Review: Refugees Welcome, Southwark Playhouse

“We’re privileged to welcome you here”

Something a bit different for a Sunday but definitely worthwhile, Refugees Welcome saw a curated collection of performances exploring the themes of displacement, exodus and the humanitarian disaster of the refugee crisis through the medium of theatre, comedy and poetry. Organised by David Mercatali in support of Calais Action and all their advocacy work as well as aid support for displaced people in camps and hotspots across Europe, it proved a powerful programme of thought-provoking work.

For me, it was most fascinating to how consider how theatre in particular responds to contemporary crises, the speed of response somewhat limited by form, the nature of response dictated by swift-changing news agendas. So the excerpt from Anders Lustgarten’s 2015 play Lampedusa, performed by Louise Mai Newberry and the playwright, felt horribly like last year’s news because we’re not being still confronted with the images of overcrowded boats crossing the Med. But the snippet of Tess Berry-Hart’s Cargo, soon to be seen at the Arcola, reminded us that this is not a problem that is going away, and that (certain) theatres are not shying away from. Continue reading “Review: Refugees Welcome, Southwark Playhouse”

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: It’s Like the 60s Never Happened, Royal Court

We seek out revolution wherever we can find it”

The Royal Court’s The Big Idea strand of work commissions a range of responses to the plays running there and with Hangmen going great guns in the main house before heading over the Wyndham’s for a well-deserved West End transfer, I headed over this Saturday afternoon for It’s Like the 60s Never Happened. Four short plays, each “imagining a world where one of the major 1960s social political or technological innovations never happened”, performed in unexpected locations on the Royal Court site.

I’ve been on a couple of similar theatrical trips here before and there’s something irresistible about getting to see the backstage nooks and crannies which are so inventively used. This time, we got to visit a rehearsal room, a little terraced garden, a stairwell and the office that sits behind those iconic red letters out front and though they may not sound the most inspirational of places, the way in which each of the directors used them really did cultivate the sense of something special. Continue reading “Review: It’s Like the 60s Never Happened, Royal Court”

Downloadable dramas – Lampedusa and Elegy

“We live with unspeakable losses, and most of us move on”

A bit of a treat for you, with audio adaptations of two recent hard-hitting plays available to download.

Marking Refugee Week and the end of a four year journey for this play, Douglas Rintoul’s Elegy can be downloaded both high and lower quality from this very webpage and there’s a digital programme and the text available for you as well to make a comprehensive little package. This Transport Theatre production is a devastating piece of documentary theatre, charting the horrendous experiences of gay Iraqi refugees as they were forced to flee their homeland. I saw it back in 2012 and it has stayed with me ever since, I definitely recommend giving this a listen. 

And as something of an accidental companion piece, Lampedusa blew me away at the Soho Theatre back in April this year, hitting a shocking vein of synchronicity as news of boatloads of refugees dying in the Mediterranean suddenly dominated the front pages. HighTide’s production of Anders Lustgarten’s play will be returning to the Soho at the end of the month but you can listen to an adaptation of it now on the Guardian website or download it as an mp3 and partake of it at your leisure. Again, it is often brutal but remains a powerful piece of theatre that speaks so much to our current time.

Photo: Jonny Birch

Review: Lampedusa, Soho Theatre

“Blaming ‘fucking migrants’ for every single thing we don’t like about ourselves”

There’s something rather ingenious about Lucy Osborne’s design for Anders Lustgarten’s new play Lampedusa. It’s the type of set that invites descriptors like ‘bare’ and ‘minimal’ (cf the Guardian’s reduction of Jan Versweyveld’s Olivier-nominated work to “there is no set”) when you walk into the upstairs space at the Soho Theatre, there appears to be nothing but circular, backless benches on which we must gather around. But even the act of taking a seat becomes charged with something more as the collective gaze of the audience is turned in on each other, even before the play has started.

That’s the point that Steven Atkinson’s production skilfully but pointedly makes, and that Osborne’s design in all its ostensible simplicity never lets us forget, that – to coin a phrase – we’re all in this together. As the voices of an Italian coastguard and a Yorkshire payday loan collector speak out from in among us, you realise there but for the grace of God – the people forced to flee persecution or government crackdowns, those who suffer the indignities of derogatory language spat at them or ATOS’ risible assessment procedure, those left with no choice but to make desperate, desperate decisions – it could be us, it is us.  Continue reading “Review: Lampedusa, Soho Theatre”

Review: Theatre Uncut 2014, Soho Theatre

“Knock knock,
Who’s there,
The Welfare State…”

The Theatre Uncut initiative was set up in 2010 as a response to the proposed government cuts in arts spending as it invited a number of playwrights to write short plays which would then be available to download and perform “rights-free in a week of mass theatrical action”. An impressive array of writers – Neil LaBute, Mark Ravenhill, Lucy Kirkwood – have gotten involved across the past few years and one of this year’s best new plays – Clara Brennan’s Spine – started life in this format in 2012.

