(Mark Lawson’s review appeared in the Guardian, 9/21/2023; Photo: The Guardian.)

Marylebone theatre, London
Set in a Polish ghetto, Dmitry Glukhovsky’s superb play explores the terrible choices made by people under occupation

Only the hardest heart would not feel advance goodwill towards The White Factory. Playwright Dmitry Glukhovsky and director Maxim Didenko are Jewish Russians effectively made stateless dissidents by Putin’s dictatorship and invasion of Ukraine. And the subject is the Holocaust, which culture has a duty to keep current.

Warmth towards a drama, though, must be justified by the hottest creativity, which the play achieves by honouring Jewish dead and survivors while also engaging with today’s Russia and wider politics elsewhere.

Bookended by scenes in 1960s Brooklyn, the play is mainly set in Poland under Nazi occupation. It focuses on the Łódź ghetto which, unlike Warsaw’s and others, initially mitigated the scale of genocide by becoming “indispensable” – as Chaim Rumkowski, a Jewish elder, put it – to their would-be murderers by turning every building into a workplace, creating products Germany craved. The “White Factory” was an abandoned Catholic church that manufactured feather pillows.

While unsentimental about real-life figures – sexual harassment by Jewish leaders is frankly dramatised – the play accepts, as surely viewers must, that their deals with the Nazis were not collaboration but tactical desperation: whatever it took to reduce the death toll.

The troubling guts of the play, though, are the naivety of believing that the lives-for-goods arrangement would be taken in good faith. This theme of the futility of trusting tyrants seems clearly aimed at Putin as much as Hitler, but viewers in theoretically benign democracies are also invited to chew and perhaps choke on the calm arguments about what should happen to a society’s elderly or industrially unproductive people.

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(Kate Wyver’s article appeared in the Guardian, 9/9/23; Photo: The Guardian.)

From the magician who stops his show to serve at the bar to the actor who drives entire plays around in his car, for these theatre-lovers small really is beautiful

When a producer rings up attempting to book a show with a cast of eight, Jasper Blakeley politely suggests they do more research on his venue. Formerly a hairdressers, the Small Space in Barry, South Wales, is the tiniest commercial theatre in the UK, with a stage “no bigger than a parking space”. A cast of eight would be more likely to fit one on top of the other than standing in a row. “People always say: ‘God, it is small, isn’t it?” chuckles Blakeley. “The clue is in the name.”

As long as no one minds getting cosy, 25 people can pack into the downstairs theatre for a show of music, magic and comedy. At the Small Space, bodies adapt to fit the setting, Blakeley explains: “Elbows come in, people move differently.” Like a caravan or a barge, every inch is made use of. When more supplies are needed, everyone in the bar stands up so the seating can be lifted up to get to the drinks, and Blakeley reassures me that you would only bang your head on the freezer hidden above the stairs if you were 6ft 8in or above.

Buoyant and optimistic, Blakeley is one of the extraordinarily determined, almost foolishly ambitious people running the country’s smallest theatres, a group who aim to create wonders with very little room for error. He likens his theatre to the London Underground: “That shouldn’t work, yet somehow we always manage to get in. And there’s loads more room in our theatre than there is on the tube.”

In a climate of budget cuts and the cost of living crisis, keeping a theatre alive is a gargantuan task even for the smallest of spaces. When Simon Carr took over the Little Theatre, a 90-seater venue in Doncaster, in 2014 there was “about £87.40” in the bank, he remembers with a strain in his voice. One more show without a rapid rethink of the finances would bankrupt the volunteer-run space. “I didn’t sleep for three nights,” Carr groans, squeezing the bridge of his nose. “We begged people not to file their receipts until we could pay them.”

The theatre managed to stay afloat. “Financially at the moment, touch wood, we’re doing quite well,” says Alan Clark, who took over as artistic director of the Little Theatre in June. “Every show we’ve put on in the last year has made a profit, however small.” As well as ticket sales of their own productions and the running of a youth group, external hires of the theatre have been a huge success. Musical tribute acts, they’ve found, do stunningly well for both box office and bar, although “you don’t want to be alone on the bar on one of those nights,” warns Jo Chorlton, a former nurse and member of the theatre for the last five years.

