The Barn – Turbine Theatre / Stream Theatre

A raging storm is a great basis for drama, a chance for a writer to build tension, for pressured character interactions to finally simmer over and when the break comes, to ultimately move into a clearer future. From Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson going toe to toe in Key Largo to that crucial battering between Big Daddy and son Brick in the cellar of their mansion in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and the snow storm that contains the characters in The Red Barn and The Mousetrap, being cut off from the outside world by the elements with no means of communication or escape gives an instant shape to the thriller.

Paul Bradshaw and Naomi Miller’s new play The Barn, performed as a one-night-only semi-staged preview at the Turbine Theatre and made available via Stream Theatre creates its scenario with care; a ramshackle and isolated home on the edge of the woods, a lonely man with no family or friends, the arrival of a stranger needing help, plenty of innocent conversation, some bourbon and a raging storm that pounds and blows throughout the two hour duration of this slow-burn story.

With only a week until theatres finally reopen and a flood of exciting season announcements pouring in, the focus on new work is more important than ever and an appropriate conclusion to almost fourteen months in which digital theatre created opportunities for all kinds of work to be accessed more easily. And The Barn made excellent use of its medium, a tense and gripping two-hander that was suited to the unflinching intimacy of the camera while emphasising its stage credentials by helping the audience to visualise elements of the scenario.

And in that nod to its future stage life, Bradshaw and Miller’s play was wholly successful in creating a broader impression of the eventual set design as well as the flow of movement around the single room in which the action takes place across two Acts. Like an audio drama, this called on the audience’s imagination to fill in the gaps, prompted only by sparing stage directions read aloud off-screen to give context to the characters’ actions and some carefully chosen audio effects, crucial to the atmospheric charge of The Barn.

The story itself is deceptively simple – two Texan strangers, Joe and Lucy, flung together by chance – and much of the play is conversational as the pair make awkward small talk initially before warming to their various themes as the hours pass and the drinks flow. There is talk of family relationships, childhood games and farming the Texan landscape before their experience of tragedy and grief starts to infect the discussion, helping the audience to slowly make sense of the present. Across that time, the pair play cards and participate in small domestic rituals that intriguingly belie their status as unknown quantities to one another.

Bradshaw and Miller have created a highly discursive duologue punctuated with moments of intense drama and changes of mood that guide the audience with skill through this complex narrative to the story’s satisfying final moments. Nothing here is tangential, even if it feels so at the time, and there is a tight focus to the writing that even in this parred back format with none of the tricks of the stage to enhance it, drives the action forward, providing two dense character studies within the thriller format. Bradshaw and Miller navigate that line really well, as past and present collide and implode, serving both our understanding of Joe and Lucy as well as the building connection between them.

The ever-present effect of memory and how it shapes the present is a key theme in this play with homeowner Joe living a half-life in his 1983-set home. Due to a double family tragedy years before, Joe is now entirely alone apart from his beloved dog, his sole companion and comfort. We learn that generations of his family once owned a profitable dairy farm in the area, a trade his father insisted would be lucrative as long as people wanted milk and cheese, yet the whole plot was sold long ago and during his guardianship for reasons that remain obscured.

But Bradshaw and Miller never present Joe as deliberately mysterious or suspicious, he is instead a man wrapped in grief for all the things he has lost, a man who once had everything but now can only go on living in the Chekhovian sense with no hope or thought of a different kind of future. Joe is a character whose life has stopped in any meaningful way, the last of his name with little to show for his efforts who is couched in the painful but comforting memories of a happier past.

Again none of this is overtly designed and it is a really interesting way to present a character, a man who just ‘is’, who welcomes a bedraggled stranger in from the rain, offering them shelter and company. That Joe’s remote and dilapidated home becomes a symbol of the man is thoughtfully achieved; filled with stuff piled haphazardly around the room which Joe barely sees and has never sorted through, and using the steady drips of rain collecting in strategically placed buckets along with the precarious fragility of the structure as the storm rages, we see that Joe too has hidden depths of feeling and experience as the events of the play chip away at his equally brittle facade. The crumbling house is a strong metaphor for what is to come as the arrival of Lucy slowly creates cracks through which Joe’s character and the circumstances of his life come more clearly into focus.

Lucy is a complete contrast in many ways, an innocent arriving with tales of a broken down car, an all-American girl who couldn’t be more stereotypically perfect (for the 1983 setting) – a sweet-mannered young wife, devoted to unseen husband Mitch, baking pies and speaking with a wide-eyed wonder about the world they have experienced beyond Texas include the glamour of a honeymoon trip to the Poconos with a heart-shaped bath tub and a round bed. Lucy speaks with animation about the cinematic romance of it, her one chance to almost live like the people in the magazines she loves to read.

That Lucy is not all she seems will be no surprise – a fundamental principle of the thriller being that no one is – but Bradshaw and Miller take their time with this character, letting her win over the audience just as she does with Joe as she chatters about her life, dominating the dialogue in Act One as she ingratiates herself into his home and tries to help him with some of the domestic activities like feeding the dog and emptying the overflowing buckets.

The first, very subtle, hint given that Lucy has a quite different agenda happens over several games of cards which the characters play for many minutes while talking about other things. Joe easily wins the first few hands and while the writers draw no particular attention to it, the game doesn’t end until Lucy wins, pleased to have distracted Joe sufficiently to present an indisputable winning hand – finely drawn though this small event is, Lucy’s need to beat her competitor is a notable character trait, essential to the play’s conclusion and the increasingly pugilistic nature of their interaction.

