Category Archives: Commentary

LEBANESE PLAYWRIGHT CHRYSTÈLE KHODR’S DRAMATIC ‘TRIAL BY ORDEAL’ ON STAGE IN PARIS ·

(Solene Clausse’s Olivia Salazar-Winspear’s, Jennifer Ben Brahim’s Marion Chaval’s, Magali Faure’s and Clemence Delfaure’s article  appeared on France24, 5/7. Photo: arts24 © FRANCE 24)

Her powerful performances give voice to some uncomfortable truths. Lebanese playwright and director Chrystèle Khodr wades through the ruins of a society in her latest play “Ordalie”, exploring the social, political and physical wreckage of her homeland and its history. She tells us more about the quest for justice in contemporary Lebanon, why 19th-century playwright Henrik Ibsen is a fitting contemporary inspiration and how making theatre in a crisis-ridden country is a constant endeavour of creativity and solidarity among artists.

 

***** THE CHERRY ORCHARD REVIEW – BENEDICT ANDREWS BRINGS CHEKHOV BANG UP TO DATE ·

(Arifa Akbar’s article appeared in the Guardian, 5/3; Photo: The party’s over … Nina Hoss in The Cherry Orchard. Photograph: Johan Persson.)

Donmar Warehouse, London
Nina Hoss stars in a kookily immersive production but the devastating hammer blow of the Russian tragicomedy is not lost in translation

It is initially hard to fathom where Benedict Andrews’ conspicuously kooky  take on Anton Chekhov’s final drama is going. Actors come on looking like modern-day eccentrics and festivalgoers rather than Russian aristocrats of an ancient regime giving way to the new.

They swear, vape and address us directly as they play out the fate of a bored, profligate landed family led by a glamorous matriarch, Ranevskaya (Nina Hoss), who returns home from her Parisian misadventures to continue the party, despite growing debt and the prospective sale of her centuries-old estate.

We stand in for props, too, on Magda Willi’s otherwise empty stage. One audience member is referred to as a side table, another a bookcase. It is supremely off-the-wall, not least because a garish carpet is wrapped all around the auditorium, making it look like a Russian drawing room that has been put through a surreal, Alice in Wonderland blender. Is this weird, immersive, audience-participation Chekhov?

Kind of, but rather than careering into an almighty misfire, Andrews’ production gradually builds to reveal its grand, devastating vision. An auditorium that never goes dark implicates us in the drama: we might be the family’s observing guests or the impoverished peasant interlopers who have taken up home in their estate.

(Read more)

 ‘I WAS BROUGHT UP AMONG GIANTS’: GILLIAN SLOVO ON HER REVOLUTIONARY PARENTS – AND HER MOTHER’S MURDER ·

(Emma Brockes’s interview appeared in the Guardian, 4/29; Photo: Photograph: Teddy Wolff.)

As she takes the words of Grenfell Tower fire survivors to the New York stage, the playwright talks about being drawn to painful subjects, and the disaster’s worldwide relevance

The night I saw Grenfell, the play by Gillian Slovo based on interviews with survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire, there was a small but unprecedented response from the audience. On paper, Grenfell, which has transferred to New York after its successful run in London, is a tough sell to American theatregoers: the disaster wasn’t big news in the US and the play’s setting is peculiarly British. Towards the end of the play, however, when a survivor suggests the fire wasn’t caused by the system being broken but rather by the system performing exactly as built, the audience at St Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn broke into spontaneous applause. “We haven’t had that reaction before,” says Slovo.

The 72-year-old playwright and novelist is accustomed to chronicling failures in government and if the subject matter of Grenfell seemed, at first glance, more parochial than her verbatim plays about Guantánamo or Islamic State, it turned out to be deceptively so. The deaths in 2017 of 72 people in a west London tower block tell a universal story, not only about deregulation and corporate carelessness, but about double standards in government towards marginalised communities. Any American who can summon images of the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina – people left to fend for themselves; people shot at by police as they fled, or camped out on sidewalks – can understand immediately and viscerally what this play is about.

