A Modern English Myth with Heart.

Jerusalem

By Jez Butterworth

Teddington Theatre Club
at Hampton Hill Theatre until 20th May

I am just going to acknowledge the elephant in the room.  The original production of Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem back in 2009 was such stuff as theatre legends are made of.  It premiered the Royal Court Theatre to critical acclaim and subsequently transferred to the West End, to Broadway and back to the West End.  It was directed by Ian Rickson and it starred acting royalty Sir Mark Rylance who won every acting award imaginable including a Tony and an Olivier for his portrayal of Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron.   Playwright David Hare has claimed it is the last successful ‘State of England’ play of the proud English theatre tradition.  So, you know, no pressure.

Ok, now let’s shoo the elephant on its way.

It is St.  George’s day in the imaginary village of Flintock, Wiltshire.  The local county fair is on, with its wet sponge throwing and Morris dancers dancing.  Through the air, we hear songs and laughter coming from the village square and into the forest clearing where local gipsy and former daredevil Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron lives in his caravan.  Rooster is a highly sought-after man.  The local council wants him out, having given him his final eviction notice to be gone by the end of the day.  The local youths want access to his wide supply of drugs, alcohol and tall tales.  His son wants to spend the day with him and a local thug wants to know where his missing step-daughter is.

 

Jerusalem 4
Photo: Jo Jo Leppinck for Handwritten Photography.

 

The role of Rooster is the kind any actor would kill for.  Rooster encapsulates the subversive spirit of England.  He is both old and new, local legend and outcast, delving in the edge of society.  He has an unmatched spirit of life but a darkness beyond what can fully be put into words.  This duality is what writer Jez Butterworth excels at capturing so vividly throughout his body of work.  He has an unmatched ability to blend social commentary, personality with something larger and mythical:  a sense of spiritual folklore that gets under one’s skin.  It is easy to laugh when Rooster tells a story of how he one morning met a giant who claims to have built Stonehenge, and yet one is left with an unsettling feeling that it might just be true.

 

Jerusalem 5
Photo: Jo Jo Leppinck for Handwritten Photography.

 

Jerusalem is not an easy play to do.   But together the creative team and the cast rises to the challenge and perform this modern English myth with a strong sense of comradery, heart, and joy that they generously share with the audience.  Given the strength of the ensemble work, I am hard pressed to pull out any single performance amongst them.  Steve Webb centres the cast and gives a solid Rooster Byron.  He makes the role his own instead of trying to imitate any predecessor, which is exactly what is needed for this sort of role.  His Rooster Byron is younger and fitter with a charismatic, former Rockstar sex-appeal that works well.   In the hands of Marc Batten, Rooster’s would-be sidekick Ginger is portrayed almost like a lost puppy, both dependent and resentful of the lifestyle he never grew out of.  Steve Taylor too, impresses as the local pub landlord Wesley.

 

Jerusalem 6
Photo: Jo Jo Leppinck for Handwritten Photography.

 

Director John Buckingham has given the cast a freedom to play and breathe which serves the production well.  It allows the text and the actors to really shine.  The only thing I had an issue with was the random peek-a-boos through the fourth wall.  For most of the play, the cast works hard to construct the world around them, envisioning the trees of the forest, the county fair in the distance etc.  However, three of four times during the play, usually as a character tells a story or has a longer speech, Buckingham has the actors directly address the audience.  It stands out because they break the rules of the world they themselves have created.  I am all for audience interaction in theatre, but if one decides to take that route (and there is defiantly an argument to be made for doing so in Jerusalem, with its almost Shakespearian qualities) one must commit to that choice fully.  Here it felt more jarring than engaging.

The design team has put together an impressive and beautiful world on the Hampton Hill Theatre Stage.  Mart Stonelake and Alan Corbett have designed and constructed a highly-detailed set, complete with caravan and chicken coup, which is complemented with beautiful projection and lighting by Aaron Lobo and Mike Elegy respectively.  James Bedbrook’s music and Charles J Halford’s sound design have put together a lovely and efficient soundscape and Lesley Alexander and Margaret Boulton have put together wonderful costumes.

Teddington Theatre Club has been ambitious in their choice of play and I commend them for it.  Disregarding the theatrical and technical challenges of a play like Jerusalem, the timing of this play is arguably even more pressing now than it was when it premiered eight years ago.  With the rise of globalism and as a counter result, nationalism, the question of what constitutes Englishness is more loaded than ever.  Not only in the United Kingdom but in countries all over the western world have issues surrounding national identity, citizenship and patriotism.  Plays like Jerusalem and characters like Rooster Byron can help us to see ourselves and who we are, where we come from and where we want to go.

