It’s a day of firsts. 14 years in London (and most a lifetime spent as a theatre lover) and today is the first time that have crossed the threshold of Sadler’s Wells Theatre, quite possibly the premiere dance theater in London. You’d think I would have made the time by now.
And it is the first time I have seen Peking Opera live. I guess there’s nothing like starting with the best, so I am here to see Peking National Opera’s production of The Crossroads Inn and The Monkey King. Dance as an expressive art form is something I’m not sure I’ve ever engaged with or completely understood (owing partly to being born with little or no sense of rhythm), I am apprehensive and have no idea what to expect.
I need not have worried.
The show was nothing short of breathtaking.
Taking from ancient myth and adapting to modern parlance (with words like ‘dude’ and phrases like ‘how the hell’) The Crossroad Inn is a story of an exiled General Jiao Zan, played with a commanding stage presence by Liu Kuikui, who, in the changing tides of his country’s fortunes and regimes, goes very quickly from being war hero to banished prisoner on Shamen Island, escorted around by two Rozencrantz and Guildenstern-like-buffoonish guards, played with perfect comic absurdity by Wang Jue and Chen Guosen, whose comic interplay and fawning deference works to hilarious effect against the gruff general.
When Jiao Zan, intolerant of exile, and his guards, stumble upon the eponymous establishment run by a couple loyal to the seasoned military veteran, and agree to let all three guests stay for the night, acrobatic farce ensues. The piece culminates with a magnificently spellbinding display of deft, gravity-defying slapstick in which the proprietor, Liu Lihua (played by Liu Bo), and Ren Tanghui (Wang Haoqiang), The General’s personal protector who has followed him to the island to keep him from harm, soar through the stage, which serves as a darkened guest room under the premise that half he time there is not light and they are groping around to find the other combatant. The result, despite what is essentially a domestic comedy, is acrobatic spectacle on an epic scale.
The company outdo themselves in the second piece, The Monkey King, a tale much more firmly rooted in magic, myth and parable, when the Leopard (played with effortless aplomb by Zhang Zhifang), ruler of the Hongmei Mountains descends to choose a mere mortal bride amongs the village folk and marry her against her will. Fortunately for the bride and her family, the Monkey King (performed with a mischievous wink and a lithe springy quality by Ma Yanchao) just happens to be passing through with his merry band of monks on their journey west to find ancient Buddhist texts. The royal Simeon agrees to help and like so many folkloric trickster heroes, devises a plan devises a plan full of intrigue, deception and disguise that is both funny and gripping.
Never is this piece more riveting than when the two principal players are leaping, flipping and twisting through the air in joyful combat that seemed to defy all of physics. But this is predominantly due to the pure feast for the senses that the Peking National presents to us on stage. The multicolored and striped leopard looks vibrant, warm and very much the human manifestation of a wild, forest cat. The bright banana yellow and the cheeky humour imbued by the makeup and costuming of The Monkey King is ingeniously comic from his first appearance onstage and only grows funnier each time he flips or bounds back onto the boards. And Wang Luyu’s percussion is simply incredible in his ability to discomfit the ear and build tension to a crescendo in the showdown between the two, rounding off this most compelling evening in my first taste of this fast-paced, vibrant and kinetically charged art form.
I have high hopes that we will see the Peking National Group again in London very soon.
The Peking National Opera presented their productions of The Emperor and The Concubine and the double bill of The Crossroads Inn and The Monkey King on 19-20 October 2018 in Sadler’s Wells Theatre.
Relationships and love. These, not satellites or legislative chambers or oilfields, will be the battlegrounds of the 21st century. Everything else is detail.
All our worries about gender fluidity, violent impulses, a lack of understanding and a world constantly mediated through technology and an ever growing number of interfaces will come down to our ability to relate to each other and connect as people.
And that feels like the common and vital thread in the presentation of new writing by Islington based Underexposed Theatre in their current run at The Old Red Lion in Islington, in which they, as they state in their mission statement, ‘explore and challenge the overlooked stereotypes that exist in our society.’
There are a number of plays that poke gentle fun at post (and pre?) truth America, Gun Jr, affably taking aim (that one was intended) at the Gun Culture. It is fun and presents us with the not unheard of scenario of a boy who feels out of place in a gun-toting red blooded American family and yearns to be free to leave home and exercise his creativity being a chef in Paris. It is enjoyable, with Stephen Riddle’s energy driving the comic value and the hyperbolically fun nonsense of Trump-voting America to its highest level and most ridiculous as the broken hearted Mr Gun trying to convince his son to follow in the family tradition.
