theatre review

Review: Oliver! ★★★★★ – Judi Herman says "beg, borrow or pick a pocket for a ticket!"

oliver, watermill, 2015★★★★★ Lionel Bart’s glorious musical is an extraordinary mixture of the dark and the life-enhancing. It’s as if he’s channelling Dickens in his words and music to retell the genuinely thrilling and affecting story of the young orphan’s adventures in the cruel world of 19th-century London.

See it as you’ve probably never seen it before, in an intimate space that brings you right into the workhouse and Fagin’s den, here wonderfully suggested by a veritable ceiling of handkerchiefs.  Bart of course rises magnificently to the challenge of creating the character of Fagin, the "kind old gentleman" so intent on of giving street urchins a useful trade. And the Watermill’s Cameron Blakely magnificently rises to the challenge of both following in the tradition begun by the late, great Ron Moody and making Fagin his own. It’s fascinating to notice though, that in his  (worryingly sympathetic) “Reviewing the Situation”, he does not use the Jewish "questioning" fall for the line, “So at my time of life I should start turning over new leaves?" I’m guessing it might be because he thinks that was Moody’s way with the line and he should not copy it, rather than a question built in by Bart. But go see for yourself – if you can beg, borrow or pick a pocket for a ticket!

By Judi Herman

To read more about this glorious production,  its multi-talented cast and the joy of joining in with "Oom Pah Pah" see Judi Herman's full review at Whatsonstage.com.

Oliver! runs until Saturday 19 September. 7.30pm & 2.30pm. £17.50-£30. The Watermill Theatre, Bagnor, RG20 8AE; 016 354 6044. www.watermill.org.uk

Review: The Hook by Arthur Miller – A compelling study of the ongoing struggle working man has for social justice

The Hook, Jamie Sives and company, 2015 © Manuel Harlan In the mid 1940’s Miller was captivated by the Red Hook neighbourhood of Brooklyn that contained so many docks and landing piers. He was fascinated by the close community of longshoremen (dockers) and their precarious life of casual day hire, unsafe working practices and exploitation by corrupt Union officials in thrall to the Mafia. Intrigued by the death of Pete Panto, a longshoreman who vanished after confronting Union corruption, Miller wrote “a play for the screen", believing that cinema could be a more democratic way of playing his story to the community he was writing about.

Miller’s Panto is Marty Ferrera, a loud-mouthed and opinionated longshoreman, complete with docker’s hook round his neck. He is also, as Miller himself wrote, that “strange, mysterious and dangerous thing” that is a “genuinely moral man…it’s as though a hand had been laid upon him, making him the rebel, pressing him towards a collision with everything that is established and accepted.” What is established and accepted on the docks is the injustice and corruption of a system that sees work awarded in exchange for bribes, making the hand-to-mouth existence of the longshoremen even more precarious. Marty makes his stand against the system when he can no longer support his wife and child, denied work even after offering his own bribe. So he decides to stand for Union President to address the issues head on.

But Marty Ferrera never reached the screen. Pressure from Hollywood executives and arm-twisting by the FBI who worried it would foment dissent in the dockyards, caused Miller to abandon the project and his director, Elia Kazan, went on to make the more acceptable On the Waterfront some five years later.

The Hook, Joe Alessi (centre) with ensemble, 2015 © Manuel Harlan

So how come the play is receiving its world premiere at Northampton’s Royal and Derngate Theatres this year? It’s down to the painstaking work the theatre's Artistic Director James Dacre has put in on realising the project. Of course his staging, a co-production with Liverpool's Everyman, coincides with the centenary of Miller's birth and Dacre says this timely play “talks about the living wage, zero-hours contracts and industrial communities on the brink of enormous change.” Together with designer Patrick Connellan, Dacre spent years collating Miller’s drafts of the play, illuminated by Miller’s own notes. But what we see has been pulled together into a more than workable script by playwright Ron Hutchinson, who proved he has a special insight into and era for Americana in his brilliant Hollywood comedy Moonlight and Magnolias (charting the painful birth of Gone With the Wind, the movie). Hutchinson was struck by the way Miller went out of his way to avoid stock characters and show just how the main protagonists are neither all good nor bad.

