The Penguin and I

A couple of years ago, I was supposed to be going to see The Penguin and I by Living Room Circus, but the traffic was bad and I ended up missing it. Finally I’ve been able to catch a performance of this piece, which took place in the Crossrail Roof Garden in Canary Wharf.

This is a surreal piece set in a man’s living room; when he comes home, strange things start happening. Hands reach out from beneath the sofa, odd characters emerge and start to perform random moves, and a figure in a penguin mask watches silently.

The performance was surreal, bizarre and impressive, with incredible feats of movement being undertaken by the performers. I’m glad I eventually got to see it.

Advertisements

Sonnet Sunday

Sonnet Sunday poster

The Globe hosted its first ever Sonnet Sunday recently, and I went along, excited about experiencing something new. There were two options available – Sonnet Lover, which allowed the ticket holder entrance to two hours of sonnets in the Globe itself, and Sonnet Completist, which also included two hours of sonnets prior to that around the building. Obviously I had to go for the Completist!

The first couple of hours was so much fun, wandering around the entire building (including the exhibition space), hoping that an actor would come up and recite a sonnet to you, after which you would be given a special ribbon. I managed to amass quite a few of these, although I’m sure there were plenty more. The experience was oddly intimate and took some getting used to but in the end you just had to go with it… the fact that everyone else there was so enthusiastic about it really helped.

Ribbons I collected

Ribbons I collected

The second half involved more sonnets spoken on the stage of the Globe itself. This was fun too, with sonnets spoken in various inventive ways and in different contexts. It was nice to see the staff of the Globe getting involved too, although I do think perhaps they should have been told to project more, as sometimes it was hard to hear what people were saying – especially with the sound of helicopters overhead.
Still, overall I did have a really good time!

The Importance of Being Earnest

I’ve seen The Importance of Being Earnest so many times that I probably wouldn’t have bothered going to the latest one, except that it was part of Dominic Dromgoole’s Classic Spring season of Oscar Wilde plays at the Vaudeville Theatre, and I’m a bit of a completist – so was determined to see the lot.

As it turned out, the production was quite different to any I’ve seen before. Director Michael Fentiman has created a production that subtly – and not-so-subtly – nods to Wilde’s homosexuality; the tale of the two friends, Algernon and Jack, who variously impersonate the nonexistent Earnest in order to get away with their behaviour could be read as the kind of subterfuge gay men might have needed to take part in to be able to live their lives. The surprisingly stark set nods to Victorian decor without being anything like as overpowering as the real thing.

Jack has invented a roguish younger brother, Earnest, as an excuse for going up to London, while his friend Algernon decides to pretend to be Earnest in order to visit Jack’s young ward, Cecily, in the country. Meanwhile, Jack is in love with Algernon’s cousin Gwendolen, but Aunt Agatha – Lady Bracknell – is having none of it.

Fehinti Balogun and Jacob Fortune-Lloyd give good performances as the two friends, and one thing I really liked was that their speeches – even cringily outdated phrases such as “My own one!” – sounded natural instead of stilted. Gwendolen and Cecily, too, are clearly marked in their differences – Cecily the clever but naive young country girl, Gwendolen the more worldly city woman. Pippa Nixon was strong as Gwendolen, Meg Coombs – who played the role on the night I attended – excellent as Cecily. Some might argue that removing the Victorian stuffiness from the play dilutes the impact of Wilde’s message, but I felt that this just underscored the sharpness of Wilde’s wit. In the context, I did feel that Sophie Thompson’s performance as Lady Bracknell was a little overdone and out of place, though it would have worked wonderfully in a different production.

Sometimes the best productions are those of plays you are familiar with, as they can give impressions you hadn’t thought of before. This is on of those productions – a worthy conclusion to the Wilde season.

Pressure

I know Brits are famed for talking about the weather, but a whole play about it seems a bit like overkill. Still, once again confirming my firm belief that it’s possible to write a play about absolutely anything if you do it right, Pressure proves itself to be a superbly dramatic and tension-filled production.

The D-Day landings are so embedded in our collective consciousness that it’s hard to imagine it was touch and go whether they would happen at all – and that the weather would be such an important factor in the timing. It seems obvious if you think about it – of course you can’t land thousands of men on enemy beaches in stormy seas – but I can’t say it ever occurred to me before.

It occurred to General Eisenhower and the British, though, who enlisted esteemed Scottish weatherman James Stagg to predict the weather for the proposed landing date. The title of Pressure can refer to several things – the weather pressure itself, the pressure put on Stagg to succeed, and the high blood pressure threatening the life of his wife, who is awaiting the birth of the couple’s second son.

