Photos: Dublin and Belfast

Dublin! Sorry for taking so long to post. I had a 4000-word history paper due today that has been eating my brain and I’ve only had time to do things on the internet since I finished. Anyway, Ireland was phenomenal. Even more cold and rainy than London, of course, but nothing to deter hardcore sightseeing and the like. I went with my friend Nic who is visiting me in London. A short recap of events:

We flew in Thursday night. By the time we had made it through customs and to the hostel, I was near passing out from hunger, so we just grabbed dinner and then chilled at the pub across the street from the hostel. Very homey feel, apparently very traditionally Irish.

Friday was the big sightseeing day. We hit the old library, St. Patrick’s Cathedral and Christ Church, the River Liffey and Dublin Castle, among other things. We couldn’t go inside Dublin Castle because of something to do with the Ireland being in charge of the EU right now, which was a little annoying, but I still had lots of fun. Also there’s this really awkward thing in the churches where they put the very commercial-looking gift shops right in the middle of the church itself, surrounded by stained glass and sculptures and anything. I understand that it’s a tourist attraction and there’s no real other way to put it, but still. Then we went to Irish dancing which was largely just a bunch of really awkward tourists failing at line dancing. Plus a brief section on Irish clog-dancing and step-dancing, which I really want to learn.

That night, we went on the Dublin Literary Pub Crawl, which almost deserves its own theatre review post. It’s a combination of Dublin city tour and site-specific walking theatre event, led by two actors who take you around the city and give you an extremely detailed and fascinating history of the famous Irish writers (Joyce, Wilde, Beckett, etc) and their relationship with various places in the city, both pubs and other, as you pass by them. They also perform several pieces of actual theatre, including the opening of Waiting for Godot and a scene from The Risen People. The acting was fantastic, and periodically when it gets too cold to stay outside, you get to go into the pubs that Joyce wrote about in Ulysses and order a pint. I would recommend this tour to anyone, whether you’re interested in the pubs at all or not. Highlight of the trip.

Saturday morning it was significantly more touristy when we went out. We went to the carnival, saw a crew race between Trinity and University College Dublin, and then got on a bus to Belfast. Things I learned on that bus trip: there is zero border control between Northern and Southern Ireland, and the Irish countryside is beautiful and full of sheep. We only went up to Belfast for one evening to visit an old friend of Nic’s, and didn’t see much more than their City Hall and the inside of a pub, but I learned a ton about the political climate of Northern Ireland right now, where you can casually mention the latest bombing yesterday, and say you want to move out before the next riot season. I was amazed. They claimed that most people living there didn’t really care about the independence issue and just wanted to get on with their lives, but that doesn’t protect them from the extremism that seems to pervade the entire city.

And then Sunday was St. Patrick’s Day. We spent a full three hours watching the parade, which had the most insane things in it. Most of my photos are from the parade, so take a look; I’m sure you’ll be just as baffled by it all as I was. We then went and saw a few places we hadn’t gotten to yet, including Trinity College, I went on an absurd carnival ride of doom and then we headed to the first of a long series of extremely packed pubs. It was St. Patrick’s Day, after all. And because we legitimately could not find a single hostel with an open space for that night, we just didn’t go home. Flew back to London early Monday morning, which would have worked perfectly except then the flight took off about 45 minutes late and I had to go straight from the airport to my lecture. I did make it in time, though, barely.

I’m so glad I had a chance to go, and I had a ton of fun seeing everything and being a hopefully not too obnoxious tourist. We did avoid wearing green the entire trip. Enjoy the pictures, there are a rather absurd amount of them.

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Review: Written on Skin at the Royal Opera House

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Written on Skin, a new opera by composer George Benjamin and writer Martin Crimp, retells a thirteenth century French romance of a young woman named Agnès and the Boy her husband the Protector brings into their home to create an illuminated manuscript for him. A mash-up of modern and medieval worlds in which it is never entirely clear who is in charge of the story, this new opera provides a fusion of the modes of postmodern theatre and operatic performance which results in an innovative approach to storytelling through song.

The cast consists of the three main roles of Agnès, the Protector and the Boy who remain largely in the medieval world, plus a collection of people in modern dress who initiate the action of each scene, dressing the actors and physically placing them on stage as well as performing scene changes and singing the few ensemble movements of the piece. They are always visible, walking at an infinitely slow pace about their modern office environment while the action of the three principal characters takes place in another room. These ‘rooms,’ in fact, are a fascinating design element, a two-story set consisting of cubes of  both the modern and medieval worlds that come together to form a shallow box resembling a picture frame or book into which we are gazing.

