Tag Archives: Donmar Warehouse

Marys Seacole – Donmar Warehouse

Marys Seacole - Donmar Warehouse

The Donmar’s last production dealt with the causes and consequences of male violence, the rhetoric and celebrated gung-ho spirit that takes men to war – legitimate or otherwise – charismatic leadership and the destruction of the male body. Henry V is a play filled with ambiguity, men die on the battlefield, they die in between, they are soldiers, they are civilians, they are noblemen and paupers, prisoners, spies and thieves. And Henry may walk away with another crown and a bargain princess with whom to start a dynasty, but someone has to pick up the pieces, to care for the wounded and dying when the King’s glory leaves them with shattered limbs, infections and survivor’s guilt. A biographical drama about Mary Seacole seems like a fitting follow-up.

Jackie Sibblies Drury’s new play Marys Seacole is an entirely female affair, no male characters are present, implied or even speak, only the time-travelling idea of Mary, her ghostly mother, Mary’s daughter and another tri-generational white family that she helps in a twenty-first century hospital setting. And while Sibblies Drury creates an overarching structure in which the story of the original Mary is played out from her early days in Kingston to the conflict zone of Crimea, the deliberate ‘s’ to pluralise the protagonist takes a long lens perspective on the role of female carers across two centuries and the gendered biological structures that continue to constrain women.

But Marys Seacole is a tough watch, an abstract style and disjointed scenes make it difficult to invest in what are archetypes rather than characters performing in what often feels like a chaotic assemblage of disconnected activities. It opens with Mary introducing her story, emphasising her determination and success as a woman who escaped conventionality to establish her own business and defied military and nursing authorities by arriving close to the battlefield with her team. Across the 1 hour and 45-minute running time, these elements are dramatised and distributed through the show like a backbone, (largely) retaining their period drama aesthetic to complete her physical and character journey from her homeland to a wider acceptance abroad.

From this, Sibblies Drury hangs another more nebulous dramatic device, using snippets drawn from scenarios involving versions of Mary and her daughter in different contemporary times and places. First we see her providing palliative care to a disorientated elderly woman in what we assume is an NHS hospital or facility and being chastised by the woman’s middle-aged daughter and granddaughter. Later, she sits on a park bench in the USA where mothers with babies in prams stop momentarily, ignoring Mary while one conducts brash phone conversations with a pharmacist and friend, while another complains about her loneliness. In a final scenario, Mary is running a trauma drill for new nurses, trying to heard a group of actors into performing their various roles in the aftermath of a terrorist incident.

They are connected by the cast performing similar character types and by the themes of motherhood and caregiving. There are also dialogue links between these situations with particular phrases uttered in earlier scenes returning later as individuals demand care, compassion or understanding, building to a frenzy of experience as Mary’s time in the Crimea becomes somehow bound-up with all of the people she has met and been throughout the play. And as the walls of time give way, allowing these shadows to bleed into her era and pick through the rubble, they overwhelm her with their demands for help.

And through this, Sibblies Drury weaves a broken connection with Mary’s ghostly mother, a lurking, spiritual presence that is always so strong in Carribean identity, who silently moves through the action, perhaps a yardstick for Mary to test her achievements against or a reminder that however far she travels she remains a Kingston woman. A lengthy monologue from this maternal ghost in the final scene speaks to these ideas, something of the shame Mary felt or disconnection from a parent who sent her away to care for a local white woman, but simultaneously reminding our heroine and all the Marys like her that their nursing efforts are in vain. There are nods to the government’s Windrush generation deportation plans to insist they will never be truly accepted and certainly never thanked for their work in the current NHS or contribution to wider social development in the last 70-years.

Sibblies Drury is telling an individual and a universal story at the same time, and there are powerful statements interwoven here, but together the seeming randomness of these various scenarios puzzles more than they explain or converge. The ideas are clear and the performative structures Sibblies Drury employs to tease out these concepts are certainly arresting, yet their overall meaning feels hazy. They are not quite straightforwardly dramatic yet also not impressionistic or representative enough to be either personally or politically pointed. The result is a piece that feels quite consciously stagey, keeping the audience on the outside of the drama and the emotive concerns it tries to address.

It is possible to see the influence of Carly Churchill and Sarah Kane in Sibblies Drury’s play, the combination of abrupt, anti-realist settings, the compression of time and historical figures into a single space as well as the interest in gender roles, motherhood and even the anthological style link to these two powerhouse political writers. Yet Marys Seacole doesn’t find quite enough strength in its connections, the joins between the various situations not yet strong enough to either grab the audience or push them to a place of discomfort where new thinking is possible. Instead, it feels as though most of the pieces are there but they just don’t fit together.

In staging Marys Seacole, Nadia Latif implies a simple but clinical medical field tent in a drab scrubs-green that sits somewhere between khaki and mint. Designed by Tom Scutt, there are two layers to the stage, front and back, divided by a strip of curtain with large Velcro pockets that double as storage rooms and sanitation facilities. Props are minimal which allows the story to travel relatively easily though time but there is no particular purity about period setting so anachronistic clothing or items (such as a nineteenth-century woman in trainers) appear throughout, although whether that is a deliberate statement to reinforce the fluidity of eras or a practical shortcut for costume changes is unclear.

