Last week when I reviewed Gentleman Jack, the first of two new plays that make up Arrows & Traps’ Female Firsts repertory season, I described it as “perhaps more understated than some of their previous work”. The same can certainly not be said for TARO, the second piece. In fact, Ross McGregor’s biopic of Gerda Taro feels a lot like the Arrows’ greatest hits compilation (there’s even a cameo for the snow machine from Anna Karenina), but if it’s your first time seeing them in action… well, let’s just say you’ve picked a good one – possibly even the company’s best.
Born Gerta Pohorylle in 1910, Gerda Taro (Cornelia Baumann and Lucy Ioannou) was a German Jewish war photographer. Forced to leave her home by the rise of the Nazis, at the age of 23 she moved to Paris, where she met and fell in love with the Hungarian photographer Endre Friedmann (Tom Hartill). Faced with growing anti-semitic prejudice in Europe, the couple worked together under an invented alias, Robert Capa, before Gerta assumed her own professional identity and began working openly as Gerda Taro.
We hear this account from Gerda herself who, following her death in Spain at the age of just 26, looks back over her short life in an imagined conversation with her idol, Greta Garbo (Beatrice Vincent). Garbo adopts the role of director and under her guiding hand, the story of Gerda Taro comes magically to life.
And it really is a magical experience to watch it unfold. TARO is, quite simply, a meticulously choreographed masterclass in ensemble performance; a play in which every member of the cast shines individually but also forms part of a perfectly engineered and visually gorgeous whole. Movement director Matthew Parker has created some exquisite sequences, highlighted by stunningly atmospheric lighting from Ben Jacobs, and the whole piece has the feeling of both a story and a production far more epic than their intimate staging might suggest.
As in Gentleman Jack, the central character of Gerda Taro becomes a dual role, allowing the living Gerda to be observed wistfully by her ghostly counterpart. Both Lucy Ioannou and Cornelia Baumann are extraordinary, each radiating a quiet dignity in the face of tragedy and prejudice respectively. Among a host of great performances, Tom Hartill makes an incredibly charming Endre, Alex Stevens cuts a sympathetic figure as the couple’s friend and fellow photographer David “Chim” Seymour, and Beatrice Vincent oozes class and elegance as the legendary Greta Garbo.
Being labelled the first female photographer to be killed in action may seem like a dubious honour, particularly since Endre Freidmann – as Robert Capa – would go on to be dubbed by some the greatest war photographer in history. But those few words sum up so much about Gerda Taro: her courage, talent, passion, determination and above all, her refusal to let a little thing like being female – or indeed Jewish – stop her succeeding at a job she loved. All those qualities shine through in this beautiful tribute, which so clearly comes from a place of deep respect and admiration. What more can I say? An incredible life honoured by a gorgeous, goosebump-inducing production – you really don’t want to miss this one.
Merely Theatre has just embarked on a new national tour with productions of Romeo and Juliet and Twelfth Night in repertory. But there’s a twist in these tales, as company member Ffion Jones explains:
“Each character, or set of characters, is played by both a male and female actor from the full company of ten. Each male-female pairing will play the same parts as each other across both shows.
“All of the actors are off-script before we begin and we rehearse very quickly but precisely, applying what we call our ‘Merely Principles’ from the get-go. The principles are a set of rules we all abide by in rehearsal to create exciting and audience focussed work. They include things like striving to tell the story at all costs and never looking out into the middle distance when we speak. Each actor within the male-female pairings gets tagged in and out whilst rehearsing scenes; this rotation process means that we get used to listening and responding to whichever actor happens to be in front of us, because we can perform with any combination of actors from the other four pairs.”
This unique approach to rehearsal and performance presents a number of challenges. “For example, I am playing only male characters in both plays, purely by chance,” says Ffion. “I can’t help but think about how an audience might receive or judge my performance in comparison to men in other productions. However, because I’ve been with the company for three years now, I have learned to embrace the freedom this can give me as a performer. I don’t really feel inhibited at all and I enjoy bringing the essential humanity to each part that I play and representing the character regardless of gender.”
