Monday, 22 April 2019

Orpheus Descending – Tennessee Williams - Theatr Clwyd

The Greek God Apollo gave his son Orpheus a lyre; which he played to such perfection that nothing could resist the music he played. He fell in love with Eurydice, a woman of exquisite beauty. They married and for many years they were supremely happy. One day Eurydice was wandering in the forest when a shepherd called Aristaeus saw her and became beguiled by her beauty. He chased her, she tripped, was bitten by a snake and died. Orpheus took to lamenting his grief by playing his lyre until Apollo told his son to travel to Hades and visit his wife.

Orpheus took to the stygian world and upon finding Hades played his lyre and poured out his grief to him. Hades was moved by the sound and told Orpheus he could have his wife back. She was to walk behind him and he was not to turn to look at her until they had both exited the underworld, or she would have to return to Hades. Orpheus was nearly at the exit when he thought he had been duped by the Gods, so he turned, saw Eurydice, and then she returned to the underworld forever. Orpheus tried to re-enter the underworld but could not as a mortal. He died and the Muses saved his head in order that the living would remain enchanted by the beauty of his song.

This Greek myth formed the basis for Tennessee Williams’ lesser known play Orpheus Descending, which is a co-production between my local theatre in Mold, Theatr Clwyd and The Mernier Chocolate Factory in London.

There is often a reason why some plays are performed lass than others. Looking back at the reviews of past productions, the play is not met with much enthusiasm. It has been described as long-winded…it plods along with an extensive cast of superfluous characters wafting in and out of this slow-paced play. It was therefore with some in trepidation that I went to watch this latest attempt to bring this play to the masses. It didn’t help that as I took my seat, an usher came over to me to apologise for forgetting to say the first act was “rather long…it lasts 1 hour 40, but after the break the second act only runs for 40 minutes!”

I need not have worried. Tamara Harvey may not think that she is a genius, but I was completely engaged throughout the first 1 hour and 40 minutes. The time flew by as I was whisked away to the Deep South, to watch a story about life and death, love and loneliness, prejudice and narrowmindedness. It is a reminder of the current climate of hate that seems to constantly occupy news headlines these days.

The stage is at ground level, so the front row of the audience and the actors are on the same level. As the lights go up, Uncle Pleasant (Valentine Hudson) sets the scene for our tragic tale. We are in the centre of a Mississippi store; the owner Lady Torrance is bringing her husband home who is recovering from an operation. Local gossips Beulah Binnings (Catrin Aaron) and Dolly Hamma (Laura Jane Matthewson) are setting up a welcoming party. As they chat and unpack the hampers, we realise Lady was the daughter of an Italian man who sold liquor to some blacks. A group of locals found out and torched his home, his vine yards and his garden filled with little white arbours where folk would drink and party the night away. He died in the middle of the fire; and his daughter did not know that she married the man responsible for her father’s death.

The gossip is interrupted by the arrival of Carol Cutrere (Jemima Rooper) a woman who is too strong-willed for this backwater. The locals have run this bad girl out of town, but here she is, turning up like a bad penny, all dressed up in leopard print, red lipstick and high heels. There was something in the defiance of this character that I loved. It didn’t matter what people said about her, what stories they made up to manipulate feelings and bad will amongst the rest of the community, here she was, head held high, carrying on regardless. There was an inner strength that we sometimes forget we possess, one that stops us being the victim of abuse, one that encourages us to fight for what we believe in.

If the townsfolk didn’t like the appearance of Carol Cutrere, it was nothing to their reaction of seeing the stranger Valantine Xavier (Seth Numrich) rocking up with his guitar and snake-skin jacket. To them he’s just trouble, and you already know in a backwater full of jealousy and hatred, it’s not going to end well for him. This type of townsfolk can’t bear to see anyone happy, but Lady (Hattie Morahan) can see a flicker of hope with the arrival of the young man. She dares to dream he could be her ticket to liberation, but she is constrained by her domineering husband and the community, so anything she tries to do won’t be easy.

Williams’ rich dialogue is sometimes hard to listen to in these modern times. Referring to wops and niggers as though they are second-class citizens, dehumanised from the rest of society, but this racial viciousness is necessary. It shows the pettiness, the malice, the hatred of anyone different in the community. This language makes you want to rally against this small-minded clique, to rise up and give them a shake, to tell them to stop being so blinkered. But it also makes you realise that a lot of those narrow-minded, insular prejudices are still in existence, nearly 80 years after William’s first draft was written. Just take a quick flick through Twitter, or even closer to home, private messages full of tittle tattle of mythical proportions, creating melodramas within small circles of friends because people are so insecure of themselves. They have to try to cut down the Carol Cutrere’s of this world to stand half a chance of survival.