The idea of the book plays a great deal of importance in this story. Not only is the Boy engaged in the act of making a book when he has his affair with Agnès, but it is also implied that the modern characters are somehow reading the French story out of a book and bringing it to life. Even the lyrics of the opera, written by playwright rather than librettist Crimp, are very prosaic and narrative, the characters often referring to themselves in the third person (‘says the Boy’) and speaking in relatively modern language.

There is far too much to follow in this opera to be able to understand it all at once. There are the medieval scenes and the modern scenes being enacted simultaneously, the subtitles floating just above the set to help understand the singing, the often overlapping sung narrative and the orchestral component, which rather than supporting the singing directly provides yet another separate component to listen to and attempt to understand. The music never swells along with the singing or at the conclusion of a movement of music, leaving the audience in confusion as to when to applaud or if the longer scene changes were supposed to be an intermission. The singing is flawless, of course, but the music is quite difficult to relate to even for an opera, and by the time the modern and medieval worlds have merged completely with Agnès’s sister and brother-in-law in modern dress interacting directly with the Boy, it is extremely difficult to follow exactly what is going on.

Director Katie Mitchell has created a postmodern masterpiece, but within the already challenging vocabulary of opera it presents more as a collection of fascinating theatrical signs than an intelligible whole. Still, innovation in the world of opera is quite difficult to manage, and Written on Skin certainly accomplishes that. It defies conclusive interpretation of its narrative or overarching meaning, leaving the audience to wonder for long after exactly what story they have just watched.

Photos: Spitalfields, Matt Smith, Buckingham Palace, etc.

Finally did some photo-worthy activities this week. Sunday was Spitalfields, the adorable outdoor artsy market (though I also accidentally wandered into Petticoat Lane, a very ethnic market, on the way. Very interesting distinction there). Tuesday was Matt Smith (aka the Doctor) who was recording/filming a podcast at the Apple Store. I could see his head for about half the show, and otherwise nothing. It was exciting. And then I went hardcore touristing on Wednesday, and hit Hyde Park, Buckingham Palace and Westminster Cathedral.

Off to Dublin this weekend! More photos pending.

Review: 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee at QMUL

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I have seen this show too many times. And yet, I was glad to see Queen Mary Theatre Company bring something a little new to this iconic musical about a group of preteens struggling to win their county’s spelling bee and advance to the finals in Washington, DC.

There is a great deal of room for improvisation in this script, and in those places the piece shined. Izzi’s Logan had a lovely few lines as she complained about the height the mic was set at when performing her self-appointed duty of holding it for the director’s little brother, one of the audience volunteer spellers. The added sexual tension between Rona and Panch was also a nice touch, and Logan’s fabulous gay Carl-Dad had some fantastic moments of parent-teacher conflict with the adults running the bee.

Other script changes, unfortunately, fell a bit flat. The decision to split Panch into two characters, and then to make one of them crippled, only served to divide interest in the character and made them rather forgettable at points throughout the show. Playing Jesus as overtly sexual to the point of unintelligibility was just bizarre, and Marcy Parks with large nerdy glasses and a wholly unfeminine self-presentation made her eventual outburst much less exciting and believable.

The singing was sometimes fantastic, sometimes a bit painfully discordant. The American accents, when on, were spot-on, but actors had a tendency to lose them completely at points when distracted–they also had the same issue as in my play, where it is clear when the actors are ad-libbing because the lines become much more British. (And I suspect that no one in the cast or crew actually knows what a Bat Mitzvah is, or they would have corrected the pronunciation on that one.) The lighting was fantastic, colourful and quirky, and for a show where there were so many mics and so many possibilities for sound to go wrong, it was remarkable how well the tech went.

Overall, a fun, enjoyable experience, with good music and mostly strong humour. I am very glad I got to see it.

Review: If You Don’t Let Us Dream, We Won’t Let You Sleep at Royal Court

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If You Don’t Let Us Dream, We Won’t Let You Sleep, a new play written by Anders Lustgarten and directed by Simon Godwin, questions the British economic policy of austerity by taking it to an extreme–a world in which corporations have found a way to monetise social problems such as crime and addiction. Advertised as a ‘production without decor,’ this performance at Royal Court Theatre depends on its engaging characters and powerful rhetoric to move past being simply a political manifesto into a unique and ethically troubling piece of theatre.

The play follows an ensemble of characters, including the board of executives who found the ‘Unity’ initiative of selling bonds based on social problems, young adults laughing at the very possibility of being able to go to university while espousing virulent racism, and a group of revolutionaries recently branded by the government as terrorists who wish to put the very concept of austerity on trial. Susan Brown shines as an elderly widow named Joan fighting back against condescension from government workers and hospital officials alike even as her electricity is taken away and her injuries ignored. Lucian Msamati plays a Zimbabwean electrical engineer forced to work as a busboy at a pub, stoic and deceptively wise, while Daniel Kendrick portrays the idealistic young man who stabs him with a knife; meanwhile, we witness his optimism being slowly ripped away from him by more powerful forces than he can understand.

