The Tempest

 

Antic Disposition’s Tempest marks the 400th anniversary of the first recorded performance of the play before James I at Whitehall Palace in 1611. While that venue now no longer exists, the Middle Temple Hall’s direct link to another first performance of a Shakespearean play, Twelfth Night, in 1602, is crucial for maintaining historic and artistic links between the 2011 production and the Elizabethan theatre.

Antic Disposition’s Tempest shows how, as theatre designer Richard Southern’s (1968) claims, the Elizabethan theatre works as a ‘stage IN an audience’. As in the Globe, the performance space in the large, rectangular-shaped Middle Temple Hall is surrounded by the audience on three sides:  ‘the stage’ runs lengthwise from its entrance to the end of the hall, before finishing in front of a tiered seating area. Two rows of seats run parallel along its sides, beginning half way down the hall. This means that hall’s entrance doubles as both the upstage stage entrance and the doors through which the audience enter to get to their seats.

On entering, the audience find themselves ‘on stage’. Arguably, those who know The Tempest’s story see the cargo-like boxes strewn across the area and are reminded of the opening storm scene and shipwreck. Others less familiar with the tale, perhaps just experience the sombre lighting and irregularly placed boxes which make walking in the space unsettling as they decide the direction to their seat. The effect of Prospero’s magic island has begun viscerally and is already affecting a sea change. And so, director, Ben Horslen, and designer, John Risebero proceed to dismantle Elizabethan stage convention by using a mirror image of the Elizabethan stage to reflect The Tempest in contemporary ways.

The storm scene that opens The Tempest is effectively realised through use of a large white rope, which gives form to the both the wild weather battering the ship and the interference by an arrogant group of passengers who impair the crew’s ability to save the ship. The tension between elemental forces and human arrogance sets the tone of the play as predominantly political rather than ‘magical’.

The storm over, the audience now looks upon an argument between a daughter and a father, Miranda and Prospero. Curiously she is clothed in a plain, soiled dress that makes her look wild and unkempt while, her father is dressed in the cleanest and finest of clothes, complete with stunning coat of gold and sky blue. As the play proceeds, the difference in costuming becomes emblematic of Prospero’s relationship with the island and its inhabitants.  By the end of the play, we acknowledge that he is far more like the imperious characters that he seems to have arranged to be stranded on the island with him. By contrast, Miranda’s appearance and demeanour depict her as far more like the two ‘natives’ of the island, Ariel and Caliban.

Richard Franklin presents Prospero with extraordinary restraint. He is a gentle father who is preparing his headstrong daughter to leave the island and return to civilisation. He recognises the island’s effect on her: she is intelligent, strong and self-possessed.  Ami Sayers is stunningly good in the role: every word and movement are expressed with understanding, and she finds new meanings in many difficult passages.

Miranda’s strength also seems to affect the way Prospero is depicted as a magician. This can be viewed particularly through his interactions with Ariel: beginning from Ariel’s report on how he affected the storm through to all his interventions around the island, highlight Prospero’s dependency on him. The end confirms Ariel as the real spirit of the island and the one who enables Prospero to be reconciled to his past life and return to Milan.

Arguably, such an effective overturning of Prospero as the island’s master is made possible by a crucial editing out of the former Duke and would-be magician’s constant and imperious demand that Ariel obeys him since it was his magic that freed the spirit from the witch’s (Scoriax) spell.

Christopher Rowland’s Ariel is inspiring to watch.  His sense of space defines the island, and through him, the audience views the stage magic of moving and lighted boxes on stage. His singing channels James Burrows’ superb atmospheric music that brings another dimension to the play, though it seems as if Ariel is the music’s immediate composer as well as its instrument on stage.

The detailed rearrangement and altering of dramatic conventions seen in the three key roles of Prospero, Miranda and Ariel are evident throughout the production. We see it in the depiction of brotherly relationships (Prospero/Antonio, Alonso /Sebastian). We see it in the relationship between parents and children (Miranda/ Ferdinand), as well as between servants and masters (Gonzalo/ Trinculo/ Stephano/ Caliban).

The strength of Antic Disposition’s ensemble of actors is built on the strength of their clear understanding and use of Shakespeare’s script, imbued with stage direction embedded in its poetic language. Every performer in The Tempest exploited this convention and delivered surprising new meanings to the text. There were no weak performers in this production.

I recommend that Antic Disposition’s The Tempest deserves to be viewed widely, nationally and internationally, achieving well-deserved milestones along the way.  I warrant that it will be one of the best productions of the play audiences will see for a long time.

CREDITS: Tony Austin/ Caliban; Ben Benson/Boatswain & Trinculo; Maurice Byrne: Alonso; Callum Coates: Antonio; Richard Franklin/ Prospero; Alexander Jonas/ Sebastian; David Pibworth: Master of the ship & Stephano; Robin Rightmyer/ Ferdinand; Christopher Rowland / Ariel; Ami Sayers/ Miranda; Tony Wredden/ Gonzalo.

Directors: John Risebero & Ben Horslen; Designer: John Risebero; Lighting Designer: Howard Hudson; Music: James Burrows

Richard Southern (1968) The Seven Ages of the Theatre; with line drawings by the author (2nd ed.)

