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The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore – Charing Cross Theatre

With over 30 full length plays and more than double that for one act shows, it is surprising that so few of Tennessee Williams’s works are ever performed. With most of the attention focused on Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire – which will receive another revival in a couple of months time at the Almeida – there is often little space for the wider canon. In recent years the ‘rediscovery’ of Summer and Smoke and an impressive production of The Night of the Iguana have awakened an interest in what are considered Williams’s lesser-known major works while the King’s Head Theatre explored identity and desire in some of the shorter pieces under the Southern Belles title, all of which are bringing the writers work to a new audience. Now, Charing Cross Theatre is hoping to do the same for 1962 flop The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore exploring the exploitation of a dying woman grasping for the meaning of her life and refusing to go quietly.

Williams is particularly interested in the dynamics of age, often placing characters with quite different experiences together to understand the nature and physicality of desire between people who are or should be socially estranged. Often, that relationship is presented as an uneven, almost transactional activity in which the older individual is able to feel attractive and satisfied while the younger enjoys their wealth, sexual experience or some reflection of their wilted fame. Blanche Dubois is the most obvious example, enjoying the bodies of much younger men to fulfill a personal craving for youthful ardour, but there is a similar interaction in Sweet Bird of Youth and in Night of the Iguana, although it is an older man pursuing younger women in the latter. There is venality to these relationships but also vulnerability, and Williams’s skill as a writer has always been in revealing the underlying sadness and illusory (or self-delusional) qualities that people cling to when looking for tenderness from a lover.

The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore, written later than these works, in 1962, takes a slightly different perspective, presenting a situation to the audience that remains ambiguous throughout. And Williams plays on the expectations that a wider knowledge of his work will engender, as though the writer is already aware of the preconceptions the audience will bring to a, by now, cliched scenario, allowing him to toy with us as we try to uncover the truth behind the sudden arrival of Chris at the mountaintop villa of Flora ‘Sissy’ Goforth.

The play takes place across several scenes, divided neatly into two halves, the first in which Chris is glimpsed briefly as his tattered form is rescued from Sissy’s security dogs and given a place to recuperate. Largely offstage for the first hour of the production,therefore, Chris is defined by his present absence, a character much talked about and the driver of the narrative but barely seen until the second half of the play where the expected and longed-for conversation takes place between the young man and the leading lady. A fairly standard device used to generate tension and energy for the eventual confrontation, Williams manages this really well, giving the idea of Chris a tangible impact on these early scenes that builds anticipation as we wait to see what his intentions really are.

But Williams also uses the two concepts of Chris – the idea of him and his real self – to consider how reputation is formed and the, sometimes, substantial gap between external perception and reality. We see this again and again in Williams’s work as individuals crash against the idea of themselves that they project into their own heads and the way they are really seen, often leading to cataclysmic outcomes that capsize their lives. But here Williams is using the same concept to do something else, examining misinformation and the ways in which assumptions are created and sustained without checking the facts for ourselves – a notion that feels especially pertinent to contemporary celebrity whose famed attributes are not always deserved.

And while Williams is building Sissy’s assumptions of Chris, he is also hoodwinking the audience into replicating her mindset, preparing us to foresee the same plot twists as his characters do. Williams does this through the character known as the ‘Witch of Capri’, an old frenemy of Sissy’s who arrives to spread gossip about the young man she terms the ‘Angel of Death’ who talks of the many old, rich women he has attached himself to in the final months of their life with the sole intention of stealing their money. This becomes a salacious piece of gossip between the women but also a dire warning to Sissy to protect herself from the amorality of a young gigolo stalking society and newspapers columns prepared to seduce and dispatch his victims before moving along to the next one.

When the audience and Sissy final meet Chris, Williams immediately muddies the waters however and primed though we are for a rake, what we see is closer to a Christ-like figure who claims to be a kind of palliative care nurse, freely devoting himself to the lonely to help them peacefully on their way. So who is Chris and what are his true intentions? It is this uncertainty that underscores The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore as Williams weighs the scales on both sides, and having fed the audience on Chris’s reputation offers up plenty of questions in the second half of the play. If Chris is using these women, then why does he arrive at the Amalfi coast villa with only a backpack and a single, well-worn outfit, what happened to all the money he must have acquired? And if his form is to seduce, then where is the famous charm and why does he hold back with Sissy?

