Monday, 5 October 2015

Theatre Review: 1984 at Theatre Royal, Bath

This review was first written for The Reviews Hub

Headlong’s adaptation of George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 has enjoyed three West End runs and two tours prior to its arrival in Bath. So, those of us who’ve already read the book and perused the four and five-star reviews of the play may feel as though they know what they’re letting themselves in for. But Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan’s production quickly batters down any hint of complacency, in a chilling 101 minutes where intense theatrical staging meets astounding Orwellian prescience.

From the outset, the use of Orwell’s appendix on the principles of Newspeak frames Winston Smith’s story in a different light; the piece opens with a book group discussion taking place sometime after 2050, praising the universality but questioning the authenticity of Winston’s diary. In a setting where the clocks already strike 13 – and, due to the number of times history has been revised, nobody is sure of the exact date anymore – both time and the truth take on a new and unaccustomed fluidity.

Matthew Spencer’s pallid and tentative Winston is lost in the world he inhabits. Simultaneously, it seems he is writing his diary of the present and being addressed by the futuristic book group. So where now does he really exist? His work at the Ministry of Truth carries on, “unpersoning” those who have dared to challenge the Party by deleting every trace of their existence and taking part in the regular “Two Minute Hates” against newly-decreed Party enemies.

Yet, afflicted by fragmented memories, Winston sets his course for a fight back. Against a background of continuous war with interchangeable enemies, he falls in love with Julia (Janine Harouni), a co-worker he previously suspected of being a member of the Thought Police. With her unprecedented access to chocolate, real coffee and a half-remembered memory of the refrain of Oranges and Lemons (one of the many motifs of the play), Julia brings with her echoes of the past – but also a foreshadowing of the future in the mantra she shares with Winston: “We are the dead”.

Chloe Lamford’s startling and ingeniously dynamic set design begins in the drab, haunted corridors of the Ministry of Truth, before a series of transformations brings overhead video projections onto a sterile, tiled backdrop, flashing images of Winston’s work and messages from Big Brother which include the destruction of deviant thought criminals. Enhanced by Natasha Chivers’ forensic lighting, Tom Gibbons’ dyspeptically precise sound and Tim Reid’s unsparing video, we witness the secret hideaway Winston shares with Julia at the back of an antiques shop and the ultimate terror of Room 101 – a place where Tim Dutton’s impenetrable O’Brien can casually brush away a forcibly-extracted stray tooth from a seat as if it were no more than a crumb.

The performances are outstanding; Spencer and Harouni are both fiery and tenderly convincing as the idealistically doomed lovers and Dutton coolly menacing as the man of the Inner Party. Headlong’s magnificently incisive version can be a harrowing watch and may not be for the faint-hearted, but it emphasises the astonishing relevance of Orwell’s surveillance state vision for our present and future – every bit as much as for our 20th Century past.

Reviewed on 29 September 2015 | Image: Manuel Harlan

Sunday, 27 September 2015

Theatre Review: Living Quarters at Tobacco Factory Theatres, Bristol

This review was first written for The Public Reviews

In this new production of Living Quarters, Andrew Hilton dusts off the play he first directed back in 1991 to reimagine a much-overlooked piece by one of our most significant living writers. Yet, being revived as an echo from the past feels particularly appropriate for Brian Friel’s 1977 work, dwelling as it does on memories and turning points; the “what if” moments we find ourselves replaying and contorting when they revolve around events of great consequence.

Living Quarters is based on Euripides’ tale of Theseus’ son Hippolytus, punished by a vengeful Aphrodite, who causes his stepmother, Phaedra, to fall in love with him. A story also retold by Racine and Eugene O’Neill, Friel locates it in his Irish heartlands; the fictional Ballybeg, a small community in County Donegal, where the Butler clan – three sisters, a brother and a young second wife – are convening at the family home to celebrate their soldier father and husband’s heroic return from conflict.

