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ARCO ARTE – IN THE MARBLE MINES OF MORIA AND MICHELANGELO!

“Lavorare!” comes the cheerful cry from Boutros Romhein, “Work”, as for two happy weeks we chip, tap, grind and hammer away at our sculptures at his school Arco Arte, in the wild mountains of Carrara.  In a two week course, which at around 1250 Euros, including simple accommodation, is remarkably good value, it is the first and very best lesson for aspiring artists in marble.  There is so much to learn about stone, form, tools, style, finishing, and so on, which any real sculptor will tell you takes a lifetime, adding they are always learning too, that you simply have to get on and do it – WORK. But what blissful and consuming work it is.

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Boutros, with that wry smile

Boutros, a charmingly warm hearted and highly regarded Syrian sculptor, who often appears dusted in white like an old testament prophet, has been working in marble for over 55 years.  So by the little stream, in the neck of a valley mined for marble since pre-Roman times, which Boutros is convinced resists any bad energies, a giant mouthless whale, a laconic camel, and an abstract angel are some of the testaments to his passion, knowledge and his skill. In a large workshop below the school the leaves and vines are washed in marble dust too, not harmful – being essentially calcium carbonate, as Boutros and Eric, a young mason from Germany, put the finishing touches to a gigantic, prowling, two-tailed lion, destined for a park in New York State. Now what began as a block weighting 60 tonnes, is refined down to a mere 20!

Up at the little museum in the mountains though, where a sign points the way to the Cavo di Marmi, Boutros, a local celebrity, created all the sculptures himself, over a quarter of a century ago. So testifying to the grinding human reality of life working those marble mountains. Once it was only hand tools, donkeys, carts and back breaking work.  Now something like a thousand trucks rattle up and down the valley every day, far too fast, like all Italian drivers, passing through a special lorry wash to keep down the dust, and cutting machines chug and slice late into the night.  So providing marble to the world, in essentially industrial Carrara, unlike the now very chic and expensive Pietra Santa, not from the visionary hands of a Michelangelo, not for the statues that are everywhere, but for all those kitchen table tops, terrazzi and marble stairs. But interestingly also ground down too and used in agricultural and animal feed products.  You wonder when these mountains then, rising into the Italian blue like petrified ski slopes, will disappear completely, as life and man consume the world. But it proves one thing, marble isn’t bad for you!

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James, Liv, Gina and Barbara at the presentation – schools out!

So comes a drive right into the heart of the mountain, through a kilometre long tunnel that feels like entering the mines of Moria from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. But once inside with the tourists there is no sense of Orc attack, only magic.  A quiet awe descends, looking at these vast internal galleries of negative space, where they sometimes hold concerts, or make sleek adverts for expensive cars. Then, on the other side of the mountain, we drive to the quarry Michelangelo himself used, where perhaps the stone for David, or his immortal slaves in Florence, was quarried.  The municipality will forgive me picking up two little pieces as a special souvenir, ok, nicking them, but then all artists know the dubious nature of valuing any piece of art, or perhaps anything beyond people. After comes a visit to Boutros’s nephew Osama too, at Studio Alnassar, whose own work is remarkable, and who has created a fascinating atelier with two marble amphitheatres, where he holds concerts and talks and breathes the very unique spirit of the place.  There is an awareness of the tragic issues back home in Syria, and Boutros’s brother is also a sculptor, but here Boutros talks the strong stone language of how everyone needs protecting, and a family have long found a new home, and a new or ancient meaning. That speaks a greater language than politics or power, and attracts people from all over the world.

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Boutros, delighted and obsessed with Rascal’s tail!

So we worked on in several languages, and only one, Art: James from Atlanta, on a ten year adventure bucket list that would put a bucket to shame, warm Gina from Wisconsin, Liv from Norway, an enthusiastic French couple, a young man from Japan, two German girls – Silvia a skilled sculptress herself – and me and my special dog Rascal, whose sweet nature and helicopter tail delights Boutros.  I was trying to sculpt a hummingbird, the most delicate of creatures, in the hardest form, and Boutros looked very sceptical as it got smaller and smaller and refused to fly. “No Lavorare – Go to the beach!”. As for the art, Boutros usually denies discussing form, that’s up to you, and if something cracks, or seems wrong, there is another laughing cry, like a question, “In the river?!”  Then all those centuries of work must have seen so many hopes, so many mistakes, so many accidents and disasters, and of course some wonderful revelations, that you soon learn you can’t be precious about it either.   The sculptors I have met here too, whether Arne, a much regarded artist from Norway, or the dashingly marble haired Martin, a famous Hungarian who has moved to America, or Christian Lange in Pietra Santa, are all generous in their spirit, their openness and their understanding.  They know people are having a go, finding a new way perhaps, maybe trying to be professionals too and there is a humility in sharing that journey.  It’s why so many seem to come back to Arco Arte – where Boutros’s lovely partner Barbara also runs a very happy and relaxed ship – older, younger, the group of young German masons learning everything they can and settling for a morning and afternoon coffee, with sugar, no sugar, but then to hear that merry invocation again “Lavorare!”

