Reckless, Rose Playhouse

The pool preserving the remains of The Rose Playhouse is the sea surrounding a nameless, remote island. Fascinating, dangerous, wild or wonderful, all of the island dwellers have lengthy, close relationships with the sea, for better or worse. These intertwining, turbulent histories meet and join each other at the Old Man and his Boy, a story of a new, young love and a past love, long lost. Heady Conduct’s Reckless unfolds a timeless tale of love, truth and community dictated by the sea using narration, site-specific influences and direct address interspersed with conventional performance. The story is both sweet and saddening, but the play’s structure is disjointed and thin, occasionally unclear in time and place, causing the story to lose support and clarity. Fortunately, the scenes between characters are endowed with honesty and intimacy, and the unique performance venue is fantastically utilized by director/actor Rebecca Rogers.

Rogers is the central narrator figure, the Harbour Master. She is the all-seeing and all-knowing, performing with a reserved omniscience. Rogers also plays the Old Man’s dead wife, a quiet enigmatic character often referenced but rarely seen. She’s a wonderful, etherial presence when she does eventually appear. The other living characters have more energy, particularly Alison Tennant as feisty, confident Girl that shy Boy falls in love with, and Blake Kubena as the Old Man, father of Boy. Kubena’s Old Man is a ball of pent up mourning that’s become a threatening obsessive, controlling his son’s every move. Though there is no issue with their performance, Kubena and Simon Rodda’s Boy look like they could be brothers in their late 20s or early 30s, not an elderly man and his teenaged son. The lighthouse keeper, played by Edward Bijl, is a watchful outsider trying to engage with the native islanders though never succeeds, resorting to desperate measures to fit in. Though the character provides some comic relief, he contributes little to the story and provides minimal plot progression.

The general atmosphere is good; atmosphere is vital to make a successful show in such a vast and unusual performance space. It gives productions here specificity of location and time period, otherwise the dark emptiness beyond the stage dwarfs the play. Nautical elements deck the back wall of the site, a hut perches precariously on the water’s edge, seagull puppets and some good sound design add specificity. The lighting isn’t fully utilized to create mood, nor does it do much to counter the sweeping grey ceiling and walls, but this island could be in a location that’s perpetually cloudy.

The use of ritual and tradition gives the story gravitas; the Harbour Master’s Festival of the Lost is a moving tribute to those drowned at sea. It connects the characters to each other and to the island, helping to counteract the loosely fitting scene structure. It also emphasizes the seriousness of the small twist at the end where the audience learns the details of the Wife’s death, and the gradual muddying of the truth with the passage of time. The most moving plot point is Boy giving a ring of his mother’s to Girl, inscribed with a medieval French saying, “pences pour moye du” or “think of me, God willing”. Historically, this ring was found during the Rose’s excavations and now lives in the Museum of London (The Rose sells replicas in its giftshop). This is a delightful nugget of Rose history bonding the theatre to this particular production.

Though Reckless is in the early stages of its expansion into a full production from a one-person show, it still needs more flesh on its skeletal frame. There are great characters and the love story at its core is wonderful, but its dreamlike atmosphere needs more detail to make the world of the play truly believable. It’s most certainly achievable, and this play will develop its sea legs as it continues its development.

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The Ghost Sonata, Rose Playhouse

A mysterious old man manipulates a poor student, then a wealthy colonel. A woman – or is she a parrot? – lives in a wardrobe. A beautiful, sick daughter always stays indoors. Servants control their masters. There is discussion of past love affairs, betrayal, and deceit. Strindberg’s The Ghost Sonata is inhabited by a cast of damaged, dysfunctional characters drawn to a house that rots them all from the inside. Director Charlotte Ive has adapted the original to suit a small cast and stage at The Rose on Bankside with good intuition for creating mystery without losing momentum. Though I am unfamiliar with Strindberg’s script, Ive seems to have made some edits but keeps the crux of the story, all which is made clear at the end. There are some issues, but this is a lovely intimate piece of theatre with strong directorial choices that mostly support the performance, and an able, predominantly female, cast.

They story is slow to develop, but does so with deliberating measure, managing to escape stagnation. The start is somewhat unclear: the initial location is vague, as is why two characters meeting for the first time are in what is an obviously engineered situation. These factors enhance the mysterious aspect of the story, but do not foster understanding. Foss Shepherd is Jacob Hummel, an 80-year-old, chatting to female Charley Willow who plays young male student Arkenholtz. Willow’s gender is not particularly well disguised, and a less convincing boy than she is as the old colonel. Hummel clearly wants something from Arkenholtz, but what and why is only revealed later. Shepherd and Willow’s performances have enough tension and energy to keep the story moving; lesser talent would cause the action to stall.

