Category Archives: Commentary

OTHELLO; THE UNFRIEND; ON THE ROPES – REVIEW ·

(Susannah Clapp’s article appeared in the Guardian, 1/29; via Pam Green; Photo:A tragedy in which ‘bludgeoning comes naturally’: Michael Akinsulire, centre, in the title role, and company in Othello. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian.)

Lyric Hammersmith; Criterion; Park theatre, London
Brute force speaks volumes in Frantic Assembly’s breathtaking Othello; Steven Moffat and co flirt with farce; and the story of Windrush boxer Vernon Vanriel hits home in song

Frantic Assembly’s roughed-up, seized-by-the-scruff-of-its-neck version of Othello keeps shining new lights on Shakespeare’s play. When I first saw Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett’s adaptation 14 years ago, the switch of setting – to a pool bar in the 21st century – was invigorating, but the main excitement was the way the stage seemed to be expanding its vocabulary. Shakespeare’s words were there all right, but their meaning was danced as well as spoken.

In Graham’s new production, which is concluding a nationwide tour with a London run, the velocity and agility of movement is still breathtaking. Characters seem to lean on the air or be pushed by it; the atmosphere might be another cast member. The dynamics of the plot are evident before anyone speaks: Iago scissors himself between Othello and Desdemona; male bodies arch back and forward, as if tugged by gusts of violence; Desdemona and Emilia swivel towards each other for a chat, their limbs making a protective chamber as they bend together.

Still, this time the revelation is different. What struck me most forcibly now is the way Othello’s violence can be seen growing from the entrenched habits of fighting that surround him. With the sheer outnumbering of women by men more evident than ever, the play becomes without strain a tragedy in which males are automatically pitted against females. Michael Akinsulire’s Othello may be cranked up by Joe Layton’s muscular, slippery Iago but he goes on to kill because bludgeoning comes so naturally, is so all-pervasive.

At a matinee of The Unfriend, the theatre seemed to be an enormous communal sofa

The evening opens to the sound of drums and the sight of flying fists and hurtling limbs – with pool cues slid around suggestively. No wonder it should end in a clamour of violence. Akinsulire’s delivery is staccato, as if each phrase were a stab. Beside him, Chanel Waddock’s Desdemona (big hoops and Lycra) is fresh, unposh, relaxed. The key to their relationship is Emilia’s late plea for women to behave with the same liberty as men. It is a mighty speech from one of Shakespeare’s most vivid characters, but it isn’t always given due weight. Finely framed by this production, Kirsty Stuart makes it the verbal high point of the evening.

The Unfriend transfers to the West End after success at Chichester. Sherlocked-up – directed by Mark Gatiss, written by Steven Moffat and with Amanda Abbington among the cast – it is at the other end of the comedy-thriller spectrum from the now long-running 2:22 A Ghost Story: humorous, with a few chiller touches.

A couple find themselves hosting a holiday acquaintance whom they believe to be a serial killer. Preposterousness is scattered with perspicacity: the couple’s reactions are, well, strangled by politeness. The murderess turns out to have a liberating, beneficial effect on the hitherto sullen family.

Robert Jones’s design of suburban interior and roofscape wink at sitcom; clever Michael Simkins blends seamlessly into this as the flatpack neighbour so dull no one can remember his name. Plot and performances flirt with farce. Frances Barber, both luscious and frightening, has a smile so wide she looks capable of carrying out her threat to gobble every one up; praise is due to head of wardrobe, Amy Jeskins, who gives her an apricot velour tracksuit with, on the back, the glittering instruction to “Love Life”. Reece Shearsmith, hovering between the feeble and the sinister, provides a knockout poo episode: face slipping all over the place, loo brush held aloft in the sitting room, stumblingly putting far-from routine inquiries about faeces to a policeman.

None of the teasing or nudging lands much of a point, and edginess quickly evaporates – though there is an impressive performance from Gabriel Howell as a teenager who moves from slump to sunshine. Yet at a matinee, an appreciative audience gave a glow of enjoyment to my experience: cosiness reigned; the theatre seemed to be an enormous communal sofa.

Gathered around a boxing ring, the audience for On the Ropes watch Mensah Bediako slugging it out as Vernon Vanriel, in a play written by Vanriel himself with Dougie Blaxland. They are watching a Windrush battle, a fight between British authorities and people they treat as subjects – not citizens.