Melissa Syversen

May 2017

This piece was originally written for and published on the London-based theatre blog Mark Aspen 15 May 2017.

https://markaspen.wordpress.com/2017/05/15/jerusalem/

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A Modern English Myth with Heart.

Russian Around!

Peter and the Wolf

A pantomime of old Russia

by Richard Lloyd (with apologies to Sergei Prokofiev)

Streatham Theatre Company, performed at The British Home.

I saw my first pantomime as an adult and let me tell you, it was love at first sight.  After that first magical encounter with Sleeping Beauty, I went on what can only be described as a pantomime binge.  I saw numerous shows, read multiple books and even wrote a critical essay on the subject.  What I love about the genre is that it is simply unabashed fun.  It is a whirlwind of special effects, colourful sets, gender-bending characters in extravagant costumes intermixed with songs, dance and topical jokes.  It is almost like the Eurovision of theatre.  Peter and the Wolf by Streatham Theatre Company have all these qualities.  With a strong sense of teamwork, the large and diverse cast of twenty-three local amateur actors, (many drawn from the community for their first time on stage) and the creative team, they have taken on a pantomime based on the Russian Fairy-tale Peter and the Wolf.

Peter and Wolf

We find ourselves in Depravia.  The prince has disappeared and the province is instead ruled by the evil Grand Duchess Irina Bogovski.  The duchess is in cohorts with the underworld and is in need of a fair and innocent peasant maid to be sacrificed to enhance her youth.  Her Cossack henchmen are dispatched to find her victim and bring them back to Fortress of Evasobad.  Meanwhile, the village of Fishingrod is being terrorised by a wolf that is killing off their livestock.  When Princess Ekaterina and fair peasant maid Dasha disappears, our Hero Peter Pyotrovich sets out a quest and discovers that something far more sinister than a wolf is afoot in Depravia.

Pantomime writer Richard Lloyd clearly knows his Pantomime conventions.  There are puppets, magical helpers, transformation scenes and a female principle boy.  His script is good overall and it successfully mixes pantomime tradition with the classic Russian fairytale.  There are many funny jokes (‘How do you spell Sharapova?’ – ‘With a great deal of difficulty!’) and character names like Vladimir Dribblesnith aka Vlad the Inhaler and the mad monk Disputin.   Unfortunately, the second act and especially the ending gets muddled and incoherent.  It was hard to grasp exactly what the moral of the whole story was.  There seemed to be three: Don’t shoot wolves, it’s ok to be afraid and the Bolsheviks and the aristocracy are just two sides of the same coin.  That last one is maybe more of a political statement than a moral one per se, but I’ll take it.  It’s a shame because up until then the plot threads had flowed quite evenly.  Also, this might just be a personal preference, but in pantomime, I would always choose redemption for the villain over horrible death.

The British home is a beautiful venue.  The stage in their theatre is a bit small and can get a bit cramped, but director Jo Otrowska solves this quite well.  She makes good use of the entire space, taking advantage of the auditorium in front of the stage.  Otrowska balances the large cast, and there are some funny sight gags.  The chainsaw especially made me laugh.  The cast gives it their best.  They might not all be the strongest singers or the next Olivier, but pantomime and amateur theatre isn’t about that.  It’s about giving it a go and having fun with it and there really are moments of enjoyment and charm here.  Sonya de Souza makes a good figure as the villainous duchess, and revels in the booing.  As our hero, Peter, Sophie Lee brings a nice stage presence and has a lovely singing voice.  I do wish however that she would cut back on the teenage sarcasm and eye-rolls.  It’s hard to root for a hero who answers every helpful character’s suggestions with snarky disdain.  As dame Grandmother Masha Pyotrovich, Alan Scott does a good job engaging with the audience.  The ensemble girls are charming and the entire cast brings a good energy to the group song and dance numbers.  I would advisefocusings on vocal work for the next production.  The volume and diction was often low and unclear, thus a lot of text and punchlines suffered.

Musical director Aaron Nice has put together a nice array of classical Russian music and well known popular songs, like interval finale ‘Ra ra Rasputin’.  Although I will say the choice, whoever made it, of putting the song ‘I am a believer’ right after a scene where Peter says outright he doesn’t believe the wolf exists, was odd.  Credit must be given to the production team.  They have put together beautiful costumes, makeup and set design.  And working maybe hardest of all, we have technical director David Harvey.  From what I gathered, not only did he do tech, he was also in charge of confetti, the birth of a phoenix AND played the voice of underworld demon Kalashnikov!

