Monthly Archives: August 2021

TV Preview: The North Water

The North Water - AMC and BBC

Remote, forbidding, deolate and beautiful, the allure of the arctic circle as a place of escape and of man’s confrontation with his own fears is hugely attractive to dramatists. A blank canvas for all kinds of contemplation, the icy expanse may look serene but true brutality, cruelty and obliteration lurk beneath the surface. Andrew Haigh’s five-part adaptation of Ian McGuire’s novel The North Water comes to the BBC in September and the first two episodes, previewed at the BFI earlier this month, suggest this will be a glorious if difficult watch as the nights draw in.

Nautical masculinity and the perils of exploration at the furthest reaches of the earth have been at the forefront of the mind of television writers this year with word-of-mouth hit The Terror becoming a bingeworthy if gruesome third lockdown talking point. The claustraphobic experience of a group of men trapped on two boats frozen into the ice became compelling viewing and, while the series was driven by a mysterious and potentially supernatural beast preying on these naval sitting ducks, it was the complicated relationships, political dilemmas and the very human test of endurance that kept us watching. Ridley Scott’s drama understood well that whatever was out to get these men – the physical appearance and visual representation of which could only ever be slightly disappointing – man’s emotional fragility and unstoppable imagination meant they would almost certainly turn on each other before the mythical beast had a chance.

So while The Terror asks questions about who the real monsters may be, The North Water leaves you in no doubt. This tale of whalers relies on a more informal concept of masculine organisation and while there is clearly hierarchy within the ship headed by a hard-nosed Captain, here rank, class and the extensive traditions of the navy hold very little sway. Instead, this is a community that draws its power from physical strength, intimidation and experience, the closed world of comradeship. With a prior knowledge of one another, the pack animal mentality they exude can only exist through a shared and successful desire to hunt and to kill.

Into this scenario comes Sumner the ship’s surgeon who finds himself in direct confrontation with crew members Cavendish and Henry Drax (a solid Bond villain name) who set out to quite deliberately torment the medic and push his ability to endure while testing his manly response to the pressures they exert. A form of hazing takes place in the first episode as Sumner’s willingness to join in and demonstrate both allegiance to the ship and a similar manual and even murderous skill set to the other men is pressed to its limits.

The story establishes a two-tier system in which brute strength and a refusal to admit either pain or defeat determines whether someone is ‘in’ or ‘out’ of the group. The emergence of authority figures as people without official rank per se but in possession of other forms of social cache is vital to understanding the seemingly blunt but actually quite complex power structures which Sumner’s arrival upsets, forcing the existing old guard to make a pre-emptive strike. They put on an almost animalistic display of strength in which they forcibly shut-down any potential threat he could pose – noting however that Sumner’s outward behaviour towards these men in Episodes One and Two is only ever withdrawn, isolated and medically driven.

What is interesting about McGuire’s structure that Haigh replicates on screen is the extent to which danger is something that exists more within than outside this whaling ship and, despite the vast emptiness of the beautiful but trecherous landscape, it is man who creates the unsettling atmopshere that poses a threat to health and, as it turns out, to life. The Terror by contrast largely took the opposite view, believing that great danger awaited the men in the icy wilderness, relying on the centuries-old belief in naval hierarchy, subsvervience to traditions and faith in the routines of authority to guide them through their unprecedented abandonment. That those formal professional structures broke down over time was surprising to the Officers suddenly overwhelmed by the mutinous demands of the lower ranks and their own human fallibility as bodies and minds gave way. Naval endurance in the end proved no match for suspicion, fear and the monsters beyond.

The North Water offers neither the same kind of formal organisational structures or a comparable concept of the men as reactive or passive participants in the events of the story. In fact, the crew of the whaling ship are the predators, sailing towards the pole (at least on the surface) to harvest as many seal skins and whale parts as their hull can carry. Here, the monsters are already onboard and without the same rigour as the Royal Navy’s codes of deference, embedded and worn into every recruit, the men of this commercial vessel are relatively free to govern themselves, behaving as contractors jostling for space and position rather than united members of a whole pursuing scientific advancement as the crew of The Terror had set out.

As a result, there is almost an amplified school playground feel as the men divide into groups determined by firmess of character and physical strength, locating and fixating their attention on the weakest members – initially a cabin boy whose experience becomes central to the events of these opening episodes – and newcomers like Sumner, behviour to which the Captain inexplicably turns a blind eye. Where the Navy had order and endeavour, the whaling ship organises itself by power and destruction as its driving force, and it is clear from the show’s earliest moments in the grimy streets of Victorian Hull, that this is a merciless bunch – the creatures of the arctic circle don’t stand a chance.

The drama stems from the somewhat unknown quality that is surgeon Sumner and how much he is prepared to endure. Clealy not all he claims to be, in some ways Sumner represents the legitimate order and external scrutiny the men fear, a former military doctor who saw action in India during a ferocious rebellion a short time before his voyage began and is continually troubled by visions and night terrors that invade his consciousness throughout.

To the standard crew of this vessel he seems a man apart, both in class and manner, projecting a degree of refinement and status that the audience very quickly learns does not accord with the humble origins he sometimes betrays and the outcome of events in India which, in these early episodes, remains mysterious although increasingly intrusive. He is no stranger to death and killing, and while a pivotal event at the end of Episode One proves his relative physical weakness in these conditions, Sumner is yet unphased by the slaughter that he is dared to participate in. Who Sumner really is and what he has done is central to a story that (so far) is driven far less by plot than character and scenario establishment which can only suggest something significant is about to bring it all crashing down.

