband, in a quick-change, of character as well as costume, masterclass.
We gain in Nora dimensionality, as social and, notably, economic context and mundane duty, especially childcare, are fitted to period. 1918 Nora (Amaka Okafor), is patronised, yet remains dignified, in her care of war-damaged Thomas 1, 1968 Nora (Natalie Klamar) is a bundle of nerves, popping pills, bullied by Thomas 2 and 2018 Nora (Anna Russell-Martin), weighed down by debt and childcare seeks solace in drink, Thomas 3 being abusive and bugger all use. Stef Smith cleverly finds ways to keep the broad brush strokes of HI’s plot visible and the choreography of Elizabeth Freestone’s direction, (and especially EJ Boyle’s movement), through Tom Piper’s skeletal set, signifying door and not much more, beefed up with Lee Curran’s lighting and Michael John McCarthy’s sound/composition, as we zip back and forth in time, is remarkable.
However with Mark Arends tripling up as xx Nathan, Zephryn Tattie as xxx Daniel and the three Nora leads also interchanging as her mate, and, in the swinging sixties lover, Christine, it can, even with excellent performances all round (wrong to have favourites, but most impressively, Anna Russell-Martin) it does get a bit breathless with, er, breadth supplanting depth of character. No question it works as innovative theatre making and it conveys its feminist message smartly with rhythm in words and actions, bar a rather maladroit coda. We, the SO, BUD and KCK, could have done with a pie and a pint to discuss further in what, it transpired was our last pre-lockdown outing. But it could have done with drilling down further, and more finely, into the detail of the thoughts it provoked. Maybe in a more focussed, original, contemporary, play with just a faint echo to the Ibsen that Stef Smith so plainly, and rightly, is inspired by.
That’ll be it for Nora this year I think. The Tourist’s annual outing to Amsterdam and the ITA to see Robert Icke’s Children of Nora was a casualty of our times, though the Jamie Lloyd production based on Frank McGuinness’s adaptation and starring Hollywood royalty Jessica Chastain is still planned for July. We’ll see.
I bet Chris Bush was good at English at school and maybe beyond. In the precis question. For she has an unerring eye/ear/pen for taking complicated/contentious/convoluted issues and dramas and rendering them explicable, topical and entertaining. Kicking off with TONY! The Blair Musical from 2007, through a series of productions based and performed in her native Sheffield to her take on Pericles for the NT’s Public Arts project. I haven’t seen The Assassination of Katie Hopkins, the play that is, though would like to. The play that is …. Even a narcissistic cretin, who takes money for voicing offence, and who has choked and failed in her “career” on multiple occasions, deserves our sympathy, though not our attention.
Music and inclusiveness have formed central planks of CB’s work with Standing at the Sky’s Edge, co-written with Richard Hawley, set to grace the NT when normal service is reviewed. With Faustus TDW however she has chosen to contemporarise, (as she did with the mystery plays), and gender switch, the overly ambitious man about town and time, made famous by Marlowe and Goethe. With mixed results. It’s looks brilliant, there are some sound ideas beyond the gender inversion, and, for those of us new(ish) to the story, it is easy to follow, but some of the dialogue doesn’t quite match the ambition and it features a bold central performance from Jodie McNee which doesn’t help us to get beyond the cipher.
Johanna Faustus works hard alongside apothecary Dad (Barnaby Power) in plague-ridden 1660s London after Mum is executed for witchcraft. God isn’t going to dispense justice so our Johanna bites Lucifer’s (also Barnaby Power) hand off when he offers the deal. 144 years, 6x more than the male Faust, no requirement to be taken consecutively. Yet she, unlike her hubristic mythic counterpart, sets out on an altruistic path, first in her ‘hood and then, after a quick-fire Enlightenment education, a melodramatic Victorian London, through time, Cloud Atlas style, to a far future as CEO of a pharma company set on delivering eternal life to the masses. She meets various women (and some men) along the way, Elizabeth Garrett, Marie and Pierre Curie, variously played by Katherine Carlton, Alicia Charles, Tim Samuels and Emmanuella Cole, and is accompanied by her camp Mephistopheles (Danny Lee-Wynter), decked out in a natty white suit, Cuban heels and rouge, and ever quip-ready.
Ana Ines Jabares-Pita’s set design may well be the star of the show, an expansive cavern, expressively lit by Richard Howell, like the inside of a whale, though it does come to dominate. There are a few enjoyable effects, notably in the recreation of the Seven Deadly Sins, assisted by Giles Thomas’s sound and Ian William Galloway’s video. Headlong director Caroline Byrne keeps things moving along, though this comes at the expense of the questions, of faith, of female agency and oppression, of mortality, technology, free-will, redemption, which themselves are rather jumbled up. Ambition and imagination has been a feature of the UK stage over the last few years, but Faustus TDW does, like some of its predecessors, push the envelope a little too far and risks looking a bit daft.