The volunteers at the Little Theatre not only act and direct but cover the bar and front of house, too. Last weekend, Clark explains proudly, the team had hosted two sold-out shows and been told that the audience reported never having had a friendlier welcome; they were gobsmacked when they found out the place was run and staffed by volunteers. “For me,” he smiles, “that’s as good a testament as: ‘Oh I saw that play there, it was brilliant.’”

“No one’s ever going to make a lot of money from it,” affirms Sara Ratcliffe, half of the husband-and-wife pair who run the near-miniature Tom Thumb theatre in Margate. “Yes we all have to make a living, but it’s not about that. It’s more about the space being really special.” An old coach house dating from 1896, the Tom Thumb has been an independent theatre for almost 40 years. People clamber over one another to reach the far side of the balcony that rings the Japanese-Alpine architecture. Pictures cram the inside, while a ballooning sculpture of a mushroom sprouts off one wall.

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(Miriam Gillinson’s article appeared in the Guardian 9/15.  Photo: Sensitivity and restraint … Kasper Hilton-Hille and Ruby Stokes in That Face. Photograph: Johan Persson.)

Orange Tree theatre, London
Revelatory performances fill this devastating production of Polly Stenham’s play about a family ripped apart by addiction and loneliness

Polly Stenham’s devastating play is about an affluent family ripped apart by addiction, loneliness and love directed in all the wrong places. This is the first major revival since That Face premiered to huge acclaim in 2007 and it’s an almost sickeningly intense experience, lit up by some stunning performances and Josh Seymour’s finely calibrated direction, which manages to be both stylised and punchy but intimate and truthful too.

In the original production, Lindsay Duncan played mum, Martha, with a hazy glamour – but there’s not a whiff of that here. Niamh Cusack’s Martha is an unequivocal mess. She’s wired, restless, always on the move as she scurries about the stage in a slinky nightgown. Her eyes dart about nervously and her hands reach out automatically for wine, pills, cigarettes and – above all – her son. Cusack’s Martha never asks for our sympathy and, because of that, she gets it. If only for a moment.

‘The remnants of something good’ … from left: Niamh Cusack, Kasper Hilton-Hille, Ruby Stokes and Dominic Mafham in That Face. Photograph: Johan Persson

Martha’s dazed and damaged children are played with sensitivity and restraint by two actors, Ruby Stokes and Kasper Hilton-Hille, on their stage debuts. Stokes keeps her voice flat and her tone resolutely unimpressed, as rebellious and neglected teenage daughter Mia. She buries her emotions down deep but they occasionally give her away as the young girl she so obviously still is – no more so than when she longs for her dad to fly back home from Hong Kong, where he’s shacked up with family “number two”, and save the day.

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(from StudyFinds, 9/5; via Drudge eport)

RAMAT-GAN, Israel — Kevin Bacon, this study is for you! In an exciting breakthrough, researchers from multiple countries have unraveled the mystery behind the “six degrees of separation” phenomenon. You know that game where you try to connect people through acquaintances? It turns out, on average, it really does only take about six handshakes to link any two random individuals in our vast human society. Now, scientists have mathematically can explain why this magic number exists.

Back in 1967, Professor Stanley Milgram from Harvard University conducted a fascinating experiment. He sent around 300 identical packages across the United States with instructions to pass the letter within social circles to eventually reach the intended recipient. Through this experiment, he discovered that social paths connecting people were astonishingly short, typically just six handshakes away.

Since then, similar studies on various social networks, including Facebook, email users, actor networks, and scientific collaboration networks, have consistently shown that the average number of handshakes to link any two people is six. But what drives this pattern?

A recent paper published in Physical Review X by researchers from Israel, Spain, Italy, Russia, Slovenia, and Chile sheds light on the mechanism behind this phenomenon. It all comes down to human behavior and the constant balance between the costs and benefits of establishing new social ties.

