Blood Knot at the Orange Tree Theatre review ***

Blood Knot

Orange Tree Theatre, 19th March 2019

To date I have only seen two plays by Athol Fugard. Both bravely examine racial politics in a South Africa divided by apartheid. Both are two-handers examining the relationship between two men, John and Winston, two prisoners on Robben Island practicing for a performance of Antigone in The Island, and here, in Blood Knot, half-brothers Morris and Zachariah who share a tiny shack in the “Coloured” section of Port Elizabeth. In both plays Mr Fugard is not afraid of taking his time, building out character, situation and message with a wealth of detail. It may not be everyone’s cup of tea but, on both occasions, I have found myself being drawn in to the intense relationships where one man is “freer” than another in a society utterly disfigured by state-sanctioned racism. Though not enough timely convinced by the dramatic qualities.

Mr Fugard, who is actor and director as well as novelist and playwright, has been working at his craft for over five decades, has packed a lot into his life and has garnered numerous awards in the UK, US as well as his native SA. (He even has a theatre complex in Cape Town named after him which is about to show Kunene and the King after its run at the RSC).

Now I am assuming Blood Knot holds a special place in AF’s heart as he acted alongside his friend and colleague Zakes Mogae at the world premiere in Johannesburg in 1961, multiracial theatre in defiance of the regime. In the same year SA became a Republic and left the British Commonwealth, 69 unarmed black protestors were shot dead by South African police, the Sharpeville Massacre, and Nelson Mandela and the rest of the ANC Executive were found not guilty of treason by the SA High Court. The following year though Mandela was arrested, tried and sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben Island.

Blood Knot, and AF’s other work (with his wife Sheila), his public support of the Anti-Apartheid Movement (which led to an international boycott of SA theatre) and the increasing international presence of his work outside SA, led to restrictions on his movement, including confiscation of his passport, and to constant surveillance and harassment. He worked alongside the progressive black theatre company, the Sergeant Players in the 1960s and 1970s, culminating in The Island, written with its original leads, John Kani and Winston Ntshona, as well as Sizwe Bansi is Dead, with its more obvious Brechtian and Absurd influences, also from 1972. His other most well known plays, A Lesson From Aloes, (which I stupidly missed when it appeared at the Finborough recently), Master Harold … and the boys, which is about to be revived at the NT, and The Road to Mecca, date from the late 1970s and 1980s, but he hasn’t slowed down continuing to examine the issues which have arisen in SA society since the end of apartheid.

Morris (Nathan McCullen) can pass as white but, for reasons that are never made entirely clear, has returned to live with his half-brother Zachariah (Kalungi Ssebandeke, who wrote the very well regarded Assata Taught Me performed at the Gate a couple of years ago). Under Apartheid, people defined as “Coloured” had a different status to those classed as White, Black, East Asian or Cape Malay. This meant that they were not confined to Homelands but their movement and employment was still heavily restricted and their economic prospects constrained. But, as you might expect, such classifications of those with mixed heritage, as well as being reprehensible in principle were difficult to “police” in practice. This is what the play explores.

The fastidious Morris looks after the shack whilst Zac trudges off to work every day. They dream of saving enough from Zac’s earnings to buy a farm, live frugally, with minimal social interaction but share a rich life of imagination. Zac, with Morris’s help since he is literate, strikes up a pen-pal relationship with a woman, but, when they realise she is white, with a policeman brother, they decide that Morris will have to take up her offer of a date in Zac’s place. Zac spends their savings on a fine “white” suit for the meeting, but, when the girl breaks off the correspondence, the clothes become the catalyst for a surreal, and increasingly provocative and complex role-play, or worse, where Morris, as “white” starts to bully Zac, and Zac in turn, harbours a desire to kill Morris. There is no resolution. They are tied together by familial love, but shattered by the system that they live in.

Given the quality of the dialogue, the sure hand of director Matthew Xia, now in charge of the Actors Touring Company and who was behind the revival of Sizwe Banzi is Dead at the Young Vic in 2014, and a very effective set from Basia Binkowska, (who also impressed in the Lyric Hammersmith OthelloMacbeth), I suspect I was always going to be partial to the idea of this. However the careful performances of both actors, with a palpable chemistry between them, definitely helped. I can’t pretend that the claustrophobic, dense structure and rhythm of the play, especially as it moves into the ambiguous final third, didn’t occasionally frustrate and I wasn’t entirely convinced by the distracting electronic sound design of Xana. After two powerful, if sometimes ponderous, performances of AF’s plays I think the next bite of the cherry needs to have a little more dramatic variety and a bigger cast. I gather Master Harold … has one extra character. Phew.

