PlayList: September 2013

Despite directing a showcase of three short plays this month, I still managed to get to 12 other performances in September (6 of them in the same weekend!!).

For more on the showcase I directed, She Writes: What’s Through the Door? check out the project page on my website, or the 17Percent site with links to the Canal Cafe Theatre performance and our encore at the Rochester Literature Festival. I’m pleased to report that my first London project has garnered my first London review! 4 stars from Everything Theatre: “Three plays in one, each delightful and mysterious. The pieces are beautifully and intelligently connected by an overarching narrative…an entertaining and thought-provoking evening.”

But back to the PlayList! Here’s what I’ve seen this month in London:

Styles Saturn Returns at Camden People’s Theatre. As soon as I walked in to CPT, I felt right at home. Maybe because the friendly cafe and blackbox reminded me of San Francisco’s EXIT Theatre, or maybe because I was getting drenched in the downpour that started just as I got off the bus, or maybe it was picking up a flyer for CPT’s upcoming feminist theatre festival Calm Down, Dear; whatever it was, I immediately felt the “this is the right place for me to be right now” vibe. But anyway, the performance. Styles Saturn Returns is a personal, frank, and honest response to a journalist’s insensitive and ignorant comments about transgender women in the press and online media at the end of last year. It says very simply, patiently, and humanly, “I am here and this is what it is really like for me.” She has some amazing things to say about her transition experience, encapsulating a whole world of ideas into one line, like “When I was a little boy, I wanted to be two things: a woman and a rock star.” She then proceeds to rock out on an electric guitar with only a little sigh of regret that she can’t have long nails and be a rock star. And maybe the most touching thing I’ve ever heard about trying to explain the need behind her transition: “I just can’t imagine becoming an old man.” I had a chance to chat with writer-performer Rhyannon Styles, director Amy Draper, and their team after the show, and really look forward to hearing more about how the piece develops.

That Thing I Never Shared With You at the Royal Court. The Royal Court’s International Department hosted a series new play readings by Chilean playwrights, followed by panel discussion on the state of theatre in Chile. Claudia Hidalgo’s That Thing I Never Shared With You is an intimate meditation on the repercussions of a father’s actions during the old regime and their consequences for his daughter and grandson. The discussion with the playwrights after the reading (moderated in English and Spanish by the Royal Court’s International Director and the play’s translator) was inspiring, enlightening, and sobering. Theatre has an important role to play in a society liberated from dictatorship just one generation ago, but the new state does leaves that work almost entirely in the hands of the artists, who host parties to fund small fringe productions in Santiago (home to a too-concentrated 80% of the nation’s theatres). The conversation made me even more determined to do theatre that matters, and even more disappointed with the fluff that sometimes takes up space on our stages.

Effie’s Burning from Goodmann Productions. The evening started off a little rocky with trying to find a place to stand among tipsy people watching football. The Camden Etcetera Theatre is over a pub, as many small theatres in London are, but some pubs are much more conducive than others to a pleasant and relaxed pre-show atmosphere. Once in the theatre, though, I was amazed that I could no longer hear the hubbub (the pubbub?) from downstairs. Effie’s Burning is a two-hander for women we don’t often get to see onstage: an old woman who has spent her entire life in state care for the mentally challenged, and the doctor who treats her for mysterious burn injuries and unravels the long, tragic mystery of the institutional systems that restrain both characters. If you’re a producer looking for a play that is an excellent vehicle for powerhouse female actors over 30 (or if you are a powerhouse female actor looking for monologues), you can find the script through Samuel French.

City Slices and Country Crumbs from Grey and Green Theatre. A showcase of four new plays by female writers, from a new company committed to redressing theatre’s pervasive gender imbalance.  The plays themselves ranged from heavy-handed to nonsensical, but I’ll keep my eye on a few of the artists involved. And I will be back to the Hen and Chickens Theatre, the spacious and well-equipped blackbox above an Islington pub.

