Review: Pah-La, Royal Court

Intriguing subject matter can’t quite elevate Pah-La above its frustrating structural issues at the Royal Court

“You are unsure whether you are here or not but you are absolutely sure that Tibet is yours”

I was a huge fan of Abhishek Majumdar’s hugely atmospheric The Djinns of Eidgah, so was intrigued to see him return to the Royal Court with new play Pah-La. Set in Tibet, it circles around the realities of political protest under an oppressive regime, particularly in light of native Buddhist philosophy. 

As Chinese interlopers arrive in Eastern Tibet to ‘re-educate’ the masses, the threat imposed on the local nunnery is personified in the form of Deshar, a woman who took the habit in defiance of her father’s wishes and shows similar obduracy now, to searingly horrific effect. Continue reading “Review: Pah-La, Royal Court”

Review: Snow in Midsummer, Swan

“Why do you silence me?”

A break from the old routine for the RSC here, with a play from the 13th century. Not only that, Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s Snow in Midsummer is an adaptation of Yuan dynasty drama The Injustice Done to Dou E by Guan Hanqing, marking a key milestone in the venerable institution’s avowed change of policy after the The Orphan of Zhao debacle in 2012. Transplanting the narrative into contemporary China, Cowhig and director Justin Audibert smash the ancient and the modern together to startling effect.

Dou Yi (Katie Leung) was a young widow executed for murder in the industrial town of New Harmony, proclaiming her innocence all the while and cursing the community in her final moments. The play starts properly three years later with her curse having come to pass, drought has devastated the area and local factories are on the brink of closure, Dou Yi’s spirit restlessly haunting them all, determinedly awaiting exoneration. A newly arrived businesswoman (Wendy Kweh) scents a takeover but as her young daughter’s dreams take a disturbing turn, she can’t help but get sucked into this world. Continue reading “Review: Snow in Midsummer, Swan”

CD Review: Privates on Parade (1977)

“Remember the yearning we felt inside”

This 1977 recording of Denis King’s music is not going to convert any naysayers to Peter Nichols’ Privates on Parade – the score to this play with songs doesn’t really stand on its own merits as it is too connected to the rest of the show. But what it does provide for those who know it and enjoy it (I loved the recent Michael Grandage revival) is an affectionate reminder of the rather unique old-school charms of the show and the catchiness of its jingle-like title number.

The beguiling period charm of the music is captured excellently here, remastered by Stage Door from the original tapes, as it dips into pastiches of a whole range of early twentieth century references – Marlene Dietrich and Vera Lynn being two notable examples – and cleverly steers a humorous route through the tangled racial politics of the failing colonial experiment. One could take offence here but to do so is to miss the intent of the show entirely.  Continue reading “CD Review: Privates on Parade (1977)”

Review: The Love Girl and the Innocent, Southwark Playhouse

“Keep working, keep working, keep working, keep working…poor bastards”

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Love Girl and the Innocent hasn’t been seen in London for over 30 years and with a cast of over 50 characters, one can see the challenges facing anyone willing to take it on. It’s taken Matthew Dunster nearly 10 years but with Jagged Edge Productions and a multi-tasking cast of 16, he now brings his own adaptation to the Southwark Playhouse in an atmospheric if sprawling production that evokes the horrors and absurdities of life in the gulag.

Based on the playwright’s own experiences in the Soviet labour camps, the play is at its best in capturing the insane swirl of the prisoners as they jostle for position and privilege in the microcosm of Russian society that develops. Most have been sentenced to 10 years hard labour and so are in it for the long haul as they become part of a never-ending production line, but where they end up on it depends on their willingness to collude, corrupt and conspire to make their lives even just a smidgen better as the relentless demand for greater productivity comes from on high. Continue reading “Review: The Love Girl and the Innocent, Southwark Playhouse”

Review: #aiww The Arrest of Ai Weiwei, Hampstead Theatre

“The art is in what happened to those people’s spirits”

The trick behind James Macdonald’s production of Howard Brenton’s new play #aiww The Arrest of Ai Weiwei is to suggest that the 2011 detention and interrogation of the artist by the Chinese authorities was as big and far-reaching a piece of conceptual art as any of his installations at the Tate Modern. Ashley Martin Davies’ design sets the drama in a gleaming white gallery with spectators lining up either side of a wooden crate, whose walls are opened up to portray the two different cells in which he was kept during the 81 days of his imprisonment. The observers, or netizens, remain onstage throughout as Ai is trapped inside the nightmarish absurdities of such an authoritarian regime.

Based on Barnaby Martin’s book Hanging Man which documented Ai’s ordeal using his own testimony, Brenton’s play eschews conventional dramatic structure – it is no secret that the artist is eventually released – for something more ruminative about the nature of incarceration. And in its focus on the detail of the situation, it is ultimately rather insightful into the labyrinthine complexities of living and working under an unbending state whose orthodoxy is struggling to deal with a dissident whose worldwide fame precludes any unexplained disappearance into the murky depths of the system. Continue reading “Review: #aiww The Arrest of Ai Weiwei, Hampstead Theatre”

Review: Love the Sinner, National Theatre

“It’s a bit niche isn’t it Michael…”

Love the Sinner is a world premiere of a play by Drew Pautz, slotting into the Cottesloe at the National Theatre. The play looks at a number of the key moral challenges facing the Christian church, starting off at a conference of international bishops somewhere in Africa trying to reach consensus on how Christianity has to come to deal with homosexuality in the modern world. We then see one of the volunteers at the meeting, Michael, after a brief sexual encounter with one of the African porters and follow him as he returns to his closeted lifestyle back in the UK and battles his own personal demons and the challenges that his faith poses in an evermore secular world.

Whilst Love the Sinner may look at some of these moral challenges, it doesn’t attempt to address any of them to any depth to quite frustrating effect. The opening scene concerns a sequestered group of bishops from different countries trying to come to agreement over the Church’s position on homosexuality and how to deal with same-sex relationships. The issues are bounded about for a bit with the African side defending their homophobic intolerance in the face of the pleas of the more liberal Western clerics, but then once the scene ends, the topic is dropped without resolution. Continue reading “Review: Love the Sinner, National Theatre”