Tag Archives: Gate Theatre

“Dear Elizabeth” at Theatro Technis

Theatregoers get used to professionalism and perfection. This blog is full of questions about choices and quibbles about generally (very) good shows. So the idea of a production with the cast coming cold to the script – with different performers every night – has a peculiar appeal. A deliberate move away from polish is novel and oddly exciting.

Visiting North London from the Gate Theatre, Dear Elizabeth is a presentation of letters between American poets Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. It is love story, of sorts, that takes the decades and complexities of an original romance in its stride. But the performers don’t know what the letters contain or what the ending will be. The result is a sense of adventure – and fun.

Game for the challenge the night I attended were performers Martins Imhangbe and Roberta Livingston. The run will pair an established actor with a recent graduate – a nice idea. But I suspect the readings will generally remind those of us who hate the idea of speaking aloud that actors – through their training – are a different breed! Imhangbe and Livingston were both assured and charismatic, and showing how much they were enjoying themselves proved contagious. Receiving packages of letters – including instructions – and props throughout, they always had the audience on their side.

Of course, there were more stumbles over words than usual. But with beautiful speaking voices and some magical ability to inject emotion into phrases off the bat, we almost need reminding that Imhangbe and Livingston hadn’t seen the text before. And here is where the skill behind the show comes in – that spontaneity is cleverly controlled.

Only the cast is unprepared! The carefully constructed script by Sarah Ruhl bring us close to the poets’ lives and love affairs with ease. All kinds of topics – focusing on health and work – are skilfully covered, providing considerable insight. And Ruhl has a careful eye on the ethical implications of her project with a brilliant section that has Bishop criticising Lowell for using another person’s biography in his art. 

Director Ellen McDougall, with the aid of designers Moi Tran, Jessica Hung Han Yun and Jon Nicholls (set, lighting and sound, respectively) retains a surprising degree of control. Paying special attention to the pace of the performance, factoring in time for the actors to work out what the hell they do next, without pausing the action, is brilliantly done. 

The performers and audience are together in taking cues at the same time – the music and lighting point us towards responses simultaneously. The concept behind Dear Elizabeth only goes part of the way to ensure the evening is a success. But making theatre so immediate – so in the moment – is especially timely after we’ve missed the stage for so long. The show also reminds us how varied the talents behind any production are. And I hope all involved take this blog as a kind of thank-you letter.

Until 18 September 2021

www.gatetheatre.co.uk

“Prayer” from the Gate Theatre

Hands up, I like theatre sets that are expensive, literally flashy and preferably moving. But this online project from award-winning designer Rosie Elnile is impressive for the opposite reasons. From her work with Ellen McDougall in Notting Hill, Elnile has taken the lockdown as an opportunity. And that’s the first recommendation to check out her project.

Creating a digital space to explore and enjoy, Elnile takes us into her thinking about set design with a collection of writings, poems and pictures that have inspired her, along with commentary to listen to, provoke and educate. The thinking is deep, questioning the fundamentals and ramifications of her discipline.

It is striking, and topical, how concerned with the broadest of cultural trends and theories Elnile is. Also, how politically correct. The later isn’t intended to be derogatory… why wouldn’t you want to be right about politics? The environment and all manner of power structures are considered as Elnile makes structures of her own. The concerns are eye-opening, if anxiety producing. The happier point is that Elnile’s practice is energised by the problems. There is woe… but get up and go, too.

The project is original: Elnile is quick to describe Prayer as unfinished and clear that the work shows “impossible models”. And we’re used to perfection in the theatre! But both factors engender idealism and new thinking, centring on the process of making rather than an outcome. Prayer becomes a personal piece: Elnile’s artworks are presented and there’s a strong sense of commitments and passions.

Among all the caveats and concerns – which taught me a deal – there’s one point I’d take issue with. Describing prayer as a “kind of surrender” is interesting. But is Elnile doing justice to her achievements? As well as prayers of submission, there are also prayers of resolution. It is clear Elnile can problematise, with a steely eye on history and politics. But there is also resolve… for the future. The idea that design should facilitate care and compassion proves, well, exciting. The tone of the piece is meditative, but it is also motivating.

Until 24 July 2020

www.gatetheatre.co.uk

“Suzy Storck” from the Gate Theatre

It’s never comfortable to fall back on critical clichés, especially when a show is kindly offered during current circumstances, but one is applicable to this production. Although its merits are clear, Magali Mougel’s play, rendered into English by Chris Campbell, is surely lost in translation.

As the titular character struggles with her claustrophobic life – and three children she never wanted to have – there’s a strong tension between post-natal depression and, well, depression full stop. Such a bold look at the expectations and “obligations” women face is bracing. The outcome is not for the faint of heart. And, if the plot is simple, the play’s structure enlivens it enough.