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The said hummingbird,  by James’s fish, just down the way from his sail and splendid  Bull-pig, almost finished in its translucent majesty and very much for sale, one day!!!!

David Clement-Davies, fortuitously for Phoenix Ark Press, did a two -week course with Arco Arte, in hand and machine tools. To take a course or for more information CLICK HERE

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A FRIEND’S STORY

It was rather fitting to stage a tale of illicit love on an Indian campus in the 1940’s, Vijay Tendulkar’s A Friend’s Story, in the sparkling and superbly intimate atmosphere of the Sam Wannamaker playhouse last week. That supposed replica of Shakespeare’s and Richard Burbage’s covered theatre, just over the river, although the Wannamaker playhouse is right next to the modern Globe. Which, at the turn of the Sixteenth Century, saw a major theatrical transition from the open air rounds of Elizabethan London to more claustrophobic Jacobean stages, a considerable hike in ticket prices and the appearance of candlelight too, the precursor to that famous ‘Limelight’, in this case those two huge candelabra that hang over this exquisite little stage and light the actors’ very internal journey through love and obsession, to betrayal and the search for redemption. One that, since it came to the Playhouse for only two nights, having toured so widely in India, candles adding new shades and shadows to the plainer black backdrop of the original staging, was exciting both for itself, not least because the play caused a storm when it was first produced in India in 1981, and for an insight into this always unusual setting and what it can offer to modern audiences.

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So unfolded a tale beautifully told though, and one avoiding the overtly political, if human relationships are always political, essentially of a fateful love triangle between Mitra, the strident, anguished and very touching tom-boy outcast, always seeking her true place, the manipulative Nama and the innocent hinge of this tragic love story, Babu, at once gentle narrator and embroiled protagonist, played brilliantly by Abhay Mahajan. This sharp six hander is a somewhat old-fashioned story, much as it has been controversial in India for its themes of repressed homosexuality, or more controversially in India,  Lesbianism, so perhaps it found a new poignancy in such a very old fashioned setting. Though it was inevitable too that sitting there I found my thoughts at times drifting back to the true story of the theatre itself and the little revolution it represented in its day.

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A Friend’s Story has been billed as revolutionary, and indeed, in the Globe’s season of Love has consciously been brought here to mark the 50th anniversary of the decriminalization of Homosexuality in the UK.   Watching it in this particular space then highlighted for me the strange revolutions of time and cultures, from that ‘brazen’ age of seething Elizabethan sexuality, indeed Homosexuality especially prevalent in the Court of James I, right through to the murderous repressions of 1940’s morality in India. Although, as the title suggests, it is not essentially sexuality that matters, or precipitates tragedy, but the natural dynamics of affection, identity and especially jealousy that are present in all human relationships, and impact friends as much as lovers.

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Framed by the ever-present theatre of changing social mores, in Shakespeare’s day the revolution happening was a stratification of theatre itself. That also saw actor-writers like Ben Jonson bemoaning the very commercialisation of theatre and the success of places like the Globe, in a world where the audience now sat upon the stage, and paid to do so. Though it was now ticket prices and sharply increasing social divisions, as the Jacobean Court consciously became a theatre of aristocratic superiority, that defined society, the face of what was publicly acceptable and the hypocrisies always beneath the surface, appearing so often in those blood thirsty Jacobean revenge tragedies. Although this play is also billed as Tendulkar’s Greek tragedy it does not have Shakespearean proportions, but was a pertinent choice for such a stage, even if for only so short a time, and a fine little production too.

Kate Macdonald went to see A Friend’s Story courtesy of The Globe Theatre. A Friend’s Story was directed and designed by Akash Khurana.

