Roger Barrington

Review of The Brodsky Quartet at Theatr Brycheiniog by Roger Barrington

 

 

 

(4.5 / 5)

 

When I noticed that The Brodsky Quartet were coming to Theatr Brycheiniog, I have to say that I gasped with disbelief. What a coup! Did they live up to expectation – they certainly did!

The Brodskys are a British String Quartet who were formed way back in 1972. Only half of the original foursome remain. JacquelineThomas (cello) and second left Ian Belton, (violin). More recent members are Paul Cassidy (viola) next to Jacqueline and Daniel Rowland, (violin) on the extreme left. Paul having joined in 1982 and Daniel in 2007. References to position refer to the photograph above.

Traditionally, the quartet played standing up, and the three guys did so on this occasion.

The quartet not only play classical composers such as Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert and particularly Shostakovich – all the usual classical string quartet suspects, but also dabble in the avant-garde and the eccentric, and this as represented in the programme they put together in Brecon.

They began with Mexican composer Javier Alvarez’s ” Metro Chabacano” (1991). This is a minimalist piece, a genre of music I particularly enjoy; it reminded me more of John Adams than Philip Glass or Steve Reich. The quick pulse that resonates through its seven minute length conjures up imagery of the Mexico City subway network.

The second piece, “Reflejos de la noche” by another Mexican composer, Mario Lavista is even more unusual. Lavista is renowned for his experimentation and in this piece he really goes to town. Without using the fingerboard of their instruments the Brodskys relying on harmonising , recreate the noises of wild animals at night. I have seen it referred to as a Soundscape rather than a melody and is quite an extraordinary experience watching it being performed. A neighbour of mine in the audience commented that it is great to see it  performed live, but I wouldn’t buy the cd! I tend to agree with that. If you do want the CD it can be found on The Brodsky Quartet’s “Rhythm and Texture”, just one of the 60+ output of this enduring group’s work.

Resorting to a more traditional piece, the quartet then played Edward Elgar’s “String Quartet in E minor, Op. 83”. This celebrated piece was written exactly 100 years ago, just before the celebrated “Cello Concerto”. Both pieces reflect Elgar’s melancholic state of mind and the pathos and English nature of this work was brought out in a powerful rendition.

After the break, the quartet play Shostakovich’s “Quartet No. 3 in F major, Op.73”.  The Brodsky Quartet have a well-earned reputation for performing Shostakovich’s String Quartet output and they didn’t disappoint. Written in 1946, this approximately 33-minute string quartet is in 5 movements, which the composer, allegedly renamed in the manner of a war story:-

Blithe ignorance of the future cataclysm
Rumblings of unrest and anticipation
Forces of war unleashed
In memory of the dead
The eternal question: Why? And for what?

After very recently being reminded of the 100th anniversary of the end of WW1, who can argue with these sentiments?

For their encore, the quartet played a charming Shostakovich number, “Polka” in an amusing manner with sideways glances at what their colleagues were playing.

This concluded a memorable concert that displayed The Brodsky Quartet’s great musicianship, unity of purpose and sheer exuberance of playing technically demanding music.

If you consider the venues this celebrated quartet play at, then Theatr Brycheiniog sdhould take a bow themselves for bringing The Brodskys to Brecon. The eclectic nature of this community theatre’s programme, knows no bounds!

Roger Barrington

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Review of Forget-me-Not at Pontypridd Museum by Roger Barrington

 

 

 

(4 / 5)

A timely reminder of the supreme sacrifice that people from the South Wales valleys made during World War 1 is reenacted at Pontypridd Museum.

Written and presented by Avant Cymru the company’s intention is to inspire the valley’ communities by recalling the past, to discuss the present and create the future.

Pontypridd Museum, itself currently showing a WW1 exhibition and its many links to the social history of the area, proves to be an ideal setting for performing this play.

The action begins by  Reverend Richards (Matthew Bool) conducting a service, which basically provides the opportunity to sing perennial favourite Welsh Hymns such as “Calon Lan” and “Cwm Rhondda” and the English hymn, “Abide with Me”. Accompaniment is provided by David Hutchings playing the fine organ in situ.  Thankfully there isn’t a collection. The Reverend then provides a brief firebrand sermon reminding the congregation forcefully and passionately about their responsibilities at this time of great social turmoil. He turns on young mother Catrin Williams who it seems had a boy aged thirteen attacking her moral behaviour,

The action continues at different locations around the museum. You witness the recruiting sergeant, (Yannick Budd),  and the issues that prevented some men from enlisting. The urging by Catrin that her son lie about being under-aged so that he could be safer fighting at The Front compared to the inevitable going down the mines.

The action moves downstairs to re-enact a scene at the Front Line, although I don’t think the men depicted would have lasted very long at that place, failing to keep their head under the parapet.

