Category Archives: Events

AVIGNON’S 76TH THEATRE FESTIVAL: KUBRA KHADEMI ON AFGHANISTAN’S HEROINES ·

(Oliver Salazar-Winspear’s, Natastacha Milleret’s, Magali Faure’s, and Marion Chaval’s report appeared on France 24, 7/14/22.)

Avignon may be France’s oldest arts festival, but it has a resolutely contemporary approach to the dramatic arts, with experimental performances that draw on dance, theatre and poetic traditions. We sit down with multidisciplinary artist Kubra Khademi, whose performance “From Armour to Jackets” kicks off the festival, to hear about the military detritus that became a poignant symbol of the American retreat from her native Afghanistan. Kubra talks about being forced to flee Kabul after a controversial artistic performance in 2015 and discusses how the Taliban have now left Afghans “trapped in their own country”..)

Festival director Olivier Py is handing over the reins to Tiago Rodrigues after nine years of administering this cultural marathon. He tells us how the war in Ukraine prompted him to stage a special cabaret show with Kyiv’s Dakh Daughters troupe and musician Angélique Kidjo.

We also check out Amir Reza Koohestani’s latest play “In Transit”, which asks important questions about identity and exile. And choreographer Adèle Duportal explores feminism and sorcery in an intimate, one-woman show.

 

CHECKING IN WITH… ‘CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF’ STAR ALISON FRASER THE TWO-TIME TONY NOMINEE PLAYS BIG MAMA IN THE OFF-BROADWAY REVIVAL OF THE CLASSIC TENNESSEE WILLIAMS DRAMA. ·

(Andrew Gans’s article appeared on Playbill, 7/14.)  

This week Playbill catches up with two-time Tony nominee Alison Fraser, cast as Big Mama in Ruth Stage’s production of Tennessee Williams‘ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which begins previews July 15 prior to an official opening July 24 at The Theater at St. Clements. Directed by Joe Rosario, the production is the first mounting of the classic drama that the Williams estate has allowed to be produced Off-Broadway. The company also includes Sonoya Mizuno, Matt de Rogatis, Christian Jules Le Blanc, Spencer Scott, Tiffan Borelli, Jim Kempner, Milton Elliott, and Carly Gold.

Fraser was Tony-nominated for her performances in The Secret Garden and Romance/Romance, and her other Broadway credits include Tartuffe, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and Gypsy. Off-Broadway the multitalented artist created the roles of Sharon in Squeamish (Off-Broadway Alliance, Outer Critics Circle Awards nominations), Nancy Reagan and Betty Ford in First Daughter Suite (Lucille Lortel and Drama Desk nominations), Arsinoé in The School for Lies, Sister Walburga in The Divine Sister, Trina in March of the Falsettos and In Trousers, and the Matron in the world premiere of Williams’ In Masks Outrageous and Austere. Among Fraser’s numerous screen credits are It Cuts Deep, Impossible Monsters, The Sound of Silence, Gotham, Family Games, Happy!, Blowtorch, High Maintenance, Understudies, Happyish, It Could Be Worse, Jack in a Box, Commentary, In the Blood, The L Word, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, and Between the Lions.

What is your typical day like now?
I have a pretty structured schedule right now because I am deep in the thick of the Mississippi Delta these days, playing Big Mama in Ruth Stage’s Off-Broadway production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at St. Clement’s. Before I turn into Big Mama though, I have my Brooklyn duties—getting up at seven to have breakfast with my partner Steve, give him the lunch I pack for him every day, read the New York Times, watch a little Morning Joe, give the cats their breakfast, tidy up, do some paperwork, perhaps do a self tape or voiceover audition in my home studio, and go over music I will be singing in the future. Then I go over all my Big Mama lines with my bedraggled script sitting on my beautiful antique brass music stand, and hopefully I don’t have ever to refer to it. Then I take the subway (masked) to St. Clement’s and deep dive into this classic Tennessee Williams drama, which is directed by the visionary Joe Rosario.

