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!

Review: Royal Ballet’s The Nutcracker

Royal Ballet's Nutcracker

Musical suites and magical sweets

With musical suites and magical sweets, Sir Peter Wright’s The Nutcracker is a festive feast for all tastes: Tchaikovsky’s score is rich with wonder and originality, a Christmas tree magically grows tall and mighty, and snowflakes fall and flurry in an fairytale forest. Yet, the true gift of the Royal’s Nutcracker is that it’s performed with all the warmth and wit found in a drop of whiskey – a necessary ingredient to deepen the flavour of any Christmas cracker.

The sugary sweetness from the Royal Ballet School children at the Stahlbaum’s Christmas Eve bash is brought back from the brink of saccharine by the Royal Ballet’s believable and oft-overlooked character artists, with Elizabeth McGorian and Christopher Saunders as the idealised Edwardian hosts and Kristen McNally making a delicious meal out of the dancing mistress. As Drosselmeyer, the magician desperate to free his Nutcracker nephew from the Mouse King, Gary Avis is the cream that melts all the magic together, introducing his mechanical dolls – with Paul Kay and Meaghan Grace Hinkis’s darting soldiers a delight for children and adults alike – with a flourish of that magnificent cloak. Continue reading “Review: Royal Ballet’s The Nutcracker”

Review: Royal Ballet’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

An eclectic spectacle of technicolor creation

Follow the White Rabbit – and the Royal Ballet – down the rabbit-hole into a weird and whimsical Wonderland of choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, composer Joby Talbot, and designer Bob Crowley’s creation. Weaving the classical with the contemporary in his characteristically eclectic style, Wheeldon translates a Wonderland of wordplay and rhyme into one of diverse dance styles and spectacular theatricality that welcomes both the delightful and the disturbing from Lewis Carroll’s timeless tale.

Alice’s adventures follow the same style as Carroll’s story: a series of vignettes filled with curious, colourful characters, but the trial lies in how to thread these varied and vibrant scenes together into three acts with an arc to follow. Wheeldon accomplishes this with the ticking hand of time as a motif, from the White Rabbit’s pocket-watch to Joby Talbot’s percussive, characterful music, and this Wonderland is wound clockwise into a pacey, punchy performance that whirls us through in whistle-stop time, but it wouldn’t work without an Alice to hold our hand. Lauren Cuthbertson, recreating the role created for her, plays Alice free of the traditional ‘twee’, instead a curious teenager whose flat-footed tantrums and lively curiosity perfectly contrast the fluid lines and quick turns of her technical performance.

Wheeldon’s Alices have to master many a move once in Wonderland: Continue reading “Review: Royal Ballet’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”

Essay: Why Wayne McGregor & Virginia Woolf Work – Royal Ballet’s Woolf Works

woolf-works-blog

Wayne McGregor’s Woolf Works: doing with movement as Virginia Woolf did with words

Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf? Not Wayne McGregor, as the Royal Ballet’s resident choreographer revives his award-winning 2015 work based on her writings. Why Virginia Woolf? McGregor argues for the way ‘she really reinvented the way you read a novel‘, and dramaturg Uzma Hameed discusses the ‘tension in Woolf between narrative and abstract‘; substitute ‘read a novel’ with ‘watch a ballet’ and ‘Woolf’ with ‘McGregor’ and its observable and wholly understandable why Virginia Woolf and Wayne McGregor work. McGregor does with movement as Woolf did with words, and his triptych Woolf Works, with acts inspired by Mrs Dalloway, Orlando, and The Waves, pushes the boundaries of the balletic form beyond what is expected, taking its inspiration from the revolutionary effect Woolf’s own boundary-pushing writing had on the narrative form.

The piece opens with ‘I now, I then’, a breathtakingly, heartbreakingly beautiful embodiment of Mrs Dalloway, and this part of the Works‘ centre, as with much of Woolf’s, is the passage of time. From Max Richter’s music with its rhythmic ticking to McGregor’s movement: a simultaneous pendulum-style swing into six o’clock penchĂ©s for Alessandra Ferri and Federico Bonelli – faint impressionist memories of two of the novels’ protagonists, Clarissa and Peter – and the slightly-out-of-sync steps in the canon choreography with Francesca Hayward’s Sally, which after a kiss fall effortlessly in time. Following the heart-wrenching, homoerotic pas de deux between shell-shocked Septimus – a wonderful Edward Watson, the image of the walking-wounded weighed-down with gravity and grief – and Calvin Richardson’s Evans, one of the wars’ inevitable victims, Septimus’ boundary-pushing balances finally overbalance and he falls, as if into the void, as Richter’s music builds and theres bombs and blasts and then: black. This immensely haunting moment evokes the end of Mrs Dalloway, as Septimus, stricken, sterile – emotionally, artistically, and, much to his wife Rezia’s (Akane Takada) anguish, actually – and suicidal, can’t ‘assemble’ – illustrated in those beautifully bittersweet off-centre balances in the pas de deux – and falls, fatally, from the window. Only after does Richter bring in the soft sound of bells: perhaps, as in the novel, the bells of Big Ben; chiming in time to call Clarissa back from her own second of lost hope, but too late for Septimus.