Vanriel, who grew up in Tottenham, rose to fame as a flamboyant fighter (draped in the union jack), struggled with addiction and depression, and was, after an extended visit to Jamaica, barred by bureaucratic tangles from returning to the country where he had spent 43 years. He was finally rescued from 13 years of destitution when Amelia Gentleman wrote about his plight in the Guardian and MP David Lammy took up his case.

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ALAN CUMMING HANDS BACK HIS OBE CITING THE ‘TOXICITY OF EMPIRE’ ·

(Tim Jonze’s article appeared in the Guardian, 1/27; via Pam Green; ‘I was incredibly grateful to receive [the OBE] in 2009,’ wrote Alan Cumming. Photograph: Kristina Bumphrey/REX/Shutterstock.)

Actor says recent conversations about role of monarchy ‘opened his eyes’ to suffering of Indigenous people around the world

We tend to receive things on our birthdays, but on his 58th Alan Cumming has given something back: the OBE he was awarded in 2009.

In a post on Instagram, the Scottish actor talked about how he had recently “opened his eyes” to the “toxicity” of the British Empire. He said his soul-searching was prompted by the death of Queen Elizabeth II and the conversations the event sparked.

“I was incredibly grateful to receive [the OBE] in the 2009 Queen’s birthday honours list, for it was awarded not just for my job as an actor but ‘for activism for equal rights for the gay and lesbian community, USA,’” wrote Cumming. He had become an American citizen a year earlier and cited some of the homophobic bills in that country that he had campaigned against: the Defence of Marriage Act, which prevented federal recognition of same-sex marriages, and the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy that barred openly gay, lesbian or bisexual people from serving in the military.

At the time of receiving his OBE, Cumming had said in a statement: “I see this honour as encouragement to go on fighting for what I believe is right and for what I take for granted as a UK citizen. Thank you to the Queen and those who make up her birthday honours list for bringing attention to the inaction of the US government on this issue. It makes me very proud to be British, and galvanised as an American.”

But recent debates around the monarchy have changed Cumming’s mind about the role of the monarchy in the modern world – especially the way “the British Empire profited at the expense (and death) of indigenous peoples across the world”. Cumming now believes that “the great good the award brought to the LGBTQ+ cause back in 2009 is now less potent than the misgivings I have being associated with the toxicity of empire”.

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A FREE SPIRIT AND A FEARLESS ARTIST: COLETTE AT 150 ·

(Olivia Salazar-Winpear’s, Jennifer Ben Brahim’s, Marion Chaval’s, and Magali Faure’s report appeared on France 24, 1/26.)

A century and a half after her birth, Colette remains an icon: a bestselling author, a music hall star, a mime artist and, eventually, an elder stateswoman of French literature. We discuss her extraordinary trajectory with author Emmanuelle Lambert, whose book “Sidonie Gabrielle Colette” takes us through the many faces of the trailblazing artist. We also we take a trip to Colette’s childhood home in Burgundy to learn more about how her rural roots fed into her artistic output and her worldview.

40 YEARS SINCE NENA’S ’99 LUFTBALLONS’ BECAME A GLOBAL HIT ·

(Silke Wünsch’s article appeared in DW, 1/23/23; Photo: Singer Nena in the 1980sImage: United Archives/kpa/picture alliance.)

Despite the recording company’s initial doubts about the song’s potential, “99 Red Balloons” topped charts worldwide.

In January 1983, shallow pop music dominated the international charts. Phil Collins was No. 1 in the United Kingdom with “You Can’t Hurry Love.” In the USA, Hall & Oates’ “Maneater” and Men at Work’s “Down Under” topped the Billboard charts. In Germany, Culture Club’s “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me” was making waves.

But the German music scene back then featured more than the standard Anglophone superstar pop.

There was a new genre of dance-worthy German-language songs with funny, colorful and imaginative lyrics, which also featured synthesizers and electronic drums.

Groups such as Spliff, Fräulein Menke, Peter Schilling, Trio and Hubert Kah all belonged to this genre called Neue Deutsche Welle (or New German Wave) and made their mark in the German charts alongside international stars like Supertramp, Eddie Grant, Dionne Warwick and Phil Collins.

The genre comprised mainly West German rock music originally derived from post-punk and new wave music, with electronic influences.

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BETTY CAN JUMP AT THE PRAM FACTORY: THE RADICAL 1970S PLAY THAT BUILT A SCENE – AND CHANGED AUSTRALIA ·

(Kath Kenny’s article appeared in the Guardian, 1/18; photo: Betty Can Jump was raw and amateurish – but at the time it was so powerful it left women in tears. Photograph: Betty Can Jump collective.)  

