Category Archives: Theatre

The Birkbeck Centre For Contemporary Theatre

Dr Fintan Walsh & Dr Louise Owen are the co-directors of The Birkbeck Centre For Contemporary Theatre.  Situated at 43 Gordon Square (The School of Arts), the BCCT is a thriving, multi-disciplinary platform where theatre professionals come together to create and research pieces on cultural politics and identity, new writing, contemporary theatre and early modern theatre and performance.  Here, Dr Walsh & Dr Owen explain some of the exciting developments which have evolved over 2016.

Please can you describe the structure of the BCCT programme?

We usually have some kind of event – such as a workshop or conversation – planned each week. Some involve centre fellows (we appoint twenty who are attached for three years) pursuing research and development towards their projects.  Others include people working in the theatre industry, or with other academics.  Many events will be open to staff, students and the public, and will address some aspect of contemporary theatre. We also run a number of symposia a year, which arise from our research interests, and fellows sometimes host their own workshops or talks here too.

When did BCCT form, and what do you consider its key objectives?

The centre was founded in 2006 by Professor Rob Swain, who runs the MFA Theatre Directing, as a space for hosting conversations between academics and theatre artists. These objectives have evolved over the years depending on shifts in research focus and staff, and when we took over the Centre in 2014 we had a chance to refine them again ourselves, to reflect our own interests and ambitions.

Can you explain more about the work and involvement of BA, MA and PhD students in Theatre and Drama Studies, Directing, and Creative Writing? 

Theatre and performance lecturers are involved in teaching on the BA Theatre and Drama Studies and MA Text and Performance (run in conjunction with RADA). Rob Swain looks after the MFA Theatre Directing. Some of the Creative Writing lecturers are also professional theatre and screen writers, and students have the chance to take their courses too. A lot of our practical classes take place in G10 studio space in 43 Gordon Square, which is where we also stage final performance projects. Students are welcome to attend many of the events run within the Centre too. And last year, along with the University of Winchester and the University of Kent, we collaborated with Camden People’s Theatre on two festivals entitled Being European, exploring the moments before and after the EU referendum.

With fellows ranging from playwrights to theatre directors, can you please discuss some of the themes and highlights of 2016, and beyond into 2017?

We invite a wide range of people involved in theatre to participate in centre events as it’s such a diverse discipline. The centre’s goals shift slightly year- on-year depending on the research focus of academics and Fellows, and we try to integrate these by working to a research theme, which this year is ‘transmission’. We have many events coming up in 2017, but three symposia we’re currently working on include Politicians & Other Performers in January, Twofold: the Particularities of Working in Pairs in March, and Theatres of Contagion in May. When we can, we podcast our talks on the Centre for Contemporary Theatre website. The centre runs events every day during Arts Week – discussions, symposia, performances. In May 2016, we welcomed Tassos Stevens (Artistic Director of Coney), who talked about digital media and social life with Birkbeck academics Seda Ilter, Scott Rodgers and Joel McKim.  We run a Scratch Night every year for students at all levels to show work in progress.  The MFA Theatre Directing students will create an original piece of performance in collaboration with an academic.  Last year, they worked with Gill Woods to create a brilliant short interactive piece exploring ‘part scripts’, widely used in early modern theatre.  We also support artists to show longer pieces of work in progress in the context of Arts Week too (for example, the work of Theatre North).

What would you like to see introduced?

The Centre is ten years old this year, so we’re hoping to mark that by running a range of events that reflect upon its achievement next year.

What have been the challenges faced by the theatre?

Time! There is so much we would like to do, and with limited time…

Would you consider arranging a society through Birkbeck SU for Drama?

Students have expressed an interest in forming a Birkbeck drama society, and we would fully support the activities of such a group. As an SU activity it’s not for us to initiate it.

And finally, what do you consider the chief mission of the theatre?

