Rift Zone at New Diorama Theatre. Night Light Theatre‘s reworking of Icelandic myth was musical, harmonic, highly visual, and touching. The story centres on a brother and sister growing up, but seems to span centuries and mythologies. Along with a simple but effective scenic design, bare lightbulbs create an atmospheric landscape, illuminating faces in caverns, swinging menacingly from the ceiling, and even becoming an infant and a sword. The company is based in Cambridge and Ipswich, but travelled to Iceland to research this project. They also regularly tour around the UK, so keep an eye out for them where you are.
April was a month of festivals and showcases…
At The Yard Theatre’s N.O.W. festival, I enjoyed Amy Draper’s new project Life on the Refrigerator Door, a wrenching mother/daughter tale told through post-it notes. XXXY? was part of that same evening; I should have known it wouldn’t be my cup of tea from the website description: “Instruments could be swapped, smashed or ignored, sexualities and genders could disintegrate and the six protagonists may eventually dissolve into a collective mess.” I was interested in the gender themes, but unfortunately, the whole thing seemed to me a collective mess, bouncing from Ted Talk to rock concert (so loud I actually thought, “I’m too old for this”).
All the Rage Theatre put together a full day of performance for Seize the Stage at RichMix, presenting the results of six new writer/director pairings at the culmination of a collaborative workshop period. I’m excited to see what they do next, after getting to know company directors Cara Verkerk and Zoe Walshe at the GAP Salon this spring.
Finally, the new London Playwriting Lab presented a showcase of new work from their three playwright-founders at the Etcetera Theatre, to kick off their new play development initiative. (Writers, check it out, they are constantly running a series of workshops designed to support the journey from idea to full length play.)
Puffball at the Roundhouse. Professional circus artists and LGBTQ young performers created a funny, provovative, and jaw-droppingly impressive performance for Roundhouse’s CircusFest. With so much heart and skill onstage, I understand why director Mark Storor let it run nearly four hours… but two would have been enough. I loved much of the show, but the indulgent running time soured the experience as a whole.
Home at the National Theatre. I’ve been devouring as much verbatim theatre as I can, as I get started on my own interview-based performance project. Nadia Fall’s weaving together of stories from a hostel for homeless youth is a master class in how to construct a whole piece of theatre from many moving parts. And those parts move. The frenetic energy of the home makes the performance non-stop controlled chaos. Except for a few moments of choral singing, everything is in motion all the time. There’s something that feels really right, and responsible, about telling this story through so many stories – the verbatim form allows for a much wider dramatic net to be cast, capturing snapshots of dozens of lives, rather than a more traditional protagonist-led fiction. And when we’re making work about such complex social issues, it feels very important not to condense many experiences into an everyman figure. Plus, when you have dozens of characters, you get to showcase a cast of diverse, multiple-character-playing powerhouses, and end with a polyphonic cacophony of words and music. I can’t wait to unabashedly steal inspiration from Home as I’m working on my Third Culture Kids Project.
Oh My Sweet Land at the Young Vic. A step removed from verbatim theatre, playwright Amir Nizar Zuabi’s Oh My Sweet Land is an original piece based on interviews conducted in refugee camps, in collaboration with German-Syrian performer Corinne Jaber. The lyrical text brings together multiple stories within the overarching story of a woman looking for her lover after being displaced by the civil war in Syria, with Jaber cooking a traditional Syrian kibbeh onstage as she weaves all this together. The smell of the food is a constant reminder that we are all in the theatre right now listening to these stories, while the narrative wanders far and wide – sometimes a little too wide, losing the thread in the complexity of stories within stories. But the sense of desperation, horror, and hope is there throughout, as well as an unrelenting insistence that these stories, themselves refugees, get out of Syria and make themselves heard in a numbed world that has stopped listening.
27 male/37 female actors
9 male/10 female directors *6 women directors from Seize the Stage showcase; 3 of 4 full productions were directed by men.
7 male/11 female writers
The GAP Salon was particularly busy this month! What a blast we had at the Southbank Centre’s Women of the World Festival and the Etcetera Theatre’s first annual Womens’ Week!
WOW Party at the Southbank Centre. GAP Salon partnered with Female Arts and the So and So Arts Club to throw a “WOW Party” with a variety of performances by women. Programming this event was a really interesting challenge, putting out an open call with no formal theme, beyond a desire for a celebratory feel and diverse representation, on an incredibly short timeline. I’m so proud of the way the evening turned out, and the wonderful artists I had the pleasure to invite to perform. The event was also a chance to bring out an excerpt from The Helen Project, working with director Sharon Burrell and performer Angela Bull for the first time – which led to an invitation from the Lost Theatre to submit a proposal for their Face to Face solo theatre festival this July (details on those upcoming performances here). International Women’s Day at its best: shining a spotlight on women for a day so their work can develop throughout the year.
Bite The Apple at the Etcetera Theatre. GAP Salon members Kate Baiden and Victoria Otter spearheaded this showcase of six scenes featuring juicy roles for female actors, inspired by Lucy Kerbel’s book 100 Great Plays for Women. Between the two performances, Victoria moderated a fascinating panel discussion with Wendy Thomson (Female Arts), Rebecca Dunn (Fluff Productions), and Melissa Dunne (XY Festival), and me! I had such a great time talking about feminist theatre with these thoughtful and well-spoken advocates. Just putting this out there: I would love to do more panels.
Bridget Christie: A Bic for Her at the Soho Theatre. After missing Bridget’s sold-out shows at the Edinburgh Fringe, at Camden People’s Theatre’s Calm Down Dear festival, and at her Soho run earlier this year, I finally caught her delightful, daring, pointed stand-up feminism. I’m looking forward to her next show, An Ungrateful Woman, at this year’s Fringe. According to her website, “At the moment, it is about Michael Gove, media language, my disastrous and ridiculous casting for a yoghurt advert, a case of mistaken identity and some other things that look too awful written down so I’m not going to tell you about them until you’re locked in a room with me.You’ll just have to trust me.” More details here.
The Mistress Contract at the Royal Court. This was the GAP Salon’s second group theatre trip, with the added bonus of a pre-show discussion with Royal Court Artistic Director Vicky Featherstone, and playwrights Abi Morgan (The Mistress Contract) and Nick Payne (Blurred Lines) talking about the current rebirth of feminist theatre, and feminism in general. The Mistress Contract flashes back from the present over a 30-year relationship, and the conversation between the audience and the panel focused heavily on what has changed in that time, with some taking a much more optimistic view than others. I was so impressed by Vicky Featherstone’s candidness about her renewed focus on feminist theatre, having done feminist work at university, then less “controversial” work as she got her career going, now returning to feminism as the artistic director of the Royal Court. I’m quoting from my notes, so this may not be exactly what she said, but I’m going to tape it to my forehead anyway: “In the quest for power, we lose the confidence to speak our minds.” I dearly hope that this, at least, has changed. I’m behaving as though it has, aiming to build a career as an overtly feminist theatre maker. This feels difficult, but possible, in the current culture of feminism-is-trendy-but-watch-out-for-Twitter-trolls. Ms Featherstone, I’ll let you know how it goes. Thanks for paving the way.
SPRINT festival at Camden People’s Theatre: Lady GoGo Gough and A Journey Round My Skull. Lady GoGo Gough is something I would never have seen in San Francisco: a woman exploring her heritage by singing in Welsh in a solo show that was funny, earnest, silly, sexy, beautiful – and only slightly impenetrable to a non-Welsh speaker. In A Journey Round My Skull, the solo performer spoke to the audience as if we were her patient, suffering from auditory hallucinations which were reproduced through individual wireless headphones. As she moved around a glowing blue head onstage, removing our collective tumor, her voice seemed to travel around my own head as if I were under the knife. Technically impressive, stylishly designed, and a beautiful meditation on the wonders of the brain. Keep an eye on Kindle Theatre.
The Husbands at Soho Theatre. Sharmila Chauhan’s bold new play imagines an India in which women have become so scarce that they marry multiple husbands. There’s an interesting idea trying to emerge here, but it gets lost in a three-hour meandering script that is trying to tell too many stories at once. The central character, a visionary woman who has created her own polygamous utopia (which isn’t quite perfect yet), is potentially fascinating. I hope Kali Theatre pursues another production, along with some dramaturgical support to find what the piece is really about.
Trojan Barbie at Kings College London. This play began life at the Cutting Ball Theater in San Francisco, where I was general manager for three years. But since it was on stage before my time, the most I ever saw of it was in photos on the lobby wall. That plus the Helen of Troy connection, and of course I’m in the audience. The play transposes the Trojan Women – Hecuba, Andromache, Iphegenia, Cassandra, Polyxena, Helen – into a universal any-recent-war-you-can-think-of setting. It’s very clever, held together by the story of a British doll enthusiast who goes on holiday and is kidnapped, throwing her into the world of a modern war camp. I was disappointed, though, that even this feminist retelling paints Helen as a slutty, dolled up idiot who happily flirts with guards to get aspirin. Once again, her sex appeal becomes a character trait instead of a survival tactic. Well, that’s why The Helen Project exists.
