Posts Tagged ‘Jon Bausor’

No, this isn’t the history of my family in three plays, it’s the 15th century history of Scotland; far less important. These three plays take us through a turbulent time from 1406 to 1488, when the Scottish nobility fought amongst themselves during the imprisonment of James I by the English, the youth of James II, too young to reign, and the excesses of James III. In England, the same century starts with Henry IV and goes through Henry’s V & VI and Richard III to Henry VII. Rona Munro’s plays provide a 6h40m Scottish history lesson, but also entertaining and thrilling theatre. The National Theatre of Scotland’s new Artistic Director, who was last at the (English) NT with brilliant and rare early Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill, starts his reign with a bang.

The first play covers just four years, from the end of James I’s imprisonment in 1422, at the time of the death of Henry V, through his return to Scotland aged 28 to deal with a bunch of noblemen who’ve got far too used to running the show on their own. He has to despatch rather a lot of them before he can rule for 15 years himself; it’s bloody and brilliant. In the second, James II becomes king aged 6 and a battle for power rages between noblemen on who rules on his behalf until he is 18, after which he goes on to rule for just 11 years. The third play starts when James III has been an adult king for around 15 years and has become an exceedingly unpopular one. Despite a seemingly successful marriage to Margaret of Denmark (played here by The Killing’s Sofie Grabol, a real Dane!), he has become a philanderer and spendthrift with a debauched lifestyle. Margaret tries to keep things in control, but rebellion becomes overpowering and she has to take power herself hold Scotland together. The third play ends movingly as James IV ascends the throne aged 15. It was a chaotic, anarchic century for Scotland, which brought out the worst in their greedy, blood-thirsty nobility. You can see why clans were forever in conflict. What struck me most was how young people had to grow up so soon and assume positions of power and authority as mere children.

Jon Bausor’s design make the Olivier Theatre in-the-round with seven entrances and action between and in the high-level stage seating. There’s a giant sword which at various times bleeds, it set alight and becomes bejewelled. The first two plays are costumed alike in rough-and ready period dress, but the third takes a more modern spin; I’m not entirely sure why, but it worked. The staging is wonderful, often thrilling, managing to play battles and intimate scenes equally effectively. It would be invidious to single out any performances because it seems to me that the excellence of the entire cast is key to its success. The second play isn’t as good as the other two (again, I’m not entirely sure why; maybe for us all dayers just a natural PM drop in energy) but in my view its not as much of a dip as others have suggested. Overall, I think its a theatrical feast, one which I’m glad I ate in a single day and one which I wouldn’t have missed for the world.

Though a product of the ever enterprising and nomadic NTS, this co-production with the more static NT provides a timely example of what union can bring. A highlight in a lifetime of theatre-going.

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In their short life, National Theatre Wales have become pioneers of unique, innovative and accessible theatrical experiences. I’ve seen theatre in my home village, which I never did when I lived there. I’ve seen Shakespeare brilliantly reinvented in an RAF aircraft hanger. I’ve explored Dylan Thomas’ adopted town, his characters and his life. So it’s no surprise to find me in a forest near Usk transported back to the First World War for an extraordinary experience and as moving a tribute as we’re likely to see in this centenary year.

We embark on our Cooks Battlefield Experience Tour, through the trenches (walking back in time?) to a French village where soldiers are embarking on a bit of R & R and an explanation by our guide of the field of battle. We follow four young soldiers from diverse backgrounds, Welsh and London Welsh, who have volunteered to fight. We meet their wives, girlfriends and mothers, their officers and the local French village girls they encounter. When we come to know and love them, we follow them out of the trenches onto the field and into the woods, and into senseless tragedy.

Though the journey is in some ways epic, the stories are very personal. One of the surviving officers older self accompanies us as guide and narrator. A Dutch man pops up occasionally with a side story about Einstein, who had just developed his most famous theory, to provide a connection with and a context of time. In the woods, the rain somehow adds to the atmosphere, whilst the tree canopy keeps us relatively dry. You feel the heartbreak of the families and the hopelessness of the situation. It’s all so deeply moving.

