Author Archives: yodamo
Royal Conservatoire of Scotland
March 19th-22nd, 2019
I returned to the Chandler Studios at the RCS to see a performance of Doctor Faustus, Christopher Marlowe’s famous Elizabethan tragedy, adapted and directed by Jennifer Dick for a modern-dress version by students of the RCS’s MA in Classical and Contemporary Text. Sparse props and a backdrop consisting of a huge torn piece of fabric set the scene for the tragedy to come.
The drama begins with one, then two, then a whole entourage of characters invading the stage to set about the terrible damnation of the unfortunate Doctor Faustus. Faustus, a revered astrologer, was persuaded (or does he choose?) to sell his soul to the devil for the sake of a life of power and excess. His scholarly nature is emphasised by his books which feature prominently as a device in the plot, as he argues with the scene-stealing fallen angels, quoting passages from his tomes while they dance and cavort around him. Then comes the thrilling – and chilling – moment when Faustus makes the famous declaration:
“Go bear these tidings to great Lucifer: / Say I surrender up to him my soul,
So he will spare me four and twenty years, / Letting me live in all voluptuousness;
Having thee ever to attend on me; / To give me whatsoever I shall ask.”
Words which still have the same terrifying power as they did five hundred years ago when they were first written, showing that the glory of a play can and does last for hundreds and hundreds of years and still blow the competition away. But Faustus was not alone with the fallen angels from hell. Present too are heavenly angels in amazing Flash Gordon style outfits, who, in their patient way try to persuade the scholar not to choose eternal damnation, coming to blows with their evil counterparts as they tussle for the man’s soul. The contrast between the groups was vast, the good angels quiet and dignified, the fallen ones giving us a glimpse of hell as they exclaim with glee to be returning to their sacred father Lucifer, touching themselves and writhing in a glorious hypnotic display of badness.
Faustus meets the great Lucifer, his presence signified by billows of smoke and the darkening of the room to a deep red, his words expressed through the unison of voices of the closely bonded fallen angels. Faustus proclaims his fear, tries to reason with the presence, to find an argument in his books. But his pleas are ignored – the deal for his soul has already been done. As Faustus’ desires begin to be fulfilled,a he starts to inhabit his new role as emperor and exercises his new found power, mocking the pope and granting wishes to whosoever he pleases. Finally, we are drawn into his emotional turmoil as he inevitably realises his position at the very gates of hell and to his horror is dragged off to the torments of fire and eternal terrifying torture. We weep for his loss and for the heavenly angels who could not save him from his damnation.
This performance can only be described as a marvellous celebration of the dramatic arts presented with great creative ability – glorious words, huge themes, mesmerising choreography, stage movement and scene setting; it is hypnotising in its powers and force. Don’t think twice, just go!
Agent November is a true master of his craft, which is designing & operating the fun-filled frolics that are Escape Rooms. He’s also on his way to Brighton…
Where are you from & where are you at, geographically speaking?
I’m originally from Penzance, Cornwall, where I grew up as one of five children. It’s tough to compete with my overachieving siblings – for example my twin sister has won 2 gold medals at the Olympics (for rowing the women’s pair in London and Rio)! I’ve studied in Cardiff and Birmingham Universities, and now I live and work in Bloomsbury, London, where I operate my fictional detective agency. There I play the titular “Agent November, battling my nemesis Marty Orri on a regular basis.
Where did the idea for your escape games originate?
It’s hard to say, as there are so many little ideas that are woven together to make the final product, and I draw pieces of inspiration from board games, role playing games, immersive theatre, computer games and movies. But if I had to pick my biggest influences, I’d say it was the two British Classics – Bond and Holmes. The original idea was to tie together the tense action of 007 with the brainpower and lateral thinking of the world’s first consulting detective, and I always have that in mind as I develop new ideas.
Can you tell us about “Unlock Parliament?”
Unlock Parliament was the first (and so far only!) escape game to run inside the Houses of Parliament, and it was designed as a bespoke experience to engage people in the work of Parliament. Teams of players had to race against the clock and solve a series of challenging lateral thinking problems. Each one of these problems related in some way to the problems that members of Parliament have to overcome in order to pass laws for the U.K. It was great to get people excited about what Parliament does, and show them how complicated and nuanced lawmaking is. The ending of the game changed depending on whether or not the team completed all the puzzles in time or not. If they were successful, a bill would be passed giving Agent November special crime fighting powers to deal with super villains, if not then the bill would fail. It was great to combine lots of different elements in the game, including physical puzzles, video content, actor narration, audience interaction, and role playing.
This will be your third year running the game – what have you learnt from the previous two outings?
