Category: Theatre

Review: Intrigue and love in The Rubenstein Kiss at Nottingham Playhouse


Matthew and Anna in The Rubenstein Kiss (c) Robert Day.

Nottingham Playhouse’s Conspiracy Season continued this week with a performance of James Philips’ ambitious and powerful The Rubenstein Kiss.

The story is based closely on that of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the US couple executed in 1953 for their role in handing over secrets of the atomic bomb to Soviet Russia. We are introduced to Jakob Rubenstein and his wife Ethel first as a portrait in an art gallery, in 1970s New York. The pair, who are kissing, attract the attention of two earnest young university students, Matthew and Anna, who become lovers themselves and develop a deep fascination with the Rubensteins.

At first there is nothing to suggest the Rubensteins have anything to do with espionage. At home inside their brownstone New York apartment – the sort of which you’ve seen in countless films and TV programmes – we see a devoted Jewish couple who are looking forward to the return of Ethel’s brother David, who has been stationed abroad during the Second World War. Only later is it revealed that he has been working on developing the first atomic bomb which would later be used on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

At the beginning, there is an air of optimism; David has just returned from the war and Ethel, who often sings joyously, is pleased that he is settling down with his new wife Rachel. There are also plans for him to become a partner in Jakob’s new business venture.

But it’s not long before life for the family takes a darker turn as the business fails and Rachel and David lose their baby. A sense of foreboding starts to take over, and it becomes apparent there are troubling secrets bubbling beneath the surface.

Running alongside this, Matthew and Anna are starting to delve into the lives of the Rubensteins. Matthew, a law student, begins a personal crusade to clear their name, which leads to him uncovering a troubling series of events.

The strength of Rubenstein Kiss no doubt lies in its examination of how the boundaries between the political and personal can be blurred. Jakob’s communist beliefs are unwavering, as he tells us, somewhat chillingly, that ideology is more important than anything and that ‘the ends justify the means’. What is less clear is Ethel’s alignment to the cause although no-one can doubt her devotion to her husband.

This is a long and challenging play which is heavily influenced by Arthur Miller, perhaps a little self-consciously at times. Nevertheless, the actors all delivered magnificent performances and their accents were entirely believable. Some of the most intense moments came from the dialogue between Jakob and the FBI agent, Paul Cramner whose questions mirror our own: how guilty – or innocent – are the Rubensteins?

The Rubenstein Kiss is on at Nottingham Playhouse until 17 October. Visit the website for more details and tickets.

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Review: A View from the Bridge at Nottingham’s Theatre Royal

viewThere is no escaping the sense of foreboding that permeates Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge. Currently being revived at Nottingham’s Theatre Royal by the Touring Consortium Theatre Company, this production brilliantly evokes the dark side of the American Dream, as well as the complex relationships and moral uncertainty which characterise Miller’s work.

It is set in the claustrophobic apartment of longshoreman Eddie Carbone and his wife Beatrice in 1950s Brooklyn. Eddie is fiercely protective of his 17-year-old niece, Catherine, who lives with them after being orphaned. He lives by his own rigid moral code, working hard on the docks to provide for Beatrice and Catherine and demanding respect from those around him.

But the fragile family dynamics begin to falter when Beatrice’s cousins, Marco and Rodolpho, come to stay. The brothers are illegal immigrants who have left Italy to escape poverty – and while Eddie warms to the strong yet morally-upstanding Marco, he cannot hide his dislike for Rodolpho who he sees as frivolous and effeminate. It’s not long before Rodolpho and Catherine form a close bond, which angers Eddie, particularly when the other dockers insinuate that Rodolpho may be gay.

Believing that Rodolpho is only interested in marrying Catherine so he can gain citizenship, Eddie sets about trying to destroy their relationship. He seeks advice from the lawyer – who acts as a narrator detached from the action – but he can find no guidance from him. Eventually, his misplaced desire to protect his niece leaves him consumed by rage and ready to commit abhorrent acts.

This production is infused with the social realism that is characteristic of Miller’s work and echoes his earlier play, Death of a Salesman, which also tells the semi-tragic tale of the demise of a lowly worker. The dialogue is well executed by all the cast members and the performance is paced perfectly as it winds its way towards a dramatic ending. The grimy-looking apartment block provides a fitting backdrop to the murkiness of this world, which is riddled with crime and desperation as the new-comers realise life in New York is not what they expected it to be.

