The Birmingham Stage Company’s brilliant adaptation of David Walliam’s 2014 bestselling book Awful Auntie, captivates both children and adults.
Following on from their sellout tour of another Walliam’s book. Gangsta Granny, the BSC is embarking on an eighteen-month tour of the UK which featured a run during the summer at The Garrick theatre in London’s West End.
The show, endorsed by Walliams, is faithful to the book, and is fast-paced and funny, with an ingenious set design.
The story has twelve-year old Stella Saxby awakening in a bed, and being unable to move any part of her body. Casting away the bedding, she reveals that she is covered head to toe in bandages. Her screams arouse her Aunt Alberta, who tells her that she has been in a coma for three months and that she and her parents were involved in a road accident, resulting in the death of both mother and father, thereby leaving Stella an orphan.
However, Stella soon realises her awful auntie has a nefarious plan to wrestle the stately home Saxby Hall, that now belongs to Stella, into her hands, but doesn’t know where the deeds are hidden.
Auntie has a Great Bavarian Owl named Wagner, (Get it?), who acts as her henchman – or should that be henchowl? Stella encounters a ghost called Soot, a sweep who succumbed to his burns when someone lit a fire when he was up the chimney. There is a crazed ancient butler named Gibbon and an Inspector Strauss who is called to investigate Stella’s suspicions about her auntie.
AWFUL AUNTIE CREDITS
Story adapted and directed by Neal Foster
Set and Costume Designer: Jacqueline Trousdale
Lighting Designer: Jason Taylor
Composer: Jak Poore
Stella Saxby – Georgina Leonidas
Aunt Alberta – Timothy Speyer
Gibbon – Richard James
Wagner – Roberta Bellekom (puppeteer)
Soot – Ashley Cousins
Detective Strauss – Peter Mistyyoph
The star attraction of this show is the set design. Four revolving doors and staircases create an impression of travel through the mansion, and a reference should be made to the stagehands, who work hard to render seamless scene changing within the fast-paced story.
Composer Jak Poore’s jaunty musical rhythm is exactly right to complement the actions unfolding on stage.
The cast possess rich cvs of their previous stage and film work, and it is easy to see this by their acting expertise on Stage.
Georgina Leonidas, you may recognise from her film portrayal of Harry Potter’s fellow Gryffindor Quidditch player, Katie Bell, in both parts of the Deathly Hallows stories. She plays a believable twelve-year old, innocent initially but becoming more savvy as the story develops.
Awful Auntie Alberta is played in grand pantomime dame fashion by Timothy Speyer who maintains staying in character without going over the top, with commendable skill and constraint.
Richard James’s Gibbon has some of the funniest scenes and on occasion reminded me of Groucho Marx in his movements.
Ashley Cousins plays Soot in a Cockney accent that is consistent throughout, together with a youthful vitality to enable him to portray Stella’s aide, confidant and friend in a credible way.
Roberta Bellekom’s consummate puppetry skills enable Wagner to be at times a villain and at others a cute pet.
Peter Mistyyoph plays Inspector Strauss in a mysterious way. See this show and you will know what I mean.
All is put together by Neal Foster’s faithful adaptation and brilliant direction. David Walliams commends Foster for having a similar sense of humour, which results in his capturing the essence of the author’s work. He had previously directed the Gangsta Granny adaptation to universal acclaim.
This is a visual treat for children. A school formed a large percentage of the audience for the performance that I viewed, and there was not a restless child among them. They left excited and contended with what they had just watched.
At times, the humour is a little risque and there are a couple of scenes that young children of a nervous disposition might feel uncomfortable with.
A scene where auntie is trying to break down a door with an axe to get at Stella, is accompanied by “Here comes Auntie”, reminding us of the famous passage in Stanley Kubric’s The Shining.
Awful Auntie is a first-rate children’s show with an engaging story-line, excellently performed and a visual delight on stage.
Brecon is my hometown but I had moved away, many years before Theatr Brycheiniog emerged in 1997. This was the first full-scale production that I had ever seen there and If this is the calibre of work that they present , then I am looking forward to many happy returns in the future.
“The Wind in the Willows” is the 2017 Christmas production at Sherman Theatre, Cardiff, and offers a banquet of creativity to feast upon.
Kenneth Grahame’s inveterate didactic children’s novel of 1908, “The Wind in the Willows” has been adapted for the stage an enormous amount of times, especially at Christmas, and this is likely to continue.
A cursory glance at reason productions in Wales, by both professional and amateur companies, such as Black Rat Productions at The Gate in Cardiff, in 2010, Gwent Young People’s Theatre 2008 show at Abergavenny Castle, (that sounded like fun!), to name just two.
“The Wind in the Willows” follows the adventures of the anthropomorphic animals Mole, Rat, Badger, Toad, and their friends.
Kenneth Grahame’s idea was to promote moralistic themes that most parents would like their children to follow.
Themes such as showing hospitality as epitomised through the characters of Rat and Badger and conversely, criticising it through the depiction of Toad. The Pastoral environment to be preferred over city life. The ugliness of industrialisation and the rapid developments in technology, shown in Toad’s infatuation of the motor car and, as a consequence, his reckless driving, its ability to destruct the peace and tranquility of the countryside. This particular theme bearing a highly relevant resonance to environmental difficulties facing the world a hundred years after the book was written. A sense of adventure is another theme that pervades throughout the story. Toad’s road trips. Mole’s desire to explore the world beyond her own limited one, and even Rat’s temporary desire to have a life on the ocean’s waves. However, the joy of returning to the stability of the home is also a theme that Grahame promotes. Finally, the anthropomorphic characters in the story each have their own characters. Badger is the oldest, and consequently, the wisest, and the others respect him for that. Within the pecking order, next comes Rat, slightly younger but showing a certain degree of maturity, whereas Mole is a young man on the verge of making his way in society and excited about the prospect of doing this, but needing a firm hand of guidance to steer the path. Finally comes Toad, the spoiled brat used to getting his own way and lacking maturity.
“The Wind in the Willows” Production Team
Gaolers Daughter: Rebecca Killick
Chief Weasel: Hannah McPake
Mole: Jessica Murrain
Badger: Zara Ramm
Rat: Dominic Rye
Toad: Keiron Self
Portly: Emma Cooney
Director: Lee Lyford
Writer: Mike Kenny
Lighting Designer: Kevin Treacy
Composer: Conor Mitchell
Musical Director: Gareth Wyn Griffiths
This is an energetic, funny and likeable production with a vast array of creative ideas on display, testament to the brilliance of Lee Lyford’s direction.
Beds on castors on a revolving stage with makeshift oars provide a degree of realism when depicting a boat on a river, or a boat crew swiftly passing through.
Bunnies on pogo sticks and the scene getting the largest laughter, (at least amongst the adults), is of a small remote control red sports car whizzing across an empty stage, and thereby fuelling the desire for the hopeless infatuated Toad to steal it. Then offstage you hear an almighty crash and the car returns with smoke emerging from it, shortly afterward followed by a dark blue police car in pursuit.
I also like the director’s use of physical theatre at times – it works very well.
Mike Kenny’s adaptation of “The Wind in the Willows” is faithful to the story and highlights the main themes well.
The first impression of the stage design is one of greenness. Thereby tying in with the environmental issues within the story. A disheveled Toad Hall has a winding staircase, stage left, leading to a landing with five windows. Above which hangs a splendid candelabra. Below the landing space is a piano. The ceiling looks in a very sorry state and one expects daylight to be appearing any day soon. Large Green doors which play a very active role in the play are located stage left and right. The green painted central space has circular revolving stages within it. Bookcases and furniture have sheets draped over them, heightening the sense of desolation. A trapdoor is utilised centre stage.
The design of animal costumes is another highlight. When the unbearably cute young hedgehogs appeared in Badger’s home, many young children let out involuntary aahs!
Composer Conor Mitchell, introduced a number of catchy tunes sung and played during the performance. In fact, I heard an adult member of the audience, whistling the final song in the foyer post show.
It would be unfair to single out any individual member of the cast as they are universally excellent in their roles. The cast portrays many other characters and animals other than those mentioned in the production credits above. Multi-talented, they also played a veritable orchestra of instruments. Cello, violins, triangles, banjo, ukulele and accordion, and probably others that I missed. All held together by the busy Gareth Wyn Griffiths on the piano. They also possess fine voices to accompany the songs, both individually and in chorus.
