Tag Archives: Lyric Hammersmith

Secret Theatre: Show 5

*Deep breath*

I want to talk about Secret Theatre Show 5, or A Series of Increasingly Impossible Acts. Trouble is, I can’t really do so without talking a bit about myself, because my experience of the show has been so bound up with the last three months of my life. So forgive me.

I feel like, for a number of reasons, it’s only through the prism of my own experience that I can discuss this extraordinary piece of work with any honesty. I’ve seen it three times now, but each time I’ve had a totally different reaction which, on reflection, has totally responded to how I was feeling at the time. It’s key strength lies in the fact that it morphs and changes with your own experience, and in doing so proves that all theatre is subjective and can be interpreted in any number of different ways. Show 5 is ‘about’ whatever you want it to be about. Continue reading Secret Theatre: Show 5

Secret Theatre: Show Four

at the Lyric Hammersmith, Wednesday 12th February 2014


Inevitably, Secret Theatre will be secret no more if you read this post. So yeah, read on if you’ve seen the show, don’t care about the ‘secret’ bit or have no intention whatsoever of seeing it (though you’d be a fool if that were the case).


Show Four is a strange beast. It shows the Secret Theatre ensemble really interrogating and getting to grips with gender and political thought whilst also retreating a little from the loud, bombastic tone of the first three shows. It is an adaptation whilst also feeling very much like a new play. It’s the first show for which Sean Holmes isn’t credited as director. And we’re no longer in the main theatre.

That last point marks more of a shift than you may imagine. Continue reading Secret Theatre: Show Four

Interview: Cara Horgan

*Originally written for Exeunt*

In her new book Theatre-Making, Duška Radosavljević suggests that the mode towards which a lot of British theatre is moving in 2013 is that which allows for room for “co-creation” between audience and performers. It’s been a growing form over the past decade or so, takes many guises, and has reached out to both mainstream and fringe audiences. It is a mainstay of artists like Tim Crouch and Ontroerend Goed among others. Now, after the first two shows of Secret Theatre, it has become clear that Sean Holmes and his ensemble at the Lyric Hammersmith have also chosen to join in with the fun, creating a season of work which, according to Cara Horgan, asks “the audience to put their own interpretation or their own understanding of things on the work they’re seeing. We hope they’re walking away with their own autonomy determining how they understand it and what it is.” Continue reading Interview: Cara Horgan

Secret Theatre: Show One

at the Lyric Hammersmith, Wednesday 11th September 2013


Inevitably, Secret Theatre will be secret no more if you read this post. So yeah, read on if you’ve seen the show, don’t care about the ‘secret’ bit or have no intention whatsoever of seeing it (though you’d be a fool if that were the case).

HERE ENDS THE SPOILER ALERT Continue reading Secret Theatre: Show One

Secret Theatre: Show Two

at the Lyric Hammersmith, Tuesday 10th September 2013


Inevitably, Secret Theatre will be secret no more if you read this post. So yeah, read on if you’ve seen the show, don’t care about the ‘secret’ bit or have no intention whatsoever of seeing it (though you’d be a fool if that were the case).

HERE ENDS THE SPOILER ALERT Continue reading Secret Theatre: Show Two

“Morning” by Simon Stephens

at the Traverse Theatre, Friday 17th August 2012

It feels appropriate to begin a review of Simon Stephens’ Morning at the end, with Stephanie’s announcement that “Everybody wants a message and there is none… There is no hope”. In typical Stephens style, the previous hour has been a harrowing and dark experience, but even though his protagonist makes this terrifying statement, it is followed by her brother coming to the stage and putting on clothes for his mother’s funeral. It’s impossible not to see this as a sign of hope, but to do so is to reject what has just been said. Once again, Stephens gets inside our mind and twists it out of shape.

The plot pivots around Stephanie, whose best friend Cat is leaving for university whilst her mother is dying. Two of the most important people in her life are leaving and she has to grow up. For her, however, this manifests itself as the murder of her boyfriend, Stephen. As soon as she realises she has responsibility and has to take control, this is the only way out, the only thing which seems sensible. As he frequently does, Stephens is demonstrating the violence inherent in our society. It is no wonder mindless killings happen when there is little hope.

As happens often in coming-of-age pieces, there is much discussion of a hatred of a home town. Cat can’t wait to go to university because where she lives is “horrifying”. Having outgrown it, she now needs to move on. But while her response is conventional, Stephanie has a more complex view of their home, believing it to be “beautiful” but “noisy”. More intriguing, however, she contemplates that all the gardens are the same “so nobody gets jealous”. This naïve understanding about suburbia is beautifully placed in the moments following the murder of Stephen; she is now seeing the world anew.

Sean Holmes’ production takes the ideas in Stephens’ text and puts them into images. Death is hidden away within a small greenhouse while Michael Czepiel sits on stage, creating live the sounds which surround these young people. Actors move across the stage in a way which mirrors their thoughts and feelings rather than real life, and a fridge acts as both doorway and refuge. Charles Balfour’s bright, white, neon lights are placed at various points on the stage, and flicker on and off at sudden moments of realisation or confusion. The mood created by this design is one of exposure, as everything these teens do is scrutinised by us, the audience, and the world at large.

The most striking visual image is of a burning paper boat in a tank of water. The calm after the storm.

All the performers deliver their lines in what has become trademark Stephens style: biting honesty with a hint of self-awareness. We can see the actors playing the parts, but that doesn’t make these characters any less believable. Ted Reilley’s Stephen is awkward and scarily obsessive about his girlfriend; there is something intense in his performance which isn’t in the text. Joana Nastari’s Cat and Scarlet Billham’s Stephanie are two sides of the same coin (highlighted by their black and white clothes). Nastari is confident but unaware, and Billham more shy but extraordinarily plugged in. When she addresses us, she does so with relish.

Which takes us back to the final speech. The speech in the playtext is longer than the one presented on stage, and includes a lot of talk about waste. It’s a superlative piece of writing, and says a lot about our inert society, but Holmes was sensible to cut this down, making the monologue more tragic than angry, fitting in more happily with Stephanie’s persona. Within the last quarter of the play, Stephens forces us to look at the play afresh every five minutes. First, Stephanie writes “The philosophers have only interpreted the world. The point, however, is to change it”. Her last speech then warns us that “there is no hope”, making the previous statement void. Finally, the appearance of a young man preparing for his mother’s funeral offers that glimmer of optimism Stephens told us there wouldn’t be. Perhaps we’re stupid to fall for the very technique he chastises, but it’s impossible not to after experiencing the rest of the play. Morning is a piece which demonstrates the unsalvageable issues with the modern world, but it is that final kernel of hope which lingers.

“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.