Monthly Archives: August 2022

I, Joan – Globe Theatre

History wasn’t only written by the winners, but by the men on the winning side so what can it really tell us about the lives, experiences and identities of anyone else? That is the central debate in Charlie Josephine’s new play for the Globe Theatre, I, Joan, a re-examination not only of the supposed facts and assumptions made about Joan of Arc but also her subsequent presentation predominantly by male artists and writers who retrospectively project shape and meaning onto her story, replacing Joan’s voice with their own. An instrument of God called to rebalance the kingdom of France through war or a convenient peasant girl who outgrew her usefulness to the elite, Josephine’s play explores constructed, imposed and lived identities and the limitations of patriarchal vocabularies.

Of the many women in history, Joan of Arc probably offers the most fascinating opportunity to explore the fluidity of gender identity. Whether or not Joan actively questioned notions of gender or believed in gradations of identity we will never know, but the early criticism of the fictionalised I, Joan rather misses the point. This is not so much a speculation on whether Joan would have used a different pronoun but instead how the wider contemporary perceptions of Joan as a woman were a barrier to be overcome as well as a tool to confine and destroy her.

That Joan of Arc assumed and exhibited traits and behaviours that were seen as exclusively male – the desire to lead armies, to physically wage war, to receive and interpret God’s word and to adopt masculine dress – suggest a blurring of gender identity far beyond that exhibited by other powerful women in early modern history. Elizabeth I may have donned a breastplate at Tilbury and commended her kingly heart to the troops but much of her public image was predominantly feminised and chivalric in tone throughout her reign. But Joan, Josephine is suggesting, never appeared as anything except herself and that is the basis on which the character engages with the French court and with the audience.

And there are many interesting aspects to I, Joan that open out these concepts of performative identity and the fear of otherness that creates a conservative backlash against Joan as her fame and success grow. Josephine includes the rituals of dress more than once, moments in which the initially skirted Joan adopts a unisex boiler suit that matches the soldiers she leads, creating a uniformity and androgyny that is liberating – an act crucially perceived as Joan deliberately adopting masculine characteristics rather than an innate expression of self. Later, as the king grows jealous of her fame, powerful men try to push Joan back into the dresses that were forever abandoned, while even the Queen Mother lectures the veteran leader on more womanly ways to influence power.

Between these two markers of fortune, Joan grows in confidence, starting to question and embrace an identity that comes with, an albeit temporary, freedom to decide. It is here that Joan struggles against the imposition of inappropriate pronouns, rejecting ‘she’ for the more satisfying ‘they’, and Josephine repeatedly makes space within the play for Joan to have this conversation, to feel that they don’t fit and have the space to express the dissatisfaction with inadequate binary choices. As Henry V contemplates the burden of monarchy and power on the night before Agincourt, so does Joan stop to wonder what their identity means in the spaces between battles as the bodies pile up in the name of the cause – be it God, France or the wannabe King.

The body then becomes an important point of contention – as non-male bodies so often have – wondering who gets to own, name and make decisions about it. For all Joan’s liberty, they struggle initially with the physicality of the blood-soaked battlefield at Orléans, the destructive price of their inner destiny inflicted on the bodies of others. Later when Joan is tried, accused by the church of false prophesy, heresy and a kind of vanity in adopting men’s clothing, the force of patriarchal conformity and the boundaries placed around Joan’s apparent liberty feel even more constricting, demonstrating the illusory nature of their freedom and how quickly tolerance is replaced with fault when the hero falls from grace.

But Joan also expresses contention within their own body, a striving and dissatisfaction resulting from inaccurate and imposed gender assignment that physically contorts their own body. This is an under-developed aspect of I, Joan, although it is referenced several times, and there is a greater opportunity here to contrast the sword-point impact that Joan has on the bloodied and mutilated bodies of men left behind in her campaigning – arguably with the rank and file at least having as little control over the purpose of their own bodies as Joan does – and Joan’s own constrained physicality. Joan certainly becomes more arrogant as the successful campaigns pile up but there is no reflection on the human cost of that to someone who expresses such frustration with the confinement of their own body and the external controls pressed upon it.

That they are referred to as ‘girl’, ‘she’ or ‘maid’ by others throughout the play is pointed, a refusal from the men and women of the French court and army to engage with Joan’s right to self-determine, as well as a blinkered persistence that the world exists purely in black and white. Josephine extends this into consideration of the deficiencies of vocabulary, a repeated refrain throughout the play for Joan is the notion of feeling bigger than the tiny words invented by men allow. When they look at the star-splattered sky they don’t feel small but vast, a reference picked up again in the final portion of the play when the impassioned Joan prowls the audience in rallying monologue, descrying the constraints of tiny words like ‘boy’ or ‘girl’ that cannot contain the full meaning of a person while no combination of the alphabet has yet been invented to fully encapsulate them – a poetic and powerful moment that gets to the heart of Josephine’s interpretation.

It is a shame then, that so much of this interesting reconceptualisation of Joan takes place in a vastly overlong and tonally varied piece of drama, and while Josephine rejects the perspective of male writers who have shaped Joan’s legend in their own words, far too much of I, Joan relies on the structure of George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan that proves repetitious and sometimes too hesitant in its stridency. There seems to be an informal rule at The Globe that no show should finish before 10.30pm and I, Joan suffers for it while there is a notable disconnection between the ferocious marketing poster that presages a gritty, warrior drama and the comic presentation of much of the production as design and directorial choices seek jaunty ways to entertain the audience.

