Monthly Archives: November 2020

The Death of England: Delroy (and Michael) – National Theatre at Home

The Death of England Delroy - National Theatre (by Normski Photography)

Back in April, the National Theatre’s decision to open its archive and stream shows for free fundamentally altered our engagement with the arts. And as surely as National Theatre Live did in 2009, it has set us on a new course in which paid-for digital streaming will play some part in the future of and democratisation of audience engagement. On Friday, the National Theatre took the next step – joining a number of other venues – by digitally streaming a brand new piece of work, making it free for just 24-hours.

The Death of England: Delroy managed just two weeks of live performance and marked (quite significantly) the emotional reopening of the National Theatre in October with its new in-the-round Olivier space adapted to social distancing. It closed ahead of its then hastily rearranged official press night and lost its remaining run to the enforced closures of a second lockdown, and while a fuller run will be rescheduled for the Spring, this free stream is an important community contribution that couldn’t be more timely.

Clint Dyer and Roy Williams’s extraordinary play is a companion piece to the Death of England staged earlier this year in the Dorfman which focused on a white working class man, Michael, reflecting on his life in the complex aftermath of losing his father. Delroy is a related but different story about a black working class man whose long experience of inherent racism culminates on one fateful day as he tries to make the birth of his daughter. It is fierce and ferocious writing that references the Black Lives Matter marches and the summer’s lockdown but focuses primarily on the how the political manifests in the personal experience of one complicated young man.

Appearing in tandem with Steve McQueen’s searing Small Axe series which debuted its third film this weekend and the wider release of Riz Ahmed’s first screenwriting feature, Mogul Mowgli, what Britishness looks like in the twenty-first century is absolutely fundamental to these stories as the first waves of post-war immigration and the mixed-heritage experience of subsequent generations challenges received notions of nationhood built around Empire, monuments and misremembered victories. This discussion is the backbone of The Death of England monologues, as both Michael and Delroy confront how different parts of society have attempted to impose their own definition of nationality during the last four years in what has been one of the most divisive periods since the Second World War as the old and new worlds pull against one another.


The starting point for Delroy is a line from best friend Michael – ‘You will never be one of us and you know it,” something said in the heat of the moment as Michael reels from his father’s death, but revealing of how underlying attitudes in the last 70-years have shaped the political debates around immigration and passed them between the generations. The result, (as we observed earlier this year) is that on the surface Michael seems certain of his Englishness (a far more specific term used interchangeably with Britishness in the monologues) and how it is defined by the generic notions of pub, football and glory days metaphors.

When Dyer and Williams first present Delroy in Michael’s story, we are urged to picture him as an anomaly, a black bailiff who voted for Brexit, a mass of contradictions that his best friend mocks because they don’t accord with the filter through which Michael views him, i.e. the experience and understanding of his race. But, in his own story, Delroy has a far stronger affiliation with the cliched characteristics of working class men – a drinking culture, latent aggression that gets him into trouble with the police in this story and the Pro-Leave stance – that make his skin colour a way for other people to categorise what his identity should be and not as he sees himself.

For Delroy, Britshness, then, is a far more complicated discussion about how these multiple national identities, internal and external impressions, as well as his cultural heritage as a UK-born second generation member of an immigrant family can be unpicked in what is a hybrid identity. And while Michael’s exclusionist approach creates theoretical certainty in his definition of nationhood – although how convinced he is by the things he says is highly debatable in Dyer and Williams’s layered character portrait – for Delroy his race and his entitlement to nationality are indivisible as the latter looks to limit his day-to-day freedom, civil liberties and citizenship in the ways described so powerfully through his story. Rather than liberating and protecting him, Delroy’s Britishness is crushed and confined by family, friends, strangers and, crucially, authority figures seeking to impose their racially-charged perspectives, bred on suspicion – this reflects the same uneven relationship between state and individual that Steve McQueen’s Mangrove explores through Constable Pulley’s harassment of Frank Critchlow.

We see this in the crossed catwalk stage designed to reflect the English flag on which both Delroy and Michael’s monologues have been presented. Delroy covers its arms in red paper which becomes increasingly tattered, deliberately ripping a metaphorical hole in the centre as part of the performance to visually reflect the growing disconnection between man and nation. The concept of himself, his rights and place in British society are increasingly eroded as the story unfolds in what is one of the piece’s strongest visual references to splintering of identity.

Mogul Mowgli is a direct comparison here as Ahmed explores his own British Pakistani experience, arguing that changes in demography mean that Britishness now incorporates a far broader definition of nationality, becoming a far more inclusive term than it once was and some want it to be. And while Ahmed’s character makes further space for the complexity of his own personal identity, his film acknowledges, as Dyer and Williams do in Delroy, that these characters and communities still suffer, regardless of their own experiences or social contribution, externally imposed notions of who they are and even more pointedly who they are not.

Masculinity and Class

Dyer and Williams are equally concerned with the notions and experience of modern masculinity, and specifically with demystifying working class masculinity. Delroy in some ways plays into expected tropes, he can be bolshie, likes football and exudes a tribal attitude to life and family, but one of the most fascinating aspects of the authors’ writing has always been this sense of confusion in modern masculinity and how inherited notions of emotionless, tough manliness are challenged by the more nuanced sensitivities of the protagonists they create. For Delroy, his story is motored by a need to be at the birth of his child and an excitement about impending fatherhood that softens his entire being.

We see him alight with the possibility of becoming a better man, a more stable and supportive, even admirable, presence in his daughter’s life than the role models that Delroy was presented with. Delroy is, then, determined to chart a new path, one that circumstances and prejudice prevent him from fulfilling – and through The Death of England, we see how mixed messages and expectations of contemporary masculinity are complicated by class, wealth, opportunity and – for Delroy – skin colour.

