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.
Seven years in to the Vaults Festival and finally the Tourist takes the plunge. If there is a cutting edge to avoid you can be sure the Tourist finds it. It is not even as if the Waterloo location is inconvenient. It could hardly be more accessible. Still better late than never.
Last year the Festival, which I read somewhere is now the biggest outside Edinburgh, attracted some 70,000 punters over 8 weeks. This year there are over 400 shows from around 2000 artists and performers. You pay £15 or so for an hour or so’s entertainment. The organisers get 30% of the take to cover costs, the artists 70%. That, I am assured, is way more attractive for the creative that the usual economic model. So everyone’s a winner.
Especially when the hour, or in this case, 80 minutes or so is of the quality of Pants on Fire’s Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Now I could bullshit you and pretend I have read Ovid’s magnum opus, basically a history of the world from the creation to the deification of Julius Caesar, part mythic, part factual, in the form of a narrative poem made up of 12,000 lines over 15 books and incorporating over 250 myths. I haven’t. But, such is the pervasive nature of these myths in Western culture, I am, like any reasonably aware culture vulture, au fait with most of the stories.
And that is all you need to enjoy this show. The selected stories are, adroitly, set in Britain during WWII. Think period uniforms. Each of the chosen myths, (I would have been happy to watch the cast of seven take on the entire 15 books, but I guess they, and we, had homes to go to), takes the form of a sketch if you will, with narration, performance, on stage music, various props and enterprising video, lighting and sound design. There is even some puppetry and animation. Whilst the Crescent may be the biggest of the various venues across the Festival this is still a tiny stage so the creative team, led by director Peter Bramley, had to be pretty ingenious to fit it all together. The four panels centre stage which served as backdrop and screens seemed to be in constant motion. Favourite setting? The Underground as the Underworld. Genius. Favourite transformation? Io complete with tin can hooves and gas mask. Double genius. Favourite scene? Narcissus as Hollywood idle with Echo as usherette. Triple genius.
Now I can’t pretend I clocked all of the stories on show but the following were all name-checked. The Creation, Sirens, Gorgons, Apollo, Daphne, Io, Mercury, Cadmus, Diana, Semele, Bacchus, Tiresias, Narcissus, Echo, Cupid, Icarus, Salmacis, Hermaphroditus, Perseus, Arachne, Marsyas, Medusa, Jason, the Minotaur, Hercules, Orpheus, Eurydice, Midas, Achilles, Ajax and Ulysses. At least I think they were. I might have got confused with Unmythable from Out of Chaos that I saw a week or so later, equally as entertaining. Anyway the point is that Metamorphoses is innovative, imaginative and above all very, very funny. I gather that Ovid’s poem ticks the form box marked epic but also takes in the elegiac, tragic and pastoral along the way. It is certainly keen to mock and subvert its own pretension; it is properly “meta” in the modern argot. This is wryly captured in Pants on Fire’s routines. As is the theme of metamorphosis or transformation from one form to another, and the power of love, Amor, to upset various narrative apple carts.
Pants on Fire was founded by AD Peter Bramley, who trained with Jacques Lecoq, in 2004, alongside Heather Winstanley who devised the visuals and produced Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Lucy Eggers composed the original music for OM, the Andrews Sisters style chorus numbers being one of the highlights. Whilst POF have created a number of shows it is this that has garnered awards and toured extensively following its debut in 2010 (at the dear old Greenwich Theatre and then Edinburgh). It is easy to see why. (I do like the sound of their Splice mind you, an hour long theatrical tour through the history of cinema). They are currently working on creating a festival of one person, performance “shorts”. Sounds good.
The cast here included Beth Lockhart who is the other principal of Pants on Fire along with Adam Boakes, Max Gallagher, Sindre Kaurang, Chloe Levis, Bridget Mylecharane and Rosie Ward. A splendid ensemble largely drawn from Rose Buford College where Peter Bramley teaches movement. There were moments when the timing went awry and accents wobbled but frankly that is all part of the improvisational charm.