Perhaps Sumner’s most interesting attribute is that he is nonetheless perceived to be a threat by the other men, and however unprepossessing or defeated he may appear at this stage, Cavendish and Drax decide to keep him close in order to alay whatever their true purpose on this ship might be, a hint of which is given between Captain Brownlee and Cavendish behind closed doors. Initiating him into their drinking session before fully leaving British waters, consulting him onboard, searching his cabin and testing his mettle suggest a desire to know their opponent and to assess what effect he may have on the stablity of the ship. That determination only grows when Sumner becomes involved in a medical case that cuts to the heart of how these men live onboard and the broad forms of protection or immunity they enjoy away from the moral and legal limits of shore life.

What we see in these first two episodes is something growing between Sumner and Drax particularly, two men who could not be more different yet drawn into each other’s orbit for some as yet unknown reason. The chemistry between Jack O’Connell’s watchful Sumner and Colin Farrell’s forbidding Drax is very particular, elusively compelling in fact as they circle around on another without displaying any decided feeling towards the other man, although there is an alertness to their presence and a recognition that is it somehow significant. Now this early dance is concluded and they have the measure of one another, this relationship will surely drive the remaning episodes.

Much depends on Colin Farrell’s portrayal of Drax which he plays in these opening episodes with a cold emptiness. He is a man, as Farrell explained during the Q&A that accompanied this screening, that has no empathy but there is control, a restraint that lingers beneath the surface that make him a valued hunter. Adding considerable bulk to his usual frame, this is a very physical performance from Farrell – a trait synonymous with his most recent work – and Drax is not a man you would want to meet down a dark alley which is exactly what happens to some poor soul in the Hull-set preface included here to demonstrate not just Drax’s disregard for civilised expectation but his ability to physically overwhelm it. Yet for all his silent threat, Farrell suggests the flicker of disturbance that Sumner causes, how Drax is drawn to him, and while this doesn’t change his outward behaviour, almost fatally so during a seal cull, the smallest of ripples have started to gather pace.

Jack O’Connell’s Sumner is a mass of intriguing contradictions, a man making the best of his background with a solid war record but addicted to laudenum and going to great lengths to conceal anything about himself. It is an interesting trajectory for O’Connell who captures the authority and medical concern of the doctor who is unflinching in his readiness to go against the grain for a patient despite the unwelcoming environment but who displays deep vulnerability when alone. The PTSD flashbacks give O’Connell the chance to show Sumner as the man he was before whatever terrible event recast his life, flashes of which he brings through into the performance as Sumner attempts to keep up with the physical activity onboard, ever watchful as the net starts to close in on him.

With a fine supporting cast including Stephen Graham as the ambiguous Brownlee and Sam Spruell as his accomplice the grubby Cavendish both with a dastardly plan the true details of which are yet to be fully revealed, along with Tom Courtenay as an unscrupulous businessman in Hull, there is an fidelity to the production style that draws the viewer into the socio-political machinations onboard as well as the hard conditions endured by working class men on land and in the icy north.

Episode One and Two both contain brilliantly achieved but incredibly graphic depictions of animal slaughter which forced at least one person out of the screening, but Haigh was quick to reassure the post-show audience that CGI and production design united humans with seals and whales filmed separately. It is a hard and gruesome watch nonetheless, but it is this level of authenticity that gives the adaptation its strength, pushing the actors to extremes by filming further north than a television series has ever been and refusing to sanitise or obscure the hardness of this life. The tone will certainly suit its autumnal scheduling and with so much emerging from these opening episodes, The North Water really has everything to play for and many secrets to reveal.

The North Water is currently scheduled to air on BBC2 and BBC iPlayer from 10 September. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

The Master Builder – Radio 4

The Master Builder - Radio 4

Once Britain’s premier political playwright, David Hare’s more recent plays have received considerably mixed reviews, largely for issues around characterisation which particularly affected his 2018 drama I’m Not Running about the rise a female Independent turned Labour leader, while his covid-experience play Beat the Devil, which reopened the Bridge Theatre after the first lockdown, couldn’t find an easy balance between dramatic content and the political statements, statistics and occasional polemic which cut through and disjointed the narrative. But Hare has had notably more success when adapting the work of classic playwrights, often in translation, and while the least said about the abysmal Peter Gynt the better, his versions of Chekhov and Georges Simenon have been very well received, understanding and illuminating the texts for modern audiences.

Now, Hare returns to Ibsen for Radio 4 with a two-part version of The Master Builder, a complex and very timely adaptation that looks at sexual misconduct, ego and professional reputation in which the fallibility of memory runs up against very human attempts to shape their own legacy. The fallacy of that belief is at the heart of Ibsen’s complex plays, clearly demonstrating that history will always throw up its own surprises and that the self-destructive pursuit of legacy as an end in itself to the exclusion of family, community and decency is a fool’s errand.

The themes of toxic male pride and self-delusion are ever resonant and plenty of examples from our own era present themselves with great names on buildings erased and statues pulled down when the full context of an individual life leads to a reassessment of those honours (aligning with changing societal values), while the record books are filled with politicians and businessmen making fatefully bad decisions by worrying more about their place in history than the needs of the day.

In 2016, the Old Vic was the last major theatre to mount a production of The Master Builder staring Ralph Fiennes as Halvard Solness which Hare also adapted, tilting the story a little more sympathetically towards the title character without detracting from the inevitable path he treads through the story or devaluing the experience of Hilde who claims an intimacy with him formed when she was only 13-years-old. Ibsen leaves a great deal of flexibility for a director and performers in deciding how thoughtless, deluded, deliberately malicious or downright criminal Solness should be, and while infrequently performed, it is a character that offers considerable scope for an actor.

Hare’s adaption opts for a murky mixture of the latter traits, suggesting the Master Builder is deliberately concealing his own self-awareness and rather than acting from panic or carelessness, there is a manipulative, almost dangerous quality in the man who pursues an inappropriate proximity to the women he meets and, feeling his professional surety under threat, is all too easily tempted to betray a junior colleague. While a period setting can sometimes offset or at least more widely contextualise some of the play’s troubling themes, Hare’s radio version has no discernible references to era, leaving the audience to assume the setting of a piece that by necessity focuses on exposing character and behaviour.

