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Posts Tagged ‘Brighton Festival’

We used to see a lot of US playwright Richard Nelson’s work; he wrote or co-wrote eight plays in eight years between 1989 and 1997 for the RSC. Of late he has been working with the Public Theatre New York, with the four-play Apple family cycle and now the three-play Gabriel family cycle, a fictional family in his real home town of Rhinebeck, New York. The plays cover eight months in 2016, ending two hours before polls closed at the presidential election.

Each play takes place in real time, in the kitchen of the Gabriel family home, with the same six characters, each time preparing a meal. In the first play they are gathered to scatter the ashes of Thomas Gabriel, husband of Mary, son of Patricia and brother of George and Joyce. His first wife Karen is in attendance, as is George’s wife Hannah. Patricia now lives in a home. It’s the day after Mary’s birthday in the second play, as the extent of the mother’s debts becomes clear, they try and work out how to deal with them and Thomas’ first wife Karen has moved into the house with third wife and widow Mary. Mother now has to share a room in the home. By the third play, the house is on the market and everyone is making plans to move on. It’s election day, but we end before polls close and the result is known. As a family of liberals, they wish for and hope for the right result, though not 100% confident in their chosen candidate.

The political situation only creeps onto the last third of each play; until then it’s a gentle Chekhovian family drama. They aren’t political plays as such; the election is a backdrop, though the issues of our times are in the foreground. Staged virtually in-the-round, you feel very connected to the characters. It’s one of the most naturalistic things I’ve ever seen. It’s a slow burn at first, but it draws you in and by the third play I was impatient for it to start. The six actors have been with it for over a year and they appear to have by now inhabited their characters. Meg Gibson, Lynn Hawley, Roberta Maxwell, Jay O Sanders, Maryann Plunkett and Amy Warren are all wonderful.

After a hesitant start, I became captivated in the Gabriel family story. Great theatre.

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You can always rely on an arts festival for a quirky off-the-wall experience or three, and Brighton has a good track record in recent years. Last year I was communing with Shakespeare in an allotment, then going undercover for the police. 

This year was meant to start aboard a boat in Shoreham, but unpredictable tides meant it was relocated to Brighton Marina, an architectural eyesore if ever I saw one, which didn’t really feel like the right home for such a festival event. From here we cruised / bobbed around the English channel close to the harbour, with a trombone fanfare as we left and returned. It was meant to be in silence but my six fellow passengers knew better of course. Five Short Blasts Shoreham was effectively a soundtrack of the sea which included the people of Shoreham talking about their relationship with it, but we weren’t in Shoreham any more. As well as chatty, it was choppy, and I couldn’t help thinking how much better it would be without the relocation and without my fellow passengers.

I took in two multi-screen video installations en route to the next event, one called Virgin Territory, dance pieces by Vincent Dance Theatre exploring the downside of children’s obsession with their phones and social media, and the other talking heads telling their stories as outsiders in Turkish society, They/Onlar by Ipek Duben – both very good. Then it was Collisions by Lynette Wallworth, my first Virtual Reality experience – a twenty-minute film of an indigenous community in the Australian outback and their history and experience of nuclear tests. Without specs it was a bit blurry, with them it was steamed-up, but an interesting though somewhat disorientating experience nonetheless.

The final show was an illuminated walk in the woods with sounds, called For the Birds. By the time I got there it was raining fairly heavily. The thought of shuttle buses there & back, 80 mins walking in the rain, and then facing the closure if the M23 on the way home, with the consequential diversions, overwhelmed me and I abandoned it, though I’m hoping to catch it when I’m there again in 10 days time.

I’ve had better festival days…..

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For this second Brighton Festival site-specific, immersive show, I was texted with the location just twenty-four hours in advance It soon became obvious that nine of the others at the same place were there for the same reason. We were soon texted another location around the corner. This was the Ops Room where we were given our instructions to go under cover on a mission to infiltrate a domestic extremist group and get information about individuals within it. We were split into smaller groups and given directions to our next location, a nearby pub where a party was in full swing, band playing and bar serving drinks.

