Review: People, Places and Things

13th October 2017, Stage Review

 

“I’m the seagull. No, that’s not it. I’m an actress” our ‘Nina’ informs the audience in a stuttering performance. She then turns away, grabs the back of the set and pulls it down. There’s a shock of light, and all goes black.

It’s a starling opening to Duncan MacMillan’s thrilling new play, People, Places and Things, which tackles addiction, drugs and deceit in a heady rush.

Since its sell-out run at the National Theatre last year, People, Places and Things has received almost universal acclaim, and has now come to the Oxford Playhouse as part of its UK tour.

Under Jeremy Herrin’s (Wolf Hall/Bring Up the Bodies) direction, the play is an almost overwhelming sensory experience; a rush of bright light and dizzying blood-pumping sound, serving to make the sensation of addiction and self-destruction vividly, unpleasantly real.

‘Nina’ (Lisa Dwyer Hogg), or Emma as she later calls herself, is a walking “human pharmacy”.

After breaking down during a performance of The Seagull, she has dragged herself literally kicking and screaming to rehab, professing her sincere wish, down the phone, to make herself well again, while also taking a line of cocaine on the reception desk.

At first, all seems to be going well for Emma. The detox seems to go ok, but the group therapy sessions where they ‘rehearse’ prove to be more of challenge.

Too cynical to buy in to the concept of collective healing, she spurns the whole system and finds herself, by the end of act one, on the edge of relapse.

Why is it that an actress should be so unwilling to engage in role play? One of the clever features of this play is the organic link it traces between acting and addiction.

Perhaps it takes an actress, someone who deals in things false, to see through the artifice of modern life, to the lack of meaning beneath.

But perhaps it is the drugs that provide her with the role she most wants to play? Herself.

Unlike many rehab or addiction dramas, People, Places and Things also has the daring to look beyond the warm, caring world of the rehab and question the value of the therapy itself.

While in the facility, the patients prepare for the inevitable confrontations they will have to face when they are released – the people they hurt, abandoned or betrayed.

It’s the most important stage in her recovery and the most exhausting.

Though Bunny Christie’s (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time) white tile set design may make the place appear sterile and decrepit, the facility offers Emma a sanctuary.

While other characters come and go, Emma remains constantly on stage, the action revolving around her.

How can an addict who deludes herself with visions of Hedda Gabler, and who wants control every encounter she has, cope with the real world?

But what will happen when the daily agony of real personalities and the pain of rejection reveal themselves anew?

The agonising reunion which inevitably plays out with her family laughs in the face of those who believe in redemption, or stories with beginnings, middles and end, the very thing lesson that Emma was taught.

It is Dwyer Hogg’s responsibility to hold the entire thing together, even at its weakest, most predictable, moments. She is raw and agile, capable of forming a character who is frustrating and yet the more pitiful because of it.

“You are a human grenade”, Emma is told. It’s true, and it is Dwyer who gives her, and the play, its explosive charge.

People Places and Things is touring until the end of November.

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Review: Raphael – The Drawings at the Ashmolean Museum

16th June 2017, Oxford Culture Review

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There is a something brooding about that face, probably the artist’s own. In The Portrait of a Youth (c. 1500-1) the application of the chalk on the paper is delicate, feathery, with only a few bold lines used to describe his face – handsome, innocent, with a slightly guarded gaze. This drawing, which greets visitors at the Ashmolean’s new exhibition, Raphael: The Drawings – reveals that already in his youth Raphael’s drawings were as sensational as his painted works.

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Portrait of a youth (self-portrait?), c. 1500–1
Black chalk on white heightening (now largely lost), 38 x 26.1 cm
© Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Even in his own lifetime, Raphael’s serene, mathematically pure compositions were studied as the model of classical perfection. He was so admired that when he died on Good Friday, at the age of 37, his death was mourned as if it were a second passion. Giorgio Vasari captured this general sentiment in The Lives of the Artists (1568): ‘As he embellished the world with his talents, so […] does his soul adorn Heaven by its presence’.

To contemporary minds, Raphael’s paintings can appear staid and remote when compared to the works of the Michelangelo and Da Vinci. The formality betrays coldness, his idealisation a want of human emotion. The Ashmolean’s exhibition aims to shatter this image of an effortless genius, and to completely transform our understanding of the artist. By bringing together 120 of Raphael’s most accomplished drawings, the display brings us into direct contact not only with the products of his hand and eye, but also those of his mind as he refines his ideas, techniques, and modes of expression.