Merely Theatre was founded in 2010 by Artistic Director Scott Ellis to perform stripped back productions of Shakespeare’s work, and evolved over time to become the first fully gender blind Shakespeare company. “I think that Scott and Merely Theatre are leading the way with gender-blind casting in such a humble, experimental and joyous way that I am so proud to be a part of,” says Ffion. “I was inspired by Scott and Simon’s vision to strip away the unnecessary in Shakespeare and present the heart of the matter. During 2014, Merely produced a season of Shakespeare with no props, no set and no costume. I think our company’s gender-blind ethos goes hand-in-hand so simply with this attitude and it also means that I don’t have to think twice about my gender limitations, which is so liberating and enriching for an actor.”
Following the success of last year’s rep productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Henry V, Merely Theatre’s 2017 tour brings us another double bill of classic Shakespeare. “Romeo & Juliet is arguably the most famous Shakespeare play,” says Ffion. “It’s renowned for its love story, but with our simplistic style and raw energy we also hope that we can depict the friendship, familial love and ultimate tragedy found within its poetry. It pairs itself beautifully with Twelfth Night, which showcases Merely’s humour and mischievous nature. It’s a raucous comedy of errors that allows us to really show our silly side as well as remaining true to the compassion of the characters.”
As a repertory company, Ffion explains, the team have been growing and progressing together as performers for a number of years. “Scott Ellis and Tatty Hennessey, who have co-directed on both tours, have developed their ideas on how to create great Shakespeare and we have all been working on our craft as actors from vocal technique to text work. All of this groundwork serves as the foundation for these shows which, hopefully, will be felt by our audiences in even slicker, more accessible shows. Interestingly enough last year was also the first time in quite a while that Merely weren’t working in-the-round. It may seem rather backward to any other theatre company that we had to work hard to adjust our style to end-on and proscenium arch spaces. Our aim is to create the audience feeling of involvement that in-the-round or outdoor theatre gives and bring that magic to the theatre royals.”
There’s been much debate in recent years about the decline of repertory theatre, but Ffion believes it still has much to offer, for both actors and audience. “Rep theatre allows a company of actors to expand their skills. It has allowed us to take risks, which has led to some great discoveries. Because we continue to make work with the same company of actors it means that we know each other really well and it creates short cuts in the rehearsal room. There’s no awkward ‘getting to know each other’, we know each other’s skills and talents and we know how to encourage each other to make the best work possible. If audiences like our work then they know that they are guaranteed a good show every time they come to see us, and they too can see us grow and continually surprise.”
The 2017 tour is giving Merely the chance to return to some familiar venues: “The joy of the tour is that we can travel the length and breadth of the UK, hopefully entertaining fellow Shakespeare-fans, inspiring the next generation of theatre-goers and introducing Shakespeare to people that may not have engaged with it thus far. I am particularly looking forward to a week touring Northern Ireland at the end of March; we are returning to a number of venues where the company had an incredibly warm welcome and an overwhelming and kind response to the shows. My male acting ‘twin’, Robert, was lucky enough to take that leg of the tour last year, so I can’t wait to see what all the fuss was about!”
So what can we expect from the tour? “You can expect to see a fresh and rarely seen approach to Shakespeare,” concludes Ffion. “Merely Theatre provides simple, energetic and accessible performances of the bard’s best works, affirming that he is indeed a writer that transcends the ages.”
Merely Theatre perform Romeo and Juliet and Twelfth Night on tour until 25th May. Visit their website for dates and venues.
Othello forms part of the Arrows and Traps repertory season, alongside Twelfth Night (read more about that show, and the double bill as a whole, in my review). The two shows are both directed by Ross McGregor and performed by the same cast on the same set, but there the similarities end. While Twelfth Night is a riotous comedy full of romantic mischief, Othello is a dark, dramatic and gripping thriller, with a stunning climactic scene that I’d willingly watch over and over again.
