Feature | No, Dominic Cavendish – You Are the Thought Police

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by Dr. Jami Rogers, University of Warwick

Dominic Cavendish can rest assured: he will not lose the opportunity to see his favourite (white) male actors in leading Shakespearean roles. After all, what producer would refuse Kenneth Branagh the chance to play Leontes in The Winter’s Tale or stop inviting Ralph Fiennes to work his way through the classical canon? The star system remains overwhelmingly skewed towards the (white) male and, as such, any (white) male classical actor who fancies it will most likely be first in line for a West End Shakespearean lead. Antony Sher has just played King Lear and Simon Russell Beale showed us his Prospero, to name two more male classical actors who are not exactly short of Shakespearean work. Cavendish’s opinion piece is misguided in its assertion that men are an endangered species on the classical stage – and somewhat light on facts.

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Dr Carnesky’s Incredible Bleeding Woman, Soho Theatre

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From a lectern in the corner of the stage, Dr Marisa Carnesky fights the social taboo of periods. Resembling a character from a Tim Burton film, the PhD holder in menstrual rituals and synchronicity shares her collective research with a group of performance artists she assembled, the Menstruants. Sideshow/cabaret Dr Carnesky’s Incredible Bleeding Woman is a wonderfully quirky manifestation of sisterhood, womanhood and the wonders of the female body.

Every month on the new moon, Dr Carnesky and the Menstruants met on a beach in Southend to develop and performed rituals around their menstrual cycle. The Menstruants come from an array of backgrounds and sexualities, and their rituals are as unique and individual as they are. Through their performances, every woman’s personal experiences with their bodies is validated and celebrated.

The performances on show are distinctive and compelling. There is some spectacle: sword swallower MisSa Blue has a customised set of swords that suit her oesophagus shape each day of her cycle. Some of the work is more reflective and otherwordly, like Nao Nagal’s use of traditional Japanese masked performance. Molly Beth Morossa provides a creepy sideshow element with her twitchy, Victorian high tea. H Plewis performs a visceral movement piece with her menstrual jelly. Rhyannon Styles simply speaks to us directly about her experience of cycles as a trans woman. Fancy Chance, with the rest of the company, performs a phenomenal circus act as a finale, after an empowering, proud sequence of feminine reclamation. All of the acts celebrate female abilities and bodies without aggression.

In between the vulnerable, performative manifestations of female cycles, Dr Carnesky talks to the audience through an array of historical and cultural mores surrounding menstruation. She particularly focuses on myth and symbolism – death and rebirth, shedding of skin and female unity. Her tone is gentle and matter-of-fact; the the content may be revolutionary but she comes across as warm and supportive.

In a show that has the potential to come across as alienating, it is instead welcoming – no one in the audience (men included) seem uncomfortable, and the stories shared on the stage are supported from the house. Instead,this diverse, inclusive variety show is a divine honouring of the feminine mystery and a reclamation of one of the features that defines women, and a showcase of some excellent live artists.

Dr Carnesky’s Incredible Bleeding Woman runs through 7 January.

The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.

Interview: Isley Lynn on Skin a Cat

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The upcoming opening of new venue The Bunker has certainly generated plenty of buzz, but what has excited me most about their debut season is that Rive Productions is bringing back Isley Lynn’s Skin a Cat for a three-week run. Hugely deserving winner of Vault Festival’s Pick of the Year, Skin a Cat is the coming-of-age story of Alana, a young woman who, like most young people, just wants to lose her virginity – but there’s something in the way. I spoke with writer Isley Lynn about the importance of Alana’s story, why stories like hers need to be told and how Lynn is working for more diversity in British theatre.

TPTTUK: Why does Alana’s story need telling?

IL: I’ve always been most interested in telling stories I haven’t heard before. I get so bored and frustrated when I see a show that’s beautifully produced/designed/directed/written/performed but tells me nothing I didn’t already know, or shows me nothing I haven’t seen so many times over. The bar really is so low for new stories – stories about differently abled people, women-centred stories, unconventional stories of anyone non-white, I could go on. Stories that give us new perspective are so important and exciting that I want to spend my time telling them. And the stories about sex – especially first sex – never matched up with my own experiences, so I figured I should tell mine. It really was as simple as that, but that’s also why it’s important.

TPTTUK: You use several dramatic forms and styles in Skin a Cat. Tell me a bit about these choices and the reasons behind them.

IL: To be honest, the play was so easy to write that it came out without too much thought. The stylistic qualities were organic to the material – and I had plenty of lived material to work with! I felt the direct address was important because it allows Alana to be honest and open with the audience in a way she isn’t able to be with the characters onstage with her. In a play about the pressures of how others see you and what effort it is to please, it felt crucial to keep this [play focused on] her story, her testimony, her voice.

So much of the action happens mid-coitus, and I had no idea how to put sex on stage. All credit to our wickedly brilliant director Blythe Stewart for its staging (this was definitely the most fun I’ve ever had in rehearsals, and I’m still impressed with how she managed to create a representational, physical language without resorting to silly hip thrusts).