People naturally seek prominence in social networks, strategically choosing connections that place them in central positions. However, forging new friendships requires effort and maintenance, which comes with a cost. So, individuals in social networks constantly play the cost-benefit game, breaking old ties and forming new ones to achieve an equilibrium that balances their desire for prominence and their limited social budget.

“When we did the math, we discovered an amazing result: this process always ends with social paths centered around the number six. Each individual acts independently without knowing the network as a whole, yet this self-driven game shapes the structure of the entire network, leading to the small world phenomenon and the recurring pattern of six degrees,” lead author Baruch Barzel, a professor at Bar-Ilan University, explains in a statement.

Breaking down cost and benefit of social connections

The study focused on a network of nodes—each representing a “rational agent” or individual—interacting within a game. These agents can decide to form connections or “links” with others based on two factors — as mentioned, cost and benefit. The “cost” aspect is straightforward. Maintaining a connection with another individual incurs a cost, which may be constant or could vary depending on the size of the network. On the flip side, the “benefit” is measured in terms of an agent’s influence within the network, calculated by a metric called “betweenness centrality.”

Betweenness centrality essentially gauges how essential a node (or person) is in facilitating connections between other nodes. Imagine you’re friends with both a filmmaker and a film critic; you’re central in the connection between these two people. The study adds an innovative twist to this measure by considering the “length” of the path through which an individual connects others, thereby giving a weighted importance to more direct connections.

‘Within this game, every agent continually evaluates whether forming new connections will improve their network influence or if maintaining existing connections is more beneficial. They make these decisions based on a balance between the associated costs and the projected benefits, aiming to maximize their influence within the network.

(Read more)


(Stefan Dege’s article appeared in DW, 8/26; Photo: Honored for promoting cultural exchange with Germany: Taiwanese dramaturge and theater festival curator Yi-Wei KengImage: Willie Schumann/Goethe Institut/DW)

Cultural workers from Georgia, Taiwan and Hungary are being awarded the Goethe Medal by Germany for their courage and commitment but not without controversy.

Georgian cinema professional Gaga Chkheidze will receive the official badge of honor from the German state this year, as will Taiwanese curator and dramaturg Yi-Wei Keng, and the OFF-Biennale curatorial collective from Hungary. The award ceremony will take place in Weimar on August 28, on the birthday of German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The president of the Goethe-InstitutCarola Lentz, will present the cultural-political award during a ceremony.

This year’s choice of prize-winners is likely to cause political trouble, especially in the former Eastern bloc country of Georgia. Gaga Chkheidze, until recently director of the internationally renowned Tbilisi Film Festival, has fallen out of favor with the ruling Georgian Dream Party. After the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, he publicly criticized Georgia for not

Gaga Chkheidze: Cultural bridge-builder

That stance cost him his position as head of the Georgian National Film Center. In addition, he was expelled by the country’s national film funding organization, the Georgian Filmfund. The Tbilisi Film Festival’s office on the site of the old Soviet film studios was closed, film grants were cancelled, and the festival’s budget was cut.

Born in Georgia in 1957, Gaga Chkheidze has always been considered a friend of Germany and a “cultural bridge builder,” and not only between those two countries. From 1976 to 1980, he studied in Jena, in the central German state of Thüringen. In the 1980s, he worked as the director of the German school in Tbilisi and taught German literature at the Georgian capital’s Ilia State University. In 1988, he organized a Georgian film retrospective at the Arsenal cinema in Berlin, for which he smuggled films across the Soviet border in his car. In the 1990s, he was a translator and program coordinator for the International Forum of New Cinema at the Berlin International Film Festival, before launching the Tbilisi International Film Festival in Georgia in 2000.

Tbilisi Film Festival under pressure 

This coincided with the founding of a National Film Institute in Tbilisi, which gave Georgian films a new boost. The budget for film promotion was tripled, movie theaters sprung up, and more and more films made it to international festivals, from Berlin to Toronto. Georgian cinema drew attention from the European film market. “Gaga Chkheidze’s commitment to film is crucial to Georgia’s connection to European and international institutions and programs, film markets and festivals,” the Goethe Medal award jury said in their citation.

