Posts Tagged ‘Northern Stage’

Mini-review – The Red Chair – Clod Ensemble at Canada Water Cultural Space

March 15, 2015

The first thing you need to know is how to get to Canada Water Cultural Space, and, as it was a new venue for me, I’m going to share this information (assuming you won’t know) with you: take the exit from the station that says it’s for the shopping center, and turn immediately LEFT and walk in the library. It’s very easy to get distracted by the beautiful lake stretching into the distance (for so it seemed at night) and the lovely path leading away from the station, but don’t go that way, certainly not if you’re in search of something to eat: the shops shut at seven and you’ll be thrust back into the night even further from your destination. Fortunately, the Canada Water Cultural Center has a little coffee shop (tea, coffee, cakes, wine) and is a very nice place to wait for a show. I also found out about a bunch of exciting events they’re running in conjunction with an event called Cityreads, which are centered around a book I love, Rivers of London.

But on to the show. I glanced really quickly at the description of The Red Chair, and somehow interpreted that the show was about eating disorders and set in Scotland. But really, it’s a modern day fairy tale told in grand prose style, the words a mix of the richest skimmings of the English language rolled in a crunchy Scots dialect, enough for you to taste the Highlands in every slice. (I found the text soaring right by me at times, which was frustrating, but I love language, and in these situations you learn and you roll with it and now and then you hear a new word and decide you actually know what it means and you like it better than any extant replacement.) It’s told by one woman, Sarah Cameron (the author), and I was so surprised when I realized I’d basically signed up for a story telling night by the virtual fire that I didn’t know what to think or feel for quite some time. I mean, really, it was like being locked in the car of a total stranger and suddenly finding you’d been taken on a roadtrip with only the contents of your purse to get by for a week. Where were we going? Did we get to have pitstops? And … what was that strange noise coming from the engine?

As it settled in, it began to feel more like “Jabberwocky” meets James’ Joyces’ Ulysses, only with Robert Burns taking the wheel. I surrendered to the logic of fairy tales – for that is what “The Red Chair” is, a world where no one ever has to go to the toilet – and let the words continue washing over me. A long list of comestibles passed by like a string of Baroque churches on the Las Vegas strip; a sudden spotlight gave me a chance to meet a third character: still, I had no idea where we were going.

Then, out of nowhere, an outrageous fourth pseudo-character emerged, rather like the unexpected appearance of the Mormon Tabernacle in the otherwise flat streets of Salt Lake City. What in the hell was going on? And why were we being handed, of all things, utterly perfect madeleines? Was there some kind of secret Proustian undertones to it all that I had completely missed? And WHAT ABOUT THE DATES? (I didn’t have any questions about the whiskey we were served later. It was just obviously right at that moment.)

In the end, I felt like I had undergone a sort of transformation along with the speaker (and the characters): we had taken a long journey and all of us had ended up in a different place and with a different view on life (and death). Cameron managed to keep the momentum going well both in her story and its telling, no mean feat for a two hour, one person show. If I were to change anything about it, I’d probably ask for more food more regularly: something about a long drive just makes me hungry. And I desperately wanted to get out of my chair, we’ll say “to stretch my legs,” for reasons I’ll let you imagine but which had everything to do with the text and nothing to do with the elusive mid-show rest break. Recommended for fans of fairy-tales and language play alike, this show was what every dark panto wishes was at its heart.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Wednesday, March 11, 2015. It is done at this venue but continues at Lakeside Theatre, Colchester, the Turner Contemporary in Margate, and the Brighton Fringe among other places.)

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Review – Oscar Wilde’s “Salome” – Richmond Theatre (then Hampstead)

June 4, 2010

Headlong and Curve Theater have created a retelling of Oscar Wilde’s Salome that seems oh-so-very au courant and came to the Richmond Theatre for a four-day visit at the end of May, 2010, with the promise of more touring and an extended stay at the Hampstead Theatre (June 22-July 17th). Thanks to membership in the Twespians theater club, I had an offer not just for free tickets (unsure if they needed to paper the house or promote the show) but also for free wine before the show. Well, Richmond is quite out of my normal stomping grounds, but I’ve wanted to see this piece of Oscar Wilde’s performed for ages, as I am a fan of Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations and I enjoyed the rather painfully over the top Alla Nazimova silent film version last year. And there was the free wine. How better to get into the spirit of this incarnation of fin-de-siecle decadence than liquored to the gills, unless perhaps I was to watch it dressed in velvet and draped in pearls?

