Woyzeck – Friday 23rd June 2017

I first became aware of Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck while at university. During my fourth year, I was grappling with opera, trying to find an angle that interested me enough to focus my dissertation on it, and my dad suggested insanity. The idea was triggered by the tradition of the “mad scene”, where a soprano would have a scene written in where she has an episode of insanity purely to give her a reason to show off her coloratura skills – think Donizetti’s Lucia Di Lammermoor. And so, I had to start researching operas with alternative representations of mental health issues, from within different operatic sub-genres, and that’s how I discovered Alban Berg’s Wozzeck.

My second encounter with the story of Woyzeck came when my uni pal and theatre director Alasdair insisted I join him at an immersive show called The Drowned Man, telling me nothing else other than to hold eye contact with any actors that catch my gaze. That was my first encounter with Punchdrunk, the first of many visits to that particular show, and the start of a long love affair that has seen me spend more money than I care to count on their shows – particularly when you factor in the transatlantic travel since The Drowned Man closed 3 years ago and left me without a local fix. So it’s fair to say that I kind of loved that treatment of Büchner’s tale…

These two treatments of Woyzeck touched me in different ways, but in both, I found myself invested in the characters, feeling helpless as I watched the tragedy unfold in its inevitable way, so when I saw early last year that John Boyega would be taking on the role at the Old Vic, I knew I had to see it.

A modernised version by Jack Thorne (who wrote This is England and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child), it was very darkly funny – full of bawdy barracks humour which gave the play a rapid pace and made Woyzeck, Marie and Andrews all very likeable. It was well acted by all, and I did like the production, but I struggled to really connect with Woyzeck.

In the other versions I know, Woyzeck’s downfall is caused by a combination of his paranoia, an experimental drug trial he participates in, and Marie’s infidelity, and everything just grows and grows until there’s no way out for Woyzeck. In this production however, Marie never cheats, and it’s all in Woyzeck’s head. While her innocence could have made it more tragic, it makes it almost too simple. The combination of PTSD and the drug trial doesn’t take the audience along for the ride in quite the same way as the relatable, confusing concoction of jealousy, paranoia, stress, anxiety and the rest.

His demise is also very quick. Because there’s so much focus on exposition and establishing the relationships – not to mention getting some laughs in – once Woyzeck starts to come undone, it seems to happen very quickly, clinically, aggressively and with less reason, so I struggled to connect with him the way I did with the other incarnations I know. And that’s not to say the performances weren’t good – they were very strong, and I will gladly go see anything that John Boyega, Ben Batt, Steffan Rhoddri, Nancy Carroll or Sarah Greene are in in the future.  I just didn’t like some of the production decisions.

Overall, I did enjoy it, and it was maybe more entertaining and funny than I expected, but it wasn’t the Woyzeck I wanted. But maybe that’s my fault for not going in with an open mind. I just wanted my tragedy to be a bit more tragic.

Woyzeck ran at the Old Vic from 15th May-24th June 2017. Info on the production can be found here.

 

The Great Gatsby – Saturday 17th June 

I love a bit of fancy dress. Especially the kind that lets you look either really great or really terrible while you do it. So an immersive Great Gatsby production with a serious emphasis on dressing up, drinking cocktails and partying sounded like one we couldn’t miss.

It sold out when it ran at the Vaults Festival earlier this year, so my theatre chums and I quickly got our collective act together and bought tickets when they announced a re-run in a new venue later in the year. So having been waiting for it for a while, and with positive reviews from friends that had seen it, our expectations were higher than we probably like to admit.

Presented by The Guild of Misrule and The Immersive Ensemble, the production was not without its flaws, but I’m worried about sounding really negative so before I go into those, I’ll preface this by saying we did have a lot of fun.