The ability to write sharply taut and semi-loaded dialogue disguised as casual conversation is something that Bradshaw and Miller do extremely well, holding the audience’s attention throughout the drama and only a second viewing, with the knowledge of its conclusion, will reveal the many layers they build through the play’s structure from the start. Especially engaging is how well the tone shifts between Lucy and Joe, fueled by increased familiarity and drink – as the night wears on, Lucy becomes emboldened, challenging her interlocutor directly and taking time to let him unravel.

As the power shifts between them, who is in control of the conversation becomes important with Joe providing hospitality and bare essential facts in Act One as Lucy talks openly, while across Act Two, Lucy waits for her moment as she becomes more accusatory, more judgmental as Joe descends into inebriated defensiveness. Its cat and mouse stuff of course but so well shaped, so rich and almost camouflaged by Bradshaw and Miller that just who is the pursuer and who the victim remains ambiguous for some time.

The directorial choices are interesting ones and while performed onsite at the Turbine Theatre, the actors are clearly separated, shown in split screen and the focus for both is head and shoulders throughout with nothing but darkness around them. When either Lucy or Joe leave the room, the image of the remaining character fills the screen – a useful compromise – while activities like the card playing are off-screen gestures, read as stage directions or are enhanced by the evocative use of sound effects to create the lashing rain and wind – even the occasional rumble of trains through the actual theatre only adds to the atmosphere. That all of this is performed live adds considerably to the energy and intensity of The Barn and makes its anticipated transition to the stage all the more exciting a prospect.

With so many different ways to create digital theatre, this unflinching approach is hugely exposing for both actors who rise to the challenge magnificently, conveying the whole world of the play and their character’s interior lives so vividly. That the absence of a real audience and their own physical separation is barely noticeable is remarkable. Ben Turner is just so good as Joe, giving this incredibly nuanced performance that holds the audience captive. With no props or set to rely on, Turner at first shows the character’s essential goodness, a caring concern for his guest and an easy companion who tries to put her at ease in his home.

Yet as the story unfolds, Joe becomes slowly more inebriated and it is as though Turner’s whole face goes into soft-focus. This is not roaring, slurring or obvious drunkness, but a really precise change of the features, an inability to focus the eyes and a world-weariness that suddenly descends on the character that Turner almost indefinably turns-up as the final confrontation looms. In the last moments of the play when his now broken character is once again left alone in the ruins of the evening, Turner is astounding, pained, ashamed, unable to make his thoughts connect, it is almost sympathetic and a powerful note to end on.

Evelyn Hoskins is equally good as Lucy in what is in some ways a harder role to distinguish as she conveys her girlish enthusiasms and goodness without making the character either too bland or too suspicious before the narrative has sufficiently laid the groundwork for the audience to facilitate that shift in perspective. Like Lucy, Hoskins bides her time, building a particular image of Lucy that may or may not be true, before gradually introducing discordant notes like a moment of inappropriate activity when Joe’s back is turned. Hoskins gives very little away in the intrusive camera close-ups, maintaining her perfect facade even with the audience.

The second Act gives Hoskins the chance to expand beyond the confines of the fiction Lucy is creating, as her attitude to Joe markedly shifts, quietly letting him talk and fiercely questioning his actions as the truth spills out. In this, Hoskins is as ferocious as Turner is defeated, a growing strength and determination emerges that gives the final revelation and Lucy’s decision to pursue it an increased impact.

As with any thriller, when a writer asks the audience to bear with them and to invest in the route to an outcome, the denouement can sometimes feel underwhelming or unlikely – just ask Line of Duty of Game of Thrones fans. But here, Bradshaw and Miller just about sidestep the melodrama with some strong final speeches and that muscular ending to reorientate the story we have been told in order to move quickly between cause and consequence. With its tones of Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee and more recently Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s Appropriate, The Barn is a gripping two act piece whose perfect storm of story, tone and character will be a must-see on stage before too long.

The Barn was performed at the Turbine Theatre and made available via Stream Theatre for a single performance. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

Tarantula – Southwark Playhouse

Tarantula - Southwark Playhouse

The long aftermath of trauma is the subject of Philip Ridley’s latest monologue for Southwark Playhouse building on the writer’s established relationship with the venue and the sensational The Poltergeist which premiered last November to an online audience. This latest play, running at a somewhat lengthy one hour and 45-minutes and available for only three-live streamed performances, takes a central character who feels out of kilter with the world around them and exacerbates their isolation with a violent encounter, the shadow of which they are unable to shake off even though it takes them in a more positive direction.

As Ridley has demonstrated time and again, he excels at these forensic character studies and the ability to create vivid, energetic scenarios with minimal need for physical sets or music to control the pace and the vacillating emotional landscapes of the individuals in his work. Tarantula has much in common with The Poltergeist, a companion piece almost, that uses (albeit differently) some of the same props – a domestic scenario that focuses on the complexities and demands of a family relationship particularly between opposite siblings, the chance of love or affection that allows the lead to see the possibility of experiences outside of the family unit and a fatal implosion of repressed anger with the need to maintain a surface impression of calm control and acceptance.

