The Picture of Dorian Gray, Greenwich Theatre

Merlin Holland is the ondorian-gray-700x455ly grandchild of Oscar Wilde. Determined to carry on Wilde’s legacy through research and writing, he adapted a new version of Wilde’s famous and infamous novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. Touring since April as European Arts Company’s current production, it stops off at Greenwich Theatre for a few days before continuing its perky jaunt around the country.

And perky it is. With only a cast of four, this new adaptation is a largely faithful interpretation of the original story. There is a strong emphasis on artist Basil Hallward’s obsession with young Dorian, capturing the agony of Wilde’s creative and frustratingly closeted life. Played by Rupert Mason, he effectively parallels Wilde’s torment and the use of art as an outlet for homosexual expression, endowing his performance with pathos and depth. Guy Warren-Thomas is the androgynous, camp Dorian who begins as Wilde’s bright-eyed young thing making a vain, innocent wish but who slips into a life of debauchery after discovering his unintended immortality. Warren-Thomas manages to evoke some empathy in his later attempts to be good, but his corruption is a delicious downfall to witness. Gwynfor Jones and Helen Keeley complete the cast, with Lord Henry Wotton and Sybil Vane as their best roles. Warren-Thomas was the only actor to not multirole, but the others did so with great vocal and physical distinction. Cross-gendered performances provide some levity to the dark tale, as does energy and complete commitment to detailed characters.

Though the performances were excellent across the boards, there were some structural choices that did not effectively translate from page to stage. The first act was largely exposition, with Dorian only making the conscious choice to live for pleasure right before the interval. As consequence, the second half felt rushed and the effect of time passing was underplayed, though signified by grey hair in Lord Wotton and Hallward. There was also a jarringly out-of-place dream sequence that Dorian has upon receipt of a mysterious book from Wotton. Stylized and physical with coloured lights and smoke, it was unnecessary and the performers appeared uncomfortable and self-conscious.

The set provided simple but versatile atmosphere. The eponymous portrait was an empty frame that Dorian would grotesquely inhabit from time to time though often left empty and darkly lit. This is a device seen before, but an effective one as it fosters audience imagination. The costumes were sumptuous and indulgent, like Wilde himself and the characters he wrote.

This is a truly lovely production. Little is particularly inventive, but it is a classic story executed very well. The performances are certainly the highlight, as is the fact that Wilde’s grandson aided in the creation of the production. The flaws can certainly be overlooked in favour of focusing on the cast and their chemistry. It continues to tour for most of June, ending with a week at St. James Studio in London.

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.

Carmen Disruption, Almeida Theatre

Bricks from disintegrating walls cover the stage.

A hulking, black bull breathes it last.

An aging opera singer arrives in a nameless European city.

A narcissistic rent boy readies for a “date.”

An awkward student is newly single.

A taxi driver prepares to meet the son she walked out on years ago.

A stockbroker travels to an appointment to “take care of” some poor transactions.

The one-woman chorus reaches out to each of them.

Two cellists watch and accompany from the edge.

carmen-disruption-1024x640Smash a mirror on the floor. Go on, do it. Now look at what remains. There are large chunks, long slivers and other bits that are so small they’re practically dust. Each one is uniquely sized and shaped. There is space in between them. Each one those sharp-edged, broken reflective pieces, no matter how large or small, is a person. Alone. Reflecting the world around them. With potential to fit into the pieces around us but. Just. Not. Doing it.

Simon Stephens slingshots Bizet’s Carmen into a wall at a billion mph, creating an explosion of bricks, sparkly confetti, agony, death, black blood, desperation and loneliness. His magnum opus to date, Carmen Disruption is a mess, but one that gloriously mirrors modern life with painful accuracy. Amongst the rubble are characters who are also these broken bits of mirror, pointing at us, mirroring us and paralleling Bizet’s original cast. We are them. They are us. They/we are also the creation of the deteriorating mind of the Singer (Sharon Small), who endlessly travels the world performing the same role over and over, no longer seeing truth in real life but only when she is Her. Carmen. Everyone she sees reflects an archetype from the opera, and not just the characters. Us, too. We are the Stephens’ characters, they are us, two mirrors facing each other. Reflecting infinity.

