Namatjira

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

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!!

 

 

 

 

Ruben Guthrie

Ruben Guthrie 

 

Genre: Drama

Venue:  New Wimbledon Studio  The Broadway, London SW19 1QG

 

Low Down

 

 

IronBark Theatre, a company specialising in presenting Australian theatre in the UK, produced an excellent production of Ruben Guthrie, an award-winning play by an acclaimed young Australian playwright, Brendon Cowell at the New Wimbledon Studio. The play premiered in 2008 in Sydney at the Belvoir Theatre Downstairs: a production by Belvoir’s Company B which went on to win Play of the Year (Time Out Sydney) and to be shortlisted for the Sydney Theatre Award for Best New Australian Work. Cowell was also shortlisted that year for the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Award. Judging from what I experienced at the New Wimbledon, the play continues to engage audiences in Australia, New Zealand and now London. Its London production delivered a wide range of emotions: from brutally honest views on alcoholism and drug addiction through to desperately tender moments showing human desire in the complex hedonistic world of mass advertising and personal consumption.

Review

 

 

As a creator and writer of advertisements, Ruben Guthrie knows how to deliver what people want. The image of a refrigerator full of ice-cold Coke planted on an Iraqi street, in sight of thirsty soldiers on patrol in the Middle Eastern heat, is just one ironic image in the opening monologue. Such an unlikely occurrence is set to disconcert the audience as it steadily comes to know the lone figure on stage, Ruben Guthrie, seated with his arm in a sling and his forehead bearing stitches. The immediate realisation that the well-defined white square stage is the encircled empty space of an AA meeting, propels it into playing what Augusto Boal termed the role of ‘spect-actor’: an audience both detached from yet also participating in the drama. However, unlike Boal’s didactic Forum Theatre, Cowell uses the audience’s ironic views to draw on a depth of compassion and understanding. Its judgement of Ruben Guthrie’s actions are held tantalisingly just within reach yet also paradoxically impossible to hold onto as the permutations of the play’s motivations and their implications evolve.

Nicola Samer’s artistic direction and Alyson Cummin’s design are intelligent and subtle as they apply both a naturalistic style and a more symbolic and iconic set design. This pairing is foundational to the relationship between the presentation of Ruben’s character and the stage/life that he occupies. Situations and conflicts through various encounters with his boss, parents, girlfriends and best friend literally leave their mark on the floor. For me, it was like watching skin being bruised and torn as the inherent violence of self-destructive remained forever present in the play’s staging.

Nick Hardcastle’s portrayal of Ruben is very engaging.  What’s not to love about a good-looking, fun-loving and highly imaginative young man? Ruben is the complete package: boarding school education, high-paid job, a beautiful fiancée and a string of event showing him having great times. But Hardcastle’s realisation of the role relies on Ruben’s defiance of reality as he ignores his psychological and physical limitations and fuels his experiences with alcohol and drugs. As he sits soberly in the AA meeting we learn that this literally causes him to crash land as his injuries are the result of him flying off a hotel balcony into a swimming pool below. As a latter-day Icarus, this is made more poignant as he goes onto reveal how his mother and girlfriend have forced him to come to the meeting because he was nearly killed by in fact ending up in a children’s wading pool.

Nicola Samer direction of the ensemble, which moves on and off the stage from that point on, is masterful.  She sets up the world around the stage like a spinning satellite around the action which mostly takes place in Ruben’s flat: his bathroom off stage left; the street in which he has the altercation with his girlfriend off centre stage; and his parents’ successful restaurant somewhere way-out-there are all part of Ruben’s epic quest towards sobriety. The performances give a sense of being arranged as a series of stand-up, duo and trio acts.  Only once in the whole play are all the cast members on stage at the same time. This occurs at a profound moment in the second half of the play when all the complex contradictions of Ruben’s life lead to his relapse as ‘they’ – the people in his life –  destroy his willpower and so drive him to drink. Such an objectification of the problem skilfully doubles as part of the problem itself.

