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Posts Tagged ‘Tom Piper’

There’ve been many adaptations of Bizet’s Carmen; this one owes as much to Hammerstein’s Carmen Jones as it does to Bizet’s original. It’s relocated to Cuba at the fag end of Batista’s regime and the start of the revolution and all those latin rhythms and moves unleash a new power. I loved it.

Carmen works in a cigar factory on Cuba’s south coast, where Jose is a military guard. She’s briefly imprisoned in Santiago for fighting and he’s imprisoned for letting her go. Boxer El Nino, en route to his fight in Havana, takes a fancy to Carmen, who follows him with Jose in tow; he can hardly contain his jealousy. The revolution has begun in Havana, but the boxing match goes on, and the tragedy unfolds. It’s presided over by La Senora who appears in many guises, a very clever idea.

Hamilton’s Alex Lacamoire has created brilliant Latin arrangements and orchestrations, full of salsa, mambo, cha-cha-cha and rumba rhythms. This gives Cuban choreographer Roclan Gonzalez Chavez his starting point, from which he creates some thrilling dancing. Hector Martignon’s twelve-piece band whips up a storm. Tom Piper’s designs are very evocative of the period and the country, fading and falling down but still magical. The surtitles could have been positioned better and there was no need for Sadler’s Wells to replicate Cuban temperatures, but those are my only gripes!

Luna Manzanares Nardo as Carmen has the voice, moves and the sex appeal; she’s terrific. Saeed Mohamed Valdes is a touch restrained as Jose, but his vocals are superb. Joaquin Garcia Mejias has great presence as El Nino. La Senora in her many guises is brilliantly played by Albita Rodriguez. There’s great support from fourteen other actor-singers and ten dancers.

Above all, it’s the enthusiasm and energy of a stage full of Cuban talent that sweeps you away. Christopher Renshaw’s production is an outstanding reinvention of a classic.

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Within minutes of it starting, I knew travelling to Stratford (upon Avon) to see this was a good idea. I’m a big fan of Joan Littlewood, even though I never saw any of her work. When my Tardis arrives, one of my first journeys will be back to the late 50’s / early 60’s to visit her Theatre Workshop at the Theatre Royal in Stratford (East London). She revolutionised British theatre as much as people like Peter’s Brook and Hall, but isn’t recognised as much, though she does now have a statue outside Stratford East.

Writer Sam Kenyon uses seven Joan’s to tell her story, with the wonderful Clare Burt as Joan the narrator, encouraging and instructing the others to pass the baton, her trademark cap, to the next as she ages. It briefly covers her arrival in the world, school, an early trip to Paris and RADA, before political theatre in the North West, where she meets and marries future folk royalty Ewan MacColl (then Jimmie Miller). The whole of the second half covers the Theatre Workshop period in Stratford East, using the development of productions like A Taste of Honey, Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be and Oh What A Lovely War to propel the story forward.

It’s warts and all, so though it’s a homage, it shows the negative too. Along the way we meet Victor Spinetti, Barbara Windsor, Shelagh Delaney, Lionel Bart, Hal Prince (that collaboration was new to me!), Murray Melvin (whose insight Kenyon benefited from, and who was in the audience at this performance) and John Gielgud playing Macbeth! All of these are played by the ensemble regardless of age, sex or race. Her reciprocal love of Gerry Raffles shines through.

Designer Tom Piper has put a gold proscenium arch and red velvet curtains at the back of the apron stage, much like Stratford East, above which there’s a strip of screen on which projections signpost places and productions, with the band in the gallery above that. There’s an anarchic, playful quality to Erica Whyman’s production which seems entirely in keeping with the story. It feels like it’s being created as we watch, in the same way Joan’s shows were developed. It isn’t perfect, but for the first production of someone’s second musical, it’s impressive.

In addition to Clare Burt as Joan and Solomon Israel as Gerry Raffles, an ensemble of ten play the other five Joan’s and more than thirty other roles. Sophie Nomvete and Emily Johnstone give great turns as Avis Bunnage and Barbara Windsor respectively. They also play two of the Joan’s, receiving / passing the baton (cap) from / to Aretha Ayeh, Sandy Foster, Amanda Hadingue and Dawn Hope, all excellent. I felt for Tam Williams, playing Murray Melvin with the man himself just feet away; he also gets give us Gielgud’s Macbeth!