There is however a powerful use of costume early on as the Victorian Mary delivering her opening biographical monologue is disrobed piecemeal by her daughter, removing the restrictive bodice and full skirt to reveal a modern nurses uniform. As a piece of identity performance, it is a fascinating moment, smartly easing our way into the next scene while simultaneously giving the audience a visual reference point for the core themes of Marys Seacole, as the narrative moves through and applies across time. And one of the production’s biggest successes is the way in which Scutt has represented changes in practice, dress and the management of conflict medicine through the design choices and reveals.

A contemporary hospital bed becomes an important and ingenious symbol of the Marys caregiving status. Initially used in the family scene in its original form, the bed transforms into a flat table with bench seating for Mary’s Kingston hotel and, later, into a park bench for the American moms encounter. Yet, there is inconsistency in how props are changed or moved within the production, sometimes actors bringing on their own items in relevant costume while the bed is repositioned and reformed by very visible stage managers in jarring modern black outfits and headsets, a necessity perhaps but it further breaks the illusion of the play and, like the undecided degree of abstract in the piece itself, it’s not clear what effect Latif is aiming for. There isn’t quite enough of this alienation technique to feel deliberate and if it isn’t then it just makes it even harder to maintain the spell during scene changes.

The production builds to a final confrontational scene that also tries to be symbolic and realistic at the same time. Finally, at the culmination of Mary’s story, there is some comedy in the brusque exchanges with a seemingly heartless and condescendingly competitive Florence Nightingale, but the men they tend are obvious dummies scattered chaotically around the stage, their torsos dressed in military jackets, trailing crepe paper streamers suggesting intestinal and other matter. Into this interaction between real people comes the people and phrases from other eras, holding plastic baby dolls – absurdist theatre is nothing without plastic baby dolls – and rifling through the debris. Visually, it’s a solid representation of the kind of battlefield carnage that those like Henry V would have caused but it has none of the visceral impact of Max Webster’s previous production, despite using some of the same soil. What we get instead, as in other parts of Marys Seacole, is powerful stage pictures but little translation of their meaning.

The performances are very good with a small ensemble cast of just six performers led by Kayla Meikle as the Marys. She is commanding from the first, delivering a rousing insistence of her worth, certain of her agency and importance, refusing to listen to the objections of others and pursuing her own course. Meikle explores some of the consequences of that determination in the final scene, responding to the maternal ghost’s warning of incipient racism, disinterest and betrayal, allowing her characterisation to crumble as the demanding world claws at her.

Meikle is supported by Llewella Gideon as that spirit who also delivers an final intense speech with bitterness and resignation, making the most of her only chance to speak. Olivia Williams is best as a haughty Florence Nightingale but is also given a harassed mother and simpering tourist in Kingston while Deja J. Bowens, Esther Smith and Susan Woolridge complete the cast as a series of mother and daughter figures at different stages of life, in various times and countries. They do a lot with a small ensemble, changing scenes rapidly to keep this relatively short show moving quickly even if very little of it makes sense.

Like the award-winning Fairview before it (staged at the Young Vic), Marys Seacole will certainly divide audiences with its sprawling approach and indecisive tone. It is certainly interesting to see a new play that tries to place a historical figure in a broader context of caregiving and racial injustice, particularly one devised and presented by a predominantly female creative team. But although Sibblies Drury’s play has lots of things to say and some interesting ways to say them, it can’t quite decide what it wants to be, leaving the audience equally baffled.

Marys Seacole is at the Donmar Warehouse until 4 June with tickets from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Henry V – Donmar Warehouse

Henry V is the greatest war play ever written and is the template for all literary responses to conflict since produced. It is the perfect mix of diplomacy gone wrong, of kings and princes vying for conquest, of the burden of leadership and the price of betray. Shakespeare’s play is an exploration of causes and consequences of war, of heritage and dynasty, of honour and glory in the field while being honest about the violence and havoc it causes to civilians, their homes and the landscape. But most of all, Henry V is a play about how war affects all social classes within the army, from the fears and questions of conscience that afflict the boys and private soldiers at the bottom through the commanders and to the man who made it all happen who in one person represents both the terrible and the human face of war.

And its influence is inestimable. It is impossible to avoid the direct connection between Wilfred Owen’s vivid descriptions expressed in the evocative vocabulary of damage and destruction in his First World War poetry and the haunting scene-setting of the Chorus on the night before Agincourt as the ‘creeping murmur and the pouring dark’ descend like a cloak of gloomy anticipation over the English soldiers. And that opportunity to contemplate the soul as men await the terrible events ahead, common to the representation of conflict in popular culture, begins with Henry V and that all-too-recognisable concern about a just war.

Max Webster’s new production for the Donmar Warehouse, set in modern dress, understands the wide-ranging themes of Shakespeare’s play and, across a very swift three hours, triumphantly balances the unstoppable march to war with character development and some of the playwright’s richest verses filled with potent symbolism and stark imagery. Staged on tiered golden steps that become increasingly tarnished by the bloody business of fighting, Webster’s show is a powerful experience, filling the gaps between Shakespeare’s words by providing just enough context to bring the play to life and on the audiences’ ‘imaginary forces work.’

It opens with lights up as Millicent Wong’s Chorus beseeches the viewer to suspend their disbelief and pretend events are really happening before us, a feat that proves easy to achieve as Webster’s production ensues with a thriller-like pace which barely slackens. The first piece of context comes almost immediately with the addition of a scene from Henry IV – Part II in which the drunken Prince Hal carouses with his friends at a nightclub before hearing of the death of his father and leaving his lowly pals for good. It’s a trick Kenneth Branagh employed in his 1989 film version to quickly provide backstory in what is here a standalone play, allowing anyone unfamiliar with the earlier works to instantly understand some of the decisions the new King Henry V will shortly make about his former compatriots.