These decisions undercut almost every serious scene in the play, pulling focus from the high-stakes religious and monarchical drama that makes the emotional pay offs difficult to justify. The physical staging is strikingly modern, and designer Naomi Kuyck-Cohen has created a wooden arc that sweeps from gallery to stage with a urban skate-park feel giving the actors a semi-velodrome curvature that offers height and pace to the movement sequences that represent fighting or moments of emotional distress. In practice, however, director Ilinca Radulian larges uses it as a slide from the gallery and every time the actors slip down it, it evokes laughter from the audience.

And that is not always the response the scene demands. In a crucial scene after Orléans, Joan is troubled by the massacre around them, a weighty moment about the path God has seemingly chosen for Joan who has seen true battle for the first time and is grappling with a disconnection between the honorable notions of it and the ugly reality. Into that moment come several boiler-suited soldiers sliding down onto the stage in different positions, creating levity in what should be a grave and sober reflection. Likewise, when Joan is tried by the Bishops towards the end of the play, the impassioned refusal to accept their charges and the recognition that death will be the consequence is undermined by Jennifer Jackson’s shuffling choreography as the clergymen stutter and bumble around each other – a joke repeated several times before the scene’s conclusion.

And this tendency to waggishness happens again and again, the production opting to find a laugh rather than allowing any emotional complexity to ripple through the Globe audience. And some of that is very clever, the petulant King Charles leaving the winning and running of his campaign to his wife, mother-in-law and Joan is very funny but the balance isn’t quite right. I, Joan takes the subject of gender very seriously so the moments in which Joan reflects on that, often in monologue, are sensitive and engaging, but the rest of Joan’s identity – soldier, crusader, Christian – isn’t given equivalent importance. It means the tone wavers considerably across what is a vastly overlong piece, and while the audience really does invest in Joan, the broader emotional impact of her final sacrifice and betrayal just isn’t given the space it demands.

In their debut performance, Isobel Thom is an excellent Joan, playing well to the audience and making them confederate in Joan’s story. Commanding when they need to be, but also vulnerable, Thom’s Joan is driven and certain that God is speaking through them, but during the play learns to trust their own instincts when reading people and situations. It is a performance that grows across the production, building to an important rallying statement delivered on the ground among the people in which Thom electrifies the audience. But there is nuance in their Joan, subtle hints at arrogance and complacency, a quickness to dismiss the feelings and needs of others in the singular quest to fight on that the play could also delve into a little deeper. Joan may be certain but how faith in them quickly sours, how the perception of Joan goes from saviour to dangerous extremist needs more time.

Adam Gillen as Thomas, Joan’s chief supporter within the French court also develops across the show, becoming increasingly disillusioned with his royal master, an amusing Jolyon Coy who embraces all of the peevishness of King Charles, especially as his subject’s fame begins to outshine him but Charles’s determination to trust non-male voices against the advice of his courtiers is an interesting strand that could be better explained. There is good support from Debbie Korley and Janet Etuk as the powerful women who also try to impose gender compliance on Joan, even after they have proved themselves in battle, an important note about the sometimes unexpected sources of patriarchal control.

Josephine’s play shouldn’t be remotely controversial and its exploration of gender identity aligns pretty seamlessly with the known activities of Joan’s military endeavours, pushing at the meaning of assigned sex and the ways in which history has reduced and recorded different perspectives. But I, Joan has some more theatrical and dramatic questions to address about the balancing of gender with other identity markers in representing a complex life story.

I, Joan is at the Globe Theatre until 22 October with tickets from £5. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


Miles & The Fall – Original Theatre Company

The focus on new writing schemes has been reassuring in the last year, quelling pandemic period fears that venues would proritise ‘safe’ revivals of well-known work in a new risk-averse landscape. Instead, initiatives such as Sonia Friedman’s well-cultivated RE:EMERGE season at the Harold Pinter Theatre have made important statements about the value of new voices and stories to the growth and recovery of the theatre ecosystem. Others soon followed suit with debut plays including All of Us by Francesca Martinez at the National and Jack Holden’s Cruise appearing across subsidised and commercial theatres. And that support continues with new work recently announced in seasons at the Royal Court, Jermyn Street Theatre and the Arcola Theatre among others. Meanwhile, Riverside Studios has partnered with the Original Theatre Company to make their three competition-winning plays from debut writers available for on-demand viewing.

Across three nights in July, these three plays were performed in the small space at Riverside Studios with all-star casts and simultaneously live-streamed to an international audience. The showcase for debut writing excellence is now for sale as a triple-package with the third piece, Tikkun Olam, also available as a distinct digital entity. Separate release dates for Miles and The Fall will follow, but watching them as a collective is just as valuable, transporting the viewer to three very different locations and into diverse lives, a chance to reflect not only on why this renewed emphasis on new writing is so valuable but also how effectively these schemes select their competition winners.

Miles

First up is Miles by Eilidh Nurse, a 95-minute play about a caravan park receptionist and her colleagues in a remote part of Scotland with few tourists and even fewer opportunities for its stymied youth. This is a real character piece and while there are underlying plot drivers, the creation of people the audience can invest in is the focus, with much of the first hour given over to building a sense of the individuals through slow-burn conversation and, often, conflicted interaction. So, when the drama finally comes, its impact is more deeply felt. Although Nurse keeps those reverberations subtle and small within the context of this work and the particular personalities involved, the outcomes nonetheless feel seismic for the lives depicted.

