5 Favourites: 2017 Theatre Favs

War Horse UK Tour at the Bristol Hippodrome

War Horse may be a show about horses, but it has the most heart, the most heroism, and the most humanity of any show you’ll ever see. The tale of Joey the horse and his boy, Albert, torn apart by war and wrestling to return home together, is told in a visceral, evocative, and immensely moving way with hope and humanity at its heart.

Joey is a horse half-thoroughbred, half-draft, and it’s homogenous to the ingenious design and direction of the production. Half of the experience is pure, refined, performance that feels real, in the acting, the affect, the inhuman affliction of warfare, and the other half is creativity and craft working in front of us to make thrilling, theatrical magic.  The horses are played by three puppeteers – a head, a heart, and a hind – that stamp, snort, and stand up on their hind legs like horses, but also think and feel like humans. This is war in all its brutality, but also its overwhelming bravery: the mechanisms and machines and mercilessness are all laid bare, but so are the men and their mounts.

At its heart, War Horse is a stellar example of ensemble storytelling for a supremely talented company, where hand-puppeteered horses and humans working in harmony prove there’s hope for all humanity to imagine a world that works together.

Read the full review here!

The Royal Ballet’s Live Cinema Season

From the charm of Frederick Ashton‘s choreography, with ‘The Dream’ truly dreamy, ‘Symphonic Variations’ simply visionary, and ‘Marguerite and Armand’ emotionally arresting, to Woolf Works, where Wayne McGregor does with movement as Virginia Woolf did with words, to Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, an eclectic spectacle of technicolor creation, to the musical suites and magical sweets of The Nutcracker.

The depth and diversity of dance on offer is a delight, and the performances are complemented by insightful interval videos and the opportunity to be privy to the most intimate moments of a dancer’s performance, from rehearsal to retirement, as for Zenaida Yanowsky after Marguerite and Armand. After her final curtain, it was beautifully poignant to see her partners from the Royal Ballet’s roster past and present, including Carlos Acosta, Jonathan Cope, and Nehemiah Kish, as well as her partner in the piece, Roberto Bolle, present her with bouquet after bouquet of flowers. A truly fitting finale to both a wonderful career and an evening of charming works.

Wardrobe Ensemble’s Education, Education, Education

Twenty years ago, in 1997, it was a time of Take That, Tamagotchis and British teachers celebrating in the staff room after Tony Blair and the Labour party were elected with the mantra ‘education, education, education’. Wardrobe Ensemble’s eponymous play unpacks the politics of this cultural moment with wit, warmth, and winning charm, exploring the optimism of possibility, and, in turn, the realism that cuts through the 90s nostalgia with political poignancy.

Set in a well-meaning but not-quite-comprehensive comprehensive secondary school in the immediate aftermath of the election, the Ensemble create wholly believable characters, perform a script that’s so slick and so quick that it easily elicits laughs from its wit alone, and bop along to a nostalgia-fest of 90s bangers.

In Education, Education, Education, Wardrobe Ensemble capture the politics of yesteryear with the same anxieties of our present, managing to be riotously funny and quietly reflective; as head teacher Hugh says, in light of the election the teachers must remain politically impartial in all their classes, but, ‘we did win Eurovision, so talk about that as much as you wish’. The show ends blasting the election anthem ‘Things Can Only Get Better’, and there’s hope, as for the Tamagotchi and its reset button, that they can.

Read the full review here! Wardrobe Ensemble are back on tour with Education, Education, Education in the new year – buy tickets here for the ultimate 90s nostalgia fest!

Bristol-based Site-specific Theatre

Raucous‘s Ice Road at Jacob’s Wells Baths 

It’s late. We’re walking into a snow-covered scene, carrying a rose to ‘pay our respects’, and we’re greeted by rows of radios that remind us of gravestones that we pick up and put around our necks – and just like that, in walking from one room to another, Raucous’ Ice Road has taken us back in time and into a war-torn Russia. But, this impressively immersive performance really begins in the bar beforehand. With propaganda posters plastering the walls and lights flickering in their lanterns – and after a shot of vodka (when in Russia!) – three orphans, Leah, Tati, and Zoya, move amongst us, mouthing-off in Russian, attempting to find the missing Kub. After leading us by lantern into the performance space, the story follows their survival in a volatile landscape, and just what we’ll sacrifice for warmth in the winter and refuge from war, from a flute to your fellow man. 

