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REVIEW OF ‘BREAD’: CLOCK TOWER THEATRE COMPANY, AJ’S COFFEE HOUSE 9TH TO 11TH NOVEMBER 2017

November 10, 2017

DARREN FREEBURY-JONES

Bread-Poster

Clock Tower Theatre Company began in 2013, conceived by executive producer Steve Bennett and associate artist Minty Booth. They have been running the theatre company for eighteen months, achieving their aim of giving creatives a platform to perform for Cardiff audiences. Their latest venture, a short play written by James Sarson and directed by Miriam Dorfner, ‘Bread’, was thoroughly enjoyable.

‘Bread’ was rendered enjoyable by a concoction of ideal ingredients: good writing, good direction and good casting. The play concerns two women awaiting the apocalypse, their supplies diminishing as they muse on how the end will come: a big bang, hellfire, sudden blackness? The stage was cluttered with cardboard boxes, a table laden with cans of beans and peaches, wine glasses and a bucket concealing a dead rat (which enabled Woman One to soliloquise while retaining a sense of realism). It was a claustrophobic set, exacerbated by the fact that audience members were huddled into the cramped coffee house. I myself had possibly the worst seat in the house, pressed against the wall, a potted plant tickling sweet nothings in my left ear. But this helped create the perfect ambience: a small room (possibly a kitchen or living room), two lonely survivors with no-one but each other for company, the audience essentially voyeurs. Sarson’s script was replete with plenty of humour, but he was also adept at emotive language, a passage concerning reminiscences of a kiss under an umbrella rich with sensory description, but avoiding a lapse into purple prose.

The lead actors were excellent. Faebian Averies gave a very naturalistic, understated performance, while Seren Vickers played an edgier character, displaying considerable emotional range. Also, their chemistry on stage was tangible, and there were times when I couldn’t tell if their dialogue was scripted or extemporised, so engaging and believable was their repartee.

The two related memories, which they had been stockpiling in case they ran out of conversation. Some of these memories were fond, such as the moment in which Averies’s character recalled her mother making bread. However, the two characters realised that their memories were often rose-tinted, even artificial; the bread wasn’t handmade. Dialogue concerning supermarket stalls demonstrated how much we take for granted, including such luxuries as fruit and (tubes of) yoghurt. The audience nervously awaited the apocalypse. No idea why the end of the world was approaching. We learned that the sky now resembled rust, that people had to wear gas masks outside, that tigers had become extinct. Sarson refused to satiate our desire for epistemophilia, which created an air of mystery that allowed us to focus primarily on his well-drawn characters, rather than an overarching apocalyptic narrative. The play concluded with a harrowing speech, an ordeal Averies’s character had recently gone through, the way her primal urges had taken over. The audience were silent, completely engaged by Averies’s delivery and Vickers’s reactions. And then, the characters reverted to the humour with which they had begun the play. Life is too short, after all.

The clock was counting down for these two characters but, judging by the talent on display here, Clock Tower Theatre Company have a bright future ahead of them.

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“That excellent grand tyrant”: A Review of Richard III, Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Thursday 19 October–Saturday 28 October

October 22, 2017

DARREN FREEBURY-JONES

richard-iii-web-fin RWCMD

Richard III is an early Shakespeare play, probably written just a couple of years into his career as an actor-dramatist, in which Shakespeare provides a perfect infusion of dramatic elements borrowed and refined from contemporaries such as Thomas Kyd, Christopher Marlowe, and George Peele. In these times of political and economic ambiguity, in which monsters seem to have gained power through uncertain means, it is apt that Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama should put on a production concerning a warped Machiavellian villain, whose theatrical predecessors include Kyd’s Lorenzo and Marlowe’s Barabas.