 

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BOUDICA – REVIEW

“By Jupiter’s arsehole”, but I came out of the first half of Tristan Bernay’s new play at The Globe, Boudica, feeling confused. Was this a masterstroke, to commission a bold new work with such obvious political overtones, considering Brexit, but partly in street-squaddie speak and partly in semi-Shakespearian Iambic pentameter? With the stark backdrop of a bronzed army stockade, to conjure the sense of Roman occupied Britain and a whirlwind of writhing, dancing forms, amid the stage smoke, was I being given a truly filmic experience, as the writer and director seem to have hoped? Yet if so, why was I beginning to feel bored?

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I had high hopes as the female Goddess- narrator first conjures the piece like some Druidical incantation, since the story of the British warrior queen was really rediscovered in the 16th Century, and the sudden interjections of antique modernisms like Jupiter’s arsehole were both funny and seemed to work, at first.  Gina McKee is an actress I love, and as the dispossessed wife of a British King in bed with the decadent Romans, until the soldiers arrive from back home to inject some martial steel, offered a striding, heroic feminism, driven on and justified by Boudica’s own beating and the appalling rape of her two daughters by an entire Roman garrison. The problem was that in fact the language and poetry are just not very good, both derivative and becoming a kind of Shakespearean pastiche, while the play itself is a stockade of non relationships. Where were the quislings, the Britain’s really in bed with the Romans, in love or lust, the cross cultural relationships beyond a Monty Python cry of “what have the Romans ever done for us?”, the grit, grime and high life too, to give these characters any real reality and make this a play?  Bernays should study Christopher Logue’s astonishing War Music, a modern translation of Homer, to see how a poet can make the centuries come alive with thrilling modern resonance.

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For those of us who remember the shock and hoo-ha caused by the National’s production of the Roman’s in Britain though, the nasty bits precipitating revolt and tragic bloodletting just aren’t very shocking, or moving either, perhaps we’ve all seen too much on all those films, and from there the play fails to find a real centre to support all the noise and pseudo poetry, as the drums go on beating. There is some good choreography, Samuel Collings is particularly entertaining as the effete Roman consul in charge of the collapse, Catus Deciamus, and Boudica’s daughters are both great, if they had the lines. I did wake up a little when the entire cast at the start of the second half, again summoning that ensemble player’s tradition, do a thumping rendition of  The Clash’s “London’s Calling’, though as if from absolutely nowhere.  The actors clearly thrilling to their presence so close to the site of Shakespeare’s original Globe by the Thames when they proudly belt out “Down by the River!”  But in the meantime, Londoners were largely Remainers and they felt like actors in need of a cause, or a really articulate voice.

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Perhaps that’s the problem, when you can’t believe that all the skill, artistry, and money of the Globe and some great actors too wasn’t directed towards Boudica precisely because the artistic powers-that-be felt it would be highly topical and highly political too, and yet Tristan Bernays says he is not a political writer.  There seems a problem there from the start, for Shakespeare could be unashamedly political, so much so that his Roman plays directly sounded contemporary events in Elizabethan England and punters flocked to the literally life and death debate. Which is why the RSC did so well to try and make something of Cymbeline and Brexit.

What Bernays is, meanwhile, or wants to be, is a ‘portentous’ writer.  The play aches to be significant and of course the three tribe union and split inevitably echoes all that is going on with Brexit and the Union. But if a point is being made, I couldn’t see what it is. There are no true character arcs, or internal jeopardies, and in the end Boudica is just spikely lofty, though with splendid posture, and disappears back into Myth.  Sure, it calls to a certain atavistic instinct certainly around to tell everyone to fuck off and let rip, it makes great points as a black actress cries “I was born here”, and Roman Britain was more multicultural than we realise. It ends with a portentous note about the horrors to come, as the stockade literally cracks up. But in reality our perceptions of and problems with that Treaty of Rome today have little or nothing to do with whatever really happened in Boudica’s story and Europe is hardly any invading army.   In that the play’s desire somewhere to Brexitly stick it to them too is somewhat irresponsible, while having its cake and eating it, in warning of the darkness below the surface.   But in the end that wasn’t my problem with it, but the fact it doesn’t really go anywhere, misfires some very noisy energies and in the last analysis, to quote the man himself, and his real poetry, “is full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

David Clement-Davies saw Boudica courtesy of The Globe Theatre. For tickets Click Here

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A FAREWELL LETTER TO SIR PETER HALL – RIP

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Dear Sir Peter,

I wrote you a personal letter over 30 years ago,  you were kind enough to reply to, and so generously to say that it was one of the most acute you’d ever read on Shakespearean acting and directing, and since you were in New York at the time, told me to contact your secretary about a meeting.  Alas, I never took you up on the offer, I turned to writing instead, like a fool, and whatever might have happened, never got the chance to meet you.

