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Pink Mist

Dramatic Narrative in MotionWW1 IWM logo

Pink Mist

by Owen Sheers

Teddington Theatre Club at the Hampton Hill Theatre until 27th October

Review by Celia Bard

On display in The Temple Church in London is a poem entitled “A Phantasy” written by a little-known poet, Will Hastwell, who’d once served as a chorister in The Temple. The poem’s brutal imagery and harsh word sounds clearly reveals the deeply disturbed mind of this young soldier. On Easter Sunday 8th April 1917 this poet soldier was killed in the trenches in France, most likely dissipating into a fine cloud of blood entering the atmosphere, creating a ‘pink mist’, the title of this play. Since then countless numbers of soldiers have died and/or have been physically disabled. Of the three young soldiers, the main characters in Pink Mist, one is blown up by an IED (an improvised explosive device – i.e a homemade bomb), another loses both legs, the third loses his mind. From the onset of the play, like the poem, the audience is faced with the terrible reality of war and its aftermath. Nothing has changed since that War, the one that was supposed to End All Wars.

Pink Mist tells the story of three young men, Arthur, Taff and Hads, who are deployed to Afghanistan after enlisting to get away from their homes and monotonous lives. The play is written in verse and, like the poem referred to above, the rhythmic lines imprint themselves on the minds of the audience. The playwright in an interview explains that his drama is based on interviews with recently wounded men and their families. The authenticity of the experiences of these men shine through the drama with stark reality.

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The opening scene shows the three soldiers and the women in the lives, a wife, a mother, a girlfriend, enacting a series of poetic dramatisations of their lives: their growing up experience in Bristol, including the boys’ childhood ironic chants of “Who Wants to Play War?”; the appeal of the army; the horrific reality of war, it is not a game; the return to civilian life; the psychological and physical changes in the men resulting from their traumatic experience of fighting in Afghanistan, and the impact this has on the lives of their womenfolk.

This highly dramatic narrative proem provides a wonderful opportunity for physical drama and the cast, director and back stage crew do not disappoint. The innovative choreographed movements and gestures of the actors, the backgrounds sounds of war such as the sudden explosions, high pitched screams of a woman, atmospheric and vivid lighting succeed in assaulting the senses, pull the audience into a hypnotic alliance with the actors and the characters they portray.

The verse is powerful and rich in imagery. The rhythm and sound patterns contribute to the sense of horror and futility experienced by the three soldiers who join the army as boys but soon mature into revengeful fighting machines. The verse contains such a strong mesmerising quality, you hardly dare to breathe, so compelling is the dramatic quality of the poetic lines, the imagery, the action, and the acting.

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David Shortland is outstanding as Arthur Brown, the young lad whose imagination is fired by advertising posters plastered on the walls of the Information Centre, and later as the mature soldier known as “King” to his mates. David totally owns this role as narrator and also in his interaction with other characters. His quieter and deeply poetic moments are very moving especially when describing the taking of a bird’s egg from its nest, and when watching a man dive to his death from a cliff top. These moments contrast sharply with his more excitable moments, particularly that of his death, when he is blown up, creating a cloud of pink mist.

Tom Cooper as Taff provides a powerful interpretation of a young man who plummets the depth of despair when he witnesses first hand the impact of “Blue upon Blue”, friendly fire. Back in civvy street he withdraws more and more from his wife and young child, drinking heavily and eventually ending up sleeping on the streets. At the end of the play we see there is some level of redemption and feel that his fractured and tortured mind might start to recover. This is a beautifully rounded and sensitive performance.

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Hads played by Jack Lumb is an interesting character, just seventeen when he joins the army. Not much older when he loses both his legs whilst sweeping the landscape for I.E.Ds. Early in his recovery he expresses a feeling of relief that although he has lost his legs, he still has life. Later he sinks onto a slough of despair. His recovery begins when Arthur is bought home in a coffin. The stumps of his legs are not healed, there is danger that he will do further damage to his back if he stands, but he does stand to honour his friend. This young actor does justice to this exacting physical role which demands so much from an actor.

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Pink Mist is beautifully balanced in terms of its male and female characters. The writer’s portrayal of women is not neglected and contrasts sharply with that of the men. The women may be smaller, but they are strong. The men mature physically but are reduced at times to childhood. Arthur’s long-suffering girl friend, Gwen, played by Rebecca Tarry, provide a multifaceted portrayal. In turn she is angry, frustrated, hurt by Arthur’s insensitive behaviour, but she remains loyal. Asha Gill as Lisa is totally convincing as the frustrated mother of not one child but two: the second, her husband. Hads’s mother, Sarah, played by Helen Lowe moves from a position of non-recognition and shock to one of total love and support. All three women actors give fine and sensitive performances.

