Category Archives: Theatre Reviews

‘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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***** ‘TWO PALESTINIANS GO DOGGING’ REVIEW – DEVASTATINGLY HUMAN PORTRAIT OF CONFLICT SEARS ITSELF ON THE MIND ·

(Arifa Akbar’s aricle appeared in the Guardian, 5/2; Seething with anger … Hala Omran as Reem in Two Palestinians Go Dogging at the Royal Court, London. Photograph: Ali Wright.)

Royal Court, London
Set two decades into the future, in Palestinian territories that are still occupied, Sami Ibrahim’s play is a startlingly bold tragicomedy and a furious call to action

Don’t be fooled by the title. This is not – bar a few fruity scenes – a play about dogging, and there are more than two Palestinians in it. There are Israelis too, living in contested territory and enacting the fear, hostility and oppression of that conflict which has become so dreadfully familiar to us through news feeds that even the language around its reporting is inflammatory.

What this slowly rumbling earthquake of a show does so startlingly well is take the conflict and make it small, specific, multi-layered – yet as devastatingly epic as Greek tragedy. Sami Ibrahim’s script revolves around a Palestinian family living in a village east of Jerusalem and being slowly destroyed. Reem (Hala Omran, bolshy, mercurial) is its matriarch and our central narrator; alongside her is her melancholic husband, Sayeed (Miltos Yerolemou, just wonderful).

When an Israeli soldier, Sara (Mai Weisz), is murdered, there are calls for retribution; but Reem has her own scores to settle after her children are killed. Through her we get a sense of a community living under siege, seething with powerless anger, while Sayeed just emanates hopeless resignation.

This local focus on one family has echoes of Lorca, in its intractable grudge-bearing and cycles of violence. Reem tells us of the terror of the Red Zone, of Israeli troops taking sniper shots at unarmed Palestinians, of drone strikes on houses, of children being gunned down at point blank range – including her own 12-year-old girl and then a second daughter, Salwa (Sofia Danu).

Directed by Omar Elerian, the production is many things at once: playful and tragic, baggy and taut, always pulling back from whimsy at the tipping point of self-indulgence. Just as we are lulled by a moment of comedy or metafictive silliness, violence comes careering around the corner.

So many of its scenes stay seared on the mind: Reem watching a video of her son’s last moments; Sara begging for her life before it is horrifyingly stamped out. The saddest scene, for me, is a quiet one with Reem and Sayeed sitting side by side, she sifting lentils, he peeling an orange. “Can you imagine what it’d be like, not living here? Not doing all of this? … Protests and campaigns and watching people die?” he says to her, and she sounds nonplussed by such an implausible thought.

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‘A STRANGE LOOP’ REVIEW: A DAZZLING RIDE ON A MENTAL MERRY-GO-ROUND ·

(Maya Phillips’s article appeared in The New York Times, 4/26; Photo: Jaquel Spivey, center, as Usher, a 25-year-old Broadway usher, in “A Strange Loop” at the Lyceum Theater in Manhattan. Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times.)

Michael R. Jackson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning meta musical arrives on Broadway with its uproarious dialogue, complex psychology and eclectic score intact.

 

A Strange Loop

NYT Critic’s Pick

Broadway, Musical

1 hour 45 minutes

Open Run

Lyceum Theatre, 149 W. 45th St.

212-541-8457

When the homophobic, God-fearing, Tyler Perry-loving mother of Usher, the protagonist of the remarkable musical “A Strange Loop,” describes her son’s art, she uses the word “radical.” She doesn’t mean it as a compliment.

But “A Strange Loop,” Michael R. Jackson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning meta musical about a Black queer man’s self-perception in relation to his art, is radical. And I definitely mean that as a compliment.

This musical, a production of Page 73, Playwrights Horizons and Woolly Mammoth Theater Company, forgoes the commercial niceties and digestible narratives of many Broadway shows, delivering a story that’s searing and softhearted, uproarious and disquieting.

“A Strange Loop,” which opened Tuesday night, isn’t just the musical I saw in the packed Lyceum Theater a few evenings ago; it’s also the musical Usher (Jaquel Spivey), a 25-year-old usher at the Broadway production of “The Lion King,” is writing right in front of us.

