Interview: Nina Brazier and Hanna Grzeskiewicz, The Winter’s Tale

This Friday, RADA Studios Theatre will play host to a unique interpretation of The Winter’s Tale from award-winning contemporary quartet The Hermes Experiment. The hour-long piece combines live music with Shakespeare’s drama, focusing on the jealousy and fury of King Leontes when he believes his pregnant wife Hermione has been unfaithful with his best friend and is carrying his baby.

“It’s the original Shakespeare play, pared down to an hour of its core elements and portrayed through a musical as well as a theatrical perspective,” explains director Nina Brazier, who adapted the original text for the production. “The Hermes Experiment are a group dedicated to pushing the boundaries of their craft, and it is their first project involving theatre.

“Alongside The Hermes Experiment, composer Kim Ashton and myself have led the devising process with five extraordinary actors: Christopher Adams, William McGeough, Sadie Parsons, Robert Willoughby and Louisa Hollway. The music plays an equal part as the text in bringing the drama to life, with the actors, the music and the musicians become intrinsically intertwined.”

Photo credit: Sam Murray-Sutton

The Hermes Experiment are Héloïse Werner (soprano and co-director), Oliver Pashley (clarinet), Marianne Schofield (double bass), Anne Denholm (harp) and Hanna Grzeskiewicz (producer and co-director) who explains, “We’re a contemporary ensemble made up of harp, clarinet, soprano and double bass. We are mainly a musical ensemble, but we are very interested in working with different art forms – we have worked with a photographer, dancers, and now also actors. Aside from work with other art forms we commission new music for our group, and have commissioned now 40 composers to write for us, arrange better known works, and improvise. We started in late 2013, soon after we all graduated from Cambridge University, which is where we all met – and we all wanted to do something unique and innovative musically.

“We’d been planning to do a project that fuses music and drama for a while – we were interested in what would happen if we brought all these creative minds together, and we hoped that the practice of the actors and the musicians would be enhanced by working with the other – and luckily we think it did! We had a few ideas, but eventually settled on Shakespeare: people know the plots so we could play around with it, the musicality of his language lends itself to working with music, and who doesn’t love Shakespeare!”

The show was developed during a residency at Aldeburgh Music in September 2016. “The devising process gave us permission to think in a completely new way about how we approached the text, and allowed us to explore Shakespeare from a musical as well as theatrical perspective,” says Nina. “During the process we used movement and gesture as much as text and music, feeling that we were creating a theatrical language that extended beyond the written and spoken word. As composer Kim Ashton said in his blog, we began ‘layering text, music and movement together in a variety of ways, such that each strand is dominant or subordinate at different moments, sharing equally in the unfolding of the narrative’.

“This heightened theatricality is fully integrated with the music, not only extending the emotions of the character but communicating the symbolic content of The Winter’s Tale.”

Photo credit: Sam Murray-Sutton

The piece was first performed in a one night showcase at the Cockpit Theatre in December, where it was well received by critics. “It’s a completely new and original way of seeing Shakespeare,” says Nina. “Following our performance at the Cockpit, The Winter’s Tale was described as ‘groundbreaking’ (The Reviews Hub), ‘resourceful and inventive’ (The CUSP) and ‘skilfully crafted’ (London Theatre 1). The performance ‘gripped the capacity audience from beginning to end’ (Early Music Reviews) and was seen as ‘an exciting trend to start’ (Schmopera) with ‘tautly-directed action’ (The Evening Standard).”

The show is far from the only project for The Hermes Experiment, who have a busy year coming up. Hanna explains, “After The Winter’s Tale, we have about a month off and then we are performing as part of Colourscape Festival, we are doing a recital as part of the Park Lane Group concert series, and in November we are going to Russia to perform at a contemporary music festival in St Petersburg. We will be revealing even more projects we have coming up in the coming weeks so keep checking our website and social media for updates!”

Catch The Winter’s Tale at RADA Studios Theatre on Friday 11th August. And you can follow The Hermes Experiment on Twitter and Facebook for news and updates.

Review: Persuasion at the Royal Exchange Theatre

Guest review by Aleks Anders

Persuasion is Jane Austen’s last complete novel, and is set most definitely in the counties of Avon and Somerset in the early part of the 19th century. It is a tragi-romance, and although there is some humour to be found in the novel, it is essentially written in earnestness. In the main, the story concerns the 27-year-old daughter of an impoverished noble wanting, nay needing, to marry; and the travails this entails as she watches in horror and amusement her relatives’ follies and dalliances. Her life changes forever though, when she encounters the man she had been engaged to more than seven years ago, and has not seen in as many years.

“Other people will try to persuade you. You must listen to your heart.”

