Category Archives: The Arts

AGAINST – REVIEW

It’s hard to know what to write about Christopher Shinn’s much awaited new play Against at the Almeida.  Set partly in a Rocket Factory in Silicone valley, which is really us of course, with a barely veiled reference to the Mars-wards-looking US tycoon Elon Musk, and with a cast worthy of the paparazzi waiting at the door afterwards, the presence in the audience of Mark Rylance too, it oddly failed to blast off. It is good, and the cast at times great, but….

AGAINST

Starring  the excellent and highly sensitive Ben Wishaw as the searching billionaire Luke, given a message from God to ‘Go where there’s violence’, it then has him descending like the Secret Millionaire to explore themes of suicide, isolation, addiction, love, sex and above all American violence, in settings from prisons to the home, as his own inability to build relationships is reflected in his fragile love affair with the excellent Amanda Hale. Considering the play begins with a police crime-scene cordon, removed to reveal a TV set broadcasting the increasing horrors of the World and  a Colombine-style school shooting, you might guess where this is all leading.

Nowhere really. It almost takes off in the second half, and we should have come in with the conversation between Luke and a brilliant black junky whose solution is indeed Mars, and the play’s strength is its attack on stereotypes.  But since it is actually rather an intellectual play, it tries to do too much and gets a bit lost.  Or perhaps it’s telos is we really are all lost, but, if human nature is anything to go by, would be no different on Mars anyhow.

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In that it has great points to make about turning back to look inside at our own natures, our most basic humanity , or lack of it, the empty cults of celebrity and billionaires like Musk too, and is surprising in its attack on supposedly progressive Liberal thinking, especially at the Almeida.  As Emma D’Arcy’s sensitive literature student trying to write a story about her lack of love and connection in her polyamorous relationship is persuaded, or half intimidated, by her supposedly Liberal, gay ex-sex worker professor, played superbly by Kevin Harvey , that she must change the story to really open her mind.  She should have given him Atomised to read.  In a play so much about a search for human intimacy, it highlights how impossible it becomes when even the violent denouement is live-streamed.

In defiance of that is the reappearing bed that urges the central characters both toward loving sex and commitment, a meaning and intimacy everyone is looking for, paralleled by the pair at the bottom of the pile, faced with sexual exploitation, sort of, and working in the food processing department of the much reviled Equator enterprises, in the play’s desire to circle the Globe and all human experience.  It doesn’t make it, obviously, but it has moments of high tenderness, some lovely acting, wit and style. The problem with the Capitalist machine is sounded, and perhaps Silicone Valley and Ayn Rand are to blame for a great deal, but is that really what Against is against, or should we all be getting up against one another even more?  Not with tales of child rapes relayed in one of Luke’s encounters, or perhaps our increasing awareness as a species that helps to paralyse Luke in the first place.  The doubling of characters played by the same actors, like the angry, exploited, exploiting ex sex-worker professor and Equator’s CEO, to place us all in the same system, is a good touch.

AGAINST

This philosophical ramble has some good and convincing scenes, but in throwing in stuff about the repetitive patterns of news, the violence thrown at us all the time, the dislocations of the internet and, in a world where money is King, the search for hope from the captains of industry, who have no more idea than the rest of us, you want to come up against some sturdier and more focused social and political arguments.    Just as the new religious injunction to Luke to ‘Come’ is no pun to hinge a play around, not least because it only works in the English language. But then again, perhaps a playwright’s job is simply to reflect the zeitgeist of his times, and in being lost, it does that.   On the whole, although I commend the cast, Ian Rickson’s directing, and several scenes of high drama, as a play I’m neither for nor against.

David Clement-Davies saw against courtesy of the Almeida. Against runs until September 30th. For tickets Click Here

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KING LEAR – REVIEW

Nancy Meckler’s quirky production of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy at The Globe somehow fails to reach the heights of Kevin Mcnally’s deeply moving and highly original portrayal of King Lear. In a lovely, lucid and rich performance, that at times pierces to the deep heart of such a mighty spirit, wrestling with both the self-imposed overthrow of his kingdom and his own mind, in an apparent search for true love. Reflecting, beyond the savagery and ambition of his bad daughters and the world out there, the ultimate inevitability of impotent old age and death.

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Nowadays though perhaps you have to reach for the program to get to the twin pillars of whatever the supporting architecture is, and here it’s essays on ‘comedy’ and ‘homelessness’. Without droning on about the problems of messages swamping real drama, like that awful production of a Tale of Two Cities at Regent’s Park Open Air, here the same concerns are sounded, but to far better effect. With a troupe of vagrants, who might be actors capable of being Kings or Desperate Men, repossessing a derelict property, swathed in canvas cladding and Keep-Out signs and littered with warehouse parcel cages, where a lot of the most gruesome bits are enacted, though in fact not gruesomely enough. Because Lear is a play about being made to see the horror, inside and out.