Conceived at Helen Garner’s Fitzroy share house during the 70s, this women’s show upended the establishment – and reminds us why arts funding matters

On federal election day last year in Australia, I found myself handing out how-to-vote flyers on a marginal seat booth with the film and TV actor Bruce Spence. We were one of many working to oust a government that punished the unemployed, excluded arts workers from Covid relief and responded to the climate crisis by waving lumps of coal in parliament.

I’d recently finished writing a book about the women at Carlton’s Pram Factory theatre, where Spence was a member of the Australian Performing Group (APG) in the 1970s. When I told him, he pulled out his phone and showed me a photo from the federal election campaign 50 years ago. It was Gough Whitlam, looking across a car park driveway, at performers holding up a sign: “The APG”.

Whitlam was one of the few who could measure up to Spence in height. In the foreground is actor and singer Jane Clifton and, behind her, Claire Dobbin, one of the actors who starred in Betty Can Jump, the groundbreaking women’s play that inspired my book.

Whitlam gave the arts a starring role in his campaign launch. He promised to legislate for lending rights for writers, to introduce higher quotas for Australian television and cinema and to bring all existing arts boards under a single statutory council. A new kind of Australian culture was already emerging, but Whitlam created an environment where it could experiment and grow.

And as we look forward to the first comprehensive federal cultural policy in decades – which already has shades of Whitlam’s agenda – it’s worth remembering what Australian arts can look like when it’s encouraged to thrive. 

‘Everyone wanted to be part of it’: the Pram Factory and Betty Can Jump

Founded in 1970, the APG made a home at the Pram Factory: a two-storey brick building that had variously been a livery stable, a coke den and a panel beater (the site now hosts a Woolworths and the Lygon Court car park). Helen Garner’s first novel Monkey Grip (1977) is set against the backdrop of the Pram Factory and the Tower, the building where some of the APG members lived.

The Pram had “a big energy,” Garner told me. “You would come home just sore from laughing. Everyone wanted to be a part of it.”

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HAPPY BIRTHDAY, CARY GRANT! ·

Get to know the real Cary Grant for his 119th birthday, in Nancy Nelson’s acclaimed biography (he was born January 18, 1904).

Recollections in His Own Words and by Those Who Knew Him Best

Nancy Nelson’s Evenings with Cary Grant, which uses the icon’s own words—and is enhanced with material from Grant’s personal papers—draws from the remembrances of Katharine Hepburn, Gregory Peck, James Stewart, Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, Burt Reynolds, Sophia Loren, Quincy Jones, Deborah Kerr, and George Burns (over one hundred and fifty voices in all). Together these friends, colleagues, and loved ones provide a sublime, truthful, and candid portrait—as close to a memoir as Grant ever got.

Foreword by Barbara and Jennifer Grant.  Available now.  

“Forget the other Grant books, this is it.  Superb.”–Kirkus Reviews.

“It’s a lovely, funny book about Cary.”–Katharine Hepburn.  

View on Amazon

 

‘IT’S A HARD TIME’: WHY ARE SO MANY BROADWAY SHOWS CLOSING EARLY? ·

(David Smith’s article appeared in the Guardian, 1/14; via Pam Green; Photo: KPOP, Almost Famous, Ohio State Murders. Composite: Getty; Handout.)

A slew of well-reviewed productions have closed with poor ticket sales while blockbusters dominate the market

With ineffable talents and six Tony awards, Audra McDonald is box-office gold. But not this time. Not even she could save Ohio State Murders, a play that gave its author, Adrienne Kennedy, her Broadway debut at the age of 91.

“More of her work deserves to be produced commercially, and hopefully this will be the beginning of more and more awareness about who Adrienne Kennedy is, how incredible and poetic and profound and raw and revolutionary her work is,” McDonald said in a video posted on Instagram. “And that there needs to be more work out there centering Black women by Black women in the way that Adrienne has been doing for 70 years.”

Ohio State Murders took a drubbing over the holiday season, bringing in just $311,893 over nine performances in a grand but half-empty James Earl Jones Theatre. The final curtain will come down on Sunday, well before its originally planned closing date of 12 February.

The show is just one among a dozen closing during a brutal January in New York: A Christmas Carol, Almost Famous, Beetlejuice, Death of a Salesman, Into the Woods, The Music Man, The Old Man & the Pool, The Piano Lesson, 1776, A Strange Loop and Topdog/Underdog.