Mind you Marlowe’s anti-hero does drone on a bit, is an annoying clever dick and uses his expensively secured special powers to mostly make practical jokes and perform crowd-pleasing tricks. Which, to be fair, is probably what this bloke would do as well. On that basis we have to applaud the two CB’s for setting out an alternative. It just might have been better to restrict the inversion to the historical starting point. Still I enjoyed it and kind of liked its can-do punky attitude. A fine foil to the rather more technologically adroit achievement of Katie Mitchell and Alice Birch’s adaptation of Orlando which Schaubuhne Berlin kindly streamed the other day. Perhaps I should have a look see at what the mainstream female time traveller in Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor Who is up to these days.
Rural Suffolk. 1759. A court case. There was only ever going to be one companion for the Tourist’s visit to see The Welkin. Step forward MS. A Tractor Boy by upbringing, if not birth, and an expert on all things legal and rural in the Medieval and Early Modern. Dad once again wells with pride as he writes these words.
Now admittedly this was a bit late for his practice and a little early for mine but the subject, a jury of 12 matrons mulling over the case of one Sally Poppy who may or may not be pregnant, the writer, Lucy Kirkwood no less, (NSFW, Chimerica, The Children, Mosquitoes on stage, and with Adult Material coming soon to Channel 4 and certain to rile the blue-rinses), director, James MacDonald, and a bravura all female, (well just about), cast, still had us very excited pre-game.
Natasha Cottriall (Whodunnit Unrehearsed), Jenny Galloway (The Starry Messenger), Haydn Gwynne (Coriolanus, Hedda Tesman), Zainab Hasan (Tamburlaine), Aysha Kala (An Adventure), Wendy Kweh (Top Girls, Describe the Night), Cecilia Noble (Faith, Hope and Charity, Downstate, Nine Night, The Amen Corner), Maxine Peake (Avalanche, Hamlet), Dawn Sievewright, June Watson (Uncle Vanya, John, Road, Escaped Alone, Good People), Hara Yannas (Amsterdam, Dealing With Clair, The Treatment, Oresteia), Brigid Zegeni (I’m Not Running, Twelfth Night) and Ria Zmitrowicz (The Doctor, Three Sisters, Gundog, X). What a line up. And the credits are just those I can testify too. At the risk of unwarranted favouritism, Cecilia Noble and Maxine Peake would be in my top 10 stage actresses if I had such a thing, and reading June Watson’s credits suggest she is literally incapable of backing a theatrical nag.
With this much acting talent on show there were instances when I thought that Lucy Kirkwood and the NT might be guilty of delighting us too much. Even with 2.5 hours running time, and an attempt at equitable distribution, some of the actors didn’t quite get the airtime to flesh out character. And Bunny Christie’s set, a grand Georgian municipal hall, with impressive, working, (in the sense of the Devil’s ingress in the first act’s concluding coup de theatre), fireplace, and Lee Curran’s bright lighting, created a clinical, painterly doll’s house effect which marooned many of the cast. I can see why the creatives wanted to restrict the furniture to a minimum, and, with the help of Imogen Knight’s movement, blocking was exemplary, but with a dozen or man bodies always on stage it did distract from the detail.
Mind you, prior to the main event, there were some stunning tableaux, as the women stepped out of a line to introduce themselves and, courtesy of a compartmentalised light-box, they performed their literal women’s work to the repetitive rhythm of Carolyn Downing’s sound design. (A nod to Kate Bush came later with a acapella Running Up That Hill; This Woman’s Work might also have hit the spot. After all you can never get enough of the greatest single musician of our age).
As did the funny accents. It was Suffolk and many of our matrons were of the middling, or lower, sort, even Haydn Gwynne’s apparent toff, but some were better at projecting beyond the activity than others.
Still minor quibbles. What mattered was the story, and the feminist message, and here I can report Ms Kirkwood and those charged with bringing this scale entertainment to life, played a blinder. Now there is no getting away from it. The Welkin is not a million miles away from Twelve Angry Men. Except that it involves a jury of women judging another woman in a time and place when such female agency was rare. And this, I was reliably informed by MS, was no flight of authorial fancy. “Matrons” were tasked with checking the veracity of claims to pregnancy from medieval times through to the early C19, and you smart people will no doubt recall the “offer” to Elizabeth Proctor to avoid the noose whilst she was pregnant. The Twelve Angry Men parallel continues into the device of having one woman, Maxine Peake’s Elizabeth Luke, as the Henry Fonda sympathetic voice of reason/conscience, entreating her peers, who, initially at least, have very different, and largely disdainful, views on Sally Poppy’s guilt and fidelity.
However the reasons for Elizabeth’s Luke’s persuasions, in a twist that is just about concealed for long enough, turn the play into something more than a commentary on justice and fairness. The perspectives of the matrons, the methods by which they assess Sally, their arguments and conversations, and especially the way in which, eventually, a man, Doctor Willis (Laurence Ubong Williams who also plays Sally’s grudgeful husband and the Justice), and his callous technology, is called upon to decide, all point up women’s experience and biology in a patriarchal world, then, and, by implication, now. And to cap it all there is nothing remotely sympathetic about Sally Poppy herself, guilty of infanticide according to her cuckolded husband, though she is still a victim of male power, (and, in a shocking conclusion, of class, even in death). Which allows Ria Zmitrowicz to go full-on stroppy in her portrayal which she is, based on recent turns at the Almeida, very, very good at.