I take slight issue with the fact that they then put on a kind of gypsy play, so justifying Loren O’Dair’s mumming, violin-playing Fool and the final masque-dance, though not at all on the grounds that you shouldn’t make Shakespeare contemporary, or even change the text. But because the writer who writers trust above all knew his stuff and when he wanted something to be a ‘play within a play’, like that vital Mouse Trap in Hamlet, he put it in for a reason. Otherwise it’s a given that we’re in a theatre and, above all at the wonderful Globe, in that ‘Wooden O’.

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Setting that aside, the reason it works better is because it reminds us, unlike Two Cities, that ‘migrants’ or the homeless are real human beings, not just yobbish victims, or some easy label either, and capable of squatting, repossessing, threatening or having a good party too. That gives some energy to what ensues, in a play that so wrestled with the terrible social realities of its time and can be astonishingly revolutionary. Phoenix Ark Press has long been writing that the divides of today might be reaching back to the Sixteenth century.

In fact, with the triumph of Much Ado About Mariachi (see review below), the Globe should be reinforced – as it is being – as the stage for actors working in a vital Shakespearean ensemble tradition and interacting with the groundlings. Just as the cast bustle on stage before the audience have barely sat down, or stood up, and exit in similar fashion. The problem is, if you’re going with that, this production does not make nearly enough use of such a space. Which is why I rather woke up when Joshua James’ at times excellent semi-academic Edgar comes into the cage in the pit and smears himself with excrement. It is true at the proscenium level too, where Much Ado became a dance of brilliant invention. But this seems rather flat and oddly stuck behind the fourth wall, I think actually raised, Trump-like, by making something too politically messagy.

Meanwhile to that essay on comedy. Any Stand-Up will tell you biting comedy is the other side of tragedy, that the blackest humour takes you to the Dover cliff edge, and Lear is ripe with it. Perhaps so going for comedy is what frees the cast and Mcnally initially, and in being allowed to be actors too, and makes his Lear so very striking and human. Accessible is the word, in such contrast to Anthony Sher’s at the RSC. In fact you are allowed to like Lear from the start, though perhaps a little too much. But his re-emergence with flowers in his Citizen Smith beret and reencounter with Anjana Vasan’s very good Cordelia are superb.

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The problem is that sometimes the search for the gag becomes irritating. Just as you get why the L’Ecole Jaques Lecoq trained O’Dair is a suitably haunted Pierrot figure, you wonder why a character that is such an essential part of Lear’s and the play’s entire psyche, seems so absent. The biggest case in point though is Edgar with Burt Caesar’s blind Gloucester at the Dover cliff of transformation, throwing away some of the lines for the gag, as if he’s just making it up in improv.

In fact that authoritative flow of language and poetic vision is so much what the entire play is about, held in the longer soliloquies, especially if you’re wanting to justify the theatre itself as almost Sacred Space, revealed by stripping off the cladding. It is a vital rebalancing of both Lear’s and Gloucester un-anchored minds and imaginations, their moral compasses too, and so ours, to rediscover a common humanity and purpose, if it can in. So creating a kind of miracle of hope and balance, in the face of that running metaphor of seeing and blinding, of those inner and outer worlds. There is very much the sense of secular pilgrimage in that act, as there is in the semi-Christian role of Kent, that can’t be got at just by kissing a crucifix, although Saskia Reeves as Kent is generally excellent.

So then the difficulties with this Lear must really rest with the director Nancy Meckler not grasping harder for the intrinsic wholism of the great play, inside its own poetry and consciousness, and how all the characters so ‘talk’ to each other. Lear’s reference to faux-mad Edgar as his Athenian and Philosopher, for instance, are not just quips, but because in the context of a world so turned-upside-down, Poor Tom’s veiled wisdom and pretend madness really does serve that purpose. If you interrupt that internal dialogue of ideas you also interrupt the actor’s ability to connect with each other, as they do in later scenes, like the magnificent confrontation between Goneril and Thomas Padden’s fine Albany.

In that, perhaps the director forgets you can be over democratic too, especially if you need Shakespeare as ultimate authority, in neglecting Hamlet’s injunction to scruffy, focus pulling actors in general to ‘speak the words as I set them down’. Namely as Shakespeare sets them down. The point about that Wooden O, at the very inception of modern theatre, and a new defining of the English language too, is that to Shakespeare the vowels of text and place were almost synonymous and in his case you should always trust the writer’s pillars of wisdom, first through the page then onto the stage.

Just as, while the ‘Stomp’ style use of drums to generate both the storm and war has some effect, it could be done with even more commitment, to get a real street beat and thrill the audience. But more importantly it somehow pushes out that other vital element of Lear – Nature – healing regenerator, or red in tooth and claw. “Thou Nature art my Goddess”. Odd then that for a play they so underline is about being dispossessed, I could not really feel the cold, the wet and really the storm either, even partially in the open air. Which physically and metaphorically echoes the blasted heath Lear’s mind threatens to become, one that is exactly that for so many of the homeless. It is feeling those things, inside and out, for imagination is also how we see the world, yet with such a philosophical maelstrom at work too, that surely makes you reconnect with the plight of migrants and the homeless, after all out in the real weather, and the whole of tricky humanity too. Shakespeare above all was wary of being didactic then and concerned with the magic he wrought on his audience inside the theatre.

