The Cardinal, Southwark Playhouse

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Within 50 years of Shakespeare’s death, playwriting was changing quickly. Less flowery language and more powerful female characters are prominent in James Shirley’s rarely-staged The Cardinal, written in 1641. The plot is more streamlined, but some of the outdoor playhouse performance conventions linger along with the grandness of the king’s court. The story proudly flaunts influence from earlier revenge tragedies and is no less bloody, but easier to follow than some of those on stage a few decades or so earlier. In Southwark Playhouse’s smaller space with historical costumes, Justin Audibert’s production evokes the intimate atmosphere of indoor playhouses that were beginning to take over towards the end of Shakespeare’s career.

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Disconnect, Ugly Duck

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Imagine a production of Waiting for Godot with more characters, set in space, where the audience chooses the outcome of the story. What you are picturing is probably gloriously weird and kitschy. But now add clumsy dialogue, some poor performances and a loosely applied Brexit analogy, performed on a set that looks like it’s built of cardboard and/or they ran out of paint. If your mind’s eye makes a different picture now, it be more accurate.

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The Ferryman, Royal Court

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Nearly a decade after Jerusalem opened to universal acclaim at The Royal Court, Jez Butterworth finally gives us another masterpiece. A sprawling family/political drama taking place over one day in 1981 rural Armagh, The Ferryman barrels towards a predicable end. But the genius lies in the final scene, where the plot shoots off in a different direction like a rogue firework before exploding. Laden with familial craic, rebel spirit, the complexities of colonialism and rounded off with phenomenal performances, The Ferryman encapsulates the best of contemporary British playwriting.

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Becoming Mohammed, Pleasance Theatre

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Director Annamiek van Elst states that, “now more than ever, there is a need to represent narratives around Islam in a positive light”. Too right. Our overly white and insular theatre is trying to diversify, but it still has a long way to go and systemic white, middle class administrations’ unconscious bias to overcome.

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Bubble Schmeisis, Battersea Arts Centre

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Nick Cassenbaum grew up in London’s Jewish community and experienced all the cultural mores that go with it – Spurs games, dubious summer camps, trips to Israel and discovering his willy isn’t like the other boys’ at school. Like many young people as he got older, he hadn’t quite found his place in the world. Until he went with his grandfather, Papa Alan, to the Canning Town bathhouse.

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The Poetry of Exile, White Bear

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You can be who you want to be, right? Rob, a driving instructor in modern day Romford, believes himself to be an 8th century Chinese poet from the Tang Dynasty. When he finally chooses to live the sequestered life of a poet out on the marshes in a wooden hut, it has huge repercussions on his family and friends. The whole thing’s silly – sure, you can choose a career, or where you live, but contrary to what Rachel Dolezal and desperate sci-fi fans may think, we cannot chose our race or the century we live in.

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Testament, VAULT Festival

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by guest critic Michael Davis

The idea of retelling biblical stories is nothing new. During the infancy of European theatre, the Mystery plays were popular for showing highlights of the Bible. Much later, during the 17th century, John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost would – contrary to author’s intentions – spur an interest in the anti-hero and biblical stories from a revisionist perspective. People over the centuries have questioned aspects of the Bible that they’ve found problematic for various reasons. Directed by Lucy Jane Atkinson, Tristan Bernays’ Testament not only addresses some of the problematic passages, but also give a voice to minor characters in the Bible.

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