Category Archives: Theatre

Discussion and reviews of theatre

“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.

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“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

Ensemble theatre company Idle Motion: Shooting with Light

Shooting with Light. Photo by Richard Davenport

Shooting with Light. Photo by Richard Davenport

Our biggest surprise in our recent London theatre binge was a production by an ensemble company called Idle Motion, at a small space called the New Diorama Theatre near Euston Station. The play was Shooting with Light, “devised, written and directed collaboratively by Grace, Sophie, Nathan, Ellie, Juian and Kate” (to quote the program). The company uses dance, theatrical movement and multimedia to tell its stories, and this of course appeals to us. So on a whim, we decided to forego the musical Made in Dagenham (which sounded interesting, but nothing we hadn’t seen before under other names), and seek out something that just might be more surprising. We were quite knocked out. We had hoped for good enough, and got something pretty close to marvellous. The story was compelling, the dance/movement was skillful, the acting was honest and unselfconscious, and the inventiveness just kept happening.

Sophie Cullen as Gerda Taro, photo by Margaret Durow

Sophie Cullen as Gerda Taro, photo by Margaret Durow

Based on Jane Rogoyzka’s book Gerda Taro, Shooting with Light tells the true story of a young woman living in Paris in the 1930s. She hooks up with a disheveled young photojournalist who can’t seem to sell any photos, smartens him up and starts to manage his career; in return, he gives her a camera and teaches her how to use it. They decide to invent a fictitious American photographer, always out of town, called Robert Capa, and the photos start selling. She changes her name to Gerda Taro, and starts to sell her photos, sometimes as Robert Capa and sometimes under her own name. They both go to Spain to cover the Spanish Civil War, where Robert Capa shoots the iconic photo of a Republican soldier in the moment of being shot. Gerda takes more and more risks, and insists on returning to Madrid after the fall of the city. She is killed at the age of 26 by an out-of-control tank. Treated as a martyr to the Republican cause, she has a couple of years of posthumous fame, and then is largely forgotten, her work subsumed into that of Robert Capa and remembered primarily as Robert Capa’s girlfriend.

One reason for this seeming neglect was that most of her negatives, along with many of Capa’s photos of the Spanish Civil War, had been stored in a box that was smuggled to the Mexican embassy and forgotten. Robert’s photographer brother, Cornell Capa (he changed his name as well) devoted years to tracking down this so-called “Mexican suitcase”.

The play opens with Cornell and his assistant June examining rolls of negatives from a compartmented tray. The set is an enlarged version of this tray. They find a roll that contains what they are looking for, and suddenly Gerda (the actor) bursts through the corresponding compartment in the set. It’s a wonderful shock, that sets us up for the transformations to come, through the use of projections and physical rearrangements.

Dance and movement are used to break through the convention of naturalism and propel the story onward. The script alternates between the search for the negatives and the truth about Gerda Taro, and the relationship between the two photographers, as they participate in the invention of the craft of photojournalism. This is a story worth telling, in this age of embedded journalists and manipulated media.


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

From Morning to Midnight, at the National

Written in 1912, Georg Kaiser’s expressionist drama From Morning to Midnight has been given a bravura treatment in a new version by Dennis Kelly. I joined the queue for day seats at 8:30 on a Wednesday, and snagged two matinee tickets, along with two evening tickets for the second preview of King Lear. What a day of theatre it was!

The National production of From Morning to Midnight achieves an unusual balance between spectacular special effects, and the actors manipulating scenic elements. A snowstorm, for example, begins with actors shaking out sheets, an effect which expands to cover the stage with surging and rolling white cloth. Lovely. At another point, an office set piece is flown upwards, trapping a bewildered actor inside. It is even more impressive that the invention never flags, From start to finish there are surprises.

The plot is the familiar expressionist morality tale, showing society grinding down a character who tries to assert  individuality. A bank clerk, a cog in a monstrous machine, absconds with a large sum of money, and spends a day using the money to find the meaning of life, or rather, the spark of human energy. He seeks through family life (his own family), sex (a fancy brothel), mass enthusiasm (a bicycle race) and religion (a Salvation Army prayer meeting). At every stage, illusions are stripped away.

