A domestic horror show

30 May



The Space, 29.05.17


This new play by Michael Honnah is a sincere effort to raise awareness and shine a spotlight on a serious issue: that of domestic violence. The programme lists a series of sobering statistics about how common it is, how infrequently it is reported and convicted, how its victims are overwhelmingly women and children. The play itself, 102, is shockingly, appallingly violent and deeply uncomfortable to watch – as a shock to the system, it works very well; as a play, however, it is uneven.


The action unfolds over the course of one night in a couple’s cosy living room: their serious problems are clear from the outset; they agree to put on a show of domestic tranquillity for their visiting friends; the dinner party ends in violence and then the couple, left alone, tear into one another without mercy. The opening scene is already so violent that the effect is not so much of tension building as the play goes on, but of continuous and exhausting horror. In the first moments of the play, the female lead, April, shouts a litany of abuse through a door from offstage; when she enters, she attacks and is violently restrained by her husband, Joe. There is no room for exploring the subtler tensions of domestic violence – conflicted feelings, self-delusion and forgiveness, assuring oneself that it was a one-off, it won’t happen again. This is an extreme case, without shades of grey: April is clearly suffering from a mental illness; Joe is driven to violence to control her. There is already a knife on stage in the first scene, and a club improvised from a chair leg – just when you think there’s no room for escalation, out comes the bleach, and finally a gun.


The dialogue is almost all vitriol, so it’s left to the set design to hint at a happier time in their relationship – fairy lights, art on the walls, knick-knacks that look like they were picked up on holiday. A sense of nostalgia is threaded through the action – when the friends arrive there is much reminiscing about school and university. The music reinforces this – most of it is a decade old or more, as if they’re listening to the hits of a year when they were happier; we’re told that some of the songs played are from April and Joe’s wedding playlist. Cannily, the music also tends towards songs about unsatisfactory relationships (the Wombats’ ‘Kill the Director’; Kate Nash’s ‘Foundations’).


Lucy Oglesby gives a fearless performance as April, while Ugo Onguwhalu is more nuanced, shifting between patience, exasperation and explosions of feeling, then suddenly transforming completely when Joe speaks to his daughter over the phone. The dialogue is always naturalistic (but as such, quite repetitive – none of us is at our most eloquent during an all-night screaming match). Structurally, it almost works, though it didn’t need an interval – three acts, beginning and ending with intense two-handers and a reprieve in the middle. There’s a missed opportunity to really get some perspective when the other couple are left alone on stage by their hosts – have they noticed a difference? To the people who know them, is it obvious that something between April and Joe is badly wrong?


There are some technical issues that cause problems. For me the most significant of these was sound. A lot of scenes take place over music – sometimes the volume is deliberately turned up to drown out the dialogue, but at other times the dialogue should be heard but is still garbled. The acoustics of a former church don’t help with this; nor does the hypernaturalistic acting style – the actors don’t enunciate or project, and the mumbling and screaming makes it a frustrating play to listen to. There are also some sightline problems from the back rows – much of the action takes place on the area in front of the raised stage, including some lengthy fight scenes. It was perhaps a mercy that I couldn’t see what was going on in detail at these moments. At the end, there is no curtain call – this feels like a deliberate choice, a refusal to treat the scenes depicted as just make-believe, just theatre. It does, however, lead to a long, awkward pause as the audience try to work out whether it’s finished.


Honnah’s play sets out to start conversations and it is clearly committed to taking this issue seriously. To his credit, the play doesn’t really assign blame – if everything April says about Joe is true, then yes, he’s a monster, but we know that she is an unreliable narrator and Onguwhalu’s performance, though often frightening, has more shades in it than straightforward evil. It is not, it must be said, a remotely enjoyable or uplifting play. Nonetheless, there is considerable talent on display both onstage and off.