Against this, Williams looks at mortality and what we chose to leave behind to makes sense of our lives. There are shades of Norma Desmond in the creation of Sissy – who also looks to recapture her vitality with the younger Joe – putting together her masterpiece having all but withdrawn from the real world. Preparing her scattered and verbose memoirs, Sissy is caught up in herself, an idea of her own importance and relevance that leads her to treat her Secretary Ms Black, know as ‘Blackie’, badly and is also dismissive and patronising of her Italian servant. As a result, we don’t immediately and unquestioningly support her, and like Norma, remain open to the reckoning that the playwright has in store.

This Charing Cross Theatre production, directed by Robert Chevara, finds all of these complexities and, unusually, selects an entirely modern setting or at least a boundary -spanning one where smartphones and tablets become the tools of dictation and communication. Generally, Williams’s work can escape its own era and the understanding of human emotion and reaction resonates in any time period, but Chevara could go further in placing the characters in a more contemporary world through the design which is modern but not recognisably twenty-first century. Instead, designer Nicolai Hart-Hansen gives a mixture of periods with 90s minimalist plastic chairs, an early twentieth-century chaise lounge and a 1940s drinks trolley – a mish mash of concepts that reflect Sissy’s long life and acquirement of things but while she is a character who wallows in her past, her social status, location and love of entertaining would imply a responsiveness to trends, not least to reinforce her own taste and relevance to others.

Linda Marlowe’s Sissy finds some of the character’s angles, her petulance and self-absorption that make her irritable with her staff and equally certain that she would be a target for Chris. Marlowe plays the diva well with plenty of bombast and outrage at the incompetence of others, but across almost two hours of performance, Sissy needs more nuance. Partly that is finding a more convincing frailty that overcomes her as the end draws near but also a vulnerability in a woman who is alone but craving notice and company that will make her feel desirable as well as the contradictory fear of that intimacy that works across Sissy’s character – she wants the possibility of something with Chris but is also nervous about giving any of her power and self-possession away. There is clearly more to Sissy than the surface bravado and as death starts to haunt her, her fear of the unknown should make her tremble a little. Marlowe could dig deeper.

Where the really interesting interaction happens is between Lucie Shorthouse’s Blackie and Chris played by Sanee Raval. There is a compelling chemistry there that forms a genuine connection between these characters of equivalent age, which Williams leaves tantalisingly unresolved. But Shorthouse and Raval understand well the ambiguity that the writer builds into this play and use their scenes together to present an alternative perspective on them both – notably the berobed Chris holding his arms wide in a Christ-like supplication, palms turned outwards. The costume designer needs to give Shorthouse more comfortable shoes which seem to visibly pain her throughout, but this is a connection you wish Williams had written more about.

Similarly, Karen Kestelman’s Witch of Capri is a woman we would like to see more of, providing as she does a direct counterpart to Sissy, an older woman with economic freedom and a penchant for younger lovers that mark her as a direct contemporary of Sissy but also an alternative perspective. Kestleman does some good work in providing a few catty exchanges with Sissy, pleased to be the one bringing her useful news about Chris but keen to see her friend fall at the same time but Williams gives her too little stage time to develop.

There is a lot of potential in this play and while it is by no means Williams at his best, the way he draws the audience into certain expectations is extremely skilled, especially as he doesn’t actually dash them only leaves a more open interpretation of character motive. The themes about assumptions, what we leave behind as well as the people prepared to care for us when all the trappings of youth, beauty and influence have gone retain their powerful meaning. This production does’t quite get everything it can from this play, but this is a rare opportunity to see it nonetheless.

The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore is at the Charing Cross Theatre until 22 October with tickets from £20. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog


Blues for an Alabama Sky – National Theatre

A lack of choice connects female stories across the ages as women find themselves hemmed in by a lack of opportunity, access to education and agency to determine their own path. Some of those structures are patriarchal, others economic and social, but all of them restrict and confine, ensuring women become something other than themselves. Looking across cultural representations of women in the past 100 years it is possible to draw connections between characters such as Hester Collier in Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea, Patrick Hamilton’s Jenny from Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky, even up to Kyo Choi’s Kim Han-See in The Apology, all of whom are in pursuit of a fantasy life that will never be fulfilled. Pearl Cleage’s Blues for an Alabama Sky, opening at the National Theatre this week, adds another unknowingly tragic heroine to that list, singer Angel who will grasp at an opportunity to get out of Harlem in 1930.

