Accessible opera in unlikely venues

The Medium & The Wanton Sublime – Arcola Theatre, until 29 August 2015 (tickets)

Now in its ninth year, Grimeborn stands as east London’s answer to champagne, strawberries and washed-out picnics on the South Downs. It must symbolise the gentrification of previously gritty London that opera, in the form of The Medium and The Wanton Sublime, had sold out on a Wednesday evening, and that no less a person than Joanna Lumley, the doyenne of Jaguar-driving men everywhere, was in attendance. Perhaps finding La Boheme or Tosca had sold out would have been less surprising, but these are not such well known pieces. The Medium is so obscure that it does not even warrant a mention on Peter The medium 2Maxwell Davies’ Wikipedia page, whilst The Wanton Sublime is an entirely new composition from Tarik O’Regan.

This blog does not profess to know much about opera, and was partly attending due to the strength of the festival’s wonderful punning title. However at around ninety minutes including the interval, the evening provides the opportunity for a taster session of what classical music is all about.

Both pieces are written to be performed solo, and are taken on by mezzo-soprano, Hai-Ting Chinn. From a lay-person’s perspective Chinn was fantastic in both roles. Previously seen in Einstein on the Beach, it must be strange to perform in the incredibly intimate Arcola Studio space. It places the performers within touching distance of the audience, and allows for a degree of intimacy that would not be possible in a traditional opera house. Chin handles this very well, and watching a singer close-up made apparent the amount of acting that goes on alongside the singing. It is a fascinating process as it takes a very different skillset to acting with written dialogue. The libretto must be sung which must make vocalising emotion difficult, and as a result much more reliance is place on externalised gestures (much as you would find in silent pictures).

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Exclusive: Tabloid editor mined for comedic gold

Clarion – Arcola Theatre, until 16 May 2015 (tickets)

The last few years haven’t been kind to journalists. The decline in print journalism has led to the decimation to the 20th century model of news creation whilst their standing in the public’s eyes has wpid-wp-1429963568067.jpgfallen to levels usually reserved for MPs and lawyers as phone-hacking revelations continue to destroy the industry’s slender claims to ethical credibility.

However they continue to soldier on, harbouring a dewy-eyed nostalgia for behaviour of the sort that would not be acceptable in other line of employment. Against it all journalists continue to cling to the iconic image of the noble, incorruptible news reporter – immortalised many times on screen and in print – and try to square it with the reality of a culture of bullying and humiliation that – to outsiders – seems endemic to the profession.

These tensions are evident in Mark Jagasia’s scabrous satire Clarion.  Jagasia, who worked for the Evening Standard and the Daily Express, has written a play fuelled with an intimate knowledge of its subject that is brutally scathing about the news industry, gut-wrenchingly funny in parts, but that can also be seen as a love letter to a dying friend.

Technology has left the medium wobbling on its last legs. It is likely there will be people watching this play that have never paid for a newspaper. Even the idea of a front page splash is fading as people see news as a series of equally sized tiles on mobile phones. The profession survives but it is a shadow of what it was, and it is hard not to feel that Clarion carries with it the faint note of a eulogy.

For as much as this is a comedy, it is impossible to ignore the artful nods towards Greek tragedy. It broadly adheres to the unities of time, action and place – taking place across a single day in a newsroom that is coming under increasing siege – and we see characters undone by their own hubris, whilst the modern day god of Mammon sows destruction among the just and unjust alike. Jagasia even skilfully incorporates a Tiresias-like seer in the form of a prescient horoscope writer.

That these allusions work and don’t come off as pretentious is due to Jagasia’s skill as playwright. It is a very impressive debut and, by taking time to reveal its true depth, leaves a final impression of a play that displays a far greater degree of complexity than Richard Bean’s Great Britain.

Where Great Britain was a very broad satire, and incredibly funny at times, it never scratched the surface of the issues it portrayed. It preferred caricatures to characters and one never got the sense that in reality these cartoons are actual human beings. Clarion may appear to cleave to similar stereotypes but, by limiting the cast to six core roles, Jagasia has time to add extra elements that give humanity to his creations.

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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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A wintery tale

In Skagway – Arcola Theatre, until March 01 2014

In Skagway, currently playing in Studio 2 at the Arcola Theatre, is a play baring all the hallmarks of the exuberant writer finding their feet – and carries along with it the positives and negatives that such a statement may suggest.

Karen Ardiff’s play has won the Stewart Parker/BBC Radio Drama award. This is a telling achievement as there are moments watching In Skagway that one feels that radio, where it is within a person’s imagination that the last embers of the Alaskian gold rush ahead of the encroaching Alaskan winters are recreated, is the perfect medium for this story.

Through the heart of this play runs a fabulously well thought out parallel; Frankie Harmon (Angeline Ball) plays anIn Skagway, Arcola Theatre, Feb 2014, courtesy Leith Lothian 8 actress whose heyday has passed and is now immobile after what appears to be a stroke, whilst the role she was most famous for was that of Hermione in The Winter’s Tale – most well known for being a statue that is eventually restored to life.

This idea – of an actress no longer capable of action being feted for a role that is known for its transition from statue to life – is a brilliant conceit and a wonderful place to begin a story. For the play to then be set in the face of the approaching harsh winter, as the gold that sustains the town begins to run out, suggests that Ardiff has a keen eye for creating a narrative that is able to fold back in on itself.

However at times the narrative attempts to much and some of the themes risk falling into incoherence; a large proportion of the play was dedicated to Frankie’s backstory and it was not always entirely clear how this meshed with the central story. Throughout the play there were hints that she was difficult and manipulative but a revelatory twist revealed by May’s towards the end still appeared to come out of leftfield with very little foreshadowing.

A secondary problem with placing so much emphasis on Frankie’s history was that it relied on a number of transitions to a rather ill-defined past. This is a shift that can work well on radio but in the theatre it did lead to a struggle to maintain fluidity and coherence. The final scenes, which operated with a voiceover, were more successful and mimic the radio experience more explicitly but those that were straight re-enactments were less successful and did jolt the audience out of the reality of the Alaskan cabin.

In Skagway, Arcola Theatre, Feb 2014, courtesy Leith Lothian 9 (1)Geraldine Alexander (May) and Kathy Rose O’Brien (T-Belle) did a fine job with their characters and the scenes towards the end, as they took their final look back towards the Alaskan town that was soon to become another footnote in the history of American gold rush, evoked a lyrical tenderness that hinted at a more poetic and reflective play lying under the surface.

Ardiff has the qualities needed for good writing; she has a well-defined sense of place – Skagway itself is a fascinating and underdeveloped slice of history – and an astute eye for an interesting dramatic structure – layering the plot with intricate themes that faintly echo each other. That being said it does not come as a surprise to find that Ardiff was previously an actor; In Skagway currently feels as if was written to be performed rather than written to be watched.

To directly lift from a great writer, Kurt Vonnegut captured it best when he said ‘we have to be continually jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down’ for how else do we learn?

Not feeling my opinion? Here are two more reviews plucked from the web

A true life American has this to say (Webcowgirl)

A proper magazine has this to say (Fourth Wall)