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Posts Tagged ‘Nadia Fall’

August Wilson was one of the greats of 20th century American drama, though he’s not as well known or as produced internationally as Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams or Eugene O’Neill. His great achievement was a cycle of ten plays, each set in a different decade of the 20th century, all in Pittsburgh’s Hill District where he was brought up, with characters in some plays being referenced in others, documenting 100 years of the African American experience. We’ve seen all bar one here, though revivals after their UK premiere’s have been rare. Seventeen years after it was first seen at the Tricycle, this ninth play (in period, rather than writing), set in the Reagan’s America in the 80’s, gets a superb revival at the Theatre Royal Stratford East.

King Hedley II is home from prison, where he served seven years. He lives at home with his mum Ruby, with whom he has a fractious relationship, and his wife Tonya. He has a seventeen-year-old daughter whom he hardly ever sees. He’s struggling to navigate life as an ex-con, selling knocked-off fridges with his best friend Mister to raise money to set up a video store. They try to speed up the fund-raising with a bigger crime. He’s keen to have a child with Tonya, but she doesn’t like the world it would be born into. Ruby’s old flame, smooth hustler Elmore, walks back into their lives and ghosts from the past emerge, propelling the play to its tragic conclusion. Peter McKintosh has built two full-size houses, evocative of the poor Hill District neighbourhood, whilst providing an intimate playing area in the back yards of the houses.

I was impressed by newcomer Aaron Pierre in Othello at Shakespeare’s Globe last year, but his performance as King Hedley is on another level altogether; deeply emotional and passionate with an extraordinary charismatic presence. Martina Laird is terrific as Ruby, a nuanced characterisation that conveys the complexity of her relationships with her son and Elmore. This is Lenny Henry’s fifth role since his late career extension into stage acting, and he continues to impress. Elmore brings a lightness to what is one of the darker plays of the cycle, and Henry is well suited to this. Dexter Flanders as Mister and Cherrelle Skeete as Tonya both make excellent contributions, and the cast is completed by a fine performance from Leo Wringer as the eccentric neighbour Stool Pigeon, who hoards newspapers to record history and makes prophetic contributions like a Greek chorus.

It’s a bit too long at 3.5 hours, but Wilson’s dialogue and a set of riveting performances just about keep you in their grip in Nadia Fall’s superb production. It’s such a timeless piece, covering issues just as relevant and urgent today, and Stratford East is a great home for a work like this – an auspicious contribution to kick off the next phase in the life of ‘the people’s theatre’. As I left, I looked up at Joan Littlewood’s statue and she seemed to have a smile of approval on her face!

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Hir is an unofficial, socially-constructed, gender-neutral pronoun, an alternative to he or her. Playwright Taylor Mac is a polymath American artist who challenges conformity and categorisation; someone once described him as Ziggy Stardust meets Tiny Tim. As you can by now imagine, this is a surreal ride.

Isaac returns from three years in the war, as a marine in the mortuary service. He’s had a dishonourable discharge for drug use. While he’s been away, there have been dramatic changes in the family. After years of abusing his wife and children, dad Arnie is ill and now on the receiving end of the abuse. Isaac’s sister is in the process of becoming his brother, encouraged by his mother Paige, who has gone all new age and politically correct and stopped cleaning completely. The house is a tip. Isaac struggles to believe or accept it all and a power struggle with his mother develops.

I’m not entirely sure what the playwright is getting at, but it’s fascinating and expertly staged and performed. Ben Stones’ design has to be seen to be believed. Nadia Fall’s staging continually shocks and surprises. All four performances are outstanding, with favourite Ashley McGuire so extraordinarily matter-of-fact as Paige, contrasting with Arthur Darvill’s highly strung and fragile Isaac.

It wasn’t to everyone’s taste (there were lots failing to return after the interval) but it held and intrigued me, and I’m still processing it.

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I wasn’t sure I needed or wanted to see this again only two years after Out of Joint’s small scale touring version visited St James Theatre, but sometimes during my NT bookings my mouse takes on a life of its own and the next thing you know you’ve clicked a few times and its in your basket and your diary; fortunately on this case. It betters that production, and the original at the Royal Court 25 years earlier, because of its scale and the addition of music by Cerys Matthews.

It’s based on the true story of the first (penal) colonists shipped to Australia in 1797 as an alternative to imprisonment at home, after North America ceased to be an option. There were just under 600 convicts and 600 crew and marines. The practice continued for 80 years and the rest is history, fresh in my mind after visiting what’s left of these penal colonies and subsequent settlements earlier in the year. The conditions on the journey, and when they first arrived, were horrendous. Many of the officers were vicious and merciless. They were transported for the pettiest of crimes and often tried again and hung after they’d arrived with even less justice for sometimes spurious crimes, or at least with insufficient evidence. In this play, officer Second Lieutenant Ralph Clark is determined to attempt rehabilitation through theatre and he gets the Governor’s agreement to stage George Farquhar’s The Recruiting Officer. Daily life in the colony is interspersed with rehearsals for the play as his fellow officers make every attempt to undermine Clark. The debate about punishment or rehabilitation runs through the play and though it’s set 200 years ago still has relevance today.

Nadia Fall’s production makes great use of the space and resources of the Olivier Theatre, particularly the revolve and drum. Designer Peter McKintosh has created a giant red, orange and brown backdrop inspired by aboriginal art which leaves the stage uncluttered, allowing the piece to flow with the round ever-changing platform. The music provides a melancholic folk-blues sound-scape which does much to create the atmosphere and contains some beautiful songs beautifully sung. A lone aboriginal man is ever present, looking on with curiosity and disbelief. The whole effect is very evocative of the place and time.  It’s a superb cast. Amongst the officers, Jason Hughes is a warm, sympathetic and ultimately moving Ralph. It’s a tribute to the performances of Peter Forbes and David Mara that their brutality repulsed me physically. Amongst the convicts, Ashley McGuire as determined, defiant Bryant, Jodie McNee as feisty Scouse Morden and Lee Ross as obsequious Sideway shone.

In a week where you couldn’t help questioning our humanity as we watched the refugee crisis evolve, it resonated much more. Here was the lack of humanity of another age. This is Timberlake Wertenbaker’s best play and this production may be the definitive one, and perhaps the most timely one too.

 

 

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Thursday (the day after the Woolwich incident) probably wasn’t the best time to see Ayad Akhtar’s play about the after-affects of 9/11 on professional Muslims in New York.

Hot-shot lawyer Amir is persuaded by his nephew (who we later learn has been radicalised) to help an Imam who is being unfairly treated by the legal system. This affects his relationships with the Jewish partners of his firm, but it’s when his artist wife’s curator and his partner, who happens to be a colleague of Amir, come for dinner that everything unravels. He learns that this black female colleague has pipped him to the post for a promotion. Amir’s attitudes, long-buried, emerge again and destroy both his relationship and his career.

Though the issues are interesting and the debate is compelling, it felt too contrived for comfort. I can’t say I had any sympathy with any of the characters and I felt a bit manipulated by the set-ups. The scene changes were puzzlingly and unecessarily long, which slowed it all down somewhat. Still, it held my attention and the performances were all excellent. Nadia Fall directs it sensitively and Jaimie Todd has designed a big, realistic NYC apartment – but with a shallow rake to the seating, sight-lines were a bit challenging.

Good but not great.

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I broke my self-imposed Shaw ban last night and, on balance, I wish I hadn’t. I know he’s an important playwright, but I want more than a moving 3D museum experience when I go to the theatre. I felt I was being told ‘Look, this is a classic. It’s rarely revived. You have to see it’ and I fell for it.

It’s not as fusty as most of Shaw. It’s a (sort of) comedy but it is a bit odd. We start in the consulting rooms of a doctor who has just been knighted. His colleagues visit to congratulate him. At this point you think it’s a satire on the medical profession; they all appear to be pushing one therapy to make their name (and money).

The play turns on the arrival of a woman desperate for treatment for her artist husband who has TB. Somewhat implausibly, she and her husband join the doctors for dinner, during which they all drool over the wife and are unwittingly conned by her husband. When they discover his trickery, they visit his garret to confront him (and drool over her some more). The doctor who was to treat him now refuses and another takes over. He doesn’t survive. The doctor who declined treatment reveals his true motivation.

The play pits the morals of the medical profession against those of the con artist, but it doesn’t really go anywhere. It’s implausibility is at the core of why it didn’t work (for me) and it takes a long time to make it’s somewhat slight points. You can’t fault the production, though. It’s an impressive NT debut for director Nadia Fall and Peter McKintosh’s sets are uber-realistic period pieces (maybe a bit too much so, adding to the museum feel). It’s a fine cast with Malcolm Sinclair particularly funny as the pompous Sir Ralph Bloomfield Bonington. David Calder was good (and unrecognisable) as Sir Patrick Cullen, though his accent wasn’t consistent and Aden Gillett and Maggie McCarthy give fine performances as the newly knighted Sir Colenso Ridgeon and his housekeeper . 

In the end though, it’s another one of those ‘great productions, pity about the play’ evenings; hopefully I will have more will-power when Shaw turns up again.

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