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Nigel Cole and Gita Singham-Willis must be applauded for their craftmanship, without doubt they are a winning duo. The transformation between scenes work seamlessly, the choreography and physicality of the actors complement the verse and the cinematographic images succeed in establishing different time periods and locations. The wonderful sound and lighting effects bring home the horrors of the battlefields contrasting sharply with the beat and frenzy of the nightclub. This production of Pink Mist is drama at its best. The beautiful poetic nature of the narrative, its stark realism, wonderful acting and choreography, superb direction, make it a production not to be missed.

Celia Bard
October 2018

Photography by Sarah J Carter

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Keepers

Won’t Someone Think of the Animals?

Keepers

by Ben Clare

Lifelike Theatre at OSO Arts Centre, Barnes, until 19th October

Review by Matthew Grierson

If Kerry is awkwardly natural when she introduces Amy to the zoo, Tom is naturally awkward on meeting his new colleague. Small talk and business-speak combine in Kerry’s opening monologue, which is nicely observed both in terms of Ben Clare’s writing and Ally Staddon’s performance as the upbeat but dim-witted keeper. The scene serves not only as Amy’s orientation but also our own introduction to the dynamic of this three-hander, a new play that looks at first to be a study of the relationship between her (Emma Miles) and Tom (Craig Bates).

Once Kerry has waved a cheery goodbye, Tom and Amy are soon chopping carrots in synch – though as he points out, she needn’t been cutting them into so many pieces because the animals need to do a bit of chewing to improve their teeth. It mayn’t be wise to draw attention to eating so early: at various points in the play, Bates has to munch on fruit or pizza while delivering dialogue, something that doesn’t help his tendency to swallow his words. That said, the occasional lost line at least plays up – or rather, plays down – Tom’s diffidence.

The small talk between the two becomes bigger, with a sometimes stilted rhythm that complements their hesitantly developing chemistry. It is appealingly naturalistic, but runs the risk of contrivance at times. There’s a particular scene that relies repeatedly on the device of one of them not knowing a word and having the other come up with it, and yes, this does suggest two people realising they are similarly minded, but it also draws attention to its staginess. Likewise, while the sound effects of birdsong aren’t themselves intrusive, in those moments that they are audible they remind us that there ought actually to be more animal noise from the hippos, penguins, llamas and tapirs that roam the dialogue.

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The music cues on the other hand – appropriately enough from the Penguin Cafe – underscore the tender atmosphere of Tom and Amy’s relationship. And with the dialogue both deliberately and accidentally awkward, the cast are also able to make good use of silences, with those when Amy bandages Tom’s cut finger and Tom waits for a tapir focusing, rather than losing, our attention.

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Before too long, however, the play puts larger issues at stake. Tom relates an anecdote about a woman visiting the zoo who refused to accept that one of the animals had cancer, and who insisted that it could be treated with alternative therapy. Tom’s frustration at the wilful ignorance of the public in contrast to expert knowledge seems to be taking the play in an interesting direction. As it is juxtaposed with a peppy talk on meerkats, in which Kerry tells us ‘We’re not worried about them in the wild – they’re not endangered’, I sensed we might be being introduced to the idea that the zoo was a microcosm of our planet, and this was reinforced by some nicely comic confusion between Amy and Kerry over whether they are talking about Africa as a continent or an enclosure. In which case, public obliviousness to the zoo animals’ mortality could represent a wider, wilful human blindness to the extinction event we’re now living through, couldn’t it?

I was right about the zoo as an analogy, but I was wrong about its subject. This becomes immediately evident when Kerry tells Amy about a staff vote on whether the zoo should leave the International Zoo Federation. As an incidental gag this is laboured; as a sustained plotline it is still more so, and sees the play’s careful establishment of characters solidify them into argumentative positions instead. I won’t insult anyone’s intelligence by suggesting what the elephant that is not in the room might be, but Clare’s script has no such reservations. Moreover, he takes a very one-sided view, with the sympathetic Amy and Tom positioned as remainers and the chirpy but superficial Kerry not allowed the ability to mount a convincing counter-argument.

This political agenda co-opts even the play’s better-crafted moments, viz. a pub quiz question on the function of zebra stripes. If camouflage is a discredited theory, why bother disguising the clear political parallels of the piece? Where the dialogue succeeds it does so on the strength of its naturalism, which means Clare would have had licence to let his characters come out and talk about the issues that so clearly concern him. After all, people have been talking plenty about this issue at home, at work and, in all likelihood, at zoos as well over the past couple of years.

Indeed, the exchange when Tom and Amy confront Kerry about leaving the EU – sorry, I mean the IZF – is certainly meant to be as awkward as any of these conversations, but merely confirms the characters in their positions rather than making theatrical use of the tension. With tighter direction, I might even have been convinced that the long silences were meaningful rather than just hesitation over pick-ups. Also awkward are some of the scene changes, as several times the cast are called on to strike a table that is laden with carrots and apples that roll off on to the floor. They’d better watch that … it’ll attract animals.

