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Review: Marina Abramović: A Visual Biography & Institute Takeover, Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre, By Hannah Goslin

 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

Arguably, Marina Abramović is one of the most influential and incredible Performance Artists of all time. Her methods of challenging the body, of challenging the social norm, of breaking boundaries and being raw and in your face has transformed much of the performance landscape over the past 50 years and inspired many an artist, including myself.

Abramović is everywhere in London at the moment. Not only with her new book launch, A Visual Biography and her Institute Takeover, both at the Southbank Centre, she is also taking the Royal Academy by storm as the first solo woman performer in their main space and with an opera, 7 Deaths of Maria Callas at the English National Opera. For a woman who was literally on death’s door only a couple of months ago, at 76, Abramović is still pushing boundaries and her body to extremes for art. And us number one fans are happy she still is.

After her memoir in 2016, A Walk Through Walls, telling the story of her life in Belgrade and her art across the world, you wouldn’t think there was much more for her to tell us about. This raw and personal memoir seemed to feature it all, her life, her feelings, her failures, her successes. But in this new book, A Visual Biography, she has teamed up with arts and fiction writer, Katya Tylevich, to delve into her aeroplane hangers full of memorabilia of her life to bring new stories, new insights and plenty of memories.

With both Abramović and Tylevich on stage, this book release felt a lot more casual and free than I remember A Walk Through Walls launch to be. Abramović seemed relaxed, she made us laugh constantly and her stories and anecdotes were mesmerising. There was something changed in her, possibly with a near death experience recently, A Visual Biography seems more a celebration of who Marina is and less about how her work came to be. While her first memoir featured much about her family, she now tells us more of those moments you remember from your childhood. At the time, many seem like terrifying scenarios but certainly ones to be appreciated and laughed at now.

Abramović is hugely engaging and an hour and half did not seem enough to listen to her. She is captivating in her own right, without her magnificent art, with a life full of unique experiences and humbleness.

Following from this, Abramović and the Abramović Institute have taken over the Queen Elizabeth Hall, from front of house to the backstage and areas likely unseen by most of the public. Using the Abramović method, the artists are encouraged to present long duration work over several hours across a number of spaces, allowing the audience to self-lead their experience. Marina herself is not performing, but there’s enough essence of her in each performance to not feel at all cheated.

This was opening night and therefore, taking into account any problems with this. It seemed that much was delayed, from the opening of the venue itself to some of the works. Once you were in, you could see lots in the foyer but the knowledge there is more behind the scenes that you couldn’t quite yet access yet was tantalising but also confusing at times. Once everything opened up, the freedom to roam felt enjoyable and clear, with signs noting spaces and doors you couldn’t enter. It felt like a little treasure hunt throughout the building.

As time went by, the crowds increased and there were many smaller performances in tiny spaces that developed long queues. All performances are well worth the wait but you need to be prepared that some may need a wait. As they are durational, there are a number that change as time goes on, and so instead of doing a once round, always take the journey around a few times as it is ever changing.

Performances ranged from almost no movement, to abusive and loud anarchy, to continual movement pieces. There was something for everyone, including interaction from potato peeling to unusual yet childlike chats with a group of clones. Each art and artist has created something unique and perpetrating to their lives and what they wanted to convey and each was fascinating on their own and in comparison as you crossed from one to the other.

Audiences are almost forced in close quarters at times with one another, and there’s a almost meta sense of freedom to roam but at the same time, being confined closely with strangers. It is an extraordinary exhibition that we wouldn’t have dreamed of having in 2020 during a pandemic.

The sheer determination and strength of the performers, their bodies and concepts are incredible. Not one looked bored. Not one looked as if they were not fully in their space and performance. And this is what is awe inspiring and incredible. One performer spends the entire performance, melting a block of ice with their own bare body… when you think how you feel holding an ice cube for a short time, this on a larger scale without any break in character is impressive and thought provoking. Abramović notes in her book launch that a fit and almost dancer body is needed for her type of work – to sit still or move slowly/hold a position for a long time is actually painful and an experience little of us ever have or will have. We are used to moving when uncomfortable, but this is often not an option in these scenarios.

