As You Like It at the Barbican Theatre review ***

As You Like It

Barbican Theatre, 15th January 2020

As You Like It? Not really like this. Mind you I have yet to see a production of the play that really bowled me over. The NT production from 2016 directed by Polly Findlay looked great, office chairs becoming the Forest of Arden, and reminded us of the immense talent of Rosalie Craig and Patsy Ferran, but didn’t quite do it for me and I have a vague recollection of a previous RSC outing with Niamh Cusack as Rosalind and David Tennant as Touchstone. So maybe it is the play that doesn’t quite persuade.

I get that Will’s exploration of gender roles, sexuality and the rules of attraction still intrigues and resonates. And I get that, as a paean to the joy of love, and specifically the slippery notion of “love at first sight” there isn’t much better in the Shakespeare, or any other, canon. And it has a couple of pukka roles for women. As a generally miserable f*cker I can’t help but be attracted to eeyore Jaques and there are plenty of laughs, though they don’t always land from the lips of the sketchier supporting characters and some are just too knowing. What I don’t really buy is the whole pastoral, simpler life vibe, the magical forest is more convincing in AMND, and, absent Rosalind and Celia, I have never been convinced by many of the relationships, courtly and common, of which there are too many to really round out character. The banishments, and reconciliations, of Fred and Duke Senior, and the du Bois boys (here Leo Wan and Aaron Thiara), isn’t properly explained or resolved. The songs are a bit ropey. The prose and verse inversion and switching can be distracting and adds to the bitty, “a string of chance encounters”, quality of the play.

There are however plenty of other WS plays where similar criticisms might be levelled. But plot, character, language, message and spectacle, or some combination thereof normally finds a way to lift you up and into the world of breathless, nothing else matters, concentration that is the magic of the Bard. So maybe as I say I just need the right production of AYLI.

Here Kimberley Sykes, the brains behind the RSC Dido from 2017 which the Tourist annoyingly overlooked, has offered up a timeless Arden, supported by Stephen Brimson Lewis’s design, which focuses on the key connections, between the excellent Lucy Phelps’s confident Rosalind, her forthright bessie coz Sophie Khan Levy and a gentle, though ardent, Orlando in the form of David Ajao. Sophie Stanton, as a detached, almost inert, female Jaques, was polished, and Sandy Grierson, once again, stood out with his grotesquely camp Touchstone.. A whole bunch of gender switching for the other roles left the characters even less defined than normal, and, whilst it was not difficult for an actor of Antony Byrne’s quality to pull off the roles of both Dukes, I am not sure I got the point in a play already stuffed with mistaken identities.

There were a lot of nice visual touches, but there were also times when the cast seemed to be keen to move on to the next scene, lines a bit too hurried, and some of the blocking felt a little unconnected on the roomy Barbican stage. And then there was the lighting, designed, as were the costumes, by Bretta Gerecke, which was often the wrong side of insistent. And then there was the audience participation. And a giant puppet of Hymen, god of marriage, looming over Lucy Phelps as she delivers her, slightly desperate, epilogue at the end.

The Taming of the Shrew at the Barbican review ***

The Taming of the Shrew

Barbican Theatre, 2nd January 2020

What to do with Taming of the Shrew. Pretend the framing device with Sly deceived by Milord gets you off the hook. Not sure audiences buy that. Mine the text very carefully and add detail through direction which undermines the misogyny. That takes real skill. Ironically play up the “comedy”, and cast Kate and Petrucio’s final lines as a “show” to mask them coming together, and hope the audience keeps up. Play it straight, as nasty as you dare, even venturing into dark psycho-sexual territory, and hope the audience sees that Will S, as we surely must assume, him otherwise being the unparalleled oracle of the human condition, meant for us to recoil at both the story and our reaction to it. (Though remember John Fletcher, Shakespeare’s successor with The King’s Men felt compelled to write a now rarely performed response to Shrew, The Woman’s Prize, in which Petruchio’s second wife “tames” him). That can work but don’t be surprised if modern, as contemporary opinion did, criticises.

Or change gender as here? One of the best versions of the play that I saw was Edward Hall’s all male version for Propellor. Sly (Vince Leigh) became Petruchio, the misogyny is initially ridiculed in a genuinely funny production, but then becomes more menacing, punky Kate (Dan Wheeler) continually fights back making his/her final submission even uglier. The point being that Sly will continue the cycle of male violence outside the play.

In this RSC production directed by Justin Audibert, not for the first time, the genders are reversed, with Claire Price now a swaggering, derring-do Petruchia, and, names unchanged, Joseph Arkley the very pliant Katherine, the object of her undoubted affection, and James Cooney his more attractive and preening brother, Bianco. Padua becomes a matriarchy, pronouns are judiciously changed, gags retained, but it still doesn’t properly scrutinise the dominance/gaslighting power plays at the heart of the action. We already know what is wrong with or without role reversal.

