PLAYLAND

Fez Singhateh as Martinus Zulu and Danny Solomon as Gideon La Roux

Written by Athol Fugard

Directed by Jake Murray

The Empty Space

Elysium Theatre Company have once again shown what high calibre work they can produce. Great story telling from South African playwright Athol Fugard with sound direction from Jake Murray and powerful performances from both male leads ensure that this is a great piece of theatre . A journey through trauma to possible redemption, Playland explores what happens to the human psyche when men with a strong moral code find themselves doing unspeakable things and then have to find a way to live with the consequences.

Set in Playland, a travelling fairground, the action takes place on New Year’s Eve 1989 when war veteran Gideon La Roux meets the fairground watchman Martinus Zulu. Behind the gaudy splendour of the lights and wurlitzer music is the deeply reflective Martinus alone in his monastic space. This bleak setting eventually serves as a kind of confessional for both men. The absolute power of this performance is not just that it is about the unravelling of a man with PTSD, but that it is a man who fought in a war of Apartheid where soldiers were forced to take a vow of silence and where truth was white washed or blacked out. Somehow Gideon is pulled towards another man who is guarding his own secret pain and who has also broken the sixth commandment.

Danny Solomon as Gideon La Roux

This is a perfectly balanced double act from two actors who were both also excellent in a previous Elysium production Jesus Hopped the A Train. Danny Solomon is veteran Gideon, a man whose initial bonhomie hides deep psychological wounds that slowly start to surface as the clock ticks down to a new year. Solomon is all nervous energy and keen, darting eyes while he attempts to engage the recalcitrant security guard. He is engaging and charming as he tells stories of his pigeons and his childhood but effortlessly shifts into menace and madness as he attempts to gaslight his reluctant companion into violence. He increasingly reminds me of early Jack Nicholson in the ways he can play with energy, tempo and mood.

Fez Singhateh as Martinus Zulu

Faz Singhateh counters Solomon with a wonderfully controlled and restrained performance. Stiff with righteous indignation, every sinew is coiled as his Martinus watches and waits like a wary, wounded animal. The growing tension between both men slowly builds, becoming palpable as their stories are told and they find common ground in their actions but struggle with their opposing perceptions of redemption and forgiveness.

The writing is evocative and brutal in its description of the horrors of the Border War, but is also tender as it reveals the youthful innocence of childhood. Simple but effective staging with rich lighting and a fabulous fairground soundscape add additional pleasure to this production. Everything is thoughtfully and sensitively done, ensuring that 30 years on this tale of redemption and forgiveness still feels timely and relevant.

Empty Space 31st Oct – 2nd Nov 2019

Black History Month

Images by Victoria Wai Photography

It’s True, It’s True, It’s True

Image by Richard Davenport, The Other Richard

Written and devised using verbatim material by Ellice Stevens and Billy Barrett

Directed by Billy Barrett

HOME

It’s True, It’s True, It’s True uses verbatim theatre to launch a blistering assault on the legal system’s attitude to women in rape and sexual assault cases, and how patriarchal perspectives inform how our truth is perceived. Ripping through the centuries comes the voice of Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi from the surviving pages of a 400 year old rape case in Rome. A seven month long court case in 1612 that pitched this remarkable 17 year old against Agostino Tassi, an older, established artist who had given her painting lessons and viciously raped her.

Using verbatim text is something Breach have honed as a theatrical tool throughout all five of their productions. They have a sensitivity to the material and a wonderfully creative and playful way of transposing it unto the stage in a way that works visually. Using clever design from Luke W Robson with lighting by Lucy Adams they create a rich Baroque environment that summons up painting studios but with a sinister hint of courtroom/prison torture chamber.

The pace is excellent here, this may be 400 year old court documents but Billy Barrett ensures they feel fresh, vivid and shockingly relevant to today. When the courtroom drama cuts to descriptions of Artemisia’s paintings of classical historical images, the energy shifts again. What ensues is cheeky and merciless as Ellice Stevens, Sophie Steer and Kathryn Bond do a glorious take on a Benny Hill style sketch and slice through traditional male stereotypical assumptions about female desire.

All three female performers take on the central roles and those of additional characters with great skill, integrity and energy. These are not easy roles to perform as they are embedded in the truth of real words spoken by a wounded young woman astounded by what the courts require of her to accept her truth. Ellice Stevens gives a brilliant performance as Artemisia allowing her a vulnerability that is laced with indignation, innate self confidence and an insistence that her voice be heard. She brings joy and power to this harrowing story of a young woman who emerges as a success and not as a victim.