His relationship with Carly is fundamental, subverting the norm and, while contentious and certainly fiery, Delroy tries to live-up to her expectations, wanting to be a kinder, gentler as he describes the sometimes tender connection between them even as the performative nature of masculinity distances Delroy from his more emotional side. Crucially, his inheritance is far stronger from his single mother than his absent father so his key relationships in this play are with women, naturally softening the largely socialised determinants of manliness against which his friend Michael seems to test himself.

Michael also experiences this same degree of confusion about what a man is or needs to be in the modern world. And while he inherits a much cleaner template of strength, stocisim and status from his father, you see in Dyer and Williams’s writing that it doesn’t sit so well with his son, that Michael cannot make the pieces fit in a slightly changed society. The time for being that kind of man has passed and Michael knows it, but unlike Delroy his clings to those certainties because they give him a surface security, a grounding and purpose he finds nowhere else in his life. It is fair to say that Michael doesn’t know who he is so the borrowed clothes and views of his father give him some idea of how to be a man, all the while knowing that its is not really how he feels but is too afraid to challenge it head on.

Most fascinating is how completely both Michael and Delroy’s masculinity and behaviours are shaped by the character of Alan Fletcher whose sometimes confusing racism is the template for the type of working-class manliness that imbues them both, even against their will. This has a notable effect on Delroy’s sense of self and agency throughout the play as he remembers the tirades that caused hate to breed while still receiving sporting encouragement from the sidelines. Why Delroy wants to impress Alan is fascinating, as though scoring a goal or being accepted as Carly’s boyfriend will give him a legitimacy he craves and why this is necessary is something that Delroy grapples with until almost the end of this powerful story.

Proving he was never anyone’s understudy, Michael Balogun stepped into the leading role with just two week’s rehearsal ahead of the first preview but the part fits him like a glove. His Delory charms the audience with his cocky swagger that draws us instantly into the story as he dashes between the four corner points of the stage as events speed-up. Balogun is particularly good at recreating the cast of secondary characters that make Dyer and Williams’s world so vivid, employing physical shape and different inflections to add a comic spin to distinct impressions of loved ones and others who shape his experience while brilliantly managing the shifts in time and location that Dyer and Williams use to structure their play.

But most impressive are the depths and sensitivities that Balogun finds within Delroy that add such humanity to the character. How quickly the surface confidence evaporates when left in a police cell, genuinely afraid of what will happen next and the tears he happily admits to. The softness that Balogun reveals when Delroy talks about Carly, his daughter and even his mother play against the low level frustration that builds and builds until Balogun lets loose to the invisible Michael in an intense but moving explosion of feeling. Across this incredible performance, Balogun shows Delroy facing and accepting all the facets of his own identity, becoming the man who can finally look Alan Fletcher in the face and say “enough.”

The outcome of Michael and Delroy’s monologues in The Death of England series is a powerful one, an argument that chimes with both McQueen and Ahmed, that the new multidimensional face of Britishness is an indisputable fact, sewn into the genes, mixed communities and cultural integration of every new generation – and that is something to be celebrated rather than feared. British identity is not a static state; it is still history, monuments and misty-eyed tales of derring-do but it is also the consequences of those event when the British Empire came home. Britain is the past but it is also the evolving story of the people living here now and in the future – as Delroy might say – fact.

The Death of England: Delroy was shown via National Theatre at Home for 24 hours. It will return to the National Theatre stage in the Spring. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

The Poltergeist – Southwark Playhouse

The Poltergeist - Southwark Playhouse (by Martin Photography)

We may be in the middle of a second period of theatre closure but it hasn’t stopped the new work from flowing freely as venues re-orientate their programmes online. One of the biggest concerns during the summer was that venues desperate for revenue would resort to tried and tested productions to guarantee their return to profitability. Yet, the venues that have reopened or continued to produce streamed content have grasped the opportunity to say something different, offering new voices, new perspectives and performers that may well set the industry on course for a more experimental and inclusive future.

And this new work has been extremely encouraging; last week, Jermyn Street Theatre premiered its impressive anthology collection 15 Heroines a reconceived imagining of the experience of the women of Greek myth that brought together fifteen female playwrights and fifteen female performers in what feels like an important statement both on the role digital streaming will play in the industry’s future and (with extra dates added to meet demand) the different kinds of stories we all want to hear. The same applies to the National Theatre’s free stream of Death of England: Delroy; Available on Friday, it is a work that ran for only two weeks and will now be offered for 24-hours in an extraordinary gesture of community with themes of black identity, nationality and friendship that resonate with the here and now so powerfully.

Southwark Playhouse has been at the forefront of responsiveness to pandemic restrictions, reimaginging their main house with plastic protections screens to separate seats allowing a fuller capacity while simultaneously streaming productions at home. This preparedness has allowed them to quickly pivot to offering online content during this second lockdown with the returning The Last Five Years captured live and available to stream later this week, while Philip Ridley’s intimate and scorching new monologue The Poltergeist was given just three streamed performances over the weekend.

Like Steve McQueen, Ridley is a multimedia creator finding success as a playwright, film-maker, artist, lyricist and poet while his subject matter has covered everything from the Kray twins to children’s stories, opera and family dramas, and it is the latter that The Poltergeist is concerned with, introducing a complex protagonist who is a savage observer of the foibles and failings of those around him while struggling to contain his own experience of loss and disappointment. The acidity of Sasha’s internal reflections are subtly tempered by the enthusiasm and care of his family as well as Sasha’s underlying sensitivity that make The Poltergeist an absorbing 70-minutes.