Now the sad news of your passing has been announced today, I’m sorry I never will get such a chance. Not so sad though, in the sense you were a grand old age, 86, surrounded by  your family and your life and career have been an inspiration to so many.  In the review below we mentioned your directing Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot at The Arts theatre in London, for its premier in 1955, long before you ever achieved the deserved ‘Sir’ and it’s just one of so many astonishing feathers in your cap.  I’m sure the regrets and plaudits will pour in, from so many who knew and worked with you.  But to me, at a distance, you were always an inspiration. A fighter, someone both inside and outside the ‘establishment’, a fierce intellectual, and a man deeply committed to the theatre and the Arts: Director of plays and opera, film critique and of course one of the founders of the RSC.

That is a life worth living, and though perhaps everything passes, and any single play is necessarily ephemeral, the thread of your life and work goes on, not least in another kind of lesson, to seize the day. Thank you.

David Clement-Davies     September 12th 2017  The photo shows Sir Peter on stage with his daughter Rebecca Hall.

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WAITING FOR GODOT – REVIEW – A VERY WORTHY HOMECOMING

This is a beautiful little production of one of the seminal plays of the Twentieth Century, the programme probably rightly claims changed the face of theatre forever, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.  Not least because it opened last night at that great playhouse In Soho, The Arts, where the very first British performance was staged back in 1955, directed by a young and yet to be ‘Sir’ Peter Hall, who said at the time he didn’t understand it,  to a near cultural riot. One audience member was heard to remark “No wonder we lost the colonies”. “The Definitive Homecoming” declares the theatre billboard today, returning Beckett’s name to West End lights by throwing in an exhibition about the play and playright too, and they may have it right, as right as you can be, of course.

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Director Peter Reid’s excellent notes point out the difference between those two gigantic Enfant Terribles of literature, and famous collaborators in Paris, perhaps a little like those aburdist wayfares Vladimir and Estragon themselves, Samuel Beckett and James Joyce.  Namely that while Joyce was a synthesiser, trying to encompass all and everything, Becket was an analyzier, trying to reduce things to their very core.  Indeed, one of his own comments about his little masterpiece Catastrophe, delineating the fate of an actress in the hands of a brutal and omnipotent director, the fate of us all these days, is that drama should be like a sculpture that stands the test of time and cultural change. Of course, time has moved on since 1955, nearly everyone has died, as you do, while Beckettian pauses and ponderings have become givens and literary tropes. But without placing Beckett himself in a reverential fish bowl, it’s Reid’s clear love of Beckett, and he has directed all his plays, and of theatre, that makes this such a lucid and sensitive production.

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In near painted-on, Theatre-Jaques-Lecoque rags, with a famous pair of boots and that theatrical stone and coat-hanger-like tree, and backed by a projected sky and strip of sand that might be the path to Golgotha, or nowhere, which when a blue moon rises turns this piece to something of a Haiku, Nick Devlin’s and Patrick O’Donnell’s marvelous Everyman tramps weave and unweave Beckett’s linguistic and philisophical magic.  We are at once in a theatre, and not, at once inside human consciousness and failing to ever escape, at once with the absurd and the utterly tragic.  Of course Beckett would always smile when critics, agggggh, pondered the ponderous question of whether Godot was supposed to be God, with a long white beard or not, a God that never arrives, and the original, in French, was simply called Waiting.  But I had forgotten that Godot is actually a character that potentially exists inside the structure of the drama, and so begins Beckett’s extraordinary intellectual, philisophical and emotional games, ones that involve a lot of that Comedy too, Beckett so loved watching at University.  Though some of the physicality, in a very physical production, should be worked on.

