Monthly Archives: August 2020

Beat the Devil – Bridge Theatre


Beat the Devil - Bridge Theatre (by Manuel Harlan)

The Bridge Theatre is the first West End venue to offer socially-distanced indoor performances, welcoming audiences back to their still beautiful space with a series of what are essentially one-man shows between now and late October before deciding whether to resume their pre-advertised autumn season with Marianne Elliott’s take on They Shoot Horses Don’t They currently scheduled for November. The first short play opens this week with David Hare staking first claim to what will surely be a new genre or at least a familiar theme in the coming months – the Covid monologue. As an established white, middle class, male playwright Hare is in a better position that most to get his plays staged and for some this new work will epitomise tension between the politics of the theatre and the separate quality of the play.

Considering Beat the Devil is the story of a writer who contracts Covid-19, the safety measures in place at the Bridge Theatre are stringent and reassuring. Audience members are not only issued with digital tickets (which can be printed), but to control the flow of people through the foyer and auditorium each ticket will specify a recommended arrival time to allow audiences to reach their seats while passing as few people as possible. There is a socially distanced queue into the venue as well as a thermal camera checking everyone’s temperature, a one way system, hand sanitiser and ushers reminding attendees to keep their face covering in place throughout.

The auditorium itself has always benefited from plenty of individually fixed rather than long banks of seating so the Bridge Theatre team have extracted any chairs not in use to ensure that seats are socially distanced in blocks of two or three with a few singles if you are fast enough to find them. So unlike the older West End theatres such as the Palladium where Andrew Lloyd Webber had to block-off seats using antimacassars printed with an X, the physical flexibility of the Bridge removes any possibility that audiences members can change places during the performance. Just as with Regent’s Park, you really couldn’t feel safer.

David Hare is a renowned political playwright although his most recent work has not attracted the unerring critical praise of his most celebrated plays. The hugely disappointing I’m Not Running at the National Theatre in 2018 suffered from hollow characterisation in a not entirely credible Labour leadership contest scenario while his detective series Collaterol had some interesting narratives but wasn’t quite able to pull its various strands together. Yet prior to these Hare scored notable successes with high quality adaptations of George Simenon’s The Red Barn (2016) and the 2015 Young Chekhov trilogy at Chichester and the National. But Beat the Devil is for many reasons his most personal play in years, exploring his own experience of the disease while charting the political course of the pandemic.

Creating fictionalised versions of themselves is something writers often do, from Proust’s protagonist in In Search of Lost Time recalling scenes from the author’s younger days to the active entry of Laura Wade into the middle of The Watsons as the frustrated writer trying to get the characters inherited from Jane Austen to behave, there are many biographical elements to be sought in the output of novelists and playwrights. And while this is often left to the academics of English Literature and Theatre Studies to debate, Hare removes ambiguity and guesswork by making Beat the Devil a systematic account of his experience of catching, suffering with and recovering from a disease that has affected millions of people around the world.

Structurally, this 50-minute show is a sequence of diary entries read aloud with touches of the retrospective dramatist’s omnipotence. So as the character of David discusses his symptoms or the government response to the pandemic, Hare allows some forethought to come in, his protagonist is both reliving and recounting the months of lockdown from a point of current safety, with the knowledge of his own survival and of later social or political events rather than an unfolding account. Hare indulges this side of his writing, creating a story in which the audience, the lead and the writer know the outcome and uses that sense of confederacy between us to insert facts about the disease and its effects that he could not have know at the time of his illness, as well the consequences of governmental decision-making in the ensuing months.

The result is a piece that relies on the audience’s knowledge of our very recent history, peppered with references to particular moments in which the nature of the pandemic and its management shifted, often for the worse, and the personalities who have been its public face. In one sense, Beat the Devil feels like an act of historical record where the physical effects of a worldwide epidemic were met, in Hare’s view, with gross political incompetence and, worse, inhumanity by our leaders. None of this is especially insightful or surprising to anyone living in the UK in recent months but Hare has captured it in a way that prevents that vagaries of time from eroding the day-by-day experience. Whether Beat the Devil has any future as a play is another matter – it is so topically rooted in the exact sequence of events, the people and the dramas of Spring/Summer 2020 it is hard to know whether anyone would care to revive or revisit the play in the years or decades to come when this government and Covid-19 itself is a distant memory.

Whatever your expectations, Hare does a convincing job of representing himself onstage and the play has an intimate warmth that quickly creates a strong bond with the audience. Its very best moments recount the progressive experience of illness, the little anecdotes and unexpected developments that have made this such a difficult disease to control, and as Hare speaks with candour about the false lightness of the first week, the fuzzy lungs, nights sweats and delirium followed by uncontrollable vomiting, worries about mortality, physical frailty and sudden return to consciousness you can have nothing but empathy for anyone who seems to have experienced its full impact or close to it.

What is surprising is just how comic Hare’s voice is in retelling these experiences and wry humour is not one of the most pronounced traits in his earlier work. But in Beat the Devil Hare allows much more of his own personality to emerge and, it turns out, he is pretty sarcastic, taking pots shots not just at the every-growing list of government failings and its inexplicably weak personnel, but also at himself as he recalls the quirks of personality and amusing examples of contradictory behaviour. Refusing to go to hospital at the height of his sickness is because, he quips, wards are full of people with Covid, while eventually emerging from the disease his over-emphatic delight in the taste of water and frustration with the behaviour of men in action movies leave him shouting at the television. Running through the show from beginning to end is a lightly sardonic humour as the character of David finds incredulity at every turn, perhaps this is another long-term effect of the disease, Covid makes you funny.