Marina Abramović Institute Takeover is an immersive, performance art exhibition and experience unlike any other. It is the height of contemporary art and each piece is unlike anything seen before. You may not be seeing Marina herself perform, but the heart of her influence and method is abundant in each performance, while leaving room for the artist to be their own.

La Traviata – a review by Eva Marloes

Stacey Alleaume as Violetta in La Traviata, photo by Julian Guidera

 out of 5 stars (3.5 / 5)

In the past week, the documentary In Plain Sight, an investigation by Channel 4’s Dispatches and the Sunday Times, has alleged that comedian turned wellness guru Russell Brand is responsible for exploitative treatment of women, including rape and sexual assault. Just like when the #MeToo  movement emerged, many have questioned the women speaking out. Women are still exploited by powerful men and their sexuality is still policed.

La Traviata couldn’t be more topical. Verdi’s opera was shocking in depicting and taking the side of a ‘fallen woman’, what today might be an escort. Alas, the unimaginative direction, originally by Sir David McVicar, here by Sarah Crisp, makes it look preposterous and bizarre.

Violetta, a courtesan, meets Alfredo at a lavish party. She decides to leave that life and live with Alfredo supporting their life together financially. Unbeknown to Alfredo, his father asks Violetta to leave his son to protect his and his family’s reputation. 

Stacey Alleaume as Violetta and Mark S Ross as Giorgio Germont in La Traviata, photo by Julian Guidera

Violetta leaves Alfredo who feels spurned and acts his revenge by throwing money at her in public to repay her. Verdi thinks she has a dignity and should be respected.

It is none other than Alfredo’s father who defends her and condemns his own son for disrespecting her. Yet, only at the very end Alfredo learns that Violetta sacrificed their love and life together for his reputation. He comes back to see her dying. 

La Traviata could still be a powerful story if set in today’s times, just as James Macdonald’s clever production of Rigoletto did by setting it in Washington DC in the #MeToo era. 

The WNO’s traditional setting fails to convey Verdi’s intention. The choice of a very dark set design, presumably to symbolise impending doom, has a jarring effect on the opening scene whose frivolity and joviality are dampened. It weakens the unfolding of the tragedy and frustrates the solid performances of the artists. 

David Junghoon Kim shines as Alfredo, just as he did as the Duke in Rigoletto. He is at home with Verdi and gives a performance full of pathos. His beautiful tonality and powerful voice deliver longing and sorrow effectively. Stacey Alleaume as Violetta has a splendid coloratura. She’s at ease on high notes and bel canto. In the ‘croce e delizia’ duet with Alfredo in Act I, she seemed often overpowered by David Junghoon Kim when singing at a lower range. She is stronger in the second act with Mark S Ross, playing Alfredo’s father Giorgio Germont, and the final dying scene. Mark S Ross has a beautiful baritone voice. He gives an excellent performance.

The WNO’s chorus is strong as ever. The orchestra, under the baton of Alexander Joel, gives a solid, albeit uninspiring, performance.

David Junghoon Kim and Stacey Alleaume in La Traviata, photo by Julian Guidera.

WNO’s Ainadamar – a review by Eva Marloes

 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

Ainadamar is an homage to poet Federico Garcia Lorca, who was killed by the fascist falangists during the Spanish civil war in 1936. It is told through a series of tableaux where actress Margarita Xirgu, Lorca’s muse, reminisces with her student Nuria of the time she met Lorca, her attempt at persuading him to leave Spain, and his execution.

