Told by an Idiot’s Get Happy at the Barbican

Our reviewer Josey takes eight-year-old Henry to Told By An Idiot’s latest production, a collaborative adventure-cum-panto-cum-circus show, with a giant egg sandwich thrown in. 

Marketing itself as “this year’s alternative Christmas treat”, Told by an Idiot’s Get Happy is positioned to achieve a distinctive style of children’s theatre. Having experienced the show with my co-reviewer Henry (aged eight), I have no doubt that what the company produces is a tour de force of zany and unexpected vignettes that enrapture both children and adults from the instant they step into the Barbican’s Pit Theatre, which is, for this occasion, arranged as a theatre-in-the-round.

Get_Happy_poster_jpg_230x300_crop_q85A white passage marks the route into another world: the usher reassures adults that they can take a more conventional route to their seats, but the rush of children towards the gleaming white tunnel caught my enthusiasm for adventure and I bent and shuffled behind with my eight year old companion towards a white shimmering curtain, draping the end of the tunnel.

On the other side is the full expanse of a circular stage, painted like a clock face, in striking aqua, black, white and yellow. The design created by Sophia Clist is cartoonish –half Quentin Blake half Dr Seuss, with no hint of fluffy nursery drawings. Around the circular space are striped cushions at the edge of the stage and low benches placed behind them. The seating arrangement is perfect for the way that adults and children will refer to one another’s reactions throughout the forty-five minute performance as they watch individuals grapple and surmount difficult and inexplicable situations.

Pivotal to the whole experience is the sense of transformation, which Henry followed moment by moment, looking up and around at objects being flown down onto and across the stage. In some ways, Get Happy is a pantomime-cum-circus experience – forms which have a common ancestor in the Italian Commedia Dell’Arte. I refrain from boring Henry with how routines like the restaurant scene derive from comic lazzi, and anyway he cuts to the chase with a more pertinent point: the show is fantastic, he says “even though there was hardly any words and talking”.

I agree with Henry. I have rarely come across such economical use of language. Paul Hunter (writer and director) creates scenes which undergo a surprising number variations, controlled by a dreamscape sort of logic. The ensemble of four performers play to their strengths:  Elizabeth Flett as virtuoso violinist and all-round accomplished musician; Stephen Harper as the “sad clown” who – in Buster Keaton style – never gives up the will to overcome the seemingly impossible;  Sophie Russell as the astute and talented prima donna whose elegance masks a grittier determination and the superb young dancer and agile comic Michael Ureta who can effortlessly move from standing position to standing on his hands, perfectly stretched and balanced!

Each episode is an act of transformation and each scene moves seamlessly into the next: the paddling pool scene becomes the restaurant scene (complete with a table with a sawn-off leg) which then becomes the egg sandwich routine. Henry is called on to help pursue a tomato sauce bottle for the egg sandwich. His participation exemplifies for me as a drama educator the value of Told by an Idiot’s approach to children’s theatre. Like Get Happy‘s original use of the variety show episodic structure, the use of audience participation weaves in and out of the whole performance in many surprisingly novel ways, making the work seem more like a thing co-created by the children.

What is more, in experiencing the zaniness of its episodes, the young audience has a good chance of understanding how “get happy” may in fact mean many things: moments of gladness, trepidation, excited anticipation, delight, surprise, hope and sheer relief. Happiness can be complex, tense and joyful. Henry was emphatic that I give Get Happy five stars!

Date reviewed: Friday 13th December 2013

A New Adventure: The Jungle Book at the Lion and Unicorn Theatre

Our reviewer takes Alannah (aged ten) and James (five) to a new version of The Jungle Book, with wonderful wild animals and a pretty convincing jungle for above a pub. At the Lion and Unicorn Theatre.

Attachment-1The Lion and Unicorn Theatre in Kentish Town is currently showing an all-new adventure inspired by Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. But be warned! It contains “freaky” bits, according to James (aged five), who accompanies me. Together with his sister Alannah (ten), it is their first experience of a London fringe theatre above a pub. The occasion is especially interesting to them as they are on a visit to London from Australia.

The show is co-produced by Giant Olive and Simon James Collier, with Adam Dechanel writing and Collier directing this new version as well. Their interpretation sensibly and imaginatively limits the children’s classic to the “young man cub” Mowgli’s journey out of the jungle to live back amongst mankind. This artistic decision arranges the narrative through a series of encounters with flamboyantly beautiful wild animals, which are all affected by the main predator of the jungle, the tiger Shere Khan.

The strongest part of the production, according to my co-reviewers, is the way the animals move: that is, in more sophisticated terms, how their movement is directed and choreographed by Simon Collier and choreographer, Stacy Victoria Bland. The anthropomorphic qualities of each character are effectively realised through Cory Roberts’ mask and costume design. For instance, the elephants are created as a form of military patrol and the exotic birds as a bunch of co-travellers on their way to other parts of the globe.

Such transformations get the children’s attention, as Chuku Modu’s entrance as the vicious Shere Khan provokes a sense of fear. However, it isn’t quite clear to me why the tiger leaves off mauling the baby-laden basket abandoned on a jungle track.  The moment is over in a flash. Nonetheless, the basket’s rescue by the panther, Bagheera (Samuel Treon), is credibly realised through the character’s sombre playfulness, as is the nurturing given to “young man cub” by the wolf pack.

Dmitry Ser is an engaging Mowgli, portraying the character with all the obstinacy of an adolescent. The rest of the ensemble of seven performers (Yiltan Ahmet, Augustina Amoa, Giuseppe Fraschini, Michael Gonsalves, Chuku Modu, Rishi Nair and Samuel Treon) take on nearly thirty characters between them. In the course of their performances they show their skill through inventively portraying each animal type through regional English accents and anthropomorphic gestures. In this context, it was hard to understand why Baloo the Bear is characterised through an American accent that sets up the character”s identification with the already existing Walt Disney movie rather than the newly imagined fictional world being created then and there on stage.