We’ve run the game twice before at the Edinburgh Fringe, but this is our first time taking it to Brighton. What I learned in my first year was that running 275 shows is actually quite a lot of work! I ran most of those shows that year, and that really wiped me out; I needed another month to recover! So this year I will have another actor doing more of the games, just so I can have a bit of a break, and actually go and see some of other shows myself. That’s definitely something that I’ve learned on previous years; Fringe is a great chance to expand one’s horizons and I mustn’t get too focused on just my show and forget to enjoy the experience. Something else I’ve learned is how much fun people get out of joining in solving puzzles with strangers. In London we mostly run “private” events, i.e. someone will book a show for 3-8 people, and everyone in that group knows each other before the game starts. At Fringes we have “open” ticketing (the same as conventional theatre does), so you never know who is going to be on your team! I’ve found that this has been a great social mixer for people coming to the Fringe, and I know that some people have gone on to make friends with their new teammates in the bar after their game is over!
How do you win a TripAdvisor Certificates of Excellence, then win two more?
You have to get consistently good reviews, for 12 months in a row, to win a certificate. 97% of our reviews are 4 or 5 out of 5. I think the key to keeping the standard high is to never really be happy with how things are; always be looking for things that we can improve. I have pages of things that I still want to add to the experience, and I’m sure that this year I’ll think of several pages more. I always take feedback from customers and my actors seriously, and I encourage a culture of honesty in my staff. That way people feel like they can speak their mind about ways that we can improve, and feel like they are going to be listened to.
You’re washed up on a desert island with an all-in-one solar powered DVD/TV combo & three films, what would they be?
Fight Club, Shawshank Redemption and Castaway. That last one is a good movie, and it’s definitely helped by the irony factor in the situation.
What’s the biggest challenge about taking on this role?
The new environment – I’ve never done the Brighton Fringe before, so it’m sure it’ll take me a while to work out all the foibles like the best place to go give out flyers, or the times that things will be busy / quiet. But at the same time it’s the thrill of the unknown that makes it exciting for me!
What have you got for us this year?
We’ll be investigating the Museum of Secrets, a mysterious enclave that houses politically sensitive artifacts. The museum was recently robbed, which could have potentially world-shattering consequences, so you’ll have to act fast to prevent a disaster!
Why the two different adventures?
The two different adventures allow players to investigate different aspects of the same crime. In a sense, these “missions” are like sequels to each other, except that people can play them in either order, and don’t need to have played the other one first to get the full experience. However, by playing them both, one starts to develop a bigger picture of the universe that links the two missions, and there are hints of a bigger mystery lurking beneath the surface. I have plans to potentially bring a third adventure to the Fringe next year, and hope one day to produce a “final stage” challenge, that will only be accessible to people who have already taken on the other challenges.
What materials did you use during the research period?
I watched a lot of spy and detective dramas, plus my background in the Army certainly gives me an insight into the way that the real life security services operate.
You’ve got 20 seconds to sell the play to somebody in the streets of Brighton, what would you say?
Hi there, have you played an escape game before? No? Well, now’s your chance! Come to the Brighthelm Centre and help me investigate, there was a robbery last night. You have to solve puzzles and challenges against the clock to defeat my nemesis and save the day. I need you! Here’s a flyer.
What will you be doing for the rest of 2019?
In late May we will be bringing our adventures to ConFuzzled for the 3rd year running – ConFuzzled is the U.K.’s biggest gathering of the “furry community”. (https://confuzzled.org.uk. We will also be returning for the third year running to the Edinburgh Fringe, with The Stand Comedy Club. We will be running 3 of our missions there, for the whole of August. In December we will be running our “Christmas Crisis” mission, a festive outing where players have to solve Christmas – themed puzzles to find out where Father Christmas has vanished to, and save Christmas itself! And of course all year round we will be running our missions in Bloomsbury, London: http://www.agentnovember.co.uk
May 3-12 / May 25-June 2 (various times)
Ernest Hemingway has a new avatar, & his name is Edmund Dehn…
Hello Edmund, so when did you first develop a passion for theatre?
I have loved acting since I was at school. The first play I was in, when I was 9 or 10 years old, was Andre Obey’s “Noah”. I played The Man, someone who told Noah that he was talking nonsense & there wouldn’t be a flood. It was a small part: he drowned! I went on acting throughout my school days, playing Captain Cat in “Under Milk Wood” when I was about 13 – a wonderful play & a wonderful part! I then acted at Cambridge. While I was there, I also ran a Children’s workshop for 2 years. We produced 2 totally improvised shows acted by children aged from 8 to 16. I will never forget them or their performances in “The Children’s Crusade” by Brecht & “The Odyssey”.
