Category Archives: Theatre

Unreported Stories — London 2018

Battersea Arts Centre, the Great Hall, before the fire

Battersea Arts Centre, the Great Hall, before the fire

Friday morning and I haven’t written a thing since Tuesday.  Must fix that.

Tuesday evening was Bryony Kimmings’ I’m A Phoenix, Bitch at Battersea Arts Centre, itself a bit of a Phoenix.  Friday the 13th March, 2015, fire broke out in the roof of Battersea’s Great Hall.

Mandatory Credit: Photo by REX (4527938a)
Fire at Battersea Arts Centre
Battersea Arts Centre on fire, London, Britain – 13 Mar 2015
A major fire has broken out at Battersea Arts Centre, a leading independent theatre and arts venue in south London.

The entire rear third of the building was lost, but with steely grit and unflagging determination, and loads of support from the community, BAC rose from the ashes.  It held a public event in the (relatively) unscarred front of the building just 26 hours after the fire was extinguished, and this year marks their “Phoenix Season.”  More of the building than ever before is open to the public and in active use.

Byony Kimmings is a performance artist.  In 2016 she was beset by a series of tragedies which, together, nearly broke her.  Her and her partner bought a tumbledown cottage, in the middle of nowhere, to settle their new small family, but post partum depression had a grip on her.  Then her son, Frank, began to suffer unexplained seizures, and she and her partner began to disintegrate.  This is the story Bryony presents to us through an intriguing and fascinating set of theatrical devices.

Not content just to talk to the audience, ala Spalding Grey, another performance artist best known for turning life into narrative, Brynony has four small “sets,” initially covered by sheets, around the performance space, and the back wall is black scrim.  One by one she undrapes the small sets, one a kitchen counter with backdrop, another a bed, etc.  She rolls a camera on tripod up to marks before each set, settles into the set, and on with makeup, wigs, etc.  In each she performs a mini-sketch which brings us into her mind for the “morning after the night before” with her new love (kitchen) or the pregnancy and birth (bed).  We can watch her working within the cleverly designed sets, or watch her on the video, projected onto the scrim.  We can enter her story, or observe it, or both.

The most interesting of these small sets is a model of the small cottage and the hill upon which it stands.  Fans of model railroads will recognize the construction materials; Norwegian moss, sawdust drass, etc.  It’s strikingly realistic, and we are brought into it by Bryony wielding a small video camera as she narrates their occupancy of the home, acting it out with small dolls.

I’ve described some of the tools and techniques Kimmings uses, but what I cannot do is describe much of the story, or the more awesome stage effects.  This is due to my respect for the artist’s prerogative that the show not be revealed too much to prospective future audiences.  I will say that it was a deeply moving story, told with unique story telling tools, and bursts with vision from a singular creative mind.  Some day I may post a photo or two, but for now this will do.

Much thanks to a pair of Phoenix; Battersea Arts Centre and Byony Kimmings.

Clouds, Clowns and Oresteia — London 2018

Pawn has come frequently to London in the past decade, spending about six months here in that time.  Along the way, one builds up a list of go-to venues when looking for new, edgy, fringy, performance.  Arcola, Bunker, Menier Chocolate Factory, Pleasance, among them.  Pleasance and Arcola stand out in this list in that they are a regular part of Fringe.  Pleasance have a large and popular venue there every year.  With their Caledonian Express program they are short-circuiting the old six-month process of bringing new work from Fringe to London stage.

For those not familiar with the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, it’s a loosely organized (one of their founding by-laws is that there are no rules) annual showcase, running for most of the month of August.  It’s become one of the foremost producer’s showcases in Europe, alongside events like ITS Festival (focusing on recent European arts academy grads) and has long been a critical component in bringing new works, performers and troupes to the stages and screens of the world (the popular television show Fleabag, for example, originated as a Fringe production).

With Caledonian Express — so named for Pleasance’s North London venue, off of Caledonian Road — they are now presenting promising Fringe acts just a month or so after the festival.  An act one sees during this phase is not really finished, per se.  A full six month development cycle would lengthen many shows, refine them for a more formal theatre setting, things like that.  In the Fringe, every act must find their own venue, many in tents or other pop-up spaces, with severe limitations of technical aspects, like lighting, sound, video, etc.  And time.  A Fringe piece is an hour long.  That’s tradition.  In many newer “fringe” festivals (outside the Edinburgh original) the rule is 50 or 55 minutes.  To become a full-scale show, suitable for the stages of the world, much work is still needed.

Pleasance are a mainstay in that process, as are many other presenting venues throughout London; Battersea Arts Centre, The Bunker, Arcola, etc.  These venues don’t just provide a space to perform, but they provide mentorship, connections, designers and the friendly surround artists need to make a successful transition to the stage.

Today brought Pawn back to Pleasance for the second time this trip, having seen the Edinburgh hit In Loyal Company here just the other day.  First was a late matinee performance of The Oresteia,  “  is a trilogy of Greek tragedies written by Aeschylus in the 5th century BC, concerning the murder of Agamemnon by Clytaemnestra, the murder of Clytaemnestra by Orestes, the trial of Orestes, the end of the curse on the House of Atreus and pacification of the Erinyes.” in the words of Wikipedia.  In the hands of Splendid Productions, it’s hip-hop meets vaudeville by way of British music hall.