The production is also let down by clumsy stage entrances and exits that often break the magical mood which the performers conjure up on stage. As Alannah reflected, seeing an elegant snake walk backwards out of a side door definitely looks less than awesome. Despite rather cramped conditions though, set designer Cory Roberts manages to build in a sense of the jungle’s dynamic environment through the use of angled rises and lush green vegetation over a bamboo backdrop. But the stage can’t compensate for the real sense of confinement when the tall and athletic bodies of the cast work in their animal packs.  At one point I did wonder what the effect might have been if the audience was seated on either side of a traverse performance space. Alannah, for instance, reflected that she wished to have been in the jungle rather than just in front of it.

All this said, the children’s overwhelming desire to see more of the show affirms that the producers, writer and the creative team have definitely shaped a good piece of children’s entertainment here. And, in imagining how an alien child can be loved and nurtured by surrogate parent, they have given rise to a wondrous way of looking at what it means to belong to a particular place, live in a particular family or tribe from which an individual emerges to encounter the risks and dangers a new life.

Date reviewed: Thursday 5th December 2013



27_big_hartNation Painting: Namatjira at the Southbank Centre

This play, which tells the story of Albert Namatjira, the first indigenous Australian painter to win international acclaim, premiered in Alice Springs in late 2009 and has since toured Australia. Now this fascinating story comes to London. At the Southbank Centre.

The production at the Southbank Centre of Namatjira by the Australian theatre company, Big hART, grows out of the company’s twenty-one year history of producing theatre for social change. As a theatre historian who has followed the company for a great deal of that time, I have observed how it employs the arts to engage participants from every walk of life. To do this, its projects enable communities to learn skills in a variety of art forms (film, theatre, music, text, and new media) in projects that run for an average of six years. Most of all, the company strives to understand the complex challenges of Australia’s most marginalised communities, showing how complex problems require complex solutions.

The London season of the play is inspired by the fact that at the height of Albert’s career he is presented with the Queen’s Coronation Medal in 1953 and, in turn, presents a painting on meeting the monarch in Canberra in 1954. On the day of the London opening, the Namatjira family, represented by grandson Kevin and granddaughter Lenie, together with actor Trevor Jamieson, Derik Lynch and artistic director/ playwright Scott Rankin are given a private audience with the Queen and Prince Phillip, who have since become collectors of Namatjira paintings by both Albert and his son Oscar.

While clearly political and didactic in its aims, however, the ninety-minute two-hander is equally uncompromising in its intentions to create an entertaining theatrical experience. An evocative play set against a gigantic backdrop of Namatjira’s painting of ghost gums and distant MacDonnell Ranges, the drama raises questions about what it means to acquire fame and fortune when a culture is confronted with inequality and injustice.  As the audience enters the auditorium, the immense physical landscape, now transplanted to the Southbank’s Purcell Room, is alive as it continues to be drawn by Kevin and Lenie Namatjira, who are water colour painters in their own right, as shown by the thirty works by them for sale in the Queen Elizabeth Hall foyer.

Further downstage, four other figures are visible: a young aboriginal man (Derik Lynch) sits staring out at the audience, a violinist is downstage right (Nicole Forsyth) and centre stage left portrait artist (Robert Hannaford) paints a seated Aboriginal man (Trevor Jamieson). Jamieson plays many roles, arising from his portrayal of Albert. Later, Jamieson introduces each of the participants to the audience and jokingly points out that Forsyth and Hannaford are not Aborigines. In the centre of the stage stands a large rock slab, reminiscent of the MacDonnell Range geography. It will be transformed in the drama into a look out point, an altar and a morgue slab. Through the transformation comes a growing realisation that it is human necessity that draws people together.

The story begins at the turn of the 20th century as Elea is given the Christian name of “Albert” by the missionaries. Later, it is the young man’s encounter and subsequent friendship with water colour painter and WW1 veteran Rex Batterbee that brings him to the attention of Melbourne art circles of the 1930s. The story leads on to show how even though Namatjira never stops painting (he produces 2000 paintings in his lifetime) and supports over 600 people within his community, at the time of his death in 1959 he not only returns to being penniless but dies a tormented man because of being ceaselessly called upon to give his family money. Furthermore, as Australia’s only Aboriginal citizen (Aboriginal people received Australian citizenship in 1967) and therefore the only Aboriginal permitted to buy alcohol, he is prosecuted and imprisoned for supplying his people with “grog”.

The story then goes further than these facts and explores the anomaly of finding Germans preaching Christian love to Arrernte Aboriginal people within an English-speaking dominion. Within this context, it reveals how the most innocent of gestures by missionaries of replacing Elea’s Aboriginal name with Albert arises out of a careless, well-meaning cultural imperialist belief that indigenous people are sub-humans, part of Australia’s rather odd flora and fauna of kangaroo and koala bear.

Arguably, the main strength of Namatjira is Rankin’s dramaturgical knowledge: this fuels his playwrighting and the play’s designs by Genevieve Dugard (set), Tess Schofield (costume), Nigel Levings (lighting) and Jim Atkins (sound). In Namatjira, Rankin focuses on the storyteller’s monologue interspersed with dialogue from a second actor. Trevor Jamieson and Derik Lynch take on a least a dozen roles between them. Interestingly, Derik plays female roles of Albert’s wife, the Melbourne female art aficionado and the young Queen Elizabeth. The subversiveness of cross-dressing is layered on an inverse of comic mocking of painting blackfaces in the “Black and White Minstrel Show”. Jamieson works the joke beautifully as he asks the audience if they like his portrayal of whitefellas. He also provocatively asks whether he should have painted his face white. Furthermore, Rankin builds interest through dozens of transitions between narrative episodes, songs and comic routines.