TPTTUK: What would you like audiences to take away from Skin a Cat?

IL: We only had six performances at the Vault Festival, but after every one I had someone approach me and share their own embarrassing story, or their own experience of sexual shame or difference. That’s exactly the reaction I hope for at the Bunker – I want people to be able to see themselves in Alana’s story, and feel emboldened to talk about their experiences with strangers and friends and loved ones, because that’s the only way we can start to realise how we all “fall short” of the expectations placed on us – and not just with sex, but in so many other areas of our lives – and how unimportant and unhealthy those expectations can be.

TPTTUK: What are the biggest issues in the theatre industry today? Is your work combating them?

IL: I hope I am – I’m trying to. So many of the issues in our industry have their roots in the lack of representation. I’ve already talked about how important it is to have a diversity of stories and that’s a big part of it, but the responsibility for that is at the feet of everyone, not just writers – It’s important to create opportunities for underrepresented people on the stage, but it’s worthless if those individuals are not in a position to take opportunities available to them because they can’t afford to work for low or no pay, for example, or if they couldn’t afford the outrageous drama school audition [fee] in the first place. I have no idea how to fix that with unpaid work being the foundation for any career (certainly mine) and so much the norm.

Often, only people with strong financial support behind them can take full advantage of what’s out there. There are great one-off schemes, and great venues doing their part (like the Hope Theatre with their Equity house agreement on pay), but until the entire industry is a viable career option [for anyone], we won’t have a community that reflects the world we live in, and that’s the primary job of the arts.

TPTTUK: Isley Lynn fans are dying to know: what’s coming up next?

IL: I’ve been working with one of my absolute favourite actors on a one woman show that, if all goes well, should have a life at the 2017 Edinburgh Fringe and hopefully beyond. It’s about a English-Egyptian woman who takes up pole dancing when her husband leaves her for the revolution in Cairo. It’s going to be a unique perspective on the battle over women’s bodies and what that means when you have to navigate two very different worlds, when you’re not fully on one side or the other.

Skin a Cat runs 12 October – 5 November.

The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.

Be Prepared, JOAN, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

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This year, four companies are receiving support from Underbelly to produce and market their latest work. Two of those are Milk Presents and Corner Shop Events, both offering solo performances but radically different in content and style. Each distinctive piece is vibrant and immediate, with moments of power and poignancy. Typical of new work at the fringe, both feel a bit rough and ready but they have a raw, honest emotionality that plucks the heartstrings.

Be Prepared transports the audience to a Quaker funeral for Mr Matthew Chambers, where a man who never actually met him has been invited to speak. Struggling with his own grief, writer/performer Ian Bonar takes on the awkward, unprepared man reduced to a child by his inner turmoil. The character’s biography interweaves with his unconventional encounters with Mr Chambers, spinning a muddled web of good intention that is sweetly moving and honest.

Bonar’s performance is excellent. There’s a simmering anxiety that drives him forward and erupts through the characters ideas that aren’t particularly well-thought through. His underlying focus on his father’s recent death is a constant presence that bubbles through his attempts to talk about Mr Chambers. His pace becomes more frenetic as his stories become increasingly muddled, though this textual choice occasionally interferes with understanding. The script has a seeping rawness that effectively captures the chaos of grief, though there are numerous loose ends that aren’t fully developed.

JOAN addresses rather different themes but has just as much intensity as Be Prepared. This modern Joan of Arc story resonates through it’s father/daughter relationship, and teenaged optimism and arrogance that backfires despite her intentions to save France. Her struggle with gender identity also gets hold of the audience’s empathy and doesn’t release its grip until the curtain call.

Lucy Jane Parkinson’s performance is exquisite. Joan’s hope, determination in the face of adversity and ultimate desperation is skilfully crafted by writer Lucy J Skilbeck. Parkinson fully embodies Joan’s emotional journey and has the audience in the palm of her hand from her initial impersonation of her father, to her final pleas for Saint Catherine’s help.

Though there is an element of drag in the show when Parkinson plays other characters, her depiction of Joan doesn’t come across as drag at all. The character is not sent up, and her struggle with taking on female behaviour and dress is wholly genuine.

Though JOAN is the stronger production of the two, Be Prepared is still a solid production with plenty of merit. Both are moving reflections of aspects of the human condition and powerful pieces of theatre in their own right.

The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.

Queen Lear, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

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What happened to King Lear’s wife? The woman who birthed the three daughters that he loves so dearly is never mentioned in his title play. Back in the ’80s, the Women’s Theatre Group and Elaine Feinstein created Lear’s Daughters, a flawed, feminist play attempting to reason why Goneril and Regan do what they do by depicting the girls’ upbringing. Their mother is present, but ill and rarely thought upon until her death at the hands of a sex-crazed maniac. Lear and his obsession with having a son cost her her life.

Ronnie Dorsey, perhaps inspired by this version that focused on the daughters rather than their mother, puts the young queen centre stage in Queen Lear. Also a feminist perspective, this script is reflective and revealing, but slow to develop and incorporates a disconnected subplot that results in an unlikely end.