Ainadamar, which in Arabic means fountain of tears, is one of the early works of eclectic composer Osvaldo Golijov, who excels at weaving together folk, pop, and classical music in harmonious balance. Here, Golijov brings together flamenco’s cante jondo (deep song), electronic sounds, mournful ballads, and classical opera references. His musical complexity is refined but overly dominated by longing and anguish.

The astounding performances of Jaquelina Livieri as Xirgu, Hanna Hipp as Lorca, and Julieth Lozano Rolong as Nuria, make for intense moments of longing, hope, and loss. The imaginative light design and direction keep the audience engaged countering a too simple narrative with no emotional arc.

Hanna Hipp as Federico Garcia Lorca, photo credit Johan Persson

Ainadamar opens with Margarita Xirgu (Jacquelina Livieri) preparing to go on stage as Mariana Pineda, the 19th century liberal martyr subject of Lorca’s play. She tells her student, Nuria (Julieth Lozano Rolong) of meeting Lorca in a bar in Madrid. The scene shifts from a light-hearted rumba to a nostalgic duet. Jaquelina Livieri’s agile and rich voice make Margarita spell-binding. Mezzo-soprano Hanna Hipp, as Lorca, has power and stage-presence, yet tender in her duet with Livieri.

The memory of Havana is broken by the harsh radio broadcast of fascist Falangist Ruiz Alonso. Alfredo Tejada, as Alonso, conveys power and anguish as flamenco cantaor  counterbalancing Lorca’s flamenco cante jondo

Alfredo Tejada as Ruiz Alonso, photo credit Johan Persson

In another flashback, Margarita recounts her attempt at persuading Lorca to flee to Cuba. The nostalgic and dreamlike image of Havana, the route not taken, is a sensual and playful moment that gives way to grief. Lorca does not want to run away and chooses to be executed. 

The final tableau is in the diegetic present of 1969 when Margarita is dying in Uruguay recalling Pineda’s last words of freedom. She is joined by the ghost of Lorca. The scene fades out rather than reach a climax. The sense of loss and longing dominates Ainadamar from beginning to end. There is intensity but no drama. 

Photo credit Johan Persson

Review: Dumbledore is SO Gay!, Southwark Playhouse, By Hannah Goslin

 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

Throw me something Queer and Harry Potter related, and I am there. While walking into the room, I was already transported by the simple yet extravagantly painted room that crossed barriers of reality and magic.

Dumbledore is SO Gay! is a coming of age tale about Jack who struggles with his sexuality as a teen, his feelings and actions while figuring this out and the consequences of this. His love of Harry Potter allows him to travel in and change time to create a better and more inclusive world. His favourite character is Dumbledore, the only opening gay character and he feels affinity with him and his magical powers. But also questions, why is the only queer character killed off and is this a metaphor for life?

As a teen during the Harry Potter explosion of the noughties and a continued fan (I openly watch it on repeat most days of the week and Stephen Fry narrating it on audible is how I get to sleep), the references were specific, real and relatable. The love of Harry Potter was a real era for us and continues into our adulthood and the parry of this with the element of growing up and finding out who you are worked well. We certainly felt and went through this with the characters themselves during the Harry Potter years and so it reflects well on stage with Jack and his friends.

Jack continues as himself through the whole production and, as the main character, to see him change as a person is fascinating. Jack has the chance to change time, to tackle moments of homophobia to change the landscape, and how many of us have wanted to change the past? He grows with these changes and they change him, his opinion and confidence to protest and change the world.

The other characters are covered by two other cast members and both change voices, accents, personalities and physicality with complete smoothness that we believe they are different people. A moment where they break down the forth wall and become self aware when one actor has to revive two of her characters at once – the back and forth is its own comedy and her smooth transition it absolutely excellent.

The movement between scenes, through the time turning and that transition is so flawless. The actors are faultless. And the story and narrative is perfection. The only qualm would be references to queer culture that some may not know and maybe do not get the comical or emotional response that they deserve. But that would be the case for myself as a female, ally and undecided on my own labels. I understood many, from my ally-ship and friends but likely a lot were specific to queer, male culture in London. But this only meant that those who affiliate with that would have their own feelings of something more relatable to them.