The five characters all lead radically different lives, intersecting only by chance because of opera and a motorbike accident. They never speak to each other, only to us. Even when they meet their narration is to the audience, about the others. They have no direct contact with anyone other than the observational Chorus (Viktoria Vizin). Fractured monologues weave in and out of each other, building their world that could be any major city, anywhere in the world. Fireflies blinking in the night sky. Their contact with the world filters through mobile phones, a comment on our dependence on our gadgets and urge to document rather than experience. If we take on the role of recorder, we don’t have to engage. Did technology cause the detachment from each other? This question is posed, but never answered, but not a major plot element anyway. By being posed, it makes a statement, calling on us to examine ourselves and our society in which we exist as lonely fragments of a shattered mirror.

Confrontational and omnipresent throughout the stories arising from our characters’ episodic speeches is the dark, hulking carcass of a bull. Its eventual movement surprises, showing a dying struggle rather than death. The actors pick their way around it as the audience did when they entered from the foyer, surprised and disorientated. A creeping pool of black blood eventually consumes. It is a striking visual, the elephant in the room, highlighting the destruction towards which we all hurtle.

The cellists are also fragments, as is their music. An LED surtitle screen adds an operatic element with sporadic, sarcastic content. None of the characters are particularly likeable, instead they evoke pity or disdain. The only thing that brings them together is a terrible accident they witness, but even then they only manage to bounce off of each other and continue spinning into the darkness. Alone. All roles are impeccably performed and the actors engage with each other in the space even without direct interaction.

It doesn’t matter if you know the story of Carmen or not before seeing this production. I don’t know it well at all and may have taken unintended meaning from Stephens’ script, but its ability to communicate Important Messages without having Bizet’s frame of reference attests to Stephens’ skill and the script’s excellence. Every individual will find different aspects of the production incredible and abhorrent, depending on their own frame of reference. John Light’s stockbroker, Escamillo, disgusts me. I am horrified by rent boy Carmen’s (Jack Farthing) details of his rape. I feel sorry for the naïve student (Katie West) who sexts her 63-year-old married lecturer boyfriend and believes their relationship has any love. Or meaning.

I could watch these characters forever. Not having an interval was certainly the right choice for this play. The compact snippets from their lives allude to distinct pasts and futures. Even though the world they inhabit is nameless and featureless, they were flawed, beautiful, unique humans. Smash another mirror. Go on, do it. Each individual fragment is totally unique, unlike those from our previous mirror. Future broken mirrors will be unique as well. Despite the presence of archetypes, the microscopic details of their stories are unrepeatable. On what trajectory would they all continue? I need to know. If Simon Stephens were to make a Synechdoche, New York version of Carmen Disruption, I would happily live in it. Forever.

Though director Michael Longhurst’s creative choices challenge perceptions of contemporary British drama, he could have emphasized the interaction and audience engagement even further. Even though the Almeida is known for its cutting edge work, this is a piece that could have been more fully explored in a large studio setting, without the constraints of a balcony and distinct actor/audience boundaries. I wanted to dance with these characters. I wanted them to move around me. I wanted them to look me directly in the eyes as they relayed their journeying tales and not have any regard for personal space. Carmen Disruption is aggressive, bold and visceral, the sort that is supported by more audience immersion rather than less. At the very least, the audience could have been lit so the actors could see their/our eyes, allowing a connection I craved and they characters clearly yearned for.

Despite this, the effect created was a Brechtian one of alienation and motivation to action. It’s no coincidence that Stephens’ work is popular in Germany. As I picked my way along Friday night’s Upper Street towards the tube station, the stories of those passing by and enjoying their warm, social evenings exploded around me like fireworks. I felt the need to connect. Never has the loneliness of modern life been so starkly emphasized on stage, and afterwards carried through the dark night.

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.

Killed: July 17th, 1916 for everything theatre

“…On first impressions, the superior set evoked the patriotic idealism of small town England at the start of WWI. It was so well-designed and well made by the talented Dave Benson, that it would easily have been at home on West End stage…

“The play uses a non-linear structure to tell the story of Billy Dean, a volunteer solider from Bradford, sentenced for cowardice in the face of the enemy…The best element of this production is the script and story…Even though the ending is rather abrupt, to alter it would take away from the harsh circumstances.

