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Review: The Life and Sort of Death of Eric Argyle

Posted on 05 April 2013 by Hannah Elsy

Life and Sort of Eric Argyle
Fresh from an award-winning run at both the Edinburgh and Dublin Fringe Festivals last summer, Irish Theatre Company 15th Oak’s energy bursts into the Soho Theatre in The Life and Sort of Death of Eric Argyle. The show is an imagining of what happens once you kick the bucket: after being hit by a car aged only 58, Mr Argyle finds himself in purgatory. He is forced to witness telling episodes in his life, leaving the audience to act as a sort of jury for his final judgement. These episodes are ordered into a loose chronology by a book that Eric wrote whilst still alive about his own life, which is pasted together in the mortal world by an unwitting stranger who happens to stumble upon the disorganised pages. The script of The Life and Sort of Death of Eric Argyle is a piece of new writing by the successful Irish comic Ross Dungan, an experienced writer for both the Edinburgh and Dublin Fringes. Dan Herd, an Associate Artist at the Soho Theatre, directs it.

15th Oak’s storytelling style is extremely vibrant. The episodes in Eric’s life, whether they are funny, touching or tragic, are woven together with skilful fluidity. The actors transform the space into the different places of significance in Eric’s past, simply by shifting around the every day furniture that appears, on first impressions, to be stage clutter. The story is brought to life by the exceptionally energetic performances of the actors, who are all a joy to watch. The company double- and triple-role as the characters in Eric’s life, effortlessly changing their accents and age, and also providing a live musical underscore for the piece. A stand-out performance is Davey Kelleher’s caricature of Eric’s pedantic uncle – a speech therapist with a wonderful penchant for emotionally belittling his pupils.

In their characterisation, the males slightly outshine the females. However, the women make up for it as they are better at narrating, and make years of Eric’s life zip along as they read passages from his book. This narrative style is very much in the style of the recent production of Gatz, where the whole of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby was read aloud onstage to aid the actors telling the story. Although this style ensures that there is never a dull moment, it means that the production often seems too wordy. It would benefit for occasionally slowing down and having a few well-placed silences to add gravitas to the moments of pathos which are never allowed the time to develop properly. The production makes good use of the small space of the Soho Theatre, through the excellent design by Colm McNally, which effectively draws your attention to the depth of the space when all the stage and house lights are taken to blackout, save for several floodlights shining at the audience through the gauze backdrop.

The small problems in the production are ones that could have been smoothed out with more rehearsal time. These are not faults that are due to lack of development, but are symptomatic of the style in which the piece is being performed. The relentless energy behind The Life and Sort of Death of Eric Argyle makes it a joy to watch, but also means its delivery is somewhat frenetic and occasionally confusing.

The Life and Sort of Death of Eric Argyle is playing at the Soho Theatre until 20 April. For more information and tickets, see the Soho Theatre website.

Hannah Elsy

Hannah Elsy

Alongside reading English at King's College London, Hannah runs around the capital watching and performing in as much theatre as physically possible. She enjoys creating new work, and is currently workshopping new ideas with the National Theatre's Young Studio. Hannah has worked as an arts journalist for the Fierce Festival of live art and Bristol's In Between Time Festival.

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Spotlight On: Unicorn Theatre

Posted on 08 August 2012 by Holly O'Mahony

Purni Morell, new Artistic Director of Britain’s largest children’s theatre – the Unicorn Theatre – is far from crumbling under the pressure of such a role, or the task of ensuring the Unicorn raises the £500,000 it needs each year to keep on running. In fact, when I caught up with her, Morell explained she is expanding the age range that the theatre caters for, to incorporate the interests of those aged between 2 – 21, making sure there is a show to suit everyone’s taste.

“The Unicorn is in a unique position as a large, purpose built theatre for young audiences. We put on productions for young people from ages 2 – 21, and this means we put on a broad programme of work, so that any person who has an interest in the Unicorn, be that a mother of a two-year-old, or a 14-year-old coming to town for the first time on his/her own, or a teacher of Year Seven, we’ll have something that is aimed at that particular group of people, once every month or so.” Morell is convinced, however, that through such expansion of age range, nothing will be spoilt or lost in terms of what this theatre specialises in. “What makes the Unicorn special are the shows, and the Unicorn lives and dies by the shows that are on, and each show that’s on will be wonderful in its own right.”

