Categories - York Theatre Royal
I’ve previously seen, and recorded on my ‘lost’ blog, two of the various incarnations of Edith Nesbit’s The Railway Children that Mike Kenny has written for the stage, in conjunction with York Theatre Royal and director Damian Cruden. One was performed in The National Railway Museum in York in 2008, the second at King’s Cross in 2015. Both were superb.
The Shows Must Go On is currently offering the opportunity to watch the streaming of another staging from 2015, again at The National Railway Museum, with the intention of raising important funds for Child Bereavement UK, an organisation very close to my own heart, and one of crucial importance in a Covid year that has torn families apart through separations, deaths, an incapacity to channel the stages of grief, and to support those who are bereaved, in meaningful ways.
It is a production that, although based on a book that was first serialised in 1905, timely resonates with much of the political and social upheaval that this past year has brought, poking a ‘finger into the soft round dough’ of inept government leadership, the absence of family members, life interrupted and turned on end, gender inequalities, racial prejudices and tensions, the effects of illness on family, the gifted food parcels, medical professionals whose work load and compassion are not reflected in their pay packets, and the impacts of poverty, financial loss and unemployment.
The train they refer to as ‘The Dragon’ is the metaphorical link to the absent father of Bobby, Phyllis and Peter, reminding them of their old lives. Unable to travel on the train themselves they communicate with strangers, separated from them physically by train doors, windows and gated landscapes, reaching out through waves and written messages; how many of us have reached out to strangers in a very similar way during this year? The handclaps, the raised hands across the barriers, the friendships forged in the newness of it all, and the attempts to communicate have all been evidenced. As the railway brings their father home, their dependence upon the structure itself lessens, but they are moved on to the next phase of their lives with the support of their new friends.
But, of course, this is the ‘prodding further stuff’. On the surface, The Railway Children is an engaging story full of humour, suspense, mischief, the growing pains of being a teenager, sibling banter, delightful characterisations, beautiful lighting, music and costume, and imaginative staging. There is something to bring joy to every generation, wherever and however they are celebrating.
In this production of The Railway Children, the youngest child, Phyllis, comments upon their old life as one that included visits to the pantomime at Christmas. Hanging on our family Christmas tree are two glass slippers – part of a very treasured package of thoughtful gifts given to my, then young, children by York Theatre Royal when their sister’s death necessitated cancelling the annual trip to the pantomime. 2020 has seen theatres go dark, Christmas shows not able to go ahead in a conventional way, and those much anticipated trips to the theatre will not be happening for most of the population. Just as the lovely staff at York Theatre Royal softened the sadness for my children with their kindness all those years ago, the resourcefulness of creatives within the arts world has found new ways of doing things, touring ‘safe venue’ alternatives, zoom plays, and streaming some very beautiful shows during this re-arranged Christmas season. They don’t solve every issue and nor were they ever intended to, but they assuage a little of the pain, loneliness and loss of a devastating year. The Railway Children is elegant family entertainment, beautifully executed by actors that we love, and are part of all that is comforting, warm and familiar – Martin Barass, Michael Lambourne, Andrina Carroll, Rozzi Nicholson-Lailey, Beth Lilly, Izaac Cainer, Robert Angell, Elianne Byrne, Jacqueline Naylor, James Weaver, Alex Wingfield and the York Theatre Royal young company – and it has lost none of its enchanting charm and freshness in the intervening five years since it was first staged. It is available until December 23rd, at The Shows Must Go On, and a donation to Child Bereavement UK would be extremely well used - the death of an important family member, especially a child, is never totally resolved, but with the right support it can be negotiated with grace and a capacity to move forward.
Categories: Theatre; Pilot Theatre; ARCADE
Ever since humans discovered the element of fire with its powers of comfort and protection, or danger and destruction, they have used it to communicate. By day, there were the smoke signals from the beacon network along the Great Wall of China, the towers of the Vatican and effecting the coded language of Native Americans. By night, there were signal fires, lit to warn the approach of an enemy, or to send a call to arms.
Signal fires burned in tenth-century Constantinople, in Jerusalem and Babylon, and in the Isles of Orkney to share the news of war or victory. In myth and fiction too, the use of fire has been well served. In 458 BC, a Greek tragedian wrote in Agamemnon of a chain of eight signal fires that alerted Argos to the fall of Troy, hundreds of miles away. In Lord of the Rings, signal fires called to allies when Gondor’s cities were under siege.
