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?