Reviewed by Josey De Rossi Saturday, 3rd September

 http://www.anticdisposition.co.uk/the-tempest.html

http://www.middletemple.org.uk/the_inn/History_of_the_Inn

The Conspirators

The Conspirators 

 

Genre: Comedy Drama

Venue: Orange Tree Theatre, 1 Clarence Street, Richmond, Surrey TW9 2SA  

 

Low Down

 

Sam Walters & The Orange Tree Theatre’s relationship with Vaclav Havel reveals a long and fruitful history, so its fitting that the artistic director stages the UK premiere ofThe Conspirators to begin the theatre’s 40th anniversary season. The play is a political satire, which Havel completed in 1971,  a rather neat excuse for a double celebration.  Part soap opera and part vaudeville, it portrays how a dystopia’s powerful elite pursues and plots against ‘conspiracy theories’.  Dramatic ironies ripple down through successive scenes like dominoes. The audience, placed in a position of viewing how imagined plots actually destroy the Rule of Law, comes to understand how would-be saviours of the State have their conspiracy theories confirmed and ‘the enemy’ – in Havel’s play the tyrant Olah – returns to rule again!

 

Review

 

 

The Conspirators is structured episodically around the home of a wealthy citizen (Helga & family), and offices of the judiciary (Dykl the Chief Prosecutor & other judges) and the police (Moher, Chief of Police & body guards). These three locations draw in a large ensemble of characters: five characters consisting of the rich widow Helga, the Chief of Police Moher, the Major Ofir, the State Prosecutor Dykl and the Censor Aram assemble, in various configurations, in every scene. In contrast, the poor prisoner Alfred Stein is limited to the Colonel’s office for interrogation & torture and the democratically elected Prime Minister is managed through the Chief Prosecutor and the Chief of Police.

 

The State we view on stage is unnamed geographically and the term ‘new democracy’ in 1971 (as in 2011) could have been applied to many places in South America, Eastern Europe and Africa. Havel’s dystopia is nonetheless easily identified as a society where choice and debate threaten those with vested interests. Consequently, the lead characters representing the politically powerful are continually looking for ‘strong’ and simple solutions.  To show their single-mindedness, Havel portrays them as performing certain actions and speeches repeatedly. This makes their paranoia seem simultaneously both more comic and sinister as it blends with an ethos of violence and sexual perversion for political gain.

 

The Conspirators was the first play that Havel wrote after his work had been banned in Czechoslovakia and that it took him five years to complete. Havel’s personal experience of a regime whose fears had given rise to conspiracy theories cannot be underestimated.

 

Sam Walter’s interpretation of Havel’s play as a naturalistic drawing-room comedy seems to work against his theatre’s configuration as theatre-in-the-round. There are too many scene-changes which require large pieces of furniture to be moved again and again. This results in unacceptable gaps in flow of entrances and exits on stage. Perhaps, more importantly, the set design and lighting undermine the pressurized political atmosphere which the characters are attempting to create through the Havel’s dialogue.  As a result, for instance,  Helga’s (Lucy Tregear) sexual manipulations of the Major, the Colonel and the Prosecutor remains virtually unrealizable.

 

Robyn Wilson’s costuming also seemed to be inconsistent:  sometimes realistically defining a particular time period and class of character and then, for other characters suggesting a non-naturalistic iconic effect.  For instance, the prisoner Stein wore the classic ‘old fashioned’ white and black-arrowed penal suit but had perfectly new and modern runners for footwear.   Military and police uniforms ranged from sword-carrying officer attire to jungle-camouflage.  Helga’s chic Paris frock in autumnal colours and her little girl shoes with pretty bows made her look like a modern woman. Its straight slim line looked totally unsuited for her sado-machistic scenes with the Colonel: surely in real life such a dress would have been taken off in order to run about as aggressively as is her desire.

 

Nonetheless, the production contains many good performances. Christopher Ravenscroft as Dykl the State Prosecutor was superb. He seems to build his character in detail in both a physical and symbolic sense and delivers a very fine representation of a powerful man past his potency. In doing so, Ravenscroft captures the failed sense of justice in the State in every part of his presentation. He shows how conspirators are often idealists who come to embody their unrealized passions, together with their loss of courage. The other impressive performance for me was the Censor whose depiction of inane stupidity flags the simpleminded pursuit of fear-driven power.

 

The Conspirators is a bold choice for a play which Orange Tree Theatre has chosen to launch its 40th anniversary. Despite some concerns with its direction and design, the production is worth viewing. Such political and artistic wisdom by both the Czechoslovakian playwright and Orange Tree is worth embracing.

 

 

 

Reviewed by Josey De Rossi Friday 3rd September 2011

Website :

www.orangetreetheatre.co.uk

Wittenberg

Wittenberg 

 

Genre: Comedy Drama

Venue: The Gate Theatre (Above the Prince Albert Pub) 11 Pembridge Road, London, W11 3HQ

 

Low Down

 

The programme verifies that the location before me represents Wittenberg, a place that changes the history of European Christiandom when in 1517 Martin Luther nails 95 theses (arguments) to the Castle Church door refuting Rome’s right sell his German parishioners indulgences (a kind of down payment for the remission for sins). More importantly, in doing so, he questions the Church’s spiritual authority… and so the Reformation begins. It is also clear from the outset of the play that Wittenberg is a university town, which is important enough location to have lived in Christopher Marlowe’s and William Shakespeare’s imaginations when they connected their tragic heroes, Faustus and Hamlet respectively, to it.

 

Review

 

Opening the theatre programme, it is striking how quickly the subtitle for David Davalos’s Wittenberg of “A Tragical-Comical-Historical in Two Acts” propels thoughts of Polonius and his feigning intellectualism in Act 2, Scene 2 of Hamlet as he advises young Hamlet on “tragical-comical-historical-pastoral, scene individable, or poem unlimited”.  And then comes further and more worrying thoughts. Does that mean that there will be a good deal of ‘spotting historical and literary allusion’ for the rest of the evening? Hasn’t Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern shown us enough about using Elizabethan stagecraft to explore the existentialist angst?