Can you tell us about your training?
I did a History degree at Cambridge and then, a few years later aged 25, trained at LAMDA. Strangely I was on a one year course for overseas students, although I’m British. But it worked out well because I got out into the business quicker and anyway some of the lessons from LAMDA didn’t sink in until 5 or 10 years later. I always was a bit slow! But I hope I am still learning today, more than 40 years later.
What is your ideal Sunday afternoon?
At this time of year it would be watching England beat Wales in the 6 Nations. Not this year sadly!
You’re performing at this year’s Brighton Fringe, what do you think of that seagirt city?
I don’t really know Brighton well, although I worked there for a week last autumn making a short film, which I enjoyed. We found a very nice Italian restaurant near our digs! I am looking forward to getting to know Brighton better and especially being part of the Fringe scene. It sounds exciting – even if many of the other performers at the same venue look young enough to be my grandchildren!
Can you tell us about the play?
Hemingway is trying to find the courage to commit suicide. It’s very early in the morning and he has to do it before his wife (his 4th) wakes up & stops him. He hasn’t written anything worth reading for 9 years; and he believes he never will again because doctors treated him with electric shock therapy and, as he puts it, “destroyed your only asset as a writer, your memory”. As he fights his last and loneliest battle, he remembers his past – his wives, his children, the things he’s ashamed of &, most important of all, his father. Can he die like a man?
Do you identify with Mr Hemingway in any way?
It would be presumptuous, I think. He was a great writer though a flawed man. Perhaps I identify with the flaws & with his attempts to be honest with himself about them (with limited success)? In many ways he was not a nice man: he behaved appallingly to women for instance; the nastier they are, the more fun they are to play! Hemingway wanted to “write one true sentence”; as an actor I aspire to speak one true line. I can identify with him that far.
Can you tell us about the play’s radical German creator, Rolf Hochhuth?
I was lucky enough to meet Rolf Hochhuth in Berlin in 2017. He is one of Germany’s most significant and controversial living playwrights; he lives in a flat in the centre of the city, with a view down onto Berlin’s Memorial to the Holocaust. He signed a copy for me of his most famous play “Soldiers” with the inscription “Thank you to Mr Edmund Dehn, who will play my Hemingway in London”. It is a treasured possession.
This is not your first Hochhuth portrayal, can you tell us about the others & why they resonate so much with you?
While I have never played in “Soldiers”, I have also appeared in Hochhuth’s “The Representative”, which accuses Pope Pius XII of conniving with the Holocaust in return for Hitler protecting Europe from the (Godless!) Communists. In 2014, I also appeared in “Summer 14: A Dance of Death”, Hochhuth’s play about the causes of World War I from a German point of view. Both of these were also at the Finborough, where we premiered “Death of a Hunter”. I love the fact that they are big plays addressing big issues: their scope is Shakespearean. “The Representative” was 3 & a half hours long and my last appearance was as a Jewish grandfather on his way to a gas oven. By the time the curtain came down, the pubs were closed! So, after our last scenes but before the curtain call, you could have seen me & 2 other actors, one who played the Pope, still in the full white Papal costume, complete with skull cap, drinking beer from cans outside the back door of the Finborough. Sadly none of us took a photograph!
How is director Anthony Shrubshall handling everything?
As yet, we have not started rehearsing – or re-rehearsing. We originally opened in Berlin before our UK premier in April 2018. Berlin was a ‘pros arch’ venue while at the Finborough we played in traverse, with audience on 2 sides, which is challenging for a 1 Man Show! In Brighton we will again be in ‘pros arch’, which will entail re-imagining the show. But that is what I like most about working with Anthony: he is never content simply to ‘warm up’, or rehash, an old production; we will, I know, be starting afresh. He has already told me that there’s more to find and that I can do better! I can’t wait to find out what new torments (make that ‘challenges’!) he has in store. He never seems to run out of ideas & he keeps me on my toes. Who could ask for more?!
What emotive responses do you expect from the audience?
In terms of “emotive”, Hemingway was, by current standards, pretty politically incorrect, so some people may find him challenging company (albeit for only 55 minutes)! But the play also explores the all-too-human side of this iconic literary figure, hopefully opening up more conversations around mental illness and male suicide in the process. Fundamentally however, I hope the audience enjoys the play, and that they are moved by it.
You’ve got 20 seconds to sell the show to somebody in the streets of Brighton, what would you say?
Unable to write anymore, Ernest Hemingway fights his last and loneliest battle as he tries to find the courage to commit suicide. He confronts his demons, questions old certainties and comes face to face with the ghosts of his past… Clinically, precisely, harrowingly and in real time, radical German playwright Rolf Hochhuth explores the final hour in the life of an American icon, examining the cult of celebrity, the trappings of fame and “the ultimate futility with which we are all cursed and ‘blessed’”.
