Tag Archives: Britain

“BEATS” by Kieran Hurley

at Soho Theatre, Friday 18th October 2013

“None of this is real,” Kieran Hurley tells us at the beginning of BEATS. He’s going to tell us a story, we are told, about a fifteen year-old boy and rave culture, using a DJ and VJ to help create a space in which it can happen. But though Hurley insists the tale is a fictional one, by the end of it you begin to question that idea. You can’t shake the feeling that, though the story is made up, it must have happened somewhere, to somebody, somehow. It’s a beautifully crafted, unashamedly political work, which asks us to examine notions of “collective empathy” and consider how we may find some new notion of togetherness in post-Thatcherite Britain.

The premise focusses – as Hurley tells us at the outset – on John Major’s policy of outlawing the gathering of people Continue reading “BEATS” by Kieran Hurley


“This House” by James Graham

at the Cottesloe Theatre, Wednesday 26th September 2012

Comparisons between This House and The Thick of It are inevitable (not least because Vincent Franklin appears in both) but important. The fact that this new sort of biting, honest satire is popular at the moment demonstrates the general distrust of the political elite and their system. We all utilise a kind of doublethink, believing that we’re excersising our democratic right by voting but knowing deep down that it makes a negligible difference. This sort of satire helps that disappointment become more palatable, as we are allowed to laugh at those who are supposed to be the best brains and leaders in the country.

James Graham’s This House manages to do that whilst offering up a deeply human look at the workings behind parliament. The play tells the story of the 1974-9 parliament, showing how both parties did all they could to win a majority with each vote. The narrative thrust centres around the two whip offices, with Deputy Chief Whips Walter Harrison and Jack Weatherill providing the beating heart of the Labour and Conservative benches respectively.

Graham says in his programme note that the reason he chose to write about this parliament “is because the truth itself is so remarkable”, as ill and dieing MPs were wheeled into the Houses of Parliament to vote so their party could win by a narrow majority, and had to beg the “odds and sods” to vote with them. Naturally, one’s own politics very much come into play here, but to me This House is a loud plea for an overhall of our current system. As we are at one point told, Britain is one of the few democracies to have parliamentary parties sat opposite one another in order to argue rather than sat with one another in order to cooperate, causing friction and rivalries where there could be compromise and discussion.

Though Graham clearly revels writing these larger-than-life, stoic and principled characters, there are clearly tones which are somewhat sinister. Why should politics (i.e. governing the lives of millions of people) rely so heavily on underhand tactics and sly bargains? On the whole, these ministers are so bound up in their own careers and enmities that they care little about the rest of the country. And though there is a glimmer of truth in Harrison’s “British democracy may work if it weren’t so bloody reliant on people”, that doesn’t get away from the fact that British democracy itself is archaic and nonsensical; if it were created now, the system would look nothing like that.

It’s easy to see the relevencies to our current political concerns. Whether you believe the play is asking us to be thankful that we don’t have a hung parliament or disappointed with what we have is up to you, but Graham clearly echoes things which we’ve been discussing since 2010 like political “cooperation” and “compromise”, where parties have to do deals with parties they’d rather not talk to. Equally, the Tories don’t come off well here (when do they?), as they complain about the same old things and talk about their adeptness for government (“Conservative governments fail because they believe they are entitled to power. Labour governments fail because they don’t”), but though it’s clear where Graham’s own sympathies lie, the play is never in danger of becoming partisan. More subtly, the references to the rigged devolution vote in 1979 preceeds what could be an unfair vote in Scotland in 2014.

Graham’s writing isn’t quite as cutting as The Thick Of It (though who said it should be?) and sometimes becomes a bit too descriptive when explaining parliamentary terms (the interjections of “the member for Coventry South-West” etc from the Speaker every time someone enters is also a little frustrating, though perhaps necessary given the number of people). The script is at its best when small, honest discussions are being had, and for this reason two scenes in act two stand out, both of which occur between Harrison and Weatherill. Both dialogues focus around their disguntlement at the way things have turned out as they come to realise they have more in common than they’d like to admit. Played by Philip Glenister and Charles Edwards respectively, they are perfectly matched and each show men trying to do their best with what they’ve got whilst trying to make a difference. They both embody their party’s stereotype – Glenister a rough Northerner and Edwards a prim Southerner – but each recognises their parties are not the simple black-and-white they once were.

