Monthly Archives: January 2021

Staged: Series 2 – An Uber-Meta Constructed Reality

Staged Series 2 - BBC

The final episodes of Staged Season 2, Simon Evans’s hilarious lockdown comedy, air this week and, as with its first appearance last Summer, it has proved a lockdown boon. And while the show is inherently theatrical both in style and content while reflecting the screen boxes in which we have all lived for so long, Evans smartly decided to reorientate this second collection of episodes to give the interactions between characters a different energy while recasting and reconfiguring the audiences’ perspective on everything that had come before.

Originally Staged was of-the moment television created in response to and within the confines of the first national lockdown. It uses the video calling platform as its basis for communcation between a number of socially and geographically distant parties forced to reconsider their working practices as a result of the pandemic in order to progress with the development of a new piece of content. Both before and since, the boxed effect of this software has been seen across the arts as performances moved online and Staged, which was among the first to use this technique on mainstream television to underscore both its content and visual appearance, was unlike anything else before it.

Both Series 1 and 2 of Staged are inherently theatrical, with the first six episodes especially focused on the challenge for two reputed and sought after performers as well as their Director in failing to rehearse a version of Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author – the nature of which the show mirrored. In terms of personnel alone, Series 1 utilised the particular nature of theatre-making, the rehearsal processes, casting and publicity along with the shape and form of Pirandello’s play as the characters slowly rebel against the authority of the Director. The deeply rooted theatre basis that ran through the first series was then enhanced with guest appearances from respected thespians Adrian Lester and Judi Dench who expanded the stage community that Evans’s script required.

Constructed Reality?

Series 2 continues to utilise the (now commonplace) video box style of Internet calling yet Evans has very carefully and astutely shifted the perspective of the show to give the premise a longer life. A tried and tested formula, more of the same would have been an easy sell but this new set of eight episodes allows the story to evolve in a very different direction and takes its inspiration instead from television rather than theatre. The central conceit is that Staged is now openly acknowledged as a TV show, a phenomenon for which an American remake is mooted with alternative stars. Instantly everything we thought we had witnessed in Series 1 is cast into doubt, a fictionalised reality where scenarios and characters were deliberately ‘constructed’.

The intimate ‘fly-on-the-wall’ quality of Series 1 has been repositioned as an elaborate fabrication in which the personal highs and lows of its famous protagonists in early lockdown were merely a feint. Staged Series 2 begins from this point of acknowledgment, recasting the existence of its predecessor as primarily a commercial rather than an artistic endeavour which will now be sold internationally. In both, the false past of Series 1 and the ‘truer’ reality presented in Series 2, mean Staged is owning its existence as a form of constructed reality.

The label may seem an unusual one for a BBC show about the interaction between two highly esteemed actors, but cast aside some of the negative implications of the term and Evans has actually created a form of heightened reality in which real people using their real names and relationships play versions of themselves. The way in which these scenarios drive the plot, the adoption and exaggeration of elements of the subjects’ day-to-day experiences and responses, the limited geographical location, techniques from soap opera drama and the editorial shaping of scenes, ‘chance’ meetings and conversations all figure in Staged, and are the very definition of constructed reality in which preconceived scenarios are exaggerated and spun for entertainment purposes.

When the character of David is caught lying to Samuel L Jackson and Michael Sheen twice in Series 1: Episode 3 it may be pure farce but, equally, it is the fundamental drama basis of most constructed reality shows where characters routinely lie, cheat, sell each other out and endure explosive bar-based confrontations. And this is even more apparent in Series 2 which leans openly into its reality TV credentials using Series 1 as a product to sell that Michael and David can sabotage. Again, the audience is given fly-on-the-wall access that echoes shows like Airport and even early Big Brother that journeyed to fiction through The Office and ultimately to Staged.

In each episode of Series 2, constructed conversations with possible US Davids and Michaels take place of which only a snippet is shown to the viewer, while the apparently conflicting ‘real life’ demands of family, filming schedules and old enmities distract and dominate the leads, giving them the chance to settle old scores. That the name of the show has multiple dimensions takes on a new significance in Series 2, not just referencing ‘the stage’ which thematically defined Series 1 and the meta level ‘staging’ of a televised conversation between two friends, but the notion of staging is fundamental to the constructed reality genre that Evans introduces into his concept with these new episodes.


Staged was always a show that drew on the meta associations of actors playing versions of themselves rehearsing a play while revealing the (here) lethargic process of developing a theatre production during a time of national crisis. The play withing a play concept fed throughout Series 1 offering plenty of humour as the protagonists misbehaved, lost focus and revealed their fears about their own styles and career paths. Series 2 takes the concept to a whole new level recasting the previously “true” story and making us aware instead that we were seeing actors playing versions of themselves playing versions of themselves – eight episodes of which can only be described as uber-meta.

