Archives for category: Theatre

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I saw this gem at the Camden People’s Theatre last night. Solo performed by Luca Rutherford, it focuses on ‘trying to figure out mortality and accepting our finiteness’. A tall order for 60 minutes, but the performance delivers many riches, particularly in how it challenges us to consider how we might enhance – or even re-define – what we call ‘living’, by changing our perspective on death.

I am instinctively drawn to any forum within the arts where death, and dying, is openly discussed. Having worked clinically within the field of dying, and now living outside it, it amazes me how separate those worlds are. Increasingly, and to be applauded, the arts are addressing this most taboo of subjects.

Thematically drawing on personal experiences of loss and impending loss, Rutherford delivers her thoughts on our finiteness in a uniquely engaging way. She is ‘us’, and thus relatable. We recognise our own thoughts in her outspoken ones. There is little new in the content in that we all know and (theoretically) accept our mortality, but Rutherford manages to give the truisms a fresh resonance. I left challenging my own perspectives on life, death, and the stuff of living, and filled with an optimism that I can do it ‘better’.

We are all dying, but mostly we don’t think in those terms unless death is imminent. At the performance we were all handed a label with a hypothetical number for our remaining alive days. Mine was 111. The challenge was to consider what we might do/change, knowing this fact. It is a intriguing exercise. I am not sure that I personally would change much, apart from supporting my daughter through the process of considering/accepting life without me.

But aside from being told that one’s death is imminent, the fact of our death remains this largely ignored and unacknowledged truism. Rutherford suggests that dying is about more than sadness. I agree. What if we changed our perspective completely, and lived a dying life, one that embraces death, imminent or otherwise? Such a living, defined by an acceptance of death, affords the enhanced ability to appreciate the joys of being alive, right now, this minute, and every minute thereafter.

It is such a curious paradox. We all know that we will die, but the thought is so unbearable for most that we choose to ignore it and to instead live a life that aspires to immortality. And yet, an acknowledgement of our finiteness may actually enrich our living…

Learning How To Die is not a depressing or downbeat show. It is at times poignant and sad, but also funny and uplifting, reassuring and hopeful. Like life itself.

It left me with much to consider.

Go see if you can.

 

CQ

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I saw – experienced – Cleansed this week at The National Theatre. For a long time I have wanted to see Kane’s work performed. Yet, having read about audience responses to the current production – walk outs and faintings – I was apprehensive. It was difficult to approach the play objectively; every review that I have seen emphasises both audience reaction to the performance and Kane’s suicide at the age of 28, usually in the first paragraph (as of course have I).

I am glad that I experienced Cleansed. The relentless simulated violence did result in my shutting my eyes on occasion. I find physical violence, here as torture and rape, impossible to willingly witness. I imagine/speculate that Kane used violence metaphorically to reflect extreme psychological suffering, a means of externalising and communicating depths of internal distress that would otherwise remain unseen and unshareable. I can understand this approach, but I still find the use of violence to provoke a reaction problematic. Violence distresses me on a purely visceral level, and I also resent being emotionally manipulated by extreme provocation into ‘feeling’.

In terms of thematic content, I suspect that there are many possible interpretations. For me, Cleansed is about love, loss, and grief – in essence the suffering of humanness – and the impossibility of sharing emotions that threaten to destroy the sufferer. It seems to also question what in our lives, and emotions, is real or imagined, and whether this distinction even matters.

Cleansed was mesmerising and captivating for its entire 100 minutes. I was struck by the beauty of the choreography, which was enhanced by a perfectly chosen soundtrack.

It was a haunting performance, one that it will linger.

 

 

CQ

Following on from my most recent post, this review – ‘Elegy of an unfulfilled life‘ – of the current production of Chekhov’s play at the Almeida in this week’s The Lancet seems particularly apposite…

 

CQ

Everyman, or originally The Summoning of Everyman, is a 15th century morality play that focuses on Christian salvation, and what man must accomplish in life in order to attain it. The Everyman of the play – who represents all mankind – is called to account for his life, its balance of good versus evil, as death becomes imminent.
The play has been adapted for the National Theatre by the poet Carol Ann Duffy, with Chiwetel Ejiofor as Everyman. This modern day adaptation is impressive, and with Duffy’s pen – enhanced too by the wonderful direction and cast – the central themes originally presented more than five centuries ago continue to resonate loudly.

