Three Kingdoms: Three theatre companies, three languages, three countries and three genres

Three Kingdoms – Hammersmith Lyric, playing until 19 May 2012 [With Munich Kammerspiele and Estonia’s Teater NO99]

Three Kingdoms is an ambitious collaborative work that pulls together the best of Britain, Germany and Estonia in the shape of playwright Simon Stephens, director Sebastian Nübling and designer Ene-Liis Semper. If Simon Stephens is a well-known name on the British stage thanks to critically-acclaimed plays like Wastewater and Punk Rock, the general lack of recognition for the other two is more a result of our insular Anglo-American approach to theatre rather than any lack of talent on their part: Sebastian Nübling works with Munich Kammerspiele, whilst Ene-Liis Semper co-founded Teater NO99 in 2004, and I am reliably informed by Estonian cultural emissaries that they are generally regarded as being towards the top of a vibrant (?) theatre scene in Estonia.

This trio of talents have rather curiously taken it upon themselves to work with a narrative that would not seem out of place airing on ITV in three parts on successive Tuesday nights. Three Kingdoms begins by giving every impression of being a staged version of a TV crime drama; bleak scenes of cold, stained police rooms, dysfunctional domestic relationships and stereotypical Russian gangsters.

As the narrative begins to open out the ambition of the play starts to be revealed. Increasingly the action takes on a woozy, slightly sickening feel as the audience watches events as the alienated Detective Inspector Ignatius Stone (Nicholas Tennant) sees them, rather than his bi-lingual partner, Detective Sergeant Charlie Lee (Ferdy Roberts).

<< Read full review here >>

Watch the trailer below:

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The name’s Bond, Edward Bond: A very different take on consumerist culture

The Chair Plays – Hammersmith Lyric Studio, until 05 May

Edward Bond’s one-act Have I None, first performed in 2009, is a lacerating fifty-five minute portrayal of humanity surviving in a post- consumerist world. It hinges on Bond’s neat take on the dystopian vision; usually we are provided with one of two choices, either a world that initially appears to have the trapping of a democracy and people seem to have every whim catered before it becomes obvious that it is sustained by the brutal repression of the masses, Hunger Games being the $£750 million example of this. The alternative is a society controlled by a militaristic bureaucracy where everything seems to exist on a tonal palette running from grey to greyer; Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four or Pinter’s New World Order both seem appropriate here.

In Have I None, Bond has carved his own path. The play considers a world where humanity has seen society destroy itself through its consumerist appetites; a character describes people buying sports car just to crash them into walls. In response people have turned to the state for action, and the Government has acted by creating ‘resettled’ towns where the past has been banned and the only personal possessions allowed are those provided by the state. It is enforced equality in action.

Those towns that have not been resettled are infected by mass suicide outbreaks, which give Bond a chance to turn his often-underutilised poetic skills to the sight of rows and rows of people in overcoats waiting for their turn to leap from a bridge. It is a classic Bond technique; every-day brutality that is captured by a lyricism that suggests a beauty that attracts and alienates in equal measure.

<<Click here for the full review>>

Furious speculation and petulant snubs

The Evening Standards are almost upon us, so it is time to cast eyes over the shortlist. Harrumph over those missing from the list and make pointlessly futile predictions over who might be coming out on top. As usual we see the usual suspects vying for position.

This year the National leads the way with nine nominations, squeezing out the Royal Court with eight. Most disappointed must be the Donmar with just two nominations and a complete shut-out in both Best Actress and Best Actor catagories despite a number of barnstorming performances from Derek Jacobi, Jude Law and Ruth Wilson.

As usual the commercial sector is poorly represented and even in the musicals category they are squeezed by a National and a RSC production in London Road and Matilda respectively. However it is possible to see the faintest glimmer around the edges as Theatre Royal Haymarket managed to sneak a nomination for Sheridan Smith in Flare Path and a number of other nominations that never quite made it off the longlist. While it is far too early to say, it could be the start of a private theatre that plans to lead with serious, if understandably traditional and crowd-pleasing, drama.