In the midst of all the complicated story lives Albert’s friendship with fellow painter Rex, who survives the killing fields of France in 1916 to return to Australia as a “cripple”. Rex also gallantly moves to understand his country from the point of view of Aboriginal people. The juxtapositioning of the two characters, both enacted by Jamieson, shows their relative challenges caught up in global events. Both show that it’s not enough to have vision and talent as painters but that human beings require a culture in which the value of human life is understood in complex and detailed ways: geographically, culturally, economically and artistically. Indeed this is what it means to live life with a Big hART.

Date reviewed: Thursday 28th November 2013

The Gruffalo

A Walk in the Woods on Shaftesbury Avenue: 16306_show_portrait_largeThe Gruffalo at the Lyric Theatre

Julia Donaldson’s story about a little mouse on an epic journey returns to the West End stage, with lively performances all round. Eight-year-old Henry helps our reviewer dish out the stars for this recommended Christmas treat for young families. At the Lyric Theatre.

Julia Donaldson’s The Gruffalo has sold 10.5 million copies in 31 editions worldwide. Illustrated by Axel Scheffler, like all great stories it appears a beautifully simple one. It is about a mouse’s walk in the woods. Both author and illustrator have won numerous awards, including Donaldson’s appointment in 2011 as the UK’s Children’s Laureate.

Adapted for the stage by Tall Stories Theatre, the play of The Gruffalo has visited the West End for the past five years. It now returns to the Lyric Theatre, an occasion which was anticipated with excitement by my co-reviewers, eight year-old Henry and his six year-old brother, Elliot. As we take our seats we view an impressive golden rusty coloured forest, and Henry asks me for a pen and paper so he can record the production’s first star. He feasts on the spectacle – as do I.

As the lights dim and a gasp from the children in the theatre heralds the start of the performance, two men, dressed very plainly in grey working clothes, carry a small sleeping creature onto the stage. The cast of three – Susanna Jennings (Mouse), Tom Crook (The Gruffalo) and the Predators, played by Timothy Richey – are a strong ensemble, though very occasionally I felt that their ad-libbing was aimed at each other rather than the audience.

Henry was particularly impressed with Timothy Richey’s transformation from second storyteller to fox, owl and snake. He thought the costuming was perfect in getting the sense of the different characters, and I too found the scripting and choreographing of the three roles clever, especially the anthropomorphic characterisation of the fox as a farmer-squire, the owl as a bomber commander and the snake as a hip swinging Latin dancer.

Most impressively, I notice how this is part of an overall direction for delineating stage conventions from storytelling ones. For instance, the opening is performed as a kind of prologue that establishes the mouse-creature’s love of nuts. It is devised with all the banter of pantomime and the visual slickness of a magician’s act. This is not “the book” but a way of sharing the theme of the book with a live audience. Henry is completely engaged in unravelling the challenge facing the little mouse, who must face up to fear and risk in order to find her favourite food.

The real magic, however, happens as the dynamic storytellers continue to build and share Julia Donaldson’s text with the audience. Their grey workman-like outfits make perfect sense as they create the world of the story in which the forest and its creatures exist. The creative team of Creative Producer Toby Mitchell, Director Olivia Jacobs, Designer Isla Shaw and composers John Fiber and Andy Shaw inventively realise on stage the world built by Donaldson in The Gruffalo, while the script captures the rhythm of the original text.

The transformation of the main storyteller into the Gruffalo is all part of the constant transformations taking place which, thankfully for parents of children attached to the book, are anything but disappointing. Six-year-old Elliot checked out the authenticity of the monster on stage by unrolling the poster-cum-programme and scrutinising the bouncing mass of fur and purple spikes on stage against Axel Scheffler’s illustration. Luckily, the stage presentation passed the test.

Date reviewed: Saturday 23rd November 2013

Masi Maidens

Indigeneity in the Contemporary World: Masi Maidens at the Bargehouse

Theatre historian Josey de Rossi, who has studied the effects of European cultural imperialism on indigenous art forms, guides us through some of the themes raised by this unusual cross-arts project. At the Bargehouse.

I arrive at the Bargehouse sufficiently early to view the four floors of installations and displays by contemporary artists from North and South America, Australia, the Pacific and South Africa, before the perdormance of Masi Maiden begins. This is EcoCentrix: Indigenous Arts, Sustainable Acts, and the collection is the result of the IndigeneiEcocentrix_E-flyerty in the Contemporary World Project led by Professor Helen Gilbert of Royal Holloway, University of London which is funded by the European Research Council. Professor Gilbert is also its curator, assembling the works of indigenous artists with international reputations, such as Australia’s Bangarra Dance, Quelchua filmmaker Irma Poma Canchumani and Canadian-based Tahitian artist Peter Morin.

As I move about the different rooms, I see examples of traditional indigenous art forms finding ways of sustaining artists and communities, for instance, how filmmaker Irma Poma Canchumani’s finely etched gourds (pumpkin-like shapes) are transformed into storyboards through the use of the detailed carvings as the ‘scripts’ for the films that she produces.

By the time the performance begins, I recognise that Masi Maidens is the work of internationally established author and Pasifikan artist, Rosanna Raymond, and her co-performer, Fijian/Canadian performer, Katrina Talei Igglesden. The performance is also a living version of Raymond’s visual arts installation in EcoCentrix of ‘ObserVAtional Outlooks Through the DNA of the Atua Tagaloa’.