He’s facing a few hurdles, namely his intrusive thoughts, embodied by the same six actors who originated the roles in the 2019 Off Broadway premiere: L Morgan Lee, James Jackson Jr., John-Michael Lyles, John-Andrew Morrison, Jason Veasey and Antwayn Hopper. They give voice to his anxieties of being a plus-size Black queer man, his alcoholic father’s constant denigration and his mother’s pleas to stop running “up there in the homosexsh’alities” and produce a wholesome gospel play instead.

Through scenes that move between Usher’s interactions with the outside world, like a phone conversation with his mother or a hookup, and a constant congress with his most devastating notions of himself, “A Strange Loop” pulls off an amazing feat: condensing a complex idea, full of paradoxes and abstractions, into the form of a Broadway musical.

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***** HENRY VI: REBELLION / WARS OF THE ROSES REVIEW – THRILLING GAMES OF THRONES ·

(Mark Lawson’s article appeared in the Guardian, 4/21; Photo: Frail body, strong mind … Mark Quartley in Henry VI: Rebellion at the Royal Shakespeare theatre. Photograph: Ellie Kurttz/RSC.)

The three plays about King Henry VI rank low in the Shakespearean canon for character and poetry but paradoxically have the heaviest popular culture presence, as an acknowledged source for the regicidal TV epic Game of Thrones. The middle drama also contains one of Shakespeare’s most quoted lines, “the first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers,” spoken by an ally of Jack Cade, the populist demagogue who, as proxy for the Yorkists, threatens the House of Lancaster’s hold on the throne.

The production by Owen Horsley (RSC boss Gregory Doran, on compassionate leave, is “consultant director”) imposes no strenuous topicalities but is alert to the fact that a wobbling monarchy and the vulnerability of a populace to muscular false promise particularly chime with this revival. Shakespeare covers most human and political possibilities and, through Cade, skewers the year zero egotists of which Boris Johnson is the latest exemplar.

“Burn all the records of the realm. My mouth shall be the parliament of England,” declares the self-glorying rebel during a campaign based on denigrating the French and pledging unlimited state expenditure. Warned that he has said something “false”, Cade shrugs: “Ay, there’s the question; but I say ’tis true.”

Aaron Sidwell’s swaggering braggart, giddied by the possibility of tyranny as success swells him, directly references no current public mannerisms, but those who watched prime minister’s questions on their phones just before the 1pm start at the Royal Shakespeare theatre marvelled anew at Shakespeare’s historical prescience.

What academics call the H6 plays are staged rarely and, even then, in mashups of the English history cycle. Horsley and Doran create Henry VI: Rebellion from the first four acts of part two and join the remaining scenes to part three to create Wars of the Roses.

Such reshaping reflects that these are early plays, the dramatist sketching scenes of witchcraft, a deranged exiled king, women who out-power their men and the dynamics of popular power that will mature in Macbeth, King Lear and Coriolanus.

Another complication is that the bloodlines and fault lines between the founding fathers of Yorkshire and Lancashire, thickened by French intermarriage, can seem impossibly convoluted: this version helps by giving characters white or red roses on their costumes like November poppies, and using live video capture on a downstage screen to underline those being mentioned or remembered.

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A “HAMILTON” FOR THE SUFFRAGE MOVEMENT ·

(Alexandra Schwartz’s article appeared in The New Yorker, 4/11; Illustration: “Suffs” braids the tangled history of the American suffrage movement into drama. Illustration by Kati Szilágyi.)

Shaina Taub’s new musical follows Alice Paul’s tireless quest to win American women the vote.

Have you heard of the juggernaut musical about the young, scrappy American revolutionary with a surplus of political genius, who’s determined to change the course of history with the help of a gang of committed cronies? No, not “Hamilton”—I’m talking about “Suffs,” an ambitious new show (directed by Leigh Silverman, at the Public) that sets out to do for the suffragist Alice Paul what Lin-Manuel Miranda did for Alexander H. The show’s thirty-three-year-old creator, Shaina Taub, wrote the music, the lyrics, and the book, and she stars as Paul, who surely counts as one of the twentieth century’s most remarkable figures, if not—yet—one of its household names. “Suffs,” which sold out its run well before opening, features a strong female and non-binary cast, an inspiring story, and songs that stick in the head for days. Paul has already been featured onscreen, in the 2004 film “Iron Jawed Angels.” Soon she may find herself hoofing it on Broadway, a founding mother to beat the band.

