Category Archives: Theatre

Discussion and reviews of theatre

National Theatre: Consent

Consent at the Harold Pinter

Consent at the Harold Pinter

Consent is what used to be called a “problem play”, an examination from various perspectives of a current hot topic. The topic in this case: consensual sex versus rape. The characters are almost all lawyers or lawyers wives, except for one: a woman from the working class who has been raped. Two of the lawyers are trying the case, one for the crown and the other as a defense lawyer appointed by the Crown to represent the accused, the alleged rapist. “Who’s my lawyer?” demands the victim, but the prosecutor won’t even talk to her; she’s not a plaintiff, but a witness, and he cannot be seen to be coaching her on her testimony.

Consent, photo by Photo by Johan Persson

Clare Foster, Stephen Campbell Moore, Lee Ingleby in Consent at Harold Pinter Theatre, London. Photo: Johan Persson

The lawyers and wives engage in chit chat reminiscent of Sondheim’s Company, but we (and they) gradually learn that all is not as superficial as it seems. Infidelities and sexual power games break and rearrange the relationships, and the men (primarily) try to achieve some kind of understanding of their emotional lives. All this to the click of highballs and wine glasses. At the end of the first act, rough reality breaks in; the rape victim crashes the party and discovers that the two lawyers are friends.

In the second act, one of the wives throws her husband out. Begging forgiveness, he ignores her repeated “no” and they have sex. His friends are horrified: technically, they tell him, this is rape.

There are more facets, more issues to explore, but you get the idea. The script, by Nina Raine, is skillful, smart and sometimes funny. The issues are examined with a certain level of evenhandedness. There are no villains, just imperfect well-bred middle-class professionals doing their best to cope.

I liked the play, but I can’t overlook that it pulls its punches. We want to see those lawyers in court. We want to see a lot more of the working woman’s ordeal than we’re given. And we want to see what happens when the gentle people have their day in court. This never happens. There’s all these lawyers, and no courtroom fireworks? They just talk it out, make concessions and compromises, and life goes on. Cop out.

 

Arcola Theatre: Donizetti and Ravel Operas

Opera Alegria poster for Grimeborn

Opera Alegria poster for Grimeborn

Grimeborn is an annual summer series of opera performances by alternative companies, held at the Arcola Theatre in Dalston. This is a chance to hear chamber versions of operas, sung up close and personal by accomplished singers, accompanied by piano or sometimes small ensembles. Sunday, August 5, it was a double bill by Opera Alegria of Donizetti’s Rita and Ravel’s L’Heure Espagnole (The Spanish Hour).

Rita is about the relationship between a harridan bar-owner (Naomi Kilby) and her downtrodden husband (Richard Belshaw). Into this non-idyllic domestic scene ventures a guest (Christopher Faulkner) who, unluckily, turns Naomi Kilby, Richard Belshaw in Ritaout to be Rita’s first husband, presumed dead. The current husband is delighted at the prospect of his freedom, while the first husband does his best to escape. It is silly and fun, if you overlook the domestic abuse implications. (A program note mentions that some of the content was toned down for modern sensibilities.) What is important is Donizetti at his sparkling best, sung with great verve and played with gusto on an upright piano by Lindsay Bramley.

Opera Alegria, L'Heure Expagnole

Opera Alegria, L’Heure Expagnole

Decades ago, right after university, I was stage director of a small opera company, and L’Heure Espagnole was one of the operas we did. I haven’t heard or seen it since, so you can imagine that I was pretty interested in how they would approach it.

The story is that there is a clockmaker whose job it is to wind the city hall clocks once a week. This provides an opportunity for his wife Concepcion (Alicia Gurney) to meet her lovers, a poet (Stuart McDermott) and a town official (Matthew Duncan). A muscular workman, Ramiro (Thorvald Blough) turns up to have his watch repaired, and both lovers end up hiding in the clocks.  Ramiro carries the clocks (with their passengers) upstairs to Concepcion’s bedroom, and back down again when they prove inadequate. However, Concepcion notices Ramiro’s physique, and things work out after all.

Alicia Gurney and Matthew Duncan in L'Heure Espagnole

Alicia Gurney and Matthew Duncan in L’Heure Espagnole

The music is Ravel in finest form, harmonically rich with some Spanish sauce. Well sung by all.

I was naturally interested in the staging choices. Great grandfather clocks with people inside them are pretty funny in themselves, but not easy to build and not easy to carry, especially while singing. Opera Alegria solved the problem with face masks with clock faces. When a singer donned a mask, he was considered to be hiding in the clock. It was an ingenious solution.

