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Audio and text review of All But Gone at The Other Room, Cardiff by Roger Barrington

(4 / 5)

 

Callum Hymers as Kai and Owen Bowen Harries as Owen

 

 

 

Nicola Reynolds as Olwen asserting her authority over Owen (Wyn Bowen Harries) with Bev (Erin Phillips) and Kai (Callum Hymers) looking on

 

 

 

 

Owen (Wyn Bowen Harries) and Howell (Daniel Graham) sharing an intimate moment

 

 

Photographs by Keiran Cudlip

 

 

 

REVIEW

 

TRANSCRIPT

All But Gone is the second production of the Lovesick season at The Other Room in Cardiff. It marks the debut direction of the Other Room’s new artistic director Dan Jones, and if this astonishing show is anything to go by, it will make this venue, not only one of the most exciting in Cardiff but in Wales as a whole.

For a fringe venue to put on a new play by established playwright Matthew Trevannion of this quality is an outstanding achievement.

The action begins with Kai, (played by newcomer Callum Hymers with great emotional control for a young actor), burgling pensioner Owen’s house. Owen who had previously noticed Kai acting suspiciously at a neighbour’s premises is waiting for him – shotgun pointed at the intruder. After putting the Fear of God into him, Owen slowly reveals a sympathetic side, and realising that Kai is famished, offers a sandich and sends him on his way. But not before Howell, (Daniel Graham who brilliantly plays the character alternating between gentleness, manic antics and uncontrolled rage) enters the scene from upstairs and recites a soulful passage of poetry. However, he appears not to notice kai before returning to where he came from.

In fact, only Owen interacts with Kai throughout the entire play, even though he is often present in scenes with the other characters.

This puzzling question is the beginning of what becomes a highly complex play. If Kai isn’t actually a person then hat is her and what does he represent?

Does the illegal entry through the kitchen window, mirrored in the final scene by Howell represent an intrusion into Owen’s impaired memory . As the play develops, it becomes obvious that the action takes place with Owen as a younger man and where he is now.  But how reliable is his memory for he seems to be undertaking a decline of his mental facilities and entering a state of senile dementia?

The other characters are also marvelously observed. Nicola Reynolds plays Olwyn, matriarchal head of the family where Owen is living. She plays the archetypal Welsh Mam to a tee and has the funniest lines. There is a lot of humour in this play despite its poignant subject matter.

Her daughter Bev,  (Erin Phillips) is a kindhearted Welsh girl of the kind we all know and love. Her brother is Howell who has already been introduced.

Everyone in this production seems tailor-made for the characters they portray which is a testament to their acting abilities. A special mention has to go to Wyn Bowen Harries,  a veteran actor on the Welsh TV and theatre scene. His control, especially vocally is superb and you can’t help looking at his character sympathetically.

The play touches upon a number of themes as well as dementia – confused sexuality and lost opportunity.

The set design is perfect for a small space. A table and kitchen unit wwith window back centre and stairs leading upwards. A porch and outer door lead to the street. Carl Davies miraculously  manages to make the set appear much larger than it actually is.

Joe Fletcher’s lighting provides scenes of great intimacy.

In fact, this is a flawless production, and if I could, I would be awarding it four and a half stars out of five.

This is a truly thought provoking play about a thought disintegrating subject matter. This production deserves a transfer to a larger venue after it ends its run here.

Due to the strong language throughout, and adult scenes and subject matter, this play is for mature audiences only. It runs at The Other Room in Cardiff until 14th April and I would urge you to view it.

Please follow the link below to check ticket availability.

 

Continue reading Audio and text review of All But Gone at The Other Room, Cardiff by Roger Barrington

Review A Number by Caryl Churchill at The Other Room, Cardiff by Roger Barrington

A Number at The Other Room Cardiff

(3 / 5)

 

I have always struggled a little with the plays of Caryl Churchill and the Welsh premiere of A Number at The Other Room, Cardiff continues this trend. I find her admirable in her dramatic innovation but she never seems to engage me emotionally.

However, her reputation as one of Britain’s leading dramatists makes this presentation in Cardiff’s only pub theatre, a noteworthy event.

First performed at that bastion of post WW2 British theatre writing, The Royal Court, in its main auditorium in Chelsea, on 23 September 2002, this two-handed play, directed by Stephen Daldry, (whom many years ago I shared the experience of being locked out of the first act of a play at The Young Vic until the end of the first act – I think we must have been on the same Tube train!), starred Michael Gambon as the father Salter and Daniel Craig playing three of his sons.

The programme notes to production under review, describes the play as, “a fearless and affecting dissection of the relationship between father and son, A Number strikes at the heart of what it is to love unconditionally – and the tragic failure to connect”. Whilst this is true, I understand the play to be more about human identity, brought into moral and ethical questionability  through the instrument of cloning. A fundamental criticism of cloning is that it turns humans into commodities such as in this case, replacing a dead loved son. The cloned have a feeling of a lack of uniqueness inevitably resulting in a lack of identity.