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Why the adjective beautiful was used with precision though, So Help Me God, is that for me this production so touches Beckett’s profound compassion and humanity, knowing full well the horror and brutality too, his electric wit, but also the core of his own poetry, the shere beauty of his language, that sings out in some of the monologues.  Part of it is the skill of the actors, and all are exellent, Paul Kealyn’s buffo Pozzo horrorfyingly appealing, Paul Elliot’s grotesque Lucky rising to a shattering crescendo when ordered to ‘think’.  Part of it is the tender chemistry between Devlin’s and O’Donnell’s co-dependent tramps, though the little boy should be given a credit, and at times there could be more swordplay, variation, indeed cruelty between Vladimir and Estragon. But another reason is one Beckett himself might not have approved of, in fact proscribed against, namely that Estragon and Vladimir talk in Irish accents, in a show that has transferred from Ireland.  “We are Irish”, says Reid though, and since Beckett too came from somewhere perhaps very Irish indeed, and that is a compliment, maybe that allows the actors to sit so comfortably, so humanly, so beautifully within the text, as players acting their hearts out, and characters that have become old friends. But also because that search for God or meaning in Beckett does seem to rise out of a perculiarly Catholic, Irish tradition, in a society haunted by Religion, while that profound undercurrent of radicalism in the play, also echoes the political realities and tensions that have so plagued England, Ireland and the English Language.  Beckett of course tried to go beyond, to sculpt a masterpiece beyond time, yet this production indeed gives the Master a worthy Homecoming.

David Clement-Davies went to see Waiting For Godot courtesy of ABI Touring and AC Productions.  For tickets Click Here

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REVIEWING THE REVIEWS!! THE STATE

Well, perhaps it should be a new trend in journalism, ‘reviewing the reviews’, but Christopher Stevens’ outrageous, scandalous and completely cynical review of Peter  Kosminsky’s brilliant drama The State on All Four should get the man sacked.  Then if the Daily Mail wasn’t a paper that deals in the poison he headlines his ‘review’ with, which he suggests so wrongly Kosminsky is dealing in, its managing Editor would turn a ferocious eye on grossly irresponsible ‘journalists’ like Stevens, who so clearly looks for the big, tabloid shock, the fake outrage and the peddled ignorance, to further a career that should immediately go down in flames!  Which really should crash and burn, not because Stevens is the kind of fake journalist that the Trump camp pretends to attack, but because the review is so utterly wrong and so completely stupid too.

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Then of course the Daily Mail is the ‘newspaper’ that can make such a farce of its own poison and hate that it fights a little-England campaign for Brexit, then dares to talk so indignantly on the front page about some supposed scandal in Europe, as border issues inevitably arise in France for British Citizens. No wonder not only Trump but all of us are disillusioned with whatever the Media is these days.

The State, which should have been run mainstream on Channel Four, is astonishing, and there is not one moment when it glorifies anything about Isis, fundamentalist Islam, or the extremist community in Syria either, with the focus on British Jihadists who have crossed the line and mostly try to cross back again. It’s take on Isis is frightening, brutal and above all so powerful because it is utterly convincing, deeply humane and above all gets to the very core of a problem with Islam, even deeper than Isis, the separation and subjugation of women, that political division of men and women that potentially divides us all,. With a profound understanding of extreme sexual politics too and the problem with any society that can operate under a supposedly absolute authority, namely Sharia Law.

What is so disgusting about Stevens ‘review’ though, when it bogusly tries to claim that The State is glorifying Jihad, is racist, or whatever he negatively means by ‘liberal’ either in any way, like the garbage Trump deals in, in his populist, bumbling rabble rousing, is that he has thought about nothing, doesn’t understand the purpose of drama and wants to cause outrage in his search to be a voice and get ahead. Stevens does not care, as Kosminsky so clearly does.

But then of course a paper like the Mail would rather this drama had never been aired because its lack of thinking is that if you dare to make ‘them’ human, like all those bloody immigrants, then you’re somehow in their camp. Wrong. If you want to understand and to fight ‘the enemy’, or just understand more and know your own values too, then this is precisely the kind of drama you need, with a deep understanding of Religious longing, the craving for absolute rules, just like the Daily Mail, or a sense of community too, which is such a profound and unaddressed issue in how people are radicalised. But, even inside that radicalisation, for Kosminsky people remain human beings, foul and fair, as they always do in real life, and it is that love of the human, and living drama too, in the face of the Religious and essentially Patriarchal brutality of Isis, that makes Kosminsky such a brilliant writer and which gives this drama such profound values too. He knows and tells us, for instance, that women have never just been simple victims and are as capable of vicious ideology as men, and of course it is women who have enforced traditions around the world like Genital Mutilation. But he constantly seeks for the reality, depth and humanity  of the individual.

