Saturday, 19 August 2017

Down and out in London... Mrs Orwell, Old Red Lion Theatre

Behind every great man, as they say, is a great woman but in this case, left behind by a great man, was a very intriguing woman.

In June 1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four was published to critical and popular acclaim and yet its author was seriously ill and was to die of tuberculosis in January 1950. Three months before he had married Sonia Brownell, a 30 year old assistant magazine editor, 16 years his junior and very much in love with another man, the unfortunately very married, French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty.

The story of George Orwell’s second marriage is a strange one… a marriage of convenience for both the author and his wife or something deeper?

Tony Cox’s Mrs Orwell sets out to find out just what it was that drew the two together and is buoyed by a superb performance from Peter Hamilton Dyer as Mr Eric Arthur Blair the man who really was Orwell. Dyer gives an uncomfortably-believable bed-ridden turn as the tuberculotic man grateful for every breath and wincing with every exhalation. In the close confines of a packed-out Old Red Lion Theatre – the run is deservedly sold out – he held us rapt throughout.

Peter Hamilton Dyer and Cressida Bonas
Cox’s dialogue intersperses some Orwellian quotes – including his thoughts on the correct way to make tea – and communicates the mind-set of a man being dragged down before his time, a man still with three good books to give and yet being worn away by unrelenting illness. This man who survived schooling at Eton to live rough in Paris, London and Wigan and to fight against Fascists in the Spanish Civil War, captain in the Home Guard and write some of the most iconic literature of the last century.

There’s bitter brilliance at play and George is unbending in his final days.

Orwell had known Miss Brownell (the well-cast and very impressive Cressida Bonas) as she worked as the assistant to Cyril Connolly, a friend of his from Eton College, at the literary magazine Horizon. A skilled editor and well-educated daughter of a colonial official, some have suggested that she may have been the inspiration for Julia, the heroine of Nineteen Eighty-Four, the "girl from the fiction department" who brings love and warmth to the middle-aged hero, Winston Smith.

The play doesn’t follow this line and I was impressed by the fact that the narrative didn’t attempt to be too specific about the feelings and motivations: all we can know is what happened and the why is open to interpretation.

Author and artist
Sonia is pretty enough that men just visit the Horizon offices for the hope of a glance whilst she is certainly out of ailing Orwell’s league under normal circumstances. George is in no condition to offer her anything other than companionship and she finds more physical comfort in the arms of Lucian Freud, here constructed with playful menace by Edmund Digby Jones. His Freud offers an interesting counter-point to Orwell – “I’m a German Jew, I’ve no need of self-abasement” he dryly responds after another Orwell rant about the privilege he denied himself. There are also a few in-jokes and plenty of references to Lucian’s love of a good fight.

As Freud draws a portrait aimed at conveying both men’s states of mind, Orwell’s publisher Fred Warburg (Robert Stocks) buzzes around with potential deals, a cartoon film with MGM for Animal Farm and an American edition of 1984 with the “newspeak” edited out… “fake news” it’s always been a preoccupation over there.

At first Sonia is repulsed by Orwell’s offer – recognising that what he wants is a combination of a mistress, housekeeper, nurse, literary executor and mother for his young son Richard,  and yet… she eventually agrees and the two are married in Orwell’s hospital room at University College Hospital. His spirits start to lift and there is talk of completing the 48 hours trek to his beloved Jura and then a move to a sanitorium in Switzerland. But these futures are even less compatible with Sonia’s desires than the prospect of physical romance.

Peter Hamilton Dyer, Rosie Ede and Robert Stocks
Marry in haste and repent at leisure. But Sonia inherited a responsibility as well as wealth and she spent most of the latter in protecting the former in the end.

Mrs Orwell is thought-provoking and immersive theatre reminding you of George Orwell’s brilliance and the dramatic era he wrote through. It will also leave you thinking about Sonia Brownell and the help she gave and continued to give post-mortem even at cost to herself.

Presented by the Proud Haddock company, Mrs Orwell plays at the Old Red Lion until 26th August and you may just be able to grab a return or too if you keep an eye on the box office. 

All pictures courtesy of Samuel Taylor.