Fishskin Trousers at the Finborough Theatre. Elizabeth Kuti’s play for three voices is a dialect and text coach’s dream. In fact, the director Robert Price is on the Voice faculty at both LAMDA and RADA. So maybe it’s no surprise that this lyrical chamber piece was deliciously well delivered in three different accents without the aid of any stage craft beyond a chair each and a soundscape of waves. As much as I enjoyed the performance, I couldn’t help wondering why it had to be theatre – it might have been more at home in other media like radio or film. Shouldn’t we always be asking as artists “what’s the best format for this piece?” and if the answer is theatre, shouldn’t we take full advantage of the liveness of the form?

Secret Theatre show 2 at the Lyric Hammersmith. The Lyric is doing something really remarkable: they’re producing an entire season of unannounced productions by a repertory company of 20 daring young artists, while the theatre is being remodelled. “Show 2” is about to close and a major theatre critic has already spilled the beans on Twitter, so I don’t think it will be too much of a spoiler if I write a bit about their take on A Streetcar Named Desire. It was an undeniably dynamic, fresh, and surprising production, but I couldn’t help wishing they had put their energy into making their own new show, rather than making a bewildering two and a half hour adaptation of an old show which had me scratching my head about what an audience was supposed to take away from the experience. As intriguing as the “secret” is of what show I’m buying tickets for, I think I’ll wait to hear what Show 3 is before I commit to a trip out to Hammersmith. I’d love to see them do something new, but I’m not keen to see another bonkers-for-the-sake-of-being-bonkers adaptation.

King Lear by the Belarus Free Theatre at Shakespeare’s Globe. The Belarus Free Theatre has an incredible story: their ensemble in Minsk perform secretly in private apartments and houses, while the company’s founders, who have sought political asylum in the UK, work from their London base with Belarusian, British, and international artists. Their King Lear was at times breathtaking, and at times impenetrable (it’s performed in Belarusian, with short scene synopses rather than supertitles). I’m always fascinated by what it’s like to watch theatre in another language – what it’s like to completely remove text from the tools we use to convey meaning. There were two English-speaking characters, but I found that I became so used to not needing the words that I tuned out even the passages in English.

The Taming of the Shrew at the Rose Theatre. Time Zone Theatre‘s feminist take on The Taming of the Shrew begins with Bianca and Katherine perched in front of an alcove of mirrors, wearing short skirts, high heels, and angel wings. Baptista is transmorpher from controlling father to brothel madam mother. Director Pamela Schermann’s programme note suggests a relation to human trafficking, urging us to pay attention to the way the characters pursue marriage as a financial transaction. The production presents Shakespeare’s comedy as a tragedy – making us side with Kate, rather than rooting for Petruchio, waiting to see how long the Shrew can hold out in the battle of wills. At the end of the day, though, it’s still a deeply problematic text, and this production kept all the highlights, even throwing some well-placed punches in with the verbal and psychological sparring, and of course concluding with Kate’s lecture to women about obeying their husbands. If we must put this story on stage, Time Zone’s is the interpretation I’d want to see. But in 2013, can’t we put The Taming of the Shrew away? On the other hand, there was a group of 30+ school kids in the audience the night I saw the show, taking up more than half of the seats at the historic but tiny Rose Theatre. That’s probably the only production of Shrew that they’ve seen – and I’m glad they got to see that production rather than the “original” or worse, the Cole Porter version. So maybe the bottom line is that I don’t ever need to see Shrew again. Even here in Shakespeare Land, I think I can make it so.

Handbagging at the Tricycle Theatre. This was my first visit to the Tricycle Theatre, despite it being just up the road from my flat. I’ll definitely be back! Moira Buffini’s new play is hilarious, pointed, theatrical, accessible, surprising, elegant (and not just because there are two versions of Queen Elizabeth on stage)… the set is a sleek white modern-art sculpture of the British flag, populated with three pairs of actors: a young Margaret Thatcher and Queen Elizabeth on the first day of the first term of the first woman prime minister; the same two women at the end of Thatcher’s tenure; two meta-theatrical actors who help the story along, one of whom is tasked with filling in historical details “for the young people” who don’t remember what happened in the 1980s (much appreciated!) as well as playing multiple characters from the palace footman to Nancy Reagan. There were surprisingly few “oh yeah, I’m American” moments when the rest of the audience laughed at something I didn’t catch – I’ll have to go back through the script and look some things up (new plays are almost always published and available for purchase at their London premieres).