The concept of the American Dream and the extent to which it ever applied to women is something that Cleage explores in her play as every character pursues something beyond themselves, something better that will fundamentally alter the daily grind and transform them. Written in 1995, Cleage’s play draws heavily on the intimate boarding house and lodgings worlds of Rattigan and Hamilton in which urban, financially straightened lives are stacked together in densely packed neighbourhoods. And like these earlier works, Cleage emphasises the individual humanity and consequent value of the decent, hardworking community she depicts in a progressive piece that looks to personal attributes rather than limited religious and moral codes imposed by others to shape our responses to her cast.

Cleage sets the action primarily in a single two-room apartment over several weeks which becomes the focus of interaction between neighbours, lovers and friends navigating the next stage of their lives during the Great Depression. And Cleage quickly establishes a group of forward-looking dreamers, people seen as radical in quite different ways by their own community, sometimes dangerously so and not for the reasons we might expect. The context is constrictive and mundane – economic downturn, prohibition and high unemployment (symbolised by the lead characters losing their jobs at the start of the play) – but the lives within are nonetheless vibrant, full of possibility for bettering themselves and their local area while embracing the growing devotion to popular culture that provides a two folder escape – one in their imagination and one in reality.

Angel and her best friend Guy are characters whose dream life and real life could unite, bringing them both the recognition and glamour they crave. Guy’s work as a designer for cabaret and performance artists is sustained by the dream of working for Josephine Baker in Paris to whom he has an unexplained connection. But it drives his narrative, allowing him to indulge in the fantasy of working for her, which he cannot be swayed from, while practically working towards it with a job that puts him at the centre of a creative local scene of parties, drinking and affairs which simultaneously becomes a refuge from the daily grind. Angel meanwhile takes on work as a singer to support her dream of becoming a more famous singer. Yet her dream is compromised by an innate recognition that she will never achieve it, and instead pursues a course of survival that results in more questionable behaviour. Is Angel an inescapable and inevitable product of her gendered circumstances, Cleage askes, or does she actively sabotage herself to ensure those dreams always fail?

Throughout Blues for an Alabama Sky, Angel is a character with a notable duality. There is a deep vulnerability stemming from the knowledge that her body as much as her voice has sustained her, attracting a series of ‘gangsters’ and inappropriate men who only maintain a passing interest beyond the instant gratification of being her lover. And Angel actively seems to be looking for love, each encounter beginning with the hope that, like Sally Bowles, maybe this time it will work out. All of this pain makes Angel such a powerful blues singer, leaving the audience to hope that she will make it after all.

Like Rattigan’s Hester, Hamilton’s Jenny and indeed Isherwood’s Sally, Angel is under the illusion that she has choice, that she can direct and shape the future before her. Hester believes that if Freddy could just return her feelings with the same fervor, rendering all other difference between them immaterial, everything will be fine; Jenny is looking for the next man who can give her the material comforts she deserves and Sally too is looking for something real, that the next man will see her for the first time. Angel likewise falsely clings to the notion that traditional respectability – husband, family and home – will somehow snuff out all the other things she has had to do to achieve them, that if a man can love her enough, everything else will be insignificant, even her own desires. That each of these women is trapped into dependence on a man to rescue them is entirely a product of their society and the expectations placed on women to conform even when they are already living outside those structures. The tragedy comes from the failure of men to accept them and how decidedly that destroys their hopes.

A further tragedy in Angel’s character, and perhaps the most important moral point of Cleage’s work, is that Angel has gradations of selfishness that steal her happy ending, that she is prepared to stomp over anyone to get what she thinks she wants. In contrast to the behaviour of other characters, Angel uses people, lies and even betrays herself in order to become the potential wife that beau Leland may accept. And in the process she tears down her friend Guy in order to do it. These are survival techniques of a women with only herself to rely on, but in using her body to secure a different kind of status that she hopes will bring respectability and stability – regardless of his own questionable views – her body creates a response of its own, one which Angel coldly manages when a better opportunity presents itself.