As is characteristic of many Richard III productions, this version began with the end scenes from Henry VI Part Three, in which King Henry VI (Lewis Cope) is executed by Richard (Sam John). The production started with a bang, quite literally, as Richard put a bullet in the incarcerated king. Richard III is a notoriously long play, but this version was edited appropriately, and the breakneck speed of the scene transitions was dazzling. Richard was swiftly plotting against anyone who stood in the way of his procuration of the crown, all at once disturbing audience members with his bloody complots, while, paradoxically, recruiting them for his cause through wry humour. Richard is a wonderful role that most actors would surely relish (I know I would!), and I must take my hat off to Sam John. His Richard was believable, naturalistic, the grand iambic speeches resembling covert conversations behind closed political doors. Richard is very much a metatheatrical figure, and thus it was difficult to begrudge John the odd theatrical wink, such as when he began reciting Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be’ speech, or introduced the odd expletive and interpolation, such as, ‘huggy times’. As any good Richard should, John had the audience in his pocket, formulating evil plans with a clenched gloved hand, transitioning from a black leg brace to a golden one, manipulating us and the characters with whom he shared the stage.

Before long, he was organising the murder of his brother Clarence (played by the mellifluous Justin Davies), in a scene that, it seems to me, is heavily dependent on Scene Nineteen of Thomas Kyd’s The True Chronicle History of King Leir (one of Shakespeare’s most important sources), as the murderers vacillated over the killing before throttling Clarence to death. Thomas Dylan gave a very assured performance as the ruffian Murderer 1 and Tyrrell, and director Joe Murphy made the admirable decision of ensuring he had as much stage time as possible. With King Edward (Javen K. Crosby) and his sons out of the way, the bunch-backed villain (a historically inaccurate portrayal of Richard’s character, largely derived from Holinshed) was mounting a campaign to be regarded as true heir to the throne. This production injected plenty of humour into Shakespeare’s play, including black comedy, as Richard’s faction tossed a decapitated head about like a rugby ball, and modern humour, such as Tyrrell’s allusion to the Harry Potter franchise. The scene in which Richard pretended to be holy and virtuous in the presence of the Mayor (Lewis Coster) and Archbishop (Davies) was ridiculous, its ridiculousness exacerbated by the use of a fake beard, but we are accustomed to the absurd in modern politics: take Melania Trump’s Republican National Convention speech for instance, or the battle for worst hairdo between President Trump and his North Korean counterpart. Such scenes demonstrated how fickle the public can be in times of uncertainty, how easily manipulated.

Tyrants must fall. Richard’s abuse of power soon became apparent, as Buckingham (played by the excellent Franchi Webb) could testify. Richard was readying himself for battle, but not before a powerful confrontation with ex-Queen Elizabeth. Shakespeare’s rapid-fire stichomythic dialogue (another device he seems to have largely adopted from Kyd) can seem strange to modern ears, but the scene between John and Roxy Swart was electric. Similarly, Shakespeare’s rhetorical flourishes in the Senecan Chorus-like lamentations of the three women, Elizabeth, the Duchess of York (Foxey Hardman), and Margaret (Luciana Trapman) can seem archaic to modern audiences, but the scene, which emphasises the fulfilment of Margaret’s prophecies, was played with alacrity and ease.

Time was running out for Richard. This was emphasised by the noise of a ticking clock (indeed, the Sound Designer, Euan Foster, deserves a pat on the back for the choice of ominous music and sound throughout the production). Richard was isolated, acknowledging that he was a villain (‘with tears in his eyes, distraction in his aspect’; John peaked with his superb delivery of this speech), haunted by all of his victims. Having Richard alone throughout the Battle of Bosworth, accompanied by a cacophony of voices, was a wise directorial decision that highlighted his isolation.

The king was dead. Long live the new king (Richmond, played by Cope; this use of doubling gave the play a truly cyclical feel). The actors bowed to rapturous applause, and I braved Storm Brian back to my car, delighted with what was a truly special performance. An audience member’s voice cut through the tempestuous gusts: ‘The set was excellent!’ Hannah Page’s set really was excellent, enabling the actors to operate on many levels, allowing the audience to see battlefields and streets and palaces and dungeons in our minds’ eyes, and all this was helped by Samuel Child-Cavill’s commendable use of lighting, from the appearance of a giant red rose before the actors graced the stage, which resembled a bloody thumbprint (England was very much under the tyrant’s thumb), to the hazy, spectral figures of Richard’s victims near the end of the production. It is a pity that our own political landscape should house such tyrants.

