Archive for May, 2011

Romeo & Juliet

This weekend marks the debut of Troika Theatre’s Romeo and Juliet at the Kenton Theatre. It’s founders have taken on multiple roles for the production – with Nathan Grassi playing the eponymous Romeo, Rachel Johnson taking the reins as director, and Jen Middleton multi-tasking as choreographer and Lady Capulet. They joined me here to talk about their new company, Shakespearean verse, and imaginary death-matches between creatures of the wilderness…

What inspired you to create Troika Theatre, & why did you choose R&J as your first show under the company name?

Rachel              Myself, Jenni Middleton and Nathan Grassi have been working together for 3 years, on and off the stage, and came together with the shared vision of creating high quality theatre that will challenge, excite, stir and entertain audiences. With so many talented and undiscovered actors and actresses across Oxford and we aim to seek out and promote new talent and provide opportunities for all of our actors, designers, technicians to further their practical experience in a serious working environment. We are a young and hardworking team with high standards and big aspirations!       

During the rehearsal process, did you make any discoveries that you hadn’t previously realised?

Nathan: Yes; I discovered if I wasn’t careful, Romeo could actually turn into rather a whiney brat! I found him to be impetuous, determined and very foolish – But isn’t anyone who falls head over heels in love?

So what do you think it is that makes Romeo fall in love with Juliet? And what about poor old Rosaline?!

N:         It’s a case of love at first sight! There is no reason for love like that – it just happens. As the story goes on, I think it’s a case of forbidden love but still a very real one. And … “ROSALINE? I have forgot that name and that name’s woe!” She played it too safe with Romeo; I think he just got bored.

Would you say you have enjoyed being Romeo?

N:         Of course! I think nearly everyone studies Romeo & Juliet in school, at some point; but you really don’t know what the character is like until you have to play him. Playing Romeo is completely different to when I first encountered him in study.

To Rachel, are there any key themes in the text you particularly wanted to bring out?

R:         I wanted to tell this story truthfully and to do this I really needed a young cast. A key theme in the play for me is youth vs age and so casting was vital to me. Jenni Middleton plays Lady Capulet, the real age of Juliet’s mum and Camilla Clarke playing Juliet is extremely youthful and could be believed to be just 14 or 15 years old. We also have a team of young men, all in their 20s who make up the two gangs.

How did you approach the text? Have you stuck to the iambic rhythm a la Peter Hall, or have you gone more modern?

R:         One of the reasons I was drawn to this play was because 90% of the text is in verse. Shakespeare has written a beautiful and powerful play which comes alive with the juxtaposition of simple and complex language and rhythms. It’s very important to me to be faithful to the verse. I have worked hard in rehearsal to help the actors understand and embrace the meter and have encouraged them to question how and why rhythm is broken. Directing Shakespeare is a joy because he has done so much of the work for me already! If actors know where to look then they are so often told when to speed up, when to slow down, when they should pause for thought, when they should finish each others sentences etc. All of these clues help us understand who the characters are, how they are feeling and also helps establish a context for them. To interfere or ignore the verse deliberately doesn’t makes sense to me and does not help the actors. Yes, wow, it would appear I am definitely a traditionalist when it comes to the language!            

And what have you done in terms of design for this production?

R:         There is a certain pressure as a director when you attempt stage the most famous love story of all time. What will the balcony look like? How will Romeo & Juliet meet? What style will the party be? This pressure forces a director to think creatively but it can be easy to become distracted by design. Preparing the production for Italy was blessing in this respect. We took the production on the road and the only props and costume bits we had were what fitted into the company member’s luggage. We rehearsed with little to no set so we were reliant on telling the story by voice, movement, music and characterisation alone. For our UK debut I have chosen to keep the design simple. Our production is set in a hot Verona in the present day. The set is simple, a scaffolding backdrop. The scaffolding represents not only the physical balcony and street but also highlights the complicated relationships and inter-woven themes dominating the play. Music is used periodically to set the scene and drive the action forward and lighting will be used creatively to draw focus to important moments in the story.

With that design in mind, how have you approached the dance and movement sequences in the show?