The ensemble of seven characters, which IronBark brought together for the production, creates memorable performances. Rose O’Loughlin’s as Ruben’s young girlfriend Zoya, a photographic model from the Czech Republic, reveals a struggle for identity which is robustly portrayed alongside her own complicity in choosing to work in the fame-producing industry. Ruben’s other love interest is Virginia, an ex-junkie whose participation in AA resembles an evangelical born-again energy. Virginia sets out to reform Ruben as she works to negotiate the minefield of her own traumatic life, which is hinted to contain sexual as well as physical abuse. Most noticeably, both Zoya and Virginia are not just Ruben’s girlfriends but hold the status of fiancée: the term distinguishes these two women from the one-night stands which drink obliterates from memory. Such a distinction ties into the ‘madonna’ and ‘whore’ split in which Ruben’s treats women in general: he is respectful, kind and supportive one moment and abusive and predatory in the next. Jemma Walker gives a great portrayal of the paranoid and righteous Virginia. She seems to be able to contrast herself in relation to the other women in the play: with Zoya, the maturing child-bride, and Mum, the menopausal woman who damns herself for losing her husband’s sexual interest.

Timothy Knightley’s portrayal of Ruben’s boss, Ray, is clear and strong: his one-dimensional nature well-motivated by the character’s defended position that shows that while he has survived his own harrowing fight with alcoholism, he has no intention to assist Ruben. Quite the contrary, his success as an advertising manager is to engender the ‘creative genius’ in Ruben to make advertisements, for instance, for selling young girls sweet, lollipop coloured alcoholic drinks. Ray portrays all the galling hypocrisy of a pusher who abstains from wasting his own life on the drugs he is nonetheless prepared to pedal.

Edmund Dehn’s portrayal of Peter, Ruben’s father, and Virge Gilchrist’s role as the nameless ‘Mum’ are the most caricature- like roles in the play: Peter as a put-another-scrimp-on-the-barbie type Aussie male and Mum as a type of conservative woman thought to be found in Australia’s Country Women’s Association or Karrakatta Club. Aspirational members of the baby-boomer generation, Ruben’s parents have done well for themselves: they have sent their son to boarding school and have run a successful business yet –  also true to type –  around their thirtieth year of marriage the wheels come off their relationship. Dad ‘runs off’ and has an affair with a much younger woman (ironically presented in the play as a docile Asian woman who serves him). With this, Mum is left alone in the family home to analyse ‘what went wrong’: both in her relationship with her own alcoholic father and her marriage to another alcoholic. The audience is reminded of this as Virge Gilchrist shows a particularly wonderful sense of comic timing and bathos as Mum comes on stage at various times with the latest ‘brochure’ from which she reads the latest advice.

The last character we encounter in the play is Ruben’s best friend Damian whose homosexuality is portrayed as a kind of bacchanalian revelry of endless sex romps and drug-induced freedom. I found Tom Feary-Campbell treatment of the role the least satisfying: while he portrayed Damian’s love for Ruben clearly enough, somehow the portrayal was to gave little sense of the inner struggle that I saw in other roles.

Taken together, each role added to the story by showing how alcoholism exists intergenerationally: deeply entrenched in both our families and cultures. I was profoundly moved by the young audience members around me as they engaged with the unfolding events: in one case, even speaking back to the actions with comments like ‘can you believe it?’, ‘oh no, come on…’ – all comments which further revealed for me the way the production was able to elicit from the audience the dual perspective of spect-actor.  People remained in the auditorium for at least fifteen minutes after the show, discussing the play and talking to the actors, director and producers.  Some of the conviviality I’m sure was due to the many Australians present who perhaps lingered together more than they would because of the play’s many Australian references. But in truth, for me it made little difference that the play was ‘Australian’: I believe it just as well could have been staged by replacing the geographic references to Sydney’s Surrey Hills and Centennial Park with their local London equivalents of Southwark (like Surrey Hills containing good theatres and close to the city centre) and Hyde Park.

In fact, I began to get annoyed with what seemed to me to be overly exaggerated Australian accentsInstead, I viewed Brendan Cowell’s play as the work of a more cosmopolitan Australian artist who was prepared to move into the complex urban sprawl of cultural and personal encounters that consume us regardless of our specific geography.  As Cowell demonstrates, such an interrogation of our humanity need not lead to thoughtless generalisations and insipid artistic work.  Quite the contrary, IronBark Theatre’s production Ruben Guthrie shows the best of many worlds: as particular and detailed as the individual the audience comes to know in the play as Ruben Guthrie and as cross-cultural and epic as all humans prepared to confront what it means to be fully present in and responsible for living with the important people in our lives.