The title role provides a strong part for Caoilfhionn Dunne, who grabs it for its considerable worth and doesn’t allow excuses for her character’s actions. While the role of her husband is less well written, Jonah Russell makes him intriguing. Director Jean-Pierre Baro has clearly worked hard on the scenes of the couple together and these provide highlights.

It’s with two accompanying characters that cracks start to show. Kate Duchêne gets the chance to shine when she performs as Suzy’s infuriated and vicious mother, Madame Storck. But when Duchêne also narrates, and is joined in this task by Theo Solomon, the play’s style starts to grate. Although both Duchêne and Solomon have a strong stage presence, it isn’t clear what these roles add.

Baro’s production has atmosphere (aided by some strong lighting design from Christopher Nairne) and there’s a great moment where the audience helps clear up kids’ toys. But Mougel’s obsession with routine, reflected in quantifying action and an interesting take on muscle memory, leads to too much repetition. The only scene with any humour is of a job interview (another small role that Duchêne does well with), and the constant use of the characters’ full names seems a puzzling affectation. The strange staccato delivery of some lines, presumably also linked to an obsession with repetition, is arresting but again overused and effortful. Suzie Storck ends up intense but also, painfully, self-conscious.

Until 30 June 2020

www.gatetheatre.co.uk

“The Human Voice” at the Gate Theatre

Sarah Beaton’s design for this new version of Jean Cocteau’s play sets the audience outside the action. We view the exterior of a woman’s flat and glimpse her inside; brilliantly conveying the piece’s novel construction and its theme of isolation. For The Human Voice is only half a conversation, a telephone call between two lovers breaking up when we hear only one. And although just half of the story is heard, that’s more than equal to making this show a must see.

Just how we hear the one-sided story is the production’s next smart move. Headphones are worn throughout by each audience member. Masterminded by Mike Winship, there’s a creepy quality to the technology. Simultaneously increasing intimacy, it also distances us: we can hear every breath, including recollections of the couple’s closest moments. But is this a crossed line we’re eavesdropping on? Or are we the person on the other end of the line being spoken to?

So far, so clever. Underneath these flashy touches is solid work on the text and direction – both from Daniel Raggett. A whole play with Cocteau’s concept, even if only an hour long, must pose peculiar problems, far more than a regular monologue, for its solo star. Tension is the key, a note taken by the performer Leanne Best, who plunges us into her character’s anxiety with frightening efficiency. When the call becomes interrupted, her panic is contagious. As lies and truths fall over one another, Best never loses her grip.

Raggett takes care not to overstress any modern updating to this 1930 play – he doesn’t need to, we’re surely all aware of our reliance on our phones – a temptation many theatre makers would fall for. To see the complications of the “invisible line” that the technology creates in such detail is salutary. To make a drama of such intensity, so full of forensic insight and fundamental truths, is exciting. High quality work all around – pick up your phone and book a ticket.

Until 6 October 2018

www.gatetheatre.co.uk

Photo by Ikin Yum

“Diary Of A Madman” at the Gate Theatre

Al Smith’s play, inspired by Nikolai Gogol’s short story, is a triumphant commission from the Gate, already praised for its premiere at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh. Using schizophrenia to touch on plenty of issues, the play’s often very funny humour turns on a knife (well, a screwdriver) to create something truly gripping. Christopher Haydon’s direction is swift and sure, while a strong cast is clearly determined to make the most of this bracing piece.

Smith’s updating of the story is a neat affair. Set at the Forth Bridge, our hero, Pop Sheeran, is the latest in a family tasked with continually repainting the national monument, now owned by a global corporation. Times are changing. Liam Brennan takes the lead, giving a well-paced performance as an appealing figure with a  movingly delusional mental illness.

Talk of identity, national and professional, is instigated by the arrival of a young Englishman (Guy Clark does a super job here), which might feel contrived and portentous but isn’t. Modern life and sexual politics are quickly addressed, yet there’s real insight. If there are routes that could be explored further, credit to Smith for staying so evenly on track.

Lois Chimimba and Louise McMenemy
Lois Chimimba and Louise McMenemy

Firmly rooting the play in a community works wonders. This is a family drama as well. Deborah Arnott contributes immeasurably to a convincing portrait of marriage as Pop’s wife. Louise McMenemy brings depth to her role as their daughter. A neighbour and friend, a part to which Lois Chimimba brings hugely confident comic timing, gives us two young girls growing up – their sassy dialogue is a delight.

Laughter and insanity isn’t a new combination. Smith highlights discomfort about the connection but, more, utilises the humour impressively. A puppet of Greyfriars Bobby rewrites a tourist legend in a creepily memorable comedy scene. And, at the risk of too many spoilers, the finale at a fancy dress party themed on Scottish heroes is a damn clever move. The path towards Pop’s breakdown is so skilfully written, it’s as pleasurable as it is painful to watch.