In a modern day setting, army general Othello (Spencer Lee Osborne), known by most as the Moor, has married Desdemona (Pippa Caddick) against her father’s wishes. The couple’s happiness is set to be shortlived, however, thanks to the machinations of Othello’s ensign Iago (Pearce Sampson), who was recently passed over for promotion in favour of Cassio (Adam Elliott). In revenge, and with the unwitting help of his wife Emilia (Cornelia Baumann), Iago convinces Othello that Desdemona has been unfaithful with Cassio, setting in motion a dramatic and ultimately tragic chain of events.
While Arrows and Traps have proved they can turn their hand to pretty much anything, it seems tragedy is where they really excel. Othello, like their recent blood-soaked Macbeth, is intense, powerful and utterly compelling from start to breathless finish. And as in Macbeth, the production draws on the talents of movement director Will Pinchin, particularly in the murder scene, a dream-like montage of music and movement that’s quite spine-tinglingly beautiful to watch.
Unlike Twelfth Night, which draws on the cast’s talents as an ensemble, this play primarily focuses on three central characters: Othello, Iago and Desdemona. As the duped Othello, Spencer Lee Osborne shows us the insecurity of a man who’s always been an outsider, and can’t quite believe his luck that the woman he loves should return his feelings. My problem with Shakespeare’s play has always been in believing that a loving husband could be so quickly persuaded of his wife’s betrayal – but this Othello, though powerful in stature, has an emotional fragility that makes him easy to manipulate, and his willingness to believe Iago’s lies becomes therefore much more convincing for the audience.
Pearce Sampson, fresh from playing Jesus in the Arrows’ last production, here skilfully turns his hand to an altogether different role as the villainous Iago, his twinkly northern charm disguising his evil intentions. This is a bad guy who gets – and deserves – no sympathy from us. On the other hand, we feel nothing but sympathy for Pippa Caddick’s Desdemona, a devoted wife and kind-hearted, loyal friend, with an independence of mind and playful, ever so slightly flirtatious nature that unknowingly hasten her downfall at Iago’s hands.
The Gatehouse has a much larger stage area than many fringe theatres, and the production takes full advantage of the space, with actors appearing from all directions and even on the balcony above the stage. The set’s divided into three parts, which removes the need to break up the action with scene changes, but more importantly allows scenes to unfold simultaneously, heightening the drama and creating the familiar cinematic effect seen in previous Arrows productions.
Othello is a deliciously dark flip side to the madcap comedy of Twelfth Night, but it also stands alone as an intense and thrilling drama about human weakness. In addition, it makes a powerful statement about the way we treat those we see as different to ourselves, a topic that could hardly be more relevant at this moment in history. And it’s confirmed my view that Arrows and Traps are one of the best companies producing Shakespeare in London right now. Check them out if you can; you won’t regret it.
Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉
Anyone who reads this blog or follows me on Twitter will probably have noticed I’m a fully signed-up and completely unapologetic Arrows and Traps fangirl. So it should come as no surprise that I’ve been more than a little excited about their repertory season at the Gatehouse, which sees the same cast performing Twelfth Night and Othello on alternate evenings.
It’s hard to imagine two more different plays – one a comedy about romantic mix-ups and mischievous pranks; the other a dark story of betrayal, jealousy and murder. But in taking them on as a pair, the Arrows have put together a perfect showcase of everything that makes them so unique and fascinating to watch, while simultaneously demonstrating their impressive versatility. If you want to know what this company’s all about, don’t try and decide which show to see; just book for both.
That said, the two productions can and do stand entirely independently of each other, in style, tone, even use of the space – so it seems only fair to review them as such. This review will focus on Twelfth Night – check out the other to read more about Othello.
Arguably one of Shakespeare’s most convoluted plots, Twelfth Night sees a young woman, Viola (Pippa Caddick), fall in love with her master, Orsino (Pearce Sampson) – but he’s in love with Olivia (Cornelia Baumann), who in turn has fallen for Viola, now disguised as a boy called Cesario. Oh, and then Viola’s twin brother Sebastian (Alex Stevens) shows up, pursued by his friend Antonio (Spencer Lee Osborne), to cause further confusion…
Meanwhile, there’s a secondary plot involving a prank played on Olivia’s stuck-up steward Malvolio (Adam Elliott), by her maid Maria (Elle Banstead-Salim) and drunken cousin Sir Toby Belch (Tom Telford), with help from his friend Sir Andrew Aguecheek (David Grace) and the fool Feste (Lloyd Warbey). Get all that?