Masters of the immersive, the emotive, and performances with a political immediacy, Raucous made use of the vast, cavernous Jacob’s Wells Baths in Bristol to tell this story of survival, and they used every inch of it: a structure of scaffolding and stepladders stretches to the ceiling, propaganda posters fall, seemingly, from the sky, there’s snow underfoot, and even the walls have a part to play.

Read the full review here!

Insane Root‘s The Tempest at St John on the Wall’s Crypt 

‘Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises,’ a muddling, older man murmurs to us, collected in a crypt beneath a Medieval church in the centre of Bristol as cars and buses and bits of lost conversation rumble along beyond the low door closed behind us. ‘The isle was full of noises,’ he amends, and with that opening amendment in tense alone, Insane Root Theatre have respectfully but perfectly repurposed The Tempest, Shakespeare’s most philosophical, most reflective, and most indefinite play.

The man, aged and inelegant, is Prospero, but this is the usurped ‘prince of power’ without his power; this is Prospero at the end of the play, or rather, many-a-year after the revels of the play and the epilogue’s applause has ended. Alone in his library, a homely, hearth-like creation from Sarah Warren covered in drapes and decorated with books and bric-a-brac, Chris Donnelly’s Prospero is close to the end, and not just because he’s been placed in a crypt. Carved and cavernous, it’s the corporeal and acoustic setting for Prospero’s recount of what happened to him.

Insane Root Theatre’s The Tempest balances Shakespearean tradition with exceptional adaptation, and through repurposing the text, the temporality, and the tone, the cast and creatives get closer to the heart of the play than any production of The Tempest I’ve seen, and it’s all happening right beneath the heart of Bristol.

Read the full review here!

Hamilton: An American Musical

The Room Where It Happens

This is it: ‘The Room Where It Happens’. It’s here. ‘It is Hamilton, and after a fortnight of previews, the musical chronicling the finding, founding, and fight for American freedom through the life of founding father Alexander Hamilton, it’s finally open at the Victoria Palace Theatre in London’s West End. With so much hype and hysteria, just what is it about Hamilton that makes us all want to be in ‘The Room Where It Happens’?

Telling history through rap, hip-hop, and R&B, composer Lin-Manuel Miranda makes America’s past matter through contemporary music and a cast-of-colour who play the mostly white political players of the late-18th century. With characters and songs taking their cue both from the founding fathers who wrote America into existence and the rappers and musicians who use real-life experience to write their way to respect, Hamilton fuses the present, the past, and the future – the finale asks, ‘Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story?’ – into a harmonious whole with a heart that beats and breaks and aches. Hamilton tells not only a political history but a private one, with the story centring on the opposing views of Hamilton and his perpetual rival, Aaron Burr (Sir): one waits for it, the other works non-stop; one stands for nothing, the other rises up; one dies, the other survives.

What Hamilton has is a humanity, a humility, that makes it inimitable. As for Alexander in his America, being in ‘The Room Where It Happens’ is to be at the heart of the revolution, to see a stage that reflects real-life voices, faces, and feelings, to find not theatrical perfection, but an unforgettable phenomenon. Let’s hope, as Hamilton says, that ‘this is not a moment, it’s a movement’.

Read the full review here!

Reflection: Hamilton – An American Musical

Hamilton 2

This is not a moment, it’s a movement

This is it: ‘The Room Where It Happens’. It’s here. ‘It is Hamilton, and after a fortnight of previews, the musical chronicling the finding, founding, and fight for American freedom through the life of founding father Alexander Hamilton, it’s finally open at the Victoria Palace Theatre in London’s West End. With so much hype and hysteria, just what is it about Hamilton that makes us all want to be in ‘The Room Where It Happens’?

Telling history through rap, hip-hop, and R&B, composer Lin-Manuel Miranda makes America’s past matter through contemporary music and a cast-of-colour who play the mostly white political players of the late-18th century. With characters and songs taking their cue both from the founding fathers who wrote America into existence and the rappers and musicians who use real-life experience to write their way to respect, Hamilton fuses the present, the past, and the future – the finale asks, ‘Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story?’ – into a harmonious whole with a heart that beats and breaks and aches. Hamilton tells not only a political history but a private one, with the story centring on the opposing views of Hamilton and his perpetual rival, Aaron Burr (Sir): one waits for it, the other works non-stop; one stands for nothing, the other rises up; one dies, the other survives.

