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.

Berberian Sound Studio at the Donmar Warehouse review ****

Berberian Sound Studio

Donmar Warehouse, 14th March 2019

I sort of stumbled across Peter Strickland second full length film by accident. Always keep half an eye on what’s coming up on Film 4. Record anything that I recognise as requiring a watch, (on the basis of pretentious film buff recommendations), probably leave it unwatched for months and then likely dump it. Just occasionally though a bit of research and or plain old fashioned curiosity means I end up watching them before pressing delete. And so one rainy Sunday afternoon on went Berberian Sound Studio. The presence of Toby Jones helped but, five minutes in, laptop and phone were switched off and I sat, bewitched, for the next hour and a half. Have raved about it ever since whenever the chance comes up to raise it in conversation. Which, as those of you that may know it, isn’t really that often.

For the film is a critique, or maybe continuation, of the Italian giallo film genre. Giallo, to quote Wiki, is “a particular Italian thriller-horror genre that has mystery or detective elements and often contains slasher, crime fiction, psychological thriller, psychological horror, exploitation, sexploitation, and, less frequently, supernatural horror elements“. It reached its apogee in the 1970s and stems from the Italian for yellow, the colour of the paperback mystery novels popular in post-WWII Italy which provided th plots for many plots for many of the early cinematic examples.

Now, to be clear, these films wouldn’t be my cup of tea, though, to be fair, I haven’t tried. Mr Strickland’s film though takes the post-production studio for one of these films as the setting for a surreal mediation on the main character’s dislocation and eventual breakdown. Gilderoy has arrived at the studio to work on a film about horses. Or so he believes. He is a Foley artist whose work has come to the attention of the film’s director, Santini, through the soundtrack to a nature made in Gilderoy’s home county of Surrey, Dorking to be exact, where he lives with his Mum. Out of his depth, and plainly shocked by the nature of the film, Gilderoy nonetheless sets to work on mixing the sound effects for the film’s torture scenes and the voice-overs from session actresses, Silvia and Claudia. He is held captive by a mixture of professional pride, bullying by the film’s producer Francesco, failed attempts to get his expenses reimbursed, (it turns out the flight he came over on doesn’t exist), concern for the actresses and, maybe, fascination with the material. The language barrier, his own lack of worldliness and the material he is dealing with leave him increasingly disorientated and unhinged. A new actress arrives Elisa to replace Silvia who has been attacked by Santini. Gilderoy eventually goes full-on gaga mixing up reality and the film. The end.

Now I can’t pretend that there weren’t times when the film became a little frustrating and, well, just a bit weird but it is so atmospheric, so different and so fascinating that I have watched it again and, as with all good art, have occasion to think on it. Toby Jones is brilliant as Gilderoy, (as he is in pretty much anything he does – most recently on stage as Stanley in last year’s Birthday Party revival) ,as are the rest of the Italian, largely based in Britain, cast. The exposure of the mechanics of film-making, specifically the sound-track, composed in the film by Broadcast, the Foley effects and the voice effects from Hungarian performance artist Katalin Ladik is intriguing, especially the horror genre, and the theme of alienation, on many different levels, is intriguingly explored. Strickland himself was brought up in Reading but lives in Eastern Europe.

So how to put this on stage. Well clearly the first thing you need is a convert which is where Tom Scutt comes in. Mr Scutt is a top drawer designer, (Julie, Summer and Smoke, The Lady from the Sea, Woyzeck, Les Liasons Dangereuses, King Charles II, The Deep Blue Sea, Elegy, Constellations – and that’s just what the Tourist has seen), and Associate at the Donmar, but this is first directing gig. He has teamed up with Joel Horwood, (whose work I don’t know but who I see has previously focussed on pantos !!), to adapt BSS for the stage.

And what a very fine job the two of them have done. The adaptation stays close to the original story, with some changes in chronology, for most of the 90 minutes run time but wisely condenses the breakdown of Gilderoy at the end. This shifts the focus more directly to the relationship between him, Francesco and, eventually, Santini, (a confident debut from Luke Pasqualino), and the actresses, where the characters have been mixed up and changed a bit. Elena/Sara is played by Eugenia Caruso who actually played Claudia in the film and starred in Strickland’s next major film The Duke of Burgundy. Sylvia is played by Lara Rossi, (who I remember well from The Writer at the Almeida), Carla by Beatrice Scirocchi and vocal composer Lore Lixenberg takes on the Katalin Ladik part. All clear? Nope. Don’t worry. there is no confusion in the play. Well aside from in Gilderoy’s mind.

