Tag Archives: Gerard Bell

Domino’s Piece, ah!

FINGER, TRIGGER, BULLET, GUN

The REP Studio, Birmingham, Wednesday 2nd July, 2014

 

Serbian playwright Neriad Prokic’s first work in 25 years is presented here by Birmingham’s own Stan’s Cafe – the company he challenged to stage The Anatomy of Melancholy a while back (which they did, with aplomb!). Here, theatrically at least, the scale is much smaller although the subject matter deals with the fate of the world. Among intricate set-ups of thousands of dominoes, the four performers deliver scenes, out of chronological order, in which the main players (or suspects) who brought about World War I are shown, conspiring and colluding: among them is Franz Ferdinand whose fate, we know, is sealed. Our guides through this historical essay are two unnamed figures, a kind of Vladimir and Estragon pair or a Yin and Yang. One is pessimistic and pragmatic, the other optimistic and idealistic. It’s interesting if wordy and – probably necessarily so, because of the dominoes that surround them! – rather static. The dominoes and the setter-upper who crawls her way around the floor, adding yet more to the ranks, provide the tension. We know they are going to topple but we don’t know when… And there is the ever-present danger that they might get knocked, trodden on or triggered at the wrong moment.

When they do go, their rattle and slap as they hit the floor is chilling and the devastation almost total. (Perhaps it was meant to be total, I don’t know!) It’s the play’s big theatrical idea.

The play’s other big idea is that the circumstances that led to WWI are being set-up again, like a row of dominoes. The unnamed commentators bring us up to the present day and here, unfortunately, the play becomes more of a lecture. There is nothing we can do, concludes the grumpy one.

The performers: Gerard Bell, Gareth Nicholls, Graeme Rose and Jack Trow deliver Prokic’s words clearly and with conviction, but on the whole the piece is too dry and too bleak for me. The title gives the impression the piece is more dynamic than it is. I felt like I wanted to be stirred into action but I wasn’t. By the end, I was ready to topple like a double blank.

The play is the first half in a double bill to open the REP’s BE Festival. The second play, Next Door, is reviewed separately.

finger trigger

 

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Humorous Humours

THE ANATOMY OF MELANCHOLY

Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry, Tuesday 12th March, 2013

 

Doctor Robert Burton’s massive doorstep of a book, first published in 1621, might not seem likely fodder for a stage adaptation.  It’s a lengthy discourse, a treatise and a self-help manual on the subject of Melancholy, but Melancholy For Dummies it most certainly is not.

The excellent Stan’s Cafe gives us more of a theatrical lecture than a piece of drama, touching on the main points of the book, explaining and illustrating the key points in an engaging and interesting show that, though plotless and devoid of dramatic tension, keeps us paying attention by dint of its subject matter and the means of its presentation.

The set consists mainly of a line of wooden easels supporting large pads of paper: Jacobean flip charts! There is a beautiful backdrop, like a woodprint, heralding the first act (or ‘partition’) and there are books stacked just about everywhere.  A desk, a bureau, an armchair… littered with papers and objects.  There is even a skull, a memento mori that adds to the 17th century still-life feel.  Closer inspection reveals some items are out of keeping with the period – this is entirely deliberate, it seems to me, as you realise that more and more of the information delivered is still entirely pertinent to us today.  Some things have changed: we no longer hold to the theory of humours, for example, but the descriptions of human behaviour are still spot on.  The costumes (by Kay Wilton) continue this idea.  Democritus Junior wears the full-length black robe of the cleric or scholar, complete with black cap and white ruff.  The other two men sport doublets over long-sleeved shirts with loose, knee-length hose and stockings.  The female, dressed as male, sports similar attire but there are touches of the modern tracksuit.  It is a subtle touch.  We are anchored in the 21st century and can only take on the Jacobean mindset in an incomplete way.

The cast, each representing one of the four humours and the four elements, split the lecture between them.  This keeps the piece moving.  They illustrate their points with brief vignettes in a rather deadpan comic style.  We get the point; we enjoy the point.  They turn the pages of the flipcharts to show us chapter and sub-chapter headings, and more humorously, snatch up pieces of paper that translate Latin phrases into our vernacular.  Given the small scale of some of these pages and the print upon them, we haven’t a hope of catching them all – it becomes about the gesture, the snatching up of these visual footnotes and paper subtitles.  The quartet operates like a choreographed machine to keep the flipcharts on the right pages – This was the very first public performance and so some changes are smoother than others, but there appear to be contingencies for moments when they interrupt each other or are on the wrong page or fluff their rather wordy and complex lines.  It all adds to the enjoyment.  They grab props from the cluttered desks – it always amuses me to see a packet of crisps being eaten on stage (a personal peccadillo) and we only glimpse some beautiful anatomical illustrations in note books, meticulously created by designer Harry Trow.