Three performers, Nuala Maguire, Grace Goulding, & Tanya Muchanyuka each perform multiple roles, starting with the Furies, whose role in the lives of men are marginalized by the events enacted in these three plays.  Given the 60 minute time frame, the stories are severely shortened, as one might expect.  The story telling was fast and furious (no pun intended) as we whipped through the background of all of the various murders, slights, infidelities, patricides, matricides, etc.  Some of this involved a not-so-strong fast-forward/reverse conceit of fake reverse motion.  One hopes that gets worked on, or eliminated.

All in all, most of the piece was strong.  It moved along, had moments of great beauty, and got us involved (quite literally) in the story.  It’s hard to flag individual performances, since the three women so often were acting in unison, but Macguire, as Clytemnestra, was exceptional.  That she had arguably the best part certainly helped.  But, too, she resisted mugging and gave some of the best straight performance of the show.

I saw this show with a handful of regular theatre goers, those one might expect in a late-afternoon (16:30) matinee, and about 150 schoolkids.  The kids were a noisy bunch, but fully engaged by the music-hall aspects of the show, and not the least off put by the history.

Things would be different for A Clown Show About Rain, by Silent Faces.  This small show was performed in the much smaller Downstairs venue, a small thrust space with minimal wings, no flies, and about 40 seats.  Silent Faces is a female clown troupe – a rarity – with a sense of politics and a hopeful, optimistic mein.  This show is a take on depression, but you wouldn’t know it for most of the hour.

The performances are crisp and smooth.  These women know how to share a stage with each other, and with five of them in such a small space, that’s no mean feat.  Most of the time, however, it’s just two or three at a time.  We have three sailors, or are they fisherwomen?, weathering a gale, in their macs, being blown to and fro, fighting over the ship’s wheel, or frantically trying to place buckets under an invisible leak.

Or we have two mates, off fishing, having a light snack and listening to the shipping forecast on the BBC.

These may or may not strike you as funny, or potentially funny, situations, but Silent Faces find the humour.

And slyly, ever so slyly, they start to introduce the issues of mental health which lie at the heart of their work.  We don’t see it at first, it may just be there on the fringe, but it’s there, and it’s devilishly clever.  Given that this is mostly physical theatre, and very well done physical theatre, it’s intrinsically hard to describe.  So I’ll take the coward’s way out and punt on that.  I can tell you that there are moments of great beauty here, and striking pathos.

Watch Your Neighbour, Redux

[This post has been updated both to reflect my evolving thoughts on the performances, and to correct a glaring oversight of description.]

Back in 2008, I wrote about both the prevalence of CCTV camera throughout London, and of the guerilla marketing campaign for the Ausie-import on the telly, Neighbours.  Last night at Menier Chocolate Factory, Pawn attended Pack Of Lies, which, set in the cold-war-heightened intensity of the early 1960s, brought that guerilla marketing campaign’s chief slogan, “Watch Your Neighbours” a quite literal meaning.

It was a savvy bit of genius to revive this play now.  Originally written for a BBC playhouse series in 1971, as Act of Betrayal, when the original events were still fresh in the public mind.  Playwright Hugh Whitemore then adapted it to the stage for its original 1983 run, starring Judi Dench and Michael Williams (real life marrieds).

Highly appropriate in our own times, this story seems ageless.  While we bridle at the thought of spying on our neighbours, we read daily newspaper accounts of Russian agents offing people with poisons, stealing secrets on-line and in-life.  The events of this story could just as easily have transpired today, but by leaving the setting historically accurate (and then some), director Hannah Chissick has chosen to give us a little breathing room, some distance from our own reality.

Based on a true story, action takes place in the northwest London suburb of Ruislip, Middlesex.  The set itself is a near perfect recreation of the classic British two-up/two-down semi-detached homes so common both in London and in the bedroom communities all around England.  Ruislip, itself, is just 5 kilometres from North Harrow, where Pawn was born, at about the time the events recounted in this play were actually playing out.

Pack of Lies — Set

The Portland Spy Ring affair involved a Soviet spy ring gathering intelligence and stealing secrets related to UK & allied (NATO) naval operations and capabilities, and smuggling that out to the KGB, via micro-dots and radio transmissions.  The central figures were businessman Gordon Lonsdale (Canadian), civil clerk Harry Houghton, his moll, Ethel Gee, and others.  Lonsdale was tailed, and observed to make frequent visits to Ruislip, to the home of antiquarian bookseller Peter Kroger and his wife Helen.

MI-5 proceeded to make contact with the neighbours across the street, Bill & Ruth Search, and it was from their first storey window that MI-5 surveilled the Kroger home, and ultimately collected enough evidence to arrest, charge and convict the whole ring.

Agent Stewart talks to Bob & Barbara

Agent Stewart talks to Bob & Barbara in the sitting room

In our play the family is Bob & Barbara Jackson and their daughter Julie, but all of the other names, or, aliases, really, are left as is.  The Krogers, Canadians, are really the Cohens, Americans.  Lonsdale, the Canadian businessman at the center of the ring was, years later, revealed to be Konon Trofimovich Molody, a Russian agent.

The central conflict in the story is that the Jacksons are being asked, if not to “spy” on their neighbours, their best friends, at least to facilitate spying on them, and lie about it, to their friends and their own daughter.  Bob seems ready to accept this; he’s a civil servant himself, bound by secrecy for his work, and is used to submitting to the state on these matters.  Barbara, who admits she has a hard time making friends, just cannot abide that she must lie to Helen.

