Tag Archives: Cherrelle Skeete

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.

Name, Place, Animal, Thing and Michael X – Almeida Theatre

Six Artists in Search of a Play - Almeida Theatre

It is a focus on international theatre traditions for the newly reopened Almeida Theatre with a two-week festival dedicated to socially distanced rehearsed readings of plays selected for their global perspective. Six Artists in Search of a Play was a series that, from the comfort of the auditorium, celebrated different approaches to theatremaking, taking the audience around the world in one of the most inclusive theatre offerings so far including nineteenth-century Eastern Europe to China, Ancient Greece and Nigeria. The final two pieces travel to India with Annie Zaidi and to the incendiary racial divide of 1960s Britain. Whether any of these plays will result in a longer run remains to be seen and while a one-night only try-out is rare given the usual demands on the space, the directors, cast and crew have grasped the opportunity created by the pandemic for a cost-effective and all too rare live audience reading.

The alternative appeal of the final two plays is an interesting consideration and the domestic setting of Zaidi’s Name, Place, Animal, Thing makes for a stark contrast with the firebrand nature of Vanessa Walters’s Michael X, both plays originally written around the same time. Zaidi’s 100-minute story, directed by Atri Banerjee, focuses on women escaping unfortunate marriages and the small-scale power dynamics within the families they return to. What is ostensibly a narrative driven by and existing within social and political structures created by men means women are cast solely in the roles of wife, servant and victim often at the same time.

Name, Place, Animal, Thing

Zaidi’s 2009 award-winning story almost entirely emphasises the needs and experiences of women – women who need the freedom to fail, to reconsider and to try alternative paths. Staged by Banerjee in two gender-defined rows, female actors are placed on the front row and the majority of the action revolves around their conversations as niece/servant Nancy returns rapidly from an ill-conceived union to the home of her aunt/employer whose friend and neighbour regular drops by to cast aspersions. What drives Nancy’s decision to leave her husband within days of their marriage is subtly alluded to, a combination of poverty, incompatibility, disillusion and status that conceal a wealth of intricate motives that sit in the background of the play including the nature of the urban-rural divide in India, how class shapes the opportunities available to younger women and the strength of family ties in the aftermath of tragedy and grief.

When men appear in this fascinating story, they create lane-changing momentum in the pace and direction of the play and Nancy’s life. Her severe Uncle Malik represents the established social order, the old world that seeks to confine Nancy within a religious and political structure that sees marriage as the ultimate outcome for a woman. Malik’s personality and belief in his absolute righteousness defines the play, motoring the action that, prior to and during this story, shape his family so completely – especially the haunting presence of his daughter lost shortly before Nancy took the same treacherous path.

But other men provide direction as well, not least Nancy’s ineffectual rubbish collector husband who appears more than once to demand the return of his wife as property and to plead his cause, while a clothing salesman’s alluring patter charms the homely women of the play in a variety of ways. What is clear is that none of these men have the best interests of the womenfolk in mind and, young or old, these men prioritise their own happiness and sense of propriety such as it is with fateful effects.

Another fascinating theme is the power of a name – a link to the childhood game of the title – and its ability to encapsulate different forms of familial, religious, social and individual identities. It is significant that Nancy is the third such name she is given and, as the character slowly rebels against the status quo, she begins to reject the monikers chosen for her by one group or another. Her preferences notably shift as the story unfolds and at various times she refuses to respond to anything but the name given to her by her husband, her employer-protectors, father and by her changing faith. While this often plays-out to comic effect, the result is a crisis of identity for a young woman constantly defined by external factors and through the events of Name, Place, Animal, Thing comes to understand the strength and independence in her own womanhood and ability to define her own future.

The Almeida gathered a very fine cast and as a rehearsed reading, stage directions were read allowed by Anushka Chakravarti creating a vivd setting in the minds of the audience suggesting the respectable Middle Class apartment block above the city. Chakravarti also plays the ghostly presence of the Malik’s lost daughter whose memory stands between the couple and overshadows Nancy’s experience with them. Saroja-Lily Ratnavel as Nancy has a quiet everywoman quality, a maid who in some ways knows her place, is even grateful for it, but fights cleverly for her own position until it destabilises the household. Ratnavel’s unassuming nature has an understated power in which she is both unafraid to leave the comfortable position to establish her own life, but is equally determined to return when it doesn’t suit her.

Gravitas was added by Zubin Varla and Nina Wadia as the domineering but ultimately devoted matriarch, a couple in unity and conflict whose solidarity is challenged by the loss of their daughter and emotional withholding that creates waves when parallel events with Nancy cause those long-buried feelings to rush to the surface. The portrait of the perfect marriage that they represent and wishes for the next generation unravels with both Varla and Wadia on superb form finding the balance between comedy and pathos. A full revival of Name, Place, Animal,Thing promises much and Zaidi’s domestic tale becomes a potent debate about modernity and enfranchisement.