Ridley’s set-up is a simple one, a gay couple forced to attend a child’s birthday party where long-held family tensions, personal struggles and the required social niceties form a toxic mix that lead to a reckoning of sorts. Told entirely from Sasha’s perspective, he presents each of the other characters – an increasingly amusing cast of well-meaning relatives, fellow parents and childhood acquaintances – as well as his more easy-going partner. Ridley also balances the words Sasha speaks publicly with his, often hilariously contradictory and vicious internal thoughts that give an absorbing depth to Ridley’s character and the scenario he creates.

There is something incredibly vivid and familiar in the way Ridley lays-out his central scene at the home of Flynn and Neve, Sasha’s brother and sister-in-law where their daughter Jamila is celebrating her fifth birthday. It exactly captures the overwhelming quality of children’s parties filled with noise and excitement as people charge around with cakes, karaoke and games while the awkward parents make small-talk in the kitchen. Ridley’s language is very precise, creating a comfortable middle-class existence where the presence of family photographs on every surface, the hired trampoline and the proliferation of lemon cupcakes evokes a welcoming and happy atmosphere, but one with a sour tinge that keeps Sasha slightly outside the protective bubble of what seems to him an almost generically offensive idea of home.

With no set or backdrop of any kind, just an actor with a microphone, Ridley’s choice of words and particular phraseology is essential to Southwark Playhouse’s production, and with its rich but pointed vocabulary, the intimacy of home streaming is perfectly suited to the claustrophobic feeling Ridley creates. At the start, the audience is largely amused by Sasha’s sharp asides, a creation whose inner monologue reflects our own as we all pass pleasantries with strangers and loved ones when our thoughts are of an opposite bent, and Ridley finds much comedy in the whiplash-like delivery of these contrasting views as Sasha smiles and nods through conversations with his supportive partner Chet and even a local pharmacist on the way to the fateful party.

There is something of Alan Ayckborn in the scenario, a portentousness about the family gathering that we hope will pass without incident, although we know that it cannot. The way this builds through the unfolding story is rather brilliantly achieved with waves of intense conversation that build to a crescendo, leaving behind a pregnant silence and shock. Within these moments, Sasha recounts the contributions of every person present in a rhythm that gets faster and faster, a bullet-like delivery as the tension builds to its mini-breaking point. Partly this reflects the idea of Sasha’s mind feeling increasing submerged or even besieged by the opinions and banalities of others, accosted by people wanting to show him photos of their children, recount stories of their mutual past or pester him to eat, see his niece or provide the kinds of social endorsement that glues a party together.

These rhythms are essential to the production’s success, each encounter creating small pressures that escalate as the celebration wears on, and across the full 70-minutes of The Poltergeist build to a much more significant confrontation that pushes harder and harder against Sasha’s resolve, forcing him to revisit painful events. Ridley uses the interpolation of multiple voices to quicken the pace, so the blistering speed of delivery almost sets itself, the actor forced by the construction and cadence to speed up as characters start to (quite naturally) cut into each other’s sentences so their many voices throb in Sasha’s head along with his own responses and internal monologue – it is muscular and powerful writing that instantly stands off the page.

Thematically, The Poltergeist is filled with the kind of personal baggage that lends such credibility and, at times, even deep empathy for Sasha’s perspective. There is a strong mother and sons angle that is introduced later in the story but makes sense of many of the behaviours we experience and the absence of Sasha and Flynn’s mother is both subtle but also cavernous. Sasha, we learn, inherits his artistic skill from his mother and this has shaped his career and his interaction with his slightly older brother. A character deliberately vague in description and influence, nonetheless her presence is tangible particularly as Sasha is forced to endure the memories and contributions of people he considers sideshows to his life such as a former neighbour whose spectral appearance at this feast presages a furious explosion as people try to recast his precious remembrances of a happier past.

The nature of Sasha’s relationship with her is equally the cause of an apparently one-sided distance with his brother Flynn who Sasha presents as an empty try-hard with little conception of life beyond his perfect bubble. Sasha clings to small victories, believing even that his mother chose his father better than the much older Flynn’s, although both disappear from the story almost as soon as they are mentioned. The protectiveness that Sasha exerts over his mother’s memory and the belief that he was special to her speaks to an important underlying trauma that fuels much of Sasha’s hatred and is almost entirely turned-around by the conclusion.

As one of Ridley’s many careers, art too is an essential theme in The Poltergeist shaping Sasha’s sense of self but also unleashing an entirely different side to the character. Discovering an early taste of fame – bolstered by Flynn’s enthusiasm for his brother’s talent – several people at the party push Sasha to discuss his discovery an as artist. Nowhere else in the drama do we see Sasha alight with enthusiasm, pride and inspiration as he recounts his earlier work and the reception, basking once again in the shadow of that memory. Ridley halts his internal monologue for the only time, no viscous comments or backbiting, so Sasha is truly present in the world and not living in his head.

But art features in other ways, in the need and value of public art such as murals and graffiti that feature in some of the discussions, another parent’s amateur sketches that give him an escape from his own routine, and through the posed photographs and ornaments that adorn Flynn and Neve’s home. Sasha, spitefully, tries to draw a distinction between the quality of his own knowledge and the amateur attempts of others, but there is something in Ridley’s play about the transcendental space and calm it carves out for anyone needing peace from whatever their lives may be.

While the playwright has laid much of the groundwork, it is the exceptional performance of Joseph Potter that gives such incredible substance to this production, skillfully balancing the multiple voices and characteristion while charting Sasha’s changing path through this story. Potter is more than a match for Ridley’s quick-fire writing, delivering those sharp ripostes from Sasha’s thoughts with an easy venom in the early part of the play, the amusing ferocity and slick timing of which can sometimes catch you off guard. But as the party unfolds, Potter is astounding in the free-flowing periods of conversation where he cuts from character to character in seconds to create the impression of one continuous discussion unfolding with all its changing speeds, overlapping contributions and escalating feeling of apprehension.

