Tag Archives: Tamara Harvey

Review Heroine, Theatr Clwyd/High Tide by Gareth Williams

 

(4 / 5)

 

What an extraordinary piece of theatre Heroine is.” I just had to write this as my immediate response on Twitter after seeing Nessah Muthy’s one-act play. It has many of the ingredients that create a top-class production: powerful, emotive, provocative, and controversial. It centres on Grace, a former soldier looking for friendship and meaning in her post-conflict life. One day, she turns up at the local community centre, and finds a group of women with whom she forms a strong and emotional bond. When the centre is threatened with closure, she finds herself fighting a new war, one which consumes her in a devastating and heartrending way.

Asmara Gabrielle is spellbinding as the young Grace. She is the heartbeat of this production, setting the pace with a conflicting range of emotions. It is a dramatic performance that builds progressively, a vulnerability that evolves from a sense of loss to a deep feeling of injustice; a growing bitterness that translates into angry protestation and self-destructive violence. The ability of Gabrielle to hold such extraordinary emotional conflict in her performance, letting it drip-feed out like a springing leak in her soul, is simply masterful.

Supporting her are a cast of four women, each of their characters richly detailed so as make Heroine an ensemble piece. They are not present merely to make up the numbers. Muthy has managed to give each of these women culturally recognisable characteristics without falling into the trap of stereotyping them. We have the technology-savvy grandma, Bev (Maggie McCarthy), the strong-willed group leader Wendy (Lucy Thackeray) and the chatty, party-loving Cheryl (Wendy Morgan). Yet far from being typecast, each of them is given space to breathe and become part of a narrative that is driven by their individual motivations, their pain and their sense of truth. Placing them as the driving force of the play ensures that it maintains a credibility and verisimilitude that ultimately creates an absorbing and electrifying piece of theatre. We journey with them from an innocuous start – walking into the auditorium, the three of them are already onstage chatting. The set translates seamlessly into the front row, making it feel like you are actually stepping into their world which is, I have to say, exquisite in its realism – to an (almost literally) explosive finish. It is pure drama.

I can understand the grievances posed recently over the perceived lack of opportunities for Welsh talent at Theatr Clwyd at present. When I think back to Terry Hands’ tenure, there was a clear Welsh flavour to many of the productions. This is not so much the case now. Yet I think the criticism is very unfair. To judge a theatre’s impact merely on onstage content is to miss the point of Artistic Director Tamara Harvey’s vision. As I see it, her desire to create a theatre that is accessible for all, which engages with the wider community, and provides opportunities for involvement across the board (from workshops to apprenticeships, creative spaces to community forums, etc.) shows a passion for inspiring and encouraging Welsh talent that goes far beyond the actors and writers rooms; indeed, is capable of a much greater impact than some may suggest.

What does this have to do with Heroine? Well, I think it is simply wrong to judge this co-production with London-based HighTide as being at the expense of Welsh talent. As Harvey states, there are other skills embedded in a producing theatre, such as stage management, set building, scenic art, props making, lighting and sound (to name but a few) that contribute to an overall production. This is surely the case here. Furthermore, the need to create opportunities for new and emerging talent should not just stop at one’s own doorstep. By supporting such a quality script by a young writer, as well as an all-female cast, this local theatre is making a positive contribution to the national issue of diversity, an ongoing problem within the arts.

Heroine is a great example of a new work that, with support, can fulfil its potential. It is an absorbing story that deals with some big and pressing themes. With a strong cast and brilliantly-crafted script, it is certainly one to watch out for. A provocative piece of art.

Review Uncle Vanya, Theatr Clwyd by Donna Poynton

Uncle Vanya was first published in 1897 and had its premiere in Moscow in 1899, performed by the Moscow Art Theatre under the direction of Konstantin Stanislavski.

