Monthly Archives: March 2022

To Kill a Mockingbird – Gielgud Theatre

To Kill a Mockingbird - Gielgud Theatre (by Marc Brenner)

Another Covid casualty now revived, Aaron Sorkin’s much anticipated production of To Kill a Mockingbird which opened on Broadway in 2018 may have had to exchange original British lead Rhys Ifans for the equally impressive Rafe Spall, but otherwise emerges relatively unscathed from its two year delay. At almost three hours, it is a long night but one that largely captures the moral, political and community complexities that have made Harper Lee’s novel a schoolchild favourite. Naturally, Sorkin’s adaptation is at its best in the tense courtroom scenes that pit an innocent man against a very crooked system, even if elsewhere the show tips into twee.

Sorkin, of course, is especially associated with those courtroom scenes and intellectually dense rat-a-tat dialogue that has made him a master of confrontation between smart, largely middle class, people fighting against organisational corruption and injustice. From the excellent A Few Good Men (Tom Cruise vs the US Marines), to Molly’s Game (Jessica Chastain vs the FBI), The Trial of the Chicago Seven (Eddie Redmayne vs the police) to TV series like The Newsroom (Jeff Daniels vs the US Media and Government). Sorkin has made a career from the David against Goliath plights of ordinary citizens pitted against Establishment systems.

To Kill a Mockingbird is, then, a natural fit for the writer which, for the most part, Sorkin takes advantage of, showcasing the racial and political divisions in a small town that result in social stigma and recrimination. But this is not the first version of the novel to grace the stage and a 2015 production starring Robert Sean Leonard in the title role transferred from Regent’s Park to the Barbican, providing a benchmark against which this latest production is found slightly wanting. And although it is not always reasonable to compare, judging each on its own terms, exploring the story treatments and staging decisions across different approaches can explain how these support or hinder the development of the plot and the sometimes troublesome translation from page to stage.

Sorkin’s production is centered on three characters sharing narrator duties. Scout, Harper Lee’s original storyteller, Jem her older brother and Dill the friend they meet only for a summer. And for Sorkin this serves a couple of distinct purposes; first it offers different perspectives on the same event and, in theory at least, presents the audience with three ways into this story and its wider effects on the Finch family who each react and respond according to their age and involvement in the community. Second, structurally within the play it solves some directorial challenges in staging the story by reducing the burden on a single actor to carry all the activities as well as smoothing the transitions for characters appearing in subsequent scenes.

But this is also a place where Sorkin’s version struggles to find independence between different narrative voices, so in lifting text from the novel’s single point of view and distributing it to three people, they still speak as though they are the same person and not in a way that adds to the drama. Instead, Scout, Jem and Dill are mostly in harmony, commenting on events and guiding the audience from scene to scene with very little reflection on how their own perspectives should actually differ. And while Sorkin may draw them out through dramatic exchanges in conversation with other characters, that distinction in viewpoint and understanding isn’t brought through into their narrator duties. It feels like a missed opportunity to better explore authorial voice and the contradictions and differences in the priorities of children of various ages – most notably perhaps that Jem would challenge Atticus more while Scout still sees him as an unblenched hero.

As a theatrical device, single and multiple narrators are very common and, as seen recently with Under Milk Wood and Our Town, it can be an effective means of creating the bustle of larger communities as well as offering a wistful tone that uses language to conjure an imagined scene which the audience must suspend their disbelief to see. Here, though, it has a slightly alienating quality, pulling the viewer in and out of the story to add context or speed through time. And across three hours it is a device that begins to wear thin, a Jackanory retelling speaking down to the audience with endless explanations that contrast sharply with the dramatic tension and the more engaging approach to scene writing where Sorkin’s dialogue flies and jabs as we have come to expect. The balance has fallen too far into a novelistic telling rather than a theatrical staging which does sap the energy.

Timothy Sheader’s approach for Regent’s Park and the Barbican had a similar problem, using multiple narrators to convey the story in which approaches to reading the text were variable, creating a similar issue with the tone in which scenic and contextual information was conveyed. Sorkin may have reduced the number of narrators but this new version still doesn’t strike the right balance between omniscient author and dramatically-staged scenes.

