Tag: Nottingham Playhouse

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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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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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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Stewart Lee shows his playful side at Nottingham Playhouse

stewKnown for offering the antithesis of big venue comedy gigs, Stewart Lee began his latest show, Much a Stew About Nothing, by telling us unceremoniously that he is trying out new material for an upcoming TV show.

When he was last in Nottingham for Carpet Remnant World he performed in front of a row of grubby, sad-looking carpets and the show culminated in a nihilistic super rant about modern alienation. But when he appeared  at Nottingham Playhouse on Sunday evening, Lee seemed altogether more playful, occasionally cracking a gleeful smile. He even roped three members of the audience to cart a load of boxes to Anish Kapoor’s famous Skymirror sculpture so that he could use it as a stall to flog his DVDs.

For fans of his biting political satire there was plenty here with Lee launching a searing attack on Paul Nutall ‘of the UKIPs’ for his views on immigration. That said, politics does not dominate the show and references to TV programmes like The Really Wild Show proved to be a crowd pleaser. A large part of Lee’s routines these days centres on his experiences of family life and his description of himself as a ‘vasectemised, alcoholic, 45-year-old father of two’ was brilliant.

There is no doubt that Lee is a consummate performer and he is a skillful improviser who easily fended off the heckler who decided to start belting out a song in the middle of the routine. Perhaps this show did not reach the dizzy heights of Carpet Remnant World but Lee seemed comfortable with the audience and there was a warm humour that sat surprisingly well alongside his satire.

An extra date for this show has been planned for 23rd January. For details visit the Playhouse website.

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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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Review: The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner

The riots that swept through London, Nottingham and other cities in the summer of 2011 left many questioning what had happened to the next generation.

Some said that the rioters were criminals who had taken the opportunity to grab material possessions while others pointed to communities full of young people from chaotic homes without any hope for the future. It is against this modern backdrop that a new stage version of Alan Sillitoe’s The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner is set.

In this production, brought to Nottingham Playhouse by Pilot Theatre in association with York Theatre Royal, we hear Prime Minister David Cameron say that the acts committed by the rioters is ‘criminality pure and simple’ – and the play’s antihero, the defiant Colin Smith would no doubt agree with him.

Although Colin did not take part in the riots himself, he is later sent to a young offenders’ institute for stealing a cash box from Greggs in a playful nod to the Silliitoe’s novella which was published in 1959. Inside the institute Colin’s talent for running means he is soon noticed by a well-meaning official from the Home Office, who encourages him to take part in the upcoming cross-country race against boys from a public school. He is even allowed to leave the institution to go on long, unsupervised runs in the surrounding countryside. The race an opportunity for Colin to make a success of his life, find favour with the prison governor or even, as the Home Office official suggests, stick two fingers up to those public school boys.

But Colin is not interested in other people’s agendas. He doesn’t even run because he wants to win a race: he runs because this is the only time he is free from the heavy burdens he carries on his shoulders. The questions about Colin’s future are never resolved and there are no obvious solutions. It is only when he is running that he is able to live in the present and enjoy some kind of clarity.

In the play, the internal monologue of Sillitoe’s text was brought to life with an imaginative set design. Each scene was projected onto a 3D backdrop which enabled scenes to be transformed in quick succession, mirroring the protagonist’s fleeting thoughts. We also see Elliot Barnes-Worrell, who excels in the role of Colin, running on a treadmill,which gives the narrative a driving energy. His running and his thought patterns are intersected by scenes from his troubled background – but there is also an unadulterated joy in the physical sensation of running: the ‘Flip-flap, flip-flap, jog-trot, jog-trot, crunch-slap, crunch-slap’.

My only slight disappointment was that the play did not appear to be set in Sillitoe’s native Nottingham but instead in an unnamed London borough. While many young people in Nottingham emulate the slang of their London counterparts, it would have been great to hear some local dialect – and possibly a reference to the Broadmarsh Centre rather than the Westfield.

The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner is on at the Playhouse until Saturday. For tickets visit the website.

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Review: Bones at Nottingham Playhouse

“I had this pet rabbit once. I used to hold it tight ‘til my knuckles went white. I held it tight so it couldn’t run. But it did. It dug itself out of the mud round the yard. I would have dug my way out and never come back if it wasn’t for her.”

Anyone who has spent time in Nottingham will no doubt recognise the central character of Jane Upton’s play Bones which was shown at Nottingham Playhouse last weekend ahead on its nationwide tour.

Inside a shabby house, nineteen-year-old Mark (played by Joe Doherty) delivers a terse, dramatic and engaging monologue which left the audience at Nottingham Playhouse on Friday night feeling liked they had been punched in the guts.

Produced by Fifth Word, this is a play in which the sense of deprivation hangs heavy in the air; at the beginning Mark tells us how much he wants to murder his baby sister, referring to her as ‘it’. His mum is a drug-addled prostitute and he has little escape from the claustrophobic world of living on an estate.

The only possible respite comes from Mark’s memory of a holiday in Skegness with his beloved grandfather and mum. He remembers going to the beach and drinking bottle after bottle of Panda Pop; but even as he reminisces about this time the reality of his mum’s addiction becomes heartbreakingly apparent.

Upton is a Nottingham native and her experience of growing up in the city shines through in the street names and references to Nottingham Forest. But the nihilism of poverty gives it a universality, underpinned by Doherty’s compelling performance.

Bones was a sell-out at last year’s Ednburgh Fringe Festival. It will be performed at Create at West Notts College in Mansfield on 10th October.

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Existential angst in Stewart Lee’s Carpet Remnant World

Stewart Lee sums up his latest show Carpet Remnant World perfectly when he describes it as ‘an aggressive lecture’. Seemingly uncomfortable with his own fame, he is addressing the people who may have brought friends along with them that evening, believing this will be an entertaining night of comedy.

As with his previous routines, Lee – ever the post-modernist – analyses his audience and deconstructs why some people are laughing and others aren’t. He also tells stories and then admits that they are not true and tells the same joke in a different language, playfully making us look at the form of stand-up.

The first half of the show, which he performed at Nottingham Playhouse last Thursday, referred to news events of the previous year such as Bin Laden’s death and Norwegian mass murderer Andreas Breivik. At times this was a little patchy and the narrative was not always as tight as it could have been – but that’s not to say there weren’t some glorious moments. I particularly liked Lee’s parody of Ricky Gervais performing at one of his stadium gigs, arrogantly running onto the stage, surveying his vast audience and revelling in the applause.

It was after the interval that Lee really came into his own. Explaining that he had no material because he now spends his days driving on the motorway and looking after his son, he expertly weaved a narrative around visiting soulless retail parks, Twitter, Scooby Doo and Thatcher. The routine was politically astute, surreal and drew on a kind of existential angst that seemed to match the mood of Britain today. Lee’s stage persona is at times self-deprecating as he reads about himself on Twitter (‘OMG saw Stewart Lee eating a burger. He looked fat and depressed and fat.’) and at other times, deranged in a way that hinted at his earlier work such as If You Prefer a Milder Comedian.

One of the highlights for me was one that was completely unexpected. Lee is describing the current trend for ‘sad comedy’ in which comedians use terrible events in their life as stand-up material. In the middle of this faux tale of woe about being adopted and having extremist Christians hound him, small pieces of pink paper – presumably from last month’s pantomime – drop from the ceiling, setting Lee off on a searing rant and proving just how adept he is at improvisation.

For details on Stewart Lee’s Carpet Remnant World visit his website. 

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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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