‘Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give
delight and hurt not.’
On Thursday 30th June I had the pleasure of attending the opening night of The Tempest by William Shakespeare, performed by City Lit Theatre Company. The production was directed by Petina Hapgood, long term director at The City Lit and guest director at the Courtyard and other theatre companies. Assistant director and musical director was Claire Temple. The Tempest is regarded by many as Shakespeare’s last play and is one that holds dear to Aristotle’s unities of time, place and action, the story unfolding on a magical island in real time with one main plot. Many have drawn parallels between Prospero, the magician, and Shakespeare himself. At the end of the play Prospero breaks his magic staff and throws his magic books into the sea. As this is probably Shakespeare’s last play, it may or may not signify the end of Shakespeare’s own career as a playwright.
It was the perfect antidote to the Brexit Blues, if not somewhat surreal as I had trod those very boards myself only a week ago as the character of Paul/Picasso in Jason Riddington’s production of Saltimbanques. But I knew I was in for a real treat before the play had even started as I took my seat and heard a cacophony of animal noises and witnessed animal-like movement and interaction from the company of players already on stage. It was not long before I, along with the other members of the audience, were transported to that pivotal scene on board the ship that is battling against the elements. Working as an ensemble, the actors created the shipwreck scene with just a piece of rope and carefully choreographed physical movement. A truly believable illusion and theatre at its best!
One of the strengths of the piece for me was the inclusion of dance, ritualistic movement, song and original music throughout the play. These were no mere interludes. This is a play about magic and illusion, and the fact that all these elements were interwoven so strongly both charmed and enchanted. The use of stagecraft was another strength, with characters appearing in amongst the audience and at one point, from the entrance to the theatre itself.
On the whole, the performances were strong and engaging. This particular production has taken a fresh approach to casting as both the lead, Prospero (aka Prospera) Caliban, and other traditional male parts are played by female cast members. And why not? I think it’s so important to reinvent the classics lest they become museum pieces! Prospera, the magician and duchess, who had been treacherously usurped from her rightful position in
Milan, was played by esteemed actress Robyn Moore. Robyn has played numerous roles on both TV and theatre and did not disappoint in this production where she gave an emotionally truthful and nuanced performance as Prospera. Ms Moore brought out the multifaceted aspects of her character. You saw, in turn, the protective mother, the vengeful duchess and the magician enraptured by the secret arts. But there was no doubt in my mind that she was a benevolent force. There was also something of the pagan about her costume, with it’s pheasant feathers and rustic colours and patterns. And the relationship between her and Ariel, the fairy spirit, was a delight to behold. There was a real intimate connection between the two even though Ariel really is her slave and does her bidding.
Raymond Charles’ performance as Ariel was energetic and often electrifying. Both physically and vocally, his performance reflected his otherworldy, supernatural status, and he got the balance between, in part, enjoying doing Prospera’s bidding and serving her, yet also yearning for his own freedom, spot on. Scarlett Barrett gave an emotionally engaging performance as Prospera’s daughter, Miranda, and Zoe Bond drew pathos and delight in equal measure in her portrayal of Caliban. It was good to see both Emma Wilkinson-Wright, as the usurping and traitorous Antonia, and Daniel Paul as the equally traitorous Sebastian, both of whom had appeared in Vernon Thomson’s production of Alan Ayckbourn’s Season’s Greetings in December last year. Vittorio Parri cut a very dashing figure as Ferdinand and his use of comic timing was used to great effect. Well done too to all cast members and to Cynon Lewis who was excellent as Francisco and the Boatswain.
The Tempest is on at The John Lyon theatre, City Lit in Holborn from 30th June until 2nd June and is then transferring to St. Giles-In-The-Fields Church from 5th July until 9th July. Tickets are available from Eventbrite. (Click the link)
This short film, ‘Lippy’, produced by ‘The Flying Bull’ theatre company, centres around the character of a homeless person. The screenplay was written by Timothy Graves and directed by Penelope Maynard. Director of Photography and Editor, Giles Webb, Directing Consultant and Acting coach, Robyn Moore. Music by Airacuda.The cast are as follows: Timothy Graves (The Professor), Eva Mashtaler (The Girl), Karim Jabri (The Boyfriend), Sue Ruddick (The Kind Woman).
