01 January 2016

Crystalwords Theatre Highlights 2015

Happy New Year! It's time for my annual theatre round-up.

2015 has been a ridiculously packed year for Singapore theatre, what with the year-long SG50 celebrations and a host of festivals of all shapes and sizes. As a theatre reviewer, blogger and general patron of the arts, it's been one of the most colourful and diverse years I've seen so far and gives me tremendous optimism for the direction that the local theatre scene is headed. I can't wait to see what the second half of this decade brings.

A couple of preliminaries:

(a) This list is written in a purely personal capacity and reflects all the theatre productions I have watched in Singapore for the year, whether by local companies or touring foreign companies. It does not purport to be definitive by any stretch. Revivals by the same theatre company are generally not considered for the list unless I did not watch the original production.

(b) I rate all my productions, basing my score on acting, directing, script, production values and the overall experience. My average production score for 2015 is 3.4/5 which is slightly above last year's average of 3.3/5 - a very credible score though there is still room for improvement.

(c) As in previous years, I've done my theatre round-up in Academy Awards style. You can check out a more traditional Top 5 list of Singaporean-only theatre which I contributed to TODAY here. I've also decided to avoid writing a commentary about each selection from this year onwards - please click on the links to read my full reviews for each production.


Best Actor
Ebi Shankara, Off Centre (Oliver Chong/Esplanade)

Best Actress
Claire Chung, Normal (Checkpoint Theatre)

Best Supporting Actor
Ghafir Akbar, The Good, The Bad and The Sholay (Checkpoint Theatre)

Best Supporting Actress
Farah Ong, Yusof (Zizi Azah/Esplanade) / Geng Rebut Cabinet (Teater Ekamatra)

Best Original Script
Alfian Sa'at and Marcia Vanderstraaten, Hotel (W!LD RICE)

Best Set Design
Márton Ágh, Dementia (Proton Theatre)

Best Costume Design
Laichan, Public Enemy (W!LD RICE)

Best Lighting Design
Lim Yu-Beng, The Weight of Silk on Skin (Tracie Pang/Esplanade)

Best Ensemble
Hotel, W!LD RICE

Best Director
Yukio Ninagawa, Kafka on the Shore (Ninagawa Company)

Production of the Year
Hotel, W!LD RICE

11 December 2015

Geng Rebut Cabinet

by Alfian Sa'at
Teater Ekamatra
Flexible Performance Space
LASALLE College of the Arts, Singapore

Imagine this. Malays are the majority race. They are affluent, form the government and make all national decisions. It's time for the general elections and members of the ruling Workers Action Party in Chai Chee-Commonwealth need to find a Chinese minority candidate to complete their team. Enter respected educator Catherine Seah, their answer to securing the "Chinese vote".

Teater Ekamatra's rounds up its calendar with Alfian Sa'at's wickedly satirical Geng Rebut Cabinet, set in an unnamed country that is unmistakably Singapore. It's a play that grabs one's attention from the start and is buoyed by great acting and a compelling premise. There are luminous performances all round. Farah Ong is edgy sophistication as ambitious lawyer Maisarah Hamdan, Dalifah Shahril oozes makcik charm as bubbly grassroots leader Zainab Halim and Khairudin Samsudin proves a complete hoot as goofy, malapropism-spouting incumbent minister Roslan Jantan. Director Mohd Fared Jainal directs with crispness and coaxes the humour to giddy heights: a filmed election campaign song and group karaoke number are absolute crowd favourites.

While Alfian makes cogent points about the election process, one rather wishes that his script had been a little more focused. It spurts out in all directions, seeking to check off every complaint  that has been made against the ruling political party. Gerrymandering, insincere community visits, unsuitable candidates, trashing the opposition - you name it, you have it. Unlike his critically lauded Cooling Off Day which embraced the diversity of voter's individual voices in the run-up to the 2011 General Elections, Geng Rebut Cabinet occasionally feels like an extended personal rant by the playwright, with characters making sweeping generalisations and impassioned speeches about racial politics.