 

However the questions are quickly dismissed as we encounter the stage design, a set consisting of dilapidated and dusty shelving, religious paintings and a crucifix or two. A damaged and dirty heraldic crest hangs gingerly at the centre of a curtained proscenium arch which resembles the curtained area on an Elizabethan theatre.

What kind of a playwright does Wittenberg make Davalos? Comic-Absurdist? Tragi-Brechtian? What is obvious from the programme is that Davalos’s fascination with history and with the European literary canon are a major part of his dramaturgy as the play superbly shows the tensions involved in measuring truth and authenticity alongside realising an entertaining stage play.

 

The linchpin of the drama is the trio of characters Father Martin Luther (Andrew Frame), Hamlet(Edward Franklin) and Dr John Faustus (Sean Campion) who together create a novel unholy ‘trinity’  as both Luther and Faustus claim Hamlet ‘as a son’. Hamlet, on the other hand, is not so clear which ‘father’ he should obey: the priest or the philosopher (or that matter his Royal father back in Denmark)?

 

From my viewing, in placing these known histories and fictional stories within his own invented narrative of university life at Wittenberg, Davalos repositions the key dramatic elements of ‘time’ ‘space’ and ‘action’ in his play in as in a kaleidoscope. There is a hard-edged definition and a disciplined logic to each episode in the play’s two-act structure.  For instance, Hamlet‘s ‘antic disposition’ is give a subtle origin with breath-takingly metaphorical power as the audience becomes aware that the young prince’s reading of Copernicus’s thesis in Poland faces him with the total revision of scientific law as it had been known since antiquity.

 

Davalos’s attention to anachronistic elements within the play’s metatheatrical structure comically replaces sixteenth century objects like the comic creators of the Stone Age in the Flintstones. However, in Wittenberg the analogy is invariably in terms of live performance evoking either the Elizabethan stage itself – the trapdoor, the appearance of ghostly characters –  or one of its derivatives such as Faustus’s Brechtian –styled cabaret act.

 

Conversely, Davalos also maintains dramatic tension by disrupting obvious parallels, creating moments of surprise. For instance, it is Faustus who goes around nailing notices and not the history-making Luther.  On the other hand, the fictional Helen is not depicted as Helen of Troy but as an ex-nun seduced (she says freed) by Faustus to forsake her vow of chastity. Perhaps, rather esoterically, Davalos is having a bit of an ‘in-joke’ with historians as it was Luther in real life (& not Faustus in Marlowe’s play) that marries the ex-Benedictine nun, Katharina von Bora.

 

The strength of the writing is well matched in Wittenberg in the play’s performances. Sean Campion’s Faustus and Andrew Frame’s Luther are a great partnership, with each performer seemingly calling up the best in each other. The ale-drinking bar scene was particularly outstanding as Luther explains his realisation of a loving God to his doctor & friend Faustus who in counterpoint focuses on understanding the event as a bowel movement.

 

Edward Franklin portrays a meek and gentle Hamlet . He is every mother’s frightened child and  Franklin holds the poignancy of the sensitive child amazingly well in the scene when he tells Dr Faustus that he’s been ‘born again’ in Jesus.

 

Sophie Britten as the ‘Eternal Feminine’ shows versatility in her four roles. In general, though,  I wondered why the only doubling up of parts in the play was by the actress playing two ‘whores’ (Gretchen & Helen) and two ‘madonnas’ (Mother Mary & Lady Voltemand) . Certainly, each role ‘serves’ to catapult the action of the play onto another plane – for instance, Gretchen’s receipt for bought indulgences propels Martin Luther into writing his treatises and the vision of Mary Mother of God gets the lost Hamlet to be re-born in Christ – but in my opinion, the gender politics of Wittenberg seems the least developed aspect of the play.

 

Even with this limitation noted, the experience of viewing Wittenberg is highly recommended. Its staging depicted a place where the paradoxes of religious faith and scientific truth coexist in a productive tension. Ironically at this moment in time, it is even perhaps a reminder that Christianity too had its own form of a‘Arab Spring’ beginning in a place called Wittenberg. Ultimately, Wittenberg is a magnificently contemporary drama bursting with paradoxes about our freedom of choice and our yearning for certainty.

 

Reviewed by Josey De Rossi Thursday 1st September

Website :

www.gatetheatre.co.uk

 

Seemingly Invisible

Seemingly Invisible 

 

Genre: Puppetry

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

 

Low Down

 

Seemingly Invisible delicately weaves a set of stage images around six characters who through chance encounters find different kinds of relationships, not necessarily with each other. A busy street: a young man sees a women fall and die; an old man cries and another woman comforts him; a goat is heard bleating; and a ‘small white man’ moves through the same spaces, observing and reacting to the characters and happenings. Like the manipulated thoughts of the play itself, the last character is a simple unadorned white puppet. In other scenes, another puppet comes into being: an old woman, grandmother to one of the characters who retains her words ‘to love’ as the underpinning wisdom of his life.

 

 

Review

 

The relationship between theatre and story making is anything but simple. Sure enough there is the whole of the film and television industry that seemingly obeys Aristotle’s three unities of time, space and action but even then, thanks for Jean-Luc Godard, we know that some filmmakers like to upset the narrative order of beginning, middle and end. By contrast, there have been numerous theatre movements who have rejected Naturalism and Realism, philosophically and in practice.  The now famous quote about Waiting For Godot being a play in which nothing happens twice is just one example that shows up theatre making not based on a linear-type narrative. Yet, who would argue that naturalistic story telling continues to be the predominant form?  Even among hundred or so experimental London theatres, non-naturalistic narrative forms are on the fringe of the Fringe.