I’d Rather Goya Robbed Me of my Sleep than Some Other Arsehole at the Gate Theatre. WHAT WAS THAT? A new Spanish play, freshly translated into English, Rodrigo Garcia’s Goya is full of delight, nihilism, and frantic attempts at living. And live pigs – who, as it happens, are excellent performers. They’re not as eloquent, of course, as the dynamic Steffan Rhodri, but their presence lends itself to moments of sublime serendipity; early in the performance I saw, Rhodi delivered a particularly dry observation about the futility of life, and one of the pigs grunted in agreement. With stylish design, driven direction, and a volatile central performance, this is once of the most thrilling pieces of theatre I’ve seen this year.
7 male / 54 female actors
2 male / 13 female directors
2 male/ 20 female writers
Counting each director and writer in multi-piece International Women’s Day showcases.
Waiting for Summer at Camden Etcetera Theatre. My lovely friend Kate Baiden produced this evening of four short plays with Swivel Theatre, exploring themes of Arab women in revolution. The versatile cast of six women played all the roles across type and gender, with a standout performance from Dilek Rose as a hilarious and surprisingly sympathetic man philandering on a business trip, intoxicated with the novelty of Europe (and also just intoxicated). The four plays were funny, sad, and a breath of fresh perspective.
SPARK at the VAULT Festival. Writer and director Chloe Mashiter is a member of the GAP Salon (Gender and Performance), so I’m having a lovely time getting to know her and her work. In SPARK, a woman wades through the sea with her (possibly dead or imaginary) fiance to a little hut on an island. The venue was perfect – the chilly, drippy, soggy Vaults underneath Waterloo Rail Station. The show is dark and gothic and tangled – writing about it so much later, I remember not so much the details of the story but the intensity of Holly Cambell’s performance, and some really gorgeous turns of phrase. Chloe writes about the making of the piece on her blog – and do follow her online for more project updates.
No Such Thing at New Diorama Theatre. I went to this delightful evening of short performances to see some friends’ work in progress, and was so happy to discover a host of talented performers working on a huge variety of interesting ideas. Keep an eye on Cuckoo and Co, Hot Tubs and Trampolines, and Old Watty Theatre Company in particular.
A Taste of Honey at the National Theatre. It’s not often that I feel there’s a huge gap between the cultural context I bring to the theatre and the context that my fellow Brits bring. But this was one of those times. Studying theatre in the US, I’d never heard of this 1950’s taboo-busting play, but apparently every drama student studies it here. The production was well-executed, and I’m happy to see the National Theatre putting some female stories on their big stage for a change. Ultimately, though, I left the theatre feeling like I’d been to a museum. Oh well. It’s helpful to slip back into the mainstream once in a while to remind myself why I’ve chosen to focus on more experimental work.
To Freedom’s Cause at the House of Commons. Writer and performer Kate Willoughby is working tirelessly on the Emily Matters campaign, to erect a statue of suffragette Emily Wilding Davison in the Houses of Parliament (where currently about 6% of statues honour female figures in history – roughly the same percentage as female representation among MPs). Kate and her team packed a tiny room in the House of Commons with gender equality advocates for a performance of her play To Freedom’s Cause, which tells the story of Davison’s profound and controversial contributions to the suffrage movement. The discussion afterwards was electric and fast-paced. You’ll find much more information about the play and the campaign on Kate’s website, and by following the #emilymatters hashtag on Twitter.
Splinters at OvalHouse. I’ve been following director Amy Draper’s work ever since I saw Styles Saturn Returns, her collaboration with trans performer Rhiannon Styles at Camden People’s Theatre last September. This latest work in progress, Splinters, explores the friendship between a old woman trying to remember and a young man trying to forget. I’m intrigued to see how the piece develops – already Amy is experimenting with music, singing, and a fractured performance style that evokes the disorientation of someone living with Alzheimer’s. Keep an eye on her website for more news.
Blurred Lines at the National Theatre. I’m very conflicted about this one. Possibly the most high-profile piece of feminist theatre this year, Blurred Lines is a collaboration between director Carrie Cracknell and writer Nick Payne, with an excellent ensemble of women. The GAP Salon planned a group trip to the National, and I was glad to discuss the play with other feminists afterwards. I hate to criticize the National Theatre for being too mainstream twice in one post… but… This was a play for people who had previously thought very little about the relationship between feminism and culture, who had seen the title of the piece and thought, “Oh yeah, wasn’t there some kind of uproar about that song last year?” Making many (too many?) points about the way women are treated in arts and media, Blurred Lines skimmed the surface of huge issues without contributing much of anything new to the conversation. Then again, putting these issues on the National Theatre stage is new, and probably worth celebrating. Perhaps I am expecting too much of a piece that is walking a fine line between art, entertainment, activism, and accessibility. But I wish the piece had expected a little more of its audience – who, self-selecting as they surely were, likely had a deeper knowledge of these issues than the creators gave us credit for. And yet I could also critique the production for not being mainstream enough, being squashed as it was into the Shed, where both the set and the audience were overflowing from the tiny studio space. Baby steps. This certainly feels like progress for the theatre, at least.
Hamlet at New Diorama Theatre. Oh Hamlet. Every production I see makes me want to direct my own – some because they get it so right and open up new interpretations of text, story, and character, others because…well, the opposite. I might have some Hamlet news later this year, stay tuned.
Tamasha Theatre’s Mothers and Daughters scratch night at RichMix. Responding directly to recent statistics about the lack of roles for women, especially older women, in theatre, Tamasha Theatre put out the call for new short works or excerpts of works in progress that focus on mothers and daughters. Add this gender awareness to their main focus on intercultural theatre practice, and Tamasha is my kind of company.
3 male directors/ 4 female directors * not including directors/creators of short pieces at No Such Thing or Tamasha Theatre.
5 male writers/ 5 female writers * not including writers/creators of short pieces at No Such Thing or Tamasha Theatre.
17 male actors /43 female actors *nothing like a few big-cast all-female shows to offset a Hamlet.
Thebes at New Diorama Theatre. I saw a preview performance of The Faction’s new adaptation of the Oedipus cycle, which attempts to cram three plays into one evening, and ends up doing such a cursory treatment of all the interlinking stories that it tells none of them satisfactorily. The adaptation can’t decide if it’s ancient or modern, hyberbolic or straightforward. Heightened, Sophoclean “woe-is-me”s clash with harsher, inelegant language, and not in a way that helps to distinguish the generations of characters or keeps our ears interested. The physical score, though paced far too slowly, at least made for some impressive ensemble moments. But the whole business suffered from an unfocused overreach, telling no story well in its desire to tell all of them.
Richard II at the Barbican (RSC production). This was kind of a pilgrimage theatre trip,what with the getting up before sunrise to trek across town and get in the day tickets queue an hour before the box office opened. I narrowly missed my chance at the last seat, so opted for a standing ticket rather than come back another day and try again. Of course David Tennant in the title role was masterful. His treatment of text is so effortless, modern, present, and (especially appreciated in this play) funny. I can’t decide if I just like Hamlet better as a character, or if Hamlet is simply a better play. Possibly a combination of the two. The production design was beautiful, with a particularly effective use of levels above and below the stage (the Tower of London prison was recessed into the stage, with an angled mirror on the underside of the winched-up stage floor, giving us an upside-down reflection of Richard chained to the ground). The original music composition was spot on and simple, just trumpets and sopranos sounding the call to war and to heaven. All in all, though, I couldn’t quite connect with the story. Gregory Doran’s director’s notes drew connections to modern political succession crises, but I seemed to be missing some political, historical, and monarchical foundation to fully access the relevance of doing this play now. I’ll do everyone the favour of blaming my American education, rather than suggesting that, with only 37 Shakespeare plays to cycle through, sometimes the RSC has to drag one out of the cupboard that may or may not be backed by an urgent need to stage the play.
Keepsake at the Old Red Lion. This was a play about… way too much: the death of a father, suicide, immigrant experiences, adoption, childhood sexual abuse, guns, and alcoholism. The small cast was excellent and the play gorgeously produced with a high level of stagecraft and funding behind it. If only the writer hadn’t whacked us with a new disorientingly melodramatic plot twist every 10 minutes, it might have had something quite moving to say.
Bear at the Old Red Lion. There were some interesting things going on with this new play: a bold premise (ordinary human couple has a baby bear instead of a baby person), a frank acting style that made the audience involvement exciting rather than arduous, and a surprise reunion with one of my old classmates from the University of Manchester. But the resolute ordinariness of the couple rendered them stereotypes rather than archetypes, with the woman especially having no character beyond wanting a baby and then being convinced (unconvincingly) to give up the baby. Most disappointingly, the play was deliberately not a metaphor for anything – a huge missed opportunity. Why make a couple have a baby bear if it doesn’t mean anything?