There is also a sense of a monolithic "Malay" view as opposed to the "Chinese" view and this ignores the considerable diversity and dissent that may exist even within the Malay community. I would have liked to see a little more nuance in the characterisation but we are offered only slight hints of individual stories: the closeted lesbian, the hardworking but overlooked civil servant, the clueless army boy turned politician. I would have liked to hear about the voices of the Indians or other races in this version of the world; indeed, there is more to Singapore than a dichotomy between the Chinese and the Malays.
Photo Credit: Teater Ekamatra

The other issue with the script is that it feels a little lopsided. The first half is almost entirely expository, focused on introducing each of the five characters and the general set-up of this parallel world run by Malays. This results in the salient issues being crammed into the second half of he play without having a chance to fully unravel. Almost without warning, we find ourselves at an election rally with Catherine earnestly advocating the advancement of the Chinese community or in a classroom where Roslan is casting aspersions on Catherine's hidden agenda and finding ways to keep her in check.

Ultimately, the novelty of Geng Rebut Cabinet lies in its premise and one cannot deny the way in which issues that tend to be overlooked in everyday life are thrown into sharp relief when seen from the other side of the fence. Remarks about there being one token Chinese fighter pilot every ten years and the proliferation of Malay SAP schools remind us of the casual alienation felt on a daily basis by members of the Malay community. The manner of the message may occasionally be little unsubtle but it offers us a sobering perspective. And in this year of extreme emotions and national fervour, perspective is perhaps exactly what we need to progress as a nation.

The Crystalwords score: 3/5

26 November 2015

The Good, the Bad and the Sholay

by Shiv Tandan
Checkpoint Theatre
Kalaa Utsavam - Indian Festival of Arts 2015
Esplanade Theatre Studio, Singapore

It's been four years since Shiv Tandan's The Good, the Bad and the Sholay, first staged as an NUS student production back in 2011, delighted audiences and this superb revival by Checkpoint Theatre - which also marks the company's debut at The Esplanade's Kalaa Utsavam - could not have been more highly anticipated; it is completely sold out.

Scenes from Bollywood's iconic 1975 film Sholay, about best friends and petty criminals Jai and Veeru who arrive at a village and take down feared bandit Gabbar Singh, are spliced with the endearing, personal story of Raghav, a boy from from small town Ambala, Haryana who makes his way to Singapore to study engineering at NUS.

The production, co-directed by Huzir Sulaiman and Tandan, follows much in the vein of the original with a clean staging that sees an ensemble of eight actors on a single, curved platform. They inhabit a variety of roles with relish and display some truly impressive ensemble work, recreating overbearing family gatherings, a tonga clattering along the road and village kids racing their bikes down the streets screaming with glee. While not all the actors prove entirely equal to the colourful Indian characters and steady stream of Hindi dialogue that peppers the text, they give off a riveting, energetic performance (complete with sound effects) that is impossible to fault.

Thomas Pang, who made an astonishing debut in Tribes earlier this year, embodies the central role of Raghav and maniacal villain Gabbar with gusto and proves a thoroughly engaging presence on stage. There is also great work by Julie Wee as a motor-mouthed Basanti, Kubhaer T. Jethwani as the lovelorn Veeru and Ghafir Akbar as Raghav's gadget-obsessed younger brother. The actors perform multiple songs from Sholay a capella ("Holi Ke Din" is a runaway crowd favourite) and it is a testament to the tight direction and pacing that one barely feels the two hours go by.

At its heart, Tandan's play is about finding oneself, be it through the larger-than-life heroes of the film world or by immersing oneself in a different culture and there is great empathy in the writing alongside moments of side-splitting comedy. Anecdotes about frequent power cuts in India and raucous Diwali festivities unfold alongside more sobering accounts of homesickness and personal anguish. In a moving sequence, Raghav describes how the Indian community at NUS was the most fractured on campus with numerous divisions and sub-divisions emerging between the students along linguistic and social lines.

Photo courtesy of Checkpoint Theatre. Photo Credit: Maanavi Panwar

The costumes - a cheeky hybrid of Indian and Western  elements - also hint at the cultural dislocation that students like Raghav endure and this is made even more apparent with the multi-racial cast who immerse themselves, with joyous abandon, into the most Indian of situations. There is a wistfulness that pervades the script about days long gone and the full-blooded drama of Jai and Veeru form a nice counterpoint to the world of "lukewarm emotions and virtual realities" that Raghav and his generation find themselves in.

