Archive for May, 2011

Unmythable Blue Elephant Theatre 25 May

May 25, 2011


I had a reasonable idea of what this would be like once I’d seen that there were three performers, none of them female.  It’s the kind of mildly-amusing, mildly-educational show that certainly used to tour schools up and down the country.  Aimed at ages 10-12 I’d say.  There weren’t any children in the first-night audience though; they mainly looked like friends of the cast.

So we had three guys dressed essentially in jeans and blue-ish T-shirts.  At the beginning, they welcomed the audiewnce enthusiastically and passed round bowls of olives.  Paul O’Mahony as Jason announced that we were The Argonauts and to show how heroic we were we should shout and cheer every time he said ‘The Argonauts’.  And we did.  The idea was that we were in a ship on our way to Colchis and they would relate legends to pass the time.

So they did.  There was certainly an impressive number of quick changes of role in the story of Demeter and Persephone, where five characters were played by two actors, switching all the time.  As tends to be the cazse in these things, I thought the representation of the story at journey’s end in Colchis worked best, because it was long enough to give some characterisation with Richard Darborne as a North Country Medea, Paul O’Mahony as a very narcissistic Jason, and Troels Hagen Findsen as Marlon Brando as Don Corleone as King Aetes.

You might say that £ 10 for an hour of three performers is rather short weight.  Certainly the two-night revival of Ovid’s Metamorphoses at the Greenwich Theatre offers the same kind of thing, but with  sets and costumes and music and women and glamour and money off as well (my views of an earlier outing here).

Antigone Southwark Playhouse 21 May

May 21, 2011


'Antigone' is not a liberal (or feminist) tract and Antigone is not Sophie Scholl! (From Southwark Playhouse Facebook page)

So at long last someone has solved the problems of staging Greek tragedy.  While the pre-show publicity had threatened all kinds of nonsense about the struggle for freedom in the contemporary Middle East, the production got it right.  Antigone confined in a chador as in her social position is not some feminist heroine but on the edge of madness struggling with a conflict that is really past bearing, but the adamantine nature of a Sophoclean hero means she has to go on and accept the impossible.  Here Creon’s suffering effectively mirrors hers but he’s really out of his league–he wants to refuse the burden of his own necessity but then finds even that is beyond him.

The setting, which to me was essentially Iranian-Moghul, worked really well!  There was a sense of conventions which you did not have to fully understand.  You could accept that these things could happen there, that people might be constrained by the curse of the Labdacids without needing to worry about who they might be.  The chorus was about the best-handled I’ve ever see, with singing, dancing and appropriate reactions to what was going on among the principals–a triumph of precise direction.  The setting also meant that the chief characters were gorgeously apparrelled, as they would have been in Athenian performances of 2500 years ago, and appeared as people whose fates could sway a realm.

Moghul court (I'd say) with obligatory fatigued soldier in background (from Southwark Playhouse FB page again)

I thought that Eleanor Wyld was very good as the nervous, struggling and overborne Antigone and the pain of Jamie Glover as Kreon effectively mirrored hers.  And I liked Deborah Grant’s Eurydike, full of foreboding, as well.  I think the thing only needs a little running-in and some more consistency to become a complete triumph.  I didn’t understand why we had Christopher Ragland doing the guard who had failed to prevent Polyneikes being buried as an American soldier caught out at Abu Ghraib, and Edward Petherbridge gave us a compositely-Shakespearean Tiresias, delivering the Fool’s material in the manner of Lear.  I’d also seen the obligatory attributes of katiemitchellism–TV cameras, lecterns, soldiers in modern uniform, clipboards–rather too many times before.

Quite often whoever it was who was speaking remained unlit–that may have been deliberate in the case of Antigone, unable to break free from the darkness that surrounded her, but it happened with other characters too.  Some of the voice-overs I couldn’t hear and a few words of dialogue were blotted out by trains passing overhead.

But this production promises to become very very very good indeed…

Pina 3D Curzon Mayfair 19 May

May 21, 2011


Some sound ideas on 'The Rite of Spring'

Let’s start with the 3D:  that was harsh and distracting–why were the subtitles hanging in the air somewhere?–and taking the specs off did no good, since the system used meant the background images were blurred that way.