Elsewhere though the inversion adds sheen, notably the wooing of Bianco by the salacious Gremia (Sophie Stanton complete with comedy glide pace Mark Rylance’s Olivia), the inept Lucentia (Emily Johnstone) aided by her capable sidekick/double Trania (Laura Elsworthy) and Hortensia (Amelia Donkor). The deceptions, rivalries and put downs all entertain. Amanda Harris as Mum Baptista, Amy Trigg as Lucentia’s other servant Biondella and Melody Brown as Vincentia, Lucentia’s mum all have fun with the roles.

The production looks terrific thanks to Stephen Brimston Lewis’s set (here seen to best effect when compared to the other RSC productions in the season) and Hannah Clark’s costumes. Composer Ruth Chan gets away with her “rock Renaissance” vibe. And Alice Cridland’s marshalling of wigs, hair and make-up mightily impressed. But none of this really solves for the fact that simply reversing and softening the genders and positing a social order that doesn’t, nor ever did, exist, can’t magic away the central offence. Which, in itself, is a lesson.

Forgotten at the Arcola Theatre review ****

Forgotten

Arcola Theatre, 10th November 2018

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. 

The Great Wave at the National Theatre review ****

the_great_wave_off_kanagawa

The Great Wave

National Theatre, 24th Mar 2018

Now theatre can do a lot of things. Delve deep into the psychology of characters and shed light on the human condition. Convey a passionate and heartfelt message. Put poetry into the mouths of actors. Dispense shock and awe through sound, light and material. And, of course, tell stories. And sometimes those stories are so fascinating that the rest can take a back seat. So it is with The Great Wave.

Japanese/Northern Irish playwright Francis Turnly has alighted on an absolute belter of a story to tell in his play and he doesn’t let anything get in the way of its telling. Bolshie Hanako, (a performance of great breadth from Kirsty Rider given Hanako has to hide her true feelings for much of the play and age 25 years), is winding up swotty sister Reiko, (Kae Alexander who is rapidly turning into one of my favourite young actors), and putative boyfriend Tetsuo, (Leo Wan, last seen by me in Yellow Earth’s stripped down version of Tamburlaine the Great). She flounces off in a huff to the beach near where they live on a stormy night and disappears. Mum Etsuko (Rosalind Chao), Reiko and Tetsuo won’t accept that she was swept out to sea and  won’t give up on the search for her, badgering police chief Takeshi (who initially suspects Tetsuo), and eventually government minister Jiro, (both played by David Yip,) to find the truth. It transpires that Hanako has been abducted by the North Korean regime so she can train spy Jung Sun (Tuyen Do) to pass as Japanese all under the watchful eye of an Official, (a marvellous turn by Kwong Loke). And there’s more, involving smart performances from Vincent Lai and Frances Mayli McCann.

This really happened, to a handful of Japanese citizens, as you may or not know. That would be enough maybe in itself. Where Mr Turnley is really clever is drawing out the human dramas at the centre of this thriller and, gently, pointing out the political accommodations that allowed it to persist from 1979, before finally, unravelling. in 2002. He also, again without taking a sledgehammer to proceedings, shows how the histories of Japan and Korea are intertwined and paralleled to some degree. Finally, and maybe most importantly, he asks us how identity and self is actually constructed. Why did Hanako “co-operate”? Why do Jung Sun and the Official believe in, and do, what they do? How was this allowed to happen? I won’t answer as there are a few more performances left (grab a ticket) but, rest assured, you will get wrapped up in the journey. You will also, if you are an old softie like me, actually be quite moved at points. And you will, as you should, reflect on today’s geo-politics.

Tom Piper’s set, a simple revolve with uncluttered, but still authentic, cube rooms, means the episodic structure of the play, jumping between Japan and North Korea, flows without interruption. The sound design of Alexander Caplan’s stealthily kicks in to good effect as well. There are some occasions where the economy of Mr Turnley’s prose becomes a little clunky but this can be forgiven as it gets us from A to B quickly, which frankly, with a story this good, is what you want.

With a powerful story, simply told, the last thing you need is a director over-egging the souffle, as it were. Indhu Rubasingham was never going to do that. What she does do though, so deftly you barely notice, is put the right people in the right place at the right time to highlight the emotion of the story. That takes real skill. When she gets her own theatre back, (the Tricycle), after all the investment, expect fireworks.

BD, being a Japano- and Koreano- phile, was never going to be allowed to miss this. Not quite as difficult to please as her mother when it comes to the theatre, she is still a stern critic. Didn’t move a muscle from start to finish. And I am rewarded with multiple future credits.

So a real-life thriller that, like the set it is set upon, revolves around and around until it becomes something more surprisingly profound. I suppose the fine British East Asian cast could have been afforded more lines to show off their class, and bring full complexity to their characters, but, if so, this may well have clocked in at well over 3 hours, and the suspense dissipated. Like I say, sometimes the story is so good it just needs telling.