England relied on signal fires as a defence network from the reign of the Roman Empire, to Saxon times, into the early 1800s.
For hundreds of years, they were simply signalled by fire--signum per ignem—rudimentary bonfires on hilltops, but over time, signal fires evolved, first appearing by name in England’s royal decrees and municipal records in the late 1300s as beknes. Beacons became more sophisticated - stone-block beehives, stone towers, or iron baskets on top of wooden or iron poles. They were fuelled by shrubs—gorse and broom—that the citizenry was paid to gather and tend. If not for its vast, mapped, centuries-old county-by-county beacon networks, splaying out like spiderwebs from the most vulnerable points of its coasts, our island may have been taken by Norse raiders, by France, or by Spain.
Nineteenth-century English poet, Thomas Babington Macaulay, recounted their critical role in his fragment The Armada, about the night in August 1588 when Spain’s King Phillip sailed a massive war fleet on England. That night was as bright as day, Macaulay wrote, the entire country lit by beacon fires at every visible point,
For swift to east and swift to west the ghastly war-flame spread,
High on St. Michael’s Mount it shone; it shone on Beachy Head.
Far on the deep the Spaniard saw, along each southern shire,
Cape beyond cape, in endless range, those twinkling points of fire.
And after the enemy was defeated, they lit fires for another purpose: to celebrate.
For a century, the memory of fire beacons in England was all but lost to time. In the 1800s and early 1900s, the networks eroded, the maps were mostly forgotten. A renewed interest flared up with archaeological pursuits of the twentieth century, and today, beacons nod to eternal flames, honouring landmark occasions: The Millennium or days of national significance. Yorkshire still has a string of beacon baskets scattered across its breadth, and it is a very special thing to first feel the heat on your face and then to spin in circles on the hillside, staring into the distance as the shouts go up one by one, “There’s another one”; to see the line of orange flickering dots that convey connection and belonging.
It is this concept of the signal fires that has drawn together the arts and culture community in these pandemic days, when events have had to be cancelled, theatres closed and funding support for job and venue viability has been shaky. At least two of the major national arts festivals are basing their future programming on the themes of signal fires, and it is also the nationwide initiative for theatre companies during October and November to warn of the threat to the theatre industry, to provide connection and support to those who may feel isolated, and to celebrate the richness of vibrant touring theatre by taking it right back to its storytelling roots – that of telling a good yarn around a roaring fire. The full list of the participating theatres can be seen here.
Newly formed Community Producing Company, ARCADE, is Scarborough based - a coastal town where historically beacons have played a significant role - so it was immensely fitting that the Northern Girls production should be held here and, in the main, use actors and writers based within the borough. Scarborough has an incredible pool of creative talent and it was good to see a light being shone upon some of them. Pilot Theatre, based in York, co-produced the show and the venue was Scarborough's brilliant YMCA, whose own productions are legendary in the locale. This was a truly Yorkshire owned production then.
The beacons were provided by fire baskets situated around the YMCA car park, and though the socially distanced seating was limited by space, the intimacy of a collective theatre experience was achieved through the focus of the tree wound around with lights, with actors appearing from, and disappearing into, the darkness behind it, as if they were entering and exiting the stage in conventional format; a clever device that lifted the experience immediately from informal storytelling to the theatre community making the clear statement, “We’re still here, we’re still professionals who do things properly and we’re not going to compromise all that we stand for.”
Erosion, written by Charley Miles and performed wonderfully by Holly Surtees-Smith, tackles the importance of place and belonging, setting the premise perfectly that Northern people – in all arenas - should not have to adapt accent or move location to succeed, but have a uniqueness and treasure that is to be celebrated, right where they are. Rach Drew of ARCADE, in the run up to the Northern Girls production, had spoken in The Guardian of her own battle to find place in the theatre industry, and Miles’ piece added immediate depth and weight to the argument. ’Home’ is a powerful concept, attached to the area we live in as much as to the family and community we live within, and much of our creative work is nurtured by the specifics of place: flora, fauna, geology, weather, the tides and tales of the coastlines, and the folklore attached to all of these things. It is shaped by the people we are, now, in this landscape and not another.
Shannon Barker is well established as a Scarborough writer; her piece First Date was very ably played out by Siu-See Hung, bringing out themes of loss and pushing through the hard times to new beginnings. It was in turns, energetic and moving.