The creation of this surrounding cast is somewhat two-dimensional but reflective of how Sasha sees those around him. Potter makes Flynn a slightly better spoken people-pleaser but with hints of care and pride in his brother’s talent that Sasha refuses to acknowledge, while sister-in-law Neve is a fine comic mummy cliche that Potter manifests with a therapist’s patronising tone and clutched hands as she buzzes around Sascha offering kindly looks and supportive noises, but Potter grasps a very tiny opportunity in one of Ridley’s speeches to also suggest Neve is an attention-seeker who secretly resents the space and energy her brother-in-law consumes.

And while it would be easy to make Sasha melodramatic and a little hateful, Potter introduces important notes of vulnerability that are there early in the performance but become more visible as the audience learns more about his background. The long looks off-screen in the pauses suggest a young man damaged by events and struggling to stay afloat in a world dominated by everyone else’s perfection. While Sasha lashes out at those around him, there is genuinely love and appreciation for Chet while Potter ensures that even at his most outrageously rude, we empathise with a character in pain unable to overcome the moods that afflict him.

The prevalence of new work in recent months has been hugely edifying and The Poltergeist is one of the most exciting. Playing to several cameras in Southwark Playhouse’s sadly empty space, these vary the simplicity of the monologue while reflecting its changing tones. Ridley’s play made an intimate transition to the screen and will be unmissable as soon as live performances can be scheduled.

The Poltergeist was streamed from Southwark Playhouse on 20 and 21 November. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

15 Heroines – Jermyn Street Theatre

15 Heroines - Jermyn Street Theatre by Marc Brenner

Being a woman in Greek Mythology isn’t easy and for the most part they sit on the sidelines, forgotten sideshows to what are predominantly male narratives of war, conquest and feats of daring. Where women do feature, they are mere prizes to be won, abandoned wives, jilted lovers and objects to be admired or possessed whereas female-led tales tend to have a central character who is mad, a dangerous child-killer or has an unhealthy obsessions with their male relatives. Ovid’s collections of letters entitled Heroines puts these women centre stage, and although many focus on the absent male presence to whom they are addressed, they question the grand stories of honour, glory and heroism.

The small Jermyn Street Theatre was one of the first to respond to this summer’s lockdown, recognising instantly the power and possibility of digital theatre in the subsequent months. Their latest project 15 Heroines was announced some months ago, challenging a number of female playwrights to rewrite Ovid’s stories for the modern day and performed as standalone monologues by a female cast of well-known and rising stars. Filmed just before the second lockdown and streamed in repertory last week, these three collections of five plays – subtitled War, Labyrinth and Desert – are a triumph of ingenuity and responsiveness, drawing parallels with concepts of crisis, the everyday reality of living through and beyond them, and ensuring that in a changing theatrical landscape, some of the first voices we hear are female.

There is a tonal commonality across the three anthologies filmed entirely on the small Jermyn Street stage but eschewing any reference to the theatre in the visual presentation of these works. And while naturally such a major undertaking means there is variability in the success of the pieces, together they have a youthful energy, reflecting the all-too-often overlooked power and importance of female perspectives amongst the male posturing of classical tales. Even when they are pining for their absent lovers, in many cases we feel an equality in these partnerships; their men may be fighting wars that no one much believes in, but these women are barely impressed and certainly determined to be heard.

Each anthology premiered to an audience of 250-300 – impressive for a theatre with a maximum capacity of 70 – each focused on five different but connected women affected by the decisions of their partner. The first examines the consequences of the love affair between Helen and Paris, and the ensuing decade-long battle between the Trojans and the Spartans. Pitched at different periods during these years, War offers several new angles on a seemingly well-known story as the consequences of abandonment, dynastic inter-marriage and loyalty test the glory narrative of men fighting for honour – something that Briseis notes men are born with but women must earn with their chastity and good behaviour.

The strongest of the three collections Labyrinth is framed by the stories of Theseus and Jason, heroic men on quests to defeat monsters and bring glory to their people. Instead, they leave a trail of female destruction in their wake, one which these playwrights argue is visited back on them. The Desert has a looser thematic connection between the women featured but focuses on tales of revenge, empowerment and decision-making that takes the characters in new directions.

Rewriting Women’s Stories

Looking across the three collections, the segments are at their best when they entirely rethink as well as modernise the role of each character, transitioning to a position of strength rather than the passivity afforded them by myths and legends, even when their narratives and purpose has been shaped by the men around them. Abi Zakarian is one of the most successful, putting a very different spin on the life of Achilles’s wife who, won as part of the spoils of war, has only the only true sense of agency in the first collection of monologues. Brilliantly performed by Jemima Rooper, Briseis is sharp, savvy and more than a match for anyone who crosses her path and Zakarian’s text changes pace confidently with elements of comic excess that unexpectedly evolve into something a little more savage in the surprising but delicious conclusion.

We see this also in Bryony Lavery’s reimagining of the deserted Ariadne seduced by Theseus after slaying her Minotaur brother and left to wander alone on Naxos. Entitled String and included in the Labyrinth collection, alhough scorned, it is Ariadne’s brilliant mind, her scientific reason and rationality that dominate a story in which Theseus becomes a minor blip in an otherwise educated and full life. Performed by Patsy Ferran, Ariadne comes alive in this 20-minute piece, given emotional depth and a wry humour that Ferran inhabits entirely while the build-up to the final moment of female strength is grippingly played.