If it sounds a bit chaotic, that’s because it is – and this production even throws a couple of previously unexplored love triangles into the mix to complicate matters further. As a result, the play ends up as a study of unrequited love in all its forms, and brings a little more balance to the finale, which, as so often with Shakespeare’s comedies, can feel a bit too neat and tidy. Some of the characters will ultimately be satisfied, but just as many will leave disappointed, and if we’re left with a few loose ends – well, that’s the way life is sometimes.
Director Ross McGregor has assembled an impressive cast featuring several familiar Arrows faces. A larger than life story calls for similarly over the top performances, which include Elle Banstead-Salim’s over-excited and giggly Maria and David Grace’s lovably ridiculous Sir Andrew. Cornelia Baumann’s Olivia is rather more, ahem, erotically charged than we’re used to seeing, while Adam Elliott’s poker-faced turn as Malvolio brings the house down, particularly once he gets his yellow stockings out…
But it’s not all high comedy, and there are some beautifully understated moments too – most notably from Lloyd Warbey, whose sad clown Feste, so busy entertaining others that he’s unable to speak of his own sorrow, opens his heart to us instead through song. Pascal Magdinier’s arrangement of contemporary music fits much more naturally than you might expect within the Shakespearean text, and features the likes of The Police and The Proclaimers (yes, really – and it works).
I’ve seen some versions of Twelfth Night that take quite a dark turn, particularly in the treatment of Malvolio, so that we end up feeling somehow complicit in his downfall by laughing. That’s not the case here; though there are undoubtedly some more melancholy moments, the audience is never made to feel uncomfortable. Instead we can sit back, relax and watch love, laughter and music combine in an original and thoroughly entertaining production.
Can’t see the map on iPhone? Try turning your phone to landscape and that should sort it. I don’t know why but I’m working on it… 😉
Over the past three years, Arrows & Traps have become well known for their unique adaptations of Shakespeare and other classic works – most recently Macbeth and Anna Karenina. But the company’s latest project is their most ambitious to date, as they prepare to perform Twelfth Night and Othello in repertory at Highgate’s Upstairs at the Gatehouse this November.
The decision to take on two plays simultaneously stemmed from director Ross McGregor’s interest in exploring the duality in Shakespeare’s work. “Shakespeare’s comedies are not just simply throwaway funny things that end in orgiastic shotgun weddings. His tragedies are not just gloomy tear-stained stab fests. Iago, the antagonist in Othello, is darkly funny whilst he does unspeakable things to innocent people, and the comic treatment of Malvolio in Twelfth Night descends into dark cruelty and manipulation. The blending of light and dark seemed to be interesting to explore.
“But it was also a practical decision. If I was asking audiences to come back and see a second show, I wanted to provide a varied menu. Twelfth Night is an unrelenting carnival fun fair of laughter, love and lyricism – and it’s also a full blown musical – whereas Othello is a psychological thriller, set in a hyper-sexualised, racist and cut-throat world of politics and militia. So I thought people would enjoy seeing the same ten people navigate the different worlds and present two sides of the same coin: the birth and demise of love.”
Of course, performing two plays at once brings with it new challenges: “I’m currently running a sweepstake on which of the cast comes onstage in the wrong costume and says the wrong opening line,” says Ross. “It does impose more time constraints on us; we have to work faster, move on quicker, correct and evaluate with more brevity, there’s less room to devise and experiment. Choices are still being made, options are still being explored, but there is now a much more pressing sense of the need for producing work each day and drawing a line under it.
“The line-learning element doesn’t seem to be too much of an issue; I’ve structured the castings so that each actor has a main role in one of the shows, and a supporting part in the other, so no-one is drowning under a tidal wave of iambic pentameter. We use the same set for both, so I suppose that might challenge us to create different stage pictures across the two shows, but with the material being so different, and the characters each actor plays being so contrasting, I haven’t noticed any repetition. In fact, there’s some nice echoes in there across the shows, for instance the bed that Pearce Sampson (Orsino) woos Pippa Caddick (Viola) in is the same one where he (now as Iago) contrives her death (as Desdemona). So I’m enjoying that aspect of it.”
