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Posts Tagged ‘David Greig’

I clearly remember the moment twelve years ago when I gasped as an army officer raised his gun to shoot a horse. A puppet horse. In the Olivier Theatre. Almost the entire audience gasped with me. In the second half of this play I winced as a man with a broken leg in a makeshift splint crawled across moraine high in the Peruvian Andes, all imaginary. Thats the magic of theatre.

This must be one of the most unlikely stories to make it onto a West End stage, but then again it’s put there by Tom Morris, one of the creators of War Horse, and adapted by one of our finest playwrights, David Greig. You can write about your survival after a near fatal climbing accident, and you can film where it happened and take testimony from those involved in a documentary, but how on earth do you stage it? The answer is imagination, of the survivor as we hear what’s in his head and his dreams, and in the staging where you take the audience on a journey where they suspend disbelief.

Designer Ti Green uses just tables, chairs, pub features and a hanging frame to create both worlds. Movement with lighting, music, and a soundscape add tension and atmosphere. Four hugely talented young actors – Josh Williams as survivor Joe Simpson, Angus Yellowlees as his fellow climber Simon & Fiona Hampton as Joe’s feisty sister Sarah who he talks to in his head, all three in very athletic performances, and Patrick McNamee lightening the tone as backpacker Richard looking after basecamp. Greig’s structure and Tom Morris’ creative staging enables the story to be told like a thriller, even though you know the outcome.

I wasn’t convinced I wanted to see this, it’s not really my genre, but the buzz changed my mind and proved to be true. Great to see the work of three regional theatres working together to create something so good and being rewarded with a West End transfer that broadens the options for theatre-goers. Definitely one to recommend.

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This David Greig play is based on Polish writer Stanislaw Lem’s 1961 Sci Fi novel. It’s been made into a film three times, in Russian, then Polish, and by Hollywood in 2002, but this is the first stage adaptation.

Solaris is an ocean planet, with no land, and we’re on a space station orbiting it, studying it. The two year mission is coming to an end when psychologist Kris Kelvin arrives by shuttle to find Commander Gibarian has died of cancer. She also learns of strange goings on suggesting the planet is intelligent. It appears to be probing their memories, thoughts and feelings and sending in clones of significant people from their past, and soon after her arrival her old flame Ray turns up.

It transfers to stage surprisingly well; we don’t get many Sci Fi plays. I was a bit irritated by so many scenes, with a screen lowered between them, as we moved back and fore between locations on the space station, but otherwise it held you in its grip, particularly in the second half, which unfolded like a thriller. We hear from Gilbarian on video (Hugo Weaving, no less) within the space station and sometimes see the ocean on video between scenes, a bit disorientating front stalls!

The sex of Kelvin has been changed and Polly Frame plays her really well. Ray is in many ways a tougher role which I thought Keegan Joyce navigated very well. Jade Ogugua and Fode Simbo complete a fine cast. It’s great to see an international co-production from three great theatre cities with Edinburgh’s Greig writing and Australian Matthew Dutton directing. Too late to recommend it as I didn’t make it until the penultimate day of the short London run, but good to record its success.

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This 1994 David Greig play was first staged during a previous time of turmoil in Europe, soon after the Berlin Wall came down, East European countries freed themselves from the USSR, which then fragmented, and Yugoslavia broke up, with war in the Balkans. I first saw it twelve years ago when Dundee Rep brought their revival to the Barbican, yet it meant so much more to me today.

It’s set in the railway station and nearby bar of a border town. Two refugees, father and daughter Sava and Katia, rest there on their journey. There are no trains and stationmaster Fret is trying to fathom out why his station appears to have been removed from the timetable. His assistant Adele is busy spotting trains as they pass by. Four local men, one Adele’s husband Berlin, discover their factory is the latest for the chop in these troubled times.

Fret and Sava strike up an unlikely friendship through their mutual love of trains and Adele and Katia enter an even closer relationship and leave town together. One of the four men, Morocco, exploits the border position by trading, which border towns are always good for, and another, Billy, decides to leave to try his luck elsewhere. This leaves Berlin and Horse to vent their anger on those who are left.

Though it is rather bleak, it does make good points about the nature of borders, attitudes to migration and refugees and the scapegoating of them by the disenfranchised, all of which are as relevant, if not more relevant, today as they were during that earlier period of change in Europe. Michael Longhurst’s excellent staging and Chloe Lamford’s design culminate in a stunning coup d’theatre and there are fine performances all around.

A play for today written a quarter of a century ago.