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Once the political posturing is taken off into the wings with Kerry’s departure, though, we return to the character study with which the play began, and as Amy, Miles delivers a captivating monologue about her time in Botswana. This is a pleasant surprise, because although her reticence about her past has been contrasted with Kerry’s oversharing throughout, that story has been sidelined by the dominance of the leave vs remain plot. Even though the emotional beats of her closing speech are not unpredictable, Miles demands our attention, confirming the status she has built up through the piece as a confident and charismatic lead. Admittedly, her account of a former boyfriend is rather undermined when she then says she could spend all night talking to Tom … The audience is spared his own story, however – awkward as ever, we only get his opening ‘I –’ before the lights go down. The rest, as they say, is silence.

If only the script could have exercised such restraint with politics. As it is, Tom and Amy’s case depends on what a leave vote means for the lives of the animals they manage. But the play can’t ask us to invest in zoological welfare when Clare himself is only using the animals as an analogy for contemporary British politics, because he then fails to practise what he preaches. ‘If only the animals came first,’ indeed.

As a result, Keepers ends up being as earnest as Tom, and doesn’t use its promising setting or set-up to offer new insights into the political situation that is clearly on the writer’s mind.

Matthew Grierson
October 2018

Photography courtesy of Lifelike Theatre

 

The Habit of Art

Pandora’s Box Opened by Apollo

The Habit of Art

by Alan Bennett

The Original Theatre Company with York Theatre Royal and Ghost Light Theatre productions 

at Richmond Theatre until 20th October, then on tour until 1st December

Review by Mark Aspen

“Why does a play have to be such a performance?” asks Neil, the exasperated playwright of the play-within-the-play in Alan Bennett’s The Habit of Art. This triggered an interval discussion around whether Bennett is at his best with simplicity (like his character studies in Talking Heads) or in his undeniably clever, complex pieces, of which The Habit of Art is probably his most complex.

On reflexion, the answer to this question lies in the performance rather than the play. Original Theatre’s touring production of The Habit of Art, which has just touched down at Richmond Theatre this week, is remarkably good at unravelling these complexities by, amongst other things, simply the brilliant acting across the full cast. For real actors in a play to play fictional actors in a fictional play-within-a-play about real characters in a fictional situation (I hope you are keeping up) requires concentrated acting that differentiates between each without losing fluidity and intent. Director Philip Franks has done a superb job in balancing the talents of his well-chosen cast. Moreover the play deals with awkwardly delicate issues which are handled with a sensitivity that is lightened by the legendary Bennett wit.

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The theme revolves around another man of letters, well-known for his wit, W.H. Auden, who is a real character in Caliban’s Day, the fictional play within The Habit of Art. Caliban’s Day imagines a day in 1972 when Auden, having just taken up a sinecure at Christ Church, his alma mater in Oxford, has a number of visitors, including Benjamin Britten, whom Auden had not seen since he had left the USA in 1942, where they fled as conscientious objectors at the beginning of the war; and Humphrey Carpenter, who was to become a distinguished biographer, including of both these men. The Habit of Art is set in a parish hall in 2009, where a group of professional actors is rehearsing Caliban’s Day under the supervision of Kay, the stage manager, in the director’s absence. The author of play, Neil, also turns up. Without directorial guidance, all take the opportunity to question the play, its presentation and their roles in it.

What could be metatheatre for its own sake, is used in a series of interwoven didactic explorations of the nature of theatre, of reality versus imagination, of sexuality, of politics, and, as the title suggests, of the purpose of art. Bennett also makes it a gentle lampoon of actors, theatre practice, and (perhaps self-deprecatingly) playwrights.

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Designer Adrian Linford, with lighting designer Joanna Town, creates a precisely all-embracing setting for the rehearsal space. An untidy clutter of theatre accoutrements and rehearsal props in a recognisably tired church hall. With the Victorian meatiness of its heavy porch, roof beam corbels and wainscoting now disappearing under thick green paint, and a harsh addition of fluorescent strip-lighting, you could almost smell the dampness.

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Dampness is an appropriate setting Auden in his Oxford rooms (once the college Brewhouse), who is prematurely senile, particularly in his hygiene, but not in his sexual practices. His untidiness, incontinence and toilet short cuts makes for a sordid ambience, which is compounded by his frankly admitted promiscuous homosexual dalliances, for which his lust is still strong. However, the explicitness of all this is hair-curling, and Fitz, the actor playing Auden thinks it demeans the character. “He is not coarse” says Fitz and the wider realisation of his character does indeed concentrate on the sharpness of his mind, his mobile facetiousness and his comprehension. The Auden depicted is also an obsessive. He obsesses about time and timekeeping, about his fear of aging, although “oracles repeat themselves”, and above all about the art of writing, which has become a life-sustaining habit … and he does repeat about “the habit of art”. Matthew Kelly, in this definitive role, not only is the essence of Auden (and even looks like a taller Auden), but typifies the old-school actor that is Fitz. The two are subtly but clearly differentiated down to the body language: the physically weary Auden shuffling in his carpet slippers and urine-stained trousers, and the world-weary Fitz, doing the job, the sparkle returning at the thought of his next part, a supermarket ad voice-over.