Asma Elbadawi both wrote and performed the thought-provokingly poetic The Girl Next Door, a piece full of grace and quiet dignity, sketching out the differences between culture and heritage, the sadness that comes from ‘not fitting’ and the prejudices of others, eloquently calling for acceptance as someone who is as hefted in Yorkshire as the sheep on the moors, but also understanding of the roots she is fiercely proud of. Elbadawi is stunning, her voice frequently switching to the beautiful Arabic language that lifts across the cold air like a musical adhan; with wonderful writing and heartfelt presentation this is my favourite of all the pieces.
Kat/Cassie, written by Zoe Cooper is outstandingly composed, taking up the mythological Philomela and Procne to tell the story of a rape by a teacher, the tapestry of threads replaced by a collage of bird photography. It is powerful, brings a deep communication that abuse by those in authority should not be tolerated EVER, and is such a complex, demanding and accomplished script that it needed an actor who was experienced enough to deal with it. The actor chosen is RSC's Laura Elsworthy – a Hull lass; northern through and through.
Rant by Amy Kay-Pell and performed by Holly Surtees-Smith, was the ideal light-hearted monologue to follow Kat/Cassie, questioning how much we have actually moved forward in equality for women; executed with comedic verisimilitude and giving a welcome breathing space to the programme.
Ariel Hebditch has been part of the Scarborough arts scene since she was tiny, and it is truly lovely to see her emerging as a competent writer. Her monologue Yin and Yang is based on the experiences of a friend, dealing with prejudice, verbal abuse and juggling the demands of combining helping out in the family restaurant with studying. Siu-See Hung performs it with an understanding that relays the frustrations well.
Waves by Claire Edwards is a very tender, gentle piece that tells of the emotions of full immersion baptism in the sea. Performed by Laura Elsworthy, it is a welcome contrast to the other items, revealing an altogether different relationship to the ocean. Slower, more measured, Edwards’ work conveys an understanding that writing doesn’t have to be constantly loud and composed of sharp edges to be successful. Edward’s words ebb and flow as softly as the waves they speak of, and, in their graceful beauty, they carry a gift of confidence to the quieter writing styles that they too have place, belonging and a very special gift to bring.
The Scarborough Porpoise scripted by Maureen Lennon and performed by Laura Boughen is in turns funny and brave, shouting out for a moving through imperfections and opinions to owning self as something uniquely our own, that empowers and gives strength of equilibrium. It is a fitting end to the programme that gathers up the threads that have gone before and ties them together with positivity and joyous hope.
On the surface, it may appear that staring into the flames of a firepit in a YMCA car park is not the same as looking at the horizon to see the line of other fires, their flames rising higher and higher into the dark skies. In these challenging times, things have to be done in a different way, but the Signal Lights project through live outdoor performance, digital performance and social media has provided a way to see those beacons of connectivity glowing; a row of fiery, determined dots stretching the length of our nation that proclaim theatre is still here, still programming and still putting out a light for the arts. Staring into the fire-pit beacon flames, the Northern Girls production brought history, the present and future intention sparkling before us, sharing footsteps with those other creative communities throughout this land; sharing the trajectory of a rapt gaze that lights up the darkness and provides the promise of hope for the arts.
Categories: Theatre, York Theatre Royal
Helen Wilson’s production of ‘The Seagull’ is a labour of love. A love for Anton Chekhov’s work that has seen her direct, over the course of a decade, all four of his major plays for the York Settlement Community Players. It’s a love that has given the city something very beautiful and accomplished in this conclusion to the quartet, with an engaging ensemble and considered, intelligent management that has made no attempt to change the essence of the original, but rather to draw out the charm and comedy that is often overlooked, using Michael Frayn’s 1988 translation.
Love does not, of course, turn out so well for the characters in what is believed to be Chekhov’s first play of the four. The action quickly establishes for us who loves who and who is unlikely to be loved back, the dialogue giving the cast an opportunity to establish their roles.
Medvedenko, played to every capable inch as the disciplined, boring, poor, but hopelessly infatuated, pedagog by Samithi Sok, is in love with Masha, the daughter of Shamrayev, Sorin’s steward, and his wife Polina.
