Tag Archives: Young Vic

Oklahoma! – Young Vic

Productions of Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals have undergone quite the transformation in the past 12 months with versions that return to the source text to reimagine and reconsider shows like Carousel and South Pacific for the twenty-first century by returning the darker, often violent, subthemes that beat beneath the surface or to reposition some of the attitudes to race, gender, conquest and even physical attraction that reflect contemporary morality. Now, the Young Vic presents a rather sexy version of Oklahoma! that replaces twee interpretations of cowboy country with a throbbing desire that inflicts the inhabitants of this rural town, and becomes a fascinating technical exercise in deconstructing a musical.

Oklahoma! is perhaps not the best loved Rodgers and Hammerstein show, its dual romance plot is pretty thin and it lacks an expansive moral message to pin the show together. And while there is plenty of crossover with scenarios in Carousel – the same small community, the same drum beat of violence and notions of performative masculinity amidst non-conforming women and a similar commercial connection to the landscape – a set-to over a barn dance and bake sell doesn’t have quite the same sense of life and death jeopardy as some of their more accomplished work.

But Hollywood has much to do with interpretation, toning down the raunchier aspects of Oklahoma! to pass the censorship requirements but also to create romanticised versions of the great American past. What directors Daniel Fish and Jordan Fein have done at the Young Vic is to pull back the gingham curtains to reveal a showing that is teeming with unfulfilled sexual desire among a group of young characters confused about what their futures hold and unable to articulate or fulfil those needs. Looking again at the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, Fish and Fein set notions of true love aside and instead look at the causes and sometimes hefty consequences of desire as unrequited passions, sexual jealousy and denial drive the characters to extreme behaviours.

And in doing so, the directors open up a far murkier version of this story, one in which the two love triangles, Laurey-Curly-Jud and Ado Annie-Ali-Will, have less clear cut resolutions, leaving the audience uncertain about the destined lovers and losers as well as where they should place their sympathies. Ado Annie, principally a comic creation, is also a woman embracing her sexual liberation, control of her own body and the freedom to ‘flirt’ with as many men as she chooses, an agency that the Young Vic’s production wholeheartedly embraces. Yet, her actions not only cause hurt to others that arouses a dangerous jealousy, but her fun is ultimately dampened by the old-fashioned morality represented by her father that, in resolution, ends up clipping her wings rather than freeing her. And this show is not afraid to leave us with that somewhat dissatisfied feeling that Ado Annie has been cheated out of becoming the women she wanted to be by embracing someone else’s notion of tradition.

Likewise, there is something deeply unsettling about the central relationship between Laurey and her contentious beaux Curly and Jud. Usually presented as unsavoury, predatory and a bit weird (and therefore undeserving of love), Jud is the easy villain of Oklahoma!, his lurking presence designed to make the audience root for Curly as the avowed and deserving lover of the plucky Laurey. But it’s not quite so clear cut in Fish and Fein’s new interpretation, and while Jud may be a friendless loner, there is a nervy sensitivity that asks whether, knowing of his affection for her, did Jud deserve to be used by Laurey and have his hopes raised? And is Curly’s reaction proportionate?

At the same time, Curly is by no means a straightforward hero; he too is drawn to Laurey but at no point does he declare his love for her or, in the early part of the musical, any clear intention to marry her. Instead there is a physical chemistry between them that drives their intention, corrupting their behaviours in the remainder of the story. Here Curly’s reaction to Jud feels extreme – if he loved Laurey and she loved him there should be no reason to fear Jud – which implies that Curly either has no better purpose in pursuing Laurey and fears exposure, and/or that his competitive spirit is aroused by the presence of second suitor, that winning rather than the girl of his dreams are the ultimate motivation.

What unfolds in the final moments of this production is the result of this complex mixture of emotional and physical desires that is, it seems, deliberately designed to leave a sense of discontent with the conclusion. As the townspeople rapidly close ranks, the truth of Jud and Curly’s final encounter is foggier than previously seen, a statement that morality and justice are not fixed certainties but that the community can influence them for their own ends. And while Rodgers and Hammerstein have tied up all the love story loose ends with two couples in the ‘right’ relationship, this is not the happy ending you might be expecting and instead Fish and Fein leave you to feel disquieted and even sullied by our observation of this tale.

Part of the reason for that is a series of technical decisions that keep the audience on the outside and prevents the viewer from becoming too invested in anyone. Laura Jellinek and Grace Laubacher nod to Soutra Gilmour’s recent work for Jamie Lloyd (particularly Cyrano de Bergerac and The Seagull) by covering the Young Vic auditorium in untreated and bare slabs of MDF into which two shallow bunkers have been carved out for the onstage band. In what feels like a homage to Lloyd’s style of theatremaking, the set becomes a representative space with some trestle tables and fold-up chairs in which imagined scenarios take place, allowing the text and songs alone to move the physical location from Aunt Eller’s farmyard to the venue for the box social and its environs. Eschewing elaborate scenery feels appropriate for the way in which Fish and Fein mine beneath the surface of Oklahoma!, while the occasional use of handheld microphones is an emphasis device that has had considerable impact in Lloyd’s recent work.

This production makes its most experimental contribution through Scott Zielinski’s complex lighting design that takes the musical in a new direction, drawing attention to different emotional emphases and carving really interesting boundaries between fantasy and reality, not only in the purposeful ‘dream ballet’ but especially within the everyday interaction. Zielinki’s choices are designed to alienate the audience, keeping the house lights up for much of the show which makes it frustratingly difficult to focus at times but ties into Fish and Fein’s vision for a show that denies investment in the characters and traditional notions of emotional involvement in their lives. That concluding feeling of contamination, of being tarnished comes partly from this stark visibility, making the audience complicit in the outcomes of the story, blurring the line between the characters and us, all under the same unforgiving bright lights.