I mingled, approached and talked to people and eventually found my ‘target’, who after much persuasion introduced me to someone else who recruited me. After a while we were instructed to leave and meet our handler for a debrief. What was clever about the piece is the choice of a group unlikely to appeal to people attending such an event, so you didn’t automatically sympathise with them. Though I was a bit nervous during the briefing, I found myself adopting my chosen persona and getting drawn in to both the group, saying some shitty stuff that would never normally pass my lips, and the mission itself. When we were thanked for the info. we obtained, I felt strangely proud of my undercover skills!

It was a rather sociable experience as you worked in small teams and spent a lot of time talking to people, albeit most in character, though it wasn’t at all clear who were ‘audience’ and who were the 30 or so real ‘actors’. Like the brilliant BBC series Undercover, it certainly made me think about the whole issue.

 

 

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My insatiable appetite for site-specific and immersive theatre took me to Brighton on a sunny May day for two shows. This was the first.

It started on a bus fueled by used cooking oil. The man in tweed was handing out winner’s rosettes. I was third in the onion over 250g class. When we arrived at our destination we learned it was where eccentric 19th century Shakespeare scholar James Orchard Halliwell-Phillipps (HP) used to live in a warren of mock tudor huts. From here we walked along the edge of some woods to a mini-lecture by an expert on HP, Charles Nichol. Along the way, we encountered a mute HP and glimpsed strange creatures who looked like trees.

The main event was a sort of treasure hunt through the lovely and very much active Roedale Allotments, in a small valley descending from what must be Brighton’s highest spot. We went individually in search of twelve allotment huts, each representing a different month, each with a plant referred to by Shakespeare growing in a pot with an accompanying postcard to add to our collection, a quote from the respective play written on a mirror and a knitted Shakespearean character. It ended with tea and cake and our final encounter with HP and the creatures, before the bus took us home.

It wasn’t until the end that I realised its deviser, Marc Rees, was the man behind NTW’s wonderful celebration of Dylan Thomas in Laugharne in his centenary year (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2014/05/07/raw-material-llareggub-revisited). Both were delightfully quirky and eccentric events. This connection of a Shakespeare scholar and his home with Shakespeare’s plays and his enjoyment of growing was charming and a unique celebration of Shakespeare 400.

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By the time Ivor Cutler crossed my radar in the early 70’s, he’d been performing for a couple of decades but was now reaching people half his age thanks to the late, great John Peel singing his praises. Though he amused and fascinated me, I can’t say I ever became fan, more of a curious onlooker, but he stays with me in his contribution to Robert Wyatt’s Rock Bottom album, his performance as the bus driver in Magical Mystery Tour and, more recently, some Mark Morris dances set to his words and music.

It’s almost impossible to describe his oeuvre. He was a poet, humorist, singer (of sorts) and musician (with his trademark harmonium). He spoke in a deadpan mild Glaswegian accent, though he lived from his 30’s to 80’s in London. This Vanishing Point / National Theatre of Scotland co-production perfectly captures the essence of his eccentric, absurd, somewhat surreal uniqueness.

They talked to Cutler’s partner as part of their research and the first meeting provides the show with its starting point, Phyllis King becoming a character. What follows is a series of biographical scenes, taking us from his childhood (he tried to kill his baby brother when he was three!) to dementia in his final years, interspersed with songs, poems and other writings. Sandy Grierson’s Cutler and Elicia Daly’s King are joined on-stage by five multi-instrumentalists who provide sounds and voices as well as music. It’s a very charming homage, as quirky as the man himself.

The show visited Brighton as part of the festival and it’s perfect festival fare, attracting a very healthy audience for a Sunday matinee, accessibly priced. It has now become England’s biggest festival covering the whole month of May, with 750 shows (though still only a third of Edinburgh in 10 days less). Work like this suggests it’s time I gave it as much attention as the other one.

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Contemporary Music

Eliza Carthy & Jim Moray’s double celebration at Union Chapel could have been so good. My favourite venue, a great 13-piece band & good song selection from Carthy. Sadly, when the whole band played, the sound just wasn’t up to it. Her voice and fiddle were often buried, I couldn’t make out most of the lyrics and it was hard to pick out individual instrumentation; in short, a shit mix. They seemed surprised and upset when they had to abandon two or three songs at the end because of the Union’s curfew; something that must have been known to the promoter (Barbican Centre) & could have been easily overcome by shortening the 30 min interval. A lost opportunity.

