Category Archives: Opinion

‘Art’ Old Vic Theatre

There is nothing more satisfying in theatre than a well-played pause, especially when it is painted in shades of grey and framed by calamitous comedy. In the Old Vic’s production of ‘Art’ by Yasmina Reza and in translation by Christoper Hampton, this pause is caused by the controversial purchase of an entirely white – or is it? – painting by Serge (Rufus Sewell). The production is a series of erupting conversations between Serge and his two friends; Marc (Paul Ritter) and Yvan (Tim Key) who are less than thrilled by their friend’s impulse buy. What begins as a casual discussion over the nuances of “modern” art turns into a riotus row over the triptych’s friendship.

Yasmina Reza explores the complex truths hiding beneath the veneer of human friendship. Within the sparking monologues, duologues and final explosive dialogue between the three men, Reza traverses the changing tide of favour and the twitching betrayals through droll, unflinching humour. Her writing is brave and exploratory.

Warchus’s direction brutally propels the three men around the stage in constant, significant relation to each other. The white painting is invoked constantly throughout Mark Thompson’s design; a spartan “modernist” apartment, all white, with white square furniture reminding us of the infamous painting even when it is not onstage. The painting indeed feels like a character in itself and a times, rather ironically appears truly artistic as fractured silhouettes of the men are cast across it in Hugh Vanstone’s beautiful lighting plot. Notably, during these moments, all three are too absorbed in their own conversations to notice this. Often, the characters break from the scene and offer direct asides to the audience, the lights dimming and spotlighting them in a moody sunbeam from the stage right window. art-old-vic-73

Sewell shines as the berated buyer and strides the stage with the required swagger for Serge to function as Reza’s central protagonist. His performance boasts exquisite physicalisations and verbal dynamism. He presents Serge’s unconscious quest for Marc’s praise with delicate, masterful strokes. Meanwhile, Paul Ritter’s Marc maintains a disapproving determination in response to Serge’s praise of “modernism”. His herbal pill-popping is humorously handled. Between the two, their considering pauses speak loudest. Yvan brings a childlike and flustered incompetence to the group through Tim Key’s endearing performance. At one point, Key enters in hysterics and suffers a remarkable outburst, monologuing at a relentless pace for over three eye-watering minutes. I wept with a mixture of hilarity, disbelief and admiration. However, this outburst is the peak of Key’s performance. Yvan’s one-dimensionality does betray Key’s stand-up background.

The production is packed full of -high-quality comedy but also with sudden, surprising  moments of honesty. Warchus’s interpretation of male friendship gives us glimpses of the men in all their reluctant vulnerability to each other, as well as to their own expectations. It is an unflinching look at what lies behind the small untruths we tell in the name of friendship and how they can grow. It notes that friendship is not black and white, as there is no such thing as white; only shades of grey.

‘BU21’ at Trafalgar Studios

Stuart Slade’s first play ‘BU21’ gives a timely answer to the question that Londoners now ask themselves every day: “What would happen in another terrorist attack?” The plays transfers from the renowned Theatre503 to Studio2 in Trafalgar Studios and is produced by Slade’s own Kuleshov company. It is a sparking, honest and irreverent piece of verbatim theatre.

Slade’s play centres on the shared experiences of six people after a passenger plane is shot down over London, crashing in Fulham. It takes place at a support group, each person stepping out to deliver monologues and very occasionally speaking with each other – mostly to huge comic effect. While it is not exactly an original concept, the play gets its heart from the human stories coupled with fiercely affecting performances. Each character, named after the actor, shares their own experiences of the atrocity, as well as their life following. Several are highly dismissive of the others. All of them are deeply affected by the tragedy.

What has the potential to be a flat recounting of tragedy flourishes into a quirky and engaging dialogue of human experience. Izzy, played by the only new cast member Isabella Laughland, discovers that her mother has died in the attack. Laughland gives an intense performance and leads us confidently through the production from her opening monologue delivered amongst the audience. Her familiar twenty-first century humanity engages us from the first sentence.

Ana has been put in a wheelchair and struggles to deal with her new way of life. Roxana Lupu is the only weak link in an otherwise strong cast, showing little to no emotional journey for Ana throughout. Her story-telling is detached and emotionally bereft.  Also, in the current equal-opportunity climate, it feels like a missed opportunity here to cast an able-bodied actor in a wheel-chair based role.

Florence Roberts gives an honest and relatable portrayal of Floss; a typical, English twenty-something as she tries to deal with the death of a man taking place in her back garden.

