Catogories: Sheffield Theatres
In common with many others, I read Yann Martel’s novel, ‘Life of Pi’, in the second year of its publication, after it had won the Man Booker Prize for 2002. It was one of those books that caused me to neglect sleep and food until it was completed; I found it theologically intriguing, vividly pictorial and supremely clever. At the spine of the story is a consciousness choice between hopelessness and faith; the acceptance of quitting or the determination to succeed whatever that may take, in itself a common premise for storytellers of both life and fiction throughout history, but, whilst Martel’s work reverberates with echoes of sources as diverse as Defoe’s ‘Robinson Crusoe’, Aesops Fables, Panchatantra, and Hemingway’s foray into existential parable, ‘The Old Man And The Sea’, it is overwhelmingly more subtle, perceiving the battle not to be one only of sheer physical endurance. Pi, the teenage protagonist, must finesse his demon rather than overcome it, slowly realising that survival is dependent upon knowing when to assert his own authority and when to acquiesce to a power greater than himself. It is, in essence, a gedanken experiment, using the power of imagination to discover meaning and spirituality whilst enduring the terrible circumstances of being adrift at sea for 227 days.
‘ ''I had to tame him,' he realised. ''It was not a question of him or me, but of him and me. We were, literally and figuratively, in the same boat…because if he died I would be left alone with despair, a foe even more formidable than a tiger. If I still had the will to live, it was thanks to Richard Parker.'' ’
President Obama is said to have found the story so moving that, in a letter to the author, he described it as "an elegant proof of God, and the power of storytelling".
I’m always cautious of novels being made into films; there is something about the process that I can’t quite quantify that sucks the air out of the beauty of the written word and, no matter how skilled the production team, puts in its place something that may be pleasant to look at, but is somehow a deflated representation of the original. In 2012, after a long line of directors had jumped ship on the challenge, Ang Lee took the gutsy move to embrace 3D technology to bring about the film of ‘Life of Pi’, keeping a tight enough rein on the digital elements to tell the story unobtrusively, and for those who do find their hearts in film, it was a triumph of cinematic genius, but, as lovely as it was, it didn’t cut it for me. What I really wanted to see was how Martel’s gorgeous narrative and wonderful characters would translate to the theatre, in the hands of creatives with the combined skills and talents to give his text the extravagant stage treatment it deserved and commanded. At Sheffield Theatres that has finally been accomplished.
Nineteen years after its publication, Life of Pi has been placed in the hands of a dream team of theatrical royalty, and together they have brought into being a show that so sumptuously spreads across the depths of Sheffield Crucible and tells the tale with such magnificence and aesthetic splendour that it was very much worth every minute of waiting. To misquote Martel’s Pi, ‘Sheffield Theatres can put on a thrilling show. The stage is vast, the lighting is dramatic, the cast are fantastic, and the…special effects are absolutely unlimited.’ ₁
Although Lolita Chakrabati, was brought up in the Midlands, she was Yorkshire born, and we are proud to claim her as one of our own. Stage adaptations either hit the mark in embracing the full quality of the original text or, as invariably happens, they become an entirely new work completely, doing little more than nodding in an insulting acknowledgement that an author gave them a source idea, and often the difference between the two can be traced back to how closely the adapter is looking through the lens of someone who has been present in a rehearsal room, engaged in a table talk and had command of a stage, realising fully that the text they read and speak is the creative treasure of another and must be treated with integrity and respect. Chakrabati is both an accomplished actor and playwright who has won accolades in both disciplines; she instinctively understands the author-as-owner paradigm and is also fully conversant with what ‘works’ in a theatrical context and what doesn’t, and it is capitalising on this duality to full measure in her script for Life of Pi that makes it shine. Whilst inevitable changes have had to be made for the balance, aesthetics and length of the piece, Chakrabati has been sensitive enough to consult with Martel to produce something that is stripped back, yet richly authentic to the essence of the original novel, but also eminently satisfying as a stage text.
The Director, Max Webster said in an interview with Matt Trueman in 2018,
“Increasingly, I choose things that are just impossible to stage” ₂
and certainly he likes to set himself gigantuan challenges. Shows such as ‘James and the Giant Peach’ for Leeds Playhouse, and ‘Dr Seuss’s The Lorax’ for Old Vic Theatre (to name but two from a hefty repertoire) had already shown his strength for presenting spectacular visual and aural feasts with multiple layering of effects, colour, texture and sound. Life of Pi takes all of this so much further, utilising, in conjunction with Designer, Tim Hatley, a full tool box of theatrical illusion and mechanics to produce something that is richly sensual and celebratory.
In 2015, Puppet Director, Finn Calwell, and Puppet Designer, Nick Barnes, collaborated with Webster on bringing to life the magical moustachioed Lorax, and it’s thrilling to see the trio working together again on Life of Pi, where the puppets call for larger scale, more realistic, animals who have that balance between being appealing whilst encompassing the raw (and sometimes brutal) energy of the wild. Calwell and Barnes are both accomplished practitioners with gold star credentials, and the outcome is dazzling. Richard Parker, Orange Juice and her baby, the hyena, the giraffe, the zebra and the goat, all make an instant emotional connect with the audience and are masterfully maneuvered into life (and death) by members of the cast, but equally as magically enriching to the scenography are the sea turtle and the shoal of luminescent fish.
The sinking of the Tsimtsum (named after Isaac Luria’s cosmogeny teaching that God created the universe by carrying light in five vessels which shattered, causing the light to sink into matter and become the five dimensions of life), the appearance of the lifeboat and the ocean storms are thrillingly executed using clever set design, video and sound scapes created by Tim Lutkin, Andrew T. Mackay and Carolyn Downing, carrying this piece of stagecraft to a whole new level. Whether standing in the grounds of the zoo at Pondicherry, discussing religion in the bustle of the market place, looking at the night sky from a sea stranded vessel or watching from a hospital bed to see if bananas really do float, this is theatre that is all consuming; that wraps around us and draws us into Pi’s story, making the audience conspirators in his tale; whether it is one that inevitably proves to be of fantasy, delusion or allegory, it has immersed us as surely as we saw our hero go through the stage of the Crucible and emerge on the other side.