Unusually, the cast for the two plays features only two new faces: “We usually have more, but this project seemed to represent the culmination of the last three years, so I wanted to show that in the casting. We have David Grace, playing the lusciously adorable and insipid Sir Andrew in Twelfth Night, and then the lovesick puppet Rodorigo in Othello, an altogether darker and more tragic role. I’ve been a fan of David for about two years, so it’s an honour to finally get to work with him. He brings an energy and dedication to his work, he’s one of the most specific actors I’ve ever heard in terms of his delivery and responses to the text; he’s flourishing as an Arrow and it’s a pleasure to support.
“Then we have Lloyd Warbey playing Feste in Twelfth Night – the lady’s fool and her “corrupter of words”, and Lodovico in Othello. You may be familiar with Lloyd from his work on Art Attack on the Disney Channel, and he’s worked all over the country, so it’s a privilege to have him involved. For Feste, you need a showman, an entertainer and a comedian, and yet there’s a melancholic sadness to him; he’s broken, lonely and jaded, and it’s great to see Lloyd switch in and out, hear him spin the language with a cheeky grin on his face.
“The other eight members of the cast are my core members, the people I would trust with any script, and the people that without them there would be no Arrows & Traps. There’s no greater gift for a director than having a cast like this. They’re a pleasure to see every day, and the amount of effort and energy they put into both shows is humbling.”
As always, the Arrows are keen to delve into the text and find something fresh and original: “I think the main element of Twelfth Night that feels new to me is the darker and melancholic elements. I’ve seen quite a lot of productions of the play that focus on the comedy but ignore the other elements. Shakespeare first staged Twelfth Night on the anniversary of the baptism of his own twin children, one of whom had drowned several years before. I think this was deliberate. On one of the days of the year where he perhaps thought of his son the most, Shakespeare put on a play where two twins find each other again after both nearly drowning. There’s a wish-fulfilment, a consoling father fantasy in that which is heartbreakingly sad. Twelfth Night to me is a dreamscape where your wildest dreams can come true, where gender and sexuality are fluid and transient, where chaos flies with majestic abandon.
“In terms of Othello, I wanted to examine what it means to be a Moor in modern times. So often, we take the word “Moor” to simply refer to someone’s race, to be black or North African, but it originally referred to their faith – that they were Muslim. We’re staging this in November, during the month where Donald Trump may or may not become leader of the most powerful nation in the world – a man who’s built a campaign on fear-mongering against Muslims, a man who campaigns for power on the promise that he will exclude, interrogate and remove people of a particular religion. Othello seems timely to me in that regard.
“I also wanted especially to show Desdemona in a better light. So often she’s portrayed as this weak, blonde willowy girl who meekly accepts her own murder, but to me she’s incredibly strong-willed and independent. She goes against her father for the man she loves, she rejects prejudice and society’s expectations of her and is unwilling to let it oppress or minimise her. She’s seduced by stories of battle and violence, tales of the unexpected and grotesque, which to me shows that this is an adventurous, outspoken, and vivacious young woman, and I wanted to show a Desdemona like that, which is something I’d never seen before.”
And now for the big question – to see just one play, or both? “I’ve directed the two shows to be able to stand on their own two feet independently of each other, but there’s something exciting about seeing both,” Ross suggests. “There are also five days in the run where you can see both in the same day, which would be something of a marathon, but since the Gatehouse is above a pub, you can have dinner in-between, have a drink and make a day of it.
“But if you could only see one of them, you have a choice between a clown-filled chaotic musical of love and passion and confusion, or a darkly thrilling study of the breakdown of a relationship in a violent and brutal society. They’re two hours each, so we’re not talking about a four-hour snore fest, but two fast-paced, visceral rollercoasters. Of course, the producer in me would like to add that if you book for both you get £2 off your second ticket…”