ACEPHALOUS MONSTER

Concept and Performer Ron Athey

Manchester Word of Warning at NIAMOS

This is a marriage made in heaven/hell as the iconic and maverick performance artist Ron Athey performs his blistering Acephalous Monster in the chilly, faded splendour of the old Hulme Hippodrome now reinvented as NIAMOS. Known for his bloody and visceral explorations of life, death, sexuality, trauma and fortitude this recent work focuses on the mutating, insidious spread of neo-fascism. Comprising video projections, readings, word virus and blood letting, Acephalous Monster is both troubling and mesmerising.

The performance is inspired by the work of George Bataille and his creation of a secret society, Acéphale which sought to combat 1930s fascism and rescue Nietzsche from the Nazi propaganda machine. It is provocative and definitely playing with the limits of artistic practice, but Athey is experienced and assured in his practice so the work never feels gratuitous.

Divided into five distinct sections this is not for the faint hearted. Pistol Poem sees a dapper, suited Athey chanting out numbers as he moves across a grid with deliberate and increasingly exaggerated movements like Hitler doing a step class. Later joined by Hermes Pittakos, they continue what seems a pointless repetition of moves that is quite hypnotic, while text by George Bataille appears on the screen behind. In Dionysus vs The Crucified One we see Athey at a glowing red pulpit reading lecture text from Bataille on the madness of Nietzsche while video shows the violent, imagined conception of the Minotaur.

The core focuses on celebrating the beheading of Louis XVI as an elaborately wigged Athey powders and preens before facing his execution like a macabre Punch and Judy show. There are inevitably allusions to our current political buffoons and their elaborately coiffed heads. The background footage features beheadings in the labyrinth of Forest Lawn Memorial Patk in Greendale. There is a delicious irony in Athey exploring the concept of Acéphale, the headless mascot and monster in the very cemetery where Walt Disney lies buried while his severed head is in a cryogenic facility.

Apotheosis sees Athey naked as he merges into a pool of gleaming viscose goo and then rises clutching visceral guts or umbilical cord with pigs skull mask. Dark and beautiful this is visually stunning and moving. In the final part he is joined again on stage by Hermes Pittakos for a delicate and painstaking blood letting that depicts an old masters painting. On the screen behind a BDSM scene unfolds with fakir shoes and the insertion of an elaborate peacock feather buttplug. This closing scene has real tenderness and joy. Perhaps a celebration of life and fortitude it marries the work of Athey who tested positive for HIV over 30 years ago and has survived to see PrEP while also celebrating the work of fellow performance artist Jon John who recently died from cancer in his early thirties.

There is humour, tenderness and supreme elegance in every aspect of this work. It feels impossible not to be moved by this multi layered, lushly designed performance.

NIAMOS 23rd October 2019

Cambridge Junction 30th October 2019

Ron Athey

Word of Warning

Images by Rachel Papo

Tinned Up

Written by Chris Hoyle

Directed by Simon Naylor

Oldham Coliseum

As a writer Chris Hoyle consistently delivers sparkling dialogue that has a rich northern tone, a big heart and a genuine social conscience. Tinned Up may have been written ten years ago, but its relevance today has the same power to arrest and perturb. Staged in Oldham where community spirit remains vibrant, this new version is directed by Simon Naylor of 53Two – a much respected local theatre who are currently between homes due to the surge in inner city re-development. Casting is firmly Northern too and is headed up by the wonderful Karen Henthorn who like Naylor was part of the team involved in Chris Hoyle’s highly successful The Newspaper Boy.

The staging by designer David Howell creates an utterly believable cosy home that Shirley has spent 34 years living in. The outside world might be tinned up but inside these four walls is someone’s home where they have lived their life and built forged their memories. This home houses an indomitable spirit that has spent 7 years refusing to give in to the local council and the private developers. Karen Henthorn is fabulous as the gutsy Shirley whose warmth and stubborn resolve ensures that even those who have left Langworthy are pulled back to their old community to support her. Her performance coupled with the wonderful dialogue Hoyle gives his central character can easily stand confidently alongside the best kitchen sink dramas.

There are some great performances playing off the lead with an especially lovely relationship between Shirley and her young neighbour Daz. Keaton Lansley has real chemistry as Daz and balances humour with real emotional depth as a young man nurtured and encouraged by Shirley to strive for better things in his life. The living room scene with Lynn Roden as Beryl where the two middle aged women reminsce as they get pissed on ouzo is rich with bawdy humour and the poignancy of intertwined memories.

There are some wonderful moments in this production and hopefully opening night will have ironed out some timing issues and fluffed lines. The direction also lacks some of the tightness and lightness of touch that Simon Naylor displayed in The Newspaper Boy. There are several points in the first act and most notably in the final scene where the pacing slows down or appears a little unfocused.