The film was based around scenes from some of Pina Bausch’s most famous (I think) works, interspersed with dancing in Wuppertal and around about and dancers’ reminiscences in voice-over as they stared witlessly at (or past) the camera.  That was unpleasantly reminiscent of Wings of Desire, though fortunately nothing in this Wenders film was anything like as bad as Paris, Texas.

On the positive side, a lot of the dancing was interesting–Bausch certainly had some sound ideas about The Rite of Spring, and I recognised Cafe Muller as an old acquaintance after having seen it featured in a film by Almodovar–Habla con ella, perhaps.  I enjoyed the wide-ranging choice of music and the girls’ floaty dresses.

Cafe Muller

I did feel that the dance sequences were making the same point rather too often for my liking.  I got quite interested in Wuppertal and its elevated railway–who were the people who (presumably) went night after night, decade after decade to cutting-edge modern dance in a medium-sized industrial city south of the Ruhr?

My advice:

i)    see it in 2D if you have to;

ii)  much better to go and see the Pina Bausch company if you can;

iii)  continue to keep clear of Wim Wenders!

Day After Night (Anita Diamant)

May 20, 2011


This book unleashed a storm of indifference and fierce consensus at Try Books!

It was the story of four Jewish women in a British detention camp in Palestine after the end of WWII, and people found that they couldn’t remember which was which.  In fact, they said that almost anyone else would have been more interesting than Zorah, the embittered Pole; Leonie the chic Parisienne; Tedi, the tall blonde from Holland and Shayndel the ex-partisan.  We would have been more interested to learn about Esther, the Polish woman pretending to be a Jew so she could continue to take care of her murdered employer’s little boy; Bryce, the conflicted camp commander; Tirzah, who seemed to be preparing for the role of a (Biblical) Esther or Judith, and then didn’t do anything…Also and equally either our heroines’ back story or what happened to them next would have been more interesting.

As it was, they sat around on their fannies eating until the Palmach rescued them and that was about it.  Maybe there should have been some recipes included?  The errors in and and about Hebrew weren’t really interesting, just stupid.  It had the insipid taste of a Young Adult book–there was nothing there that a YA would have found hard to understand, in spite of Leonie’s backstory in a wartime brothel.  And that seemed bizarre to me–her family is taken and the local tobacconist’s wife just happens to have a brothel waiting to receive her?  With three ‘nieces’ already?  That seems a bit much even for France.

The plain plodding uninspired unflavoured exposition of the story deprived it of nearly all savour.  We did wonder why she had bothered, since Primi Levi had already done the same kind subjects–displaced and liberated Jews beginning to be alive and wondering what was going to happen to them–infinitely better.

But I don’t think it was a case of offensive exploitation of the Holocaust, and there was some mild enlightenment on the early days of the Jewish State on offer.  Maybe some recipes would have made it more interesting?  Perhaps not…

So because thou art lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spew thee out of my mouth.

Henry VI Part 1 Rose Theatre 15 May

May 15, 2011


Photo from Robert Piwko Facebook page

I wondered beforehand what kind of space the Rose Theatre was going to be.  The picture above gives some idea:  there’s the normal kind of archaeological excavation with a gallery or walkway around it.   On this side there’s enough space for a few rows of chairs and a playing space, while the corresponding walkway on the far side lets the actors process and display themselves; they can also use the space in-between (water, cement, excavations) for fighting.

In Henry VI the English are about to conquer France for good but are baulked by internal dissension springing from the boy-king failing to exercise leadership on their own side together with the dissolute and treacherous Dauphin and the devil-worshipping, cowardly and promiscuous Joan of Arc on the other.

Well.   The boy overdoes his case there.  The one thing the text does credit Joan and Charles with is acting in the best interests of France.  The combination of a broken sensualist and a delusional prostitute who are nevertheless touched with grace because their cause is just is one that would have worked mightily for a better writer than a different writer from Shakespeare, but here we are focused on intestine strife among the English instead.

I wouldn't be so keen on that red rose if I were you lad (from Robert Piwko FB page)

At the beginning, I was a bit confused because the English were wearing fleur-de-lys patterned stuff as above, which I took to be French.  But the English had red fleurs-de-lys and the French blue, so they were all the same really…The production made effective use of the unusual setting, and I thought that Morgan Thomas was an absolute standout as an efficiently malign Bishop of Winchester, while Oliver Lavery looked highly convincing as the Duke of Gloucester.  I admired what David Vaughan Knight did with the caricature role of the Dauphin as well.

