Buzzing, bloody, and bleak
Macbeth at the Tobacco Factory opens as one of Emily Dickinson’s famous works, about a fly interposing indifferently as death falls on its speaker, ends: ‘with Blue – uncertain – stumbling Buzz –’: the lighting is stark cyan, the space dark, and the electronic soundscape buzzes and breathes around us. Yet, a fly-like buzzing as one dies is not the only similarity between the atmosphere summoned by Dickinson’s unadorned words and Adele Thomas’s austere direction of Shakespeare’s death-drenched work.
Although it’s a dagger, not a fly, that the murderous Macbeth sees before him, he and his driven-mad wife, like the words of Dickinson’s dying, ‘could not see to see’: that is, as is later observed of the Lady herself, their ‘eyes are open’, ‘but their sense is shut’. Fuelled – or fooled – by the three weird sisters’ prophecy that sovereignty shall be his, the thane is blinded by ambition and soon has blood on his hands. Continue reading “Reflection: Macbeth at Tobacco Factory Theatres”
More pertinent, more perceptive, more powerful than ever
Caryl Churchill’s play about cloning is more pertinent, more perceptive, and more powerful than ever, and it has little to do with the technical practicalities of cloning now, almost twenty years after its premiere. Actually, A Number never had much to do with cloning at all, but connection: of father to son, nature to nurture, and individual to… vegetable. If we really have thirty percent the same genes as a lettuce, what makes us who we are?
A one-acter for two actors, the set up is deceptively simple: a son, after discovering he’s a clone, confronts his father, Salter, and the consequences unfold in a fraught, fast-paced dialogue. In the intimacy of The Other Room, the tensions play out like a tennis match in traverse: Continue reading “Reflection: A Number at the Other Room Cardiff”
A respectfully and perfectly repurposed The Tempest
‘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.
The crypt, carved and cavernous, is the corporeal and acoustic setting for Prospero’s recount of what happened to him, and he recreates the characters with some well-repurposed household trinkets: Continue reading “Reflection: Insane Root Theatre’s The Tempest”
At times discordant, but strikes a real chord
On a cold Christmas Eve, a little match girl lights her last matches for warmth; imagining a home full of love, she keeps hope and herself alive for a little while longer. There are little match girls – alone, homeless, hopeless – all over the world, and Hans Christian Andersen’s story is still a powerful and poignant one, and more prescient than ever. Bristol Old Vic’s The Little Matchgirl, a co-production with Shakespeare’s Globe, is a bold and brave choice for a Christmas show, and it burns brightly.
The other tales – vaudevillian vignettes overseen by Niall Ashdown’s revelatory, wry, rhyming emcee – while fanciful and fun and fantastically performed, have to fight to find their feet. Striking a match to tell each story, the emcee takes the match girl through a kaleidoscope of Andersen classics: Continue reading “Reflection: The Little Match Girl and Other Happier Tales”
Rough-and-ready and wistfully raw
The curtain rises on an intricate, ramshackle construction of bricks, boards, and broken men cascaded across a remarkable, multi-levelled recreation of a communal prison cell. We see in through a literal break in the fourth wall, as if one side of the set has been broken apart by an unseen force, and the literal and metaphorical walls keep coming down to reveal, in all their tough-and-tenderness, the men and the motives behind the criminals and their crimes.
David Pountney’s production of From the House of the Dead is a series of vignettes from the view of the deadened and slowly dying convicts as they survive the cruelty and uniformity of captivity and escape into a life once lived outside the four walls of their confinement. Their recollections and reflections are ragtag and fragmentary and resist many operatic conventions: the prisoners interrupt each other’s arias, there’s no concrete plot, and the cast has no principals but perform as a collective. For some, From the House of the Dead may feel more ragged than ragtag, but it works to reflect the rough-and-ready, unrefined reality of the prisoners’ experiences both within the prison and without. Continue reading “Reflection: WNO’s From the House of the Dead”
The epitome of theatrical magic: visceral, evocative and immensely moving
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. Joey grows from a frightened foal swatting flies with his tail to a magnificent, fully-grown mount in a moving moment where he rears, braying and backlit, and is first ridden by Albert. The horses grow and gallop but, like humans, they also have to give up: when the war-weary horse Topthorn lays down to die, his puppeteers simply step out and walk away, poignantly leaving his puppet carcass to the crows and the cries of pain from his handler, Friedrich. It’s a stirring moment that strips away imagination and innocence and reveals the stark reality of war, but also the wondrous, moving work of what we’re watching.
This is war in all its brutality, but also its overwhelming bravery: Continue reading “Reflection: War Horse UK Tour”
Raw realism is at the heart of this truly impressive, immersive, and emotive performance
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.
Raucous has chosen the vast, cavernous Jacob’s Wells Baths in Bristol to tell this story of survival, and they use every inch of it: Continue reading “Reflection: Raucous’ Ice Road”
An impressive and uniquely intimate musical experience
On its turn-of-the-century debut, Puccini’s opera about death, desire and deception was termed a ‘shabby little shocker’ by the press, but there’s nothing shabby in this co-production from Opera Project and Tobacco Factory Theatres. Staged in-the-round in this uniquely intimate space, the story of tempestuous soprano Floria Tosca, her liberal artist lover Cavaradossi and the cruel and corrupt chief Scarpia is told with an intimacy, emotional intensity, and expressive pathos only possible in such a space.
In a New York Times review of Victorien Sardou’s original play, Tosca was deemed ‘not much of a play, a mere outline at best, made to fit like a glove’ to the talent of the infamous leading lady of the time, and although the former is perhaps still true, Puccini’s opulent score, played by Opera Project’s twelve-piece orchestra and conducted with passionate flair by Jonathan Lyness, not only fits but fills the space to create a singular musical experience. There’s a striking simplicity to the staging, with its flickering candles, focused lighting, and black bars that shift from confession to confinement allowing the score and the singing to take centre-stage. Operatic asides – ‘he’s dead!’ – that often feel impractical work well in-the-round, and are particularly pointed in Act I when Scarpia’s plot is put into action: Cavaradossi’s supposed deception is ‘as I suspected’ sings Tosca; ‘the plan is affected’ Scarpia counters. Continue reading “Reflection: Tosca at the Tobacco Factory Theatre”
‘A moment frozen in time’ thawed: funny, heartfelt, and human
Harold Pinter’s inspiration for his tragicomic play The Caretaker was seeing two men in the same room, acting separately and in isolation, ‘a moment frozen in time’. Director Christopher Haydon and designer Oliver Townsend’s set for Bristol Old Vic and Royal & Derngate, Northampton’s production, on display as the audience take their seats, certainly feels like a moment frozen in time: suspended in the space are stepladders, drawers, desks, trolleys, toilet seats, light-bulbs, buckets, a door, and two windows with rain dripping down; a scene that feels like it should be in motion, but that is inexplicably still, as if someone has pressed pause.
Once we press play, Pinter’s three very distinct characters occupy the space in distinctively separate ways. Patrice Naiambana’s nomadic Davies ambles and shambles and mumbles and grumbles until, in his overcoat and odd socks, he seems more at home amongst the haphazard furniture than the family who inhabit the muddled room that houses it. The first family member we meet is Mick, the proprietor, expressionless, and prostrate on a mattress at the opening. Once he’s in motion, though, he is, as he later says to Davies, ‘moving all the time’: Continue reading “Reflection: The Caretaker at Bristol Old Vic”