Ravens at the Hampstead Theatre review ***

Ravens: Spassky vs Fischer

Hampstead Theatre, 18th December 2019

I can see why Tom Morton-Smith would have alighted on the infamous chess match between Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer in 1972 in Reykjavik. There are a ton of tomes on the subject and, after all, if it was good enough to spark the imagination of the ABBA boys …..

A proxy for the Cold War, then at its height, the clash between two ideologies, the “chess machine” Spassky up against the “maverick genius” Fischer, maybe the greatest player of all. No wonder the world was enthralled by the contest in a way that chess has never repeated. Added to which was Fischer’s erratic personality, he was never formally diagnosed, but he left the US, dropped out of competitive chess for two decades after winning this World Championship, got into legal scuffles, and devoted much of his time to vicious anti-Semitism.

Plenty of scope for drama then. TM-S’s smash hit Oppenheimer, which the Tourist, annoyingly, never saw, it coinciding with his peak poorly, so please someone revive it soon, similarly dealt with heightened personal drama set against the backdrop of big geo-political stuff. Other earlier plays have also successfully ploughed the same furrow.

So why didn’t it quite lift off then? Well the action is concentrated on the hall in which the match took place and various ante, hotel and other rooms around this. No faulting the way in which Jamie Vartan’s design, Howard Harrison’s lighting, Philip Stewart’s composition and sound, Jack Phelan’s video and, especially, Mike Ashcroft’s movement all combine to bring animation and excitement to the various confrontations, between and within the two “teams”, and between Spassky and Fischer during and outside the game. All overseen by Annabelle Comyn’s rhythmic direction. The two lead performances are also vivid and credible, Ronan Raftery as the self-contained but somehow melancholic Spassky, and, especially, Robert Emms as the aggressive Fischer. He has a lot more “personality” to play with, drawn out in some striking scenes on the telephone to the voice of Henry Kissinger (Solomon Israel) and his Jewish mother Regina (Emma Pallant). The rest of the cast, (wisely opened up a bit gender wise as I am guessing the reality was almost entirely geezer), don’t have too much opportunity to delve into character though Philip Desmueles has a decent crack as the German chess arbiter Lothar Schmid as does Buffy Davis doubling as the US team, bumptious head honcho Fred Cramer and Bobby’s mentor Lina Grumette.

T M-S’s dialogue too is incisive, and light on forced exposition, though it can’t quite escape chess-y banter, and all of the controversies of the match are rehearsed, notably the bizarre requests and counter-requests that tried the patience of the stoical Icelandic organisers and which was borne of mutual paranoia, notably from Bobby. My favourite was the argument over the chairs.

Like I say it is a cracking story. But not quite a cracking play. For the problem is that, however good the staging and the text, this is a tale of repetitions, which diminish in their return to the audience across the near 3 hours of the play. The scenes may differ, and are, to repeat, entertainingly executed, but don’t really move the narrative on. And, of course, we know the ending. Which means the political and psychological context needs to be explored in more depth than here. We get a sense of the financial and ideological stakes, the way in which Fischer’s mind games undermined a Russian team with an eye on their own government’s reaction, (though Spassky was avowedly apolitical,) and an insight into Bobby’s own, damaged, neuroses, but nothing that really surprises, provokes or disturbs.

My guess is that, having focussed on bringing the “facts” to kinetic life, by the time T M-S went looking underneath the play was already “done”. It might have been more interesting to step outside the detail of the match itself and start elsewhere, in flash-back from Bobby’s later life maybe (though I see that is pretty cliched). The imagined scene between Bobby and his Icelandic bodyguard Saemundur Palsson (Gary Shelford), which lends the play its title, is perhaps a pointer to want might have been of TM-S had left the facts behind.

Fairview at the Young Vic review ***

Fairview

Young Vic Theatre, 11th December 2019

Fell like a bit of a fraud putting pen to paper on this. For, I confess, I did not completely understand Fairview. African-American playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for the play. The conceit is ingenious. A birthday dinner for the grandma in a well to do African American family is first dramatised straight, in pointed sit-com fashion, then through the eyes of four candid white “observers” through voice-over and then on stage in various, exaggerated, performative personas.

It is a dazzling formal experiment which skewers the racist assumptions which underpin white America’s loaded, appropriating view of black American culture. Representation trapped by definition in a racist framework. The “white gaze”. It made me think. And it made me uncomfortable. Guilty even. But I don’t know what to do with these feelings. BD tells me to change. To question everything about my privilege. And then? Give it up? Stay away? Engage? Who decides? Who defines? The infinite regress of identity examination. Meanwhile the rich c*nts, of which I am one, go on getting richer. And the world burns.