I don’t think there has ever been a sexier Maggie/Brick coupling than the absolutely stunning Sonoya Mizuno and the brooding heartthrob Matt de Rogatis. Brace yourselves, this particular delta is mighty steamy! There might be teddies and tattoos involved…Then, Steve picks me up, we take the subway (masked) back to Brooklyn, and we talk and unwind, go to sleep, then it all starts over again. I like the limbo of an intense tech period—it requires absolute commitment and concentration, and moves forward so fast every day to the first public performance. It is a rush.

Is this a role you have wanted to play? How are you approaching your portrayal of Big Mama?
I never envisioned myself as a Big Mama, but I am certainly a big Tennessee Williams fan. I was introduced to him early on, choosing—unwisely, in retrospect—Blanche Du Bois’ “He was a boy, just a boy, and I was a very young girl…” speech from A Streetcar Named Desire for my dramatic interpretation performance in Natick High School’s Competitive Speech Club state finals. Needless to say, I did not go home with trophies, but I was hooked, and later got to be involved with very interesting Tennessee Williams projects. I did Dirty Shorts, a pair of erotic TW short stories with Michael Urie and directed by David Kaplan, the head of the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Festival. I had given David a copy of my first album, New York Romance, and he contacted me and said he needed a peculiarly versatile singer for a show he wanted to do. It turned out to be Tennessee WilliamsWords and Music, and he thought I would be a good fit. It’s a compilation of American Songbook songs TW always included in his various plays (Cat‘s “Show Me the Way to Go Home,” for example) and pieces of text from various plays that all meshed into an extraordinary theatrical journey. Once the jaw-droppingly talented Allison Leyton-Brown was on board as the musical director, arranger, and onstage pianist—backed by our great seven-piece band, “The Gentleman Callers”—the show became magical. We recorded it in New Orleans, and it’s available on Ghostlight Records. And, it’s great. Then I worked with Shirley  Knight, one of Tennessee Williams’  muses, in the world premiere of  TW’s last play, In Masks Outrageous and Austere, which was a wild Off-Broadway production that got better and better and wilder and wilder as the weeks went on. Dangerous, lyrical, thrilling theatre.

I was approached by Matt de Rogatis about Cat on a Hot Tin Roof about two years ago and met with him and Joe Rosario, who told me about his unique concept for the Pollitts. He wanted them to be attractive, sexually viable, very nouveau riche and entitled. As I recall,  one of the terms he used was “Kardashian.” And, that was something that really appealed to me. It’s right in the text that these two were sleeping with each other up to the time he started getting sick with terminal colon cancer. I lived with a man with colon cancer, my late husband Rusty Magee, and as I read the script, I felt I really understood the mercurial moods these two people in health trauma were experiencing due to physical reactions to treatment or emotional distress. I do believe there is real love and was real passion between them, and the fact that they stayed together over 40 years attests to this. But sickness, in addition to alcoholism in the family, foments major tension in a household. Once I met my Big Daddy, the glorious, utterly charming, smart as a whip New Orleans native Christian Le Blanc on Zoom, Big Mama fell utterly in love. And, when we finally got together? The more he rages against the storm, the more Big Mama loves him, and will fiercely protect him. Till death do they part.

(Read more)

Plus CBS interview with Christian LeBlanc, also starring in this production of CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF:

SWEDEN’S ABBA AND PIPPI LONGSTOCKING MEET AT THE CIRCUS ·

(Torsten Landsberg’s article appeared in DW, 7/12.)

ABBA’s Björn Ulvaeus has adapted a Pippi Longstocking story, written by popular Swedish children’s books author Astrid Lindgren, into a musical show.    

They are connected by their country of origin and their international success: Björn Ulvaeus, member of the Sweden’s most successful band, ABBA, is adapting a story from arguably Sweden’s most popular children’s book series, Pippi Longstocking, into a musical.

