May 14, 2009

Spring Awakening, Novello Theatre, 28 March 2009

With a long string of five star reviews and eight Tony awards for the production on Broadway, expectations for the new production of Spring Awakening at the Novello Theatre have been built sky high, and rightly so. Whipping out microphones as mouthpieces for the inner turmoil, trials and tribulations of teenage existence, the cast, the majority of whom are making their professional stage debuts, do great justice to the characters and to all youths who have faced repressive forces over the ages. The show is recommended for audiences aged 14 +.

Based on the play by Frank Wedekind, and directed by Michael Mayer, Spring Awakening tells the story of a group of teenagers’ lives, set against the backdrop of the German educational system at the end of the 19th century. Wedekind depicts this system in which he was educated, where students were subject to scrupulous discipline and the suicide rate amongst school children was increasingly on the rise.

Aneurin Barnard as Melchior is outstanding, striking a balance between sensitive and intelligent schoolboy and sex-teaching, arse-whipping rebel. Marvellously accompanied by Charlotte Wakefield as Wendla, he embarks on a journey of coming of age encumbered by issues such as teenage pregnancy, abortion and suicide. But by no means does this turn the show into an exhibition of teenage angst. With lyrics by Steven Sater and music by Duncan Sheik, the sound of indie rock blended with beautiful and powerful voices from the cast creates a powerfully raw spectacle. There are many songs that will have you banging your heads and have your body pumping to the rhythm of the guitar with songs like ‘Totally Fucked’ and ‘The Bitch of Living’. Iwan Rheon as Moritz is excellent as a tortured soul; his smooth yet rough rock voice, leg stamping and jumps all contribute to an electrifying performance (that stems from his electrified spiky hairdo!).

Christine Jones’ set design places us within a school gymnasium with pictures on the back brick wall and a raised platform is the space in which the characters’ stories unfold. Surrounding the platform are seats for audience members among which the actors disperse, rest and even sing. The lighting by Kevin Adams is excellent with neon strips and coloured bulbs glowing over the audience. The on-stage band resides at the back kindling a potential energy, drawing the audience in and propelling the actors and the story from their launch pad into the hearts and minds of the audience.

With emotional, heartfelt and enormously energetic performances, Spring Awakening indeed deserves the great amount of praise it has received. With an excellent young cast, head banging tunes, and teenage frustrations and passions displayed through song and dance, this musical has great resonance that targets the heart of our society today. It encapsulates brilliantly those riotous anarchic feelings that we as youths have towards oppressive figures of authority; if you are or have ever been a teenager, then this show is for you.

Dido Queen of Carthage, National Theatre, 24 March 2009

Anastasia Hille carries the weight of this epic tragedy, magnificently playing the title role in Dido Queen of Carthage. Although Queen Dido occupies a relatively small part of the hero Aeneas' journey in Virgil's Aeneid, there is no wonder why she features in Christopher Marlowe's adaptation of the epic poem. Dido is a passionate, loveable, fiery tragic heroine whose story does not fail to transcend time and capture audiences' hearts across the ages.

Dido welcomes Aeneas who has been shipwrecked on her land and, provoked by the gods, falls in love with him. He returns her love but leaves her to continue his journey in the founding of the Roman Empire. Dido is left in a frenzied state and ultimately commits suicide.

The set is an open space covered in blue and purple sand and there is a large screen of the same colour and a breadth of yellow curtain that is lifted and lowered using the fly system. At its highest point the yellow curtain is used as a backdrop to the world of the gods, their separation from the world below and their dominant position demonstrating their power over the mortals on earth. Down on the floor the curtain is used to reveal a forest, a cave and the lovers' bed.

Marlowe's text is wonderful, creating vivid images and passionate relationships, and director James Macdonald keeps the action simple focusing the audience on the language. Storytelling becomes a feature, with Aeneas played by Mark Bonnar delivering the story of the siege of Troy around a feast on the floor with dimmed lights and candles. The episode is quite long and at three hours the play could perhaps do with some variety in pace, however the scenes between the gods come as great interludes.

Siobhan Redmond as the goddess Venus is sensual and sparkles in her elegant costumes and the young Theo Stevenson is excellent as Cupid. Their interaction along with Susan Engel as Juno is funny and playful, providing a contrast to the darker aspects of the tragedy.