Devised as a way of creating a rapid response to current political concerns, this year’s theme has coalesced around the provovation ‘Knowledge is Power, Knowledge is Change’ and the five writers collaboratively involved are Anders Lustgarten, Clara Brennan, Inua Ellams, Vivienne Franzmann and Hayley Squires. And a motley crew they make up, punching hard with a raw energy that is variable and visceral and vocal and vibrant. Continue reading “Review: Theatre Uncut 2014, Soho Theatre”

Review: Black Jesus, Finborough

“I decided who would be saved and who would be condemned. I took that responsibility for others and now I take it for myself”

The investigation of war crimes in Africa has already had one intriguing exploration on London’s stages this year in the excellent A Human Being Died That Night at the Hampstead but where that play focused on South Africa, Anders Lustgarten’s Black Jesus looks at contemporary Zimbabwe, the damage that Robert Mugabe’s regime has inflicted, and the possibilities of reaching any kind of resolution when the scars of conflict cut so deep.

It is set in the near future, where a Truth and Justice Commission has been set up to explore the crimes of the past. Eunice Ncube (the excellent Debbie Korley) is tasked with interviewing Gabriel (Paapa Essiedu, in a rich vein of form at the moment) one of the key members of a brutal youth militia movement called the Green Bombers, who crushed untold enemies with violence and remains a thoroughly intimidating figure. Continue reading “Review: Black Jesus, Finborough”

Review: The Big Ideas- PIIGS, Italy, – Royal Court via YouTube

“I’m not saying this is the answer”

With the Italian edition of The Big Idea, it was actually the verbatim sections that I enjoyed the most. The reportage element used Twitter and Facebook conversations as a model, creating a punchy set of responses to a series of questions which felt more impactful than some of the other interviewing techniques, although predictably it does perhaps give less considered answers. But this lengthier technique was used later on to great effect in exploring just who was culpable for the state of Italian life and a self-reflexive sequence on how a way forward might be found. 

The two plays – They Were In My Field by Fausto Paravidino and Three Gifts by Anders Lustgarten – both failed to really engage me but I would be hard-pressed to tell you exactly why. Both took a slightly obscure slant on the the issue at hand and maybe I was just too tired, but it left me alienated for the whole shebang. And since it is my blog, I’m leaving it at that. Continue reading “Review: The Big Ideas- PIIGS, Italy, – Royal Court via YouTube”

Review: If You Don’t Let Us Dream, We Won’t Let You Sleep, Royal Court

“Do you see a rise in social harmony on the horizon?”

Between this interview for the Evening Standard and the three pages of programme notes that accompany the playtext, Anders Lustgarten clearly sees conventional theatre as a challenge to be met and his play for the Royal Court – If You Don’t Let Us Dream, We Won’t Let You Sleep – certainly aims to be different. Fitting into Dominic Cooke’s brief to shake up the archetypal middle class audiences at the Sloane Square venue, it offers a illuminating deconstruction of the politics and economics of austerity and promises an alternative but where the first point is definitely delivered, the second remains somewhat unrealised.

Lustgarten has imagined a world not at all dissimilar to our own with the impact of a financial system in meltdown unfurling insidiously throughout society. With traditional avenues closed to them, City financiers plot new ways of making money and alight on the idea of Unity Bonds, wherein “problem families can now be monetised” by the bankers betting on social disorder increasing whilst officially being incentivised by it going down. But this is just the start of a series of short scenes, the rest of which focus on a society which is fast unravelling. Prisons, hospitals, schools all feel the shockwaves of this approach, as services become depersonalised in the endless rush to meet targets and frustrations boil over into violence. Continue reading “Review: If You Don’t Let Us Dream, We Won’t Let You Sleep, Royal Court”

Review: A Day at the Racists, Finborough

“People aren’t out and out racist any more, not like they used to be”

It’s been a bit of a political weekend for me, what with Moonfleece and A Day at the Racists, a new play by Anders Lustgarten premiering at the Finborough, both looking at the encroachment of the British National Party in East London and how this rise in fascist politics could have happened. But where as Moonfleece let the politics form a backdrop to a different story, A Day at the Racists is not afraid to show its teeth and really examine what motivates people to considering the BNP as a serious political option.

Set in Dagenham, dyed-in-the-wool Old Labour stalwart Peter is struggling to deal with the disillusionment of his daily life. This is highlighted by his son Mark’s inability to get regular work and to secure a council flat for him and his daughter, whilst Pete perceives that the immigrants in the area are having their needs met first. When a local BNP campaigner’s message, a smartly dressed British Asian woman at that, resonates strongly with him, he falls for the rebranding and the renewed sense of purpose given to him as she employs Pete as her campaign manager. Sucked into this murky world, Pete is forced to face the conflict between his new politics and old, between new relationships and his multicultural old friends and family, all the while dealing with his ultimate sense of betrayal by a country he has worked so hard for. Continue reading “Review: A Day at the Racists, Finborough”