Saturday, 25 April 2015

Review Wish To Die Singing - Voices From The Armenian Genocide

I Wish To Die Singing - Voices From The Armenian Genocide
by Neil McPherson 

Breaking The Eggs

The slaughter of up to one and a half million Armenians in Easter 1915 within the rapidly-diminishing  Ottoman Empire hit the headlines at the time worldwide. One hundred years later Neil McPherson’s purposeful and necessarily partisan documentary drama piece, I Wish To Die Singing, charts the arrests; torture; mass killings; looting; rapes; slavery; forced conversions; death marches; desert concentration camps and an uncertain world response which remains to this day

Narrator (Jilly Bond) introduces an intense 90-minutes without interval, the spine of which are the lives of three different Armenians, survivors, part of an ancient Christian trading merchant minority in a Muslim country.

Music and dance accompany as a girl on the cusp of womanhood  (Tamar Karabetyan) steps forward to speak of relatives in America, along with  the painted Easter egg customs: “Whoever breaks the other person’s eggs wins”.

The joyful little girl (Siu-see Hung) from a wealthy merchant family revels in her dress from Paris and the country boy (Bevan Celestine) expects one day to inherit the family farm. 

Directed by Tommo Fowler, the seven-strong ethnically-mixed, colour blind cast, also including Simon Yadoo and Kate Binchy, give the stories a universal appeal, reinforced by sparsely-scattered references to other historical slaughters. 

The actors play multiple roles feeding in information to the audience from designer Phil Lindley’s  plain rough-hewn gray stage.  Backdrop projections (lighting and video: Rob Mills) include the Anatolian hills, sentences in the Armenian language unravelling as the characters speak, graphics, quotes, the landscapes of tragedy,  as well as  photos of perpetrators and victims. 

Theatrically, the verbatim testimony of the victims are the strongest, most affecting part of the play. 

The old man who swears not to “colour” events  (an affecting performance by Tom Marshall) relates facts which have the power of searing poetry. A sudden wail of the wounded released into the air after their assailants leave at sunset. The rows of heads on one side, bodies on the other with the slits in the thighs into which the hands were neatly inserted “like pockets”. 

As the world map and alliances shift yet again, this play positions itself as part of a centenary push to have the slaughter put into the legal category of genocide, a word created specifically referring to the mass killings of Armenians. Reminding TLT and her companion of a sentence in  Ulysses by James Joyce (a book directly linked with Greece’s independence from the Ottoman Empire): “I fear those big words ... which make us so unhappy”. 

The word genocide was coined at a particular juncture in history during World War II with its alliances and emnities. Many present-day countries did not even exist.  The play’s narrative strand gives a partial rundown of why most scholars accept the events as genocide. However, as a subject of international law,  politically and nationally, it remains a divided issue.

I Wish To Die Singing tackles a 100 year old issue still very much the currency of our global times. A TLT amber light.

Thursday, 23 April 2015

Review Clarion

by Mark Jagasia

Drop The Dead Newspaper

Over eighty years ago Ben Hecht and Charles McArthur, both seasoned hacks, wrote “The Front Page”  With several classy movie adaptations, and despite the plethora of satiric plays and films since then on the press, they remain a tough act to follow. 

They are of  course American and we in Britain now have had the phone hacking scandal. With the print newspaper industry on the ropes, journalistic practices have themselves  become the news story and subject of plays such as the National Theatre farce Great Britain by Richard Bean.

So does Mark Jagasia, first-time playwright, formerly of the Daily Express and Evening Standard,  bring anything new to the newspaper office genre? 

The play follows one day in the life of The Clarion trumpeting out its Little England headlines. Morris Honeyspoon (Greg Hicks in fine full-throttle, bulldozer mode) is the bigoted, rampantly imperialist editor pandering to the lowest common denominator in an “issue-led” paper.

His sparring partner is Verity Stokes (a magnificently despotic Clare Higgins), veteran foreign correspondent churning out columns in a permanently whiskey-sodden haze at The Clarion offices, allowed (rather out-datedly?)  a long leash for her expenses. 