Well worth the trip to Stratford, hopefully to have a life beyond The Swan.

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Sometimes the theatre can teach you something about recent history that passed you by, even though you lived through it. So it is with this play by Francis Turnly, the story of a group of Japanese coastal dwellers who disappeared in the late 70’s, seemingly abducted by North Korea.

The story is told through the life of one family, single mother Etsuko and her two daughters, Reiko and Hanako. Hanako disappears and Etsuko spends the rest of her life searching for her daughter, and the truth, with the help of Reiko and her friend Tetsuo. She sends out a message in a bottle, literally, on a daily basis. She finds the relatives of other victims and forms a campaign group, but the government is reluctant to take up the cause and the press hesitant about supporting it.

North Korea’s intentions initially seem to be to brainwash and turn those abducted and return them as spies, but this later changed to using them to teach their language and customs to potential spies. Some, like Hanako, are forced to marry and have children. She even finds happiness with Kum-Choi, the husband of her arranged marriage, and their daughter Hana. When relations between the two countries ease, the government acts at last and Etsuko learns the fate of her daughter. Though it’s a personal story, you learn a lot about the post-war geopolitics of East Asia.

Tom Piper’s set revolves to move us between the countries, with illustrative giant projections by Luke Halls, but otherwise Indhu Rubasingham’s staging is fairly conventional, focusing on the storytelling, without distraction. After last year’s ‘yellow face’ controversy, it’s good to see a complete cast of actors of East Asian heritage, with excellent performances all round.

I’m not sure how this particular piece of history passed me by, but I was glad to be informed at last, and given the profile of North Korea in today’s news, its rather timely.

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Tony Kushner writes great plays with dreadful titles. The full title of this one is The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism & Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures. He wrote one of the greatest plays of the second half of the 20th century, the two-part six-hour Angels in America, both parts first seen together here in 1993 and returning to the NT in 2017. He hasn’t produced much original work since, none of it anywhere near a match for AiA. It’s been a long time since I saw a big, meaty play and I found this a real theatrical feast.

Whereas AiA was epic, iHo is a family saga, though it seems like a lot more once you’ve taken it all in. Gus Marcantonio is an Italian American longshoreman who made his name as a union man. His eldest son Pill is gay, in a long-term relationship but with an addiction to paying for sex, latterly with money borrowed from his sister Empty, four years his junior. Empty has left her husband Adam and is in a lesbian relationship with Maeve, who is pregnant with a child from sperm donated by Empty’s younger brother V, who is married with two young children. V is ten years younger, his mother died giving birth to him, and he’s the only one of Gus’ children who hasn’t followed his politics or indeed career. Keeping up?

They meet at the family brownstone in Brooklyn because Gus thinks he’s getting Alzheimer’s so he wants to sell the house, share out the proceeds and die, a year on from an earlier attempted suicide. His sister Clio is currently in residence. She used to be a nun, before becoming involved in dubious left-wing militant groups like Shining Path. Empty’s ex Adam is also in residence. All sorts of family history, some surprises and more than one cupboard full of skeletons emerge in this dense, complex and dramatically rich concoction. It becomes a struggle to keep up when the dialogue overlaps, which is often. This adds to the realism, but is pushed a bit two far in the second section. 

Tom Piper has designed an austere three-story revolving house, though most of the action takes place in a ground floor living room occupied by little more than a couple of tables and some chairs. There’s not much to distract you from the unfolding story. It would be invidious to single out performances from such a terrific ensemble. Quite how they keep it all together at times is beyond me; it must be a real challenge to speak your lines in a conversation with another character whilst there are several other conversations going on – it was hard enough listening.

I left the theatre deeply satisfied, full to the brim but not bloated after an excellent theatrical meal. We get so few of these really meaty plays in the Miller / O’Neill / Tennessee Williams mould these days. Now I can’t wait for the AiA revival next year.

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This is a fascinating, multi-layered play from American playwright Marcus Gardley, covering ground I haven’t seen on stage or screen or even in print. It gets a great production by the Tricycle Theatre’s AD Indhu Rubasingham, with a fine cast of British actresses (plus Paul Shelley!).