Starting with the relationship between Solness and Hilde, Radio 4’s description notes the relevance of Hare’s adaptation in the #MeToo era. Arguably, Ibsen was there a hundred years before us and no reading of this play can fully sidestep the essential ambiguities that the original writer has woven into his tale about the nature of a private (although unconsummated) relationship between a grown man and a 13-year-old girl. Kisses of whatever kind are certainly and admittedly exchanged, and whether these are presented as the romanticism of a teenager or a far more disturbing predatory act by the man in question, Ibsen doesn’t allow either character to fully escape censure.

Innocent, misconstrued or truly repellent, Solness is shown to have been wrong in being alone with a young, impressionable girl and encouraging her clear partiality for him – a destructive force revisited on him throughout the narrative. And this fully accords with Ibsen’s presentation of male and female characters in other works including A Doll’s House and Hedda Gabler where freedom becomes a battle of power and manipulation.

Act One of the play, and Part One of this adaptation, focus almost exclusively on Solness’s relationship with women and in the hushed intimacy of radio there is an discomforting quality to the drama as the protagonist gloats from the attentions of servant Kaja before actively demanding her loyalty to him over her fiance, aspiring architect Ragnar who comes to Solness to ask for help. The rapid change in tone when Solness’s wife Aline is present carefully delineates the ways in which he interacts with these women and the informality he uses with his servant. The low whispers and urgency of the conversation with Kaja as he jealously requires her devotion and the colder tone taken with his wife are at odds, and Hare follows Ibsen in creating a solid context and pattern of behaviour which the greater crisis with Hilde solidifies.

How disingenuous Solness is being throughout the earlier interactions is entirely ambiguous in Ibsen’s text but Hare’s version plumps for very little uncertainty, implying the breathy and excited exchanges with Hilde that a long-forgotten encounter now rouses in the older man and creates an uncomfortable sense of his misused power over her. Starting from the premise ‘believe women’, Hare’s play becomes a different, more certain entity, and while that takes away from Ibsen’s deliberate character study and the play’s purposeful openness to interpretation, taking a firmer line in Act One and the determination that Solness behaved immorally feeds through Act Two / Part Two with interesting consequences.

We see that Solness is driven primarily by his desire for power over others, demonstrated through his interactions with women, collaborators and family. That these behaviours anticipate an impending destruction embodied in the character of Hilde is entirely appropriate, but Act Two expands our impression of Solness’s misdemeanours and, crucially, his psychology – the big fish in a small pond self-importance that has others fawning over his talent and attractions without risking the setting-down or dilution of his power in a larger city or context.

With the scene set, Hare’s adaptation in Part Two is driven by revenge for the female lives primarily as well as the community that Solness has stained. Hilde’s role is pivotal to this, slowly urging confession after confession from him as the Master Builder cleanses his soul to her, covering the death of his own children, the neglect and pressure of his wife, as well as the deliberate holding back of Ragnar’s talent in order to protect his own pre-eminent status. Hare and director Gary Brown immerse us in these discussions, expanding the suddenness of this intimacy from Part One as Solness speaks in hastened, forceful tones as he undergoes a psychological reckoning with his own life.

Hilde’s calm and poise is not that of an infatuated fan seeking a decade-long dream but of what feels like an elaborately structured manipulation, knowing when to press Solness to admit or question his own attitudes and when to wordlessly pull back and allow his slow apparently voluntary confessions to take shape. At times she emits exuberant, girlish exclamations in support of his decisions to build her fanciful castles and, crucially, to climb the tower both of which encourage him along what feels like a pre-determined path. The occasional notes of frustration she displays at Solness’s refusal to endorse Ragnar, sly references to his feelings for Kaja or the reverse psychology that imply he is too weak to make the climb and meet God’s retribution all suggest a young woman far more in control of the conversation and this man’s destiny than she would have others believe.

With large parts of this adaptation given over to the central duologue taking place predominantly in a single room in the Solness household, relatively few sound effects or supporting audio is needed to create a sense of place for the listener, relying instead on the claustrophobia of Ibsen’s text to create context. Yet here and there, the scribble of pen against paper, the sounds of doors opening and, in the dramatic finale, the crowds gathered around the fateful climb do more than enough to imply the switch from private to very public drama as the play concludes.

Laura Aikman’s Hilde is an assured young woman able to breeze into the Solness home and become its guiding force, and in just a day, even subduing Aline. Aikman offers just the right balance of enthusiasm and innocence that lure the Master Builder on, flattering to deceive while retaining plenty of Ibsen’s vital ambiguity within the character that make others defer to her. The central steel and occasional tinges of bitterness in Aikman’s Hilde are very interesting and her chemistry with David Schofield’s Solness is entirely compelling.

Schofield plays Solness like a deluded man, angry and fearful of the younger generation seeking to displace him but too easily flattered by the attentions of a young women whose unexpected arrival raises too few questions in his mind. His monstrous ego and frequent indignation with others is mixed with a disconcertingly reptilian tone with women who profess an interest in him, the eagerness and intensity of Schofield’s delivery denying Solness any sympathy or benefit of the doubt when his past finally catches up with him.

Siobhan Redmond as the weakened, almost broken Aline displays little interest in her husband until the final moments of the play, suggesting a wife forced to subdue her own needs, as Solness admits, to serve his. Joseph Ayre’s Ragnar is a small but valuable role, suggesting the wider toxicity of the Master Builder and Ayre well suggests how painfully that relationship between assistant and employer has broken down.