The focus here is a teenage girl, a voracious reader with a kind-heart who volunteers to help with afternoon teas and events for the elderly while preparing essays on Sylvia Plath that will hopefully lead to a place at Oxford. Instantly, Ridley creates a sound basis for Toni’s fast-paced dialogue and extensive vocabulary – a feature of his characters – but introduces several layers of narrative that conspire to derail her plans, not just in the stark experience of violence in the second Act and its aftermath, but from the earliest moments of the play in the subtly-created and uneasy conditions of family life that place Toni at odds with the dubious lifestyle of her brother.

Structurally, Ridley does two key things with Tarantula; first, he allows Toni to tell her own story at different points in time from which she reflects back on a series of events recounted in vivid detail. In doing so, Ridley balances a complex interplay between narrative storytelling as Toni retrospectively reveals events in a chronological sequence addressed directly to the audience seen through the camera. But at the same time, Toni dramatically recreates and relives dialogue with other characters all of which, as with The Poltergeist, a single actor must portray, often in rapid fire conversational bursts.

The effect is illuminating as these two dramatic tools create both a sense of memories being relived and sometimes happily or painfully re-experienced while simultaneously giving the impression of events happening spontaneously in the present in which the viewer is absorbed by Toni’s detailed moment-to-moment recollections. This control of timelines is one of Ridley’s most remarkable skills, weaving between past and present reflection with ease while creating such a comparative energy that both feel equally valid, important and indivisibly entwined as a means to effectively portray multilayered themes and characters.

Ridley’s second structural device is much simpler, a beginning, middle and an end that divides the activities of the play into three distinct and not always obvious phases. The first is almost a romantic dream, an establishment period in which the audience is introduced to gently affable Toni and her shy flitation with Michael who takes her for their first date, although Ridley quietly undercuts some of the sweetness with hints of darker themes to come. The dramatic second section is staged quite differently, a disjointed experience in the immediate aftermath of trauma that has a nightmarish quality as flashbacks of an attack and its context are mixed with recurring dreams and an almost fractured consciousness in which Toni no longer makes sense even to herself.

The final act is a slow-burn surprise, one that simmers a little too long as the contained aftermath of violence finds its way to the surface. Ridley makes this a mirror of the first, using a similar date-based scenario that fills in some of the gaps in the year or so since the previous section and a tantalizing alignment between the circumstances – Michael and new date Bebe are both photographers, both encounters begin outside a repurposed building that has retained its original name and, crucially, Toni deliberately makes the opposite choice of direction second time around. At first it is unclear if this is a continuation of the play as we know it, or whether Ridley is perhaps offering an alternative version of reality which remains ambiguous enough to the end.

While there is sympathy for Toni, there is also a lingering suspicion that she might be an unreliable narrator, one over-romanticising her story for effect or to play down her less attractive qualities. In one of the earliest scenarios, Toni is seen having a vicious argument with her brother Mason known as Maz, who she clearly disapproves of and suspects, a disagreement their father has to break up. None of this fully accords with the timid and nervous girl who does charity work and hides behind her Macdonald’s strawberry milkshake during her date with Michael that follows quickly from this scene.

Later, in the third scenario she seems to lie to Bebe or at least tell her a story about the past year that doesn’t accord with the information the audience has been given so far. Is Toni justifiably protecting herself by not revealing so much personal information to a stranger or are the excuses she gives – elaborate and unethically dishonest as they are – a more calculated attempt to win the sympathy and attention of the person she now likes. It is notable, perhaps, that Michael is never mentioned in this part of the play and the viewer has no way of knowing which version of the kindly Toni we are seeing. A further possibility, of course, is that the story she tells is also true, that all of the events recounted in the play are correct and Ridley is adding further layers to his labyrinthine structure by having Toni tell Bebe before she tells us.

Crucial to the credibility of a one-person show are the absent characters and how well the writer creates a wider cast of personalities for the lead to interact with. This is one of Ridley’s strengths, and while we never get to know anyone else in detail, in Toni’s design of them they feel slightly more than two-dimensional ciphers for the drama. From Michael the good-natured love interest to Maz the dodgy but caring brother, the hardworking optician’s assistant mother and the stay-at-home dad and collection of old ladies, teachers and baddies, there is enough substance to the scenario Ridley creates to hold the attention throughout, absorbed by the world of Tarantula that flits from home to a busy town centre, a fancy new gym and the park. That some of these characters and the outcome of their lives seem too good to be true only adds weight to the implication that Toni is not quite what she seems.

A small but notable feature in the play is the agency and power of the female characters woven through the scenario that Ridley has created; not only in the use of a female protagonist whose personality and credibility remains somewhat ambiguous while also finding reserves from which to rebuild her self-esteem and manage her vulnerability after Act Two, but Toni’s family set-up rests on a largely absent mother-figure who is the family breadwinner, enduring a job she doesn’t really like while her husband takes care of a late baby and their teenage children. Even one of the perpetrators of the central incident carries it out because his girlfriend is insulted, a woman who clearly wields sufficient influence to insist that wrong be so brutally reddressed.

Yet, it is that very incident that remains one of Tarantula‘s biggest flaws, with the motivation for the main event and the subsequent persecution of Toni and her brother feeling unlikely and even superficial given the scale of the revenge and persistent levels of threat visited upon them. There is perhaps, again, a suggestion that Toni has played down her version of events making a far more serious encounter seem like a casual accident but Ridley’s script doesn’t investigate this in any depth, leaving it to the audience to make this huge leap in the context of other lies and misrepresentations that Toni may have told.