What will you be doing for the rest of 2019?
I wish I knew! Ah, the actor’s life!!!
The Warren Theatre
May 3/4/5/6/7/9/11/12 (various times)
Oran Mor, Glasgow
March 18-23 2019
Script: Stagecraft: Performance:
Walking into the Oran Mor venue, we saw the stage dressed as a humble room with laundry hung up to dry and a very comfortable looking chair. The Scurvy Ridden Whale Men by Steven Dick tells of a 19th century whaling disaster, a tale of tragedy and the loss of the crew of the Viewforth to the icy sea, starvation and scurvy. Mrs Humphrey (Janette Foggo) was a larger than life character in brown brogues who presided over the temporary hospital set up in her home to tend to the only two survivors She settled herself down to tell the grizzly tale with gusto and black – very black – humour.
First up is young Peter (Ronan Doyle), flying high on his own emotions. Mrs Humphry keeps trying to bring him down to earth and bring him to his senses, but those senses have been heightened by the tragedy of the boat that sank at sea. Her words of common sense contrast with his excited dialogue and increasing fixation with the need to find his bible, which has been misplaced. She tries to get him to focus on his need to be looked after, shows him his laundry which has been attended to. As she peels her vegetables, we see a darker side to her as she speaks about the loss of her own two boys, Robert and Donald, whose boat it was that had been lost at sea.
When the black storm that caused the tragedy was mentioned, the room dramatically darkened and a howling gale blew through the PA system. Captain Reid (Billy Mac) is depicted at the at the helm during the terrible storm that killed all but himself and the traumatised youngster. The contrast between the safe warm house and the terrible sea scape served to underline the tragedy that had befallen these characters. It was almost as if they were in different dimensions that were tearing them apart as things go from bad to worse. Captain Reid was increasingly riddled with guilt and young Peter was more and more obsessed with the need to find his bible, for that was his only means of salvation. He becomes more and more sure that Mrs Humphrey had taken it and had hidden it away.
He became further convinced that she had plotted from the outset to get the two fisherman to stay with her in her hospital and becomes more and more fervent in his insistence. Things come to head when Peter pulls a knife on her, a seemingly outrageous act, but one that brings about something of a reversal in the story and we start to suspect that his suspicions might have had some truth in them after all when she mutters that she was never trying to hurt anyone, what has she done? We were left wondering whether her act of kindness might have a different, darker motivation, perhaps something to do with the loss of her two sons? We just don’t know.
Seattle-based Parley Productions are excavating one of the magical corners of history. The Mumble chatted to their director…
Hello Rebecca, first things first, where are you from & where are you at, geographically speaking?
I was born in Southern California, but growing up I lived in many places, since my dad was in the military. I currently live in Seattle, Washington.
When did you first develop a passion for theatre?
When I was in 4thgrade, the school principal called me into his office to ask me to play E.T. in our Christmas pageant because, being small for my age, I could fit into the costume he’d rented. Undeterred, I threw myself into the role. (Even the voice!)
Can you tell us about your training?
I have a B.A. from U.C. Berkeley in English. After college, I studied for two years at the Pacific Conservatory Theater before spending three more years getting my MFA in Acting from U.C. Irvine.
You made your professional acting debut in England – can you tell us about the experience?
I honestly didn’t know what I was getting into at the time. On a whim, I auditioned for the role of “Hero” in Much Ado About Nothing and got it. We performed it in the Bay Area, and then took the production to the (then) newly re-built Globe Theatre in London. We were the first Western actors on that stage; the resident company (under Mark Rylance) hadn’t even mounted their first production. The pillars had yet to be painted! The first time I set foot in the Globe was the moment I began to take a serious interest in professional theater.
What for you makes a good piece of theatre?
It’s hard to boil it down, isn’t it? For me, in good theater there’s a clarity of intention that runs through every moment on stage. The effect is that the piece resists dismissal and invites discussion beyond a dismissive “I liked it” or “I didn’t like it.”
In a world where you can get entertainment ‘on demand’, what makes theatre special?
The answer I hear most often to this question is that theater is live, and of course that’s an essential element of theatrical performance. But I don’t think theater is in competition with streaming film and TV. The bigger competition, I think, is between art and entertainment. Don’t get me wrong: I love entertainment. It serves a cultural function, primarily having to do with diverting attention. Art doesn’t divert attention; rather, it focuses attention. Entertainment helps you forget; art helps you remember. There’s not much of a profit to be made in helping people remember, though. Hence, dwindling arts funding.