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Again, on the nature theme, Cordelia is also a semi mystical and redemptive Nature figure and that is not directed enough. Although, since I think Shakespeare must have nearly touched madness himself, because King Lear so brilliantly explores the agonizing rupture that can occur in the human psyche when the powerful masculine is separated from the truly honest feminine, both potentially inside all of us, some of the supporting relationships are very well played. Emily Bruni is particularly good as Goneril, especially discovering a seething sexuality in Edmund’s vital manhood, and Ralph David’s Edmund is suitably vigorous and in charge of his destiny, for a while. So though, perhaps a laurel must be given back to Nancy Meckler’s making Kent female and having Pierrot take off the Fool’s cap to reveal a vanishing woman too. Perhaps the performances will coalesce more to reach for what must support those two central men though, the King and Gloucester, and which, with Mcnally in the hot seat, might have made this a great Lear.

David Clement-Davies went to see King Lear courtesy of the Globe Theatre. The production runs until October 14.   For tickets  Click Here

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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MICHELLE TERRY COMES TO THE GLOBE, AMID THE SILENT TEMPEST!

Well, when Press people suddenly disappear, and there has been long standing controversy about the resignation of the Globe’s Artistic Director Emma Rice too, who goes to The Old Vic, even coming fresh to the subject you instantly start to pick up little intimations of controversy and discontent, perhaps even a tempest. That and some kind of regime change may settle with yesterday’s announcement of the new artistic director at The Globe, Michelle Terry.

I only hope that Emma Rice’s fight with a very silent Board, supposedly over issues of poor lighting and sound, though Rice has spoken out over how the Board did not respect her, and a transitional relationship between the two directors lasting into 2018, will be made less painful by the new triumph of Much Ado About Nothing, directed by Matthew Dunster.  It was Rice who jumped at the chance to commission this ‘Mexican’ version of the play, and in it all her and Dunster’s best instincts have been vindicated.

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It perhaps throws light on what has been going on behind the scenes at the Globe too, in that unusually Terry has mighty little experience of directing, although is both an actress and a writer.  Something Dunster, by the way, is clearly not, in his current version of Dickens, although we have forgiven him because of Much Ado. Perhaps then, now the Globe has become a worthy academic institution and study source, and a popular destination for tourists too, and you wonder how much a silent Board cleave to such things, since worthies so often know so little about living theatre, there is a clearer line in reaching back to the writer-player traditions of Shakespeare’s day, in an avowed desire to catch the spirit of the place. As Mark Rylance so famously and successfully did at the Globe’s inception.

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However, for now things are on hold because neither directors are as yet giving interviews on the subject. Clearly a sensitive moment, so watch this space. With Terry wanting to find her head the transition may have its stormy moments too, but in this Summer of Love Season, perhaps not. But while being warmly welcomed to the Globe, Michelle Terry should certainly  soak up the glorious vibe of Rice’s Much Ado About Nothing, because that’s the kind of theatre The Globe should revel in.

David Clement Davies reviews Much Ado below.  The images are public domain photos of Michelle Terry, new Globe Artistic Director and her predecessor Emma Rice

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A LITTLE CHAT WITH MATTHEW DUNSTER AND ONE UP FOR THE GLOBE

Well, Matthew Dunster redeemed himself for me last night, after his brutalization of Dickens at Regent’s Park Open Air, with his triumphant direction of Much Ado About Nothing at The Globe.  So, after a little Press party that should put the scruffs at lazy Jo Allan PR, representing the Open Air Theatre, to shame, I was lucky to collar him over his glass of red, after the show.

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Remarkably un-phased by the negative reviews of a Tale of Two Cities, which he claims he never reads anyhow, he talked about the peculiar and rather unnatural pressure point of any Press night and how he had just taken himself out to dinner to avoid the whole grizzly business.  How much too he enjoys the real stuff of theatre, namely rehearsals with both casts. At which point I pompously reminded him that it’s surely about the audiences too, though heaven forbid the critics, certainly a link broken for me in his adaptation of Dickens.

Well, he did say how many shows he was doing back to back, and I didn’t want to be the downer, as he grinned talking about how he and the composer James Maloney had swanned off to Mexico to find inspiration for Much Ado and even made it to Durango.  Not a bad life, but if they had a fun time, and remember Shakespeare’s intimate link with musicians, it breathes throughout his marvellous production. As it says in the programme, and Dunster relayed again, it was an image of Mexican women in Edwardian dresses, but wearing cartridge belts, that gave him a sudden vision of his very off the wall Much Ado, with a subtle attack on Trump’s wall too.