The path is familiar, so the sights and sounds of the journey are what really matter. And in this, the production succeeds thoroughly. The actors, sharing roles in ensemble fashion, create a multitude of characters, always vivid and clear. Adam Godley, as the Clerk, carries the show on his narrow shoulders with great panache.

A wonderful opportunity to see an important work fully realized.

Women of Twilight by Sylvia Rayman

White Bear Theatre, London

White Bear Theatre, London

One of the highlights of our visit to London was a most ambitious production at the White Bear, a tiny pub theatre in South London. It was Women of Twilight, Sylvia Rayman’s all-women play from 1951, powerfully performed by a profit-share company of eleven, appropriately called 11F. 

Unmarried women who find themselves pregnant are driven by desperation to take lodging in a house that is a front for a baby-farming operation. The characters in the play are from all levels of society and varied backgrounds. The sensitivity and depth of understanding that Sylvia Rayman brings to these women is what makes this script so remarkable, and even more so given that this was her first play, written when she was 28, working as a waitress. Although two of the women, one middle-class, the other the girlfriend of a gangster sentenced to hang, are the focus of the action, all the women are fully and vividly realized. And this accomplished ensemble company does full justice to the work.

Women of Twilight was a sudden surprise hit in 1951, receiving many productions all over Britain, followed by a film in 1952. Somehow, after that, it dropped into obscurity. The director of this production, Jonathan Rigby, became interested in the film, and then undertook to track down the original playscript. This production, once again, has had an unexpected impact, receiving glowing reviews for a run at the White Bear in October 2013, sparking a revival in January 2014.

“Sluts, all of you, with your rotten little bastards. I took you off the streets, when decent people wouldn’t look at you … And this is how you repay me!”

From the White Bear publicity: “Anticipating British theatre’s ‘kitchen sink’ revolution by a full five years, Women of Twilight was first presented in 1951 and filmed the following year. Neglected for over half a century yet still relevant today, this blistering drama – in which unmarried mothers are ruthlessly exploited by an unscrupulous, baby-farming landlady – is a real find.

Women of Twilight is directed by Jonathan Rigby and designed by Olivia Knight. It forms part of the White Bear’s Lost Classics strand, which has previously unearthed John Osborne’s early plays The Devil Inside Him and Personal Enemy (which transferred to the ‘Brits Off Broadway’ festival in New York).

With Claire Louise Amias, Francesca Anderson, Christie Banks, Amy Comper, Elizabeth Donnelly, Ailsa Ilott, Sally Mortemore, Emma Reade-Davies, Maggie Robson, Vanessa Russell, Emma Spearing.”

Adini Söyle / Say Your Name, at the Arcola

The Arcola Theatre, up in rough-and-tumble Dalston, is a hotbed of alternative vitality, always trying out new ideas and approaches, politically engaged, with a perspective that spans the globe. The theatre, formerly in a rambling industrial building on Arcola Street, moved a few blocks south in January 2011, a few steps from the Dalston Junction overground station. 

The area has a cosmopolitan mix, with a strong Turkish presence, evidenced by many Turkish restaurants, authentic and inexpensive. The founder and Artistic Director of the Arcola, Mehmet Ergun, is Turkish, managing a dual career spanning London and Istanbul.

This provides a context for Adini Söyle / Say Your Name, a collective creation about the demonstrations in Gezi Park, Istanbul. The piece, the result of 15 weeks of effort, was performed in Turkish, with English surtitles, by a cast of thirteen.

The production, a series of vignettes, had the uneven quality that often results from group creation. There were powerful moments (two young people, surviving a tear gas attack, finding companionship), and episodes that, one might say, need more work. Two things made the evening memorable: the commitment of the company to what was being communicated and the events that were being described. Where the piece lacked polish, it substituted immediacy, the sense that the performers had rushed away from the fray to give us their report. The performers were engaging and believable, and they had something important to say to us, the audience sitting in front of them.

Afterwards, sitting in the Arcola Bar, we fell into conversation with two Turkish people, one who lives in Moscow, and the other an actor in the company. They told us how, during the protests in Istanbul, they sat in front of their televisions all day, unable to do anything else while people like them, people they knew, fought for basic rights and values. This sense of connection, of our own involvement, came across through this piece of theatre.