The film was shot in Holborn and Covent Garden in central London and focusses on the issues of homelessness and environmentalism although the short piece is character driven. Part of the brief was that the film be no longer than 5 mins long and that it could be shot not far from The City Lit Institute where all five actors of ‘The Flying Bull’ are studying for a professional diploma in Acting. On the actual day of filming we were upstaged rather by an actual homeless guy, James, who initially would not move from where we wanted to film. However, it was not long before we persuaded James to join in and take part in some of the filming which he thoroughly enjoyed.
In writing the screenplay, I was inspired by a scene in the Mike Leigh play ‘Career Girls’, when the two female characters, many years later, accidentally bump into a friend and flatmate from university. Only the friend, who had suffered from some mental health issues at university, is now homeless on the streets of London. In ‘Lippy’, it is one of the professor’s students that recognises the now homeless professor. The flashback scene, set at Manchester university, is necessary to highlight how drastically both the professor of botany and the student’s lives have changed.
I hope you enjoy ‘Lippy’. It’s out first short film and we certainly had fun making it!
I have chosen to devote this week’s blog post to what will be the UK’s premiere of Saltimbanques. As many of you will know, as well as being a writer, I have also undertaken a professional actor training and have just completed my first year at City Lit drama school. (This is not such a divergent route as it may initially appear as I have a degree in Drama from Exeter University and used to teach Drama in London secondary schools back in the day!) Our end of year production will be Jim Knable’s play Saltimbanques, directed by Jason Riddington and performed at the John Lyon’s theatre at City Lit, in Holborn, central London on Thursday 23rd June and Saturday 25th June at 7.30 pm. There will also be an additional matinee performance on Saturday at 2.30pm.
The play is named after Picasso’s painting, Saltimbanques, which depicts six circus performers in a desolate landscape. For the poet, Rilke, Saltimbanques suggests ‘human activity.. always travelling and with no fixed abode, they are even a shade more fleeting than the rest of us, whose fleetingness was lamented.’ For Rilke, the painting encapsulates the ultimate loneliness and isolation of Man.’ Existentialist stuff indeed!
Saltimbanques, the play, is about art, death, fantasy and the power of the imagination. I play the character of Paul, an artist, who becomes convinced that he is possessed by the spirit of Pablo Picasso. (I have found Francoise Gilot’s memoir, Life with Picasso, particularly enlightening.) I also personally find it somewhat uncanny that I am actually playing a character who believes he is possessed since my second novel, Pharmakeia, deals with just this – albeit demonic rather than artistic possession. Both Saltimbanques and Pharmakeia also concern themselves with the potentially dark nature of art, creativity and fantasy. I guess a Jungian devotee would call these apparent coincidences ‘synchronicity’
Mommy, played by Penelope Maynard, convinces me, Paul, that I am possessed by the spirit of Pablo Picasso.
The plot centres around James’ and Louise’s eccentric artist mother who tells them they are Picasso’s illegitimate twins. James runs from his sadistic sculptress girlfriend and Louise follows him to their mother’s cabin in the woods, where the ghosts of their very different pasts haunt them in the form of memories of love gone wrong, parenting gone crazy, and in the flesh of Mommy’s former student, Paul (played by yours truly) who is convinced he is the reincarnation of Picasso himself.
James, played Karim Jabri with Eva Mashtaler as his sister, Louise, discussing their traumatic childhood.
Sue Ruddick, as James’ sadistic sculptress girlfriend, engages in a little light role-play.
We have been in rehearsals for the last six weeks and it has been a pleasure to have been directed by Jason Riddington. We have rehearsed to the music of ‘Massive Attack’ and certain tracks from the sound track of the movie, ’21 Grams’. (This music will accompany the action of the play during each performance.) Rather than being ‘blocked’ in a heavy-handed fashion, we have been encouraged to explore character and relationship dynamics in an organic and actor-centred way. (Jason Riddington is also an actor and will appear in Agatha Christie’s The Hollow at The Mill theatre in Sonning from July 7th.)