He’s fond of class war as well, so a fitting sally into to the world of Pancho Villa’s revolutionaries. But his remark in the programme is also right, namely that this is no bolt-on message, but a very carefully thought out frame, done with superb designs as well, that serves Shakespeare’s play, rather than the other way around.  So cheers, Mr Dunster, and can I have a job?!

David Clement-Davies and companion were hosted wonderfully by the Globe, and must simply get over Jo Allan PR!

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A MARVELLOUS ‘MARIACHI’ MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING

“Let wonder seem familiar” says Charlie De Melo’s magisterial Friar Francis, and Matthew Dunster’s superbly original production of Much Ado About Nothing at the Globe Theatre should be made familiar to as many people as possible. It’s wonderful.  The steamy snort of a Mexican transport train starts it all, depositing the players before the Groundlings, straight out of the bloody peasant battles of Pancho Villa’s revolutionaries. His female rebels too though, those ‘Soldaderas’ of real history, sporting cartridge belts across their fiery breasts and giving a new voice to the women in the play.

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So Mariachi music, big hats and the threat of maracas, sets your nerves slightly on edge too, wondering if everyone is about to break into a sonnet form of Mejicano. Caramba! No need for nerves, or indeed an over worthy respect for the classical either, in an evening that turns into a visual and sensual feast. This utterly joyous, superbly colourful production is so inventive, so alive and so mercurial too, yet so true to Shakespeare’s themes and the possibilities of what after all is a very peculiar and rather problematic play – in those macho and murderous soldier’s attacks on Hero and the rest – you want to pull down the wall, impeach Donald Trump and get back to loving one another, or at least going to the theatre.

Dunster takes big liberties, sure, because now the malevolent, near Deus-ex-machine figure of Don John is a girl, Don Pedro’s nasty sister, wait for it, Juanita. Gender issues then, whatever they are, (having read my Shakespeare), are on the slab again, to remind us of Dunster’s much praised and hugely popular version of Cymbeline, which he re-styled Inogen.

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In fact, not having read the programme, thankfully, the Trump-Mexico-Wall frame, and Shakespeare uses the stitch-up term, with Dogs Berry the ‘watch’ in the form of Ewan Wardrop’s  swaggering, idiotic film director for the American Mutual Film Corporation, which made a real deal with Villa to film the lot, did not become really apparent until the second half.  When the hand cranked box-film cameras draped in US flags roll out and those poor beleaguered Mexicans all spit on stage at the filthy Americanos.

This production then, which never takes itself too seriously, is exactly the opposite of Dunster’s recent writing follies, with his adaptation of Dickens and A Tale Of Two Cities at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre (see review below). Perhaps a battle there with the director Timothy Sheader. Namely the modern reinvention is not bolt on, as it certainly is there, or tub-thumping either. Instead it’s a wonderfully cheeky and liberated comic conceit, born  of pure instinct, but with thematic integrity behind it too, beautifully realised in Anna Fleischle’s sparkling designs, that frames and serves Shakespeare’s play perfectly and somehow frees up everyone, to both wonder and the familiar.

The actors are really allowed to get down to it then, or to double step floridly up to it, waving their Flamenco skirts at us and each other, or firing their six guns. The entire cast is superb, in a show that is all singing and dancing throughout. Well, an enchanting mix of clever new music by James Maloney, that serenades our swaying journey through that desperate kingdom of love, with nothing as clichéd as Mariachi, and some very beautifully sung ‘Shakespeare’ too.

As Dunster turns Aragon and Messina to Monterray and Durango and Dog Berry’s malapropisms become arrogant American mistranslations, mis-hearings or misunderstandings. Which are also the mistranslations of romantic movies themselves, or the desire to play it heroic.  Much Ado About Noting, the title may have been, noting being false rumour and gossip, which sets the stage beautifully for the black and white film footage, in an age before the talkies, that reveals the truth and reminds you the camera never lies, except in Hollywood.

Of course the play belongs to Beatrice and Benedick, smutty pun intended, performed with such feeling and fiery wit by Beatriz Romilly and Matthew Needham, who Dunster has directed before, to engage us in that ‘Merry War’ of the sexes.  Steve John Shephard is gorgeously arch and wickedly moustachioed as the potentially ambivalent Don Pedro, that patriarchal master of ceremonies and masks, supported valiantly by Marcelo Cruz’s excellent Claudio and Martin Marquez as a Leonato straight out of the Mendoza family in The High Chaparral. But at last the women come centre stage and with Doreen Blackstock’s whip-cracking attack on the men seated on their mimed horses as Antonia, never again so easily dismissed either.

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In this version too, with a dramatic shift towards female power, or nascent revolution, in Villas’ case thwarted and betrayed, yet set against the perpetually comic, almost Fist-Full-of-Dollars backdrop, Much Ado takes on a new pathos and a strange new symmetry too. Suddenly all the ironies, knots and limitations of this threateningly misogenistic soldiers’ play find a united thread, because a woman is liberated into malevolence too, in Juanita, the war out there joining with the war within, in a true dance of lovers. So clarifying just why the magician Shakespeare, working within the mores and male structure of his time, forces Anya Chalotra’s lovely Hero, a name of course ripe with heroic male connotations and hypocracies, to die for love and be reborn, or Claudio to publically mourn her, in the search for his magic and often revolutionary resolutions.