It took a while to get going. We didn’t arrive too early – just 15 minutes or so to give us time to check in and buy a drink – but still had quite a bit of time hanging around before Carraway came into the bar and it really “started”. But even when it started and we were ushered through into the main room, it felt like a slow start – there was quite a bit of time allowed for getting seats, exploring the space (which wasn’t huge) and buying drinks. I appreciate that this was probably necessary to give people the chance to get drinks etc, but it lost momentum while we were milling around. It felt like it really started when the cast all started doing the Charleston, and that did kick start the fun. After that, the story started, and splinter groups were taken off into other rooms by various characters, but we always reconvened in the main room for the major scenes, ensuring no one missed these. I think we were unlucky here, as we kept missing being taken away, which meant we felt like we were missing all the special, small group scenes. I did later get to witness a couple of these – at the climax of the story – and the ones I saw were quite intimate and emotional, and probably the most enjoyable bits of the production for me. I know I can’t keep comparing everything to Punchdrunk, but I really missed being able to choose my own story – the groups were largely selected by the actors (understandably for logistical reasons of moving the groups around) but it meant I got frustrated, wanting to follow certain characters but being unable to without forcing my way through a crowd in a way that was unacceptable for this audience.

A note on the audience – there were two girls who hadn’t dressed up, who chatted the whole way through the production, and had no spatial awareness and kept standing in front of other people. Seriously, if you’re not going to get into the spirit of it and stop your conversation, just don’t bother. It’s disrespectful to the actors, not to mention the other audience members who have paid to be there and whose evening you’re ruining.

But onto the good stuff – overall, we had a great night! Despite the humidity turning the venue into a sweat box, the actors were committed and engaging, adding little touches of audience interaction that never felt too forced. I really liked Carraway’s performance, and Jordan was a bundle of fun (though her accent slipped a couple of times). I took a while to warm to Gatsby, but how easy is it to get to know a rich playboy who has emotional barriers? He really came to life in the second act and I found myself feeling quite attached to him by the end. I didn’t spend a lot of time with Daisy due to the particular scenes I saw, but I liked what I did see. George and Myrtle were the kind of characters I’m usually drawn to – a secondary storyline with an emotional hook – and I found George sweet and vulnerable which made the story’s ending more impactful. I didn’t spend much time with Tom, but he seemed well cast and solid in the scenes I did see. I’m not sure what – if any – role the rest of ensemble had beyond dancing, but they added to the atmosphere nicely. The finale was well pitched – moving, but understated.

The production did feel like it was put together with a limited budget – not that it felt too cheap, but it was missing the rich, sumptuous luxury that you expect from a Gatsby party, some of the attention to detail etc. But once I got into it, I stopped noticing such things.

Overall, we really enjoyed our evening, and that was more important than any of the negatives – I’d just urge the company to continue to review how they move the audience around to enhance the audience experience. It’s not the sort of immersive production that demands a second visit, but I would go back – and perhaps try to stand in different places to ensure I saw different scenes.

The Great Gatsby is on until 10th September at a secret London location (but it’s not very secret – it’s on The Guild of Misrule’s website if you don’t want to book without knowing). Info and tickets available from http://www.seetickets.com/s/tour/the-great-gatsby/341

 

Vixen – Saturday 3rd June

I love opera. It’s far from a secret, but it’s not something I talk about much because I don’t have many people in my daily life to discuss it with. But I love it. The way the score, the orchestra, vocal gymnastics, costume and set come together to tell a story is always fascinating and often sublime. When I was at uni I studied everything from Mozart’s Le Nozze Di Figaro,  Handel’s Semele, and Beethoven’s Fidelio to Tippett’s The Knot Garden, Schoenberg’s Erwartung and Berg’s Wozzeck. But since leaving uni, most of the opera I’ve seen as been at the Royal Opera House or the Coliseum, and usually with my parents who favour the classical style, so while I’ve loved each and every production in its own way, the operas I’ve seen have been exclusively traditional – I’ve seen at least 3 productions of Bizet’s Carmen and a lot of Verdi and Mozart.