Dumbledore is SO Gay! is relatable to many, specifically relatable to others, emotional, comical and over all fantastic. It is a show for any millennial, any queer person and anyone struggling with who they are. It is a triumph of a theatre production.

Review: Stark Bollock Naked, Larisa Faber, Ed Fringe, By Hannah Goslin

 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

The age old pressure and discussions have been forever on women and the expectation to have children. But this isn’t for everyone and yet, this is still taboo in the 21st century.

Stark Bollock Naked addresses the pressures of age, society, other’s commentary on women’s bodies and the expectation to reproduce. It takes a look at this, at the viability and different situations and noting that it’s okay to not want that life, even after you thought you did once.

We are firstly confronted with a naked lady in front of us. The silence ensues and it needs to be congratulated that the performance starts ensuring that audience is awkward and uncomfortable, to make sure they take on the tricky subject.

The actual silence and pausing throughout is very powerful and at times comical and let’s us digest the relationship between the audience and performers. When the action begins, a really interesting projection is created, shown on the performer’s body and with an essence of stereotypical outfits of women as she monologues her story. This felt quite 1927 and the more hyper-realistic performances they create and was a really unusual and unique theatrical trick.

The narrative is comical, stating the facts and also very bold. There are comments on this person’s story, that are comments we, as women, are told not to say or think or feel. Stark Bollock Naked is throwing these into the ether and with no apology.

For me, it felt quite mismatched with what the performance wanted to achieve. It was really intriguing, performed extremely well and with a great concept and approach, but it felt a little like they weren’t entirely sure whether it was a comedy, an emotional production, a touch of clowning or avant garde. There’s nothing wrong with combining these but jumping from one to the other didn’t seem to sit well.

Stark Bollock Naked is exactly the theatre we need, where the unspoken rules around women are unleashed. However, more work is needed to combine the genres they are trying to touch upon.

Review: Unforgettable Girl, Elisabeth Gunawan/Created a Monster, Ed Fringe, By Hannah Goslin

 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

We’ve all heard the stereotype of Asian women, mail order brides and all that comes with this. It becomes a joke within plays, movies and our society. But does anyone really think about the person behind this and what they go through.

Unforgettable Girl brings this stereotype to the forefront – comical and satirical, she embodies the Asian bride which is sexual, engaging and self aware. We see and hear her story, from her home to the call that changes everything. She also brings on the attitude and approach from middle class white society and the unforgivable but “nicely” put racism. It is throwing these unsaid issues in our face with no apology.

There is use of multimedia throughout which gives different levels between the performance and creating a hyper-version of reality. The stage and props are mostly made out of “trash” and is referred to, giving the sense of the little these women are thought of. Some slight comparison, while subtle, is made to white blonde barbie dolls, while a creepy voice over sexualises the mail bride over the phone. It is unsettling but powerful.

While the concept is really interesting and unapologetic, it felt slightly stunted between “scenes”. Perhaps there was a lot to change between characters and scenes and whether more physical theatre or theatrical techniques could be used to move between these, keeping the momentum and the dark atmosphere going.

Unforgettable Girl is anything but forgettable and a great concept, but still needs work to help it continue to grow.

Review: MEAT, Elle Dillon Reams, Ed Fringe, By Hannah Goslin

 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

I’m going to start this review with a very bold statement: MEAT is the best thing at this year’s fringe and if I could give more than 5 stars, then I would.

This was a bit of a last minute choice for me. After filling my diary with requests, I tried to put in some interesting ones from the festival line up to fill spots. MEAT sounded intriguing and, I’m so glad I saw it. It was my last show of Ed Fringe 2023, and one I will not ever forget.