The playwright herself feels these issues particularly keenly after a lifetime considering imbalances of power. Slovo’s body of work, and her background as the child of two titans of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, has perhaps given her a reputation as earnest. On the evidence of our interview that’s not the reality at all. At a restaurant on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Slovo is quick to laugh and point out the sheer pleasure and privilege of learning about other people’s lives. Much has been made of the horror of the stories emanating from Grenfell; less remarked upon is how funny the play and its characters are. “We wanted an audience to understand that these are individuals with their own histories and way of being,” says Slovo. “To know what it is to be in a burning building and have to get out – you need to know who those people were, and a bit of their history.”

(Read more)

RALPH FIENNES IN ‘MACBETH’ COMES TO MOVIE THEATERS FOR TWO DAYS ONLY: THURSDAY, MAY 2, AND SUNDAY, MAY 5 (REVIEW FROM NEW YORK) ·

By Bob Shuman

Director Simon Godwin’s structured, composed descent into the “defilement of a mind” in Macbeth is objective and clear, filmed unpoetically, yet sustained with uniformly standout performances.  The conception is Brechtian and modern, which allows for hard analysis (the adapter is Emily Burns). Shakespeare’s verbal descriptions, which often start scenes, can be envisioned as eventually forming a base point for the German playwright’s  well-known text above the proscenium.  The uncluttered setting by Frankie Bradshaw, made up of six steps to a platform (with side wings of stairs), uses photography of the audience at a live theatre performance, as well as their laughter and applause.  The story’s plot points register, which, in other versions can get lost, especially as the focus shifts away from the husband-and-wife murderers.  Between the Early Modern English and the supernatural elements, as well as its change from hearth to battlefield, Macbeth is an economic tour de force, but only if you can track it. Because of its precision, this interpretation can be especially helpful for students.

Ralph Fiennes (Tony and BAFTA Award-winner) made an impact  with his ancient Roman conqueror in Antony and Cleopatra (another play he helped disentangle) and, hopefully, that same sense of discovery will inform others who now come to the Scottish play.  The work is straight to the audience and physical:  he kneels at Lady Macbeth’s womb, takes a fetal position on the floor, and engages in heavy swordplay.  He is also an older actor playing the iconic role, which highlights a strange contradiction in the text and challenges anyone playing the part.  The issue is that Macbeth murders in order to become king, and spends a good amount of time preserving his title and succession.  However, the character has no heirs: for all his raging about wearing “a fruitless crown” and “holding a barren scepter,” there is no one to accept a legacy. The audience may be able to rationalize a younger Macbeth as someone who will still be able to start a family, but an older Macbeth, who is childless, has lower chances of becoming a father (he’s worried about succession, when there is none).  If Macbeth does not have a prince, it is a moot point whether Banquo “shalt get kings.”  Imagine also the kind of life Macbeth’s child (if there was one) would have, growing up among killers and the chilling distortions of their minds.

Indira Varma (Olivier Award-winner) makes a formidable Lady Macbeth:  She’s practical, realistic, and goading—and her diction and gestures are impeccable (look at her outstretched arms and hands—she’s unafraid of large physical description and pronouncement). Macbeth can trust her to make untenable choices, and she is bold in their implementation, at least until she, too, succumbs to the nightmare in her mind.  Each of the actors has created very specific, well-thought-out characterizations.  In a sea of impressive work, there really is no mediocre, unindividuated performance–from witches to soldiers to courtiers and advisors, even children.  Two further bright lights are:  Rebecca Scroggs, who takes on a pair of no-nonsense roles:  Lady Macduff, in a brown and yellow checkered housecoat, and Lady Macbeth’s doctor, with a Red Cross armband.  Ben Turner’s Macduff is also exemplary, fusing correct language presentation and valor—for those who appreciate the steadiness of a Shakespearean line expressed, this cast delivers laudably.  Think of how difficult it must be to bring together over twenty cast members, not to mention other theatre professionals, in a high-quality Shakespeare performance.  The sharp work presented here, from The Shakespeare Company, can help make up for the lack of Shakespeare in the Park, in New York City, this season, while the Delacorte Theater is being remodeled.  