Classical Music

I’m not sure ‘staging’ Britten’s Canticles added that much, but it was very compelling and atmospheric. Two used dance, one acted out a scene, one had a giant film on the theatre’s brick back wall and one just used light. The music was however gorgeous, with Ian Bostridge singing all five, a stunning duet with Iestyn Davies in one and a trio, adding Benedict Nelson, in another.

Opera

Ballo, Opera Up Close’s latest offering, moves Verdi’s A Masked Ball from an 18th century Swedish court to a 21st century Swedish retail outlet on the North Circular. It’s heavily edited and the whole score is played on one piano, but most of the singing is good and it works, though it tries a bit too hard to be cheeky and irreverent and gets close to sending up the opera. Fun, though.

Dance

I much admired the Royal Ballet‘s Hansel & Gretel. Set in 50’s US – think Hitchcock’s Psycho – with a superb design by Jon Bausor, atmospheric music /soundscape by Dan Jones, original choreography by Liam Scarlett, great characterisations and excellent performances by all six dancers. You wouldn’t want to take a kid to this, though, as it’s as dark as they come with themes of abduction and hints at pedophilia. My one reservation was that there wasn’t a lot of story for 100 minutes of dance-drama.

I’m very fond of David Nixon’s unique dance dramas for Northern Ballet and The Great Gatsby is one of the best. There’s a lot of story to get over without words and the programme synopsis was essential. It looks gorgeous in Jerome Kaplan’s simple but elegant design. I loved the Richard Rodney Bennett compilation which included jazz, songs and period pieces like The Charleston. It was beautifully choreographed, including party dances, romantic moments, mysterious figures and fights. Great stuff.

Film

How disappointing Pedro Almodovar’s I’m So Excited is; such a slight piece. Carry on Flying in Spanish! It had some funny moments, enough for an episode of a Sit Com, but nowhere near enough to sustain a 90 minute feature. After The Skin I Live In, this is the second disappointment in a row from him.

In contrast, the new Star Trek film turns out to be the best yet. Benedict Cumberbatch is a great baddie, Simon Pegg an excellent comic Scottie, the 3D is exceptional and the addition of humorous touches works well. The best BIG action film I’ve seen in some time.

Exactly one week after being impressed by the ballet of The Great Gatsby, I was disappointed by the film. It should have been the perfect choice for not-very-prolific Baz Luhrmann (5 films in 21 years!), but apart from the performances it was a big let-down. Achingly slow, design that looked like CGI and dreadful 3D.

Art

Souzou: Outsider Art from Japan at the Wellcome Collection was a fascinating peep into the minds of those within social facilities in Japan; untrained artists using art as therapy. From paintings to drawings to sculpture to textile work, sometimes obsessive, often original and always skilled, it’s a rich collection that should be seen – and very different from a similar exhibition I saw in Milwaukee last year.

Another good and varied selection for this year’s Deutshe Borse Photography Prize on show at the Photographer’s Gallery – B&W pictures of deprivation, images of war set to Brecht’s words, voyeuristic views of prostitutes plying their trade on roadsides and a surreal review of the aborted Zambian space mission!

It’s always a good idea to add an hour to a Chichester theatre trip as it gives you the excuse to visit the Palant House Gallery which has a fine collection of 20th century British art. The bonus last time was Frida Kahlo & Diego Riviera; this time it was a comprehensive retrospective of Ralph Kitaj, the hospital drawings of Barbara Hepworth (which reminded me of Henry Moore’s war drawings) and a room of Paul Nash drawings & memorabilia. Lovely combination in a lovely space.

Treasures of the Royal Courts at the V&A was another of those manufactured-to-get-an-admission-fee shows museums have become fond of since they went free (by government endowment!). Much of it was from their own permanent collection, which you can see free at any time,  and the Russian connection was a weak one. Boo!

I’m very fond of the documentary B&W photos of Brazilian Sebastiao Salgado and his marathon tour of the remotest parts of the world to record nature is impressive. Genesis at the Natural History Museum though was one project where he really should have used colour, as it becomes monotonous and fails to record the magic of the places he visited. That said, I’m glad I went.

