Q&A with Arinze Kene

Written for Whats On Stage

Arinze Kene is an actor and playwright who has worked extensively in TV and theatre and is perhaps best known as Connor in Eastenders. He is also the Artistic Director of emerging company Inner City Theatre who seek to give new voices to Urban London. Previous collaborator Che Walker directs their debut production, Kene’s Estate Walls, now playing at the Oval House Theatre.

Can you tell me a little bit about Estate Walls and what it is about?

Estate Walls is a play about three best friends who have grown up on the same estate their whole lives. Obi dreams of becoming a writer and wants to leave the estate. We look at the point right before these boys are set to each go their separate way. Cain however has different plans for the trio and plans a heist. Meanwhile, Obi’s love for a forbidden girl adds to the complexity on the estate, making him soon enter into a world of problems.

What was your impetus to write this story?

I have always wanted to tell this story. Growing up, I spent many days and nights in estates, chilling, talking about girls, talking about how we’re going to make money now and in the future, play fighting, cussing each other’s mums, never talking about religion. I’ve always seen these characters in my head and needed to give them breath.

Your writing has been described as “witty urban street slanguage” are you conscious of a particular style in your work?

All I’ve done is celebrated the Inner City vernacular instead of using it as something which holds back my characters or stereotypes them. I’ve embraced it wholly. I’ve made all my characters very articulate but have not changed the ways in which they select their words.

You’re Artistic Director of Inner City Theatre and Estate Walls is your first play. Is it indicative of your company’s ethos?

Yes. Inner City Theatre set out to embrace and celebrate Inner City characters, places and situations. We want people living in the Inner City to be able to come and see a production and recognize themselves on the stage. Estate Walls does this very well without alienating anybody. The play is universal but quite specific.

What prompted you to form the company?

I know many young people who share the same view with me about theatre and the way it portrays young black and urban people. I’ve set out to do something about it with a few of my friends in theatre by creating Inner City Theatre. We hope this can be a blueprint for others writers or artists to feel encouraged to go ahead and put out whatever message they want to put out. And to continually do so.

What has it been like working with Che Walker?

Che is my boy! I love the dude. I’ve worked with him a few times before, on Been So Long, a play written and directed by him that he cast me in as the lead. And we’ve done various readings together. It has been a great experience and I’ll be working with him again, no doubt.

Whose has inspired you along the way and who do you admire now?

Many people inspire me. Too may to name just one. The thing I love the most in successful creative people is humility and generosity. And by generosity I mean with ‘time’. Just allowing your brain to be picked by someone ‘young’ to the game can inspire him or her a lot. I’m always humbled whenever someone I really respect gives me two minutes of his or her time. Time is the most precious thing you can give to someone I think.

What’s next for you and Inner City Theatre?

Next for me, well, I writing away so I’m sure you’ll hear from me again soon enough. Next for Inner City Theatre, we’ll be staging another full-length play next year.

Estate Walls runs from 24 September (previews from 21 September) until 9 October 2010 at the Oval House Theatre.

Review: Spare

Written for What’s On Stage

Brief Encounter with ... Spare's Sebastian Rex“You will get whatever I want you to get. And do whatever I want you to do.” So rests the premise of Spare showing at promising new venue the New Diorama Theatre. It is a nasty sentiment, but then what can one expect from a show that focuses squarely on the in’s and out’s (sometimes literally) of human abuse.

Mirroring the anagram of its title (from ‘rapes’ apparently) the casting of the performers is switched around at random resulting in an entirely different configuration each night. Written in a gender neutral style this is a democratic pick and mix that is meant to represent ‘How to screw up a society in 40,320 ways’.

There is undoubtedly an interesting otherworldliness to Spare created by this sexless jumble sale but it is an awkward one. Sitting somewhere between bad Beckett and the cartoon silliness of Dario Fo, the continuous interchange means the actors are forced into caricature performances. They are not aided by a script full of pretentious, purple sentences. Whilst there are glimpses of potency in Sebastian Rex’s rhetorical text, the level of repetition here is astounding meaning the powerful quickly becomes banal.