Morell is keen not to make the building one that is preserved in assets, as she believes theatre should be seen as a contemporary art form. “What I’m very keen to do is to encourage regular visits, because the thing about theatre that is so interesting is that it comes in many, many forms, from the big sorts of shows that you see at Christmas, to the much smaller intimate shows which invite you to look very carefully at a particular problem.”

Hoping to make the Unicorn a go-to place, Morell wants young audiences to find it a venue in which they feel absolutely welcome. This, she believes, would allow them to develop a language and opinion about all the different kinds of performance that exist. “The arts aren’t taught as part of the mainstream in most schools and so it could be quite intimidating, regardless of what age you are. If you go to the theatre once, you may or may not like it, but if you don’t have the chance to speak about how you feel at the end of the performance it could be quite intimidating to be asked your opinion or to comment on it, and I think that kind of confidence can only be built by regular attendance.”

Having seen a lot of children’s theatre abroad in other parts of Europe, Morell views the variation in style as a reflection on how children and young people are treated differently in different countries. “One of the things that really excites me is bringing international work over here. It gives theatre makers an opportunity to discuss some of these subjects among themselves and incorporate some of that into their own work. The way children’s theatre unfolds in Sweden, or the way it happens in Belgium, or Italy or Britain, is very much informed by the way we speak to young people in every day life.”

For Morell, there are positive qualities in European countries in terms of how young people are considered part of society, and she is bringing those qualities to her work in bridging the cultural gap and incorporating aspects of other theatrical traditions into this country’s children’s theatre. “In England, unfortunately, we sometimes slip into a tendency to see children as waiting to become real people when they grow up,” she explains.

Many theatre practitioners are disappointed that theatre studies is not part of the national curriculum in most schools, but through the Unicorn’s Learning and Participation team offering a full programme of workshops and classroom resources, the Unicorn is doing what it can to normalise theatre in the minds of the masses and encourage today’s children to explore what it offers. Theatre is not, however, about learning. Morell argues: “At least not in the normal sense or application of the word ‘learning’. The thing about theatre is that it is a place like no other, which combines a very personal engagement with the story that you may be watching, and doing so within a public, live environment.” In contrast to recorded media – television, film, computers – “there is something very interesting about simply being in a room with other human beings, and watching, or participating in a story that other human beings are telling you about the world in which we share.” She insists “It’s not learning about theatre, it’s more to do with having a space where you can expand the way you think about the world we are living in.”

The Unicorn Theatre is committed to keeping ticket prices low and making the venue interesting and accessible for people. “We want people to come and see whether they like it. When they come, of course, we hope they will like it and then come back!” There’s no need to try and compete with other modern media – “the important thing is to give people the opportunity to see that there are many ways you could spend your time, and all these different activities don’t need to compete with each other for people’s attention.” Morell explains, “Finding out more about the world is something humans have always done and I think that the arts are an important part of that. I think that it’s very much about giving people the opportunity to come and see a show.”

Many of the plays put on at the Unicorn Theatre introduce children to the problems and harsh realities that we face and have to find a way of dealing with in life. In June, the Unicorn staged Something Very Far Away, in which the big taboo of human death is tackled. “The problem with death is that it happens and there’s no getting away from it,” says Morell. “I don’t think that theatre is necessarily the best way to introduce children to the idea that people are going to die, but I do think theatre is a place to experience emotionally how you feel about the fact that death is going to happen.” Morell bravely chooses to acknowledge that “we are all mortal” and believes there is no point in pretending that this is not the case, even in children’s theatre. “There’s great comfort to be found in honesty about subjects that are difficult,” she explains. “What the show is really about is how someone copes with grief. I think what this show has in it is an enormous amount of emotional truth about what it’s like when you lose someone that you love – which is a problem that’s around us every day – so it’s a good idea to talk about it.”

For Morell, staging theatre specifically for children is no more or less important than theatre for adults. “What theatre allows us to do is to create a space in which we can look at the world we live in, look at ourselves and other people in a heightened reality which is a lot like the world we live in, but slightly different from it, because the possibilities in it are different and the outcomes are different.” And that is something which is extremely valuable for adults and children alike.

The Unicorn’s new season includes I, Malvolio, Dr Korczak’s Example, A Winter’s Tale and The Prince and the Pauper. For more information or to book tickets, visit www.unicorntheatre.com.