A View from the Bridge is on at the Theatre Royal until Saturday. Visit the website for further details. 

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D. H. Lawrence Festival: The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd at Lakeside Arts Centre

lawrence2This year’s D. H. Lawrence Festival came to a close last week with a performance of his 1911 play The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd at Lakeside Arts Centre. Drawing on many of the autobiographical themes that would haunt his later work, Lawrence gives us a terse account family breakdown and death in a Nottinghamshire mining community.

The play draws heavily on his earlier work, Odour of Chrysanthemums, a beautifully descriptive short story full of potent symbolism. The play is set in a dismal, rat-infested pit cottage. Lizzie Holroyd is waiting for her husband to come home – she has been told that he has been drinking at the pub and sure enough he comes home inebriated with a couple of bawdy women in tow.

But the following day, Lizzie learns that her husband has been killed in a pit accident and in the final scene she and her mother-in-law receive his body, wash it and dress it while lamenting where everything went wrong. But there are no clear resolutions; Mr Holroyd’s behaviour is of course difficult to stomach yet there is the suggestion that he is not entirely to blame for the disintegration of their marriage.

Although this was a rehearsed reading, with all the actors appearing script-in-hand, it was it was a gut-wrenching piece of theatre and all the actors put on passionate performances. The Nottinghamshire dialect was delivered accurately by all the actors, particularly the one who played the feckless Mr Holroyd. Although Lawrence is not widely-known for his drama this piece proves that he was an accomplished playwright who was able to create vivid characters and dialogue. Let’s hope we see it on stage again in the near future.

For details on what’s on at D. H. Lawrence Heritage in Eastwood visit the website.

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Bolero at Nottingham Playhouse was a fitting finale to neat14

danceMichael Pinchbeck’s Bolero, a piece which deals with politics, history and art in almost equal measures, proved to be a poignant and fitting finale to Nottingham’s recent arts festival, neat14. Performed at the Playhouse on the closing night, it starred a small group English, Bosnian and German speakers, along with members of the local community, and charted some of the world-changing events of the 20th century, particularly those which happened around the Balkans.

But rather than it being a brisk amble through our recent history, Bolero layers the stories of people from different times and places on top of each other. It moves back and forward in time examining the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 in Sarajevo, the Winter Olympics in 1984 and the Bosnian War, as well as Pinchbeck’s own childhood memories of growing up in Nottingham. These events are knitted together by Maurice Ravel’s 1928 piece of music Bolero – which Torvill and Dean famously used for their routine at the 1984 Olympics. Music is also inextricably bound up with war and we find out, for instance, that after the First World War Ravel struggling to write in the way that he had done before.

The play is full of great dramatic flourishes. Different languages are spoken in an almost Babel-esque way, evoking the idea of different narratives existing at the same time. The black and red stage set is minimalist and on the brown paper backdrop, blood-like red paint is used to count down the days as the bombs fall in Sarajevo during the Bosnian war. The institutional-looking chairs around the stage are used a props throughout but at the end they take on a new significance. In 2012, 11,541 red chairs were laid out to form the Red Line of Sarajevo, a memorial to all those who lost their lives during the seige. We are shown film footage of the memorial and as the camera follows the never-ending line of chairs, the audience sat in stunned silence. It was a powerful reminder of just how deadly this war was.

Bolero will be performed at the Sarajevo War Theatre on 29th June.

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neat14: Chilling performance weaves a web of intrigue around Litvinenko

Tea annyone?

Tea anyone?

I can remember all too clearly the footage of Alexander Litvinenko as he lay dying in a hospital bed in 2006 having apparently been poisoned with a lethal dose of polonium-210. In a speech, read out on his behalf, the former Russian security agent, who had been working for MI6 and the Spanish secret service, pointed the finger squarely at president Vladimir Putin and his cronies. Very little is known about the circumstances of his death. We know that he went for tea with two Russian men at a hotel in London but since then the trail has gone cold and an inquest is yet to open.

The scant facts about his life form the basis of 2Magpies’ latest production, The Litvinenko Project which I saw last week as part of neat14. Performed at Edin’s café, this is a piece of site-responsive theatre which made full use of its environment. We are shown to a table by Tom Barnes and Matt Wilks, the duo behind 2Magpies, and told to help ourselves to the pot of green tea on the table – something which that took on a sinister quality that Litvinenko had gone out for tea just before he was murdered.