Making up the rest of the cast are Sophie Lakely and Olivia Meguer, who play the rest of the roles. Meguer as the revolting chef who stuffs the family full of food drained of nutrients is particularly fun to watch. Lakely as the supposedly ill daughter never quite connects with Willow’s student, though her conviction is genuine. They also play disembodied ghosts voiced from the audience or the edge of the stage. Shepherd bends and twists his way through his performance as Hummel, though I wonder why Ive did not cast an older man. Though with this run starting the same time as Edinburgh Fringe and Camden Fringe, perhaps the older male fringe actors were otherwise engaged.

The design is provincial and pretty with flower garlands canopied over the stage, drawing attention away from the heavy gray concrete that forms the theatre’s walls and ceiling. A small table, jug and basin and other items add period signposts without taking up too much space. The costumes are simple, but in keeping with the time period. Ive chose not to use the entire site, with the exception of an unlit dancing couple at the far side of the pool that preserves the old Rose’s foundations. For a production that is adapted to The Rose, neglecting this part of the venue raises a question: what then makes the Rose so vital to this production?

This is a production that requires patience and acceptance from its audience. The performances are worthy of attention as the plot gently and almost imperceptibly unfolds. The characters switch between expressionism and naturalism without fanfare; very little information is actually revealed until the end. The language is evocative of broken people in a time long ago who don’t quite manage to cope with life as they should and is a wonderful, odd production despite its shortcomings.

NOTE: The performance reviewed was a preview performance.

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.


Shakespeare & The Alchemy of Gender, Rose Playhouse

At 19 years old, Lisa Wolpe fell in love with Shakespeare. She’s now performed more of Shakespeare’s male roles than any woman in history after founding Los Angeles Women’s Shakespeare Company twenty years ago. She is currently touring the world with her solo show, Shakespeare & The Alchemy of Gender. Although it sounds like an academic lecture, it contains some of the best Shakespeare performances I have seen. The play pays homage to her father, telling the man’s story and how he affected her life. The man who killed himself when Wolpe was four is brought to life in a deceptively simple show that finds hope in a history of suicide, abuse and war.

Though to say the show is about her father’s life oversimplifies the content. Yes, a large portion is about him, but it also covers her life after he had gone, her relationship to specific Shakespeare characters, gender, performance, religion, Elizabethan society, family and alchemy – the transformation of a base material into something precious. These themes intertwine, with no moment unrelated or superfluous and the 55-minute show amazingly manages to not feel overloaded with messages. As she works through her life and her father’s, she relates Shakespeare’s characters to individual moments in time. As she reflects on her relationship with him now, she becomes Hamlet remembering his father’s ghost, in the best performance of the role I’ve encountered. Her father’s WWII escape and joining up with the Canadian forces as a double agent lead into Henry V. We also meet Richard III, Hermione, Shylock and others in relation to herself and her family’s history. Wolpe is not only adept as any man at embodying the male roles, she excels. She also effortlessly switches between men, women and herself, functioning in an androgynous state when addressing us out of character.

Wolpe is comfortable addressing us with an open honesty about difficult episodes in her life without coming across as confessional or masturbatory, as one-person shows run the risk of being when used to come to terms with the performer’s or writer’s issues, whatever they may be. The show is relaxed and conversational with the audience nodding, laughing, even verbally agreeing. The intimate venue helps, but she certainly has the energy to fill a huge theatre. She had a profound effect on the audience, particularly when sharing moments about her relationship with her family and dressing in boys’ clothes to defend herself against her predatory stepfather.

Her interpretation of the characters she performs seems rooted in physical and vocal distinctions, with her General American accent capturing the visceral-ness of the language that the more recently created RP/Standard English. These characters come from her gut, and she explains how she is able to relate to each one and perform them with truth. This is evidence of Shakespeare’s continuing relevance to modern life. Not only is Shakespeare: An Alchemy of Gender an excellent piece of solo theatre, it is also a lesson in performing the great Shakespearean roles of both genders and an encouragement for all to defy gender boundaries dictated by society.

Because this is a woman that must be experienced, here is an extract from her Iago. Enjoy.

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.

Iphigenia at Tauris, Rose Theatre

by Lidia Crisafulli

by Lidia Crisafulli

At the far edge of the Rose’s pool that preserves the remains of the original theatre, perches the temple of Diana. Blue and purple lighting reflects in the pool; waves are heard lapping at the shore. This is Iphigenia’s world where she serves as a priestess to the goddess on the island of Tauris, ruled by King Thoas. He loves Iphigenia and respects her wishes, but wants to kill the foreigners who turned up on the coast. She wants to not only save them, but escape with them.

Using rich, imagery-laden language, Goethe has adapted Euripides original tragedy, translated into English by Roy Pascal. The austere, Mediterranean set and rich sound design made this production a soothing but rich sensorial feast that compliments Goethe’s text. Unfortunately, unconnected performances and unvarying delivery from some of the cast who seem to focus more on the sound of their own voices rather than communicating their intentions makes a sleep-inducing affair.

