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!!

 

 

 

 

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

As You Like It

Comedy turned on its head: As You Like It at the Rose Theatre Bankside

 As You Like It, directed by Jessica Ruano, rewrites Shakespeare’s comedy by omitting the sub-plots of the play involving the comic characters of Touchstone, Corin, Silvius, Phoebe and Audrey. Her re-arranging and editing of Shakespeare’s narrativeensures that the play is re-written as a tragedy, resisting the redemptive themes in the original As You Like It text.

The Rose Bankside’s As You Like It, directed by Jessica Ruano, rewrites Shakespeare’s comedy in significant ways, mainly by omitting the sub-plots of the play involving the comic characters of Touchstone, Corin, Silvius, Phoebe and Audrey. Instead, Jaques the Melancholic gains a far more central role, with his monologue of ‘All the world’s a stage’ opening the play, cutting the first two and a half acts of the original, and reducing a 120-minute play to 75 minutes.

More significantly, the Bankside production ends with an image of death and the hunt, rather than with the comic convention of marriage, which in As You Like It sees Rosalind present, rather ironically, the woman’s view on marriage: ironic, that is, because the actor and the audience would be in on the joke that the words are spoken by a young man playing Rosalind. Instead, Jessica Ruano’s re-arranging and editing of Shakespeare’s narrative, I feel, ensures that the play is re-written as a tragedy, resisting the redemptive themes in the original As You Like It.

Of course, license to interpret Shakespeare’s texts has been the prerogative of theatre directors ever since the Restoration of English theatres in 1662. One noteworthy rearranger of Shakespeare’s plays — the American director Charles Marowitz — proudly claimed, in the mid-1980s, that his rearrangement of Hamlet, Merchant of Venice and Othello was about destroying Shakespeare’s plays like you might smash a precious old vase. Speaking of his production of Hamlet at the Los Angeles Actors’ Theatre he explained that after smashing the vase in a thousand pieces, he intended to ‘take those pieces and put them back together… Shakespeare provides the vase and I provide the glue.’

I am jolted from the very outset of Ruano’s interpretation of As You Like It. I try to imagine the purpose of the production as a reconstruction of Shakespeare’s darker themes of wilful pride leading to social chaos as brother fights brother and rightful heirs are denied the inheritances they’re entitled to.  In eliminating the professional jester, Touchstone, the fools become those aimlessly pursuing true love and personal happiness in the Forest of Arden.

However, I remain unclear about what is gained by the re-arrangement. In the past, I have enjoyed the way that Touchstone, and through him Rosalind, ends up being caught up with the local country folk, Corin, Phoebe, Silvius and Audrey. To my mind, the plot complication this brings to the dramatic narrative amplifies the foolishness of the Court characters. I missed the banter, and in particular, Touchstone’s edgy risk-taking comments alongside his own foolish actions. Without him I believe what we are left observing is the immaturity of the young lovers romping about unimpeded in the forest.

I grant that such an approach may be interesting as ‘performance research’. Consequently, the production holds my interest through its use of space, particularly in lighting and sound designers Sarah Crocker and Luca Romagnoli’s, use of the watery lagoon (which conserves the foundations of the original Rose Theatre) as a backdrop of the drama. Suzanne Marie and Stacy Sobieski do a good job of portraying Rosalind and Celia as both strong and dynamic in showing young women caught up in the conflict between duty to parental demands and personal integrity.

Orlando and Jaques are also well portrayed as counter-balancing characters, by Matthew Howell and Andrew Venning. While Orlando believes in ‘true love’, Jaques has only contempt for it. However, the role of Oliver, played by Tom Hartill, was weakened by the simplified plot, so that his attraction to Aliena/ Celia seemed only to contradict his darker purpose. Similarly, the omission of Duke Frederick weakened the representation of Duke Senior and his band of forest outlaws and their need to continue to live away from the deathly advances of the younger Duke.