Georgie Henley nonetheless gives this long and complicated performance everything she has, sustaining the changes of energy and pace in the three phases of the show really well and relaying the sparkling fast-paced dialogue as she plays several characters having conversations with one another while sometimes addressing the audience with knowing asides in the middle of a barrage of interaction. With nothing to support her and three cameras trained on her for 105-minutes, Henley controls the rhythm of Ridley’s uninterrupted text, giving a joined-up life to the various scenarios the play creates with only a breath between them, while opening-up the possible ambiguities of a character able to draw the viewer into this story and hold our attention for its full running-time.

Directed by Wiebke Green, the Southwark Playhouse space becomes an empty black box – no props, set or music to assist the actor or to distract from the conjuring force of Ridley’s writing. Lighting is the only tool used to create mood with the low-beams and gloomy shadow effects of Act Two particularly effective in heightening tension. Tarantula isn’t perfect and is certainly too long but Ridley’s latest twin works have been ideally suited to the nature of hybrid theatre, utilising the intimate and seemingly one-to-one focus that only a camera can create while building on the energy and vibrancy of live performance. How this play will look when player and audience are eventually in the same space we will discover later in the year.

Tarantula was live streamed from Southwark Playhouse on 30th April and 1 May. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

The Winter’s Tale – RSC / BBC4

The Winters Tale - RSC (by Topher McGrillis)

Of the many productions cancelled as a result of the pandemic, several have found a new life in another form largely through dedicated online streaming platforms that had a modest take-up before theatre closures but have allowed creatives, directors and producers to share their work with a wider audience in the hope of staging it in the future. But two of the most significant contributors to the saving of ‘lost’ plays are not dedicated arts spaces – Zoom a video calling platform originally designed for quite a different purpose and the BBC. Reithian values and mission aside, television and theatre have been largely estranged for a long time, but during each lockdown a plethora of archived content supplied by arts organisations was given wider prominence before newly commissioned pieces were funded, filmed and shared via the BBC iPlayer, radio channels and (the now under threat) BBC4.

An important outlet then for theatre, opera and dance in the last year, the BBC Lights Up Festival and Culture in Quarantine initiatives have been a treasure trove of lost works – from Ian Rickson’s rich and moving Uncle Vanya filmed at the Harold Pinter to radio productions of Rockets and Blue Lights, The Meaning of Zong and Shoe Lady, the BBC has thrown a much needed lifeline to staged and developing works. One of the most fruitful relationships has been with the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) who shared a host of pre-recorded plays for free last summer and now join forces with BBC4 for the world premiere of A Winter’s Tale, a production intended for the 2020 stage and all but lost to theatre history.

Now available on the iPlayer following its evening screening, this version was filmed on the Stratford stage almost as it would have been presented to an audience and has been newly repurposed for television, following in the footsteps of the National Theatre’s equally ‘lost’ Romeo and Juliet that became a Sky Arts film earlier this month, finding itself anew in the cinematic format. The Winter’s Tale is a play that easily bears the change of medium, often finding resonance in other forms, not least a stunning ballet production choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon in 2014 which the Royal Opera House streamed last year under its Our House to Your House season of works. Eschewing Shakespeare’s text entirely, it nonetheless boasted a poignant and psychologically complex performance from Principal Edward Watson, arguably one of the finest Leontes in any form.

And The Winter’s Tale is a play that can be transposed to many eras, it’s eternal themes of love, loss, jealousy and redemption tinged with a touch of magic feel well situated in the RSC’s production which enhances its atmosphere of uncertainty by locating the action in the suspicious Cold War era where the nature of alliance and allegiance was sorely tested. Framed against the years 1953 to 1969 (the Coronation of Elizabeth II to the Moon Landing) this is a rich period where the long shadow of the Second World War, of rationing, economic depression and rebuilding collided with a social optimism for change and progress, tearing down some of the rigid social structures and expectations and replacing them with greater choice – or so it seemed on the surface at least.

But underneath this narrative, the consequences of political rancor and betrayal earlier in the century came to fruition which, as A Splinter of Ice so well explores, resulted in the uncovering of a major Russian spy ring with the escape of Burgess and Maclean that led to the hunt for the Third Man whose own defection falls within the period in which the RSC have set their production. That Director Erica Whyman’s story begins against this backdrop of confusion, the world being upended and recent history being rewritten adds much to the climate of distrust in King Leontes’s court although more of this could be more strongly conveyed. Expanding the scope of the play from personal jealousy to a much broader and state-influenced concern about trust and deception in a period where nations like the UK began to question its position and influence on the world stage as the Empire faded away is a valuable starting point. And to conclude at a point where jetting into space felt like a piece of magic, in theory, fits well with the play’s charming conclusion where Queen Hermione fulfills the Pygmalion myth.

The two halves of this story taking place 16 years apart represent those differences as designer Tom Piper creates the elegant but austere court of Sicilia and the concentration-camp-like trial where Queen Hermione’s purity is debated. Combined with Isobel Waller-Bridge’s creeping music, the design is full of the dark shadow of suspicion that hangs over the first 90-minutes of Shakespeare’s text, although there were perhaps even greater opportunities to enhance the watchfulness and duplicity that Leontes expresses with more overt attempts to overhear the conversations between his wife and friend or to have them followed.