The challenge for the team has been to translate something written for the scale of the cinema into a stage production. Connellan’s brooding set, thanks to clever use of Nina Dunn’s projections and Charles Balfour’s moody lighting, is dockyards, streets, offices and homes, allowing all the cross-cutting demanded by the filmic element of the script. There is more than a nod here to film noir and the strictures of black and white lighting.

Dacre marshals his cast as if they are a vital part of the intercutting, and working with movement director Struan Leslie, choreographs the transitions between scenes with beautiful precision and speed.

The Hook, company, 2015 © Manuel Harlan

Jamie Sives as Marty Ferrera (pictured centre, at the top of the review) is suitably Brando-esque as required, yet brings out the humanity of this common man in a way Miller would have appreciated. Susie Trayling, as Marty’s passively supportive and docile wife Therese is nicely understated in a part that’s reminiscent of Linda Loman in Death of Salesman. Joseph Alessi gives a commanding performance as the ruthless Union Chief (if anyone is the man you love to hate, he is!) and the ensemble is effectively swelled by a community ensemble of local amateurs, totally convincing in the non-speaking crowd scenes. Some of the professionals, though, occasionally distract with slightly wandering New Jersey accents.

It’s not in the end as completely satisfying as Miller at his best in the plays we know and love, but it is a compelling study in treachery and probity and the ongoing struggle for social justice for the working man. It all makes for a genuinely exciting evening, with unexpected and twists and turns in a story perhaps more fast-moving yet less in-depth than in Miller’s dedicated stage plays.

By Judi Herman

Photography by Manuel Harlan

The Hook runs until Saturday 27 June. 7.45pm & 2.30pm. £10-£29. Royal & Derngate, Northampton, NN1 1DP; 016 0462 6222. www.royalandderngate.co.uk

The show then moves to Liverpool Wednesday 1 - Saturday 25 July. 7.30pm. £12-£20. Everyman, Liverpool L1 9BH; 015 1709 4776. www.everymanplayhouse.com

Review: On her third helping of The Merchant of Venice, Judi Herman has a discomfiting but enthralling evening

The Merchant of Venice production photos_ 2015_Photo by Hugo Glendinning (c) RSC _MER_157 Don't let the buggers grind you down. Try to come over as laid back. They wear a strange eclectic mix of what they see as achingly trendy, or sharp city wear, set off with flamboyant footwear in bright – too bright – poster colours. So wear a dingy blouson over an old cardigan and keep your dignity, simply wipe off their spit when they show their contempt for you. This could be what's going through Shylock's mind in Makram J Khoury's finely calibrated performance, which positively radiates a relaxed gravitas.

It is to be hoped that Khoury, the popular, award-winning Palestinian-Israeli actor didn't base it too closely on his experience as a man caught between two worlds in his native country. Certainly when Christian Venice shows its contempt by spitting on Shylock's "Jewish gabardine", the gasp of horror that runs through the audience is even more of a shock wave than the similar audience reaction when this treatment is meted out to Jonathan Pryce's dignified Shylock at Shakespeare's Globe.

Khoury’s trajectory is frighteningly clear here, from distracted father outraged by his daughter Jessica’s's elopement and her profligate spending and disregard for her dead mother's ring, to vengeful would-be killer. Given the special disgust displayed towards him by Jamie Ballard's alarmingly volatile Antonio, it's hardly surprising he seizes the opportunity to whet his knife and prepare his scales in open court, now entirely indifferent to what the hostile Christians make of his behaviour.

This is the third time this year that I have seen this problematical play and each time I am struck by how little stage time Shylock shares with Jessica. Shakespeare magnifies the awkwardness of what today would be dubbed their dysfunctional relationship by showing so little of it onstage. And, in the few moments they do share together, Jessica is in turmoil over her imminent elopement and the need to deceive her father to make her escape.  Here director Polly Findlay and designer Johannes Schültz trap Scarlett Brookes’ awkward, gawky Jessica at an impossibly high window in her father’s house. So there even less connection as he leaves for the dinner with his new creditor Bassanio that will give her the window of opportunity she needs to escape with her Christian lover Lorenzo (James Corrigan), as well as her father’s jewels and ducats.