Anyone interested in Shakespeare, or political intrigue; anyone who is a fan of great theatre, of action, of black comedy; anyone who seeks to find future stars in the constellations of the film and theatre business, should go and see this wonderful production.

 

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Shakespeare’s Richard III: @RWCMD Cardiff

September 25, 2017

The Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama consistently provide thought-provoking and engaging stagings of Shakespeare’s plays – well worth going to check this out:

Thursday 19 October – Saturday 28 October 7.15pm
Matinee Wednesday 25 October 2.30pm
No performances Sun & Mon
BSL interpreted performance on Saturday 28 October. Interpreted by Julie Doyle.

by William Shakespeare
Directed by Joe Murphy

My conscience hath a thousand several tongues,
And every tongue brings in a several tale,
And every tale condemns me for a villain. 

Named the most fascinating historical figure in a poll last year of British historians and the public, Richard III continues to provoke debate. Shakespeare’s brutal play portrays him as a ruthless, power hungry villain, who will stop at nothing to gain the throne occupied by his brother.

Venue: Richard Burton Theatre

Tickets: £13, £11 concessions, Under 25s £6

Find out more

 

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‘Do Not Go Gentle’: Everyman Theatre and The Drill Hall. Friday 8th September at Chapter Arts Centre.

September 16, 2017

DARREN FREEBURY-JONES

 

Australian playwright Patricia Cornelius’s award-winning ‘Do Not Go Gentle’ depicts five elderly people nearing the end of the journey that is their lives. The characters embody different aspects of Dylan Thomas’s famous villanelle, from which the play’s title derives: wise men, good men, wild men, and grave men. Moreover, the characters’ journey, which takes place in a nursing home, interweaves original dialogue with Robert Scott’s diary accounts of his ill-fated Antarctic expedition. Each role is rich in characterisation, and Cornelius gives us an insight into pasts that they can only vaguely recall, such as problematic marriages, loving husbands no longer recognised by their wives, and the devastating effects of post-traumatic stress disorder induced by the Vietnam War, whilst simultaneously exploring the effects of dementia and the politics of care. The script is heart-warming, shocking, thought-provoking, and hilarious, seemingly discordant ingredients that result in a very fine play, if cast and directed right.

Fortunately, this production was indeed very well cast and directed. Ray Thomas and his actors and crew have embarked on one of the most ambitious undertakings in Everyman Theatre Company’s rich history, involving members from Wales and Australia. The joint cast – Cate Feldmann, Susan Gallagher, Owen Trevor-Jones, Max Donati, and Greg Aitken from The Drill Hall in Mullumbimby, and Geraint Dixon, Rosy Greenwood, Peter Harding-Roberts, and Arnold Phillips, from Everyman, Cardiff – worked perfectly, with not a weak link to be found. The on-stage relationships between them were eminently believable, and the actors tickled funny bones and pulled at heartstrings in almost equal measure.

Geraint Dixon played Scott, who narrated the expedition throughout with dulcet Welsh tones, while offering audience members the odd glimpse of a man behind the historical figure, nearing his end and lamenting his failures. Peter Harding-Roberts was hilarious as the bombastic Evans, very much representing a wild man who, for much of the play, raged against the dying light, which made his ending all the more poignant. Rosy Greenwood played the occasionally scandalous role of Wilson; she was engaging and warm throughout, and stole hearts with ease. Cate Feldman’s performance as Bowers was particularly touching, for she refused to acknowledge that she had lost her way and could no longer recognise her husband, played by Arnold Phillips, who also gave a beautifully understated performance. No less poignant were the interpretations of Owen Trevor-Jones as Oates and Max Donati as his son, Peter, victims of war and suicide. The confrontation between these two was especially effective.

Moreover, director Thomas and professional designer Ruth Stringer made great use of the depth and breadth of the Chapter Arts Centre stage, with white drapes, resembling all at once bedclothes, icy crevices, and the Terra Nova sails, helping to convey at various points a hostile landscape and a laundry room. Additionally, the judicious use of lighting, primarily white, with hints of blue, reflected both the metaphorical Antarctic expedition and the nursing home interior. The stage also resembled a raised ice-field platform, with suggestions of white tiled flooring and other features added to it, such as ski tracks. The actors remained in character throughout proceedings, often sitting stage right, drinking cups of tea, or preparing for the next leg of their journey.