There is plenty of humour, (much of it at the expense of Philip McGinley’s steward Mr Coombes), and poignancy in the dialogue and in the woman’s stories, and pacing in the disclosure to keep us on our toes, even if the set-up itself is, as I said earlier, somewhat static with words superseding action. Ms Kirkwood’s scholarship is never self-serving, and exposition, whilst not entirely mixed in to plot, doesn’t irk. This was a time when Enlightenment was supposed to banish superstition, specifically here witchcraft, the year of Halley’s comet, all of which LK explores in the women’s exchanges.
The wider message is how the justice system serves women differently. Until 1920, outside of this special case, women could not sit of juries or be judges. Women weren’t considered “capable” of administering justice. Crimes against women were ignored. Even now supposed promiscuity and culpability still colours the judgements of men, and other women, in rape cases. Women commit very little crime, but are often judged more harshly when they do.
An important play then with more to chew on even if it didn’t quite deliver the tense narrative it promised. Lucy Kirkwood and her collaborators were probably more concerned with the context around these women’s stories rather than the story itself and with delivering a production of exemplary quality, and event if you will, rather than pinning us back in our seats. For the cerebral MS and his Dad keen to fake knowledge, this was just the ticket but I can see why some reviewers found it just a little intellectually over-stuffed. It couldn’t match the economy or bite of Caryl Churchill but Lucy Kirkwood is edging closer to the godhead, in ambition if not quite execution.
This counts as a disappointment. Not because of the source material. Hedda Gabler for goodness sake. Nor the cast though I will come back to this. There were plenty of actors on show, Haydn Gwynne, Anthony Calf, Jonathan Hyde, Natalie Simpson and Irfan Shamji, who have stood out and given much pleasure in previous performances. Anna Fleischle’s design was as accomplished as her previous work, realistic and spacious. And I think Holly Race Roughan’s direction, (this is the first time I have seen the work of this Headlong associate), was as faithful to the adapted text and action as possible. It was never dull, full of thoughtful detail and as robust a plot as the day Ibsen dreamt it up in 1891.
No I mean it was a disappointment as I was hoping for so much more. The idea of taking one of, maybe the, greatest female roles in theatre and reworking it, to move the story forward not just to the modern day, but also to age Hedda, George and Brack by three decades, was intriguing. And Cordelia Lynn, whose adaptation of Three Sisters for the Almeida, was so successful, (even if Rebecca Frecknall’s direction over-egged the indeterminate), seemed like just the woman for the job. And text wise she was. It’s just that the premise didn’t deliver on its promise.
We start with level-headed cleaner Bertha (Rebecca Oldfield) sorting out the slightly fusty country house that George and Hedda have returned to from the US. When Anthony Calf’s George breezes in he is recognisably an older, and even more painfully underachieving, version of his younger self who hasn’t yet made it to professor but is still buoyed up by innate enthusiasm. Hedda herself, shuffling in in dressing gown and slippers, is now brimful with regret and reflects this in every, often cruel and acerbic, word. She is a Tesman now through and through, middle-aged and largely “invisible”, the Gabler of her youth a distant memory. Thea Tesman (Natalie Simpson) is now the daughter that Hedda was carrying in the original play and not the rival for Eilert, now Elijah’s, (Irfan Shamji) affection. To say mother and daughter, who is the same age as Hedda in the original, weren’t close would be something of an understatement. Thea “trapped” Hedda in the marriage, (postpartum depression is hinted at), motherhood robbed her of her own academic career and duty, in the form of Daddy Gabler, the general whose giant portrait is one of the first things to find a place in the new home, has kept her there. Threatening, amongst other things, to burn your child’s hair, as we discover, was probably never going to engender much in the way of affection.
George is working on improving his big idea but it is plain his intellect still lags behind Elijah. Thea, who has left her husband, is in love with that intellect and thinks she can “rescue” Elijah from his depression and excessive drinking, as she works with him on the sequel to his best-seller. The affair with a younger Hedda still haunts him. Brack (Jonathan Hyde) is still a shit-stirring perv and Aunt Julie (Jacqueline Clarke). Boys’ drunken night out, the temptation of Thea and Elijah’s manuscript, (no USB sticks here), the pair of pistols, Elijah’s messy death, Brack’s blackmail and …. well you know the end, are are still intact. But …. Ibsen’s puissant plot only works if you are invested in the set-up.
And here, I am afraid, I was not. Not because I couldn’t believe that Hedda would have stuck around, though I had my doubts, but because, having done so, she would then have taken this way out. Some Ibsen works because the characters seek to escape the past. Others, like Hedda Gabler, because they fear their future. To use old Henrik’s genius as a point of departure often pay dividends but to mix up chronology and therefore motivation, as here, did not. Haydn Gwynne did her admirable best to solve this conundrum but never quite cracked it, too much self-loathing, and, though it pains me to say it, having seen his air of gentle vulnerability fit the bill perfectly in Ms Lynne’s razor-sharp satire One for Sorrow at the Royal Court and Joe White’s outstanding debut play Mayfly at the Orange Tree, Irfan Shamji seemed completely miscast as Elijah.
