Snapshots of harrowing reality

Shrapnel: 34 Fragments of a Massacre – Arcola Theatre, until 02 April 2015 (ticketsJosef Altin (Photo: Nick Rutter)

That we should be angry about the Roboski massacre should go without saying. Any act in a war that leads to 34 civilians being killed is an act that should lead to outcry and public condemnation. These are statements that it is difficult to disagree with, and it is certainly the viewpoint of Anders Lustgarten – one of the most overtly political playwrights working in a city whose theatre is often criticised for cleaving to closely to middle class sentiments for middle class audiences.

Shrapnel 5 Aslam Percival Husain and Karina Fernandez Photo Nick Rutter.jpgLustgarten should be applauded for his internationalist outlook. He has avoided more obvious events and has focussed on one tragic story that is difficult to shape within our traditional western media narratives about the war on terror. To fully understand the events at Roboski it is necessary to have a reasonable grasp of the history of the Kurdish people and their relationship with the Turkish state. Whilst it perhaps isn’t essential, it would also be useful to be aware of the PKK and the long-battle that the Kurds have had across the middle-east to avoid persecution in their adoptive homelands.

It is quite clear Lustgarten knows what he is talking about, and that he has deeply held beliefs about it. The fact the programme notes he has been arrested by the Turkish secret police provides certain validity to the idea that in writing this play he has been speaking truth to power.

Performances were excellent from across the ensemble cast and weighted with a powerful emotional charge; Aslam Percival Husain and Karina Fernandez in their roles as Kurdish villagers describing the fates that have befallen their kith and kin displayed an almost unwatchable dignity and honour in the face of tragedy.

They were supported by staging that made a striking contrast between the flashy, technological toys of those with the political, military and financial might and a sparseness that fit with desolate mountain lands that the Kurdish people called their home.

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Get your fix of immersive theatre and be hooked

Trainspotting – In Your Face Theatre @ King’s Head Theatre, until 11 April 2015 (tickets)

Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting has proved to be a surprisingly durable and versatile work. In its original incarnation as a novel it stands comparison with the neglected masterpiece Last Exit To Gavin Ross as Mark Renton (credit: Christopher Tribble)Brooklyn, and it does so because Welsh matches Hubert Selby Jr’s ability to capture the vernacular of the community it speaks for so from amidst the grotesque surrealism of the imagary a harrowing realism emerges.

Its vitality has made it the perfect fodder for stage and screen. With Danny Boyle at the helm, the film exploded off the screen, underpinned by a pulsating soundtrack and electric performances that encapsulated hedonistic spirit of people that knew change was in the air after almost two decades of Conservative rule.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, and certainly appropriately, In Your Face’s production began life at the Edinburgh Festival and the constraints of performing there might explain the 65 minute running time, which is really only just enough time to do justice to the world Welsh created. However Harry Gibson has done an exemplary job in adapting Trainspotting.

Rather than force the whole plot into an hour, Gibson has tightly focused the work around Renton’s journey towards ditching the skag. Other characters interweave in this story and the main beneficiary is in lifting Tommy Laurence so he becomes a central character; in this world, where scales play such a critical role, there must always be balance and so with Renton’s emancipation must come Tommy’s enslavement.

Sickboy (Neil Pendlenton) and Renton (Credit: Christopher Tribble)Fans of the film may complain that Begbie is sidelined by these changes but in this immersive staging a little of Chris Dennis’ Begbie goes an awfully long way. It is hard to believe that anyone could get close to Robert Carlyle’s psychopathic creation but Dennis has an added advantage – audience members at which to channel his malice. Even understanding the rules and structure of theatre there were moments when Begbie broke the fourth wall and became a terrifyingly real manifestation in a manner Boyle’s film could never have achieved.

In Your Face have produced an immersive experience that puts to shame many theatre companies working in a similar field; they have not found it necessary to scope out abandoned factories, railway tunnels or old department stores to create their world, rather they have transformed the King’s Head into the down-at-heel world of early 90’s Leith and trusted in their ability to take the audience with them.

