Tree Fiction BAC

Bedtime Stories

Fiction – Battersea Arts Centre, until 21 March 2015 (Tickets)

The Battersea Arts Centre welcomes David Rosenberg and Glen Neath back to the Council Chamber following the hugely successful production of Ring – an audio-hallucinatory adventure that married a highly technical sound design with an engagingly simple premise to create an extremely enjoyable, if difficult to classify hybrid of funfair chills, performance and radio play.

Clearly an advocate of the ‘if it’s not broken’ school, their latest production revisits much of the same ground. Again the audience are plunged into total darkness and listen through headsets. Again it is a brilliant opening that works better than you can imagine, even though you know precisely what is about to happen.

Very little beats the instant breath-catching horror of being unexpectedly plunged into complete darkness. It is the sort of oppressive darkness that is rarely experienced in urban areas – absolute, total black, where you begin to forget whether your eyes are open or closed.

And then, just as you are adjusting, the voices begin. And even awareness of what is to come can’t stop it from being a spine-chilling moment, your brain fooling you into thinking that you can feel warm breath on your neck as they whisper in your ear.

However to say much more about the plot would be to spoil the experience. It is enough to say that the programme notes refer to Rosenberg and Neath’s interest in dreams, the production attempts to create a collective experience of the shared dream space and the story itself twists and turns on dream logic.

Technically the show is more complex than Ring. The sound feels more layered and the effects more complex. Multiple voices work together more effectively and it is much easier to get a sense of distance as sounds move further away.

However as the science becomes increasingly apparent it is hard not to feel that they have lost something of Ring’s charm. It is a strange thing to say about an evening spent in pitch darkness listening to headphones but it felt that Fiction was a more solitary experience. The premise of Ring, the circular aspect and the actor moving around the room created a sense of inclusivity. Here, seated auditorium style, facing a giant screen – even if in darkness – felt very isolating and oddly impersonal.

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We came hoping for a new arcadia and instead ended up with Welwyn Garden City.

The Hard Problem – Dorfman Space @ National Theatre, until 27 May 2015 (Tickets)

This production will be broadcast to cinemas on 16 Aprilthe_hard_problem398.jpg

The ‘hard problem’of the title refers to ‘consciousness'; a concept under assault from a battalion of neuroscientists laying claim to greater and greater certainty in their understanding of brain functionality as something that can be deconstructed to the micro-level of synapses, neurons and neurotransmitters. As neuroscience is in the ascendancy we are left with awkward questions over whether humans are left increasingly shackled by the tyranny of genetic determinism? Where does our freedom of thought – our freedom to act in ways contrary to the principles of evolutionary science – fit into the equation? In essence does the philosophical ‘mind’, as opposed to the functional ‘brain’, exist?

These are fascinating questions and truly weighty topics. It is the sort of subject we have come to expect from Tom Stoppard, who has demonstrated his formidable intelligence on countless occasions over the last forty years and in so doing has contributed some of Britain’s finest plays of the post-war era. This includes two genuine classics in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and Arcadia and many others that found audacious approaches to create unabashedly literate drama enthused with a wit that refused to bow to the lowest common denominator.

Stoppard is 77 years old and it is his first new play for nine years. So perhaps the hard problem for the audience is reconciling itself to the idea that the play – quite possibly his last – is a bit of a dud. Critical reactions have been mixed and supported by an undercurrent of good will but, on reflection, can anyone seriously challenge the view that this is but a pale imitation of what has come before?

The play suffers primarily from a lack of drama. Things happen, time passes, the plot resorts to rather clichéd contrivances and one comes away finding it very difficult to care about any of it.

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An uncategorisable wonder

Songs of Lear – Song of the Goat @ Battersea Arts Centre, until 22 February 2015

For some people theatre is purely a title used to describe a single homogenous mass of culture. They make no distinction between plays and musicals, and certainly don’t delineate between the many genre classifications that exist within drama. However for regular theatre goers there exist a number of tell-tale phrases that act as a useful guide as to whether a theatre event is something likely to be enjoyed.  Z Warzynski2 fot

Take Songs of Lear by Song of the Goat; they rather bravely describe their new play as ‘deeply rooted in the best traditions of Polish avant-garde theatre’. Despite putting it top of my list of plays to see in 2015, I must admit to being extremely intrigued in how tickets were selling at the box office.

So it was extremely heartening to report that the Grand Hall at the Battersea Arts Centre was a near sell-out; somewhere in the region of 400 people had clearly felt there wasn’t nearly enough non-linear, dramatic retellings of King Lear using polyphonic singing, gestures and mime in the London theatre scene to satisfy their cravings.

To describe Songs of Lear is close to impossible. It exists as a bold and brilliant reinvention of King Lear that takes its cue from the play but whose source material would be near impossible to identify without director, Grzegorz Bral, providing a summary explanation at the start of each episode.

It contains virtually no dialogue from the play but the dialogue it does contain seems to tell you all that is needed. Instead the cast – or possibly choir – perform the most haunting choral singing, with influences that seem to stretch from across Europe and North Africa.

1web_DSC0970Some moments sound liturgical and there are elements of what could be Gregorian chanting. A musician playing the Balkan bagpipes enters at key moments, directing his playing towards the actors; his interpolations are open to debate but for me they were a signifier of the existence of the wider world that is being slowly torn apart by the actions of Lear and his daughters. Or it could just be a man playing the bagpipes.

