Napoleon Disrobed

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Napoleon Disrobed by Told by An Idiot – The Drum, Theatre Royal Plymouth

The photograph above should give you an idea of how much I’ve been seeing on this placement. It’s more theatre that I’ve ever been exposed to and I’m loving it. It does however mean that my grand plans to review everything might be a tad ambitious. I’ll still try to write something about each piece but it means my posts will likely be brief/maybe not that well written.

Napoleon Disrobed is a play devised by Told By and Idiot, based on Simon Ley’s novel The Death of Napoleon. It’s a co-production with us, the Arcola Theatre and Told By An Idiot. With the play being a co-production, I was given more access to rehearsals than I’d get with a visiting company. I got to source some prop feather quills that they’re still using in the play. They get used for less than five seconds but I’m still weirdly proud every time I see them onstage. I got to be a tiny part of a show!

I’ve been lucky enough to see the play three times now, in its dress rehearsal, the Plymouth press night and the Arcola’s press night. Each time the play has been different. The company has been working on and developing the piece each night in response to audiences. It was good to begin with but it’s got even better.

The play involves some of the most interesting staging I’ve ever seen, I won’t go in to too much detail as it’s a nice reveal, but it’s very impressive and makes for some demanding physical work for the actors. Paul Hunter and Ayesha Antione give great comedic performances as Napoleon and literally every other character respectively. The play is at times bizarre, it’s not always easy to follow the narrative (that said, this has improved every time I’ve seen it, even minor tweaks to some lines have made it clearer) but it’s so much fun to watch that it doesn’t really matter. It is funny and moving in equal measure.

The Ferryman

The Ferryman by Jez Butterworth – Gielgud Theatre

The Ferryman was my first ever West End play. And before I discuss the piece itself, I’m going to go on two rants about things I noticed re: the West End. Feel free to skip ahead. Firstly, oh my gosh those tickets prices. I knew the West End was pricey, I’d heard tell of this and accepted it as a given. But I didn’t realise quite how pricey. The majority of tickets for this performance were around the £60 mark and a lot of these were not especially good seats. For £60, I want to be able to reach out and tap the actor’s shoes. Not be sat up on a vertigo inducing balcony miles away from the stage. And some tickets were £94! I know the productions on the West End are of a large scale and cost a little more to produce, which is reflected in the pricing. I was still shocked at the seeming lack of effort to make the show affordable though. £95 tickets just mean that the same wealthy audiences will keep returning and you’re unlikely to attract anyone new, particularly younger audiences or those from lower income backgrounds. Diversity in the arts should cover those working in the industry and audiences, and the West End (in my tiny experience of it on this play) seems to have absolutely no interest in it. The only lower-priced offerings were restricted view, or extremely restricted view. I got a £25 restricted view ticket and actually ended up getting a decent seat, I just had to lean forward a bit and accept that stage right was a mystery I’d never know. However, it still discomforts me that this is the only way of attending affordably. I know restricted view seats being the cheapest is common in theatres. That’s fine (but seriously architects, get it together and stop making theatres where some of the seats can’t actually see the stage). However, many theatres now offer these restricted view reduced prices along with cheaper tickets for younger audiences or unwaged patrons, amongst others (NT, The Bridge, RSC etc). Not seeing some of the performance shouldn’t be the only way of seeing a West End show cheaply. I don’t like the idea of grouping all those who’ve had to pay less together. It feels almost like a quarantine (albeit a nice one, I got chatting to a girl also my age who’d plumped for the same price ticket, she was much friendlier than the lady sat in the pricey seats who tutted at me for simply sitting down – genuinely thought these people only existed as TV caricatures). Spending the show unable to see sections of the stage because apparently you can’t afford to see everything means you spend the whole time being reminded that this experience isn’t necessarily for you. You aren’t who they’re trying to draw in here. Maybe I’m being bitter, or overly sensitive or whatever. But to me, £25 is still quite a lot of money and too much to not be able to see a decent sized portion of the stage (but I was close enough to really see the expressions on the actors faces and smaller details in the set, the seats could definitely have been worse!). Also, if I’m mistaken and there is in fact a scheme to get cheaper access to West End tickets for young/lower income audiences, please do show it me! But restricted view seats don’t count. That’s just a way of filling the auditorium and making sure folk can’t complain when they’re unable to see, that’s not an access scheme.