Hare hasn’t entirely dispensed with his old habits though and one of Beat the Devil’s more frustrating elements is the clunky insertion of facts which crop up repeatedly. It is a frequent problem for the one-man show (and some multi-person political pieces), and whether the performer is re-enacting the life of Judy Garland, highlighting the effects of homelessness or discussing Covid, it is very difficult to make the recitation of facts feel like natural speech. Partly this is because conversation just doesn’t happen like this either in your own head or with an interlocutor, and, given the structural premise here, statistical facts are not something personal diary keepers tend to record.

These are, of course, Hare’s soapbox moments, an irresistible opportunity to reiterate government incompetence, death rates, the disproportionate effects of the illness on ethnic minorities and the failure to sufficiently support the NHS, all of which occasional feel like he’s trying too hard. And facts in an ongoing situation can be slippery, quickly making a play feel dated (and therefore not worthy of revival) if science discovers that the make-up of the disease is not what we think it is, or that its impacts on particular groups were not as disproportionate as first thought. But here, they make the play feel heavy-handed and while Hare is clearly impassioned and not necessarily wrong-headed, these moments feel more like acerbic stand-up than theatre, places where Hare the writer and David the character are detrimentally indistinct.

Since up-ending his serious romantic lead image with In Bruges in 2008, Ralph Fiennes has been able to reveal his comic side with roles in God of Carnage (2008) as well as Man and Superman (2015) alongside more serious projects. Here, his timing is wonderful, guiding the flow of Hare’s words to their humorous crescendo, making the jokes feel freshly minted and unrehearsed while subtly adding gestures or facial expressions that boost the comic power of the moment. These are used sparing so they don’t detract from or unbalance Hare’s more serious points, but Fiennes strikes an excellent balance between light and shade within the production.

His performance is one of the big draws of Beat the Devil, imbuing his character with plenty of charisma and a winning charm. Fiennes is an actor with the rare ability to hold a big room in the palm of his hands and make it seem effortless. Anyone who saw his Antony in 2018 alongside Sophie Okonedo’s Cleopatra will wonder at the Olivier Theatre’s formidable reputation as Fiennes stood alone on its vast stage to deliver Antony’s suicide speech in captivating style. The Bridge Theatre is equally sizeable and speaking to the threadbare audience permitted by the regulations, his debut appearance on this stage is a hugely successful one.

Much of the warmth and humanity in this piece comes from Fiennes’s performance and this ability to create connection with the room, reaching out across the vast space and socially distanced community to create a collective experience. It is a big ask for an actor to be alone on stage for almost an hour, a hugely exposing experience and one that many long-established actors will not be used to, but he finds the subtleties within the piece, the periods of flow and directional movement, using the chapter-markers to regroup as Hare shifts the time frame.  Most importantly, Fiennes keeps the audience there in the story with him as it segues between political rants, building the comic chain of events and fusing the elements of the show together as a single consistent character experience.

You won’t necessarily leave Beat the Devil thinking it was the finest play you have ever seen or even that Hare deserves this vast platform to tell his own story – the cultural tides are shifting so fast at the moment that any number of voices could arguably have used these resources to make the theatre landscape more equitable. But neither is Hare’s play an unmitigated travesty and there is much to take away from the show. Political theatre is there to hold the Establishment to account and Hare uses his personal journey to consider the management of the pandemic. The diagnosis for Hare and for the UK may have been spookily aligned, but while the writer has recovered, the country may not.

Beat the Devil is at The Bridge Theatre until 31st October with tickets from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Social Distancing with Andy Warhol – Tate Modern

Ladies and Gentlemen - Andy Warhol

The Tate Modern’s Andy Warhol exhibition was only open for a short time before the Covid pandemic forced the gallery’s closure for five months. Reopened again recently and extended until November, attendance is now a well-managed if cautious experience as the Tate responds to social distancing and safety guidelines that reduces visitor traffic and encourages face-coverings in all areas of the building. For those who have also visited the free-to-access collections at the reopened National Gallery, Wallace Collection, Tate Britain and others, there is much to compare and contrast in their approaches, and while 5 months ago wearing a mask in a gallery may have implied you were mid-heist, more space in previously over-crowded exhibitions is a welcome development.

One of the major considerations affecting the production and display of artistic objects in the last few years has been an increased engagement with the socio-political (and sometimes even harmful) context in which culture is created. The open discussion of these experiences was fairly new to television, film, theatre and dance where the exposure of high-profile predators led to resignations and formal charges that we hope will result in new ways of working to safeguard and protect members of cast and crew. But it resulted in a new, and as yet unresolved conversation, about the value of pre-existing output. Where do we draw the line between the cultural artifact and the separate-but-related life of its creator; how much room should we give to art shaped by the values and influences of the period in which it was created if attitudes, language and behaviours were quite different to our own and can art ever be separated from the artist?

Consciously or not, the creation and consumption of art is a political act, filled with the nuances of time, place, gender, race and numerous other characteristics that shape the circumstances in which it is generated and shared. This is something that the Art industry has had longer to grapple with, with conversations taking place over a number of years as galleries feel an increasing responsibility to contextualise items on display with the less salubrious and sometimes troubling biography of the creator. Notably in Two Temple Place’s exhibition Sussex Modernism: Retreat and Rebellion in 2018, the sculptor Eric Gill came under particular scrutiny for his work showing a pubescent girl known to be his daughter. The object was accompanied by a description that indicated his unhealthy relationship with her, one that affected and changed your opinion on the piece itself, a skilled example of statuary muddied by the environment of its creation.