Indeed, Chkheidze’s festival concept appealed to both filmmakers and audiences alike. Soon the Tbilisi Film Festival became an international meeting place for filmmakers. As director of the Georgian National Film Center, Chkheidze promoted the digitization and restoration of Soviet-era Georgian films. The preservation of the Georgian cinema heritage is another of Gaga Chkheidze’s achievements. 

But the Russian invasion of Ukraine also had an impact on Georgia. The Tbilisi festival came under increasing pressure, as demonstrated by the firing of its director. “Unfortunately, here in Georgia we are on the front line between democracy and autocracy,” Chkheidze said in a recent interview with Deutschlandradio. There are many signs that political development in the country is heading in the wrong direction,” he said. “It’s moving more toward authoritarianism — I don’t want to say to dictatorship, but totalitarianism, we’ve already had that during the Soviet era. No one in Georgia wants that anymore.” But the danger is real, he said.

Analysts say Georgia is indeed teetering between Moscow and Brussels. 15 years after its war with Russia, the country officially has aspirations of joining the European Union, which is offering the prospect of membership but still denying the country candidate status. “Society is completely divided,” the dpa news agency quotes Tbilisi sociologist Iago Kachkachishvili as saying. “The majority wants to join the EU, but many hardly understand that the road is long.” The ruling Georgian Dream Party claims to be Russia-friendly. Its chairman, Irakli Kobachidze, emphasizes the high tourism revenue from Russians, the equivalent of about €900 million ($972 million). It is true that Georgia’s government always appears pro-European to the outside world, says Kachkachishvili. “But it’s doing nothing to set itself on a course to EU membership; rather it’s becoming more and more pro-Russian.”

Two years ago, the documentary film “Taming the Garden” painted a picture of the situation in Georgian society. In it, Georgian director Salome Jashi tells the story of centuries-old trees that an influential man collects for his private park. 

The man — presumably Georgia’s ex-prime minister and party leader Bidzina Ivanishvili, who made his billion-dollar fortune in the finance and commodities business — remains unnamed in the film. Jashi’s theme is rather the uprooting of people, in both real and metaphorical terms. “Taming the Garden” caused a sensation at film festivals around the world, including the 2021 Berlin International Film Festival. To this day, the film is not allowed to be screened in Georgian cinemas.

The Goethe Medal for Gaga Chkheidze arrives in the midst of this political tangle, Georgia’s struggle for its course between Russia and the West. For the pro-Russian camp, the prestigious cultural-political award could be seen as an affront. To pro-Western factions, the award will be a sign of encouragement. In any case, the Goethe Medal is likely to cause a stir in Tbilisi.

Medals for Taiwan and Budapest as well

Another Goethe Medal goes to Taiwan this year, with curator, dramaturg and translator Yi-Wei Keng being honored. He has brought important impulses to the Taiwanese theater scene, says the Goethe-Institut, including in the areas of experimental theater, children’s theater and theater for people with disabilities. Under his direction, the Taipei Arts Festival has developed into the most important festival for performing arts in Taiwan. Guest performances and co-productions with Europe, the United States and Japan are cited. Yi-Wei Keng has also brought German theater productions to Taiwan, such as those by the Deutsches Theater Berlin, the group Rimini Protokoll and Raumlabor Berlin. Yi-Wei Keng, born in 1969 in Taiwan, first studied philosophy. In Prague, he worked with non-verbal theater. Back in Taiwan, he began working in theater and as an author. Since 2012, he has been artistic director of the Taipei Arts Festival.

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(Mark Fisher’s article appeared in the Guardian, 8/14/2023; Photo: Dark and surreal … Inga Mikshina-Zotova and Roman Mikshin-Zotov in The Last of the Soviets. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian.)

Zoo Playground, Edinburgh

Inspired by the work of Nobel-winning Belarusian journalist Svetlana Alexievich, this is a disturbing but blackly funny piece

Every performance of The Last of the Soviets by the Czech company Spitfire is dedicated to Belarusian political prisoner Palina Sharenda Panasyuk, an activist detained in 2021 for her opposition to the regime of Alexander Lukashenko. “We want to support people who are not afraid to speak out loud,” says actor Inga Mikshina-Zotova at the end of the show.