Kathryn Bond has the tricky role of Tuzia who fails to protect or support her young charge yet is also the victim of bullying by the wily Tassi. She does a great job of evoking a gossipy, foolish woman who is easily swayed but not heartless either.

Sophie Steer takes on the most difficult role as the vicious rapist whose scheming ways and previous history of assaults are clearly documented in the court papers. She is mesmerising as she exudes a sense of Tassi’s narcissistic selfishness and brutal intent to trample on anyone in his path. As a actress she has an uncanny and brilliant capacity to step into a character’s skin like a chameleon. The shift from scheming rapist Tassi to avenging angel Judith is wonderful to observe as she literally sheds his skin and sex and reinvents herself as another character.

What we see on stage is outrageous, ghastly and painful but ultimately triumphant as Artemisia summons her heroine Judith to behead her offender Holofernes. Breach evoke a #MeToo through the ages as Patti Smith’s defiant anthem Gloria ricochets through the theatre and hopefully beyond. A celebration of Artemisia, her later achievements as an artist, and her words, ” as long as I live I will have control over my being…I’ll show you what a woman can do”.

HOME 8th Oct – 12th Oct 2019

Breach

SWIM

HOME

Liz Richardson in association with HOME and ECHO

Creators/Performers Liz Richardson, Josie Dale-Jones, Sam Ward, Carmel Smickersgill

I grew up by water, a green, gurgling river full of trout and salmon and Lough Erne, the Irish Lake District – 2 dark and beautifully treacherous loughs filled with islands. I love the comfort of water, especially a warm enveloping bath. For Liz Richardson and her friend Lisa comfort and solace comes in the icy shock of wild swimming. This new show takes a moving and tender look at the grieving process as Richardson introduces fellow theatre makers Josie Dale Jones and Sam Ward to wild swimming while composer Carmel Smickersgill observes them and creates an extraordinarily beautiful homage to the power of the water and the potency of grief.

SWIM combines performance with live music, video footage and a conversational style that creates a really fresh feel to this piece. There is a real sense that these performers are meeting in a collaborative process that is new to all of them and that their personal curiosity around the subject matter is geniune. This production is full of earthy humour and guileless playfulness yet throughout their quest to explore what is involved in wild swimming, there is a haunting constant in the grieving process and that this show is not about Liz’s friend Lisa but that it for her.

The stamina, huge heart and lust for life that Liz Richardson embodied in Gutted is on show once again. She takes her fellow performers and the audience on a quest to feel truly alive and to never feel apologetic for the gift of life. The filmic element of the show is both down to earth mundane and sublimely beautiful as they chatter and shiver in an estate car or float on vast lakes. The personalities and differing perspectives of the performers work well and the whole thing is drawn together by the soaring vocals of Carmel Smickersgill who creates an ethereal soundscape akin to Julee Cruise or Duritti Column.

SWIM speaks of the spiking feeling or electrifying shock to the body as it is encompassed by the icy water. It speaks of the pain as friends see each other grieve, on your face a type of joy til I’ve seen You’ve remembered again…just because you’ve enjoyed yourself doesn’t mean you’ve forgotten. In the water our bodies are reshaped just as our souls are by grief. In profound grief we often seem to lose ourselves, or the selves that we once were. In making this show for her friend Lisa, Liz is seeking a friend who is out there lost in the dark water. Regrouping, reforming repairing, still an unknown to herself and to Liz…may you both continue to journey well within the water and beyond it.

The day after I saw this show I too lost someone very dear to me. I’m still floundering in and out of the water but I won’t drown. Shows like SWIM are so important, we never know when we might need to revisit them and find solace.

Beside-Pleasance Courtyard 31st July-26th August 2019

Miss Julie

Alice Frankham as Miss Julie and Danny Solomon as John. Credit – Ed Rees

Written by August Strindberg

Translated by Michael Meyer

Directed by Jake Murray

Hope Mill Theatre

August Strindberg wrote this naturalistic masterpiece in 1888, back then it was considered so shocking to Swedish audiences that it could only be performed privately. Raw and incisive Miss Julie cuts through gender and class politics in a manner that was astounding for its’ time. It retains much of its shock value even now as class divisions and gender stereotypes continue to resonate. Servant Christine despairingly remarks how can you respect “your employers when they’re no better than us – what’s the point of trying to improve ourselves?” A bitterly poignant moment as we are on the verge of electing an utterly graceless buffoon as our next Prime minister.

Director Jake Murray allows a strong cast to embrace this vibrant play and sink their teeth into all the mess of emotions and aspirations without losing the complexity and nuance of each individual on stage. Overplayed or in the hands of a less deft director, Miss Julie is a play that could descend into histrionics but here each character is allowed to develop as intended.

