Tag Archives: Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre

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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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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