Paul was born, in New Jersey, in 1885. Her family were Quaker, a faith that champions sexual equality, and she was able to obtain the kind of topnotch education that wasn’t readily available to most women of her day. She studied biology at Swarthmore and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, then crossed the Atlantic to attend the University of Birmingham, where she encountered the militant suffragist Christabel Pankhurst and was immediately converted to the cause. From Christabel and her famous mother, Emmeline, Paul learned the principles of direct action and civil disobedience. She marched, protested, and was repeatedly arrested; in jail, she went on hunger strike, which resulted in torture by force-feeding. Physically weakened but spiritually undaunted, Paul returned to the United States, determined to use her organizational expertise to win American women the vote.

That is where Taub picks up the story. It’s 1913, and popular sentiment toward the suffragist struggle is not exactly surging. On a stage dominated by the wide steps and looming columns of the Capitol (the set, designed by Mimi Lien, is male power incarnate), the cast, equipped with false mustaches, mug about in the guise of incensed men. Tossing around era-appropriate yuk-yuk jokes (“What do a good woman and a good picture show have in common?” “They’re both silent!”), these petty gents ridicule what they fear and despise, a strategy that “Suffs,” armed with history’s hindsight advantage, turns right back on them.

We first see Paul when she bursts breathlessly into a meeting of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, whose members are determined to conduct themselves with all the dignity their detractors lack. The organization’s seasoned head, Carrie Chapman Catt (Jenn Colella), is convinced that only polite, ladylike persuasiveness will carry the day. nawsa has helped win women’s suffrage in Wyoming, Montana, Utah, Nevada, Idaho, Oregon, Kansas, Arizona, Washington, Colorado, and California, a record that Catt recites with pride, but Paul is unimpressed. Only eleven states out of forty-eight? Catt’s incremental approach is too cautious for this fast-talking big thinker. Woodrow Wilson is about to take office, and Paul wants Catt to join her in demanding the new President’s support for a constitutional amendment that will grant suffrage throughout the land. She’s planning a protest march, the first of its kind, for the day before the Inauguration: thousands of women from all over the country parading down Pennsylvania Avenue, dressed in white so that they’ll stand out in newspaper photographs.

The gall of Paul! Catt, dismayed, turns the upstart down, but there’s no spur to the young like the doubt of the old, and Alice sprints off to assemble a crack team of her own. First to join up is Lucy Burns (Ally Bonino), a devoted school friend, who is followed by Inez Milholland (Phillipa Soo), a beautiful radical with high-society connections and a law degree, whom Alice recruits to legitimize, and glamorize, the march. (Inez proposes that she lead the marchers atop a white steed: the woman knows from optics.) Rounding out the group is Ruza Wenclawska (Hannah Cruz), a Polish immigrant who cut her teeth organizing fellow factory workers, and an eager young graduate, Doris Stevens (Nadia Dandashi, earnest and funny), who is enlisted as the group’s secretary. “How will we do it when it’s never been done?” the women ask themselves. Paul knows only that she must “find a way where there isn’t one.”

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AT A CONTEMPORARY DRAMA FESTIVAL, STAGING THE FRIGHTENINGLY REAL ·

(A.J. Goldmann’s article appeared in The New York Times, 4/7/22; via Pam Green;  Photo: The ensemble in “Oasis de la Impunidad” (“Oasis of Impunity”), directed by Marco Layera, at the Schaubühne’s Festival International for New Drama, or FIND.Credit…Gianmarco Bresadola.)

At Berlin’s FIND festival of new international drama, several productions use transcripts to explore questions of state power and identity.

BERLIN — Outside a small stage at the Schaubühne theater here on Tuesday evening, a sign cautioned that the Chilean production “Oasis de la Impunidad” (“Oasis of Impunity”) featured strobe lights and onstage nudity.

In retrospect, that caveat seemed comical, a bit like warning viewers that a Tarantino film might be somewhat bloody. Over the play’s 90-minute run time, the audience sat in stunned silence as a band of eight performers enacted a macabre and ritualistically precise examination of violence’s corrosive effect on the individual and the social body. Scenes of torture and violence, including sexual violence, tumbled forth with balletic elegance. The production’s delicacy of feeling and theatrical finesse were disturbingly at odds with the horrors it depicted.

