All entries for May 2008

May 28, 2008

Love to hate

Have you ever had a production you've enjoyed completely ruined for you by talking to other people about it afterwards? There was a Guardian blog some time ago which first got me asking that question, and it's kinda happened again today. I quite enjoyed the RSC's new Shrew (not without a great many reservations, I hasten to add) and got some interesting stuff out of it, but have been debating the production at great length with someone who absolutely loathed it. While that doesn't change my opinion, or the enjoyment I had of my evening out, it does spoil a production somewhat when you find yourself defending it.

That said, I always get infinitely more out of a production for debating it, even if I lose something of the simple enjoyment of it. It deepens and adds to my understanding and often throws up issues that hadn't even occurred to me, particularly if the person I'm talking to saw a different performance or was viewing and thinking about the play from a specific standpoint. In turn, I'm confident enough nowadays in my own theatre-viewing to make my own case, and point out things that they missed.

I suppose what's fascinating is that I'm in a business which creates lasting meaning out of ephemeral moments. Most of the people at the Courtyard last night were there for a simple three hours of theatre. So was I, but those three hours also have a lasting impact for me through the writing of reviews and the ongoing addition to my understanding of Shakespeare in contemporary performance. I won't necessarily be ever writing articles on this production, but it goes into my 'bank' of witnessed events that is there to be drawn on should I ever need. And of course, things change in time. Just because I laughed my way through a performance doesn't mean I'll still be laughing about it in the morning and I'm liable to be far more criticial, but shouldI be? After all, it was only meant to make me laugh at the time, not beyond. Is it fair, or appropriate, to re-evaluate my response in the cold light of day?

I suppose what I'm saying is that I think, as a reviewer, the reaction in the moment is very important. However much afterwards you rethink your position and wonder "Maybe I shouldn't have found that as funny as I did" or "That wasn't nearly as sophisticated as it felt at the time", the theatrical experience is primarily geared towards making you feel a certain way at the time, while you're in direct contact with the production. Of course you can contextualise and analyse your responses afterwards, but I think it's necessary to hold on to the memory of how you thought and felt at the time. Trust the instinctive response, for there are things that you can't intellectually justify but remain true regardless.

The Taming of the Shrew @ The Courtyard Theatre

Irish director Conall Morrison made waves in Stratford last year with his violently explicit production of Macbeth, a flawed but compelling show that demonstrated his fascination with sexual abuse and the blurring of lines between dark comedy and outrage. It is little surprise, then, that this uncompromising director has been invited back to Stratford to helm the RSC’s new Shrew, a play which has allowed him to explore these fascinations further in another production that will no doubt stimulate great debate.

The elongated modern-day induction set the tone for the relentless visual and aural assault that lasted throughout the play, throwing the audience immediately into a lads-night-out in the city, with banging house music, traffic cones, mooning and a parody of the All-Blacks’ pre-match haka. The female characters, a leather-clad Hostess and a pole-dancer, added to the barrage of sexist stereotypes: this was a world seen through the misogynist eyes of the drunken Christopher Sly, stumbling through the scene.

A great amount of off-text story was added to the induction, with the Hostess making a garbled phone call to the Lady (the part played female), as a result of which the Lady ordered the drunken Sly to be picked out of the trash and carried home. This set up implied the trick was to be a kind of punishment/rehabilitation for Sly’s treatment of the Hostess, a trick which the Lady continued to oversee throughout, occasionally appearing on stage in order to cue a lighting change or similar. Sly himself was introduced into the action to play Petruchio, starting with a script but quickly discarding it and making the play his own. This caused problems however, in that it was never clear quite what the purpose of the inner play was meant to be. Far from being educational, Sly gradually took over the play, building in his violent attitudes and taking it to a dark place from which, at the very end, the players withdrew in disgust. Quite why Sly had been allowed into a position where he could act out his misogynist fantasies was inexplicable.

Confused framing device aside, the inner play was busy, full of interest and often very funny. A backdrop of swivelling panels depicted Padua and the players (who had appeared out of the back of a truck with the number-plate XME-K8) built a set out of micro-sized Italian buildings, donned renaissance costumes and hammed it up gloriously with performances so pantomimic that the audience was carried along by the party atmosphere.

