Tag Archives: solo theatre

Face to Face Review: The Helen Project (LOST Theatre, London)

Helen3Rating: *****

In A Nutshell

An original and surprising examination of the personal plight of Helen of Troy: the face that launched a thousand ships.

Overview

Six actors become Helen, each taking on an aspect of key moments of her life in Homer’s Iliad. They explore what her thoughts and feelings would have been as history’s most infamous beauty queen.

Writing

There is a wonderful depth and humanity here to a character we too often see as a prize rather than a human being. Each moment paints Helen as a flawed but deep and thoughtful character. Caught between fate, her own vanity, and violent patriarchy, she’s faced to consider things like abandoning her children, and being the cause of death for thousands. Writers Megan Cohen and Amy Clare Tasker have hit on some very real and challenging questions about how we view Helen, by portraying here as a simple, albeit beautiful, woman.

What’s wonderful is the mixture of anachronisms in the text. There are some very modern references within it that have the potential to jar against the otherwise very ancient Greek setting of the actual narrative. But these little idiosyncrasies, instead of alienating the audience from the story, actually manage to bring them further into it. This is because it makes the actors on stage seem more real and believable as people and the issues more relevant bringing about a very involved engagement with the piece.

Furthermore, there is some intense moments within the text. Moments where Helen talks of her children are pretty tough to sit through bringing home of the horrors of the story and highlighting some tough decisions that you’d never have thought Helen would have made: a stark reminder that Helen, for all the academic analysis of her part in the classic legend, was still a woman and a mother. Furthermore, there are moments where Helen turns into rabid poet, especially Last Night of the War Helen. Cohen and Clare Tasker’s writing here is at it’s most rhythmic, descriptive, and dark, especially at points where we see Helen mock the human contents of the wooden horse that has turned up on her doorstep. It’s ravishing and riveting. Throughout all of this we’re privy to some very intelligent provocations challenging our thoughts on patriarchy, beauty, and gender.

Scenes are also cleverly interspersed with sound walls of cold essays and unfeeling analysis of the story combined with impactful physical theatre from The Face, making us consider just how easy it is to callously we pore over Helen. This provides some wonderful juxtaposition and variation of pace throughout the piece.

Direction & Production

In transferring the show to the LOST Theatre for the festival, Clare Tasker and fellow director Sharon Burrell have made some bold decisions. Under the advice of festival director Colin Watkeys, they have switched the performance from having all six Helens being on stage at the same time to each coming out only when it’s their part: a slight twist on Watkeys’ own exploration of his “chorus of one” as executed in Adult Child/Dead Child earlier on in the festival. It absolutely works as we’re able to fully focus our attention on the actor and the character than potentially get distracted by Helens who wait to have or have had their turn.

Furthermore, Clare Tasker and Burrell make great use of the LOST’s space. For example, using the hidden openings in the cyclorama/building structure to add height and drama to The Face during scene changes. Elsewhere, they capitalise upon the generous stage making sure that their cast use it as giving them room and space to breath and explore. With nothing but a few props evoking a more ancient time, each actor makes use of the stage without ever seeming overwhelmed or lost in it. Clare Tasker and Burrell’s lighting, complimented by Xander Edwards sound designs, add elements of aesthetic that really lifts the piece. Specifically, the subtle but striking sunrise pouring out from the wings, accompanied by the sound of distant burning at times, is a lavish garnish that really lifts the show.

Most interestingly, the choice of cast is another very meticulous vehicle for using Helen’s plights as a means of exploring gender and beauty. Each of the cast members bring their own individual sense of physical attraction, each with a unique body type and all of which look stunning in their own skin. This makes us question our own notions of beauty, and what exactly were the parameters that made Helen so universally “beautiful” to cause such a catastrophe of mythic proportions. It’s a clever little nuance that marks the piece out as something that’s as thoughtful as it is entertaining.