What we are left with is an arrangement of scenes showing that we live by sheer human will, mostly alienated and alone. With Touchstone nowhere to be seen, the space for the fool and foolish arrogance is also eliminated and the phrase ‘as you like it’ is emptied of its ironic meaning. When the play ended, with a deer being killed, I was disappointed — I’d been looking forward to hearing how laughter might sound in a re-imagined Forest of Arden.

Date reviewed: Saturday 5th October 2013

The Spanish Tragedy

An Appetite For Revenge: The Spanish Tragedy at the Blue Elephant

Lazarus Theatre productions never fail to grab you from the moment you enter the theatre. You step through into a world of mayhem as if stepping through an invisible membrane that divides you from where you’ve come. At the Blue Elephant Theatre.

Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy is the fifth production I’ve seen by Lazarus Theatre since seeing Don Carlos at the Blue Elephant in 2011.  Now, as I come to anticipate coming to see another Lazarus production directed by Ricky Dukes, I find myself thinking: “Surely he is NOT going to use the smoke machine again?”

I also find myself wondering about Dukes’ strategic choice of working with only one style and form of theatre, albeit historically significant to English and European cultural identity. Then I come and view the show and once again I’m blown away by Dukes’ inventiveness, which in no small way includes assembling a cast and crew of creative people that work together like a magnificent orchestra, tensely tuned and stunningly dynamic.

So far, Lazarus Theatre productions have never failed to grab me from the moment I enter the theatre. I feel I step through into a world of dramatically interpreting Elizabethan and Jacobean mayhem as if stepping through an invisible membrane that divides me from where I’ve come.

This happens again for me as I move to my seat for The Spanish Tragedy and find actors “warming-up” on stage with a playful name game, revealing the names of the fifteen cast members. I note the piles of books strategically placed to signal the thinking as well as the acting work for the production. I also note how the design of calico drapes and red, white and blue bunting carry me further into of an imaginary Spain and Portugal, rather than any real geographical place.

I shift my gaze as the lighting reduces space through the use of a single spotlight directing me around the black box theatre. I hear the clarity of the actors’ voices as they speak Thomas Kyd’s lines, bringing meaning to each phrase, word and pause. And that’s only the first ten minutes into the production!!

Yet at a rational level, I know that this rather cumbersome play shouldn’t work. It should be dead and buried, along with its raw desire for bloody revenge dressed up in the poetic language of Elizabethan drama. But once again, I see how Dukes turns a seeming dramaturgical weakness into strength in a performance that shapes the dramatic action poignantly and melodramatically. I find myself viewing the actions, simultaneously knowing they are preposterous and criminally tragic.

The size of the cast carries the energy to fever pitch, showing how killing gives rise to more killings: Andrea’s ghost and Revenge (Joseph Emms and Maria Alexe) are the play’s master and mistress of ceremony for the act of revenge itself. Yet, as MCs, even they don’t seem to be able to predict the plots and counter-plots of vengeance. I find it an interesting choice that Revenge is a woman, referring back perhaps to the furies of Greek tragedies. The fact, however, that she is dressed in black, rather than, say, the red of Aeschylus’ furies, fits more aptly with Maria Alexe’s presentation of a colder and more strategically aware form of revenge.

What begins with the Spanish Andrea seeking vengeance for his own death at the hands of the Portuguese Balthazar in battle, however, in no time turns into the murder of Horatio in a courtly plot devised by the Spaniard Lorenzo and Portuguese Balthazar.  This in turn spurs Hieronimo’s avenging of his son’s, Horatio, death. Throughout it all, Dukes’ direction makes it startlingly clear how ineptly vengeance works as an instrument of justice. By the end of the play, the audience is no clearer than at the start whether justice has been done for Andrea’s ghost by Revenge, or, whether it is Hieronimo’s arrangement of the play-within-a-play for the Spanish court which, in setting up Bel-Imperia’s deathly blow, is the real cause of Balthazar’s demise. As I’m viewing the blood bath, I remember, too, why academics have argued that the play inspired Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

All acting performances are strong and impressive, beginning in the play’s opening with Rosanna Morris portrayal of the King of Spain as the picture of pomposity at the centre of a morally suspect court, which seems out of its depth in international affairs. Spain might have won the war at the start of the action, but the audience sees it lose the peace as courtiers willfully brandish their ambitions pursuing the court’s top prize, marriage to Bel-Imperia. The courtiers Lorenzo and Balthazar, played by James Peter-Bennet and Jamie Spindlove, give solid portrayals of the awful willpower required to win at all cost. I view how the direction also makes very clear that it is love and death that couple in this court in alliances made on bad information of who did what to whom.

