Category Archives: London

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.

Chasing Hares – Young Vic

Exploitation can take many forms and sometimes it even begins with a creative opportunity. Sonali Bhattacharyya’s lead character in new play Chasing Hares takes a while to find themselves confronting a major moral dilemma but the road to it begins with storytelling, imagination and character creation. Bhattacharyya is interested in where these stories come from, what they represent and their meaning to the individuals and local groups from which they emerge. A play that navigates the hope and aspiration of working class communities in urban India yearning for rural and natural landscapes set against the cold political and economically deprived reality, Chasing Hares experiments with its theatrical form.

Dramas about strikes and factory unrest tend to follow a defined pattern, one in which solidarity and the humanity of the workers is developed before unfolding heroic, David versus Goliath tales of standing up to management in the pursuit of liberty and equality. Stage musical Made in Dagenham and the recent Shake the City appearing in Jermyn Street Theatre’s Footprint’s Festival are jaunty perspectives about female unionisation and pay disputes while a defining work like Lynne Nottage’s Sweat was not so much a play but a howl of pain for one-industry towns in rust belt America decimated by the move to imported cheaper labour.

Chasing Hares sits somewhere between these extremes, using allegory and theatre to create visual spectacle but equally concerned with the plight of factory workers in Kolkata where jobs are scarce and a major international contract creates a mad scramble to make money. And like Nottage, Bhattacharyya focuses on the difficult middle management role when Prab a former worker is raised to a position of power and ultimately compromised by it as he chooses between protecting his own salary for the sake of his young family and, in the face of unscrupulous management that pushes against his moral code, the pressure to care for the people in his charge.

But while politically fired, this is not a story in which right and wrong are presented as black and white concepts, and more than once Bhattacharyya notes the central character’s active consent to the events of the play and, despite his history as a former activist and agitator, we see Prab’s willingness to ‘sell-out’ his ideals for material comforts and, more seriously, to advance his creative ambitions. But there are other compromises too and while the workers of the Khub Bhalo factory are never seen, their financial desperation forces them to take significant risks, putting themselves in danger in ways that inform the ethical quandary at the heart of the show.

But Bhattacharyya’s point is an important one, mirrored in a modern-day conclusion based in the UK, that argues choice in these circumstances is a misleading concept when social constructs of power, money and influence create the conditions in which one group of people can exploit another. What the factory families chose to do may be morally and ethically troubling and the owners may argue that all applications to work are voluntarily given, but ultimately Bhattacharyya shows there is no other option when the alternative is to go without an income, food or housing.

Bhattacharyya dramatises that through the gentle rise and trajectory of Prab’s family, growing from a small set of rooms where they live with his wife’s mother to regular work, a stable job and the chance to live in a better neighbourhood. At the start of the play, Prab is one of many out of worker breadwinners who stalk the factory gates every morning in the hope that it will reopen and work will be plentiful. But Bhattacharyya creates conditions in which contracts are awarded to competitors operating at lower cost and the regular early morning clamber for work is a futile hope in an area in terminal decline. The sudden end to the drought brings with it another set of problems, an employers market in which the factory owners can offer almost any terms and still be inundated with applicants. And slowly Bhattacharyya starts to tip the balance where opportunity becomes no choice at all.

The journey that Prab is taken on is a complicated one as he navigates the shift from worker to manager urged by his wife, Kajol, to remain passive and do whatever is asked him of him to protect their young family. As the rewards for that flood in, improving their financial and, to a degree, their social status, Bhattacharyya’s Prab is troubled by the consequences that give grounding to the play, turning what could be a solely high-minded story about workers’ rights into a more complicated portrait of individual, family and social needs conflicting across the experience of one man.

The extent to which the protagonist is taken in by the factory owner’s son Devesh who is also a theatre performer is shaped by Prab’s personal desire for creative recognition and fulfillment, when an opportunity to write and perform alongside him and fellow actor, Chellam, in a Jatra troupe presents itself after a night at her show. It is an unusual entry point to the play’s central dilemma but it does create depth in the characterisation by giving Prab a separate interior life and aspiration that Bhattacharyya intricately works into his political ideals, creating opportunities to compromise Prab with multiple implications for his professional integrity as well as his morality. But the writer is also arming her character, giving him different ways to reach the same audience of workers by looking to the social power of theatre to reflect and inspire.

