Review: Inside, Jean Abreu Dance/65daysofstatic

Written for Total Theatre

Five athletic dancers scuttle and shift across a grey stage. Ticks and jerks punctuate their otherwise fluid movement, hands caress feet and bodies block one another. In Jean Abreu’s vision of prison an incarcerated man is akin to a butterfly pinned in a display box.

Inside is inspired by the idea that a society’s jails are a signifier of the society itself. Abreu’s diaphanous piece is a blurred reaction to questions of oppression, human rights and responsibility. By shifting away from direct representation, his choreography ducks the reality of these ideas; instead it settles on a brooding Dolce & Gabbana style violence that is polished and ‘sexy’.

At one point technique and ideology come together for a fierce emotional punch. A man is tossed over two others’ shoulders and dropped on his neck, elegantly crumpling down into a ball; a simple but deeply skilful moment that speaks powerfully of an absence of respect for those incarcerated. But this synergy between technique and meaning is palpably lacking elsewhere.

Providing a backdrop of arty testosterone-filled rock the band 65daysofstatic thrash away in the background. Waves of sound roll onto the stage and a sequence of bombastic musical climaxes divides the piece up into compartments of movement with the same arbitrary divisiveness as cell walls. Guitar strings double as prison bars in Dan Jones’ minimal set that evokes a bleak Blade Runner aesthetic but none of the claustrophobic atmosphere of being locked up.

This is an impressively virile performance with some real flashes of class. But Inside is also an annoyingly romanticised and even occasionally grating exploration of something one feels Abreu knows very little about.

Just Tell The Truth…oh alright then (Mike Figgis’ Ignition)

Written for Exeunt.

Deloitte Ignite returned for its fourth year with a contemporary arts festival curated by Mike Figgis over the weekend of the 2nd -4th September 2011 under the title Just Tell The Truth. Figgis’ core aim was to discover what we think about the state of the culture in which we all exist. Over a period of three days the public were invited into the Royal Opera House for a series of talks, performances, film screenings and installations with artists from all fields, including Matthew Herbert, Alber Albaz and Marina Abramovic. I went along on the Saturday and the below is my diary of the day: the statements in italics Just Tell,explain the facts of what occurred, whilst the others are ‘The Truth’, as experienced by me that day and as such are more personal, occasionally silly, but always true.

Just Tell | The Truth

Deloitte Ignite 2011; a contemporary arts festival curated by internationally renowned English film director, composer and writer Mike Figgis | Figgis mingles with the crowd, blending throughout but marking his presence with a shocking pair of attention grabbing lime green shoes | It’s a weekend packed with artistic exchanges | Some events are outlined in big black marker, interviews, film screenings. Others are completely incidental taking place in and around the audience: “Wait…is she a dancer or just a crazy person” |

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“What do you think about Harold P?” A little something on Harold Pinter (very little, bite sized in fact).

(Written for Catherine Love’s Spoonfed article, but it made me happy to write it so I thought I’d post it full, even in all it’s briefness).

Harold Pinter has long been one of my favourite writers. Perhaps it’s because I’m a die hard modernist at heart and his plays are always prodding painfully at timeless universal obsessions; power, cruelty, the search for a connection, love. If Samuel Beckett dissected the tragicomedy of accepting the futility of life, Pinter’s plays seem to me to be full of the fury of fighting it. Out of that anger comes human truths that are as pertinent now as they were when he wrote them, but also an explosive poetry that is as simple as it is immense.

Max Stafford-Clark’s toothless Top Girls

I’ve recently been thinking a lot about the ‘Haves’ and ‘Have Nots’, about aptitude, luck and opportunity. Questions of cultural legacy and the onus of the individual within society have been swirling round my head.

It is in this frame of mind that I went to see Top Girls, the Chichester revival currently at Trafalgar Studios. I’d just devoured Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers which looks at our ideas of success and the myths we have around successful individuals. It’s fair to say that I was excited to see Caryl Churchill’s repost against The Iron Lady. But in this heavily empathic production Max Stafford-Clark has missed the point about the relevance of Top Girls for today.

