How to update a classic play

Written for IdeasTap

How to update a classic play

In the year Chekhov met Cobain, radical interpretations of classics have been all the rage. Honour Bayes looks at what it takes to successfully revamp a golden oldie…

Stay true to the original…

2012 has seen Anton Chekhov get modern makeovers, with Benedict Andrews’ modern-day Three Sisters (including a rendition of Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’) and Anya Reiss’ The Seagull, set on the Isle of Man. While each text is decades away from 19th-century Russia, both playwrights remained faithful to Chekhov’s play. “I value the opportunity to meet the play and get to know its characters better,” says Benedict. He adds that the most extreme transformations come from a rigorous re-examining of the text: “The only advice I can give is to not settle for quick answers or second-hand readings – seek out the play’s DNA, its raw fibres, and try to expose them.” Anya looked for the pieces of the original that were eternal: “Once I found them, they became the supports… and it’s just a matter of bridging between these supports, using the original as a blueprint of how you get from these points.” Or as One Man, Two Guvnors writer Richard Bean puts it, “The plot’s [Carlo] Goldoni’s and all the dialogue is mine.”

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Interview: Howard Barker

Written for The Stage

Howard Barker is looking startled. “I’m amazed, why would you leave?” I have just told him about the reports of early walk-outs in response to his claim that his play Scenes from an Execution is an easy ride. He looks genuinely baffled, and says: “It’s a pretty easy play to get on board with, it doesn’t give you a headache”.

Many people would disagree with him but then that is the story of Barker’s life. A tragedian in a world where comedy reigns, he is a lone figure. Still he casts a daunting shadow across the theatrical landscape with early productions at the RSC and Royal Court, plays such as Scenes from an Execution and Victory – which received a swaggering Arcola production starring Matthew Kelly in 2009 – and the formation of his own company The Wrestling School, created to carry out his vision of the ‘theatre of catastrophe’. “I believe in poetic discourse, in the value of speech in a non-naturalistic way, it’s speculative… I’m not interested in observed reality.”

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Review: But I cld only whisper

Written for The Stage

A popular contemporary subject, combat stress has never been placed so clearly within a societal context as in Kristiana Colon’s moving play but I cd only whisper.

It’s the 1970s and black veteran Beau Willie Brown returns from Vietnam haunted and brutal. As he is questioned over a troubling crime, Colon explores racial tensions, domestic abuse and combat trauma through the story of a man who has been fighting all his life.

Colon gives voice to each side of Beau’s broken persona – the abused mother of his children, his bullish commanding officer, the friend who could have easily done it too and his spoilt white mistress. She interlaces them, providing a cacophony of explanations in a poetic piece of social commentary.

Nadia Latif’s staging and Imogen Knight’s choreography mirror Colon’s lyricism, with characters physically weaving in and out of the action, just as their stories come in and out of Beau’s head. Wendy Short’s projections evoke the feeling of a country and a man on the brink of explosion.

Adetomiwa Edun’s Beau is a cracked prism full of flaws and broken dreams. As Crystal, the woman he beats, Emanuella Cole gives a raw and compelling performance that ignites uncomfortable feelings of voyeurism even as it is impossible to look away.

Runs until 1st December. For more information go here.

Review: Lot and His God

Written for The Stage

Howard Barker wants theatre to be an ordeal but this polished production by Robyn Winfield-Smith is anything but. Winfield-Smith encases Barker’s meaty poetry in cool performances and keeps this philosophical piece to a tight tempo.

Lot and his wife have been told to pack their bags by the angel sent to destroy Sodom. Justin Avoth as the avenging individual burns with a fierce intensity that makes his own descent into Lot’s wife’s bed even more acute. Mark Tandy’s Lot is more circumspect, he is cool in the face of his impending fate, both interrogating and searching to understand God’s will.

Hermione Gulliford as Sverdlosk – “the wife of Lot has her own name incidentally” – is as poised as a ballerina en pointe. Her intelligence is sharper than her designer suit but she does not use it to manipulate – her betrayals are sacrosanct because they are sanctioned by her husband, just as the angel’s are by God.

Barker’s language rolls around the space, verbose but lyrical. Winfield-Smith has punctuated his free-wheeling speeches perfectly – pointedly maximising their force.

Keeping within The Print Room’s tradition of beautifully designed productions, Fotini Dimou has created a fine podium for these meditations to be played out on.

Runs until 24th November. For more information go here.

Review: Cooking Ghosts

Written for The Stage

Devised shows based around family memories sometimes fall into the trap of being manipulative, but not Cooking Ghosts. Beady Eye has once again created an emotionally acute piece of performance that is moving but not sentimental. But then artistic director Kristin Fredricksson knows a thing or two about autobiographical work.

After focusing on her father in her critically acclaimed 2009 show Everything Must Go, Cooking Ghosts sees Fredricksson explore even more personal territory. Inspired by footage of herself and her sisters, Fredricksson, Georgina Roberts, Seiriol Davies and Helen Mugridge try to take us back to these tumbling toddlers and through them to their suicidal mother.

Puppetry, film and dance make up a delicate patchwork of visual storytelling that is at times breathtaking. Mythology mixes with memory as Cleopatra and a female Minotaur are evoked in an attempt to understand this matriarch.

It feels like a quest, full of abstract imagery that is more psychologically led than narratively. At points it’s confusing – such as when Fredricksson enacts her Grandmother’s thoughts – and we feel lost. But it is often the strangeness of these connections that means this journey feels genuine and we trust these performers to lead us through this strange landscape.

Running till tomorrow – more information here.