But this is not all Zielinki has to say and lighting, or its absence, becomes a pointed communication choice throughout. When Laurey and Curly first connect, it happens suddenly in a deep green pulse that almost freezes the frame – more a Royal Court trick than a typical musical moment. In the Second Act, a deep orange and red starts to creep into the lighting tones, taking Laurey from her dream self confronting her emotions at the end of the ballet to a touch of twinkly romance in the false half light that feels laden with doom. But it is the absence of light that becomes pivotal when Zielinki employs two periods of blackout. The first is uncomfortably long, a total absence of light under which Jud and Curly intensely contend, speaking with whispered heaviness into the microphones to create a disembodied experience – echoing Mrs Danvers urging the second Mrs de Winter to destruction. A partial blackout with fairy lights happens in the second half as well, another emotional turning point which brings events between Jud and Laurey to a head. This is really interesting work from Zielinki, taking what is often perceived as a sunny musical and creating so many textures within the Young Vic space that provoke bodily reactions that accentuate the disorientation and ambiguity the production is aiming for.

The venue has assembled an excellent cast whose performances dig deep into the moral turpitude of the characters and their unsavoury behaviours. Anouska Lucas is in fine voice as Laurey, a happily independent woman who doesn’t need a man to improve her lot but finds herself almost undeniably attracted to Curly. Lucas and Arthur Darvill have an intense chemistry as the would-be lovers, with Lucas capturing the subtle but sultry physicality of her character, almost Katherina Minola-like in her self-possession and determination to fight for her independence while equally confused when she accepts Jud’s date in spite of herself. Lucas’s voice really is stunning too, deep and bluesy when she sings People Will Say We’re in Love and wistful during the toe-tapping number Many a New Day.

Darvill too is excellent, a confident figure who swaggers into town but with real affection for Eller and a strong desire for Laurey, although it is the darker strands that Darvill finds most interesting, leaving the audience unsure whether or not Curly is a good man. A recourse to violence, to getting what he wants at any cost runs through the character and whether he’s manipulating Jud into ending his life, which Darvill does in hushed and hurried tones, or acting reflexively in the final moments, Darvill’s Curly isn’t a man to admire, a dubiety that he evokes well. Many of his songs are consciously performed into a microphone while playing guitar but Darvill excels in spinning the musical numbers, giving those famous pieces Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’ and The Surrey with the Fringe on Top a fresh, less orchestral feel, playing with pitch and trills to bed them into the country-blusey sound of this production.

The rest of the cast are excellent too, the ever-amazing Marisha Wallace is a comic joy as Ado Annie, revelling in her sexuality and selling every cheeky moment to an audience who adore her from the start. Liza Sadovy, fresh from her Olivier award-winning triumph in Cabaret, is commanding if underused as matriarch Aunt Eller whose match-making attempts motor the drama while James Davis and Stavros Demetraki as Ado Annie’s lovers Will and Ali have a great time as hilarious rivals who lighten the mood. Particular plaudits to Patrick Vaill who makes Jud an awkward outsider but belies his villain status with an emotional depth that makes his big pathos number Lonely Room especially affecting and leaves you questioning the outcome of the show.

This is not the jaunty Oklahoma! many may be expecting and in a period of significant rethinking and repositioning of the musical, this almost abstract approach feels like a natural progression. With some striking design choices, not least the sparring use of Joshua Thorson’s intimate facial projection, Fish and Fein have created something that disconcerts more than entertains, its dissatisfactory feeling engineered through a deliberate combination of theatre techniques designed to distract and disengage the audience from the characters to make broader points about destructive jealousy, female agency and townsfolk closing ranks against outsiders. This is not an Oklahoma! to love, but its staging choices and intent to challenge the viewer make it an interesting experiment in dramatic practice.

Oklahoma! is at the Young Vic until 25 June with tickets from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Best of Enemies – Young Vic

Best of Enemies - Young Vic

Political commentators despair that the polarisation of debate has radically shaped our national life in recent years with Brexit, the election and removal of Trump, and the poisoned well of social media creating a context in which extremism and hate have flourished, even been rewarded in their dominance of our discourse. In the dismantling of reasoned, healthy but respectful debate, entrenched positions have bred a distrust of facts and experts as well as increased notions of States conspiring against their citizens, while embedding the idea that an individual’s worth is indistinguishable from their views on a single contentious issue. James Graham’s new play Best of Enemies takes us back to the 1960s, demonstrating that the roots of our division partially lay in the creation of televised intellectual debating.

Based on a 2015 documentary of the same name, this series of debates on the American ABC network between two public intellectuals in 1968, left-wing writer Gore Vidal and the right wing commentator William Buckley took place during the selection process at the Republican and Democratic conventions as each party selected their Presidential candidates. Graham puts this fractious interaction at the centre of a play that builds on many of the themes that define his work – the role of the media and especially news outlets in shaping public political understanding and belief, and the separation between grand political theory and the practical application of government, law and power beyond the political elite.

Graham’s work is always carefully structured and however the narrative is then overlaid, the play’s drive and shape come from a very precise framework that underpins the show. Across his canon, the writer has played with different structural bases – Quiz centred its two Act argument around the Case for the Prosecution and then for the Defence; Ink gave The Sun‘s Larry Lamb a year to increase circulation, punctuating the play with sales updates; Labour of Love ambitiously did a journey backwards and then forwards in time while plays like Bubble, The Angry Brigade and This House use an us and them perspective to cut between two sets of characters telling different parts of the same story. The mechanisms may differ but these structures set an audience at ease, giving reassurance that wherever the story is heading, the playwright is entirely in control of the material.

