Sunday, 18 June 2017

Best laid plans… I Know You of Old, Golem Theatre company, Hope Theatre

What is so striking about David Fair’s clever recasting of Much Ado… is that it’s more of a re-mix than an extrapolation along the lines of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Whilst those two characters had endless new words to say, Fairs has used only cuts from Shakespeare’s own text which, having not been aware before the production, is quite a feat.

Also, whilst Hamlet’s college buddies had no way of escaping their fate – the clue being in the title… the characters here are not guaranteed anything: a broader existential crisis than the doomed Danes faced. I Know You of Old is therefore, Much Ado About Something with hints of themes from other plays including King Lear… “thou, nature, are my goddess” but that could be just Bill?

Conor O'Kane
Fair’s idea follows the main line of the original play but there’s a twist that I can’t really reveal… The story starts after Hero has died and is lying in a coffin in the chapel and, not that far from the audience. The fact that Benedick and Beatrice’s verbal battles take place over Hero’s coffin immediately adds a new context especially as Claudio is, naturally, broken hearted and subsumed in the depths of his guilt.

Cleverly we have a flashback to the moment when Claudio denounces Hero at their wedding via Benedick’s iPhone which plays back the moments right up to her death but even if you haven’t seen the source play, the performances convey the meaning which again is to be praised, not just the acting but also Fair’s editing.

David Fairs
Fair plays the determined batchelor Benedick as a man with a high opinion of his own wit who has the words to back his confidence up. He’s cool in a leather jacket and shades although his taste in music leaves a lot to be desired. Against him is the ferocious Beatrice played by Sarah Lambie with an elegance that belies the potency of her temper and the ability to convey so much bile with so few words.

Almost cowering between these two is Claudio as played by Conor O'Kane who is never entirely distracted from his grief by the pull of his friends’ personalities and, in an effort to derive something positive from the tragedy, attempts to trick the two to fall in love…

Ah, we know where this is going… or do we?

Sarah Lambie
It’s a very smart script and the three performers are all outstanding: O’Kane as the broken man desperate to atone for the fatal error of his pride covers the emotional ground with exhausted ease while Fairs takes Benedick’s arrogance into tragic new directions, his confidence disolving before our eyes. Sarah Lambie is a class act who covers the comedy as convincingly as the drama and I’m still smiling at the kittenish drop of Beatrice’s hair as she starts the uncomfortable process of flirting with the man she loved to hate! 

Director Anna Marsland desrves high praise for pacing the narrative with such finesse - she uses the space and the players so well, there's a constant flow of motion and emotion leaving the watching audience immersed in the passion play. Guys, you could easily have taken a second bow!

One’s to watch and another superb production at this pearl of a venue!

I Know You of Old runs until the 1st of July and it’s definitely one to catch because nothing can be taken for granted in matters of love, war and text in spite of the adage… Tickets are available from the Hope Theatre box office and online, I'd urge you to book now to avoid disappointment!

There's also a facinating interview with David and Anna in which they discuss the play and Golem Theatre company's aims at Culture by Night.

Ithankyou rating: ****

David Fairs and Sarah Lambie on location promotion

Monday, 12 June 2017

Magic realism… The Enchanted, The Bunker Theatre

"When you no longer have time, you float…”

This is play that dares to examine the psychotic mind and which uses movement, space and puppetry to find sympathy for the devils that beset us all. Based on death penalty investigator Rene Denfeld’s award-winning novel, it makes for astonishing and absorbing theatre. With subject matter like this it would be easy to miss your footing; to over-compensate and tumble into melodrama and yet Joanna and Connie Treves’ adaptation walks the line with some style.

They use a rich mix of poetic verse and the almost child-like point of view of the central character, double killer Arden, to find the enchantments in high security death row: almost nobody will get out of here alive but there is a chance of redemption for even the most damaged soul.

At times the cast moves together like a gentle breeze, they draw stage marks on the floor or dates on a white board using the stage as an extension of inventive, engaging performance.

Corey Montague-Sholay, standing Photograph Dina T
None of this would be possible without a remarkable and highly flexible cast none more so than Corey Montague-Sholay who plays our central character Arden, a killer with a soft heart who unfurls himself in the opening moments to talk of the enchantments of his prison. He won’t talk of his first kill and mentions his second but before we get to that he tells us of his mute response to life and how through learning to read his horizons have been expanded.