Contrast this with Cleage’s parallel creation, Delia, Guy’s neighbour, who forms a counterpoint to the central pairing and in many ways is the pure heart of Blues for an Alabama Sky. Delia is a prototype for women’s rights, recognising the distressing lives of her community and prepared to face personal approbation and resistance by opening a Family Planning clinic. Though herself a virgin, as Guy discovers early on, Delia is an advocate of choice that will give women biological and economic freedom, and the play follows her progress through religious and medical objections, creating a character who is constructively forward-thinking and virtuous in her motives.

But Delia is given complexity through her growing attraction to local doctor Sam and her uncomplicated affection and acceptance of her neighbours. Non-judgmental, inclusive and encouraging, Delia experiences difficulty throughout the play quite differently to Angel and that treatment comes from character’s essential goodness and desire to contribute something beyond herself. The outcomes of the play, though tragic for the women in various ways, reflect a moral judgement by the writer who sets quite different paths for them both – Delia afforded true and reciprocated feeling that expands her emotional experience as a woman while Angel is left almost exactly where we found her; perhaps a little harder, more jaded but about to embark on the same destructive cycle.

The male characters by contrast are notably defined by their location, Guy and Sam products of Harlem while lover Leland bringing a darker cloud emanating from his Alabama moral and deeply Christian views that cause significant disruption within the group, shaping the plays central questions about appropriate ways to live. Men too are limited by their world and while it is perhaps too easy to suggest they suffer differently to women, Cleage looks at questions of masculinity and expectation in urban environments. That Guy represents a challenge to the traditional notions of manliness which Leland symbolises is one of Cleage’s most engaging themes as the two contend for a kind of primacy that manifests in a fight for Angel’s soul.

Guy is the kinder man which is reflected in Cleage’s perspective on female agency in the play, as he supports the development of his friend while Leland actively seeks to limit her. Sam likewise plays a role in facilitating Delia’s success, a meeting of minds that takes place in an enclosed but open-minded community where a modern morality and approach to sex, work and shared living finds itself hampered by traditional regulation and attitudes. Leland is the faultline along which these two worlds meet and collide, bringing dangerous but decisive consequences for the Harlem set.

The first half of the play is, by extension, very character and scenario focused, and while it establishes the narrative and motivational drivers, Cleage spends a long time setting-up the parameters in which the more traditional drama will then play out in the final third of the action, the pace of which Director Lynette Linton manages really well. Some may find it slow and ponderous while others will be fascinated by the ways in which Cleage constructs these lives and starts to draw the audience into their story, only realising in the final scenes how the long work of Act One created investment in the happiness and success of these neighbours, and how affectingly Cleage has created their circumstances and choices.

Samira Wiley captures all the contradictions in Angel’s character, the love of the party and that underlying fear that it is almost over for her that brings out a kind of desperation. Angel is deeply cynical, almost ground down in her belief that dreams don’t come true and the actor develops her pragmatic, sometimes cruel and headstrong side as she sets her sights on a more achievable outcome, all the while Wiley’s maintains Angel’s refusal to accept this is not what she truly wants. Ronke Adekoluejo’s Delia is a complete contrast with plenty of contradictions that help to make the character more rounded. Adekoluejo makes her shy and determined, innocent but knowledgeable about the medical needs of women, radical in her vision for the community and acceptance of others but looking for a traditional loving relationship, all of which Adekoluejo makes relatable and credible.

Giles Terera has a very busy rep season ahead, rehearsing the leading role in Othello opening in November as well as playing the flamboyant Guy here. Terera’s sensitive performance is very smart, taking a character who lives a bigger life than the others, filled with showbusiness parties and aspirations but still making him vulnerable, grounded and loyal to the people he cares about. There are some great scenes with Osy Ikhile’s Leland as the two men prowl around one another, subtly glaring as their very different outlooks clash, while Sule Rimi places Sam somewhere between the two, rational about the everyday needs of his patients but equally drawn to the possibility of finally meeting someone to share with it.

Staged on Frankie Bradshaw’s superb rotating house set, which echoes Tom Scutt’s excellent semi-translucent design for the 2016 production of The Deep Blue Sea, it creates a sense of lives packed in and overlapping. Blues for an Alabama Sky has much to say about the price of giving up on a dream and why it is often a woman who has to compromise. All of Angel’s choices are ultimately taken from her and while others may find a different future at the end of the play, like Hester, Jenny and Sally, Angel can never be anything else.

