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.
Never easy to work out what to sign up for at the Arcola Theatre since so much of quality and interest passes through the doors. So the Tourist has adopted a somewhat whimsical approach and given up worrying too much if he misses the cream of its output, However this was different. I was very taken with Al Smith’s take on Diary of a Madman at the Gate and thus more annoyed that I missed his last effort, Harrogate, at the Royal Court, So this, a revival of one of his first plays, written when he was a regular for Holby City and Eastenders, was an opportunity not to be missed.
And, whilst I cannot imagine another way of playing Peter Shaffer’s gift of a part, Adam Gillen was a memorable Mozart in the NT Amadeus from 2016. For Mr Gillen it is who plays Charlie Fairbanks the “star” of Radio. As the blurb says, “Charlie Fairbanks was born in the dead centre of the United States at the deda centre of the 20th century. Americans are going to the Moon and Charlie’s sure he’ll be the first one three. But as he shines his spotlight on the Moon, so too does it illuminate the darker side to his nation’s history. Radio is a story about memory, love and spaceships“.
A pretty fair summary. From this notion Mr Smith spins a yarn that more than holds out attention for its 80 minutes or so running time even if it only hints at a critique of modern America’s inability to live up to its Dream. Adam Gillen’s Charlie is an optimist, brought up in Kansas, though his Dad moves the family around to ensure his tourist schtick, the house at the centre of the US from which he sells flags, is maintained. His dreams of being an astronaut, fuelled by the radio and the optimism of the 1950s and the Kennedy presidency, fade as he confronts the reality of the Vietnam War, the actual Moon landings and destitution as a veteran through the Nixon and Ford years.
The intricate text meanders but always illuminates, Josh Roche’s direction is never rushed, Sophie Thomas’s set is minimal, a skein of wires in red, white and blue and a few props and Peter Small’s lighting is similarly direct in the atmospheric downstairs space in the Arcola. So everything is focussed on Mr Gillen. There is more than a whiff of Forrest Gump in Charlie but his performance commits and so persuades us of Charlie’s brand of self-conscious sincerity, whilst still sketching out the supporting characters, Mum, Dad, girlfriend and so on. This kind of close-up monologue always takes guts on the part of the actor, especially when playing an Everyman on to which the external world is projected, but AG, bar a few accent slips, is utterly convincing.
I had only seen one of Henry Naylor’s acclaimed plays prior to this double header and that was Angel at this very venue. That was enough to know that I like the cut of his jib. Mr Naylor, prior to writing plays, was, amongst other things, the lead writer for Spitting Image and he has, as far as I can tell, always had an acute political conscience which he is prepared to put to good use in his writing. His first play, Finding Bin Laden, was a satire on the media treatment of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, (and it is now being made into a film,) whilst his second, Hunting Diana, dealt with conspiracy theories surrounding the Princess’s untimely death.
These were showcased at the Edinburgh Fringe as were his next offerings, The Collector, set in an Iraqi jail in 2003, and then Echoes and the aforementioned Angel, to complete the trilogy, Arabian Nightmares. Echoes is a two hander which contrasts two teenage women, one a Victorian colonialist adventurer, the other a Muslim jihadist. Angel is a dramatic monologue about the Angel of Kobane, a Kurdish sniper who became a symbol of resistance against Islamic State. All three plays were multiple prize winners at Edinburgh and have gone on to tour globally as well as to the Arcola.
You kind of know what you are going to get with a play from Mr Naylor. A scrupulously researched examination of a major issue of our time, (with a particular focus on the “Middle East” to date), told from the (often juxtaposed) perspective of individuals involved which sets out to even-handedly explore cause, effect and impact. Part history, part drama, part monologue and part exposition the plays cover a lot of ground in a relatively short span but don’t lack emotional heft. There is enough surprise in terms of dialogue, which is unafraid of deploying poetic symbolism where necessary, to set alongside the unfolding stories to keep the audience on its toes, and there is plenty of opportunity in terms of movement and impersonation to test the mettle of the actors. And, of course, text-based one and two handers are cheap to stage meaning Mr Naylor’s discourse can be quickly spread, as it deserves to be.
Obviously these subjects and structures are not much use to you if your idea of theatre is feel-good musicals but if serious, but never dour, political theatre floats your boat then don’t hesitate to seek out his work.