Alice Allemano is the young queen, heavily pregnant with her second child. Goneril and Regan are the daughters of his first wife, a good device that explains the sisters’ disconnect in Shakespeare’s play. Lear’s need for a son translates to her conviction that the child is a boy, but the pregnancy has not gone well. She is overdue, in constant pain, and begs her nurse and the Father overseeing her care to cut the baby from her body. Through her medicated delirium, she reveals her transition from blushing, wide-eyed bride at 16 to an abused incubator. Jane Goddard plays the nurse and Mary McCusker the priest; the trio of women have a warm, maternal chemistry and all are excellent performers.

Dorsey’s script, whilst an interesting premise, has some issues. The dialogue is overwritten and obstructions any natural tension that would arise from the situation. It also slows down narrative progression and often feels clumsy. The secondary plotline, though it has potential to develop into its own story, feels out of place and not fully integrated. The big reveal is barely acknowledged by the other characters, briefly discussed, then forgotten about in light of the queen’s health.

A thorough trimming would do the text a world of good and free up space for more action. The performances are strong and the examination of this forgotten character compelling, but one that could be executed more smoothly.

Queen Lear runs through 29th August.

The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.

Two Man Show, Edinburgh Festival Fringe

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RashDash are angry. Like, fucking furious level of angry. They’re fed up of patriarchal language and gender stereotypes that limit both men and women from expressing themselves honestly. So they made a show about it. Two Man Show has three women in it, music and dance, nudity and a lot of explosive energy. It’s part science lecture, part role play and part celebration of who we are without others’ judgment and categorisation based on gender expression. It’s a fantastic, “fuck yeah” explosion of pretty skirts, masculinity, tits, cockfighting and nonconformity. It’s also pretty bloody brilliant.

Out of an opening tirade on equality in the dawn of human history, Abbi Greenland and Helen Goalen take on the roles of two brothers, Dan and John. They don’t get on, arguing almost constantly about caring responsibilities for their terminally ill father. Their fighting builds in between movement and dance sequences of surprising intimacy and tenderness.

The culmination to Dan and John’s tension is a fantastic eruption of John’s frustrated masculinity feeling limited by “man things”. His words twists through Abbi’s, the man-woman who is happy in her own skin but doesn’t really suit any of that girly shit. Helen’s feminine contrast powerfully reinforces the importance of choice and freedom and that a woman doesn’t need to be butch to be a feminist and a man can express his feelings and do “feminine things” without his heterosexual maleness being threatened.

Greenland and Goalen’s performances are endowed with conviction and energy, and both are skilled physical performers who can convincingly play men, even with their breasts unveiled. They are accompanied by a musician, who backs them up with unfettered tunes of frustration and celebration.

This is a truly feminist show. Rather than blaming men, Two Man Show looks at the conventions of language that aids female suppression and acknowledges that men are not served by this system, either. Fabulously sequinned and ferociously opinionated, this is not one to miss.

Two Man Show runs through 27th August.

The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.

Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again., Edinburgh Festival Fringe

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Playwright Alice Birch wants to start a revolution. Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again. seeks to challenge the patriarchal language and social structures that hold woman second place to men. Being polite and socially acceptable isn’t going to achieve this, and the marketing material states that this play is not well behaved.The issue is that it is. The collection of scenarios with chaotic climax and resigned footnote of an ending starts out strong, but quickly loses sight of its goals through a lot of talking but few suggestions for effective action.

The first scene between a heterosexual couple is the most effective as he talks about all the things he wants to do to her body, and she corrects his language from one of his ownership to one of hers. The subject matter is provocative, funny and establishes a model that women can actually use. It’s not badly behaved, though – it’s polite, considerate and a bit uncomfortable, but not revolutionary. Subsequent scenes have less of a practical application; this isn’t a problem in and of itself, but these scenarios are much less of a catalyst in a show about taking action. There is some rejection of social convention, but little seen as radical. A culminating babble of voices largely indistinct from each other goes on entirely too long and due to the challenge of deciphering specific lines has little impact.

A cast of four, three women and one man, play a range of characters though disappointingly, the characters are middle class and English. Surely the issues that are presented – the language of sexual domination, consent, reproduction, family, flexible working – effect working class people as well.

Madeleine Girling keeps her set simple and efficient, using only items that are fully functional to each scene. Lighting designer Claire Gerrens creates angular, starkly delineated spaces that support the simple demand for equality and empowerment.

Birch certainly uses language well and constructs dynamic, interesting characters but the lack of much motivating material creates a lot of bluster with little change. The script also avoids any issues of intersectionality, particularly social class and race, even though one of the actors is black. Her goals are certainly admirable, but Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again.? More like have a chat and then carry on with your life.

Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again. runs through 28th August.

The Play’s the Thing UK is committed to covering fringe and progressive theatre in London and beyond. It is run entirely voluntarily and needs regular support to ensure its survival. For more information and to help The Play’s the Thing UK provide coverage of the theatre that needs reviews the most, visit its patreon.