Tag Archives: Revolution

On Midsummer Mischief, Part Two – Feminism(s)

*Published on Exeunt*

“I’ve fucking cracked it…”

At the beginning of one scene in Alice Birch’s Revolt. She said. Revolt again, an actor begins to try to articulate her newfound theory on the world and its problems. She starts to speak, but is immediately interrupted by someone else. Throughout the next ten minutes, as a dizzy spectacle of sketches happens around her, she struggles to put her ideas into words. Then, just as everything seems to be dropping off a cliff of insanity, she speaks one of the most startling, poetic and honest feminist critiques I’ve heard.

This theme of language and its pitfalls runs throughout Birch’s piece (and, to varying degrees, throughout the other three plays in the Midsummer Mischief season), as the play attempts to come to terms with the way our structures of speech and writing reinforce and perpetuate sexism. Continue reading On Midsummer Mischief, Part Two – Feminism(s)

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“Children of the Sun” by Maxim Gorky

at the Lyttelton Theatre, Wednesday 1st May 2013

God I love theatre. About halfway through today’s performance of Children of the Sun, the show had to be stopped due to an audience member being taken ill. Now obviously, that in itself isn’t a good thing and I wish him a speedy recovery, but the instance added a certain frisson to the rest of the performance. Until that point, it felt a little bit like the actors were going through the motions, and to be perfectly honest I wasn’t really paying attention. As soon as the stage manager entered, however, a charge became apparent, and after a short five minute break the actors returned, this time with a punch. We were back on track.

Something about seeing the actors forced to break character means we consider more intently the artistry behind their performance, Continue reading “Children of the Sun” by Maxim Gorky

“The Animals and Children Took to the Streets”

at Warwick Arts Centre, Thursday 14th February 2013

It’ll be a long time before I see projection used in theatre as brilliantly as this again. More than any other show I’ve seen, 1927’s The Animals and Children Took to the Streets blends projection and theatre seamlessly, merging the two so that they support and interact with one another to find a gorgeous halfway point as each uses the other to better tell the story. Paul Barritt’s animation is the star of the show, as the production plays out in front of us and we’re never quite sure where reality lies.

Suzanne Andrade’s script is written and narrated in the style of a children’s story, but the content is far darker than the tone would suggest. In a dark, poverty-stricken area of a city lies the Bayou Mansions, a tenement block into which Agnes Eaves and her daughter Evie move. Agnes’ landlord falls in love with her and worships her from afar. Alongside the central story however, is a story of rebellion and revolt, as the children living in the Bayou “take to the streets” to vent their frustration at the world around them.

There’s an elegant simplicity in the set-up of the show, with one large flat centre stage and two smaller ones either side, all of which have small windows. Onto these flats is projected any number of settings and images, so that within an instant we can travel from a dream-world to a back-alley. They act, then, as panels in a comic book, and the style of Barritt’s animation reflects this (with references to Soviet propaganda thrown in, too).

What’s most remarkable, however, is not the animation itself, but the way in which the actors interact with it. At one moment, the landlord sweeps a broom as dust appears on the screen with each brush, and at another a cigarette is held up while smoke is projected onto the image. With brilliant timing, Agnes Eaves (one of the performers) and Evie Eaves (an animation) mimic one another’s body language and walk along scenes together.

As far as I can tell, the only source of light in the show is the projectors. This makes the whole endeavour all the more impressive considering that, in order for this to work, body-sized ‘holes’ have to be cut out of each frame of animation so that bright, uniform colours can be added in to light up actors’ faces. To this end, actors wear white, expressionistic face make-up, which both allows emotion to be more keenly rendered and adds to the strange, other-worldly theatricality of the piece.

The three performers (Sue Abbleby, Lewis Barfoot and Eleanor Buchan) play a range of roles between them, and each character is larger than life, keeping in line with the comic-book feel of the show. Music by Lillian Henley plays throughout, suggesting moments of pathos or humour without overpowering the whole thing. There’s much to love and to say about The Animals and Children Took to the Streets, but it’s difficult to convey it’s captivating charm in writing. As far as I can tell, the production continues its tour into the summer. Just get a ticket.

“Mayakovsky: The Slanting Rain” by Andrew Rattenbury

at the Ferguson Room, RSC on Saturday 19th January 2013

Review originally written for Exeunt.