Huzir and Shiv are alive to the old-fashioned nature of storytelling that animates the play and by coaxing fantastic performances from their actors and eschewing gaudy sets and design elements, they truly allow the narrative to shine. There is a lovely homage to the world of cinema with scene descriptions being read aloud, jump cuts and slow motion sequences and the scenes blend crisply into each other. In one of the play's funniest moments, rousing friendship anthem 'Yeh Dosti' from Sholay segues, without warning, into Wonder Girls' hit single 'Nobody' as the wide-eyed Raghav arrives in Singapore, dazzled by the cleanliness and "traffic so disciplined it was like a video game".

The Good, the Bad and the Sholay is a wild, infectious and ultimately heartwarming gaze into the world of heroes and villains and about finding one's own story in this messy game we call life. "Dishkyaaoon" is a word we hear frequently in the narrative, approximating the sound of a gun going off in Bollywood films. In Checkpoint's luminous revival, it is also the sound of a theatre company at the height of its powers, leaving smoke trailing gloriously in its wake. 

The Crystalwords score: 4/5

19 November 2015


based on The Mahabharata and the play by Jean-Claude Carrière
adapted and directed by Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne
Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord
Capitol Theatre, Singapore

Thirty years after giving Western theatre one of its greatest hits with an epic, nine-hour version of Indian classic The Mahabharata (which was later adapted into a six-hour  television film), legendary director Peter Brook and collaborator Marie-Hélène Estienne return to this thrilling saga in a taut 90-minute piece that premiered in Paris before making its way round the world.
The Mahabharata charts, amongst other things, the epic dynastic battle between the five Pandava brothers and their cousins, the Kauravas, and how the latter win the battle at Kurukshetra after twelve years of exile in the forest. Battlefield is set after these thrilling exploits of war and forms the aftermath to this tale, presenting the eldest Pandava brother Yudhishthira (Jared McNeill) as the new king in a country ravaged by death and destruction.
Photo Credit: Caroline Moreau
Racked by guilt, Yudhishthira  seeks to make piece with his uncle Dhritarashtra (Sean O'Callaghan), the former king  who witnessed the massacre of his many sons in battle. The conversations between the characters - who also include Carole Karemera as Yudhishthira's mother and Ery Nzaramba  as adviser Krishna - are interspersed by parables drawn from the natural and animal world. This allows the narrative to smoothly enter the realm of storytelling and sees the four actors jump into an assortment of roles, conjuring up many tender and amusing scenes. One moment, we witness a worm trying to slowly cross a road sideways; in another, a mongoose distributes blankets to people around him.

Battlefield features an simple, pared-down aesthetic one immediately associates with the later works of Brook and most recently seen in his elegiac South African drama The Suit in 2013: minimal props, flashes of colour (dusky reds and yellows), live music (performed here by Japanese drummer Toshi Tsuchitori) and a small, versatile cast. Where I struggle is Brook's conscious decision to strip the story down to its very skeleton. Sticks are scattered around the stage but rarely used, the entire affair is infused with an unnerving stillness and despite arguments for universality, seeing this most Indian of tales performed by a cast of three black actors and one white actor made this play far harder for me to engage with. It's also a pity that the intimacy of the performance is somewhat lost in the cavernous grandeur of the Capitol Theatre; a black box staging would have been ideal.

Photo Credit: Caroline Moreau

Overall, Battlefield is a quiet, restrained exercise that seeks to interrogate the nature of war and what it leaves in its wake. Erupting amidst a world shaken by acts of terrorism in places like Syria, Beirut and Paris, the play's message is one that does not fail to resonate with its audience. The fundamental question Brook asks is how can we continue to live in a world filled with so much pain and suffering. Is our only recourse to lose ourselves in the enchantment of stories and to hope for an enlightenment that enables us to transcend our situation?

In an interview reproduced in the programme, Brook describes his real audience as "Obama, Hollande, Putin and all the presidents" and wonders "how do they see their opponents in this day and age". Indeed, the stories of Battlefield may be thousands of years old but in the world of today, they have an unshakeably political dimension. And theatre may just be the means to enable us to reflect on these issues and, like the beleaguered Yudhishthira, seek a resolution.
The Crystalwords score: 3/5

13 November 2015

The Spirits Play

by Kuo Pao Kun
The Finger Players
Drama Centre Black Box, Singapore

Kuo Pao Kun's classic play about a group of spirits inhabiting a void between life and death while debating the brutalities of war emerges somewhat muted in this revival by The Finger Players, the sixth staging of the play since its debut in 1998.
I had been looking forward to director Oliver Chong's interpretation of Spirits following his critically acclaimed monodrama Roots and searing take on Haresh Sharma's Off Centre earlier this year. However, Chong's characteristically sparse and cadenced directorial style fails to shine through in this production despite the overall aesthetic richness.