None of this is surely relevant to the Pop Art images of celebrities and politicians that Warhol’s work reproduced? But room nine in the Tate Modern’s exhibition is the place to suddenly ponder these questions as the viewer is confronted by a series on Drag Queens and trans women entitled Ladies and Gentlemen focusing on Black and Latinx communities. It throws everything else you have seen into sharp relief. Displayed for the first time in 30 years, this is beautiful work – arguably some of the best pieces Warhol made – full of life, colour and drama in which the vibrancy and energy of the subjects shine through. Yet the Tate is at pains to point out that aside from a nominal fee, little is known about the sitters lives, nor were they able to control or influence the distribution of the resulting images, issues that apply to lots of models down the centuries.

Birmingham Race Riot by Andy WarholBut in highlighting the transactional nature of this collaboration in which Warhol procured subjects he didn’t know and didn’t record it leaves us with (as the Tate exhibition notes explain) ‘questions about the ethics of the series’ that speak to our current concerns with trans discrimination and rights. Although a commissioned collection, Warhol was clearly drawn to the fascinating lives, personalities and experiences of his subjects, the vivid power of the paintings themselves are testament to that, but it is impossible to know how engaged he was in representing the sitters as they were and wanted to be seen, or indeed if the subjects then or later objected to the finished pictures.  And while not his intention, Warhol’s work now takes on an added political resonance asking the viewer to wonder about the ways in which whole communities are excised from history, the nature of identity and ultimately the independent male gaze in perceiving and relaying an experience he was not part of.

Casting back through the eight earlier rooms then becomes a more contemplative experience and you are constantly reminded that while art can stand apart from era it also exists both within the specific conditions under which it was created fed by the artists’ biography and social experience, but also, importantly, in the context in which it is viewed. Our relationship with the work is informed as much by our own influences and values as the creators, which continue to change over time as individuals revisiting work over a lifetime and as different viewers engaging with a piece across the decades or centuries.

All of this feeds nicely into the curators’ argument that Andy Warhol’s work became influential during a period of significant socio-political change, both shaping his art and being created as a direct response to it. Looking back to the 1960s, Pop is the third room in this chronologically arranged exhibition containing many of his most famous pieces, the ones that subsequently come to define our impression of his wider canon. It may seem strange, even counter-productive to offer up the Marilyns and Marlons so soon but the distorting effect that Warhol creates on his canvases is rendered in equal measure by your passage through the show, encouraging you to reflect further on these works in the light of later pieces.

So, as Warhol’s work looks at the commodification of image, repackaged as a sellable product and society’s shift towards indiscriminate consumption, the decaying effect of these activities becomes more sharply defined. Your eye is drawn to the colourful half of Marilyn Diptych (1962), although distorted and repackaged, the beaming glamour of her star power given eternity on Warhol’s canvas. Yet, created after her death, the faded black and white print of the other half suddenly seems more powerful, slowly erasing Marilyn the woman completely and this spectre of absence is notable in the room’s other pieces.

Marilyn Diptych by Andy WarholTwo shots of a masculine Brando fill half the canvas leaving the remainder blank and uncoloured, the spaced-out Elvises are vibrantly painted but the canyon between them feels noteworthy, while the images of Jacqueline Kennedy – strategically placed alongside supposed rival Monroe – cast her either side of the death of John F Kennedy, the grainy smile arriving in Dallas cut pointedly alongside the veiled widow at the funeral. The absence in this image feels as profound as the inferred inevitability of the assassination that Warhol’s composition implies.

But what really makes this room so reflective are the political newsreel images that candidly and deliberately sit alongside celebrities that note the violent underbelly and decomposition of American society. The astonishing replication of a women throwing herself from a tall building  and captured in mid-air (Death and Destruction) is hard to look at, as is the vicious taunting of black protesters during the Alabama race riots as an Alsatian strains at the leash. Warhol uses colour to reflect danger and drama in the moment while the large-scale images of convicted criminals directly opposite Brando makes a subtle connection between the worlds of Hollywood and organised crime. America was rotten, so while you look at the repetitive patterning of Coke bottles or soup cans, Marilyn’s lips or the lurid poppies, there is something uneasy and unstoppable about the way in which Warhol has loaded his work with a kind of destructive symbolism.

Later these messages become more overtly political as Warhol applies his screen-printing technique to images of world leaders and notable emblems, particularly those pertaining to Communism as the vividly painted image of Mao from the 1970s as well as the Hammer and Sickle series were developed in response to America’s closer relations with China. In the penultimate room, these become even more daring as a devilish rendering of Lenin in bright red dominates the Mortal Coil section from the 1980s and in the same room the Statue of Liberty has been layered with a lightly tinted camouflage pattern across the entire scene that subtly implies a warmongering nation hiding behind notions of freedom. But Warhol’s relationship to these works is harder to fathom, are they celebratory or concerned? Either way they suggest a decade-long fascination with the iconography of political leaders and ideologies.

Death and Disaster - Andy WarholThroughout the exhibition, there is a concurrent sense of Warhol both closing down and expanding as he became personally more cautious following his 1968 shooting and artistically more experimental. The confident film reel-styling of the Pop Art years led to an interest in film making and the music scene so the curators focus on magazines, books and record sleeves produced and designed by Warhol as well as large-scale prints of stars he socialised with through the Studio 54 network including Debbie Harry and Grace Jones. Exposures reveals a division between profitable employment and more innovative practices – much as the Tate Britain’s William Blake exhibition united the artists commensurate commercial printmaking business with his more fantastical personal pieces – placing work emerging from his hectic social life alongside Oxidation, an abstract bronze-effect piece created from urine-infused metallic paint that retains a corroded effect – there is nothing else like this in the show, and along with the famous faces and the expressive colour-filled pictures this is a side to Warhol’s work that could be better explored and explained.