The lack of a set and frequent costume changes make the multiple roles played by each actor difficult to follow; the final confrontation between Msamati and Kendrick is confusing until we realise that they are in fact playing the same characters as they were in the earlier scene. Still, the web of connections both political and coincidental serves to illustrate how such disparate people are linked even in a political environment that encourages the antagonising of strangers. The scene between Brown and Msamati in her unheated flat is particularly powerful, while the temporary uniting of the constantly disagreeing revolutionaries over their condemnation of Starbucks is nothing short of hilarious. The witty dialogue often prompts chuckles from the audience, though usually from contemporary political references that one must be ‘in the know’ to understand.

The script unfortunately turns a bit too openly political, too overt with its agenda, in its final scenes, sacrificing its ethical ambiguity to campaign for drastic solutions to Britain’s national debt problem. It is a pity, as I believe the text would have been more powerful had it been left open-ended, but the cast manages to retain the raw humanness of the play even as it begins its political campaigning. Lustgarten has some work to do on his new play, certainly, but it still fulfills its purpose as a fascinating and engaging story that contemplates a rather horrific ‘what if.’

Review: The Captain of Kopenick at the National

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The Captain of Kopenick by Carl Zuckmayer is the story of a man who has fallen through the cracks–it is Berlin 1910, and having been in and out of jails all his life Wilhelm Voigt has lost his identity papers and thus any chance of making a life for himself. In director Adrian Noble’s new production at the Olivier Theatre at the National, we witness a farcical tale based on a true story of a man who, in the search for his identity, reveals the deep social and political problems of pre-war Germany.

Voigt himself, played by Antony Sher, is a peculiar character. We are never sure how sorry for him we are meant to feel; he leaves his friend and fellow former inmate to die at the hands of the police, then goes off to comfort a sickly young woman being cared for by his sister. He steals an officer’s wallet in one scene and then flowers for the girl’s grave next. Played with blustering bravado that occasionally gives way to a deep frustration with society, Voigt is an enigma, but one whose exploits are entertaining to watch.

This is undoubtedly Voigt’s show, and very few other characters stand out. The sick girl Anna (Iris Roberts), the tailor Wabschke (Adrian Schiller), and Krakauer the railway station toilet-cleaner (Anthony O’Donnell) each give engaging and amusing performances, but they do not really relate to the show as a whole. This play often feels as though it cannot decide if it wants to be epic or intimate; some of the best scenes are the choreographed crowd scenes, whether of balls or riots, and yet we follow one man’s story and others are only important in how they relate to him.

Meanwhile, the Olivier’s famous revolve stage–the stage spins in a circle, set pieces emerge ghostlike from the floor as well as the above fly system, and massive multi-level houses are wheeled on and off–certainly delivers, but in a way that distracts from the actual performance of the people on stage. Watching the entire city hall rise from underground becomes the focus, rather than what actually occurs inside. 

All of that said, I enjoyed this show more than I almost ever do with comedies. The second act narrows its focus to the particular plot of Voigt’s grand theft at the same time as it broadens to include the riots and popular discontent of the German people, more directly engaging the audience’s sympathies. It is both hilarious and horrifying to see Voigt turn into the model of what he hates, the empty and foolish authority of the Prussian military terrorising its people, and whether you want to root for his success or his demise, Sher manages to draw you into the world. Somehow both grand-scale and personal and yet neither at the same time, The Captain of Kopenick is a fascinating glimpse into the German pre-war military state and its effects on its citizens, which will make you laugh as well as make you think.

Photos: Shooting in the Dark, a retrospective

Today, I was sitting in the campus coffeeshop doing work, and I noticed that the poster for the New Writers’ Festival was still pinned to the bulletin board above the counter with all of the cream/sugar/napkins/etc. Should I take it? I really want one, and it’s not like it’s any use to anyone now. Besides, it always annoys me when bulletin boards are covered in outdated signs…

I snatched the poster on my way out back to class. It was the first time I’ve felt satisfied about the show since it actually happened.

I mean, it went well enough, I suppose. Far fewer technical errors than there could have been (all tech designed fabulously by my genius of a co-director), no significant line flubs, my actors managed to get their energy up well enough to make the show interesting. At least, I hope they did. I’ve heard the show so many times now I don’t find much of anything in it interesting anymore.

