Review: Boudica, Shakespeare’s Globe

“I’d rather walk in blood than walk a slave for he thy Emperor!”

For every Blue Stockings, there’s been a Pitcairn, with a Bedlam inbetween. No matter the AD, the commitment to new writing in the later part of the summer season at Shakespeare’s Globe has thrown a marked inconsistency. And Tristan Bernays’ Boudica proves no different, given an ambitious production by Eleanor Rhode which strives a little too hard to situate the play in an Emma Rice house-style, fun as it may come across. 

So Game of Thrones-style storytelling mashes up against spirited covers of the likes of ‘London Calling’ and ‘I Fought The Law’, a great sense of energy percolating through this wooden O. But Bernays’ play doesn’t always fit easily with this treatment, written in blank verse that has to balance the required info-dump to flesh out this historical fiction with something more fascinatingly insightful about what might have driven the Queen of the Iceni. Continue reading “Review: Boudica, Shakespeare’s Globe”

Review: The Convert, Gate

“There’s no place for a highly educated African woman here”

Danai Gurira’s Eclipsed was the best thing I saw in 2015 so the prospect of seeing her 2012 play The Convert, also at the Gate Theatre, was a joyous one indeed. And once again, Gurira turns her focus to the African continent, exploring the kind of history that I’m pretty sure is rarely featured in the majority of Western schoolrooms. The year is 1896 and the place is Rhodesia, the country now known as Zimbabwe, and The Convert takes a look at colonialism there from the inside out.

Chilford may be a native of this territory but taken from his family as a young boy, he has been moulded into an approximation of ‘an English gentleman’, the only black Roman Catholic priest in the area and tasked with the job of converting the population to the ways of their colonial masters. On the run from an attempt at forced marriage, Jekesai finds sanctuary under Chilford’s tutelage, renamed as Ester and quickly becoming his star pupil but as she comes to understand just how much she’s expected to give up, she’s left to question if there’s any safe haven at all. Continue reading “Review: The Convert, Gate”

Review: They Drink It In The Congo, Almeida

“Give me the history of the Congo in four and a half minutes”

There’s an ingenious moment in the middle of They Drink It In The Congo when a PR guy has to step in for an ailing colleague at an imminent press conference and utters the line above. The answer he gets exposes not only the vast complexity of the socio-political issues in the Democratic Republic of Congo but also the way in which Westerners seek to reduce them to manageable soundbites so that they can be dismissed as problems easily solved

Which in a nutshell is the key issue at the heart of Adam Brace’s new play for the Almeida. Aware of the impossibility of doing Congolese history justice in a couple of hours, he approaches the issue from an alternative angle, the impossibility of “doing something good about something bad”. Daughter of a white Kenyan farmer, Stef now works for a London NGO and is excited to be given the opportunity to organise ‘Congo Voice’, a new arts festival raising awareness of the issues there. Continue reading “Review: They Drink It In The Congo, Almeida”

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”

Review: Eclipsed, Gate

“You tink it normal you wifing some dirty self-proclaimed general in de bush? You tink it normal a boy carrying a gun killing and raping? You tink it okay dere no more schools, no more NOTIN!”

In 2003, Liberia was in the fourth year of its second civil war, the first having only ended in 1997 with cumulative casualties estimated to have reached over half a million. It is the context of this situation that Danai Gurira’s play Eclipsed visits four young women sequestered on a rebel army base as the wives of the resident C.O. and explores the choices that they’ve been forced to make in order to survive. The intimacy of the Gate naturally lends itself to intense theatrical experiences but Caroline Byrne’s production here captures something equal parts raw and refreshing in both its uncompromisingly Liberian-accented subject and its forthright sincerity.

It’s refreshing because the Zimbabwean-American Gurira’s writing stems from an innate desire to understand character and even though the four women have been reduced to naming each other in the order they were ‘betrothed’ to the unseen general, they’re all written beautifully. As the dominant mother figure, No 1 runs as tightly regimented a ship as the man who no longer sexually desires her, No 2 took the only escape route available, joining the ranks of the soldiers leaving No 3 to bear the brunt of the amorous intentions, leaving her pregnant. The arrival of a frightened No 4 forces a change in the group’s dynamics though, as each woman struggles to assert their position.  Continue reading “Review: Eclipsed, Gate”

Review: The White Devil, Swan

“Sum up my faults, I pray”

It feels a bit of a shame that one of the centrepieces of the RSC’s Roaring Girls season is a play that doesn’t manage gender parity in its cast, even with some cross-gender casting. This may speak of the nature of Jacobean Theatre, for it is Webster’s The White Devil of which we speak here, but Maria Aberg’s reputation precedes her and so it was a little disappointing to see that the opportunity hasn’t been seized here – if not now, then when?
 

And though I’d heard such great things about this production, I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed here. Part of lies in the play itself – I can’t deny that I just don’t really like it and though it is updated to the debauchery of the 1980s Rome club scene here, the messy chaos of the pursuit of naked self-interest that proves Aberg’s main focus dominates too much and often to the detriment of the storytelling. Continue reading “Review: The White Devil, Swan”

Review: A Season in the Congo, Young Vic

“This is our Africa”

The curse of theatre addiction is that even when I know I don’t want to see something, I quite often end up going anyway, especially when it has been well recommended by friends and colleagues. So it was with the Young Vic’s A Season in the Congo, particularly galling as someone very kind indeed offered to queue for dayseats… Joe Wright’s theatrical debut as a director came earlier this year with Trelawny of the Wells at the Donmar, a production I wasn’t much enamoured with, but he kicks into another gear altogether with this 1966 play by Aimé Césaire about the life and death of Patrice Lumumba, one of the men who led the Democratic Republic of Congo to independence.

It’s a vastly collaborative work, pulling together wide-ranging artistic elements into a hugely theatrical experience which is hugely ambitious and was clearly well-received, though I found it to be distracting and distancing. Choreographer (and co-director) Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui intersperses numerous dance sequences, musician Kabongo Tshisensa makes a Brechtian troubadour-like figure who passes comment throughout on the action in tribal dialect, puppets and masks are used to represent the white characters and colonial powers whose influences are very much in decline. They’re undoubtedly impressively done yet for me, all over-used, reducing their impact and padding out an already healthy run-time unnecessarily. Continue reading “Review: A Season in the Congo, Young Vic”

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