Travesti at Camden Etcetera Theatre (Unbound Theatre). Director Rebecca C. Hill is onto something really interesting with this work in progress, based on interviews with women about everything from how much they spend on make-up to how often they are sexually harassed in public. Their words are then performed by men, dressed in sharp suits and singing multi-harmony acapella renditions of sexist pop songs. It’s a fascinating collision of gender performance, everyday sexism, and – dare I say – stylish hilarity. I can’t wait to see the next iteration.
RashDash’s UGLY SISTERS at Soho Theatre. I am a sucker for retelling familiar stories, and even more of a sucker for punk rock fairy tales that critique gender expectations, class divides, and reality TV. This was the first time I’d ever seen the story told with such sympathy for the evil stepmother – in their version, “Ruby” marries Cinderella’s father to escape the cycle of poverty, prostitution, and drug addiction, and to give her girls a chance at something better. The show starts at a gallop and just goes faster and faster for the next 70 minutes. As creator/performer Helen Goalen says on the RashDash website, “I couldn’t imagine performing in a RashDash show where I wasn’t a breathless, sweaty mess by the end.” That rigor makes for a highly physical, intellectually challenging, emotionally fully, and overwhelmingly sensory performance. I was breathless by the end, too. I could rave about this show for ages, or you could go read some more reviews here.
HARD TO RESIST – A Short, Sharp Festival of Protest at Camden People’s Theatre.
Playful Acts of Rebellion. Three young, white, educated women try to figure out how to protest, what issues to care about, and how to make theatre. Something about this rubbed me the wrong way. Possibly the thin veneer of theatricality layered over what was essentially a concept planning meeting for a piece that doesn’t exist yet. Possibly the lack of acknowledgment of the extreme privilege of the creator/performers. Possibly the helplessly intellectual and unemotional approach to protest and “caring about issues.” Possibly the insinuation that theatre couldn’t be a valid avenue for protest, or at least not as valid as picketing Tesco about all the plastic they dump into the ocean. I left despairing that perhaps neither theatre nor take-to-the-streets protest could possibly bring about real change.
Don Quixote There are kind of two shows happening here, and I was lucky enough to see both. Don Quixote is played by a different guest actor each night, who disappears from the stage early on in the performance, with an unsuspecting audience member (me) toting a box full of stuff to read and do at the pub next door. At the end of the show, we came back into the theatre and read out a slightly absurd manifesto for a Quixote-esque quest that we’d come up with over our drinks. And then someone from the production company gives you a card and says “just shoot me an email if you want to come back and see what happens in the room.” Which I did, and was really interested to see the same material in a totally different format, with shadow puppets and electric guitars, power saws and severed pages of Cervantes’ novel everywhere (shredded and blown out over the audience with a giant fan). The show asks, “how can we make a difference?” and comes up with five key tenets of a Quixote: be ridiculous, change the world for the better, almost definitely fail, society does not approve, and die trying. Somehow, even “almost definitely fail” is full of hope and honour in creator Tom Frankland’s hands.
A Conversation with my Father Creator/performer Hannah Nicklin taught me what to bring to a protest, how not to get “kettled” for hours on the street, and what all the bits and bobs are on a police officer’s uniform (and what they bring to a protest). Her ability to weave together her own story of protesting with her father’s story of policing makes for a balanced and enlightening treatment of ideas around democracy, free speech, public safety, and the bargains we make to live in a civil society. The show is not just dealing with these important and urgent themes, but is also emotional and personal, with a deep investment in getting to the truth of both experiences.
4 male directors / 5 female directors
5 male writers / 8 female writers *counting all creators for collaboratively created performances.
40 male actors / 17 female actors
December can be a pretty quiet month for theatre going, if you’re not into seeing The Nutcracker or A Christmas Carol again. Luckily, London has plenty of alternatives for us humbugs. Still, between working on the lighting design for Feral Pigeons’ The Sisters: Return to the Isle of Queef and having a lovely visit with my sister and our extended family over the holidays, I only made it to seven performances this month. Which maybe makes this a digestible PlayList for a change.
She Was Probably Not A Robot at Camden People’s Theatre. A hilarious and intensely original solo performance, full of strange and wonderful images: surfing on an air mattress after being washed out to sea by a city-destroying wave; a tin foil cardboard box headed robot floating in outer space; a drenched and deserted home being reclaimed in a ghost world. Lost love, dead dogs, and assassinating the parallel universe version of yourself in order to start again and do it better this time. But the most remarkable thing about this piece is writer/performer Stuart Bowden’s extraordinary presence in the room with his audience, recapping the first five minutes in fast-forward for the latecomers, getting us to sing along from the very beginning, and demanding an honest connection in every moment.
Beauty and the Beast at the Young Vic. This collaboration between real life husband and wife Mat Fraser and Julie Atlas Muz was pure joy. Unabashedly theatrical and unflinchingly honest, the show tackles themes of love, fidelity, beauty, disability, making art, and the power of telling your own story. Their puppetry was inventive and delightful, from the bits of tissue paper that became frisky bunnies to the overtly sexual food props (melons, cucumbers, you get the idea). The style of the whole production somehow managed to be a send-up of the fairy tale genre while celebrating real life fairytale love. Also delightful was running into a new friend by chance – one of the things I’ve missed about San Francisco is being almost sure to catch up with friends and colleagues whenever I go to the theatre, so I’m thrilled that’s beginning to happen here too.
In the Next Room, or The Vibrator Play at St. James Theatre. I’ve never met a Sarah Ruhl play I didn’t like. This one is a bit different from the others I’ve seen – no waterfalls in elevators or houses made out of string here – probably because it’s set in a specific, historical time and place, complete with hackneyed ideas about technology and sexuality. The premise is surprising and full of potential, and mostly pays off except for a couple of uncharacteristically weighty moments toward the end which, in this production, were intellectual rather than heartfelt tragedy. And a thematic but misguided directorial/design decision to draw the curtains around the thrust stage between scenes, which lead the audience to applaud as if the play were over after the penultimate scene. Because it’s difficult to cram a Sarah Ruhl Magical Realism Moment (TM) like getting naked in the snow outside to rescue your marriage into a single-interior-set historical drama. Of course, practically, you have to close the curtains for a moment to roll up the rugs and push the furniture back. But maybe a moment like that demands a transition that matches the style of the moment to come, not the style of the moment before.
Women in Arts festival from So and So Arts Club. Sarah Berger put together an incredible three days of performance, discussion, and networking in mid-December, where I was delighted to meet some new friends, run into some Twitter buddies I’d never met before, and chip away at the mammoth issues around what it mean to be a woman in the theatre world today. The vibe in the room was always electric, and I was only sorry I couldn’t see more of the festival than I did: Madame Bovary, Commencing, The Peacock and the Nightingale, and Lulu 7. Sarah aims to make the festival an annual event; I can’t wait to get involved in the next one.
3 male directors / 3 female directors * solo show “She Was Probably Not a Robot” does not credit a director
3 male writers / 5 female writers
10 male actors / 18 female actors
November was a very good month for feminist theatregoing. And agitating about the representation of women in our field, with the GAP Salon (Gender and Performance) which I cofounded with Susan Crothers and Kate Baiden in October. More on that in another post, but if you can’t wait, check out the GAP website and @GAPsalon on Twitter.
Calm Down Dear festival of feminism at Camden People’s Theatre. “The last thing it’ll make you do, dears, is calm down.” I think I saw about half of CPT’s fierce and fabulous festival of feminism from the end of October to mid-November. This company, besides being ambitious and fearless, is also in an ideal position to respond to up-to-the-minute trends and needs. Artistic Director Brian Logan told me that the idea for Calm Down Dear came when he was reading applications for another festival and noticed that many of the proposals had overtly feminist themes. So he decided to put out a call for a festival of feminism.
Pretty Ugly – Louise Orwin’s solo performance is built on a YouTube experiment in which she posted videos of three teenage girl personas she created, asking strangers on the internet if they were pretty or ugly (this is a massive trend, with thousands such videos attracting millions of sleazy comments). She says at the start of the piece (well, after writhing around on the floor lip synching to Britney Spears), “I started out an artist and ended up a teenager.” Towards the end, she reads from a giant menu marked SORRY: “I’m sorry you thought I was 15 and fair game.” and “I’m sorry you didn’t want to know the answer to any other questions.” And in the middle there is a lot of roller skating and lols and creepy internet people. The show is smart and funny and urgent, and I hope it comes back onstage again soon. Louise’s website would likely be the place to go to find out about that.
The Fanny Hill Project – 18th century pornographic fiction collides with a modern tale of prostitution. The most intriguing thing about this performance is the central character’s struggle to tell her own story without being interrupted, corrected, or squirted in the face with penis-shaped water pistols. The company, TheatreState, took the show to the Edinburgh Fringe this summer, so check out their site and reviews for more info.