Miles opens with a new arrival, 18-year old -Ed (Cristian Ortega) – who comes to work at the caravan park alongside 24-year-old Janey (an excellent Hiftu Quasem) and 48-year-old owner Bobby (Gary Lewis), their ages only relevant to the similarities and differences that the characters feel exist between them. But while there has been a harmony of sorts for many years, Ed’s presence becomes the catalyst for the drama, precipitating a greater self-knowledge for the team, including himself, and like an inverse Pinter interloper, actually bringing people together. Ed has no awareness of his role as an instrument of change and nor do other characters recognise him as such, but Nurse uses the break from routine to take the cast forward.

But Miles is not a play that shies away from difficult subject matter, and beneath its comedic surface are some tougher themes about loneliness and lost opportunity, about the sacrifices people make to protect themselves from facing a frightening reality and about the limitations of living in small rural locations where economic deprivation and limited chances to meet or interact beyond the immediate community are both stifling and oppressive. Nurse’s skill is in weaving all of that through a show about day-to-day lives and the ordinariness that comes with it. No one actively steps back to address these themes in unlikely dialogue or dramatic encounters, but through the things they say and don’t say, the things they do and don’t do, the revelatory contextual backdrop to Miles looms large.

Central to this is the character of Janey whose story this really is and whose prickly, rather acerbic demeanour keeps other people at arms length while she quietly relies on their interaction as her primary sustenance. This isn’t the first creation whose hard surface reveals a more vulnerable layer beneath but Nurse has written a complex young woman who barely knows herself, unable to control the attitude she projects, mixing a world-weariness with her own frustrations about where she lives and feeling trapped in a cycle of unfulfilling existence that Janey is unable to escape from.

But for all that, there is a growing affection for her, a respect for her quippy no-nonsense style that develops in the early part of the show as the audience comes to understand that there is far more to Janey than she allows others to see, that before the curtain falls on this play, there will be revelatory explanation that will justify the allowances the audience is asked to make for her. Like almost everyone else in this drama, she is a product of her circumstances and experience against which, in reality, it is far harder to fight than fiction often acknowledges.

The other characters have less stage time but the snapshot of their lives also proves enlightening and engrossing. Bobby in particular proves the perfect foil and although appearing selectively throughout, Bobby supplies much of the backdrop to Janey’s story while retaining a credible life of his own. An equally lonely figure, Bobby’s reliance on the younger woman to help run his business while he attends to practical maintenance is tempered by a gentle subplot in which Bobby starts dating. It isn’t a showy storyline but it explores the desire for companionship and the hope of a different kind of life that still appeals to him despite how long he has felt trapped in his own recurring role – a glimmer of hope that things can always be different if you let them. While Bobby represents a possible future for the young adults if they choose to stay in this place, his essential kindness and the fatherly care he projects for Janey in particular add substance to the caravan park set-up.

The discursive nature of the play becomes more tangible in the final third of Miles when another interloper arrives, this time seeking to disrupt the steady state that Nurse has so carefully established and the unfolding drama occurs rapidly. It would be valuable to spend more time in this part of the play, expanding the causes and consequences of the central revelation and how it has shaped the behaviour of the characters it affects as well as what that means for their lives in the period beyond the play. Having spent so much time with them and been drawn so well into their experience, this moment of reckoning and its meaning need just a little more development in what has been a gripping and thoughtful character study.

The Fall

Drew Hewit’s The Fall couldn’t be more different. The second play in the Original Theatre Company sequence, it is an intellectual and conceptual piece about the nature of performance, memory and personality. Essentially a psycho-drama set across a therapist’s office and a family home, Hewitt is focused on suppressed trauma emerging slowly through behavioural tics during a period of several weeks that affect a woman’s ability to speak. At 1 hour and 40-minutes, The Fall is quite a dense play with lots of psychological and medical discussion carving out the differences between character Jan’s past and present as well as her emotional safety in various locations. It has a filmic quality that perhaps better suits this digital format than a traditional stage treatment.

Hewitt’s core concern is with the nature of reality and concepts of predestination or predetermination in how an individual life might unfold. It opens with a heightened scene, a drunk exuberant woman flirting with a young lodger and criticising her staid husband whose subsequent entrance creates a melodramatic argument. But it is a scene from a play written by the characters, also a husband and wife team who suffer a medical emergency that stops their performance, after which Jan (Sara Stewart) is unable to speak. It is an interesting way in from Hewitt, catching the audience off-guard, unsure what exactly they are seeing and setting up the play’s central premise about the layers of falsity between reality and dramatic fiction.

What ensues is a complex examination of personality, separating Jan and Liam (Adrian Lukis) from their characters Vicky and Bill within their drama, as well as Jan’s fears that her life is pre-scripted, that free will is impossible in medical terms because the brain has already triggered the requisite motion or response before we are consciously aware of the need to do so. Jan feels like she is in a play, a sense that her life is a reflection of a reflection, a theory enhanced first when her doctor (Alex Kingston) continually muddles Jan and Vicky as distinct entities but also when husband Liam hires an understudy to play her role. It is a notion that isn’t fully realised in the play, particularly as plot twists and dramatics are employed to force a resolution but where individuality begins and end, whether lives, speeches and responses are entirely predictable is an area that Hewitt could expand.

There is something of the screenplay about the short-scene style and use of music as a segue between locations and moods. Like Hitchcock’s Spellbound and David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method, a large portion of the drama is set in therapy sessions – the only place Jan is willing to speak, although not necessarily with any structure or purpose – in which the psychoanalyst tries to unpick her mental state and its trigger. Unlike Miles, this isn’t really a character study and nor does Hewitt ask the audience to fully invest either in the individuals or their lifestyle, they are not purposefully sympathetic creations that warrant pity or pathos from us, remaining at a distance, perhaps intentionally behind the glass camera lens where they can be coldly observed and monitored.