Indeed Findlay, sharing her vision with Schültz and costume designer Anette Guther, builds an especially alienating dystopic Venice, where it’s easy for the audience to share Shylock’s discomfiture. Belmont, wealthy heiress Portia‘s nearby estate, similarly offers little in the way of refuge, even to its owner and her chosen guests from the city, let alone the foreign suitors at whom this Venetian lady pokes fun. The audience is reflected in the huge brass mirrored wall atop which Jessica appears and there is nowhere to hide on a thrust stage with only a mysterious (and perhaps more distracting than hypnotic) pendulum on which to rest the eye, joined briefly later by three symbolic ‘caskets’ lowered from above.

There is certainly nowhere to hide in Venice or Belmont, from creditors in the city, from the whim of a dead father, controlling his daughter’s choice of husband from beyond the grave. And there is nothing to distract from the actors, who first take the stage from seats on Brechtian benches at the rear. If anything, Guther’s flamboyant, jarringly disparate costumes are the set dressing. Patsy Ferran’s intelligent Portia might be grateful to don sober lawyer’s garments, after the hard poster colours of the little shift dresses that seem to be current Venetian jet set fashion here.

There is, though, a shock awaiting her at court. For at the centre of Findlay’s reading of the play is what turns out to be a love triangle, where Portia sees what the audience has known from the start – she must share her new husband Bassanio (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd) with Ballard’s tortured (and I don’t mean by Shylock), depressive Antonio, who claims him with a desperate kiss as he awaits his fate. It certainly makes sense for Portia to channel her discomfiture and anger into her inspired and literally blood-chilling case against Shylock. So this ‘comedy’ becomes even more of a problem play, if Portia and Bassanio’s wedded bliss looks uncertain before their marriage is even consummated.

Meanwhile, Khoury’s now coldly focused, implacable Shylock makes the most of his day in court, almost whetting his knife on Antonio’s bare chest. No wonder Antonio screams and cringes. And though Shylock loses everything, he is perhaps more incredulous than broken and makes it clear that playing for sympathy - from court or audience – is beneath him.  Even he is upstaged by a tsunami of banknotes raining down on the court – effective but perhaps heavy-handed symbolism.

The Merchant of Venice production photos_ 2015_Photo by Hugo Glendinning (c) RSC _MER_148

By the time Portia and her faithful waiting gentlewoman Nerissa (an especially warm and literally supportive performance from Nadia Albina – these girls are close) return to Belmont, Jessica and her Lorenzo do not look entirely comfortable with each other either. Jessica seems almost aggressive as she and Lorenzo top each other with their references to pairs of mythical lovers who might have shared such an enchanted night as theirs, alone on Portia’s estate while its mistress is away at court. The magic should have been enhanced by a floor gradually lit by candle after candle filling the stage, the effect doubled by that mirror wall. But their brash brightness is too obvious a visualisation of Lorenzo’s description of "the floor of heaven thick inlaid with patines of bright gold"; the patina on the brass of that mirror would have done nicely. Perhaps the only real beauty in the evening is provided by the choristers, "young-eyed cherubim" indeed, to quote Lorenzo again, singing Marc Tritschler’s unearthly plainsong from the heights of the set. It’s a particularly discomfiting and alienating reading of this difficult play and though the creative vision is clear, it is perhaps too much of a straitjacket for the drama.

By Judi Herman

The Merchant of Venice runs until Wednesday 2 September (broadcast live in cinemas on 22 July). 7pm & 1pm. £5-£60. Royal Shakespeare Theatre, CV37 6BB; 084 4800 1110. www.rsc.org.uk

Review: I Wish to Die Singing – Judi Herman is moved by this shocking and timely documentary

I Wish to Die Singing – Siu-see Hung © Scott Rylander© Scott Rylander

The January issue of Jewish Renaissance highlighted the life and work of Czech writer Franz Werfel, who played a significant part in bringing the Armenian genocide to the notice of both Europe and America after he came across survivors living in desperate conditions in Damascus in the late 1920s. He also wrote a devastating novel, based on a defiant stand by Armenian survivors, The Forty Days of Musah Dagh. Nonetheless, a century later, the terrible massacres that began in 1915 are still not universally recognized as genocide, to stand alongside the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide in the record of atrocities inflicted by humankind on their fellows.