Courtroom fireworks are what Sorkin does best and his version of To Kill a Mockingbird excels in the strength and potency of these exchanges, distilling the novel’s concern with social justice but also Sorkin’s own interest in the specificity of legal arguments and the rhetorical theatricality of their presentation. The white saviour construct feels more dubious than it did even in 2015, but Sorkin’s management of witness testimony and cross-examination, the presentation of evidence and skill of lawyers to construct, twist and persuade through argument is exceptionally well managed.

Sorkin too has a firm grasp of the shape and careful utilisation of drama across these dialogue-heavy interactions and writes slow crescendos particularly brilliantly as combinations of information gain their own momentum. Employing staggered turning points, dramatic defeats, cliff-hangers and thundering attacks, Sorkin has a masterful control over the unfolding courthouse scenes, maintaining anticipation and interest throughout as though unfolding military strategies in which there is much to grip an audience as the contenders effectively draw battle lines.

The questioning of the two key prosecution witnesses – Bob and Mayella Ewell – is particularly effective as Sorkin’s Atticus lays traps, provokes reactions and, as all true mavericks should, pushes at the boundaries of appropriate conduct to get to the truth. These sections prove crucial for the audience, a chance to see through the mendacity of the accusers but also for Sorkin to showcase the failures in legal process and deep-rooted community bigotry that will prevail regardless. That the writer is able to so clearly delineate these closely integrated subtexts is fascinating and well achieved, leaving the audience to wonder what to do when the law fails and justice is compromised.

Sheader’s production was perhaps less explosive but gave the courtroom scenes a world-weary fatalism that was quite different to Sorkin’s approach, though equally valid. A more muted style with a strong moral belief in doing the right thing for the sake of doing it, the Regent’s Park / Barbican show may have had a different courtroom dynamic but these are scenes that, across the two productions, are clearly the easiest to stage and stage well.

Running at the Gielgud Theatre, Bartlett Sher’s staging is a little cumbersome, requiring the wheeling on and off of bits of set including court seats, doorways and furniture to manage the many quick-fire changes of location. It does tend to slow the action – potentially necessitating even more narration to cover the resets – as we wait for Atticus’s house to rise up from the floor so the many scenes on the porch and inside can take place. Cutting between the courtroom and the Finch home becomes clunky as the pace of the story quickens in the second Act with the effort and sound of set being trundled into place and back again becoming a distraction.

Jon Bauser’s approach for Regent’s Park and the Barbican used chalk lines to delineate the town of Maycomb which became increasingly eroded and blurred by the ensemble (who were permanently on stage) as they stepped into scenes. Its very simplicity made it all the more powerful, eschewing the need for elaborate scenery that Sher’s production gets bogged down with, and both dramatically and practically was all the better for it.

Rafe Spall is, however, an excellent Finch, a man who believes wholeheartedly in goodness and decency to all, a virtue he tries to instill in his children. Sorkin deliberately toys with the presentation of Atticus across the production, placing a silent, remote and thoughtful figure on stage at first and, seen through the eyes of his daughter at least, a quietly heroic icon whose admirable decency and unflappable honesty and integrity are something that Spall captures exactly. Yet, as events take their sadly inevitable course, Sorkin asks questions about Atticus as a father and community member that suggest failings in his unbiased liberality and Spall investigates the possibility that Atticus must face himself in the aftermath of the trial, exploring whether there is systemic prejudice in his own behaviour which is so ingrained as to go almost unnoticed. Is fighting in the Courtroom enough and should Atticus be braver in taking a stand in other areas of his life where the rules of engagement are less clear?

Gwyneth Keyworth plays Scout as notably older than the six-year-old of the book and here seems around twice that. Still a tomboy eager to learn and ask questions, Keyworth’s very likeable performance is the heart of the piece, the innocence of Scout an important contrast with the poisonous attitudes of the Maycomb townspeople. Harry Reading has a little less to work with as Jem but gives a sense of a boy slightly closer to the adult world than his sister and far more conscious of their failings while David Moorst’s Dill probably plays as the youngest of the three in which Moorst has some nicely timed comic moments. They don’t really make the narrative duties decidedly their own but that’s a failing of the script rather than the performances.

Among the adults, Patrick O’Kane is particularly notable as the noxious Bob Ewell, a man with an imposing presence and dark soul whose viciousness seems to inspire loyalty for a time while Poppy Lee Friar is very good as the fragile Mayella whose brittle, cowed surface still brings a shocking desire for self-protection over decent humanity. Pamela Nomvete adds real gravitas as Calpurnia whose relationship with Atticus proves crucial to the re-examination that Sorkin brings to the final section of the play while Jude Owusu is full of dignity as the bewildered Tom.