 

Yet, Seemingly Invisible is one such experiment and while it is not, at this stage at least, on the same level as Beckett’s Godot, the integrity of its aesthetics has something of Beckett’s sense of poetry. Verbal language is sparse and economically used in conjunction with stylised movement, an evocative musical score and an unquestionable transformational impetus to shift the frame in which the audience views reality. This is done by playing with the timing of actions as well as the repositioning of stage properties and objects. With amazing clarity, actions are stretched out across the space: a movement down stage causing a reaction up stage or an encounter between two characters is repeated up to a point and then disrupted with a different gesture, or direction.  Lighting designer, Karl Oskar Mac Sordal’s precisely picks up on the mood and timing of the actions.

 

Who are Smoking Apples? Four young theatre makers with ‘European Theatre Arts’ and Rose Bruford College in common. Harriet Field and Blake Aleksander direct, compose and record the music of the show. Its extraordinary edgy tone operates as an highly unconventional soundtrack: made up of the pulse of an old spinning turntable and the ‘unmixed’ sound of electric keyboard and violin. While definitely ‘unmastered’, the music is far from cacophony. Rather, it is melodic and uplifting. Harriet and Blake also perform in the show along with Matthew Lloyd and Molly Freeman. The four have been working together as Smoking Apples since 2009.

 

I notice from the programme that Matthew and Molly have studied puppetry in Prague but that all four performers handle the puppets very well. However, it is not appropriate to think of Seemingly Invisible as a ‘puppet show’. It is a play in which some characters are realised through puppetry. What is far more important to view is the interplay between the ‘real’ people and the puppets: how do they extend our understanding of what it means to be human? Humansneed puppets to face their individual and collective potentialities and limitations to animate, to bring into being that part of their own humanity which isseemingly invisible.

 

For a great deal of the time the interplay works well but it does happen immediately.  From where I sat, I felt lost for about the first ten minutes of the play, mainly because most the actions seems to be directed upstage away from me. I was left to watch the backs of actors for what appeared to be no better reason other than the stage furniture had been placed upstage. In fact, as I walked into the auditorium to take my seat I remember thinking how ‘pre-set’ looked merely haphazardly thrown together.

 

It is only after this uncertain opening, that the show visibly builds its dramatic tension. Each section of the action seems to physically grow out of the preceding action: the setting up of the old man’s table and chairs from the rolling round table; then the screen from the boxed table clothe; leading to the dancing shadow puppets; working besides the dancing couple when the female partner just falls away and so on… By the end, I am totally absorbed at the glimpses of each character’s story unfolding: the young man who sees the death on the street as he is simultaneously experiencing grief at his own grandmother’s death and the old man comforted by a stranger and more. By at the end, after the applause and bows, the whole audience sits in silence. It is only momentarily but long enough to signal that something ‘beyond words’ had been felt towards the characters before us around the human need for companionship and love.

 

In my case I felt a quiet sort of inspiration and a definite gladness that I had found my way down the unfamiliar streets of Camberwell to reach the Blue Elephant Theatre. I noted the contrast between the unassuming small theatre and the breadth of imagination I had experienced from its stage.  I walked back to Camberwell Rd and my bus stop carrying the play’s clear sense of humanity with me.

 

Reviewed by Josey De Rossi Tuesday 27th September 2011

Website :

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

http://www.smokingapplestheatre.com/

The production is only on until Saturday (1st October).  I recommend that you act fast to view it.

Snow White

 

Camden Fringe 2011

 

 

 

Genre: Children’s Theatre

Venue: Shaw Theatre 100-110 Euston Road. London NW1 2AJ

 

Low Down

 

Filskit Theatre’s production of Snow White portrays the character of Snow White as a real girl –  as opposed to the black haired – white skinned character of Disney’s cartoon –  who is fortunate enough to survive two persistently agile henchman. She’s also not the only one with a problem as the henchmen have their own dilemmas with trying to stay out of the deadly attention of their mistress, the wicked Queen. Unfortunately, for Snow White the Royal with murderous intent is also her mother. The character change from wicked stepmother of Disney’sSnow White to the mother in Filskit’s production is another bold element of the company’s interpretation of the classic tale .

 

As characters from ‘behind the mirror’, the two henchmen, played by Katy Costigan and Victoria Dyson, narrate Snow White’s life threatening situation and their roles in it. Whatever abstract ethical dilemmas they experience while ‘just following orders’ is made delightfully tangible for the young audience through the characters’ use of stylized movement and stage business as they confront and deal with a very likeable and energetic Snow White (Sarah Gee) .

 

Review

 

The presentation of fairytale scenarios on stage has traditionally been the domain of pantomime productions. Filskit Theatre has certainly employed some pantomime comic elements to lighten what is a ‘dark’ story of infanticide gone wrong. However, the company’s use of film and, to use their own term, micro projection, give this Snow White an altogether more contemporary theatrical style. It is a form which in recent years has gained more and more interest from producers of children’s theatre as recent production such as 1927 Theatre Company and their production earlier this year of The Animals And Children Took To The Street at the Battersea Arts Centre.

 

Filskit’s Snow White is both visually beautiful and technically adventurous with its delicately placed projection of text and images on the bodies of the actors and many umbrellas that are used to depict various physical and emotional states.

