Thursday 26 October 2017

Saint George and the Dragon

National Theatre
21st October, 2017, matinee

‘Where do we begin?’

Building and rebuilding society, righting the wrongs of the past, moving ever forward to that utopian idyll. But how do we, as individuals, as a community, ‘begin’ to change and reform? This question (I may not have recalled the exact wording) is oft asked by the residents of ‘a country a lot like our own’ after slaying the almighty Dragon (be it literal or metaphorical) in Rory Mullarkey’s Saint George and the Dragon. The Olivier stage has had what some would call a ‘difficult year’, with Rufus Norris’ programme of new works receiving a decidedly underwhelming response. So is Saint George destined to be used as further damning proof by the NT’s and Norris’ critics that the theatre is cursed, or, more prosaically, losing its touch? My answer is no, not quite. There is much to admire and enjoy in Mullarkey’s play – it’s a big, bold slice of English folklore, suitably epic in scale and it boasts some very nice performances, not least by John Heffernan (and his lovely, lustrous wig) as the titular warrior.

The play is episodic, split into three acts, but with a continuity brought by returning characters and themes. We begin in a sort of medieval, fantasy world in which the local community is enslaved by a three-headed dragon – which in his human form is embodied by a deliciously showy Julian Bleach. Into the fray steps George, a failed dragon-slayer in search of heroic deeds in which to redeem his name. 

While populated by traditional fairytale tropes – the damsel in distress, the orphan lost in the woods, etc. – this first act feels original and is the best, or certainly the most entertaining of the three settings. Yes the characters are rough-hewn and stereotypical and the jokes have all the subtlety of a studio sitcom, but it’s funny – I particularly enjoyed the visual joke about the origins of the St George flag and the satirical sentiment behind the Dragon’s claim that losing two of his three heads will, in fact, help him win the fight – and very, very theatrical. As with Common, Saint George also revels in an imaginative use of language, Mullarkey has great fun creating a Shakespearean-verse-cum-ye-olde-England pastiche patter. The theatricality and thrills get ramped up in Lyndsey Turner’s fun and exciting direction of the fight between George and the Dragon. Explosions abound and what I imagine is a deceptively simple sword trick really light up the stage in what is probably the highlight of the play.

Unfortunately, acts two and three, respectively set during the Industrial Revolution and a contemporary urban neighbourhood, lack drama and wit in comparison. The Dragon is no longer a physical entity that must be vanquished, but an altogether more tricky menace, residing in unjust social systems, the selfishness of individuals and a lack of community spirit. While this is an obvious, but truthful analogy, it doesn’t necessarily make for exciting theatre. Bleach gets little to do in acts two and three, despite his scenery chewing antics being a rollicking highlight of earlier scenes.

An over-eagerness to become a ‘state of the nation’ play makes for earnest moralising and a scramble to diagnose contemporary Britain’s problems, whether they be capitalist greed, the all-consuming rise of technology, people being too quick to take offence, or everyday violence. At the end of each act the characters, and the audience, are invited to ‘close your eyes’ and imagine a better future. This should be inspiring and moving, yet in its final utterance this motif seems tired and, frankly, a bit of a cop out. The question ‘where do we begin?’ seems more pertinent. If George is an emblem of traditional England, then what does his death signify (other than a neat rounding off of an earlier plot point)? If Mullarkey’s message is that we live in a constantly evolving world in which relics of the past don’t always belong, then sure, that seems pretty sensible, but there remains a muddled mix of nostalgia and a resistance to the past that don’t sit well together, and I’m confused as to where the play stands on such issues. The truth is that, while I enjoy plays about England and all the problems that they encompass, Mullarkey and Turner’s ideas – the transformation of a green and pleasant landscape into one of smoking rooftops and dark, satanic mills and then into the ‘broken’ Britain of microwave meals for one and bar room bust-ups – are nothing new. There is a façade of political and social relevance, but in reality, the play offers no answers and doesn’t really pose any questions.

While I’m unsure on the progression of the play, Mullarkey and Turner’s aesthetic vision is wonderfully realised in Rae Smith’s design. A sprawling English countryside stretches as far as the eye can see (literally – it spreads up the back wall and into the rafters) and is peppered with simple block houses with sketchy details. These storybook illustrations made 3D are both quaint and wry in design, echoing another of the NT’s nation plays, Richard Bean’s England People Very Nice, in the pantomime-esque use of flats and fluid stage space.