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Equally another widely experienced actor, David Yelland, extracts the quintessence of Benjamin Britten from the character played by the actor Henry. The verisimilitude of Henry’s portrayal of Britten’s urbanity and his covert sexuality, discretely exposed in the presence of his one-time friend Auden, are accurately put across by Yelland. Just as we realise that Britten’s perversions extend to paederasty with his would-be choir boys, we also realise that Henry’s account of someone he knew, who became a part-time rent-boy to pay his way through RADA, is in fact Henry himself.

John Wark gives a strong and well-studied portrait of the third real-life character Humphrey Carpenter as played by Donald, an earnest new actor in Caliban’s Day. Carpenter, was not only a prolific biographer, but was instrumental in the development of The Third Programme (now BBC Radio 3). Son of a Bishop of Oxford, he was Oxford personified. In Caliban’s Day, Carpenter remains always in the background as a de-facto narrator, a theatrical conceit that Donald is keen to expand. He demonstrates his idea, an idea received by the rest of the company with a mixture of amusement and bemusement: he enters as the Goddess of the Wind (pronounced wine-ed), playing a tuba … in drag. The Richmond audience loved it (and Wark too clearly enjoyed the diversion).

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Donald is merely trying to catch the drift of Neil, the playwright, who is besotted with theatrical conceits in all their forms. Inter alia, he is experimenting with making pieces of Auden’s furniture animate in order to give the play more depth. Fitz is distinctly unimpressed, as are the stage crew, who are reading in for absent actors but dutifully don the cardboard cut-outs of the dancing fixtures and fittings. As the overbearing hyper-precious playwright, Robert Mountford fairly bristles in the role of Neil, as he treats all the actors with supercilious distain, “chimpanzees trying to repair the watch”. Bennett’s spoof of Neil is as the ultimate intertextual plagiariser. So, pretentiously, we have as allegories of Auden and Britten: Phaedrus and Socrates, Dionysus and Apollo, von Aschenbach and Tadzio etc etc. The last pair from Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice is perhaps the most pertinent, as Auden in fact married Mann’s daughter (an unconsummated marriage arranged to get her out of Nazi Germany) but Auden did not write the libretto for Britten’s opera Death in Venice that is mooted in this Neil’s play. (Also I believe Mann based von Aschenbach on Gustave Mahler.)

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Cutting through all this bullshit is Kay, Caliban’s Day’s stage manager, pragmatic, astute and focussed, everything a stage manager needs to be. She has been there, seen that and has a full wardrobe of proverbial tee-shirts. Veronica Roberts is outstanding in this role and is strongly supported by Alexandra Guelff in the role of George, the Assistant Stage Manager. (Guelff also has a great singing voice, her character standing in for Britten’s boy trebles and taking her soprano into this range in lovely traditional songs like The Ash Grove – in musical arrangements by Max Pappenheim.) Between them Roberts and Guelff are stage management embodied, as anyone who has ever worked in the theatre will testify.

The title of the fictitious play, Caliban’s Day, is, as Neil tries to explain, based on Auden’s poem, The Sea and the Mirror, which alludes to The Tempest and has, in its final long section, Caliban addressing the audience in lieu of Shakespeare. Symbolically, Caliban is the rent-boy, Stuart, who is one of the visitors that day in Auden’s rooms, and is perfunctorily used by Auden. As such, he is seen as one of unrecorded masses who impinge on the lives of the famous, but are marginalised when posterity apportions their biographies. Benjamin Chandler in this role has the deference of the newcomer actor Tim and the self-assurance of Stuart, the rent-boy whom he plays, a difficult role acted well.

Britten may say of a boy that “he was an Apollo, I seduced by his beauty”, but Auden’s reply that “it was not corruption but collaboration” opens a veritable Pandora’s Box. The Habit of Art may, like the actors, question the play, its presentation and their roles in it, but what Bennett’s metatheatre is really questioning is life, its presentation and all our roles in it.

Mark Aspen
October 2018

Photography by Helen Maybanks

Multitudes

Melting Pot comes to the Boil

Multitudes

by John Hollingworth

Questors Theatre Company at the Questors Studio, Ealing, until 20th October

Review by Eleanor Lewis

London and other cities seen as having a multi-cultural identity are frequently described in terms of a melting pot, a description which tends to gloss over the actual ‘melting’ process. First performed in 2015, Multitudes addresses what happens when the melting pot reaches boiling point.

