Tag Archive | "Eugene O’Neill"

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Blog: Young directors – fear and magic in the rehearsal room

Posted on 10 March 2014 by Young Directors

I’ve run rehearsals in the past for very small projects; I’ve been an assistant director sitting in on rehearsals and taking notes, giving feedback and providing all manner of support. But nothing is as terrifying as when it hits that you’re a young director about to lead rehearsals for a group of experienced actors, in a professional setting, to be showcased as your directorial debut to your peers, colleagues, mentors, industry and the public. And that’s exactly what I felt as I headed towards my rehearsal venue (the fabulous Theatre Delicatessen!) one a Monday morning.

The reality is quite different. Actors and directors are both human beings, and together, through trust and support, fears and anxieties are allayed. Once in the rehearsal room, I found myself much more relaxed and all set to go. If you’ve done your research, know your text and have planned your rehearsals then the door is truly open for collaboration, teamwork and the generation of ideas. There is a common goal shared by everyone in rehearsal room: to create a piece of theatre.

As a director, the key is to be prepared, to have faith in your ideas and to trust in your approach. If you have nothing, or very little to go on, how are your actors meant to put their trust in you? If you have no idea how your day will go, what units of text to work on and what point you want to be at by the end of the day, how will you get there? My own rehearsals involved a few hours preparation during the weekend before, allocating a rough amount of time to chunks of the text – it allowed us to focus on everything from language and subtext to character development to movement around the space. But what that planning also gave us was the freedom to break from it, to ask questions and to explore uncharted territories. With preparation comes freedom and openness.

Openness also relates to your approach in the rehearsal room throughout the whole process. It’s unlikely that any production will benefit from a solely Stanislavsky-based approach, but nor will it flourish with a wholly physical, movement-based approach. Being open to bringing a variety of techniques and exercises to the process is beneficial to all involved, and it will only help with keeping things fresh and moving the production onwards. With a text like Thirst by Eugene O’Neill, it was absolutely necessary to have a balanced approach, very much text and movement, and I found myself discovering new ideas and techniques as I went along, not least Chekhov’s ‘Psychological Gesture’, peacocks, Agwe and Degas’s dancers. Otherwise, we might all have drowned in weighty, dense language…

With all this coming into play, the process constantly moves forward, with discoveries and excitement pulsating through. Our final rehearsal, a day of Points of Concentration to keep things alive and fresh whilst consolidating and building on all the work we had done, was a fantastic and inspiring day as we could see all our hard work coming to fruition.

From the initial, pre-rehearsal thoughts to the final day, through trust, sharing, collaboration, preparation and openness, what once seemed terrifying becomes pure, indescribable magic.

Jude Evans


Young Directors

Young Directors

StoneCrabs Theatre’s Young Directors’ Programme is a platform for young directors, centred around production, project management and theatre directing. The programme culminates in February 2014 when the young directors will put on the Play-ground Festival at the Albany. The 2013-14 Young Directors are: Eleanor Chadwick, Hattie Coupe, Emma Dennis-Edwards, Jude Evans, Camilla Gurtler, Lynette Linton, Antony Nyagah, Mariana Pereira and Katharina Reinthaller.

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Review: The El Train, Hoxton Hall

Posted on 17 December 2013 by Adam Foster

The El Train

Eugene O’Neill is one of the most celebrated playwrights of the twentieth century and the first American dramatist to win the Nobel Prize for literature. But while this trilogy of early one-act plays offers an almost anthropological insight into O’Neill’s recurring themes of disillusionment, alcoholism and despair, they lack the scope and complexity of his later works. As such, this is an endeavour undermined by that old adage of style over substance.

The former music hall at the heart of this Grade II*-listed building has remained largely untouched since it was built in 1863. The El Train sees Hoxton Hall transformed into a New York tenement block in the pre-prohibition era, with exposed brickwork and iron fire escapes nestled beneath the imposing structure of overhead ‘el’ tracks. Stepping off the streets of East London into this atmospheric old building, it is easy to fall immediately in love with this stylishly realised found space venture. The problem is the plays.

The El Train is comprised of three one-act plays: Before Breakfast, The Web and The Dreamy Kid, all set in 1910s New York and intertwined with originally conceived music from a live jazz band, led by vocalist Nicola Hughes. At the centre of it all though is the imperiously talented Ruth Wilson, who appears in the first two plays and makes her directorial début in the third. Having won an Olivier Award for her turn in O’Neill’s Anna Christie at the Donmar Warehouse last year, you sense that Wilson is rather fond of O’Neill. That fondness may well be justified in the case of his later work but here it feels curiously misplaced.

The first two plays are intensely dramatic to the point of almost intolerable melodrama, rarely seen outside of Albert Square. Before Breakfast is a monologue about a woman stuck in a loveless marriage to a failed poet. While Wilson commands the stage with consummate ease as Mrs Rowland, the play is weighed down by encumbering expositional detail.

The second play of the evening, The Web, sees Wilson play Rose, a troubled young mother desperate to escape the thick Manhattan air but unable to raise the money to take her child away with her. As she argues violently with her pimp (Zubin Varla), a neighbour, Tim (Simon Coombs), decides that enough is enough. It’s a densely plotted piece given its short running time and, despite a mesmerising central performance from Wilson, it ultimately feels overwrought.