Created by the director Marco Layera and his company La Re-Sentida, “Oasis de la Impunidad” is a harrowing artistic response to Chile’s recent wave of social unrest, which has been described as the country’s worst since the end of the Pinochet regime. Like the other standout productions at the Schaubühne’s Festival International for New Drama, or FIND, “Oasis” takes nightmarish and surreal contemporary events as starting points for provocative theatrical explorations.

In late 2019, Chile was convulsed by social unrest after a fare hike on the Santiago subway inspired mass demonstrations and riots against rising inequality. The government declared a state of emergency and deployed the army to restore law and order. In the first weeks of unrest, 18 people were killed and nearly 3,000 detained, including hundreds of women and children, according to a report issued by the National Institute for Human Rights. Since then, there have been numerous reports of security forces torturing and raping protesters.

To develop “Oasis,” Layera held a series of theater labs and workshops in Chile. Two hundred people participated, including many survivors of state-sponsored repression and brutality. The resulting show, described as “an investigation into the origins and mechanisms of violence,” is a series of sinister and menacing episodes laced with dark comedy.

At the Schaubühne, the actors, a mix of professionals and nonprofessionals, pulled on their genitalia, pinched their teeth and flesh with tools, erupted into paroxysms of hysteria and grief, and lovingly exhibited broken, bloodied bodies in a fun house of horrors. After its world premiere in Berlin, the show will travel to Santiago, Chile, in late May.

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***** ‘THE MEANING OF ZONG’ REVIEW – A MASTERFUL MEDITATION ON THE LEGACY OF SLAVERY ·

(Gareth Llŷr Evans’s review appeared in the UK Guardian, 4/8; Photograph: Curtis Richard Photography.)

Bristol Old Vic
Giles Terera’s lyrical and inventive drama about a brutal episode in British history brims with urgency, pain and ultimately pride

In November and December 1781, 132 enslaved Africans held captive on the British ship Zong were thrown overboard into the Caribbean sea and murdered. This brutal event and the subsequent London court cases which energised the abolitionist movement are chronicled in The Meaning of Zong, Giles Terera’s debut play. 

‘It was shameful I didn’t know about it’: Hamilton’s Giles Terera on the Zong massacre

Originally due to be staged in 2020 and adapted for radio last year, it now receives a richly theatrical first production. Framed by a contemporary setting, the play is resolutely aware of its place in the present moment and how its resonances may differ after the events of the intervening two years. It refrains from didacticism and easy metaphors.

Although the playwright not only shares directing duties with Tom Morris but also stars as abolitionist Olaudah Equiano, it is very much an ensemble piece. Roles and scenery swiftly segue from one scene to the next: talking bookshelves become a crackling fireplace and revolutionary printing presses; slaves become judges.

Performed to music composed and spectacularly played live by Sidiki Dembele, Terera’s nimble script moves to its own rhythm. An extended and exquisitely lyrical second-act monologue might, in a less assured production, feel like it belongs to a different play. Here it feels wholly apposite, performed to devastating effect by Kiera Lester.

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**** CULTURE WARS AND CONSERVATIVES: THE RIVETING PLAY SET AT A DRUNKEN HOUSE PARTY ·

(Cameron Woodhead’s article appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald, 3/31/22; Photo: Old tensions surface in this rare drama. CREDIT:JODIE HUTCHINSON.)     

Heroes of the Fourth Turning ★★★★
Red Stitch, until April 10

Why do we live in such politically polarised times? The echo chambers of social media? Tribal identity politics on both sides of the fence? What about theatre? It’s no secret the art form skews to the political left. The lion’s share of vibrant, accomplished drama is filtered through a socially progressive lens … and so is the bulk of the strident, unaccomplished stuff that simply preaches to the converted.

Will Arbery’s Heroes of the Fourth Turning is a rare bird in the theatre world – a play that lets actors loose on fully fleshed-out characters of a conservative bent, daring audiences to imagine and to grapple with their perspectives and experiences.

In Wyoming, a group of young conservative Christians gathers to get drunk at a house party. They’ve returned to celebrate Gina (Margaret Mills), who’s been appointed president of their alma mater, but old tensions surface during their reunion.

Personal struggles become political as they share encounters with mainstream, socially progressive culture, and erupt into argument over glaring contradictions between their religious convictions and the belligerent rhetoric of Trumpism.