Rant number two time. Strap in lads. Shaftesbury Avenue is a terrible place. I’ve never seen anywhere with such an uncomfortable blend of rich and indifferent tourists, fancy venues and restaurants, and extreme poverty in the form of rough sleepers occupying every available doorway. People seemed irritated by their presence, rather than concerned for their welfare. The juxtaposition between those sleeping in the doorways and the theatre patrons strolling past was jarring, and made me keenly aware of my own privilege. I gave some change but that’s never really enough and likely not going to impact anyone’s life positively in the long run. So I need to do more on that front in terms of volunteering because at the moment I’m not doing enough. I hope the theatres and other places drawing in so much money around that area are doing their bit. The other aspect I was quite uncomfortable with was the sleaziness. The huge Windmill club advertising its table dancers. The phone boxes covered with astoundingly graphic prostitute adverts. I saw some tourists taking photos of their daughter stood next to one of the ‘iconic’ red phone boxes. They seemed not to have noticed the flyers. I also saw what I am fairly certain was a human poo. I won’t go into too much detail, but suffice to say it had ended up higher than I believe a dog could have gotten it. A truly disgusting sight. I wasn’t expecting streets of gold but I really wasn’t expecting what I got.

The show itself was lovely. I didn’t know much about the play prior to seeing it, I’d just heard it was good. My sources proved reliable. The acting was brilliant, particularly Mark Lambert as Uncle Patrick Carney. He was so warm and joyful throughout I found myself wanting him to be my Uncle. Despite dealing with the topic of the troubles the play isn’t short on moments of fun, many of them centring on Uncle Pat. Sam Mendes (director) aims for realism and more than achieves it. You feel truly immersed in 1980s Ireland, like you’re sat amongst the family yourself. The comfort the actors have built around each other made them so believable as a real family. The set was incredible as well. It was detailed and impressive without coming off as showy, it enhanced the realism rather than creating a spectacle of itself. The happiness the family environment evokes makes the end all the more affecting.

Now – potentially some spoilers here, in terms of staging rather than plot. They use a real goose, a real rabbit and a real baby onstage. It’s an impressive feat to work with such unpredictable co-stars and have it seem effortless. That said, some of it actually served as a distraction rather than enhancing the play, for me anyway. Post the appearance of the rabbit I found myself pondering its safety, how they’d got it to stay so still, how it stays in a pocket without getting hurt, is he a professional acting bunny, if so, how do they train him, or is he just someone’s pet? All these questions racing through my mind, and then I realised I’d missed some of the dialogue. So maybe not the intended effect there. Well done to little showbiz bunny, truly stole the scene.

The play demonstrates the ease with which people can be drawn into committing awful acts they don’t truly understand, along with the perils of operating in black and white terms on matters where so many shades of grey exist. Definitely recommend.

Quick final point for anyone who’s seen it: the character of Tom. Is he supposed to remind me so strongly of Of Mice and Men’s Lenny? His narrative arc almost has shades of Lenny’s as well.

Julius Caesar

Julius Caesar by Shakespeare – The Bridge Theatre

I managed to secure a last minute, and cheap, ticket for this through the Bridge’s Young Bridge scheme. £15 to see Michelle Fairely, David Morrissey and Ben Whishaw in an impressively inventive Shakespeare epic is not too shabby at all. Well done on the affordability front Bridge! Boo hiss to the West End (see previous post).

As to be expected, the performances were all brilliant. I’d have been shocked at anything less from actors of such well-established high calibre. It’s not an easy environment to perform in either as a large portion of the audience are right in amongst the action, sometimes very much getting in the way. One of my favourite performances of the night was not actually from one of the leads: I thought Leaphia Darko did a great job in her turn as Portia. Incredibly emotionally affecting in very short time. Adjoa Andoh as Casca was also great, alternating effortlessly between comedy and menace.

I bought one of the promenading tickets. Being in amongst the action was thrilling and intense. The battle scenes in particular really make you feel their energy and panic. It was something I don’t think I’d have experienced so keenly sat down and away from the action. The scenes in which Marc Anthony or Brutus are addressing a crowd are also greatly improved by having a crowd of non-actors surrounding them. Every emotion the speeches are supposed to elicit from the Romans actually comes to be in the audience. It’s impressive stuff.