So when my most opera-savvy friend, Phil (who is himself a singer with the ENO) said that there was a production called Vixen coming up which was essentially immersive opera, I HAD to go.

Based on Janacek’s classic opera Cunning Little Vixen, Vixen is a modern take, translated into English and set in the present day. Instead of being a fox, Vixen is a young homeless girl on the streets of London, just trying to survive. While the translation and modernisation of the text wasn’t 100% successful for me, the production wouldn’t have worked in the original Czech with surtitles, and it didn’t detract from the experience – though I can’t pretend I didn’t giggle when I heard the phrase “Maccy D’s”. That’s probably a first.

Wearing headphones which are playing some of the background and pre-recorded music and seamlessly blending it with the live music and singing, the audience follows the cast – which includes a small live orchestra of violin, flute, saxophone, oboe and melodica/pianica – through three main sets. The musicians are brilliant, all multi-cast as the supporting characters/ensemble as well as playing much of the score, from memory, and often while moving.

Unsurprisingly, the star of the show was Vixen herself, played by Rosie Lomas. Diminutive and childlike in stature, with a powerful and haunting voice. Fragile but tough. While I wasn’t completely convinced by the updating of the text, the setting really worked – though it’s not an opera I know, I can’t imagine the traditional setting having as much impact as this production. The issues Vixen faces are very real – rejection, abuse, love, crime, and of course, homelessness – and the production makes it very clear that Vixen is just one of thousands of anonymous victims of these issues, and they all deserve better.

Is it truly immersive? It doesn’t hit all 5 senses like a Punchdrunk show, but honestly we (by which I mean my fellow Punchdrunkards and I) need to stop comparing everything to Punchdrunk, and it did draw me in and make me feel like I was in Vixen’s world, even if I wasn’t an active part of it like at Temple Studios or The McKittrick. But more importantly, it was so good I don’t care.

If you don’t think opera’s your thing, give it a go – it’s concise, relatable, and excellently produced. If you do love opera, you shouldn’t need any more convincing.

Vixen is on at The Vaults until 10th June. Info and tickets here.

Light – Friday 2nd June 2017

I went into Light, by Theatre Ad Infinitum, knowing nothing, other than it was on its third run at the Battersea Arts Centre, so it should at least be alright. And I think that’s maybe the best way to see it, so I’ll keep this brief to avoid spoilers as I heartily recommend you try to see it if you get the chance.

Set in the future, it taps into very relevant topics around the use of technology and surveillance, while having a touch of the Rogue One rebel mission about it. Performed entirely in mime, with only some occasional sparse dialogue displayed in surtitles, it never struggles to communicate the narrative. The word “mime” probably conjours up twee images of men pretending to lift suitcases that won’t move, or be trapped in invisible boxes. Well put that image into said invisible box and crush it – mime is better described as physical theatre and done well – like this – it can be brilliant. The costumes and set are minimalist, with an electronic soundscape score, lots of darkness, and some very clever, intricately choreographed, handheld lighting, ensuring you focus on the action, of which there is plenty.

It’s atmospheric, thrilling, and makes mime seriously cool. Go see it.

Light is on at the Battersea Arts Centre until 17th June. Find out more here.

 

My Brilliant Friend – Saturday 18th March

Turning four novels into one play was going to be difficult – usually it’s the other way around, where short stories turn into full length plays. Or look at the current trend for serialising books into as many films as possible – although that’s usually driven by potential profits rather than treating the original text with integrity.

When my theatre chum Emma asked if I fancied My Brilliant Friend, I wasn’t sure. I haven’t read the books, the story of a complicated friendship over many decades in post-war Italy didn’t exactly sound like a barrel of laughs, and then there was the timing issue – the play was split into two parts, the idea being you see them either on consecutive nights, or as the matinee and evening on the same day. We opted for the latter as Emma lives outside London. And then we made the decision that I’m still undecided on – we went for the pit cushions – literally cushions on the floor – rather than traditional theatre seats.