John Heffernan is a joy as George. A cross between genuine heroicness, with a sense of the almighty akin to Henry VII in Richard Goold’s Richard III at the Almeida last year, and a silly yet likeable ‘nice but dim’ character. As George becomes more alienated from the changing world we see this manifest in his increasing naivety and incongruous appearance and manner, emphasised in the last act where he gleefully attires himself in a mish-mash of charity bin clothes and orders ‘another glass of pint’ from the local pub. There’s a lovely communal feel to the ensemble cast, and Turner’s done an admirable job of staging a variety of English voices (I heard west country, North East, and Liverpudlian accents, to name but a few). Stand outs include Gawn Grainger’s sweet grandfatherly turn, Amaka Okafor as the not-so-subservient damsel in distress, and, in a rather touching side plot, Richard Goulding has a lovely redemption arc which sees the villainous Henry redeem himself over the years.

While Saint George and the Dragon is not a great play, it is enjoyable and feels very much like a National Theatre commission in a commendable, chancy way. It doesn’t appear to be selling well (the theatre was about two thirds full when we saw it), but I predict that it will become a staple of university libraries, alongside other Britain/England/Nation plays staged by the National such as much of Richard Bean’s oeuvre and Roy Williams’ Sing Yer Heart Out for the Lads. Mullarkey’s play is messy, but ambitious, and is by no means the disaster that naysayers would have you believe.

Saint George and the Dragon plays at the National Theatre until 2nd December.

The company of Saint George and the Dragon.
Photo credit: Johan Persson

Tuesday 24 October 2017

Hedda Gabler

23rd October, 2017

‘all I’ve ever learned from love
was how to shoot somebody who outdrew you’

As we near the climax of Ivo van Hove’s uber-contemporary production of Hedda Gabler the angelically anguished tones of Jeff Buckley’s ‘Hallelujah’ echo around the auditorium. While the above lyric is cut from this musical interlude I can’t help but think it sums up Ibsen’s play (in a new fresh and frank adaptation by Patrick Marber) and the titular character pretty well.

Disconnected and bored, Hedda longs for excitement, for purpose, for ‘control’ from within a society in which her main duty is to be a wife and mother, both roles which she actively denies – her maiden name gives the play its title and she burns with relish the manuscript, or ‘child’ of Lovborg and Thea. She is pushed and pulled by the men in her life, her academic husband, Tesman (who’s worst crime is being dull), the roguish Judge Brack, and fellow academic and recovered alcoholic, Eilert Lovborg. But Hedda pushes back. She regains a perverse power through her influence over these men, she is neither here nor there, her life neither real nor fantasy. Living vicariously through others, having ‘control’ through her cruel manipulation of Lovborg and the naïve Thea Elvsted is a means of creation, a means of being. To have ‘control’ is to have a purpose and a lasting proof of one’s existence. Yet, ultimately, inevitably, Hedda sees life as a mere farce and the greatest accomplishment one can achieve is to end it, to make that final conscious, autonomous decision.

… so Leonard Cohen’s haunting lyrics (piercingly conveyed by Buckley’s ethereal voice – the best version of the song, in my opinion) can here refer to Hedda’s craving for beauty, excitement and thrills, for sensuality and scandal, but also her disconnection from reality and her incredibly nihilistic response.

A few years ago Van Hove was very much flavour of the month (I say this as someone who adored his A View From The Bridge), yet with this success came the inevitable backlash. His work has been criticised for being overly stylised, more concerned with aesthetics than a dramaturgical response to a play, and while I wouldn’t refute those claims completely, I think Hedda is a case in which he gets the balance right. The set up – newlyweds, Hedda and Tesman, have recently moved into a grand, yet sparse house – lends itself well to van Hove’s style. White expanses of plasterboard walls are broken only by the most minimal furniture; a lamp, a blind, a (rather grubby) sofa. There is a sense of the opulence that could be, but is as yet unrealised – in my mind the house wouldn’t look out of place in one of those fashionable Scandi Noir political dramas. Hence we are treated to the spare, spiny visuals we associate with this director’s work without it feeling incongruous.

In fact, Jan Versweyveld’s set has a subtlety and ghostliness which creeps up on you. Something about the room feels off from the outset, but it wasn’t until the second half of the play when I figured out what it was. The industrial-chic stainless steel fireplace sits slightly off centre, and the twin glass cabinets (one containing two pistols, the other a fire extinguisher) either side of the fireplace are not level with each other. Within an interior design aesthetic that I associate heavily with neatness there is a distinct lack of symmetry. Everything is off kilter. These small details are a brilliant way of imbuing the production with a sense of the uncanny, we know something is not right, but we can’t quite put our finger on what or why.

I also liked that the stage contained no visible exits. The cast come and go through the auditorium, and consequently we are situated – trapped – with Hedda in that room. The boarding up of the single window and source of natural light towards the play’s closing moments is (pardon the pun) ‘the final nail in the coffin’.