The performance was in the Arcola’s Studio 2, downstairs and no air conditioning, or even much ventilation. London has been experiencing a record-breaking heat wave, so it got pretty stifling. Still . . . for art one must sometimes suffer, no?

Taming of the Shrew, Trinidad Style

Taming of the Shrew by The Oratory Foundation in Stratord upon Avon

Taming of the Shrew by The Oratory Foundation in Stratord upon Avon

Strolling along the Avon River on the way to see Miss Littlewood at the Swan, we chanced on an outdoor production of Taming of the Shrew by a little company from Trinidad-Tobago. I was fascinated, and only with regret tore myself away to go to our scheduled performance at the Swan.

The set was the most minimal imaginable: a gauzy cloth thrown over a tree branch forming an inverted V for entrances and exits. That was it. Calypso songs between the scenes commented on the plot, but Shakepeare’s text was otherwise unaltered.

Taming of the Shrew by The Oratory Foundation in Stratord upon Avon

Taming of the Shrew by The Oratory Foundation in Stratord upon Avon

And we understood every word, every idea, every joke Shakespeare wrote. How did they do it, despite Trinidad accents and 400-odd years of linguistic change? Simple. They spoke every line to the audience as if they really cared that we would understand. They played it like Vaudeville, glancing occasionally at the other actors, but talking to us.And they carried it off with swagger and panache, with that wonderful Trini calypso energy.

And in doing so, a lot of the troubling aspects of Shrew vanish. Hey, folks, don’t take this so serious! This isn’t sociology, this is WWE. Current champion, Katherine! Challenger, Petruchio! As I watched, I couldn’t help thinking that this is how Shakespeare intended it to be played. Taming of the Shrew is one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays (1592). I like to think that this was written for touring, when the company would set up in an innyard, or under a spreading oak tree, and try to engage and win over a crowd using time-tested techniques employed from before Aristophanes to Saturday Night Live.

I looked up the company on the internet. It’s called The Oratory Foundation (www.oratoryfoundation.com).

“The Oratory Foundation is a school with the mandate to touch and teach through oration and creative forms of the spoken word. It promotes and encourages the use of various forms of oratory; it is a teaching institution providing the opportunity for the pruning and perfecting of poetry, oratory and performance.”

The performance we chanced upon is part of a series of free outdoor productions sponsored by RSC called The Dell Open Air Theatre (https://www.rsc.org.uk/events/the-dell). ”

“On weekends during June, July and August, our outdoor theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, The Dell, hosts a range of lively student, community and semi-professional productions of Shakespeare’s plays.

“The Dell was launched as part of the Complete Works Festival in 2006 and has hosted more than 300 amateur theatre companies, community groups, schools, universities and professional theatre companies to growing audience numbers of all ages.”

What a good idea.

August 4: Miss Littlewood

Amanda Ayeh as Joan 2, Amanda Hadingue as Nick, Photo by Topher McGrillis

Amanda Ayeh as Joan 2, Amanda Hadingue as Nick, Photo by Topher McGrillis

Joan Littlewood was a theatre innovator who had a huge influence on how theatre is made. A tough cockney who  quit RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art)and walked from London to Manchester, she joined with young Jimmy Miller (later AKA Ewan McColl) in 1933 to do agitprop anti-Nazi street theatre. Together with Gerry Raffles, all-round technical fixer-upper, they created an ensemble approach to theatre that revolutionized theatre practice. After the war, the company, now called Theatre Workshop, survived hand-to-mouth and unsubsidized, without a permanent home base. In 1953, Gerry Raffles found a derelict theatre in East London, Theatre Royal Stratford East. The company scrubbed it up and moved in, creating new work and a new way of working, until a series of hits, transferred to the West End, brought international recognition: The Quare Fellow and The Hostage by Brendan Behan, A Taste of Honey, Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be, Sparrers Can’t Sing. The biggest hit of all was Oh What a Lovely War (1963), which told the frightful story of the First World War using a combination of clown show, documentary segments, projections, and songs from the barracks and the music hall, all deftly crafted and arranged into a riveting experience in the theatre.

Miss Littlewood, a musical by Sam Kenyon, tells the story. Or rather, stories: the making of a theatre company, the life of Joan, the Joan and Gerry love story, and step-by-step what happened. Sam Kenyon came late to the party, having had no direct experience of Theatre Workshop, but had the help of Murray Melvin, a company member in the later years. He also had Joan’s Book, Joan’s autobiography, which (by the way) is a terrific read.