There Has Possibly Been an Incident… at the Soho Theatre. I was really curious to see this play, which had a mixture of raves and puzzled luke-warm reviews from its run at the Edinburgh Fringe last month. Chris Thorpe’s writing is stunning – but here was another play which might have been better on radio, or better still on the page. I’m looking forward to re-reading it, having as usual picked up the published play text at the theatre. It’s a series of “three monologues and one dialogue” for three actors, who “read” the text at microphones (even though they’ve memorised it) and then throw their pages on the floor. At the Q&A after the performance, the writer and director talked about how they arrived at the performance style – basically deciding early on that they wanted “no acting” in their piece of “anti-theatre,” which was a bit frustrating to hear, especially as it seemed to me to come from an assumption that actors’ impulses and intuition and artistry couldn’t possibly contribute anything to this precious text. It also got me thinking that “anti-theatre” might be impossible -putting a piece of anti-theatre on a stage in front of a theatre audience makes it theatrical, whatever the creators’ intention. The whole thing left me muttering grumpily, “Look, you’re clearly brilliant, but if you don’t want to do theatre with actors, just write a damn book.”

Edward II at the National Theatre. I have to admit I’d never even heard of Christopher Marlowe’s play about King Edward II, whose insistence on keeping his lover Gaveston at court, against the will of his late father and powerful nobles, plunges the country into chaos and war, and just about everybody ends up dead. So it’s interesting to try to imagine how the play might have been originally performed in 1592, and a little difficult to know just how far the director has pushed the boundaries of the classic text. The production is ambitious, wild, and modern (to the point where the Telegraph called it “indigestible tosh” in this one-star review – almost always a sign something interesting and risky is going on), with handheld live-streaming cameras following actors into an enclosed set of rooms onstage, as well as “backstage” where racks of costumes are visible, tucked into exposed corners that would usually be masked with wings. The mixed dress (some characters wearing grand robes and armor, others in skinny jeans and leather jackets) further adds to the juxtaposition of modern and medieval. But in the three-hour show, there’s plenty of time to wonder “why Edward II?” As with the Lyric Hammersmith’s Secret Theatre, I found myself wanting to see this extraordinary vision make something new, a play that does what he wants it to do, rather than contorting an old one that perhaps isn’t the story he wanted to tell. Director Joe Hill-Gibbins is an associate at the Young Vic, so maybe I’ll have that chance soon.

Piece by Piece at the Drayton Theatre. A scratch night of new short works from Crooked Pieces, a female-founded theatre company that takes its name from Sir Thomas Browne’s 1643 notion: “Man is the whole world and breath of God; woman the rib and crooked piece of man.” Charlotte Donachie and Bethan Clark curated an excellent multi-disciplinary night of work by women artists: STOP, Katie Bonna‘s beautiful performance poetry piece with video inspired by interviews with women around the question self-censorship and why we stop ourselves from pursuing the things we want; A Beautiful Death, an autobiographical short film about siblings dealing with the loss of their mother; Chicken Shop, Anna Jordan’s short play delicately exploring an unlikely friendship between a teenager and the trafficked woman he tries to hire for “the girlfriend experience”; and live music from singer songwriter Hannah Scott (listen here). The multi-arts focus of the night was a brilliant way to keep an audience on our toes – and I’m excited to see how each of these works-in-progress develops.


So that was my September. Coming up in October: plenty of exciting theatregoing in London, moving forward with the new GAP Salon (Gender and Performance) I’ve cofounded with director Susan Crothers, a 10-day trip to Poland for the Dialog Festival in Wroclaw, and beginning an internship at the Finborough Theatre when I get back. And that’s just the adventures I know about… stay tuned!

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