As his same-sex partnered pas de deux evidence, McGregor embodies the modernist ideal, devised by poet Ezra Pound, of ‘making it new’, but it’s an ideology that he demonstrates in more than just dance. As Resident Choreographer for over ten years, there is often much talk about how crucial McGregor is to the future of the company and hand-crafting roles for new principals, but in Woolf Works, he creates the greatest role for an older one, which, in an art-form that favours the youth, is perhaps the most revolutionary act of all. Alessandra Ferri, now in her fifties, performs the dramatic role of Mrs Dalloway with the gentle fragility and decorous grace of Clarissa in the novel, but also with a poignant longing to return to her past as she watches her younger self (Beatriz Stix-Brunell) – a wish McGregor awards her that most of us are never afforded. The seemingly impossible interweaving of past and present, the younger and older, in characters and cast – completed by Gary Avis as Mrs Dalloway’s present-day husband – is a response not only to Woolf’s writing, but to real life: as Ferri summarises, ‘Mrs Dalloway was my age […] but in her memories she was a teenager. But so am I, [and] so is everyone‘.

There’s something multi-dimensional about McGregor’s method – Ferri’s Mrs Dalloway is also a reminder of Woolf herself – and it’s no more obvious than in the second piece, ‘Becomings’. Based on Orlando, it’s a fast, flashy and technically-faultless fall through time and space from the Elizabethan to a busy, futuristic existence. Natalia Osipova appears to be the eponymous Orlando, the Elizabethan page who metamorphoses into a female body and lives for centuries, but the beauty of McGregor’s production, in a reflection of the novel’s fluidity, is that any of the dozen dancers could be Orlando, so fluid are the identities, the dance and the design. For a usually decidedly-gendered discipline, ‘Becomings’ disregards all rules of classical ballet: the male dancers wear dresses, dance with each other and execute the same elevated extensions usually reserved for women, and it proves there is nothing reserved about this piece. Even in the parts with fewer bodies on stage, especially Francesca Hayward’s impressive solo, the effect is still as viscerally powerful as the busier moments, particularly the fast-moving finale as the dancers move across spotlights on the floor as if falling, faster and faster, through the sands of time.

McGregor’s work is often collaborative in influence and creation, and, like Woolf, he works with and around creative groups that are growing ballet, and his body of work, in new and innovative ways. Woolf was a figure in the Bloomsbury Group, a collective of creatives – from artists to intellectuals – whose influence, intelligence and innovation united by the arts shaped and evolved the forms each worked in. Later embodied in his 2016 work Multiverse, ‘a landmark collaboration between leading innovators from three disciplines of contemporary art‘, ‘Becomings’ is a collaboration that uses dance, music, and design as counterparts, not competition. The beats, beeps, static, and razor-sharp strings of Richter’s score complement lighting designer Lucy Carter’s laser beams of light, and Moritz Junge’s ever-changing costumes, deconstructing and reconstructing versions of ostentatious Elizabethan dress – from black ruffs to fitted bodices to full skirts – reinforce the gender-and-genre-less form.

And, finally, we wash up on ‘Tuesday’, the closing piece of the triptych which returns to Ferri’s character, now more Woolf than Dalloway, and floats on the influence of Woolf’s The Waves. As the voices in The Waves, the large company of dancers are distinct individuals, but they unite as a central consciousness in the complex port de bras, moving like crashing waves at first in sync before falling out of line, like the stream of consciousness of Woolf’s writing style. Yet, ‘Tuesday’ doesn’t just stream, it pours: the dancers empty themselves into an emotionally moving sea of movement, and Richter’s music ebbs and flows and falls and grows until it feels almost overwhelming; almost as if we’re drowning.

This feeling is layered with further poignancy as the piece opens with a reading of Woolf’s own suicide note, addressed and left to her husband, Leonard, before her untimely demise, dying by drowning herself in the River Ouse. For all Woolf’s novel and experimental style, her suicide note is exposed, stripped of pretence, and sincere, and it feels like Ferri is also stepping back from ballet’s formalities towards pure emotion as she steps out of her pointe shoes and is left barefoot, perhaps the most exposed a ballerina can be. Bonelli returns, now, like Ferri, more likely a real life iteration of her husband than a fictional one, and lifts Ferri above the waves as the music builds, reflecting the love the Woolfs had for one another in the note: ‘I don’t think two people could have been happier […] if anybody could have saved me it would have been you‘. ‘Tuesday’ is so moving that, like most of Woolf’s works, you have to stop looking for meaning, and just let it wash over you.