Best of Enemies absorbs dramatic lessons from the television and film work that Graham has undertaken, starting with a pivotal exchange at the end of the story – or at least the outrage following it – and spooling back to understand the combination of factors that led to this moment – a cinematic device. The play largely happens in chronologically occurring flashback that mixes the separate personal and preparatory stories of Vidal and Buckley as they ready themselves for their televised verbal skirmishes, before repeatedly bringing them together to recreate excerpts from the debates themselves.

In doing so, Graham blends the known historical reality with the imagined (although well researched) private interactions off camera to create a drama that, like Quiz, reinserts a rounded humanity into real historic characters flattened and reduced by the simplistic nature of media reporting which shapes the collective memory. More than spikey antagonists with opposite lifestyles and political affiliations, Vidal and Buckley instead take shape as individuals in a much wider of context of rapid and often quite violent political statement.

Key reference points include the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King in the same year as the debates take place in a nation still not quite reconciled to the Presidential shooting five years before. This was also the year of protest and activism across Europe and America with student demonstrations in France noted briefly in the plot, while the pivotal anti-Vietnam rallies sweep across the stage at various points between the debates. This bubbling tension, outbursts of violence and a growing combativeness in political interactions and State responses to them is vital in couching the Vidal-Buckley debate in a much wider and increasingly unstable context where polarisation of views was becoming more commonplace.

The echo of history and its preservation on television is woven tightly into the production directed by Jeremy Herrin for Headlong who builds on Graham’s textual approach that marries thoughtfulness with entertainment. Staged in the round at the Young Vic, in creating that wider context Best of Enemies has a complex technical set-up in which real footage of orations, rallies and protests is projected on screens around the room while the actors representing historic figures voice the speeches in time with the film. It’s a technique that is used sparingly but one that brings the wider social and political tides to life and, as Graham does with Vidal and Buckley, draws the two-dimensional screen image more purposefully into the room and the story.

The presence of cameras then becomes integral to the approach, placing the debating titans in the centre of the space while simultaneously capturing and projecting their comments and reactions around the room. This is not solely for visual purposes, the Young Vic is a contained space with good sightlines from all locations, but it reinforces the problematic nature of trying to understand history from film alone. While it may capture what is said, and the explosive outburst that Best of Enemies is building to which has, to some extent, subsequently defined perspectives on both men, the play demonstrates that why it was said and what it really meant is far more complicated – a warning that resonates well with a social media culture of soundbites and snippets that is equally reductive.

And Graham is scrupulously fair to both his characters and the positions they represent, offering all the shades of grey between them that leave the audience to decide whether these men are heroes, villains or something far more rounded. While the men are categorised by others as Republican or Democrat early in the play, Buckley immediately reorientates this as a discussion between conservatism of which he proudly advocates and the liberalism that Vidal represents while Graham rather neatly brings the two together. As the men work on their arguments, the tactics to lure the other onto the rocks and the witty remarks that form part of their pre-planned showmanship, the playwright subtly suggests the interlocutors perhaps have more in common than actually divides them – something Buckley’s wife goes on to say – and like This House the surface separation of the two camps slowly crumbles as the story unfolds even though their public personas take more antagonistic positions.

This is particularly notable in the extent to which both men are shown to play to the cameras, flattered by the idea that their views are being sought while the climbing ratings and evident enjoyment in the process of televised debating adds a hollow-ring to what they say. Graham is asking some really interesting questions here about the alignment between public posturing that brings rewards including acceptance and celebration by their respective communities, and their private beliefs, suggesting that the attention pushes both men to entrench in positions that, carried away by their platform, they (perhaps) don’t truly advocate. Being seen to win and having the means to outwit their opponent is more important than the content of their speechifying Graham suggests – a position reinforced in private scenes off-screen where surface strategies to goad one another and best the enemy dominate conversations in place of preparing arguments on their points of political division.

But more than their own reactions, it is the structures around them that Graham seeks to investigate, questioning the role of news channels in shaping modern political antipathy and the dilution of intellectual discourse through a focus on celebrity commentators and panellists. Like Larry Lamb’s team, the ABC news division purposefully uses the debates to disrupt traditional output and to save their ailing viewing figures. A central pillar within the play looks at the role of newscasters in presenting the facts while increasingly creating space for amateur commentary from those with political interests but without official intellectual credibility or credentials.

At the same time, Graham asks in the second half of the play about the value of intellectualism in politics when it separates those like Vidal and Buckley from the day-to-day reality of governance. Best of Enemies asks who really won? Vidal may have offered a suave and culturally-knowledgeable perspective that advocated reason and tolerance against some of Buckley’s less palatable views, but Nixon wins the election and the Hollywood actor, of whom Vidal is dismissive, is namechecked as a future President, so to what extent are social intellectuals out of touch with the general public and their needs – another theme that resonates with the vortex of recent US and UK politics which relates this story to the simpler, emotional messaging of modern politicians and their representation in the media.

David Harewood and Charles Edwards in the roles of Buckley and Vidal both play against type in some compelling and well nuanced performances. Harewood gives his ultra conservative character a gruff arrogance, a certainty that he can easily best his adversary and score significant political cache that would aid his own future aspirations within the party, following a failed mayoral bid in New York a few years before. But Harewood has the harder job in making his character appealing to a theatre audience, capturing Buckley’s changing fortunes and their effect, the slip in confidence in the early debates as Vidal outpaces him before a resurgence at the Democrat Convention as a growing frustration feeding off the anti-war protests courses through Harewood’s performance here leading neatly to the final confrontation that collapses his motivation in the rest of the play, eliciting some sympathy for the human cost when Buckley becoming enmeshed in his own rhetoric.

