Thursday 21 March 2019

21/03/19: Macbeth, Jacksons Lane, Highgate

Directed by Mary Swan, the Proteus theatre company’s version of “the Scottish play” is boldly set in the City in October 1987 just as Black Monday sent financial markets reeling into chaos.

The action takes place in snappy suits, with cocaine snorted off glass tables and dialogue barked into office telephones. The production picks up on the themes of corporate greed and ambition that famously characterise that era. I would have liked them to have done much more with this notion and fully explore those ideas, but the stock exchange context provides a visual backdrop rather than an integral, driving element in how the story unfolds.

A cast of just five actors ambitiously take on all the major parts. Macbeth himself is played by Riz Meedin, who if anything seems a little too casual and unruffled in his delivery to truly carry off the complexity of the role. There’s something missing – an intensity, perhaps. Danny Charles ably tackles Duncan, MacDuff and Lennox, while Umar Butt is fairly solid as Banquo. But all three males are often upstaged by the two female leads. Alexandra Afryea is especially strong as Lady Macbeth and the scene in which she sleepwalks, visibly tormented by her deeds, is perhaps the most memorable of them all. Meanwhile, Jessica Andrade proves herself hugely versatile as Malcolm, Lady MacDuff, the doctor and one of the witches.

It was an inspired choice to play 1980s pop and new-wave music over the sound system between scenes. Bursts of Bronski Beat, Echo & The Bunnymen, The Eurythmics, Japan, Joy Division and The Smiths are highly effective. Better still is the wonderful surprise moment near the beginning when the cast suddenly start moving in time to the stark drum-machine mechanics of “Blue Monday” by New Order. It’s both funny and startling. A later scene, just as powerful, has Jessica Andrade lip-syncing to Prince’s “Sign o’ the Times”. Macbeth is at its greatest when it takes these audacious liberties with the source material – those brief instances when it veers off into almost surreal interpretation and embraces the worlds of dance and mime. It’s less successful at delivering the primary narrative. Despite a running time of more than two hours, much of the plot progression felt rushed and disjointed. It’s perhaps inevitable that large chunks of Shakespeare’s writing need to be done away with in any modern adaptation, but it sometimes seemed that these edits were made at the expense of logic or clarity. If you are already familiar with the play in its entirety, though, you’ll find that there’s plenty to enjoy here.


Wednesday 13 March 2019

13/03/19: Saga, Etcetera Theatre, Camden Town

Saga is the daughter of God, sent down from Heaven to observe how we live on Earth. In her brief time here, she passes through a series of social scenarios that point out to her the various extremes of human nature.

Written by Michael Currell and loosely based on August Strindberg’s A Dream Play from 1901, this clever and witty one-hour production is ambitious and covers a lot of thematic ground. Saga is witness to racism, our treatment of the homeless, the superficiality of social media and the shallowness of political opportunists. The play squeezes in plenty of Big Issues (the property ladder, Brexit and poverty are all referenced) without taking obvious positions of judgement, perhaps because the narrative is so overtly surreal.

Some of the dialogue, references and in-jokes – and even some singing – takes place in Swedish. If you are Swedish (like many of the audience), it will obviously mean a lot more to you. If, like me, you’re not Swedish you may find parts of it completely baffling and somewhat alienating. But this frustration aside, you can still enjoy the general sense of whimsy and the ABBA songs that appear at the beginning and the end of the show.

The three supporting actresses do an excellent job of bringing to life various characters, multitasking seamlessly in a way that makes the cast seem far larger than it is. Frida Storm is particularly strong in the lead part, conveying a believable innocence and naivety that’s touching and more than a little sad. She cannot understand the cruelty people demonstrate. Seeking to experience love, it makes no sense to her to hear of YouTube “likes”. And finding beauty all around her, she cannot fathom why human behaviour can be so ugly.

Directed and produced by Olivia Stone with the most minimal of stage sets, Saga holds up a mirror to modern life and exposes its contradictions and ironies. Impressively, it does this with playfulness, originality and charm.


Saturday 2 March 2019

02/03/19: Connecting..., Chapel Playhouse

A one-man show written and performed by Billy Hicks, and produced and directed by Lucie Regan, Connecting... is a funny and moving look at what it means to be lonely in the era of technology.

In 1997, a nine-year-old boy is moving into his new bedroom. We learn that he struggles to connect with others and make friends. He records cassette tapes of himself speaking about his interests and raving about his love for Doctor Who. The choice of that iconic timelord isn’t an arbitrary one: the show itself simulates time travel, leaping forwards a few years with every subsequent scene. Each time we encounter him, through puberty and into adulthood, the protagonist is a little older but still just as lonely. As he embraces the ever-changing technology made available to him (from MSN Messenger to Facebook and smartphones) – and as the narrative continues to fast-forward to the present – we are reminded of how the electronic networks that are meant to be “connecting” us are also increasing our isolation. On the internet, you can be anyone you want to be. But the inevitable flip side of this freedom is that accumulating “friends” and “likes” is no substitute for real friends who really like you.

What makes it compelling is the hugely energetic physical comedy of Billy’s performance as he bounces around the stage. Then there’s his quick-fire verbal dexterity. He reels off a barrage of cultural references from TV and video games, as well as bringing them to life by imitating the sound of early internet dial-up and singing or miming fragments of indie-pop hits of the early 2000s. It amounts to a torrent of expression that must have been expertly rehearsed to be performed so fluidly without stumbling. It’s especially notable how well Billy inhabits the world of a child. Plus, some of the lines (such as the clever joke about the fourth wall) make you think as well as laugh.

Thematically, it could have ended up somewhat simplistic – life can be lonely, technology can be alienating – but the performance is sufficiently quirky and imaginative to explore those themes in depth. Likewise, this could have become an excuse for lazy nostalgia. Remember Sonic the Hedgehog? Remember Wheatus? But the barrage of ephemeral recollections is used to underscore the mindset of a restlessly changing young man and the quickly evolving times in which he strives to find meaning.