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

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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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Theatre Review – Rent The Musical

Jonathan Larson‘s hit musical, presented by Rent 20th Anniversary Production Ltd
York Theatre Royal, Tuesday 18th April 2017

Photograph courtesy of Rent 20th Anniversary Production Ltd

Rent is an imperfect musical about imperfect people, produced originally in 1996 and countless times since (and before – it’s a modern adaptation of Puccini’s La Bohème.) It’s easy to see why we keep coming back to this tale comprised of author Jonathan Larson’s heart and soul. A landmark turn in musical theatre, Larson’s unusual, rocking score captures the lives of the marginalised citizens of mid-90’s East Village.

Dancer Mimi (Philippa Stefani), drag queen Angel (Layton Williams) and boyfriend Tom Collins (Ryan O’Gorman), performance artist Maureen (Christina Modestou), and singer-songwriter Roger (Ross Hunter) are among the strugglers and stragglers. Aspiring film-maker Mark (Billy Cullum) frames the piece as a disposable white male narrator; his own troubles unrousing but his lines painfully relevant:

How do you document real life
When real life’s getting more like fiction each day?”

Photograph courtesy of Rent 20th Anniversary Production Ltd

Despite the obvious incredible talent of the cast, the atmosphere and chemistry fall slightly short. There is something missing in the room; only occasional moments hitting the mark and sending home the sentiment that should be firing a crowd in any decade. Lee Proud’s choreography is in turns over-ambitious and bafflingly meaningless and dull. The use of gritty industrial scaffold set from Theatr Clwyd mostly as a backdrop is a missed opportunity, and the music levels vary from too loud to be intelligible, to too quiet to have any impact. The love matches aren’t quite convincing either, though this is not the fault of the cast; the script simply doesn’t allow the breathing room to relax into their spark.

Highlights are Stefani’s sexy, emotional and empowered Out Tonight, Modestou‘s masterfully observed Over The Moon and Santa Fe, performed with knowing compassion by O’Gorman, Cullum, and the impressive Williams, whom you fall hopelessly in love with at first sight. Thanks both to his sublime voice and Williams’ colourful performance, O’Gorman’s reprise of I’ll Cover You is simply beautiful.

Photograph courtesy of Rent 20th Anniversary Production Ltd

As always, full-scale high-end musical theatre about the marginalised presented to paying middle-class audiences raises the question of who this is speaking to, and what its message really is.

Catch the show and decide for yourself, tonight and tomorrow at York Theatre Royal. Tickets are available online or on 01904 623568.

Theatre Review – Turcaret

Theatre Review TFTV presents Turcaret by Alain-René Lesage
Translation by John Norman, directed by Alex Urquhart, Amy Noriko Ward and Sam Duffy

Swooning & swindling is the name of the game in Lesage’s critical eighteenth-century class farce. Oafish, dissolute financier Turcaret (Nick Newman) lavishes his affections on the coquettish Baronne (Annabel Redgate), who coyly berates him for his flood of gifts before happily bestowing them upon her own lover, the knavish Chevalier (George Doughty), who of course is also in it for the goods alone. But the goods don’t stop there; this is a game of pass the parcel that, of course, the help will ultimately win.

As carefully noted by the trio of directors, the downfall of the rich and the triumph of the subjugated is a tale we will always have time for, though the script does undo itself slightly in its own dripping working-class snobbery. The language remains rooted in the pas, while the action is framed with modern costume and a fresh, angular set. The jury is out on the sensibilities.

Newman is fantastic in the titular role, playfully saluting both Turcaret’s innuendos and more tender moments of genuine expression. Chris Casbon plays a snake-like, scheming Frontin, confiding in the audience with soliloquies to send up the frivolity of the upper echelons that he is ripping off. Harry Elletson gives excellent performances both as the ruthless Rafle and the deceptive Furet, though the real star of the show is Samantha Finlay, whose delightfully sarcastic Marine serves as a mere hors d’oeuvre to her superb Comtesse, who delivers the physicality of a saturated weeble and the comic timing of a grenade.

The other female roles are slightly thankless, as straight-women confined to either plain exposition or sardonic remarks and eye-rolling, though Redgate plays her part with wry grace, and Kat Spencer’s Lisette is enjoyable to watch as an outsider with the advantage of a moment to smell the roses and consider her true emotional response to the situation.

Casbon delivers the final twists with urgency and aplomb, and you can’t help but applaud his duplicitous heist.