The Centre’s mission is to host conversations between all those interested in theatre – academics, artists and audiences – and to be responsive to contemporary concerns and issues. This aim, above all else, informs the work we do, and will guide future developments

theatre

Images: Courtesy of The Birkbeck Centre For Contemporary Theatre

For further information, please follow:

http://www.bbk.ac.uk/english/our-research/bcct

Flashback: The BISR Guilt Group, in conversation with Patrick Marber

On the 17th of May, Dr James Brown of the Birkbeck Institute of Social Research’s (BISR) Guilt Working Group  chaired a Q&A discussion and film screening with playwright and director Patrick Marber in the School of Arts, as part of Birkbeck Arts Week.

Here, the Birkbeck community were treated to a retrospective of Marber’s multi-faceted career as stand-up comic, television scriptwriter, playwright, screenwriter and director.

As a screenwriter he has adapted his own hit play Closer (2004), as well as novels by Patrick McGrath (Asylum, 2005) and Zoe Heller (Notes on a Scandal, 2006), the latter earning an Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Patrick’s love of literature became evident at the age of 15: “I wanted my books to be in the school library. I wanted to be a writer, like the people I loved. The writers who have inspired me through the years have included Graham Greene, Harold Pinter, Ian McEwan, Arthur Miller, Oscar Wilde and Philip Roth. I also like restoration plays. It’s important for the dialogue to sparkle.”

Studying English at Wadham College, Oxford under literary theorist Terry Eagleton, Patrick initially branched out into comedy, working as a puppeteer, and as one half of a slapstick duo with fellow student Guy Browning, then as a solo stand-up comic at The Oxford Revue: “I never wanted a proper job. I was biding my time. With stand-up, I only had to work twenty minutes in the evening! I tried to write a satirical poem but it blew my confidence and I felt defeated. I didn’t feel comfortable writing prose.”

However, Patrick was still determined to write a novel, and after graduating in 1991, stayed in Paris for six months. Returning dispirited, he was approached by an Oxford contemporary, BBC producer Armando Iannucci, to work on Radio 4’s On The Hour. Following on from this success, he collaborated with Steve Coogan on The Day Today and Knowing me, Knowing youwith Alan Partridge, where he also took on acting roles, including the delightfully incompetent reporter Peter O’ Hanraha-hanrahan. Patrick looks back on this time as an invaluable learning opportunity; “I had a seven year ‘apprenticeship’ on radio and television, I felt I had some confidence for once. I also felt better expressing myself as other people.”

At the relatively late age of 31, he made his theatre debut with 1995’s Dealer’s Choice, which premiered in the National Theatre’s Cottesloe Studio. Based on his own experiences of gambling addiction, the play is set in the repressive confines of a restaurant basement, with the final act centring around a game of poker. The play was developed in the NT Studio in 1993, starting off as, “a bag of bones”. Artistic Director Sir Richard Eyre sat in at one of his workshops, offering Patrick the chance to direct his piece for The National. It won the Evening Standard Award for Best Play, and cemented his reputation as a serious contender, alongside his hero, Harold Pinter.

“I got on with the cast really well. They were alert to the text, what they needed to say and what they didn’t need to say. I want characters who are burning with intensity, disagreeing. As a writer and Director, I don’t want it to be all ‘white’ in my work. The National Theatre is still my home. When (Sir) Nicholas Hytner came in as Artistic Director, I didn’t feel welcome. You go in and out of fashion. I’m glad Rufus (Norris) likes my work.”

Closer also had its world premiere at the NT in 1997. It is a tale of sexual betrayal, longing and duplicity, seen through the eyes of a quartet of lonely twenty-something star crossed lovers, who cross over allegiances. Closer is unflinching in its often graphic depiction of vice and misogyny, the voyeurism of cyberspace, viciousness of sexual jealousy, and the inner turmoil of one man (Dan) who veers between two women (wife Anna and stripper Alice).

Closer transferred to Broadway, with Patrick developing and directing the production for two and a half years, opening at the Music Box Theatre in January 1999. It was also staged in Paris and Prague; “I put in six different casts. I was exhausted. I never wanted to see another play again! It was very hard to write a play after it. But it was all good really. It was a blessing.

Patrick went on to write the 2004 screen adaptation, directed by Oscar-winner Mike Nichols, and starring Julia Roberts and Clive Owen. “As Mike said ‘It either has to be a fight, negotiation or seduction. If it’s not, it’s boring.’ Audiences want to be entertained more visually. The fashion at the moment is for effect, but there’s a hunger for new work; it’s a great time for new writers.”