Edwards is superb as Vidal, balancing a widely-read intelligence with a catty bitterness that is never overplayed. Surrounded by a literary and celebrity following, Edwards places his interpretation of Vidal in a cultural bubble that separates him from the reality of the views he espouses while at the same time presenting quite as much ego and self-satisfaction as Buckley, enjoying the public performance and his time in the spotlight a little too much. Often very funny, particularly when rehearsing the bon mots that later appear in the debate, Edwards captures the waspishness of Vidal but balances it with a slow erosion of that confidence as the debates give Buckley the upper hand.

It ends with a fascinating imagined scene in which the men finally confront one another, no cameras, no posturing just reasonable and respectful interaction, a scene that pointedly underlines the separation of the political character that both men played in public and their multifaceted reality, two sides that the play attempts to reconcile by exploring the consequences of what should have been a small debate on a poorly received news station yet somehow came to symbolise and channel state-of-the-nation American political division. There is some equivalence with Frost / Nixon in the journalistic scrutiny applied to great men and the strategies used to entrap and chasten them, but in carefully selecting these turning points in modern political history and looking slightly to the side of well known figures, Graham’s plays more clearly reflect on our own political culture and the unreasonable debates we are now having every day.

Best of Enemies is at the Young Vic until 22 January with broadcast performances online from 20-22 January. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Changing Destiny – Young Vic

Changing Destiny - Young Vic (by Marc Brenner)

Amidst the increasing number of shows forced to suspend due to isolation rules, the return of the Young Vic theatre to in-person live performances after 16-months of darkness is welcome news. Aside from a fairly closed birthday celebration concert event late last year which was lived streamed to followers, the Young Vic is the latest major venue to announce a long season of work that includes Cush Jumbo’s postponed Hamlet in September and culminates with the premiere of a new James Graham play in December. But its opening salvo is another premiere, a story of identity politics, spiritual homelands and what it means to belong, Ben Okri’s 70-minute two-hander Changing Destiny.

Performed in the round, there is a complex simplicity to this narrated tale that transports its audience to Ancient Egypt, Libya and Syria largely through the power of the spoken word, an approach that speaks to the very essence of theatre as strangers gather together to hear and share stories. Drawing on oral storytelling traditions, the Young Vic’s production is a reminder of the venue’s most fundamental purpose, a back to basics (well almost) approach that unites narrated sections, that help the characters to travel, with dramatised conversations between the warrior Sinhue and a rich cast of Pharaohs, farmers and spirits he meets along the way.

Based on a 4000-year old poem, Okri’s play is essentially a journey narrative, one that takes the protagonist on both a physical, international journey and one of spiritual awakening and identity. These two elements operate largely in parallel throughout the play, and while he seeks to change his destiny, the further Sinhue goes, the stronger the desire to be at home. Despite years exiled in the employ of a rival power, he feels like an alien in his adoptive homeland. This combined physical and spiritual narrative creates an epic sweep that resonates beyond the central character, giving Sinhue an everyman or allegorical symbolism.

To achieve this, the plot develops in fairly straightforward, almost linear fashion, taking Sinhue through a series of chronological encounters that mark his rise and fall. Events are described in sketched form, denuded of unnecessary adjectives or elaborate conversational styles, and Sinhue tends to recount his experiences in the clean, factual statements of a soldier prioritising the sequence of events over trying to win approval – whether he was right or wrong, ambitious, vain or the victim of circumstance is not something the character attempts to influence in this biographical retelling.

But that is not to suggest that Changing Destiny is a dry or overly solemn experience, and Okri has a cinematic eye, punctuating his adaptation with plenty of drama that creates flow and pace while building a sense of jeopardy as Sinhue has more to lose. Wasting no time on a preamble, Okri plunges the audience into an Egyptian conspiracy, a plan to assassinate a lumbering Pharaoh with his leading warrior Sinhue at its heart. This Caesar-like subterfuge carried out by a small cabal and followed rapidly by Sinhue’s escape beyond the borders of Egypt, is a claustrophobic and high-stakes opener which, like a James Bond pre-credit sequence, is used by Orkri to establish a context for what’s to come.

Similarly, across the remaining story there are feats of endurance when Sinhue sinks into ignominy as an anonymous farmhand, undertakes a lone journey across the blazing desert, demonstrates a fighting prowess that wins the notice of the Syrian King, rapidly rises through the Court, wins decisive battles with enemy nations, conceals a hidden identity as Sinhue obscures his origins and a finale confrontation with Egypt that brings the show full circle. And while all of this is lifted from the ancient poem, Okri employs them as narrative devices like an action movie to create moments of ebb and flow while balancing the human development of relationships, introspection and self-acceptance that flesh out this individual journey.

Thematically, Changing Destiny has some contemporary points to make about the nature of identity and, crucially, the benefits of immigration to national growth and development. More than once, Sinhue is welcomed as an outsider in Syria, bringing valuable new knowledge and learning to the kingdom based on his reputation and experiences at the Egyptian Court – the association and subtle comment on the narrowness of current policy is noteworthy – and that his stratospheric rise to power is accompanied by grumbling from a minority among the native nobility is no impediment to Sinhue’s status or popularity.