Perhaps one of the reasons for this play’s neglect is Friel’s insertion of an authoritative Greek chorus of one, simply known as “Sir” (played by Christopher Bianchi), who introduces himself as the omnipotent arbiter of the story. Sir audits the plot’s key flashback scenes by selecting them from his ledger, stripping away superfluous characters with a ruthlessness that belies his outward benevolence. It’s a difficult construct to get right; top-heavy and distancing until Sir’s role is fully established, Friel does gradually succeed in replacing the play’s subsequent loss of fluency with a meditation on the counterpoint of fate and individual responsibility.

Bianchi is the consummate master of ceremonies – steely, unruffled and wry – and Friel is already displaying his empathy for family dynamics in the tight-knit, conflicted Butler children, all unravelling in different ways since the loss of their mother. Nina Logue is world-weary as the eldest, Helen, on a flying visit from her new life in London, while Hayley Doherty is all domestic chatter as Miriam, the sister who settled down in the village. Martha Seignior brings eagerness and naiveté as Tina, the youngest, and Craig Fuller is woefully, passionately lost as black-sheep brother Ben, instrumental in the tragedy about to unfold.

Meanwhile, Rose O’Loughlin portrays the cuckoo in the nest; smouldering young second wife Anna, lonely and vulnerable in the quiet backwater, adored and overlooked by her self-absorbed Commandant husband (Simon Armstrong) and the others in turn – although the latent chemistry, which must once have existed between her and both Butler males, is difficult to discern.

All of Friel’s trademark ingredients are here – the layers of family strife, tumbling cadences of exquisite prose, empathy, wit and immersion in a particular moment – and, with Hilton’s usual pared-back clarity, this joint production from Tobacco Factory Theatres and Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory makes the most of them. The cast heightens the tension with some spell-binding performances that are convincing in their regret and remorse. But, while Living Quarters certainly deserves more of an airing than it has seen in past decades, it has a sometimes tentative and uneven structure, with a much stronger second half than first. Principally, as Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman does for To Kill a Mockingbird it serves as an interesting exploration of the sources and themes found in Friel’s later, iconic works such as Faith Healer, Translations and Dancing at Lughnasa; seen through this prism, Living Quarters is still exceedingly watchable.

Runs until Saturday, 3 October 2015 | Image: Camilla Adams

Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Theatre Review: The Encounter at Bristol Old Vic

This review was first written for The Public Reviews

Complicite’s work over the last 30 years has garnered a reputation for being both emotionally and philosophically challenging and, fresh from the Edinburgh International Festival, artistic director Simon McBurney’s aurally spectacular The Encounter certainly lives up to expectations.

Set in the dense jungle of the Amazon rainforest, McBurney tells the story of Loren McIntyre, a National Geographic photojournalist dropped there by plane in 1969, seeking out the remote Mayoruna tribes people. For each audience member, using binaural technology and individual headsets, The Encounter combines the remarkably intimate experience of a story happening right there in your head (when McBurney says he’s about to breathe in your ear you can feel his presence beside you) with a shared involvement in what’s being created on stage.

McBurney uses a voice-lowering microphone and American accent to become McIntyre as he recounts his adventures, inspired by Petru Popescu’s novel Amazon Beaming. Stumbling upon a Mayoruna tribe and then realising he hasn’t marked his route back to camp, McIntyre is thrown into dependency for his own survival on the community he has discovered. Initially without any form of common language, he nevertheless becomes aware that, involved in a struggle of their own, not all of the tribe welcomes his presence.

McBurney takes time to develop his story, layering it over a multitude of voices; the soundscape of contemporary western life combining with explanations of technology and exchanges with his young daughter. Only gradually – as McIntyre’s western possessions, his reliance on his camera and watch, are denied him – does new language and connection emerge in the jungle. He begins to understand why he is not universally accepted; white people have brought death before, their quest for oil sucking the earth of its blood. He forges elemental friendships amid the hostility, encounters jaguars, thorns and maggots, and falls into a fever where real life and a dream world intertwine. Ultimately, he seeks a place where he can accompany the Mayoruna in their quest to reach back to their beginning.