And although brighter minds than mine continue to ask if we have reached an age that is the end of satire, I don’t think the problem is the jokes we’re writing. I think it’s the fact that we feel out of targets. So we turn to the few that are left and presenting themselves as the easiest left to ridicule, the left. Although Joe Starzyk tries with ‘For The Love of Noodles’ to capture the craven ludicrous efforts of one hippy dippy couple to appear accepting of their daughter’s choice of partner, it already begins to feel stiff and a little done by the time the punchline (aforesaid choice of partner) walks on stage.
The piece that does manage to incisively present us with a poised and beautifully balanced portrait of the smug middle class is ‘Wholefoods’ by Charles Liepart. Set in the very gentrified location of a brownstone in Brooklyn, it is a subtly written dialogue between a young twentysomething coming from the gym via the titular organic hipster fave retailer and her young black neighbour. Although it begins in those very cliched parameters, both Sadie Pepperell, playing the Nora Helmer-like wife with a cagey sense of frustration and an utterly convincing sense of yearning, and her philosophical neighbour Malcolm present through a deftly constructed chemistry between them, a tension and a pathos for a woman who is as trapped as she appears to be privileged.
The second half really pulls us right into the moral heart of the stage though, with Gaby Curtis’ and Clare Langford’s ‘The Petal and The Orchid’ confronting us uncomfortably with a value judgement between the sexual victimhood and white privilege, boxing us into an impossibly uncomfortable choice from which, as in today’s so easily simplified headlines, there are no easy answers. Curtis and Rina Mahoney as the manager of a charity that works to improve the lot of vulnerable women in third world countries give utterly enthralling performances that draw us in for a rivetingly bitter exchange.
One of the cleverest gems of the night though was a gentle comedy written by Charlotte Stanton called ‘The Pit and The Pretender’, in which an apparently bitter and burnt out, whiskey swigging writer comes onto a radio show to promote his new book, agreeing to an interview by someone with whom he has history. Nick Pearse, and his commanding and energetic presence on stage make a welcome return to Underexposed and again, the chemistry between him and the charismatic Texan actor Rachel Scurlock (playing radio host Daphne) is pure magic. There is an intelligent and refreshingly heartwarming twist at the end that wraps itself into the audience’s hearts.
Oddly enough for a world so culturally focused on the Trump’s bombastic America these days, this night of theatre hits its highest points when it’s not aiming at perhaps the most bigly target in the world right now. Theo Hristov’s Coming To America is gut wrenching and full of conviction and the sledgehammer like blows it lands against the robotically bureaucratic Immigration officer denying the protagonist a visa to bury his mother with Kafkaesque abstraction.
But it lacks the humanity and subtlety of Richard Woulfe’s delicately gentle piece A La Carte, a meeting between a grieving man played with an intriguing and pathos inducing angst by Chris Pybus, and the man with whom his recently deceased husband had been having a longstanding affair. The waves of grief and the chemistry between Pybus and Edwin Flay make this piece a haunting contemplation of loss, desire and the attempt to fill the emptiness of the heart.
Underexposed’s night of relationship-themed pieces and the explorations at the margins and the in-between spaces of life is truly a compelling celebration that feels very now, is wonderfully smart and brimming with a well judged sense of humour, albeit sometimes a dark one.
See it at the Old Red Lion Theatre in Islington and later on in the year on 8 July at the Southwark Playhouse.
Great stories do not present us with anything new; they present us with what is familiar to us and then they make it unfamiliar and weird and crazy.
Underexposed Theatre have come pretty close to achieving this in their recent run at The Old Red Lion in Angel, with a clutch of new plays that seek to force us to question and complicate our assumptions about, well, everybody, from the typical male sex drive to a long distance gay romance between London and Syria to the good intentions of a doctor who is judged for the strength of her convictions.
The evening begins with a delightful piece called Native Tongues, A Sci Fi Sex Romp, by Nick Myles, a story with a thoroughly preposterous premise of an estranged boyfriend and girlfriend with a thorny relationship meeting in a gym and being thrown in different directions in time, the corollary conceit that the former lovers can still talk to each other across millions of years. Charlotte Nice as Jen and Nick Skaugen as Oli have such a sweet and amiable chemistry on stage and genuinely push us beyond the self-centred egos and 90s sitcom cliched reasons for breaking up and into the nature of companionship and connections.
