Just be Humble: Interview with The Upsetters’ Marcus Bernard

Theatre is hardly known for being inclusive. Black and brown people disproportionately come from lower or working incomes, and a high cost of tuition as well as insecure employment is likely to dissuade many from drama. That’s before you even consider the lack of real representation and opportunities, on-stage and off, and clearly on display every time a theatre announces a new hire, a new show, or a new season.

The Upsetters, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry’s house band.

The Upsetters, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry’s house band.

One new writing night hopes to address the imbalance, or better yet, upset it completely. Named after legendary dub musician’s Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry’s band, The Upsetters presents new, short plays, written and performed exclusively by people of colour.

The very first instalment is due to run on Sunday, June 9 at the Bunker Theatre in Southwark, London.

Playwright and Founder Marcus Bernard was kind enough to explain a bit more about the project and what he hopes to achieve:

What is The Upsetters and how did the idea come about? And why Lee Perry? 

The Upsetters is, at the moment, a short play night where every piece is written by a writer of colour, directed by a director of colour and performed by actors of colour.

New writing nights are a great entry into the industry, most have open submissions, and you get the chance to meet new creatives, network and experience writing for the stage. However, when I was involved I found that I was often the only writer of colour involved.

I sent out a tweet, quite thoughtlessly, saying that I was going to start my own night. I used quite galvanising language. It wasn't about ‘the industry is awful’ but rather ‘this isn't great, I'm going to do something about it’. But it got liked and retweeted over 600 times so I decided I needed to follow through.

I'm not great with names, but The Upsetters seemed fitting. Firstly, it's essentially a scratch night so Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry is perfect. I'm also a huge fan of his music. I grew up listening to dub. But I also figured that this was about disrupting the industry and, hopefully, upsetting a few people along the way.

What has the response been like so far? 

It's been pretty amazing. We had 132 scripts submitted to our call-out which is incredible and shows that the need for this is out there. Some of the plays we've received are pretty special.

We've also had support offered to us by Theatre Deli who are providing 100% subsidised rehearsal space. Plenty of other companies have expressed interest in helping us out but, to be honest, I've been a bit precious about giving up control. I'm keen to ensure that it doesn't become a side project of another larger theatre company to freshen up their own brand.

I'm really grateful for all of the offers for support and for every like and retweet that we've received. Genuinely, without people's help, even as simple as a quick retweet, we wouldn't be getting the exposure that we've had so far. It's been huge.

How does the experience of putting on a show work compare to writing? 

Marcus Bernard, Playwright and Founder of The Upsetters. Photo courtesy of Marcus Bernard.

Marcus Bernard, Playwright and Founder of The Upsetters. Photo courtesy of Marcus Bernard.

I really love writing. And I'm quite good at it but I've got a lot to learn. I'm a long way away from getting my name up in lights outside of the Royal Court!

Producing gives me something to do when I'm not writing. With that being said, both producing and writing can be pretty isolating experiences. I do most of my writing and producing by myself, and a lot of it is just thinking before getting around to actually doing it.

I would love to expand what The Upsetters does, perhaps seek further funding and produce a full-length play, and really start to champion underrepresented artists of colour. It feels like there's a real need for this. I'm still figuring it all out but I trust it'll go where it needs to go.

What are some of the challenges? 

Mostly the challenge is financial. The Upsetters is about being an accessible platform to artists of colour but most BAME people are from working-class backgrounds which means they can't afford to work in the arts.

I also have to be mindful, not only of people of colour, but also those who are LGBTQ+, working-class, women, disabled, D/deaf, and neurodivergent. I've spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to cater to as many people as possible.

We've selected a wheelchair-accessible venue, all performances will be ‘relaxed’ which means the lights are up, low sound will be used, and people are free to move around. We're also captioning using The Difference Engine for D/deaf and hard-of-hearing audiences.

Unfortunately, all these things cost money and, as we're unfunded, we've had to put it on the ticket sales. We're charging £15 which is more than we'd like but we're hoping people will understand.

How did the partnership with the Bunker come about? 

Basically, I thought their new season was dope. All women, many working-class artists, lots of artist of colour, but without much fanfare about it. It wasn't being marketed as ‘this is our women's season’. It just was. And that's how it should be. 

Matt Maltby (New Work Coordinator at the Bunker) really challenged me on representation. If it wasn't for our conversation, I wouldn't have captioning. He made me consider things I hadn't thought about previously. And a conversation with (Artistic Director of the Bunker) Chris Sonnex really sealed it for me when he asked whether my night was exploiting people of colour as a marketing ploy.

I think it's important to interrogate your own privilege, position and motivations, and those conversations got me thinking about that in the best way.

What do you hope to achieve with The Upsetters? 

I want to produce more short play nights, I want to branch out into full length plays, I want to take stuff on tour, and I want to see some huge Hollywood movie starring a little-known South-Asian actor who got her first role at one of our nights.

That's kind of the point. I want it to be a platform which can help launch people's careers. We're never going to see a Chinese King Lear at the Globe if people from South-East Asia aren't able to get their start in the industry.

We're not going to have an Indian penning the next MCU film if they can't afford to write their first script. Short play nights are how my (still very young) career got started. It seemed like a good way to help others.

What can theatres and practitioners do to change things for the better?

It’s about making room for others and interrogating your own privilege. And it goes for everyone, not just white, middle-class people, even though they should probably do it most of all. 

My Dad is Black, he's half Jamaican and half English, and my Mum is Indian, so I straddle a few different cultures. My parents grew up at a time where cultures didn't really mix, and, to a lesser extent, so did I. I saw many sides of both oppression and privilege when it came to race, and I try to use that experience when I look at things now. I try to consider all angles, I try to be mindful of history and I try to be respectful.

I can't tell you, or anyone else, how to use your privilege because I don't know what your privilege is. You're white but that doesn't necessarily mean much outside of the fact your life may be a bit easier. It's up to the individual to take a look and think about how they can best be useful to others.

Finally, as your night references music, what have you been listening to recently? 

I've been listening to surprisingly little music recently but not too long ago I rediscovered Upwards by Ty. Strangely, Ty retweeted something I posted about the Windrush generation and it just reminded me of how much I loved the album when I was growing up. I've had that on quite a bit. 

Also, when I write plays, I often create playlists to accompany what I'm writing. Mostly it just gets me in the mood, reminds me of the frame of mind I am in or want to be in. My latest play that I'm writing is about a mixed-race Black activist, so I've had that playlist on quite a bit. It features Arrested Development, Kano, Gil Scott-Heron, Sam Cooke, Tracy Chapman and a few others.

Thanks for your time Marcus, and best of luck with the night!

The Upsetters will run Sunday June 9 at 4.00pm and 7.30pm at the Bunker Theatre.

Tickets are available from the website.

Review: A Hundred Words for Snow at Trafalgar Studios

Journeys of exploration are revered in British culture. From Charles Darwin’s Beagle voyage to Ernest Shackleton’s polar expedition, stories of pioneering men are widely celebrated. I say men, because these are the stories we largely hear about – despite plenty of examples otherwise. In Britain, the heroic journey has usually been understood as white, colonial and, well, male.

Gemma Barnett as Rory in A Hundred Words for Snow. Photo courtesy of Nick Rutter (2019).

Gemma Barnett as Rory in A Hundred Words for Snow. Photo courtesy of Nick Rutter (2019).

A Hundred Words for Snow presents a different vision. The play details a young girl’s journey to fulfil her father’s dreams of visiting the North Pole, running away from home with his ashes, a backpack, and her mother’s credit card. Effortlessly funny and profoundly moving, A Hundred Words for Snow is not so much about polar expedition as it is about the girl’s own self-discovery, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

A Hundred Words for Snow has one of those scripts that is almost annoying in how good it is. In Rory, Tatty Hennessy has created a character who is smart, courageous, and while a little understandably naïve, endearing in her determination, and charming in her refreshingly blunt humour. Writing children is no easy feat, but Tatty pulls off something special – capturing a child’s enthusiasm for the world as well as the all-too-real anxieties of growing up and grieving what is lost, while gaining much more in the bargain.   

Gemma Barnett as Rory in A Hundred Words for Snow. Photo courtesy of Nick Rutter (2019).

Gemma Barnett as Rory in A Hundred Words for Snow. Photo courtesy of Nick Rutter (2019).

Gemma Barnett is (if you’ll forgive the cliché) a revelation. A good script is nothing without a good actor to bring it home, and A Hundred Words for Snow is blessed with a sublime one. I was impressed not only with her comic timing but her perfectly observed and nuanced performance of a girl coming to terms with loss and her own burgeoning womanhood. This powerhouse performance does not come from nowhere, and director Lucy Jane Atkinson deserves credit for getting the best out of Barnett which, as it turns out, is an awful lot.