In that the religious context of the play, and Shakespeare’s own peculiar sanctity too, that ‘poet of marriage’ as Germaine Grier called him, is served beautifully by the hyper Catholic-Mexican period framing, the clever and beautiful tying-of-the-knot already undone, and the cult of the Virgin too, though Shakespeare’s is the cult of love.

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I found myself wondering too why men on stilts, with wire horse heads out of War Horse, or pistols fired at tin cans leaping like cucarachas, should so bring a sixteenth century play to life. One reason is that it’s just such fun, those train doors and windows used to lovely comic effect. But the other is that in the setting of the Globe, all the space used too, it’s almost as if you’ve stepped back five hundred years to that age of players and musicians, and that extraordinarily odd but also liberated time, linguistically and even socially, that breathes out of Shakespeare’s utterly instinctive genius.  It is pure directorial instinct too, serving the writer, and the actors, that has made this such a triumphant success.

David Clement-Davies went to Much Ado About Nothing courtesy of the Globe Theatre. The production runs until October 15h .  For tickets Click Here

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JO AllAN PR, REGENT’S PARK OPEN AIR AND WHY THEATRES START TO HANG THEMSELVES!

If the terrible production of a Tale of Two Cities is anything to go by (review below), something is wrong at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre.   My own personal experience of it was not just having to sit through that busy evening though, unpaid, but my handling by the company’s so-called Public Relations people, Jo Allan PR.

Company of A Tale of Two Cities (2). Photo Johan Persson

At first I called the Box Office to try and get Press Tickets, to be given an email by a very helpful member of staff that simply didn’t work.  Then I was quickly fobbed off by Jo Allen PR over breazy reasons that successful productions don’t merit wide ranging Press Tickets, or that allocations were already full.  Except, after pressing, I heard a second Press Evening had suddenly been arranged for A Tale of Two Cities. I now realise it was probably because of a mounting sense of nerves about the show itself, that has been generally slated and in The Telegraph was recently called a clash of two egos, that of the writer Matthew Dunster and the Director Timothy Sheader. I wonder how many egos are at war.

I’m now furious though at further sloppy treatment, as sloppy as that production, first being put on the waiting list for Oliver Twist, but so rudely to hear nothing at all, then having to ask twice for Production photos. I seriously wonder if the reasons for it are deeply related in the culture of the place. Is it the great successes that the theatre has had in recent years, for the magical venue itself, and for Musical productions that have proved great commercial triumphs, that is making them generally so blasé? Or that violent commercialism everywhere is letting them ignore the spirit and work of serious writers and bloggers? To the point where only the voices of the major papers, and those Stars they give, merits proper PR handling, because everything is about platforms. Having worked in box offices too I know how oddly tickets and comps can be allocated.

Both the Globe and the RSC, and I have had little arguments with the RSC, say consistently how that kind of coverage and interest are important to them.  They usually prove it too, although of course they make necessary equations about the depth of the coverage, its commercial value and so on.  Jo Allan PR seems not remotely interested though in the quality of the reviews here, their seriousness, or their wider cultural value either, let alone showing any modicum of general courtesy.  Actually in PR.

I am not only indignant as a highly published and prize winning author, a journalist and also a blogger at the financially very foolish Phoenix Ark Press, which seeks and makes no profits at all. But because I must admit to a vaguely proprietorial interest in the Open Air theatre too, having aeons ago been House Manager there for two years, after training as an actor myself.  So what makes my blood boil, in being so casually dismissed by the Jo Allan PR girl, who I doubt has ever had the commitment to the Arts I’ve shown, in everything I have done, let alone swept the tiers and screwed in the bloody chairs where ‘her’ audience now put their bums on seats, is that they simply no longer care and so make only commercial equations.

Of course they must make money, of course the Arts are difficult and always underfunded too. But when theatres throw it all up for profit alone, or obvious coverage, then a company starts to lose its soul.  Because actually, and precisely what is wrong with the assumptions and easy politics in A Tale of Two Cities, it is not all just about money, or must not be, but the quality of thought, art, acting, interest and above all writing surrounding it all.  That’s what gives the Arts connection with an audience or indeed critics who can be as passionately hungry, engaged, or disappointed as they are.  Regent’s Park might well pause this season then to evaluate precisely what it is doing, what its wider values are too, or whether such PR people also deserve a little taste of the guillotine, or the rope. Perhaps I should go back and tell them!

David Clement-Davies is not invited to any other productions at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, so frankly won’t be going. The photo shows the cast on stage hanging themselves.

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A FAIL OF TWO CITIES – REVIEW

It’s heart may be in the best of places, but it’s only that magical Open Air setting that just about saves Matthew Dunster’s adaptation of A Tale of Two Cities from being the worst of times.  Three huge revolving blue cargo containers set the alienating modern scene in Regent’s Park, then hit you over the head with the message that those 18th Century emigreés from France’s Revolutionary Terror are now today’s tragic migrants on the borders of Brexit Britain, warning us of blood.