Pressure is written by David Haig, who also stars in the play as Stagg himself. His performance is superb: grumpy, idiosyncratic, filled with doubt but in the end as confident as he can be in his predictions. I never imagined weather could be so interesting, but hearing him explain the various fronts affecting the English Channel was fascinating. His complex and three-dimensional predictions are in sharp contrast to those of cocky US army forecaster Krick (Philip Cairns), and it’s touch and go who General Eisenhower (Malcolm Sinclair) will listen to. (Watching this I realised I didn’t know on what date the landings actually took place, so this was a genuine mystery to me!)

The action of the play takes place inside one small room, the centre of the forecasts where Stagg gathers all the information to make his important predictions. It gives the sense of the claustrophobia the inhabitants must have felt, unable to leave the building owing to the top secret nature of the plan.

Though the play was a bit too long, and at times verged on the hagiographic (Eisenhower’s English chauffeur (Laura Rogers) telling Stagg that he’s “ten times” the man Krick is seemed like slight overkill), overall it was a dramatic and memorable play that was surprisingly moving.

Emilia

I’m quite proud of myself for sticking it out to see the whole of Emilia at the Globe. This is no reflection on the play itself, but a comment on the fact that it started raining heavily not long after the play began and didn’t stop until the interval. I didn’t have a raincoat and got soaked – but hey, that’s all part of the fun at the Globe, right?

Emilia, a new play by Morgan Lloyd Malcolm, is an exploration of the life of Emilia Bassano, thought by some to be the “dark lady” of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Based on the limited facts available with, naturally, some imaginative licence, it shows how the half-Italian daughter of an immigrant, of North African descent, fought to forge her own identity and publish her own work in a male-dominated society.

The title character is played by three women: Leah Harvey, who portrays the young Emilia, Vinette Robinson, who plays her in middle age, and Clare Perkins, who acts as a kind of narrator and overseeing presence throughout the play before taking over at the end. I liked that these changes took place at times of great emotional upheaval for Emilia: a visual reminder of how much they affected her. The rest of the all-female cast act as muses and a kind of chorus, as well as taking on a number of roles. I particularly liked Charity Wakefield as William Shakespeare himself and Amanda Wilkin as Emilia’s husband; by taking on male roles the women are able to play with conventionally masculine traits. There is a particularly hilarious scene when Emilia and some other young women dance at court alongside potential male suitors. The play uses a mix of original Elizabethan language (Shakespeare’s and Emilia’s) and modern idioms to great effect, relating the past to the present in numerous ways: contemporary distrust of Emilia is related to modern distrust of immigrants.

The play has received rave reviews on social media but while I liked it, I didn’t love it. Why not? Politically, I agreed with everything it was saying, but as a play it wasn’t anything special; it didn’t challenge me or tell me anything I didn’t already know. I thought it was too long, and was too didactic in the point it was making; there was little to no subtlety.

Still, the huge cheers that went up after Perkins’ final speech have to count for something, and suggest that the Globe is right to programme work like this.

Fun Home

After success on Broadway, the long-awaited UK premiere of Fun Home has finally arrived in London. It’s adapted by Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori from Alison Bechdel’s (of Bechdel Test fame) 2006 graphic novel of the same name, about growing up and discovering her identity. Young Alison lives with her parents and two brothers in a beautiful old house, her father’s pride and joy and his focus when he is not working at the family funeral home business. Alison comes to realise that she is gay, but what she doesn’t know is that so is her father, Bruce, who has been conducting illicit liaisons for years.

The story is presided over by older Alison (Kaisa Hammarlund), looking back as she seeks to make sense of the past by drawing it, examining it. As well as Alison’s childhood, we also meet a younger adult Alison, off to college and embarking on her first relationship.

The story is alternately surprising, moving and touching. The relationships between the characters are all complex and the performances are superb. Young Alison (Eleanor Kane) is endearingly geeky while older Alison is more poised but filled with regret. Jenna Russell evokes our sympathy as Alison’s mother, Helen, while Zubin Varla as Bruce portrays a conflicted and complex man. The child actors also did a brilliant job, a highlight being their performance of a self-penned funeral home advert.

Fun Home is a show about family, identity and relationships; ultimately the central relationship is that between Alison and her father. A powerful show.

And Tell Sad Stories of the Deaths of Queens

And Tell Sad Stories of the Deaths of Queens – the title inspired by a line in Shakespeare’s Richard II – is a rarely-performed short play by Tennessee Williams. It is the story of drag queen Candy Delaney (Luke Mullins) and her relationship with a sailor (George Fletcher), a supposedly ‘straight’ man who is only with Candy for her money. The play was never performed during Williams’ lifetime owing to its openly gay characters.

Though short and not as developed as some of his longer plays, Williams uses the piece to explore romance and heartbreak in the context of a hostile world. The tragedy of the story is, however, offset by the presence of Alvin and Jerry, Candy’s two lodgers, who offer a sense of solidarity.