I feel that the annunciation by all actors was uncommonly fine. It doesn’t surprise me to find that Zara Ramm has a successful career narrating the audio books for the novels of Jodi Taylor in particular, and others. Ms Ramm, I have seen on stage before – twenty five years ago at the old Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond-upon-Thames in David Edgar’s “Saigon Rose”. This was 1992 and I remember the production well to this date, and the brilliance of the very young cast playing in an incredibly small, space. All I can say is that during the intervening twenty-five years, Ms Ramm has aged far better than myself!
Overall, this is a production of the highest level suitable for children of all ages and adults. I saw a number of children as young as 3 or 4 in the audience, and towards the end, I glanced around and was amazed by the way the production had captivated them. Many of them leaning forward in their seats with their eyes glued to the stage.
My only criticism, (and it is a minor one), would be at times the play is a little wordy, and slower paced, but, for that matter, so is the story, perhaps making this inevitable to drive the plot forward.
For adults, within “The Wind in the Willows”, there is enough on display to pass an enjoyable couple of hours in an innocent, wholesome theatrical environment, and, like me, I feel that you would emerge greatly encouraged by what you have experienced. For children’s theatre is vital in nurturing the desire and creating the need to the future adult theatregoer, and shows like this leave you optimistic for the future of our beloved industry.
If you are an adult without a child to take with you, and you feel a little self-conscious attending by yourself, then I suggest you should borrow one from somewhere. It’s that good!
The plays runs for about 95 minutes without an interval. It features strong language and explicit dialogue of a sexual nature and of torture.
Plot of Death and the Maiden
Paulina Salas is a psychologically damaged early middle-aged woman whose husband Geraldo, has been appointed to a commission to examine human rights abuses during a period of dictatorship that their country has very recently endure. Now with the promise of democracy, the country is trying to adapt to the challenges that the past has endowed upon it.
Paulina was a political prisoner during the turbulent period of totalitarianism and was tortured and repeatedly raped by her captors, led by a doctor who played Schubert’s Death and the Maiden during her most violated experiences.
Geraldo brings home Roberto Miranda who has helped him after his car had sustained a flat tyre. Later, Roberto returns to make arrangements about helping his new friend the following day. Paulina, who was constantly blindfolded when in company of her cruel tormentor, recognises that her husband’s new acquaintance is the same doctor by his voice and phrases he uses.
Geraldo and Robert chat late into the night and it is apparent that a bond of friendship has developed between them. Due to the fact that it is the early hours of the morning when they decide to end their conversation, Geraldo invites Roberto to stay the night. Meanwhile, Paulina plots her revenge.
The Production Team
“Fio makes fearless theatre: work that tears down stereotypes and challenges injustice.”
This is the slogan for this Cardiff-based theatre company.
Fia’s earlier presentation, The Mountaintop has been critically acclaimed and has just finished touring at venues across Wales. It depicts Martin Luther King’s final night and the title refers to his famous last speech, “I’ve been to the Mountaintop” on April 3rd 1968.
In 2018, Fio will commence a new project called Declaration, “Which will identify, nurture and develop both unheard voices in Wales as well as championing artists who have yet not had the exposure or recognition they deserve”. This looks like a very worthwhile and highly commendable enterprise.
The Other Room’s tiny acting space limits the productions they can produce their. In such a limited area, blocking is of more importance than usual, and the director does a fine job of this.
The design is limited to a table centrestage with two chairs, and a side table which has a number of props such as the gun and cassette recorder.
The use of lighting is excellent. The strip lights were used to dramatic effect by flickering when torture was being told about in graphic deal, thereby heightening the dramatic effect. In another situation, the lights switch off and on in accordance with Paulina’s countdown from 10 to one with the threat of shooting Roberto at the play’s climax.
Death and the Maiden is a very intense play and a wonderful opportunity for actor’s to show their range and versatility. The cast do well in this respect, although, at times I feel that, despite their efforts, it seems a little under-powered. However, there are memorable instances where they collectively pull this off. Of the three players, Paulina is probably the most difficult character to get right. She conveys mixed messages and her methods of retribution are not those that one can easily come to terms with. I wonder how her character would have been portrayed if the play was written by a woman. Lisa Zahra holds up well in a part which because of the way it is written, places you on a hiding to nothing.
Death and the Maiden – Performance History
The play was given a first reading at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in The Mall in Central London on 30 November 1990. It had its world premier at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs, (now the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs) on 4 July 1991 and, due to its immediate success transferred to the Main House on 31 October of that year.
The original cast were Juliet Stevenson in the role of Paulina, Bill Paterson as Geraldo and Michael Byrne as Roberto. Directed by Lindsay Posner the play transferred to the Duke of Yorks Theatre in the West End on 11 February 1992, with two cast changes. Geraldine James now played Paulina and Paul Freeman as Geraldo.
It was at this venue in late February 1992, that I saw this production. Twenty-five years on, it is still fresh in my memory, whereas nearly all other productions that I watched around this time, have been forgotten about, lost in the mists of time. I recall it because I had never seen a play of such ferocious intensity and I have rarely seen another since then.
Ariel Dorfman was born seventy five years ago in Buenos Aires in Argentina. The family moved to Chile via the USA, and he attended the University of Chile and later became a professor at that institution. He became a Chilean citizen in 1967.
From 1970 to 1973, Ariel Dorfman was employed as cultural advisor to Chilean President Salvador Allende and he was due to be on duty, (but had swapped his shift with a friend}, the night of the Pinochet Coup. Known as Chile’s 9/11, September 11 doesn’t only have tragic connections to the United States. Ariel was forced into exile and his works are known largely for their themes of tyranny and living in exile.
Ariel Dorfmann, since 1985 has been professor of literature and Latin American subjects at Duke University. He additionally holds American citizenship. His literature and work has given him the reputation of a defender of human rights.
In its ninety five minutes running time, Death and the Maiden introduces a myriad of important themes within a short period of time. It was awarded the 1992 Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Play,
Although the country is unnamed, it is clearly seen to represent the period immediately after the end of General Pinochet’s, (Margaret Thatcher’s great friend), dictatorship. It expresses the difficulties facing a nation emerging out of a dark period of totalitarianism into the clearer skies of democracy.
Prior to returning to the UK last year, I had been residing for a long time in China. Many of the students that I taught related stores about their own families, usually their grandparents who lived through the Cultural Revolution. Difficulties such as having to come to terms with your neighbours who before might well have denounced you as not being a good Chinese person in the image of Mao’s China at that time. So the issues are similar, but in this case, it was a case of one totalitarian system replaced by another. So I feel that this idea can work in many way. In the USA of President Trump’s presidency, it appears that the country is becoming increasingly divided over many issues. If this goes unchecked, then Post-Trump it could well lead to the situation found after Pinochet’s Chile, Mao’s China or a host of other places around the world today.
Incidentally, post 9/11, (American 9/11 that is), remember that torture of detained people suspected of terrorist links was legally justifiable by the overriding factor that it was carried out for the defence of that country.
The single theme that I would like to present concerns the battle between Justice on the one hand and Peace on the other. After years of authoritarian government, it is an inconvenient fact of life that many of the perpetrators of the previous regime still hold high position in government, finance and public affairs. Getting the balance, as represented by Geraldo in Death and the Maiden is an extremely challenging undertaking. As Paulina didn’t die in captivity, she cannot be investigated by the Commission, so is therefore devoid of any feeling of justification, or possibly revenge. This goes a long way in understanding her actions in the play. Her dilemma, and also the audience, is whether she should follow the weaker and compromised legal form of judicial enquiry, or to take more extreme measure to deliver a punishment that fits the crime.
By coincidence, on the very same day that I watched this production, President Trump (and arguably at a time when judicial justice could be irreparably dmagaed by his timing), stated that the alleged New York terrorist who drove a truck into people on the 1st November 2017, deserved the death penalty. There is a line in Death and the Maiden, “Some people don’t deserve to live”. Where have I heard that before recently?
This is by no means the only theme in the play. The inclusion of Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” , (String Quartet No. 14) which represent High Art as degraded by the association in Paulina’s mind of her tortuous and humiliating experience is another.
In the end, nothing is resolved. The open ending which in my mind is the perfect one, is in place for you to consider the themes brought out in the play. Do we believe Paulina or Roberto? The role of Geraldo, who is disloyal to his wife, as mirrored by an earlier case of adultery, in an attempt to try and save Roberto’s life. There is plenty to think about.
Death and the Maiden is a wonderful play, which I hope convinces you that it is as important now as it was when written over twenty five years ago. Fio provide a solid production which is sufficiently good enough to do this difficult play justice. The play never has a dull moment and is pacey and enthralling. If you like serious drama which provides much to consider about what is going on in the world today, then I can unreservedly recommend this production at a great pub theatre venue.
The Sherman Theatre’s production of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard is reimagined in Early 1980’s Wales and gets to the roots of the social upheaval of Thatcherism.