Lizzy Watts naturally stands out as a desensitised Hedda, her monotone voice biting through the more emotional histrionics of characters such as Lovborg (Richard Pyros) and Thea (Annabel Bates). If Watts’ performance seems isolating and alienating, this only heightens Hedda’s increasing dissociation with the world around her. Also impressive is Adam Best’s Brack, while initially appearing caddish he grows into a threatening and imposing figure as the play progresses. If his blackmailing and thuggish manhandling of Hedda isn’t shocking enough, his disturbing promise to ‘occupy her fully’ is chilling.

I confess that at the interval I was unsure – about both Ibsen’s play and van Hove’s production. To be fair, the first half of the play is heavy on exposition and is mainly a set up for the more dramatic second half. Yet I found myself inwardly eye-rolling at a couple of overly pretentious bits of direction, namely the repetitive use of Joni Mitchell’s ‘Blue’ (I enjoyed it the first time, but by the third or fourth time I was longing for silence instead – conversely, Nina Simone’s rendition of ‘Wild Is The Wind’ makes a memorable finale) and Hedda’s manic decoration of the house by stapling discarded flowers to the walls. I get the impulsiveness, but it comes across as rather twee in its faux bohemian depiction of feminine ‘hysteria’. All the van Hove trademarks are present: the stripping back of excess, the long silences, the pulsing rhythms which underscore moments of tension – there’s even a taste of the red gunge (I don’t know what else to call it) which so searingly coloured his AVFTB – and to be fair, I’d have felt short-changed had they not been. By the second half I was thoroughly engrossed. The tension is ratchetted up ten-fold and the final scenes are truly thrilling despite the knowledge of what’s coming.

Despite any initial misgivings, van Hove and Watts had me gripped, and there remains plenty of food for thought regarding the play’s characters, themes, and the distinctly stylised manifestation of these in this production. I’d be interested to see a more traditional interpretation with which to compare - Would it be as tense? Would it be as simultaneously involving and alienating? Would it be as claustrophobic? Would the characters become more or less sympathetic? Etc. Hedda is an enigma, but one I’m more than willing to puzzle over for weeks, months, and even years to come.

Hedda Gabler plays at Curve until 28th October.

Lizzy Watts and Adam Best in Hedda Gabler.
Photo credit: Brinkhoff/Mogenburg

Sunday 22 October 2017


National Theatre, Dorfman
17th October, 2017, matinee

‘I want a people carrier.’

American playwright Annie Baker has said that her favourite type of laughter to hear in the theatre is individual pockets of laughter at different times and in different amounts throughout the audience. It’s less so about the big laughs of jokes painstakingly toiled over and more about little idiosyncrasies and well observed behaviours for which she strives. There’s a similar achievement, I felt, in David Eldridge’s new two-hander. Set immediately after a flat-warming party in Crouch End, the host Laura and Danny, who has been invited as a mutual friend’s (himself effectively a party-crasher) plus one, are staring at each other, everyone else now gone home. We spend the next two hours in real time watching a sort of will-they won’t-they dance. It’s not as twee as that sounds. Both thirty-somethings, Danny never sees his daughter and is living back at home with his mum, and Laura is anxious that she’s getting too old to settle down and have kids with someone. Knowing that she is currently ovulating, she wants to hurry the dating process along. And it’s not as farcical as that implies. In fact, Beginning is incredibly well balanced.

Each audience member sits back getting tipsier throughout just like the characters do, watching snippets from their own lives and love stories played back to them. There are times in Beginning when it feels like Eldridge has closely observed me and my girlfriend: taking the piss out of Peter Andre on Strictly (the play is set in 2015), commenting on which professional dancers we fancy, winding each other up, and sharing a love of food and drink. Borders are drawn early on. He has a difficult relationship with his dad that’s a no-go area of conversation. She doesn’t like to be called ‘Laurr’ because her dad called her it, or ‘babe’ because he hardly knows her. There are awkward, potentially testing, moments like when Laura jokingly tells Danny to ‘man up’ and when Danny says ‘cunt’ which makes Laura wince. But it seems truthful and human(?!), away from the idealistic politics of social media. To clarify, Laura and Danny are two believable, individual and imperfect people that we see become a couple. It doesn’t feel written but instead simply observed. The characters are let be; the dialogue, design, performances and direction strive for naturalism. There’s a huge amount of care and faith that’s gone into it all (including by the NT for programming it). Fly Davis’ meticulous design shows a “Crouch End cosy” flat (including working kitchen) with the carpet and feature wall of previous residents, empties and party popper streamers strewn about, and paint samples on the wall. Justine Mitchell and Sam Troughton embody Laura and Danny comfortably. Troughton doesn’t simply do an Essex stereotypical lad. He touchingly brings out Danny’s body insecurities, shyness and fussiness. Mitchell is equally as good, playing a woman clearly bright and popular and financially in an OK place, but feeling her body clock ticking and possibly still raw from a distant break-up. As she says, she gets by in a shell of busy activity, but deeper there’s something missing. There are a few lovely details as well, including Mitchell opening the fridge rather than the freezer and then the grill instead of the oven. Is this from her being drunk or still getting used to the new flat layout?