Using semi-autobiographical elements within his narrative, Howard Katz (2001),  the play charts the journey of a middle-aged East End Jewish talent agent, whose life is spiralling out of control with no spiritual direction. Patrick directed, again at The Cottesloe, and played off-Broadway with Alfred Molina in the lead role. Receiving mixed reviews for its depiction of one man’s breakdown and crisis of faith, Patrick has been philosophical about its initial reception; “the press wanted me to write a raunchy play. I wrote the opposite of that, it was about my own mid-life crisis. I like the idea of ambivalence; we should be feeling two things. We don’t live cleanly. We live in a flug.”

For five years from 2007, Patrick struggled with writer’s block, while he had a variety of screenplay commissions to contend with. Patrick’s productivity now sees him write from 9pm until 2am: “After two to three hours, I know where the play’s going. I have to keep writing movies, and other things are just things to keep my hand in until the next play, which is the most important thing to me. I’d rather write less if it’s from the heart.”

Recent work includes The Red Lion (2015), a three-hander, set in the changing rooms of a semi-professional football team, where a gifted player finds himself caught between a bullying manager and a veteran player (Patrick is the Director of Lewes FC in Sussex). After Miss Julie (written twenty years ago) will be touring the Theatre Royal Bath (4-9 July), Richmond Theatre (11-16 July), and Milton Keynes Theatre (18-13 July). Based on Strindberg’s 1888 play, Patrick’s version of the erotic, psychological thriller is set in an English Country House during the eve of the Labour landslide of 1945.

Patrick’s approach to theatre making is simple; “Be ferocious, be unpopular. It’s your play. You’re the host of this party. I would encourage all new playwrights to direct and to learn on the job. The first play I directed was Dealer’s Choice at The National. All writers also need two to three good readers you can trust. Two supporters have been Sir Richard Eyre and (fellow Playwright) Nicholas Wright. My wife (actress Debra Gillett) has read every draft, every line endlessly. But I did dedicate my work to her! There’s a lot of playwrights who write but don’t know where it’s going. That’s okay. We all have conflicting feelings about life.”

Click here for more information about the work of The BISR Guilt Group.

An Inventive and Moving Reimagining of Aeschylus’ Oresteia

There’s much to be admired in this modern adaptation of Aeschylus’ trilogy, which kicks off the Almeida’s season of ancient Greek plays. In spite of a considerable running time (around 3 hours 40 minutes with two short intervals) and a set furnished with little more than a table and two benches that could’ve come straight from Ikea, director Robert Icke has produced a piece of theatre that moves briskly and defies boundaries of time and place.

Oddly enough, it is when Icke strays furthest from the original text that his adaptation is most successful. Diverging from Aeschylus’ play, here the first act deals with the decision of Agamemnon to sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia, in order to help secure victory against the city’s foes. As a study of the destruction of a family through blind faith and bad decision-making, the drama is potent and real and beautifully judged, with Angus Wright particularly convincing as the tortured Agamemnon.

Credit: Manuel Harlan
Angus Wright as Agamemnon. Credit: Manuel Harlan

The revenge cycle of parts two and three – Clytemnestra’s slaying of her husband, her death at the hands of her son, and his subsequent trial – follows the original plays more closely, and falls short of the promising beginning. The writing becomes increasingly fragmented and un-dramatic, which hinders the actors in achieving a believable narrative.

Jessica Brown Findlay, best known for her role as Lady Sybil in Downton Abbey, makes her stage debut as Electra, easily handling the transition from the small screen. However, without the same degree of care in building up a dramatic structure to explain the behaviour of her character, both she and Luke Thompson, playing her brother Orestes, struggle.

The casting of Lia Williams as Clytemnestra is also a little problematic. In the original Greek plays, she is a proud, defiant woman who feels entirely justified in destroying her husband. While Williams is believable as a loving wife and mother, she doesn’t really convince as a woman capable of murder. A variety of clever staging techniques coupled with a skilful use of sound keep the play moving, but the drama never quite recovers the heights of the opening.