Spirits revolves round a series of conversations between five wandering Japanese spirits: a General, Man, Mother, Girl and Poet. Through a series of anecdotes, they trade views about the war they all went through (implied to be the Second World War) and its devastating effects on both individuals and society as a whole. On one side of the spectrum we have the pacifist Poet, who shuns violence and portrays the pains of his people through his words. On the other is the bumptious General who feels entirely justified in leading his men to carry out acts of wanton destruction for the greater good. In between we hear stories of the Mother and Girl - women whose lives are tried and trampled by men - and the Man - a soldier who endures the ordeal of war out of obedience even if he mentally revolts against it. The image one gets is of a collective mental horror, the various narrative threads weaving themselves into a painful tapestry of human strife.

There have been various interpretations of the play over the years, many seeking to lift it from its Japanese context and to universalise the experience of wartime atrocity and casual inhumanity of man against man. Indeed, the continued resonance of its theme cannot be ignored: I caught this play barely hours before the acts of terrorism in Paris that sent shockwaves through the world, making this play's discussion of violence as urgent as ever.
Chong sticks closely to the original text and his contributions are largely aesthetic in nature. One notable addition is having three female actors draped in black as a lurking presence onstage. They set a dark tone from the outset by hovering over the effigy of a man suspended from a noose while eerily echoing the words of the other spirits. They also play a vital role in contributing to the play's masterful use of puppetry and shadow work, doubling up as skilled stagehands. References in the text to aeroplanes and a giant mythical bird are brought to life by arresting projections that flit across the walls as the actors speak.  

Photo Credit: Tuckys Photography

Lim Woan Wen's lighting powerfully augments the text, transforming the plain black box space into a kaleidoscope of quivering colours that is by turns majestic and menacing. Equally noteworthy is the work by sound artist and music composer Darren Ng who adds to the ethereal atmosphere with his evocative soundscapes. In a striking moment towards the end, the Poet plaintively sings a folk song while debris rains, snow-like, all around him. It's a moving reminder of beauty that exists even in the midst of senseless bloodshed.

One of the corollaries of Chong's aesthetic flourishes is that it makes this relatively tight piece feel fairly ponderous. The actors tend to speak their lines with a languid, almost plodding earnestness and the extended opening and closing sequences which largely mirror each other make the play feel repetitive. The tone is just a touch too emotional and this weighs down the plot.
On a final, purely technical note, the surtitling in this production proves a disappointment. Appearing on a tiny screen at the top of the theatre, the words are faint and difficult to follow unless one happens to be seated at a precise angle. There also seems to be a slight disconnect between the conversational Mandarin spoken by the actors and the formal, occasionally florid English translations displayed on the screen. It's something for the production team to consider if they are keen to accommodate as many audience members as possible as this can detract from one's enjoyment of the play.

The Crystalwords score: 2.5/5

30 October 2015

Kafka on the Shore

based on the novel by Haruki Murakami
adapted for the stage by Frank Galati
Ninagawa Company
Esplanade Theatre, Singapore

Theatre luminary Yukio Ninagawa, whose riveting samurai drama Musashi was seen in Singapore two years ago, is back with an adaptation of Haruki Murakami's hugely popular 2002 novel Kafka on the Shore as part of his 80th birthday celebrations. While the famed director could not attend the run in person due to his poor health, he delivers an endearing, exquisitely staged production that will enthrall fans of the book and lovers of theatre alike.

Photo Credit: Esplanade

Kafka is a pastiche of two stories that unfold in parallel. Fifteen-year-old Kafka Tamura runs away from home to escape a chilling prophecy and takes refuge in a library presided over by the mysterious Miss Saeki and her gender-bending assistant Oshima. Nakata, a sweet and simple-minded old man who spends his days searching for lost cats, goes on a series of adventures across the country when things take a wrong turn.