The play is comprised of a team of five: three actors, a musician and a very visible stage hand (Alex Curry) who seems at all times to be utterly pleased to be making the various special effects on stage materialise. With his help, images twirl off bodies into the air, poisonous letters are instantly delivered and forest insects take flight.

 

The script is clever and metaphorically evocative, with a good use of Roald-Dahl-like grotesque imagery. The language has a strong rhythmic quality without employing the traditional pantomime rhyming couplets. The use of physical movement supports the language in often giving more metaphorical concepts a physical form: for instance, Snow White’s fear of finding herself in the woods is depicted not in words but through choreographed movement in which she wields an umbrella to mask and protect herself.  Occasionally though, I felt that stillness might have been better used but that perhaps the actors didn’t quite trust that their young audience to remain engaged if they held back on the action.

The use of umbrellas as both part of the stage setting and as moveable stage props is particularly inventive. The umbrellas are also used as stage props:  for instance, the henchmen use them as weapons in one of their many plots to ‘kill Snow White’.

 

One very large square umbrella representing the wall of Snow White’s room provides a sensational surface to view a shadow play. The audience is able to view a playful girl who is ‘just a girl’ behaving in a curiously child-like way. The shadow play also sets up the fact that Snow White speaks only through ‘body language’ and not words.  The choice of depicting Snow White without speech and only through simple voiced sounds is another significant departure from tradition. It effectively defines her as a kind of ethereal being: a true ‘fairytale’ character.

 

Katy Costigan and Victoria Dyson perform the roles of the henchman with a mixture of acrobatic strength and comic exaggeration. Their energetic commitment to their roles give their performances moments of light relief ,which at times I felt strayed too far away from the darkness of the story, as if again they did not believe that their young audience could deal at least with ‘the truth’ of Snow White’s dilemma caused by parental ill-will (let alone murderous intent).

 

From my point of view, they could have dispensed with much of the pantomimic tricks of waving to the children since the production was sufficiently strong to allow them to engage and interact with the audience through the new technologies in possibly new ways.

 

Perhaps, the most unsatisfying part of the show was for me the music which seemed piecemeal, patchy and ‘small’ compared to the mood and atmosphere created by other element of the production.  I believe that the show deserves a substantial soundtrack that meets up to its adventurous visual inventiveness. Composer and musician Melanie Borsack seemed inexplicably limited even though she was clearly a good musician with the ability to play many wind, percussion and string instruments.

Despite this, Filskit Theatre’s Snow White should please its producers Quirkas Productions with the way it engaged its young audience. Its fresh and vital interpretation of an iconic Disney character whose minders were seven dwarves and not two former henchmen is at times both curious and quirky. In other moments it transcends onto an epic plane that dares to show how some children (and henchmen) are able to surmount the evil intentions of their contexts and live ‘happily ever after’.

 

Reviewed by Josey De Rossi Viewed Tuesday 23rd August 2011

Website :

http://www.shaw-theatre.com/index.php?id=2

http://www.filskittheatre.com/

http://quirkas.com/

Mae Naak

Mae Naak 

 

Genre: Opera and Operatic Theatre

Venue: Bloomsbury Theatre , Gordon Street, London WC1H 0AH

 

Low Down

 

Opera Siam’s European premiere production of Mae Naak at the Bloomsbury last night, by composer and librettist Somtow Sucharitkul (aka S. P Sowtow), proves that it continues to engage audiences all around the world. First staged in 2003, it is a stunning work that fuses a European operatic style with Thai folkloric music. Arguably, such a synthesis reflects the global experiences of S. P. Sowtow himself, whose English scholarship (he was educated at Eton and Cambridge) and links to English musical traditions seems to have been successfully negotiated with his role as founder of the Bangkok Opera and the Siam Philharmonic.

Review

 

The London production consists of: the Philharmonic orchestra, with its exciting young conductor, Trisdee na Pattalung; a corps de ballet; a substantial chorus and an array of major singers in lead roles around its star Nancy Yuen as Naak. Her appearance in London is made even more poignant as S. P. Sowtow created the role for her in 2003.  Kyu Won Han as the husband Maak, Emma McNairy as the Temple Dance,  Zion Daoratanahong as the Headman’s Daughter, Pitchaya Kemasingki as the Chinese Pork Merchant, Richard Cassell as the Abbot Monk and Novice Monk played by Saran Senavinin and Grace Echauri as the midwife form a formidable ensemble. The choreography is fresh with its blend of European balletic and Thai folkloric styles.

 

 

 

The story of Mae Naak is based on the theme of female vengeance in the tradition of Medea, and Clytemnestra and her Furies. The characterisation of Naak, however, also portrays her as a trickster who lures anyone to destruction who even dares to cross her. And unlike her European counterparts whose sights are set on avenging their traitorous husbands, her reign of terror arises because the circumstances of war take her beloved husband, Maak, from her and she wants him back. Her desires go beyond the grave, were she is placed after dying during childbirth with their stillborn son. Her ghostly figure, together with that of her infant child, walk the home and village waiting for her husband’s return. When that reunion occurs, the full extent of the horror that she brings on any person who might separate them again becomes the subject matter of the opera.

 

 

The differences noted here between European and Thai characters is in itself no more than an example of focusing on the subject matter on stage: an illustration of how audiences generally move from known to unknown stories. The process of meaning making throws up similarities and differences to sharpen the vision, like adjusting the lens to get a clearer image on a camera. But in tying together possible similarities – in this case the phenomenon of strong vengeful women – irreconcilable differences also erupt for the audience.