This leads into the world of narrative and imagination that anchors the play and Bhattacharyya has Prab create an allegory that runs through the show, an original piece that speaks to the mystical traditions of India storytelling with its fairytale characteristics including an oppressed princess, talking animals and an evil landlord destroying the natural habitat but with fervent political undertones that speak to worker conditions and the possibility of a utopian equality. Bhattacharyya feeds the audience this story in chapters running throughout the show, told first to Prab’s baby as he tries to lull her to sleep and later as acted scenes performed by Prab’s famous new friends as he dramatises his imagined world for them.

What Bhattacharyya is doing here is quite interesting, on the one hand exploring the consistency of these ideal societies, partly referencing communism but also deeper traditions in not just Indian writing but in broader international romantic responses to the growing pressures and confinement of urbanisation. This fantasy world that Prab creates is entirely rural and equitable – there would have to be a lot of meetings as one character jokes but there is a wistfulness in the creation of these places that is both aspirational and, the storyteller knows, almost certainly unachievable. For Prab and Chellam the question becomes to what degree are they motivated to do something, to make a small difference while all the time knowing what they truly want is nothing but fantasy.

In order to tell his tale, Prab allows himself to be bought, initially for financial security but also for art, to be able to work with creative people. His head is turned by their flattery and interest in his ideas, giving him a platform that it takes him some time to recognise and use, eventually prompted by events elsewhere in the play. But there are other costs too, not just to his integrity but there is a price to speaking out both in muted and amplified forms which are explored in the final section of the play as the consequences of the two sides of his life come together, that in themselves create a whole new direction for his family. Within Chasing Hares then, Bhattacharyya asks what power does a story have and what should be the cost?

In staging the play, designer Moi Tran has appropriately created two playing spaces, parallel stages, one of which sits in recess. And across them the two worlds of Chasing Hares intersect – Prab’s reality and the illusory dramas performed by the actors allowing director Milli Bhatia to move between these stories, retaining their distinction but blending them and their outcomes together. Akhila Krishnan’s striking video design projects across the stage, creating spectacle by filling it with an animated version of the forest landscape that Prab develops in his mind, unfolding its trees, creatures and tonal shifts as he recounts his dark but hopeful story.

Across the piece, Krishnan’s work begins to creep into the sparse simplicity of the everyday that Tran implies with only a few props to represent the changing spaces from family homes to the factory floor and its backrooms. The appearance of silhouetted birds edging into the corners of this story is pointed, taking on a foreboding quality that adds to the atmosphere. Jai Morjaria’s lighting and Tran’s costume contrast these subtle moments with an explosion of theatricality when the actors perform with interesting reflections on the visual effects of messaging and, as our very best political theatre shows, commentary and entertainment need not be mutually exclusive.

Irfan Shamji as Prab settles into his role quickly, a likable lead that the audience can invest in and follow through the stories as a representation of thousands of similar lives. Shamji moves well between the straightforward scenes in which Prab comes to understand his own limits and the jackanory moments in which he conjures a whole world for baby Amba, although really for the audience. A good man in an impossible situation, the character grows in confidence as Chasing Hares unfolds and Shamji captures well the energy and enthusiasm for Prab’s creative endeavors, his increasingly troubled conscience and the pressure to hold onto any job for the sake of his family.

Zainab Hasan as his pragmatic wife Kajol offers a contrast, a woman who knows the price of things and wants to make less high-minded choices but nonetheless complements Prab as a partner. It would be useful to see more of her perspective, particularly as she too works multiple jobs and is the primary carer for Amba but Hasan makes much from the material she has. Scott Karim brings nuance to the show’s main baddie Devesh who could easily have become a bland boo-hiss villain. Instead, there is personality in his lack of empathy and ability to manipulate that make Karim a strong and compelling presence on stage. As is Ayseha Darker’s Chellam, a starlet tired of the classic works she must endlessly perform and eager to tackle something more meaningful. But Chellam is also a character with some depth and a similar pragmatism that makes her almost cynically dismissive of her work until inspired by Prab’s writing. Darker also has great comic timing and a cutting delivery that brings some alternative moments of levity to the piece.

Chasing Hares is a short play, running at just over two hours with an interval and there is much in this world particularly among the secondary characters and their motivations that could be expanded. Not seeing the factory workers isn’t a problem given the play’s setting in middle management and domestic spaces but towards the end a sense of the widespread fervour for change and the impact of Prab’s actions on the community needs a little more might behind it. Nonetheless, Bhattacharyya’s play is packed with commentary about the power structures that support political and economic elites, the limits to freedom of choice and the optimistic possibilities of one great story as the means to tear it all down.