In some cases, the closures were planned; in others, producers apparently did not raise enough money to get through what is always a harsh winter for ticket sales. Last month saw the demise of KPOP, Broadway’s first Korean-centered musical, and Ain’t No Mo’, which was extended by a week after a rearguard action by Jordan E Cooper, the youngest Black American playwright to have a show on Broadway.

Race is perhaps a factor but not the only one as the industry continues to absorb the shockwaves of the coronavirus pandemic. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera, the longest-running show in Broadway history, will close in April after 35 years.

Sam Gold, a director of numerous Broadway productions, says: “We have to acknowledge that it’s a hard time for live theatre. We’re still dealing with fallout from the pandemic. We have challenging supply chain issues. We have the $1tn a month poured into streaming so people can stay home and watch things at home. That got sped up because of the pandemic.

“People just got used to staying home and getting people back out and remembering how amazing live theatre is is taking time. Also people are still suffering and dealing with the trauma of the last few years. People want to think everything’s back to normal but it’s going to take longer for all people to feel normal after two and a half years of tragedy.”

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‘WATCH ON THE RHINE’ REVIEW – LILLIAN HELLMAN’S CALL TO ARMS IS A MUST-SEE ·

(Arifa Akbar’s article appeared in the Guardian, 1/11/23; Photo: Channelling Bette Davis … Patricia Hodge in Watch on the Rhine. Photograph: Manuel Harlan.)

Donmar Warehouse, London
Patricia Hodge stars in Hellman’s play about a liberal American family confronted by war in Europe and the dangers of inaction

Lillian Hellman’s 1941 play looks like the silver screen come to life. It is framed as if inside an old-style cinema, with a rolling prologue in period typeface, the back wall flickering intermittently – a reminder that her plays were numerously made into Hollywood films.

Despite these dated effects, this quietly incandescent play about Nazi tyranny in Europe – and the US’s inertia in the face of it – feels current in the ethical questions it raises.

We meet the Farrelly family in their refined Washington DC home as matriarch Fanny (Patricia Hodge) waits to welcome back, after a 20-year absence, her daughter Sara (Caitlin FitzGerald) who has a German husband Kurt (Mark Waschke) and three children in tow.

Impeccably directed by Ellen McDougall, with an inspired design by Basia Bińkowska, what seems like a potential comedy of manners or family friction drama becomes charged with bigger world politics and violence.

Sara and Kurt are anti-fascist fugitives who bring the war in Europe to the door of this ostensibly liberal household, albeit with a Black butler who answers Fanny with “yes’m”. Kurt describes how he was compelled to fight against nazism after watching 27 people killed in the street (the word “Jew” is rarely uttered in this play but lies just beneath its surface).

“I could not stand by and watch,” he says. That message might have been written as a wake-up call to the US which had still not entered the second world war at the time of the play’s Broadway premiere in 1941 – but it is also instructive for us in light of the Ukraine war.

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CHARLIE CHAPLIN’S GRANDSON JAMES THIERREE ON LIFE AS A ‘CIRCUS FREAK’ ·

(Helen Pitt’s article appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald, 1/10/23; Photo: Swiss-French circus performer, violinist and actor James Theirree in Sydney.CREDIT:JAMES BRICKWOOD.)

When performer James Thierree’s mother Victoria Chaplin ran away at 18 to join the circus, her father, silent movie star Charlie Chaplin wasn’t happy.

Victoria’s mother was Chaplin’s fourth wife, Oona, herself the daughter of US playwright Eugene O’Neill. Yet when Victoria fled Switzerland with a French circus performer, Jean-Baptiste Thierree, 14 years her senior, her showbiz parents did not approve.

Thierree said: “They thought she was crazy. They weren’t on speaking terms for three or four years because they were afraid she was going off to work in this really raw and fragile environment. Circuses were not the theatre or movies.

“My parents started what we call today the ‘new circus’, ‘the imaginary circus’ in 1970, which at the time broke new ground with rock ‘n’ roll, music and dance and no animals as opposed to the traditional circus; they were circus pioneers,” said Thierree, who was raised in the circus and made his onstage debut with his parents aged four.

His parents’ “grand love story” with each other, and the form of physical theatre they created, continues today. His mother 71, and father 85, are preparing for a new show in April performing with his older sister Aurelia, 51.

Thierree at 48 continues in the family trade too, and is in Sydney for the first time in several years for the Sydney Festival performance of his show, Room.

Thierree says the show, which starts in Sydney on Wednesday at Roslyn Packer Theatre and continues until January 25, will resonate for everyone who has been stuck inside a room at home during lockdown.

