Saturday, January 26, 2013

Whitechapel TV Series Review

Whitechapel is a show I want to love. It has a dashing lead, historical mysteries to unravel and it got a strong stylised look. However, instead of combining these elements into something that really works, too often the show unravels into a puddle of “oh-look-at-me-aren’t-we-a-clever-boy” mess. This doesn’t mean at times it isn't enjoyable. I mean at times it is often mesmerising but overall there is something about it that just doesn’t click. 

The team lead by DI Joseph Chandler and DS Ray Miles is a good ensemble group of characters. It has been a pleasure watching them bind together to form a functioning unit across the three series. Incorporating the nutter - Edward Buchan into the team as an archivist was an inspired move and also brings a nice dynamic to the team. We get to know these people, we like these people and we appreciate the humanity they bring to the show.

Perhaps though the thing that Whitechapel is most is dark. Dark lighting, dark alleyways, dark murder - it seems as as though every frame has been shaded with a permanent. At times Rupert Penry-Jones’ pretty face is the only thing shining back at the dark, and his character’s OCD and obsession with order are clearly at sea in the darkness. This is a very intense style to commit to and it part contributes to the show being over-complicated and embellished with false-intrigue enough to smother what should be very engaging story lines.

A little too dark? A little too gruesome? A little too eager to gross you out rather than to trust in a compelling story? Perhaps. But here it is still on our screens, with another series in the pipeline. I for one won’t be counting down the days before it returns but if I end up watching it, I won’t be able to look away.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Aladdin - A Wish Come True Pantomime Review

Pantomime is a ‘thing’ isn’t it? One of those ‘things’ that you either get and love or you just aren’t with it enough to be a part of the ‘thing.’ It sounds ridiculous (Oh yes it does!) for such a traditional form of theatre to be a ‘thing’, but you know, bear with it for a bit. Because, following on the ‘thing’ way of ‘things’, every panto season we get people trying to do the ‘thing’ who just don’t quite get it. They just miss the mark, the length of the turn-up tight jean isn’t quite right and there isn’t enough substance to carry off the red socks. 

Aladdin - A Wish Come True was a pantomime just like that. It has a lovely pair of jeans and dashing socks but the outfit didn’t click. And it wasn’t to do with the performances, the set, the costumes (which were fabulous) or the live orchestra - all of which were strong elements but fundamentally I think the problem was someone along the way in the production process didn’t understand the ‘thing’ that is pantomime. What sets the tone; the feel; the warmth; the in-joke of the medium just wasn’t there. There was little magic to the fairy-tale.

I mean sure it is a stock story - that a considerable amount of the audience will be familiar with - but even so you have to love and work with what you have in the stock characters and story not just deliver it without due care. What this play really needed was a dramaturg to connect and weave everything together. Parts of the Roger S Moss script are genuinely funny but so often it is let down because characters haven’t been properly established and the humour falls flat. An example was the policemen Ping and Pong - who were played by talented actors and looked funny and yet in the first half they barely raise a chuckle. This is because we didn’t know who they were and why they were funny in the context of the play apart from them looking a bit silly. Setting up the characters wouldn’t have taken much, I mean, they are called Ping and Pong - word-play options abound - even introducing them could be hilarious. Missing out on this establishment meant that even as clowns they didn’t properly work within the story-world and thus take much longer to warm up the audience.  

In terms of the other characters Paul O’ Grady as Lily Savage was excellent - you’ve got a great character there and she was sensational and Darren Bennett as the evil uncle grew in menace and fun as the show went on. But Aladdin and Jasmine? I don’t think I have ever been less invested in a romance on the stage. Performance-wise they were good, she had a beautiful voice and he boundless enthusiasm but they didn’t have anything else. Stock characters aren’t about being completely flat and boring they are about meeting old friends. We recognise them and to a certain extent project our expectations but there still has to be something there.

There were some fun things that saved this evening - the little munchkin girls were cute, the costumes divine, the flying carpet impressive and the vocals and music were all strong (although not necessarily crowd raising) but again this all felt disparate and not connected. It didn’t feel written, or crafted this play. It was just there. There wasn’t enough for this show to work without its star attraction and it only just did with her divineness - and Ms. Savage would have been much better served if the entire package came along with her on her glittering train rather than paying lip service to it.

I saw this production on press night and chose not to write a review immediately. Call it festive spirit if you want but as an independent theatre reviewer sometimes I like to take the time until after the show has run before writing something up. That said, I think there is justifiable space for criticism - hence this is being published. It’s constructive and it comes from someone who does get the panto thing - so for what it is worth: get the script and the play itself into great shape and then the show will be marvelous regardless of how a baby elephant appears on stage.

Pantomime season is drawing to a close, it’s a seasonal ‘thing’ after all and not even Christmas jumpers will make it all the way through January, but remember, the next time your Gran buys you a ticket to panto that in many ways she might be more with it and hipster than you!

Friday, January 4, 2013

Julius Caesar at the Donmar Warehouse Review

Julius Caesar. It’s a great play about honourable men. And yet in the Donmar Warehouse the play is currently being performed by an all female cast. Director Phyllida Lloyd returns to the stage to present a production of a Shakespeare classic in what appears to be an entirely appropriate context. In many ways though this production is a paradox. It is a play made up of excellent performances and it delivers the the famous Shakespeare speeches brilliantly and yet, however it does not satisfy because fundamentally it does not address what it arguably should be aiming to - the main drive of the production - the women.