Gabrielle Curtis is as impressive as ever, penning and starring in three of the plays of the evening, all of which were delightful, one of which, Bonus of Contention, A Sexual Battle of Wills, was pure magic. Said battle pits Kara and Seb, having got together for a ‘closure chat’, against each other with Kara attempting to seduce her ex and Seb utilising all the force of his willpower and quite a lot of wit to resist the notoriously male inclination to jump at sex whenever it is presented. The air sizzles electrically with sexual tension in this confrontation and Curtis and her partner in this piece, Connor Mills, deliver scalpel sharp dialogue with contrapuntally perfect comic timing, bringing the intense chemistry between the two characters very quickly to a rolling riveting boil. Wonderful.
Also by Nick Myles is the powerfully hard-hitting London-Damascus, A Transcontinental Gay Love Story. This is a story that both contrasts and unites what it is to be gay in both a country where homosexuality is illegal and punished with death and in a country where it is embraced and celebrated more than ever before. Sweet and funny at points, heartrenderingly moving at others, this piece is poignant without ever getting preachy and Freddie Wintrip and Reece Mahdi are magnificent as the long distance lovers.
There are points in the night that don’t work so well. Daisy Jo Lucas’ The Goblin King presents us with a potentially intriguing and contemporary problem, that maternal instincts do not come naturally and that sometimes mothers genuinely fear and even loathe the role and its implications. And I’m not against a magical realist turn, but the one that happens feels a bit clunky and undeveloped. I don’t find I care much about Daphne, the career woman and resistant mother. And there’s nothing wrong per se with throwing in a character from The Labyrinth. Danny Steele does well. Ish. But I can’t help feeling like there is too much that goes undeveloped and that perhaps this play could have done better with a Goblin Queen played by the obscenely talented and criminally under-utilised Emily Bell, who plays Daphne’s assistant Clara.
And the evening does sink when it gets too worthy. Laurence Vardaxoglou’s C’etait Ouf felt interminable and unfunny, with Sophia Flohr, likeably enough stringing out clunky metaphors and telling us things that we all do in offices that trot out the old ideas that we all climb onto the same treadmill every day and never question it. I probably didn’t get it, but I can’t have been the only one.
But the underplayed gem of the night was certainly Bones, a beautifully written and performed chance encounter between Dom, an affably, clumsy cliche-filled man and Clara, a card shop attendant with a past. To see the barrier of ice melt between these two characters, played with masterful timing and subtlety by Amy Quick and Nick Pearse, is a genuinely moving experience that punctures our complacent guardian-reading sensibilities and fills us with a sincere affection for these two individuals.
This collection of scenes, if you’ll permit me a tiny bit of drama in a theatre write up, captures that old familiar Kafkaism, wielding an axe on the frozen sea within our souls. They shake us. And stir us and I look forward to more challenges from Underexposed Theatre in future.
Keep informed about this fantastic company:
One of the advantages of writing up a play for my blog is that this piece can be as long or as short as you want. Magazines dictate guidelines. 100, 450, 500 words. Here, I can keep on writing.
Or, I can be brief.
Which is a very good thing, because Game, currently on The Almeida in Islington, deserves to not be spoiled. It is a theatrical experience for which, if I told you much, I might be spoiling a little and that would be marring the whole experience I’m afraid.
Instead, I’m going to tell you these five things and hope that it entices you enough to be a part of a riveting and worthwhile theatrical experience.
1. There is a story.
Unlike the last very experimental production I saw at The Almeida, Mr Burns, which, looking back on it now was frankly terrible, there is a narrative and there are characters for whom you feel sympathy, a very important thing for me in narrative.
2. It will make you uncomfortable.
Don’t you love those kind of productions and hate them at the same time? Isn’t’ that what makes them worthwhile. Kafka said we should be reading the kind of writing that wounds or stabs us. Maybe the same is true for theatre because I am gladdest and fondest of the productions that make me feel the most intense passion and indignation, like Ibsen’s Ghosts, also in The Almeida, a couple years back.
3. It is immersive.
No audience interaction. That would be cheesy, but you are as much a part of what’s going on as possible. And perhaps in this ultra mediated world in which every experience feels filtered, this is what we need in theatre, to tear down the fourth wall.
4. You will question your world.
Hopefully. I mean who am I to tell you what to do or to make assumptions, but this is definitely an experience that raises questions about our constant need to see everyone else’s lives and our need to use that voyeurism as a way to make ourselves feel superior. It will also force you to question your own enjoyment of it and the possible guilt you feel as a result.