Can you tell us about your personal evolution process from actor to the writer/director of today?
I’ve been a writer for as long as I can remember, but I’d never written a play until I met my partner, who’s also an actor. Actually, the reason I’m primarily a writer, director, and teacher today is probably that I’m a woman with children. I was a New York actor when I became pregnant with my first son. The casting opportunities dried up immediately! So, like my 4thgrade self, I put on the costume that fit, so to speak, and kept on working in whatever way I could.
Can you tell us about your time as <deep breath> the Resident Playwright at the Washington Correctional Center for Women as part of the Engaged Theater Residency?
It’s a phenomenal program, conceived of and run by the indefatigable Robin Lynn Smith. For about six months of each year, a small cadre of theater artists enter the women’s correctional facility in Gig Harbor, Washington, and conduct acting and playwriting workshops with an ensemble of prisoners. The workshops culminate in a performance of original work written by and for an invited audience of prisoners, friends, and family. It was my honor to be the chief “word-wrangler” for that program for three years.
You’ve got three famous actors from history coming round for dinner. Who would they be & what would you cook; starters, mains & dessert?
Sarah Bernhardt, Elaine Stritch and Rita Hayworth (did you know she was Latinx?).
I’m both a good vegan and a good Cuban. I love tart, starchy food. That means rice and beans, a big salad with veggies, cilantro, and lime; maybe tacos with spicy tempeh; and a cup of coffee.
Can you tell us about Parley Productions & your role?
Parley is an artistic home for twelve gifted Seattle playwrights that I founded a few years ago, when my students bemoaned the scarcity of platforms for playwrights of new work. We meet twice a week, year-round, to discuss, develop, and rehearse our writers’ original plays, which we present to audiences as workshop productions. Our programming is robust – we’ve produced 53 world premieres since 2014! I’m always in production for at least one workshop; frequently, more than one. I love the artists of Parley with my whole heart.
You’re masterminding a new play, cherubin, in Seattle next month – can you tell us about it?
One of the actors in the piece, Katherine Jett, challenged me to write a new play, and she included a couple of prompts: First, the piece would be designed for two women. Second, it would explore the question: What happens to Miranda (of The Tempest) after Shakespeare’s play ends? What challenges might she encounter in the unfamiliar, “civilized” world? I’ve been happily down that rabbit-hole for over 18 months now.
What emotional responses do you expect from the audience?
Fear, dread, laughter, recognition, and a squirm or two.
What is the theatre scene like in Seattle?
In Seattle, you’ve got your “legit” theater . . . and everything else. As a teaching theater artist I come into creative contact with hundreds of actors and playwrights, and there’s a lot of talent outside of the big houses! My main career mission is to amplify the rest of us – find a megaphone for those voices – so that underrepresented artists keep going.
You’ve got 20 seconds to sell the play to somebody in the streets of Seattle…
Women facing execution in a Puritan jail during a catastrophic storm. One woman goes into labor. It’s The Tempest meets The Crucible, with a dash of The Handmaid’s Tale.
What will you be doing for the rest of 2019?
If I’m lucky? Playing with my kids, canoodling with my spouse, and making lots and lots and lots of theater.
‘cherubin’ Photography: Mark Gladding
West of Lenin, Seattle
Oran Mor, Glasgow
March 11-16 2019
Script: Stagecraft: Performance:
Cast within the natural limitations of the parameters of a PPP production, some plays often feel void of a certain something – characterization, drama, story even – but not Ring Road. This is a remarkable strike of the match, creating a somewhat quite brilliant flame as it deals with modern issues, & handles them with a sort of fluffy grittiness. Ring Road, by the way, is definitely not one for the school holidays!
“At first I thought you were a snooty cow…” Mark
The set is a hotel room – twin beds -, a consummate stage in which unfolds the key bedsheet of the play, a dangerous slice of extra-marital nookie to be conducted between in-laws. Enter Anita Vettesse, starring as Lisa in her own pencrafted play. Her brother-in-law, Mark, is brought to life with bouncing aplomb by Gavin Wright; while her husband, Paul, turns up only in timely & plot-stirring phone-call soliloquies.
Despite their sordid swaggerings, Lisa & Mark are actually quite like-able characters, with their personal inter-plays & polish’d possessions of an excellent script really helping to raise this play up to be widely praised. There are several levels to the story, all of which are relevant. I especially enjoy’d Mark’s reminiscences of when there might or might not have been some kind of chemistry/sexual tension in the earlier encounters of their lives. That Lisa always shirks an answer shows the depth & talent of Anita Vitesse’s craft.