Hamilton, like America, is ‘young, scrappy, and hungry’, a nobody who arrives in New York to be a new man, and Burr, his nemesis, is a waiter who will do anything to win but has much, much more to lose. Hamilton, and history, hangs in the balance between the two men. Continue reading “Reflection: Hamilton – An American Musical”

5 Favourites: American Literature

The Poetry of Emily Dickinson (1830-86)

Emily Dickinson

‘Hope is the thing with feathers —
That perches in the soul —
And sings the tune without the words —
And never stops — at all —’

The American… undiscovered
The Mother of American poetry to Walt Whitman’s Father, Dickinson left over 1,500 distinctive, dense and dash-laden poems that only found fame after her death.

Despite living in isolation, Dickinson’s poetic voice is not only introspective but inquisitive, questioning the boundaries of life, death and everything in-between, from marriage to religion to Mother Nature. With a penchant for capitalisation and poetic discord, Dickinson has both an anxious desire to discover the unknowable secrets within, as in ‘I felt a Funeral, in my Brain’, and ‘After great pain, a formal feeling comes —’, and, in ‘A Bird came down the Walk —’ and ‘A narrow Fellow in the Grass’, a curious eye to cast outwards on the usually-unnoticed workings of the natural world, with lines of poetry only paralleled by the wonder of the wildlife it captures. As such, Dickinson’s writing finds a unique freedom in the confinement of poetic form, femininity in the nineteenth-century, and her self-inflicted reclusiveness.

Other works ‘There’s a certain Slant of light’ and ‘Those – dying then’ for death and divinity in the same breath, ‘Title divine – is mine!’ and ‘They shut me up in Prose —’ for some contextually controversial views on courtship, that synesthetic ‘Blue — uncertain— stumbling Buzz’ in ‘I heard a Fly buzz — when I died —’, and ‘Because I could not stop for Death —’ for possibly the most inspired use of iambic rhythm in the poetic canon.

The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1892)The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

‘The faint figure behind seemed to shake the pattern, just as if she wanted to get out.’

The American… locked in
The Yellow Wallpaper is less about wallpaper and more about walls – of both the bricks-and-mortar and symbolic kind.

A semi-autobiographical short story about a woman forced to lay on her back and… do absolutely nothing. Known as the ‘rest cure’, this controversial remedy was often recommended for women suffering from ‘hysteria’, a term used to describe ‘female’ depression. Unsurprisingly, isolation and inactivity are not an antidote to depression, but instead feed and fester it, and its real effect, rather than a doctors’ theories, is found in Gilman’s evocative account. The narrative style reads like the pattern of the eponymous wallpaper: the flourishes of the pattern camouflage the creeping unease of the narrative, until the unnamed narrator’s interiority escapes and plasters itself over the walls in place of the repulsive wallpaper. Yet, as women under the rest cure, the act of writing is an act of rebellion for both Gilman and her anonymous narrator.

Other works for women writers in America, see Alice Walker’s The Colour Purple for race and womanhood, Sylvia Plath’s poetry and partly-autobiographical The Bell Jar for a woman’s experience of depression, and Toni Morrison’s Beloved for women and the unbreakable maternal bond.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

‘So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.’

The American… dreamer
A cliché but a classic, The Great Gatsby is the Jazz Age archetype of the dream-to-disillusionment truth of a truly American ideology.

And the truth is that Gatsby isn’t that Great. Fitzgerald’s prose is like Gatsby’s parties: the decadence, the drink, and the dancing disguise the longing, loss and loneliness underneath all the glitter and gold as Fitzgerald’s lyrical poetry masks the prosaic reality of the American Dream. An American classic that includes some of the greatest imagery of its age, from the Valley of the Ashes to the Eyes of Doctor T. J. Eckleburg to the green light at the end of Gatsby’s adored, Daisy’s, dock, the empty symbolism of The Great Gatsby is as, if not more, meaningful – or meaningless – in our modern, material reality as it was in the Roaring Twenties, permeating pop-culture with a reminder of how hollow and heartless the pursuit of American ideals of love, life and wealth can be.

Other works from the Great Depression to eighties-era yuppies, the migrant workers George and Lennie in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and Bret Easton Ellis’s monster-of-a-man in American Psycho highlight how all walks of life have dreamed the American Dream and fallen from its great heights.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (2015)

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

‘…racism is a visceral experience […] it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth […] [and] all land, with great violence, upon the body.’

The American…  advocate
A heartbreakingly honest work laying bare the fearful truth of racism in the USA not as a philosophy to be studied, but as a physical assault on the black body.