Shipwreck at the Almeida Theatre review *****

Shipwreck

Almeida Theatre, 18th March 2019

The Tourist, as this blog shows, is a nice bloke given to giving creatives the benefit of the doubt. Hence the string of positive reviews on these pages. He likes to think that he is wise in his choice of entertainment. The reality is that he just wants to be liked, even when it manifestly doesn’t matter.

Even so he admits to toddling off to the Almeida to see Shipwreck with some trepidation. Reviews were mixed but rarely overwhelming. The SO, BD and LD had all bailed out in advance, for good reasons, though Dad’s sales pitch was about as convincing as that of The Apprentice candidate, (a clever Trump reference there people), who is fired in week one. The Tourist and BD had abandoned Anne Washburn’s Mr Burns one act in, though this was in part due to “cold-induced fatigue”/teenage hangover, and the SO had to abandon The Twilight Zone, now playing at the Ambassadors Theatre, due to a domestic crisis. A poor familial showing all round. Would lightning strike thrice then?

Certainly not. I bloody loved this. As usual that is of no use to you if you fancy seeing it since it is now all over but it really shows why Rupert Gould and the Almeida have such faith in Ms Washburn’s abilities. There may be some dramatic shortfalls, largely born of excess ambition, but boy can she turn a phrase. Now I don’t know when, or if, this will make its way to the other side of the pond but if it does, assuming you are a member of the very echo chamber it purports to excavate, then you should definitely see it. (I think I can safely assume that the Trumpian side of the cultural divide will have no interest in watching their “opposition” introspect, though they would get apoplectically wound up).

Shipwreck is a meticulous unpicking of liberal America’s current paralysis in the face of angry populism. It may be very time and place specific but its messages are universal. Populist politics, which can and will turn ugly, cannot be dismissed, mocked, pandered to or ignored. It has to be confronted and unpicked, piece by piece, through argument, mobilisation and democratic will. Hand wringing and virtue signalling won’t cut it.

By bringing together seven privileged, articulate, white bar-one, liberal American progressives in a snowbound, holiday farmhouse in upstate New York, and then letting then slug out the arguments one by one, with a useful, if not unsurprising twist, AW is able to rehearse all the arguments in forensic detail. The dialogue is actually centred on June 2017 after the ex head of the FBI, James Comey, offered up his damning testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee. Comey, you will recall, or maybe you won’t for that is one of the points the play forcibly makes, was the bloke who was fired by Trump, ostensibly on the recommendation of the attorney general Jeff Sessions and deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein because the FBI rank and file had allegedly lost confidence in their director, but, in reality, because Trump feared the net closing in the the strands of collusion with Russia in the election, taken up subsequently in the Mueller enquiry. Comey, you may also remember, was the chap who rashly indicated that he was re-opening an investigation into the so-called Hilary Clinton e-mails just before the election having previously said there was no case to answer. Confused? I am and that is the point. Keeping up with the truth is tough enough. Unpicking truth, lies and fantasy when narrative and ideology conflict and when there are multiple “reporting” platforms makes it near impossible even for those with the time, inclination and critical faculty to care.

One of the pivotal moments in the debate between the Shipwreck crew comes when, I think, Adam James’s lawyer Andrew reminds then of the time when Trump, in a Republican primary event, claimed the GOP bigwigs had pleaded with him to cool his opposition to the Iraq War. He had not publicly declared any such opposition. He just made it up. And kept repeating it. Then this kind of breathtaking audacity was a surprise. Now many have have become inured to it, just accept it or positively embrace it. Truth has always been a slippery fellow, manipulated by teller and beholder, and more so as time passes, but deliberate, outright fabrication is plainly dangerous to the body politic. But pitifully easy it seems.