The ensemble are of a piece; I can’t single anyone out so I’ll just list them all and praise them for their comic timing, their versatility and their watch-ability – we are in their company for a long, long time.  Gerard Bell is the wise Democritus Junior, Craig Stephens and Graeme Rose are equally funny in their various representations of melancholy and its physical effects – Rose plays a mean lute, accompanying the cast in part-singing and a round.  Rochi Rampal plays male and female – donning a glamorous wig and batting her eyelashes one moment, throwing up snakes and pissing on the carpet the next.

The running time is over three hours.  It doesn’t feel like it although I was a bit too warm in the first half and by the time of the ‘third partition’ my legs were threatening me with DVT.  Even so, three hours is arguably not enough.  The piece is dense with detail and information; you haven’t time to absorb and reflect because they move quickly on to the next point.   Director James Yarker keeps things ticking along so the stage doesn’t become static or tedious.

It is remarkable how much matches present-day thinking on the treatment of depression.  Arguments about diet and the correct amounts of alcohol persist, although I will discount the treatment to ‘procure sleep’ (applying the fat of a dormouse to the soles of the feet)!  On the whole, the piece adds to our awareness of mental health.  It concludes with two instructions, rules to live by if you can: Be Not Solitary and Be Not Idle.

Wise words indeed.

 

Craig Stephens

Craig Stephens

 


Credit Where It’s Due

THE JUST PRICE OF FLOWERS

The REP at the A E Harris Building, Birmingham, Monday 25th June, 2012

Good old Bertie Brecht! He spearheaded a move towards a different kind of theatre; theatre that told you something was wrong with the world, theatre that made you want to do something about it.

In theory.

Personally, I tend to find Brecht’s ideas more exciting than his plays. In the hands of others, they can lead to challenging and thought-provoking pieces of theatre.

Theatre company Stan’s Cafe created this show back in the dark days of 2009 as a response to the banking collapse, guided by the premise: What Would Brecht Do? The hallmarks you’d expect are there: offstage actors are visible to the audience as they sit and wait for their cues; scenes are announced by a narrator, hanging captions on the wall… There is no attempt to create an illusion of any kind. Everything is openly artificial and theatrical, from the drawn-on moustaches on the women playing male characters to the props and accessories fashioned from paper. There is also an added austerity to the production, with its stark black set, like a model or toy theatre, the black that dominates the costumes with brightly contrasting white details: a shirt here, a ruff there.

The banking collapse is recounted to us through the distancing filter of the trade in tulips in 17th century Holland. In the peculiar manner of Verfremdungseffekte, this storytelling device throws the events and issues into a clarity that was lacking in the news reports and analyses of the time. The play’s brief twenty-one scenes explain and reveal the twists and the turns, as characters trade tulips, tulip bulbs and the potential of future tulips to come… A couple soon find themselves mortgaged beyond what they can sustain as the price of tulips and tulip futures plummets. Their manservant, reaching retirement, finds his pension fund has been gambled away while at the centre of it all, the financier who has juggled and overstretched receives support and even reward (a big fat cream cake which he devours greedily before our very eyes).

That financier, going by the name of Van Hire, is a storm of a performance by Bernadette Russell and my pick of the bunch. Van Hire’s acquisitiveness and avarice, his wide-boy accent and his luxuriousness are laid bare, while in contrast Gerard Bell’s old gardener is played the most naturalistically. His is the voice of common sense and old-fashioned reason in the face of all this credit ricocheting around him. He speaks the final line of the play, when he is told he will have to work a few more years yet, “It doesn’t seem like I have a choice, that I ever had a choice at all.” This is what the play has been leading to, but we the audience are as impotent as poor old Van Driver himself. Four years down the line, we are still powerless.

The cast is a tight ensemble. Jill Dowse is a wry narrator, playing Kurt Weill-tinged music on her accordion – her introductions to each scene are incongruously anachronistic reminders that we are watching a metaphor for current (well, recent) events – and I particularly enjoyed Valerie Culko’s haughty Florestein.

It’s all very illuminating and, thanks to a vein of humour that runs through it, is not overly preachy or earnest. I couldn’t help feeling however that this revival has a sense of the moment having passed. I’m sure its original production was hotly topical and on-the-money but already (as with Brecht’s Arturo Ui, satirising the rise of Hitler) it has lost its “nowness”. As a primer in understanding how we got into this mess, it’s the clearest I’ve come across but perhaps writer/director James Yarker needs to update the play with an additional 22nd scene to keep the bloom of this stimulating and revelatory piece of work as fresh as a daisy.