Barbara and Helen during a dress fitting

Barbara and Helen during a dress fitting

In the moral calculus of the story, the state is to be trusted and the neighbours are not.  That Barbara takes so long to come around to see this almost makes her a Polly-Anna, but is that so healthy a message in a world where it seems our every undertaking is watched, observed, catalogued, accounted for, by someone?  Grocers track our every purchase via our “Club Card” (or the like), Amazon know everything we buy, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter compile vast storehouses of knowledge on us, for sale to the highest bidder.  Cambridge Analytica steal into these storehouses to figure out how to get millions of people to vote against their own self interest, throwing elections for Brexit and US President.  The Russians, not to be left out, stir the pot too, but, at least in the present cases, their targets are email servers instead of submarine plans.  And, amid all of this, one might not be blamed for thinking that our own government is the least of our worries.

Maybe, maybe not.

The most remarkable thing about this production is easily the total verisimilitude achieved in all aspects.  Paul Farnsworth’s set and costumes are stunners!  The flexible Menier space has been configured to support the single set laid out lengthwise along a long wall.  We see the entire ground floor, from the bay windows in front (stage right) past the staircase up, the sitting room, and kitchen, finally the door to the back garden (stage left).  The upstage rooms are fully formed, the downstage rooms represented by their baseboards and door frames.  The furniture is spot on accuracy — the comfy chair, settee, telly, dining table and sideboard all perfect, as is the coat stand in the hall, the kitchen appliances; everything!  Costumes, similarly, are perfect.  Barbara is a home seamstress, and many of the clothes would have been made by her, other than Bob’s suits and the knitwear.  A 1954 Ford Consort sits in the front garden, a proud possession.

The Ford Consort sits out front the home

The Ford Consort sits out front the home

Accents, language, tea ritual, it’s all just right.  Homework was done, and done well.  Not a thing is wrong.

The performances are all quite serviceable, but it must be said that Finty Williams shines as the troubled Barbara.  Her struggle with the competing loyalties to country and friend, her chafing under the constant presence of MI-5 staff, and her effort to persevere and raise her daughter not to lie, are almost too much for her to handle.  Williams makes us ache for her.  Similarly, but with less of a splash, Chris Larkin as Bob brings us a perhaps overused canard of a submissive British husband, ruling over his home while submitting to his wife and cow towing to his superiours.  He delivers this less than complicated character with sufficient realism to bring us along, and he is obviously troubled by the jam his wife is in.  Jasper Britton, as Agent Stewart, seemed to muff a couple of lines, but that may just have been affect.  Otherwise this was a tight ensemble, midway through a six-week run, comfortable in the piece and their roles, but not sloppy comfortable.

All in all, this was a lovely night at theatre, and a potent story for our times, even if it is based on facts nearly 60 years old.

Waiting For Peer Gynt — London 2018

Photography by J. Schmitz

Yesterday was a busy day of theatre, and started with Henrick Ibsen’s Peer Gynt in a German language production by Theater an der Ruhr.  This is the third Ibsen piece I’ve seen in the past 30 months, and all have been in different languages: Hedda Gabler first in Norwegian, in Amsterdam in July 2016, then in Czech in Prague in 2017, now Peer Gynt in German.  One of these days I’ll enjoy hearing the words of Ibsen once again, in a language I understand, but for now, surtitles will suffice.

Photography by J. Schmitz

But the words of Ibsen seemed rare in this production.  This two-handed presentation was more of a rumination on Peer Gynt, a sort of Meta-Peer Gynt, or, as alluded to in the slug for this post, a couple of clowns interpreting Peer Gynt.  The two performers seem to be passing the piece back and forth, between them, as they consider the story, characters, scenes, and settings.  First one then the other is the titular Peer, or the father or mother, or Solveig, the desirable neighbour’s daughter, or Ingrid, a former girlfriend of Peer, now seduced by him in the woods, on her wedding day.

Photography by J. Schmitz

For me this performance was so reminiscent of Waiting for Godot, not so much in content as in the feeling one got, in the audience, as two clownish performers tossed language around between them, each holding the story-telling “ball” for a moment or two, commenting upon it, observing it, and then tossing it back.  Neither performer, Maria Neumann or Roberto Ciulli, plays any given part for long, and while this can be confusing at times, one soon learns that it doesn’t really matter so much who is playing whom.  The cast of forty-odd characters are dispatched with alacrity by this able duo, and we soon just stop bothering to keep track, and enjoy their faces, their pose.

That these two have performed together a long time seems a given, and they are both resident members of the company; Ciulli, and Italian director, being one of the founders.

In Loyal Company — London 2018

In Loyal Company, from Lab Rats, blew through town last night for a One-Night-Only engagement at Pleasance Theatre on Caledonia Road and Pawn was there for the whole hour of it.  Yes, 1 entire hour; this being a piece conceived for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, it was constrained in length.  A one-hander staring David William Bryan, who also wrote it, with Sascha Moore, tells us the story of a young Liverpool lad, Arthur (Joe) Robinson, who joins up during WWII and is sent off to the Pacific theater.

Joe, Arthur’s family nickname, is telling us his story, while skillfully acting out the best bits of it, on a mostly bare stage.  He tells of his time in training, for reconnaissance, and his deployment.  He tells of Loyal Company, his battalion, and his reassignment to an infantry division.  He tells, of the hardships of slogging through jungles and confronting an enemy unschooled in the gentleman’s battle behaviour Joe has trained for.  When a Japanese unit breaches a line of barbed wire — the first wave throw themselves upon the wire and subsequent waves cross their backs like a bridge — he is shocked.

He was shocked?!?  We were shocked, such is Bryan’s amazing ability, through both his storytelling and his delivery, to draw us into the world he’s inhabiting, and to let us see through his eyes, feel through his soul.  More than a few times I was left scrobbling for tissues to staunch the tears as one trial, indignity or another was visited upon poor Joe; when we heard the notes his Mum wrote on his behalf, or those he crafted (wrote upon his mind, lacking stationary) to her.