It would be easy to say that this is a play about privileged people (university educated, alright jobs, a social circle, dispensable income) for the privileged few that can get tickets to the Dorfman. The chosen line at the top of this review, which gets a big laugh and is part of a larger speech about 2.4 children and suburban yearnings, also points to the smack of first world problems that could easily make this play seem insignificant. But I fully warmed to Laura and Danny, empathised with their problems, and was drawn into their worlds as much as they are with each other’s lives. It feels a play that has been crafted so skilfully that there aren’t any seams to be seen. To try and drag a metaphor out of it, if plays such as Skylight are sort-of romantic slow cooker plays in which spaghetti bolognaise is made, this is its own 21st century equivalent: a frozen fish finger sandwich with copious amounts of mayonnaise and ketchup-play. Polly Findlay has faultlessly paced the production, especially in allowing the play to take its time during moments of silence and music, embracing the awkward and the aw-shucks, and letting Laura and Danny’s relationship evolve.

There are no easy or pat endings, either. Danny and Laura are aware that there’s a forlorn fear that this might be a drunken dream; that they’ll wake up and won’t like each other, leaving the life they planned out together a nice idea and leaving it at that. I don’t know how much (if at all) Eldridge’s play was compromised from what he first envisaged in the writing and production processes, but it seems to me like it has stayed the same play he wanted. Beginning may be about perfect. Funny, warm, pragmatic and seeking a way out of the loneliness of modern life. To top it off, it has a cracking preshow playlist so try to get there early.

Beginning plays at the National Theatre, Dorfman, until 14th November, 2017.

Justine Mitchell and Sam Troughton in Beginning. Photo: Johan Persson.

Tuesday 17 October 2017


16th October, 2017

My love for Hairspray knows no bounds. I love it in all its incarnations – anyone who has not seen the original John Waters’ film should do so immediately, if only for the iconic sight of Debbie Harry concealing a make-shift bomb in her beehive! So as I’m kind of biased towards the musical to begin with, it would be pretty hard for me not to enjoy it. Yet the touring version of Paul Kerryson’s 2014 Curve production is a hit and miss affair; Marc Shaiman and Scott Whittman’s score shines and there are some lovely performances, but the production values are somewhat lacking.

If Curve’s most recent touring musical, Sunset Boulevard, can be described as lavish and sumptuous, a production which wouldn’t look out of place in the West End, their current tour of Hairspray looks tired by comparison. Whether a victim of budget cuts, I don’t know, but after the original run boasted a colourful design and nicely populated stage, the years seem to have taken their toll and it has been scaled down so much that it seems a mere shell of the production it once was. Ill-fitting costumes and wigs, a sparse set which, rather than being stylishly minimalist, looks unfinished (a fold out partition denoting both Penny’s house and Motormouth Maybelle’s record shop is painted a blinding shade of orange with no other identifiable features – a minimal effort which smacks of laziness), and projections which, following the stunning use of video mapping in Sunset Boulevard, are basic and, while attempting to fill the crevasse left by the lack of set, seem soulless and devoid of atmosphere. Overall, the show has a hand-me-down air, cobbled together from previous tours.

On occasion the book scenes feel a bit rushed, as if the actors are racing to get to the next crowd-pleasing musical number, and because of this, some of the jokes come across as either so flippant and casual that they barely register, or laboured to the point of tedium. I’ve seen the fake corpsing during ‘You’re Timeless To Me’ done much better, although, I admit that when you know what’s coming the moment inevitably loses some of its charm. On a more positive note, newcomer, Rebecca Mendoza, got the tone just right as Tracy; endearingly confident and with comic timing perfected to a tee.

If I have seemed overly harsh so far, it is only because I feel this musical deserves better. I adore Waters’ celebration of strong, uncompromising women; I love that Tracy and Motormouth Maybelle are proud of who they are and how they look and never let others tell them otherwise; I love that Tracy gets the guy while maintaining her morals, realising that there are bigger things worth fighting for and having greater personal ambitions; and I love the depiction of a solid, caring marriage in which Edna and Wilbur acknowledge their own and their spouse’s faults while retaining the utmost respect and devotion for one another. The plot is the definition of feel-good, and yes, it does oversimplify the issues surrounding race relations (I won’t go into the problematic ‘white saviour’ trope), but that can be forgiven when the message it promotes is so positive and relevant while also acknowledging its status as a prime piece of fluff.