Important innovations include the decision to play all of the court scenes where no English characters are present in French with subtitle boards providing a translation. It is an insightful choice, one the really underlines the ‘otherness’ of the enemy here while bringing extra credibility to the scenes in which Catherine learns English – during a boxercise session – and in which the awkward lovers attempt to communicate in the broken phraseology of each other’s native tongue. Andrew T. Mackay’s choral and operatic score is also superbly atmospheric and integral to the story, working with the modern conflict design to make it feel as epic and grandiose as Shakespeare’s text while also providing a haunting bass note that opens up the emotional impact of the battle scenes.

Webster also makes swift work of the complex speech in which Jude Akuwudike’s Bishop explains the Salic law that validates Henry’s claim to France. Presented as a (slightly fancier) PowerPoint presentation, this crucial contextual information that justifies military action is shown in family trees and maps that skip along without weighing down the energy of this early part of the play. The extent to which the King of England is right is immediately muddied by the entrance of the Dauphin’s messenger with the infamous tennis balls and, clearly here in the Donmar’s production, Henry’s perhaps impetuous decision-making haunts him and his army for the rest of the play.

Shakespeare largely sets battle scenes off stage so how much time should be given over to recreating some of that action can be difficult for a production to pitch. Here, Webster’s choices emerge from a close reading of the text and the sequence of events within the two major confrontations with French forces. Shakespeare puts the audience in the middle of the action at Harfleur as Henry whips his men into a frenzy as they advance ‘once more unto the breech’. Fly Davis creates a gantry that lowers into place amid the frenzy of smoke, low light and bodies pouring through a gap in the rear wall to emphasise this key moment in which the newly inspired English regroup. But Webster retains most of the impact of these techniques for Agincourt itself and a longer sequence of warplay.

Shakespeare structures this pivotal battle in waves of action interspersed with discussions and discoveries that tell the audience how the fighting unfolds, creating greater drama and suspense as the audience wait to see who will win. Benoit Swan Pouffer creates some tight but evocative movement pieces as actors dressed in flak jackets with guns move in formations around the space to indicate the different stages of the chaotic and immersive battle. It never looks like dance but it is precisely coordinated, reinforcing the prestige of the English tactics in the creation of a distinctly stylistic but nonetheless physical encounter between the opponents.

Scene setting established, Webster’s greatest achievement is to fully excavate the complex and changing dimensions of the King’s character, and while earlier interpretations may have emphasised his unimpeachable glory and heroism, Webster’s show mines Shakespeare’s actually rather ambiguous hero to create a far more satisfying and ultimately tarnished novice monarch desperately trying to assume a mantle of kingship that fits perhaps more easily than he would like to admit.

The character of Henry and his true motivation is one of the play’s biggest mysteries. We fully believe he has thrown-off his youthful ardour for a more sober, responsible form of kingship yet Shakespeare presents a protagonist whose moral compass allows him to be deeply merciful when he needs to be but also phenomenally cold, even cruel when required. At Harfleur he talks the governor into surrendering by threatening rape and pillage if the town fails to concede, passing the fault and blame for that course of action onto the Frenchman. Later, he swiftly calls for the brutal death of an old friend accused of stealing, insisting on a contrasting moral code in which civilians and their property should remain unharmed. Is Henry willing to carry out his threats or, is he merely posturing and politicking for effect – and is either a credible quality?

We see the same swift sense of justice when he discovers the murder of the boys guarding the baggage train at Agincourt – an act that defies the protocols of war – prompting a shocking response that even his own men argue is not only ethically wrong but disproportionate. His subsequent ‘rough wooing’ of Princess Catherine is equally ambiguous, taking on a demanding entitlement which begins as inept soldierly love but becomes something far more toxic. Suddenly, Henry’s response to the disrespectful gift of tennis balls in Act One that questions his kingship may not be quite so clear cut. Is he a merciful or merciless man or something in between.

Unlike other Shakespearean protagonists, crucially, Henry is given almost no opportunity to account for himself or commune with his soul alone on stage. For three acts, the audience sees Henry only in the company of others or by their report, so while Hamlet and even the murderous Macbeth have unpacked their hearts and troubles over and over by the equivalent points in their own stories, Henry has been remarkably silent. Only on the eve of Agincourt is he given one lone soliloquy in which to explore his conscience and reflect on what it means to be a man and the burden of kingship when so many lives rest entirely in his hands. And even here, Shakespeare has primed the audience to once again question the legitimacy of his war through one of the private soldiers he speaks to before this singular moment of self-reflection. The next time we see Henry, he delivers the famous Saint Crispin’s Day speech and he never considers his actions again.

Forget Jon Snow or his earlier theatre work because this is easily Kit Harrington’s finest career performance on stage or screen with a deep and nuanced understanding of these complexities in Henry’s personality and presentation. Harrington is an incredibly controlled Henry (and certainly Harry no longer), calmly and coldly appraising situations before striking a fatal blow with a quiet but distinct menace. There is a deep rage in this Henry that is largely held in check yet in delivering the political speeches and negotiations with the French messenger, with the unseen Governor of Harfleur and even with Catherine, Harrington has a panther-like vocal style, a slow, directed speech pattern that is fluently conversational with the verse while finding all of the imagery and beauty in the text. He delivers demands initially as pleasant and reasoned requests before becoming short-tempered, building to a firmer, formidable insistence in even love.