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In a first in my 35 or so years of regular theatre-going, there was a libation ceremony at the beginning of this play. The CEO of the London Borough of Southwark credited and thanked those whose funds had enabled the production before pouring wine over the stage! This apparently replicated what happened when the play was first performed.

This is a 2500-year-old feminist play about a boatload of women who flee North Africa to avoid enforced marriage. In Argos, the Greek citizens democratically vote to give them asylum and send their pursuing menfolk packing before questioning the value of migrants. 2500 years ago!

Playwright David Greig has adapted Aeschylus and its mostly performed by a community chorus of 24 women, with a similar number towards the end representing the citizens of Argos. They speak, sing and chant in unison and move as one. There’s brilliantly atmospheric percussion and pipe accompaniment. It’s got an extraordinary energy about it, and a contemporary feel; the vocals even sound like rap at times, and the movement could be contemporary dance.

I loved Ramin Gray’s production, Sasha Milavic Davies’ choreography and John Browne’s music. There was something very thrilling and exciting about such an old play coming alive for a modern audience, and one of the best community projects I’ve ever experienced.

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David Greig’s play explores the psychology of mass killings, and the case of Norway’s Anders Breivik in particular. Set in a village hall where a community choir are rehearsing, it moves from monologue to song to interview, touching the surface of the issues but exploring none in any depth. As much as I admire the intention and the ambition, it didn’t sit comfortably with me.

Claire is the choir leader, who ‘interviews’ ‘the boy’ and others who knew him or were associated with him. The same actor plays all of these. We start with a piece from the choir, who return to sing more and some of whom are involved in the story. It’s at times moving, occasionally seems exploitative, intrusive or voyeuristic (which given it’s a play is probably a compliment) and sometimes puzzling. For me, it didn’t provide enough insight to justify it.

Neve McIntosh plays Claire movingly and Rudi Dharmalingam plays ‘the boy’ and others with great conviction. The choir changes regularly and we had office choirs Shellissimo (guess where they work!) and The Lip Smackers (don’t!) who after a nervous start got into their stride.

I am a big fan of Greig and so wanted to admire this more than I did. It seems to me that the subject either requires a lot more depth or should be left alone.

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If they invent time travel while I’m still around, one of my first theatrical journeys will be back to the 50’s / 60’s to see a Theatre Workshop performance at the Theatre Royal Stratford East. For now, I’ll settle for this wonderfully alive, passionate, heart-warming, populist, campaigning piece which is as close to the spirit of Joan Littlewood as its possible to get.

This musical, with an appropriately diverse range of musical styles, is based on the true stories of a bunch of schoolgirls, their ‘schemie’ neighbours and teachers who campaign for their asylum seeking friends and neighbours who are being deported, back to allegedly newly safe countries. Though clearly partizan, the views of those that oppose them are also presented, and not as complete baddies. It also confronts the fact that, despite the noise they make, they are unable to halt the deportations, so it’s not entirely feelgood.

Staged in front of, and on, Merle Hensel’s incredibly realistic tower block, just nine actors play all roles – the girls, neighbours, teachers, press, politicians, police – with great energy and conviction. Clearly, it revolves around the six girls but in many ways the heart of the story lies with Callum Cuthbertson’s teacher Mr Girvan and Myra McFadyen’s neighbour Noreen (who I fell in love with and wanted to take home to become my neighbour!). Director / co-composer Cora Bissett and writer David Greig really have presented this story truthfully and effectively, without artifice or sentimentality.

The very young and very diverse audience were lively and noisy (an entire sweet shop was consumed in Stalls Row D alone) but in the end even they were silenced by the story and I am happy to have suffered the rustle because it meant they were there and they heard the story, far more important than an old man’s irritation! This is the sort of work TRSE have been doing for more than 60 years and it’s great to see them collaborating with comparative new-kids-on-the-block the National Theatre of Scotland, fast making their own name with the same balls TRSE has always had. It may be set in Glasgow, and the story could probably only unfold in Glasgow, but it is completely at home on the Stratford stage.

Terrific stuff, but you’ll have to move fast as it closes tomorrow!

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Well, the second half started on a high with the National Theatre Of Wales production of The Dark Philosophers*****, stories by Gwyn Thomas interspersed with scenes from his life.  A mountain of wardrobes provided multiple entrances and exits, and eight brilliant actors played the many roles in a wonderfully theatrical and ingenious staging. The tales are dark but the life story funny, and it’s punctuated by a lot of beautifully sung music. I took a short while to get into the rhythm of it, after which I was spellbound. A triumph; I left the theatre wanting to adapt Brian Blessed’s Oscar moment and shout ‘the Welsh are coming’.

