Theatre

549: Scots of the Spanish Civil War

 

07/06/19

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

549: Scots of the Spanish Civil War isn’t exactly what you’d call subtle: in a small pub in Prestonpans, the parallels between four disgruntled millennials and their 1936 counterparts are explicitly drawn.

The 2017 quartet are somewhat disaffected, ground down by austerity and disillusioned with democracy. George (Robbie Gordon), who was famed at school for being the political one, isn’t going to bother voting in the next election. What’s the point? The others disagree, but that doesn’t mean they’re of one mind. They’re angry, polarised; either silent or shouting; held together only by proximity and a shared past.

But, during a powercut, Old George (Michael Mackenzie) appears briefly and then  vanishes, leaving behind a mysterious suitcase. Bar manager Ellen (Rebekah Lumsden) seizes the opportunity to school the boys, telling them that Old George is long dead, and that his suitcase contains mementoes of his time fighting in the Spanish Civil War.

George Watters joins the legendary International Brigade in 1936, spurred on by his deeply held belief that fascism must be thwarted, no matter what the cost. He persuades his mates and his brother-in-law too: Jock (Josh Whitelaw) is keen because he wants to spread his wings, to see the world beyond East Lothian; Bill (Cristian Ortega) is an innocent, young and easily swayed, who just wants to meet some Spanish girls; Jimmy (Nicholas Ralph) is in it for the money. Their ideologies differ, but they bond over the fight.

As Ellen tells the story, the men enact it, using whatever they can find in the bar to represent the tale. Their guns are snooker cues; their barriers bar tables. The lighting (by Benny Goodman) is unusual and most effective: there are banks of brightly coloured pink and yellow spots, almost blinding at times, denoting the present day, while an atmospheric orange gloom settles over much of the past action. It’s a quirky palette, but somehow it makes perfect sense.

The physicality of the drama is excellent, with some inventive set pieces, particularly the bike ride and the battles. The small space feels crowded by soldiers; the pace never lets up, and the characters are well drawn. This is true ensemble work, and very nicely done.

And, in a testament to the power of theatre, the simple reenactment of the tale has a profound impact on the boys, shaking them out of their torpor. I know, I said it wasn’t subtle. But this isn’t the place for subtlety. Maybe, in these troubling times, as the far right rears its head again, we all need to wake up and realise what’s worth fighting for.

4.2 stars

Susan Singfield

 

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Alice in Wonderland

06/06/19

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Alice in Wonderland is something of a phenomenon, famous more for its cast of extraordinary characters than for its storyline. Anyone who grew up reading English novels (or watching the films based on them) knows the Mad Hatter, the Queen of Hearts, Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee. Lewis Carroll’s 1865 creations are an illustrator’s dream; indeed, John Tenniel’s drawings are at least as powerful as the author’s words, and surely party responsible for propelling Alice to stardom. Responsible too, perhaps, for sidelining the protagonist, who slides into insignificance in many adaptations of the work.

And there are many adaptations of the work. I’m almost weary at the thought of seeing another one. I know the story well: I read both books as a child, and have seen countless stage and cinematic versions. I’ve even directed a school production – the Disney Junior one – so I’m well-versed in its lore.

Esteemed Irish theatre company, Blue Raincoat, are well-versed too: this is a revival of their own 1999 production, adapted by Jocelyn Clark. I didn’t see their original, so I can’t compare the two, but I can say that this interpretation is the closest I’ve seen to the novel, with young Alice (Miriam Needham) placed firmly centre-stage, her internal monologue brought to life by her older self (Hilary Bowen-Walsh)’s narration.

This is a shabby, degraded Wonderland, seen through the adult eyes of a jaded Alice. But the bold, frenetic, questing nature of the child is captured perfectly, as is the perplexity of growing up, where one minute she is like a little girl, the next too big for the confines of her world. The people and creatures this Alice meets are (rightly, I think) peripheral: she’s the hero of her own tale; they exist only insofar as they relate to her. Her intelligence and curiosity shine brightly in this production; she demands answers to everything, but is offered nothing satisfactory. Only when she takes charge and asserts herself is she able to wake up from the dream.

With such emphasis on Alice, it’s safe to say that this is an intense piece of theatre, with both Needham and Bowen-Walsh surely pushing themselves to exhaustion. But the supporting cast are strong as well; the portrayal of the Duchess (Sandra O’Malley) is particularly interesting, especially as her baby morphs into a pig.

The set design (by Paul McDonnell) is ingenious: adult Alice’s basement transformed into Wonderland, all broken picture frames and stepladders and old bits of wood, and (of course) a series of different-sized tables used to great effect.