As a socially-distanced gallery experience, Tate Modern have managed their extensive space well with separate queues and doors for the general collection, Warhol and McQueen exhibitions. Once inside,  apart from a couple of rooms with very limited spaces and the removal of the touchable pillows of inflated silver evident in the photography from March, the smaller number of visitors mean restrictions rarely impede your progress through this thoughtful show. There have been bigger and more comprehensive Warhol exhibitions in the UK but this one will certainly get you thinking how the meaning of art can change between creation and display.

Andy Warhol is at The Tate Modern until 15 November. Tickets are £22 and concession are available. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Jesus Christ Superstar: The Concert – Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre

Jesus Christ Superstar - Regents Park Open Air Theatre

Anything describing itself as a concert version is usually being modest and the first major London production in five months is an exhilarating return to live performance. Last year when its regular home was being spruced-up and renamed, Les Miserables badged its all-star interim summer show as a concert production due to the limitations of the much smaller Gielgud stage, and while there may have been microphone stands and a reduced visual aesthetic, in reality it was staged, acted and sung with as much conviction as any performance in its 30-year history. Jesus Christ Superstar at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre may say concert on the poster but there is singing, dancing, performing and storytelling nine shows a week.

Created under socially distant conditions and with a reduced cast that shares several of the leading roles, director Timothy Sheader weaves the various health and safety measures seamlessly into the show. Dancers are placed 2 metres apart at all times, singers the same, while handheld microphones, stands and the occasional smattering of props are only touched by the performer using them. If there weren’t a sea of face masks around the auditorium you would hardly notice the difference, the production choices easily passing for those of an edgy director and choreographer looking to create impact with a small cast.

But one thing that is different is the audience response and as the performers trickle on stage with bandannas across their faces and Jesus makes his entrance, spontaneous applause erupts from the audience before a single note is sung. It is a glowing and unprompted demonstration of just how important live theatre is to people in a space where capacity is one third of its former number. And after five long months to be at the beginning of a story again, not just this story but any story, feels significant. So, with music and dancing finally taking place in front of you again, knowing that over the next 90-minutes something alchemical will unfold is a thrilling prospect for those present – you may even feel a lump in your throat, but save your tears if you can for you will need them.

This Open Air Theatre production has had its own stellar history, performed three and fours years ago to wide acclaim followed by an equally beloved Barbican-transfer in 2019 and North American tours, returning to Jesus Christ Superstar seems like a savvy move as the venue tentatively feels its way back to new productions. Having previously cancelled its entire 2020 summer season and given Andrew Lloyd Webber’s proactive attempts to restart indoor theatre with Government lobbying and test performances at the Palladium, it seems entirely appropriate that one of his earliest shows should be London’s first major offering.

First performed in 1971 based on a concept album from the previous year, the blasphemous decision to write a musical based on the final days of Jesus’s life could have had niche appeal. Instead, seeing it for the first time you might be struck by how adroitly Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice have translated a sanitised story of sacrifice into an emotional human drama, eliciting all of the complexity, reluctance, fear and pain that its characters experience to bring the greatest story ever told closer to its audience.

And whether or not you believe any of it, Christian, atheist or agnostic, a fan of Lloyd Webber’s music or not, watching Sheader’s production both here and at the Barbican last summer, the potency of its symbolism and its deep integration into everyday society is hard to ignore. The iconography of the cross is everywhere we turn, creating a fundamental basis for how church, politics and state have developed in the last 2000 years, while as an emblem of suffering, hope and redemption the cross exists in art, literature and now theatre as a comfort to millions of believers down the centuries. At the Barbican, a crucifix was raised in the show’s final moments, hauntingly lit and meaningful, while the more limited staging of this revival in Regent’s Park has the character of Jesus strapped to his microphone stand, a reminder of the brutal renunciation of a reluctant man which is the essence of Lloyd Webber and Rice’s long lasting musical.

You see also the alignment of Jesus and Judas as two parallel forces set to collide, both, in their way, instruments of a God who never appears to either of them. The musical looks to recast the story of Judas whose character is given depth and complexity while learning to understand the duel drivers of self-determination and the vagaries of fate that has consigned both men to a particular place in history – or so the writers would argue – without exploring the intimate decision-making and fears that drove their behaviour. Friends, enemies or something far more complicated, Jesus Christ Superstar looks to unpick our school child understanding of the stories while offering-up alternative explanations for behaviour and reactions.

The Open Air Theatre production’s stripped-back, urban visuals designed by Tom Scutt utilises Soutra Gilmour’s tiered stage for Evita with concrete effects and rusted musicians’ box. Scutt’s approach does much to demystify the story, taking events out of their reverential cage by removing the idea of flowing robes, sandals and loincloths to create something much more twenty-first century. The slouchy gym-wear worn by the dancers is both practical and relatable, while Scutt uses costume to create different inflections, traditional cloaks for Caiaphas and his group of dastardly High Priests to set them apart, as do the tabards printed with the head of a statue worn by Roman guards, while Jesus himself is given an off-white colour scheme that eventually dispenses with a longer robe in favour of more practical cut off jeans and a t-shirt.

The most surprising and welcome aspect of this revival is Drew McOnie’s choreography that re-conceives some of the set pieces and crowd scenes to add dynamism to the production. McOnie’s work was recently celebrated by the Old Vic with an all to brief archive showing of his wonderful Jekyll and Hyde while here he employs similar storytelling technique, using quite vigorous and complex dance routines to represent the changing emotions of the crowd and disciples. Some of the greatest moments include the dancers making a socially distanced orbit around Jesus during Hosanna while the Second Act goes from strength to strength with energetic routines for Judas’ DeathTrial Before Pilate, and the title song Superstar. This hardworking Ensemble who sing, dance and play various characters are superb, managing the technical transition between numbers while observing the restrictions to deliver top quality and very welcome dance numbers throughout.