In some ways given the space, the cast, the top notch creatives (Ruth Chan’s music, complete with off stage tinkling hinting at Hedda’s past pianistic akills,George Dennis’s sound, Zoe Spurr’s lighting) I sort of wished Cordelia Lynn had abandoned the Ibsen plot and explored some of the more tantalising relationships that she opened up. The scenes between this Hedda and the very fine Natalie Simpson as Thea for example showed this potential. Envy of Thea in the original, and the denigration this fosters, partly defines and explains Hedda, (along with the conflicted Daddy worship). And, from this, maybe draw out more explicitly the contrasts between the economic, class and emotional condition of the, now four, women in the play, and how societal change has impacted recent generations.
So all in all not quite up to Headlong’s best who, when they get it right (All My Sons, Mother Courage, This House, People, Places & Things, Junkyard, American Psycho, 1984, Chimerica, The Effect, Medea, Enron), are just about the finest purveyors of theatre in this country. Still a good idea with plenty to admire but one that, like its lead, seemed to lose the courage of its convictions the longer it went on.
You can never have too much Nora. After Samuel Adamson’s gender fluid Wife at the Kiln, and this adaptation from Tanika Gupta set in colonial India, the Tourist has the 3 for the price of 1, Glasgow Citizens, radical re-working from Steff Smith coming to the Young Vic and then Robert Icke’s take in Amsterdam next year.
Of course no modern creative in their right mind is going to offer up a straight up and down Doll’s House but it is a testament to old Henrik’s genius that it can stand all sorts of updating and alteration. And that’s not just because of its feminist message but also because its a cracking plot.
Tanika Gupta’s plays and adaptations have explored her cultural heritage, race and female agency in myriad ways before. Just before this her version of Harold Brighouse’s Hobson’s Choice attracted excellent reviews at the Manchester Royal Exchange and this re-setting of Ibsen’s masterpiece to Calcutta, still in 1879 as in the original, was originally aired as a BBC radio play in 2012. Nora becomes Niru an intelligent young Bengali woman married to English colonial tax collector bureaucrat Tom Helmer. He plainly loves her but more as exoticised plaything, “my little Indian princess”, than partner and insists she convert from her “heathen” religion to Christianity ahead of their marriage. With minimal changes to the “past coming back to haunt her” plot which heralds Niru’s liberation, Tanika Gupta very effectively explores the impact of race and colonialism, as well as gender politics, in her text. The power that Tom exerts over Niru flows not just from his sex but also the assumption of his cultural superiority, his religion and the state.
The setting also lends resonance to Dr Rank’s (Colin Tierney) creepy feelings for Niru and his liberal concerns about what the injustices inflicted by the colonial regime might catalyse and clerk Kaushik Das’s, (the Krogtad character played by Assad Zaman), motives for his “blackmail”. And to the sacrifices and social position of Mrs Lahiri (Tripti Tripuraneni), Niru’s now widowed childhood friend, and maid Uma (Arinder Sadhra), who is driven to leave her children by economic necessity. These connotations flow elegantly from the concept however and don’t get in the way of the central narrative.
Incoming AD at the Lyric Rachel O’Riordan chose to direct the production herself to kick off her tenure, (she will also oversee the revival of Mike Bartlett’s Love, Love, Love later in this season), and she has made a splendid job of it. I am afraid Belfast, Perth and Cardiff, her previous residences, were just a little too far even for the intrepid Tourist so his previous encounters with Ms O’Riordan’s work have been restricted to the somewhat underwhelming Foxfinder revival at the Ambassador’s and the powerful Gary Owen plays, Killology and Iphigenia in Splott, (will someone please give Sophie Melville a big starring role on the telly). Whilst Tanika Gupta’s many layered adaptation and Henrik’s plot would be hard to make a mess of, the fact is that this was perfectly judged, building tension without ever losing sight of message.
Lily Arnold’s set, the tiered courtyard of the Helmer’s rather too comfortable house, heavy doors to the outside world backstage dead centre, Kevin Treacy’s lighting, Gregory Clarke’s sound and, especially, Arun Ghosh’s on stage music, were similarly on the money, lending atmosphere and supporting the drama. Above all though it was the performances of the two leads which won us over. For I was accompanied by BD. Now I may have slightly oversold the feminist credentials of HI, BD being a very modern and persuasive advocate of female equality, but she was still much taken with the setting and the story. And with Anjana Vasan. Now this is the second time the Tourist has seen Ms Vasan anchor a fine play, after Vinay Patel’s An Adventure at the Bush (which touched on post-colonial experience in India, Kenya and Britain), and what with her noteworthy supporting turns in Rutherford and Sons at the NT, Summer and Smoke at the Almeida and Life of Galileo at the Young Vic, it is pretty clear the secret is out. This though was another level as she depicted the journey for which Nora is renowned whilst laying on top the conflicted perspective that Niru, in this very different society and place, could offer.