That said, constantly moving around was sometimes distracting. I’m so used to seeing theatre in darkened and still rooms that people moving around me drew me out of the performance. Something about standing also seemed to have made a few people more comfortable with talking during the show, even when they were stood literally centimetres from the performers! Being quite short, my view wasn’t always good. The play is performed on raised stages (very well done to the stage crew by the way, getting so many people out of the way so quickly to bring in props/allow the enormous stages to rise is no mean feat! They got an onstage bow at the end which was lovely and much deserved). But even with raised stages, if people rushed too close together and I was stood behind a tall person, I could see nowt. You could still get a great view though if you ensured you stayed on the outskirts of the throng, free to reposition yourself as needed. Overall though, I think the promenading ticket was worth it. The atmosphere more than makes up for the occasional bad view and distractions. I’ll likely watch the NT Live broadcast to see anything I might have missed.

The play manages to make Shakespeare feel fresh and pertinent without feeling cloying. Some adaptations that try too hard to link to what’s happening in the today’s world can appear forced but this doesn’t. The links made felt appropriate and the modern staging adds to the story. Highly recommended and well worth signing up to the Young Bridge scheme – it’s free as well.IMG_6260.JPG

Hairspray!

A very short review of Hairspray.

Hairspray – Theatre Royal Plymouth

The tour of Hairspray is the kind of show I’ve seen crop up on theatrical programmes for years but never taken much of an interest in. I was under the impression that I didn’t like musicals, so wasn’t willing to part with any cash to see one on stage. However, being a big fan of the John Waters film version of Hairspray, I thought I’d give this one a shot. I’m so glad I did! It keeps the kitsch strangeness of John Waters’ world but makes it even more fun. The singing was incredible. In the auditorium I was sat next to a mother and daughter. During Motormouth Maybelle’s big number the mother actually exclaimed aloud ‘oh wow! Wow! Amazing singing! You’re so good!’. Which was both true and adorable. The dancers were great too, every back flip or jump eliciting audible gasps. One thing I will say though is that I never usually feel too conspicuous seeing plays alone. I tend to go for dramas and there’s usually a few other solo viewers. A musical as fun as Hairspray really felt like something to be enjoyed as a group, maybe with a few drinks. I still had fun, but for my next foray into the world of musicals I’ll try to bring along a pal (I do have some, I swear).

Strange Tales From The West Country

This is a pair of shows that Theatre Royal Plymouth have brought to the Southwark Playhouse. I got to see both of them as part of my job. And then got to hang out and chat to all kinds of interesting people afterwards. I’m loving this job so far.

Thoughts on the plays:

The Here and This and Now by Glenn Waldron – Southwark Playhouse

The former editor of i-D magazine, Glenn Waldron is a perfect example of the positive impact of a regional theatre (I’ll bang on about this a lot because I work at one and really believe in the potential of theatres outside of London to make the arts world more diverse and interesting). Waldron is a Plymouth native and his first play (Forever House) was first performed at Theatre Royal Plymouth. Following this, his reputation has grown, leading to productions in London. The Here and This and Now sees him continue his relationship with TRP, first staged in Plymouth last year before the move to London.

The play actually runs continuously, no intervals. The action divides up pretty perfectly into two parts though, which is what I’m talking about when I refer to halves. The Here… features four workers on an office away day, developing their skills delivering a slick, falsely personal sales pitch. Here the dark comedy of the play takes the fore, with particularly strong performances from Andy Rush and Becci Gemmell. In a familiar and bleak office with grim grey carpets (strong design from Bob Bailey – a world evocative of every miserable office you’ve ever worked in, but never as dull to look at) we also see our sales team involved in frenetic and bizarre team building exercises, the unease created by this hinting at the sucker punch second half to come.

The second half is where the piece really hits its stride, skipping to a future where the very drugs these pharmaceutical reps push have had dire consequences. Antibiotic resistance has allowed a new illness to devastate society. Focussing on Helen (Becci Gemmell) and Niall (Simon Darwen), we are now presented with how far desperate people will go, no matter how timid they may seem. Gemmell again shines, highlighting both the humour and the horror of the situation. I won’t give too much away but it’s a gripping end. And while the tone of the play has definitely shifted, moments of the same dark humour tie it to the previous half.

An interesting piece from an emerging writing talent, with a great performance from Becci Gemmell.