The GB Project – The “GB” of the title is Gertrude Bell, a British archaeologist, writer, spy, and traveller whose name has been almost lost to history, though she lived an incredible life just last century. Writer/performer Kate Craddock unleashes a complicated, fragmented, contradictory portrait of this remarkable woman, projects photographs of her riding a camel alongside Winston Churchill and Lawrence of Arabia, imagines what it might have been like to be called on to help redraw borders in the Middle East after WWI, and puzzles over Bell’s anti-suffrage work and her contempt for other women, who seemed to her to be constrained to the domestic sphere and therefore unready to participate in politics and wider society. Craddock is clearly fascinated with her subject, and it’s contagious. There’s a in-depth and detailed review in Exeunt Magazine here, with much more about Bell, Craddock, and the show itself.
Nineties Woman – Rosie Wilby‘s “comedy documentary” takes us back a couple of decades to the headquarters of Matrix, York University’s student-run hand-written feminist newspaper. I’ve been listening keenly to the voices of feminists a generation ahead of me – lately I’ve heard a number of them say things like “we really thought we’d sorted this out in the 70s” and “there is a terrible amnesia about feminism, almost like it never existed,” and “feminism sold its soul in the 90s (something about the Spice Girls?)” and “things have actually got worse in the last 10 years.” In a article on the Theatre Communications Group website, Ellen Gavin took my breath away with this idea: “Almost three decades later [after I founded BRAVA for women in the arts, San Francisco] (in the time it would take to grow an army of new women playwrights from conception!) not much has changed.” It’s tempting, faced with the enormity of tackling inequality across all sectors of our society, to focus on the here and now – and while that’s often a productive strategy, it’s also immensely valuable to look back and build on the foundations laid by those who came before us. Otherwise, as Wilby demonstrates with side-by-side comparisons of the Matrix front page from her university days and a recent edition of Matrix (both of which cover issues like date rape on campus and career vs children debates), how can we tell what has changed? Looking at those two front pages, on which the biggest difference is the publication date, the short, sad answer is: not much has.
Ban This Filth! – In Alan Bissett’s one man show, he performs as American anti-pornography radical feminist Andrea Dworkin, and as himself, a man trying to figure out what the heck she’s talking about. It’s an intelligent, vulnerable piece, often hilarious – and extensively reviewed from performances at the Edinburgh Fringe and elsewhere, so I’ll point you to those for more details.
We, Object – This is exactly the kind of clever I came back to Britain for. The Figs in Wigs begin the show with different readings of the title: “we obJECT!”; “we [are] object;” “wee object” – that one sparks the objection, “this is not a show about small things,” which recurs frequently as tiny props flood the stage, from miniature wine glasses that become a talent-show musical instrument to miniature cheese-grater earrings (“what do you think of my earrings?” “they’re great.”) It’s part dance, part slideshow, part visual pun stand-up comedy, and all about objects and what they mean, especially when they’re human.
Everyday Sexism Works in Progress – in addition to its scheduled programming, CPT commissioned three new pieces over the course of the festival to respond to the theme of “Everyday Sexism,” borrowing from the international catalogue of anecdotes that illustrate just how pervasive gender bias and violence is. These performances, each about 20 minutes, dealt with varied themes from “upskirting” (a growing trend of secretly photographing or videoing under a woman’s skirt in a public place) to wedding rituals, to workplace gender dynamics and “self-actualising” feminist group exercises. Some really interesting work from some really interesting artists – but unfortunately I’ve lost my programmes and the CPT website is under renovation. Hopefully once the site is back up, you’ll be able to find names and details in the archives.
Moon Project at OvalHouse. This was my first visit to OvalHouse, a 50-year-old venue for experimental and radical performance. The Moon Project begins with a hit-and-run accident that knocks a woman off her bicycle and changes the driver’s life. An original text by performer Rachel Blackman fuses with exquisite movement, images of space, and the beauty of the everyday.
Prince of Denmark at Ambassador Theatre. I’m devouring as much Hamlet-related material as I can get my hands on, trying to get the nebulous ideas for my own future production to take some kind of shape in my brain. The National Youth Theatre’s Shakespeare-esque imagining of Hamlet, Horatio, Ophelia, and Laertes’ adolescence was a fun and quirky way to spend an afternoon.
Brand New Ancients at the Royal Court. I can’t say enough good things about Kate Tempest’s spoken word performance. It’s not a medium I’m terribly familiar with, so it took a few minutes to adjust to the style and conventions. But once I got my bearings, I was completely swept away. She masterfully weaves together intergenerational stories of two London families, finding the epic in the everyday. The tube train becomes a chariot, a bar becomes a battleground, and a human who simply loves another human becomes a hero. The live score, played by a tuba, cello, violin, drums, and electronics, heightens the raw emotion of the piece, sneaking up on you until you start to think everyone around you might be a god. The show is touring the UK; go find it.
Our Glass House by CommonWealth at Camden People’s Theatre. I learned so much about installation theatre from this performance. Setting six simultaneous stories of domestic abuse in a council house, CommonWealth creates an intimate portrait of what it feels like to be trapped (sometimes literally – I was barricaded into a room with one of the performers at once point). The stories happen all over the house at the same time, so it’s impossible to get the narrative details of all the characters, but the performances are timed into emotive beats that form a journey that you feel instinctively rather than understand intellectually. Using music to synchronise the stories all over the house, we move through the dread of simply going through the front door, through various stages of fear, rationalisation, anger, and ultimately release in one form or another. Wherever you are in the house, you are watching one story and hearing the screams, sobs, or songs of another story on another floor. It’s an incredibly intense experience, beautifully executed, and astonishingly effective.
Mucky Kid at Theatre 503. The ultimate unreliable narrator, Mae tells multiple stories of her escape from prison. In circular versions of events, crimes, histories, and identities, this fascinating piece of new writing looks at child criminals, the prison system, and the nuances of forgiveness, with a stellar performance by Sonya Cassidy.
Nut at National Theatre Shed. Though Debbie Tucker Green’s play is intriguing, mysterious, and lyrical, my prevailing memory of this performance is of not being able to breathe. In the second row of the National Theatre’s 225-seat studio, I was very unpleasantly surprised to watch about a dozen cigarettes being lit over the course of the 70-minute performance. At least in Nut, smoking is a necessary (and brilliant) artistic element of the play, rather than a lazy marker of ‘cool,’ but a warning before I bought my ticket would have been nice. I could have sat in the balcony, and maybe then I would have other things to say about the piece.
Corpus Christi at The Space. Terrance McNally’s all-male Texan gay retelling of the story of Jesus was extremely controversial when it opened in 1998, amid death threats against the playwright. It’s a joyous and highly theatrical piece, with the actors introducing themselves by their own names before being baptised into character. Full of humour and irreverence, including awkward bathroom seductions and a gay marriage between two apostles, it’s a fun and campy retelling of an old, old story. Director John Fricker’s appropriately hand-made production featured an excellent cast, with the unearthly and delicate Andro Cowperthwaite as Joshua. I’m looking forward to OutFox Production’s next show, Gut Girls, which I worked on in 2006 at the University of Manchester and am excited to revisit.
4 male directors / 2 female directors *many of the solo shows/devised works above do not credit a single director
4 male writers / 11 female writers
31 male actors / 35 female actors
Okay… new M.O. for the monthly PlayList: I’ll make this easier to write (and read) by only going into detail about plays that provoked a detailed response. For the rest, if you’re curious, you can follow the link to more info or Google some reviews. I’m hoping this will mean that I don’t get so behind in my updates. Here goes October: better late than never!
Routes at the Royal Court Theatre. There seems to be a lot of work on stage these days dealing with immigration experiences – it’s a hot topic in the UK and especially in London. This play juxtaposes the story of an African man who is trying to get back to the UK and rejoin his family, jumping through some very expensive hoops in the underground dealings of false passports and ultimately being turned back at the border with the story of a Somali kid who grew up in the UK but, after committing a crime, is forced into a legal loophole limbo, where he waits until finally giving up and volunteering to “go home” to a country he doesn’t know. Routes succeeds in putting a human face on problems very often discussed in a legal or administrative context, but as usual, that human face is male, and these immigration stories are deeply mired in poverty and crime, focused solely on the fight to get into the country and stay in, rather than the larger cultural ramifications of immigration. The two women in the play are relegated to the background, following the rules, working within the system with varying degrees of success – and though we get some hints that they also have stories worth telling, they remain hints right though to the end.
Othello at the National Theatre (NT Live). I actually saw this at the Tricycle Theatre – or Tricycle Cinema to be exact. This was probably the clearest production of Othello I’ve ever seen – Rory Kinnear delivered a crystalline performance of Iago, and the director’s contemporary military setting made the political aspects of the play easy to follow. It was interesting to see the play on a screen (an unedited playback of the live simulcast, not without hitches), and then chat about it with a San Francisco friend while we were together in Poland later that month. In that respect, I guess you could say that Desdemona has been gettin’ around.
