Where and when: 26th Feb – 1st March VAULT Festival
What it’s all about… Jo Sutherland’s dystopian debut play V+15 imagines a world in which books are banned and dissent is brutally suppressed. When whistle-blower, Alina, tries to convince journalist, Vincent, to play a part in sabotaging the system, the pair are forced to confront the ways in which they are guilty of manipulating language for their own gain. V+15 explores the cost of speaking up against injustice and the weaponization of words by the powerful.
You’ll like it if… you like shows like Black Mirror and Mr Robot, or books like The Handmaid’s Tale or Fahrenheit 451. It’s dystopian fiction meets political thriller.
You should see it because… it’s a tense two-hander which explores big issues like censorship and freedom of speech from a human perspective.
Anything else we should know…:V+15 is the inaugural production of Nevertheless Theatre Company. Nevertheless is a new, female-led company committed to staging urgent, inventive productions designed to entertain, excite, and challenge our audiences.
It’s Hamlet, but not quite as we know it. For one thing, Hamlet’s not actually in it. But Brian Blessed is. Sort of.
With Hamlet: Rotten States, 6FootStories return to the three-actor format of their acclaimed Macbeth: A Tale of Sound & Fury, which was first performed at the Hope a few years ago. In this case, the three actors (Will Bridges, Amy Fleming and Jake Hassam) are, in fact, actors – specifically, the players who visit court and are promptly recruited by Hamlet to recreate the murder of his father and in doing so catch the conscience of the king. But things are about to get more complicated for our players, who are visited by the ghost of Hamlet’s father and charged with avenging his death. And so Shakespeare’s play within a play becomes a play within a play within a play, as the three set out to answer the ghost’s challenge and reawaken Hamlet’s purpose in the only way they can think of.
This naturally involves a bit of playing around with the original text, but the result is still a coherent, if incredibly brief, retelling of Hamlet’s story. The three performers are clearly enjoying themselves as they whisk us through the key events, dividing the principal roles and speeches between them, and filling in the inevitable gaps with puppetry and props. There are song and dance routines, overblown death scenes, and sword fighting without actual swords; Gertrude appears only as a floating head, and the murder of Gonzago is portrayed using toby jugs. Oh, and the dead king looks a lot like a fiercely grinning Brian Blessed.
Needless to say, there’s a distinctly mischievous tone to the production that die-hard fans of both Shakespeare and his tragic masterpiece may find hard to stomach. But it’s important to note that there’s no lack of respect here either; while the text may be somewhat rearranged to suit the show’s purpose, we still get the core plot in the right order, and speeches delivered with appropriate passion and reverence where required. The fact that the performers then immediately break character to congratulate themselves on the quality and content of said delivery is great comedy, but it also helps the audience appreciate afresh the dramatic power of Shakespeare’s language.
Reducing four hours of action into one necessarily calls for high energy and a pretty brisk pace, and a pumping electronic soundtrack and flashing disco lights – all managed on stage by the actors themselves – complement this well. Unlike the original, in which every action is mulled over a thousand times, this is very much “blink and you’ll miss it” Hamlet, which keeps the audience focused throughout. The production walks the line well between familiarity and originality; those who know the play well can sit back and laugh at the numerous inside jokes, while for newcomers there’s enough here for them to follow the story, and perhaps spark an interest in seeing a more traditional retelling. Cheeky but respectful fun, this entertaining show guarantees a good time for all.
With Christmas safely behind us, ’tis now the season for Twelfth Night, and Yard Players’ new production of Shakespeare’s popular comedy is one of several opening over the next couple of weeks in London. It may also quite possibly be the darkest, with director James Eley injecting a note of malice into not only the always questionable antics of Maria and Toby, but also the play’s traditionally neat and cheery conclusion, in which more than one character casually transfers their affections and everyone is seemingly okay with that.
From the start of this version, which has been updated to take place in the 21st century, the laughs are there – but so too is the sense that all is not well. Orsino (Duncan Drury) is quickly revealed to be little more than a petulant child who wants what he can’t have. Maria (Heloise Spring), whose character is conflated here with that of Feste the fool, greets everyone with a mocking sneer – including a recently shipwrecked and clearly distressed Viola (Jess Kinsey), who believes her twin brother Sebastian (James Viller) has drowned.
Malvolio (Daniel Chrisostomou), on the other hand, is here not so much pompous as just a bit of an oddball, his loyalty and affection for his boss Olivia (Candice Price) making him an easy target. The same can be said for Sir Andrew Aguecheek (Drury again), a likeable fool whose lack of brains see him walk time and again into the traps set by his permanently inebriated “friend” Toby (Pete Picton).
This means that even the scenes which are usually particularly riotous – Malvolio and his yellow stockings being the most obvious example – feel somewhat subdued, which allows the audience to view what’s happening in a different way. Viewed from this new perspective, Malvolio’s storyline is shown to be what it is (and in fact always has been): gaslighting – having first made their victim believe Olivia secretly loves him, Maria and Toby go on to try and convince him he’s imagined the whole thing, and nearly drive him to actual madness in the process. At the same time, almost every relationship in the play is revealed to be entirely hollow, based solely on physical attraction, lust for power, or financial gain. The final scene is particularly well done – unlike in most productions, there’s little happiness on display, even from those characters who seem to have got what they wanted.
All that said, the play still makes for an entertaining night out, and there are plenty of laughs to be had from the gender swapping, mistaken identities and general mischief going on. The setting is a bit muddled; it’s obvious we’re in a seaside town, and most of the characters wear either blue or red lanyards, marking them early on as rivals in business as well as romance, though it’s quite difficult to make out what kind of company they all work for. There are suggestions, too, in the posters that adorn the set, that Orsino may have political ambitions, while Maria – who’s officially employed by Olivia – seems to have a rather lucrative sideline of her own.