 

 

The scene is very loud which is as it should be because it was the incessant shelling and gunfire, (sounds that carried from the trenches to South-East England), that was the reason why many of the soldiers succumbed to neurasthenia, (shell-shock).

Emerging from the depths the final scene takes place at the local post office run by Emily Davies, (Cler Stephens) reveals the anxieties of families awaiting news of their loved ones from The Front.

The mixed professional and amateur actors play their characters with conviction and production values are high with realistic costumes and excellent sound.

I watched the performance in the well-behaved company of primary school children from two local schools. I noted that the boys were in their element when they were being drilled by the sergeant and at the scene at The Front, whilst the girls seemed a little nervous and distracted there but were more engaged with the Post Office scene. A nice touch was to present the entire audience with a red poppy at the end which you then pressed on to a board near the exit, so that you could pay your respects to your ancestors and remember all who had paid the ultimate sacrifice.

Patient research by the production team has revealed diaries and poems that were written by local soldiers and this provided a strong connection to the audience, by its Welsh flavour.

This hour-long play is a brilliant way to convey the terrible time that any war brings to local communities particularly to children. It’s intentions are magnificent and I cannot praise it enough.

 

Roger Barrington

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Review of “Roots” by National Dance Company Wales at Dance House, Cardiff by Roger Barrington

 

 

(4.5 / 5)

I must begin by making a confession. Being a critic, you should be able to define what is good or bad abut a production from an informed position.

This is my inaugural dance review and I am not writing from an informed background. I used to watch occasional contemporary dance theatre in London, and in Montreal, but it must be nearly twenty years since I last saw something in this genre, and this is the first time in Wales.

Not wishing to make a song and dance about this, I tentatively submit the view that maybe in this particular art form, this isn’t too big a problem. This point, I shall return to when I review the third and final piece in this production.

The programme consists of three short pieces and collectively provide a European flavour.

The first dance, Omerta is choreographed by Italian Matteo Marfoglia.

 

Matteo acts a Rehearsal Director for “Roots” and is very passionate about the subject matter of “Omerta”. When he talks about it, he does so in an engaging manner. I happen to know this, because, by chance, ( well I think it was by chance), Matteo happened to be seated next to me, so I was in the ideal position to bombard him with questions. Despite my naivety, he answered these questions with great patience and humour and the insight he provided gave me a clearer idea of how this piece was devised.

“Omerta” concerns the role that women in Italian society, located in areas still largely under the influence of the Mafioso, combat the oppressive nature of their existence. Dressed entirely in black, and beginning with veiled faces, the four female dancers are strewn across the space, each with pails carrying water.

 

 

The background music starts with a metronomic beat and also ends in the same way. I interpreted this to mean to mark the endless passage of time that the conditions the Mafia has imposed on Italian society, and women in particular, within that void,  and assisted by the nature of its masculine domination. The spotlights highlighting individual dancers fleetingly, and the four dancers collectively, heighten the tension and focus your attention as the dancers repeat their actions of carrying and cleansing themselves with the water they are carrying.

I put it to Matteo that could the black veiled attire and the pseudo-religious music that followed, be interpreted that the four women were widows, victims of Mafioso vendettas and that the music represented the  powerful influence of the Roman Catholic Church in Italian society. Matteo answered in the negative, that the dress and music represent the region of Southern Italy that the piece represented.  Maybe I was thinking too much about Ford Coppola’s Godfather trilogy at this time.

With the removal of the veils the dancers sweep into a more expressive form that signify their impassioned attempt to break the shackles of this oppressive society of murder, extortion and fear.

I asked Matteo if he would like to present this piece in Italy and how it would be received there in contrast to Wales. His eyes immediately lit up and he answered that he would love to, but the nature of the piece would make it explosive to perform in certain parts of Southern Italy where the Mafia hold is still strong. He was inspired to create the piece after the murder of four judges in Sicily in the early 1990’s and the resultant protests by a group of women to these assassinations. Their courage in a very dangerous environment moved Matteo to create “Omerto”. I likened this to the Peace Movement instigated in Northern Ireland during The Troubles and he agreed.

Matteo Marfoglia is the recipient of a Creative Wales award from The Arts Council of Wales. He has also been awarded a research grant  which he is currently undertaking. He trained in Amsterdam and formerly was a dancer for the NDC Wales before branching out recently on his own and  becoming a freelance choreographer. He is recognised as a future leader in British dance and on the evidence on show in “Omerta”, it is easy to understand why.

The second piece “Bernadette” is a solo work choreographed by Caroline Finn and performed by Camille Giraudeau.

 

Caroline Finn

 

Caroline is NDC Wales’s Resident Choreographer and she also acted as Lighting and Costume Designer for this piece.

The highly effective background music is provided by French band Nouvelle Vague, “In a manner of speaking”. The lyrics of which have a real connection to this piece.

in a manner of speaking
Semantics won’t do
In this life that we live
We only make do
And the way that we feel
Might have to be sacrificed

The dreamlike quality of the sound also enhance the dance.

