Kindertransport – March 2007

8/10

By: Diane Samuels

Directed by: Polly Teale

Company: Shared Experience

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Friday 2nd March 2007

This was a very moving play, with a surprising amount of humour. It’s based on the experiences of the Jewish children who were sent away from Germany just before WWII, to England, many of whom never saw their families again. This play focuses on one child, Eva, who, at nine years old is sent away to England by her parents. She is taken in by a family in Manchester, grows up there, and eventually rejects her original family to maintain her Englishness. We see the story both in the past, reliving Eva’s journey and experiences, and also in the present, as Evelyn (her new name) tries to keep her previous life a secret from her teenage daughter. Her daughter is persistent, however, and with the help of her grandmother, the woman who took Eva in all those years ago, a truth of a sort emerges. Throughout all of this, there is the figure of the Ratcatcher, as in the Pied Piper, a story told to Eva as a child, and which should serve as a dire warning never to tell children scary stories. Eva is terrified of this figure when it’s just a story, but when it takes on flesh and blood through Nazi persecution, her terror is multiplied, and affects her life and the way she relates to others profoundly. Hence her daughter’s insistence on knowing about her mother’s past – she knows there’s something missing, and she’s appalled that her mother could wilfully keep it from her, when it’s part of who she is as well. Of course, to her mother it represents all her fears, so she doesn’t want to face it, but through this confrontation, she seems to come to a gradual acceptance of her past, even if it’s not all forgiven and forgotten.

The whole production of this play was excellent. All the performances were perfect, and the interweaving of the stories and the time elements was masterful. We were shown so much about human suffering, and courage and compassion, that I was moved to tears. I wasn’t sure about the Ratcatcher at first – he just seemed to collapse onto the stage and crawl around for a while, but eventually the symbolism took hold, and Evelyn’s final identification of the Ratcatcher with her mother was very powerful. I increasingly saw the Ratcatcher as more of a victim than a figure of terror, as the character’s make up and behaviour became more tortured. And I particularly liked the way I could feel sympathy for the various points of view and the choices which had been made, without judging or supporting any specific person. All the women were tremendously strong characters, and showed great courage in the face of their difficulties. It was also nice to see a genuinely kind mother figure for once, in the shape of the Mancunian woman who takes Eva in and supports her with an amazing degree of understanding throughout her life in England.

The set was very evocative. It was a large attic space, with lots of “storage solutions” as they’re called nowadays – several wardrobes, chests of drawers, trunks and boxes lined the space, and various items of bric-a-brac were scattered around or piled in a corner. There was also a ladder resting on a cam ceiling, which was used to get Eva on and off her ship to England. Wardrobe doors doubled as room doors, and Eva did a fair bit of climbing over the furniture and boxes – good for showing us the scene settings, and also evoking the natural way children behave.

The one man in the cast played several parts. Apart from the Ratcatcher, he was also a German official on the train taking the children to the boat, who stole Eva’s money, but let her keep her mouth-organ, as well as giving her a sweetie – he thought he was being so good! He returned as a postman who delivers Eva’s Ratcatcher book from her mother, when they could still get post through, and who jokes with her about the Nazi salute. And he’s also an unpleasant railway guard who intimidates Eva when she’s waiting for her parents to arrive – they almost made it, but war broke out a few days too soon.

Eva’s rejection of her natural mother after the war was a very moving scene. I could see both points of view – her mother has never stopped loving her, and still sees Eva as her daughter, with the other mother just a temporary relationship, as if Eva had simply been a lodger. Eva/Evelyn, on the other hand, has built a life for herself, has been through untold suffering, trying to get her parents the papers they need to get out of Germany and join her, and now she’s not the little girl who left her mother before the war. Even then, her mother had been pushing her to do things for herself, and to stand on her own feet. Now she’s doing it, and both of them are suffering.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Macbeth – February 2007

8/10

By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Grzegorz Bral

Company: Teatr Piesn Kozla (Song of the Goat Theatre)

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Friday 23rd February 2007

This is a work in progress, as described in the brochure, so we had no idea what to expect. I felt certain that we would use the term “song of the goat” long after this performance, but I didn’t know what we would be referring to. It was so different, and so varied, that I may not be able to remember all of it, or the correct order, but here goes. Bear in mind this performance was about one hour, thirty-five minutes long – I doubt I’ll get these notes written that fast.