History is written by the victors, but the history of race in America is often written by the villains, or at least those, willingly or unknowingly, on their side. Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me is a visceral, vital voice in the narrative of black America made all the more poignant because it’s written as a passionate epistle to his son. Like his experience, Coates’s writing is as powerful as it is exposed, defiant as it is fearful, and brutal as it is beautiful; it’s an account unflinching but invaluable to our understanding of lives we haven’t lived. And that’s the key: this is the ‘stars and strife’ story of American history, and it’s a story that we have to hear from the hearts of those who’ve lived it first hand.

Other works The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin, the blazing, groundbreaking 1963 work that influenced Between the World and Me, Maya Angelou’s autobiographical I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and poetic rebellion in ‘Still I Rise’, and Coates himself on HBO’s Confederate, and why Civil War success for the South is ‘an ugly truth that black Americans are forced to live every day‘.

Hamilton: An American Musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda (2015)

Hamilton by Lin-Manuel Miranda

‘If I throw away my shot, is this how you’ll remember me?
What if this bullet is my legacy?
Legacy. What is a legacy?
It’s planting seeds in a garden you never get to see.’

The American… descendant
The ultimate American musical written by an American with immigrant heritage about America then told by America now, focussing on another American immigrant, Alexander Hamilton, who wrote his way into American history as one of its Founding Fathers.

Telling history through rap, hip-hop, and R&B, Miranda makes America’s past matter through music that’s contemporary and a cast-of-colour who play the mostly white political players of the late-18th century. With many characters and songs taking their cue from the founding American writers of the Constitution and the Federalist Papers, Hamilton fuses the past, the present, and the future – the finale asks, ‘Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story?’ – into a harmonious whole with a heart that beats and breaks and skips and aches. Hamilton tells not only a political history but a private one, centring on the opposing views of Hamilton and his rival, Aaron Burr (Sir): one waits for it, the other goes for it; one stands for nothing, the other rises up; one dies, the other survives, but pays for it.

Other works Miranda is a theatre-admirer as well as a theatre-maker, and his varied musical influences – classical and contemporary – are found throughout Hamilton, so see the Genius annotations and analysis, authorised and added to by Miranda himself, to find them all.

Essay: History & Hip-Hop at the 58th Grammy Awards

In time for this year’s Grammys on February 12th, here’s a throwback to last year’s, paying homage to history and politics and hip-hop in the most poignant way.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that a black millennial rapper and a musical about America’s white founding fathers would have very few things in common. Kendrick Lamar, born in Compton, California in 1987, and Alexander Hamilton, subject of the musical Hamilton, born in the Caribbean circa 1757, may be centuries apart, but both became a core part of the 58th Grammy Awards, for their wins and winning performances. Lamar won five Grammys, including the coveted ‘Best Rap Album’ for 2015’s Platinum-selling To Pimp a Butterfly. Hamilton, based on Ron Chernow’s biography Alexander Hamilton, with music and lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda and a cast-of-colour playing America’s predominantly Caucasian political cabinet of the late 18th century, won Best Musical Theatre Album. Yet, there’s something else these figures have in common: both are singing songs of social and political importance.

First up, clear spots shed light and cast shadows on a shuffling chain gang, Lamar their leader, as they slouch and lumber towards a microphone. The shackles and handcuffs clatter and shake, underscoring the sound of smooth sax – the sort of incidental sophistication one might expect to hear while sipping champagne in a smoking lounge – as Lamar raises his manacled hands and takes a moment to arrange them either side of the microphone; a seemingly simple gesture that garners poignancy in the struggle to perform it. His breaths are caught by the microphone, amplified, an aide-mémoire to the life in these convicts no matter now hard the media may try to muzzle them, before the bam-bam of a drumbeat. Here’s the crowning, hear Kendrick’s cry: ‘I’m the biggest hypocrite of 2015’.

The jazz interjects, and the lights reveal Lamar’s band behind bars. They too appear part of this chain gang, but these chains don’t need to be corporeal, and perhaps nor does the crime. The double drumbeats continue, and dictate Kendrick’s bars, the dancers, the light beams, and Lamar’s lurch with every line – half flinching in hesitation, half fighting to be heard – as he delivers the opening of ‘The Blacker the Berry’.

Lamar ‘proceed[s] to give [us] what [we] need’ as the prisoners emancipate themselves. The chains come off, then, with the lights down, there’s a beat breakdown and the gang get down, their convict uniforms glowing defiantly in the dark. The drumbeat goes on, but Lamar staggers, dazed, in the darkness, towards a blazing tribal bonfire. This is the spectacle.