Blues for an Alabama Sky is at the National Theatre until 5 November with tickets from £20. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


The Apology – Arcola Theatre

It always takes one lone voice, someone brave enough to stand up and speak about what happened to them. Soon, others will follow inspired by that first individual and that is how truths eventually come to light. With Maria Schrader and Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s She Said about the journalists supporting Harvey Weinstein’s victims coming to the London Film Festival next month, there is a very contemporary interest in powerful men eventually brought to justice by the collective voices of women. But for many sufferers of sexual assault and violence, what happens next? And is that justice ever really enough? Kyo Choi’s new play, The Apology, looks at sexual slavery in the Second World War and insists that a tactical political apology isn’t remotely enough for the women and their families denied official acknowledgment of responsibility from modern governments.

Choi is one of the most exciting new playwrights of the post-pandemic period. Her focus on sexual violence against women and its cultural origins in the complex inheritance of trauma and patriarchal structures has resulted in two of the most interesting plays of 2022. Galápagos opened at the Bridewell Theatre in March, a fascinating piece performed by the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama students looking at campus rape and the long influence of Greek mythology in shaping male attitudes to women’s bodies and their ownership.

Choi’s second play, premiering at the Arcola Theatre, is just as poignant, looking at military-sanctioned sexual slavery by the Japanese army which abducted Korean women and forced them to work in camps satisfying as many as 20 soldiers per day, a fact kept silent until the early 1990s when a Human Rights lawyer began an investigation into war crimes against women, followed by an unsatisfactory apology from the, then, Japanese leader which is the basis of this play.

Using original testimony and research, The Apology is a more successful drama than Silence which uses a similar structure and verbatim approach to bring historic testimony to the stage while arguing for the contemporary relevance of the issues it contains. Where Sonali Bhattacharyya, Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, Ishy Din and Alexandra Wood focused their evidence-gathering around a single female journalist character writing a book about the brutality and consequences of Indian Partition, The Apology places lawyer Priyanka Silva at its heart as the conduit for several intersecting lives and stories revealed over several years as part of a United Nations investigation. But the character of Priyanka is not a passive one as the journalist in Silence was, and Choi uses her to examine the wider implications of the case being built against the Japanese army as well as its universal political and moral ramifications. These reach far beyond the pain of individual survivors as governments attempt to obfuscate and demur, playing for time until the women have died rather than admit to any guilt, shame or official culpability – a situation shared also by the Korean family depicted in the play.

But Choi’s first purpose it to correct a misdefinition. Given the rather coy term of “comfort women” by history, The Apology directly challenges the linguistic sanitisation of what was in fact sexual slavery and the mass, organised rape of women in lands occupied by the Japanese Army. And what happened to them was not prostitution – the women were neither willing participants, nor were they paid – instead they endured repeated violation until the camps were liberated at the end of the war. These revised definitions are challenged throughout the play by its only male character in an official position, an American who tries to deter Priyanka’s investigation. But the lawyer, and indeed Choi herself, are rightly ferocious in their insistence that this was an act of State violence against female bodies which must be openly acknowledged and responsibility accepted. And, as armies sweep through the region in the final months of the war, Japan is not the only nation to take advantage of the pre-existing “comfort women.”

The Apology, then, has three strands; the first gives the play its shape, focusing on Priyanka’s work from 1991 to 1996 when the UN’s official report was published. This is the primary dramatic driver in which the lawyer gathers and presents statistical evidence, interviews victims and responds to broader attempts by her American counterpart based in Seoul to derail or challenge her work. As the process develops from preliminary inquiry to official investigation, Choi uses the passing of the years as a platform to examine the seemingly slow but methodical nature of intergovernmental organisations and the complexities of building a legal case – one that like Kim Sun-Hee, the first woman to speak out, Priyanka must pursue alone. The extent to which this can be influenced or compromised by contemporary (and indeed historic) political relationships is an interesting one and Choi looks at the protection of American interest, not only in shielding itself from counter-accusation of war crimes but how the ‘voluntary’ funding structure potentially compromises neutral institutions like the UN for which the US currently provides an annual grant 10% higher than any other nation.