There is much to admire in Sorkin’s writing and in the development of some complex character studies that try to get under the surface of the novel’s adult characters and the deeply ingrained prejudice of this Alabama town. That people can become so enmeshed in lies and suspicions that their only option is not only to go on with them but to cling even tighter feels pertinent, and while the staging and narrative structure are too heavy-handed, Sorkin has much to say about the broken relationship between integrity and justice.

To Kill a Mockingbird is at the Gielgud Theatre until 13 August with tickets from £27.50. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

The Human Voice – Harold Pinter Theatre

For the second successive week, a superstar director has taken a different course in response to the intimate demands of a character-driven play about relationships. Where Marianne Elliott suspended the breadth of her, often sweeping, vision to create a forensic analysis of sexual identity in Cock, so too does Ivo van Hove put aside his filmic style for an intimate monologue about the end of love. Starring Ruth Wilson, Jean Cocteau’s play The Human Voice, is a sympathetic study of a women driven to distraction by a final phone call with her lover to which van Hove brings shades of meaning and interpretation.

Not since A View from the Bridge has van Hove staged a play with so little paraphernalia. From Obsession to Network to All About Eve, van Hove has been interested in the place where cinema and theatre overlap, not just turning established films into theatrical productions, but how the camera can be used as a platform and as a revelatory tool. Network, set in a TV studio, was largely concerned with how individuals use, respond to and are affected by news media in which the protagonist is able to grandstand to a large, passive audience through live transmission. By contrast in All About Eve, van Hove placed cameras in private spaces where characters obscured from the stage audience but projected on screen held whispered conversations and asides that created confederacy with the all-knowing, all-seeing viewer.

While there are no cameras and no projection in this new staging of The Human Voice, van Hove probes that very same division between public and private, putting the audience in the voyeuristic position of observer to both parts of the lead character’s conversation. It is staged in what at first seems like a wide screen, a long rectangle of space surrounded by black. But it soon becomes apparent that this is in fact a window, a sliding balcony door of what we presume is a stylish block of flats for young professionals somewhere in a vast and, crucially, lonely city.

But designer Jan Versweyveld, van Hove’s regularly collaborator, gives us very little else to go on. Behind the window is merely a mottled cream wall with no pictures, no distinguishing marks and a home that has no visible furniture or personal effects. Our character is in a void, shut-off from the outside world and us by this substantial picture window behind which she is emotionally and physically caged, trapped significantly behind glass that mutes and contains her.

The effect is two-fold; first it deliberately empties the action of the play of any individuality, reflecting Cocteau’s text that names neither lover or their dog, gives hints of their daily lives, jobs, families or even the conduct of their affair, and instead creates an abandoned, broken-hearted everywoman in no defined era who has given everything up for a man including most of her friends. In response, van Hove places nothing in this space except the woman herself – or what is left of her – and the phone to which she clings and into which her vision of the world and all her hopes are projected. Things do exist beyond this space and into it she brings a referenced blue dress, paper and marker pens, even cleaning products, but there is considerable meaning in what we see and the life beyond the confines of this boxed space.

The second purpose is to place the viewer in the uncomfortable position of spy or interloper, making us privy to everything that happens; the things she wants her lover to know and the private, potentially shameful behaviours that she conceals at home. As this story unfolds and we observe her through the window, it becomes increasingly exposing as her state of mind and emotional control are shaken. Like Eddie Carbone’s self-destruction in A View from the Bridge, we are passive observers and entirely complicit in the outcomes of The Human Voice.

As a directorial technique, the reduced field of vision also brings considerable intensity and intimacy to this staging, shrinking-down the large performance area at the Harold Pinter to just a single viewing point within which the character can move around without losing the focus on her interior life or the building tension of increasingly unsatisfactory and technically disrupted telephone calls. Performed essentially behind a clear screen, a microphone provides the necessary projection which also allows the character to leave the stage as though entering other rooms of her flat or, quite naturally, walking around while on the phone which adds a dynamic and movement to what could easily be a static piece.