Jeremy Herrin’s fast-paced production serves the play well, though it does at times feel a little clumsy. Rae Smith’s design is a small coup, placing a reconstructed House of Commons in the Cottesloe, with the members’ seats and viewing gallery become spaces where the audience watch the theatre of parliament. It’s essentially in traverse with a few more exits and entrances, allowing for some speedy scene changes and montage sequences. I say it’s a little clumsy because effort has been made to include Enron-style movement interludes (but with MPs instead of bankers) and Frantic Assembly-inspired physical theatre (choreographed by Scott Ambler), but they don’t quite seem tight enough. Nonetheless, it’s good to see more directors employing this style and using ensemble casts to create more visually engaging pieces.

One wonderful moment comes in the middle of act two, as discussion begins about whether or not the parliament will last a full five years. Bowie’s “Five Years” is sung (perhaps a little obvious, but it’s a bloody good tune and complements nicely the use of “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide” in act one) as the characters congregate on stage in a sombrely directed routine. It’s perhaps a little emotionally manipulative but for some reason it feels truly tragic that this parliament will end soon.

Stephen Warbeck’s score is key in the show’s success, switching from jazz in the early years of the parliament to a more rocky style in later years, accentuating jokes and providing a musical progression to support the narrative movement. Paule Constable’s lighting is fluent, but it does sometimes feel, for want of a better word, flimsy, and it can’t be helped thinking a little more could be done to incorporate it into the production.

The cast are given a plethora of glorious one liners (“This isn’t a parliament, this is fucking purgatory”, “It’s only not perfect because no one has the guts to challenge it”) and move through them brilliantly. In the red corner, Vincent Franklin’s slightly pathetic Michael Cocks takes over after the resignation of Bob Mellish (played here by Howard Ward due to a bereavement in the family of Phil Daniels. Ward read from a script, but it’s testament to the professionalism of the National and its companies that this was of little hindrance). Perhaps one of the most interesting characters in the play is Ann Taylor (the only female whip), played by Lauren O’Neil. She provides a glimmer of what a new future could look like, and is in effect Thatcher’s opposite. Representing the opposition benches, Julian Wadham (playing Chief Whip Humphrey Atkins) is a slimy, old-fashioned being who cannot keep up with the constant movement in this administration.

What This House does so brilliantly is educate and entertain simultaneously (though I was aware of the difficulties which faced this parliament, the details were unknown to me). Graham juggles humour and pathos brilliantly and shows that a system based on tradition and requiring honour to keep it ticking along is in dire need of change. Herrin stage manages this production to show the Labour government were perhaps a little out of their depth and may have done a little too much damage. But as Maggie’s voice rings out in the final moments that “Where there is dischord, may we bring harmony”, it’s difficult not to shudder; this lot may have been bad, but my God they were better than what was to come.

The Call for an English National Theatre

Whenever I announce suddenly in conversation that I think we ought to have an English National Theatre (because that’s what I do), I am given a look which suggests the listener believes me to be in desperate need of medical attention. “Haven’t you seen that massive Soviet structure on the South Bank?” they seem to be saying, “The one which is called the National Theatre?” I smile. “English” I repeat, “We need an English National Theatre”. If you haven’t guessed, the key word is English.

As of next year, it will be 50 years since the Royal National Theatre of Great Britain and Northern Ireland was founded. Hooray. Half a century of one of the leading theatre companies in the world producing top-class work. It’s certainly something to celebrate. The year after that, however, Scotland is due to hold a referendum on independence, meaning the very entity which the South Bank building represents, Great Britain, will be all but nonexistent.

For, while Scotland and Wales have been undergoing a redefining of national values over the past couple of decades (ever since devolution began), the notion of Englishness has been pretty much inseparable from ideas of Britishness. And as Britain begins to disolve, we in England will be forced to decide on our national ideals and the way our political and social lives will have to be restructured to create stability.