The stomach wrenching moment in this piece is when a muddled Shirley runs out unto her street to share news with her neighbours only to be gently caught by Daz. That street and community has long gone and she is alone…They’re all tinned up, every last one of them. The final street party and the inevitable ending reflect the ebb and flow of progress. The mundane flushing of a toilet as a life ends, making way for wet rooms, upside down houses and another generation of communities… for better or worse remains to be seen.

Main House Takeover Oldham Coliseum 24th-26th Sept 2019

Images by Shay Rowan

MACBETH

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Christopher Haydon

Royal Exchange Theatre

Director Christopher Haydon delivers a production of Macbeth that is packed full of ideas and creativity. There is a veritable smorgasbord on display that is as colourful and attention grabbing as the infamous banquet where bloody heads compete for space with luridly iced party cakes and doughnuts. Unfortunately although iced delights can tempt us to a quick sugar fix this is a drawn out affair which fails to deliver in a more ultimately satisfying manner.

Lucy Ellinson is a mercurial leader who is believable as a toughened soldier and a popular leader. Sinewy and earthy she appears one of the lads, however as the prophecies of the three weird sisters start to tighten their grip, she becomes increasingly paranoid and driven by bloody ambition. Ellinson soon morphs into a power crazed maniac complete with sunken eyes and bone bleached skull. The performance itself is strong and gripping, however it somehow fails to provide a truly satisfying Macbeth. The physical fragility of a woman who increasingly resembles a crack addict searching for her next fix simply cannot deliver a plausible final battle scene with Macduff. Ultimately there is too much petulance and vulnerability here that could work with Hamlet but not as successfully here with Macbeth.

This is only part of the frustration with this Macbeth which had the opportunity to really shine a light on relationships for ambitious women in power. This lesbian couple seem emotionally ill matched and implausible as this war hardened hero seems incapable of questioning or even noticing Lady Macbeth’s scheming greed and machinations. There is no exploration of their lack of heirs as a gay couple which could have been a really interesting angle to explore in their quest for the crown. The ambitious Lady Macbeth would have surely contemplated a modern ruthless attempt at altering their fate – perhaps spurgling the sperm of Macduff or Banquo?? There is no tenderness between them or any real sharing of the damage their actions cause them personally.

Motorway murder scenes, torrential storms, helicopters, red balloons and chatty interactions with the audience members pepper this production. Designer Oli Townsend has a stark but beautiful heptagram on the stage with a steaming cauldron at its heart. All is as minimalist as a soldier’s rations until the Mad Hatters tea pparty that is the lurid banquet complete with fancy dress and part games. Looking like something from a Ken Russell movie this is OTT in the best way. Dreamlike and drug fueled the game of musical chairs drily reflects our current political situation.

Lucy Ellinson as Macbeth Image- Johann Persson

The ever present weird Sisters as drug addled party girls supplementing their incomes as sinister, sulky waitresses at the castle is an entertaining aspect to this Macbeth. They bring both light and dark elements to the production. For such a female heavy cast it is troubling that the real heart of this Macbeth ultimately seems to belong to the men. Banquo and Macduff balance career and family with grace and honour. Actors Theo Ogundipe and Paul Hickey give performances that resonate and truly highlight the tragedy of this piece.

Royal Exchange Theatre 13 Sept – 19 Oct 2019

Images by Johann Persson

ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI

Written by Kemp Powers

Directed by Matthew Xia

HOME

This play is a genius idea by Kemp Powers. One Night in Miami literally locks the audience into Room 12 of a Miami motel on February 25th 1964. We watch 4 old friends chat about politics and life as they celebrate the success of the new World Heavyweight Boxing Champion. It’s quite a night to behold as the four friends are King of the World boxer Cassius Clay, soul singer Sam Cooke, NFL supremo Jim Brown and political activist Malcolm X. We are flies on the wall watching and listening, as are the FBI and the Nation of Islam while outside amongst the palm trees the Press are also gathering. There is only Joe Brown left alive to say exactly what did transpire that night, but Kemp has created something that feels authentic. Offering a glimpse of these men in the midst of private struggles and uncertainty that are played out alongside the thrills of public success and the darker themes of repression and segregation in Sixties America.

Designer Grace Smart has created a capsule motel room that effectively boxes in the four men as they talk privately but also works wonderfully well in recreating a boxing ring and an Auditorium stage. Lighting design by Ciarán Cunningham and sound by Max Pappenheim enhance the experience and help create the standout moments such as the boxing scene and when Sam Cooke sings. The neon sky and palm trees vividly contrast against the plain decor of the motel room, creating a perfect backdrop to the ordinary and extraordinary events unfolding in that room.