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Best Actor

Bertie Carvel Matilda RSC Stratford and Cambridge Theatre
Benedict Cumberbatch Frankenstein National’s Olivier
Charles Edwards Much Ado About Nothing Shakespeare’s Globe
Jonny Lee Miller Frankenstein National’s Olivier

Well the most interesting thing about this year’s Best Actor category is the double-header of Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller being nominated for Frankenstein. It would have been cruel to have nominated one without the other but the question is whether they will pull votes away from each other and allow a sneaky victory for either Bertie Carvel or Charles Edwards to slip through in the ensuing mayhem. Either way looking at the shortlist it feels that it may have been a slightly weak year for male leads – with certainly no standout performance to stand alongside Rory Kinnear’s Hamlet of last year and the England-sized shadow of Mark Rylance in Jerusalem.

There are some notable omissions from the shortlist and James Corden in particular should perhaps feel most put-out by the lack of inclusion. He received universally rave reviews for One Man, Two Guvnors and the play had a host of 5* reviews and earned a nomination in its own right for Best Play. No space either for the Hollywood A-list of Spacey, Fiennes and Law; with Law perhaps producing the most transformative performance of them all in Anna Christie and re-establishing his right to be called a credible actor.

Will Win

Benedict Cumberbatch – Frankenstein (successfully holding off the split vote)

Should Win

Benedict Cumberbatch – Frankenstein

Should Have Been Nominated

James Corden – One Man, Two Guvnors / Jude Law – Anna Christie

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Natasha Richardson award for Best Actress

Sheridan Smith Flare Path Theatre Royal Haymarket
Samantha Spiro Chicken Soup With Barley Royal Court
Kristin Scott Thomas Betrayal Comedy Theatre

The formidable Kristin Scott Thomas looms large over the Best Actress category; bringing a stately grandeur and the imperious air of a known winner to proceedings. A handsome, well-acted Pinter play has awards written all over it but it hasn’t caught the eye in any of the other catagories so it is possible that it doesn’t quite have the legs to deliver the prize to Kristin.

It is entirely possible that the mass of goodwill that Sheridan Smith generated in Legally Blonde may transfer over to her first major lead in a straight play. And we are in a Rattigan centenary year as well. So as the stars seem to align for one double S, it appears the other, Samantha Spiro may be leaving empty handed despite an immensely powerful performance in Chicken Soup with Barley.

In a double blow for Anna Christie and the Donmar, Ruth Wilson joined Jude Law in failing to make it off the shortlist. Looking at the plays, we have a Rattigan, a Wesker, a Pinter and no room for any Americans. Perhaps as uncertainty swirls all around there has been a reward for those choosing Britain’s great 20th century playwrights to reflect on the modern psychology of the nation.

Will Win

Sheridan Smith – Flare Path

Should Win

Samantha Spiro – Chicken Soup with Barley

Should Have Been Nominated

Ruth Wilson – Anna Christie

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Best Play

The Heretic Richard Bean Royal Court
One Man, Two Guvnors Richard Bean National’s Lyttelton
Becky Shaw Gina Gionfriddo Almedia
Tribes Nina Raine Royal Court

Following my previous point about American plays, I suspect that we can count Becky Shaw out of the running. Undoubtably a strong play, I feel its previous history running off-Broadway may count against it in the final reckoning. Richard Bean can count himself unlucky to be nominated twice for Best Play but failed to even make it to the shortlist for Best Director. If people vote for the man rather than the play, we may see both The Heretic and One Many, Two Guvnors miss out on a split vote.

If this logic means Tribe picks up the award then justice may well have been done, as it would be just reward for a young writer’s elegant handling of the contentious topic of disability. Whilst not containing the full liberating freedom of A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, it manages to free the topic from its normal parameters in order to confront the traditional Royal Court audience with a painful dose of reality. After last year’s win for the hugely successful Clydebourne Park, it appears the Royal Court may have found a rich vein of form in forcing its liberal supporters to reassess their underlying beliefs and prejudices.