Set in the city of Bradford, the Tories are about to arrive for conference in the city. They have just won an election and they’re supporting military action in the Middle East. The nation as a whole is squirming with unrest, mosques and a vicar having been attacked. A peace camp appears in the city, set up by Muslim women. Against this backdrop, Kash, a local Muslim councillor is hoping to become an MP. Natalie, his white partner, converts to Islam (but without consulting Kash) and takes up the hijab. Natalie’s confused and increasingly defensive mother, Lyn, fears the changes in the city she grew up in and turns to alcohol, from time to time launching into rants of the go-home-this-isn’t-really-your-country type. Perhaps most disturbingly Kash’s daughter Qadira, while struggling to reconcile her western environment with her Muslim identity starts to look for answers in radicalism.

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Over the course of six days this small family fragments, the strain of events around them forcing them to take a side however much they don’t want to. Natalie tries to function as a human bridge between all parties but breaks under the stress coming at her from all sides: she loses her job, suffers abuse from the community she’s tried to join, her mother can’t accept her religious conversion and Kash worries about how her actions supporting the peace camp look to the watching world. Eventually every character is backed into a corner and “whose side are you on?” is really the only question any of them has to answer. Whilst writer John Hollingworth does not provide a happy conclusion to this dilemma, he does perhaps suggest in the final section of the work that tribal loyalties are ultimately counterproductive, particularly in the face of the behemoth that is radical terrorism.

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All of which might sound like heavy going, but this is a tightly written work with comic moments scattered throughout it, cropping up naturally as they do in everyday life, adding authenticity to the interactions taking place. This is not to say that authenticity is lacking, the level of performance matched the quality of the writing. All four principals were rounded, flawed, sympathetic characters: Anil Goutam’s Kash, was a man constantly keeping himself in check while trying to advance his career and keep his integrity; Maya Markelle brought out Natalie’s articulate but increasing frustration as she tried and failed to sort everyone out; Sarah Assaf conveyed the bewildered anger of a teenage Quadira lacking direction but wanting to do the right thing. Gillian Jacyna played Lyn as a woman whose anger and bigotry was born of the fear she felt at failing to cope with changing times, she was vulnerable. The supporting cast produced equally skilled performances, five actors sharing eleven roles, but still fully-formed character sketches: evidence of efficient direction and thoughtful performance.

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The production moved at a great pace – there is a lot packed into this play, there would be, it’s the ‘melting pot’ issue – but strong direction brought out everything there was to be noted. Terry Mummery’s lighting and Olly Potter’s sound, including the call to prayer between scenes sometimes, enhanced the sparely furnished central playing block, though the staging itself could have been better. The fact that all the action took place in various sections across the long, black brick wall of Questors Studio meant that exits and entrances, particularly from stage right could be quite lengthy. This was particularly clunky after one significant moment toward the end of Act II. Possibly a couple of drapes either side might have helped.

There was a strange sort of script ‘tic’, more often in the first act than the second, when the question What? i.e. “what’s wrong with you/that” is furiously asked by different characters more times than is effective, and it interrupts the flow a little. Aside from that, Bradford accents were consistently sound, with only the very occasional lapse into somewhere in Scotland and the north east.

I enjoyed Multitudes, the family relationship between the four principal characters was both believable and attractive despite, or possibly because, it was fraught. Multitudes ticks two important boxes, it’s both interesting and entertaining. The play’s ending is open to different interpretations but one of those has to be that ultimately we will all come together again, it’s just that the process of getting to that point is probably going to be unbearably difficult.

Eleanor Lewis
October 2018

Photography by Jane Arnold-Forster.

Porgy and Bess

Real Deep South Heat

Porgy and Bess

by George Gershwin, DuBose and Dorothy Heyward, and Ira Gershwin

English National Opera, London Coliseum until 17th November

Review by Suzanne Frost

Hotly anticipated, Porgy and Bess is a great choice for programming not just because the work hasn’t been seen in London since the eighties and has never been staged at ENO before, but also because it fits so urgently into their overarching season theme – patriarchal structures.

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Gershwin famously saw his American Opera somewhere between Meistersinger and Carmen (although I got some serious Sondheim shivers in the overture), but Bess, the unmarried, outcast addict, endlessly passed on from one man to the next, is the Anti-Carmen. A vulnerable woman with no agenda of her own, only defined by the man who is housing her at any given moment and suffering under the societal structures that only assign worth to married women and mothers, Bess is a victim of patriarchy if there ever was one. As human rights activist Malcom X famously said, the most disrespected, unprotected, neglected person in America is the black woman, and Bess may well be opera’s only intersectional heroine.