Whilst Elliot Cowan didn’t quite get to offer as many dimensions with Tom, he is largely a patronising, self-regarding shit, most notably at the end, when his ugly racism is laid bare as he fears the scandal that threatens to envelope the couple, and then pretends everything can go back to normal when a way out is revealed thanks to Das’s repentance at Mrs Lahiri’s behest. The famous confrontation scene ahead of the even more famous exit was electric, especially given the stakes for Niru are arguably even greater than for the average Nora. Now the last time I saw Mr Cowan was as the host at the holiday home which provided the setting for Anne Washburn’s brilliant dissection of liberal America Shipwreck at the Almeida. Where he doubled up as a kind of mythic tyrant Trump. Bloody scary. He is a tall bloke: the physical contrast with the elfin Ms Vasan added to the mental tussle between the Helmers. I also note that Mr Cowan had an important part too as the idealistic journalist Charlie in the NT revival of Lorraine Hansberry’s African post-colonial epic Les Blancs.
Anyway my guess is both are leads jumped at the opportunity to take on these roles and I for one am glad they did. Like I say A Doll’s House is going to be the subject of constant innovation but you could wait a long time before seeing an interpretation as intelligent and thought provoking as this. West End producers are constantly on the hunt for a popular classic> they could do far worse than this production though I get that no super big names are involved here. Mind you I am pretty sure Anjana Vasan will be one day.
Once again it has taken the Tourist way too long to gather his thoughts on something he has seen. Which means this snappy retrospective of the work of Africa- American artist has now finished. Sorry. It was Very Good. I guess that doesn’t help.
I first encountered Ms Ringgold’s work at the Soul of a Nation exhibition at Tate Modern in 2017. Thematic anthologies are always a dream for an art numpty like the Tourist, giving an opportunity to discover all manner of ideas and artists, but this exhibition was especially fertile. Norman Lewis, Romare Bearden, Charles White, (especially) David Hammons, Timothy Washington, Barkley Hendricks and Melvin Edwards. All blokes. Which made Betye Saar and especially Faith Ringgold stand out, because not only does their art tackle issues of race, African-American identity and history, it also powerfully explores gender inequality.
Given Ms Ringgold’s engagement with the civil rights and feminist movements in the US over her five decade career it is perhaps surprising to learn that this the first exhibition devoted solely to her work in Europe let alone the UK. Through paintings, posters, books, sculpture, performance and her fascinating quilts she makes acute political points whose relevance has certainly not declined with time. Through her teaching and through the National Black Feminist Organisation which she founded in 1973 with her artist daughter Michelle Wallace, Ms Ringgold has been as much activist and influencer, (with real purpose, not like today’s self-obsessed “model/icons”), as artist.
She was born (1930) in Harlem where she grew up immersed in jazz culture and the legacy of the Harlem Renaissance, majored in art education and started her career teaching. She began painting in the 1950s and 1960s influenced by African art, Impressionism and Cubism and inspired by writers such as James Baldwin and Amiri Baraka. She turned to art full time in 1973.
This survey opens with 7 paintings from her American People series from 1963 to 1967 which examines social inequality and racial tensions at the height of the Civil Rights movement from a woman’s perspective. These works formed the core of her inaugural exhibition at the Spectrum Gallery in 1967. The large scale US Postage Stamp Commemorating The Advent Of Black Power about sums it up. Oversizing a stamp, Pop Art style, depicting 100 sets of eyes and noses, in a grid, with 10 black faces across the diagonal, (symbolising the 10% of the population that was African American in 1967), the worlds BLACK POWER are spelled out across the other diagonal, but with WHITE POWER not so subtly encrypted horizontally. As with her quilts later on you are presented with an arresting overall image, here using flat, bright paint, which demands further detailed inspection, even after the message has made its mark. At the time FR said she did not have a clear idea of what Black Power represented but she did feel the need to ask the question about how women would fit into the struggle. And, if you ever wondered where the inspiration for the iconic Obama Hope poster campaign came from look no further.
In the 1970’s she led protests against the representation of women and Black artists in galleries, designed posters to support her politics and organised The People’s Flag Show in 1973 where she was arrested for “desecrating” the American flag. Her paintings darkened in tone, drawing from African art and, away from traditional oils. She began to explore the potential in fabric after being stirred by the C14 and C15 Tibetan tanka paintings that she saw in the Rijksmuseum on a visit to Europe in 1972.
Less convincingly to my eyes were the abstract works from the Windows of the World series made with her fashion designer mother Willi Posey. This diverse practice was represented in Room 2 but. based on the punters when I visited, one work in particular reels you in. The United States of Attica dates from 1971/72, prompted by the Attica NY prison riots where 43 people died, and depicts a map of the US in green, red and black, the colours of Marcus Garvey’s black nationalist flag, recording the details of genocides that have occurred in the US from the colonial era.
In the 1980s FR first turned to the story quilts for which she is best known and which form the heart of this exhibition. These incorporate images and text to present the inter-generational stories of African American women from slavery through to the present, often painful and poignant, but also powerful and uplifting. FR’s great-great grandmother Susie Shannon, born into slavery, was compelled to sew quilts for plantation owners.