The play’s conclusion felt tragic in many respects, as Wilson’s husband (played by Greg Aitken) turned up and we realised that the relationship between her and Scott was not as it seemed. With only Scott left on stage, he was given a choice of walking into a palely shining light and exiting stage left, or raging against that dying light. Needless to say, he exited stage right, and thus concluded a wonderful piece of ambitious theatre. The production’s Cardiff journey is now over, but it will resume at the Memo Arts Centre, Barry, on 16th September, and The Savoy, Tonyrefail, 29th September.

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‘Nature’s Fragile Vessel’: Journal article by @DrJ_Gregory

August 4, 2017

My journal article on ‘”Nature’s Fragile Vessel”: Rethinking approaches to material culture in literature’ has been published this week ‘Online First’ and will be in the next issue of Cahiers Élisabéthains: A Journal of English Renaissance Studies.

Abstract

The notion of fragility is a pervasive one in Western culture. Considering its appearance in early modern texts can help us to understand the history of fragility, as an idea, metaphor and feeling. The relationship between humans and breakable things is used as a metaphor that recognizes human limitations in body or mind. This essay begins with one peculiar instance of fragility from Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens before analysing other examples in early modern culture. It ends by making a few tentative propositions regarding the relationships between literature, material culture and the representations of human fragility.

Read the article (open access)

As well as reading the one instance in Shakespeare’s work where the word ‘fragile’ is used, the essay considers other early modern writing and paintings. I’m especially interested in the way that people are described in literature as being fragile like an object, whether that object is a ship at sea, or a fragile vase on the edge of a table.

The essay is partly me working out my next steps in this area for a larger project, as well as being an attempt to negotiate the scholarly field as it relates to material culture and object-studies, the idea of the human, and the (now, not so recent) turn to the study of literature and the emotions. It seems to me that these three areas are highly contested and fraught with different priorities, perspectives, and concerns; but these three interdisciplinary research foci still have huge potential in terms of developing new research methodologies, research impact (outside of academia), and, of course, thinking about our engagement with literature.

I’d welcome any comments. My contact details are on my profile page.

Four Ages of Man (national gallery)

The Four Ages of Man (Valentin de Boulogne)

Join the Cardiff Shakespeare Facebook group.

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Early Modern English Domestic Tragedy, Special Issue of Early Modern Literary Studies

August 2, 2017

Exciting journal special issue call for papers

Early English Drama & Performance

Early Modern English Domestic Tragedy, A special issue of Early Modern Literary Studies
Deadline for submissions: September 1, 2017
Contact:L.M.Hopkins@shu.ac.uk

Essays of c. 7000 words are invited for a special issue of Early Modern Literary Studieson domestic tragedy.  Possible topics might include individual plays (e.g. Arden of FavershamA Warning for Fair WomenThe English TravellerA Woman Killed with KindnessThe Miseries of Enforced MarriageTwo Lamentable Tragedies); lost domestic tragedies (e.g. Keep the Widow Waking); the genre as a whole; domestic tragedy and print culture; domestic tragedy and material culture –(props, clothing, trade and domestic objects); editing or teaching domestic tragedies; domestic tragedy in performance; domestic tragedy and tragic subjectivity; domestic tragedy and power, gender, and/or local and national identities;  and the relationship between domestic tragedy and classical conceptions of tragedy (does Othello, for instance, have a claim…

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‘Good things of day’: A Review of Everyman Theatre’s Macbeth 20th–29th July 2017.

July 22, 2017

DARREN FREEBURY-JONES

 

Macbeth is a mystery. Despite being one of Shakespeare’s most revered tragedies, the sole extant text found in the 1623 Folio appears to derive from a performance version that heavily cuts Shakespeare’s lost manuscript and incorporates stage cues for songs from Thomas Middleton’s The Witch, who may or may not have been the reviser of the play. The conjectured cuts (perhaps as much as a quarter of Shakespeare’s original) and perceived lacunae lend the play considerable interpretative flexibility in terms of both criticism and performance. Such flexibility is apt for a play that revolves around the eponymous character’s interpretation of a tenebrous prophecy. One question we might ask ourselves, for instance, is how many children do the Macbeths have, and where are they now?