But Okri is especially interested in how Sinhue’s own concept of identity and thereby his destiny is unaffected by the generosity and acceptance of his new homeland. The separation of Sinhue from his spirit occurs as he flees Egypt for what he believes will be the last time, symbolically and pertinently leaving a piece of himself behind. That this essentially haunts the character through the play is important in understanding the half-life his series of impressive but downplayed deeds represents. That Sinhue can perform but fails to invest in his successes is a core trait having left the better part of himself behind in Egypt.

So throughout the play, Sinhue is torn between the nation that recognises and accepts his leadership, promotes and nurtures his talent, welcoming his skills and knowledge with open arms, and the country of his birth to which his soul belongs. With Sinhue frequently visited by the specter of Egypt, Okri is exploring concepts of home and belonging – individuals can live, even thrive in other environments but a part of them will always yearn for a spiritual if not a physical birth place. And through this Okri’s play joins several others in exploring the complexities of Black British identity and its roots in African and Caribbean cultures.

While the simplicity of Okri’s approach conceals quite intricate dramatic and thematic structures, director Kwame Kwei-Armah takes a similar approach to staging the production, offering two conjoined pyramids, one upturned and suspended from the ceiling, designed by superstar architect Sir David Adjaye that dominate the centre of the room, their pointed tips meeting perfectly. These canvas and wood pyramids, neatly referencing Sinhue’s Egyptian homeland in shape and texture, dominate the centrestage area, two simple three-dimensional constructs that the actors move around, although this occasionally obscures the action in the early part of the show.

But there is method here and as Sinhue exiles himself, there is a metaphorical and physical unfolding of the set, the four sides of the bottom pyramid lowered and splayed into its original net form which may be distantly familiar from primary school maths classes. This creates a much larger and clear performance space allowing the actors to move freely around the stage in constructing their tale while using the corner points of the now dismantled pyramid as places of transition either between places or characters.

The textures and pale tones used to construct this lower pyramid allow lighting designer Jackie Shemesh to project varying colour onto its raised sides, or at crucial moments in the story, to create silhouette effects for Sinhue’s ‘shadow fight’ to defeat a rival. Later in the play, as Sinhue’s yearning for Egypt increases, Kwei-Armah partially reconstructs some or all of the pyramid to create changes of pace and tone, so what could have been a cumbersome set decision is used to effectively and fairly seamlessly represent the layers of meaning in Sinhue’s biography while underscoring the minimalist approach to conjuring this story.

The upper pyramid is where greater complexity is applied and some magical production values aid the audience’s immersion in Changing Destiny. Made from black canvas, this structure acts as a four-sided screen onto which images, animation and maps are projected, visible to all sides of the auditorium. Created by Duncan McLean, the video design is both scenery and an alternative expositional device using pre-recorded footage and illustration to create context for Sinhue’s actions, particularly the conspiratorial drivers in Ancient Egypt, and signifying movement between the three civilisations.

Employing tonal colours that match Adjaye’s canvas set design, McLean’s graphics are created largely in white and brown-beige, given a classical styling that nods to hieroglyphs, mosaics and papyrus drawings. Sand is the basis for the animated sections, as clouds of it roll across the screens, eventually coalescing and forming more solidly recognisable shapes including the burning desert sun, representations of the local terrain and, sometimes, into the people of Egypt – voiced Rakie Ayola, Ebe Bamgboye, Doña Croll and Kobna Holdbrook-Smith. Conspiratorial whispers against their leader and encouragement to depose him later evolve into spiritual voices calling Sinhue home, simultaneously embodying the colleagues he once knew as well as the guilt he carries with him through the years.

As the production unfolds, Shemesh’s lighting design becomes the primary tool for creating tone, bringing the different elements of set, video and storytelling together to capture the various national and personal experiences that mark Sinhue’s life. From the dramatic almost bombastic shading of the fight sequences to the soft tones of a nascent romance, oppressive journeys across the ferociously-heated desert to the almost fluorescently-coloured pathways Shemesh creates around the room, the visual impact of Changing Destiny grows in stature as the production unfolds.

Joan Iyiola and Ashley Zhangazha known only as ‘Character’ create a welcoming atmosphere, interacting with the audience as themselves at the start of the show before deciding which roles they will play. In this performance, Iyiola is Sinhue capturing the early fear that follows the Pharaoh’s assassination and, ever-confident of his warrior skills, slowly returning to a position of influence, as though by accident. Iyiola suggests the lingering guilt and feeling of being undeserving that shape Sinhue’s approach while emphasising not only the fearful desire to see Egypt once more but also a quiet certainty that shapes his path to power.

Zhangazha plays everyone else, darting between peasant farmers and warrior friends, Sinhue’s own manifested and detached spirit as well as various kings, enemies and rivals all of which are largely distinct and clearly defined without caricature. It is an impressive feat of performance adding much to the creation of scene and place with Zhangazha carrying an equal performance burden in helping the audience to visualise the changing concepts of time and social structures across the piece.

Under Kwei-Armah’s Artistic Direction, the Young Vic has been primarily interested in identity and storytelling, making Changing Destiny an appropriate and consistent opener to a new season of work. Okri’s play takes the simplest process of recitation and creates a contemporary version of Sinhue’s tale brought to life with some judiciously applied theatre techniques that enhance the effect Okri’s words create. Dressed up or down, the simple act of gathering together to be told a story is the very basis of theatre and with Changing Destiny, the Young Vic makes a welcome return to the spotlight.