As a character, Henry appears only in moments across the first three Acts and Harrington is a commanding presence both in the battle scenes where he delivers all the famous speeches with just the right degree of rousing purpose and in political discussions where he seems quite at ease with his public decision-making authority. Yet, Harrington gives his Henry greater depth, the odd look that suggests he is a man struggling with the precepts of duty and responsibility, deeply concerned about his religious and social obligations and wanting to be seen to do the right thing even as he must subdue flickers of personal pain. Delivering that one truly introspective speech, Harrington is extremely good, holding the room entirely alone for the first time and showing his Henry as a man evolving, almost building a carapace around himself as the story unfolds, so while he may feel as keenly as an ordinary citizen, the experience of war and the needs of ceremony harden him forever.

The small supporting cast is very fine playing multiple bilingual gender-blind roles with distinction and providing the soundtrack. Akuwudike is a grand French King eventually humbled by defeat while Oliver Huband is excellent as his entirely objectionable and swaggering Dauphin. Anoushka Lucas gives Catherine more purpose and depth than often seen, while Danny Kirran as Pistol, Melissa Johns as Mistress Quickly, Claire-Louise Cauldwell as Bardolph and Steven Meo as Fluellen make the comedy characters far more integral to the singular direction of the story and less distracting than they can be.

More than a collection of electrifying speeches about Englishness (despite its Irish and Welsh characters in the army), this production really digs deep into Shakespeare’s beautiful verses to link the motivation for and experience of conflict to a very meaningful character study of a monarch we never quite read. A story of leadership and transformation, Henry V is the greatest of war plays and Max Webster’s production really does it justice.

Henry V is at the Donmar Warehouse until 9 April with tickets from £10. The play will be broadcast via NT Live on 21 April. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Force Majeure – Donmar Warehouse

Force Majeure - Donmar Warehouse (by Marc Brenner)

Force Majeure, a random act of God that cannot be predicted or measured that entirely disrupts planned activity, something we can all appreciate a little better in the past two years, certainly as force majeure has caused significant delay to Tim Price’s play of the same name. Originally scheduled for 2020, Covid struck again in late 2021 when the production was forced to close because company members tested positive and had to isolate, cancelling the show’s original Press Night. Returning to the stage between Christmas and New Year, not even a random act of God can save this slightly underwhelming production whose staging choices place spectacle over narrative purpose and audience engagement.

Based on a two hour movie by Ruben Östlund, the play Force Majeure brings across some interesting themes about human behaviour under extreme pressure and, in the wake of natural disasters, begins a philosophical debate about the ‘correct’ instinctual response when something goes unexpectedly wrong. When father of two Tomas abandons his family and is seen running away from an avalanche at an exclusive ski resort, it sets in motion a chain of events that affect his marriage and the opinion of his children and friends.

Across 2.5 hours, Force Majeure unpicks Tomas’s instinctive response and the consequences, mixing fraught family drama with this more abstract discussion of nature, the protective instinct and the ‘right’ response when making a split-second decision. So far, so interesting, but Price’s adaptation instead becomes overly repetitive with the central family having several versions of the same conversation with each other and then with their late-arriving pals who miss the main event. While we get a sense of Tomas’s actions as an emotional turning point that no one can let go, it makes for stodgy drama as the plot stalls with even a major pre-interval revelation leaving the audience wondering what could be left to say in the final hour.

Part of the problem is a series of short scenes that work fine in the cinema where quick cutaways create drive and direction but in the theatre require clunky scene changes to take the characters to new locations without developing the depth of perspective that makes you care about the individuals or properly pushes them to explore and justify their behaviours. In adapting the film, Price also takes each scene round in circles, having individuals say the same thing several times or carry on a particular joke a beat too long, making the plot feel overly laboured while sacrificing any serious development for the central family.

This static drama is very noticeable in the first half of the play where – aside from an energetic opener and the drama of the avalanche careering towards the trapped family – over an hour of subsequent talking is taken up almost exclusively by the question of whether father Tomas ran away from rather than seeking to protect his wife and kids. And the characters have multiple versions of the same discussion for the rest of the play – Tomas denying it and claiming Ebba’s perception of the event is misconstrued, Ebba equally adamant about what she saw. They talk about it as family, the couple argue about it when they are alone and they talk to strangers as well as friend Mats and his girlfriend Jenny, going over and over and over the same ground with neither yielding. By the time the interval arrives, it is increasingly difficult to care about this fractious family and their endless, somewhat stagey, arguments.

Price also begins Act Two in a similar fashion with Mats and new, much younger girlfriend Jenny debating the same issue as they take sides resulting in judgements about their own personalities. It is a scene intended to be comic as Mats agonises about the reflections on his character and late-night refusal to drop it and go to sleep. Their mutual exasperation is funny to a point but several minutes into the scene, the repeated scenario becomes tiresome, willing them to go to bed so we and the play (with another hour to run) can move on.

What we never get is a proper sense of why these people behave as they do and the pre-existing context that might make their reactions more explicable. Information is relatively basic, Tomas and Ebba’s marriage was already on the rocks, Mats had left his first wife and is now dating Jenny who is blithely and unquestioningly accepted despite being 20-years his junior, while Tomas and Ebba’s son implies some form of behavioural issue that requires careful management and intense parental attention, yet none of this is fully explored within the play and in asking the viewer to just accept the circumstances without deeper consideration misses an opportunity to ground the collective hysteria and avoidance of the truth in a much wider story about relationships, family and work pressure that has created a deep fissure waiting for almost any excuse to give way – the aftermath of the avalanche becoming a proxy for the true cause of and excuse for disharmony.