A Hundred Words for Snow is as near-perfect a show as they come. My only regret was its short running-time, as I could have easily spent another hour in Rory’s company learning about arctic explorers and their darkly hilarious escapades, or the writings of Amundsen, or the five different North Poles. Whether or nor the Inuits have a hundred words for snow, I am running out of words to tell you how brilliant this show is. Just go see it.

A Hundred Words for Snow is showing at Trafalgar Studios until Saturday 30 March. Tickets are available from the website.

The Show Must Not Go On: Why the Oscars need a Rethink

The Oscars are a mess. From criticism of a lack of diversity to declining viewership, Hollywood’s biggest night has had a troubled few years. Judging by the events leading up to this year’s ceremony, the 91st Oscars are mired in controversy and the Academy does not seem to know what to do. Perhaps it is time to call the whole thing off, or cut it short, or something, anything, to keep the show relevant, interesting, and worthwhile.

Every year since 1927 the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have presented awards to filmmakers for their talent and expertise in the field, from directors, actors, writers, and production staff. The event is a highly publicised affair, with all the biggest stars showing up in nice dresses and tuxedoes to compliment and resent one another, while they applaud their contemporaries in the collection of gold statues.

A diverse selection of Oscar nominees, winners, and stars. Photo courtesy of Associated Press

A diverse selection of Oscar nominees, winners, and stars. Photo courtesy of Associated Press

Despite a primetime slot, massive media coverage, and more celebrities than a Trump attack ad, viewing figures for the Award show have been on the decline. The number of people watching has nearly halved in twenty years, falling from 46 million in 2000 to 26 million in 2018.

Some have blamed the low numbers on recent scandals over diversity and sexual misconduct, highlighted by online campaigns such as #OscarsSoWhite and #MeToo. Others point to the redundancy of the ceremony, as people can easily watch speeches on YouTube rather than sit through hours of inane red-carpet footage, bad jokes, and niche awards no-one really cares about. Whatever is at fault, few could argue that the response from the Academy has been less than assured.

Let’s go through the announcements, then the rather unceremonious retractions. Last Summer the Academy declared it would add an award for achievement by popular film. The decision was immediately met with criticism, with some arguing it devalued the other awards. Others queried over what constitutes a ‘popular film’ and, if such films were deemed award-worthy, why not nominate them in the usual category? Following the backlash, the award was dropped barely a month later.

Kevin Hart. Photo courtesy of AFP.

Kevin Hart. Photo courtesy of AFP.

Then there was the question over who should host. Given ongoing industry scandals, the Oscars have tried to play it safe in recent years and are particularly keen to avoid another Seth MacFarlane ‘We Saw Your Boobs’ routine. So, in December, they announced cuddly comic Kevin Hart. Family-friendly, bankable, and Black, Kevin was an ideal choice for an Award show desperate to avoid controversy. The only problem? Users of social media, the means by which all public figures must now live and die, revealed homophobic tweets on Kevin’s Twitter. After he refused to apologise, Kevin quit. With little time to spare, the Oscars have decided that the awards will have no host.

Guillermo Del Toro winning the Oscar for Best Director for Shape of Water (2018). Photo courtesy of Kevin Winter (Getty Images).

Guillermo Del Toro winning the Oscar for Best Director for Shape of Water (2018). Photo courtesy of Kevin Winter (Getty Images).

Finally, the Oscars have tried to retain audience numbers by cutting running time. In the past, organisers have played off winners when they feel their acceptance speeches go on for too long – an indignity that is often more awkward than necessary. In February, several weeks before the ceremony, the Academy announced it would cut presentations for four categories, including editing and cinematography. After complaints from industry figures such as Guillermo Del Toro, the decision was, again, hastily reversed.

All of this back-and-forth indicates an organisation that has no clue about what it is doing, nor about how to save its ailing brand. I am sceptical about the value of awards anyway, as I don’t believe art is or should be a competitive enterprise. Still, until the Socialist utopia is achieved, something ought to be done about a show that, for now at least, still conveys value, prestige, and opportunity. Here are three things the Academy could do:

Take it off the Television

The Oscars ceremony is expensive. With a continual slump in viewing figures, justifying the three-hour broadcast becomes more difficult. Significant costs could therefore be made by taking the ceremony off the television, and instead offering it as a live-stream on social media. Twitter is usually the best place to be during the awards anyway, with clips being uploaded directly and users responding in real-time, cracking jokes, creating memes, and usually complaining that so-and-so was snubbed.

Drop the Routines

Billy Crystal as er, Sammy Davis Jr. Photo courtesy of CBS.

Billy Crystal as er, Sammy Davis Jr. Photo courtesy of CBS.

The Oscars have had some truly awful routines over the years. Recent examples include the aforementioned Boob song, Ellen’s bafflingly pointless pizza order, James Franco’s dress, Billy Crystal’s weird blackface, and Jimmy Kimmel inviting in tourists for some reason. Save time, dignity, and interest by getting rid of the routines altogether.

Let the Artists Speak

People want to know who won, and what they said. Other than mishaps like the infamous Moonlight announcement, the speeches are what tend to make headlines – particularly if the artist uses their platform for political and social grandstanding, or the kind of heartfelt tribute that inspires tears in Hollywood and at home. While it is true that some spend a little too long on the podium thanking everyone and their cat, many others are brutally cut short. Without the limitations of television broadcast, you don’t need to play people off. Let artists go on for as long as they want.

Be more Inclusive

The Oscars have got into trouble again this year for a lack of representation. This time, the trending hashtag might be #OscarsSoMale as there are zero women nominated under the Best Film or Best Director categories. Beyond implementing inclusive practices (perish the thought), the Oscars should at least do their homework. If there are no women or people of colour on your list, then maybe it’s time to ask questions of yourself, the Academy, and the films you have watched. Great work is being created all the time, and you have no excuse not to pay attention.  

These are just a few ideas, but I think they would go quite a way to making the Oscars a more engaging night for people. The Academy should embrace new media, cut down on the unnecessary elements, and keep the controversy to the people onstage – rather than those running the show.

Review: Liberty at the Deptford Heritage Festival

What difference does it make? I remember a colleague telling me these words after reading one of my early drafts. Yes, she said, it’s a perfectly serviceable script. But what difference does it make? Meaning, what is the point of it? What do you want it to do? What message do you want people to take home?

I think about this question a lot when I watch theatre, especially political work. When I watch dramas about politics, movements, activists and revolutionaries, I find myself wondering about the intention of its authors. Is it to inform or inspire? Reflect views or challenge them? In other words, what difference does it make?

Liberty is about Kath Duncan, a left-wing activist from Scotland, whose arrest and landmark case advanced the rights of free speech in the United Kingdom. A perhaps under-sung heroine of the Labour movement, and advocate for political and social freedoms, her example is an inspiring one – a reminder of the sacrifices of others, and the need to carry on their legacy.

Liberty at Deptford Heritage Festival (2019).

Liberty at Deptford Heritage Festival (2019).

Liberty is an interesting and worthwhile tale – but not always a persuasive one. Part social history, musical, and parliamentary drama, the play explores Kath Duncan’s life, her arrest at the hands of the police, and the debate that followed. It is a somewhat muddled affair, with powerful set-pieces and catchy songs, yet let down by its earnest, wooden dialogue, and tell-not-show approach, which can feel ponderous and lecturing at times. Most crucially of all, Liberty lacks conflict, tension, and resolution – the key elements of any enjoyable drama.

Still, there is plenty to enjoy, learn, and reflect upon. Emily Carding is brilliantly cast as Duncan, whose commanding presence hides a vulnerability, smartly observed by Carding and powerfully performed. Ana Luiza Ulsig is a joy to watch too, switching between loyal comrade and pompous official with charm and wit. I was particularly impressed with Rona Topaz’s music direction, with beautiful performances of songs both lively and soaring, bolstered by the play’s divine Church setting and its excellent acoustics.

Liberty at Deptford Heritage Festival (2019)

Liberty at Deptford Heritage Festival (2019)

Liberty can feel truly immersive, helped in no small part by being set in Zion Baptist Church in Deptford. Meetings of workers and organisers would (and continue to) be held in such venues, so the setting is both appropriate and engrossing. The costuming is brilliant in its period detail, and I loved the creative use of the space as a meeting hall, office, and Houses of Parliament – skilfully employed by director Karen Douglas.