First, let’s destroy the notion that “English nationalist” is a dirty word; though it has connotations of the EDL and far-right groups, to be an English nationalist means to look forward to a separate English nation which does not impose its own national identity on other members of the United Kingdom (see: pretty much anything written by George Orwell). It is not an aggressive stance but one which looks inwards and attempts to separate things which are English from things which are British.

As support for an independent England (or, at the very least, an English parliament) grows, it becomes ever clearer that a space to represent the new England theatrically is necessary. To help us decide how best to implement an English National Theatre, we can look towards other national theatres in the British Isles and their respective missions.

The Southbank venue “aims constantly to re-energize the great traditions of the British stage and to expand the horizons of audiences and artists alike. It aspires to reflect in its repertoire the diversity of the nation’s culture”. The general notion that “British” can be transposed with “English” is accurate here; perhaps I’m missing something but not one of the plays I’ve seen performed at the National has been performed according to Welsh or Scottish ideas or techniques. Most of what Nick Hytner has done in recent years has either been internationally based or very clearly English (One Man Two Guv’nors and The Habit of Art being clear examples). There is clearly an appetite for English plays, but we are fooling ourselves if we believe that the NT is producing work which can speak to the whole of Britain.

The National Theatre of Scotland wishes to “create theatre on a national and international scale that is contemporary, confident and forward-looking”, whilst the Abbey in Dublin hopes to “Sustain and re-imagine the repertoire of Irish plays”. The Lyric in Belfast wishes to create shows which “are truly indigenous products of Northern Ireland” and the National Theatre of Wales “creates bold, invigorating theatre in the English language, rooted in Wales, with an international reach.” It is clear, then, that all of the nations of Britain have a national theatre rooted in the country it represents which hopes to encourage debate about that particular nation.

Except England. Granted, we have two near-misses in the English Touring Theatre and the English Stage Company at the Royal Court, but the former merely uses the word “England” to demonstrate its location whilst the latter is more interested in “finding, developing, and producing writers from all over the world” than its home territory. Aside from these two examples, there is no theatre in England today interested in specifically England and its identity. As Britain and the last remnants of Empire begin to collapse, this must be rectified if the theatre scene in this country is to continue to be healthy.

All very well diagnosing the problem, but what of the cure? What I propose is little more than a rebranded National Theatre (crucially still with a remit to produce international work; if we are to have any hope of redefining our nation we must see ourselves in context), with a change from “of Great Britain and Northern Ireland” to “of England”. This new title will shift the focus of the work produced and allow dramatists and directors a different space in which to breathe. Naturally, Henry V would come up in the first few years, but the Henry VI plays feel more apt for gaining a sweep of an England struggling to define itself. The closest any playwright has come to writing a particularly English play in the past few years is Jez Butterworth with Jerusalem, and by the time this proposed rebranding has occurred a new production would be timely. Alongside these two projects would sit a number of smaller plays about English life by both young and old playwrights interested in examining those character traits we deem to be “British” and sifting through to find the habits which are specific to England (Polly Stenham and Arnold Wesker would be perfect candidates). To finish off the season a Three Kingdomsstyle (yes I’m still going on about it) collaboration between English and international practitioners would consolidate this new theatre’s place on the world stage. By finding a new context in which to create theatre, then, a perceptible renaissance would inevitably occur to reflect the new country inhabited by practitioners. To suggest an Artistic Director for this establishment would split opinion too much, but we’re in the fortunate position of being spoilt for choice at the moment so this point isn’t too problematic.

This post will undoubtably be criticised for being too patriotic and somewhat reactionary, but the search for a new England and the desire to have its existence staged and debated is the complete opposite; in less than two years, Great Britain as we know it may have collapsed, meaning we must begin to look ahead to how our nation will look at that time. The “British” prefix attached to many of our great institutions will become obsolete, and if we’re not careful a long period of confusion about our nationality will follow. The theatre, that most forward-looking of art forms, must lead the way, giving a stage on which to rehearse the blueprint for our new country. And only then will we have a truly National Theatre.

