Review: Forgotten 遗忘, Arcola Theatre

Daniel York Loh’s Forgotten 遗忘 proves an invaluable history lesson at Arcola Theatre in a co-production from Moongate and Yellow Earth

“Whose side are we on?”

The obsessive focus on highly-skilled migrants that characterises so much of the administration’s thinking on immigration neglects one crucial detail – that it is so often migrants who end up doing the kind of criminally low-paid, thankless jobs that our society relies upon and rarely acknowledges. Of course, this kind of erasure is nothing new but it is still a shock to discover the history lesson that Daniel York Loh has in store for us in Forgotten 遗忘.

For his new play tells us the story of the Chinese Labour Corps – the hundreds of thousands of rural Chinese workers who were recruited to work by Britain and her allies in the trenches World War I. Not as soldiers but labourers cleaning machines, digging trenches, removing bodies – an integral part of the war effort but one whose contributions remain entirely undersung. And as we approach the centenary of Remembrance Day, what better time to redress this. Continue reading “Review: Forgotten 遗忘, Arcola Theatre”

Review: Not Talking, Arcola

This ‘new’ Mike Bartlett’ play is well-acted at the Arcola Theatre but Not Talking can’t quite hide its origins in radio

“If I don’t want to tell anyone, it’s up to me, right?”

A treat here in the premiere of Mike Bartlett’s first-ever play, never seen before in a theatre. But something of a qualified treat, because 2005’s Not Talking was written as a radio play and as sumptuously cast as James Hiller’s production for the Arcola and Defibrillator is (with Kika Markham and David Horovitch), it’s a drama that never really escapes these origins.

The play is constructed as two pairs of two intertwining but distinct monologues – separated by time on the one side, kept apart by emotional distance on the other. Reflecting back on their lives, James and Lucy have the benefit, such as it is, of experience; at the beginning of their potential story, Mark and Amanda find their lives no less blighted by momentous events. Continue reading “Review: Not Talking, Arcola”

Review: Insignificance, Arcola

“Knowledge is nothing without understanding”

I loved chemistry at school, enjoyed biology too but for some reason, my brain could never wrap itself around physics. So when two characters in Terry Johnson’s play Insignificance started discussing the specific nature of the theory of relativity – albeit through the medium of toy trains and helium-filled balloons – I was thrown back to the mild panic of Mr Byrchall’s classroom and the general feel of ‘I just don’t get it!’.

But Insignificance is not a play about physics and the two characters aren’t just any random people. It’s 1954 and though they’re officially named The Actress and The Professor, we can – with reasonable confidence – infer that they’re Marilyn Monroe and Albert Einstein. And they’re intermittently joined by her husband Joe DiMaggio – The Ball Player – and Joseph McCarthy – The Senator, for a fantasia on the nature of celebrity that is occasionally quite dazzling. Continue reading “Review: Insignificance, Arcola”

Review: Tamburlaine, Arcola

“I mean to be a terror to the world”

I’m fully on board with Yellow Earth Theatre’s objectives of identifying and investing in British East Asian emerging and established actors, writers and directors, so it does pain me a little that their production of Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine didn’t quite do it for me. Director Ng Choon Ping has spun a highly theatrical adaptation out of one of the earliest plays to be considered a public success, but its inventive ambition works against its dramatic effectiveness.

In Moi Tran’s spare design, a company of six cover more than twenty roles in this compression of the saga of the Central Asian emperor Timur on whose life it is based. And with the design being so minimal, the constant multi-roling becomes dizzying, projected captions not quite doing enough. Additionally, given that five of the six are women, there’s a layer of gender fluidity which is thought-provoking in this extremely masculine world but ultimately under-explored. Continue reading “Review: Tamburlaine, Arcola”

Review: The Lower Depths, Arcola

“Living is fucking impossible and that’s the truth of it”

The Arcola launch their Revolution Season, marking the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution and exploring its considerable impact, with a new production of Gorky’s The Lower Depths played by an ensemble who will remain on duty for the subsequent play in the main house The Cherry Orchard. And whilst I do enjoy getting to visit and revisit an ensemble, I have to admit to really not enjoying this.

Translated by Jeremy Brooks and Kitty Hunter-Blair and directed by Helena Kaut-Howson, The Lower Depths focuses on the downstairs from Chekhov’s upstairs, the angst of the aristocracy replaced by the desperation of the downtrodden and it really is as much fun as it sounds. A cast of nearly 20 play an assortment of misery-bound miscreants passing through a Moscow lodging house for the destitute, complaining volubly about their lot in life. Continue reading “Review: The Lower Depths, Arcola”

Review: Cargo, Arcola

“We’re all in the same boat…”

One of the shrewder observations of recent weeks has been the puncturing of the declamatory announcements that the UK has become impossible to live in and that emigration was now necessary after just a few days of turmoil. For when you compare that to the issues that cause immigration now, for example more than five years of civil war, huge swathes of towns and cities – even Syria’s largest city Aleppo – literally bombed out, then you see the sense of perspective that is sorely needed.