Lia Williams as Credit: Manuel Harlan
Lia Williams as Clytemnestra. Credit: Manuel Harlan

When it comes to the themes of Aeschylus’ writing – the distinction between justice and revenge; the need for the State to help maintain civilisation – Icke’s adaptation doesn’t overstate the parallels to the present day, nor does it attempt to translate them into new ideas that have intellectual coherence. The trial scene, which briefly examines justice in a society where women are considered less important than men, doesn’t strike any modern chords.

Ultimately this adaptation scores most heavily for its clever and skilful dramatic staging, and its superb first act. It is an ambitious and at times very moving piece of theatre.

 

Oresteia will be playing at The Almeida Theatre until 18 July.

 

 

REVIEW: NOW THIS IS NOT THE END @ARCOLATHEATRE

Set in modern day London and Berlin, Rose Lewenstein’s one act play deals with the pervasive impact of living in wartime Germany on Jewish escapees, from Nazi oppression through to the 21st century.

Director Katie Lewis sensitively handles themes of Alzheimer’s, the emotional impact of the holocaust, and the problems of communication between mother, daughter and granddaughter. Holly Piggott’s set consists of chairs and plain brown boxes on a wooden platform, backed by the fragmented fluorescent outline of a window, symbolising the dysfunctional ‘heimat’, or home.

In London, elderly matriarch Eva (Brigit Forsyth) is experiencing the onset of senile dementia and is moving into a care home to receive round the clock support. While looking through boxes of her discarded possessions, daughter Susie (Wendy Nottingham) stumbles upon a recording they made ten years previously documenting Eva’s experiences growing up as a Jew in wartime Berlin.

Stepfather Arnold (Bernard Lloyd) believes it unhealthy to recount painful memories and decides to destroy the tape, to the devastation of Susie. Eva shares Arnold’s reservations: ‘They’re just stories. There will come a point when nobody can remember’ – a bitterly ironic statement in light of her Alzheimer’s.

Eventually, however, Eva begins to open up to Susie. She recounts the fate of her Jewish father interned in a concentration camp, as told to her by The Red Cross, and discusses her memories of being part of the Hitler Youth Movement and her love for ‘The Blue Door’.

Susie is also trying to reconnect with her fractious, free-spirited 18-year-old daughter. As a language student living in Berlin, Rosie (Jasmine Blackborow) is far too busy fighting with artist boyfriend Sebastian (Daniel Donskoy) to notice the tensions back home. Sebastian doesn’t want her to return to London for her final year of study, and Rosie takes solace in comfort eating and binge drinking. Shifting between tragedy and comedy, Rosie laughs in drunken embarrassment at Susie’s emotional breakdown, highlighting the generational divide between mother and daughter.

Daniel Donskoy (Sebastian), Jasmine Blackborow (Rosie), Credit: Alex Parker
Daniel Donskoy (Sebastian), Jasmine Blackborow (Rosie), Credit: Alex Parker

The increasingly brittle Eva shifts from gamely demonstrating her youthful vigour to the family (at one point declaring, ‘I can touch my toes’) to frozen silence and aggression as her dementia worsens. Wendy Nottingham delivers a moving performance as Susie. She is stunned when Eva reveals that she has never loved her or anyone else, but notices her mother’s attempts at affection towards the dismissive Rosie through compliments and gifts.

Now this is not the end is thoughtful, provocative theatre, that addresses the emotional scars of Jewish war survivors, the importance of preserving history, and the power of words.

 

Now this is not the end is at The Arcola Theatre until 27 June.

Review: Kill Me Now @ParkTheatre

This was my first experience of the Park Theatre, and, perhaps understandably, I was not entirely prepared for what I was about to experience. Had I checked out their website and known they “choose plays … [with] strong narrative drive and emotional content”, I may have approached Kill Me Now without expectations of conventional entertainment.

Greg Wise returns to the stage after 17 years playing Jake Sturdy, struggling father to a disabled son, Joey (Oliver Gomm). Wise is still a thoroughly able performer, unlike his character, a former writer forced to give up work to care for his son. Wise and Gomm were joined by Charlotte Harwood, Anna Wilson-Jones and Jack McMullen, all of whom gave outstanding performances in this European debut of Canadian playwright Brad Fraser’s script.