Mildly annoying throughout, Spare moves into the downright insulting at it’s end as three sexually abused children debate the merits of their abuser, “It felt good” one concludes. This absurd statement leaves a sickening taste at the end of a night that has engendered more puzzled boredom than it has prompted shocked discourse or thought.

Q&A with Sebastian Rex

Written for What’s On Stage

Sebastian Rex is a writer, director and choreographer. He founded London-based theatre company Acting Like Mad in 2008. Past productions are $ellebrity and A Sebastian Rex Double Bill at the Blue Elephant Theatre, Toy Boy at the New End Theatre and Living With… at the Tabard Theatre.

The company is dedicated to democratic theatre in which every actor and every character is as important as the rest and in which gender equality can be taken to further levels such as gender-blind casting.

Spare deals with extremes of human behaviour, is this extremity something that interests you artistically?

Absolutely. Again, I think theatre should present weird and wonderful worlds that are ‘larger than life’. I always take inspiration from the world, but exaggerate it in order to encourage thought in people. I don’t wish to engender sympathy for my characters, but instead try to put them in unrealistic, extreme situations to distance the audience members from the action rather than to draw them in; this helps them to remain objective and not get too attached.

Kurt Vonnegut said that when writing you should be a sadist. No matter how sweet or innocent your characters are, make awful things happen to them. I completely agree with that. I think abuse on stage is a great tool for presenting ideas.

With 40,320 different possible casting combinations each night, this must pose a real challenge for the performers – how have you prepared for this?

The only way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time. Buckling under the pressure of having to learn so much text, or so many blocking permutations is counterproductive. I gave the actors very clear goals from the start and told them how much they needed to learn and by when. I won’t say it was easy, because it wasn’t.The actors worked extremely hard to achieve their current level of confidence.

It did mean curtailing the actors’ freedom much more than usual. It is essentially unfeasible to rehearse different blocking for different actors, particularly given the time constraints, so we devised one set of blocking for everyone.

The freedom the actors did have was in their individuality as performers. When a tall, dark-haired actor with a deep voice delivers a line, it will look and sound inherently different from when a smaller, blond with a high voice mutters it.

A further challenge comes in the form of your gender-neutral writing and gender-neutral casting. For any play this is an interesting form of experiment but especially with a play about sexual abuse. Can you talk about the impetus behind that?

When I started writing the play, I didn’t really know what was going on with these characters. They had strange names (Voorty, Pranty and Qwerty) and I didn’t really know who they were and why they existed. The other characters didn’t have names, but rather titles (Doctor, Police, Parent and Friend), and were always referred to in the third person (even by themselves, largely). So very early on in the writing process, I realised the genders weren’t specific. As the play progressed, they started to crystallise in my head, and developed genitalia as well, so they did become gendered in my mind, but not so much in the style of the writing. I believe in gender-neutrality, which is one of the reasons why I hope to turn Acting Like Mad completely gender neutral, eventually.

Furthermore, I strongly believe that abuse is gender neutral. Abuse happens in all walks of life and in all echelons of society and has nothing to do with a person’s gender.

When I decided to direct the play, I really wanted to sustain both these beliefs. I didn’t want people to come out of the theatre thinking “Yes. Men are abusive and women are victims” or vice versa, so finding the right way to cast the play without making a strong statement was almost impossible. Implementing a form of ‘character lottery’ was the only way I could see to ensure gender-blindness. We have different abusive relationships every night, and if an audience member comes to watch the show more than once, they will see how that impacts the play.

What do you want people to come away from Spare having experienced?

First and foremost, I want people to think. I want people to talk. I want them to compare and contrast all the levels and manifestations of abuse that are presented in the play and hopefully (perhaps too ambitiously) see that there is no difference between genders. At the very least, I want to demonstrate to audience members that abuse doesn’t belong to a specific gender-power dynamic.