A very palpable hit.

 

© by Bob Shuman

Ticketing information:

 

MACBETH

Cinema Release Date: Thursday, May 2, and Sunday, May 5

Cinema Website: MacbethInCinemas.com 

Distributor: Trafalgar Releasing

Adapter: Emily Burns

Director: Simon Godwin

Set & Costume Designer: Frankie Bradshaw

Lighting Designer: Jai Morjaria 

Sound Designer: Christopher Shutt

Composer: Asaf Zohar

Sound System Design: Christopher Shutt & Sam Clarkson

Movement Director: Lucy Cullingford

Hair, Make Up and Prosthetics Designer: Susanna Peretz

Fight Director: Kate Waters

Casting Director: Amy Ball CDG

Children’s Casting Director: Ellie Collyer-Bristow CDG

Voice & Dialect Coach: Jeannette Nelson

Associate Director: Alice Wordsworth

Associate Set Designer: Ceci Calf

Associate Costume Designer: Olivia Ward

Associate Lighting Designer: Tom Turner

Casting Associate: Arthur Carrington

Cast:

Ralph Fiennes , Indira Varma, Ben Allen, Ewan Black, Levi Brown, Jonathon Case, Danielle Fiamanya, Keith Fleming, Michael Hodgson, Lucy Mangan, Jake Neads, Richard Pepper, Steffan Rhodri, Rose Riley, Rebecca Scroggs, Lola Shalam, Ethan Thomas, Ben Turner 

For tickets and a full list of participating cinemas, please visit MacbethInCinemas.com

NYC area theaters where Macbeth will be playing:

Barrymore Film Center: 153 Main Street, Fort Lee, N.J. 07024

Regal New Roc & IMAX: 33 LeCourt Place, New Rochelle, NY 10801

Regal UA Kaufman Astoria: 35-30 38th Street, Long Island City, NY 11101

Regal Times Square: 247 W. 42nd Street, NY., NY. 10036

Macbeth is presented by Trafalgar Releasing. To secure your tickets and witness this must-see event, visit MacbethInCinemas.com.

About Trafalgar Releasing

Trafalgar Releasing, the global leader in event cinema distribution, harnesses the power of cinema to bring fans together in more than 15,000 cinemas across 132 countries.  A subsidiary of Trafalgar Entertainment, Trafalgar Releasing’s operations include production, acquisition, marketing, and distribution of live or pre-recorded content to cinemas worldwide led by an international team based in the UK, US and Germany. Featuring live concerts, music documentaries, award-winning theatre, world-class opera and ballet, and more from leading names in entertainment such as Taylor Swift, Beyoncé, BTS, Coldplay, Billie Eilish, the Royal Opera House, Concord Originals, Hasbro and others, Trafalgar Releasing has repeatedly shattered event cinema box office records, most recently with international distribution for TAYLOR SWIFT | THE ERAS TOUR, the highest-grossing concert film of all time. Information about Trafalgar Releasing can be found at www.trafalgar-releasing.com.

(Photo credit:  © Marc Brenner; via John Singh)

 

FRINGE BENEFITS: CELEBRATING ARTISTIC TRIUMPHS AT FRIGID NEW YORK’S 2024 FESTIVAL AWARDS” ·

(via Emily Owens; Chat GPT)

FRIGID New York’s 2024 New York City Fringe Festival culminated with a spectacular awards night, on April 21, honoring the brightest stars of indie theater. This year’s festival marked a historic milestone as the most financially successful in FRIGID New York’s 15-year legacy, with over $125,000 in box office proceeds enriching the endeavors of 46 NYC Fringe Festival artists.