And, as I say, many of the references, the pointers, the lessons if you will, that the white characters discuss in Act 2 and then garishly visualise in Act 3 are outside of my cultural milieu. Leaving me lost. Tom Scutt’s designs, Nadia Latif’s intricate direction and the fearless performances of Naana Agyei-Ampadu, Donna Banya (especially at the finale), Nicola Hughes and Rhashan Stone, and then David Dawson, Julie Dray, Matthew Needham and Esther Smith, are simultaneously intoxicating and precise. The fourth wall is smashed. And then some. Much like my head after watching this. It needs to be seen.

Appropriate at the Donmar Warehouse review *****

Appropriate

Donmar Warehouse, 3rd October 2019

After deconstructing a Victorian melodrama in An Octoroon and satirising modern tragedy in Gloria, London now gets to see Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s 2013 take on the dysfunctional American family drama. Only this time the secret which lies at the heart of the Lafayette family is about as shocking as it gets. Move over O’Neill, Williams, Miller, Albee, Hansberry, Wilson, Shepherd and Letts.

Franz (Edward Hogg), Toni (Monica Dolan) and Bo (Steven Mackintosh) have come back to the family home in Arkansas following their Dad’s death, with the intention of selling house and contents. Franz (Francois) is a classic fuck-up, addled by past addiction, but now seeking redemption with new, very young, new-ager girlfriend River (Tafline Steen). He is still hiding something however. Bo (Beauregarde), egged on by Jewish wife Rachael (Jaimi Barbakoff), wants, and needs, to extract the cash asap and get out. They have two kids, Gen Z tween, Cassidy (Isabella Pappas)and hyper 8 year old Ainsley (Oliver Savell). Toni, the eldest, was left to look after their increasingly difficult and infirm father, is therefore the dictionary definition of long-suffering and is keen that everyone knows it. She is joined by slacker teen son Rhys Thurston (Charles Furness).

Not much happens beyond the inevitable arguments and raking over of the past. But this is not just a forum for the frustrations and grudges of the three siblings, though the fact that they seem incapable of restraint makes that forum often mordantly comic. The discovery of a book of photographs of black lynching victims, and worse, suggests that their father, who spent most of his life in the North East before retiring to the family pile, was no upright liberal but the worst sort of racist. Legacy and loss take on a far darker tone with each character’s. mostly, worst traits reflected through the prism of this pivotal disclosure.

As in BJ-J’s other plays, the plotting is perfect, the rhythm sublime and the dialogue riveting. What turns this into one of the best plays of this year though is Fly Davies’s breathtaking set, the junk filled interior of the dilapidated plantation house, which together with Anna Watson’s lighting and Donato Wharton’s, into a gothic place dripping with memory and history. More than that though is Ola Ince’s direction. Ms Ince worked as Assistant to Phyllida Lloyd in the Donmar all woman Shakespeare trilogy as well as Associate positions at the Finborough, the Lyric Hammersmith, Theatre Royal Stratford East and, now, the Royal Court, where she directed Poet in da Corner. On the strength of this I expect her to sustain a glittering career. Everything fell into place faultlessly to deliver a drama which thrilled and edified in equal measure.

Now it helps that all the cast brought their A games to the performance. And it helps even more if one of them is Monica Dolan. Even when she barely has anything to work with Ms Dolan ends up being the best of the best on stage and screen. When it is just her, as in her debut play monologue The B*easts, which should be a GCSE text already, or she has something to really sink her teeth into as here with Toni (Antoinette), she is, cliche alert, a force of acting nature. Bitter doesn’t even come close. And then, as the family history unfolds, increasingly vulnerable. I had to do the thing where I look away to a point above the stage to prevent and embarrassing blub near the end. Magnificent.

Appropriate is audacious, clever, funny, twisty, surprising, absorbing and insightful. By not hammering home, or resolving, the consequences of denying America’s racial past, in fact here that past is turned by the family into potential commodity, he makes us even more aware. The play is haunted by the ghosts of dramatists past. But it knows and relishes that. And what a genius title.

Two Ladies at the Bridge Theatre review *

Two Ladies

Bridge Theatre, 2nd October 2019

Well on the plus side the new season just announced at the Bridge looks to be a humdinger. A revival of Caryl Churchill’s A Number, directed by Polly Findlay with Roger Allam and Colin Morgan as Salter and son(s), Nick Hytner taking on an adaptation of Philip Pullman, La Belle Sauvage, following on from his triumph with His Dark Materials during the NT years, a new play by Paula Vogel based on They Shoot Horses Don’t They, directed by Marianne Elliot, and a new adaptation of Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkman starring Simon Russell Beale. Avid readers of this blog will note that not hours ago, in the review of Peer Gynt, the Tourist pleaded for a new version of this very play. Serendipity indeed.

