Titus Andronicus, Greenwich Theatre

*sAll-male Shakespeare companies justify their existence in the name of historical accuracy and providing audiences with insight into this important aspect of original Shakespearean practice. Whilst I do not negate the educational importance of such companies, the number of female theatre roles compared to male roles hardly makes this practice fair. Smooth Faced Gentlemen is an emerging all-female Shakespeare company that helps redress this imbalance and allow women the opportunity to take on great roles normally only open to male actors. Whilst they are extremely successful in creating masculine performances, capturing the energy of the text, and director Yaz Al-Shaatar has a superb instinct for striking visual theatre, the reasons behind some of their production choices in Titus Andronicus are unclear and casting tends towards younger performers.

The eight-member cast wears a monochrome uniform of black skinny jeans, ankle boots, white shirts and black braces. Coats, scarves and a wheelchair identify character changes, as do physical and vocal alterations. The set is completely white, but not for long. As Shakespeare’s most gruesome play energetically unfolds and characters are mutilated and killed, the red paint in the tins on the stage edges soon covers the floor, walls and the actors. I’m rather surprised the audience managed to escape any paint splatter. Rather than swords, they have paintbrushes tucked into their waistbands that are dipped in paint before an attack. The paintbrushes were used with the same movements as swords, slicing and stabbing. With such a striking use of weaponry that normally creates rather than kills, it would have been a more unique choice to explore stylized movement rather than emulating real life. As it was, there was a level of absurdity to stabbing someone in the back or slitting a throat with a paintbrush. Perhaps this was a comment on the absurd amount of death and destruction in the play? Perhaps the murders are being compared to art, or even DIY where the old and excess is cleared to make room for new? Or perhaps I am reading too much into it and Al-Shaahtar made this choice simply because it was unique and looked great. White, black and red will always be a powerful colour scheme. The liberal use of red paint highlighted just how brutal this play is.

The performances were on the whole very good. Ashlea Kaye’s Marcus and Demetrius were a highlight of contrast between an ill, old man and scrappy, oversexed young manhood. Kaye is clearly a versatile performer with outstanding stage presence. Ariane Barnes was a formidable Titus, fully believable as the successful general that ruthlessly seeks revenge for his downfall. The ensemble work is excellent with smooth transitions at a fast pace. The ensemble aspect didn’t quite work as the actors remained on stage most of the time, but lounged casually on the periphery, half in the wings, watching the action when not performing. The goal is to enhance the ensemble aspect of the production, but the halfway approach came across as non-committal. Either be present on stage and dynamically contribute to the stage picture, or be out of sight. Otherwise, it lends itself to distractions. I would guess that the oldest cast member is in her early 30s; having a wider range of ages would make their diversity even more commendable.

With a running time of about an hour and 15 minutes, this was a good length to convey the main focal points of the story, but cutting this play can be tough. As one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays and his first attempt at writing a tragedy, it can feel quite clunky. Cutting it cannot overcome this quality and can occasionally exacerbate it. In this case, the tragic downfall of the central characters occasionally felt rushed, but not overly so. An interval wasn’t particularly necessary and felt like it occurred very late in the story. Generally in this version, the editing did a good job at preserving the story and capturing Titus’ life rapidly collapsing around him.

As previously mentioned, the energy was extremely high and well-maintained throughout. Moments of humour lightened the tragedy, particularly good was Tamora and her sons’ portrayal of Revenge, Rape and Murder. Another lovely moment is Aaron (Anita-Joy Uwajeh) meeting his newborn son for the first time and refusing to allow the child to be killed. There were numerous others. Smooth Faced Gentlemen have a clear gift for making Shakespeare accessible and telling a cracking story. They are certainly a company to follow as they grow and develop their performances.

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Eclipsed, Gate Theatre

Issues surrounding modern war and conflict are rarely simple. Feminism certainly isn’t, either. Neither are families, romantic relationships, child soldiers, or individual identity. Danai Gurira’s Eclipsed rolls all of these deeply complex themes into a five-character play set in the Liberian civil war, but does so with brilliant writing and a raw, close-up view of characters in a world torn apart.

