Monday, 29 October 2018

Thick as Thieves - Theatr Clwyd, Mold

In the lead up to the opening of Don Carlos at the Northcott theatre in Exeter, Tom Burke has been telling reporters of his passion for regional theatre and why he set up his new theatre company Ara, with his friend, director Gadi Roll. When I saw Tom after one of his performances as Rodrigo, Marquis of Posa, I told him that he should think about doing a production at my local theatre, Theatr Clwyd. It was only when speaking with him that I realised just how passionate I was about my little theatre "in the middle of nowhere." (Owen Teale had once remarked how amazing it was to perform Macbeth in the middle of nowhere to a sell-out crowd!)

In the last twelve months, I‘ve noticed that my theatre trips to London have decreased, and my trips to Theatr Clwyd have increased. A lot of this has to do with the work of Tamara Harvey and Liam Evans-Ford who have helped to reignite the theatre. They have been instrumental in bringing new theatre experiences to the region with headline productions such as “The Assassination of Katie Hopkins” and “Home I’m Darling” a co-production with The National Theatre. I was lucky enough to go to a Q&A session after watching Home I'm Darling. I loved it when I heard that the chap from The National had visited, taken one look at the set and remarked he could never have afforded to build that type of set back in London.

What many people don’t realise about Theatr Clwyd, is that when it opened in the 70’s, (& through to the mid 80’s,) it housed a TV studio and was home to HTV Wales. It was meant to be a Regional Arts Centre and therefore it had facilities to make costumes and build its own sets. Whilst the 1400 seat concert hall never came to fruition, the Theatr Clwyd we see today houses a cinema, a gift shop selling local arts and crafts, a bistro restaurant, art galleries and four live performance venues. It is also one of the few remaining theatres which still make their own sets and costumes. Not bad for a little town in North Wales!

Another Bold Piece of Theatre

Thick as Thieves is a new drama by Katherine Chandler and co-produced by Theatr Clwyd and Clean Break theatre company. Clean Break was founded by two women prisoners in 1979. They wanted to create stories that women could relate to and that audiences would find thought-provoking about the injustices women face in the criminal justice system.

A meeting between Roisin McBrinn (Clean Break) and Tamara Harvey (Theatr Clwyd) led to a discussion about there being no prisons in Wales for women. A super prison was being built in Wrexham, not too far from Theatr Clwyd, but again, that would not take women prisoners. Women from South Wales are usually taken to HMP Eastwood Park in Gloucestershire and women from North Wales go to HMP Styal in Cheshire. As an average, Mold to Styal is approximately 3 hours away via public transport. Swansea to Eastwood Park is about 4 hours – but for those living further into Wales, those journeys could be much longer for visitors to take, therefore having a negative impact on women prisoners lives which men in the same position would not suffer. It was from that meeting that a new play was commissioned by Wales’ leading female playwright Kath Chandler.

It is hard to say too much about the plot without spoiling the dramatic climax of the piece in this double hander between Gail (Polly Frame) and Karen (Siwan Morris). The two characters grew up together, but Karen rejected her old life, and is now known as Kate to her husband, friends and family. Gail turning up to her office makes her reflect on her past and shows the different pathways the two women have taken. Kate is a successful business woman, working in the care system, Gail has turned up at her office in desperate need of help.

The stage is in the middle of the Emlyn Williams Theatre, with seating on all four sides. On the stage is an office desk, chair and some personal items laid out on the desk. This stark, simple staging allows you to focus on the dialogue between the two women, and the clever tilting action mirrors the shift in power between the two women as their story evolves. The central staging makes it personal, you are not just watching the women, you are involved in their story. How do they know each other? Why does Karen want Gail out of the office? Is Gail dangerous? She certainly seems to know a lot about Karen and her family. This simplicity works so well, because you start to think about how you would react in the same situation.

At the start of the play, you feel a bit uncomfortable when Gail and Karen first meet. It’s an awkward situation, and the pauses between the two actresses make it feel like a bit of a car crash (in a good way!) with neither party really knowing what to say to each other. What do you say to someone you grew up with but haven’t seen in years?! More importantly, WHY haven’t they seen each other? You hang on to every word that is spoken to see how this story is going to pan out. This tension is kept throughout, the play only has a running time of 1 hour 20 mins, so there is no need for an interval. An interval would completely kill the power of the play.