Taking the role of Masha is Lucy May Orange, who is so delicious she deserves her own spin-off show. Trigorin summed her up in his book inscription, ‘For Masha, who doesn't know where she came from or why she goes on living’. She’s every wet-Wednesday, nobody-loves-me and teenage-melancholic-crush anyone ever had; sheathed in mourning black and drowning her sorrows in vodka, the only man she has her sights set on is not Medvedenko, but Konstantin, the son of renowned actress Arkardina. However, in her no nonsense approach, Masha is the only one who understands that Konstantin is depressed, and whilst we can laugh at her excessive melancholy, in doing so we are laughing at our own existential questions of meaning and purpose.
Konstantin, played by wonderful Ben Turvill, struggling to find his voice as a writer in the shadow of his mother, is, in turns, impatient, self-defeating, compassionate, lacking confidence in his own abilities and tormented by his need for love, attention and affection. He is unusually hard on himself, allowing his successes and disappointments to reflect his feelings about himself and shatter his self-worth. At the outset, he has no idea that Masha yearns for him, and is in love with Nina, a young daughter of a wealthy landowner. Konstantin’s depression and his self-paralysis that leads to his inevitable destruction is not an easy descent for an actor to make or an audience to watch, demanding a wide breadth of emotion, and much of the understanding of the rest of the play rests upon his realistic portrayal of an anguished psyche. It is a huge responsibility and Turvill handles it tremendously well.
It is Livy Potter’s task to bring us the complex Nina, and she does it with a gentle, understated accomplishment. Nina ‘s mother died when she was young, leaving her inheritance to her father who then remarried and signed the money over to his new wife, making Nina’s future security uncertain. Her father is a cruel man and she can only visit Sorin’s family when she is confident he will not find out. She is, at first, in love with Konstantin, but perhaps because she secretly hopes that through her connections with his mother she will fulfil her dream of being an actress herself, and her seemingly naïve, idealistic willingness to take risks becomes seen as something more ambitious and less ingénue when she turns her attentions to the established and celebrated writer Trigorin. Nina’s deterioration emotionally and physically in Act IV is a challenging one for a young actor, but Livy executes it in a way that is commendable.
Trigorin is the lover of Arkardina, and, like her, is a member of the elite intelligensia and artistic community. He works hard, holds high standards for himself, but does not connect his efforts, disappointments or failures to his sense of self-esteem in any way. Dutiful loyalty, erring on reluctant acquiescence, quickly gives way to unfaithfulness when he is flattered by the attentions shown by the youthful Nina, using the excuse that he lost out on romantic experiences in his younger days because he was so busy establishing himself as a writer. He is a disinclined celebrity, preferring a day of quiet fishing by the lake to the philosophising and parlour games, and an obsessive observer of the outside world, his ever present notebook the repository of jottings for future tales yet, remarkably oblivious to the emotional worlds of those around him, he is also the one who ultimately plays God with the hearts of Arkardina, Konstantin and Nina. Ben Sawyer takes on the daedal Trigorin with a subtle mastery.
Arkardina, played by Stephanie Heap, has the potential to be a monster of a character. She is the archetypal grand, melodramatic star with a hugely inflated ego; vain, stubborn, fiercely competitive, obsessed with holding on to her beauty and youth, not in any way interested in perfecting her technique, craft, self-knowledge or in challenging herself. She is only interested in the adoration, status, and envy from others that she accumulates from the attention she receives as a result of being a performer, but Chekhov also grants her a more human side that stops her from being one dimensional no matter how badly she is behaving. She is selfish as a mother, crushing Konstantin’s creative spirit and unable to show affection to him whilst doting on her lover beyond anything he deserves, and yet…the odd phrase, the frantic cry for help when Sorin became ill, the restrained thrown line, suggests that somewhere, deep inside, is a woman who is going to be devastated only moments after the material of the text ends.
There’s little wonder Masha is as miserable as she is with the parents she has! Paul Joe Osborne is suitably argumentative and surly in his role as Shamrayev, paying scant attention to Polina and unsympathetic to his daughter and her admirer (later husband), whilst fawning over Arkardina’s fame, wealth and classy connections. Polina is as woebegone as her daughter and the ever wonderful Elizabeth Elsworth dredges out every last drop of dolorous unhappiness, but her abject misery comes from a place of care for the two people she truly loves; her daughter whom she sees compromising in a loveless marriage whilst longing for Konstantin, and her own beloved Dorn, the local doctor, who is distant towards her, but whom she trusts.