Gardley’s play is set in New Orleans in 1836, in the period between the Louisiana Purchase, when this chunk of America was sold by the French and soon became one of the United States, and the American Civil War. Under French rule, white men routinely had a second family by a black mistress so a mixed race of ‘free people of colour’ developed. Their lives would soon change when the US became a black or white society and it is during this transition that we meet placee (black concubine) Beatrice and her three daughters mourning the death of their white common law husband / father Lazare (whose body is onstage!).

Beatrice is determined her daughters don’t follow her into placage (concubinage) but Agnes rebels and gets her sister Odette to pose as her mother and sell her into placage. Third daughter Maude tries but fails to prevent this. Somewhat ironically, these women have a house servant who is a slave, but she is a strong woman who has a big influence on them all. Beatrice has two other women in her life – her mentally unstable sister Marie Josephine, who causes a fair bit of havoc, and her friend La Veuve, who she is forever sparring with. We even get Lazare’s ghost for good measure.

Tom Piper opens up the Tricycle stage with a simple but clever white balcony and curved staircase; I’ve never seen it look so big. It’s great to see a cast of Black British women relishing these meaty characters. Tanya Moodie is, as ever, magnificent as the servant Makeda, deeply moving when she is finally free. Martina Laird is strong and defiant as Beatrice and Clare Perkins’ madness as Marie Josephine convinces. Amongst the daughters, Ayesha Antoine is hugely impressive as rebel daughter Agnes, with a combination of cheekiness and determination.

A fascinating piece of social and political history, with a nod to Bernarda Alba and an autobiographical dimension to the characters, and a great piece of family history. The Tricycle’s on a roll.

 

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I’d have died happy having seen both Anthony Sher’s and Ian McKellen’s Richard III; I will die even happier now I’ve also seen Kevin Spacey’s. If I were to write my memoirs of a lifetime of theatre going, this would be there in both the ‘Great Shakespeare productions and ‘Great Shakespearean performances’ chapters.

Sam Mendes production has a cinematic quality and races along at a pace like no other Shakespeare production I’ve ever seen, aided by Tom Piper’s simple but highly effective design. Until Richard’s coronation, it’s contained within three grey walls with sixteen doors; then the back wall is removed. There are so many interesting ideas here, as the play reveals itself to be a timeless study of the psychology of dictatorship. Richard’s journey is brilliantly evoked, from the man-with-a-chip-on-his-shoulder (!) to a fully fledged tyrant. As we progress he adopts the trappings of autocracy, through to the medal-adorned military uniform  & dark glasses.

What Mendes & Spacey do is bring out the darkness inside the would-be king; the ruthless, manic intensity is there for all to see. It’s not without its humour, with the grinning asides to the audience and a couple of Hollywood references (Groucho Marx’s cigar gesture and the calls for ‘Stanley’ imitating Oliver Hardy) but the darkness pervades the production. In the scene where the ‘public’ are enticed to champion Richard, the audience is the public and he’s on screen. The battle is conveyed by loud percussion, as the cast join the two off-stage percussionists used throughout. Richard’s dream the night before is superbly staged and the scene where he informs Haydn Gwynne’s Elizabeth that he is to marry her daughter is riveting.

This is Spacey’s eighth role on this stage and unquestionably his greatest. He gives the role a menace through the contortions of his humped and calipered body and the way he uses the volume and tone of his voice to convey Richard’s feelings and motivations. The lines direct to the audience draw you in to his inner self. The only problem with such a towering performance is that when he’s not on stage you find yourself waiting for his return.

Simon Tisdall’s excellent programme points out the parallels with modern dictators and examines their different backgrounds and motivations through to those recently and currently challenged by the ‘Arab spring’, with Gaddafi the most obvious one. Richard III always seems to be relevant whenever you see it and it certainly is today. This production is yet another fresh and timely look and a thrilling one it proves to be with a leading performance from an actor at the height of his powers. It’s a triumph for the Bridge Project, which will enable 500,000 people in 10 countries on 4 continents to see it. Lucky them. Lucky me.

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