Within this structure, Choi introduces parallel stories set also in the 1990s but with roots in the events of the Second World War. The most powerful of these is the story of Kim Sun-Hee, a former slave desperate to forget what happened to her but, 50 years on, remains deeply traumatised by the camps. This is the most poignant section of Choi’s play, the experience of a 16-year old girl offered the chance to become a nurse and instead taken to a labour camp where she is raped by two men on the first night and hundreds if not thousands more in the years that follow. Told in retrospect by the older Sun-Hee, Choi gives her two different outlets for her narrative. One is through interviews with Priyanka that are often deeply moving and sensitively discussed. While there is no graphic detail or sensationalism, the extent and frequency of her violation smashes against an almost fruitless need for justice, the disappointment that speaking out doesn’t bring instant vilification to those who abused her.

But Sun-Hee also has another private space in which to tell her story where Choi gives primacy to the character’s own interior voice and experience quite separate from the rigorous but administrative demands of the investigation. This is sometimes difficult to watch as the character proclaims the deep psychological pain that afflicts her still, chastising herself and unable to contain the different emotions that still rage inside her mixing shame, guilt and fear of the consequences with anger and a feeling of loss for the briefly carefree girl she once was. Seemingly talking to her younger embodiment, Sun-Hee berates her equivalent self as Choi brings some of her memories to life, giving them a freshness for the audience that emphasises the depth of the trauma. But there is purpose here, giving weight to the testimony without sensationalising the experience for dramatic effect which Choi manages responsibly and with consideration for the reality of her subjects.

The final subset of the play centres around a family experience, a father and daughter concealing their own truths from one another. Initially this is the least successful part of The Apology, the interaction between Chief Purser Han Yuna returning from international flights to see her retired parent Han Min is a little stilted, even slightly repetitive as the awkward domestic life of the characters and Yuna’s absent mother feels a little undercooked. So too does Min’s refusal to address his emotional concealment which has a slightly soapy dynamic.

But the value of this pairing is much clear in Act Two and a compelling interview scene between Min and Priyanka is one of the strongest in the play as several new layers are revealed. And these are important dynamics being explored, not just of the silence of the Korean people in the years since the Second World War and the shame (and blame) still attached to the women themselves, but how these socio-political responses have shaped domestic inheritance between the generations. When Yuna reacts against the saintly worship of her mother, proclaiming hatred for the woman she never knew, the audience is ahead of the character in understanding how deeply three levels of the play – the political, personal and the domestic – have conspired to create an inherited silence among those most deeply affected.

Sarah Lam is outstanding as Sun-Hee and her first moments on stage are immediately affecting as her character vocalises her pain. The need to find some kind of justice but also understanding, even forgiveness is palpable while Lam captures well the fear of being the first to speak out and the disappointed hope that it will make a difference, that just saying the words aloud will be enough. But Lam also moves Sun-Hee to a different kind of reconciliation with the past in the second Act that becomes something like acceptance of self if not quite the retribution and compensation she wanted.

Sharan Phull’s Priyanka is a determined and quietly indomitable character, prepared to put in the time to create a compelling case but respectful of the people that she represents. Some of Phull’s best scenes are in argumentative combat with Ross Armstrong’s Jock Taylor, a borderline flirtatious relationship – for him at least – that tries to sway Priyanka by any means necessary, but Phull imbues her character with an integrity and purpose that drive the story forward.

There is good support from Minhee Yeo as Yuna representing a confused post-war generation unable to relate to her parents while Kwong Loke really takes the opportunity to get under the surface of Min in Act Two as the truth about his life is finally revealed and Loke’s strong performance is one of the play’s most successful scenes. Completing the cast, Jessica Baek plays Kwon Bok-Hae, the younger version of Sun-Hee who speaks very little but captures the lightness of youth as well as the dark period of captivity and debasement she endures in the character’s memory.

Designer TK Hay has papered the walls, floor and staircase in what must be the pages of the UN’s report, effectively emphasising the vast numbers of women whose story this is across Asia in the mid to late 1940s, some of whom appear in projected images designed by Gillian Tan towards the end of the play. Directed by Ria Parry, plenty of time is given to the testimonies of survivors as well as the complicated process of investigation helping the audience to understand personal betrayals, the changing stakes and international political avoidance that interact across this story, but the show retains a decent pace across its 135-minute running time.

Choi’s play is powerful without being sentimental, avoiding the kind of western hand-wringing that often accompanies issues like this. Instead, it looks to establish the facts beyond doubt and the importance of building an argument for war crimes against women that makes The Apology all the more effective. It is ultimately a question of human rights, Choi and Priyanka argue. Sexual violence against women will sadly always be a part of conflict, rape is a weapon of war but while the UN have made it an official war crime, conviction is rare. It may only need the voice of one woman to inspire others but until she is believed and not shamed, what hope is there for justice?