Borders adds another dimension to HN’s oeuvre to date. Premiered in 2017 at the Gilded Balloon it is another double monologue telling the stories of Nameless, a young graffiti artist in Homs protesting the Assad regime, and Sebastian Nightingale, a photographer who makes his name with an iconic early portrait of Osama Bin Laden, but who goes on to “sell out”, clicking lame-brain celebs for big money. Graffiti specifically, and art more generally, has, I now learn, played an important role in opposition to the regime in Syria since 2011, and Assad and his supporters have brutally punished its practitioners. The story of Nameless’s courage in using her art to incite resistance, and the passion which eventually leads to her exile, is very stirring, especially because, like many of NH’s previous protagonists, she is a young woman in a patriarchal society. Sebastian’s fall from grace, as he debases his own art and principles to chase fame and money, is equally riveting.
You can guess early on that the two of them, outsider and insider, are destined to meet but HN still conjures up a thrilling end. Of course this sort of story-telling, about a conflict few of us here understand at even the most basic level, is occasionally going to have to thwack the audience over the head to get its points across but HN once again finds a way to do this without getting in the way of the personal dramas. There are laughs, quite a few in fact, which often skewer the hypocrisies of Sebastian and of the men who seek to control Nameless. The other characters, played by our two actors, have sufficient presence to go beyond ciphers, Nameless’s Mum, her “boyfriend”, his dad and the elder statesman war correspondent, Messenger, who gnaws away at Sebastian’s conscience. The stories are inevitably contrived but that is probably a necessary pre-condition for theatre with this strong a message.
It wouldn’t work without two remarkable actors and that is precisely what we have here. Now in the original Edinburgh performances, and in the subsequent worldwide tour, Nameless has been played by Avital Lvova, who took over from the sadly missed Filipa Branganca in the tour of Angel, and who is also a fearsomely talented actor. In this Arcola run however the role of Nameless was taken on by Deniz Arixenas. The crib-sheet tells me that Ms Arixenas, who is of Kurdish and Syrian descent, is currently doing her Masters degree in Law with the intention of becoming a human rights lawyer. Acting’s loss is the legal profession’s gain. However if this woman can bring an ounce of her talent on stage to the task of making the world a better place then I can be assured, alongside so many of the young people I know, that the next generation will be able to unravel the mess that my, and previous, generations’ have made of our world. I confess couldn’t take my eyes off her.
Which made Graham O’Mara’s performances as Sebastian all the more exceptional. He nailed that thing where you know that, as a rich privileged beneficiary of the institutional and economic order imposed by the West on the world since WWII, you should help those who haven’t been so lucky, but you just can’t bring yourself to do it. In a connected world where those post-war institutional structures are under pressure, where selfish ideology trumps co-operation and where I suspect, (largely suspect), arguments around the concept of “Western guilt” are likely to intensify, NH has come up with am intelligent shorthand for debate.
Games heads back a few decades to tell the story of German-Jewish athletes before and during the infamous 1936 Berlin Olympics (Tourist and family had a good look around the imposing stadium, now home to Hertha Berlin, last year). The two protagonists, high jumper Gretel Bergmann and fencer Helene Mayer, actually existed and the main events portrayed in the two-hander actually happened, but from this HN has woven a more nuanced debate on the nature of identity, and the iniquity of fascism, than we had any right to expect Helene Mayer won a gold medal in 1928 in Amsterdam, missed out in Los Angeles in 1932 and won silver in 1936, but despite her fame and success was still forced to leave for the US in 1935 because she was Jewish. The discrimination against Gretel Bergmann was more over,t both before the Nazis assumed power in 1933 and thereafter, as she and other Jewish athletes were denied access to training facilities, competed separately and were stripped of titles. Many left but Helene Mayer returned in 1936 to compete for Germany as the regime succumbed to pressure from the US who threatened a boycott.
Ms Mayer was an enigmatic character, whose German identity might have eclipsed her Jewish heritage and who, at least publicly, was not critical of the Nazis. She returned to Germany again in 1941and lived there until her early death in 1953. Tragic geo-political pawn or naive opportunist who put her own sporting glory above the suffering meted out to her own people? Easy to see then why HN alighted on her story, and that of Ms Bergmann, who died just a year ago aged 103, whose own resistance was implacable and who was determined to point up Hitler’s racial theories for the bollocks it was.