It was interesting to see that the emphasis on knockabout comedy and farce, (the programme indicated a debt to the commedia dell’arte) pushed several of the supporting roles, such as Hortensio, Gremio and Tranio, into far greater prominence. Drawing inspiration from silent movies and Hollywood swashbucklers, the various suitors circled each other when they met, declaiming their threats with dastardly pomp. Sean Kearns as Hortensio was particularly strong in this respect, almost a villain with his deep voice and narrowed eyes. Lucentio, by contrast, was the ‘hero’ of the piece, the orchestra playing a swelling theme to accompany his heroic stance as he gazed into the distance after the receding Bianca – no cliché went unused. Most amusing were the accents adopted by characters as they disguised themselves to further their plans. Lucentio became Welsh and Hortensio became Northern, but Keir Charles’ Tranio stole the show as the fake Lucentio with a ludicrously false and exaggerated plummy London gent accent so bad that every time he opened his mouth he drew all attention onto himself. This was only topped for gusto by Larrington Walker who, as a black English Pedant, reverted to a shocking Jamaican stereotype when pretending to be Vincentio, which Biondello and Tranio were then forced to adopt in turn. Horribly un-PC, but the energy and sheer ridiculousness of what we were witnessing earned Walker a spontaneous round of applause from a delighted audience.

Subtlety was not a factor here. Bianca, played by Amara Khan, was another male fantasy figure, the demure yet slyly sexual girl in a pink dress with overspilling cleavage that Lucentio couldn’t keep his eyes off. Upon finally coming together, any pretence at romance was dismissed and the two engaged in a distasteful and unfunny montage of sexual positions just offstage while Hortensio and Tranio withdrew their stakes. Biondello drew most of his laughs from a habit of running into walls and the real Vincentio, played by the elderly Leonard Fenton, shrugged off the officers who tried to arrest him by suddenly turning into a casual martial arts expert and throwing the officers across the stage. It was crude and occasionally offensive, but all conducted with an unabashed enthusiasm and shamelessness that saved the show.

Against this farcical backdrop was set Petruchio and Kate’s story, which took a very different tone. Michelle Gomez’s Kate was an isolated and hurt figure, who lashed out at her father for lavishing his attention on Bianca. Her extreme violence to the men around her came across as a response to what she perceived as neglect. Petruchio, meanwhile, was a more sophisticated version of Sly, walking with a pronounced swagger. Their first meeting instantly declared how the relationship would develop. Kate reacted violently to Petruchio’s words, and Petruchio responded through physical restraint. However much she kicked and struggled, Petruchio repeatedly overpowered her and bore her down. Gomez in particular excelled here. Her face showed genuine panic and fear when restrained and helpless, but as soon as she broke free she reverted to her usual defence mechanisms of violence and withering put-downs. Petruchio remained calm throughout, breaking down her strength as he physically forced himself upon her. The struggle of a woman to maintain the independent strength so important to her was a powerful one.

Kate’s attempts to test the limits of Petruchio’s patience were repeatedly rebuffed. In a rare moment of on-stage quiet, Kate asked him to stay for the wedding dinner “If you love me”. The onlookers on stage fell deadly silent as they watched Petruchio slowly walk towards her as if to kiss her, before pulling away at the final moment and robbing her of even a small victory. Upon removal to the country his cruelty worsened, leaving Kate crawling faintly on the floor in a dirty smock. The treatment was mirrored in Petruchio’s appalling violence towards Grumio, an excellent and disturbed Will Beck, who was often left bleeding or vomiting on the floor after Petruchio’s attacks. The abuse of Kate was upsetting and Morrison, so keen to provoke elsewhere, pulled no punches in getting his message across. Petruchio’s treatment of his wife was simply cruel and abhorrent.

The final famous speech delivered before the dinner party began calmly, but as Kate continued she became more tired and defeated-looking, a shadow of her former self. Petruchio then kissed her forcibly, but she didn’t respond and instead simply went limp. This horrible sight impacted far more than her words, and was immediately followed up to its extreme. As the play drew to its close, Petruchio then laid Kate down on the floor and started undressing himself while she lay still unresponsive. This moment, bordering on rape, became too much, and the players finally broke out of their performance, pushing Sly off the actress playing Kate and packing up the entire set, removing it back into their truck. Sly himself had his robes removed and was left alone onstage, almost naked and shivering (an ending lifted, along with several other elements of the show, from Propeller's 2006 production.

This deeply uncomfortable ending, while on one level showing Petruchio receive a sort of comeuppance by losing his lordly title, threw up several problems. Why was Petruchio allowed to steer events so far? Why did the actors only intervene at this stage, rather than earlier in the abuse of Kate? Why did the Lady’s household all go with the players into their truck? And was Kate meant to be an actress, the Hostess of the induction or a real ‘Kate’? The framing device in many ways spoiled the play, raising several awkward questions about the nature of the inner play as a performance that weren’t addressed by the director.