“Three Kingdoms” by Simon Stephens

at the Lyric Hammersmith, Thursday 17th May 2012

I am well aware that I’m jumping on the bandwagon with this one. By now, it feels like most of the young theatre-going population has seen Three Kingdoms, and the debate which has ensued online has proved that the production is nothing if not provocative. In my opinion, the very fact that Simon Stephens and Sebastian Nübling have created such a ruckus is proof enough that this is a brilliant piece of theatre; after all, isn’t that one of the main purposes of theatre – to inspire discussion? And if you don’t agree that this is a game-changer for the shape of British theatre, I’m afraid you’ve been proved wrong already; by putting it in these terms, bloggers and theatremakers alike have now set a benchmark. Even if not all British theatre ends up like this (and that, naturally, is extremely unlikely), a whole generation of practitioners have just had their brains pushed into action.

Now let’s be clear about this. This is by no means the best production you’ll see this year nor even the best new play of 2012. Quite aside from the much-discussed – though arguable – misogyny, Stephens’ script isn’t overly exciting in narrative structure and Nübling’s production fails to really affect an audience. But where Three Kingdoms excels (and the reason why it will be influencing British theatre in the next decade) is in its ideas and refusal to patronise its audience. Unlike many shows currently performing in the West End, the production team here wants us to actively question and consider what is happening on stage rather than simply guzzle it up; we aren’t treated as consumers but as adult, thinking human beings.

I’m ignorant about Estonian theatre, so it’s difficult for me to understand exactly where Ene-Liis Semper’s home culture permeates Three Kingdoms, but it’s clear that the visual tradition of German theatre and the linguistic basis of British theatre are placed together so they may interrogate and shed light on one another. Stephens’ poetic and – for want of a better word – deep text often sheds light on the carnivalesque imagery in Nübling’s direction and vice versa, whilst Semper’s design accommodates the shifts in the dialogue from stark realism to utter surrealism.

The play focusses around the character of Detective Inspector Ignatius Stone (Nicholas Tennant) who, with his associate Detective Sargeant Charlie Lee (Ferdy Roberts), travels to Germany and Estonia to understand the death of a prostitute working in London. Stephens raises questions about the work and trustworthiness of the authorities in Europe and manages to highlight some of the issues surrounding sex trafficking, such as freedom of choice and quality of life, but in themselves the themes of the play are not that ambitious or challenging.

What is subversive, however, is Nübling’s unashamedly theatrical representation of the script, which uses excess to comment on excess and gratuitous violence to examine our violent world. Some have argued that these aspects simply indulge in the very ideas they rail against, but they forget that we are viewing a stylised representation of these acts so that we may be alienated from the subject and attempt to comprehend the immoralities. To me, this argument feels like a more adult version of the “video games create murderers” debate; the audience is intelligent enough to understand that what is occurring on stage is not okay. Before we can begin to tackle problems in the world we should at least be mature enough to face and discuss them.

There is an elegant simplicity to Semper’s box design, which draws attention to the blemishes on its surface like the pencilled height lines and blood in the corner, left in plain view from previous performances and reminding the audience that what we’re watching is a fictional performance. The various entrances and exits create a liberating claustrophobia, entrapping the cast even though there is a way out. Through the bar-window at the back of the box, cleaners creep along as if on a conveyor belt, and heads pop up unannounced. Though it’s utilitarian, is also houses the spectacle of Nübling’s vision.

Lars Wittershagen’s music adds yet another layer to proceedings, containing within it a quality which seems to halt the show when it’s used. The diversity of songs used is both comedic and exciting, as the heady words of, for example, the Beatles is juxtaposed brilliantly with the bleak world on stage. Risto Kübar’s performance as the singing ‘Trickster’ gives the notes an ethereal air.

The different styles of acting utilised for this production heighten the collaborative nature of the work, emphasising the differences in cultures and language. There isn’t one weak performance, but Tennant, Roberts and Steven Scharf as Steffen Dresner stand out; they are the emotional and comedic heart of the piece, and if it wasn’t for them the narrative thrust may fall apart. Tennant is the everyman and, try as he might to be liberal, thoughtful and kind, he is constantly let down by the world around him. His questionable morals and dubious background serve to make him all the more engaging, and though he doesn’t bare as much as other actors physically, his emotional depth is nothing short of remarkable.