And if that wasn’t mind-bending enough, Series 2 twists these meta principles even further by adopting a driver in which various pairs of actors are in discussion to play the parts in the American remake which will result in two actors playing versions of two other actors playing versions of themselves. So, within the boundaries of Series 2 many of the episodes contain both Tennant and Sheen plus cameos from single guests or duos each of whom is also playing a fictionalised version of themselves and who audition to play Sheen and Tennant in the US adaptation of the show (two actors playing versions of themselves playing two other actors playing versions of themselves). It is a Scaramanga / The Lady of Shanghai hall of mirrors that will hurt your head if you think about it too much.

A much simpler meta device focuses once again on Evans as a writer that cunningly incorporates some of the Series 1 feedback to create a recurring joke about improvisation. Lots of comedy is gleaned from Sheen and Tennant’s evident dissatisfaction at being recast and a fluid insistence on how much of the script they contributed to. The character of ‘Simon’ has been relocated to America (or at least to a leafy garden doubling for LA) for Series 2 where he continually reminds his original leads that he wrote the show and is therefore free to sell the material without consultation. That the hapless Simon is now doing rather well for himself and, for the most part, controlling the conversation is a clear development from Series 1 but that doesn’t prevent Evans as the writer from concocting scenarios in which guest stars question his input into conversations performed by Tennant and Sheen. The possibility of rewrites that crops up later in the series takes us into another meta loop of external rewrites of rewrites of a show Evans wrote, but let’s not start all that again.

Does it Work?

On the whole Series 2 is very successful, moving the story along in an interesting and perhaps unexpected way as Evans turns the premise of Staged on its head while extending it and even opening the possibility of further development – if each period of lockdown results in a new series of Staged then it can’t be too bad. But there are two areas where the second season slightly overreaches itself and despite two additional episodes has a slight tendency to focus on the action away from the spiky but devoted engagement between Sheen and Tennant which is the series’ biggest draw.

The premise of Series 2 requires a lot of guest appearances from performers with a more significant American profile than the UK version of the show. However, unlike Series 1 where guests were used sparingly and purposefully, here they become increasingly distracting using the impact of their profile rather than fully serving the story. Some of these scenarios, while jokey, do become repetitive as famous face after famous face reads a portion of the Series 1 script with Tennant and / or Sheen without really moving the story along.

And in places there is a falseness in their appearance that breaks the illusion of reality that Evans has created. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost riff with one another but, despite a real life friendship, their brief appearance in Episode 3 feels uneasy and stagier than it should. Later a reel of celebrity faces from Josh Gad to Jim Parsons and Ewan McGregor play themselves to varying effect – many of these encounters are humorous but they start to feel overdone. The star appearance works best either in the concluding episode when Evans provides a final and well-staged twist or when big names play non-real characters – so we mourn the loss of Nina Sosanya’s searing agent from most of the series (now we know she is not Jo but Nina) but welcome an equally brutal Whoopi Goldberg in a successfully fictionalised role.

There is a similar pallor to the expanded story given to Georgia Tennant, Anna Lundberg and in a couple of episodes Lucy Eaton who now have their own plot points outside the male-focused American adaptation. Having their perspectives is a valuable counterbalance and they have a great screen chemistry that brings a leveling hilarity to the more emotional interaction of Sheen and Tennant as they discuss an online charity event where the women will play versions of their partners. But the audience never gets to see it and developments in the show’s concluding episode essentially saps a possible outcome for these female characters.

While Series 2 occasionally tries to do too many things, the joyous interactions between Sheen and Tennant are the heart of the show and always its most successful element when they have time alone together on screen to rant, rave and connect. The progress in their relationship in this series is charmingly managed, building on the friendly fire of the first and using the rivalries with the guest stars to disrupt their relationship as well as give them a common enemy to unite against. There is a valuable consistency of character with Series 1, so even though they now acknowledge those initial versions were fictions, the emphasis on mental health, their bruised egos and unresolved feelings of displacement caused by the inability to work add to the richness of the developing bond between them.

Staged Series 2 successfully continues the story of these characters by utilising the concepts and conventions of reality television to create a window into the characters of David and Michael while playing with the interpretive layers of its enjoyable esoteric construct. That it is dressed in the production values, filming quality and casting power of the BBC while harnessing the immediacy of the video calling platforms in our lives may distract you but Staged is part of the broadening constructed reality genre. Popular culture and the arts are not so very far apart after all.