Where van Hove adds texture is through a carefully-chosen soundscape that partly brings additional contextual information but also indicates the chapters of this 70-minute drama. It is some way into the piece when our lead opens the balcony door indicating what it is for the first time and a rush of sound comes with it. A combination of traffic and night creatures instantly imply the buzz of a busy city far below, placing the character at a dangerous but important height above the city. In tandem, van Hove provides a soundtrack, a couple of empowering songs that the protagonist plays as she waits for her call and tries to gee herself up for the conversation to come. But in one spectacular sequence, even this is overlaid by a moodier, indie piece that in very cinematic fashion signals her feeling to the audience. It comes at a turning point in the action and although Beyoncé is audible underneath and we see the character shouting into the phone, her exact words are obscured by this track and brilliant yellow lighting that marks an energy shift, leaving us to question her state of mind thereafter.

Within the text, Cocteau leaves the audience to wonder how much of what we see really happens. This viewer is given one half of a conversation conducted on the phone and in a credit to the writing doesn’t leave the main character to repeat what she has heard for our benefit and instead she just reacts to it. We hear the phone ring and, in reference to an earlier time of telephone exchanges, multiple callers appear to intrude on the same line adding to moments of light relief if not outright comedy to leaven the tension momentarily and allow the writer to alter the shape of the story. But later in the play, we begin to question whether there is anyone on the line at all, is this woman, as she says, claiming a final phone call with the love of her life before resignedly accepting the end of their relationship or is there another explanation entirely?

There is a decided separation between how the woman wants to come across, to be considered and remembered, and how she really is. We see her repeatedly assuring her lover that she is well, her voice is calm, alluring even as she tries to be a good sport about it all. She always knew, she claims, that it would end and has enjoyed their time together on that proviso, a model breakup of adult acceptance. Yet, there are hints that there is a specific reason for this untimely separation, another woman, an engagement announcement that perhaps have hastened its end and affected her far more than she shows with only a few spikey comments revealing a deeper affliction to him at least.

So what is her purpose here? Is this truly a decent and civilised goodbye or is the woman using this platform to remind her erstwhile lover what he is missing? Is her seductive tone on occasion and reference to memorable times a strategy to lure him back, one that backfires horribly when she is unable to contain the resentment and distress that come tumbling out across their multiple attempts to connect. And is he worth this pain? There are several hints that he is lying to her about where he is calling from and presumably also the true nature of his connection with another woman. Why has he refused to collect his own belongings and his dog from her flat, sending a servant or associate known as Joseph to do it instead and why does she never call him, is it only because she doesn’t know where he will be or is it for some other reason of concealment. Cocteau leaves these big questions hanging – what could possibly have happened between this couple that necessitates a final phone call but no meeting in person, and just who is really to blame for its conclusion?

The biggest question of all is what is the woman’s state of mind which a lengthy section of the play asks us to reconsider. In her frustration at being unable to articulate her feelings clearly and calmly, is she practising a further conversation with him in her head the way we all do sometimes, only here she is verbalising her half of the dialogue for the audience’s benefit, or has she been talking to anyone at all? Is this whole hour an entirely imagined scenario in which her emotional despair has led her to believe she is in a 60-minute series of calls saying the things she could never do in real life, or, darker still, are there multiple personalities at play, the constant interruptions from other people on the lines, those ‘listening in’ and the woman seeking a doctor, are these merely other aspects of her broken psyche?

Ruth Wilson is always an actor to see on stage and here she captures all the complexities of feeling and the multiple possibilities her character presents. Teaming-up with van Hove once again following their striking Hedda Gabler, Wilson has a unique ability to turn her characters inside out on stage or screen, showing the audience the tumult beneath, and here the wounded underbelly is on full display across a commanding 70-minute performance.

Evolving seamlessly from rational, controlled caller to brittle ex-girlfriend, from fury with the position she has been put in by this man to shy, seductive and sometimes manipulative, Wilson leads the audience through this unfolding conversation as it reveals all the layers, contradictions and engulfing sadness within the women on the phone. Holding together a person who doesn’t want to be looked at but cannot bear to be left alone, Wilson edges her character nearer to the edge as her outward image and inward agitation contend.

Cocteau’s play still feels remarkably alive and relevant 90-years after it was first performed, capturing the tragedy of lost love and the emptiness it leaves behind. It is a quiet play, full of nuance and subtle moments that require close attention as the tides shift within the narrative, and the combination of Wilson and van Hove once again prove a dynamic pairing in this revival, with its understanding of human emotion and empathy for the broken hearted that feels both timeless and contemporary.