I also hope they laugh. It’s a comedy, so I hope they find the humour in it. I think that presenting difficult topics with no sense of humour is too overwhelming for the senses.

Apart from that, I just hope they enjoy it and go away with some of the images in their mind. I think every writer and every director ultimately wants their work to stay with people.

Spare runs at the New Diorama until 25th September 2010.

Review: Bedlam at The Globe

Written for Totally Theatre

Bedlam Promo Pic 1The Bethlem Royal Hospital, once known as the ‘human zoo’ in a byname that wouldn’t look out of place as a Sun headline, was seen by the good people of the 18th Century as one of the most desirable shows of London. Now the inspiration for Nell Leyshon’s Bedlam, mad people are once again being viewed as a spectator sport, although The Globe is hoping through more enlightened eyes.

More enlightened they may be, but there is still a sense of the gratuitous in Leyshon’s flat and irregular play. Madness comes and goes at a whim, characters flirt around each other like lovers in an under-baked Rom-Com and there is absolutely no sense of what it must have been like within the barriers and cells of this historical institution. Whilst entertaining enough to raise a smile, behind the fluff Bedlam is a hospital full of two dimensional clowns and bullies, tyrants, youths and lovers, and very little else.

Dr Carew is the doctor who rules Bedlam with an iron fist. The arrival a beautiful country girl signals the beginning of the end for this villain as his grip is slowly weakened by the onset of madness and an abuse of alcohol. Meanwhile a sane girl is vindicated, a charlatan taught a sharp lesson and a beauty rescued by her lost love.

Citing Hogarth’s The Rake’s Progress as her starting off point, Leyshon has failed to successfully show any of the meaty despair so tangible in the demented and debauched figures that populate these magnificent etchings. This Bedlam is more like a preening peacock, the postures and mannerisms are as cartoon-ish as Hogarth’s but here are worn like garments to be shown off and displayed; the peacock puffs out it’s chest out and we are supposed to be impressed.

It is undoubtedly performed with energy by a spirited cast, particularly by the buxom Ella Smith, foppish Sam Crane and wholesome Phil Cheadlen.  But with material that gives them nothing to get their teeth into it is hard for any of them to shine with great performers like Finty Williams and Kevork Malikyan being cruelly wasted.

Bedlam is fairly jolly but never quite as fun as it thinks it is and it is only in the moments of choral singing that the tragedy and pain of madness is expressed or felt. Dr Carew’s descent into dementia makes no sense and the subplots are thin and easily forgotten. Is it farce or historical drama? Whilst it could have been both, Leyshon seems as confused as some of the afflicted in her play and so it ends up being neither.

Running until 1st October 2010

Interview: Matthew Dunster

Written for What’s On Stage.

Director Matthew Dunster is an associate director of the Young Vic, whose previous credits include Some Voices, The Member of the Wedding, Testing the Echo and You Can See the Hills.

He is set to direct Mogadishu for the Royal Exchange, Manchester and Lyric, Hammersmith in the spring of 2011, as well as a production of The Most Incredible Thing, a ballet featuring the music of the Pet Shop Boys at Sadler’s Wells.

He directs The Maddening Rain, a one man play which gives an unsettling portrayal of a world where people are bought and sold on a trading floor, written by Nicholas Pierpan. Felix Scott stars in the piece, which runs at the Old Red Lion Theatre until 18 September 2010.

Matthew DunsterMatthew Dunster’s eyes sparkle as he explains his ineptitude with numbers “I was crap at economics. I can’t even figure out what mortgage to have!” He grins sheepishly “In fact that’s a total lie… my wife figures out what mortgage to have, she’s a lawyer and much more switched on to that stuff than I am.”

So what then has drawn Dunster to The Maddening Rain, Nicholas Pierpan’s engrossing and impassioned one man monologue about city traders? A retired trader himself, Pierpan still socialises with people from the city (intriguingly some of whom have invested in this production) and in a work that pulls no punches, this is the baldly astute writing of a true whistle blower. Dramatic stuff, but for Dunster the real pull comes from it’s exploration of how the poison latent in a money driven environment can pollute anyone, anywhere.