The Siren Call of The Grotesque

My acting ambitions have changed somewhat since I first set my sights on treading the boards. Since I was young I have admired the graceful, feminine icons of the silver screen: Audrey Hepburn, Tippi Hedren ,Grace Kelly. The flawless, fashionable glamour was the height of sophistication; if I could pull off that aura, if I could be eloquent and graceful through anything, I would be untouchable.

Since then I’ve read a few plays. I’ve heard stories about characters that are damaged, desperate, marginalised, fascinating. I’ve acquired a taste for the grotesque.

One of my university lecturers, Harold, who passed away a couple of years ago, introduced me to Jean Genet. He impressed upon us the essence of Genet. The homeless man in town with a bleeding head. The pair of old women who always walked side by side wearing identical clothes.

I began searching for a kind of tragic truth in everything I read and wrote. Detail, pain, wildness.

Around the time of his death, I got the opportunity to act in my first Genet production; The Maids. A friend of mine runs a theatre company and shares a Harold-inspired love for Genet’s works, and we found ourselves very much on the same page. Our maids were feral women in lapdogs’ clothing. They were wild, hurt, angry, fired.

Perhaps there’s something of my old ambitions living in the hearts of Claire and Solange. The desire to be glamorous, fashionable, loved, untouchable. Despite their hatred of the bourgeoisie, while they’re chewing it up, they suck up all the juice. Why not take for yourself the best of both worlds?

Claire and Solange are ugly, twisted, animalistic rebels whose pain and frustrations might just resonate a little loudly with the public of today.

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Photograph courtesy of www.hedgepigtheatre.com

Hell in the rehearsal room

Six years ago I had the displeasure of working with an insidiously passive-aggressive actor. Native to small towns rich in comfort-zone entitlement, this thankfully rare breed was one I had not quite encountered before, but one I certainly hope never to encounter again, and one that perhaps others have also met. There is fresh breath in sharing these experiences.

We that tread the boards have all met our fair share of the more common and harmless eyeroll-inducing diva, making inappropriate comments and demands that can be calmed and washed under the bridge. This is not they.

Scene: I had co-written, and was producing, a play. One of the cast was less than pleasant. Consistently late or absent for rehearsals with no reason or apology, including the tech-dress (turning up halfway through, in trainers, for the photo shoot, amongst a full set of Victorians, distracted and distracting as hell, subsequently demanding detailed feedback as though we were watching his performance and his alone as it would be in the show. Critical of others’ performances past the point of suggestion, forgetting that he was playing a minor, one-scene role, stealing off with other actors for private chats pre-show to make his own directorial enforcements and generally contributing a sickening kind of uneasiness to the room, this man was unbearable. But we bore it. He was alright as an actor when he didn’t let his ego take over (in case you doubt that they know best – improvisation needs to be capped when your director shows you the yellow card; if you don’t trust the script, you’re not doing your job properly.) We were as civil and professional as we knew how to be, and gave him as much as we could. We arranged extra workshops for him. Which he was late for. We exchanged hopefully reassuring glances and quiet words with the rest of the cast.

The main sticking point was the recording of the show. He wanted a copy, and he wanted it now. Now, as a general rule, we didn’t do that. We made theatre. I ensured recordings were made wherever possible for my personal portfolio, and, as a second priority, for the company (this had previously only mattered to me, and could, of course, have encroached too far and spoiled the live experience.) We were but three women, we worked full time, were in the middle of a crazily intensive six-shows-in-six-months programme, and we did not then possess that magical unicorn that poops out time enough to edit and send off copies of all our shows to everyone involved. Additionally, the company ran on volunteer power, and the kindness of friends, and our running and resources were heavily dependent on those people. Records of various shows and the means to edit them lay with the different people who could provide us that help at the time, and so editing the footage, even collecting it, meant coordinating our ‘days off’ (I’ve heard of these) with those who held the footage. I mention all this not to labour a defense but hopefully to shed some light on the process for others experiencing similar problems from either end. The task sounds simple enough, yes, if we were working 4/5 day weeks with regular hours and didn’t run a fucking theatre company in every spare minute we could grab. Days off consisted of the odd hour on a random day of the week in which I might lie in a little longer because I was physically exhausted, or one day in a few months when I actually had a full 24 hours in which no doctor’s appointments, laundry, rehearsals, meetings or chores were inescapable. On these days, because they came so rarely, I often literally needed to sleep all day. My brain required a few YouTube kicks before I made it downstairs, and after that everything was just a blur.

