Posts Tagged ‘ fringe ’

Semele, Upstairs at the Gatehouse: review

Hampstead Garden Opera
Director: James Hurley
Music Director: Oliver-John Ruthven

Semele Handel

Picture: LaurentCompagnon

OperaUpClose may be dominating the headlines with their re-imaginings of Bohème and Butterfly but in Highgate there is another fringe opera company, who play with an altogether straighter bat. James Hurley’s production of Semele for Hampstead Garden Opera sticks to Handel’s scenario – and is all the better for it.

The text, by William Congreve, tells the classical story of Semele, who catches the eye of Jove, king of the Olympian gods. He transforms into an eagle and whisks her away to Mount Olympus where they share “endless pleasure”. Ahem. Jove’s celestial wife, Juno, however, becomes jealous. She sneaks into the palace where Semele is hidden and persuades her that she will become immortal if she sees Jove in his godly form. In fact, she will die.

The cast is almost entirely made up of postgraduate music students and the singing is universally of a high standard. Tom Verney as the butter-wouldn’t-melt Prince Athamas, Semele’s mortal fiancé, is a particular highlight. He trips lightly up and down Handel’s coloratura as if they’ve just occurred to him. The central role is sung voluptuously by Robyn Parton, who tackles the challenging part confidently. She holds every eye in the house as she sulks like a child or pouts playfully at the king of the gods. Jove is sung by tenor Zachary Devin with pinpoint clarity and Kathryn Walker’s excellent Juno is all cartoon anger and feel-my-wrath vocal flourishes.

In Hurley’s production the scenes in the mortal realm are set in something approximating to the 1950s but for Mount Olympus, white dominates. In Rachel Szmukler’s design the back wall is hung with strips of white polystyrene and the chorus of spirits wear costumes of bubble wrap. Semele is given a bubble wrap dress which results in some comic popping noises during the rather intimate scenes between her and Jove. This design comes into its own, however, in one of the closing scenes in which Semele storms around doing her best impression of an ireful goddess as she rips down the gauze and white drapes.

Oliver-John Ruthven directs the musical side of things well from the harpsichord (yes, a harpsichord in a pub!) but there is a sense that the musical director’s vision is at odds with the director’s. For example, Athamas pleads with Semele’s sister “do not shun me” while she is, in fact, clinging to him. Similarly, the opening action – before the overture begins – doesn’t add anything to the performance and is incomprehensible. Semele was written as an oratorio so is short on dramatic action, but Hurley over-compensates for this with too many gimmicks which tend to distract from rather than complement the very enjoyable singing.

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A Butcher of Distinction, Cock Tavern Theatre: review

Since I saw this play The Cock Tavern have had to suspend all their shows because of a dispute with the council over their entertainment license. See their website for the latest.

By Rob HayesCock Tavern Theatre Rob Hayes
Directed by Ned Bennett

The Cock Tavern Theatre in Kilburn is getting a bit of a reputation for gore. Barely a moment went by during the recent Edward Bond season without someone being murdered on stage. And there is a touch of the Edward Bond to this new play by Rob Hayes.

The scenario as the lights go up is: two recently orphaned boys sort through their father’s things. Their estranged papa has just killed their mother before killing himself. He has also sold off everything that belonged to this once aristocratic family, “including the art collection”. The twin boys are left with nothing and have come down to London, where their father spent most of his time, to salvage what they can. One is a goatherd and one is the butcher of the title. They have cut-glass accents and say things like “old boy” and wear tweed.

Ned Bennett’s production doesn’t apologise for the absurdist strain in Hayes’ script: in fact Bennett adds pauses to highlight the black humour in lines like “Don’t move Hugo. Stay still and let the man stroke your face.”

“The man” is Teddy, played by a sinister Michael Gould, a gigolo – a fact that becomes clear to the audience long before the boys realise (although they probably don’t know the word).