The single-issue focus of the story creates a feeling of dislocation between character and drama, so while Force Majeure builds to a moment of self-realisation and a consequential clearing of the decks, it is difficult to feel emotionally invested in the individuals in any meaningful way. That is partly a question of staging but also of tone, and Michael Longhurst is never quite sure if he is directing a comedy or a drama, eliciting laughs in some of the play’s more incisive moments. Like The Boss of It All and Another Round, Scandinavian dramas often have a particular blackly comic style that mixes irreverence with an oddball quality that allows a tragi-comic feel to emerge, and throughout Force Majeure there is a sense that a similar piece is trying to escape but the show is yet to find that balance, lost in the overwritten nature of the scenes and the slightly choppy drama that prevents any momentum from growing.

This is further exacerbated by the Donmar’s peculiar staging decision, building a ski slope that allows for a couple of very stylish moments as supporting cast members project themselves diagonally down the stage, but with the whole design facing forward, it loses opportunities to play to the wraparound-style auditorium particularly when the vast majority of scenes are based in bars, hotel rooms and cafes that are not on the mountain at all. The Donmar is a rare venue with no truly restricted views – there are side views in both the Stalls and Circle that sometimes put the audience’s eyeline behind the actors for a time, but all seats are close to the stage with clear, unobstructed sightlines.

So, in a venue with three sides and an apron stage, it seems ludicrous to build a piece of staging that creates quite severely restricted views for anyone sitting in the side Stalls (usually some of the best seats). Yet designer Jon Bausor has created a slope that increases in gradient towards the back of the stage meaning these audience members are unable to see the stage floor, can barely see the actors when they are sitting on the slope itself, often have views obscured by furniture or other actors blocking their colleagues and spend most of the action staring at the sides of a furry ramp. Only the straight-on Stalls seats will see a full view. Stylish it may be, memorable certainly and prices have been reduced accordingly but these choices do very little to enhance the experience of the play or particularly reflect its locations and context.

It is notable how often audience experience is sacrificed to design and directorial preference, and with the top critics usually given the most advantageous (and ergo most expensive) seats, the problems of restricted view seating has been given very little profile. In older theatre buildings, the curvature of the room and the existence of pillars just cannot be avoided, yet theatremakers rarely sit in these seats to watch their own show from these unusual angles – it might alter their choices if they did. Someone spending £10 on a ticket doesn’t love or understanding theatre any less that someone spending £70 nor do they necessarily prefer a vertiginous view of a far away story, it is an economic decision based on affordability and it shouldn’t mean their enjoyment or ability to see a show is any less worthy. Venues could do more to reasonably accommodate the known restrictions, for example by not setting too many scenes at the sides of the stage – particularly now when £70 may only get you a seat in the balcony in some places.

To purposefully create viewing limitations in an otherwise intimate theatre is baffling, and Force Majeure suffers from forcing a proscenium arch design that plays in only one direction into a three-sided auditorium that cuts visibility for a quarter of its audience. There is very little benefit to these staging choices and while the cross-ramp skiing is impressive and unusual, there must have been multiple other possibilities for a story set largely indoors. For once the Circle is probably the best place to see this production and even the £10 seats here will offer a superior experience to the side Stalls.

Among the performances, Rory Kinnear and Lyndsey Marshall are always worth seeing and while their characters offer relatively little substance, the actors find the emotional depths of Ebba’s blind fury and disgust with her husband that Marshall subtly suggests gives her the excuse she needs to finally leave while Kinnear’s blank effrontery is both wounded and embarrassed, sometimes hiding a deeper purpose and half believing his own nonsense. Sule Rimi as Mats and the excellent Siena Kelly, fresh from her triumphant Maggie in ETT’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, add some much needed relief from the claustrophobic family drama, offering convincing depth in their comedy side roles.

Nonetheless, Force Majeure feels like a missed opportunity for a tighter, more philosophical drama about different forms of self-preservation in the face of natural disasters and how these are conditioned by the fears or phobias we carry around with us. We all wear masks everyday, desperate to hide our weaknesses and foibles from others, and it is only in these moments of great crisis that they fall away and a raw nature is revealed. That tight character study was the focus Force Majeure really needed and, in staging this play, remembering that the audience experience should matter, whatever you’ve paid for your ticket.

Force Majeure is at the Donmar Warehouse until 5 February with tickets from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

ASSEMBLY – Donmar Local

ASSEMBLY - Donmar Warehouse

While many productions have been postponed in the last year, the effect on community theatre has probably been least discussed with the inability to gather in groups having a major impact on the outreach and engagement programmes of theatres across the country. Several of the London venues have reputed community projects working with groups who live and work in the vicinity of the theatre or in one of its partnership institutions. The National Theatre’s Public Acts initiative has brought well-received interpretations of Shakespeare and Brecht to its main stages, the Almeida Theatre has a number of community response projects that engage with its main shows while the Donmar Warehouse was due to launch its first Donmar Local production before the pandemic which was instead premiered as an online production on Saturday.

Written by Nina Segal and directed by Joseph Hancock, ASSEMBLY is a 70-minute production created with residents and workers in the boroughs of Camden and Westminster considering what a future might look like and the limits of human endeavour. Streamed from 16 UK locations, this inaugural play mixes a semi-dystopian style with an increasingly surreal, fantasy approach to consider the impact of climate change, the difficulties of consensus decision-making and the fallacy that the future is something that can be controlled.