Also from Labyrinth, Samantha Ellis’s retelling of Phyllis’s abandonment by Theseus’s son Demophon is one of the smartest and most atmospheric monologues in the programme. And while this is a fairly straightforward rage against abandonment trajectory, Ellis gives depth and purpose to Phyllis’s experience. Staged as a dramatic and gothic woodland scene, Nathalie Armin imbues the character with a force of personality that turns the story upside down, showing that Phyllis is not merely another tragic woman who can’t live without a man, but that Demophon has foolishly messed with the wrong one. Like Ariadne, this woman is going to have the final say. Taken out of ordinary rooms and the recognisable locations of other stories and placed in a mystical place of possible witchcraft and spirits, I’m Still Burning is one of the most powerful pieces in the three anthologies.

Desert also offers up some smart twists on the original tale, placing Rosalind Eleazar’s Dido in a different light as the woman who built a city from nothing and makes a sound-minded decision to end her life – rather life Cleopatra – following the departure of Aeneas, rather than a suicide hastened by pining loss. Likewise, April De Angelis’s reworking of Hercules’s partner Deianaria as a scorned footballer’s wife who exacts a terrible revenge on her cheating husband. By recasting the hero’s labours as soccer achievements and a pivotal Strictly appearance, performer Indra Ové exposes the unsavoury underbelly of celebrity and the hollow reality of the monied lifestyle.

A complete scenario reset also offers contemporary insight and reflection, for Isley Lynn who intriguingly places her Canace (Eleanor Tomlinson) on a chat show in which the audience only hears one side of the conversation. If unfamiliar with the story, over the course of 15-minutes we slowly piece together the facts of a grand romance gone badly wrong as the outside world comes crashing it. Intriguing too is Desert’s concluding piece by Lorna French about Sappho whose quiet start explodes into a conversation about Windrush, race and betrayal that makes Britain itself the crushing lover.

Wailing and Waiting

Some of the writers have done less to reorientate their characters, and while settings or eras have been updated, they remain entirely defined by the men who have left them – even when more interesting possibilities present themselves. In Know I Should Have by Natalie Haynes (Labyrinth), Hypsipyle becomes another bitter, wine-drinking victim when Jason abandons her to seek the Golden Fleece and falls for Medea. Olivia Williams is very credible as the crossed Queen, but on an island filled with women who have slain their dishonest menfolk, why is this tale of marital abandonment the one Haynes wants to tell – a powerful monarch of female warriors reduced to a Bridget Jones parody with a side of rage.

Lettie Precious has the same problem with Oenone in War, bemoaning the departure of Paris in such heightened and desperate terms that the audience just wants her to pull herself together. The fascinating tones of racism and its physical manifestation in the body are overwhelmed by the debased pleading. Likewise the story of Penelope in War, though amusingly played by Gemma Whelan, becomes that of just a nice middle class wife waiting interminably for news of Ulysses return in Hannah Khalil’s interpretation in which Penelope sends nagging text messages while being entirely defined by her man.

None of these approaches moves very far from Ovid or the two millenia of dismissal heaped on these women already. Only Charlotte Jones gets the balance right with Laodamia’s tale, a piece that borders on the heightened comedy of reality TV to present the fearful wife of Protesilaus who goes to war on behalf of Menelaus. Laodamia (Sophia Eleni) may be a wailing woman wanting her man to return but her story has more contemporary resonance, exploring concerns about joining fights that are not their own, her own reflections on Helen’s supposed allure and the underlying pain felt by military wives who fear the worst.

Failing Masculinity

One notable theme across all fifteen stories, however, is the common failings of masculinity and while battles and concepts of honour have been celebrated for two thousand years, these women offer an alternative perspective. In fact, the male characters collectively referred to in absentia are uniformly feckless, cheating, disloyal, selfish and unnecessarily aggressive, prizing conflict and its spoils far beyond anything truly meaningful with the women who care for them.

In War, the eagerness with which the various male leaders flock to Menelaus’s side is treated with disdain by the wives, a foolish decade-long fight over nothing (to them). But it engenders a series of terrible deeds, women like Briseis won as trophies and then despoiled, Menelaus and Helen’s own daughter Hermoine (written by Sabrina Mahfouz) sold in marriage and raped by her husband for ancestral gain while Paris, so often represented as the ardent and impassioned lover, is shown cuckolding women long before he lays claim to Helen.

The notion of men as serial seducers, not to be trusted burns through Labyrinth as several of the protagonists fall for Theseus, his son or Jason, abandoning all reason and their virginity before being summarily replaced by a younger or more attractive alternative partner. The picture of reckless and careless conquerors this creates is not so much honourable as despicable when each man heads off on further quests with promises to write and return. History, written by men, has pitched these characters as heroes and Gods, but across 15 Heroines a new possibility emerges in which these breakers of oaths fall foul of their all-too-human vices.

In coordinating fifteen playwrights, characters and performers Jermyn Street Theatre have successfully completed their own Herculean labours to deliver this fascinating anthology. Across three beautifully staged and filmed collections each lasting around 80-minutes, 15 Heroines is an impressive and energised reworking of Greek myth that leaves the audience keen to find out more about each of these women and their remarkable lives.

15 Heroines was streamed in repertory by Jermyn Street Theatre from 9-14 November and will be available again from 20-22 November. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Film Preview: Don’t Let the Devil Take Another Day

Don't Let the Devil Take Another Day by Ben Lowe

One of the most distinctive voices of the past twenty years both vocally and lyrically, Kelly Jones had an extraordinary and unexpected 2019 involving two albums – one with his band the Stereophonics – and an acclaimed solo tour working with new musicians in intimate venues around the country. But it almost didn’t happen. Ben Lowe’s new documentary which premiered at the BFI Southbank on the eve of lockdown inadvertently became the opening and closing film of the Doc’n Roll Festival pending a now postponed cinema release.