On a lower rung are "immigration correspondent" Joshua Moon (Ryan Wichert) and news editor Albert Duffy (Jim Bywater) with evangelical executive Clive Pumfrey. (a nicely-judged performance from Peter Bourke) heading the London office. 

At the top of the pyramid is never-seen bottom-line proprietor Benny Panagakos, newspaper, topless hamburger chain and care home mogul.  
Last, but not least, lawyer’s daughter, fresh out of a degree course, Pritti Singh (Laura Smithers), the ambitious work experience trainee determined not to be sidelined.

TLT’s automotive companion surprisingly confessed to always having dreamed of being an intrepid reporter stepping into the shoes of an elegant foreign correspondent like the late James Cameron or, even in this often tawdry new media world,  a strictly ethical investigative journalist as in Lou Grant

And not even slight disillusionment when TLT informed the prospective press corps' member that Lou Grant does not exist, and no true hack should mix up fact and fiction, has dimmed the petite limousine’s idealism.

So our theatregoing buggy was especially keen to see what this new piece would bring to the journalism-themed table!

In our opinion, the script, especially in the first act, often had the feel of a well-worn sitcom. At the same time, although the characters are ones we may recognise, the actors up the entertainment value, clearly relishing meaty roles and providing the laughs. 

They launch themselves into a striking, updated Hogarthian or Gillray cartoon, with the visual taking precedence – the image of Morris strutting around in full Roman helmet regalia, the louche Verity, complete with gilt handled walking stick to prop her up, the bluff but craven news editor Albert, the ditzy but pushy would-be young showbiz reporter Pritti, all tight skirt and tottering high heels.

The emphasis on the visual perhaps explains a filmic feel to the script and short scenes, proficiently directed by Mehmet Ergen. Despite later more theatrical darker plot twists, this felt like movie or TV to TLT and sidekick rather than a play.  

The take-over of showbusiness and celebrity (an impressive performance by Laura Smithers which, ultimately,  made us wonder if the play might once have meant to be A Work Experience Girl’s Progress!), the change from trade to graduate career, the selective reporting, political incitement, the deracinated nature of journalism as its former purpose disappears into the internet ether – no one would doubt these are all issues on the boil in the pot of journalism, even if they are well-known.

But TLT and her bonneted companion (who wouldn’t mind an old-style pork pie press hat ;) ) are in two minds about this play  – reflecting its own split personality.  Maybe the writer’s own experience of journalism has given way a little too much to conventional playwriting tropes and self-conscious literary antecedants. Or maybe the lurches from sitcom to drama would work better on screen. 

Yet in our opinion the market for satire on the media and the tour-de-force opportunity for the actors playing the main protagonists will probably be enough to give it a life beyond this run. An amber light for a characterful piece.

Saturday, 18 April 2015

Review A Level Playing Field

A Level Playing Field

When TLT was a mere snip of a thing, exams came round once a year in stately parade and a timetable clash was unthinkable either in reality or in accounts of fictional schooldays in literature, film and TV.

Now TLT and her jolly jeep sidekick learn, according to A Level Playing Field, such clashes are commonplace and the tip of an iceberg in the Brave New World of mass higher education - with casualties.

As schools push kids in a lunatic drive for results, students not only have to swot for exams but suffer an “isolation” period to avoid cheating during a staggering of the exam timetable.

OK, it may not not quite be Steve McQueen (Senior) enduring the punishment block in The Great Escape prisoner of war camp. However,  according to playwright Jonathan Lewis, it does bear all the hallmarks of unwarranted punishment. Already over-stressed students, innocent of any misdemeanour, deprived of addictive  mobiles and computers, for the sins of exam timetabling.

A Level Playing Field, the playwright reports in the programme and elsewhere, is the first of three plays presenting A levels from the perspective of students, parents and teachers in schools characterised as “exam factories” in the quest for league table dominance.

Often rough-edged, the result of workshops with pupils, this may be an innovative interactive genre, a co-operative mix between the professional and the unadulterated voices of the subjects. All the students are played by non professional actors, each with the chance to take centre stage.