“The performances are good, but not outstanding. This is mostly because the characters were written without a great deal of depth but they still suit the story as they are…

“The costumes were of a high calibre for fringe theatre…costume designer Lorena Sanchez’ creative talent certainly shined through. Sound designer Max Thompson’s relentless bomb blasts during scene transitions became predictable…We certainly never forgot the world of the play was amidst the front lines of WWI.

“This is a story that definitely needs to be performed again. Director Elizabeth Elstub handled it clearly and simply, without any complex directing trickery…”

Read the entire review on everything theatre here.

Romeo & Juliet, everything theatre

“Lauderdale House is the Elizabethan-era home of a former Lord Mayor of London… Behind the house, Shooting Stars Theatre Company perform their modern take on Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet

“Romeo (Joe Sargent) is a sensitive, intellectual hipster who hangs out with Roisin Keogh’s tomboyish Benvolio and Graham Dron’s oversexed, brash Mercutio. They drink, smoke, probably do drugs and generally make a nuisance of themselves…Sargent’s relationship with Emily Loomes’ Juliet is flawless, turning my insides to mush by the interval…

“Rory Fairbairn (Peter/Balthasar) gives us some excellent multi-rolling and physical comedy. Maxwell Tyler has a forbidding presence as the Prince and a sleazy, Cockney Paris. Ruth E. Mortimer, playing Capulet as a cold, corporate businesswoman, is all the more disturbing whilst arranging her daughter’s marriage…The whole cast is fantastic…

“The fight choreography (using flick knives and unarmed combat)…occasionally felt a bit mechanical…

“The second half struggled to find momentum initially…As it got dark, the dimming light reflected the darkening of the action even though it made it harder to see…

This is a truly excellent production with clear, creative directorial vision in a gorgeous setting. Hie thee to Highgate and catch it before it goes.”

Read the entire review on everything theatre here.

Domestic Labour, everything theatre

“…the performance was much more theatre than dance. It addressed a range of themes and ideas drawing on the experiences of the Iranian-British male author: feminism, domestic responsibility/burden, motherhood, revolution, sex, bicycles and headscarves…

“…The dark stage was peppered with old-fashioned hoovers and appliances each lit with a small spotlight. It was a striking visual. As the performance started, three women interacted with these props in a range of ways, from cradling them like a baby to holding them like guns. They showed both affection and aggression, much like the emotional life of a vintage housewife. This sequence showed subtle influence by contemporary dance…

“The performance was incredibly visual, though not without some technical hitches. The lighting design seemed well intentioned, but did not always suit the staging. For example, one moment had the performers’ faces in darkness whilst the rest of them was lit. In another, a light box was not big enough to light all three…These problems were countered by stunning moments, such as creating a stationary bicycle using a small heater, a hoover full of dust and a bike…

“The show was non-linear, passing back and forth through time. An Iranian man marries an English woman in the present day, but Iranian women are emancipated in 1936. Several characters experience a revolution and discuss the withdrawal method of birth control. These women, though indistinct characters, still provoked audience empathy…

Read the entire review on everything theatre here.

Rhesus, everything theatre

“Trinity Buoy Wharf was new to me as a venue, but certainly worth the trip. It is far from a conventional performance space…There is no obvious stage or audience space…Excellent lighting design by Pablo Fernandez-Baz gives this stark, damp basement with challenging sight lines a polished, professional feel. The set by Zahra Mansouri is minimal, but suits the space well and the audience sit amongst it, included in the world of the play…

“…There is absolutely no actor-audience boundary initially, but this changes when the play properly starts. From then on, there is no contact from the performers…

“The text is spoken well and all of the actors seem comfortable with heightened language. The cast is predominately female…Whether or not it was intentional, due to the cast being very young (late teens to early twenties, I’d guess) it carried a disturbing reminder that many who fought in our past wars were young and child soldiers are a very real tragedy in many places around the world today…

“The most notable features in this production are the regular movement sequences between the scenes. Some are abstract, some capture the brutality of battle and killing. All of them are impeccably choreographed and directed by Ailin Conant of Theatre-Temoin

“The performances in this ensemble piece were good, but as is often the case with very young performers, few stood out. No one was particularly weak but neither was anyone outstanding…

“The venue is certainly worth experiencing in this well-designed production of a rarely performed play. Though a showcase, it is certainly not a difficult one to sit through.”