This transformation from visual arts installation into performance takes the audience on a journey of exploration, sharing with them what it means to be culturally and genetically linked to an indigenous ancestry. Specifically for Raymond, of Samoan descent, and for Igglesden, of Fijian ancestry, this is shown through the Polynesian traditional craft of making and designing Tapa Cloth from the bark of the Mulberry tree. Women throughout the Pacific bring to the craft their own ‘spark of life’ or ‘mauri’ as they create location-based original patterns and earthen-colour schemes.

Rosanna and Katrina choose to manifest the ceremonial cloth as full body drawings: effectively showing the creative potential of the Tapa cloth tradition working with the context of the performance as a living symbol of cultural exchange between performer and audience. I notice, however, that the elaborate patterns covering their bodies don’t look like stage make-up but ‘naturally’ complement the performers’ own Polynesian appearances.

The performance, in fact, begins outside the Bargehouse and, like a religious procession, moves through every room on all four levels of the Bargehouse. For this, the performers use styled actions and sounds that at first seem like stereotypically tribal incantations. However, their specific interactions with various spaces soon change this impression.

When the two performers finally arrive onto the third floor performance space, they enter from the stairwell side at the back of the large room. They break into a gliding form of goose-stepping that is perfectly synchronized. More impressive still, the contrast between Rosanna’s white stringy tunic and Katrina’s red-earth feathery one seem exquisitely balanced in every way: the performers are earth and sky, mammal and bird, the dark and the light.

Then, in the centre of the performance space, Rosanna begins to speak like someone presenting a very personal and particular truth of her lived experience as a Polynesian woman. Her poetic language builds into an epic tone as it resonates with her stylised movements and gestures. Sometimes she uses familiar Haka gestures and at other times Katrina uses equally identifiable bird-like movements but mostly, the words and movement remain highly original.

They end by affirming the complementary nature the two personae share, after which there was a post-show talk. I would have liked more of the performance and for it, and for the exhibition, to be left to speak for themselves. Running at just 30 minutes, there were certainly enough ideas to make a much lengthier performance. At least there’ll be plenty more similar events to look out for at the same venue in 2014.

Date reviewed: Wednesday 13th November 2013

Francis, the Jester of God

Mario Pirovano’s welcomes the audience to his one-man performance of Francis, the Holy Jester like a politician on the hustings. Launching the show with the promise of overturning centuries of misconceptions, he springs into the story of Francis, emphasizing that the real stories of the thirteenth century Italian saint are uniquely wonderful because they show how it is Francis the ‘holy fool’ who realises his life as friend of the poor, champion of the persecuted and heroic worker for peace and justice.

Written and directed by Dario Fo, Francis, the Holy Jester is translated into English and performed by Pirovano for its UK premiere at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2009. As I listen to the opening preamble inside the Italianate-looking Anglican parish church of St Francis of Assisi, West Wickham, I acknowledge that the political motive for Piravano’s performance of Fo’s play is nothing less than the wholesale discrediting of regressive forces, such as the corruption of a Catholic Church, that notoriously continues to persecute visionaries that threaten the status quo.

80565824276_hIn fact, the figure of Francis is symbolic of Dario Fo’s lifetime’s work as political activist, performer and playwright who, in the words recorded on his award for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1997, emulates “the jesters of the Middle Ages in scourging authority … upholding the dignity of the downtrodden”. Like Mistero Buffo, Francis, the Holy Jester shows how the Church’s anti-theatrical sentiment particularly targeted comedians of the Commedia dell’Arte, forcing them to flee Italy during the counter-reformation. Ironically, the Commedia’s persecution in Italy is Europe’s and England’s theatrical good fortune. For instance, James Burbage noted the presence of an Italian Commedia troupe in the first Elizabethan playhouse of The Theatre in 1576, and English theatre scholars every since have pointed out their influence on Shakespeare’s comedies and, then later, their impact on the development of English pantomime.

Fo’s address at UNESCO’s World Theatre Day in Paris, continues on the theme in March 2013 when he points out how reactionary forces always see it as “urgent to rid our cities of theatre makers” as if they are “unwanted souls”. He explains how he continues to draw inspiration from the Medieval church’s expulsion of commedia players and urges current theatre makers to create “a new diaspora of Commedianti, of theatre makers, who would, from such an imposition, doubtlessly draw unimaginable benefits for the sake of a new representation.”

Mario Pirovano’s association with Fo’s company since the mid-1980s makes him an inheritor of its radical stories and commedia storytelling style, an approach which he seems in no way tiring of, touring Francis the Holy Jester for the past four years throughout the Middle East, East Africa, Sweden, and Norway and on the campuses of Princeton and Harvard in the USA. His 2013 UK tour began in July at the International Medieval Congress in Leeds and concludes here in West Wickham. Quite the contrary, using only a basic lighting rig and one radio microphone, Pirovano passionately shows that nothing matters but the story and how it lives in the storyteller’s physical presence: through gesture, facial expression, body movement and vocal tone.

In watching him, I recall how families of Italian comedians, for instance, the Grimaldi’s in the 18th century and the Leno’s in the 19th and early 20th centuries, became part of a steady arrival of Italian performers who worked with John Rich at the Lincoln’s Inn Theatre and the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, contributing to Rich’s and other London theatre managers’ invention of English pantomime.

Mario, a tall man of 60, pirouettes and carves up the space with gestures and the change of direction of his gaze.  With the minimum of fuss, he takes a sideward step to speak in different character voices, or locates himself in another part of the stage to show the location of other players in the story. Beginning with the well-known story of how Francis tamed the wolf of Gubbio, the four stories show a forceful Francis throwing himself into religious life with all the physical agility of the jester performing at a fair. For this, he is always at risk of imprisonment, beatings and expulsion by the authorities. It is a theme, which Mario returns to many times during the two-hour performance.