“We’re attracted to each other, & you’re the double of Paul.” Lisa
All in all a wonderful offering from the Oran Mor, which as I said at the start carries on its shoulders just exactly what PPP is all about – top notch drama from a small cast, mixed with classy & contemporary writing!
Damian Beeson Bullen
The Old Vic, Bristol
March 4-16, 2019
Script: Stagecraft: Performance:
This was the first time I’ve stepped into the Old Vic after living in London for the last twelve years, and I instantly noticed the massive change in the whole theatre, and how lovely the atmosphere had become since the major renovation. I had chosen to see Matt Grinter’s Orca – part of the exciting & innovative ‘New Plays in Rep’ season – about the unspoken, the mystical and the magical tales of a small, island fishing village.
The first scene focused on Maggie (Heidi Parsons) and her playful, curious and intelligent, yet rather gullible younger sister, Fan (Rosie Taylor-Kitson). While Fan longs to be chosen to go out in the fishing boats to scare off the Orcas, Maggie becomes the protective & stern older sister who is hellbent in protecting Fan at any costs, even if it means that the family is hated within the village.
Joshua (Finbar Hayman) plays Maggie and Fan’s father, a coward who is willing to avoid the truth, and is failing to protect his daughters in order to adhere to the prevailing ritualistic mysticism of their the village. This is a place with many secrets and an almost cult-like atmosphere; denial is the norm, laced with the eeriness of ignorance.
At this point I found the story paradoxically suggestive & conspicuous, offering a familiar correlation within today’s society and how our ‘taboo’ subjects are generally addressed. This became more prevalent when Gretchen (Holly Carpenter) made her first appearance, and consequently The Father (Sam Henderson), from whose arrivals the story began to unfold in more detail.
At the dramatic core of Orca is the highlighting of small-mindedness and a community’s willingness to bury the truth at all costs, against which push displays of courage and integrity amidst the darkness of people choosing to look the other way. In the end it was a good watch, the theme was compelling, but there was a certain something missing in terms of enticing dialogue.
Royal Conservatoire of Scotland
March 6th–9th, 2019
The atmosphere in the Royal Conservatoire’s Chandler Studio Theatre was dark and murky as we took our seats, set up in a double row on three sides of the stage. The set itself added further intrigue as out of the smoky darkness arose two great hinged planks of wood suspended from the ceiling. There was just time for one more cough in the audience before we settled down to enjoy, at close range, the performance of The Witch of Edmonton, written in 1621 by William Rowley, Thomas Dekker and John Ford and based, it seems, on real life events that had happened earlier that year. This adaptation is by Mark Silverschatz.
We witness a town meeting in which all sorts of townsfolk take part – a real crowd scene, with the characters, both rich and poor, comfortably attired and seeming to be happy with their lot in life. Cheerful uproar ensues as plans for the further development of Edmonton are approved. But this blissful state does not last for long: with each subsequent town meeting and encounter the subjects become more and more disruptive and disingenuous as it becomes clear that everyone is really only thinking of themselves and nothing else, even to the extent of cold blooded murder.
We start to see the true nature of the town when the haggard figure of a woman, Mother Sawyer, crawls on to the scene, totally distraught after being accused of witchcraft by the townsfolk. A terrible judgement that would reap terrible outcomes for all involved. Especially when a new character, a black dog called Tom leaps on stage, crouching behind the accused woman and offering her the revenge she so badly desires after her unfair treatment by the town. In order to reap this revenge, she makes a bargain with the devil, for that is the true identity of the dog.
Then follows a complicated intertwining web of subplots involving various characters; starting with love, bigamy and treachery, and progressing to murder and the way the devious mind can work to avoid being captured. At every turn, the devil dog Tom is always there, lurking and manipulating everything, unknown to the protagonists who cannot see very far beyond themselves; a source for great frustration and a genius opportunity for crowd participation.
The play casts a spotlight upon human weakness, whether prompted by the devil or not. It does not shy away from grim and graphic confessions of sensuality, rape and cruelty. Love tries to hold out with a wistful dialogue between earth and heaven, but it is as if the world beneath them is shaking like a vision of hell. We are drawn into the tragedy, held together by fragments of speech between the many and the few. At one point, in mourning, they huddle cross legged in the freezing cold, only to be woken again by further grief.
The devil must be paid and leaves only tragedy in her wake; the ‘witch’ who seems no better off than when she started and a population that seems only good for servitude and slavery. The play grabs you by the proverbials and doesn’t let go until it is finished with you, a feeling enhanced by your proximity to the action. Strong stuff!
Riding the Te Rehia surf of 80’s nostalgia into Auckland comes the brilliant Rickylee Russell-Waipuka…
Hello Rickylee, so where are you from & where are you at, geographically speaking?