Read the entire review on everything theatre here.

Super Premium Soft Double Vanilla Rich (LIFT Festival), everything theatre

“One of the first things that struck me about Arts Depot’s main theatre is how comfortable the seats are…It may seem trivial, but after seeing numerous productions in hot pub theatres on benches with straight backs…comfort does become important. The set was austere: two screen printed flats placed at a right angle showing the shelves of a modern convenience store and a small screen above for the projected surtitles…

“We quickly meet the two main characters. These young men work at the convenience store…Whilst there is no traditional narrative structure, we see snapshots of shop life…The absurdity of this corporate environment is obvious and makes me shudder to think how easy it is to be sucked in as a young person seeking purpose…

“This same absurdity comes through in the customers, we see one young woman who, upon discovering her favourite ice cream has been discontinued, has a meltdown…It is an existence of small tragedies, self-importance and the need to cling onto any kind of meaning in a cold, corporate world.

“Whilst the dialogue in the play tends to realism, the movement is abstract, expressionist and constant. It is mostly light and flowing; resembling tai chi…it loses meaning quickly and can be distracting…

“…It is a good piece of physical theatre and an excellent ambassador for the LIFT Festival.”

Read the entire review on everything theatre here.

Mugs Arrows, everything theatre

“…Visually striking yet incredibly simple, it immediately creates tension that carries on through the entire play and keeps the audience watching. The lights then come up on two men tensely playing a game of darts without speaking…As dialogue slowly starts, we gather that the two have just been to the funeral of a dear friend…Both Rhys King (Pat) and Eddie Elks (Ed) are clearly excellent performers who can skilfully use naturalism to create highly developed characters.

“What you perceive to be true is turned upside down when Sarah (Chiara Wilde) enters in a wedding dress and joins in darts game. Rather than a funeral, Pat and Ed have lost their best mate another way…With an inevitable violent end and convincing stage combat by Lyndall Grant, I thought the play had ended.

“But, no! Writer Eddie Elks surprises us. A final, joyfully weird scene takes everything you perceive to be real within the action and turns it upside down. You will leave with a head full of questions, but truly innovative theatre will have that effect...Whilst an incredible show for theatre folk, those who like their theatre conventional and commercial would struggle to watch this play…

“Go see this show before it closes if cutting edge independent theatre is your thing.”

Read the entire review here on everything theatre.

Shooting With Light, Greenwich Theatre

1930s Paris. Jewish Europeans are moving west to escape the rise of Nazism. Two of them meet: one of them is a Hungarian photographer, the other is a German activist. Both are full of youthful confidence and fearless in pursuit of their goals. Emerging company Idle Motion uses physical theatre, light, sound to tell the story of these young lovers, their legacy and the importance of photography.

Firstly, Shooting With Light is a loveShooting-With-Light_018 story. Two young people meet, fall in love and take the world by storm before ending in tragedy. These young people are Gerda Taro and partner Robert Capa (after they changed their names), pioneering photojournalists of the Spanish Civil War. Gerda and Robert start working together; Gerda is initially his assistant who supports him in reinventing his persona in order to make the professional contacts he needs to succeed. Her talent overcomes this role however, and she eventually develops an independent reputation for honest, brave documentation. Partly fictionalized but based on Gerta’s brief life, we see Robert teach her to use a camera followed by her passionate rise to renowned photojournalist needing to show the world the reality of life on the front lines. Alternating with this storyline is the time-jumping subplot of Robert’s brother Cornell and his assistant June, seeking to amalgamate Robert’s work after his death. They are frantically searching for a mysterious red suitcase Robert once spoke of in order to complete the archive of Robert’s work.

Interspersing the scenes of historical naturalism are transitions using visual and physical theatre, similar in style to Frantic Assembly. This is an on-trend performance aesthetic, but one that is visually appealing and provides another level of insight into the characters and their struggles. The most effective of these sequences show Taro and Capa falling in love over rolls of negatives towards the beginning, and Taro’s fight to access the front lines with her camera towards the end. The set is simple in appearance as several blocks and a white screen, but they transform using projections, light and a series of doors. Like their narrative, the structure is simple but highly effective and tells an excellent story. Projections of Taro’s work add further historical context and support the world of the play – the audience sees what she sees and experiences.