At some point, I no longer to see the difference between Mario the storyteller and Francis the Jester as Pirovano compactly weaves together the his own political reflection of European politics and Francis’ rationale for working with ordinary Italians against corrupt Church practices. The story of Francis visiting the Pope is particularly noteworthy in this regard as Pirovano shows Francis seeking permission to preach the gospel to the people in the streets. For his trouble, he is ordered to go and preach to pigs instead. In a fairytale style of coincidental dreams and highly dramatic actions, the story shows how the Pope’s orders backfire on him, as Francis’ sermon to the pigs leads to the good man being caked with animal slops and feces and, in that state, goes once again to seek further instructions from the Pontiff, this time observed by a whole crowd of people who inadvertently protect him from the Pope’s further punishment.

For me, however, the most remarkable of the show is the one in which Francis delivers a satirical ‘tirade’ in the main piazza of Bologna in an attempt to shame the Bolognese into making peace with the neighbouring city of Imola. Listening to the storyteller present Francis’ sharp wit and piercing observations carries for me the feeling of being literally punched the ironic images which Francis praises maiming and widowhood as the aspirations of all Bolognese people. The story ends with a description of muffled sobs punctuating Francis’ phoney praise the people’s demand that the city authorities begin peace negotiations.

The final story, concerning the day of Francis’ death in October 1226, I am confronted by the farce of archbishops trying to track down a dying Francis to cash in on his religious celebrity status. Meanwhile, Mario shows a sick and stumbling Francis, barely moving and ultimately being carried from place to place, seeking out a peaceful place to die. The agonising journey he makes to his final resting place moves me, as it shows Francis doing everything in his power to thwart the Church from using his own corpse as a holy relic.

Maybe then, I need to admit my own discomfort on hearing the political and religious radicalism of Francis’ Christianity. The power Mario Pirovano brings to Francis addressing a tree full of birds at sunset in the Italian countryside is dynamic, sensuous and real. I speculate what if Francis’ sharp, piercing voice was to address the General Assembly of the United Nations today? Would we be any better able than his contemporaries to embrace his uncompromising performance as a holy jester, as someone who believes that in lowering himself to the position of ‘the fool’, he is able to become the most blessed of all Christendom, the peacemaker?


Mario Pirovano, Storyteller

Mario Pirovano loves to describe how he came to the art of storytelling by a slow, organic process of listening and observing other storytellers. Of course, he didn’t just observe or listen to just anyone. He was uniquely placed to view the everyday workings of two of Italy’s great performers, Dario Fo and Franca Rame.

On first meeting Fo and Rame in London in 1983, he explains, he was a ‘leaf in the wind’ who, like many young Italians, had come to London and was working casual jobs. When he returned to Italy as part of Fo and Rame’s stage crew, he begins to live a very different kind of life, devoted to working on activist political issues through theatre. His theatre apprenticeship involved working as their driver, front-of-house book seller and then as a performer, only after ten years of observing how the work raised awareness of the plight of the homelessness, the disabled and others marginalized by corruption and injustice of Italian society.

In our conversation for this article, he spoke of his earliest experiences with Fo and Rame’s Milan-based company as responsible for setting up Dario Fo’s book display at every venue in which they performed. Fo, a prolific writer who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1997 for emulating “the jesters of the Middle Ages in scourging authority and upholding the dignity of the downtrodden”, customarily travelled with forty to fifty boxes of books.

As I listen to Mario’s revelation of how all consuming life was in Fo’s and Rame’s political theatre, I am reminded of other theatre histories of left-wing theatres that portray life not as working in an theatre industry but in organisations that seem not unlike religious communities:  for instance, I believe that of Ariane Mnouchkine’s company in Paris and Eugenio Barba’s company in Denmark operate like communities of artists rather than conventional theatre companies.

Today, Mario still continues to hold true the method of storytelling he believes he has come to value so much through his unique apprenticeship. He gently criticises, for instance, those who dress up the art with either too much technology or other effects, and passionately emphasises that nothing matters but the story and how it lives in the storyteller’s physical presence: through gesture, facial expression, body movement and vocal tone.

The relationship of the Italian storyteller goes way back to Shakespeare’s theatre and the Elizabethan playwright’s in general.  It’s well document in histories of the travelling Italian troupes of the Commedia dell’Arte, how they either came directly from Italy or via France to England. Later in the Restoration period, Italian companies frequently performed at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket as well as in fairgrounds such as at Southwark, seen in William Hogarth’s well-known Southwark Fair.Hogarth-Southwark-Fair-1734

Mario Pirovano & Italian Jesters before him have been crossing a well-trodden path between Italy and the UK ever since. On this occasion, Pirovano’s English tour of Dario Fo’s Francis The Holy Jester began in July at the International Medieval Congress in Leeds and concluded in September in London. (see review). Of course it has to be remembered that often jesters were compelled to leave Italy and France, fleeing the persecution of the counter-reformation. In his address in March this year for UNESCO’s World Theatre Day, Dario Fo declares to his audience how it requires artistic courage to work in the theatre. He quotes from counter-reformation propaganda that recognises how much more powerful theatre is even to the printed word:  “Evidently, however, while we were asleep, the devil laboured with renewed cunning. How far more penetrating to the soul is what the eyes can see, than what can be read off such books! How far more devastating to the minds of adolescents and young girls is the spoken word and the appropriate gesture, than a dead word printed in books.  It is therefore urgent to rid our cities of theatre makers, as we do with unwanted souls”.