I won’t tell any more of the story, as this show “has legs,” as they say, and will likely end up on telly or tour or otherwise present many opportunities for more audiences to see it.  And it deserves to.  Bryan has given us not just a view into the unsuspecting young lads thrust into unconventional warfare, but this unsuspecting lad was Bryan’s great uncle, and the story is true.  He has researched it with great effort, and crafted a compelling narrative which brings the audience along with self deprecating humour and magnetic pathos.

Kudos to Bryan and his team for a job well done, a story well told, and for not being afraid of the raw nerves and emotions which come from telling true stories of people we love.

La Maladie de la mort — London 2018

Photography by Stephen Cummiskey

This is a bit of a delayed reaction post.  Pawn attended the Wednesday 3 October performance of The Malady of Death (La Maladie de la mort) by Theatre des Bouffes du Nord, at Barbican Centre.  But, it’s taken me a while to get around to writing about it, and to clarify my thoughts on the piece.

La Maladie was written by Alice Birch, based on a 1982 novella by Marguerite Duras.  This production is hard to describe, so bear with me.  The basic story is that of a man and a woman in a hotel room.  The man has hired the woman, for a rather high fee, to spend a series of nights there with him, as he tries to learn how to love, how to admire, how to relate, intimately, with another.

The set is of a hotel room, the hallway outside, a window upstage looks over a courtyard and the sea, beyond.  The hallway leads upstage, and we can see one or two other room doors along it.  An elevator lurks upstage right, we are lead to believe.

To far stage right, however, is a small sound booth.  A woman sits in it, dimly lit.  Before her a stand with pages on it.  She is the narrator, hers is the predominant voice we hear.  The two characters, the woman and the man, are not silent throughout, but any thoughts they have, are spoken by the narrator.

Photography by Stephen Cummiskey

That’s not the whole story, nor the whole cast, however.  For this is a live piece of film making.  Above the set is a projection screen, and upon that screen is a film maker’s view of what’s happening in front of us, augmented by interwoven clips from other settings, such as the woman’s private life, or the beach beyond the window; the elevator we hear but cannot see.  Around the set are three camera teams, a sound man with a boom mike, a couple of stage hands and dressers.  These folks are not on the periphery, they are in the middle of the action, all beautifully choreographed.  Never do they get in the way of each others shots.

Photography by Stephen Cummiskey

Key to the story telling here — and I shan’t get into the story itself — is the frequent transition from the male to the female gaze.  The woman undresses and lays out on the bed.  The man looks at her, but it’s not just that he looks at her, it’s how he looks at her.  He makes a comment, and the woman looks at him.  Again, it’s the how that matters.

Photography by Stephen-Cummiskey

So this is commentary, then, not just on how men and women regard each other, not just on isolation and personal distance, not just on prostitution and pornography (the man a frequent user of such), but a holistic examination of these themes, a realization of their inter-dependency upon each other.

The work is impressive and compelling.  The story, I found, fell, at times, into easy tropes.  Sometimes the characters seemed to resort to actions simply for the shock factor, or for the In Your Face aspect.  As a whole, it was a grand new kind of performance, pushing at the edges of film and theatre in ways we haven’t seen before.  But story, no matter how it is told, must still speak for itself, and here, Duras’s story let me down.

Performances were brave and bold by Laetitia Dosch as The Woman and Nick Fletcher as The Man.  Irene Jacob narrated, Katie Mitchell directed, Paul Clark composer.  The final show at Barbican is this evening, 6 October 2018.

Immersed in a Kettle of Fish

Photography by Helen Murray.

Last night took Pawn to the latest at The Yard theatre, A Kettle of Fish, by Brad Birch, performed by Wendy Kweh and featuring a rich soundscape by Max Pappenheim.  It was an immersive treat, to be sure.

The set (above) is simple, a linear space divided into thirds: lounge, cabin and cube.  The former serves as a space grounded in reality, the middle, a space in motion — train car or airplane cabin, the latter is dream, or fear, somewhere within the mind.  The mind of Lisa, that is, played expertly by Ms Kweh.  Lisa is a single woman, recently looking after her newly widowed father, and working a high-stress job.  This job is taking her on a business trip, and that trip makes up the meat of this show.

Photo by Helen Murray

The set is a wonder of simplicity, and serves its purposes well.  Designed by Ingrid Hu, lit by Joshua Gadsby, it provides a pallet upon which Kweh can move from place to place, mood to mood, with just a step or two.  Projections by Tegid Cartwright play upon a scrim draped across the face of the cube, stage left, and, through that, upon the wall behind it.  Within this cube Lisa may wander within her mind’s eye, or be cast into harsh reality, by Cartwright’s deft control of the visual mood.  All under the direction of Caitlin McLeod, this team of designers have taken the spare and small stage of The Yard and within it take us from Lisa’s house to the train station, the train itself, airport, plane.  All along the way we are surrounded by Pappenheim’s soundscape, inescapable due to the wireless headphones each of us wear.

Pawn is no stranger to immersive productions (a term often abused in its vagueness, but quite appropriate here) nor are wireless headphones a novelty, having been used to great effect by Silent Opera in their La Bohème some years back. (interesting side note, these headphones were branded with a logo for “Silent Disco”).  Whereas Silent Opera’s use was to pipe in the music of a recorded orchestra (and reinforce vocals), in this case it is a panoply of music, sound effects, aural nudges.  And Lisa’s voice, sometimes her live voice, as she addresses either the audience (a common feint) or her unseen characters, or send us her (normally unspoken) thoughts.  It is this last use which most sets this apart from your typical single handed production, as Lisa serves as her own Greek chorus at times.