Maurice Crichton is such a measured and gifted actor that his portrayal of Dorn is a joy to watch. Clearly once a ladies’ man, Dorn has known Sorin, Arkardina, their families and neighbours for many years, quietly witnessing their lives unfold, confidant to most, and a fluid outside observer to events. His neutral distance from the action allows him to take part without taking any personal risk, representing Chekhov's role as playwright and ourselves as audience. He has affections for Polina, does not appear to be in love with her, but does nothing to put her down, soothing her in her sorrows and showing a gentle, compassionate presence to others. He respects Konstantin’s talents and attempts to diffuse the effect of Arkardina’s unkind words on this depressed young man, listens understandingly to Masha regaling her longing for Konstantin’s love, and at the close of the play he is the one who assesses when the time is right to break their games with the knowledge of the tragedy that has occurred. It is Dorn that has one of the loveliest lines, helplessly suggesting to Masha that it must be the lake that is making everyone feel so romantic; it’s Chekhov’s equivalent of joking, “There must be something in the water around here”.
Sorin, the estate owner, brother to Arkardina and uncle to Konstantin, is, like Dorn, a patient listener and confidant, but he is different in a very significant way – he involves himself when he personally has something to risk. He is eager to champion both his sister and his nephew, but his health is deteriorating and he is acutely aware of his own dreams of love and success as a writer that didn’t see fruition. Glyn Morrow draws out his wisdom, nostalgia and wistful moments as Sorin sees so much of himself in Konstantin and asks his sister to be more aware of the young man’s fragility and lack of confidence.
The ensemble wouldn’t be complete without mentioning Annie Chave. Officially listed as the stage manager for the production, she does this duty by cleverly mopping up the roles of the cook, the maid and the workman; a device that allows her to do her task in full visibility, but also gives her the occasional line and non-verbal reaction where Chave exhibits a natural comedy flair that is delightful to watch.
As the play flows like the lake it is centred around, pastoral summer days of futuristic plays featuring ‘souls of the world’ slowly give up their charm to jealousy, humiliations and yearnings for more. Konstantin’s presentation of the shot seagull to Nina signals the decaying of their friendship, but unwittingly gives Trigorin a way into the star struck Nina’s head.
"A young girl lives all her life on the shore of a lake. She loves the lake, like a seagull, and she's happy and free, like a seagull. But a man arrives by chance, and when he sees her, he destroys her, out of sheer boredom. Like this seagull."
Nina enthralled by the spell of his rhetoric and his fame gushes, “My Dream!”, and the parochial estate life irretrievably unravels from thereon in. The lake has, as Konstantin would have it, disappeared into the ground.
Wilson has left out none of the trappings that come with staging a production of ‘The Seagull’. The comparisons with Hamlet, the variations between the way that artists approach their lives and creative capacities; the disparate understanding of ‘needs’ that people have and which ones hold the power – for some their need is basic…love, survival, money and respect, but for others, ‘need’ is a much loftier notion of philosophy, art or literature; the piles of luggage at the beginning of Act III, signifying the change of decision since the end of Act II, the passage of time through shifts in scenery and Chekhovian portrayal of the uncertain happenings that determine our lives; questions of self worth, the existential queries of purpose and meaning, and the unrequited loves that bind the characters so closely.
The symbols too are there. The seagull, at first full of freedom and carefree security, moving through dependence, prophecy and ultimately destruction. The lake, ebbing and flowing as a place of reflection, respite, escape, sense of home, curiosity, childhood exploration and a place of lost love where it feels that the life source will dry up and disappear, and the weather, bright summer days becoming ever more stormy as change evolves.
Graham Sanderson as set designer has made very disciplined, astute choices in his staging that serve to make the entire focus the emotions of the characters with no distractions or excess baggage. Everything on set has a purpose and intention for being there. Wardrobe crew Helen Taylor and Judith Ireland have been equally streamlined in their approach. Nina’s change from virginal white to a more sophisticated outfit in grey echoes her development as her eyes are opened to a world beyond the rural idyll but she also becomes aware of the darker things in life, and Arkardina goes from passionate, all consuming red, to an identical costume in dark green as she accepts that retaining her lover means sharing him with another; they are well thought through changes that emphasise the stark, broken course of events.
One of the triumphs of Chekhov's writing in The Seagull is his unbiased depiction of the characters. The story isn’t easily divided into good versus evil or hero versus villain. Chekhov attempts to portray people as they are in real life, a little good and a little bad, sometimes right, and sometimes wrong, and this has been achieved so well in Wilson’s production. It’s a play that was first performed in 1896, yet the themes are as fresh and relevant to our world today; a world that is tussling with a greater understanding of mental health and its impacts, a world in which the creative world still struggles to find place, meaning and understanding, and a world in which love in all its many guises builds, breaks and bends.