Chasing Hares is at the Young Vic until 13 August with tickets from £12.50. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

Closer – Lyric Hammersmith

Closer - Lyric Hammersmith

For all its political associations, the romance and the primacy that society suggests we give it in our lives, the human heart ‘looks like a fist wrapped in blood.’ This searingly anatomical description is spat out by a character who has had theirs broken in Patrick Marber’s anti-love play Closer, a modern classic about the messy dramas between four people that still hangs heavy 25 years after it premiered. Very much situated in its 1990s context – a setting the Lyric Hammersmith retains for its latest staging – the play nonetheless retains a contemporary power not only in its brutal commentary about relationships, lust and the availability of desire, but also in its melancholy (rather than cynical) perspective on the emptiness, absence and even the insufficiency of love between people who believe it should give their lives the meaning and purpose they look for others to supply.

Opening in 1997, Closer is a play that could not be written now, or certainly not in quite the same way. At the most surface level, a key plot device in Act One relies on Internet Chat Rooms that could only exist in a world before Twitter and Instagram. There is still comedy mileage in bored writer Dan posing as a woman called ‘Anna’ to tease dermatologist Larry, little knowing that his online entertainment will set in motion events that will culminate in his own heartbreak. Catfishing still goes on, of course, but a Closer relocated to the Tinder generation would lose the desperation of confined characters who would now have unlimited access to multiple partners and an unashamed openness about fulfilling their desires – perhaps rather than talking about them.

Likewise, Larry’s visit to the strip club in Act Two couldn’t work so well in the age of Internet porn where he could fire up his laptop at home to access any number of live or pre-recorded women to suit his tastes. The ‘service’ Alice claims to provide is readily available in a global marketplace while Alice herself could disappear into that world and never be found again, not even by chance. Human needs and behaviours may not have changed, but the mechanics of meeting and diverting them, upon which the plot of Closer rests, certainly have.

The other noticeable element of the play that will keep it firmly in the 1990s is its language and the way in which men speak to and about its women. The vocabulary of Closer is highly sexualised, graphically so in places, and while we are no more modest than we were when this was written, the tendency of male characters to use words like ‘whore’ and ‘slut’ as derogatory insults in everyday conversation feels far less palatable now, particularly when asking the audience to continue to invest in the life of the group. Larry, Dan, Anna and Alice have complexity in which they are their desires and more than that, but Closer noticeably represents the male gaze and especially the fickleness of male desire when seen in the context of our twenty-first-century attitudes to and descriptions of sex. Even as early as 2004 – notably the year that Mike Nichols film version was released – Tina Fey used Mean Girls to question the use of this vocabulary as a tool of oppression and disrespect to dehumanise women, so it is this language that also dates Closer.

As do the incidences of male violence – a rather unpleasant underbelly that Marber employs to prevent us from rooting for anyone too much. Larry’s temper and toxicity are openly repellent, felt not only in his lurid pursuit of sex at any cost, even cheating on his wife of only a few months, but also in the tone of his bullying rages when he argues with her about her own infidelity. Meanwhile, Dan’s more manipulative coercion is equally difficult to tolerate and a contemporary-set version of Closer could not justify either woman still wanting to be with these men. And while it wasn’t acceptable even in the 90s and Marber puts his male characters through considerable emotional pain to balance out their actions, it is harder to write these kinds of male characters now without properly punishing them or drawing attention to their behaviours and the effects on the women who endure it.

But Closer still has a hold, its convoluted entanglements and the easy pain the foursome cause themselves and each other has a universality that 25-years hasn’t dimmed. These are characters unafraid to show their ugliest sides in the selfish pursuit of love, a love, that Marber shows, is fleeting and uncertain. As Anna, Alice, Dan and Larry vacillate back and forth for 2.5 hours and several years, the cumulative effect is poisonous rather than romantic, that the concept of being with the right or wrong person is made to seem ludicrously inconsequential in the face of almost everybody’s fatal indecision and the primacy they give to their own happiness.

That Alice is the only character who can truly distinguish between love and lust, between true self-knowledge and momentary desire is pointed, tapping into the questions of identity and awareness that run beneath the surface of the play. Marber builds an essential dichotomy into the heart of Closer, showing three of his creations using their real names to play roles in their own lives, looking to the relationship they’ve just started and just lost to complete something that their creative endeavours or jobs cannot entirely fulfill. They are dreamers believing happiness is within their grasp if only they are with a different person, except they are as unfaithful to their romantic ideals as they eventually are to all their partners. Only Alice is the person whose entire identity is falsified but whose emotions and intentions are genuine, knows instinctively when she’s in love, when she is being used and when to leave. And there is a fascinating tragedy in that which makes Closer worth reviving and examining anew, even within the changing context of a quarter of a century.