I’ll come right out and say it; the design team, as a whole, deserve whatever award can be given for this sort of work.  The whole of it is so brilliantly executed that it easily overcomes the limitations intrinsic in so small and under equipped a space as Yard.  For being a one hander, this feels more like a fine ensemble production, the tech is so intimately woven into the work Kweh makes on stage.

The production, then, is as good as can be.  The script, however, could use some work.  Before picking nits, however, let me say that I left the theatre happy, thrilled, and moved.  One cannot ask for much more.  That said, there are times when we audience members feel as unteathered as Lisa appears to.

The story (no spoilers) starts with some plain exposition.  We meet Lisa, learn of her contentious relationship with her father, and of her stressful work life.  As the story progresses, through her commute to the airport, she lets us in on some truths about her job, her employer, and her sidelines.  She is involved with the data side of PR, the polling and data mining which go into understanding a market, whether it’s customers or business partners.  She shares that she’s heavily active on social media, maintaining numerous false identities so as to insinuate herself into fora and discussions that her real identity would preclude.  The people with whom she works are, to her, schemers and climbers and otherwise incompetent.  But Lisa is junior, and so must appease.

Photo by Helen Murray

Shortly after the flight begins,  a flight attendant taps Lisa on the shoulder, takes her aside, and tells her something dreadful is happening on the ground.  Lisa’s life is upended, but she’s trapped on this plane, 30,000 feet in the air, and can do nothing about it.  What ensues, as Lisa tries in vain to phone down to Earth, is a fugue state anxiety attack.  Lisa drifts in and out of her present reality, ruminates on her firm and its plans, experiences flash-backs to happier times, sees in her fellow passengers the faces she has stolen, online, as avatars for her false identities.  All of this is happening as the plane hurtles towards a former East Bloc nation to which her firm will be relocating.  Or will it?  All depends on Lisa and her persuasive powers and data-mined factoids.

That’s all I’ll tell you of the story, but of my complaints let me say this; the orthogonal narrative forays sometimes seem too highly contrived, and, at times, wholly disconnected.  One wonders if the piece were edited by a non-English speaker?  But, and this is significant, I cannot say if this ultimately detracts from the theatre going experience.  Odd as it might sound, this sort of disconnectedness, detachment, as it were, from the narrative train, might just be working, under the psychological hood, to bring us all along with Lisa on this hellish ride of hers.

You have until 13 October to find out for yourself.  Tickets still available, and in this intimate space, all seats are good.

A Hedda Of A Different Color

I’ve just come from seeing the Divadlo Dlouhé’s production of Henrik Ibsen’s Heda Gablerová.  This is the first time I’ve gone to see theatre in a foreign language without some sort of translation services — supertitles, subtitles, assistive technology (audio or visual) — and it was kind of a trip, but more so for how the piece was presented than for the language barrier.

I know Hedda Gabbler very well.  I stage managed a production in college, lo those many years ago, which entails memorizing the entire script (not just one part).  I’ve seen film versions of it; saw Milwaukee’s own Theatre X present it 35 years ago, saw a production in Amsterdam the summer of 2016 (supertitles).  I know the story, so wasn’t really lost in the words.

This lovely little theatre is just a 6 minute walk from the flat, so easy-peasy.  I got there early, paid less than $15 for my ticket (320CK) in the 6th row, center.  The stage was stark.  One set, a sitting room, with an exposed lavatory upstage right and another upstage left.  There was a table mid-stage, some “pit group” type seating downstage right and a patio lounge chair downstage left.  A Lexan (Perspex, Plexiglas, what have you) wall defined the back of the stage, a large projection screen above it.  A digital clock displayed in the top corner.

Another Lexan wall divided the stage left from right, about two thirds of the way over from stage right.  The table pierced this wall, half on each side of the stage.

I already got the metaphor.

Ibsen is famous for a couple of things.  One is for being the first playwright to focus on total realism in his text and settings, his characters and their lives, even in the realization of his productions; sets, lighting, costumes, etc.  All was to be as real as possible.  The other is that he almost exclusively wrote about the sorry lot of women.  His leading characters are women, both in Hedda Gabbler and The Doll’s House.  Like his fellow Swede, August Strindberg, he saw great unfairness in the roles society allowed women to hold, and he pushed back against these in his plays.

Hedda is a fierce creature, she grew up the pampered pet of her strong and important father.  Now she is married off to a bumbling professor of philosophy and bridles at the restrictions of married life.  She has always been the one in control with the men in her life (and there have been, continue to be, a few) and just cannot stand the wifely role of subservience and home life.

The smaller, side of the stage, the right, from the audience’s perspective, was for Hedda.  The large space was for everyone else.

In the production I saw in Holland last year, a similar effect was created by the brilliant set design which was a triangular prism defined by three huge vertical blinds.  A prism which was a prison.  All the characters besides Hedda could walk in and out of this space, but she was forever held within it.

So yeah, I got the metaphor.  It seems nobody can handle Ibsen without steeping the whole thing in metaphor.  Well, hang on, there’s a ton of it here.

In case you hadn’t noticed, the men in this Czech production are all presented as effeminate buffoons.  They’re like a middle-aged, cross-dressing version of the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers of the old comix.

