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Review: Address Unknown

Posted on 21 June 2013 by Jemma Anderson

Address Unknown

Based in the quirky heights of the Soho Theatre, something entirely different is happening for the team and Artistic Director Steve Marmion. Normally a home primarily to new writing, the theatre has taken a gamble on staging a 75-year-old play. And that gamble has paid off.

The entire production and its history is a statement in itself, having been written by Kathrine Kressmann Taylor under a pseudonym because it was deemed “too strong” to appear under the name of a woman, the book offers the starting point for the play of the same name. The book was also subsequently banned in Germany due to exposing the threat of Nazism.

It’s set in the 1930s, where friends Max, a Jewish art dealer living in San Francisco, and Martin, his business partner who returned to Munich to support his growing family, are in constant correspondence with each other. They talk about friends, family, and their lifestyles, but things soon turn sour after Hitler comes into power, threatening their beliefs, friendships and families.  It sounds like quite a heavy play but, at 60 minutes, it feels just enough to get its point across: an anti-fascist call to arms.

It is set in the period offices (crafted by Katie Lias) of the two men, who write letters to each other in alternating monologues, which could become tiresome, but a mixture of the great directing, expert acting and gripping script makes you genuinely eager to hear the next letter. Simon Kunz plays a superb Max, a single man who relies heavily on his friend for support and conversation from Germany, and in the play’s most shocking moments, depicts a stillness that evokes emotion so strongly the audience dare not breathe. In a stark contrast, Jonathan Cullen shows us Martin, who is swept up in the tide of Jewish hatred, and changes the entire audiences’ opinion of him in two sentences. Both bounce off each other through the exchanges perfectly.

The second statement that this production makes is that it is played simultaneously in both French and English. Luckily, I saw the English version, but the French version was sold out two weeks before it even opened, thanks to the translation of the original book in 1995, it warranted these extra performances, and the numerous productions since in French theatres.

The production has been expertly directed, written and acted, and provides an evening of not necessarily light entertainment, but a provocative and devastating hour of friendship and betrayal.

Address Unknown is playing The Soho Theatre until the 27 July 2013. For more information and tickets, see the Soho Theatre website.

Jemma Anderson

Jemma is currently studying Drama, Theatre and Performance at Roehampton University. Between studying and reading about theatre, she also watches and reviews as Editor-in-chief of the Drama Department's newspaper, The Call.

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Review: Public Enemy

Posted on 15 May 2013 by Kirsty Emmerson

The Public Enemy

Nothing about this play is subtle, from the almost neon IKEA-advert set, to the bright strobe lighting which segues one act into another, Public Enemy doesn’t try to pretend. Translated from Ibsen’s original 1882 play, the drama here surrounds one man’s struggle to save a town from tarnish and embarrassment, whilst also potentially crippling it beyond repair.

Nick Fletcher plays an unusually grounded Dr. Stockmann, intelligent and certain that his research is correct, in the centre of what would, in modern times, be a scandal plastered across every newspaper in Britain. Realistic and concerned, Stockmann quickly wins over the town until the Mayor (a gruff and uncompromising Darrell D’Silva) presents a more sinister, threatening counter-argument which seemingly changes everything. Throw in Bryan Dick as a flip-flopping journalist and Niall Ashdown as the hilariously deadpan Aslaksen, and this could have become a farce which mirrors the state of current affairs.

Instead, we are well met with an entertaining commentary on our political state as it stands, which is also vibrant, fiery and razor-sharp. Ibsen’s words resonate and remain within the mind beyond the hour-and-45 minutes of the performance. Stockmann stands up for himself and the truth, and the play challenges, quite directly, its audience to do the same, asking what is right, what is wrong, and who has the governance to say so. We see the beliefs of the majority challenged, and watch how the individual, no matter how strong their ideals, can be swayed by personal advancement.

The tension ratchets up a notch with every act that plays out, and, in a constant state of flux, the morality of the play moves in a realistic – and somewhat concerning – manner. Left with little to do but watch as the town slowly turns against him, Fletcher’s Dr. Stockmann carries the weight of the world upon his shoulders, and, most importantly, never resigns himself to failure.

Act Four is where Fletcher really comes into his own, his character finally cracking under pressure and firing on all cylinders, straight into the audience. At no point, however, does either Stockmann as a character or Fletcher as his life force, tip over into a madness that would make him ridiculous. Though he becomes the public enemy, Stockmann retains his truth and dignity, and perhaps that is what is important here – knowing the difference between standing up for your beliefs and crossing the line into something more dangerous.

Harrower’s new adaptation of Public Enemy is strong, intelligent and truly hits its mark. The cast is spot on, and nothing falls by the wayside. A must see no matter which side you fall on, the public, or the Public Enemy.

Public Enemy is playing at The Young Vic Theatre until the 8 June 2013. For more information and tickets, see the Young Vic website.

Kirsty Emmerson

Kirsty Emmerson

Final year English student, determined to get into theatre by hook or by crook, I spend half of my time reading and the other half trying to write on anything and everything I can get my hands on. Fuelled by tea and whatever new food I’m trying this week, you’ll find me in theatres or bookshops, probably mumbling about Shakespeare or the latest cricket scores.

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“The biggest risk to new writing? Waiting for permission”: an interview with Mark Ravenhill

Posted on 28 March 2013 by Billy Barrett

life of galileo

“It’s funny how plays change their meaning night by night,” says Mark Ravenhill on his adaptation of Brecht’s Life of Galileo. “For the next few nights the audience are going to see it as about a change in Pope.” We’re in the Swan Bar of Stratford-Upon-Avon’s Royal Shakespeare Theatre before the press night of Galileo, Ravenhill’s first production for the RSC as writer-in-residence. Best known for his plays Shopping and Fucking, Mother Clap’s Molly House and the recent cycle Shoot/ Get Treasure/ Repeat, Ravenhill’s residency has been heralded by many as a “shot in the arm” for new writing at the company. He’s also often said to be friendly and engaging in person, and I’m pleased to find this is true: sitting beside me on the sofa, he’s immediately open and charming, complimenting my trousers as I flap around anxiously with notes and dictaphone before we start. In Life of Galileo, Ravenhill says, “one pope is dying, a new Pope’s arriving, and Galileo has great hopes of the new Pope being more liberal and understanding of science,” but the play’s interrogation of the relationship between technology, religion and the state carries a contemporary significance beyond this obvious parallel: Galileo “gives you the real visceral excitement of scientific discovery…  It’s absolutely a pro-science play, but one with a sting in the tail: if we don’t all share in the profits of science, literally money profits, but also intellectual, ethical profits, then it can harm us.”

Life of Galileo dramatises the physicist’s research into a new model of the universe that puts the sun at its centre, opposing the geocentric dogma of the Catholic Church. “Most drama that deals with science is basically anti-science; science is out to get us, or the thing that takes us away from ourselves,” Ravenhill suggests, adding that the marriage of science and art is as present in the play’s form as its content: “Brecht could see a really clear line between the method of the scientist and the method of the dramatist”, he says, citing the playwright’s emphasis on “learning to think methodically, to observe, to break someone down into a series of tasks and checking results, always questioning.” In fact, “Brecht was really a great realist – we tend to think of [Brecht’s theatre] as some kind of attack on naturalism, which is true, but actually it’s not at all about artifice, theatre as theatre, its theatre that’s trying to find any way to get reality onto the stage.”

Given his distinctive writing style, I wonder whether audiences will recognise a Ravenhill resonance in this new version – “I’ve tried as much as I can to capture what I think is the voice of the play and of Brecht’s writing,” he answers. Aware, perhaps, that he is most often associated with his first play Shopping and Fucking, Ravenhill speculates that “the crude image of me is that somehow I’d up the number of swearwords and –” anal knifing, I pitch in, and instantly regret it “– Galileo plus swearwords and anal knifing, yeah. So there certainly isn’t that. Maybe people who have a different knowledge of my work might recognise something.” I’ve heard that he tends to take a practical and experimental approach to playwriting – pool (no water), for example, was developed alongside its cast in collaboration with Frantic Assembly directors Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett – did Life of Galileo evolve in rehearsal? “Not too much,” he replies. In adapting the work, “I had the German text and I had an English academic translation, so I just read the German aloud to get the sound and feel of it on the tongue – basically it was just me alone in a room acting it out.” As for whether this differs to his usual process, Ravenhill laughs: “every play has been totally different – I can’t say I’ve managed to boil it down to anything as dignified as a ‘process’.” It may come as some assurance to aspiring writers that his approach has been “totally different every time, from more or less having nothing but a pile of scraps on the first day of rehearsal, to writing half-drafts on the hoof as we go, to even a couple of times arriving in rehearsal with pretty much the play that’s the one that’s performed.”

Since this interview, Ravenhill’s residency at the RSC has been extended for a further year, and when I meet him it’s clear that he is proud to be involved with the institution. In fact, Ravenhill considers that the RSC owes much of its ethos and aesthetic to the influence of Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble: in terms of design, “that very sort of real fabric, real wood and real metal and real sackcloth” and in performance, its concentration on being “about an ensemble of actors” rather than producing star vehicles. When I suggest that the company has become somewhat safer since its foundation, Ravenhill insists “it’s much more a case of gradually evolving at the RSC – of course there are going to be periods where it sits back a bit and acts a bit steady, and investigates and asks again, ‘why are we doing Shakespeare? How are we doing Shakespeare?’” and points out the ways in which it rebelled against the original Stratford season, which was “very much built around stars”; as he puts it, “you can’t exactly recapture that big turn”.

Ravenhill believes “the track record of new writing at the RSC is really good. Obviously it’s not all year round and it’s not in London, so it doesn’t have the profile of stuff at the Royal Court, but new writing’s always been a part of what the RSC does”. When I ask whether he hopes his residency will pave the way for more and better new writing at Stratford, it’s obvious he’s been expecting the question. “Who knows?” he asks, clarifying “I don’t have any particular axe to grind about them doing more new writing. I think they are the RSC, the main thing they should focus on is doing Shakespeare really well,” although  “one of the things about doing Shakespeare really well is to expose actors and audiences to new plays, which keep on questioning why Shakespeare wrote, and how Shakespeare works.” Ultimately, he reflects that the RSC strikes a successful balance: “it’s much healthier to have the two sitting side by side”.

He’s troubled, however, about what the next few years may hold for theatres generally in the wake of cuts to arts funding. “I think the level at which whole cities are going to absolutely lose all of their arts is something we didn’t really contemplate even five years ago,” Ravenhill ponders, though he’s optimistic that writers will fare comparatively well in this harsh climate: whereas “if you want to direct or act, you have to have somebody give you permission and the resources,” he reasons, “the great thing about writing is that you can just write. If you really want to write a play, there isn’t anybody stopping you… and then if you write a really good play, somebody will put it on.”

With the buzz of the ten-minute call blaring across the bar, I swiftly ask Mark Ravenhill a final question: If money’s not such an issue then, what is the biggest risk to new writing? He pauses for a second. “The biggest risk to new writing is writers not feeling confident enough to explore their own voice. The biggest risk to new writing,” he repeats, “is writers waiting for some sort of permission from an artistic director or literary manager to find out what they should be writing.” This tendency of playwriting to please, he stresses, is particularly prevalent in “the generation brought up on the national curriculum, and SATs and stuff. This generation that’s used to saying, ‘what are the rules? What are the aims and objectives? How do I fulfil the aims and objectives?’ …There’s a danger that these people arrive at a theatre and say ‘tell me what you want from a play – what are the aims and objectives of your theatre?’ And then a play is written with that mentality… that’s the deadliest thing.” Watching Ravenhill’s version of Life of Galileo later that night – a satisfyingly fresh take that certainly achieves his intention of “finding an English equivalent that’s equally energetic, light and springy and funny” – I consider this advice. Questioning and breaking the rules, after all, has always produced the most vital and illuminating work; had Galileo listened to the church, we might still believe the sun orbits the earth.

Life of Galileo plays at The Swan, Stratford-upon-Avon until Saturday 30 March. For tickets and more information, visit http://www.rsc.org.uk/whats-on/a-life-of-galileo/.

Image credit: Ian McDiarmid in A Life of Galileo by Tristam Kenton

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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Vesturport’s vermin and Kafka’s Metamorphosis

Posted on 04 March 2013 by Holly O'Mahony

metamorphosis-photos

Jonathan McGuinness plays numerous roles in Vesturport’s reinvention of Kafka’s literary masterpiece, Metamorphosis. Complete with gymnastics and a spectacular set, this highly physical adaptation has been playing  at the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith, on its third London outing since the original sell-out tour in 2006. Having reached the end of its run, McGuinness reflects on his experiences of both the play and working with the Icelandic company Vesturport.

Metamorphosis itself begins with Gregor Samsa waking to find himself transformed into an unspecified type of creature. His family are, understandably, horrified. But for McGuinness, it wasn’t the story alone that drew him to this production: “Initially what excited me was the opportunity to be working with Vestuport: learning about the way they work, rather than the specific roles,” he explains. “When I first met them, the script wasn’t even finalised. I knew what the parts were, but these parts changed quite a lot during rehearsals.”

Companies wishing to stage adaptations of Kafka’s German novels generally use English translations of the original text, or do their own interpretation of the German text. “David and Gisli [Farr and Örn Gardarsson, the directors] essentially worked from English translations, however they did look at the opening lines quite a lot.” These “opening lines” have caused debate amongst numerous translators and today there are still two different versions of these lines. The first states: “As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a monstrous vermin”. However, the term “monstrous vermin” becomes “gigantic insect” in the other most common version, as translators dispute which is closer to Kafka’s German term, “verwandelt”.  Because of the difficulty of this translation, McGuinness explains that “[Vesturport] didn’t want to specify what the creature Gregor transforms into was. We had quite a lot of debate about how to stage this, wondering whether we would have some sort of costume to represent his transformation, for example. In the end, we settled on not doing any of that, instead, leaving it to the audience’s imagination.”