Reviewed by Josey De Rossi 16 March 2012

Website :

 http://www.ironbarkpresents.com/IronBark/Home.html

http://www.facebook.com/pages/Ruben-Guthrie/105824166213651

Autumn Fires

Autumn Fires 

 

Genre: Drama

Venue: Finborough Theatre 118 Finborough Road London SW10 9ED

 

Low Down

 

 

The revolutionary nature of Dublin’s Abbey Theatre is well documented through plays by Sean O’Casey and his tackling of Irish Nationalism.  Perhaps less remembered is the nuanced ways in which social realism enabled Irish playwrights to critically view the social conservatism of Irish society under the influence of women as ‘God’s police’.  T. C. Murray’s Autumn Fire explores sexual desire around a ‘May – December’ coupling of young Nance to a virile older man, Owen Keegan. Questions of masculine physical prowess are set alongside those of the ‘natural order of things’, as the couple move through their secret courtship and marry at the expense of keeping in motion family hostilities. Director Veronica Quilligan shapes the truth of human desires in delicate ways as she gives the story a space to be reimagined beyond Ireland in the1920s.

Review

 

Nonetheless, the attraction of Autumn Fire is very much tied up with experiencing the melodious sounds of it Irish brogue. It is language, rather than physical touch, which is the key factor that seems to bind and repel characters in the play. The opening scene, for instance, is a confronting dialogue between Nance and Ellen, who, as future wife and daughter of Owen Keegan, are the two women who fuel key dramatic turning points of the drama. Ellen Keegan, strongly portrayed by Aoife McMahon, possesses a shrewish tongue and a desperate need to rule over her father’s house as if it was her own. She knows that her marital prospects have vanished. Why she has this view of herself isn’t revealed until much later in the play: a fact that Murray seems to deliberately arrange to maximise Ellen’s shrewishness.

So, the audience is immediately confronted in the opening scene by Nance and Ellen’s antagonism. The beautiful Nance and the plain looking Ellen are further characterised through contrasting styles of dress: Ellen in her shapeless house frock and faded apron and Nance, an accomplished dressmaker, in her little autumnal-burnt-orange dress that shows off her lovely legs and arms. However, it is demanding language of the play which resurfaces many times as actors stumbled over their lines: an occurrence which is likely to change as the season develops.

The production’s set, lighting and costume designers create the rural ambience of village life, a life in which everyone’s behaviour is scrutinised.  The set design by Phillip Lindley consists of a raised platform upstage, on which the kitchen table is placed, separated from the auditorium by a large thrust stage.  This thrust doubles as both an indoor and outdoor setting  – the Keegan’s front yard, the front porch and Nance’s sewing room. It is a platform on which promises of love are negotiated and fought about: above all, it is the arena in which Owen Keegan’s passions are expressed before they are cooled by theinfirmities of age.

Sophia Anastasiou’s costume designs are a central motif of the drama. They range from elegant country squire attire, worn by the Keegan men – Owen, his son Michael and brother Morgan – to the darker and more sombre dresses of Ellen Keegan and Nance’s mother and the colourful dresses worn by the flirty Molly Hurley and the beautiful Nance Desmond.  Even as ‘Mrs Keegan’ Nance dress embodies the rich tones of the earth in which the harvesters’ reap the autumn harvest. All the design elements are integrated well and evoke the characters’ desperate attempting to suppress their sexual desires and romantic sensibilities.

This is particularly true of central character, Owen Keegan, whose desire for the much younger Nance, who is the same age as his children, cannot be sustained. Luke Hayden’s portrayal is convincing as the larger-than-life local hurling hero. His accomplishments enchant Nance from the moment she sets eyes on him on her return from ‘the town’ to the village to care for her mother. The drama then shows how the natural development of the attraction that grows between Nance and Owen’s son, Michael, cannot be consummated. The only comfort to be is found comes through the cold comfort of righteousness.  The truth of lost love and impossibility of a meaningful emotional union is poignantly enacted in the closing moments of the play as Ellen’s moral victory over Nance is set against her father’s brokenness.

I very much enjoyed Autumn Fires and its fine ensemble of actors. If I have any reservations it comes from the fact that I was never totally convinced by the lack of Nance’s and Owen’s physical displays of passion.  I found myself asking why doesn’t there exist a more overt display of affection between them, one that is aligned with the portrayal of a hearty Owen who arrives on stage perfectly capable of holding a woman in his arms and pressing up close to her. Similarly, I asked myself why Murray would write into Ellen’s part frequent references to Nance’s ability to manipulate through her looks and feminine wiles yet I saw no hint of her sexual powers to draw Owen towards her? Aside from these questions, it is always interesting for this theatre historian to view the forgotten work of a good playwright.