The Play

Segal’s increasingly strange story begins with the appointment of a Citizens Assembly given a remit to decide what comes next, to design an unlimited vision for the future together as chosen representatives of humanity – their first democratically agreed act being to adjourn the meeting until everyone is individually furnished with a cup of tea and a biscuit or toast, a humorous observation about people’s priorities that becomes characteristic of ASSEMBLY’s observational and surrealist comedy. The split screen effect employed to show various cups of tea and coffee being made and custard cream packets being opened adds nicely to the effect.

As the ten contributors begin to debate what to keep with suggestions raging from houses and paths to marmalade and disco balls, Segal’s concept seems focused on the silliness and triviality of human thinking. Yet, the frame nods to plays like Kafka’s The Trial and Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People which focus on the attempt to fit complex and varied humanity into inflexible institutional processes, where characters attempt to work within or fight against a system that will ultimately consume or overtake them. These early scenes in ASSEMBLY have some of that same quality as people with opposing perspectives try and fail to see beyond the here and now to conceive an entirely different world, and instead are draw to the familiar.

It leads to some interesting early debates which the play addresses in a slightly haphazard way as characters question whether existing structures and basic requirements for food and shelter will be the same in the future, wonder what is so wrong with the present and think about the nature of utopia and whether it should be an aspirational ideal for their task. There are also questions about the implementation of this future, whether it can be achieved bloodlessly, without some form of revolution and whether the group should approach the design from the perspective of what to include or what to leave out.

The inability to think beyond the status quo and create radical alternative solutions is a common failing in change management projects where sweeping away every structure, working practice and system is often inconceivable to those who have worked within them. So these are really engaging scenes which Segal’s show could think about more broadly and potentially expand in a future iteration that could explore the failings of humanity and its limited scope for genuine innovation when given a blank piece of paper.

The second half of ASSEMBLY is far stranger and from the point at which a blood-stained polar bear joins the meeting as a ‘citizen’ the show never quite regains its equilibrium as Segal heads in a different direction entirely, creating a Creatures Assembly that includes natural resources such as a glacier, a heatwave and the wind, with mice, a bee and a plant who consort to disrupt the increasingly fraught human meeting and occupy the building themselves. This new cataclysmic strain is more straightforward in its comment on the effect of climate change where the angry interactions between different elements focuses on melting, flooding and burning as the inevitable outcomes of the future.

While these sections feel a little unfocused and may be harder to follow depending on how jaunty or surreal you like your theatre, they usefully note that there is more than just a human future at stake which requires broader input and consideration. But the play is joined together by a strand of Future News which neatly satirises the media’s approach to disaster reporting with few positives, while the reporter creates on air conflict between phone-in guests by encouraging inflammatory opinions and extremism, later broadcasting from a warzone as a natural disaster sweeps through the future.

A conclusion involving a polar bear baby, the universe and a lingering sense of ambiguity is partially satisfying and a little wistful. ASSEMBLY could, however, return to some of those early questions about the inevitability of violence, the existential comfort of utopian ideals and the failure of democratic consensus more clearly to reinforce the ending by joining up the seemingly fruitless attempt to impose ‘order’ on the process of creating a future in the early scenes with the limited power and grand naivety of humanity to control nature and fate.

Production Approach

It has been noted many times how progressive digital theatre has become in the last few months, moving away from the limited Zoom box visual to create more integrated backdrops, visual fluidity and immersion in the story to try to overcome the distance between performers and viewers. For ASSEMBLY, director Hancock employs some interesting techniques to give the film a colourful and memorably heightened style, building on the split screen idea used in the tea-making interlude to include hotspots through which characters can speak, integrating graphics and animation and using costume to create a consistency and distinction that is full of craft.

Cardboard is designer Frankie Bradshaw’s material of choice used to convey basic instructions to the audience with chapter headings drawn in marker pen that signal the changing nature of the assembly, but it is also employed in a more sophisticated design with a small city created entirely from cardboard comprising the main classically-designed town hall with Corinthian columns, a rising motorway covered in cars, high rise buildings, factories and a giant antenna. It is a beautiful piece of model-making to neatly represent the impending destruction of existing institutions and structures.

This versatile material is equally integral to Bradshaw’s vivid costumes which dominate the second half of the show as natural elements, creatures and astral objects become the focus. Much work has clearly gone into the creation of headdresses and hats that help to personify these creations including an excellent sunflower shaped structure with yellow petals and leaves that fit around the face of the actor in the centre, a white cloud headpiece with vivid blue raindrops suspended from its edges and a fiery orange wig for the heatwave. Bradshaw’s work on the planets is equally impressive with a fascinator made of planet rings containing a wire solar system, a silver, sleepy crescent moon and a bright, dominant sun.

It is the creativity and visual style of ASSEMBLY that really impresses, placing these cleverly representative costumes in Andrzej Goulding’s video settings to suggest the starry night sky or the swirling winds of a tornedo when the glacier, wind and heatwave get too close. Characters are also placed around the screen in different patterns, seen through what seem to be burn-holes in the atmosphere while Bradshaw’s town model is shown either in the centre of the screen or in the corner, the Assembly Hall always the focus of the characters.