Claire-Louise Cordwell as Mdm Defarge. Photo Johan Persson

Meanwhile the implication that we are all on the unstoppable Super Tanker of the Nasty Rich is symbolised by the figure of Monseigneur, dressed like Elton John, riding the metal juggernaut of capitalist brutality through Paris, then and now, mowing down the peasants, so perhaps we’re all in this together. Not me, I’m afraid.  Call me an old bourgeois, and perhaps it was the sloppy treatment of a much-loved classic, but bring back Shakespeare, apparently now banished from those leafy groves forever.

With the play and programme notes throwing in anything from Donald Trump to Grenfell Tower to be relevant, when the story is so obviously relevant, we are served not with a real and potentially smouldering drama, but modulated in its scenes, moods and social levels, so allowing for various kinds of empathy and the grand build to that eventually thundering Dickensian social rhetoric. Instead we get a hefty kit pack of modern tricks, poor improvisation and lazy messaging, highlighted by images cast on two pointless screens referencing Teresa May, Trump, or weirdly the chariot race in Ben Hur. The show may have heart, but has had its head guillotined from the start, like the rubbery decapitation that signals the horror.

Nicholas Khan as Monseigneur. Photo Johan Persson

The production is as sloppy as its political assumptions too, for just as it is right and very timely to highlight traditions of British tolerance and legal protection, in a country once a proud refuge of the refugee, it also seems irresponsible to assert that there is some easy equation between The Terror that succeeded the French Revolution and religiously motivated Fundamentalist terrorist attacks in Manchester and London.  Or perhaps we need a  play truly dealing with Grenfell Tower, burning in London’s richest Borough, that does explore the relationship between poverty and the failure of social, religious and ideological integration and also made the Tower a centre of Muslim immigrants.

A Tale of Two Cities becomes more accessible in the second half,  and there is no doubt crusading Dickens could be a man to sound the crises of the hour. But in an exhausting splurge of ensemble acting, with ponderous chapter announcements to bring needed narration, and give supposed dramatic impact too, that just become irritating, I was left feeling how much this falls down in comparison to the RSC’s famous, astonishing production of Nicholas Nickleby, so it can be done well.

There actors were allowed to breathe, explore and bring to life the very texture of a rich Dickensian novel, his marvellous characters and language too, lost here in easy modern effings and blindings  and meagre narration.  The magical changing of clothes is the actors’ very art, which also involves the changing of class and status, of place as well, that tests or reveals their ultimate humanity. Precisely the point of a tale of two cities.  Here the over small cast are encouraged mostly to be the threatening mob, or the tragic and angry container victims, which is only one element of that story and itself can alienate. 

This has no subtlety then, and no real modulation of human experience either. Where too in Fly Davis’ designs are those Capitals of degradation but splendour as well, London and Paris, that  also created the comforts, ideals and intimacies of those essentially middle class heroes, the Manettes, but also attracted and attract migrants, political and economic, in the first place?

Nicholas Karimi as Sydney Carton. Photo Johan Persson

So to the conscious voiding of Dickens’ famous identity trope,  the physical similarity between Sydney Carton and Charles Darnay, née Evremonde, that reviled name that suggests somewhere the world is ever thus, so securing Darnay’s release from court in England, on false charges of espionage. That was the political threat and paranoia here at the time. With a black and white actor, Jude Osuwu and Nicholas Karimi, who, though both good, look nothing like each other, it certainly serves the purpose of ensemble acting and insisting we are all human beings under the skin. The problem is it voids Dickens’ interest in the swings of fate, in character and in clever plotting, that help him describe the injustices and vagaries of real life, while ringing the human heart-strings.

In not even attempting to be convincing, or make it important though, suspending far too much disbelief, firstly it gives absolutely no chance for dramatic tension later. But so it comes to reflect the writer’s general laziness and lack of concern for presenting truly realistic and moving human relationships, in a deepening play that might make us really love and care about the fate of the characters. The encounter between Carton and Lucy Manette, for instance, Mariéme Diouf too wooden or just not given the script to capture Lucy Manette’s enormous courage and enduring loyalty for her father, just doesn’t earn its spurs. So it fails to persuade us of Carton’s redeeming love for Lucy, vulnerable in her fainting but no easy victim, and through her Darnay too, especially a love that could make the ultimate sacrifice for both of them.  Karimi’s performance is the best thing in the play, but if you are making points why not have a black look-alike play Sydney Carton instead?  As my companion said though, in the general meleé, if he had not known the story, he doubted he would have had a clue what was going on.