But building on the theme, Madeline Gerling’s costume design evolves from 50s cocktail party to authoritarian state quite swiftly as the increasingly enraged Leontes appears in unadorned military garb to demand the death of his Queen despite the guidance issued by the Oracle. Part Two is another world entirely as the audience depart for Polixenes’s Bohemia, a pastoral 60s vision of loose-fit hippie floral dresses and communal easy living which contrasts the formality of its neighbouring land.

Whyman manages the production with the same distinction, running the Sicilian section as a single theatrical piece filmed as-live with scene changes happening within the show as they would in the theatre, rather than use cuts as a movie would. The same occurs in the second half of the play, allowing the Bohemian sequence in Act 4 to transform back into Leontes’s kingdom in Act 5 using stage technology rather than film which gives the actors long periods of performance to build their roles as theatre rather than movie performances which, on the whole, is beneficial to the flow.

Variation is created with a news reel section that foregrounds Hermione’s wonderful declaration of innocence, and with some home movie inserts into the pastoral festival that use a 60s filming style to create era authenticity. But again, the opportunity to directly link to the changing political context of the 1960s and even reference the moon landing described in the production’s publicity never fully transpire and the show starts to drift away from what should be a strong and remarkably relevant period setting for the unfolding drama.

As a hybrid production, none of this is anything like as daring as the National’s Romeo and Juliet nor does it use the playing space as liberally or imaginatively. Yet as a more traditional approach to filming a stage production – of which reflecting its stage origins remains its primary purpose – Whyman’s choices are faithful to the themes and shape of Shakespeare’s play – sometimes that is to its detriment and the problematic fourth Act filled with tangential (and slightly tiresome) comedy performances drags on and on, weighing heavy on the running time.

At two hours and forty-five minutes the show fails to find consistency across the entire piece and while the drama of Leontes’s marriage races by in an hour and a half, the remainder struggles to retain the same tension and investment. A tighter and, in places, a less reverential approach would have added greater pace and jeopardy to proceedings, acknowledging that the demands of story-telling on film require a greater brevity and purpose than a straightforward translation from the stage often allows.

Yet in a play that, to modern eyes at least, rests on the injustices heaped on its women who are suspected, disbelieved, maltreated and exiled without evidence, the central female performances are especially strong. Kemi-Bo Jacobs is superb as Hermione, stately and regal throughout, Jacobs conveys real authority and sincerity in every speech, passionately advocating for her life during her trial in one of this production’s finest moments. Jacobs brings a poise and grace to the role, giving the dialogue such a natural expression that the audience can feel nothing but sympathy for her plight even refusing to believe Leontes deserves any kind of forgiveness or redemption from her at all.

Amanda Hadingue’s Paulina is equally impressive, authoritative and direct with her monarch, unafraid to plead her friend’s cause and show the King his errors in judgement. Persistence and enduring devotion are Paulina’s greatest qualities, and Hadingue portrays a woman who quietly and containedly endures her own grief while proving a commanding presence on stage, allowing her disapproval and rage to show only briefly while working to restore harmony.

This strength in the female characters is given additional might in Whyman’s interpretation of one of the most famous stage directions of all time – ‘Exit pursued by a bear’ – and one of the delights of The Winter’s Tale is seeing how each new staging approaches Shakespeare’s most demanding instruction. Here Whyman and Anna Morrissey channel female fury in the play to create a stomping and clawing women-only movement piece that becomes the bear as Colm Gormley’s Antigonus reacts separately to being pawed and dragged. It’s a smart and intriguing idea that offers something new within the original spirit of the play’s themes.

It’s a shame then that Joseph Kloska’s Leontes comes up wanting, never quite getting to grips with the depth of feeling in either section of the play. At the start, his jealousy is too hysterical, often even shrill, creating an energy level from the start that the character cannot sustain. There needs to be a calm coldness in Leontes too, a King who with barely a flicker orders the poisoning of his friend Polixenes and the murder of his baby daughter before condemning his wife to the same fate, but Kloska plays Leontes as an easily-swayed fool which undermines his supposed gravitas. 16-years later there is just not enough agony in Kloska’s final scenes, nothing of the humbled man who has torn his soul apart in grief and regret or the poignancy of an undeserved second chance. It’s difficult, of course, without being able to build this role over a long run but it rarely gets beneath the surface of a tortured but fascinating character.

Andrew French as Polixenes has greater command despite a much smaller role and Ben Caplan’s conflicted Camillo adds depth with subtle debates about defection between two very different courts and the longing for home that speak to some of the contextual issues that frame the period setting. There is a lot to enjoy in this RSC meets BBC4 production that despite some lags in the play (which are largely Shakespeare’s fault), offers a faithful reading with some contemporary resonance – although this hybrid production leans more heavily towards its origins as a theatre piece that somewhat limits its repurposing as a film. No longer ‘lost’ it joins the many other arts performances that have found a new life on film as the progress of digital theatre continues apace.

The Winter’s Tale received its world premiere on BBC4 on 25 April and is now freely available via the iPlayer. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

A Splinter of Ice – Original Theatre Company

A Splinter of Ice - Original Theatre Company

There is a splinter of ice in the heart of a writer but an icicle in the heart of a spy; Graham Greene’s own words form the basis of Ben Brown’s new drama imagining a meeting between the writer and the twentieth century’s most famous real-life spy Kim Philby, former friends reunited in Moscow in the late 1980s as both Philby’s life and the political regime he betrayed everything for – the Soviet Union – were coming to an end. One of the things you hear most about the Philby story is that his friends and colleagues in the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) never forgave him, the level of deception and deep betrayal leaves scars to this day, but Brown’s intriguing drama wonders if the opportunity for forgiveness was ever in play.