Killing time at the NT, I discovered a lovely exhibition of Norman Parkinson‘s iconic photographs of fashion and famous people. Highly posed and therefore unnatural, but somehow fresh and lovely. In the same building, there was another fascinating exhibition of textile artworks by Lalla Ward called Vanishing Act; in effect, animals and insects camouflaged and hiding in the artworks!

Brighton is a long way to go for a one-hour performance, so off I went in the afternoon before for a personally selected self-guided art tour of seven installations / exhibitions. The best was Finnish artist Kaarina Kaikkonen‘s clothing sculpture at Fabrica (c.400 shirts in a deconsecrated church!) and her ‘dressing’ of the clock tower. I also liked Emma Critchley‘s video of herself swimming, shown inside a container on the seafront!  Mariele Neudeker‘s work spanned three spaces, but only some impressed (an iceberg in a Regency house!), ten c.4 min video’s of men moving was too much to do anything other than ‘sample’ and the shadow of a drone painted on Madeira Drive was just making a point.

A double treat at the British Museum. The Pompeii & Herculaneum exhibition is stuffed full of wonderfully preserved, extraordinary things; more domestic than stately. It’s beautifully curated, laid out like the homes the items were found in. The events which led to their burial and preservation were well covered and the human stories moved you. You have to suffer lots of kids obsessed with finding anything erotic, but it’s worth it! It was pensioner-rage at Ice Age Art, fighting to get a glimpse at the tiny 20,000-40,000 year-old items. When you did, you were richly rewarded but this time the curation made it harder, not easier.

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Seven years ago I was wowed by a site specific show which took place in Scotland’s Register House in Edinburgh and dreamthinkspeak, the company responsible for it, instantly became one to follow. Two years ago they blew me away with a show based on The Cherry Orchard over six floors of a disused department store in Brighton. This one, part of the World Shakespeare Festival and originated at the Brighton Festival, is completely different but just as inventive and original.

You stand in a dark space surrounded on four sides by reflective screens. At various times, films and images are projected onto the screens and they light up to reveal 10 rooms, three of which change during the 90 or so minutes running time. Scenes from Hamlet are enacted in modern dress in bedrooms, a bathroom, dressing room, office, a large lounge which takes up one side of the space and a boat! The characters are from Hamlet – Gertrude & Claudius, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern, Polonius, Laertes & Ophelia and Hamlet himself (oh, and The Ghost of course).

The story is surprisingly intact, though it’s not the whole of the play in exact chronological order. You have to change where you look as the scenes unfold in different ‘rooms’ and at times you don’t know where to look as things are happening all over the place. At one point almost everyone seems to be doing the ‘To Be or Not to Be’ speech in different spaces, starting at different times and overlapping. At another point, there are three versions of Hamlet’s bedroom simultaneously, with Hamlet, Gertrude and Claudius each occupying one of them – Hamlet trashing it, Gertrude tidying it and Claudius searching it.

I don’t always like shows which mess around with classics (Katie Mitchell is the biggest culprit) but here you get the essence of the play even though you don’t get every word in the right order; but all the words are Shakespeares. Somehow, I got under Hamlet’s skin and fully understood how he felt as much, if not more, than any other production of the play. It was compelling, captivating and deeply satisfying.

Tristan Sharps staging, with design collaborator Robin Don, is impeccable. Technically, it’s a masterpiece. The performances are uniformly good. Edward Hogg had all the intensity you expect of Hamlet. Ruth Lass & Phillip Edgerley were superb as Gertrude and Claudius. Michael Bryher & Stewart Heffernan (any relation to John?) were playful and funny as Rosencrantz and Gildenstern and Richard Clews, Ben Ingles and Bethan Cullinane were a passionate trio as Polonius, Laertes and Ophelia. Thorston Manderlay’s Ghost stalked the proceedings atmospherically and occasionally scarily.

Apart from Globe to Globe, the World Shakespeare Festival has disappointed me so far, but this raises the bar with something sparklingly original that is brilliantly executed. If you’re interested in Shakespeare, you’d be bonkers to miss it.

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