Reviewed by Josey De Rossi 5 March 2012

Website :

 http://www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk/productions/2012/autumn-fire.php

 

Miss Hope Springs…Sings Her Songs

 

 

 

Genre: Cabaret and Burlseque

Venue:  Leicester Square Theatre 6 Leicester Place, London WC2H 7BX

 

Low Down

 

 

Every element of Ty Jeffries’ performance of Miss Hope Spring is done in style: that is, in the style of cabaret, female impersonation and solo performer in the spotlight. The realisation of a character from a bygone era of 1960s variety shows, who is forever on the brink of become ‘a star’, is absolutely engaging from start to finish.

The show begins with Miss Hope Springs having to manoeuvring the tiny stage space of the Leicester Square Theatre basement studio, which Ty Jeffries uses with gusto and finesse to show Miss Hope’s indomitable sense of optimism as she retells the vagaries of life pursuing a less than stellar career.  Her first revelation to the audience is that her husband, Irving, has left after thirty years for a gorgeous twenty-seven year old. The turning of the joke to reveal that the younger woman is, in fact, a man is sprung on the audience with a perfect sense of timing. It is wonderful moment, one of many which throughout the show brings the gender politics of traditional and gay marriages present yet never mentioned.

Review

 

 

Miss Hope Springs…Sings Her Songs is poised on building stories around well-known stars of the era like Shirley Maclaine linked with other names of lesser stars such as Tab Hunter. The constellation of brighter and smaller lights makes the stories strangely credible.  Its clear to see contemporaries of Miss Hope in the audience nodding at her allusions of flamboyant celebrity pool parties of the 1960s as well as their quiet thoughtfulness when she wonders where might such promising careers have gone.

Such a range of emotions makes for a show of considerable depth and interest in which the 12 songs are set to equally great effect. Through them, we come to know Miss Hope ‘the Star’ as she gives us as a seemingly private view of what she might have been. To do this, the lyrics of each song reveal lost love and innocence set against a gritty defiance of Miss Hope’s character.

Equally, the arrangement of Jeffries’ music through the composer’s blending of keyboard, drums and double bass is highly accomplished. The dynamics are continuously refreshing to listen to as Sam Glasson works magic through his drums and Nigel Thomas evokes the deep undertones of his bass.

It would be too easy perhaps to compare Miss Hope to other would-be stars such as Dame Edna Everage. However, Edna is far more in line with the sharp-tongued dame of the pantomime tradition. Miss Hope Springs is a ‘new woman’, altogether far more sympathetic to the character of the unrealised star whose talent remains unnoticed. Consequently, she is more heroic in her quest ‘to be herself’.

In the final moments of the show, when she reveals that she will not be returning to her errant husband but has decided instead to live on her own, she seems completely resolved. The moment hangs in the air with its many, many ironies: not the least perhaps because by the end of the show Miss Hope seems to represent the unfulfilled lives of her generation of ‘baby boomers’ who, once the wild children of the 1960s, now find themselves in middle age remembering their near-accomplishments and many adventures.

Reviewed by Josey De Rossi 2 February 2012

Website :

 http://www.leicestersquaretheatre.com/home

www.misshopesprings.com

Freedom

Freedom 

 

Genre: Drama

Venue: Arcola Theatre 24 Ashwin Street, Dalston, London E8 3DL

 

Low Down

 

 

When I walked into the Arcola Theatre’s studio space to view Freedom, the stage seemed unusually disjointed from the hemisphere-shaped auditorium seating arrangement. The back wall of the set seemed very detailed yet at least half the seats faced a side-on view. As I wasn’t quick enough to get a seat facing the stage front-on, I missed eighty per cent of the action: for instance, Indranyl Singharay’s portrayal of Fariad, the son, in the first fifteen to twenty minutes of dialogue with Rian Perle (playing his father Benham) was totally lost to me as Fariad was totally masked from view. Consequently, I could not appreciate one expression or gesture, which accompanied the strong clear voice with whom I was desperately attempting to engage. Every element of the production’s design worked to prevent my clear view of Fariad: specifically, the fact that Benham sat or stood on a raised platform in traditional flowing robes of a Tajikistan man while Fariad mostly crouched at floor level.

