A TAPESTRY OF TERROR AND BEAUTY
Dim behind a soft mosquito-net, a father tells his children a tale of Djinns: creatures of scorching smokeless fire, pure passion without reason who battle with magicians in wars which are only illusion. The tale resolves in gentleness as the soft eyes of great Hamza’s daughter look down as stars, and ends “May the queen of sleep bless you with pleasant and beautiful dreams. Shabba-khair”. The Urdu goodnight is shattered: through the misty veiling stride helmeted soldiers, ripping aside peace and taking us six years on. We are in a football changing-room where Bilal, the star Kashmiri teenage striker, is preparing in his broken old boots for a trial which might take him to the Brazil, to freedom and doctors for his sister Ashrafi. For at thirteen she has regressedto the terrified ten-year-old she was when her father fell dead in her lap, shot at a wedding-party.
Bilal holds aloof – for now – from the parades and demonstrations against the Indian occupation. He tolerates curfews and body-searches in the heightened emotion as Eid approaches and the latest shot child awaits burial by an angry community. Between patriotism and family duty, he is torn between betrayals.
Kashmir is the world’s most intensively occupied nation – or would-be nation – and like a rifle-shot from its deadly heart comes a play of sweltering intensity by Abhishek Majumdar from Bangalore. It crackles with pain and mystery, a subcontinent’s echo of Aeschylean tragedy: with extraordinary emotional power it tangles its human dilemmas with Muslim spirituality and mountain legend. In Tom Scutt’s stark design we are inside a great loom, an unfinished rich carpet below, the bare threads above and at either end becoming becoming prison bars or a half-seen afterworld. Danny Ashok and Aysha Kala are the orphan siblings, radiantly youthful (Richard Twyman directs Kala’s moments of traumatic recall with great power). But equally central is old Dr Baig, a psychiatrist struggling with an overborne hospital and the memory of his own son’s progress from stone-throwing dissent to Mujahideen training and a horrible death. Vincent Ebrahim is magnificent, the eternal figure of the good man struggling for reconciliation in a volatile, angry world. He resists the aggressive Jihad spiritualities but in final moments, between life and afterlife, affirms a universal humanity. And Ashrafi finds a strange final eloquence to comfort her tortured brother. “Death is the dream at the end of life”.
Prose and poetry weave as intricately as the carpet. Between intense and ghostly moments we are suddenly with boys talking football and politics, or with two squabbling Indian soldiers trapped in a guard-post. Their fears, nerves, and reluctant tales of atrocities committed in trauma are horribly reminiscent both of our own Northern Ireland years and of Iraq. For all its nightmare Djinns and spiritual strangeness, it becomes a play for any conflict.
0207 565 5000 http://www.royalcourttheatre.com to 9 November Sponsored: Genesis Foundation/ British Council
JANE AUSTEN WITH DEAD VIKINGS AND LIVE PROFANITY
The hour contained a haunted Viking burial ground, a dubious Spaniard called Senor Knobflap, several titled ladies in sprigged muslin and an 18c eczema epidemic. Not that any of that will turn up again, not if this improvisation troupe is honest about its spontaneity.
It is not quite fair to judge improv shows on one night only, though I did fall in love forever with the brilliance of Showstoppers, the musical-theatre makers, on the basis of one nocturnal Edinburgh romp. This younger sextet (plus discreet ‘cellist) came with a warm reputation from fringegoers and the Latitude festival, and performs three times a month in London, so I was curious. Their premise is that most of Jane Austen’s 700-odd novels are lost, so the audience offers titles which they, in flawless period costume, promptly perform. My niece and I were rather hoping that they would pick ours out of the hat – “Mansfield Shark” in which Fanny defeats Jaws. But it was “Wit and Profanity” which became their title, and even with a butler called Shitt it took them a while to hook onto the profanity bit.
There is real talent there, but even with a happy rowdy audience on this particular night the group seemed, to use a shepherding term, less well-hefted than they should be. Seamless improv depends not only on picking up clues fast, but on a willingness to get laughs from fellow-players who get painted into an impossible corner, and letting them struggle while ripples of laughter build. Here it felt – despite some promising openings – as if some cast members were leaping in too early, too anxiously, or abruptly distracting us with unnecessary mugging.
