What do you have in common with a ‘monstrous verminous bug?’
Before you indignantly shriek “Nothing at all! How dare you!?” and slam whatever device you are reading this on down and storm away insulted by the question, prepare yourself for worse – you may have more in common with it than you think.
Taking Kafka’s classic story of travelling salesman, Gregor Samsa, who finds himself transformed into some form of horrifying vermin and remains trapped on his back in his room as his family and colleagues live their lives around him, Hijinx take an inventive and entertaining look at parallels between the original text and the transformation we all underwent during Covid-19 lockdowns.
From a hilarious remote audition process, in which Lindsay Foster and her ring light momentarily steal the show, and directionless break-out room rehearsals to performance, the cast present a Zoom-play within a Zoom-play. As they prepare to present this play, it becomes clear that all is not right, and life begins to mirror fiction, with unsettling messages in the chat, flickers and cuts to characters seemingly undergoing transformations, and domestic spaces unsettled.
Punctuating and framing this story within a story, is the Kaf Bar, where the cheery barman invites the audience to chat, meditate with ‘the guru,’ enjoy a drink, and respond to existential polls. This is set as a friendly space outside the action of the place, but the changes of the play soon impinge on this space too, and like in other moments, the themes of Kafka’s work bleed into the ‘normal’ settings, shedding new light on the ideas of the original text.
The direction and design of the piece makes full use of the online setting, openly acknowledging the Zoom platform (and the challenges it brings) rather than pretending that it is not there. Director, Ben Pettit-Wade uses the production’s online platform to great effect in moments such as that in which a face is constructed, Frankenstein-like, from close up images of individual features of the cast, and in which the cast commit recorded faux-pas in a Zoom breakout room during rehearsal. In streaming the work live, Hijinx have also opened up a world of interactive possibilities for the audience, which are deftly handled by Owen Pugh as the Barman.
Treading the line between surreal and bizarrely real, Metamorphosis holds a theatrical mirror up to the transformations of the past year, and through laughter leads us to ask important questions about identity, care, isolation and connection.
Metamorphosis runs live at Summerhall Online until 29th August as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
Setting several of Shakespeare’s famous women into modern-day settings, Few Are Angels invites its audience to revisit the Bard’s female characters in a new light. Directed by Wayne T. Brown, Cleopatra sits in a dark cell, wearing a striking red dress, and performs her monologue to a CCTV camera, Helena from A Midsummer Night’s Dream finds herself on a nondescript suburban path, and Much Ado about Nothing’s Beatrice lights up a cigarette and texts the first few lines of her dialogue.
Some texts transfer more easily into their modern settings than others. Mistress Page’s monologue lacks some of its original context, and Beatrice’s one-sided dialogue with the silent camera standing in for Benedict loses some of its meaning without Benedict’s lines. In contrast, the setting of Cressida’s monologue in the scenario of a woman on a dating site transfers easily and brings a new humour to the monologue as Cressida sits in front of her laptop in her tiger onesie with a box of chocolates and a glass of wine to hand. Similarly the Courtesan’s monologue from The Comedy of Errors fits perfectly into the setting of a neighbour in her marigolds and curlers chatting over the garden fence. Those monologues which find a foothold in the zeitgeist, whether through cultivating a garden as many of us did in lockdown, online dating, or chatting with neighbours from a distance, find the most success in their updating.
The highlight of these is certainly Julie Todd’s tear-jerking rendition of Fear no More the Heat o’ the Sun from Cymbeline. With new music composed by Nia Williams, this dirge accompanies the story of a recent widow, with a montage of scenes from her husband’s final moments as he lies in bed wearing an oxygen mask, and her gradually adjusting to an empty house. Touching on a grief that is familiar to many people in the past year, this scene stands out as a heartfelt example of how an old text can apply to new settings.
Just as the updating of Shakespeare’s text is mixed in its success, the quality of execution in the filming of the work is patchy. I found myself reaching for the remote control at the start of each monologue, having to adjust the volume between levels 5 and 20 to keep up with the unstable volume levels of the work. Though the monologues have clearly been directed and performed with filming in mind, the technical quality means that the work feel uncomfortable in its digital setting, leaving its audience with the feeling that they have not seen it to its full potential.
Bringing these characters, who would originally have been written to be played by young men, into the present day played by a large cast of women, Few Are Angels begins with a strong concept, though stumbles in its adaptation and digital execution.
Few Are Angels is available to stream on-demand until 29th August.
“Do you have any idea what that’s been like, Miss? To see my hands every Friday and think, I must exist.”