Shaiman and Whittman have created the catchiest, most sing-along-able musical score of the 21st Century. Every song is a belter and ready-made classic, so with music like this it’s impossible not to be swept away by the sheer joy of it, and Hairspray is now a bona fide, guaranteed hit with the crowds. This tour is no exception. The score shines, and the musical numbers offer high point after high point. If I had to choose stand outs I’d nominate Mendoza’s hilarious ‘I Can Hear The Bells’, Layton Williams’ effortlessly cool ‘Run And Tell That’ and the heartfelt showstopper ‘I Know Where I’ve Been’, powerfully performed by Brenda Edwards. Also commendable, Drew McOnie’s choreography remains impressive and proffers a high-octane boost of vitality.

On balance, I would see this production of Hairspray again, namely for the fine performances by Mendoza, Edwards and Williams, McOnie’s class choreography, and because I could listen to those songs forever, but this production doesn’t show off the musical to its best. The set requires a much-needed facelift and the book scenes could do with tightening, but for those seeking a night of bedazzled escapism, Hairspray is just the high-camp tonic you’re after.

Hairspray plays at Curve, Leicester until 21st October. For further tour venues please visit 
Cast of Hairspray. Photo credit: Darren Bell

Wednesday 11 October 2017

Labour of Love

Noel Coward, London
7th October, 2017, matinee

‘There is no here anymore.’

This play is set in the East Midlands in a Nottingham constituency office. I’m also from and live in the East Midlands. Northern accents and references to ‘being mardy’ and ‘eh up, me duck’ a few minutes into the first scene of James Graham’s new play made me come out in a cold sweat and whisper in horror: ‘Am I northern?!’ I jest – of course. Really, Labour of Love purports to show the everyday life of constituency politics in an ordinary town set away from the glamour of Westminster that was so brilliantly conjured in This House, seen at the Garrick earlier this year. But there is often a worry with the representation of somewhere north of London on the capital’s stage – whether that be the North, the Midlands or Luton – that it comes with a wedge full of stereotypes that are hard to get around. Either that or jokes about stereotypes, or jokes about jokes about stereotypes. Down to earth can often be conflated with dowdiness, and both northern and southern characters can all too easily become sit-com types. I’m not implying that Graham is insensitive in this way as he’s far too talented a playwright for that. But he is interested in the north-south divide and its associations of class and culture, most recently in Ink (now playing next door at the Duke of York’s) and more prominently in This House.

Opening on election night in 2017, and then going back to circa 2010, 2001, mid-late nineties and then 1990, Graham invites us into the lives of constituent MP David Lyons (Martin Freeman), his mostly distant (ex-)wife Elizabeth (Rachael Stirling), and David’s agent Jean with whom he has a love-hate relationship and who basically runs the office (Tamsin Greig). The play charts the changing relationship of those main characters and the fortunes of the Labour Party. In the first act we work our way back from David losing Labour’s approximate 87 year seat all the way to seeing David taking over from the previous MP (also Jean’s husband at the time). In the second act, we move forward through the same five time settings. It’s a neat structure that allows us to map the change from red flag to the more centrist movement of New Labour, to the coalition of chaos, to the party of today when Corbyn’s Labour won more votes than expected (except in this setting). And in a captivating way, the structure almost allows a thriller element as we see David, Jean and Elizabeth at different points in their lives.

Lee Newby’s cunning set design revels in the changing period of the setting. The party emblem, the clock and the portrait of the current Labour leader on the wall change, as do the bulkiness of the TVs, the fashions and the kitchen units. The detail that has gone into this design is pleasing: I don’t think I’ve seen a fax machine working before and at one point it felt like Teletext was going to get a round of applause! The furniture mostly stays the same as does the décor: let’s call it Midland tedium. A foreign businessman remarks how unimpressive it looks. ‘It’s supposed to’, is the gist of the reply, as so to fit in with the rest of the high street. We see said high street on the video screen before the play. It’s lifeless; there are perhaps businesses which are closed down and premises which are empty. Here is a town blighted by a mine closure (which we see in one of the earlier settings) and that has not quite struggled back from 1980s’ politics. It’s not until the last scene when we see how these quick changes in the set are achieved. There are effectively two replica sets on a revolve. I can’t imagine how that might change the dynamic for the cast acting on two sets, but I think it is one idea of many in both the play and the production that made me reflect on the idea of change and stability. Lee Newby’s superb design also allows you to see the work that the Michael Grandage Company’s Futures scheme is doing.