Ithankyou Rating ****

"...the girl from the fiction department... was looking at him... She was very young, he thought, she still expected something from life... She would not accept it as a law of nature that the individual is always defeated... All you needed was luck and cunning and boldness. She did not understand that there was no such thing as happiness, that the only victory lay in the far future, long after you were dead." George Orwell, 1984

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Game of thrones… Skin Deep, The Lion and Unicorn, Camden Fringe Festival

Ashley Winter and Clementine Mills
Blue blood murderers – who makes them? Countess Elizabeth Báthory de Ecsed or Báthory Erzsébet for short was one of the most powerful women in sixteenth century Hungary and probably one of the most prolific serial killers in history. She is alleged to have killed around 600 young women and ended her days rotting in a windowless cell after being tried and found guilty.

Lee Anderson’s play trues to find some possible reason for her psychotic spree, the legend of which has inspired folklore for centuries: The Blood Countess… Countess Dracula… whether it was 80 or 300 or 650, the evidence is compelling that this woman liked to kill.

Is mass murder a natural adjunct to feudal society? How much did Erzsébet kill out of duty and how much, after her first taste of untimely death, was for political rather than pleasurable ends… Either way it’s horrific.

Hanna Rohtla and Lilian Tsang
This is a lot to take on in a sixty minute play and I’m not sure that the narrative explains its way with total success but what it does do is convey the barren horror of the psychotic existence. Even though the constraints of position and power are no excuse for slaughter, there is no doubt that death played a major part in the maintenance of political position. The organised murders of state through war and justice system don’t necessarily make every Lord and Lady psychopaths but where do you draw the line between killings?

Erzsébet (an impressively-expressive Ashley Winter, complete with Queen Cercei Lannister cropped blonde hair… Ashley Winterfell!) is first seen aged 11 playing alongside the boys - Gyorgy (Matthew Wellard) and Stefan (Mike Archer) as they practice swordplay. There’s teasing and brave talk of the war with the Turks, Erzsébet has captured a baby rabbit and the boys threaten to crush it: you can’t fight and be a ruler if you’re worried about small animals.

It’s a brutal world and you need to be more brutal to survive…

Ashley Winter's Erzsébet feels the contraints of power...
Erzsébet befriends a servant girl, Lucie (Clementine Mills) and the two become close from that point on, another pet or something more?

The affairs of state mean that Erzsébet becomes betrothed to Ferenc Nádasdy (Oscar Scott-White), the son of Baron Tamás Nádasdy de Nádasd et Fogarasföld wiki-parently… Ferenc is a warrior and will go on to fight the Turks but he refuses to take his bride with him to the front even though she is desparate to go.

Ferenc’s mother, Ursula (Rachel August) tries to mould her daughter-in-law but Erzsébet refuses to bend slapping one of the ladies in waiting, Zsofi (Lilian Tsang). Ursula responds by sticking a pin into Lucie’s arm: another lesson in brutality, you damage my “property” and I respond to yours.

This atmosphere of ruthlessness married to responsibility is intercut with disturbing physical interludes as the servant girls grab their throats and writhe in agony as the lights go dim and strange music swirls… there’s a sickly sense of doom percolating through these moments…

One of the wedding guests is a sexual sophisticate from Vienna, Darvulia (Hanna Rohtla, dressed appropriately...) who arranges a party for the girls and tries to educate Erzsébet in the art of cruelty…she’s disappointed when the young woman seems to be holding back but… Erzsébet almost kills Zsofi by constricting her in a corset and Ursula responds by having Lucie beaten: it’s a war fought by proxy through their servants… for her own good Erzsébet needs to take drastic – horrific – action.

Skin Deep is unsettling, visceral and uncanny but I’m not sure we get from A to Z in terms of how Erzsébet becomes a serial killer. Not all killings of state are driven by necessity or by pleasure but the difference may be academic in certain circumstances. Life was cheaper in 1600 but Erzsébet’s excesses ultimately brought her down… It would be nice to think that moral outrage motivated her prosecutors but maybe she just didn’t form the right alliances?

Skin Deep was showing as part of the Camden Fringe Festival and is produced by the Attila Theatre company who “…strive to create theatre that gets to grips with popular culture, using dark, piercing humour and a messy yet distinctive visual style. … drawn to stories about women that are set within stereotypically masculine realms.” For further information visit their website.