The other key moment comes when Andrew’s partner, banker Yusuf, (Khalid Abdalla), admits he voted for the comb-over bogeyman in the election. With the age old excuse of “wanting to shake things up”. Justine Mitchell plays Allie, the sarky, Facebook-ing keyboard warrior “activist”, who criticises the complacency of others but whose logic can send her liberalism way off-beam. The hosts Jools (Raquel Cassidy) and Jim (Elliot Cowan) are more concerned with day-to day accommodation of the changed environment, expecting a reversion to their comfortable mean, whilst Tara Fitzgerald as Teresa and Risteard Cooper as Lawrence are the hippyish slackers, who bang on about the natural birth they have just come from and who see their green-tinged, near-socialism as adequate inoculation. And so all the strands of liberal call and response are represented.

Now I would have been happy with a couple of hours of this fascinating, pointed, if admittedly wordy, to and fro, but, AW being AW, she clearly felt we needed more. So we are introduced to Mark, an orphan of Kenyan descent, who has ended up in the foster care of a traditional, Christian, Trump-voting, rural couple Richard and Laurie, doubled by Risteard Cooper and Tara Fitzgerald. The connection is the farmhouse which Jools and Jim bought from them. Mark then becomes the mouthpiece for racial politics and identity. It is a clunky device but all is forgiven pretty much as soon as Fisayo Akinade as Mark opens his mouth. Now for those that don’t know Mr Akinade, he was the comic turn as Eros in the NT Antony and Cleopatra where he near stole the show from under Ralph Fiennes and Sophie Okonedo. He also starred in Barber Shop Chronicles which, for my sins, I haven’t seen, and in the Donmar’s Way of the World, St Joan and The Vote, as well as the Caryl Churchill short Pigs and Dogs, all of which I have. Here, in a series of monologues, in total contrast to the structure and mood of the group scenes, he charts the subtle, and not so subtle, racial dilemmas in his upbringing, imaging what it would be like to be a slave and describing his difficulties in describing the American racial divide to his own child. It is powerful stuff, sharp, funny and rhetorical, made more so by a very fine performance.

And there’s more. As if enough ideas haven’t been explored, AW then goes on to subvert the dramatic form in a very Churchillian (Caryl not Winnie) way and thereby offer up multiple theatrical opportunities for Mr Goold and, especially, the lighting and sound of veterans Jack Knowles and Paul Arditti. Firstly by having Fisayo Akinade playing a sheepish George HW Bush who is rounded on by the besuited, megalomaniac Trump about the Iraq War. And secondly, and this is where the fun really starts, going all out fantasy as Elliot Cowan (I think), bravely, morphs into a gold-painted, Caesar-esque unhinged tyrant, complete with bird-hooded priests, (yep you read that right), berating a nervous James Comey (Khalid Abdella again) during the infamous one-on-one meeting with Trump in the Oval Office where the POTUS allegedly tried to influence the investigation and demanded his loyalty. Mythic.

As in her previous plays AW shows she doesn’t seem to have an edit function, so even within the tripartite form she crams in so much more. References to Greek tragedy, the nature of art, politics and theatre (“art needs time, space and reflection” as Jools says – not here, AW just gets stuck in), class, incessant social media chatter and mock outrage, the lack of food and drink and their practical shortcomings, disparities in wealth between the couples. But always returning to the uncomfortable idea that the rise of Trump is a retaliation to the pious entitlement and performative shortcomings of white liberalism. And that what these people are most afraid of is losing their economic and cultural dominance to the unenlightened.

No plot, occasionally bonkers, no apologies speechifying, three hours plus, repetition and circularity. Shipwreck is so obviously flawed. But I don’t care because AW, even when she goes too far, can still slum-dunk ideas, message and theatrical thrills which the uniformly excellent cast and Rupert Goold, (and the rest of the creative team, including Miriam Buether symbolic, circular design and Luke Halls, who else, with his striking political and religious iconographic video,) greedily feast upon. It is complex, over-stuffed, baggy, ill-disciplined but in going beyond the usual incredulity at how the Orange One gets away with it, it is brilliant and telling.


Richard III at the Alexandra Park Theatre review ***

Richard III

Headlong, Alexandra Park Theatre, 17th March 2019

Right. Let’s get the gripe out of the way. Maybe in the smaller venues where this production will tour it might creep up to a 4* but Alexandra Park Theatre, whilst an undeniably superb space after the refurbishment, is just a little too cavernous to accommodate the claustrophobic history/tragedy/comedy/thriller/psychodrama/vaudeville which is Dickie 3.