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Just like Carmen, the storyline of Porgy and Bess is pure verismo, set amongst the poor hardworking downtrodden community of Catfish Row in South Carolina. Their close-knit lives are well presented through the mobile set designed by double Tony-Award winner Michael Yeargan, always bustling with various activities across two levels of a typical southern colonial house. Under the subtle direction of James Robinson it is interesting how the centre stage is almost at all times taken up by the men of the community while the women are pushed to the margins of the stage or busy on the upper levels with endless household chores and the care of numerous children. The evenings are “man time” as they take their apparently God-given right to relax, drink, gamble, waste time and lounge about after a day of work, while the labour never end for the women. The male privilege is most striking when you notice a teenage boy already lazing away with the men while a small girl upstairs is pushing a broom. The patriarchal structures are internalised by everyone, not least of all by the women who shame and bully Bess, making her entrance in a classic Carmen red dress to mark her as a “slag”, for not conforming to the acceptable stereotype of wife and mother. “Gawd-fearin’” women can be the worst!

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It is quite obvious how Bess, whose beauty might be her curse, ends up in the company of men, as she is persistently shunned and excluded from the sisterhood. Immensely vulnerable and victim of her drug addiction, Bess needs shelter and protection and the only way to find those is via men. Of course those men rarely have her best interest at heart. The violent Crown is abusive, the drug dealer Sporting Life seeks ways to exploit her addiction. Only Porgy, the warm hearted cripple with a happy soul sees any good in her. Though still unmarried, a prim floral dress and someone else’s baby to care for turn Bess into an almost acceptable woman in the eyes of the clan. Yet, preconceptions remain under the surface at all times. Bess is a “bad woman”. The drug dealer and the murderer are perfectly acceptable members of the community.

With a storyline as eternal as this one, I was a little bit disappointed with the perfectly traditional mise en scene. While many may sigh in relief, I do generally love ENO’s boldness with direction and Porgy and Bess would work brilliantly in a more contemporary setting. But perfectly neat southern 1920s is what we get. Also, for anyone familiar with that old tune Summertime – and who isn’t – the original version sound surprisingly unjazzy. The orchestra, under jazz expert James Wilson, sounds mighty fine, but tamer than I expected and so, at over three hours running time and a never-ending first act, it did test my patience. The score does of course include some evergreens – and Frederic Ballentine as Sporting Life gets the crowds swinging, letting loose with It Ain’t Necessarily So – but rather more impressive are the gospel numbers, most of all the first act funeral, where that big luxurious specially enlarged ensemble of forty raises to a glorious chorus, building up real Deep South heat. Tichina Vaughn made a showstopper of her scenes as a sassy Maria throwing shade at Sporting Life while dissecting a shark. Much audience love was directed at Eric Greene for his debut as a warm and big hearted Porgy with a goofy smile and great physicality. His I Got Plenty of Nuttin was light-hearted and humorous, with more than a whiff of Fiddler on the Roof “If I was a rich man” charm. Soprano Nicole Cabell was less warmly received for her portrayal of Bess which is curious. There is a tendency with audiences these days to judge the characters rather than the performers during their curtain call, with lots of booing for the white police men, who are of course unlikeable but perfectly performed as such by singers who don’t deserve this kind of judgement. Bess is a less likeable figure than Porgy, she is beautiful and flawed, underwritten as a character by the – what else – male librettists, lacks courage and personal agenda, acts merely as a prop for most of the men in the story and was as such perfectly portrayed by the gorgeous Nicole Cabell. The fact that she pales in comparison to her male counterpart is in a way patriarchal structures personified. As long as only men write the stories and give space to male characters, this is how women will be painted on stage. Unfortunately the only piece of new writing this season, the Jack the Ripper opera in March next year, is also by a man.

Suzanne Frost
October 2018

Photography by Tristram Kenton

Soiree for MTV

Journey on Foot

Soiree for MTV

St Mary’s Church, Hampton, 6th October

Review by Mark Aspen

Jazzy cello, folksy cello? No, no, no most might say, the cello is a classical instrument, middle orchestra but with many beautiful solo pieces: it has the rich throatiness that makes it so good for, well passion yes, but melancholy certainly. But yes, yes we can say, and as Amy Gould in her recent Soiree at St Mary’s has deftly shown us, it is a versatile instrument, quick on its feet (foot?) and full of … fun.

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At the special concert in support of MTV, a local youth project run by St. Mary’s (not MTV, the teenager’s controversial radical broadcaster), a freshly coiffured William Ormerod introduced (reintroduced for many of the evening’s enthusiastic audience) Amy Gould, an award winning cellist, trained at the Royal Academy of Music, who is well-known locally, and her nimbly adept accompanist, David Harrod.

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The pair were to take us musically on an inspired tour around Europe, but with sojourns across the Atlantic, with Gershwin in the USA and to Argentine for Piazzolla’s tangos and more.

Astor Piazzolla, the Argentinian composer, created the “nuevo tango”, whose newness melded jazz and classical music into the tango. His best-known work is Libertango, expressing an open freedom, which Gould’s spirited playing almost induced some of the audience to dance to its smouldering rhythms. Equally foot-tapping was Le Grand Tango, one of Piazolla’s later pieces that he dedicated to the famous cellist Mstislav Rostropovich. This piece is a musical marriage made in heaven, with the piano providing the staccato tango rhythms and the cello’s huskiness adding the passion. It is a piece that knows where it is going.