Jen:      All of the dance in the show has been inspired completely by our music choices. The style of music and its accents dictate what movement is choreographed as well as the overall feel of the piece. I listen to the music several times noting accents and changes in feel and style before choreographing a single step!

Has it been difficult juggling choreography with your role as Lady Capulet?

J:          Not massively but it was a little bit tricky when I’ve choreographed something I’m in too; it means I can’t watch out for mistakes or areas to work on unless I step out to evaluate!

And how have you interpreted the relationship between Lady C and Juliet?

J:            Awkward! She tries to be a mum and to be close to her daughter but it never really works as Juliet sees the Nurse as more of a mother figure.

To all of you, have Troika got anything else planned for the future?

N:         Indeed we have! Troika will be taking over the Oxford Castle Courtyard in June 2012 with a two-week run of Taming of the Shrew. Lighter fare than Romeo & Juliet but you can still expect the same Troika quality.

R:         More details about tickets and how to get involved will be available shortly on our website. www.troikatheatre.co.uk

So here’s your opportunity to sell some tickets – why should audiences come and see this instead of going to the pub this weekend?

J:            Because you don’t get love, tears, song and dance for £12 down the local…not before midnight anyway!

N:         You think you know Romeo & Juliet really well? Do you? How many and which characters die? It’s a great way to spend an evening (afternoon); the show is short, sharp and completely enthralling. You’ll be please to come out alive and be appreciative of love!

Good sell! Now onto important matters…if there were a fight between a bear and shark, who would win?

N:         The bear. No one, not even a shark wants a knock in the head from a bear. Plus, they are cuddly; how can you hug a shark?!

J:          A bear; a shark would have to get the bear into deep water just to have a chance!   

R:         That’s tricky but I’m going to go for the bear. ‘Exit pursued by shark’ doesn’t quite seem right. Bear every time.

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18/05/11

Little Bulb Theatre have been quietly moving from strength to strength – Sporadical was my Edinburgh Fringe highlight, and their most notable success, Crocosmia highlighted the loss of innocence in a way that this show also touches on (though from a very different angle!). I thought it would be difficult to top the kind of runaway successes they have already enjoyed, but they seem to have done it again. From the over-enthusiastic, slightly crazed version of the prophecy of Isaiah, right through to final talent show performance, Operation Greenfield is a non-stop cannonball of a show.

Little Bulb’s latest offering tells the story of a Christian band, beginning humbly as a funk duo, but growing to a folk foursome. The band decides to embark on a quest to win their local village talent competition; they have been thwarted once already, and this time they are certain they are going to succeed. Unfortunately life and the trials of adolescence keep getting in the way.

This show is a joy from beginning to end. Daydream guitar solo’s, imaginary conversations with Elvis, and the temptations of smoking are all hurled into the melee as these four try to control the runaway train that is adolescence. My initial concerns about the piece appearing somewhat inconsistent were quickly put aside – this show might look chaotic and unplanned, but it certainly is not. The script cleverly uses the Christian faith, as well as pop culture to better explain the fixations and worries of youth.

There is a kind of soft-cynicism here that Little Bulb handle perfectly – they seem to attempt to keep proceedings two dimensional, but as their lives progress, the sincerity of the characters becomes increasingly clear. However, there are flaws to this production – it’s a little bit too long, and the company sometimes venture too far into indulgence at the expense of the story. The performance style also means that we never quite connect emotionally with these characters in a way that some might crave – but they are a young company, and these elements are something I can readily forgive when faced with such a joyous and anarchic show.

As with all of Little Bulbs shows, the musical element to this show cannot be faulted. Aside from the enviable recorded soundtrack, each member of the group plays multiple instruments, and the composition seen here wouldn’t be out of place on any festival stage this summer. I genuinely loved every song, and laughed with sheer delight as the group finally, and exuberantly, entered Stokeley talent competition.

One suspects that Little Bulb are getting away with quite a lot simply by being so darn endearing.  When watching them you can’t help but feel that they are all having tremendous fun – even when depicting the horror that is being a self-conscious adolescent. The performance mode lends a certain element of absurdity to the proceedings, with each character appearing as almost a caricature of themselves – squirming with awkward energy and delivering some gloriously deadpan dialogue with a wide eyed and startled expression that is simultaneously hilarious and touching.