These twin plots are presented as vignettes in transparent boxes that glide across the stage. Ninagawa describes being influenced by the dioramas in the American Museum of Natural History in New York and the sensation one gets is of pages of a book springing luxuriously to life; trees, buses, bookshelves and vending machines appear in quick succession. This visual coup also allows the storylines to cleverly bleed into each other. A scene where Kafka reads aloud from a book about the trials of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann is poignantly juxtaposed with the image of serial cat-killer Johnnie Walker as he prepares his tools to rob the lives of these helpless creatures. In another sequence, a snatch of Miss Saeki's haunting song 'Kafka on the Shore' is overheard by Nakata seemingly at random, causing him to declare that he needs to search for an entrance stone.

Photo Credit: Takahiro Watanabe

Equally inspired is the personification of the voice in Kafka's head - the Boy Called Crow - as a edgy, persuasive young man dressed in black.  It's strongly hinted that this subconscious part of Kafka is the very embodiment of the young man Miss Saeki had been in love with during her youth who perished in a student skirmish. When Kafka and Saeki make love, Crow gazes at them from the periphery like a spectral presence, almost projecting his own desire on this woman he is unable to be with.

Ninagawa has assembled a strong cast led by award-winning actress Rie Miyazawa as the poised and enigmatic Miss Saeki, Nino Furuhata as plucky teenager Kafka and Katsumi Kiba as the immensely likeable Nakata. A scene of Nakata speaking to various cats, played by actors in cat costumes who affect playful, uproarious antics, is a runaway crowd favourite. There are equally engaging turns by Masato Shinkawa as swaggering villain Johnnie Walker and Masakatsu Toriyama as prescient pimp Colonel Sanders, men who wear their pop culture images with tongues firmly in cheek.

The constantly changing set is a veritable sight to behold and the army of stage hands tirelessly running around for three hours to keep everything moving smoothly deserve plaudits for their first rate work. We may be dazzled by fish spectacularly raining across the stage one moment while in another we are confronted by a fridge containing severed cat heads or the garish neon lights of a love hotel. This effortless admixture of the surreal and sordid gives the narrative its thrust and captures the nuanced beauty of Murakami's prose.

Photo Credit: Esplanade

The other pillar of Ninagawa's production is the superlative lighting design. Effects like lightning, rain and the dappled sunlight of a forest are conjured up with aplomb, sometimes on a completely barren stage, creating truly stunning visual tableaus. There is a sense of symmetry and grandeur in the overall aesthetic that elevates but never overwhelms the acting.

For a book written in Japanese, translated into English, adapted into a play in English and finally translated back into Japanese, one hardly feels that any injustice has been done to the plot and playwright Frank Galati has crafted a text that remains extremely faithful to the book while allowing sharper contrasts and contours to emerge. One cannot deny that Galati is, at times, almost plodding in his fidelity to the plot. The play can easily be trimmed in length and suffers from uneven pacing; after a period of stately, awe-inspiring exposition, the second half seems to canter towards the end.

Ultimately, Ninagawa has crafted a production that both intrigues and inspires and which perfectly recreates the quirky, meandering and deeply empathetic world of Murakami. This is a breathtakingly beautiful evening: the work of a master of the pen being brought to life by a master of the stage.

The Crystalwords score: 4/5

04 October 2015

The Wars of the Roses

(Henry VI, Edward IV and Richard III)
based on William Shakespeare's Henry VI, Parts I-III and Richard III
adapted by John Barton in collaboration with Peter Hall
Rose Theatre, Kingston

John Barton and Peter Hall's The Wars of the Roses  is a truly epic theatrical event, presenting over sixty years of troubled English history on stage in an electrifying performance. It condenses the three parts of Shakespeare's Henry VI into two plays (titled Henry VI and Edward IV) and combines this with Richard III, the fiery climax of the fifteenth-century battle between the houses of York and Lancaster - symbolised by a white rose and red rose respectively. 

This mammoth Shakespearean pastiche, demanding of actor and audience alike has not been revived since it was first staged by the RSC in 1963. Veteran director Trevor Nunn rises magnificently to the task of resurrecting this story in his crisp, compelling production, playing for a limited six weeks at the Rose Theatre, Kingston.