Under  Niall Henry’s frantic, physically-focused direction, this show is something of a tour de force.  Not a new take, exactly, but certainly a refreshing one.

4 stars

Susan Singfield

 

Drone

04/06/19

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

A tiny drone whirs into life and rises smoothly from the studio floor to survey the audience. An instant later, we see ourselves projected onto a big screen at the back of the room, our bemused faces staring straight back at our ourselves. Electronic music throbs and jitters, steadily rising in volume. And then Harry Josephine Giles walks onto the stage and begins to speak…

Drone describes itself as ‘a jam of sound, visuals and poetry,’ but the ensuing show is a lot more controlled than that suggests. Giles’ words tell the unfolding story of ‘a drone,’ part weapons system, part office worker. It explores the central theme both in realistic and abstract terms, while Neil Simpson’s music provides a pulsing sonic backdrop, and the visual designs of Jamie Wardrop are projected onto a screen behind the performers, a mixture of psychedelic landscapes, obscure images and found film extracts.

My first impression is that I’m not going to enjoy this very much – it seems a little too arch, a little too pleased with itself – and yet, inexorably, it pulls me into its orbit and I’m soon entranced by what I’m seeing and hearing. Giles’ assured, controlled performance is compelling, unleashing a torrent of visual metaphors that build to a maelstrom. This, the narrative seems to say, is symptomatic of the age in which we are live, a bleak, compassionless society, hurtling headlong to oblivion.

Sharp, provocative and challenging, Drone certainly won’t be for everyone, but those who seek something truly original and idiosyncratic should find plenty here to enthrall them. When, at the end of the performance, the drone goes haywire and careers into the audience, it’s hard to know if it’s intentional or not – and that, in a strange way, pretty much sums up what this piece is all about.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

TWA

24/05/19

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

TWA is a quietly compelling piece of work, a collaboration between the loquacious writer, Annie George, and the silent artist, Flore Gardner. While Gardner mutely adds red line-drawings to the edges of a vast white canvas, George weaves together two disparate tales: Philomela’s mythology of violence and retribution, and a contemporary story of love and loss. Cruelty, we see, has many forms, but so do revenge and power – and there’s more than one way to find your voice.

George is a persuasive storyteller, combining diffidence with a calm authority. She engages without seeming to do very much, just telling her tales, drawing us in. The presence of Gardner, back turned, illuminated by the doodle-style animations constructed and deconstructed as the stories unfold, is at times unsettling, at others reassuring. She’s a comfort to George, brings her wine and clears up after her, but she’s also forceful, confronting us with the graphic imagery of her drawings. We cannot turn away.

The starkness of the red and white colour palette works well here: it’s a simple idea, but so unremitting in its application that it cannot be ignored. Indeed, the whole piece is built on simplicity, duality and juxtaposition – and therein lies its strength.

TWA is undoubtedly unusual: an ambitious, intelligent production that exerts a strange hold over its audience.

Susan Singfield

4 stars

 

The Duchess (of Malfi)

21/05/19

Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

As we take our seats in the Lyceum, we’re aware of an almost palpable air of expectation. After all, this is John Webster’s most infamous play and it’s a dead certainty that, by curtain down, the pale grey set is going to be liberally splattered with Kensington Gore. I’m expecting a wild ride, and I’m glad to note that, in this adaptation by Zinnie Harris, the feel is definitely sprightly – and I’m grateful for the huge illuminated titles, that introduce all the main characters as they enter, making it very easy to keep track of the ensuing mayhem.

When we first meet The Duchess (Kirsty Stuart), she is attempting to sing, her voice faltering at first but rapidly growing in confidence, until she is rudely interrupted by the arrival of her manipulative brothers, Ferdinand (Angus Miller) and The Cardinal (George Costigan). We quickly learn that The Duchess is a young widow, newly liberated from a loveless marriage. She is young, she has money and she’s ready to express herself in a male-dominated world. Her brothers, on the other hand, want her to make a suitable marriage, to somebody rich and respectable, in order to enhance her (and their) status. However, she is in love with her humble young secretary, Antonio (Graham McKay-Bruce), and – all too aware that her brothers will not approve of the union – she marries him in secret, aided by her maid, Cariola (Fletcher Mather). All is well and good until The Duchess falls pregnant with twins; when her brothers learn of the deception via their carefully planted spy, Bosola (Adam Best), their desire for revenge has no limits…

This is beautifully staged and cleverly directed. Stuart is a delight in the title role and I particularly relish George Costigan as the oleaginous Cardinal, outwardly devout and sanctimonious, yet happy to quote the scriptures even when performing the most depraved of acts on his unfortunate mistress, Julia (Leah Walker). The play’s first half positively scampers along, and – dutifully reinforced with a glass of something alcoholic – we return for act two, where carnage promptly ensues.

