Tag Archives: The REP

Splendid!

A THOUSAND SPLENDID SUNS

The REP, Birmingham, Thursday 9th May, 2019

 

Khaled Hosseini’s novel comes to the stage in this engrossing adaptation by Ursula Rani Sarma.  Set in Afghanistan after the Soviets left, this is the story of two women who are married to the same man.  Sharing hardship and mistreatment, the two women form a bond that lasts for years, leading to one of them making the ultimate sacrifice.  It’s a gripping tale, superbly told.  Sarma’s script brings out humour and warmth in horrendous circumstances as bombs drop on Kabul and the Taliban takes control.

The production hinges on the central performances of the two women.  Sujaya Dasgupta is instantly appealing as young Laila, driven by tragedy to marry the man who rescues her from the rubble of her family home.  Laila is primarily a victim of circumstance and oppression, but she has an indomitable spirit.  Dasgupta brings her to life without sentimentality; we are with her all the way.  Also great is Amina Zia as the initially resentful Mariam, regarding Laila as a threat but warming to her as events unfold.

Pal Aron is perfectly villainous as the tyrannical Rasheed, while Waleed Akhtar cuts a sympathetic figure as Tariq, Laila’s young love.  We meet Tariq in flashbacks, with Akhtar and Dasgupta displaying youthful vigour and innocence.  There is solid support from Shala Byx as Aziza and Munir Khairdin in a range of roles.

Ana Ines Jabares-Pita’s set is a rocky landscape, serving as all the story’s locations – the characters are forever stuck between rocks and hard places!

This is a fitting swan song for the REP’s artistic director, Roxana Silbert, before she leaves Birmingham for pastures new.  Thoroughly involving, this is an excellent piece of storytelling, casting light onto a part of the world we don’t hear much about.  The play emphasises the humanity of the characters – of all the characters, even the loathsome Rasheed! – and we see just how ordinary and relatable they are, even in the face of extreme events.  The story could be played out in other countries (Syria, for example) to remind us that behind the statistics and the headlines, these are real people’s lives and experiences.

A wonderful piece of theatre, powerful, pertinent and captivating.  Splendid, in fact.

splendid

Sujaya Dasgupta as Laila and Amina Zia as Mariam (Photo: Pamela Raith)

Advertisements

A Question of Colour

BLUE/ORANGE

The REP, Birmingham, Thursday 7th February, 2019

 

Joe Penhall’s three-hander from 2000 gets a timely revival in this taut new production, directed by Daniel Bailey.  Twenty-eight days after being sectioned by the police, Christopher (Ivan Oyik) is looking forward to going home – if the psychiatrists treating him can agree to it.  Bruce (young, idealistic) is reluctant to give Chris the go-ahead, while Bruce’s mentor, ambitious consultant Robert is all for it.  As Chris is interviewed and assessed, the play brings up the sad fact of greater propensity for mental illness among the black population – well, you try being in a minority, any minority, in an oppressive culture!

Thomas Coombes is largely sympathetic as a twitchy if well-meaning Bruce, trying to do and say the right things, only to find his career jeopardised by ill-advised vocabulary (the ‘n’ word) rather than any misdiagnosis or malpractice.  Penhall is very sharp on language, the words used as labels, as descriptors; it’s not just a minefield for professionals.   Almost twenty years since its first outing, we are perhaps more sensitive about semantics, more aware of the impact of language.  Let’s hope so, anyway.

Richard Lintern is excellent as the suave, glib Doctor Robert Smith, looking for the cure.  (I don’t mean to make him sound like the front man of a goth band).   His casual manner conceals the professionally self-serving hard-man he really is.  But it is Ivan Oyik in his professional debut who proves the most compelling of this talented trio.  Oyik’s Christopher is sometimes manic, sometimes lucid, sometimes paranoid, sometimes affronted (rightly so, on occasion!) and is never anything less than magnetic.

Much of the play’s humour derives from Christopher’s responses and reactions, and also much of the tension.  As the action unfolds, there is shift after shift in the power structure, with accusations and questions flying around.

Amelia Hankin’s design takes its cue from the title, for its colour scheme, with institutional armchairs and a water cooler set on a diamond dais beneath a suspended framework.  It’s a simple, stylish setting, the impact of which is heightened by Azusa Ono’s lighting design.  Daniel Bailey’s direction keeps the sometimes-wordy scenes dynamic and captivating, so we are able to follow the argument and the discussions with ease.

