Death Of A Salesman

ROYAL EXCHANGE THEATRE

Written by Arthur Miller

Directed by Sarah Frankcom

Sarah Frankcom directs this post-war classic as a sensitive and cerebral study of a family glued together and cracked wide open by the fragility of the veneer of success they cling to. This is an epic study of human beings driven by the human urge for survival, respect and love and with the desire for financial success. Writing in 1949, Miller had a living memory of the Great Depression and was observing the post war escalation of consumerism and greed for success. This is the tragedy of one man and his family in an ultimately fruitless, blind pursuit of the American Dream.

The set design by Leslie Travers creates a sense of normality which also manages to feel quite dreamlike. It’s apparent simplicity effectively allows the focus to be centred on a simple table which represents the centre of the home, the desk of the business world and the dining table of public success. The surrounding edge seating allows other actors to be the chorus of memories in Willy’s mind. Overhead the dense green foliage is perhaps suggestive of the theme of blind ambition, in that we literally cannot see the wood for the trees. The gradual change of leaf colour in Act 2 is poignant as dreams start to fade and crumble.

Frankcom draws stellar performances from a strong cast. Don Warrington absolutely embodies Willy Loman with his weary stoop, worn down by despair and the weight of his salesman’s sample cases. This is a man full of bluster and desperation whose only strategy to cope with fear and disappointment is stubborn denial of his reality. Warrington moves with ease between bravado and rage in erratic mood shifts that can bleed into the warm charm of the consummate salesman. This is a slow burn performance which by the second act is blistering and visceral as lies are challenged and truths are finally spoken. This is a narcissistic man descending into madness or possibly dementia who has been thrown on the scrap heap and whose thwarted ambitions now shift toward the possible validation of a well attended funeral.

Maureen Beattie as Linda gives a powerful performance. She is every inch the supportive, devoted wife propping up her husband’s ego and encouraging her sons to do the same. A paragon of virtue and a loving wife terrified of Willie’s suicidal tendencies she appears to exude everything that makes him declare her “my foundation and my support”. However as her character is further revealed her steely resolve is apparent and it becomes clear that she enables Willy in his quest for success like a partner supporting an addict. She chills and terrifies as she eviscerates her sons when they challenge their father’s perspective.

Biff (Ashley Zhangazha) and Happy (Buom Tihngang) are both strong as the Loman boys. Zhangazha is especially powerful as the older son who is the only one willing to confront his own failings having painfully witnessed the truth about his father. The moment when he speaks of his father and reflects “He had the wrong dreams” is electrifying. Tihngang brings energy and enthusiasm to his role as the younger boy seeking approval from his parents. Spiritually bankrupt and full of selfish entitlement and largesse he is truly his father’s son and a product of a consumerist society.

This is a play that truly stands the test of time. The memory bleed which Willy experiences and it’s impact on his family will resonate with many families living with mental health issues and/or dementia. It also serves to remind us of how the past informs the present when we try to understand our family relationships and patterns of behaviour. This play addresses our very human fear of being a Nobody and how essential it is for human well-being to have validation. Timely reminder for today’s audience as we inhabit a celebrity obsessed world where success is defined by the numbers of followers on social media. Just like Willy Loman many of us struggle with the cognitive dissonance of not living the lives we expected to and revert to various coping strategies to stay in denial. Perhaps like Biff, we all need to pause sometimes, look up at the sky and remember who we really are.

Royal Exchange Theatre 11 Oct – 17 Nov

Production images by Johan Persson

Everything that happened and would happen

Mayfield

A new work by Heiner Goebbels

Produced by Artangel

Co-presented by Artangel and MIF

The world première of Everything that happened and would happen opens with a huge set comprised of veiled exhibition pieces. Goebbels’ opener is an allusion to the Great Exposition of 1900, which the organisers said “will define the philosophy and express the synthesis of the 19th century”. This new work is inspired by Patrik Ouředník’s Europeana or A Brief History of The Twentieth Century, the epic Europeas 1&2 by John Cage and by daily updates from No Comment footage from Euronews. Blending performance, concert, installation and history lesson with stunning visual effects, this is truly a polyphony that brings European influence unto a British stage where so many of us hope it remains regardless of what Brexit may bring.

