25-11-17

I think about what kind of gift I would give her if I dared. An image comes into my mind of a glossy paperback with a rough stick wedged through it. Not placed inside but stuck through the cover and the pages, piercing them, almost sewn in like thread, right across the middle in a vertical line. Impossible, the inexplicable violence of it completely at odds with what it means about us, her, my feelings towards her, and yet it feels like the only right answer. Earthy, and all that mothers. Who’s to answer for our such wild notions? I picture her taking it from me, looking at it seriously, and at me, eyes asking, This Is For Me, From You, This Is The Answer? I almost nod, she almost reciprocates, taking the book. The air between us presses like a vacuum, compressing us into a still scene, each part of my intention crumbled like charcoal and dried into paint. She does not touch the stick, but we both feel it as if it were caught through our bodies. We are both here, but are we ready?

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Theatre Review: Wait Until Dark

Wait Until Dark - Karina Jones Jack Ellis 2 (c) Manuel Harlan edit

Karina Jones and Jack Ellis, photograph by Manuel Harlan

Presented by Original Theatre at York Theatre Royal, Tuesday 21st November 2017

Director Alastair Whatley delivers a slick, smart production of this classic thriller, bringing us a well overdue inclusive cast with blind actress Karina Jones at the helm. The performances are tight and the dynamics interesting, with touching progressive arcs. Jack Ellis’s Mike is conflicted, affectionate, and finds where his limits lie. Tim Treloar is truly chilling as Roat, encompassing in turn both the stereotypical rocking madman and a monster whose real horror is in his unpredictability.

David Woodhead’s design translates the tension of proximity throughout this Hitchcockian choreography of perfectly tuned sound and light. Every change is palpable, breathless.

The exposition is rapid-fire, enough to skip the recap for those familiar with this well-known story but perhaps a little too presumptuous for a newborn audience.

What follows is the thrilling experience of the three crooks essentially performing a duplicitous audio drama for the sole benefit of Susy; their initial fastidiousness no less captivating than their inevitable carelessness.

From the moment the tables are turned, the pace and energy snowball right through to the electrifying finale, which is played with finesse. There are moments where the action seems to skip a beat, but the rhythm thrums through all the same. Pervasive is the sense of violation, of unease and exploitation. Any triumph is slightly overshadowed by the blackness of the deeds undone in Susy’s apartment.

Wait Until Dark is playing until Saturday 25th November; tickets available from York Theatre Royal.

Theatre Review: Rita, Sue and Bob Too

Presented by Out of Joint, Octagon Theatre Bolton and Royal Court Theatre at York Theatre Royal, Tuesday 14th November 2017

Reviving this nineteen-eighties coming-of-age tale surrounding an underage affair is an interesting choice in the wake of the #MeToo campaign. Writer Andrea Dunbar’s “refusal to moralise” on what we currently know as statutory rape makes this a complex theatrical experience.

The production values are slick. The set is an impressive section of flats book-ending a distant view of a town including rolling hills and estates, complete with lights and sky. The music is fitting and evocative, used in interludes to deepen our understanding of each character’s internal situation. The acting is consistently fantastic.

Photo Credit : The Other Richard

James Atherton, Taj Atwal & Gemma Dobson. Photo by Richard Davenport.

James Atherton’s Bob is playfully predatory, carefully testing the waters before developing his advances. Taj Atwal plays Rita as naive and grumpily childlike with brief moments in which she feels comfortable appealing to Sue for serious conversation, making her conclusion all the more lonely and upsetting. Gemma Dobson stands out as Sue, giggly and easygoing with deep undercurrents of awareness and self-care.

Rita, Sue and Bob Too Production PhotosPhoto Credit : The Other Richard

Photo by Richard Davenport

We are aptly transported to Rita, Sue and Bob’s small world view. What divides the auditorium is the script.

More and more, we exist in the black and white. Political, personal and international events drive people further apart toward hyperbolic loyalty to one side or another. Dunbar’s observational, semi-autobiographical drama drags us back to the grey area. It is a stark reminder of the complexities that make up any narrative; of duplicitous truth. It spends quiet moments acknowledging lust and romantic ideation as an important feature in a victim’s experience; prominent emotions that are often silenced lest they support the wrong narrative. The women in this play describe the men as inevitable cheaters, while blaming each other for driving the unfortunate events, enhancing the long-accepted rendering that women are in control of their abuse and men are simply predictable, sex-crazed neanderthals guided by them.