Michael X

While structurally very different, Walters’s drama shares Zaidi’s interest in how disillusion and disappointment in a restrictive and unwelcoming society builds resistance within the individual, and while the outlet is not the same, both Nancy in Name, Place, Animal, Thing and Michael de Freitas who earns the title Michael X become activists against the limitations imposed on them by external forces – Nancy by her small but significant acts of rebellion and Michael by political organisation and protest. Selected for this performance by Director Cherrelle Skeete, Walters’s play explores Caribbean Black British identity in the 1960s, a rallying cry for change that has considerable contemporary resonance.

Written as a single monologue, originally performed by Clint Dyer, in which the character of Michael delivers a rousing speech to a politicised community audience, Skeete redefines this 55-minute play using three actors sharing the title role. It is a decision that adds considerably to the dynamism of this rehearsed reading, emphasising the changing pace and currents in Walters’s writing, creating movement and flow around the stage while underscoring the universality of the central character, that his experience, heritage, anger and pain is representative of the wider Caribbean community in the last 50 years.

Michael X does two quite interesting things simultaneously; first, it charts the arrival of the younger man in the UK, reflecting quite vividly on the warm and vibrant Trinidadian lifestyle that Michael left behind and contrasts with the damp unwelcoming streets of Britain. But Walters also quite carefully and amusingly depicts the infusion of British life, culture and mannerisms through that Caribbean context, that being part of the the UK, of it being an aspirational way of life is really potent in building the expectations of those who considered themselves lucky enough to return to the ‘motherland’

How this rebounds through Michael’s speech is very meaningful, and not at all straightforward – despite a critical fondness for Trinidad this idea of Britishness and its weaponisation emerges from the contextual details of his life within which the play is framed. Second, there is a real skill in the way that Walters reconstructs his oratorical skills using the anecdotes and examples to slowly warm the audience to the political subtext which builds to a point of outrage, even a call to arms as it ends. The comparison with Mark Antony’s funeral speech in Julius Caesar springs to mind, as Michael says one thing but means or implies another until he can be more candid.

There are declarations of peaceable intent, of good will and belief in the possibility of trust and mutual understanding but slowly Walters introduces levels of complexity that turns this speech into a declaration of war – one that ends with a promise that echoes Enoch Powell in promising blood running in the streets. How Walters aligns these two interlocking narratives is very smart, drawing on her idea that violence hides behind British politeness but letting her character employ the same rhetorical technique to win his audience to the cause – while never shying away from his own still controversial embrace of white celebrity and the establishment in listing his many benefactors.

Performed by Martina Laird, Tomi Ogbaro and Mika Onyx, there is real power in the developing arguments within the play as the three actors move around one another, coming forward to speak their assigned passages of the text and representing the different sides of Michael’s character, of the multi-faceted nature of Caribbean-British communities and the many arms of protest, demonstration and even revolution. The gender-neutral casting also reflects the points that Skeete wants to make about intersectionality within the play’s debates and its continued relevance to the experience of current generations and there was a real energy in the presentation of this rehearsed reading that connected the audience to Michael’s 1965 setting, to Waters’s 2008 publication and to the Almeida in 2021.

The international focus of Six Artists in Search of a Play has been a valuable one and a timely reminder that these stories are still too rarely seen on UK stages despite large resident communities. Public rehearsed readings are a rarity these days but may offer alternative ways for audiences to engage with theatres, to assess the development of newly commissioned work as well as revivals of a broader number of productions. A commitment to fully staging a few of the works in this mini-season in the future should be the result of this initiative, giving UK audiences more opportunity to engage with global theatre traditions and understand how our own diverse communities interact.

Name, Place Animal Thing was staged on 2 June and Malcolm X was performed on 5 June as part of the Six Artists in Search of a Play season at the Almeida Theatre. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

Three Days in the Country – National Theatre

It’s rare to see a Russian drama that feels as light and fresh as this one, so used as we are to claustrophobic sets and a sense of pointless oppression. Frequently in such plays, the characters sit around for several hours talking about ploughing or some equally riveting subject while not confessing how they all really feel about each other. For all the burning passions that are supposed to exist under the surface, nothing much actually happens and everyone goes home again more or less in the exact same position as they arrived. But actors enjoy the intellectual challenge so Chekhov in particular remains a perennial favourite on the London stage, but I’d long come to the conclusion that perhaps Russian drama is not for me.

Then, the National Theatre came along with this glorious adaptation of Turgenev’s Three Days in the Country, a figurative lightning strike that revealed to me what everyone else has been seeing under the corn threshing chat all these years, and perhaps more importantly proves that the National Theatre really is back in business. Now I’ve certainly given the NT a very hard time in the last couple of years, signifying the death throes of the previous director’s reign and the warming up of the Rufus Norris era (not that changing management is any excuse for over a year of shoddy work).  But suddenly the clouds have parted and the sun is shining on the Southbank once again. This year I’ve seen 5 NT production, 3 of which were genuinely excellent (Man and Superman, The Beaux’ Stratagem and this one), 1 was decent (Rules for Living) and 1 was dreadful (A Light Shining in Buckinghamshire) which is a pretty impressive hit rate in just 6 months.

