Monday, June 26, 2017

Julius Caesar (Storyhouse, Chester)

The recent controversy surrounding last month's Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar in New York is the best example of why this 418-year-old play is still fiercely relevant today. In the American production, staged in Central Park, the setting was updated to modern day, and the character of Caesar was depicted as a suspiciously Donald Trump-like figure. And because it forms the backbone of Shakespeare's play, Caesar was duly assassinated, outraging some audience members who saw it as "political violence against the right".

It's impossible not to see the parallels between Shakespeare's 16th century political thriller and what's going on in the world in 2017. Caesar was a democratically elected but autocratic leader whose hubris and ambition bred discontent and, ultimately, rebellion within his ranks. Although we haven't seen much by way of betrayal among Trump's people so far, it's surely only a matter of time until the whispers of conspiracy begin and the knives are sharpened.

For Storyhouse's summer production of Julius Caesar, director Loveday Ingram has brought the setting right up to date too. This is a play for today, these times of political extremes and turmoil, despite its vintage. So out go the togas and amphitheatres and in come the sharp business suits and presidential lecterns. Modernising Julius Caesar may be the obvious thing to do (Robert Hastie did the same again with his recent Crucible Theatre production in Sheffield), but it gives the play fresh life, invigorating its message by telling it from a 21st century perspective. Christopher Wright's Caesar may not look like Donald Trump, but he's depicted very much in a presidential vein, complete with rally flags and banners of red, white and blue.

Friday, June 23, 2017

BoHo (Theatr Clwyd, Mold)

Working in the City is hard. It's stressful. Maybe it's not as hard as coal mining or fire-fighting, and not as stressful as policing or soldiering, but in context, city slickers have a tough time, not least because of the pressures they put on themselves to be successful. To beat their colleagues and to be the best, no matter how or what.

David Jones is just another cog in the giant wheel of this industry. He wears a sharp suit, maintains a healthy body, and is great in bed (or so he tells us). But what happens when the pressure to maintain this vision of perfection starts to get too much, and the veneer begins to crumble?

Although BoHo - a co-production between Theatr Clwyd and Hijinx - takes city slicker David as its central character, this "dystopian musical misadventure" is not strictly about bankers and financiers. David is an avatar for us all, for each and every one of us making our way through life in the best way we know how. David, for all his sharp-suited, pill-popping trappings, is an everyman who hurts and feels and struggles just like the rest of us.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Interview with playwright Brad Birch about Black Mountain

A script is like a recipe – the playwright sets out the ingredients and their properties, but it takes a team of chefs to cook up the finished dish. That's how Brad Birch, whose latest play Black Mountain will receive its world premiere at Mold's Theatr Clwyd on July 11th, thinks about his various creations.

Brad's work is far more than a simple list of ingredients, however. As writer in residence with the Welsh new writing theatre company Undeb, as well as being attached to the Royal Shakespeare Company, Brad has enjoyed his fair share of successes, whether it's receiving the prestigious Harold Pinter Commission in 2016 to write a new play for the Royal Court, or winning a Scotsman Edinburgh Fringe First Award for his 2013 play Gardening: For the Unfulfilled and Alienated.

The Mid Wales-born writer penned his first piece, The Snow Queen, in 2008 for Mid Powys Youth Theatre, and has since seen his work produced by Cardiff's Sherman (Light Arrested Between the Curtain and the Glass, 2011), the Royal Court (Permafrost, 2011, and Where the Shot Rabbits Lay, 2012), Dirty Protest (Milton, 2013), the Royal Exchange (Tender Bolus, 2014) and the Orange Tree (The Brink, 2016), among others.

Monday, May 15, 2017

The Beggar's Opera at Storyhouse, Chester

When Chester's Gateway Theatre closed its doors for the very last time ten years ago, there was the expectation that it would be replaced by a performing arts centre called the Northgate Development. However, the Northgate plans were put on hold in 2008, and it wasn't until 2012 that Cheshire West and Chester Council revealed an ambitious vision to transform the city centre's derelict Odeon cinema into a replacement theatre and picture house combined. This vision widened still further the following year with the announcement that the old Odeon building would be renovated and extended to become a cultural arts hub for the entire city.

Last week saw Chester's decade in the cultural wilderness finally come to an end with the grand opening of Storyhouse, a £37 million arts centre which incorporates an 800-seat auditorium, a 100-seat cinema, plus the city library, a community performance and rehearsal space, a restaurant, two bars, and a children's storytelling space. To be blunt, Storyhouse is nothing short of magnificent.

The Trials of Oscar Wilde (Pontio, Bangor)

Who would have thought that a spelling mistake could lead to the ignominious and very public downfall of one of the greatest playwrights in British literary history? On February 18th, 1895, the Marquess of Queensberry left a card at the reception of the Albemarle Club for the attention of playwright Oscar Wilde. It simply read: "For Oscar Wilde, posing Somdomite". This card subsequently became Exhibit A in a libel case Wilde brought against Queensberry, but the truth was the Marquess knew exactly what he was doing in goading Wilde, who fell for his "booby trap".

The trial exposed more about Wilde's private life, proclivities and passions than he could ever have bargained for, and ultimately led to a counter-trial where the Crown prosecuted Wilde for gross indecency. The jury in this trial could not reach a verdict, but the retrial jury certainly did, and Wilde was sentenced to two years hard labour in prison. The sentence took its toll on Wilde both spiritually and physically, and three-and-a-half year later, he was dead, aged 46.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The Importance of Being Earnest (Theatr Clwyd, Mold)

The last production I saw of Oscar Wilde's 1895 classic The Importance of Being Earnest lived up to the common conception that the play is a rather fusty, stilted, mildly amusing drawing-room comedy, performed with stiff upper lips and an air of superiority to the audience.

Not so with Richard Fitch's blisteringly energetic new production at Theatr Clwyd, which takes Wilde's magnum opus, holds it up to the light, decides that it's actually perfectly good as it is, but places it back down on the stage with a youthful enthusiasm that its creator would've revelled in.

The hallmarks of the play are all still there: the period setting, the lavish 19th century costumes, the acerbic and witty dialogue, the thematic intent to scratch the veneer of Victorian society to see what lies beneath. Everything that somebody going to see The Importance of Being Earnest would expect to see is there, but Fitch has given the presentation a jolly good shake and as a result, gives the play a fresh lease of life.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

National Dance Company Wales Spring 2017 (Theatr Clwyd, Mold)

What I love about Caroline Finn is the eccentricity she brings to her work. Finn, the Artistic Director of NDC Wales and choreographer of The Green House, has an innate ability to tap into the "Britishness" of a situation, and as a result comes up with such quirky, endearing and aesthetically powerful works as The Green House.

This whimsy is also present in past works such as Bernadette, Bloom and Folk, an ability to mine an off-kilter oddness, whether that be the misplaced hubris of baking (Bernadette) or the solemn, melancholic face masks used in Bloom. Indeed, the fundamental atmosphere of Folk, with its pastoral aesthetic, was another manifestation of Finn's skill at shining light on the quirkier corners of our culture.

With The Green House, Finn has arguably crossed the Pond to soak up some of the tropes of American culture, especially those deep-seated in the 1950s - that I Love Lucy '50s housewife vibe, mixed with a Stepford Wives oddness most familiar today through its Desperate Housewives filter, and, as the programme notes point out, the bizarre other-world of David Lynch.