The prestigious Sell Out Awards aimed a spotlight on productions that captured audience hearts, including “Joy Ride” by Meredith Brandt, “The Climate Fables: Debating Extinction & The Trash Garden” by Padraig Bond/The Torch Ensemble, “A Little Less Than Kind” by Gracie Rittenberg, “Clown Bar 2” written by Adam Szymkowicz and directed by Andrew Block, “Fanatical Optimism” by Adam LeBow, “Brokeneck Girls: The Murder Ballad Musical” by Eve Blackwater, and “In Harmony” presented by BY Productions. These productions, through their sold-out performances, demonstrated their magnetic appeal and artistic excellence.

Select works received extensions into upcoming festivals, testament to their compelling narratives and captivating performances. “A Drag is Born” by Edu Díaz and “Sonnets From a Sin-Eater” by Kara Hadden were chosen for the upcoming Queerly Festival in June. “No Bones About It” by Matt Storrs and “Curry & Catharsis” by Azhar Bande-Ali secured additional performances in the Gotham Storytelling Festival in November. “Clown Bar 2,” extended performances at Parkside Lounge on April 30 and May 3.

Audience Choice Awards resonated with attendees, celebrating favorites like “Joy Ride,” “A Series of Wildfires” by Deborah Harbin, “The Leading Lady Club: A Feminist (But Still Likable) Sketch Show” presented by Leading Lady Creative and Guptanya Studios, “Miami Madness” by David Rodwin, “Lola’s Boyfriend Show” by Lauren O’Brien, “TransMasculine Cabaret” by Vulva Va-Voom, and “Clown Bar 2.”

Diverse accolades illuminated the breadth of talent and creativity showcased during the festival. Notably, the Jill Meirch Spirit of the Festival Award recognized Emil Guillermo from “Emil Amok: Lost NPR host, vegan trans dad,” echoing the festival’s ethos of supporting artistic freedom and collaboration.

As FRIGID New York continues its mission to amplify diverse voices and foster artistic innovation, the legacy of the 2024 New York City Fringe Festival recognizes the  enduring power of indie theater—and its ability to inspire and  provoke audiences in and beyond the city.

 

BERTOLT BRECHT: (LISTEN NOW ON BBC RADIO 4–IN OUR TIME–DISCUSSION PROGRAM) ·

Listen

In Our Time

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss one of the greatest European playwrights of the twentieth century. The aim of Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) was to make the familiar ‘strange’: with plays such as Mother Courage and The Caucasian Chalk Circle he wanted his audience not to sit back but to engage, observe and discover the contradictions in life, and act on what they learnt. He developed this approach in turbulent times, from Weimar Germany to the rise of the Nazis, to exile in Scandinavia and America and then post-war life in East Berlin, and he has since inspired dramatists around the world.

With Laura Bradley Professor of German and Theatre at the University of Edinburgh

David Barnett Professor of Theatre at the University of York

And Tom Kuhn Professor of Twentieth Century German Literature, Emeritus Fellow of St Hugh’s College, University of Oxford

Producer:  Simon Tillotson In Our Time is a BBC Studios Audio production.

OFF-oFF THE (4th) WALL:  NEW SHOWS ANNOUNCED, 4/14–4/26, 2024  ·

Here’s a compilation of new Off-Off-Broadway and Off-Broadway (and one on Broadway) shows:

  1. Bardcore (Episodic Theatre Project) (Comedy): Written by The Episodic Theatre Project ensemble, this comedic play follows the fallout of a polyamorous breakup at a Renaissance Faire. The play is divided into five episodes, each exploring a different stage of grief, with leading cast members Major Curda, Charlie Foster, Leah Getz, and Alyssa James. Directed by Ellis Stump, Melissa Lewyn, Maya Davis, Lee Melillo, and Jean Carlo Yunén Arostegui, Bardcore runs at UNDER St. Marks (94 St Marks Pl, New York, NY 10009) from April 25 to May 16 (every Thursday at 7:30 pm). Tickets are $15 and available at https://www.frigid.nyc/event/6897:651/. –Emily Owens
  2. Bring Them Back (Meta Dark Comedy): Playwright and Director David Willinger brings us Bring Them Back, a dark comedy about screenwriter Paul (played by Paul Korzinski) who attempts to bring back deceased loved ones through a faulty Cabalistic ritual. Carole Forman* co-stars as Trudy. The play explores themes of loss, aging, and unfinished business. Bring Them Back runs at Theater for the New City (155 First Avenue, New York, NY 10003) from May 9-19 (Thursdays-Saturdays at 8 pm, Sundays at 3 pm). Tickets are $18 General Admission, $15 Students/Seniors (Run Time: 90 minutes with no intermission).–Paul Siebold
  3. Odd Salon NYC: Blunder (Live Performance & Watch Party): Curated by Olivia Owre-Bell (Odd Salon Co-Producer), Odd Salon NYC: Blunder is an evening featuring six speakers sharing strange-but-true stories on historical blunders, scientific mishaps, and social faux pas. The event offers both an in-person experience at Under St. Marks (94 St Marks Place, New York, NY 10009) and a livestream watch party at St. Dymphna’s (117 Avenue A, New York, NY 10009) on Wednesday, May 8th at 7:00 pm (doors open at 6:30 pm). Tickets are $25 in-person, $20 streaming (available at https://www.broadwayworld.com/off-broadway/article/FRIGID-New-York-to-Present-ODD-SALON-BLUNDER-at-UNDER-St-Marks-20240416). (Run Time: Approximately 2 hours)–Emily Owens
  4. Unbroken Blossoms (East West Players) (Historical Drama): Written by Philip W. Chung and directed by Jeff Liu, Unbroken Blossoms is a historical drama about the challenges of Asian American representation in Hollywood during the silent film era. The play dives into the making of the silent film “Broken Blossoms.” Leading cast members include Gavin Kawin Lee, Ron Song, Arye Gross, Alexandra Hellquist, Conlan Ledwith, Paul Dateh, Ty Aldridge, and Valerie Rose Lohman (understudies). Show Dates are from June 27 to July 21 (various times) at the David Henry Hwang Theater (120 Judge John Aiso Street, Los Angeles, CA 90012). Tickets range from $39 to $69 (discounts available) and can be purchased at https://www.eastwestplayers.org/unbroken.–TJ Ramirez and Peter Goldman
  5. Blue Man Group: Sensory-Friendly Performance (Theatrical Show): A sensory-friendly performance designed for autistic and sensory-sensitive audiences. Partnering with YAI (YAI Network of Agencies), the Blue Man Group offers a modified version of their theatrical show featuring reduced sound and light levels, limited audience interaction, and quiet areas outside the theater. This special performance takes place on Sunday, October 6 at 2:00 pm at the Astor Place Theatre (434 Lafayette Street, New York, NY). Special pricing is available for tickets, which can be purchased at https://www.blueman.com/new-york/buy-tickets/sensory-friendly. (Run Time: 90 minutes with strobe lights)–Christian Heino
  6. A Wonderful World: The Louis Armstrong Musical (Broadway Musical): This upcoming Broadway musical chronicles the life and career of legendary jazz musician Louis Armstrong. The story unfolds through the eyes of his four wives, highlighting their influence on him. While the show’s creative team is still under wraps, Tony Award winner James Monroe Iglehart is confirmed to star as Armstrong. Book writer Aurin Squire weaves the narrative around songs made famous by Armstrong. Directed by Christopher Renshaw (who co-conceived the musical with Andrew Delaplaine), A Wonderful World is set to premiere later this year. Previews begin on October 16, 2024, with an opening night scheduled for November 11, 2024. The show will be staged at Studio 54 (254 West 54th Street, New York, NY). Tickets will go on sale soon at CriterionTicketing.com. (Please note: This is a Broadway production, not an Off-Off-Broadway show.)–Jim Byk

 

SPEAK FOR THEM: ARTISTS THEY CAME FOR (April 8th, 2024-April 25th 2024) ·

SPEAK FOR THEM attempts to shine a light on artists and writers around the world who have faced silencing, intimidation, and persecution. May justice prevail.

