The Two Noble Kinsmen

Co-written with John Fletcher, The Two Noble Kinsmen is one of Shakespeare’s last plays, and is something of a curiosity, not seeming to fit in to any particular type or style. This production at the Globe is the first by director Barrie Rutter since he stepped down from his role at Northern Broadsides, and Rutter brings his unique style to this rather odd play.

Palamon (Paul Stocker) and Arcite (Bryan Dick) are two cousins captured in battle; swearing undying devotion, they soon develop a rivalry for the affections of their captor King Theseus’ sister-in-law Emilia (Ellora Torchia). One is banished and one escapes, but they contrive to meet again and end up literally fighting for Emilia’s affections.

The play works well as a commentary on toxic masculinity: Emilia is seen as a prize to be won, sighing as she is informed that whoever loses the fight will die for love of her. Meanwhile the closeness between the two kinsmen is destroyed by their desire for the same woman.

Francesca Mills steals every scene she’s in as the jailer’s daughter who helps Palamon to escape, having fallen in love with him only to be ignored. A fine display of Morris dancing, choreographed by Ewan Wardrop, closes the first half.

It’s certainly a strange play but this production is well worth seeing.

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Killer Joe

While not being an Orlando Bloom fan, my main reason for going to see Tracy Letts’ Killer Joe was curiosity: I wanted to see what he would be like. Legolas, this role isn’t.

If Tennessee Williams and Raymond Chandler had written a play together, this might have been the result. Orlando’s character, the titular Joe Cooper, is a corrupt cop and killer-for-hire who is taken on by the dysfunctional Smith family to get rid of their estranged mother, who is rumoured to have a lucrative life insurance policy. The plot is instigated by son Chris, whose drug debts are coming back to haunt him, and encouraged by father Ansel. In the absence of any money to put up, however, Joe demands a retainer: Chris’s younger sister Dottie.

I was impressed by Bloom’s performance: he was genuinely menacing, frightening in stillness, but there is a lot of black humour in the play and he brought it out admirably. His co-stars Adam Gillen and Steffan Rhodri were also superb, Gillen evoking a kind of reluctant sympathy from us as a lost, insecure redneck even though his character Chris appears to be sacrificing his sister. Sophie Cookson was excellent as the damaged, innocent Dottie, who has flashes of profound lucidity, while Neve McIntosh was memorable as Sharla, Chris and Dottie’s sharp stepmother. The play was atmospheric and at times difficult to watch.

Simon Evans’s production is effective, conveying a run-down trailer home (an impressive set by Grace Smart) with atmospheric weather effects, though I thought the stylised slow-motion of the final showdown robbed it of some of its impact and evoked laughter instead of shock from the audience. Perhaps this was intentional, but it didn’t quite work for me. Still, I’m glad I made the effort to see this interesting, albeit deeply uncomfortable, play.

Read Not Dead: Sir Thomas More

Sir Thomas More is famous primarily because of the well-known speech in defence of refugees, set during the May Day Riots of 1517, written in Shakespeare’s hand; this play is actually the work of several writers: Anthony Munday, Henry Chettle, Thomas Heywood, Thomas Dekker and, of course, Shakespeare. I’d love to see a full production of it, but in the meantime this Read Not Dead staged reading in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse was an excellent showcase. At times it reminded me of A Man For All Seasons, but it was interesting.

#WeAreArrested / Day of the Living

#WeAreArrested set

Since reopening The Other Place, the RSC have gone strength to strength with their Mischief Festival, which takes place a couple of times a year. The latest is based around the themes of free speech and the right to protest. The two plays in this Mischief Festival are contemporary and vital.

#WeAreArrested has been adapted by Pippa Hill and Sophie Ivatts from the book by journalist Can Dündar, a real-life tale of a brave journalist exiled for telling the truth. Day of the Living, created by Darren Clark, Amy Draper and Juliet Gilkes Romero, explores the circumstances surrounding the 2014 disappearance of 43 students in Mexico.

The first play, narrated by the journalist (played compellingly by Peter Hamilton Dyer), tells how his decision to publish an exposé of his government’s corruption comes to have fateful consequences. He leaves the country, returns, and is imprisoned. The prison scenes are actually some of the best: they are certainly challenging, could easily have been bleak, but they are among the most uplifting of the whole play. Impressive stage tricks, all the more impactful for taking place on a nearly-bare stage, feel like magic, but it’s Hamilton Dyer’s strong performance, ably supported by Jamie Cameron and Indra Ové who play a variety of roles, which really holds the attention. It’s interesting that, although the play was inspired by events in Turkey, no country is mentioned in the work, which reinforces the fact that these events could happen anywhere.

