Sunday, 25 March 2007


22nd March 2007

Leaves by a first time writer and George Devine award winner Lucy Caldwell is set in Ulster. It’s a confidently written piece of family drama telling the story of Lori the oldest daughter who goes off to university in mainland Britain but then attempts to commit suicide.

The bulk of the play deals with the fractured family attempting to understand and deal with this trauma as Lori returns home. The family argue among themselves, often goading each other, while the younger girls, Clover and Poppy, struggle to understand what has happened to their older sister.

It’s all rather bleak - what mainly comes across is a sense of incomprehension and thwarted love. As a portrait of a fractured family Leaves is affecting – but we don’t really get to know what caused the fracture; why Lori attempted suicide. There’s surely more going on in her life than is revealed in the play. The reasons behind her attempt don’t seem to be explored. Is it simply the fact of going to university? Or is her rather nebulous idealism – that life must get better – the root cause of the misery presented on stage?

From the mother’s point of view things have got better, compared to her childhood. But for the eldest daughter this is meaningless. She has no understanding of what her mother endured.

The final scene – with the family happily celebrating Lori’s imminent departure for university shows another side of the family. They are cheerful and optimistic – but coming at the end it doesn’t actually help in understanding what has gone before. It might have been more effective if the scene had been played in linear time at the start.

The acting is convincing, especially Fiona Bell’s grief-stricken mother and Conor Lovett’s shell-shocked father - the solitary male in a household of women.

But for all its satisfying staging and performance, and despite being well written the play seems a little incomplete and has an old-fashioned feel overall.

Royal Court Theatre Upstairs

Friday, 23 March 2007

The Tempest

21st March 2007

The RSC Tempest starring Patrick Stewart as Prospero starts with a coup de theatre – the shipwreck. The backdrop is a giant radio set, the dial becomes a window into the ship, while film of rough sea is projected onto the curtain. It’s a very effective shipwreck marred slightly by the fact that much of the dialogue – already distorted as if through a radio – is hard to make out.

The landing on the island is similarly spectacular. A giant curtain with a swirling of snowflakes projected onto it introduces a wintry, windswept isle. Although things slow down as Propero brings us up to speed with the story so far, the almost realistic beginning has lead into the magical setting of rest of the play.

However, the magic in the play, like the setting itself, is ‘rough’ and is reflected in the bleak and harsh set. It is a sharp contrast to what is normally expected of a Mediterranean island. Somehow we have moved to an indeterminate and dark far north, which reflects the mood of Prospero’s isolation. The mound of what appears to be ice in the centre of the stage provides an entrance point for characters to appear and observe. It has something Beckettian about it – almost as if Prospero is the male equivalent of Winnie in Happy Days.

Miranda – an excellent performance from Mariah Gale - is convincing as someone who has seen no other beings apart from her father or Caliban for her whole life. Her wonder and gaucheness at meeting Ferdinand and later the others from the shipwreck are believable, touching and amusing. Her reactions as the play closes lead to the suspicion that her avowal of love for Ferdinand may be transient and that trouble lies ahead.

Prospero is brought fully to life in Patrick Stewart’s portrayal and as always his verse speaking is exemplary. His ‘rough magic’ is perfectly embodied in Julian Bleach’s Ariel. Bleach’s first appearance gives another Beckettian visual frisson as he emerges from a dustbin like a character in Endgame. Later he glides round the stage in the manner of Nosferatu from F.W, Murnau’s silent expressionist film.

Abundant humour is provided by Joseph Alessi’s drunken butler and Craig Gazey’s jester. However some other performances are a little disappointing. John Light’s Caliban is rather dull, while Finbar Lynch’s King of Naples seems offhand especially when expressing grief at his son’s supposed drowning.

The music is effective and geographically ambiguous – highlighting the mystery and magic of the island. It is particularly well illustrated when three goddesses sing a song that is like a musical geographical tour from northern Europe to the Far East.

This is a robust Tempest that provides an entertaining and thought-provoking version of Shakespeare’s farewell to the stage. It has a bleakness of vision, coupled with magic and humour that is highlighted by the visual references to the work of Samuel Beckett.

