Two Palestinians go dogging, Royal Court
Its title is a naked provocation, but for all the humour of Sami Ibrahim’s play, it is deadly serious. Directed by Omar Elerian, it begins with a party, the cast dancing among the rubble, plastic and concrete of Rajha Shakiry’s set.
It’s 2043, and we’re welcomed to a village in contested territory outside Jerusalem by Reem (Hala Omran) and her husband Sayeed (Miltos Yerolemou). They are indeed planning to go dogging. But they’re also going to spill a tale of everyday atrocity, of homeland, national identity, diaspora and the pornification of violence. It’s a gruelling watch, yet it undeniably leaves its mark.
“I’m the clever one,” Omran’s Reem announces, brushing her husband aside to take charge, challenging us to play witness to her story. The dogging expeditions, suggested in stylised movement, are anonymous orgies that express a kind of healing and release as well as sensual kicks, but also become a political power play between Israelis and Palestinians.
Other snapshot sequences thread together the killing of a young female Israeli soldier by a Palestinian boy who becomes a social media star, an intensifying of reprisals leading to intifada, and a series of revelations that link multiple deaths back to Reem and her family.
The occupied Red Zone creeps further and further across the floor in Zakk Hein’s projections, and the play stutters and snarls with false hope and false endings. Reem stage-manages the soldier’s slaying, handing the boy, Jawad, a red felt-tip pen to use as a knife, and insisting he douse himself in fake blood.
The queasy sense of dislocation is ramped up by references to the hand-wringing voyeurism of the global media (“do-gooders”), and a grotesque audience-participation game of “Bibi says”. Bibi being Benjamin Netanyahu.
Omran is fiercely mesmerising, and Ibrahim’s writing works on your nerves as much as your mind, constantly wrong-footing, confronting and shocking. Some rigorous editing might enhance its impact. But its onslaught of words and imagery stain the memory like a bruise: it is savagely effective.
To 1 June, (020 7565 5000 royalcourttheatre.com)
We Started To Sing, Arcola Theatre, London
★ ★ ★
For a young writer, Barney Norris has always demonstrated a remarkable aptitude for capturing the wistfulness of old age, its gradual losses and privations. He demonstrated this startling talent in his award-winning debut play, Visitors, which was performed at the Arcola in 2014 and he continues in a similarly elegiac vein with an impressionistic sketching of scenes from the lives of his parents and grandparents.
In a disarmingly honest programme note, Norris admits that “my brother and I stopped talking for several years because we disagreed over the ethics of telling”. One wonders if the Norris family will sit down together for Christmas dinner after this and the recent autobiographical two-hander The Wellspring, in which Norris performed with his father.
The unshakably solid central planks propping up some otherwise peripatetic lives are Norris’s paternal grandparents, Bert (Robin Soans) and Peggy (Barbara Flynn). They are happily ensconced in a decades-spanning marriage that started with a wartime wedding.
Bert’s rambling stories of his travels have become the dominant narrative of family mythology. Their emotionally elusive concert pianist son David (David Ricardo-Pearce) bristles with frustration at these endless retellings, but Norris sensitively sketches his mother, and David’s ex-wife, Fiona (Naomi Petersen), mourning the loss of closeness with her cheerfully dependable in-laws after her divorce.
Norris himself never appears as a character, but we trace his growing up – including one particularly ill-judged teenage party – from the comments of others.
From an emotional perspective, one understands Norris’s decision to direct such intensely personal material himself. Artistically, however, it proves less of a good idea, as a different director would surely have provided a wider perspective and forced him to knock his writing, ruefully elegant though it unfailingly is, into firmer shape. Towards the end, there is a real danger that the play will simply drift away into trails of wispiness.
Music is what drew David and Fiona, a singer, together and the action, with its backdrop of family photos and videos, is punctuated by song and by fragments of fine piano playing from Ricardo-Pearce. He gives delicate shaping to the ambiguity that is David, offering a masterful range of small gestures that manage to say so much. It seems no surprise that Fiona left this ambivalence for the centred warmth of Rob (George Taylor).
Flynn and Soans make a terrific double act, all happy grumbling, bluff humour and companionable domestic routine; paradoxically, it is their very stability that has allowed the younger generations to spread their wings and take flight into often turbulent air.
This drama certainly starts to sing, yet it refuses to burst into full chorus.
To June 18 (020 7503 1646, arcolatheatre.com)
Girl on an Altar, Kiln Theatre, London
A child murdered, her mother gaslit, humiliated and betrayed, a young woman abducted and repeatedly raped: the bare events of Irish dramatist Marina Carr’s play are a litany of misogynistic atrocity.
Carr draws on Greek mythology, but her harrowing, modern-vernacular tale could be ripped from news headlines, with its echoes of war, domestic abuse, coercive control, and family annihilation.