I was particularly struck by the triptych of quilts extracted from the Slave Rape series which show naked women modelled on FR’s daughters fleeing through stylised undergrowth. The colours and lines reflect the rich textiles of Central Africa, the images are made more alarming by the absence of the pursuers. Then there is Who’s Afraid of Aunt Jemina? from 1983 which reimagines the racist stereotype from interwar minstrel shows used in the pancake mix brand as a determined matriarch who runs her own restaurant chain. The embroidering is exquisite, the characters sparkle, the text demands to be read. Rare sight to see people. after the regulation snap on their phones then standing still to follow the story across four generations. The other highlight was the personal Change: Faith Ringgold’s Over 100 Pounds Weight Loss Performance Story Quilt from 1986.
Later on in the 1980s FR moved away from narrative quilts to something closer to her earlier oil paintings and, for me at least, some of the classic art of the Harlem Renaissance, most obviously in Jazz Stories . Though the powerful political messages remain. In fact maybe even more so. Even without the text these dense complex works, as in the earlier pieces, need time to fully take in. We Came to America from 1997, part of the American Collection, shows a dreadlocked Statue of Liberty with black baby in one hand and torch in the other, astride an Atlantic Ocean, filled with writhing black bodies. The ship in the background is based on JMW Turner’s The Slave Ship. FR created a fictional artist creator for the series who dreams of walking back across the sea to Africa arm in arm with her brothers and sisters.
The Tar Beach quilt from 1988 is more autobiographical recalling childhood summers spent on the hot roof of her apartment building in Harlem with parents, friends and siblings. This formed the basis for FR’s acclaimed books for children. Subway Graffiti from 1987 shows friends and neighbours crammed on a subways platform with names and tags filling the panels which surround them.
But just in case we get too comfortable this collection ends with something more trenchant in the form of 1997’s The Flag is Bleeding again from the American Collection. We see a black women bleeding from her heart protecting her two small children all against the backdrop of the Stars and Stripes. The title is the same as that used in the American People series which opened the exhibition though that picture shows a black man armed with a knife, a white woman, and a white armed man peering through the bleeding flag.
The exhibition, and this is no criticism, did not include any of FR’s mixed media masks and costumes which she created in 1973, notably the Witch Mask series and the Family of Woman Mask series. Or any of her life-sized soft sculptures, which, like the masks, take inspiration from African art. The masks and costumes, together with music and dance, formed the basis of FR’s performance in the 1970s and 1980s which often retold the stories in her quilts.
Even without these elements this exhibition gave a very clear overview of FR’s practice. This is art with a clear message on behalf of those marginalised by race or gender, aware of its origins and its history. Nothing ambiguous or simplistic here. It elevates materials and making over theory and process, anger over aesthetic, and invites the viewer to take time to reflect on its meaning.
Above all else FR is a story teller. I like stories. And, I’ll bet, you do to. It’s just a shame that some of these stories still have to be told.
It is not difficult to see what Githa Sowerby’s photo feminist play from 1912, and brought back to life at the Royal Court by feminist theatre company Mrs Worthington’s Daughters in 1980, now has such a secure place in the repertory. Its characters and its dialogue simply have so much to say about what it was to be a woman, and indeed man, in the stifling atmosphere of Northern England at the turn of the C19. I don’t what to go all Marxist on you but the way the play examines the relationship between capital and labour, the cultural superstructure that is built atop it and patriarchal repression still looks astonishing even when compared to contemporary plays which mine the same territory.
It offers rounded characters despite, or maybe because of, the economy of dialogue and even has an absorbing plot centred on the “invention” of John Jr. However it does go on a bit, especially in the first hour set-up, and the action, contained within one room of the Rutherford house, can get, intentionally, claustrophobic. (Yet more nods to the master Ibsen).
Director Polly Findlay wisely offers us a little relief by taking a couple of intervals (prefacing each act, including the opening, with Northern folk songs from Kerry Andrew and Sarah Dacey) and jogging the pace along where possible. (I’ve just noticed the run time is down to 2 1/2 hours with interval so sounds like a bit of judicious streamlining has been administered). Lizzie Clachlan’s set however has no truck with abstraction: a perfectly realised slice of Victorian melancholia, emphasised by Charles Balfour’s gloomy lighting and (Ibsen-ian) rain. The setting is 1912 Tyneside. In real life Gita Sowerby’s father, like Rutherford, ran the family glass-making business in Gateshead, at a time when this small stretch of the Tyne dominated the global glass industry, before the family left for London in 1896 after the business went t*ts up. We are therefore treated to some full on Geordie accents, (courtesy of the voice and dialect work of Simon Money and Daniele Lydon), which, feel free to call me a patronising Southern twat, just occasionally got lost in translation from my perch at the back of the stalls.
Against this atmospheric backdrop the A list cast get properly stuck in to Githa Sowerby’s text. Now I don’t need to tell you how good an actor Roger Allam is. You are reading this so must have some interest in the theatre and the dramatic arts. Therefore you will know him from his innumerable stage roles, (a recent favourite was John Christie in The Moderate Soprano), his films, or off the telly, (the laconic Peter Mannion in The Thick Of It whose spirit he memorably exploited with a couple of the best one-liners in the whole of GoT as Illyrio Mopatis right at the beginning).