Issues like this ran around my head as I sat down to watch Tess Berry-Hart’s new play Cargo (a snippet of which I was able to see at the excellent Refugees Welcome event in May). Among the many strings to Berry-Hart’s bow is her role as a key co-ordinator for Calais Action and so this is clearly a writer who knows of what she speaks when it comes to refugees. But taking a different spin on the subject, Cargo imagines (or should that be slightly embellishes…) a near-future dystopian Britain that is the land people are trying to flee.

It’s an effective technique, one which tumbles the audience directly into the experience of those forced to flee the sanctity of their homeland. Max Dorey’s design reconfigures the Arcola’s studio into a shipping container and we’re plonked on crates and rubbish bags for seats, straining to hear the whispered beginnings of the play which opens in darkness as three young people stowaway in hope of reaching the welcoming security of Europe. But have they leapt from the frying pan into the fire, as the desperate measures they’ve taken continue to threaten them. Continue reading “Review: Cargo, Arcola”

Review: Kenny Morgan, Arcola

“Say what you like but there’s been a crime committed. More than one I should say–”

As Helen McCrory scorches the earth beneath her with a transcendental take on Hester Collyer, the lead part in Terence Rattigan’s The Deep Blue Sea, the time felt right to then take in Mike Poulton’s Kenny Morgan. In this play, Poulton draws back the veil that society demanded Rattigan draw over his intended original subject, dramatising the real events that inspired the deep tragedy of his writing.

For Rattigan drew directly from his own life – a ten year relationship with a man named Kenny Morgan ended due to his lover’s depression and as he ricocheted into a destructive new relationship, Rattigan had to look on helplessly as Morgan spiralled ever deeper into tragedy. At a time when both suicide and homosexuality were illegal, it is no wonder the playwright opted to code The Deep Blue Sea. Continue reading “Review: Kenny Morgan, Arcola”

Review: After Independence, Arcola

“Why must your wound be healed by wounding me?”

The Papatango Theatre Company have long been at the forefront of new writing with their annual prize competition always one to look out for and now they’re expanding their territory, premiering a new piece from their first Resident Playwright here at the Arcola. Edinburgh-born May Sumbwanyambe’s family hails from right across Southern Africa and it is there, specifically, Zimbabwe, to which he has turned for After Independence.

Set at the end of the last century when a majority black government first came to power in Harare, the play circles the contentious issue of land grabs, as white farmers and landowners have their property redistributed – sometimes forcefully – to the black population. But though their claims look to the future, they deny the past of a population who consider themselves just as African, and thus the horns of a terrible dilemma present themselves. Continue reading “Review: After Independence, Arcola”

Review: The Sugar-Coated Bullets of the Bourgeoisie, Arcola

“We made the revolution, not Mao”

The Sugar-Coated Bullets of the Bourgeoisie is based on more than a decade of Anders Lustgarten’s intensive studies into China and it shows. The play is undoubtedly well-constructed and shines a light on an area that is persistently underexplored by British theatre but with so much information and insight at his fingertips, the playwright doesn’t resist the temptation to share as much of it as he can and it makes for a slightly frustrating experience.

So we get a thorough examination of modern Chinese history through the prism of a small village from Rotten Peach. There, the rise of Chairman Mao and the founding of the People’s Republic utterly transforms the landscape in 10 brutal years but we only get a certain amount of a dramatic rendering of how this upheaval affects the social fabric of the lives of the villagers, too much time is taken up with exposition and explanation, political theory by stealth and thus lacking in theatrical thrill. Continue reading “Review: The Sugar-Coated Bullets of the Bourgeoisie, Arcola”

Review: Scenes from 68* Years, Arcola

“We live in a climate of fear – they’ve made that”

The asterisk in the title is important. It denotes the number of years since the creation of the State of Israel in 1948 and so if the play were to be put on again next year, it would be entitled Scenes from 69* Years. It all adds to the sense of living history that permeates Hannah Khalil’s Scenes from 68* Years, a series of snapshots from life in Palestine throughout that time in all its complexity as to build one nation, another must be broken.

It’s a deeply emotive subject but one which is approached with clear-eyed balance by Khalil. Her stories, collated from the experiences of friends and family, are presented as non-linear vignettes – a picnic interrupted by soldiers in 1992, a charity worker making an aid run in 2010, a boy playing a prank on his grandfather in 1978 and so on – but the perspectives they offer come from Palestinians and Israelis alike, giving details of how day-to-day life co-exists with headline-grabbing drama. Continue reading “Review: Scenes from 68* Years, Arcola”