Tag Archive | "The Trial"

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Guest blog: Wandering Hanger Theatre Festival (Ukraine)

Posted on 19 October 2013 by Richard Pettifer

1385486_10200689608507700_191107013_nThe words “amateur theatre” inspire dread across the Anglo-Saxon world, but in the East, it just means you aren’t getting regular pay cheques from a professional company. It doesn’t mean you aren’t good. True to this, many of the plays I saw in the Festival of the Wandering Hanger last month in Lutsk, Ukraine were extremely conceptually ambitious, and without pretence or the compulsion to impress with spectacle.

The big feature of this festival was that it was held in found spaces around the city. There’s a certain romance about that; if you’ve ever dreamed of performing in a crumbling castle or abandoned Soviet concert-hall, you know what I’m talking about. It also forces creativity in adapting work, the pressure of which was the source of great theatre.

I was invited as a performer/critic. For some reason, someone, I know not who, decided that it would be a good idea for my performance – a political mime work – to open the festival. My space was a giant hardware warehouse, perhaps the only space where it was possible to engage passers-by. So imagine performing in front of a crowd of Ukrainians, in the front part of the warehouse just near the cashiers, mums and dads pushing their kids around on these trolleys which double as children’s racing cars, and you’re there performing your mime about oppression. I’m not even an actor. It’s hard to explain.

This came after the opening ceremony, which, to my surprise, was quite a local media event. I was ushered onto a toy train, an old suitcase was thrust into my hands, and after a short joyride we were outside the old train station, drumrolls were happening and my name was being read out on the P.A with a familiar Ukrainian “rrrrrr”: “Berrrrlin – Rrrrricharrrrd Pettiferrrr”. I stepped out into the fanfare and the flash of photographs, an Australian – the “sole representative from Western Europe”.

The festival is organised by the Lutsk council in co-ordination with a local theatre group, Harmyder. The council’s involvement makes it easier to get permission for found spaces (unfortunately tarnished by a local member appealing to their conservative base). So we saw Antigone in the underground ruins of Lutsk Castle’s church, a Georgian Youth theatre group performance about the Beslan massacre in a sports hall not dissimilar to the one in North Ossetia-Alania in which 180 children died in 2004, a performance about a violent incident in the Metro (actually an adaptation of a 1968 US film) in a neglected skeleton of a factory, and a Belarusian adaptation of The Trial which drew heavily on Brecht inside a gigantic abandoned Soviet concert hall.

Someone’s curatorial imagination had clearly been given free rein here. Someone’s curatorial imagination had clearly gone nuts here. What was surprising was how everything seemed to take on the properties of its location – the time-travel themes of hyper-irreverent performance I am Lucky seemed to blend perfectly with its psychedelic outdoor surrounds of the enclave of an abandoned factory – the colours of graffiti and autumn conspiring towards some kind of man vs. nature binary.

Anyone who thought the Ukrainian theatre scene was provincial would do well to look at my pick of the festival, Stars, a 2002 Berlin play skilfully translated by a group from Kharkiv – a place which I previously associated with its tractor factory.

We talk about found spaces like they’re really cutting edge and sexy. For Lutsk, this was earnest and everyday. Where shows in barnyards and hotels might be seen as the domain of the indy cutting-edge, here they were nourished by local government. There wasn’t even the usual “urban renewal” “land values” “branding” or “cleaning up abandon spaces” objectives. Just people exploring theatre in new places, in their city. It’s a celebration of the city, and I was privileged to be there.

Photo of Antigone by Pavla Berezuka.

Richard Pettifer

Richard Pettifer is a Berlin-based theatre director and performance artist. He blogs about Berlin theatre at, and his political work ‘People Spoke’ was performed at the Festival of the Wandering Hangar on September 28.

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Review: The Trial

Posted on 08 April 2013 by Amelia Forsbrook

The Trail

If you’ve ever suffered from a lapse of concentration during a production, you’re certainly not alone. Many theatre-goers have confessed to missing out on the moment where Godot swings by for a cup of tea in Samuel Beckett’s old classic because of a particularly engaging daydream; others have become so swept up in planning their dinners during Shakespeare’s most grisly tragedy, they can be heard comparing cannibalistic Titus Andronicus to Delia Smith as they exit the auditorium.