But more than anything, I am carried away by Danny Soloman’s Hieronimo, a portrayal of a father driven mad with grief. Soloman makes plausible the terror Hieronimo enacts on the court. I’m particularly impressed by the timing with which he shows the character’s abandonment of reason, beginning with his unwillingness to act then growing into to his role as a Master of Ceremony who brings death and mayhem through the play-within-a-play.

However, its hard to imagine how any of the actors’ strong performances or the designers’ symbolic use of props, costumes and lighting could be realized without Ricky Dukes’ understanding of the dramaturgical significance which The Spanish Tragedy might still hold for us today. Ultimately, I applaud how another Lazarus Theatre production resurrects past meanings of a play about how vengeful actions continue to live today. As I walk towards the exit I speculate with myself how the play might be renamed “The Tragedy of the Middle East” or “The Syrian Tragedy” or, even, by the name of some gangland tragedy in which spilling blood is mistaken for Justice.

Only great directors provoke us into such understandings. I believe Ricky Dukes to be one such director.

Date reviewed: Thursday 26th September 2013

Gotta Sing Gotta Dance

Only in musicals… Gotta Sing Gotta Dance at Richmond Theatre

See this show. It will allow you to experience the beauty and grandeur of song and dance at its best. At Richmond Theatre.

The title of a theatre production is designed to provoke a reaction; Gotta Sing Gotta Dance had a decided effect on me, leading me to expect the usual fare of song and dance energetically contrived. What a surprise I was in for as I viewed the unfolding of a wonderfully coherent and original production that turned out to be a stunning exposé of the last sixty years of musical theatre.

It was clear to me the show’s success is founded on the knowledge and inventiveness of its director Chris Jordan, choreographer Nick Winston and musical director Chris Whitehead. They are also well supported by lighting designer Douglas Morgan, Clement Rawling on sound and Shelley Stevens on costumes.

Part nostalgia and overwhelmingly memorable, the show’s organisation of chosen songs is a winner. Using some chronological elements (for instance, the show opens with the musicals of the 1930s and 40s) songs are bracketed together for a number of reasons, each achieving an entertaining effect. For instance, there are brackets based on WW2 musicals (This is the ArmySouth Pacific) and others on the “jukebox” musicals of ABBA (Mamma Mia) and Michael Jackson (Thriller). There are even brackets of songs on musicals in which the central characters were nuns! Mostly though, the show delivers memorable tributes to musical theatre composers such as Sondheim, Bernstein and Lloyd-Webber.

The result is an interesting assembly of refreshing contexts for listening to and viewing the well-known musical hits of yesteryear and today. I particularly liked the tongue-in-cheek rivalry built into the presentation of English or American musicals. Using the famous Annie Get Your Gun song of “Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better”, the medley that followed played an interest contrast between British down-to-earthiness and American glitz. And then just as “The Lambeth Walk” ended the bracket, the subject is undercut with the introduction of “Stars” from Les Miserables and the French musical.

Undoubtedly for me, the strongest element that carries the show is the energy and versatility of its cast: Simon Adkins, Alison Dormer, Lucinda Lawrence, Rebecca Lisewski, David McMullan and Adam Rhys-Charles are stunningly talented individuals of musical theatre: they demonstrate why London is such a respected destination of viewing it. Even taking into account the latest in near-invisible microphones to amplify the voices, the quality of each cast member’s voice is noteworthy. This enabled the director to arrange the presentations as solos, duets, trios and other configurations with gusto.

