The Trials Of Galileo – January 2015

Experience: 7/10

Written and directed by Nic Jones

Icarus Theatre Collective

Venue: Yvonne Arnaud Theatre

Date: Tuesday 13th January 2015

This is the sort of play we would normally expect to see in the Mill Studio next door. While the main house wasn’t completely full, there was a good turnout, and it’s nice to see something like this being given a chance in front of a larger audience.

The stage was open and relatively bare. In the centre stood a table which was covered with a dark red cloth. A green runner went front to back, there was a seat behind and some books or papers on the table, although I couldn’t see much detail from our front row seats. Back left was a smaller table with various items which were also indistinguishable in the pre-show gloom – I guessed more books, a flask and some glasses, which turned out to be correct – and front right was a small telescope on a stand. I say small, perhaps four feet long? Various sheets of paper were scattered around, front left and right and in a few other places. When we looked at the ones near us we could see astronomical observations, such as the famous moons of Jupiter sketch with four crosses for the moons. As my eyes grew accustomed to the dim light, I spotted a stool back right. That seemed to be the lot.

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The Rape Of Lucrece – June 2014

Experience: 9/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Elizabeth Freestone

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Thursday 26th June 2014

We saw this same production three years ago and were keen to see how they were doing it now. We had contrasting opinions this time: I didn’t think the production had changed much (although the performances had naturally developed) while Steve felt it was very different and preferred this performance to the previous one. To be fair, he didn’t rate our first viewing as high as I had, a fact which, in the glow of a wonderful evening, I seem to have omitted from my notes.

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A Pleasing Terror – October 2012

8/10

By M R James

Performed by Robert Lloyd Parry

Venue: Mill Studio

Date: Thursday 4th October 2012

Robert Lloyd Parry basically narrated two of M R James’ ghost stories, one in each half, and yet it was a very enjoyable evening in the theatre. The set was very simple: a chair, a table, some candles and a coat stand behind were all that was needed – the actor did the rest. He sat in the chair before the start and waited there under a blanket until the start of the performance, then he emerged and began to tell us the story of Canon Alberic’s Scrap-book, in the role of the young Cambridge antiquary who experiences the strange events of the story. The lighting was dim, and as the story progressed he snuffed out a candle from time to time, making the stage a fraction darker. It was a very atmospheric re-telling; not as dramatic as the modern horror film genre but still enthralling and spine-tingling.

The second story, The Mezzotint, was connected to the first by the Cambridge man referring to the strange behaviour of some Oxford men he knew; this strange behaviour included spending time on the golf course and then having long conversations about the game afterwards. It was nice to have these touches of humour lightening the tone. The story of a picture which changed to show the details of a gruesome event from the past was just as atmospheric as the first, and although these tales may seem old-fashioned, I prefer this gentle building of tension. The consummate skill of James’s story-telling came out well in this splendid performance, and we bought the two DVDs to allow us to recapture the pleasure in the future.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

I, Cinna – July 2012

2/10

By Tim Crouch (drawing heavily on Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare)

Directed by Tim Crouch

Venue: Courtyard Theatre

Date: Friday 6th July 2012

I found this dreadfully boring. Designed as a way of suggesting ideas, mainly to schoolchildren, this was as dull an experience as I’ve had in Stratford. Cinna, the poet, spent about an hour talking us through the play Julius Caesar, attempting to give us some thought-provoking questions along the way. After this there was a post-show discussion so that the audience could air their thoughts and views (I assume, as we didn’t stay for that part). There were one or two good bits – commenting on Caesar (or Antony?) as someone with gold taps in their bathroom was a nice way of relating the story to the present day, as were the other mentions of modern life, such as riot police. I did the writing as requested but I didn’t get much out of it, although as we left the auditorium the youngsters were being warmed up for what may have been a good post-show discussion for them.

The set consisted of a tatty green door at the back of the thrust, which had a number of locks and two strips of wall with manky wallpaper, one on either side. There were bits of paper pinned to each wall, and a large screen above the door which showed the video clips. To the left of this was a table with a waste paper basket under it which was overflowing with paper – the floor was covered with screwed up bundles. An old style TV was front left, facing diagonally across the stage to a chair that sat back right, accompanied by a standard lamp. The control table for the video clips was on the back left walkway, and the woman sitting there also delivered a newspaper through the letterbox about halfway through the performance.

After the assassination, Cinna gave us three minutes to write a poem (does he have so little respect for his craft?) and rearranged the furniture to show the post-assassination world. The chairs and table were thrown over, the door was turned round so we could see the backstage view, and he daubed blood on himself to indicate his own murder. I forget how the performance ended, but I did applaud quite loudly, as Jude Owusu had managed a good performance in the circumstances. We’d been moved from the Swan into the Courtyard theatre, from an intimate venue to a big cavern, and I felt that didn’t help what was ostensibly an interactive piece, especially as our numbers reflected the Swan’s capacity rather than the Courtyard’s. There was relatively little audience response during the play, and that may have made a huge difference; I really can’t tell.