The writing is tough, sinewy and poetic, and Annabelle Comyn’s taut Abbey Theatre Dublin co-production has a sombre, ritualised elegance. The characters – Mycenaean King Agamemnon, Queen Clytemnestra, visionary Cassandra – speak both to each other and, breaking out of moments of crisis and confrontation almost mid-breath, directly to us. It’s almost as if, driven to the brink of sanity by the horrors they endure, they become psychically split by trauma so that they are, in a very real and disturbing sense, beside themselves.
Eileen Walsh’s Clytemnestra is the play’s heartbeat, torn and tormented by unthinkable suffering at the hands of a man she cannot stop loving. Tom Piper’s set, gorgeously lit in golden shafts by Amy Mae, places a gilded marital bed on a platform that, in Will Duke’s video design, is awash with foaming seawater, and surrounded by scorched earth; behind it, a mirrored alcove periodically opens, offering an illusion of escape.
Thrones, beds, cities and lands are all contested territory; soon Clytemnestra will be usurped by Nina Bowers’s watchful, numbed Cassandra, seized as Agamemnon’s concubine from razed Troy. First, though, Walsh emerges, gasping, from a steaming washroom, prefiguring the fatal climax when she will kill her husband in his bath.
Her haunted testimony is of how David Walmsley’s arrogant, hypermasculine Agamemnon demanded that their daughter, 10-year-old Iphigenia, be married to warrior Achilles to cement an allegiance – but even that obscenity was a lie: instead, the girl was sacrificed to the gods in return for a fair wind to Troy – a superstition her father knew would please his wavering troops and enhance his own heroic myth.
Circling the periphery are Daon Broni’s Aegisthus, Clytemnestra’s lover and Agamemnon’s old adversary; Jim Findley as her father, Tyndareus, an ageing power broker; and Cilissa (Kate Stanley-Brennan), Clytemnestra’s loyal slave, an unblinking witness carrying her own dark history. Walsh has a searing anguish and grace, burning like a pale flame in the darkness. There is intoxicating sensuality, as well as revulsion and rage, in her connection with Walmsley; by contrast, when he wants sex with Bowers’ subjugated Cassandra, he clicks his tongue at her as if she were a horse.
When it all ends in blood, we’re left in no doubt there is more slaughter to come, Cassandra’s prophecies ringing in our ears. Raw, immediate, this is an ancient narrative made terrifyingly familiar.
To 25 June, (www.kilntheatre.com)
The Father and the Assassin, Olivier Theatre
What makes a man turn against the father figure he once idolised, and murder him in cold blood? This fascinating drama by Chennai-based playwright Anupama Chandrasekhar probes that question on both an intimate and thrillingly epic scale: the victim is Mahatma Gandhi, father of the Indian nation; the killer is Nathuram Godse, who in 1948 shot Gandhi at point-blank range, and was executed for his crime the following year.
Chandrasekhar puts imaginative flesh on the bones of Godse’s story, as well as eliding some historical events. This is shrewd, given that this is a memory play, and Godse – played, in Indhu Rubasingham’s richly involving production, with puckish volatility by Shubham Saraf – is a decidedly unreliable narrator. The writing has the compulsion of a political thriller, underpinned by a profoundly disturbing depiction of radicalisation: India is currently seeing a resurgence of support for Godse’s persona and ideas.
Rubasingham and movement director Lucy Cullingford fill the stage with turmoil without ever sacrificing clarity: phalanxes of protestors following Paul Bazely’s intense, charismatic Gandhi or marching in formation like arrowheads intersect with domestic scenes, political power-broking and vicious British brutality.
Orchestrating it all, and speaking directly to us from beyond the grave with a jocular familiarity, is Saraf’s dangerously charming Godse.
Urging us to forget about “that phoney Attenborough film with Sir Ben Kingsley”, he shows us how his childhood faith in Gandhi as a saint and a hero was shaken by atrocity, injustice, and a frustration with non-violent resistance.
Raised as a girl by superstitious parents who had already lost three sons and believed that by insisting he was their daughter they might cheat fate, Godse is from an early age in search of “manhood” and a sense of significance and purpose. While working as a tailor’s assistant, “squeezing my hours through the eyes of endless needles”, he encounters Sagar Arva’s sinister Hindu radical nationalist Vinayak Savarkar, whose alternative paternal influence propels him towards his act of assassination.
Designer Rajha Shakiry’s backdrop of a skein of threads and fraying cloth is a clever allusion to Gandhi’s enthusiasm for homespun weaving, to the ripping of India by Partition, to Godse’s unglamorous employment, and to Chandrasekhar’s skilful multi-strand storytelling.