Anyway here he is magnificent. Daddy Rutherford is a cantankerous, despotic bully who is prepared to sacrifice all of life’s pleasures and his family, John Jr (Sam Troughton), Richard (Harry Hepple) and Janet (Justine Mitchell), on the altar of his business and, by implication, his legacy. Or is he? Whilst I am not defending the old sh*t I do think that showing some sign of deeply buried humanity and empathy, as Mr Allam did, yields dividends. Even Rutherford presumably loved his wife and kids once and, as his final promise to Mary (Anjana Vasan) shows, there is some feeling even in this ostensibly commercial transaction. Having to hand over control of the company he built to the bank and a Board has only served to make him work harder, grow tighter and turn his autocracy on those nearest to him. But he is doomed to lose the control he has over his family, mirroring the loss of control of his company. An alienated capitalist disfigured by profit in a society that will move away from him. Very clever.
And, dare I say, these three kids, whilst all having their reasons, are bloody annoying in their own way. Just to be clear I am not imposing some sort of privileged male revisionism on the play. Just that, by exposing the subtlety of the text, Polly Findlay got me to thinking about the play in a way that I had not after seeing Northern Broadsides version with the inimitable Barrie Rutter in the lead in 2013. Love has been squeezed out of the house, as Janet memorably observes, no doubt about that, but the idea that it might have been different once just made me admire the play even more. Githa Sowerby, even when her masterpiece first appeared, to great acclaim, was patronised, as all women were at that time, so the last thing her memory needs is some fat bloke, whose only qualification is that he has seen a few plays recently, upticking, but I was genuinely gobsmacked by just how much depth there is in these characters even beyond what I had remembered from a couple of previous viewings. Everyone thinks they can make everyone else happier in the play. Everyone spectacularly fails to do so.
Sam Troughton is also one of my favourite stage actors, most recently as everybloke Danny opposite Justine Mitchell’s Laura in David Eldridge’s whip-smart Beginning or, seizing the opportunity in what was otherwise a slightly pedestrian affair, as the various, flawed, men-children in Nina Raine’s Stories. His John Jr is desperate from the off. Desperate for Daddy’s approval even as he hates the f*cker, wasting his education, running off to that London, marrying Mary who is “beneath” him, running back to the family home, seeking to extract his birthright through his “invention”, venting his frustration on his own family. The Ibsen-ian sins of the father are listed on the weak, vacillating, quasi-hysterical, son. It was heart-breaking, (well maybe I exaggerate a bit, it’s just a play), to watch his continued self-deception even as Mary was shuffling him out the door as he set off once again to fail to seek fame and fortune.
Justine Mitchell is another brilliant actor who invariably stands out in whatever she appears in. See Beginning above but also, for me, in Anne Washburn’s opus Shipwreck, in Vivienne Franzmann’s Bodies, in the Donmar’s Arturo Ui and in the NT’s Plough and the Stars.. Hell she can even make sense of Restoration comedy. There are multiple layers of bitter, ironic resentment in her Janet because of the way she has been treated by her father and the Victorian/Edwardian patriarchy but this is still a powerful, sensual woman as we see in the scenes with Joe Armstrong’s blunt Martin, whose loyalty to Rutherford, (which itself maybe be the false consciousness of the oppressed), is put to the test. The release when Janet “confesses” to the affair, and Rutherford boots her out, following hot on the heels of Mrs Henderson’s (Sally Rodgers) p*ssed up tirade against Rutherford for the way he treated her son, is immense.
Harry Hepple as the younger son Dick, a curate, a profession old Rutherford regards with sneering disdain, who determines to escape to another parish in Southport, has less to play with but also makes the most of it. Anjana Vasan, so, so good in An Adventure at the Bush, and with smaller roles in Rebecca’s Frecknall’s lauded production of Summer and Smoke and the Young Vic Life of Galileo, represents the future as Mary, exercising her agency and opinion from the start in marked contrast to Barbara Marten’s aunt Ann, who is almost parodic as a woman whose behaviour and thinking is entirely dictated by the archaic values of the “society” around her.
Marvellous play, perfectly realised by a director who trusts the author, with a cast, to borrow the literary cliche, at the peak of its powers. OK, so much like its characters, it can’t quite escape its Edwardian roots, three acts, unity of time, place and action, painstaking exposition, which requires commitment from you the audience but once drawn in there is enough in the climaxes in the story, and especially, the detail of the context, to keep the committed theatre nut as happy as a sandboy. (A phrase from the C18 I gather which refers to the lashed up lads who were paid in drink to deliver and spread sand on the floor of pubs to soak up the various forms of sh*t. A much vivid indictment of the evils of unregulated capitalism is tricky to imagine).
So if this sounds like your sort of thing then you shouldn’t hesitate, there’s plenty of tickets left. If it doesn’t probably best not to be brave here. The Tourist though, having missed the Orange Tree revival of Githa Sowerby’s other major play, The Stepmother, is now firmly on the look-out for a chance to rectify.
OK. So I might have oversold this one. It is still Caryl Churchill. With that extraordinary opening act. And that carefully calibrated feminist message, as relevant now as it was when it first appeared in 1982, of how to balance “success” in work and as a mother. The argument between collective and individualistic strands of feminism. To ape the patriarchal norms or to reject them.