As for Hedda, while she starts out in a shift, she’s soon wearing pants, and for the remainder of the show.

The production design is like David Lynch collaborated with Eddie Izzard, with a little R Crumb thrown in for effect.  There’s the strange omni-present lady upstage, behind that Lexan wall, who serves as a narrator of sorts, a few times during the show, while changing from a “slutty nurse” outfit to sailor duds and then nun’s habit.

Hedda’s relationships with all and sundry are played with the wall always, well almost always, between them.  Whether it’s an intense lesbian S&M scene with Tea Elvstedová, the fiancée to her former lover (and husband’s protégé) Eilert Løvborg, played across the table.

Or the flat out (or flat up) sex scene between her and that same ex-lover

By the end of things, however, all of these men are stripped of their feminine finery, either literally, in the case of  Eilert, or have changed in to (mourning) suits, like Tesman, Hedda’s husband, or Judge Brack, the gadabout.

You see, Hedda, trapped in her marriage, pregnancy, society…feeling powerless, exercises what power she has by preying on and playing with those around her.  She ruins who she can, but ultimately is ruined by them and herself.

The downstage stage lift provides near tectonic effect, and a final resting place.

This was a splendid production all around.  The costuming was cartoonish, almost too much so, but grew more and more somber as the evening progressed.  The performances were brilliant, and I can say that without having understood more than “yes,” “no” and “please” (“ano,” “neh” and “proseem”).  Lucie Trmíková was downright bewitching as Heda, and I could have watched her all night long.  Robert MikluÅ¡, as Eilert was amazing.  The rest of the cast shone just as bright.

The visual effects — videotext scrolling by, with various language’s versions of the seven deadly sins; snow falling; big, bold comic book style “Bang” and such — not so great, but certainly not a defect.  The lighting was effective without being intrusive, which could have easily happened.  The set, all metaphor as it was, worked well.

London Journal, A November Week

Just over a week ago the US held a national election. Then we fled the country.

That’s the simple version of events, but it’s really never the simple version, now is it?

The trip itself was fairly uneventful. Prompt off the ORD runway, quickly through LHR border control, and little turbulence in between.

Our first real encounter with a local was our cabbie on the way from Paddington to our flat in Southbank. Upon hearing our accents he asked if we were happy with our election outcome. Further discussion revealed that he was a firm Brexit supporter, entirely due to immigration fears. Had we told him we intended to settle, however, I’m sure he would have welcomed us, given our colour.

As with our last team visit here, X & I hit the ground running, as it were, with a show our very first night: Wordless! a jazz concert cum lecture put together by illustrator Art Spiegleman and jazz musician Phillip Johnston. It’s a history of the graphic novel layered atop a jazz sextet performance. Great stuff.

He opens with the works of Lynd Ward and moved on to Frans Masereel, H.M Bateman, Otto Nuckel, Milt Gross and Si Lewen. Spiegelman closed with a new, short, autobiographical sequence — Shaping Thought — which he introduced by referring to “America taking a nihilistic mudslide to apocalypse!”

Indeed.

But prior to our theatre experience at Barbican Centre, we stopped in at their Martini bar.

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This garish pod of craft cocktailing is a holdover from the Designing 007 exhibition from a few years back.

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Our bartender, a willowy waif, starving artist type with blackened fingertips, stringy hair and not the slightest whiff of pretension about him, took our order (£5 happy hour!) and then tendered his apology thus: “To all of my American customers I say, `I’m sorry’.” He then proceeded to whip up a couple of truly spectacular drinks. Dowsed the ice in a rocks glass with vermouth, chilled the Martini glasses with ice water, added spirits (vodka for X, gin por moi) to each glass after draining off the vermouth, and then stirred with ennui. Finally decanted into the now cold glasses, the drinks were served sans garnish (at our request) and met with accolades by us both. I think it was the ennui that did it.

An inquiry into the cause of the previously mentioned blackening of his fingers revealed him to be an art student, who just that afternoon had been dying paper pulp. Pawn suggested rubber gloves for future such projects.

Saturday, coincidentally enough, was the Lord Mayor’s Show day, which consists of a flotilla up tthe River Thames followed by a procession through the streets of The City, and culminating in fireworks from Victoria Embankment at dusk (an early 5pm here). Despite mist and drizzle we slogged our way across the river and up to Ludgate Circus and got prime viewing just as the procession approached.

The City of London these days most often refers to the financial centre of the country, but has historical roots dating back to Roman times. Indeed the London Wall — remains of the original fortifications of Londinium — define what is also called The Square Mile or, simply, The City. Even as the monarchy arose and various stages of city and state grew around it, The City has remained fiercely independent. The Lord Mayor does, however, extend the occasional invitation to the monarch to come and visit, and this is one such occasion.

The procession is comprised of various guilds and orders, Masons and Joiners, Nurses and Accountants, as well as military units, government bodies, municipal grandees, etc. It was a joyous event, that’s for sure. Here’re some snaps (note: coming soon).

Finally a repast at Slug & Lettuce in St Mary Axe, and a meet-up with our friend A. She had been fighting through obstructed traffic to try to get in some long postponed shopping, and seemed glad for the burger and tea we had waiting for her. Then off to Whitechapel and Thick Time, an exhibition of works by William Kentridge.

X & I had enjoyed a large retrospective of the South African’s work, several years ago, at MoMA in New York. This smaller exhibit focused on recent works, including environments, films, animations, book-arts and studies for an opera, Lulu, which, coincidentally, we were to see in two day’s time. A was tickled to learn that!