Alice Frankham as Miss Julie exudes a persona of cool, imperious beauty and privilege but gives free reign to her character’s wild impetuous nature. Her mercurial nature is never overplayed into histrionics ensuring that even a modern audience can understand her desperation and vulnerability as she tries to be true to her nature despite the constraints of her class and gender.

Danny Solomon as valet John is mesmerising as he flits between suave professional upstairs servant, downtrodden but aspirational farm lad, hopeful lover and brutish misogynist. He creates a raw horror as he cowers from the power of the servants’ bell before coolly handing Miss Julie his cutthroat razor as her only way out of disgrace.

Lois Mackie as Christine is the steadying force in this drama bringing a wonderfully dry wit to all her reflections. Her weary cook is a pragmatic and calm foil to the emotional turbulence unfolding around her. The frantic aspirations of escape from the constraints of class and gender are calmly brushed aside by a woman who accepts her role in life and seeks comfort in respect and in her faith.

This is a thoughtfully staged production with a really keen eye to period detail. The ensemble support from students at ALRA North and Arden School of Theatre adds a lovely touch as they mingle and greet the audience as though we too are part of the Midsummer celebration. The set by Louis Price creates a really authentic Edwardian feel and makes the appearance of the glamorous Miss Julie even more incongruous as she wafts around the servants kitchen. This is another success story for Elysium Theatre Company who are steadily building a great reputation for creating strong productions such as last years Jesus Hopped The A Train. Miss Julie is a satisfying watch ending with a wonderful poignancy about the constraints we live by as the lights dim on the gilded birdcage on the table.

Hope Mill Theatre 18 – 22 June 2019

Elysium Theatre Company

ONE

Bertrand Lasca and Nasi Voutsas

HOME

Two men. A very tall ladder. A conundrum. This is of course the return of Bertrand Lesca and Nasi Voutsas as they return to HOME with ONE, the final part of a trilogy that includes the brilliant EUROHOUSE and PALMYRA. Polarisation, provocation and dogged resolve are continuing themes, played out with their particular brand of disturbingly dark clowning and winsome charm as they invite collusion from the audience. We have choices. It’s clear. We can literally throw shit at each other, remain paralyzed in time or we can take a leap of faith together and hope in a better future.

As with their previous work Bert and Nasi use elements of what maybe their own personal relationships with each other to make provocative statements about contemporary politics. A Frenchman and a Greek who met in Scotland their work is especially resonant in our world of Brexian madness. With Nasi up a very high ladder and Bert at the bottom pleading, cajoling and finally becoming threatening, I’m starting to feel worried and rightly so. I’m worried about Nasi and Bert. I’m worried about relationships in general. I’m worried about the Northern Ireland border. I’m worried about Brexit. I’m worried about world peace… Nasi is still up the ladder. Bert is playing Imagine by John Lennon. Bert is imploring the audience for assistance.

Finally they sit at either end of a table. They could be a couple trying to resolve their differences at the kitchen table or they may be politicians in a boardroom either way there is both a reluctance to engage or to walk away.The push-pull of a relationship at breaking point is being played out and the ramifications of what will happen if one of them leaves or stays brutally apparent. Bert’s message is clear – I can leave but if I do I won’t be silenced I will be a thorn In your side. I will not just disappear.

Lesca and Voutsas are masters of their art. Their sense of comic timing, pathos and charm are reminiscent of another age – and double acts like Laurel and Hardy, yet their work is sharply focused on modern issues. With a skillful use of simply staying in a moment of stillness to create a protracted discomfort or ramp up tension, they create complex productions with the apparence of absolute simplicity.

Their childlike bickering has the sinister undertones of politicians shouting each other down in parliament. As they invite the audience to collude as in previous shows we can choose to encourage an act of destruction, stay in a cycle off unremitting paralysis or take a leap of Faith and engage in the possibility of a better future. It would of course seem like a no-brainer but three show in for them and no sign of a Brexit solution for us, then like Nasi and Bert I’m still hopeful but I’m getting tired too.

HOME Wed 8th – Fri 10th May 2019

Bert and Nasi

The Funeral Director

HOME

Written by Iman Qureshi

Directed by Hannah Hauer-King

Amy Jane Cook has created a set design for The Funeral Director that reflects the duality that runs through this production. A set split between the living and the dead populated by characters torn between the rules of personal culture and faith in the community and the laws of the land. Writer Iman Qureshi uses this family run Muslim funeral parlour to highlight some important issues around the laws of a faith and those of a country and how they impact on individuals when they clash. In this instance the dilemma centres on ethical choices in business – be black listed by your community or risk being sued, and on an emotional level how to be true to your own sexuality when that truth is at odds with your faith.