Blue Stockings at the Globe Theatre. This was some really fun feminism with some delightful surprises – and not just the surprise of a Shakespeare theatre producing a play written by a woman with EIGHT women in the cast. Some of the surprises were historical ones, like how damn long it took for women to be allowed to graduate from the universities where they were studying “pointlessly” with no certifications at the end of their time there. Some of the surprises were to do with how similar this fight is to what’s still going on in Pakistan other corners of the world – the rhetoric, the “biological” dangers of allowing a women to use her brain instead of her uterus, even the violence with which men have repressed women’s desire for knowledge and right to recognition. The most surprising thing about Blue Stockings, though, was the exuberant response of the audience, their engagement with the characters (even booing and hissing), and their thunderous standing ovation at the end. Why have we been hearing that there is no audience for plays with female protagonists, and even less of an audience for plays overtly about gender equality? Anyone who was at the Globe last month can tell you that’s just not true.
The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man in the Moon Marigolds at the Brockley Jack Studio. My friend Kirsty Fox produced this show with her company OutFox Productions. We worked together at the University of Manchester in 2007, and I was really happy to see that she’s still getting up to some lovely, well-produced storytelling. Looking forward to the next one: Terrence McNally’s Corpus Christi.
The Ritual Slaughter of Gorge Mastromas at the Royal Court Theatre. I honestly don’t know what I think about this play – it’s had mixed reviews in the press, too, so I guess I’m not alone. Though the gorgeous script is beautifully produced, brilliantly acted, and full of interesting ideas, I couldn’t conjure up any feelings for any of the characters. That always leaves me puzzled and frustrated, when my intellectual and emotional responses don’t match up, not quite able to figure out exactly what didn’t work for me, but sure that something didn’t.
The World of Extreme Happiness at the National Theatre Shed. Shortly before I left San Francisco, I saw Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s 410 GONE at Crowded Fire, so I was excited to see that her work had made it to this side of the Atlantic as well. It was also my first time in The Shed, the NT’s temporary 225-seat blackbox, built just for one season while the Cottlesloe Theatre is undergoing renovation. The World of Extreme Happiness is a really intriguing script, a meditation on both the manic joy and desperate tragedy of corporate urban consumerism. That dichotomy is at the heart of the story, and this production almost gets there – but it’s tipped too far towards manic joy for the tragic ending to land. I’d be very interested to see another production with a different attempt at that balance.
Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model at the Soho Theatre. Bryony Kimmings and her niece Taylor cocreated a performance piece about their project to create the ultimate role model for young girls. Taylor came up with all the ideas for the fictional Catherine Bennett, a “tuna pasta loving palaeontologist and popstar,” and Bryony created a show that weaves together the story of making this piece (including getting approval from Taylor’s mum to put the nine-year-old onstage) with her personal journey of getting to know her niece and connecting to the world of preteens in the age of the internet. Surprisingly emotional, honest, funny, and full of sparkles, Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model is making the rounds of UK schools and theatres and, hopefully soon, taking over the world.
Our Walk through the World at the Old Red Lion. An evening of six short plays by Ross Howard – a playwright I’ve met through my longtime collaborator Misti Boettiger, who met Ross in a workshop several years ago. Small world! It was fun to chat with Ross afterwards and hear about his plans for a new full-length play and a new phase of experimentation. I won’t spoil the surprises; keep an eye on him here.
The Djinns of Eidgah at the Royal Court Theatre. This was a very big play to pull off in such an intimate studio space, made even more intimate by the avenue staging. The playing space must have been no more than 20 feet long by 6 feet wide, but somehow they packed football practice, psychiatry, torture, and gun fights onto that little stage.
Calm Down Dear: a festival of feminism at Camden People’s Theatre. I saw about half of this fierce festival – some in October but most in November… and since there is already so much October theatre to write about, I’ll cover the Calm Down Dear festival in the November PlayList. Stay tuned!
Dialog Festival in Wroclaw, Poland
I went to Wroclaw, Poland for 10 days in mid-October for the Dialog Festival, an annual collection of Polish and international theatre, curated by director Krystina Meissner. My response to almost every production at Dialog: “I liked parts of it.” To be perfectly honest, the jury is still out on whether it was “worth going.” It was exhausting; it was a downer (the theme this year: “violence makes the world go round”); it pushed hard against the limits of my taste, sometimes in an interesting way, and sometimes just in an irritating way. It made me think about what it means to make “international theatre” or be part of an “international audience.” It made me wonder what essential qualities or background information a Polish audience has, and what tools are needed for accessing this work. It made me think about context: seeing any one of these productions in a UK tour would have been a totally different experience – and so would just seeing one of these productions alone, out of the festival marathon.
It made me think about language, and what it means to separate language from the rest of the performance, by having to read the text at the top or on the side of the proscenium. By the end of the 15-plays-in-8-days bonanza, I felt like I had read a bunch of play texts and seen simultaneous performance art about those texts. I got worse, not better, at seeing the production as a whole. With the text fractured out of the main performance space, the other elements seemed to break apart, too, so that my brain was working hard at synthesising lighting, costume, sound, voice, visual design, and text into one theatrical experience – with very little bandwidth left over for absorbing the show, its characters, themes, ideas… or for being able to answer the question “what did you think?”
It was nice to reconnect with some friends and colleagues from San Francisco (who had pointed me in the direction of the festival in the first place) and to meet other Americans brought together by the Centre for International Theatre Development. Though the Dialog Festival did put together a series of talks each day, I found our informal conversations most helpful for sifting through my own thoughts and reactions to what we’d seen. Even among our relatively homogeneous group, responses and favourites varied widely, making for some very interesting discussions.
Here are the plays, in the order I saw them:
Life is a Dream – Teatr Współczesny w Szczecinie (Poland). I wish I had re-read Life is a Dream before seeing this performance. Or, I wish the supertitles had been working. There was some interesting stuff going on with this new adaptation, including some gender-bending from both a male character who rocked a blue sequin gown and six inch heels, and a female character who started out dressed in a t-shirt and tights, then changed into a man’s suit, then into a peach ball gown, which she later covered with chain mail. I have no idea what the context was (even if I’d remembered some of the details of Calderón de la Barca’s Life is a Dream, I doubt they would have helped me much with following this production), but the visuals were interesting.
Antigone – Teatr R.A.A.A.M. (Estonia). This strange, grotesque, inventive reimagining of Antigone first appeared in Iran, the home country of young director Homayun Ghanizadeh, who, judging by his biography, is as hooked on Greek mythology as I am, having written and directed adaptations of Daedalus and Icarus and Agamemnon, as well as Caligula and Waiting for Godot in Iran and Estonia. Apparently the original version performed in Iran had to have major adjustments, including cutting all physical contact between performers and performing some lines in Farsi which had been censored out of the supertitles – possibly the long tirade by Ismene that is represented in the supertitles by “[dirty words]”. (Yes, this one, performed in Estonian, had supertitles in English and Polish.) Some of the staging was jaw-dropping, with heavily stylized movement that centered around swatting invisible flies that had descended on Thebes as a result of the unburied corpse left on the battlefield. My favorite part was the payoff of the egg motif which had been relentlessly mysterious throughout the performance, with eggs being cooked on stage again and again, laments about Tiresias’ egg being visible through his hat with holes in – also mysterious: hats were very important, and could not be removed without great danger. At the end, Antigone’s hat is pulled off and the egg that she has been keeping underneath it splats on the floor as she crumples into a lifeless heap at Creon’s feet. An Iranian audience might have had more of a clue about this, since in Iranian mythology, so the program tells me, “the universe is an egg with the Earth in the centre of it as egg yolk.” Another jaw-dropping moment: Tiresias maneuvers the dead Antigone into a suitcase, zips it up, and leaves it onstage, actor still inside for what must seem like an eternity, until Ismene comes to collect her luggage, wearing sunglasses and announcing she’s going to New York to become an actress. This is the only Antigone I’ve seen where Ismene ends up doing something in the end, rather than simply being left alive.
I Am Not Pretty – Atra Bilis Teatro (Spain). This solo performance art piece was hard to watch – especially in its most talked-about moment: performer-creator Angelica Liddell slices her knees with a razor, soaks up the blood with a loaf of bread, and eats it (one of many religious images she reclaims for her own purposes). The performance leads up to a story about a nine year old girl being molested by a soldier, and drives home the recurring language: “I am not pretty and I don’t want to be pretty.” There was a lot of talk afterwards about whether or not this was an autobiographical piece, with some even saying that if the performer herself had not been through that experience, to make work about child molestation was “pornography.” It hadn’t occurred to me that Liddell had “made it up;” my instinct is that you don’t make that kind of piece unless you have to. But the conversation got me thinking about authenticity and how we set up expectations for “truth” in performance.
