Thursday, 16 March 2017

REVIEW: My Country | A Work In Progress - National Theatre

In the aftermath of the Referendum of June 2016, the National Theatre decided to hear the voices of the nation; those which were being ignored by politicians, and society as a whole. They interviewed people from across the country and these testimonials, along with political speeches from the time, have now been woven into a play by Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy and director Rufus Norris.
National Theatre on the Southbank

For the first ten minutes or so, I was a little uncertain; while it started strong, setting the scene, laying out context and groundwork, and even raising a couple of laughs, it began to veer dangerously close to an A-Level drama production at one point. However, Duffy's glorious language, a quick comeback of production values, and the astonishing talent of the cast rescued the play very quickly, and we were off.

Britannia has called a meeting of the Regions. Played spectacularly by Penny Layden she spoke with the voices, literally, of the Politicians of the moment, while the Regions spoke for those from across the country. The verbatim testimony wove well with the political rhetoric, but occasionally jarred with the poetic speeches from the playwright.

My Country doesn't make a claim to examine the rights and wrongs of the campaign or the result; however there was a touching moment when Britannia spoke for the MP Jo Cox. What it does do is present, impartially yet theatrically, the thoughts, feelings, emotions and reasons of people from all walks of life, all backgrounds and all experiences. Christian Patterson as Cymru occasionally spoke for/as a nine-year old, and Adam Ewan as South-West spoke for a ninety-year old woman.

The gradation of accents from throughout the cast was quite remarkable; the play will be touring and while, to me, the voice of a person from Durham and a person from Gateshead may sound indistinguishable, to a person from those regions I'm sure the difference is obvious. So, to that end, the actors were careful to be faithful to the original accents and dialects of the interviewees; Laura Elphinstone as North-East was particularly fluid in this respect, moving seamlessly from timid elderly lady, to lad-on-the-town in one breath.

One of the most poignant moments, for me, was, oddly, one of the most exuberant: Britannia is reaching breaking point and the Regions decide to call a halt for a moment, so they can eat. Each region has brought food from their area, and they share it out between one another. They laugh and tease good-naturedly, pointing out the foibles and stereotypes of each, before breaking out into song and dance (Cavan Clarke's 'Lord Of The Dance' was something to behold). While I was a little bemused by what I was watching, the message was clear: We have far more in common, more things that bring us together, and more that we celebrate communally, than things that divide us.

The staging was simple, yet contained moments of great effectiveness. Duffy has done a very good job bringing together disparate voices into an almost-seamless whole, with lovely moments of humour to balance out the seriousness of the subject. The cast worked well as an ensemble.

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For me, this play didn't cover any new grounds of thought. However this is a personal response rather than a critical one. It's a new thing for the National, to respond so quickly to an event, and commission a work of this nature rather than rummaging around in the archives for a play that could be made to fit the current crisis, and I applaud it for that.

I think the most interesting thing would be to follow this play around the country; to observe the audience in the different venues. Where would they laugh? Where would there be an intake of breath? Would some people boo? As a London, liberal theatre-going audience audibly hissed at the rhetoric of Farage and Johnson, would an audience from Salisbury cheer? As I watched a fairly even-handed production, would others see it as propaganda for Remoaners, or validation of the Leavers?

As the production makes clear; as a country there may be more that we have in common, but there is still plenty over which we are divided.

Monday, 13 March 2017

House of Cards

Today the House of Commons voted against the amendments to the Bill for Exiting the EU that had been recommended by the House of Lords. The first suggested amendment was to guarantee the rights of EU Nationals living in the UK, and the second was to give MP's a meaningful vote on the final deal.

Why in all holy hell did they reject them? What on earth are these people playing at?

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Firstly, the argument was that the EU needs to guarantee the same rights for UK Nationals living abroad in Europe, but that so far they haven't.
The thing is, the thing that bears repeating ad nauseam, is that we have not yet triggered Article 50, let alone let the European Union yet.
Under the terms of Article 50, negotiations cannot begin until it is put into action, so of course the EU cannot offer any guarantees of anything until that happens. But surely we're in a better position to negotiate strong terms for ex-pats if our MP's can point to their own human empathy in guaranteeing rights for citizens of other countries. I would assume that this would be a stronger, more grown-up position to take, rather than a childish back-and-forth of "well I'm not until you are." But, as I have frequently observed in the past, our politicians and our politics seem to have barely moved beyond the playground.

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Secondly, one of the rallying cries for the Leave campaign was the call to make our own Parliament sovereign. So I must confess to being absolutely baffled that MP's would vote to reduce their own power and influence in this matter.