In Merthyr Tydfil, on a Friday afternoon, a teenager is in detention. But unlike the myriad other teenagers in Friday detention in other schools in other towns, Carys is in detention because she appears to have stigmata, the wounds of Christ. As Carys and Siân, her frustrated, cynical teacher, argue over Carys’ decision to share a video about her stigmata online, The Merthyr Stigmatist paints a picture of a community seeking a moment of divinity.
Lisa Parry’s deft two-hander, directed by Emma Callander, conjures a vivid sense of the town on stage, despite the only connections to the world outside the classroom being a laptop on a desk and the haunting strains of a local choir singing their support of Carys from the schoolyard. In Bethan-Mary James’ taut Siân, we see a woman who tried to escape and distance herself from a town that she felt stifled and trapped in, while Bethan McLean’s recalcitrant Carys presents a young woman who wants to find her freedom through making herself and her town visible and unforgettable. In less than an hour of tense, revealing dialogue, Parry poses pertinent questions about how towns like Merthyr Tydfil are treated by governments, and about the too-easy assumption that a young person has to leave their town to make something of themselves. Carys’ pride and frustration in her town challenges us to consider what changes can be made, and Siân’s experience describes the danger of ignoring that challenge.
Elin Steele’s stark set design, and Andy Pike’s lighting design combine to create moments of the sublime in the plain setting of a secondary school. As shafts of warm light stream through the windows onto the laptop where Carys’ video is garnering viral attention, it is as though they are falling through the stained glass of a church window, illuminating Merthyr’s young Messiah, “Carys Christ.”
Whether Carys’ stigmata are real or not, they deliver a vivid moment of possibility for her and her town. As she cries “I’ve just caused what might soon possibly be a global situation because you’ve stopped thinking a person like me is worth hearing,” McClean declares the crux of the play. Carys and her community don’t need another martyr like the town’s namesake, and they don’t need to escape, they need to be listened to and heard.
In its sharp balance of humour, pathos and cutting insight, The Merthyr Stigmatist crafts a striking and affecting celebration of the power and resilience of community.
The Merthyr Stigmatist is available to watch as a streamed performance from The Sherman Theatre until the 12th of June.
I’m sure I’m not the only one who has felt the pang of absence lately upon hanging up a phone call, FaceTime or Zoom chat. Though these technologies help us to stay in touch, and bridge the gap between one isolated household and another, they also highlight the distance that is separating us. The slightly pixelated images of friends on your screen, constrained by the reach of their webcam, as you have an online “pub” session during lockdown serves to remind us of the things that we are missing. A chat over zoom can’t really replace the feeling of walking into the pub and seeing your mates sitting at a table in the corner, a packet of crisps torn open in the middle of the table for sharing, someone already mid-scéal as you sit down and join them.
It has been uplifting to see the ingenuity, community spirit and enthusiasm that has been displayed by the theatre sector from the outset of this lockdown. The theatres closed, but people stepped quickly into the breach and began generously sharing work online. Amid this wave of creative generosity though, I can’t help but feel a cold current of absence running through it. When we move theatre online, we lose a lot of what makes theatre what it is. Like the Zoom “pub” gatherings, though a great deal of care and talent is evident in them, these online theatrical offerings remind us of the things that we love about theatre that are missing.
As I watched the first week’s plays in The New Theatre and takeyourseats.ie’s Fight Back 2020 Festival, this feeling of absence was brought into focus. The four works told engaging stories, written and performed by talented artists but throughout them all, the lack of so many vital elements of live theatre were brought into focus on camera.
The Festival opened on Tuesday 7th April with An Unmade Bed, written by Elizabeth Moynihan and performed by Laoisa Sexton. The story was one of a woman struggling in a relationship with a man addicted to recreational drugs. The setting of the piece during the Covid-19 lockdown heightened the sense of isolation and entrapment that the woman was feeling as she warred with her love for her partner and the knowledge that his addiction was wearing them both down. In terms of pacing and tone, the work would, like most of the other pieces in the festival, have benefitted from a directorial eye. Overall, the fifteen-minute work felt more like an eloquent short film than a play, with a voice-over narrating beautiful close up shots of Sexton’s character observing the world from her window, and slow fades and between shots of her in a tangle of white sheets as she considers her relationship. Billed as a short film, this piece would be more satisfying, as the cinematic nature of the performance and editing meant that An Unmade Bed did not come across as the theatrical play it was described as.