I’m not sure that Penhall offers answers, but surely the point of this piece is to raise the question.  Thought-provoking and hugely enjoyable fare, this is a riveting performance of what has become a modern classic, and is still utterly relevant today.  We’re all supposed to be talking about mental health, but as well as talk, the resources need to be there to support and alleviate mental illness.

Blue-orange-Birmingham-REP-Photo-Myah-Jeffers

Richard Lintern, Ivan Oyik and Thomas Coombes chair a meeting (Photo: Myah Jeffers)

 


Sex and Violins

THE STRING QUARTET’S GUIDE TO SEX AND ANXIETY

The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 15th May, 2018

 

This new piece from director-creator Calixto Bieito is an exploration of mental illness and sexuality, taking its text from a range of writers, most notably Robert Burton, whose The Anatomy of Melancholy, published in 1621.  In fact, the show begins with an extract from that worthy work, delivered by Miltos Yerolemou, one of the four actors who will appear tonight.  While he orates, the other cast members arrange wooden chairs and set up musical stands, moving slowly and in silence.  The Heath Quartet comes on – they play movements from Ligeti’s second string quartet between monologues; the music is disquieting, unsettling, troubling, underscoring the mental anguishes of the four characters.  Lots of pizzicato, lots of squirling high-pitched strings like you get in horror films.

Yerolemou narrates an account of receiving oral sex from an anonymous woman – we assume prostitute.  Later, Mairead McKinley speaks of giving head to her husband; she is anxious about her technique and reveals she ‘practices in secret’.  Whether we are meant to infer some connection between the two is unclear…  It’s graphic stuff but doesn’t shock those of us who’ve enjoyed the occasional Berkoff.

Nick Harris brings a note of humour to proceedings listing all the pharmaceuticals, the therapies (conventional and alternative) and the alcoholic drinks he has tried to assuage his anxiety.  He discloses he has mastered the art of appearing calm, anxious that people will discover his anxiety – and it’s a salient point: it’s not all sobbing and curling up in a foetal position.  We never know what other people are battling with internally.

About half an hour in, we first hear from Cathy Tyson, in what is the strongest section of the piece.  She recounts a kind of modern-day folk tale about the killing of a child in a road traffic accident.  Tyson’s storytelling is compelling and ultimately moving, as it emerges she is the child’s mother from the tale, and the events must have taken place years – decades – ago.

Annemarie Bulla’s set is deceptively simple, giving a concert hall aesthetic of blond floorboards and stacks of chairs.  These stacks advance and retreat, almost imperceptibly, before crashing to the floor.  And that’s when we realise why this production is staged in the Rep’s main house rather than the studio.

Meanwhile, the Heath Quartet switch to Beethoven’s String Quartet in F Minor, and this is where I run into a problem.  The Ligeti worked as incidental music and an underscore.  The Beethoven is too exquisite and the playing of it is divine.  I am transported by the music and neglect to pay attention to what the actors might be up to.

Interesting, sometimes amusing, sometimes bleak, and sometimes gripping, this Guide gives us examples of suffering but offers little in the way of guidance.  The Anatomy of Melancholy advises us (Be Not Idle; Be Not Solitary) but Bieito keeps his actors largely separate, with very little in the way of interaction.  That said, the simple action of the application of lipstick suggests that even a trauma that has bedevilled someone for decades, can be overcome.

thumbnail_The company_The String Quartets Guide_copyright Robert Day

The Heath Quartet and, from left to right, Cathy Tyson, Miltos Yerolemou, Mairead McKinley, and Nick Harris (Photo: Robert Day)


Chilling

FROZEN

The REP Studio, Birmingham, Monday 10th February, 2014

 

We are accustomed to seeing sign language interpreters at the side of the stage, translating plays for deaf audience members.  New theatre company fingersmiths give us much more than that in a way that enhances the performance for those of us fortunate to be able to hear.

Each of the three characters in Bryony Lavery’s 1998 play is portrayed by a pair of actors, one speaking, the other signing.  The result is more than translation.  Often the signer reveals the inner life of the speaker.  Sometimes the signs anticipate the words – it’s an intriguing psychological approach to a play that deals with the human mind, its workings and malfunctions.