Churchill’s text is often quoted as a feminist classic. Looking at ideas of motherhood, sisterhood and the world of work, it asks ‘Do women have to follow the patriarchal rules of this society to succeed?’ Questions like these are still sadly relevant today (it’s remarkable that Top Girls is the only play on the West End with an entirely female cast – as pointed out by Fiona Mountford, herself a woman in a male dominated career). But I would argue that right now these questions are superseded by the  more universal, underlying  thrust of Churchill’s play; what happens to weaker individuals in a society that is so focussed on the idea of success? As we hurtle head-first into a world where social housing, school start-up programmes and the NHS are being ruthlessly cut, isn’t this the question that matters most?

Dished up neatly in three acts, the third is the most politically potent. The gloriously surreal first act (where Marlene hosts a dinner party for historical heroines such as Pope Joan) is everyone’s favourite. The second addresses women trying to be men in the workplace (probably the most redundant portion for 2011), but it is the third that should do the most damage. A brilliant piece of political polemic powered by the embittered relationship of two women, it centres around a showdown between Marlene, a pure child of Thatcher and her socialist sister, Joyce. At the centre of this antagonism is Angie, ostensibly Joyce’s daughter but actually Marlene’s. Just as Marlene is bellowing that anyone can get ahead if they work hard enough, the fact that she was only able to do so because Joyce picked up her tab hangs over her head. Churchill is waging war against the selfish drive of Conservative Britain in the 1980s, and it’s an argument that transfers powerfully to Conservative Britain today.

Yet in Stafford-Clark’s production, the sting of this parallel has been lost. The women in Top Girls are vehicles for a dialectical discussion. Of course, because Churchill is a strong writer, there are elements of psychological truth within all of them, but apart from Marlene none of these characters is developed throughout the play.  Top Girls has been constructed functionally as a means of discussing Churchill’s ideas of socialist feminism and the characters within it are there to serve that function. But by focussing instead on them as psychological individuals Stafford-Clark has ignored this functionality. In softening Marlene, he has diffused the power of the third act. The battle between socialism and individualism should be gut wrenching and thought provoking but here it just feels flat because as Isabella Bird’s Joyce rails, Suranne Jones’ soft focus Marlene simply defends.

With no qualifications or future prospects, Angie is the real victim in the brave new world that Marlene is so zealous about. At the end of the play, Angie’s final strangled cry of ‘Frightening!’ should be devastating. This is a girl completely failed by a society that her mother not only inhabits but, worse, promotes. Angie’s anguish is a provocation to a world where only the strong survive. In this production, an otherwise superb Olivia Poulet delivers the line like an after thought. By personalising Marlene’s journey Stafford-Clark has robbed this final impotent cry of its power just when we needed to hear it most.

For more information go here.

Review: The Golden Dragon

Written for Exeunt

There’s something terribly fragile about The Golden Dragon; it’s almost as delicate as the five fountains of paper that make up the backdrop in Ramin Gray’s stripped down production and German playwright Roland Schimmelpfennig’s strange parable of a play is all the more commanding when it allows itself to remain oblique.

Five actors enter the space; they are smiling and matter of fact in their preparation as they walk on to the stage. They pull down rolls of white A3 with a flourish and take these to their opening positions, snatching neck cloths and chef’s trousers en route, morphing into characters sometimes for seconds, or maybe even minutes at a time, but never losing themselves completely. This is Brechtian theatre at its most potent, inhabiting the world of the piece but always commenting on itself as everything is performed with the objectivity of an observer.

This leads to some desperately uncomfortable moments: a child’s story is revealed as a grotesquely sexualised tale of abuse; four kitchen staff try to save a victim of toothache with grim consequences. The Golden Dragon is a tale of the people who fall through the net, of individuals who have tried their hardest and lost. Gray’s production is never explicit but the piece’s silence is in itself a comment on a society that allows these tragedies to happen.