That seems only appropriate after a performance all about what can and cannot be said in a totalitarian regime. Petr Boháč’s unsettling production is inspired by the work of Nobel prize-winning author Svetlana Alexievich, the Belarusian investigative journalist who has specialised in first-hand testimonies about key moments in Soviet history. In its allusions to the Chernobyl disaster, the Soviet-Afghan war of the 1980s and other military conflicts, the show paints an image of a culture, whether in Russia or Belarus, debilitated by cognitive dissonance, unable to square the circle between national myth and actual experience.

Mikshina-Zotova and Roman Mikshin-Zotov – Russian actors currently living in Prague – play stony-faced newsreaders navigating truth and propaganda from behind a TV studio desk. It does not take long for their facade to crack, or their boosterism to give way to deathly dry gallows humour and violent outbursts. The more their jokes about Chernobyl victims get lost in translation, the more disturbing the reality seems. Mikshin-Zotov decides one joke simply cannot be translated at all and stops trying, leaving only bleakness.

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The words and wisdom of Constantin Stanislavski:

To reproduce feelings you must be able to identify them out of your own experience. But as mechanical actors do not experience feelings they cannot reproduce their external results . . . . Cliches will fill up every empty spot in a role, which is not already solid with living feeling. (AP)


(Natalia Chekotum’s and Liza Pyrozhkova’s video appeared in the Kyiv Independent, 8/8; Photo: Kyiv Independent.)

Launched in February last year, Russia’s war against Ukraine has taken a toll on Ukraine’s culture. Russia has razed to the ground many museums and churches, destroying priceless works of art. So far, Ukraine’s Ministry of Culture has documented over 1,600 cultural facilities damaged or destroyed by Russian forces, but the actual number may be even higher.

As Russian forces blew up the Kakhovka dam, resulting in massive flooding in the south of Ukraine, the water severely damaged the house of Ukrainian self-taught artist Polina Raiko in the occupied town of Oleshky, Kherson Oblast. The Polina Raiko Charitable Foundation is raising money for the restoration of the house.

Visit the Kyiv Independent


(Tim Ashley’s article appeared in the Guardian, 8/19; Dramatic pressure … Endgame. Photograph: Sisi Burn.)

Royal Albert Hall, London
For its UK premiere, György Kurtág’s opera faced a challenge summoning the play’s claustrophobia in this venue, but performances and players were superb

Michael Billington, writing about Endgame in these pages a while ago, once used the phrase “the terrible music of Beckett’s prose” to describe the bitter beauty of the play’s language. In György Kurtág’s opera, the words retain their fierce, lacerating power, though the music extends a deep and ambivalent compassion to Beckett’s characters even as their rebarbative sparring masks fears of decline, isolation, endings and loss. This is not, in essence, the bleak comedy we often find, but a work of pervasive sadness that continues to haunt us after its final notes have died away.

Considered a masterpiece by many at its 2018 Milan premiere, Endgame (more correctly Fin de Partie, as Kurtág uses the French text) has now been given its first UK performance at the Proms by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Ryan Wigglesworth, in a semi-staging by Victoria Newlyn. Playing and conducting, as one might expect, were superb. Wigglesworth dug deep into the score’s detail while maintaining the dramatic pressure throughout, and you couldn’t help but be struck both by Kurtág’s fastidious craftsmanship and the way every verbal and musical gesture tells, often through the sparest and simplest of means. Flaring brass suggested fury, futile or otherwise, and cimbalom taps quietly frayed the protagonists’ nerves. But there were also moments of quite extraordinary beauty, particularly as Nell (Hilary Summers) and Nagg (Leonardo Cortellazzi) lose themselves in memories of the past.

Available on BBC Sounds until 9 October. The Proms continue until 9 September.