It also lays bare the process of creating the sound-track to the film with two on stage Foley artists in the form of the silent Massimo and Massimo, (Tom Espiner, who has form on this as the on-stage Foley for Simon McBurney’s Magic Flute of which more to follow on these very pages shortly), and Hemi Yeroham), brooding janitor Lorenzo (Sidney Kean) and the voice of Giovanni (Stefano Braschi). The distance between the process, squashing a melon say, and the intention, some unspeakable violence, of the sound is as sharp a metaphor for the illusion of theatre, or film, as you could imagine.

However the heart of play lies with the performance of Tom Brooke as Gilderoy. He initially cuts a more confident air than Toby Jones in the film, determined to show his skill, (which also allows us even more insight into the technological processes). However the constant harassment and worse by Francesco, Enzo Cilenti is superb here, and the entreaties from the women, are what push him over the edge, perhaps less than the content of the film. It feels more like he is lashing out rather than disintegrating as he goes round and round trying to create the “perfect” closing torture scene soundtrack. In the end he is complicit as we see him scare Carla into giving the perfect “real”scream . What is clever though is that large swathes of the dialogue between the Italian characters, except where Francesco intervenes ostensibly to help Gilderoy, are spoken in Italian. Leaving the audience, mostly, in the dark alongside our hero.

It also, of course, means that, in a story centred on sound, the sound design had to match the ambition of the adaptation. It did. Thanks to the go-to stage sound designers Ben and Max Ringham, alongside the aforementioned mentioned Tom Espiner’s Foley, (there is a lot of vegetable abuse here), and Lore Lixenberg’s vocals. Lee Curran as lighting designer, Sasha Milavic Davies (who is one of the best in her field methinks), projectionist Mogzi Bromley-Morgans and even the superb studio set of Anna Yates (with Tom Scutt’s input) all had to take a back seat to the brothers Ringham. Pound for pound I doubt you will ever see a more extraordinary manifestation of the technical craft of theatre-making.

Did it work as a play though? Yes definitely. The team has wisely not tried to go for broke with the more surreal visual conceits of the film and to offer more complexity in the relationships between characters, and, I think, to point up, by implication, the misogyny of genre and industry. The idea that creatives have some responsibility for the material they create also comes through even if the individual isolation of Gilderoy is less explicit. Santini’s twisted justification for the film to Gilderoy, and Gilderoy’s own disavowal of, I think, Elena, “I’m just a technician”, are key scenes in this regard.

There is suspense and direction in the story. There are even a couple of jump-scares. The play also expertly captures the slippery meta elision between play and film within a play, (I note that Jamie Lloyd captured the same vibe in his version of The Slight Ache in the Pinter season recently). To be fair it does sort of just end, there is no conclusion, but that is common to the film. I can see exactly why everyone here wanted to bring this project to life and I for one thoroughly enjoyed it. On the other hand if you weren’t familiar with the film, took a punt and are not nerded up by the technical aspects, then I could see this being a little frustrating.

Mother Courage and her Children at the Royal Exchange Manchester review ****

Mother Courage and her Children

Royal Exchange Theatre Manchester, 28th February 2019

Brecht. Royal Exchange. Headlong (This House, People, Places and Things, Labour of Love, Common, Junkyard, 1984, The Glass Menagerie, American Psycho and Enron – and that’s just what I can vouchsafe), Anna Jordan adapting, Amy Hodge, the Associate Director alongside Jeremy Herrin at Headlong and Julie Hesmondhalgh as Mother Courage (“MC”) herself.

Strap yourself in. This was bound to be an exhilarating theatrical ride. And so it was. Full of great visual moments. Even if the transposition of the story to a future (2080’s) European war, Reds against Blues in a continent divided up by grids, probably subtracted from, rather than added to, its contemporary relevance. Brecht finished Mother Courage in 1939 and he pointedly set it in the Thirty Years War of 1618 to 1648, proportionately the most destructive conflict in human history, as a message of the forthcoming horror. The greatest “anti-war” dramatic statement of all time? Probably, though it is more analysis than fulmination. One pf the greatest plays of the C20, and all time? Certainly. So f*ck about with it at your peril.