Instead, the primary focus is far more clinical, looking at the medical and social explanations for Jan’s predicament as the pair explore her memories and responses that pushes the secondary characters and even the therapist slightly unsatisfactorily into the background. It makes the dialogue weighty and sometimes hard to absorb, with a slightly overcooked finale that leaves little room for ambiguity or alternative explanations for Jan’s actions.

The debates about the formation of self and the limits of individual action are themselves interesting, particularly as Hewitt moves closer to the ultimate ‘explanation’ for Jan’s actions that, like Anthony Edwardes’s treatment in Spellbound, culminates in a tense personal and narrative breakthrough that anticipates a resolution of sorts. Built around the exploration of a behavioural theory that uses drama quite differently to its fellow finalists, Hewitt’s play is an experimental and stylistic one. The risks don’t fully pay off but Hewitt nonetheless explores the boundaries and possibilities of the form.

Tikkun Olam completes the group with its focus on local politics, social trends and the compromises of governance, making this is a fascinating and varied collection of new plays that are now available on demand to a much larger audience. What happens next for each of these works and their writers will be very interesting in a period where new writing is being given a more substantial platform at major venues as well as online. If competitions and investment can unearth work of this diversity and quality, then there could be an some interesting months ahead.

A package of Originals On Demand including Miles, The Fall and Tikkun Olam is available on demand from the Original Theatre Company for £30. Tikkun Olam is available separately for £18 with pre-order for Miles and The Fall also open. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


The Trials – Donmar Warehouse

The Trials - Donmar Warehouse

The UK premiere of Dawn King’s excellent new play The Trials couldn’t have arrived at a more opportune moment. With drought warnings and hose pipe bans being declared in response to a second prolonged heat wave period in a month, reaching excessive temperatures for several days in a row, it is hard to disagree with King’s apocalyptic warning about the cost of climate change, even as you enjoy the air conditioned respite of the Donmar Warehouse. The weather may be more reasonable by the time this production reaches its press night later in the week, but The Trials is a skilled examination of global warming, blame and the arbitrary process of obtaining justice.

Like the Young Vic’s Of the Cut promenade production earlier this month celebrating 25 years of its Taking Part community engagement scheme, The Trials is the outcome of the Donmar’s Local programme, working with residents and workers in Camden and Westminster which last year produced ASSEMBLY, also about the climate emergency and performed online. Selecting a group of young Londoners age 12-19 and working with the Central School of Speech and Drama, the production is also facilitating a mentorship scheme for backstage roles. But don’t be fooled into thinking that the two week run is merely filling the summer recess while everyone is in Edinburgh because The Trials is one of the Donmar’s most exciting productions this year.

King’s work tends to the dystopian and The Trials is no different. The scenario is a relatively simple one, set in the future across a single day, a jury of 12 children must judge three cases, adults accused of not doing enough to prevent the climate crisis in our era which has led to the suffocation of the earth. The temperatures are unmanageable especially inside the tense deliberation chamber where the jury is based, smog and pollution make it impossible to open the windows and a good proportion of the children have asthma or similar breathing difficulties as a result. Over time, King also reveals some of the character backstories, parents who have been tried or lost to natural disaster, memories of the way the world used to be and those suffering as a result of climate change. But this is only the starting to point to a heated debate about guilt, blame and the burden of having to determine the fate of others.

There are echoes of Reginald Rose’s classic play Twelve Angry Men and King has applied some of the same techniques and structures to create a gripping 90-minute debate about the legal justice system and the vagaries of trial by jury, examining whether balance is possible when each individual brings their own prejudices and preconceptions into the trial room regardless of the evidence. Structurally, King echoes Rose in creating a series of debates within each case, jurors arguing for and against the defendant with some abstainers who need to be won over in order to enter a majority verdict.

Like Rose’s characters, King’s child representatives of justice undertake a series of votes within each session, at first anonymously on pieces of paper and later by show of hands seen only by the Lead Juror, before later being pressed to publicly declare their decision as the stakes increase. It makes for exciting theatre of course as the audience gets to know the characters and they begin to read each other better, seeing patterns and alliances form as the three cases unfold, advocating for their point of view and with a time pressure of just 15-minutes to deliberate, feeling the urgency of making a decision, the consequences of which are slowly unfolded. And like Twelve Angry Men, that tension is exponentially increased by the death sentence that hangs over the jury room, cooking-up a maelstrom of emotional responses when knowing that their decision will ultimately save or end someone’s life.

But King doesn’t make it easy for them and like Rose, begins to chip away at the certainty of the characters and their role in this process but also at the whole idea of attributing blame for something so amorphous and unstoppable as climate change to particular individuals. In a system pitting one generation against their predecessors, the opportunities for revenge, even corruption lie beneath the surface of the play, tempting the children to make the same mistakes as the people they are judging, trapped in a system they cannot fight against. This process has gone past the tipping point, we are told, where once it was politicians and major polluters who were publicly tried, now it is ordinary members of the public who meet an economic and carbon-usage threshold – how fair is it, King wonders, to impose the moral and legal requirements of the future onto the past, is ignorance as great a crime as actively pursuing an anti-climate agenda and are the trials just a politically sanctified excuse to reduce drain on resources by culling the older and now less useful generation to leave the young?