Walking into the display, we first encounter his earliest drawings, produced as he began to establish himself in Florence. In them he shows a preference for clear, exact drawing, usually with a pen and ink. They are often quick, experimental works, roughly conveying the figure in a few scratchy lines. His drawings for The Madonna of the Meadows (c. 1505-1506) show Mary twisting her body toward the Christ-child, restraining him, while he eagerly tries to escape her grasp. The idea here is further developed in a chalk drawing, The Virgin with the Pomegranate (c. 1504). Mary gazes down despondently at a pomegranate in her right-hand, a symbol of the resurrection; the child grabs the fruit, apparently intrigued.

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Raphael, The Virgin with the Pomegranate, 1504
Black chalk with compass indetantion for the halo, 41.2 x 29.4 cm
© Albertina Museum, Vienna

Raphael’s mind appears to have been animated by contrast. The juxtaposition of understanding and innocence in his Madonnas gives way later in his career to depictions of male violence and female grace. The most striking drawings on display are the studies for The Massacre of the Innocents (c. 1509-10), a composition never realised as a painting. Here the restrained formality of Raphael’s composition serves to heighten the impact of the violence. One woman is turning away, an audible scream of despair on her face, as a man bears down upon her and her child with a sword. At the centre of it all, another woman is looking the viewers straight in the eye as she runs towards them – her mouth open, but speechless . The men are all mass and muscle, their eyes black pits, devoid of empathy as they carry out their bloody task.

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Raphael, Study for the Massacre of the Innocents, 1509–10
Pen and brown ink over red chalk and geometrical indications in stylus, selectively pricked for transfer, 23.2 x
37.7 cm
© Trustees of the British Museum

Moving through the galleries, we watch as Raphael begins to experiment with new ideas and media for drawing. The most striking development from around the period in which he moved to Rome – where he would produce his most sublime work – is in his use of chalk.  This material drew him to a less precise, though more expressive style, lending itself to a more tonal view of humanity. A belief in the fundamental goodness of humanity is recognisable in his sketches for The Fire in the Borgo (c. 1513-1514). As fire ravages the city, the people of Rome band together to save their own. In one sketch, a muscular young man carries an old one away from the flames; that dark menacing bulk used in service of charity as well as destruction.

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Raphael, A man carrying an older man on his back, 1513–14
Red chalk, 30 x 17.3 cm
© Albertina Museum, Vienna

The final gallery houses the drawings produced in the years before his untimely death, some of the most productive of his career. There is a tenderness, honesty, and passion in these images, which never quite translated into his painting. The Three Graces (c. 1517-1518) is a conceptually brilliant study of the nude from three different angles. Bending forwards to peer into the water are not figures of idealised perfection: they have a certain human sensuality about them. Raphael’s lust for life is apparent at every stroke.

The final work in the show, The Heads and Hands of Two Apostles (c. 1519-1520)balances chiaroscuro to capture every crease on the face, every muscle in the hands, ultimately to draw out the antithesis between young and old. It has been called the most beautiful drawing in the world, more beautiful than the finished painting. These are not just preparatory sketches, but fully realised works of art. Only when we see them in their own right can we recognize the artist in all his beauty and boldness.

Image 6
Raphael, The heads and hands of two apostles, 1519–20
Black chalk with over-pounced underdrawing with some white heightening, 49.9 x 36.4 cm
© Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Charlotte Taylor

 

‘Raphael: The Drawings’ runs at the Ashmolean, until 3rd September. To read more about the exhibition and to buy tickets, please visit the museum website.

Review: Which Jane Austen?

9th July 2017, Oxford Culture Review

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Almost immediately after her death in Winchester on 18 July 1817, Jane Austen’s family set about transforming the author into a fictional heroine of their own devising.
Her sister, and closest confidante, Cassandra, destroyed most of Jane’s letters — incinerating many thousands in the fire, and cutting holes into those she kept — apparently afraid of the response that they might receive. Worse yet were the publications of Henry Austen’s ‘Memoir of Miss Austen’ and The Memoir of Jane Austen(1869) by her nephew James Edward Austen Leigh; these two works firmly established the conventional image of ‘dear Aunt Jane’ as the quiet country spinster for whom ‘neither the hope of fame nor profit mixed’ with her motives for writing.