The poet and the sea monster

28 May


Legends: Monsters, Mead & Mayhem

Blue Elephant, 26.05.17


Hammer & Tongs Theatre are the company responsible for 2014’s Myths: A Day in the Underworld. Their new show offers a similar combination of a witty myth-inspired script, physical theatre and sheer charm – this time using Norse mythology as its starting point. Writer and director Jennifer R. Lee has combined an all-seeing god who watches over Asgard with three animals living in the ‘world tree’ between realms, and come up with the ‘Guardians’ – three central characters who keep an eye on events across the nine realms through a pair of magic binoculars. The Guardians – who are later revealed to take the forms of an eagle, a squirrel and an owl – guide the audience through a complex cast of gods, humans, elves, dwarves and monsters.


As Lee comments in the programme, Norse deities and stories are generally less familiar than Greek ones. The unfamiliar myths allowed Lee greater license and flexibility in adapting them for the script, but also presented a challenge since the audience would need something to orient them in an unknown mythological cosmos. As a result of this, Legends doesn’t manage to subvert and have fun with existing stories quite so creatively as Myths. It’s harder to make inside jokes when you also have to do a lot of scene-setting work. Nonetheless, there are some entertaining spins on mythology here, too. A lot of people have some idea about Thor and his hammer – though in many cases, the familiar version is bastardised by Marvel and embodied by buff Chris Hemsworth. It’s fun to see Thor reimagined in Legends, in a brief cameo, as a childlike and forgetful figure, showing up at the Guardians’ abode because he’s lost his hammer.

Legends shot

At the very beginning the framing device seems a bit clunky – perhaps because the Guardians are convenient hybrids rather than authentic mythological figures, they initially seem a bit bland. But as the piece goes on, it becomes impossible to resist its charm. My favourite character was the sea monster –  a very friendly and chatty individual who struggles to make friends because his language sounds like a mixture of Klingon and a cat coughing up a hairball. Charlotte Reid plays the head end of the monster – she delivers its polite, enthusiastic greetings in a chirpy American accent and then demonstrates – with equally enthusiastic spluttering and growling – what this actually sounds like to human ears. Other highlights include the elves’ dancing and the argumentative, murderous dwarves who – after an encounter with a magic poet – start speaking in flowery, Shakespearean language.

Many techniques and stylistic quirks are familiar from Myths. The three cast members are dressed in overalls and plimsolls, with lines of blue face paint the only concession to looking vaguely Viking-like. A backdrop of wall hangings, however, sets the scene beautifully with some convincingly Norse runes. The performers use no props except a single chair – the binoculars, a flask of magic mead and various other items are evoked in mime – but a musician provides, as well as guitar accompaniment, a series of practical sound effects including typing, knocking and a bell. The performance shifts very swiftly from an explanatory mode in which the Guardians directly address the audience into little performed scenes – the transitions are very slick, signalled effectively through a combination of lighting changes and the actors’ spot-on timing.


All three performers are excellent – Philippa Hambly, with her wonderfully expressive face, stands out, but the success of the piece comes from the actors’ effectiveness as an ensemble. Hammer & Tongs Theatre have carved out a very specific niche of myth-inspired plays, but they do what they do very well, and I look forward to seeing more of their work in the future.

Photograph: Philippa Hambly, Charlotte Reid and Oliver Yellop in Legends: Monsters, Mead and Mayhem, Blue Elephant Theatre, 

Shakespeare dance party

28 Apr

Twelfth Night

Blue Elephant, 28.04.17

Twelfth Night, with its cross-dressing and pranks and musical interludes, is one of Shakespeare’s most accessible plays – consequently, this production follows on the heels of the much grander-scale one at the National Theatre. It makes a lot of similar choices – modern dress, for a start, and regendering Feste the clown. It also, like the NT production, picks up and runs with the idea that ‘The Elephant’ – the inn where Antonio tells Sebastian to get lodgings – is a gay bar, where debauchery is encouraged. In this production by Original Impact, the Elephant bar fuses with the Blue Elephant theatre so the whole production is set in a world of drunkenness and festivity. There is a palpable holiday atmosphere, reinforced by the costume choices – bright shirts, Feste’s fabulous coloured trousers, Maria’s flip flops. On the back wall, ‘To beer or not to beer’ is daubed in fluorescent paint.