Coincidentally, I felt that I had seen a lot of feminist theatre while at Edinburgh this year, a lot looking at bodies, of consent, of domestic and sexual abuse. The quantity for sure does not shadow the importance of these productions. But there was something about MEAT that was unlike any thing I’ve seen, within this topic and others.

MEAT looks at women’s bodies, their own and others relationships with them; through weight and puberty, sex and growing up. Elle taps into how the body changing and judgement affects a woman growing up, and digs deeper into their subconscious than anyone making certain comments would think. It looks at sexual assault, how it strips away the empowerment and confidence of women and how we must build that back up. That these events are not our fault or should be felt guilt about from a victim.

Elle swaps from informal discussions with audience members, where we are asked to be involved in movement, with suggestions, discussions – they are always comical and fun and there is a sense of ease with her – we are her friends and nothing less. She transitions into spoken word which is poetic and powerful, engaging and trance like. There are skits of becoming a comedian, of other influences and commentary bundled into a character. There is physical theatre, movement, there is singing and dancing. There’s moments of sheer highs and moments of dark lows. And the way that Elle flows between all of this is graceful, it is so slick and so profoundly emotional. She is also absolutely hilarious and the belly laughs I felt were real; from her incredible ability to improvise, to her genuine humility.

Elle touches on some really tough subjects. She speaks honest and freely, addressing us all in unison but somehow, individually. She tells us that these incidences are not our fault, asking us to sit and live in the feeling we have when she is up front and straight with us about this. She is warm and comforting, and there are little dry eyes in the house as anyone who has experienced such interactions relives this but feels the warmth of Elle’s words. She notes that the production is scheduled for 1 hour, but that she finishes this early to allow a space for anyone to sit and feel their feelings and feel okay again. She even offers sweaty hugs at the door. It’s easy to bring a production to an audience, noting trigger warnings and when the lights are up and the applause had, let them go into the world. Elle notes, whether from experience or empathy, that there needs to be time to adjust to the shock of the topics and likely memories that are conjured. There isn’t a review comment to be made on this from a theatrical sense, but a personal and arts professional comment that this should be included in most triggering productions – a safe space should be provided and time to digest rather than just unleashing unsuspecting audiences back into the treacherous world after touching a sensitive part of their soul.

MEAT is an absolute powerhouse of a production. It has everything that a theatrical production on the fringe circuit would need and yet it is miles ahead of what the industry is achieving. It is emotional, it is powerful, it is utter perfection.

Review: Lost in the Woods, Hawk and Hill Theatre, Ed Fringe, By Hannah Goslin

 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

Fairy tales are told in every country and culture in the World. Often, they transcend boundaries and similar stories have their own cultural take on them, fitting that part of the World. They translate and therefore, combining them in one production is a very interesting and smart move.

We know the story of Hansel & Gretel. But what happens when their story is mixed up with Sleeping Beauty’s or Cinderella’s? Lost in the Woods is a fourth wall breaking show where our two well known characters of Hansel and Gretel are mixed up in other stories and need to find a way to finish their own.

Picture mad-capped comedy, bizarre impromptu characters and scenes, when both characters try to re-enact the story the narrator is telling with whatever they have in their suitcase, including fake glasses with nose attachment and a banana. The clowning and chaos ensues, with fantastic banter between our two performers.

The snippets of other stories are hardly named, but you audibly hear children in the audience say they know that story or call the title. They are engaged and the joyous laughter that comes from them at the slapstick on stage is infectious.

The set is minimal, but to create other scenes and characters, such as the witch in the gingerbread house, some shadow play is used and this is effective, bringing away the chaotic notion of other stories and bringing it back to Hansel and Gretel’s story. It adds a theatrical element, as if it were the main stage and what we see when it goes awry is the “back stage”.

Both performers interact well with the audience, inviting them in and reacting to the children’s unplanned interventions. There are even little nods to the adults, noting quietness at one point for a gentleman who admitted a hangover. This brings a little something for the adults to enjoy with it going over the heads of the children.