Review

 

 

For a fleet moment at the very beginning of the play, the drama gripped me with its image of Fariad, looking every bit like a fighting guerrilla soldier encountering his father’s comment that he could stop playing the part as ‘the danger’ was over. While at this point, the audience does not know the nature of the threat, the overt links to ‘Middle East Terrorists’ is plain to see. This fleeting promise, however, is followed by twenty minutes of frustration.

 

The frustrations sums up the production for me: even while I came to value Rick Limentini writing and direction and Rebeca Cobos’, Indranyl Singharay’s and Rian Perle’s acting. I also came to appreciate Rebeca Cobos’ courage as a producer prepared to stage such a difficult and testing story.

 

Nonetheless, I believe that the company did not pay sufficient enough attention to how the audience might be expected to view their important story.  My side-on seat view of the stage, for instance, provoked me desperately enough to wonder if anyone in the production crew had checked out for ‘blind spots’ around the house. Had anyone looked at how Jennifer’s imprisonment in the barn might be literally viewed from where I sat?

 

So absolute was the masking of stage action for me that at one stage I began to entertain the view that perhaps the creative team had deliberately set up such sight linesHowever, there were too many other indicators that ‘did not add’ up dramaturgically. Primarily, how the play seemed to ambitiously characterise Fariad as a young man straight off a farm in Tajikistan who, in extraordinary leaps of fortune and coincidence, ends up composing ballads for a London-based rock band.  Here I claim some personal knowledge as I know was it takes for migrant ‘kids’ like me who are the first of their generation to go to university and straddle the vast divide between their family’s cultural beliefs and those in their academic and working lives.

 

As it is an enormous distance to cover, I wondered if a ‘less is more’ approach might not serve the narrative better: that is, that the drama should go into moredepth in dealing with the father and son’s relationship and Fariad and Jennifer’s cultural dilemmas. In this way, the tensions which living between Tajikistan and London brings for Fariad and his opium-growing family should be considered in considerable more detail.  Arthur Miller reminded readers in an interview for The Independent in 1995 that his rule in playwrighting was the principle that

“Generalisation is the death of art. It’s in the details where God resides. If I could pray for anything, it would be to get more details.”

 

The story framed in Freedom is sufficiently interesting and original to engage a contemporary audience.  In particular, it is the story of the persistent dilemma faced by many, many first and second-generation ‘kids’ who know only too well how their family histories are full of compromised ethical questions due to desperate economic circumstances and war. But children remain truly helpless in the face of their parents’ and family’s legacy: what previous generations have done ‘for a living’ can set, as it did for Fariad, the course for the quality of their lives through no fault of their own. In contemporary terms, as education and technology allow us to grow more aware of how cross-cultural and gender issues impact on the day-to-day happenings of our everyday lives, the present generation rightly questions how it might have family relationships free from the destructive histories of past and be free to find their own place in the world.

 

I fully applaud the staging of Freedom and I hope that its producer and artists receive the support from audiences that that reflects their interesting dramatic narrative.

 

Reviewed by Josey De Rossi 30 January 2012

Website :

 http://www.arcolatheatre.com/

Blind Date & 27 Wagons Full Of Cotton

 

Genre: Short Plays

Venue: Riverside Studios Crisp Road London W6 9RL

 

Low Down

 

Does advertising a play as  “rarely performed” excite you or raise your suspicions about the play’s entertainment value? I have to say that for me the latter is sometimes true. I’m likely to respond  more positively if the play is the work of a respected playwright, either an early or ‘forgotten’ work for example. For this reason, I applaud Make&Bake Production’s choice of Blind Date by Horton Foote & 27 Wagons Full Of Cotton by Tennessee Williams, though Williams is certainly better known that the Pulitzer and Oscar Award winning Foote.  Nonetheless, perhaps the full-house I was part of in Studio 3 at Riverside Studios on Friday night indicates how the London fringe is key to widening an audience’s experience of the works of respected dramatists.

 

Review

 

Director Suresh Patel suggests in the programme that “both plays explore the repercussions that arise when… compassion breaks down between neighbours”. Then he adds that the plays “create two distinct worlds that nonetheless echo each other in various ways.” And indeed he seems to achieve a unity of purpose for the two plays through their use of similar design elements and doubling up of roles. A cut-away back wall is used in the set design of both: in Blind Date it represents the wall of a sitting room in a family home in Texas and in 27 Wagons Full Of Cotton it is the wall of the front porch in the cotton-growing area of Louisiana.