The emphasis in Sheader’s production is on the betrayals within rather than the actions of the conquering Romans in marking Jesus’s fate, and it is abundantly clear, as referenced by Pilate, that first the priests, then Judas and finally his own people turn against Jesus. They demand his death not because they believe it is necessary to save themselves, but as the bloodthirsty act of an impressionable crowd as quick to cast off their former hero as they were to build him up in the first place. The concept of a star burning brightly for a brief time is one Lloyd Webber and Rice would return to in Evita as the lasting impact caused by an untimely death creates a narrative in which the protagonist’s own life and experiences are purified, something which the writers seek to rectify by opening-up the personal story beneath the devotional mythology.

The Open Air Theatre will not confirm performers in advance so who you see playing Jesus, Judas and Mary will vary, but audiences are unlikely to be disappointed whoever assumes the lead roles. For this performance, Pepe Nufrio played Jesus having previously performed the role during the US tour of this production. Nufrio has a softer, more commercial voice than alternate Jesus Declan Bennett but is able to alter the scale and pitch his vocal to suit the tone of each song, hitting some extraordinary high notes in the latter section of the musical as fame gives way to inevitable destruction. Gethsemane proves a crucial moment as it should, powerfully performed and earning a long applause from the audience as Nufrio’s Jesus contemplates the terrible events to come, charting the story of a man already overwhelmed by his responsibilities and the ever-growing demands of others to which he feels unequal. This is taken to a new level as an ultimate sacrifice is demanded from an unseen and seemingly recalcitrant God.

Some of the most difficult elements of the role are in trying to understand and accept the forces beyond his control, the loneliness of his position as the final night leaves him without anyone to accompany him to the Garden and having to rely on his own faith in the brutal events that follow his arrest which Nufrio makes layered and meaningful. Jesus speaks less and less as Act Two plays out, transitioning from the prophet to an almost silent victim as the process of law sweeps him along. The way in which Nufrio reflects his anguish as Jesus is tortured is impressive while his final moments are incredibly moving, not only as his body transforms into that eternal symbol, but for the broken young man reluctant to die whose ‘real’ story we have witnessed.

It is wonderful to see Ricardo Afonso in the cast again as Judas after an outstanding performance at the Barbican. A performer whose vocal strength is extraordinary, Afonso suits the rock-style intensity of Judas’s music as the character grapples with complex notions of loyalty, friendship, the greater good before eventually recognising he has been used. As prime antagonist, Judas performs a similar role to Che in Evita, always there to undercut the heroism of the lead and cast doubt on the untarnished reputation of the celebrated hero, but Judas becomes the other half of Jesus in this production, two sides of the same coin cast by circumstance into ever-connected roles, the fate of each ever-resting in the hands of the other. Afonso’s performance is a full throttle joy, and as the visible silver poison from his bribe covers his hands, the audience has notable sympathy for the unfortunate disciple whose freedom to act may not have been as blameworthy as legend suggests.

As the reduced audience rise spontaneously to their feet for a long ovation, the performers are clearly as touched as we are, thrilled to be back in the theatre delivering a high-quality production. Sheader and the Open Air Theatre team may have pulled this one out of the bag but there are few obvious half measures in this professionally produced show that is concert in name only. There is still a long way to go for most venues and a lot of monologues ahead, but this stirring production of Jesus Christ Superstar is an inspiration, and during a weekend of stormy weather not a single drop of it fell on the Regent’s Park matinee, now that feels like divine intervention. Welcome back to the theatre.

Jesus Christ Superstar is at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre until 27th September with available tickets from £45. A screen relay will accompany the performance from 19 August for £20. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Blindness – Donmar Warehouse

Blindness - Donmar Warehouse (by Helen Maybanks)

It has been almost five months since theatres closed their doors and many of us will remember distinctly the last show we saw live (the wonderful Peace in Our Time at the Union Theatre). Our first post-lockdown experience will be just as memorable and even a tiny bit emotional, returning to the spaces where we have spent  so many happy and fulfilling hours absorbing lives, stories and experiences that take us beyond our own singular view of the world. And while the mechanics of live indoor performances are still being considered or on indefinite hiatus, first out of the blocks with a fascinating audio experience is the Donmar Warehouse and it is so good to be back!

Radio dramas and auditory experiences have become increasingly popular, the rise in audio books, podcasts and staged readings require audiences to use their imagination to envisage scenes and characters. Recently, the Almeida premiered a new Climate Change-focused radio play by Ben Weatherill at its digital Shifting Tides festival while Bertie Carvel’s Lockdown Theatre Festival on Radio 3 and 4 repurposed new plays suddenly truncated by theatre closures. This feels like a new avenue for drama.

But when Shakespeare asked the audience to pretend the ‘vasty fields of France’ were contained within the ‘wooden O’ of his performance space during the prologue to Henry V there was a tacit acknowledgement that the cast and crew of the theatre can only create so much illusion, everything else rests in the minds of the viewer. And sound design has had an increasingly sophisticated role to play in prompting that imagination in recent years, not only providing a cinematic emotional barometer but also helping to reposition the visual experience by altering what the audience can hear.