 

The story’s Thai context is framed by its Buddhist teachings on reincarnation and its depiction of rural village life that hints at an exotic Asia far from the traffic-jammed setting of its now large modern cities. But there is no trivialisation of Thai culture being enacted. Rather, the production interestingly depicts its own version of a post-colonial heritage through its portrayal of a fearsome woman who is responsible for destroying the idyllic rural setting time and time again on stage. Its operatic score, which is a fusion of German dramatic opera and traditional Thai folk music, makes for amazing listening as it builds dramatic tension at every moment of the story.

 

 

 

At the start of the evening, S. P Sowtow came before the audience and spoke of some the difficulties the production had encountered on its arrival at the theatre. He mentioned, for instance, that the original set design by Sumet Jumsai did not fit onto the Bloomsbury stage. And I must admit it was apparent throughout the spectacular show how the depth of the stage and the placement of its higher rises seriously interfered in the choreography and mystical effect of water and fog across the imaginary river at the front of the stage. This was unworthy of the high professional evident around the production.  How had the choice of venue been made? Why wasn’t the production, for instance, staged in a venue which usuals attracts international shows like the Barbican? Why was its season for only three performances?

 

 

There is so much to engage with in Mae Naak. It deserves to been seen in its full splendour.  It deserves to be shown for far more than a short three-night season.  I recommend that it return to London again, not the least because of the wonderful character of Naak herself, whose strength and desire raises to the heights of a tragic heroine and who takes us through the music on a journey with someone battling to find peace.

 

Reviewed by Josey De Rossi Thursday 15 September, 2001

Website :

http://www.thebloomsbury.com/event/run/1593

http://www.bangkokopera.org/Opera_Siam_Main/Opera_Siam.html

 

Waiting for Godot

AESTHETIC AND ECONOMIC CONSIDERATIONS FOR GODOT’S ARRIVAL IN THE WEST END – My Notes

What I think I saw at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket

  •  A West End success – the cost of the tickets and drinks, the location, the quality of the seating, the programme, the ushers
  • The stars and the star system and their presence on stage – Ian McClellan, Patrick Steward, Ronald Pickup, Simon Callow – the quality of the artistic crew
  • The credentials of Beckett’s classic – from outrage to acceptance – the sense of Beckett’s incorporation into the canon of English drama – like Shakespeare and a few others
  • The ‘trifecta’ effect of being here at the right time and the right moment in the evolution of the history of this play.

 Intersecting contexts

  • Generation of the first drama teachers like Ken Robinson – disciples of Dorothy Heathcote & Brian Way
  • My understanding of theatre history of teaching in a subject in which there existed 92% unemployment persistently
  • Observing the shift in focus from ‘drama’, ‘the arts’ and now to ‘creativity’ – Maxine Greene, Project Zero, Ken Robinson and Creative Partnerships
  • Baby boomer history – 1st generation Italian-Australian who carries stories of deprivation, hunger, being dispossessed from one’s homeland, the constant threat and many real experiences of physical risk and danger, the experience of physical and psychological violence, adjustment to being thrown together with other cultures with no ‘welcome’
  • My experience of viewing Godot in the Octagon Theatre in 1984 of a production directed by Beckett himself and performed by the San Quentin group & coming to terms with the many debates around theatrical forms
  • Naturalism vs anti-nationalismPolitical vs ‘beyond’ Marxism – beyond political drama
  • Political vs ‘beyond’ Marxism – beyond political drama
  • The incorporation of older styles into contemporary theatre – the Asian influence, the on-going power of Shakespeare and the Elizabethan, the Italians and Commedia

The dramatic effect of telling the truth

  •  The importance of ‘consciousness raising’ and political theatre  – discourses on naturalism / Brecht and others
  •  The importance of modernism and postmodernism and their critique on art and representation
  •  The personal nature of truth telling persisting – Antigone’s dilemma  – so Ursula Le Guin can advise young writers of ‘telling the truth’ regardless of the physical, emotional and financial consequences.
  •  Truth is the ultimate ideal and those who aspire to telling it are necessarily idealistic or mad or both.
  •  For instance, Antonin Artaud’s treatise of the theatre as ‘holy’ – in an historical sense it was always the case – it was just ‘how it was’ – the altar in the Greek amphitheatre, the sacred ceremonies of indigenous people now studied by many scholars look at ‘performance theory’.
  •  But equally true is the history of the industrialisation of theatre making which gave rise to a ‘professional’ theatre industry and the way that industry incorporated aesthetics and other ‘hard to define’ qualities of human existence into its theatrical experiences. For examples a sense of common experience – communion and communitas
  • A sense of redemption and atonement through catharsis
  • A sense of subverting the dominant paradigm through comic business, irony,
  • The X factor element of being a ‘star’
  • These are just some of the more spiritual / psychological realms of cultural states of being and doing which make tolerable otherwise intolerable contradictions and paradoxes in the ‘system’.

Waiting for Godot, Theatre Royal Haymarket 2009

My experience of viewing Godot at the Haymarket, performed by four iconically important actors of our time, left me wondering what I had hoped to gain from viewing the play. You see I have always prided myself as retaining a ‘niave’ perspective, despite the hundreds of plays I have viewed and the thousands of words I have written on theatre. Everytime I walk into a theatre I’m excited by the prospect of being ‘taken’ somewhere I never imagined being, revisiting ideas, concepts and feelings in ways that I might not normally have done so.