Clare Lizzimore’s production for the Lyric Hammersmith understands that far better than the Donmar’s unsatisfactory version in 2015 which never quite got to grips with the different layers within the play. And while the 90s setting draws attention to itself only through a changed response to the text, the simplicity of Lizzimore’s vision allows the emotional beats and deceptions of the play to come to the fore. Enhanced by live music between scenes which help to shape the mood, there is a forlorn sense of longing in Act One in which the protagonists are ready to fall in love and find themselves in the wrong relationships. Lizzimore excavates the intensity in these declarations of passion and in the sometimes violent consequences of infidelity, building a quiet hollowness within these entanglements that makes the characters lack of fulfillment palpable as they selfishly scramble for someone or something else, often with remarkably little guilt about the pain they cause. The overlapping scenes of Dan leaving Alice while Larry and Anna leave one another are particularly sharp, manifesting for the audience the physical and poignant impression of a third person in each relationship.

That all becomes far darker in Act Two as a series of nastier encounters take place and again the layered scene in which Anna confesses her indiscretion to Dan while simultaneously bargaining with Larry earlier in the day is gripping. You feel the tone shift in Lizzimore’s production from people acting from what they believe is love to using sex and possession to coerce and control. There is something sour and uncomfortably sordid about it that leaves a distinct impression at the end of the show, and Lizzimore balances the tonal shifts across the play well arriving at a place of ruin and ambiguity where no one has anything left to fight for but that it could all just start again.

It is a shame then, that the interpretation of Alice is not quite right and for much of the play performer Ella Hunt struggles to make her feel like a real person or give her the same flawed tangibility as the other characters. The show is still in preview and it is a difficult role, one that is cheeky and enigmatic, never quite giving a straight answer but alluring and sympathetic at the same time. Yet, somehow the complicated reality of Alice and her emotional life isn’t claiming its place in the play. She feels like a sketch, a work in progress, even a plot device around which the characters move, the otherness that makes her so compelling and desirable not yet making her seem as credible as her fellows. Some of that is about pitch, relaxing the performance a little in Act One, although Hunt has already found a valuable and considered detachment for her scenes in Act Two where we see a matured version of Alice.

Nine Toussaint-White has found a brilliantly conflicted Anna, given far more agency in the drama than some versions allow. A sophisticated creation offering a complete contrast to Alice, Anna offers the play’s most astute commentary in noting how the men create a fantasy idea of them but never come close to the true all-knowing love they claim to seek. Anna is also honest about the semi-failure of both men to truly satisfy her desires – while on the receiving end of their barbs – and while she instigates her own relationship destruction with poor choices and by wavering between Dan and Larry, there is an underlying brittleness in Toussaint-White’s performance that makes Anna frustratingly sympathetic, deserving of more than either man can offer if only she could see her own value.

Larry is a difficult character to pitch, a slave to his own desires which he never attempts to control and with a violent temper that may not erupt physically but indicates a low estimation of women and the service role they should play in his life. As a doctor, there is a tendency to play him as rather suave for all that but Sam Troughton makes Larry much earthier, a man with few redeeming features and almost reveling in his physical desires, his arrogance and delight in using his power to torture others. There are moments of tenderness, of deep pain beneath the surface which Troughton captures well but it is interesting to see a full throttle version of Larry that doesn’t hide behind the manner of his profession and instead sees him at his most selfish and spiteful.

Jack Farthing’s Dan is one of the best interpretations of recent years, a bundle of contradictions that take some time to reveal themselves to the audience. Dan is overly romantic, dying for love every few scenes but never sorry for the pain he causes others in pursuing his emotional satisfaction. He doesn’t have the same overt desires as Larry but is no less dangerous for it and Farthing is incredibly at ease with all the things that Dan is and wants to be. There is depth to the slow burn of his career failure and a grasping at happiness that is desperately destructive for all concerned. Still, for all Dan’s demands for empathy and a consuming singularity in the love he receives from his partners, Farthing shows how little he considers others and quite how noxious a seemingly quiet, poetic man can be when his own desires are thwarted.