“I had a three year period where I worked at North West Water, in debt recovery which is basically being on the phone to old people, telling them why they should prioritise paying their water bill over their fags and their telly – it’s not a nice environment. (Towards the end) this 16 year old girl started and found all that very upsetting. Then about a month later I heard her repeating, parrot fashion, what she had heard from me and I thought ‘I’ve gotta get out of here’…that kind of environment trains you and desensitises you.”

Eyes clouding over he’s quiet for a moment before suddenly brightening “Also I think the quality of the writing is extraordinary… Nick’s a better writer than most people who write about these things and that’s why I wanted to do it.” Straight from a successful production of Love The Sinner at The National Theatre and acclaimed productions at The Globe Theatre and The Manchester Royal Exchange, Dunster read Pierpan’s script and fell for it hook line and sinker, eventually telling the producers that he would do the show anywhere.

They have ended up at The Old Red Lion, something Dunster is (perhaps surprisingly) happy about “When I came to London in the early 90s it was red hot because of Kathy Burke and all her gang…so even though I lived in South London I made that place my local, not even to see the shows but (because) it was always so buzzing.”

Whilst admitting that some of this shine has come off the venue his enthusiasm is infectious when discussing the experience this creative team is bringing to his much loved space “For a fringe production we are very highly resourced and I think that’s quite exciting in that space – you get more than you will expect.”

In his smoothly taut production this certainly hold true, with the polished expressionistic lighting and design creating a conceptual cradle for Felix Scott to deliver a simple but brilliantly vivid performance as our increasingly tortured protagonist. “Felix is an incredible actor… very open and very sensitive… the producer’s just said ‘Get the best actor’ and I don’t hear that very often! So that’s wonderful and I was able to absolutely pick the person who was spot on for the role.”

He feels very lucky to have been given so much support both creatively and financially, passionately expounding on how the fringe has become nothing but a nursery bed for the West End; “As soon as you become a commercial concern you start to re-qualify what you want to programme… it used to be about opposition, but now it’s just about making that money back.” It’s a refreshingly blunt assessment. In both business and art it seems money compromises everything; I come away thinking that it’s not only Pierpan who’s an insider with a whistle to blow.

Interview: Dancing Brick

Dancing Brick On ... Heap & Pebble at the BAC

Written for What’s On Stage

Dancing Brick’s founders Valentina Ceschi and Thomas Eccleshare are a pairing fast making a name for themselves for telling beautiful and quirky stories. Tonight marks the opening of their 2009 Edinburgh hit 6:0 How Heap and Pebble Took On The World and Won, now embarking on a UK Tour.

Inspired by Pippa Bailey at the 2008 Total Theatre Award nomination ceremony (“She said work in 2009 should be addressing climate change and sport!”) Heap and Pebble delightfully mixes cheeky genre references (“we’re really inspired by genres, larger than life things that come out of human plight; Sci-Fi and B-Movies, Musicals and Sports Epics”) with compelling characters that contagiously capture the audiences’ imagination. Eccleshare explains “I feel that theatre is very much an artform of the space and of the room that you’re in and so in a sense the environment. Theatre is a really good way of talking about our relationship with an environment.”

But this is not about impassioned ecological flag waving and, with the help of dramaturge Lu Kemp, the show has developed into “…a personal story that the audience can relate to…in Edinburgh we realised that what people really cared about were the characters.”

The tale of two ice skaters who are determined to compete even in a world with no ice could sound rather ‘Pixar’, but don’t let Dancing Brick’s whimsy fool you; Ceschi and Eccleshare have a healthy undercurrent of steely strength which is obvious from the start of our conversation. “We get a bit frustrated sometimes when we’ve been reviewed in the past and they’ve said ‘These guys are great but they should work with a director… but we feel quite strongly that we direct.” Ceschi agrees, “Of course we direct! It’s not stand up… there’s a decision to everything that we do.” Eccleshare takes up the mantle: “we would almost prefer them to say that Tom and Valentina directed it badly!” Often finishing each other’s sentences, it’s quite like listening to a relay race.

