This play by Rajiv Joseph was a thought- provoking exploration of the themes of beauty, power and class. Two guards take the dawn shift at the site where the Taj Mahal is being built. They cannot look at the building as it is not their place to do so and neither can they turn their backs to take a look. The building is beautiful, some say the most beautiful building in the world. It was built with the hands of 20,000 men. These hands become important as the play moves towards its end. We do not see these other men, or indeed any other characters other than Babur, played by Darren Kuppan , and Humayun, played by Danny Ashok. Babur is the curious one, ready to dream of a different life, while Hamayun is the guard who knows his place and who follows orders… any order that is given to him. This too becomes important as the play moves on.
The play uses a legend that the workers who built the Taj Mahal had their hands cut off so that they could not build anything as beautiful again. The two characters carry out this gruesome task but struggle with the idea that beauty can be protected in this way or that anyone could want the quest for beauty to end.
There is one flashback, included to throw the ending into sharper relief. Otherwise the play progresses from an ordinary dawn on one day to a tragic ending. Both actors were terrific with their own British accents used in part to remind us that the themes and circumstances are with us still. The poorest of the world are still used as labour in big building projects around the world and rulers still wield power in unexpected ways.
It is rare that I think any version of a book is better than the original. Stories which are told as a novel are created in that form for a reason and versions, for screen or stage, are often derivative rather than expansive. So, I was blown away by this theatrical interpretation by Simon Stephens of Mark Haddon’s original novel.
The 2003 novel is narrated by a young man called Christopher. He does not tell lies, not as he says because he is good but because he has asperger’s syndrome. His interest is in numbers and space. When he finds his neighbour’s dead dog in the night, he wants to find out who killed it. His investigations lead him to uncover family secrets, not least the fate of his mother who he believed died two years before.
Christopher’s view of the world is one without pretence or metaphor. He may not understand the nuance of social interaction but his straightforward approach to people allows him to find the truth that is obscured for others.
The novel is brought to life by an ensemble that takes on the neighbours, family members and teachers that surround Christopher. Their presence on the stage throughout the action adds to the sense that others understand the world better than Christopher does. The stage is lit by grids of LED lights demarcating acting spaces and adding to the impression of a mind that is differently wired.
In the performance I saw the part of Christopher was played by Sam Newton, affecting as the young man who struggles to navigate a world he does not fully understand. In the end, the play is about difference, growing up and identity. I read the novel when it first appeared. I enjoyed it and I am glad I read it first but this production blew me away. It really was a case of a book coming to life.
I make a point of seeing every Matthew Bourne production I can. This show called ‘Early Adventures’ put together three dance pieces from the choreographer’s early career. As I came to his work quite late, I am so pleased to have the opportunity to see the earlier pieces.
‘Town and Country’ is a work of two halves, as suggested by the title. The ‘Town’ section was my favourite suggesting the British post-war world of Noel Coward and films such as ‘Brief Encounter’. Bourne’s talent lies partly in referencing cultural worlds in vignettes while building a sense of one story. He also represents love between two men without fuss. Love is where it falls and this is always made clear in Bourne’s work.
The other pieces, including the ‘Country’ half of ‘Town and Country’, are as much fun. The dancers exude a sense of joy as they perform and, whatever the production I have always come out of a Matthew Bourne work wondering why I never took up dance!
I have never watched the classic film ‘The Red Shoes’ all the way through but I have seen parts of it at various times, mostly when it is shown on television. I am a fan of Matthew Bourne, though, so a trip to London to see his new ballet was essential.
The production was unusual in that for the opening scene Bourne’s dancers looked like conventional ballet dancers. Throughout the story we return to scenes of rehearsals and there is the central ballet of The Red Shoes also performed for us. But this is Matthew Bourne so we know we are to see a creative representation of the film’s plot.
Vicky is the dancer who wants to catch the eye of the ballet impressario called Boris Lermontov. She joins the company along with Julian Craster, a young composer. The two flourish under the patronage of Lermontov until their growing feelings for each other get in the way. Vicky dances the star role in the ballet of the Red Shoes that ends the first act.
When Vicky and Julian have to leave the company, they end up in an East End music hall for the productions funnier scenes although this is not an enjoyable time for the young couple. The need to create and the need to dance consume them and as Vicky is reunited with the red shoes she is consumed by ballet in a way that mirrors the role she played in the ballet within this dance production.
Matthew Bourne’s dance productions are in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This play by Andy Barrett is a creative way of putting Tony Benn’s diaries, and therefore key parts of his life, on stage. I saw the one man performance by Philip Bretherton as Benn in a mostly empty theatre and thought it sad that people were missing out since these were the words of a man of integrity who believed that politics served the people.
I read all the published diaries over the years and I heard Tony Benn speak on several occasions, in halls and on rallies. He was the advocate of the causes I believed in and he was a voice of hope when electoral success was elusive. He reminded us never to give up hope but he also showed that standing by your principles is important especially when changing course to seek popular approval looks more inviting.
The play is structured around one night when Benn cannot sleep. In his study he shuffles through papers and listens to old tapes reminiscing about battles won and lost and people he knew who were part of the fight for social justice. Philip Bretherton has an approximation of the man who was well known to people on the left but the more he speaks Benn’s words, the more like him he grows.
I knew most of the anecdotes, knew the people he talked about, and knew the political events he remembered; I was aware of Tony Benn from the 70s onwards. For me, this was a fantastic evening in the theatre and it was so good to hear his words again. After the news from the USA this week, I wanted to remember politicians of integrity. Tony Benn was just such a politician.
Some visits to the theatre promise spectacle and some drama. I prefer the drama although I quite like spectacle as well. What really blows me away, though, is the play that gets under the skin, that keeps coming back, that remains vivid months after you have seen it.
When I saw ‘Iphigenia in Splott’ by Gary Owen at the National Theatre in London earlier in the year, I had no idea what to expect. My classical education being somewhat lacking, I was not even guided by the title. Then there was the idea of one person holding the stage on his or her own for a whole performance. It can work well or it can be little more than a storyteller relaying the story.
So this performance by Sophie Melville as Effie was amazing and seared itself on my brain. It is there still. The story of a young confrontational woman who hates the world and wants the world to know it leaves the audience emotionally drained. Things happen to Effie and she hasn’t had the best start in life so when she meets a man who pays her some attention it appears as if things are about to change for her. They don’t. We know they won’t, we know they will get worse but, by the time this is apparent to Effie, we have already seen under the brash exterior and our sympathies have shifted. That this has happened is testament to the talent of both writer and actress.
I can still hear Effie’s voice in my head. What she says, says a lot about the state of Britain and how our politicians care little about the most disadvantaged in society.
‘Iphigenia in Splott’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
I was fortunate to see the great actor Richard Johnson play Atticus Finch in the play version of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ when it came to Bath. Written by Christopher Sergel, the play worked best as a courtroom drama as this is the setting where the skill of Atticus Finch, as an attorney, is seen to its best advantage.
The scenes with Jem and Scout were less well realised but it would take very good casting to be able to live up to the book or the film. In any case, the drama is in the court. This is the place where the racism of the time and place was exposed yet stood intact. The outcome of the trial was never in doubt and the arguments expressed, although elegant to the ears of the liberal listener, could not overturn years of tradition entrenched by fear.
Interestingly, my memories of the play centre completely on Johnson as Atticus. I have little memory of the other actors or scenes which were dramatically expressed in book and film.
‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?