Hancock controls all of these elements with skill, capturing the changing tones in Segal’s story as the plainer Citizen’s Assembly sections evolve into the colourful convention of creatures and eventually to the destruction of the known world represented in darker tones with orange light, smoke effects and a calming white and purple tone at the conclusion. That visually the show evolves consistently and finds a storytelling advantage in its new digital setting is one of ASSEMBLY‘s most enjoyable aspects, leaving the audience to wonder if it could have been staged as well in person.

The Company

ASSEMBLY has a large company playing the ten original members of the Citizen Assembly and the mysterious convener as well as doubling later as representatives of the natural world and wider solar system. Each commits to their performances despite having rehearsed online and having to give their first live show via YouTube. Actors Angie Lieu, Brian McGinnis, David Cunningham, Jenneba Sie-Jalloh, Josiah Phoenix, Karen Walkden, Martin Fisher, Michael Turney, Patrick Burrows, Paul Ringo, Pen Riley, Rita Barry, Sadhbha Odufuwa-Bolger, Stephen Rooney, Ubah Egal, Victoria Valcheva and Youyangg Song are particularly effective in the early scenes where they fail to design a consistent or especially radical future, capturing the difficulty of large meetings with a couple of louder voices driving the debate as conversations become increasingly fractious.

It is an area ripe for expansion where greater characterisation is possible as individuals represent their own specific small-scale interests or fail to balance the needs of an international community with their inability to conceive a vision of the future divorced from their fear of change. Each of the elements and creatures has a distinct personality from the furious glacier whose melting form creates conflict with the heatwave to the frustrated little mice whose size is ignored by the water-preserving river and wider group who want to abolish the litter that keeps them alive. It’s a strong ensemble who embrace their roles and relish their performance time.

With a couple of brief technical disruptions during the premiere, this first production from the Donmar Local company shows a lot of promise, combining an enthusiastic group of performers with a creative team eager to explore technical boundaries in the presentation of meaningful stories.

ASSEMBLY premiered on the Donmar Warehouse YouTube Channel on 20 March. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

Blindness – Donmar Warehouse

Blindness - Donmar Warehouse (by Helen Maybanks)

It has been almost five months since theatres closed their doors and many of us will remember distinctly the last show we saw live (the wonderful Peace in Our Time at the Union Theatre). Our first post-lockdown experience will be just as memorable and even a tiny bit emotional, returning to the spaces where we have spent  so many happy and fulfilling hours absorbing lives, stories and experiences that take us beyond our own singular view of the world. And while the mechanics of live indoor performances are still being considered or on indefinite hiatus, first out of the blocks with a fascinating audio experience is the Donmar Warehouse and it is so good to be back!

Radio dramas and auditory experiences have become increasingly popular, the rise in audio books, podcasts and staged readings require audiences to use their imagination to envisage scenes and characters. Recently, the Almeida premiered a new Climate Change-focused radio play by Ben Weatherill at its digital Shifting Tides festival while Bertie Carvel’s Lockdown Theatre Festival on Radio 3 and 4 repurposed new plays suddenly truncated by theatre closures. This feels like a new avenue for drama.

But when Shakespeare asked the audience to pretend the ‘vasty fields of France’ were contained within the ‘wooden O’ of his performance space during the prologue to Henry V there was a tacit acknowledgement that the cast and crew of the theatre can only create so much illusion, everything else rests in the minds of the viewer. And sound design has had an increasingly sophisticated role to play in prompting that imagination in recent years, not only providing a cinematic emotional barometer but also helping to reposition the visual experience by altering what the audience can hear.

One of the most interesting examples of this was Ella Hickson’s Anna at the National Theatre in 2019, a fascinating 60-minute play set during the cold war in which the headphone-wearing audience listened-in to the sounds of a Russian flat in the 1960s. Visually, it was just a living room filled with party guests but we heard private exchanges, activities and frustrations occurring behind the scenes, essentially spying on Anna’s flat which, unbeknownst to her guests, made the audience intimately aware of every offstage rustle of fabric or jagged breath that the eye was unable to see. The masterminds behind this intricate work were Ben and Max Ringham, sound-scaping experts whose design has formed the backdrop to more shows than you may realise and whose work is now firmly in the spotlight.

Blindness is their masterpiece, a 70-minute performance that layers story, sound effects, music and lighting design to immerse the audience in a pandemic experience. Adapted from Jose Saramago’s novel by Simon Stephens, the intimacy of this work is created by the Ringhams who transport you to the middle of a global crisis while using a range of audio techniques, pitches and effects to play with your emotional experience. There are no actors in the room with you but the Donmar’s extraordinary show is as vivid as anything you saw on stage five months ago.

In essence, the show explores the apocalyptic nature of pandemic literature and the dystopian tropes we have come to expect from these stories. The shift from ordinary life to societal breakdown is a recognisable trajectory passing through stages of confusion, denial, panic and the development of a semi-feral state of existence. And whether the source material is a J.G. Ballard novel such as High Rise or H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds, the fragility of human societies and how rapidly the veneer of civilisation is defeated by baser impulses to eat, drink and reproduce is a key theme. Within these ideas, writers explore concepts of leadership, brutality, shame and factionalism as tribes form and compete in a survival of the fittest scenario that tries to determine who lives and dies in the new world.