Silence. For a second, his voice stands alone, and he speaks to us all: ‘wake up’. Lamar hunches low as he serves up the first verse of ‘Alright’, even stooping to our level to deliver ‘let me tell you ‘bout my life’, a powerful way to confront an audience of white-privilege. When the music comes back in it is soulful and full-bodied, with its African influence not limited to the sound, as drummers and dancers surround Lamar, mixing with the convicts to form a mighty ensemble, and in the midst of the revelry of a united race, you believe them when they say they ‘gon’ be alright!’

But before long, Lamar staggers back to where it’s blacked-out, and the sax feels as though it’s fading out, when he plays his final card – centre stage, spot-lit with eyes shut – an untitled verse that reveals what’s at stake. ‘On February 26th I lost my life too,’ he raps, a reference to the fatal shooting of black teenager Trayvon Martin in 2012 by a member of the community watch, later acquitted of second-degree murder and manslaughter, and it’s here that there is a stark realisation of the racial politics at play.

The finale, a camera close-up as the rapping speeds up and the shot is cut up, is what Lamar has lead us to, a ‘conversation for the nation, [that] is bigger than us’, that he then silences with the outline of Africa with ‘COMPTON’ stamped across it, as Lamar, a black silhouette, stands alone.

So, from this performance that paints a picture of all that has gone wrong in those supposedly united States, what follows is a performance from Hamilton, a musical about the building of that very nation.

Hamilton, with the opening number broadcast live from the Richard Rodgers Theatre on Broadway, tells the history of the United States through rap, hip-hop and R&B. This too opens with a drumbeat, although this one is more military than it is tribal, and accompanied by the sweet screech of violin strings and sporadic clicks from the company, wearing cream deconstructions of colonial dress. The camera pulls out and pans across to capture the actors as they enter and recount Hamilton’s early life in a ‘forgotten spot in the Caribbean’.

The cast may be dressed in the frilly collars and frock coats of the story’s setting, but their characters are colourful, not only literally, as people-of-colour are cast as America’s Caucasian founders, but also as from the mouths of these historic heroes springs the music of today: raps spoken over dark hanging chords with all the swagger of Kendrick.

The man himself, played by Lin-Manuel Miranda, has his moment in the spotlight, centre stage, too, and the company list his hardships. His father ‘splits’, ‘his mother went quick’, the last word a lingering whisper, haunting the scene as a woman is lifted, lifeless, to represent her passing, and, without skipping a beat, a man on a chair mimes winding a rope around his neck – Hamilton’s cousin committing suicide.

A phoenix rising from the ashes, like Lamar’s rebirth around his bonfire, Hamilton writes ‘his first refrain [as] a testament to his pain’, a creative process that recalls the origins of rap, where artists seek to write their way out of their circumstances. Off to New York to be a new man, Hamilton ascends to the set’s balcony, a bare, wooden structure controlled by the company, as the central narrator, identity yet unknown, resumes a quick spit of rapped rhymes.

The company line downstage, another collective-of-colour like Kendrick’s convicts, and are illustrative of, as Miranda has had to explain exhaustively in media interviews, a story of America then told by America now. And America now is where we are, as Hamilton descends the lowered steps as if coming ashore as the company sings, ‘the world will never be the same’.

The composition shares more than just style with hip-hop. Lines like ‘another immigrant coming up from the bottom’ echo the braggadocio not only of ‘The Blacker the Berry’s’ ‘came from the bottom of mankind’, but also of other artists, like Jay Z’s justified boasts in ‘Otis’ that his and fellow rappers’ achievements as African Americans are ‘not bad, huh, for some immigrants’.

As with Lamar’s performance, the finale gathers speed and sound, as spots individually illuminate the cast of supporting characters, a company who ‘fought for him’, ‘died for him’, ‘trusted him’, ‘loved him’, and, in a tragic reflection of the black cause that Kendrick centres on, the nameless narrator is revealed to be Aaron Burr, ‘the damn fool that shot him’. Yet, once again, the sounds fall to silence, as the voices stand alone to sing the final line: ‘Alexander Hamilton’.

No longer seeming styles and centuries apart, the performances of Hamilton and Lamar point to matters of social and political importance through a popular shared medium: the power of music. But not just any music; this is the music of struggle, of skill, and of voices usually silenced. So let’s start listening.