Sam Swann as the younger of the twins (by 10 minutes) could not be wetter behind the ears. His wide, dark eyes seem to take up half of his face and his snub nose is straight out of Enid Blyton. Ciarán Owens is the older, taller, stronger, more dominating brother, Hartley. He runs his fingers through his greasy hair and is constantly on edge. Swann and Owens both give finely tuned performances and their exchanges capture the contradiction always present in sibling relationships – constant bickering tempered by deep-seated affection.

Both characters appear to have stepped straight out of a Nancy Mitford novel, however, and are entirely unbelievable. No one refers to parties as “hootenannies” anymore or refers to Indian people as “dusky”. But the problem wasn’t that these characters were too absurd but that the rest of the play wasn’t absurd enough.

By far the most captivating scene of the play is the last one, in which Hayes evokes Renaissance writers like Middleton and Ford in the more gruesome touches. And there is more than a whiff of Sweeney Todd. The utterly bizarre but compelling last 10 minutes involve a sheep costume, a walking stick, a meat cleaver and a straw boater. And it is brilliant. Obviously Hayes couldn’t have pitched the whole play at this level and the structure of the work does drive towards the dénouement. But Hugo and Hartley seem to have strolled in to the play from a different universe and the piece would perhaps have had more force if the setting (a London flat), the other characters mentioned and even Teddy, were a touch more ridiculous.

This review originally appeared on The Public Reviews

Penelope, Hampstead Theatre: review

In a swimming pool drained of water, blood drips down a tiled wall. A man in a dressing gown that’s too short and over-sized glasses stares miserably at it, sponge in hand. This is the setting for Enda Walsh’s intricate, dystopian play, Penelope.

Enda Walsh

Walsh takes the ancient Greek tale of Penelope, wife of Odysseus, who is faced with 108 suitors during her husband’s twenty-year-long absence. Thankfully, Walsh’s play only presents us with four suitors – and the action takes place in something close to the modern day. Burns, Quinn, Dunne and Fitz are the last men standing in this competition for Penelope’s love. The blood stain is all that is left of the fifth man.

Each day for almost twenty years the men have attempted to woo Penelope via a CCTV camera and a microphone which relay into her house. They have just a few minutes each, every day. When the play opens, each of the men has had the same dream, warning them that today Penelope’s husband will return – and horribly kill them all.

Mikel Murfi’s production is minutely done. It has an irresistible rhythm, moving swiftly and seamlessly from monologue to mime to group dialogue. The whole performance has an intensity about it and Murfi manages to recreate the monomania of the characters in his audience by honing in on single objects – a sausage, a book, a CCTV camera, a helium balloon.

The first character we see is Quinn, played by Karl Shiels. He struts in circles in his tight red speedos and yellow loafers, slapping his chest and managing to appear at once aggressive and past-it. Dunne is the extrovert, played in leopard-print glory by Denis Conway. He scampers and flounces from cocktail shaker to sun-lounger. The more cerebral Fitz (Niall Buggy) is reading Homer’s Odyssey (which tells the story of Penelope). His speech to woo Penelope is one of the stand-out moments: “We are two souls longing for love to grow from a glorious nothing.” It is also, like much of the play, too much to comprehend in one go. This is a tightly wrought web of a play which would reward a second viewing – and in many ways demands it.

The final member of the quartet is Burns, the subordinate of the group. When Quinn hurts his fingers trying to eat a hot sausage, Burns runs over and blows on it. Aaron Monaghan in the role is part nerd, part victim: he gravitates to the corners of the stage and clears up after the other men – even pushing an imaginary box out of the way after a mime sequence. Sabine Dargent’s set places Penelope above and behind the men’s empty pool, in a glass corridor. From here she imperviously watches the men’s attempts at seduction on a TV screen.

The men live in a world of delusion but within this delusion Enda Walsh finds things to say about our reality – about power and hope and friendship. Beckett’s influence is tangible but this is no identikit Waiting for Godot. Instead, Penelope is a fresh fable, tightly performed.