It has been a tough year for cinemas and for film festivals forced online by a pandemic that has once again closed arts venues just as they were resurging. The handful of screenings the BFI managed during the London Film Festival were enthusiastically received in their Covid-safe and socially distanced cinemas and they have long championed diverse programming that has often included music retrospectives. Lowe’s documentary may only have been seen on a big screen by the hundred or so people at this event, but will appear online along with the remainder of the Doc’n Roll Festival.

Structure: Authenticity in Adversity

No ordinary musician movie, Don’t Let The Devil Take Another Day is about the cost and importance of storytelling, the creative process and cumulative pressures of performance across a career spanning two decades. Part fly-on-the-wall insight into Jones’s solo tour, part biography and part exploration of the personal and professional challenges that 2019 brought, Lowe successfully side-steps the cliched tour bus approach of endless concerts, wild behaviour and backstage dramas as well as the semi-spoofed interactions of difficult personalities and creative differences.

Instead, Lowe uses the structure of the solo concert – also titled Don’t Let the Devil Take Another Day – to delve deeper into the stories that Jones tells throughout to explain and explore the influences and experiences behind the music. The song selection for the tour reflected what Jones considered the key moments of adversity and crisis in his career, so in structuring his insightful film, Lowe adopts a dual stranded architecture; the first is a time-based approach that anchors the wider purpose of the documentary in what appears to be a single version of the concert comprised from several nights of the tour as it evolves across a handful of UK venues. With this in place to guide the shape of the story Lowe is telling, it allows the director to break out into a light-touch history of the Stereophonics to reveal the cathartic nature of the creative process in composition and songwriting, considering what it means to perform and hear the songs as Jones contemplates a cross-roads in his musical development.

Referenced in the opening moments of the film and explored in more detail in some of these contextual sections, there is a triumph over adversity sub-narrative at play that sits beneath Don’t Let the Devil Take Another Day as the reason for the solo tour and the existence of the film itself is eventually explained. But, coming to Lowe’s attention only after original and location filming was complete, it is a theme that is modestly explored, a private challenge included with empathy but without sensationalism in a series of matter-of-fact sequences that are central to but do not solely define a film driven by contemplation of the inspiration for and consequences of live performance.

The strength of this approach lies in its authenticity, tying the film’s structure to the revealing intimacy of the concert programme and the work ethic of its creator. Lowe’s ability to understand and reflect that on screen gives the film its genuine depth and heart, elevating the material beyond the standard gigs and gossip narrative.

The Creative Process

Most of all, Don’t Let the Devil Take Another Day is a film about the creative process, how a burgeoning idea is informed by everyday experience, shaped and honed into a musical product before recording and performing it. And these are two related by distinct activities, as Jones explained in the subsequent Q&A – the music comes regardless of the opportunity to perform. And the film is about challenging the status quo to a degree so we see Jones not only working with a different group of musicians on stage but collaborating with Dwight Baker and Patricia Lynn from support band The Wind and the Wave. Having always written alone and changing little in the edit, the quiet process of working through melodies and lyrics – which Lowe captures in dressing rooms and studios – with two other songwriters is a revealing one, pushing the more instinctual creativity of Jones to revisit ideas while challenging the scrutinizing Lynne in particular not to overthink the songwriting process.

But the creative act can also be a difficult one when the concept of performance itself becomes a taxing experience. And here Lowe returns to the adversity sub-narrative using personal iPhone footage, a supportive voicemail from Tom Jones and several expert talking heads to reveal a new level of anxiety in the months preceding the tour. Used to capturing a song in two or three takes during album production, Jones openly struggles when recording the album Kind and the film is compassionate in its portrayal of vulnerability in these moments, looking with balance at how ongoing success in the music business – and to have delivered an album every other year for more than two decades is remarkable in itself – as well as an innate need to compose and create becomes both a point of crisis and engineers a more optimistic future.

All About the Music

Jones has always created music that reflect his own experiences and state of mind (increasingly so in recent years) and, during the Q&A, the singer admitted that his lyrics are now more openly reflective of his state of mind than some of metaphor-shrouded songs of the past. Anyone listening to Kind, the anxious recording of which is shown in this film ahead of it release last autumn, will notice how directly Jones confronts the work of the past two decades and its effect on his mental health. ‘So much responsibility / Sometimes I cannot breathe’ he sings in This Life Ain’t Easy in which the fast-paced pressures of modern life crowd-in on the protagonist as ‘the stitches in my skin keep falling out’ (Stitches). This is clearly an artist grappling with the bigger question of history, achievement, purpose and meaning.

Yet, these contemplative numbers have always been a part of the Stereophonics music, sometimes nestled among the anthemic focus of earlier albums but a consistent theme nonetheless. From the philosophical Is Yesterday Tomorrow Today (Performance and Cocktails) to fan favourite Maybe Tomorrow (You Gotta Go There to Come Back), Drowning (Pull the Pin) and No One’s Perfect (Graffiti on the Train), Jones returns again and again to these same questions about the path the band has taken and its personal consequences – something which Lowe’s film draws out extremely well in the particular programme selected for the solo concerts.

The openness with which Jones confronts the daily expectations to deliver and perform music, support family and the still noticeable absence of Stuart Cable are given subtle significance in Lowe’s film using archive material about the Stereophonics, home videos, backstage footage, commentary from Jones himself in direct retrospective interview as well as the stories he told the audience on tour. All of this expands on and reinforces the personal perspective of the show and ultimately the music itself.