I have learnt so much as an actor from working with Jason Riddington. Everything from his entertaining theatrical anecdotes to his belief in the actor as an alchemist or magician in communion with the audience. But for this magical alchemical formula to work – the actor needs to tread the knife edge. It has to cost us emotionally. I have personally invested a lot emotionally in the role, and in addition have grappled with getting to grips with the Spanish accent and the physical and vocal demands of transforming into a character who becomes increasingly psychotic. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. Acting was my first love. And it feels amazing to come home, at long last.
Saltimbanques will be performed at the John Lyon theatre, City Lit, Holborn on Thursday 23rd June and Saturday 25th June. The actors involved have also formed a theatre company, The Flying Bull, and are hoping to transfer the play to a London theatre later in the summer. Tickets cost £9 and can be purchased online from Eventbrite.
Next Friday’s blog post will look at the potentially dark side of creativity.
Last week I went with a friend to The Lyric theatre in Hammersmith to see 4.48 Psychosis the Opera, by Philip Venables – an adaptation of Sarah Kane’s play 4.48 Psychosis. For those who may not be familiar with Kane’s play, it is about a character/characters who suffers/suffer from clinical depression. (There are no stage directions or characters listed) Suicide, self-harm and death are big themes in the play. But so is love – and the loss of it.
I first saw 4.48 Psychosis when it premiered at The Royal Court theatre shortly after Sarah’s death. I knew Sarah during the sixth form at school and would hang out with her in a small circle of friends, many of whom now identify as gay or lesbian. We were involved in numerous school plays together of which I have many fond memories. I then moved to Exeter to study Drama at Exeter University and a year later Sarah went to Bristol University. Some years later, we both ended up living in Brixton. And this was the last place where we met up, just the two of us, one evening in a pub. I remember the evening clearly – Sarah’s warmth and sharp wit and her genuine interest in my experience of Buddhist meditation. It was a shock when a mutual friend phoned to tell me Sarah had killed herself. And when I saw 4.48 Psychosis at The Royal Court in 2000, in the year following Sarah’s funeral, of course, it was very upsetting. In some respects, it did feel like a suicide note. But it was much more than this. It was an incredible piece of writing and the best production of the play I have seen so far.
But to return to 4.48 Psychosis The Opera. It was an all female cast comprising of six singers. Not long into the performance it struck me that Opera is a great medium for Sarah Kane’s play. Opera naturally deals with extreme emotions and experiences – death and the loss of love being two of them. In addition there is a real strong sense of rhythm to the language in the play which naturally lends itself to some kind of musical rendition.There are also references to rhythm and singing in the actual text:
‘I sing without hope on the boundary.’
‘I shall hang myself to the sound of my lover’s breathing.’
And the actual text (or most of it) from Kane’s play is projected above the stage and also onto the white walls of the set. I thought this worked particularly well, in part because Kane’s writing, which fluctuates between naturalistic and heightened poetic expression, is so exquisite and carefully crafted. As a writer, having the text to read throughout the play, made me realise yet again what a multiplicity of voices there are in 4.48 Psychosis. And how, in this regard it is very postmodern. The text includes Biblical references, lists concerning medication, lists of numbers, poetic passages, expanded definitions of words etc. There are also echoes from classical texts such as T S Eliot’s The Wasteland.
The musicians from the orchestra were positioned above the stage which inverted the usual convention and was all the more effective and powerful for it. Drums, hammers, and even a saw cutting through wood, served to reinforce the despair and anguish which are at the heart of the play. At other times, the music served to highlight the ineffectual and at times damaging role that the psychiatric system itself plays in mental illness. But I think the most disturbing music in the piece was the intermittent sound of what sounded like piped supermarket/elevator music. This was quite ‘Brechtian’ in the sense that it distanced you intermittently from the emotional content of the play.
I think it’s important that a play like 4.48 Psychosis, in the right hands, is adapted. (It takes a brave soul and artist to reveal/shine the light on a dark and difficult aspect of what it means to be human.) Kane herself said that she didn’t want any of her plays to become museum pieces. 4.48 Psychosis the Opera remained true to the essence of the play but came to it from a highly creative and interesting angle.
I leave you with two short extracts from the play which convey why, for me, this is a play just as much about love, or the loss of love:
‘Cut out my tongue
tear out my hair
cut off my limbs but leave me my love
I would rather have lost my legs
pulled out my teeth
gouged out my eyes
than lost my love.’
‘It is myself I have never met, whose face is pasted on the underside of my mind.’