Category: Theatre

High drama in Nottingham for the New Year

After a week (or possibly a month) of festive fuddles, impromptu mid-week drinks and trashy TV, I am looking forward to dragging myself off the sofa and immersing myself in some world-class drama in Nottingham – so here are a just a few of my top picks.

At the Playhouse, the season kicks off with some improvised live theatre when Court in the Act! opens on 1st February for a three-night run. Six actors will create a comic courtroom drama in which you – the audience – take the role of jury.

There is also plenty in store for Shakespeare fans including an exploration of some of his darker characters in Shakespeare’s Villains on 7th February. Here Steven Berkoff draws on Shakespeare’s own words to look at why characters such as Macbeth and Richard III do what they do. In addition, there will be the chance to see a new and passionate interpretation of the tragic tale of Romeo and Juliet from 13th until 24th March.

The life of another great literary talent is examined in Mary Shelley (17th April – 5th May). The daughter of early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and the lover of Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein when she was just 19-years-old – a piece which explored revolutionary ideas about playing ‘God’ and nature versus nurture.

Meanwhile, at Nottingham’s Theatre Royal, there is another chance to see J.B. Priestley’s classic An Inspector Calls (24th – 28th January). Fresh from its fourth season in the West End, this atmospheric thriller – with its impressive stage set – looks at the responsibility of the middle classes to  members of society who are not as privileged as them. This Modernist masterpiece also throws into doubt the values of the old world order.

The world premiere of David Seidler’s The King Speech – the play which inspired last year’s Oscar-winning film – will take place on 13th February and runs until 18th. It is the story of King George VI’s struggle to overcome a stammer as Britain stood on the brink of the Second World War.

Addiction and family strife are at the centre of Eugene O’Neill’s Pulitzer Prize-winning A Long Day’s Journey into the Night (5th – 10th March), which stars David Suchet. This is followed by an RSC production of the Taming of the Shrew (13th – 17th March) which sees the flamboyant Petruchio attempt to woo – and tame – the wild Katharina.

And last but not least, Blind Summit will be presenting its unique puppet show The Table at Nottingham University’s Lakeside (31st January – 1st February). The show, which was performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival last summer, includes a puppet who is stuck to the table, a ballet of disembodied heads and the story being told using pieces of paper emerging from a briefcase.

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The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui: A lesson from history at Nottingham Playhouse

My German teacher at school used to say that Bertolt Brecht did not want you to sit back at the theatre and eat a packet of Malteser’s while immersing yourself in the play.

Being a passive member of the audience is not an option with Brecht. He pioneered a theatrical technique called Verfremdungseffekt (alienation) which reminds us that we are watching a dramatic production so we must make moral and intellectual judgements rather than be swept away by sentimentality.

This is certainly the case with The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, which opened at Nottingham Playhouse this week. Characters, who had white painted faces, step outside the narrative; a cigarette is lit up in front of the fire safety curtain and the central character Arturo Ui enters from a door at the back of the theatre.

Despite these dramatic techniques, this is one of Brecht’s more accessible plays. It is set in during the Great Depression in 1930s Chicago when mobsters and corrupt businessmen ruled the city.

But beneath its Hollywood veneer, this is a dark satire on Hitler’s rise to power. It is the tale of Arturo Ui, who starts out as a lowly criminal and ends up holding a cast iron grip over the city’s vegetable trade with his protection rackets.

Brecht, who wrote the play while exiled in Finland in 1941, leaves us in no doubt of his intentions. Each character correlates to a person from the Nazi era and every event is one that has actually taken place, for example the warehouse fire trial is the Reichstag fire trial. We are also told via electronic signs about the historical event before the fictional one is played out, once again leaving us in no doubt that these events really happened.

The script, which is a new translation by Stephen Sharkey, was brought to life brilliantly by the cast members, including Giri (played by Mike Goodenough), who depicts a thug-like Goering with remarkable skill and the stately but corrupt Dogsborough who was played by Eliot Giuralarocca and represented President Hindenburg.

Meanwhile, Ian Bartholomew was captivating as Arturo Ui. He was at once powerful and pathetic, comic and unnerving. He body language was spot on and he really came into his own when he delivered his final speech. In this scene, a Nazi film reel forms the backdrop while Ui, elevated high on a lectern and surrounded by terrified looking people, addresses the audience. It is a chilling reminder us that we have all been complicit in his rise to power. As with Hitler, it is not that the people supported him; rather it was the fact that we were passive enough to allow it to happen.