On the other hand the whole point of BB’s epic, Verfremdungseffekt, theatre is to set the audience on its toes and get the grey matter working overtime, and to let the theatre makers create their own take. Which they certainly do here. With the utmost respect to Ms Hesmondhalgh who is predictably a mighty presence, the star of the show is a repurposed ice cream van, standing in for the cart of the original text. Not something I expect to write again on these pages. Joanna Scotcher’s design looks like it came from it was sneaked out of a forgotten storeroom at a Hollywood studio marked “Vietnam War/Mad Max for charity”, right the way down to Yvette’s (Hedydd Dylan) pink plastic “catsuit”. There isn’t much in the way of fixed bric-a-brac as it should be in Brecht and as is warranted by the Royal Exchange’s in-the-round space. Which left the van, sans engine but still with its jingle intact, free to perambulate across the stage, pulled, before their respective early demises, by each of MC’s three kids, Eilif (Conor Glean), Swiss Cheese (Simeon Blake-Hall) and Kattrin (Rose Ayling Ellis). Foods, drink, water, shirts, uniform, clothes, guns, furniture, you name it, MC stocked it in the ramshackle van. Everything you need to profit from a prolonged war. It even doubles up as a nightclub.

Music (Jim Fortune), which nods back to Weill, sound (Carolyn Downing) and lighting (Lizzie Powell) was similarly pimped up to match the setting and aesthetic. Musician Nick Lynn, positioned in the circle, served up, often at MC’s request, a barrage of sound at times to set alongside some of the gentler, folksy numbers. And Movement Director Raquel Meseguer put the hours in to marshal the nine strong cast through the 12 scenes (covering 12 years of the conflict).

Now the Tourist knows from Anna Jordan’s other recent, superb, work with Frantic Assembly, The Unreturning, that she is the doyenne when it comes to ambitious, physical theatre. And so it proves here. This adaptation comes in at a couple of hours. It can drift closer to three. With the on-stage intros to each scene and some fairly direct exposition it is easy enough to follow even for the uninitiated, and all the narrative elements are intact, but it scampers along at a heck of a lick and, with all the visual stimulus, the constant motion, the soundscape, the dizzying array of accents, there just isn’t much time to think about what is going on and what Brecht is telling us.

Not a complaint. The production looks and sounds so good that this is easily forgiven but don’t come here looking for any gestural detail in the main relationships, between MC and the children, or between MC and respectively the Cook (Guy Rhys), the Chaplain (Kevin McMonagle) and Yvette. Julie Hesmondhalgh and the rest of the cast, notably these three, are too good for Brecht’s messages not to sink in but the true horrors, the deal with the Recruiting Officer to conscript Eilif, Swiss Cheese’s torture, MC’s denial of her son after the botched ransom, Kattrin’s rape, Eilif’s execution, the Cook’s rejection of Kattrin and Kattrin’s sacrifice don’t always register as strongly as they might. Mind you the bleak conclusion certainly does: MC taking up the van’s harness as a single fire burns out.

MC’s determination, even desire, to profit however from the war, despite the damage it does to her and those around her, does ring clear. Julie H is a ballsy, artful fiercely protective but, ultimately wary and realistic, MC. As she should be. This isn’t Hollywood – we are supposed to engage emotionally with the characters but not be emotionally manipulated by them. Ultimately we aren’t really supposed to sympathise with MC, just to understand why she has to act as she does, to see the damage that war does to those at its periphery as well as the fighting protagonists. MC thinks that her business is the way to safeguard her children. Manifestly it is not. We see that. She cannot.

And to see how war, when churned through the prism of difference and ideology, is an integral part of the economic sub-structure, orchestrated by the powerful. One day perhaps Brecht’s lesson will have no relevance. No sign right now though we should remember that the global and supra-national institutions which were built post WWII to rein back our worst excesses have largely succeeded in restricting conflict to the national, or intra-national, level, though still often as proxies for economic accumulation.