The production chose to minimise the pain – all kinds of pain: physical pain;  psychological torture of living in ‘cycles of time’ – a day, year, the boom/ bust capitalist economy, peace and war, famine/ plenty;   the foolishness of setting a course in time based on a particular technique, philosophy; the acknowledgement of the size of man-made disasters illustrated through two world wars and one global economic depression

Choosing to highlight the clever patter and the choreographed movements of the tap dancers and the physical tricks of vaudevillians – a sense of what we now think was vaudeville and not it actually may have been; energy for energy’s sake;    art for art’s sake;   no hint of irony and resonance with the ‘real’ context; for instance, the audience laughed at the moments the actors referred to the audience as ‘bog’ etc but the actors did not refer to the audience as ‘charnel house’

I looked at ‘stars’ and not at Beckett’s characters:  they were not hungry – no consequence to the deprivation – they were going off stage to ‘rest’;   I didn’t believe their physical pain – believed McKellan more than Stewart – Pickup’s muscles didn’t seem to ache – none of the characters seem to be ‘in danger;     No holding tension – no holding silence;   No nonsense – it all made sense so the play I viewed seemed to be about:

Two old men – Estragon and Vladimer ada Gogo and Didi – with Gogo boarding on Alzihmiers and his cheerful and caring friend Didi trying to cheer him up at a time when they are down on their luck. They come across the somewhat cruel spectacle of a slave and master who give them a lesson (lehrstucke) on ‘things are not what they seem’ that is slaves just might like being slaves and slave-owners just might carry the unbearable burden of keeping the slave alive for his purposes.

 

Playing in the space seemed limited to a circle in the centre and while their were references to particular objects – the tree – and ditches off stage – the production might have well been enacted in an void

–        there did not seem to be a ‘visceral’ connection between the characters and their setting yet even at a basic level this must have been the space in which they needed to eat, sleep, defecate and urinate

–        the location seem to hold no threat to them – they seemed past caring and indeed seemed jolly most of the time and only ‘annoyed’ that they couldn’t go anywhere because of their ‘waiting for Godot’

 

Playing with time not playing in time

–        the production slips into metatheatre as the actors play with

  • their roles
  • their patter & dialogue
  • their actions – potentially heroic and anti-heroic  – suicide and keeping going

–        In a post-Brechtian theatrical world we know its an effect – the acto must first show that they believe they are in the moment as ‘if for the first time’

–        They must assume that they are in the moment of the play and not alongside it – it is only the political will of surrending the rational part of oneself to the forces that would subdue one’s will – make one less human and more animal

–        This is the great legacy of liveral democratic European philosophies in which Brecht and other ‘left-wing’ politically inspired persons found their source of inspiration

 

What was Beckett’s poltics?

 

His politics seem less polemic and arguably more ‘realistic’ and less ‘idealistic’ in the face of the overwhelming evidence of the irrational actions of the previous 50 years of European history – the concentration camps, the destruction of Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki and any number of other acts of genocide enacted during that time

 

The accusations of the relativism of postmodernism and the chaos of existentialist as opposed to humanist philosophies doesn’t seem to apply

 

He seems to contradict the modernist TS Eliot’s view that mankind cannot stand too much reality and thus by implication needs fiction, entertainment as a necessary fiction

 

He seems to acknowledge that mankind continues to show on-going need for salvation and redemption despite evidence to the contrary that Godot seeming will never arrive and that we are alone on the planet

 

He seems to demonstrate that historical effects of ideas and actions in time have an ongoing legacy and are more poignant because they hop across time inexplicably, surprisingly and seeming non-causally linked

–        what are we to make of the whole of German history from the Nazi years?

–        What are we to make of the whole of other histories from particular events – the killing of neighbours by neighbours in Bosnia, Rwanda etc

–        What are we to make of betrayal of family and children such as in Godot’s beating of the child or the sexual abuse of the women in cellars etc

 

We, like the characters of Godot, are IN time not standing beside or above it. Metatheatre is essentially a fictional stage that must be consciously achieved by unnatural selection

–        rationality has material prequisities – Marlow’s hierarchy of needs – Lord of the Flies, Mad Max etc

–        the Australian writer who is glad not to be born the guard who guarded his hut in the concentration camp  – this is a position which I saw as emerging from Lucky and Pozzo but the emphasis on the stage business with no sense of ‘real’ pain by Pickup didn’t hold the tension.

 

Waiting for Godot, Octagon Theatre University of Western Australia 1984

 

Beckett’s authority and his choice to work with the San Quentin group – what was it about prisoners and what they brought to the play?

 

Beckett as director – what was his intention? Why did he choose to say and who this play? Why anti-naturalist? Why absurd? Expressionist? Poetic? Why that setting? Those characters? That action?

 

What I experienced that night – the name calling from the stage? My interaction with other audience members around me? The experience of waiting and moving in the memory of devastation – there were people still talking about living amongst the ruins

 

The expectation – fashion of feeling ‘hopeless’ – my own reactions to academic ways of viewing despair and pointlessness, hunger and death – the poetics of resonating words of embodied language

 

I didn’t plan to compare my viewing of Samuel Beckett’s own production with the San Quentin group, which I saw in the Octagon Theatre at the University of Western Australia in the early 1980s, with the one before me on Saturday (Matinee 20/6). But I found myself do so more and more as the production went on: why did Didi so quickly and swiftly forget about the pain in his genitals? Why was he so cheerful all the time? Why did Estragon and Vladimer seem so lacking in

 

It remains one of the most visceral experiences in the theatre that I have experience.  I don’t believe I have ever felt pain so palpable as I did that evening: I wanted to scream but all I could do was ‘gawk’ at the stage images; I wanted to escape but all I could do was witness the futility of lives being depicted. Yes, as I heard the attempts of creating ‘patter’ and watched the effort needed to move painfully – feet, genitals, v