Maybe not quite as powerful as Borders (and Angel for that matter), and a little heavy on the biographical exposition, Games will still make you think and is surprisingly resonant on wider issues of nationalism, self-identity, and the role of politics in sport (or do I mean sport in politics), all subjects you probably thought you had a settled view on. Directed, as was Borders (in conjunction with Michael Cabot), with a confident hand by Louise Skaaping, Games has another pair of actors on top form. Sophie Shad has already written, produced and acted in Kitty’s Fortune which tells the story of a Holocaust survivor and her eagerness to tell Helene’s story shines through. She realistically captures her apparent ambiguities, internal conflicts and the impact of personal grief. Tessie Orange-Turner as Gretel has the physicality and grace of the athlete (maybe she is) and relays her character’s burning sense of injustice. In contrast to Borders the two meet on multiple occasions, Helene is Gretel’s original inspiration, but the use of the space and sparse props, (here two boxes and a flag, just two chairs in Borders), is similarly effective.
Henry Naylor has found a formula to educate us about complex political (and moral) questions without hectoring us and whilst still entertaining and moving us. And he usually brings it in at around an hour. In pretty much any space, (the credits here stop at the lighting design of Vasilis Apostolatos and stage management of Holly Curtis though I don’t doubt many others, from the research end through to the finished production at the ever welcoming Arcola, deserve credit).
I strongly advise you to hunt out more of HN’s his work. I will.
This probably ranks as one of the Tourist’s least insightful assertions, (and trust me there is stiff and substantial competition), but, in his experience, there are two types of one person theatre. The pure monologue, often fairly static, relying on the appeal of the character and the strength of the writing. The kind of story-telling that has been there since the dawn of human time. Or the multi-role tour de force which relies on movement as much as the word and where the physicality of the performance is as important as the text.
Either way it is stripped back, and let’s face it, cheap, theatre. Which is why it is a staple of festivals and, specifically, Edinburgh. That doesn’t mean it is necessarily any good, but generally those works that get the nod at Edinburgh, and then get a showing here in London, are invariably worth seeing. I am reminded of Henry Naylor’s plays for example, Angel, which visited this very house, Grounded at the Gate a couple of years ago or Silk Road at the Trafalgar Studios, (the latter a very amusing multi-character delight from Josh Barrow).
What I will say is that the actors in these shows certainly earn their, presumably, modest, corn. And that was doubly true of Jules Spooner in Mistero Buffo. Mr Spooner is one half of Rhum and Clay Theatre company, with Matthew Wells, and their aim is to create theatre with “a playful sense of anarchy, vigour and originality”. They trained at L’École Internationale de Théâtre Jacques Lecoq which is the pinnacle of physical theatre. Here he collaborates with director Nicholas Pitt.
And if you are going to put on a solo performance they why not the iconic Mistero Buffo from the master Italian writer, actor, director, comic, singer, painter, activist and all round Marxist top bloke, Dario Fo. Now you probably know Mr Fo (pictured above) from plays such as Accidental Death of an Anarchist, (which I once saw in the West End in the company of a friend who was, shall we say, under a psychotropic influence, and insisted on shouting out encouragement to the cast at vital moments), Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay, Trumpets and Raspberries and The Open Couple. He brought improvisation, satire, criticism, parody, mockery and farce to attack the Italian state, the Catholic church, organised crime, violence, racism, speaking truth to power, echoing the style of Medieval giullari (or jongleur in French/English as here) and commedia dell’arte. His work and performances have ben continually reworked and his influence stretched far beyond Italy. Indeed I see that Northern Broadsides is currently showing an adaptation of Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay.
Over 30 years Fo himself took Mistero Buffo around the world delighting atheists everywhere. For the play is essentially a p*ss-take of the absurdity and hypocrisy of 13 of the New Testament miracles , and Christianity generally. Ir certainly wound up the Vatican. Now if this doesn’t sound like it would be a recipe for an entertaining evening out in 2018 you’d be wrong. First off there’s a fair chance you’ll know the 5 stories included here, reminding you how deeply ingrained that book still is. This means that Fo’s mocking, and Rhum and Clay’s pop culture updates thereon, of said stories is easily digested. Secondly, to be fair, sone of these stories are quite jolly, even with the moralising, and especially when undercut by our combined creatives, which give a pointed relevance. Just what is truth and just what can people be led to believe? Thirdly Mr Spooner is an amazing performer, shifting between characters with chameleonic dexterity. Take the sermon on the mount, the raising of Lazarus (backed by the White Stripes), the marriage at Cana (complete with drum and bass beats) or Crucifixion skits. OK so they are dead ringers for Python, but one man literally creates a crowd in front of your eyes. Finally it is, and he is, very funny.