“Pippi at the Circus” celebrates its premiere at the Cirkus venue in Stockholm, on July 12.

The circus musical is based on Astrid Lindgren‘s short story from the late 1960s. “I grew up with it,” said Ulvaeus, who was raised just 70 kilometers (43 miles) from Astrid Lindgren’s hometown of Vimmerby, about Pippi’s adventure.

The first Pippi Longstocking volume was published in 1945, just months after Björn Ulvaeus was born.

The musical was originally due to premiere in 2020 — on the 75th anniversary of Lindgren’s first work. The pandemic thwarted those plans.ch video02:33

In “Pippi at the Circus,” Tommy and Annika pick up their friend Pippi to go to the circus. Pippi has no idea what a circus is supposed to be, but is so enthusiastic about the performance that she quickly climbs into the ring herself and turns the performance upside down.

The 77-year-old Ulvaeus worked on the show with ABBA colleague Benny Andersson, who recorded songs with his own band, Benny Anderssons orkester. Ulvaeus wrote the lyrics. The result was a colorful mix in which “everything fits together, everything has a circus element,” says Ulvaeus.

Originally used as a circus, Stockholm’s Cirkus arena opened in 1892 and is today mostly used for concerts and musical shows. Björn Ulvaeus wanted to find a way to avoid having the venue go unused during the summer months: “It’s such a waste and stupid because up to 15 million tourists come to the city every year,” he said at a press presentation in May.

He thought about what could appeal to families and children in the summer, something that is renowned; As a Swedish, global brand, Pippi’s circus story was a clear-cut choice for the project.

The ABBA star sees Pippi as a symbol of empowerment for girls and women: “I like her civil disobedience, curiosity and strong will,” Ulvaeus said.

(Read more)

 

JAMES CAAN, ‘THE GODFATHER’ AND ‘MISERY’ STAR, DIES AT 82 ·

(Carmel Dagan’s article appeared in Variety, 7/7; via Pam Green.)

James Caan, whose indelible, Oscar-nominated performance as Sonny Corleone, the recklessly hotheaded son of Marlon Brando’s Mafia don in “The Godfather,” is sure to be remembered as long as there are gangster movies, died on Wednesday, his family announced on Twitter. He was 82.

“It is with great sadness that we inform you of the passing of Jimmy on the evening of July 6,” the tweet reads. “The family appreciates the outpouring of love and heartfelt condolences and asks that you continue to respect their privacy during this difficult time.”

Caan also had notable roles in films including “Misery,” “Elf,” “Thief,” “Godfather Part II,” “Brian’s Song” and “The Gambler.”

Sonny’s violent end in Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Godfather” — riddled, as he is, with dozens of bullets — is one of the most memorable scenes in a film filled with them.

Caan initially auditioned for the role of Michael, the college-educated war-hero son who would ultimately become don, and the studio, Paramount, supported this casting for a time; Al Pacino was cast as Michael and Caan as Sonny as part of a complex compromise between Paramount and Coppola.

Caan was riding high on the success of TV weepie “Brian’s Song,” in which he played the dying football player Brian Piccolo alongside Billy Dee Williams as Piccolo’s best friend, Gale Sayers, when he was cast in “The Godfather.” “Brian’s Song” won a number of Emmys, including outstanding single program — drama or comedy, and Caan was nominated for his performance.

The actor had earlier starred for Coppola in the director’s odd little road movie “The Rain People” (1969), in which Caan played a brain-damaged hitchhiker.

But as his career progressed over the decades, Caan would repeatedly essay characters with a penchant for violence.