Novello Theatre

Tuesday, 20 March 2007

Sizwe Banzi Is Dead

19th March 2007

Although Siwe Banzi Is Dead was devised by Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona 35 years ago as a particular response to apartheid era South Africa, it more than survives the test of time.

It starts with John Kani’s as Styles drawing the audience in with his stories of work on a car production line, the relationships between the black employees and the white employer, and his determination to work on his own account as a photographer. It is a bravura performance, full of energy that dominates the stage. It is also a little unsettling because it is on the verge of black stereotyping, yet this is undercut by what he actually says about the ruling class and life under the apartheid system.

The tone of the play changes even further when Winston Ntshona’s Sizwe Banzi turns up to have his photograph taken. He wants send the picture to his wife and children. Questions of identity, survival under an oppressive regime and – indeed – of humanity are raised. They are dealt with apparent lightness but an underlying forcefulness and cogency. Sizwe Banzi himself does not have the correct papers to allow him to remain in the city and work, but there are ways round this. We are shown the reality of living in an apartheid society, what identity means, and how the poor and dispossessed survive within a system that denies their humanity.

The staging is simple yet hugely effective. We move from photographer’s studio to factory floor to back streets to church in the blink of an eye. All this is accomplished with the minimum of props. One of the extraordinary things about this production was that despite the vast Lyttelton stage the performances of the two actors were so commanding that the audience remained totally engrossed and riveted throughout.

While, Siwe Banzi Is Dead is about the pass laws of apartheid era South Africa it is more than just a powerful historical document. It still resonates with the times we live in – modern parallels are there to be seen.

Lyttelton Theatre until 4th April


15th March 2007

Two economic migrants sit in a railway station where the trains no longer stop. The stationmaster is at first suspicious but later comes to accept them, particularly when he discovers that the older of the two was also once a railwayman. Meanwhile in the town local industries close down and the resentful workers are either unemployed or have to move away. They look for someone to blame and pick the easiest target, the recently arrived strangers at the rail station.

Although set in the Europe of 1994, David Greig’s play could equally well be taking place today. The continent is still experiencing changes which are manifested by the movement of refugees, economic migrants and the death of old industries. The play still has a power to resonate – or rather it should have.

It’s well enough staged. There’s a big screen at the back of the performing space simulating passing trains and at the end a fire as the newly unemployed locals burn down the station and its occupants. The wide stage is used to move swiftly between scenes – or even have them over lapping – but somehow the production remains unconvincing. It all seems rather one-paced.

The acting was variable. However, Robert Paterson’s stationmaster and –particularly – Johannes Flaschberger’s refugee stood out.

There were bursts of dramatic violence and an effective use of fire before the final conflagration. The sub-Brechtian scene naming on the giant screen, and the fact the cast sat at the stage side when not performing, seemed an affectation rather than a convincing part of the whole or use of the alienation technique.

Europe should have had a more powerful revival: unfortunately this production did not catch fire – unlike the railway station.

The Pit until April 10th

Saturday, 17 March 2007

Someone Else’s Shoes

8th March 2007

Drew Pautz’s debut play is described as a free market comedy and is indeed very funny at times. Its first scene – set in the Cistine Chapel - starts with fast overlapping dialogue containing plenty of laughs. However, things slow down as the play progresses. There are fewer laughs and little analysis or critique of globalisation.

The play’s central idea is that everything in the modern world is a commodity. The story involves the rather unlikely collision of a former student, an artist, an anti-globalisation activist and two brothers who run an international footwear company. One of the brothers is dedicated to business, the other is a patron of the arts. The clash – if that’s not too strong a description - is one between exploiters, protesters and exploited.

Pautz gives his characters some depth – they are not mere ciphers. The dedicated capitalist for example is more sympathetic than his potentially sleazy arts-patron brother is. Indeed, the latter, by buying up all the artist’s work, demonstrates a greater commitment to exploitation. He both owns and removes her from the art world she’s keen to inhabit. She and her work become the patron’s playthings.

The artist’s boyfriend, somewhat fortuitously, gets employed by the capitalist brother. The final character is an anti globalisation ‘activist’ who become the former student’s lover and yet she also exploits him in her battle against global capitalism.