The Swan stage was filled with chairs. Most stood in a ring round the three inner seats. The outer ring faced in, the inner three faced out. [22/1/08 – I’ve only just realised the three inner seats were probably for the witches.] They were all straight, high-backed wooden chairs. With the lights low, the actors filed on from all four corners to take their seats. As they sat there, silently, the lights gradually grew stronger, shafting down from high oblique angles. I wasn’t sure at first if I was really hearing a faint droning sound, but as it became stronger, I realised the actors were toning, or humming, to create a background drone. Very pleasant. Then I caught a few over notes, and soon we had a full-blown vocal orchestra – polyphony, as the director later told us. There was a song, presumably in some middle European language (although this company is Polish, there were references to Russian songs, and other musical traditions in the director’s comments, so not knowing the languages, I don’t know which they were singing in. Possibly Polish, possibly not). Over this, one of the actors spoke some of the lines of the bloody man (honest, guv, that’s what it says in the text), and the rhythms of his speech blended with the singing to add greater musical texture than I’ve experienced before, even for Shakespeare. I was very aware of the unfolding story – how a mighty force was attacking, and Macbeth rose to the challenge.

By the way, we didn’t need surtitles, as all the text was spoken in English, but there was a screen up on the top balcony, showing short descriptions of what the actors were working on, what the section was about. This first section was entitled “Crown”.

The singing/chanting/droning changed from time to time, but that’s probably the least easy part to remember in detail. The next piece of text was also the first time an actor moved from their chair – Lady Macbeth reading her husband’s letter and telling us her point of view. This was interestingly staged. Lady Macbeth moved outside the circle of chairs and prowled round them, giving us an insight into her ruthlessness and ambition. As she came round to the front, she was saying some lines which appear to address her husband directly, although we know he isn’t there, but in fact she was able to speak them to the actor playing Macbeth. She completed the speech and the circle at the same time. I was very aware of her isolation, and that she was actually speaking only to herself, which doesn’t always happen with soliloquies.

Next up (literally) was Macbeth, and “If t’were done when ‘tis done…..”. (Chanting still on the go.) This was very interesting. Again, the rhythm of his speech intertwined with the music, and heightened the sense of his emotional journey. And, unlike Lady Macbeth, who returned to the same place, he ends up sitting in the only other empty chair, a sign of his movement as a character. I also found that the empty chair at the start reminded me of Banquo’s seat at the feast.

Finally, we had a song, and then that section was finished. The actors stood up, and removed the chairs, while the director came on to talk with us. First, he apologised to anyone who had come tonight to see the play Macbeth, as that wasn’t what they would be doing. His troupe’s work is based on a tradition of performance in Poland going back to the 1920s or 30s. Never mind 6 weeks rehearsals, this lot get 2 or 3 years! Basically, it’s ready when it’s ready. There are three strands which they explore and weave together to produce the final piece – music, text, movement. What they were doing tonight was to show us some of the work so far, and explore some facets of the play through sound, movement and text, to get a better understanding of what’s going on, and what works and what doesn’t.

The next section he introduced as “Cauldron”, where they explored the magical, witchcraft aspects. Seven witches sat down, with a bundle of poles, also used later. The chanting and keening portrayed grief at first then changed and became stronger. Not sure what that was about, but I did get a sense of the witches being desperately unhappy women – no families of their own, perhaps?

There’s no particular order now. We saw men waving poles around. They had long strips of cloth ranging from red through pink to white attached to them, so they made a beautiful, swirling pattern. Their movements reminded me of Tai Chi.

Family – another section. The actors stood in a family pose with men standing, women sitting and children at the feet. They sang a more cheerful song, while Macbeth’s fear of Banquo’s future success gnaws at his vitals – God, that man can suffer.

Lady Macbeth was being chased by a witch/demon, who grabs at her from behind. Perhaps they repeated this a few too many times? This leads into the “Come, evil spirits..” routine, and gave me the idea that Lady Macbeth is cracking up from the moment she gets that letter. Letters in Shakespeare are usually bad news – he’s a terrible advert for the Post Office – and this one’s a corker! Her madness is evident in the way she conjures the spirits, and there’s also a sense of her later, obvious madness and sleepwalking as being her own creation through the spell she casts.

Malcolm meeting Macduff, with news from Ross, is played out round and on a set of floor mats, and lines are spoken as the actors are tumbling, turning cartwheels, etc. Their breath control must be amazing. I was still very moved by the news of Lady Macduff and all the little Macduffs’ fate.

They used dissonance – half tones – to show Macbeth’s increasing madness. Well, yes, you would go mad if you had sounds like that crashing through your brain all the time. Eeugh! But brilliantly performed – that kind of dissonance is hard to sing. Steve reckons he knows why Macbeth goes mad – it’s because he’s got migraines.

Macbeth and the dagger scene – three actors surround him, and seem to entrap him, so he can’t get out – guardian devils? They move backwards and forwards in a visceral dance, the devils constantly blocking his escape. Once he’s resolved and steadies, they steady, and then leave, knowing he’s set on his path.

Macbeth and Lady Macbeth inviting Banquo to dinner and checking what he’s doing in the meantime, was followed by Man & Horse – Banquo being killed while out riding. The movements here were also balletic and effective.