Eclipsed focuses almost completely on the lives of the four “wives” of the Commanding Officer of one of the rebel factions, living communally and enjoying a life of privilege. Their privilege consists of not being raped by other soldiers, instead only having to go to the C.O. when he summons them from offstage with booming handclaps. The women enjoy looted clothing, and mostly get along. Though all have names, they refer to each other by their rank: number 1, number 2, and so on, with number 1 being in charge. Number 2’s the outcast of the four as a soldier fighting Charles Taylor’s government, but she still periodically returns to the hut bearing gifts and aggravation. Though they all have lost family and hide their real names, these women feel incredibly privileged because they’re alive, and don’t have to be raped by anyone other than the C.O.

The dialogue flows easily, but was deeply uncomfortable to experience from the position of Western privilege. Moments of levity are stepping stones that prevent the audience from drowning in the bleak circumstances that drive the play. I find this level of audience discomfort is rare in theatre, but one that is absolutely vital. Actually, theatre needs more of it – the majority of regular theatregoers are middle class and have no experience of life in a war zone other than watching the news. These audiences need to be shaken, hard, and reminded that whilst we have lots of nice things in our lives, many more people in the world don’t. Particularly women trying to survive in war zones.

This is, without question, a feminist play. My initial instinct is to say it’s radically feminist, but on reflection I believe that thought came from the exotic “otherness” of the production rather than any particular issue. Childbirth, education and reproductive consent are at the forefront, which are pretty mainstream feminist topics. Sisterhood is ever present, with its bonding and conflict. Less common and utterly horrific is Number 2’s belief that being an armed soldier empowers young women and keeps them safe from rape. The downside is that you then have to kill the enemy and give the surviving women and girls to your side’s own soldiers. Sorry, there’s my privilege showing again.

This otherness also contributes to the excellence of the overall production; I have never seen a play so simultaneously brutal and brilliant. The production values are flawless in that the production needs no alteration or development. It’s raw, in-yer-face, and will linger with you and your privileged guilt for a long time. All five performances are a masterclass in acting. The design is strikingly simple with an inclusive audience arrangement. There are belly laughs. There are moments you feel like your guts are being slowly tugged from your body and your eyes are held open. With all the terror Eclipsed lays bare, it should be a legal requirement for everyone living a comfortable life away from war to see this play. The world would be a better place.

Intention: ☆☆☆☆☆

Outcome: ☆☆☆☆☆

Star Rating: ☆☆☆☆☆

The Play’s The Thing UK is an independent theatre criticism website maintained voluntarily. Whilst donations are never expected, they are hugely appreciated and will enable more time to be spent reviewing theatre productions of all sizes. Click here to make a donation with PalPal.

Don Q, Greenwich Theatre

Production shot 4 croppedI really struggled to come up with a suitably erudite introduction to this review of Flintlock Theatre’s Don Q. Not because it’s hard to summarize – quite the opposite. The structure works, the message and plot are clear and the performances are excellent in this suitable-for-all-ages appropriation of Cervantes’ Don Quixote. I am chalking my difficulties up to this being such an enchanting and moving play that words aren’t quite capturing that “warm and fuzzy but actually quite sad” feeling I had the entire time. Everything I tried to write came across as cold and clinical. It’s a rare occasion that I go to theatre and nearly forget to take notes because what I am seeing on stage grips me by the proverbials that as a woman, I don’t even have. Seeing Don Q evoked the joy and wonderment I had on my first experience of theatre as a small child.

It’s not a simple show, though. Four actors take on numerous levels of characterization. Like Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a group of unrelated characters bookend the play. In this case hapless librarians, frustrated by the council’s efforts to close them down, highlight the importance of storytelling by relating the tale of Norman Vaughan to us. Norman, as we soon find out, is probably their most infamous patron. Norman’s nameless nephew thinks Norman, now 81 years old, has gone mad. You see, Norman loves to read and reenact the stories he reads with his younger friend Sam and anyone else he cajoles into joining him. It is immediately and painfully clear that Norman is completely lucid; he just has a joyful passion for stories and acting them out. The younger generation are so busy being adults that they have forgotten the pleasure of playacting and the power of an absorbing tale. So not only are the audience reminded of the importance of reading and allowing ourselves to be absorbed in a good book, we are also more subtly admonished for not taking the time to listen to our elders and treat them like human beings. So what if Norman (or any other elderly person) loves what he does? As long as no one gets hurt, we are told to leave well enough alone.