The first version of this play called Battle of Angels bombed. It was rewritten but the newer version’s exploration of the struggle between a good, spiritual world of light, and the evil, material world of darkness still failed to meet with a positive reception. In order to succeed, the play requires a fast-pace, which keeps the poetic nature of William’s writing, but allows us to engage and then move on from each character. This production delivers that. Parts of the play which could become farcical instead become a spiritual lesson in humanity.

Those who have enjoyed Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, A Streetcar Named Desire or Summer and Smoke should not be put off by this lesser known work and instead embrace the poetry of William’s writing and the all-encompassing staging of the play where the actors and audience become one.

Orpheus Descending

Theatr Clwyd Mold  15 April - 27 April 2019
Transfers to Menier Chocolate Factory, London 9 May – 6 July 2019

Monday, 15 April 2019

Kiss Me Quickstep - Theatr Clwyd

I love Strictly Come Dancing. I’m not one of those mega fans who can recite who appeared in each series, nor can I tell you who won each year, but as a piece of easy watching entertainment as the winter nights draw in, it ticks many boxes for me. Fabulous costumes, dancing, great music (although some memorable tunes have been reduced to screeched pastiches by the in-house singers) and a host of people (many of whom I have never heard of) trying to learn a new skill. 

When I was at school, I made costumes for the dance troop in my spare time. I think my teacher hoped I’d have a career in fashion or costume design, but sadly my school didn’t offer A-Level Textiles, plus my confidence in my artistic abilities plummeted during my 6th form at school. There were people out there far more talented than me and I had no-one telling me to believe in myself or pointing me in the right direction, so sewing became a pastime for pleasure. 

When I saw a play called Kiss Me Quickstep at Theatr Clwyd, I felt I would be spending a night blown away by fabulous costumes, music and dancing. I arrived to take my seat and was told I would have to wait until the safety curtain was raised. I was a little bemused. I thought the stage was going to be traverse style…which to be fair it was…I just thought I’d be sat below stage level…not actually on it! Once I got over the initial shock that I would be sat on the stage, on the front row with the rest of the audience able to see me I settled down to take stock of my unusual viewpoint. I felt as though I was one of the judges, ready to hold up my score card each time a couple danced! I tweeted a photo of where I was sat and someone responded by sending me one from the's looking back atcha!

Kiss Me Quickstep takes you into the world of ballroom and Latin dance competitions. We are transported to the Blackpool Winter Gardens and the National Amateur Championships and the private battles three couples have in their quest to raise the winning trophy. There are the reining champions, Lee and Samantha; the new partnership of Luka and Nancy; and the ever-hopeful Justin and Jodie who up until now have danced in the shadow of Lee and Samantha. Just like at real competitions, the actors sat on the stage changing from their track suits into their sparkling dresses. But it seemed they also brought some excess baggage with them too. 

Watching you, watching me!
Samantha is still mourning the loss of her mother and is unable to compete without slyly drinking vodka from her water bottle. Justin and Jodie arrive at the competition despite their car falling apart and breaking down enroute, and it seems that they are so deep in debt the chances of them being able to fix the car or buy a more reliable mode of transport is as much a pipe-dream to them as winning the competition. Poor Nancy is trying to have success in the shadow of her bullying father who has recently paid for Luka to come over from Russia to become her new dance partner as the last one wasn’t good enough!

All of this makes for the premise of a great story, but despite sitting in the thick of the action I found the play a bit dull. The characters were rather wooden and one dimensional. It seemed that their trials and tribulations were a bit boring and there was no underdog to root for. Everyone seemed to be on an equal footing, each with their own revelation that you’d already worked out for yourself. There wasn’t enough chemistry for the audience to believe that Samantha and Jodie had been best friends at school, or that Luka and Lee are clearly gay. This was skirted around, and bearing in mind the furore that has beset Strictly Come Dancing about same sex couples, this would have been the ideal ground to explore this narrative.

When we get to the quarter finals a couple is eliminated and Nancy’s dad continues to interfere in her routines on the basis that he is trying to ensure she doesn’t win the competition. It all seemed rather confused and dreary which is a shame as there were some really good dance routines, but they were too short and crammed into the second half. The chorography extended beyond the Jive, Foxtrot, Paso Doble etc as crew members wheeled dress racks in a routine across the stage to create dressing rooms for the contestants, and it was nice to see local community dancers take to the stage to give the impression that there were more dancers in the competition, but this didn’t salvage the play.

