The Secret River

Most people are familiar with Kate Grenville’s novel, published in 2005 and shortlisted for the 2006 Booker Prize. It features a convict called William Thornhill, a Thames boatman transported for life to New South Wales for stealing timber, whence he travels with his wife and two young boys and where, on receiving his absolute pardon, he sets his sights on a patch of land on the Hawkesbury River north of Sydney and then has to contend with the indigenous people whose land he is purloining.

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Nathaniel Dean (Thornhill) and Ningali Lawford Wolf (Dhirrumbin); Adelaide Festival programme

It was apparently the idea of Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton, then Artistic Directors of the Sydney Theatre Company, to adapt the book into a stage play, for which purpose they hired the services of the playwright Andrew Bovell. The result, realised by director Neil Armfield, designed by Stephen Curtis and set in a quarry outside Adelaide, is one of the most memorable nights I have ever spent at the theatre.

Ms Grenville always stated she felt unable to tell her story from the point of view of the indigenous people, which is why they are shadowy entities in her book – always there but not quite defined. The same is not the case in the play. The Aboriginal people Thornhill is so afraid of are there in flesh and blood, speaking Dharug, the local language of the Hawkesbury – which, wisely I think, is not translated, so we the audience are as confused and perhaps as scared as Thornhill and his wife.

The play is narrated by a character called Dhirrumbin (Dharug for the Hawkesbury River). Played by Ningali Lawford Wolf she tells the story with a mixture of anger, regret and ruefulness. Never have I seen the misunderstandings between two cultures so vividly, humorously and ultimately tragically portrayed. When Thornhill in one scene confronts an Aboriginal elder and tells him forcibly to ‘go away’ the elder responds with what I assumed to be the same instruction in his own language, to which Thornhill replies, with relief, ‘Well at least we understand each other’. The massacre is portrayed twice: once from the white point of view, where we watch an advancing line of men with guns puffing on white powder (flour I think) to portray the musket shots – a wonderfully imaginative moment. Then, separately, we see the Aboriginal people, children and women among them, drop one by one to the ground so all this is left is a single wounded Aborigine.

The Anstey Hill Quarry, some distance out of Adelaide, is where the stone for the city’s first public buildings was excavated back in the 19th century. The play is set on a wide open stage with a painted floorcloth and a sheer cliff as backdrop. Live music is composed and performed by Iain Grandage on piano and cello, with the occasional addition of guitar and pipe; lights are set on scaffolding on either side of the stage. All in all a magical setting you could say, enhanced by uniformly supreme performances from the entire cast.

Secret River

Theatre backdrop (photo by Tony Trench)

I have a particular interest in the play of course as my own ancestors, featured in my book The Worst Country in the Worldwere granted land not far upstream from the fictional Thornhill* and his family, and at much the same time. They were the lucky ones, they did not have to fight for what they considered their ‘official’ right to the land; which would not have made a scrap of difference to the indigenous local people of course, to whom an interloper was an interloper.

The subject of the British invasion of New South Wales is a sensitive one, to say the least. But with a mixture of humour, compassion and even-handedness this presentation of The Secret River achieves the near-impossible: by focusing on one family in one place at one time it manages to encapsulate the much bigger story of western colonisation of Australia

Miraculous. What I want to know now is when will we colonisers have the chance to see this wonderful production back in the UK? National Theatre, I hope you are reading this.

*Yet based loosely on Grenville’s great x 3 grandfather Solomon Wiseman.

Wish List

It is one of the sadder and more shameful aspects of modern life, that super-innovative and successful megolithic online companies apparently do not feel it within their capabilities to share their success by extending some humanity to the workers on the shop – or, in this case warehouse – floor.

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Joseph Quinn and Erin Doherty (royalcourttheatre.org)

The company Tamsin works for as a packer in Katherine Soper’s new play at the Jerwood Theatre Upstairs at the Royal Court is for obvious reasons unnamed. But a working world which is driven entirely by targets, where workers are on zero hours and toilet stops are timed and points (or strokes) are handed out for the slightest thing such as a missed target, is made all the tougher for Tamsin who at the age of 19 is the sole breadwinner for herself and her younger brother, who suffers from an extreme form of OCD.

Wish List, like the National Theatre’s Love, is from the slice-of-life brand of theatre, featuring in both cases people on the edge of society struggling to survive against the unseen and inhumane hand of the benefits system. In both plays the sufferer is called Dean (a coincidence I presume), who is unjustifiably turned down for, respectively, housing and unemployment benefit, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear. (It’s time we heard it from the other side I think.)

The two plays have other things in common, not least a set that includes a kitchen and a bathroom. The difference being that on the traverse stage of the Royal Court Upstairs every member of the audience can see everything.

Whatever reservations I might have had about the play were more than compensated for by the performances, and in particular by Erin Doherty as Tamsin: uncertain, eager to please, funny and occasionally and surprisingly passionate, and always completely believable. A talent to watch.

And now it’s over to you, Department of Work and Pensions. Seriously.

Patsy Trench
January 2017

So what is theatre exactly?