The style of design further suggests that the action happens in the 1930s or 40s (the 1930s for Blind Date given that Rudy Vallee’s radio show is alluded to and heard on stage). The four actor ensemble of Ross Ericson, Louise Templeton, Francesca Fenech and Sebastian Knapp double up to play husband and wife Robert and Dolores and Dolores’s niece Sarah Nancy and gentleman caller Felix in Blind Date and husband and wife Jake and Flora and their neighbour Silva Vicarro in 27 Wagons Full Of Cotton.

In placing the plays side by side, the audience cannot help notice how both plays exude a sense of America’s deep south.  For instance, women in both plays are characterise as being or aspiring to southern ‘belles’: so we see Dolores, a beautiful and personable wife and social organiser and Flora, a skittish and vulnerable young beauty. Louise Templeton’s is wonderful in the role.

The configuration of both the pairing of characters in the first play and the forced and unnatural ménage a trois in the second shows that perhaps it wasn’t only the theme of compassion between neighbours that Foote and Williams explore in their plays but the role of women in the domestic economy of finding a marriage partner and setting up married life. It is a theme that Williams is fascinated with in Glass Menagerie.

In Blind Date the comically drawn characters of Robert (Ericson) and Dolores (Templeton) are compared to the awkward Sarah Nancy (Fenech) and her ill-equipment suitor Felix (Knapp). The married couple manoeuvrings around their domestic squabbles in front of the younger pair are very funny. The darker and more sinister characters of 27 Wagons Full Of Cotton’s of cotton ginning Jake (Ericson), his child-bride Flora (Fenech) and their Italian neighbour Silva Vicarro (Knapp) represent a distinctive difference from the comic roles we see them play previously. Firstly this is shown through Jake’s violence towards his wife and the destruction of his neighbour’s property. Then through Silva’s revenge against Jake exacted through Flora and lastly, Flora’s realisation that Jake fails her as both a man and husband.

Francesca Fenech’s is able to affect Flora’s previously girlish giggles to communicate her character’s tragic circumstance: the audience hears her child-like laughter become utterly tragic by the end of the play. It is to Fenech’s credit that she does not overplay the sentiment by making the young woman’s sadness hysterical.

If I have any criticism of the double-bill it is to do with two matters: the first relates to the actors use of American southern accents that seem to geographically assimilate Texas and Louisiana. This was unfortunate in making the two plays less differentiated than they might have been. The second is to do with the lack of subtlety in which Williams’s male characters menace Flora. In this way, the line between Jake’s caresses and physically restraining of Flora might have appeared more difficult to judge as intentional or otherwise. Nonetheless, I found the evening reacquainting me with the powerful work two great American playwrights.

Reviewed by Josey De Rossi Friday 28th October

Website :

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

My Hometown is in my Shoes/ The Other

 

 

Genre: Dance and Movement Theatre

Venue: Blue Elephant Theatre, 59a Bethwin Rd (Entrance in Thompson’s Ave), Camberwell, London, SE5 0XT  

 

Low Down

 

My evening at the Blue Elephant Theatre gave me something to think about how I come to view performances that demand knowledge of non-Western cultural forms. An evening of butoh-inspired dance is by definition deliberately difficult to describe conventionally, so saying, for instance, that conceptually The Other is about a moth and a man moving towards the light and that My Hometown is in my Shoes is an exploration of how shoes have a big bearing on how you connect to locus, your place of belonging and your home, sounds a bit shallow. Based on my limited understanding, this may be because the central tenet of butoh avant garde dance is not about ‘anything’ but about the absurd and grotesque embodiment of human movement itself.

 

Review

 

The first thing that is striking about The Other and My Hometown is in my Shoes is the clear lines and conscious attention to detail, both choreographically and through performance elements such as their use of costuming, projection and lighting.