However, there is a core of coincidence in the play that leads to a feeling of implausibility. And although there are arguments about globalisation and direct action, nothing much comes out of them. The wants and desires of the individual seem to have replaced those of any social grouping or class – there is no wider political or moral context.

Someone Else’s Shoes is generally well performed with Patrick Drury as Richard – the more conservative brother - particularly engaging. Steven Pacey ‘s art collecting Adam could have been sleazier. Of the women, Emily Bruni’s artist Nadine is both irritating and engaging while Denise Gough’s Mary is an amusing but unsatisfactory voice of protest. Jonjo O’Neill’s Jed is more rounded veering between the sympathetic and irritating. The staging is slick and minimal with settings suggested by just a few props.

The ending seems down beat and offhand. Jed and Nadine apparently re-committing to each other, but failing to acknowledge it – they appear to be getting together again by default. This suggests that to do anything else would either mean committing to or against globalisation – something this comedy doesn’t quite want to do.

Soho Theatre until 7th April

Saturday, 10 March 2007

The Caucasian Chalk Circle

7th March 2007

This masterly and entertaining take on one of Brecht’s greatest works is the third of his plays to be staged in the past year – following on from the National’s Galileo and English Touring Theatre’s Mother Courage. Following a national tour it is now playing at The Cottelsloe Theatre in a version by Frank McGuniness, which was last seen at The Olivier in 1997 performed by Complicite..

The Caucasian Chalk Circle is a play within a play – except that the outer core is just a prologue and the only sense in which we leave the play within is when the singer summarises the moral at the end. However, we start with two groups of people – the goatherds and fruit pickers – trying to decide how best to use the valley they live in. The goatherds are the traditional owners of the land, while the fruit pickers want to irrigate it for the benefit of all.

The inner play deals with the problem of who is the ‘real’ mother of an abandoned child rescued from war and brought up by a former servant of the ruling elite. It simultaneously acts as a lesson about how the fruit picker/goatherd conflict should be resolved and also as a demonstration of the administration of justice and exercise of political and social power. Essentially it is a morality play – but not in a sanctimonious sense, as no single character, not even Grusha the saviour of the baby, is sentimentally or superhumanly good.

Directed by Sean Holmes, this production has everything that is to be expected from a staging of Brecht – a strong and versatile ensemble cast with excellent leading performances from Cath Whitefield as Grusha and Nicolas Tennant as Azdac. Although strong, however, their performances never overshadow the rest of the cast – indeed the other cast members are able to show their convincing versatility in a large number of supporting roles. Grusha had a feisty honesty and youth about her, while Azdac is entertainingly dissolute and cunning, yet essentially a sympathetic, not to say morally centred character.

The staging is simple and inventive. Although the way effects are produced is clear to see we are implicitly convinced of their truth. For example, an actor pours water from a jug to mimic the sound of Grusha’s husband having a bath. The husband sits fully clothed in the empty bath, yet we are convinced he is washing himself. In the same way various cast members simulate the crying of the baby through a microphone which – appropriately enough –is connected to a baby amplifier.

There is inventive use of freshly composed music – rather than Paul Dessau’s original – which underscores the fact that Brecht’s work still has something pertinent to say about today and stops the production being an exercise in nostalgia. The music is percussion based, produced on drums, keyboards and glockenspiels together with the cast providing other vocal and percussive effects.

Perhaps the only problem with it all was the performance of the singer – in effect the narrator of the piece - as he felt rather mannered and somewhat at odds with the ensemble. That, though, is a minor point for this is a masterful and hugely enjoyable staging of Brecht’s epic morality play.

Cottesloe Theatre until 14th April

Friday, 9 March 2007


1st March 2007

This was a ‘scratch’ performance of an adaptation by Chris Thorpe of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange. The idea is that the audience will feed back on how the work in progress might develop. It should not be judged in the same way as a finished production.

The novel was published in 1962. Stanley Kubrik subsequently and controversially filmed it in 1971. In addition, Burgess himself prepared a stage version, which was revived in 1990 by the RSC.

