The Village at Theatre Royal Stratford East review ****

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The Village

Theatre Royal Stratford East, 27th September 2018

One of the many advantages of the idle life of culture is the opportunity to savour the coincidences that it routinely throws up. I see a play, Losing Venice, about the end of Empire, written in a style which apes the dramatists of the Spanish Golden Age. (Losing Venice at the Orange Tree Theatre review ***). A couple of days later I see a play, An Adventure, about the immigrant’s journey out of India. (An Adventure at the Bush Theatre review ****). The next day I see a play, The Village, drawn from the most famous play from arguably the most famous playwright of the Spanish Golden Age, Fuenteovejuna by Lope de Veja, recast in modern rural India, still bearing the scars of post-colonialism. Learn, enjoy, repeat.

Lope de Veja’s 1619 story, based on a real incident in the village of the same name¬† in Castile in 1476, is pretty much guaranteed to get the pulse racing. A tale of honour, justice, reputation and chastity as so many of the Golden Age plays were, though here slightly subverted, which accounts for its continuing relevance. The women of the village, unable to stomach any more abuse from the local army chief, rise up to collectively kill him. They refuse to incriminate each other saying only that “Fuenteovejuna did it”. April de Angelis, who make such a fine job of adapting Elena Ferrante’s quartet My Brilliant Friend for the Rose Kingston stage (My Brilliant Friend at the Rose Theatre Kingston review ****), sticks pretty close to the plot of the original whilst offering up a text peopled with recognisably human characters. And, with a swagger that largely worked for me, much of the text is written in verse, which adds rhythm and pace to the story.

This, together with Nadia Fall’s kinetic direction and some top class performances especially from Anya Chalotra as Jyoti, and in his own villainous way, Art Malik, are what turns this from what might have been a sullen melodrama, into something altogether more supple and uplifting. The production might have benefitted from a bigger stage to accommodate Joanna Scotcher’s sloping set, and a little more technical sophistication, but, if this is the harbinger of things to come at Stratford Royal Theatre East under Nadia Fall, and the 18/19 season has great potential, then maybe SRTE can become a destination theatre as it was in the glory days of Joan Littlewood (who staged Fuenteovejuna in 1955), rather than an occasional, one-off hit machine (like Five Guys Named Moe).

No need to take my word for it. To save BD from sitting around all day in her PJ’s in front of a screen (though justified by an imminent return to uni) I dragged her alone. Only marginally easier to impress than her Mother, she agreed that this was a powerful, and satisfying, piece of theatre. And, even more extraordinary FKD, who has reason to know, and a bunch of her friends, gave it the thumbs up. Lopa de Veja’s original, whilst not directly informed by Catholic oppression, was a response to the violence of the Inquisition. AdA’s update similar doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to its portrayal of the BJP and the rise of Hindu nationalism.

The rural village, Sahaspur, is getting on with the business of life with Jyoti, daughter of of the joint mayor, Ramdev (Neil D’Souza), the bashful subject of the ardent affections of local Muslim lad Farooq (Scott Karim). He is egged on by comic sidekick Mango (Ameet Chana), she by no-nonsense buddy Panna (Rina Fatania). Both eke out plenty of laughs. Accents are more Bradford than Kolkata. When the sadist Inspector Gangwar (Art Malik) turns up, with soldier sidekicks Ved and Gopi, to fix the election for privileged BJP scion Vihaan (Naeem Hayat), the villagers are cowered, and then outraged, after he rapes Jyoti. The election is contested by Ishani (Sudha Bhuchar) for Congress with adviser Mekhal (Arian Nik) in tow, and it is she who is sent to investigate the Inspector’s murder.

A gripping tale for sure. And Nadia Fall’s high energy direction, with movement from Polly Bennett (especially striking in the revenge scene), lighting from Paul Pyant, sound from Helen Atkinson and composer Niraj Chang (with live on-stage music and Hindi songs courtesy of Japit Kaur), really brings it to life. Yet it will still make you angry that even now this kind of oppression is commonplace, and that horrific sexual violence in India (and elsewhere) is still legitimised by power. The mechanics of the ending are a little less than credible, but no matter, the message of successful resistance is the right one.