No matter how many books are written, dramas produced or investigations undertaken, when assessing the work of deeply embedded intelligence officers like the Cambridge Five there are two questions that continue to intrigue us; first why did they turn against the country of their birth to align their loyalties with a foreign nation they had never visited, and, second, was it really worth it – when forced to defect as international mole hunts across the UK and US intelligence services uncovered their deception, was the life they were forced to adopt in Russia everything they had dreamed it would be or just the terrible and lonely price for staying alive?

Brown’s play explores these questions using an imagined meeting between novelist and former SIS operative Graham Greene and Kim Philby, the (to UK eyes) disgraced spy once touted as the natural successor to C, the Head of SIS, real life figures thrust into Brown’s semi-fictionalised duologue where the audience eavesdrops on two former friends reunited more than 20 years after Philby’s defection. The cat and mouse structure is a cliche of spy drama but our position as KGB listeners proves fruitful as Brown’s tense dialogue evolves beyond the simplicity of hunter and prey to something far more complex as the question of loyalty to country and ideology is deepened by the friendship between the men which both seem determined to preserve against the odds.

Brown is fascinating by Philby it is clear and across the two Act structure of Splinter of Ice his biography and its outcome is prioritised, leaving the more famous writer in the shadows – a potentially deliberate ploy that maintains a deeply valuable and unresolved tension in the dialogue as Greene’s ultimate motives remain pleasingly uncertain. But it means that Philby, most often, has the floor, recounting his backstory with sometimes laboured exposition in the guise of explaining himself to his friend.

Much of Philby’s story – presented to his former pal as surprising information – is now widely known from similar cultural re-tellings of his story including the BBC mini-series Cambridge Spies from 2003 and Alan Bennett’s An Englishman Abroad focusing on Guy Burgess (1983). Details of his first marriage to Communist Litzi Friedmann, his time as a journalist in Spain and his recruitment on a bench in Regent’s Park are easily accessible. But Philby’s story is so audacious it bears retelling so as the conversation moves on to his time in 1950s Washington during the defection of Donald McLean and Guy Burgess which cast suspicion on Philby, as well as his own eventual discovery in 1963 after which he absconded from Beirut, this data frames a much wider exploration of the bonds of Establishment and the consistency of Philby’s individual conviction – a claim to steadfastness he makes in the play as he organises the activities and consequences of his life story around a commitment made at the age of 22.

Brown is aware of the weight of these details however and, despite a few sections that start to sag, creates momentum in the drama by allowing the conversation to move between different topics as past and present mix with discussions of equally well known colleagues who betrayed the state – George Blake in particular who was the subject of Simon Grays’s Cellmates which also looks at the regretful later years in Russia when two friends reunite. But at its core, A Splinter of Ice is an exploration of friendship and its survival, how much either man can truly rely on the other and if – as Greene fleetingly suggests – a line must be drawn.

Through these topics, Brown looks to explore the nature of storytelling itself, not only how individuals reorder and reinterpret their own memories to consciously or unconsciously justify their present course, but how fiction writers like Greene and even le Carre (who receives a brief and slightly embittered name-check from Philby) use their work as an outlet to process their own experience of the Service. Both men in this play are haunted by their shared past and as neither seeks obviously to entrap or achieve victory over the other, there is a mutual process of consolation and consolidation that happens through their evening together.

Brown uses reference to Greene’s book and film of The Third Man as a secondary thematic layer to give shape to some of the discussions taking place between the author and old friend Philby who recognises and actively points to aspects of the story and its characters that appear to reflect his life, presumably appropriated by Greene to flesh-out his fictional tale of friendly betrayal amongst spies that is replicated by Brown’s play – an example of art reflecting art reflecting life. As the protagonists debate just who Holly Martins and Harry Lime represent, Philby shrewdly questions whether Greene’s tactics are the same as his creations, attempting to ensnare his former colleague under the guise of a lapsed acquaintance and lure him towards a form of retribution. In fact the first thing you will notice is Max Pappenheim’s homage to the film’s unmistakable and distinctive score composed by Anton Karas.

But A Splinter of Ice is not all subterfuge and double jeopardy, in fact there is a more tender reading of the play in which the two men see each other as much missed companions in which their suspicion is overtaken by their very great care for one another that emerges spontaneously through their conversation. That Brown, and Director Alastair Whatley with Alan Strachan, allow these two interpretations to weave together is one of the most exciting aspects of this production, moving away from a basic biography by mirroring its spy subjects and never allowing the audience to be quite sure which of its many faces is the real one.

Stephen Boxer adds many facets to his portrayal of Philby, a man whose reputation certainly proceeds him and, outwardly at least, maintains a certainty about his choices to the end. Whether anyone is actively monitoring his communications is left unresolved and Philby certainly says all the right things, even in the play’s darker moments when Greene asks him to account for the deaths he caused. But Boxer’s performance smartly traverses a thin line between truth and fiction so both his friend and the audience cannot be sure whether he means what he says, is quietly asking for help or has managed to deceive himself as a survival technique.