All of this creative energy needed a strong, intelligent cast and it certainly has that. We can’t help but have a smidgen of sympathy for Mr Okamoto (David K.S. Tse) and Lulu Chen (Gabby Wong) who just want to do their respective jobs and file away the matter as concluded. Habib Nasib Nader is suitably scary as both the cook and the roar of Richard Parker, Rani (Tara Davina) is the loveable, irritating at times, but devoted sibling we would all wish to have, and Pi’s Father (Kammy Darweish) is suitably loving, if stern, even when he has hard lessons to teach his children. In a theatre piece like this, it’s easy to forget that this is a cast of thirteen and to perceive them as invisible for the most part, but the reality is that when an animal moves the cast move, when the stars shine, the cast are there holding them, and when a fish flies over Pi’s head a cast member is adding to that sense of wonder. All thirteen are on that stage for almost all of the show, and their stamina, movement skills and versatility are to be totally applauded. That said, it is Pi (Hiran Abeysekara) who carries the weight of the spoken text and it is Pi who will remain in people’s minds; he is played with extraordinary skill, vocal and physical dexterity.
Life of Pi is astounding - sensational in every way – it raises the bar substantially and is going to be a very hard act for anyone to follow. I sincerely hope it is going to have a life beyond its run at Sheffield Theatres, because it deserves to go on and on and on. This is the calibre of theatre that is as rare as hen’s teeth, and that it has its premiere in Sheffield is extremely special. It is proof perfect of the potency of creative imagination and collaboration, and when that imagination is captured by both children and adults alike, it is a power that encircles everything it touches.
Were I constrained to the discipline of an orthodox review, I would be ending by delivering a star rating for the production. I leave my own ‘star-rating’ by quoting Yann Martel’s words,
‘… The stars shone with such fierce, contained brilliance that it seemed absurd to call the night dark.’
Many, many congratulations to all of the creatives, cast, production team and staff of Sheffield Theatres on such an awesome achievement.
Life of Pi is showing at Sheffield Crucible until July 20. 2019.
Box Office - 0114 249 6000
₁ Yann Martel’s quote (Life of Pi) – ‘Nature can put on a thrilling show. The stage is vast, the lighting is dramatic, the extras are innumerable, and the budget for special effects is absolutely unlimited.’
₂ Trueman, M.,2018. What's On Stage'.
All other quotes - Martel, Y, 2009. Life of Pi (Canongate Books)
I first saw Ben Benison’s play, Jack Lear, at Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, in November 2008. It was a sparse production on an almost bare stage, Barrie Rutter playing Jack and Andy Cryer playing Edmund, with carried on props and table cloth colour-coding to set the action. It was admirable, the acting was, of course, excellent and it was a brave commission for the theatre-in-the- round, but it felt as though the piece hadn’t quite found its beat or sense of place yet.
Fast forward ten years to the city of Hull, where recent times have cemented a fresh pride in its fishing heritage with books, plays, significant anniversaries, murals and memorials bringing alive the importance of the local history to both a new generation of residents and a wider cultural audience. It’s a history that Rutter himself is all too familiar with, born and brought up on the Hessle Road, the son of a Bobber, and having worked as a casual on the ships in his own student days. The revival of Jack Lear in this context, with new theatre staging innovations, the collective imaginations of a fresh set of creatives and that natural directorial instinct to revisit previous material, is inspired and timely. Benison’s careful trimming of Shakespeare’s King Lear, discarding the sub plots to discover a blank verse tale of a mardy, but wealthy, trawler-man with three men-daughters to inherit the fleet he has worked all his life to build, finally comes into its own, adding to the richness and depth of the canon of work emerging from the lives of the ‘three day millionaires’.
Jack Lear, obsessed with mythology, Nordic roots and Viking values, has named his daughters well. The eldest is Morgana, meaning ‘sea-circle’, but it cannot escape notice that she shares her moniker with the eldest of the three sorceress sisters in the Arthurian legends and with the natural phenomenon Fata Morgana once believed to be created by the witchcraft of this sister to lure sailors to their death. Freda, the second, is a derivation of the old Norse Fríða, named for a goddess known for her beauty, sexual allure, desire for gold and her capacity to kill anyone who got in the way, and whose father was Njord, the God of the wind and sea, seafarers, the coast and wealth, invoked by sailors before setting out on fishing expeditions and believed to have the power to calm or enrage the waters. Jack’s youngest daughter is of a gentler and truer mould, named Victoria; a nod to the Roman goddess of victory, the daughter of an oceanic nymph who straddled the boundaries between the living and the dead.
To complete the briny name connections, Jack’s own originates in the mediaeval ‘Jackin’, so popular at the time that it became synonymous with the word ‘manly’ and, later in history, a ‘Jack Tar’ came to denote those who made their living from the sea. Benison effectively provides us with a synopsis of the play in his character list – a tough macho patriarch whose life revolves around the sea, two daughters who have at their core a sinister intent, and a younger one, caught between the battles, but differentiated by her quiet confidence that goodness will prevail.
The delightful symbolism and intertwining of myth and reality that carries right throughout this piece is intriguing to see and really needs more than one viewing to get to grips with. Jack runs his family like a Viking ætt, for whom the intrinsic relationship between familial ties and combat is vital; his only rule as Chieftain is that they do not shed blood, and his expectation is that he will always have care and a home in their midst. Nicola Sanderson and Sarah Naughton, clad in oilskin frocks and boots all too reminiscent of Viking battledress, and brandishing swords honourably inscribed with their names, are direct, efficient and clever, seizing every initiative to control the fight for their freedom, improvising weapons from whatever, or whoever, is to hand. Benison has given them a text to work with that moves swiftly through the cruel narrative of their upbringing, their grasping desperation to find something better and have the money to follow their own choices, the hilarious pathos as they discover what they perceive to be a greater love and the ensuing tragedy as blood is indeed spilled and clan is broken; they tackle it all with superb dexterity and twin-handed skill.
It’s interesting to note that their ‘in the money’ scenes echo the 2008 production, with the same colour coding; scarlet for Morgana, a colour that is associated with sexual attraction, energy, power and primal life forces, and turquoise for Freda - a colour said to be symbolic of new beginnings and to harmonise the male and female parts of a person. This clever device gives Sanderson and Naughton precious respite from the homogenised man-daughter rhetoric and allows their characters to shine as individual females in a way that is pure delight.