One of the most interesting examples of this was Ella Hickson’s Anna at the National Theatre in 2019, a fascinating 60-minute play set during the cold war in which the headphone-wearing audience listened-in to the sounds of a Russian flat in the 1960s. Visually, it was just a living room filled with party guests but we heard private exchanges, activities and frustrations occurring behind the scenes, essentially spying on Anna’s flat which, unbeknownst to her guests, made the audience intimately aware of every offstage rustle of fabric or jagged breath that the eye was unable to see. The masterminds behind this intricate work were Ben and Max Ringham, sound-scaping experts whose design has formed the backdrop to more shows than you may realise and whose work is now firmly in the spotlight.

Blindness is their masterpiece, a 70-minute performance that layers story, sound effects, music and lighting design to immerse the audience in a pandemic experience. Adapted from Jose Saramago’s novel by Simon Stephens, the intimacy of this work is created by the Ringhams who transport you to the middle of a global crisis while using a range of audio techniques, pitches and effects to play with your emotional experience. There are no actors in the room with you but the Donmar’s extraordinary show is as vivid as anything you saw on stage five months ago.

In essence, the show explores the apocalyptic nature of pandemic literature and the dystopian tropes we have come to expect from these stories. The shift from ordinary life to societal breakdown is a recognisable trajectory passing through stages of confusion, denial, panic and the development of a semi-feral state of existence. And whether the source material is a J.G. Ballard novel such as High Rise or H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds, the fragility of human societies and how rapidly the veneer of civilisation is defeated by baser impulses to eat, drink and reproduce is a key theme. Within these ideas, writers explore concepts of leadership, brutality, shame and factionalism as tribes form and compete in a survival of the fittest scenario that tries to determine who lives and dies in the new world.

Using Saramago’s novel as a basis, Stephens’s play charts a similar path as the infectious removal of sight spreads without reason from a single victim to the entire population. The descriptions of people’s last moments of vision are eclectic and vivid, from car thieves to lovers to doctors as the white blindness afflicts indiscriminately with only one character inexplicably unaffected and able to coordinate the ensuing battle for survival.  Naturally, daily life disintegrates as Stephens envisages barricaded settlements, a hand-to-mouth existence and brutal encounters with rival clans all of which play out in your mind as you listen to the waves of carnage unfold and recede in fearful isolation.

Blindness is distinguished by having a single narrator and lead character that guides the audience through this journey. Recounted by the Doctor’s Wife, there are reflective passages in which events are described in retrospect from an unspecified future time using an ultimate end point  to give context and drive to the story, while much of the central section is re-enacted, unfolding in real time segments with you acting as a silent character. It is extremely effective, just long enough at 70-minutes not to overuse the device while creating both perspective and a chilling intimacy as you imagine events unfolding around you.

The genius is how sound is then used to fool your brain into believing locational information and using the intimacy of audio techniques to generate very specific emotional responses as the story unfolds. Recorded using a  binaural microphone to create a three-dimensional effect, this changes the perspective from which the sound is heard as footsteps recede in a particular direction or the panicked voice of the Doctor’s Wife comes from different angles. Sitting in the dark, it seems almost that she is standing behind you or, as the sounds moves expertly from one side of your headphones to the other, the skilled combination of voice, movement and the rustle of clothing suggest she is circling you. When she crouches low to whisper quietly and intensely in your ear, it becomes an experience so intimate and invasive that you may feel chills down your back as though she really were at your shoulder.

Supporting sounds begin quietly, a hint of traffic noise and the low thrum of a city, the intense and relentless pulse-like beat that underscores so much drama these days or the occasional specific sound effect that changes location from individual houses to doctor’s surgeries and the echoed abandonment of the buildings of the future. But the way in which the pattern of sound builds during the piece is almost symphonic, crescendos rise and fall in line with the drama, layering intricate sequences of noise that transport the listener entirely into the action, particularly the growing frenzy of the hospital eventually filled with infected patients, reverberating and dangerous, the sounds of metal beds, anguish, fire and confrontation clashing purposefully as tensions rise and the once supportive community fractures irreparably.

And while this show is understandable all about sound, the key to unlocking this drama and your imagination comes from the way presence and absence of your own sight is used very specifically in the production to create the experience of the character you become. Jessica Hung Han Yun’s lighting design is both a fun extra as the ushers guide you to a colourfully illuminate seat, and an integral element of the overall immersive quality of the experience. Over your head, the air is dressed with strip lights positioned in horizontal and vertical shapes that pulse with coloured light at crucial points in the show indicating changes of tone, beat and character experience while offering momentary crackles of hope – when these descend to almost eye-level the tenor of the piece changes completely.

This is a show primarily, then, about absolute darkness into which the audience is plunged for much of the show. At first it is unnerving, a complete blackout in which you can only hear events seemingly unfolding around you and, much like the afflicted characters, your brain cannot draw comfort from fellow audience members to remind your where you are. It is overwhelming initially and, with the stifling quality of face masks on a very hot day, creates a brief sensation of panic until you (fairly quickly) adjust to the prolonged darkness and momentary flickers of sight within the remaining portion of the show.

This combination of sound and absence of light is well achieved in a fascinating experiment that increasingly cheats your brain into reacting to the event as though you were a silent participant in the unfolding chaos. All of this is pinned convincingly together by Stephens’s adaptation that distills the wider cast and scope of Saramago’s novel into essentially a one-woman show through whose eyes – as the only person with sight – the audience hears the story evolve. Stephens’s achievement is not to dramatise every moment but to build a picture of infection and societal decline through fragments of narrative that develop chronologically. As tensions rise, he utilises quick cuts between increasingly dangerous scenarios and moments of temporary lull to reinforce the ongoing strain as future attacks are anticipated. Smartly, it offers the audience a flavour of the boiling discontent, turf wars and horrifying violence resulting from the renunciation of humanity without being overly prescriptive, a prompt to your imagination that fills in the rest for itself.

