Countdown to new Who: Doctor Who Series 9

“Time will tell, it always does”

Phew, the Doctor Who rewatch comes to an end with the most recent series, another that I hadn’t seen any of since it originally aired. And again it was one of highs and lows, a frustrating sense of pick and mix that never settles. So from the astonishing bravura of the (practically) solo performance in Heaven Sent to kid-friendly quirks of the sonic sunglasses and guitar playing, Capaldi took us from the sublime to the silly. Fortunately there was more of the former than the latter (although it is interesting that my memory had it the other way round).

Part of it comes down to knowing in advance how the hybrid arc plays out (disappointingly) and a little perspective makes Clara’s departure(s) a little less galling. This way, one can just enjoy the episodes for what they are, free from the weight of the attempted mythologising. The Doctor raging against the futility of war, the wisdom (or otherwise) of forgiveness, the repercussions of diving in to help others without thinking through the consequences…it is often excellent stuff. It’s also nice to see Who employ its first openly transgender actor (Bethany Black) and a deaf actor playing a deaf character (Sophie Stone). Continue reading “Countdown to new Who: Doctor Who Series 9”

Review: The Inn at Lydda, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

“Some things are better left out of the history books”

Have you heard the one where Jesus, the three wise men and Caligula walk into a pub? No? Well it is pretty much the set up for John Wolfson’s curious new play The Inn at Lydda, at least once you’ve thrown John the Baptist and Tiberius Caesar in there as well. An eclectic bit of programming in the candlelit surroundings of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Wolfson has spun his tale from a tidbit in the New Testament Apocrypha and taken it to almost-farcical levels of comedy.

Ailing Roman Emperor Tiberius Caesar has heard of a legendary healer over in Judea and so off he pops to be cured by him, only problem is we’re in the days between the Resurrection and the Ascension. Stopping off at a hostelry in the city of Lydda where this news filters through, their party bumps into Tiberius’ lascivious great-nephew and heir Caligula, plus three weary travellers who have been waiting 33 years to reunite with a man who might just be hiding in a nearby cave. Continue reading “Review: The Inn at Lydda, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse”

Review: P’yongyang, Finborough

“Those stories…they’re not for us. Why dream about something that can’t be?”

You know how it is, you wait for a play about North Korea and two come along at once. But where Mia Ching’s You For Me For You used an absurdist approach to explore the impact of the Kim regime on individuals (and by extension, whole swathes of its population), In-Sook Chappell uses the frame of a classic thwarted love story, stretching over nearly three decades, to examine what life might be like in the harsh realities of the Communist state in P’yongyang.

When we first meet them, Anna Leong Brophy’s Yeon Eun Mi and Chris Lew Kum Hoi’s Park Chi Soo are schoolmates with a shared passion for cinema and soon enough, each other. They both dream of attending prestigious film classes in the capital P’yongyang but the revelation that Chi Soo’s father was born in the South demarcates him as lower-born in the strict rules of their society and thus their lives are set on radically different paths. Continue reading “Review: P’yongyang, Finborough”

Review: The World of Extreme Happiness, The Shed

“A boy is a child, a girl is a thing”

Given that around about this time last year, the RSC was copping a lot of flak for casting just three East Asian actors in a production of The Orphan of Zhao, it feels something of a shame that more of a noise isn’t being made about the greater opportunities that this year has seen, in the capital at least. Currently in London, you can see Chimerica and The Fu-Manchu Complex, a second David Henry Hwang production – Golden Child – has just closed after Yellow Face earlier this year and the Hampstead had the evocative #aiww. Along with Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s The World of Extreme Happiness now at the National Theatre’s Shed, could this be a sign of the changing tide, of greater visibility in our cultural lives as theatres’ reluctance to programme Eastern influences ebbs away? Who knows, I am far from qualified to tell, but it has made for a fascinating enrichening of my theatregoing this year (and by extension, my short-film viewing).