  1. Nisha Singh, Playwright, India (April 12th, 2024): A rising playwright whose work tackled social issues, particularly caste discrimination, Singh was summoned by authorities after her latest play, “Untouchable Voices,” sparked protests from conservative groups. Accused of “inciting hatred” and facing potential performance bans. (Enforced by: Indian government)
  2. Mikhail Petrov, Ballet Dancer, Russia (April 15th, 2024): Petrov, a renowned dancer with the Bolshoi Ballet, was abruptly fired after a social media post criticizing the war in Ukraine. He faces public backlash and potential difficulty finding work elsewhere. (Enforced by: Management of the Bolshoi Ballet, with likely government pressure)
  3. Ayo Edebiri, Comedian, Nigeria (April 18th, 2024): Edebiri, a popular stand-up comedian known for her political commentary, was detained for questioning after a performance that satirized government corruption. Released after several hours, but faces potential future censorship. (Enforced by: Nigerian State Security Service)
  4. Layla Al-Amin, Musician, Iraq (April 20th, 2024): A young singer known for her blend of traditional and modern Iraqi music, Al-Amin’s concert was cancelled after threats from a religious extremist group. She fears for her safety and ability to continue performing. (Enforced by: Unknown extremist group, with possible government inaction)
  5. Xu Li, Blogger, China (April 22nd, 2024): Li, a blogger who wrote about human rights issues, disappeared from his online platforms. His family suspects government involvement and fear for his safety. (Enforced by: Chinese government – exact agency unknown)

What can you do?

  • Stay informed about human rights abuses against artists worldwide.
  • Share information about these cases on social media.
  • Contact your elected officials and urge them to speak out against the suppression of artistic expression.
  • Support organizations working to defend the rights of artists and writers.

Remember, silence is complicity. Lend your voice to those who cannot speak for themselves.

First they came for the artists, and I did not speak out—because I was not an artist. Then they came for the journalists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a journalist. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

— Martin Niemöller

Art by Luba Lukova

Sources:

Gemini

Please note: This list is not exhaustive. Many other artists and writers face persecution globally.

***** ‘ONE MAN, TWO GUVNORS’ REVIEW – THIS EXEMPLARY STAGING OUTDOES THE ORIGINAL ·

(Clare Brennan’s article appeared in the Guardian, 4/2/2024; Photo: Pete Stonier.)

New Vic, Newcastle-under-Lyme
A first-rate cast delight in controlled chaos of the highest order in Conrad Nelson’s seamless revival of Richard Bean’s hit play

A couple on the stairs behind me, leaving the theatre. He: “And a band! What more could you ask?” She: “I can’t remember the last time I laughed so much…” Carlo Goldoni’s commedia dell’arte-inspired Il Servitore di Due Padroni, written in Venetian dialect about two and a half centuries ago, loses nothing in translation. Richard Bean’s award-garnered version, set in 1963 Brighton, was such a hit after its 2011 launch at the National Theatre in London that it went on to tour the UK three times and travelled abroad to the US, Hong Kong, Australia and New Zealand.

Good as that was, I think this new staging, by director Conrad Nelson, serves the text better – for two reasons. First, the ensemble is exceptionally strong – not only the 11 actor-musicians, but also the offstage artists (responsible for design, music, lighting, sound, movement and fight choreography and casting), and, like members of a commedia troupe, many are accustomed to working together, especially here, on the New Vic’s in-the-round stage. This gives the production its second advantage: the performers’ depth of rapport makes for seamless interactions and razor-sharp timings; it allows characters that might appear cartoonish to feel touchingly human.