Photograph: Pamela Raith
Katherine Chandler cleverly weaved a number of different issues into the play, including the difficulties women face as mother’s and the great class divide and what experiences being of a different class bring to women’s daily issues; childcare, working, juggling the demands of people’s expectations. This is a tense, gritty and poignant piece of theatre and a fabulous insight into the lives of two very different women who are forced to face their past. The chemistry between the two leads is electric, and at times you wanted to laugh with them, other times cry with them as you realised what the horrific impact of events in their childhood must have had on them. Yet another insightful production at Theatr Clwyd.

Will Teather Art Exhibition

Something I love about this theatre, is that there are always art exhibitions in the galleries to look at if you have a bit of time to kill before a show. Even when I have someone with me I drag them around, rather than sitting in the bar, as it’s my little preshow ritual!

I was captivated by the work of the Norfolk based artist Will Teather. I loved the imaginative, dark, almost gothic imagery, and they seemed a perfect exhibit to be looking at as Halloween approaches! I might not be able to afford his work…but I could certainly appreciate it, so I went for a second viewing after the play ended! Here are some of my favourite pictures.

Thursday, 18 October 2018

Don Carlos - Northcott Theatre, Exeter

Don Carlos is a bit of a Marmite production. There are those that love it and what Tom Burke is trying to create with his new theatre company, and then there are those who hate it “bombastic and punishingly dull,” The Times.

Having heard Tom Burke promise a new way of looking at theatre, to watch something stripped back to the text and not reliant on fancy costume or theatre sets, I was excited to watch Don Carlos. I was especially pleased that the MacDonald translation had been chosen, as I have picked up various versions of Schiller’s work and find the MacDonald translations beautifully written.

I was travelling 250 miles to watch this play, so I decided I would watch its progression over the course of a week. (Only three evenings, but that gave me sufficient material to see what worked and what didn’t – not that I’m a professional critic – I’m just a theatre lover.)

Don Carlos is originally a five act play by Friedrich Schiller and set in 16th Century Spain around the time of the insidious Spanish Inquisition. The play is loosely based on historical events under the reign of King Phillip II of Spain. The heir to the throne, Don Carlos, was once betrothed to his childhood friend Elizabeth of Valois and he is still deeply in love with her, however, following her political marriage to Phillip she has become his stepmother!

During Phillip’s rein, the Inquisition persecuted all suspected heretics. Rebellions were suppressed, especially in the Low Countries, and the menacing presence of the Catholic Church was felt all around. In Schiller’s version of events, Don Carlos feels imprisoned between his unrequited love for his stepmother and his hatred for his father, so to help bring him out of his melancholy, he entrusts his closest friend, Rodrigo, Marquis of Posa, with his secret about his love for Elizabeth. Rodrigo has just returned from Flanders, and whilst Carlos wants him to set up a meeting with his mother so he can proclaim his love for her, Rodrigo sees this as an opportunity to conjure up a rebellion against Phillip’s tyrannical regime.

The set is minimalist. Exposed black brick walls, a black stage, black furniture and spotlights set up either end of the stage like chess pieces ready to commence in battle. In this sinister dark chamber, black clad courtiers wearing dark shades feel like the arrival of the mafia. The dark, shadowy recesses are imposing and create an air of foreboding from the start. The only splash of colour in the whole play is the regal red carpet – which had its own staring role as it seemed to be another living/breathing entity when it kept rucking up under the actors feet – and the red lining of the King and Queen’s coats. (I was a little sad that this theme was not continued throughout all the regal apparel – a red button or stitching on the jackets or shirts would have tied it all together.)

Don Carlos could be considered a superficial play about one man, so caught up with his own problems, that he lacks the foresight to see the world around him. But this isn’t just a family tragedy panning out. Schiller has looked at history and man’s struggle against the oppression of religion and the need for tolerance and humanity. When you consider the current troubles in Syria and across the globe, the message is still one that is relevant today.

“You want your garden to flower eternally! But the seed you sow is death”. Marquis of Posa

Samuel Valentine plays the titular role, but it is Tom Burke as Roderigo, Marquis of Posa who stands out. Posa is the prominent character, the man who has a disregard for the court, a close bond with the Prince, the friendship and loyalty of the Queen, and following Burke’s brilliantly delivered speech in a critical scene in the play, he obtains the ear of the King to become his right-hand man.