“The room is a playground or a wild dream. It is an ode to surrealism and the beautiful British idea of nonsense.” he said.

“My take is that the world has gotten so crazy that it was interesting for me as an artist to come up with kind of a mad project. It is sort of saying, ‘Let’s make something joyful out of it, out of the chaos of COVID’.”

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‘IT’S MY MOUSETRAP’: MICHAEL FRAYN ON NOISES OFF, A FARCE TO BE RECKONED WITH ·

(Vanessa Thorpe’s interview appeared in the Observer, 1/8; via Pam Green;  Photo:  ‘A workaday farce’: (from left) Felicity Kendal, Alexander Hanson and Tracy-Ann Oberman in Noises Off by Michael Frayn at London’s Phoenix Theatre. Photograph: Nobby Clark.)

The 1982 play stills pulls in crowds from Broadway to Helsinki, and is now returning to the West End for a fifth time. ‘I just can’t understand it,’ says its creator)

The arrival of anything by post was significant during the pandemic lockdown but, for the writer Michael Frayn, the contents of one envelope were particularly welcome. “Theatre had stopped and my income had dried up, so I was astonished when a large cheque arrived for amateur performances of Noises Off all over America. People are putting it on all the time.”

Since 1982, when Frayn, 89, first staged his fast-paced comedy about actors in a workaday farce, it has become a staple crowdpleaser around the world. This month, a touring 4oth anniversary production brings the show home to London’s West End for a triumphal fifth time, now at the Phoenix Theatre.

“I can’t quite understand it. Local theatres in Germany seem to be doing it continuously,” said the playwright. “In Finland, they used the idea that a company in the north were putting on an effete farce sent up from Helsinki, while in Barcelona a controversial production had a Catalan company putting on a Spanish-speaking show.”

On Broadway, however, producers have so far stuck to Frayn’s original English setting, which sees a troupe of jobbing performers simply “putting on some dreadful sex comedy”.

Funny shows can age quickly, but when the mechanics are as finely wrought and the human confusion as universal as in this, Frayn’s biggest hit, the length of the laughter appears limitless. Very few changes to the dialogue are ever made. “I am amazed that people are still prepared today to put on a play in which a rather dim young actress spends all evening in her underclothes,” said Frayn, who lives in Richmond with his wife, the acclaimed biographer Claire Tomalin.

The author, who wrote for the Observer in the late 1960s and early 70s, has since produced a string of celebrated works, including the serious plays Copenhagen and Democracy and the admired novels Spies and Towards the End of the Morning (the latter, set in a newspaper office, is especially loved by journalists). Usually, he says, the decision to tell a story on stage or in a book comes early. “Ideas immediately suggest one thing or the other, and Noises Off, obviously, had to be a play.”

The show’s first London cast was led by the late Paul Eddington, known for The Good Life and Yes Minister on TV, as the show’s beleaguered director, Lloyd Dallas. “He was terribly good,” recalls Frayn. “Claire remembers the management had to hold the curtain for 20 minutes at the beginning of the second preview because there was such a queue for tickets at the box office.

Word had got out that we had something.” But the play’s birth had been as complicated as its layers of cross-purposes might suggest. The idea first came to Frayn while watching, from behind the scenes, a one-act play he had written for Lynn Redgrave and Richard Briers. It was a pastiche of a five-character farce which, with a cast of just two, involved silly quick-changes and theatrical illusions. “I thought I would like to write a farce seen from backstage like this. It was a simple thought to have, but it turned out to be fiendishly difficult to do,” he says.

His notion of a staging a play which deliberately unravels before the audience’s eyes has proved highly influential. Not only did it permanently mess with theatrical expectations, it also arguably laid the groundwork for a string of spoof fly-on-the-wall formats on television, each revelling in the background mishaps of, say, a ministerial department in The Thick of It. More directly, it may have inspired the The Play That Goes Wrong series, a popular stage and television franchise that Frayn says he is ashamed not to have yet seen, adding: “But I am told they are very good.”

The first version of Noises Off, which takes its title from a common stage direction, was a one-act affair put on for a charity event. Renowned stage producer Michael Codron saw its potential and commissioned a full-length version. “I could see a way to do it by separating it out into three acts so that I was not trying to show everything simultaneously,” says Frayn.

“First, you needed to see the play and get to know the cast, then we needed to see what went on backstage between the actors, and then finally you see what complete mince is made of the play. But it took me a long time.”

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