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Posts Tagged ‘Sophia Nomvete’

Eleven years ago I went to see a 17th century play by a Mexican nun as part of the RSC’s Spanish Golden Age season and here I am now seeing a play about that very nun, and a jolly good play it is too.

Based on the life of Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz, Helen Edmundson’s play is set at a fascinating time in New Spain (Mexico). The Spanish colonists rule through their Viceroy, but the Roman Catholic church wields as much power in the land through its resident Archbishop. The convents are somewhat more liberal than you might expect, with nuns able to write secular works and employ servants amongst other things. There’s a delicate and complex power balance between Madrid, the Viceroy, the Archbishop and the indigenous people.

A new, more zealous Archbishop arrives and starts to disrupt this balance, questioning Sister Juana’s right to write plays and poetry (even those written in honour of his arrival) and her close friendship with the court, both of which have been tolerated or even encouraged by the local clergy who have ‘gone native’ after many years there. The response starts with book burning as Sister Juana’s confessor, Father Antonio, does the Archbishop’s bidding and the more Machiavellian Bishop Santa Cruz, bitter at having been passed over for promotion, plays a more duplicitous role. There is also an important sub-plot involving the relationship between Sister Juana’s niece Angelica and a member of the court.

It’s an extremely well written play, anchored in a clearly well researched real life but, by necessity I suspect, extrapolated from there. It has great pace in Jonathan Dove’s production, and is often surprisingly funny, without in any way disrespecting its subject. Michael Taylor’s clever but simple design creates a realistic convent with some wrought iron framing, a couple of crests and a lot of books. There’s a trio of musicians led by MD Phil Hopkins playing William Lyons evocative music.

It’s a long way from 1960’s Dagenham to 1760’s Mexico City but Naomi Frederick follows her role in Made in Dagenham with another outstanding characterisation as Sister Juana. Anthony Howell is excellent as the dodgy Bishop, with soliloquies to the audience telling us what he’s really up to. Sophia Nomvete and Gwyneth Keyworth add a delightful light touch as loyal servant Juanita and niece Angelica, and Phil Whitchurch has great presence as the inquisitorial Archbishop.

This new production comes only three years after its RSC première in Stratford. I never saw that so I can make no comparison, but I thoroughly enjoyed this. It seems very much at home at the Globe and it was lovely to see the captivated faces and to hear the whooping, sighs and laughter of the groundlings, particularly young and largely female on this occasion.

Another fine new play at Shakespeare’s Globe.

 

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I’m late to this show as I double-booked myself early in the run (another senior moment) which sadly means I won’t be able to see it again. The chief reason I’d like to is a set of exceptional performances; with The Amen Corner, Fences, Josephine & I, A Season in the Congo and this, it has been an extraordinary summer for black actors.

In this configuration (audience on three sides, thrust stage) the Menier seems a lot bigger and it appears to open up the show, which never feels cramped, even with all 17 actors on stage. John Doyle’s staging (not with actor-musicians this time) is intimate yet big. The transition from book to film to musical works reasonably well, but it’s the fine set of performances which make it.

Celie’s dad gives away here children so that she can keep home for him. Then he gives away Celie herself to Mister, a misogynistic bully who’d lusted after her sister Nettie but has to make do with her. Nettie disappears to Africa to look after the children of missionaries and Celie befriends feisty Sofia and Shug, both of whom give her the strength to assert herself and take control of her life. This all takes place in early 20th century America and it’s particularly unsympathetic to the black American men of the time.

You can tell it was written by a team more used to pop, TV & film music rather than musical theatre (one of them could probably live off the royalties to the Friends theme forever) as at times you get snatches of incomplete songs rather than fully formed ones, particularly in the first half. It’s a mixture of styles, but there are enough intimate songs and rousing choruses to carry it and it does tell the story well enough.

You cheer on Nicola Hughes and Sophia Nomvete as ballsy Shug and Sofia respectively, fall in love with Abiona Omonua’s Nettie and there’s a lovely trio of local churchwomen (gossips) from Keisha T Fraser, Samantha-Antoinette Smith & Jennifer Saayeng. This is a show written for the girls, but Christopher Colquhoun does well as the deeply unsympathetic Mister, the man you love to hate. Towering above all of these is Cynthia Erivo who gives a career defining star performance as Celie giving her all with heart, soul and guts.

It would be lovely to see this transfer, though that might require a re-casting of the lead role as Erivo’s lined up for the X-Factor musical I Can’t Sing! Now, that’s a contrast if ever I saw one…..

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