And, while fans love the big stadium performance of Dakota (Language Sex Violence Other) or The Bartender and the Thief (Performance and Cocktails), some of the greatest moments in a Stereophonics tour are the reworked and stripped back acoustic versions of well known songs where just Jones’s distinctive voice fills the room. This was characteristic of the reworked simplicity of the songs selected for the smaller scale solo tour venues and Lowe’s film lingers on some of these performances, placing the astounding vocal quality centre stage. Don’t Let the Devil Take Another Day includes extracts from Suzy and Katie from Jones’s only other solo album Only the Names Have Been Changed, You’re My Star and as well as a stunning extended performance of Kris Kristofferson’s Help Me Make it Through the Night, a song Jones remembers his father singing in the clubs, filmed in close shot to emphasise the tenderness of the performance.

Lyrically contemplative, Lowe’s film also focuses on the how the musical composition of the Stereophonics and Jones’s skill as a composer has evolved and expanded since the band launched its indie rock sound in the mid-1990s. These have facilitated greater experimentation allowing each album as to act as biographical markers and milestones of musical development. With a solo tour band comprising drummer Cherisse Osei, violinist Fiona Bruce and multi-instrumentalist Gavin Fitzjohn, we also see the move towards a wider symphonic and orchestral sound that has led to diversity between albums releases. From Handbags and Gladrags to Sunny (Keep the Village Alive) and What’s All the Fuss About (Scream Above the Sounds) which has a complex Bond theme quality to the second half with a heavy brass section, this move beyond guitars and drums to multilayered scores and arrangements is captured in Lowe’s documentary in a focus on the wider selection of instruments appearing on stage with Jones.

Don’t Let the Devil Take Another Day, Jones explained during the Q&A was intended to record the solo concerts, having grown out of plans in discussion since 2015 to document two decades of the Stereophonics. It was only subsequently that the underlying circumstances gave a difference resonance to the film, allowing Lowe to reorientate the narrative. By necessity, it makes the personal stories told on stage and its song selection even more meaningful, while clearly opening a new and fairly optimistic chapter.

There is much about this film that is unassuming, not least the personality of its protagonist, and Lowe is successful in delivering an intimately staged and shot 90-minute movie about a testing period of detailed self-reflection and transition. But this is always a film that is about that magical quality of music in performance and, having only recently been able to hear live music in an indoor venue again, this film will make you hunger for that experience of sound echoing and reverberating around you. Grounded in the specific music choices from the tour and the stories these songs tell, Don’t Let the Devil Take Another Day explores the power of creative inspiration and the extraordinary potency of one distinctive voice.

The cinema release for Don’t Let the Devil Take Another Day has been delayed until 11 December and will be available as a digital download from 18 December with an album released on 4 December. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Crave – Chichester Festival Theatre

Crave - Chichester Festival Theatre (by Marc Brenner)

And it was all going so well. Theatres were just starting to reopen and finding ways to reconnect with culture-starved audiences using a hybrid model of live performance and digital streaming when the announcement of a second lockdown is sure to heap further misery on a industry already ravaged by months of closure. This will make Sarah Kane’s Crave, which launched Chichester Festival Theatre’s first indoor season since the spring, one of the last new productions to premiere before a further month-long closure. With it’s press night this evening and a likely run of just six of its ten performances, Crave will join a litany of shows that the virus stopped short.

The Playhouse Theatre in London still bears advertisements for The Seagull, a Jamie Lloyd production that never made it to press night and perhaps has scant chance of reuniting its original cast. Across the river, the National Theatre reopened just shy of two weeks ago and its planned press night for The Death of England: Delroy scheduled for Thursday is unable to proceed as planned. New show or not, most West End theatres were mothballed in March with their frontages frozen in time. Walk past the Duke of York’s and Noel Coward on St Martin’s Lane today and you will still see their posters for Blithe Spirit and Dear Evan Hansen (which should return eventually), while the the Wyndhams on Charing Cross Road still bears its banners for Leopoldstadt that should have finished long ago.

It is by no means certain that those theatres that have or planned to open will automatically resume once more on 2 December if rehearsals are unable to proceed under the new restrictions and the running costs of the closed venues as well as refunding tickets sales for November prove prohibitive. So this brief period of resumption is all the more significant and for those who manage to see Crave before its final performance (likely to be on Wednesday) will have experienced one of the most challenging and unusual pieces revived so far, a play that (appropriate for its immediate future) already has a haunting quality.

A four-person experience which can be performed with on-stage social distancing, ask anyone what exactly Crave is about and they would not be able to tell you. It is a mass of stories, lines and experiences that change shape across its 50-minute runtime, a series of impressions that flit between internal and external monologue, direct dialogue and maybe even dream sequences that gives a collective impression of the pain caused by emotional connections to people, and the burden of enduring life both in isolation and in relation to others.

It is a poetic piece, more to be experienced than understood perhaps, one that revels in its ambiguity ascribing neither names nor gender to its speakers – they can barely be called characters – while using language that is emphatic about or descriptive of suffering. Crave has strands of conversation that seem to overlap or answer one another and part of the puzzle of this play is working out whether any of the speakers are directly addressing one another either immediately or several lines later, or in fact if the cast referred to only as A, B, C and M are consistently given lines from the same disjointed story or perform several different roles to create the overall effect.

And little of it makes for easy viewing. The controversy of Kane’s work has largely focused on the explicitly violent nature of her plays and while Crave is gentler than her earlier writing, there are repeated references to brutality, perversity and forms of sexual exploitation that puncture the air. That it is dressed in and surrounded by more intricate concepts of personal torment expressed in this poetic form does not detract from the difficult subject of victims and perpetrators that fills her work as people pursue unsavory and unhealthy forms of love.