This company is embarassingly talented and incredibly brave. In Operation Greenfield they have created a musical that highlights their numerous strengths, and creates a world for its audience that many will find worryingly familiar. It is silly, sublime, and essential viewing.

The show is at Soho Theatre until 4th June – Beg, borrow or steal for tickets if you have to, just make sure you don’t miss this glorious production.

10/05/11

First seen in the West End in 1997, this revised production of Cinderella takes the traditional fairy tale and turns it on it’s head. A chance meeting between Cinderella, a bookish and oppressed girl in a well-to-do society house, and an injured RAF pilot replaces the traditional ball setting here, and along the way there are many changes to the plot you may be expecting, though the basics are all here.

The blitzed streets of London are the setting for this tale, and are presented beautifully, both through movement and intelligent stage design. Lez Brotherston seems to have created a living black and white film, with the colour pallet firmly based in shades of grey – glamour and colour added only through lighting. The set is extremely detailed, with a backdrop of rubble and searchlights that is striking from the moment you enter the theatre. The most dramatic moment is perhaps the moment when time rewinds, and we are treated to the image of a bombed café slowly reforming itself while dancers rewind the last moments of their life. It is chilling and beautiful, and made all the more poignant by the fact that Bourne sets his ball in the Café Du Paris, the infamous underground dance hall that was heavily bombed, killing 34 revellers in the process.

For me, the most beautiful set piece was in the third act, when Bourne uses simple hospital screens to create dozens of different sets. It is inherently theatrical, and compliments the dance beautifully, as its fluidity allows the dancers much more freedom.

Prokofiev’s fairytale score is sometimes in brutal contrast to the destruction and clamour of war we are presented with, but on the whole it works almost perfectly, perhaps because Prokofiev composed the work in the middle of the second world war. Bourne has also introduced new elements that make the clamour of war still louder. Wailing sirens, the rattle of anti-aircraft fire and the crashing of bombs merge seamlessly with the score, while a screen shows a propaganda newsreel of burning buildings, and what to do when the bombs fall on London. Purists may see the recorded score as something of a cheat, but I found it presented in such a way that it really didn’t matter. It was theatrical spectacle at its finest. 

I should explain before comtinuing, my expertise lies firmly in theatre, and while I enjoy dance performances, I do not have the expert knowledge to back it up, so while I very much enjoyed Matthew Bourne’s innovative interpretation of this traditional fairytale, I cannot go into much detail on the quality of the dance performances. I can only say that I was blown away by the mix of modern elements and traditional ballet – and the story was expressed through the choreography perfectly. Each movement seemed to be incredibly precise in meaning, each characterised exactly by those utilising them.

The narrative is an intelligent take on the classic story that will leave you sometimes struggling to catch up, but in a wonderful way. Bourne fills his stage with not just the wonderful love story of Cinders and her mysterious pilot, but also a whole host of wonderful supporting cast (I may be wrong, but I don’t recall a man with a shoe fetish ever being mentioned in the story books!). It is only towards the end of the third act that the story falters slightly and Bourne dwells a little too long on our concussed pilot. To quote my companion “Well, he had a knock to the head, went a bit mad, then started running around London waving a shoe at people. No wonder everyone thought he was mental”

But then just when Bourne seems to falter, he finishes with a spectacular flourish. Paddington Station becomes a place of magic and wonder, as we are presented with other young couples meeting and parting at the station. A sailor cradles his new baby, soldiers leave their partners with lingering kisses, and in the midst of it all, Cinderella finds her happy ending. Through this touching scene, Cinderella turns into another kind of fairytale – the miracle of love in war.

2 days ago on this blog I posted a review from a sneak preview of The Wright Brothers.

The preview was intended as just that, and not a review or a serious critique of what is still a play in the early stages of its development.  I’ve since removed the post, and would ask anyone who read it to consider the preview in the spirit that it was offered. a Preview, not a Review.

As with any review posted on this site, my ultimate goal is to spread awareness about theatre (particuarly good theatre!), and I would always encourage you to judge for yourself.

On a personal note, I wanted to put up the post simply because I was so excited about the show & wanted to share that enthusiasm, as a fan, with other fans.

Thanks for reading, and I’ll leave you with the key theme of this message…

Lauren

05/05/11

I went to the Young Vic with no pre-conceptions about what I was about to see. I knew nothing about Fosse, and only knew the work of Patrice Chereau through one of his films. I was drawn to the show months ago by the story, and to see another of Simon Stephens work, even if it was an adaptation. Because of this, I had no idea what was in store for me. I have deliberately waited a week to allow myself time to absorb the script and the story, and while I left the theatre unsure of if I enjoyed the show of not, I now know I was witnessing something incredibly special.

I Am the Wind’s story is simply that of two men in a boat. The One is a sailor, and appears to spend a long time alone at sea. The Other seems to know very little about the sea, but takes on an almost protective role throughout their time together. The One sways between calm and depression in rather the same way the boat rocks them, before a journey takes them too far out to sea, and The One goes overboard (stumbles or jumps?).

Behind this simple story are layers and layers of emotion and meaning, and even after reading the script twice now, I still know there is more to discover. The reading I get so far is that this is an absurdist study of two people, both dependent on the other for different reasons, struggling to find their place in the world and contemplating the point, or rather pointlessness of their own existence. Depression also seems to be an incredibly important aspect to this production. The One is certainly consumed by his depression. He can’t be alone, but he can’t be with people. He both loves and hates the boat, and fears the moment when he will just step over the edge and into the sea.

I thought at one point that these characters were one of the same personality, one sinking into apathy and depression, the other trying to remain buoyant despite his situation, however in retrospect I don’t believe this is the case.

The fact there are so many ways to interpret this production has to be a good thing. Chereau’s production is stationary and beautiful, and Richard Peduzzi’s set is nothing short of mind-blowing. A pool lies dormant and still in the centre, rippling only when one of the men step briefly around it’s edges. It’s simplicity was striking, and I thought I could not be more impressed, until a raft rose from the water, tipping, tilting and rising as though on a gentle sea.

The raft certainly provided a physical challenge for the actors, and both took on that challenge with aplomb. Tom Brooke as The One is compelling, his whole being seeming to represent the sea he sits on. Quiet on the surface, with so much turmoil beneath. Jack Laskey, in a way, has a more difficult job – providing a crutch for the contradictory nature of his companion. However, his silent reassurance is a constant, and makes the relationship between the two characters that much more intriguing.

It would be very easy to put Fosse’s script somewhere between Ibsen, Beckett and Pinter, but there is a lot more to it than that. From the moment The One walks, or rather staggers onto the stage, we are treated to a prolonged and silent scene, wherein one man holds the other, first carrying him gently, then dressing him, physically supporting him throughout. It is hypnotic to watch, and sets the tone for the duration of the production.

This production should be essential viewing for any theatre fan. It is thought-provoking and haunting, and asks questions of its audience that will have you thinking long after you’ve left the theatre. The desire to simply live is not one any of us should take for granted, and Fosse’s script reminds us of this. Just wonderful.

Prior to TheatrePunk, I started another blog which I never posted on. I wrote a 2010 round up for that which I thought I’d transfer over to here. So sit back, relax and enjoy a little blast from the past…

 As we reach the end of a great theatrical year, I thought I’d jump in at the deep end and do my top ten. This list isn’t necessarily what I consider to be the best shows of the year, but instead it is the shows I have enjoyed the most. The ones I left feeling as though I had seen something that I would remember for a long time. So, in no particular order, here are my theatre highlights…

Enron – Headlong

Saw this at the Birmingham REP about a year after seemingly everyone else in the industry had already seen it. I thought it would take a lot for it to live up to the hype, and boy did it. Intelligent, exciting, fantastic staging, and a narrative that sucked me in despite the dense subject matter. I am still perplexed as to why American audiences didn’t warm to this play when it reached Broadway.

Duchess of Malfi – Punchdrunk

We are all aware of the furore over tickets for this event. I was one of those people who managed to crash the ENO website. After the site crashed I had ENO on speed dial as I repeatedly tried to get through. After some perserverance (and wasting quite a lot of work time) I succeeded, and it was worth it. Perhaps not Punchdrunks’ best show of all time, but certainly worth the trip. Highlights included the beautiful fight in the netted room, witnessed only by me and one other audience member, the quiet monk’s journey around the building to find his forbidden love, and that ending…oh, that ending. I got a shiver just typing that.

Spend Spend Spend – Watermill

I saw this twice. Once on a marketing trip for work, the second time for pure pleasure. It was just a joy from beginning to end. The ensemble worked harder than I’ve seen any other cast work this year and their performances were flawless. Heart-breaking at times, joyous at others. I left with tears streaming down my cheeks and a smile on my face.

Posh -Royal Court

I may be a little biased on this one as my dear friend was in it, but it still remains one of the most enjoyable evenings in a darkened room this year. Tightly written script, excellent direction and the cast were just great. The final speech which led into the interval wherein one of our Riot Club boys emphatically announces ‘I fucking hate poor people!’ elicited shocked gasps and incredulous laughs. I don’t think Laura Wade could have predicted how appropriate her script would become as the election was announced and some Bullingdon Boys made their way into Downing Street. It made the show all the more chilling as there was a real sense that this was not beyond the realms of possibility.  

The Red Shoes -Kneehigh

I think this may be the best play I have seen all year. It appealed to my love of the strange, and was crafted in such a way that you could just sit back and bask in the delicious unravelling of a dark and twisted tale. This show was Kneehigh doing what they do best. It was dark, laced with black comedy, and just beautiful. It also included the best description of a theatre I have ever heard – ‘this darkened thespic fun-palace’

Lilly Through the Dark – The River People

Recommended to me by Mr Alex Wadham (who appeared in the River People’s show Angelrust). I first saw this in Edinburgh. I cried for around an hour – and walking down Chambers Street sobbing while holding a balloon a passing flyerer gave you is not a good look for anyone. After being so affected, I insisted all of my friends see this show – as a result I ended up watching the show a further 3 times. It is a testament to the power of this young company’s storytelling ability that even after seeing the show 4 times I still cried. Lilly was brought to life with simple storytelling and a beautiful gothic narrative. You would have to have a heart of stone to not be moved by a little girl’s struggle to remember her fathers hands.

Blasted -Lyric Hammersmith

 I hated this show. It was crude, downright offensive and made me feel a bit sick; but my god it was brilliant. Great performances, disturbing content, and a set you could just drool all over (and if you did that you would probably fit in quite nicely) . There isn’t much I can say about this show that hasn’t already been said, so I’ll just repeat the general sentiment. It was brilliant. Truly brilliant. Now let’s never speak of it again.

 Hamlet -Crucible Theatre

Who would have thought that this was John Simm’s first attempt at Shakespeare? His performance felt as though I was watching the prince of Denmark for the first time. His plea ‘to die, to sleep’ spoke of a grief-ravaged insomniac, lost in a society that doesn’t seem to care. The staging was minimal, the performances delectable. I think the biggest compliment I can give this play comes from a friend of mine. Despite having read, studied and seen Hamlet countless times, she was so disturbed by the ‘Oh what a rogue and peasant slave am I’ speech that she left in the interval. Having calmed down, she booked tickets to see it again and stayed for the duration. She then booked again. After seeing it 3 times she told me it was the best version she had ever seen – I think I agree with her.

 A Western – Action Hero

 This one caught me by surprise. Quite simply the most fun I have had in a pub all year. This deconstructed western had all the elements of the epic gun-toting tales of yore, but with English sensibilities and no budget. The audience were just as important as the two performers as a Western was built out of ketchup and a few cards. I revelled in the sheer absurdity of what I was witnessing as the hero rode into town on his steed, a card table was knocked over, and our hero had a showdown with his arch enemy at high noon. Better than all of these moments, however, was the moment when our hero asked for a shot of whiskey at the bar. He asked very politely for a shot of whiskey. Fished out the £1.20 from his pocket, said thank you, then walked to the opposite end of the bar, meekly shuffling past anyone standing there. He then removed all obstacles and silently gestured to the barman that he would like the whiskey to be slid over to him. When it reached him he gave a small satisfied smile and took a sip. It was simultaneously hilarious and touching – rather like the whole show, really.

Sporadical – Little Bulb Theatre

See this show. See it immediately. If it isn’t on, see anything Little Bulb have to offer. Can’t praise the show or them highly enough. Amazing. Amazing. Amazing. Don’t worry about what it’s about, that doesn’t matter. Just go and see it. …Why are you still reading this? Go!

Honourable Runners up

The Event (Theatre Tours International) – A one man show about the nature of theatre. Outstanding.

Decky Does a Bronco (Grid Iron)- Site-specific piece that has been doing the rounds for years, and rightly so. Great script, great cast, great show.

The Big Fellah (Out of Joint) – a real performance based show. Acting of the highest order.

Le Morte D’Arthur (RSC) – An atmospheric and affecting piece of theatre, this show would have made it into my top ten of the year were it not too long. My bum still hasn’t fully recovered.

Arabian Nights (RSC)- It was a celebration of storytelling, imaginitive, fast-paced, and just a joy to watch from beginning to end And that about sums it up.

05/05/11

On a warm summers night in Oxford, I am sitting in a café, sipping on a glass of water. Beside me, a woman reads a magazine, and outside, a man in a red velvet smoking jacket and bowler hat peers curiously through the window. This was the setting for Mettta theatres new adaptation of Pirandello’s one act play ‘The Man with the Flower in his Mouth’, and its story is a very simple one.

In a late-night café, a man strikes up a conversation with a woman who has missed her train. He learns a little about her, then speak to her about savouring the small details, and living an imaginative life. It is almost idyllic in it’s tone, were it not for the dark moments peppered throughout.

 Pirandello presents to us a man with a feverish imagination and a burning desire to live, and a woman, burdened with parcels and troubles, killing time after missing the last train. In a way, they are the antithesis of one another, but the script allows our ‘man with a flower’ to speak with such passion and intellect, that their common ground become increasingly clear.

‘My imagination takes hold of the smallest detail,’ he says and we can readily believe him. For reasons, which gradually emerge, the unnamed Man is living his life with a an almost reckless intensity, marvelling at details such as the beauty of a sales assistant wrapping a package, and revelling in the pleasures of his imagination. But his love of life is inextricably linked with death. He sees people all around ignoring death, distracted by petty irritations. “I’d kill myself”, he says in a disturbingly warm manner, “but the plums are just ripening”.

It is testament to the quality of the production that ripening plums somehow become a logical antidote to suicide, and the number of blades in a handful of grass evidently measure out the remainder of a mans life. Samuel Collings was certainly inspiring as our ‘man’ – I felt I was witnessing a man on the verge of a breakdown, grasping onto the small details in a bid to remain calm in the face of his own demise. It was as though we were only permitted to see a glimpse of his anguish, the rest safely locked away beneath the surface, but it came out in occasional stilted bursts that were heartbreaking to watch.

 I felt it a shame that his counterpart, Liana Weafer, did not have more to do, but she certainly did an admirable job of allowing Collings to feed from her physical responses. It did leave me wondering, though, if the adaptation was flawed. Wile Burton-Morgan has sensibly avoided completely modernizing the story, by changing the gender of our stranger to a female; she has allowed herself some liberties with the text. Surely this could have continued by giving her a voice? I couldn’t help but feel that a new adaptation was the perfect opportunity to create a dialogue between these two characters.

The café setting is clever, as we can allow ourselves to believe we are truly witnessing this exchange. The waitress behind the counter genuinely works at the coffee shop, and the smell of the coffee they drink drifts over to the audience. We are entirely immersed in their world, which allows us to pay attention to the finer details of this performance. I did wonder, however, why the company chose to set the audience as though it were an end-on performance – surely this was what they were trying to avoid by staging this piece in a café? A braver decision might have been to leave the café exactly as it was, and let audience’s strain to see the action, though this may be my penchant for immersive theatre filtering through.

I was struck by the simplicity of the piece as a whole: and the direction was splendid, but there were flaws. All the same, I could excuse these flaws in the face of such an outstanding performance from Collings, and the script certainly left me thinking. ‘Good, not great’ seems an apt description, but a rather dour one, considering the deeper questions this play asks. Is he right? Can life really be lived with complete commitment? – any play that leaves me pondering this question long into the night should surely be worth a look.