Tag Archives: Janie Dee

The Meaning of Zong and Afterplay – BBC Sounds

The Meaning of Zong - Bristol Old Vic

With light at the end of the tunnel for live performance and some of our biggest institutions announcing summer programmes at their venues, the BBC’s new Lights Up Festival has arrived at a moment of optimism, not just acting as a reminder of all the talented people and great work under threat from sustained closure but of the opportunities to come. Running across several weeks in March and April on BBC television and radio showcasing talented stars and writers, Lights Up has aired its first new play developed in association with the Bristol Old Vic and the National Theatre, but that’s not the only new theatre-related work being broadcast.

The Meaning of Zong

The first of these is Giles Terera’s The Meaning of Zong, a 100-minute piece reflecting on the long legacy of slavery, politics and identity by dramatising a court case which shed light on the murder of 132 slaves thrown overboard by the crew of a British transport ship which claimed it was running out of supplies. This real event from 1781 is an attempted cover-up by the British legal system and becomes the basis for the abolition movement, asking questions about the right to own and therefore destroy another human being.

Terera’s debut play directed by Tom Morris, was originally written for the stage and will undoubtedly find one soon because this first dramatisation already feels like a very visual experience and structurally, Terera employs three related layers through which to tell his story. The Meaning of Zong is framed in a modern day bookshop as a young woman questions the location of the volume she is holding while hearing the echoing voices of her antecedents trying to connect her identity to this story. The concept of shared pain and linked experience also feeds through the play’s other layers, the first in which Olaudah Equiano who requites his given name of Gustavas Vassa pursues the case in London enlisting support to interview witnesses and locate the truth, and the second which evocatively recreates the last days on ship as the possibility of death approaches.

Where you draw the line between what is ‘other’ and what is you is central to Terera’s piece, excavating concepts of racial oppression and disenfranchisement that reflect through the centuries, while also using the central relationship between Equiano and abolitionist supporter Granville Sharp to explore ingrained concepts of difference, privilege and charity that overcome basic principles of humanity and equality. That all this plays largely as a courtroom drama is testament to Terera’s skills as a debut dramatists, using the shape and purpose of the legislative process to motor the play and give it a time-bound structure while interrogating the falsely made claims and human cost of a terrible crime reported by the English court in its dry matter of fact style.

That this presents an opportunity for dramatic climax is something Terera carefully sidesteps, using the court’s decision not as the outcome of the play but the introduction to a third Act that examines the character’s longer history and connection through the centuries to those who have come before and since, as well inculcated assumptions that even the liberal Granville struggles to recognise. In the lead role Terera uses his character to explore the Establishment’s long-held prejudices and attempts to dehumanise both victims and perpetrators in the system, most notably and all too recognisably in a scene where the eighteenth-century equivalent of the police stop the innocent Equiano and roughly manhandle him because of his skin colour – an experience that links this play to those such as Ryan Calais Cameron’s Typical with Richard Blackwood available via Soho on Demand and films including The Obituary of Tunde Johnson shown during BFI Flare 2021 and Ken Fero’s documentary Ultraviolence from October’s London Film Festival.

Terera’s performance is pivotal to the three strands of storytelling, bringing them together in the experience of Equiano whose quiet determination drives The Meaning of Zong and draws together a diverse collection of characters which includes Michael Balogun’s (Terera’s understudy who brilliantly premiered in the Death of England: Delroy) agitator and fellow theatre star Samuel West who brings concern and energy to the role of Granville whose development during the play is marked by his own contention between compassionate humanitarian ideals and the realities of structured racism.

The trapped women on the ship awaiting death are the play’s lasting memory, hauntingly and poetically played by Monronke Akinola and Gloria Obianyo which upend the formal business and language of the British courtroom with the real human experience of suffering, fear and solidarity as they approach a certain death. And here the play links to Winsomme Pinnock’s Rockets and Blue Lights that also draws on Turner’s The Slave Ship painting and premiered as an audio drama when unable to perform in Manchester.

Afterplay

Though not badged as part of the Lights Up Festival, Brian Friel’s 45-minute piece Afterplay certainly belongs in the programme as the renowned playwright makes his own radio debut with a new play celebrating the work of Anton Chekhov starring the brilliant Janie Dee and Alex Jennings who are both superb. At the end of Uncle Vanya, when Sonya says ‘we must live out our lives’ there is little hope for a young woman whose spirit has already broken, when the man she loves has made his indifference clear and the family she relies on has become fractured. The yearning and unyielding emptiness – one of Chekhov’s favourite themes – is all that awaits Sonya and her like, forever dreaming of what might of been while trapped in the hard reality of dissatisfied existence.