How the group struggles with these dilemmas across the play is particularly interesting and the hard-line outcomes of some of these conversations may even be surprising. Each debate is centered around a 5-minute monologue from the accused, played directly to the audience in which they advocate for their lives, explaining how and why they behaved as they did, their lifestyles and the expectations placed on them at the time to support themselves, their families or a societal system that felt difficult to break out of. And across the three quite separate stories, the defendants behave very differently; sorry for themselves but also keen to find excuses, arguing their worth or playing down their own contribution to global warming, even a more melancholy, confessional style to arouse sympathy. And King works hard to create three complex cases, looking at the pleas for humanity from those facing a death sentence and how differently people reflect on themselves when finally called to account.

The resultant discussions are far from black and white, even when the audience may think they should be, expanding beyond a balancing of facts or a weighing up of environmental contributions to questioning the professional choices of the individuals, the sweeping away of history and the dismissal of cultural and artistic responses as a means to influence and promote. These are knotty debates, taking unexpected turns that King uses to challenge assumptions not only about the relative value of the lives we think we lead and the notion of inherently virtuous professions or activities, but wondering if subsequent societies will assess these things on the same terms or thank us for any of it. The Trials suggests that arrogantly assuming what future generations will want from us and how they will view us is naive, they may not be as reasonable as we hope.

Some fundamental debates about the way history is interpreted and valued underpin King’s arguments. The rights of today becoming the wrongs of tomorrow is a common refrain in history teaching and in talking about controversial topics from Empire to justifications of war, imposing modern morality on the past we are told is unreasonable, that we must understand societies within their own context and limitations. But, King allows her characters to suggest that this is not good enough, that in banishing this empathetic way of understanding the past, it removes places for people to hide from universal wrongs for which punishment is the rightful outcome. Citing the Nuremberg Trials as an example of history retrospectively applying a different morality on the definition of war crimes, should historians really be so understanding?

But The Trials also has much to say about our personal responsibility for the climate problem and the extent to which we allow greenwashing to take place. Dabbling with environmentalism is never going to change a broken system so while politicians and major corporations say a lot but do very little, King’s characters wonder whether those who continue to work within the system are just as guilty as those who run it. Reduced carbon footprint through cycling and rail travel, recycling, veganism and not having children are all defences put forward by the accused, but still they meet the economic and carbon-usage threshold for trial so what is the answer? What will be enough and is there a middle class complacency and materiality paralysing more vigorous climate action?

That King is not unsympathetic to the accused is perhaps the most interesting aspect of The Trials, each monologue is given sufficient space to lay out its arguments, many of which we will recognise from our own lives be it the price of living in a restrictive and self-perpetuating capitalist system, the need to provide for our families or just the value of international travel. The intractable response of some of the jurors feels excessive, unforgiving even which the playwright explores across the show, digging deeper into the reasons for that but also allowing some of her creations to be dislikeable, to lack sensitivity or perspective. Their need to be kind is arguably outweighed by the severity of the situation these children have inherited but simultaneously it gives the drama depth and development. King counterbalances this with recess time in the story, initially with two fantasy sequences about the lost experiences of snow and aeroplane flight, but also a couple of valuable scenes set during the lunch break that examine the pastoral interaction of these very different individuals as the jury room tensions spill out into recreational spaces.

Staged simply by designer Georgia Lowe with some tables and chairs, upended as the process of deliberation results in greater disharmony in the jury room, Lowe creates different levels, platforms and spaces for the undecided to bunker down, but it keeps the focus entirely on the debate and allows the text to do its work. Effects are reserved for the three defendants whose faces are projected in grainy black and white by Nina Dunn giving the impression of an international, televised event, recorded for posterity in which Jai Morjaria’s lighting creates a more sombre tone. Director Natalie Abrahami marshals all of this with considerable skill, allowing the text to do the work, building a wonderfully sustained tension between the characters as they start to reveal themselves and using staging techniques to emphasise rather than distract.

The twelve performers are impressive, each bringing a different personality and dimension to the play that captures the burden of serious, legal and binding decision-making on inexperienced shoulders. Charlie Read has lots of fun as Thomas, ready with a quip and eager to get back to his busy life of doing nothing but finding some compassion for his colleagues, while Francis Dourado champions mercy as his character struggles with dehumanising the accused. There are characters fiercely determined to find everyone guilty and unswayed by excuses, played fervently by Joe Locke and Jowana El-Daouk while moderation is supplied by the often undecided jurors Honor Kneafsey, William Gao and the sweetly impressionable youngest played by Taya Tower who is overwhelmed by the whole business.

It may not be easy to do more, King’s play suggests, but as her three defendants – played with depth and humility by Sharon Small, Lucy Cohu and Nigel Lindsay – discover our excuses might not be enough to save us from the writer’s vision of dystopian environmental suffocation or from the censure of subsequent generations. A summer community project it may be, but The Trials is an engaging piece of theatre that deserves a longer run, a play that has much to say about the here and now by reflecting on a future that King argues we are still in a position to control.

The Trials is at the Donmar Warehouse until 27 August with tickets from £12. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


Of the Cut – Young Vic

As theatre eyes largely turn to Edinburgh, several prominent venues are giving over their spaces to community and student projects that showcase the important outreach and engagement work that has been happening all year. The National Theatre has its Public Acts scheme which this year heads to Yorkshire for a new production entitled The Doncastrian Chalk Circle and next week the Donmar begins The Trials, a climate activism piece developed through its Local and Young Associates programme that builds on ASSEMBLY performed digitally last year. But first, the Young Vic celebrated the quarter century of Taking Part, its community and schools engagement strand with a week-long series of promenade performance dedicated to the theatre’s physical home on The Cut.