Death
I’ll find an Everyman
most typical of one who’s squandered his God-given time
on pleasure, treasure, leisure, etcetera. The world is full of them…

Issues around mortality – how to avoid death, the fact of it and also talking about it, and our desperation to prolong life at any cost – seem more critical and unresolved today. Yet, the fact of mortality remains unchanged several hundred years later.

Death
I spare no living man. Why act as though
you are immortal and I’ll never show?

But what has grown exponentially over time is our materialism, and with it a sense of entitlement and an entrenched – and irrational – belief that anything can be bought, including life itself.

Everyman
I’ll pay whatever you ask.
I’m loaded! I’m successful!
Name your price.

Everyman
I only have one life!
It’s not my time!

Death
Only on loan, my son, only on loan.

Everyman seeks help from friends, desperate for affirmation of his life and its value. He approaches his hitherto abandoned family – ‘We thought you’d forgotten where we lived’ – but it proves too late to undo deeds that had catalogued a self-centred life.
He turns to Worldly Goods:
‘How can God know me
if God cannot see my riches?’

Ultimately, Everyman realises the futility of his desperation. It is too late, the Day of Reckoning approaches and he cannot relive an ill-spent life.

Everyman
But I let Good Deeds leave my house of life
and walk the streets, unnourished, unprotected.

Good Deeds asks the essential question that underpins the play:

What does it mean to you
to be a human being?

The fear that Death inspires is almost palpable. It is hard not to feel for Everyman’s plight, which is also essentially ours, as he reflects on his life in reverse, marked by achievements that are ultimately ego-driven and meaningless.

Everyman is surprisingly funny (‘I’m Death. God’s Heavy, if you like’), wonderfully choreographed, and very much an alive and dynamic piece. Captivating, it leaves much to consider.

Death, predictably, has the final say:

Eenie meenie miney mo…
Who’s next?

CQ

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I saw this fascinating play recently at the Battersea Arts Centre http://www.ridiculusmus.com/shows/on-tour/eradication-schizophrenia-western-lapland/

The production was simultaneously challenging, perplexing, moving and utterly absorbing. The piece was inspired by a radical treatment – dialogically based, inspired by the philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin – for schizophrenia that has seemingly virtually eradicated the condition in Western Lapland.

The play concerns four characters, a mother, her two sons, and a doctor/psychiatrist. All compete to speak and to be heard, all demanding our attention. It is never absolutely clear who is mentally ill within the cacophony of words and dialogue, but that may well be the writers’ intention. There is also an intriguing sense of something relatable about any ‘craziness’ witnessed. The resulting polyphony – even chaos – usefully reminds us that we are actually observing life as we probably witness it everyday, where we cannot be sure what is real, what is unreal, what is ‘normal’ and ‘acceptable’ behaviour and thinking, or not, including that which we ourselves act out in our daily lives. Definitions of mental health are at best fluid and inconsistent, and perhaps we all at times spend time at either side of the shady borders of psychosis.

The production involves a staging of two halves, not in the sense of merely being divided into two acts, but as two separate stories happening simultaneously on stage. Although aware of another story on the periphery, one’s focus is primarily directed towards the narrative directly in one’s gaze. After the interval, the audience switched to the other side of the auditorium so that you then directly experienced the alternative narrative. This may sound confusing, but it in fact added to the sense that life, its people and its stories are complex and chaotic, both real and unreal at the same time, and our interpretation of same is largely context-driven.

The writers state that ‘Our aim is to de-stigmatise and normalize psychosis and ultimately engage you in a quiet revolution in social interaction.’ This they achieve, working within the principles of the Lapland dialogical approach to treatment where uncertainty is allowed and a polyphony of voices flourishes.

The production challenges audience expectations using the technical device of switching space, stories and perspective in the second half of the performance. The play also questions what might be expected from an audience. There is no room for passivity here, audience involvement is pretty much demanded.