Rhum and Clay will be touring this for the next couple of years. If it comes anywhere near you don’t miss it. And that is the truth.
I was much taken, if not entirely convinced, by the British East Asian Yellow Earth Theatre company’s version of Tamburlaine at the Arcola 18 months ago. And this co-production, with Moongate, of a new play, Forgotten, by Daniel York Loh, which kicked off at the Theatre Royal Plymouth, sounded like it needed seeing.
Daniel York Loh looks like he is a busy fellow. When he is not writing he is acting, directing films or performing in a folk trio. Busy. Just like this play. It started off as a 5 minute script. It now runs to a couple of hours. Apparently his first draft ran to 300 pages. DYL has a lot to say and he means to say it. Mind you this is a story evidently worth telling. Giving a voice to the 140,000 Chinese labourers who left China to initially assist the French, and then the British, effort in WWI. Largely written out of history.
In trying to cram in as much of his research into these events as he can, the appalling famine and poverty blighting China at the turn into the C20, the hierarchical, violent and patriarchal village society, the volatile political situation and domination by foreign powers, the dream of escape and wealth, the Western view of China, and the Chinese view of the West, and Japan, at the time, the experience of the labourers in France and their shabby treatment, and their legacy, after the War, DYL offers a little too much exposition, a slight overdose of plot and leaves his characters looking a little too one-dimensional. Especially given only a six strong cast, (with some doubling up), the compact Arcola studio space and an experiment in form, namely having his band of villagers putting on a Chinese opera as they embark on their adventure.
So the cast and the creative team, director Kim Pearce, designer Emily Bailey, composer Liz Chi Yen Liew, lighting designer Jessica Hung Han Yun, sound designer Luke Swaffield and movement director Quang Kien Van had their work cut out to make this work.
Work it does though and this I think is largely down to the fact that, weaved into the important history lesson, there is a believable human drama here, especially when the friends get to the Western Front in the second act. The play begins at the end but I’ll keep schtum on that. The cast are performing an opera which tells the tale of a Miraculous Traveller, (I am afraid I know nothing about Chinese classical literature), paralleling the story of the villagers. When all calms down we are in Horse Shoe Village in Shandong province in 1917 where Old Six (Michael Phong Le) and his wife Second Moon (Rebecca Boey) are struggling to earn enough to feed their young child. Big Dog (Camille Mallet de Chauny) is the village outcast, addicted to opium. Eunuch Lin (Zachary Hing) was castrated in a failed attempt to secure a position in the Emperor’s household. All are subject to the cruel whim of foul-mouthed Headman Zhang (Jon Chew). They agree to be recruited into the Chinese Labour Corps (from 1917 China declared war against Germany and Austria-Hungary) meeting the educated Professor (Leo Wan), and when they get to France, Wild Swan (Jon Chew again, equally potty mouthed) along the way.
Whilst there are battlefield scenes DYL wisely cuts these with other encounters and other characters, as well as the highly stylised opera, to offer multiple perspectives on the experience of the friends. This shines a little light on the more universal East Asian diaspora myth, “silent”, “hard-working” but largely disregarded and culturally held at arms length.
A valuable, if slightly awkward epilogue, explains what happened to Shandong province after the war and how the Chinese contribution was, literally, painted over in the now largely Americanised Pantheon de la Guerre. (America has a long history of mocking the contribution of France in global conflict). China was properly shafted at Versailles. Most of the surviving CLC returned home, but a few thousand stayed to build a Chinese community in Paris. The British CLC were given a medal, but it was bronze, not the silver awarded to everyone else who fought. There is a cemetery at Noyelles-sur-Mer on the Somme which honours 842 CLC dead.
So overall Forgotten is an ambitious play, generously and vigorously told by an excellent British East Asian cast (Leo Wan, in particular, is as good here as he was in Tamburlaine and The Great Wave, and I look forward to seeing Michael Phong Le again). Lucy Bailey’s set is effective, Kim Pearce’s direction manages to maintain the momentum even as the scenes jump around. It may not quite be the finished article but it definitely deserves a wider audience. I spy a couple of harsh reviews in the national press. Ignore them.
I have never seen Ibsen’s Peer Gynt before. In retrospect a minimalist two hander, a “daring realisation”, by “internationally acclaimed” German company Theater an der Ruhr, might have been a somewhat challenging place to start. Still what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, or whatever the theatrical equivalent of that maxim happens to be.
