Tag Archives: Norah Lopez Holden

“Gunter” at the Royal Court Theatre

Dirty Hare Productions presents a new and different kind of historical story. As with, say, Underdog: The Other Other Brontë, currently showing at the National Theatre, Emilia by Morgan Lloyd Malcolm, or even the musical Six, the aim is to focus on the neglected stories of women. It might be hard to see these shows as a genre – they are all so different – but they do share an honesty about the difficulty of such a project that is exciting and appealing.

Co-created by Lydia Higman, Julia Grogan and Rachel Lemon, the titular subject is a young girl from the Oxfordshire countryside who was “bewitched” and whose case was brought to trial in 1605. But the facts are scant and, predictably, focus on her father. So, what to do? Of course, theatre is great for bringing such stories to life. And the telling here is innovative and experimental… because it has to be.

"Gunter' at the Royal Court Theatre credit Alex Brenner
Lydia Higman

Higman is an historian and appears as such, acting as a kind of narrator who amiably guides the audience. Then she takes to the guitar! As a composer, her music is a big part of the show, with a variety of genres cleverly utilised. Grogan also performs, joined by Hannah Jarrett-Scott and Norah Lopez Holden, who all have fantastic singing voices and tackle an impressive variety of roles.

"Gunter' at the Royal Court Theatre credit Alex Brenner
Hannah Jarrett-Scott as James I

Lopez Holden takes the part of Anne Gunter, showing a youngster who’s confused as well as frightened. Jarrett-Scott plays ‘the other’ Gunter – the father – with a suitably bluff aggression. It’s clear he takes advantage of his daughter, but how much he believes her to be a genuine victim must be an open question. Jarrett-Scott also has a star turn as a paranoid James I (a fantastic interpretation of the monarch). Alongside other characters, Grogan appears as one of the accused, Elizabeth Gregory, whose story is powerful. The acting is strong, but the show is all about its approach: a little crazy, always energetic and inspiringly experimental.

You never quite know what’s coming next. Or how anyone will speak: the script moves from early modern details to contemporary speech, with a lot of swearing. Or how anyone will move. Aline David’s choreography is punk-inspired one moment and then suitably otherworldly. As well as singing, there are plenty of props, many very simple, such as balloons, on an increasingly messy stage. And some strong puppetry is aided by Amy Daniels’ excellent lighting design.

At times the wild changes in mood or incongruities are disconcerting. That’s the point, of course. And some touches might annoy or even confuse (the variety of accents puzzled me). But there is a twist to the story that makes this fragmentary approach especially appropriate… we don’t know what happened to Anne. Although frustrating, it proves the show’s point: she is lost to history. A final poetic touch acts as a powerful tribute to Gunter that feels fully appropriate. 

Until 25 April 2024

www.royalcourt.com

Photos by Alex Brenner

“The Flea” at the Yard Theatre

The Cleveland Street scandal of 1889 concerned a male brothel in Fitzrovia, and the characters in this play either worked or visited there or investigated it. But, playwright James Fritz aims for a very different kind of historical drama and is open about not always following facts. Both its look, and bold direction from Jay Miller, provide originality for the production. Yet just as good, beneath the style, there’s fine storytelling and an intelligent engagement with history.

In this tale about the exploitation and persecution of gay men, the smartest move is to focus it on a woman – the mother of one of the boys who prostituted themselves. Doing an excellent job, Norah Lopez Holden plays Emily Swinscow, serving as our narrator and reminding us that this is an unpleasant story about desperate people forced into sex work. A lot about the production is cool, but this mother’s care for her son provides warm emotion.

The five-strong cast all take on more than one role and much of the casting stimulates through its sharp eye on class distinctions. To take the most obvious example, Lopez Holden also makes an appearance as Queen Victoria, showing how the scandal reached the highest levels of society. But note, Victoria shares Swinscow’s concerns for family. The monarch tries to make a deal with God to protect her grandson, even though it is the wrong thing to do.

Yes, God… they makes an appearance in the play, too. And let’s just say that Victoria gets very excited about the chat. Scott Karim does a divine job in the role, and it isn’t The Flea’s only crazy moment. Showing great skill, Connor Finch, Séamus McLean Ross and Sonny Poon Tip all join in the fast-paced, often comic, action. Miller makes sure it’s always clear what is going on. And there’s also considerable sympathy for all involved.

The-Flea-Sonny-Poon-Tip-and-Séamus-McLean-Ross-credit-Marc-Brenner
Sonny Poon Tip and Séamus McLean Ross

It’s going too far to say that Fritz shows sentimentality, but he has an eye on this most Victorian of traits. Finch makes a superb stage debut, movingly depicting two very different figures, while Poon Tip’s turn as one of the aristocrats drawn into trouble proves powerful. The play is harsh to those in charge and their agendas. Again, Karim excels as police Inspector Abberline, while McLean Ross’s nightmarish Prince of Wales is a marvel. But The Flea doesn’t blame. Highlighting compromises, some horrid, that characters make because of historical circumstances is a mature response to the period.

The-Flea-Séamus-McLean-Ross-and-Connor-Finch-credit-Marc-Brenner
Séamus McLean Ross and Connor Finch

To save the best until last, it’s a pleasure to highlight a costume designer – Lambdog1066. What performers wear often only comes into focus if something is incongruous. Here, it’s all wrong! And brilliant as a result. The invention is fantastic (and so is the construction of the clothes themselves). The designs bear in mind the different roles to be played, with ruched sleeves joined to uniforms, or bolero and biker jackets looking both scruffy and smart. All sorts of materials are used – rags, carpets, even pottery. They do look crazed, but they help to tell the story. This aesthetic aids the aims of the play brilliantly and shares its intelligent originality.