Photo courtesy of Deptford Job Centre

Photo courtesy of Deptford Job Centre

Kath Duncan’s story is significant in Deptford history. The area has undergone noticeable change in the past decade, perhaps best demonstrated by the rather gross appropriation of a Job Centre into a themed bar. Gentrification is one thing, but ironic gentrification is quite another, and seems quite insulting to the area’s working people, who may well be suffering from austerity, low wages, and scarce employment. Liberty is therefore important, celebrating the area’s radical history in one of its historic community centres, not yet lost to ‘development’.

But then the question. Leaving Liberty I wondered what the play’s impact might be, particularly on viewers who might be less than sympathetic to its heroine’s struggle, and that of working-class and Socialist movements. Perhaps the point of the play is not to win over people, but rather to celebrate a life and an achievement in the name of social justice. To that end, it certainly made a difference to me.  

Liberty is showing at Deptford Heritage Festival until February 28th. To book tickets, and find out more about the festival, please visit the website.

Review: The Resistible Rise of Arturo UI at the Arcola

Confession time – I have never read Brecht. Until last weekend, I had never seen one his plays performed either. While I am familiar with his theory of alienation (largely due to a popular film podcast), the work of this great and influential playwright has largely escaped me.

This sorry fact probably disqualifies me from any kind of ‘serious’ theatre criticism. I don’t believe you need to have read a lot of books to enjoy art, and theatre should be no different. But given my ignorance of Brecht, could I still appreciate his work? And what might graduate of East 15 acting school achieve with the material – written at a time when Europe was falling to fascism, and performed now, at a time when it appears to be rearing its ugly head once more?

Photo courtesy of E15 LDN.

Photo courtesy of E15 LDN.

The answer is yes, and the results are mixed. The Resistible Rise of Arturo UI satirises Hitler’s rise to power by trading Nazis for Chicago mobsters. Arturo UI, a tyrant in the mould of Capone, takes control of the vegetable trade through blood and intimidation, purges his enemies and associates, and then takes over the whole city. Despite my apprehension, it’s a simple enough tale. It is a shame then, that this production often lost me in the details.

To be fair, marshalling such a large ensemble onstage is no easy feat. The performers come from East 15’s International Cohort, and are all clearly enjoying themselves as larger-than-life gangsters, whose accents and lingo are so immediately recognisable you can practically hear the hand gestures.

I was particularly impressed with Sean Dale’s commanding intensity as Arturo, Amanda Zappia’s thuggish pomposity as Roma (a clear reference to Ernst Röhm), Constantine Pinotsis’s leering Giri, and Stephanie Van Driesen’s charming turn as the announcer, whose blend of carnival barker, fool, and Greek chorus, was a joy to watch.

Photo courtesy of E15 LDN.

Photo courtesy of E15 LDN.

The animal masks, while reminiscent of Art Spiegelman’s Maus, were a nice touch. Doberman dogs represent Arturo’s henchmen (or perhaps Hitler’s brownshirts), while rabbits and pigs appear as the abused and oppressed city-folk brought to heel. The transitions between location and scene are smooth and effective, and the play has an infectious energy and rhythm that never lets up.

There are laughs but, appropriately, horror too. The climax of the play is breath-taking in this regard, where a triumphant Arturo lords it over a people scared and defeated, and who must now accept his rule or die. There is also a particularly powerful rendering of the Night of the Long Knives, where Roma pleads for mercy before being silenced by Arturo. These scenes are chilling, not only in how they are performed, but considering the reality that they were written in 1941, by a man that had only just escaped Nazi persecution.

The Resistible Rise of Arturo UI is not always easy to follow, partly by its many characters, but mostly by its shifts in tone. The moments of darkness are commendable, but jar with the rest of the show, which seems to sit more comfortably as comic farce than dark satire. Perhaps this is the point, but an abundance of campy turns, from gee-whizz reporters to cackling goons, robbed the production of any tension, and made much of the proceedings feel about as sinister as Bugsy Malone.

Ultimately, it comes down to taste. As a fan of historical satire, I would have enjoyed a darker production with a little more teeth, and one perhaps more appropriate to our times. Chicago mobsters were relevant to Brecht but seem somewhat dated in 2019 – an era hardly short of hustlers from which to draw inspiration.

Despite my criticisms, this was a fun if at times confusing show, brought to life by a talented ensemble of young actors that I look forward to seeing on stage again soon. Now where to begin with Brecht…

Review: Fatty Fat Fat at the Vaults

Taking ownership of oneself is not always easy. Technologies, from surveillance to social media, have made the world smaller and if it’s not big companies selling our information, we are helping them do it – from posting a selfie on Instagram to searching on Google. For women, who have grown up with expectations of how to look and act, achieving ownership of one’s self, body, and mind, can be even more of a challenge. And that’s before we even talk about size.

Photo courtesy of Vault Festival (2019)

Photo courtesy of Vault Festival (2019)

Fatty Fat Fat is a funny and moving show about one woman’s life and struggles in a society that will just not let her live. From early childhood memories, comic sketches, and vivid poetry, Katie Greenall’s show balances humour, introspection, and the need for change. As celebrities and brands try to embrace body positivity (or more accurately, money), Fatty Fat Fat is a refreshing corrective – full of heart and yet devoid of bullshit.

I am sometimes cautious of shows that feature autobiography and reflection. While it is true that all performers bare a little of themselves on stage, I find the sharing of one’s personal life can make me feel uncomfortable. It is for this reason I do not always like attending comedy shows – the fear of cringing always puts me on edge.

Photo courtesy of Vault Festival (2019)

Photo courtesy of Vault Festival (2019)

I need not have worried. Katie is a superb performer and storyteller, whose gift of delivery, timing, and judgement gets laughs in all the right places. Crucially though, she never sugar-coats the pain that comes from growing up with a body that friends, family, and society deem unattractive and in need of changing. Her observations are playful but pointed, and gently invite audiences to consider their own prejudices, and those of others.

The energy is kept up throughout, as stories of school-trips, summer days, and discos are broken up with lively routines. Audience participation is a powerful and often underused dramatic tool, but is applied to great effect here with gameshows, readings, and Never Have I Ever. The last of these is a particular highlight, beginning with fun and jokes and ending somewhere far darker.

The set is minimal but effective, featuring one microphone, a fridge, and garish birthday balloons spelling out the word FAT. Katie’s use of these props and the space itself is to be commended, and under the direction of Madelaine Moore she is able to segue between the show’s many different moments with ease and skill.

Photo courtesy of Vault Festival (2019)

Photo courtesy of Vault Festival (2019)

My criticisms relate to pacing and structure. The show moves so quickly that I did not always have the time to fully appreciate every moment, and I thought that particular scenes could have benefitted from further development.

The sketches sometimes felt as though they were cut short, which was a shame, as they are highly enjoyable and engaging. I would also query some of the poetry, for while Katie’s language is indeed beautiful, it sometimes felt at odds with the otherwise frank and down-to-earth tone of the show.

Fatty Fat Fat is a brilliant and creative work, the result of a talented writer and performer with an abundance of fresh ideas. I am not in the least surprised that the show has now received Arts Council Funding, and I am looking forward to seeing how it grows and develops further.

Theatre is and should be a space for expression and affirmation, no matter who you are or what your body type. Hopefully with shows like Fatty Fat Fat, more people can take ownership.

Fatty Fat Fat is showing at the Vault Festival until Sunday 3 Feb. Tickets are available from the website.  

Review: Sweat at the Donmar Warehouse

How did this happen? Once the subject of smug ridicule, a scandal-ridden reality show star with no political experience, coherent policies, or ability to string a sentence together, became the 45th President of the United States. In the two years since the election, countless column inches, discussions, and tweets have been spent trying to figure out how it could be that a man as unsuited, unpreprared, and unsavoury could have made it to the White House. Before the man even took office, Lynn Nottage had the answer.

Leanne Best, Martha Plimpton, and Clare Perkins in Sweat. Photo courtesy of Johan Persson (2018).

Leanne Best, Martha Plimpton, and Clare Perkins in Sweat. Photo courtesy of Johan Persson (2018).

But Sweat does not merely answer for the election of Donald Trump. Lynn Nottage’s prescient yet prophetic play answers for right-wing radicalism, xenophobia, white resentment, and the destructive failures of late-stage capitalism. The play does so with grace, empathy, intelligence and, dare I say it, hope. Extensively researched over two years from 2011-13, the play received its debut in 2015. It feels like it could have been written yesterday.

Sweat tells the story of Reading, Pennsylvania, where a working-class community of steel-workers is under threat. The factory is outsourcing labour and jobs are disappearing. The residents, who have suffered from declining living standards, decide to act. In doing so, they come up against forces more powerful than they could realise – turning friends against family, community, and each other.

Clare Perkins and Martha Plimpton in Sweat. Photo courtesy of Johan Persson (2018).

Clare Perkins and Martha Plimpton in Sweat. Photo courtesy of Johan Persson (2018).

