National Theatre: Port – Performance review

Star rating
***
A fantastic lead character takes you on an interesting journey,
but the drive of the narrative means it lacks some heart

Kate O'Flynn (Racheal Keats) and Mike Noble (Billy Keats) (credit Kevin Cummins)

Kate O’Flynn (Racheal Keats) and Mike Noble (Billy Keats) (credit Kevin Cummins)

Port marks another National Theatre collaboration between playwright Simon Stephens and director Marianne Elliott. Based in Stockport, the play moves through two-year periods in lead character Racheal’s life – spanning from ages 11 to 24, with each of the eight scenes providing a snapshot of where her beginnings in Stockport have taken her.

The earlier scenes work best: Racheal and her brother Billy sitting in a hospital canteen doing their homework as they await news of their dying Grandad, reveals the damaged relationship between Racheal and her father, and the appearance of her father’s rather creepy friend, known as the local flasher, provides an insight to the realities of Racheal’s upbringing. It gives you just enough information to understand the context without slowing down the pace.

The biggest jump, in terms of story, comes between Racheal working in a supermarket as a teen, to a New Year’s Eve party where, now in her 20s, Racheal’s  fiercely jealous and violent husband is first unveiled to the audience.

While the gritty scene between husband and wife was engaging, it felt as if there was a hole in the context. There were many moments of quiet at the start of this scene, which were most likely intended to display the tension between the couple, but having not known anything about Kevin before this scene, the quiet almost felt like first-date awkwardness: not at all where the scene heads. The need to move the story on seems to mean skipping some important emotional landmarks in Racheal’s life.

What was most enjoyable about Port was Kate O’Flynn’s performance – she managed the difficult transition from an excitable 11-year-old nattering non-stop to her mother to a 24-year-old damaged divorcee, with unfathomable ease. At no point did I question the realness of her character. O’Flynn made Racheal likeable and human – you don’t empathise with Racheal out of pity, but out of the sheer boldness of her character. Mike Noble’s Billy also contains a similar warmth and complexity.

Port presents some interesting issues through real, unshiny, lifelike characters you might even recognise from your hometown. But for me, personally, a really good play is one which stays with me on the journey home: when I wonder about the characters and what might of happened to them … I can’t say I felt this way about Port. Perhaps a few more moments where the audience could get inside the heads of the characters a bit more, rather than tracing the narrative, would have brought some more heart to this journey.

Port runs at the National Theatre until 24 March 2013. To find out more information, or to buy tickets, visit www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/port

Rachel Creaser is the editorial assistant for Teaching Drama. 

National Theatre: Timon of Athens – performance review

Star rating
****
One of Shakespeare’s more obscure plays brought to the stage of the National with a modern twist.

The National Theatre’s contribution to the Cultural Olympiad (Credit: Johan Persson)

This production of Timon of Athens is the National Theatre’s contribution to the World Shakespeare Festival and the Cultural Olympiad – and what an interesting choice to make.

Not only does it showcase one of Shakespeare’s lesser-known works, but director Nicholas Hytner has decided to use it to touch upon the world-wide financial crisis and the societal obsession with money.

The first act is stylish and modern, with Timon’s dinner guests appearing in an array of designer clothing, schmoozing one other on slick designer furniture – comparable to a scene from Made in Chelsea, especially with Tom Robertson’s humorous, middle-class toff performance of Ventidius. But with Timon’s change in fortunes, and no real friends to count upon, his world falls into disrepair and he then must reside among the desolate foundations of the city’s skyscrapers.

The cast’s performances are very enjoyable, with Simon Russell Beale meeting both demands of Timon’s generous nature and then becoming a hater of human kind. There are very enjoyable moments of humour, laced within the tragedy. The set and design is imaginative and interesting to observe.

But, however much life and modernity director Nicholas Hytner has tried to bring to the play, it’s just not one of Shakespeare’s best works. The second act lacks the energy of the first, and with Timon becoming an anti-humanist from the betrayal of his friends, you feel little warmth towards his bitterness.

If you are to see a production of Timon of Athens, this is a great one to pick and the National has made the best of what is thought to be one of Shakespeare’s most problematic plays.

Timon of Athens closes on 1 November. But, if you are unable to make it to the South Bank venue, you can catch the final performance as part of NT Live – where it will be broadcast to cinemas across the globe.

To find the closest venue to you broadcasting Timon of Athens on 1 November visit NT Live. For other information about the production, visit www.nationaltheatre.org.uk/shows/timon-of-athens.

National Theatre: Staging War Horse Exhibition

If you’re in London, walking on the South Bank, perhaps looking for a free theatre activity to indulge in, why not pop into the National Theatre to view the Staging War Horse Exhibition? It is being held in the Lyttelton Exhibition Area, which Teaching Drama did struggle to find at first among the winding staircases of the National.

Many free exhibitions can tend to be a bit ropey, with only have one or two props from the show on display, surrounded by lots of promotional material for tickets. This War Horse exhibition however, is an exception to that rule. Bringing War Horse to the stage involved every department of the National, this exhibition looks at all of the contributions that came together to create the play.