The play is a necessary complement (and corrective) to Richard Nelson’s The Gabriels, which offered a fly-on-the-wall view of a liberal household in upstate New York. That realist trilogy premiered during the 2016 presidential election and its characters used Hillary Clinton’s trick of failing to mention Trump by name – not once over nine hours – condemning it to being an instant museum piece. 

Heroes of the Fourth Turning doesn’t make that mistake. These young Catholics might hold views you find objectionable or confronting – they’re all ardent pro-lifers, for instance – but they’re hyperaware of the political and culture wars around them. They wrestle with opposing ideas and engage in searching, sometimes compulsive debate among themselves.

What makes it so riveting to watch isn’t just the rigour and rhetorical allure of the argumentation, it’s that the characters are so nuanced, their personalities so recognisable and richly drawn.

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***** ‘DIARY OF A SOMEBODY’ REVIEW – STUNNING DRAMA FROM JOE ORTON’S JOURNAL ·

(Ryan Gilbey’s article appeared in the Guardian, 3/31; Photo:  Taut with tension … Toby Osmond and George Kemp in Diary of a Somebody. Photograph: Brittain Photography.)

Seven Dials Playhouse, London
The playwright’s relationship with Kenneth Halliwell is given new clarity in a play that is both hilarious and chilling

‘I’ve high hopes of dying young,” announces Joe Orton cheerfully in Diary of a Somebody. He got his wish: the author of barbed, subversive comedies such as Entertaining Mr Sloane and Loot was murdered in 1967 at the age of 34 by his lover Kenneth Halliwell. This play, pieced together by John Lahr from Orton’s journal as well as from correspondence and interviews, has often been overshadowed by the diaries themselves and by Stephen Frears’ 1987 film Prick Up Your Ears, adapted by Alan Bennett from Lahr’s biography of the same name.

Seen here in Nico Rao Pimparé’s punchy new staging, its own merits and insights are inarguable. Distance helps: with Aids dominating gay life in the 1980s, and Clause 28 on the horizon, Orton’s priapic endeavours made him seem then like a purely heroic sexual swashbuckler. Now his callousness, along with Halliwell’s suffering, emerge with greater clarity and force.

Breakneck action involving nearly 50 minor characters (shared among four supporting cast members: Jemma Churchill, Sorcha Kennedy, Ryan Rajan Mal and Jamie Zubairi) is squeezed on to the cramped stage like glad rags in an overstuffed suitcase. The floor of Valentine Gigandet’s set is tiled with pink-and-yellow squares which visually underscore the tension between the cocksure Orton (George Kemp) and the saturnine, self-loathing Halliwell (Toby Osmond), who keeps adding to the monochrome collage that spreads like damp across the walls of their flat. A black sheet placed on the couple’s bed during a funeral scene provides a chilling harbinger of doom.

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‘DOGS OF EUROPE’ REVIEW – ART AND ACTIVISM COMBINE IN BREATHTAKING SPECTACLE ·

(Arifa Akbar’s article appeared in the guardian, 3/13; Photo: A necessary affront … Aliaksei Naranovich and Raman Shytsko in Dogs of Europe. Photograph: Linda Nylind/the Guardian.)

Barbican, London
Fairytale imagery is mixed with absurdist humour in this prescient political thriller in which Russia has become a dictatorial superstate

Given the political history of the Belarus Free Theatre and its overt references to the war in Ukraine in this production, Dogs of Europe cannot be seen as theatre alone. It is art, activism and theatrical disruption, at once.

Having been performed clandestinely in garages and warehouses in Minsk, it feels released on this large-scale stage. Like a genie escaping from a bottle, there is a magnificent eruption of sound and spectacle. Big, haunting, discordant songs and music by Mark and Marichka Marczyk of Balaklava Blues expand to fill the auditorium. Maria Sazonova’s choreography is arresting in its acrobatic drama, with movements like orchestrated military exercises or assaults, and containing a fierce, fulminating physicality. A back screen for projections (with video design by Richard Williamson) begins as a roving camera from a computer game, which gives the show an unstable, lurching quality and seems designed to discombobulate its audience.

Every member of the ensemble has spent time in jail and their orchestrated movements play out street protests, battles, rape and murder. Inert bodies are dragged off stage, time and again. Deliberately cartoonish violence shows characters shot at point-blank range and bouncing back up.

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