Theatre is about transformation and can be transformative. Ovid was ploughing the same furrow. Certainly one of the best hour’s entertainments I have seen in this or any other year. It will be back. Don’t miss it.
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.
There are a couple of weeks to go in the run of David Hare’s The Moderate Soprano at the Duke of York’s Theatre. There are plenty of (discounted) tickets left. You could do a lot worse than seeing this if you are after a bit of last minute theatre action. It charts the relationship of eccentric millionaire type John Christie and his singer wife Audrey Mildmay, (and the bunch of pre WWII emigres from Central Europe who helped them), as they set out to create the Glyndebourne Opera Festival in, essentially, their back garden. So if a gentle, though still involving, tale of toffs ill-advisedly pursuing their opera dream appeals don’t hesitate. If not I’d understand but you would be missing a treat from one of out greatest living playwrights.
Roger Allam, complete with convincing bald pate courtesy of make-up, and preposterously high-waisted linen trousers, plays Captain John Christie a textbook British oddball who inherited the Glyndebourne estate but didn’t then loaf around Brideshead style, instead leading his troops from the front in WWI, teaching science at Eton and then poking his nose into to matters of Efficiency in the matter of Government in WWII. He loved the opera, specifically Wagner, (I gather some people do though it beats me why), making regular pilgrimages to Bayreuth. He eventually finds love, late in life, and marries English soprano singer Audrey Mildmay played by Nancy Caroll, after much persistent wooing.
The Captain hatches a plan to build a small. 300 seater, opera house in the grounds of the estate, as you do. He recruits conductor Fritz Busch as Musical Director, (his brother was the founder of the legendary Busch Quartet), Professor Carl Ebert as Artistic Director and Rudolf Bing as Festival Director and overall marketing supremo. All three have escaped Nazi Germany, Bing, (whose extraordinary life is worthy of its own dramatisation), because he was a well-to-do Jew married to a Russian ballerina, Busch because his artistic freedom was curtailed (in savage fashion) by Nazi sympathisers, including his own orchestra at one point, and Ebert because of his voluble criticism of the regime. In a series of informal meetings between the five we learn, as does Christie who is initially sanguine about the changes in the Germany he admires, how the regime has attacked the culture it hates, how Christie’s arm is twisted such that Mozart, not Wagner, becomes the staple of the inaugural pre-war seasons for reasons of practicality and how Audrey becomes the glue that holds the whole project together (and gets to sing). Christie aim was to ring world class opera to Britain, previously accustomed to more amateurish fare, and to do this he turned to the best that Europe had to offer.
The most powerful scenes however, in large part thanks to the supreme skill of both Nancy Carroll and Roger Allam, are the flash forwards after the Christies have passed on the baton of running the Festival and as Audrey’s health progressively deteriorates. Audrey and their two kids were sent by Christie to the safety of Canada during the War but, unable to receive money from England, Audrey needed to sing to get by, which eventually led to a bust up with Busch when he refused to cast her in his Cosi at the Met, the shop where he, and Bing, had pitched up post Glyndebourne. They eventually made up and Busch returned to Sussex from 1950. It seems that Audrey was poorly throughout when she returned, often cancelling performances, but was still able to support Christie at Glyndebourne, help Bing set up the Edinburgh Festival, (yes that Edinburgh Festival), and sit on the Arts Council. What a trooper.
We see her near the end, having lost her sight despite surgery for high blood pressure, and the devotion and love between her and Christie pours out off the stage. I am a sucker for watching art portraying old people still plainly in love but I defy you not to be drawn in. Christie in turn is looked after, by faithful retainer Jane Smith (Jade Williams) after Nancy passes away. Lovely stuff.