I enjoyed the dancing and the costumes, and it has to be said the cast gave superb performances from this lacklustre text, but I found the story rather insipid and not full of the glitz and glamour I was expecting. In the words of former Strictly judge Len Goodman, I would give this production a kindly “Severrrrn!”

Ian McKellen on Stage - Theatr Clwyd (18/03/2019)

Sir Ian McKellen...with an 'E' a legend of stage and screen. I thought I was blessed to be able to see him in London (on my birthday!) playing the titular role of King Lear, but that wouldn't compare to seeing him treading the boards of my local theatre in Mold.

It's Sir Ian's 80th birthday year and he's celebrating in style, visiting 80 theatres up and down the country which have a particular meaning to him. As soon as I received the email that he was coming to Theatr Clwyd I told my hairdresser to get a move on so I could rush home and book a couple of tickets. By the time I got home I'd missed the front row seats, but I managed to purchase two seats on row BB, and the way the seats were arranged, technically you were kind of on the front row view-wise!!

Later that evening I told my other half I was seeing Sir Ian and that my friend Nikki would be joining me. Now everyone on here has probably gathered that my OH isn’t a theatre goer, but I had committed the cardinal sin. "But, but, but, that's Gandolf he exclaimed!" Oh dear God, there would be no end to it if I couldn't get him a ticket, so back online I went. I was stunned, the tickets were not on general sale and within 12 hours were practically sold out on both evenings. I found a seat on row A for him which he was happy with...and so he should have been, it cost nearly three times as much as my ticket (a £10 bargain!)

"You shall not pass.”

So the evening I'd been waiting ages for arrived. Nikki, OH and I went to the Glasfryn for dinner and Nikki and I got tipsy on a bottle of Prosecco! We excitedly sat down. All we could see on stage was a large funny it would be if he burst out of the box we giggled. Suddenly the lights went off, we were sat in a pitch-black auditorium, and the sound of Sir Ian’s voice boomed through the darkness…”You shall not pass”…Gandolf was suddenly in the room with an enraptured audience. He held the great tome aloft as he quoted its contents. I was stunned…remembering lines for a play was one thing, but remembering great swathes of text? I sat feeling a little ashamed that I have never read the Lord of the Rings, or indeed The Hobbit. It turns out I’m in good company…neither has he!

We were then regaled with tales from filming Lord of the Rings. All the people that have told him they religiously read the text every year; including Christopher Lee, and just how fond he was of Legolas when he saw him. Ahhh Legolas...the only reason I watched the entire franchise!!

"Being an actor was never the plan, I just fell in love with the magic of the theatre. I had to be around it and the rest just followed.

And so we progressed onto Sir Ian's life. His childhood, his dream of becoming an actor after watching the magic of Peter Pan come to life on stage. His early days of acting up in his hometown of Wigan. How back in the day you had a touring box, hence the box on stage, which would contain all you needed...props, costumes etc to go on stage. And that of course was why he couldn’t jump out of the was too full of what he required for the evening's entertainment. I smirked at how well he knew the minds of his audience.

I thought he had chosen Theatr Clwyd as he must have performed there, but no, that night was the first night he had trod the boards of the Sir Anthony Hopkins Theatr. So why choose Mold...a theatre in the middle of nowhere, in a town no-one has heard of.  Well it turns out that as a child he remembered holidays down the road in Conwy, and his father walking the nearby Snowdonia Range. He had spent the day reminiscing in Conwy...and I think that set him up for an excellent evening of storytelling.  

"Has anyone here been to Buckingham Palace?"

A cheeky glisten is in his eyes as he good-naturedly enquires of the achievements of the audience. He’s not showing off; he’s sharing an intimate moment of when he received his knighthood. There is no pretentiousness in his tale, he is still the down to earth person he was growing up in Lancashire, but he is someone who has stories most of us can only dream about, and here he is, in his armchair recounting tales that are very personal to him.

Sir Ian launches into a rendition of Gus the Theatre Cat by T S Eliot while sitting in his foldaway chair. It always chokes me when I read it, ever since I was a child and I got Andrew Lloyd Webbers stage play on Vinyl! Sir Ian is playing the voice of Gus in the new film version of Cats which is set to grace the cinema screens in 2019. His ability to recite poetry is sublime, this is continued with his reading of Sir Edward Manley-Hopkins’ The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo – the lament for lost beauty and youth which brings the first half of the show to a close. (Whilst it was wonderful to listen to, I must be honest and say I still prefer listening to Richard Burton’s rendition!)