Will Win

One Man, Two Guvnors – Richard Bean

Should Win

Tribes – Nina  Raine

Should Have Been Nominated

Wittenberg – David Davalos

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Ned Sherrin Award For Best Musical

Betty Blue Eyes
London Road
Matilda the musical

Not having seen any of these makes it difficult to comment. However it is hard to see past Matilda the musical sweeping all before it. Rapturous reviews at Stratford for the acting and singing, alongside Tim Minchin’s inspired lyricism; possibly one of the few individuals who would be able to capture Roald Dahl’s imagination. London Road is undoubtably a powerful piece of work but was it so good that you can convince voters to go for such a dour work in traditionally sunny category? Betty Blue Eyes? Reasonably reviews but will  people vote for something that is closing early? I think not.

Will Win

Matilda the musical

Should Win

Matilda the musical

Should Have Been Nominated

Nothing really stands out in what feels like a particularly weak year for musicals despite what the Evening Standard may say on the matter.

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Best Director

Rob Ashford Anna Christie Donmar
Dominic Cooke Chicken Soup with Barley Royal Court
Edward Hall Richard III & The Comedy of Errors Propeller At Hampstead
Mike Leigh Grief National’s Cotteslow

As much as I would love to see Edward Hall pick up a reward for the virtuoso vision that drives Propeller and their all-male Shakespeare productions, it feels like a very big ask for a company that doesn’t have the catchy celebrity names and longstanding reputations of the Donmar and the Royal Court. I think Mike Leigh can be ruled out as well, as loved as he may be this does not feel like a Mike Leigh year and Grief passed me by with little more than a whisper.

Coming down to Rob Ashford and Dominic Cooke we have two plays that highlight the differences in writing on either side of the Atlantic. O’Neill vs Wesker is a mouth-watering proposition. It is shaped up to be an extremely close run race that I supect will be decided by the fact that we appear to be in a period of re-evaluating Wesker,  Chicken Soup… at the Donmar and the The Kitchen at the Nationa. This extra name recognition and a seeming favouring of British playwrights should be enough to swing the judges towards Dominic Cooke.

A lot of big names have missed out. There is no space for Sam Mendes or Danny Boyle for their interepretations of Richard III and Frankenstein. It’s a shame to see Declan Donnellan has not made the cut for The Tempest, although Russian language plays are always going to be a tough sell.

Will Win

Dominic Cooke – Chicken South with Barley

Should Win

Edward Hall – Richard III & The Comedy of Errors

Should Have Been Nominated

Declan Donnellan – The Tempest

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Best Design

Bunny Christie Men Should Weep National’s Lyttelton
Lizzie Clachan Wastwater Royal Court
Adam Cork Sound designer of Anna Christie and King Lear Donmar
Mark Tildesley Frankenstein National’s Olivier

Not much to say on this other than if Mark Tildesley doesn’t win for Frankenstein then I shall eat my hat. The Olivier is a famously difficult to space to work with and while Danny Boyle’s production may have had its problems, the design was not one of them. Visually stunning and a replica steam train on stage; whatever beats it must be out of this world.

Will Win

Mark Tildesley – Frankenstein

Should Win

Mark Tildesley – Frankenstein

Should Have Been Nominated

Jon Bausor –  Lord of the Flies

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Charles Wintour Award For Most Promising Playwright

E.V. Crowe Kin Royal Court
Vivienne Franzmann Mogadishu Lyric Hammersmith
Penelope Skinner The Village Bike Royal Court

Not having seen any of these its hard to comment. However based purely on word of mouth I suspect that Vivienne Franzmann is out in front for Mogadishu. A deserving win could be on the cards for the Lyric Hammersmith that has championed new writing but has often been overlooked in favour of the reputation of the Royal Court.