Reprising his role as not-so-beloved Edmund, Andy Cryer, as oily as the fish catch, is utter lecherous, avaricious, glitter-balled, disco-dancing joy. He takes his audience into his confidence, deceives the sisters and ultimately gets his come-uppance as all villains must, but the style, humour and energy he does it all with endears his audience to him all the more.
Victoria, played by gorgeous Olivia Onyehara, is the sister set apart. She carries no sword, but her femininity as the one left in port to keep home, under-girded by a strength and determination that will not allow her to be brow beaten into a hasty decision or given less than she is due, proves to be the greater weapon. When she does make her choice, knowing that it will not be an easy one, her compassion, honesty and thoughtfulness are transparent. Benison has not given as many lines to Victoria, and at first glance it may seem that she has little to establish her identity, but Onyehara makes the very most of every syllable and endorses them with an assured, elegant presence that needs no further words.
It would be hard to imagine the role of Jack being played by anyone other than Rutter. The sheer physical energy and versatility as he traverses the mind of a father whose moods are as inclement and tempestuous as the ocean he sails is mesmerising, and his descent into dementia and placement in the care home he feared is every bit as heart-wrenching. The point that he throws off his dressing gown to reveal the suit of a three-day-millionaire will live long in the minds of those who know the history of Hull, as well as serving as a stark reminder that inside every dementia sufferer is a person with a vibrant, colourful life story. The pleat backed jackets and wide bottom trousers were a design known only to Hull trawlermen; one tailor who made them wrote,
‘…the widest width I remember us making was 28 inch, because the material in total would be 30 inches and you needed the two inches effectively to sew it edge to edge. He looked like a schooner in full sail.’*
It is this kind of detail added into the production that elevates this particular rendering of Jack Lear from being a piece that is simply coast based to something that has a rhythm and resonance that is pertinent to Hull and its heritage.
Kate Unwin’s set is atmospheric and eerily beautiful, especially when combined with the lighting talents of Aideen Malone. Eliza Carthy’s folk songs and shanties add layering and texture that are, at times, Celtic in quality; the lone drum setting the pace, the version of ‘Three Day Millionaire’ a joyous uplifting note to leave the theatre on, but the company singing ‘Kings of the Deep’ in rich a capella voices at the very beginning is the real spine shivering musical treat.
Jack Lear was good when it had its first outing, but ten years on it has matured into something that belies the usual adage of ‘never go back.’ Rutter’s decision to reclaim this intelligent script is a wise one and in the hands of a wonderful company and creatives with new vision it is an alluring production well worth seeing.
Jack Lear is at Hull Truck until February 2, and then moves to
Northern Stage from February 12 - 16.
(*Wilson, R (2015) – Trawlermen Interview 1: Recorded conversation with C Day.)
Categories: Hull Truck Theatre; Theatre
There is an order to this time of year. The pudding has been stirred and the holly pushed behind the picture frames. As the first frosts glisten and cold hands are slipped into woollen gloves, the Hull Truck Christmas show is next in the march towards toe-toasting fires, flickering candles and fruit laden cakes served with wedges of Yorkshire cheese. It is as warming as hot mulled wine and as fragrant as cinnamon sticks simmering gently on the stove.
This year’s offering is another Charles Dicken’s favourite, Oliver Twist, just as delightful as last year’s ‘A Christmas Carol’, written by talented Deborah McAndrew and directed by Mark Babych, but it is an Oliver with a barley sugar Twist that is wonderfully sweet; not shying away from the darker side of Victorian England, but cleverly preserving the nostalgia of a bygone era and including some inventive character re-arrangements.
The set is stark; a wooden gantry that spans the auditorium and pillared arches set across the stage area. It’s not often that the carpenters of a production are called to attention, but here they must be given full credit. Christopher Bewers, Andrew Ross and Paul Veysey have executed Ciaran Bagnall’s design beautifully, and the workmanship is an extraordinarily visual piece of engineering that is not only pivotal to the action, but aesthetically fascinating as an installation work in its own right. Characters hide in the shadows and traverse the thoroughfares of the space, shifting through workhouse, den of thieves, the streets of London and gentleman’s residence with liminal grace.
Siân Thomas, as costume designer, has selected a colour palette that is exquisitely rendered. The utilitarian charcoals, storm greys, oatmeals and tans of the early part of the show are reminiscent of the durable shades of the Shaker movement who had oversight of many of the orphanages of Dickens’ day, but as Oliver leaves the confinements of the workhouse, the elements subtly shift, ushering in those gorgeous aqua tints, rusty brown-reds, rich teals, ochres and subdued golds that appear on Victorian Christmas cards. Fagin and Artful Dodger’s costumes are particularly splendid, but they are all noteworthy and united together by the washing line of colourful ‘pockets’ the visual impact is stunning.
The night I watched the show, Henry Armstrong was playing Oliver and Erin Findlay was the Artful Dodger. Both gave impeccable performances, but a huge round of applause needs to go to the entire young company who were all accomplished beyond their years, gave some wonderfully nuanced renditions and never dropped concentration once, making every gesture and head turn meaningful.
There were so many delightful characters. Who couldn’t love the irascible Charlotte, endearing Mr Grimwig, lustful Widow Corney and crow-like Mrs Sowerberry, or fail to get the shivers from heartless Bill Sykes? My personal favourite was Flo Wilson’s extravagantly pleasing Fagin, but everybody will have their own.
Special mention needs to go to Oghenekevwe Emefe, for whom this production was her professional stage debut, and what a stand-out job she made of it. Playing three characters, but her Rose was divine; sweet, caring and utterly delightful. She deserves so much success in all that is to come.
A Christmas show must have music, and Oliver Twist has it by the workhouse bowlful. Carols, Nursery Rhymes, Folk Songs and lyrics written especially for the production are blended and layered into a rich textural whole that weaves a warm blanket around the telling of the tale. There are some incredibly beautiful solo voices in the cast and working as an ensemble the evocation of gas lit streets, muffled and caped wassailers and flagons of seasonal ale is touchable.
Hull Truck’s Oliver Twist is a treat to the senses, every part thought through thoroughly. It is the essence of traditional Christmas captured in colour, music and wonderful story-telling and has the good cheer of a league of merry gentlemen with nothing, absolutely nothing, that could possibly dismay.
Please, Hull Truck, may we have some more?
'Oliver Twist' is running at Hull Truck Theatre until January 5, 2019.
‘Observing is the basis of wisdom’ – Eraldo Banovac.