The Cherry Orchard Production Team
Written by Gary Owen from Anton Chekhov
Director: Rachel O’Riordan
Designer: Kenny Miller
Lighting: Kevin Treacy
Cast (with Chekhov’s equivalent characters in parenthesis)
Denise Black as Rainey (Lyubov Ranevskaya)
Simon Armstrong as Gabriel (Leonid Gaev)
Matthew Bulgo as Lewis (Yermolai Lopahin)
Hedydd Dylan as Valerie (Varya)
Morfydd Clark as Anya (Anya)
Richard Mylan as Ceri (Petya Trofimov
Alexandria Riley as Dottie (Dunyasha)
The characters of Boris Simeonov-Pishchik – a landowner, Charlotta Ivanovna – a governess, Simon Yepihodov – the estate clerk, Firs – a footman, aged 87, Yasha, a young footman, A Stationmaster and a passer-by are all omitted.
On Saturday 3rd July 1982, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher made a keynote speech at Cheltenham racecourse in the aftermath of the Falklands War. I remember it well – I was there. When I say, I was there, I should clarify this. At the time, I was a serving member of the Gloucestershire Constabularly, assigned to the equivalent unit known as the SPG in the Met Police, and, being the junior member of the team, I was given the responsibility to guard the P.M.’s car. If I knew then, what I know now, I might have been tempted to place a bomb under the chassis myself! I jest I hasten to add for I don’t want an unwelcome visit from Special Branch after this post goes live.
In this speech, Maggie says this:-
“We have instead a new-found confidence—born in the economic battles at home and tested and found true 8,000 miles away.
That confidence comes from the re-discovery of ourselves, and grows with the recovery of our self-respect.”
When Chekhov wrote his last play, he was near to death. It opened at the Moscow Art Theatre only six months before his demise in July 1904. The play prophesied what was to come for Russia and this materialised in the failed 1905 Uprising in Moscow and eventual success in the Russian Revolution of 1917. You didn’t have to be too much of a prophet to foresee this – the inevitable end of the social conditions existing at the time the play was written was there for everyone to see. The sheer size of The Cherry Orchard represented a microcosm of Russia.
Other Reimaginations of The Cherry Orchard
Gary Owen’s reimagined setting of Pembrokeshire in 1982 differs in that the people were actually living through the social upheaval that the Thatcher Years and inevitably, what came afterwards, although the extent of this change was not appreciated at that time.
There has been been a number of other revisions of The Cherry Tree through the ages, largely due to the political undercurrents of the play.
In 1977, Trevor Griffiths rendered Trofimov (Ceri) as a Marxist hero and the bourgeois characters, (Lewis and sometimes Gabriel) in a very negative light.
Earlier, in 1950, a production in New York City had Helen Hayes (Lyubov Ranevskaya/Raina), presiding over a large plantation with all the servants as slaves).
In 1973 Public Theatre’s version was played entirely with black actors protesting against their exclusion from the classical repertory.
Janet Suzman’s 2000 production The Free State, a reimagining of The Cherry Orchard was transplanted and full adapted to a post-apartheid South Africa.
As perennial as the grass, The Cherry Orchard remains one of the most popular plays to be produced in the world. In fact, the Nottingham Playhouse are putting on a production starting later this week.
Gary Owen and The Cherry Orchard
Gary Owen’s reworking is a play for our time. The writing is clear and in some ways improves on the original. Chekhov wrote the play as a comedy, although, subsequently, many directors interpret it as a tragedy. In Gary’s play, the comedy is more transparent and the sometimes sly Welsh humour works a treat.
His Raina is a sot and, again, I think this works better than the traditional Lyubov Ranevskaya, whose actions, I have always found a little ambiguous at times.
His Anya maintains Chekhov’s idea of this character. The first production of The Cherry Orchard was put on at the Moscow Arts Theatre by its artistic director at the time, Konstantin Stanislavski. Chekhov disliked the way it was produced intensely and wrote a number of letters complaining about it, as was his way. In one he wrote, Anya, I fear, should not have any sort of tearful tone… Not once does my Anya cry, nowhere do I speak of a tearful tone, in the second act there are tears in their eyes, but the tone is happy, lively. I think that Anya in Gary’s writing and the Sherman’s production, lives up to that ideal.
A problem that crops up, because of the time and setting of the play under review, is the relationship between Lewis and Ceri. In Chekhov’s original, Lopahin and Trofimov forge a rather curious alliance. Lopahin, the noveaux riche landowner and Trofimov, the class conscious socialist, would work together for the benefit of the new Russia. Whereas in Simon’s work, Ceri, (representing the Thatcherite property developer) and Ceri, (the on the dole socialist and pseudo-anarchist), never seem to have that level of a common sense of purpose.
The absence of the character Firs is regretful because it robs Simon’s play of probably the most poignant and meaningful scenes in his entire repertoire. At the end of the play, when the family vacate the property for the last time, there is a substantial delay before Firs, the 87-year old faithful servant trudges across the stage to rest wearily on a sofa. One gets the impression that he will never arise from it. Firs was known to be very ill and the family assumed that he had been taken to hospital, but, in fact he had been left behind. Chekhov was making a statement about people who pretend they care, but, in reality, only half-care at best. I think this would tie in with the callousness of Thatcherism beautifully which has carried on to this day.
Borderline alcoholic Raina has been forced by her daughter Anya and adopted daughter Valerie to return to her ancestral property Bloumfield in Pembrokeshire. Raina had been living well beyong her means and racking up a huge bill at the Dorchester in London. Valerie, who had been running Bloumfield in Rainey’s absence had repeatedly sent her mother letters informing her of the dire financial position the estate was in. Raina had chosen to ignore these letters and the situation had become so parlous that the bank were now calling in the debt and the property is going to be auctioned.
Lewis, son of a lowly servant on the Estate, has now become quite well off and owns a construction factory. This is Margaret Thatcher’s Britain and he has a plan to save the situation by selling off Bloumfield to property developers.
Romantic interest is shown by Anya’s involvement with her ex-tutor Certi, an on-the-dole sometime volunteer teacher.
There is a great deal of social conscience on display. Thatcher’s idea of selling off council properties at a budget price, social mobility ,(Lewis from rags to riches), The Enterprise Allowance Scheme, which Ceri is considering to take advantage of to form a record label, providing that he can come up with a thousand pounds to start it off – offered as a gift by Anya and a loan by Lewis, who respects the entrepreneurial spirit behind the idea.
It’s all here. The dawning of a new age that we are all coming to terms with today.
The play is directed by the Sherman’s artistic director Rachel O’Riordan and has a crispness and clarity about it that reminded me of a production by Michael Grandage of Shakespeare’s As You Like It that I was privileged to watch at the Lyric Hammersmith in 2000. So impressed by the production, I wrote to the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield, where it originated, and much to my surprise and delight received a lengthy email back from the director stating his belief that theatre should be clear in its intentions and have a clarity of purpose behind it. This is exactly how I feel about this direction.
A model train plays a significant part as well and is not explained until the final scene. Replacing Firs Pinteresque moment, a young boy runs on and picks up the train whilst shouting for his mummy. The ghost of Raina’s drowned young son, (and possibly the reason for her habitual drinking), has been abandoned. So the train represents the memory of her drowned boy.
Ms O’Riordan has collaborated with writer Gary Owen on previous occasions. Iphigenia In Splott was received as one of the most important theatre productions of 2015 and Killology that transferred to the Royal Court earlier this year. The O’Riordan/Owen collaboration has to be one of the most dynamic and intriguing partnerships in British theatre today, and I look forward to future works from them both.
The production is beautifully cast, and there is not a weak link among them. It would be unfair to single one individual out as they are uniformly excellent. I would like to say though that Denise Black’s Rainey, reminded me, in a good way, with the character of Patsy in Absolutely Fabulous .
The minimalist design is an easy on the eye but seems a little sparse furniture-wise for landowners to live in. A bookcase located stage left plays an important part in the action, as its craftsmanship is recognised in contrast to today’s mass produced self-assembled substitute.
Rachel O’Riordan and Gary Owen
Alexandria Riley and Denise Black
Morfydd Clark and Richard Mylan
Hedydd Dylan and Matthew Bulgo
Gary Owen’s work is an excellent new way of viewing a classic great play. The three hours performance time passed by in an instance and I can’t really fault this production, other than the couple of instances where the writer’s decision to take what he wanted from Chekhov’s play, could have been put to better effect.
Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin pokes irreverent fun at the likely sense of paranoia and ambition surrounding the demise of the tyrant and is hysterically funny.