Peter and the Wolf is not perfect, but I did enjoy it.  ‘Oh, yes I did’ … and more importantly, so did the audience.  You would be hard pressed to find more engaged children then the ones in the front row.  The audience readily joined in with the proceedings, responding with boos, songs and applause.  Fundamentally, pantomime is about coming together as a community, celebrating the local and having some laughs.  And in that regard this pantomime was indeed successful.

Melissa Syversen

April 2017

This piece was originally written for and published on the London-based theatre blog Mark Aspen 9 April 2017

https://markaspen.wordpress.com/2017/04/09/peter-and-the-wolf/

Russian Around!

Finding the Wry Humour and Heart of the Everyday.

 

Talking Heads

by Alan Bennett

First triple bill programme

OHADS at The Coward Studio, Hampton Hill Theatre

I may have been a mere twinkle in my father’s eye back in 1982 when A Woman of No Importance made its first appearance on the BBC, starring the legendary Patricia Routledge.  Luckily for me, British comedy, and especially those starring dear Patricia, are very popular on the cold shores of Scandinavia where I grew up.  And as my family’s resident anglophile, I quickly caught up at a young age and continued to follow the series original run through the 90s and still watch every rerun I could since.

A Woman of No Importance paved the way for Alan Bennett’s subsequent two series Talking Heads for the BBC and today they are often aired and performed together.   The series has been adapted to the stage many times, with many different combinations of monologues over the years.  The OHADS production at the Hampton Hill Theatre features six of Bennett’s texts divided into two sets of three, to be performed alternately.  I attended the set featuring A Cream Cracker under the Settee, Soldering On and A Chip in the Sugar, which can be seen Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday matinee.  The other set consisting of Bed among the Lentils, Her Big Chance and A Woman of No Importance can be seen Wednesday, Friday and the Saturday evening and will be reviewed separately

It has been almost thirty years since many of these texts were written, but they are as funny and moving as ever, a testament to Alan Bennett’s gift as a writer.  He has that uncanny, and dare I say important, ability to express the silent depth and wry humour of the humdrum life of normal people.  All three of the characters presented on Tuesday were sweet and familiar.  These are all people we know and meet daily, be it in the shop or at local events.  And this is what I think OHADS production captured so well.   The cast of three actors together with their directors successfully found and expressed the humanity of Bennett’s writing.

Fran Billington played Doris, an elderly woman who has taken a fall as she tries to dust after her sloppy home-help has left.  It is particularly moving as she recalls memories of her departed husband and son.  You could see it on her face as the memories of a long life came to her as she waited for help on the floor, the clock ticking away both physically and metaphorically.

In the second piece, Soldering On, we meet Muriel, also a widow, having just lost her husband Ralph.  We follow her through her strong can-do attitude as she deals not only with her friends and community as they try to grab what they can of her husband’s possessions (all in the name of charity of course) but also with a son who may or may not be a competent businessman.  Clare Cooper captured Muriel’s can do spirit and grace retaining her dignity to through increasingly difficult circumstances.

The upstairs Coward studio at Hampton Hill theatre lends itself well to this play.  It is a smaller space and together with the simple and effective furnishing of each piece it creates a close and homey atmosphere, giving an added touch of intimacy.  Each of the three directors, Harry Medawar, Asha Harjan Gill and Rebecca Tarry, respectively, have kept things simple allowing their actors and the text to shine.  Malcolm Maclenan oversees light and sound.   The sound is particularly well utilised in the first piece, using a lovely soundscape like a slamming gate and neighbours passing as Doris waits for help, the clock ticking away.

The final monologue A Chip in the Sugar, a piece Bennett himself played in the series, stole the show.  Steve Taylor plays Graham, an older man living with his elderly mother who faces a minor crisis when an old acquaintance takes a romantic interest in his mother.  Taylor had a thorough and confident handle on the text, moving with impressive dexterity between the characters of the story.  With impressive voice work and clear storytelling, he found so many lovely moments of humour and heart and shared them with the audience.  A very strong finish to a lovely evening at the Hampton Hill Theatre.

Melissa Syversen

March 2017

This piece was originally written for and published on the London-based theatre blog Mark Aspen 22 March 2017.

https://markaspen.wordpress.com/2017/03/22/finding-the-wry-humour-and-heart-of-the-everyday-talking-heads/

Finding the Wry Humour and Heart of the Everyday.

Deeply complex and layered: My Brilliant Friend.

 

My Brilliant Friend
PARTS 1 and 2.

World Premiere

Adapted for the stage by April De Angelis from the novels of Elena Ferrante.

RTK at the Rose Theatre Kingston until 2nd April.

Review by Melissa Syversen.