Macdonald's production stays true to and is a testament to Marlowe's text, and his use of theatrical devices come together in a classic telling of an epic story. What is truly compelling is the journey that Dido makes, from being a dignified hospitable queen to a wretched dishevelled woman doused in petrol and with a match poised in her hand...

Kafka's Monkey, Young Vic, 20 March 2009

Engaging, entertaining, and with an evolutionary spin, Kathryn Hunter shines in ‘Kafka’s Monkey’ at the Young Vic Theatre.

Based on Franz Kafka’s ‘A Report to an Academy’ and adapted by Colin Teevan for the stage, the play tells the story of an ape who has learnt the art of humanity in order to survive. He walks, talks, drinks and dances, and addresses us, the audience, telling us the journey of his transformation. Directed by Walter Meierjohann, this fifty minute long one-man (or woman) show is funny and intriguing as well as serious and thought provoking, and will leave you longing for more.

Fresh from directing the RSC’s Othello, Kathryn Hunter plays Red Peter, the ape, and is outstanding. Hunter was the first British actress to play King Lear in a professional production as well as playing Richard III. Here she leaps the gender barrier one hurdle further by playing an ape playing a man, and the result is a top-hatted monkey giving a top-notch performance. From the moment Hunter enters the studio space stage, she is enthralling. Her wide-eyed inquisitive expression so magnificently replicates the large projection of a monkey behind her that the audience gives a round of applause before she continues and moves into the space. The way that she moves is credit to movement director Ilan Reichel and it is entirely believable that Red Peter is a monkey who has learned to move like a man. Her voice is low and husky with jilted speech patterns indicating the difficulty of learning a language as an ape. With her right foot turned in and her right arm constantly held in a crooked manner, the human and the simian are merged together. Then we see a transformation where Red Peter delves back into his memory and shows us episodes of his life as an ape. Hunter squats down, knuckles on the floor, eyes wide and eyebrows raised in astonishingly ape-like physicality.

Director Meierjohann has struck an excellent balance between comedy and intense drama; one minute we laugh at Red Peter’s monkey antics and the next are compelled in silence. We see the ape trapped in a cage being spat on by men entirely removed from its natural habitat, and realise as Red Peter talks of being watched that it is exactly what we, the ‘Members of the Academy’, are doing now. We are led to wonder whether it is a good thing that human beings have evolved and how far we really have progressed when learning to drink rum is a sign of the ape becoming human.

Overall this is a stellar production of a new play, marvellously carried by Kathryn Hunter. Be prepared to be greeted by the monkey who comes out into the audience; if you are especially lucky you may have a flea picked out of your hair or be given a banana! The play has a great playful energy to it that is contrasted with more dark and intense drama that makes this a production to remember.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               

Busta Move Competition, Warwick University, 29 January 2009

On Sunday Warwick hosted ‘busta’ move’, an interuniversity dance-off, in TES as part of One World Week. The competition brought together many different students and many different styles culminating in what was a dazzling dance extravaganza.

Five trophies were up for grabs, with the categories of Hip-Hop, Bollywood, Salsa and Freestyle, and with competitors travelling from across the country it wasn’t going to be an easy fight. Battling it out were Imperial, Bristol, Oxford, Kings College London, Nottingham, Birmingham and of course Warwick University, and from the word go the atmosphere was rife with a healthy and friendly rivalry…

With the arrival of the guest judges - dance company ‘Dance 2XS’ and hip-hop violinist Miri Ben-Ari -, hundreds of adrenaline filled spectators and supporters, and the dimming of the lights, the competition kicked off. First on with the dancing shoes (well, sneakers) were the Hip-Hop crews, after which the Bollywood competitors shimmied on. A short interlude saw Dance 2XS perform a routine that inspired the remaining groups - the hip-shaking Salsa competitors and the Freestylers - to give it everything they had. All groups used a mixture of modern beats and tunes that had the audience itching to dance along, except for Oxford’s surprising performance in the Freestyle category. Oxford replaced recorded music using their own voices, singing and shouting as they stamped and clapped in their wellington boots producing interesting rhythms. Their combination of drama - acting as farm workers- their respective costumes and their own voices and bodies creating the sound, made it a unique performance. The sheer amount of energy and passion displayed by all Universities was phenomenal, and there was never a dull moment throughout the competition.