In addition to “The Godfather,” Caan’s signature films from the 1970s include Mark Rydell’s “Cinderella Liberty” (1973), in which he played a sailor in love with a hooker; Karel Reisz’s 1974 “The Gambler,” in which he played a man with a serious gambling addiction; Sam Peckinpah actioner “The Killer Elite” (1975), a story of CIA assassins that reunited him with Duvall; musical romantic comedy “Funny Lady” (also 1975), with Barbra Streisand and Omar Sharif; Norman Jewison’s satirical, dystopian sci-fi drama “Rollerball,” in which he played a popular athlete in a violent sport based on roller derby but often ending in death; Alan J. Pakula’s Western romance “Comes a Horseman,” in which Caan starred with Jane Fonda and Jason Robards; and the Neil Simon-penned “Chapter Two,” in which a seemingly uncomfortable Caan was essentially a stand-in for Simon in the story of how he got together with second wife Marsha Mason — played in the film by Marsha Mason.

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THROWN A LIFELINE: ‘EVERY WEEK THERE WAS ANOTHER DEATH. EVERYBODY WAS ASKING THE SAME THING: WHAT CAN WE DO ABOUT THE RIVER?’ ·

(Sara Keating’s article appeared in the Irish Times, 7/2.)

Your Wellness

In response to Galway’s high suicide rate, more than 150 participants will tightrope-walk across the Corrib this month, to help turn it from a site of grief to a place of creativity and celebration

It is a Saturday morning in Shantalla park, a green space that runs alongside a busy road in Galway. A young man with knotted dreadlocks and a bright-blue T-shirt is hovering a metre above the ground. With perfect posture and a distant gaze, he holds a metal pole at chest level in front of him and steps, one foot after another, one foot after another, into empty space. From a distance it looks as if he is walking through the air. Up close, a thin cable becomes visible, but the feat remains impressive, as the taut wire wobbles and settles with each tentative step and the cars whizz noisily by.

Shantalla park is the home of the Irish Centre of Funambulism, an offshoot of the Wires Crossed project, established by Galway Community Circus in 2016 as part of the Galway 2020 celebrations. Wires Crossed was dreamed up by the organisation as a response to the city’s high suicide rate.

“It seemed very bad in 2016,” says Ulla Hokkanen, director of Galway Community Circus. “Several men in the area died by suicide in the River Corrib. I was living beside it, and it was constant. Every week there was another death. You would hear the helicopters, and everyone who lives in Galway knows what that means: that someone has jumped into the river and the helicopters are looking for them.” In a community ravaged by grief, “everybody was asking the same thing: ‘What can we do about the river?’”

At the time, Galway Community Circus was looking for a project to contribute to the 2020 celebrations. “Because of all the suicide,” Hokkannen says, “we thought about this idea of trying to address youth mental health and wellbeing through circus. We are not trained mental-health experts, but with community projects like circus we can help create a preventive space, a safe space, for young people to overcome challenges and support themselves and each other.”

Hokkanen had recently returned from a European conference where she had been given the opportunity to try funambulism — the art of wire walking — for the first time, and she thought it would provide novices with a brilliant opportunity to develop a new skill, have fun, and use proactive mental-health tools. Funambulism, she says, is a very measurable skill. People “can see so easily their progression, whether you are talking about length of the walk, or height of the wire, or tricks you can do. It is easy for every single person to set their next objective — ‘I want to get to the other side’ or ‘I need to remember to breathe’ or ‘I want to be less nervous’ or ‘I want to do a headstand on a wire’. There is so much variety in terms of what you can do, the goal you want to set.”

Speaking of her own first encounter with the wire, she says, “I still remember the wires were this low” — she gestures to a few centimetres above the ground — “but the feeling to discover that I could do it, that spark, it was transformative.”)

(Read more)

 

PETER BROOK, CELEBRATED STAGE DIRECTOR OF SCALE AND HUMANITY, DIES AT 97 ·

(Benedict Nightingale’s article appeared in The New York Times, 7/3/22; He was called “the greatest innovator of his generation,” leaving an indelible mark with plays, musicals, opera and a relentless curiosity.)