It ends with what appears to be an Arabic-inflected piece – the dead king paid homage to in the guttural cries of mourners, but are they mourning him or are they mourning the divided, fractured kingdom left behind?

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Though this be madness there should be method in it

Hamlet – English Repertory Theatre @ Cockpit Theatre, until 15 March 2015 (tickets)

I would like to open this review by mentioning that Civilian Theatre does not see itself as one of those critics that takes a perverse pleasure in lacerating poor productions with a damning review; chuckling to oneself with each stab of the keyboard. In the four years of reviewing plays, Civilian Theatre has only really laid into two productions (Babel and Peter & Alice) and both were big B02J4494-210enough to make it unlikely that my chiding remarks would have any real impact on the sensitivities of those involved.

With smaller-scale, or up and coming, companies it usually preferable to take a more modulated tone; criticism can serve two purposes, on one hand a review is written so that a potential ticket buyer can draw something meaningful about a play whilst a theatre company may also use it to draw insight from what a person distanced from the production process took away from the evening.

So in a roundabout way, and with the previous two paragraphs forming a mea culpa for what is to follow, we reach Hamlet, usually by William Shakespeare but here pared-down to 90 minutes and subject to reworking by the English Repertory Theatre.

Now I have been a stalwart defender of the right to adapt Shakespeare in order to draw in new audiences or to cast fresh perspectives on the action. I loved both of Phyllidia Lloyd’s productions at the Donmar (Julius Caesar and Henry IV), and felt that cutting close to four hours from Henry IV Part I & Part II was entirely validated due to the way it thrillingly reinterpreting the relationship dynamics between the lead roles.

However it is a high risk approach and one has to be sure that every snip from the text is dramatically justified and lends to the clarity and purpose of the production. So in this version it is understandable that you would excise much of the political intrigue that swirls around Elsinore, cutting Fortinbras and Hamlet’s trip to England completely and narrowing the action to Hamlet’s coterie in order to fit it to the school setting.

What is less understandable is why you would then reallocate dialogue so that Horatio delivers Fortinbras’ final lines in a cod-Norwegian accent. It is a terribly misjudged comic coda for what is ostensibly a tragedy, and also acts as a strangely out-of-place addendum at odds with the key themes that have been drawn out in the cut-down text.

This is just one example of the confusion that mars a production that reeks of being cannily targeted at the school syllabus; the stripped down running time and the schoolyard setting feel  little more than a lure to entice the financially powerful student trip market. The use of a school as a framing device is never justified, and leads to far more questions than answers, so that in the end it becomes a performance that lacks narrative coherence.

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Radical treatment, radical theatre

The Eradication of Schizophrenia in Western Lapland – Ridiculusmus @ Battersea Arts Centre (Touring until March 2015)

For various reasons this review of The Eradication of Schizophrenia in Western Lapland comes over a week after experiencing the production at the Battersea Arts Centre. Often, as a reviewer flitsEradication from theatre to theatre, trying to write a review after such a delay can be troublesome as images from different plays begin to blur together in the mind. This isn’t a problem for Ridiculusmus’ The Eradication…, which pulls of a coup de théâtre with their simple but brilliantly effective approach to staging.

In portraying a family being pulled apart by the spectre of mental illness, Ridiculusmus’ decision to split the audience in half, dividing the stage with a simple screen and performing two overlapping narratives, isn’t just a technical device to garner attention on the highly competitive fringe circuit but exists to act as a mechanism to enable the audience to step inside the fog of psychosis.

Ridiculusmus present the eradication of schizophrenia in western lapland at BACCreating a shared understanding is one of the big challenges to changing perceptions on mental illness. Most people have suffered injury or been physically ill at some point in their lives, and as a result they are able to draw on this experience, however limited, in order to shape their understanding and build a connection to those with a terminal disease or with a physical disability.

However if a person has never experienced a mental health illness then it is very difficult to associate with any description on the pressures on a fragile psyche, and in turn the best that can be offered is glib and often wildly inaccurate approximations.

Ridiculusmus’ approach to staging brings an audience about as close to the reality of mental illness as it is possible to get. Separated from half the on-stage action but with the dialogue bleeding through the divide – sometimes appearing to interlink with the scene you are watching, at times talking over it and on other occasions hearing it only as a background hum – it recreates, in the audience, the polyphonic chorus that accompanies many people entering schizophrenic psychosis.

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Gods and Monsters – Review

Gods and Monsters (originally a 1998 film starring Ian McKellen), based on Christopher Bram’s novel Father of Frankenstein, considers the career and fate of James Whale, monumental director, WHALEFRANKENSTEINmost famous for his adaptation of Frankenstein. The play explores Whale’s life and career and his slow dissolution into obscurity.Once he was known throughout the world, yet if it wasn’t for  it’s likely that today only the cine-literate would remember his name. It’s a fate that many in Hollywood must one day endure, and Gods and Monsters examines Whale’s singular experience and reaction. At the play’s outset, we join Whale in the eve of his life, living in semi-obscurity, tired with Hollywood and frustrated, having been pigeon-holed by this one film.

Ian Gelder is fantastic in the central role. He is required to display two very different sides to Whale. There is the side he shows to his guests, which has become a rather grotesque caricature of a slightly lurid and predatory Hollywood homosexual. Gelder gives the sense that Whale has fallen into this role and has now played it for so long it feels like a second skin. Here Gelder captures the sharpness, the hint of danger to Whale’s interactions that gives the play a much needed tension…continues at www.everything-theatre.co.uk

<<You can read the full review on Everything Theatre)