Curious intricacies are not just to be found in the set design. There’s a moment in the 2017 setting when Jean tries to muster up ‘her Carol Vordermann’ whilst doing some Maths – despite Vorderman not having done the numbers for quite some time we still get that it’s a reference to Countdown. Interestingly, in an earlier temporal setting, we see a clip of Vorderman and Richard Whitely in a 90s episode of Countdown on the TV in the background. We also see a bit of John Thaw as Morse – perhaps a nod to Thaw’s Labour leader character in David Hare’s The Absence of War? Maybe not, but parallelisms between Hare’s and Graham’s work certainly exist. And what with Hare’s new play being about the Labour Party on at the NT next year, I can’t help but wonder if there’s a drastic re-write going on somewhere in leafy Hampstead.

Freeman and Greig give masterclass performances in comedy and character development. Over the years, David’s northern accent has returned, Jean has perhaps taken on more of David’s professional ways. As in many plays, the comedy comes from clashes in their personalities and connections arise in their ideological viewpoints, but it’s all so well written and performed that it rarely feels artificial. However, unusual for Graham, there are a few laboursome (I thank you!) jokes and arcs, including an excuse (although not unwelcome) to crack out Freeman’s dance skills.

As in The Vote, there are some very adept, very funny bits of farce that sit comfortably alongside fresh contemporary political gags and hilarious, smart one-liners (such as comparing the Labour party’s up and downs to Ken Clark’s cholesterol). Jeremy Herrin’s production ticks all the boxes and is excellently stage-managed. But it doesn’t quite feel like it has the Headlong stamp on it of going the extra mile. Then again, I feel that suits the play. In This House, politics was all about a fast-paced lifestyle of vote counting, chauffeurs and drinking, whereas in Labour of Love, politics is about dog shit. In saying that Herrin’s production reflects that, I’m not calling it dog shit – you have to go to the Vaudeville for that! (Again, I jest) – it’s more about the production deliberately wanting to show a different side of the political lifestyle.

It may not have the vigour of previous Graham plays but I’m glad it’s on a major stage (although I would also like to see it in a regional theatre). Labour of Love is a delicious new play, enjoyable and interesting and with two very rounded central characters. But I’m not sure what it offers in terms of Labour’s future. Other than perhaps that Tamsin Greig should become an MP.

Labour of Love plays at the Noel Coward Theatre until 2nd December.
Martin Freeman and Tamsin Greig in Labour of Love. Credit: Johan Persson

Friday 6 October 2017

Pink Sari Revolution

5th October, 2017

We need plays like Pink Sari Revolution. Telling hard truths, Purva Naresh’s stage adaptation of Amana Fontanella-Khan’s best-selling book scratches the wounds of generations of women, and the result is an outpouring of pain and the fire-fuelled voices of those long-repressed crying out for justice and equality. It is a play that unflinchingly deals with the raw and grotesque realities of domestic and sexual abuse and the shocking flippancy with which it is greeted by the authorities imposing it and, often, the women who suffer from it. Following years of research, director Suba Das’ labour of love blazes triumphantly on Curve’s stage.

The play follows the real-life fight for women’s rights in Uttar Pradesh, India, by a vigilante group of women, the Gulabi Gang. Outfitted in the titular neon pink saris, the army of female warriors is led by the inimitable Sampat Pal. Sampat was married at twelve, before, she says, ‘she had even started her periods’, forbidden to attend school, she was illiterate and bullied a boy into teaching her to write her name (a mere taste of her formidable powers of persuasion!) – her life has been rough and dictated by the laws of patriarchy and the caste system. But Sampat turns her pain into a fury which empowers her and her followers to fight for change.

We are introduced to the world of the Gulabi Gang when Sampat Pal takes it upon herself to fight the case of seventeen year old Sheelu who has been imprisoned, accused of stealing a rifle and some jewellery from a powerful politician. Yet Sheelu, a Dalit, is the innocent victim of the caste system and patriarchal authority which strips her of her independence and free will, where men of a higher caste are given free rein to use and abuse women. Sheelu has been raped. A female police warden dispassionately pours bucketfuls of blood down the drain, doctors lie about her condition out of social custom and fear and cause her even more suffering with the bluntly-named ‘finger test’, a brutal way of proving (or misconstruing) the sexual conduct of women and thus claiming that a ‘loose woman’ cannot be raped. This is a shocking set up, and Naresh is mercifully uncompromising in her language and descriptions of abuse.