Chiara Stephenson’s Gothic, dark, old-school castle with a twist, namely the introduction of multiple full length, revolving mirrors, together with the lighting of Elliot Griggs, is a winner set-wise. But it utilises barely a third of the huge proscenium stage, and I would guess, since all is shielded in dark fabric, only a similar portion of the depth. To rectify this the actors, in addition to coming on and off through the glass revolves, enter from the auditorium to the side of the stage, and, for the London scene, pop up in the “slips” and bark back to the stage. It is the right look for John Haidar’s galvanic production and Tom Mothersdale scorpion delivery as Dickie but seems lost in all this volume. As do the lines. Not because of the delivery. In most cases this is sound as a pound but set against George Dennis’s throbbing, pounding, electronic sound the intensity is diluted, and occasionally, for the aurally challenged such as the Tourist, lost completely.

Now this being a Headlong production, (albeit in conjunction with Ally Pally, the Bristol Old Vic, Royal and Derngate and Oxford Playhouse, all of which it will travel to, as well as the Cambridge Arts Theatre and Home Manchester), there is still much to admire. With the Mother Courage, This House, Labour of Love, People, Places and Things, Junkyard, The Absence of War, American Psycho, 1984, Chimerica, The Effect, Medea and Enron, Headlong has been responsible for some of the best theatre the Tourist has seen in recent years. He even liked Common, John Haidar’s last outing, putting him in a minority of one. He would therefore never miss anything the company produces. All My Sons at the Old Vic and Hedda Tesman at Chichester already signed up with willing guests.

John Haidar has opted to sneak in a bit of Henry VI to provide context, (complete with first taste of murder before that “winter” even starts), juggles the standard text and cuts out superfluous characters, though doubling is kept to a minimum, and generally encourages a lively approach to the verse, (though nowhere near the gallop of Joe Hill-Gibbons’s Richard II at the Almeida recently) . This means each half barely ticks over into the hour. The focus then, as it should be, is on Tom Mothersdale’s Richard, and the “family” saga, if you will, a family from which Richard is permanently excluded, rather than the politics. Tom Kanji’s Clarence doesn’t take up too much time, the other assassinations are similarly rapidly dispatched, Stefan Adegbola’s smug Buckingham and Heledd Gywnn’s Hastings, (as arresting a presence as she was in the Tobacco Factory’s Henry V), take precedence in the jostling for power, and the scenes with the three women, Dickie’s, to say the least, disappointed, Mum, the Duchess of York (Eileen Nicholas), Edward IV’s Scottish widow Elizabeth (Derbhle Crotty) and sacrificial lamb Anne (Leila Mimmack), are given plenty of air time.

With Heledd Gwynn doubling up as Ratcliffe, Tom Kanji as Catesby and Leila Mimmack as Norfolk, the production achieves an admirable gender balance and also tips Richard’s murderous ascendancy into a joint enterprise, at least until he shafts his mates. The main cast is completed with John Sackville’s ghostly Henry VI, Michael Matus as Edward IV and then Stanley and Caleb Roberts as Richmond (and utility messenger). The stage then is literally set, what with the opening soliloquy and those mirrors, for Dickie to slay his way to the ghostly visitations. Each murder is marked by a red flash and a loud buzz just to make sure we get it.

Now the Tourist has seen young Mothersdale up close in the slightly disappointing Dealing with Clair at the OT recently, in the magnificent John by Annie Baker, as well as roles in Cleansed at the NT and Oil at the Almeida. He’s got it, no doubt. As he shows here. And, as he capers around the stage, in dark Burgundy suit and leather caliper, long-limbed, lank-locked, threatening, cajoling, pleading, squirming at Mummy’s rejection, he is certainly the “bottled spider” of Will’s description. But I am not sure he finds an angle. There is the caricature Richard of Thomas More Tudor myth, as Reformation Elizabethan England found its way in the world ordained by God. There is Richard as psycho executing to a plan, villainy as predestination. There is nudge, nudge, wink, wink comedy Richard who recruits us into the fun. Or there is poor, diddums, “nobody loves me so I’m going to show you” Richard who can’t stop once he gets started. And more. With multiple permutations.