Radio 4’s version of The Master Builder adapted by David Hare based on Torkil Heggstad’s translation takes a firmer line on the central character and the consequences of his poisonous behaviour, adding a fresh and topical perspective without overtly disrupting or rerouting Ibsen’s purpose. With many theatres now reopened and public performances resuming, it’s easy to forget that new radio plays are also back in production and have much to contribute to our continued reassessment of classic works.

The Master Builder is available from BBC Sounds for 30 days. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Streaming South Pacific – Chichester Festival Theatre

South Pacific - Chichester Festival Theatre (by Johan Persson)

Now that was some enchanted evening! The Chichester Festival Theatre revival of South Pacific, delayed from 2020, made a critically acclaimed debut a few weeks ago and in early August offered its first streamed performances, a handful of which are available throughout the run. A true piece of hybrid theatre, it was filmed on opening night and is made available to ticketholders for 24-hours at the designated time – a compromise position given the possibility of isolation rules causing live performance cancellations later in the run. But the streamed performance is gloriously managed, capturing the visual spectacle of director Daniel Evans’s vision as well as the darker themes in the story that quite carefully reconsider the effect of combat and conquest in what can now be a troubling piece.

An early adopter of digital streaming, Chichester was among the first to make some of its archive shows available at the start of the pandemic which ultimately became a useful revenue stream when the free availability of the beautiful Flowers for Mrs Harris resulted in a socially distant and audience-free cast reunion at the venue to produce a saleable soundtrack recording. Other pre-recorded shows followed and soon the commitment to live-streaming Carol Churchill’s Crave proved a savvy decision when the venue reopened for only a few days before the second lockdown in November 2020 and all remaining performances were moved online.

Now relative experts at capturing their shows on film, Chichester has learnt much about live editing and the demands of creating a show that will be watched simultaneously online and in the theatre. The result is South Pacific, a digital stream that may not be live but feels almost like being there. In fact, in some ways it may even be advantageous, giving the home audience a better-than-front-row view of the performance that immerses us in the story and creates a tighter focus around this interpretation’s particular themes.

Favouring the love affair between Nellie and Emile, like the Open Air Theatre’s Carousel, this Rodgers and Hammerstein reimagined for a twenty-first century remote audience without losing the immediacy and sweeping romance of this luscious score – arguably one of their greatest and most haunting combinations of melody. The transfer is seamless, managed by Evans to ensure the show’s more intimate and psychological moments are treated with the same care as capturing the big set piece numbers which are arguably enhanced by the proximity of the camera and its ability to create pace, energy and fluidity to reflect some of Evans’s more fascinating creative choices.

Often a light-hearted and sprightly piece, this version of South Pacific has a real understanding of the complexities and darker impact of conflict taking place in this deceptively dangerous paradise. It is striking how well Evans has understood and represents the combat experience in blue-tinged official spaces filled with maps, data and military rigidity that serve as a permanent reminder of quite how much is at stake both for the soldiers individually and the balance of power in the war. Part of Chichester’s approach to repositioning the troubling elements of South Pacific – that reflect its 1940s origins – is to really focus on the changing service experience as the allure of the islands and the relative leisure time of the men and nurses becomes increasingly consumed by the business of war, and Evans’s approach finds greater darkness as the shadow of invasion creeps in.

A master stroke is to turn the chirpy mid-show ditty Happy Talk performed by Bloody Mary into a tearing tragedy, a minor key triumph that entirely recasts the song and finds a whole new resonance that utterly transforms the piece and the trajectory of Lieutenant Cable in particular. Rather than a distracting love affair full of youth, romance and exoticism – and let’s not forget the queasier knowledge of a man old enough to know better cheating on his fiancée with an adolescent sold as a virtual prostitute by her mother to the highest bidder be they marine or French plantation owner – instead becomes a grand but doomed romance that reflects Cable’s later malarial malaise, something which condemns him from the moment the relationship is contracted. What is so fascinating in Evans’s production is the extent to which they both know it right then, hence the somber tone in which Bloody Mary now so perfectly expresses her song.

As a digital viewer, you are given an intimacy with this moment that no present audience member can experience. A tight focus on the trio and the fatal effect this has on all their lives. Placing a camera in the midst of that swirling of emotion at the point of damnation and with that taste of disaster on their lips is astonishing, amplifying their soured happiness in a way that entirely transcends the screen between you. Rob Houchen’s performance of Younger than Springtime is outstanding but when, later, Cable’s fate is sealed, the weight of this earlier moment hangs over them all taking on the proportions almost of Greek tragedy in the extent that Cable’s self-sacrificing determination following his incapacitation is in direct response to his consumption with Liat. It adds so meaningfully to the brutal aspect of the paradise island and, while they may be the heroes of this story, it questions the impact that American soldiers and sailors (themselves invaders of this land) had on the landscape and its people. It is an extraordinary emotional and moving repositioning of one of the show’s liveliest songs, and one that thematically and politically makes absolute sense in this smart reimagining.

But if its spectacle you’re after than this digital screening doesn’t disappoint, showcasing the energy and beauty of Ann Yee’s choreography which uses the revolve to create storytelling moments, ones that are always underscored by the mixed emotion and unachievable fantasy that this Tonkinese island offers. Notably in the show’s opening moments, a beautiful lone dancer whose peace and serenity is woven through the choreography finds her space overtaken by naval officers and marines abseiling into position and surrounding the local woman with their marching dance rhythm. As we see elsewhere in this classy interpretation, Americans may be on the winning side but they too are enforced aliens claiming temporary control of this land.

This version of South Pacific finds a visual, almost cinematic, language in these moments to convey the mixture of fun and fantasy that the Polynesian islands represent captured in the sprightlier numbers like Nothing Like a Dame or I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair as the American characters have a jolly time. On screen these exude comradeship and community – and let’s not forget this is not a group of friends together by choice, but a company of naval personnel thrown together for a strategic, combative purpose who grab the opportunity to live in the moment because, for some of them, it may be their last. That knowledge makes these numbers feel so alive and within their gendered groups they are entirely at ease with one another in these strange and strangely beautiful circumstances, giving it a Technicolor glory that really shines on screen. But then the shadows fall, sometimes physically, and Evans ensures every moment is tinged by the reality around them, with each stage picture edged with black as though these are brief memories picked out amidst a massing inevitable darkness.