One has to acknowledge the tremendous work put in by John Barton in condensing, transposing and supplementing the original text into these tailored theatrical delights. The action, particularly in Henry VI, truly flies off the page. There is a tendency for the original Henry VI plays to drag due to the lengthy exposition and complex web of characters and it is a testament to Barton's skilful adaptation that one is able to follow the plot so easily and remain riveted.
A major benefit of seeing these three plays in a trilogy day is the sense of history literally shaping up before one's eyes. We see Margaret of Anjou as a beautiful French princess who marries Henry VI despite being in love with another man. Over the years, she grows into a steely warrior queen with a man she does not respect, witnesses the death of her only son in battle and gets banished from the country. This makes her appearance in Richard III as a caustic hag far more poignant: we have seen all she has been through. Likewise, we trace the rise of that most dastardly of rulers, Richard III. He first appears in Edward IV as an overlooked third son of the Duke of York, a handicapped boy who is swift of sword and fiery of tongue. We are almost taken by surprise when he bursts squarely into the action, becoming the Machiavellian monster who inveigles his way to the throne.
Photo Credit: Mark Douet

This element of continuity in the storytelling is aided by having the same actors play these characters. Watching these plays in succession is akin to devouring a Shakespearean 'box set' and helps to establish recurring themes and plot developments. We gain an immediate context that would simply not be there if the plays are seen in isolation. One is alive, more than ever, to the continuing cycle of violence that is carried on through the generations and the ease by which people are swayed by a charismatic leader, only for this to end in disaster. Richard III, in particular, gains tremendously in texture from this staging: we finally understand all the references to past events that are being made.

The set by John Napier and Mark Friend emphasizes war and pageantry, its imposing three-tiered platform handsomely adorned with candles and coats of arms. Paul Pyant's lighting makes for beautiful tableaus; the tightly choreographed fight sequences feature flashes of strobe lighting while the burning at the stake of Joan of Arc is suggested by a powerful burst of red. Nunn utilises the space very well to achieve both intimacy and spectacle: actors snake onto the stage from the wings of the theatre on more than one occasion, giving the action a thrilling, three-dimensional energy. Unlike his recent productions such as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead which suffered from a somewhat languid pace, the action hurtles on with a breathless vitality.  

There is great work by the large ensemble cast who effortlessly juggle a variety of roles. Alex Waldmann is excellent as a twitchy, pacifist Henry VI who never quite feels comfortable in his royal role. Alexander Hanson  turns in beautifully restrained performance as the Duke of York and wrenches the soul with his grief when confronted with the death of his youngest son. Joely Richardson is striking as Queen Margaret, powerfully conveying the transition from youthful vigour to aged bitterness. And Robert Sheehan, in a terrific Shakespeare debut, gives off an explosive performance as Richard III, quite possibly stealing the show with his bouts of hobbling mania.

Photo Credit: Mark Douet

It's only natural that in a marathon theatre event such as this - stretching for nearly twelve hours when seen over the course of a day - there will be some unevenness. One is assaulted by so much action and plot movement in the first half of Henry VI that the rest of the play feels strangely dry. Edward IV starts slow but builds steadily to a thrilling climax. Richard III emerges somewhat weaker than the first two plays as it is weighed down by actual Shakespearean verse unlike the hugely edited, prose-driven earlier plays and because energy levels amongst the cast, by this point, have dipped.

Yet, magic in the theatre sometimes derives from sheer ambition. It is in the power of a story compellingly told before a rapt audience. It is in the thrill of emerging, dazed and wondrous, from an onslaught of power, politics and passion. And for this, Nunn's Wars of the Roses is a theatrical feat that is unlikely to be forgotten for many years to come. One hopes it would not be another half century before this tale is told again.

The Crystalwords score: 5/5

02 October 2015

Three Days in the Country

based on A Month in the Country by Ivan Turgenev
in a new version by Patrick Marber
National Theatre, London (Lyttleton)

Turgenev's comedy of manners, A Month in the Country, gets a fresh spin in this jaunty new adaptation written and directed by Patrick Marber. The action - as the title suggests - plays out over a much shorter timeframe than the original and is clothed in rich comedy. The end result is a play that proves endlessly entertaining but which perhaps elides some of the deeper tones one tends to find in Russian theatre.