It is this elaborately laid fiction which the Weston Library’s new exhibition, ‘Which Jane Austen?’, aims to dispel once and for all. The exhibit brings together a collection of objects — leather bound books, hand-written letters, political cartoons and one fabulous silk pelisse — which work to unlock the elegance, decadence, violence and scandal of the regency age which informed the writer. Instead of the staid domestic wit, they attempt to establish a Jane who was a business-like woman, politically and socially ambitious — anything but the retiring country mouse.

Austen Leigh’s memoir forms the first exhibit on display, the point from which nearly all our understanding of Jane Austen derives. From there the show traces a clear line through the first popular reprints of the novels, featuring covers illustrated with the most lurid scenes from her novels to the irony of current day mash-ups, like Fanny Price facing down the dragon Smaug. It builds up the comforting image of ‘Austenland’, with its country balls, tea drinking and genteel English summer, only to shatter it the moment you turn around.

Here stands one of the few remaining letters of Jane’s. It is addressed to her brother, Henry; written mere days before her death, she displays good humour and expresses her very real hope of recovery. Next to it is the unfinished manuscript of Austen’s novel Sanditon, open on the final page of writing. Ironically, it was her own final illness which forced Austen to abandon the novel in which she mocked the new-found fashion for hypochondria in the seaside resorts. Together these items form the most affecting part of the exhibition: they remind you that there was a real Jane Austen after all, a woman who died painfully before her time.

Moving along the cabinets around the edge of the room there are several touching family relics likely to delight any Janeite — her petite dark oak writing desk, a book case carved for her by her brother Francis, and a recipe book from Chawton house, which she almost certainly tried to avoid ever having to use. Far more striking are the letters and early manuscripts on display. One letter, written to John Stainer Clarke (the librarian to the Prince Regent) who dared to suggest she write a historical romance on the house of Saxe-Coburg Gothe, shows an Austen who is confident about the value of her own ‘pictures of domestic Life in Country Villages’ and unwilling to compromise on her own vision.

As you progress through the displays, back into Austen’s early life and influences, Cassandra Austen’s malevolent handiwork becomes apparent. The objects selected to examine Austen as a war time writer, influenced by the adventures of her sailor brothers are particularly weak. The captions around the exhibits resort to speculative ‘what ifs, ‘perhaps’ and ‘maybes’, which somehow works to obscure what Jane Austen’s opinions and attitudes towards the war even were. Perhaps it will always be the case with authors that if you want to understand what influences an author, you are better off reading their works.

The exhibition closes where it all theoretically began. A young girl’s neat hand marks ‘Volume the First’ on a collection of short stories, mini-plays and verses, written between the ages of twelve and eighteen. The notebook in which it is written was made by her especially for her writing. It is in these personal objects that bear her voice that the Weston Library gets it right. It is only her letters and the evidence of her careful produced early notebooks which produce the fleeting glimpse we get of Jane Austen in this exhibition — the rest is mere noise.

Charlotte Taylor

‘Which Jane Austen?’ runs at the Weston Library until 29th October. Free admission. To read more about the exhibition, please visit the library website.

Book Review: The Paradise Ghetto

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Published in Dec/Jan Buzz Magazine, page 50

Fergus O’Connell (Accent Press)

There is an argument that art is nothing more than delusion, and perhaps history repays this notion. At Theresienstadt, the ghetto established for ‘privileged’ Jews during the second world war – where Fergus O’Connell sets The Paradise Ghetto – a rich cultural life flourished; there were lectures series, recitals and even schooling. O’Connell’s narrative tells the tale of the intense relationship which forms between two Dutch inmates in Theresienstadt, Julia and Suzanne, as well as that of the book they write. The novel becomes an escape, and perhaps a saviour, as they become the war will end once the novel is complete. The story within a story construct is not original, and sometimes the novel is rather clunky, yet O’Connell manages to keep your attention engaged in both narratives. More importantly, he leaves you asking an interesting question: is fiction a futile, even damaging, delusion?