Changing Destiny is at the Young Vic until 21 August with tickets from £10. Streaming options will also be available. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog

Swingin’ the Dream – RSC

Swingin the Dream - Royal Shakespeare Company

Shakespeare’s influence on popular culture is inestimable and while his plays are fundamental to the stage, the influence of his words and the often borrowed stories that Shakespeare made his own are felt across film, music and dance. From a ballet versions of The Winter’s Tale – a rich, psychologically complex version of which the Royal Opera House screened last summer with Edward Watson as Leontes – to Hollywood musical adaptations of The Taming of the Shrew (Kiss Me Kate), Romeo and Juliet (West Side Story) and even Hamlet (The Lion King), not to mention the High School movies that reimagined Shakespeare for a younger audience (such as 10 Things I Hate About You), Shakespeare’s understanding of the human condition has allowed his work to be translated into many different forms.

Theatremakers often build on Shakespeare’s plays to create new avenues for his work including the superb Teenage Dick at the Donmar and musicals like & Juliet which opened in 2020 or the Young Vic’s Twelfth Night which reshaped the play into a community-created musical extravaganza that opened Kwame Kwei-Armah’s tenure as Artistic Director. Now, Greg Doran at the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) has joined forces with Kwei-Armah and Jeffrey Horowitz at Theatre for a New Audience in New York to recreate an all but lost 1939 musical version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a work in progress version of which was streamed live from the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford on Saturday.

And the concept couldn’t be more timely; not only with theatres having to dream a little differently to stage productions that raise funds during a third lockdown that will likely take most venues to their one year anniversary of closure, but in also giving renewed life to a musical interpretation of Shakespeare’s play developed and performed by African-American musicians using the jazz music they created which speaks to contemporary political debates about inclusivity while reinforcing the universality of Shakespeare’s themes.

In theory, jazz seems a perfect accompaniment to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a tale of magical mischief, mayhem and romance as a group of lovers defy social convention by escaping to the woods to live freely – the very epitome of jazz and its ethos. But running for just 13 performances in 1939, Swingin’ the Dream flopped quickly before most of the script was destroyed leaving just a handful of pages and some songs. Exactly what happened to this show is open to debate, with only a handful of critical reviews suggesting either this particular marriage of Shakespeare and song was imperfectly balanced, or that the show was perhaps aimed at the wrong audience. Nonetheless the RSC, Young Vic and Theatre for a New Audience have determined to revive and recreate the missing segments with a full production to follow sometime soon.

The 55-minute concert streamed on Saturday, was described as a ‘work-in-progress’ which in practice was a chance to understand what the research team had uncovered about Swingin’ the Dream to date and to hear all of the rediscovered jazz numbers played live on stage. The show, briefly introduced by Doran, Kwei-Armah and Horowitz, was in part a narrated outline of how this familiar story was adapted, characters renamed and their occupations recast to create gender-fluidity such as making Snug the joiner a midwife played by comedian Moms Mabley. This concert version also offers some theatre history, explaining at various points who some of the famous jazz musicians and performers were, the fate of the original show and some of the 1930s context that influenced the decision-making.

Overseen by Music Director Peter Edwards (also the evening’s pianist), an Ensemble of nine readers and singers were tasked with reconstructing the original 1939 production by bringing the ‘ingredients’ together, briefly explaining the overarching story to guide the audience between the songs while announcing the arrival of the various famous faces including Louis Armstrong (Bottom) and Maxine Sullivan (Titania). This narrative structure also described the evolution of a production that had combined acted scenes, musical numbers and dance sections choreographed by Agnes de Mille (niece of legendary film director Cecil), which have also been lost. All of this offers a series of clues as to what a fuller production might look like.

This first look implies that the show was refocused on the Fairies and Rude Mechanicals – played by those well-known musicians – rather than the Lovers and political world of the Court, replacing Theseus with a more generic ‘Governor’ – allowing the production to skip quickly to the arrival of its much anticipated celebrity cast and hastening the drama and humour of their characters. This is, notably, something The Bridge Theatre did with its immersive production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 2019 (rescreened by the National Theatre at Home last summer) that found fresh and smart contemporary insight by emphasising the magical and comedy scenarios. It seems clear that for Swingin’ the Dream these characters did and will offer the most fruitful opportunities for entertainment within the show, providing much of the musical inspiration, so we can expect to see far less of the ‘driver’ characters whose romantic entanglements will be at a lower volume.

And fixing more pointedly on these characters will also have consequences for the visual experience of the show and it is clear from this early snippet that most of the scenes take place in the enchanted woodland which offers some interesting opportunities for scene designers who will need to align the magical quality of the forest with the 1930s style of music that should spring naturally from its surroundings. The title song, performed originally by the Dandridge Sisters, is piano-led and performed for the RSC by Mogali Masuku, Georgia Landes, Kemi-Bo Jacobs and Anne Odeke with a girl-group harmony so redolent of the era.

But referred to in the very next segment as ‘The Voodoo Wood’ the scene must also feel intimidating, perhaps even frightening, while the arrival of Oberon and Titania (played originally by Juan Hernandez and Sullivan) must herald a sultry romance as well. Titania sings a memory song about “Moonglow” under which she first met her Fairy King, a moment of pause performed for the RSC by Zara McFarlane that is laden with atmosphere and the breathy, almost painful reminiscence that classic jazz can evoke. To create a set that can simultaneously serve as a place of escape, hope, danger, magic and memory will be an interesting challenge for the design and lighting teams when a complete production is ready for preview.

Some of the best moments in this early concert staging of Swingin’ the Dream are those that allow the audience to imagine what the finished production may look like by drawing wider contextual connections with the cultural forces of the time. Anyone interested in the history of popular culture in the twentieth century will relish the references to the performance styles that were emerging at a time of great creativity. In a nod to the latest craze, the Jitterbug was included in an extensive “dream dance” sequence called Doing the Saboo choreographed by de Mille while the audience is reminded that a Jitterbug dance scene was cut from The Wizard of Oz released in the same year.