The emotional effect of the selected songs works its magic on the audience. Encountering
some songs felt like meeting dear friends again. I found myself remembering when and where I’d heard the song in other productions over the years. Such a reaction said to me that the real “star” of the show was “the musical” itself and the way it so economically yet powerfully tells stories by creating deeply emotive moments for audiences to experience.

Gotta Sing Gotta Dance successfully steers away from cliches and shows us the way that musicals carry us into another world, like when in presenting Singing in the Rain it allows the audience to see behind the filming of Gene Kelly’s famous tap dancing routine. It is a very honest show which plays with the limits of the musical theatre form as much as its strengths. The three minute arrangement though West End musicals shows up how easily satire can be applied to it: it’s possible that everyone knows that life can’t be that easily condensed or stylised… except of course in musicals!

Date reviewed: Thursday 5th September 2013

 

Profumo The Musical

A musical about a scandal: Profumo The Musical at Waterloo East Theatre

Unfortunately, the Profumo The Musical gives us nothing new on the Profumo Affair. Everyone, including the Kray Brothers, seemed perfectly nice and ordinary. Can anyone remember what the fuss was about? At Waterloo East.

Profumo: The Musical, produced and written by Gordon Kenny, presents the events around the 1960s Profumo Affair in which John Profumo, Minister for War in Harold Macmillan’s Tory government, embarks on a scandalous love affair with young nightclub dancer, Christine Keeler.

Staged on the 50th anniversary of the “Profumo Affair”, the key question is why the scandal is worthy of attention given that it is only one of a very long line of sex scandals during that time. Even just a cursory overview of the last 50 years reveals that the mix of politics, power and crime around the Affair has to judged unremarkable given the recent depth of depravity around the Jimmy Saville affair,  the sheer shamelessness of Silvio Berlusconi and the stunning staging of the trial of former top Chinese politician Bo Xilai.

Maybe that’s just it: Profumo The Musical exploits our continuous appetite for the scandals & affairs reported on in the media. As its opening number “You’ve Never Had It So Good” shows in its frenzied interpretation of the 1960s, there is a ready audience to voyeuristically view the sexual appetites of powerful men. In fact, according to the show’s press release, the musical is a celebration of the anniversary of the affair. However, as I viewed the musical, I became more and more unconvinced that it came anywhere near exploiting the controversies around the historical incident of how powerful men like Profumo have a habit of straying into the world of desperate young women, sleazy nightclubs and the criminal class.

Instead, the musical constantly chops and changes its viewpoint through its fourteen songs, more like a collection of tracks at a concert: each song giving the audience a glimpse of something potentially interesting, but none building towards a climax or finding a sufficiently strong denouement. I noted at least seven different themes that were left hanging by the end of the show: the exploitation of runaway young girls; the sexual appetites of powerful men; post-WW2 black migration; 1960s anti-establishment ideology; English class warfare; espionage & Cold War politics; and London’s criminal class.

Using such a rich mix of themes and episodes should be a strength in a production: unfortunately, inProfumo, the basic dramatic elements such as the set, lighting and costume design neither located any of the scenes nor give them an aesthetically satisfying feeling. A blandness hovers around the characters on stage. This impacts on the characterisation of key figures particularly badly: resulting in the unfortunate effect that the characters of Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies are neither particularly sexy or desperately manipulative. Instead, they moved from cliched fame-seekers in songs such as “Movie Queen” to deliverers of moral messages in other songs such as “Bloodsuckers”. They also compete for the limelight with John Profumo and Steven Ward, who give their own side of the story in “Porno Blues” and “Jack in the Box”.

There is nothing to cry or laugh about in the show. More to the point, there is absolutely nothing that seems even vaguely shocking in the drama. The musical’s parodying of the Krays and Labourites Harold Wilson and Barbara Castles is simplistic. If only the Krays were a pair of buffoons knocking around London, spreading their charm. If only political events could be summed up over a cup of tea! Except for a couple of moments in the show, namely “Order In The House” and “Jack In The Box”, the mercilessness of criminals and politicians were bypassed for an easy sentimentality.