This was a shame, as the inner play in itself was an interesting and sometimes insightful piece that demonstrated, by negative example, the evils of domestic abuse while also providing moments of enjoyable and riotous comedy. The performers put in an enormous amount of hard work and energy, and were rewarded by an extremely appreciative audience who laughed throughout. It had serious problems, but those problems are ripe for ongoing discussion and didn’t take away from the fact that it was an entertaining three hours in the theatre.

This review originally appeared at Shakespeare Revue.

May 27, 2008

Streets Ahead @ Liverpool

Having only just escaped Belfast's Festival of Fools, I thought that would probably be my random street theatre festival for the year. Nope, for having gone to Liverpool for the Walker Gallery's exhibition Art in the Age of Steam, I found myself slap in the middle of another one. Only this was HUGE, with performances happening every few metres down Liverpool's main shopping streets. This was the Streets Ahead leg of the CAPITAL of Culture programme, again bringing in performances from all over to assault pedestrians and create a carnival atmosphere. There are pictures and reports available at the Liverpool Arts blog.

I didn't stay to watch anything, partly because we were too busy going between the exhibition and the new Indiana Jones movie (don't bother, it's all about aliens). On principle, though, I think this kind of event is a fabulous idea - not for the quality of the individual shows, which are almost by necessity incredible variable, but for the atmosphere it creates in a town area. The impact of upsetting the everyday routine, of confronting people on their shopping trips with in-yer-face art and theatre, generates a unique atmosphere. Whether people love or hate it, it focuses the communal attention, creates shapes out of the formless mass of people and provides a talking point. It would take a lot for me to go out of my way to participate, but it's great that these carnivals are with us and drawing such big crowds.

May 26, 2008

The Glass Menagerie @ The Royal Exchange

Saturday night saw my first visit to Manchester's Royal Exchange Theatre, which I hope to revisit next month for a new production of Middleton's Revenger's Tragedy. This visit was for the final night of Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie, a production which has been hugely acclaimed by the press. I'm not overly familiar with Williams, my only real experience being the film version of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, so I was hugely looking forward to seeing a decent staging of his work, and luckily wasn't disappointed - Braham Murray's production lived up to the hype.

The Exchange itself was a wonderful space, a dynamic and exciting environment. Completely and unapologetically in the round, Simon Higlett's set created the flat in which all the action took place on a simple sloped square platform, furniture arranged in various corners to imply separate rooms. Towards the bottom of the slope, the floorboards became bleached and bare, reflected in the furniture - the dining room table was deep brown at one end and bleached into white at the other. Wear and decay encroached onto the space which they still tried to make a home. While functional, the staging also remained subtly suggestive. At the bleached end, shelving units sank into the ground, disappearing from view. Flowers from the garden encroached through broken floorboards at another side, and in one corner hung the spectacular glass menagerie, hundreds of tiny glass animals stretching up from a dresser right up into the lighting rig. The lack of walls meant that the photograph of the absent father was projected in enormous scale onto the floor, dominating the stage whenever he was mentioned. In another corner, a balcony overhung the stage, the terrace from which Tom Wingfield, the son of the family, narrated and addressed the neon sign of the distant club that hung tantalisingly out of reach.

Tom, played with a compelling nervous energy by Mark Arends, controlled the production as a fragment of his own memory, stage-managing the piece by clicking his fingers for lighting cues (and Johanna Town's spectacular lighting design deserves mention here, picking out rooms and locations on the set and creating beautiful effects such as the mirrorball lighting that accompanied the climactic waltz). His narration, slightly desperate in its pleas to us, excellently conveyed the pressure and panic he felt at being forced to work in a job he despised to support a family he wanted to escape from. Arends provided the energy that propelled the production, constantly disrupting and questioning, moving quickly in a world where everyone else moved slowly, and always reaching for the world beyond the confines of the stage.

Yet the stage was the whole world of this production, and it was dominated by Tom's mother Amanda, played to terrifying perfection by Brenda Blethyn. Blethyn captured the saccharine horror of Amanda, the Southern mother from hell. On the square stage, Amanda reigned supreme, organising and tidying, planning and plotting and never letting anyone get a word in. The scenes between her and Tom crackled with tension as she plucked the newspaper out of his hand, removed the typewriter page he was typing, fussed around him and gave him no space to stretch. Inevitably these encounters ended with Tom springing into life, bouncing up the stairs to go to 'the movies'.