Norman’s nephew, having had enough of Norman’s mishaps and convinced he has gone mad, puts him in a nursing home to be looked after properly. He strictly forbids Norman from having access to any books. Sam, on one of his visits, smuggles in a copy of Don Quixote into the nursing home. A comedy chase results in their escape and an adventure imitating a selection of escapades from the original novel. Sam is a begrudging Sancho Panza, a pair of scooters augmented with push brooms and spoons are their trusty steeds and other people they encounter on the way play other characters (some more willingly than others). Their madcap journey is full of whimsy, spontaneity and emotional turmoil but with a potentially tearful ending for the more sentimental of audience members.

Director Robin Colyer skillfully employs physical theatre sequences to add variation and an atmosphere of a touring troupe of players. This is clearly a well-rehearsed, established production; not a breath was out of time. Objects and costume pieces are used liberally and often comically, in a style reminding me of the West End’s 39 Steps. The set and costumes are simple and rustic, but versatile and thought through. Nothing is excessive, nor sparse; the production design is just right.

The performances unite a fantastic script with heaps of audience interaction, and the great design to create a beautifully polished little show. Some call and response would have made more people feel included, as well as giving costume and lines to those in all parts of the auditorium rather than only those sat in the front row. Actors Jeremy Barlow, Francesca Binefa, Kate Colebrook and Samuel Davies are versatile multi-rollers with outstanding chemistry as an ensemble. Whilst I considered that having an older man play the role of Norman would have brought more to the story, the role is incredibly physically demanding and would be difficult to play at a more advanced age.

Don Q is only at Greenwich Theatre for a brief time, but then continues its national tour. This Oxford-based company is worth seeing no matter what your age, where you are or what you do. They use physical theatre, Brecht, storytelling and meta theatre but in an unobtrusive, charming way to create this lovely, warm, gem of a play.

Intention: ☆☆☆☆☆

Outcome: ☆☆☆☆

Star Rating: ☆☆☆☆ 1/2

The Play’s The Thing UK is an independent theatre criticism website maintained voluntarily. Whilst donations are never expected, they are hugely appreciated and will enable more time to be spent reviewing theatre productions of all sizes. Click here to make a donation with PalPal.

La Merda, everything theatre

“After reading the press release and previous star ratings for La Merda, I was very much looking forward to an edgy, raw and arty performance with a strong message that would stay with me for several days…My experience, however, was quite the opposite.

“…dim spotlights illuminated a naked woman (Silvia Gallerano) sitting on a tall platform, quietly singing something Italian into a microphone…she launched into a monologue. It began by telling us we all needed courage, then connected the idea to her father’s courage to commit suicide by throwing himself in front of a train…

“Gallerano’s character then moved onto body image: her unusually large thighs, and her teenage experience with a “beauty parlour” that had tried to reduce them. Whilst I believe body image is an issue that needs to be addressed, every teenager has insecurities about their looks, and theatre has dealt with this before, so the topic is not new, or particularly edgy…

“Gallerano’s character…didn’t develop into anything particularly interesting, or personalised. We never learned much about her other than she was an actress, her dad died when she was thirteen, and she had a slightly unconventional upbringing. I struggled to care about the woman and her issues because her issues weren’t unique. She was just like everyone else…Originally written in Italian for Italian audiences, there was a slight undercurrent of national identity, but unfortunately I missed more of this because I am not Italian…I wondered…why was she still naked?

“The piece was delivered exclusively in three long monologues…Towards the end of each section, she shouted down the microphone, which was physically uncomfortable, but I remained emotionally unmoved. Vague themes were mentioned…but my questions remained: Why was I watching this? What does the writer want us to take away? Why is she naked?”

Read the entire review here.