I felt in the end that Gordon Kenny did not believe in the strength of his own subject matter. The Profumo Affair offers a brilliant subject matter to created an edgy, hard-hitting drama but it requires the writer, director and the designers to break out of any ready-made musical genre formulae. The Profumo Affair is nothing if not complex and sordid: perhaps Profumo The Musical exemplifies the extent to which we have become desensitised to that sordidness.

Date reviewed: Thursday 29th August 2013

 

The Pitman Painters

The Pitman Painters paint their lives at the Richmond Theatre

The popularity of Lee Hall’s The Pitman Painters is evident from its sell-out seasons at the National Theatre, on Broadway and in the West End. Arguably, such success must make Hall’s play one of the past decade’s most significant English dramas to engage contemporary audiences in re-looking at “class warfare” in post-WW2 British culture. At Richmond Theatre.

The events of Lee Hall’s The Pitman Painters begin in 1934 as an unlikely group of Ashington miners are introduced to painting. The play focuses on how they go from “art appreciation” to gaining the attention of avant-garde art collectors through painting aspects of their working lives down in the mines and in the Ashington community.

Premiering at the National Theatre in 2007, the current production of the play at the Richmond Theatre is the NT’s On Tour production produced by Bill Kenwright, with Joe Caffrey as Harry Wilson, Philip Correia as Oliver Kilbourn and Suzy Cooper as the rich patroness, Helen Sutherland. The tour started in April this year in Chesterfield and will end on the 24th of this month in Swansea.

On a personal note, The Pitman Painters is the first play I viewed in January 2009, only days after arriving to live in London from Australia which, interestingly, was known in its colonial days as “the working man’s paradise”. It is a country which was also generous to post-WW2 migrant families like mine.

I remember speculating on my first viewing of the play that the achievements of the Ashington group were not dissimilar from the descendants of convicts and migrants who have gained recognition far above their social status: the fact that the group seem like strangers in their land was a fascination for me.

Undoubtedly, Lee Hall’s play has been responsible in its own right for raising awareness of the existence of the Ashington group and their artistic achievements. However, on viewing the play this time, I feel more inclined to agree with the 2010 New York Times critic who claimed that as “grounded in authentic detail” as the ensemble performers were, their characterisation often blurred into “an abstract, almost Brechtian chorus of voices”.

The reason for the lack of definition of individuals was due to the fact that I often found the pace of the dialogue in the first half of the play unnecessarily frantic. At times I even felt that I was looking at oafish miners with pretensions to do “art appreciation”, something I never imagined about the characters in the first production.

At one point, I felt myself reacting angrily towards assumptions that seemed built into the direction of certain scenes: for instance, in the scene in with the young model, Susan Parks, who arrives and attempts to pose nude, I felt the speed of the dialogue presented it as pure farce, rather than explore the possibility that the miners’ alarm of a young woman in the nude might be legitimately connected to deeply held conservative views of sexuality and relationships in general.

To my mind, it is that deeply held belief that offers a more credible view of the alienation from pleasure or sense of intimacy with wives, each other, and ultimately, themselves, that the play heroically explores.

In the second half of the production, however, the treatment of the arrival of World War II reasserts the power of the play in realising its central theme on how art is linked to the human need to depict the paradoxes of both our subjective and collective realities. Moreover, it shows how it is often absence that communicates the most about us, individually as well as culturally.

This is shown particularly poignantly in the absence of the young lad who, in the first half of the play, represents the unemployed of the Great Depression. In the second half, we find he has enlisted and that he is one of the casualties of the D-Day invasion. The effect of the lad’s departure and death is shown to have has a profound effect on those left behind, as once again they face the destructive force of war, which, ironically, raises the status of coal mining and protects them from having to do active service on any battlefield of Europe or elsewhere.

So what is ultimately to be understood about the Ashington group’s place in the UK’s art scene? And how is it representative of the “class struggle” present in British culture? It is hard to deny that Lee Hall’s play works as a kind of revisionist history of how the inclusion of the working class group adds to the dynamism of British culture as a whole. For this, Hall’s portrayal of the struggle of miners caught up in the sweeping world events as The Pitmen Painters depicts their lives and paintings as worthy of enduring significance.