We are then introduced to Litvinenko the man. We learn that he is a husband to Marina and a father to a young boy called Anatoli. He loves to dance the tango and having lived in London he is acutely aware of the differences between Russian and British cultures, not least the difference in tea drinking customs: the British brew theirs in teapots for a short period of time while the Russians allow theirs to stew in a samovar until it becomes highly concentrated. But his daily routine of eating breakfast with his family is interrupted by an ominous voice repeating over and over again one of things we truly know: “Alexander Litvinenko is going to die.”

What follows is a tremendously energetic yet chilling piece of theatre. Matt and Tom play every role but they draw the audience in, asking them to take on different parts and by the end we were all – quite literally –  bound up in this web of intrigue. There was no stage set but the props, which included a raw chicken, a mop and a samovar which doubled as a football trophy, were cleverly used and the dialogue, at times reminiscent of a court case or detective story, was superb. Meanwhile, the public setting also added to the strength of this performance and there was a real feeling that anything could happen. From downstairs I could hear the everyday conversations of the customers drift upwards which contrasted well with the dark nature of the play. Indeed, it made me think of all the people in London who had no idea that a Cold War-era style murder was being plotted until it was too late.

Just before the play started, Tom told us that The Litvinenko Project had been evolving over a period of around six months and during that time Russia had rarely been out of the news. From the arrest of the politically-charged band Pussy Riot, to the anti-homosexuality laws and the recent invasion of Ukraine, suspicion the West is growing increasingly suspicious of Russia – and The Litvinenko is becoming even more relevant. Let’s hope it is performed again in the near future.

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Nottingham gets ready to host neat14

boleroAfter a three-year hiatus, the Nottingham European Arts and Theatre Festival (neat14) is making a welcome return to the city this month. Taking place at a variety of artistic spaces, including Nottingham Playhouse, Nottingham Contemporary and Broadway, the 10-day festival showcases ground-breaking theatre, art, film and dance. This year’s event, which opens on 23rd May, draws inspiration from the centenary of the start of the First World War, a conflict which has shaped the landscape of Europe.

This idea is explored in Michael Pinchbeck’s Bolero, which opens at Nottingham Playhouse on 31st May. The play begins with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914, which sparked the First World War, and takes the audience on a journey through to the Bosnian War of 1994 and the present day. One of the key events during this period was the Sarajevo Winter Olympics when Nottingham figure skaters Torvill and Dean beat the odds to win gold for their ‘perfect six’ Bolero routine. But there is no triumphant finale; we learn that eight years later the stadium in which they performed was destroyed during the Balkans conflict. Throughout the play, Bolero, the piece of music written by Ravel in 1928, acts as a leitmotif linking together these events.

The Litvinenko Project, which will be performed in various venues including Lee Rosy’s, Cast and Edin’s, is a piece of site-responsive theatre by Nottingham-based 2Magpies. It examines the fate of Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian security agent who died after being poisoned in 2006, claiming on his deathbed that Vladimir Putin was behind it. This production starts with three facts about Litvinenko:

  • He was a man.
  • He was a man who died.
  • He was a man who died of radiation poisoning.

It then invites the audience to speculate on his life – what he liked to drink, how he danced – because there are so few facts about the circumstances of his death. Indeed, his widow has campaigned for an inquest into his death – but this has been repeatedly delayed and she is now fighting for a public inquiry to be held. The Litvinenko Project promises to be a chilling piece of theatre, especially given the ongoing crisis between Russia and Ukraine and the growing mistrust of Putin in the West.

Another highlight of the festival is Generation Jeans, a production by the critically-acclaimed Belarus Free Theatre which takes place at Nottingham Playhouse on 23rd and 24th May. Three years ago, the theatre group was prevented from attending neat11 because their passports and visas had been revoked by the Belarussian government (they eventually performed at the Playhouse a couple of months later). Belarus, despite bordering the EU, has been described as having ‘the last dictatorship in Europe’ and Generation Jeans, which is about jeans, rock music and freedom, highlights the similarity between the Soviet days and the current regime.

Elsewhere, Nottingham Contemporary is set to host Schrödinger, a performance piece about thought experiments, cats, René Magritte, love, time, mathematics, observations, truth, lies and alcohol while Broadway Cinema will pay tribute to French New Wave film-maker Alain Resnais, who died on 1st March this year, with a day-long course and a screening of Last Year at Marienbad.

Further details about what’s on during neat14 are available on website. You can also join in the conversation using the hashtag .