King Lear, The Rose Playhouse

KING LEAR Poster JPEG April 2015Last summer, I left The Malachites’ Shoreditch rooftop A Midsummer Night’s Dream lukewarm. I hoped their current production of King Lear, currently running at The Rose Playhouse after a transfer from Peckham Asylum, would be a more unified, consistent production. Fortunately, these hopes were not just met, but exceeded. With an outstanding cast headlined by John McEnery, original Early Music accompaniment and a full utilization of the unique performance space at The Rose, it far surpassed my expectations and proved to be an exemplary showcase of the potential at The Rose and of fringe Shakespeare.

Due to the vastness of the theatre, its large pool of water and only a relatively small section of the space able to be used, design and staging are particularly crucial in order to make productions here feel polished and professional. Trying to ignore the size and feel of the space simply does not work and diminishes the historical importance of the venue. Director Benjamin Blyth embraces these characteristics. He clothes his performers in neutral blacks, whites, grays and browns. Even the Fool was blandly dressed. The costumes were generally contemporary winter dress with a Russian or Eastern European look. Furs, capes, leathers, scarves and multiple layers abound but the odd piece of costume was jarringly and frivolously classical, such as Oswald’s cloak. The drab colours and mostly angular lines match the concrete expanse that stretches out from the stage. Though the play is set in cold weather, the obvious winter wear also highlighted a man’s struggle through the winter of his life, and made Poor Tom’s near-nudity all the more ghastly. A simple throne and wooden chairs were the sole set pieces; stark white lighting emphasized the grim realities of Lear’s treatment by his family and decent into madness. Some direct address was used, but the audience felt sufficiently included due to the small playing area. The pool of water preserving the Rose’s foundations doubled as a lake or seaside and Poor Tom’s hovel was a fort of black drapes in a rear corner. The musicians were dark silhouettes to the side of the pool. Most of the action took place on the tiny wooden platform stage, but the rest of the site was not ignored. Blyth set Lear’s world at the edges of sanity, existence and human decency and suited the production’s look and feel to the venue with great skill and intuition.

There was not a poor performance in the company and due to this being a transfer, the ensemble and their chemistry came with ease and depth. There were some unique and refreshing character choices, such as Cordelia (Emma Kirrage) played as mature and practical in the beginning rather than innocent and naïve, as she is often portrayed. David Vaughan Knight gives us a stern, militaristic Kent and shows a wide performance range through his character’s disguise and devotion to Lear. William De Coverly shows similar ability in his portrayal of Edmund, skillfully manipulating Gloucester and Edgar through status, movement and voice. Samuel Clifford’s Fool is extremely intelligent with moments of deadpan and quiet sarcasm, drawing more attention to Lear’s mental collapse. I could listen to Anatole Gadsby (France and doctor) read a shopping list in his mesmerizing speaking voice; he will make a great Hamlet with his intensity and watchability if he hasn’t already played the role. Claire Dyson and Orla Jackson are deliciously evil as Goneril and Regan. Finally, John McEnery as Lear brings over half a century of Shakespearian expertise, fully committing to this sensitive, fragile old man who falls victim to the cruelty of the changing world around him.

Though this is an excellent production, it is not flawless. Dr Deborah Pritchard and Danielle Larose composed the original music for the production. Atmospheric and haunting, it was beautifully written and well-used in moments of high tension, but could have been used more often. It was unobtrusive enough that the entire play could have been underscored with carefully chosen moments of silence instead of the other way around. Stage combat sequences can be longer, with Edmund and Edgar’s fight lengthened to show the inherent conflict between the two characters. The scenes were quick and transitions energetic, though some of the energy dropped in the intimacy and quiet of the final scene between Lear and Cordelia. Though it was intimate and moving, the small scale of it did not quite carry through the venue.

These issues are minor, however. The high level of talent and creativity in such an intimate and unique venue is extraordinary, and certainly worth catching whilst tickets are still available.

Intention: ☆☆☆☆☆

Outcome: ☆☆☆

Star Rating: ☆☆☆☆

The Play’s The Thing UK is an independent theatre criticism website maintained voluntarily. Whilst donations are never expected, they are hugely appreciated and will enable more time to be spent reviewing theatre productions of all sizes. Click here to make a donation with PalPal.