Our bums did not thank us, but our view, right in front of the low stage, was excellent. The play was not immersive in any way, but we felt like we were part of the action.

However, our bums were the only parts of us that felt like we were there for 6 hours. Fast-paced, intelligent, and funny, the play was actually brilliant and by the end I felt truly invested in the stories, having been observing their lives for hours, and I could have watched longer (had I been in a comfier seat).

We went to see the play largely as it featured 3 Punchdrunk alumni – we follow the cast around a bit as it’s a good way of discovering new productions, and they tend to choose interesting projects. The cast included Adam Burton, Ira Mandela Siobhan, and Emily Mytton from the Punchdrunk fold, and they didn’t disappoint. The two leads were played by Niamh Cusack and Catherine McCormack – both excellent – and the rest of the supporting cast were brilliant too.

We joined Adam and Ira as well as a couple of the other cast members in the pub for a drink afterwards, and it was really nice to hear them talk so positively about the production – they were clearly very proud of it, and hopeful that it would get an extended run or tour at some point in the near future. If it does, I highly recommend going to see it.

The Neath – Thursday 23rd February

Wow… it’s been a while. The last month has been completely mental at work, so I’ve rather neglected writing – though handily I took some notes at a few bits and bobs so I’ll be writing them up eventually.

First up, I got together with my theatre chums for The Neath – one of the key immersive events at the Vault Festival, which came with quite a buzz about it, a simple but rather clever little website, and a production team with a decent pedigree (The Crystal Maze and Time Run for starters). So everything was looking good.

An immersive bar, with Azazael as the landlord, The Neath is a place somewhere between the mortal realm and hell, filled with regulars with stories to tell, where we would have to confess our sins, complete mini-quests, and find seven goblets (one for each sin) in order to gain our collective freedom.

Overall, the theming and styling were good, and the performers were incredibly committed and strong improvisers – though I did hear a couple of folk complain that some of them were intimidating or aggressive. Which brings me on to the next point – the level of expected participation was high. The concept worked, but only if you were brave, as it really required you to seek out answers, go on quests, and initiate conversations. I’m not too shy with these things, and have long advocated Punchdrunk’s “your bearing shapes your fate” mantra. But after someone had found a goblet and been pulled on stage to confess her sin, where she loudly and proudly announced she’d slept with a married vicar, I wasn’t particularly keen to find the next one.

The other issue I had, was that the audience size was a touch too large – we spent a lot of the evening literally queuing up for a series of one-on-one experiences. Ideally, it needed more to do and see that wasn’t one-on-one.

And really, in my opinion, it was a little too expensive for what it was – especially as as soon as it started you were ushered to the bar to buy drinks. I do appreciate that the ticket price (£25) allowed you to return as often as you wanted throughout the run, but that probably also impacted on audience experience – the later in the run you visited, the greater the potential returning audience members, therefore the longer you’d be queueing for your experiences. And returning visitors would have a better idea of how it worked, know who to talk to, where to stand etc and potentially rob new audience members of those experiences. A ticket around £15 with no return visits would have felt more appropriate.

It had real potential, and (especially as I work in events and look after budgets and ticket sales) I totally understand the commercial pressures – we’ve all seen shows we loved close because they weren’t financially viable – however on this occasion it felt like they’d sacrificed audience experience, and for me it was a step too far.

Sorry. I really wanted to love it.

Happy thoughts – Wednesday 1st March

  • One of my favourite human beings is in London this weekend – was in touch with the gorgeous Mairead this morning to arrange seeing her on Sunday and it couldn’t have come at a better time. It was an incredibly long day, and very stressful, so having something to look forward to definitely helped!
  • When I did finally leave the office, the husbear let me know there was a surprise waiting for me – a whole box of Cadbury’s Creme Eggs. It’s the simple things…
  • MORE PANCAKES! (It was a long day. Forgive me the repetition).