Juliet Stevenson as narrator and lead character helps to pin the combined influences of story and design together, giving both a perspective of calm reflection told from a future point of safety while slowly developing the anxiety of disintegration as months or perhaps years elapse. The orderly sensibility of the Doctor’s Wife turns gradually to something stronger as authority develops not just through having sight but a clear sense of purpose or duty to help the little band of the afflicted that she collects. When more desperate times emerge later in the story, Stevenson’s character graduates to darker territory, finding reserves of menace and a preparedness to do whatever it takes as protector and captain. And while rage, frustration and violence erupt from her prolonged state of weary management, she remains kind and attentive to you as her husband – and interesting to see a rounded female lead in the mold of other sci-fi heroines with agency and narrative force.

This is a great first step back to full performance for the Donmar Warehouse and the various safety measures are managed with extreme care by the front of house staff, allowing 40-50 people to experience the performance four times a day. Whether we are still at the beginning, middle or end of our own pandemic remains to be seen but there is hope both in Stephens’s play and in just being able to open this theatre at all. And it is so wonderful to be back. Lizzie Clachan may have slightly reconfigured this beloved room where so many wonderful stories have been told in recent years – Teenage Dick, Far Away, Measure for Measure, Coriolanus, Sweat and Les Liaisons Dangereuses among them – but the unusual and evocative Blindness is a memorable first post-lockdown theatre experience and will help the Donmar find its way back to the light.

Blindness is at the Donmar Warehouse until 22 August with tickets from £17.50. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

The Secret Love Life of Ophelia – Greenwich Theatre Online

The Secret Love Life of Ophelia - Greenwich Theatre

Hamlet is a play filled with unanswered questions and we have spent four centuries trying to decode its secrets. At its heart are big philosophical questions about the purpose and value of life itself which the Danish Prince asks but never finds a satisfactory answer, but the themes of Shakespeare’s greatest play also questions the nature and proprieties of grief, of justifiable revenge against those perceived to have wronged the protagonist and the bonds of duty in parental relationships. But Shakespeare also leaves many avenues unexplored in the context and the setting, huge gaps in the tapestry of Elsinore that subsequent writers have attempted to explain.

The audience never knows why Claudius rather than Hamlet is King, Shakespeare has created a state where hereditary succession is either not the norm or has been circumvented to everybody’s satisfaction. We are never told how complicit Gertrude is in the murder of her first husband or indeed that lust was the only motive for Old Hamlet’s death. And having murdered his rival, why isn’t Claudius threatened by Hamlet at the start of the play and sees no reasons to dispatch his young nephew to his sweet sleep a little early? Perhaps most interesting of all is just what was the nature of the relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia, and what promises were made and broken between them that drove her to madness?

In 2001, Steven Berkoff imagined his own interpretation of their love affair, creating an epistolary play called The Secret Love Life of Ophelia which receives a lockdown revival and digital reworking by Greenwich Theatre. Follow-ons, prequels and new angles on classic plays or novels are fairly commonplace; some are extremely accomplished, enhancing but never intruding on the original creator’s intentions such as Tom Stoppards Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, a comic perspective on two lesser characters that uses the original Hamlet frame to considerable effect, or P.D. James’s Death Comes to Pemberly, a murderous sequel to Pride and Prejudice that works very effectively. Equally, other reworkings fail dismally and, unfortunately, Berkoff’s play doesn’t stand-up to scrutiny.

It is important, however, to distinguish between the play and the Greenwich Theatre production. The play itself is just not very good while the production decisions go some way to conceal its failings, showcasing a selection of excellent young performers that inadvertently asks some big questions about how we cast Hamlet in the twenty-first century.

The Play

Anyone repurposing a classic play or novel has to take care not to upset or misuse its psychology, that placing the original and the homage side-by-side their themes, action and charactertisation fit neatly together, the new offering a different resonance to the old. When done well, it unlocks another layer in the original play, opening-out and potentially reframing the plot in novel and interesting ways. Stoppard’s pivoted version of Shakespeare’s text (though not to everyone’s taste) uses the pre-existing frame from Hamlet as a backdrop, making the once central characters ridiculous and petulant caricatures from the perspective of those only tangentially involved in the familial saga. And Hamlet is the most yielding of plays, Shakespeare having left so much open to interpretation, not just in the ambiguity of the young Prince’s madness and motive, but in those tantalising open questions about the context of the Danish court as the play begins.

Berkoff’s mistake is to misappropriate the timeline of the action to fit his story without properly comprehending the psychological drivers of Hamlet’s character especially. The conceit of The Love Life of Ophelia is that the central couple continue their affair even after the troubled Dane has publicly shamed his young lover, and the letters they subsequently exchange passionately declare their undimmed connection to one another and the deliberate decision to deceive the court – a pseudo Romeo and Juliet denied one another by politics and duty. Berkoff laces the back and forth with occasional nods to the activities with which we are familiar – the ‘o’er hasty marriage’ of Hamlet’s mother and uncle, the burdensome secret revealed by Old Hamlet’s Ghost, the impending play where a King’s conscience will be caught and the death of Polonius. But none of it sits easily alongside Berkoff’s additional material.