I, Pierre Riviere – Teatr Muzyczny Capitol (Poland). This one was EPIC: 4 hours, 20+ actors, giant moving sets, original music, stylish design choices, muscular performances, more projectors than I could count… and a story about a young man who murders his family and 37 other people in his village. A huge show with lots to look at and think about… and yet, I still felt like something was missing. There’s that mismatched intellectual and emotional response again. Perhaps the creators weren’t focused on eliciting an emotional response? Perhaps the distance created by a language barrier is enough to block empathy for the characters? (There’s a topic for a master’s thesis, if anyone needs one.) Perhaps I was just not in the mood for a 4-hour show about mass murder. It was around this time in the festival that I started to get a little grumpy, what with all the violence and hard work and sprinting between performances with nowhere to get dinner.
Song of Lear – Teatr Pieśń Kozła (Poland). This was one of the most intimate performances at the Dialog Festival – King Lear in a series of Gregorian chant-like choral songs delivered simply and powerfully by an ensemble of singers, with tableau-by-tableau narration (in English!) from the director. It was more concert than theatre, but the voices and performances were surprisingly emotional for such a simple presentation. In an exploration of rhythm and music rather than story, the ensemble shared a number of strange and wonderful instruments, including a set of drums without shells – if you can imagine just the top of a drum, a hoop with the skin stretched over it, held by the singers so that the entire theatre became the sound chamber. This was a particularly delightful moment of choreography, in which one of the singers played the drumheads as part of a wild dance that was all the more exciting against the relative stillness of the rest of the performance.
King Lear – Münchner Kammerspiele (Germany). Here was another piece that sharply divided opinion: a Lear who is not a king but a peasant with delusions of grandeur – and a herd of pigs. Live pigs onstage. Who apparently were less bothered by the overzealous smoke machine than I was (I breathed through my scarf for at least 20 minutes as “the storm” blew chemical fog out over the audience). The production was a mess. On purpose, I think, but still a total mess, down to the tinsel curtain that kept getting tangled and caught on the rotating platform covered in sod. I left at intermission and headed to the bar with about half of the other Americans. Others were deeply moved by the performance from Lear (André Jung)… but I have to admit I hardly noticed what the actors were doing, so distracting were the pigs, the smoke, the tinsel, and the supertitles, way over on either side of the proscenium. (N.B. The side of the theatre is a terrible place to put supertitles – it’s like being at a tennis match.)
Exhibit B – Third World Bunfight (South Africa). This was a profoundly moving piece, and beautifully executed. Third World Bunfight set up a walk-through installation that turned around the historical European “exhibits” of African people. One by one, the audience was released into a museum-like experience to witness the horrors of colonialism, both centuries-old and modern day. The piece was more about the perfectly-still live performers watching us (an almost entirely white audience). It’s a brilliant way of not just educating contemporary audiences who have mostly forgotten about these events (if they ever learned about them at all), but also putting the spectator in the hot seat, making us hyper-aware of our own relationship to our history. According to the festival program, the company is bringing their new piece, Exhibit C, to London in 2014. Details are not yet on their website, but hopefully they will be soon.
The Monument – Isôko Theatre (Rwanda). This was an international theatre experience unlike the others in the Dialog Festival: written by a Canadian playwright inspired by her travels in southeast Asia, China, and India, directed by a Canadian director who has trained in Germany, the UK, and the US, and translated into Kiryarwanda for performance by Rwandan actors. The production was much smaller – even “austere” as the program notes would have it – and more intimate than most of the others at Dialog, but despite not having the resources for 4 projectors and a giant moving set, The Monument achieved something rather unique at the festival: that elusive emotional response. (Bang goes my theory about language barriers, distance, and empathy.) And, as it happened, I ended up on the plane back to London with the lead actor, Kenny Nkundwa, so I got to hear about what theatre is like in Rwanda after the horrors of the recent past, which was sobering, fascinating, and inspiring.
Warsaw Cabaret – Nowy Teatr (Poland). Another endurance performance (in plastic bleacher seats, no less), this five-hour mashup of Nazi Germany and post-9/11 New York was the hit of the Avignon Festival this year… and totally not to my taste. There were some fun moments of absurdity towards the beginning, but as the clock rolled over from PM into AM, I started to wonder what Big Idea I was supposed to have understood from this plexiglass-and-glitter abstraction on an abstraction on an abstraction…and exactly what it was about that idea that needed to be communicated in this way.
The Tempest – Teatr Polski w Bydgoszczy (Poland). Apparently they have a hard time finding a venue for this production when it tours, because a) the floor is sand and b) the actors throw water and spaghetti at each other and c) there is a real sandstorm and d) an actual hound of hell that is unleashed on a (protected) actor at the end. I’ll say this: the commitment of the actors is completely astounding, their willingness to go through hell every performance. So I guess it’s not fair to complain about the plastic bleacher seats and the 2 hour 30 minute running time with no interval. But even when the actors are willing to go through hell, can they expect the audience to join them? Several people conspicuously left midway through – some made the mistake of trying to sneak out during one of the improvised sections… which were apparently hilarious, for those who spoke Polish. For the rest of us, the supertitles just said “improvisation.” Which is fair enough – we’re in Poland, after all – but it did seem like those were the best parts of the show.
Ulysses’ Living Room – Artus Company (Hungary). This show was FUN. I know, I was surprised, too. I have no clue what it was doing in the Dialog Festival, since it didn’t seem to tackle the theme of violence even obliquely. The company was concerned with the idea of hospitality, drawing from one of the major themes of the Odyssey, and loosely incorporating a bit of that story here and there. They set up a warehouse to be a giant living room, with 2-seater couches everywhere, facing every direction. One of the performers played the welcoming host, offering glasses of wine and jars of breadsticks to everyone. The playing spaces were small stages dotted around the periphery of the space, where 2 or 3 people performed at a time. The action moved quickly, so that if your couch was facing away from the stage, you only had to twist for a minute or two. It mostly worked, but my neck was still a bit sore by the end. The ensemble performed in English, and I didn’t realise they were improvising until about halfway through the show, when one of them sort of paused and said something to his scene partner in Hungarian, and she supplied an English word, and they carried on. To me, that added a great deal to the idea of hospitality, that they were doing absolutely everything they could to bring the show to me. I can’t quite express my gratitude for that effort – it was the first time in the whole festival when I felt that the performers cared whether or not I was able to access and understand their work. I couldn’t put my finger on it at the time, but maybe part of what made me a bit grumpy during the festival was its air of, “this is brilliant, so sit there quietly and appreciate it, and if you don’t like it, maybe you shouldn’t have come.” Aside from Artus Company’s revolutionary hospitality, I loved a lot of the images they created: a man and woman at a dinner date where the chairs were swings, and they couldn’t quite reach each other to pour wine, light cigarettes, or hold hands; a woman ladling soup into a man’s bowl faster than he could eat it, and the tomatoey liquid spilling down the white table cloth; that same soup pot later holding a grey clay mixture that got smeared all over two actors, turning them into “statues”; Odysseus sawing the legs off his dinner table and turning it into a raft (on casters) which he pushed around the space between the couches. The show reminded me of the devising work I’ve seen in the Bay Area from Ragged Wing Ensemble and Mugwumpin (so you guys especially, look this company up).
Macabra Dolorosa – Teatr Nowy w Krakowie (Poland). This piece was terrifying, but not always in the way it intended. From even before the audience sits down, we’re bombarded with the sounds of an air raid, speakers turned up loud enough for the room to shake. Solo performer Katarzyna Chlebny delivers a dada interpretation of Medea with a Cheshire Cat grin full of black teeth. The songs had English supertitles, but she improvised in Polish, including a moment of audience participation in which I had to decline to come up onstage (in English) despite the offer of an interpreter. Part of me wishes I had gone up there, to see what would have happened in a bilingual improvisation…
Whoopee, We’re Alive – Wrocławski Teatr Współczesny (Poland). The story of childhood sweethearts who meet again in an old people’s home after more than half a century, this sweet and funny production seemed to have nothing to do with the theme of violence, but it was a welcome antidote and ending to the festival. The central couple sneak out of the home to a hotel to consummate their long-unrequited love. I can’t believe I’ve made it this far without mentioning how naked Polish theatre is. Their movement work is extremely physical and muscular, and their awareness of body is, maybe relatedly, very down to earth and matter of fact. We did have more than our fair share of fit, muscular bodies on display, but we also saw bodies (clothed and unclothed) that rarely get to the stage in the US or UK. From the plus-sized middle-aged chorus girl in silver spandex and feathers in Warsaw Cabaret, to the diversity of shapes and sizes in the 21-person cast of I Pierre Riviere (four of whom are stripped naked in the first scene, and another is suspended from his ankles, naked and dying, in the second half), to the two naked 80-year-olds in Whoopee, We’re Alive, Polish theatre uses bodies in ways I’ve never seen before. And the actors seem to be up for anything.
In addition to the Dialog Festival performances, I tagged along with the Americans and the Centre for International Theatre Development group to see a couple of other pieces that were playing in Wroclaw:
The Temptation of Quiet Veronica at Teatr Polski. Director Krystian Lupa’s delicate, intimate production was revived for an International Theatre Festival “The World as a Place of Truth.” It’s based on a short story about people playing complicated mind games, and though there were English supertitles for the poetic, impressionist text, I can’t claim to have understood what was going on beyond the general gist of who is in love with whom. But it was a beautiful piece, and I’m glad I got the chance to broaden my experience of Polish theatre.