Directed by Armando Iannucci
Written by Armando Iannucci et al
Jason Isaacs as Georgy Zhukov; Andrea Riseborough as Svetlana Stalin; Olga Kurylenko as Maria Yudina; Steve Buscemi as Nikita Khrushchev; Rupert Friend as Vasily Stalin; Jeffrey Tambor as Georgy Malenkov; Paddy Considine as Comrade Andryev; Richard Brake as Tarasov; Michael Palin as Vyacheslav Molotov; Simon Russell Beale as Lavrentiy Beria; Paul Whitehouse as Anastas Mikoyan; Jonathan Aris as Mezhnikov; Dermot Crowley as Kaganovich
Country: France and the UK
Time: 106 minutes
Cert: 15 for strong language throughout and infrequent scenes of strong violence
Story of The Death of Stalin
The film is based upon the French Graphic novel La mort de Staline, which depicts the final days of Stalin and the upheaval occasioned by the death of Josef Stalin in 1953, amongst leading members of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
The film shouldn’t be taken as a statement of historical fact, although in many ways it is surprisingly accurate.
Stalin’s court of the Red Tsar was so grotesquely idiosyncratic that it contained within its morose heart a strong vein of absurdity. If you want real history, go to a history book not a film, especially not a comedy. But surprisingly, the details are excellent: the khaki facade and wood panelling of Stalin’s mansion, the line of phones, the Packard limousines, the white summer suit of Malenkov. Yes, there are mistakes: the NKVD secret police was then the MGB; most of the titles are wrong. Molotov, Mikoyan and Beria had all been sacked as ministers of foreign, trade and internal affairs four — or, in Beria’s case, eight — years earlier, and so on, but none of that matters.
Extracted from an article by Simon Sebag Montefiore featured in the Culture Magazine of the Sunday Times ( September 24 2017).
The film start with a supremely funny episode where the Russian pianist Maria Yudina is playing the achingly beautiful 3rd movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 which is being played on Russian State Radio. A phone call from Stalin to the director says he wants a recording of the concert just as it has finished. Of course, the concert has not been recorded, and as the orchestra and audience disperse, the direct frantically recalls them so that they can do part of the concert again, this time recording it. By now, the conductor has had an accident involving a blow to the head, the pianist will only play for a large sum of money and a team is sent out to the streets of Moscow to shanghai anybody they can find to fill the gaps in the audience and create a sufficient level of applause. Of course, the people that are brought in are the last you would expect at a classical concert, the dregs and low class of Moscow society. An eminent conductor is himself kidnapped from his bed to conduct and he turns up attired in dressing gown and pyjamas.
The pianist, has managed to sneak in a defamatory note within the record sleeve of the now recorded performance, which, when read by Stalin causes a cerebral hemorrhage subsequentally leading to his death.
Ludicrous as this seems, it does have an element of truth. Maria Yudina was playing this very Mozart piece in 1944, (not 1953 as in the film), at a concert live on Soviet, radio when Stalin so taken by the performance, asked for a recording. However, as it was a live recording, it didn’t exist. So Maria was dragged out of her bed in the middle of the night and a makeshift small orchestra was assembled and the recording was made during the small hours with the one pressed copy going to Stalin.
It just goes to show that even the most coarsest of Georgian dictators can have the most supreme taste in music.
Maria’s sending of the note is totally fictitious and potentially libelous excepting the fact that she has been dead for forty seven years. This storyline does feature in the graphic novel and has been transferred to the film.
The director has cleverly adapted this truthful event into the plot of the story recognising its comedic potential. This is a prime example of Armando Ianucci’s supreme eye for comic material based on elements of fact.
The script maintains a high level of wit throughout; or at least, until the harder edged final twenty minutes. An abundance of highly amusing lines pervade throughout. I particularly liked the line uttered by Steve Buscemi’s Nikita Khrushchev when given the dubious honour of managing the state funeral of Stalin.
Whilst his assistant is making Stalin as beautiful that a dead dictator can be, he complains, insisting he hurries things alone, that He isn’t Clark Gable.
Incidentally, Gable was one of Stalin’s favourite actors.
There is anoter scene which comes straight out of Monty Python, and I don’t write that just because Michael Palin appears in it. Beria has kept his wife secretly in prison and Palin’s character Molotov, trying to ingratiate himself with the all-powerful spymaster and head of security, when his wife’s name comes up refers to her as a treacherous spy and other extremely abusive terms, not knowing that Beria has released his spouse who is standing just behind the door but not in Molotov’s view. Beria and Khrushchev knowing about the presence are increasingly getting more and more uncomfortable so Beria, to save further embarrassment announces her presence, so that when she walks in Molotov greets her with effusive affection in the total opposite manner that he had second before showed.
If ever a more talented comedic ensemble class has been out together for a film in recent years, I would like to know about it. The talent on display is breathtaking. Mostly British, there are a couple of notable exceptions including the brilliant Steve Buscemi, Is there a better character actor in film today? Simon Russell Beale might be the one more likely to win awards for his portrayal of the brilliant, ruthless and ultimately dead Beria. He carries the right balance of playing an evil man but in a comedic way.
Andrea Riseborough is brilliant as Stalin’s daughter Svetlana, becoming more and more paranoid due to Steve Buscemi’s Krushchev insistence that he will protect her in the aftermath of her father’s demise, when she had been previously unaware that she needed to be protected in the first place.
Rupert Friend as Svetlana’s crazed brother Vasily, is extremely funny, especially when it comes to composing and delivering his late father’s eulogy.
For me, the pick is Jason Isaacs, who doesn’t appear until half way through the film. However the wait is worth it. His portrayal steps right out of the graphic novel. He is totally OTT playing General Georgy Zhukov with a broad northern accent and no-nonsense approach to all things militaristic. This is actually very close to the characteristics of the real life General – excepting he wasn’t a Lancastrian.
I could go on because there are other brilliant caricatures in this film.
This is the funniest film that I have seen in years. Admittedly, it won’t be to everyone’s taste, but unlike so many other films of this genre, although it is totally OTT, Ianucci manages to keep matters from getting out of control. The cast seem to have been enjoying making the movies as well as filmgoers receive it, which is usually a good sign. I recommend this unreservedly to those of you who like Ianucci’s work, (Veep), Monty Python fans and the films of Wes Anderson.
It has been received overwhelmingly positively and has a score of 7.7 on IMDB and a 96% approval rating among critics on Rotten Tomatoes.
A principal location used for The Death of Stalin is “Blythe House, 23 Blythe Road, West Kensington, London. This property which nowadays stores artificats from the Victoria and Albert Museum and the British Museum, was used as “The Circus” in the 2011 adaptation of John Le Carre’s Tinker Tailor, Soldier Spy.
The film may well be banned in Russia, although it has a distributor in that country. n September 2017, a high-ranking official in the Russian Ministry of Culture said the Russian authorities were considering a ban on the film, which, he alleged, could be part of a “western plot to destabilise Russia by causing rifts in society.” That line could come right out of this film.
August 012 performs John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men for laughs and misses the mark by a country mile!
Introduction and Background
John Steinbeck’s classic 1937 novella was a new genre of work that Steinbeck invented. In his own words, it was strictly, neither a novel or a play, but a play/novelette. In his eyes, he recognised that the novel was in a moribund state, but theatre was “coming alive”. This genre used chapters for curtains and is scened in such a way that it can directly be transformed into a play. He eventually decided to write a play, “in the physical technique of a novel.”
The story is about two itinerant farm workers who travel the road looking for work during the Great Depression of the United States in the early 1930’s. Steinbeck was born and brought up in Salinas in California, and he witnessed the impact of over 300,00 migratory workers from the Dust Bowl states of Oklahoma and primarily and other prairie states had on his part of California.
The two workers, George who is intelligent and worldly but uneducated, and Lenny, his mentally disabled companion. They both dream of living in a better place in a better world, but their destinies are realised when they arrive to work at a plantation.
It is easy to relate this to the current situation in South Wales in terms of disillusionment and lack of hope, the displacement of individuality. The explosion of migratory workers suggests, (without the nationalistic connotations), to the reasons why many people voted for Brexit last year. So, it’s an ideal play to put on in this location and social climate.
The first production of the play, at the Theater Union of San Francisco opened to favourable reviews on 21st May 1937 and shortly afterwards. it opened on Broadway, with legendary actor Broderick Crawford as Lenny.
If you look at the photograph of Lenny and George above, one thing that strikes me is that it heightens the claustrophobic intensity which is a feature of both the play and the novel. George and Lenny are trapped in their own sad world, and this has to be an essential feature of any production of Of Mice and Men.