There’s no subtle irony present in the fact that Ed Hughes’ rendition of Mayakovsky chastises Pushkin for being conservative whilst a performance of Boris Godunov takes place downstairs. Whilst the larger production ofBoris in the Swan Theatre suggests the danger inherent in revolution, this one man show demonstrates the romance and optimism present in revolutionary ideas, drawing attention to the power of the individual to make change.

The piece, penned by Andrew Rattenbury and directed by Michael Vale, allows Vladimir Mayakovsky (the great revolutionary poet and playwright) telling us his story, refuting his critics and reciting his verse. In just over an hour, we learn about his upbringing, how he found his way into Bolshevik circles and his feelings about poetry. Every few minutes, a snippet of poetry finds its way into the monologue, repeatedly dragging us out of theatre-induced reverie and into the brutal, harsh world of struggle which exists in reality.

Rattenbury’s great achievements in his text are twofold. Firstly, he manages to capture the essence of a man who, throughout his life, was subject to abuse and criticism for being an individualist even though he wanted a better way of life for all. As a part of the Russian Futurist movement, he attempted to look forwards rather than backwards like many of his contemporaries and found himself perpetually re-evaluating and reaffirming his stance on poetry, love and life. The sense of loss and despair at not having more of an impact is palpable.

Alongside this, however, is a gorgeously optimistic homage to the wonders of poetry and its potential for change. Mayakovsky says his chosen art form “wakes up” those who are unaware of what’s happening around them, and recounts his joy in standing in front of thousands of people in order to recite his words. Rattenbury’s script also argues against the notion that poetry which is too “topical” cannot last into posterity, as our hero shouts down his critics by asking them to tell him that in 1000 years time. Hughes’ moist-eyed performance is full of a hopeful, revolutionary fervour, and at times almost had me rising to my feet to grab a red flag (the second time that’s happened in a week; Les Misérables I’m looking at you).

Though at first glance Mayakovsky: The Slanting Rain may be without any kind intrigue, Rattenbury and Vale create an immense tension by asking us to consider in great detail the questions thrown up by having a lone man on stage talking about ‘the people’ and a collectivised society. Does this focus on the individual take away meaning from his attacks on capitalism? Or is it important for any revolution to start with a revolution of the self? The latter certainly seems to have more weight in this context.

Aside from its insights into political struggle and poetry’s place in that change, Mayakovsky: The Slanting Rain also shows the great power we each have as individuals. This is a powerful hymn, then, to one man and his extraordinary words, which, though he was afraid they wouldn’t (he committed suicide at the age of 36), continue to touch us in the twenty-first century in a multitude of ways.

(Incidentally, I’m rather glad the RSC has chosen to bring in more visiting companies of late and I hope some of these build up to bigger collaborations in the future. It’s rather telling, however, that a decent proportion of these pieces are actually better than the main-house productions.)

“13” by Mike Bartlett

at the Olivier Theatre, Thursday 29th December 2011

“The more you know, the harder you will find it to make up your mind” goes Tim Minchin’s “anthem to ambivalence” The Fence. In an increasingly divided world, which sees everything as black or white, the grey area in between is sometimes the most interesting and the most fulfilling. Mike Bartlett’s extraordinary and multitudinous new play 13 fights this case whilst at the same time rallying behind the idea of belief, imploring us to fight for a cause and resist the forces of blandness society struggles so hard to impose upon us. Thea Sharrock’s production is a smorgasbord of spectacle and yet a marvel of simplicity.

We are in central London, among many intertwining storylines and characters. The two central voices come from a female Conservative Prime Minister (Geraldine James) and a messiah-type figure in John (Trystan Gravelle), the former of whom defends her ‘considered’ approach to politics while the other rises up through a mini-internet revolution to become the voice of the people, fighting for freedom of speech and idealism. Around this central story there are dozens of other tales of love, loss, parenthood and faith which all share the theme of belief and ignorance.