Staged simply as Marber directs, Soutra Gilmour creates the representative spaces that cover several years of action and transport the drama from living rooms and parks to the London Aquarium, an art gallery and Larry’s various offices. All of this is underscored by Arun Ghosh’s music performed by Radhika Aggarwal which rarely intrudes but adds energy to the production by marking the swirling emotional currents. Not quite a perfect version of Closer but a compelling one. If the heart really just looks like a fist wrapped in blood then why, Lizzimore’s production asks, does it hurt so much?

Closer runs at the Lyric Hammersmith until 13 August with tickets from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

The Fellowship -Hampstead Theatre

The Fellowship - Hampstead Theatre (by Robery Day)

Roy Williams has primarily focused on the challenges of working class masculinity in recent years through his extraordinary play cycle the Death of England, a trilogy co-written with Clint Dyer, that became an instant modern classic as friends Michael and Delroy individually set out their experiences before coming face-to-face in the third installment released as a cinematic film. This year though, Williams is looking at the female experience with a rumored fourth monologue for the Death of England, this time for the pivotal Carly who links the friends, and Williams’s contemporary interpretation of Hedda Gabler opening at the Lyric Theatre in the autumn as Heather. But first, female friendship is the focus of his latest play The Fellowship, premiering at the Hampstead Theatre as class, race and past activism haunts this family saga.

Williams is particularly interested in intense friendships between two people, in this case sistsers Dawn and Marcia, and the events or people that come between them. As with Delroy and Michael, the strength of that bond is the focus of the play and how a sense of ‘otherness’ disrupts and sometimes destroys what they all have assumed would be a lifelong association. First, that otherness tends to manifest physically as a rocky relationship with a partner that disrupts the balance between the friends – in the Death of England, Delroy’s tempestuous involvement with Michael’s sister Carly contributes to the breakdown of their friendship, while here in The Fellowship both sisters have questionable love interests, ending up with men that the other despises.

But otherness is also about interactions between race and society, creating fault-lines within these established relationships that are more deeply exposed through the action of the play. Often inherited from a previous generation, Death of England is dominated by Alan’s deeply embedded racism that comes to play an important role in the deterioration of his son’s friendship, culminating in the pivotal concluding scene in Michael’s monologue which then becomes the starting point for Delroy’s. Here, it is Dawn’s vocal condemnation of white power that comes between the sisters and has intriguing personal and professional consequences for them both as former activist Dawn reels from the discovery of her son Jermaine’s relationship with Simone, a white woman she loathes, while Marcia insists she has taken her place as one of the few black barristers to have made silk as Williams uses his 2019 setting to explore whether being in the room is enough and what happened to the fight.

The Fellowship also has its own focus on inheritance and the troubling cost of legacy, looking across three generations of a single family from the absent grandmother of the Windrush generation through Dawn and Marcia’s experience of riots in the 1980s to son Jermaine in 2019. What has each of these generations left for the next is Williams’s focus, what did they achieve for those still to come and what are the mechanisms of inherited trauma? Does each new age pick up the baton from those who came before or – as Williams suggests here – is each generation cast adrift from its predecessor and successor, left to fight its own battles perhaps for its lifetime but with little tangible achievement, wisdom or support to pass on, everyone always starting again.

This notion of estrangement between the generations is a powerful one, played out in two ways, initially between Dawn and the son that she is fiercely protective of but with whom she finds it difficult to communicate. A hidden relationship with someone Dawn disapproves of leads to an important confrontation at a family event in the second half of the play in which Jermaine gives voice to some of the questions that Williams too is grappling with, whether Dawn’s lifelong activism has achieved anything and the legacy that parents are handing to their children – a concern Williams is raising about his own generation who have been shaped by their experience of marches, protests and rioting but wonders about the effect and meaning 40 years on.

But there is an equally important estrangement taking place between Dawn and Marcia and their mother who remains an unseen presence for much of the play, remaining bedridden upstairs and to whom Dawn acts as primary carer. It becomes an important mark of Marcia’s character that she has entirely disassociated from her mother, leaving the responsibility to Dawn who is the one to have an important elemental encounter. It is a strange scene in contemporary theatre but no more unusual than the ghosts of Old Hamlet and Banquo stalking Shakespearean heroes while also an important feature of Caribbean theatre – something Joubert also utilised.