The second day of the Festival brought a similarly meditative piece, with Tara Maria Lovett’s The One Tree, performed by Pat Nolan. This short play is the most theatrical of the week, with Nolan’s grounded storytelling style holding the audience’s attention as he speaks to someone just beyond the camera. Filmed from a single angle, with static images marking scene changes, the simplicity of this work is its strength. Lovett’s magic-realist script and Nolan’s performance bring to life a bittersweet story of love and loss in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. Given the input of designers and directors, the space to elaborate on the story, and freed from the restrictions of a tightly focused camera, The One Tree has all of the ingredients for a successful one man play.
Day three presented a double bill of Shard, written by Stewart Roche and performed by Neill Flemming, and The Pleasureometer, written by Jack Harte and performed by Gerard Lee. These two contrasting pieces were filmed in a similarly straightforward manner as The One Tree, and both similarly felt like scratch pieces for successful one-handers. Shard tells an increasingly unsettling story of a commune on an island off the coast of Cork. The plan to set up the commune seems suspect from the outset, but as older and more powerful forces than they could ever have expected come into play, the characters gradually realise that they are in far out of their depth. The piece could be a longer one, with the suspense of the story held for longer, and as with An Unmade Bed, the piece would have benefitted from directorial input in the staging and filming of the play. However, the story is engaging and original, and Flemming delivers a strong performance as a member of the commune recounting the story from quarantine in the near after being rescued from the island. Finally, The Pleasureometer provides some comic relief to close the week. As he laments the closure of the pub for the lockdown, Lee’s character meditates on the community that is formed around the pub, with the different characters that he sees only in that setting – the Teacher, the Cynic, the Young Lad, and Himself. Himself, the classic chancer that every community has. Telling the story of one particular day in which Himself brings along a new invention to test on his fellow pub-goers, Harte brings some comic lightness to the lockdown situation, and provides a laugh to end the first week of the Festival on.
When I set out to review work online, I had no idea of the quandary I was setting up for myself, the position I would be putting myself in as a theatre critic reviewing not-quite-theatre. Though the skill of their writers and performers is evident, all four of these works, and many of the other works that are being produced online in lockdown, are a reminder of the collective effort that goes into creating a production – the designers, the technicians, the directors, the dramaturgs, the writers and the performers. No man can be an island in theatre. While we enjoy and support the work that is filling the gap left by the closure of venues, and make no mistake I have been enjoying it, we must also fix our minds on the eventual return to the stage for we can’t forget that theatre is in its very essence a live, collective art form in which social-distancing is not an option. As the writer Griselda Gambaro once wrote, “A theatre piece of itself, demands a confrontation with the audience. It demands that you connect with people; it demands a collective and social effort with the company and later with the audience.”
Oscar Wilde’s fairy tales, though few in number are enormous in the scope of their understanding. They are snapshots of reality through an imaginative lens that teaches vital lessons in kindness, generosity, understanding and respect. Taking the story of The Happy Prince as a frame, Wilde Creatures deftly draws elements of almost all of Wilde’s fairy tales together to bring these lessons, and the beautiful stories that convey them, vividly to life on stage.
The town has become very quiet, the beautiful statue of the Happy Prince is no more, and the Mayor has stopped children from playing in the town centre in order to keep it tidy. The town is not happy. It is decided that there should be a new statue to liven up the town square, but the question is, who deserves to be the subject of this statue? Of course the self-important town Mayor believes the statue should be of him, but the townspeople decide to take a vote. Performing various Wilde fairy tales through storytelling and song, the Wile Creatures ask whether the statue should be of Little Hans, the student, or the princess. As they tell their stories, gradually the townspeople, and the audience, learn that maybe the best way to liven up the town is not through creating a statue of a powerful (selfish, greedy or unkind) person, but by opening back up the square to everyone and caring for its citizens who are struggling.
The Wilde Creatures display impressive versatility as performers, playing multiple musical instruments, and flitting between characters in the stories with gusto. Tom Jude’s overbearing Mayor and Lauren Silver’s brattish princess are two highlights, with both performers creating delightfully unlikeable characters. Alongside the strong performances, Barney George’s ingenious set creates a changeable, captivating Wilde world.
Wilde Creatures is a lively, charming production that reminds us that “humans are the most beautiful flowers of all.”
Wilde Creatures runs at Pleasance Courtyard on alternate days with The Canterville Ghost until 26th August as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
Loose Canon: The Extraordinary Songs of Clive James & Pete Atkin
Red Door Publishing, 2016
“The common characteristic of all Atkins/James songs is that they don’t sound like each other, and they don’t sound like anything else.”