We know we are in a theatre and the set is just a representation of a location – we don’t need elaborate sensory experiences to make us believe we are somewhere else, that is what we use our imaginations for – but from the moment we enter to a glowstick-raving cast gurning maniacally to Born Slippy.Nuxx, Ebenezer Goode and Right on Time through to the heartbreaking candlelit ending we are completely immersed in the world they have created.

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Mike Noble and Jodie McNee by Keith Pattison

All harmless fun?

Game – Almeida Theatre, until 04 April 2015 (Tickets)

This review contains spoilers. If you want to know nothing about Game then read no further.Mike Noble and Jodie McNee by Keith Pattison

Civilian Theatre rarely bothers with spoiler announcements as it usually possible to talk about a play without needing to go into any specific elements that would ruin the element of surprise. However the Almeida has been tight lipped about the production and going in blind – having avoided reviews entirely – really enhanced the impact of the show.

Game is Mike Bartlett’s follow-up to the crowd-pleasing smash-hit King Charles III, which started life at the Almeida before setting up camp in the West End. Where  King Charles III paid homage to Shakespeare’s history plays, was written in iambic verse and clocked in at over two hours, Game more than nods towards Big Brother, is written in modern English and is wrapped-up in less than hour.

However they share a common theme in that they both exist in an off-kilter near-future world where events occurring seem unlikely but are not impossible to imagine. In both Bartlett displays an interest in society’s relationship with privacy. In King Charles III we see the issue played out on the grand scale – a ‘great men of history’ perspective that sees change arriving from the top down.

In Game we see another reality; a constant chipping away of our notion of privacy from the bottom-up. It is a world where entrepreneurs continually test the boundaries of acceptability until we have reduced people to the same voyeuristic abstraction that we hold for animals in the zoo. The starting point may be hard to pin down but Big Brother will be remembered as a watershed moment; the point where we realised that people would volunteer to be placed under constant surveillance to entertain the masses, and the masses tuned watched in their droves.

Game takes this moment and follows the idea to its natural conclusion. Eventually watching isn’t enough. Voting people out satisfied needs for a while but, as I’m A Celebrity proved, given the choice we prefer to also have the option of meting out ritual humiliations on those who take part. John (Daniel Cerqueira) keeps prodding at those boundaries; initially renting out a house to a couple where it appears we get to watch them live their normal lives, before it becoming apparent that they are in fact prey for those who can afford it.

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Austere Agony in Antigone

Antigone – Barbican, until 28 March 2015 (tickets – returns only)

It seems that London theatres cannot get enough of the ancient Greeks. Last year we were treated to a contemporary Medea at the National and a relatively classical Electra at the Old Vic. The Credit Jan Versweyweld Almeida have announced a season containing The Bakkhai, Oresteia and, tantalisingly, a chance to watch Rupert Goold direct his wife, Kate Fleetwood, in another Medea (and one would love to have Freud’s opinion on that choice!).

Sandwiched between them, but certainly not squeezed out, is what can only be described as a major theatre event; Ivo van Hove – fresh off the universally acclaimed A View From The Bridge – directing Juliette Binoche in Sophocles’ Antigone.

Of all the Greek tragedies it is Antigone that appears the most timeless. The moral dilemma at its heart is as immediately relevant today as it was when it was written 2500 years ago. It is a staggering achievement of simplicity and a constant reminder of the universal nature of human experience. Whilst society is broadly unrecognisable from the small slave-owning city-states of Greece in 5th century BC, the central compelling issue – of whether a person can hold a moral law above that of the state – remains at the heart of many contemporary debates.

Ivo van Hove works with a minimalist’s clarity and sense of purpose to bridge a gap between the ancient and the modern. He is supported through Jan Versweyweld’s set design that splits the large Barbican space into two distinct areas. The downstage is kitted out in a sleek, functional contemporary urban style, whilst the upstage is starkly bare. Both locations give no hint to place to emphasise the universalism of the narrative.