After a short wait, the judges took to the stage displaying the shining trophies ready to announce the winners. Silent suspense filled the TES and the first winners for the Hip-Hop section were announced… EQHO! The eruption of screams and cheers were loud enough to lift the roof as Warwick group EQHO took to the stage to receive their award. A very proud Emmanuel Ene, dance co-ordinator of the group, lifted the trophy with the nine performers beaming behind him. We spoke to Emmanuel who said that ‘I am extremely proud of EQHO, we have worked very hard choreographing and rehearsing the routine and it feels fantastic to receive something for our efforts.’ King’s College swept the board taking three trophies, for best Salsa and best Freestyle, and they also took the edge winning the Bollywood category. There was some speculation about their winning the Bollywood award because their choreography included a lot of hip-hop moves (the judges’ speciality) rather than pure Bollywood moves such as displayed by Warwick’s Bollywood Dance Society and Nottingham University. However King’s College were ecstatic with their wins.

The judges then announced a surprise award, producing a tall trophy for the best overall performance, and the award went to EQHO from Warwick University. EQHO took to the stage again in jubilation to receive the award and were truly elated by their success. Michael Boham, president of EQHO society, said ‘Thanks to everyone for their great support, we had a fantastic time competing with the other Universities and look forward to future competitions and performances’.

There were no losers in the competition, every group performed extremely well, and the mixture of different styles, moves, costumes and music made the whole event thoroughly successful and entertaining. Nimisha Mistry, student at Warwick and one of the organisers of the competition, said that ‘The event was a huge success for the first one that we have hosted. It brought together many different universities and showed what a great amount of talent there is out there. Let’s hope it continues and is as successful in years to come!’

If you missed the event and would like to see EQHO or the Bollywood Dance Society from Warwick perform, both groups are performing at One World Party and also at Pizazz which takes place on February 8th, Week 5.

Twelfth Night, Donmar Warehouse, 12 December 2008

Michael Grandage’s production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is like a volcanic cocktail. The mixture of excellent actors, a classic text and sound direction make for a thrilling evening of laughter and entertainment. For those who know the play well, this fresh production truly brings out the comedy of the play with delightful performances all round, and for those who don’t, this is a brilliant introduction to the play because the intricate plot is made thoroughly engaging through all aspects of the production.

The plot twists and turns spinning an ironic web of relationships: Orsino desperately loves Olivia, who falls in love with Orsino’s page - the cross-dressed Viola - who secretly loves Orsino. This impossible love triangle is made even more chaotic with the arrival of Viola’s twin brother Sebastian. Add the rowdy and drunk comic trio - Sir Toby, Sir Andrew and Maria, and the haughty steward Malvolio - and you have a recipe for great drama, comedy and revelry, all of which exude from Grandage’s production.

Perhaps the strength of Grandage’s direction has stemmed from his decision not to impose a specific concept on the piece; rather he lets the plot, characters and text speak for themselves. We are placed firmly in Illyria, and Christopher Oram’s set design with the rustic colour scheme of brown and gold along with dappled sunlight lighting effects creates a luxurious Mediterranean atmosphere. We are transported from inside to out with the simple use of a wall of flats lowered by the fly system, and we are also taken to a beach which is the setting for one of the best moments in the production. It is here that Sir Toby, Sir Andrew and Maria, played by Ron Cook, Samantha Spiro and Guy Henry respectively, hide behind a beach windbreaker to watch their wicked scheme unfold. Physical comedy is used to its best with the trio popping their heads up out from behind the windbreaker at odd angles, and the height difference of Cook and Henry continually provides slapstick comedy reminiscent of Laurel and Hardy.

Derek Jacobi gives a first-rate performance as Malvolio. He is full of self importance as Olivia’s butler, with a proud and pompous demeanour. His voice drawls like thick gravy pouring out of a shining silver dish, and he executes his lines with perfect timing. The moment where he gurns and grimaces, trying to produce a smile with great difficulty, is hilarious. Despite aiming to raise his social status, Malvolio’s social rank steadily deteriorates. This is shown as he moves from a pristine appearance in all black to wearing those famous bright yellow stockings and finally resolves in soiled clothing which, despite being humorous, also draws sympathy for the character.

The whole cast support and complement one another, and their play on stage makes the action fresh and alive. Through song and dance, comedy and love we are captivated and when we reach the final line of the play – ‘We’ll strive to please you every day’ - the sense of satisfaction is great. Through comedy and chaos and character clashes, Michael Grandage’s Twelfth Night does not fail to please.