Set in a local bar, the play explores the lives and plight of an ethnically diverse but economically alike ensemble. Everyone in the town seems to work at the steel factory, except for a crippled bartender, his Latino assistant, and a shambling addict, laid off long before, and wise to what’s coming. Featuring several interweaving narratives that cross families and friendships, the play is about how a group of ordinary people can be torn apart by an economic order that cares only for profits, and nothing for livelihoods.

Theatre has not always had a great track record of representing working-class stories but Sweat avoids caricature. Nottage’s time interviewing the residents has clearly played a substantial role in the writing of the characters, who feel authentic, relatable, and human. Sweat does not excuse its characters but argues for why they may act the way they do, smartly dissecting the dynamics of race and class in the process. The play deconstructs of the myth of an exclusively white working class, demonstrating how any serious discussion of class struggle cannot be viewed outside the lens of racial injustice.

Sule Rimi and Osy Ikhile in Sweat. Photo courtesy of Johan Persson (2018).

Sule Rimi and Osy Ikhile in Sweat. Photo courtesy of Johan Persson (2018).

Lynette Linton’s direction is brisk, unsparing, but also humane. Balancing the needs of an ensemble of complex characters is no easy feat, but Linton has pulled it off magnificently – not only giving each actor their ‘moment’ but the space to explore their joys, pains, and personalities. The fact that Linton can do this while maintaining tension is a marvel, and her excellent judgement bodes well for her upcoming stewardship of the Bush Theatre.

In terms of performance, no one puts a foot wrong. Much will be said of the legendary Martha Plimpton as the defiant and proud Tracey, but Clare Perkins should also be deserving of notice for her powerhouse performance as friend Cynthia, who becomes alienated from the community after taking a managerial position at the factory. From Emilia, Mrs Dalloway, and now Sweat, Perkins is three-for-three in a year of stunning lead roles, and I’m beyond excited to see what she does next.

Stuart MacQuarrie and Martha Plimpton in Sweat. Photo courtesy of Johan Persson (2018).

Stuart MacQuarrie and Martha Plimpton in Sweat. Photo courtesy of Johan Persson (2018).

Speaking of characters, Frankie Bradshaw’s set design is something to behold. The factory around which the community of Sweat has been organised is beautifully rendered by wrought-iron girders and rusted chains, while a counter, lit up with neon, perfectly captures a small-town bar. You can practically smell the stale beer, peanuts and, well, sweat.

This play is not one to miss. Sweat may be based in Reading, Pennsylvania, but it could easily be set anywhere in the de-industrialising West. While watching Sweat, I thought of towns across the United Kingdom who were similarly gutted when industries left, and the government did nothing to help. In such situations, it is easy to see why desperate people turn to dissolution, drugs, and the desperate logic of anti-immigration.

There is so much more to say about Sweat. In the interests of a conclusion, I’ll leave it to the words of one steel-worker of Reading who saw the play. Addressing Nottage and the crew, she said “I really appreciate that you do this, and call the play ‘Sweat’, because all we have to give is that.”

Sweat is showing at the Donmar Warehouse to January 26. Tickets available here.

Review: White Teeth at the Kiln Theatre

Zadie Smith has never lacked scope. Her debut novel told the story of three families, two generations, and over fifty years of history, culture, and mixing. White Teeth was a critical and commercial hit when it was first published at the dawn of the 21st Century – an epic story of finding one’s identity, one’s home, and one’s place in North-West London. Set in Kilburn, an adaptation of White Teeth made perfect sense for the local theatre, Indhu Rubasingham’s newly refurbished Kiln. The question is, how to go about about doing it?

The cast of White Teeth. Photo courtesy of the Kiln Theatre (2018).

The cast of White Teeth. Photo courtesy of the Kiln Theatre (2018).

If you are the creative team behind White Teeth the answer is even more scope. Director Rubasingham and adapter Stephen Sharkey have taken not one but two leaps with the material. The first was to add another generation to the story, bringing its time-frame up to the present day. The second was to adapt the work by way of that most perilous of crucibles – the stage musical. Given the length and complexity of White Teeth, these decisions made me curious, if a little apprehensive. Having seen the show, I cannot imagine doing it any other way.

Ayesha Antoine as Irie Jones and Richard Lumsden as Archie Jones. Photo courtesy of the Kiln Theatre (2018).

Ayesha Antoine as Irie Jones and Richard Lumsden as Archie Jones. Photo courtesy of the Kiln Theatre (2018).

White Teeth introduces Rosie Jones, daughter of Irie, and granddaughter of Archie and Clara, the white British and black Caribbean couple around which the novel is originally based. The addition of Rosie makes White Teeth relevant to 2018, but it also enables a clever framing device for a narrative that crosses both time and perspective to tell its story. Due to an unfortunate incident at the beginning of the play, Rosie is in a coma. She watches events that led to her conception with the help of Mad Mary, who serves as both narrator and Greek chorus in a joyous yet poignant rendition of Smith’s novel.

From its opening number, White Teeth establishes itself as a celebration. We see the very street upon which the Kiln resides, Kilburn High Road, brought to life by a colourful cast of characters. You might pass them on your way to school, to work, to the shops. You might even know them. Musicals, as with any form of drama, require audiences to believe in the worlds they portray, and White Teeth is no different. The play not only achieves this end, but does so with a palpable, irresistible sense of fun. This is Kilburn, only turned up to 11.

Michele Austin as Mad Mary. Photo courtesy of the Kiln Theatre (2018).

Michele Austin as Mad Mary. Photo courtesy of the Kiln Theatre (2018).

Singing, dancing, and acting their way through this labyrinth of mixed-up identities and tangled love-lives is a superb ensemble. This multi-talented cast (some even double up as musicians) all produce fine performances, but special credit is owed to Tony Jayawardena as the hilariously pompous Samad Iqbal, Ayesha Dharker as his long-suffering wife Alsana, Ayesha Antoine as Irie, the beating heart of the piece, and of course, Michele Austin as Mad Mary, who commands the stage with cane waved and teeth kissed.

One of the downsides of White Teeth is that, except for its opener, the tunes are not particularly memorable. Adapting large sections of characterisation for snappy musical numbers is not an easy task, and White Teeth is often better at telling its story through drama, rather than music. In this regard, the production often seems less of a musical and more of a play with music, which may disappoint enthusiasts for the form.

White Teeth is nevertheless an excellent work and a warm welcome to the Kiln. Rubasingham and company have crafted a play that buzzes with life, love, and location. White Teeth is a mission statement for the theatre, showcasing a venue that represents its community while throwing open its arms to newcomers. The Kiln has a bright future, and I can’t wait to go back.

Review: Ear for Eye at the Royal Court

Theatre is infinite. Good drama can reveal histories, experiences and possibilities that go well beyond time and space. Words and actions can tell the stories of a multitude, through past, present, and future. The new play by debbie tucker green contains such voices, addressing the present moment while reaching back centuries.

Photo courtesy of Royal Court (2018).

Photo courtesy of Royal Court (2018).

Ear for Eye is a devastating exploration of protest and power. This highly ambitious yet effective play uses monologues and conversations from both Black British and Black American voices to address lived experiences of white supremacy, its effects, its origins, and its perpetuation at every level of society.

For obvious reasons, I will not be able to properly articulate the emotional significance of Ear for Eye, and I await the views of writers for whom the play’s subject matter may have personal resonance. I add this disclaimer in the hopes that national newspapers and platforms carefully consider the critics they do send to review, as I can already sense that some will be reductively naming it a ‘#BlackLivesMatter play’. Reader, Ear for Eye is much more than a hashtag.

debbie tucker green (2005). Photo courtesy of Sarah Lee for the Guardian.

debbie tucker green (2005). Photo courtesy of Sarah Lee for the Guardian.

Ear for Eye is less about individual characters and more about a variety of experiences, brought to life by an ensemble of talented performers. Split into three parts, the play blends social realism with abstract poetry, a protracted ‘conversation’ between professor and student, and historical evidence of the laws and practices that established racism in the West, a system that shapes and stunts lives to this day.

Part one consists of a series of short interactions between cast members. Some of these are connected, as in the case of an argument between two young men, but most are not, showcasing different social relations and how they should respond to violence. These include students arguing over the use of protest, men and women reliving humiliation and abuses by police, as well as parents giving their children ‘the talk’ of how to behave when stopped by law enforcement.