Life is hard.   From the moment we are born, we set out on a journey that will be filled with extreme highs and lows.  Sure, there will be wonderful moments of pure love and ecstatic joy, but there will also be times of grief, pain and loss.  There will be challenges to overcome, victories to be had, but also times you’d like nothing more than to vanish off the earth.  If you are lucky you might just have someone to share all this with.  A support and confidant, that special someone who makes you laugh like no other but can also drive you up the wall like no other.  Someone who will stay with you even when they are absent.  This is what Elena Ferrante has captured so vividly in her acclaimed four-part series known as the Neapolitan Novels.  Her story of two extraordinary women and their friendship in post-war Italy told over six decades, has fascinated readers all over the world.  Elena Ferrante has managed to encapsulate and put into words not just the intricacies of life but the complex layers of female friendship.  I have unfortunately not read the novels (yet) but it doesn’t take a lot of research to feel the fervour of joy from readers and critics alike for these books.

Adopting such complex and beloved novels is a daunting project.  April De Angelis however, has risen to the challenge and has expertly transposed the series’ four novels into four acts, creating a tight and compact play that is part memory play and coming-of-age-story, it is performed in two parts, of two and a half hours each, and can be seen either in a single day or over two evenings.

My Brilliant Friend Part 2. Photo credit Marc Brenner (6)
Photo: Marc Brenner

An elderly Elena (also known as Lenú) comes home to a parcel containing two old dolls.  Shortly after she receives a call from the son of her childhood friend Lila, telling her that his mother has disappeared.  The play then follows Elena as she looks back on her life together with Lila and their intricate relationship, trying to understand what has happened to her.  The audience is whisked through her life, carried rapidly through memories of their formative years together in a poor Neapolitan neighbourhood.  The scenes change swiftly and sharply, deftly handled through Melly Still’s directing and Jon Nicholls’ clever use of era-contextual pop music and soundscapes that transport you to the bustling Italian streets.  The strong cast of twelve, play multiple characters, constantly and impressively changing between the various important people in Elena’s life.  Due to the pace and structure, it is sometimes difficult to follow who all the characters are and how they relate to each other.  It does become easier as we go along but do have a look at the character list in the program.  Also, the character of Alfonso is played by two different actors in the two parts so keep an eye out for his mustard yellow jumper.

Keeping with De Angelis’ writing, Melly Still’s directing is equally economic as it is elegant.  Old chairs and tables become luxury cars and fire pits.  Strips of plastic become the ocean, brown wrapping paper creates earthquakes.  Still, has an eye for the visual, her productions have a cinematic feel.  Together with a beautiful set and costume design by Soutra Gilmour and impressive lighting by Malcolm Rippeth she has created a world as malleable as Elena’s memories.  Set inside a three-story frame of industrial steel and concrete the stage can as easily create cold, harsh factory conditions as warm summer nights by the Mediterranean Sea.  The passing of time is mostly marked with costumes in the style of each of the decades.  Elena alone remains in the same blue dress throughout, a reminder that she is the one constant in this as both narrator and character.  We are seeing this, and Lila, through her eyes.

As Elena, Niamh Cusack starts as a gentle, and somewhat awkward young girl. She is a sweet mix of insecurity and ambition.  As she grows she proves to be a woman of both strength and vulnerability.  Cusack manages to inhabit the constant contradicting emotions of a strong woman caught between tradition and modernity, motherhood and ambition.

Photo: Marc Brenner

The friendship between Elena and Lila is not an easy one.  There is a relationship built on mutual fascination and love but also rivalry.  There is a constant change of who is the brilliant leader and who is the follower.  As they age their lives diverge.  Elena steps into the world and becomes a successful writer, a dream Lila once had.  Lila is denied further education by her father and remains in Naples.  Catherine McCormack is pure passion as Lila.  She brings both a fire and vulnerability to Lila, breathing life to a fiercely intelligent woman trapped among lesser often violent men.  Through sheer force of will, she refuses to submit to her role and the expectations of women, sometimes even to reality itself.  This adaptation’s greatest success is arguably the creation of two deeply complex and layered women that will challenge and fascinate great actresses for years to come.

I suspect I might have benefited from not having read the novels before seeing this stage adaptation.  I am all too familiar with the frustration of having your favourite novels cut and condensed into pieces, but I think this adaptation (and the world premiere!) by Rose Theatre Kingston gets it mostly right.  I spent five hours with these characters, and I find myself still thinking back on Lila and Elena, ruminating not only on their lives but how it reflects my own.  I want to learn more about these two brilliant friends and fill in more of their stories that might have been missed in the adaptation.  So off to the bookstore I go.