Here we seem to get a bit of everything in this swift, safe production. Not the monomaniac man-child, (any resemblance to a current world leader is surely entirely deliberate), of the brilliant Hans Kesting in Kings of War, not the compulsive egotist of Lars Eidinger in the Schaubuhne production at the Barbican, not the amoral sociopath of Ralph Fiennes at the Almeida with that infamous rape scene, not the trad manipulator of Mark Rylance at the Globe. Of the other recent Dickie’s that the Tourist has enjoyed Tom Mothersdale comes closest to Greg Hicks’ take in the pint-sized, though still extremely effective production, under Mehmet Ergen at the Arcola in 2017. Except that Greg Hicks made every single word count and plumbed some very ugly depths in Richard’s misogynism and unquenchable grievance. And with chain permanently attaching arm to leg he offered a stark visual reminder of his “deformation”.

There are some fine moments, the “seductions”, the ghosts behind the mirrors, TM cringing at Mother’s curses and her recoiling from his touch, some meaningful gobbing, the writhing in the Bosworth mud at the end, and, like I say, this will probably work better at, say, Bristol or Oxford, but I would have preferred a more thoughtful, and yes, longer, interpretation. Still the one thing you know about Richard III’s, like Macbeth’s, Lear’s and Number 38’s, there will be another one along shortly.

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.

The American Clock at the Old Vic review ***

The American Clock

Old Vic Theatre, 11th February 2019

All the reviews will tell you the same thing. This was not one of Arthur Miller’s finest moments. Mind you his finest moments are amongst the greatest in theatrical history so the bar is set pretty high. A series of vignettes, with musical accompaniment, inspired by the oral histories of Studs Terkel, notably Hard Times, which intend to knit together to offer a dramatic critique, if you will, of the Wall Street Crash and The Great Depression. Almost bound by its form perhaps to fall short dramatically but could still fly as theatre.

It might have flopped on Broadway when it first appeared in 1980 but apparently the NT production from the mid 1980’s, (albeit under the guidance of master director Peter Wood, the man who breathed life into Stoppard’s comedies), was a great success. So I can see why Matthew Warchus entertained the idea of American musical director Rachel Chavkin having a crack at it on the Old Vic stage. Especially after the success of Conor McPherson’s Girl From the North Country, which to me, albeit with the powerful addition of the music of one B. Dylan, it somewhat resembles.

Miller himself termed it a vaudeville, a variety entertainment popular in the US before the Depression, and similar to music hall in good old Blighty. A long way from the original French precursor, (which I have just learned about – thanks teach), from the late C18 which was the lightest of comedies interspersed with songs and ballets. Comic opera with no intention of lecturing its audience. Unlike Mr Miller who leaves you in no doubt about what he is trying to say. It probably “helped”, at least artistically, that Miller’s own family like so many other well-to-do types were ruined by the Crash.

The American Clock is centred on the Baum family, an initially well to do Manhattan Jewish family, Moe, Rose and son Lee, who lose it all in the Crash and are forced to move in with family in Brooklyn, (Rose’s sister Fanny, her son Sidney and his wife Doris, and Grandpa). A narrator of sorts appears in the guise of sagacious money man, Theodore K. Quinn, who sells out ahead of the crash, in contrast to a bunch of his peers, who we meet, along with a whole host of other characters incidental to the Baum’s journey. In total there are some 26 named characters. Thus the whole of American society is represented. And, just to emphasise the timeless relevance, and thereby add more bodies to the stage, Rachel Chavkin has chosen to cast the Baum family with three different sets of actors, White Jewish, African American and Asian American. Actually it turns out this is less of an annoying conceit that in sounds.

Now I can see why uber critic Frank Rich archly observed that, “It is Mr. Miller’s notion, potentially a great one, that the Baums’ story can help tell the story of America itself during the traumatic era that gave birth to our own. As it happens, neither tale is told well in The American Clock: indeed, the Baums and history fight each other to a standoff.” That about sums it up though it is a little harsh. Each episode in the “story”, and there are many, sheds light on a slice of American life across those fateful few years, whilst still giving primacy to the journey of the Baums. But we never get to see enough of these characters to make any emotional connection to them and the narrative arc is too fragmentary to generate any real direction.