My congratulations to Helen Wilson on completing her own journey through Chekhov’s four plays, on bringing such a nuanced production of ‘The Seagull’ to York, and to all the cast and creatives who worked on it.
The Spurriergate Centre has been a place that has welcomed community into its midst for generations, gently accepting all with a grace and equanimity. In the 16th century, the building became a repository of the treasures which should have been destroyed following the Reformation, and since that point, in one way or another, it has gathered up the rejected, the lost, the stranger and the torn apart, providing a safe haven, inclusion, restoration and healing. The origins of the former church, The Church of St Michael, go back to the 12th century, and the magnificent medieval stained glass work glows with 15th century Madonnas wearing cobalt blue couvre-chefs and snow white crespinettes, the fascinating Nine Orders of Angels, and the intriguing partial stained panel, The Tree of Jesse, with its fragments broken, removed from their original locations, re-arranged, displaced and set in new surroundings - sometimes with tiny shards of joyous colour, but more often with the ghost-like traceries of a fading existence. This is a place that has seen the first York Mystery Plays performed in its shadows, but also understands through history and usage the impacts of change, of re-invention, of having to start over; the very walls are soaked with the courage it takes to find hope in despair.
When the York Mystery Plays Supporters Trust were looking for a location to perform the Nativity Cycle of the plays, they couldn’t have found a more fitting environment to tell the story of a couple faced with the challenges of leaving everything they knew and held dear, to undertake a dangerous journey, carrying their possessions on their backs and a new life in the womb, not knowing where they would end up and what the future would hold. It is the skeleton of stories repeated in every young person cast out of care or home and onto the streets; every refugee family who has escaped the bloodshed and tyranny, taking treacherous risks to find safety in an unknown place that may not welcome them; every person who has encountered the fight for integrity and truth when the evidence to others screams immorality and betrayal; every mind agonised with decisions to be taken and dreams wrenched asunder; every wise man who has stepped out of their comfort zone to pursue a quest that others would think foolish; every kind-hearted mortal who has given all they can in simple trust to help another; every global mother bound in poverty, giving birth in unsanitary conditions, helplessly suckling her rag-wrapped child at emaciated breasts.
A Nativity for York, directed by Philip Parr, is the first independent production for the York Mystery Plays Supporters Trust, the text drawn from the eight of the forty-eight plays that make up the Nativity Cycle, to create a performance piece that sits self-sufficient of the Waggon Plays and the Corpus Christi tradition, in the hope of becoming an annual addition to the York Christmastide calendar. Parr has adapted the speech to make it more understandable to modern hearers, whilst still retaining the rhythm, poetry and some of the Middle English northern dialect which makes the York Mystery cycle so identifiable from those of other regions. He has condensed the contents into a manageable size and added his own musical arrangements to enhance the seasonal atmosphere.
A community play in a place renowned for welcoming community needs a community cast, and A Nativity For York has put to together an excellent team drawn from all walks of life.
Chris Pomfrey, as Joseph, is every inch the bewildered and upset gentleman who grieves over the unsullied bride he thought was his, but is slowly persuaded to another viewpoint and emerges into a caring husband and father of the very best kind; no emotion is too laboured or gesture overplayed. Mary is played by Rachael Harte, no stranger to the York Mystery Plays – indeed, this is her second time playing Mary – whose tenderness and unassuming acceptance of the strange mysteries that are unfolding around her is so very touching and sweet. I watched as she gently rocked her baby on her shoulder in the manner that parents all through the ages know so well, soothed him and brought forth his face from the swaddling clothes for the shepherds to see, held the hand of an angel who proffered a lovingly knitted shawl just that moment long enough to engage fully in heartfelt appreciation, and courageously held back her fear at journeying to an unknown place. Pomfrey and Harte are so exquisitely set together as the blessed parents upon whom the rest of the storyline pivots.