A classic British novel which tells of a time passed; when morals, ideologies, customs, behaviours and habits were all so very different from the present. Perhaps the appeal here is that this evokes a kind of nostalgia, or a wish for change; or perhaps we just like to look at and laugh at the folly of our ancestors knowing that our lives are infinitely changed. Whatever the case, we expect to see a production that mirrors and compliments the author’s intent… and thereby lies the rub.

Photo credit: Johan Persson

On walking into Manchester’s celebrated in-the-round theatre we are greeted with a huge, looming cream-coloured rectangle, taking up most of the stage area. Around this are positioned multifarious sound and lighting paraphernalia, and the whole is lit with a cold blueish wash. A body is lying face down on top of this oblong. It’s female, she has dreadlocks, in modern dress, and seems dead. The cast are seated on the front row of the audience, in costume, and even change their costumes in full view of us all. It’s all a little strange.

First, it was obvious where the budget for this show went. On this rectangle. The omnipresent block is on two levels and the top half is a turntable which moves round at various points in the play. There is no set, no props, and nothing else is ever brought on for a scene. The scenes change fast and furiously, completely seamlessly, and we are expected to keep up with this without being given any visual stimulae to aid us. There is even a point where one character finishes speaking in one scene, stays exactly where she is and continues speaking for the start of the second scene as a different character, without so much as voice or body language change. The costumes are modern, but really rather strange. None of the costumes really seem to signify the character in any way, and are obviously not meant to be completely realistic.

“The problem is it is impossible to know what will happen in the future.”

The only thing to change this monotony is towards the end of the first act, when the action moves to the seaside town of Lyme Regis. The cast strip off revealing sexy swimsuits underneath, and a seemingly never-ending flow of foam cascades from above onto this rectangular block. The cast slip and slide in it and across it much to the laughter and approbation of the audience. This is followed immediately by Louisa, who slips once too often and has ketchup poured over her by Anne, again to much laughter since this is funny. It is only afterwards that we learn that it was in fact tragic, and she fell over the edge of a cliff!

Photo credit: Johan Persson

The language of the play is also at odds with this highly modern vision from director Jeff James. It’s very similar to watching a Shakespeare play in modern costumes whereby the language and business (such as sending letters etc) simply do not befit the updating. And yet – out of nowhere – Anne suddenly half-way through the second act screams the line, “Shut the f&$! up!” It jars and is out of place with the rest of the dialogue. However, if all the dialogue had been modernised in this way, I may well have enjoyed the play more.

Basically, I think what I am trying to say is that I do not believe that this adaptation is true to the author, nor is it at all clear. A mixed production at best. It is at one and the same time ultra-contemporary in concept and execution, and yet firmly fixed in the early 1800s with the language and references.

Fortunately the saving grace of this play is that the acting is really very good. All the cast invested a huge amount into their roles and this paid its dividends. Lara Rossi is a rather moody and sullen Anne, whilst her more frivolous female peers are played excellently by Cassie Layton (Elizabeth and Louise) and Caroline Moroney (Mrs. Clay/Henrietta). In fact, there has been – and still is – much bemoaning that there are so few plays with strong female leads. This play is quite the opposite; there are many strong female characters here.

The male roles do seem less defined than the female ones, but Samuel Edward-Cook’s Captain Wentworth is true and grounded throughout and very believable.

“Love can save your life. But love is the problem.”

Persuasion is at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester until 24th June.

Review: She Wears Scented Rose at Theatro Technis

Razor Sharp Productions promise “original plays designed to keep an audience gripped to the end”. She Wears Scented Rose, a new thriller written and directed by Yasir Senna, delivers on this promise up to a point, but could use a little tightening up in places to make the most of a strong and intriguing plot.

Businessman Mark (Craig Karpel) is on his way home late one night when he’s attacked and stabbed several times, the victim of a suspected carjacking. But when he wakes up in hospital, police officer DI Kane (Rosalie Carn) is waiting with questions, and it turns out all may not be quite as it seems… Twists and turns take us on an emotional rollercoaster ride, culminating in a truly shocking – and very effectively staged – conclusion.

Photo credit: Robert Piwko

Like any crime drama, the key is in the detail, and She Wears Scented Rose is packed with these; looking back afterwards you realise the intricacy of the plot, and that all the clues were there all along to piece together the truth. Senna has obviously done his research, and has in particular created a complex and well-drawn central figure in the silver-tongued Mark, played brilliantly by Craig Karpel. He has strong support from Niki Mylonas as his loving wife Verity, who has a secret of her own, and Rosalie Carn as an attractive French police officer with some unorthodox investigation methods. Simon Ryerson, meanwhile, is a sympathetic figure as Mark’s nice but dim best mate Dave, who in contrast to his friend is driven by his heart rather than his head. The acting on the whole is solid, although there are a couple of scenes that start to edge towards the melodramatic and could perhaps be reined in a little.