Using Saramago’s novel as a basis, Stephens’s play charts a similar path as the infectious removal of sight spreads without reason from a single victim to the entire population. The descriptions of people’s last moments of vision are eclectic and vivid, from car thieves to lovers to doctors as the white blindness afflicts indiscriminately with only one character inexplicably unaffected and able to coordinate the ensuing battle for survival.  Naturally, daily life disintegrates as Stephens envisages barricaded settlements, a hand-to-mouth existence and brutal encounters with rival clans all of which play out in your mind as you listen to the waves of carnage unfold and recede in fearful isolation.

Blindness is distinguished by having a single narrator and lead character that guides the audience through this journey. Recounted by the Doctor’s Wife, there are reflective passages in which events are described in retrospect from an unspecified future time using an ultimate end point  to give context and drive to the story, while much of the central section is re-enacted, unfolding in real time segments with you acting as a silent character. It is extremely effective, just long enough at 70-minutes not to overuse the device while creating both perspective and a chilling intimacy as you imagine events unfolding around you.

The genius is how sound is then used to fool your brain into believing locational information and using the intimacy of audio techniques to generate very specific emotional responses as the story unfolds. Recorded using a  binaural microphone to create a three-dimensional effect, this changes the perspective from which the sound is heard as footsteps recede in a particular direction or the panicked voice of the Doctor’s Wife comes from different angles. Sitting in the dark, it seems almost that she is standing behind you or, as the sounds moves expertly from one side of your headphones to the other, the skilled combination of voice, movement and the rustle of clothing suggest she is circling you. When she crouches low to whisper quietly and intensely in your ear, it becomes an experience so intimate and invasive that you may feel chills down your back as though she really were at your shoulder.

Supporting sounds begin quietly, a hint of traffic noise and the low thrum of a city, the intense and relentless pulse-like beat that underscores so much drama these days or the occasional specific sound effect that changes location from individual houses to doctor’s surgeries and the echoed abandonment of the buildings of the future. But the way in which the pattern of sound builds during the piece is almost symphonic, crescendos rise and fall in line with the drama, layering intricate sequences of noise that transport the listener entirely into the action, particularly the growing frenzy of the hospital eventually filled with infected patients, reverberating and dangerous, the sounds of metal beds, anguish, fire and confrontation clashing purposefully as tensions rise and the once supportive community fractures irreparably.

And while this show is understandable all about sound, the key to unlocking this drama and your imagination comes from the way presence and absence of your own sight is used very specifically in the production to create the experience of the character you become. Jessica Hung Han Yun’s lighting design is both a fun extra as the ushers guide you to a colourfully illuminate seat, and an integral element of the overall immersive quality of the experience. Over your head, the air is dressed with strip lights positioned in horizontal and vertical shapes that pulse with coloured light at crucial points in the show indicating changes of tone, beat and character experience while offering momentary crackles of hope – when these descend to almost eye-level the tenor of the piece changes completely.

This is a show primarily, then, about absolute darkness into which the audience is plunged for much of the show. At first it is unnerving, a complete blackout in which you can only hear events seemingly unfolding around you and, much like the afflicted characters, your brain cannot draw comfort from fellow audience members to remind your where you are. It is overwhelming initially and, with the stifling quality of face masks on a very hot day, creates a brief sensation of panic until you (fairly quickly) adjust to the prolonged darkness and momentary flickers of sight within the remaining portion of the show.

This combination of sound and absence of light is well achieved in a fascinating experiment that increasingly cheats your brain into reacting to the event as though you were a silent participant in the unfolding chaos. All of this is pinned convincingly together by Stephens’s adaptation that distills the wider cast and scope of Saramago’s novel into essentially a one-woman show through whose eyes – as the only person with sight – the audience hears the story evolve. Stephens’s achievement is not to dramatise every moment but to build a picture of infection and societal decline through fragments of narrative that develop chronologically. As tensions rise, he utilises quick cuts between increasingly dangerous scenarios and moments of temporary lull to reinforce the ongoing strain as future attacks are anticipated. Smartly, it offers the audience a flavour of the boiling discontent, turf wars and horrifying violence resulting from the renunciation of humanity without being overly prescriptive, a prompt to your imagination that fills in the rest for itself.

Juliet Stevenson as narrator and lead character helps to pin the combined influences of story and design together, giving both a perspective of calm reflection told from a future point of safety while slowly developing the anxiety of disintegration as months or perhaps years elapse. The orderly sensibility of the Doctor’s Wife turns gradually to something stronger as authority develops not just through having sight but a clear sense of purpose or duty to help the little band of the afflicted that she collects. When more desperate times emerge later in the story, Stevenson’s character graduates to darker territory, finding reserves of menace and a preparedness to do whatever it takes as protector and captain. And while rage, frustration and violence erupt from her prolonged state of weary management, she remains kind and attentive to you as her husband – and interesting to see a rounded female lead in the mold of other sci-fi heroines with agency and narrative force.

This is a great first step back to full performance for the Donmar Warehouse and the various safety measures are managed with extreme care by the front of house staff, allowing 40-50 people to experience the performance four times a day. Whether we are still at the beginning, middle or end of our own pandemic remains to be seen but there is hope both in Stephens’s play and in just being able to open this theatre at all. And it is so wonderful to be back. Lizzie Clachan may have slightly reconfigured this beloved room where so many wonderful stories have been told in recent years – Teenage Dick, Far Away, Measure for Measure, Coriolanus, Sweat and Les Liaisons Dangereuses among them – but the unusual and evocative Blindness is a memorable first post-lockdown theatre experience and will help the Donmar find its way back to the light.

Blindness is at the Donmar Warehouse until 22 August with tickets from £17.50. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

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