Date reviewed: Monday 5th August 2013

Forget Me Not

Why World War I poets are revered in English Literature while World War II poet Keith Douglas is largely forgotten poses are interesting question about our cultural values. A promising idea, however, left unrealized in Shane Burke’s Forget Me Not. At the Tea House Theatre.

 

The question of who and what we choose to remember, either individually or collectively, can be puzzling to say the very least! However, a visit to the Poet’s Corner of Westminster Abbey commemorating sixteen World War I poets leaves little doubt that we continue to remember them; Wilfred Owen provides the epitaph: “My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity.”

What remains inexplicable, however, is that while Owen’s Anthem For A Doomed Youth continues to ring out the heroism of young men who died “as cattle”, his poignant representation did not stop the “wailing shells” starting up again, calling young men to war in 1939. As one of those young men, Shane Burke’s character of Keith Douglas complains to his literary agent’s secretary that Owen and others left his generation little more to say about young men in war.

Bete Noire Productions’ current production at the Tea House Theatre in Vauxhall centres on Douglas’ urgency to say something different that those World War 1 poets. The play is set in 1944, just before leaving for the frontline. Directed by Sasha Roberts, the play is a two-hander, with Tom Worsley depicting Keith Douglas and Annabella Forbes playing the literary agent’s secretary, Betty Jesse. However, while the one-act drama raises expectations about coming to know Douglas and his poetry, it doesn’t come near to realizing that end, and instead falls back on a clichéd presentation of an English officer meeting a respectable women.

Emil Zola advised writers that it was the use of “significant detail” which make a good presentation of naturalism on stage, and Forget Me Not disobeys the rule. Insufficient budgets aside, it is the contradictions in the production that let it down the most: for instance, while Tom Worsley wears an unbelievably beautiful authentic World War 2 uniform, Annabella Forbes is dressed completely out of times. While he is groomed authentically, with the right hairstyle and moustache, she is seen with a casual bobbed hair style held with a couple of small clasps. Ironically, as if to puzzle the audience even more, the image of Betty Jesse in the theatre programme shows a decidedly well groomed woman who took much pride in her coiffure. Furthermore, the character is wearing silky stockings in 1943 at a time notorious for incredible austerity and widespread non-existent hosiery!

The flaws in the depiction of Douglas, Jesse and the 1940, however, went beyond mere appearances into problems of characterization. I thought Tom Worsley did his best to work with the straightjacket he seems to have been contained in as he plays the highly-strung Douglas. He shows energy and determination in carrying some sense of a through line as he battles to secure a contract for his poem’s publication. Annabelle Forbe’s portrayal of Betty Jesse, on the other hand, lacks direction of any kind: she is totally unbelievable as a strongly determined woman who, the dialogue reveals, is deserted by her husband for loving her work more than wanting to be a stay-at-home wife and having babies. What’s more, what is the logic of portraying her a dry, prissy spinster to whom the “four-times engaged” Douglas becomes attracted?

What was the play really trying to show? Was it really about the attraction of a man and woman meeting in wartime, or was it about Douglas’s desperation to have his poetry published before going off on D-Day and dying on a beach in Normandy, aged 24? I left the theatre none the wiser.

Certainly, I was drawn to Bete Noire Productions and playwright Shane Burke’s interesting subject matter of a drama on the life and poetry of Keith Douglas. However, I don’t believe the biographically cluttered dialogue did their subjects any justice. Another treatment is needed to build on the issues with which Douglas grappled, most notably how, in times of war, humans live on and sometime revel through how love and death exist in such close proximity.

I’m not an expert on war poets, but I suspect that it is this vibrancy in Douglas combining sex and death which makes his poetry somehow more shocking to read than the World War I poets. The theatre program hints at this in his writing of the poem in “Vergissmeinnicht”(trans. Forget Me Not) which tells how, coming across a dead German soldier’s body decomposing in a blown up tank which still displays on a metal panel a photograph of his lover “Steffi”, Douglas writes:

 

But she would weep to see today

how on his skin the swart flies move;

the dust upon the paper eye

and the burst stomach like a cave.