The counterpoint to that is to bring such warmth to the relationship between Nellie and Emile so their attraction to one another feels far more substantial than ever before. Some of that is certainly enhanced by the proximity of the camera which shows their growing attraction to one another and builds quite a realistic connection between them. But this Emile is also a far warmer and less remote figure than earlier interpretations, helped by a less pronounced age gap than on film which brings a new perspective to this couple.

Rossano Brazzi certainly made for a debonair love interest in the movie, suave, charming and with a romantic vocal swell, yet he retained a forbidding quality, an aloof diginity that played better in the 1950s than perhaps it does now. Chichester’s central couple are on a more equal footing, one not solely based on her beauty and his wealth, but by finding complimentarities in personality and eventually their mutual ability to reassess their values in light of their love for one another. Julian Ovenden and Gina Beck bring a wonderful lightness and sense of humour to their roles which explains why the lonely Emile would be drawn to the wholesome American exuberance that Nellie offers. They laugh together, find joy in the same things and feel far more like a meeting of minds than in previous versions.

On screen that chemisty is just luminous, their scenes together the absolute heart of this wonderful show and utterly transporting. Lit by Howard Harrison on Peter McKintosh’s wonderful villa set design, Emile undergoes a Bogart-like transformation within the narrative, and just like Rick in Casblanca his journey becomes one of welcoming him ‘back to the fight’, a transition that Ovenden manages with particular care, even a delicate beauty. The sincerity of his almost too innocent love for Nellie, reverberating so powerfully through Some Enchanted Evening (the song of songs in the Rodgers and Hammerstein canon) reels into aching heartbreak in This Nearly Was Mine, prompting his decision to put himself in danger to help the American marines. That Ovenden’s Emile is a man of passion and sensitivity who is thus awakened to dignity, bravery and manly decency earns his happy ending in much the same fate-guided way that Cable’s questionable choices decide his.

Beck’s role-sharing Nellie is a difficult character to sell to modern audiences as well, sweet as apple pie for most of the show but displaying a fiercely racist and unbending attitude that is both narrow-minded and quite damning for a leading lady. But Beck navigates through it all with real skill, demonstrating a thoughtless quality in Nellie rather than a malicious belief system that undercuts some of the troubling elements of her character and makes her transformation more convincing when being on the island opens her eyes to broader, more tolerant ways of living. Beck and Ovenden have a wonderful chemistry, giving their love songs a tender feeling that makes you root for them to shift just enough to live happily ever after.

Perhaps Evans’s most interesting and welcome advancement is to reconsider how the Tonkinese characters are represented by offering a restrained and more humanly rounded impression of a mother and daughter trying to survive. Gone are the comedy accents and wistful, nubile compliance and instead Joanna Ampil’s Bloody Mary becomes both an entrepreneurial woman taking advantage of the strangers on her island to exploit them while seeking to build a future for her family knowing that they will soon be gone. Liat (Sera Maehara) too is given choreography exploring her innocence, a love of nature and self-contentedness which the arrival of Cable upsets, and while there is still much that remains uncomfortable about the way Mary brings that relationship about, these women have become far more then vessels for male desire or the two-dimensional butt of their jokes.

The dawn of hybrid theatre and the opportunity to watch current shows from home has naturally caused some concern about the longer-term effect on in-person audience attendance but offering a handful of digital performances is no threat to that, it even encourages future engagement. This joyous production of South Pacific is a case in point because however impractical all you’ll want to do at the end of this stream is jump on the next train to Chichester to see it all over again, live.

South Pacific is at Chichester Festival Theatre until 5 September with a selection of streamed performances throughout the remaining run from £20. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Carousel – Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre

Carousel - Regent's Park Open Air Theatre (by Johan Persson)

In a mini-season of nostalgic musicals looking back to mid-twentieth century song and dance styles, Carousel probably least deserves its cosy reputation. While the racial politics and untrammelled heroism of South Pacific is troubling, its love story plots and messages of acceptance have a contemporary resonance, at least in Chichester Festival Theatre’s carefully pitched production. Over at the Barbican, Anything Goes is a frothy, tap-dancing delight and while there may be cartoonish gangsters and farcical shenanigans aplenty, Cole Porter’s tunes are pure escapism. Even the return of Singing in the Rain to Sadler’s Wells will find little to offend in arguably the greatest dance musical of all time which itself is wistfully nostalgic about the origins of movie-making.

But not so Carousel, a new version of which opens at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre this week. It may be part of the Technicolor musical canon but Rodgers and Hammerstein’s redemption story needs to look a little different in 2021 as themes of domestic violence, strict gender division and crime are the focus of a rare story of working class industrialisation, disillusion and the ultimate emptiness of masculine expectations.

No summer is truly complete without a musical at the Open Air Theatre, and a stunning Evita in 2019 directed by Jamie Lloyd and the returning Jesus Christ Superstar that so movingly reopened West End performance last August were choreographic magic in spite of social distancing requirements imposed on the creative choices of the latter. Carousel is a harder show to sell on the grand scale given its tighter focus on a small, early twentieth-century fishing community. And while the dance choices are impressive, spectacle for its own sake gives way to storytelling as dance is used as a narrative device and the simpler staging offers plenty for the audience to mine in what is an intriguing story of male control.