The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui is on until 12th November. For tickets click here. Follow on Twitter #arturouri.

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Lincoln Comedy Festival: Teutonic jolliness with Henning Wehn

There is a probably reason why self-styled ‘German Comedy Ambassador’ Henning Wehn probably wouldn’t cut it as a stand-up in his native country. While some of his fellow countryfolk might nod their heads when he talks about the Greek bailout, I don’t think they would be too happy clapping along with a Hitler Youth song – which is precisely what Wehn asked us to do when he appeared at Lincoln Drill Hall on Saturday evening as part of the Lincoln Comedy Festival.

But this is England and we have still not shaken off that little matter of The War. Indeed, Henning says that his comedy routine is safe because we will always teach future generations about ‘those 12 years’ when Hitler was in power. He tells us that when he performed at Comedy 4 Kids and asks the youngsters what they know about Germany, one little girl pipes up, ‘naughty Hitler’.

Stereotypes abound in Wehn’s routine (efficient, hard-working Germans versus drunken, kebab-eating Brits) but he is also not afraid to be political and his observations are extremely astute. In one memorable part of the show, he describes his utter bemusement at performing at a Jongleur’s comedy club to some blokes on a stag do dressed as Smurfs, women on a hen do and someone celebrating their birthday surrounded by balloons. Everybody else is just there because ‘Tracy from HR’ told them to be.

With Wehn, nothing is off limits, whether it’s the Pope, Hitler or the rise of China. At times he is very politically incorrect – not in a Bernard Manning sort of way but anyone expecting Michael McIntyre will be in for a shock. But it’s clear this is all tongue in cheek and despite his claims of Teutonic superiority (ironic of course), he is also brilliantly self-deprecating; something that sits well with us Brits.

Henning Wehn is currently touring his No Surrender show. For details click here.

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Calling all budding directors: Free workshop at Nottingham Playhouse

Aspiring directors will be able to pick up a host of helpful hints at Nottingham Playhouse on Saturday at a free workshop.
The Direct Access workshop, organised by the JMK Trust, will give you an opportunity to explore the craft of theatre making in this practical introduction and takes place between 11am and 5.30pm.
The JMK Trust was set up in memory of promising director James Menzies-Kitchin, who staged his first production at the age of 26. He died suddenly in 1996 at the age of 28.
To book a place visit www.jmktrust.org/workshops-and-events or email jo@jmktrust.org.

 

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Vivid depiction of D. H. Lawrence in Phoenix Rising at Nottingham Playhouse

When Paul Slack finished his one-man show Phoenix Rising at Nottingham Playhouse on Friday evening, there was just one person on the stage. I am stating the obvious here – but such was his stage presence and command of his characters that at times, it felt like there was more than one performer.

The play, written by Campbell Kay, chronicles Lawrence’s early life in the  Nottinghamshire mining town of Eastwood. Set in a sparsely furnished room on Ile de Port-Cros, France, we see Lawrence two years before his death as he looks back on his childhood – his friendships, family, school life and early career, all of which shaped his literary career.

For those of us who know Nottinghamshire well, the play evoked the landscape perfectly. We see how Sherwood Forest and the legend of Robin Hood fired the imagination of the young Bertie (as he was known as a boy) and that he believed the collieries were a blight on the landscape. Lawrence’s childhood was not without its problems; his father was a drunk, he lost his beloved brother to pneumonia and he was an outsider who preferred to read and play with the lasses while the other boys in his class could not wait to finish school and go down’t pit.

Despite this, his childhood memories are infused with a warmth and gentle humour and perhaps what strikes you most of all is how ordinary Lawrence is. Of course, he went on to become of the most celebrated figures in the Modernist movement – but at this point, he is taking his first nervous steps into the literary world and is somewhat bemused by American poet Ezra Pound. At an event organised by writer and editor Ford Madox Ford, he recites one of his poems in a Nottinghamshire dialect with his back turned to the audience which I found both comical and endearing.

The success of this production comes both from Kay’s beautifully written text and Slack’s engaging performance. He moved seamlessly between different voices and really engaged us in the narrative.