You might be forgiven to feel that such a view seems somewhat paranoid and anyone wholly fascinated with the plays of the Middle Ages and Renaissance might fall into the trap of fighting past wars instead of addressing issues in the present. With this in mind, I listen as Mario explains his current plans to produce monologues by ‘Ruzzante’, a stage character of Angelo Beolco (1496 – 1542) who, Dario Fo argues, is the true father of the Venetian comic theatre. Mario hopes to launch the new show based on Ruzzante Returns from the Wars, as he did Francis the Holy Jester, at the Edinburgh Fringe.

The comedy shows Ruzzante returning to his native village, having deserted from the army out of cowardice. Once home, he finds his wife has left him for a bullying ruffian. However, he manages to regain her interest by bragging to her that he’s a war hero. She is somewhat impressed but not enough to go back to him. She explains how she would have preferred if he had been wounded and maimed to prove his love for her. Ruzzante goes on bragging to his friend Menzante about what a hero he is and turns cowardly motives into heroic ones. He tries to convince his friend, for instance, that the beating he gets from his wife’s new man was inflicted on him by 100 men. He fails, of course, and the play ends with Ruzzante proudly protesting that he does not care about his timidity!

All the themes of the Commedia dell’Arte are present, even if the well-known masked characters of the 18th century such as Arlecchino, Brighella and Pantalone are not. There’s the fool playing cowardiceness… heroically; there are lovers playing at love… lustfully and the central character, Ruzzante, an anti-hero, accomplishing little more than basically surviving. Most notably, there’s the presence of a strong woman who, like all the female characters of the Commedia, represent womankind being just as manipulative as men. Written before 1528, this shows that Beolco’s Venetian theatre used women in its company at least 140 years before the first English actresses trod the boards of Restoration theatres in the 1660s.

But for Mario Pirovano, Ruzzante Returns From The Wars is not about the past but the present. Most importantly, it’s about the on-going absurdity that men continue to return from wars to homes and societies who think the conflict is over when their men return. In truth, however, the combatants face more conflict and pain back home as war changes all before it, both for those who go to battlefields and those who remain at home.

Now what should we do about that terrible fact?  Should we cry about it? Clearly, that’s proven to be the case. But what if, through the jester, we also find a reason to laughing at the nonsense war represents, and through that knowledge, we give the whole terrible situation a good poke it in the eye!!





Billy the Girl

Caravans and Heroines: Billy the Girl at the Soho Theatre

Katie Hims’ Billy the Girl presents superbly drawn characters, faced with the paradox of living ordinary lives through times of big change. Direction, design and sensitive portrayals of difficult characters, combine in a moving story of about starting again. At the Soho Theatre.

Katie Hims’ Billy the Girl, produced by the visionary theatre company Clean Break, sets up a parallel between the treatment of women in our prisons and in the wider community. In Billy the Girl that wider dialogue presents the challenging topic of how a released prisoner begins to imagine a new life for herself. This idea of starting over again (and again) is something which, Hims’ play makes clear, affects us all.

Billy-The-GirlTheatre with a social message is often delivered in a presentational style. That is, in a style strongly influenced by Brecht, both through his plays and through his theory of alienation. It is now commonplace to see ‘theatre for change’ adopting overtly theatrical means to jolt the audience into awareness through songs, signs and other non-naturalistic staging conventions. I argue, for instance, in my review of Crowning Glory, that Somalia Seaton makes use of such staging devices throughout her play using film projections and the dramatic monologue.

However, on watching Billy the Girl it is possible to see that while not blatantly political, its more realistic style of drama effectively personalises the role of the disenfranchised in our society. In a nutshell, in letting audiences empathise with clearly difficult and unattractive characters, like the life-worn mother Ingrid and the prison-hardened young woman Billy, the playwright gives us the power to affect a change in ourselves, through identifying with similar circumstances in their lives.

We meet three richly detailed characters: a mother, daughter and sister, all facing the paradox of living ordinary lives and facing a time of crucial change. Their shared bredth of experience is affecting. Amber appears the most troubled person of the three as her mother and sister project their belief that she is the most ‘normal’. I found it deeply moving that she tries to solve her dilemmas by striving to become invisible – we first see her at the beginning of the play hiding in the caravan – and that, ironically, this invisibility leads her into crime; she is an adept shoplifter.

Lucy Morrison’s direction of three fine actors, Danusia Samal, Christine Entwisle and Naomi Ackie, explores the humanity of three women as they interact with the justice system. At first this is most obviously through Billy but, as the narrative unfolds, we see that all three live in a network of struggling men and women who rub up against the legal system everyday.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the play is how it materializes the individual’s handling of boundaries and off-limit zones – an important theme in a piece about the value of freedom. For instance, looking around the stage I note the interesting way it explores the relationships between mother, daughters and sisters through the physical boundaries such as the back door of the house that is off-limits to Billy and the gate which connects the family to the wider world. Poignantly, Ingrid’s mobile phone only connects her to her overweight, depressed and dysfunctional sister, Madge.

The caravan performs the role of treasure-chest, gut and womb. It also functions in theatrical terms as a dressing room and back stage area. But whatever metaphor it conjures up, its centre stage positioning is highly effective in investing the dialogue with meaning beyond what is happening on stage. Set designer Joanna Scotcher, together with lighting and sound designers Katharine Williams and Becky Smith, deserves an award for such an economical and imaginative use of space.

By the end, an epic journey has linked the photo of a little boy called Billy, found in a chocolate tin in the caravan, to the final moments of the play, in which a girl, also called Billy, brings out the gift of chocolate to share with her mother. The characters have an integrity and vulnerability which speaks beyond their own story, revealing how we all tentatively build our hopes of starting again.

