THE MYSTERIES

ROYAL EXCHANGE

Written by Chris Thorpe

Directed by Sam Pritchard

Six new plays with a modern take on the medieval Mystery Plays that toured the country centuries ago. Six actors who carry the same names through each play. Six towns and cities ranging in size from the small Cumbrian town of Eskdale to the sprawling industrial city that is Manchester. This is an ambitious project that seeks to reflect what are the connectors in communities today. This is a look at how the past informs the present and how we can struggle to move with the times. We can honour our history and be nostalgic about our past, however we also need to adapt and be open to change. The stories emerging from these communities reflect the uncertainty and the hopes and fears of a country poised for further significant changes.

The first five plays follow the same format with interwoven personal stories that reflect the history of each place and the political and economic issues those communities are currently dealing with. The sixth play which focuses on the bombing at Manchester Arena differs in that the cast of six form a support group circle speaking in turn as they depict the everyday moments of an ordinary day during which a terrorist act tests a city and its communities. Within the poetry of Thorpe’s words there is the uncomfortable question of how and if we can include the bomber as “one of ours” while upholding the message of Don’t Look Back in Anger.

Within the six plays there are some lovely moments with beautiful writing with delicately nuanced performances. Staindrop looks stunning with its blend of early Tudor costumes and candlelight. Telling the ancient story of a local Lord and his fate as a “blizzard is closing down the world” interspersed with the modern tale of financial security and the lottery of birth. In Whitby the dark sea on the monitors is a timeless backdrop to ” vampires, trawlers, priests and miners”. Here a family are splintered in various ways as they seek to make sense of the suicide by drowning of son and brother.

There are some notable performances throughout these plays with Nuala Clifford showing great range and investing each version of Ginny with subtle depth and sensitivity. Benjamin Cawley is similarly convincing as Mark and his beautifully modulated voice speaks Thorpe’s words with a real poetic musicality. Performing all six plays on one day is a epic task for all six actors and there are some issues with timing and pacing, however there is something special about appreciating the scale of this work when seen over a single day.

The themes of these plays explore history, changing identities, immigration, economic and social worries and personal issues such as suicide, alcoholism and personal prejudices. In the midst of the plays there are little gems of local life as we are introduced to Pigeon the peregrine falcon from Staindrop or listen to bell ringers from Stoke, a comedic duo from Boston or participate in a pub raffle – I won some biscuits!

These elements really connect the plays to actual communities and effectively anchor these plays in the diversity and communality of this country. I felt a sense of familiarity in this journey from a small town like Eskdale to the City of Manchester. Like some of the characters in these plays I too got out of a small town but still feel the the connection, made stronger by family deaths, to a place that helped define the person I am. Working class family lie buried beside the Lords of the local Village having once won the lottery of birth themselves and owned castles centuries earlier. I suppose I too have lived as an immigrant being of Scottish descent growing up during the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Living on the border it was normal to have neighbours who would help you in a crisis yet also seek to shoot members of your family. Helping clear up after frequent border village bombs, I truly have seen the worst and the best in people in a community. At its most potent The Mysteries serves to reassure us we are not alone at our most sublime and at our weakest, if we look closely we will always see a sense of kin and connections. We may need this now more than ever as the uncertainty of Brexit reality looms and “borders” become ever more relevant to conversations in communities.

At The Royal Exchange until 11 Nov

Images by Joel Chester Fildes

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

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

Three Sisters

Royal Exchange Theatre

By Rashdash

After Chekhov

Three Sisters is the latest show from multi-award winning Rashdash and is co-produced with the Royal Exchange Theatre with whom they are Associate Artists. This is a gutsy and vibrant challenging of the narrative conventions of the classics in theatre. In taking a play by Chekhov and experimenting with the form Rashdash are exploring who the classics are aimed at. Do they still have a relevance in theatre today? Who gets what from them and in what’s ways can we alter them to continue to get something powerful and enduring from them?

Why do the men in this play have all of the lines?

Rashdash rip up the script, burn the frumpy black dresses, bare their maidenly breasts, crank up the volume on the piano and add some strings and drums. This is Chekhov in a mash up with Vivienne Westwood and The Slits. This is sexy, vibrant, caustic and clever. Packing a hefty feminist punch and some serious theatrical clout while also remaining playful and whimsical, Three Sisters is truly a thing of joy from start to finish.

These three sisters are not muted and still. They are not passive Barbie dolls but are Action girls in crinolines. There are no sepia tones to this production, instead there is a kaleidoscope of colour. There are frequent moments where tableau scenes are staged then fractured and fragmented as the performers hold up a prism to see women as so much more than pliable, passive vessels to be moulded by male writers into their version of womanhood. These women are messy, imperfect, funny, clever and complex. They have mastered social media as well as the piano. They are cultured and educated with their own opinions, and can also cry in a supermarket and “dance it out” like they’re on Greys Anatomy. They own their own bodies and wear whatever they choose, if they strip off on stage it is their decision and has a function rather than being sexualised. They wear comfy knickers, will massage their perineums with olive oil to avoid tearing in childbirth and will rail against the passage of time as a slow, slow bastard cunt!

Performance is meshed with music,song and movement so there is always a sense of flux and change. Even in moments where there is a static snapshot of stillness there will be music or the movement of a statue or the TICKTOCK digital display flashing. Nothing stays the same. The scenes are constantly shifting as the pile of disguarded clothing gets bigger as if to say plays like bodies can be dressed or styled in an endless array of guises. The nod to Shakespeare in some of the fashion choices is a witty reminder of just how many of our classic plays were written by men and are now being revisited from a female perspective- most recently Othello at Liverpool’s Everyman.