Staged Series 1 and 2 are available on the BBC iPlayer. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

Unlimited Festival – Southbank Centre

Unlimited Festival - Southbank Centre

Festivals are a vital part of the theatre ecosystem, a place to try out new material, explore form and style while giving a valuable platform to all kinds of performance. These activities have been among the hardest hit during the period of closure with big events including the Vault Festival which would have started in a couple of weeks, Latitude 2020 was unable to go ahead while a question mark hangs over even this year’s Edinburgh Festival after last year’s cancellation. As part of theatre’s hoped-for reorientation to new voices and theatremakers in 2021, the Southbank Centre has hosted a free four day cultural celebration – the Unlimited Festival – combining music, dance, art and theatre with several digital premieres and on-demand screenings all created by disabled performers and creatives.

The theatre and performance offerings as with any festival have been eclectic covering topics as diverse as human connection in a shopping mall, communication through hip hop, the experience of running and mindfulness. Some of the most intriguing have used their disability as the architecture of a show which explores both impediments to and enhancements of an individual’s engagement with society. Three quite different pieces of theatre have been among the most engaging both in content and use of theatre forms to engage with the viewer in this newly configured digital space.


Sophie Woolley’s one-woman show Augmented was filmed at the onset of the first lockdown when the show’s original tour was cancelled and uses its 70-minute autobiographical format to realign the experience of hearing loss. Primarily, it considers the extent to which medical intervention has far wider implications for how Woolley is seen by her loved ones and how her perceptions of the world are intriguingly compromised by the opportunity to ‘fix’ her hearing. Part-celebration, part comedy story and part semi-immersive visual representation of hearing loss and the ‘cyborg’ Woolley proudly becomes, Augmented uses its chronological structure to explore how our physical experience becomes entwined with personality and how concepts of ‘normality’ can shift throughout our lives.

In a Q&A with director Rachel Bagshaw, the concept of Woolley as several different versions of herself emerged during the preparatory process – the writer, the performer and the subject – and the episodic nature of the storytelling replicates this with scenes in which Woolley is cast in the role of daughter, girlfriend, patient, colleague, friend and short-story creator, all of which link seamlessly together while offering a perspective on the very ordinary challenges faced by most people and how these are reorientated by hearing loss and debates around medical intervention.

Some of the most enjoyable sections include a crucial book signing with a well-known author that the character of Sophie is barely able to communicate with because her sign interpreter has called in sick. How this scenario escalates from polite but awkward interaction to reveal the rising fury of Sophie’s internal monologue and vital missed opportunity to network is hilariously managed, a technique that infuses Augmented as Woolley distinguishes between the reactions and expectations of others as well as Sophie’s own needs and complex emotional reactions.

And these personal connections are what adds a valuable texture to Woolley’s show, peopling the story with useful sketches of family and friends that enhance and affect her own perspective. But through these interactions the audience begins to understand the subtle underlying political points that Woolley outlines. After her implant, Sophie is chastised by her mother for turning her face away during conversation making it impossible to lipread and opening-up an interesting avenue that considers what aspects of hearing we take for granted, behavioural etiquette and some challenging ideas about the ‘relief’ that family and friends imply when they expect Sophie to return to ‘normal’ as Woolley honestly weighs up the advantages and relationship changes of the augmented sound she eventually hears, part of the show which is ripe for development.

The visual dynamic of the show is designed with the audience in mind and while muted on screen, the use of rolling text projected onto the springy rear curtain, an immersive soundscape of loud noises, bleeps and chimes as well as the use of lighting to demarcate the fantasy moments are designed to inclusively convey as much of the show to the audience as possible. Music has a different role to play, one that is integral to the character of Sophie who enjoyed clubs as a young adult with full hearing and who comes to relish the opportunities to ‘bluetooth’ music through her cochlear implant in quite a different way to natural hearing. As she dances in several sections of Augmented, the joy and freedom of the experience is vividly expressed and in a show with a single protagonist it also creates an energy onstage that allows Woolley to connect different parts of her life and her evolving experience of the soundscape as she incrementally moves between the stages of her life.

I Was Naked, Smelling of Rain

Aidan Moseby’s 50-minute show couldn’t be more different and more relevant to this most protracted period of social isolation. I Was Naked Smelling of Rain draws direct parallels between the British obsession with weather and the ways in which the terminology of climate filters through the language of mental health and of loneliness in particular. Like Woolley, Moseby uses the performance format to chart his own experience of a condition that continues to affect his interaction with the world in some unexpected ways, explored within the chapters of his monologue.