As importantly though, ignoring what happens in court and why, testing our credulity over it, voids one of Dickens’ novelistic obsessions, and an English obsession too, the imperfect but also necessary processes of Law, founded in vital aspects of fact and proof, of presumed innocence too, so dismantled to allow for the mechanism of The Terror in the first place. A process that has been true of Revolutions from Robespierre to Stalin and Pol Pot. Carton himself is after all a brilliant but disillusioned barrister, and it is not just the rage of the mob that threatens the characters, but malign human agency and lies in the figure of the paid double-agent Barsad pointing the finger. Just why that trick of identity – and eye-witness accusations are notoriously unreliable in Law – becomes so important.

Company of A Tale of Two Cities (1). Photo Johan Persson (1)

Moments are good, like the weary, tragic procession of immigrants on the revolve, falling by the wayside, or trying to find some kind of home. The final execution denouement just about works too and almost touches Dickens’ always eloquent humanity. Claire-Louise Cordwell, knitting those ultimately arbitrary and bloody revenges in Dickens’ brilliantly captured historical symbol, seen with a jourbalist’s eye, is a good actress,  though she doesn’t make Madame Defarge nearly nasty enough.  Patrick Driver is subtle as Dr Manet and works hard, Kervork Malikyan stands out as the loyal lawyer Lorry and Nicholas Khan makes an amusingly vile Monseigneur, but is underused. For a moment Sean Kernow’s angry description of a little girl’s death touches the agony of real poverty and pain that migrants and others experience here and around a world where sadly there are a lot nastier things out there than cargo containers.  

But over all, especially in a Brexit torn country that seems as confused as this production, in a world of the doubling inequalities of Super Capitalism since 2008, and with economists saying Brexit may not only make us irrelevant on a world stage but, by impoverishing, raise fear and mistreatment of immigrants further, frustrations not with the message but with the art make me misquote Wordsworth on Milton – “Dickens, wouldst thou were living at this hour, England has need of thee.” 

David Clement-Davies went courtesy of Regents Park Open Air Theatre. Timothy Sheader’s production of A Tale of Two Cities runs until August 5th.  For tickets Click Here

 

 

 

 

 

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INTRODUCING SOME GREAT, BIG AND VERY BEAUTIFULLY GEOGRAPHICAL TREES!

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They stand at the heart of that oddly adult Children’s Classic The Little Prince: The mighty Baobab trees.  The first I met, several in fact, bloomed wonderfully, grotesquely and inspiringly in the Kalahari, at the tourist camp in Botswana, Planet Baobab. The second was the sad sight of a fallen giant, the legendary Chapman’s baobab.  It tore apart and collapsed after the hottest day ever recorded in Botswana, for those Global Warming sceptics, on January 7th, 2016.  Much more to say on that, or Green’s baobab,  we sloshed over a kilometre to reach, through unusually waterlogged ground this February, with excellent rains this year in Botswana. But for the moment you can see some of the ideas, the Art and the ambition too around them in an article in Geographical Magazine, Just Click Here. It’s the start of a great adventure, and if you’re a traveller, a tree lover, indeed a tree hugger, or just like great stories, then do please Like, for more tales and blogs of the wonderful creatures.

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The photo is of a very healthy Chapman’s baobab in 2014. The second picture is a drawing by the artist Arabella Caccia.

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SUPPORTING THE KALK BAY ARTISTS!

Phoenix Ark are very proud to be supporting and promoting a group of four great artists in South Africa, who have founded a little Collective in Cape Town’s beautiful Kalk Bay, at The Kalk Bay Artists Collective. There Chris Bladen, Pete Strydom, Arabella Caccia and Jean Tiran now have their own workshops, but a lovely gallery space too, currently by invitation, to help support each other and to try and challenge the Gallery system too.

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Chris is a highly renowned fish and wildlife sculptor, whose almost scientifically realistic fish, birds and animals stem from his own love of sports fishing and the environment. They sell around the world.  He is also a superb jeweller. Pete is self taught, but his passion and wit ring out, and his sculptures range from gorgeous sunbirds to humorous modernist camels. Arabella is both award winning painter and sculptor whose work has auctioned at Southebys and, like all of them, is deeply inspired by nature and the shapes inside it, especially trees, to capture the vivid colours and forms of Africa. Jean Tiran is the Master Craftsman of the workshop, but also a wonderful abstract sculptor in his own right. To see them, their Mission Statement, their website and their work, just Click Here

Phoenix Ark and the artists are keen to build long term relationships with buyers, not least because work can be finished to detailed orders and editions.  Links to individual websites can be found by clicking above.  For International clients, even with the costs of shipping and tax, the work still represents considerable value. To contact them you can write directly here, to The Collective or to the artists individually, via the website.

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The Artists of Kalk Bay

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“Ya, artists of all kinds flock here” says Arabella Caccia, as we look down on the skillful little milk swirl paintings of some very convincing birds floating in the top of our cappuccino in Ohana café. A distant descendent of the model for Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa Arabella tells me about the never so fraught life of South African painters and sculptors. Of course here it is as tough to survive, let alone make it, as it is for any artist, probably made more so for a white half-European like Arabella by the moves towards ‘decolonialisation’ that have dried up municipal commissions and been encapsulated by the recent ‘Rhodes must fall’ campaigns.