Unsurprisingly, there are references to the words of the psychiatrist RD Laing, who was associated with the anti-psychiatry movement and wrote extensively about psychosis, focusing on feelings as expressions of lived experience rather than mere symptoms of mental illness:

“I experience you and you experience me.”

“I see your behaviour. You see my behaviour. But I do not and never have and never will see your experience of me.”

This funny and tragic play moved and troubled me. Most of the time, I was unsure what exactly was unfolding on stage. Life was happening, I guess, equally troubled, unpredictable, inconsistent, indefinable, frightening, and at times joyous.

The production will have a short run at The Albany Theatre at the end of February. If you can, don’t miss.

http://www.thealbany.org.uk/event_detail/1380/Theatre/The-Eradication-of-Schizophrenia-in-Western-Lapland

CQ

‘Incognito’ means having one’s true identity concealed. Nick Payne’s play very much questions the notion of identity itself.

There are three interwoven stories in Incognito. Two are set in the 1950s and are based on real events. One focuses on the pathologist Thomas Stoltz Harvey who performed the autopsy on Albert Einstein and subsequently stole his brain. The other story from that era tells us about Henry, who underwent pioneering surgery for epilepsy that left him profoundly amnesic. The third story is a present day one, and focuses on Martha who is a clinical neuropsychologist.

Harvey decides to steal Einstein’s brain in an attempt to undertake research that might explain what genius is and ‘looks like’ at a neuroanatomical level. It soon becomes apparent that there was more to Einstein than his genius, and that as a father he was often strange and cruel. What does ‘knowing’ someone really mean?

Martha has a client who confabulates. He has amnesia and his brain compensates by making up stories:

‘A damaged brain can continue to make sense of the world even if the patient can’t.’

Who are we? What part does memory play in creating our identity and our sense of self? Incognito raises these and other questions, which are most likely unanswerable, yet still important to consider.

Martha also considers the potential benefits of amnesia:

‘Imagine if you could, if you could forget all the embarrassing things you’d ever done…if you could forget all that trauma and pain’

For me, Martha had the most insightful land thought provoking lines:

‘The brain builds a narrative to steady us from moment to moment, but it’s ultimately an illusion. There is no me, there is no you, and there is certainly no self; we are divided and discontinuous and constantly being duped. The brain is a storytelling machine and it’s really, really good at fooling us.’

I am less fatalistic than Martha – ‘We are pointless. We’re a blip. A blip within a blip within an abyss.’ – yet I am also grateful to Nick Payne and Incognito for encouraging me to consider what it might, or might not, mean to be me.

The text for the play includes the following disclaimer:

‘Despite being based, albeit very loosely, on several

true stories, this play is a work of fiction.

But then isn’t everything.’

 

‘Everything’ may well include ‘everybody’…

 

CQ

The current production of Beckett’s Happy Days at London’s Young Vic Theatre is an impressive one.

As one enters the performance space, the actress Juliet Stevenson – Winnie – is already in position: buried up to her waist in sand, boulders and rocks forming her backdrop in this isolated desert of sorts. As if this was the most natural place in the world to be, Winnie opens the performance brightly and cheerily, with an optimism that needs to persist, though with increasingly less plausibility and much more fragility as time passes, to the very end of the play:

‘Another heavenly day!’

Winnie then spends a few moments in silent prayer. For the next 90 minutes or so, there is little room for silence as Winnie conducts a monologue for almost the entirety, with very occasional interjections by Willie, who appears to be nearby, lying in a subterranean cave. Willie is a presence that feels necessary throughout, yet he seems of questionable significance in his own right.

Winnie chastises herself at times for her gabbling: ‘Stop talking and do something’. What ‘something’ is or might be is unclear, stuck as she is, waist high in sand. Yet she is continually ‘doing something’ – the act of talking itself, while at the same time also ‘getting ready’. She continually dips into the large black bag beside her, taking in and out the tools she uses to do her makeup and to fix her hair. The objects in the bag appear to serve an important function in terms of Winnie’s need to repeatedly take them out and put them back into the black bag, as well as her need to arrange them neatly before her, perhaps incongruously, on the hot sand. The objects, and how they are used by Winnie, also serve to frame her day, the ‘normality’ of mundane tasks affording a reality that may reassure, as well as serving as memory props from another time.