Cast

It’s so difficult to pick out any particular performance, as all the cast as superb, relishing their moment as Helen on the stage and bringing their own distinct watermark of interpretation to the character. For example, Rachel Handshaw is vicious as Helen with her manipulative scheming about how she should be found by her victor, and taunts at the heroes patiently trapped inside the horse. Angela Bull, however, emobodies and wonderfully dry and snide take on Helen’s personality that’s a hoot. Yet, you get the impression that if you swapped any of the Helens into different roles, you’d get just as interesting and varied an anthology as you would in the way that it was done here. In short, each actor wholly owns their part, and they work wonders by doing so.

Verdict

Poignant, provocative, and engrossing, you’ll never look at the Iliad in quite the same way again.

[youtube http://youtu.be/L67eKQEYsc0]

The Helen Project was performed at the LOST Theatre, London, SW8 2JU as part of the Face to Face Festival of Solo Theatre, which took place 6-11 October 2014. For more information about the festival, visit www.solotheatrefestival.co.uk.

Advertisements

Face to Face Review: The Fall Of The House of Usher (Lost Theatre, London)

Jamie-West-Usher_i8a8prwpRating: ****

In a Nutshell

An ambitious reduction performed with intoxicating and engrossing theatricality.

NOTE: This piece is a work in progress.

Overview

As part of the Face to Face Festival of Solo Theatre’s evening of experimentation, musician Jamie West reduces the prog rock opera by Van De Graaff Generator front-man, Peter Hammill, with libretto by Chris Judge Smith, based on Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher, for solo performer.

The narrator is summoned to the house of Roderick Usher. Upon the apparent death of Roderick’s sister, Madeline, he convinces the narrator that she should be buried in the vaults below the house. But all is not what it seems and, days later, things start to go bump in the night in the tombs below.

Music & Libretto

Hammill’s opera is wonderfully accessible in the fact that his prog rock riffs and melodies are quick to hook. Judge Smith’s libretto also blends Poe’s Gothic prose with more natural language meaning that the high-poetry doesn’t stifle the flow of the music or seeming awkwardly inserted, but still gives the glory of Poe’s wordsmithing room to pierce through.

West has made some adjustments to the music, in trying to make it possible to perform it as a solo musician on only a single given instrument at any time. But West also admits changing some of the harmonies to make them more accessible and chime more with him personally as a performer. Whilst it might seem sacrilege to make changes to the actual operatic score beyond what is necessary, unless you’re a die-hard fan of the opera you’d never have realised it unless you already knew that this was the case. Even so, it still manages to flow and be catchy without feeling like a cheaper or changed version.

[youtube http://youtu.be/NehTc1nZPI4]

Performance

West has an astonishing voice that really lends well to the piece. His incredibly rich baritone voice is garnished effortlessly with subtle but thrilling vibrato. But whilst West’s voice is certainly divine to listen to, what makes him astonish here is his stage presence and sense of theatricality. The stage figuratively shrinks when he starts to perform, as he’s a musical story-teller of the finest pedigree. You hang on every note and blissful tremelando. He does a superb effort in bringing out the high drama and dark devices of Poe’s story and Hammill’s music.

One small criticism is that it;s sometimes difficult to get a grasp of what character’s voice is coming through at any given moment: it’s not immediately clear that it’s the narrator when spoken and Roderick when sung. Also, there’s currently the absence of Madeline from West’s reduction, with gender and vocal range being an obstacle he’s yet to tackle.

The main grumble is that, in it’s current form, the piece is far too short. Whilst you’re really starting to become utterly absorbed in the rich world West conjures, it suddenly ends, leaving you gasping for more. But hopefully as the piece continues to develop, the show will expand to be even more inviting and more satisfying than it currently is.

Verdict

Musically thrilling and astonishingly performed, this bold reduction keeps the piece well away from the grave. Dark and hypnotic, it’s a dark and dexterous show that should only get better as it develops.

[youtube http://youtu.be/OYyIoeqdZIM]

The Fall Of The House Of Usher was performed as part of the Face to Face Festival of Solo Theatre, which took place at the Lost Theatre, London, SW8 2JU, 6th– 11th October 2014. For more information about the festival, visit www.solotheatrefestival.co.uk.


Face to Face Review: Adult Child/Dead Child (Lost Theatre, London)

claire dowieRating: *****

In A Nutshell

Colin Watkey’s “chorus of one” treatment – using several actors to explore the same character – makes for an intense exploration of Claire Dowie’s acclaimed look at bad childhood and mental health.