When the more measured and watchful cast members – notably Andrew Murray and Rachel Parris – were let alone we got some good , even Austenian, moments of pleasingly awkward courtship. And Joseph Morpurgo made the well-worn joke of a comedy Spanish accent surprisingly fresh: the lad has a certain edge of mania which may take him far. “You must forgive me” he snarls at one point: “It is a Spanish custom to bluster into the bedroom of your landlady” . As for the hospital he unaccountably plans to build, with confident grandiosity he claims it as an important innovation. “Up till 1813 in England, everyone has died. Of everything”. Nice. I suspect that on other evenings, the third and fourth mice will romp home.
http://www.austentatiousimpro.com for dates at Leicester Square and the Wheatsheaf pub, Rathbone Place
A ROCK STAR RICHARD
David Tennant’s Richard is a rock star: a preening vanity, long tresses flowing down his silk-robed back, with the epicene arrogance of a Russell Brand and a scornful eloquence to match. Defeated, he lurches into self-pitying abasement only to erupt again into royal entitlement. Deposed, he roams the stage in bare feet and white nightie comparing his betrayal to Christ’s. Tennant is almost unbearably watchable, his handling of the verse breathtaking in its ease. His cousin and nemesis Bolingbroke is NIgel Lindsay: stocky and stubbled, chain-mailed gut hanging over his belt, righteous in banished fury and implacable in rebellion. He sighs with visible impatience at the deposed King’s drama-queen antics with the crown. This beginning of Shakespeare’s History cycle falls more easily than most into the headshaking dualism of 1066 And All That: Richard is Wrong but Wromantic, Bolingbroke Right but Repulsive.
Which is not to say that there is anything unsubtle about Gregory Doran’s production – marked by his trademark courteous clarity of line – or much wrong with Tennant’s interpretation of the doomed Richard. At times near the end I felt that his elfin edge of humour sold short the journey of self-discovery which Shakespeare gives the King: even near death his vanity conquers all, and Doran also chooses to make his relationship with young Aumerle rather more emotionally credible than his marriage. But that is a matter of interpretation, and fair enough. And for all Tennant’s shining star quality the real sinews of the production, its glory and its fifth star, reside elsewhere.
For it is a marvellous evening and, with its simple use of shadowy, mirrory projections of grey arches, thorny wilderness and heraldic tapestries, ideal for Doran’s intention to film, stream and distribute it to schools. From the opening scene around the coffin of the King’s murdered uncle where the widow (Jane Lapotaire) delivers her fusillade of desperate grief, through the aborted duel with Richard aloft on his dais undermining the chivalrous code of his barons, each character and nuance emerges with unemphatic firmness. Michael Pennington’s masterly John of Gaunt, the last wise romantic of the dynasty, laments the “landlording” of England; his brother York struggles with the statesmanlike problems of a necessary but shockingly illegal regime change, turning from the impossible Richard to the all-too-possible Bolingbroke with beautifully nuanced exasperation.
Indeed it must be noted that, for all the marvels of Tennant, Lapotaire, and the rest, the old-pro solid gold performance of the night belongs to Oliver Ford Davies as York. As the principled old patriot in an impossible position, or the enraged father in the blackly comic scenes with his lovelorn traitor son and his furious wife (Marty Cruikshank, a ferociously fine cameo), he takes the palm. It is Ford Davies who most draws sighs, small laughs and sympathies from the audience; he who provides the ballast halfway between the wonderfully dislikeable Bolingbroke and the fools’-gold spendthrift mirage of a King who confuses his crown with a halo.
Yet like Shakespeare, who intemperately gave nearly all the poetry to the irresponsible monarch, Doran leaves us with ambiguity. An unexpected great creak of stage machinery, a prison pathos, a sudden compassion for deluded Rutland, and the weather changes, subtly. When Bolingbroke embarks on his gruff pilgrimage of repentance, the choir and trumpeters high overhead soar and yearn at the end of Paul Englishby’s score and we get a final white-gowned dazzle from the ghost Richard overhead.
0844 800 1110 http://www.rsc.org.uk to 16 nov (then to Barbican in Dec) 0844 800 1110 http://www.rsc.org.uk to 16 nov (then to Barbican in Dec)
GREEK, GOOFY, GORGEOUS
I had remembered the unicycle and Queen Merope’s mad wig, Petra Massey’s disco-sphinx and the innocently manic Spaniard Aitor Basauri leading us in an operatic chorus while disguised as three ragged singing lepers. I vaguely remembered the morris-dancing, the struggles of the cast to get between the Grecian pillars in too-wide hats, and the arresting, surprisingly poignant moments of Jocasta’s death and Oedipus’ blinding, blood-red ribbons falling from high overhead.