Date reviewed: Friday 1st November 2013

Crowning Glory

Women v Hair: Crowning Glory at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East

51YymvmlHpL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_This story of race, gender and hair will see you laugh, cry and fume, as an unflinchingly honest portrayal of black women dissipates the myth that we live in a post-feminist age. Explosive drama. At the Theatre Royal, Stratford East.


If you attached a Geiger counter to Somalia Seaton’s Crowning Glory, it would break the dial. The drama radiates energy, each part colliding and moving ever outwards to encompass a monumental blast that explodes the myth that we live in a post-feminist age.

Seaton presents the play as an entertaining kind of Brechtian Lehrstucke, or “learning play”, showing that the black woman’s struggle to tame her hair (with scarves, wigs and a multitude of hair products) is part of the core of her existence. The play’s seven characters present a series of first-person narratives, sometimes stylized as poetic verse, which are broken up by third-person commentary, also delivered by the characters. I found the effect utterly engaging. The contrasting personal and public worlds in which Seaton’s women exist are called up beautifully.

For instance, there’s “Pickyhead” (Toyin Aydun-Alase), part mother, part fidgety little girl, craving to be let out to play. Her monologue comically shows how it is the black mother’s fears for her “ugly” daughter that set in motion a lifetime of worrying about self-image, and what is acceptable.

Then there’s “Bounty” (Rebecca Omogbehin), a highly educated woman who gives the audience her private reactions to her public argument with other black women who criticize her for successfully integrating into a white European lifestyle. Other stories by the mixed-race “Halfbreed” (Allyson Ava-Brown), “Panther” (Lorna Brown), “Haircomb”(Sheri-An Davis) and “Bal-Ead” (T’Nia Miller) also show the public and private dimensions of women who are questioned, insulted and abused for their African looks and hair.

The play shows how many contradictions are at work here. It suggests that African women are more likely to suffer from put-downs and mistreatment from their own families, and that as young girls mature into womanhood, they often face rejection from black men who see them as less attractive than the smaller and more petite white girls they pursue.

However, Seaton shows us that women can grow stronger through adversity, through physical self-assertion and mental resistance to imposed images. So, while the play begins with the little girl “Pickyead” it ends with the Amazonian figure of Bal-Ead, dressed in red and black lingerie, who confronts her husband’s disapproval with dignity and strength.

This all-woman ensemble is very well directed by Dawn Reid, while Nick Barnes’s set design is highly inventive in underscoring the themes of the play, with multi-level angular platforms giving the effect of different kinds of pathways climbing ever higher. At one point, the levels turn into the shelving of a hairdresser’s shop comically displaying wig-wearing mannequin heads.

The play makes use of projection and film, disrupting the live performance with snippets of real women talking about their lives, their hair and the idea of beauty. Other filmed excerpts are fictional, as cast-members portray either self-advertising clueless women, giving make-up advice on YouTube, and or opinionated men, vocalising their judgements on women.

Although Seaton goes some way in revealing the shallowness of the idea that white women bear some ideal of beauty, and are more liberated than their black women, she reserves her sharpest barbs — in a play about race and gender — for black men.  There is not an enlightened, sensitive black man in sight. Even Michelle Obama appears in the filmed projections without her husband. Black men are consistently referred to as wife deserters, absent fathers and crude lovers, whose egos seem unconstrained by family rules or social expectations.

That such men exist is indisputable, but the one-dimensional view of them doesn’t sit well with the ironies, contradictions and humanity of the rest of Crowning Glory. I feel that Seaton could rework her presentation of them to incorporate some of the subtleties of character which make her female characters so appealing.

Date reviewed: Tuesday 22nd October 2013


Horrible Histories: Barmy Britain II

How Henry laughed! Horrible Histories: Barmy Britain II at the Garrick Theatre

Eight-year-old Henry takes our reviewer on a truth-seeking historical adventure. Birmingham Stage Company’s sensationally-scripted Barmy Britain II proves that satire for kids is in fine shape. At the Garrick Theatre.

The Garrick Theatre was buzzing with the energy of children, eager to see Birmingham Stage Company’sBarmy Britain II, the latest live performance of the popular television and Scholastic reading book phenomenon from Horrible HistoriesAs the wise child, Henry, aged 8, who accompanied me to the event pointed out, having followed HH since his seventh birthday, he knows that he can depend on its storytellers to give him historical facts which school books just don’t believe children can handle. Such wisdom at such a young age. I ask if he will help me rate the show afterwards. He seems unfazed by the responsibility.

After finding our seats in the stalls and, in response to Henry’s prompts, giving minute by minute announcements on when the show is due to start, we scrutinise the theatre left and right, floor to ceiling. When finally, not a moment too soon for Henry, the safety curtain rises, we view the stage set consisting of two long strips of material upstage ablaze with changing colour from stage lights. In front of the towering panels of light stand two ‘trees’, equidistant right and left of each other, loaded with props and costumes. Between them but further down, centrestage, is a multi-panelled cupboard/ cart-like contraption which becomes a source of wonder throughout the show.

I ask Henry what objects he recognizes on the stage. He points to one of the helmets hanging from the costume ‘tree’, upstage right. As natural as breathing, he then continues to say how the lighted panels, now bathed in a deep blue, look like ‘waterfalls of light’. I’m in awe of the description and ask if I can use it in my review!

Beams of dazzling magenta now frame the first performer, Anthony Spargo, of the duo who will play a host of characters between them. Spargo warms up the audience in traditional comic style, with witticisms and word puns. The laughs come throughout his routine of flinging out body parts of scalp, lungs and heart, to signal how the show will be ‘hair-raising’, ‘breath-taking’ and ‘heart-stopping’. He has Henry’s attention, his knowing smile says to me, ‘Yes! You are being as horrible as I know you can be’.