Director Matthew Dunster and designer Jon Bausor have solved a lot of the problems of site specific work by staging the two main sections with the audience seated, free from the typical distractions of the form. You can hear every word of Owen Sheers beautiful narrative and dialogue, using the work of the war poets, and see every scene without interference. The battlefield tour premise works well, though I was less convinced by the Einstein thread – but it doesn’t detract. The performances were all committed and engaging, some breaking your heart – for me the gung-ho but fragile young miner from Senghenydd, neighbouring village to my family home, who survived the mining disaster only to volunteer for the front.

The setting, writing, staging, design and performances come together to provide another unique and powerful experience which is also a moving commemoration of the tragedy of this and other wars – the loss of so many young lives. National Theatre Wales continue to lead the way.

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The Roof

Another day, another headphone show. The second of my LIFT 2014 trio. Innovative company Fuel, the man behind Shunt and designer Jon Bausor. Very excited.

Doon Street Car Park, behind the NT, has acquired a compound in which you stand on gravel wearing your headphones. Elevated all around you are rooftops and two ‘rooms’. It’s a live video game. It starts slowly, but speeds up a bit – but only a bit, and its the slowness that’s the heart of the problem.

Player 611 runs around avoiding or shooting monsters, getting ‘prizes’ & popping into the smaller room which is, in turn, a radio staton, pharmacy, infirmary etc. When he completes a level, there’s some sort of ‘show’ in the larger room.

There’s music playing in your headphones and occasionally disorientating sounds that make you look over your shoulder . You’re forever turning around to follow the action. I became uncomfortable, then I got irritated, then I got bored. It’s only an hour but it doesn’t sustain its length. It was original, clever, technically accomplished and the performances were good – but it was slow and dull too, I’m afraid.

Maybe it means more if you are a video gamester?

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I’ve been following Frantic Assembly for a long time now. Their unique brand of physical theatre is captivating and you’d know this was a FA show within minutes. With designer Jon Bausor on board, extraordinary lighting (and darkness) by Andy Purves and a terrific soundscape by Carolyn Downing, this one adds mystery and atmosphere to the stylised movement.

It takes a while to comprehend Byrony Lavery’s narrative; in fact, I’m not sure I did fully comprehend it! There seems to have been a storm and one couple visit another’s home and their daughters get to play together. There’s a bit of a culture clash between the families, one a bit new age and the other more conventional, and there are mysterious events. The conventional couple’s daughter seems to have behavioural problems but the hippy couple’s is grounded.

Some of Bausor’s metal frames are manipulated by the four actors, sometimes with another actor in them. An elevated frame structure houses actors, who appear at odd angles, seemingly completely horizontal at times – I’m not sure how they pulled this off, but I suspect it involves mirrors. The lighting highlights just enough for the purpose. The brooding sound design adds much to the tension.

This isn’t a show to be too literal about. It’s a unique visual and atmospheric experience that intrigues and hypnotises you. I think it is let down by the obtuse story / narrative, but Scott Graham’s production provides 75 minutes of intrigue and tension. Go see for yourself.

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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.


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.


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.


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.


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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A week without theatre, now a week behind with reviews (one already closed and another closing today!). Standards are slipping…..

The final evening of the Open Air Theatre’s musical has become an annual tradition and so far we’ve had the best of the weather and this year was no exception (tempting fate here). On a lovely evening, there’s nothing nicer and they’ve been on a roll for a long time now.

It’s only a year since this show wowed me at the Landor Theatre (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2011/09/12/ragtime) and here it is scaled up and moved outdoors. This slice of early 20th century US social history is epic in scope – Jon Bausor’s design attempts to make it epic in scale and Timothy Sheader’s highly conceptual production tries hard to link it to the present day. Sadly that’s where it fails, getting in the way of the stories of the Latvian Jewish immigrant, the harassed black musician, the enlightened middle class New Englanders and the brilliant score. It’s all a bit of a muddle.

Musically, it’s terrific. It’s beautifully played and there are some outstanding vocal performances, notably Rosalie Craig as the mother and Rolan Bell as Coalhouse Walker. Stephen Flaherty’s music is anchored in the ragtime themes, but it builds from that into a lush and uplifting sound. I sometimes leave an opera which has been messed with wishing I’d closed my eyes or been to a concert version and I’m afraid that’s how I felt here.

One misfire won’t threaten the annual tradition, though programming The Sound of Music for next year might! Somehow, it doesn’t seem right for this venue and this audience and it comes so soon after the Palladium’s revival. Mmm…..

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The Open Air Theatre’s new artistic director, Timothy Sheader, has always made his intentions to move this lovely venue on from it’s long-standing ‘Three Shakespeare’s and  Musical’ formula very clear. Last year he gave us a chilling ‘The Crucible’ which proved how great drama can work in this space. He also seems to be thinking more about what shows suit the venue and last year’s Into The Woods was a perfect choice. Now we have Lord of the Flies doing both – another drama which works well in a space which is nigh on perfect for the play.

The stage is a beach where the remains of a plane crash are strewn – the fusilage spewing luggage and a wing in the trees. There’s an engine in the bushes bordering the beach and another in the auditorium. Smoke still emanates from the wreckage; this crash has just happened. It’s a stunning design by Jon Bausor (who created the extraordinary Kursk at the Young Vic) which uses the space brilliantly. You’re impressed before a word is spoken.

Nigel Williams’ adaptation is a little flawed, mostly because he rushes the first part, getting to the descent into savagery too quickly. Though it might be a little slow for a young audience, showing how the power struggles unfold and the first reaction of children to a world without grown-ups seems to me to be a crucial part of the explanation of the decline. Otherwise it’s faithful to the book, with a little updating such that we can’t be in the second world war (which I think is what William Golding intended) and the arrival of a helicopter rather than a plane at the end, which made more sense.

There is fine acting from a very young company who look every bit the age of their characters. The movement (co-director Liam Steel and fight director Kate Waters) adds much to the effectiveness of the staging. There’s also music and a soundscape by Nick Powell & Mike Walker which makes a big contribution to creating atmosphere and driving the story forward.

I studied the book for something that used to be called ‘O’ level many centuries ago; if only we could have seen a thrilling interpretation like this, I might have done better than my mediocre Grade 4!

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I’d love to report that The Young Vic has turned a Broadway flop into a hit in Southwark, particularly as it’s an ambitious and worthy community project, but I’m afraid I can’t – but it’s not for the want of trying.

This British premiere of a 25+ year-old ‘folk opera’ by the composer of Hair is timely, as there are parallels between its second world war story of soldiers dying a long way from home with current events. The trouble is, the story is little more than a sketch, the lyrics are weak (and with no dialogue they are crucial), the music is rather bland and it’s all too sentimental. The suggestion of Greek tragedy (it’s set in Ithaca and Homer and Ulysses are characters) is a bit half-baked and pointless and the show’s contrasting halves produce a lack of cohesion – it often seems like a song cycle rather than a show.

However, one cannot question the talent of the cast and creative team. There’s an excellent set from Jon Bausor which positively fills the Young Vic. There’s a fine band under MD Phil Bateman, some also doubling up as characters, and a great chorus of 80+ local people. The singing is outstanding, with superb vocal performances from Brenda Edwards, Jos Slovick, Helen Hobson, Tom Robertson, Terel Nugent and Jo Servi. Director John Fulljames is very good at marshalling lots of people as he does again here.

You do get caught up in the energy and enthusiasm of the performers, but a dud show is a dud show whatever you do. Composer Galt MacDermott’s third Broadway show, an adaptation of  Shakespeare’s Two Gentlemen of Verona, was also a dud so like Tony Kushner yesterday, he too seems to be a one-hit-wonder.

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