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Posts Tagged ‘National Theatre of Wales’

You can always rely on National Theatre Wales to take you on a new journey or to take a new route on an existing one. This isn’t the first play on dementia I’ve seen in recent years, but unlike The Father, which messed with your head to confront the condition, this one goes straight to the heart, with it’s choir setting and lovely contemporary choral music.

Most of the play takes place in the local library where the dementia choir rehearse, though we also visit homes to see some of the realities of living with the condition for both the patients and the carers. As it establishes itself, the therapeutic power of the choir becomes clear, though social services prove less than fully committed and the library is facing an uncertain future. The divisiveness of the miners strike return as an activist miner Rocky and former policeman Evan clash once more. Early onset alzheimer’s brings the much younger Joe and his carer Dyanne to the choir. We have a brief glimpse at carer abuse and a more difficult confrontation with a representative of the result of the demise of the valleys.

It’s a touch bitty, with lots of scene changes slowing the pace (and an awful lot of chair movement!), but it handles the issues effectively and sensitively and the music, including an excellent brand new Manic Street Preachers song written specially for the show, is uplifting. The performances are deeply moving, especially Dafydd Hywel as Rocky, Desmond Barrit as his nemesis Evan and Martin Marquez as Tom. NTW have been working with choirs like this and it’s great to see some of them on stage. Anna Fleischle’s design is uber-realistic and Matthew Dunstster’s staging brings out the best of Patrick Jones’ heart-on-sleeve writing.

I continue to admire NTW’s capacity to engage, educate, challenge, provoke and entertain and was glad I was in Wales to catch this.

 

 

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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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This is such a heart warming, hopeful play and so much more than the story of Welsh rugby player Gareth Thomas coming out. Robin Soans verbatim piece links his story with the Bridgend teenage suicides and the economic woes of South Wales post-pit closures to produce something that is moving and entertaining in equal measure.

In addition to Thomas’ own testimony, Soans includes the words of his mother, father and best friend Compo and recognises the contributions of former Welsh coach Scott Johnson and fellow players Martyn Williams and Steve Jones. The teenage stories of survivors Darcey and Meryl are interwoven and we also meet Bridgend MP Madeleine Moon and Neil Kinnock. It’s extraordinary how the stories feel as if they belong together – the man and his home town, both bruised, both hounded by the paparazzi and the gutter press, but both survivors with their dignity intact, with laudable support from families, friends, colleagues and communities, moving on by helping others.

Robin Soans editing of his interviews and Max Stafford-Clark’s impeccable direction, with movement by Frantic Assembly’s Scott Graham, brings out the humour and humanity of the stories. It hops around in time and between the stories yet it seems completely cohesive. Six actors – Rhys ap William, Patrick Brennan, Katie Elin-Salt, Daniel Hawksford, Lauren Roberts and Bethan Whitcomb – play the principal roles plus all others, each taking turns at playing Gareth Thomas. They engage you in eye contact, which makes you feel as if the story is being told to you personally.

It brought more than one tear to my eye, but I left the Arcola on a real high, more than a little bit proud to be Welsh. Three of Britain’s most exciting theatre companies have come together to produce something very special indeed. Don’t miss it.

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A shortened visit this year, to facilitate a ‘pit-stop’ back in London before I travel the Silk Road from Bishkek in Kyrgyzstan to Beijing! So, anything that I can see in London is automatically excluded – there still isn’t enough time, of course.

We started well with a new adaptation (from the Stephen King novella, rather than the film) of The Shawshank Redemption (****). It was well adapted by comedians Owen O’Neill & Dave Johns and the cast was also largely made up of comedians, led by Omid Djalili. In 100 unbroken minutes, it managed to bring out both the hopelessness of prison life and the depth of the friendship at its core. Simply staged (though elaborate for the fringe!) with five two-story metal towers and a handful of benches, with a brooding soundtrack, it packed quite a punch.

In a contrast typical of Edinburgh, we followed this with a concert from favourite Scottish folkie Karine Polwart (*****). I’d seen her with others but not doing her own show and it was a delight. She may be a folkie, but all of her songs are originals (except for a welcome tribute to another Scottish favourite Michael Marra, who died this year) and gorgeous they are, with backing by acoustic guitar and ‘percussion’. The Queens Hall was the perfect venue, with acoustics and atmosphere worthy of her talents.

Day Two saw me back at ‘second home’ The Traverse Theatre for the Abbey Theatre’s Quietly (****), where a catholic and a protestant meet in a pub during a Northern Ireland v Poland football international 36 years after one had killed the other’s father in a pub bombing during a similar match. It was a thought-provoking and original dissection of ‘the troubles’ at a psychological level and the addition of a Polish barman added a contemporary twist.

After the now customary & mandatory visit to the International Photographic Exhibition (**** – but too many contrived, posed, stylised unnatural shots this year), the afternoon saw me in a stationary minibus with 13 others and a storyteller telling us about his recreation of one of  his granddad’s jaunts to Cape Wrath (***)  in the far north of Scotland. It shouldn’t have worked, but it did and proved to be a charming hour.

I’d heard good  things about the National Theatre of Wales new show, The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning (*****), but I wasn’t really ready for how good. It reminded me of the National Theatre of Scotland’s Black Watch – thrillingly theatrical, tackling something about as topical and relevant as its possible to be. It’s a fascinating real life story with a Welsh connection and I was captivated from beginning to end. NTW continues to lead the way.

The common feature of my favourite living artists – Howard Hodgkin, David Hockney – seems to be colour, and Peter Doig is another. His Edinburgh exhibition (****) is bigger than his relatively recent Tate one, and though some of the 36 paintings were at both, there was much new here – plus lots of sketches, prints and posters – and the NGS (former RSA) space was perfect, allowing them to breathe and enabling you to get enough distance from them.

Things took a dip after this with a play called Making News (**) about a scandal at the BBC. It was underwritten and under-rehearsed, with lots of dull patches between a few big laughs. This was another of those companies of comedians, but this lot couldn’t act so well – particularly Suki Webster, who was as wooden as an entire forest. The dip continued for John Godber’s Losing the Plot (**), a play about the mid-life crisis which was a touch implausible and with too many short scenes between long gaps for it to flow well. Not even Corrie’s Eddie Windass could rescue it! When I first came to Edinburgh in the mid-80’s, Godber’s work for Hull Truck (Up n’ Under, Bouncers, Shakers, Teechers…..) was compulsory viewing. I think I should have stuck with my memories.

Things picked up again when we boarded the coach Leaving Planet Earth (****), space ‘jumping’ to New Earth just before we got to the extraordinary Edinburgh International Climbing Arena. The pre-emails asking us for our pledges and for objects for the Old Earth Museum had made me a bit cautious and sceptical and it took a while for the narrative to settle, but when it did, I found the story of our exodus from our dying planet engaging and thought-provoking. Promenading to different scenes over four floors of this amazing venue, Grid Iron’s main festival show was a technical and logistical marvel and the venue truly was a star.

Our first (and last!) dose of classical music kick-started Tuesday with a wonderful, and wonderfully different, Queens Hall recital by a 13-piece (mostly) woodwind (inc. horn!) ensemble called Nachtmusique (****). The programme was entirely Mozart with pieces for various combinations of instruments ending in a 45 minute piece for the whole ensemble. Gorgeous!

What can one say about Coriolanus (***) in Mandarin with two on-stage heavy metal bands called Miserable Faith and Suffocated?! It was a bit gimmicky, but it just about worked in telling the story of the revenge of the scorned man. When the actors were allowed to get on with it unencumbered, they were great, though the acting of the large ensemble was somewhat ragged, with particularly wimpy fighting, making me speculate that they had been recruited locally (later proved correct). The surtitles were often odd, as if they used google translate back from the Mandarin translation, and oddly paced in that they didn’t always keep up! Still, good to welcome another overseas theatre company to give us their take on The Bard.

A few wee exhibitions (see, gone native) to start my final day, but none really excited. Conde Nast Photos (***) were good if you like your photos highly stylised, obsessively posed & very contrived, but I overdosed a bit on it all. The City Arts Centre’s companion exhibition Dressed to Impress (***.5) showcased dress in Scottish painting through history and was a bit more satisfying, with a few real gems. Across the road in the Fruitmarket Gallery, Gabriel Orozco (**) was all circles – too many circles!

David Harrower’s Ciara (***.5) is a monologue which I wouldn’t have booked if I’d known it was a monologue, but I was glad I did as it was extremely well written and performed brilliantly by Blythe Duff! We followed this with my final show – I’m With The Band (***.5) – about a band called The Union splitting up, a metaphor for – you guessed it – the union that is the UK. It was clever and the characterisations were very good, but it was a bit heavy-handed.

A 3.5* final day in a  4* festival. With a wimpy 12 shows in 5 days, will I be alllowed to return???

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My review of 2012 takes the form of nine awards. There are none for performances as I find it impossible to choose and invidious to select from so much amazing talent. Here goes:

THEATRICAL EVENT OF THE YEAR – The Olympic Games Opening Ceremony, showing the world Britain at its theatrical best, and Globe to Globe, inviting the world to perform its greatest playwright on his ‘home stage’ – both once-in-a-lifetime experiences. Honourable mention to the The Bomb at the Tricycle, the latest in their deeply rewarding reviews of history, world events and global issues.

MOST EXCITING EVENING OF THE YEAR (or possibly my life!) – You Me Bum Bum Train, the most extraordinary adrenalin rush as you perform in 13 scenes from conducting an orchestra to operating a digger, travelling between them through pipes, holes & chutes.

SOLO SHOW – Mark Thomas’ autobiographical Bravo Figaro, funny and moving in equal measure.

BEST OUTSIDE LONDON – National Theatre of Wales’ CoriolanUs in an aircraft hanger at RAF St. Athan; the other highlight of the World Shakespeare Festival, part of the Cultural Olympiad. Wonderful Town is worthy of mention as the touring musical that really should have come to the West End.

NEW PLAYThis House at the Cottesloe, a play about British politics from 1974 to 1979 that was more enlightening than living through it (by a man who is too young to have lived through it), yet entertaining and funny. Honorable mentions to Red Velvet at the Tricycle, In Basildon at the Royal Court and Last of the Haussmanns & The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nightime – both also at the National, which at last found its new writing form.

PLAY REVIVAL – Desire Under the Elms at the Lyric Hammersmith, a stunning revival of an OK play in a year of many gems, amongst which I would single out A Doll’s House at the Young Vic, She Stoops to Conquer at the NT, Philadelphia, Here I Come at the Donmar, Cornelius at the Finborough,Vieux Carre at the King’s Head, A Long Day’s Journey into Night in the West End and both of the radical Julius Caesar’s – the African one for the RSC and the all-female one at the Donmar.

NEW MUSICALA Winter’s Tale at the Landor. The easiest category to call in a very lean year, with Soho Cinders, Daddy Long Legs and Loserville the only other contenders – but that takes nothing away from the gem that Howard Goodall’s show was.

MUSICAL REVIVAL – Sweeney Todd, though this is the toughest category with no less than 10 other contenders – Patience, The Fix and Call Me Madam at the Union, Gay’s the Word & Merrie England at the Finborough, Guys & Dolls Upstairs at the Gatehouse, Curtains at the Landor, Boy Meets Boy at Jermyn Street, Merrily We Roll Along at the Menier, Opera North’s Carousel at the Barbican and another Chichester transfer, Singing in the Rain, in the West End.

TURKEY OF THE YEAR – The NT’s Damned for Despair, though this year there were also a trio of visiting turkeys, all at the Barbican – Big & Small, Nosferatu and Forests – and a pair of site specific turkeys – Babel & The Architects.

2012 will be hard to beat!

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Another trip to Wales, this time to see the National Theatre of Wales ‘mash-up’ of Shakespeare’s play and Brecht’s mid-20th century left-wing spin on it. This one’s in a disused aircraft hangar at RAF St. Athan. It’s extraordinary.

They’ve solved the three great problems of site-specific promenade productions. You have headphones, so you can hear every word. There are two giant screens, so you needn’t miss a thing. You’re not marshalled or herded around, so no distractions built in.

The hangar is divided in two by a double wall so you really do move from Rome to Antium when you walk through the gap. You are the people, so they’re often speaking directly to you; when they’re not, they are in cars & vans (that move) or caravans (that don’t) and you eavesdrop on their conversation on the big screens and through your cans. The play acquires a depth which I’ve never experienced before. The heroic story. The contempt for the people. The loyalty to his mother. The political shenanigans.

You feel like you’re in the middle of events as they unfold. Everything is in black & white like CC TV. This really is happening and you have to decide where you stand. Are you for him or against him? It’s extraordinarily contemporary.

Technically, Mike Pearson & Mike Brooks production is masterly. The combination of live video and personal audio with live dialogue & music is terrific, but it doesn’t get in the way of the dramatic flow of the play – to the contrary, in heightens it. The performances are exceptional too. On a  number of occasions I felt like Coriolanus was looking directly at me, connecting with my inner thoughts; Richard Lynch is outstanding in the tile role. Rhian Morgan as his mother Volumia is superb. Richard Harrington is an excellent Aufidius. In fact, there isn’t a fault in the casting.

I was captivated by this play like I’ve never been before; the staging isn’t a gimmick, it’s a liberation of the story and the text and Coriolanus has never been more compelling or thrilling.

Based on my three visits to NTW, this company is very special indeed; I will be making more 340-mile round-trips – work this good doesn’t happen that often. The undoubted highlight (in English) of the World Shakespeare Festival.

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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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