Unfortunately, when a show unravels across various locations within Shoreditch and demands that you navigate your own route to the next scene, you can lose not just the narrative thread but also yourself. In East London, this is particularly dangerous, as local eccentricities such as a penny-farthing tied to a bicycle rack or that curious leafy aroma can easily distract you from the serious tasks at hand.

After delivering their immersive two-part, two-night adaptation of Franz Kafka’s The Trial since the end of February, ambitious young company Retz is now allowing audiences to go from arrest to trial in one evening. In a play that’s all about an individual’s swift journey through a disturbingly efficient governmental system, where justice is secondary only to eliminating potential threats to the nation, this new presentation earns top marks for convenience. That said, teething problems here generated a navigational hiccup between parts one and two, sections that were, up until April, served up to audiences on different days. Thankfully, after backtracking a few interactions, Ewan Benfield’s Mr Block was to be found holding things together in a solicitor’s office, artfully refusing to break character as he gave directions to the next event.

By casting each ticket holder as a protagonist in this tale, adapters Joshua Nawras and Felix Mortimer have significantly slimmed down the novel’s central character, Josef K., leaving him with just two short interactions – one on video, warning us against the Department for Digital Privacy, and another where he invites us to help bring justice to a corrupt system. In this retelling, each audience member is put in Josef K.’s shoes, and is constantly asked to prove their innocence in a world unwilling to listen to any reason. Experienced, for the most part, on a one-to-one basis, where a string of characters repeatedly ascertain the audience member’s name and plea, this production passes its participants like batons through a heightened governmental  system, resulting in an appropriately alienating experience.

With the exceptions of that one well-recovered disjunction, and the all-too-common immersive theatre exit strategy that is the flashing red light and robotic voice indicating a ‘security breach’, the logistics of this adaptation were finely orchestrated. Overall, while it felt as though there was very little to be gained from long periods of waiting in terms of user experience, the lingering was very evocative of the crisp, functional and alienating bureaucracy that Kafka was always quick to attack.

This gap between experience and meaning is a defining characteristic of the production, as the vastly varied and fearfully persuasive cast deliver more parables and warnings than can be absorbed in 120 minutes of waiting, walking and familiar governmental technobabble. True to form, the creatives behind Retz, masters both of finding locations and of constructing particularly meaningful interior space, deliver an event saturated with great ideas across a thought-provoking landscape.

Overall, though, this production is just not quite tight enough to hold an untrained actor like me in the central role. The ways in which The Trial makes us complicit in our injustice and infringes a little too tightly on comfort zones is so appropriate in theory, but what can conceptually be understood as loneliness feels awkward and frustrating in practice. Similarly, often the antagonism between members of the cast and the accidental central actor seems so fraught with embarrassment that those minor issues of execution and thought control seem to lose their impact. Indeed, as Kafka might have requested, this adaption urges its audience to feel isolated, misunderstood and, at some particularly drawn-out moments, rather doomed; unfortunately, despite a very worthy effort, these emotions all seemed a bit too vain and self-conscious in the context of this art to do justice to such a pivotal source text.

The Trial is playing at various locations across Shoreditch until 27 April 2013. For more information and tickets, see the Barbican Centre’s website.

Amelia Forsbrook

Formerly one of the Wales Arts International critics, Amelia moved to London in early 2012 with two big aims: to continue working as an arts writer, and to discover whether it's ever possible to pull off both telephones and flying in theatre. With particular interests in regional arts, South Asian performance and twentieth century European theatre, Amelia writes for a number of other publications, as well as being an Off West End Assessor.

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Marmite and mischief: Belt Up’s The Boy James

Posted on 04 January 2012 by Douglas Williams

“One of our more ‘Marmite’ shows,” is how Jethro Compton describes Belt Up Theatre’s current venture, The Boy James. “Some people hate it and some people absolutely love it.”

The Boy James began life in 2009 at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe as a sideline to a programme of more high profile performances The Trial and Tartuffe. The show ran every other day and admitted an audience of only 25 people. Compton, who juggles his role as The Boy in the show with his responsibilities as both Producer and Lighting Designer, notes, “It’s weird that two years later we’re still doing it.”