However, Piazzolla is not all about swirling sensuality and fiery dancing, Los Suenos lives up to its name, we are in a land of dreams, somnambulant, softly drifting to the sonorous smooth sounds of the cello.

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Then we awake to put on white tie. Ah, George Gershwin, and we are immediately in a sophisticated world of between-the-wars high society … and They Can’t Take That Away From Me. This romantic nostalgic piece is from Shall We Dance and that is what the cello and piano do: cello leading and piano gently echoing the melody. But at a concert it is strictly non dancing and the audience had to content itself with more foot-tapping even for I’ve Got Rhythm, the standard from Girl Crazy, which transcribes (perhaps surprisingly) beautifully to the cello, but with the eponymous rhythm being lightly delivered by Harrod’s piano. Girl Crazy took Broadway to Arizona, but to get away from over-sophistication Gershwin set his “American folk opera” Porgy and Bess way down south in Charleston, South Carolina. The jazzy feel of It Ain’t Necessarily So comes over strongly on the cello and more didactic than the big swinging chorus number of the folk opera, whereas the lyricism of Porgy’s love song Bess, You My Woman Now is more extended on the cello. Leaving America, Gershwin peers thorough a stereotypical 1930’s London peasouper with Foggy Day.

Nevertheless, Gould and Harrod’s landfall in Europe is not in London but in Spain with the first to the two Spanish Dances No 2 by Enrique Granados. This trip to Spain however lingers a little on the other side of the Med. There is a certain mystery about it, well deserving its title, Orientale. One can almost feel the swirling of veiled ladies as they dance, and that exquisite last drawn-out note is quite seductive. It is a French composer, Maurice Ravel however, who takes us truly into Spain with his Pièce en Forme de Habanera, the spiccato cello making the confident, defiant statement of the Spanish dance.

Perhaps exhausted by the dance, we awaken from a dream in Gabriel Faure’s Après un Reve. The cello’s subtle exploration the theme is underlined by the piano. Does it get there? Almost, but then we are gently awakened by another drowsy sound. L’Abeille may sound French, but it is by Franz Schubert. One is immediately lead to think of the better-known bee of Rimsky-Korsakov, but to my mind Schubert’s honeyed composition sounds far more bee-like, and the short piece packs in a hive of virtuosity.

From an Austrian composer to a Czech as Antonín Dvořák takes us into a peaceful forest with his Waldesruhe. In the silence of the woods it feels like an evening walk as the adagio piece uses the cello’s lowest register. On into Slovakia with Bohuslav Martinu’s Slovak Variations, which although based on a folksong are definitely not rustic, but rather nostalgic and wistful. Their reflective nature is at its most intense in the first, becoming urgent and spirited in in the second. The piano opens the third variation with steady solemnity, which the cello picks up with an elegiac boldness, breaking into the lively scherzo of the fourth (did I hearing someone running?) and, in the expansive pizzicato cello of the final variation, I swear I could hear those bees again.

Eastward again, with the Hungarian composer, Béla Bartók, into Romania and his Romanian Folk Dances. We were treated to six of them, but since in a programme note we were told that the dancing involves sticks, sashes, spinning, stamping and even kicking the ceiling (!!), nobody dared to try. Nevertheless, it was exhausting to watch and hear the cello taking us through the dances, with the all these flourishes, including a top register dance “in one spot”, leading to a lively Romanian Polka, and on to the Mărunţel, the fastest of the dances.

We went into Russia with Sergei Rachmaninoff, although his Prelude and Dance Orientale are by no means typically Russian (or typical Rachmaninoff). The pizzicato cello in the prelude however, could have been at home on the balalaika, but the Dance Orientale moves us through smoky bazaars … ah, those swirling veiled ladies again!

Our second Russian composer, and the only living composer, was Nikolai Kapustin, who offered the most interesting fusion of classical and jazz music. As the name suggests, Elegy is contemplative, moving in a steady flow, with the piano initially taking the centre stage until the cello flows in and elaborates the whole with jazz style and rhythm. The overall feel is one of yearning: a remarkable composition, remarkably delivered by a pair of instruments in complete symbiosis.

David Harrod makes a perfect foil to the precise and studied style of playing of Amy Gould, with the refinement and concentration of a Pierre Fournier rather than the abandoned passion of a Pablo Casals. The intensity of her approach tends to be quite addictive and she had a very warm and positive response from the St Mary’s audience.

As a reward we were treated to a sparkling encore, Allegro Appassionato by Charles Saint-Saëns, a brief piece in scherzo form with a hint of gypsy about it … ah! the traveller, of course. The pace was a nice horsey canter, faster for an international journey than being on two feet … … but musically not as fast as being on one foot.