First among equals is Michael Hugo, possibly the greatest actor-clown of the stage today, his physicality and rapport with audiences unmatched. Hugo is Henshall, the man who tries to double his income by secretly serving two guvnors staying in the same hotel (and unwittingly connected by one of the many plot convolutions). The famous central scene, where a hungry Henshall serves both guvnors a meal while trying to keep them apart, is taken to another level by the introduction of a hole in the stage, with stairs to a lower floor (Lis Evans’s design is played to eye-popping effect by Nick Haverson’s waiter, proving that there is no such thing as a small role). All in all, a hilarious combination of clockwork-clever plot and controlled chaos from a company who delight in delivering laughter to their audience.

(Read more)

 

‘GRENFELL’ AT ST. ANN’S WAREHOUSE—THROUGH MAY 12 (REVIEW FROM NEW YORK) ·

By Bob Shuman

In the disaster that ensued (Grenfell: in the Words of Survivors, now playing at St. Ann’s Warehouse until May 12), a Syrian man, a disabled man, who in this production is played by a disabled actor, using crutches, waited five minutes next to his front door to see if someone would come to help him: “There was smoke coming, so I decided to use the stairs like everyone else thinking that maybe . . . someone would help.  I was horrified to see that the residents were running at lightning speed.”  That is the human dilemma at the center of Gillian Slovo’s powerful, direct, unmelodramatic, verbatim drama, from Britain’s National Theatre, which transcends nations, nationalities, and boundaries – the idea of how far people are willing to go, or not, to help one another. The play is an examination of the “crack,” the fissure being discussed in the compound term “falling between the cracks,” alluding to those who want to help and can help, as well as to the disjunction between what social services and corporations can do for constituents, in industrialized countries, as well as what our own neighbors can provide, and where they stop.

For those who do not know about London’s high-rise apartment complex, which Americans would recognize as “projects,” and which happened to stand in an area of wealth and affluence, perhaps equivalent, in terms of income for many residents, to zip codes where New York’s Trump Tower stands or Barbra Streisand’s Malibu enclave tans, what happened on June 14, 2017 is a multifaceted story about a badly doctored eyesore and a fire.  The interests, with stakes in such a catastrophic failure, range from those of corporations, politicians, suppliers, and the residents in the Grenville Tower themselves; often the latter being  English-as-a-second language speakers, brown skinned, working, lower, and middle class renters (and those who bought their apartments), dealing with outsized tenant issues that, nevertheless, would be understood by most rent stabilized, or not, apartment dwellers, or owners, as well, in New York and elsewhere.  These concerns include threatening building management, unacceptable fixtures and appliances, and irresponsible maintenance.  A tinderbox in a gilded world, after a botched refurbishment, might be a metaphor for the destruction or better, as one resident described it, the handicapped resident, actually:  it looked as “if you’d taken a cup and covered it in gold.  The cover is better, but that’s all.”

What is intriguing, turning from the historical and civic realities to the way the devastation has been rendered artistically, is the highly original theatre-making that the directors, Phyllida Lloyd and Anthony Simpson-Pike and their production teams have employed, reframing all the ephemera, the debris, the fragments of lost life and personal memory and distilling them into eleven brown, mundane storage boxes (the kind you might buy at Staples).  Thinking creatively, all of the remnant, singed and unrecoverable, smoking, torched, literally, drenched effects of innumerable memories, past ownership, family, dreams, pride, and what was obtained by struggle, distilled into a set of containers, with UPC codes, that become a symbolic, clinicalized setting and its properties.  The minimalism, together with projected photos, interviews and video design (Akhila Krishnan) and film (TEA Films), lighting (Azusa Ono), sound design and effects (Donato Wharton), set and costumes (Georgia Lowe), video clips, documentation—is brutalist, externalized, objectivized, and material.  The spare, icy music (Benjamin Kwasi Burell) is made up of only a few chords.  Grenfell is austere and postmodern, Brechtian, ensuring that viewers are analyzing, accumulating rational, critical thinking, instead of being emotionally drawn in, or, because of the subject matter, overwhelmed. 