Melissa Syversen

March 2017

Originally written for and published for the London-based  Mark Aspen theatre blog. 13 March 2017

https://markaspen.wordpress.com/2017/03/13/deeply-complex-and-layered-my-brilliant-friend/

Deeply complex and layered: My Brilliant Friend.

When Theatre Matters

This is a piece I wrote back in march as part of the application for the MA course I am currently attending. Since I haven’t posted anything in a year I thought as a way to get back into writing I’d post is here.

 

When Theatre Matters

Our class

by Tadeusz Słobodzianek. Norwegian translation by Agnes Banach.

The national theatre

Oslo, Norway
On 10th July 1941, in the polish village Jedwabne, the majority of the towns’ Jewish population were beaten, humiliated and then locked in a barn and burned alive. For decades this pogrom was remembered as yet another atrocity at the hands of the Nazis. But in 2001, it was revealed that it was the towns polish catholic populace themselves who had been the main perpetrators

This incident serves as the basis for Słobodzianeks play Our Class. In it we follow a class of seven boys and three girls, from early childhood to present day. Half of the class is Jewish, the other polish catholic. Through the course of the play, they also become victims, murderers, survivors and heroes, connected for life by a singular, horrendous event.

Our class is not a completely accurate historical account; it draws from several sources and instances of mass violence during WW2.  The situation in Poland was complicated and some nuances and details surrounding the event are lost in the writing. But that doesn’t really matter, because the plays main strengths don’t lie in historical accuracy, but in its unsentimental and sober look at humanity and psychology in times of war and its aftermath. The writer has taken real events and moved it into a realm of fiction to explore something greater and more universal.  Through the ten classmates we explore not only what can bring ordinary people to such extreme acts of violence against their friends and neighbors but also how victims, witnesses and perpetrators alike can continue to live after such intense trauma.

Plays like Our Class are intriguing because they show theatres capability to extend beyond the realms of entertainment. It has the power to provoke, to engage and make us see ourselves and what we are capable of, for better or worse. When theatre tackles such major and complex issues as genocide, I think it makes it more visceral, more immediate and intimate for the audience then other media. You are confronted with something very real, happening in real time, and you can’t hide away from it. It is hard to watch a man being beaten to death with pipes, a woman being gang raped, innocent people being burned alive. But it is important because time and time again, all over the world, atrocities like Jedwabne continue to happen.

As “Us and them” rhetoric’s is again becoming increasingly common the western world, theatre like this serve as a stark and important reminder to the very real consequences that can come from it. Why do we continue for the sake of ideology, religion and politics to turn on each other? Are we all capable of extreme acts of violence under the right circumstances? When will it happen again? Because it will, and after watching Our Class are you willing to be completely honest with yourself and answer the question: what will you do when it does?

 

 

 

Tickets to this productions were purchased by the writer and was in no way sponsored by the theatre. This review reflects the personal opinions of the author and her inane ideas on how theatre should be done at the moment of posting. Such ideas might change as she can be very indecisive. As such the author is responsible for the content and potential rantings. It is not the authors intention to do harm, injure, defame or offend anyone or anything.  Please note, the authors first language is not English and though she does her best, there might be grammatical errors in the text. If some where to find such grammatical errors confusing, she is not responsible for translation or interpretation of content that might occur. If anything the responsibility would lie with her English teachers are as they then clearly did a poor job teaching her. The author can not be held liable, for anything any miserable netizen troll says on her blog in the blog comments, nor the laws which they may break in your country or theirs through their comments’ content, implication, and intent.

When Theatre Matters

When Gods come to town

Bakkhai

By Euripides. New version by Anne Carson

The Almeida Theatre, London.

The Greek classics have been enjoying a new surge of interest is seems. In the last year or so there have been several major and minor productions in London. The Almeida Theatre has stepped it up a notch however and is now currently in the midst of a full Greek season. It will have three major productions of canonical tragedies and a smattering of evenings featuring Greek inspired music, readings and debates. Bakkhai is the second of the three plays. It’s follows a successful run of Oresteia (now transferred to the Trafalgar studios) and will be succeeded by Medea which opens Sept. 25th I am partial to the Greek classics. They are just so formidable in their grandeur. Everything in them is huge. The stakes, the emotions, the language. Gods walk among men in these plays, and unfortunately for us mere mortals, they are just as flawed and prone to human weaknesses as we are. Pentheus, king of Thebes and the rest of the royal family learn this the hard way.

We start with the young Dionysos, God of wine and revels, telling us how the royal family of Thebes denies that he is the son of Zeus and Semele, the kings deceased aunt. Adding insult to injury, Pentheus has banned the worship of Dionysos throughout the city. Angry at their slight, Dionysos has returned to Thebes in disguise to punish his family for their insolence. He throws the women of the city, including the king’s mother Agave, into mad, ecstatic frenzy and they have run off to Mount. Kithaeron. As the woman run wild, Dionysos turns his attention on his cousin, King Pentheus. And, as in all Greek tragedies, things do not end well for the humans and their hubris.