With a cast as talented and broad as this, it is difficult to pick out select performances for credit. However, special mention is owed to Tosin Cole and Nicholas Pinnock for their nuanced portrayal of differently aged men discussing pride and masculinity, Eric Kofi Abrefa and Michelle Greenidge for the gravity and horror they invest their harrowing tales, Angela Wynter for the formidable power of her sermonising, Anita Reynolds for her warm portrayal of a mother trying to help her son as best she can, as well as younger cast members, Jamal Ajala and Shaniqua Okwok, who both bring charm and light to their performances, yet are no less rich with emotion and depth.

The cast of Ear for Eye. Photo courtesy of Suki Dhanda for the Observer (2018).

The cast of Ear for Eye. Photo courtesy of Suki Dhanda for the Observer (2018).

Part two is entirely dedicated to one interaction, namely that of a white professor and a black student. The piece showcases green’s mastery of language, as the truth of the situation is gradually revealed through tense, infuriating, and occasionally funny back-and-forth (as one-sided as it is). Lashana Lynch is simply stunning as the student, whose self-control, self-policing, and growing frustration will sadly be familiar to women talked over, belittled, and disrespected when trying to give their opinion. Demetri Goritsas is equally fantastic as the insufferable professor, whose refusal to listen not only reveals his bias, but also how white supremacy operates, unknown to white people, perpetuating itself in the most supposedly open and liberal of spaces.

The last part is difficult but necessary. Breaking again with conventional narrative, part three is made up of recorded clips of American and British white families, elderly people, couples, and children who read out Jim Crow laws of segregation and slave legislation in Jamaica. The section is harrowing but important, as it reminds us not only of the historical and legal precedent for abuses against Black people but also how the faces of white supremacy belong to normal, ordinary people.

Ear for Eye is unlike any other play I have seen this year and will likely see for some time. Unsurprisingly for a talent as renowned as hers, debbie tucker green has created a work that is both personal and intimate yet crossing oceans, history, and lifetimes. Ear for Eye demands to be heard and seen.

Tell Us Something Pretty: How Should Deadwood End?

Warning: SPOILERS

Photo courtesy of HBO.

Photo courtesy of HBO.

Deadwood ain’t dead. Despite being off air for thirteen years, the busy schedules of several of its main stars, and numerous reports to the contrary, the much-beloved and much-mourned Western drama is to finally get its conclusion as a standalone movie in 2019.

Talk of a series finale is not new. Ever since the show was cancelled in 2006 due to low audience figures and a prohibitively expensive budget of near $5 million per episode, there has been considerable back-and-forth about whether it would be coming back. Creator David Milch was originally offered a six-episode season to finish, but turned it down on the basis that ‘I didn’t want to limp home.’

Now Deadwood is to return, which is cause for both celebration and caution. The past few years have seen the revival of several acclaimed shows, but not always to assured success. The fourth season of Arrested Development, a show cancelled in 2006 and renewed on Netflix in 2013, divided fans and critics and its fifth season was undermined entirely by the on-going controversy surrounding Jeffrey Tambor.

Of course, one might ask whether a show can ever truly live up to its past success years after the fact. The actors may have long since moved on, and the fondness that fans feel may have become impossible to satisfy in the interim. Deadwood has been off the air for nearly twice as long as Arrested Development, a substantial amount of time for the production staff, cast members, and audience.

So how should Deadwood end? And what needs to be considered if such an ending is to be both a critical and commercial success?

What is to become of the Bella Union?

Powers Boothe as Cy Tolliver. Photo courtesy of HBO.

Powers Boothe as Cy Tolliver. Photo courtesy of HBO.

One of the most compelling conflicts in Deadwood was between two saloon keepers, the charismatic yet brutal Al Swearengen and the sly and psychotic Cy Tolliver. Cy was a fascinating if terrifying opportunist, brilliantly brought to life by the inimitable Powers Boothe, who sadly passed away last year from pancreatic cancer.

Finding another actor for the role would not be impossible but would not produce the same results. Ian McShane rightly scored plaudits for his role as Swearengen, but Mr Boothe was severely underrated in his performance as Cy, embodying a complex, vicious, and utterly broken maniac with sublime skill. Besides, where would you find someone to do the voice?

Cy Tolliver was wounded in Season Two and spent much of the final season confined to his bed. A logical solution would be for Cy Tolliver to die in the show, but again, this leaves the question – what will happen to the Bella Union without its silver-haired pimp at the helm?

What is to become of Mister Wu?

If Deadwood was made today, one might wonder if the show’s portrayal of Asians would be the same. A lot can happen in thirteen years, and mainstream audiences have become increasingly more sensitive to racial representation, as the current discussion around Apu demonstrates. Looking back on the character of Mister Wu, Deadwood almost seems like it could have been made in the 1950s.

Keone Young as Mister Wu. Photo courtesy of HBO.

Keone Young as Mister Wu. Photo courtesy of HBO.

Mister Wu, as played by Keone Young, encapsulates virtually every stereotype about the Chinese one could imagine. He is short, asexual, and traffics opium. He also serves as the comic relief of the series, partly for his often slapstick appearances, but also for his inability to speak English, particularly when he employs one of the preferred insults of the Deadwood Universe. Oh, and he also feeds human remains to pigs.

Much still needs to be done to improve Asian representation on screen, but in a year that saw the release of All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and Crazy Rich Asians, there is simply no excuse for this kind of characterisation. If Mister Wu does return, I hope he will be more than just a punchline.

What is to become of George Hearst?

Deadwood was not given a proper conclusion. The (unfortunate) final season is predicated on a large-scale showdown between the townspeople and the murderous capitalist George Hearst, a showdown which, incidentally, never comes.

Gerald McRaney as George Hearst. Photo courtesy of HBO.

Gerald McRaney as George Hearst. Photo courtesy of HBO.

If Deadwood shows the making of America, this ending is strangely appropriate. White men with money and power win, no matter the cost. Some may have seen George Hearst’s ruthless pursuit of profit to have been extreme, but it is worth remembering the means by which America became a world power, and how its economy continues to operate to this day.

Interesting? Yes. Entertaining? No. While a ‘happy’ ending would not make any sense in the context of a show as morally ambiguous as Deadwood, the fact that George Hearst can walk away entirely unscathed (and indeed, stronger than at the start) is deeply dissatisfying. Hopefully the finale will provide some closure on this element of the story, regardless of what that may entail for the ‘heroes’ of the series.

What is to become of the supporting cast?

Third season arrivals Jack Langrishe and his theatre troupe as well as the Earp brothers had all that much to do. Brian Cox’s performance as the flamboyant thespian Jack Langrishe was wonderful but did not serve the plot in any relevant way.

Similarly, the famed gunman Wyatt Earp and his troublesome brother caused a stir when they arrived in camp but did not serve any further purpose to the story beyond causing some problems for one of Hearst’s men.

Lastly, there is uncertainty around the reappearance of Jeffery Jones as the pompous newspaperman A.W. Merrick, who plead no contest to soliciting naked photos of a minor. The charges were brought against Jones during the filming of Deadwood, but one wonders if, given recent attempts to crack down on sexual abuse in the industry, the actor will be welcomed back.

What is to become of the town?

Deadwood circa 1976. Photo courtesy of US National Archives and Records Administration.

Deadwood circa 1976. Photo courtesy of US National Archives and Records Administration.

The real town of Deadwood burned down in 1879. The television series, which begins in 1876, subtly (and not-so subtly) implies this fate throughout its three seasons. Al Swearengen threatens to set fire to the camp when reprimanding both E.B. and Jimmy Irons, while Trixie and Dan Dorrity make a pact to do so if Swearengen dies passing gleets.

Perhaps the biggest hint comes in Season Two, after Charlie Utter is made fire marshal. Inspecting the stove-pipes of a local saloon, Utter orders the keeper, Tom Nuttall, to separate the piping and wood because the camp ‘being situated like it is’ makes it liable to go up in flames. As the town structures were made of pine, it is not hard to see why this might be the case.

 

So how should Deadwood end? A shoot-out? A ball of flames? Or something else entirely?

Review: Legacy at Rich Mix

Fireworks at the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in London (2012). Photo courtesy of EPA.

Fireworks at the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in London (2012). Photo courtesy of EPA.

You remember the Olympic ceremony, right? That glorious display of British history and culture, that celebration of a modern country both welcoming and diverse? How times have changed, the commentators still say. Whatever happened to Britain, they ask, whatever happened to our sense of community? They forget that communities have been under attack well before the torch was lit. For the residents of the local area, the Olympics were not the start of the problems, but they did advance their impact.

Legacy explores what happened. While the Olympic games brought the promise of uplift to an area long under-served, under-funded, and under-represented, this uplift would not be for the benefit of the community, but rather private interests. Developers moved in, and the tenants, some of whom were life-long residents of the area, were forced out. Sound familiar?

