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

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

Mamma Mia

The Palace Theatre

Music and Lyrics by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus and some songs by Stig Anderson

Book by Catherine Johnson

Directed by Phyllida Lloyd

Mamma Mia is of course the phenomenally successful musical built around the ABBA back catalogue of hit songs. Approaching it’s 20th year of success and now having spawned two hit movies, it would seem set to fill the Aegean sea with froth, sass and sequins for at least another 20 years.

Girl meets Boy and falls in love, decides on a fairy tale wedding, and the only dilemma is which “Father” to call her own amongst three unwitting contenders. The Bride’s Mum is outed as having had a real summer of love during The Seventies and deals with the fallout with aplomb, ably aided by her two best friends and erstwhile backing singers. Everyone gets a happy ending and we all celebrate by dancing in the aisles singing along to Waterloo with a flurry of sequins and exploding confetti cannons.

Lucy May Barker hits all the right notes as the sweet ingenue Sophie. Shona White is reassuringly capable and confident as Donna and delivers on every song moving effortlessly through every emotion from Slipping through my Fingers and The Winner takes it all to the stomping Waterloo. The best friends/Aunties Rosie and Tanya both add a real comedic edge to this production. Nicky Swift is all warmth and impish charm while Helen Anker does a wonderfully acerbic, woman of the world oozing sex appeal. The men are rather less memorable and though all do a good job supporting the women this will always be a show about the girls.

Visually the staging is quite low key using clever lighting to take us through day and into night on a Greek island with glorious weather. The simple staging is effective as it is the colour and spectacle of the ensemble routines that are the visual highlights of this production. The big numbers are great and witty elements such as the choreography of the flipper dance is delightful in Lay all your love on me.

Mamma Mia is lightweight fun at the theatre but cleverly frames a great back catalogue of greatest hits. This is clearly a hard working, highly committed cast and the absolute highlight of the night is the rousing delivery they give after the last curtain call. Riotous fun and decidedly feel good entertainment.

The Palace Theatre until July 14th.

QUEENS OF THE COAL AGE

ROYAL EXCHANGE THEATRE

Written by Maxine Peake

Directed by Bryony Shanahan

QUEENS OF THE COAL AGE is Maxine Peakes humorous and compassionate homage to the four women from Women Against Pit Closures who staged a 5 day peaceful protest within Parkside Colliery in 1993. As with Tour de Beryl andThe Last Testament of Lillian Bilocca Peake joyfully celebrates women who make a difference, who effect social change regardless of personal cost. As with previous work Peake mines a rich vein of humour throughout. She has an acute insight into the need for laughter in the bleakest of situations as humour can protect the toughest of us when we feel at our most vulnerable or desperate.

The four actresses deliver authentic, naturalistic performances. Kate Anthony bristles with energy and passion as Anne Scargill but poignantly allows for the expression of the unforgettable humiliations during the Strikes that wounded this formidable woman. Eve Robertson as Elaine displays a wonderful blend of awkwardness, difference and passion. Every emotion is conveyed with a real physicality that reminded me of Victoria Wood performing at her most vulnerable. Jane Hazlegrove endears as Dot who blusters through her misgivings and shines a light on the dilemma of how to build a society for our children while trying to also provide a secure homelife for them. Danielle Henry as Lesley brings spontaneity and exuberance to the group as she portrays a more youthful passion for the cause and brings awareness to the casual racism she experiences.

Looking at interviews that Anne Scargill and the other women gave after the strike to journalists and to Peake herself during her research , there is a genuine sense of almost verbatim delivery at times. Little touches such as Lesley’s hair combs becoming needles to stitch blankets from sacking and creating paper roses and a vase really happened and are touching elements of their story that are lovingly included.

The stage design by Georgia Lowe and lighting by Elliot Griggs capture life down the pit with the industrial pit head lift and the dim lighting enhanced by the mining lamps all around the stage and circle. They work in harmony to create a chilly feeling in the theatre as though the audience are underground too, observing in silence like the miners from different eras of the past who move poignantly on and off the stage.

Director Bryony Shanahan ensures that the comedy banter also allows space for the politics at the heart of this production. This production burns with the outrage that although some things may change such as musical taste – there are humorous bursts of music from the women’s youth alongside the pounding beat of young miner Michael’s beloved house music which electrifies the women too. However, the deep frustration lies in that racism, inequality and poverty continue to dominate the lives of so many. It’s noteworthy that nearby Oldham Coliseum is also premiering new work celebrating the power of protest with Ian Kershaw’s Bread and Roses. QUEENS OF THE COAL AGE is a production that celebrates unity, friendship, political activism and the ongoing importance of collaboration for social change. All hail the Queens of The Coal Age and all those women who seek something better for themselves, their families and their communities.

Royal Exchange Theatre until 28th July

Images by Keith Pattison

Bread & Roses

Oldham Coliseum

Written by Ian Kershaw

Directed by Amanda Huxtable

Ian Kershaw has written a protest musical based on the 1912 Bread and Roses worker’s strike in Massachusetts that is as relevant today and is a powerful call to arms. Kershaw is a passionate advocate of solidarity, equality and compassion and his views shine through in this piece. Bread & Roses is an anthem for change and a homage to the hope that Our Tomorrows are better than our Yesterdays.

The opening scene is beautiful and truly memorable. Holding candlelit lamps, the cast bring in the new year of 1912 as they sing Auld Lang Sang a capello. New legislation had decreed that women and children now have a working week of 54 hours instead of 56. The Bread and Roses strike was the worker’s response to mill owners reducing pay and speeding up the looms. In a community comprised mainly of immigrants, the particularly special nature of this strike is that there was a united multinational response from the workers. Belts on looms were cut, the first moving picket line in America got around new legislation about loitering and children were sent away to places where they could be properly fed. Public response forced change and the mill owners had to accede to the workers demands.