I fear I may have given a bit too much of the story away but perhaps this means you can see why David Hare, who I assume loves the opera, was drawn to it. Now I have to admit that I would love to see Mr Hare rustle up one of those searing, state of the nation multi-character extravaganzas of old, much like his recent Collateral on the telly. On the other hand his more “domestic”, heir-to-Rattigan, ordinary-made-extraordinary dramas, of which this is a prime example, are just as satisfying. Jeremy Herrin, who has form with both writer and cast, directs with his usual flair, Bob Crowley’s new set opens up to reveal stunning interior and exterior representations of Glyndebourne itself, including Christie’s impressive organ, (no tittering at the back), ably assisted by Paule Constable’s lighting and Simon Baker’s sound designs.
Paul Jesson as Busch, Anthony Calf as Ebert and, especially, Jacob Fortune-Lloyd as Bing are all perfectly cast and tremendous foils for Mr Allam and Ms Carroll, who reprise their roles from the original Hampstead Theatre run. The comedy, which is wired in to Mr Hare’s text, is beautifully executed, to sweetly contrast with the pathos.
Now I ave never been, nor would I ever go, to Glyndebourne. For the same price as even a ticket upstairs at Glyndebourne I could get a couple of luxury visits to Covent Garden, and several years worth of fun from my normal high up perch, or three or four trips to the ENO. I don’t have an evening suit and would vehemently object to wearing one anyway. And I can’t be arsed to travel to Sussex with a bunch of braying toffs. Oh, and as I have said before, most of the classic canon in the world of opera, which is Glyndebourne’s meat and drink, is a dreadful bore. So I can assure you my enjoyment of this play has nothing to do with any great love of the institution despite the fact I am a shocking cutural snob. It is just a very pleasing presentation of a very interesting story, unafraid of its explicit Romanticism.
I had been hoping to get an opportunity to see Angel after reading a review of the premiere at the Edinburgh Festival last year. I had read of the very sad death of the actor, Filipa Branganca, who had played the role of the eponymous Angel of Kobane, Rehana Ghazali, in that original production. So I am glad it was able to transfer eventually to the Arcola with a new lead in Avital Lvova.
The play is largely set in Kobane, a small, sleepy town, in the far north of Syria on the border with Turkey. In mid 2012 the Kurdish YPG took control and declared independence for West Kurdistan. In mid 2014 the town came under siege from ISIS as Syria collapsed and the legend of the Angel of Kobane was born. She was a law student who became a crack sniper. Not much else is known but writer Henry Naylor takes the story as the basis for an hour or so play which examines through her story, the conflict in the region and the role of women in that conflict and in Kurdish society. Angel is part of a quartet of plays (The Collector, Echoes and Borders alongside Angel), named Arabian Nightmares, which Henry Naylor has written about the “war on terror”. They have won multiple Fringe First awards at Edinburgh. It is pretty easy to see why.
We see fragments of Angel’s childhood and meet her parents. Angel wants to be a lawyer but her schooling is disrupted by the Kurdish uprising. Her father, who I understood to have fought in the Kurdish uprising in 1991, teaches her to shoot and, in another important scene, faces down some local hoodlums. The family eventually has to flee but Angel’s Dad stays behind. She decides to return to find him and this is what eventually leads to her joining a group of women fighters to take on ISIS in her home town.
Avital Lvova assumes all the parts, her parents, and the various characters she meets on her journeys. The text is nimble and immediate (and at times surprisingly amusing) allowing Ms Lvova to paint a very vivid picture of these characters and her adventures. The lighting design by Andy Grange in the smaller Arcola space is brilliant. The props are minimal, just a barrel, and the brick wall at the back of the stage. What is most striking however is the sheer physicality of Ms Lvova’s performance: this is what draws you into her story and adds realism to the scenes.
This is a powerful piece of theatre with a performance and staging from director Michael Cabot of real passion. You will be drawn in and you may, like me, learn a little more about the conflict it portrays. I have no doubt it will pop up elsewhere. If it does, take a look. I am keen now to see the sister plays which accompany Angel.