It has become something of a flagship production for Belt Up. Returning to London for a three-week run in association with Southwark Playhouse (where Belt Up have been performing since 2009), the show will then journey to Australia to represent the company at the Adelaide Festival. But how will a new, international crowd take to Belt Up’s mischievous ways? The company is known for its unconventional staging and audience interaction and this show is no exception. (Read Lois Jeary’s review of Belt Up’s The Beggar’s Opera here and Editor Jake Orr’s review of Belt Up’s Macbeth here)

“Basically, the audience are invited into a study, where they prepare to go on an adventure,” explains Compton. “Whether that adventure does or doesn’t happen is not clear.” The Boy James is inspired by Peter Pan and the life of J.M. Barrie. The dialogue between the characters and the audience centres around the idea of growing up – or rather of not wanting to grow up. The character of James struggles throughout the play to bid farewell to his childhood self and put The Boy to rest. “It’s not a narrative show,” explains Compton. “It’s really bizarre in that way. It’s not storytelling in the way we usually tell stories. It’s all about the relationship that the audience has with the character of The Boy and how that starts and ends.”

Compton is quick to admit that this unconventional approach has divided critics. The Boy James has received criticism from some individuals. “I think that’s because it’s not the kind of show you can sit behind a notepad and write about,” says Compton. “You need to be feeling it.” In stark contrast to the negative responses, one of the best endorsements The Boy James could have received came from Stephen Fry on Twitter. He was one of many who left the show at the end of an evening in floods of tears. According to Compton, it can be anything from one audience member with a tear in their eye to the whole lot sobbing. With Fry, (“Just been knocked out by The Boy James – still drying my eyes”) the company struck gold. (Read Editor Jake Orr’s own take on The Boy James here)

“To have the Stephen Fry thing – that gave the show a boost and allowed us to continue doing the show,” remembers Compton. “It’s quite an amazing thing to have the Fry quote because people read The Guardian or whatever paper they read and when they read a bad review they will trust it. When Stephen Fry comes out with a positive quote, people think ‘Well I like him and he likes that so therefore maybe I will like that’.”

It’s easy to consider the mounting pressure on a young company such as Belt Up. Two 5-star sell-out runs at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival and some high profile admirers must make for high expectations. “We try not to think about that too much,” says Compton. “We started making the work that we wanted to make, telling the stories that we wanted to tell. We’ve always tried to keep that at the centre of it.”

The question of how a production translates from a Fringe stage to a London one is also crucial. When Belt Up made the transition, it found its work didn’t impress quite so effortlessly as it had done before. “When we came to London for the first time, we weren’t just a fringe company that people quite liked,” explains Compton. “There was an expectation of our work. People were like ‘Well there are  loads of young companies – what’s different about you?’ and so when people were blindfolded and thrown into a space, they were a bit like ‘Oh no, not this again’.”

Returning to Edinburgh in 2010 brought its own daunting level of expectation from audiences. Coming back after a prior season peppered with glowing reviews, the company were met with an attitude that Compton describes as “Go on then – impress us.” But the company is still young, still learning and still prone to making mistakes – and so it should be. If, as Compton points out, an audience enters a space with ridiculous expectations, viewers are unlikely to drop their guard even with the ten minutes of participatory childhood games that start the show.

Adopting the role of producer for a young company, as Compton has, adds another dimension of pressure. “I never wanted to be a producer,” Compton recalls. “It just kind of happened. I did the lighting which led to doing all the technical side of things which led to being a production manager and doing budgets, and I then ended up realising that the thing I enjoy doing is producing. The more I did it, the more I realised it’s actually what I want to do.” Being taken seriously is still the challenge with which Compton most identifies. He clearly believes that producing is not a skill you can learn on a course – you learn through doing. And there is support available to young producers.  The office from which he works is provided by Stage One, a trust set up to help the next generation of commercial producers. So why aren’t more young people getting into production right now?

“Some people see producers as facilitators, which is not what I do,” says Compton, engaging with the common misconception that producers deal only with logistics. “I have an interest in taking a show that I like or coming up with an idea and then putting it together. And the great thing about being a producer is that I don’t have to wait for someone to give me a job. I know so many young people out there who are unable to get work and I don’t have to worry about that because I’m the one making the work happen. It’s a great feeling, especially if the work is successful.”

The Boy James is being performed in association with the Southwark Playhouse from 25 January – 11 February. It is a site-specific piece being performed at The Goldsmith, 96 Southwark Bridge Road. Tickets are on sale now, available here.

Image credit: Belt Up Theatre

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