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Milton Shulman Award For Outstanding Newcomer

Phoebe Fox For her performances In As You Like It (Rose, Kingston) and The Acid Test (Royal Court) and There Is A War (National’s Paintframe)
Malachi Kirby For his performance In Mogadishu (Lyric Hammersmith)
Kyle Soller For his performances In The Glass Menagerie (Young Vic), Government Inspector (Young Vic) and The Faith Machine (Royal Court)
David Wilson Barnes For his performance In Becky Shaw (Almeida)

In one of the more interesting developments across the nominations, we saw husband, Kyle Soller, up against his wife, Phoebe Fox, in the battle for Outstanding Newcomer. Out of the two my money is on Kyle Soller, if in part for an outstanding performance as Khlestakov in the Young Vic’s version of The Government Inspector and an extremely strong follow-up in The Glass Menagarie.

I feel Malachi Kirby will struggle to match this with just Mogasdishu behind him and there will be no justice in the world  if David Wilson Barnes walks off with the award – as any quick glance at his C.V suggests ‘newcomer’ maybe laying it on a bit thick.

The Cultural Olympiad: Better late then never?

Well the big news of the day is the announcement of some major theatre projects that will be heading our way in 2012. One of the elements of the Olympic legacy that never really seem to have caught the public imagination is the Cultural Olympiad – something aptly skewered in the BBC’s painfully accurate picture of life as a middle-manager on the Olympics (something that I have at times had the questionable fortune to view first hand). 

World Stages London is (and this sounds does sound a little to close  to the clip above for comfort) “…a once-in-a-lifetime celebration through theatre of the exhilarating cosmopolitan diversity of London’s people and culture”. Well okay, in fairness London is one of the great international cities of the world – and what sets it apart on the cultural stage is it is ability to be a melting pot that blends the ingredients of the art and world view of different cultures to create something unique – in a way that only New York can really claim to challenge..

With talents as varied as Peter Brook and Jonathan Dove, and pieces including a 500 strong site-specific work about Babel and the first-ever production of Wild Swans, it seems pretty certain that there will be something for everything in the run-up to the Olympics (where it will be wall-to-wall British sporting patriotism for the best part of six weeks).

Reasons to be cheerful…

The Suit

Peter Brook, in a collaboration with Marie Helene Estienne, continues his exploration of fables and the art of story-telling and  myth-making with this adaptation of a short-story by Can Themba. Now personally I have found Brook’s last two outings at the Barbican insubstantial and well below the standards that he is capable of. Lately his reduction of the stage to its barest essentials have taken on the feel of an ascetic. However one always lives in hope of a return to the form that made him a colossus of 20th century theatre.

It runs from 21 May to the 16 June. More details can be found here

Babel

In what looks like a very special production and the possible flagship event of the whole project, Battersea Arts Centre and WildWorks (responsible for the critically acclaimed The Passion at Port Talbot) are teaming up for Babel, which includes a cast of 500 community and professional actors, musicians and performers. It is site-specific and the location is yet to be revealed, but it seems likely that a famous London landmark is involved and one imagines that it will have to be somewhat tower-shaped (my personal hope is Big Ben but one imagines security concerns may make that one tricky)

It runs from 08 – 20 May. More details can be found here

Wild Swans

A literary classic and a world-wide best seller (no hyperbole here, over 30 translations and 10 million copies – thanks Wikipedia!), Juna Chang’s novel looks set to be one of the more popular smash hits of the festival. Telling a story of one family’s multi-generational struggle against the backdrop of an ever-changing China, it effectively contains the biographies of three generations of women in the Chang family.

I must admit it has never held any interest for me whatsoever. I haven’t read it and can’t imagine doing so soon. No doubt it is my loss but then so are many of the other books I have never, and sadly will never, read. It is almost certain going to be a complete sell-out and if you want to go, you should get your tickets soon.