The piece which I found to be amusing at times begins and ends with a taped male cooking guru giving cooking tips that are received by the dancer in, almost a robotic, catatonic state.

As she starts applying these technqiues in her cooking preparation, she suddenly and totally unexpectedly throws herself across the kitchen table, projecting an egg that explodes in front of  front seat audience members forcing them to involuntarily  take evasive action.

 

 

This is repeated, not only with eggs but with flour, so by the time the performance has finished the space had resembled being hit by a bomb.

When dancer Camille breaks free from her catatonic existence she snatches off her wig and dances with great abandonment before resuming her original “Stepford Wife” existence as the guru’s voice re-emerges over the background soundtrack.

I felt that this piece, in a way, is a companion to “Omerta”. I recently read that a mother’s life bringing up up a young family is the equivalent of working  2.5 jobs. The feminist slant to this work, shows the unnoticed work that many women have to endure in the household and their ambition to break free.

Caroline Finn has a growing reputation for her work and a previous NDC Wales composition, “Folk” and this one have received rave reviews.

The final piece, “Atalay” is choreographed by Spanish artiste Mario Bermudez Gil.

 

 

Mario is Artistic Director of Marcat Dance Company. “Marcat Dance connects to the human spirit and finds inspiration from world cultures, rituals, and landscapes” according to its website and all come to notice in this production.

Atalay is Spanish for Watchtower and reflects a personal experience that Mario and his wife have when walking to a viewpoint near their Southern Spanish home. At this place is a watchtower and Mario feels a close sense of existence to the elements at this place and the natural landscapes of the mountains and the undulating land. He thinks about the four walls of the watchtower that reach out to the four points of the extended compass and imagines the fusion of the different cultures, exemplified through their dance and music. He takes you on a journey using a wide range of culturally orientated music and invites you to connect emotionally through the movement of dance. It is a personal odyssey of spiritual emotions and Mario encourages the four dancers, two of each sex, to input their own feelings revealed through the unique form of dance.

I struggled to find meaning in this composition and voiced my confusion about what the individual segments of the piece, were telling you. I put this question to NDC Wales Artistic Director, Fearghus Ó Conchúir who was with the four dancers post performance. The question met with an initial hesitation from Fearghus and when I glanced at the performers they collectively seem to have that “don’t ask me, I’m only the dancer” look on their faces. However, a consensus was arrived at that basically reached the place that I found to be what Mario’s intentions were.

So maybe I was searching for a meaning that doesn’t exist. That it is the journey and the emotions that you feel through the expression of dance, that is the thing. If there is one lesson that I learnt in this experience is that there doesn’t have to be a precise definition to contemporary dance, then it has been worthwhile.

The piece itself did convey feelings of strong emotion and beauty, love and humour, and the strong costume design and lighting made it a fitting conclusion to a wonderfully diverse programme.

The dancing is excellent throughout. I feel that not only are the dancers putting body and soul into their dancing, they appear to be thoroughly enjoying it along the way.

One unusual feature that I particularly welcomed is how Artistic Director Fearghus Ó Conchúir  introduced each piece and immediately afterwards invited you to speak to your neighbour in the audience about it and to examine each others feelings that came out of it. In addition, at the end of the programme, the audience has the opportunity to put questions to the dancers.  Together, this is a great innovation and helped a contemporary dance ignoramus such as myself to engage more meaningfully in the experience they are experiencing.

I came out of the dance space questioning myself on why .  I had missed out on a generation of experiencing an artistic genre that is a medium for mixing dance expressionism and technique, music, costume and lighting in a collaborative way that is utterly cool.

Roger Barrington

 

Continue reading Review of “Roots” by National Dance Company Wales at Dance House, Cardiff by Roger Barrington

Review of WNO International Concert at St. David’s Hall, Cardiff by Roger Barrington

(4.5 / 5)

 

The Welsh National Opera Orchestra under the baton of its Musical Director Tomas Hanus entertained an enthusiastic audience royally at St. David’s Hall in Cardiff.

The programme was divided into two parts with the second being devoted to Czech composer Leos Janacek.

Opening the concert, the WNO orchestra took on Rossini’s perennial favourite, “The William Tell Overture”. This piece never fails to conjure up two contrasting memories. Firstly, sitting in front of  the family black and white television on a Saturday afternoon after Grandstand, anticipating my hero The Lone Ranger and his sidekick Tonto saving the day yet again. My second image is very different, harking back to Malcolm McDowell’s adventures in the bedroom with a couple of girls our anti-hero has picked up, to a greatly speeded up version of the melody in Stanley Kubrick’s, “A Clockwork Orange”. In my declining years, that is the memory, I wistfully try to conjure up the most.