Blethyn's performance towered over the production, dominating it in the way that Amanda herself dominated the lives of her family. Longing for a past long since gone, her every energy was devoted to creating the perfect life for herself and her family - a life that bore no resemblence to that her children wanted. Constantly dwelling on times past, and in the second act trying to actively relive them by donning her old dress, Amanda provided an inescapable drag that turned the flat into its own, self-contained world that had increasingly little relevance to the world outside, and it was this drag that Tom fought.

Tom's sister Laura, on the other hand, played with sad innocence by Emma Hamilton, was unable to even try to resist the effect of her mother, and in the first act was a crushed and terrified young woman. Although we heard of her wandering in the park, Hamilton's performance showed Laura as unable to move any further than the few square metres of the apartment. Allowing herself to be entirely constructed by her mother, and only finding escape in the moments she spent with her glass animals, Laura provided a constant reminder of the power of her mother to crush away individuality, the power that Tom fought.

The build-up over the first act, particularly through Amanda's constant quest for a 'gentleman caller' for Laura, led to the fascinating second act, where Andrew Langtree's Jim O'Connor was introduced into the home. Blethyn's performance, already excellent, cranked up a notch with the fulfilment of her hopes in Jim's arrival, becoming sickeningly false and manipulative as she manouvered the three youngsters. Yet the beauty came in Jim and Laura's long scene together, as the two talked and she was drawn out by his insights. Langtree balanced Jim's confidence and tenderness expertly, never letting the character become too nice but also never stretching his sickening confidence to an unbearable point. As the pair came to waltz, Laura's movements becoming gradually more fluid and graceful, the production reached a transcendent point, ruined at its climax by their breaking of Laura's favourite glass unicorn. Their subsequent kiss was a perfect moment, utterly still and quiet and one could see Laura finally finding her own confidence, only to have it crushed by Jim's awkward admission of his own engagement in a cruel moment of theatre- just as she had finally found her escape, it was taken away from her.

The play's climax found one final moment of power. As Tom and Amanda began yet another argument about the former's inability to bring home a suitable suitor, it seemed it would go on as normal, but suddenly Blethyn's voice switched and a sound hitherto unheard erupted from her, a scream of rage and disappointment that cut through all notions of fraudulence, a scream that showed she knew, deep down, that her days were over. In the face of this, as he flew out the door, Tom smashed a glass at her feet. That final act, the lights simultaneously cutting, effectively ended the play on a moment of destruction and violence. Tom's closing narration, almost in tears over the guilt at leaving his sister in that permanently disappointed state, left no doubt as to their fates - permanent guilt for him, perpetual lack of change for his sister and mother.

It's a brilliant play, and this production was beautiful and crushing, with four powerful performances. If only one complaint, it's that the accents occasionally wandered a bit, which distracted slightly, but it's an unimportant gripe in a production that was so compelling. 

Underground and Cargo @ Millburn House

Last Friday saw the official opening of the new premises for Warwick's School of Theatre, Performance and Cultural Policy Studies in Millburn House, where I'm also based. The wine flowed, the food was demolished and the School hosted a series of performances and installations by a variety of theatre practitioners. It was a good, varied day and I managed to get to a couple of events.

First was Motionhouse Dance Theatre, the Leamington-based dance company, who presented their new touring piece Underground. Unfortunately the poor weather meant it took place in a Rehearsal Room, leading to apologies from the company manager beforehand owing to the cramped space. The tight surroundings, though, actually benefitted a piece whose primary concern was claustrophobia. On a small frame structure, four performers enacted the discomfort, unease and fear of a tube journey over an impressive and entertaining half hour. Twisting, swinging and flipping around the beams, shaking the structure back and forth and ripping through the cling film that initially covered the gaps in the frame, the physical dexterity of the dancers, particularly at such close quarters, was breathtaking to watch.

The themes and ideas that came out of the various movements were equally fascinating. One whole section, after the frenetic opening, saw the exhausted dancers leaning and falling asleep on each other, spinning away and swinging from the overhead bars from one side of the 'carriage' to another. Most powerful was a section set to Placebo's Meds that saw one dancer emerge as a character suffering a form of withdrawal, clutching at his head, curling up and lashing out, while the other three dancers edged around the carriage trying to keep away from him. The piece culminated in a section based around pickpocketing, ending as a case burst open and threw a shower of poppies into the air and over the audience. The whole show tapped fascinatingly into the day to day business of travel on the underground, bringing up issues regarding the suspicion and paranoia with which we regard the strangers we are forced into proximity with.