But as an introduction to the greatest living playwright in the English language? Maybe this wasn’t the production. So profuse apologies to those most faithful of the Tourist’s recommendation followers, BUD and KCK, who came along. And to the most long suffering of all, in so many ways, the SO, whose previous CC exposure was the brilliant (to me), but admittedly knotty and OTT, production of Light Shining in Buckinghamshire on this very stage in 2015. I hope my chums could see where I was coming from even as the flaws in the production became apparent.
Not that these flaws were substantial. The opening scene here has a cast to die for, Siobhan Redmond as the indomitable Isabella Bird, Amanda Lawrence as the ebullient Pope Joan, Wendy Kweh as the enigmatic Lady Nijo, Ashley McGuire as the laconic Dull Gret and Lucy Ellinson as the most obviously misused Patient Griselda. The way CC takes Marlene’s drunken dinner party celebration and transforms it into a confessional which explosively, hilariously and movingly transcribes the fate of women, real and fictional, across time and geography, and specifically the way the patriarchy determines their roles as mothers, is still, for me about the most riveting half hour of theatre I have ever seen. Especially when the technical challenges of the multiple, simultaneous, conversations are, as here, perfectly realised, not to say the getting pissed part. And all presided over by the dauntless Marlene about to take the top job at the Top Girls employment agency. Katherine Kingsley, who you will probably know best from her musical theatre roles, initially locates Marlene firmly in the 1980’s Thatcherite, “ballsy”, power woman mode. To watch her equivocation, and Suffolk accent, emerge in the later scenes is a measure of just how good a performance this is.
The second scene, (here the usual order is shuffled a little), sees stage debutant Liv Hill, (Three Girls, on the telly, just watch it – though for my money Ria Zmitrowicz is actually the best of the trio of talent on display), initially at least, convincing as the immature Angie, sharing her angst with younger chum Kit (Ashna Rabheru). The two actors are confined to a small box room stage right as the technicians crack on, quietly, with transforming the space behind.
Into ….. the Top Girls agency. Which is where the full glory of the period detail of Ian MacNeil’s set and Merle Hansel’s costumes, (so superb for the dinner party), are revealed. And which also highlights one of those modest flaws is the production. By anchoring the look of the play so firmly in the year when it was written it encouraged the audience to do the same. The universality of the messages were diluted. Those of us who are old enough to recall the period, (all the Tourist’s party I am afraid), were drawn into thinking about the archetypes and behaviour of the period rather than the wider issues examined in the play, and I suspect you younger folk will have been affected more by the story here than its implications.
For it is, especially as we turn into Scene 4, and the not so big reveal, a mightily powerful piece of drama, especially when actors of the calibre of Ms Kingsley, and Lucy Black as her sister Joyce, are charged with delivering CC’s brilliant text. I don’t suppose I will ever tire of the thrill of listening to Ms Churchill’s dialogue. Complex and ambiguous ideas, observations and dilemmas framed in entirely natural dialogue, (even sometimes when how it is framed is formally inventive or even, frankly, a bit weird). There is so much dialectic revealed in Marlene and Joyce’s final argument that it is hard to keep up and yet it also sounds and feels exactly like the kind of set-to that any sisters might have had, at least in the modern world, about family, choices, dreams and disappointments, as well as politics. Family and/or career. Collective and/or individualistic feminism. All in less than half an hour.
And yet, as many critics have observed, this production, because the NT could, by not having actors double up from the first scene into the office scene, loses much of its resonance. CC didn’t specify doubling. That is just the way it has generally been done, a cast of seven for the simple reason of cost. But it certainly, at least when I have seen the play before, has far greater impact as the women that emerge from the interviews, Jeanine, who just want to travel and be with her husband, Louise, who has devoted her life to her job but still watched men promoted over her, and Shona forced to exaggerate her experience, as well as Mrs Kidd, who comes to plead for husband Howard who had expected to get the job Marlene has secured. This pivotal scene loses some impact because of the introduction of new faces, (the SO observed that she was expecting the dinner party guests to reappear in new guises and she has never seen Top Girls before), and maybe because, in an attempt to fill the Lyttleton stage, there is a fair bit of superfluous movement and furniture in this agency scene.
Director Lyndsey Turner, unsurprisingly given her experience in reviving Caryl Churchill’s work, pretty much nails the words, from Marlene’s initial instructions to the waitresses at the restaurant, (of course they are women), through to Angie’s final, plaintive, cries for her Mum at the end. This is such a rich play, just read it, and, with a cast of this distinction, the words can’t help but leap from the page. It is just that the look and feel of the production, even with the solid contributions of Jack Knowles (lighting) and Christopher Shutt (sound), didn’t quite work for me. Still to watch 18 women, (many of whom, in the “lesser” roles, were new to me), line up across the stage at the curtain call was pretty awesome. I doubt I will see that again.
I don’t doubt though that I will get another opportunity to see Top Girls. The programme lists 25 English language productions since the Royal Court premiere. With 6 last year alone, (though its been 8 years since the last major revival in the UK from Out of Joint).
That’s the thing with Caryl Churchill. She changes the game whilst being ahead of it.