The excuse, sorry, reason that was given was that apparently the foreknowledge of a parliamentary vote on the final deal would weaken our negotiating position, making the EU more likely to offer us a terrible deal if they knew that MP's were likely to vote against it, therefore keeping us within the union. BUT, the MP's have actually chosen to waive their power, rights and responsibilities, and so now, whatever deal we are offered, it will have to go through. In the event that the EU still offers a terrible deal, or no deal, it will go through either way because no one in Parliament can vote to stop it.

Maybe it's so that, in years to come as the Districts battle it out for food, as the chaos is streamed into the privileged parlours of Whitehall, those in power can deny all responsibility for the apocalyptic wasteland by saying "well it's not our fault; in the end there was nothing we could do."

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It's a very strange world we're living in. Interesting times, for certain. It's all so Orwellian as 'the proles' are anaesthetised with sports, gambling and mind-numbingly bad television, and people are so sick of the sheer amount of news that they're turning away in droves, reluctant to engage with the next crisis, the next headline. And so the government can get away with murder; riding roughshod over rights, using the same media to convince everyone that it's going to be okay, that 'everyone else' is wrong, and stoking the energies of the populace when it suits them, like during Hate Week... Oh wait, that last bit isn't real... Yet.

Saturday, 11 March 2017

A Crisis of Inconvenience

As I mentioned a while ago, for my forthcoming Masters Degree, I intend to focus on how theatre responds to political and sociological crisis. And a couple of days ago I attended an intense event launching the playscript of Homegrown, which had been censored by the National Youth Theatre in 2015.

It's taken a while for me to get my thoughts into any kind of coherent strand, since I found the whole evening quite overwhelming, but, thinking about the night in the context of my intended study has helped immensely!

The newly published playscript of Homegrown

Theatre is a responsive medium - artists create from their own experience, and while every experience is unique, every experience is also valid. The experience of the characters in the play, which has been self-released now by the writer and director after reluctance from several publishers, is a harsh one, but one which many people across the world could, worryingly, relate to.

And maybe that's part of the problem - many people don't wish to face up to the reality of what life and experience may be like for an underrepresented minority in their midst. Theatre has, in large part, a duty to reflect the voice of the people, for right or for wrong.

Homegrown provocation

What struck me about this video is that Muslims in the entertainment media are most often depicted as figures of comedy or terror. There is very little nuance, back story, development or sympathy in characterisation, and they are used, most often as a foil for the hero. The only times in which they are shown with any degree of subtlety or humanity is when Muslim characters are played by white actors.  Admittedly in the above video, those clips are from older films and one would hope that we have progressed from this type of whitewashing, although alongside that statement would also stand the observation that Muslims are no longer depicted with any sort of empathy on film at all any more.

In this instance, the theatre was intending to respond to the given crisis in a number of ways: by giving voice to those who were not being heard; by showing the range of views that are contributing to the mire of opinion around the crisis; and by not offering judgement on the situation, merely trying to expose it in a sympathetic and empathetic way.

Original cast for Homegrown
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The production was intended to be an immersive promenade performance in a school. By taking a location which would be over-familiar to many attendees, full of our own personal feelings and emotions around school and that period in our lives, and subverting the expectation, this production would have forced us to confront the crisis in a way that would have been difficult to ignore. Having experienced even a small snippet of the play the other night at the Index On Censorship event, I believe it would have been truly exciting and provocative had it been allowed to go ahead.

More worryingly, though, does this indicate that other sections of theatre are responding to crisis by ignoring it? Pretending it doesn't exist and making it go away when subversive opinions might dare to raise their heads and their voices?

Well, if this play proves anything, it's that theatre is incredibly hard to silence.

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Homegrown Censorship

Last night I attended an event, hosted by Index On Censorship, provocatively titled 'The inconvenient Muslim.' The night was a launch event for the play Homegrown which was cancelled during rehearsals by the National Youth Theatre in 2015 after police intervention.

Index On Censorship at Conway Hall

The night began with an address from members of Index On Censorship, who introduced a panel discussion led by Hassan Mahamdallie, with Madani Younis, Tom Slater, Clara Glynn and Vron Ware. They discussed, first, the play itself, the circumstances which led to its commissioning and eventual censorship, and led into a debate on the nature of censorship in theatre itself.

One of the most striking parts of the night came after the panel discussion when Mahamdallie appeared to open up to questions from the audience. What followed was a guerilla performance from cast members of the original production who had been seated throughout the hall. With the appearance of a Q&A between themselves, they pitched extracts from the play, disputing, debating, throwing out voices from across the spectrum of opinion; some were sympathetic, others vitriolic; rising in crescendo to a goosebump inducing conclusion, and a very well deserved standing ovation.

Tom Slater, Madani Younis and Hassan Mahamdallie

After the performance, questions were genuinely invited from the audience, and the panel discussed them at length. The panel were explicit in agreeing that the performance had been genuinely censored rather than pulled over questions of artistic merit (one of the excuses offered in the immediate aftermath), and the cast and creative team behind Homegrown were praised for their approach to very difficult questions and circumstances.