Other things had faded, though, since I saw this Spymonkey show under Emma Rice’s direction begin its intermittent tour in Northampton last year. I had forgotten how fine the music is: Toby Park’s saxophone solos, Hollywood-epic blasts and anthemic, ludicrously heartfelt numbers in Bond, Bowie, Bassey and X-factor style. I had blanked out the disembowelling of Tiresias in pasa-doble rhythm, the way the furious German Stefan Kreiss kicks holes in the scenery, and that Massey ends up, for important dramatic reasons, doing the curtain-call with dummy arms.
My companion, never having seen this quartet before, simply spent two hours in helpless, shocked, liberated laughter, leaving the critical brooding to me. I love Spymonkey for the brilliance and precision of their clowning and the ripple of pure intelligence beneath the anarchic surface. Not everyone gets it, and this retelling of the Oedipus story (with surprising accuracy beneath the spoofing) opens with the four of them reading the Joyce McMillan review of their last show: “a band of middle aged actors making a two-hour show out of a one line joke”. The bespectacled Park gravely says it is “the greatest gift a critic can bestow, a kick up the arse” and pledges that they will become grownup classical interpreters. “We will not romp”. Whereon down come his trousers, and we’re into loincloths, laurel wreaths, and a James Bond operning number – “Whadda man! Whadda myth! Whadda King!”.
McMillan sighed that their performance was like a student jape. But no student japes are this perfect, and in any art extreme high quality can overcome distaste for a genre. You can think you hate jazz but appreciate Charlie Parker, be impatient of opera but moved by Gheorgiu. The comparison is not absurd: these four have studied and practised physical comedy for years, and here collaborate with Emma Rice and Carl Grose. Even the moments when each steps out of character to grumble are finely tuned. Basauri says he wants to do standup, Park wails “I could have done something with my life! My sister’s a consultant psychiatrist! My grandfather designed the Morrison Shelter!” and the nimbly lunatic Petra Massey persistently interrupts the story to overshare about her “obliterated womb”. Kreiss, the oldest at 51, claims to be on painkillers and when Massey offers massage after a dramatic lift shouts “Just lose some weight!”.
No. None of them must leave. Ever. Their appearances are quite rare, quite wonderful, and not to be missed.
08444 821 556 to 19th October
A CHILL BLAST FROM THE GULAGS
They painted Stalin’s words on the hut walls. “Instead of the onerous burden it was under Capitalism, work has become a thing of glory and valour”. Ragged, half-starved men and women trudged past that in labour camps. This play’s author is Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, not imagining but remembering: he spent eight years in the gulags from 1945. It hasn’t been seen in London for thirty years (though a more serious-minded BBC televised it in 1965).
The author was imprisoned for “counter-revolutionary activities”, and as new prisoners come off the lorry in Mathew Dunster’s stark, vivid production they each recite their subsection of that same Article 58: even “failing to report an overheard conversation”. Among them are more conventional criminals: a black-marketeer sold penicillin and gramophone needles, an army sniper (Emily Dobbs, a superb tough performance) shot her unfaithful husband. But most are Article 58: political prisoners.
With fifty characters, a working foundry and building site it is daunting to stage: with 16 actors Dunster nimbly uses Solzhenitsyn’s stage directions as brief narrative. Anna Fleischle’s design uses the battered urban skeleton of Southwark’s new home well: pallets and planks scraping on the concrete, old tyres seeming to burn from within, an unforgettable lineup of naked prisoners, faces to the wall, in dim red light, beneath the wire.
The play’s authenticity is at once a strength and a weakness. Its strength is in delineating the top-down pressure to be corrupt: both victims and guards (mostly prisoners themselves) are fixed on their own survival. The commandant himself is under threat if he doesn’t increase production, the clerk struggles with bureaucratic lies, the foundrymen cheat, the girls do whatever it takes.
Cian Barry is Nemov, the newly convicted army officer who asks “In all the years we were in the war, defending Russia, was it as bad as this?” They laugh at him for a mug, a greenhorn. Worse! they say. As ‘work supervisor’ Nemov talks helplessly of decency and conscience while more experienced prisoners loot the newcomers’ baggage. Demoted, he has a brief respite as a powerless “dirty faced worker” with no temptation to tyrannize, but almost hysterically finds love with Lubya. Her bitter, much-used quality (conveyed with ruthless sweetness by Rebecca Oldfield) is hard to accept. She was a Kulak exile sold into marriage at fourteen, knows her value to men and submits pragmatically to the camp doctor (a smooth Ben Onwukwe) . Rob Tofield is the tubby venal cook, Ben Lee the sharp prisoner who usurps Nemov’s job.