And there was much of value to take away from this production. But let’s start with the play. Given that he was the “father of realism”, Peer Gynt is a bit of a departure. A sprawling fantasy in Danish verse about an oddball whose grip on reality is far from secure. It is based on a Norwegian fairy tale, though it contains echoes of HI’s own life, with family members written in. It has elements of a romance, like Will Shakespeare’s last outings with Pericles, The Tempest and Cymbeline, lightly concealed satire on Norwegian insularity, strikingly surreal scenes immediately contrasted with natural, contemporary drama. It tracks the life and, presumed death (it isn’t explicit) of our Peer across 40 scenes which utterly disregard the normal conventions of staged theatre. HI saw it as a lyric poem. I bet he would be surprised at just what a hold it has in the canon.
That’s probably the case because, I gather, there are so many ways for creatives to impose meaning on this “masterpiece”. In fact there is just so much “theatre” that can be thrown at this piece of theatre. Peer is a waster and a drunk early on but he can tell stories. There is a persistent, emotional, and maybe futile for Solvieg, love story. There are trolls, and a half human, half troll baby, always a crowd pleaser. There is much philosophising on the nature of existence and reality. there’s all manner of Freudian interpretation. Peer is the ultimate egotist. Who loves Mummy. There is a swipe at capitalism, laced with overt racism. There is a madhouse. A travelogue. A shipwreck. And, at the end, an overtly Christian reckoning and possible epiphany. He might have been dreaming. Or he might have been extravagantly alive.
So you can see HI packed it in. One way to present this is to assemble a wide cast and let the creative minds loose to do their best, or worst. I hope to see such a production. (I see the NT has commissioned a new, contemporary adaptation by David Hare for 2019. There is a man who can do sprawling). Every year in Vinstra in the middle of Norway they stage a giant production as part of the Peer Gynt festival, this being the place where the chap on which the character might be based hails from. Never been there but will add it to the bucket list along with Borgund Stave Church. I remember my first holiday, a cruise along the Norwegian coastline with 600 post pubescent teens on the SS Uganda. We saw Greig’s house, he of the Peer Gynt suites. And in today’s athomehefeelslikeatourist list of cultural coincidences it was Greig’s Holberg Suite that I had the pleasure of listening to last night.
Enough rambling. So I suppose the other, perhaps trickier way, to stage the play is like this. Minimal props, table. chairs, a bed, two actors dressed in the monochrome suits which spell Lutheran phlegm. With the actors, Roberto Ciulii and Maria Neumann, taking on all the parts, and even sharing the role of Peer himself. Vital then to know your stuff so I was handsomely rewarded for boning up on the plot beforehand. I highly recommend this strategy for the classics. Here it was a life-saver. Well OK maybe that is an exaggeration, it was only 90 minutes after all. But it certainly made for a much clearer understanding as, whilst the plot is pretty much intact, the dialogue has been ruthlessly sharpened, and even more so in translation to sur-titles.
So I kind of worked out where we were, and what was going on. despite the limited display. Not sure everywhere in the audience was so lucky/prepared. You certainly cannot take your eyes off Roberto Ciulii, the Italian founder of Theater an der Ruhr with Helmut Schafer in 1981, and long time ensemble member Maria Neumann. They are mesmeric. Both are possessed of extraordinarily expressive faces, and Ms Neumann in particular is an amazingly physical and tactile presence. Major and minor changes in intonation and body shape indicate character changes. Dialogue, monologue and narrative intermingle. There are a few jokes. But the stripped back aesthetic, the small space, the absence of visual cues and distraction, together with the barrier of translation, however idiomatic Signor Cuilli’s text, can veer towards the monotonous. Not in a dull way. Just in a way that I suspect re-calibrates the dimensions of the play. Mind you this is what TadR sets out to do. A company that sets out to make theatre that can travel and abhors hierarchy. In a lovely looking building in a park in Mulheim near Duisberg (look see above).
The absence of spectacle does allow a focus on exactly how Peer’s identity is constructed. Is his life defined by what has happened to him, or what he has made happen? Is he, with all his obvious flaws, still to be admired, or is he just a bit of a knob? Is reality out there or just what goes on in our heads? See that’s what happens when you go to North London with other culturally aware trendies to watch modernist German theatre. If you are a real pseud, like someone here, you even buy a German programme for no apparent reason.
So a worthwhile journey for me. And for Peer. Whoever he was.