My impression of the playing was that the opening was played a little too languidly. Mind you, that made the contrast to the trumpet announcing the more famous melody to be more striking.

Next we were treated to a soulful rendition of Elgar’s Cello Concert, with soloist, the young Armenian cellist Narek Haknazaryan.

 

 

Anybody who takes on this beautiful cello concerto will be compared to the legendary Jacqueline du Pre. She almost single -handedly brought to notice a piece that became regarded as one of the great cello concertos of any century.

Narek did an excellent job of getting somewhere near the benchmark, really getting into his performance exuding great emotional depth and understanding.  What the audience would have been unprepared for was an unaccompanied encore, whereby Narek sang, (presumably in Armenian), whilst playing his instrument in such a way I hadn’t seen before. It was an exhibition of total mastery of the cello and had the audience in awe chatting about it during the interval that followed it. Narek’s pedigree is worth consideration. Born into a family of Armenian musicians, his father being a violinist and his mother, a pianist, in 2011, at the age of 22, he won the prestigious Cello First Prize and Gold Medal at the XIVth International Tchaikovsky Competition. He is currently, one of the Vienna Konzerthaus’s Great Talent and is in huge demand to perform, not only in the Austrian capital, but all around the world.

The second half opened with Janacek’s charming finale to his opera, “The Cunning Little Vixen”. The Forester, in a monologue returns to the forest after his pet vixen had been shot dead by a poacher, and reflects on the meaning of life. Slovak baritone Gustav Belacek, sang the part of the forester.

 

 

His rich baritone voice resounded around the hall. Gustav is a well travelled and accomplished singer having performed in many of the greatest opera houses and concert halls of the world. He is also a regular soloist with both the Czech and Slovak Philharmonic orchestras.

A thoroughly charming interlude towards the end had young Efan Arthur Williams resplendent in a frog costume hopping on to the stage and singing a few treble lines in a pure clear voice, and this captivated the audience.

 

 

The concert concluded with an accomplished rendition of Janacek’s famous Sinfonietta – a great concert favourite, largely due to its dynamic use of an elongated brass section that heralds in and closes the four movement sinfonietta. The well-loved third movement with its imposing melody which the programme describes as a  “manic trombone solo”was the highlight of the piece.

Conductor Tomas Hanus was born in Brno in what is now the Czech Republic.

 

 

Brno is where composer Leos Janacek grew up and provided the inspiration for much of his creative output. Therefore, you can imagine that Tomos has a natural affinity to this composer’s work, the proof of which is patently obvious whereby he gets the best out of the talented collective body, that is the Welsh National Opera orchestra.

 

 

Throughout, the orchestra played with great skill and unity in what was a very varied programme. Their reputation as one of Britain’s finest orchestras is clearly apparent and well merited.

What I particularly liked about the concert was the way that maestro Tomas introduced each piece providing an interesting insight into the work about to be played with warmth and wit. He explained to the audience that the theme of war as exemplified in the selected pieces is highly appropriate as we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Armistice. William Tell’s martial theme, Elgar’s Cello Concerto composed shortly after the end of the Conflict, and written at a time when the composer’s mental state was under great stress largely brought on by the horrors of war that preceded it. Janacek’s work is highly nationalistic and the Sinfonietta in particular reflects the new found nationalism that the country found after the end of WW1.

This WNO concert was a highly enjoyable experience and Tomas Hanus managed to convey a meaning to the audience that the orchestra and themselves are part of a family. The playing of the orchestra and the calibre of the international soloists make you anticipate later concerts next year in this series with great interest.

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Review of “Wicked” at the WMC by Roger Barrington

 

(4 / 5)

 

 

I sometimes think that I am living my life in reverse. When I was young, I was a bookish lad – reading Tolstoy whilst still in primary school for instance. I was as far removed as being Wicked as you can imagine. I have been compensating for this ever since!

“The Untold story of the Witches of Oz” is how this musical is promoted. In case you ever wondered about this, then this story will reveal all.

I never cared much about “The Wizard of Oz” . I couldn’t see myself trundling along the Yellow Brick Road, with Dorothy, Scarecrow, Lion and Tin Man. One thing that as always puzzled me about this story. Obviously there is rain in the land of Oz (Somewhere over the Rainbow”), so wouldn’t the Tin Man resemble a character on TV from my teenage days from “The Magic Roundabout”?

So “Wicked” returns to Muchkinland and follows the adventures of Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West.

When Elphaba leaves home to attend Shiz University, a kind of Munchkinland Hogwarts, she is very green. Not only in the meaning of life, but, literally, green. Her green skin means that she is ostracied by society and she fails to make friends. That is until she meets Galinda, who later becomes Glinda, and after an unpromising beginning, a close friendship develops between them. A friendship that is tried and tested along the way. Eventually they make their way to The Emerald City where  Elphaba meets and confronts the Wizard of Oz. The nefarious wizard is behind a pogromist type plot against the animals of the land. In defending them, Elphaba suffers a fall from grace and is hunted herself.