I am in no way an expert on European theatre, but what’s fantastic about Three Kingdoms is that, compared to the few productions I’ve seen on the continent, it fits in visually. Particularly brilliant is the party scene towards the end of the play, complete with dancing transvestites and trippy music, revelling in its own amateur nature while chaos occurs downstage. The simplicity in the motifs repeated in the first and last scenes is equally memorable, as are the sequences representing travel between locations. Nothing is simply ‘shown’, and Nübling always takes care to use the most inventive way of staging any given moment; this is theatre, after all, so why should things be done exactly as they are in real life?

The only thing groundbreaking about this is that it’s being performed on British soil; otherwise this is very similar to the kind of theatre our cousins across the channel are accustomed to. This is collaboration in its truest form, where different parties work together and use one another’s ideas to shape a creation; in Three Kingdoms, text, design and direction go hand in hand in hand, and it’s not difficult to see similar projects coming along in the future, perhaps with different permutations of which nationality fills which role. And, as the world gets ever smaller and it becomes cheaper and cheaper to travel, more young theatre makers will experience work abroad, until there comes a time when the British theatre establishment isn’t idiotic enough to call itself “the best in the world” but instead attempts to become part of a more open, invigorating and global discourse.

“King John” by William Shakespeare

at the Swan Theatre, Thursday 19th April 2012

Arguably, it is only when witnessing a Shakespeare play in performance for the first time that we truly realise the Bard’s genius not only as a poet but also as a dramatist. This unknown quality is partly the reason for the success of Maria Aberg’s production of King John, but her superb direction is the main cause. The performance takes us everywhere theatre should, whilst throwing in some panache in the process.

The story, which deals with the turbulent relationship between England and France during John’s reign, here becomes a parable of family politics. Two families try to reconcile all by presenting the other with a suitor who shall be married to one another. From the superlative wedding scene onwards, however, individual arrogance and pride gets in the way and more than one death weighs on the minds of the participants.

By setting the play in what seems to represent a modern village hall, Aberg brings these familial tensions to the fore. The amount of rubbish on Naomi Dawson’s staired set correlates negatively with the number of people on stage at any one point, putting us in mind of those parties which wear on into the early hours of the morning, which see relationships break down and the truth spilt (though maybe not multiple deaths).

Adding to this is the decision to change the genders of the Bastard (Pippa Nixon) and the Cardinal Pandulph (the menacing Paola Dionisotti), meaning the women of this play are just as instrumental in events as the men. Although this is being deemed as the show’s USP, however, we forget the two roles were initially male; a hymn to gender blind casting if ever there was one.

More impressive is a fantastic cast who manage to give the words power without actually acting like the nobility the script dictates. The wide-eyed Nixon is fantastic, leading the audience through the twists and turns of the narrative and gaining our trust from the moment she steps onto stage to sing ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ on the ukulele (a nice touch). In Alex Waldmann, she has a worthy partner, and he portrays John with calm passion, debunking the name of ‘bad’ he has been given. Good support is provided by Siobhan Redmond’s wise Elinor, Oscar Pearce’s somewhat idiotic Dauphin, Susie Trayling’s steely Constance and John Stahl’s sturdy King Philip, while

Aberg’s stagecraft is masterful. The wedding scene is frenzied in its drunken fluidity, and it countered beautiful by the final scenes towards the end of the play, shouted across the auditorium from the balconies. John’s death scene is like no other, and the production is soundtracked brilliantly by Carolyn Downing, who uses everything from Rihanna to Dirty Dancing. David Holmes’ blazing and striking lighting adds to the feeling of tragedy.

By making the play contemporary, Aberg also manages to comment on current discussions about Scotland’s place in Britain. We see that, although union between countries (like that between England and Scotland) can seem like a desirable thing to begin with, underlying tensions and differences means a permanent union is impossible (especially if one country attempts to take more control). More than anything, however, this is a deeply affecting production which reaches astonishing levels of emotion. King John is by a long shot the best thing the Royal Shakespeare Company is showing this season, and is perhaps the best thing they’ve produced since The Merchant of Venice last year. Though if you were silly enough not to enjoy that, this probably isn’t for you.