Miss Littlewood, Photo by Topher McGrillis

Miss Littlewood, Photo by Topher McGrillis

Toronto’s theatrical innovator, George Luscombe, was in the company in its earlier days, when the techniques were all being worked out. He brought the Littlewood approach to his company, Toronto Theatre Workshop, with a distinguished history of shows: Hey Rube, Mr. Bones, Ten Lost Years, Ain’t Lookin’ and lots more. I was in TWP and co-wrote a play with George, The Wobbly. My own theatre work has been in the Littlewood/Luscombe tradition.

So I had great incentive to see this show. Two days after we landed in London, we scooted up to Stratford-upon-Avon for the production’s last day.

Bottom line: it was worth it. MIss Littlewood was lively, with catchy songs of the right flavour, navigating its way through all the stories gracefully. Given that it wasn’t an ensemble production, but a musical about an ensemble, it managed to put across the feel of group creation. The most significant convention was having members of the company take turns playing Joan in the phases of her life — women black and white, skinny and solid. It was quite striking how the core of Joan was carried through all the transitions.

Standing beside me (yes, standing room again) was a woman who taught English and Drama, and was responsible for staging very ambitious productions (Les Miz). She had returned to see it a second time, bringing her mother. Joan continues to inspire, and Miss Littlewood is worthy of its subject.

August 2: Biker Gang Opera at Wilton’s Music Hall

Outside Wilton's Music Hall

Outside Wilton’s Music Hall

Wilton’s Music Hall is our local theatre, a ten minute walk from our east-end London flat. It operated as a music hall in the 1860s and 70s, and subsequently became a Methodist Mission (1888 to 1956). It was abandoned and derelict for decades, with periodic efforts by local activists to revitalize it. Finally, in 2004, the refurbishing began, and now it’s restored to a strange and wonderful new glory, with the patina of age still evident in faded paint and old creaking stairs.

Daughter of the Regiment, Opera della Luna

Daughter of the Regiment, Opera della Luna

The production Thursday night was Donizetti’s comic opera, La Fille du Regiment, re-imagined in English as The Daughter of the Regiment, the Regiment in this case being a biker gang in California. The Opera della Luna production, with a new libretto by Jeff Clarke, is spritely and fun. Elin Pritchard as said daughter sings the demanding role admirably, and as a biker-lass she is completely convincing. Snatched up into society and put in a frumpy little-girl dress, she does her best to adapt, but eventually returns to the gang to find happiness in the arms of her Latino boyfriend, ably acted and sung (9 high C’s!) by Jesus Alvarez.

The Artword Story 1: Why “Artword”?

Judith Sandiford paintings at Erindale Art Gallery

Judith Sandiford paintings at Erindale Art Gallery, 1986. “Paintings from the Virtual Museum”.

Judith and I close down Artword Artbar every August and every January. These are times to reflect, re-energize and see some shows that aren’t our own.

I also thought it would be a good time to tell you some things you may not know about Artword.

First, the name “Artword”.

“Artword” started as the name of a quarterly magazine, written “by artists for artists. (Full name “Artword Artists Forum”) Judith was editor and I was the publisher.  We published 24 issues from 1989 to 1994.

The first few issues were called “WorkSeen”. This was because Judith was an active member of Workscene Collective, which ran the Workscene Gallery.

Judith and I had a little business doing technical documentation (still do!), so we had computers, layout programs, and an actual laser printer, back when they cost $2500-5000. So we had the bat and ball, and the diamond was in our back yard.

We were fortunate to gather a team of excellent people, and we made our decisions pretty much together. Our philosophy was that decisions should be made by the people who did the work. And that was pretty much how Workscene Gallery also had been operating.

After a few issues, though, we were called to a meeting the Administrative Committee of Workscene Gallery. They had concerns. One of our best, and most reliable writers, who wrote a satirical column called “Le Flaneur” had written a phrase which they considered possibly sexist. It wasn’t, but they thought it might be.  The phrase was not “politically correct”, a new concept at that time that was just trying out its wings.  They decided that they should review the content of every issue before we published it.

None of them had written anything. None of them had sold any ads. None of them had helped painter Andy Glinski drive out to the art galleries and art stores to deliver the copies. (4,000 copies a month, free.)

So we said no. And they said, well then you have to remove all references to Workseen and change the name. We said fine. We can think of a name.

So we thought. And we came up with “ArtWork”. And our designer and layout person, sculptor Lynn Campbell, designed a logo. ArtWork.