The Apology is at the Arcola Theatre until 8 October with tickets from £12. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


Silence – Donmar Warehouse

Verbatim theatre can be extremely powerful, its cumulative anthology approach creating the broadest picture of an issue or the impact of an event in the affecting words of those who lived through it that show the widespread political, socio-economic and cultural implications across multiple communities, countries and eras. But it can also be difficult to stage in ways that effectively capture the full force of those original testimonies, giving them the individual space that each experience demands while also meeting a dramatic quality that theatre embodies. Sonali Bhattacharyya (who wrote Chasing Hares at the Young Vic), Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, Ishy Din and Alexandra Wood’s new play Silence, premiering at the Donmar Warehouse, tries to navigate this dilemma in its exploration of Indian Partition and the long silence from those who were there.

Verbatim theatre productions usually go in one of two directions; in the first, the writer creates a strong narrative frame which semi-fictionalises the circumstances or the events it covers, using oral history interviews and conversations with participants to feed into the dialogue and the creation of specific scenarios that may compress, reflect or distill the experience of multiple people into a single character or sequence. This is often how the National Theatre approaches a verbatim show like Francesca Martinez’s All of Us, telling a story but using original words as evidence like a historian would to support the broader case being made for action, change or greater understanding.

An alternative outlet for verbatim theatre is the character-based structure that tells whole stories in a series of chapters dedicated to different individuals who give their perspective on events. It doesn’t take single phrases or paragraphs out of their original context and merge them together, but presents one wholesale experience at a time to an audience. This approach – which is the one taken by Silence – largely leaves the audience to draw its own conclusions based on the information presented across the different voices, building a picture of multiple effects, themes and consequences that create a muddier picture of everyday life than perhaps offered by the more structured approach to verbatim theatre. It is one that makes room for the complexities and contradictions of humanity and of individual behaviour and it, arguably, more accurately reflects the lived experience. But there is a theatrical cost in terms of presentational variety and dramatic drive across rather than within these pieces.

Silence includes multiple fascinating, shocking and terrible stories within its 105-minute running time. Based on Kavita Puri’s book Bhattacharyya, Kaur Bhatti, Din and Wood put a Puri figure at the centre of the drama as a writer looking to collect stories about the effect of Indian Partition on her now UK-based community of Indian immigrants and their descendants. Cast in journalistic mode, the protagonist is looking to write about the thin white line the British drew and its long-lasting effects, so the audience is shown the process of tracking down willing representatives from the Muslim, Hindu and Sikh communities in India in 1947 and the series of interviews that take place in which the interviewer is a largely wordless observer of another life – her silence in the moment of retelling mirroring their long refusal to speak about those painful years.

Starting with the bigger picture, Silence is ultimately an awareness exercise, its purpose is to give voice to the effects and problems generated by Partition that have shaped individual lives, the diaspora of Indian peoples around the world as well as being the basis for modern and contentious division between India and Pakistan. It is not an overtly political play in that it isn’t seeking to affect change or to champion a specific policy that will improve the here and now, and while it does have many political dimensions, not least in highlighting the ongoing consequences of empire, for better or for worse, Silence tries to look beyond the national decision-making and process of Partition to focus on micro level events in the lives of everyday citizens. In doing so, it argues for a common understanding that Partition marked a sea change in multiple contexts, not just in the overhasty British withdrawal from India but that the ill-conceived and poorly implemented process had painful family and neighbourly implications that changed everyone.

Bhattacharyya, Kaur Bhatti, Din and Wood use an openly verbatim structure, in which their central character essentially ‘collects’ the reminiscences of others in order to write a book about the effects of Partition on India communities in the UK. The dramatic driver is her dismissive father who maintains his own silence about the events of 1947 and its immediate aftermath which, as the writers provide further context through other recollections, builds eventually to this man’s story and a greater understanding for descendant generations. In between, the protagonist is a shadowy figure, sitting in recess, often to the side of the stage, as her interlocutor talks without interruption and director Abdul Shayek conjures up their different perspectives on this divisive event.