More storytelling followed after lunch with another national company – the National Theatre of Scotland – in The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart**** (the second of three shows from the prolific David Grieg). Prudencia is an expert on the history of the folk ballad and her story is told in a restaurant / cabaret bar with the cast moving between (and on to) the tables to play out the scenes and play in the folk band at one end. It’s an odd staging for storytelling, but it worked. It’s a touch overlong, but the infectious cast pulled it off.

My fifth show by site-specific specialists Grid Iron was their first real failure.  They’ve moved closer to Punchdrunk’s territory, but it’s too staged and you never get lost in the immersive experience, because it’s not that, well,  immersive. In What Remains?** ,we’re exploring the life of a pianist, composer and head of a conservertoire as we attend a recital and a lesson / audition and visit the museum of his life. More puzzlingly, we also get to apply for the conservertoire during a sleepover! David Paul Jones is a better composer and pianist than he is an actor and it just didn’t stir any emotions or involve you. You can’t be a voyeur at an immersive piece!

Back at the Traverse for Futureproof,**** a play about a freak show, which wasn’t at all what I was expecting. It was a much more thoughtful and thought-provoking piece about the motivations and feelings of both those who staged them and those who appeared in them. It needed more pace, but it was beautifully performed by a cast who had to become the world’s fattest man, a bearded armless woman, half man / half woman, conjoined twins and a mermaid (well, she was a fake rather than a freak!).

Alan Bennett’s monologue, A Visit from Miss Protheroe***, about a recently retired man getting a visit from a former colleague was a showcase for Nicholas Parsons (yes, it is he!) and Suki Webster (AKA Mrs Paul Merton). It was a charming if slight 30 minutes and given neither are proper actors, they did a decent enough job (though Parsons appeared to have given up on a northern accent within a few minutes!).

Our final visit to the Traverse was back in sweltering Traverse Two for the third offering from David Grieg, a musical comedy called Monsters in the Hall***. We’re back in storytelling territory with no set or props, the cast left to create everything – and it was their virtuosity that impressed most. It wasn’t a patch on Midsummer, his 2010 hit musical comedy which transferred to London (twice), but fun nonetheless.

Back to music at the lovely Queens Hall. The Burns Unit**** are one of those groups that come together occasionally, with the members having separate bands / careers. I only knew folkie Karine Polwart, so I wasn’t expecting something quite so poppy. It took a while for the sound to fit the hall and for the band to settle, but what followed was 100 minutes in Decemberists / Midlake zone distinguished by good songs, terrific vocals from the three girl singers and a sort of Weilesque quirkiness at times. It certainly whetted my appetite for more.

Tuesday at Tescos*** sees Simon Callow in drag as a transvestite visiting his father who won’t accept him as he is. I couldn’t understand why it was  punctuated by live discordant piano music, and I do wish he’d dressed better to hide his belly and calf muscles! I didn’t really engage with it, I’m afraid, so as much as I admired the acting, I wasn’t moved by the story.

I was moved by Bones****; I can’t see how you couldn’t be by a teenage boy’s tale of neglect and abuse. Forced to look after his drug addict mother and baby sister, he contemplates infanticide. We move between his day today and past events, particularly a life changing holiday in Skegness with his mother and grandfather. It was a harrowing 45 minutes, but it was performed with passion and sensitivity by Mark Doherty. If Africa Heart & Soul showed the international spirit of the fringe and Arthur Smith it’s comic spirit, then this is the spirit of fringe theatre.

I couldn’t imagine a more appropriate and uplifting ending than seeing Dundee’s Michael Marra**** at the St Brides Acoustic Music Centre. He’s got a lived-in voice and a lived-in face and delivers his delightfully funny and quirky songs like a cheerful Tom Waites. He’s a real one-off who sadly hardly ever ventures south of the border, though if he did they may have to provide a translation; the Dundee dialect is certainly challenging. A lovely heart-warming happy end.

So there you have it – 21 shows and 9 exhibitions (subject of a separate Art in August blog shortly, also covering London and trips to Chichester, Margate and Folkstone! – how can you wait?) in 7 days; a bit tame by Fringe standards. Even after 20-30 years (I’ve lost count) I’m still making mistakes – this year booking too much in advance again (only two added whilst I was here), not enough comedy and trusting the Traverse too much (is it losing its magic touch?). The theatrical highlights were both Welsh, which made me very proud, and music the most consistently excellent with three lovely shows. It’s impossible to tire of this feast of the arts and I’ve no doubt I’ll be back. Until then…..

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