"Go to Flint Castle; there I’ll pine away"

After the interval it was time to bed down with Shakespeare. Sir Ian has had an extraordinary career as a Shakespearean actor. He invited us to shout out the names of all of Shakespeare’s plays, curious to know if we could remember them all, including the obscure ones. He did note there were some members of the audience who having directed Shakespeare and should know them all...and were therefore not supposed to shout out!!! Just to illustrate how many plays Shakespeare wrote, he rummaged in his box and brought out copies of each text! As a title was shouted out, he would pick up the relevant book and give an insight into a story whilst  he had performed the play, or indeed at times he’d put the book down, give a withering look and say “I have nothing to say about that one!”

I was sat wearing my Macbeth t-shirt...hmm should I shout that out? Maybe if I did the theatre would fall know what theatrical folk are like...maybe I'd be better shouting the Scottish play...but then what if he's not superstitious?  By the time I'd finished deliberating someone had beaten me to it (the Scottish play they called out)...and his anecdotal response made me realise that it turns out not all the acting fraternity are particularly superstitious after all!!!!

I then started thinking obscure plays... Troilus and Cressida...yes I'll shout that. But then I thought...did Shakespeare write it?? Deep down I knew he did...but what if he didn’t...hmm maybe I shouldn’t have had that Prosecco. So I remained tight-lipped, and as we got further through the plays I couldn’t remember everything that had already been shouted out...I didn’t want to duplicate an I left it to the folk sitting near the director to continue shouting out! Self-doubt...a terrible affliction, but then I don’t pretend to be a master of Shakespeare, or indeed any playwright.  I also know that I have a terrible memory for best to shut up, enjoy the evening and indulge in watching others have fun. (You don’t always have to be the gobshite to be part of an evening’s entertainment!)

I thought that Sir Ian would restrict his local anecdotes to the earlier part of the show, but as he picked up a copy of The Tragedy of King Richard II, he said, “you know this has particular relevance to this theatre?”

He then started to recite from the end Act III, Scene II.

By heaven I’ll hate him everlastingly
That bids me be of comfort anymore.
Go to Flint Castle: there I’ll pine away;
A king, woe’s slave, shall kingly woe obey.
That power I have, discharge; and let them go…

Act III, Scene III – Wales, before Flint Castle

So that by this intelligence we learn
The Welshmen are dispers’d and Salisbury
Is gone to meet the King…

Flint Castle is just down the road from the theatre in Mold.  This was a master at work. A man with a long life in the theatre, but with no heirs and graces, just a great memory, and the ability to share the most pertinent pieces of literature with his audience.

And then the evening drew to a close...Sir Ian stood on stage with his big yellow collecting bucket. “The money you have paid for your programme will go to this theatre, and the money you put in this bucket will go to the theatre too.” How amazing of him...each performance would benefit the theatre he was playing at. An extraordinary gentleman was standing in front of us. He had entertained us with tales of his youth, his career, his sexuality for two and a half hours. It was hard to believe that this man standing in front of us was in his 80th year.

As I walked towards the bar I could see a great crowd surrounding him. I could have barged through all those camera phones to have a word with him, but was it really necessary? People were wanting selfies… (I'm not a huge selfie queen as you all know) and his hands were full with a collecting bucket so making him put it down to sign a programme would be rude. If I introduced myself would it really matter? He won’t remember me, he can already see the delight in everyone’s faces so he knows he’s entertained everyone. If I gushed at him “Oh I loved your rendition of Gus, it made me shed a tear” it would be more for my benefit than his…a sense of entitlement almost. So instead I sat at the bar with Nikki and my OH and we watched the crowd, and we watched Sir Ian, and we were content. There is a time and a place for chatting to an actor, and for me, this wasn’t it.

"An Invitation to Dinner"

I don’t know if you have ever played the game "who would you invite to dinner?" I have, and unsurprisingly most of the people I would like around my table are actors! Sir Ian is on my list, obviously Tom Burke (and his parents as I imagine they have some great tales to tell), David Suchet, and the late, great, Alan Rickman (who Sir Ian paid homage to in tonight’ show.) I think they get a seat around my table because they lead extraordinarily fascinating lives, (although I suspect most of them think their lives very dull and normal.) Couple this with the fact that they know how to deliver a tale so that is highly entertaining, it makes sense to invite them round your table…no-one wants a dull dinner party! Whilst the spirit of the game is just a bit of fun, I have been blessed to listen to Tom telling hilarious anecdotes and after an evening of Sir Ian McKellen on stage, I felt that I had spent an intimate evening amongst friends, and Sir Ian was at the head of the table!