There was a lot to like, and some to love, in this compendium. Of particular note was the large installation, The Refusal of Time.

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This collaboration with a team of artists comprises sound, light, video projection, a large “Breathing Machine” and more. It was truly a stunning, enveloping experience. Other favourites include the many artist books on display and the film Second Hand Reading. The exhibit closed with another installation piece, smaller and more theatrical, Right Into Her Arms, which included footage, imagery, illustrations and sound from the workshop process for Lulu.

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It was wonderful to have this little taste of this work prior to seeing the show.

Surprisingly, no show Saturday. After parting ways with A, we returned home to Southbank and stayed in. This is a fairly nice flat, tucked into a block-long side street, behind the OXO wharf, just west of Blackfriar’s bridge. There’s a Little Waitrose two blocks away, a couple of cafés around the corner, our choice of pubs, even a cake-making school! A damp terrace abuts the lounge through lovely French doors, adding some light and greenery to our stay.

A “Supermoon” hung in the sky as we traipsed uptown to Islington and the Hope Theatre (above the Hope & Anchor pub) for a Sunday performance of Rigor Mortis, an Irish two-hander of recent vintage. Jazz Dancing Criminals brought this stiff little one-act, fire breathing, chest thumping, pogo-sticking, drug addled, funereal farce to the Hope for it’s British premier following a successful run of its earlier “incarnation,” Urbs Intact Manet in Waterford, Ireland.

A drunken tosser has pinched his late friend, casket and all, from the mortuary, he discovers when he awakens, hung over, to the pounding on his door from his equally dissolute mate. They proceed to wok their way through a monumental pile of cocaine and a couple cans of stout as they wake their friend and debate what to do with his remains.

Irreverent, loud and at times barely indecipherable, it was a fun 75 minutes of Irish mayhem. Thumbs Up!


NPG have Picasso Portraits on special showing, so we went and saw it. Lovely stuff, as one might expect. The real treat here, aside from the expected and widely known masterpieces, such as woman with hat and self portraits, were the small sketches from his youngest days.

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Often meant as throw-away pieces, these are little gems. Whimsical and light. Unfortunately, no good samples on the web to show here.

Lulu, the aforementioned opera directed and designed by William Kentridge, is based upon “the Lulu plays” by Frank Wederkind, by Alban Berg, and completed by Friedrich Cerha (English translation by Richard Stokes). This production originated at Dutch National Opera, and last appeared at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. The fourth producing company is Teatro dell’Opera di Roma. Each country providing a new cast, the real attention getter is the stunning, almost literally, as in hit-you-over-the-head, visuals; a combination of projection, props and constantly unfolding set (set design Sabine Theunissen).

Here are a few images from the production (most from ENO, but some from other stagings):

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“Solo Performer” Joanne Dudley

Lulu is 3½ hours of discordant music, striking imagery and implausible story, but a wonderful time. The “Solo Performers,” Joanna Dudley and Andrea Fabi nearly stole the show, but Brenda Rae, in the title role, was amazing, as was James Morris as Dr Shön/Jack the Ripper (yes, really).

More to come…

An Odyssey

The youth of Europe spoke today with a United voice. A voice at times strident, but more often hopeful. They scolded and coddled, preached and implored. They came from across the continent to speak together but separately. They appealed to our better angels, after reminding us we still have them. Mostly, however, they made clear that it is they who are our inheritors, and they shan’t be denied.

The European Parliament, you might ask; The British? Nee, I speak of An Odyssey, an audacious undertaking by Platform European Theatre Academies, PLETA. This group, along with ITS Festival, Europe by People, and others, brought together eight leading European Theatre schools for this production. Each academy produced a piece for an island from Homer’s tale of venture, nostalgia and return.

Our Odyssey began near a small dog park, next to a ferry launch, about a mile from Centraal Station, Het Stenen Hoofd. At the appointed hour a small squadron of brown-shirted youth arrive and start to bark orders at the audience. These students of Theatre Academy Helsinki TEAK put us on a forced march to Calypso, where we are ridiculed and cajoled, made to march in strict lines, then taken into small groups. Pawn finds himself with a group of 8, sitting around a refugee campfire, where our brown-shirt guide tells us that she will soon put us on a boat out of here, but first we are to partake of a brief ceremony; she is to make for us a pot of coffee, which we will share together, before never seeing each other again. As she prepares the pot of coffee over a propane stove, she sings us a Finnish song, and then explains the lyrics in English. They are of separation and finality.

This isn’t just any Odyssey, you see, This journey is informed by Europe’s current refugee crises. Here is a brief excerpt from the programme:

This project represents a unique connection between future actors, mixing cultures, languages and artistic expression into one vision; to create a performance that mirrors the humanitarian challenges we face today. Never before has the need for tolerance, openness, and respect felt more urgent than now. I believe that a better world is possible, and that anyone can contribute, regardless of religion, beliefs, colour of skin or sexual orientation.

-Andreas Koschinski Kvisgaard (Student Westerdal, Norway)

From our imaginary Calypso, we are led to a ferry, which takes us through Amsterdam harbour and deposits us on the banks by the Tolhuistuin cultural compound. This is where the rest of Homer’s islands will be. But first, along the way, we are provided wireless headphones (Sennheiser Outdoor Cinema, for the curious amongst you) through which we hear seabirds and music, voices and more. We are told a tale of Poseidon, how his bureaucratic duties as God of the sea are boring and wearying him, and how, finally, he lays down his trident and retires. This portion of the presentation is by Theaterakademie August Everding, Munich.