Verbatim is a documentary style of drama used infrequently here in the States, perhaps best known to us through the work of Anna Deavere Smith. Viewers do not decide whether the accumulating data makes a character believable or whether the interpretation is “close enough” to reality or the assumptions of an imagined world; it’s blunter than that.  The character is believable because imaginative language is expelled: these are the actual words someone spoke—and because of the challenges of dramatic and literary form, it is exciting when the work, in all its hardness and inelegance and everyday banality, coalesces into an urgent living picture.

Actors are not breaking the fourth wall to enhance a fantasy:  They are part of a real confrontation.   Judge them at your own peril.  Their points of view are not examples of a commonly held belief, which evaporate as soon as we leave the theatre. It is his or her point of view, it is on record, it is part of the historical facts, and it goes with them into the harsh light of day.  Their words are evidence that can be acted upon. The cast, which makes minor costume adjustments, and who are working, at the state-of-the-art St. Ann’s Warehouse, in the round, in the aisles, on the stairs, and with and on their boxes, intensely for over three hours,  are not only excellent because their dictions, accents (Hazel Holder), movement (Chi-San Howard), and behavior  correspond to real people from various countries—they do not even seem to be acting. How would one expect to see these characters played in other ways? The picture does not need to be photoshopped.  Their names are:  Joe Alessi, Gaz Choudhry, Jackie Clune, Hounda Echouafni, Mona Goodwin, Keaton Guimarães-Tolley, Ash Hunter, Rachid Sabitri, Michael Shaeffer, Cominique Tipper, and Nahel Tzegai.

Some of the thoughts that have remained with this reviewer are the following:  how far will people, companies, and governments go to help in communities, in situations far less urgent and dramatic than the ones presented in Grenfell, before they cry “every man for himself” and “abandon ship” or simply throw up their hands?  Or, is the point of abandonment a matter of instinct and human nature?  Importantly, too, has it changed over time?—do people give up earlier now in situations or on each other in life or in extreme situations?  Is the focus more or less than in the past, and is there even a way to ascertain that?  Importantly, especially regarding this drama: can dereliction be traced to accents or race? The Grenfell fire happened seven years ago, and actually, with regard to reparations, and people who lost everything, that is a long time. It is reassuring that the event  has been memorialized, but actually, politicians, who knew the problems with the building design, before the fire ever happened, have, to this day, not been held accountable, as likewise, have companies involved with the building construction.  Grenfell is a problem, which many hope will go away, maybe with time, but that is the point.  Have we become desensitized to modern life and what human beings need and should actually expect?  Or has media normalized us to starving children and brutal attacks, mass destruction and a world of fire, actually addicting us to violent stories that disappear as news and new cycles change?

The Grenfell story is ongoing . . .

© by Bob Shuman

Tickets for Grenfell: in the words of survivors are on sale now and can be purchased at stannswarehouse.org. Performances take place April 13, 16–20, 23–27, & 30 and May 1–4, 7–11 at 7:30; April 14, 21, 28, and May 5 & 12 at 5pm; and April 20 & 27, and May 4 & 11 at 2pm.

The production opened on Sunday, April 21.

Photos: Teddy Wolff

Press: Blake Zidell

Note:  For transparency, Bob Shuman helped compile a drama collection, entitled Acts of War:  Iraq and Afghanistan in Seven Plays (Northwestern University Press), one of which was written by Victoria Brittain and Gillian Slovo: Guantanamo: “Honor Bound to Defend Freedom.”