The best work comes from Ben Hale as Iphigenia’s brother Orestes and his lifelong “friend” Pylades (Andrew Strafford-Baker). They contribute vibrant performances and excellent chemistry, a welcome respite from the indulgence presented to the audience prior to their entrance. Pylades’ comforting of Orestes as he is tortured by the furies for murdering his mother is the stuff fanfic is made of, it’s that homoerotic and genuinely lovely. Even though their behaviour is rather laddish (they came to Tauris to steal Diana’s statue from her temple), they are charming, passionate and a joy to watch. Their eventual clash with James Barnes’ Thoas is inevitable, but well contrast against Thoas’ steely reserve.

Title role Iphigenia (Suzanne Marie) is a complex character and could even be considered feminist despite the play premiering in 1779. Her reunion with her brother is underplayed, but her longing for her homeland is clear. She eventually uses her manipulation and womanly charms to talk down Thoas from attacking her brother and Pylades, but none of the character’s power comes across in the delivery that hasn’t altered from her opening speech. Marie shows obvious pleasure at speaking Goethe’s words but gives equal weight to most of them, causing much of meaning to be lost. Her pace could have done with being kicked up a few notches in more urgent situations, but her grief for her family was touching.

The staging was an excellent balance of the foreground and the rear of the archaeological site. It was used enough to not be ignored, but not so much that action was lost. The set and lighting from Diana’s temple along the back wall created plenty of atmosphere, even as a backdrop when the action was on the stage. Director Pamela Schermann worked well with designers Gillian Steventon and Petr Vocka to create such an evocative atmosphere. Sound design by Philip Matejtschuk really ties the rest of the design elements together. The constant waves remind on we are by the sea and perfectly suits the large pool that dominates the Rose. A cinematic soundtrack emphasises moments of conflict or suspense, ending in the start of a storm as Thoas relents. The only design letdown is the costumes. They attempt to replicate Greek tunics and robes, but they are obviously altered t-shirts held in with women’s belts and the footwear is painfully modern. Iphigenia’s flowing gown is beautiful though, and suitable to a temple priestess.

It is a play not staged often and one particularly suited for the unique space of the Rose, so it is disappointing that the lead performance let it down. Fortunately two of the supporting actors add life and energy to a beautifully crafted script. This is one of the most effectively staged productions I’ve encountered at the Rose with thoughtful design elements that can easily become the star of the show.

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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.

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.

A Chaste Maid in Cheapside, The Rose Playhouse

A CHASTE MAID OF CHEAPSIDE March 2015Compared to the number of Shakespeare productions that must be staged in London every year, his Jacobean and Elizabethan contemporaries are rarely produced. The opportunity to see Middleton’s A Chaste Maid in Cheapside in the ruins of The Rose Theatre, built in 1587, is a most rare one indeed.

The Rose is an archeological treasure with a small performance space overlooking to excavated remains. It is not the most comfortable of spaces – there is no heating or toilets, but the volunteer staff members provide the audience with blankets and Shakespeare’s Globe allows Rose audiences to use their facilities. Despite the potential for discomfort, it remains one of the most unique performance venues in London. It has the potential to dramatically emphasize a play and its production values, but directors do not always fully exploit the venue’s potential.

Set in the 1950’s, this version of A Chaste Maid in Cheapside aims to draw attention to post-war sexual frivolity and a rising middle class. Running at just over an hour, this edit focuses on the sex and relationship politics of the characters. The 1950’s aspect is conveyed solely through costume and music. Red is a dominant colour, matching the rope lights that outline the theatre’s excavated foundations, the set’s archways, and the themes of love, lust and anger. The goal of portraying a more powerful middle class does not particularly come across, but that is due to a middle class not existing at the time the play was written even though some of the characters are driven by money. The era’s post-war positivity and rebellious youth does suit this script very well, however.

Overall, the performances are very good. In particular, Alana Ross and Fergus Leathem are fantastically funny as Sir and Lady Kix. Richard Reed and Harry Russell, who play the brothers Touchwood, compliment each other well. Reed plays a cockney wide boy marketing his virility to barren couples and Russell is a wide-eyed young lover. Both play their parts with energy, enthusiasm and commitment. Commendably, casting was age-appropriate to the role. The pace of line delivery takes some time to pick up, but the second half of the play is delightfully quick.

This script has been heavily edited. Even though the story has been pared down to focus on the sexual dynamics, it did not leave much scope for character development. Quite a lot of exposition has been lost, which makes the action feel artificial and rushed. Even an extra half an hour would have given this production more substance.

The opportunities to see this play are rare and there are certainly some very good production elements in this adaptation, but the editing lets it down. The concept can feel tacked on at points, particularly with large chunks of text missing. Fortunately the second half and the performances help compensate, as does the novelty of the Rose itself.

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.