The Plasticine Men were one of the evening's two closing acts with Cargo. Its position in the schedule immediately after the wine reception prevents me from providing a particularly thorough or insightful interpretation of the performance, but the three performers (Simon Day and Chris and Matt Gunter) created a bizarre and very funny hour of devised randomness. The relatively coherent opening, two men adrift on a raft in search of a mythical figure, while a scouse shark swam around them mouthing off to the audience about how 'ard 'e was, set the tone, and the scenes that followed conjured a surreal Lord-of-the-Flies-type world where half-literate men hunted a football that snorted like a pig, sat impatiently through a church service and, at the last, faced the American war machine. I wasn't familiar with the stories of 'Cargo Cults' that were being referenced, but the themes were clear enough and the storytelling techniques employed - from little toy captain-suits suspended under an actor's face to the simple re-use of just a couple of palletes and boxes to move the action around the south Pacific - were never less than inventive.

Plus, it was all free! 

May 23, 2008

To Be Straight With You @ Warwick Arts Centre

To Be Straight With You, the new show by DV8 Physical Theatre playing at Warwick Arts Centre this week, is one of the very few shows I've seen that has specifically dealt with an issue I feel very passionately about, in this case the relationship between homophobia and religion. As well as being a deeply evocative and sensitive issue that raises the most crucial questions relating to human rights regarding both sexual freedom and religious freedom, I've also always been frustrated at the hate and prejudice at both ends of the spectrum, and especially at the assumption that, because fundamentalist Christian groups preach hatred against homosexuality, that all other Christians are therefore also homophobic. Finally, having had several gay Christian friends while growing up, I've always had a lot of empathy for the struggle of people trying to reconcile natural sexual preference and strong religious beliefs while being told by those around them that those elements are mutually exclusive.

The pre-show talk with director Lloyd Newson further roused my interest. DV8's past work has been very focussed on body and movement, to the point of occasionally being described (erroneously) as a dance company. Newson's admission that, as he got older, he found text a more useful means of communication and was in this production using text as his primary medium therefore indicated at an interesting direction for the company. In addition, Newson's stories of the research conducted - interviews from which the text was constructed and the selection of events which had prompted this piece - were a fascinating introduction to the issues tackled. One of the best pre-show talks I've ever attended, absolutely absorbing.

Then, the show itself. I'll confess my slight disappointment first, in that the format - story after story, constructed from real interviews and delivered directly to the audience by actors speaking the voices - was pretty much exactly that used by several companies, notably Out of Joint with The Permanent Way and Talking to Terrorists (though less so with Testing the Echo). It's a very effective, possibly the most effective, way of delivering this kind of material, but took away somewhat from the uniqueness of DV8's work. However, this disappointment was only slight, as the combination of format with exquisitely choreographed movement elevated the production far beyond OOJ's work and created a very original piece.

Rather than creating a through narrative, the production was content to move rapidly from place to place, story to story. A fluidly moving set took us into a DJ booth, a city street, a mosque, a house, an office. While everyone interviewed was British-based, the outlook was truly global with many of the characters immigrants fleeing persecution in other countries. Against these varied locations were positioned more abstract moments - a man standing behind a projected globe, spinning it around as he showed the places where gay people faced death or imprisonment, a man wandering through a projected comic-strip, a pair of women whose heads were only visible at the start, but then had the rest of their bodies sketched in electronically. The projections weren't just technical wizardry for its own sake, though, but contributed to an overall aesthetic that sketched and collated the ideas and viewpoints as they were raised, most explicity demonstrated in the huge blackboard that regularly reappeared on which were drawn diagrams, insults and arrows to physically illustrate the relationships being discussed.

The movement, far more subtle than in previous productions, was designed to add a complementary level to the words spoken by the characters. Sometimes this was as simple as a rocking from side to side when a character was displaying ambivalence. In one beautiful scene, where a gay man expressed his love of dancing, he and a silent shadow danced in reflection of and around each other. One woman simply span on the spot for a breathtakingly long time as a voiceover spoke of confusion and fear. Most powerfully, the story of a teenage boy who came out to his Muslim family and was later stabbed by his father was told by a man who skipped throughout, speeding up and slowing down as his mood and vocal pace fluctuated.

Commendably, the company had assembled a huge range of viewpoints, from fundamentalists to human rights activists, immigrants to clerics. Most effective were the many stories of gay individuals dealing with their families, their religious beliefs and the violence they had encountered on account of their sexuality. While many of the extreme views and global statistics were voiced at the start, the production gradually moved on to the simple stories of individuals learning to cope, and the final story was particularly moving. A young man, religious and gay, who had no stories of violence or persecution but simply wanted to fall in love and had adopted his own rules and lifestyle which he just wanted to share with someone. After the violent politics and graphic horrors of earlier stories, to finish on such a calm and sad note was hugely effective.