As a slightly weary Twelfth Night veteran, personally I enjoyed this more sombre adaptation of the play, which remains accessible to newcomers while offering a fresh perspective to those who’ve seen it before. It may not have the belly laughs of other productions, but does ask some interesting – and refreshing – questions about whether a story that’s had audiences in stitches for centuries was really all that funny in the first place.
Twelfth Night is at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre until 1st February.
Where and when: VAULT Festival, 25th-28th February 2020
What it’s all about… Meeting as kids in Kilburn, siblings Madani, Maryam and school mate Alex hit it off from the moment they meet. 10 years later kids’ playful chats about ninja turtles and bobble pens have been kicked out by teen opinions powered by what they Twitter and YouTube. Still, best friends can talk about anything. So why are there suddenly so many unspoken thoughts between the three?
After last year’s critically acclaimed world premiere of If This Is Normal at the Edinburgh Fringe, Chatback Theatre are delighted to bring this new play about the sexual experiences of young adults in a world of information overload and weaponised language to VAULT Festival 2020.
You’ll like it if… you like new writing, drama with a dash of comedy, inventive and energetic staging, plays about relationships and complicated situations.
You should see it because… the play tackles an important, modern day issue in a unique and engaging way. Previously the show ran at the Edinburgh Fringe and got great reviews including four stars from The Scotsman, The Wee Review and EdFringe Review and Everything Theatre said: ‘Delivered by three compelling actors, this is the sort of play that people can’t stop talking about on their way home, splitting opinions and sparking debate.’
Anything else we should know…: There are a limited number of 2-4-1 tickets on the StageDoor App!
There’s a very personal feel to the two plays by Rosalind Blessed currently being performed in rep at the Old Red Lion – and it’s no surprise to learn that they’re both based on the writer’s own experience. The first, Lullabies for the Lost, is a new piece directed by Zoë Ford Burnett, which explores the power of open conversation in the battle against mental illness. The second, The Delights of Dogs and the Problems of People, is directed by Caroline Devlin and depicts the unravelling of an abusive marriage. Both very powerfully written and performed, neither shies away from the tough issues with which they’re dealing, and while they’re far from easy viewing, they each make a valuable contribution to a vitally important discussion.
Lullabies for the Lost uses the metaphor of a room in which eight characters find themselves trapped. It’s not clear what the room is, or indeed how they got there, but the key point is that to get out, they have to reach some point of understanding or resolution with their own mental health issues. And in order to do that, they have to repeatedly tell their stories to their fellow “residents”. Some, like Robin (Rosalind Blessed) and Ash (Duncan Wilkins), who each describe their experience of eating disorders, have been there for years. Larry (Chris Porter) has just become the newest arrival, as he wrestles with crippling social anxiety. Andy (Chris Pybus) has spent months in bed with depression, viewing the world only through the appearance-obsessed filter of social media. Nerys (Kate Tydman) started hoarding after suffering multiple miscarriages. Sarah (Helen Bang) is plagued by emotional sensitivity and low self-esteem into a lonely, unsatisfying existence. And brothers Jez and Tim (Nick Murphey and Liam Mulvey) each feel they need to put on a brave, “manly” face for the other, not realising they’d take much better care of each other if they just talked.
The metaphor is clever and well set up, and while the piece is essentially a series of monologues, the content of each is so well written and the performances so compelling, that the format never struggles to hold our attention. Where the play struggles slightly is in its conclusion, which certainly packs an emotional punch, but feels somehow underdeveloped and a little too neat. The words of Ma, an unexpected extra character played by Blessed’s own mother Hildegard Neil, are warm, wise and important, but it’s not made clear enough why, after so long grappling with their problems, it should be her who suddenly breaks through for so many of the characters.
As the more established play, The Delights of Dogs and the Problems of People suffers no such issue. The story of Robin – played by Blessed and importantly, the same character we met in Lullabies for the Lost – and James (Duncan Wilkins) is both gripping and desperately sad. This piece allows us to see more of Blessed herself, and the emotional intensity of her words really resonates; it’s clear they come from a very real and heartfelt place.
The play begins on the couple’s fifth wedding anniversary, as James excitedly prepares a romantic meal for his wife. He’s funny and charming, and it seems we’re looking at a loving husband. But the clues are already there, in the way he speaks about Robin, that all is not quite as it seems – although the truth, when it’s revealed, still has the power to shock us. Through a series of flashbacks, we see how a seemingly loving relationship began to crumble, and explore the factors on both sides that contribute to creating a toxic, abusive environment.
As is also the case with Lullabies for the Lost, the play tackles difficult issues, but nonetheless does so with humour and a degree of optimism and faith that human nature will prevail. In The Delights of Dogs, not unexpectedly, this lighter content is inspired by the writer’s love of dogs and appreciation for the support they provide. Even at her lowest, Robin can still talk to her old dog Ben, who listens without judgment and responds only with unconditional love. In Lullabies, too, a dog provides unexpected relief to one of the characters, and ultimately this new-found friendship allows them to become the only one who leaves of their own accord.
Another factor that unites the two plays is the way the characters speak out directly to the audience. This is more overt in The Delights of Dogs, but in both cases we become a key player as the characters bare their souls, allowing them to speak out and share their innermost struggles without fear of judgment or ridicule. And so they do, holding very little back, which again reveals how much the stories are grounded in real experiences. Some of the details are gruesome, others shocking, others just very sad – but each helps to educate the audience a little more about conditions and experiences that many of us will know little or nothing about.
Watching one play, let alone both together, makes for an intense and at times quite distressing few hours in the theatre. The content is intensely real and raw, and shines a spotlight on a variety of mental health issues in a very personal but accessible way. A tough but fascinating watch.