Lost in the Woods is a unique story, combining the old favourites. It is fun, mad and comedic, drawing on clowning and special techniques to make this something different to other re-tellings of children’s fairy tales.

Review: Potty the Plant, Little Big Stack, Ed Fringe, By Hannah Goslin

 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

It could entirely be a coincidence that I feel there has been a lot of puppetry this year at Fringe. Not that I’m complaining – there is something naughty yet comical about turning cute, cuddly puppets into something darkly comical.

Potty the Plant, taking on the adult puppet movement seen by Avenue Q, is the story of anthropomorphic plant in a doctor’s surgery, who helps to uncover the mystery of missing children but also explores his unrequited love for the nurse.

The staging itself is extremely professional – a whole set has been created to create the surgery feel, still using elements such as a bed pan or a wheelchair when a new scene is created, giving that satirical nod to amateur theatre but also not investing too much is lots of extras. The costumes are simple, just where they need to be, with a fancy-dress-esque approach to Dr Acula’s costume as our undercover vampire. The comparison between this less polished aspect to the very well created set only adds to the comedy.

The songs are well constructed and performed very well, drawing satire from musicals and from the narrative with ease. They have adult aspects to them and this is of course comical and in line with this adult approach. The performers are perfection, without a step wrong and the whole performance runs smooth as butter.

Potty is also well created, adorable and cute. Sat mostly on the table, further comedy is drawn from his handler, stuffed under the table and when they bring him out and on stage for another scene, he plays a part so well, as if he isn’t there but also, fully in character. Potty as a puppet is limited to his reactions and facial expressions, but, somehow, the puppeteer does this so well, using silence, beats and a little over-exaggeration which at times makes his reactions very clear but sometimes it’s a real subtle look that you can just tell is there. These in themselves provide endless humour.

However, the narrative felt a little lost to me. As the name of the show, Potty features only minimal in the story-line. Of course, it needs to be set somewhere and I guess it makes sense in a doctor’s office. But when they go on a true crime spree, detecting the story behind the missing children, the nurses dating life and lack of success, it all feels quite mismatched and almost another story, with Potty just a small accessory. It felt as if more could have been made about Potty, his story being told a lot more and him having more of a spotlight in the performance.

Potty the Plant is a fun concept, dark and full of humour. It’s a good production to see and recommended if you’re looking for something easy and to sit back to watch. It only felt that Potty wasn’t our main star and that the story needed to work out what it really wanted to be about.

Review: Bowjangles: Dracula in Space, Ed Fringe, By Hannah Goslin

 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

If you have walked up and down the mile, you more than likely will recognise this quartet. Armed with string instruments, their street performances are beautiful concertos but in the basement of the Patter Hoose, they tell the story of something much more sinister….

Only kidding! Dracula in Space is as comedic and ridiculous as the title suggests. A part musical, part comical satire, Bowjangles, former Spirit of Fringe Award winners, bring a twisted tale of space exploration and classic horror fable.

The narrative is hugely self aware, and plays upon each person, the fringe and classical music. A moment of classical composer puns descends into the very niche and commentary is made about it. They also play upon how hammed up they have made the story and the characters, and it works well. Moments of slight corpsing happen but it’s almost unrecognised, fitting mostly into the ridiculous and silly nature of the production, but is also forgiven because it purely adds to the humour and shows that they enjoy what they do.

The original songs and beautiful and perfect playing of instruments is literal music to the ears. They harmonise perfectly and bring a more elevated edge to the musical genre, also somehow making this fit the narrative effortlessly.

The costumes and staging are also brilliant – basic yet well formulated, it is all used to its best ability but also creates its own theatrical and comical humour throughout. There’s a sense of slapstick humour and again, this is so well done that it all just works. A true blueprint for comical musicals.

Bowjangles: Dracula in Space is comical, silly in all the greatest ways and also makes you feel more sophisticated with the classical music soundtrack.