As always with this kind of show, it was the research and the stories that stood out, with the movement and visual aesthetic functioning primarily to get these stories across. Yet the design and choreography was sublime, beautiful without being showy, and the skills of all the performers were astonishing. Particularly in the more graphic moments, such as the couple of staged physical assaults on homosexuals, the timing of the movement to create a dance piece that still looked and felt like a genuine attack demonstrated their technical ability, while the emotional expressiveness came out in moments such as the human rights campaigner who was turned around and upside down by his boyfriend, before the two simply held hands.

A fascinating and beautiful show, that raised important questions and was terrifyingly informative. Key to the whole piece was the belief that, while on the surface tolerance and rights for homosexuals exist in this country, in practice these are still dangerous and volatile times. Shocking, but educational.

A final thought which fascinated me, this time regarding the audience. Throughout the production, offensive and provocative terms for homosexuals were used, particularly in the music of homophobic reggae where names such as 'Batty Boy' were frequently heard with no noticable reaction from the audience. Yet at one point a cast member used the word 'nigger', at which there was an audible gasp. It fascinated me that, despite the subject matter and awareness raised in both the pre-show talk and show itself, the audience were able to stand incredibly offensive words for homosexuals but that a racially offensive word seemed to cross a line. Perhaps this made its own individual point about where we stand in relation to the two issues?

May 21, 2008


University members can log in to see a review of an internal educational production of Tom Stoppard's Arcadia.

May 10, 2008

4:48 Psychosis @ The CAPITAL Centre

A digression to start with. Michael Billington famously said of Sarah Kane's final play, 4:48 Psychosis, "How do you review a 75 minute suicide note?". I take his point, you can't review a suicide note. But 4:48 Psychosis isn't one. It's a piece of theatre, a distressing and uncomfortably real one perhaps, but theatre nonetheless. It has characters and text, it requires cast and director, space and audience. Once staged, in the same way as, say, The Phoenix and the Turtle was staged, a text becomes theatre and can - and should - be reviewed as such.

It's rare, perhaps impossible, to find discussion of 4:48 that doesn't dwell on the suicide of its author before the play's first production. I mention it only to consciously attempt to dissociate the play from the event. Kane's death was tragic, but I've always felt that a production of a play should be about the text and the company's interpretation, not about the author or the original context in which the play appeared. I'm interested in Kane's work, not Kane herself.

It's a popular play among students. On top the Kent production that won an award at the National Student Drama Festival this year come two performances at the CAPITAL Centre , directed by Stu Denison and performed by Rose Biggin. The interest is easy to understand: the challenging issues raised, the demands on a performer in what is essentially an hour-long monologue, and the text's openness to interpretation, having little in the way of stage directions or instructions. It's a powerful and moving piece, and an essential piece - in text or performance - for anyone interested in the mental and performative processes of depression.

Denison's production was gimmick-free. A patchwork floor made up of criss-crossing lines and diagonals echoed the movements, focussed or meandering, that Biggin made as she moved around the stage. A desk and chair at the back sat under an enormous noticeboard covered in sketches, numbers, words and jottings. In its sparsity, the CAPITAL Studio became a cell in which Biggin was trapped, occasionally looking up in a momentary delight at a spotlight as a 'hatch opened'. Pacing around her confines, the sense of entrapment that her mental state enforced upon her was keenly felt.

Biggin gave a solid and committed performance as the nameless woman, a performance relentless in its anger and frustration. Continually distracted, she sometimes rocked on the spot, sometimes strode purposefully only to stop short, sometimes scribbled frantically on pads, sometimes curled up in pain. The impression given was of a physical manifestation of the mental state that accompanies depression, the never-ending pain and disjointed thought processes. Always in Biggin's eyes was a haunted expression, and however hard she tried to stay calm or talk rationally she would soon end up clutching at her stomach again or raising her voice to a shout.

The character's education and verbal facility were apparent throughout, which led her to not only experience her feelings, but to attempt to articulate and perform them as well. One scene in particular, as she described the various effects of her different medications, particularly showcased this as she sped up and slowed down her delivery according to the various symptoms she described, while also wryly describing the murderous feelings towards doctors and drug-makers they inspired in her. At another time she enacted a farewell speech, bowing to the audience in mock adulation.