Peter Brook, whose ambitious, adventurous and endlessly creative stage work ranged across seven decades on both sides of the Atlantic and earned him a place among the greatest theater directors of the 20th century, died on Saturday. He was 97.

His death was confirmed by his son, Simon, who did not specify where he died.

“Peter is the quester,” the director Peter Hall once said, “the person out on the frontiers, continually asking what is quality in theater, where do you find truth in theater.”

He added, “He is the greatest innovator of his generation.”

Mr. Brook was called many other things: a maverick, a romantic, a classicist. But he was never easily pigeonholed. British by nationality but based in Paris since 1970, he spent years in commercial theater, winning Tony Awards in 1966 and 1971 for the Broadway transfers of highly original productions of Peter Weiss’s “Marat/Sade” and Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” He staged crowd-pleasers like the musical “Irma la Douce” and Arthur Miller’s “A View From the Bridge.”

He was equally at home directing Shakespeare, Shaw, Beckett, Cocteau, Sartre and Chekhov. And he coaxed brilliance out of actors like Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh, John Gielgud, Paul Scofield, Alec Guinness, Glenda Jackson, and Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne.

But he was also an experimenter and a risk-taker. He brought a stunning nine-hour adaptation of the Sanskrit epic “The Mahabharata” from France to New York in 1987. In 1995, he followed the same route with “The Man Who,” a stark staging of Oliver Sacks’s neurological case studies. In 2011, when he was 86, he brought an almost equally pared-down production of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” (he called it “A Magic Flute”) to the Lincoln Center Festival.

Restless and unpredictable, Mr. Brook was also indefatigable, staging almost 100 productions over his long and acclaimed career.

He first won a reputation for freshness and daring in 1946, when, at 21, he staged a precocious revival of Shakespeare’s “Love’s Labour’s Lost” in Stratford-upon-Avon, where Barry Jackson, the director, was in charge of the summer festival. “The youngest earthquake I’ve known,” Mr. Jackson called him.

Peter Stephen Paul Brook was born in London on March 21, 1925, a son of Jewish immigrants from Latvia. His father, Simon Bryk, had moved from his Baltic village to Moscow, became involved in revolutionary politics and was forced to flee, first to Paris and then to London, where he became a citizen and anglicized his name. Both he and his wife, Ida, were industrial chemists and prospered in London.

Peter, the younger of their two sons, went to private schools, where he was bullied and unhappy. He won a place at Oxford University at 16.

At 7, Peter staged a four-hour version of “Hamlet” for his parents in a toy theater, advertising the play as by “P. Brook and W. Shakespeare” and speaking all the roles himself. But he seldom went to the theater as a boy, thinking it “a dreary and dying precursor of cinema,” as he later put it, and aspiring to be a movie director. He came close to expulsion from Oxford after neglecting his studies for the University Film Society, which he had founded in 1943.

After graduating, he took a job with a company specializing in making commercials. But his employment ended in disgrace after he shot an advertisement for a washing powder in the style of “Citizen Kane.”

His undergraduate staging of Marlowe’s “Doctor Faustus,” presented in a tiny London theater, raised 17 British pounds for the Aid to Russia Fund. And in 1945 he directed Cocteau’s “The Infernal Machine” and Rudolf Besier’s “The Barretts of Wimpole Street,” also on the London fringe.

These brought Mr. Brook an invitation to stage a touring production of George Bernard Shaw’s “Pygmalion” for the British Army, and he caught the attention of Mr. Jackson, who founded and ran the highly regarded Birmingham Repertory Theater. There, Mr. Brook successfully directed Shaw’s “Man and Superman” and Shakespeare’s “King John.” He also formed a professional bond with Paul Scofield, who had leading roles in both plays. When Mr. Jackson took over Stratford’s summer festival in 1946, he brought both men with him.