The intellectual premise of the play is largely influenced by the philosophy of Ludwig Wittengenstein, whom the playwright has, in more recent times, returned to in her 2012 play Love and Information. Wittgenstein’s thesis is that a word, taken by itself, could have meaning without the existence of other  elements that determines its character. These entities, he states, may not be the same, but upon closer analysis can reveal a pattern of similarity, “a family resemblance”. Therefore, Wittgenstein allows us to speak in a meaningful way about things and people without reverting to essentialism – a belief that things have a set of characteristics which make them what they are, thereby providing the essence of Churchill’s  statement in A Number on identity.

The play is in five scenes, with the father Salter, a manipulative and deceitful man, and three of his cloned sons, all played by the same actor.

This production of  A Number is directed by  Ed Mannon and is performed by Brendon Charleson as the father Salter, and Stevie Raine as three of his sons.

Brendon Charleson

 

Stevie Raine

An enduring problem at The Other Room’s small space is set design. In the original production in the Royal Court’s main house, designer Ian MacNeil, (who together with Caryl Churchill won Evening Standard awards for this production), devised a blank set, a rectangular platform above the stage, devoid of decor other than two chairs and an table carrying an ashtray, thereby heightening the lack of context for Salter’s filial visitations.  For this production, designer Carl Davies, has designed a site-specific staging with a kind of thrust stage that runs the entire length of the space, bisecting the audience into two equal halfs facing one another in a semi theatre- in- the round way. This heightens the feeling of intimacy between the actors and the audience and works well. On the one end of the stage there is an easy armchair, with the entrance facing it at the opposite side.

Stage design

 

Brendon Charleson and Stevie Raines

Brendon Charleson, (who incidentally played in the first ever production at the Sherman Theatre), and comparative newcomer Stevie Raine do well in their roles, and their timing, (which is a very important part of Churchill’s writing style), was largely maintained.

The production is an admirable effort in introducing this important 21st century British dramatic  work to the Welsh public and deserves to play to good audiences, although, like me, you may come away feeling emotionally empty.

A Number runs at The Other Room, Cardiff until 3rd March 2018. For timings and tickets,  https://www.ticketsource.co.uk/otherroomtheatre

Duration: 1 hour without an interval.

Suitability: All (a few instances of persuasive language)

All photo credits Kiernan Cudlip

Roger Barrington

 

 

 

Review Tosca, Welsh National Opera by Roger Barrington

photo credit Richard Hubert Smith

 

(4 / 5)

 

An opera in three acts by  Giacomo Puccini

Libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa after the play by Victorien Sardou

Cast:

Floria Tosca – Claire Rutter (Soprano)
Mario Cavaradossi – Hector Sandoval (Tenor)
Baron Scarpia – Mark S. Doss (Bass-baritone)
Cesare Angelotti – Daniel Grice
Sacristan – Donald Maxwell
Spoletta – Michael Clifton-Thompson
Sciarrone – George Newton-Fitzgerald
Gaoler – Jack O’Kelly

WNO Orchestra conducted by Carlo Rizzi

Production:

Original director – Michael Blakemore
Revival director – Benjamin Davis
Designer – Ashley Martin-Davis

Michael Blakemore’s 1992 WNO’s Tosca is revived in a scintillating production currently at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff.

Tosca is probably the first example of verismo, the operatic movement that followed literature in its change from romanticism to realism, and in its more extreme form. naturalism.  The tale set in set in Rome in June 1800, with the Kingdom of Naples’s control of Rome threatened by Napoleon’s invasion of Italy. It depicts jealousy, abuse of power, murder and suicide.

The three principal characters are Tosca, a celebrated soprano opera singer, Cavaradossi a painter and her lover, and Scarpia, the chief of police  who lusts after the Diva. The story is fast paced and exciting with its inevitable tragic conclusion.

British soprano Claire Rutter manages to convey the prima donna character of Tosca to excellent effect. Sudden mood swings, demanding and flamboyant behaviour  comically shown when her lover Cavaradossi’s portrait of the Magdalene resembles an imaginated rival. Her rendition of Tosca’s aria “Vissi d’arte”, a lament to God for having repaid her cruelly for her good deeds, demanded your sympathy and compassion.

Mexican Hector Sandaval, (not to be confused with his compatriot, the martial arts exponent), possesses a highly cultivated tenor voice and this was shown to good effect during the climatic final act with Cavardossi’s famous aria, ”  E lucevan le stelle”.

American Mark S Doss amply displayed the sadistic nature of  Scarpia, although at the conclusion of Act 1 with the sublime Te Deum, he lacks the power of Bryn Terfel or the late Dmitri Hvorostovsky in the same role. Having said that, this is the highlight of the production with Doss backed up by the chorus largely made up of local schoolchildren.