Formed in 2008 upon their graduation from the Lecoq School in Paris, they are keen to avoid easy ‘physical theatre’ or ‘Lecoq’ style classifications. As Ceschi is quick to point out, “even though you are taught the classical pedagogy of Jacques Lecoq, you do just sort of create what you want to create at the end.” Eccleshare continues, “what the audience may see as ‘Lecoq’ is that we definitely have the confidence to just put two bodies in space and let that relationship play out in a physical way… and we do mime techniques a bit.” You can almost hear Eccleshare grinning as Ceschi chides, “although I don’t really want to do that because we’re not very good at it!”

So what is ‘a Dancing Brick show’? “Valentina and I both aspire to make work that is beautiful and accessible and optimistic, but we really play with undermining that optimism and the fragility of that too. We want to do work that looks at contradictions and is fun to watch, theatre that we would really like to go too” Ceschi concludes decisively. “Our taste is very dominant.”

After long period of development it is clear they like this show. “Now we really feel comfortable and it’s a show we really care about” Ceschi says proudly as Eccleshare confides, “we keep feeling these echoes of them… like for example just a couple of weeks ago we were in a town shop and we found this ceramic model of two ice dancers and they couldn’t have looked more like us!” Ceschi laughs, “so it’s coming on tour with us!”

It seems that the spirited determination of Heap and Pebble is alive and well in Dancing Brick.

Review: The Maddening Rain

Written for What’s On StageThe Maddening Rain

Nicholas Pierpan’s The Maddening Rain is an unsettling portrayal of a world where people are bought and sold on a trading floor and a sharp look at how the poison inherent in such an environment can pollute anyone.

Performed in a snapshot narrative by the impressive Felix Scott we see one man’s journey from an average Joe with two A Levels to “Big Swinging Dick”. Pierpan’s monologue may lack the razz-ma-tazz of Lucy Prebble’s Enron, but the impotent outrage feels as strong in a story which is told gracefully and with a wry gallows humour.

Whilst outwardly smooth Scott, with elegant direction from Matthew Dunster, cleverly reveals the darker recesses of our protagonist with a twitching neurosis which perpetually threatens to envelop this suave chancer. Relaxed and yet maniacal, it is an acutely empathic performance.

Emma Chapman and David Sharrock’s surreal, yet oddly pertinent lighting and sound design adds to the feeling that this is an expression of one man’s psyche, giving the whole production an unsettlingly nightmarish tint.

A look into the psychology that drives these city beasts and the social rules that create them The Maddening Rain is an intelligent and original take on a somewhat saturated contemporary subject.

Runs until 18 September 2010

BAC Twin Peaks Weekender – Plunge into the weird and wonderful with David Micklem

Interviewed for What’s On Stage – 1st September

 David Micklem on ... His Twin Peaks WeekenderOn Saturday 23 October 2010 the BAC will open its doors for a Lynch lock-in to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the first British screening of Channel 4’s Twin Peaks, David Lynch’s classic mini-series. Playing each episode in an epic 36 hour marathon, the Twin Peaks Weekender will be a one off chance to plunge head first into the seedy and surreal layers beneath this infamous white picket fence town.

Alongside the episodes being shown in the great hall (in sequences of 3 with breaks in between) there will be a mixture of theatrical, musical and workshop responses to the unsettling world and characters of Twin Peaks.

‘We’ve got state of the art sound equipment so it’s going to be a fantastic surround sound experience that’s going to pull you into that world. It will be interesting to see how people will respond after about four hours in; will their heads be blown open? Or will they be wanting to take a break and then come back in? It’s kind of a social experiment.’

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