Darrell D’Silva gives a strong performance and a gravitas to King Phillip. We recoil as he refuses to reconcile with his son who has begged on hands and knees for his father to consider the bigger picture, to send him to Flanders to establish peace in the land. Phillip's desire for destruction is clear as he sends the Duke of Alba, a bloodthirsty general, to Flanders instead and Posa’s plan for a brighter future is threatened. But it is the final scene, when Tom Burke arrives back on stage as the blind and aged Cardinal Grand Inquisitor, that we witness the power of the church, and the King as a broken pawn in this game of political chess. 

The play leaves you thinking how each man’s desires and selfishness have blinded themselves from a brighter, better Posa, the man who had a vision and tried his hardest to bring it to fruition.

Tom Burke as Roderigo at Exeter Northcott Theatre. Photo: The Other Richard
I thoroughly enjoyed this first production from Tom Burke and Gadi Roll’s new production company, Ara. It was a bold choice to open with and showed Ara’s commitment to showing non-naturalistic versions of classic plays. For some of the audience it was a step too far on the visionary highway, however I thought it was outstanding work from the entire cast to keep me enthralled for 3 hours on those theatre seats. (Now this is where people will say, but you’re a Tom Burke fan, you’re not going to be critical of him.) Well, to the naysayers, I bought a ticket for my partner on the last night of my holibobs. He didn’t know the story, is not particularly a fan of Tom, nor a fan of theatre. He enjoyed it and could see what Tom and Gadi were trying to achieve and was astounded at the bad reviews the so called professional critics were giving the production. His rating…7/10.

There were issues with the sound. I understand what Gadi was trying to achieve with the characters speaking quickly at one another like rapid machine-gun fire, but the acoustics of the theatre did not allow the idea to work as imagined. I found the staging intimate, and quickly realised that having to actively listen meant I engaged more with the characters and the story. This was certainly a play I didn’t drift off thinking about what to make for dinner the next day. I’m not sure whether my ears tuned in quicker when I saw it for a second time, but I did find it easier to follow, with only two characters being inaudible for me (and that was only when they had their backs to me.) I think the speed of speech had been tweaked a little, and so it’s possible the combination of speed and having seen it before allowed me to ignore the sound issues until the rude and unnecessary interruption of a member of the public at the interval (see footnote). A few elements needed polishing, but I found the night an intimate, interesting and modern take on the passion, politics and power of the Royal Court.   

Having read some of the reviews, I felt like it wasn’t just the actors on stage wearing sunglasses, but also some of the theatre critics and audience members. Their judgements were clouded by not wanting to see the bigger picture, to not want to get involved by having to put a bit of effort in for themselves. They wanted the actors to do all the work, so they could sit back and be spoon fed the story as though they were watching some daytime TV drama.

I enjoyed feeling slightly confused, unsure and uncomfortable as characters faced-off one another. It’s not a realistic drama, Schiller took dramatic licence with the story of the royal family (he even brought forward the defeat of the Spanish Armada and the decline of Phillip’s empire) and therefore I hold with the idea that it doesn’t need to be a naturalistic production either. Dramatic licence can be used in all its forms.

And I find it interesting that Schiller felt the need to answer his critics in a series of letters explaining his play. I hope the same does not happen to Tom Burke and Gadi Roll. I hope they don’t feel that they must answer their audiences, but instead that they enjoy and are proud of their achievements instead.

I’m going to see the production again as it draws to a close at Kingston, however, I’m now waiting with bated breath to see what Tom and Gadi have in store for their audiences in their next classic production.

For tickets and information at Southampton and Kingston click on the links!

Footnote to Wednesday 17th October production.

On Monday night, having watched the play and then sat by the front door waiting for my taxi, Tom appeared, said hello and we started chatting. I told him I’d enjoyed the play, but there were times I couldn’t hear a thing…and I was sitting on the front row! I wasn’t sure how the problem could be cured, but something needed doing as that was the main criticism I heard from people around me.

Tom explained that if they had the audience on both sides of the stage (the stage running down the middle) the actors would be more audible to the audience, but they couldn’t do this seating arrangement in this theatre.

On Wednesday, during the interval, just before the actors took to the stage, a man appeared and asked for a show of hands as to who couldn’t hear. At first I thought he was a member of staff – then I realised it was someone who wanted their little moment of glory.