Protest Song, at The Shed

The Shed, at the National

The Shed, at the National

The Occupy movement in London had its camp in the square outside St. Paul’s Cathedral, a location that was already occupied by “rough sleepers”, the current British term for what in North Armerica are called “street people”. A new one-person play, Protest Song, by Tim Price, imagines the interaction between one rough sleeper, Danny, and the young idealists who are inventing a new mode of human interaction on the fly.

The play was produced by the National Theatre in The Shed, a large red cube squatting in the forecourt of the National Theatre complex. It is a temporary structure replacing the wonderful, quirky little Cottesloe, which is currently being reconfigured into something to be called The Dorfman Theatre. The Shed is a marvel of prefabrication, steel platforms and walkways surrounding a central playing area,  with chain-link fencing held together by plastic tie-line. There’s an anything-goes feel to it that seems appropriate to the play.

Danny, played with vigour by Rhys Ifans, starts off pan-handling the audience. He’s also collecting phone numbers to store on a mobile phone, to prove to a well-meaning social worker that he is rehabilitating himself. Once that is over with, he starts the story of the Occupy camp, how his initial resentment and disdain is gradually overcome, how he find his voice speaking over the “human microphone”, how he learns that “the politics” matters to him too. In time, however, his street-schooled behaviour clashes with the middle-class values of his new friends, and he is expelled. At the end, he curses the Occupy movement for ruining his life “because you gave me hope”.

This was a powerful evening at the theatre, and it is a fine thing that The National would tackle the subject of the Occupy movement, and treat it sympathetically. Still though . . .

The issues, and the commitment of the participants in the Occupation, are distanced by the playwright’s choice of Danny as the observer. The protest is an exotic event, involving strange lovable people ,that rises up around him and disappears, leaving the world as it was. Danny rails against the unfairness of having his equilibrium disturbed by an illusion. We are left with an impression of naive middle-class idealistic youngsters having a bit of fun before the real world knocks some sense into them. What was happening outside St. Paul’s was something more difficult, more dangerous and more vital that Danny understands, or the play delivers. I missed that.

Fortune’s Fool, at the Old Vic

Saint Paul's from across the river.

Saint Paul’s from across the river.

So our first real day in London (December 31), we rush over to the Old Vic, and are fortunate to get tickets for Fortune’s Fool by Turgenev, in a translation by Mike Poulton. There’s a discrete sign in the lobby saying that due to the indisposition of John McAndrew, the part of Kuzovkin will be played by Patrick Cremin, the understudy. It turns out that Kuzovkin is the main role, dominating practically every scene. What about that? Did we see the play that other’s saw?

For my part, I was very happy with the evening. Patrick Cremin did a fine job. I hope that John McAndrew is feeling better, but I didn’t miss him. The play is very much an ensemble piece, very finely tuned, and it came across beautifully.

The script is very interesting. It pre-dates Chekov by several decades, but you could say that it combines elements reminiscent of Uncle Vanya and The Cherry Orchard. The mistress of a country estate returns, after years away, with her new husband, reacquainting herself with the scenes of her childhood, her old serfs and her neighbours. She finds an impoverished gentleman, Kuzovkin, who was a permanent guest of her parents and has continued to live there after their deaths. She and her husband are courteous, but a neighbour reveals that he is to be treated as a object of ridicule. At a drinking party, he is humiliated, until he is driven to reveal a secret known only to himself. At the end of the play, he speaks his mind about the corruption of the aristocracy. Very 19th-century, you could say, but the workings-out are finely drawn by playwright, translator and cast. And the reversal at the conclusion, when the underdog reveals his contempt for the system that oppresses him, still has power to move.  I liked the design very well, a well-orchestrated colour palette, and sets that seemed substantial but actually consisted of fabric drops.

On the subject of understudies, many years ago, in London, I saw the premiere of Stoppard’s wonderful play, Jumpers, with Michael Hordern and Diana Rigg (yes, 1972). Only . . . that night, Diana Rigg was indisposed. Let me say that her understudy was terrific, and that play has stayed in my memory as one of the high points of my theatre experience.

(The picture has nothing to do with the play. I didn’t take any pictures of the Old Vic, though.)