In our constantly noisy, heads down, hurrying, scurrying world there is little room for simply being; still and wholly present, allowing our senses to silently gather information about what is happening around us, without the intervention of the clambering voices of others, or the need for our own spoken judgement.
At the very root of the word ‘Observer’, is the 14th century concept of sitting within a place of worship, imbibing the atmosphere of a religion where the rites and chants are in a language unknown, and the words on the page undecipherable to the illiterate masses; absorbing the mystery passed through the priesthood from a seat within the sanctuary and through that simple act of presence to set faith in context. The Latin ‘observare’ is self explanatory; ob – ‘in front of’, ‘before’, and servare – ‘to watch and keep safe’, from the PIE root ser ‘to protect’, and in many ways the creative work of the artists within the rehearsal room is just as sacred. For the production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Sheffield Theatres, I was given the extreme privilege of being that observer, sat quietly sifting the words and processes of the rehearsal space.
Just as an actor is always taught the imperative of listening, learning to be a director by quietly observing without input how theatre is created is of paramount value. The collective hive-mind of actors, musicians, composers, set and costume designers, choreographers, lighting technicians and many more, under the care of the Director and Assistant Director, within the creative space, must be carefully protected, allowing them the freedom to experiment, explore, fail, re-negotiate and triumph without interruption or judgement. I already knew, from the actor’s perspective, what a transformative learning experience the rehearsal room can be, especially with a creative team and actors who are working at the highest level of the industry, but I now longed for a different viewpoint; to observe and learn from an accomplished, respected and established Director, with an aim of understanding the skills and attributes that a professional director possesses in order to be effective in expressing a production visually, aurally, physically and technically. It is deeply humbling and mind-blowingly overwhelming to discover what can be learned by simply being given a seat in the room.
I had applied to be Observer Director specifically for A Midsummer Night’s Dream because it was a play that I had been doing a research paper on and I was particularly interested in the way that classical material was handled, but it was also supremely wonderful to be doing my observership with Robert Hastie and a group of very talented professionals who were all so generous in their spirits and accepting of my presence. Hastie came to directing from being an actor; that too was important to me, and I very much appreciated his open-heart, gentle philosophy and quiet kindness.
Whilst I wouldn’t normally choose to write about something that was such a personal and private learning experience for me, as more and more theatres offer invitations to observe productions, I sense that there is a need to give a flavour of what this means; in a world dominated by interactive learning, the supreme value and benefits of observation as a disciplined practice can perhaps be overlooked or misunderstood. Theatres vary in how these experiences are offered, but essentially being an Observer Director is being a silent guest in the rehearsal space, with no direct interaction with the director or creative process. Sheffield theatres are generously open in their approach, and I had access to talks with the Director, the Assistant Director and other creatives, as well as being able to participate and have some responsibility in some of the talks and rehearsal exercises, but that is not always the case, and it is the responsibility of the Observer to respect the integrity of how individual schemes work.
The first day began with the room packed to capacity with Sheffield Theatres’ executive and production staff, marketing, publicity, box office, interns, creatives, technicians, actors, administration, et cetera, brief introductions from all and the housekeeping necessities that come with a company arriving, quickly progressing into discussions of the overall directorial concept, designer presentations and a preliminary read through. The cast were taken for a tour of the building, the theatre staff dispersed, the Director, Assistant Director and myself were the only ones left in the room, and the intricate weaving of schedules for rehearsals, fittings, production meetings, music and choreography began to be charted out. After lunch, a production meeting, another read through with the company and some preliminary staging and music sessions, individual actors disappearing occasionally for fittings.
From thereon, the days and weeks disappeared in a flurry of staging and choreography sessions, music rehearsals, production meetings, costume fittings and technical. The company ranged from those who had been in the profession for many years, and those for whom it was their first role beyond drama school, but constantly I was impressed by their input, intelligent team work, humour and camaraderie as scene staging was walked through, re-arranged, experimented with and shaped, the movement director demonstrating and refining choreography, until through many incarnations, construction and deconstruction of scenes, much feedback and sharing of concepts and ideas, a final formation was discovered for each tiny part. It was a rich, fluid, collaborative endeavour purposed through hours of intense, concentrated work sessions, and I learned so much by simply seeing the processes unfold in front of me.
The dynamics in the rehearsal space was one of the things that intensified for me the respectful relationship between the Director, Movement Director and cast. As the actors processed the information, some fulfilled the direction without question, working through the steps or movement, whilst others jumped straight in with questions of motivation, logistics and alternatives, creating an active conversation and peer-like relationship between Directors and actor. Hastie was able to work simultaneously with both groups as he discussed and explored the arc of the scenes, quietly moving from disseminator to collaborator, the skill level of the actors allowing him to create overall parameters for scenes without restricting input or creativity, which concurrently allowed them to make choices and create characters without rigid directives. I remember noting at one point, that Hastie was more listening than prescribing, and this, I believe, went a long way to explaining the room’s collaborative energy and productive atmosphere. It was evident right throughout that the actors felt listened to, which, in turn, made them true confederates in the process; they were remarkable at incorporating the many changes, some of which were extensive, some minute, but which came at them constantly, each change increasing clarity in the characterisations and overall story.
Similarly, as pragmatic questions had to be asked involving everything from props and sound cues, to safety for actors and placing of stage markings, through adjustments to costume, I was able to observe the respect for, and mutual proactive problem solving between, the Director, actor, creatives and technicians, many of whom have years of experience, until efficient solutions were found that enhanced and complemented the vision for the production. It was also useful to notice how, as the Director’s focus was drawn to larger production issues, the Assistant Director (wonderful Taio Lawson) moved closer to the cast in order to address specific actor concerns onstage, but always conferring with Hastie; an aspect of the wider collaborations that was particularly effective in the compressed technical-rehearsal context where problems needed to be resolved simultaneously on multiple fronts. Lawson was clear in supporting and communicating Hastie’s vision and, when faced with a complex situation, brought questions directly to him. Conversations between the two provided a platform for continued updates, questions and concerns that confirmed my understanding that effective collaboration and a clear focus of purpose should always be about keeping the lines of communication open and active.
