Wolfie at Theatre503 review ****

Wolfie

Theatre503, 10th April 2019

I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that Ross Willis is a double espresso with extra shot man. How else to explain the blast of wild energy that is his debut play Wolfie. For sure it is hard to imagine two more vibrant actors than Erin Doherty and Sophie Melville, collectively the “future of British acting”, but even these fearsome talents need something special to get their teeth into. It was by no means perfect but there is an invention and a verve in the telling of this story which made it stand out.

Two sisters, Z and A, whose Mum is unable to cope, are separated at birth and cast into the UK care system. But this is no gritty documentary-drama. First off the story begins in the womb. Z’s foster Mum, Soggy Woman, never leaves the bath. A is brought up by a wolf after her Dad, Bony Man, leaves her for dead in the wood. Trees talk. Woodpecker social workers offer up brutal homilies. Chemistry teachers become parents in absentia. Charity workers donate slices of their kidneys. Mothers snort milk teeth. Waitrose opens and gives A an opportunity in butchery. There is a Jack Whitehall-esque, silver, mansplaining torso. And more. Much more.

It’s a Grimm, though not grim, fairytale, with plain nods to the likes of Angela Carter and Jose Saramango, as well as, minus the theory, Ionesco. However there is a blunt contemporary edge, think Mighty Boosh, even in the more surreal dialogue. The story moves at a hell of a lick, sometimes only becoming clear where we are, and when we are, at birth, aged 13 and 26, in retrospect. It is very funny and, in the hands of exciting young designer Basia Binkowska, lighting from Rajiv Pattani, sound from Richard Hammerton and movement direction by Belinda Lee Chapman, impressive in the way it transforms the tiny 503 space.

Maybe the message gets a little lost in all this metaphor, contrivance and stagecraft, I would have preferred 80-90 minutes straight through, and sometimes it comes close to spirally out of control, but this entertainment is very easy to forgive. Especially, as I say, with these two actors on stage. Sophie Melville and, most especially, Erin Doherty as lead character Soween, were by some margin the best things to emerge from Alan Ayckbourn’s muddled The Divide at the Old Vic, even after it had been slimmed down. Sophie Melville was simply breathtaking as Effie in Gary Owen’s brilliant Iphigenia in Splott. And I have raved before about Erin Doherty (Junkyard, My Name is Rachel Corrie) and I fully expect the world to catch up when she appears in the next series of The Crown on Netflix.

This text and space is made for them. If acting is all about having no fear, even when asked to do the daftest of things, then these two are, no question, actors. They take something which, on the page at least, must have looked pretty daunting and turn it into something utterly tangible. Director Lisa Spirling seems gifted with the same magic dust, or sparkles as Z and A would have it, having brought Rajiv Joseph’s equally ambitious Describe the Night to life at the Hampstead Theatre last year.

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.

OthelloMacbeth at the Lyric Hammersmith review ***

Lady Macbeth Seizing the Daggers ?exhibited 1812 by Henry Fuseli 1741-1825

OthelloMacbeth

Lyric Hammersmith, 8th October 2018

OK so this has its moments. By splicing together Othello and Macbeth, excising out extraneous context, sub-plot and characters, director Jude Christian has largely succeeded in achieving what she set out to do. That is to recast the two famous tragedies from the perspective of the female protagonists, Desdemona, Emilia and Bianca, the Ladies Macbeth and Macduff and, with a twist, the Three Witches. Without messing too much with the main plots. And with some occasionally breathtaking transfer of lines from one play to the other. However it is the Macbeth half that gets the best of the treatment, in large part because it benefits most from Basia Binkowska novel set design as it opens up. And this is definitely not for the purists who relish the verse. (I overhead some grumbling on the way out).

In part this reflected the cuts, in part the slightly uneven verse delivery on show and in part what happens when the psychological insight offered up by Shakespeare’s “roundest” characters is sold short. Samuel Collings as Iago/Macduff and, especially, Ery Nzaramba as Othello/Banquo had the most to lose. On the other hand there was much to learn from Kirsten Foster’s alert Desdemona and Caroline Faber’s measured Lady M, and the Witches, our two/three murdered/abused women from Othello. For this conceit, their revenge, as they unleash Lady M’s “unsex me now” monologue, and strumming on high pitched wires, is both clever and, in part, insightful.

Nagging away at me though is the belief that Shakespeare did offer up multiple vistas into what these women saw and felt whilst still getting on with the business of showing us that ambition, violence and jealousy are intrinsic, if ugly, facets of the human condition. I am not arguing that Shakespeare’s treatment of his female characters should be excused, the body count and violence meted out to them, tells its own story, just that, as in some much of his writing, there is insight and ambiguity when you look for it. And at least he has the excuse of history. The men today who continue to “fridge” women do not. After all Jude Christian in this mash-up, by using WS’s lines, is only highlighting what is already there in the text.

The cur-down version of Othello doesn’t need to tell us why “the Moor” is so hated, nor to have Iago poisoning his and our ears, but without it they come across a bit cartoonish. They are basically wankers from the off. The harsh brushed metal wall, there to mask the Macbeth reveal, only serves to highlight the static staging, and rushed delivery, with very rapid jump–cuts, of the first half of the first play. It does heat up post hanky mind you. Sandy Grierson squeezes a lot out of Cassio as do Kezrena James as Bianca and, especially, Melissa Johns as a blunt no-nonsense Northerner Emilia, who can sense what is coming. But this is maybe more to do with the “air-time” they have relative to standard interpretations rather than the actors really finding something new to say in the characters.

Sandy Grierson’s Macbeth does convince, because we know what to expect, because the call-back is more profound, because his is a fine performance and because the relationship with Caroline Faber’s Lady M stacks up. The early filleting of the text is less distracting, the motives of the power couple are still examined. Ms Faber makes chilling sense of the final Othello speech which falls to her. Even so at the end of the day it is Lady M who hatches the murderous plan, even if the narrative here is revenge for the wrongs of the first half. Once again I think there is more than enough complexity in Lady M as written by the Bard to make Jude Christian’s re-direction superfluous. Watch Judi Dench at work if you don’t believe me.

So a successful exercise on its own terms. I am just not sure that those terms were entirely necessary. New plays by women, telling women’s stories, with women creatives, would be more fruitful I think. (Lela & Co by Cordelia Lynn for example which Jude Christian directed). Or Jude Christian let loose on either one of this plays. Or a Caryl Churchill classic for example. This strand of wilful innovation has dogged the last few years of Sean Holmes’s stewardship of the Lyric. It hasn’t always worked as here. It will be interesting to see who, and what, comes next. It is a lovely theatre, thanks in large part to Mr Holmes’s industry, which deserves the best.