4Comedy MasksReview first appeared in the Willesden and Brent Times

Reading Hebron, Orange Tree Theatre: review

View of Hebronby Jason Sherman
Directed by: Sam Walters

A corduroy-clad academic, is poring over a thesis on the Israel/Palestine conflict. Suddenly, he loses patience and sweeps all his papers off the desk. I recognised the frustration. This is exactly how I felt during Sam Walters’ production of Reading Hebron: an over-complicated, unthinking, scrappy piece of theatre.

The premise of Jason Sherman’s play – I would not go so far as to say it has a plot – is that we follow Nathan Abramowitz, a very British Jew, as he tries to learn more about the 1994 Hebron massacre. A Jewish settler, Baruch Goldstein, opened fire on a group of Palestinians who were praying at the Tomb of the Patriarchs (a holy site for both Muslims and Jews). We watch Abramowitz as he wrestles with his conscience and imagines he can solve the whole conflict in the time it takes to go through the ritual of seder (Passover meal).

David Antrobus takes the central role of Nathan, the disenfranchised, guilt-ridden, basically secular Jew. Antrobus tries to make Nathan both naïve and jaded, his default expression is wide-eyed earnestness and the result is supremely irritating. He has a couple of good lines: when he’s asked why he reads the New York Times each morning, for example, he replies “I like to start my mornings with the big lies – it makes the little lies a bit more palatable”. But Antrobus just has one setting: angst, which begins to grate almost immediately. Esther Ruth Elliott gets a few laughs as Nathan’s very Jewish mother but Peter Guinness is the only member of the cast who really brings drama to Sherman’s script.

The problem is that the play has neither a narrative nor a point to make. Sherman seems to have set out to write a controversial play about the conflict but then backed out. In one scene Noam Chomsky and Cynthia Ozick (an American writer) express their respective – controversial, intelligent – views on the conflict but Sherman frames it in some sort of stand-up competition complete, in Walters staging, with disco ball and loud music.

Walters directs the piece swiftly – as if in the hope the audience won’t notice its lack of coherence. The one moment of dramatic tension is an argument between Nathan, his ex-wife and his new girlfriend – but here, as elsewhere, confusion reigns as we are unsure what is real and what is taking part in Nathan’s imagination.

I am no expert in this area of international politics, but I learnt nothing from the play. Several positions are skimmed over, stereotypes raised and although an interesting angle is occasionally glimpsed on the horizon, it doesn’t make it as far as the stage. This is a dull, scatty, half-heartedly controversial play which doesn’t even begin to tackle its subject matter.

This review first appeared on The Public Reviews

Tiger Country, Hampstead Theatre: review

Tiger Country Nina RaineWritten and directed by Nina Raine
Hampstead Theatre, Swiss Cottage

Tiger Country: no safety net, alone, trusting your instincts. According to Nina Raine’s new play at the Hampstead Theatre, this is terrain familiar to the NHS surgeon, ‘Once you open the skin you’re on your own.’

Raine’s play – which she directs herself – is a high-octane, unflinching fly-on-the-wall examination of life in Accident and Emergency. We meet Emily – a fresh-faced new arrival on the hospital’s staff: through her eyes we see the chaos, the maddening bureaucracy, the trauma and the apparent cold-heartedness of her colleagues. We meet patients and doctors – and in an effective bit of doubling, the same actors take characters on both sides of the clipboard. Raine draws us into one patient’s story and then wheels them off, just as we began to feel for them – mirroring the situation doctors face every day. We learn about the private woes and worries of the surgeons and all the while the NHS is hanging by a thread in the background.

Emily, played by Ruth Everett is the naïve new arrival: one registrar realises instantly she’s new because she’s ‘still worrying about people dying’. Everett minutely copies the mannerisms, the tone of voice, the slightly desperate frown of the newly qualified medical student. She is over-eager to please and petrified of making a mistake. More importantly for this drama, she cares and feels each case in a way which is clearly unsustainable.

Vashti is Emily’s polar opposite. In Thusitha Jayasundera’s hands she is hard-nosed and up-tight but not unlikeable. She has worked hard to get to where she is and had to change a lot to be accepted: her accent, her clothes, and, one suspects, her personality. Hers is the most fascinating story in the play and Jayasundera’s is one of the stand-out performances.