Kia Ora, ko Ngati Kahungunu me Ngati Raukawa ōku iwi. I’m from the Wairarapa, but I’ve lived in the North Shore of Auckland for the majority of my life.
When did you first realise you were, well, theatrical?
I don’t think I realised I was ‘theatrical’ until I was in College. But as early as 3 years old, I would get my family and friends to sit down and watch me perform in the lounge, at parks, at kohanga and school, anywhere I could make a stage! It mellowed out when I got a bit older because it wasn’t as accepted or cool to do that. However that’s when I 100% realised it was an actual thing, to be a performer and I was pretty good at it, naturally.
What for you makes a good piece of theatre?
Personally, pieces that make me laugh and/or something that I can connect to on a personal level with a powerful message. If a show doesn’t make feel something I won’t remember it.
You’ve been on TV quite a bit in recent years – Waka Warriors & This Is Piki spring to mind. How did you find the experiences?
Waka Warriors was honestly a life changing experience for me. I was completely pulled into a whole other world that I didn’t even know existed! The highly valuable knowledge and skills I learnt doing Waka Warriors I hold very close to my heart. I’m so honoured and feel privileged to have met everyone on that show, many I consider whānau (family) now. This Is Piki came about through the connections I had made during Waka Warriors. Again the cast from that show I consider my brothers and sisters now too. This Is Piki was so much fun making. The last minute changes to the scripts (in terms of languages) kept us on our toes, that’s for sure! We always made it work though, that’s how pro we all were hahaha! We were all very disappointed when we didn’t get a second season we would been back in a heart beat.
Can you tell us about I Am Paradise?
I Am Paradise follows a struggling, young, Māori mother of two with one on the way and her journey having to raise two kids on her own, pregnant, while her partner is incarcerated. This is the first main role that I have landed, it was also very different from the characters I have played in the past. Playing this character made me dig a lot deeper as this character had a lot more weight to her it and her story. I also wanted to represent her well for all of the women who do live the life of a Paradise.
You’ve just been on a massive tour of Canada – what were you doing there & how do you find the Canadians, & how did they find you?
I was on tour with a musician, performing at music festivals all over Canada. Some minor back up vocals but mainly dance, Māori movements fused with contemporary dance. As well as running haka workshops for women. I mainly spent time with First Nations people, LOVED them! I have a friend that I made over there visiting New Zealand right now actually.
You’ve got three famous people from history coming round for dinner. Who would they be & what would you cook; starters, mains & dessert?
Beyoncé, Jessica Alba & Bob Marley – Curry puffs, Stir fry(because I know I’m good at it) and banoffee pie because it’s a favourite.
You are part of a play that will be performed at this year’s Auckland Arts Festival. Can you tell us about it?
Astroman is set in the 80s, the play follows a Māori whanau (family) settling into a new town. The main character is a kid genius who gets bored easily because he’s not challenged enough and gets into trouble, everyone in his life only ever notices how naughty he is. He finally meets a Mr Miyagi type figure at local arcade who helps to set him on the right path.
How are you finding playing the role of Natalie?
Natalie’s relationship with her mother is actually very similar to my own relationship with my mum. Especially with being the eldest and taking responsibility of the younger siblings. So that has been very helpful when beginning to find Natalie. She also has a similar relationship with her brothers that the younger me had with my younger brother. So naturally I have drawn on a few of my own experiences to help shape Natalie. Natalie is quite hard work, she can be very light and playful but also holds a lot of depth to her at the same time.
You’ve got 20 seconds to sell the show to somebody in the street, what would you say?
For some of you, come and relive one of the best eras of all time and for others come check out what your parents/grandparents got up to in…. the 80s! Break dancing, bopping, Donkey Kong, Pac Man, Defender, awesome music and lots of LOLs, what more could you want! Come be a part of it.
What will you be doing for the rest of 2019?
Doing what I can to make this world a nicer place to be alive in and whatever else that makes me happy.
March 16-April 6
West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds
Mar 5-30, 2019
“Frailty, thy name is woman,” says Hamlet to his mother, Gertrude, in an early scene in Shakespeare’s most iconic work. The misogyny is clear, one facet of Hamlet’s borderline oedipal relationship with his mother and also evident in his treatment of Ophelia. In director Amy Leach’s interpretation, however, Hamlet is a woman. In this production, Leach manages to shine a completely new light not only upon this particular line of dialogue, rearranging its gender politics into new shapes, teasing out themes of sexuality, but most importantly, she thoroughly reinvigorates this play in a way that arguably improves the narrative and makes it fresh and relevant today. Now, it’s not entirely unheard of for Hamlet to be played by a woman, but for the character to re-gendered as a Princess of Denmark is where this production boldly strays away from convention. And the convention shredding doesn’t stop there.