Finally, Omar El-Khairy (the writer) and Nadia Latif (director) took to the stage, to another standing ovation, to speak about the pride they had in their cast - much of Homegrown was developed in collaboration with the NYT cast during rehearsals - and the anger they had felt, not only over the silencing of the play itself, but also the enforced silencing of the young actors, whose experience was being invalidated by censoring their voices.

My brain is buzzing, and Index On Censorship and The Guardian have written summaries of the event, which may help me to get my thoughts into some sort of coherent narrative before writing again.

Saturday, 25 February 2017

Books, Books, Books

I am such an avid reader. I love reading, and I love books. I am a step away from being surgically attached to my Kindle, which is filled with all manner of literature, as it is impossible to lug around over 200 books with me on a day to day basis.

But, when I'm engaged in research, I much prefer having a hard-copy, old-fashioned, traditional book to read.

My current favourite is 'State Of The Nation' by Michael Billington. I've been reading it voraciously since I bought it, and scribbling frantic notes in the margins of every page. I'm also particularly grateful to the blank pages at the back of the book, which I am beginning to fill with longer notes that wouldn't have fit down the edges of the writing!


It's really helping me crystallise my thinking on how Theatre responds to Crisis; I can tell it's going to be one of my most referenced texts going forward!

Friday, 3 February 2017

REVIEW: Brexit | The Musical - Waterloo East Theatre

Brexit itself, and all of the kerfuffle that surrounded it, especially in the first weeks after the Referendum, lends itself to satire, so it is inevitable that one of the ways in which theatre has responded to this crisis is with comedy.

Waterloo East Theatre
The small cast of Brexit The Musical rattled through the main points of the campaign, beginning in 2014 with the Tory victory in the Scottish Referendum and ending, somewhat abruptly, with an invasion by a Supreme Court judge.

This being satire, the characters became caricatures, yet were well drawn, and multiple roles (often within the same scene) were tackled well. I did find it interesting that, despite being clearly on the side of Remain, both sides were treated with equal respect. Or, rather, equal disrespect. I particularly enjoyed the sudden foray into Macbeth, depicting Theresa May, Andrea Leadsom and Nicola Sturgeon as the Witches to Boris Johnson and Michael Gove. The two Civil Servants were also stand-out characters for me, full of lighting fast rhyming jargon, doublespeak and deadpan delivery.

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While several of the songs were extremely witty, the Madrigal in particular, I felt that they were actually the weakest points of the musical: Farage's solo in particular, I thought, could have benefited from a little more speed. Although maybe that's just because I don't want to give Farage any air-time whatsoever, even in cartoon-character form.  

Saying that, I do think that overall the entire production felt a bit rushed. Admittedly this could be mainly to do with the fact that so much happened in a very short space of time, but I think the show could have done with being a little longer in its entirety, and spoofed a few more of the main events that occurred during a fraught campaign.

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Shirreff, Sarre and Appleby have written a clever piece of reactionary theatre: I understand that the rushed feel of the performance could have been, in part, due to the urgency necessitated in keeping the production relevant, and the cast did cope very well with the speed of the show. Director Lucy Appleby did a good job keeping the disparate segments flowing well, with simple props to depict change of scenes, which worked well in the black-box minimalism of Waterloo East.

I look forward to the next crisis which spawns a production from this team.

Saturday, 14 January 2017

Looking Forward

Let's face it - 2016 wasn't pleasant for many people.

Image Source: Brian Powell for
Personally, for me, it was an extraordinarily difficult year, with a few shining beacons of good news piercing the darkness: I wasn't sure what I wanted to achieve, met many roadblocks and stumbled and fell more times than I can count. And, in many ways, after all of my exertions, I appear to be back in exactly the same position as I was at the end of 2015, having attained nothing during the last twelve months.

However, I did make some progress in a couple of areas - I received a First in my degree; worked out what I didn't want to do, or be; joined a political party and a social movement; reconnected with some old friends; and towards the end of the year, made some big decisions about my future (admittedly these decisions changed a couple of times due to the universe's knack of throwing spanners into the works, but still...).

You're never too old to wish upon a star...
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So now, I'm pleased to announce that I have been accepted onto a Masters Degree at King's College London! I wrote in my journal on the 1st of January that this was one of my hopes for the year, and it has come to pass.

I start in September on the Theatre And Performance Studies MA, and intend to have a focus on how theatre responds to political and sociological crisis - which should be incredibly interesting over the next eighteen months! So now, I'm gathering books, resources and more books, looking into performances to attend, and will be spending the next nine months in a state of nervous anticipation interspersed with reading.

Bring on 2017 - I'm ready for you.