PlayList: January 2014

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.

Was this the face/ That, like the sun, did make beholders wink?

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.

The Count

9 performances

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