The opening scene introduces the theme that nothing should be taken at face value. Ayesha is first seen holding a tiny baby wrapped in white swadling while she sings a soothing lullaby. To all intents and purposes she is a young Muslim mother, yet there is a sudden shocking realisation that she is the funeral director and this is someone else’s dead child. Aryana Ramkhalawon is convincing as a young woman torn between duty, dreams and sexual identity. Sleepwalking between grief for her deceased mother, caring for the dead and being a good Muslim wife, the unfolding events see her flourish as she finds the faith in herself to rebel against convention in her community.

Assad Zaman as husband Zeyd gives a strong performance but his character is less clearly drawn. Initially full of warmth, charm and compassion, it feels frustrating that when faced with the strain of the legal case and issues in his marriage his character seems to revert to religious dogma and homophobia which somehow don’t feel totally believable.

The scenes with Janey (Francesca Zoutewelle) fizz with life and vibrancy in this Funeral parlour. They provide valuable insights into the background history of Ayesha and offer her a way out of the constraints of hiding her sexuality and honouring her mother’s business.

This is a play that’s highlights the human need to either adapt or rebel in order to survive. Director Hannah Hauer-King skillfully ensures that this is a story that’s remains humane rather than preachy. There is warmth and wit and generosity of spirit alongside the complexity of orthodox beliefs. Perhaps influenced by the legal case of the bakery in Northern Ireland which became the most expensive cake in British legal history this is production which unflinchingly looks at the prejudices in our modern society. There are aspects of story in this production that risk becoming formulaic in an understandably genuine desire to tackle an important subject, however overall it is an engaging and absorbing piece of theatre that is definitely worth seeing.

HOME 27th – 30th March 2019

Images by Mihaela Bodlovic

The Last Yankee

Bolton Library Theatre

Written by Arthur Miller

Directed by David Thacker

This production of The Last Yankee feels like a particularly special opportunity to see a play by iconic American director Arthur Miller. Staged in a newly developed and very intimate theatre space, this is a chance to see Miller’s work directed by the man who has directed more of his plays than anyone else. David Thacker knew Miller personally and directed the 1993 British première of The Last Yankee as his last production at The Young Vic.

The play looks at how two men and their clinically depressed wives respond to time spent in a psychiatric hospital. The central theme is one of disappointment and how that can corrode our sense of self and our relationships with others. Miller himself had experience of being husband to a woman vulnerable to depressive episodes during his marriage to Marilyn Monroe. The play also uses much of Miller’s absorption with how the past informs the present.

The first act is a slow burn of social awkwardness and tentative male bonding as the very different husbands try to make sense of mental illness. Frick, a successful businessman and Hamilton, a carpenter descended from a founding father of American democracy find nothing that unites their wives. Rich/Poor. Kids/No kids. Lost optimism/Swedish lack of optimism. These men are lost without a premise to explain why their wives are psychiatric patients. Patrick Poletti as Frick and David Ricardo-Pearce as Hamilton are utterly convincing as two very different men both broken in their own ways by their attempts to cope with their wives’ mental illness.

The wives appear in the second act having formed their own connection. Karen is a first time patient and is discomobulated by the medication and terribly vulnerable in her desire to be accepted. Played with sweet desperation by Annie Tyson, she portrays a wife who imagines herself a disappointment to her husband having been cruelly rejected by her own mother. It is only through music and dance that she fully comes alive with childlike glee that her bewildered husband struggles to comprehend. The scenes where she performs are tender and filled with tentative hope from a woman who had “lost her optimism.”

Juliet Aubrey captivates as the frequent flier, savvy to the effects of all the medication. Although bewildered as to what, if anything is actually wrong with her, she dryly acknowledges that “Anybody with any sense would be depressed in this country.” Brittle and full of nervous twitching energy, she exudes charm. Still beautiful despite having seven children and feeling “a torn off rag of my old self” she is drug free for 21 days after 15 years. As her and her husband exchange truths about their life together, a picture appears of loss, potential never fully realised, disappointments and resentments. These moments on stage are there in so many relationships but highlight our human vulnerability to cope in a changing world that we may struggle to understand.

Stark staging creates a sterile environment for these fragile humans to come together and is a fitting backdrop to play out messy, confused emotions. A bed is always occupied by a third unmoving, possibly catatonic women who is a poignant reminder of just how cruel depression is. The Last Yankee is a deeply satisfying watch and Thacker’s rich understanding of Miller’s work ensures that this intimate staging works beautifully.

Bolton Library Theatre 28th Feb – 16th March

Images Joel Fiddes