The story concerns Alex the leader of a teenage gang devoted to violence and music. They are alienated from society, beyond all social and political control. Subsequently Alex’s mind is destroyed by the state as it attempts to brainwash him into conformity. This is subject matter that resonates with the early 21st century concerns about feral children. Modern society fears its offspring and seems to prefer punishment to rehabilitation and re-integration into society.

So, altogether, this is a good a choice novel to bring to the stage. It presents an excellent opportunity to draw parallels with modern Britain and create a piece full of social and political meaning. Indeed, the company (Breaking Cycles) under director Benji Reid advocates ‘Hip Hop Theatre’. Consequently expectations are high from the start but unfortunately disappointed as the evening unfolds. It would be easy to be over-critical and ungenerous about the production – it is, after all, a work in progress.

However, the narrative arc was quite hard to follow. There was little sense of why the audience should sympathise or empathise with gang leader Alex. Sean Cernow brings this character to rather monotonous Liverpudlian life. The rest of his gang has similar accents –which suggests accent is being used as shorthand to indicate that they are working class. However, in the novel, Alex is decidely middle-class. The production needed to make it clear why these changes had been made.

Burgess started his creative life as more of a composer than novelist – and in both novel and film classical music plays a large part. This production had specially composed music that sounded like something Erik Satie might have discarded- an endless faux Gymnopedie, prompting the further question why was there a move from rhythmically strong romantic music to a more expressionistic sound world?

At points it feels as though there is too much exposition: Alex has some very long monologues and nothing much happens during them. If they’re meant to give an insight into Alex’s being, they don’t really succeed.

There was a section where he was being brainwashed. Three cameras focussed closely on his face and their images were projected on the back wall of the theatre. Again this went on for rather too long. The performer couldn’t sustain the intensity of this multiple gaze on his agonised response to what he was enduring.

And having seen Michael Gambon in Eh Joe last summer – in which his features were similarly projected as he responded to outside stimuli – it was impossible not to compare the two performances – unfairly I know. Katie Mitchell has also used this technique more effectively – most notably in The Waves in this same auditorium at the end of last year. The use of video needs careful thought if it is not to simply appear as a gimmick.

Cottesloe Theatre

Monday, 5 March 2007

Peer Gynt

28th February 2007

Peer Gynt is one of Henrik Ibsen’s early works and – unusually for him – written in verse. There is none of the closely observed social dissection of his later plays. Instead we get a broad arc of story telling as Peer Gynt’s life and actions are examined.

The play has a grand sweep that, among other things, takes in folk stories, village life and imperialism. However, despite this grandeur, it is essentially about a man who fails to live his life fully – to commit himself. Instead he ends up failing not only those around him but himself.

This version of Ibsen’s play, directed and adapted by Baltasar Kormakur and performed by the National Theatre of Iceland, is a robustly entertaining account of this difficult to stage work. They bring a sense of physicality teetering on the brink of catastrophe, broad comedy and pathos to the play.

The set is a mixture of white tiles, huge shower curtains and hospital beds. This invokes not only the snowy landscapes of Ibsen’s Norway and the company’s own Iceland, but also the sanatorium from which Peer attempts to review his life. The setting also suggests that the action takes place in Peer’s head as much as in the real world.

Additionally, the use of the shower curtains gives the Pit’s stage flexibility, while also carrying echoes of David Lynch’s epic and icy TV series Twin Peaks – an echo amplified by the use of some of Angelo Badalamenti’s music at one point. Indeed the use of music – ranging from kitsch pop to what sounds like aggressive Nordic metal – adds yet another dimension to the production.

Among a uniformly strong and fine ensemble performance, Bjorn Hlynur Haraldsson as Peer and Olafur Darri Olafsson as a particularly fearsome Troll King give especially notable performances.

There is constant motion in the action: things unfolding and being tidied away– like the story itself. At the conclusion there is a shroud covering Peer’s coffin, its blackness a stark contrast to the by now blood spattered white of the set.

The final image is a striking one: the button moulder letting the dust that Peer has now become fall from his hand, as the stage becomes dark.

The Pit Theatre, Barbican
Until 10th March