Cowhig’s play feels like a good companion piece to Lucy Kirkwood’s writing, turning the gaze firmly onto contemporary Chinese society and how it deals with being the fuel for the motor of exceptional economic growth. Its protagonist is Katie Leung’s Sunny, dumped in a bucket of pigswill at birth for not being a boy but surviving and once grown to a young adult, she joins the exodus from the countryside in pursuit of the urban dream. But once she arrives, it is emerges as more of a nightmare and Cowhig pulls no punches as she reveals the seedy underside to this version of capitalism – the sheer exploitation of the rural migrants, the appalling working conditions, the high rate of suicide, the indoctrination of the mantra of self-help that keeps an endless flow of willing bodies knocking at the door. Continue reading “Review: The World of Extreme Happiness, The Shed”

Review: Boris Godunov, Swan

“Everywhere they curse the name of Boris”

The instinctive reaction when one hears of a production of a lesser-known work by a well-known writer tends to be one of healthy scepticism, as one waits to find out whether there was a good reason for its relative obscurity. But sometimes there are mitigating circumstances and Alexander Pushkin’s 1825 play Boris Godunov – receiving its first ever professional production in English here at the Swan Theatre – sufficiently provoked the ire of the state censors so that it was 30 years after his death before it was first approved and even then, continued political pressure ensured its limited impact.

The uncensored version was finally translated by Adrian Mitchell, premiered at Princeton in 2007 and selected now by Michael Boyd to mark his swansong as AD at the RSC, as part of the ensemble-led globetrotting A World Elsewhere season. And one can see why the Russian authorities wouldn’t have taken too kindly to Pushkin’s satire, indeed still to this day, as wrapped up in the tale of men lying, cheating and murdering their way to become Tsar in the late 1590s is an excoriating indictment of the Russian ruling elite. And what Boyd teases out in this fast-moving version, is that such autocratic leadership is seemingly endemic in this country and so its resonances play out right up to the current day.


Lloyd Hutchinson is an exhilarating presence as the titular Boris, whose increasingly wearied Ulster tones show the weight of a wrongfully seized crown as rumours swell that he murdered the old Tsar’s young heir Dmitry to secure his own place on the throne; Gethin Anthony has a striking energy as the monk Grigory who later grasps the chance to imitate Dmitry and manipulate his way into the hearts and mind of the people and thus grab power for himself, his quicksilver shifts in mood revealing a thrilling emotional instability; and there’s great work from Lucy Briggs-Owen’s pragmatically covetous Polish princess and from James Tucker and Joe Dixon as key courtiers who never allow anything as small as significant political differences to their leader to get in the way of their own advancement. 

Boyd keeps his staging to a minimum on the thrust stage of the Swan, which highlighted his main conceit of the various costumes from different Russian ages hanging at the back of the stage, the players slowly working their way through the wardrobe to reach the Putin-inspired suits of the final scene. And this motif of the changing clothes also allowed for the production’s most striking moment in its evocation of battle-scenes through the beating of coats on the floor, surprisingly effective in its stirring simplicity and indicative of the extremely tight ensemble. John Woolf’s music has a similar unfussy quality that keeps it hauntingly moving and fans of stage gore won’t be disappointed with some grisly moments.

I was kindly invited as part of a bloggers’ event which meant I was lucky enough to get a Q+A session at the end of the show which was lots of fun and highly illuminating in a number of areas: the reality of the experience of actors in a rep season, the relationship with the audience in the open space of the Swan (which brought to mind something of the groundling experience at the Globe for me), the Shakespearean connections that many others were able to draw with Pushkin’s work, and the interesting note that this wasn’t intended to be a comedy but rather that the black humour came naturally through the process of putting it together. Boris Godunov is indeed funnier than one might expect but it also contains two powerful studies of the corrosive effects of chasing power which are superbly brought to life by Hutchinson and Anthony. 

Running time: 2 hours (without interval)

Programme cost: £4
Booking until 30th March