Threaded between interludes of upbeat music and dance breaks is a fairly conventional version of Twelfth Night: twins in blue polo shirts and backwards baseball caps wash up on the shores of Illyria and cause a series of romantic misunderstandings. The initial shipwreck develops from a dance routine, which takes us quite abruptly from the festive bar setting to Viola mourning her brother’s apparent death. All of the actors sing or play instruments (or both) and when not included in a scene they often retire to the corner and become part of the band. When Feste, Toby and Andrew spy on Malvolio, they hide amongst the band – this allows for some fun physical comedy. Orsino, in his well-known opening soliloquy, directs the music, demanding repetitions of a particular strain. At other times, the band seem to function as puppetmasters, controlling stage action – Andi Jashari’s beatboxing seems to have an intoxicating effect on Malvolio. Instead of the folky settings of Shakespearean lyrics featured in so many Twelfth Nights, this production borrows popular songs – Feste’s cover of ‘I Will Always Love You,’ with support from the drunk Toby and Andrew, is a good choice for late-night caterwauling.

Twelfth Night Image small

Despite significant cuts, the production runs to nearly two hours at a lively pace. The cast of nine only requires minimal doubling: the character Fabian has been absorbed into Feste’s part, and the same actor, Sian Eleanor Green, also plays the captain and Antonio. This generally works well, with the exception of the final scene, when Fabian’s conciliatory explanation of the prank on Malvolio – that it was only a joke, and not meant cruelly – and Feste’s much bitterer account, reminding him of past grievances, are delivered in sequence by the same actor. This is a shame, because it erases some subtlety and sort of dismisses the sinister mood present in the final moments of the play. Some suspension of disbelief is also required when the production’s patently irresponsible Toby and Andrew take responsibility for Antonio’s arrest – given the shortage of spare actors to play law enforcers.


The cast show varying levels of comfort with speaking Shakespearean language – Katie Turner, as Viola, is engaging and likeable in a challenging part but occasionally stumbles on the verse. Green, in her multiple roles, is the most relaxed and creative performer, and her cheery Feste is unpredictable and a lot of fun to watch. Dinos Psychogios gets some well-deserved laughs as the dim-witted hedonist Andrew Aguecheek, and Timothy Weston’s Malvolio preens convincingly and shows off a pair of yellow stockings to great effect. (I found myself wondering what percentage of yellow tights sold in the UK end up worn by a Malvolio?)


Original Impact’s production scores highly for physical comedy and music, though their approach privileges the festive energy of the play over its more mournful and sinister elements.


Timothy Weston as Malvolio and the cast of Twelfth Night, Blue Elephant Theatre. Photograph by Sam Dunstan.

Dido in a rubber catsuit

13 Apr

Queen of Carnage

The Space, 12.04.17


Queen of Carnage is a multi disciplinary event incorporating video, installation and live art, masterminded by the artist Sobriety Twist. It is loosely based on Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas, but reimagined in a modern BDSM setting where Dido is a dominatrix who falls for a hooded Aeneas and then mourns when he leaves her. There are a lot of intriguing elements, but taken as a whole, the event is muddled and awkward – neither the plot of the opera nor the elaborate staging provide any sense of coherence.


The space (or rather, the Space, a deconsecrated church on the Isle of Dogs) opens on time, but spectators are invited to spend the first twenty minutes examining the art installation before the performance begins. This includes a series of printed out emails pegged on a washing line addressing very specific requests to a correspondent known only as ‘Mistress.’ Also on display is a set of glass jars containing items including a dildo and a set of heavy handcuffs, what looks like a wicker approximation of the iron throne from Game of Thrones and, inexplicably, a tablet in a bin. On stage, a seven foot headless mannequin faces away from us, wearing a black cape that fans out from her shoulders to cover half the stage; pale hands are visible reaching out from underneath its hem. All this is atmospheric, if baffling.