Price: £8.99, Info: https://www.accentpress.co.uk/

Image: OuadiO/Flickr (All Creative Commons)

Theatre Review: Spine

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29th November 2016, Buzz Magazine Reviews

Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff 18th Nov

‘Libraries are the cornerstone my gel! Course they want to shut ‘em, there’s nothing for sale!’ This one line sums up the damning political diatribe at the core of Clara Brennan’s award winning Spine, against the priorities of a government which has lost all sight of the public it supposedly represents. As councils continue to cut funding for libraries, Spine crystallises the indignant, justified anger of many in society against a politics which sees knowledge as only an asset up for sale, and in so doing relegates the many to become ‘life’s losers’.

One of life’s losers is teenager Amy, the ranting, raging and reluctant hero of the piece. After a series of fuck-ups, she seems destined to become one of life’s precariat: her best friend has become a fiend, she’s flunked her A-levels, lost her apprenticeship, started stealing with her boyfriend and now, on top of all that, she’s been kicked out by her ‘people’.

All this leads her to where she speaks to us now, standing in the darkened parlour of Glenda’s house, apparently in front of the silhouettes of generic household clutter. The Glenda she recalls – ‘a shrunken little biddy with shocking died red hair’- is anything but your cosy grandmother type. In fact, she’s turns out to be just as light fingered as Amy.

At this point the studio lights blaze, and reveal all that clutter to be crate upon crate of books. ‘I nicked ‘em’, Amy retells with relish, as it emerges that the books taken by her every time the council shut down yet another library. ’We’re keeping ‘em stored until such a time when they are safe again.

Glenda is looking for a political legacy, and in Amy she finds her opportunity. She’s gets her reading – Latin, a book on pondlife, anything. She wants to harness her rage, to give her a voice, and above all, a spine. ‘You kids wanna be angry than you are; No one to vote for? DIY it, my gel!’

Brennan has frequently been accused of promoting a brand of agitprop theatre, one which parades an affecting brand of politics but offers nothing of any substance. Spine seems to offer a rebuttal to that criticism; instead, agitation is the key to politicisation. Without anger we lose our drive. Without stories, we lack the understanding necessary to empathise with others. No wonder the council would rather burn the books in the night.

It’s a polemic, and a thinly plotted one at that, and it hangs completely on the central performance of Rosie Wyatt as Amy. There is a fine line between monologue and rant, and one which Wyatt steers with a performance that is sensitive to every one of Amy’s jagged edges, her bluster and belligerence, as well as every ounce of humour and vulnerability. It’s a performance which validates all the play’s material, and has you leaving the theatre game for a fight.

Image: Stewart Butterfield/Flickr (free creative commons)

Book Review: Trysting – Emmanuelle Pagano (And Other Stories)

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Printed in Buzz Magazine 27 Nov 2016, page 50.

Emmanuelle Pagano’s award winning Trysting is a strange sort of novel. There’s no plot, no characters, and even the fact it is fiction is easily forgotten. More than anything it resembles scattered confessions which Pagano has simply collected and delicately placed on the page. But in fact, she has actually crafted the voices of her lovers in short, anonymous fragments, and it is they who detail the many varied and often strange forms that love takes.

In Trysting, Pagano insists on brevity. Of the over 100 fragments, some are as long as two pages, while others are epigrammatic. Love is made up of small moments, and detailing these minute instances Pagano manages to illustrate love in a way that no academic treatise could ever do. Whether it’s the lover thinking about the ‘line of hair’ between his partner’s pubic and naval, or another tasked with clearing out the rubbish left behind the house after her husband has gone, each vignette seems to reveals some deep emotional truth, even when what it has said is not quite clear. Trysting may be constrained by its form, but it does repay its subject.

Delicate and sensitive, the work rebounds with incisive observations that are uncannily accurate (‘Life with him is so easy and sweet and joyful. I have a feeling he’s cheating’). Pagano is a compassionate recorder of the everyday expression of love, but above all objective. This is no simply celebration of love: the animalistic nature of love is all there, as is the disappointment that is inevitable when we fall in love, watch it stagnate and then collapse, without a trace of ever existing.

Whether what will survive of us is love, Trysting illuminates what that love could be: exquisite agony.