Until 2 December 2023

www.theyardtheatre.co.uk

Photos by Marc Brenner

“Hamlet” at the Young Vic

The star casting of Cush Jumbo in the title role of Shakespeare’s tragedy does not disappoint. One of the finest Hamlets I’ve seen, Jumbo gives a stirring performance of clarity, considerable humour and intelligence. This is the philosopher prince, keen to debate and discuss – a wit with a love of words.

In case you’re wondering, Jumbo plays Hamlet as a man (there’s no change of gender in the text). It’s how convincing she is as a swaggering youth that surprises, balancing bravado with insecurity just like many a teenage boy. The humour is excellently handled. Let’s be honest, not all the jokes in Hamlet work – some need a little extra help – and Jumbo seems to know exactly when to provide this.

Tara Fitzgerald in Hamlet credit Helen Murray
Tara Fitzgerald

Surprisingly, beyond casting a woman in the lead, director Greg Hersov’s commendable production ends up conservative, in the sense that it is restrained. Firstly, some performances are strikingly muted. Adrian Dunbar’s Claudius is a forceful study in minimalism. Incredibly understated, he barely raises his voice. The performance is all the more powerful for its control. The same praise can be given to Tara Fitzgerald’s Gertrude. Her delivery of Ophelia’s death, and even her own death, are remarkably flat. The royal couple are so repressed they are frightening.

Jonathan Ajayi and Joseph Marcell
Jonathan Ajayi and Joseph Marcell

As a contrast, Laertes and Ophelia carry much of the burden of emotion in the play. Hersov reminds us that Hamlet is the story of two families. Along with Joseph Marcell’s appealing Polonius, Norah Lopez Holden and Jonathan Ajayi create the sense of a family unit with remarkable speed and efficiency. 

This Hamlet is an austere affair, from Anna Fleischle’s minimalist design to the sparse modern touches. There’s an edit, too – a bold one – as Fortinbras is excised. It’s all to focus on how cerebral both character and play are: this is a Hamlet for thinkers.

Plotters, too, of course. There’s Hamlet’s procrastination – but note how Jumbo carefully lays out thoughts. Hersov emphasises what a bunch of thinkers this court contains. Claudius doesn’t really try to pray; he’s working out why he can’t. And the scene of his plotting with Laertes is a proper sit-down meeting.

The production is a move away from those that have emphasised performance and acting. The travelling players suffer a little as a result and action is minimalised. But, as an interpretation focusing on argument and discussion, Hersov starts a debate about the play that this excellent production wins.

Until 13 November 2021

www.youngvic.org

Photos by Helen Murray

“Equus” at the Theatre Royal Stratford East

The last London outing of Peter Shaffer’s 1973 play boasted exciting star casting. But even the presence of Daniel Radcliffe, who did a great job playing the stable hand Alan who blinds the horses in his care, didn’t quite distract from the dated manner of this psychodrama. Equus can be a laboured whydunit, as the aloof Dr Dysart lags behind the audience in reconstructing events and struggles to provide an explanation for an all-too-symbolic outrage.

In this new production, director Ned Bennett gallops over many flaws, adding a physicality that balances the theorising monologues. Meanwhile, the lighting and sound design, from Jessica Hung Han Yun and Giles Thomas respectively, add psychedelic flashes of light and bursts of sound to great effect. With a strong cast, dashing on and off stage with unnerving speed, the piece is served superbly – this is one of the best revivals you’ll see in a long time.

The play’s problems are still there, of course. A contemporary audience is probably too used to tracing trauma – and too familiar with psychobabble – to find such a quest revelatory. But Bennett manages to make it exciting. The clever move is to focus on the doctor, played superbly by Zubin Varla, as much as the patient, and to make the philhellenic clinician’s dissatisfaction with his own life a source of questions. With increasing distress, Dysart sees his treatment will deprive Alan of a life-enhancing passion – the key word is worship – which is a challenging proposition, given Alan’s actions. Varla provides convincing fervour, and plumbing Shaffer’s text to bring out the theme works well.

The production flirts with a period setting, sometimes to its detriment. Georgia Lowe’s minimal design of clinical curtains is used to great effect, but the costumes, as a nod to the 1970s, are confusing. And too little is done about the female roles. Norah Lopez Holden, who plays Alan’s love interest, feels so contemporary she could come from another play. While Alan’s mother is in 1950s mode with Syreeta Kumar’s oddly wooden depiction.

Ira Mandela Siobhan and Ehtan Kai

The cast is superb though when it comes to doubling up as the horses, led in this endeavour by Ira Mandela Siobhan. Avoiding fancy puppetry emphasises the sensual to an almost risqué level – the show is confrontationally sexy. For a final exciting element, there’s the performance of Ethan Kai as Alan. Theatregoers love a career-defining role and this surely counts as one. As well as creating sympathy for the character – no easy leap – he also makes Alan scary. Presenting a young man so dangerously unaware of his own strength, Kai allows Alan to stand as an individual rather than an object in Shaffer’s intellectual game – and all benefit as a result.  

Until 23 March 2019

www.stratfordeast.com

Photo by The Other Richard