In the audience, you often share McIntyre’s disorientation, his sense of only beginning to discover his true self when his possessions and preconceptions are stripped away. In creating this remote world, McBurney is quite simply mesmerising; using water bottles, spent videotape and his own body to create layers of sound, he loops it back on itself, contorting, whispering, story-telling. In this, he’s supported by a team of technicians interpreting Gareth Fry’s stunningly precise and complex sound design, with atmospheric lighting and striking projections onto a backdrop of soundproofing foam by Paul Anderson and Will Duke.

The Encounter is an immersive and intense two hours, which itself stretches and contracts time and challenges the hierarchies we unthinkingly buy into. It’s been quite a week at Bristol Old Vic, all in all, with Tim Crouch’s An Oak Tree first redefining the nature of theatre and connectedness in the studio space and now McBurney again pushing at our supposedly civilised boundaries on the main stage.

Reviewed on Saturday 19 September 2015 | Photo: Robbie Jack

Monday, 21 September 2015

An Oak Tree at Bristol Old Vic

This review was first written for Theatre Bristol Writers

Pay close attention to the date of this performance of An Oak Tree, because it’s the one that belongs to Neve McIntosh. Every night a different actor – who has never seen or read the play before – joins Tim Crouch on stage in this two-hander – either for him to tell them what to say, to read from a script or to pick up their lines through earphones. They met for the first time only an hour ago. This is theatre which is not just different every night, but reincarnated.

An Oak Tree explores the grief of Adam, played by McIntosh, who loses his young daughter in a road traffic accident, knocked over by a stage hypnotist on his way to a gig. Crouch is the Ford Fiesta-driving hypnotist whose show Adam visits; not so much intent on revenge as finding an answer to his overwhelming sense of loss. For Adam, this grief is boundless, formless, blanketing in its density. Surfaces become permeable; rejecting the solidity of the photograph or the hairbrush which comfort his wife, he instead finds his daughter in cracks and indentations - a presence he scoops up and pours into a tree.

Boundaries dissolve and the story fragments as it moves back and forth in time, the actors in and out of character. Crouch controls the narrative, not only as the guilt-ravaged hypnotist manipulating his on-stage volunteer but also as himself, moving his second actor around the minimal set, feeding them every carefully scripted word. He controls us too; with the house lights up he stares out into the exposed audience, instructing us when – and when not – to respond.

Crouch is gripping, almost chilling in his intensity as he drives the pace of the piece with music, traffic noise and pin-sharp timing. It is his intelligence and touches of humour that keep him likeable – having McIntosh compliment the quality of his writing in a seemingly off-hand manner that we know is pre-ordained, leaving her on stage alone while he fetches a glass of water. What he is creating here is magical; no sterile experimentation for the sake of it, this is a forensic deconstruction of the unique nature of theatre, conducted with a gentle understanding of a devastating loss.

The demands on the second actor are daunting; unrehearsed and vulnerable, they must pick up the script instantly, respond to Crouch’s direction and convey the emotions he requires without knowing where they’re leading. In this, McIntosh – soon to be seen on the main Bristol Old Vic stage in The Crucible - doesn’t falter; she may not look all that much like a 46-year-old man, but her portrayal is beautifully judged. She is expressive but avoids the temptation to over-act, effortlessly inhabiting Adam’s character and all-encompassing grief, taking the reversals that Crouch throws at her in her stride.

This is the tenth anniversary revival of this production of An Oak Tree, which originally opened at the Edinburgh Fringe and has since played around the world over 300 times – with 300 second actors taking Adams’s role. It is a play to be watched again and again – to see how different actors might alter the piece and how Crouch changes in response; to reflect on life and loss and to muse on the possibilities that theatre can present if we come to it afresh.

Reviewed on 15 September 2015.