This ugly soul sent me a hideous, threatening email a whole year after the show closed, to reinforce just how angry he was that we had not yet provided him with a full video recording of his performance; a voluntary role he accepted without that caveat, which he then raised during the run. Such was his fury that we could not immediately deliver on his last-minute, never-promised request that he vowed a vendetta to upend our script, our experience of the show, and our reputation.

We would gratefully have accepted his withdrawal from the project at this point, and needless to say, certainly would never be hiring him again.

So goodnight unto you all, aggressive, strained egos seeking out a target. Take your leave. And everyone else – it is not.your.fault.

Acting is the lifelong sting of not being chosen

I wrote the following passage a few months ago now, and it felt a bit too ripe to publish in the heat of the moment, but the sentiment stands, and is, I imagine, something that recurs for other actor-creators too, and perhaps sharing it now it is at a safe distance can be of some worth.

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It’s been a while since I had something to say. It’s been a while since I had something to say that meant something to me. Since this blog has been less anonymous, I’ve also been less carelessly candid. It’s been a dry spell. But pain and writing have long been intertwined in my life, and right now I’m kinda hurtin’.

An actor dating a director, I’ve developed a nasty habit of typecasting myself. I am constantly hearing actors being ruled out for being too comic, too straight, too camp, too hulky, too silly, too homely, etc., etc. I’m sure this doesn’t make directors bad people, it’s just how they’ve learned to function efficiently. Conversely, in acting training I’ve always believed (was I taught to believe it? I don’t remember) that any great actor can perform any role. THE MAGIC OF THEATRE. If you believe it, they believe it. Etc. But… I’ve started to internalise the typecasting, physical and otherwise. Actors beware; if you’re going to put yourself on that side of the table and keep up the acting too, the perspective will take its toll on your ego.

Instead of being the go-getting ambitious actor I was a few years ago who created her own roles, writing new scripts every week for the fun of it with the tireless belief that each piece might be the next exciting project I got to act in, I’ve written less and less, and mentally cast myself in less and less roles. Why? I’m hearing myself say things like “So-and-so would be really good at that actually.” “I can’t do ____.” “My nose is too round.” “I’m not Hollywood enough. You want her instead. She’ll enjoy that.” Which is very selfless of me, bravo me. But no fucker else is going to be doing that for you, and they shouldn’t be either.

Now, I’ve long been in the habit of pretending I care less than I do, because it’s not cool to care. Not in interviews, not in auditions, not in relationships. “Oh, you care how this turns out? Um… O-kaayyyyy…” *Makes ‘help me’ and ‘crazy’ gestures at someone behind you, as if you’re so blind with crazy that you can’t see them.* I’ve been taught over and over that I’m not welcome at the party if I want the thing at the party.

Recently I discovered a TV series which made my heart sing and my brain buzz and I thought, “That’s it. That’s what I want to be doing.” It crept inside me and I started singing out loud and practicing accents and expressions and seeking out auditions and acting classes and agents again. (Don’t get me started on the endlessly deflating catch-22 of needing drama school to get an acting job to get Equity to get Spotlight to get an agent to get an acting job to get Equity…)

I suggested it to my partner while cat-sitting at a friend’s house, we watched it together, and it was all great fun and dreams were ignited. Kittens literally gamboled. And now that friend is making something in the vein of said musical wonderment, and they’re making it for someone else. And they happened to mention to my partner that they discovered it because he had watched it on their TV. So, not only am I not  in the running for my dream roles, (not putting myself in the running?) I’m being written out entirely from my own mini tale of self-pity about it. What am I left with? My own fucking ideas?  Have you forgotten what my brain’s doing to me? No thanks, I hate that guy.

I’m all for loving one’s own company, and building one’s own dreams, but fuck pretending not to care. I am fucking burning with want. It feels ridiculous to even have to say. I’m an actor, of course I want all the goddamn roles that have ever been written. I want to perform every classic as a one-woman show in downtown New York unused fire stations, I want to be shimmying across Broadway under the spotlight, I want to be standing next to Spielberg in photographs where he’s explaining how he wants me to do something emotionally complicated. I want all the lead roles, now and always, all the best and most demanding ones, all the ones that show range and give me a chance to be loved and hated  by committed audiences. And the funny ones.

And I will hunt those down. But it would be nice for the phone to ring sometimes too.