The contract between Anthony and audience is a done deal and the children cheer on the total irreverent hypothesis that Britain it a barmy place and its history proves that it’s so when suddenly and without warning, arrives the second performer, Lauryn Redding, dressed as a City of-Westminster traffic warden. She demands that our irreverent clown and his unlicensed cart ‘move on’. The wrangling between the duo cleverly introduces how the telling of history is mixed up with the social permission to speak in public and how history is contentious and complex.

The rest of the hour-long show consists of representations of key English historical figures: Queen Boudicca, Richard I (the Lionheart), Queen Bess and Queen Victoria. In between the VIPs, the audience also sees representations of ordinary people such as the barrow wheeler of medieval times who goes from house to house collecting the dead during the Black Death and the ‘Groom of the Stool’ of the Tudor era, responsible for wiping King Henry VIII’s bottom!

Terry Deary and Neal Foster craft a sensational script, which is also directed by Foster.  It is punchy and engaging, using many pantomime conventions: cross-dressing, the arrangement of popular songs with adapted lyrics, mock fighting and audience participation. Sound effects, either in the choregraphed action or within the scripted dialogue, never miss a beat and the use of dance styles such as rap, make the routines a wonderful way for the audience to travel between past and present.

Looking at Henry’s smiling face, I know he’s weathered the shocking yarns extremely well. On the other hand, I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed when Henry beckons to tell me he gives the show four stars. Only four stars, I ask? He explains, ‘I didn’t like how the smoke was trying to cover up when they were changing their costumes. I could see through the smoke’. I probe a little.  What was so bad about that? Henry sticks to his point about how the smoke, for him, inadequately covers up the actors changing, barely obscured by smoke gushing from the smoke machine.

I have my own reason for giving the show four stars too due to what I feel is the show’s poor ending.  For me, it seems to abandon the dramatically interesting critical stance maintained throughout, for a fairly facile conclusion which attempts to say that our current leaders seem worse than the barmy characters presented in performance. What can the audience do with this historical comparison? Are Deary and Foster seriously putting forward that hundreds of years of English leaders who have worked for justice and democracy amount to nothing in human history?

I would have liked, in keeping with its pantomime style, a reprise that underscores the themes established by each of the Horrible Histories during Barmy Britain II. Each historical vignette was perfect in itself, beautifully constructed and presented by two extraordinarily talented young performers. In the end, I applaud their dynamic realisation of the fun of putting on a critical view of the past to better understand and interact with it in the present.

Date reviewed: Saturday 12th October 2013

The White Witch of Rose Hall

The Chilling Drama of Annie Palmer: The White Witch of Rose Hall at Broadway Theatre

A historical tale, set in the 1830s on one of Jamaica’s largest plantations. A story of power, sex and a fight for freedom, set against the backdrop of William Wilberforce’s campaign for the abolition of slavery.

The White Witch Of Rose Hall, at the Broadway Theatre, Catford, proves once again that reality can be stranger than fiction. The historical tale, set in the 1830s on one of Jamaica’s largest plantations, Rose Hall, involves a powerful plantation owner, Annie Palmer, an honourable English supporter of William Wilberforce’s abolition of slavery campaign, Robert Rutherford, and an indomitable, spirited ‘free’ black girl, Millie. The interplay between race and sexual politics that binds the characters fuels this production.

Themes of sexual jealousy and human freedom make for great drama, as writer Simon Collier’s believable characters are brought to life by a strong ensemble. Gemma Rook as Annie Palmer is a frightening figure while Tom McCarron, as the steadfastly principled Robert Rutherford, is aptly vulnerable. Alicia McKenzie’s Millie is engagingly innocent – and yet maddeningly wilful.

Robert Rutherford acts as a catalyst for emancipation when his arrival at Rose Hall precipitates a series of tragic actions, arising from the plantation workers’ sense of injustice. The slave owners exploit their power to the full, and themes of gender, race and class emerge from a brutal household, where the housekeeper is a sexual slave and the plantation owner uses male slaves for her own sexual gratification.

What playwright Simon Collier makes brilliantly clear is that even at their apparent best, the Europeans hold on to their belief of cultural supremacy: for instance, the honourable Rutherford’s treatment of Millie never once hints that he sees her as his equal. Conversely, the black slaves who are movingly characterised as dispossessed African people, show the moral compromises they are forced to make as they learn the ‘benefits’ of European civilization.

The most testing aspect of the production for me was the barbarity shown towards the slave Abraham.  His torture was horrific and I confess to turning away from watching it.  But I don’t think it is just squeamishness that worries me about the staging of the scene. The gruesomeness of showing teeth-pulling on stage challenges Collier’s decision to work in a naturalistic style – as there are inevitably compromises that have to be made. I couldn’t help thinking that perhaps it would have been more powerful to leave something to the imagination.

Another qualm concerned the unresolved way the play deals with magic and voodoo. History shows us how magic can be a proxy for knowledge – be it of the human anatomy, the human psyche, control of language or the laws of science – in that it can feed power. It has often (along with superstition) been a powerful tool in power struggles and subjugation. This was touched on, but the sense of magic belonging to a culture ‘other’ to European, was not given the depth it could have been. Apart from the customary voodoo doll, we were given few clues as to the powerful magic that has allowed Annie to survive three husbands and maintain her Rose Hall fiefdom. I longed to be surprised by Annie’s skill in creating in Rose Hall a place to trap her subjects and bend them to her will – something which could also have been aided by some more ambitious set design.

Despite these points of criticism, The White Witch of Rose Hall deserves good audiences and much applause.  It is a vital story and a solidly good play. In the fullness of time perhaps it could grow into a great one in which the Caribbean, and Jamaica in particular, is imagined as vital to the creation of an English cultural identity.

Date reviewed: Friday 11th October 2013