Staged by Director Daniel Bye as a dramatic reading, there is something of the formal natural science lecture about Moseby’s visual choices sitting next to his laptop in a room constructed to look like a small study that enhances the very personal nature of the show while creating an atmosphere when Moseby draws on historical and anecdotal examples to expand on his central thesis. Lighting and Duncan Speakman’s sound creates further tension in the narrative, particularly in segments where Moseby honestly discusses the melancholy and even suicidal urges that occasionally overwhelm him.

But I Was Naked Smelling of Rain is a piece built on language, its simplicity not perhaps inherently theatrical, but made vivid for the audience through Moseby’s descriptive passages that lend a compelling authenticity to his performance. The simple and everyday experience of supermarket shopping or parking his car become significant hurdles to overcome in a mind seeking order and routine, where deciding between too many types of tomato or driving two hours to find someone else is in his favourite space may be amusing on one level but Moseby unceremoniously shows how affecting these events could be for someone unable to take his neural processes and emotional reaction for granted.

The range of Moseby’s research which relishes the almost poetic expression of weather epigrams is impressive, drawing together a range of material that reinforce and find strong resonance in the experiences he conveys. That weather is simultaneously a tool for small talk, a national obsession and is filled with words that can be applied as readily to describe his varied interior landscape encourages the audience to think more broadly not only about the diverse impacts of chronic loneliness in particular but the etymology of its verbal expression. Like Woolley, Mosley is able to take the viewer somewhat inside his own perspective, honest about the challenges of his condition but, with new connections forming, tentatively optimistic about the future.

Instagramming the Apocalypse

A complete contrast again is Byron Vincent’s 75-minute film adapted from his original stage show and exactly what an arts festival is for – a chance for creatives to explore new avenues for their output while testing the limits of their material. A first-time filmmaker, Instagramming the Apocalypse was recorded entirely on Vincent’s phone and comments on the lure of social media, the creation of anxiety and the consequences of these platforms for real-life interaction using a to-camera narrative about relationship infidelity and its aftermath.

Vincent uses a pseudo-documentary style to make his argument, combining the unfolding story with related digressions about his own experience of PTSD and Bi-polar disorder as well as contextual discussions about the nature of media platforms and some of the science behind it. And while the original show uses the live audience as the confident, here the camera becomes the sympathetic viewer as the open and charming Vincent plays with concepts of fake news, narrative authority and reliability across this astutely managed piece that uses the nature of storytelling to reveal how easily our brains rely on and believe in misconceptions and misdirection.

The central story itself is a relatively simple one but what makes Instagramming the Apocalypse so fascinating is its visual style created in the editing process using layers of images, split screens and rapid cuts to bombard the viewer with pictorial messages. Building on graffiti and pop art styles, the collage effect and speed of change is brilliantly conceived, the entire film buzzes with energy and an urban style that is unrelenting but absorbing. This is cleverly balanced by the use of text message exchanges that appear on screen, social media posts and profiles that add to the impact while many of the camera pieces are filmed against the Brutalist backdrop of the Barbican which ties the visual experience together.

The final 10 minutes of the film has perhaps too many concluding moments – the danger of wrapping-up the central storyline and making a key switch in our perspective too soon is that for the audience it makes whatever follows seem elongated as the energy which has built so skillfully through the film seeps away in a little too much explanation – a problem even Shakespeare had where final scenes can feel protracted after the conclusive dramatic moment. In the ensuing Q&A Vincent was modest about his skills as a novice filmmaker but on a very small budget has produced an exciting act of performance and one that uses its raw appeal to great effect.

With such contrasting experiences, styles and stories, Woolley, Moseby and Vincent have offered very different but equally engaging insights into living with and exploring the nature of their disability. The joy of a Festival is combining such varied and imaginative responses to their experiences using the structure and technical opportunities of theatre to reimagine their perspectives for an inclusive audience. With so many festivals cancelled, the Southbank Centre’s curation of this four-day digital event was something to celebrate and a chance to see theatre, film, dance and art produced by creatives who will have much to contribute when the industry revives.