This overwhelmed yet bored Poseidon is based not on Homer, but Kafka. When we finish our journey, however, we are led into the Tolhuistuin compound where we are met by flashy, bikini-clad girls with selfie-sticks and few barriers. They in turn lead us to a boisterous man lounging is a small pool, where we are allowed to share in the Champagne. Suddenly a woman appears in the windows above us and launches into a speech about globalization and corporate responsibility. Inspired by the text of a speech given by Cor Herkstroter, former CEO of Royal Dutch Shell, the rhetoric here deplores government for demanding too much from corporations, and encourages it to get out of the way and let corporations do what’s best; “scrutinizes the Janus-faced Europe of today, whose values of openness and solidarity are being ground down by the very bureaucratic manchinery designed to protect it.” as the programme tells us.

Near the conclusion of the speech, some White Power nationalists filter through the crowd and commence to shout and chant. They sweep through the crowd and over to a small clearing, where they roust a refugee from a tent, and proceed to rough him up, under the gaze of a black-trenchcoat wearing religious figure. The refugee is finally thrown into a shallow grave, and that’s the end of the Cyclops, brought to us by Akademie Teatralna, Warsaw.

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Latvian Academy, Riga, bring us Phaiacians. Rather than the purely theatrical techniques used by the others we have seen heretofore, this group share with us some cold, hard facts. Latvia is a country of 1.95 million people, and have accepted a mere 80 refugees. Even if they take their full allotment over the next decade, that is only 700, fewer than half of which are expected to wish to stay. The citizenry may be up in arms, but the country faces severe depopulation, having lost over 10% of the population in the years since the Iron Curtain fell.

The troupe scheme how to entice the refugees, represented by one young man, to stay. They compose little songs and practice being friendly. The song starts to take form, “Welcome to my country, here you don’t belong. Welcome to my country, here you can go wrong…” They eventually get it right, but the whole effect is to poke fun at the efforts by well meaning progressive forces to coax a reluctant populace to see the benefits of immigration.

Ask many people if they’re familiar with Homer’s Odyssey and they may say yes, but they probably only know the story of the Sirens. Odysseus has his men lash him to the mast of the ship, and then bung their ears with wadding, so they may safely traverse the shoals around the island of these temptress singing maidens. Odysseus becomes the only man to hear the Sirens’ song and survive to tell the tale. Thomas Bernhard Akademie, Salzburg, presents this island to us, with a mixture of dance, spoken word, song and music. It is keening and rich, overlaid with language in Arabic, Turkish, German, and English:

The history of the occident is also the history of tying down the body and the musicality of its languages and hence a history of bodies that get in panic when they are confronted with the otherness of the voice or the voice of the other.

This scene attempts a rhythmic-repetitive bodily and musicalized retelling of the triumph over the jeopardy of the voice…

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We watch all of this from a room fronting a canal, the performers on a barge, the musicians in the room with us, video screens providing various translation, full and partial.

Next up we are dragged by a frantic, jubilant woman, to a new space, her island. She is Circe. Erasmus Hogeschool/RITCS Brussels bring us a raucous and bawdy rendition of this island of lions, wolves and pigs. In this version we are serenaded by In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida and what amounts to a lurid and yet lyrical dance, which in turn tells us the story of debauchery offered and escaped. This was a truly stunning and unnerving interlude, and quite moving. Doesn’t seem to say much about modern Europe, or refugees, but that’s fine with me. We deserve a break!

Toneelacademie, Maastricht, next bring us Underworld. For this we are led to the mezzanine of a small studio theatre space, where we are looking down into a pit. This stunning piece uses a phalanx of video projectors, painting the floor and walls of this sunken chamber. Odysseus enters the underworld, represented here as a placid pool of water dotted with stepping stones, a small geometric island in the centre. When Odysseus steps onto a stone, the ripples he releases show us the lost souls trapped beneath the surface, tangled webs of bodies trapped in eternal struggle for rest. This is by turns disturbing and alluring.

I cannot even begin to describe just what a gift this revelatory experience was. It is immersive and voyeuristic, knowable and mysterious, beautiful and ugly, all at once. When Odysseus pulls Theresius from the lower depths, and they step out onto the water, the surfaces of this CGI disappear, and we are left only with the underlying mesh scaffolding upon which all of this imagery has been constructed. The effect untethers us, leaves us adrift without reference or anchor. It was profound.

The actors and the CGI are perfect together, bound to each other by 3D-scanner coordination, to great effect. I suspect we’ll see more of this in live performance, for it brings the promise of video augmented live performance to a level Pawn has certainly never seen before.

Return. No Odyssey is complete without return, right? That, after all, is what separates Odyssey from misadventure. Here we find return in a quiet glen, where Odysseus is first confronted by suspicious descendants of those left behind so many years ago. But he is eventually recognized, first by his loyal dog, and then by the rest, as who he is. Westerdal, Oslo, present this with masterful sound design and finely choreographed movement. It is triumphant!

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An undertaking of this scope and scale would be laudable in the best of times, but what makes this piece so extraordinarily suited to this time, to this moment, is the events of recent days. Not a week ago, even, England and Wales have dealt what could be a lethal blow to the European project. Last night, parties unknown deployed automatic weapons and suicide bombers in the Istanbul airport, killing 41 and injuring over 200. Funerals have already started and we don’t even have final casualty counts.

It is against this backdrop that these students have spoken, have sought a voice which says No! They want Europe, they love Europe. They embrace this ideal of shared cultural norms with separate histories and traditions.

One cannot experience this and not find hope for our future, regardless of the orange-haired monsters in our midst.