The Human Voice is at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 9 April with tickets from £35. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Cock-Ambassadors Theatre

Jonathan Bailey (John) and Jade Anouka (W) in COCK_c_Brinkhoff-Moegenburg

Theatre has always been a place to explore identity by using different character perspectives to consider points of view, social structures or inherited notions of what an individual can and should be. In recent years, plays like Clint Dyer and Roy Williams’s Death of England cycle have questioned preconceptions about the singularity of national identities as well as the heavily gendered expectations of what being a working class man means in a changing socio-political context. Likewise, writers like Kyo Choi are investigating female identity as imposed by deep-rooted systemic bias in centuries-old patriarchal structures and how the individual is affected by sexual violence, while Joseph Charlton’s Anna X put identity itself under the microscope of social media filtering. So it is in this context of who gets to tell us who we are and are allowed to be that Mike Bartlett’s provocatively titled play Cock returns to the West End, a comic play about the interaction between personal and sexual identities that gives every sentence about it an unavoidable innuendo, directed by Marianne Elliott.

Elliott is arguably the only female director whose name alone will tell you everything about the style of work you are about to see. Other directorial superstars are, for now, all men – Robert Icke, Jamie Lloyd, Ivo van Hove (although Rebecca Frecknall is certainly on the rise here) – and Elliott’s work tends to have a grand narrative sweep, aligning the personal and the political at a given point in time. From Company to Angels in America and Death of a Salesmen, Elliott brings a visionary approach to innovation within the original text, able to rethink race and gender to offer fresh insights and application for existing works. Elliott combines this with a fine balance of scales that mixes the personal development and trajectory of individuals within the wider context of their lives, drawing conclusions both for the character as well as societies in general.

Cock is a far more intimate play and in bringing this production to life, Elliott retains a tight focus on the three central characters, an unusual love triangle that becomes a combat zone or cockfight. First performed in 2009, it remains as fresh and meaningful as ever as the protagonist, John (the only named individual in the play), struggles to either understand or articulate his sexuality while driven by the external insistence of his partners to make a defining choice either way. And Bartlett uses this to drive the drama across 105-minutes.

Cock is largely a chronological story that begins with a break-up when John chooses to end his relationship with his boyfriend – a difficult starting point for actors who need to keep something in reserve for the emotional complexities yet to come. Bartlett grows the story from there in a series of flash scenes, short sequences in which the original couple attempt a reconciliation and discuss the woman John slept with during their break. At this point, the audience has no reason to question the information that Bartlett provides through John or the extremes of sexual confusion to come.

Having introduced the scenario, what we believe are the two central characters and a subtle twist on the infidelity plot, Bartlett pulls an interesting switch, taking the audience very slightly back in time to see John’s first meeting with his girlfriend and the rapid development of their relationship. This sequence is much lighter – an important note for a compare and contrast discussion later in the play – that emphasises the humorous experience of John’s first sexual encounter with a woman and the continual attraction that he feels towards this unnamed partner known only as W.

But something has also shifted in the style of the play, so events or conversations we have seen before are referenced as well, providing new information to the audience. Bartlett has very slowly done two thigs here; first he has merged the timelines and almost without us realising has brought us out of the past and into a present that we recognise from the start of the play. And secondly, in doing so it begins to expose a number of lies that John has told in order to protect himself from the fallout. It is a risk to move away from the established scenario but one that brings both comic opportunity and character insight, creating a farce-like potential that dominates the decisive third Act.

In the final portion of Cock, Bartlett pulls a final switch as the three characters meet awkwardly – refereed by M’s dad – to resolve their dilemma. What could be a farcical climax instead becomes the cockfight of the title as M and W fight over and for John. The signs have been there throughout of course, guiding the audience towards this combative conclusion and each of John’s relationships has involved some form of conflict in the preceding scenes, building anticipation as the two halves of his life come together and create a pressure on him to make a decision about his romantic and sexual future. All three characters enter the arena on these terms, W and M certain that John will pick them while John flatters both that he will, and deceives himself that he is capable of a choice.

What makes Cock a classic contemporary work is how adeptly Bartlett manages the shifts of power and tension in this final encounter to underscore his detailed character study and the development of John’s nascent sense of identity, something so fragile and unformed he barely has the confidence to acknowledge it. But this final segment becomes crucial in cementing some form of purpose in John and, by setting up a direct choice between heteronormative values that will give him a wife, children and a dreamlike family Christmas, and a monogamous homosexual relationship with a man who rarely plans beyond the day, Bartlett exposes the impossibility of externally-imposed labels and the limitations of binary choices.