Image credit: Unicorn Theatre

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The Dark Side of Love: Dealing with emotion in Shakespeare

Posted on 22 June 2012 by A Younger Theatre

Continuing our The Dark Side of Love blog series is cast member Rosy Morris, who talks about accessing emotion in Shakespeare’s work.

When we first started devising The Dark Side of Love at the Roundhouse we were sent into a whirlwind of emotion – for me it was love, a raw one. Having just split up with my boyfriend was at the core of my reasons for wanting to take part in the project. Welcome to the universal world of Shakespeare and his on ongoing relevance in people’s lives.

The beginning of the process was all about opening up, telling our own stories of love and loss. Not all of us had been in love, however everyone has obviously experienced love of some sort whether it be a lover, friend or a family member.

However, the theme of loss seemed to be much more provoking. It seemed the older cast members had lost a lover – myself being one of them – but the interesting point here was that when we relate our own stories back to Shakespeare’s, he understood humankind perfectly. He was able to grasp the subtleties of people through language. It was here I realised I related most to Ophelia from Hamlet. She is rejected without knowing why. A common question I think a lot of women have – both young and old – is why men in particular have such a tendency to reject with such ambiguity. Why all the secrets? Why does society repeat itself with the insistence on hiding the reasons behind our dismissive actions? Does one who is rejected not deserve the respect and right to know why they have lost this relationship?

But, moving on from the dark side of love and onto a jolly subject: death. When our Brazilian director Renato Rocha asked us to imagine a freshly dead person, we all had to delve deep into our imaginations. He was quietly shocked by this, explaining that he had experienced people being shot in the streets on a regular basis. I guess this is one way London life protects us from reality; police arrive almost instantly on the scene of a crime and clean it all up. It seems that Brazil’s knowledge of death shares similarities with that of Shakespeare’s time. He wanted us to improvise a scene of death, bringing objects into the space relating to them, asking ourselves what they meant, why we were using them and what their significance was. By doing this we created a montage of thought-provoking images allowing us to think further about the significance of death and what it means to different people.

Further into the devising process, we worked on acting on instinct, which for most of us was an initial struggle especially when doing so in front of an audience – as performers our initial reactions were to ‘act’ our responses to our surroundings. Removing ourselves from this was a great relief once we got the hang of it and allowed us to use it as a tool further on, whether that meant it simply helped us relate to our characters or even just playing around with our speeches.

Overall, the last 10 months have taught us all so much about how to create and devise your own piece of theatre. By interpreting the great Bard’s work one can see that his stories are so universal that even when you do play around with them a lot of the ideas from the original plays are still highly distinguishable. And if you ever find yourself questioning why Shakespeare still lives on today, all you need do is look around, because he’s in everything and everyone.

The Dark Side of Love will be staged at the Roundhouse 26 June – 8 July. Commissioned by the Roundhouse and LIFT, it forms part of the World Shakespeare Festival.

A Younger Theatre

A Younger Theatre

A Younger Theatre (AYT) is a platform for young people to express their views on theatre and performance. The site is maintained, edited and published by under 26 year olds who all have a passion for theatre.

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Theatre Thought: Writing with Emotion and Death in Theatre

Posted on 27 May 2012 by Jake Orr

Emotion and Death Writing in Theatre

It seems to me that if I am to write or respond to anything that the theatre world has to offer me, it has to come through the conditions of my being. It feels impossible to see the world through rose-tinted glasses when the reality is quite different. Right now, as I sit with the sun warming the back of my neck, with children and families playing around the park, I am full of grief.

The loss of a family member is always challenging. This is only the third time I’ve experienced it, the last two happening within a few weeks of each other when I was too young to fully comprehend what death could and does mean. Between then and now I’ve lived a happy family life, watching those around me go through twisting emotions as death knocks coldly at their doors. Nothing really prepares you for it, and it strikes often when you least expect it. At least (as if I need some consoling from this) this family member had been ill for some time; the outcome, whilst still a shock, was comforting too.

So this is why I feel I can’t write or respond to theatre, or for that matter anything, without first addressing where my emotions are firmly rooted. I am an emotional wreck. Death has robbed me of coherent argument for or against critical reflection. I am powerless to its firm grip as it pulls me ever deeper but whilst this happens, like any writer, I feel compelled to write.