The orchestra of the Welsh National Opera under the baton of Carlo Rizzi played beautifully throughout and added to the high quality of the singing significantly.

I would like to see the WNO  the next time they perform Tosca, having a new production as Blakemore’s twenty-six year old production, is getting a little long in the tooth.

Another small blemish was in the final scene where Tosca dramatically jumps to her death from the parapet of the Castel Sant’Angelo, her head momentarily reappears thereby defying the laws of gravity.

Should you be looking for an introduction to Grand Opera, then Tosca with its riveting story-line and fast pace provide the basis of an experience that can open a new world of high art.

Duration: 2 hours 40 minutes with 2 intervals.

It plays at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff Bay until 20 February 2018 and tickets can be purchased here

End

Roger Barrington

Photos

 photo credit Richard Hubert Smith

 

 photo credit Richard Hubert Smith photo credit Richard Hubert Smith photo credit Richard Hubert Smith photo credit Richard Hubert Smith photo credit Richard Hubert Smith photo credit Richard Hubert Smith

Roger Barrington

Review The Wind in the Willows, Sherman Theatre by Roger Barrington

(4 / 5)

 

“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

Credits

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.

 

The Cast

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.

Cast

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!

For tickets and times please go to the link

Duration: 2 hours including a 15-minute interval

Suitability: All

The Judge

Roger Barrington

 

Review Death and the Maiden, Fio, The Other Room, Cardiff by Roger Barrington

Death and the Maiden - 1

 

(3 / 5)

 

Fio’s timely revival of Chilean/American Ariel Dorfman’s seminal 1991 play Death and the Maiden reminds us that its message is still as vital now, as it was nearly thirty years ago.

Cast

Lisa Zahra as Paulina Salas (38 years old)

Vinta Morgan as Geraldo (her husband, a lawyer about forty five years old)

Pradeep Jey as Roberto Miranda ( a doctor, around fifty years old)

Directed by Abdul Shayek

Designer: Amy Jane Cook

Lighting: Ciaran Cunningham

Venue: The Other Room, Cardiff runs to 10th November at 1930 hours. Matinee performance on 4th November at 1500.

http://https://www.ticketsource.co.uk/otherroomtheatre

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 Production

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.

Lisa Zahra - Paulina

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.

The Playwright

 

Ariel Dorfman

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.

The Play

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.

Summary

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.

http://www.otherroomtheatre.com/en/whats-on/current-productions/

Roger Barrington

Review This Evil Thing, Sherman Theatre by Roger Barrington

 

(4 / 5)

 

This didactic play tackles the controversial subject of conscientious objectors during World War One.

Conscientious objectors, or CO’s as the play’s devisor Michael Mears refer to them are those people who for various reasons refuse to fight or even engage in any activity that contributes to the promotion of warfare. These reasons may be religious, political or idealistic or a combination of more than one of these factors.

The most prominent character portrayed in the play is a man named Bert Brocklesby who was born and brought up near Doncaster as a Methodist but who had also interests in the Quaker and Baptist church movements. In fact, he eventually became a Quaker who are the religious group mostly closely associated with Conscientious objecting.

It is not the first recent play that focusses upon the CO’s during WW1. Both of these play examine CO’s within a regional basis, in contrast to “This Evil Thing” that examines a national set of affairs. In “Devils on Horseback”, a 2017 production by Goldsmith College, the trials of CO’s in Deptford are shown, based upon research of historians at the College. “England Arise” by Bent Architect portrays the activities of CO’s in Huddersfield. In fact, Yorkshire was a hotbed of co activity during WW1. This play has been criticised as feeling a little overlong, albeit the running time at 75 minutes is the same as the play under review here.

Positioning myself at the end of a crescent shaped set of rows at the Sherman Studio Theatre, I was easily able to notice my fellow audience member’s level of attention, for a play that demands it, and I am impressed by how riveted they were, which is testament to the engaging nature of this play. Mr Mears, at the end of the performance complimented the audience on their level of attention.

Michael Mears is a well-known and award-winning figure on the Fringe Theatre circuit for largely his one-man plays which he both writes and acts in. “Soup” another one-man play has won the Scotsman Fringe Award” which examines homelessness.

“This Evil Thing” was first performed at the Edinburgh Festival in 2016, and was well received.

“A thorough and at times gripping account of an important subject.”

4 out of 5 stars – The Scotsman

“Mears is an animated and engaging presence throughout, his faithful delivery of others’ words accommodating many a naturalistic flourish. Entertaining as his show may be, his gratitude and outrage remain very much to the fore. This is important, vital polemic.”