It starts with a wordless prologue that takes place before Act 1, Scene 1. Tessa Parr’s Hamlet is engaging in a playful sword fight with a similarly re-gendered Horatio. Parr is energetic and flirtatious, licking her lips at her opponent – we’re in entirely new territory here and this is a suitably audacious statement of intent. We are then taken silently through King Hamlet’s funeral and the subsequent coronation of Claudius and his marriage to Gertrude. Along the way, Hamlet manages to engage in passionate embrace with Ophelia. Never mind that we’re watching a female Hamlet, this Hamlet is unapologetically gay. This is in no way merely shoe horned into the narrative to serve an agenda, this Hamlet feels as though this is the way the play should have been all along. What an opening sequence – it effortlessly sets the tone and themes to be developed upon later, all without the need to utter a single word. In a way, it’s almost a disappointment when the cast set upon the main text of the play and begin to speak. Almost.
At this point, it is worth stopping for a moment to admire the production design on display. The stage is a two tier affair, minimal but with enough detail to perfectly encapsulate Elsinore Castle. The lower tier is bedecked with wreaths and candles to represent a graveyard and provide a hint of the tragedies to come. On the top tier, stark metal poles mounted with floodlights provide a harsh modern light, occasionally sinking into darkness to be replaced by strips of neon light that are at times abstract and at other become crucifixes. The cast use the stage to its full potential, with energetic militaristic displays and tightly choreographed sword fights. They are all dressed in modern costume, from tracksuits, to army camouflage, to pyjamas… At one point, Ophelia sports a set of headphones as she listens to music in her bedroom. Smoke billows out from the stage at key moments to soften the stark edges of the set, to transform it from its modern landscape and plunge it into a more timeless and ghostly atmosphere. Full marks to Hayley Grindle (set design) and Joshua Carr (lighting), the work on display elevates the production to a high level.
Further adding to the atmosphere is Alexandra Faye Braithwaite’s hauntological soundtrack – filled with eerie drones, crackles of static, flashes of synthesiser melodies and glitchy echoes of gunfire. The soundtrack starts as the audience begins to take their seats and never lets up, a wonderful mix of old and new that is in perfect step with this iteration of Hamlet.
In all honesty, the quality of the acting isn’t entirely commensurate with the thematic ambition and production design, but there is still a great deal to celebrate. At the top of the list is Susan Twist’s standout performance as Lady Polonius – she delivers a light and comedic take on the character, an overbearing matriarchal figure, who drips with disdain at her daughter Ophelia’s dalliances with a woman (the horror!) and a seemingly unhinged one at that. I’ve never seen this character so vital. Ophelia’s exchanges with her mother bear all the hallmarks of a difficult coming out to an even more difficult parent and the scene bursts with energy as it absorbs new meaning.
Robert Pickavance’s performance as the gravedigger delivers another highpoint, bringing much needed comic relief as the tragedies begin to hit thick and fast. There’s a lightness of touch at work in these comic performances – the strong emphasis on humour prevents the otherwise heavy plot from becoming unbearable. It’s also worth noting that the production leans away from a reliance on the classic soliloquies, which are often delivered in muted tones. Instead, the real focus is placed on the more throwaway conversational dialogue, which is a delight to listen to as it revels in bringing to the fore the northern accents and phrasings of the cast and allows the smaller – but equally important – character moments to shine.
Tessa Parr’s Hamlet is a very fragmented affair, and this is potentially a deliberate decision. She switches from maudlin contemplation to a manic confidence and then into a very theatrical despair. At moments this performance can come across as uneven. However, at its high points, this is a stunning, energetic and very natural performance, one that sells every single decision and narrative alteration made throughout.
The plot itself is stripped back in several ways – Rosencrantz appears on his own without his friend Guildenstern, the character of Fortinbras is merely referred to as story context but is never seen, and the play that Hamlet commissions to prove his uncle’s guilt happens entirely in the imaginations of the main characters as they sit in a row and stare out at the audiences. These cuts and abbreviations provide a refreshing economy and efficiency to the plot, whilst the playful gender switching adds an additional depth.
There was nothing but a palpable sense of warmth in the auditorium for these reimagined characters. This is a version of Hamlet that both managed to pass the Bechdel test for possibly the first time in its performance history, and in its twisting of the line, “Frailty, thy name is woman,” provides a real dramatic irony as Hamlet is no longer chastising womanhood for their perceived flaws, but is instead unwittingly chastising herself for her own tragic flaws. It’s hard to imagine that this version isn’t the one intended originally by Shakespeare, all the parts fits so perfectly together.