Devised especially for Mayfield, which opened 4 years before the start of WWI, this production reflects major events in Europe throughout the last 100 years. With five musicians side of stage and 12 performers in constant movement as they configure new scenes, the overall feeling is incredibly powerful and mesmerising. This is like watching a crash course in set building and design. Performers are clad in black boiler suits and brightly coloured socks which may be a witty illusion to individuality and perhaps an acknowledgement of the range of ethnicities in Europe today. Watching the performers assemble and disassemble art installations,folding and unfolding fabric screens like huge maps, pushing and pulling landmasses, it is graceful and reflective. It is also clearly performed with the military precision of soldiers on a battlefield.

The set pieces are often visually startling such as the projections which evoke the digital age, displacing and distorting as the world shifts. In a recurring theme nothing is as it seems, as the age blistered pillars of Mayfield fleetingly become shiny steel, or familiar shapes distort and evolve into something else. The Chinese Dragon in the final scenes bleeds into a landscape that is a haunting evocation of Europe, past and present. Illuminated laundry baskets whirl around the stage with seemingly magical contents but in the end are casually popped, being nothing more than bubble wrap. Gas lit scenes have hazy trees hung from an impressive rigging system that evoke a ravaged forest and the No Mans Land of WW1. Later the same rigging is utilised to project news images from Euronews showing current scenes of protests such as those against Kavanaugh in America.

This is a powerful and provocative piece of work. It questions the ownership of ideas, culture and land. The push/pull of shifting land borders and the building up and tearing down of countries and their infrastructures is clearly evident throughout the work, which also suggests the pertinent question of do we continue to repeat the patterns and mistakes of our past? As Brexit becomes closer to being realised it is surely a question we need to heed and act on. Are we destined to keep learning the same lesson but choose to believe it means something else?

Mayfield 10 – 21 October

Production images by Thannasis Deligiannis

Macbeth

The Lowry

Written by William Shakespeare

Directed by Rufus Norris

National Theatre Production

This Rufus Norris directed production of Macbeth was a sell out at the National Theatre earlier this year. The 2018/2019 National Tour commenced at The Lowry, Manchester. Set in a post-apocalyptic world, this production looks bleak, dark and intensely moody throughout. Norris clearly intends his Macbeth to attract a modern audience at home with World of Warcraft and The Waking Dead. With Macbeth on the GCSE syllabus this production aims to engage with students new to Shakespeare. So with a hopeful heart, I took my somewhat reluctant teenage daughter along as she is currently studying the play at school.

There is much to admire in this production. The Rae Smith set design is startlingly beautiful, glistening and mournful, it perfectly captures the mood of the piece. A metal bridge dominates the set, swinging back and forth across the stage like the warring factions fighting over a piece of turf land. This assists in adding dynamism to a production that at times can appear surprisingly static. The overall appearance is of a hopeless place with dank accommodation that creates a sense of a world in flux. Homes are breezeblock husks with scarce furnishings reminiscent of refugee camps which serves to drive home the ugliness of war and displacement.

Despite the gloom there are moments of vivid colour such as the highly effective splash of red in the gaudy pimp suit worn by Duncan and later by his successor Macbeth. The theme of “To beguile the time, look like the time” is used throughout this production. The celebration dinner for Macbeth comes truly alive as a generator is cranked up on the stage illuminating fairy lights and pumping out music like a street party from a scene in the Paul Abbott show Shameless.

The witches or weird sisters seem woefully underused. Gossamer clad and unworldly the three aerial performers perfectly conjure up the supernatural aspects of Macbeth. Clambering up the unnatural trees, their eerie voices are projected through the theatre bringing a real sense of magic. The supernatural themes also work well when the ghost of Banquo appears in a haze of ghostly phosphorescence.

There is an interesting emphasis on the lost children of war and conquest. Lady Macbeth, wonderfully played by Kirsty Besterman is lithe and bristling with animal energy which if not turned to suckling her young will then create a fertile ground for political ambition. As she descends into madness, her casket is opened to reveal the poignant tiny babygros of thwarted motherhood. Baby heads are worn by soldiers to warn of the impending massacre. Gruesome scenes include slaughtered babies, concealed in plastic shopping bags being casually dropped at the feet of Lady Macduff. The futility of war is perfectly summed up by the wretched shock of Macduff as he asks, “All my pretty ones? Did you say all?…In one fell swoop?”