Set nominally in America, Timothy Sheader all but relocates the drama to what feels like a midlands industrial town in the 1910s. The cast retain their UK accents but still refer to clam bakes and trips to New York that situate the play somewhere between the two. And while on film, the big studio movie went for a sanitised rural affair not dissimilar to Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Sheader’s production owes more to D.H. Lawrence and Patrick Hamilton that it does to the Hollywood golden age. This is a world in which men do the manual work, often hard labour of some kind, drink beer with their friends and expect to be obeyed, while the women do chores, have the children and accept their lot in life.

In Sheader’s production, the relationships between them are frequently tinged with sadness as the early promise of romance is merely romanticism, and marriage rapidly becomes an unshakable burden to both husband and wife. While protagonists Julie and Billy are hardly swept away in a dreamlike fantasy, their hasty marriage declines within two months and a different feeling seems to lie between them. Even the starry-eyed Carrie who spends most of Act One dreaming of marrying her beloved Enoch, is soon oppressed by the tribulations of marriage of which she bears the brunt in Act Two.

And all of this is thematically focused around different forms of control displayed and imposed by several of the male characters. Enoch may be polite and well-bred but here he is also shown to be manipulative, forcing his own expectations of behaviour onto Carrie, ones that she must comply with in return for marriage. He forces her to subdue her sunny nature and friendliness to appear right and proper in Enoch’s eyes, an unreasonable standard he sets for her. Later, in Act Two, we discover the hoped-for union has done nothing but oppress her and, having complied with his restrictive vision of wifely duty, she is held in little esteem, bearing his many children and forced to trail along behind him. It may be hidden beneath layers of supposed decency but Enoch’s coercive nature is demanding and damaging, setting patterns of behaviour ready to be inherited by the next generation.

But Billy is understandably Carousel’s biggest problem, a man haunted throughout the play by what he claims is a single incident of abuse against his wife, for which she forgives him. What follows is quite interesting and while Sheader’s production stands firm on it being inexcusable, there is an attempt to psychologically understand how someone like Billy is created. What this version of the musical cannot do is offer him any redemption for it and the show’s original ending is curtailed to close-off that possibility.

So this is where Sheader looks to Lawrence and Hamilton in considering the construct of early-twentieth-century working class masculinity, based largely on the ability to provide for a family and the opportunities to demonstrate physical manliness through acts of brute strength. Billy’s difficult relationship with friend Jigger brings out the worst in him, immersing him in a very particular experience of unforgiving competitive dominance in which status and acceptance depend on compliance with the social norms that men created for one another. That much of this happens in places of recreation nods to Hamilton’s interest in male leisure.

Billy however takes on the complex structures of Lawrencian masculinity in which these notions of innate brutism conflict with the creative instinct and a more thoughtful, even soulful recognition of alternative ways to be a man. While Billy can never lay claim to be as intricate a character study as, say, Paul Morel or even his father Walter, there is nonetheless a duality in Billy that this production draws out, recognising the shutting down of opportunity that affects his estimation of himself and others. This is exacerbated by his friendship with whaler Jigger who draws his own power from his gruff leadership of other men and, as we shall see in the forthoming TV series The North Water, this world without women curdles male ego so it exists only to compete and dominate.

That Billy becomes trapped in these externally imposed conceptions of manliness is clear and his need to exert physicality on the spaces around him, something he is unable to perform without paid work. This confines him to such an extent that the boiling frustrations and the limitations imposed on his unspecified creativity forge the conditions in which his anger is channeled into a physical act of aggression first against his wife, later in the intention to commit a criminal act and finally, with nowhere left to turn, against himself.

But none of this in Sheader’s production allows Billy to escape the censure he deserves. Whether, as he claims, his act of domestic violence was a single occurrence is left to the audience to determine, but it continues to hold him to account and heap a rightful sense of opprobrium on him from neighbours, his celestial all-female judges and later from the next generation, meaning it is almost the only thing for which he is remembered. That he reacts with frustration every time it is raised and with a detemination to clear his name is reflective of the shame and guilt that follows him – but it is not enough this time to give him the ending that Rodgers and Hammerstein originally offered.

It does create a rather sudden conclusion to this Open Air Theatre production in the slightly truncated narrative that arguably makes Billy’s Act Two journey rather redundant, yet as an exploration of character it becomes painfully clear that Billy’s impression of himself is quite out of kilter with his true nature and he is far from the man he thinks he is. When history repeats itself during his encounter with Louise towards the end of the show, it is a thunderclap moment for the protagonist and one which the Director decides must be a watershed for the audience as well. Billy is, then, quite correctly denied the redemption towards which the show is actually shaped, but in excising material from the story an alternative conclusion for Billy is left unresolved.

Julie is a more mysterious character, given a few moments to explore her love for Billy and some tinge of regret but far less psychological insight into their attraction and why she is determined to stand by him regardless. Instead, the local community fill the other half of the show, using some of the bigger set pieces including This Was a Real Nice Clambake and Carousel’s most famous number You’ll Never Walk Alone to set the scene, a tight-knit but divided town who finds moments of peace and celebration amidst its starkly gender-segregated activity.

Drew McOnie’s subtle choreography may not have a big showcase group number to dance for the sake of dance itself, but his choices are stunning in their ability to tell stories through different kinds of movement. McOnie reflects Molly Einchomb and Tom Scutt’s costume design for the townspeople using broad, country dance shapes as he fills the stage with bustles of activity that has a crowded coordination. Often, these form into segregated numbers that doesn’t noticeably draw a distinction between the male and female experience, even if Rodgers and Hammerstein do, giving similar structures across the Ensemble sections.

Some of the standout moments include the all-male Blow High, Blow Low with a scooping movement that captures the experience of the industrial workforce, and the finale reprise of You’ll Never Walk Alone in which the cast form a circle and, one-by-one, the women turn to face outwards throughout the song in case you had any lingering doubt about the underlying strength of purpose this interpretation gives its female characters. McOnie’s greatest moment is a beautiful ballet sequence that summarises Louise’s story, staged among set designer Scutt’s twisted carousel poles that briefly fill the dance space, as she battles the same limitations as her parents, fending off the attentions of other young men while trying to find her own identity, all told entirely and beautifully through movement.