For an all female cast, there are no female characters. We get a heart-breaking performance of Brutus (Harriet Walter) but we don’t get to see who she is at all, this woman beneath the Shakespearean eloquence. Equally Mark Anthony (Cush Jumbo) is as electrifying as ever at Caesar’s funeral, but who is she? The Cassius we see (Jenny Jules) is a wronged man but we do not see a wronged woman? We do not meet any of the women who we are watching on stage. This production of Julius Caesar is presented with minimal editing - not even the pro-nouns are changed (so there isn’t anything interesting going on in reclaiming an language for people who are denied it). We have “such men” the threat of Caesar becoming a king, above men and men going to war. But where were the women?

Actually, nowhere in the program notes does it mention a writer or dramaturg - it appears the entire construct of the women’s prison is just that. A directorial decision to justify the casting. Metatheatre is a wonderful but dangerous muse - it has to be used with care and consideration or it can be reduced to a gimmick. At minimum there should have been a break away from the ‘performance inside the performance’ during the first half. The internal logic of this world really needed to be established before a new world was created. I was waiting for these women to interact with the play. To question it; to feel it; to become consumed by it and for it to demonstrate something about their lives and experience. As it was there was a strange distancing effect of the Shakespeare words existing in a vacuum and floating above the setting.

What this play needed was more. It needed to become more than just Julius Ceasar by William Shakespeare. We needed to have established power relationships between the prisoners; we needed to know who was due for release soon; we needed to know why X had been cast as Brutus but Y was annoyed at playing his wife. Why Julius Ceasar? How into a world of women does a play about the world of men fit?

Thanks to Bunny Christie’s great set design at no point are we under the illusion that we are anywhere other than a female prison. We are so immersed in this world, even the theatre techs operating overhead are dressed as prison guards (one had a moustache!) and yet we are not given access to this. It doesn’t hold a mirror to the action, it doesn’t complement the action - it is reduced almost to a container for the action and little more. The sound design (Tom Gibbons) and lighting (Neil Austin) are also great but again disconnected and again the rawness of this energy needed to be grounded in the ‘real world of the prison’ as well as on the battlefields of Ancient Rome for it to be fully taken advantage of.

The only period where both worlds fully connect and make sense is the bookended scene where Cinna the Poet is lynched. By the time the flow of the Shakespeare is interrupted it is a relief but also doesn’t quite sit properly - and it becomes a little uncomfortable. Because the internal logic of the performance had not been fully established, it doesn’t sit right.

If the intended effect of this production was only to demonstrate that women can perform Shakespeare then it is successful. But the thing is, we know that. It might not be common to have all female casts but it does happen. Last year I saw an all female student production of Twelfth Night - again this was used in the marketing of the show, it was pitched as an exciting gender explorative performance. It wasn’t. What it was, was an enjoyable and well performed piece of Shakespeare but it could have been a mixed cast, an all male cast or all female and it wouldn’t have made any difference. The same could be said for this production. The female performers were all good but it didn’t mean anything beyond the play. This may have been a less of an issue if it hadn’t been set in a female prison where the power dynamics and hierarchies are an ideal space for drawing out the themes/ relationships and power of the Shakespeare. I feel it is good for theatre makers to justify why. To think hard about the implications of a particular setting and casting decision, to work with the politics of this and use them in the work.

Reception studies is the academic discourse around the contemporary productions of classical texts.There tends to be a preciousness about classical texts, perhaps people are afraid of tampering with audience expectations, of drawing criticism for embellishment, however if done properly with respect and an assured awareness of the original re-contextualising a classical work can be very rewarding. The key principle of bringing a classical work into a contemporary context is to use the new and working with the existing text create dynamic relationship between the two elements.

As an example I turn to Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona’s The Island. For not only is it an excellent example of post-colonial theatre but it is an successful re-working of Sophocles’ Antigone and one of our best examples of how metatheatre can work. Two cellmates in Robben Island perform Antigone, but in using their own story and experience there are layers to this work beyond the original text. John and Winston take the audience on a journey of personal discovery and provide a completely unique reading and understanding of the original play as well as reflecting on the horrors of Apartheid and the contemporary context of the characters.

People who might have argued Greek Tragedy has no place in South Africa might also make the case that Julius Caesar has no place in a female prison - but unlike The Island, this production doesn't present the case that it does.  

In fairness there are many productions of Shakespeare (including Julius Caesar) that play with the context little and also only use the play as it is. However productions such as that of the RSC recently that displaces Julius Caesar from Italy to Africa don’t have the conceit of people performing the Shakespeare play - it just is. Perhaps if the Donmar production was Julius Caesar actually playing out and happening within a women’s prison it might be different, but as is they are characters clearly performing it. The problem is we don’t know who. Or why. Or how. Or when. We are only given the what - and that is brilliant but I would argue not enough.

I think it says much of my experience of this production that I came out of theatre wanting to write it. For me the real play and the real story just wasn’t there. Just think how much more could have underlined the already impressive performances. Julius Caesar. It’s a great play about honourable men. And yet it could have been ever so much more about women.