The story does have serious themes. The devotion to fitting in and being attractive, that is hugely important to American young girls in particular and is personified within the  character of Glinda. “Beauty is only skin deep” as exemplified between Elphaba and her love interest Fiyero. The pogrom against the animals, in this case shown by the expulsion of Dr. Dillamond, a goat Professor at Shiz University, reminds us of 20th-century historic events in Armenia, Nazi German, Russia and China.

The show premiered on Broadway on 30 October 2003 after a trial run in San Francisco and is still showing at the Gershwin Theatre. It’s success reversed the trend of recent musical smash hits that originated in Britain, and has provided the impetus for an American resurgence in the genre that it started.

Music and lyrics are by Stephen Schwartz who announced himself to the world of musicals with his 1971 smash hit, “Godspell”.  I can remember that a criticism of this show at that time, was that it was derivative of  Lloyd Webber/Rice “Jesus Christ Superstar” that preceded it by a year. Similar criticism has been aimed at “Wicked” for cashing in on the Harry Potter phenomenon. The music is nothing special , largely generic 21st century fare. The lyrics work better though.

In the performance that I viewed, Elphaba was played by Amy Ross and Glinda by Charli Baptie. Ross belts here songs over with such an intensity, it can verge on the strident.   Baptie possesses a more cultivated voice and shows an admirable talent for comic timing. For me, although Ross puts in a strong performance, it is Baptie, understudy to the stricken Helen Woolf who takes the performance honours in this production. Good support is provided by Aaron Sidwell, (Fiyero), Kim Ismay, (Madame Morrible), Steven Pinder, (the Wizard of Oz) and Emily Shaw as Nessarose, Elphaba’s invalid sister, who in Winnie Holzman’s book that the musical is based upon, becomes the Wicked Witch of the East.

Where the shows does really hit the heights is in Eugene Lee’s spectacular set design and Kenneth Posner’s lighting. Between them they conjure up a magical environment full on. The scene where Elphaba levitates and is caught in mid-air by the searchlights , that ends Act 1 is one of the most striking images that I have encountered in nigh on fifty years of theatre-going.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wayne Cilento’s musical staging and James Lynn Abbott’s dance arrangements are also excellent and provide many memorable scenes, especially of the flying monkeys.

Susan Hilferty’s resplendent costumes also enhance the visual quality of this show.

Live music is also provided under the direction of David Rose and the orchestra acquit themselves well.

“Wicked” is a confident, (verging on brashness), visually impressive musical, that for most of you will weave sufficient magic from its wand, and put you under a spell that immediately renders a state of anesthesia whereby you forget its equally impressive admission price.

 

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Review of Cardiff Boy at The Other Room by Roger Barrington

 

(2.5 / 5)

I was almost a Cardiff Boy. My elder brother is. Unfortunately for myself, in a moment of extreme recklessness my family moved from Cardiff after my brother’s birth and so I became, a Brecon Boy… that was the start of my problems! I have always wanted to be a Cardiff Boy –  well, until last evening.

Kevin Jones’s monologue tells the story of an invigorated Testosterone  angst-ridden Cardiff teenager and is based partly upon his real-life experience.

Our protagonist is a sensitive artistic lad, existing in the hurly-burly of Welsh laddish behaviour, drunken binging and alpha male aggressiveness. I’ve experienced this myself, although in a slightly different capacity when as a leftish orientated serving police officer, I was out of alignment with the vast majority of my colleagues, united in preserving the status quo. For the sake of fitting in, sometimes I had to say things or act in a way that was naturally alien to me. So, I get our hero’s situation.

Being a typical teenager, he is struggling to find his place in society and lacks self-esteem. Instead he prefers to act as a voyeuristic photographer, surreptitiously sneaking pictures of his mates in varying states of sobriety. With numerous references to Cardiff locations, you are shown that the nature of your social interaction is largely dictated to by your environs.

It is a nostalgic play. Looking back to the 1990’s and in particular the popular music of that period, that reminds us how important that sensory pleasure can influence our life and our relationships with our friends.

The first part of the playlet is the best. Actor Jack Hammett provides a likable, engaging character and he energetically glides around the room engaging members of the audience with direct eye contact. He is able to do this due to the created space being a rather dingy bar setting with tables and chairs  located around – a kind of Aberdare’s Moulin Rouge. 

Surrounding the room are photographs pegged up – obviously our guy’s work. Lighting is used creatively and overall the direction and design work well enough.

However, where the play falls down is the decline into a more melodramatic second part which leads you to the ultimate destination; that it sometimes it takes a tragedy to discover the meaning and value of friendship.

The dialogue is fairly sharp and there are funny jokes within the script, but despite this and Jack Hammet’s likeable performance, upon reflection you realise that this is rather slight fare.