Patrick Marber, most famously the writer of Closer, has adapted and directed this new version of Turgenev’s novel A Month in the Country, shortening the action to a weekend, stripping out a lot of superfluous stuff and stuffing it full of much needed laughs. As the curtain rises to reveal a smattering of furniture and Perspex walls the enormous Lyttelton stage looks, well enormous, and you wonder how they will ever create the stifling tension of a group of people holed up together with raging emotions. This is going to drown them I thought, but I couldn’t have been more wrong; without the clutter you get to focus entirely on the people, allowing the actors to create buckets of tension and drama. The decision to strip back classic texts and present them in more powerful minimalist staging is all the rage, and what Ivo Van Hove has done for Arthur Miller, here Patrick Marber has done for Turgenev, and it is a huge success.

The story takes place in the sumptuous country home of Natalya (Amanda Drew), a confident and intimidating landowner who is bored with her husband. During this weekend an older neighbour Bolshintsov (Nigel Betts) has coerced the local doctor (Mark Gatiss) to introduce him to the family so he may propose to Vera (Lily Sacofsky) the family ward. But Vera is in love with the handsome young tutor Belyaev (Royce Pierrson) who himself is attracted to Natalya, as well as her maid Katya (Cherrelle Skeete). Meanwhile the doctor has designs on Lizaveta a companion (Debra Gillett) while Rakitin (John Simm) a long-term friend of the family has nursed a love for Natalya for twenty years. The various permutations of these unrequited love stories are played out with plenty of confusion between love and lust, misunderstandings and a houseful of broken hearts by the end.

Bestriding it all are three outstanding performances from Drew, Gatiss and Simm who offer different but affecting insights into their characters. Drew’s Natalya is comfortable in her world as mistress of a large estate – and again the openness of the staging really emphasises the size of the house and land – while happily accepting the devoted attentions of the men around her, but like many Russian heroines suppressing a wilder nature. As the story evolves Drew is particularly impressive in subtly portraying her jealousy of Vera even when encouraging her into the arms of the man she wants for herself. And later in the play when she finally succumbs to her own passions Drew shows how its release completely breaks Natalya forcing her to give way to public emotion, something she could never have done as the play began.

Equally affecting is John Simm’s performance as the ardent long-term suitor without the slightest hope of victory. This Rakitin is a rational and intelligent man willing to accept a close friendship with Natalya rather than nothing at all, and Simm creates a man who it likeable and sympathetic. Each of the three central roles have their moment to shine and Simm’s comes in the Second Act where he too succumbs to 20 years of pain as he continues to counsel Natalya about her love for another man while clinging to a stolen moment between them years before, finally accepting it will never be repeated.

Gatiss, always a great character actor, excels here as Shpigelsky the local quack desperate for social advancement. His association with the ‘big house’ is reinforced by a comical attempt to woo the perplexed Lizaveta by listing his faults and expectations. In a scene not dissimilar to Mr Darcy telling Elizabeth Bennett that he’ll have her despite her inferiority, Gatiss’s doctor tries to strike a bargain with the companion while hilariously dealing with a bad back brought on my being on one knee. He is equally amusing in an earlier scene having drunk too much at dinner, late-night gossiping with the other guests. One of Gatiss’s greatest gifts as a comic actor is to suddenly show the pain beneath the surface which is used so poignantly here, giving the doctor’s character greater depth and winning the audience’s compassion.

It is a great cast who give a convincing sense of a busy country manor, although the character of the tutor that everyone is in love with seems a little flat, so it’s hard to see what all the ladies are so excited about. Similarly Natalya’s husband Arkady is currently an interesting sketch, and performed well by John Light, but seems quite under-used and it would be useful to learn a little more about their marriage to explain her frustrations.  Nonetheless it is a wonderful couple of hours reinforced by Irene Bohan’s costumes and particularly Mark Thompson’s unusual but intriguing stage design which again feels so fresh. You may initially be confused by the hovering red door in Act One which comes to earth after the interval, but its physical purpose eventually makes sense as well as its role as a symbol of everyone’s passions which are eventually released.

Three Days in the Country is probably the best Russian play that I have seen, given real verve by Marber’s loose adaptation. If you like your Turgenev traditional and suffocating then this may be a bit radical, but it was a joy to see something that felt so light yet still created the right level of emotional drama. More than anything, the last few months have completely restored my faith in the National Theatre as a place for interesting and smart adaptations of classic plays. Whether the same can be said of any new writing remains to be seen, but with greater availability of lower priced tickets and an interesting new season from the autumn there is a lot to be excited about. The National is back in business indeed.

Three Days in the Country is at the National Theatre until 21 October. Tickets start at £15 and better seats are available at £20 from 1pm on Friday afternoons as part of the theatre’s Friday Rush initiative.

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