It runs from 13 April to 13 May. More details can be found here

Three Kingdoms

Despite being one of the more mysterious offerings on the programme, its sheer intriguing nature has me hooked and will be what I will be most looking forward to this spring. Written by Simon Stephens and exploring the trade in trafficked women and organised crime across Europe, it doesn’t profess to being the most uplifting evening you are likely to spend in the theatre. However a new play by Stephens is always worth catching and it is interesting to see a plotline that seems more suggestive of a film being given the stage treatment – throw in the puzzling trail picture (above) and you can count me in.

It runs from 03 – 19 May. More details can be found here

Much more on World Stages London

London Riots: Theatre Special

So with the world, his wife  and their media entourage encamped in Edinburgh for the next few weeks, it asks the question of how those cosmopolitan metrosexuals of the capital can keep themselves entertained.

Well having asked the question, this week we got our answers… And our survey said that out of 100 participants the top two responses were:

 1) Looting

                               2) Appearing in court for looting

However for those who believe that life may have more to offer than G-Star Jeans, shiny new Nikes and £3000 of Rothman Superkings then there  is still the vibrant London theatre-scene…or not, an unfortunate consequence of the rioting meant that much of theatreland closed early to avoid the less than desirable impact of having your audience flambéed during the climax to Love Never Dies (the relief at being put of your misery twenty minutes early notwithstanding).

Having said that, every good rioter deserves favour now and again. And doing my bit to save London’s theatre, I suggest the following West End plays that are suitable for both rioters and vigilantes alike:

1) Hamlet – Young Vic

Shakespeare’s masterpiece about an emotionally troubled young man with an absent father. Watch as Hamlet slowly goes off the rails without the existence of strong familial discipline. Attempts from wise elders, young friends and even his own mother are unable to reign him in and the end, when it comes, is as tragic as it is sadly predictable.

2) Aladdin – Lyric Hammersmith

Experience the thrills and spills of Aladdin’s adventure to steal a magic lamp from a hardworking small business owner. Gasp in awe and laugh with delight as you watch Aladdin’s hilarious mishaps as he attempts to escape the local fuzz while holding on to a bin-liner stuffed with swag. And don’t worry folks, its just a pantomime so we can rest assured that Aladdin will get away with it and get the girl in the end.

3) Jerusalem – Apollo Theatre

A vision of life in our green and pleasant land. Follow Johnny Byron, spokesman for the everyday man as he faces eviction by the Council and hostility from the local community.

4) Les Miserables – Queen’s Theatre

Follow Jean Valjean,our hero and a former prisoner, who is pursuedrelentlessly by his nemesis, the policeman, Javert. Featuring the most convincing portrayals of civil disorder ever captured on the London stage and stuffed full of famous songs that you will have heard at riots up and down the land, you too can sing along with popular classics such as ‘Do you hear the people sing?’ and ‘At the barricades’

5) Accomplice – Menier Chocolate Factory

Described as part-tour, part-game, part-theatre, this innovative production takes people on a tour of Southwark. Constantly evolving, what started as a rather staid interactive mystery on the streets of London has turned into the capital’s hot ticket with new attractions including a burned out cornershop and a ransacked Lush. In this uniquely immersive productions, participants are able to throw bricks at police and indulge in a spot of light GBH in full-view of the much-loved London CCTV network. Smile for the camera guys!

Honorable Mention

Betty Blue Eyes – Novello Theatre

10% discount for English Defence League members.


…and then he stuck it in my ear…

By a very large margin the biggest cultural event to hit London for quite some time was Dave St-Pierre’s show Un Peude Tendresse, Bordelde Merde! at Sadler’s Wells. Critical debate over the piece has been raging amidst tales of mass walkouts and rapturous applause. The Telegraph certainly didn’t like it, and the The Guardians wasn’t exactly glowing in its praise. However, and rather surprisingly, it found a small amount of favour with that notoriously liberal institution; The Daily Mail.
Tales of dancers rampaging naked through the audience, with one critic memorably describing having the rather unfortunate sensation of having someone’s member thrust into their ear, reminds us that there are still things that are capable of shocking us on stage. And, as is often the case, it appears that nothing is guaranteed to make the British feel deeply uncomfortable than the human body laid bare in all its questionable glory. Particularly when it is taken off the stage and into the audience, smashing the conventional boundaries that exist between performers and the audience and forcing them to take a much more detailed interest in the subject than they might have expected.