The staging meant that it was very difficult to make out the words of La Pucelle (Suzanne Marie) where she reveals herself to be in league with dark spirits etc etc.  Well they may be embarrassing, but we should be able to hear them and make up our own minds.

My reservation about this show is that I think the text really needs large-scale bling, glorious pomp and circumstance to bring it off–I’m far from sure it’s strong enough to stand unaided in a small-scale production like this one.

But definitely worth a visit!

Chekhov’s Shorts Greenwich Theatre 11 May

May 12, 2011


Blurred whipping of 'The Bear' from trailer on and with a different actress

Our readers will surely know that Anton Chekhov started off by writing short pieces for humorous magazines as a medical student in an attempt to make some money.  Very short in some cases.  An advert I saw in the window of the newsagent across the street from the theatre had the air of early Chekhov:


Anyway, in the theatre itself Anton Pavlovich’s early years were represented by:

The Evils of Tobacco
The Dimwit
The Bear


Swan Song
The Proposal

All of these elicited laughter from an audience that was not in truth over-numerous:  they were timidly clumped together in the hall in the same kind of way that the touring sets found themselves a bit overwhelmed by the space on stage.

To summarise:  these pieces are what we would call sketches (maybe The Bear and The Proposal are a little more substantial than that).  I thought that The Bear was the best and funniest piece–the audiences as a whole sounded as though it agreed–you could see Popova and Smirnov turning into Beatrice and Benedick if they were given a little more time.  A little underplaying would not have come amiss–I think the actors should seem to respond to what’s just happened rather than seeming to come out with what they were going to say anyway.  The Proposal was funny too, but the panic of everything being about to fall apart was somehow missing.

But certainly worth a visit!

Proof Greenwich Playhouse 8 May

May 8, 2011


Picture from Sell A Door Facebook page

In terms of numbers, I think there were nine people in the audience so we outnumbered the four actors easily enough.

The idea of the the play is that Catherine’s mad-and-brilliant maths professor dad has died, after she has sacrificed much of her youth and her own studies to caring for him, and there remain what may or may not be important results.  We have a conflict with her sister Claire who is rather the Martha to her Mary and Harold her father’s former student, who may be her saviour and love interest, if not exactly Prince Hal.

I had the feeling that the idea of the thing was good, but it was spoiled some imprecise execution.  The old professor and his discoveries were copied from John Nash, but about twenty years too late.  As played here by Marcus Taylor, he was not believably schizophrenic–more like your typical academic–and Holly Easterbrook as his allegedly depressed daughter was extremely beautiful (can’t be helped!) but also uniformly well-turned out.  The only one to show signs of recognisable mental distress was Amy Burke as Claire-trying-to-hold-it all-together.

So these complaints may be a bit pedantic, and no doubt a Chicagoan would have laughed at the accents while they seemed fine to me.  But if you’re going to flog old mathematical jokes like 1729 it’s a pity to ignore thew one about the extrovert mathematician staring at your shoes when he talks to you, which would have given a useful clue here.

Still, there were some instances of agreeably snappy dialogue:

HAL: Some friends of mine are in this band – they’re playing at a bar up on Diversity, probably go on around 2, 2:30, I said I would be there.


HAL: They’re all in the math department. They’re really great. They have this good song it’s called “I.” Lower case I. They just stand there and don’t play anything for three minutes.

KATHERINE: Imaginary number.

HAL: Math joke. You see why they are way down the bill (laughter).

KATHERINE: A long drive to see some nerds in a band.

HAL: God, I thought when people say that it’s not that long a drive.

KATHERINE: So they are nerds.

HAL: They are raging geeks but they are geeks that, you know, can dress themselves (laughter) — hold down a job at major universities. Some of them have switched from glasses to contacts. Play sports. They play in a band. In that sense they make you question the whole set of terms, geek, nerd, dweeb, Dilbert, paste eater.

And overall I enjoyed the performance:  although the play was horribly and multiply derivative, it was also (paradoxically) about something different, and I agreed with the message even if on this occasion the muck that the flower grew out of wasn’t very mucky.

I should have pointed out that Dan Cohen did very well as the younger (grad student) and older (colleague) Harold Dobbs.

Definitely worth a visit!