Film also gives us context for the arrival of Puck, the last of the major players to assemble, played by Butterfly McQueen who had been disbarred from attending the Gone with the Wind premiere in a Whites-only cinema. These stories are as much a part of the brief experience of Swingin’ the Dream as the residual script, drawing on an era where racial segregation could only be overcome on stage (to a point), where leisure time was spent in dance halls and the golden years of cinema were just beginning as Technicolor offered a very different visual experience to audiences. How faithful the finished show will be to these influences and how they will be incorporated into the production will be one of the most anticipated aspects of early previews.

Anyone hoping to see an advanced frame for the forthcoming production and perhaps an insight into how the finished show will look may have been a little disappointed that this revival is still in its early stages with no new dialogue or scenes to share as yet, but Edwards’s production did offer a more fully-staged finale, a section of music depicting the play-within-a-play that concludes A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The tale of Pyramus and Thisbe is restaged as a medley of recognisable jazz classics from leading songwriters including sampling from Jeepers Creepers, Blue Moon, Ain’t Misbehaving and She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain performed for the RSC by the full Ensemble that included Alfred Clay, Andrew French, Cornell S. John and Baker Mukasa.

Lasting around 5-minutes, this segment uses a heightened performance style to enhance the comedic incompetence of the Rude Mechanicals as Pyramus and Thisbe converse through Wall, the growls of the masked Lion are answered by the band and a lampshade on a stick doubles as the moon. The cast throw in a couple of contemporary Covid jokes with Lion unable to touch Thisbe’s abandoned scarf must mawl a second version extracted from a infection-safe plastic bag, while Wall refuses to let the classical lovers draw closer than 2 metres from him, jokes we can only hope will no longer be required by the time a final version is ready for its audience.

Nonetheless, there is plenty of evidence in this small scene alone to suggest how Shakespeare’s original text has been repurposed into song without losing the meaning or fluidity of the scene. With this beautiful music already in place but much of the script to recreate, a contemporary adaptation of Swingin’ the Dream may well take note of the 1939 critic who, recognising some imbalance, wanted to jettison some of the dialogue to give more prominence to the jazz. Yet, Shakespeare’s words will still be crucial to creating resonance while pinning the architecture of the new piece together whatever decisions are made about the musical balance or thematic emphasis.

The RSC, Young Vic and Theatre for a New Audience have a difficult but fascinating task ahead in recreating a lost work that honours the original and its biography while developing a version of Shakespeare’s most beloved summer show that offers something to modern audiences. Performed by Edwards on piano, Chris Storr on trumpet, Neil Charles on bass, Mebrakh Haughton-Johnson on clarinet and saxophone as well as
drummer Barrell Jones, the original music by Jimmy Van Heusen is beautiful and with plenty of clues to the narrative and visual aspects of the production left behind, when theatres eventually reopen, Swingin’ the Dream will be just the kind of theatre magic we’ve all been waiting for.

Swingin’ the Dream was streamed live by the RSC on 9 January and a full production in association with the Young Vic and Theatre for a New Audience is in development. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog.

Blood Wedding – Young Vic

Blood Wedding - Young Vic

A wedding is seen as the start of something, a new beginning for a couple about to build a life and potentially a family together, yet weddings also signal the continuation not just of social tradition and moral expectations but of a longer dynastic legacy which throughout history has united whole groups of people, tribes, clans and nations by the joining of hands and the recitation of set vows. For marriage is a political act, one that may be dressed-up as an expression of true love today but extends beyond the two people at the alter to forge ties that bind their family histories, legacy and future together. When that goes wrong, all hell breaks loose – “Marriage is not for the weak” insists one of the characters in Marina Carr’s atmospheric adaption of Federico García Lorca’s Blood Wedding at the Young Vic.

Lorca’s plays are revived with some regularity, with several productions of The House of Bernarda Alba in recent years as well as a memorable update of Yerma by Simon Stone that took Billie Piper to award success and an off-Broadway transfer. Completing his rural trilogy, Blood Wedding is seen least often but equals Lorca’s companion works for its ferocious understanding of the stifling nature of remote village life and inter-generational struggles. It bubbles with barely contained violence that erupts with inevitable consequences, the wisdom of the elders unheeded by the headstrong younger characters determined to fight against their fate, however futile.

Most notably, Lorca writes so well for women, understanding the strictures of expectation, duty and domesticity placed on them by external forces with which many of his female characters struggle to conform. Although Yerma longs for children she cannot behave meekly and rails painfully against her lot, while uncontainable passion comes between the Alba sisters and proves the undoing of the bride in Blood Wedding, as her father arranges a match for her with a local family whose land he covets. Lorca’s female characters are then backed into a corner, forced into a state of heightened emotional desperation from which rash acts trigger the dramatic and tragic conclusion of his plays, endings in which women are both the unfortunate victims of societal control but also the powerful arbiter of their own destiny.

It is particularly notable in the Young Vic’s new production, directed by Yaël Farber, that it is a woman’s nature that needs to be contained, with the Groom’s Mother and the Bride’s Grandmother making repeated reference to women being kept at home, their rightful place being a kitchen, purposefully isolated from all society except their husband’s. In Carr’s version, rather than men being untameable beasts, there is a fear that women who don’t conform will upturn the delicate balance of power in this community, where violence is the only possible outcome; restraining their wildness is a way to protect them from the darker fate that befalls women who transgress.