The characters on stage are vividly portrayed by the cast with fervour and passion. At times they are so full of life that the dialogue risks them becoming caricatures of themselves. Conor Glean as Cassius fizzes with energy, giddy with his success but increasingly wary of what his imminent conversion to Islam will mean. Miles Yekinni brings depth and strength as Brown as he contemplates a move from sport to the movies as a “Black action hero”. Christopher Colquhoun is convincing as the impassioned activist who clearly carries a heavy burden and is wrestling his own fears and demons.

The standout performance is Matt Henry as Sam Cooke who moves between confidence and assured charm and his fear of what may happen to his hard won success if he does indeed change his style and use his music to do more than just entertain. I would happily pay again just for the moments when he performs – he brings down the house as he brings his “Sister Flute” to his explosive rendition of You Send Me. As the play draws to a close and he tries out his new song A Change Is Gonna Come, Henry is simply sublime. Director Matthew Xia creates a moment when it truly feels like witnessing something intensely personal and genuinely moving as though we too are hearing this musical masterpiece for the very first time.

HOME 2nd – 5th July 2019

Images by Richard Hubert Smith

Hobson’s Choice

Shalini Peiris and Esh Alladi in Hobson’s Choice. Credit Marc Brenner

Written by Harold Brighouse

Adapted by Tanika Gupta

Directed by Atri Banerjee

In this new adaptation of the 1915 classic, Tanika Gupta has moved the setting from a cobbler’s shop in Salford to a tailor’s shop that is vibrant with silk saris. Set in Eighties Ancoats, Hobson and his three daughters are Asian Ugandans who fled the regime of Idi Amin and have spent the last 15 years building a life and a business in the Britain of Ted Heath who had welcomed 30,000 refugees. Using sparkling dialogue and a clear understanding of the original Gupta honours the familial relationships established by Brighouse while ensuring that the societal themes remain fresh and current.

The set design by Rosa Maggiora blasts colour and a keen sense of detail into this production. Director Atri Banerjee brings a lightness of touch to this production insuring that the witty dialogue sparkles throughout. His experience at the Royal Exchange is evident in how he uses the space. He creates an intimacy and a sense of participation for the audience. Wedding favours are shared out during the interval creating a lovely sense that we are participants in the wedding celebration. The catwalk triumph of Asian Chic serves as a joyful finale and also as a celebratory parade of all the actors.

This is a really strong cast that brings an absolute authenticity to this production. We see young women wearing mini skirts and dancing in The Hacienda, rebelling against a father who tells them to “Live within your boundaries. It’s a Man’s World.” There is the destructive theme of racism from Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech that still resonates today. Hobson has slipped into alcoholism and his best tailor works for a pittance because he “is the lowest of the low”, staying because “Your Papa has my passport.”

Esh Alladi as Ali Mossop. Credit Marc Brenner

Esh Alladi is utterly engaging and believable as the shy downtrodden worker full of twitches and tremors. There is real delight in watching him grow in confidence from tentative bridegroom to a loving husband and a budding entrepreneur. Shalini Peiris as Durga Hobson is cooly decisive and resourceful. There is no self pity for her situation instead she ensures the best possible outcome for herself and her sisters. Peiris skillfully balances being both a funny and blunt force of nature with the delicacy and vulnerability of being a new bride on her wedding night.

Tony Jayawardena as Hobson gives a performance full of bluster, self-pity and patriarchal arrogance. He embodies a man living in complete denial who has slipped into alcoholism and is facing bankruptcy and the loss of his family. Even when Hobson is at his most outrageous Jayawardena still brings enough warmth and charm to his character that his daughter’s return involves residual affection and not just duty or ambition.

This new adaptation is a real success that brings the issues of intergenerational conflict, class snobbery, alcoholism and immigration into sharp focus while never feeling preachy or worthy. Over one hundred years since the original opening night, Hobson’s Choice remains relevant, engaging and thought provoking.

Royal Exchange 31 May – 6 July 2019

GRAND FINALE

Choreography and Music by Hofesh Schechter

Performed by Hofesh Schechter Company

HOME

Hofesh Schechter has created a world both nightmarish and blissfully optimistic in Grand Finale. His latest work is defiant, mischievous and brutally beautiful. Part gig with a small orchestra onstage; dance and theatre merge with the same seamless fluidity that allows monolithic slabs to both create a sense of endless time and club land rave scenes. Grand Finale is both an anguished salute to lives lost in destruction and war, and two fingers held up to the doomsday predictors. The musicians are integral to the flow of the piece. Ever present though always on the move, they are formally attired and one even sports a life jacket as if to allude to the musicians who played on as Titanic sunk.