Godse, spinning his own self-glorifying myth, is constantly challenged both by Bazely’s serenely haunting, taunting Gandhi, and by his childhood friend Vimala (Dinita Gohil), whom he exasperatedly complains keeps “showing up in my narrative like an unnecessary apostrophe”. The dexterous theatricality of both the writing and Rubasingham’s seamless staging means the interplay of ideas never feels schematic, and the ensemble performances are crammed with vivid detail. It’s all highly accomplished, intricate yet bold, and as politically potent as it is ingeniously entertaining.
To 18 June, (nationaltheatreorg.uk)
Murder on the Orient Express, Chichester Festival Theatre
Prepare to employ your little grey cells, mes amis – Hercule Poirot is back. Following in the footsteps of Albert Finney and Kenneth Branagh on the big screen, and David Suchet on TV, Henry Goodman takes on the role of Agatha Christie’s Belgian detective in one of her most intricately plotted thrillers, inspired by the real-life Lindbergh baby kidnapping and murder case.
Ken Ludwig’s adaptation keeps the action streamlined by dispensing with a few of the suspects, and adds a subtle patina of knowing theatrical playfulness. And Jonathan Church’s production offers all the period plushness you could wish. Unless you’ve somehow managed to avoid discovering whodunnit in advance, you’ll find little here to surprise you; this is a very trad retelling. But it’s supremely elegant, if unchallenging, entertainment.
Playing a deliciously charming Bouc, debonair Orient Express boss and old chum of Hercule, Patrick Robinson describes his locomotive as “poetry on wheels” – an apt description, too, for this staging, designed by Robert Jones. Concentric arches suggest both rail tunnels and Art Deco architecture. The train’s engine glides into view amid clouds of steam, while sleeping compartments and lamp-lit velvet dining car tables are propelled around the revolve in a seamless ballet by muscular stokers in shirtsleeves and flat caps. The costumes are a swoonworthy orgy of satin, fur and feathers; Poirot himself arrives in an astrakhan coat and raffishly tilted Homburg.
Goodman gives us a twinkly, avuncular detective. Among the passengers – any of whom might be the killer of Timothy Watson’s shady, obnoxious American businessman Samuel Ratchett – Sara Stewart is a stand-out as Helen Hubbard, a Deep South divorcee who caterwauls show tunes in her cabin while, next door, a seething Ratchett fondles a pistol.
Goodman’s Hercule tussles with his conscience in the final scenes, as he wonders about his moral duty in circumstances where the victim so richly deserved his grisly end. But mostly this is sheer escapism – and it’s fun to go along for the ride.
To 4 June, (cft.org.uk), then 9-25 June, Theatre Royal Bath (www.theatreroyal.co.uk)
The Wreckers/ Le nozze di Figaro, Glyndebourne Festival Opera, East Sussex
Flamboyant and furiously political, the composer Ethel Smyth (1858-1944) is said to have counted Virginia Woolf and Emmeline Pankhurst among her lovers, and her opera The Wreckers – conceived in English but with a libretto in French – is now being talked up as a rediscovered feminist classic.
Its London premiere was given under Sir Thomas Beecham’s baton in 1909, but, starved of proper rehearsal time, the work didn’t take off. Rarely performed, at Glyndebourne it’s being sung in its original French.
The wreckers in question were 18th-century Cornish villagers who eked out their meagre living by luring ships onto rocks and looting them. And when Marc and Thurza – two young people in a scandalously illicit liaison – felt impelled to sabotage the evil trade, village jealousies sprang a plot which ended as Verdi’s Aida does, with the protagonists condemned to die in a cave as the tide came in.
My spirits rose as the orchestra, under Robin Ticciati, launched into the overture. The music had force and freshness, a nicely projected storm filled the stage, and the villagers – reminiscent of those in Peter Grimes – gathered convincingly by the rocks. As the storm subsided, they broke into a lovely chorale.
Was this going to be that longed-for thing, a “new” opera which really had legs?
Alas, no. Smyth was expert in pastiche, and as the work progressed we got large chunks of oven-ready Bizet and Puccini and lashings of Wagner, including a long and tedious Liebestod scene.
More seriously, there was no building of character or relationships, and no musical dramaturgy to give shape to the complex plot and its sometimes puzzling ramifications; the surtitles were often risible. It all went through the motions of grand opera, but was totally devoid of the requisite qualities.
All praise to the chorus under Melly Still’s direction, and to Karis Tucker (Thurza) and Rodrigo Porras Garulo (Marc), who headed a valiant cast attempting an impossible job.
After this, the revival of Michael Grandage’s spirited take on Figaro came as blessed relief – its heady brew of laughter, mischief and beauty in no way obscuring its serious messages.
Amanda Woodbury brought heart-rending grace to the role of the Countess, while the stand-out performance of the evening was South Korean soprano Hera Hyesang Park’s spitfire of a Susanna. Her performance was bewitching – she acted and sang divinely.
‘The Wreckers’ runs to 24 June, ‘Le nozze di Figaro’ to 16 July (01273 815 000, glyndebourne.com)