St-Pierre continues the growing trend for challenging the conventional relationship that exists between actor and audience. Director’s are learning that by finding ways to draw the audience past the traditional barrier of the stage, you begin to discover new mechanisms for involving them more closely in the action. The interactiveness found in Punchdrunk’s stunning, if flawed, Duchess of Malfi, meant that there were moments where audience members were left feeling they had some power to change the direction of the narrative.

In Un Peude Tendresse, Bordelde Merde! St-Pierre doesn’t just aim to break the conventions of traditionally staged dance, he means to create a piece that assumes a whole different compact with the audience. He wants the audience to view nakedness as a neutral state, one that should be value-free and without judgement. The male dancers who leap into the auditorium exist as state-of-nature innocents and the audience are challenged not to feel like voyeurs but to accept the dancers own child-like acceptance of their bodies. There is no doubt that St-Pierre blindsides the audience – they are helpless participants who must either sit there or walkout – but prior knowledge allows the opportunity to prepare for the assault on your preconceptions and the power of the piece exists in the tension of not knowing what could happen next.

He uses nakedness as a weapon to force the audience  to confront the idea that, rather than being the free-minded liberal individuals we like to think we are, in fact there are areas of our nature that we have marginalised. As a society, nakedness, whether as sexual imagery or just a neutral concept, has been pushed to the edges of what is acceptable, and there it remain; not discussed, not questioned and not seen. Whereas we can watch violence on TV and even practice gross violence in incredibly realised detail through computer games, it is much harder to see images of naked people in either format. There is virtually no nakedness, sexualised or otherwise, prior to the watershed, unless there is an ‘educational’ element to the show (such as The Sex Education Show on Channel 4) whereas soaps can contain storylines that often resolved by acts of rather extreme violence.

You can agree or disagree with the various codes of practice that has allowed a position like this to develop but the consequences can be seen in the reaction to Dave St-Pierre’s piece. Whilst the quality of the choreography apparently left a lot to be desired, it was hardly awful enough to cause such a large number of people to leave. The walkouts occurred because members of the audience were not ready to face such a direct assault on their values. And this was achieved through the immediacy of the piece, the result of taking the nakedness into the audience. In a time when it appears more and more difficult for people to shock and offend, it is interesting to see that one of the last remaining taboos is something that should be so innocent.

It is interesting to think about the different levels of acceptance to nudity and violence when thinking about the piece in contrast to the warmly-received but emotionally rather limp revival of Blasted at the Hammersmith Lyric earlier in the year. Sarah Kane was often regarded as a similar l’enfant terrible of her generation of playwrights; often baring her soul and life in front of her audience. However watching Blasted – with its procession-line of grotesque images- surrounded by rows and rows of drama students who were clearly going along mentally ticking of all the supposedly shocking moments of horror in knowing appreciation, it was not hard to feel rather let-down by the impact.  The play clearly suffers from its familiarity and much of its power is lost in knowing what is about to occur.

The same criticism can doubtless be  levelled at St-Pierre’s piece, after a while the audience will come knowing that they are about to witness an ‘event’ and with it will come a knowingness that can only detract from the power of the piece. The audience will not be challenged to confront their discomfit because they will understand the boundaries that are expected before it begins.

Perhaps that is the ultimate fate with all pieces that have the power to shock; ‘Hair’ famous nude scene must have been quite something when it was first staged but now it is thought of with some fondness of as a curious attempt to blend the hippie movement with musical theatre. However while it remains contemporary lets embrace David St-Pierre’s piece for going out of its way to force us to confront something that clearly can still cause us deep discomfort.