But you do get to see this new side to Philby, a shadow of sadness if not quite regret on his soul that misses the fundamental freedoms of British life as he checks the cricket score in his days old newspaper and unceremoniously drinks and drinks throughout the play – alcoholism a notable feature of ex-spies in Russia. Boxer shows Philby as a caring friend, a committed Englishman and Communist, a cold-hearted killer prepared to manipulate and twist a conversation to suit whatever story he is telling, a charismatic companion, an affectionate friend and a lonely man trying to impose some meaning on the fragments of his life more than 20-years after the once exciting dash of his work came to end.

By contrast, Oliver Ford Davies as Greene is far harder to read, his withdrawn and watchful performance designed to draw Philby out either in affectionate memory of their shared past or for some more desperate purpose. We learn very little about Greene beyond the title of several novels worked into the dialogue and that he once defended Philby in print, but what happens below the imperturbable service is far harder to determine. Where his friend seems positively garrulous, Greene gives perfunctory answers to questions and soon turns the conversation back to Philby – a trick his companion fails to notice as this silent confidant gains his trust.

Tellingly, Greene notes several times that no one ever really leaves the firm and hints are dropped of recent communication pertaining to his visit to Moscow and there is such steel in Ford Davies’s gaze at times that despite his reduced role in the conversation, you feel he is entirely in control of it, like that other famous fictional spy George Smiley coaxing a confession by relying on his partner’s need to talk. The only time Ford Davies suggests even a modicum of fear happens in the closing scene where an unexpected element changes the circumstances and this intriguing creation makes a hasty exit. Was he trying to trick Philby or was it merely the awkwardness of long-parted friends, we are left to wonder.

Filmed on stage at Cheltenham Everyman, this Original Theatre Company production was conceived as a stream but has since announced a brief UK tour scheduled for June and July. Staged in Philby’s Moscow flat, the ambiguous tone of this potentially decisive meeting is set immediately by Michael Pavelka’s utilitarian design which marks the simplicity of the apartment with basic furniture in shades of brown and beige with only small domestic comforts marking this out as a home rather than a cell.

The occasional intrusions of Philby’s final wife Rufa (Sara Crowe) slightly unbalance the tone and seem to be an excuse to bring on a female character for equity without adding much to the play except to note that deception of one kind or another remains part of Philby’s approach even now. But as this production heads for the stage almost exactly as presented here, it is the comparison between the two men that will linger; spies and writers both with faith in an unseen protector, which one of them is really fictionalising the past and the honesty to regret are at the heart of this play. Fellow writer E.M. Forster suggested he would rather betray his country than a friend but in this engaging two-hander those loyalties are sorely tested and whether Philby should ever have invited Greene to come in from the cold (a great line from Brown) he is left to ponder as the splinter of ice refuses to melt.

A Splinter of Ice is available to stream from Original Theatre Company until 31 July and tickets start at £20. A touring version of the show will run in June and July. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

Disenchanted! – Stream Theatre

Disenchanted - Stream Theatre

… and they all lived happily ever after. The princess has found her prince; she’s been rescued from her drab life as a live-in slave for seven little men; freed from sweeping floors for her wicked stepmother with only dressmaking mice for company and retrieved her voice from a scary seawitch, been magically transformed into a real human woman and got MARRIED. This is the end of the story, because for a woman life reaches its pinnacle when a man with a castle proposes and the years of suffering are finally over, you are now a princess. Except, that’s not quite how the story goes and marriage is just the beginning, what happens when Princess Jasmine has to pick-up Aladdin’s harem pants from the floor one too many times, Belle realises the Beast was less moody than her new husband and Rapunzel’s spouse leaves her home alone with nothing to do but grow her hair… happy ever after – as if!

Dennis T. Giacino’s delightful off-Broadway comedy musical is here to set the story straight as the Princesses fight back with their own show that reveals what it is like to be Disneyfied, sculpted into impossible body shapes drawn by men and have their image appropriated and plastered on merchandise from t-shirts to toilet paper. Disenchanted! was first performed in 2009 to much deserved acclaim and a new UK production directed by Tom Jackson Greaves has been created for Stream Theatre and made available for only three days (but expect an encore before too long).

Describing itself as a royal vaudeville, the premise is a simple one, a collective of princesses under the direction of best friends Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty are brought together to finally correct the stories that have been told about them. Each one gets their own song staged as a series of Music Hall turns in which the women address the audience directly but there are several ensemble numbers that cut across the show to bring together wider themes about the misappropriation of female narratives, representation and ingrained concepts of sexism.

The tone however is highly satirical, landing perfectly on the line between comedy and politics that makes Disenchanted! a fun but meaningful experience. There is a joyful cheekiness in Giacino’s musical that restores personality and sometimes historical accuracy to these characters, encouraging the audience to revisit the picture-perfect impressions we are spoon-fed from childhood and instead see these princesses as fully-rounded women who can be angry, unpleasant, crass and drunk while still being funny, sassy and full of agency.

Jackson Greaves’s production was rather miraculously filmed in a single day after a brief period of Zoom rehearsal and actively acknowledges its status as a streamed performance. The production design warps the traditional princess hues using simple acid coloured backdrops to heighten the fantasy world to which these women usually belong. To vary the presentation, Jackson Greaves employs several techniques to showcase the backing performances including small roundels that appear in-picture, cast members arriving in shot at a suitable point in the music as well as some of the split screen and image repetition edits that have become a familiar feature as digital productions have advanced beyond socially-distant boxes.