 

 

Our Country’s Good at Theatre Royal Stratford review ****

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Our Country’s Good

Theatre Royal Stratford East, 28th April 2018

Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Our Country’s Good is one of my favourite plays. As it is for many theatre-goers. The context, the “First Fleet” of British convicts sent to Australia with their Royal Marine guards in the 1780s, and the setting, Sydney Cove in New South Wales, are intriguing; the characters, which cover a broad spectrum of society at the time, are many, but go beyond mere sketches; the plot, incorporating a play within a play (sort of) as the convicts set out to stage a version of George Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer guided by the well-meaning Second Lieutenant Ralph Clark, is perspicacious; and the messages many and critical. Above all it is accessible but not simplistic.

The play is based on Thomas Keneally’s novel The Playmaker, which I haven’t, shamefully read, and the novel and these historical events, (without the Farquhar play), were loosely dramatised by Jimmy McGovern a couple of years ago in the BBC series Banished. It is also no great surprise that the play is used as a text for various English Language examinations.

Can art, and specifically the theatre, play a part in “reforming” and rehabilitating criminals? Is “criminality” innate or born out of desperation? How is justice dispensed? What is a fair punishment for petty crimes? Why is society ashamed of taking retribution? How do the class system,¬† and gender relationships, respond to, and evolve in, a new, and hostile, environment? How damaging is the force of colonisation?

These are some of the more obvious themes which the play contends with but there is also a pointed examination of the way in which we communicate, most obviously through the character of John Wisehammer, an outsider as a Jew, but who is educated and can read and write, in the relationship between Midshipman Harry Brewer and Duckling Smith, and in the lines from the Recruiting Officer itself. It also, through the play, shows what people are capable of if they are given an opportunity.

This production, the third from the seven theatre consortium that makes up Ramps on the Moon, underscores these dimensions. Ramps on the Moon is made up of a company of D/deaf, disabled, hearing and non-disabled cast and creatives who seek a similarly diverse audience and, outside of the productions, aim to ensure D/deaf and disabled people see the theatre as a realistic option on both sides of the curtain.

From my perspective, as non-disabled, the opportunity to see and hear the various solutions employed to present the drama and connect to the audience, was most welcome. The use of BSL and interpretation in particular added a whole new dimension to the play’s central message about the power of theatre and about who can make it. Jon Nicholls’s sound design and composition was first class, even between scenes. The production uses less doubling than the text allows, which sharpens the divide between captive and captor and lends clarity at the expense of the intended ambiguity. As it happened at the performance I attended Colin Connor ended up playing Harry Brewer as well as the prize shit Major Robbie Ross, a man beyond redemption. Serendipity indeed as he is a fine actor, though his eventual mental and physical collapse was a little restrained.

Caroline Parker, both in her role as “Shitty” Meg Long, as the voiceover and as BSL interpreter for Emily Rose Salter’s Duckling amongst others was excellent. Ms Salter, in this her debut performance, gives a master class in communication without words, poignant and aggressive as the action demanded. I was also drawn to Tom Dawze’s enigmatic Wisehammer, Gbemisola Ikumelo’s truculent Liz Morden, who remember eventually speaks out to save her life and secure justice, and Alex Nowak’s preposterous Sideway and priggish Reverend Johnson.

Fiona Buffini did a superb job in bringing all these elements together, including that part of the technology that was visible to me, and ensured that the plot was clear and ideas were foregrounded. She couldn’t quite avoid the signalling and exposition that characterises a handful of Ms Wertenbaker’s scenes, but that is true of every version I have seen, and there were a few moments where pacing was a little off-beam. Overall though this is a fine production that deserves to be seen by as wider audience as possible (it still has to go to Sheffield and Birmingham), and which sheds new light on this remarkable play.