It is not hard to see that this is the same mind that came up with Earthquakes in London, but there have been some improvements made. Where Earthquakes felt a little too messy, even though the stories tried hard to be entwined, 13 goes all out on the haphazardness, not holding back anything and revelling in a confusion of voices. There are no ‘unreal’ aspects to this play either as there were in the former; this is merely a ‘hyper-real’ representation of our own reality, drawing out the most deplorable and exciting aspects of the new way of the world. Yes, it is sometimes a little unbelievable, but is entirely this idealism which Bartlett is trying to capture; in order to achieve a better future, we must make the impossible possible.

Although Bartlett seems to lay out the cause for idealism and belief, arguing this is better than thinking nothing at all, the final thirty minutes turn this on its head, showing that no one is entirely morally clean and we are all hypocrites – we must therefore be cautious when creating role models, rather embracing the faults of a whole group and using them to our advantage. Everyone is corrupt to an extent – governments, Julian Assange, Ghandi, and not one of us nor any political system is perfect.

Thea Sharrock’s staging is fast-paced and dynamic, mirroring Bartlett’s breakneck play. She draws out the human aspects of these stories whilst making clear political and cultural comments. Tom Scutt’s huge cuboid set becomes a space for socialising, fighting and playing, and gives hints towards those ‘black boxes’ we hear about, holding information about all of us. Adrian Johnston and Mark Henderson’s music and lighting add to the epic qualities of the production and are just as confused and layered as the play itself.

Some strong performances bring the text to life, and each remains solidly human; Adam James is well placed in his comfort zone as a misogynistic solicitor, while Kirsty Bushell and Davood Ghadami display touching qualities as an archetypal couple. Danny Webb is both disturbing and fascinating as the atheist confidante to Geraldine James’ privately passionate but publicly cold Prime Minister. Gravelle’s performance as John, however, steals the show, remaining ever elusive due to his calmness but remaining ingenious, brave and  inspiring. He is the leader we all long for.

To those who criticise Bartlett’s play for being too messy, I say this: you’re going to have to learn to live with it. As our world becomes ever more confusing and the number of heard voices increases, this style of multi-layered, collaborative and somewhat confused play is only going to become more popular. The well-made and carefully crafted play doesn’t mirror our difficult and postmodern world, and as we have to deal with excess in everyday life, theatre must respond to it. 13 is ingenious in its variety, tackling huge, almost incomprehensible questions, but in doing so it asks each and every one of us to interrogate our own beliefs and values and opens up a discourse which must and will take place.

“The Cherry Orchard” by Anton Chekhov

in a new version by Andrew Upton

at the Olivier Theatre, Wednesday 3rd August 2011

The Cherry Orchard has always been seen as Chekhov’s most political play. Written during a time of limbo in Russia, when no one knew the shape of the future, it is a play which always feels extraordinarily apt during periods of change. Howard Davies’ imposing production at the National Theatre is perfect for our current climate, presenting on stage the dichotomy between new and old as whole strata of society shift unpredictably.

The indignation of some that Andrew Upton’s new version of the play is ‘too modern’ is mostly unfounded; Scene II of Act One does contain a few too many contemporary colloquialisms, but throughout the rest of the play the slight references to twenty-first century speech only serve to make the play easier to understand. This version focusses on setting apart the three main ‘voices’ Chekhov represents here.

Bunny Christie’s gorgeous whitewashed-wood set evokes a sense of beauty in decay, and the juxtaposition of an old structure with new telegraph poles serves to heighten the sense of estrangement the landed classes felt in Russia in the early 1900s. Neil Austin’s ambitious lighting shows time passing and Dominic Muldowney’s dulcit music reminds us we are never far away from tragedy.

Whenever Zoe Wanamaker is on stage she diverts attention to her, creating the same effect her alter-ego Ranyevskaya has when she walks into a room. Conleth Hill’s boisterous Lopakhin is presented with enough humanity to be empathetic, but when we listen to his words it’s difficult not to see him as the villain. Wanamaker and Hill represent the old and new money at odds with one another, and are given a running commentary by Mark Bonnar’s radical and ebullient Trofimov. These are the three voices, and the ones we are drawn to throughout. Charity Wakefield and Claudie Blakley show impressive range as the two daughters.

Davies manages to pin down the reason why this play can be seen as comic; the humour is found in the tension between the different social views. We find ourselves laughing not because we are told to, but because nervous energy compels us to. Then, in an instant, as the bags are packed and the door slammed, tragedy takes over and we realise the struggle to be heard is ongoing.