Ben Whishaw as Dionysos and Bertie Carvel as Pentheos
Ben Whishaw as Dionysos and Bertie Carvel as Pentheos

The basic framework of this production follows the original way it would have been done in ancient Greece.  A primary actor (Ben Whishaw,)  a secondary actor (Bertie Carvel) and tertiary actor (Kevin Harvey), portray all the characters in the story, male and female. The actors are accompanied by a chorus of Maenads, female followers of Dionysos. Originally these too would’ve been played by men, but here ten woman of different ages and ethnicities fill this purpose.

Primary actor Ben Whishaw, is part of the group of talented, male, thirty something, British actors currently dominating stage, TV and film. But between the Cumberbatches, Hiddlestons and Redmaynes, he might just stand out as the most versatile. In this play alone he more than convincingly portrays an androgynous god, a blind, old wise man and a petrified slave. My personal favorite was Teiresias, the blind wise man, but it is as Dionysus he truly shines. He fully inhabits the duality of the god. He is both seductive and terrifying, charming yet intimidating, male and female. He appears calm, but you can always sense the dangerous rage of a spurned ego boiling beneath the surface.

Ben Wishaw as blind wise man Teiresias. Kevin Harvey as Kadmos, former king of Thebes.
Ben Wishaw as blind wise man Teiresias.
Kevin Harvey as Kadmos, former king of Thebes.

All three actors produce tremendous work, showing of impressive skills in their craft. Every character, be it slave, king or god has a clear distinct voice, shape and purpose. But there is one character that doesn’t feel quite right, the king’s mother Agave. Her triumphant entrance late in the play, carrying on a spike what she thinks is a lion’s head she has ripped off with her bare hands, is undermined by a camp voice and manner. Bertie Carvel is excellent as Pentheus, a slick, self-assured David Cameron like politician, but his performance as Agave comes off at times as, for lack of a better term, wonky.

I am willing forgive him however, due to the single moment when Agave comes back to herself and sees her son’s head in her hands. You could see the shock physically ripple through her body, breaking her. It is raw, unadulterated pain and it was genuinely heartbreaking.

It’s a shame; the uneven portrayal of Agave is one of two things that detract from the overall result, reducing what could have been a great production, down to a good production.

Bertie Carvel as Pentheus.
Bertie Carvel as Pentheus.

The other is the chorus. First of, I can’t imagine how much time they must have been spent to achieve the level of unity they had as a group. They move and speak as one, yet manage to keep an individuality within that unit. Most of the text is sung, chanted and yelped and their use of harmonies is one of the evenings highlights. They had me pretty much in constant state of goosebumps. But the embellished odes also hinders the flow of the overall story. What they have accomplished in terms of ensemble work really is a feat, but the level of finesse is also what works against  them as the play goes on. It’s so well rehearsed and choreographed you never truly get the sense of wild, uninhibited women set loose by Dionysos. Man after man horrify us with tales of hysteric woman ripping animals and men apart with their bare hands, but we never see or feel their presence. It may a be a bit macabre of me, but I would like to see more of those women.

Female chorus
Female chorus

The Almeida is a very intimate space and the creative team makes excellent use of it. The set is simply a heightened rectangular stage with some small hills around the back set against a brick wall. It puts the text and performers front row and center. The house lights are only slightly dimmed, effectively removing the fourth wall. It allows a more direct interaction between actors and audience. The cast regularly make eye contact, sit on the edge of the stage and even address individuals directly as if they’re part of the play. I was early on ordered to bulldoze Teiresias’s house down and dispose his religious items by Pentheus. The order was so direct, had I not been trapped in the middle of a row, I might really have got up and done it.

And the lovely thing is that the response works both ways, the actors take the audience into account.There was an absolutely wonderful moment with a woman on the first row who laughed a little louder than the rest, when Dionysos tries to persuade Pentheos to dress as a woman so he can see what the maenads are doing on the mountain. And Pentheus turned and stared evenly at her for a long moment before slowly turning back and ground out the line  “The important thing is, those women must not laugh at me” It is spontaneous moments like this that make live theatre so special and director James MacDonald has done a wonderful job in making them possible.