The appeal of Ian Shircore’s book Loose Canon: The Extraordinary Songs of Clive James & Pete Atkin, is best summed up in this line from chapter 17. It is a celebration of the diverse and accomplished careers of Clive James and Pete Atkin, as well as an exploration of how their collaborative work came to be what it is.
Blending technical analysis of songs with entertaining personal anecdotes, Shircore writes a book that is an interesting and entertaining read for both the casual and the devoted listener. While it is definitely aimed at an audience of long-time Atkin and James fans, fans who were listening through the duo’s most active years in the 1970s, this is by no means alienating or limiting. I, a twenty year-old listener of Atkin and James’, felt welcomed into the book with open arms.
Even in the most densely factual and analytical passages, Shircore writes with flair. Making liberal use of metaphor and lyrical images of his own, with a description of James’ writing in Have You Got a Biro I can Borrow as a “dancing constellation of internal rhymes” standing out as a particular example of this, Shircore mirrors James’ own tendency to marry technical particularity with natural flair. The information about James and Atkin, beyond their work, that is woven through the exploration of a selection of their songs adds depth to the discussion of their work and gives an insight into the artists as people.
Shircore writes with an easy, open style that makes this book an accessible and engaging read. This casual tone can, at times, lead to some repetition which takes some chapters on a circuitous route to their point, and to sweeping statements which can err on the side of hyperbole in the case of lines such as the one in which “Together at Last” is described as featuring “the most spectacular enjambment ever.” However, overall it is one of the strongest features of the book, opening the doors and leading the reader through an exploration of James and Atkin’s varied and fascinating careers with ease.
Loose Canon takes an engaging and insightful look at the careers of Clive James and Pete Atkin through a close examination of a selection of their extensive songbook. It is a book to be read whilst listening to the songs it discusses; between the writing of Shircore, James and Atkin, “the music in the room, both beautiful and true, on plushly hushed extended wings, is flown to me and you.”
Briefs Factory’s feminist cabaret and burlesque extravaganza, Hot Brown Honey, has the audience crying with laughter, whooping, clapping and stamping their feet, but it isn’t from this that the show gets its electric energy. The Honeys are a group of women who are unashamedly angry and this is a show that makes no question of its bold intention to smash the patriarchy.
In a series of vignettes, the Honeys present the audience with well worn images and stereotypical characters before turning each and every one on its head. In one instance the audience is introduced to a “typical Samoan woman,” a romanticised idea of a woman in nothing but a leaf skirt sitting weaving herself new clothes from leaves. However, this illusion is shattered in moments as she turns and performs an impressive reverse strip-tease with a costume that seems impossibly, magically versatile. Another example is the caricaturing of characters that are defined by their physical features as Busty Beats appears wearing a costume with breasts the size of beach balls.
While most of their routines have a sizeable dash of the ridiculous and over-the-top about them (one needs only to have seen the costumes for the “Don’t Touch Her Hair” number to know that) that does not detract from the weight of the message in each segment. Tearing into questions of sexism, racism and homophobia, and tackling results of colonisation, the Honeys leave the audience in no doubt as to just how serious they are. This may be an audacious, entertaining and fun show, but it also leaves a sobering mark.
Through a fierce cabaret of hip-hop, song, circus and politics, Hot Brown Honey takes the audience through a whistle-stop tour of intersectional feminism and provides plenty of laughs and sass along the way. As the Honeys themselves say, “fighting the power never tasted so sweet.”
Hot Brown Honey runs until September 16th in the Spiegeltent at Merrion Square.
“We botched the birth,” says Henry Joy McCracken, speaking of his and his fellow “Mudlers’” attempt to bring their idea of Irish independence to fruition. The same phrase could be applied to describe Stewart Parker’s Northern Star. Rough Magic’s production is a good production grappling with an unwieldy play.
Northern Star tells the story of the seven ages of Henry Joy McCracken, as he reflects on the past seven years while hiding in a safe house with his partner and child on the run from the Yeomanry. Parker writes each age of McCracken in the style of a different writer, working his way through the Irish canon from Sheridan to Beckett. This ode to the canon, and examination of the theatricality of the rebellion and representations of it, seems a clever device. However, the changes between the writing styles, and the emphasis put on them means that the plot is often smothered in Wildean foppery or Beckettian linguistic play and patter. This issue is compounded by a lack of finesse in reproduction of many of the writers’ styles, leaving the watcher with a sense of having seen an empty, superficial imitation. While the performers and audience are caught up in this romp through the many styles of the Irish canon, it seems that the plot sometimes puts its feet up and dozes off.