It didn’t seem quite right. Somebody thought it was too “artist as worker”, too agitprop. But for me, the issue was the letter K. It was a fierce letter, arms and legs sticking forward, a bristling letter. How about (I suggested) the letter D. Artword. Combining Art and Words. And it required minimal redesign of the logo.

So Artword it was. Since then, everything that Judith and I have done has been called Artword. When we started our theatre in Toronto, it was Artword Theatre. When we set up our not-for-profit, it was Artword Cultural Projects.

And when we came to Hamilton looking to create a theatre, and decided instead to buy a Portuguese sports bar and turn it into a cultural oasis, we called it Artword Artbar. (World famous for its Artword Artbar Artbeer).

The name Artword turned out to be a bit problematic. People have trouble reading it and understanding it. The say Artworld or Artwood or Atword or Atwood or (indeed) Artwork. But we have persisted. Artword it remains.

Stratford-Upon-Avon: Othello

Shakespeare's funerary monument, Holy Trinity Church.

Shakespeare’s funerary monument, Holy Trinity Church.

We had seen a remarkable Othello two years ago at the National Theatre, with Adrian Lester as Othello and Rory Kinnear as Iago, set in a contemporary military garrison resembling those in Iraq or Afghanistan. We almost decided to skip Othello this time, so as not to overlay our memories of that production.

It’s a good thing we didn’t skip it. This Othello, wonderfully acted in an ensemble mode, proved again the limitless facets in Shakepeare’s enigmatic masterpiece. The revelation here was the relationship between Othello and Iago, brought forward by casting a black actor as Iago. Not just any actor, but the effervescent and charismatic Lucian Msamati, who might have stolen the show away if Hugh Quarshie had not radiated such controlled and thoughtful power.

When Iago is white, Othello is entirely isolated, and it is no surprise to us that Iago plots against him. When he is black, suddenly we see Iago as Othello’s trusted subordinate, someone who stands with him, ready to carry out his wishes and provide him with information. When he is passed over, his loyal service unrecognized, he turns his ingenuity toward revenge. Othello continues to trust him, because Iago is his bridge to a world he only partly understands. Msamati’s Iago, always scheming and arranging, is busy spinning his spider webs, until finally he himself is caught.

Joanna Vanderham’s Desdemona deserves mention. There is no trace of victim-hood in her characterization. She is simply a young woman who follows her impulses without guile, and expects that the world will be as straightforward as she. A most refreshing take.

Grimeborn: Alternative Opera at the Arcola Theatre

The bar at Arcola Theatre

The bar at Arcola Theatre, an exellent place for a glass of wine before the show. (You can take it in with you.)

We love the Arcola Theatre, London’s most vibrant and ambitious alternative theatre. It’s up in Dalston, a maelstrom of multicultural life, once an area of dubious repute, but now verging on getting to be maybe nearly (dare I say the word?) trendy. Every summer, for those of us who can’t afford the Glyndebourne Festival, it hosts the Grimeborne Festival of Alternative Opera, where tiny, impoverished opera companies present glorious music.

Wednesday’s program was called The Clown of Clowns, consisting of two works: Arnold Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire and Sideshows, by Leo Geyer. The presenting companies were Constella Ballet & Orchestra in collaboration with Khymerikal. The program points out that “many of the musicians involved in this production are members of both ensembles”. Continue reading

“The Beaux’ Stratagem” at the National Theatre

National Theatre, London

National Theatre, London

“The Beaux’ Stratagem” is usually thought of as a late example of Restoration Comedy, and that’s how I was thinking of it as we entered the Olivier. I didn’t know the play, but I was ready for a saucy, boisterous romp. It took a little while before I adjusted to its more sedate rhythm and more polite treatment of sexual relations. It was, after all, written in 1707, at the cusp of the Restoration style and the more sedate (and forgettable) sentimental comedy of the 18th century.

At the interval, I said to Judith “I’m not sure what I’m seeing”. This, by the way, is not a bad thing. I love being made to stretch.

Continue reading

“A Number” at the Young Vic

Opera Singer Busking at Blackfriars Bridge

Opera Singer Busking at Blackfriars Bridge

The Young Vic is just a stroll east from the Old Vic, along the street called The Cut. (The two theatres have no connection with each other, by the way.) We like the Young Vic very well, for its adventurous programming and its pleasant and affordable cafe. So it was that on Wednesday following our arrival, having booked tickets for The Beaux’ Stratagem at The National Theatre that evening, we sauntered down The Cut to see what matinees were on offer at the Young Vic. Continue reading