Thankfully, there is a little more substance to the final play of the evening, The Dreamy Kid, which largely turns its back on melodrama in favour of something more intriguing. As Mammy Saunders (Nicola Hughes) lies on her death bed, her only wish is to see her grandson Dreamy (Simon Coombs), a young man drawn into gang violence and on the run from the law. O’Neill’s premise is more simple here and it allows the story to build to a desolately bleak conclusion.

Under the ‘el’ train tracks, you can’t help but feel that this is an evening designed as a vehicle for Wilson’s undoubted talent. Indeed she has assembled a strong cast, creative team and a fantastically atmospheric venue to boot. But unless you’re an O’Neill devotee, £45 seems a lot to fork out when the plays lack the sophistication of their surroundings.

The El Train is playing at Hoxton Hall until 30 December. For more information and tickets, see the El Train website.

Photo © Marc Brenner.

Adam Foster

Adam Foster

Adam graduated from the University of Exeter in 2012. He is currently enrolled on Royal Holloway’s MA Playwriting course run by the playwright and academic Dan Rebellato. He has previously trained as an actor at The BRIT School and is represented by Alchemy Active Management.

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Feature: Weapons of Mass Creation – the Paul Robeson Art is a Weapon Festival

Posted on 30 September 2013 by Billy Barrett


Denied permission to leave the US, actor and singer Paul Robeson famously telephoned in a performance to a Canadian trade union convention in 1952, singing well-known hits down the cable including ‘Old Man River’ and informing delegates that he was being kept under “a sort of domestic house arrest”.

Robeson, whose communist views and civil rights activism made him a high-profile target of the McCarthyite red scare, is now the subject of a one-man show by Liverpool-based performer Tayo Aluko, Call Mr Robeson. Having toured the play for five years to widespread acclaim, Aluko is curating the Paul Robeson Art is a Weapon Festival this October to coincide with Black History Month. The festival, which takes place at London’s Tristan Bates Theatre, will feature Aluko’s monodrama alongside a programme of performers including comedian Ava Vidal and speakers such as former Labour MP Tony Benn. When I Skype Aluko to find out more, he’s in Brighton – confined only by the continuing tour of Call Mr Robeson – and takes time out to consider the political potential of theatre, challenges facing the arts today, and why “collective action” is essential for realising what Robeson stood for: “equality between races, sharing of resources between workers and bosses, and peace between nations.”

For someone with such an extraordinary life and career, Robeson’s relatively unknown today. Why’s that? “He was too far ahead of his time for his own good,” Aluko suggests. “When the more modern civil rights movement came – people like Martin Luther King and Malcolm X – Robeson’s image had been tarnished by the media and the hysteria about what communism represented, which to Americans was violent revolution.” Labelled a fanatic, Aluko says, Robeson was “sidelined by people from all walks of life”, despite his popularity in films such as the musical Showboat and Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones.

In fact, Aluko himself hadn’t heard of Robeson until he was 33 – 18 years ago. “A woman heard me singing and said I reminded her of him, then by chance I stumbled across his biography and decided somebody had to tell this story.” Interweaving narrative with song (and judging by show’s trailer, matching Robeson’s impressively deep baritone), Aluko crafted the piece “almost like a sculptor or a jewel-maker, starting very rough and then refining and refining. Now in its current form, [it] seems to be being accepted as a rather beautiful but potent work of art.”

Theatre, Aluko believes, is “a very potent art form – because there’s a performer in front of you it has that added immediacy and intimacy. To use the title of the festival, it’s potentially a very strong weapon for informing and engaging people to learn more about the world.” But, he reflects, this could be in jeopardy. Several theatres that originally expressed interest in programming Call Mr Robeson “have lost their funding and closed down. Others have said they really cannot afford to do anything other than tribute shows to Abba or standup comedy or whatever, that don’t involve people thinking too much.”

Overall though, he’s cautiously optimistic about the arts under an austerity programme and entrenched neoliberalism. “There is definitely an effect of cuts happening, but they say in periods of cuts people become more creative. People are fighting to survive but they’re also fighting to keep things going, and when times get better hopefully there’ll be a flourishing of very good art.” Is theatre an effective weapon against the forces of austerity and privatisation that threaten it? “Yes,” he replies instantly. “Very much so. One of the plays in the festival is called WE WILL BE FREE!. The company [Townsend Productions] has been has been touring The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist for a few years very successfully, which is a theatrical explanation of socialism – workers informing themselves and learning how to resist the greed of the capitalist bosses. WE WILL BE FREE! is the story of the Tolpuddle Martyrs. It’s a story from a few hundred years ago, but it will certainly inform people today about the importance of trade unionism and collective action.”

This is all music to my ears, but isn’t that the problem with a festival like this – preaching to the choir? “There is a danger of that, but it’s not just a case of preaching to the converted, it’s about re-galvanising people into carrying on the fight.” Aluko also hopes the broad range of performances, which include a new play about the abolitionist Harriet Tubman, “might bring people who are not already engaged” with the “black history and/ or political issues that chime with what Paul Robeson was all about”.