The Southbank Centre’s Unlimited Festival ran from 13 to 17 January and included screenings of Augmented, I Was Naked, Smelling of Rainand Instagramming the Apocalypse. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

Swingin’ the Dream – RSC

Swingin the Dream - Royal Shakespeare Company

Shakespeare’s influence on popular culture is inestimable and while his plays are fundamental to the stage, the influence of his words and the often borrowed stories that Shakespeare made his own are felt across film, music and dance. From a ballet versions of The Winter’s Tale – a rich, psychologically complex version of which the Royal Opera House screened last summer with Edward Watson as Leontes – to Hollywood musical adaptations of The Taming of the Shrew (Kiss Me Kate), Romeo and Juliet (West Side Story) and even Hamlet (The Lion King), not to mention the High School movies that reimagined Shakespeare for a younger audience (such as 10 Things I Hate About You), Shakespeare’s understanding of the human condition has allowed his work to be translated into many different forms.

Theatremakers often build on Shakespeare’s plays to create new avenues for his work including the superb Teenage Dick at the Donmar and musicals like & Juliet which opened in 2020 or the Young Vic’s Twelfth Night which reshaped the play into a community-created musical extravaganza that opened Kwame Kwei-Armah’s tenure as Artistic Director. Now, Greg Doran at the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) has joined forces with Kwei-Armah and Jeffrey Horowitz at Theatre for a New Audience in New York to recreate an all but lost 1939 musical version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a work in progress version of which was streamed live from the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford on Saturday.

And the concept couldn’t be more timely; not only with theatres having to dream a little differently to stage productions that raise funds during a third lockdown that will likely take most venues to their one year anniversary of closure, but in also giving renewed life to a musical interpretation of Shakespeare’s play developed and performed by African-American musicians using the jazz music they created which speaks to contemporary political debates about inclusivity while reinforcing the universality of Shakespeare’s themes.

In theory, jazz seems a perfect accompaniment to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a tale of magical mischief, mayhem and romance as a group of lovers defy social convention by escaping to the woods to live freely – the very epitome of jazz and its ethos. But running for just 13 performances in 1939, Swingin’ the Dream flopped quickly before most of the script was destroyed leaving just a handful of pages and some songs. Exactly what happened to this show is open to debate, with only a handful of critical reviews suggesting either this particular marriage of Shakespeare and song was imperfectly balanced, or that the show was perhaps aimed at the wrong audience. Nonetheless the RSC, Young Vic and Theatre for a New Audience have determined to revive and recreate the missing segments with a full production to follow sometime soon.

The 55-minute concert streamed on Saturday, was described as a ‘work-in-progress’ which in practice was a chance to understand what the research team had uncovered about Swingin’ the Dream to date and to hear all of the rediscovered jazz numbers played live on stage. The show, briefly introduced by Doran, Kwei-Armah and Horowitz, was in part a narrated outline of how this familiar story was adapted, characters renamed and their occupations recast to create gender-fluidity such as making Snug the joiner a midwife played by comedian Moms Mabley. This concert version also offers some theatre history, explaining at various points who some of the famous jazz musicians and performers were, the fate of the original show and some of the 1930s context that influenced the decision-making.

Overseen by Music Director Peter Edwards (also the evening’s pianist), an Ensemble of nine readers and singers were tasked with reconstructing the original 1939 production by bringing the ‘ingredients’ together, briefly explaining the overarching story to guide the audience between the songs while announcing the arrival of the various famous faces including Louis Armstrong (Bottom) and Maxine Sullivan (Titania). This narrative structure also described the evolution of a production that had combined acted scenes, musical numbers and dance sections choreographed by Agnes de Mille (niece of legendary film director Cecil), which have also been lost. All of this offers a series of clues as to what a fuller production might look like.

This first look implies that the show was refocused on the Fairies and Rude Mechanicals – played by those well-known musicians – rather than the Lovers and political world of the Court, replacing Theseus with a more generic ‘Governor’ – allowing the production to skip quickly to the arrival of its much anticipated celebrity cast and hastening the drama and humour of their characters. This is, notably, something The Bridge Theatre did with its immersive production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 2019 (rescreened by the National Theatre at Home last summer) that found fresh and smart contemporary insight by emphasising the magical and comedy scenarios. It seems clear that for Swingin’ the Dream these characters did and will offer the most fruitful opportunities for entertainment within the show, providing much of the musical inspiration, so we can expect to see far less of the ‘driver’ characters whose romantic entanglements will be at a lower volume.

And fixing more pointedly on these characters will also have consequences for the visual experience of the show and it is clear from this early snippet that most of the scenes take place in the enchanted woodland which offers some interesting opportunities for scene designers who will need to align the magical quality of the forest with the 1930s style of music that should spring naturally from its surroundings. The title song, performed originally by the Dandridge Sisters, is piano-led and performed for the RSC by Mogali Masuku, Georgia Landes, Kemi-Bo Jacobs and Anne Odeke with a girl-group harmony so redolent of the era.