Williams uses the scene to explore the make up of the Windrush generation – always talked about as a block of people – with Sylvia’s stern and detached approach to parenting which affects her daughters’ characters. As well as creating individuality, turning Sylvia into a credible person with aspirations and faults that directly inform the bigger reactionary elements of Dawn’s character and the sober dignity of Marcia’s, Williams also takes the opportunity to note the ending of their story, that this is a moment where the Windrush generation is starting to die out, moving the experience beyond living memory and subtly asking what that means for this particular family as well as dual heritage black British identity.

As with Death of England, class too plays its part in the complex family dynamic and Williams is interested in how two sisters find their relationship dividing along class lines when Marcia’s profession and status move her into a quite different social circle to her sister. And the contention this generates between them underpins many of the troubled conversations they have about the men they are with, family responsibilities they bear as well as the attitudes and responses to expected social behaviours. That Marcia considers herself a cut above is an important part of the dynamic Williams creates and the fall he sets up for them all.

But The Fellowship is primarily a domestic tale taking place in one room over three hours of performance in which the family unit is the primary driver. A drawing room comedy-drama of sorts, Williams spends some time establishing the close bond between the sisters, their shared love of 70s, 80s and 90s pop music and the small rituals that can only emerge from familiarity and love. The play’s dynamic comes from the holes that Williams starts to create as circumstances pit the sisters against one another, causing them to re-evaluate how well they still know one another and the extent to which they have hidden their real selves behind the habits of their friendship in which both play a comfortable but not quite true version of themselves.

In that, Williams is largely successful, generating considerable heat in the succession of conversations around which this play is structured and through which the various plot points (credible or not) advance the story. Arguably, it may not need all of them and the impact of Marcia’s relationship is lessened by the absence of her partner who could never co-exist in her sister’s world which is predominantly the one Williams is interested in. But by extension, the difficulties that Marcia brings in and the way their consequences play out are undermined by the lack of tangibility, harder for the audience to imagine her in what seems like a mythical place beyond Dawn’s living room with individuals we cannot quire grasp.

The character of Dawn is, however, an exciting creation filled with layers of complexity and questions about her identity that explode across The Fellowship. An ordinary woman who thinks she knows herself and her place in the world, Dawn’s outward bravado and ferocity is underpinned by deep vulnerability as she attempts to reconcile what her life and relationships amount to. How have her role as a mother, partner and sister eroded her sense of self and does her provocative response to most issues stem from a concern that she is no longer in the fight to the extent that she once was, or perhaps the fear that it amounted to very little and her life is as conventional as anyone else’s.

Part of the issue for Dawn stems from being unable to admit who she really is, her hotheaded reactions to perceived instances of white oppression at odds with her secret music tastes filled with white musicians from the Bee Gees to Kylie and Take That – a device Williams uses throughout the show to examine the public / private division in Dawn, the elements she shares with her sister and how much of herself she truly understands, leading to a process of discovery across the events depicted.

Cherrelle Skeete, who stepped into the role at very short notice, finds all of these contradictions within the character, offering a remarkable performance given how little time the actor has had to prepare for the stage. Skeete is caustic but warm, making Dawn someone you would want to keep on side, a great friend if she likes you but a terrible adversary if she doesn’t. This is Dawn’s story and Skeet grasps every moment to sketch out the breadth of this multifaceted woman.

Llewellyn’s Marcia is a contrast, a placid, cool surface with fire beneath, able to command a courtroom and entirely comfortable in the choices she had made for herself. A little comfortable perhaps as a sense of entitlement creeps into her behaviour. Llewellyn creates a woman who both wants her family to think she is the same person that she always was while expecting them to be continually impressed and in awe of her. Ethan Hazzard and Rosie Day are more contextual as Jermaine and Simone rather than fully fleshed out characters. So too is Trevor Laird’s musician boyfriend Tony who is suitably laid back and disengaged to rile Dawn while Yasmin Mwanza as a local police officer and the younger Sylvie makes a great deal of two small roles.

Directed by Paulette Randall on a set dominated by an almost symbolic sweeping staircase designed by Libby Watson, The Fellowship is at its best in the conversations between Dawn and Marcia which Randall paces nicely – particularly given how little rehearsal the actors have had in their present roles. Occasional lags in energy are understandable over a long night and will tighten as the run continued.

If The Fellowship doesn’t quite have the explosive brio and masculine confrontation of the Death of England, that is the difference between the singular voice and a longer, multi-character piece within a family setting with no one decisive event to drive the plot. But Williams’s broader exploration of identity, class and the impossibility of creating and living up to community and family legacy has a quiet power of its own.

The Fellowship is at the Hampstead Theatre until 23 July with tickets from £12. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

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