The cast are strong and seem at home with this production, however the style in which the dialogue is delivered may be in tune with this production, but it loses a lot of the drama and poetry of the original. Equally for a production at least partially aimed at a young student audience the cuts made here may confuse. Certainly my daughter was very aware of certain speeches she was learning at school which were missing. Perhaps it is a mistake to assume that young people who can spend hours sat in front of an Xbox cannot cope with 3 hours plus in a theatre. This may be one instance where “to beguile the time, look like the time” is slightly out of time.

On tour 2018/2019

Production images Brinkhoff Mogenburg

FUTURE BODIES

HOME

Co-created by Clare Duffy, Abbi Greenland, Helen Goalen, Jon Spooner and Becky Wilkie

Written by Clare Duffy and Abbi Greenland

Original Music and Songs by Becky Wilkie

Directed by Abbi Greenland and Helen Goalen

Future Bodies is a veritable smörgåsbord of ideas, concepts and in-depth explorations of ethical issues around life and living, death and dying in a modern world of biotechnology and human enhancement technologies. Unlimited Theatre have teamed up with HOME to collaborate with Rashdash to explore the wide arranging implications of these scientific advances on mankind. The result feels like a truly sensory mind f***.

This is an extraordinary piece of theatre. The intention is to shake up our sense of who we are and looking toward the future consider what we possibly could become. The joy in this production is that everything seems up for vigorous debate, so many possibilities are explored, some in snappy bite-sized nuggets, some in songs, others in longer in-depth segments. Bursting at the seams with information, energy and enthusiasm, the result at times is messy and chaotic, however this is a show that delights and informs in equal measure.

Visually arresting the set design looks amazing. A blend of gossamer layers and Venetian blind style screens that the performers themselves move around a giant sand pit. The layers of screens keep peeling back like onion layers as the performers delve into what it means to be human and at what cost do we maintain or extend life. The video and lighting design by Sarah Readman and Josh Pharo are exceptional with intense colours and vivid use of video and lighting to caption the performance. In creating a lush sense of other worldly, punchy neon brights against fleshy pinks and earthy browns the set further contrasts the dichotomy between man and technology.

This is a feast for the eyes and the ears with Rashdash member Becky Wilkie having her own music stage next to the main stage.Looking like a pregnant blue alien who has raided the wardrobe of a Ziggy Stardust / Aladdin Sane fan, Wilkie is utterly captivating. So arresting is her performance that at times it is difficult to know which stage to focus on.

The five other performers move effortlessly from scene to scene with infectious energy and enthusiasm. Each cast member brings something special to the debate on stage whether it is to be a young male discussing an implant to remove antisocial behaviour and murderous intent, or a profoundly deaf performer celebrating what makes her special. The powerhouse performance of Alison Halstead, so good in the Graeae production of The House of Bernardo Alba, highlights grief poignantly questioning the nature and function of grief.

Disarming and migraine inducing this is a full on assault that invites an audience to process, reflect and integrate new information while reassessing old perspectives. Future Bodies is all about grappling with big scientific and ethical concepts while simultaneously being at a gig, an art installation, and watching a theatre and dance performance. It demands our attention and perhaps suggests that we might actually need an implant or an upgrade in order to fully process everything on stage. Of course instead of a reboot we could just rebook and see Future Bodies again.

HOME 18 – 28 October

Images by Jonathon Keenan

The Effect

Oldham Coliseum

Written by Lucy Prebble

Directed by Jake Murray

Play With Fire Productions

The U.K. has the fourth highest level of antidepressant prescribing in the Western world with prescription levels tripling since the millennium. Yet a study published in The Lancet earlier this year on the efficacy of these drugs suggests at least a million more Britons should be taking antidepressants. With mental healthcare becoming an increasingly important topic of discussion, Fire Productions brings the award winning The Effect to the North West. This Lucy Prebble play is about a clinical study on the effects of an unlicensed antidepressant on non-depressed, paid volunteers. The play explores whether Love really is the drug or if artificially elevated dopamine levels are indeed Viagra for the heart.

Striking stage design by Louis Price creates a sleek and effective set that coupled with lighting by Adam Murdoch ensure that the production looks as good as the onstage performances. Scenes flow smoothly and concisely in this highly structured amd cerebral piece. The order and precision of the early scenes at the research facility are a smart foil to the messiness that unfolds as heightened emotions takeover.

The direction by Jake Murray ensures empathy, passion and tenderness are infused into every scene whether it is dopamine infused euphoria or dopamine deprived despair. In this double blind study the lovers, young and old are under the spotlight as the audience observe the empirical and the more qualitative research approaches. Is this elevated mood and loss of appetite due to the dopamine in the drug or is it due to the exhilaration of falling in love? Does a relationship breakdown trigger a reactive depression or does a chemical imbalance in the brain cause depression and if left untreated can it cause the breakdown of a relationship?

The young couple are utterly believable in their growing attraction and resultant confusion as they grapple with what is placebo and what is real in their relationship. As Connie, Elaine McNicol is all process driven, reflective and cautious as the curious, young psychology student whose emotional world starts to rapidly expand. Daniel Bradford really shines as Tristan. His Northern Irish accent totally fooled me and I’m from N.I! He brings a genuine lust for life to his character that is always engaging and when the drama unfolds he is truly mecurial in this role. He absolutely lives in the moment so when his character becomes trapped in the moment, it is painfully poignant to see all that joy and passion snuffed out; just as it can be in episodes of serious depression.

The two doctors are middle aged and differ in their approach to the subject matter. Toby is the trial director who favours the science and sees medication as an effective means of regulating brain chemistry whereas Lorna sees things from a deeply personal perspective and wonders if depression can be a useful pain informing us that we need to change our lives. Both perspectives have validity as without enough dopamine in the brain we struggle to have the motivation to effect change which in itself can cause depression.

Karren Winchester is wonderful as Lorna showing dry humour and resilience, she is always intensely believable as the deeply, emotionally invested psychiatrist. In the second act she excels as depression sets in and in her scene talking to the human brain she is chillingly reflective. Her portrayal of the toxicity and dissociation in depression is startlingly accurate. This is wonderful writing for any actor but Winchester really uses every word to self-flagellate. It is not surprising that many individuals suffering depression do not seek help as the voice in their own head can be so punitive that they simply don’t see themselves as worthy of assistance.

The mysteries of the human heart and mind are enduringly complex and as interwoven as the formation of the brain itself. The Effect raises more questions than it answers but this is a conversation that will always fascinate and divide in equal measure.

Oldham Coliseum 25 – 27th September

Images by Sophie Giddens

othellomacbeth

HOME

A HOME/Lyric Hammersmith presentation

Written by William Shakespeare

Directed by Jude Christian

The plays of Shakespeare continue to fascinate and inspire and there is always an ongoing artistic quest to tweak his original recipes. For director Jude Christian inspiration appears to arise from a folk song by Anjana Vasan. Oh Sister asks, Oh Sister when you gonna learn. Ain’t it always about the man….a kind hearted woman to his evil hearted ways. This mash up of Othello and Macbeth turns the spotlight on the women and explores what we are capable off when hope is replaced by despair.

This pared down production opens with a narrow stage that boldly states the intention that this Othello is a series of succinct snapshots of the original. Scene changes are signified by the discordant menace of clamouring gossip on the wind. Focusing on key elements of the plot to move the narrative along swiftly it often loses the beauty of poetry and the development of key relationships; however it sharpens the focus unto male machismo and the perils of innocence in a world of brutal ambition.

The real moment of drama that makes you inhale sharply and sit up is the sinfully clever shift towards Macbeth at the end of the first act. Lady Macbeth enters clutching empty swaddling and offers her milk as gall to Desdemona, Bianca and Emilia. As these three mistreated and/or murdered women don camouflage jackets over their bloody clothes the scene is set for the weird sisters or witches to wreak havoc.

The set design by Basia Bińkowska is startling and while it initially seems restrictive and one dimensional, it is potent in its sharp simplicity. A wall of riveted steel and a metal caged walkway evoke the confines of a hi-tech prison symbolizing the narrow constrictions of being a woman in Shakespearean times and in certain societies today. For the domestic violence in Othello it brutally resounds with the visceral crackle of bone on steel. The second act lifts the steel wall and reveals a more open space for the actors to move around. What now dominates is the perspex sink crystal clear before becoming increasingly bloody as events unfold. The metal walkway overhead gets more use in the second act as the weird sisters watch over their machinations like puppeteers pulling at the heartstrings of Macbeth and the other men.

The focus on the women in this production is a powerful reminder of the perils of love and the struggle for fairness and equality. Desdemona is a young bride who naively assumes that love conquers all. Married to a powerful man she expects to be heard without resorting to shrewishness yet conforms to the message running through Shakespeare and the song used in this production….You love like a martyr… wear your heart like a suicide vest. Lady Macbeth in vivid Tory blue is a seasoned and more experienced wife who asserts her own power within her marriage. Emilia and Bianca are also more pragmatic and less naive of the ways of men, yet all are disappointed and wounded women. These are all women who love not wisely but too well surrounded by men who are equally capable of powerful emotions.

I’m not sure how many questions are answered by this production by Jude Christian who also provoked debate with Parliament Square, however OthelloMacbeth certainly evokes lively conversation about the women Shakespeare created. This nine strong cast do a good job of keeping up momentum with notable performances by Sandy Grierson and Kirsten Foster. Most of the performances here are impressive and pushing the female characters to the forefront is an interesting dynamic. The key element is the bleeding through of such influential dramatic creations through both plays and how they still resonate with audiences today. As Desdemona says Love that endures from Life that disappears.

HOME 14th Sept – 29th Sept

Lyric Hammersmith 3th Oct – 3th Nov

Images by Helen Murray

OH MAN

Contact Young Company with Hetain Patel

Directed by Hetain Patel

A leisurely walk through Salford gazing at a skyline of half-built new skyscrapers and giant cranes. The audience is heading to a secret location for the latest production by ContactYoung Company . It feels like I’m entering a very male environment where a performer might suddenly walk off a building sight to wolf whistle, or stroll into the bushes to pee or do something else suitably blokish. Instead we enter a yard full of tyres and cars….there is sweat, grease and testosterone in the air….or is there?

Notes pinned to the fencing are verbatim quotes from men interviewed for this project. They reveal men who don’t always think how stereotypical images suggest. Men who are wary and also feel vulnerable post #MeToo. Men who are uncertain or feel restricted as to how to express their emotions in our society.

Cars are parked up with radios on and doors open. Like art installations they give additional snapshots of masculinity – young studs cruising on a Saturday night fuelled on fast food and hopes of fast women, father’s with cars full of toys and sippy cups, lease cars for business, sober and impressive.

In a garage space, CYC are clad in blue boilersuits squaring up eye to eye with the audience. This is very up close and personal. Full on and unapologetic they posture; knuckle grazing, hair smoothing and checking themselves out. This is a Haka that demonstrates strength and prowess, and also functions as a welcome. Oil drums are used to ear splitting effect. Photos are being taken. Poses shift from happy, carefree snaps for social media to tableau images that menace and disconcert. As with She Bangs The Drums earlier this year CYC deliver something that is punchy, provocative and challenging.

This work has been developed from extensive interviews with men in the community from groups such as M13 Boys and Salford Young Fathers Project. Director Hetain Patel and Producer Keisha Thompson are clearly passionate about this project and this production is bursting with ideas and energy from the whole company. It is as messy, vibrant and challenging as my teenage son’s bedroom.

There are meaty chunks of group scenes in the sweaty gym where men feast on another’s potential sexual conquest sucking on the bones as though it were theirs. Yet the bloke’s awkwardness shines through despite his posturing and bravado. It is akin to watching a Ricky Gervais character in the gym instead of the office. Like layers of an onion this scene can repulse, unnerve and evoke pity.

Using males and females from CYC cleverly allows for the predictable sexual stereotypes of men as predators and women as deserving whores or vulnerable victims to be frequently subverted and challenged. Women can be the aggressors and predators too. A playful gameshow highlights the confusion and risk of generalized assumptions as does an amusing scene on public transport.

There are frequent shifts of mood and energy in the performance as emphasis shifts to look at rape and assault statistics or male suicide risk factors. Tender moments when monologues describe poignant moments such as when a traumatised 13 year old learned we place the blame on the victim not the culprit. A young man describes his ambitions as a dancer and his Libyan/Italian heritage and flips perceptions as he speaks of his father’s pride and encouragement. The M.O.T scene gleefully skits through our expectations of men and chillingly fails many of them placing them on a scrapheap they may struggle to escape from.

OH MAN opens up dialogue around our perceptions and expectations of men and questions just what it means to be masculine. There are no neat answers in this piece but there is palpable excitement as CYC challenge themselves and their audience.

Thurs 30th Aug – Sun 2nd Sept. 2pm& 7pm