If you walk through the Armenian Quarter in Jerusalem’s Old City, you will find, as I did, the memorial to the Armenian genocide. If you read celebrity pages in newspapers, it’s hard to avoid the Kardashians, currently probably the most famous bearers of one of those distinctive Armenian surnames. They came together last week as the Jerusalem memorial became the focus of protests demanding the recognition of the Armenian genocide, 100 years after it began; and Kim, the most renowned Kardashian, visited the memorial in Yerevan, Armenia’s capital, to pay her respects and play her part in raising world awareness of the genocide that inspired Hitler. And Kardashian and Hitler come together in Neil McPherson’s documentary drama which also plays its part in demanding recognition for the annihilation of 1.5 million men, women and children.

How do you tell the story of a genocide when the basic facts are unknown to most? How best to convey the attempt by the Ottoman Government to systematically exterminate all its Armenian subjects? Holocaust plays often work by letting the story of the one or the few stand for the story of the many, so that the wider picture emerges from the narrative. But, when no one knows the narrative and there is an ongoing story to tell, how can you convey the scale, the politics, the disputed facts and the personal stories?

Neil McPherson employs documentary drama, and to shocking effect, charting the history of wholesale killings, massacres, forced labour and death marches to the Syrian desert. Eye-witness testimonies give chilling evidence of what happened in 1915 and the cast take on the challenge of playing many roles. The convention of delivering verbatim texts proves extraordinarily powerful and just occasionally constraining.

Cleverly, MacPherson frames the events with an illustrated lecture, complete with slides, narrated with lucid authority by Jilly Bond who guides and links up the scenes. She first grabs attention with portraits of well-known personalities of Armenian heritage (Kim K for one) and Hitler’s chilling quote, “Who after all speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” Bond points up other parallels with the Jews of Europe and their fate. The Armenian community was a Christian minority in a Muslim society. Many earned their living as bankers. They became “second-class citizens”.

Director Tommo Fowler steers his dedicated cast through a chilling 90 minutes on Phil Lindley’s appropriately minimalist set. Rob Mills brooding lighting and Max Pappenheim’s intricate soundscape add to the atmosphere of menace, after a brief moment of sunshine, light and laughter as the Armenian community celebrates Easter 1915 with song and dance.

Bruce Yadoo and Tom Mansfeld turn in strong performances playing the older men, from victims to perpetrators - and outside observers. One of these observers is Henry Morgenthau, the US’s Jewish ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, who, like Werfel, saw all too clearly the fate of the Armenians. His writings are just one the many sources for McPherson’s thorough research.

Delivering child testimonies, Tamar Karabetyan, Siu-See Hung (pictured above) and Bevan Celestine movingly convey the child-like direct observation that represents so much sorrow. It’s all the more moving because the three also represent different cultural backgrounds, a reminder, along with programme notes on the eight stages of genocide  (from a briefing paper at the US State Dept), of how the celebration of cultural diversity and the dehumanization of the other might be different  sides of the same coin.

The wrap-up between surviving grandmother (Kate Binchey) and unschooled granddaughter alone would have provided a fine ending but the story does not finish there.

Poignantly, press night was Friday 24 April, the date the Turkish government placed under arrest over 200 Armenian community leaders in Constantinople, which is therefore regarded as the date of the start of the genocide. Today, most of the world’s governments, including Turkey, the USA, the UK and, surprisingly, Israel, still refuse to use the “g-word", preferring euphemistic terms like “tragedy” in the game of geo-political friendships.

While there’s all too much information to communicate in limited time, McPherson and the Finborough, where he is artistic director, must be congratulated on playing their part in demanding long overdue recognition for the terrible fate of those 1.5 million Armenians as genocide.

By Judi Herman

I Wish to Die Singing – Voices from the Armenian Genocide runs until Saturday 16 May. 7.30pm & 3pm. £18, £16 concs. Finborough Theatre, 118 Finborough Rd, SW10 9ED; 084 4847 1652. www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk

Review: The Jew of Malta – Bracingly amoral violence on the island of Malta (circa 1565)

The Jew Of Malta, Swan, Stratford-On-Avon, Press 2015 © RSC The different faiths are rubbing along together until politics and money get in the way and then all sides justify their actions as religious duty and malicious antisemitism provides a rationale for action. Not the Middle East today but Malta circa 1565 in Marlowe’s play, The Jew of Malta.