Friel imagines Sonya a couple of decades later when the unvarying routines of her life are shaken up by the passing of her beloved Uncle Vanya and she must take a trip to the mythical allure of Moscow to settle the family business. There by chance in the same cafe over three nights, she meets and dines with Andrey, a musician escaping the clutching hold of his family’s estate for the chance to play the violin in the capital far away from his three sisters.

Directed by Martin Jarvis, Afterplay is a duologue between Sonya and Andrey, two of Chekhov’s beleaguered but level-headed characters who were largely observers of the complicated socio-economic and political struggles that taxed their families in the famous plays set years before, and Friel uses them to explore this concept of endurance that Chekhov tackles in Uncle Vanya and Three Sisters where life’s ills should be accepted uncomplainingly with hope of creating a better future. Returning these characters to the centre of those narratives allow us to revisit and reinspect the finality that the ending of those plays artificially imposed on their lives.

These are conclusions that Chekhov forsees as repetitious, that routine and the unchanging continuation of their existence marks a return to normality after a brief period of disruption caused by the actions of the play. In both, external figures intrude on the emotional harmony of the household and their retreat causes the family dynamic (which existed before even the audience enters the playing space) to resettle. Friel’s work wonders how true that is and speculates on the intervening years where that very continuation of life causes ripples and effects of its own, born directly from the upheaval of the original period of the play.

For Sonya, the relationship with Doctor Astrov – so beautifully and poignantly rendered in Ian Rickson’s production at the Harold Pinter Theatre filmed for the BBC – lumbers on in Afterplay as Friel picks-up on the unresolved chemistry between them and uses it to shape Sonya’s still devoted interior life. Hearing her casually refer to him as Michael is telling, a growth of intimacy that had not existed years before, with Friel suggesting that their mutual isolation has drawn the pair together socially despite their separation at the end of Uncle Vanya.

Astrov still fills her every thought and even with a stranger most of her conversation relates to him, his work with the poor, his enthusiasm for improving environmental conditions and crucially, his alcoholism which has taken much firmer hold in the intervening years and seems to predicate his moments of devoted yet still unresolved attachment to Sonya. She suggests too that although he is still unwilling to be with her, the notional death wish remains, putting himself in danger with his patients. Her admiration for him, though less girlish, is by no means dimmed as Friel elaborates on the rich psychology of Chekhov’s characters in later life.

Andrey by contrast is less openly in control of his own circumstances and quickly admits to lying about his reasons for being in Moscow. When Afterplay opens, this is Andrey and Sonya’s second meeting, having also found themselves in this cafe on the previous day and quickly Andrey admits having misled her. When the pair meet for the third time, Andrey corrects his stories once again and further details of his experience are revealed.

This tendency to lie, Friel suggests, comes less from an enjoyment at misleading others than a desire to give and maintain an outward social impression and status – another Chekhovian theme – that reinforces an illusion of class, success or personal happiness which does not exist. That Andrey clings to these ideals repeatedly, ever conscious of the impression his life makes on others is one of Friel’s most interesting interventions looking more broadly at this contrast between an individual’s exterior and interior existence.

For lovers of both plays, there are many interesting snippets as Friel speculates on what may have happened to the other characters while musing on the consequences of abandonment, betrayal and the yearn for impossible love that Sonya, Masha and even Natasha think will bring them contentment. The denial of these longings for material connection have significant consequences for the individual’s emotional stability and ability to endure, and Friel’s subtle exploration of the afterlife of these characters chimes brilliantly with Chekhov’s intentions in stranding them at the end of his plays.

Afterplay is a brief encounter but one that affectingly considers the later life of two Chekhovian characters left just to exist at the original end of their stories. That their subsequent lives continued and will continue to be shaped by the same notions of delusion, illusion and the empty pointlessness of their repetitive existence as imagined so well in Afterplay, leaves them psychologically and circumstantially precisely where Friel found them. Chekhov does the same, the circuitous nature of his plays returning his creations back to the start, still dreaming of impossible things.