That Hamlet and Ophelia continue a rather intense liaison denies the very complex experience of mourning that Shakespeare so carefully constructs for his leading man, as Hamlet is so overcome with sorrow and despair that his gloomy countenance forces the intervention of his mother and, later, thoughts of suicide that are so profoundly and immersively rendered in the play that Berkoff’s supposition seems impossible. Paralysed by woe, it is ludicrous to imagine that this young man could be so close to the abyss one moment wondering whether ‘to be’ and sending smutty messages to his girlfriend later that same day. That Berkoff has no regard for the nature of depression and grief is clear, and while the notion of a secret relationship plays into the feigned madness interpretation, it just doesn’t fit the trajectory of either character when tied to and examined through the specifically constructed architecture of Shakespeare’s original play.

But the biggest problem with The Secret Love Life of Ophelia is that it just has nothing to say or to add to our perspective on the Danish court, inserting a lewd rom com that does little to flesh-out some of Hamlet’s most tragic subplots. And surely, the most interesting reason for telling the love story of Hamlet and Ophelia is really to shine a light on Ophelia herself, a character Shakespeare uses intermittently but largely neglects. She is a cipher for things that happen to Hamlet himself, in one sense a symbol of the life he rejects and, beautiful and tragic as her death may be, lyrically expressed and impactful, it exists as a means to bring about the play’s finale, a confrontation between Laertes and Hamlet, one designed to bring the royal tragedy to its peak.

Hamlet, then, is fairly well covered, thousands of lines and hours on stage in what is one of the most demanding and fascinating roles in performance history. So, making his agency the purpose of Berkoff’s play feels misguided and unnecessary, reducing Ophelia once again to little more that the sketchy tragic lover that Shakespeare has already given us and – in Berkoff’s irritating male gaze – she becomes little more that a lusty wanton or pinning, girlish cliche, a giggling prosecco drinker with only the twin souls of love and desire to shape her character. It reinforces, once again the ancient, dichotomous representation of women as either goddesses to be worshipped or temptresses to seduce, roles Ophelia is assigned to play in the excruciating and awkward exchanges within Berkoff’s story.

But why does she have to be either? Doesn’t Ophelia deserve her own sense of agency and purpose, being Hamlet’s girlfriend is not her only characteristic so why is so little time given to her relationship with her brother and father, to her own expectations for the future, things she has learned or observed during her time at court and to the wider interior life that she possesses outside of her love for Hamlet. Instead, Berkoff fails the Bechdel test allowing her only to talk of love, she barely comments on Laertes departure for university or her shock, confusion or even grief for the loss of her own father, slain by the man she adores. Ophelia exists in this writer’s mind only to love Hamlet to give voice to Berkoff’s overtly sexualised fantasy of their intimacy described in graphic (and poorly executed) cod Shakespeare and to tamely submit to tiresome medieval maiden stereotypes waiting to be rescued from her supposedly terrible family by a knight in shining armour.

There is a far more interesting story to tell about her experience of rejected passion and how the various circumstances of her life drive her to madness and suicide. By retaining Shakespeare’s own timeline, it would be far more interesting to explore the high romance of their early courtship (pre-dating the action of the play) when presumably Hamlet’s behaviour and feeling gave rise to a mutual intimacy both felt was love. But as Ophelia is unceremoniously dispatched by Hamlet when immured in the darkest depths of his own grief, Berkoff’s piece would have fared much better by leaving Hamlet out of it and tracing Ophelia’s feelings of rejection and torment, a series of unanswered missives perhaps demanding answers, the loneliness of a girl whose family has been torn apart and the slow descent into distraction that leave her vulnerable. Hamlet has got his own play, this one should have been Ophelia’s.

Greenwich Theatre’s Production

Given the lengthy back and forth between the characters in this piece lasting over 90-minutes, on stage it is likely that The Love Life of Ophelia would be rather dull viewing but director James Haddrell has made some interesting decisions that make Berkoff’s disappointing play more palatable. Using the video messaging idea familiar to all of us in recent months, the exchange is rendered as a digital reconstruction of letters found in Ophelia’s bag on the riverbank and read essentially by ‘bots’ who change their face between each new piece of correspondence. Haddrell adds some dynamism to a potentially static play using around 40 performers sharing the evolving roles of Ophelia and Hamlet with a brief cameo from Helen Mirren as Gertrude that adds her star power.

The substance of Berkoff’s play aside, Greenwich Theatre’s production is a signal to the industry of how narrowly these roles have been cast in major productions. Hamlet particularly is usually a celebrity and most often in his mid to late 30s. There has been some racial and gender diversity among these Hamlets – and the Young Vic’s postponed version with Cush Jumbo is another Coronavirus casualty we hope to see rearranged – but how interesting it would be to see a recent graduate assume the role as in this production of The Secret Love Life of Ophelia, while there are plenty of early career performers in their late 20s or early 30s delivering remarkably good secondary roles who could offer very different perspectives on this well known character.

One of the benefits of Haddrell’s approach is its inclusivity, actors playing either role from a variety of backgrounds that does much to reinforce the universality of Shakespeare’s characters and their experiences of grief, love and anger. Whether given a few seconds or minutes of air time, each of these actors responds to and expresses the character in their own entirely valid way, and although essentially one character they represent the endless possible versions of Ophelia and Hamlet that the audience will never see unless we change the way we think about who gets to play this most revered and challenging of roles.

Any attempts to reframe a classic must understand the source material and it is clear from this Greenwich Theatre production that the actors and director really do appreciate the complexity of the characters as well as their centuries-old appeal. We are endlessly fascinated by Hamlet and Ophelia, pondering those tantalizing gaps in the context of the Danish court and the lives within that we yearn to colour-in. It is a shame that Berkoff’s unnecessarily revived play fails to add to the debate despite the thoughtful approach, resulting in an experience that frustrates more often than it delights.

The Secret Love Life of Ophelia is available for free via the Greenwich Theatre Youtube Channel until 14 August. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

%d bloggers like this: