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Posts Tagged ‘Kwame Kwei-Armah’

It’s not often that you leave the theatre feeling privileged to have been in the audience, having witnessed something captivating, stimulating and entertaining. A fascinating story, brilliantly told, evocative design and performances you won’t stop talking about for some time. Something that can only happen live. You may have gathered already that this is a superb evening of theatre.

Andy Warhol’s career is flat-lining, stuck in one style, prices in decline. Jean-Michel Basquiat is the new kid on the block, a street artist who’s become the contemporary art world’s new poster boy. They are thrown together by Bruno Bischofberger, the art dealer they share, to create an exhibition that will hopefully add value to both their careers and become the talking point of the art community.

At the outset, Warhol is less than enthusiastic about the wildness of Basquiat and his work, whilst Basquiat is contemptuous of the decline of Warhol’s work from art to product, copying corporate logos and making silkscreen prints of celebrities. Though the collaboration happened the detail we see is of course somewhat speculative, but it seems both plausible and very real. Warhol is deeply conservative and Basquiat seemingly out of control. Over the three years they work together, the relationship evolves into a strong bond, but this is a multi-layered piece which looks at their respective personalities, backgrounds and inspiration as well as their relationship, but also covers the impact of business on art and how this can promote or derail it, or both. It held me in its grip throughout.

Anna Fleischle’s design takes us right into the warehouse and loft spaces of New York City’s artists, with superb projections by Duncan McLean. Paul Bettany is uncannily like Warhol in appearance and goes on to inhabit the character in a stunning performance. Jeremy Pope, in his UK debut, is mesmerising as Basquiat, a live wire pacing around his studio. There were moments in the second half when the magnetic presence of both resulted in an extraordinary silence. There’s fine support too from Alec Newman as the art dealer and Sophia Barclay as Basquiat’s sometime girlfriend; well, one of them!

Though he’s written 12 or so plays, most in his early career, Anthony McCarten is better known for some superb screenplays in recent years (The Theory of Everything, Darkest Hour, Bohemian Rhapsody & Two Popes) which has clearly made him a master at characterisation and storytelling. The Young Vic’s AD Kwame Kwei-Armah has marshalled his actors and creative team to produce something very special, one of the best new plays I’ve seen in some time.

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Th creative components of this piece are formidable, and in many respects new to theatre. Based on an obscure 4000-year-old Egyptian story, never (?) or at least rarely dramatised, adapted by Ben Okri, better known as a novelist, designed by Sir David Adjaye, an architect making his first foray into theatre. The staging, though, is in the safe hands of Young Vic AD Kwame Kwei-Armah.

Adjaye’s design for this in-the-round production is a pyramid that unfolds to become a star shaped floor. A bigger inverted pyramid hangs above it, touching it, onto which there are superb projections by Duncan McLean. Lighting by Jackie Shemesh, music by Tunde Jegede & sound by XANA complete the beautiful look and sound of the piece.

At the beginning, the actors play a game to determine who takes the part of protagonist Sinuhe, on a journey through Lybia, Egypt and Syria. Our Sinuhe was Joan Iyiola who, with Ashley Zhangazha, plays 99 other parts, all of which they have to learn, given the decision point at the outset. It took a short while to get into the story, but then it seemed to zip along.

It’s a great tale, well told, and I loved the design aesthetic, but I wasn’t fully satisfied at the end, perhaps because it was a bit insubstantial for a full evening, perhaps because at almost £1 a minute I felt short-changed, or maybe a bit of both. That said, it’s something new, something different, and you can’t really argue that the inputs aren’t expertly crafted.

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Before it even opened at the Manchester International Festival, this show was mired in an authorship dispute, which sadly got more coverage than the work itself; a great shame given the originality and quality of Idris Elba and Kwame Kwei-Armah’s creation. It’s a brilliant cocktail of drama, dance and music which successfully interweaves a personal story with the 20th Century history of the nation of South Africa..

Kaelo is the son of white South African woman Cezanne and black South African man Lundi, a worker on her family’s estate. Given the laws of South Africa at that time, she relocated to London, without Lundi, and brought up Kaelo on her own. As the story begins, we learn that she has recently died and Kaelo is planning to visit South African for the first time to find his father and scatter his mother’s ashes, staying with his grandmother Elzebe, but whilst there he also meets his half-sister Ofentse and learns a lot about the historical events that shaped everyone’s lives.

It’s played on a round stepped platform that revolves, stepped viewing areas replacing seats and a huge drum overhead with projections on the inside. As you arrive, the audience are on the stage dancing to a live DJ set, but leave it as the story begins. There is much dance and movement by the performers in what is a thrilling telling of this family’s story as well as its political and social context and a spiritual dimension which enables Kaelo to observe events he was nowhere near in time or location. In what is a very immersive production, the audience are involved, moving props, dancing and participating like extras, some even getting lines.

The seemingly omnipresent Jon Bausor has created another extraordinary environment incorporating sound and projections. Alfred Enoch as Kaelo performs with great passion and physicality, aided by dancers superbly choreographed by Gregory Maqoma. Joan Iyiola’s Ofentse is a force of nature, filling and commanding the stage. Kurt Egyiawan and Lucy Briggs-Owen bring Kaeola’s deceased parents alive, and Sinead Cusak is totally plausible as Elzebe, the Afrikaner grandmother who feels threatened by all around her.