Although the book is called Metamorphosis, McGuinness points out that Gregor has transformed before the play actually begins. “What you see in the play and what you read in the book is actually the metamorphosis of everyone else around him – how they react to his changing. So we thought that to have a big, buggy costume would just look a bit ridiculous in the end.” I suggest that with Gregor’s movements, jumps and swings across the walls appearing so uncannily insect-esque, a costume hardly seems needed somehow. “We decided it was better for him to dress normally whilst everyone else reacts as if he has changed into something repulsive,” McGuinness agrees.

With regards to other decisions of what to use from the novel, McGuinness recalls, “From the English translation we came up with a storyboard of scenes that they wanted in the play, then wrote the scenes up and chopped and changed those quite a lot in rehearsals, playing around with the order they came in, so it became its own thing once we were in rehearsals… They amalgamated some moments in the book and added a couple of scenes that aren’t in the book. For example, there’s a scene where all the family have dinner together, which isn’t in the book but it seemed to be the only way we could get everyone to interact together in one moment.”

Vesturport are no strangers to staging physical theatre, and perhaps it’s therefore not surprising they chose to create their own reinvention of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, as opposed to staging Steven Berkoff’s adaptation. “Gisli, the Artistic Director, had represented Iceland as a gymnast when he was young, so the physical nature of the play, the circus style and aerial work, were key to his vision,” explains McGuinness. “David Farr, who was then the Artistic Director at The Lyric, wanted to work with Gisli and he suggested Metamorphosis, which Gisli liked the idea of, so they settled on it.” Vesturport’s artistic vision and set design are original, too. “Gisli’s initial ideas for how to stage the play was formed around his vision of the set – one room on top of another, with the top room flipped 90 degrees, so that the furniture appears to be  on the wall – was one of the primary ideas. The other artistic decisions were formed around that.”

Metamorphosis was originally published in 1915, and so it would have been understandable for Vesturport to have chosen to highlight different elements of the story, to make it accessible and enjoyable for a modern day audience. However, McGuinness insists, “Metamorphosis is a classic novel in that it’s open to your own interpretation, and anyone who has felt like a bit of an outsider at some point in their lives, or a bit misunderstood or ignored, can relate to it”. Recalling the first read-through, he tells me: “I was amazed to find it had been published in 1915. It’s a really old piece and yet it still feels quite modern.” For McGuinness and many others, Metamorphosis has a timeless quality. “What I find interesting when we talk to audiences is that a lot of teenagers in young audiences relate to it, because essentially, Metamorphosis depicts the story of a young guy, in his bedroom, going through changes whilst no-one understands him.” Likening the play to “an average teenager’s story”, McGuinness describes the “lack of communication” Gregor has with his family and others around him, as a process common to many teenagers.

In terms of style, McGuinness explains that, after lengthy discussions in rehearsals, Vesturport chose to use a slightly heightened Gothic style for their production. He recalls that there was a consensus amongst all involved to draw out and emphasise the humour of the play, too. “The story is quite abstract and there’s a lot about it which is quite comedic. We wanted to draw out that element of humour and sharpen the contrast with the darker elements, making the two quite extreme in opposition to one another.” Indeed, once you have laughed at Gregor’s father chasing and swatting him with a newspaper, you cannot help but feel a deep pain for him, as he is slowly dying, whilst his family, unable to understand him, continue to shut him out of their lives.

The basis of Kafka’s novel is an interior monologue of Gregor’s thoughts, and transforming these internal musings into a play that gives both dialogue and perspective to other characters was a challenge Vesturport had to overcome. McGuinness explains, “To stage the play, we had to turn these thoughts into a dialogue between the various characters. In turn, this meant we had to bring other characters to the fore a bit more than they originally were in Kafka’s novel and concentrate on the family dynamic, rather than Gregor’s mind.”

Music is inherent in this production, with a score written and produced by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, another element that makes their production differ from those preceding it. “Warren Ellis was often in rehearsals with us and from that he wrote a sound scape to play throughout most of the show, making it almost filmic, and that’s something which is not always done in theatre – a lot of productions use less music.” For McGuinness, the experimenting with styles and looking beyond the boundaries of Berkoff’s adaptation, also played an important role: “We played around with lots of different styles in rehearsals, from doing bits completely naturalistically to completely over the top.” The most emotional aspects of the play truly emerge in the final scenes with an accompanying song written by Musical Director Nick Cave. “The sun’s rising and everything feels quite different again. We found people were quite affected by that.” At this moment, Gregor is left hanging upside down from a red rope, as if underground, whilst his parents smile and push his sister on a swing in the garden above. “The audience are thrown so fast between the humour and the tragedy of the play. Like life, it’s not black and white.”

Vesturport’s Metamorphosis played at the Lyric Hammersmith in February and is now on tour, visiting international venues. For more information, visit http://vesturport.com/theater/metamorphosis-hamskiptin/.

Image credit: Vesturport

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