Manwatching, Royal Court

An anonymous woman frankly monologues about taboo sexual fantasies, abortion, orgasms and what turns her on. It’s honest, personal and as a fellow woman, easy to relate to. But rather than a woman performing the text, Funmbi Omotayo is given the script onstage having never read it before. The experiment to explore the effects of a man delivering a woman’s words on female sexuality has good intentions, but it doesn’t work. Most of the content is common female experience, and there is no primary narrative thread. The reading is often clumsy and flat and with little to look at, the piece lacks much of a dynamic.

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Romeo and Juliet, Greenwich Theatre

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A self-described modern rep company, Merely Theatre is addressing Shakespeare’s  gender problem with 50/50 casting. Five male/female pairs each learn a set of characters in two plays, then on the night it’s decided who will perform. The result is a focus on clear storytelling rather than unimportant details such as the appearance or gender if individual characters. It’s a great device, and partnered with simple staging and a pace that doesn’t hang about, artistic director Scott Ellis has created a distinctive style of performance honouring the historical aesthetics of travelling players, though there’s a lack of nuance dissatisfying to modern audiences.

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Bunny, White Bear Theatre

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Katie is a fairly average eighteen-year-old living a life busy with A-levels, uni applications and her older boyfriend, Abe. She’s not sure what she wants to do with the rest of her life, but she’s enjoying the here and now of Luton in the springtime. Her fragmented story by Jack Thorne focuses on one afternoon after school that starts out predictably, but soon spirals out of her comfort zone. The action that unfolds tests Katie’s maturity and independence, but the story is not one that is particularly interesting even with good delivery.

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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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The Wild Party, The Other Palace

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Newly rebranded as The Other Palace and now part of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s empire, the former St Jame’s Theatre aims to focus on new British musical theatre. With Paul Taylor-Mills at the creative helm and two spaces in which to develop and showcase new work from the UK, their debut production is…(drumroll)…an American musical from 2000. An odd choice considering the Broadway production nearly two decades ago left critics unimpressed.

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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.

Interview: Chris Hislop on Barker’s Gertrude

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“It is impossible – now, at this point in the long journey of human culture – to avoid the sense that pain is necessity…that it is integral to the human character both in its inflicting and in its suffering…” – Howard Barker

Howard Barker is no stranger to sex and violence. His 2002 reimagining of Shakespeare’s Hamlet places the prince’s mother and her sexuality centre stage in a divisive interpretation of the character who receives little attention in the original story. Rarely staged (most likely due to its relentless, sexually explicit subject matter), theatre PR Chris Hislop returns to directing with this upcoming production of Gertrude: The Cry at Theatre N16 in Balham. The play has fostered a huge range of opinions regarding its depiction of women, feminism and female sexuality and its director has a lot to say on the matter.

Why does this play need to be staged?

It’s a vital, powerful and fascinating piece that tackles feminism and sexuality from a very different angle. It’s also a wonderful dissection of Hamlet – considering the Shakespeare 400 celebrations, now is a great time to be giving the Prince of Denmark an overhaul. It’s also a largely forgotten and underperformed piece by a difficult and complex writer. We need more plays like this and writers like Barker, and if this production inspires anybody to think differently, I’ve done my job well.

Opposing views say Barker presents women in an empowering or negative light. What approach are you taking, and why?

Both – my favourite thing about this play is how it was written to empower an underwritten female character, and yet does such a piss-poor job of doing so. Or maybe it doesn’t – maybe Barker’s aggressive sexualising of Gertrude and blatant female nudity throughout is his attempt at female empowerment. Either way, he’s not a misogynist. Barker’s obsession with women has translated into some wonderful parts in his shows, and he’s always trying to write pieces that celebrate and empower them, just through a rather perverse lens. I don’t want to circumnavigate that entirely, just sand down some of the sharper corners.

What’s so appealing about the character of Gertrude in Shakespeare and Barker’s scripts?

She’s an utter mess. She doesn’t know what she wants, she doesn’t know how she’ll achieve it, and she’s governed by her wants and desires. She’s an incredibly human, rounded character. She’s a mother and a lover, neither of which are mutually exclusive.

Would you say this is a feminist play? Why/why not?

I struggle with the word “feminism”. Our world is defined by our language, and by defining an issue by a specific gender we’re generating responses that hinder as well as help. We talk about “racism” – defining someone by their race – so why don’t we call it “genderism”?

Anyway, I digress: I think this is a play about women, the role of women, and women’s sexuality – not exclusively, I think it has a lot to say about sex in general, but the fact that it does so from a female perspective is important. You could say that it’s not even really from a female perspective; it’s a script by a man, and it’s being directed by a man, but I find such comments painfully genderist. I wouldn’t expect only women to like Carol Churchill, or only men to like books by Ross Kemp.

So – is it a feminist play? Yes. Do I think that’s important? Not really. Do I think it tackles important issues around sex and gender? Yes. Is that important? 100%.

Gertrude: The Cry opens 12 June.

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.