Van Hove further stresses the ageless, placeless nature of Antigone’s dilemma by projecting huge, abstract scenes onto the back wall. A huge circular cut-out at the start of the play gives the impression of a solar eclipse – a traditional signifier of the intervention of the gods – before slowly rolling aside to let light stream in and bath the stage in a clinical brightness. It is a production where everyone’s actions will come under the microscope and be subjected to judgement; by the gods, by the playwright and by the audience.

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Credit Richard Lakos

Hi-jinx at the health spa

Die Entführung aus dem Serail* – Pop-up Opera @ Robert Kime Furniture Shop, then touring across England until 24 April 2015. (Venue and tickets)wpid-wp-1426112713834.jpeg

* ‘The Abduction from the Seraglio harem health spa’

Just as some people judge the arrival of spring by their first sighting of the swallow, Civilian Theatre – rather less inclined to nature – can say with some confidence that if it finds itself crammed into a most unusual location, wineglass wedged between its knees with a soprano hammering away at Top C just a few feet away then it can only mean one thing – Spring and the first show of Pop-Up Opera’s touring season.

A promising first encounter came courtesy of Bizet’s Le Docteur Miracle in Drink, Shop & Do, and the feeling that Pop-Up Opera were a company not to be missed came with a fabulously insouciant Cosi fan Tutte in a Mayfair bar. And as a result I find myself in the stylish surroundings of Robert Kime’s furniture shop for one of Mozart’s lesser known opera’s ‘The Abduction from the Seraglio’.

It is typical of the company that a lot of effort is expended to make a relatively obscure piece of music accessible to those who do not often find themselves frequenting opera houses. Purists may splutter at the idea of a classical piece being updated to include references to big brother, donkey kong and tinder but it is important that this doesn’t come at the expense of the music.

Pop-up Opera’s style is to leave the music to itself and pepper surtitle screens with mostly irreverent commentary. The comedy mainly hits the mark and provides an accessible and modern interpretation of the action that broadly follows the plot but which also recognises that humour occasionally needs to be updated if it will appeal to a modern audience.

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The Ruling Farce

The Ruling Class – Trafalgar Studios, until 11 April 2015 (Tickets

James McAvoy and Kathryn Drysdale in The Ruling Class at the Trafalgar Studios. Credit: Jonas Persson

It is entirely possible that finance for this revival of Peter Barnes’ satire of the British class system was raised purely on the back of a one-sentence pitch: ‘enter James McAvoy riding a unicycle whilst wearing white underpants’.

It may well have been a tough sell otherwise, as The Ruling Class acts as an exemplar of the potential perils of reviving a near-forgotten play. Staged in 1968 it would have appeared as a topical satire that referenced the ideals of the summer of love and the pressures being place on the established elites by the social revolutions that rippled through the decade. Barnes’ sets an aristocratic establishment against the more hippyish virtues of McAvoy’s ‘JC’ – who has a particular fascination in bonding the pleasures of the spiritual and physical realms.

Credit: Jonas PerssonHowever by 2014 – with society bended to fit the tyranny of the financial markets and the ideals of the free-spirited long broken by an advertising industry that learnt it could get fat by selling homogenised difference – this world is almost unrecognisable from the one we ended living in.

While a play does not need to be relevant to be enjoyed, one must question why it has never seen a major revival since the Leeds Playhouse in 1983.  Given the canny programming of Jamie Lloyd’s critically and commercially successful Trafalgar Transformed seasons up to this point, it does seem like a curious choice.

However it turns out the play isn’t without interest. Whilst it is creaky and overlong – two and a half hours plus an interval for a satirical comedy? – there are several quite unexpected tonal shifts that means you are never quite sure what is going to come next.

I certainly was unprepared for a play from 1968 to open with a quite gruesome death by way of auto-erotic asphyxiation misadventure. Equally the fact that it suddenly breaks into vaudevillian song and dance routines for no discernible reason is baffling and pleasing in equal measure.

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