When I wrote a response to seeing Melanie Wilson’s Autobiographer I expressed my concern over seeing the dreaded fate of dementia setting into my mother. This was perhaps my greatest fear from the piece, that the character of Flora was one day going to be her. This breaks my heart to even think of it, and even more so when I apply the idea that not only do you lose the lucidly of mind, but you begin a constant waiting game with death itself. Just, waiting. What kind of life is that? Theatre had in this instance drawn out the fears that I possess in my personal life.

Upon seeing Hannah Nicklin’s Conversation with my Father, at Sampled Festival in Cambridge on the Sunday morning, I was caught off guard with how Nicklin’s simplistic narrative tugged at my emotions. It wasn’t that it was intentional, Nicklin herself commented afterwards that she found the audiences reaction a surprise, and the content too, of protest and father/daughter communication, doesn’t appear to be an immediate tear jerker. Yet there I was, Sunday morning, fighting back the emotions. I guess in some ways, stories have the ability to unlock the emotions that we keep locked up inside us. I couldn’t relate to Nickin’s story, but I clearly found something in it, intentional or not. I was freed by the emotion that helped me understand a level of the performance itself. Thinking about it now, I’m annoyed I didn’t get to see Ira Brand’s work in progress which clearly had a few people snuffling in their tissues.

Perhaps what I need to see in the next week is Antigone at the National Theatre. A touch of Greek Theatre to win over my emotions. Isn’t that what it was for, after all? Catharsis doing its thing. That’s what I need. I need to see my emotions in those upon the stage, I need to see how the death of a loved one (Antigone’s brother in this case) can lead me to mourn the loss of my own loved one. I can cry with Antigone as she pleads with Creon to give her brother an honourable burial. I can feel the emotion that I feel displayed with such intensity before me that I will be overcome, with little self control. By the end, I will be exhausted but at least all that is contained within me will have burst forth.

As someone who writes about theatre, who reviews theatre, I am always alarmed by how much of how I currently feel, of my own desires and wants within that given moment, can influence my judgement. What I need right now is to mourn, and if I was to see a happy-go-lucky production I would perhaps be a bitter man, sitting hunched over and mumbling how ‘pathetic’ it all feels. Clearly I would be in no right frame of mind to be ‘on duty’. What would happen though if I did review Antigone at the National Theatre? The perfect cathartic production, would it win over my emotions and have me praising its bravery?

I have written before about the need to take time off from seeing theatre, in order to be fresh and appreciate the joy of when the lights dim and the work appears before you. Too often we forget that it is not always the production itself that will have us disgruntled but the experience of attending the theatre at large. We’ve all had rude front of house staff, or journeys that have left us running through the doors of the theatre late, and we all deal with family deaths. So the question raised is perhaps what to do about the emotion that ebbs away underneath every word? Let it influence me, or try to suppress what boils up inside?

I’m already aware that I am a sucker when it comes to a production that attempts to evoke feelings in its audience through manipulation. I’m thinking here of shows that use piano music, coupled with poetic storytelling of heartbreak and torment, to unleash emotion upon the audience. It’s common among practitioners, overused at times, but still effective. A recent example perhaps being Frantic Assembly’s Love Song. I have to guard myself against this, and see the device for what it is, but oh how it is easy to sink into those emotions and be led by them. Here the response is to be objective in the moment, to continually assess and to be the outside eye. Of course it is allowed to be sucked into the moment, to revel in a sense of catharsis as long as you’re aware of this. I’m thinking of the recent reaction to Three Kingdoms and how this could, as has already been suggested, be down to us young people not seeing this sort of work before, we are, quite naturally, caught in the moment and wish to proclaim it as such. For us, the moment takes us and we go with it.

The truth is, we can never truly get away from our emotions when watching, responding to or engaging with theatre and art. It is often this sense of understanding emotionally that can help us to truly engage with the arts. Just like sport can ignite a crowd into a frenzy, so can the collected audience be underwritten with emotion towards a subject of theatre or art. The task at hand is to constantly be objective and to unleash our emotions when is appropriate.

So I’m cancelling my plans this week, and I’m preparing to let my emotions take over for a while. I’ll cry, I’ll attend a funeral and I’ll return with a new sense of understanding towards the cycle of life and theatre that portrays death. What hurts me today is only going to make me a stronger person tomorrow. At least, this is the theory.

Rest in peace. Margaret Orr.

Image by Casey David.

Jake Orr

Jake Orr

Jake is the Artistic Director and Founder of A Younger Theatre. He is a freelance writer and blogger, a theatre marketer and a digital producer. He is also Co-Curator of Dialogue.

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