August 012 Production Of Mice and Men
Anthony Corria; Sara Gregory; Neal McWilliams; Tom Mumford; Wil Young
All actors, with the exception of the two protagonists, George (McWilliams) and Lenny (Young) play multiple parts.
Director: Mathilde Lopez
Set Design: Tina Torbey
Lighting: Ace McCarron
Just before entering the auditorium, I had a brief conversation with a member of the production team. The show had been sold out for its entire run, so, due to its popularity, I asked her whether it would tour. She answered in the negative, saying that the production was an expensive one due to the stage design, and it had been tailor made for the venue. So, then I asked her whether it would be brought back later on and she stated that this is a possibility, due to the demand from local schools, many of which were unable to be catered for during the run. I also overheard her say that this production had drawn from both the book and play sources.
Upon entering the space, I could see why touring is an impossibility. The stage had been crafted in such a way that it fitted the shape of the auditorium and could not be easily adapted to another space . There is no central stage, and effectively, it is a theatre in the round, with audience seated on each side.
Located in roughly all four corners were microphones and a dozen lampshades, some lit are overhead. Wide spaces between the rows of seat, enables the actors to move freely around. This results in a slightly negative way for you either have to turn your ahead around to see all of the action, or use your imagination.
When the play starts, Lenny and George are speaking to each other using the microphones and at diagonally opposite sides of the auditorium. This destroys the intimate, claustrophobic essential feature of the story immediately.
There is a great deal of audience participation in the production. This is fun, but, again, distracts from being focused on George and Lenny’s enclosed existence. It all gets rather manic from time to time.
However, My main criticism is based upon the way that the dreaming of a better world is played. Using a filmic technique, or at least, this is the impression it left on me, George spoke into his microphone with background music and such a way it parodied either Hollywood or itself. At times, George reminded me of a demented evangelist.
This technique is used to better effect when the only female in the story, Curley’s wife speaks in a highly sensualised way.
Another example where the integrity of the story is shattered is with the shooting of Candy’s dog. This is a very important segment of the story. Candy’s old sheepdog had outlived its usefulness and according to Carson’s blunt should be put down as it stunk out the bunkhouse. The death foreshadows Lenny’s shooting by George at the story’s finale and also symbolises, through a developing pattern of creatures being crushed by Lenny, and ultimately, the fate of the rabbits and via, the fate of the Safe House”, the idealised world that the protagonists and Candy dream of.
The part of the dog is selected by a random member of the audience, who is led off stage to its fate. The audience member, naturally, looking a little embarrassed and smiling nervously, trudges off to the great amusement of everyone, thereby killing the dramatic impact. I didn’t hear a shot offstage, which might have readdressed the balance. Candy, later returns with copious amount of blood on his hands and the audience dog “actor” returns to his seat.
Neal McWilliams, (George) is the pick of the actors on display and Sara Gregory provides some nice cameos. She has to play both Curley and his wife, and if I am not mistaken, the role of Candy is played by two different members of the cast. This is a little confusing, but difficult to avoid with only five actors cast.
Another feature that didn’t work was the interchanging between the use of the microphone and natural voice within the same soliloquy. I didn’t see the point of this and I feel that it distracts from what is being said.
Of Mice and Men is a study of the hopes and dreams of men and of the necessity for men to have dreams. But these hopes and dreams are contrasted with the reality of the harsh world in which men must exist,
and the setting, costumes, lighting, and acting style must reflect this concept of contrast.
This is taken from a dissertation from undergraduate student Saralee O’Neill approved by the Graduate Faculty of Texas Tech University in 1985. It sums up my argument perfectly. Being innovative, which this production most certainly is, doesn’t necessarily make it good theatre. The integrity of the story and Steinbeck’s deep feelings on this subject have to be maintained. Steinbeck wrote what he felt and what he knew about firsthand.
I concede that this production is very entertaining. The majority of the audience were senior school students, and, in the most part, their attention was maintained throughout, which is a considerable achievement in itself. I have taught this novella at University in China, and I wonder whether the students really were truly informed about this work of literature based upon what they had watched. I am of the opinion, that they hadn’t.
If your “Theatre bag” is of the One Man, Two Guvnors ilk, then you will probably love this production, but Steinbeck – it ain’t.
The run ended on 28th October 2017, but may return.
Well, hold on to your hats theatergoers! Little Wolf by LUCID theatre company is going to shake you up a bit.
Little Wolf written and directed by LUCID’s founder Swansea-born Stephen Harris, is a reworking of Ibsen’s classic 1894 play Little Eyolf. The action takes place in contemporary Norway and the dialogue reflects that with references to Facebook and GPS for example.
It is surprising, when considering 21st-century attitudes that Ibsen was a very provocative writer for his time and often felt foul of censorship and Victorian prudity. Simon Harris revitalises Ibsen with his “in yer face” treatment. Subtleties that you find in Ibsen’s play regarding the very close relationship between supposedly half-siblings Freddie and Asta, is transformed to Rita asking her husband,, “Did you fuck her?” No question of ambiguity there.
Ibsen wrote Little Eyolf in 1894, late on in his writing career, and at a time he was moving away from Naturalistic to Expressionist drama. This is a very expressionist production. It purveys an atmosphere which is both dreamlike and nightmarish. The starkness of its setting, the plot and structure is episodic , the expletives in the dialogue and the acting bordering on overacting at times are more closely linked with Strindberg than how we think of Ibsen.
Little Eyolf, compared to other Ibsen classic drama, is not performed as often as “A Doll’s House”, “Hedda Gabler” and “Peer Gynt”. The one recent exception that stands out is Richard Eyre’s Almeida Theatre 2016 production which The Guardian’s critic Michael Billington described as “shockingly intense”. That’s where the problem lies in terms of its comparative rareness of performance, as it is a very demanding play to watch. Demanding in terms of its emotional ferocity.
Design and Direction
At the start of the performance, the audience is greeted with the sounds of birds tweeting and children playing. The stage design is basically simple but works very effectively. It consists of children’s toys scattered centre stage with the most prominent item being a child’s railway set. A wardrobe is placed upstage left and this plays a very important part in the story later on. Upstage right is the only door. A stool is the only other significant object. The lighting is used very effectively, sometimes evoking the dreamlike atmosphere that I have already alluded to.
Attention to detail has been paid in terms of the selected music – Norwegian children’s songs and rhymes, and the wearing of contemporary Norwegian casual attire. Both contribute to creating a sense of realism that the action is taking place in Norway.
One of the features that I particularly like was the use of a Robert Lepage-like video screen projected the entire width of the stage and located upstage, which is used often at the end of a scene. An example of this is underwater scenes after the announcement of Eyolf’s death by drowning. Another time is was used when Freddie was reminiscing with Asta some childhood experiences which had a young boy and girl playing in the background on the projected screen.
I also like the symbolic way the railway track was slowly being picked up by Freddie after Wolf had drowned. Railway tracks symbolise a journey and the retrieving of Wolf’s toy represents the ending of his life’s journey.
Symbolism also features, (as it does in the Ibsen play), in the use of water-lilies to indicate rebirth and regeneration.
The talented cast is uniformly good with Gwydion Rhys as Freddie taking the honours. His overwrought delivery of the artistically temperamental Freddie was very believable.
Alex Clatworthy as Freddie’s sexually frustrated wife Rita grows into the part and delivered a piercing delivery of sarcasm and irony mixed with ferocious intensity . When Wolf is missing, she welcomes the excitement of the event over her mundane day to day existence.
Melangell Dolma plays Asta, Freddie’s believed half-sister has a more understated role which she manages to portray well.
The final member of the cast, John-Paul Macleod as Lars, (a departure from the name of the character in Little Eyolf – Borghejm brings a comedic element to the production. Instead of the engineer in Ibsen’s version, Lars is a computer nerd and a candidate for twit of the year. Bordering on overacting at times, (reasonable in an expressionist play), he gets nearly all the laughs, although at the end shows a sensitivity when referring to Wolf that was very touching.
The cast works at its best in the most highly charged scenes. Some of the more quieter passages are a little too passive for my liking. Possibly, this is by way of contrast to the angry angstful interplay which exaggerates the passivity of these scenes.
Little Wolf vs. Little Eyolf
Lasting only 90 minutes, Little Wolf is roughly two thirds of the duration of the Ibsen play. Inevitably certain elements of the story have to be left out. The most dramatic departure is the absence of the important role of the Rat-Wife, who is only mentioned in the third person in the Little Wolf version. The character is based on the Pied Piper because she has charmed all the rats in the locality into a boat and drowned them in the fjord. The comparison between the unwanted rats and the unwanted Eywolf is clearly apparent. This part is a great opportunity for a character actress as exemplified by the lauded performance by Eileen Walsh at the Almeida last year. Ibsen wrote ambivalent roles; he wasn’t one for archetypes. The Rat-woman helps to show this ambivalence, but Simon Harris manages to capture this within his script. Rita is a case in point. At times she is monumentally sarcastic to Freddie, although he undoubtedly deserved it. She mocks his writing about orcs and other monsters when later she praises his artistic talent.