The writing, directing and acting in The State are marvellous, the overall identification with the core characters totally harrowing, which just shows how thick the Daily Mail or Christopher Stevens are, and if it is a message that the Mail wants, then The State is completely right as well, which makes Stevens’ review so cynical and facile. Because The State shies away from nothing in really confronting fundamentalized, medieval, extremist Islam – sexual slavery and exploitation, the male desire to be a fighter and glory in manhood and power, of course rewarded by 72 virgins in Paradise, which is indeed glamorous to longing young men and also that intractable problem with any Faith, and the game of horror played in online executions that only sometimes happen. Recruiting on Social Media too, that becomes as much a lie about the reality for the people who have been recruited as anyone else. But perhaps its cleverest moment in dealing, as Kosminsky has talked about, with this ‘Death Cult’, is just a snapshot of the brilliantly acted black female doctor’s return on the beaches of Europe, that so needs a sense of its united values now, with her almost radicalised ten year old son, that makes you care about those real individuals trying to get to, or to return to, a better and freer world, above any statistics or compassion fatigue.  But only to be confronted with the more nebulous values, in one good sense, of our own frightened State, especially if the Daily Mail is anything to go by,  trying to send her back to fight the good fight against ‘them’. But also what a paper like the Daily Mail could make us too ignorant to talk about, or defeat, as it certainly should be defeated.

You can see, especially if you want to name and shame, Christopher Stevens’ ugly, wrong and fatuous review in the Daily Mail by Clicking here    More importantly you can watch Peter Kosminsky’s marvellously intelligent four part drama The State on All Four by Clicking here

David Clement-Davies’ grandfather was Liberal Leader in Britain in 1945 but now we’ve forgotten what dynamic liberalism really means and it’s no wonder when you bother to read ‘reviews’ in the Daily Mail. His grandfather met the German Ambassador on the eve of the war and commented that Evil always contains the seeds of its own destruction.  Nice thought.

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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….

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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.

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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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ROAD – REVIEW

Well, the cast are superb,  John Tiffany’s directing clever and polished, the set designs interesting, and it was an Olivier award winner 30 years ago.  Yet watching Road at The Royal Court yesterday left me strangely empty and certainly depressed.  I think it was a combination of the fact that it isn’t an especially good play, but a series of clever vignettes about life on a namless dead-end Northern Road, with no hope at the end of it, everyone’s road, along with wondering why the self-proclaimed writer’s theatre have chosen to revive it.  When, if ground is really to be broken on Northern divides, inequality, food trolleys or the state of the Nation, we need bold new work on anything from Brexit, to Terrorism or Grenfell Tower.

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Bits of Road are really excellent, both in acting and staging, notably June Watson as  Molly trying to keep up morale in the face of death, and everything else, or Michelle Fairley as the blousey broad trying to woe an astoundingly pissed squaddie.  One she poignantly realises is just a boy, used and abandoned by his country. Throughout the emptiness of British culture, or the eternal power of cheap tunes, is highlighted by a great use of sound, giving us anything from Country and Western to snippets of the darts favourite with the crap prizes, Bullseye.  Something that goes on far too long. The excellent narrator’s dance with a shopping trolley to the sound of the dying bird in Swan Lake strikes a very powerful metaphor about the divides at every level today, and the longing of all too, to be somehow ennobled or transported.

But considering Road was written at the height of Thatcher’s Britain, yet fails to find any narrative direction that really makes it a play, or actually to have an especially powerful political voice either, I was left feeling not only that this was the end of the road, but it was no wonder everyone sold out back then.  Indeed, I started wishing that the ingeneous set design of a reappearing Perspex box to highlight the isolation, but which actually muffles the actors and cuts you off from some really tremendous performances, would morph into the Game show The Cube, not only for the entertainment value, but the potential prizes too.

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But when you give no one any real hope, at least in the struggle, there can be no plot trajectory, no jeopardy and no real resolution.  Perhaps that is half the point, which is why Mike Noble’s excellent frustrated skinhead turns to Buddhism, and, whether it’s in the original play or not, the director ends the show with the cast suddenly breaking into orchestrated Tai Chi. Their only escape, into some healing dance of life along the way.

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I’m all for Tai Chi, it really helps, and the author Jim Cartwright has the voice of a poet, that often takes flight in his monologues. Yet they are only that really, and with the bristling one liners, become a kind of literary and stagified showing off.  But if Road is an investigation into some transforming power of Art, it doesn’t quite convince, or if a philosophical journey into the ultimate hopelessness of the human condition, bring back Becket.  In fact it’s trying to be too many things. The full audience liked it, and it does have its great moments, with some impressive stand-up bed acting.  But frankly, if we’re going to get metaphysical too, I’d rather a bit of Jack Kerouac, and a blast of On the Road, then get on my bike.

David Clement-Davies saw Road courtesy of the Royal Court Theatre.  Road runs until September 9th.  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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