5. It is frightfully clever.
Although there are points at which this feels like some of the metaphors and symbols are ever so slightly heavy handed, it errs just on the right side of intelligent. It is innovative, superbly acted, compelling theatre about surveillance, control, and the calloused way in which we as a society get off on violence, especially violence done to and among those less well off than ourselves.
Not enough yet?
It’s theatre in London. And it’s awesome.
Now, that should be enough.
Game is at The Almeida until 4 April.
Slightly misleading post title, I know. I mean it’s purely theoretical. I don’t have any plans to leave at any point soon. Why would I? Duh, it’s London.
There are of course push factors: lack of any family in close proximity to us, a moderate to small flat with no outdoor space, Michael Gove, David Cameron, you get the picture. But frankly, nothing’s reached tipping point yet. My son’s in a good school that The Missus and I both like, modest though our flat is, we’ve made it our own and we may not have a
backyard or front yard garden, but we do have a lovely flat roof veranda that we have to struggle to climb through the window to get to adjacent to the bathroom loo. So, why would we want to move from this dreamy place?
I’ve been to more theatre than ever this year, courtesy of a few different online and print publications that I’ve been reviewing for and I feel so privileged to be able to have done it and to keep doing it. The truth is theatre in London is nothing less than phenomenal. Though the first item on your bucket list in one of the greatest cities in the world may not be to spend two hours in a darkened room with crowded strangers, there are good reasons why it should be.
Obviously, you’ve got The West End. Word Famous. Who hasn’t, right? But it really is the overpriced tip of the iceberg. Any chump can wait in line at a kiosk in Leicester Square, part unthinkingly with 100 quid for two seats with restricted viewing to see Billy Elliot and go home happy, having gawked at Elton John’s vision of the working class in the North of England. What you’ve got to do is explore.
Pre-parenthood days, when we first moved to London, the weekend consisted of picking up the Guardian Guide in the Saturday Edition, paying £6-12 a ticket, and seeing some marvellous, or appalling theatre. Whether it was marvellous or appalling, it was always engaging, in only the way that a performance that utilises space, human voice and movement, and the deep connection between performer and audience can engage on that deep, penetrating sort of gut level. I have seen Paul McGann reach heights of magically realist redemption in a backroom space of a pub in West London in Tom Murphy’s The Gigli Concert, took a student group to see a version of The Tempest in West End that was heavy on trapeze artists but fell just short of meaningful, was genuinely touched by Samuel Beckett’s ode to Vaclav Havel, Catastrophe, failed to be moved beyond audible snoring in a dishwater-dull perfunctory attempt at Faustus in The Arcola several years ago, and recoiled in horror at a character’s eyes being gouged out of their sockets in the basement of Shoreditch Town Hall as part of Serpent’s Tooth, written as a response to a production of King Lear. But my greatest, most heartfelt, and most intensely cathartic experience in London theatre was in a tiny little performance space underneath a pub in Baron’s Court, near Knightsbridge. The production was a version of Lorca’s Bodas de Sangre (Blood Wedding), an immersive performance that set you up with a frame story lulling you into a false sense of safety until the actors turned everything on like a switch about 10 minutes in and from there to the end of the night it was a joyfully bleak journey to the utter depths of the human capacity for pathos.
Because theatre’s a risk, always. More often than not, I’ve been gripped and even when I haven’t, I’ve been provoked by what didn’t but should have gripped me. It’s a cognitive process that happens rarely for me with movies, and almost not at all with TV, probably because my most UnAmerican tendency is not watching it much.
My judgement of course could be somewhat flawed having never been much exposed to theatre when I was a kid, hailing from a small rural town in a mountainous region of District 12 and raised by wolves. My first real memory of proper theatre was a local university production of Waiting for Godot, in which the actors pronounced it Godot as opposed to what the rest of the world say, Godot (Cue Beckett’s gaunt and ghostly cyberfist shaking in indignation), beginning a lifelong obsession with Irish absurdist. But that it is the main reason why I review plays; not because it’s good practice or because it adds to my portfolio, but because I find theatre, especially here in this great metropolis, breathtakingly inspiring and that it lifts my mind off the ground nine times out of ten well after I’ve exited the foyer and am out on the street.
So if you’re in town, go to see a play. There’s nothing wrong with paying a lot to see a play in the West End (there could well be much wrong with paying through the nose to see a musical, but that’s another blog post) and you most likely won’t be disappointed by your investment, but it’s more fun, less expensive, and more of a unique experience to get out into the smaller theatres and performance spaces and see what’s out there.
Go on. It’s worth the risk.