With no stage directions and few clues to era and place within the text, director Tinuke Craig places the cast side by side on parallel treadmills that slowly pulls each of them towards the back of the stage and which they must fight against to be heard. The association with Kane’s theme on the struggles for life and love are clear, and the speakers must walk forward to claim the attention of the audience and some kind of space for their dialogue within the show. Craig keeps the pace of the machines fairly slow, thereby reducing the mechanical noise, giving the actors time to sit, crouch or stand as their role demands.

It is an approach that also heralds the different chapters within Crave, allowing Craig to build to more intense moments of crescendo as the pace quickens. There are no scenes or breaks indicated in the text apart from some lengthier monologues for A, so the company is free to interpret as they chose. And here Craig gives us two significant peaks of tension before the eventual conclusion, using a building delivery speed and physical positioning of the actors across the staging to convey the differing rhythms and tones in Kane’s dialogue as the speakers confront the past, their identities, mistakes and themselves in some kind of quest for truth and self-understanding.

One way of doing this is placing the actors at different heights and points on their treadmills as each fulfills what seems to be an individual journey through Kane’s plotless approach. But Craig also utilises live feed video projection from four cameras placed at the front of each treadmill as well as pre-recorded head and shoulder images of the solo cast members in varying exposures of black and white. Craig and video designer Ravi Deepres overlap this footage across the large rear wall of the stage, creating a smoke like effect and the impression of individual faces overlaying one another in a visual representation of the play’s complex linguistic structure.

For viewers watching at home, this becomes even more affecting in a production where the streamed experience has been given as much thought as the impression of those in the room. When these layered video effects are employed they also create ghostly forms on screen as the multiple images projected are intermingled with shots from the stage giving an impression via the stream of spectre-like figures reflected and refracted through a kaleidoscope. Used only in the few moments of extreme intensity in the play, the hall of mirrors effect underscores the interior pressures the speakers feel and the distorting effect of their experiences on their concepts of self identity.

The online viewer is offered shots from multiple angles with several cameras placed around the auditorium to give close-ups, full-stage shots and perspectives from around the apron stage to vary the visual experience of the play – particularly effective when the actors are placed in a perfect diagonal line across their treadmills. Craig also makes one significant use of the stage revolve to turn the four treadmills, their occupants and their lives in one unhurried rotation that adds to the building disorientation for the four speakers, which the live feed also captures from several angles to create a similar dizzying effect.

This is a difficult play for the performers who have clearly spent a great deal of time unpicking Kane’s work and trying to create four distinct but amorphous subjects whose collective and individual experiences must create the same degree of resonance. Arguable, Jonathan Slinger as A has the most complex of these, certainly in terms of the length of his role, which includes several extensive monologues with some of the darkest subject matter. The longest of these runs for several minutes about the day-to-day intricacies of a relationship.

Slinger has a world-weary approach to A, delivering one liners like ‘I am not a rapist’ and ‘I am pedophile’ as matter-of-fact statements that hang unresolved in the air, before delivering this extraordinary central speech with a building passion as A describes all the ways he loves and experiences his partner, the ups and downs of their long affair as well as the underlying anxieties they both experience. Without punctuation, on the page it speeds up in your head as you read it and Slinger exactly captures the breathless pace of it, the precise rhythm of Kane’s writing that is both overwhelming and almost tender in its expression of feeling.

Other speakers are given very different roles in the play and depending on the interpretation, whether the show is built around one individual or all of them equally will vary the effect. In Craig’s version it is C played by Erin Doherty that seems to be the focus, the intensity of her pain grounding the production as she grapples with her past while allowing the other stories to circumnavigate her experience even when not directly engaging with or referencing her narrative.

Of all the speakers, C appears to be in agony, Doherty often closer to the back of the stage, scrunched up as fragments of past remembrances return to her. At the end of A’s lengthy speech, C delivers a pulsating chant of ‘this has to stop’ which builds in volume while she tries to understand what she is grieving for. Doherty exudes that despair well as notions of childhood suffering and repressed memories of what may be abuse resurface in patchy recollections that affect her ability to process the here and now.

Played by Wendy Kweh, M has a more muted entry into the play at first (at least by Kane’s standards), a lost lover, a possible pregnancy and a confusion about who she is. Repeatedly she says in what seem to be answers to B’s statements that she is not a mother and not an older woman, but soon there is a short speech about an appropriated memory of childhood, someone else’s story that M has acquired and Kweh offers-up an impression of time slippage and uncertainty about the sequence of events, as though in a repetitive loop.

Finally, B played by Alfred Enoch is the least knowable of the set who seems to live for experiential pleasures of drugs, sex and alcohol, a physical neediness that runs through the early part of the play. There is a distance in this speaker that never really gets beyond the surface gratification although Enoch, in keeping with the other performances, also makes B matter-of-fact rather than lustful, and his lines more than any other seem to exist on their own, as though you could put them all together to form one coherent speech directed at an unseen other.

Crave was only slated to run until 7th so early closure will affect the final few performances and while the venue may not be able to just spring back to life on 2 December, the decision to stage this play as one of the first productions after its long hiatus feels like a statement of intent for a theatre that has long been a feeder institution for the West End. A challenging watch with added enhancement for its online audience, a Sarah Kane play is by no means a safe option for any theatre looking to attract audiences back to its auditorium, but this bold and intriguing production was worth the risk. During the extended spring and summer closure, there were fears that most playhouses would return with conservative audience favourites, but instead have given us combinations of new work, new staging methods and new models of engagement from arts venues around the country. Who knows whether we’ll sit in a theatre again this year but the last two months give us hope that theatre in 2021 might dare to be different.

Crave is scheduled to run at Chichester Festival Theatre until 7 November but will likely close on 4 November. In-house and live stream tickets are available for every performance from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

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