But referred to in the very next segment as ‘The Voodoo Wood’ the scene must also feel intimidating, perhaps even frightening, while the arrival of Oberon and Titania (played originally by Juan Hernandez and Sullivan) must herald a sultry romance as well. Titania sings a memory song about “Moonglow” under which she first met her Fairy King, a moment of pause performed for the RSC by Zara McFarlane that is laden with atmosphere and the breathy, almost painful reminiscence that classic jazz can evoke. To create a set that can simultaneously serve as a place of escape, hope, danger, magic and memory will be an interesting challenge for the design and lighting teams when a complete production is ready for preview.

Some of the best moments in this early concert staging of Swingin’ the Dream are those that allow the audience to imagine what the finished production may look like by drawing wider contextual connections with the cultural forces of the time. Anyone interested in the history of popular culture in the twentieth century will relish the references to the performance styles that were emerging at a time of great creativity. In a nod to the latest craze, the Jitterbug was included in an extensive “dream dance” sequence called Doing the Saboo choreographed by de Mille while the audience is reminded that a Jitterbug dance scene was cut from The Wizard of Oz released in the same year.

Film also gives us context for the arrival of Puck, the last of the major players to assemble, played by Butterfly McQueen who had been disbarred from attending the Gone with the Wind premiere in a Whites-only cinema. These stories are as much a part of the brief experience of Swingin’ the Dream as the residual script, drawing on an era where racial segregation could only be overcome on stage (to a point), where leisure time was spent in dance halls and the golden years of cinema were just beginning as Technicolor offered a very different visual experience to audiences. How faithful the finished show will be to these influences and how they will be incorporated into the production will be one of the most anticipated aspects of early previews.

Anyone hoping to see an advanced frame for the forthcoming production and perhaps an insight into how the finished show will look may have been a little disappointed that this revival is still in its early stages with no new dialogue or scenes to share as yet, but Edwards’s production did offer a more fully-staged finale, a section of music depicting the play-within-a-play that concludes A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The tale of Pyramus and Thisbe is restaged as a medley of recognisable jazz classics from leading songwriters including sampling from Jeepers Creepers, Blue Moon, Ain’t Misbehaving and She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain performed for the RSC by the full Ensemble that included Alfred Clay, Andrew French, Cornell S. John and Baker Mukasa.

Lasting around 5-minutes, this segment uses a heightened performance style to enhance the comedic incompetence of the Rude Mechanicals as Pyramus and Thisbe converse through Wall, the growls of the masked Lion are answered by the band and a lampshade on a stick doubles as the moon. The cast throw in a couple of contemporary Covid jokes with Lion unable to touch Thisbe’s abandoned scarf must mawl a second version extracted from a infection-safe plastic bag, while Wall refuses to let the classical lovers draw closer than 2 metres from him, jokes we can only hope will no longer be required by the time a final version is ready for its audience.

Nonetheless, there is plenty of evidence in this small scene alone to suggest how Shakespeare’s original text has been repurposed into song without losing the meaning or fluidity of the scene. With this beautiful music already in place but much of the script to recreate, a contemporary adaptation of Swingin’ the Dream may well take note of the 1939 critic who, recognising some imbalance, wanted to jettison some of the dialogue to give more prominence to the jazz. Yet, Shakespeare’s words will still be crucial to creating resonance while pinning the architecture of the new piece together whatever decisions are made about the musical balance or thematic emphasis.

The RSC, Young Vic and Theatre for a New Audience have a difficult but fascinating task ahead in recreating a lost work that honours the original and its biography while developing a version of Shakespeare’s most beloved summer show that offers something to modern audiences. Performed by Edwards on piano, Chris Storr on trumpet, Neil Charles on bass, Mebrakh Haughton-Johnson on clarinet and saxophone as well as
drummer Barrell Jones, the original music by Jimmy Van Heusen is beautiful and with plenty of clues to the narrative and visual aspects of the production left behind, when theatres eventually reopen, Swingin’ the Dream will be just the kind of theatre magic we’ve all been waiting for.

Swingin’ the Dream was streamed live by the RSC on 9 January and a full production in association with the Young Vic and Theatre for a New Audience is in development. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

That Dinner of ’67 – BBC Radio 4

That Dinner of 67 - BBC Radio 4

“It is always worth standing up to injustice”; the key message of Tracy-Ann Oberman and David Spicer’s new radio drama is a fitting one to begin a new year in which change is in the air. And while the long drawn-out effects of the pandemic, Brexit and Trump’s presidency will continue to be felt, many are hopeful that 2021 will mark a new social and political phase that will facilitate the emergence of new voices and experiences in our theatres. In 1967, that opportunity for change was being felt in America as a landmark judicial case – Love vs. Virginia – was determining whether inter-racial marriage should be legalised, and as Civil Rights riots in Detroit raged, director Stanley Kramer persevered with his groundbreaking film Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, the making of which is the subject of Oberman and Spicer’s story for Radio 4.