The Lion and Unicorn is also an excellent venue, hidden quietly in the gentile streets of Kentish Town!

Ithankyou Rating ***

Friday, 4 August 2017

Movin' Too Fast? The Unmarried, The Bunker Theatre now Edinburgh Fringe Festival (Underbelly, Med Quad)

This review should be in rhyme; I should be in reciting it on the dancefloor of Fabric, iambic prose accompanied by vocals and beat-boxing and the kind of punch-drunk slinky electronica that the kids at the turn of the century used to hop to.

Oh, Lauren Gauge you are so fleet of thought and foot and the life you imagine to frighten the twenty-something Luna had already risen up to bite me around the time of acid house… Old school rave, to you youngsters, helped me after my first attempt at growing up proved too much… there was still time to get back out and find a future more fitted. Here it's garage music which for us older groovers slipped in between techno, jungle and dubstep, grime and UK funky!

So it is then that lovers, dancers and homeowners of all ages will find something in this play that reminds them of them: it’s never too late to open your eyes and this vital blend of contrapuntal energies holds a mirror directly to the audience’s faces.

Luna likes to dance, she likes a good time and that includes the trimmings of drinking and The Pull… endless hours of dancefloor flirting, fake and f'real... with deliberate avoidance of the ties of relationship. She successfully avoids commitment until a no-consequences, one-night stand ends badly when she realises she knows the bloke.  “Fun-Fuck Pete” turns out to be un-put-downable Peter and he wins her over even though her friends had warned her he might be too… intense: Permanent Pete?

Georgia Bliss, Lauren and Haydn-sky Bauzon bring it. Photos The Other Richard
Sure enough, things do get serious as this “husband material” charms her, much to the disgust of Luna’s Greek Chorus of beatboxing Haydn-sky Bauzon and vocalist Georgia Bliss, the two immersing the verse in music subverse… well, they’re very, bloody, good, demonstrating exceptional musicality in support of Lauren’s words and actions.

Luna and Pete enjoy the single life together for a while, although the attempt at an open relationship fails when he proves too faithful; Luna is forever doing the very things she worries about her Peter doing. She’s more uncertain of her self than him and soon they are in such a routine that even their post-binge bathroom handovers are in sync.

Working life takes over and the years of being a daytime “corporate clown” and a night-time creative follow the post-graduate deception of trying to work “a system that’s not for us but we hope can support us…” But the spark begins to fade with Luna wondering  “what is love without the lust, all bite and no crust…?” Exactly mate!
Soon they are expecting… keys. They have hit the bottom rung of the property ladder and now have a property that brings stifling levels of responsibility and stale-mate. They’re too busy to be involved with each other like they used to.

“I’m strong and stable, Peter’s willing and unable…” sums it up but what is to become of these indebted young professionals? Will Luna see it out or can she summon up some of her old resilience?

The answers may well be on the dancefloor…

Lauren and a flower. Photo from The Other Richard
Lauren Gauge’s play is stacked high with concentrated dramatic energy, fuelled by the skill of her writing and performance.  This is not a confrontation but a heart-to-heart as Luna talks to the audience from the get-go and makes us all complicit in her narrative as our feet tap and half-remembered beats twitch the muscle memories.

It’s an incredibly honest performance and one, as I said at the top, that will resonate with many. We have mostly all been there and done that… life and how it should be lived!

Haydn-sky Bauzon and vocalist Georgia Bliss are with Lauren throughout and they make for a genre-busting, cloudburst of hi-energy, originality - you don't find theatre this fresh very often. You won't find a show that just pumps such joyous positivity either.

Lauren Gauge. Pic from Tim Stubbs
The Unmarried is presented by Lauren Gauge and LWL Entertainment Ltd who have such a diverse range in their choice of production from Sid Vicious to silent film star William Haines, Cuban noir and the exhilaration of The Life – please someone give that one a West End transfer! The Tailor Made Man too!

The full production of The Unmarried is at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival (Underbelly, Med Quad) from 2nd – 28th August 2017. It is, without doubt, going to be one of the hottest tickets in town. GO SEE IT! Book now in fact for it's later than you think... enjoy yourself.

Ithankyou Rating: ★★★★★