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By Bob Shuman

Who is this Shakespeare who needs to be banned in Florida public schools, who dared to write a play called Romeo and Juliet?  Was he decadent?  Was he warped?  Has he really been infecting others with degenerate thought for over four hundred years?  The 2023 Little Shakespeare Festival, now playing at the tiny underground theatre, with bright red seats, UNDER St. Marks (94 St Marks Pl, New York, NY 10009) answers with a resounding, “Yes,” in shorts awash in cross dressers, wigs, effeminate tea-stirring parties, and grotesque morbidity, ad infinitum (there are 74 onstage deaths in the so-called playwright’s works, some count 75—the pyramid death scene, from Antony and Cleopatra takes place in both of the one acts, recurring many times).  The good news is that you can see them all in fifteen minutes (if you must—the entire production takes an hour), in First Flight Theatre Company’s presentation, directed by Frank Farrell, of Shakespeare’s Ladies at Tea or I Thought You’d Never Asp, written by Kathleen Kirk, and Shakespeare’s Deaths, by the Free Shakespeare Theatre Company of Chicago.  The production continues to play on Friday, 8/18 at 6pm and Saturday 8/19 at 7pm

There is always something with which to offend in each Shakespeare play—and, truth be told, this reviewer would not relish revisiting the horrors of Titus Andronicus (although one still wants to have seen Olivier play it).  To “cancel” the work, however, to not believe that people can simply close their eyes, would mean not knowing Shakespeare’s first Black character and one of the first in the language.  Can we actually think of more boring writing than that approved under the totalitarian gaze of thought police, and now being penned by A.I. robots?  Who ever said you have to like every second of a piece of writing, anyway?  Wasn’t there a certain enticement to knowing on what pages the “good parts” were in Lady Chatterley’s Lover?  Perhaps the more we clean up, the more we leave ourselves open to seeing problems appear again and, oh, the provocation we lose.

If it would be helpful to know the kind of language that this banned playwright actually uses, Shakespeare’s Ladies at Tea gives highlights—at a bar, sometimes with a disco beat–you might even find yourself knowing a good number of the lines, which does not say much for the culture.  If providing the titles of the blasphemous works would be helpful, for future banning, here is a partial list:  Hamlet; A Midsummer Night’s Dream; King John; Richard II; Othello; Antony and Cleopatra; Henry IV, Part 1; Henry IV, Part II; Henry VI, Part 1; Henry VI, Part 2; Henry VI, Part 3; Richard III; Romeo and Juliet.

Overzealous societal control takes power out of the hands of the individual, and leaves the gratification to the influencer, whether they be adherents of the left or right.  American theatre can only define itself in terms of politics, demonstrably of the left, but small work has a chance to not see itself in terms of powerful, dominant agendas.  Instead of hand-wringing over Romeo and Juliet, though, why not let students experience it?  Enough of them have disliked it over the years to decide, for themselves, whether they will study it or not.  That’s called democracy.

Although the content is in question, much can be said for the lively direction of Farrell and the spirited performances, in multiple roles, of Stella Berrettini, Joseph Bowen, Danny Crawford, Claudia Egli, Frank Farrell, Imogen Finlayson, Marsha-Ann Hay and Jennifer Kim with Stage Managing by Thomas J. Donohoe II.

As debauched as it all is, some might even call it fun.


(c) By Bob Shuman. All rights reserved.

Press: Emily Owens PR.

Photos: Conor Mullen/First Flight; Bob Shuman.


First Flight Theatre Company


Shakespeare’s Ladies at Tea or I Thought You’d Never Asp

Written by Kathleen Kirk

Shakespeare’s Deaths

Written by the Free Shakespeare Theatre Company of Chicago

Directed by Frank Farrell

Presented as part of the 2023 Little Shakespeare Festival

August 3- 20 at UNDER St. Marks


performances on Thu 8/10 at 9pm, Fri 8/11 at 10pm, Sat 8/12 at 5pm, Fri 8/18 at 6pm & Sat 8/19 at 7pm. Tickets ($25 in person) are available for advance purchase at www.frigid.nycThe performance will run approximately 55 minutes.