The show begins, runs for about 25 minutes and then breaks for an interval, then continues for another 40 minutes or so. The interval comes too early for any clear sense of the performance to have emerged – I spent it reading about Purcell’s opera on my phone, but this did not shed much light on what I’d seen, nor on what followed. Sobriety Twist plays the dominatrix; she spends much of the first half on a stepladder with her face to the back wall so that her head appears to belong to the mannequin figure. Later, she reappears in a variety of magnificent costumes – a black rubber catsuit, a slinky red dress, a spectacular crown – to pose and gesture imperiously at her attendant, whom she often leads around the stage by a string of pearls dangling from her mouth. This figure presumably represents Dido’s attendant Belinda, but she doesn’t sing – only Twist actually performs any of Purcell’s music. There is a third character, Aeneas, who appears only as a projected ghost. The video installation maps perfectly onto the back wall of the space with its twin doors; the projection several times shows Aeneas opening and shuffling through one of the doors. In the second half, Twist performs a dance routine with the Aeneas-spectre to an aggressive electronic soundtrack.


The performance uses fragments of opera – both recorded and sung live by Twist – and parts of the show are accompanied live by a cellist. I lack the critical authority and the musical ear to comment in detail on the singing – it frequently sounded beautiful, but was often overpowered by the recorded accompaniment and most of the lyrics were inaudible either for that reason or because they were sung at the back wall rather than projected towards the audience. A few fragments of recorded voiceover were more audible but did little to clarify the relationship between the spectacle on stage and the Dido story.


Sometimes incorporated into stage action, and sometimes played over costume changes, the video art is startling and evocative. A black and white sequence in a spooky forest setting portrays Dido and Belinda hunting Aeneas. A later sequence shows a single eye staring out from behind a red leather doughnut, while a set of immaculately manicured hands claw at the camera. The most effective sequence is the first one – as the overture plays, Twist conducts an invisible orchestra with her riding crop in front of a projection of a pair of buttocks being subjected to leather straps, rulers and gloved hands. It’s a witty juxtaposition to overlay the conductor’s authoritative gestures with those of the dominatrix – this sense of humour rapidly evaporates, however, as the performance goes on.


I gather from my interval googling that Dido and Aeneas has been approached as an allegory for James II (Aeneas) being tricked by the Catholic church (a Sorceress) and abandoning the English people (Dido). Also, that in contemporary dance adaptations, Dido and the Sorceress have often been played by the same dancer, doubling them as two opposing forces of female power over men. This version, though it is often spectacular to look at, lacks the coherence of either interpretation. However, it was worth going just for the sparkly antlers in the final scene.

Gender trouble

30 Mar

The Mutant Man

The Space, 29.03.17


The Mutant Man tells the true story of Harry Leo Crawford, also known as Eugene Falleni, a trans man born in Italy but living mostly in Australia and New Zealand in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It’s a fascinating story and not one I was familiar with; writer Christopher Bryant and director Heather Fairbairn find innovative and startling ways of telling it.


Born Eugenia Falleni in 1875, he started going by Eugene early in life and ran away from home to avoid an unwanted betrothal, then became a cabin boy. When his assigned gender was accidentally revealed, he was raped by the ship captain and left behind, pregnant, in Newcastle, Australia. Later, he was going by Harry Leo Crawford and married to a sweetshop owner, when his estranged daughter, Josephine, showed up. Shortly afterwards, his wife confronted him with her suspicions that he was not, as she puts it in the play ‘really a man.’ Their argument leads to a tragic accident – his wife, Annie Burkett, falls backwards and hits her head on a rock. Much later, we witness fragments of Harry’s arrest and trial. At the end of the play he is sentenced to death for Annie’s murder, though apparently the real Harry was imprisoned, later released due to ill health and lived another seven or so years under another name before eventually being killed in an accident, perhaps one he sought out deliberately. All in all, it’s an extraordinary life, and one with great potential for theatrical adaptation.