Combining local residents and schools from Southwark and Lambeth, Of the Cut is a fascinating multi-narrative, multimedia production taking place at the Young Vic and in its neighbouring spaces, moving audiences physically along this road but also through time as it sets out to explore the history and meaning of The Cut, as well as its importance as a place of community and creativity. Its purpose is to emphasise the importance of this strip of shops, restaurants and theatres as a focal point for community interaction and engagement down the generations.

But it also argues that theatre itself is both the starting and end point as well as the tool for these kinds of collaborative endeavour, that the Young Vic must inspire community and reflect it in equal measure. And in the coming together of different voices, ages and ideas through dramatic scenes, film and semi-immersive experiences, Of the Cut is an innovative and warmly engaging example of theatre outreach in action.

Created by Yasmin Joseph in collaboration with the company which includes over 20 performers, this 1 hour and 45-minute show is structured around a series of scenes that can be experienced in any order, book-ended by two segments based in the Maria studio space of the Young Vic. Joseph also wrote J’Ouvert, one of the premiere plays that reopened the Harold Pinter Theatre in Sonia Friedman’s RE: EMERGE season alongside Anna X and Walden. Also filmed for the BBC, J’Ouvert was a community-focused play set at the Notting Hill Carnival which also examined multicultural neighbourhoods brought together by a singular event through which individual and self-knowledge and collective understanding emerge.

Of the Cut has similar themes, using an emergency scenario that draws different groups together to solve a problem while simultaneously showcasing the community subsets, businesses and personalities that make this area a distinct but welcoming place – a theme that interests Joseph, considering the interplay between the changing urban face of London which brings tourism and commercial endeavour to exist alongside the experience of long-term residents that bring consistency and connection to those who have gone before and the geographical uniqueness that builds loyalty and investment.

The first notable aspect of Of the Cut are the number of locations in which the show takes place, a logistical feat not just in safely moving the audience from place to place but in negotiating with multiple venues and different kinds of enterprises who have made space for this endeavour – proof enough that the Young Vic is plugged into its immediate community. From the local St Andrew’s Church to a table by The Windmill pub, a nearby courtyard restaurant and the entire foyer of Southwark College, it is no small job to construct a show of this scale – a production, it should be noted, offered entirely for free to audience members. The absence of the Old Vic is notable however, an equally valuable part of this strip offering another place for creative encounters within the same community.

To have managed numerous separate performances over several days last week is impressive, relying on considerable good will and months of planning to facilitate. And the experience for the audience is seamless, divided into two more manageable groups of around 15 people who experience the pre-prepared scenes in a different order, coming together at the beginning, in the middle and at the end for defined experiences. Each group is also given a manager and a lead performer who act as principal guide as well as a couple of ushers to ensure everyone crosses the road safely but also to maintain the narrative thread, directing the viewer through the story as a tag team of actors provide links to the next space and scenario.

And the result is extremely effective, convincingly moving to different perspectives within the central story as well as the longer term, evolving view of The Cut itself and its residents. Meeting a local knitting circle, a deconstructed pie seller, market traders and construction workers, the vibrancy of this street is reflected in the somewhat fantastical story about a neighbourhood trying to balance an identity shaped by its past while being sufficiently open to all the things it could be in the future.

A key concern here is gentrification and the arrival of generic chains that denude the area of its distinctiveness. Joseph and her collaborators are not so crass as to name this directly but instead choose an allegory through which the audience can draw its own conclusions. The synonym Joseph selects instead is ‘magic,’ a secret source of which has long existed underneath The Cut, gently infecting all who live and work there with a special and unique power. An accidental leak sends this magic – depicted as plumes of coloured smoke emerging from the Young Vic and other places on film – into the air where the intensity of its undiluted form creates dangerous levels of exposure and means people beyond the immediate vicinity will experience it as well.

It is a light-hearted concept, one that is neatly and consistently fed through the production, from the Victorian market stall traders who first introduce the notion and explain their role in burying the concentrated magic in the first place, all the way to diverse contemporary residents agonising over the future without it. And as the audience moves between these stories, the open secret of the existence of magic underpins the purpose of each scene, even with warnings en route about items that may magically appear during the performance or the portals that might take character-leaders away unexpectedly (to perform for the other group). Sainsbury’s on The Cut is marked out as a particularly powerful doorway to a magical realm – which anyone who has ever needed an emergency sandwich before a Young Vic evening performance will already know!

But all of this levity does have some serious political and social points to make about the formation and maintenance of community. These do not spring fully formed but, as Joseph’s production shows, come partly from investment in spaces for like-minded people to engage such as the knitting circle encountered in St Andrew’s Church, partly through heritage and local history connections with those who came before, as the expensive pie shop on the site of a fish and chip emporium from decades before suggests, but also in the throwing together of people with different needs, backgrounds and lifestyles as displayed by a group of neighbours in a close quarters courtyarded block performed in Southwark College’s large foyer. One of the big set pieces of this production, how community ‘magic’ is created is a major concern as the day-to-day business of living harmoniously (and disharmoniously) side-by-side gives way to notions of collective dreaming, enjoying what they have and deciding to hold the responsibility for it and power to change it in their own hands rather than relying on external, non-invested groups, like the local council – if you want community, Jospeh is saying, you have to make it for yourself and then keep it going, arguably precisely what the Young Vic is doing with Of the Cut and Taking Part.

So what does all this mean for the Young Vic? Well, it has a crucial role to play in the creation of community, both as a place of engagement, a focal point for schools, residents and young adults to congregate but also as a means to expand and reflect on the world beyond SE1. Part of Of the Cut includes a group of school pupils filmed arriving at the theatre and being taught by their straightlaced but exasperated teacher how to interact in the auditorium with comedic results. But as the filmed actors become live performers in the Maria studio, they eventually hear the building speak to them in multiple voices, expanding on all the stories, places and people that have ever been contained within its walls. That is the ‘magic’ that theatre can offer, perspective and inclusion which, as this sequence demonstrates, by breaking down barriers to participation for those who would never set foot in a theatre or may think even the building is not for them, these kinds of initiatives can be transformative.