I found myself writing some of these notes on the blank pages in the program, as I just wasn’t feeling involved in the performance at all. One response I wrote on the page, after Cinna made the challenging assertion that ‘we are not free’ was ‘free to ignore what’s on stage and write these thoughts down’, so I did manage to get some inspiration from it after all. I felt the video was underused, and the images didn’t seem to relate to what was being talked about for the most part. They did have film of the assassination, which was a bit bizarre, but otherwise it just seemed to be a jumble. I’ll try to avoid this type of performance in future.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Being Shakespeare – March 2012

7/10

By Jonathan Bate (with a bit of help from William Shakespeare)

Directed by Tom Cairns

Venue: Trafalgar Studios 1

Date: Saturday 17th March 2012

The set consisted of a square platform with one step along the front and side, placed at an angle to the front of the stage. Four plain wooden chairs were stacked against the dark right-hand wall. The light-coloured wall on the left had two windows high up, and there was another light-coloured part wall behind the platform. Two trees emerged from the darkness at the back of the stage towards the end of the first half, and were replaced by two more trees during the interval; these encroached further forward. The platform held various props – sword, paper crown, globe, cap, books, small mobile with figures dangling from it, etc. – as well as having two trapdoors, one of which provided flames for the early Mark Antony speech from Julius Caesar – “Friends, Romans” – and another occasion later on. There was a sweep of dark marbly bits to the left of the platform – a slight nuisance, as they kept tracking across whenever Simon Callow walked on them – but otherwise the stage seemed bare from our angle.

The play was very interesting and entertaining. Using Shakespeare’s Seven Ages Of Man speech – spoken by Jacques in As You Like It – Jonathan Bate has devised this ramble through Shakespeare’s work and what we know about the historical context in which it was written, both political and personal. Simon Callow delivered it all very well, although at times the lecturing style of the author shone through; not a bad thing, but less dramatic than some other parts of the afternoon. I recognised many of the readings, of course, but there was a lot of newer information as well, and the overall framework made it more easily digestible. Things went a little wobbly around the ‘soldier’ part, with the lack of evidence about Will’s life making it harder to stick to the speech, but with an actor of Simon Callow’s talent we were in safe hands. His delivery was very good, and my only quibble was that he had so little time to set up the speeches that I wasn’t able to make as strong an emotional connection as I would have liked. Still, the purpose of the piece was to take us on the lifetime journey, and that it did very well.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Truman Capote Talk Show – December 2011

7/10

Written and performed by Bob Kingdom

Venue: Mill Studio

Date: Friday 16th December 2011

I loved this performance from the word go, when Truman Capote appeared at the side of the stage, posing by the curtain while the music played and Frank Sinatra sang (New York, New York, as I recall). Bob Kingdom did a very good job of impersonating Truman Capote, at least as far as I could tell, and we were soon hooked into the life story of this unusual, talented writer. He structured it round the four stages of fame –

1. Who’s Truman Capote?

2. Get me Truman Capote.

3. Get me someone like Truman Capote.

4. Who’s Truman Capote?

His delivery made it very funny.

The life story was mostly new to me, but it was very interesting, and told with a dry, bitchy humour that was very refreshing. I felt there was a lot more humour than the audience responded to, even though the man sitting next to me was clearly a Truman Capote fan, as were one or two others in the audience. It’s even inspired me to check out Breakfast At Tiffany’s and one or two of the short stories.

The lighting changes and sound effects worked very well, and I liked the fact that he talked to us as the ghost of Truman Capote, knowing full well that he was dead. He refused to go into details of the afterlife, which left more time for the important stuff we’d come to see – him, basically. At the end, he did a trailer for his new piece about Dylan Thomas, and I’m torn. I’m not a Dylan Thomas fan, but this performance was so good, even I might be converted. Or at least entertained. For now, though, this was a good evening out, and I hope it comes round again, for all that it’s been advertised as a farewell tour.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

Call Mr Robeson – November 2011

8/10

By Tayo Aluko

Directed by Olusola Oyeleye

Venue: Mill Studio

Date: Thursday 24th November 2011

I knew very little about Paul Robeson before tonight – black singer and actor, politically active, married a white woman (wrong, they were only ‘close’ friends) which angered both the white and black communities in America; that was about it. Turns out I knew more than many Americans do about this amazing man, who stood up for the rights of black people, but even more strongly for the rights of all working people, regardless of skin colour, and whose powerful influence was so cruelly wiped out by a hostile American government that his name is largely forgotten amongst many of the groups who ultimately benefitted from his contribution.

His life story was compellingly told by Tayo Aluko, who also wrote the piece. He had been ignorant of Paul Robeson’s existence until a chance remark by someone at a concert he performed at.  He had unknowingly sung a song performed by Robeson, and the person commented on this. Once he’d heard the name, the Paul Robeson biography pretty much threw itself at him in a library, and he was hooked. He wrote this play not just as a tribute to the great man, but to make people more aware that he existed, and to promote a passion to fight for a better world for all, a passion which Paul Robeson exemplified.