After his outburst, Tom Burke came out and addressed the audience – a brave move, and one I was proud of him for. He explained that they had cut 60 pages of text from the play and it was still 3 hours long at the quick pace the show runs at. If they slowed down the delivery, the play would take longer than King Lear to get through. I was glad that he was able to defend the play and the directorial choices that had been employed, but also allowing the man – a paying consumer- to have his opinion.

I have immense respect for the cast coming out after hearing the outburst and right of reply. They continued to perform the play to the best of their ability knowing the hostile view of some of the audience. At the end several people gave a standing ovation, a show of solidarity amongst those who had enjoyed an evening of contemporary drama. I believe if the play had been slowed down it would have lost its dramatic impact, however, I thought it had been reined in ever so slightly from the Monday night, as I noticed it was a lot clearer. (Either that or my ears had tuned into the different style of theatre I was viewing!)

Sunday, 7 October 2018

Lethal White – R Galbraith

I was chatting to someone recently…they thought I read a lot; this amused me as I don’t think I read much more than most people. They also pointed out that once upon a time, if I read a book I thought people would find interesting, I shared it here on my blog and I should consider doing that again. Apparently, it had helped them pick some books that they would never usually consider, and they had really enjoyed them. So that was a nice thing to say...and so here I am with a bit of a book blurb!

I’ve been eagerly anticipating the fourth instalment of the Cormoran Strike novels; I wanted to know what happened next in Strike and Robin’s journey. I picked the book up on its day of release and started reading. By day two it was finished and I tweeted I had enjoyed it but thought it a bit long-winded. The reaction was mainly surprise that I’d finished it, rather than the “how dare you say anything against JKR” but I think that was possibly more to do with the fact that most people were still reading the book at the time. Now they’d probably turn on me and say it was the perfect length!

Before the book was released, Robert Galbraith/J K Rowling posted various teasers on Twitter, from headers showing a wooden anatomical horse (which artists use for form and perspective when drawing) Benjamin West’s painting “Death on a Pale Horse” a reference to the biblical passage from Revelation “And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was death,” to a picture of a USB stick in the shape of a white horse announcing the book was finished. All of these pictures made me think Lethal White would be set within the confines of the equestrian world. I was rather excited, as a child I had an encyclopaedic knowledge of all things equestrian; if I couldn’t have a horse as a child, I would damned well know all I could about them for when I’d grown up!

Overo lethal white syndrome is a fatal, inherited condition found in horse breeds with white coat patterns. It is probably most renowned in the American Paint Horse, but can also be found in miniature horses, Thoroughbred and part-Arab horses. The affected foals are born with a white (or nearly pure white) coat due to a lack of melanin-producing cells, plus an impaired intestinal tract. At birth they look like any normal white foal (not all whites foals are affected by OLWS by the way) however as the infected foals cannot digest food properly down the intestinal tract, once they start to drink the mare’s milk they start showing signs of severe colic. An affected foal can usually show signs within the first 12 hours of birth and death can occur with 48 hours as the abdomen distends and becomes increasingly painful. There is no cure for OLWS and so the kindest thing is for the foal to be euthanised.

It seemed an odd title for a book, naming it after such a horrendous condition, but then the promotional excerpt about Lethal White came out…”I seen a kid killed…He strangled it, up by the horse.”  Hmmm. Nope. OK, so probably not a story set in the horse world at all…up by the horse could be anything. A pub (let’s face it, there are a lot of pubs called The White Horse) or perhaps a famous British landmark…a chalk horse (there are plenty of them cut into British hillsides…from the Kilburn White Horse in the North York Moors National Park, to the Westbury White Horse of Wiltshire and beyond.) There was only one way to find out…read it! 

The first thing I noticed flicking through from cover to cover was that each chapter starts with an excerpt from Henrik Ibsen’s Rosmersholm.  Ibsen's politically biased play covering scandal, corruption and an unhappy marriage (the characters in the play being based on the real life elopement of a fiesty young countess who ran off with the husband of one her relatives, a Swedish poet, who were guests of Ibsen for a short period.) One of the themes in the play is the folklore of the White Horses of Rosmersholm.  The play was originally written under the title White Horses and later changed to Rosmersholm, so it was a tangible use of his work in her book.