Theatre should be real, says Alexander Zeldin.

All theatre is artifice, says Paul Hunter.

I paraphrase both, but this is the essence of the thinking of two talented theatre practitioners I’ve come into contact with recently.

Alexander Zeldin is the writer/director of Love, currently selling out in the Dorfman at the National Theatre. He was talking to Samira Ahmed at a platform talk before the show a couple of days ago. Love has received five star reviews from virtually everywhere, so he’s a man to be taken seriously.

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Alexalander Zeldin, photo by Marie Eisendick (offwestend.com)

Paul Hunter is the artistic director of theatre company Told by an Idiot, which has been in existence for over twenty years performing around the country and the world. He was talking to students from the SUNY New Paltz at a workshop held at RADA yesterday.

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Both comments are true of course if not the whole picture. It’s what makes theatre what it is. Paul Hunter likes to create the unexpected and spontaneous through the use of impossible games. Watching a group of people clapping in rhythm only gets really interesting when the rhythm starts to go out of control. You can see what Hunter is getting at when he explains that the best comedy springs from things going wrong.

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The clapping game that goes wrong

But I can’t agree when he says reality belongs to television not theatre. Watching LOVE at the Dorfman is a painful and often boring experience because we are living with the characters on stage in real time. We watch them eating in silence. We watch them washing up (those who could see it). We experience their tedium, their boredom. If this was television we’d probably switch it off and look for something more comforting or entertaining.

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Janet Etuk, Anna Calder-Marshall and Nick Holder (nationaltheatre.org)

Love has been rapturously received by the press, and I would not want to disagree except to point out, with some emphasis, that anyone sitting in the side seats in the upper level, which comprises about a quarter of the total audience, only gets to see two-thirds of the play. Anything happening on the sides of the stage, which includes the sink and the toilet and a couple of upstage rooms, is completely invisible if you are sitting on that same side. Why this should be considered acceptable in a newly-renovated and reconfigurable theatre like the Dorfman is a puzzle, to say the least.

That said, the performances are astonishing across the board. And the most touching moment, which produced audible sobs throughout the audience and happens right at the end, is totally theatrical.

Patsy Trench
London 2017

patsytrench@gmail.com

Funny Girl

There is a funny story behind this show. I was chatting away to various people after the press night of a new musical (Marco Polo: the Untold Story – for my review, click here) when the press lady grabbed my arm and said – ‘Come and meet the two wives of Bob Merrill’.

Bob Merrill, you may or may not know, was an American lyricist and composer, famous mostly for the lyrics of Funny Girl – including lyrics and most of the music of the old favourite ‘People’ – and such oddballs as How much is that doggy in the window? and If I knew you were coming I’d have baked a cake’.

Funny Girl Bob Merrill (bobmerrill.com)

Bob Merrill (bobmerrrill.com)

Anyway, long story short, after a couple of minutes of chat Mrs Merrill 2 invited me and my friend to accompany the two of them to Funny Girl the following night. Mrs Merrill 1 had been married to Mr Merrill at the time he was writing the show. She said he sung the entire thing, playing every part, to would-be producers by way of attracting their interest and investment. Mrs M 2 lives in London and had seen the show many times at the Menier Chocolate Factory (where this production originated) and again at the Savoy, yet she was more than happy to see it again and was one of the first on her feet at the curtain call. Mrs Merrill 1, who lives in the US, had not seen the show since who knows when, and was, understandably quite overcome by the whole experience.

What a night. And what a privilege to be the guests of two such fascinating ladies. I am still hoping to write their story.

Funny Girl 1

(atgtickets.com)

Oh, and the show? I really have very little to say. It was fabulous, from top to bottom. Beautifully staged, directed, danced, sung, performed. TOTAL star turn from Sheridan Smith. Zestily directed by Michael Mayer and gustily played by a wonderful – and almost visible – orchestra. One of the great things about old musicals is that they don’t tale themselves that seriously. It’s a long time since I had spent an enjoyable evening in the theatre.

Funny Girl runs at the Savoy Theatre until 8 October 2016. Book tickets here.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s

For a good deal of the first act I couldn’t stop thinking about Christopher Isherwood’s I am a Camera/Cabaret/Sally Bowles: the story, told by a young man (and a writer), of a young woman, outrageous, quirky and charismatic, who exploits and enchants everyone she meets. Replace New York with Berlin and you could almost accuse Truman Capote of (alleged) plagiarism.

Breakfast (trh.co.uk)

(trh.co.uk)

I am a camera

(likesuccess.com)

Everyone knows the film of course, if only for Audrey Hepburn. The play is based more on the novella, a slightly darker tale, and all the more interesting for it. Played on the open stage at the Haymarket Theatre and starring Pixie Lott, who I’d vaguely heard of before as a pop singer, you might expect a full-blown musical, in which case you’d be disappointed as she only sings two and a half songs, one of which – People will say we’re in love – comes, weirdly, from another show altogether (Oklahoma, in case you were wondering).