We even had a decently sized audience. And while I’m glad that people I don’t know directly came to the show, I looked around in the audience for people I did know…three. And not even particularly well, those three. Only one there for me specifically. Which meant, when it was all over, well, there was no one there to tell me, ‘Good job.’ ‘Congratulations.’ ‘Look at you, you did it.’ Instead, my actors came to me and asked, ‘How do you think we did?’ I gave a noncommittal answer, which I still feel vaguely bad about. (It didn’t help that the girl who asked had directly defied me and came on stage in her costume choice that I had vetoed immediately after I told her to go change. She said yes to my face, then turned around and blatantly ignored me.) But, it’s just, the writer’s ego is fragile, okay? I need someone to tell me I did well.

And because there were so few people I knew in the audience, it’s over, and no one’s going to talk to me about it again. No one is going to want to recount their favourite parts, what really spooked them, maybe ask me to explain the one part they didn’t quite get or more of the historical backstory because wow, they didn’t even know all that happened. That’s it. I really hope the video turns out well, and I’ll be able to post it up soon, because to me that’s starting to feel like the finished product far more than the real performance. Everyone who comes begging to hear how it went, everyone who’s invested in the play and in me and who cares about me–this show is for you, and thus the video becomes the show. I don’t know how long it will take to get the video, but thank you everyone who wants to see it. You have no idea how much that means to me.

So now, looking back after a few days of decompressing and frantically catching up on homework (where I’ve been, everyone who’s been pestering me one-on-one for news when I’ve just wanted to get some sleep), I’m glad I did it. But for me, it was far more about the process than about that actual opening night. It was learning that my characters really do feel real on stage, that some of my abstract surreal moments work flawlessly and some need rethinking, that I accidentally implied a threesome amongst my characters (oops). The performance itself–really it was just an excuse for all that.

And then there’s the fact that I hate directing. Absolutely, horrifically, despise it. Every time I get forced into doing it, I get way too stressed out, I hate having to lead people and having them disagree with me but not be willing to say anything about it because I’m the director and then start resenting me for it, it’s awful. I have multiple breakdowns, I cry, and I declare that I’m never doing it again. Now that I’ve directed my own play, I realise that in a lot of cases, the only way to get your own work produced is to do it yourself, and that I’m going to have to get over myself and accept how extremely uncomfortable it makes me and just deal. And as long as I remember that it’s worth it in the end, and that it helps the work, I should be able to manage. And I think it was worth it.

I took pictures during the show as something to do to distract me so I would stop worrying. It was actually pretty effective, and I got some pretty good shots. Hopefully this will satisfy you guys until I can get my hands on the video of the performance.

Thanks for all your support.

Review(ish): New Writers’ Festival at QMUL

While it seems somewhat silly to be writing a review for shows in a festival that my play is also a part of, given that this blog also serves the purpose of reminding me of all the shows I’ve seen in London, I thought I should do a quick write-up of the other shows I have seen in the festival thus far.

My Whirlwind Romance With An Undisclosed A List Celebrity Which Was All Too Brief But Still Very Nice is a seven-minute monologue written by Rachel Crawford and performed by Izzi Richardson, and the title says it all. Written in a sing-song half-rhyming verse, the piece follows the main character through her meeting, head-over-heels romance, and eventual estrangement with a certain A-list celebrity who is, ultimately, disclosed. 

What’s Your Colour? written by Carol Bass and directed by Rob Jopson, is a story of a shy boy trying to lose his virginity in a world where one’s skin colour is determined by the number of sexual partners one has had. The pieces intermingles the craziness of typical college hijinks with a real consideration of the dark and disturbing prejudices our society maintains regarding sex. The virgin meets the whore, and we get the troubling question, ‘How can I hide who I am when it’s written all over my skin?’ Only in this world can we really see how reductive and ultimately wrong such snap judgments can be.

Underground, written and directed by Alfie Sowden and Oli Branton, is the story of a man who just misses his train at the Tube station. In the twenty minutes he has to wait before the next one, we witness a quick but revealing glimpse into the life of a quiet but extremely troubled young man and his loss of the will to live. Mixing raw comedic characters with the solemn contemplation of death, Underground is a jarring piece, but every emotion we see represented on stage feels unapologetically real.

I honestly have no idea what the last play, All My Friends are Superheroes, is about, since they put it directly before mine both in dress rehearsals and the actual program. All I know is that they left the stage coated in glitter and then ran off to let us deal with it, for which I am still extremely pissed off. Don’t care if the show was good; don’t glitter bomb the stage and NOT TELL ANYONE when you’re not the last play of the night! 

Anyway. Shooting in the Dark goes up tonight, and will be filmed. I’m going to take pictures today and I will post them sometime this week when I have time. Wish me luck!