Clive Keene competently appears as the predictable Muslim not-a-terrorist, however this expectation is thankfully played with to great effect. At first, Clive feels like little more than a plot device for “a message” which has been sent before, however Keene manages to infuse him with just enough childish humanity to make him real. In any case, Clive is a message that needs to be sent again and again in a world in which Trump is to be President.

Alex is perhaps the most revolutionary of the set, giving Slade’s play a self-awareness that makes it even easier to connect with. Alex Forsyth offers a veritable torrent of black humour and barely smothered self-loathing. His energetic performance and cavalier breaking of the Fourth Wall even leads to juicy moments of ad-lib with audience members.

Finally, Graham O’Mara offers us the un-lovable yob caught in the middle of something too large for him not to take advantage of. His performance is solid and the character offers a nice twist to expose the frailty of our egos. The six offer a nice balance of the tragic tinged with the gross comedy that is humanity.

It does feel like ‘BU21’ struggles for space in the small Studio2 , however the close thrust space does allow the required intimacy for the piece to work. The staging is simple yet effective using only the chairs and biscuits of the support group to create several spaces and moments through the six stories, including a particularly surreal moment during one of Izzy’s speeches. Small piles of rubble are sparsely strewn around simple lighting rigs on-stage as a nod to the devastation. Lighting is also humble and the production’s occasional use of sound gives reasonable effect.

Overall ‘BU21’ is an engrossing and visceral piece of new-writing. A steady concept offers strong foundations for a topical, human story which explores our worst fears with a wry grin. ‘BU21’ will play at Trafalgar Studios until 18th February.

‘BU21’ is playing at Trafalgar Studios until 18 February

Photo by David Monteith-Hodge

Humanities, Schmanities, Arts, Farts

If you want a career, then study the STEM subjects… apparently.

In another obnoxiously ignorant move, government officials have lampooned the utility of arts subjects. Frighteningly, Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan has attacked arts subjects in a recent speech made at the opening of the ‘Your Life’ campaign, presumptuously suggesting them to be dead-ends. “…the subjects that keep young people’s options open and unlock the door to all sorts of careers are the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths)” Morgan said this week. The Secretary went on to say that young people are making decisions at 15 that will “hold them back” for the rest of their lives.

The message here seems to be that studying the humanities is a risk to your future career. I wonder if Nicky Morgan’s own degree held her back? Yes, indeed – Morgan’s own Jurisprudence degree happens to be one of the Humanities – the very fleet of faculties that she is attacking. Impressive that she has managed to make it all the way to the Secretary of Education with such a risky humanities degree. If only she had taken her own advice and studied science or maths; perhaps then we would have escaped her ignorance as Education Secretary.

It should be noted that Morgan’s comments may have been twisted out of context; while trying to promote the importance and benefits of studying a STEM subject, perhaps she has easily been misconstrued as bad-mouthing the arts. The Independent reports that “a source” at the Department of Education claimed that Morgan was not “downgrading the importance of arts subjects are all” but that “it makes sense” to keep studying STEM subjects if pupils are seeking to advance to a career in technology etc, etc.. It’s a stretch, but thank god we have a government to tell us that we should study technology if we want to work in IT. That one really would have stumped us. Phew.

Rob Warner, the Dean of Humanities at the University of Chichester says “Studying the Humanities made my careers possible, in commercial publishing, the voluntary sector and university teaching and research, management and leadership.” As a study of human experience, it seems like its a section of study that shouldn’t be discounted.

The stance rather unfortunately –  and likely inadvertently – adopted by our Secretary of Education is not a new one. Head teachers, including my own, have called subjects like drama and art “soft” for decades now. You can bet that they still go home and watch Game of Thrones though with a glass of wine and sense of superiority, mindless of the fact that George R. R. Martin, Shakespeare and Queen, Monet and Rowling were all a bit artistically inclined when it came down to it. This perception of the arts as a futile pursuit seems proliferated by common ignorance of its inherent power. Science and maths are undoubtedly what make the world, but art and literature are what create and change it. This view needs to change and change fast. In a world where education is being constantly reformed, discrimination against arts subjects is something that should be addressed. Theatre is being reformed, so are novels, so is art. Education needs to change too. This blog is about the renewal and reinventions of theatre, and if that is to continue, we need new students studying drama and re-imagining it in new forms. If there were no artists, it would be a very bland world and just like Einstein said (I’m pretty sure he studied science or something), if a fish forever judges its intelligence by how well it climbs a tree, it will forever think it is stupid.

What’s your opinion on Nicky Morgan’s comments? Have you ever experienced humanities bashing? Please let me know in your comments.

Beautiful artwork by kerbyrosanes