Day and time passes, a fact that Winnie draws our attention to, alluding frequently to change and the effects of ageing, moments of physical realisation interrupting the stream of consciousness that escapes her psychical entrapment.

Winnie initially appears isolated and alone, trapped as much in her mental meanderings as she is in her bed of sand, a self imprisonment in every sense of the word. But then Willie appears from his hole beneath the rocks. We learn little about Willie, but his role and function in Winnie’s life becomes clear. She needs him, repeatedly calling on him to confirm his presence, and when he, perhaps reluctantly, answers, she feels reassured:

‘You are there’

Winnie speaks to us, the audience, and we, like Willie, are essential witnesses to her spoken thoughts:

‘Someone is caring for me still’

In Part 2, Winnie has sunk further into the sand, which now reaches her neck. In Part 1, she had reassured us that she needed the sand, it anchored her; otherwise she would merely ‘float up’. This reassurance is now hard to believe as, while Winnie remains outwardly optimistic and positive – ‘Another Happy Day’ – it is acutely and painfully clear what a struggle it all is for her tortured physical and mental self.

I was surprised by the humour in Happy Days. Yet, a sense of bleakness and tragedy underpins the laughter. At the end, the title of the play, ‘Happy Days’, reverberates with a pathos that is almost palpable. Beckett’s ultimate irony shocks one into the surreal reality of witnessing the almost unbearable extent of human anguish. As Willie crawls towards the drowning Winnie, a pistol lying between them, it is hard to believe that happiness exists at all.

CQ 

‘A true tale of love, death and DNA’

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I saw this affecting work last night at Jackson’s Lane Theatre, North London. The Penny Dreadful production is currently on a UK National tour. The play is a profoundly thought-provoking piece, which directly challenges us to consider issues around mortality, immortality, and the ultimate question of what happens to us when we die.

Do we cease to be at that point?

The Henrietta Lack story encourages a consideration of this question. Lacks died as a result of cervical cancer in 1951, at the age of 31. However, the cells from her aggressive cancer, known as HeLa and which contain all the DNA that constituted Lack’s genetic make-up, continue to survive and to replicate in laboratory conditions, producing the first ever ‘immortal cell line’. Despite the dubious ethical issues that surround the original procurement of Lack’s cells (her children were never told, and Lack’s cells were public property until 2013), research based on HeLa has been directly responsible for the development of treatments for conditions such as AIDs, cancer, cystic fibrosis and vaccines, and many more. HeLa cells have also provided the foundation for mapping the human genome.

How To Be Immortal interweaves three true stories: Henrietta Lack’s own story and that of Dr Gey and his wife who ‘discovered’ HeLa in 1951, the story that Lack’s daughter Deborah (1996) was born into (she was a baby when her mother died) but only discovered later in life, and the contemporary narrative of Rosa and Mick. Mick, similar Lack, also has a rare and aggressive type of cancer, from which he dies. The issue of research, using cells from his tumour – this time with consent – is presented to the distraught Rosa. She agrees, and the outcome leads to a healing of sorts. Deborah also seems to experience a coming-to-terms with her mother’s death, and with its aftermath

I applaud the blend of science and of the essence of humanness, particularly its essential vulnerability, that How To Be Immortal successfully balances to create a living performance that raises questions it does not necessarily set out to answer. It is our job, the audience, to consider what has been presented to us:

Who and what are we, and does our ‘make-up’ extend beyond our DNA?

When we die, what do we leave behind? A contribution to some genetic pool, or memories, that may only remain until the death of the last remembering person?

Unanswerable questions, perhaps, but worthy of reflection…

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I love The Shed, a temporary (or at least that is what I assume…) theatre on the Southbank, which successfully manages to combine impressive creativity with the intimacy of a small(er) venue.

nut, by debbie tucker green (lower case deliberate), which currently plays at The Shed, exemplifies this achievement. Relatively short at just 75 minutes, nut is a moving, unsettling, and thought-provoking poetic piece. Twenty-four hours after I saw it, I am still considering what it was that I experienced last night.