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Review: RSC production of Richard II delivers on every level

Oliver Ford Davis, Nigel Lindsay and David Tennant in Richard II.

Oliver Ford Davis, Nigel Lindsay and David Tennant in the RSC production of Richard II.

Much praise has been heaped on Gregory Doran’s production of Richard II for the RSC at Stratford and it is indeed a gripping exploration of the politics and psychology of power. It contains some of Shakespeare’s most stirring speeches and these were handled superbly by the immensely talented cast members.

It is a performance which is drenched in medieval mythology. From the traditional costume to the pageantry of the three trumpet players and the piety of the trio of sopranos this is a tale which is placed firmly in an era of royal instability and brutal power struggles.

With his flowing blond locks and feminine demeanour, David Tennant brings an almost angelic quality to his Richard II and there are even occasional moments of humanity. As his crown slips from his clutches, Richard, who came to the throne at the age of just 10, gives a speech about the perils of kingship. He tells us that ‘some have been deposed; some slain in war’ while others are ‘haunted by the ghosts they have deposed; some poison’d by their wives: some sleeping kill’d’ – and all because death keeps court ‘within the hollow crown’.

But don’t deceived by this apparent frailty; it is his tyranny, apparent from the beginning in his decision to have his uncle the Duke of Gloucester killed, which come to define him as a vain, power-hungry monarch.

Compelling performances came from every actor who walked on stage. Nigel Lindsay played Bolingbroke, who seized the crown and became Henry IV, and although he was thuggish he was also confident and commanded a respect which eluded Richard. Jane Lampotaire, meanwhile, put on a gut-wrenching performance as the grieving widow of the Duke of Gloucester and as the play opens, she can be seen draped across his coffin.

Medieval politics, particularly a belief in the divine right of kings, may seem very alien to a modern audience but the eloquent speeches, created by Shakespeare and brought to life by the actors made for a truly spine-tingling performance.

Richard II was performed at the RSC in Stratford and broadcast live in venues across the UK including Derby’s Quad. It will be showing at Broadway Cinema from 23rd November to 7th December.

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Impressive staging of Richard III at Nottingham Playhouse

Ian Bartholomew

Ian Bartholomew as Richard III

The last time I saw Ian Bartholomew perform he played a very convincing dictator in The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui at Nottingham Playhouse. Brecht’s masterpiece, an allegory which examines Hitler’s rise to power, draws us in to the point where we feel complicit in the terrible acts he committed.

As with his portrayal of Arturo Ui, Bartholomew has a mighty stage presence in Shakespeare’s Richard III which recently opened at the Playhouse. He’s dressed in a Gestapo-like military uniform and jackboots (another nod to Hitler) but he does not immediately appear to be the despot you expect. In fact, he’s somewhat self-deprecating and comical and by addressing the audience directly, he makes us feel part of his wicked scheme.

But the violence of this era nevertheless pervades the performance. A monarch’s reign, often established through battle, cruelty and strategic marriages, was by no means secure and this meant atrocious acts were committed like the imprisonment of the princes in the tower.

And in a perverse twist, Charles Daish, who plays Clarence, staggers onto stage on crutches, his face visibly pained, after suffering a real injury during rehearsals.

All of the actors performed well and the traditional Shakespearean delivery was peppered with an element of playfulness: I particularly liked the depiction of the two murderers as an East-End gangster and a young hooligan dressed in a hoodie, complete with cockney accents.

They also used the entire theatre to great effect and in the climatic moment when Richard is declared king, he stands on the balcony and we sit, surrounded by his supporters, gazing up at him.

On stage, the grey backdrop gives us a sense of foreboding, while the night before the Battle of Bosworth Field, horrifying visions are projected onto the white tent in which Richard fights his demons. The final battle scene was also wonderfully dramatic, with swords clashing and bodies strewn across the ground.

In the Playhouse’s production of 1984 last month the quest for absolute power is explored and this play follows on neatly from that. Although many historians now view Shakespeare’s Richard III as a piece of Tudor propaganda and are less inclined to apply a modern moral framework to his actions, there is no denying that this is a fascinating examination of power, tyranny and oppression. It’s also a must-see if, like me, you have been hooked by the discovery of the remains of the last Plantagenet king in Leicester.