The Lights Up Festival and associated drama premieres on BBC Radio will be celebrating the breadth and creativity of the theatre industry in the coming weeks, ahead of a return to live performance. While radio plays have long attracted stage actors, they also offers new avenues for writers to try out plays exploring crucial events and experimental approaches. In a strong week for new work which also include William Humble’s two-parter, The Performer, a biographical comedy monologue read by Stephen Fry, The Meaning of Zong and Afterplay showcase the power of audio drama to transport an audience’s imagination and to see the familiar a little differently.

The Meaning of Zong premiered on BBC Radio 3 and Afterplay on BBC Radio 4, both are available via BBC Sounds. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.


Follies – National Theatre

Follies, National Theatre

It’s been some time since The National Theatre last staged a major musical and their sensational new production of Follies has been worth the wait. The end of the Nicholas Hytner era and the first two years of Rufus Norris’s tenure have been focused on significant adaptations of well-known plays and new writing, many of which have received considerable critical acclaim. Despite an indifferent summer season in the Olivier Theatre, with Norris now firmly ensconced in his role of Artistic Director, this is a National Theatre at the zenith of its power capable of creating work of extraordinary quality and artistic influence.

Follies is one of Stephen Sondheim’s most loved musicals but revivals have been few and far between. While there may be more Hamlets than anyone really needs this season, the last Follies was more than a decade ago, and, like the recent era-defining production of Angels in America this superlative vision of Sondeheim’s show will surely become one of its best remembered revivals, mixing the wistful showmanship of the Music Hall with the shattered illusions of its four central characters, clinging to false visions and unrealised dreams of alternative lives,

In 1971, a class reunion at the Weismann Follies brings together many of the former singers and showgirls who entertained at the club during the wars at a party to celebrate the last night before the building is torn down to make way for office blocks. 30 years on it’s a bittersweet evening for everyone, as the ghosts of the past emerge all around them, reminding the women of who they once were and where fortune has taken them, with life quelling the hopes and plans they once had.

For Sally and Buddy, now in their 50s, life and marriage has been unremarkable and conventional, with Buddy struggling to fulfil some need in Sally that can never be satisfied. Meeting best friends Phyllis and Ben, a stylish couple whose animosity towards one another can barely be contained, takes the quartet back to their youth where the story of their courtship emerges along with deeply concealed emotions that abruptly resurface. By the time morning comes, the party is over in more ways than one.

Directed by Dominic Cooke, Follies is entirely at home on the grand Olivier stage in what feels like a perfectly created world of decaying glamour. The well-utilised stage revolve houses a two-piece walled-arch structure that contains the faded Follies neon sign, and a multi-tiered fire escape which the girls used to parade down onto the stage, allowing Cooke to show scenes taking place in multiple rooms with a quick turn of the Olivier drum.

Vicki Mortimer’s theme-laden design is purposely used to reinforce the text, whether it be the stacked heaps of detritus on the side of the stage and the shabby theatre seats – clearly referencing the characters emotional baggage – or the almost unnoticeably slow clearing away of the structures of the Weismann nightclub during the production to represent not just the destruction of the physical building, but also the breakdown of characters and their long-held fantasies of a better life, leaving only a vast emptiness to see and feel as the story concludes.

Sondheim’s work is not conventional musical theatre and his first focus (and training) was as a playwright, so it is this emphasis on plot and characterisation that separates Follies from the song and dance shows which have been recently revived in London. Lovely as they are, with glitzy production values and incredibly skilled dancers, An American in Paris and 42nd Street just don’t have the same heart-rending ache of Sondheim’s show. Again and again throughout this production, for a variety of characters, you feel powerfully focused emotion filling the cavernous Olivier space, creating an extraordinary intimacy and impact. It’s a rather amazing experience.

At the heart of the show is Imelda Stuanton’s interpretation of Sally, her second major theatre role this year. Sally has some characteristics in common with Martha from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, who Staunton played at the Harold Pinter Theatre in the Spring, both are in a long and fruitless marriage where love, it seems, has long since departed, but where Martha is openly vicious, sweet and hopeful Sally clings to a decades-long love for Ben, a dream elaborate and embedded with age which she believes will rescue her from the emptiness of the life she now leads.

Staunton’s power as actor lies in slowly unveiling the layers of deep feeling beneath the surface of her characters, and, as with Martha, she quickly shows the that bubby, excitable, chatty Sally is bundle of false hope and self-delusion. Sondheim uses his songs to advance the story and Staunton understands these rhythms so perfectly that the excitable romance of ‘Too Many Mornings’ leaves Sally exuberant at finally having the long-hoped for relationship, while the slow disillusionment that follows is beautifully and arrestingly charted. As Staunton sings ‘Losing My Mind’ it’s so full of a sorrow that it builds to a state of almost deluded madness as her world collapses in on her. It’s terribly terribly moving and physically painful to watch, but astonishing theatre that will stick in your mind.