Monday, 14 September 2015

Theatre Review: Flare Path at Theatre Royal, Bath

This review was first written for The Public Reviews

Terence Rattigan’s resurgence as a frequently performed playwright continues with this brand new touring revival of Flare Path from the Original Theatre Company and Birdsong Productions.
Rattigan fell out of favour in the latter decades of the 20th Century, overtaken by a post-war generation of angry young men creating kitchen sink dramas. Yet his understated lines, full of the suppressed emotions of those dealing with the trauma and aftermath of the Second World War, have in recent years swung back into fashion.
One of his most autobiographical works, Flare Path is based on Rattigan’s own experience as a tail-gunner, and deeply affected its audiences when first staged in 1942. It tells the story of Patricia, a former actress now married to RAF pilot Teddy Graham but caught up in an affair with her earlier lover, Hollywood film star Peter Kyle. Taking place over a single night when the airmen are called away on a raid, the play becomes a microcosm of the valour and sacrifice of war.
Patricia’s dilemma is intensified when Peter turns up unexpectedly; even more desperate to talk to Teddy, his latest mission means her news for him must wait. Indeed, all the wives gathering in the lounge of a Lincolnshire hotel can do nothing but put their lives on hold one way or another as their husbands take to the perilous skies. With the noise of planes overhead and the lights of the flare path guiding them, Peter’s woes by contrast seem pitifully small. His studio is about to drop him for being too old now he’s turned 40 while many a young pilot fighting for the survival of his country will never live to see that age.
If at first the assembling cast seems a little static, sometimes lacking the aura of a screen idol in its midst, Justin Audibert’s direction does pick up the pace and succeed in bringing out the conflict between duty and desire. Strong central performances include Olivia Hallinan, who encapsulates the spirit of the 1940s in her delivery of a glamorous but torn Patricia, and Alastair Whatley as Teddy, the plucky Captain whose banter masks a thousand fears.
In Hayley Grindle’s traditional, richly textured country hotel setting – overlaid with the lines of Alex Wardle’s cleverly lit flare path – their scenes together in the second act are especially moving. Teddy’s confession of his inner terrors has a heart-breaking, authentic quality, setting up a convincing turning-point in the play. Also enjoyable are Siobhan O’Kelly as Doris, the barmaid turned Polish countess and Philip Franks as warm-hearted Squadron Leader “Gloria” Swanson.
While Mrs Henderson Presents only recently demonstrated a patriotic show-must-go-on defiance to Bath audiences, Flare Path peels away the layers of wartime bravado to reveal the emotional devastation and personal vulnerability beneath. This is a production steeped in the stiff upper lip courage of a particular generation, with Rattigan’s finely crafted lines reminding us of the sacrifices made, not only by those who flew, but also those forced to wait behind.
Reviewed at Theatre Royal, Bath on 7 September 2015 as part of a UK tour | Photo: Jack Ladenburg

Saturday, 12 September 2015

Book Review: The Defenceless by Kati Hiekkapelto

A chilling sense of place pervades the best northern noir thrillers - the biting cold, claustrophobic darkness and engulfing isolation combining to create a perfect backdrop for the grisliest of crimes. It is there in the Icelandic setting of Ragnar Jonasson's Snowblind which I reviewed recently, and can be found in spades (or should that be snow shovels?) in Finnish writer Kati Hiekkapelto's The Defenceless, translated by David Hackston.

This is Hiekkapelto's second book to feature police investigator Anna Fekete, following her highly regarded debut The Hummingbird. It opens in the winter cold - as Pakistani Christian Sammy, a migrant who arrived in Finland via Russia alongside the heroin he knows only too well, is searching for his next hit. Having been refused asylum, he's living illegally, scavenging and sleeping in bins. He comes to the police's attention when he's caught at his dealer's flat during a raid - but what does he have to do with an old man, who lived in the same apartment block, having been found dead on a desolate road? Or their missing neighbour - a woman who might just have seen too much?