While the story is certainly gripping and holds our interest throughout, the script in places needs a bit of a trim to make more of an impact. There are some parts of the play that start out well but could be snappier – the most obvious of these being the final scene, which takes a frustratingly long time to reach its dramatic climax. In addition, there are a lot of scene changes, which while executed smoothly by a well-oiled stage crew, inevitably interrupt the action and don’t always feel completely necessary.

Photo credit: Robert Piwko

We all love a good mystery, and She Wears Scented Rose is definitely that; the plot is well-crafted and keeps us guessing throughout so that even if we succeed in figuring out one bit, there’s always another twist waiting round the corner to catch us off guard. The characters are relatable enough that we grow to care about them (and in one case, really really dislike) so that when everything starts to kick off in Act 2, we can sympathise with what they’re going through. And I know I keep going on about it, but that ending does make a huge impact, with one particular image lingering in my memory – and not in a good way.

There’s already an enjoyable show here, but with a few tweaks to script and staging to ramp up the intensity, there’s potential for an excellent and even more memorable production.

She Wears Scented Rose is at Theatro Technis until 29th April.

Review: Threads at The Hope Theatre

On the surface, David Lane’s Threads appears to be a standard break-up drama. Five years after she left him, Charlie (Samuel Lawrence) has finally managed to track down Vic (Katharine Davenport) and convinced her to come and visit him at their old flat. Vic’s moved on – new home, new job, new relationship – while Charlie’s struggling; he hasn’t left the flat for several years, but we’re about to discover that’s the least of his worries.

Photo credit: Lidia Crisafulli

Because there’s much more to Threads than meets the eye, and Lane waits just the right amount of time for us to relax before casually taking the story in a new and decidedly unsettling direction. It turns out Charlie’s not just feeling a bit low; his life has quite literally stopped moving forward (I’ll leave it there for fear of spoilers). And Vic isn’t doing all that well herself – for all her protestations of “resolve”, the wall she’s consciously built around Charlie in her memory is crumbling before our eyes, as is the image she projects to the world of her perfect new life. At the centre of the play is the metaphor of threads that connect us to each other, and the impossibility of simply severing those cords and walking away when a relationship comes to an end.

Like the story, Jo Jones’ set takes the mundane setting of Charlie’s flat, complete with the sort of things you’d expect – armchair, kitchen, window – but adds a touch of Frankenstein-esque gothic weirdness to keep us on our toes. The dingy room gives off the vibe of a mad scientist’s workshop, and electric cables hang from the walls and ceiling and creep across the furniture, occasionally glowing with a crackling energy as the couple’s simmering, unresolved passion threatens to boil over. (I kept half expecting them to come to life and start moving on their own, but was very glad they didn’t; that way nightmares lie.)

That same energy also radiates from the actors, neither of whom seem able to keep still as they restlessly cover every inch of the space. Samuel Lawrence is jittery and anxious from the start, stammering and raising his voice in frustration at his inability to make Vic believe what he’s going through. Katharine Davenport, on the other hand, starts out cool, calm and collected – but there’s a rising tension as her defences begin to fall, and the explosion when it comes is unexpectedly fierce. The two initially appear to have little in common, yet there are shared moments of tenderness as they reflect on a memory or private joke, and it’s in these moments that we can appreciate what they once had together.

Photo credit: Lidia Crisafulli

Director Pamela Schermann keeps up the intensity throughout, aided by light and sound design from Rachel Sampley and James Scriven, which are effective but not intrusive and allow our focus to remain on the human drama unfolding just inches away. The intimate Hope Theatre lends itself perfectly to this play, drawing us right inside the living room and holding us there just as it does Vic. By the end of the 70 minutes we’re left feeling exposed, and drained by the emotion of seeing laid bare an experience most of us will have gone through in some way during our lives, but may not have been able to articulate.

Threads is a highly original and unpredictable piece of theatre that grabs hold of you and doesn’t let go. It deals in metaphors without trying to be too clever, and remains a gripping human drama – whilst also providing plenty of food for thought for the train home.

Threads is at The Hope Theatre until 29th April.

Theatre Things: 2016 highlights

Someone told me yesterday that they find New Year a bit of a confusing time, because they never know whether they should be celebrating the last 12 months or looking forward to the next.

Well. This year more than ever, I’m all about looking forward and making the best of the opportunities 2017 has to offer. But while there’s a lot about 2016 that we might like to forget, it did bring us a lot of great theatre. So I’d like to pause for a moment and take a look back at a few of my highlights from the last 12 months. (As always, these are in no particular order – ranking them from 1 to 10 requires a level of decisiveness that’s far beyond me.)