Woolf Works’ three acts are a balanced marriage of everything Wayne McGregor brings to the Royal Ballet, and everything they bring to him: ‘I now, I then’ is breathtakingly, heartbreakingly beautiful ballet, ‘Becomings’, with its collaborative cleverness, is a spectacle as cerebral as it is visceral, and ‘Tuesday’ is achingly haunting, hugely affecting, and a fitting finale to a piece that, like Woolf’s works, explores and pushes on the boundaries of its form. The work opens with the only surviving voice recording of Virginia Woolf as she muses how ‘words, English words, are full of echoes, of memories, of associations […] so stored with meanings‘, and it’s a sentiment McGregor seems to share. Despite earning acclaim as a more abstract choreographer, his belief is that ‘all dance is narrative’, imbued, like Woolf’s words, with meanings and memories; the pas de deux, pointe shoes, and port de bras from classical ballet are still there, but, like Woolf’s words, they are revitalised by a new visionary. 

Live cinema relay from the Royal Opera House, 8th February 2017, broadcast on BBC4 9th July 2017, cast includes Alessandra Ferri, Sarah Lamb, Natalia Osipova, Federico Bonelli, Steven McRae & Edward Watson, picture by Tristram Kenton, click for link to Woolf Works at roh.org.uk

Review: Royal Ballet’s Ashton Triple Bill

ashton triple

The charm of Ashton’s choreography: ‘The Dream’ truly dreamy, ‘Symphonic Variations’ simply visionary, ‘Marguerite and Armand’ emotionally arresting

The Royal Ballet bring clarity and refined classicism to Frederick Ashton’s charming choreography in a beautiful Triple Bill that encapsulates the versatility, vitality, and affectiveness of their founder choreographer’s wonderful work. Dancers past and present – from the original Oberon in The Dream, Anthony Dowell, to Henry Danton, one of the original six in Symphonic Variations – provide invaluable insights into Ashton’s timeless style and expectations of his dancers: impeccable musicality with fast footwork and expressive épaulement, performed purely, effortlessly, and with emotional intensity – it’s a lot to ask, but when mastered, as it is here, the effect is magical.

Opening this Ashton triptych is The Dream, a sharply streamlined adaptation of Shakespeare’s sprawling play that story-tells much more efficiently than its source. Ashton’s movement creates character as clearly as Mendelssohn’s magnificent music: the fairies flit and suddenly freeze in the moonlit forest to a flurry of fluttering strings and choral singing; Bottom – a brilliant Bennet Gartside – and his rustics move in earthy bounds to a braying march, and the height of playful Puck’s – a blossoming Valentino Zucchetti – bravura and ballon find reflection in high-pitched flutes. The lovers are also full of character, especially Matthew Ball’s funny, foppish Lysander and Itziar Mendizabal’s hopelessly bewildered Helena. Steven McRae’s leaps and pirouettes as the oppressive Oberon are superb, and he seems to embody Dowell in his fine performance alongside Akane Takada as his Titania, who really relaxed once in the romance of the last pas de deux, its final sliding splits and dĂ©veloppĂ©s as smooth as silk and iconic mirrored penchĂ©s as impressive as ever.

Following this are twenty minutes of technical mastery, a harmonious marriage of Franck’s music, mastered by pianist Paul Stobart, with Fred’s movement. Wearing little more than white leotards and tights and staying onstage the whole time, the six-strong cast of Symphonic Variations are exposed, exhausted, but unequivocally excellent. The piece is led by Vadim Muntagirov, who’s really matured and developed as a dancer at the Royal, no doubt aided by his partnership with the unparalleled Marianela Nuñez, and it’s on fine form here: the crystalline, canon choreography is practiced, precise, and almost perfectly synchronised, with only a few instances where the otherwise faultless Yasmine Naghdi’s enviable extensions strayed slightly out of line. Naghdi’s partner, James Hay, has the most expressive hands and exquisite line, and Yuhui Choe and Tristan Dyer complete a consummate sextet.

Closing out the program was the most emotionally charged – in more ways than one – and challenging partnering piece, Marguerite and Armand. La Dame aux CamĂ©lias distilled into a series of passionate pas de deux and set to Liszt’s piano sonata – played by Robert Clark – the staging leaves a little to be desired, but the dance is all desire, caught between the coughs of Marguerite’s consumption. This performance was also a triumphant swan song for one of the Royal’s finest and most respected – see this post from fellow company member Olivia Cowley – principals, Zenaida Yanowsky. With Guest Artist Roberto Bolle as an arresting Armand, Yanowsky gives Marguerite grit and a tragic emotional resonance, her long extensions exquisite in the romantic lifts and freely expressive pas de deux. 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, present her with bouquet after bouquet of flowers. A truly fitting finale to both a wonderful career and an evening of charming works.

Live cinema relay from the Royal Opera House, 7th April 2017, cast includes Akane Takada, Steven McRae, Marianela Nuñez, Vadim Muntagirov, Zenaida Yanowsky & Roberto Bolle, picture by Tristram Kenton, see details at ROH.org.uk