It’s well produced and very well acted, in particular by Pixie Lott. She has all the charm and charisma (and ditziness) for the character of Holly Golightly (wonderful name) and holds the stage with supreme confidence, so it is all the more surprising to see she has had so little acting training. She is well supported, especially by Victor McGuire as the smitten barman and Matt Barber as the frustrated would-be lover.

Breakfast Matt Barber Trixie Lott

Matt Barber & Trixie Lott (lovetheatre.com)

But I couldn’t help wondering why: why anyone would choose such a slight show as a vehicle for a girl who’s made her name as a singer. It makes for a pleasant enough couple of hours, the direction (Nikolai Foster) is snappy and the dialogue slick and funny. Pixie Lott has a lovely voice, though her delivery is rather more 2016 than 1940something. Why not give her a proper musical to shine in?

Faith Healer – The real thing. Donmar Warehouse

Brian Friels’s four monologues from three characters tell very different versions of the same events.

Stephen Dillane is utterly believable as Frank, the charismatic, self mocking, untrustworthy Faith Healer who may or may not have the gift of healing and if so, has no understanding of it. He holds the stage quietly yet compellingly, eyeballing the audience with a mix of irony and shiftiness. You wouldn’t want to get too involved with this man but you might not be able to resist given the chance.

FAITH HEALER by Friel

Stephen Dillane (thestage.co.uk)

Ron Cook plays his manager Teddy, perhaps the most interesting character of the three: on the surface all cockney swagger as he tells his story while chain-drinking (as in opening up a new bottle of pale ale before he finishes the last one). But underneath the bluster is a warm, truthful and partly broken heart.

Gina Mckee plays Grace, Frank’s girlfriend, struggling to hold herself together as she spills her heart out in her seedy bedsit. She is perhaps the least developed of the three characters – an occupational hazard you might say for a female so utterly dependent on a rogue like Frank.

Faith Healer Gina McKee (timeout.com)

Gina McKee (thestage.co.uk)

Faith Healer Ron cook (thestage.co.uk)

Ron Cook (thestage.co.uk)

The sum of all these disparate parts is an absorbing story of interdependence, and the fascinations and dangers of charisma and a gift that may or may not exist, but which both enchances and destroys the lives of two of them and ends in desolation for the third.

The acting and directing (Lyndsay Turner) is all round impeccable. The staging by Es Devlin changes completely for each monologue, including the floor – from plain wood for Frank to lino for Grace to carpet for Teddy. Inbetween scenes a curtain of rain falls, rather unnecessarily I felt.

That quibble aside, it is the nearest thing to a perfect show you’re likely to see anywhere. To quote another play by another playwright – it is the Real Thing. Get a ticket if you possibly can. (Nothing, even at the Donmar, is impossible.)

Faith Healer runs at the Donmar Warehouse until 20 August. ww.donmarwarehouse.com

Shakespeare 400: And now for something completely different

An Australian aboriginal version of King Lear? In the commercial theatre? It doesn’t get a lot more different than The Shadow King.

Shadow King, Tom E Lewis (perthfestival.com.au)

Tom E Lewis (perthfestival.com.au)

The language isn’t Shakespeare’s but rather a clever mix of contemporary English and aboriginal; so what we get is the familiar punctuated by the weird and wonderfully ‘other’ rhythms of the indigenous.

Lear (Tom E Lewis) is a clown and his Fool (Kamahi Djordan King) is a camp narrator prone to cross-dressing. Goneril and Regan are modern lasses wearing shorts. Edmund – the performance of the evening from Jimi Bani – is a charismatic, virile life force in leather. Gloucester is a woman. Lear’s ‘retinue’ is a ragtaggle bunch of musicians placed on the side of the stage and comprising, among the guitars and percussion, a didgeridoo (natch) and a singer with the most astonishingly resonant voice you will currently hear on a London stage.

The set is a steeply-raked platform with equally steep stairs leading to the abodes of Goneril and Regan and more besides. (Not easy to perform on I would imagine.) A projected backdrop takes us right into the red outback and the precipice from which Gloucester doesn’t jump and into the bush houses of Lear’s daughters. Downstage the characters play with fine red sand, probably imported.

Shadow King Fool and Edgar (theage.com.au)

Kamahi Djordan King as the Fool and Damion Hunter as Edgar/Poor Tom (theage.com.au)

Running at just over an hour and a half without an interval this is not an in-depth version of the much-loved and often-hated original, but what we lose in character development – Lear’s ‘conversion’ at the hands of Edgar/Poor Tom does not have the resonance of the original for instance – we gain, many times over, in atmosphere and visual impact. The creators (Michael Kantor and Tom E Lewis) and dramaturg (Marion Potts) stick loosely to the somewhat simplified plot – there is no Cornwall or Kent for instance – but in the end it is the land that is the star, which for a play that begins with the dividing of a kingdom is utterly appropriate.

As far as I could tell the cast is 100% aboriginal. If you are interested in something completely different, get along to the Barbican this week.

The Shadow King is a Malthouse Theatre production and runs at the Barbican Centre until 2 July. www.barbican.org.uk