Anna Karenina (Arrows and Traps) at Brockley Jack Studio Theatre

It was inevitable that the Arrows would find their way into my top 10, but I’ve chosen Anna Karenina for this list, because it marked the moment I really fell in love with their work. Condensing Tolstoy’s epic novel into a drama as accessible as it was gripping, Anna Karenina bore all the hallmarks we’ve come to expect from an Arrows show: creatively staged, exquisitely performed and visually stunning.

Anna Karenina
Photo credit: The Ocular Creative

Transports (Pipeline Theatre) at the Pleasance

A heartbreaking and incredibly timely play, Transports never explicitly mentioned current events, but nonetheless offered a powerful statement about the emotional trauma faced by refugees every day. Based on the life of designer Alan Munden’s mother, Liesl, the interlocking stories of two girls were simply and lovingly staged in a powerful and thought-provoking production.

Cargo (Metal Rabbit Productions) at Arcola Theatre

It’s not really surprising that the experience of being a refugee has been a common theme in the theatre of 2016, but Tess Berry-Hart’s Cargo stands out as particularly powerful, because it turned the tables and forced us to not only imagine but actually experience what it might be like if we were the ones forced to flee our homes and seek refuge overseas. The result was a production that was disturbing, tense and unsettlingly authentic.

Blind Man’s Song (Theatre Re) at the Pleasance

This one was a surprise to me, because going in I had no idea what to expect and really wasn’t sure if I’d enjoy this combination of mime, dance, sound, illusion and original music. But Theatre Re’s Blind Man’s Song was a revelation; I was soon swept away by the beauty of the love story unfolding on stage, and by the reminder of how much emotion can be expressed without saying a single word.

We Live By The Sea (Patch of Blue) at Arts Theatre

Patch of Blue struck gold again this year with We Live By The Sea, a beautiful and sensitive portrayal of a young girl with autism. While the carefully researched production made no attempt to conceal the difficulties experienced by Katy and her family, it also challenged us to look beyond her autism – and our own assumptions – to celebrate the person behind it and everything she had to offer.

Photo credit: Scarab Pictures
Photo credit: Scarab Pictures

Dare Devil Rides to Jarama (Townsend Productions) at the Bussey Building (on tour)

Commissioned by the International Brigades Memorial Trust, Dare Devil Rides to Jarama – which continues touring into 2017 – tells the little-known but fascinating story of Clem Beckett, a young speedway rider from Manchester who gave his life fighting against fascism in the Spanish Civil War. Despite its sad ending, the story’s told with charm and humour by writer Neil Gore in a script that combines poetry, prose, music, and an enjoyable bit of audience participation.

Pride and Prejudice (Two Bit Classics) at Greenwich Theatre (on tour)

As a fan of Jane Austen’s classic novel, I was either going to love or hate Two Bit Classics’ adaptation of Pride and Prejudice for two actors; it didn’t take long to decide it was the former. In an astonishing display of stamina, Joannah Tincey and Nick Underwood took on 21 characters between them, switching genders, costumes and accents at the drop of a hat in this funny and enjoyable show.

The We Plays at the Hope Theatre

Cyprus Sunsets, the first in this double bill of monologues from up and coming talent Andrew Maddock, just missed out on my top 10 last year… but it’s time to put that right. The We Plays combined Cyprus Sunsets with Irn Pru – two very different stories that nonetheless shared an ability to wrongfoot and shock us. Powerful writing and captivating performances ensured the double bill definitely made the list this year.

Scrooge and the Seven Dwarves (Sleeping Trees) at Theatre503

Who would have thought a panto would make it into my top 10? Not me – but Sleeping Trees’ mash-up of Dickens and Disney is such a brilliant, hilarious and above all original take on the classic format that I’m currently trying to decide if I can squeeze in a repeat visit before it closes next week. And I shall also be demanding that every panto I see from now on features a giant lobster…

Photo credit: David Monteith-Hodge
Photo credit: David Monteith-Hodge

Her Aching Heart at the Hope Theatre

The Hope Theatre has had a great year, and it came to a triumphant, five-star end with Her Aching Heart, a lesbian gothic romance musical two-hander written by Bryony Lavery. A laugh out loud comedy, this unexpected delight of a show affectionately mocked the Mills and Boon genre on which it was based, while a modern day love story unfolding simultaneously introduced a more contemplative note.

And let’s not forget:

The Memory Show, All Male H.M.S. Pinafore, This is Living, How to Win Against History, TitanicHarry Potter and the Cursed Child, An Inspector Calls, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Sunny Afternoon – and a couple that I didn’t review but still want to shout about: Jesus Christ Superstar and Imogen.

Now, let’s see what 2017 has in store…

Happy New Year!