In a conclusion which has more than one interpretation, it is possible to see the tragedy of social expectation to know yourself and the sacrifices it demands. On the other hand, if you want to see it, Bartlett might also offer a flicker of hope that John may see an alternative resolution, that in the play’s final contemplative moment the deconstruction of John taking place throughout the dinner party scene has left something new behind that may take him somewhere else. Bartlett leaves the door to both possibilities ajar, allowing the actor and the audience to decide where John goes from here.

In staging Cock, Marianne Elliot stays true to the emotional character piece this is, setting it in a clinical stainless steel environment designed by Merle Hensel, that is part padded cell, part shiny Bond villain bunker that presents plenty of opportunity for refracted, distorted and tarnished reflections of self. So while the play text refers to furnishings and food, the anti-realist setting feels almost scientific, as though we are studying John in an antiseptic environment where emotion and his own personality are being eroded. Into this, Elliott introduces a couple of interesting devices, largely keeping the actors apart so the intimacy between them becomes something that is said but rarely seen except during some moments of sexual contact. Playing with distance has both a comic and dramatic effect that emphasises the different beats in the play and the extent to which John is feeling biologically-determined love or lust or both.

Elliott also uses a circular revolve on stage that responds to the confusion that John feels, as well as moments of excitement and slow-build tension; there are also movement sequences choreographed by Annie-Lunette Deakin-Foster that work against the clinical feel of the set to explore John’s inner experience, charting the messy complexity of his feelings for both people and the struggle to control and interpret those responses as a singular sexual preference. Often lit in Elliott’s trademark neon colours – pink, blue and green – by Paule Constable, these directorial choices take a very discursive piece about identity and creates a wider context of personal and social pressure that pushes back against notions of indecision through a forensic examination of John’s affairs.

Cock may be one of the only West End productions in which the star attraction at the beginning of the run may not be the same at the end of it and while Taron Egerton is the big draw here, the arrival of Bridgerton Season Two in a couple of weeks with its global audience of 82 million will renew interest in Jonathan Bailey’s reluctant Viscount, the focus of the new series, whose struggle with status and duty was the most interesting plot in Season One. Here, Bailey, a veteran of Elliott’s Company for which he deservedly won an Olivier Award for his memorable rendition of ‘Getting Married Today’, is outstanding in the leading role as the confused John whose sympathetic qualities are perfectly balanced with his selfishness and destructive impulses.

John can be a hard character to like and, for all his charm, he leaves quite a trail of emotional destruction in his wake. He lies, even manipulates both partners, placing his own happiness and contentment above theirs while giving in to his desires with little care for the consequences in the moment. Bailey also gives John a neediness that over time becomes almost pathological as he demands forgiveness, fulfilment and meaning from his partners without looking within himself. But Bailey is also controlled, balancing the emotional shape across the show by sparingly raising his voice to considerable effect as John loses his grip.

Yet, Bailey instils John with considerable pathos, building on this notion of his fractured identity and drawing out years of confusion and even maltreatment in his relationship with M that has repressed and stifled the creation of his own identity. The quest for self-understanding becomes incompetent accident rather than purposeful malice, disrespect or lack of love, and Bailey explores the fragility of John’s inner world, expanding the bewilderment and sadness of someone trying to make the pieces fit and failing. John can be awful but he is also awfully lonely.

Egerton by contrast plays a man who is much clearer in his view of himself and the relationship he thinks he is in. Often very funny, M has a spikey sarcasm that becomes domineering, developing a chemistry with Bailey that makes their long relationships believable. Egerton is still finding some of the timing and tone, particularly in the later scene, but he captures well the consequences for a character whose resilience is far less assured as John’s indecisiveness takes its toll and Egerton nicely charts the power shifts that undermine his confidence and stability.

Jade Anouka matches them, bringing a much stronger energy to the production through her own character’s rational but determined pursuit of John. Certain of her hold over him, W is a different kind of contrast to M, open to and liberal about John’s broader sexual past, willing to nurture his emotional development, but equally unphased by the meeting with M and, in Anouka’s charged performance, certain that not only does she have the stomach for a fight but that she will win it.