Having said that some of the scenes, individually are powerful, the dispossessed Mid-West farmers taking control of an auction on behalf of one of their number, the call to action from an oratorically gifted Communist agitator in the office for poor relief, the dance marathons, for example. And the play looks at sound fantastic. Chloe Lamford’s in-the-round set starts out as a commodities trading floor and, then, through constant evolution (and revolution,) becomes speakeasy, club, family home, diner, auction house and much much more. Rose Elnile’s costumes are similarly evocative. The combined talents of composer Justin Ellington, sound designer Darron L West, musical director Jim Henson and his on stage band made up of Shaney Forbes, James Mainwaring and Laurence Ungless create a rich, jazz based, aural tapestry. Top of the class though is surely choreographer Ann Yee, (and not for the first time in my experience, Caroline, or Change, the War Requiem at the ENO, and the Donmar Shakespeare Trilogy are all recent examples of her work), who oversees some smashing dance routines..

There are also many committed performances notably from Clarke Peters, Clare Burt, Francesca Mills, Golda Rosheuvel, Ewan Wandrop and Abdul Salis.

So, if you are tempted, and there are plenty of reasonably priced tickets left, I wouldn’t stop you. Just don’t go expecting to get the emotional punch in the gut that classic Miller delivers. I have certainly endured worse history lessons.

Rosenbaum’s Rescue at the Park Theatre review ***

Rosenbaum’s Rescue

Park Theatre 200, 29th January 2018

Not quite sure why this didn’t entirely work for me. Alexander Bodin Sophir takes an intriguing story, the escape of 7500 Jews by boat from Copenhagen to Sweden in 1943 just before the Nazis were about to round them up, and puts it into the mouths of a Swedish historian, his German daughter, his Danish-Jewish friend and the latter’s wife as they are holed up at the couple’s house following a power cut. Mr ABS, in this his first play, has the passion to tell the story, his own grandparents escaped this way, and he has put the hours in research-wise, unsurprising given his day-job as documentary maker. He also contrives a punchy, if slightly overwrought, twist to proceedings at the end.

Actually I think I do know why. In the effort to cover all the contended reasons as to how and why these events happened, and to elide this with dramatic personal disclosures, ABS perhaps asks his text and dialogue to do just a bit too much heavy lifting and makes his characters just a bit too predictable.

It is Hanukkah, 2001 in the Scandi chic interior (courtesy of designer William Fricker) of the house of Abraham (David Bamber) and Sara (Julia Swift). They are preparing for a visit from Lars (Neil McCaul) and Eva (Dorothea Myer-Bennett). Lars is researching the events surrounding the evacuation. Abraham, as an observant Jew, is convinced that it was the result of the heroic resistance of the Danish people, and divine intercession, whilst Lars, an atheist, is convinced there was collusion between the Danish government, which had avoided the excesses of occupation elsewhere in Europe through flexible accommodation, and certain sympathetic Nazi higher-ups. Personal recollection, both men where 8 in 1943 plays a part as their friendship arose from a family connection formed at the time. Memories prove somewhat flawed and events open to interpretation especially when a few McGuffinish momentos are chucked in.

Cue snowstorm to ensure the debate rages and then lay on top some past history between the calm Sara and Lars and the fact that Eva, a novelist, sees her identity stemming largely from her German mother, now divorced from Lars. It isn’t tricky to guess the outcomes but all this intrigue does detract from the historical interrogation, and vice versa. ABS’s dialogue smartly, and comically, undercuts some of the more hyperbolic exchanges, notably from Sara and Eva (I am very keen on Dorothea Myer-Bennett’s no nonsense acting talent – here she did a lot with very little). The versatile David Bamber is always a joy to watch whatever he is doing (last seen by me as Noel in Julia Davies’s gloriously smutty Camping – and indelible memory) and the is no exception. Neil McCaul, as the “truth is everything” academic is maybe asked to turn up the apoplectic dial once too often but this does serve an obvious purpose.

The competing narratives of what actually happened are well articulated in Kate Fahy’s production, but she could maybe have cranked the pace up. The parallels with present day Denmark, and by implication the rest of Europe, get a little lost and the science vs religion arguments are a bit heavy handed. I came out actually wishing ABS hand found a way to simply focus on the arguments about what actually happened, and therefore the “truth of history”, in a much shorter double-hander, and reversed the passive-aggressive relationship of Abraham and Lars. Alternatively the personal drama could have proved the catalyst from which the historical argument obliquely emerged.

Still learned a lot. That’s enough.