Day of the Living lacks the coherence of the first play, and the story is harder to follow. However, it is a lively tale full of music, and conveys the fear and terror felt by the students and their families in the aftermath of the disappearance, mostly through the eyes of one family. Featuring a multi-talented cast who sing, play instruments, act and take on a number of roles, it’s a strong reminder that repressive regimes are not a thing of the past.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

I confess to being one of those people who can get a bit obsessive about spelling, but I definitely don’t come up to the standard of the kids who take part in spelling bees in the US every year. The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is a musical about this very concept, with music and lyrics by William Finn and a book by Rachel Sheinkin. It originally debuted on Broadway in 2005.

The Drayton Arms Theatre is a small space above the pub of the same name, but the producers have transformed it into a technicolour school hall (you can see the basketball hoop in the top right corner) with the cast donning cartoonish costumes. We have presenter Rona Lisa Peretti (Elizabeth Chadwick), a former Spelling Bee champion herself, accompanied by official word pronouncer Douglas Panch (Michael Watson-Grey) and the glum ‘comfort counsellor’ Mitch Mahoney (Inti Conde). Then, of course, there are the contestants, all from very different backgrounds and with their own hopes and dreams, which we get to see and understand during the course of the show.

As the competitors spell their way to a hopeful victory, we get to see what makes them tick. Tightly-wound Logainne Schwartzandgrubenniere  (Lottie Johnson) wants to please her two dads, while shy Olive Ostrovsky’s (Thea J. Wolfe) parents haven’t turned up at all. William Barfée (T.J. Lloyd), who had to drop out of last year’s competition because he ate a brownie containing the nuts he is allergic to, has a ‘magic foot’ he uses to spell out the word on the ground. Eccentric Leaf Coneybear (Danny Whelan) wants to prove he isn’t the idiot in the family, Chip Tolentino (Aaron Jenson) is distracted by Leaf’s sister, while child prodigy Marcy Park (Jeannie May) is tempted to lose so that she won’t have to be perfect any more. There are also several audience members involved (not me, thankfully) who are invited to compete and have a go at spelling increasingly obscure words.

The songs are great fun and often very witty, and many have a touch of sadness, as when Olive sings about the dictionary being her only friend. The wry commentaries and random word definitions were hilarious, and despite the small performance space, the cast really got stuck into the big numbers.

I really got into this show: it was great fun, performed with energy by the talented and enthusiastic cast.

Finishing the Picture

The Finborough Theatre have scored another coup by premiering Arthur Miller’s final play, Finishing the Picture. It’s a thinly-disguised portrait of Marilyn Monroe and the production of her last film, and while it’s not one of Miller’s best, it’s still an interesting curiosity.

A film crew, including the director, producer, cameraman and acting coach, wait anxiously for news of whether the film’s star Kitty will show up to make the movie. Racked with insecurity and addicted to drugs, her physical and mental health is precarious, and the crew mix genuine concern for her wellbeing with worries about whether the movie will ever be completed. In desperation, Kitty’s coach (Tony Wredden) is sent for.

We don’t see Kitty herself – in some ways a wise decision as who could possibly live up to Marilyn’s reputation and charisma? – but this does leave us wondering what things looked like from her perspective. We do see Miller represented in the form of Kitty’s husband, Paul (Jeremy Drakes), writer of the screenplay. To be fair to Miller, he doesn’t seem to be trying to excuse himself or his behaviour. Rather, it seems to be an examination of his own guilt and potential culpability as he approached the end of his own life. During filming of Marilyn’s last movie, as reflected in the play, the relationship broke down and a few months later she was found dead.

Isabella Van Braeckel’s claustrophobic set is bounded by red walls, enclosing the characters within this small space. There are some great performances by Stephen Billington as director Derek and Oliver Le Sueur as the producer.

Overall, while it doesn’t quite match up to the Finborough’s previous Miller production, An Incident at Vichy, it’s still a must-see for fans of the American playwright, and anyone who is interested in the story of Marilyn Monroe.

Acis and Galatea

Acis and Galatea is a 1718 work by George Frideric Handel, performed by English National Opera as part of their ENO Studio Live season at Lilian Baylis House in Hampstead. With text by John Gay, the opera, based on an episode from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, is the story of the love between the semi-divine nymph Galatea and the shepherd Acis, and the tragic interference of the cyclops Polyphemus. The production is directed by Sarah Tipple and designed by Justin Nardella.

The fresh modern staging was the first thing that struck me about the production. Set at what appears to be a festival, with rainbow decorations, fridges full of beer and elaborate costumes, it did appeal to me. There were many lively moments involving the ensemble cast, including a big conga line, and the production did well at getting across the lively and youthful feel of the piece. I quite liked the use of selfies and social media throughout.

Though it was sung in English, there were no surtitles, so I couldn’t always follow what was going on: there’s something about the operatic voice that makes it hard to understand. That said, the basic plot was straightforward enough, and the ending was surprising and quite moving. The musical style isn’t my favourite, and I found it hard going at times, but there were moments I really liked.

Altogether, a fairly successful evening out for me, and a perfect show for a summer’s day.