In the other corner is Janie Dee’s Phyllis, a once poised and gentle young girl who through lack of love believed she needed to continually improve herself and her mind to be worthy of Ben. While she became a good society wife, full of grace and dignity, Phyllis has also hardened, become cold to any form of emotion, even for her once loved friend, and this manifests in a tirade aimed Ben in the song ‘Could I Leave You’. And as the evening draws on, Dee shows us that Phyllis has become an independent woman who knows she can now survive without the husband she’s relied on and looked up to, that the slow erosion of her love for him solidified in this one decisive night.

Like Imelda Stuanton, Dee’s finest moment comes in the fantasy element of the production which takes place in ‘Love Land’ where each of the four protagonists gets to reveal their inner selves to the audience. In the section dedicated to ‘Phyllis’s Folly’ Dee gets a sultry number – ‘The Story of Lucy and Jessie’ – which is a chance to unbutton the woman beneath the surface as she cavorts with her young dancers, for once the centre of attention. This whole section borrows considerably from Gilda and the famous ‘Put the Blame on Mame’ sequence that allows Dee to channel plenty of Rita Hayworth moves as well as physical nods to her wavy red hair and fitted black dress.

Although Follies is predominantly about the memories and dreams of its female characters, with Weismann himself merely the conduit for the reunion of his dancers, the two male leads are given just enough stage time to give the audience plenty of insight into two rather hopeless marriages and the sacrifices all four characters have made to sustain them. Peter Forbes as Buddy initially seems a comedy aside, a genial and supportive husband, sharing his wife Sally’s wide-eyed welcome back to the big city. But as the story unfolds, Forbes shows us a man who’s spent a lifetime knowing he was second best, trying endlessly and fruitlessly to make Sally happy, worn down by the knowledge he can never be the one thing she wants… someone else. His many failures as a partner stem from loving someone who cannot return his feeling and Forbes’s performance ask whether dependability and fondness ultimately outlast passion as the best foundations for marriage.

In fine voice is Philip Quast as Ben, Phyllis’s lothario husband, now a politician and long-time object of Sally’s affection. Ben is a man who has always relied on his allure, and his attractiveness to women makes him feel powerful. In the growing estrangement with Phyllis, Quast reveals a bitterness in Ben that is initially hard to reconcile with his easy charm, but as the muddles of the evening unfold, Quast’s Ben fears both a lack of love and of not deserving it, that despite his façade he is in fact a sham.  His voice is beautiful in duet with Imelda Staunton and those mellifluous tones are from a golden age of musical theatre long since passed.

A final note on Tracie Bennet as Carlotta, the only ex-Folly who really made it, now a well-known actress, and a fitting contrast to all the meek and mumsy society wives that her fellow Follies became. Glamorous and jaded, Bennett gets the zesty number ‘I’m Still Here’ showing us Carlotta’s scrappy nature that has allowed her to claw her way to the top and stay there. She may have had multiple husbands and now much younger lovers, but there’s a rousing lack of regret that makes this performance one of the moments of the night.

Supported by a fine cast who each get their song, this National Theatre production has perfectly judged the tone of dark nostalgia, of expectant youth and wasted futures, and the danger of trying to recapture the past – a theme that couldn’t be more fitting in post-Brexit modern Britain. Even the tricky ghost or shadow selves are seamlessly woven into the production and avoid feeling cheesy. Instead, each character appears with her younger self in original costume, allowing Cooke to blur the boundary between past and present, hope and reality as if memories have been given physical form one last time.

Sometimes, a piece of theatre will catch you entirely unawares; you see plenty of good or even excellent work, but every now and then something comes along that generates an emotional connection you didn’t foresee. This heartbreaking production, that has earned uproarious standing ovations at every preview, is a National Theatre at the peak of its power, producing work of extraordinary quality and impact. Even at well over two hours without an interval, the time flies by and it’s always reassuring to see the integrity of the work taking precedence over bar sales. There may not have been a major production of Follies for a while, but with an astounding cast, glorious production values and an ache that lingers for days, this is a production you’ll never forget.

Follies is at the National Theatre until 3rd January. Tickets start at £15 and are also available at £20 via Friday Rush every week at 1pm. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


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