Photo by Richard Davenport

The sex that fills the story is in turn played for comedy and for a feeling of longing and connection, just bare enough to drive some audience members from the room while the rest erupt in laughter, uncomfortable in some places and raucous in others. What permeates is a sense of three immature souls desperate for something, clutching at anything, with a tragically foreseeable conclusion and complete lack of just consequence. Young women shoulder the blame, burden and hurt of a careless affair while the abuser seemingly avoids any retribution and loses one family only to replace them with another, giving the impression that the cycle will go on. And of course we know it does.

Rita, Sue and Bob Too Production PhotosPhoto Credit : The Other Richard

Photo by Richard Davenport

Theatre Review: The Winter’s Tale by York Shakespeare Project

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“A sad tale’s best for winter:”

Director Natalie-Rose Quatermass transports us to two contrasting worlds in this charming, moving tragicomedy. The cold, stark modern business dress of Sicilia stands proud and stiff among winter-lit castle walls, while the other three seasons combine their warmest vibes to set the scene for Bohemia; a tumbling, skipping, rose-peach scene of music, freedom and feasts. A direct address to the audience implicates us in the potent messages of this ever-relevant script.

Live music and score by Flora Greysteel sets the tone perfectly throughout, adding a layer of richness to Shakespeare’s words that is lacking in so much live theatre today. Ben Prusiner’s delightful set design creates the perfect accompanying visuals; a frigid indoor court for the oppressed Sicilia waiting to out its demons, and the uninhibited comfort of a sunny backyard Bohemia. Keep your eye out for some resourceful bunting. Florence Poskitt’s costume design is also beautifully, subtly complementary to the nuances of the story, with Hermione’s blue velvet night-sky look a particular highlight.

Lovers Florizel (Tom Jennings) and Perdita (Jess Murray) are as heartwarming as Shepherd (Roger Farrington) and Clown (Elizabeth Lockwood) are ridiculous, while Leontes (Paul French) and Polixenes (Nick Jones) form a very sedate, steady pair of grown boyhood friends. French delivers an alarmingly recognisable Leontes; softly-spoken, taut, controlled, with flashes of spitting violence. The cowering anticipation of all around him is tangible. Claire Morley is excellent as always in her clowning conman role of a Britpunk Autolycus, singing and improvising to the audience on an intimate level during the interval, before we see Time’s desperate chorus of a cluttered collective consciousness in turmoil.

In defence of ‘rural latches’

Three characters stood out in this tale of three halves to form a trio of attractive feminist teachers for our modern age. We build from doting wife Hermione (Juliet Waters), who refuses to denounce her love in friendship for a man despite her husband’s palpably violent jealousy, to Camilla (originally Camillo, played by Elizabeth Elsworth) – the committed noblewoman who remains true to her own morals despite her volatile position between a rock and a hard place – to the magnetic Paulina (Maggie Smales),  smashing the patriarchy with elegance and eloquence from her first entrance. Her pleasure on hearing that Hermione’s child is a daughter, alongside Antingonus’s (Tony Froud) devotion to her, is a restorative draft to fill anyone’s cup. And then there is her speech on witchcraft, which… until emoji in reviews are a thing, let me simply suggest here that Smales lights several fires in this scene.

This mature cast delivers the kind of nuance to these characters which elucidates avenues we don’t often explore in Shakespeare’s works, and which makes one excited to age as an actor.

Takeaways:
More men need to listen to women.
You don’t need more than sound for effective representation of daunting stage directions (let’s be honest, Shakespeare was just trolling us with “Exit, pursued by a bear“), and it is right to focus on the emotions, rather than the gimmicks, in this story.
Women who stand up for themselves, and their true allies, stand to lose something substantial.
“It is an heretic that makes the fire, Not she which burns in’t.”

Catch the show tonight at 7:30pm at John Cooper Studio, 41 Monkgate, York. Tickets available on the door or from York Theatre Royal.

You might like this if you like:
Dangerous Beauty

Theatre Review: Pride & Prejudice at York Theatre Royal

Sara Pascoe’s riff on Austen’s most widely-loved novel is a reinterpretation aimed at those with a prejudice about the characters’ choices. The original story is present as the larger part of a jigsaw of meta modern interludes; a couple editing the story for film/TV, a class of Catherine Tate style schoolgirls being taught by Lizzie, a TED talk on love and Austen, and the actors in rehearsal for the play-within-the-play. The framework attempts to bring some quantifying commentary to the Bennett sisters’ unique range of feminisms in relation to love and marriage. It both directly provokes inane questions (“Can we make this feminist?”; “Can love as we know it exist in a time like this?”) and subsequently evokes more intelligent ones (“What exactly is it about Austen’s stories that make us swoon so?”)

Carla Goodman’s design sees the action taking place within a giant birdcage in front of a tarnished mirror, no doubt enhancing the emphasis on the societal trappings experienced by our protagonists, and their parallels to our modern situation, with notable blind spots.