Carr has trimmed the play to a neat 1 hour and 50-minutes, running without an interval, and transposed the action to a hybrid Irish-Spanish location that works extremely well. The three interlocking families are Irish, with those of the betrothed couple set apart as land-owning farm and mountain people, while the hated Felix tribe are frequently described as gypsy, representing a freer lifestyle with a greater connection to nature. Designer Susan Hilferty uses Spanish stylings in the clothing and set-design to retain a Lorca-like visual effect with the Groom’s Mother and Bride’s Grandmother in plain black dresses and headscarves, while the men wear working clothes of the 1930s. And while this feels like a play in which the women drive the action while dressed in doom-laden black, the Groom and Leonardo Felix (the Bride’s former partner) present themselves respectively as lovers and warriors, like Greek heroes battling the Gods.

And this classical notion stretches to Hilferty’s configuration of the Young Vic auditorium, a Roman amphitheater in which the audience sits almost all around the action, waiting for the tragedy to unfold beneath us. The same space simultaneously conjures notions of the Spanish bullring, in which the two male leads will eventually go head-to-head, a gladiatorial battle that takes place on the same ground where many have died before them – it is notable in Carr’s text that the Bride’s Father refers to his wife and her family being buried beneath the stage, while the floor is stained with blood from some previous encounter, the last of which we see being wiped away in the play’s very first scene. The simplicity of Hilferty’s staging exposes the play’s emotional and violent undercurrents which are then amplified by the arena-like shape of the room in which characters stalk around each other until ready to make their move.

Carr has also incorporated the mystical elements of Lorca’s piece with a role for Thalissa Teixeira as the white-suited moon who sets the mood by singing in Spanish and English, her voice a continual warning of the looming danger exuded by Isobel Waller-Bridge’s composition. Likewise, death muses philosophically as a woman at the spindle (Brid Brennan) later in the play, while some woodcutters act as a chorus for the action, although their presentation sits awkwardly, slightly unclear of their purpose in this version. Farber’s mix of realism and slightly heightened fantasy scenes are tonally aligned, supported by Imogen Knight’s intriguing movement choices, including a liberating horse ride performed as a circular swing round the stage at speed – a different kind of solution than those presented in Equus.

Farber controls the unfolding tension very carefully, maintaining momentum in the loaded interchanges between different groups of characters as the deal is done between the central families. And there is an overriding sense of danger throughout Blood Wedding, of how the bitter fallout between the tribes is reawoken by each new generation, looking to past hurts and transgressions to excuse and fuel further attacks. This inability and unwillingness to shake off family legacy is strongly conveyed and underpins the psychological construction of a play in which characters are driven by or fight against this inheritance of blood, and Farber allows the intensity to build, keeping the action taut across a production that seems far shorter than its run time suggest.

The specter of death hangs heavy over these characters – not just in the permanent funeral colour scheme – but also the frequent references to the unpleasant murder of family members at the hands of rival tribes or for failure to conform to local expectation. The deaths of the Groom’s father and brother are mentioned often by his mother, oddly seen by her as a relief, an ending that places them beyond the permanent atmosphere of violence and fear of death which the living must endure. Carr brings real clarity to this aspect of Lorca’s play in her adaptation, creating a wider sense of the warring clans and the devastating relief of death felt by those left behind, adding to an overarching sense of predestination that Farber unfolds well – the real union of the play being the final and inevitable confrontation between the Groom and Leonardo Felix, something the latter acknowledges to the Bride is the rightful consequence of their actions.

Olwen Fouéré as the Groom’s Mother is a forbidding presence with a strong feel for the rights of her family. Obsessed with the death of her husband and eldest son, Mother dotes on the Groom, insisting on his physical perfection and talks about the investment of a parent in physically growing her son. Fouéré dominates much of the action with a clear idea of her family’s superiority in the local area while still fearing the world of men that threatens the stability and harmony of her relationship. Annie Firbank as her equivalent female presence in the Bride’s home gets most of the jokes and a charming scene with the Groom at the wedding in which he physically sweeps her off her feet, but like Mother, she equally insists on maintaining the status quo, protecting the status of the family name and parcelling out wisdom to her granddaughter.

Aoife Duffin’s Bride is a classic Lorca woman, trapped in a situation not of her own making and initially fighting the circumstances that might set her free. The Bride’s motivation is sometimes difficult to follow as her emotional trajectory vacillates between the two men as the action unfolds, but Duffin evokes the struggle between duty and passion pretty well, and while her characterisation borders on sulkiness, bringing out a childishness and lack of maturity in the Bride that makes her a less explicable prize to these two men, her final reckoning is well conveyed.

David Walmsley and Gavin Drea are the Groom and Leonardo Felix respectively, each suggesting their ultimate lack of suitability for the Bride. Walmsley’s Groom has a blind certainty in his right to marry the woman he chooses and never openly objects to his mother’s exuberant boasting, while Drea’s Felix is already a terrible husband to a woman he married in anger, refusing to settle for the life he chose. Their eventual confrontation is full of drama, and although far too short for the build-up it receives, it is a showdown that purposefully links together the mystical and quasi-religious elements of the play that collide fate and inevitability with the brutality of the world in which these men exist, where knives rather than weddings are the real solution to family conflict.

Carr’s coherent vision for Blood Wedding delivers a production that is unforgiving, creating a portentous world in which notions of love and freedom will always be trampled by the stronger inheritance of history, violence and family legacy. The bleak landscape of isolated farmsteads and rocky mountains which Farber and Hilferty create is steeped in death and destruction, an inescapable fate for all involved as well as a relief from the burden of life. A wedding is more than the beginning of a love story, it is a powerful union of families – in this engaging and atmospheric adaptation, it’s certainly not for the weak.

Blood Wedding is at the Young Vic until 2 November with tickets from £10. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog   

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