Rashdash are all accomplished musicians and with the addition of Chloe Rianna on drums and Yoon-Ji Kim on violin and synth, they move through a range of styles from classical to trippy, punk and blues. The soundscape is as varied as the costumes and the women on stage. Olga Helen Goalen, Masha Abbi Greenland and Irena Becky Willie all sing, and they all deliver whether alluding to mainstream pop Adele and Katy Perry or spitting out a punk lyric or belting out a torch song. The lyrics are mercilessly clever, and often wickedly funny. All three deliver strong performances that have an essence of each sister.

This production works across enough levels to be a success whether you know the original or not. A Chekhov aficionado will get the references to their mother’s broken clock or the spinning top given to Irena. They will see the irony of Olga idly wishing she was more able to do something about homelessness when of course the sisters are about to lose their family home. Whereas fresh eyes see a topical issue being raised that they have probably walked past on their way to the theatre. The haze of smoke alludes to the nearby town on fire but could just as easily refer to Grenfell Towers. Masha can be a modern woman dealing with heartbreak by swiping Tinder or a sister in an unhappy marriage seeking solace within an army garrison.

Moments on stage such as Masha reading out multiple reviews of the original play or being literally squashed by volumes of the classics poke fun at our obsession with the relative safety of tradition in theatre while reminding us of the need for joyfully subversive new works. Rashdash pull back the curtains and fill the stage with fresh air and new opportunities. Three Sisters can challenge existing lovers of the classics and bring new vibrant audiences to look at established works. The Royal Exchange Theatre is currently also showing The Cherry Orchard on it’s main stage. Like a beautifully deconstructed cheesecake on Masterchef Three Sisters is a brilliant take on the original classic.

Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester 3rd -19th May

The Yard, London 22 May – 9 June

Tobacco Factory, Bristol 12 -16 June

Images by Richard Davenport

The Cherry Orchard

royal exchange theatre - harry oliver (grisha) - the cherry orchard-1848559962..jpgRoyal Exchange Theatre

By Anton Chekhov

Translation by Rory Mullarkey

Directed by Michael Boyd

Rory Mullarkey and Michael Boyd are the first Russian speaking Translator/Director team to pool their skills and mutual love of Chekhov to create a new British translation of The Cherry Orchard since Michael Frayn in the Eighties. The result is a success that retains and celebrates the comedic elements while also balancing the tragedy and loss from the past with the fears and hopes of a dawning new age. Little actually happens in this play but it is always engrossing as obvious outcomes and solutions are evaded in favour of unsolved problems and enigmas. Chekhov was a doctor as well as a writer and in this, his last play there are acute observations of the human condition but no diagnosis.

The most striking element of Tom Piper’s design for this production is the starkness of the set. Apart from a few falling blossoms the audience are left to imagine the lush white blooms in an orchard that is the one remarkable thing in this entire province. The once grand house is also left to the imagination as the set is a huge expanse of bare wooden floor, a single chair an occasional table and a hundred year old bookcase. The wooden floor dominates as if it hints at what will become of the soon to be felled cherry trees. It is like a blank canvas awaiting a fresh start having probably been stripped of its plush furnishings to meet the mounting debts. When Uncle Leonid makes an impassioned speech to the bookcase it is both ridiculous and poignant as it represents the grandeur of a fast diminishing lifestyle.

Despite the bareness of the stage this is a production that is full of imagery and references to colour. The orchard is the white of Lyubov’s girlish summer gown, the white of torn up telegrams, and old money. The white of a ghostly balloon moon and of innocence and purity. The blacks and greys of duty, servility and squashed hope is there in Firs’ uniform and Vavara’s drab clothing. The cherry pink of Lyubov’s velvet dress is the pink of ripened sexuality and the cherry jam of yesteryear. The yellow gold of Lopakhin’s polished shoes alluding to the brassy nature of new money. The casting choices also make a provocative colour statement about history of slaves/serfs and masters. All the family in the house are white actors while the staff or children of serfs are all actors from other ethnicities. Emma Cains also cleverly uses the trajectory of the costumes styling to reflect the move from the past towards a new age and new freedoms.

There are some especially strong performances with Kirsty Bushell as Madame Lyubov deftly portraying the fragility of a woman seared by grief whose party girl approach to heartache keeps her constantly on the move like a beautiful butterfly. This is a woman whose husband died of champagne while her little son Grisha drowned on the estate a mere six months later. Seemingly careless and insouciant she flirts and flits around giving out gold to strangers when she is about to lose her family home. If kisses were roubles this family would be debt free. At moments when her gaiety fractures Bushell is raw with tangible pain. The scene where Grisha is on the chaise longue beautifully captures the fractures in Lyubov’s life -a mother mourning at her son’s funeral wake bleeds into a riotous house party. Rosy McEwen as the disappointed and disillusioned Vavara is as pale and luminous as the haunting moon. The restraint and delicacy of her performance is beautifully balanced as she yearns to be both a wife and a nun. Jude Owusu as Lopakhin is a seamless blend of arrogant new money and success with hints of an awkward lovelorn son of a serf. A self made man who is rightly proud of his achievements yet is tongue tied and paralyzed to speak his feelings.

The threads of the past, present and future are ever present. Ancient butler Firs can only remember the past but will be the last living soul in this house. The child haunts the house in timeless fashion observing everything silently. New love affairs begin, old ones may start again and some remain as simply frustrated yearnings. Chekhov throws up possibilities like blossom petals and this production casts them up in the air with real love and delicacy.

Royal Exchange Theatre 19 April-19th May

Images Seamus Ryan