Which makes me far less inclined to be unkind about Two Ladies. But really? Why did this get a run? A plot riddled with holes which starts off as implausible and ends up as truly incredible. A pair of unlikely leading characters, which despite the best efforts of both Zoe Wannamaker and fine Croatian actress Zrinka Cviesic, blurt out all manner of candid disclosures within minutes of meeting each other. And three paper thin supporting characters, played by Yoli Fuller, Lorna Brown and Rahhad Chaar, whose only purpose is to trot out a mesh of hoary stereotypes. They are, like the ladies, alarmingly keen to unpack their emotional baggage at every opportunity. Minimal research, a naive, if well-intentioned, political message and some very workmanlike dialogue and exposition. I spent too long thinking it was going to be some sort of absurd satire which would deliberately break out of its naturalistic bounds to make its comic points but no, it was, even with a few wry touches, pretty much played straight.

ZW plays Helen, the liberal British journalist wife of the younger French president (sound familiar). ZC is Sophia, the Croatian trophy model wife of the older American president (sound familiar). Their husbands are at a conference on the French Riviera where the POTUS is seeking the support of the Republique for a retaliatory attack on some bad guys, (I can only assume that, for once, us supine Brits told him to fuck off). However some naughty protestors have hijacked proceedings so that the first we see of the ladies is them being rushed into and empty conference room punctiliously designed by Anna Fleischle with Sophia’s elegant white suit smeared in blood (sound familiar). They then get down to slagging off their husbands, bemoaning their respective lots and hatching a preposterous plan to get the attention of both power and people.

Whilst I haven’t seen any of her work before Nancy Harris is an established playwright with a solid reputation. Which makes how this got to the Bridge stage even more of a mystery. Charitably you could argue that it might have been rushed. The extracts from the diaries of various partners of men in power in the programme suggests that there is a play to be written on the subject and the exclusion of women from power is still a vital topic for modern (and earlier) drama. But certainly not in the form of the simplistic tick-list of issues displayed here. Perhaps too Nick Hytner, having commissioned the play and with a theatre to fill, backed his own directorial skills to make it work and paper over the tonal inconsistencies. He was wrong.

Still the good news is that it was all over in 90 minutes and there was no interval (which I had expected). Which meant the SO was quick to forgive. Me, not the play.

Two Trains Running at the Royal and Derngate review ***

Two Trains Running

Royal and Derngate Northampton, 12th September 2019

Another instalment in August Wilson’s Pittsburgh cycle though, four in, the Tourist still has some way to go. Two Trains Running premiered in 1990 and is set in the turbulent 1960s – remember each of the ten play series covers one of the decades of the C20 and all bar one (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom) are set in the Hill District of Pittsburgh.

All the action in TTR, well words really, for August Wilson’s plays prize dialogue and character over plot, both their strength and their weakness, takes place in 1969 in the neighbourhood diner owned and run by Memphis Lee (Andrew French). The 1960’s saw the economic decline of the Hill District, once a byword for prosperity and cultural relevance in Black America, accelerate, prompting intervention from the Pittsburgh Urban Development Authority. Vast swathes of the neighbourhood were demolished to be replaced by a white elephant Civic Arena and failed public housing projects. Many residents were displaced and the redevelopment became an object lesson in how not to do “urban renewal“. Memphis’s business has seen better days but now he is holding out for the price he thinks it is worth from the City authorities, not just for the money but also to take a stand for the overlooked and disparaged community. He dreams of returning to his Southern roots from where he and so many others were compelled to escape in earlier, darker, decades. Frankie Bradshaw’s set captures this transition with the beautifully detailed diner sporting a hole in its roof above which is suspended a massive wrecking ball.

Memphis is assisted by cook and waitress Risa (Anita-Joy Uwajeh) who constantly has to push back against her boss’s criticism and the sexist comments and assumptions of the regulars. These include the assured West (Geoff Aymer), the local undertaker whose business is thriving, hustler Wolf (Ray Emmet Brown), who uses the diner’s phone to run a numbers racket, and the stoic Holloway, an unemployed painter and decorator, (Leon Herbert). Most poignant though is Hambone, (the excellent Derek Ezenagu), brought low by his obsession with getting fairly paid by the white butcher customer for work he did twenty years ago. The outside world relentlessly encroaches upon the lives of the company, first when the animated ex-con Sterling (Michael Salami) returns to the Hill looking for work and for Risa, and as the rallies, protesting racial injustice, increase in intensity.