And there is much to learn about the deep complexity of this period that, as Silence argues, suddenly and crudely drew a line between two countries and several religions that had existed in relative harmony before. There are semi-hopeful stories of neighbours shielding each other from violence, of Romeo and Juliet-like couples with different forms of worship who fled together and built a life, and of individuals coming to realise later how much more they had in common than divided them. So while hindsight is a wonderful thing and it may have taken decades to finally reach that conclusion, Silence does explore the opportunity to grow and understand beyond the immediacy of Partition.

But largely, Bhattacharyya, Kaur Bhatti, Din and Wood’s contributors paint a sorry picture of mobs hounding difference out of their neighbourhoods, of deliberate tit-for-tat desecration of religious spaces, of hundreds of desperate refugees crowded on trains and forced into destitution by the occupation of their land, the scale and brutality of the displacement caused by Britain’s “white line” astounding. These experiences are given extra edges by the inclusion of Sikh, Muslim and Hindu voices all reporting similar atrocities committed against them by a newly formed ‘other’ or ‘enemy’, while the rape and torture of women as well as the killing of children is a sadly inevitable outcome of this new form of warfare. Hearing these testimonies from workers and mayors, mothers and administrative assistants to the last Viceroy, even white men born and raised in India, is powerful, almost overwhelmingly so in what proves to be the strongest element of Silence but also its limitation as a theatrical piece.

The ways in which these stories are presented on stage are often too similar. Largely, the speaker sits on the same side of the stage and recounts their story uninterrupted. These conversations replicated how Puri heard them in multiple living rooms across the country, so designer Rose Revitt offers different arrangements of furniture to convey these place changes, yet still the story is delivered as one person sitting down and speaking for 20-minutes. Cumulatively, there is a power in that, in hearing so many tales that build a broader impression of Partition, but it makes the overarching drama too episodic and creates too many peaks and troughs as one story dramatically ends and another begins, making it hard for the audience to understand the pace of the show and how an overall conclusion will emerge.

Director Shayek does some very interesting and atmospheric things with backdrops and projected photographs, telling one story entirely in silhouetted movement, backlit behind a curtain as another actor mimes on the main stage. Another uses Elena Pena’s sound effects and soft orange lighting by Ciaran Cunningham to generate an immersive impression of India at night, a romantic memory of children playing harmoniously together or wistfully watching the packed trains speed by on their way to some exciting destination years before. But the show does take on a Talking Heads quality, a slightly repetitive narrator-style, delivering a tale straight on without fully acknowledging and taking advantage of the three-sided audience present at the Donmar (a failing also notable in Force Majeure).

Bhattacharyya, Kaur Bhatti, Din and Wood’s play eventually builds to a pathos-filled conclusion that has darker undertones, looking at the shame of collaboration, the misdirection of youth and considering alternative reasons for the long held silence – shame. For the journalist lead character it is a moment of revelation and understanding that moves her deeply but there is greater potential here for impact than the current draft offers. While it is admirable to shy away from the dry ‘facts’ of the Partition, to step away from the official line and present an alternative experience, to give greater meaning to Silence, the audience does need some of that shape in order to understand Britain’s decision to withdraw at that moment, the reason for commuting their exit strategy to just 10 months and why drawing a random line in the sand creating two separate countries and 75-years of contention.

Bhattacharyya, Kaur Bhatti, Din and Wood are incredibly fair and balanced in the presentation of these stories, giving equal weight to different Indian communities, to those who were there and their heirs who felt the weight of their silence on another continent as well as to different religious perspectives. The writers seem equally open to the idea that the British were incompetent or thoughtless in their withdrawal and not necessarily malicious, even allowing one participant to rue their departure when the country is left in chaos. It never for a moment divests Britain of the responsibility for the human and political cost of Partition but it does grapple with the concept of a contemporary British-Indian identity in which Partition should have a greater centrality.

Performed by Renu Brindle, Sujaya Dasgupta, Bhasker Patel, Jay Saighal, Rehan Sheikh, Martin Turner, Somi De Souza, Anil Goutam and Nimmi Harasgama as the journalist, the actors take on multiple characters and lives within the different scenarios in what is a cleverly managed ensemble piece. But while there are so many voices represented in a play that explores the widespread impacts and effects of Indian Partition on modern Britain, it needs some exposition on how and why those things happened in the last days of the Raj which, in the long silence that followed, remain unspoken still.

Silence is at the Donmar Warehouse until 17 September with tickets from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


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.


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