That Dinner of ’67 is a radio play about a country at ‘boiling point’ – a phrase used more than once in Oberman and Spicer’s script as the evolution of the movie oppresses each of its key players differently. Making a neat segue from Curve Leicester’s Sunset Boulevard in Concert, the fascination with Golden Age Hollywood and real life behind the movie camera is one that continues to inspire writers captivated, as Oberman and Spicer are, by the contrasts between the illusion of film-making and the more complex and sometimes salacious reality of balancing artistic differences, actor egos and the behind-the-scenes dramas that the finished movie often conceals.

But what drives this play is the notion that cultural output can and should be a place to advance social change by establishing seeming radical scenarios and normalising them through increased familiarity, and by revealing the humanity within and between the characters. Oberman and Spicer’s play – her fourth on the subject of classic Hollywood – is more than a reflection on the dramas of movie making but an example of film driving attitudinal change even before the US court has delivered its verdict on inter-racial marriage, and one in which the social and political importance of their actions is reflected in the weighty experience of the actors on set.

What Oberman and Spicer do so well here is to destroy the artifice of movie making for the audience while reducing the awed-impact of the very famous collection of characters whose experience they recreate, giving them a humanity that grounds this intriguing story. To achieve this Oberman and Spicer employ a versatile scenic structure that simultaneously dramatises the stop-start difficulty of filming Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner while making time more fluid. Rather than abrupt transitions between scenarios with external announcements, exposition or clunky music to herald a new location, days and even weeks pass in seconds with only a breath between them. Change is indicated instead by the actors who alter their intonation or energy while Oberman and Spicer subtly weave an explanation of the new circumstances neatly and quite naturally into the dialogue.

There is much ground to cover in this 45-minute radio play with a story that could easily expand into a much longer two-act piece, starting with the early days of the shoot when, jumpy about the inflamed activist context and its reactionary response, studio bosses were determine to shut the picture down. All too soon, the audience has been delivered to Spencer Tracy’s final take having journeyed rapidly (though not insubstantially) through the various challenges on set. The success of That Dinner of ’67 is to retain its political anchor throughout while creating an immersive and absorbing short play that moves between several different perspectives and character needs.

The focus is David Morrissey’s Stanley Kramer, the Director whose experience is both the frame and the key driver for Oberman and Spicer’s play, acting as leader, peacekeeper and guardian of the film’s purpose while balancing the various demands and needs of his beloved stars who spill out and around the central drama to give context and depth to the process of shooting this seminal film. And to vary the delivery style, Oberman and Spicer begin with a series of telephone phone calls from Kramer to his cast chivying them along, mixed with conversations set in dressing rooms, on set and at their homes. And while filming is consistently interrupted so that Kramer is frustratedly unable to get through an entire scene without disruption, Oberman and Spicer provide a flavour of the the film with snippets of dialogue in rehearsal and filming as well a powerful early section in which Kramer directs the actors playing John Prentice and Joey Drayton to kiss during a silent scene descriptively narrated by the character of Kramer to help the radio audience to visualise the action. The audible gasps of shock from the crew emphasise just how radical the film was even to those making it.

The character of Stanley is then a vital one; liberal and aware of the unfolding political backdrop but equally unconcerned with anything except getting his movie made as efficiently as possible. The writers make him authoritative and clear in his vision, particularly able to manage his younger stars, enforcing his concept but easily swayed by the demands of Katharine Hepburn in particular. The growing tension between them is certainly entertaining, but also allows Stanley room for growth within the play, eventually summoning the nerve to challenge Hepburn’s dominance and obstructiveness, coming to a mutual understanding.

Morrissey charts that development really well, quietly anchoring the production while facilitating the sometimes showier roles of his co-stars. It is through Kramer’s perspective that the audience enters the story and Morrissey uses that to develop a rapport with the listener, revealing the burdens of managing and doing justice to this sensitive project while building to a brief but effective emotional collapse as Kramer attempts to reconcile his guilt about exacerbating Tracy’s advancing illness with the demands of filming. Some of that manifests as conflict with Hepburn and others within the radio play format, but Morrissey ensures that Kramer retains a genuine affection and respect for his long-term friendship with both Hepburn and Tracy throughout that adds meaningful layers to his personality.