 

The War Has Not Yet Started by Mikhail Durnenkov – Southwark Playhouse

Much like Glenn Waldron’s The Here and This and Now, The War Has Not Yet Started began its life at Theatre Royal Plymouth before transferring to the Southwark for a run there. Written by Russian playwright Durnenkov, the play features twelve short tales. I initially was trying to find the common characters and link them together, something you should avoid doing if you see the play, as there are in fact no links. They are all short snapshots of life, self-contained. The sections vary in tone, some more comedic than others, but all make for interesting viewing. Music is played between each piece as the stage is altered, which helps get a feel for what the tone of each one will be. All three cast members delivered strong performances, with each being given ample chance to demonstrate their varied talents. Hannah Britland and Mark Quartly did particularly well in a section dealing with an abused wife, while Sara Hadland showcased her comedic strengths.

While each story is different in tone, they all share a sense of unease or discomfort with modern life. It’s different to anything I’ve seen in a long time and its structure allows a broad viewing experience. Not every story was to my tastes but the variety meant it didn’t matter too much. It held my attention throughout and is well worth seeing.

It’s show time

I mentioned in an earlier post that the Jerwood placement has allowed me to access performances that I otherwise couldn’t have. For four shows, this was because they were in London. Travel to the capital has always been prohibitively expensive for me (and that’s before even adding the often absurd prices some theatres charge). This makes it particularly irksome that quite a lot of great theatre sticks so rigidly to London. Be that smaller shows without the budget to tour, or bigger shows that don’t need to because they know audiences will come to them. Things like the NT Live screenings are wonderful but it’s still not quite the same. Which is I’m so pleased to be working at Theatre Royal Plymouth (TRP). Regional producing theatres like TRP are so vital because they bring great theatre to more diverse audiences and allows the development of interesting new work (two of the plays I saw had previously been performed in Plymouth). There are some truly great theatres country-wide achieving impressive things but London still seems to be such a talent drain, particularly because of the national press’s tendency to be London centric.*

*a caveat to this – I’ve been very privileged to have lived in Edinburgh for the past six years, so have seen a wealth of wonderful things at the Fringe. But again, it’s a lot of great work being produced in one small area that not everyone is able to access. Edinburgh is very expensive in August in terms of cost of living. The show tickets themselves can actually be very cheap, so for existing Edinburgh residents it can widen access to arts (to a degree, there’s issues with how the Fringe markets itself and how people perceive it, many Edinburgh folk I know feel that the Fringe is very much for the tourists). It also has perhaps a disproportionate impact on the arts scene for the rest of the year. Many theatres programme visiting companies on the back of Edinburgh shows, making it more difficult for those unable to afford the high costs of bringing a show to Edinburgh to get noticed, especially if they’re outside of London. The Fringe is a wonderful thing but it definitely has its drawbacks. I’m in two minds about its impact in terms of giving voice to those who may be overlooked by traditional theatres, but also excluding a lot of others (I’ll probably do a longer post on this at some point).

Quite the tangent there, so back to the plays! As I was in London on business (still love saying it) anyway, I decided to make the most of it and cram in as much theatre as possible. I saw the two productions we had brought to the Southwark Playhouse and two external productions. I also got to see the tour of Hairspray when it stopped by TRP. I feel very grateful to have had the chance to see these plays, so I’ll be posting a few of my thoughts on them. I was going to include them all in this post but that turned out to be an insane length for one post, apparently brevity is not my forte.

I have my own desk! and other thrilling episodes…

The first two weeks.

I began my placement on the 3rd of January 2018 after a somewhat hectic festive period. It was filled with more stressful days of packing and train journeys than Christmassy merriment. The stress was compounded by working off my notice at three different jobs, while also trying to find somewhere nice to live in a city I’d only visited once (for my interview). Paying deposits on a flat you’ve never viewed is anxiety-inducing but thankfully it all turned out okay.

Arriving in Plymouth, I had one day of getting settled before I started work. It felt like university all over again, not least because my mom was dropping me off and helping me get moved in. She also ended up staying the night, it was all very Lorelai and Rory.

My first day was kind of a blur. I arrived at stage door and was given a temporary building pass. Then I got to see my office, which was very exciting and made me feel very grown up. The fact that I was so delighted to have my very own desk may have undermined the whole grown up, sophisticated thing though. I had a similar reaction to discovering I’d be getting my own phone line and email address (complete with an email signature!).