On one level, the play might be read as a relatively straight-forward narrative, but then, it isn’t. The central character is Elayne, who we are introduced to at the outset as she plans her funeral. We gather that Elayne is on medication, and we presume that this is for a ‘mental illness’ as self-harm is revealed.

Elaine is never alone on stage. This is a polyphonic piece, and throughout the play we are introduced to 6 other voices and characters, all of whom are integral to Elayne’s life. What is less clear, is whether these others are external or internal to Elayne’s world and psyche. Whichever, it matters little as we watch a fragment of Elayne’s life (and suffering) unfold before us.

I loved how the dialogue overlapped, creating a seamlessness between all the characters. Elayne’s world, with all its ‘players’, felt tangibly real, and authentic. The acting was hugely and uniformly impressive throughout.

In Scene One, Elayne considers what might be said at her funeral:

‘It would start with something bout how I am…

…Not no shit about how people think I am but

how I (am) how I really / am.’

‘They’d know cos I’d tellem. What bits I did

and what bits I didn’t. I’d leave a taste, leave

an odour somethin that’ll linger longer than

the service – an emotional stain -‘

Amidst the pathos there is also much humour, and we laugh, when invited to do so.

nuts is a mysterious piece, mysterious in the sense that it is obtuse and delivers no easy answers. That is also its strength, as it thus reflects the lived complexity of life, which is never straightforward.

‘…If there ent no bell. People get confused.

It’s confusing…

No bell is like no interest. Not interested.

Don’t care – don’t wanna / know.’

‘If you had an outward view, a curiosity, a

natural curiosity like normal people – …

…by havin no bell that works – and it’s not

bullshit – is confusing. Says something

about you – …

…says confusion, says you don’t give a shit…’

CQ

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I saw this play at the weekend at The Roundhouse London, as part of its current The Last Word – ‘London’s first ever spoken word festival.’

And what a truly magnificent representation of the power and magic and beauty of words Wasted is. The energy, passion and dynamism of the three performers was also hugely impressive.

Written by the so very talented Kate Tempest, I have thought much about the play since, and have read and re-read the text. Wasted is word-dense, each word carefully chosen to create a piece of art that is thought-provoking, moving, sad, disturbing, funny, and all the while gripping and enthralling.

The three characters arrive on stage and address the audience directly. Immediately, one feels involved, drawn into the stories of their lives, a witness to something significant and vital:

“We wish we has some kind of incredible truth to express.”

“We wish we knew the deeper meaning.”

“But we don’t.”

“We don’t have nothing to tell you that you don’t already know…”

They speak of the city, their home, and the despondency that it and living their lives there has fostered:

“Deserted playgrounds, tramps singing on the street, bleeding gums outside the pub, takeaways and car exhausts and bodies till you can’t see bodies.”

“A city where nothing much happens except everything.”

“Where everyone is so entirely involved in their own ‘nothing much’ that they forget about the everything happening elsewhere.”

It was not always so. The trio remember their teen years, when they ‘lived without fear’, then later ‘got wasted in raves and felt Godlike.’ But as the years pass (they are now 25) “Our eyes got dimmer and our dreams got flattened”, and we “forgot what we was living for.”

They mention Tony, both individually and as a group, who, it appears, died 10 years earlier:

“So you’re lucky. Coz if you was still here, you’d have a habit, or depression, or anxiety attacks, or all three…”

Seeking change and epiphanies that don’t happen, all three are drowning in the reality of their current lives. They also realise that they no longer have anything to say to each other, only a shared and ‘wasted’ past – “we spend life retelling life and it’s pointless and boring.”

Many phrases – “All of us, regretting the decisions we never had the guts to make” – resonate and leave much to consider.

I have not yet decided how the play concluded for me. But then, there can be no definitive conclusion or ending. This is a story about life, about the challenges inherent in living it, and about the choices you can make, or choose to ignore.

“…your dreams are more than just something that came before you shook them off, your dreams are worth pursuing…”

“But you’ll never fly until you’re prepared to jump.”

“Your life is much more than getting wasted.”

CQ