The difference being that as the little single rail metro train chuggs along the sparkling coastline, it’s commuter carrying coaches covered in garish graffiti, roughing it in Kalk bay, Cape Town is a much more pleasant place to do it than many. I have penetrated deep beyond the so called ‘lentil curtain’, south of the city toward the Cape of Good Hope, to visit what might be described as the Greenwich Village of Cape Town. It is just edging toward High Season when tourists descend to enjoy churning turquoise waves, cloud curled blue skies that turn every day into an impressionist painting, restaurants, coffee bars and the many curio, antique, art and souvenir shops that crowd the Main Street.

Like Africa, Kalk bay is a very colorful place, and some lively and appealing art work leaps out at the eye. The witty, highly glazed Greyson Perry style ceramic pots in the window of the gallery Agapanthus, one emblazoned with the jolly motto ‘Holy Shit’. The landscapes, portraits and abstracts that pop out of every window, like those of the appropriately named Artvark. The huge hammerhead shark ever flicking statically past the little Shark Centre, fashioned out of endless strips of galvanized tyre, and bolted together with a thousand screws – recession-beating stuff back in the day, considering the price of casting bronze. On street corners poor Africans try to compete with their touristy trinkets – animals fashioned from twisted wire, metal friezes of the townships crafted out of old coke and beer cans, and piles of bangles, bracelets and beads. They are an echo of the finer but also tourist orientated African artwork on sale on the roadside near tourist destinations; endless animal woodcarvings of giant giraffe, elephant  or hippos with seats for open mouths, but also the often very skilled polished stone carvings, also commonly on sale in places like Kirstenbosch botanical gardens.

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Considering how much is around, everywhere, you wonder how anyone makes a proper living, but then there are the more experienced fine artists like Arabella Caccia, or Andrei Stead, whose interesting sculpted human half-cutaways  being appreciated in the Christopher Moller Gallery in the centre of town. Nearby at the Everard Reid gallery they were celebrating their 20th anniversary by inviting a young curator to stage an exhibition that was all student-style installations and anguished videos that did not do it for me. They are places it is important for any artist to cultivate and yet with the very high percentages galleries take, perhaps Arabella and her colleagues and friends have come up with the perfect solution. Near always popular and very artsy Olympia café and bakery, that thrums with locals gorging on some of the best seafood in town, they now share studios, foundary and their own gallery too, a hopeful and enterprising solution to any artistic woes.

Four artists work out of the space, Arabella Caccia, bearded Jan Smutts look-alike Jean Tiran, his green motorbike parked in the forecourt, whose fine abstract bronzes and stone carvings also adorn the space, and who doubles as the bronze caster, patina specialist and master craftsman, and ex dentist Chris Bladen, who does some wonderfully realistic bird and fish sculptures. The whole place is owned by a former salvage diver Peter Strydom, whose often humorous bronzes add a fantasy element to the enterprise. Not yet open, their pieces already dot the airy main room, and adorn the long table where they plan to host several dinners to encourage interest. The problem for any artist is their engagement with their own work and unwillingness for the hard sell or to act in the role of gallery owner, even here, which is itself a full time job. Thus their mutually supporting enterprise is unlikely to replace the need to exhibit elsewhere too, while at times they do face the odd complaint from neighbors. The week before I had seen some of Arabella’s lovely symbolist sculptures in the beautiful gardens of Grand Provence winery in Franshoek, which is also showing her paintings in their dedicated gallery. But now their outfit at Kalk Bay is not only a great place to work and be, but a certain place to exhibit too.

Arabella Caccia, who until recently had her studio in her little garage at her home in Kalk bay, is clearly delighted with the new space, not least with the company and working with people she clearly likes. Art can be an isolated business. But now, achieving new success at places like Grand Province, and still hugely interested in the art scene in Central Cape Town, as well as galleries in London, New York and abroad, she is really able to spread her wings. “It’s freed me up for new ambitions and dreams,” she says as she gaffers a giant piece of artist’s paper to the wall, soon to be blooming with a livid Rothkesque red. Arabella has interest in many artistic forms, a firm believer in knowing the classical rules before you break them, and her wonderful oils of often isolated and ethereal yet also grounded woman provide a powerful contrast to the fine masculine sculptures in the gallery. But recently she has developed a series of images and colours she half jokingly describes as ‘visual Haikus’, inspired by her time in the Tsitsikamma forests east of Cape Town. In the forms of tree bark and flowers she is finding shapes not only echoed throughout nature, but also in human lettering itself. Formed into wax casts too by the crafts men and women in the attached workshops she is also turning the shapes into some highly original sculptures. If what I have seen in Kalk bay is anything to go by she and her colleagues are about to take wing.

The photos show the work of united artists Arabella Caccia, Jean Tiran, Chris Bladen and Peter Strydom in their new gallery space on Windsor Street, Kalk bay and work in progress in Arabella Caccia’s studio.

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