Until 24 September 2016

www.gatetheatre.co.uk

Photos by Iona Firouzabadi

“The Chronicles Of Kalki” at the Gate Theatre

Aditi Brennan Kapil’s play is a teenage drama with an unusual twist: Kalki, a new arrival at school, might just be the tenth incarnation of Vishnu. When she disappears just as mysteriously as she arrived, a police investigation ensues, creating an intriguing and entertaining piece that’s easy to recommend.

The Chronicles of Kalki at the Gate Theatre. Angela Terence (Girl One), Amrita Acharia (Kalki), Jordan Loughran (Girl Two). Photo credit - Helen Murray (4)
Angela Terence, Amrita Acharia and Jordan Loughran

With taut direction by Alex Brown, the chronicles zip along with humour, mystery and edginess. Kalki takes her schoolmates shoplifting and to a house party, injecting danger and a confidence into their lives that inspire a renegade status. She’s not the kind of girl you’d want you daughter to hang out with, but she’s hard to resist. If, as in my school, religious instruction was entirely C of E, this “Hindu window” can be a little confusing but it’s always interesting.

Engaging, well-performed roles secure the work. Angela Terence and Jordan Loughran play Kalki’s young friends: their relationship convincing in its insecurity. A capable Trevor Michael Georges is the amiable policeman tasked with questioning the girls about Kalki’s disappearance and he serves as a foil to their youth. Appropriately, Amrita Acharia is the centre of attention, giving a divine performance: sexy and dangerous, elemental and charismatic. A skittish short play, with dialogue as mercurial as its title character, The Chronicles of Kalki are more convincing than you’d think possible, creating a rich and memorable evening.

Until 31 January 2015

www.gatetheatre.co.uk

Photos by Helen Murray

“The Body of an American” at the Gate Theatre

The Body of an American, which opened last night at the Gate Theatre, is an intriguing docudrama. Written by Dan O’Brien, it explores his friendship with the war reporter and photographer Paul Watson. Focusing on Watson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of a butchered American soldier in Mogadishu in 1993, O’Brien’s questioning of the older man’s motivation is matched by an examination of his own life and work.

The play and production are ingenious. William Gaminara and Damien Molony perform as Paul and Dan, but they also share each other’s lines (this works better than it sounds), as well as taking on a host of minor roles. Performed in traverse, photographs by both men are projected and create a companion dialogue.

While impeccably directly by the talented James Dacre, the piece comes perilously close to being overwhelming. What makes it so absorbing is that it seems such a collaboration between writer and subject. The latter’s memoir is credited as an inspiration and his voice is rendered so convincingly by O’Brien that he almost becomes dominant. But it’s really two stories. O’Brien reveals much of himself: like his friend he is haunted by events, and he skilfully creates an uneasy question as to the reliability of his ‘reporting’.

The terrifying events and atrocities that make up Watson’s work naturally make better drama. The fact that the stakes are so different are always acknowledged – think Hemingway meets Henry James – but the imbalance between the jobs leaves you questioning your own position. O’Brien’s struggle to make sense of Watson’s life, and make a play about it, creates a link with us all. His blend of passion and perspicacity makes this an unusual play that’s well worth watching.

Until 14 February 2014

www.gatetheatre.co.uk

Photo by Simon Dutson

Written 21 January 2014 for The London Magazine

“Dances of Death” at the Gate Theatre

Watching the intricacies of close relationships has an extra charge in the wonderful intimacy of the Gate Theatre. Opening last night, Dances of Death, shows us a marriage long disintegrated into a conjugal competition that is sure to provoke any audience. Howard Brenton’s new version of Strindberg’s influential classic condenses two plays into one evening to create a riveting night of theatre.

At first it seems as if we’re in for a comedy, as Edgar and his wife of 30 years, Alice, bluntly admit their misery, and settle down to a squabbling card game that neither enjoys – they have other games to play of a more sinister kind. Forced to join them is Kurt (Christopher Ravenscroft), whose crime of being matchmaker to the pair is something they have never forgiven him for.

Michael Pennington and Linda Marlowe establish the main characters with skilful speed. Their continuing contest is convincing, despite obscure motivations and bizarre behaviour. Pennington is marvellous at the captain of a military camp on a remote island; an impressive fabulator, rolling his eyes in a drunken stupor, and a boorish bully with a mischievous edge. Best of all, his depiction of physical illness is superb. Marlowe has a harder task, with a more ambiguous character whose past as an actress gives the whole piece a theatrical air. The performance fits the role, but director Tom Littler shows a questionable bravery in allowing some hands-on-forehead histrionics.

