Review: Translunar Paradise

Written for Exeunt

An accordion wheezes in and out as an old woman takes her last breaths, the musician reacting to each of the performer’s movements with amazing perceptiveness. The woman’s death is simple and gentle; a quiet celebration of her life. But watching this, I was left oddly cold; astonished at the technical skill of both the actress and the musician, but distanced from the piece and unable to feel any emotional connection with this moment of intimacy.

It’s a feeling I couldn’t entirely shake off throughout Theatre Ad Infinitum’s Translunar Paradise. The piece is a soft look at one man’s memories of his wife and is intricately crocheted together with immense skill, but its physical eloquence belies a thin narrative. The story feels slight, a lightweight metal coat hanger on which to drape a beautiful garment: man meets woman, man marries woman, they live together, she works, he does too, she gets old, he does too, she dies (he doesn’t). Maybe I’m being too pithy. But then that’s really all that happens.

Written and directed by George Mann, the piece was created in part as a response to the death of his father so perhaps this singular focus is understandable. He wanted to tell a story that would reflect his own experiences, and there is a clear correlation to be made. Life is a thing of beautiful whimsy which should be feted, even in death. End of story.

But even for those, like me, whose hearts are clearly hardened, it is impossible not to be awed and impressed with the physical dexterity of the performers and the evident care and skill that has gone into the making of this show. Mann and Deborah Pugh embody their creations utterly, skipping from old age to youthful exuberance in the blink of an eye – or in an intake of accordion breath – as they place masks of aged faces, all drooping skin and neck wattle, over their own. Each change from youth to age feels enormous though it is often achieved through something as simple as a shifting of posture or a tiny movement in the angle of the head. The fluidity with which they dance around one another is glorious to watch. Hours of painstaking effort have clearly gone into the piece resulting in performances of total ease.

The accompanying accordion music is supplied by Kim Heron, one of the most empathic on-stage musicians I have ever seen. She follows the action like a hawk, feeding the story with her music in a way that not only supports each moment but nurtures it. She cradles this couple with her rousing whistles and melancholic arias. She is as much midwife as musician as she brings this tale to life.

Exeunt Critics’ Picks of 2011

LOTS of fabulous picks here by some people who really know their stuff including some expected and not so expected pieces. Wish I could have mentioned London Road, wish I could have seen Mission Drift…

Originally published on Exeunt

Of course we are wary of the arbitrary nature of these things, the artificiality of seasons, the ordering of experiences into peaks, the hierarchal maps they reproduce, the dangers of placing Fabulous ones next to Those who have just broken a vase.  However at some point you have to be practical.  Our critics have valiantly seen a metric stage-tonne of theatre this year, so what better to relive with sufficient context their most notable moments? And from here it looks like they have produced a list unrivalled for its scope, depth and surprises.  So without further ado-ing, and in no particular order…

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Ridiculusmus on Total Football and scrabbling around for national identity

Written for Exeunt

David Woods and Jon Haynes – Ridiculusmus

Two men dressed in suits stood in a suitcase filled with grass. Over the course of 70 minutes they managed to communicate the absurdity and frustration of the stymied Northern Ireland peace process without taking a step out of their turf box. Exuberant, sombre yet defiantly humorous Say Nothing was my first experience of the work of Ridiculusmus. At the time I was a student at the University of Kent, the establishment where David Woods and Jon Haynes also gained their PhDs. With doctorates in, respectively, comedy and performance art, the work of Woods and Haynes has always defied convention. The amalgamation of humour and artistry has helped to make their work incredibly accessible, winning them an affectionate place within the heart of both critics and audiences for the last 18 years.

Nearly two decades of work is an impressive legacy for a still vigorous company of two; many marriages don’t last that long. “Yes but there are three people in our marriage, the third one being the audience!” Down the phone I can hear Woods grinning. “It’s shocking when you think about it… I’ve spent more time with [Haynes] than any other relationship in my life.” Apart from the threesome aspect why has it worked for so long? The answer is refreshingly non-‘luvvie’ “We don’t hang out together (people do find this quite odd)… to keep fresh and excited about meeting we just really meet to work and perform. When we’ve got a show up and running I’ll only really see him a few minutes before the show, it’s driven on the performing.” This sounds like a reasonable statement but I actually do find myself feeling surprised by it; on stage they seem to share a sort of symbiotic understanding of each other which one automatically assumes comes from a long personal friendship.

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On the Concept of the Face, Regarding the Son of God – Romeo Castellucci

Written for Exeunt Magazine

A man soils himself on stage and the sweet tang of excrement fills the polished Barbican auditorium as brown begins to smudge the pristine white set. A son wipes his father clean as Jesus smiles his Mona Lisa smile on the pair of them, an observer like us, and also the creator of creatures with bodies that bleed and shit, or people who love and despair.

It is a surprisingly intimate beginning for a practitioner known for his iconoclastic visual extravaganzas. Watching a son look after his sobbing incontinent father is as bizarrely sweet as the stench Romeo Castellucci sprays out into the audience. This smell, as with much of Castellucci’s work, could be seen as simply a shock tactic, the best way to horrify a predominantly middle class SPILL audience, but instead it grounds the imagery on stage, making it more tangible, all the more real. We become very aware of our own bodies and of the social embarrassment this shattered old man is feeling; we also become aware of how voyeuristic our viewing of this intimate degradation is.