The play focuses on the visit of an elderly professor and his young wife Elena to the rural estate which supports their city dwelling lifestyle. Two friends, Vanya-the brother of the professor’s late first wife and the controller of the estate and Astrov-the local doctor, both end up falling for the charms of Elena. Sonya, the professor’s daughter by his first wife, is hopelessly in love with the doctor but her feelings are unmatched. Tempers flare and drama ensues as the professor announces his plans to sell the estate allowing Vanya to spiral into a madness offering tormented bawling and even a gunfight!

This new production written by Peter Gill and directed by Tamara Harvey of Chekhov’s doom-tinged comedy is set in the round, allowing for the feeling of immersion as an audience member, particularly during each characters’ soliloquy. We feel we are let in on the action, surrounding the players; close emotionally as well as physically. Each scene cleverly switches from outside to in and we are treated to some glorious pieces of silent acting as the characters themselves subtly manoeuvre the set to allow transitions (for example we hear claps of thunder and rainfall and a handful of actors swiftly grab chairs and rugs to ‘save them from getting wet’). The design of the piece, in this way, is very simple and yet we could look so much further into its meaning. Throughout the entire production there is an overhanging tree which could have been placed simply to remind us where we are. Could it, on the other hand, be symbolic of the overhanging, inevitable destruction in the piece?

The destruction of man and oneself is reflected in the frequent discussions of the desolation of the Earth’s forests. We cannot fail to spot the implications that humankind may not be KIND at all and that the dissatisfaction in our lives comes not only from ones own failings but from the failings of others to encourage success and happiness. We see love in all forms; love for family (as much as we may often speak ill of them or even wish then ill!), the love of nature, love of home, romantic love and even love unrequited but it appears that love brings with it sadness, frustration, sorrow and even utter despair!

Despite this, the play provides many moments of humour-mainly gleaned from the excellent characterisation of the title character by Jamie Ballard who portrays Vanya with just the right amount of comedy and tragic poise. This production has been cast superbly but special mention must also go to Rosie Sheehy as Sonya who plays the innocence and the pain of unreturned love beautifully, to Shanaya Rafaat as Elena who we are able to empathise with despite her somewhat ignorant demeanour and Oliver Dimsdale as Astrov who is both physically and mentally handsome-the stage often brought to life with each appearance.

This production of Uncle Vanya allows the stunning properties of Chekhov’s text to be fully appreciated as part of an up to date design. Despite it keeping its original 1890s setting we are able to relate the themes of the piece to our modern lives.

Review, Uncle Vanya, Theatr Clwyd by Gareth Williams

(4 / 5)

Prepare yourself for an immersive experience in the Emlyn Williams Theatre as Uncle Vanya kicks off Theatr Clwyd’s Autumn season. Having experienced the wonderful space known as the Roundabout Theatre earlier in the summer, it was a pleasant surprise to walk into something very similar here. However, whereas the Roundabout relied simply on the cast and audience imagination, the design wizards at Theatr Clwyd, led by Lucy Osbourne, have produced some spectacular scenery, enhancing the audience experience further. Walking in through the entrance, it is like Alice Through the Looking Glass. You are stepping into another world, almost literally, as you make your way across the fairly detailed set to your seat, a magnificent tree branch overarching through the roof above. It really is something to behold. The atmosphere before curtain up only added to the anticipation. There was a certain buzz around the place. Like never before have I known this place to feel so alive.

I believe that director Tamara Harvey has made a very inspired decision in performing Uncle Vanya ‘in the round’. Throughout the play, the close proximity to the audience of the actors made for an intensity of drama and emotion that would not have been so keenly felt in a proscenium. It was, in some ways, a unique experience to witness the faces of these characters so closely and to see their emotions clearly. Even now, a day later, as I am writing this, I can’t believe that my memory is able to evoke Oliver Dinsdale (Astrov) in such detailed fashion. Was he really that close to me? Yes, and what a difference that familiarity makes, not only in the moment but in the recollection too.