For here the lover and killer are mingled

who had one body and one heart.

And death who had the soldier singled

has done the lover mortal hurt.

 

Shane Burke and Bete Noire Productions are right, such sensibilities are the stuff of great theatre. The hard truth is that on this occasion they did not fulfill their own high expectations of realising such a drama.

Date reviewed: Wednesday 17th July 2013

The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby: The Musical 

 

Genre: Musical Theatre

Venue:  Riverside Studios, Crisp Rd, London, W6 9RL.

 

Low Down

 

Joe Evan’s music & lyrics and Linnie Reedman’s adaptation of F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby’s nostalgic view of America between the wars glistens and sparkles with a destructive glory. The tragic love story of rich girl and poor hero works around powerful themes: loyalty and love, faithfulness and betrayal combines with the individual’s pursuit of the American dream for happiness and economic success. The music is dynamic and story is coherently presented beginning from the moment when the pretty socialite, Daisy, and heroic soldier, Jay Gatsby, are separated by war and circumstances. Gatsby’s failure to return to that blissful state culminates with a string of fatal consequences which implicates the other lives on stage.

Review

 

The central motif in Ruby In The Dust Theatre Company’s Great Gatsby was the way in which the musical was literally created by musicians taking on the different roles in the play:  Naomi Bullock as the earthy Myrtle plays Clarinet, Imogen Daines as Daisy’s loyal friend, Jordan Baker, plays violin/viola/ guitar, Patrick Lannigan as the underworld figure of Meyer Wolfsheim plays double base, Kate Marlais as Catherine, Mytles’s sister, plays violin, Janna Yngwe as the flapper plays cello, Nicholas Waters as George Wilson plays banjo and Henry Wyrley-Birch as multiple characters of waiter and policeman plays the trumpet.

The exception to this dynamic transformation of roles is that of music director, Greg Arrowsmith, and lead characters Daisy played by Matilda Sturridge, Jay Gatsby by Michael Lindall, Nick Carraway by Sid Phoenix and Tom Buchanan by Ian Knauer.

It was less pleasing to see who among them were given musical carriage through the songs. For instance, I thought Nick Carraway as narrator was given too little to sing, particularly since Sid Phoenix seem to possess such a wonderful voice. It also seem odd that the hero Jay Gatsby had NO songs to sing, either on his own to give the audience an insight into his dilemmas, a classic device in musicals for heroes, or share with Daisy.  I remember thinking as Daisy sang her first solo, why is Jay made to just stand around? Why isn’t the song a duet? The role which seems to be the most well balanced between song & spoken part was the role of Daisy’s rich husband, Tom Buchanan: Ian Knauer brings class and polish to the role with a fine voice and his role is well written stylistically.

The weakness of the production was the design of the space. From the start it just looked as though the set was too big for the space. As the show went on I watched actors hit their heads on the low hanging intricate arch that dominated the performance space: taller actors had to bend under the central doorway as they entered onto the stage and every performer seemed forced to manoeuvre around the gigantic sofa placed directly in front of the double door entrance.

Most unfortunate of all, as far as I was concerned, the stunning orchestra and its transformation into various roles in the drama was turned into a group which had to endure making an awkward series of shuffles within a very cramped space. The space also didn’t do anything for the costume designs. They seemed like clumsy overdone dress-ups in which evening dress is worn even in bright daylight.

Yet I could see the effect of the glitz and glamour could work in a space three times the size of the Riverside Studio. This was particularly apparent as the froth and bubbles of Act 1 turns into the tragedy of Act 2 as Myrtle and Jay Gatsby are killed while Daisy and Tom escape their responsibilities towards people they avowed to love.

Yes, The Great Gatsby holds much potential for becoming a really stunning musical.