We can all dance to the same beat but sometimes we may hear a different unique beat in the same music and so we separate as individuals and respond in a myriad of ways. So it is with Grand Finale, Schechter’s dancers come together and replicate movements, their bodies harmonizing in unison and at another times they clash and jar with seemingly murderous intent.

Perhaps Schechters greatest skill is in how he uses dance and music as unifiers. There is a universal commonality in the throbbing beat that seems to connect with one’s own body – the movements you see on stage can feel as though they are simultaneously experienced in your own muscle memory. Moments from rave scenes feel intensely familiar then flow into Celtic dance or Maori Haka or riotous dance to klezmer music. This is modern yet ancient, ageless and current.

The blend of sound and light by Schechter and lighting designer Tom Visser is beautiful. Beams of light illuminate upturned faces as though kissed By the sun. Grey gloomy mist can signify Dawn or the dry ice of a nightclub. At other times it seems like there is the red dust of African plains which may be the fires of Dante’s Inferno. They are glorious playful moments as hundreds of bubbles drift down like snowflakes unto the battlefields of No Man’s Land at Christmas time. Here figures dance like marionettes and later with gay abandon to Franz Lehár’s Merry Widow Waltz as worries are cast aside culminating in a chilling end piece as a pile of bodies grows at the side of the stage and is silently saluted.

Scenes start to get smaller and more specific as they fragment into tableaux scenes that echo snapchat or Instagram poses. Figures embrace, party or pray as the dance slows down and the orchestra gets softer and starts to fade. Are these open mouthed figures aghast in horror or yawning with ennui as everything changes and yet still remains the same?

Grand Finale 22nd – 25th May 2019

Hofesh Schechter Company

Images by Rahi Rezvani

RICHARD III

Written by William Shakespeare

Directed by John Haidar

Shakespeare’s tale of the “undigested and deformed lump” that is his Richard III is considerably tweaked in this version by John Haidor for Headlong. Here we see a man more emotionally stunted than physically restricted by his disability. Tom Mothersdale delivers a Richard whose twisted body is as fluid as his nature is mercurial. The hall of mirrors that dominates the set serves as judge and jury to Richard’s lack of conscience and reflects back to the audience as a means of drawing us into this tale of political greed, narcissistic ambition and false news.

Mothersdale manages to repulse and charm in equal measure. His capacity for brutal acts and honeyed words is that of a true sociopath or charming manipulator. Moments of visceral violence as he bites his victims with the suddenness of a deadly spider sit uncomfortably alongside humour as he mischievously addresses the audience close up or prances with a makeshift crown like a gleeful child ransacking the dressing up trunk. For all his cunning and remorseless violence there is the vulnerability of a child who recognizes his mother is ashamed of his twisted body and repulsed by his twisted nature. Director Haidar ensures that we see this wounded child who has long ago decided that if he cannot have the love and admiration of others, he will command their hate and fear. Mothersdale captivates throughout in what is a truly demanding role. Rarely off stage he is never less than electrifying especially in the second act when demented by jeering ghosts he sees his fleeting success melt away on the battlefield. Bloodied and mud stained he smears mud across the reflected ghosts as if to wipe out any hint of his own wrongdoings.

Chiara Stephenson has designed a set that is gloomy and forbidding in its grey ramparts and dungeons but cut through with reflective mirrored archways. These arches allow actors to move rapidly between scenes while also creating depth to the set as the ghosts appears behind them and the audience is reflected in them looking at ourselves just as Richard examines himself in these multiple looking glasses.

Haidar makes use of every possible dramatic element that can be drawn from this gothic castle. Stony grey yet pulsating with life and bloodied by death this is a building that echoes its history in every mirrored arch reflecting lives once there and now just ghosts in the fabric of the building. The use of light and sound by Elliot Griggs and George Dennis provide striking flourishes that give the murders and battles scenes slashes of colour and sound that evoke video game violence- perhaps to suggest Richards own childlike lack of awareness of the real consequences of his actions. If at times elements appear overplayed or exaggerated they encapsulate Shakespeare’s original exaggeration of the real man. Whether you love it or not the impact of the attention seeking design elements and directorial flourishes are as in your face as Richard himself.

This feels a very fresh and timely revisiting of Richard III. There is a truly monstrous quality to this character in his relentless quest for political power. The wily cunning off an ambitious man who exalts in having neither pity love or fear is a chilling reminder of some of our politicians who make decisions for us based on their own fragile narcissistic egos and lust for power. Like Richard they strut across the world stage daring us, the audience, in how much we will allow them to destroy before we revolt and them down. Personally there are quite a few political anti heroes I would love to see buried under a carpark in Leicester!

Headlong

HOME 30 April – 4 May 2019

Images by Marc Brenner