Aluko isn’t hyperbolic about the power of art as an instigator of social change; rather, he stresses the importance of organising and solidarity. Citing Spain and Greece as inspirations, where “the austerity measures foisted on the people are being resisted by organised trade union action and the mass of the public are joining with them,” Aluko believes the future for the UK may not be so bleak. “Things may get worse under this coalition government – it may be that they need to for the public to decide to join these people fighting without our support for so long. The arts will certainly make a contribution – it’s not the answer, but whatever means there are at our disposal we use, and as artists our art is our weapon.”

As for Robeson, Aluko believes performers and audiences have much to learn from him, which he hopes the festival will convey. “Robeson teaches us we should not allow the people putting up resistance to the way things are to be vilified the way he was – Chelsea Manning is in jail for releasing information showing the US military has been committing war crimes; Edward Snowden is in exile because he released information the government wishes to remain secret.” Robeson’s story, as radical as these contemporary figures but “swept to the side and literally forgotten,” is certainly due its time in the spotlight. “History has been waiting to be rediscovered and retold,” Aluko says, “and it’s there to inspire us today”.

The Paul Robeson Art is a Weapon Festival runs at the Tristan Bates Theatre from 30 September to 26 October. For more information and tickets, visit the Tristan Bates Theatre’s website.

Billy Barrett

Billy Barrett

Billy currently studies English and Theatre at Warwick University. Between reviewing and reading for his course, Billy writes, directs and acts in theatre. He tries to see everything in London, Warwick and beyond!

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Review: Desire Under the Elms

Posted on 11 October 2012 by Lauren Mooney

It may be nearly a hundred years since Desire Under the Elms was written, but the stage still brims with the barely-repressed desire promised by the title of Eugene O’Neill’s controversial 1924 play. Rarely performed, the play goes beyond its deceptively simple setting and plot – a New England farm and a family dispute over its rightful ownership – to gain a scope that is evocative of Greek tragedy and even shows influences of Freudian thought. The plot may not be particularly surprising, but like the best Greek tragedies that is not where its strength is supposed to lie: the tension comes from the horrible, utterly unstoppable nature of the ending we can all see coming.

Morgan Watkins has his work cut out for him in the difficult central role of Eben, a young man still living and working on his parents’ farm, but entirely his mother’s son. She is dead long before the play’s opening scene, but her ghost hangs over the entire thing, fuelling Eben’s difficult relationship with his father Ephraim (Finbar Lynch, a little young-looking for the 76-year-old Ephraim, but marvellous), as their unhappy marriage came out of a legal dispute regarding to whom, exactly, the farm legally belonged. Eben believes it is his by right, from his mother, so when his father returns from town with a straightforward, rather glamorous thirty-something wife (Denise Gough) as a follow-up to Eben’s late mother, he tries his very best to set himself against her – but she has other plans for him.

It is very definitely Gough’s show: as Abbie, Ephraim’s far younger wife, she gives coherence to a character that seems to sometimes lack it in the script itself. There is a large shift in time during the interval, during which Abbie’s character seems to change greatly while off stage, but Gough copes well. At times, Abbie’s actions may stretch credibility, but we never fail to believe in her, thanks to a bravura performance and excellent direction from the ever-reliable Sean Holmes, the Lyric’s artistic director. It is also worth mentioning the extent to which Holmes uses music throughout the production, with Jason Baughan as ‘The Musician’ taking to the stage with his guitar during scene changes. The music gives greater atmosphere and power to what has come before or is to follow, as well as rooting the play firmly in its setting and period. Personally, I couldn’t be happier about the apparent craze for live music in so many theatre productions I’ve seen over the last few years; it really adds something.

For all its strengths, though, Holmes’s revival of Desire Under the Elms is an easy production to like but a difficult one to love. Ian MacNeil’s set is frankly a little bizarre, with boxes of rooms being wheeled on and off between every scene, being spun full circle on their wheels like gigantic ballerinas as they slowly approach their position. It is very stylised looking, but I found it hard to tell if there was any substance behind. Although rather daring, I ultimately just found it distracting. Also, as I mentioned before, Eben seems an incredibly difficult character to get a handle on, and though Watkins’s efforts were certainly valiant and he is clearly a talented actor, it is not quite a strong enough central performance to lift this difficult and unusual play out of the realm of the good and into the remarkable.

Perhaps it was the feeling of removal created by the unreality of the set or perhaps it was simply the huge change in mood and pace between the first and second halves; whatever it was, I couldn’t help but leave the venue feeling impressed and yet curiously unmoved.

Desire Under the Elms is running at the Lyric Hammersmith until November 10th. For more information and tickets, see the Lyric Hammersmith website. Photo by Keith Pattison.

Lauren Mooney

Lauren Mooney

Lauren graduated with an English degree from the University of Liverpool before moving to London. Aside from reviewing for AYT and her day job at Free Word, she also writes for Exeunt and TheatreGuide London, and helps make the London Horror Festival happen.

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