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Tyranny in Europe: Belarus Free Theatre put on a powerful show at Nottingham Playhouse

Belarus is a country that borders those in the EU – and yet it has been described as ‘Europe’s last dictatorship’. Many people in western Europe know little about the former Soviet state nestled between Poland and Russia but it is a place where government agents threaten, kidnap, torture and murder citizens for daring to oppose it.

The Belarus Free Theatre is one of the cultural groups banned by the government and their performance of Discover Love at Nottingham Playhouse last night was a bold statement against this repressive regime. The cast members should have performed as part of the last month’s NEAT11, but had their passports and visas revoked.

On one level, this is a simple true-life love story. A young girl Irina (played by Maryna Yurevich) describes her almost idyllic childhood and she appears to unfazed by the fact that she is living under the Soviet regime. She eventually falls in love with a teacher, Anatoly (played by Oleg Sidorchik) and the tale is infused with a warm humour, with the iron grip of Moscow seemingly a world away from this small village in Belarus. Their relationship matures over the years and they build careers and have children after moving to the capital Minsk. Their story is incredibly human – they struggle financially and their relationship goes through some difficult patches, but they remain united.

Half way through the play, Anatoly utters five words which resonate like a death knell: “And then they killed me”. It sounds strange to hear him say it in the first person and it makes the audience gasp – these ordinary lives that we had been following are suddenly cut short by the disappearance of one and the grief of the other.  Anatoly is tortured and killed by the government and his story is mirrored by countless others who have faced human rights abuses in Belarus. In some ways, it reminded me of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, except these events are not fictional nor do they hark back to a bygone age.

There was a real sense of physicality in this production. The actors drove the narrative forward not just with their powerful words, but also with the way in which they used their bodies on stage, particularly in the scene where Anatoly is tortured. The lights are dimmed and he throws himself around, depicting the terrible beatings inflicted upon him.

Overall, this was an incredibly moving show – my only minor criticism would be that not all of the music fitted the action on stage. And as powerful as music is, sometimes silence – or nothingness – can evoke the mood more effectively.

For details on up coming shows, visit the Playhouse website.

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Lakeside Arts Centre: Sinister fairy tales in Into the Woods

The characters in this production of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods, which opened at Nottingham’s Lakeside Arts Centre this evening, say that ‘the woods are just trees and the trees are just wood’ – which sounds harmless enough. But fairy tales, despite their happy endings, are known for being dark – and these woods are certainly sinister.

Based on the stories of the Brothers Grimm, the well-known narratives of Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk and Little Red Riding Hood are woven together as they all enter the woods which are full of danger and opportunity. In the woods, there are mythical dangers – the giant and the wolf – but there are also real traumas such as marital strife and a parent’s sense of loss when their child leaves home.

And while these themes simmer just below the surface, they do not detract from the humour of the musical, which was executed well by the characters. The cast used the space at Lakeside really well – there was no curtain separating them from the audience and characters were often lurking in different parts of the theatre. The overall effect was of a folk play which reflected both the sense of tradition and timeless nature of the themes.

Stand out performances came from the cast members, who all had strong singing voices and did not waver during the long show. A special mention should go to youngster Mahesh Parmar who played the narrator and tackled some difficult songs. The orchestra too was flawless – and perhaps the only thing that let the performance down was a problem with the sound which meant we couldn’t hear some of it clearly enough.

Into the Woods runs until Saturday. For tickets visit the website.

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Landscape of dreams and madness in Woyzeck at Nottingham Playhouse

Before the curtain had risen at last night’s performance of Georg Buchner’s unfinished work Woyzeck at Nottingham Playhouse, we were greeted by a long-haired, demonic-looking narrator, resembling a circus entertainer who set the tone for what was to come.

Performed by members of the Deutches Theater Berlin and directed by Jorinde Drose, it is a tale of poverty, the class system, adultery, jealousy and murder played out in a surreal, almost post-apocalyptic landscape. The play has a strange, dream-like atmosphere which makes it difficult to set it in any particular time or place. There are references to Russian Cossacks and Groschen (pennies), suggesting the action may be taking place in the 19th Century somewhere in central or eastern Europe – but the characters who inhabit this world, such as the Doctor and the Army Captain, are both abstract and absurd.

