Thursday, 27 June 2019

Hamlet @ St. Paul's Church

Hamlet @ St. Paul's Church

Iris Theatre have built quite the reputation for their annual summer Shakespeare productions in the grounds of St. Paul's Church. Unfortunately, this latest Hamlet is a bit of a misfire though well-intentioned.

"Land of Hope and Glory" plays as we sit in the grounds of the church, imperial flags draped from the windows. This is a near-future dystopian vision of Britain, full of media, camera phones and surveillance. At one point it's even described as a "strong and stable nation". The women all wear bizarre caps or hoods, straight out of The Handmaid's Tale.

Counter to this conservatism is a queer counter-culture and it's here we meet the titular Hamlet, played by non-binary transgender actor Jenet Le Lacheur. It's an intriguing decision that sees the other characters misconstruing Hamlet's gender as madness, turning the character into even more of a misunderstood outcast. The characters all refer to Hamlet as he/him, except Horatio who uses feminine pronouns - he is her closest confidante, with hints of a more intimate relationship between them.

Yet while this is a clever play with gender, in some ways it's not taken far enough in the staging and direction. The monologues for instance, a key moment of self-reflection, don't obviously allude to the character's gender.

Equally though, the decision interferes with the narrative. If Hamlet's supposed madness stems from grief at their father's death, the addition of gender overcomplicates the central theme. Further, the relationship with Ophelia (Jenny Horsthuis) feels confused.

When the Tragedians arrive, they vogue in dressed as masked clowns in 90s rave gear, while images of the drag film Paris Is Burning play in the background. This feels misjudged and inauthentic, and while these are meant to be Hamlet's people, it aligns the character with a queer freak show at odds with the sensitivity of gender fluidity.

As Hamlet, Le Lacheur is an eccentric performer who revels in the comedy, but doesn't quite have the gravitas in the more emotive moments. Elsewhere the cast recite Shakespeare's verse well, but the sometimes frantic direction, mix of styles and ugly costumes don't quite mesh together.

2/5

Watch: Hamlet runs at St. Paul's Church until 27th July.

Hamlet @ St. Paul's Church

Hamlet @ St. Paul's Church

Wednesday, 26 June 2019

Summer Rolls @ The Park Theatre


Summer Rolls @ The Park Theatre

Summer Rolls is a play of firsts: the first British-Vietnamese play to be staged in the UK and the debut play from actress Tuyen Do. Influenced by her British-Vietnamese roots, the play is a collision of East meets West that puts a new spin on the familiar.

In many ways, this is a kitchen sink drama, with its domestic setting and exploration of political ideas. But there’s a distinct Vietnamese twist. The plot follows the Nguyen family, refugee immigrants struggling to fit into British society. The Vietnam War haunts their past and colours their future. They long for a better life away from the grip of communism, yet cling to a sense of pride in their roots despite a traumatic past.

At the centre is daughter Mai (Anna Nguyen), struggling with her identity. She’s scolded by her mother when she speaks English though she struggles with Vietnamese; she’s forced to help with the family’s clothing business, though she’d rather be independent and spend time with her black British boyfriend David (Keon Martial-Philip) (something her racist parents disagree with). Nguyen’s performance encapsulates the character’s disorientation, flitting between two languages and the physicality of youthful subjugation and maturity.

The Vietnamese tropes may seem familiar, but here they’re presented with authenticity. Alongside family values, the importance of education and familial shame, there’s the conflict between the genders. The women moan and rant, yet are constantly working; the men are cool-headed negotiators given the privilege of play. That’s typified by Linh-Dan Pham as Mai’s mother, whose bitter tongue balances humour and authority. There are twists too about the family’s past, a son (Michael Phong Le) himself struggling to find a suitable career, and family friend Mr Dinh (David Lee-Jones) who seems to have some shady involvement.

There’s a lot going on, then, and in the first half especially the narrative sets up multiple story threads and themes that are not all fully explored. The second half focuses more clearly on Mai’s struggle to be her authentic self, though it skims through time too swiftly in an effort to wrap things up neatly.

Nicola Chang’s sound design captures both cultures in her evocative score and Do’s mix of languages, idioms and references in the script mirrors the cultural clash. This family saga is small in setting, vast in scope, and captivating to the end.

3/5

Watch: Summer Rolls runs at the Park Theatre until 13th July.