If all this sounds a little ‘right on’, don’t fear, Naresh doesn’t shy away from human complexities and conflicts. Sampat is fierce and funny, yet cantankerous and negligent of her own family, including her daughter who watches and admires from afar but is forbidden from joining the Gulabi Gang herself. We are also privy to the reactions of the family at the centre of the rape claim, the women realise that they rely on the men to keep them, and the dangers of ripping apart the familial fabric of society. The women are brought up to be submissive; a local tradition dictates that girls carefully and lovingly sew cloth dolls which are then handed to their brothers to beat and tear apart – and in one hard-hitting piece of dialogue, a mother chastises her uncooperative daughter-in-law, spitting that ‘it is women like you that turn men to rape’.

Furthermore, while Sampat’s endeavour is admirable, we see the strain it takes on her personal life, and the challenges she faces not only from those who oppose her, but those she tries to help. Sheelu is ultimately released, not due to Sampat’s exposition of the corruption at the heart of the caste system, but through a traditional custom in which petty criminals are pardoned each year. Sheelu is not acquitted or absolved, her rape remains uninvestigated, but she refuses to take Sampat’s advice to refuse the pardon and plead innocence because she sees no other way of obtaining freedom. A bittersweet ending sees Sampat continue with her work despite her failings, and while hardened by realism, the final message is one of hope.

Das’ direction is punchy, with moments of light and shade that sharpen the more harrowing elements of the story while revelling in episodes of human warmth – an early scene with Sampat urging her women to ‘embrace their silly’ in order to abandon the shame (an integral tool for patriarchal oppression) and fight back is a lovely exercise in communal spirit and the power of humour to bring people together. Muriel Rukeyser is quoted in the programme notes, ‘What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open’ – and this concept is brilliantly realised in Isla Shaw’s set. A large branched tree bursts through its concrete surroundings – an imposition of new life, a new movement silhouetted against the striking coloured sky – and with great theatricality we see the ground begin to shake and crack, blazing with light with each step the Gulabi Gang take. As they repeatedly say, ‘Pink is not just the colour of a sari, but the colour of the sky before the breaking storm’.

Ulrika Krishnamurti is impressive in a range of roles, from Sampat’s diligent daughter, Champa, to the tortured Sheelu. Her portrayal of the hollowness of despair is profound and heartbreaking. Elsewhere, Sharan Phull (so charistmatic in Curve’s The Importance of Being Earnest last year) goes from strength to strength as Sampat’s loyal follower, Geeta, who becomes conflicted between the life of a revolutionary and that of her family. However, the play really belongs to Sampat, and Syreeta Kumar is a force to be reckoned with. Giving an all-encompassing performance, she imbues the character with all the vibrancy, petulance, determination and grit of a true radical. This is one of the best written and performed female roles in theatre I’ve seen of late, as Sampat is so intensely human, in all her strengths and all her flaws.

As I said at the top of this review, Pink Sari Revolution is just the type of new writing the world needs right now. Human rights issues and campaigns are a potent matter of interest, not just in India, but internationally, as seen in the global ‘Women’s March’ in January, and Naresh’s play is incendiary in its impact. I came out of the theatre feeling empowered, angry, but hopeful that one day the world will change.

Pink Sari Revolution plays at Curve until 7th October, before touring the UK.
The cast of Pink Sari Revolution.
Credit: Pamela Raith

Sunday 1 October 2017

Desire Under the Elms

Sheffield Crucible
30th September, 2017, matinee

I know little of Eugene O’Neill’s work. I know, I know, I’m letting the side down yet again, what kind of theatre critic am I? While I admit to having scant knowledge of playwrights and theatre history (my co-blogger is the play buff around here), I do know when I like something, and Desire Under The Elms certainly piqued my interest. Part Greek tragedy, part Freudian psychological drama, I can see now how O’Neill was ideally positioned as a predecessor to the likes of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams in the way he scrutinises the American Dream and the way he places family relationships at the core. Sam Yates’ production brings a potent earthiness to a play which is occasionally a difficult watch, but is shot through with urgency, melancholy and tension.

Set in New England at the end of the nineteenth-century, old farmer, Ephraim Cabot, returns home after a long trip with his new wife, Abbie, in tow, much to the chagrin of his youngest son, Eben, who is fixated on the death of his own mother and is scheming to take over the family farm. Matters become complicated when Abbie attempts to seduce Eben – betrayal and tragedy ensue.