Finding ‘Natasha’

When he was 12, Mr. Brook had fallen in love with the heroine of “War and Peace” and decided to marry someone named Natasha. “And so it came about,” he wrote in his memoir, “Threads of Time” (1998). He married the actress Natasha Parry in 1951. In addition to their son, Simon, a documentary filmmaker, they had a daughter, Irina, a stage director.

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‘9 CIRCLES’ REVIEW – UNFLINCHING APPRAISAL OF A WARTIME ATROCITY ·

(Miriam Gillinson’s article appeared in the Guardian, 7/1.)

 Park theatre, London
Joshua Collins is magnetic as a US soldier awaiting trial for murder in this hard-hitting drama hamstrung by its loose grip on reality

The title is a riff on Dante’s Inferno but there aren’t enough circles in hell for the horror contained in Bill Cain’s upsetting play. The names have been changed but this is essentially a feverish re-examination of the life, trial and death of US soldier Steven Dale Green, who was convicted in 2009 for killing an Iraqi family and raping the 14-year-old daughter. It’s a really tough watch – not without merit but difficult to sit through and with some serious flaws in its composition.

There’s a heated intensity to Guy Masterson’s tightly calibrated production,held together by Jack Arnold’s humming battlecry of a soundscape which slowly engulfs us as the trial approaches. Duncan Henderson’s neatly symbolic set frames the action inside a pair of glowing red circles: from the fury of Baghdad to the loneliness of the holding cell, this is the story of a soldier’s life that has always, on some level, felt like a kind of imprisonment.

As the soldier, Daniel E Reeves, meets with attorneys and lawyers, a seriously creepy pastor and shockingly incompetent army psychiatrists (all played with an eerie sense of disassociation by Samara Neely-Cohen, Daniel Bowerbank and David Calvitto), we start to suspect they might all be a product of Reeves’s deeply disturbed psyche. This fuzzy hold on reality makes for a powerful atmosphere but a confusing play. Cain seems to be making an argument about the hypocrisy of war and the culpability of those in authority but it’s hard to know which bits to take seriously in a play that’s neither fact nor fiction.

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DONALD TRUMP PLAYED SONG FROM ‘CATS’ TO CALM HIMSELF DOWN IN WHITE HOUSE, HIS STAFF CLAIM   ·

Adam Gopnik of the New Yorker wrote that Donald Trump’s need to be comforted by Broadway music “degrades both the office of the Presidency and a great American institution”

(Rachel Hagan’s article appeared in the Mirror, 6/29 via the Drudge Report.)

Donald Trump’s staff would play the song Memory from the Broadway musical Cats to soothe the former US President when he was stressed, it has been revealed.

Stephanie Grisham, who served as his White House press secretary and communications director and as Melania Trump ’s chief of staff, said on Tuesday that former US President Trump’s temper was “scary”.

She continued: “He’d snap and almost lose control.”

Grisham recently published a tell-all book and noted that when Trump descended into turmoil, his staff resorted to summoning an aide, nicknamed the “Music Man”, to play songs from musicals they knew would soothe him, namely Memory from the Broadway musical Cats.

Her remarks came as a result of ex-aide, Cassidy Hutchinson speaking in staggering detail to the House select committee hearing on Tuesday about Trump’s character.

She portrayed an unhinged leader who often veered wildly out of control.

The committee were investigating the January 6 attacks on Capitol Hill but Trump’s character was also destroyed during the hearing.

The New York Times reported that in Grisham’s memoir, I’ll Take Your Questions Now: What I Saw in the Trump White House, “Mr Trump’s handlers designated an unnamed White House official known as the ‘Music Man’ to play him his favourite show tunes, including ‘Memory’ from Cats, to pull him from the brink of rage”.

The paper identified the “Music Man” as Max Miller.

Miller is a former boyfriend of Grisham who was also a Trump aide and now a Republican candidate for Congress in Ohio.

Adam Gopnik of the New Yorker wrote that Trump’s need to be comforted by Broadway music “degrades both the office of the Presidency and a great American institution”.

Betty Buckley, the award-winning actress who plays Grizabella in Cats and sings Memory, told CNN‘s Jim Acosta that his desire to have the song plated indicates that Trump’s soul is “so damaged.”

She thinks Trump’s soul is so damaged and she feels that the lyrics by Trevor Nunn, and the music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, “resonates with what remains of the window into whatever soul he might actually have”.

She said Grizabella is a character that is about longing, the need to be touched and the need to connect.

(Read more)

A MIGHTY GROOVE: SADLER’S WELLS SETS UP NEW DANCE HOME IN EAST LONDON ·

(Lyndsey Winship’s article appeared in the Guardian, 6/26; via Pam Green.)

Due to open in Stratford next year, the sibling to the Islington institution will have a special emphasis on local talent, hip-hop and artists of colour

The sun is beaming across London’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. Next to West Ham’s London Stadium is the tangled red steel of the Orbit; nearby, a line of swan pedalos wait to be paddled up the River Lea. There are cranes everywhere, busy building. This is the view from the top-floor studios of a new theatre for dance, Sadler’s Wells East, a sister venue to the original Sadler’s Wells in Islington.

The O’Donnell + Tuomey-designed building has just celebrated its “topping out”, the completion of its concrete structure. It’s a significant milestone for Sadler’s Wells’ artistic director Sir Alistair Spalding, the wry, affable, recently knighted 64-year-old who is a driving force in UK dance. “This has been my mission all the time at Sadler’s Wells, to really put dance at the centre of cultural life in London,” he says. This new theatre is definitely in the cultural thick of things: due to open in November 2023, it is part of the £1.1bn East Bank project that includes a branch of the V&A, BBC studios and a vast new home for the London College of Fashion.

While on the current building site you can’t yet see the rusty-red Italian brick facade, the sawtooth roof or theatrically inspired lighting by designer Aideen Malone; even so, you can see its great potential. A huge, L-shaped foyer hugs the corner of the building across the bridge from Zaha Hadid’s curvaceous Aquatics centre, full-height windows inviting people in. There’ll be a movable stage for local dance companies to perform on, a bar and cafe. Spalding calls it “a people’s theatre”. “It’s not just about the art, it’s about who sees it,” he says, hoping that will include lots of people who haven’t yet discovered their love for dance. Young local people are already being invited to take part in workshops this summer to find dancers for the theatre’s opening show, Vicki Igbokwe’s Our Mighty Groove, about the power of the dancefloor.

Back in 2013, Spalding announced his desire to build a mid-scale venue and various developers got in touch, usually with offers to build a residential block with a theatre underground. The East Bank proposal offered much more, though; still, it’s had a few wobbles along the way, such as when it was realised that the residential towers that would have part-financed the site were going to interrupt a protected view of St Paul’s Cathedral from Richmond Hill on the opposite side of London. “That was nearly the end,” says Spalding. Then there was Covid, which delayed building work by about a year. And Brexit, with its resulting price increases for materials. Although the real Brexit impact is felt inside the theatre, where a new layer of admin and visas for touring shows means more costs and staff – the opposite of cutting red tape – plus switching to a European haulage firm because of cabotage laws. “If this soft power thing is going to work, you have to make it easy for people to travel around the world,” says Spalding

(Read more)

OF COURSE THEATRE CRITICS SHOULD SPEAK THEIR MIND, BUT NOT WITH CHEAP SHOTS ·

(Catherine Bennett’s article appeared in the Observer, 6/19;via Pam Green.)

One irritating theatre reviewer shouldn’t hide the fact that too many writers pull punches

Legally Blonde at Regent’s Park Open Air theatre. The Observer reviewer gave it four stars: “Everything is as popping and pink as bubblegum.” 