Heiner Müller’s Mauser at the Grotowski Institute. Greek director Theodoros Terzopoulos presented this piece for the Grotowski Intitute’s “Masters in Residence” program. In a small, church-like brick room inside Wroclaw’s town hall, the audience sits in jury-like benches on two sides of a long trench. At either end, authority figures debate the fate of three men in the trench, at first only their heads visible above a horizontal black wooden yoke, which folded down into the trench to later reveal their whole bodies. A second yoke lower down in the trench folded up to create the same image of three disembodied heads a few feet below the audience. I didn’t understand much of what was going on, but the tension, the terror, the distancing of the trench men from their judges, the infuriating repetition, and the impossibility of mercy in an authoritarian state all made it across the language barrier.
Contemporary Art Exhibit at Wroclaw National Museum. Not theatre, but a highlight of my trip nonetheless. I spent about three hours happily lost in visual splendour until my brain started to overheat. I think I saw about half of it, and meant to go back but never managed it. Key takeaway #1: almost every visual artist working in Poland in the 1930s and 40s also worked in theatre as a designer of sets, costumes, or puppets. Theatre must have been big. Key takeaway #2: Karol Broniatowski’s “Big Man” (1975-1976), a menacing installation of 20 identical life-sized figures made out of newspaper, gave me some ideas for a new Helen Project installation.
So there you have it: October 2013. 24 plays, 2 countries, and a whole lot of thoughts about them. Stay tuned for November’s PlayList, which I promise will be shorter.
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 (SPOILER ALERT) 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 even 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!
I can’t believe it’s been two months since I moved to London. There is so much to write about, and a full update is coming soon. For now, here’s just one manageable slice of what I’ve been doing: seeing theatre. This is the first of what will be a regular PlayList series.
July & August 2013: 40 performances.
Children of the Sun at the National Theatre. I thought it was the best Chekhov play I’d ever seen, until I got a chance to read the programme at the interval (yes, “programme” and “interval,” I’m in England now), and found that it was in fact by Maxim Gorky. I’m looking forward to reading more of his work.
Silent Partners at the White Bear Theatre. A tiny pub theatre in Kennington, South London, where I met up with a friend of a friend who was in the show. I’ve been so lucky to find a warm welcome wherever I meet a stranger who knows someone I know.
A Season in the Congo at the Young Vic. How can a historical play set in the 1960s be so full of surprises? Because it’s African history, and it has simply never been on any syllabus in my 17 years of school. Apart from receiving an education in history, the production was a lesson in stage craft and puppetry. So beautifully done.
Winter’s Tale at Regents Park Open Air Theatre. Believe it or not, this was adapted for ages 6 and up, despite the premise of the play being a king doubting his wife’s fidelity and ordering the baby to be put to death.
The Night Alive at Donmar Warehouse. I went with a friend who had never seen an Irish drama before. Neither of us were prepared for one of the characters to get his skull cracked with a hammer. Some truly stunning fight choreography – no pun intended.
Unrivalled Landscape at the Orange Tree Theatre. An evening of short plays from the theatre’s emerging artist programme, by five different writers sharing the same characters, which must have been an interesting challenge.
The American Plan at the St. James Theatre. Here’s another one that surprised me at the interval – for the first act, I was sure I knew what kind of play this was going to be. It was so deeply rooted in a time and place, and felt like something Neil Simon might have written… then something twisted right before the act break, and suddenly all bets were off, and oh, look, right there in the programme, you can see it’s a new play.
What Happens to Hope at the End of the Evening at the Almeida Theatre (work in progress festival). My first foray into the charming Islington neighborhood led me to Tim Crouch’s latest work, an exploration of friendship, time, and betrayal. The play itself was interesting, but the female understudy for the male role of Andy led to some fascinating gender bending which sort of stole the show.
Penelope, Who Cried at the White Bear Theatre (Juniper Theatre Collective). I’ve already met a handful of young artists who are making work and starting companies to tackle issues of women in theatre. I’ll be keeping an eye on Juniper Theatre Collective and director Claire Moyer.
Dusa, Fish, Stas, and Vi at the Finborough Theatre. Such an experience to watch Pam Gem’s 1976 play and think about how rare and it still is to see four women on stage together, while the language, the costumes, the historical references, and yes, god, the wallpaper are all screaming, “this play was written almost 10 years before you were born!” (PS, if anyone is looking for scene work for 2-4 women, you can get the text here.)
Peek-A-Boo at the LIFT Festival (Elastic Future online theatre). San Francisco readers may know director Erin Gilley, who was behind this online performance project with actors in New York, London, and Beirut. Really cool to see what she and her team at Elastic Future are working on, and how it relates to the Google Hangout performance experiments I’ve been doing with Lisa Szolovits and Wolfgang Wachalovsky.
Josephine & I at the Bush Theatre. Cush Jumbo’s one woman show weaves the story of her own acting career with that of Josephine Baker, an extraordinary woman who danced her way out of Jim Crow era Louisiana to the New York stage, and then on to Paris to become an international sensation. In a breath-taking moment late in the performance, Jumbo reads from racist reviews of Baker’s return to the US alongside reviews from last year’s all-female Julius Caesar (in which Jumbo played Marc Antony) with chilling similarities. Then she puts on a spectacular sequinned dress and headdress, and sings “Times They Are A-Changin’.” Easily one of the most emotional moments of theatre I’ve ever seen. The whole audience leapt to their feet as soon as the lights went down.
Daytona at the Park Theatre. A brand new theatre in Finsbury Park, with a gorgeous 250-seat thrust space and a 90-seat studio. I didn’t care much for this play, but I’ll be back to check out what they’re doing in the studio.
Can’t Stand Up for Falling Down at the White Bear Theatre (Red Cart Theatre). The White Bear so far holds the honor of the only London theatre I’ve been to three times. Can’t Stand Up… is a 1990s three-hander of interwoven monologues from three women whose lives are connected by the brutality of one man. This one got me thinking about ways we measure gender equality onstage: the play doesn’t pass the Bechdel Test (having at least A. two women characters with names who B. talk to each other C. about something other than men), but it is ultimately the story of women overcoming a male oppressor, and was clearly a positive artistic experience for 5+ female theatremakers (whom I had the pleasure to meet after the performance). There is no single rubric by which we can measure gender representation in a piece of art… yet. That’s a subject for another post.
An Indian Tempest at the Globe Theatre. I have never seen anything else performed in English, French, Sanskrit, and Indian languages I can’t name, with a mix of shadow puppetry, commedia, traditional Indian music, and British pantomime. I can’t say the elements sat well together, but the production certainly kept me on my toes – in more ways that one; I stood in the Yard for the full 2 hours and 20 minutes.
Jacuzzi at the Almeida Theatre (work in progress festival). A complex, plot-driven story from a Canadian company, the Debate Society. At least the third show I’ve seen recently in which one character suddenly turns out to be a murderer in a big twist. Am I noticing a trend here?
Life! a neoballet at the Arts Theatre. Yes, a dance piece! And a pretty rockin’ one at that – they brought a drum set out onstage at one point. Besides really enjoying the piece, I was also intrigued by how patient that audience was. There were 45-second scene changes in which no one seemed to mind that we were watching one guy trying to bring a keyboard onstage (and later, yes, the drum set), on his own, in the dark, before the next movement could start. I’ll need to go see more dance to find out if this is a “dance thing”, or if this performance (the first of this piece) was just working out the transitional kinks.
Sunstroke at the Platform Theatre Studio. I’ve had the pleasure of curating a female-positive theatregoing itinerary so far in London and at the Edinburgh Fringe. So this adaptation of short stories about extra-marital affairs, written from the male perspective and performed equally one-sidedly, was an unpleasant reminder of how sexist theatre can be. (see also: howsexististhisshow.wordpress.com) I’m still thinking about that rubric for gender equality… the ratio of male to female actors is often a good indicator, but here was a play with 3 women and 2 men onstage, which was one of the most unenlightened spectacles I’ve ever witnessed.
Chimerica at the Harold Pinter Theatre. Lucy Kirkwood’s new play is epic and uncompromising. Chimerica has just transferred to the West End after its premiere at the Almeida Theatre. If you’re in London, go see it (the £10 tickets are tempting, but it clocks in at almost 2 1/2 hours, so it’s worth springing for the more comfortable seats in the lower circle rather than the balcony). If you’re not in London, keep an eye out for its probable US tour.
EDINBURGH FRINGE (21)
76 Million People and Me from Irresponsible Decorators Theatre Company. A bold premise (4 mass murderers sharing a rowboat to hell) got me through the door, but I honestly could not tell you what kept me in my seat past the first 10 minutes. I’m not even going to tell you about it, I’ve wasted enough time already.