The sexual tension is considerably more explicit in the Little Wolf production. Nothing is left to the imagination. In fact the strong language does become a little grating at times and I felt that a little more restraint wouldn’t have softened the power of the dialogue.
Such restraint was more apparent in the interaction between Freddie and Asta which reveals their complicated relationship.
Lars’s character transforms Little Wolf into high farce in places, and I am not convinced that this sits comfortably with the intensity of this highly charged play. Having said that the scene where Rita is trying to have sex with Lars up against the wardrobe where Freddie has retreated, when interrupted by the arrival of Asta is highly amusing.
Fundamentally, the story remains intact. The guilt felt, primarily through the incapacity of Freddie and Rita’s baby son, through an act of negligence whilst pursuing animalistic sexual urges had taken their mind of the safety of their boy and continued after Wolf’s drowning. Freddie’s dramatic decline afterwards, retreating into his own world, hiding away in the wardrobe. His searching for something symbolised by his systematically tearing up the stage – searching but not finding until Rita’s triumphant rationalisation of their situation in the final scene.
The ending is even more open than Ibsen’s version. In Little Eyolf, Rita and Freddie devote themselves to helping the local orphan children; the same kids that could have been responsible for Eyolf’s drowning. Simon Harris realises that this wouldn’t be a realistic scenario today and ops for a decision for the couple to move away from atheir and make a new start elsewhere. However, I feel that I am more confident that Ibsen’s complicated couple would have a better chance of moving on than Little Wolf’s pair.
“LUCID makes vivid, urgent must-see theatre..” the playlist boasts, and this is fulfilled in this production. The concentrated power, relentless, austere, urgent nature of the Ibsen play has been retained in Little Wolf. People today should be able to identify with the issues that Freddie and Rita face, and, although not perfect in its delivery, I can certainly recommend it to an audience, I guarantee will not be bored.
Photography credits: Jorge Lizalcde
For ages 14+ for pervasive language throughout and strong adult themes.
The show tours South Wales during late October and November 2017.
For venues and timings please see my preview at http://getthechance.wales/2017/10/18/preview-of-henrik-ibsens-little-wolf-by-lucid/
A new photography gallery has been introduced at the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff, and to launch it, an exhibition of photographs from the vast David Hurn Collection is on display.
Thomas Babington Macaulay, the eminent British historian and politician, when referring to John Milton wrote, ‘[his words] are words of enchantment. No sooner are they pronounced, than the past is present and the distant near… and all the burial-places of memory give up their dead’. The same could be applied to documentary photography and its cousin photojournalism.
We all know that memory plays tricks. At 9.15. am on 21st October 1966, a huge piece of water-saturated debris accumulated from a century’s heap of coal spoil, descended upon Pantglas Junior School and other buildings in the Welsh village of Aberfan. In the aftermath, 116 children and 28 adults had perished, victims initially of the greed and indifference of the original mine owners, and latterly, the National Coal Board.
As a ten-year old boy, (the same age as many of the victims), this had, and continues to have, a profound influence on me. “There by the grace of God” is an appropriate thought. At the exact time of the disaster, I was seated in my classroom, safe and sound in an environment that all children should feel at school, only separated by the Brecon Beacons from Aberfan. I remember passing through Aberfan the following evening, returning from Cardiff, and seeing the floodlights set up for the rescuers in an ever-diminishing sense of hope of pulling out any of the victims alive. Was it my mother, or a friend of my mother’s, who came across an obviously distressed elderly lady in recon market, who after enquiring if she was alright, said that her granddaughter was a young student at that school. The unreliability of memory.
David Hurn, an established 32-year old documentary photographer at the time, felt that he had to be there. Not only to capture the scene, but to try and portray the anger felt by so many, as to why this tragedy occurred.
The sombre scene, heightened by the grim realism of using back and white film, gives a very strong message. Two schoolfriends look down at the scene of the disaster, with, (possibly the elder one) having his arm placed around the other. Are they brothers? Are they classmates of some of the victims, coming to terms with the realisation that they won’t ever see their friends again? Does it also show the strong bond of community, prevalent in the Valleys of South Wales to this day? An “us against the world” mentality, which would be a very suitable and understandable feeling after what had happened here. Is this a spontaneous photograph, or did David Hurn set it up as a composition? Documentary photographers rarely do this, so I would expect Mr. Hurn to answer in the negative. Does it really matter if he did, because for me, it neither degrades or elevates the power of this photograph. How can the viewer look at it, in terms of memory? Possibly as a revenant, a ghost-like spirit returning to this exact time and place, or as a stranger, going back to an area that he/she once knew, but alienated from it through the passage of time and physical difference to the landscape?
At this point, I should point out that this photograph does NOT appear in the exhibition currently on display at the National Museum of Wales. David Hurn, although born in Redhill in Surrey, eight two years ago, is considered to be a Welsh photographer. Brought up in Cardiff, as a young boy he paid a considerable amount of time visiting the Art Galley of this wonderful museum, and it left a very strong mark on him, because earlier this year, he donated two fabulous collections. The one, amounting to around 1,500 of his own work and the other, the subject of this exhibition, prints that he had swapped with other photographers whose work he admires. The photograph above does from part of the donated body of his own work, and I enquired with Bronwen Colquhoun, the recently appointed Senior Curator of the Photograph Department at the NMW, as to whether, at some time, it will be on display, and she answered in the affirmative. The reason why it appears in this review is to hopefully illustrate how powerful an image of documentary photography can be. All other photographs that appear here, do form part of the exhibition.
The display is located in one large room and is set up in such a way, (although it is not readily apparent to the viewer unless they are very well acquainted with David Hurn’s collection of swaps), that it forms a logical pattern.
The starting point should be a photograph that David Hurn, as an unknown photographer acquired from the already famous Chilean photographer Sergio Larrain. David was photographing pigeons at Trafalgar Square in London in 1958, when he was approached by another photographer doing the same thing. This photographer turned out to be Larrain, someone who David hugely admired at that time, and continued to do so, after forging a strong friendship, until the Chilean’s death in 2012. David couldn’t believe his luck. Not only did he gain the opportunity to meet one of his idols. Sergio was very complimentary about the way that he was going about taking his photographs. Over a coffee, Sergio told David that he felt that he had a future ahead as a professional photographer, but he felt a little skeptical, as he preferred to capture everyday life rather than important newsworthy events. After admiring some prints that Sergio had taken, he was given some of them as a gift, a very unusual occurrence at that time. So, this is where what has become a collection second to none, and valued at over three and a half million pounds.
SERGIO LARRAINE – ‘From the Monument
‘A Los Dos Congresos’
Buenos Aires 1957-58
The question as to whether the result is either a spontaneous shot or contrived, doesn’t come into question with the next photograph that I am referring to, that is, unless they super-glued the bird’s feet to the ground.
ELLIOTT ERWITT -Florida Keys 1968
Erwitt is known for his ironic and absurdist photographs and the humour in this photograph is there for everyone to see. It illustrates the opportunistic nature and photographer’s eye to perfection.
HENRI CARTIER-BRESSON -Henri Matisse in his studio with his doves, 1944
Henri Cartier-Bresson is regarded as one of the great photographer in history of candid shots. In the next photograph, we see such a print of the French modernist artist Henri Matisse, holding and surrounded by doves. The peace and tranquility that Cartier-Bresson captures is almost poetic.
It used to be considered for a photographer to sign his work, a rather pompous act of self-grandeur. This print has a dedication, “for David H l’ami Henri C-B” a method sometimes used to get around this signature problem. Cartier-Bresson was another photography who David greatly admires. When the Frenchman visited David’s flat to view some of his prints, it was almost if God himself had walked in, he recollects in a filmed interview.
As David’s fame increases, he became braver in asking photographers to swap prints. This is exactly what he did when he approached Dorothy Lange on a trip to the US. Lange you may know, is famous for her “dust bowl” photographs taken in the American Prairies at the height of the Great Depression. Her iconic photography “Migrant Mother”, perhaps more than any other image, eipitomises this period of American history, also immortalized in John Steinbeck’s, “The Grapes of Wrath”.