Now, I feel the need to air a personal gripe I have regarding the way women are generally written by men, primarily concerning the ‘predatory’ or ‘sinful’ woman trope. From the biblical belief that the fall of man is a direct result of Eve’s sin in the Garden of Eden, to the classic Greek tragedy plot regarding the drastic actions of the heroine resulting in death and devastation for all, there is a sense that men are forever blaming women for their own transgressions, an ethos that I’m definitely not on board with. So while Abbie is a sympathetic character – there is the feeling that she does what she does out of genuine emotion (be it love or lust) and a canny opportunism which is necessary under the desperate circumstances in which she finds herself – there remains a niggling air of misogyny to O’Neill’s writing. Even the personal flaws of the male characters are boiled down to what is seen as unhealthy femininity, for example, Ephraim constantly berates Eben for being dumb, foolish and ‘soft’, traits which he claims Eben inherited from his ‘soft’ mother.

However, this is a side issue, the main crux of O’Neill’s tragedy stems from problems surrounding identity, place and the economic and industrial transformation of the USA in the late nineteenth-century. Gone are the traditional means of accumulating income, hard won by years of work, in favour of the promise of instant wealth that accompanied the Californian gold rush. The American Dream has metamorphosed into a blend of entitlement and opportunism, and the old-time labourers and businessmen are pushed out of joint. Therefore, while Eben’s half-brothers sell their shares of the farm in order to chase the golden dream in California, both Ephraim and Eben are tragically clutching to the past; Ephraim is reluctant in the face of change, claiming that when everyone else is dead and gone he’ll be a hundred years old and still working, while Eben’s crisis of identity stems from an unhealthy attachment to his dead mother and an conscious desire to not follow in his father’s footsteps while subconsciously mirroring Ephraim’s actions (not least by sleeping with the same women, local prostitute, Min, and Abbie). Add to this the Freudian quasi-incestuous relationship at the centre of the play – Abbie finally succeeds in seducing Eben by kissing him ‘like a mother kisses a son’ while the candlelit shadow of Eben’s real mother lingers in the background – and O’Neill has painted a pretty grim portrait of end-of-the-century rural life, in stark contrast to the optimism displayed by those heading west to seek their fortune.

In the excellent programme articles, O’Niell is quoted as saying the American Dream’s ‘main idea is that everlasting game of trying to possess your own soul by the possession of something outside of it’. This is particularly pertinent in the regards to the tussle for ownership of the farm, of Abbie, and Abbie’s own attempts to ‘possess’ Eben at whatever cost. As O’Neill says, this inevitably leads to ‘losing your own soul and the thing outside of it, too’, thus being an ideal grounds for tragedy, the American Dream is forever doomed to fail due to the incessant nature of change and the ‘everlasting game’ to keep up with it.

All this talk of possession and souls puts me in mind of two other great romantic anti-heroes of the nineteenth-century, Cathy and Heathcliff, and the Wuthering Heights comparison doesn’t end with incestuous undertones and the destructive obsessions of the characters. Chiara Stephenson’s set is a wild and barren dustbowl of a landscape, distant wheat fields being the only marker of the farm’s prosperity, while Luke Halls’ projections of ever-changing clouded skies and Jon Clark’s lighting create a brooding and oppressive atmosphere. Furthermore, as all good gothic tragedies exemplify, the breaking of tensions is paired with the breaking of the storm – thunder rages as the characters’ lives fall apart.

Matthew Kelly casts an appropriately imposing figure as Ephraim, his slow-limping gait betraying his aging frailty while his lofty stature and strength demonstrate his powerful legacy and capacity for intimidation. Meanwhile, Aoife Duffin’s Abbie is brash, loud and slyly manipulative, yet on her knees amidst the dirt she appears small, fragile and desperate, her trajectory is ultimately heart-breaking. As Eben, Michael Shea gives a terrifically assured performance, conveying all the anger, despair, lust, naivety and fear of the young man. During the interval we overheard a couple of complaints from fellow audience members about the accents being unintelligible. However, I understood every word and what’s more I feel the accents contribute a fascinating element of simultaneous authenticity and alienation which heightens the gothic atmosphere; the accents are identifiably American, yet unfamiliar to us because these rural dialects are culturally underrepresented and, thus, socially forgotten and seemingly as obsolete as the farming industry was during the height of the gold rush. So, while perhaps the most controversial aspect of Yates’ production, the uncompromising commitment to the dialect gets a thumbs up from me.

Yates has accomplished an intense and haunting production of an intriguing and thematically rich play. Ghosts, earth, sex, gold, light, dark, storms and death – O’Neill’s play is both elemental and ethereal, tragic and prosaic, and if this, my first taste, is a mere snapshot of his work then I’m dying to see what else this most unsettled writer accomplished throughout his illustrious career.

Desire Under The Elms plays at the Sheffield Crucible until 14th October.

Aoife Duffin as Abbie Putnam and Matthew Kelly as Ephraim Cabot in Desire Under the Elms. Photo: Marc Brenner