The Mutant Man tells the story with just two actors (Matthew Coulton and Clementine Mills, both excellent) who cover multiple roles each, and an elaborate audio-visual set up which makes use of microphones, cameras, complex lighting and projection as well as a selection of props which are brought out in plastic evidence bags at the top of the show. The complexity of the staging makes the performance space look a little cluttered, and the lamps are awkward to move around, trailing wires. But there are some great atmospheric effects – the projection in particular is beautifully designed; it combines pre-recorded footage with simultaneous footage from a camera mounted on one of the desks. Scenes take place in front of extreme close-ups of hands, of the painted matryoshka doll given to Eugenia as a child, of blood dripping onto a napkin. The sound design layers rushing water over the ship scenes, and intensifies the difficulty of witness testimony by interrupting with wails of feedback.


The play doesn’t follow its narrative straight through – instead it uses flashbacks to different parts of Harry’s life. Effectively, we jump between three narrative threads: Harry/Eugene’s early life up until the birth of his daughter; his life with Annie up until her tragic death, and his arrest and trial. The effect is complex and confusing but effective – it’s a good structure for a crime story – we know early on that a murder has taken place, but it takes a good while to work out who the victims and suspects are and how they relate to one another. The performance doesn’t pull any punches – the rape and childbirth scenes are graphic despite being mostly conveyed in monologue rather than simulated. It also includes a candid monologue describing Harry and Annie’s sexual relationship – Annie moans in ecstasy while Harry frankly explains to the audience how he constructed – and, in response to his wife’s feedback, augmented – a DIY dildo.


Adding to the confusion is the fact that though both performers take on several roles, the central one is shared. For much of the run time this seems an unhelpful choice – Coulton plays Eugene/Eugenia, but also plays Annie, the woman his elder self will be convicted of murdering. Mills plays Harry, and also plays the sea-captain who raped him as a younger man. While this makes the narrative difficult to piece together, it does eventually become clear and the disorienting effect seems in many ways appropriate: it puts the audience in a position of confusion and suspicion which reflects society’s suspicious responses to Harry throughout his life.



Immolation and empty rooms

16 Mar

Hedda Gabler

NT Live at KCL, 09.03.17


Ivo van Hove and Patrick Marber’s modernised version of Hedda Gabler is driven by an exceptional central performance from Ruth Wilson and some perfect design decisions, but the update is a mixed success.


The play’s portrait of a stifled, charismatic but ultimately destructive personality remains utterly compelling. Hedda is the only character who never leaves the stage, and the set has no visible doors; the other characters enter and exit through the auditorium. At the beginning, Wilson is slumped over the keys of an upright piano – the front panels missing, its innards on display. Her brusque delivery, agitated movements and quick shifts of mood add to the sense that Hedda is an unpredictable character; she adopts different personae depending on who she’s talking to: Kyle Soller’s Tesman, Rafe Spall’s Brack, Chukwudi Iwuji’s Lovborg and Sinéad Matthews’ Thea Elvsted. The production has a steady pace, punctuated with interludes which stage Hedda’s frustration in a more abstract fashion – the repeated use of Joni Mitchell’s ‘Blue’ and, later, Jeff Buckley’s version of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ felt like labouring the point, but more effective was the explosion of feeling when Hedda trashes the room, hurling well-wishers’ flowers around and stapling them to the walls, and the tension when she fiddles with the blinds, making shadows like prison bars flicker across the whole space.