The plot remains largely the same. Natalya, the bored wife of an affluent landowner, finds her life thrown into disarray when she falls for her son's strapping new tutor, Belyaev. When she discovers that her teenage ward Vera is also smitten by the tutor, she concocts a plan to get her out of the way, setting the stage for a frenzy of emotions as the summer days unfold in the family's country estate.

Marber is probably best known for his searing 1990s plays about urban life such as Closer and Dealer's Choice which confronted themes like love, sex and betrayal while maintaining a strong comic stamp. He uses this gift for comedy to great effect here, bringing a delicious hilarity and heft to Turgenev's play. His production is also blessed with economy: the punchy, streamlined text and tight scenes keep audiences enthralled.

Amanda Drew brings a skittish sauciness to Natalya, who wilfully teases her admirers with coy words yet manages to convey a sense of domestic tragedy at being mired in a world she has no control over. Her emotional collapse at the end, following the departure of Belyaev, evokes a sense of pity in us for this young woman who had merely been looking for some colour in her life. There are commendable performances by Royce Pierreson as the rakishly political tutor, Cherrelle Skeete as a sprightly maid and Lily Sacofsky as the sweet but headstrong Vera.

Photo Credit: Tristram Kenton

The marquee names in this cast are Mark Gatiss and John Simm and they do indeed deliver. Gatiss's  turn as  ineffectual country doctor Shipgelsky - the self-declared "maestro of misdiagnosis" - is one of the highlights of this production. In a scene that has the audience weeping with laughter, he decides to propose to a prissy, middle-aged family acquaintance, throwing out his back in the process and moving on all fours like a crazed reptile. Simm's Ratikin, by contrast, channels suave sophistication. He catches beautifully the pain of a man whose attentions are casually ignored, turning him  bitter and cynical when he realizes that he will never hold a place in Natalya's heart.

Mark Thompson's set is a wash of bright colours that evokes a pastoral idyll and is nicely complemented by Neil Austin's lighting. One however feels that this abstract design sits uneasily with the otherwise faithful period setting and naturalistic treatment of the play; a bright red door hangs mysteriously in the air in the first half and actors who leave the action sit in a row of chairs upstage, watching the others.

Marber's production makes for a thoroughly enjoyable evening but ultimately emerges as little more than a breezy summer comedy. There is an attempt to inject pathos in its closing moments but on the whole, Marber's version of the play - one that is richly anticipatory of great works of Russian theatre by writers like Chekhov in the coming decades - does not quite plumb the depths of emotion one would expect. The quiet despair of domestic life and bitterness of the human condition fade away in favour of  sharp, punchy scenes that are guaranteed to delight. It may not take us very far but this is one sojourn in the country we are more than happy to join.

The Crystalwords score: 3.5/5

30 September 2015

Photograph 51

by Anna Ziegler
Noel Coward Theatre, London

Michael Grandage kicks off another West End season with American playwright Anna Ziegler's Photograph 51, a compelling portrait of British scientist Rosalind Franklin whose vital work led to the discovery of the structure of DNA. It's a stunning production that marks the much anticipated return of Nicole Kidman to the London stage after 17 years.

The play explores the final years of Franklin's life, beginning with her return from Paris in early 1951 to her untimely death due to ovarian cancer. We see her as the illustrious academic relegated to the shadows in the cloistered world of King's College London, presided over by bumptious molecular biologist Maurice Wilkins. Nonetheless, she perseveres in taking X-ray photographs of DNA molecules, meticulously performing all her calculations by hand and trying to refine the images she obtains.  When Wilkins shares the titular photograph taken by her with rival scientists at Cambridge -  Francis Crick and James Watson - they manage to successfully unlock its double helix structure. All three men eventually earn the Nobel Prize for their efforts.

Photo Credit: Mark Benner

Kidman's performance as Franklin anchors the production. She catches perfectly the quiet ambition of a woman driven to make her mark in the world of science, a clubby, male-dominated milieu that casually excludes her from lunch and conversation. Kidman's Franklin is restrained but riveting; one is rapt as she gazes with undisguised wonder at the photograph that hints at the meaning of life or reveals her simple desire to learn more about the world around her. She also sensitively articulates Franklin's grapple with intimacy. In a moving scene, her aloofness when having dinner with a visiting American scientist belies the fact that she secretly longs to have a man by her side.
Grandage's taut, elegiac production moves along very smoothly and boasts some terrific performances. Stephen Campbell Moore shines with a deeply empathetic turn as the socially awkward Wilkins, a man who battles with his own feelings for Franklin until it is too late. Indeed, the play itself is structured as a fragment of Wilkins' memory and there is an undercurrent of melancholy about missed opportunities that infuses the narrative.

