Review: Wild Swans

Written for The Stage

Translated into 36 languages Jung Chang’s autobiographical Wild Swans is a suitably cosmopolitan opening to World Stages London. Sacha Wares’ panoramic production makes an aptly ambitious visual spectacular.

Alexandra Wood’s honed adaptation places the onus on one of the book’s Daughters of China with De-Hong (Chang’s mother) in the spotlight. The message of individual versus communism is occasionally heavy handed but this focus also gives Wood time to place the personal firmly at the heart of the political.

A more overarching historical narrative is provided in Miriam Buether’s cycloramic backdrop which straddles the book’s expansive landscape. This versatile set is transformed by the 17 strong cast who, in true Maoist fashion, show that anything is possible through simple hard work. Peasant dirt fields are swept away to become clinical hospitals while concrete paving slabs are lugged over wet paddy fields as modern China buzzes into life. With each new scene the set expands, just as with each chapter of Chang’s story China’s grasp on the world stage gets ever larger.

In the midst of an earnest ensemble Ka-Ling Cheung and Orion Lee, as Chang’s mother and father respectively, give sharp performances that ask painful questions of themselves and a Western audience.

Runs until 13 May 2012


Interview: Martin Crimp

Written for Ideastap

One of the most acclaimed voices of modern playwriting, Martin Crimp’s work spans cult texts, such as Attempts on her Life, and bold adaptations of Molière. His double bill of plays, Play House/Definitely the Bahamas, marks his directorial debut. Here he talks to Honour Bayes about the importance of writing what excites you…

You have said you don’t see being a writer as a job you chose to take on, but something you have always been. Over the years how have you honed your craft?

Since writing Attempts on her Life in 1997 I’ve become more sensitive to the power of narration in drama, which I abandoned for a while in favour of a more fashionable ping-pong of fragmented dialogue. Going back recently to Definitely the Bahamas, a play I wrote in 1986, I’m struck by the fact that its climax is four pages of continuous storytelling, which remains powerful. So I would say honing my craft means trying to stay open to all forms of writing.

When you sit down to write what is your process?

The important thing for me in this world of endlessly rolling information is to empty my mind of all distractions. I still write by hand and I believe in the importance of the mark on the page. I improvise until I find an image or a tone of voice that feels alive. For example, I’d been improvising some tiny scenes of people offering each other gifts. After some months, one of these scenes, in which a woman gives a man an unexpected present, became the starting point for Play House.

Where should writers look for inspiration?

Inspiration is the mysterious collision of intense lived experience with intense literary experience. Whatever the experience, banal or remarkable, it’s the intensity that counts. Plus, for a playwright, the strange music of the human voice is central.

You have had long associations with the Orange Tree Theatre and Royal Court Theatre. Is it important for new playwrights to form a relationship with a venue?

The support of a theatre is a wonderful thing, but you shouldn’t be afraid to create diverse relationships with theatres and with directors. This will broaden your notion of what a theatrical event can be.

You have adapted a number of classics with a radical flare. What do you need to take into account when approaching someone else’s text?

You need to be clear about the rules of engagement. Is the plan to write a new play on top of an old one? – like Cruel and Tender, which is based on a play by Sophocles – or is it more simply to intervene by modernising the language and cutting? – as I did with The Seagull. In both these cases the conversation with the director – Luc Bondy in one case, Katie Mitchell in the other – was an essential part of establishing the rules.

Do you believe working on translations and adaptations affects a writer’s own craft?

Translating sets the much harder work of imagining your own play into stark relief, because, when you simply translate, the imagining has been done for you. What’s interesting about translating is that it pushes you into areas of language you may habitually avoid; I resist this, but at the same time it excites me.

You recently directed for the first time. How has this experience impacted on you as a playwright?

I wrote the 13 short scenes of Play House in part as a directorial challenge. How do you give each short scene – and they range from punishing accusation to the exuberant physical expression of love – a strong separate identity, but at the same time create a seamless theatrical flow? It never occurred to me I’d be the one having to meet that challenge myself.

As for how it affects writing, I’d say it reinforces what I’ve always known: only write what it excites you to write. Don’t be afraid to create problems. Provided the writing is truthful, the director and actors will find ways of solving them.

Honour Bayes: Oliviers 2012 Blog – View from a newbie newsie


I’ve started writing a weekly blog for which is going to cover a wealth of things that interest me, hopefully you, and which aren’t getting covered elsewhere. Ironic then that it should start with a blog on The Oliviers, cause, well that was kind of everywhere, but none-the-less  here is my first WOS blog. More to come on Tuesday….

Honour Bayes: Oliviers 2012 Blog – View from a newbie newsie



Review: Black Battles with Dogs

Written for The Stage

With a cast made up of RSC ensemble members and RADA graduates, the pedigree of this production of Black Battles with Dogs cannot be denied. Frustrating, then, that for a large proportion of Bernard-Marie Koltes’ stilted play these quality performers just tread water.

Rebecca Smith-Williams and Paul Hamilton in Black Battles With Dogs at Southwark Playhouse, London (previous pictures shows Osi Okerafor) Photo: Oliver Zeldin

Black Battles with Dogs places a foreman, his Parisian wife-to-be and his second in command within the high walls of a French construction site in Africa. Relationships begin to break down, not only between the Westerners and increasingly antsy natives, but inside the walls too, because apparently it’s not about race.

This makes all the racial slurring and patronising attempts at communication seem grotesquely gratuitous. Indeed, what Koltes’ play is about remains unclear, as characters do little but pour their hearts out and the narrative goes nowhere.