The literature on the walls reveals the process of taking War Horse from page to stage – starting with Michael Morpurgo’s book and then developing the concept with the National and South African company Handspring Puppet Company. One of the most interesting resources to view as part of the exhibition is the video footage of the original rehearsals which took place at the National’s studio space. It shows performers exploring the use of puppets to tell the story of War Horse.There are also a number of other videos which contain interviews with puppet makers and lighting designers talking about why they chose certain design elements.

Props from the performance are on display and a giant fact sheet containing all of War Horses vital statistics. Another nice interactive element is a projector that allows visitors to experiment with using shadow puppets, an element which was included in the original production.

For a free exhibit, this has a lot of information to offer. If you have a passion for adaptation and exploring how it is done, or have a soft spot for War Horse it is well worth a visit if you are in the area.

The exhibit is free to visit and will continue until 9 September 2012.

Shakespeare: staging the world – exhibition review

Star Rating
****
A great connection between context and text. For KS5+ students or for teachers looking to explore the world of Shakespeare that much more.

Shakespeare: staging the world is not your usual Shakespeare exhibition – it is not the Bard’s own work which is at the fore, the exhibition instead focuses on the world which surrounded Shakespeare and how that shaped the content of his plays. The accompanying catalogue says: ‘Shakespeare’s audiences learned at the playhouse what was happening abroad – or what they imagined to be happening abroad.’

The exhibition leads you through the various parts of the world which shaped many of Shakespeare’s plays. London is shown as it would have been during Shakespeare’s era – maps demonstrate the growing use of the Thames, which gave London greater connections to the rest of the world – significant to the influences on Shakespeare’s writing.

Modern elements breathe life into the exhibition. The RSC have filmed a number of short extracts from plays such as As You Like It and Henry V which are projected onto the walls amongst the items on show. This, if nothing else, truly connects the historical context to Shakespeare’s words. It also adds a somewhat more dynamic design element to the experience.

Items on display help to contextualise some of the significant moments in his writing. The political unease found in Macbeth is said to reflect the impact of Guy Fawkes gun powder plot on the country. The witches casting a spell to concoct a storm at sea is said to reflect James I’s fear that he would drown in a shipwreck at the work of the devil. Macbeth clearly engages much of the political paranoia that existed at the time.

The exhibition would be most useful for KS5+ students, specifically those studying Shakespeare’s plays performed in their original performance conditions. There is great contextual evidence for Macbeth, Othello, Julius Caesar and the many of his works based on monarchs of the country. Making that connection between Shakespeare’s work and what was happening at the time will help to open up students understanding on a whole new level – and may give them a different view point on his plays.

The general consensus on the popularity of Shakespeare is that it stems from his ability to be ‘all things to all men’ through his use of universal themes. Shakespeare: staging the world confirms that assertion, as it displays how in tune Shakespeare was with the world around him and that his plays reflected the contemporary issues affecting the world at the time.

Open until 25 November 2012. To book tickets visit: www.britishmuseum.org/whats_on/exhibitions/shakespeare_staging_the_world.aspx

PERFORM 2012: The round-up

PERFORM 2012 took place on 9–11 March at London’s Kensington Olympia. It is the sister event to MOVE IT, a dance event for performers, students and teachers. The event was busy, with many young students eager to dance and perform at the three-day event.

PERFORM was given its own corner of the hall, and was designed for those with interests in theatre and drama. There were big names exhibiting, such as Spotlight, The London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, Equity and The Stage. There was also a large selection of other college and performing institutions, talking to potential students and teachers about their courses and facilities. Companies were present not only to sell their products and courses, but also to provide advice and guidance to people considering a career in theatre.

There were a number of useful seminars running throughout the weekend, led by some very interesting and influential industry representatives. Teaching Drama attended ‘Teaching and the performing arts’, which was taken by Stagecoach course director Veronica Bennetts and founder Stephanie Manuel.

They talked about Stagecoach’s teacher training course, which can either help new teachers develop their skills, or provide a refresher course to teachers with more experience. The course, which runs twice a year, is now full until November – a testament to its popularity. Veronica Bennetts spoke very passionately about the need to teach creatively and to keep the initial enthusiasm students have at 3–4 years old through to the upper end of primary school.

Another useful seminar was ‘Drama school auditions – a guide to drama teachers’, which was leadby a former senior director at RADA, Ellis Jones (head of acting at RADA from 1993–2003). Also there to offer advice on the audition process was Lovesong actor Edward Bennett.  Both men provided useful tips and hints for preparing students for auditions.  With some audition panellists seeing 3000 students a year, this was a useful insight into what can help a student to stand out from the crowd.

Over the weekend there were also some hands-on, practical workshops available. There was an acting workshop for the under 12s, a workshop on essential voice warm-ups and an introduction to unarmed stage combat for anyone looking for an adrenaline rush.

While the major dance stage did occasionally impose upon the intimate talks taking place in smaller rooms, it did give the event an exciting atmosphere. PERFORM is not as big as MOVE IT, but this in fact becomes one of its benefits, as it gives students, teachers and performers the opportunity to network and chat to important figures in the industry.