Here Malta is ruled by the Knights of St John (Knights Hospitaller) under Governor Ferneze, ostensibly as an outpost against the Ottoman Turks, although Ferneze is happy to pay the Turks protection money not to be invaded by them. Barabas is the richest merchant in the region but Ferneze plunders his fortune to pay off the threatening Ottomans. The Christian Knights justify taking his money – as a Jew, Barabas is cursed and sinful. He is understandably indignant: “What, bring you Scripture to confirm your wrongs? Preach me not out of my possessions.”

This is evidently a revenge tragedy – the dominant motive is revenge, here for a series of very real injuries. But Marlowe’s play goes beyond revenge, satirising religious hypocrisy, statesmanship and the human condition. We know where Marlowe stands when the Prologue, in the person of Machievel(li) says, “I, Machievel, count religion but a childish toy. 
And hold there is no sin but ignorance.” No one individual or community’s stupidity or vices are spared Marlowe’s ridicule and criticism in what might be the earliest film noir script.

Because this injustice is the trigger for Barabas to embark on a road to hell paved with anything but good intentions. Nobody – Christian, Turk, or even Jew – is safe from his increasingly bloody revenge, especially once he finds a kindred spirit in a newly-purchased slave Ithamore, and together they revel in ever more ingenious methods of murder and even mass slaughter.

At first sight, Marlowe’s play, with its eponymous anti-hero Barabas (whose namesake is the criminal released by Pilate instead of Jesus, at the behest of a Jewish mob according to the Christian Gospels), looks even more uncomfortable viewing for a Jewish audience than The Merchant of Venice. And it seems like a worryingly timely revival in the light of recent antisemitism. But 16th-century Malta is a bear pit where Turks and Christians fight indiscriminately and Marlowe allows Barabas to have the stage to himself to confide in his audience before they get to meet any of the island’s other amoral schemers (including a brace of villainous friars) who are, after all, after his money – or his fair daughter Abigail. And even before Barabas appears, his gleeful Machiavellian plotting comes with the endorsement of Machiavelli himself in that prologue.

The Jew Of Malta, Swan, Stratford-On-Avon, Press 2015 © RSC

Director Justin Audibert’s exhilarating revival points up Marlowe’s vicious humour and intelligence with Jasper Britton’s ruthless Jew as its poster boy. It has all the colour and sweep of a Renaissance painting, thanks to designer Lily Arnold’s glorious vision. Her staging is simple – marble-like steps sweep down from an upper level to the lower thrust stage which has as its focus a trough of water that proves wonderfully useful. And she fills the space with an entrancing palette of colour on costumes that swirl around the place, enhancing Lucy Cullingford’s choreography and in their turn enhanced by Oliver Fenwick’s lighting.

Audibert’s cast clearly enjoy creating equally colourful characters, led by Britton’s frighteningly practical and fearsomely intelligent Barabas, and Lanre Malaolu’s gleeful Ithamore, revelling in his promotion to partner in crime. Geoffrey Freshwater and Matthew Kelly, as those two wicked friars, make as gleeful a pair of plotters as any on the Renaissance stage. There’s attractively seductive work from Beth Cordingley’s avaricious courtesan, and Catrin Stewart makes a feisty Abigail, hand in glove with her father until… Well, that would telling, you’ll have to go and see it to find out!

The terrifc ad hoc klezmer band has added value for those in the know. The pre-show music is traditional wedding fare, ‘Chosen Kallah Mazel Tov’ ('Good Luck to Groom and Bride') and the show opens with another Jewish wedding staple – Barabas leads the cast singing ‘Erev Shel Shoshanim’ ('Evening of Roses') from the Song of Songs, in the popular setting by Yosef Harar and Moshe Dor (timed well for the production’s early April opening as it is part of the Passover Service too). And throughout the show Gareth Ellis’s musicians bring their own colour to the action, thanks also to Jonathan Girling’s original music.

Does it all leave a bad taste in the mouth though, as the action reaches its apocalyptic climax? By that time, everyone has behaved badly and Barabas is not the only one to face retribution. So however Marlowe’s contemporaries reacted, modern audiences are no more likely to burst into gleeful laughter than they would at the climax of Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd.

By Judi Herman

The Jew of Malta runs until Tuesday 8 September. 7.30pm & 1.30pm. £5-£45. Swan Theatre, Straford-On-Avon CV37 7LS; 084 4800 1110. www.rsc.org.uk