Julia Wolfe’s Anthracite Fields at King’s Place review *****

Bang on a Can All Stars, BBC Singers, Tecwyn Evans (conductor)

Kings Place Hall One, 19th January 2019

I had heard a few snippets of Julia Wolfe’s compositions but freely admit this was a bit of a leap into the unknown. Still what I had heard seemed interesting, I was keen to take in a few of the excellent looking concerts programmed as part of the year long Venus Unwrapped season at Kings Place, focussing on women composers, and Anthracite Fields is an acclaimed work that won a Pulitzer Prize.

It is an oratorio for choir and chamber ensemble which was premiered in Philadelphia in 2014 by the Mendelssohn Club Chorus and the Bang On A Can All Stars, Julia Wolfe being on of the founders of BOAC, alongside Michael Gordon and David Lang. It is scored for bass (acoustic and electric and here played by Robert Black), keyboards (Vicky Chow), percussion (David Cossin), cello (Mariel Roberts), guitar/voice (Mark Stewart) and clarinet/bass clarinet (Ken Thomson) and, as well as the choir, also requires the services of a sound engineer (Andrew Cotton) and accompanying visuals (Jeff Sung and Don Cieslik).

The piece is a tribute to those who “persevered and endured in the Pennsylvania Anthracite coal region”. Julia Wolfe grew up in Montgomeryville, Pennsylvania which lies to the South of the coal producing region, Anthracite is the purest form of coal, was mined from the turn of the C19, and by the turn of the C20 the region was powering much of America’s heavy industry. However through the first half of C20 the region declined in importance as the reserves were exhausted and, by the 1960’s, mining had essentially ended. It plays an important role in American industrial and labour history and Ms Wolfe is not the only artist to have explored its legacy. Less than one week later, the Tourist was privileged to see another top drawer, Pulitzer Prize winning, creative work which took inspiration from near this region, Lynn Nottage’s play Sweat, based in Reading, Pennsylvania, which, over a century, turned from one of the richest to one of the poorest cities in the USA.

Julia Wolfe herself had previously addressed the plight of the American worker in Steel Hammer, her “art ballad” about the folk hero John Henry. Her text for Anthracite Fields is drawn from various sources, oral histories and interviews (including her own), local rhymes, a coal advertisement, geological descriptions, a mining accident index, a list of contemporary daily activities that use coal power and an impassioned political speech by John L Lewis, a past head of the United Mine Workers Union.

It is made up of five movements together lasting just over an hour. In Foundation, a kind of dark chorale, the choir intone the names of miners killed in accidents, but only those named John with one syllable surnames, there being so many who died. It ends with further chant of representative polysyllabic names which give a flavour of the diversity of countries from which the miners emigrated to this small corner of one State. There is also a poetic passage drawn from the geology of coal formation. Breaker Boys takes a series of nervy rhymes and an interview and describes the painful work of the Breaker Boys, children employed to sort debris from the coal as it came down the chutes from the heads of the mine-shafts. Think folk-rock. The third movement Speech takes the aforementioned John L Lewis’s powerful oratory, “if we must grind up human flesh and bones”, sung here by BOACAS veteran Mark Stewart with choral responses. Flowers is inspired by the list of flowers Barbara Powell, literally a coal-miner’s daughter, recited during an interview with Ms Wolfe. It is gentler in tone than the other movements and, over its memorable rhythmic base, the choir explores some haunting harmonies. The last movement is another list, of activities followed by a rhyme about Phoebe Snow, a fictitious NYC socialite created for an advert whose white gown was unsullied during her railway journey, so pure was the coal fuelling the engine.

Now there is nothing difficult about Julia Wolfe’s music in Anthracite Fields. Quite the reverse. It is almost alarming in its immediacy. At its core it is a minimalist work, driven by the dirge-like rhythms laid down by the various members of the ensemble, and it is not afraid of grungy rock’n’roll. There is plenty of instrumental colour and the 20 or so strong choir have plenty of opportunities to show off. Here, in the well-balanced but enclosed acoustic of Kings Place Hall One, initially at least the band had the upper hand but this seem to be corrected through the second half of Foundation, or maybe it my ears adjusting.

It packs a huge emotional punch and there is nothing subtle about its messages. Bearing all this mind, and if you are prepared to be immersed in the concept, music and projections, you are in for a treat, should this return, as it should (this was its UK premiere). I should imagine it would be even more powerful in the version for a larger choir, 150 strong. It certainly deserves a bigger audience than this though I get that this sort of fusion, which is at the core of the Bang on a Can ethos, lies a bit beyond normal musical boundaries.