Mark Aspen
October 2018

Photography by Pat Stancliffe

The Regina Monologues and Ladies in Waiting

Courting Trouble

The Regina Monologues

by Rebecca Russell and Jenny Wafer, with

Ladies in Waiting: The Judgement of Henry VIII

by James Cougar Canfield

Teddington Theatre Club Double Bill at Hampton Hill Theatre, until 13th October

Review by Eleanor Lewis

The fact that Anne of Cleves apparently smelt terrible is a good way to spark children’s interest in Tudor history which may be useful if you ever find yourself having to teach Tudor history to children. Anne of Cleves or Anna in The Regina Monologues, is however just one of six women who can all hold your attention completely for slightly more than an hour in the first of two short plays presented by TTC at Hampton Hill Theatre this week.

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The Regina Monologues is a sharp, funny, well written short play which puts the six wives of Henry VIII into a modern context and imagines how the lives they lived might unfold now. All six wives are present onstage, taking turns to talk to the audience about their relationship with Henry. Annie (Anne Boleyn) is a suburban sex siren dreading the time “another woman like me” comes along once Henry tires of her. Katie (Catherine Howard) is an abused fifteen year old; Jane Seymour, in hospital gown, begins to go into labour; and Anna (Anne of Cleves) speed dates on her laptop, in full control of her life and her men, chasing the lifestyle rather than the man and with a philosophical, attitude towards life in general. Katherine (Parr) is the canny last wife, irritated by the stepchildren but willing to nurse the old man in order to reap the financial benefits after his death.

The direction of this piece was imaginative and impressive, it moved at a great pace, every performance well-researched and carefully presented. There were social media posts projected onto a background and short bursts of contemporary pop music at appropriate moments to break between monologues or to highlight significant moments. Joint directors Josh Clark and Michael Bishop were blessed with a strong team of TTC actors and since there was a consistently high level of performing skill on show, marking out specific actors is a bit like having your favourite Blue Peter presenters, it’s purely a personal preference – on that basis though, I found Helen Geldert and Tanya Gardner, as Cathy and Anna (Aragon and Cleves) highly entertaining. Tanya Gardner’s deadpan, unfazed Anna was very funny and there is not much to match Helen Geldert’s description of a woman’s experience of IVF compared to that of a man.

 

Emily Dixon played Katie’s (Katherine Howard) response to an abusive relationship well, bringing out the poignancy and shattered innocence of the situation, and her experience caused an instinctive recoil at the reality of a forced marriage between a 15 year old and a 49 year old man.

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I had a small but frustrating issue with the ‘glass’ into which the women looked at the end of the play which was positioned so it could hardly be seen from one side of the audience.

The second play, Ladies in Waiting reverts to the sixteenth century. Henry VIII has died and is introduced into what seems to be purgatory by his fourth wife Anne of Cleves. What follows is relatively predictable as Anne and the other five wives treat him to 7-10 minutes each of home truths, each of them now uninhibited by the threat he constantly represented to them in life. The difficulty with this is that listening to one couple having a ‘domestic’ is relatively exciting, another five and the interest begins to wane. The unsurprising conclusion is that Henry, the ultimate ‘alpha male’ is, despite his own achievements, in fact defined by his wives and the huge historical presence of his daughter Elizabeth I.

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In this age of #metoo there is a point aimed at but not quite made here. These are strong, interesting women all subjugated by one man and the social constraints of the time but, despite this, Catherine of Aragon managed to raise an army and put down a Scottish rebellion while Henry was away in France. Katherine Parr was the first woman in England to have a book published in her own name, and Anne of Cleves secured herself the kind of divorce package likely to bring a sparkle to the eyes of today’s lawyers to the rich and famous. These things are all mentioned but briefly, the main thrust of the narrative being the women’s relationships with Henry, relationships about which they had little if any choice. Perhaps better from the #metoo point of view would be to take Henry out altogether, make him an offstage character who is referred to occasionally. These however, are writing issues and director Linda Sirker and her clever cast did an efficient job with the material they had. This was again very much a team performance and, although the queens were played by the same actors as in the first play, there were subtle changes of character and demeanour to reflect the period. Paul Furlong was a convincing bewildered, beleaguered and appropriately unsympathetic Henry.

The staging of this work was atmospheric, a dimly lit stage suggesting the limbo all seven characters now occupy, and just six elegant chairs. The Tudor costumes were great – headdresses were particularly impressive, evidently a lot of attention had been paid to detail. This was noticeable too in the way the women clasped their hands in front of them and slightly lowered their heads when they moved around the stage.

The two plays together provide an interesting contrast the similarities between those women now and 500 years ago are striking, thought provoking and funny. An entertaining night.

Eleanor Lewis
October 2018

Photography by JoJo Leppink, Handwritten Photography