Impossible to fault all the performances or the careful direction of Nancy Medina, who was similarly adept with Dael Orlandersmith’s Yellowman at the Young Vic and, I gather, Inua Ellams’s The Half God of Rainfall at the Kiln. Easy to see why she has won both the Peter Hall Directors Award and the Genesis Future Director Award. The lighting and sound design from other young talents Amy Mae and Ed Lewis was equally accomplished. Which means the somewhat discursive nature of events of stage is down to August Wilson alone. That is not to say that the lyrical dialogue, what and how the characters say, isn’t pitch perfect. Just that there is rather to much of it. Too many layers if you will. This is true of the other plays in the cycle I believe but here the contrast of individual reversals with societal transformation is just a little too carefully wrought.

As a production it matches the high standards previously set by English Touring Theatre. As a play maybe not quite as convincing as the others in the cycle I have seen. Still very keen to see further instalments however and given the resonance of the parts that AW wrote for black actors I expect I won’t be waiting too much longer for just such an opportunity.

Until the Flood at the Arcola Theatre *****

Until the Flood

Arcola Theatre, 10th September 2019

I am in awe of actors, and indeed other performers, who are prepared to step out on a stage alone to entertain, inspire and educate us. A one character monologue is tricky enough. To present multiple characters surely more so. To inhabit 8 different, very different, people with no more than a jacket and a chair. 8 fictional characters though all based on the testimonies of real people. To also pack a emotional punch, lay bare the fault-lines of race in modern America but never harangue or proselytise. Surely impossible.

Not when Dael Orlandersmith takes to the stage with her work Under the Flood. The Tourist first alighted on Ms Orlandersmith’s work through the revival of Yellowman at the Young Vic a couple of years ago which tells the story of two friends Eugene and Alma across three decades, dissecting race, gender and, especially, colourism, and was way better than anticipated. Until the Flood, where she is both writer and performer, also blew me away despite now raised expectations.

It was first performed in St Louis in 2016 and as a response to the shooting of Michael Brown and in the suburb of Ferguson and the protests that followed. 18 year old unarmed African American Michael Brown was shot by a 28 year old white police officer Darren Wilson in August 2014. The circumstances of the killing were contested with the account of Michael Brown’s friend Dorian Wilson, who was with him, significantly diverging from that of the police officer. The police response to the unrest which followed the killing was viewed by many as excessively heavy-handed. A grand jury decided not to indict Wilson and a US Department of Justice investigation concluded that he had shot Brown in self defence. Many in the community believed this to be a cover-up given inconsistencies in witness statements and forensic evidence and biases in the legal process.

Prior to this short run at the Arcola the play was a highlight at the Edinburgh Festival. Dramatisation of cause celebres is a staple of recent American theatre but DO goes a stage further by attempting to show the character types which inhabit the world where this kind of tragedy is possible, almost inevitable, and to show the behaviours, prejudices and reactions that underpin it. There is Paul, a young black man, consumed by fear of the police and violence, hanging on until he can escape to college. The unapologetic white homophobe racist, Dougray, who revels in his hate, describing how he would gun down a group of black teenagers. Rusty, the retired white police officer who excuses shootings as inevitable given the stresses of the job. Connie, the white liberal woman whose attempts at balance only serve to highlight the assumptions she makes. Louisa, the wise black senior woman who tells us of the overt racism of her childhood, including so-called “sundown” laws. The pumped up, frustrated black youth who only sees disrespect around him. A black, female, lesbian minister who speaks to a convincing tolerance. Reuben, the barber shop owner who refuses to conform to the stereotype that two students, one black, one white, who come to Ferguson to study the case, wish to impose on him.

All these characters become more than their race or situation in DO’s hands – education, class, employment, neighbourhood change, gender roles, all get a look in – but it is race, and maybe more importantly, shared white privilege, is what pulls the narratives together. Takeshi Kata’s set offers a shrine to Michael Brown’s memory backed by video designs from Nicholas Hussong introducing each character and offering, along with Justin Ellington’s sound, snatches of the events in Ferguson. I suspect Neel Keller didn’t have too much to do by way of directing DO who is a mesmeric stage presence. It is tough to listen to, and moving as you would expect, but DO still finds humour.

Faith Ringgold at the Serpentine Galleries review ****

Faith Ringgold

Serpentine Galleries, 22nd August 2019

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.