DOROTHEA LANGE – White Angel Breadline San Francisco, 1932
The grimness of this time is captured in this photograph that Dorothy swapped with David. You see a shabbily dress middle-aged man, (maybe wearing his only clothes) facing the camera and a group of other men turned the other way around. The man is clutching a mug. Could this be his only procession? The photograph gives the impression of resigned hopelessness. The other figures possibly representing how society has turned its back on the subject of this image.
As you enter the room, if you turn your attention to the left side wall, you will see a small group of photographs that represent photographers who started out the same time as David trying to establish themselves in a highly competitive market. These people and David used to get together in coffee bars in London in the 1950’s and offer critical opinion, and offer support to one another. The photos on view represent the work of John Bulmer, Patrick Ward, Ian Berry, Philip Jones Griffiths and Sir Don McCullin.
JOHN BULMER -Untitled from the Series North, 1960’s
On the Internet, this colour photograph has a different title “Woman Hanging out Washing) Tipton. This town is Halifax.
PATRICK WARD – Blackpool 1960’s or 1970’s
This photograph taken on a windy day in October with the waves crashing in and a deck chair attendant taking shelter from the wind by surrounding himself with his hirable goods reading a book. Blackpool pier is in the background. Is there anywhere more desolate than a British seaside resort out of season? For that matter, in season also! Ward captures this feeling, and you can’t help wondering, why is this man bothering? Perhaps he has no choice.
IAN BERRY -New Year’s Eve at Trafalgar Square 1960
The pursed lips of the young lady in the foreground asks, is she just about to do the kissing or is she waiting for her partner to kiss her.
Berry was the only photographer to capture the massacre at Sharpeville, but here we see him capturing an intimate scene in happier times.
PHILIP JONES GRIFFITHS -Vietnam, 1967
This image shows a Vietnamese woman tagged with the designation VNC (Vietnamese civilian). This powerful photograph suggests to me the degradation and reduction of the value of humanity, labelling in such a way that you might do with a suitcase or an exhibit in a museum. Jones Griffiths, a fellow Welsh photographer made his name covering the Vietnam War.
SIR DON MCCULLIN – Biafra 1968
This poignant photograph shows a young twenty-four-year-old woman with a suckling baby who is looking for milk that she can’t obviously provide through the emaciated condition.
David comments on this photograph by describing this woman’s dignity of expression. You feel that if anyone can get through this and come out on the right side, then she is that woman. He also compliments the skill of his friend Don by saying that the trust that the subject has for the photographer is exemplified by the fact that she is looking directly at the photographer, allowing such an intimate portrait to be taken.
In 1965, David was asked to apply for membership of Magnum Photographs. This commercial body was founded in Paris in 1947. Among the co-founders were Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Capra. The latter you may recall took arguably the most powerful image of war, “The Falling Soldier” taken during the Spanish Civil War. Capra, whose life was tragically cut short at the age of 40, when he stepped on a land-mine during the First Indochina War, in 1954 swapped this photo with David.
ROBERT CAPRA – French woman who has had a baby fathered by a German soldier, being marched through the streets after being punished by having her head shaved. Chartres, France 1944
What struck me about this photograph is the stark image of the baby, tenderly being held by this mother, on contrast to the hatred and derision of the crowds. Innocence the Baby versus. War -Hatred as a result of conflict.
Magnum Photos is still flourishing today and provides a marketplace for photographers who was members to sell their work. It also, according to Cartier-Bresson is “ Magnum is a community of thought, a shared human quality, a curiosity about what is going on in the world, a respect for what is going on and a desire to transcribe it visually”. The criteria for membership is strictly enforced and passes through two stages – Associate and Full Membership. David became an Associate member in 1965 and a full member two years later.
As you enter the exhibition, you are greeted by a huge number of photographs, all taken by members of Magnum Photos. Photographers such as Eve Arnold, Martin Parr, Peter Marlow and Thomas Hoepker to name a few.
EVE ARNOLD A Baby’s first five minutes, 1959
The stark black background accentuates the tender and intimate touching of a baby’s tiny fragile hand. A photograph that touchingly shows the unique bond between mother and child.
MARTIN PARR – New Brighton 1983-86
Martin Parr, another long-term friend of David, took a set of photographs depicting the Wirral seaside resort of New Brighton, once a prominent location for day-trippers and tourists to the town, now in a state of decline, but still having an active scene.
PETER MARLOW -David Beckham London, 1999
A candid photograph of a relaxed looking David Beckham at the height of his pomp.
THOMAS HOEPKER – Andy Warhol in his ‘Factory’Union Square 1981
One of a set of quirky photographs taken in NYC of this iconic subject.
In 1973, David turned to teaching and founded the School of Documentary Photography in Newport, Gwent. A section to the right of the room is dedicated to some of his students who were able to forge successful careers in photography. A photograph that particularly interested me is by Abergavenny-born Sue Packer and adorns the cover image of her publication, “Cheltenham Ladies – A Portrait of Cheltenham Ladies College.
SUE PACKER – Cheltenham Ladies, 1984
There are no smiling adolescent young ladies here. In fact, you could almost accuse them of being sullen in some instances. Is this a statement of the difficult road ahead of them, possibly as females when setting out on their careers? Cheltenham Ladies College is one of the most prestigious public school institutions for girls in England. Does their privileged backgrounds account for their provocative expresses? Could it be a sexual provocation? It is an intriguing photograph and not difficult to see why it has been the subject of a David Hurn swap.
David’s reputation is such nowadays that to be asked to swap a photograph with him, is a testament to your own arrival as a photographer of renown.
PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID HURN IN THE EXHIBITION
Although the exhibition is not about photographs that David Hurn took himself, Bronwen Colquhoun managed to persuade him to include three of then. In order to tie in with the theme of the exhibition, these photographs are the ones that David is asked to swap himself.
Taken from Arizona Trip, a forthcoming publication, (November 2017), of a collection of photographs that David took at the back end of the 1970’s in that state. The photograph captures a landscape that will be eradicated when building developers move in shortly after it was taken.
This magnificent collection of 700 + swaps, many which are presented in this exhibition is a remarkable coup for the National Museum of Wales. In his own words, David says that he only would donate these collections if the NMW started its own dedicated gallery for photography. Photograph galleries are a relatively recent feature, beginning in the late 1960’s as purely commercial enterprises. Galleries in terms of providing a viewing platform for the pleasure and education of the viewers came later, but it is still a little surprising that it has taken the NMW so long to set up its own gallery. Bronwen Colquhoun says that the intention is for exhibitions to change at roughly six-monthly intervals and drawn from a rich treasury of photographs showing Welsh cultural, historical, industrial and social life. The David Hurn Swaps Collection is the perfect instrument to kick-start this important new feature at the National Museum of Wales.
David Hurn will be conducting a talk about the Collection at the museum on the 20th October 2017. Admission is free, but I have been informed that it is advisable to book now to avoid disappointment as demand has been very high.
Little Wolf is a revision of a comparatively rarely performed 1894 play Little Eyolf by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen. LUCID’s new production tours venues in South Wales in late October and November 2017 and promises to be a worthwhile enterprise.
It has been given a contemporary revision, by LUCID’s award-winning director Simon Harris.
PLOT OF LITTLE WOLF FROM LITTLE EYOLF BY IBSEN
The action is set over a period of thirty-six hours at the home of Alfred and Rita Allmers. Alfred is an occasional teacher, intellectual and landowner. Their home is located near a fjord and some distance from the nearest town, thereby emphasising Ibsen’s naturalistic style of people influenced largely by the environment they live in. Their isolation from the remainder of the community also extends to their own marital relationship, which is on a steep downward curve due to the event that had caused their nine-year old son Eyolf to be partly paralysed. The boy’s handicap having been due to him falling off a table in babyhood, where he had been left whilst his parent’s engaged in making love. The feeling of guilt over this accident provides the backdrop to the events that ensue.
LUCID was formed in 2012 by Simon Harris and its aims are:
To act as a catalyst and resource for artist development
to be a producer of innovative and distinctive theatre projects
Simon has an impressive C.V. having been associated with the National Theatre and the Soho Theatre Company as well as Artistic Director of Script Cymru the national company for new writing in Wales. In 2009, Simon won a highly-prized Creative Wales Award to enable him to develop new and innovative theatre projects.
I interviewed Simon about Little Wolf.
RB: Little Wolf is a comparatively rarely performed Ibsen classic. Why do you think that is?