Banquet scene – I thought it would be Banquo’s feast, but no, it was the original one with Duncan.

At times, they used only music to create an image. At one point, Lady Macbeth was tying herself up in ribbons attached to a pole.

Everyone was sitting on tables and chairs at the end, then reformed the circle for another bit of “Crown”, standing this time. There was more fighting with poles – Hells Gate – and they end up throwing the poles to Macbeth, who was perched on top of the stack of furniture.

While this description is quite jumbled, the sections made more sense at the time. I was very impressed with the actors’ dedication. Working on this stuff for so long may seen self-indulgent, but it takes a lot of commitment, and the results were immensely powerful, if not always pleasant (e.g. dissonance). I would be keen to see some of their other work, or indeed this production, once it comes to fruition.

© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Romeo and Juliet – September 2006

Experience: 8/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Nancy Meckler

Venue: RST

Date: Thursday 14th September 2006

I’ve enjoyed Shared Experience’s work in the past in smaller venues, so I was looking forward to seeing what Nancy Meckler had done in the main house at Stratford. I wasn’t disappointed.

We had been warned that there was a framing device, a play outside the play, where a community was re-enacting the tragic deaths of Romeo and Juliet. The set emphasised this. At the back was a huge picture frame. A couple of trees at the sides gave the impression of an open-air venue, and there was a square platform for the action. This moved back during the vault scene to allow access to Juliet’s body. Overhead, a lighting rig ran diagonally across this smaller stage. Seats were provided at the sides for the ‘actors’ to rest on between scenes. There was even a little girl running around – obviously a family affair.

And given the Italian setting, it was a ‘family’ affair in more ways than one. Before the start, the ‘actors’ were getting ready, setting up the stage, getting into costumes, etc. The men were trying out the taps on their shoes, and some quarrel broke out. There was a bit of a scuffle, then the older and wiser men broke it up, but you could see there was still a lot of tension. Incidentally, the main agitator turned out to be the man playing Tybalt – so cast to type, then. I liked the way this suggested that the conflict the re-enactment was supposed to ease still lingered. People obviously hadn’t learned their lesson.

As tempers rose, the oldsters decided it was time for the men to hand in their weapons – a lovely piece of staging. It started off with knives being handed over (placed in a large blanket), then hand guns, then rifles. I was hoping they’d got the RSC to spring for a few Kalashnikovs, but apparently not. Anyway, once the armoury was put to one side, the ‘play’ could begin. (Later on, the ‘actor’ playing Tybalt was still angry enough to try and retrieve his weapon, but was stopped.)

One of the things I loved most about this production was the use of tap dancing to represent fighting. The men each had a staff they could bang on the ground, which with the sound of the taps got the action across beautifully. And the framing device allowed for it perfectly too – these people are not meant to be doing it for real. The choreography of the fights changed depending on who was fighting. Great stuff.

All the performances were good. I particularly liked Romeo, Juliet and the Friar. Romeo came across as a bit wimpish, still immature at times, yelping and squealing and whimpering like a child. But at other times he showed what a man he might have made. Juliet was still a child at the start, but with quick wits, and a temper! The relationship with the nurse was cosy and domestic at the start, but she actually hits her when she doesn’t get the news she wants quick enough. She matures even quicker than Romeo, and has to learn to handle her own emotions entirely from her own resources, as even the nurse can no longer help her. I found this a very moving performance. The Friar was a good counterpoint to last night’s Duke in Measure for Measure – this monk lays his plans, and then they all go horribly wrong – no rabbits get pulled out of his hat! When he’s telling his story at the end, he was more nervous than I’ve ever seen before in this part – and rightly so, considering what he’s been up to without the Duke’s knowledge.

I liked the use of a pillar of ladders for the balcony scene. It allowed for more movement in what can sometimes be a fairly static scene, and the lighting effects, with lights shining up from below, were lovely. It also meant an easier time for Romeo, as he didn’t have any precarious climbing to do. The apothecary appears from below (trapdoor), which worked well. There was a Shared Experience moment at the end, when all the stories are being told. The acting audience listens, and moves as one, slowly and steadily to observe each part of the tale. A nice touch, especially as we, the real audience, already know what’s happened, and can otherwise get a bit bored.

One thing that didn’t work for me was the use of the characters’ jackets to remind us of who’d been killed. When Mercutio and Tybalt die, their jackets are taken off and hung from the lighting rig. This was OK, but then when Paris is killed in the vault, the removal of his jacket was a bit clumsy and obvious, and there was no time to get it hung up. If I had to opt for one way or the other, I’d leave it out.

At the end, all the ‘actors’ shake hands and hug, indicating that perhaps the re-enactment has done its job and helped to bring the community together. But I couldn’t help noticing that Tybalt and some other of the younger men weren’t there – perhaps not a complete success, then. Unlike this production, which was.

© 2006 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me