Even in these moments, though, the anger and bitterness still dominated. There was a great amount of humour in the text, but always delivered with a clear bite. I was actually quite disappointed by this, as there were moments when exploring the comedy may have deepened the impact of the rest of the play. In one crucial moment, the character said that one of the things she liked about the doctor was that he laughed at her gallows humour. It would have been great to see more of this, to explore the possibilities within the text that allow the performer to go beyond angry and depressed. In trying to conjure the feeling of depression, the way in which a person actually acts while depressed was slightly lost. Biggin wore her trauma on her sleeve, which let us know how she was feeling but often ignored the possibilities apparent in the text for exploring the comedic personas, quack diagnosticians and self-deprecating wit that she talked about. It's not a wrong decision - my feeling was that one facet of her character was explored in great depth and detail, but that there may have been greater possibilities for variety.

The only other 'character' that emerged in this production was a doctor, voiced by Denison via a microphone. These moments served as a welcome relief from Biggin's monologues, usually involving her sitting at her desk and answering him calmly. Denison's voice contrasted well with Biggin's, a peaceful and human voice that cut through the monologue and brought a reason to the narrative that both calmed and exacerbated the situation at the same time, Biggin's character understanding his approach but lashing out against the attempts to diagnose or treat her. However, in the doctor's last voiceover, he became suddenly emotional, describing his need for sanity and normality in his friends and family. This felt awkward, inappropriate. More to the point, it didn't sound like something the doctor would say at all, based on his professionalism hitherto. They sounded like words that the patient had put into his mouth, in order to justify her own detachment from him, and the sudden change in these final moments felt like an inconsistency.

This production did well what it seemed to be trying to do, and Biggin should be commended for her performance. I think there were possibilities to be more ambitious, but ultimately what shone through was the text, a powerful piece of writing on a raw issue.

The Festival of Fools in Belfast

I was in Belfast last week for my younger brother's wedding, and had a bit of time spare for a day exploring the city. This was May 4th, right in the middle of Belfast's Festival of Fools, which sees performers come from around the world for several days of street performances and happenings.

I didn't get a chance to stop and watch any individual performances, but in many ways I'm glad I didn't. What I got instead was a day of walking round the city and having several random encounters with bizarre people - overheard shouts, men in crazy costumes, a small group here crowded round a tightrope, a cowboy over there entertaining children. It was a fascinating festival, with an almost guerilla feel - events weren't signposted, there weren't any 'Festival of Fools' banners or billboards, there was just entertainment happening around every corner.

A few that I caught were Leaping Louie, the aforementioned cowboy, Pete Sweet, another American who was winding up his tightrope/unicycle climax when we passed, the extremely funny Edmund Tahl, carrying a suitcase which periodically let off bloodcurdling screams causing him to run down the street, and the irritating St Joan's Ambulance, a pair of faux medics who interrupted our bus tour.

I only mention the Festival because it's under threat, having been unable to secure funding for next year. It seems a real shame, as from what I saw of the Festival it was a fun and highly interesting undertaking, that was genuinely engaging people of all ages in free theatre. I only hope that some private sponsors step up, as it would be very sad for Belfast to lose it.

May 09, 2008

Boris Gudonov @ Warwick Arts Centre

The last couple of months of my life have been very dominated by Russian history. After seeing Shared Experience's War and Peace I almost immediately began reading the book. Seven weeks later, I finished it last weekend (it's good, I recommend it!) and celebrated only a couple of days later with Cheek by Jowl's production of Pushkin's Boris Gudonov, a production that has been around for a good few years but is now back in the UK.

Thankfully, Boris is a far more simple story than Tolstoy's epic, and although an understanding of terms like 'boyars' was useful, this was a universally recognisable tale of politics, treachery and change, with resonances of Richard III (the programme confirms that Pushkin was reading a great amount of Shakespeare at the time) throughout. The story may have been a simple and familiar one, but in Declan Donnellan's capable hands it also became a beautiful piece of lovingly-crafted theatre.

Performed in traverse on the Arts Centre theatre stage, the set was a simple long raised block running the length of the stage, on which the play was entirely performed (save for the occasional peasant running alongside on the lower levels). The long thin stage worked perfectly for the company's stunning use of space and distance - conversations would often take place between two people at opposite ends, across tableauxs of frozen actors. Just as important as the conversation itself were the other physical elements that fell between the participants as they moved. In the early treasonous conversations between the courtiers, they moved freely around the stage while Boris Gudonov himself, the subject of their mutterings, also roamed. Every time they encountered him the courtiers would smile, slap hands, engage in little games, but always continuing their plotting, thereby emphasising the duplicitous nature of their roles. The combination of the physical and the textual throughout yielded similar rewards, creating something beautiful and exciting even out of the more mundane moments.