Into this quagmire Alexander Zeldin has pulled out a crafted production that athletically traverses the Southwark vault space. Joseph Arkley is electric and scary as live-wire Cal, making the character’s racist and misogynistic outbursts comprehensible through his compelling delivery. With her pearly white skin and red Pre-Raphaelite locks, Rebecca Smith-Williams seduces our attention while her intense performance transcends Leonie’s silliness to draw genuine compassion from us.

Runs until 5th May 2012

Review: Chalet Lines

Written for Exeunt

Chalet Lines, Madani Younis’ first production as Artistic Director of the Bush Theatre, explodes the constricting nature of family ties. Lee Mattinson’s fraught comedy, with its feminist undertones, emphasis on emotional and sexual disappointments, and exploration of  societal pressures,  appears influenced by writers like Caryl Churchill and Charlotte Keatley. Mattinson is a Newcastle-based playwright (his monologue, Donna Disco, was recently seen on the Live Theatre stage) and Younis now introduces him to a London audience.

It’s Nana Barbara’s seventieth birthday and Loretta, her caustic eldest child, and her two granddaughters, Abigail and Jolene, have returned to the site of her wedding, Butlins in Skegness, to celebrate the occasion. Perhaps not unexpectedly the atmosphere soon begins to deflate quicker than Nana’s birthday balloons as it becomes clear Loretta’s estranged sister Paula isn’t going to be coming and the one liners become ever more lacerating. Mattinson’s play hops back and forth in time, between birthday, hen do and wedding day, unravelling each key moment of betrayal that has brought us to this point before returning us to a present where the emotional cracks are more like crevices.

Mattinson’s humour is brash yet sharp, if also a little obvious in places and it is not until everyone’s wounds are fully laid bare that Chalet Lines really starts to take shape. The play becomes darker in tone and there are some moments of heartbreaking cruelty from Loretta, especially towards her own eldest daughter, Abigail. Loretta may be a little over-the-top at times but she is a wretchedly vivid portrait of a woman trapped by her own fears.

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Review: Mercury Fur

Written for Exeunt

The air is full of dust and the heat is oppressive. A few feet away a pair of skin-headed brothers are planning a party while discussing the relative merits of hallucinogenic  butterflies that make you feel like Jackie Kennedy in orgasm. The room is full of rubble and broken book shelves, but they soon make it look presentable. They’ve done this before, they know the drill; they even have nibbles. A small Asian boy is brought out in an oversized gold lamé suit that drowns his fragile form. Something electric crackles in the room; it leaps from the actors into the front row and pulses through the audience. I’ve never been this close to an explosion before.

Ned Bennett’s production of Philip Ridley’s 2005 play, Mercury Fur, is a genuinely physical experience for both its audience and its performers. People emerge from the theatre blinking and shaken, their breath quickened. The compact Old Red Lion theatre is both hotbox and incubator. Seeds are sown. Ridley’s disturbing play is stuffed full of ideas, about selflessness and selfishness, love and desperation. The play’s imagery is potent, unsettling, searing. This is theatre that leaves a mark.

When Mercury Fur was first performed many critics responded with condescending revulsion at its imagining of a rich man who tortures and kills a young boy for sexual pleasure. Written down like that it seems gratuitous, revolting even. But Ridley’s poetic play is in many ways an uplifting experience. It paints a vivid picture of a violent, future dystopia where so much has been lost and eroded, but his story of exploitation and the lengths people will go to in order to survive is threaded with love. He does not use  shock simply for the sake of it;  Mercury Fur skins its audience and leaves them raw, exposed, but its message is one of salvation.

Bennett’s superb production teases out the play’s beauty and tenderness.  In this he is aided by a superb cast; their every decision and action appears fresh. The performers trust each other implicitly, energy ricocheting around the room.  Only at one point do the pacing and rhythms of the production feel forced; when James Fynan enters as Lola, his slightly fractured and nervy energy is momentarily jarring, it takes a while for him to sync and settle into the world of the play.

Ciaran Owens and Frank C. Keogh make startlingly believable brothers. As Elliot, the more collected of the pair, Owens subtly underscores each moment of exasperation with his younger, damaged brother Darren. There’s a sense of unbreakable affection and connection between the two. Keogh allows the often uncomprehending Darren a number of moments of heart-breaking clarity. Olly Alexander’s  performance as Naz, the scrawny, puppy-like boy who forms an attachment to Darren, is fearless and gently tactile. The audience can’t help but feel for him, this endearing Puck-like figure, mischievous and achingly vulnerable. And we have to love Naz for Ridley’s message of hope to prevail in the midst of all the darkness. We have to believe that if he can be saved, so can we all.  This production both understands and achieves that.

Runs until 14th April 2012.

Any room at the arts centre? The creative potential of live-work space.

Written for Guardian Culture Professionals Network

Melanie Wilson's Frida Kahlo designed bedroom at BAC. Photograph: Katherine Leedale/Press

Pushing through a door at Battersea Arts Centre (BAC) you come to a corridor of further doors and stairs that lead down to a bucolic kitchen area, a bathroom and some bedrooms. Visitors used to the centre’s adventurous approach to its building may be tricked into thinking this is another mysterious journey in the style of The Masque of the Red Death.

But while these spaces were initially designed as part of last year’s One-on-One Festival, for a number of artists they have become home.

“It’s an amazing thing to be able to wake up and to run to the rehearsal room in your pyjamas,” says current resident Clare Beresford from Little Bulb Theatre. David Jubb, co-artistic director, grins: “You walk in sometimes in the morning and there’s an artist in their pyjamas with a bowl of cereal. It definitely has a much more homely feel now.”

Turning the 80-room town hall building into a home is at the top of Jubb and co-artistic director David Micklem’s agenda. Alongside their innovative Cook Up, Tuck In, Take Out programme, the artists’ bedrooms are the next step to making the venue a place not just for theatre but for congregation.

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