In the first act, an apparent  timetable staffing error leaves eleven all-white representative private school teenagers unsupervised in the "isolation" room, normally the music room.  Without an authority figure,  they are left to regulate themselves, almost like guinea pigs or white mice watched by the audience.  

Papered with cloned photocopied images of film star Nicholas Cage (Cage, geddit?!) "looking mental" as a school jape by  wannabe black, Aldous (Jack Bass), the room fills with a diverse set of pupils including Albanian immigrant Zachir (A J Lewis), swottish scholarship girl Bella (Eve Delaney), nervy  Johnny Hook (Jojo Macari), pot smoking Cal (Joe Taylor) and intense JJ (Christian Hines).

These are not the rebels of  the 1980s’ film The Breakfast Club but all of them, barely off stage during the entire pressure-cooker situation, are seeking coveted A* grades for entry to a top university.  

Meanwhile through open windows, we become, at first dimly and then clearly aware, that all is not well in the outside world.

Inevitably, reflecting the situation forced on them, they clash, while revealing their stories sequentially and interspersing the action with surreal monologue moments reflecting their psychic space.  It sometimes tips over into mouthpiece drama with obvious soap opera and literary cliché but there are also flashes of playful self awareness.

Nevertheless, it struck TLT perhaps an out and out satiric style might have introduced a more sharp edged varied pace, especially in the first act, with less shoutiness and schematic conflict.

Yet it’s the arrival of an adult authority figure belatedly in the second act with his own secrets which lights the dramatic fuse and overcomes the uncertainty of tone.  Also focussing the performances of other cast members, Joe Layton, star of BBC3’s Tatau, as young teacher Mr Preston, takes  the weight of the play on his shoulders, delivering a compelling,  precise performance. And directed by Chris Popert who also introduces video, put together by Roland Waters, more successfully at the beginning than the end, there are some neat visual touches, farce, moments of pathos and irony in the second act.

In the end, TLT and her sidekick, knowing all about exam pressure having to pass a yearly MOT ;), resort to a nineteenth century cliché to describe the play  – a curate’s egg. And it’s strangely apt, originating from a Punch cartoon where a humble young curate,served a rotten egg at the table of his Bishop but desperate not to offend theauthority figure whose patronage he needs, pronounces it “excellent in parts”. In other words, a little patchy but an amber light for an interesting experimental patchwork.

PS The class of 2015 stand and fall together so it seems only correct to name the rest of the cast: Rowena (India Opzoomer), Eleanor (Lydia Williams), Talia (Isabella Caley), Louis (Finlay Stroud) and Twink (Elsa Perryman Owens) who, if we did not imagine it, at one stage inserted a subtle impersonation of a certain famous politician.

Sunday, 12 April 2015

Review Lampedusa

by Anders Lustgarten

A Trip to Poor Law By-The-Sea

Anders Lustgarten’s Lampedusa, while craftily inserting slivers of the Italian island’s history, refuses to confine itself to national boundaries but spreads its reach across the globe. 

The one-act 70-minute play of course includes the isle itself, once a  tourist paradise by the Mediterranean, now an over-burdened gateway to Europe for African, Middle Eastern and Asian migrants. Yet the piece also encompasses Leeds in the British Isles, Portugal and the West African former French colony of Mali.

Corporations and even state pension funds with so-called legal personalities as “persons” are allowed to roam the globe in search of greater revenue. But the play charts the sordid tale of the citizens, the human beings, who pay people smugglers to leave their birthplaces in unsafe boats only to drown on Lampedusa’s shores. They may flee conflict, persecution, natural or man-made disasters or seek adventure or to improve their economic lot.  

The play is structured around the monologue of two characters: an Italian fisherman Stephano (Ferdy Roberts) turned either official or unofficial (as far as we could tell, it’s never quite determined which) coast guard, recovering the bodies of drowned migrants, and Denise (Louise Mai Newberry), a half Chinese/half British female payday loan debt collector, apparently taking time off her university studies to earn money, doorstepping those who have reneged on their payments.

How reliable and verifiable what these two say is left hanging. The two stories also intersect but the characters remain apart in their own space. In one, the verdict of an inquest is never revealed, in the other we never know how many of the deaths are even registered, never mind linked to records in their countries of birth. 