The company of five twenty-somethings work wonderfully together, and so they should as they met in secondary school. Shooting With Light captures the infectious enthusiasm and ambition of youth, no doubt mirroring their own attitudes that the world is theirs to have and success is a given if they work hard enough. It will be interesting to see how their work develops as they age and experience the challenges and hardships of working in the arts. As visually appealing as their work in now, it needs more depth of human experience. June and Cornell’s quest to locate Capa’s missing work is arguably the more interesting side of the story, but neglected in favour of Taro’s and Capa’s exciting lives and career progression. The ensemble also lacks diversity of age and ethnicity, something that I hope they increase in the future. Idle Motion have an obvious gift for storytelling and integrating various performance styles at this young age, so the world really could be their oyster as they continue to grow.

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.

Macbeth, Rose Playhouse

FullSizeRender-3 copyWith inventive staging, text deconstruction and some great performances, East London’s Malachites continue their takeover of South London following last month’s excellent King Lear with Macbeth at The Rose Playhouse. Director Benjamin Blyth approaches this unique venue head on, staging scenes in all parts of the concrete expanse that stretches beyond the pool of water protecting the remains of the Elizabethan Rose. Some moments were effective due to the grandiose scale, some did not work due to sight line issues and distance from the audience. Textual edits were similarly brave, rearranging sections to emphasize Lady Macbeth’s and the witches’ control over the fate of the play. Those dogmatic about the text would probably not appreciate such actions, but they are very much in the spirit of Shakespeare: celebrate language and the improvisational nature of theatre, do not slavishly bind yourself to the text. Overall, this is a confident, experimental production to be commended for its efforts and irreverent approach to the text. Some of the choices made did not work, but Blyth is still to be commended for his effort and conviction.

To open, Lady Macbeth reads the letter conveying Macbeth’s news from battle by candlelight. The action she reads about plays out at the back of the theatre, by the edge of the pool preserving the Rose’s foundations, like a memory or mental picture. Cinematic-style transitions break up her speech, hold a modern audience’s attention, but effectively tell the story. Choosing to begin with Lady Macbeth’s speeches and interspersing the opening scenes with them empower the character, emphasizing the control she has over her husband. This is blatant reconfiguring of the text, but it has a strong message, suits the storyline and creates a completely different tone from more typical productions. Orla Jackson gives a calmly fierce Lady Macbeth, who later on deteriorates from grief and remorse.

Following the initial rearranging of the text, the play carried on with some cuts, until the end, which was also untraditional but showed the cyclical nature of evil and the omnipresence of the witches. In this production, the witches were tall, spidery and male, almost entirely kept at the back of the site. This pulled focus from the action on stage at times and made it impossible to see detail such as facial expression, but they were well lit and cast intimidating shadows on the industrial back wall. They would have been a more powerful presence if brought onto the stage more than the once that they were.

The performances in this production were largely good, though not as consistent as last month’s King Lear. Benjamin Blyth is the highlight in the title role, playing Macbeth with outstanding nuance and emotion I have never seen in the part before. Beginning weak, he becomes more reckless but still dominated by a rich inner life of guilt, pain and fear. I daresay this is the best portrayal of Macbeth I have ever seen. Playing a role with such conviction as he did whilst directing the production indicates immense talent on Blyth’s part. Also notable is the versatile Robert Madeley as Banquo and the Porter (though his Banquo was the better performance) and David Vaughan Knight as a militaristic Macduff. Though he struggled to connect with grief upon hearing of the murder of his family, his stern, grounded performance provided lovely contrast to emotional Macbeth.

Blyth showed determination to use all available playing space at The Rose, placing a large proportion of the action on the far side of the archeological site. Whilst he does the space a service by not ignoring it, there are some obstructive railings and the distance caused visual detail to be lost. More of the action, particularly key moments in the plot, could have been moved to the stage closer to the audience. Clever lighting ensured everyone was lit well, but the presence of actors at the back of the site can distract for foreground action.

The Malachites are certainly a brave company, unafraid to adapt Shakespeare’s text to modern audiences and storytelling techniques. Blyth is a rising star worth watching. This company would benefit from more financial resources in order to add polish to their productions, but they are quickly becoming a key player in staging productions in unusual spaces.

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.