Along with seeing my office (full disclosure – it’s not actually my office, I sort of live in someone else’s. But still, I have a desk!), I also got a whirlwind tour of all of Theatre Royal Plymouth’s departments and got introduced to everyone. Hard to take it all in but I’m getting to grips with everyone’s names now. The TRP staff were very welcoming. I got asked to come and eat lunch with everyone, assuaging my worst Mean Girls-related fears (no one wants to eat lunch in the toilets). I was also given a list of various meetings I’d be attending to help get me fully immersed in the theatre.

So far, a lot of the learning process has involved being around people who are already great at their jobs and sponging in all that knowledge. Some of the most useful information I’ve learned has been gained from conversations with colleagues about what it is they do, it’s taught me how the various roles all fit together, how processes like casting/contracting/commissioning work, how designing sets for plays works and helped me to develop theatre specific language (I was given a glossary of generally accepted theatre terminology too that has proven invaluable).

One of my favourite intro week meetings was with the technical department. I’ve never seen the backstage areas in a theatre that size before and it was so impressive. I saw the giant crocodile from Peter Pan and how it’s operated, the fly towers, the scenery storage, the orchestra pit and the grid. The grid is at the very top of the theatre and it’s where most of the things in a show that move will be attached (writing this section has really highlighted the need for me to keep working on that technical lingo). The floor is just metal slats that you can see through, it’s totally safe up there but still terrifying for vertigo sufferers like myself. I was very torn between how cool it was and how scared I was.

IMG-6473.JPGLook on down from the grid. This isn’t getting across how high up this actually is!

Another very cool thing I’ve been able to do was attending two press nights in London. It was my first ever ‘business’ trip and I snapchatted that hotel room like it was a penthouse suite. It was actually a Travelodge but it was still so much nicer than any hotel room I’ve ever booked myself. Anyway, suffice to say that business travel made me feel like a baller. I don’t think the novelty is ever going to wear off. The press nights were about more than just me feeling super snazzy though. It allowed me to see two great plays we’re staging (The Here and This and Now by Glenn Waldron and Mikhail Durnenkov’s The War Has Not Yet Started, both at the Southwark Playhouse and being performed in repertoire [a new word I learned!]). It helped me understand a bit more about how producing shows works and how partnerships with other theatres are forged. I also got the chance to attend a theatre event and build up some contacts. So far, my networking skills leave a lot to be desired but I’ll have the chance to build on this throughout the year. Hopefully I’ll never again go in for a handshake the person isn’t expecting and just end up holding their hand for a bit. Because, let me tell you, that gets very uncomfortable very quickly.

At the moment I think my nervousness networking and lack of confidence are related to my worry that I’ve somehow fluked my way into this and don’t quite deserve to be here. There’s also the concern that I’m not important enough to be introducing myself to big players yet. These are fears I need to work on and I think that, for me, much of this placement is going to be about building confidence. I was confident in my old job and was initially worried that this hadn’t translated to the theatre. But I worked at my last place for around 4 years. These things take time (hopefully not 4 years) so I’m endeavouring not to beat myself up about it.

Run-down of other cool stuff I’ve done: got to grips with a finance system; printed and bound a lot of scripts; helped prepare a Show and Tell for one of our productions (Show and Tells are where creative teams show the theatre staff what they’re working on, to get people excited for it and help everyone get a feel for what to expect); helped organise a bunch of props for delivery to a rehearsal room in London; attended the first day of a show rehearsal; saw an initial read-through of a script; saw 5 plays I would otherwise never have had access to; packed away an extremely delicate show model; researched travel/rehearsal space arrangements; saw the prop and costume stores at TR2, which is Theatre Royal Plymouth’s production centre – it houses our set building facilities, Engagement and Learning department, rehearsal rooms and all sorts of other good stuff;  learned more about the engagement and learning side of TRP; made some internal posters for our various productions; took minutes for meetings; along with various other tasks as and when!

Goals for the next two weeks: Be more efficient! At the moment, I feel like what I do keeps me busy but I struggle to pin point what it is that’s taking me so long. I want to start structuring my time better so I can get things done to a higher standard, which I think will help make me more able to keep track of what I’m learning and achieving.

Be more confident! The confidence issue is going to crop up a lot I think. Here’s hoping I can start recording some actual improvement in that area!