I must include a caveat here. The nostalgic setting of the 1990’s, (music, early reference to Princess Diana seeking a divorce etc), reminded me that I was in middle age when the action would have taken place. My own experiences of this nature occurred in the 1970’s. So I think I probably have a very different perspective of this play to the rest of the audience on the press night I attended.

This isn’t the first time that I have felt out of place in Caridff Fringe Theatre – the Festival back in the early summer is a case in point. It appears to me that the Cardiff Fringe Theatre scene is created by young people for a young audience. Being part of the London Fringe Theatre for twenty years, I cast my mind back to try to remember if it was the same there in the 1990’s and early 2000’s. I believe that it wasn’t like the situation in Cardiff although admittedly younger people were in the majority. Is it due to the fact that Fringe Theatre is populated by younger people with the energy and creative desire to showcase their work? When they get older, they replace their enthusiasm with a more prosaic approach to life dictated to  by the trials and tribulations of growing up, and of course, in many cases raising a family.

This site promotes diversity and all power to it. But, how about diversity in fringe theatre? I have witnessed many an exciting production of classic theatre works on the London Fringe Festival Theatre scene

 

Roger Barrington

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Review: Athol Fugard’s “The Island” at Chapter by Roger Barrington

(4 / 5)

When “The Island” was invited to play at the Royal Court Theatre, London  in 1973, such was the incendiary reaction to it’s Cape Town premiere shortly before,that  Fugard’s fellow devisers,  John Kani and Winston Ntshona, also the actors of their namesakes in the play, had to pose as Fugard’s chauffeur and gardener, to allow them out of the country. The fact that Fugard neither had a chauffeur or a gardener was beside the point.

“The island” is one of a group of three plays by Fugard collectively known as “The Statement Plays”.  Together with “Statements After an Arrest Under the Immorality Act” and “Sizwe Bansi is Dead” both from 1972, the plays were developed in workshops  through Fugard’s company, “The Serpent Players”.

“The Island” is based on Robben Island located off the coast of Cape Town and was the notorious home for political prisoners going back as far as the end of the 17th century. It’s most famous inmate being Nelson Mandela who was incarcerated there for eighteen of his twenty-seven years, up to his release in February 1990.  Mandela and his African National Congress colleagues were greeted with the ominous words upon their arrival, “This is the island. This is where you will die”.

Such was the sensitivity of this place, ironically now a World Heritage Site, that the title of the play had to be changed to “Die Hodoshe Span”, or “Hodoshe’s Work Team.” Hodoshe, (in Xhosan it means a “carrion fly”),  refers to a particularly brutal prison guard who is an unseen ominous presence throughout the play. The reference suggesting the parasitic nature of the South African apartheid regime in power, seems to have flown over the heads of the government.

The play was written in 1973 at a time when Apartheid was in full throttle in South Africa. A shameful policy that shows man’s inhumanity to others due to  a different colour of skin, is at its most repulsive. Yet for almost the duration of Apartheid, from it’s beginnings in 1948 to it’s eventual demise in the early 1990’s, the South African government were rigorously supported by lucrative economic deals with the U.K. This point is made explicitly clear as soon as you enter the auditorium by two monitors on either side of the stage relating this in text. This also mentions Prime Minister May’s little dance when she attended earlier this year to mark the centennial birth of Nelson Mandela – notorious not only for its artistic ineptitude but also to the insensitivity of the  British role in Apartheid, which is not something to dance about!

Athol’s “The island” is  Brechtian in its structure. Where the two protagonists display their  human strengths and weaknesses yet are caught up in a system that is beyond their power to influence or change. The didactic nature of the play also connect to Brecht.

Fio’s production breaks away from the direction imposed by Fugard that calls for mime to represent the Sisyphean nature of the two prisoners’ daily tasks for a period of at least 15 minutes. This production opens with a powerful statement by the two actors emerging from opposite entrances behind the audience. They look you straight in the face and tell you why they burnt their passports. In actuality, in the play, only Winston has burnt his passport, an exceedingly serious crime that resulted in a life sentence, as the passport system was a fundamental instrument for imposing Apartheid. John had received a ten-year sentence for being a member of an illegal political organisation.  The onerous nature of the daily tasks the two prisoners endured is exemplified by the two actors repeatedly rolling the other over their back, and the physicality of doing this probably determined the truncation of the 15 minute set mime.

An important introduction to the play, something that Fugard tended to do at this period of his writing, is the introduction of the classical play, Antigone by Sophocles, which in turn, is  based upon Greek mythology. It is clearly apparent that Creon, King of the Thebes represents Apartheid and Antigone herself personifies human rights. She is in fact, in literature the first conscientious objector. This piece of metatheatre, has Winston comically adjusting his few clothes to represent a skirt and donning two tin drinking vessels to represent breasts. By choosing to re-enact a scene from Antigone to it’s audience, (which one would surmise, at least  comprises of members of the prison staff), itself as a weapon against those who think they are directing the theatre of life in South Africa, John and Winston transform their theatre of acquiescence into a Brechtian theatre of protest.