This unanswerable question was touched upon in the opening of Everyman Theatre’s production of Macbeth, when the three witches clutched dolls in their hands, although the use of props could equally be regarded as alluding to the play’s obsession with infanticide. The witches dashed these dolls’ brains in during the play’s opening, which anticipated Macbeth’s (played by Steve Smith) gruesome execution at the hands of Macduff (David O’rourke) a couple of hours later. The witches, from the play’s opening to this production’s cyclical ending, were stunning. Sexy and yet terrifying. Childishly mischievous and yet terribly destructive. The audience were mesmerised by the performances of Lorna Prichard, Victoria Walters and Rebecca Baines, who were far steeped in spellbinding characterisation. One must commend the movement work of Emma-Jayne Parker. The moment in which Macbeth visits the sisters was perhaps the highlight of the play, with the supernatural potency of a scene from the great horror flick, The Exorcist, emphasised by some neat lighting and auditory tricks. These witches were present throughout the performance, casting evil eyes over unfolding events and helping with scene transitions (their method of resurrecting corpses was entrancing and, in terms of exits, very useful!). From a scholarly perspective, I was delighted that director Simon H. West retained the Hecate scenes, which are almost always cut, and which add little to the plot, while seeming metrically anomalous in terms of their incorporation of rhyming trochaic octosyllabics. The scene totally worked: it satiated the audience’s desire for as much Weyard Sister action as possible, while showcasing the talents of Sarah Green as the ominous deity; Green also provided the most entertaining interpretation of Lady Macduff I have seen in performance.

Indeed, the supporting cast were all excellent, from Shaun Bryan as the darkly humorous Seyton (a role I once played myself for Everyman), as well as the Porter; to Elin Haf Edwards as Lennox; to Helen Randall, who made an easy transition from the heartwarming Juliet of last year’s Shakespeare production to steely Ross here. As a whole, the leading actors were also solid. James Pritchard made for an eminently likeable Banquo, while Beshlie Thorp was racy, charismatic and manipulative, but also evinced considerable acting chops as the guilt-stricken Lady Macbeth in later scenes. The weather was gruesome, and the actors did marvellously well to adapt their performances to the lashing rain (as well as the chorus of drunken voices in Sophia Gardens), which led to a wonderful moment of comic timing in the line preceding Banquo’s assassination: ‘It will rain tonight’. The rain might have had something to do with one of just two criticisms I have of this production (the other being that some difficulties with diction led to a few of the play’s most famous lines being garbled, though one can understand that having to memorise so many lines can present difficulties in the early stages of a show’s run), in that the concluding fight scenes could do with being tightened up, as some demonstrably air-trenching punches dispelled the theatrical illusion somewhat. I hope the cast and crew won’t begrudge me these relatively minor quibbles.

Thus, the rain seemed to cause problems, while, paradoxically, contributing to the tragic ambience. The set itself was ideal, allowing the actors to circumnavigate on several levels, whilst making the audience wonder what lay beyond the main entrance and its bloody handprints. A sign reading ‘Blood will have blood’ immediately caught the eye, and this production did not shirk away from the macabre, with highlights of morose delectation including the burning of Lady Macduff and her young children, and Thomas Easton chain sawing his way through enemies in the role of Caithness. One could be forgiven for considering the annual open air performances to be family friendly. This Macbeth was anything but; the bashing and dashing of children’s dolls in the opening moments said it all. The director and his cast took risks, and they paid off. It was an engrossing, thoroughly enjoyable performance of high-quality, and I have come to expect nothing less from this company. Now that Everyman Theatre has flirted with the macabre, I wonder if they might take a further risk next year and put on a performance of Shakespeare and George Peele’s Titus Andronicus? Critically derided for centuries, that play has experienced a resurgence, and I can think of few better venues to experience the shocking mutilation of Shakespeare’s heroine (and the subsequent acts of direful revenge), screened by the trees of a darksome forest just beyond the city’s centre. After all: ‘Blood will have blood’, they say.

 

 

 

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