Even so, this is no sob story. The production is often bizarrely cold. The stories have the potential to the incredibly emotive, but the way they are imparted leaves the audience chilled. The piece requires its audience to approach this myriad of voices as a surgeon would, picking amongst them, scrutinising everything. There is a point half way through where it becomes harder to care any more. As these stories become more concrete, a sad sense of acceptance begins to take hold and the sense of shock at what we are seeing becomes dulled.

The tidier Gray’s production gets the less power it has; it’s so much more effective when it’s messy and harder to make sense of. Gray ties up all of his characters’ problems into a neat bow and the stories lose their initial potency: the tale of the ant and the grasshopper morphs from dark childhood tale to a fairly pedestrian adult nightmare.

But even though the gorgeous looseness of the opening scenes is lost, Gray continues to tamper with the audience’s expectations.  An old lady plays a young one, a man plays a woman: the results are delightful yet disquieting. And at the heart of this topsy-turvy piece lies the real sense that these performers are trying to impart an inherent horrific truth. We are being implored to sit up and take notice. This is a troubling and thought provoking production, that exerts a hold on its audience. We may shy away from the violence that underscores the play, but even at the end, it won’t let us go.

Runs until 24th September 

Review: Wittenberg

Written for Exeunt

Plays involving famous figures, both historical and literary, seem to be as popular amongst writers as they are with audiences. There’s something hugely appealing about seeing Dali bantering with Freud, Pope Joan getting drunk at a dinner party or Benjamin Britten asking advice of W. H. Auden. David Davalos’ play turns his attention on Doctor Faustus, Martin Luther and Hamlet.

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Review: Our Days of Rage

Written for Exeunt

Created by a team of writers aged between 17-30 – the winning entrants of Write to Shine, a joint competition run by Shine TV, National Youth Theatre and IdeasTap - Our Days of Rage is an intelligent, multifaceted piece of theatre, which takes a visceral look at the crises in the Middle East and North Africa, while also casting a wry and eerily pertinent glance at the UK.

NYT are on superb form in this production as they unflinchingly examine recent violence both overseas and at home. Subtlety may not be in this company’s vocabulary but when you give previously unheard voices a microphone, chances are they’re going to shout.

The cavernous Old Vic Tunnels have been used to maximum effect in a consummate piece of promenade staging from director Paul Roseby. From the rise of Colonel Gaddafi to the radicalisation of a young generation, the audience is presented with a tragic unfolding of events which just serves to perpetuate the idea that only violence can bring about change. Within this labyrinth of tunnels, school rooms and street corners are revealed and time shifts from the past to the present. The audience are put into compromising positions and asked to experience feelings of powerlessness and culpability. At one point, as we are surrounded by riot police pounding their shields with batons, I’m reminded of the protests in March and the power of a pack mentality. In an equally effective way the helplessness of the individual against the state is brought home.

The piece is inspiring although a little bombastic in its approach. But while this is undoubtedly sledge hammer theatre Our Days of Rage benefits from a number of nuanced performances and sophisticated touches. In the middle of all of the noise Roseby and his passionate young cast create scenes of some delicacy. It is true that the rate at which the story is told can feel somewhat tidal, but the urgency does not drown out the artistry. In a large ensemble Roseby has a deft way of ensuring each voice is heard with everyone getting their chance to speak. This may seem like a cheesy ‘youth theatre’ concern but when it feels as naturally balanced as here, this ability to work so completely as a team should be something other companies aspire to, not look down on.

The use of punchy punk music throughout adds an extra thrust to an increasingly full throttle production and the final scene in which rappers and artists reveal their responses to the riots is a joyfully cocky celebration of life in the middle of all the terror. Typical of NYT Our Days of Rage is undoubtedly an energetic piece designed to showcase the talents of a bright young cast, but it’s also an angry and vital piece theatre; together this makes for an impressive and exhilarating combination.

Runs until 15th September