I mean it in the nicest possible way when I say it works in spite of the hokey material – and largely by virtue of the fact that the bloodshed is played as the darkest of comedies, the rapidly rising body count coaxing laughter from the audience rather than silent dread. This is, I think, the only way to play it in these unshockable times, a sort of Comedy of Terrors. It’s left to hired hand Bosola to salvage something from the chaos he has engineered on behalf of his wicked employers, and it’s his redemption that lies at the very heart of this rollicking revenge tragedy.

It’s all here. Romance, comedy and lashings of Type O. How can you resist?

4.7 stars

Philip Caveney

Lost At Sea

20/05/19

King’s Theatre, Edinburgh

Morna Young’s seafaring play is a searing, tempestuous examination of fishing communities in the Northeast of Scotland. From the heydays of the 1980s, when the money was rolling in, to the more elitist issues of the early 2000s, when only a select few were still living it large, we are shown the strengths and divisions within these close-knit neighbourhoods and the cruel toll the sea exacts on them.

Journalist Shona (Sophia McLean) returns to the fishing village she left when she was just a child. She is looking for answers: her father, Jock (Ali Craig), died, lost at sea, and she needs to find out more, to know what happened on that fateful day. But the locals close ranks on her: they’ve lost too many; suffered too much; accepted the Faustian exchange that keeps them all in work.

Young’s own father was lost at sea, and this piece blends fiction with that reality. There are verbatim voices – telling of the fishermen’s arduous days at sea and their families’ agonising waits on land – interwoven with constructed dialogue; the authentic details of a fishing life and a fictional account of one woman’s family. It’s a powerful mixture.

There are politics here too: the cameradie and team spirit of the 1980s gives way to a far more cynical individualism and – by 2012 – the community is bitterly divided. Shona’s Uncle Kevin (Andy Clark) has taken advantage of the UK’s strange decision to enable its fishermen to sell their EU quotas to the highest bidder, often to foreign investors. (No other EU country allowed this – for obvious reasons.) In Kevin’s case, it means he’s safe, no longer endangering his life at sea, just staying home and waiting for the money to pour in. But, as Skipper (Tam Dean Burn) reminds him, this means that those around him are risking their lives for an ever diminishing slice of the pie. What price community?

This could be a heavy, sombre tale, but Ian Brown’s nimble direction ensures that it is fleet of foot, as restless as the sea itself. The ensemble work is precise and light, the movement (by Jim Manganello) evoking rolling waves, and turbulent emotions. The spare set (designed by Karen Tennent) lends the piece a stark brutality, with restless projections of a dark and ominous sea.

If we don’t quite get the cathartic thrill of a dramatic climax, we do at least get a thought-provoking piece of theatre, straddling introspection and social commentary. It’s not exactly an easy watch, but it’s certainly most worthwhile.

4 stars

Susan Singfield

 

Shine

16/05/19

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Actor/rapper Kema Sikazwe is perhaps best known for his role as China in Ken Loach’s, I, Daniel Blake. But the young artiste is busy forging a name for himself in his own right too, first with his music, and now with this autobiographical piece of gig theatre.

Sikazwe is an engaging performer with an appealing vulnerability. This apparent openness lends the work a stark authenticity, and it’s impossible not to feel for the troubled youth in this tale.

Through music and spoken word, Sikazwe takes us through his childhood: his emigration, aged three, from Zambia to the UK; his struggles to adapt to the Geordie accent in Newcastle Upon Tyne; his sense of being an outsider, of never fitting in; the emotional cost of being isolated at home and at school; the discovery of music as a cathartic outlet.

It’s a compelling story, and the music especially is arresting, performed with easy confidence, Sikazwe singing live over a lushly recorded and multilayered backing. It’s not a perfect piece: the script needs tightening up in places – too much repetition, banal phraseology – and, perhaps a rather predictable linear route through the narrative, as Sikazwe struggles to overcome his demons before ultimately finding redemption through the healing power of music.

Nevertheless, it’s a powerful tale, told with real heart, and one which would almost certainly resonate even more with a school-age audience. A schools’ tour might not be where Sikazwe sees this piece going, but it could have a huge impact there.

3.5 stars

Susan Singfield