Stig of the Dump, Tabard Theatre, 16 December 2008

Stig of the Dump at the Tabard Theatre makes for an all-round enjoyable night out with friendship, fun and adventure at its heart.

Clive King’s classic novel works well on stage with Russell Labey’s direction, and Jason Denvir’s excellent set design ensures that children and families are captivated by the production. This is not a pantomime but the aspects such as the Dame-like Gran played by a man, audience members calling out, and characters squirting us with a water gun give the production a pantomime feel that is perfect for a family evening of entertainment.

Arriving at the theatre itself begins to divulge the festive and magical atmosphere of the production, with the smell of mulled wine escaping from the pub downstairs, and fairy lights leading upstairs to the theatre. Entering the small studio space where you walk across the stage to get to your seats is like walking into Santa’s grotto that the title character Stig has ravaged and made his home.

Stig is a modern day caveman who eight-year-old Barney discovers when he falls into a chalk pit. They overcome the fact that they cannot communicate verbally, and form a strong friendship as they embark on a magical adventure. We also meet Barney’s sister and Gran, a trio of beat boxing rude-boys and Stig’s fellow cavemen, and this array of characters, played by the young and energetic multi-role playing cast, never fails to entertain.

The best laughs are raised not from the script but from physical anecdotes. The introduction between Barney and Stig with a mirroring of movement sequence, sticking their tongues out at each other and Stig returning Barney’s pat with a thump, triggers an uproar of laughter from the youngsters in the audience. Jonathan Ryan’s portrayal of Stig is convincing with his use of physicality, which has an ape-like quality as he squats on the floor, and his vocalisation that consists of an alphabet of grunts and noises. His excitement and rendition of ‘Ja jaah’ as Barney gives him some jam jars receives big laughs.

Denvir’s set is a feast for the eyes. There are two storeys: the upper level is Gran’s living room with a sofa and a pathway, and at the bottom is the most exciting arrangement of rubbish you could hope to see. When the trail of jam jars around the stage is lit by fairy lights, illuminating the collection of household objects, a magical quality and atmosphere is created. With broken umbrellas, a traffic cone, a teddy intertwined with chicken wire going up the wall and much, much more, you can sense the children longing to explore, and indeed in the interval they did!

Overall there is great energy from the cast, dancing, music and an atmospheric tribal climax to the adventure after which the characters wake up... Was it a dream? Was the adventure all in Barney’s imagination? Whatever the case Stig was alive in the children’s hearts and minds who happily bounded out of the theatre with their renditions of ‘Jaa Jaar, jaa jaar!’

The Woman in Black, Fortune Theatre, 25 September 2008

Deliciously provocative, emotionally thrilling and excellent in all aspects of design, it is no wonder that ‘The Woman in Black' has been running for 21 years.

In cinemas today we can watch macabre monsters, phantom fiends and ghouls galore, but we leave knowing that what we have seen is thanks to a huge budget and clever special effects. However, Robin Herford's production of ‘The Woman in Black' asks us to use our own imagination, and it is in the play's simplicity that it continues to compel, thrill and engage audiences.

Sitting in the stalls with a team of GCSE students in front of me, an elderly couple on my left and a middle aged woman on my right, I wonder how on earth this production is going to engage and thrill all of us. The first thing to note is that the space is extremely intimate. You feel as though you are very much part of the story and part of the action; the actors even walk through the audience at points. This enhances the reality and immediacy of the events taking place around us.

Arthur Kipps and The Actor played by Andrew Jarvis and Timothy Watson respectively are the characters with whom we embark on this theatrical journey.  Kipps wants the account of his ghoulish experience read with the help of The Actor to exorcise his frightful memory and nightmares. Set in a theatre, simple props are used to re-enact the tale to great effect. A wicker basket becomes many things including a bed, railway carriage, and pony and trap, and the use of recorded sound transports us to numerous settings. Watson is thoroughly engaging and Kipps transforms himself into many different characters. In the first half expect comedy and the charming development of the relationship between the characters.

After the interval prepare yourself for tension levels to explode. There are shockingly intense moments that had the students shrieking and hiding their eyes, the adults gasping then trying to look nonchalant, and me - well, I was trying to support my friend who was clinging onto me like her body was going to explode from the tension.