There is a constant argument that rages in theatrical circles as to whether the art of directing can be taught through educational theory or is best learned by doing, and perhaps the reality is that there is a place for both, but certainly, having gone through the processes of being an Observer Director with Sheffield Theatres, I know how much I absorbed through watching an experienced theatre director at every stage of production. I equated it with the difference between a classically trained violinist, where every lesson has been structured to achieve a performer worthy of orchestral precision, and the philosophy of the Hungarian folk violinists who allow their children to stand at the back of the group with their instruments, without any formal instruction, to absorb the notes, finger positions and rhythms until their screechings subside and they are in joyful harmony with those at the front.
I cannot emphasise enough to any would-be director the usefulness of silent observing, whether ultimately an educational route is pursued or an ‘apprenticeship’ through subsequent assistant directorships. There is no simple answer as to ‘why’. The experience was as expansive as it was specific. I was able to confirm and affirm the collaborative processes and mechanics of development, rehearsal and performance that I had been taught through pedagogical demonstration as being in line with the professional practice of the craft. Within a larger frame, I observed the Sheffield Theatres organisation successfully produce one of two significant works in development over the period. My understanding of terminologies and protocols increased one hundred fold. I had the immense privilege of watching Hastie negotiate every aspect of the development of a Shakespeare text in an entirely new and imaginative way, as he moved between his creative team and cast, and it has to be said, not only watching the Director, but also the incredibly gifted Assistant Director gave huge insight into dynamics and career progression. I had the advantage of observing every artistic and directorial choice made without bearing any of the burden of those choices. Glen Berger writes that a director is,
‘required to cultivate a well-defined, compelling aesthetic and make choice after choice based on that aesthetic. And each of those decisions shuts a few doors; ferries the work closer to finality, with only hindsight revealing which decisions were inconsequential, and which ones were a bullet dodged, or a time bomb triggered.’ (*Berger, 2013)
That unique vantage point as the unburdened Observer Director allowed me to expand my understanding of directing, whilst also further developing my own artistic aesthetic and vision awareness without any consequence whatsoever to the production.
The art of observation is a profoundly humbling one, but one that stretches the thinking and imparts lessons that will stay with me for a very long time. It is, in essence, becoming totally open to receiving the artistic impulses of others through quiet listening, stillness and observational alertness. I am extremely grateful that those ‘others’ were so lovely and generous in all they gave me and I count it complete honour to have been invited to take a seat in that sacred place that is the rehearsal room. My thanks to all those who allowed me this very special role of observation in the place where collaborative processes flow freely and theatre flourishes. I count every second a joyous one.
* Berger, G., 2013. Song of Spider-Man: The Inside Story of The Most Controversial Musical in Broadway History.. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Categories: Theatre; Sheffield Theatres.
CATEGORIES: Theatre; Sheffield Theatres
I was present at the read-through of ‘Songs From The Seven Hills’, the 2018 offering of the superb Sheffield People's Theatre, instinctively knew that it was going to be incredibly special, and so it was. A production that came from the hearts of the city’s residents, invited to tell their stories, to put into words what it meant to be living in that urban environment. Some had known no other place, some had gone away and then returned, some had found welcome as refugees and others had moved there for work. There were stories of the steel industry and the blitz, of the fancy new furniture stores, and of the buildings most intrinsic to supporting the city’s poorest residents being closed down by bureaucracy. Tales to uplift and tales that splintered the soul. In an act of pure alchemy, John Hollingworth, Scott Gilmour and Claire McKenzie, transformed these narratives, blending and shaping them into a cohesive whole that celebrated with gusto the city of Sheffield and everyone who finds place and affirmation there.
Emily Hutchinson is a master of directing community casts, guiding each individual, no matter how unused to stage performance, with a caring and enabling approach that allows them to discover for themselves their own gifted potentials along with the depth of their characters. Darragh O’Leary, as Movement Director, complements her with his humour and equally empowering words that encourage the company to push the boundaries of what they thought their bodies were capable of. Matthew Malone, the Musical Director, completes the talented trio that confidently moulds the ensemble of Sheffield People’s Theatre into something beautiful. The Crucible stage is an impressive space for any company to negotiate, and more so a large ensemble that weaves in and out, dances, sings and does high kicks in close proximity to each other and a variety of props, but with their combined adroit direction, it looks elegant and ordered throughout the whole production.
Kevin Jenkins’ stage sets are always mesmerising and delightful feats of engineering, and this for ‘Songs From The Seven Hills’ is no different. Staging platforms that convert into trains, shop displays, community hall settings, a church and two front rooms at the flick of a lever; bunting that appears from nowhere for the summer fete; a breath-taking cascade of butterflies and the frightening cages of a refugee holding camp. With two important exceptions, Jenkins’ makes the costumes almost disappear in relation to the settings as, in this piece, it isn’t what the characters are wearing that gives the audience clues to the chaos inside them. Gerald, as Narrator and guardian of all that is occurring, stands outside the action and has his own understated, but distinct, identity. The managers of the modern Nordic furniture shop with their glistening smiley promises of flat pack dreams are incongruously oblivious to the turmoils within those they employ and the neighbourhood in which they stand, their sunshine yellow livery screaming discord with the muter colours of others. Binding the elements together is the stunning lighting devised by Gary Longfield, taking us from ominous lunar eclipse on one side of the world to dazzling solar eclipse on the other side, heralding new beginnings, via every atmospheric emotion in-between.
But it is the dialogue of the stories that has us weeping with the pain of the city’s people and laughing at the absurdities that so often travel alongside grief and loss.
A community worker, Bec, doing her selfless best to keep a youth project started by her dad, Gerald, going, despite the council’s attempts to close the building. She fights back and finds personal happiness on the way to resolution.
A refugee family, headed up by Koshi and Rabka, that faces the crushing realities and fears of being returned to war torn Aleppo and being separated from a child in the cruel and dangerous journey they have just undertaken to reach a city where a relative was once happy. It would have been so easy for Hollingworth to circle the events of their narrative and give them a long term happy ending, but to do so wouldn’t be authentic to those who made themselves vulnerable in relating their own stories or the many hundreds of others who seek safety on our shores, and our hearts are in our mouths hoping and praying that they will be allowed to stay. In the meantime, they find a home where they are welcomed and enfolded into family and we join in bittersweet rejoicing at the kindness they have been shown along the way.
A widow, Kaye, slowly adjusting to her new status, tentatively taking those steps through the grief process that all who have lost know only too well, and dealing with family who mean well, but are incapable of understanding the route she must take. Her late husband, Gerald, is still very present to her in the beginning, but as life takes on a new purpose and focus, she allows herself to let him go.