SH: Well, Little Wolf is my version of the Ibsen classic Little Eyolf, and A Doll’s House,Hedda Gabler, Peer Gynt , these are the really well known plays, and Little Wolf comparatively, certainly in Wales, (I’m not aware of any productions in Wales to be honest), but comparatively in the UK, it is less performed. The peculiar thing is that when I speak to people who know the play, – I bumped into a couple of people in London, friends of mine who are directors a couple of weeks ago, and they said, “What are you doing?” and I said that I was doing this play based on Little Eyolf and they all went, “I love Little Eyolf!”, so I think part of it is that it is a challenging play in its content for some people, but it’s also an incredibly beautiful play –
RB: Yes, it’s a very intense play, I presume there is no interval, do you think the audience is emotionally able to cope with that, because it is a very demanding play on the emotions isn’t it?
SH: Well I think audiences these days are up for emotional engagement. If you look at the kind of television that people are tuning into these days, they’re sucking up the box sets, they really love the kind of deep engagement with characters they really get, and I think that this is the kind of offer that this play makes, it kinds of opens up its soul and lets you in a really profound and beautiful way. I think that this is a time when people are looking for an opportunity to empathaise and reflect a bit more, and if you compare with what is going on in the world at this moment, you know there are a lot of extremes in the world at this moment, and this is a play about the nuances of human behaviour and our ability to work through adversity towards a more hopeful position, so I think that aspect of the play that people should welcome.
RB: Going on from that, I know that the Little Eyolf play has an open ending, slightly optimistic, but it’s an ending that in 1894 when the play was written, but do you think it works well today, because the Allmers were landowners, quite wealthy people that would devote their wealth to the poor, what with a Social Security system which does that today? Do you think that translates well today, or have you done something different with it?
SH: Yes, I have done something different with it, so my connection with the play goes back a long time. I happened to see a version of it on the BBC, it’s a lovely production and I didn’t know the play at all, I didn’t know about Ibsen, but as soon as I landed on the channel that it was on, I was hooked, I was deeply deeply hooked into it and it made a lasting impression on me, so when I came to thinking about working on a new piece, I thought I would have a look at that, and when I read it I was quite surprised to see how different it was from the memory that I have of it. There were still things that were incredibly powerful and I thought very urgent and relevant, and some aspects of the play that felt very awkward to me – something that a modern audience wouldn’t identify with, so that’s why I felt that it was very important to do a different version of it, rather than a modern day version of an old play.
RB: Little Eyolf is always a play that has divided critics. I know the Ibsenist Michael Meyer regarded it as his favourite Ibsen play, and there are others who rate this at the top of the tree… Now I understand that your working is set in the contemporary day and is set in Norway?
RB: Did you consider moving the setting to Wales for example. Would it work?
SH: There is something similar about the non-conformist culture. Ibsen was fascinated about how we live, and the sometimes self-deluding behaviours that we have and hypocrisies that we have, so I think that may resonate fairly strongly for a Wales with a Non-Conformist chapel tradition. I didn’t really feel that gain that much from the setting of it in Wales. I’ve seen that done a few times, but I think it shows up some tensions in the production, and I always thought the best thing to do with it, and I’ve talked about this in one of the little films we’ve done on this on Facebook, is that we feel that we have absorbed the Norwegian culture aspect, but it’s not in your face, it’s not very overt,.
RB: I want to ask a question about Rita. She has been described as a monster, and one of the reasons why I like Ibsen is that he writes about very strong-willed heroines, I’m thinking about Svanhild in Love’s Comedy, Nora of course in A Doll’s House. How do you compare Rita to these heroines? Are you sympathetic to Rita, is she, in fact a heroine?
SH: I’m deeply sympathetic to her. I think that’s a very Victorian judgmental attitude to Rita to call her a monster. I think what is so difficult for people is that she is in a relationship with a man who is withdrawn from her, (and perhaps it’s a little more explicit in this play compared to the original), blames her conclusively for the past incidence that informs the whole of the play. Our version explores that much more comprehensively, and I think she is magnificent. She’s resilient, she’s loyal, she’s intelligent, she’s witty, she’s driven and the main thing is that she has a foundation in the love the two characters had for each other. She holds on to that. She knows what that meant in the past, and is the one who insists on it repeatedly in the play. That makes her strong. I think there’s an incredible resilience in her and it’s a beautiful journey in a way in that it moves from adversity to a new honesty and ability to move forward.
RB: Finally, I would like to ask about LUCID. Perhaps you could tell us something about the Company?
SH: This is the first theatre production of the company. We’ve been doing a variety of different works, some of it behind the scenes, working upon developing people, artists’ development, leadership development work, but I also had a piece by Chekhov that I developed as well, when I did a contemporised version of an early Chekhov play that I was interested in, so that might be something for the future. It’s early days for the company. The thing that interests me at the moment is the value of old stories. I’m slightly concerned that in the rush towards a more experiential theatre presentation. that we might lose touch with some of the dramatic traditions as well, but it doesn’t mean to say that because you interested in the dramatic tradition that it’s necessarily old-fashioned or out of date or anything else. The tradition goes back two thousand years, and I’m worried sometimes that we might be throwing the baby out with the bath water. I believe in a very pluralistic theatre culture, this work is about re-framing old stories in new urgent relevant ways. Hopefully in a way that audiences will appreciate and engage with.
RB: And presumably with the title of your company in mind, lucidity is something that you empathise in the delivery?
SH: Well I’d love that. That’s what we aim for. The LUCID name came about because I set the company up when what I considered was a lack of dialogue around what was happening in theatre, and I wanted to get people talking and thinking about some of these issues , so it was a kind of hint towards a hope for greater clarity.
RB: Thanks for your time.
Little Wolf is a rare opportunity to see a reworking of a great Ibsen play. The contemporary setting should resonate with the trials and tribulations that many of us go through in our daily life today. Ibsen was a very forward-thinking playwright for his time and his themes are as powerful today as they were when written one hundred and twenty years ago.
This promises to be an exciting production and I would urge you view it as it goes on tour around South Wales. The dates are as follows:
A small, but important exhibition of 20th Century British art is currently on display at the National Museum of Wales.
Ian and Mercedes Stoutzker have lent works of art from their impressive collection of 20th Century artists and sculptors. Works by many of the greatest British names appears here including Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Barbara Hepworth and David Hockney.
Ian Stoutzker, a successful businessman, decided to loan the works because of his connection to Wales, through his mother. She was a music teacher from Tredegar and spent all of her young life there. When I hear my mother’s accent I say ‘I’m back in Wales’, because that was my background and she never lost her love of Wales, which she passed on to me. I looked like my mother as a boy, and I am my mother and she lives through me. And I know the contentment she would have that I share her love of the country.
It is a small exhibition only occupying one gallery. However, when looking at any Collection, it is fascinating to see how it has evolved, which Mercedes informs us was from a very modest sum of available money. The downside is that it is also, inevitably, a very narrow selection of diversity.
A selection of the exhibits on view are as follows :-
Grayson Perry – “World Leaders Attend the Marriage of Alan Measles and Clare Perry”Glazed Terracotta 2009.
Alan Measles being the name of his childhood toy teddy-bear and Clare, his transvestite alter-ego. Perry likes to place Alan Measles as a political banner, and you can notice the inclusion of Euro political figures such as Gordon Brown, Nicholas Sarkozy, Angela Merkel and others gather round for a wedding in a manner recalling earlier Christian iconography.
R.B. Kitaj – “Still – The Other Woman” 1973 Oil on Canvas
Kitaz was an American artist, who spent much of his creative live in England. He had a significant influence on British Pop Art.
Francis Bacon – “Portrait of Henrietta Moraes” 1966 Oil on Canvas
Francis Bacon’s naked 1966 portrait of his friend Henrietta Moraes lying on a bed with her feet towards us, her face an ape-like mask, her flesh blackened in places as if by disease, is a masterpiece of disturbing decadence. (The Guardian Review online).
Ben Nicholson – “Still Life – Violin” 1932
Finally, my personal favourite on display :-
Peter Doig – “Untitled” 2001-2002
The low resolution reproduction here, doesn’t do justice to the vibrancy of the flowers in the foreground and the austere icy setting behind it. The Scottish artist’s work regularly sell at auction for over ten million USD, and compared to a lot of work that passes as art in the 21st century, it is not difficult to see why.
“From Bacon to Doig” is a major exhibition of 20th Century British Art, not only in the Welsh cultural scene, but on the world stage. Indeed, it has been mentioned that it is the most important collection of art to have been exhibited at the National Museum of Wales, since the celebrated Davies sisters show of French Impressionist works back in the 1940s’.
For those who are not particularly interested in the narrow taste of the Collection, you may come away slightly underwhelmed due to it’s relatively small size and limited diversity of taste. For devotees of 20th Century British Art, then this is an exhibition not to be missed.
Combined with the Peter Hurn “Swaps” exhibition located in a nearby gallery, this could amount to an unforgettable half-day visit at the National Museum of Wales