4 Stars out of 4 Fest (Edinburgh Festival magazine)

In an interview for the Stratford-upon Avon Herald in January this year, Mr. Meyers was asked the question how he would describe this play.

He replied, “It’s the compelling and rather shocking, and also inspiring, story of the First World War conscientious objectors (CO’s) in Britain, which has rarely been told or even talked about. In this period of commemoration of the war there’s a lot of focus on the battles, but I knew there would be plenty of material on that and wanted to write about something else. My grandfather fought in the First World War and my father in the Second but I don’t seemed to have inherited the genes, I’m a pacifist — so it seemed appropriate to focus on that. The full interview can be found here.

I would entirely agree with this.

Image Simon Richardson

The design of the production is sparse in the extreme. Nine wooden boxes of different sizes, a wooden post and a bag amount to the set’s design. This minimalist approach works well, as due to the play’s physical nature, it allows Mr. Meyers to energetically move around the set. The boxes are used very creatively. For instance, they transform into a lectern, stretcher, bed, window, bench, representations of human figures in a military tribunal, coffin and even simulating gunfire by their sudden collapsing.

Image Simon Richardson

The play opens with a very effective use of lighting depicting a CO who was being punished by having to stand upon a box for hours upon end in a pit which has water lying at the bottom. The box protecting the prisoner from having to stand in the water. The only lighting on a totally dark stage coming from directly above. The play ends with the same scene. This very symbolic use of darkness and light can be interpreted in different ways which are not difficult to work out.

Over the course of the play’s seventy-five minutes, Mr. Meyers plays over fifty characters. An impressive feat, and I wonder whether the performer ever lapses into using the wrong voice, e.g, whilst playing a sergeant-major he slips into using a plummy public accent typical of a British army officer. His use of so many diverse voices and accents is one of the highlights of the play, as this compilation of scenes taken from the play illustrates.

The sentiment of the play is totally one-sided. Mr. Meyers is a committed pacifist and in a way, the play suffers from this one-dimensional view.

This is clearly depicted in the promotional flyer and poster.

The eponymous poster of Lord Kitchener pointing his figure towards all men able to fight, “Britons Wants You”, is mutilated by the red-cross, (symbolising blood), which intersect over the mouth, thereby gagging the message.

In a post-performance forum, I asked whether Mr. Meyers accepted that being a CO was essentially a selfish act. Naturally, he disagreed and the discussion was somewhat diverted into a matter of courage rather than the question I posed. My reason for implying this statement is that the CO’s were buoyed by their own strength of conviction, whereas his family were usually ostracised for his refusal to fight, with an inevitable implication of cowardice being the motivating factor. Contrast this to Junior Officers who suffered the highest casualty levels in WW1 over the men they led and their senior officers who were often protected well being the Front Line. Posing the question why these officers were prepared to die with almost an submissive inevitably, I suggested that largely it was due to protecting the family honour, thereby sacrificing themselves to protect the humiliation of cowardice from their loved ones.

Also, a scene where Bert Brocklesby refuses to peel potatoes because he was helping to prepare a meal for officers and men, on the basis that he would not help in any way the progress of war, I found to be trivial. However, I would concede that Mr Mears is only portraying the facts of a real life character, and others such as the eminent philosopher and later CND co-founder Bertrand Russell and Prime Minister H. H. Asquith also feature.

Mr. Mears is an engaging figure, both on and off stage. He is clearly fired up by the message he is bringing and totally committed to it. An interesting character in his own right, he is an active long-distance walker, which would aid his fitness level essential to his own brand of physical theatre.

This message is a worthy one. As to its relevance today is another matter. I cannot foresee, due to the technical advance of weaponry, a situation where conscription will ever be re-introduced. In today’s world, blessed by 75 years of involvement in international conflict on a national level, our attitudes towards CO’s has softened. The play reminds us that these men possessed a different type of bravery in swimming against the tide, and should be remembered with compassion and understanding for doing that.

On the performance I attended, the 100 seater theatre was just over half full. This is a sad reflection on the demands of theatregoers today. Many, it seems, see the role of theatre to be solely based upon entertainment factors, thereby omitting an essential aspect of theatre which should be to educate. The concentration ability in today’s world would appear to have been irreversibly damaged through instant revelation provided through technology. I compare it to 20-20 cricket as compared to a test match. Although, I will happily concede that there is a place for both, I fear that the relentless march of entertainment musicals, (whilst acknowledging their financial input often sponsors drama), may mean such important plays such as “This Evil Thing” will become a rarity.

Sherman Theatre is the opening venue of a two month tour which returns to Wales on :-

11th November 2017 Galeri Theatre, Caernarfon

24th November 2017 Aberystwyth Arts Centre

Full dates can be found here 

“This Evil Thing” performed and revised by Michael Mears.

Directed by Rosamunde Hutt

Performed at Sherman Studio Theatre Cardiff 25th and 26th September 2017