The word ‘important’ gets thrown around a lot these days, and usually by lazy writers determined to reduce all art to political grandstanding. So, I want to be very clear when I say that Legacy is important, not only for what it says but what it represents – the real stories of people fighting against the erasure of their lives, homes, and communities. Get angry. It happened. It’s still happening.

Legacy is a powerful yet touching reminder of the importance of community and fighting back. A work of careful and compassionate research, the play was work-shopped and developed with local residents, and draws upon the real-life story of Mary Finch, a 75-year old fighting to save her home from private development.

Naturally, there is a lot of anger in the piece, but most importantly heart. Written by Susan Avery and Sally Grey, the script blends both the comic and the tragic. Legacy avoids easy stereotypes of working-class people, presenting a community of individuals with their own qualities and quirks, and all, in some way, compromised and galvanised by the threat of ‘regeneration’ in the name of private investment.

Photo courtesy of Blueprint Theatre (2018).

Photo courtesy of Blueprint Theatre (2018).

The performances are uniformly excellent. From the steely determination of Marian (Shenagh Govan), the warm-hearted generosity of Jackie (Sally Grey), the campy silliness of Jason (Adam Elms), to the wonderfully sleazy Richie (Nick Khan), the characters are immediately recognisable. These could be our family, friends, neighbours, hairdressers, shop-keepers, neighbourhood police and, well, landlords.

Special mention should also be paid to Katie Males who turns in a stunning and nuanced performance as Leah. Charming, forthright yet ultimately vulnerable, Leah ends up leading a movement but, just like all of us, is not invincible to cruelty and stress. Similarly, Jacqui Mackenzie Gray also deserves credit for her icily villainous portrayal of media personalities, misrepresenting the facts and destroying people’s lives, and all through cut-glass vowels and perfect teeth.   

From a directorial standpoint, Legacy is significant for its combination of the socially real and the fantastically surreal. Under the smart direction of Tracy Ryan and Debbie Fitzgerald, the play moves between Marian’s cosy living room to Jackie’s nightmarish hallucinations, all of which lead to a thrillingly bizarre conclusion aided by the superlative efforts of the technical team, made up of designer Ruth Sutcliffe and lighting and sound designers George Bach and Patrick Ball, respectively.

Mock-up of what the regeneration of Newham could look like, courtesy of the Newham Council website (2018).

Mock-up of what the regeneration of Newham could look like, courtesy of the Newham Council website (2018).

The sad reality of Legacy is that its story has continued relevancy, not only for the present moment but for years to come. Stories like Mary’s are not uncommon in London, nor indeed the rest of the United Kingdom, and Legacy not only draws attention to what’s going on but makes a compelling case to hold government, local and national, to account.

Legacy explores the tragic consequences of community versus capital. The play blends the political and the personal in a way that never preaches nor patronises, but rather presents the very real impact that money-making schemes, ordered in the name of ‘regeneration’, can have on the lives of ordinary working people.

Legacy deserves just that. I hope that more people will get an opportunity to see this play, to learn from its story, and to be moved to confront the injustices faced by Mary Finch and the rest of her community. The legacy of the Olympic games may not have all been positive, but hopefully in this instance, they might provide motivation to do better – for our communities, for local people, and for Britain.

More information about Blueprint Theatre can be found here.

Review: Mrs Dalloway at Arcola Theatre

Image courtesy of Arcola Theatre (2018).

Image courtesy of Arcola Theatre (2018).

Adaptation isn’t easy. The decision to shape a text for another medium, whether film, drama, music or art, should not be taken lightly, particularly when the source material does not lend itself to easy interpretation, or even easy reading.

So when it was announced that Virginia Woolf’s ‘Mrs Dalloway’ would be performed as a stage play, I can admit to feeling some trepidation. The novel, as typical of Woolf’s writing, toys with time, memory, and narrative voice, and explores the outer and inner lives of Clarissa Dalloway, a society woman of the 1920s, and her colourful cast of friends and acquaintances.

Luckily then, Mrs Dalloway succeeds not only as an adaptation of a great work, but also as an artful expansion of the world its characters occupy. While the play is faithful to the novel, using clever staging and technical flair to show shifts in chronology and perspective, adaptor Hal Coase and director Thomas Bailey skilfully and accessibly get to the heart of what the story is about.

Photo courtesy of the Press Association.

Photo courtesy of the Press Association.

Set over the course of a day in June, the story follows Clarissa Dalloway as she prepares for a party. The novel but does this in a highly unconventional way – exploring not only her memories and inner thoughts but those of the people around her, from a precocious daughter, an alienated husband, secret love interests, pompous friends, and a disturbed veteran of the First World War.

The novel explores post-war anxieties, psychology and mental illness, existential questions of life and death, but ultimately the reality of being an older woman in a time full of liberating promises, yet still held back by the darkness and destruction of its recent history. These aren’t easy topics to stage, particularly in a narrative that relies so much on jumping between times and characters, but the play does so magnificently – making Woolf’s story accessible without compromising its structural or emotional complexity.

The performances are superb. Clare Perkins brings both grace and wit to Clarissa, embodying the kind of charisma and sardonic humour one imagines a necessity of high-society women of her time. Equally impressive is Emma D’Arcy who has the unenviable task of playing both her free-spirited daughter Elizabeth and Italian Lucrezia Smith, who is at wit’s end by her marriage to Septimus, for whom the horrors of war are still present, and convincingly, hauntingly realised by Guy Rhys. Clare Lawrence Moody and Sean Jackson also deserve credit for their portrayals of Sally and Peter, two of Clarissa’s old friends and (to differing degrees) love interests, who bring levity to the production, but also help to bring Clarissa’s upper-class world to life.

Mrs Dalloway has an unconventional narrative structure even now – a near-century since its publication. However, through a combination of smart directing, design, and technical skill, transitions between time and voice are handled effectively and clearly.

London in June 1922. Photo courtesy of the Old Pics Archive.

London in June 1922. Photo courtesy of the Old Pics Archive.

Changes in lighting, movement of actors between fore and background, and small touches such as speaking into walkie-talkies help delineate what is being spoken and what is being remembered or thought. Designer Emma D’Arcy, as well as sound and lighting designers Tom Stafford and Joe Price (respectively) deserve special mentions for creating an immersive and coherent world, inhabited by characters that are brought to life by the exquisite period costuming of Louie Whitemore.

Mrs Dalloway will not be for everyone, and certainly not those who desire straight-forward stories of beginning, middle, and end. But beyond fans of Virginia Woolf, the play truly has a lot to offer. If you are interested in evocative, experimental theatre that challenges and excites in equal measure, this is the show for you.   

Mrs Dalloway is showing at Arcola Theatre from 25 September to 20 October.
Tickets available
here.

Gone West: Were the Wyoming Sessions a failure?

Photo courtesy of Twitter, 2018. The original post has been deleted.

Photo courtesy of Twitter, 2018. The original post has been deleted.

Kanye West is good at getting people talking. Earlier this year, the rapper, producer, and professional agitator announced not one but five new albums. These ‘Wyoming Sessions’ consisted of albums by G.O.O.D Music luminaries Pusha T and Teyana Taylor, top five contender Nas, a collaborative project between West and Kid Cudi and, of course, a solo album by Mr West himself. Most curious of all was the suggestion that these albums would not really be albums. Each album, Kanye announced, would be just seven tracks in length.

However, what was an interesting concept was quickly overshadowed by things that had nothing to do with music. As always these days, what Kanye West says tends to be a bigger story than what Kanye West does, and his support for Donald Trump and the now infamous remarks about slavery being a choice meant that these bold experiments in form and content were somewhat lost beneath the ego of a man who must always be the centre of attention, even if it’s to get pelted with rotten fruit.

So far so what. Enough time and energy have already been spent on this misinformed idiocy, and regardless of how many people try to tell him otherwise, the man already got he wanted – people talking. What he didn’t get however, was people talking about the albums. Kanye West’s antics, coupled with a messy rollout, ultimately cost the project and the sales prospects of one of its stars. Not that it matters of course, for as we enter a new season, the still unapologetic producer has found new ways to piss people off, such as working with actual paedophile Tekashi 6ix9ine.  

Still, let’s forget about Kanye West the person for a moment and concentrate instead on Kanye West as he would like to be known – an auteur. Some might say the Wyoming Sessions were doomed from the start by an erratic and unreliable producer more interested in clicks than credibility. But I think this is a far-too simplistic reading of what is, on balance, a worthwhile yet flawed attempt to challenge the tastes and listening habits of a generation more accustomed to Spotify streams than CD purchases. There’s also some genuinely great song-writing and composition that deserves recognition, too.  

Pusha T. Photo courtesy Bennett Raglin/BET/Getty.

Pusha T. Photo courtesy Bennett Raglin/BET/Getty.