In the final words of the play, Winston, still dressed as Antigone, takes a turn addressing the audience, “Brothers and Sisters of the Land! I go now on my last  journey. I must leave the light of day forever, for the Island, strange and cold, to be lost  between life and death .., Removing his Antigone costume, Winston then addresses the audience as  himself, “Gods of our Fathers!  My Land! My Home! Time waits no longer. I go now to my living death, because I honoured those things to which honour belongs” John and Winston upon hearing the shrill whistle that features throughout the play, and which represents authority, resort back to their Sisyphean tasks.

Heady stuff! No wonder the Apartheid government felt compelled to censure this play and constantly arrest actors who played in it.

Both Joe Shire as John and Wela Mbusi as Winston embody the two characters that they are playing with great skill and agility, and deliver Fugard’s beautifully cadential script perfectly. They manage to change their relationship to each other determined by the script after John finds out that his sentence has been commuted to three years, leaving him only  three month to remain incarcerated, and Winston’s realisation that he is going to be even more isolated after his friend’s departure is handled in an understated way that is even the more powerful for it.

An important feature of this play has to be the lighting. It needs to reflect the claustrophobic nature of being incarcerated in a small space and expresses the optimism of a better existence outside of their unnatural environment. Ryan Joseph Stafford manages this by the simple technique of using low light to empathise the prisoners’ isolation and lack of space, and brilliant blinding light when they express their hopes and desires.

Andile Sotiya’s movement direction is almost balletic at times using the sparse set with surrounding steel apparatus to great effect. Abdul Shayek’s assured direction, never lets the pace of the play lag.

“The Island” is an elegant play that explicitly shows the dehumanisation of men purely based upon the colour of their skin. It is as relevant now, in an increasingly divisive society as it was over 40 years ago, when written. I would thoroughly recommend you seeing this important play from one of the leading contemporary playwrights in world theatre.

 

Roger Barrington

Continue reading Review: Athol Fugard’s “The Island” at Chapter by Roger Barrington

Review: Lord of the Flies at The Sherman Theatre by Roger Barrington

 

 

(3.5 / 5)

Emma Jordan’s Sherman Theatre/Theatr Clwyd co-production of William Golding’s 1954 novel, “Lord of the Flies” takes a bold approach by having the adolescent boys’ roles played by young actresses.

 

 

Those of you who are observant, will notice the entirely masculine presence of Matthew Bulgo in the above photo of the cast, a point I think I should make clear!

In her programme notes, partly Ms. Jordan qualifies this by writing that texts of well known stories can challenge the traditional ways of accepting the reading. After all, if there is only one way of interpreting Shakespeare, it is extremely doubtful whether his popularity and esteem would have carried on to this day.

What confuses me though is that the masculine names of the cast in this production are maintained, which may have the effect of an audience being torn between believing the characters are girls or boys. If it is the latter, then all power to it, because there is nothing wrong with an actress playing the role of the opposite gender, because, that is what they do… act. and I shall take this point of view.

Published in 1954, with The Cold War in full swing, Golding pens a taut novel full of warning about the effect war has in dehumanizing us. During a time of conflict, a plane carrying a group of British schoolchildren boys, is shot don over the Pacific. With the pilot dead, the surviving boys have to come to terms with their predicament and the hostile environment they find themselves in.

In essence, director Emma Jordan and adapter Nigel Williams, manage to keep the message of the book intact in this adaptation. The division of the group into the civilised and the savage, with members of the latter group regressing into simian characteristics. The promotion of self-interest over the needs of the community as exemplified by the division of the camp itself is shown explicitly. A topic that I regularly debated with students in my ten years in China.  Man’s , (through Jack and his gang) instinctive urge to hunt shows the way he relates to his environment. The loss of innocence, a kind of collective bildungsroman is also prevalent and the final emergence of their salvation by a British naval officer, a representative of the military and martial authority, and therefore linked to Jack,  leaves you with the nagging fear that even war aged by the right side, (the British in this case), has negative connotations.

The symbolism of the conch representing order and a civilised society, Piggy’s glasses indicating rationality and the benefits of science and technology, and the fire a signal to attract a civilised response are all present and cogently indicated.

The enthusiastic cast do well enough, although constant shouting throughout the first part left me searching for my packet of Ibuprofen during the interval! Gina Fillingham’s Piggy and Olivia Marcus’s Simon, maybe identified closest to the characters from the book I recall. LolaAdaja as Ralph also conveyed her character’s basic decency and indecision well. It is entirely possible that I have a natural bias towards the rational characters.