And so we get parallel performances occupying the same space, but the actors are also linked, like shadows, like reflections, like twins.  It is absolutely captivating.

The play deals with the disappearance of a young girl and the subsequent arrest of a man charged with her abduction and murder.  As the girl’s mother, Hazel Maycock is superb, delivering monologues in an offhand, matter-of-fact fashion that Alan Bennett would kill for.  This serves to intensify the anguish of later, heart-rending speeches.  Equally powerful is Maycock’s signing counterpart, Jean St Clair.  By definition, the signers give a more expressive performance, as counterpoints to the naturalism of the speaking players.  It’s hypnotic.

Marvellous Mike Hugo is stunningly good as serial killer Ralph, convincing in his psychosis and outbursts of rage.  He and his signer Neil Fox-Roberts, have a sort of relationship, breaking the convention, interacting with each other, like a mind fractured in two, or like each other’s evil twin.

Sophie Stone and Deepa Shastri play brain expert Agnetha, whose professional swagger barely conceals anxiety and vulnerability.  Both convey the contrasts very well.

It’s a play about damaged lives and what damages them.  Lavery (and Hugo and Fox-Roberts) don’t give us a one-dimensional monster in the form of Ralph.  Neither is the mother just a mouthpiece for moral indignation.  Director Jeni Draper keeps us focussed throughout  what is largely a succession of monologues interspersed with a few scenes in which the characters interact.  Jo Paul’s set is minimalistic but versatile: one ingenious item of scenery serves as a table, a settee, a coffin and so on, allowing the action to move seamlessly from scene to scene.

An exploration of the darker side of human experience, Frozen is a gripping and absorbing piece of theatre, distressingly still relevant.  I look forward to seeing fingersmiths tackle their next piece – something comedic perhaps.  Please.

Image


Kitchen Sink Drama

THE DISHWASHERS

The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 4th February, 2014

 

David Essex used to be a dish.  Now he’s washing them in the REP’s new production of Morris Panych’s hit play, set in the washing-up room deep in the bowels of a swish restaurant.

Into Essex’s domain comes new boy Emmett (Nik Makaram, late of Emmerdale) who used to enjoy the posh nosh and the good life himself.  Emmett is scornful of his new boss’s meditations and resents and rejects his reduced circumstances as a lowly dishwasher.  Dressler (Essex) is having none of it.  For him dishwashing is duty, job satisfaction and purpose.  He is prone to flights of philosophical musing – The play is not a slice-of-life but a means through which we reflect on our own lives, places in society and the nature of the human condition.   The naturalism of the dialogue is distorted by lyrical passages.  Dressler refers to glasses as ‘translucent chalices’ at one point – just one example of when the writing gets a bit pretentious.

Also working in the kitchen is ‘lifer’ Moss (Andrew Jarvis) a decrepit old man marked for death and the chop.  He clings to life as long as he still has his job and is prone to random and demented outbursts as he loses yet another marble.  It reminds me of the Beckett play except these guys aren’t so much as Waiting for Godot as washing-up for him.

David Essex is commanding as washer-upper-in-chief Dressler, a character I find ultimately to be repugnant with his grandiloquence and small ambition.  Nik Makarem is strong as the new boy whose learning curve turns out to be a full circle but for me the most compelling performance comes from Andrew Jarvis as raddled old Moss.

Director Nikolai Foster handles the play’s rich vein of dark humour well (there’s lots to make you laugh or smile wryly) but in the end it’s a dispiriting experience.  “All there is: work, death; the rest is a detour,” opines Dressler.  Trying to effect change in this unjust society is futile.

Excellently performed and presented though it may be (Matthew Wright’s detailed set is stunning) The Dishwashers parades lots of ideas but lacks the scale and scope of another play it reminded me of, Arnold Wesker’s The Kitchen.  It feels at times like there’s too much on its plate.

Image


Hassle at the Castle

DUNSINANE

The REP, Birmingham, Tuesday 24th September, 2013

 

David Grieg’s “sequel” to Macbeth begins with the English army pretending to be trees.  It’s an almost drama lesson kind of a moment and establishes the tone very rapidly.  These are soldiers abroad, bluff English lads with earthy humour and a job to do.