Expectations were high, and initially, they were met. After the confusing and bloated mess that was the Life of Pablo, the promise of stripped-down, no-filler albums was enticing, particularly given the possibility that Kanye might actually be going back to his roots as a producer, putting aside his unwieldy visions to help other artists with theirs.

In this respect, Pusha T’s Daytona was the perfect introduction to the new project. A critical and commercial success, the album matched Pusha’s typically hard-nosed coke rap with a colourful and eclectic array of beats and served as a reminder (if anyone needed one) of Kanye’s credentials as one of hip-hop’s greatest producers. It also re-ignited a long-running beef with Drake, which was quickly silenced by one of the most impeccable smackdowns of recent history, The Story of Adidon, a track which, while it did not hurt his sales, would nonetheless expose Drake, and force the rapper to reveal that he was, in fact, to quote Pusha, hiding a child.  

Beyond the drama, the album was highly re-playable, and demonstrated that Kanye might be onto something with the shorter format. If streaming has made music more disposable, shorter albums could have more value to a listening public grown used to skipping through tracks to get to one song. The idea was also refreshing given the recent vogue for long-albums, arguably motivated by a cynical gaming of streams to guarantee platinum or gold certification.

Sadly, it was not to be. Taken together, the albums that followed reflected much of Kanye West’s current output – occasionally brilliant, often frustrating, but above all, inconsistent. The much-anticipated solo effort, Ye, was a mess of corny bars, half-baked concepts, and often barely coherent rambling that showed an artist struggling to articulate himself, perhaps due to his own issues, or perhaps because he just doesn’t have anything worthwhile to say anymore. This lack of focus and poorly conceived content made the shorter format utterly superfluous. After all, why bother limiting an album to seven tracks if those seven tracks sound unfinished?

Listening party in Wyoming for the album Ye (2018). Photo courtesy of WAV.

Listening party in Wyoming for the album Ye (2018). Photo courtesy of WAV.

Compare all that with the exceptional Kids See Ghosts, the collaborative effort between Kanye and Kid Cudi. The album perfectly paired the two artists, and somehow managed to successfully blend hip-hop, rock, psychedelia, and a Louis Prima sample in a collage of sounds that should not work but totally does – a truly unique project that was inventive, exciting, and concise. One of the strongest albums in the series, Kids See Ghosts may have been enough to justify the whole project, but then came what was probably the biggest (and surprising) let-down, the Nas album.

Despite promises to the contrary, the Nas album is definitely not done. Or if it is, Nasir certainly isn’t it. A long-running criticism of Nas’s post-2000s output has been his choice of beats, and that all he really needed to produce another classic comparable to Illmatic would be working with a superstar producer who could provide sounds that would fit his peerless ability at lyricism and storytelling.

How odd then, that on a collaboration between Nas and Kanye, Nas would be the one not to show up. There are definitely some misses production-wise – the brain-numbing Cops Shot the Kid or the needlessly long Everything – but overall this album found a master craftsman phoning it in with some of the most lacklustre and questionable bars of his career.

From the conspiracy theorising of Not For Radio, where Nas asserts (among other things) that J. Edgar Hoover was black, wondering whether girls masturbate before going on dates, to questioning the side effects of vaccinations, the lyrical content of the album was bizarre and below par, particularly for an elder statesman of rap. Add to that a botched release, helped in no small part by accusations of plagiarism, and what should have been a triumphant return became a missed opportunity.  

Teyana Taylor (2016). Photo courtesy of Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP.

Teyana Taylor (2016). Photo courtesy of Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP.

By this point, the Wyoming Sessions had been defined by ups and downs – greatness one moment, mehness the next – as well as increasingly poor management on behalf of its curator and mastermind, Kanye West.

The final work in the quintet, Teyana Taylor’s long-teased G.O.O.D. Music solo outing Keep That Same Energy (K.T.S.E.), was both well-produced and well-performed, but ultimately let down by yet another haphazard release. As mentioned above, this cost Teyana a full day and a half of streams and sales – crucial to a performer still trying to find a footing in the industry as a solo artist.

K.T.S.E. also showed Kanye’s lack of commitment to his own vision. Unlike the other albums, K.T.S.E. broke the seven-track formula with the addition of vogue-house Work This Pussy, which, while admittedly brilliant, was a jarring contrast to the laid-back R’n’B of the rest of the album.

Perhaps that’s the point. The Wyoming Sessions were never supposed to be a cohesive project led by one singular and disciplined visionary, but rather a collection of odd sketches, collaborations, and ideas. Hits and misses, so to speak. But it does appear a strange occurrence in the career of a producer who, up until the past few years, has been known for high-concept work that not only sounded good, but confidently delivered on the ambitions of its creator.

So, is it right to call the Wyoming Sessions a failure? Not entirely, but I suppose that depends on what the aim of the Sessions was. Despite presenting a compelling argument for a shorter format, the trend of stacked albums does not seem to be stopping anytime soon. Time will tell whether or not Kanye’s decision to release albums as short as these had any impact, but so far it’s difficult to see why any other mainstream artist would take the risk, particularly when there is money to be made from lengthy track lists.

In terms of content, the Sessions boasted some of this year’s best releases. Daytona and Kids See Ghosts can both be ranked as highlights in the catalogues of Pusha T and Kid Cudi, and while not as strong as either of these albums, K.T.S.E. was still a fine entry for Teyana Taylor. These albums demonstrated that, with discipline and focus, Kanye can still do wonders for other artists, and remains one of the most versatile and imaginative producers working right now.

Other work however, showed that his seven-track format was a superfluity or worse still, a gimmick. Ye sounded anything but complete, while Nasir was a mismatch, arguably hampered by a lack of effort on Nas’s part, but perhaps also a producer unable to inspire a good performance from his star collaborator.

Life goes on. New music keeps being churned out by an industry desperate to sate the demand of people used to having infinity at their disposal. Next year one wonders if anyone will remember Kanye’s experiment, for by then who knows what will be taking up the news cycle. Still, while his public persona continues to shock and offend, the Wyoming Sessions prove Kanye is an artist willing to take risks, willing to experiment, willing to invent. Kanye will always be good at getting people talking. Let’s hope next time it’s just for the music.  

Review: Caterpillar at Theatre 503

Photo courtesy of The Other Richard (2018)

Photo courtesy of The Other Richard (2018)

In both folklore and fiction, the caterpillar has long symbolised rebirth. In transforming into a beautiful creature capable of flight, the lowly insect has come to represent the potential for personal change and has featured in everything from children’s fables to a platinum-selling hip-hop album. The title of Alison Carr’s new play is therefore appropriate, given its questions of identity, authenticity, and what it truly means to ‘fly’.

Or it could just refer to the cake. The play is mysterious, in both content and meaning, avoiding categorisation and leaving audiences with more questions than answers. For these reasons, this review will avoid any detailed description of the plot and its developments, for while there are plenty of laughs to be had, there are also plenty of turns, all of which deserve to be experienced in person, rather than spoilt here.       

Set during a seaside town’s annual ‘Birdman’ competition, Caterpillar focuses on the lives of a B&B owner Maeve (Tricia Kelly), recovering from a stroke, and her caring but abrasive daughter Claire (Judith Amsenga). The relationship of mother and daughter is complicated by the arrival of the keen but well-meaning Simon (Alan Mahon), whose determination to fulfil his deceased girlfriend’s wish has brought him to the town to take part in the competition, hoping to fly off the pier in an amateur hang-glider.

Photo courtesy of The Other Richard (2018) 

Photo courtesy of The Other Richard (2018) 

Caterpillar keeps you guessing. Tightly directed by Yasmeen Arden, the play skilfully switches between moments of great wit and moments of bizarre and sometimes unsettling recrimination. It’s an entertaining but tense watch, for beneath the jokes and the banter there is genuine darkness and pain, sometimes suggested, sometimes present, but always threatening to explode.

Photo courtesy of The Other Richard (2018)

Photo courtesy of The Other Richard (2018)

Balancing humour and tension is a difficult trick to pull off, but Carr manages it with a script that is both well-paced and well-judged, offering audiences just enough information without ever giving the game away. The performers do well with this material, with each actor presenting characters that are plausible but peculiar, giving us an impression of a person, but one that might not necessarily be completely true.

Credit must also be paid to the set design of Holly Pigott, whose Bayview B&B feels homely, lived-in, and belies any of the troubles that may lurk beneath its exterior – much like its occupants. The walls, put together with what appear to be wooden shipping crates, were a particularly nice touch, invoking the salt and surf of the seaside, and helped in no small part by Jac Cooper’s sound design that drifts between the cawing of gulls and eerie electronics.  