Which is why MCAHC will go on being restaged and re-imagined (Lynn Nottage’s Ruined for example) for new audiences to watch and learn. At the matinee performance the Tourist attended there were, as is to be expected, throngs of school students. They seemed to be all over it. I assumed it was still some sort of set text for drama students. Apparently not. Only Brit playwrights good enough for the Government when it comes to reaching GCSE drama. Interesting in the context of the breakdown of the political order in Europe that this adaptation presages. Still we should be grateful that this shower of a Government hasn’t interfered with syllabus and teaching for, what, all of a couple of years. And, unless the nutters back down, they won’t be able to for many years to come as they sort out the never-ending shower of sh*t that is coming down the tracks once we have “Brexited”. It’s only just begun folks. And not in a nice, Karen Carpenterish kind of way.

Got me to thinking about what our proud youth study for drama at A level. Faustus, Lysistrata, Woyzeck, Antigone, Much Ado About Nothing, A Servant to Two Masters, Hedda Gabler, The Caucasian Chalk Circle, Accidental Death of an Anarchist, Jerusalem, Yerma, The Glass Menagerie, Metamorphosis, Cloud Nine, Our Country’s Good, Bronte, Earthquakes in London, Stockholm, The Crucible, The Visit. Across the various boards. Bloody Hell. If they master that lot then I have nothing to fear for they will know everything there is to know about the human condition. Drama is integral to democracy and citizenship. Ask Aeschylus, Sophocles or Euripides.

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 Good Person of Szechwan at the Barbican Theatre review ****

The Good Person of Szechwan

Moscow Pushkin Drama Theatre, Barbican Theatre, 9th February 2019

I am a sucker for these Russian theatre companies. Despite the fact that I can’t say I was bowled over by the last visits of the Maly Drama Theatre of St Petersburg and the Vakhtangov State Academic Theatre of Russia. Much to admire but they don’t half go on a bit. Still it’s the idea of seeing Russian drama in Russian that appeals to this culture vulture. So I signed up for the Chekhov Cherry Orchard and this Brecht classic in an instant, though given that past experience, I went for the cheap seats just in case.

Which turned out to be a wise choice in the case. of The Cherry Orchard. No review for the simple reason that I only made it to the interval. To be absolutely clear this was not because it is a poor play, I have seen TCO on many occasions and when it works it can be as good as theatre gets, (though I prefer Uncle Vanya’s dose of comic deprecation alongside all the revelatory ennui). Translation is, and was, not a problem, though this version felt a bit peremptory, and my eye was a little caught between the sur-title banners. A minor irritation. Nor was I phased by the vogue-ish set and setting. A raked stage, made up of various entrances, a kind of crucifix in the centre, expressionist lighting, modern-ish dress, devoid of samovar and birch, stylised choreography with multiple “crowd tableaux”. Maybe the production advertised its Absurdism a little too loudly but nothing the Tourist can’t deal with having seen, and enjoyed, some challengingly bonkers stuff in the last few years. Creatives can, and should, arse about with Chekhov. The old boy can take it.

Nope the problem for me was that, amidst all this invention from director Vladimir Mirzoev and team, which certainly looked brilliant, and lent rhythm and context to the drama, Chekhov’s philosophical musings got a bit lost along the way. There was some pretty heavy-handed symbolism; one or two little sailor-suited Grishas, Madame Raneskaya’s dead son kept popping up, Lopakhin was sex symbol as well as vulgar, proto-capitalist, governess Charlotta, in full on Kate Bush Withering Heights mode, becomes a kind of spirit presaging the coming Revolution, there are blood-bags standing in for the Orchard !!!!. If there was a meaning in the text, or in the sub-text, then this production wasn’t going to hold back from offering up a visual signifier to make sure the you didn’t miss it. TCO is so much more than a bunch of air-head, spendthrift aristos blind to what is happening around them. There are individuals wrestling with their own destinies and there are relationships to be unpicked.

I could see the parallels with the world today, an exalted elite about to be overwhelmed by a populist wave, interesting in the context of modern Russia, but it was also pretty clear that this wasn’t for me. So I missed the techno party in swimsuits and Alexander Petrov turning Lopakhin into a full-on oligarch, but I think it was the right call.

What it did do though was get the juices flowing for The Good Person of Szechwan. If this was the way a Russian company was prepared to shake up their own uber-dramatist, what might they do with the German sage, albeit with a different director, Russian wunderkind Yury Butusov in the hot seat. The last time I saw TGPOS was so long ago I had forgotten the details but I did remember it makes a few strong points tellingly well, even if it takes it time to do so, it is long on tunes and that whoever plays Shen Teh earns their fee.

