Tag Archives: Soviet

“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.

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“Collaborators” by John Hodge

at the Cottesloe Theatre, Tuesday 20th March 2012

“What if…” pieces are always intriguing, offering an alternative view of history. It’s extraordinarily tempting to imagine Shakespeare and Dickens conversing in a pub, or Newton being educated by Einstein. We love to imagine these conversations, and consider how history would be different if these conversations were possible. In Collaborators, John Hodge asks “What if Josef Stalin helped Mikhail Bulgakov to write plays and in return Bulgakov helped him with affairs of state?”  The result is a witty, intelligent play which, even though it tries a little too hard to appeal to our hearts, asks some big questions.

After the success of The White Guard, the playwright and novelist Mikhail Bulgakov is asked (read: forced) to write a play for Stalin’s sixtieth birthday (he is a huge fan of the aforementioned play, having seen it fifteen times). Naturally, the writer wants to create an artistically sound piece of theatre, whilst his paymasters wish him to make something which praises Vozhd in all his glory. After a week struggling to create anything of worth, he is summoned by Uncle Joe himself, with whom he collaborates so both of them are able to get their work done. Along the way, Stalin realises the difficulties in writing and structuring a play, whilst Bulgakov becomes implicit in some of the atrocities of the Soviet regime.

It’s not hard to see what Hodge thinks of the art question here: it is impossible to create good art if one is given preconditions – i.e., no good art can be created under censorship. I think most of us can agree on that: the hilariously awful excerpts from “Young Stalin” prove this. The interesting debate, however, is about Bulgakov’s position. After being relinquished of the shame of writing an awful play, he begins to defend decisions about grain in the provinces which are costing lives. His initial hatred of his leader becomes far less clear-cut, and we are shown that those in power don’t have the luxury of ideology that many of us do: they have to balance arguments before coming to a conclusion. In this respect, Hodge is supremely successful, and the two-handed scenes between Stalin and Bulgakov are without doubt the most superior.

Where the play falls flat, slightly, is in Hodge’s portrayal of Bulgakov’s home life. The writer and his wife, Yelena, live with a whole host of other bohemians, who are somewhat stock and serve only the purpose of allowing an emotional outlet for Bulgakov. They seem superfluous, for this exact dilemma could just as easily be communicated to his wife alone. The core argument – that of the difficulties of ideology in art – is present in the one-on-one scenes, and we gain very little from the presence of other characters in the Bulgakov household.

Nicholas Hytner’s production is beautifully crafted, taking images and techniques from Communist propaganda. George Fenton & Paul Ardiiti’s music and sound are used in an almost cartoon-style way, and Jon Clark’s lighting acts as a frame around certain scenes. The tone of Hytner’s direction shifts from grimy socialist realism to stylised choreography, and is set beautifully on Bob Crowley’s red and black scenic design, looking like its been lifted straight off of a Soviet poster, complete with jagged lines and uneven floor.

A solid ensemble is led by three superb actors. Mark Addy’s Vladimir, the chief of police, lies on the borderline of ridiculous, but manages to retain a humanity which allows us to understand how difficult he finds his job. Simon Russell Beale’s portrays Stalin as an idiotic, frail but supremely passionate man who flips at an instant. There is something supremely menacing about his quietness, and the Somerset accent only adds to the confusion we feel towards him. Alex Jennings completes the trio as Bulgakov, rarely leaving the stage and providing the narrative drive and voicing the audience’s own internal debate.

It does feel at times like Collaborators is trying to tackle a few too many questions without ever fully exploring any of them, but what Hodge shows us is a world in which it is impossible to say what you feel openly. Although it is entirely fiction, the meetings between Stalin and Bulgakov feel extraordinarily real, and we are forced to ask ourselves whether the old maxim suggesting that artists would be better at politics than politicians is true after all.

“Blood and Gifts” by JT Rogers

at the Lyttelton Theatre, Monday 13th September 2010

Earlier in the year, Howard Davies’ superb production of Bulgakov’s The White Guard explored the horrors of war during the Russian Revolution, but exposed the farce of the situation. In his production of JT Rogers’ Blood and Gifts, Davies tackles the similarly brutal conflict of the Soviet war in Afghanistan, focussing more on the conflict behind the scenes rather than on the front line. Both plays consider shifting loyalties and the language of trust, but Blood and Gifts also questions the right of external forces to be in countries where they don’t belong.

The action of the play takes place over a period of ten years, and follows the movements of James Warnock, who has been sent to Afghanistan to gather intelligence for the US. Warnock has to appease an Afghan warlord and his troupe of Duran-Duran-singing men, and although they do not always see eye to eye, they share a hatred for the Soviets. Behind their backs, however, Warnock is being goaded by the British Simon Craig to take more action, that, like “chess, you should never get too attached to one piece”. While Warnock genuinely wishes to restore order and peace, it is clear that those around him see Afghanistan as no more than a battleground for the Cold War.

Everyone is a puppet, unable to control their actions or their fate. This is mirrored in the script with references to the different beliefs of the various parties. This is as much a crusade as it is a war of land. The power of words is also considered, and the Afghan’s inability to see metaphor in the words of 80s pop music is deeply moving. We are also asked to consider how trusted we can be when telling our own stories, as the intricate web of lies and deceit unravels itself, questioning how much is propaganda and how much the truth.

The cast is extremely strong. Demosthenes Chrysan and Philip Ardatti as the warlord Abdullah and his aide Saeed are both sensitive and brutal in their roles, and Matthew Marsh, although it seems his thoughts are sometimes elsewhere, brings comedy in the role of the Russian Gromov. Adam James as Simon Craig has some of the best lines in the play (“Maggie Thatcher should be dragged from Downing Street, draped in a Burkha and stoned”) from a British perspective he is our way in to the politics of the piece. Lloyd Owen excels in the lead role of Warnock, showing a man struggling to choose between morals and orders. He carries the piece, and in many ways his journey is just as important as that of the Afghans.

The intricate and versatile set, designed by Ultz, allows for a multitude of different scenes, the dull cream walls contrasting greatly with the affluence of the West. Shown in letterbox so that we focus on the characters, the lighting grid is raised and lowered, creating a feeling at times that the ceiling is literally caving in. Paul Anderson’s lighting and Marc Teitler’s music are just as epic as the text itself.

Throughout the play, within the savage arguments and underhand bargaining, there are beautiful moments of peace, when focus shifts to the individuals on show. During one of these lulls, Gromov states that while “tragedy is comedy plus time,” Afghanistan is “tragedy plus time”. It is a tragedy which both Russia and America created and which, as Rogers observes, neither had a right to be a part of. The span and scope of Blood and Gifts is huge, but unlike Earthquakes in London there is a singular narrative and clear focus. This is epic theatre at its best.