 

The Other is devised by Sonal, Genovel Andrei Alexa and Lucia Tong and performed by duo Alexa and Tong who represent the ‘man’ and the ‘moth’. The simple elegance of the dynamic projection (by SOnal, Luc Song & Maaike Anne Stevens) of a growing tree upstage centre contrasted to the stillness of the two dancers in front of the large (but not cycloramic) screen is an absorbing opening. The man wields a staff and is costumed in the white robes commonly associated with sage-like males – Socrates, Plato et all. He stands upstage on the left side of the screen. The moth is still cocooned as a larvae-like slug in a white Martha Graham ‘body bag’ in which its body is beginning to emerge.

 

The multi-foci are surprisingly hard to take in all at once: the changing image on screen which seems to be yelling its references to a patriarchal Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve and the ‘Tree of Knowledge’. As I try to concentrate on the figures on screen to verify who they are I miss the movements of the performers on stage and visa versa. Similarly, as I look at the slowly emerging Moth I miss the upstage movements of the Man wielding his staff in warrior-like style. Perhaps this is the point…perhaps it is not.

 

For the majority of the time in the dance, however, the audience watches the emergence of the moth through the chrysalis and then through the man’s unwrapping of her wings which are wrapped in tightly bound rope. The release of wings is quite spectacular as yards and yards of black shiny cloth literally unfold against her small slim body.

 

The culmination of the performance is the contradictory image of a dominating and fully emerged beautiful black creature, created through shiny, satin body bodice and wings and the Lucia Tong’s long black hair. The tension seems palpable and is held fixedly as the lights dim to black and the performance ends. Could it be a temporary domination which might be overturned in an instant?

 

The other half of the programme, My Hometown is in my Shoes (Mi Patria son mis zapatos), is a very different piece.  Choreographer and dancer, Florencia Guerberof, focuses on moving feet and the variety of shoes that dress them. It is extremely energetic and Guerberof’s accomplishes a polish and precision in her racy expose of walking and running.

 

The dance opens with musician Elizabeth Nott on percussion beating out a rapture of rhythms which is then given over to the rhythmic pulses of Guerberof prostrate body, wearing well-worn men’s shoes which seem a little too big for her petite frame. Remaining on her back, she ‘dances’ as if she was standing up. It is a uniquely disconcerting view of dancing itself, as the feet flay about not making contact with the solid floor.

 

The choregraphy seemed to then be framed by dance phrases which ranged from quasi-tap routines and Spanish flamenco but which at no stage become these styles. All movement is subverted into further frenetic movement which is occasionally the cause of the dancer’s too-hysterical laughter and Najib Coutya’s wonderful singing and playing of the oud.

 

The final image of the dancer at the centre of a circle created by a variety of pairs of shoes was very curious. As she ‘tries’ different ones they call up different responses and movements and so ‘the dance’ continues in its distortion of a ‘variety show’ of this and that and another thing about continuous movement. The impression is of fleeting steps that seem to barely touch the earth. Perhaps this is the point about shoes and homes…perhaps it is not. Regardless, I look forward to viewing further work by Florencia Guerberof whose vision for seeing new material for dance seems to match her talent to create it.

 

As the programme specifically alluded to ‘butoh-inspired dance’, the audience is left in a sense with no choice but view the work as experimental and avant garde. The composition of the two companies that work to create The Other and My Hometown is in my Shoes are in themselves cross-cultural and it would be interesting to know how important that had been in the creation of their ‘butoh-inspired’ work. The performances have left me with more questions about how such experimental work comes into being. Perhaps I have been butoh inspired

Reviewed by Josey De Rossi Thursday 6th October 2011

Website :

 http://www.blueelephanttheatre.co.uk/

http://www.florenciaguerberof.com/florencia_guerberof/home.html

J’ai Deux Amours: The Josephine Baker Story

J’ai Deux Amours: The Josephine Baker Story 

 

Genre: Musical Theatre

Venue: Etcetera Theatre 265 Camden High Street London NW1 7BU

 

Low Down

 

Cush Jumbo received a standing ovation from many members of the audience at the Etcetera Theatre on the opening night of her one-woman show J’ai Deux Amours: The Josephine Baker Story. There were many good reasons I could see for this: her great singing voice, her versatility in taking on different characters while telling Josephine Baker’s biography and, above all, her engaging energy. While acknowledging these qualities, however, my reaction to her presentation of Josephine Baker herself was less enthusiastic: mainly because in the end I felt that I came to know and feel little more about Baker than I’d already pick up over the years about her extraordinary life in both America and France – her Deux Amours.