Photo Credit: Johan Persson

There is very good work by Edward Bennett as Crick, the chummy yet cunning Cambridge scientist keen to find out as much as he can about Franklin's work. Will Attenborough, last seen onstage in Another Country, makes an energetic impression as Watson despite a somewhat unconvincing American accent. And Joshua Silver brings the right note of self-deprecating humour as overlooked PhD student Jay Gosling.

Christopher Oram's set conveys the traditional yet grimy world of post-war London, its majestic, vaulted arches covered with soot. This heaviness is beautifully balanced with an illuminated floor that nods to the world of technology and photography; suggesting the light of scientific discovery in this most drab of environments.

One would perhaps be keen to learn a little more about Franklin's personal life and the revelation of her cancer at the end feels a little abrupt. Because the play is so focused on her experience, some of the supporting characters seem thinly written: the competitive academic, the friendly American. Yet, Photograph 51 ultimately remains a vindication of Franklin's invaluable contributions to the world of science. While she may have succumbed to her condition well before her time, her work was that crucial building block that led to this remarkable breakthrough. And for that, she deserves to be richly remembered.
The Crystalwords score: 4/5


by Euripedes
in a new version by Rachel Cusk
Almeida Theatre, London

Rupert Goold brings his acclaimed Greek season at the Almeida to a close with a blazing new version of Medea by Rachel Cusk, featuring his wife Kate Fleetwood in the title role. Medea, one of the most well-known and widely performed of the ancient Greek tragedies, is principally associated with the vicious revenge a woman exacts on her unfaithful husband, culminating in the cold-blooded murder of her own sons to cause him ultimate pain. Cusk's vital contribution is in recasting this story as one of devastating marital breakdown instead of pure bloodshed. 

This is a Medea for the twenty-first century, a struggling writer whose life is unravelling because her actor-husband, Jason (Justin Salinger), has left her for another woman. Her sons hate living with her, the posh neighbours are endlessly gossipping and even her parents do not offer any comfort for her predicament. 

Photo Credit: Tristram Kenton

Cusk is a writer who has been famously vocal about her own experiences with motherhood and marital woes and it's easy to see how this feeds into her version of the text, which bubbles with vicious confrontations between Medea and Jason about money and property. The traditional female chorus is memorably re-imagined as a gaggle of uppity yummy mummies whose lives revolve around yoga, power lunches and domestic bliss and one is acutely aware of the pain and isolation Medea feels in a life that has closed in around her. 

Working with her husband for the first time since the Chichester Festival Theatre production of Macbeth, Fleetwood makes a striking Medea who is by turns ferocious and heart-wrenching. She totters around onstage with a savage air and arrests us in moments of quiet abstraction. Yet, while transplanting the character into a familiar milieu may make the tale more urgent, I remain unconvinced by the full extent of its tragedy. Most of the action plays out like a domestic soap opera complete with acrimonious screaming over the phone. 

Photo Credit: Donald cooper/Photostage

A key aspect of Medea is how she systematically manipulates those around her - Jason, Creon and Aegeus - and this simply does not come across in Cusk's version of the text which remains, for the most part, rooted in the realm of heated family drama. Most crucially, the climax is muted when we learn, through an enigmatic Messenger, that Medea's sons have overdosed on painkillers. The character is thus robbed of her defining violence; the closest this Medea comes to wielding a knife is contemplatively fingering one in the safety of her kitchen.

Rupert Goold's brisk, 90-minute production is visually powerful and gains from a striking lighting design. The backdrop turns into a wide semicircle which glows with red, incandescent energy. This lends a primeval feel to the action that is echoed by Medea herself wearing grey robes and the ensemble breaking out into a crazed, ritualistic dance.

There are solid performances all round but ultimately, this radical take on one of the most fascinating female characters in the Greek theatre canon loses something by omitting the play's characteristic brutality. This may be a Medea for our times but it's missing some of its soul. 

The Crystalwords score: 3/5