Caterpillar will not please everyone. The play takes several risks during its later sequences that may seem a little far-fetched, particularly when it comes to the changing behaviour of its central characters. As mentioned above, the play offers no easy answers and no simple explanations, and this lack of resolution could prove unsatisfying for those who want to understand the why of it all.

Caterpillar is an amusing, strange, and provocative work, delivering up a twisty tale where no one is quite who they seem, and everyone appears to have something to hide. Who is the caterpillar? Who is the butterfly? Who falls and who flies?   

Review: Emilia at Shakespeare's Globe

Photo courtesy of Helen Murray (2018)

Photo courtesy of Helen Murray (2018)

It’s a strange thing, watching history. But that’s exactly what the final performance of Emilia felt like, standing in the yard of Shakespeare’s Globe while the cheers rang out for encore after encore, all tears and hugs and a feeling, distinct and yet somehow universally shared among the assembled, some of whom had returned for third, fourth, and even fifth viewings. A feeling that something had happened, or rather, was about to begin.

I am not equipped to articulate the significance of this play. Neither am I equipped to articulate the significance of what it might mean for women, people of colour, the differently-abled and, more generally, the marginalised voices of history. Far better (and more capable) writers than I have already done so. Besides, one need not look very far for these opinions – just search #Emilia on Twitter. What I can do however, is articulate how well Emilia succeeds as a play, a performance, and a production. And reader, Emilia exceeded in all three.

Emilia Lanier (née Bassano) was a poet of the Elizabethan era, the first Englishwoman to publish as such, and a possible inspiration (or originator) for Shakespeare’s work – namely as the ‘dark lady’ of his sonnets with dun skin and black hair. Written by Morgan Lloyd Malcolm and under the direction of Nicole Charles, the play tells Emilia’s story and struggle to assert herself as an artist and woman, and does so with heart and humour, passion and purpose, and endless, joyous invention.

Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s script perfectly captures the language of the time for a modern audience, making excellent use of period detail and gleefully knowing, anachronistic humour. Despite its historic setting, the play is freshly relevant to our times, not least for its subtle yet effective discussions of immigration, race, and female agency. In relating the past to the present day, the play smartly and subversively questions how far we really have advanced as a society when such issues remain unsolved.

Photo courtesy of Helen Murray (2018)

Photo courtesy of Helen Murray (2018)

The ensemble cast are a delight to behold. The performers bring life to a vast array of personalities both tragic and comic, from dedicated heroines (Leah Harvey, Vinette Robinson, Clare Perkins), courtiers both sleazy and affected (Shiloh Coke, Carolyn Pickles, Sophie Russell, Amanda Wilkin) and of course, Shakespeare himself (Charity Wakefield), wonderfully imagined here as an insufferably self-important oaf. 

Why heroines and not heroine? Well, there are three Emilias in the play, all representing various stages and ages of the poet’s life. To use three people to play one character (often simultaneously) could easily be awkward and confusing. However, Nicole Charles’s creative direction blends the performances seamlessly. We are not just watching Emilia at different stages of her life but also Emilia in different states of mind – the determined, the despairing, and the defiant – and sometimes all at the same time.

Credit must also be paid to the production team for creating a world of sound and colour that feels both imminently real yet undeniably magical. The music, as composed by Bill Barclay and performed by Elinor Chambers, Calie Hough, Sarah Humphrys and Sharon Lindo, evokes the time and place yet carries with it mystery and promise befitting Emilia’s tale, while Joanna Scotcher’s costuming is exquisite and charming, with meticulous attention to detail.

One of the real stars of the show is Scotcher’s set. The design conjures images of an enchanted library, a sacred space of learning and actualisation so often denied to women throughout history and completed here with a circular portal that could well represent an opening to the world of the past, the mind, and maybe even the future – one in which women might be truly free to create, to love, and to be.

Emilia is not history rewritten, but history relived. The play is the rarest of achievements, a work that serves as more than its writer, director, cast and crew. Emilia sings, shouts, and screams with the voices of generations stretching back into the past and outward into the future – an echo through time, and a call forward, forward, forward.

Conscious Un-Bonding: What's missing from the James Bond discussion

Idris Elba (2018). Photo courtesy of Harald Krichel. 

Idris Elba (2018). Photo courtesy of Harald Krichel. 

James Bond is black. At this point, he may as well be. The court of public opinion seems to have decided that Idris Elba will be the first black Bond(TM), which is probably a little awkward, given how consistently Mr Elba has stated the exact opposite. But I think what's missing from this discussion is a look at how the Bond character has been (and continues to be) defined by context and popular attitudes. In other words, the question shouldn’t be whether our times are ready for a black Bond, but whether Bond is ready for our times.

The idea of black Bond, and of Mr Elba taking on the role, has been around since 2010. If it wasn’t for the typically yawnsome rebuttals from indignant ‘traditionalists’ (or, you know, racists), the discussion may have ended there. Instead, what started as a bit of fun speculation has morphed into a sort of absurdist anti-racist campaign. Much like with the fall-out over the Ghostbusters remake, this backlash has made progressives even more determined – seemingly against the actor’s own wishes. No, Mr Elba, I expect you to be Bond.

But the problem is not who plays the character, but rather what the character represents. James Bond was always a form of wish-fulfilment for Britain, particularly British men. Introduced in Ian Fleming’s 1953 novel Casino Royale, James Bond became a hit with a post-war generation who not only had a taste for espionage, but an acute awareness of the country’s crumbling relevancy on the world stage.

Original film poster for Dr No (1962).

Original film poster for Dr No (1962).

As more people gained access to consumer goods and even foreign travel, James Bond came to represent a form of Britishness that was at once backward-looking to Imperial supremacy, but also modern, worldly, and hedonistic. As Dominic Sandbrook notes in his book, Never Had It So Good: “James Bond was the emblem of modern affluence, living a life of conspicuous consumption, luxury and sexual licence, surrounded by first-class airline tickets, champagne bottles and Turkish cigarettes.” The idealised image of British masculinity – suave and powerful, dispatching foreign baddies with silly names and bedding exotic women with even sillier ones.

It’s not difficult to see why such a character would be, to employ a favoured adjective of our current moment, ‘problematic’. Beyond the obvious racial insensitivities that have long been a staple of the franchise, one wonders if a character so defined by womanising chauvinism can exist in the era of #MeToo. From sexist insults to actual rape, James Bond has never been a paragon for respectful relations with women. As the entertainment industry continues to fight the fires from wave on wave of assault allegations, it’s not surprising that filmmakers should be so keen to distance themselves from the misogyny of this character, least of all its leading star.

Despite recent protestations, the attempt to address sexism in Bond is not new. Perhaps indicative of the burgeoning political correctness of the 90s, the 1995 return of Bond in Goldeneye saw a woman (and not just any woman – Dame Judi Dench) take on the role of M who, in her first scene, admonishes 007 for being a ‘sexist, misogynist dinosaur – a relic of the Cold War.’

Not that it matters of course, as not long after this moment of redress, Bond is back to undress, namely the ‘Bond girl’ Natalya and the femme fatale Xenia Onatopp (hurr geddit?). It’s as if the filmmakers believed that, by acknowledging Bond’s sexism early on, they could avoid criticism of his continued, consequence-free escapades. This confused, half-arsed, and ultimately insincere approach has persisted to the present day – but is proving harder to sustain.

Director Danny Boyle (2008), who was due to direct the next instalment of the Bond franchise before leaving in August 2018 due to 'creative differences.' Photo courtesy of Gordon Correll. 

Director Danny Boyle (2008), who was due to direct the next instalment of the Bond franchise before leaving in August 2018 due to 'creative differences.' Photo courtesy of Gordon Correll. 

The James Bond we know does not belong in this era. He just won’t fit. Studios may attempt to ensure the biggest box office returns by trying to please both feminists and the Sun readership, but their attempts will only alienate both audiences. Put simply, it does not matter how much agency the female characters are given, or how often Bond is punished for his shortcomings. It does not even matter that he gets affirmative consent. The fundamental essence of the character is the same – white, male, chauvinist – and as long as that stays the same, any attempt to ‘clean-up the franchise’ will ultimately fail.

Before we can have a black Bond, a female Bond, or any other kind of Bond, we first need to rethink our relationship with the character – who he is, where he comes from, and what he represents. Filmmakers can keep trying (and failing) to reconcile the character with the modern era, but they are missing an incredible opportunity for reinvention at what is a crucial moment in our national, social, and cultural history.

James Bond reflects the ideals of the popular imagination. He is, in many ways, the man that men have longed to be. He is the result of post-war anxieties about nationality, consumerist appetites and a Western, male-dominated culture that saw women as commodities and foreigners as devious and degenerate. But what if he came to reflect something else?