And yet this is a touchingly human play. It tells the tale of a poor soldier, Woyzeck who has to support his wife Marie and their child so he works for the Army Captain and lends his body to medical science to make enough money. But when Marie betrays him by having an affair with the dashing Drum Major, he descends into madness and finally murders her for what she has done.

The fact too that this play is performed in German – with its more concrete words – emphasises the physicality of relationships and the ways in which mental turmoil can be played out by real actions such as drunkenness and murder. In one memorable scene, the Drum Major – played by the comical and wildly brilliant Christoph Franken – drinks copious amounts of schnapps, pours it straight into a heartbroken Woyzeck’s mouth and throws it across the stage, giving the impression of each of the characters’ anguish spilling out uncontrollably.

The world of bar room brawls and lost love, is perfectly evoked by the songs of Tom Waits which sound track the play. Performed by the fantastic band, some of the pieces of music hang heavy with a sense of longing, while the experimental doodling jazz of others capture the characters’ unravelling mental states.

The play, with its echoes of Hamlet, Arthur Schnitzler’s Lieutnant Gustl and Werner Herzog’s 1979 film version of Woyzeck where the wild-eyed Klaus Klinski plays the part of lead character, is one of the best productions I have seen for a long time. It is what theatre should be – experimental, passionate and above all, not stuffy. Go and see it if you can.

Woyzeck was performed as part of the first ever NEAT11 (Nottingham European Arts Festival).

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Powerful portrayal of Martin Luther King in The Mountaintop

The intimate surroundings of Derby’s Guildhall Theatre provided the perfect setting for a new production of Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop, directed by Tom Attenborough.

The play is set in a dingy motel room in Memphis and as rain beats down on the windows, Martin Luther King Jnr – who was perhaps one of the 20th Century’s greatest orators – is struggling to write a speech.

The Martin Luther King we see, expertly played by Ariyon Bakare, is not the one that history remembers: he flirts with his chambermaid, he chain smokes and above all, he doubts his own ability. And separated from his wife and children, he even doubts his role in the Civil Rights movement.

For some audience members, this might make for uncomfortable viewing because the King they see is flawed and has moments of weakness. But the play also reveals something of the danger of mythologising historical figures who are ultimately human.

The action takes place on the eve of King’s assassination in Memphis and just before his death, he is given a glimpse into the America of the future. And despite the fact that the country eventually votes in a president of Afro-Caribbean descent, it is still one plagued by poverty and prejudice.

The play had just two characters and it is rare that you see such passionate performances in theatre. But Bakare and his co-star Ayesha Antoine, who played the motel chambermaid Camae, put every ounce of energy into the performance and looked visibly exhausted at the end.

Playing such an iconic figure as King could be problematic and there is a danger of the performance being too sentimental or weak in comparison to the man himself. But Bakare proved that he was able to deliver a powerful performance when he addressed the audience, as well as portray the vulnerable side of his character.

For more details on future performances at the Guildhall visit www.derbylive.co.uk.

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The Trial: Another winner at The Lace Market Theatre

Last night, I went to see Steven Berkoff’s adaptation of Kafka ‘s modern fable The Trial, performed by six talented actors at The Lace Market Theatre.

The cast, who apart from the lead actor, played multiple roles and used a variety of dramatic techniques, including mime, to bring this classic text to life and show that it is just as relevant today as when it was written in the early 20th Century.

For anyone who has not read the book, The Trial tells the tale of Josef K, a bank clerk who, for some inexplicable reason, is arrested one morning. Josef has to work through the labyrinthine legal world in his attempt to find justice – but his quest is futile as he realises that he does not know why he has been arrested and that seedy corruption exists at all levels.

In keeping with the dark of theme alienation in a modern, bureaucratic world, the characters – who were all grotesque caricatures – toy with Josef’s mind until he crumbles – and one of the most memorable scenes is when all the cast members are  on board a tram chanting ‘Josef K, Josef K’, echoing both the sound of the vehicle and his own paranoid existence.

All the actors put on a tremendous performance – particularly Neville Cann who played the lead role very convincingly – and despite its sinister subject matter, the play was also comic and at times quite racy.

For details on future performances visit www.lacemarkettheatre.co.uk or call (0115) 950 7201.

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