A mousy, timid vicar, Linda, trapped between an abusive marriage and her fear of leaving because of her status in the church. Linda asks searching theological questions. How can she minister to those seeking marriage when her own marriage has not been a success? Leaving will mean losing the vicarage and her shame will be laid bare for all to see. Will the church still support her or will it reject her? Questions she negotiates with admiral faith and reflection, whilst still being there as God’s representative for those who seek her help. We’re on the edge of our seats willing her to leave her arrogant and pompous husband and when the Bishop blesses her decision, we see sense has prevailed.
A manager of the brand new SKANDEA, Barry, who along with colleagues Gary and Marta, is excited to see what new opportunities will open up in the city as the store revitalises employment prospects, but struggles with his own issues and concerns. The SKANDEA store provides a number of the more upbeat moments in the show and Marta is just brilliant in selling the Swedish lifestyle complete with korv ladies carrying trays of complimentary Swedish hot dogs.
A teenager, Georgie, assigned a male at birth, but who knows she is not comfortable in her own skin. Georgie’s search for identity and re-assignment as a female, told by the authentic owner of the story, is so eloquently presented and so beautifully owned that it is powerful in the extreme. At one point, I have to hold on to the edges of my seat to stop myself charging down the aisle and wrapping this beautiful lady in my arms. As her family comes to acceptance of her decision, I don’t think there is one audience member who is not in tears.
Six main stories, but holding references to a legion more, told by a cast that are so bound in unity and common aim that it would be utterly wrong to mark one out from another. That is the essence of ensemble, and they are all truly wonderful.
Hills struggled up, panting at the top and then the sheer exhilaration of running or rolling down the other side, swiftly followed by the slow, aching traverse up the next one as life goes on in its continuing ebbs and flows, highs and lows; seasons of chaos and seasons of peace. There are moments that sear the heart with their cruelty and pain, those that cause tears to fall at the tenderness, the hurts, the rejections, the rejoicings, the waitings, the decisions to be made and the letting go to be done, and there are the times of fun and laughter, melancholic ballads and uplifting songs that catch us up in their bright, cheery tunes. Throughout it all, a city sheltering between seven hills that takes into its midst the broken souls of our weary world, cradles, nurtures and heals them with the compassion and welcome of its people.
Tender, sensitive and oh, so beautifully executed. My congratulations to everyone involved.
Categories: Theatre; Hull Truck Theatre; Oldham Coliseum; New Vic Theatre.
‘Whisky Galore’, a co-production between Hull Truck, Oldham Coliseum and New Vic Theatre, adapted by Philip Goulding and directed by Kevin Shaw is a re-telling of Compton Mackenzie’s novel of the same name, written in 1947.
Mackenzie was an actor, politician, broadcaster and amateur theologian as well as a writer. Living on the Isle of Barra, he was an astute observer of local life, and much respected by F.Scott Fitzgerald who attributed his own first book, ‘The Side Of Paradise’, to the influence of Mackenzie. The comic novel ‘Whisky Galore’ is based on a true 1941 incident in which SS Politician ran aground on the hidden sandbanks of the Hebridean island of Eriskay, going down with a cargo that included 24,000 bottles of whisky and the equivalent of several millions of pounds in ten-shilling notes – money bound for Jamaica as part of a hush-hush relief programme for British territories in the Caribbean. The theft of the whisky and cash was a gift of a storyline for any writer to pursue, and Mackenzie did it with aplomb, weaving a ridiculously humorous tale of a fictional island group with suitably comic names Great Todday and Little Todday who, due to wartime rationing, had run out of ‘the water of life’ when a shipwreck loaded with crates of usquebaugh conveniently appeared, necessitating a farcical attempt to retrieve the cargo before the ship sank and the authorities arrived to confiscate the liquor. In common with all successful humorous stories, in order to make the comedy resonate with full force, Mackenzie’s prose is laced with background details and sub-plots alluding to more serious cultural issues; the clashes between the Protestant island of Great Todday and the Roman Catholic island of Little Todday, the common Gaelic language, the varying local accents and the divisions when couples from opposing faith communities are set on marrying.
It is a complex novel to adapt and anyone who attempts it is to be commended. It has been done on a number of occasions, twice as a film, once as a radio broadcast, once as a musical and several times for theatrical presentation, perhaps most notably by Iain Finlay MacLeod for the National Theatre of Scotland in 2015. Philip Goulding has approached it in characteristic authentic style and there is absolutely no mileage in making comparisons with other versions. He has chosen to use the device of a touring troupe of female performers, The Pallas Players, inspired by the Osiris Players, a professional company set up by Nancy Hewins in 1927 which ran for over forty years. Telling the story of ‘Whisky Galore’ through seven players setting up in a Co-operative Hall without the sophistication of a full theatre rigging and dressing room space, reliant only upon a stage set and costumes that could be easily transported from venue to venue and where the financial insecurities and expectations of women of the time could mean that the make-up of the company fluctuated significantly and at short notice, is an undertaking that relays a real essence of nostalgia and vintage quality, and a rare insight into a part of theatrical history that we owe a great deal to today.
As a director of such reputation and standing, Kevin Shaw was taking a risk with this production. It was inevitable that some audiences would not ‘get it’, looking for something more in keeping with the glamorous sets, lighting, costume and direct narrative line usually seen on our stages, but it is the intelligent stripping back of those modern accoutrements that so effectively transports us to the world of the 1950’s acting company and allows us access to the charms of that era and theatrical tradition. This isn’t a production that is solely about the telling of the title tale and to misconstrue it as such is to do it a huge disservice.
Patrick Connellan’s confident ‘less is more’ design signature is inscribed right throughout this piece. For those who remember the ubiquitous wooden trestle tables common to every community hall in the land, often with splintered chunks bashed out of the ends resulting in interesting sculptural curves, and stencilled across with over-sized company markings, the stage set is immediately evocative of time and space, and its constant re-arrangement to conjure up a ship, pub bar or church sanctuary is mesmerising to watch. The base costume of land girl uniforms inventively added to in order to allow a staggering thirty three very differing characters to emerge from a cast of seven is simple in its concept, but utterly brilliant in its execution.