This production does, however, deal well with the script. The suggested doubling of characters is well executed, with the changes to the actor playing McCracken in each age effective in allowing the “main” McCracken (played by Paul Mallon) to observe and reflect on the memories, as well as keeping a freshness in each segment. The performances were, on the whole, impressive, with Charlotte McCurry and Ali White delivering particularly good turns as Mary Bodle and Mary-Ann McCracken. Zia Holly’s set, based in the wings of a theatre, was cleverly conceived to compliment the conscious theatricality of Parker’s writing. This did, however mean that it did, at times, fall into the same trap as Parker’s writing in that it distracted overly from the plot and action. The solemn tenderness of Mary Bodle singing a heartbreaking song about McCracken to their son is somewhat distracted from by a large plush shark sitting just behind McCurry.
Northern Star is a play which tells a compelling story, and which employs and explores interesting theatrical styles and devices. Both are positive features, but unfortunately in this situation neither compliments the other, leaving both falling short. Though Rough Magic bring high quality performances and design to the production, they still fail to provide the clarity this play needs.
Northern Star runs at Project Arts Centre until 7th May before touring.
Taboo, written by John Morton and directed by Sarah Baxter can best be described as provoking a “yes, but, no, but” reaction. Well performed and directed, this play had good potential and many positive features, but fell sadly short in terms of script.
Both Morton and Fox, under Baxter’s laudable direction, give engaging turns as Tom and Lily. Opening the show, Fox demonstrates excellent comic timing and ability to quickly switch characters as she rehearses nervously for her impending date with Tom. Morton bounces of this agitated energy effectively, bringing a good balance of character to the stage. The two performers maintain this quality of performance throughout, despite having to contend with an unwieldy script.
Morton’s writing displays an strong aptitude for character-writing, and for natural, light dialogue. However there were issues with the construction of the story; rather than following a clear, smooth arc, the story felt more as though it was following two lines that were lightly joined together. The switch in tone mid-way through the piece came across as abrupt and awkward. Though there had been hints that all was not as it seemed in the earlier scenes, there was too heavy-handed an introduction of darker elements later in the play for this to balance with the light comedy of the start. In addition to this, the script would benefit from generous editing in places. At times, such as one particular scene in which the characters discuss urban legends, the dialogue and action dragged, losing the audience’s attention.
With an interesting and entertaining root idea, Taboo takes an almost-there script and puts it on stage with skill and vivacity.
Taboo runs at The New Theatre until 27th February.
Renton doesn’t choose life. Renton chooses “something else.” Tracing the interlocking stories of a group of friends, acquaintances, “associates,” whose lives have been ravaged by heroin, Trainspotting is a sharp, painfully funny and agonisingly heartbreaking piece.
From the off the cast bring an impressive energy and passion to the performance, with Shane O’Regan once again showing his skill and versatility as an actor, delivering a vivid, raw turn as Renton. O’Regan captures the multi-faceted nature of the character; he is not just “a junkie,” he is a character that has a burning vitality and story around him. As well as portraying the intensity of Renton, O’Regan has a particular skill for quick quips, delivering sharp laughs and gags with a perfectly measured but naturalistic style. Lórcan Strain’s performance as Tommy was also impressive, capturing the changing situation impressively. The entire cast caught the essence of their characters, however, in the case of Foley and Healy there were moments at which this was masked by dubious Edinburgh accents. Inaccurate accents, laid on too thickly resulted in lines being lost.
Noteworthy in terms of Tracy Ryan’s direction is her use of the all too often neglected upper levels of the Boy’s School giving a powerfully immersive feeling to the piece. Ryan allows the audience to take in many aspects of the characters and situation by having the characters engage directly with them, breaking down the distance created by more traditional staging.
Adding to this immersive feeling, Brian Murray’s lighting design, with its initial club atmosphere, right through to moments of intense use of shadow, was a particularly strong feature of the production. Once again, the clever use of the space available was evident in the design.
The whole production was well-constructed to truly draw the audience into the characters’ story, to the extent that at one point when a number of characters are chanting for another to jump dangerously from a height, members of the audience were so caught up in the atmosphere that they joined in the chant before realising what they were doing and stopping. This is a good indicator of just how engaging and powerful this production is.
Trainspotting is not an easy play to watch, it demands engagement both in terms of your attention and your emotions, but it is a great play to watch. I came out of the auditorium well and truly phased by the intensity of the production; it didn’t feel like watching characters, it felt like watching people, and that is what makes Trainspotting an entertaining but stomach-turning and heart-wrenching piece of theatre.