Rouse Ye Women from And Then We Danced. I was a little nervous when the usher told me, “It’s a bit loud, you might want to sit at the back” as she handed me a programme. The ear-splitting STOMP-esque performance lives in between dance and theatre, in a narrative limbo where there is just enough story to follow the general gist of what’s happening, but not enough development to connect with individual characters. This may have been intentional (it’s about the power of these women as a union), but the bloc of characters kept me emotionally out of the world of the play as effectively as if I’d been a scab.
Projector/Conjector from Mamoru Iriguchi. One dancer had a projector strapped to her head, the other dancer had a TV monitor strapped to his head. There was some serious technical know-how going on with the digital images, but the stage was a mess of wires and makeshift projection screens. I can honestly say I’ve never seen anything like it.
Long Distance Affair from PopUp Theatrics. An online performance, in which an audience of 6 rotates through Skype stations at laptops calling various countries and time zones. It reminded me of the Car Plays we saw as part of our Directors Lab West curriculum last year, in which the audience rotates through very intimate performances in a line cars in a parking lot. Long Distance Affair was a series of disconnected monologues delivered right at me, sometimes requiring my verbal participation, sometimes preserving part of the fourth wall – which made it difficult to know how to engage.
Dark Vanilla Jungle from Supporting Wall and Royal Exchange Theatre. A young woman bounces onstage wearing a crisp white shirt and pink flowers in her hair, and unravels a brutal, shocking story of abuse and isolation. The character is fascinating – she sometimes seems not to know what is happening, but the way she tells her version of reality lets the audience know what’s really going on. The tense disconnect between the two planes of storytelling and the various versions of the character is masterful and deeply disturbing.
The Bunker Trilogy from Jethro Compton. I saw two of the three plays in the Bunker Trilogy, which reimagines the legends of MacBeth, Agamemnon, Morgana & King Arthur in a World War I bunker. Packing their audience onto uncomfortable wooden benches in a tiny, stifling room, the company of three exceptional actors somehow managed to make me forget that my leg had fallen asleep halfway through the performance. Both times.
Squally Showers from Little Bulb Theatre. I left this performance determined to use bubble machines in everything I direct from now on. Squally Showers is an exuberant, sometimes nonsensical dance piece which somehow managed to combine Margaret Thatcher, an oldschool overhead projector, dozens of wacky wigs, a shower of money swirling in the updraft from a giant industrial fan, astroturf cutouts of the British Isles, 1980s corporate culture complete with a satirical look at gender relations, and a unicorn with wings into an irreverent and at times truly gorgeous spectacle.
Luna Unlaced from Teatro Luna. I’d been tweeting and emailing with some of the ladies of Teatro Luna, Chicago’s pan-Latina Theatre, about my TACTICS interview series, so it was a treat to get to meet them in person after a performance of their “tapas menu” of scenes from previous shows. If you’re in Chicago, check them out – they’re returning from their US/UK tour in a week or two.
Miyazu: The Little Mermaid from HIBIKart. I didn’t mind at all that I couldn’t understand a word of the story, performed entirely in Japanese except for a recorded prologue and epilogue in English. It’s the Little Mermaid after all; I got the gist. Sometimes the narrative is the least important element, overshadowed by beautiful stage pictures, puppetry, gymnastic dance sequences, billowing silk oceans, and glowing paper lanterns seemingly floating in space over a dark stage. I’m always surprised at how touching an experience can be when it is simply gorgeous.
Extreme Withdrawal is Manifest from Scrunchie Theatre Company. I’ve heard a few people remark that the Free Fringe is changing the ecosystem of Edinburgh in August. the Fringe itself has become an expensive endeavor that few truly fringe companies can afford to undertake; the Free Fringe has reopened the doors for those unfunded risk takers. This sometimes means that you’ll find undiscovered gems, and sometimes means that you’ll be trapped in a flourescent room with two other audience members for an hour thinking, “well, that’s Fringe; you win some, you lose some.”
Nirbhaya from Assembly, Riverside Studios and Poorna Jagannathan. Director Yael Farber and her cast tell their own personal true stories of violence against women, inspired to break their silence by the horrific gang rape and murder of a young woman on a Dehli bus in December 2011. The attackers are still being sentenced; millions of people are still being affected by these issues. Nirbhaya is possibly the bravest and most deeply moving pieces of theatre I’ve ever seen.
Smashed from Gandini Juggling. This seemed like the perfect light balance to the dark of Nirbhaya, so I grabbed a ticket for the juggling dance/theatre piece I’d heard good things about. They start with apples and end with teapots, and by the end the whole place is a huge mess. It’s good clean destructive fun. Except for the weird undercurrents of “ironic” sexism throughout, from the lyrics of bouncy 1940s music to the two women literally crawling on their hands and knees in front of a row of nine men who juggle while also rolling apples along the women’s backs. They acknowledge the skewed gender politics, which makes me think they’re poking fun at the novelty of having women in their troupe (as everything is devolving into shards of teapots, the jugglers yell at each other and the audience; one of them screamed “oh look, a woman juggler, oh my god!”). But especially after my experience with Nirbhaya, and reading about Robin Thicke’s stupid music video that has somehow become the song of the summer, I’m running out of patience with sexism, “ironic” or otherwise.
Grounded from the Gate Theatre. A one-woman play performed entirely within the confines of a 7-foot cube. It’s not just a super-tourable design, but conceptually sound: Grounded is the story of a US Air Force pilot who gives up flying when her daughter is born, and is reassigned to piloting drones in a trailer in Las Vegas, exchanging the wide blue sky for a tiny grey screen. Get your hands on this beautiful text if you can, especially if you’re an actor looking for audition monologues.
Breaking News from VaVaVoom and the National Theatre of Iceland. A delicate paper world is populated only by a red dressing gown in this exquisitely detailed dance/puppet/theatre piece that concerns itself with our 24-hour news cycle addiction. Also, I’m stealing the idea of window blinds as projection screens. That’s genius.
Head Over Heels in Saudi Arabia from Maisah Sobaihi. I recently saw Wadjda, the first film by a female Saudi Arabian director, and was keen to see what other Saudi women are making art about. Likewise, Sobaihi was the first Saudi woman to bring a production to the Edinburgh Fringe. This was a one-woman show that bounced between monologue and stand-up, weaving together three love stories: one woman tries to convince her husband not to take a second wife, one divorcee considers entering into a special type of secret marriage in which the husband has no obligation to provide for this second wife, or even tell anyone (including his first wife) that he has married again, and our narrator falls in love with… wait for it… tennis, and is kicked out of the tennis club because her love makes the other members feel uncomfortable. The form of the play could use some dramaturgical work, but the content was fascinating.
Adrienne Truscott’s Asking For It: A One-Lady Rape About Comedy, Starring Her Pussy and Little Else. I’ll admit that I was scared to go to this when I first saw the poster, but one of my new friends from Teatro Luna was raving about it, and I’m so glad I took her advice. Adrienne takes the stage wearing three jean jackets, three bras, three wigs, some kick-ass shoes, but nothing else, and projects images of male comedians talking about rape jokes onto her naked torso. She proves that rape jokes can be hilarious by making them for an hour, and in the process makes some serious points about rape culture and comedy. There are a number of reviews cited in this article about her winning the Edinburgh Fringe Panel Prize award. Check it out, she’s fantastic.
Banksy: The Room in the Elephant from Sum with the Tobacco Factory Theatre. You guys have heard of Banksy, right? Here is a one-man show about a guy who was living in an abandoned water tower in LA, until some dude came along and spray-painted it into a piece of art. Talk about unintended consequences.
Voices Made Night from Magnet Theatre Company. A collection of short stories from South Africa’s top physical theatre company. A reminder of how beautiful simple production values can be, how powerful a tightly-knit ensemble can be, and how difficult it can be to make fragmented short stories feel like one satisfying theatrical experience, even when all the individual elements are there.
HeLa from Adura Onashile in association with Iron-Oxide. The fifth and final one-woman show I saw in Edinburgh was staged in a beautiful old lecture hall that felt like an operating theatre – perfect for this drama about Henrietta Lacks, the unwitting mother of innumerable medical advances stemming from a cell sample taken without her permission when she sought cancer treatment in Baltimore, 1951. Onashile brings together the wonder of science, questionable medical ethics, and rigorous physicality in her award-winning performance.
Water Stain from Armazém Theater Company. My first experience of Brazilian theatre has put me on a mission to find more. This was a strange, beautiful fairy tale, told in unreliable flashbacks and flashforwards through the waterlogged memory of the protagonist. Boldly staged with live music, a pool of water big enough to ride a tricycle in, projections onto a giant white wall with a trick mirror door, and a space-suit-wearing deep sea diver, La Marca de Agua sent me home with no shortage of fantastical images to dream about.
Phew! What a PlayList! I’m heading into rehearsals next week, so my September list should be shorter! More details on my other goings-on in another post coming soon…