But the gulag itself is the central character, and the detailed complex portrayal of its life impedes impetus and character development. Hence you get a historically fascinating evening rather than a great play. Jagged Fence deserves credit for bringing it to Southwark and Solzhenitsyn was a hero. But a bit more impertinence in adapting it would make it stronger.
0207 407 0234 southwarkplayhouse.co.uk to 2 Nov
Rating : three
Rating : three
I reviewed this in Edinburgh, for the Times, which (via paywall) can still be read on http://tinyurl.com/l3qvtvn. I gave it four stars.
So I won’t re-review it here, but it’s worth signalling, on this press night at the Young Vic, that David Greig’s play is an intense two-hander with a community chorus directed by Ramin Gray, that it is remarkable, and worth seeing. Set in a church hall in the aftermath of a mass shooting, it has a thoughtful, mournful topicality, subtle and nuanced and humane.
Neve McIntosh is a hip lesbian vicar struggling with her feelings and philosophy of life after half her choir are murdered. Rudi Dharmalingham is sometimes the boy with the gun “I need to make my mark. The only means I have are art or violence. And I was never any good at drawing”. Sometimes other characters, who without vocal or physical change emerge as if in McIntosh’s own thoughts. A humane, never glib exploration of our deepest modern fears. Bleak, riveting, worth seeing.
020 7922 2922 http://www.youngvic.org to 2 Nov
“I fully understand” says Kenneth Robinson MP, “that this subject is distasteful, even repulsive to some people”. He is introducing the Commons debate on the Wolfenden Report, the decriminalizing of male homosexual acts in private. As Matthew Baldwin – calm, smartly pinstriped, measured – delivers fragments of the speech, you feel across half a century the fraught Parliamentary silence. It is, he says, a misconception that these men are “effete, depraved and exhibitionist…the majority are useful citizens, unnoticed and unsuspected”. Some of his listeners in that Chamber will have recognized Robinson’s definition of their own “Involuntary deviation..[which] leads so often to loneliness, unhappiness and frustration”.
This age of laissez-faire and equal marriage, with its troubling counter-current of fundamentalist repression, seems to fuel a dramatic need to look back at that period when sexual rebellion boiled and seethed, cracking the skin of postwar respectability. We await two treatments of the Profumo Scandal – Keeler the play, Stephen Ward the musical. The Universal Machine musical dealt movingly with Alan Turing, and Alexi Kaye Campbell’s The Pride painfully expresses both the misery and of the criminalized years and the “hypersexual” fallout now gradually fading.
This sensitive, truthful 70-minute solo created by Baldwin and Thomas Hescott (who directs) weaves together Robinson’s speech and the story of a young civil servant whose nervous search for love and intimacy leads him to the flamboyant underworld of the ‘Dilly and to picking up a boy in the Leicester Square Gents. Baldwin gives poignant dignity to the lonely civil servant, from childhood memories of love to the indignity of a courtroom. Sometimes he becomes “Edna” the waspish Jules-and-Sandy type in the club talking Polari to the shrieking Gladyses and Mabels.
Then he is the lover again, pleading with a shrugging, venal, beloved boy; then we are back in the Commons chamber as Robinson questions the right of the State to interfere in the acts of private individuals, and reveals that the Lord Chief Justice finds 90 per cent of blackmail cases involve homosexuality. Public opinion? “It is the duty of governments to lead, and to do what they know to be right”. A faint modern echo of David Cameron’s nervous courage over gay marriage.
Baldwin’s performance is strong, charming and honest, the play cunningly constructed. The 70-minute span begins and ends with him as a modern man, texting about a dinner party he and his civil partner (“we’re thinking of upgrading to marriage”) are having for the even smarter Seb and Ian, all Ottolenghi brunches and opera and mentoring. It is from that moment that we whirl back to the 1960’s, the Parliamentary plea for the “distasteful” deviation, and the cosy, dangerous, necessary underworld of Gladyses and Ednas. For which, it is teasingly made clear, some still atavistically hanker.
020 7582 7689 http://www.ovalhouse.com to 26 October