Overview

What happens when a child when it receives a lack of love? How does it affect their mind, and their health? We watch Claire Dowie’s character grow up through a troubled family life, right through to dealing with schizophrenia as an adult. Festival founder and director Colin Watkey’s, in reviving Adult Child/Dead Child, experiments in seeing how using several actors playing the same role effects the piece.

Writing

What’s most beguiling about Dowie’s writing is not only how free and natural the central character is, using unembellished and down-to-earth anecdotes and experiences, but the simple yet incredibly effect poetry that runs throughout the entire piece. It really emphasises and brings out the emotions and certain plot points that hook you right into the character’s story and plight without any effort at all. This poetic grasp of language really adds a simple yet lavish texture and rhythm to the text that makes the piece incredibly easy to listen to and engage with, but without adding any unnecessary theatre or pretence to someone who is very definitely a human character.

It takes us on a heartbreaking and absorbing journey of a child who has been let down at every step of the way into adulthood, resulting in a life on the edge of both reason and sanity. Laced with little garnishes of humour, it’s a deep, honest, and angry look at mental health, complete with gorgeously devastating insights into the fragility of human mentality. Nothing is exaggerated or over-dramatic, which is what makes it speak so directly to an audience and makes it so affecting. It taps so effortlessly into the uncomfortable delicacy of the human condition, and how easy it is to be destructively cruel to someone.

Direction

Watkey’s direction, as well as employing his “chorus of one”, succinctly embodies his views on what solo theatre should be through his direction here. His stage expands to include the entire auditorium, embracing the view that the audience are the “other character” of any solo show. Actors rest in seats within the audience and pop up next to them, or even perform their part at the back of the stalls. It’s audience immersion at it’s most simple, bringing the play, and therefore it’s themes and issues, physically to the audience.

The treatment of having seven actors play moments of the same character adds not just a certain sense of variety, but also intrigue. We don’t get seven interpretations of a character, per se, but several different perspectives. The issues explored within the piece always stay the same throughout, but the angle and empathises of them is slightly different from performer and performer. It’s fascinating, whilst always ensuring the narrative and clarity of the piece is never muddied. This is heightened by the fact that the actors cast here constitute a wonderful cross-section of gender, age, and culture, meaning you really get kaleidoscopic points of view that are difficult not to connect on at least one level by drawing on the performers own charismas.

Additionally, the decision to use Stephen Oxley as a makeshift “narrator” during the poetic interludes between scenes adds a sense of relief and momentum, especially as Oxley adds such elegant gravitas in doing so.

[youtube http://youtu.be/1_6k_oARrC4]

Cast

It’s impossible to pick out any particular performer as being better or any more outstanding than the other. Even as exhilarating as it is to see Dowie perform part of her own work nearly 30 years after she first wrote it, she isn’t any more or less exceptional than any of the other cast.

There are moments, however, that really stick in your mind about a each performer’s contribution. To pick a few, Martin Stewart’s playful nuances not only manage to provide some light relief through characterisation rather than script, making the character even more charming and tragic. Lola Kotey is marvellously manic and just that a little bit twisted in her exploration of mental health and its labels and stereotypes. And when Deirdre Strath’s charming and eloquent American homeliness suddenly crumbles into raw distress, it just makes something inside you break.

But what’s most extraordinary about the entire cast is how they feed off the audience. You get the feeling that some of the writing could come across more light and comic at various points throughout. But as the audience ended up having a bit more of a severe reaction to the show for this particular performance, each performer works with this rather than against, responding and complimenting the atmosphere augmenting it’s effect on people to an astonishing apex.

Verdict

An excellent experiment in what solo theatre is and means that has paid dividends. Dowie’s piece is lifted to intense new highs by an inspired vision and an impeccable cast.

[youtube http://youtu.be/2xHXdeho1UE]

Adult Child/Dead Child was performed as part of the Face to Face Festival of Solo Theatre, which took place between 6-11 October 2014 at the Lost Theatre, London, SW8 2JU. For more information about the festival, visit www.solotheatrefestival.co.uk.