The question of whether Spencer Tracy will complete the film is integral to the drama, played by Kenneth Branagh who lends his own star quality to this rare radio appearance. The stage is set early-on by Oberman and Spicer with the knowledge that Tracy cannot be insured due to his condition so Hepburn and Kramer must put their film fee on the line to cover reshoots if the famous lead is unable to finish the movie. Before the character even appears, the audience is primed to view him as fragile, weakened and entirely dependent on Hepburn’s care as she makes demands about his schedule and availability.

And Branagh both plays to that and undercuts it, presenting a version of Tracy that is certainly weakened in voice and physicality but nonetheless determined to fulfill his contract. Much of what we learn about him is from other characters in which Oberman and Spicer describe how his health affected the shoot, giving him only four hours on set per day and taking him out of reaction shots. Yet, other than physical inflections such as coughing or struggling to speak, Branagh’s Tracy never openly complains or discusses his frailty, focusing entirely on the frustrations of movie-making with people determined to smother or protect him.

Some of the best scenes involve the irritated Tracy railing against the restrictions placed around his filming when he is unable to keep his technical movements and script in mind without the other actors on set to orientate his performance. Frustrated, he complains that he “can’t focus, it’s like acting by numbers” creating tension with Hepburn whose over-protectiveness creates great agitation for Branagh’s determined Tracy. Yet there is tenderness between them, revealed during a late scene at home that gives nuance to a relationship that lasted 26-years, only a snippet of which is revealed in That Dinner of ’67.

As Hepburn, Oberman captures the creaky intonation of the actor’s distinctive voice as well her strength of character that early in the play comes across as disruptive and difficult. Frequently in conflict with her co-stars and fellow creatives, this Hepburn has her own vision for the film, causing consternation by going behind Kramer’s back to the writer as well as giving notes to Daisy Ridley’s Katherine Houghton that the younger star then regurgitates as her own concerns.

Oberman’s often steely performance reflects the concerns of other characters as Hepburn sets herself up as an alternative power force in the play, all but disbarring access between Kramer and Tracy, establishing social clubs and adopting a particular formality in addressing her fellow players. Yet, there are hints that being a woman on set was not an easy position and in a crucial scene, Hepburn breaks up a jovial conversation between Tracy, Kramer and Sidney Poitier to get back to work, a theme that could be further expanded. Yet, the character shows genuine remorse when Tracy orders the fussing Hepburn to “go out and come back as a human being” and their final scene implies the tender and easy romance of their long relationship, while her eleventh-hour rapprochement with Kramer reinforces her own belief in the political importance of the picture.

Sidney Poitier has a small but vital role that could be more expansive given the context of the story, but played by Adrian Lester he is given a psychological breadth that speaks to the conditions of filming in which the star voices his own misgivings about his performance. In a couple of valuable scenes, Poitier reveals a nervousness about bearing the weight of the Civil Rights movements through his character and fears that his role in the movie is becoming untenable – “they’ll burn down the cinemas in Alabama over this and that’s after they’ve lynched the cleaner” he tells Kramer when he draws attention to the falsity of his character’s circumstances. Lester then illuminates Poitier’s expositional background to draw a direct line between the actor’s struggle to adopt an ‘acceptable’ accent and education with the intellectual challenge and possible consequences of representing inter-racial marriage on screen.

Despite being an Oscar-winner by this point, Lester’s Poitier becomes, however, more than a cipher for the play’s political themes, given a rounded humanity by his own feelings of awe and concern working alongside his hero Spencer Tracy. A longer version of That Dinner of ’67 could explore this in more detail, but hints about disillusionment when working with his ailing co-star add a extra layer to Lester’s engaging performance. Through this character, the play (like Sunset Boulevard) has more things to stay about the contrast between Poitier’s advancing and Tracy’s declining Hollywood career and perhaps how differently that affected male and female stars.

Set just a few years after One Night in Miami (recently and brilliantly filmed by Regina King), That Dinner of ’67 captures the essence of change in American race-relations and the role that cultural representation played in reflecting and driving that change as barriers started to break down with the outcome of the Love Vs Virginia case, revealed during the filming of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. That Oberman and Spicer’s version of Stanley Kramer deliberately puts internalised racism at the centre of his film rather than class or other forms of social division gives this atmospheric and absorbing short drama its contemporary relevance and leaves you hoping that when theatres eventually reopen with new voices and stories for 2021, that an expanded version of this play might be among them.

That Dinner of ’67 was first broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and is freely available from BBC Sounds. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

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