Summer Rolls @ The Park Theatre

Summer Rolls @ The Park Theatre
Photos: Danté Kim

Saturday, 15 June 2019

Pictures of Dorian Gray @ Jermyn Street Theatre

Pictures of Dorian Gray @ Jermyn Street Theatre

Oscar Wilde's timeless The Picture of Dorian Gray is often interpreted as social satire, a comment on the Victoria class system, or an obsession with image. But it's also something of a gothic horror novel. After all, it features a haunted, demonic painting and a protagonist who becomes increasingly psychologically deranged. And that's not to mention it's hedonistic underworld of homoeroticism.

It's that gothicism that director Tom Littler plays up in this production, Pictures of Dorian Gray, at the Jermyn Street Theatre. It's performed entirely in grand black costumes, the stage's black walls covered in what seem like white scratches. Moreover, there's a sense of mysticism to the cast of four: when not playing one of the leads, they creep and stalk around the stage repeating the script's most poetic lines with a heavy reverb effect, like a skulking greek chorus. It sounds almost comic, but it heightens the mystical, atmospheric qualities of the text.

Reduced to just 90 minutes by scriptwriter Lucy Shaw, this Dorian Gray hits all the key story beats, if a little too broadly. Similarly Littler's direction uses minimal stagecraft to great effect. Sure, the pool of water used to represent the painting may be a little on the nose for its self-reflection and the constant use of music feels a little too romantic. But it's overall a clear and evocative take on the story, though as a drama the pacing does drag.

The production's main conceit, though, is its gender-swapped cast. The 'pictures' of the title refers to the four configurations - on this occasion a female Dorian and Henry Wotton, with male Sybil Vane and Basil Hallward. On the one hand the gender-swapping highlights the universality of the story, while still retaining some of its homoerotic undertones. Yet neither does it add anything. A female Dorian is fine, but the production doesn't explore the differences in any meaningful way.

In the title role, Helen Reuben begins as youthful, arrogant, and somewhat petulant, becoming slowly more manipulative and evil over the course of the play. The rest of the cast give enjoyable performances, but whether the different configurations give fresh insight into the play...well you'll just have to watch it again.

3/5

Watch: Pictures of Dorian Gray runs at the Jermyn Street Theatre until 6th July.

Pictures of Dorian Gray @ Jermyn Street Theatre

Pictures of Dorian Gray @ Jermyn Street Theatre
Photos: S R Taylor Photography

Wednesday, 12 June 2019

Afterglow @ Southwark Playhouse

Afterglow @ Southwark Playhouse

Afterglow really wants to shock. Written by S. Asher Gelman and arriving in London after a considerable run in New York, it aims to be a progressive look at homosexual (open) relationships. But it's more conventional than it purports.

The plot is fit for a postage stamp: married gay couple in open relationship shocker. One of them falls for the third guy, which consequently ruins their marriage - a conclusion that's obvious from the very beginning.

It's meant to be an open and raw portrayal of homosexual promiscuity, but the play seems to be grabbing attention for its nudity more than anything. Early on it seems each scene either begins or ends with sex and there's even an on-stage shower that's frequently used. It feels like titillation to draw in the crowds.

That's a shame because there are some interesting ideas weaved into the narrative. "Love is easy, relationships take work," notes one character. What exactly makes a meaningful relationship? How long should they last? Are humans (here, men specifically) capable of monogamy? These are worthy themes to be explored.

Yet Afterglow is let down by its characterisation that represents a glossy, attractive version of gay life. Josh (Sean Hart) and Alex (Danny Mahoney) are a married couple living in a sleek New York apartment (beautifully designed by Libby Todd). They're in the process of having a child. They're wealthy professionals. They have a hedonistic lifestyle of sex and champagne. Even third-wheeler Darius (Jesse Fox) isn't exactly living a bad life, despite struggling with rent. All three men wear designer underwear, when they're wearing any at all.

They're also young, typically attractive, fit, and white - an issue of casting more than script, though the actors do have great chemistry. They're blinded by their privilege. When one character claims "dating is hard" because he's "paralysed by the illusion of choice" it's hard to sympathise with such narcissism. Gelman's natural dialogue certainly fits the setting, but the only issue for these men is airing their, literal, dirty laundry.

It's all decidedly conservative. What would be more progressive would be diversity in its actors, their ethnicity and body shape. Or perhaps an ending in which polyamory does work, that doesn't rely on the hetero-normativity of marriage.

Instead, it leaves us questioning why we should even care for these self-absorbed characters. The narrative is ultimately boring, and no amount of nudity, shower sex or designer underwear can change that.

2/5

Watch: Afterglow runs at the Southwark Playhouse until 20th July.

Afterglow @ Southwark Playhouse

Afterglow @ Southwark Playhouse
Photos: Darren Bell