Kevin Harvey as a farmer delivering not so good news,
Kevin Harvey as a farmer delivering not so good news,

The main star in this production though, is the text. Anne Carson has done a superb job reworking and translating Euripides final play and masterpiece. She manages to make the text feel playful and crisp without losing its poetry and rhythm. The story and setting might be ancient, but in her hands, it feels as modern and relevant as ever. Euripides wrote this play nearly 2500 years old and though its themes of gender, human nature, duality, religion and theatre will always be timeless, great translations like this is part of what will keep the classics fresh and accessible to new audiences for another 2500 years.

~ Melissa

Disclaimer:

Pictures used in this post are publicity shots taken from the official Almeida facebook page. Photographer: Marc Brenner.

Tickets to this productions were purchased by the writer and was in no way sponsored by the theatre.This review reflects the personal opinions of the author and her inane ideas on how theatre should be done at the moment of posting. Such ideas might change as she can be very indecisive. As such the author is responsible for the content and potential rantings. It is not the authors intention to do harm, injure, defame or offend anyone or anything.  Please note, the authors first language is not english, though she does her best, there might be grammatical errors in the text. If some where to find such grammatical errors confusing, she is not responsible for translation or interpretation of content that might occur. If anything the responsibility would lie with her english teachers are as they then clearly did a poor job teaching her. The author can not be held liable, for anything any miserable netizen troll says on her blog in the blog comments, nor the laws which they may break in your country or theirs through their comments’ content, implication, and intent.

When Gods come to town

A successful and highly colorful Sweeney

Sweeney Todd

At: The Norwegian Theatre, Oslo
Music and lyrics: Stephen Sondheim. Translated into new norwegian by Ragnar Hovland

I will be honest here, going in, I did not expect to like this production.  The Norwegian theatre and I have a bit of a bumpy track record.
But coming out the other side, I can honestly say I enjoyed it!

Cast of Sweeney Todd at the top of the show. Note the Popeye
Cast of Sweeney Todd at the top of the show. Note the Popeye

Thanks to the Burton film, I think we all know what this show is about. A man returns to London after 15 years to avenge the injustice he suffered at the hands of a corrupt judge lusting after his wife. Que bloodshed. Sweeney Todd is a challenging musical. It features some of Sondheim’s most complex music, the staging requires a lot of finesse for those ‘cut-throat’ sequences and you have to make the audience root for two quite brutal serial killers. So how did this production handle it all?

Pretty damn well I must say.

First off, the live band is excellent. Musical director Sven Erik Kristoffersen takes some liberties with the arrangements. “By the Sea” becomes a muzak jazz number, and there is a heavier use of drums throughout. It’s is a simple tweak but used to great effect in numbers like ‘Epiphany’ and ‘The epilogue.’ Unfortunately a lot of lyrics are lost in sound mixing.

The  production is a visual feast. Designers Arne Nøst (set) and Ingrid Nylander (costume) have taken note of more traditional productions and made it their own. The rotating multi-floor framework remains, but here it has been embellished with clever use of highly colorful painted canvases and fans and 2D painted props. Above the stage hangs the title ‘Sweeney Todd’ in red marquee lights.  They have created a cartoonish, circus aesthetic contrary to the more traditional pallet of black and grey associated with ‘Sweeney’. The costumes too are over the top and feature some truly remarkable wigs. Judge Turpin has a wig-blanket at one point and Joanna has been fitted with a Rapunzel style braid, which for all its’ splendor feels a bit under used. There are costumes that maybe go a bit overboard. The opening features a Popeye caricature sailor and Beadle Bamford is something out of a pantomime with his huge padded muscles. But, in the great scheme of things, it all works.

Left: Hans Rønningen as Beadle Bamford Right: Jon Bleiklie Devik as Judge Turpin
Left: Hans Rønningen as Beadle Bamford
Right: Jon Bleiklie Devik as Judge Turpin

This world they have created features neon bird sellers, a huge birdcage, a flying Joanna, faces in pies, steampunk organs and bicycles, and perhaps the creepiest puppets I have ever seen to fill crowd scenes. I am sure I will see them again in my nightmares. The creative team has clearly had a field day creating this quirky, over the top universe, to go with the over the top story.

Morten Svartveit as Anthony and Mareike Wang as Joanna
Morten Svartveit as Anthony and Mareike Wang as Joanna Note, the author saw Jonas F. Urstad as Anthony

As for those ‘cut throat’ moments, director Erik Ulfby has solved them by relying heavily on the use of shadows, but as a consequence there is a conspicuous lack of blood. As in, there is none. Instead the screen and lights go red to suggest the murders. With lesser characters it works, but at the show’s peak, when Sweeney finally gets his revenge, it feels anti climactic. Judge Turpin is a bigger villain and as such deserves a bigger death. It is basic story telling. Where is the brutality? The relish and pure madness of the moment? Would Sweeney really settle for one stab and  that’s it? It is his greatest moment and after all he has been through he deserves greater satisfaction, however short-lived.