Remaining evening performances of Legally Blonde, showing at the Regent’s Park Open Air theatre, are, at the time of writing, sold out. While terrific for the production, this does limit opportunities for theatregoers hoping to demonstrate support for a show whose cast has been collectively body-shamed by a leading critic: “The stage’s superstructure wobbles under the weight of the company’s loosely choreographed gyrations.”

The production opened to generally approving notices, with the Observer’s Susannah Clapp giving it four stars: “Everything is as popping and pink as bubblegum.” But the theatre, stung by “the insensitive language of one review”, issued this warning: “We expect that everyone comments with respect and sensitivity and those who decide not to will no longer be invited back to our theatre.”

At the Tony awards last week, where she won two awards as co-creator of the hugely successful Six, Lucy Moss, Legally Blonde’s director, was emphatic: the review had been “unacceptable”.

The offending piece is taken to be that, entitled “Not so Pretty in Pink”, by the Sunday Times theatre critic, Quentin Letts, a veteran of various scraps with understandably offended theatres. In 2018, the RSC said his suggestion that a highly regarded actor had been cast because he was black amounted to “a blatantly racist attitude”.

While he had a range of reservations about Legally Blonde, Letts seemed especially unimpressed by the cast’s appearance, citing the “fuller-bodied, nonbinary actors”. So much so that it’s not clear that any line-up, binary-wise, would have been acceptable unless it fulfilled his body-mass requirements. “Fellow fatties of the world,” he wrote, “first we take Harvard, then we take Brenda Hale’s old seat on the Supreme Court.”

The name-calling could hardly be better calculated to arouse sympathy for the indignant theatres

Though it may be little consolation for the Regent’s Park performers, they have not been singled out for denigration, not even on the basis that Letts dislikes the look of them. Actually, they’re in fantastic company. Some years ago, the critic defended, with yet more elaborate insults, those dismissing a young opera singer as inadequately enticing in Der Rosenkavalier. The “roly poly” young singer had, Letts said, “the figure and face of a goodish pork pie” and looked “as though she has been at the biscuit barrel”. For critics not to feel similarly disinhibited in their responses would, he said, be for them to fall victim to “Leveson-style censorship”. You gathered that anyone interested in free speech should defend to the death, even if they recoil from fat-shaming, this defiant critic’s right to disqualify performers for being too big or too black or too old or for repeatedly speaking in what Letts calls “whining Scottish accents”.

In reality, the name-calling could hardly be better calculated to arouse sympathy, even among habitual respecters of creative freedom, for the indignant theatres. Even if, as is often stressed by advocates of review-resilience, Byron was mean to Keats, unkind reviewers were once challenged to duels, Henry James survived being booed and, more recently, Kenneth Tynan was always skewering actors. For one thing, if the ghastly Tynan was likewise threatened with bans it was also recognised that he loved the theatre. And if “fatties” are still eligible for the pillory, Equity’s view that reviewers are in need of its educational guidelines – especially on race, but also on writing in general “with sensitivity, empathy and understanding” – looks momentarily less condescending.

Except that when you look at the other reviews for Legally Blonde, or indeed reviews for almost any current theatre, to warn all critics about their delinquent insensitivity seems about as reasonable as threatening a whole class with detention when only one kid was texting. If anything, many reviewers’ reluctance to trash all but the direst productions, a tendency factored in by cautious theatregoers, has only deepened, post-pandemic, into what sometimes comes across as limitless tenderness towards a convalescing child. And if it’s sometimes unclear, reading between the lines, whether a play goes on so long as to be utterly unendurable, or won all its stars (“moments of brilliance!”) for effort, or is only likeable if you like that sort of thing, many customers probably still share the reviewer’s relief that the theatre is back at all.

Commentary on social media can be instructive here, just as it is in modifying the conclusions of ungenerous critics. “Still grinning from ear to ear from the utter joy” (along with the now redundant advice “get tickets”) seems reasonably typical of the Legally Blonde reviews from paying customers.

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