With Phil Daniels brilliant in the small cameo role of M’s intimidating father, this superb cast give a gripping and accomplished performance of a play that continues to fascinate and challenge. Whether identity is something that is externally imposed or comes from within, and if decisions about that even need to be made at at all, becomes a question fraught with confusion, but seeing this play is one choice that is very easy to make.

Cock is at the Ambassadors Theatre until 4 June with tickets from £20. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Galápagos – Bridewell Theatre

Kyo Choi is a name to watch, a South Korean playwright based in London whose work is already attracting attention with further productions planned for the Arcola Theatre this year and previous attachments to the Soho Theatre and National Theatre Studio. Her latest play Galápagos given a short run at the Bridewell Theatre by the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama at the University of London examines the issue of consent and the socialised culture of teenage interaction that results in the sexual assault of a young girl. Choi starts her play after the event, exploring both the legal process as the case is investigated by the police and assessed by her lawyer examining its likelihood to proceed to trial and the wider social impact as her peers and her parents discuss truth and culpability.

Galápagos is concerned with the broad applicability of sexual politics and the events Choi’s play depicts draw on allusions to classical mythology in which men had the freedom to travel and conquer while women who tried to over-reach were punished with madness, damnation and death. Choi expands the notion – building on Jermyn Street Theatre’s 15 Heroines play cycle – to note the frequency of rape, assault and male toxicity in stories of the Gods and their power with Leda and the swan a key reference point in the contemporary school-based scenario that Galápagos considers.

The long history of female oppression as the targets of male violence is brought to the fore using multiple actors in the leading role delineated by a shared costume palette in a particular shade of bright mint green. Each scene advances the overall chronology of what is the experience of a single woman and multiple women at the same time, undertaken in rotation by the five performers. In emphasising the systemic nature of male violence against women and the cultural influences that create and perpetuate it, Choi presents the audience with a universal multi-faced complainant (not ‘victim’ according to the lawyers) and yet only a single attacker because, as the legal profiling suggests, the future and individuality of this man is more promising and therefore more important than the woman he attacked.

“How can you tell the difference between masculinity and toxic masculinity” one character asks a teacher, a debate that seers through Choi’s episodic structure that in the first half seeks to capture a variety of different perspectives in the aftermath of a party in which our unnamed protagonist was drunkenly dragged to a side room and raped. The boys are unashamedly candid in their debrief, smugly recalling the goading crowd at the event, the girl’s inebriated state and even casually bantering about rape as they congratulate the attacker on his victory. Only one friend has reservations which he attempts to voice, but doesn’t have the courage to publicly support the girl and provide the supporting evidence she needs.

Later, Choi looks at the consequences for the male lead in a scene set in 2050 which explores how his long-lasting guilt stacks-up against the comfortable life he managed to hold onto, working in Whitehall while accruing an ex-wife and children along the way. Yet something has continued to gnaw at his soul, seeking a kind of redemption that for a moment you worry Galápagos might give him but, as the rest of the play demonstrates, an eleventh-hour sorry just isn’t enough.

There are three other key strands; first Choi couches her discussions of female behaviour and the centuries-old and (un)surprisingly consistent social attitudes to female sexuality in the reactions of family, friends and teachers who debate their responsibility for the events at the party. The girl’s parents are seen in a variety of scenarios that begin with a blustering defence of their daughter but a darker, unresolved tone slowly emerges as her father hides a belief that the girl’s clothing on the night in question and even her mother’s feminist attitudes have left their child unprepared for the world of men. And it’s a really strong concept as Choi moves the whole discussion of culpability and toxicity from the external world and right into the girl’s domestic space and influences.

Other adult figures prove equally unreliable. Her unsympathetic lawyer is constantly balancing the scales of justice in his head, interested only in convincing evidence that will help him win the case and unconcerned by any trauma his client may have suffered. Equally, most of her teachers are keen to pass the buck, insisting that an event that didn’t take place on school property is not their concern, that guilt is a fluid concept and callously fail to prevent the students running into each other in class. Friends meanwhile are either perplexed or concealing similar experiences – one of which is affectingly recounted and re-enacted – that deepens the sense of isolation around these teenagers unable to talk openly and without judgement about their experiences. All of these scenarios feel ripe for expansion and greater exploration in Choi’s patchwork narrative, but still their collective effect suggest the unilateral failure of external support systems for the protection of and support for women.

Second, Galápagos presents the negative impact of popular culture influences on the representation of healthy relationships between women and men. The second half opens with a Love Island type show in a slightly over-lengthy but pointed sequence that splits the focus between the reality TV action and the teenagers commenting via social media platforms. Designed to quickly encapsulate the backwards step that representation of women in competitive dating shows has taken, it comments on the obsession with body image, surface appearance, trolling and the tiresome media dramatic device that needlessly pits women against each other for entertainment – a point Choi also makes elsewhere with a potentially superfluous segment about Meghan Markel and Kate Middleton reflecting a similar point made in Mad Men that categorised women as prim Jackies or bombshell Marilyns. Still, the poisonous and pervasive context is Choi’s point and these sections perpetuate behaviours in men and women that the writer argues are centuries old.

The third strand in the play is the impact of Greek myth on contemporary culture used to create an initial connection between the survivor and the attacker when Choi spools back in Act Two to explore some of the interactions leading to the sexual assault. And it is classical stories that Galápagos particular draws on to explain the basis of attitudes to women who are there to be possessed, conquered and abandoned. Choi has used this duality in female sexuality within the play, creating the geeky outer-self of our heroine which contrast with the externally-imposed notions of all women’s internal sinful wantonness that tales of Pandora, Leda and, later, the Biblical Eve have represented.

The Bridewell Theatre’s production directed by Gemma Aked-Priestley is a great showcase for MA students from the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama able to perform a new contemporary work which contains a number of different theatrical devices that merge a straightforwardly dramatic style in which narrative development is the driving factor with an illusory or fantastical quality where characters from Greek myth burst into real life to create a sense of unease.

Movement pieces and choreography designed by Quang Kien Van are used to punctuate the piece which often take a sinister turn. Frequently the five characters known as Girl 1 dance together in a coordinated, jerky pack, their tendency to haunt the stage a valuable reminder of the broader applicability of Choi’s themes. The mythology-style reality show begins as a dance of female power as Atalanta joins the group demonstrating her sensuality but Van changes the mood rapidly as the suddenly rampaging boys round-up the girls who cower terrified as they are surrounded.

Choi also uses dreamscape to explore the attacker’s alternative fantasy sequence in which a Swan Lake-inspired ballet takes the story of Leda and transforms it into a piece in which acceptance of the word ‘no’ and the chastisement of others prevents the attack. With swan make-up and ethereal costume created by designer Sammy Dowson who brings a classical feel to the set, along with Rachel Sampley’s low lighting against a moonlit video backdrop, the production captures the romance of the ballet setting, an unreal dream feeling that provokes Girl 1’s final response.

The more absurdist moments don’t all work convincingly including the use of mask to create bird-headed teachers, a brief explanation of which is given in Act One but never quite makes sense as they caw and squawk at students who automatically understand them. And while the teachers are separated from their pupils, this is not a device that extends to other adults nor is it entirely consistent with the transformation theme that continually links the perpetrators and survivors of sexual crime with their Greek forbears who assume or are given creature form.

Directed by Aked-Priestley, Galápagos holds its various strands together very nicely, moving seamlessly between naturalistic scenes and the more imaginative sequences as well as socio-cultural comment pieces. The flashes and snippets of video design projected onto the back wall between scenes create a backdrop that bombards teenagers with images, text messages, notifications and sexualised content while the political endorsement of male aggression and unchallenged power is emphasised through newsreel footage of authority figures encouraging and even becoming figureheads for toxic masculinity.

The five Girl 1’s, Aleeza Humranwala, Alex O’Donnell, Clarissa Zamba, Emma Veares and Tegan Verheul create a consistent single character while presenting individual aspects of the weeks and months following the attack that builds a collective understanding of the female experience. Joshua Going’s perpetrator, Boy 1, has nuance with empathy and intelligence but an equally loathsome male bravado and shamelessness about his ‘conquest’. There is also particularly good work from Luke Oliver whose moving account of male rape is sensitively handled.

Choi’s play makes for an obvious comparison with Nina Raine’s far less satisfactory Consent which failed to investigate its titular topic and instead focused on middle class people drinking wine and having affairs. Galápagos has far more to say about the context for and impact of sexual violence against women which with a small amount of reshaping could be very powerful indeed. Choi is certainly a playwright to watch.

Galápagos was performed at the Bridewell Theatre from 3-5 March. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

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