His favourite book is The White Dawn by James Huston and he reads it over and over, finding new words and meanings as if the author had added them between each reading. This repetition is important almost as if Arden could live his life again he would find more and more meaning and maybe follow a different path… meaning is more important than actions but actions mean more than words.

Jade Ogugua Photograph Dina T
In the prison is The Lady (Jade Ogugua) who works with the inmates to establish more about their cases and their wishes for what time they have left. She takes a particular interest in one killer called York (Hunter Bishop) a man who has given up after a brutal life poisoned from the very start: he just wants an ending. But The Lady can’t accept that and tries to dig into his story going to see his Auntie Beth (Georgina Morton) in Sawbridge Falls, a small town where reputations spread fast and stick, its name saying as much… Beth describes York as being like sugar, sweet as a baby but soon hardened.

There is also a man, Troy (Liam Harkins) – one of many men – who was with his mother. He seems friendly enough, he even shows The Lady his homegrown crop, but there’s something he’s clearly not revealing through his words… The line between human and inhumane is very fine.

What is revealed is a life of abuse and degradation, poisoned from the very start: an inheritance of hopelessness with a foetus already infected with venereal disease born to a mother abused and abusing. But the play doesn’t preach and nor does it blame society it just tries to explain. There needs to be hope above all else and that can be found in the moments in which you surrender yourself to art.
Hunter Bishop Photograph Dina T
There’s a fallen priest (Jack Staddon) working in the prison and he becomes close to The Lady. As their connection cautiously moves closer we discover how he lost faith and how he tried to help a young girl (Georgina Morton again) he met in a lap-dancing bar only for his own doubts to drive him away and leave her without her last chance. This life is brutal and those who don’t kill others are just as liable to remove themselves…

The Lady tries to build York a “castle”, a safe place in which he can speak his mind and make sense of who he is and not only how he came to be but whether he wants to continue.

As his own days fade away on death row, Arden’s imagination runs free as he talks of the electric horses set wild by each execution. The words are lyrical and one line refers to putting pen to paper “pressed as if my dreams were leaking out”. But when you have been violated – when you have no soul, the ideas in your mind become such terrible things…

Photograph Dina T
Montague-Sholay is sensational and if he were a book you wouldn’t be able to put him down! He gives a performance of suppleness with tonal control as impressive as his physical expression. We’re left in doubt that he is a gentle, poetic soul but one who has done the worst possible things.

Jade Ogugua is also superb as she gradually reveals her own reasons for trying so hard to help these men: background and conditioning needn’t defeat life and her gently-nuanced performance sparkles with emotional intelligence throughout.

The whole cast give their all and are very well choreographed by Movement Director Emily Orme. The music of David McFarlane is also well crafted and I particularly liked the medicated trance for the dance club sequence: house music with the hope taken out!

Genuinely enchanting and highly recommended – don’t miss this show!

Photograph Dina T
The Enchanted runs until Saturday 17th June and tickets are available via the box office.

The Bunker is a fascinating venue, literally underneath the Menier Chocolate Factory, which means you can grab a bite to eat before descending into this magical world and be enchanted…

Ithankyou rating: ****

Sunday, 21 May 2017

The Great Dictator/Modern Times… The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, Donmar Warehouse

It’s not often you get greeted by one of the cast when you reach the theatre, rarer still when they’re in character and warn you to take care inside – dangerous times are afoot. At least the cauliflowers adorning the Donmar’s foyer weren’t armed, or at least when I asked Dock Doris (Lucy Eaton, whose patience with daft questions was more than matched by her talent), she didn’t think they were going to go off soon…

Once inside the performance space we had to walk on stage to buy programmes and drinks, mingling with the other actors in a theatre re-cast as a Chicago dance hall, Mack the Knife played in the background as the Threepenny Opera mixed with The Cotton Club and the audience, seated all around the stage were given instructions by the players. I won’t give anything away but this was the first play I’ve watched were members of the audience were put on trial, forced to give support to a criminal political class and – those who didn’t… well…

Lucy Eaton and Lenny Henry
Whatever comes around… but there’s no inevitability about demagogues and dictators and yet, given their continued rule in parts of the world and the recent successes of a man seemingly intent on working substantial sections of the absolutists’ rule book, Bertolt Brecht’s play is as relevant as ever, especially in a new adaptation by multi-award winning Bruce Norris (Pulitzer, Olivier and Tony Awards!) which can’t help but pull in contemporary references.