I thought it was a highly inventive show which paired storytelling with actual history, informative and entertaining in equal measure, accessible to anyone used to or new to theatre, especially a young audience.

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The perfect start to Kwame Kwei-Armah’s tenure at the Young Vic – a great big populist hit. This 90-minute musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s play, which loses much of the verse but none of the story, is bursting with energy and fun, joyous and uplifting.

It’s a musical comedy, so the spotlight is on the antics of Olivia’s uncle Sir Toby Belch, his friend Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Olivia’s maid Maria and the trick they play on her steward Malvolio (the contemporary take on yellow stockings and crossed garters is delicious!), but the love triangle of Orsino pining for Olivia whilst she’s attracted to Viola as Cesario who is herself infatuated with Orsino is handled brilliantly. When Viola’s supposedly dead brother Sebastian turns up, and Malvolio uncovers the plot against him, the resolution is rather moving, despite the comedy.

Designer Robert Jones has built a whole Notting Hill street (with the Duke of Illyria its pub!) in the Young Vic auditorium; an absolutely brilliant set. The eleven Shakespearean characters are supplemented by a thirty strong community chorus who fill the stage and are so good you’d never know it wasn’t a professional one. Shaina Taub’s score is fairly vanilla pop, as is Lizzi Gee’s choreography, but they both do the job and its well sung, played and danced.

The performances are outstanding, led by Gerard Carey as Malvolio, one of the finest comic performances I’ve seen in a lifetime of devotion to theatre. Gabrielle Brooks is simply brilliant as Viola / Cesario, handling the frisson with Orsino superbly and her reunion with Sebastian movingly, with beautiful vocals. Natalie Drew and Rupert Young are both superb as Olivia and Orsino. The comic duo of Sir Toby Belch and Sir Andrew Aguecheek are finely played by Martyn Ellis and Silas Wyatt-Barke, and there’s a lovely Feste from Melissa Allan, who sings beautifully.

Oskar Eustis co-directs this captivating piece with Kwei-Armah, who co-conceived it with Taub. A treat.

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As I’ve got older, I’ve warmed to Ibsen’s plays. I now realise how much they were ahead of their time and how important they were to the development of modern drama. Elinor Cook’s adaptation moves this one forward in time and relocates it to the Caribbean and it comes up fresh, full of relevance and contemporary resonance.

Ellida, the ‘lady’ of the title, was the lighthouse keeper’s daughter who lost her father and came inland to marry the older, widowed Doctor Wangel. He has two teenage daughters with differing views on the match. Ellida loses a child and becomes unsettled. Wangel sends for her friend (and his daughter Bolette’s ex tutor) Arnholm and an old flame of Ellida returns too. She is torn between returning to the sea with him or staying with Wangel, and Bolette has to decide if she stays or marries Arnholm.

It’s a very modern, even feminist story and the change of time and place suits it well as it adds another dimension without smothering it. Kwame Kwei-Armah’s staging is delicate and nuanced. He gets fine performances from his cast, with particularly enjoyable ones from Jonny Holden as fragile artist Lyngstrand and Ellie Bamber as daughter Hilde, capturing teenage frankness perfectly. Tom Scutt’s impressionistic design, beautifully lit by Lee Curran, is gorgeous.

A lovely evening.

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My knowledge of the US civil rights movement in the 60’s was weak, but is stronger for seeing this excellent play by American Kemp Powers; I love it when I learn something at the theatre.

The night in question is the one when Cassius Clay, as he was then called, beat Sonny Liston to win his world title in 1964. He’s in a hotel room with friends Malcolm X, soul singer Sam Cooke and footballer Jim Brown. Outside the room there are two security guards placed there by The Nation of Islam to protect their spokesman.

It’s a pivotal point for all four. Clay is about to convert to Islam and change his name to Mohammed Ali. Cooke has written his civil rights anthem, A Change Is Gonna Come, but will soon meet his untimely death. Brown has commenced his second career, acting in his first film. Malcolm X is about to quit The Nation of Islam.

They debate the issues of civil rights and their differing attitudes and perspectives. Malcolm X may not be as hard line as they thought and the guards may be as much to control as protect. Is Sam Cooke selling his soul as he sings it? Clay’s conversion may be a touch reluctant. Is Brown ignoring what’s going on around him and just concentrating on having a good time? It’s a fascinating debate, without being preachy or earnest, and packs a lot into a well written, entertaining 90 minutes.

Six fine performances too. Arinze Kene brings Cooke to life, singing superbly. Sope Dirisu’s characterisation of Clay is playful and spot on. Francois Battiste captures Malcolm X at a turning point, still defiant but inwardly doubting. David Akala’s Brown is the good-time guy and there’s fine support from Dwane Walcott and Josh Williams as the two contrasting guards. I’d wondered why we’d not seen or heard from director Kwame Kwei-Armah for so long. It appears he’s been directing and running theatre companies in the US. It’s good to have him back, though I’m not sure how long that’s for.

Another fine evening at the Donmar.

 

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