 

Review

 

As previous critics have noted, Cush Jumbo is clearly one of London’s great young actors. Her versatile performance skills show an all singing, dancing and acting talent with high energy and tremendous focus and concentration. But on choosing Josephine Baker as her subject she chose a subject who continues to be difficult to contain in any story depicting her rise to fame. For this reason, Cush Jumbo’s depiction of Baker, virtually from the start of her life in a childhood of poverty to just moments before she dies at 68 as an extremely famous person, is extraordinarily ambitious.

 

The encounter between ‘the young woman from Lewisham’ watching the glamorous star on the screen at the start of the show holds the delightful promise of a personal relationship between two ambitious women which I thought was about to be explored: but once the switch is made into the Josephine Baker role, the young English girl is forgotten until the end. In her place, Cush Jumbo performs Baker largely in chronological sequence, after enacting her acceptance speech on being awarded the Croix de Guerre, Légion d’Honneur and Rosette of the Résistance for her bravery during WW2 and another scene in which she is refused entrance through the front door of New York’s Rosemount Hotel. The Rosemount Hotel scene is particularly strong in the way it shows racism as a kind of skin-prickling and gut-wrenching physical attack on her person as she listens to the porter’s request that she use the back entrance.

 

After this, the chronological sequence shows a poignant portrayal her parent’s turbulent relationship and how her mother sees young Josephine as competing for her husband’s affections. Dressed in a dirty, ragged non-descript gown, young Josephine McDonald ‘dances’ through her story as she watches her sad mother lives on tiny ‘little bits of happiness’ of the occasional soft embrace from her largely absent partner.

 

From this point onwards the scenes come as a series of ever climbing moments to success and fame: her job waitressing at The Old Chauffeur’s Club; her first marriage to Willie Wells, then her pregnancy and delivery of a stillborn daughter at 13; her subsequent divorce from Willie and return to work at Chauffeur’s Club and meeting her second husband, another Willie but this time Willie Baker, from whom she receives her famous surname. At this stage of the show, the audience receives an exhibition of Cush Jumbo the versatile dancer of tap and chorus line as she tells the story of moving from dancing on the street to a small theatre in St Louis to a stage in New York and then to Paris.

 

The rapid succession of scenes is dizzyingly rapid and I felt that the show could have benefited from changes of pace.  Instead, the showy energy minimises some extraordinary facts of Baker’s life in order to get across the broad expanse of her life. Most alarmingly, as a writer Cush Jumbo normalizes Baker’s early sexual experiences, marriage to someone fourteen years her senior, followed by pregnancy and the birth of a stillborn daughter as a kind of ‘step one’ and the bottom-most rung of climbing the ladder towards her fame. In fact, nothing about her sexuality  – her promiscuity and bisexuality  – is dealt with in any substantial way. I recognize the problems of what material is included or cut from a biographical performance project. But why, for instance, do Josephine Baker’s two American husbands get presented to the audience and not her two subsequent European ones – Frenchman Jean Lion (from whom she attained French citizenship) and French orchestra leader Jo Bouillon in 1947 (who helped to raise her 12 adopted children)? Couldn’t these relationships have served in further exploring J’ai Deux Amours and Baker as an American and a French citizen?

 

Perhaps the most problematic treatment in the show is Cush Jumbo’s handling of La Baker’s ‘savage’ nude dances that was the reason for Baker’s notoriety in the first place. The strength of describing the dance through its rhythmic beats is again promising. Yet, the question of nudity itself is passed off in American sitcom fashion as an outraged Baker comes to terms with the word ‘nude’ spoken through the speech inflections of her French theatre manager.  To suggest that Baker was innocently caught up in the world of the Paris nightlife is not sustainable: nudity is at the heart of Josephine Baker’s performance history and inseparable from the subject of skin colour and ethnicity. Josephine Baker, the Amazonian statuesque woman on screen that we view at the end of the play is a jolt to the senses, one which reminded me how different she was from the innocent and polite portrayal of her which Cush Jumbo gives us in her rendition.

 

Undoubtedly, Cush Jumbo has ample material to create an entire musical on Josephine Baker’s life. As it is at present, the show is worthy viewing becauseof the extraordinary talent of Cush Jumbo herself.  I look forward to seeing if she can realize more of the complex and problematic Josephine Baker in the next version of her project.

 

Reviewed by Josey De Rossi Tuesday 20 September 2011

Website :

http://etceteratheatre.com/