This is a novel of multiple strands which Anna only gradually begins to unravel, as she does so finding herself mired in the complexities of illegal immigration, drug dealers, gang warfare and murder. She reflects:
There is a classic Finnish combination at the root of most homicides: blades and alcohol. Normally it was an axe and alcohol. 
As a Hungarian immigrant, Anna knows how it feels to be an outsider. Living alone, she takes her comfort where she can but her thoughts often fly to her family back home. Yet, she is a modern woman; athletic, environmentally aware, not yet ready for a steady relationship and all the compromises that might bring. And, like so many who have been transplanted into a different culture, she no longer feels that she truly belongs anywhere:
She tried to call her mother on Skype. She wanted to talk about Grandma, her final days, her funeral. She wanted to tell her mother about the pain, her sense of longing, to talk about Zoran, to ask her mother why breaking up with a married man, with whom she hadn't officially been together, could feel so terrible. There was no answer. Thank God, she thought. I don't normally talk to Mum about my feelings and certainly not about my sex life. Besides, her mother would have seen straight through it all and said that Anna needed to be in touch with her roots, whatever form that touch might take.
Anna's police partner Esko, on the other hand - an unreconstructed aging alpha male who smokes and drinks too much and is so unfit that he almost kills himself running after a suspect - embodies racist, anti-immigrant attitudes like the true relic from the past that he is. But, as he delves deeper into the activities of a criminal gang and it seems that his own life may be in danger, a well of loneliness emerges - which means he and Anna are much more alike than they could ever originally have imagined.

If, like me, your knowledge of Finnish literature is limited (in a quick scan, I could only identify Tove Jansson and Arto Paasilinna on my shelves), then Kati Hiekkapelto's writing makes a welcome addition to the fold. Here is a writer who is always in the most masterful control of her story; her plotting complex, her taut prose full of suspense. Most of all, she strikes a particularly poignant chord at a time when we are witnessing in Europe one of the largest mass migrations - and creating the greatest number of potential outsiders - in recent history.

The Defenceless is translated into English by David Hackston and published in the UK by Orenda Books. Many thanks to Karen at Orenda for the photos and review copy. 

Friday, 11 September 2015

Charlotte Proudman and that LinkedIn photo: time for debate not abuse

When I was in my late twenties, I can remember being given a low whistle of admiration - at very close range - by a workman, and something inside me flipped. 'Why the f**k do you think it's OK for you to do that?' I shouted, before marching into the office.

He looked astonished and backed away, no doubt to tell his mates about this raving madwoman he'd just encountered, who hadn't fallen over herself in gratitude for his attention. I was wearing an above knee-length skirt, after all. And it wasn't as if he'd done anything very extraordinary; it was just the culmination of years of suffering in stony silence every time I walked past building sites or was leered at out of a passing white van (yes, sadly) that caused my outburst.

This was many years ago, and nowadays, cloaked in the invisibility of the middle-aged woman, I no longer encounter such problems. That this attention turned off like a tap is mostly a great relief, although I can't help but admit it might be pleasant to be given the occasional second glance. Just to prove I still exist, you know? But, as my daughter pointed out, when you're objectified, you have a shelf-life and I've obviously gone way past mine.

Nevertheless, I'm as conscious as ever of the objectification of young women every time I'm out with my daughters (aged 21 and 17). And I can completely relate to where Charlotte Proudman is coming from (although I may have stopped short of naming him on Twitter) when she decided not to put up with clumsy, sexist comments anymore - in this instance made by a man twice her age.

Of course it's not true that you're no longer allowed to pay a woman a compliment; it's all a question of context. LinkedIn is a professional forum, not a dating website; you wouldn't begin a business meeting by telling someone you'd never met before how stunning they looked (would you?), but if you were seeing them for a date you might well do so. Just as friends of both sexes will compliment each other on their appearance without any offence - and usually a great deal of pleasure - being taken.

It's sadly inevitable that, in deciding to call out this issue, Charlotte Proudman is the one who has become the victim of a tidal wave of online abuse, as this excellent article in The Pool points out. At least my own 'red mist' incident occurred years ago, before I could be vilified on social media. The Daily Mail has happily branded her a 'feminazi' on their front page for the last two days - as though reacting against the boorish comments of men who should know better somehow equates to the excesses of a regime which murdered millions. As a label, it isn't clever and it isn't funny. Nor is it acceptable to demonise someone for at least challenging years of subjection to 'low-level', ingrained misogyny - however benign you might deem it to be.