It’s unclear what the juxtaposition truly adds to our current understanding of Pride and Prejudice. Given the novel’s standing in popular culture, the presumption of such a level of ignorance in the audience seems a bit of a misfire. With such a lauded source text, it’s important to note what’s new about this version.

The differences: Darcy (Matt Whitchurch) is such a scanty presence, and displays little, if any, quality for Lizzie (Bethan Mary-James) to fall for; indeed they have so little interaction that there is no chance for convincing “dynamism”, perhaps left out to enhance Pascoe’s point on the shallowness of love connections made in the era. The modern intercuts bring Austen’s work into the territory of a kind of time-travelling Love Actually. Self-aware songs arrive late into the action, proving somewhat trite and awkward despite Emmy The Great’s perfectly fitting scores elsewhere, including on Austenland, which inspires similar self-examination of our attraction to the world of AustenThese lyrics fall short of revelation, though there are some refreshing and satisfying moments including a song between Lizzie and JaneMary (played by the brilliant Rachel Partington) is mostly played up for comedic effect, transcending simple distaste for what she perceives as her sisters’ trivial interests, and presenting instead as neuroatypical. Mr and Mrs Bennett (played by Adrian Irvine and Kerry Peers respectively) have moments of tender connection not present in other adaptations, which is both moving and welcome.

What remains? Lizzie is a role model in exemplary female friendships. She shares poignant moments of unconditional support with Jane, Mary and Charlotte, making no judgments on their disparate choices, which is more than can be said of the writing. Lydia (Olivia Onyehara) is familiarly obnoxious and vivacious, while Bingley (Matthew Romain) is unfalteringly charming. Mary-James’s Lizzie is perfectly sardonic and removed in public; loyal and generous with her loved ones. The superb cast make the show thoroughly enjoyable, as do some playful touches such as dressmakers’ dummies making appearances in the dance scenes. We’ll all be voting for Dummy #1 and Wickham (Alex Sawyer) on the next season of Strictly. Other highlights include Romain’s Mr Collins, with his interminable sermons and severely misjudged compliments.

The verdict: Austen was successful enough a feminist pastiche artist, and we need to place more trust in her. If this production proves any point about her stories, it is that their cores are so strong that we can pretty much do anything we want with them, and they will still be great stories populated by entertaining characters.

The show runs until Saturday 14th October. Tickets are available from the York Theatre Royal box office or online at: https://goo.gl/9YBDh8
Check this out if you like: Austenland, Lost In Austen, Love Actually

Theatre Review – Robin Hood: The Arrow of Destiny at York Theatre Royal

Richard Hurford’s modern spin on the legend of Robin Hood is just what we need right now. From its diverse cast to its feminist hero profferings, this heartwarming production directed by Damian Cruden and Suzann McLean is fun for all the family; even that uncle with the cold, black, anti-panto heart.

Joanna Holden in Robin Hood The Arrow of Destiny. Photo Anthony RoblingJoanna Holden. Photo by Anthony Robling.

From the moment you enter the foyer, your experience of the show is a magical one; enhanced by an aviary soundtrack, brightly coloured flags and a children’s dress-up corner, placing you right in the heart of medieval Sherwood Forest.

Trevor A Toussaint as Friar Tuck in Robin Hood The Arrow of Destiny. Photo Anthony Robling

Trevor A Toussaint. Photo by Anthony Robling.

In a refreshingly feminist take, both communities dwelling in Sherwood Forest are matriarchal (whether they realise it or not), being lead by Maid Marian (the talented Siobhan Athwal) and ‘Little John’ (seasoned comedic pro Joanna Holden). The majority of the core-cast goodies are people of colour; Friar Tuck being played by the vibrant Trevor A Toussaint. The tongue-in-cheek humour is well-placed and well-delivered. The subversion of expectations accompanied by a mixture of lounge funk and rap in Rob Castell’s adorable score make this a Hamilton for all ages. Indisputably love-to-hate-able baddies the Sheriff of Nottingham and Guy of Gisborne are played by John Elkington and Ed Thorpe (also the Musical Director) respectively.

John Elkington & Ed Thorpe in Robin Hood The Arrow of Destiny. Photo Anthony Robling

John Elkington and Ed Thorpe. Photo by Anthony Robling.

Marian is The Woman Behind The Man, or rather the woman behind the legend of Robin Hood (charming stage newbie Neil Reynolds). The show makes no bones about the fact that she is motivated and competent, while Robin is lazy and inept, and right down to Robin’s moment of surprise at an impromptu, matter-of-fact outing of several merry men as Actually Girls Too, it celebrates capable women without making a fuss about it.