Never were there three more well-chosen shepherds as Ged Murray, Michael Maybridge and Jenna Drury. The soft humour of Murray and Drury offset against Maybridge’s straight guy is a joyously delicious treat. They are comrades who know and trust each other well enough to tease, cajole and support each other in this mysterious turn of events that has touched their usually uneventful hillside. The bewildered trio, drawn by the star, present their gifts; ‘a bearing brush and bowl of tin’ placed humbly next to the child, ‘two cobnuts here upon a band’ rattled with pure pleasure for the infant, and then steps forward Maybridge with his offering,
“I have no present that may please. But lo, an horn spoon, that have I here …”
pulling a spoon from his pack that is almost as big as the child itself, adding with a serious earnestness that is melting, “And it will carry forty peas.”
What makes this little scenario all the more poignant is that, later, as Joseph gathers the small family’s possessions together to flee the border, he picks up the spoon from the table and ponders it momentarily as if considering whether it really is as effective a pea holder as its giver had proclaimed. No words are spoken, but it is a gesture that completes the circle on the shepherd’s visit.
If the shepherds are endearingly self-effacing in their expectations and adorations, the kings are in equal parts regal, learned and wise. They are superbly cast. Representing the mission of the Christ child to the wider world, Ben Turvill, Stephanie Walker and Wilma Edwards are the epitome of ambassadorial elegance and dignity, their presence, demeanour and exotic clothing immediately setting them apart from the others, and yet there is just as much a sense that they too are strangers, lost and floundering in unfamiliar territory. Their own cultures and journeys to that place are diverse, but as surely as a greeting of ‘As-Salam-u-Alaikum’ is recognised throughout many nations, there is a bond in their common purpose, status and affluence, that allows them to form an alliance in their search for the infant.
From the moment that Jodie Fletcher steps into the space to set the background to Joseph’s discomfiture, quickly followed by Lucinda Rennison and Judith Ireland’s firm protection of Mary and Val Punt’s stroppy ‘man-up' address to Joseph, it is clear that the angels in our play are not the mere fluffy-winged sky fillers of many a Christmas card. These are the agents in black, hiding in plain sight, sipping their coffee and eating their mince pies with the rest of us, but alert and informed with missional responsibilities to spring into action when needed. Fletcher, Rennison, Punt, Sally Maybridge, Lily Geering, Harold Mozley, David Denbigh, Joy Warner, Anna Briggs, Denise Oliver, Sonia Di Lorenzo, Tracey Rea, Linda James and Nick Jones carry out their assignments with individualistic characters that tip a cocked hat to the medieval hierarchy of angels but, rightly and far more stylishly, do not dwell there. They are organised, methodical, supportive and sophisticated, carrying out their duties with a flair and panache that is never gushing, never treacly and most certainly would never be considered as flapping.
The cast not only have their roles to consider, but sing and play instruments too, and full kudos must be given to them for devoting so much time, line learning and commitment during the rehearsal process. Behind any production is a team of creatives, production, front of house and technicians, who all need a shout out for bringing this wonderful piece together. There was even a chair-silencing army at work behind the scenes. They are all stars, but I do just want to make note of the costume designer. Costume design is notoriously hard to break into; Filip Gesse’s drawings for the production showed such promise and he was so enthusiastic and passionate in explaining his vision that they did him tremendous credit and I hope he goes from strength to strength.
Christmas, whether we are of faith or not, has its enchantments. The festive colour palettes; the soaring violins of Arneson’s ‘The Magnificat’ or Handel’s Messiah’; the warm homes and the tables heaving with food. But that is never the whole story. For every violin there is a cello to force its unique gift of tears, for every groaning feast there is someone without food and for every warm house there is a homeless sleeper on the wintry street, a displaced person whose heart aches for homelands that will never be theirs again, or one who lives with persecution, the fear of war and a sky that spits bombs. In every community this uneasy juxtaposition sits, and it is this that A Nativity For York leaves us with as Mary and Joseph wander on, their worldly possessions stuffed into the discarded bags of a consumerism gone mad. It is a piece originally written in a time when centralised authority had all but collapsed, there were mass migrations because of civil unrests, population overload was a serious problem and people were being forced out of their homes because of tenure laws, and it resonates across the centuries, reverberating around the walls of Spurriergate as if it were written yesterday. There is a call to arms; for each one of us to take our own position as the agents in black, just as the centre staff here have, to support, stand alongside and help those who are suffering in our communities.
Parr in his astute direction has brought to this first outing for A Nativity For York an accomplished, celebratory, but also thought-provoking production. It speaks of a kindness and sense of justice inhabiting his soul. It’s a kindness we need to hear this Christmas, every Christmas, and every precious day in-between.
Catogories: Sheffield Theatres; Theatre
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
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.