The modernisation works fairly well on a conceptual level – there are still women who feel trapped by their domestic circumstances, who are paralysed with horror at the idea of motherhood, whose feeling that they lack control over their lives leads to an obsession with controlling others. But purely on plot detail, it falls down a bit – there’s a video intercom that lights up with ghostly faces every time a visitor arrives, but nobody has a mobile phone and Lovborg’s manuscript is handwritten. Given that the plot hinges on communication failures and a magnum opus that’s not backed up to the Cloud, these details matter. The presence of Berte the maid is jarring, too – at the beginning, when she complains to Juliana about Hedda’s imperious manner, the maid seems to be a character like any other, but later she’s a more ghostly presence – Hedda’s enabler, she fetches the pistol for her to give to Lovborg and watches as she burns the manuscript.


This is related to another problem, which at root is one of elitism. This production sort of assumes you know the plot, and therefore fritters away the play’s enormous capacity for suspense. The pistols are framed in a glass case on the black wall, Chekhov-style. There’s no moment of hesitation to suggest that Hedda might relent and give Lovborg the manuscript instead of the gun. Instead, the production is concerned with making the subtext explicit and visible – sometimes this works well, as with the flowers and the blinds mentioned above, but other sequences are less successful. In the last scene, Spall’s sadistic Judge Brack explains the hold he now has over Hedda while drinking a can of tomato juice which he spits at her as she cowers under him, and pours onto her dress, then onto the stage, only to force her face into it. It’s a strong but unnecessarily literal image – Hedda is stained by her actions and at his mercy.


The cast are generally very strong – Soller’s Tesman is particularly impressive; though a bit too earnest and self-involved, he isn’t so laughable a character as, for instance, Adrian Scarborough’s Tesman in the Old Vic production a few years ago. Iwuji is appropriately intense as Lovborg, particularly when he reappears in a torn, stained shirt to rave about how he abandoned his and Thea’s ‘child.’



Missed connections

16 Mar

The Voiceless

The Space, 15.03.17, with Louise


The Voiceless is a wordless hour-long performance devised by Glasgow-based Skin Deep theatre company, combining physical theatre, circus and dance. It’s staged in traverse, and at least initially there is enough haze in the air that we can barely see the rest of the audience opposite. According to promotional material The Voiceless is about struggling to find connection in real life and seeking solace in fantasy. This comes across fairly clearly – in a recurring sequence between two performers, attempts at contact are shrugged off with increasing violence. Performers climb on top of one another, cling to one another koala-like, wrap one another in invisible ropes. The tumbling is fun to watch but relatively tame compared to many circus-inspired performances. Overall, the performance suffers from a lack of coherence.


There are five performers and four props – little glowing nightlights like tiny moons. The play opens with four of five performers curled around their nightlights, the fifth cross-legged as if meditating. We wondered at first if the nightlights were supposed to be smartphones – the characters turning away from one another to stare fixedly at them, their faces illuminated by a cold glow like the light of a screen. This would be coherent but rather tired social commentary. Later, though, it’s less clear what the nightlights represent – at various points they are switched off, or relinquished and left on a platter like offerings to a moon goddess.


The performance begins with two repeated sequences which dramatize alienation – a couple alternating between embraces and cold shoulders, two characters entranced with their nightlights while the fifth, meditating character makes abortive little movements – walking, apparently picking something up, turning a precise 90° and walking on again. These are repeated at varying paces, and then the five performers come together – this is presumably the fantasy existence that allows for more meaningful connections. A lot is packed in – conflict, betrayal, death and resurrection, wonder, horror, abandonment. At one point, everyone seems to be exclaiming in delight at the antics of some small furry animals. Shifts in tone are marked rather heavy-handedly and sometimes very abruptly by the music, which is mostly electronic droning, occasionally a more ecclesiastical organ sound, a lot of dreamy space music.


There are some lovely visuals on display here – the opening tableau is exquisitely lit, and the lighting is generally very effective, mixing coloured lights at ground level and harsher ones beaming down from on high. The performers are very engaged and have great chemistry with one another. However, the lack of clear narrative or thematic through-lines makes long stretches of the performance dull and directionless.