Which brings us to our Sweeney. Norwegian theatre favorite Frank Kjosås is at 34, a very young Sweeney. This isn’t really an issue, thanks  to his physical and vocal work and the heavy makeup used. There is nothing wrong with his performance; there is good work here, especially in the quiter moments.  I would have liked a bit more force, a sense of the trapped desperate man who finally snaps and lash out wildly at those around him. During ‘Epiphany’ I was genuinely rooting for him from my seat to just give it that extra push, but it never came.

Frank Kjosås as Sweeney Todd

The problem is, at the end of the day, Kjosås  just isn’t right for this part. Even coming  from a pure technical view, Kjosås isn’t a bass/baritone as the role requires. He is a strong singer and admirably works his way through the score but in the lower register, you can hear the strain on his voice. You can almost feel the singers nodules forming.

And let’s be honest here. The Norwegian theatre, a repertory theatre, has a tendency of casting a handful of actors in every major/lead role they have, suitability be damned. Don’t get me wrong, casting against type can be very fruitful, but here it falls flat. As a fresh-faced tenor of shorter stature, surly Kjosås could have been put to better use as Tobias or Anthony? Just because someone is considered a lead actor, doesn’t mean they have to play the lead every time.

An excellent example of this is Heidi Gjermundsen Broch. Resident leading lady, she has played Evita, Piaf, Eliza and more.  But here she shines as the sweetest, kindest Tobias you have ever seen. Her Tobias is so love starved and puppy like that all you want to do is take him home, wrap him in a blanket and feed him cookies and milk till the end of days. I dare anyone to see her performance and not melt into a gooey mess on the floor.

Heidi Gjermumdsen Brock as Tobias. Also, creeoy dolls.
Heidi Gjermundsen Broch as Tobias.
Also, creepy dolls.

The rest of the cast also do good work. Charlotte Frogner is a charming Mrs. Lovett, generating most of the evening’s laughs. Judge Turpin in the hands of Jon Bleiklie Devik is both pathetic and ridiculous, a surprisingly successful mix. When we first meet him he is masturbating on the toilet and then goes on to perform asceticism with a fly swatter to quell his lust for Joanna. The full ensemble is only 11 members and so the chorus has been reduced to one narrator, actress/singer Silya Nymoan who also doubles as Lucy. She remains on stage throughout the play perched on a merry-go-round horse stepping in and out of the actions as needed in Brechtian fashion.

Mrs.-Lovett-bakar-pai
Charlotte Frogner as Mrs Lovett

And a little side note: there was a nice little twist at the end where
*spoiler alert* Sweeney, having now truly lost everything, gives Tobias the knife, instead of having Tobias sneak up behind.

Overall, this is a fun and entertaining  production of Sweeney Todd. The universe they have created is believable and fully realized. There is plenty here for an audience member to feast their eyes and ears on and to go along on the fun and  crazy ride it is. But for all that sensory wonder, one is left a bit wanting. There are many missed opportunities to explore the characters, how they feed off each other, the darkness of their respective desires and how far they are willing to go because of it. I never felt the pure wrath of Sweeney, the raw, hungry lust of judge Turpin and Mrs. Lovett’s mad love for Sweeney. This is if nothing else, a play about obsession. Even the young star-crossed lovers are guilty of it in their own way.

This dark obsessive, and very much human, nature is the very heart of the story and I think that is something that was lost in all the circus razzle dazzle

~Melissa

Fun fact , the design of Senior Pirelly, answered a a question I didn’t know I had. What would an Umpa Lumpa  look like if they could grow to full size? Unfortunately I couldn’t find a decent picture if him. But trust me,it was a glorious sight.

Pictures used in this review are publicity stills taken from The Norwegian theatre website.

Disclaimer:

Tickets to this productions were paid for by a friend and was in no way sponsored by the theatre. it was a birthday present. This review reflects the personal opinions of the author and her inane ideas on how theatre should be done at the moment of posting. Such ideas might change as she can be very indecisive. As such the author is responsible for the content and potential rantings. It is not the authors intention to do harm, injure, defame or offend anyone or anything.  Please note, the authors first language is not english, though she does her best, there might be grammatical errors in the text. If some where to find such grammatical errors comfusing, she is not responsible for translation or interpretation of content that might occour. If anything the responsibility would lie with her english teachers are as they then clearly did a poor job teaching her. The author can not be held liable, for anything any miserable netizen troll says on her blog in the blog comments, nor the laws which they may break in your country or theirs through their comments’ content, implication, and intent.

A successful and highly colorful Sweeney