The Public Eye Brockley Jack 5 May

May 5, 2011


I was surprised at how good this play was.  The idea is that Charles Sidley an accountant has hired a firm of private detectives to check up on his wife, who is 22 years younger than him and used to be a waitress.  A new operative visits him after the old one has fallen down a lift-shaft in Goodge Street.  It’s not possible to say a great deal more without giving the game away, but I thought the thing had a genuinely Shakespearean combination of truth, beauty and dottiness as the characters struggled through comical misadventures to find their true selves.

It was also very well done by the actors:  Joseph Rye, Michael Lawrence and (as Belinda, after our expectations had been roused) Lucie Howard.  I’m completely mystified as to why this production hasn’t had more notice paid to it:  it was really very very good, and well worth seeing on the two remaining nights of its run.

If I may venture some mild…remarks:  the staging seems to be set in the high 1960s, when the play itself dates from 1962 and is really about the old order no longer being able to sustain itself, rather than a new one that has come to birth.  I didn’t think that someone should have got the creases out of Belinda’s miniskirt.  There weren’t any programmes, so I have to guess that Ford Transit Productions are this outfit from NZ, who don’t seem to be updating their website.

I was glad to see that the sexual and other grievous failings of tax avoiders were already well understood in 1962.  The Brockley Jack now seems to have the most opulent toilets of any pub theatre in the entire universe as well…

On clustering ‘Try Books!’ people

May 4, 2011

Agglomerative clustering: better with left-click

We can also look at grouping people based on the ‘distances’ between their scores.  The distances are going to be a mixture of how people felt about the books and what their scoring conventions are:  if A and B both use 5 to mean ‘not very good’, 7 to mean ‘OK’ and 8 to mean good, then the distances are going to mean something real, while if B indicated ‘not very good’ by 3, ‘OK’ by 5 and 9 to mean ‘good’, then a lot of the distance between them will be down to  different conventions.  We are also confine to a subset of members such that everyone shares at least one scored book with each of the other members (or we’ll end up dividing by zero).  The subset presented here isn’t the only one possible.

Anyway, the diagram above shows  the results of agglomerative clustering, while the one below shows those obtained from divisive clustering.

Divisive clustering: left-click advised

These two look reasonably similar, which is reassuring.  There are two stable lower-level groups in Candida/Aruni/Jo/Rob and Judy/Jane.  It’s not clear what the higher-level structure here means, but then the original ‘distances’ are not so easy to interpret either.  Apart from Judy/Jane, we don’t see that much association between the people who in theory come together, nor is there much evidence of solidarity amongst the token males.

Finally, we can consider multi-dimensional scaling:


This also displays the grouping Candida/Aruni/Jo/Rob, who must win a prize for being consistent agreement under a variety of analyses.  Otherwise there’s not a great deal of easily-interpretable structure!

More about ‘Try Books!’ books

May 1, 2011

Dendrogram: May be improved by left-click

Following on from the previous question, we can consider the how the books read by ‘Try Books!’ are related to each other:  Can they be divided into groups such that the members of a group are like each other and unlike the members of other groups?

The data is limited, but we can try the following approach.  Imagine books X and Y.  Person A marks X as 5 and Y as 7; Person B marks X as 8 and Y as 9; person Z marks them both as 6.  Then we can define a ‘squared distance’ between the books as (5 – 7)^2 + (8 – 9)^2 + (6-6)^2 = 4 + 1 + 0 = 5.  Since there are 3 observations here, we can derive an ‘average distance’ as (5/3)^0.5 = 1.29.  We can derive ‘average’ distances between all the books assessed in the same way, and apply some standard techniques to dealing with those distances.

One approach is to use clustering (agglomerative hierarchical clustering in this case) to produce a dendrogram as above.  The most obvious remark here is that the main branching is between The Resurrectionist and the rest.  Perhaps this is not too surprising.

Multidimensional scaling 'map': Left-click again

Another approach is to use multidimensional scaling, where we try to place the points on two dimensions in an arrangement that is consistent with the distances we have derived between them.  This time, not only is The Resurrectionist on its own in a corner, but Pride and Prejudice and Zombies doesn’t have any friends either.   There are some clusters to be seen, but it’s not clear how many of them have a natural interpretation.  It’s interesting to see that If This Is A Man and The Master and Margarita have ended up together when they both feature on for instance Le Monde‘s 100 Books of the Century.