None of this would have worked however if the seven members of the troupe had failed to carry out their parts with precision. It takes seriously accomplished acting to be able to play ‘acting gone wrong’ well, and in ‘Whisky Galore’ the casting has been spot-on. Alicia McKenzie as Juliet Mainwaring, the troupe member called in at the last minute, shows impeccable comic timing as her character, in turn playing a number of other characters, fluffs entrances and costume changes. Sally Armstrong as Flora Bellerby is authoritative in holding the narrative, but lurches from sou’westered silliness to endearing priest with equal skill. Lila Clements as Aileen McCormack, is the elegant girlfriend Peggy who brooks no nonsense, but also hilarious as Mr Brown the tweed salesman and Lieutenant Boggust, as well as being weirdly loveable as the wimpish George Campbell. Isabel Ford as Bea Corford’s portrayal of the pompous Waggett is wonderful and her blonde haired Annag not only looks as though she just stepped from the pages of the Broons’ Annual, but shows Ford’s quick wit to perfection. Christine Mackie as Win Hewitt is fabulous as she morphs from Donald MacKechnie, through Doctor MacClaren, to the miserable Mrs Campbell with a twinkle in her eye for all and dealing with unforeseen calamities such as a moustache that becomes detached with some wonderful ad libbing. Joey Parsad, as Doris Sanderson, is gracefully beautiful as Catriona MacLeod, but displays clowning physicality as Roderick Macrurie and Joseph Macroon and throws in an admirable display of affection as Waggett’s dog. Shuna Snow as Connie Calvert is engaging as Fred Odd, Peggy’s suitor, and sententious as Major Quiblick. This talented septet bring the story to life as an irresistible pantomimic ensemble filling the auditorium with laughter and fun.
Companies such as The Pallas Players were instrumental in taking live theatre to communities that would not usually access it. They were the ground-breakers of today’s attempts to take theatre into the community and to dismantle perceptions of the arts as the preserve of the elite. They had few resources other than their talents in telling a story well and through their influence many were touched. It’s a pattern of theatre making that is coming back with a vengeance; indeed, Hull - where I saw this performance - has a number of small companies, some of them all female ensembles like the one portrayed in ‘Whisky Galore’, who are producing accomplished and important work away from appointed theatre spaces.
Kevin Shaw’s ‘Whisky Galore’ is a fast moving, funny and entertaining version of Mackenzie’s novel and, like the original, it doesn’t shy away from mentioning the more sober issues, but theatre aficionados shouldn’t be put off by the device used to tell the story, for it is in that that its true strength lies. Theatre isn’t the preserve of those who can afford top notch ticket prices, and it doesn’t need vast amounts of technology or expensive sets. When gifted actors are set in the most unpromising of places, magic happens in the hearts of ordinary people. To use that very technology and those designated places to convey that message is like retrieving whisky from a fancy sinking ship and handing it out to every Donald, George and Joseph under the very noses of the unsuspecting Customs and Excise men. A tapaidh move indeed.
'Whisky Galore' can be seen at Hull Truck until May 12, after which it continues to tour.
May 16 - June 2
New Vic Theatre, Newcastle-under-Lyme
June 5 - June 9
Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds
June 13 – June 16
June 20 – June 23
Belgrade Theatre, Coventry
June 26 – June 30
Categories: Theatre, Pilot Theatre, York Theatre Royal.
Caroline Tomlinson’s beautiful, but unsettling, illustration for Pilot Theatre’s production of Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock, is the first point of contact that most will have with Bryony Lavery’s new stage adaptation of the work; before any trailers are watched or blurbs read, this is what will decide for many whether they want to buy a ticket or pass the production by, and it deserves full acknowledgement and credit for the intelligent care with which it has been executed. A stylised postcard of the Palace Pier reduced to stark, dark silhouette, birds ominously circling in Hitchcock-esque menace, scribbled mark-making and fabric texture waves echoing the lines of the steel substructure; the word ‘Rock’ picked out in a blood red font. It’s an illustration that immediately tells us this isn’t going to be a cosy tale of a seaside romance. Greene’s previous novel, ‘A Gun For Sale’ mentioned the murder of gang boss Kite, whom Hale had betrayed by writing a newspaper article outlining a slot machine racket controlled by the gang; now Pinkie is gang leader and the events of Brighton Rock are set in motion.
Greene first published his consistently allegorical and symbolic novel ‘Brighton Rock’ in 1938, a time when the events that were to lead to World War Two were gathering pace, England was already in decline and economic stagnation; stuttering its way forward from the 1926 General Strike and the nearest Britain had come in the twentieth century to violent revolution. Whilst he has the virtue of verisimilitude in the ‘feel’ of a 1930’s British seaside resort, there is a jarring sense of being 'off centre' as the two ‘isms’ – Catholicism and Socialism – fight to describe the fallen world and present a critique of it. This complexity and contradiction with all its ensuing themes and the need to make it relevant to an audience of today ensures that Greene’s work would never be an easy one to adapt for stage presentation, and indeed there are aspects that most certainly should not be included. Adaptation has been made a number of times, none really achieving the depth of the piece. Bryony Lavery has boxed clever by eschewing an attempt to be faithful to the text of the original in all its exactitude, but, rather, exploring key themes and giftedly re-wrapping the story around them. By focusing on the youth of Pinkie and Rose and upon the innate goodness of the older Ida - the only one of the trio whose principles are not dictated by religious indoctrination, Lavery has crafted a bildungsroman with a brutish kick up the backside, but one in which all the central characters remain faithful to the source material in their one-eyed perspectives.
The tight synthesis of the production continues with Sara Perk’s set and costume design, carrying through the black and red colourways and utilising an understated, but supremely effective, scaffolding to mark strict boundaries of place and space in the gangland turf. It’s a scenography that calls for every mark and movement to be edged with an equal discipline. Esther Richardson, as director, and Jennifer Jackson, as movement director, have ensured that happens with a style and elegance that is exquisite to watch. The ‘Dark Angels’ draw the audience with mesmeric sinister grace, slipping in and out of the shadows, slithering into and shedding characters, evoking changing atmospheres with cosa nostra charm.