The set was interesting. At first it looked a bit of a jumble, with boxes, flags, books and photos everywhere. The piano was far left, draped with what turned out to be the flag of one of the International Brigades, and we were entertained as we entered the auditorium by Michael Conliffe, a talented pianist who accompanied Tayo for the evening. As I sat and looked at the objects, I realised there was a pattern. The centre of the stage had an irregular piece of an old record, a single of Going Home, much enlarged. Then I registered that there were other sections of broken record placed around this, with some hanging up at the back, and the pattern fell into place. The flags which were draped over some of the boxes – USSR, Wales, USA, titchy little Union Jack – represented places that were important to Robeson, and the photos were part of his story too. I didn’t know it at the time, but he was a great lover of books, reading a great deal and with a ‘yearning for learning’ – the books represented that aspect of his personality.

When the lights went down, the singing started off stage – I forget which song. Gradually the voice came nearer, and then we saw him, standing but bent under the weight of a heavy load (he had a plain chair upturned on his shoulders), coming from the back of the small acting space to place the chair down on the centre of the record. The lights had come up gently, and when this entrance was complete, we could see a tall, dapper man in a smart, slightly flashy suit. He started into Ole Man River, and was well into it when he was interrupted by his wife, who didn’t want him singing ‘that darn song’ anymore. From here on he told us his story in a blend of narration, acting and singing that was very effective. There were recorded sound effects used as well, and one of these related to the title of the play: ‘Call Mr Robeson’ was the effect used when he was being summoned to appear before the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

He covered some aspects of Robeson’s youth, especially his American football career and the attack on him by not just the opposition but his own team as well. This story brought out his father’s encouragement that he should stand up for what he believed, and to set an example which would help every black boy who came after him. Other events, such as his mother’s death (in a fire?) were glanced at, but he avoided the detail while showing us Robeson’s emotional reaction – a very compact form of storytelling, and I very much liked this layered effect. I feel I could watch the play several times and come away with some new aspect of his life that I hadn’t realised before.

The story continued for about 75 minutes, covering Robeson’s hugely successful early career, the unfortunate remarks which were misinterpreted quite viciously in the American press, the government’s suppression of his work by keeping him a prisoner in his own country, the suicide attempt, his appearance before the McCarthy hearings, his all too brief reprieve and travel abroad, and the final ignominy of being unrecognised by a journalist who asked him for his views on the Civil Rights movement as he walked through Harlem. The final song was Going Home, and he reversed the entrance by taking the chair up on his shoulders again and walking off. It was a fitting end to the evening’s performance, but we weren’t done yet.

After we’d applauded for a while, Tayo interrupted us to say that he was happy to answer any questions we might have, unless we needed to leave, which would be fine. Nobody left. The questions were mainly specific ones about Paul Robeson’s life, but we also found out about Tayo’s discovery of the man (see above) and learned that he is hoping to perform the show at Carnegie Hall on his 50th Birthday next year – good luck with that. He’s also planning some new plays, including one on the exploitation of the Congo – sounds interesting.

It was a powerful evening all round, and the chance to ask questions afterwards was the icing on the cake. I felt moved by the story many times, and the section describing Robeson’s treatment by the US government was hard to listen to. This stifling of his talent was a ‘cruel and unusual punishment’ for such a man, not to mention robbing the world of its enjoyment of his talent. No doubt his popularity would have waned in due course as new styles of music came along; good as the songs were, and the singing, they were simpler than the modern taste prefers. Still, in his time he was the biggest star, and for him to speak up as he did was perceived as a threat by the people in power at that time – we can only hope we don’t see such events again, but don’t hold your breath.

I enjoyed the story of the Welsh miners singing in London during the 1930s, and I liked the shift in Robeson’s awareness to a recognition that working people all over the world were being oppressed, not just black folk. After the show, Tayo told us a story from a time he’d been in Wrexham and someone had pointed out the hotel (no longer there) where Robeson had sung from a balcony to raise money for a local mining disaster. His feeling for the ordinary working folk came over very strongly, and was probably the most attractive aspect of his character.

Not that he wasn’t attractive in other ways. He had a succession of ‘close’ female friends throughout his life, but always returned to his wife Essie, who acted as his agent and manager. His fulsome praise for the Soviet Union was unfortunate; they may have treated him as an equal, but we now recognise that their workers weren’t as free as they claimed under Kremlin rule, so his views now seem politically naïve. Even so, his compassion and caring for his fellow human beings shone through.

His deteriorating mental state was signalled by Robeson interrupting himself and looking around, as if there was someone there. This had happened with his wife in the early stages, so I wasn’t concerned at first, but eventually it became clear that Robeson had become paranoid about being spied on (presumably he was being spied on?) and his breakdown was very difficult to watch. Apparently Robeson had some ECT treatments in England which may have been at too high a dose, and this may have led to his inability to resume his career afterwards. It was a sad end to a remarkable life, and sadder still that his name has been largely forgotten by so many. Steve and I are old enough to know of him, and I suspect most of tonight’s audience did, but in America his reputation appears to have been virtually obliterated. Hopefully this play can change all that.

For more information and to check out tour dates: http://cmr.tayoalukoandfriends.com/

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me