This is a very strong and multiskilled cast. They sing extremely well and many play a range of instruments including piano, guitar, and banjo. The music is a mix of belting hymns such as Rock of Ages, haunting Irish ballads like The Parting Glass and stirring protest songs. There is Power in a Union by activist Joe Hill famous for his songs in that era, the wonderful Bread and Roses by James Oppenheim and the stirring bluegrass Ain’t No Grave made famous by Johnny Cash. The protest was known as “The Singing Strike of 1912” and this play celebrates that with gusto.

Lauren Redding as stout- hearted Martha gives a standout performance with an incredible voice and stage presence. Claire Burns as the martyred Anna is astounding. She creates goose pimples as the ghostly presence with her beautiful voice. I would happily buy the soundtrack to this production if it’s made available. Now that might be a great way to raise money for the foodbanks or homeless around Oldham??

The male performers do a great job throughout, particularly Oliver Wellington as Cal, but this is a female led cast. It’s star acting performance is Emma Naomi who has incredible natural grace on stage and captivates as Lily-Rose, the young widow and mother who finds her voice as an activist.

This was a very impressive opening night and Director Amanda Huxtable has created something very special. There are points where a more relaxed, naturalistic approach might benefit especially in the movement direction which at times appeared stilted. Moments where the chorus move into the aisles and circle during protest rallies work well creating a strong sense of audience involvement and creating more energy on stage. The illustrating of issues such as immigration, poverty, unemployment and the dangers of “false news” are crystal clear, leaving uncertainty around the need for the final modern day scene.

Kate Unwin‘s set has a real warmth and lustre. The cotton bales prevail in every scene whether at the impoverished worker’s cottage or at the factory gates where the mill looms turn overshadowing every life in the town of Lawrence as they once did in Oldham itself. The changing backdrop of gorgeous red and indigo skyscapes are sumptuous and set the mood very well. The lighting and sound is evocative as scenes shift from the peaceful sounds of riverbank fishing with the idyll of crickets singing to the whirr and clamour of the looms.

This is a wonderful production to see in Oldham and would also make an excellent show to adapt for schools or colleges to perform. There is a strong political message from the past that resonates in our current society. We may need bread for sustenance but we have rarely been in so much need of roses such as this production.

Oldham Coliseum 22nd June – 7th July

Images by Joel Chester Flides

Warhorse

The Lowry Theatre

Written by Michael Morpurgo

Adapted for Stage by Nick Stafford

Directed by Marianne Elliot and Tom Morris

A National Theatre production

Warhorse had it’s regional première at The Lowry in 2013 and returns for the third time, fittingly as the centenary of the end of WW1 approaches. The book by Michael Morpurgo was adapted at The National Theatre in 2007 and has been hugely successful ever since with worldwide audiences of over 7 million. It is a extraordinary show in terms of scale and ambition with a use of puppetry by South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company that is breathtakingly effective. It takes the audience on a journey from sleepy pre-war Devon countryside to the horrors and brutality of the battlefields of France. It is a poignant tribute not only to all that wasted youth and unfulfilled potential but to the animals who suffered and were slaughtered in appalling numbers.

This is a huge production relying on the puppetry effects merging with a large cast in a believable way. There are moments with the birds early on that don’t seem as effective as perhaps intended but otherwise it all works incredibly well. Moments like the puppeteers reverently stepping away from Topthorn perfectly convey the loss of the heart and soul of this proud animal. Similarly the sudden breaking of the colt to make way for the fully fledged Joey is spectacular. This is clearly a team effort with the whole cast giving their all to a very special theatrical experience.

The design work on Warhorse is astounding in its apparent simplicity. Rae Smith’s set is a bare stage using occasional props but to stunning effect. Doors appear in the dark backdrop or poles create market day or become paddock fences. Barbed wire draped at the front of the stage creates a visceral horror that is unforgettable. The brilliance of the vast overhead projection screen is incredibly special. As the performance opens it looks like a slash of white cloud across the Devon countryside but is of course a torn fragment of parchment from a soldiers sketchbook. The backdrop of images of country villages, callow youths on horseback and soldiers’ arrival in France and the battlefields of The Somme are sketched out across the screen in black and white drawings. The only splash of colour is when the screen bleeds red for a lost comrade and poignantly becomes the blossoms of poppies on The Somme.

The lighting by Paule Constable is beautifully done creating golden summer days and crisp winters before shifting into the bleak battlefields where soldiers emerge from the gloom or are blinded by the white flashes of explosions or the yellowing haze of gas attacks. The lighting has the effect of breaking the fourth wall by making the audience experience the battlefield horrors as though they are there too. The impact of the sound and visuals have created a powerfully immersive experience that lingers after the show has ended.

My grandfather was a country boy like Alfred and fought throughout the war. He was to be the sole survivor of his platoon at The Somme and initially was listed as dead. He was seriously injured, placed on a cart of dead bodies dragged back through the mud and debris by a horse such as Joey. He started to regain consciousness as the bodies of his friends were lifted off for burial. He was one of the lucky ones who came home.

This is an incredibly moving experience especially as the young soldiers go over the top and are cut down so brutally. The horrors of horses ridden into barbed wire with no escape or dragging ambulance carts or tanks through the treacherous mud. Warhorse is a potent reminder of why WW1 is rightly still remembered as a testament to the senseless cruelty of war.

The Lyric Theatre, The Lowry

13th – 30th June

Images by Brinkhoff & M Âgenburg