Now I don’t intend to spoil the book for those who have not read it by writing spoilers. The book does start where we left off in the last one, at Robin’s wedding. Whilst there is no hard and fast rule as to how long a prologue should be, I think it should be limited to no more than five pages. It opens up a story, giving background details and context, and helps establish the story going forward. Now when I finished Career of Evil, I was desperate to know what happened between Robin, Strike and Matthew but I wasn’t expecting a warts and all start to the book. I read the (very) long prologue thinking, “well this is all very nice…but is this supposed to be romantic fiction or a detective novel…and when are we going to move onto the crime bit?” 

I guess the book relies on both the crime element, and the romantic notion of Strike and Robin’s relationship, but I thought it took too long for the book to really get started…it was a very slow burn and it wasn’t until I’d got to about the 24th or 25th chapter that I actually thought the book took off. Strike’s success in a Career of Evil has meant that his agency has grown and he is now able to employ some contract staff to assist him with investigations. He receives a visit from a young man, Billy Knight, who claims he witnessed a murder and the burial of someone when he was younger. He’s an agitated character with a history of mental illness, and he runs from Strike’s office before identifying himself. Strike however catches up with Billy’s brother Jimmy, an activist opposed to the up and coming 2012 London Olympics, who tells Strike his brother is an unreliable personality and not to be believed.

The meeting of Jimmy and Strike is noticed by Jasper Chiswell – the Minister for Culture – a politician plagued by scandal who, he tells Strike, is being blackmailed by Jimmy. Strike takes up the case and places Robin undercover at Westminster to find out what is going on behind closed doors. Robin, unsurprisingly, is not having the best of times with Matthew, and so is eager to accept her latest assignment. She meets a number of characters including Geraint Winn, the husband of the Minister for Sport (Della Winn) who wishes to destroy Jasper’s career…however, whilst undercover, Robin finds out that there are other things he’s guilty of! The plot weaves back and forth through a myriad of characters which we are introduced to in Rowling’s distinctly verbose style.

As the investigation continues, Strike is drawn to a painting, possibly painted by the Liverpool artist George Stubbs of a horse mourning the death of her foal (which has died of lethal white.) For my A-Level art exam I had to write a thesis, my subject was Equine Metamorphosis…looking at the changing face of the horse from Albrecht Durer to Franz Marc. As someone who had easy access to the Liverpool art galleries, George Stubbs featured a lot in my research, although I can’t ever remember seeing a painting matching the description in the book! But that is neither here nor there, JKR has done her research and embedded as many horse connotations into her book as possible.

By the end of the book I was full of mixed emotions. I enjoyed being reacquainted with Strike and Robin. JKR has created two beguiling characters that you can’t help falling in love with. I enjoy a good crime/detective novel, and in essence these books do have a skilfully weaved storyline but I just wish there was tighter editing. All characters, including incidental characters, are described in so much detail that the flow of the story wanes. I also got the feeling that JKR was distracted when writing the book, there is repetition in some areas and mistakes in others, and I found it unnecessary to keep describing Strike’s missing leg in so much detail so many times. We’re meant to believe that Strike is not defined by his injury, yet at every given opportunity a paragraph will be given to how he lost his leg. For an audience with the intellectual capabilities of processing a passage of Rosmersholm per chapter, the author should trust the same audience to remember (if you tell them once per novel) how Strike sustained his injury. As the story progresses it is perfectly acceptable to say the pain shot down Strike’s leg as an adequate reflection of when he is suffering, rather than the pain shot down Strike’s missing leg which he had sustained…blah blah blah. The constant reminders just irritated and distracted me.

I think JKR is blessed with a vivid imagination and an ability to create a good story. She creates interesting, complex characters and has a great feel for the human psyche; she is also very visual and this translates well to film and TV, however her publisher really needs to be brave and cut the extraneous material. The various flaws (e.g. an item mysteriously changing into something else) should also be ironed out when proofreading because they stand out, particularly if you read the book over two days! (At one point in the book I was reminded of Tom Burke’s character, Norbert, in the short “One Wrong Word.” A novelist is trying to get his book published, but the text just isn’t quite right!)

Despite my grumbles, I did enjoy the book! I’m looking forward to the TV adaptation (Tom back on my telly…of course I’m looking forward to it!) and I have a great desire to find out what happens in the next stage of Robin and Strike’s journey. I just hope that we might get to see some more of Shanker in book 5…I do like him!