Theatre after all brings people together but it also takes them to unexpected places physically, intellectually, politically and emotionally, and Joseph’s play has all of that, the community comes together and the audience is transported. The balance for the Young Vic is in representing its community on its everyday stages, so that everyone who comes to a show can see an aspect of themselves reflected back at them, but also in then transporting the whole room to places they never imagined, and in reality will almost certainly never go to. The most resounding message of Of the Cut is that community is not a static state so how do you maintain a collective essence while allowing it to grow into something more?

In the Young Vic’s main house, Chasing Hares is about the power of a story to inspire and upend the structures we take for grants so this summer programme of community and student productions is an opportunity to see things a little differently, to shake up what we think theatre can be and what it should do. Joseph’s Of the Cut is ultimately about what theatre means to a community, the chance to see it, make it and perform in it as well as have it respond to who you are and what we can be. And the Taking Part team are absolutely right, there is real magic in that.

Of the Cut was performed at the Young Vic from 30 July to 6 August. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


South Pacific – Sadler’s Wells

South Pacific (by Johan Persson)

A year ago, theatre was tentatively recovering from long months of closure and the possibility of covid disrupted performances that could stop an entire run in its tracks. Under these conditions, Chichester Festival Theatre served up one of the shows of the year – a production that many of us could only enjoy as a pre-recorded digital stream. But the screen was no barrier to the consuming magic of Daniel Evans’s South Pacific, a contemporary and rather savvy reinterpretation of arguably the greatest Rodgers and Hammerstein musical of them all, a score in which almost every glorious song is known beyond its original story. Now, the production is touring the UK with many of the original cast members and its original leads, allowing those who only saw it remotely to finally enjoy it live.

Sadler’s Wells rarely stages or accepts musicals although Singin’ in the Rain has stopped here recently and the production values now demanded by Matthew Bourne’s company, Northern Ballet and, most recently, Birmingham Royal Ballet are inherently theatrical and akin to big musical shows – Carlos Acosta’s Don Quixote and Kenneth Tindell’s Casanova were a masterclass in storytelling using props, set and costume designed by Christopher Oram who frequently works on drama. And Sadler’s Wells has a vast stage, perfect for the ensemble dance element of shows like South Pacific which require plenty of room for spectacle in which the sweeping vistas of military life confront all kinds of civilians on a mystical Tonkinese island. Evans’s production, even in its touring form, requires a revolve, large set blocks that represent the naval base, Emile’s plantation and the mysterious Bali Ha’i as well as the tonal shifts demanded by acts of war and epic love stories for which Sadler’s Wells provides ample space.

Whether watching at home or in person, South Pacific is a complex proposition, not just in size and scale of its multiple islands setting at the end of the Second World War as American naval and marine forces take on their Japanese equivalents, but any new production must also navigate audience expectation based on the, rather jolly, 1958 film starring Mitzi Gaynor and Rossano Brassi, as well as the weight of all those almost too famous songs. Music can take on a life of its own, divorced from the context of it original setting where it resides amongst a suite of related music telling a wider, often more complicated, narrative than a single song can convey. But the popularity of the songs in South Pacific, a favourite at musical theatre concerts, Proms and cabaret performances, mean that the jaunty melodiousness of Richard Rodger’s music can even overcome the weighter meaning of Oscar Hammerstein’s lyrics. Seeing these songs out of context or via the lighter 50s Technicolor film, an audience, eager to be entertained, can come to the auditorium expecting to be carried away by the romance and the fun of South Pacific without fully reckoning with the darker undertones and alternative emphasis that has always existed in this music.

What makes Evans’s interpretation of South Pacific so magnificent and so powerful, is how skillfully the creative team draw those elements to the surface without losing a shred of the show’s bouncy and exotic charm. As was so abundantly clear on screen, this production openly grapples with concepts of occupation that the arrival of the US troops represents, it deals with the racism that runs through the show in the attitudes to and presentation of native characters while equally considering the, now queasier, prospect of coercion and powerplay in the interactions between white men with guns and very young women that have only ever represented the male gaze. In short, this South Pacific is remarkably honest about itself while still sending you home with a hopeful heart.

Musical theatre has a troubled relationship with presentations of war, the requirements of the form sanitising the experience of men in combat scenarios. The three jolly sailors arriving in New York for a good time in On the Town or in LA for Anchors Away are not fighters or killers jaded by months at sea but dancers and singers getting into innocent japes with the girls they meet. A similar Gene Kelly vehicle It’s Always Fair Weather features happy-go-lucky veterans as does White Christmas where they form a charming song and dance troupe after the war with no sign of PTSD or survivor’s guilt. Even the now controversial Miss Saigon is a Madame Butterfly-inspired tale of epic love that plays down the business and consequences of war for the combatant and those they encounter.

This production of South Pacific understands the wider impact of occupation better than any musical interpretations of modern times. And in what is initially a happy place of love and larks, the arrival of Lieutenant Cable signals a notable dramatic shift. An harbinger of the emotional doom to come, he casts a shadow over the proceedings, an unknowingly self-destructive figure whose arrival with orders to undertake a special mission behind enemy lines signals the beginning of the end for US forces in the region as well as creating negative ramifications for his own life and those he abandons – with huge ethical consequences for the local people used and then left with little to show for it.