Richard III is on at Nottingham Playhouse until 16th November. For details visit the website. You can also follow the conversation on Twitter with the hashtag #mykingdomforahorse

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REVIEW: Stunning performances in 1984 at Nottingham Playhouse

1984The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power. Not wealth or luxury or long life or happiness: only power, pure power. What pure power means you will understand presently. We are different from all the oligarchies of the past, in that we know what we are doing. All the others, even those who resembled ourselves, were cowards and hypocrites – George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four

The moment when Winston Smith and his lover Julia realise they have been caught in this stage adaptation of George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four is one of the most dramatic I have ever seen on the stage. Away from the omnipresent telescreens, they have created a sanctuary where they conduct their illicit love affair and plot to bring down Big Brother and the Party. But in this terrifying scene lights flash, scenery is pulled down and the couple are taken away to face their inevitable fate: torture, indoctrination and the notorious Room 101.

The play, which opened at Nottingham Playhouse on Friday, is framed by two scenes set in modern times. The characters, who only really exist in Winston’s mind as the ‘unborn’ people of the future, study the forbidden diary he began to keep in order to confirm that his thoughts were still free and that two plus two really did equal four. This part takes us into Winston’s troubled mind and there were some great dramatic flourishes such as the fact that the mobile phone ring tone of one of the characters is Oranges and Lemons, the nursery rhyme which those in Winston’s world vaguely remember from the time before the Party took control.

But the modern era soon gives way to the paranoid world of Big Brother in which people view each other with suspicious eyes. At the Ministry of Truth, where Winston is responsible for falsifying documents from history, a dark routine is played out in the canteen. The same people have the same conversations every day – until one of them inexplicably disappears one lunchtime. This paranoia is heightened by a tray being dropped just as Parsons describes the execution of an enemy of the state and it reaches a dramatic climax during the absurd Two Minutes of Hate. In a scene which was perhaps even more gripping than the novel depicted, the characters shout words of hatred at a telescreen which shows someone being hounded by men in boiler suits and gas masks, while pictures of the ultimate enemy, Emmanuel Goldstein, flash on the screen.

Overall, this was a superb production with stunning performances throughout, particularly from Mark Arends as the poor, ulcer-ridden Winston. I did think that the relationship between O’Brien and Winston could have been drawn out a little further; in the novel O’Brien wins Winston’s trust over time so the moment when he betrays him is more dramatic however this is a minor qualm.The real power of this production, aside from the dramatic effects, lies in the fact that the director does not need to hammer home the idea that our world resembles Orwell’s vision in more ways than he could have imagined, for instance, the chilling moment when Winston ‘unpersons’ a man by deleting him from history, reminded me of how easy it is to remove people from social networking sites with the click of a button.

1984, which is a collaboration between Nottingham Playhouse and Headlong, is on until 28th September. For details and tickets visit the Playhouse website. You can also follow the conversation on Twitter with the hashtag #1984Play.

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Edinburgh Fringe Preview Part II: Notes from the underground in Paradise

paradiseNottingham New Theatre‘s production Paradise premiered in February but I unfortunately I was away on holiday.

The piece of site-specific theatre, directed by Tom Barnes and produced by Gabby Carboneri, was performed in a disused tunnel on the outskirts of the city which would no doubt have been the perfect setting for this bleak tale of modern-day alienation. Although it returned to the relatively safe confines of the theatre for its pre-Edinburgh peview last week, it still had a tremendous energy and poignancy.

Set on the underground in London, the centre piece is a concertina-like chair which is expanded and contracted to make room for the revolving cast of characters. The only other prop is a piece of black and yellow tape which denotes the platform edge somewhat ominously.

On the busy train we meet a young Yorkshire man called Liam (played by Matthew Miller) who, breaking the etiquette of the tube, tries to strike up a conversation with his fellow passengers. But they are all wearing flesh-coloured, dummy-like masks and are unsurprisingly unresponsive; they are reduced to mere types, for example, he refers the banker on his way to work as ‘pin stripe’.

Over the course of the play, which is sound tracked by two female vocalists/guitarists playing buskers, we are given glimpses into the lives of the characters. There is the unconventional hen party, the arguing couple, the band mates, the French tourist. Their lives are interrupted by a tragic event which stops them in their tracks momentarily. But perhaps what is shocking about it is not the event itself – horrifying though it is – but the way in which the characters brush it off with little empathy.

Paradise was created through improvised rehearsals and this gave it a wonderful immediacy. The dialogue was sharp and rhythmical, veering from frenzied outbursts to quiet reflections. It is a play that captures the pathos and disconnection but also humour of modern life.

You can see The Project at Zoo Monkey House at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe.

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