Where this production scores well is with the set design and lighting. James Perkins practical design of a meandering rising pathway to an elevated lookout is striking. Together with Tim Mascall’s impressive lighting, they manage to provide an atmospheric setting that shows the isolation of the boys in one of the quieter passages of the play.

 

 

This is a decent adaptation of a book that in the ever-increasing danger of  inflammatory geopolitical rhetoric and actions bears resonance today. Noisy, energetic, slightly distracting, you can’t be critical of  it’s good  intention.

Continue reading Review: Lord of the Flies at The Sherman Theatre by Roger Barrington

Review of Joe Orton’s “Loot” at the Coliseum Aberdare by Roger Barrington

 

(2 / 5)

 

I’ve never really been attracted to Joe Orton’s work. I recall seeing revivals of  Entertaining Mr. Sloane and What the Butler Saw staged in London during the 1990’s and watching the filmed version of Loot on it’s original run in 1970 and a common denominator in all these black comedies for me was that they were just not very funny, annoyingly over-verbose and outdated.

So with a degree of trepidation, I ventured to my local Coliseum Theatre in Aberdare, to see Black Rat and Blackwood Miners Institute Co-production of “Loot” which is touring venues in Wales until the 10th November.

The plot revolves around two young criminals, Hal (Rick Yale) and Dennis (Gareth Tempest) robbing a bank located next door to the funeral parlour where the latter is employed. Needing to hide the proceeds of their crime quickly, they decide on hiding it in a cupboard in Hal’s house initially, and then inside the coffin of his recently deceased mother lying in state in the same room prior to the funeral. Throw into the mix a psychopathic nurse Fay, (Sarah Jayne Hopkins), with an eye for grabbing the inheritance through marrying the newly widowed McLeavy, (John Cording) and a borderline loony police detective Truscott, (Samuel Davies), and you have the ingredients of ensuing mayhem.

 

 

The premise is promising, but is let down by its unnaturalistic dialogue and relentless attempts to be witty that leave you shell-shocked and disinterested after a very short time.

Another problem is that the main character Truscott, an obvious caricature of Sherlock Holmes, meerschaum pipe to boot, is patently unfunny.  Orton created the part with Kenneth Williams in mind, and I can envisage that actor improving the part, However,  for other actors without the unique talent of  Williams’s  affected style of delivery, it is a thankless task.

Fay is an Irish nurse and the most memorable character in the play. Devoted totally to the accumulation of wealth, she has managed Mrs. McLeavy, (an obviously silent role played by Julie Barclay) to change her Will in her favour. Previously married seven times, all her deceased husbands have died violently and now she has her claws into McLeavy.

McLeavy himself, the most moralistic character is a devout Roman Catholic who at first chooses not to believe that his son Hal is a bank robber.  He is torn between paternal responsibility and his religious conviction.

Hal, a product of his parents’ upbringing is incapable of lying, and this does lead to some slightly amusing moments. His friend and co-bank robber Dennis is a ladies man with an eye for snatching Fay, an attractive target as she had nefariously accumulated a degree of wealth.

Orton is targeting the accountability of the police force, exemplified through the sneaky and violent behaviour of Truscott. Orton, as a gay man at this time, (1960’s), had a history of bad experiences at the hands of the police and The Law and had an axe to grind. Famously, he was imprisoned for criminal damage to library books. His severe prison sentence probably down to his sexual orientation. He also has a go at the Roman Catholic Church  and middle-class society.

Orton reminds me of an earlier generation John Lydon, (Johnny Rotten of The ex Pistols) in his relentless quest to shock. He was always running into difficulties with the censors, and Loot was a case in point. However, what passed as shocking and controversial back in 1965 when the play was first performed, is passe sixty years on. I can remember the 60’s well enough and references to events and the way of thinking at that time does bear resonance, but I wonder how a group of schoolchildren that were present in the audience would find any degree of connection.

As for the production team, they make a pretty good attempt at making this redundant play accessible. All the actors have a decent body of work behind them and are collectively strong. The pick being Sarah Jayne Hopkins’s Fay – a lively portrayal with great vocal variation.

Director Richard Tunley creates a brilliant opening to introduce the characters, relying on a protective hospital screen doubling up as a cinematic screen to show an extract taken from a 60’s B-movie bank heist. It then is used for the concealing and exposure of the characters in an inventive way. This certainly caught the audience attention and I looked forward to more examples of this to come. Alas, that was not to be, and the remainder of the play is directed in a traditional way and is the worse for it.

Sean Crowley’s design is also traditional and somewhat perfunctory – religious icons, cupboard, bed, radio, room lamp and table and chairs.

This production makes a valiant attempt to resurrect a moribund play, but overall, you feel it should be resigned to accompany Mrs McLeavy in the centrestage coffin and buried in the cemetery of extinct drama. I can’t help wondering, whether Joe Orton’s work would still be exalted by some if he hadn’t died so young and brutally.

 

Roger Barrington