This tension starts to creep into Evans’s South Pacific, barely perceptibly at first, but military need increasingly begins to displace the romanticism of this particular story. Even Cable’s first visit to the enchanting Bali Ha’i has a touch of melancholy beneath the surface despite the stunning design by Peter McKintosh working with Howard Harrison to create a rich and seductive lightscape in tones of purple, orange and blue illuminated by candlelight. Cable may be captivated by Liat – a moment this production ensures we know is fed entirely by his months of loneliness and the impossible distance of real life back home – but in singing Younger Than Springtime he almost knows already that this is a decision he will eventually pay heavily for, a desperation underpinning the way this song is presented that starts to address the problematic presentation of this relationship, the respective ages of the characters and the power imbalance within the show.

That from this point on Cable is seen to pay for his weakness is pointed, soon contracting a malarial infection from which he never recovers and, eventually, choosing duty over infatuation. Unable to say yes to Bloody Mary’s proposition, this is a consequence that feels like a self-inflicted punishment for the wrong he knows he has done to their family, one that perhaps leads him to a noble military sacrifice but a far cry from the traditional military musical male. The downbeat repositioning of Happy Talk becomes a symbol of this more nuanced examination of inappropriate involvement with the local women, one that leaves them with nothing but regrets and only the male plantation owners to fall back on.

But the show also feels this tonal creep in other areas, moving from external relationships to activities principally on the naval base or in its service. While the focus of the first half of the show is primarily on interactions with local civilians and the exoticism of the region, the second part forces military discipline back into the show as the plot moves to the consequences of occupation. It may start with a light-hearted variety show for the men but Evans creates a parting of the ways as the focus shifts to Cable and de Becque’s mission, filling the stage with military paraphernalia, a giant map of the region and, eventually, plans to evacuate the area. Clearly, the party is over and, with a remarkable lack of sentimentality the real reason for the occupation takes over. Once that is achieved, they depart without a second thought for what they have left in their wake, the pain on Bloody Mary’s face a cue for the audience to consider what right they had to be there at all.

Yet Evans may also, like Nellie, be A Cockeyed Optimist, because his production finds a deep and true love between its principal characters, one that contrasts so meaningfully with the terrible toll of Cable and Liat. Even on screen, the centrality of the Emile-Nellie love story was clear and this production makes better sense of it than any before. From the very first moments of South Pacific as it opens on the deck of Emile’s plantation, the complimentarities and connection between these two quite different people are clear, so the trials and tribulations that inevitably follow make their coming together all the sweeter.

It isn’t easy to pitch an epic love story in our more cynical times and while the rest of the production looks to challenge the cosy image of South Pacific, the purpose of this relationship reinforces the glorious sweep of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s music for the couple. There is an innocence in their feeling for each other that is far purer, far more reliable than the terrible price of Cable’s semi-lust for Liat and for whom he is a romantic escape from a less suitable man. But Nellie and Emile have a more adult connection in a way, built on a greater openness about themselves that the events of the story reveal while able to overcome the prejudicial barriers that are thrown up between them. What they offer to each other in this interpretation is an honesty about what they want from one another and it gives the show a rich emotional heart that is very affecting.

Julian Ovenden and Gina Beck have an extraordinary radiating chemistry that easily made it through a screen last year and fills the auditorium at Sadler’s Wells, giving depth and meaning to those sung declarations of love and pain that result from their actions. In the great acoustics of this space, Beck’s vocal is beautiful particularly in the heartfelt I’m In Love With a Wonderful Guy but just as charming and full of musical joy in the big sequence pieces like Honey Bun and I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair, capturing exactly Nellie’s likability and spirit as well as the touching certainty of her feeling for Emile. The moral turpitude that Nellie experiences as Emile’s secrets are revealed is given an edge by Beck, an unreasonableness that adds a helpful shade to the simplicity of Nellie’s character, a recognition that she feels deeply and this makes her eventually deserving of him.

Ovenden is equally outstanding, his powerful voice surging through the room in Some Enchanted Evening and This Nearly Was Mine, two gloriously realised ballads that build to a heart-wrenching poignancy. Less remote than some interpretations, Ovenden’s Emile is a far warmer, more jovial character who in turn is a good father and a man decent enough to turn his complicated past into a willingness to sacrifice himself for the greater good. In a character whose essential purity and goodness shines through, only the hardest of hearts could fail to be half in love with this Emile by the end of the show and the essential stillness in Ovenden’s performance has a powerful charisma.

Also reprising their original roles, Joanna Ampil’s Bloody Mary has real agency, a successful entrepreneur just as happy to do business with the US marines as plantation owners. Ultimately a mother trying to support her family and get the best deal for her daughter, Ampil’s Mary sets the tone with mournful but impactful versions of Happy Talk and Bali Ha’i. Rob Houchen is superb as the broken Lieutenant Cable, quickly dissolving and almost unable to bear either the absence of the girl he loves or the knowledge of his actions. Houchen’s performance of Younger Than Springtime is a treat while his rapid decline is movingly portrayed.

This is a smart and thoughtful interpretation of South Pacific that takes carefully considered approach to some of the problems in the scenario without fully absolving the characters for their behaviour and choices. Managing to balance the sparkle of the big set-pieces and the not so charming effects of military occupation with some serious emotional clout that will leave you wrung through at the end, this sets the standard against which future productions will be judged. With a UK tour running until November, Bali Ha’i is calling you, don’t resist.

South Pacific is at Sadler’s Wells until 28 August followed by a UK tour. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


%d bloggers like this: