Arcola Theatre: Shrapnel

Arcola studio 1
Arcola studio 1
Arcola exterior
Arcola exterior

Our first night in London this visit: we’ve slept off our red-eye flight jet lag, and it’s time to get out! Why not go to our favorite alternative theatre, the Arcola, in wonderful, multicultural Dalston? Dinner first at the Mangal Turkish restaurant, lamb spare ribs (yum) and then a short walk to the theatre.

The play is Shrapnel, subtitled 34 Fragments of a Massacre, by Anders Lustgarten. It’s a sombre piece based on an incident that took place on the border between Turkey and Iraq in December 2011, called the Roboski massacre. Video from an American drone captures images of a band of men in the mountains making their way with mules across the border. The Turks know who they are: impoverished peasants who make a precarious living smuggling diesel fuel. Pentagon officials insist that they are terrorists, and send in the drones.

Anders Lustgarten operates in the great British tradition of activist-playwright, using the resources of the stage to expose political and social issues to scrutiny. His bio mentions that “he has taught on Death Row, been arrested by the Turkish secret police and holds a PhD in Chinese politics from the University of California. He is the winner of the inaugural Harold Pinter award”. The Arcola’s artistic director, Mehmet Ergen, who directed this play, is also committed to an engaged, activist theatre, with a particular interest in Turkish affairs.

In London, alongside theatre as mass entertainment, is a healthy parallel strand for people who love an opportunity to learn, think, and join in a dialogue about what is going on around them. One might call it (if the term were not already misappropriated) “adult entertainment”.

Shrapnel has a no-nonsense, just-the-facts approach. The cast of six share multiple roles, switching from villagers to Pentagon commanders  to smugglers to Turkish officers to two low-level interrogators. A powerful element is the use of footage from the actual drone video projected behind the action.

There are two elements that distract from what is, overall, a powerful and effective piece of theatre. The vignettes jump back and forth in time, sometimes bewilderingly, though there does not seem any particular reason not to be chronological. The other is the use of accents, and this is a tricky problem. The villagers have strong Turkish accents (there are a couple of Turkish actors), the Americans speak Ammurican, but there are scenes in which the accent is British. These, it turns out, are the Turkish officers, and it took a while before I cottoned on. Was the British army deployed there too? To Londoners, presumably, a standard BBC accent is neutral, but not to us Canadians. It is, as I said, a vexed question in ensemble work, and relates also to ethnicity. When is casting colour blind, and when are we supposed to notice?

Apart from the head-scratchers above, this was a fine start to our London theatre holiday.

(Note: usually the photographs I post are my own, but I forgot my camera, so I’m posting a couple from the Arcola web site:

Learie Mc Nicolls in Transformation at Artword Artbar

Learie McNicolls in Transformation at Artword Artbar
Learie McNicolls in Transformation at Artword Artbar

Learie Mc Nicolls confronts the demons of poverty, violence and fear in his powerful new work, Transformation: a Journey of the Soul’s Healing, at Artword Artbar, March 25 and 26, 2015, at 9:00 pm. An Artword Theatre production, directed by Ronald Weihs, Transformation combines dance, spoken word, soundscape and visual images, to present one man’s struggle to come to terms with his troubled Trinidad childhood and redeem the forgotten child inside him. The live musical soundscape is by Dale Morningstar, founder of the experimental blues-rock band, The Dinner is Ruined. Visual design is by Judith Sandiford.

Learie Mc Nicolls in Transformation at Artword Artbar
Learie Mc Nicolls in Transformation at Artword Artbar

Learie Mc Nicolls has been a key figure in the contemporary dance scene in Toronto since the 1980s. He has danced with Toronto Dance Theatre, Desrosiers Dance Theatre, Dancemakers, the National Ballet of Cuba, and his own company, Mythmakers. As a solo dancer, he has been exploring the combination of dance with spoken word, to create a powerful new form of theatrical presentation. His Toronto production, Armour, took two Dora awards for Outstanding Choreography and Outstanding Performance.
A year ago, he moved to Hamilton, where he is devoting himself to help build the contemporary dance scene here. In May, 2014, he performed Resurrection at the Pearl Company, and choreographed the dances in Artword Theatre’s second production of James Street. He has created an ongoing series of showcase dance productions at Artword Artbar called Big Dance Little Stage, featuring dancers from Hamilton and Toronto over two nights. There have been four BDLS productions, June, September and November 2014, and February 2015. He has recently opened a dance studio downstairs at Artword Artbar.

Learie Mc Nicolls
Learie Mc Nicolls

Transformation takes the dance/spoken word paradigm to a new level. Ronald Weihs as director, and Judith Sandiford as designer, pushed Learie to incorporate methods based on their approach to theatre. Together, the three of them analyzed Learie’s poems from a theatrical point of view, finding characters and situations that needed to be brought to life. Learie was fine with this, because he is also an actor.
The three collaborators also drew on their experience with Big Dance Little Stage, where Judith Sandiford improvises with projected images and musicians create soundscapes to interact with dancers. It was through BDLS that they became acquainted with Dale Morningstar, who provides improvised music for his wife, dancer Megan English. In addition to his work as a musician, Dale is perhaps best-known as co-founder of The Gas Station Recording Studio, “the hub of the Canadian indie rock sound”, now located at Gibraltar Point on Toronto Island. He and Megan now live in Hamilton.
Transformation: A Journey of the Soul’s Healing will be Artword Theatre’s contribution to the Hamilton Fringe, July 2015, with Artword Artbar as a Bring Your Own Venue.
The Artword team, Ronald Weihs and Judith Sandiford, created and ran Artword Theatre in downtown Toronto for twelve years before coming to Hamilton in 2007. Weihs and Sandiford have had long experience with one-person plays, including three by Charlie Chiarelli, Cu’Fu, Mangiacake and Sunamabeach, Allan Merovitz’s If Cows Could Fly, and Donald Carr’s The Full Nelson. Judith Sandiford has designed and lit dance productions with Meiko Ando, Michael Du Maresq, Leanne Dixon, Hedy Minten, Daryll Tracy, Bonnie Kim and Donald Carr. Artword Theatre’s original multi-cast productions in Hamilton include You Are What You Do, Langston Hughes vs Joe McCarthy, Rascals and Numskulls, Tobacco Troubadour, James Street and Scroogissimo. They own and manage the popular Artword Artbar, featuring music of all varieties, theatre, poetry and spoken word four nights a week, Wednesday to Saturday.
Transformation: A Journey of the Soul’s Healing
An Artword Theatre production
written by Learie Mc Nicolls
choreographed and performed by Learie Mc Nicolls
directed by Ronald Weihs
original music performed by Dale Morningstar
visuals by Judith Sandiford
produced and designed by Judith Sandiford
Performances at Artword Artbar, 15 Colbourne Street
Wednesday and Thursday, March 25 and 26, 2015, at 9:00 pm.
Tickets: $10