Having seen the almost concurrent Shrapnel at The Arcola, TLT and her faithful four-wheeled sidekick are presumptuous enough to think they are beginning to understand how Anders Lustgarten (great name, by the way, for an English guy!) works as a playwright. 

Judging from the two plays, his dialogue, theme and characterisation are carefully balanced – not so much politically as structurally. Character, issues and history are weighed in together giving the plays a distinctive, absorbing style and emotional punch. They lay out concerns and contentions with precision and sometimes a simplicity which, on analysis, may crystallise a nexus of knotty unsolved issues.  At its best, this  provokes and makes us think, whatever one's politics, about the all-too-ominous relevance of the heartbreaking stories behind what would otherwise often be a barely-noticed fleeting headline.

With two monologues almost inevitably sometimes giving  the feel of a radio piece, the play is directed fluently by Steven Atkinson and the audience sits in an extremely effective wooden bench boat-like design by Lucy Osborne circling a mostly-bare stage.. 

And we Sherlockian pair also suspect that like Grounded by George Brant recently at The Gate, this play may need some  detective work from the audience. A digging under face-value statements, incidents  and taking in the resonance of images such as the brief glimpse of a rucksack on the back of a Leeds-based character.

In a world, some would say, thrown into disarray by economic policy, this two-hander struck us as pinpointing a grotesque Dickensian Poor-Law-type haggling between nations over responsibility for citizens. Indeed, we recalled how Charles Dickens pointed out in Oliver Twist, the deception of parish officials almost immediately after the passing of the 1834 Poor Law, when other rules regarding keeping families together clash with the Act’s contractual profit-making agenda.
The play neatly encapsulates two individual stories and a cultural legacy of literature and theories, all of which may have ironically partly led to this strangely modern yet also potentially backward suicidal and murderous situation in this play manacling countries around the world.

It may not suit all tastes, some of the party political jibes felt clunky and the best writing seems reserved for Stephano with his Homeric turn of phrase,  but when a play compels TLT and her automated companion to discuss, debate and, even, God knows ;), argue on the way home, it’s a unanimous green light!

PS UPDATE  It has come to TLT's attention the link to the Charles Dickens' quote on the 1834 Poor Law separation of couples and familes into "individuals", in a legal contortion to fit the paperwork after many families had been deported back to the parishes of their birth, does not come up on those new-fangled devices known as "mobile phones" ;)

One may wonder today what Mr Dickens would have made of political electioneers announcing the "slashing of inheritance tax" for (non mortgaged?) "family homes" in the estates (with otherwise no debts?) of couples (do they both have to die together?) passing to the child (the division between children is not touched upon). It is noticeable the word "couples" was used by Mr Cameron, not parents.  Anyway, the quote in full:  

"They made a great many other wise and humane regulations, having reference to the ladies, which it is not necessary to repeat; kindly undertook to divorce poor married people, in consequence of the great expense of a suit in Doctors' Commons; and, instead of compelling a man to support his family, as they had theretofore done, took his family away from him, and made him a bachelor!"

Thursday, 2 April 2015

Review Oppenheimer

by Tom Morton-Smith

The Big Bang

Years ago when Traffic Light Theatregoer was just a little molecule and her trusty sidekick not even a single neuron, Walt Disney, no less, and a real German scientist Heinz Haber introduced her to the joys of nuclear physics. ;)

For her rural primary school hired various instructive films for the edification of its young minds and, lo and behold, forever etched in her memory was the projected glorious Technicolor of Disney’s Our Friend the Atom.

Neither Walt nor Heinz (who actually had a very dark World War II record ) with their ambitions to educate the youth of the world with a script of admirable, if rather propagandist, clarity appear in the RSC’s Oppenheimer by Tom Morton-Smith. 

Nevertheless at least one refugee German and one Hungarian scientist do pop up in this lengthy three-hour stage biography of J Robert Oppenheimer, known as the father of the atomic bomb. Both speak heavily accented but entirely fluent idiomatic English, rather improbably for recent refugees.  