Jacob James Beswick is an actor who knows how to show character empathy through every fingertip and facial twitch and his casting as the deeply troubled anti-hero Pinkie is perfect. Pinkie is complex; determined, calculating and intelligent; driven by a need to feel safe; raised in poverty and squalor, displaying that emotional detachment that so often accompanies social deprivation; incapable of remorse and yet with moments of intense vulnerability and humanity; having an aversion to sex, love and marriage after witnessing his parents’ Saturday night copulations; an uneasy kind of belonging and power in the gang, manipulative and with a theological indoctrination that allows a feral young man to flow without a breath from the gratuitous murder of another to reciting the chants of the Roman mass in impeccable Latin. Lavery has very gently softened Grahame’s implication that Pinkie is purely of Satan for whom ‘Credo in unum Satanum’ is more significant than ‘Credo in unum Deum’, not totally obliterating his cruelty, moments of pure hatred and his belief that hell is all around him, but ameliorating their impact, sympathetically airing him as someone still very young who has had to assimilate a great deal of pain and imposed guilt without either the maturity to deal with it or the counsel of wise adults; a valuable text decision that Beswick handles with profound care.
Despite the murders, the main victim of the story is Rose, poor and vulnerable, manipulated and abused throughout. Sara Middleton plays the teenager in awe of Pinkie admirably, falling for the belief that he loves her, despite his callous words and treatment, in a sad echo of the way that legions of emotionally naïve young women, desperate to be cherished, have been duped and betrayed since the dawn of time. Through her association with Pinkie, we watch as some of her goodness and belief systems slip away, replaced by her blinkered loyalty to a murderer, and she is not ashamed of committing a 'mortal sin' - sleeping with Pinkie without a church wedding. The morning after, she wakes up in Pinkie's room, about to mutter her quick 'Our Father' and 'Hail Marys' when she remembers, but what would be the good in praying now? She has chosen her side and if they damned him then they would have to damn her too. When Ida intervenes in the worst trick of all, Rose is far from grateful, still believing that Pinkie loved her. Widowed, with child, and waiting to hear the words that will reveal Pinkie’s utter revulsion of her, we leave the theatre knowing that she is about to undergo a painful metamorphosis that will hurl her out of her naivety and into adult reality, hoping with all our hearts that an Ida is there somewhere to cradle her through.
Ida is the antithesis of Pinkie in so many ways; the goodness to counter his evil. She has the knowledge of years and experience that allows her to be confident, kind and unafraid to stick to her principles in the face of frightening opposition. Ida lives life to the full, comfortable with intimacy and embracing the good things that come her way. She's irreligious, practical, funny, sexy, superstitious and doggedly determined. Gloria Onitiri is more than delicious in portraying wonderful Ida, oozing sensual possession of the stage. Greene described his Ida as having a 'rich Guinness voice'; Onitiri's own is liquid gold and the songs Hannah Peel has composed for the show are delivered beautifully. Ida wants to save Rose from Pinkie as much as she is motivated to pursue her own quest for justice, but Rose will have none of it, right to the end. The wisdom of age is lost on the young.
As Esther Richardson's first production for Pilot Theatre since taking the role of Artistic Director, 'Brighton Rock' is astute, shrewd and eminently stylish.
(Seen at Hull Truck Theatre)
Brighton Rock can be seen at
27 Mar - 31 Mar 2018
10 Apr - 14 Apr 2018
Theatre Royal Winchester
19 Apr - 21 Apr 2018
24 Apr - 28 Apr 2018
7 May - 5 May 2018
8 May - 12 May 2018
15 May - 19 May 2018
The Lowry, Salford
22 May - 26 May 2018
For a New Beginning
In out of the way places of the heart
Where your thoughts never think to wander
This beginning has been quietly forming
Waiting until you were ready to emerge.
For a long time it has watched your desire
Feeling the emptiness grow inside you
Noticing how you willed yourself on
Still unable to leave what you had outgrown.
It watched you play with the seduction of safety
And the grey promises that sameness whispered
Heard the waves of turmoil rise and relent
Wondered would you always live like this.
Then the delight, when your courage kindled,
And out you stepped onto new ground,
Your eyes young again with energy and dream
A path of plenitude opening before you.
Though your destination is not clear
You can trust the promise of this opening;
Unfurl yourself into the grace of beginning
That is one with your life’s desire.
Awaken your spirit to adventure
Hold nothing back, learn to find ease in risk
Soon you will be home in a new rhythm
For your soul senses the world that awaits you.
- John O'Donohue
New beginnings are a recurring theme in most of our lives. I’d had my last blog since 2009, beginning it as a way to catch hold of the things that were held in my memory with the most fragile of threads following a neurological illness. It had pieced me back together and become a treasured repository of words, emotions and pictures. When my lovely webmaster contacted me to say that it had been accidently lost, I mourned for every whispering filament cut swiftly from its moorings and left to drift, but I have a soul-deep thankfulness for all that site gave me, the lessons I learned, the contacts I made and the wonderful inspirations, encouragements and care I received from so many.
This isn’t a starting over. Starting over implies attempting to erase the past or part of it. I wouldn’t be a happier, healthier, more healed person if that lost blog had not happened. I wouldn’t be a happier, healthier, more healed person without the stumbling mistakes I made along the way. My illness taught me so many wonderful things – and continues to do so – and so many of those lessons came through that blog. It did much of the work of fighting for and finding my recovery. It is only when we own all the parts of our story; the errors, the heartbreaks, the struggles and the joys that we become the growing, the always healing, best version of ourselves. I honour the fact that that blog came into being and the contribution it made to who I am today, and I relinquish it with grace and joy.
This is simply the next step; the beginning of the new journey.
Just as a toddler begins to walk, stumbles and gets up again, putting one foot in front of the other and choosing the next best step, each of those tiny expeditions making his legs grow stronger and his confidence grow, I’m making my next step; a new blog that isn’t re-setting the start button, but that is beginning right now in the place I find myself today.
I expect it will still have a mix of the art, the theatre and the books that are intrinsically woven into the fibre of my being, but where else this fresh, still dewy, adventure is going to lead me is a joy yet to be discovered.
The birds, they sang
At the break of day
Start again, I heard them say
Don't dwell on what has passed away
Or what is yet to be.
- Leonard Cohen.
This part of my site isn't about me at all.
It is about watching, observing and reading the work of others. Those who know what they are about, who have honed their crafts over many years and for whom I have the greatest respect and admiration.
I have learned, and continue to learn, so much from each show watched, each book read, each art work discovered and each person encountered, and I am humbled by their generosity of spirit in giving so much.