The Beautiful Game, everything theatre

“As someone who is not a huge Andrew Lloyd Webber fan and has a dislike of football, I did not have high expectations for this production. I was, delightfully, proven wrong for the most part. Creative direction, fantastically tight ensemble work, endearing characters and some beautiful ballads were some of the highlights of the show…

“Lotte Wakeham uses the intimate Union Theatre space brilliantly. Traverse staging creates both a joyful football pitch and the dangerous streets of 1970s Belfast. During the football matches, the characters watching the game stand behind the audience so we are part of the experience…A few benches are versatile set pieces; they become church pews, locker room benches and a coffin.

“Niamh Perry leads the young but skilled ensemble as the charming, feisty Mary who falls in love with 18-year-old footballer John, played by a skillful Ben Kerr…Joanna O’Hare is the other shining star... Here, the audience sees the root of the conflict: both sides have unwavering belief that Ireland is theirs…

“…The second half starts with John and Mary’s wedding, but the plot deteriorates from this point. Suddenly, the characters have aged and are going their different ways. Whilst this is a sad fact of growing up, it is the undoing of a musical that relies too heavily on the misadventures and celebrations of youth…The story abruptly ends with a short, quiet number, with little resolution…

“Overall, this show is certainly worth seeing for the novelty factor of its rarity and the excellent performances by a cast with impressive credits…”

Intention: ☆☆☆☆

Outcome: ☆☆

Star Rating: ☆☆☆

Originally posted here on everything theatre.

The Great Charter, So & So Arts Club

This year is the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta, the document that laid the foundation for modern British democracy. To commemorate the anniversary, Steve Hawes wrote The Great Charter and presented it as a rehearsed staged reading by So & So Arts Club, directed by Sarah Berger.

I was initially wary of the use of a hotel conference room instead of a theatre, but the space worked surprisingly well. A high quality sound system and projector helped contribute to the play’s historical atmosphere and a platform was an effective stage. A grey plinth created another level on the stage and was aptly reminiscent of Richard III’s newly-carved tomb in Leicester Cathedral. Even though stage lighting was used, the entire room’s ceiling lights stayed on, further creating a period-style performance. There was very little interaction between performers and the audience due to the use of scripts, but the potential was there and allowed for a more relaxed, communal theatre experience.

The performers were clearly rehearsed and familiar with the script, showing the beginnings of character development. Ensemble work was minimal, but to be expected considering it was a staged reading. There were some moments of lovely chemistry, such as Sarah Lawrie as outcast leper Alys and Faye Winter as King John’s frustrated queen, Isabella. Winter and Hugh John as William also shared a great scene hinting at their forbidden affair.

Though the reading was directed and performed skilfully, the script let down the evening. The first half was almost completely exposition, building up to King John’s re-crowning before the interval, which was anti-climactic. The characters certainly do a lot of talking, but engage in very little action. Rather than showing us the important events, they are discussed at length with most action happening in between scenes or offstage. Overall, very little actually happens in the two hours’ traffic on our stage, but events are debated and discussed, at length. Fortunately, the scenes are generally short with crisp transitions.

The characters themselves have very little evolution or reasoning behind their choices. King John is clearly a terrible person, but there is never much explanation for his selfish actions, whether it’s taking his friends’ wives for his own use or locking up his wife in a castle for her own “safety.” There is little character development, though potential for plenty: the two most engaging characters, Isabella and Spike, have relatively few scenes and their personal journeys are downplayed. This has the effect of two-demensional characters. Perhaps this play focuses on historical accuracy, but we all know that history is often quite boring. Good historical dramas take plenty of creative license, with necessity. This play needs much more of it. Adding more fights, showing the revolts, and more stage time to the subplots will make the existing story into a much more dramatic piece of theatre.

The reading was a suitable commemoration to the Magna Carta anniversary, but if the play aspires to become a fully staged production, the script will need to be heavily overhauled. A great performance team helped pass the time, but this would not be enough in a full production.

The Play’s The Thing UK is an independent theatre criticism website maintained voluntarily. Whilst donations are never expected, they are hugely appreciated and will enable more time to be spent reviewing theatre productions of all sizes. Click here to make a donation with PalPal.