Good to see the Arcola downstairs space filled to bursting for Gbolahan Obiesesan’s adaptation of Chigozie Obioma’s 2015 novel, a rapid transfer after a successful run in Edinburgh and then Manchester. Pretty clear that everyone in the audience was wowed by what they saw. The story has been stripped back to just two actors, here Michael Ajao and Valentine Olukoga, who, in a triumph of shape-shifting, take on all the characters. This is set against the most pared back of designs, a sort of raised deck taijitu, separated by metal poles. It really is one of the most plainly effective sets I have seen in a long time, symbolising the symbiosis of the two brothers whose journey the play describes. Bravo Amelia Jane Hankin who I see is also designing the set for the kids’ version of Comedy of Errors in Stratford. The lighting of Amy Mae and sound of Adam McCready are equally effective.
The two brothers, Ben and Obembe Agwu, reunite to go fishing in the Omi-Ala river where they were brought up. They proceed to act out, in flashbacks, the story of a prophecy, from village misfit Abulu, that foretold the dramatic events that broke up their family. Abulu, Mum, Dad, the two fated elder brothers, Ikenna and Boja, villagers, authority figures, soldiers, all come vividly to life, even as the two men disagree about what exactly happened. There are flashes of humour, suspense and, at times, real fear. We get a sense of what matters to them, now and in the past, and of how their lives in southern Nigeria, and the history of the country, the clash between tradition and modernity, has played out in the last couple of decades. I gather Mr Obiesesan has pruned the novel somewhat, but still preserved the conceit of Igbo oral storytelling, and cleverly given voice to the memories of two, rather than just one, of the brothers. The idea of a prophecy bringing down a family and of a father whose hubris is reflected in the ambitions he has for his children, couldn’t be more Greek, but this is very far from classical tragedy though it is certainly mythic in ambition if not length (in places it is almost too quick).
Above all though what really makes this work is some extraordinary inventive theatre to bring the text to life. Director Jack McNamara delivers remarkable idea after idea and the two brilliant actors, especially in their physicality, charisma and palpable bond, are more than able to convert these ideas into thrilling drama. the re-imagined fight between the two eldest brothers was a stand-out. I see Mr McNamara is signed up to direct the adaptation of Don DeLillo’s Love Lies Bleeding at the Print Room, which I look forward to, and, on the strength of this production (which is now touring), I would snap up tickets to anything his company, New Perspectives, based in Nottingham, serves up. And I would expect to see a lot, lot more of both of this actors.
I don’t read many books. I have no choice but to read this though.
It is a shame Steven Berkoff’s plays don’t get performed more often. They do, like the stage, film and TV villains he has memorably played, (there he is above doing the menacing thing), sometimes lapse into “in yer face” cliche, but at their best they are thrilling theatre. The verse plays, notably East, West and Decadence, are the most exciting, and Greek, which transports Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex to East End London in the 1980s, was inspired. A few nips and tucks to make it fit but moreorless the same brilliant story. I love it, see here for the latest incarnation (Oedipus at Amsterdam Stadsschouwburg review ****). Aristotle thought it was the greatest story ever told and he, being the cleverest bloke that ever lived, knew a thing or two.
More inspired still though was when young Essex lad. Mark-Anthony Turnage, just 28, announced himself to the world with an opera version of Berkoff’s already “musical” play. His mentor Hans Werner Henze suggested the Munich Biennale commission him, and Jonathan Moore helped him with the libretto and directed the premiere. And Mr Moore, no less, was back to direct this production. I was lucky enough to see the first revival in 1990 at the ENO and, I tell you, it blew my socks off. I knew it was possible for opera to be the best of art forms when I was a young’un but I had also been disappointed by some allegedly top notch productions of classics by the likes of Verdi, Puccini and, even, God forgive me, Wagner. I was bored witless by much of this nonsense. But Greek, as one of the first contemporary operas I saw, made me realise that it is the theatre that matters and not the singing. Not saying that when the singing, music and drama all come together I can’t be moved by “classic” opera, especially Mozart and Monteverdi, just that it is a lot easier when the stories stack up and mean something to me and the music isn’t just a bunch of whistling tunes all loosely stitched together.