The production located itself in a contemporary version of Russia, where the scheming politicians wore suits and the ball became an off-stage disco. Yet the stage was also filled with monks and priests of the Russian Orthodox Church, their robes and habits lending the production a strange sense of timelessness. Donnellan and Nick Ormerod's Russia was a modern one that placed a great deal of power and faith in its oldest institutions, and the amount of time spend on ritual - the ceremonial crowning of the Tsar, the death rites, the opening prayers - all conjured a sense of the system that was being disrupted, for better or worse, by the machinations of politicians.

Alexander Feklistov, so good in Three Sisters and Twelfth Night, excelled in the title role as the Tsar clinging on to his position. In moments of guilt at the murder of the true heir, he was particularly compelling, only finding peace in inhaling deeply on his ever-present cigarettes, calming his increasingly manic rants. Tortured by the image of a wandering child with a lit candle, the ghostly Dmitri he had murdered, he clung to his own son ( both played byt he excellent Nikita Lukinsarovitch) in a mixture of paternal care and troubled penance. The entire struggle came down to this child, the innocent heir to the throne: as Boris died, he refused the last rites in order to finish remaking his son in his own image, and the child (now dressed in ludicrously oversized robes) became the new focus of the suited nobles. The report of the child's eventual suicide was upsetting, yet the pressure exerted on him throughout by his father seemed to leave no other alternative.

In opposition to Gudonov came Evgeny Mironov's Grigori Otrepyev, the young monk who realises he is the same age as the murdered heir would have been and poses as him in order to fulfil his own ambitions. Grigori was a fascinating character, the scourge (like Richmond) destined to destroy the usurper, but motivated solely by ambition and greed. Other than the murdering of children, Mironov's Grigori was no better than Boris, yet a compelling anti-hero. In one key scene, he grabbed a microphone and met the soldiers flocking to his cause in the manner of a game-show host, presenting his entire campaign as a combination of light entertainment and political rally. He constantly hid behind facades, whether with his soldiers or his peers.

Which led us to the central scene, the magnificent negotiation between Grigori and Marina Mnishek, played by Irina Grineva. This one scene brought Grigori to the brink of destruction yet left him stronger than ever, and the journey undergone by the two characters in this one encounter was extraordinary. Marina was unashamedly drawn to Grigori by his status and power, yet Grigori had genuinely fallen in love with her. In an attempt to cast off his facades, he admitted his falsehoods and asked her to accept him as he was, which of course she didn't, condemning him as pathetic and threatening to denounce him. The two parried across a pool of water, revealed under a trapdoor in the stage, occasionally flicking it over each other or washing their hands. At other times they clawed at each other's clothes, eager for different reasons to consolidate their relationship. Her manipulation, and his sudden honesty, made for a fascinating transference of power as he quite literally handed himself over to her, laying himself completely bare and leaving her standing over him in mockery, while he fell on the floor in agony over his stupidity.

But then, he dipped his head in the fountain. When he emerged, all had changed. He had realised that the facade was far more valuable to him than his own person, and he found a new confidence in himself with that realisation. Dismissing her as inessential and a disappointment, the audience could see him taking back his power and becoming stronger than ever, to the point where she called him back as he walked off. In the final movement of the scene, the power finally became balanced, both of them accepting his usurped name and authority and contracting themselves to each other, on the condition of his coup's success. The scene, made beautiful by its dim lighting and the ripples of water, was a superb demonstration of the skill of both actors and director.

Amongst the bad eggs, Dmitry Shcherbina stood alone as a relatively noble figure, Grigori's loyal lieutenant Kurbsky. At his introduction, in the showbiz entertainment scene, he was embarrassed and noble, speaking his short lines quietly and deeply and bringing gravitas to a minor role. The acting was uniformly excellent, and even held attention while the audience tried to follow the text on surtitles.

This is the third production I've seen by the Russian wing of Cheek by Jowl, and I'm thrilled every time at their work. It's spellbinding theatre, and the life they bring to their chosen texts is revelatory. Pushkin's play itself didn't particularly stand out to me as a classic, but Cheek by Jowl made it one.

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Peter Kirwan is Teaching Associate in Shakespeare and Early Modern Drama at the University of Nottingham and a reviewer of Shakespearean theatre for several academic journals.

The Bardathon is his experimental review blog, covering productions of (or based on) all early modern plays. The aim is to combine immediate reactions with the detail and analysis of the academic review.

Theatre criticism always needs more voices. Please comment with your own views and contributions!

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