Thank God I’d left my velvet and pearls behind, for this show was as far from any exhilarating tribute to excess as it were possible to imagine – while wholly needing the lubrication of several stiff drinks. We are given the court of Herod, in which the inhabitants supposedly have every luxury – but it is presented as a sort of Iraqi oil dump, with camo-fatigued soldiers looking rough and patrolling around with an excess of energy. The set, a black square covered in ground up tire rubber, with a few pools of black liquid on the edges and towering metal structures behind, certainly created a very modern atmosphere, but I found it completely contrary to anything implied in the text and, to be honest, all rather a bit too in love with itself. Yes, the play can be seen as some sort of rant against the powers of privilege, a screed against corruption, but in this setting, in which all poetry has been stripped away, Wilde’s words had a difficult battle to fight.

For characters and plot, we have a soldier (Sam Donovan) who has an unhealthy attraction to teen beauty Salome (Zawe Ashton), the step-daughter of Herod (Con O’Neill). Herod, meanwhile, has developed his own unhealthy attraction to Salome, which is making her mother, Herodias (Jaye Griffiths) understandably uncomfortable. Salome, utterly stuck on herself, develops her own crush: on John the Baptist (Iokanaan, played by Seun Shote), who is Herod’s prisoner. The source of her attraction is somewhat obvious: he’s the only man who is not obsessed with Salome; in fact, he repudiates her rudely (and yet poetically). And with his ramblings about whores and punishment and saviors, well, he’s just a little bit on the nutso and possibly dangerous side: perfect for a girl who’s been living perfectly sheltered in a hotbed of intrigue. Love the man her powerful “daddy” is afraid of? Perfect!

Wilde’s job is to make this story, to which we all know the ending, intriguing. Iokanaan must seem powerful and intelligent, yet manage to exert attraction even though he’s been living in a cell below the ground; Herod must seem both despotic and weak, lustful and yet frightened, so that he can hold out against Salome’s demands. In some ways, it’s like a Greek play in which we all know the plot and the playwright’s job is to ratchet up the tension without making it descend into farce. The focus on Salome and her power over others is probably the most difficult dramatic hurdle; Wilde attacks this by building up Salome’s attractiveness with lush descriptions (most of which come from the soldiers and are a delight to the ears) but also by showing every character being impacted by her. I bought into this in a way I never had with a film or the opera; Wilde’s words and setting made me see the captivation she creates be due to her being a free spirit – but also because she is a pearl in a cesspit of corruption, pure if only for seeking nothing but her own pleasure. With Iokanaan close to a force of nature, and Herod a man both oozing with power and yet afraid of his own shadow, the stage is well set for the inevitable.

In her horrid gold jumpsuit, Zawe Ashton seems unlikely to convince as this creature “with feet like doves,” but I believed in her performance as an utterly self-centered teen with no concept of consequences, only caring for instant gratification, the sun around which lesser celestial bodies fade into insignificance. She even handled the “dance of Salome” well – she seemed very much the modern, celebrity-obsessed girl, but with a bizarre belief in the value of exposing bits of her body to people in order to get them to do what she wanted. I actually found it hard to buy that anyone could go against the order of a direct boss in exchange for a view of nubile torso – but in the cooked up atmosphere of soldiers on duty in the desert, it kind of made sense.

Overall, though, I found this production depressing and as unsexy as can be. I wasn’t revolted by Salome making out with a bleeding, decapitated head; I was revolted by the ugliness of the show. Wilde has Herod talking of beautiful white peacocks with gilded beaks, of a pearl necklace that is like moons chained in threads of silver, and all of these beautiful words, every word of praise for Salome herself, has the life sucked out of it by the bleak set and the drab costumes. We hear them speak of luxury but see nothing but privation. Is our world not already coated in filth, that we should need to see Herodias stepping in a puddle of scum on stage?

In a week in which I saw three shows, this was perhaps the best; but only because it provided a singular chance to hear the worlds of Oscar Wilde spoken on stage (and the others were the abyssmal Ingredient X and bad-unto-farce Paradise Lost). A live production of Salome this was but it’s hard to say that this show brought Wilde’s words to life as this production did everything it could to ground their power and beauty into the ground like a cigarette butt. I suspect Jamie Lloyd is pleased with how he “updated” it and made it relevant to modern audiences, but to me the production reeked of trendiness and a lack of faith in the script. Given that this show is running through a lovely summer, I can only advise you to take a lovely picnic and a few friends and read it to each other outside, in a field of flowers, where you can laugh and laze and enjoy yourself. Be sure to bring some cold white wine, and when you think about how fleeting life’s pleasures are, raise a glass to Salome and to poor Oscar, then be grateful you’re not inside watching this horrible show.

(This review is for a performance that took place at Richmond Theater on Tuesday, May 25th, 2010. Salome will continue to tour through the end of June, hitting the Oxford Playhouse, the Northern Stage, and Theater Royal Brighton before settling down for a run at the Hampstead. Don’t say you weren’t warned. For other opinions, please see There Ought to be Clowns and of course the compendium at UpTheWestEnd.com, which should grow as the majors review this play.)