Price: £8.99. Info: http://www.andotherstories.org

Image: The Girl in the Mirror/Flickr (free creative commons)

Edinburgh Fringe 2014 Review: Occupied

Image: Alixroth/Flickr

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31 August 2014, ThreeWeeks Edinburgh Review

From issues of patriarchy to the moral difficulties of hummus, ‘Occupied’ portrays the world of student protest in its overbearing earnestness. When a production of ‘The Producers’ is threatening the Fringe, a group of protestors occupy the theatre to stop this (probably) offensive production taking place. The stock protesters are all there: the anarchist, the Marxist; and the long skirted one who sings songs about the Scottish referendum (a song about Alex Salmond to ‘The Real Slim Shady’ was a particular audience favourite). The play could be seen as a cynical view of protest, but a sense of the difficulty that faces this group does come through in this engaging, funny and farcical production which is ultimately good-natured.

Edinburgh Fringe 2014 Review: Every Brilliant Thing

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31 August 2014, ThreeWeeks Edinburgh Review

The play begins with the death of a dog and revolves around the suicide attempts of the central character’s mother. Cheery stuff. Jonny Donahue takes us through his story, and a list detailing reasons to carry on living, coming up with those brilliant things of the title with the aid of some audience members who help him act out some key moments. The interaction is used to good effect: we empathise more with this already likeable character having travelled with him through his history. Yet, for all it provides an insight into coping with suicide and love, it still feels very much a fiction, and this somehow makes the piece seem somewhat false.

Image: Alixroth/Flickr

Edinburgh Fringe 2014 Review: Robert Newman

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31 August 2014, ThreeWeeks Edinburgh Review

Surely only at the Fringe could you find a stand-up show about theories of evolution? I was given flashbacks to university lectures by Rob Newman’s discussion of the concept of survival of the fittest, and his description of how a series of mishaps and missteps led him to propose the ‘misfit theory’, his own new theory of evolution. The show is replete with descriptions of bizarre animal behaviours and intellectual insults to Richard Dawkins, alongside a well planned series of jokes; yet often the balance is not quite right, the stand-up feeling lost in sea of scientific jargon, while musical numbers add little. Ultimately the show is too much like a documentary for its own good.

Image: Alixroth/Flickr

Edinburgh Fringe 2014 Review: Dane Baptiste

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31 August 2014, ThreeWeeks Edinburgh Review

At first Dane Baptiste’s Edinburgh debut seems pretty pedestrian, as the material in ‘Citizen Dane’ is not-unfamiliar fare: using his experience as the son of immigrant parents, he entertains the audience with a stream of jokes about strict parenting, his family and gangsta culture. Yet Baptiste delivers his occasionally provocative material with such understated dryness that it seemed wholly innovative. His jokes kept the audience in almost constant hysterics but his best material came from some fantastically wry observations about the good luck of children from broken homes and how gangstas are scared of wasps. With this show, Baptiste promises to be a performer to watch and watch out for at the Fringe.

Image: Alixroth/Flickr

Edinburgh Fringe 2014: Stuck

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31 August 2014, ThreeWeeks Edinburgh Review

The RH experience are not the pioneers of tomfoolery: they are the masters. In this blatantly silly show, the group follow the well-honed formula for improv to perfection. They get the ball rolling by asking the audience for a word and then proceed to get three characters ‘stuck’ in a situation with no apparent escape. As audience are incapacitated through near lethal levels of laughter the troupe run, spring, jump and sing themselves through a dizzying series of characters and sketches. The show never ceases to win you over with its sheer charm, as its goofy characters and set-ups ensure that this is laugh a minute stuff, to the point of making you feel quite ill. But in a good way!

Image: Alixroth/Flickr

Edinburgh Fringe 2014 Review: Thunderbards

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31 August 2014, ThreeWeeks Edinburgh Review

Fresh from the success of their last Edinburgh show, Thunderbards return to the Fringe in their new offering, ‘Seconds’. In this not-quite-a-sketch-show the duo – Glenn Moore and Matt Stevens – are pursuing “their real interest”: time travel, which they mainly use to (unsuccessfully) pick up dating and career tips from their ancestors. The laughs come constantly in this sublimely silly hour. Moore and Stevens have a penchant for off-the-cuff one liners and physical comedy, and appear to enjoy combining the mundane with the surreal. The highlights of the show are undoubtedly the sketches, in particular the one involving an overzealous librarian. Their charm and self-deprecation make this pair endlessly watchable and ‘Seconds’ a ludicrous joy.

Image: Alixroth/Flickr