Of course some buffs might not accept that Greek is an opera at all, more musical theatre in the manner of Brecht and Weill at their best. I see their point. Indeed M-AT, probably more to wind us all up, termed it an anti-opera. Anyway who cares. Greek was a punch in the gut and food for the brain first time round for sure. Mr Turnage, with his rock and jazz inflections, and his adoration of Stravinsky especially, and the likes of Britten and Berg, as well as teacher Oliver Knussen, knows how to compose for the theatre. I knew nothing about the source of his latest outing Coraline (Coraline at the Barbican Theatre review ****) so had no baggage and, whilst if might not be up to Greek and to his version of The Silver Tassie, I thoroughly enjoyed it.
No need to trot you through the story here in detail I assume. By having the lead, here named Eddie, living a life of frustration in Thatcher’s Britain, Berkoff and Turnage have a contemporary alternative for the plague afflicting Thebes. Mr Moore wisely sticks with the 1980s, no need to invoke “Austerity/Brexit” Britain, that would be crass, which designer Baska Wesolowska, through set and multiple costume changes, neatly evokes. Class relations, cultural impoverishment, addiction, the patriarchy, hopelessness are all revealed but never bog down the story.
The differences between “foundling” Eddy and his heavy drinking Mum and Dad, and Sister, are highlighted by their over the top, “gor-blimey, Eastender, chav, working class” dialogue (no arias here folks) and movements. Eddy is angry and frustrated with them so, after having his fortune told, understandably f*cks off to meet, then marry Wife/real Mum, after an ill-fated altercation with her first hubby in a caff. There’s a fair bit of cursing and violence and the still marvellous riot, Sphinx and “mad” scenes, where M-AT’s brilliantly percussive score is at its best. It is funny and aggressive by turns, is deliberately cartoonish, has some great tunes and musical, (and music-hall), echoes and it belts through the story. And there’s a twist as you might have guessed.
Edmund Danon was a perfect Eddy if you ask me. M-AT asks for a high baritone and that is what Mr Danon provides. Every word was clear as a bell and boy did he get round the Arcola space. As did baritone Richard Morrison as Dad (as well as the, in so many ways, unfortunate Cafe owner and the Police Chief). For choice I preferred the mezzo voice of Laura Woods as Wife, as well as sister Doreen, Sphinx I and Waitress I, over the purer soprano of Philippa Boyle as Mum, Sphinx II and Waitress II.
Greek is now a staple of the operatic circuit as it can reliably pull in younger punters to even the grandest of opera houses, (the ROH got on the bandwagon in 2011). Its physicality, irreverence, punky aesthetic and social commentary can appear a little quaint now, especially if it is “over-produced” in a big space. Which, once again shows why Grimeborn, and the Arcola, is the perfect setting for works like this. With the Kantanti Ensemble, founded by conductor Lee Reynolds to showcase the best young musicians in the South East, under the baton of Tim Anderson, by turns belting out, and reining in, the score, the toes of the audience at risk of crushing from the four performers bounding around the Arcola main stage, and with the original director in charge, this production stripped Greek back to where is should be. Another Grimeborn triumph.
I genuinely urge you to try and see this once in your life. Especially if you think opera is for w*ankers. You will be blown away without any need to reassess that, largely reasonable, preconception.
The Rape of Lucretia is a story with a long historical and artistic pedigree. It lies at the heart of the creation legend of the founding of the Roman Republic in the late 500s BCE, was documented by Livy and Ovid, then St Augustine, appears in Dante, Chaucer and Lydgate, was the subject of a poem by Shakespeare, (and Lucretia was referenced in some of his plays), and was a staple of much Renaissance and later art, notably works by Titian, Veronese, Rembrandt, Dürer, Raphael, Botticelli, old Cranach and Artemisia Gentileschi. The worst of these, depicting the rape, are violently voyeuristic, the best examine Lucretia’s subsequent suicide whilst avoiding gory titillation. Check out Rembrandt’s two takes on the latter, (see one above), Veronese’s and, best of all, Artemisia Gentileschi’s.
The story has undergone a few variations through the ages but, in the events of the Britten opera here, essentially runs like this. Tarquinius, the son of the last king of Rome Tarquinius Superbus, is sent on a military errand where he meets up with Collatinus and Junius. They have a few beers, (or the Roman equivalent), and get to discussing the chastity of the women of Rome. Junius goads Tarquinius into testing the virtue of Collatinus’s faithful wife Lucretia. Tarquinius rides to Collatinus’s house that night and the servants are obliged to let him in. He rapes Lucretia and leaves. Collatinus returns. He comforts her but she cannot bear the shame and commits suicide. Junius tries to atone for his involvement by sparking a rebellion against the King.