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Rajni Shah’s Glorious @ The Barbican

Written for Total Theatre

Rajni Shah stands in the centre of an empty stage; a statue on a plinth, her velveteen voice fills the Silk Street Theatre easing us gently into the show to come, ‘And then the stories start to fall…And then the songs begin’.

There is something very soporific about this beginning; it is a tempo that is established firmly from the start and one which is militantly maintained throughout. Even in the face of a spattering of honky-tonk piano within the overture, Shah’s 3 act musical is languid.

Shah’s immobile body remains solidly still at the centre of this work. Her contributors, all volunteers from London, enter one by one and grow their stories and their melodies around her like off shots from a trunk. 6 ordinary folk read letters, the results from interventions preceding this piece facilitated by Shah; their correspondence standing as poems to their disparate lives and loves.

Students from Guildhall School of Music and Drama make up the impressive band that invades the stage for Acts 2 and 3; the tonal arrangements are their doing from then on in. The music is beautiful and as varied as the complex city and people within it that this version of Glorious is in honour of.

But at the heart of this work there is a feeling of undeniable lacking. Shah’s songs, which are the backbone of the piece, skim the surface of any real meaning. Disappointingly she has missed the mark between poignancy and cliché.  The feeling of solemnity that dogs Glorious does it no favours, whilst the stories and music are on occasion funny Shah herself communicates a sense of worthiness that becomes irritating.

At the end an exchange of daffodils flickers back into life the flame of potential at the core of this musical but it is too late. Glorious should be a celebration of the individuals that have bravely taken the leap to be part of it, for now, despite all Shah’s best intentions, it simply feels like it has encased them in a tomb.

Rajni Shah – Glorious

Rajni Shah has been creating and directing original performance work since 1999, with past projects including Hope (2009); Dinner with America (2008); give what you can, take what you need (2008); Altars of us all / speaking to strangers (2008) and Mr Quiver (2005). Her work ranges from large-scale performance installations to small solo interventions in public spaces.Glorious is the third in a trilogy of works and has been commission by SPILL Festival of Performance. It will show at the Barbican before touring nationally.

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I end my interview with Rajni Shah by asking a question I thought she would have been bombarded with “What’s your favourite musical, I’m sure everyone’s asked you that!” She is presently surprised “Actually they haven’t! It’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg… I’ve insisted everyone watch it, I think it’s quite brilliant in terms of the visuals and it would seem its a million miles away but it was a really early reference point…” Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so surprised that this is the first time she has encountered such a mainstream question; as an artist Shah is anything but conventional.

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A Magic Flute @ The Barbican

Written for Exeunt

Peter Brook has spent a lifetime distilling his theatrical process, a pilgrimage that has resulted in productions of astonishing subtlety. For some his belief in stripping away theatre to its barest bones, in constant honing and sharpening, in the scraping away all that is extraneous from even the most prized texts, is masterful. To others this process of refining is becoming reductive, with not only the superfluous but the essential succumbing to his scalpel.

With 11 and 12, his last piece to be shown in the UK, falling squarely in this latter category within critical opinion, will his ‘unexpected take’ on Mozart convince otherwise?

Infused with deep Masonic undertones (with both Mozart and librettist Emanuel Schikaneder members of this shady fraternity), The Magic Flute is full of symbolism and ritual. When ruler Sarastro steals Pamina, daughter of the Queen of the Night, a pair of unlikely friends goes on a quest of self enlightenment to rescue her.

In his heavily cut version, A Magic Flute, Brook strips away all of the stage trickery that would have underpinned Mozart’s original Zauberoper, a ‘magic opera’ utilising various moments of theatre wizardry. Here there is only rich colour saturating the stage and a series of moveable bamboo poles which pertain to the cages of the underworld, the fire and brimstone the heroes have to face.

On this bare stage Brook gives us Holy Theatre in its most potent form. Reverence haunts every step of the barefooted cast; this stage may be an empty space but it is also a sacred one and each moment counts. Movement director Marcello Magni (of Théâtre du Complicité fame) ensures that every action is centred and weighted perfectly. The performers’ ease and informality creates a gentle intimacy both with each other and with the audience. This gently playful essence acts as a counterpoint to the opera score, although there is no chaotic Rough Theatre to be found here. A lone pianist delivers each note of the adapted score with delicacy.

Though Mozart’s fragile beauty is much on show here, where is his life affirming, if occasionally embarrassing, vulgarity? For all its purity this evening lacks a sense of passion; when so much is underplayed one cannot help but feel underwhelmed. Even Papageno, by far the silliest character in this fairly worthy tale, is a muted clown. Thomas Dolie does a superb job of drawing every last laugh from his audience with a consummate and charming performance full of grumpy humphs and comedy groans. As Tamino, Adrian Strooper makes a suitably honourable, if limp prince, the hero to Papageno’s comedy sidekick. Jeanne Zaepffel sings sweetly as Pamina but is far too serene to be the proactive heroine of Mozart’s reckonings. Malia Bendi-Merad makes a powerful Queen of the Night, her small stature belaying a thrilling vocal tone and breathtaking precision and she provides one of the only truly transporting moments of the evening.

This production is too eloquent to be joyous and too still to be jubilant, but it is none-the-less a light footed and sprightly Magic Flute. In the hands of narrator/facilitator William Nadylam this simple piece of wood does seem to take on otherworldly properties and although Strooper’s handling of it is not quite as confident, Celio Amino’s training pays off in some quietly impressive slight of hand trickery.

This may not be the full throttled magical experience that Mozart intended, but Brook’s flute still has the power to charm if not completely beguile.

Running at The Barbican until 27th March.