The play takes a linear trot through the career of Oppenheimer from university professor to the realisation of the potential chaos which his ivory tower and desert oasis research eventually unleashes on the beleaguered world. 

Mixed with this are the dynamics of unravelling personal and workplace relationships, self-interest and moral choices forced upon academics and public figures amidst the tricksy world politics and shifting alliances from, in the 1930s, the rise of Hitler and the Spanish Civil War to Hiroshima and the start of the Cold War.

Until the final scenes of the play, we encounter (unusually for such a biographical pageant) Oppenheimer as a stranger with hardly any context of family background as motivation, other than knowing his brother to be a communist and his subsequent love affairs, marriage and kids. 

This seems rather mischievous and skewed. For the play, which has transferred from Stratford Upon Avon to the Vaudeville Theatre in London,  presents a straightforward path for the students and lecturers into education. Any adoption of communism as a creed is seen as an equally straightforward ideological battle of theories:  Communism versus Fascism.

In fact, only mentioned in the very last scenes, J Robert Oppenheimer was from a secular Jewish German family. And the play never mentions the relatives in Germany or even the precarious academic situation for Jews the year he entered Harvard in 1922 during an attempt to issue a quota for Jewish students. 

So many of those in Oppenheimer’s circle were not simply adopting a political stance but felt a real threat both to themselves and their relatives if fascism marched on unchecked in Europe and made its presence felt in the USA.

J Robert Oppenheimer is a well-worn subject with films, TV and even an opera. There are times when the play Oppenheimer with its plethora of characters feels like a series of much smaller plays, with the eponymous character and his personal dilemmas lightly sketched and crowded in by other personalities.

This turns Oppenheimer into less an exploration, in scenes, of a life than a series of cartoons touching gently on weighty subjects without any in-depth investigation. 

Is the point that Oppenheimer took a resolutely secular route, thinking he could overcome any religious restrictions by ignoring them and plunging into research? Is this an attempt to make him into an everyman academic immersed in research, perplexed by personal relationships and emotional difficulties, finally made to face reality? None of these is adequately addressed or possibilities explored. 

Underwritten characterisation and on-the-nose dialogue sometimes distracted your petrolhead twosome from what should be a much more visceral story.

The second act did bring moments which linked the tale told to our 21st century life: The dominance of the gadget, the libraries of data in an automated capitalized world. Plus mention of increased access to higher education where, as we know in the case of university pre-credit-crunch financial modelling, love of pure research has its own inherent dangers.

At the same time, the production values of the play with Robert Innes Hopkins’ punchy design  and sharply effective direction from Angus Jackson admittedly draws fine performances from a hard-working cast with John Heffernan maintaining the energy of the piece as the scientist pursuing the ultimate goal. 

Maybe the nearest we have in Britain to J Robert Oppenheimer is Barnes Wallis, embodied in more naturalistic terms in 1955 by Michael Redgrave in The Dam Busters. Nevertheless, he remained firmly within the confines of the arms industry and cinema screen without the apocalyptic global implications of the nuclear weapon to which Oppenheimer’s name is inextricably linked.  

Meanwhile, in a week when The Economist has on its cover “The whole world is going to university. Is it worth it?", there is still enough about Oppenheimer and his environment in this play to give pause for thought, even beyond the bounds of atomic technology. An amber light.

Tickets to Oppenheimer courtesy of 
Official Theatre

NB A Guardian-like correction: TLT's blog is, as you may have noticed dear reader, full of accuracies but occasionally the sub-editors slip up, the proof readers let it through and perfection is not reached ... Apologies to writer Tom Morton-Smith, who for a few hours had the wrong name (Morton-Hill - wrong, Morton-Smith - correct) in this review ... We are of course mortified and would discipline and suspend those members of staff who allowed this primary school error to be published. Except of course TLT is the sub-editor - and the proof reader - and boss of this blog. However this public spirited review institution does not wish this one day to blow up into a Jeremy-Clarkson situation. So in an effort to be transparent, taking staff welfare and freelance discipline seriously, Human Resources (Senior Manager: TLT)  this time, while not summarily dismissing the subs' desk (TLT) and proof reader (TLT), has issued a stern first warning to all concerned ... ;)