As you can see there are multiple perspectives for the creatives who take on this ugly story, and specifically this opera, to alight on. Ronald Duncan’s libretto, which in turn is based on the French play Le Viol de Lucrece by Andre Obey, uses the device of a Male and Female Chorus to frame the action and, incongruously to me, to tack on a Christian message, notably in the Epilogue, to the “pagan” tale. He also uses some pretty high-falutin’ and fancy language for both chorus and in the dialogue. It is easy to grasp what is going on but the florid text does sometimes get in the way a bit.
Fortunately though the genius of Mr Benjamin Britten is at hand. The Rape of Lucretia, like Albert Herring and The Turn of the Screw which we recently saw in the superb production at the Open Air Theatre (The Turn of the Screw at the Open Air Theatre review *****), is a chamber opera scored for just thirteen instruments. As usual it took me 15 minutes or so to adjust to BB’s astounding mix of tonality, effect and experimentation but, once the ears were fully up and running, this music was as dazzling as I remembered. It has been a fair few years since the last performance I saw, (can’t actually remember where), and I can’t say it is a turntable regular Chez Tourist, but, no matter, I was mesmerised. The Orpheus Sinfonia under Music Director Peter Selwyn, (who provided piano recitative accompaniment), were well up to the task and it was thrilling to hear the score in such an intimate space. The Sinfonia was founded to give an opportunity for talented young musicians to pursue a career that, trust me, they are doing for love not money. On this showing there are some fine talents here.
How then to deal today with what is plainly a deeply unsettling story? Britten was drawn to it as yet another “corruption of innocence” parable, the theme of so many of his operas. Yet I am not convinced that, as with those other operas, he fully thought through the perils of the material he was dealing with. Director Julia Burbach though made the most of the “universal” message that Duncan and Britten devised. The modern dress Male and Female Chorus, (here tenor Nick Pritchard and soprano Natasha Jouhl), open the opera by explaining how Rome under the Etruscan King Tarquinius Superbus is fighting off the Greeks and how the city has fallen into depravity. A Christian message for sure but as, subsequently, the two singers voice the thoughts of the male and female protagonists and move the story on, “out of time” as in classical Greek tragedy, a device to “explain” the motives and psychology of the characters and to involve us, the audience, in the action.
Fealty to Duncan’s libretto maybe means the production cannot resonant quite as volubly as it might have wanted to current MeToo awareness. Even so the drunken toxic masculinity, the fear that grips Lucretia and her two servants on Tarquinius’s arrival, the rape itself and Lucretia, broken, arranging flowers the next morning, are immensely powerful scenes reflecting the music, the acting and the movement of the characters and chorus under Julia Burbach’s direction. Having the Male and Female Chorus move through, and even at some points shape, the action was a smart move which offered insight.
I am not sure that any of this made the content of the story more palatable though and I can certainly understand why some may think this is an opera better left unstaged. I would suggest you see a production and decide for yourself though. This is not the only misogynistic opera: far from it. But when Lucretia, as here, is literally staring directly at you after the violence she suffers, it is impossible to ignore. And, when she dismisses Collatinus’s plea that Tarquinius’s action can be “forgotten”, the reason for her suicide is shifted from shame to anger.
The performances were uniformly excellent, particularly the two Chorus and contralto Bethan Langford as Lucretia. Bass Andrew Tipple was a deliberately vapid Collatinus, James Corrigan was a suitably odious Junius and a menacing Benjamin Lewis skilfully conveyed Tarquinius’s sickening importuning ahead of the rape. Claire Swale and Katherine Taylor-Jones both sang beautifully as Lucia and Bianca, Lucretia’s maid and nurse respectively. I am guessing that the performers had to take it down a notch or two in the Arcola space but what was lost in singing power was more than made up in clarity and immediacy.
The opera was staged as part of the Arcola’s Grimeborn festival which is not into its 11th year with 55 performances across 17 productions. For those of us who cannot face, or afford, the trip to Glyndebourne, where this opera was premiered in 1946, Grimeborn offers a bloody marvellous alternative. The small space means poncey C19 boring opera is off the agenda or the creative teams have to aggressively rethink it. New interpretations and new work abound. Chamber opera is in its element. Everything comes alive and acting, not vocal histrionics or regie-directorial setting, takes centre stage. All for around 20 quid a pop or less if you arm yourself with an Arcola Passport which is simply the second best gift to culture on the planet, after the Arcola AD Mehmet Ergen who should be knighted this minute.