So, if you’re a teacher with students considering drama school, or you yourself are thinking about further study through an MA or teaching course, come along next year and find out all you need to know from the people in the know.

www.performshow.co.uk

Scenes from an Execution – Review

Scenes from an Execution – Rose Bruford College Spring Season

This production of Howard Barker’s play, Scenes from an Execution, is the first in Rose Bruford’s spring season at London’s Unicorn Theatre. The season showcases the talents of their third year students, on- and off-stage, and gives the students valuable experience performing in, or working on, a production in a central London theatre. The production certainly stands up in the professional sphere, offering a captivating portrayal of Barker’s play with some promising talent on show.

The play focuses on the brilliant and defiant genius of the female Venetian painter Galactia (played by Laura Kirman). Commissioned by the state to paint a 100-foot-long canvas of the Battle of Lepanto, she is determined to pain the truth and horror of war, rather than the majestic and virtuous message the state hope the work will evoke. Supported by a well-rounded cast, the stand out performance was from Kirman, whose commanding stage presence created a powerful and compelling portrayal of this powerful yet vulnerable artist.

The college’s next production of the season will be Days of Significance by Roy Williams. The play, which deals with the harsh realities of war and the impact it has on the lives of young modern men, will run at the Unicorn Theatre from 12-14 March 2012.

For more information about Rose Bruford College and the spring season, go to www.bruford.ac.uk  

Frantic Assembly, Lovesong Review

Here’s another chance to read our review from Autumn 2 of Frantic Assembly’s Lovesong.  In our forthcoming issue, out 20 December, we talk to the Frantic Assembly team about why education is so important to their company. Get your copy at http://www.pocketmags.com or subscribe at http://www.teaching-drama.co.uk.

Production review:  Frantic Assembly – Lovesong 

Star Rating * * * * (4/5)

Credit: Johan Persson

A slick, emotional journey charting a relationship heading towards a goodbye. More suitable for KS5.

Frantic Assembly take a slightly slower and more sentimental pace than their usual work with Lovesong. The production looks at the life of a relationship from either end, as a pair of younger and a pair of older actors co-habit the same space. We hear their changing conversations from initial excitement, to growing tension and later a sad, foreboding sense of looming loss, as Maggie grows frail with a worsening illness, the sentiment of the tag-line becomes more and more apparent: ‘That is the story of our beginning. And this is the story of…the end’.

The parallel couples share the house as the same kitchen and bedroom walls surround their voices as they grow old together. Theatrically, we dart back and forth through time and the slick direction allows the action to move seamlessly across the decades. At one stage, the older Maggie leans into the wardrobe and remerges played by her younger counterpart. There are brief, wonderful moments where the older characters become aware of their younger selves for a fleeting instant and vice versa, moments which hinge the scenes more and more frequently as the piece develops. Engaging and fluid physical sections, a trademark of Frantic Assembly’s style, move time forward and explore the shifts in the relationship in a beautiful and moving manner. The most memorable saw all four performers disappearing and re-emerging, accompanied by rhythmic music and powerful drum beats which gradually gave way to the sound of Maggie crying, her sobs bringing us back to the reality of her physical pain.

The design of the show and its aesthetic congruence, for me, even outdoes these dignified and integrative performances. The jade green, sky blue and mustard set and costumes were authentic and retrospective. Large, wallpapered, oblong pillars, set at angles at the back of the set were the walls of the rooms of the house and acted as a cyclorama for well-designed and evocative video projection. This allowed imagery and symbolism within Abi Morgan’s text to rise to the surface. The relationship between the performers and these images was exquisite, at one stage, the old man clutches the air as if trying to grab onto one of a flock of starlings that frequently passes over the set and at another, one of the characters touches her kitchen wall as sparks of light radiate from her fingertips to fill the whole space. The production triumphed in its painting of stage pictures that stay with you after leaving the theatre: the older Billy and Maggie sat at the kitchen table, the younger William and Margaret sat on the floor against their bed, surrounded by the heads of hundreds of flowers as the starlings cross the pillars once more.

At the time of going to print, the educational pack was not yet available. However, it can’t be far off and Frantic Assembly is renowned for good quality, accessible resources that are downloadable from their website. Seeing this show made me wish my students were with me. There was so much to get from this experience – a good discussion about the performances (frequently powerful and sensitive, and I’m sure that as they settle into the run and subsequent tour, they will overcome some verbal awkwardness evident on this opening night), an appreciation of how to use design elements in an harmonious way (in order to transport us in time and place and tug at our heartstrings) and an understanding of how a performer can use one’s body and its contact with others to communicate non-verbally. At the end of the performance, I wasn’t in tears as many other audience members were, but, nevertheless, felt touched by the story and the way in which it was told so eloquently.

Lovesong – directed by Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett
Frantic Assembly are touring until February 2012.
For more information and to book tickets: www.franticassembly.co.uk/productions/lovesong

by David Duthie.

David Duthie trained in drama and for his PGCE at University of Wales, Aberystwyth. He was the head of drama and performing arts in in Shropshire for six years. He is now the director at The SPACE in Somerset.