Her counter-part is John, played by a brisk Adam James, who gives a brilliantly realistic portrayal of an experienced, professional registrar: even when exhausted and at breaking point, he carries on. There is good work from Pip Carter as surgeon Mark, and Joan Kempson as senior nurse, Olga, quietly steals a couple of scenes.

Raine’s dialogue is sharp and – clearly – a joy to speak. Some of the monologues are brilliantly written, though it perhaps feels like we’re hearing the playwright’s thoughts rather than the character’s. Although informed and influenced by TV hospital dramas like Green Wing, Scrubs, House and Casualty, (it in fact shares a plot line with Green Wing), Tiger Country manages to be more than simply a hospital TV series for stage. The play examines what it means to care: whether we can care about each other, whether a doctor can care for a patient they hardly know or even one they have never met and whether caring matters. This is a vital play, born of its time: the NHS is being much debated and this is an eloquent voice to add to the mix.

4Comedy Masks

Until 5 Feb

This review was first published in the Willesden and Brent Times

The Truth in Double Falsehood

Double Falsehood lost ShakespeareOn 9 September, 1653, a London publisher – one Humphrey Moseley – entered a batch of plays in the Stationers’ Register including ‘The History of Cardenio by Mr Fletcher and Shakespeare’. But no more is heard of such a play until, in 1727, a version of the story reappears under the title Double Falsehood or the Distrest Lovers.

The writer, Lewis Theobald, claimed that Double Falsehood was a ‘revised and adapted’ version of Fletcher and Shakespeare’s Cardenio – manuscripts of which he claimed to own. Unfortunately for posterity, the “original” manuscript of Cardenio was housed in the library of Covent Garden Playhouse – which burned down in 1808. All that is left of this lost Shakespeare is Theobald’s revised version – and a lot of speculation.

Last year, Arden controversially decided to include it in their Complete Works – and now the play is being performed in London at the Union Theatre, for the first time in at least 164 years.

The media fuss around the “new” Shakespeare is misleading – academics have always known about the existence of Theobald’s script. Indeed, my copy of The Oxford Shakespeare, first published in 1988, refers to the play, but dismisses it as ‘no more than an interesting curiosity’.

Union Theatre

Double Falsehood at The Union Theatre

Phil Willmott, who is directing Double Falsehood at The Union Theatre, is refreshingly realistic about the play: “I would never claim that Double Falsehood is a masterpiece but it does tell us things about Shakespeare’s psyche and when we see it, we can see echoes of other famous works.”

The central character of the play is Violante, who is raped by Henriquez early on. Henriquez then falls in love with another woman – Leonara – who also happens to be loved by his friend, Julio. Violante pursues Henriquez, determined that he should marry her, after having raped her. It is, as Willmott acknowledges, a plot which sits awkwardly with modern sensibilities: “Central to it there’s a very unpalatable premise that a woman is raped and she spends the rest of the play pursuing the rapist because she’s going to force him to marry her. When you read it on the page you think ‘this is outrageous!’ And in previews some people have been shocked by this but in actual fact when you break it down, what choice does she have? She could start a woman’s refuge, or marry a shepherd, but actually her best prospect is to pursue this aristocrat.”

Shakespeare

As You Like It

One strong argument for unearthing this largely overlooked work is the light it may shed on other plays by Shakespeare: it shares plot points with, for example, King Lear – a good son and a bad son – and As You Like It – girls dressing as boys and escaping to the wilderness.

But the language – ay there’s the rub. If Shakespeare did have a hand in this play, he wasn’t at his best as a writer: “It’s very evocative, it’s very dramatic,” but Phil readily admits “there are no soaring, poetic flights of imagery. The lark doesn’t ascend to Heaven’s gates at any point.” But he thinks Shakespeare’s fingerprint is evident in another aspect of the text: “there’s terrific psychological insight in the language – more so than you would get from your standard Jacobean tragedy or comedy. [The language] does always beautifully capture the thought patterns and the processes and the journeys that the characters are going on.”