Reviewed by Dr Josey De Rossi Friday 24 May 2013

Website :

 http://www.riversidestudios.co.uk/cgi-bin/page.pl?p=home01

 

 

Dido, Queen of Carthage

Dido, Queen of Carthage 

 

Genre: Drama

Venue: Greenwich Theatre Crooms Hill London SE10 8ES  

 

Low Down

 

 

There’s something quite brilliant about the way Ricky Duke deals with the realisation of poetic language in Dido Queen of Carthage. For me, he seems to work with the metaphors that characterise mythical places and peoples with a boldness of approach that is quite breathtaking. Coming into the Greenwich Theatre and viewing the pre-set of an arrangement of large umbrellas on a circular platform shrouded in mist grabbed my imagination from the outset. The intermingling of ‘gods’ into human affairs is presented quite starkly as extensions of what we now understand to be psychological impulses to be loved and to belong. Elaborate narrative schema is tied together with Dukes sharp understanding of giving each action on stage a motivation towards that end.

The love story of the Trojan hero Aeneas and Queen Dido caught up in Jupiter and Venus’s power play is transformed into a familiar contemporary problem of lovers yearning to find a place to exist.  But this is not the ‘star-crossed’ nature of tragedy of warring families as we see in Romeo and Juliet.  It is the tragedy of adult lovers who for a moment step out of their roles: Aeneas in his destined role of the founder of the glory of Roman civilisation and Dido of the limits of her role as ruler of Carthage.

Review

 

I loved watching the wonderfully inventive use of the circular performance space and the startling entrances and exits of the play’s characters, which seems to me to be a trademark of Duke’s brilliance as a director. Nonetheless, I wished I had a theatre program in my hand that mapped the complex relationships of Homer’s and Virgil’s mythical heroes. The relatively lesser known and studied plays of Christopher Marlowe means that audiences would not be as familiar with his characters as those of Shakespeare’s.  This was my experience on the night as I grappled with understanding Aeneas’ relationship with Venus his mother and his imperative to get to Rome.

The lack of a good theatre program aside, I saw how Duke took every opportunity to flag the importance of location and relationships in the dialogue.  The ensemble did extremely well to naturalise the demanding monologues and dialogue.  But I believe that it came at the cost of their presentation of raw emotions to which the words allude. I found there is still too much in the production that seems like working out ideas rather than showing the unbridled passion of tragic love. Ironically, this is not what the opening moments between the lusty Jupiter and Ganymede would suggest. However, the rest of the play seems quite prim and proper.  For instance, the scene in the cave in which Aeneas and Dido first consummate their love is presented more like naughty romp.

I imagine that the play is still unfolding for the company’s 16 players who work as an excellent ensemble.  Alice Brown as Dido and Joseph Tweedale as Aeneas can be applauded for their roles as the lovers but I feel they should push themselves further in exploring the desperate motivation of their tragic situation. The interplay between Dido’s rejected lover Iarbus, played by Robin Holden, and Dido’s sister Anna, played by Gemma Beaton, provide a good balance which which could be portrayed with even more cruelty.

Special mention should be made of the use of a puppet for the child, and Aeneas’s son, Ascanius. The presence of the manipulated puppet gives a literal dimension to the way the character is used as a hostage in the drama between Dido’s desire to keep Aeneas. The other roles of the Trojan and Carthagian mortals are all strongly presented: by Danny Solomon  as Sergestus, Dominic Attenborough as Hedro , Mathew Foster as Achates, Nellie McQuinn as Nurse, Stephen MacNeice as Cloanthus, Stuart Mortimer as both Prologue and Ilioneus. This can also be said of the portrayal of the gods through Elle Dillon-Reams as Cupid, Harper James as both Ganymede and Mercury, Jen Holt  as Juno, Lewis Davidson  as Jupiter and  Lucy Hagan-Walker  as Venus. I was particular impressed by the way their characterisation was spectacularly reinforced by Alice Pocock’s stunning costume designs and Rachel Smith’s lighting design.

I hope that Dido remains in Lazarus Theatre’s repertoire for many years.  I suggest that it is well on its way of becoming a stunning production which deserves to be embraced by many audiences globally who love English-speaking classical drama.

Reviewed by Dr Josey De Rossi Wednesday 15 May 2013

Website :

 http://www.greenwichtheatre.org.uk/