Running at around 85-minutes, this production of Disenchanted! has enough visual variety to keep the audience interested and while this is not always highly polished or perhaps as complex as some of the online material produced recently, this reflects the off-Broadway origins of the show and given the very limited time to create this Stream Theatre production, the approach does more than enough to underscore the charm of Giacino’s musical and imagine how it might be staged in cabaret or revue style in one of the smaller London venues like the Arts Theatre or the Crazy Coqs.

The physical limitations aside, there is a recognition in Jackson Greaves’s production that Giacino’s musical is first and foremost a character piece in which the stories and personalities of the princesses is the focus and it is this rather than flashy set design or technical wizardry that sustains the show’s 14 numbers. That each princess is distinct and distinctly bitter about the life she has been given makes the anticipation of each new story part of the joy of Disenchanted! and some of its best moments come from seeing how Giacino has reorientated and reimagined the wider lives of these women that uses their original story while also operating on a meta level to understand how those narratives have been shaped by external and largely commercial factors.

One of the earliest songs does the latter as Belle from Beauty and the Beast takes a wonderful pot shot at Disney with Insane!, finding herself trapped in the palace with the chattering candlestick, teapot and mantlepiece clock that were introduced into her tale in 1991. Sung brilliantly by Aisha Jawando, Belle is on her last nerve, unable to stomach the constant conversation of inanimate objects and driven mad by the concept. That she finds married life equally burdensome is passingly referenced in her husband’s lack of house-training while her inexplicable American accent mystifies the formerly-French peasant girl. Jawando delivers much of the song through gritted teeth as she rails hilariously against her fate.

The Little Mermaid is also starting to regret her choice, turning to drink to help her cope with the real legs she substituted sea legs for. Missing the freedom to dive back in, Millie O’Connell gives a big performance as the disillusioned princess with a touch of the Southern Belle blues who has come to the realisation that Two Legs are too many, Giacino focusing her woes largely within her own marital choices rather than how she has been presented.

Some of the most affecting numbers are more overtly political and ask some big questions about the erasing of women’s stories and how history has been rewritten to suppress the agency and independence of women. Natalie Chua’s Hau Mulan notes her lack of partner, the only princess present Without the Guy and wonders about her sexuality, while Grace Mouat almost steals the show as Pocahontas whose impassioned Honestly was the first song former teacher Giacino wrote when he saw the animated version of her life. It’s a sad and beautiful song in which Pocahontas outlines these inaccuracies which gloss over the rape, brutality and kidnap she really endured by sexualising her story – the only time this production pauses to note the violence against Indigenous American women – and Mouat absolutely grabs her moment to shine.

But other fictional characters want to set the record straight as well including Princess Badroulbadour known as Jasmine thanks to yet another Disney simplification who notes that Aladdin actually comes from a different part of East Asia. Sung by Courtney Bowman, Secondary Princess is a fierce number about a woman reclaiming her place. Equally determined is Shanay Holmes as The Princess Who Kissed the Frog whose upbeat soul number Finally is full of impressive trills and ranges as she celebrates receiving the same level of recognition as the Beautys and the Belles in her own fully-told story with a black female lead.

Holding the show together as comperes are Jodie Steele’s Snow White, Sophie Isaacs’s Cinderella and Allie Daniel as a narcoleptic Sleeping Beauty which becomes a running gag. Steele is having a great digital year having recently appearing as a wonderfully ethereal Daisy in Gatsby: A Musical at Cadogan Hall, and here plays a very snarky Snow White, the leader of this rebel band of put-upon princesses. Some of her best moments are the husband-baiting A Happy Tune? which showcases her incredible range. Cinderella leads the body-shaming number All I Want to Do is Eat which critiques the impossibly thin bodies the women are expected to maintain and showcases Isaacs’s comic timing while Daniel challenges standard definitions of beauty with the ensemble number I’m Perfect while, completing the cast, Rapunzel (Jenny O’Leary) lends an operatic range to Not V’one Red Cent that questions the commodification of their image.

The early part of the show keeps the performers separate, giving each princess her own individual platform apart from our three regal guides who appear together between the guest appearances to compere and provide a running commentary. But the show builds to larger and larger ensemble numbers until the full cast of nine appear for the finale. Musical Director George Dyer has updated the musical styles across these different songs, giving each a distinctive flavour but drawing less on classic musical theatre to introduce more contemporary beats and varied song styles including hints of hip hop, cabaret, opera, country, blues and soul that emphasises the unique experience of each women, while still feeling like a a coherent score that builds to a satisfying conclusion.

The leveling opportunities generated by digital theatre have created something of a moment for reclaiming and reimagining female-led narratives. On the surface, a musical about fairy tale princesses may seem entirely out of kilter with the pioneering work of productions like Late Night Staring at High Res Pixels or 15 Heroines that excavated the ingrained nature of patriarchy and women’s behaviour to each other as much as their interaction with men, but look a little deeper and Giacino’s musical is doing much the same thing – even noting that the Princesses themselves judge others using male-defined expected behaviours – its tools just happen to be comedy and music. But after 85-minutes it more than makes its point and had the post-show Q&A audience demanding a West End transfer which it well deserves. Though written long before, this new outlet for Disenchanted! will do for fairy tale princesses what Six did for the wives of Henry VIII, making them more than prizes to be won in the stories of men and instead creating a potential phenomenon by giving them back their individuality and their voice. Now that’s the kind happy ever after we can believe in.

Disenchanted! was available via Stream Theatre from 9-11 April. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

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