This is all academic. As the production’s designer, Javier de Frutos, rightly points out – the play needs to be put on if the question of authenticity is ever to be settled. “You cannot open the debate of whether or not it is Shakespeare by leaving it on the page – a play doesn’t exist on the page. As creators, we have the obligation to put it on the stage for the debate to open. It’s worth putting the play on just for that.”

Willmott has directed, he tells me, 11 or 12 other Shakespeare plays – so how does this work compare? “It feels like doing a piece of new writing,” answers Willmott immediately, “because nothing comes with any clutter or baggage, there’s no expectations so you approach the script as you would a piece of new writing and that feels very fresh and exciting.”

Both Willmott and de Frutos agree that directing Shakespeare can be terrifying: de Frutos admits he felt “paralysed” in the past by what he calls the “Shakespeare police”. Everyone has an opinion about the established Shakespeare plays, whereas with Double Falsehood, they were given the theatrical equivalent of a blank page. The pressure was off to find a new angle, to give it a new setting: there was no need for what Willmott calls a “gimmick”. “I think the key thing is that we were determined there would just be the simplicity of the language and the storytelling, and that we wouldn’t butter it up with our take on it. People who are coming to see it want to experience the play, they don’t want to see Phil Willmott and Javier de Frutos’ version of the play.”

So it’s up to you. Whatever the hype says, Willmott and de Frutos have not set Double Falsehood up as a lost masterpiece of the bard. Part of the fun of the project – both for them and for us – is that the audience can create their own theories as to the authorship. With this production, they are just facilitating and adding their twopennyworth to an ongoing debate. As Phil explains: “Academics have had their fun and now we’re standing [the play] up and seeing how it works as a piece of theatre.”

 

Double Falsehood is on at The Union Theatre until 12 February.

This article first appeared on www.thepublicreviews.com

It’s Raining in Barcelona, Cock Tavern Theatre: review

By Pau Miró
Directed by Tanja Pagnuci

The Cock Tavern Theatre does stirling work bringing lesser known gems to a Brent audience. It’s Raining in Barcelona by Catalan playwright, Pau Miró, is no exception. This production, directed by Tanja Pagnuci, is fringe theatre at its best: intense, thought-provoking and simply presented.

We meet Lali, who is a prostitute in the Pretty Woman-mould. She works in the evenings and brings clients back to the flat, where her boyfriend, Carlos, hides under the bed “to keep her company”. Lali is also obsessed by poetry: she hoards sweet wrappers in a shoe box because they have quotations by famous poets printed on them. We meet one client: a bookseller called David, who has been coming to Lali for two years. Very little happens: in fact, this play is more about what the characters don’t do.

Rebecca Herod as Lali is a breathy, petite, bird of a woman who is as transfixed by poetry as the audience are by her. Herod commands the stage – every detail of Lali is so finely tuned that we barely notice the improbability of such a character. Lewis Hayes as her boyfriend Carlos has a less minutely sketched personality and acts more as a sounding board for Herod’s Lali. His tough guy act teeters towards the comic – and if it weren’t for the play’s darker moments, it would be completely ridiculous. But in just over an hour, Herod and Hayes create a believable portrait of a long-term couple.

Sharon G Feldman’s translation can be stilted but then this isn’t a realistic play. Lali and David – prostitute and client – spend their time together painting her nails and reciting poetry. And there’s some heavy-handed symbolism – from the razor Carlos is always playing with to the seagull which squawks at opportune moments. Birds have been symbols for women since time immemorial: but surely the slight, airy Lali should be a more delicate bird than the cumbersome seagull? But Miró’s play – even through the lens of a translation and the distracting homing seagull – is a piece of captivating character study.

Not much appears to happen and yet the audience – myself included – were transfixed. This is a captivating piece of theatre, from a fascinating playwright and the Cock Tavern at its very best.

Until 29 January4Comedy Masks

First published in the Willesden and Brent Times

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