 

Waiting for Godot, Wordplayers Theatre In Education 1986/7

 

–        performing Godot as part of TIE programme

–        teaching ‘theatre of the absurd’ – finding a way of telling the story of why the concept was named – what was recognised by Martin Esslin in The Theatre of the Absurd

–        Absurd was not a description by playwrights of their plays rather they seemed to talk about a sense of truth  – of telling the truth

–        It was this for me which had rung true – telling how life lacked coherence, symmetry, rationality, the disjunction of cause and effect – at least in an simply way

–        The rich kinds found our expose ‘interesting’ and the poor kids recited the words of the scenes we enacted with us – the resonance of the words  – not like a ‘sing along’ but an involuntary action  – an affirmation muttered in prayer like an act of faith…they felt the words as experience of powerlessness

 

What did Godot 2009 leave with me?

 

–        questions about acting technique – why did the actors do this and not that – for instance, why did Patrick Stewart have sore genitals one moment when he’s pissing and then can come on stage apparently pain free and can sit cross-legged on the stone seat

–        questions on how ‘stars’ have such a powerful status – beyond and above their own art from – the cult of personality firmly defining them – for instance, when I watched Cate Blanchett play Hedda Gabler in 2004 it took about 2 mins for me to ‘forget’ the star and view the Hedda she created by playing her as the most unsympathetic Hedda imaginable. It was only when the gun went off at the end of the play and Hedda suicides that I acknowledged the power of Blanchett’s performance and her unrelenting pursuit of Hedda’s desperate life

–        I rarely stopped thinking of the four actors as anything but their personalities  – I felt that Ian McClellan achieved this for most of the first act but that Patrick Stewart only achieved it in the moment in the 2nd act when he confronts the boy and almost begs to be acknowledged as a person and for his experience to be validated; I felt that Ronald Pickup was ‘not present’ except when he delivered Lucky’s speech which moved me – it was as if Pickup just didn’t have the subtly of body movements to show the role and I felt that Simon Callow just over acted for the first act and only hit the enigma of his role in the second act through being literally blind – what of his blindness in the first act?

–        The case of not believing them because I didn’t believe that any of them were waiting for anything – that is, they didn’t show what it means to miss your moment to something creative, productive and somehow ennobling – what it means to even believe in such a prospect in the face of the overwhelming evidence that so many people have failed to attain a meaningful life – an integrated experience of being human

–        The four are ‘exceptions’ – they are part of the 8% in work and the 1% of actors in highly successful projects and that is undoubtedly well deserved – the evidence is everywhere to be seen

–        But I believe that Beckett caught them napping – showed up the extraordinary connection between ‘real life’ and ‘the stage’ for actors that they can never take for granted

Who am I to say this?

An unknown theatre historian come to London to re-think my own place in teaching, researching and creating theatre.

 

I was so excited at seeing the production  – the £47 I spent on the tickets is the most I’ve ever spent on tickets because I read the critics and seeing the general reactions I concluded that it must be a monumental interpretation of a most challenging play

 

I so wanted to see how they dealt with the central problem which the play seems to present for actors and that is to not act – to do nothing but wait

 

I wanted to see what these fine artists did with that central problem of that it means to put on someone else’s experience  – to realise what it is to be both yourself and yet not yourself

 

Maybe I got it wrong – may be Godot isn’t about waiting but how we can’t wait – we jump about from one experience to another – hell is paved by good intentions – we call up this and that  – we cobble words together  – they say most of Pinter’s dialogues was verbatim  – drawn from actually conversations he heard at dinner parties and bus stops

 

So what was I expecting? Beckett’s insights not about talking but listening not about showing but observing  – the auditorium / the theatre – the listening place and the seeing place

 

The courage of waiting – waiting for a long time  – for an unreasonable long time for virtues to be realised and sins to be redeemed – what is so terrible about giving birth astride a grave? There I so much terror in that image – why not deny it and keep as jolly as Patrick Stewart’s Didi?

 

Well there are so many good reasons to do so, not the least the enormous challenge of finding meaning in both living the life you believe is given to you and confronting the knowledge that even if you find ‘the meaning’ you’ll die anyway.  Then there’s the moment of death itself.

 

Our miniscule lives in the face of overwhelming and uncontrollable forces – hardly the way to a Box Office success, hardly the way the play could achieve popularity – hardly the way it gained its effect in the past – if Beckett’s own productions are anything to go by.

 

In the relative longer distance in time between ourselves in 2009 and the experiences of total calamity brought about in European history between 1914 and 1945 we are confident enough to seemingly redeem Beckett’s less entertaining version of a play with a more upbeat one – we can lighten up and laugh off our nihilistic tendencies with a light soft shoe shuffle. After all, ‘the troubles’ are all in the Middle East and Africa and Asia and all we need to do is better protect ourselves against those terrorist who would like to make violence on a global scale.

 

Furthermore, we have a hard enough problem keeping up our considerable advantage in world affairs  – it’s tough getting our heads around our part in global warming or monetary and financial failures or spreading democracy when only such a short time ago we had unprecedented economic growth even while we promised to look at the systemic nature of children living in poverty and other inequalities in our own back yard.

 

And why do we need to have any agency ourselves – our performance culture dominated by stars and interesting stories of overcoming the odds is enough for us…

we have stars we have chosen for that so we can live vicariously through them and experience their great success at answering the big questions…their success IS our success ….that’s the truth, isn’t it?