So many demagogues start out as comedy and accelerate to tragedy. Mussolini modelled his body language on the Italian silent film star, Bartolemeo Pagano the star of the Maciste strongman films most of which were light-hearted affairs and yet his primitive presence suited the needs of a “strongman leader” who need to communicate a simple message. So in Brecht’s play does Uri seek help from an actor in presenting himself: the walk, the posture, the use of the arms and hands… a chest-raised rigid fold of the arms after an extension of the left arm at approximately an angle of 70 degrees.

Tom Edden is hilarious as the drink-sodden actor hired to correct Arturo’s wayward body language and Lenny Henry is surprisingly eloquent in this regard, a lithe touch for a big man progressing from a relaxed jazz-age hooligan to power politician of firm stance: strong and stable…

Tom Edden's actor schools Ui
Dictators: so bloody obvious, so crass… yet always underestimated in the rise. They are “resistible” and yet how often do they succeed?

This production reminded me of the Donmar verve of Cabaret (from 1994…) and the almost complete dissolve of the fourth wall by actors zipping around us, in the stalls and up in the gods, changing characters and singing snatches of songs new and old for the first bars of Human sung by Gloria Obianyo, to some Johnny Cash from Philip Cumbus: a cast of very fine voices accompanied by the multi-talented Ms Eaton on impeccable piano (she also sings, natch).

The play is of course all about groceries. Even in a Chicago of many distractions, a man’s gotta eat and who ever controls the supply of vegetables has his hand on the food-chain the underpins everything else.

Gloria Obianyo on song
Where there’s root vegetables there’s politics and the leaders of the trade association debate ways of neutering the influence of mayor Dogsborough (the excellent Michael Pennington) by appealing to his vanity in order to secure the loan they need for expansion in the docks.

Dogsborough is Weimar President Hindenburg who actually was gifted a country estate in exchange for favours in the East Aid Scandal. The programme notes include a list of overt references to the German political events of the thirties and it makes for painful reading.

Into this picture comes the gangster Ui (Henry) and his right hand man Ernesto Roma (Giles Terera) who keeps him, just about, on a straight course and out of any trouble he can’t handle. Ui’s squeeze is Dockdoris and he has a couple of psychotic lieutenants, the florist Guiseppe Givola (Guy Rhys) who’s not exactly smelling of roses and Emanuele Giri (Lucy Ellinson) who has the charming habit of wearing the hat of every man she kills.

Arturo out of control
The trade association tries to use Ui’s physical threat to control the situation but he and his troop are too smart for them at every turn, accepting every opportunity to move themselves onwards at whatever human cost: they are just more aggressive.

The resistance is led by attorney O’Casey (super turn from an adenoidal Justine Mitchell who’d I’d last seen in the Donmar’s superlative Kind Lear) but even the law is subverted through intimidation and thuggery and I’m afraid that an audience member was found guilty of burning down the Reichstag – sorry a warehouse… whilst another was killed in a clear implication of his guilt: you’d have hoped for better from a London audience but there you go… trust no one.

It was a performance of pure theatrical verve which the cast clearly enjoyed as much as the slightly startled audience. Props to director Simon Evans for the audacious staging and to his designer Peter McKintosh for one of the most pure-enjoyable and thought-provoking shows at this venue for some time.

Lucy Ellinson looks out on the audience
Lenny Henry showed that he has completed his transition to the stage and after so much Shakespeare is ready to tackle anything; you completely forget that he’s Lenny apart from one moment of near corpsing when the audience member was made up bruised and battered!

The rest of the cast were uniformly excellent with Lucy Ellinson almost Joker-esque in her joyful psychotics and Guy Rhys, the fearsome florist, particularly good alongside Lucy Eaton’s snarky Doris.

Before the second half began we were joined again by Doris/Lucy again who asked us if we thought she’d survive the play: “don’t shoot the piano player” if offered… but there are no guarantees in this brutal World in which one man’s word is only as good as his ability to back it up with force…

The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui plays for another month – until 17th June. Tickets are available on the Donmar site but are very limited. Catch it if you can, a play for today and all those tomorrows we – collectively – let slide…


Ithankyou rating: *****