After a powerful performance as a role-sharing Jesus last year, Declan Bennett returns to the Open Air Theatre as the complex and troubled Billy. It’s not easy to play a character without hope and Bennett gives Billy plenty of layers that make his journey through the story interesting but never forgiveable. What Bennett does so well is to understand the separation between Billy’s impression of himself and his right to behave as he chooses, and the unconscious nature that for so long remains a mystery to him so that recognition when it comes is shocking. Bennett brings every bit of power to his vocals with particularly moving renditions of Soliloquy and If I Loved You that are highly romantic but note the life he could have had if he’d been a better man.

Carly Bawden equals that vocal quality, even with a rather underdeveloped female lead, bringing real emphasis to the melancholy What’s the Use of Wond’rin and the self-deceiving duet If I Loved You. There is a quiet endurance and certainty in Julie which we largely observe in her silent ability to get on with life, whatever the suffering it causes her – a Lawrencian heroine, full of fragile strength. Craig Armstrong gave a notable performance as the fathomless Jigger (as understudy) whose presence changes the nature of the show, while Joanna Riding is the heart of the community as Nettie Fowler who leads the mournful uplift of Carousel’s best-known tune.

Sheader stages Carousel with relative simplicity and with a decent pace, helped by Scutt’s rotating stage that moves almost imperceptibly throughout, referencing the fairground attraction of the title as the characters find themselves unable to stop the revolve. A steep wood-slatted surround gives the show height and variation, implying a town surrounded by hills that also creates space for the female Ensemble as the deities presiding over Billy’s last chance for absolution.

While the backdrop of the Open Air Theatre adds its usual touch, Carousel may not be quite as nostalgic as you remember. The exploration of context, social expectation and the confines of gender add a greater understanding to character choices without detracting from problematic and indefensible behaviour. Taking a hard line on a troublesome musical is smart work and Sheader has given considerable thought to reconfiguring Carousel for twenty-first century audiences.

Carousel is at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre until 25 September with tickets from £25. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Changing Destiny – Young Vic

Changing Destiny - Young Vic (by Marc Brenner)

Amidst the increasing number of shows forced to suspend due to isolation rules, the return of the Young Vic theatre to in-person live performances after 16-months of darkness is welcome news. Aside from a fairly closed birthday celebration concert event late last year which was lived streamed to followers, the Young Vic is the latest major venue to announce a long season of work that includes Cush Jumbo’s postponed Hamlet in September and culminates with the premiere of a new James Graham play in December. But its opening salvo is another premiere, a story of identity politics, spiritual homelands and what it means to belong, Ben Okri’s 70-minute two-hander Changing Destiny.

Performed in the round, there is a complex simplicity to this narrated tale that transports its audience to Ancient Egypt, Libya and Syria largely through the power of the spoken word, an approach that speaks to the very essence of theatre as strangers gather together to hear and share stories. Drawing on oral storytelling traditions, the Young Vic’s production is a reminder of the venue’s most fundamental purpose, a back to basics (well almost) approach that unites narrated sections, that help the characters to travel, with dramatised conversations between the warrior Sinhue and a rich cast of Pharaohs, farmers and spirits he meets along the way.

Based on a 4000-year old poem, Okri’s play is essentially a journey narrative, one that takes the protagonist on both a physical, international journey and one of spiritual awakening and identity. These two elements operate largely in parallel throughout the play, and while he seeks to change his destiny, the further Sinhue goes, the stronger the desire to be at home. Despite years exiled in the employ of a rival power, he feels like an alien in his adoptive homeland. This combined physical and spiritual narrative creates an epic sweep that resonates beyond the central character, giving Sinhue an everyman or allegorical symbolism.

To achieve this, the plot develops in fairly straightforward, almost linear fashion, taking Sinhue through a series of chronological encounters that mark his rise and fall. Events are described in sketched form, denuded of unnecessary adjectives or elaborate conversational styles, and Sinhue tends to recount his experiences in the clean, factual statements of a soldier prioritising the sequence of events over trying to win approval – whether he was right or wrong, ambitious, vain or the victim of circumstance is not something the character attempts to influence in this biographical retelling.

But that is not to suggest that Changing Destiny is a dry or overly solemn experience, and Okri has a cinematic eye, punctuating his adaptation with plenty of drama that creates flow and pace while building a sense of jeopardy as Sinhue has more to lose. Wasting no time on a preamble, Okri plunges the audience into an Egyptian conspiracy, a plan to assassinate a lumbering Pharaoh with his leading warrior Sinhue at its heart. This Caesar-like subterfuge carried out by a small cabal and followed rapidly by Sinhue’s escape beyond the borders of Egypt, is a claustrophobic and high-stakes opener which, like a James Bond pre-credit sequence, is used by Orkri to establish a context for what’s to come.

Similarly, across the remaining story there are feats of endurance when Sinhue sinks into ignominy as an anonymous farmhand, undertakes a lone journey across the blazing desert, demonstrates a fighting prowess that wins the notice of the Syrian King, rapidly rises through the Court, wins decisive battles with enemy nations, conceals a hidden identity as Sinhue obscures his origins and a finale confrontation with Egypt that brings the show full circle. And while all of this is lifted from the ancient poem, Okri employs them as narrative devices like an action movie to create moments of ebb and flow while balancing the human development of relationships, introspection and self-acceptance that flesh out this individual journey.