Poor Kurt’s punishment continues into the second play. It’s here that the production is most successful. As Edgar and Alice’s child, performed with a knowing theatricality that makes her very much her mother’s daughter, Eleanor Wyld makes a believable temptress. The innocent “sheep” now is Kurt’s son (a moving performance from Edward Franklin) and as the constraints in their society start to reveal themselves more clearly through the young couple’s relationship, the play starts to matter to us more. Littler’s pacing is bold and James Perkins’ design utilises Strindberg’s paintings to great effect.

It’s still a struggle to really appreciate Edgar and Alice’s relationship – a final admission of affection seems dismissed. The most interesting relationship in Dances of Death is that between its authors – this new version sees two writers, both with very individual voices, somewhat at odds. Brenton’s muscular approach matches Strindberg’s radicalism in many ways and both are visionary artists (interestingly, like Strindberg, Brenton also paints), but Strindberg’s politics are not well served. The writers’ union, like the one on stage, seems uncomfortable, though never less than fascinating.

Until 6 July 2013

www.gatetheatre.co.uk

Photo by Catherine Ashmore

Written 7 June 2013 for The London Magazine

“Purple Heart” at the Gate Theatre

It’s a brave decision for a playwright to make a child one of the central characters of a play. In Bruce Norris’ Purple Heart, receiving its UK première at the Gate Theatre in Notting Hill, Thor is a 12-year-old caught between his grieving mother and grandmother after his father dies in Vietnam. Given the raw intensity of the part, it would be almost impossible for a child of the same age to play it so the first medal awarded to this production goes to the actor Oliver Coopersmith, who is 20, for an astonishingly convincing portrayal of a precocious, disturbed pre-teen.

The family trio mourns in different ways. The resilience of youth is matched by the stoicism of age, with Linda Broughton playing Grace, a mother-in-law whose best intentions and insistence she is “on top of it” would test anyone. Grace’s attempts to control her son’s widow have an underlying insecurity that Broughton develops well. In the central role, Amelia Lowdell gives a similarly layered performance; the focus of a close-knit community obsessed with sending condolence casseroles, she is close to suicide through grief and alcoholism. Lowdell makes her fragile character the focus of our sympathy, despite her vicious streak.

Matters become more complex with the arrival of Purdy, a Vietnam veteran and a fourth, fine performance from Trevor White. It doesn’t take long for the soldier’s clean-cut manner to slip and White manages this superbly, making the most of every movement. Purdy is more a device than a well-rounded character: Norris uses him to pull out ideas and give Purple Heart some weight. At times, his character makes the play seem a touch sensational but the writing is original enough to fascinate.

Christopher Haydon’s intelligent direction serves Norris’ text well. Most of the conversations have an interrogatory feel that is delivered with an appropriate military pace. Better still, Haydon clearly appreciates the author’s quirky comedy; despite being a play about grief Purple Heart is full of laughs. It’s the darkest of humour, one that gives even poor jokes an edge. It’s a work unafraid of crudity, even silliness (Thor’s novelty jokes, gifts from his father, make continued appearances) – all to bring out the plays painful questions. Norris is known to London audiences primarily through his success at the Royal Court – this early work is every bit as good as the smash hit Clybourne Park, and deserves just as many awards.

Until 6 April 2013

www.gatetheatre.co.uk

Photo by Hugo Glendinning

Written 6 March 2013 for The London Magazine

“The Trojan Women” at the Gate Theatre

In Caroline Bird’s new take on Euripedes’ tragedy, the aftermath of the Trojan War finds the “crème de la femme” of the former empire held captive in the mother and baby unit of a prison alongside an anonymous pregnant woman in the role of The Chorus. If someone in labour chained to a hospital bed offends your sensibilities, then avoid the Gate Theatre on this occasion – it’s just one of several shocks in Bird’s powerful, vicious and unsettling text.

This is writing filled with passion and profanity and it’s guaranteed to disturb and provoke. But it lacks control and, like the subject matter, often borders on the grotesque, while the occasional injection of humour, with a handful of funny lines, falls flat. While the Greeks didn’t hold back when it came to suffering in their tragedies, Bird seems determined to outdo them and Queen Hecuba’s traumas are added to by The Chorus, performed viscerally by Lucy Ellinson, reminding us that the poor are the real victims of any war. As a moral focus it’s admirable, but it makes The Trojan Women relentlessly harrowing.

Bird exposes the audience in merciless fashion, while Christopher Haydon’s direction and Jason Southgate’s impressive set add to the intensity. And the performances are faultless. Dearbhla Molloy makes the most out of a complex Hecuba who is steely-cold and thirsty for vengeance. But the star of the night is Louise Bradley who takes on three roles and manages to convince in all of them. Sadly, no matter how well Bird’s strategy is pursued she doesn’t quite add enough to the original to make this new version worth enduring.

Until 19 December 2012

www.gatetheatre.co.uk

Photo by Iona Firouzabadi

Written 13 November 2012 for The London Magazine