From the outset, the audience was asked to work hard. I checked the time 40 minutes in, not because I was waiting for the end; rather, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to hold back a torrent of tears that long. When the end finally came, the characters on stage were not the only ones left devastated and broken.

This is not to say there were no moments of levity. But for me, the laughter was also uncomfortable. I was still struggling with the numerous issues that Joey’s physical disability posed for those around him. Many situations were completely foreign to me, and the ways in which family, friends and institutions dealt with them were unconventional, crossing social norms and challenging many of my own moral positions.

When the performance was over, some of the hardier members of the audience gave the cast a standing ovation. I hope they did not feel slighted that I remained rooted in my seat. I could not move. My back ached, my head throbbed, and the tension in my shoulders made it difficult to raise my hands to clap – a physical testament to how affected I was by what I had seen.

Suddenly, I heard someone ask us to clear the theatre. The stage was empty. My friend nudged me and said we had to leave. I got up, still wiping the tears from my eyes. I checked that no one had seen me break down so completely; my friend smiled at me in reassurance.

As I reflect on the play I am forced to wonder how often people with disabilities, their carers and friends must feel, or even cry aloud, “kill me now.” I have to remind myself that I only saw two hours of what many people must live with every day.

While I cannot say Kill Me Now was entertaining, it was most certainly an educational and deeply emotional experience. Director Braham Murray managed to achieve a synergy among the cast that allowed for a different kind of interaction with the audience, eliciting emotions between laughter and tears. If you are looking for theatre that offers this kind of deeper involvement, then I wholeheartedly recommend you see this.

Kill Me Now is at the Park Theatre until 29 March.

Odyssey @VaultFesitval

Whether you know Homer’s poem The Odyssey or not (and I don’t), it seems implausible that in the space of seventy minutes the story of the Odyssey could be acted out by one person with any effect.  But it was.

Despite what I would describe as the most annoying sound effects, I think something akin to “beats”, the use of sounds (a different sound for each character, mainly the gods) I must begrudgingly admit were used with great effect. So despite my annoyance, the truth is that the sounds were pivotal in making the play work. Note, however, that others were amused by the sounds and enjoyed the use of the varying swooshing and other variety of sounds used to introduce each character. One can only ask if this was the way of old when oral story telling was the norm.

But enough about sound effects. The use of phrases such as “brilliant”, “magnificent”, and “genius” are so readily used in describing artistic works, sometimes being a disservice rather than a compliment. Odyssey is co-devised and co-written by Theatre Ad Infinitum’s artistic co-directors Nir Paldi and George Mann with  Paldi directing and Mann performing.  Mann as narrator assists his audience through his actions of the many different roles that he plays. With no props (unless you consider his neutral costume a prop) Mann is able to take a complex plot line and strip it back to its bare bones and make it an entertaining and enjoyable performance. Not knowing anything about The Odyssey, I left feeling I knew the essentials of this piece of Homer’s work. And, I certainly now have a desire to one day read The Odyssey. However, as I’m not convinced that there was much left out, perhaps reading this piece of work is not entirely necessary.

The play requires a great deal of energy, animation, physical stamina and humour to be a success and Mann is successful in this regard. His performance is dynamic and has both breadth and depth. The characters are brought to life, and visualising them all being on stage is not difficult to do. At no time does the stage seem empty as Mann is able to place the presence of each character on stage thereby making them colourful, interesting and engaging. They have staying power as he moves from character to character. Mann’s ability to do this can only be marvelled at.

Mann’s highly energetic performance in Odyssey is sincere, humble and worthy of praise.  So, I suppose, when people use words like: “brilliant”, “magnificent” and “genius” or some other like phrase they do so because our language has no other words to describe brilliance. Although I’m happy to use less descriptive language, Odyssey is an outstanding play that has several wonderful moments that dazzle, at least it dazzled me and I’m willing to start my journey to find words that describe artistic brilliance. In the meantime, yes, it is a “must see”.

Odyssey runs until 1 March at the Vault Festival.