It truly is an evocative experience. Being ‘in the round’ helps enormously to achieve this, but it is also enhanced in a number of ways. Firstly, the costumes are of such fine and exquisite detail, perfectly suited to the period in which Vanya is set. The props only compliment this further, to the extent that it often feels like you are watching through a lens, filming, with your own eyes, a television drama. The most beautiful piece on display is the map that Astrov (Dinsdale) rolls out across the dining room table. Its colours are so striking, so meticulously drawn, the sense of realism is startling. Osbourne and her team deserve a standing ovation for their work, never mind a round of applause.

This magnificent set would be nothing though without a group of actors to bring it to life. Leading the cast is Jamie Ballard as the depressed and downtrodden, yet very humorous, Vanya. Ballard injects much regret into his character that teases itself out in playful pessimism and childish boredom. It is so easy to fall for him as a character. His well-thought out arguments, witticisms and acute personal observations make him a very likable person. Ballard reminds me very much of Tom Hollander in the way that he fully embodies his character. He is not just playing Vanya here. He is Vanya. Whereas some productions would struggle to fill the void left by such a fine performance onstage, there is no danger of that here. When Ballard is absent, it is not particularly noticeable. This is testament not only to the quality of Peter Gill’s script, but to the supporting cast as well. In particular, I would like to pick out Rosie Sheehy whose performance, as Sonja, was achingly beautiful. You could not only see the unhappiness etched on her face, it was possible to feel it too such was the intensity of her presentation. To communicate so affectingly reveals the strength of her acting skill. She was simply superb.

Uncle Vanya has certainly left its mark on me. It is an experience that will stay with me for a while yet, I’m sure. It shows that this production is an affecting piece of theatre, and its immersive set and talented cast only serve to make it so. Tamara Harvey has delivered on many levels, taking Anton Chekhov’s original work and producing something fresh that does not feel over a century old. She has also helped cement ‘in the round’ as my preferred style for performance theatre. Uncle Vanya is definitely worth checking out.

UNCLE VANYA

Review Skylight, Theatr Clwyd by Gareth Williams

(4 / 5)

There is a moment in Skylight, David Hare’s award-winning 1995 play, where businessman Tom talks about religion and spirituality. He declares his admiration for the former due to its rules and expectations of behaviour. He dismisses the latter as wishee-washee and unreasonable. This observation tells us a lot about his character. It is the reason, he declares, why he and his late-wife Alice were incompatible. This declaration is made to Kyra, a schoolteacher with whom he had an affair some years ago. The play centres on a visit by Tom to her flat some years later.

In Tamara Harvey’s 2017 revival, part of Theatr Clwyd’s opening season, this flat is a fully-functioning abode. Jeany Spark, bringing a quiet strength to the role of Kyra, is tasked with running a bath, making tea, washing up, and cooking Spaghetti Bolognese. It is no small feat, but judging by the smell, the latter is a resounding success. Yet this realism isn’t just for show. It serves to bring Hare’s brilliantly sharp satire to life, adding an extra layer of verisimilitude that makes for an engrossing two-and-a-bit hours. Harvey’s production doesn’t overshadow the script; rather, it enhances it, particularly through the set design. The flat is supported and surrounded by giant breeze blocks, representing a simple yet effective image which blends seamlessly into the background. There is ambient lighting throughout, with simple fades into day and night. The layout of the flat ensures that the important action takes place centre stage whilst not compromising on its realist look.

Spark and Villiers strike up a commendable partnership. They capture the punchy and witty nature of Hare’s script even if they don’t seem to hit the emotional heights one might expect. Instead, both play their characters with a good measure of self-control. They are like two players in a verbal tennis match, each hitting a weighty serve of political conviction and personal revelation but never quite achieving that emotionally-satisfying ace. But what you lose in emotion, you gain in the clarity of Hare’s script. They deliver their lines so cleanly and clearly that you are under no illusion as to their beliefs and values. And this extends not only to religion, but to politics, business and human interaction too.

It was a real joy to witness this production. It is surprising that Skylight has not been performed more since its initial run. Harvey is to be commended for bringing it back to our attention. Its relevance within the modern political landscape should not be underestimated.

SKYLIGHT by David Hare