Thematically, Changing Destiny has some contemporary points to make about the nature of identity and, crucially, the benefits of immigration to national growth and development. More than once, Sinhue is welcomed as an outsider in Syria, bringing valuable new knowledge and learning to the kingdom based on his reputation and experiences at the Egyptian Court – the association and subtle comment on the narrowness of current policy is noteworthy – and that his stratospheric rise to power is accompanied by grumbling from a minority among the native nobility is no impediment to Sinhue’s status or popularity.

But Okri is especially interested in how Sinhue’s own concept of identity and thereby his destiny is unaffected by the generosity and acceptance of his new homeland. The separation of Sinhue from his spirit occurs as he flees Egypt for what he believes will be the last time, symbolically and pertinently leaving a piece of himself behind. That this essentially haunts the character through the play is important in understanding the half-life his series of impressive but downplayed deeds represents. That Sinhue can perform but fails to invest in his successes is a core trait having left the better part of himself behind in Egypt.

So throughout the play, Sinhue is torn between the nation that recognises and accepts his leadership, promotes and nurtures his talent, welcoming his skills and knowledge with open arms, and the country of his birth to which his soul belongs. With Sinhue frequently visited by the specter of Egypt, Okri is exploring concepts of home and belonging – individuals can live, even thrive in other environments but a part of them will always yearn for a spiritual if not a physical birth place. And through this Okri’s play joins several others in exploring the complexities of Black British identity and its roots in African and Caribbean cultures.

While the simplicity of Okri’s approach conceals quite intricate dramatic and thematic structures, director Kwame Kwei-Armah takes a similar approach to staging the production, offering two conjoined pyramids, one upturned and suspended from the ceiling, designed by superstar architect Sir David Adjaye that dominate the centre of the room, their pointed tips meeting perfectly. These canvas and wood pyramids, neatly referencing Sinhue’s Egyptian homeland in shape and texture, dominate the centrestage area, two simple three-dimensional constructs that the actors move around, although this occasionally obscures the action in the early part of the show.

But there is method here and as Sinhue exiles himself, there is a metaphorical and physical unfolding of the set, the four sides of the bottom pyramid lowered and splayed into its original net form which may be distantly familiar from primary school maths classes. This creates a much larger and clear performance space allowing the actors to move freely around the stage in constructing their tale while using the corner points of the now dismantled pyramid as places of transition either between places or characters.

The textures and pale tones used to construct this lower pyramid allow lighting designer Jackie Shemesh to project varying colour onto its raised sides, or at crucial moments in the story, to create silhouette effects for Sinhue’s ‘shadow fight’ to defeat a rival. Later in the play, as Sinhue’s yearning for Egypt increases, Kwei-Armah partially reconstructs some or all of the pyramid to create changes of pace and tone, so what could have been a cumbersome set decision is used to effectively and fairly seamlessly represent the layers of meaning in Sinhue’s biography while underscoring the minimalist approach to conjuring this story.

The upper pyramid is where greater complexity is applied and some magical production values aid the audience’s immersion in Changing Destiny. Made from black canvas, this structure acts as a four-sided screen onto which images, animation and maps are projected, visible to all sides of the auditorium. Created by Duncan McLean, the video design is both scenery and an alternative expositional device using pre-recorded footage and illustration to create context for Sinhue’s actions, particularly the conspiratorial drivers in Ancient Egypt, and signifying movement between the three civilisations.

Employing tonal colours that match Adjaye’s canvas set design, McLean’s graphics are created largely in white and brown-beige, given a classical styling that nods to hieroglyphs, mosaics and papyrus drawings. Sand is the basis for the animated sections, as clouds of it roll across the screens, eventually coalescing and forming more solidly recognisable shapes including the burning desert sun, representations of the local terrain and, sometimes, into the people of Egypt – voiced Rakie Ayola, Ebe Bamgboye, Doña Croll and Kobna Holdbrook-Smith. Conspiratorial whispers against their leader and encouragement to depose him later evolve into spiritual voices calling Sinhue home, simultaneously embodying the colleagues he once knew as well as the guilt he carries with him through the years.

As the production unfolds, Shemesh’s lighting design becomes the primary tool for creating tone, bringing the different elements of set, video and storytelling together to capture the various national and personal experiences that mark Sinhue’s life. From the dramatic almost bombastic shading of the fight sequences to the soft tones of a nascent romance, oppressive journeys across the ferociously-heated desert to the almost fluorescently-coloured pathways Shemesh creates around the room, the visual impact of Changing Destiny grows in stature as the production unfolds.

Joan Iyiola and Ashley Zhangazha known only as ‘Character’ create a welcoming atmosphere, interacting with the audience as themselves at the start of the show before deciding which roles they will play. In this performance, Iyiola is Sinhue capturing the early fear that follows the Pharaoh’s assassination and, ever-confident of his warrior skills, slowly returning to a position of influence, as though by accident. Iyiola suggests the lingering guilt and feeling of being undeserving that shape Sinhue’s approach while emphasising not only the fearful desire to see Egypt once more but also a quiet certainty that shapes his path to power.

Zhangazha plays everyone else, darting between peasant farmers and warrior friends, Sinhue’s own manifested and detached spirit as well as various kings, enemies and rivals all of which are largely distinct and clearly defined without caricature. It is an impressive feat of performance adding much to the creation of scene and place with Zhangazha carrying an equal performance burden in helping the audience to visualise the changing concepts of time and social structures across the piece.

Under Kwei-Armah’s Artistic Direction, the Young Vic has been primarily interested in identity and storytelling, making Changing Destiny an appropriate and consistent opener to a new season of work. Okri’s play takes the simplest process of recitation and creates a contemporary version of Sinhue’s tale brought to life with some judiciously applied theatre techniques that enhance the effect Okri’s words create. Dressed up or down, the simple act of gathering together to be told a story is the very basis of theatre and with Changing Destiny, the Young Vic makes a welcome return to the spotlight.

Changing Destiny is at the Young Vic until 21 August with tickets from £10. Streaming options will also be available. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

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