Joanna Holden Neil Reynolds & Siobhan Athwal in Robin Hood The Arrow of Destiny. Photo Anthony Robling

Joanna Holden, Neil Reynolds and Siobhan Athwal. Photo by Anthony Robling.

Although it avoids undermining its own message in the comedy, unlike so many modern family tales afraid of picking a political side, it does do this somewhat in the third act, introducing a hitherto unheard-of (and uncharacteristically dark) threat in order to turn Marian’s heroism into fragility, bound by her maidenhood and in need of rescuing. Granted; the message is, “It takes a village”, rather than that all women need a knight in shining tights, but it feels like more negotiation of its own feminism than is necessary.

Siobhan Athwal as Marian in Robin Hood The Arrow of Destiny. Photo Anthony Robling

Siobhan Athwal. Photo by Anthony Robling.

Possibly the most rousing sentiment is Marian’s “I know I’m not enough” – an obstacle that all who strive come up against. She is the hero every little girl and boy needs, and maybe they can in turn give her a lesson in taking credit where it’s due. There is a note in the programme about the passing on of a legend, and the various re-tellings we encounter in each generation, and this show makes its joyful mark in the evolution of Robin Hood.

Performances run until 2nd September, 7pm (Tuesday & Thursday – Saturday), 2.30pm (Wednesday – Saturday), tickets available from www.yorktheatreroyal.co.uk

On Celia

 

This Monday sees the opening of Re:Verse Theatre’s production of Volpone, in which I am lucky enough to be playing Celia. In doing my homework on the play and the character, I found there to be much more to Celia than meets the eye (or ear), and she is not often discussed in much depth, so I wanted to share my thoughts and findings here.

Celia’s name (pronounced ‘chay-lee-uh’ in our version) means ‘heavenly one’; she fits Jonson’s scheme of not-so-subtle character names in Volpone where everyone is ‘as it says on the tin’ – the wiley fox, the scrounging birds of prey, the usurping parasite. Our production involves larger-than-life animal masks for all save Celia and Bonaria, who provide the only sense of moral conscience in the play and thus remain human amongst the corrupt bestial beings.

Celia provides a moral pillar for the tale without being very present or very vocal. She emulates qualities held in high regard for women of the era; piety, modesty, loyalty, obedience. Interestingly, in our cut Celia has no counterpart – Lady Would-be is no longer, so we have no reverse seduction scene with which to compare Celia’s response to Volpone. I’m not sure what this does to Celia’s representation other than thrust it further central with harsher focus.

The seduction scene is placed as the climax of the play in that it is the turning point for Volpone, when he loses control of himself and thus his con, making Celia the catalyst for his ruin (herself having self-control in abundance). It is also essentially a battle between good and evil, morality and corruption, the ‘heavenly’ Celia and the ‘satanic’ fox. Good triumphs purely in a lack of damage done, when the cavalry arrives in the form of Bonaria. Neither party has persuaded the other of their cause, it is worth noting.

You can play Celia with as much fire as you like; she remains a damsel in distress no matter the reading, but is at least rescued by a woman in this show, allowing her some breathing room to go full damsel without the trope feeling too archaic. I think it would be a mistake regardless to make her entirely sarcastic just to experiment with radical modern feminism or to avoid the traditional victimhood. Her plight gives her layers and integrity.

She can read as insipid or naive, (she has been called “anaemic”, “completely and intentionally null”) but that’s a dull interpretation. I like to think our Celia is more insightful, in line with Jonson’s intention that she be considered the embodiment of wisdom.

She has feelings she resists, making it clear that goodness comes in how you act, not how you feel, which gives us a tremendous sense of ownership and agency, ever more needed in our current political climate. She is very oppressed in the play, but never by herself – she is what she chooses to be. Her lines do suggest that she blames what happens to her on herself and her beauty, and we (intend to) hint at comment on that in the reading. This for some calls her wisdom and strength into question, a reaction I would argue is misogynistic – it ignores the potency of living with self-doubt (and 100% external coercion) and still somehow staying true to one’s core principles to the point of forsaking life itself.

As audiences we’re not usually interested in watching characters be good and upstanding – we want chaos within the safe space of the auditorium. But this production is happening out in the wild, right in your faces, making it very immediate, and I think now of all times we need to see principles and integrity triumph somewhere.

Jonson’s prose is harder to learn than Shakespeare’s verse, my only level comparator; the rhythm isn’t quite as catchy, but it’s so rich and rewarding to study and spend time with, and I’m glad I’ve gotten to know Celia.

Ben’s direction refreshingly acknowledges the mixture of good/bad, funny/foreboding, light/dark that any one given moment is, so what could be played quite flat is very much 3D, breathing and alive. I hope you can make it, and can find something in Celia that speaks to you as she does now to me.

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