Basics first. Brecht completed the play in 1941 by which time he was in the US though its first performance was in Zurich in 1943. Long-time collaborators Margarete Steffin and Ruth Berlau worked with Brecht, and the score and songs were created by Swiss composer Huldreich Georg Früh. However in 1947, Paul Dessau created and alternative collection of songs which is now the standard and which was used in this production. TGPOS has all the Brechtian “epic theatre” hallmarks though it was obviously inspired by an interest in the conventions of Classical Chinese drama, not just in terms of subject, a parable involving the intervention of gods on humans, but also the situation and performance style. There is also, to my eyes, more than a nod to classical Geek drama, with the intervention of the Gods at beginning and, in the trial, at the end. As well of course, as a classic double identity plot.

The original title translates in German as “love as a commodity” but also, in a different spelling as ‘true :one” which gives a fair idea of Brecht’s target. Shen Teh is a prostitute who struggles to live a “good life” in line with the morality handed down by the gods. Everyone around her takes advantage of her generosity to the point where she invents an alter ego male Shui Ta, to protect her interests. Shen Teh meets a suicidal unemployed pilot, Yang Sun, with whom she falls in love, but he too, egged on by his mum. only ends up exploiting her. Eventually Shen Teh deception is revealed and a trail ensues.

And so we have a dualism, a dialectic if you will, between gender, between altruism and exploitation, between the individual and society. Economic substructure defines the morality in the human superstructure; the gods gift Shen Teh the money to buy her tobacco shop, the relations between Shen Teh and her customers and her landlord, Yang Sun pretending to love Shen Teh to get his hands on her capital. There is also, for me, a religious dimension. Why won’t the all powerful goods intervene to prevent this naughty humans getting up to no good rather than piling all the pressure on Shen Teh? It’s not subtle but it’s still vital.

So plenty to get your teeth into if this is the bag you are into. Which I most definitely am. This being Brecht, there is plenty more beyond the Marxist, (filtered through the writings of theoretician Karl Korsch,) economics lesson. We begin, for example (after bit of sand play) in the prologue with a direct address to us, well the Gods, through the character of Wong, the unfortunate water seller, he played by Alexander Matrosov, in a somewhat disturbing, palsied “village idiot” manner. (I have to assume Russian audiences have a rather less enlightened attitude to disability). The set, designed by Alexander Shishkin is spare, and dark, denoting a “derelict, abandoned world” according to the programme, with props, (chairs, beds, bicycles, a noose, dogs – you know the usual apocalyptic detritus), scattered across the Barbican stage and three birch trees shielding a backdrop for sledgehammer visuals (Diane Arbus’s twins a particular brazen favourite). The lighting design of Alexander Sivaev is suitably harsh, though effective. The jazzy Dessau score and songs, in German, are used in their entirety though the on-stage band, under director Igor Gorsky, doesn’t skimp on additional eclectic arrangement and material, even some incongruous dub and EDM.

A well choreographed Anastasia Lebedev plays all the Gods, and Alexander Arsentiev is Yang Sun, here just Unemployed Man. The rest of the cast (with a few familiar faces from The Cherry Orchard) loads up on supporting roles with no doubling and the whole ensemble moves, sings and performs with gusto. And that is certainly the case with a shouty Alexandra Ursulyak in the lead role, for which she has been garlanded in Russia. Apparently the production is rooted in the concept of “behavioural plasticity” which is a real biological thing where organisms react to changing external stimuli. And there was me thinking they were acting. Anyway Ms Ursulyak’s torn fishnets, shiny plastic mac and gars make-up for Shen Teh, and baggy pinstripe suit, bowler and pencil moustache screamed alienated cabaret Weimar which persuaded me.

There were a few scenes which lagged (200, 330, 500 silver dollars) but, overall, as it should be with competent Brecht the 3 hour 20 minute running time wasn’t a chore, given a translation to follow, political lessons to be absorbed, songs to enjoy, after a fashion, and Shen Teh’s journey to absorb. And some cracking stagecraft. Rice rain anybody? Or better still a deluge of fag packets? The production first appeared in 2013, and I’ll warrant will be playing for many years yet.

The Tourist consumes a play that explores the contradiction between morality and capitalism, especially the commodification of relationships, bought to London by its most famous Russian oligarch emigre. Pick the bones out of that BD.