No matter what age you are, this will leave you feeling much more satisfied with yourself than if you watch a Hollywood thriller movie; you will work your imagination to an exciting extent and will have lived and breathed within the space of a truly unforgettable story.

To Be Straight With You, National Theatre, 31 October 2008

‘To Be Straight With You’ gets straight to the heart of the precarious relationship between homosexuality, religion and place. DV8 have delivered a masterful piece of verbatim theatre, which is informative and thought provoking in its subject matter, and astonishing in its physical and visual aspects.

Artistic director Lloyd Newson’s inspiration for the piece was his experience of walking down Brixton Road hand in hand with his male partner on a Gay Pride March and receiving hordes of abuse. Newson could not find a script or a suitable writer for his vision and therefore the use of verbatim theatre emerged. All of the words spoken in the play are taken from interviews and ‘vox pops’ with people such as such as Peter Tatchell and a Rastafarian, and though this eliminates a narrative, what emerges are episodic personal experiences that are touching and harrowing.

We not only hear but also see the stories and views of people, and this combination is certainly what makes the production so captivating. The stories are portrayed through the use of movement, with emotive gestures being extended to create dance sequences. On top of this the actors speak the words of their story. Actor Ankur Bahl deserves a special mention for his two unforgettable character portrayals. Firstly he plays an Asian boy from Hull, meticulously delivering his story of coming out as gay whilst performing unbelievable tricks with a skipping rope. He then performs an intricate classical Indian dance to the not-so-traditional Shakira’s ‘Hips Don’t Lie’. The delightful charm manifested in indeed many of the different stories serves in making the culmination of each all the more powerful.

This is political theatre, but we are not preached at. The extraordinary talent of the cast, the mesmerising visual effects and the scrupulously handled subject matter grip you, only releasing you after the 80 minute performance has ended. Even then you will be left with a ringing sense of outrage in your stomach, along with a burning marvel at what you have just witnessed. One not to be missed.

in–i, National Theatre, 19 September 2008

If you are not particularly interested in dance, then you might overlook the production of ‘in-i’ at the National’s Lyttleton Theatre. However with the experimental combination of masterful dancer/choreographer Akram Khan and Oscar award-winning actress Juliette Binoche, this is not simply dance, but a creative and exciting piece of theatre.

Co-directors and performers of the piece, Binoche and Khan explore the many-faceted theme of love as they entwine and embark on an emotional journey through their own relationships of the past. Their stories are conveyed through movement and speech - some live, some recorded - and this combination, with Binoche and Khan experts in their own fields, is at moments riveting. Khan sweeps and soars across the stage and Binoche delivers a heart-felt emotional performance with her feet literally off the ground. They also bravely break the walls of their comfort zones and step into unknown territories, but I’d rather have seen Khan perform another solo dance than a slightly shaky monologue. That said, when the two are together, the movement combined with passionate emotion is where the heart of the piece lies. Their relationship on stage is playful and charming, and they deliver very funny sequences such as missing a kiss with the clash of body parts and Khan having his head shoved down the toilet for repeatedly leaving the seat up.

All in all, ‘in-i’ is bold, fresh and expressive. The smears of sweat left on the colour-changing wall demonstrate the sheer amount of energy exuding from these two performers, and this alone will keep you gripped for the 70 minute long performance. The experiment certainly evoked sparks from Khan and Binoche; go and see if they light up your eyes!

Her Naked Skin, National Theatre, 2 August 2008

Electric, mortifying, humbling and gut-wrenching, ‘Her Naked Skin' doesn't just tick all of the right boxes; it smashes them with the force of the Suffragette's hammers to the windows of Downing Street.

From the first minute of Howard Davies' production, which makes great use of the Olivier stage and multimedia screens, the piece is startlingly gripping.  Many different facets contribute to the magnificence of this production.  Rebecca Lenkiewicz's script is funny and poignant, and is brought to life by the phenomenal acting of the cast, with particularly outstanding performances from Lesley Manville, Jemima Rooper and Adrian Rawlins. The rawness and reality of the emotion on stage envelops the audience, seeping through us and taking a firm grip on our hearts and minds.  The set design creates a stark contrast between the harsh metal grates of the women's prison and the plush green leather of the all-male parliament.  It is with great discomfort that we see the patriarchal society ‘collecting birds and putting them in cages'.

Put these facets together and you get a compelling and shocking piece of theatre that will open your eyes and remind you that this is our history, right here, right now. Experience it. Live it.

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