That job is to overthrow a tyrant and bring peace to the warring nation of Scotland.  There is contention about Malcolm’s claim to the throne.  It turns out that the tyrant’s wife’s death was misreported.  She appears, very much alive with news of a son and heir – from her first husband… This boy is in hiding and the people are getting behind him.

Grieg dispenses with iambic pentameter and gives us contemporary dialogue albeit in historical costume and an emblematic setting.  Parallels with the 21st century are obvious.  We think of Iraq and Afghanistan and now (since I first saw this production at the RSC) Syria, and the question of military intervention there.  Taking out the tyrant is all well and good but what next?

This is the problem facing Jonny Phillips as Siward, portrayed as a decent man trying to manage a difficult situation.  Phillips is every inch the commander, a Game of Thrones hero.  His adversary is Gruach, Macbeth’s widow – an excellent Siobhan Redmond, who seduces and beguiles, hinting at the dangerous woman she always was.

A strong ensemble includes Tom Gill as the boy soldier who serves as our narrator in his letters home to Mum, Joshua Jenkins as Eric the archer who seeks the more fleshly spoils of war, and Sandy Grierson as a less than ideal Malcolm, self-serving and arrogant.  I particularly liked Alex Mann’s Egham, who provides a lot of the humour as he tries to make an inventory for Scotland’s treasury.

Roxana Silbert, now artistic director of the REP, revives her production from the RSC, as a means of setting out her stall.  With this production she shows she can sustain our interest with some complex comings-and-goings, and create provocative dramatic action.  The play is very much from the soldiers’ point of view and we get the sense that Silbert understands these rather masculine attitudes – I was reminded of Kathryn Bigelow and The Hurt Locker.

That Lady Macbeth’s singing attendants are more than a little Middle Eastern in their dress over-emphasises the point.  We get the point and would get the point if they were in kilts or army blankets.

Beautifully designed by Robert Innes Hopkins, this is a good-looking production that brings to the fore some knotty moral questions without necessarily offering answers.

Image

Photo: Simon Murphy


Singing with Conviction

HOPELESSLY DEVOTED

The Door, The REP, Birmingham, Monday 23rd September, 2013

 

Kate Tempest’s new play is set in a women’s prison; the performance space is clearly defined by a square of white tape on the floor, a constant reminder of the limitations placed on the characters.  Forever pacing this square is Chess (Amanda Wilkin); she sings, to the annoyance of her neighbours – in fact, every other line is a cue for a song.  The singing binds her to her cellmate Serena (Gbemisola Ikumelo) who is up for parole and due to leave.  Chess embarks on a twelve-week course with visiting music producer Silver (Martha Laird) who seeks to uncap Chess’s potential, while reconnecting with her own life.

Laird brings a touch of glamour in her black dress and the Mallen streak in her hair.  She is a taste of the outside world, whose patience with the reluctant, nervous Chess, pays off.  Ikumelo’s Serena is funny – it is through her we see the plight of inmates returned to society, and the difficulties they face trying to rebuild relationships with their children and to cope with the busyness of the outside world.

But it is Wilkin, who never leaves the square, who dominates the piece.  A mass of nervous energy, quick-witted and not as strong as she pretends, Chess draws us in.  We admire her for her sense of humour and, of course, her singing.  She goes from pacing the set like a caged animal, to singing like a caged bird.  Her scenes with Ikumelo are both amusing and touching as she tries to conceal her vulnerability.  Her scenes with Laird, a student-and-teacher set-up, bring us into the realms of the musical as Chess gains confidence and blossoms under Silver’s tutelage.  But this is not about winning a contest or making it big.  The stakes are higher – with Serena’s interference there is a chance Chess’s music will connect with the daughter she hasn’t seen since her incarceration.

Tempest’s script has a rich vein of humour running through it (“The name’s Chess, but you can’t play me”) and scenes which could veer into sentimentality are kept restrained, leading to some very touching moments.  James Grieve’s direction makes the most of the simple staging, showing it to be more sophisticated than it first appears.  The production is a crowd-pleaser at every turn.  It touches on issues faced by women in prison, to be sure, but on a wider scale speaks of unlocking one’s potential, of releasing creativity from the constraints put upon it by life and by ourselves.

It’s an uplifting, moving piece, rendered exhilarating by the performances of the excellent cast.

Image