Tag Archives: Zubin Varla

"Ghost Quartet" at the Boulevard Theatre

Here’s another new theatre for London, and a particularly stylish one – it’s clear that cash has been splashed on this refit of the Comic Strip’s one-time home in Walker’s Court, Soho. Still a little seedy outside, the theatre is one of the comfiest I’ve visited and the first year of programming from artistic director Rachel Edwards looks like a good mix. First up is a deceptively modest affair, a song cycle for four performers from Dave Malloy that’s a stylish American import aimed at a sophisticated clientele.

While there may be a Halloween connection, Edgar Allen Poe interests Malloy as much as ghosts. The piece takes in so many different kinds of relationships, around the themes of love and loss, with so many references, it ends up quite dizzying. Malloy cites the concept album as an inspiration, with track numbers announced to the audience, but any concept seems loose. There is a unifying story buried here, a love triangle with two sisters, but the focus isn’t clear. The story spans time and space and even seems to be connected to the Arabian Nights! It all becomes a little too confusing to actually enjoy. While fluid identities may be exciting to explore, they don’t aid any narrative here. And unrelated songs, while often musical highlights, don’t help either. As for the score, it’s eclectic to the point of bewildering. You expect a few scraped strings given the title but there are moments when Malloy gets carried away with the weird that aren’t so wonderful. And he isn’t scared of lyrics devoid of poetry, which is fine, but occasional imagery that could be described as baroque adds to an inconsistent feel.

Zubin Varla in Ghost Quartet at the Boulevard Theatre
Zubin Varla

If these are problems – and you could easily defend or revel in the compositions’ diversity – the cast take them in their stride. The Boulevard Theatre has recruited some serious talent that really delivers. Zubin Varla serves as a commanding presence and sounds fantastic, while ‘cellist Niccolò Curradi leads the music. Both Carly Bawden and Maimuna Memon play plenty of instruments and their voices are remarkable; Memon is especially good when it comes to creepy, Bawden a natural at puzzled innocence as past lives come into focus. The whole cast makes the more outlandish moments of the stories feel grounded and, when it comes to audience participation – of which there’s rather a lot – shows yet more expertise.

Carly Bowden and Maimuna Memon in Ghost Quartet at the Boulevard Theatre
Carly Bowden and Maimuna Memon

A lot of Ghost Quartet is wilfully quirky. It’s a quality that clearly appeals to director Bill Buckhurst. Again, that audience participation comes into play, with drinks and musical instruments handed out to the crowd prompting a chaotic feel. The benefits include keeping an audience engaged – it’s impossible to know what’s coming next, and it feels original and is often funny. But being so obviously ‘challenging’ can come across as contrived – to the point of being smug. Nonetheless, the show is undoubtedly an excellent choice for the venue; Buckhurst makes the most of its intimacy and clubby atmosphere, while Emma Chapman has fun with an impressive lighting rig. While I can’t imagine many falling in love with Ghost Quartet, it is a natural choice that makes a super start for the Boulevard Theatre.

Until 4 January 2019

www.boulevardtheatre.co.uk

Photos by Marc Brenner

“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

“Fun Home” at the Young Vic

Jeanine Tesori’s Tony award-winning musical is deceptively simple. It’s a modest story of family tragedy, a shell marriage and a suicide that is never overplayed. The lyrics, by Lisa Kron, are seldom flashy but always smart. Tesori’s music is beautiful, but folksy rather than symphonic. Such restraint takes sophistication. And the show’s aim, of a truthful search into the past, gains sincerity and emotional power through prudent understatement.

Based on the graphic novel by Alison Bechdel, it is the artist’s wish to paint “a picture of my father” that we are privileged to see performed. Bechdel is a lesbian and her father slept with men. Rather than supporting one another, in the style of the Gay Union Bechdel joins at college, repressed embarrassment and his frustrated life remain the consistent note. The roles make great parts for Kaisa Hammarlund and Zubin Varla, who are commanding throughout. But note: there are no sentimental pleas for understanding, no claims for revelations. Instead, what’s special about the tone of the piece is that no apologies are made. And there is a refreshing joy about Bechdel’s sexuality, with two songs of discovery – as a child and at college – that are highlights. Bechdel’s mother gets a fair turn, too, brilliantly portrayed by Jenna Russell. Again, there are no answers or explanations as to why she would stay in this marriage, but a bare dignity that is deeply moving.

The production from director Sam Gold is exemplary in its understanding of the piece – nothing distracts from the excellent storytelling and there isn’t a soap box in sight. And Gold gets strong performances from his child performers – indeed the acting all around is superb. Final praise goes to designer David Zinn for a stunning set that embodies the show: a rotating circle of furniture shows Bechdel’s obsession with bird’s-eye views, then a section in New York uses lighting to create comic book style panels, and finally the family home is revealed like a doll’s house. In each case, the point is clear and direct, forceful and impeccably well drawn.

Until 1 September 2018

www.youngvic.org

Photo by Marc Brenner

“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at Shakespeare’s Globe

Emma Rice’s first production as artistic director at the Globe has provided controversy for the much-loved venue and tourist hotspot. Fans of Rice’s work with her previous company, Kneehigh, will recognise some techniques here. But applied to Shakespeare, her irreverence and inventiveness proves invigorating.

First a caution – for some odd folk – this approaches Dream: The Musical. No excuse necessary, but it is striking how much of the play is sung. Stu Barker’s score is accomplished, dramaturg Tanika Gupta’s lyrics (drawing on the Sonnets and John Donne) are exciting and the singing West End standard. There’s a clever Indian twist and an electric sitar, so let’s describe the sound as Bollywood Rock. Is Rice being provoking? I do hope so.

Raucous is de rigueur at the Globe but, for good or ill, Rice has upped the stakes. If it weren’t for fear of sounding hopelessly out of touch I’d suggest some age advisory warning. There were squeals of horror in the crowd at some pretty full-on audience participation.

midsummer 1
Zubin Varla and Meow Meow

The show is sexy – many clothes are shed – and the polymorphous sexuality in Shakespeare is emboldened. Most impressively, with the King and Queen roles played by Zubin Varla and cabaret star Meow Meow – both intense performers –their chemistry is captivating. We’re reminded how creepy Titania being “enamoured of an ass” really is and both stars hold the stage, despite too much going on.

There are reservations. When Beyoncé is first quoted, your heart might sink at such an easy appeal to a younger audience. There’s a great deal of movement and some of it is messy. With water pistols, crazy costumes and a lot of accents, it’s anything for a lark. And the problem? Too many lines are difficult to hear, even lost. Rice lands the laughs, but they often fall at the expense of Shakespeare or, more generously, use the play as merely a springboard.

The hyped gender-bending casting (which is hardly new) may have been seen before, but not with the bite that Rice manages. Katy Owen does a superb job as Puck, working the crowd brilliantly, despite that water pistol. The rude mechanicals are recast as women. Only Bottom remains male – Ewan Wardrop doing the guys proud. Updating the wannabe theatricals into Globe volunteers is sweet and leads to excellent cameos, especially for Lucy Thackeray, whose calm ad lib, “my nephew’s gay”, tickled me pink.

midsummer 3
Ncuti Gatwa and Ankur Bahl

But it’s most with the Athenian lovers that Rice’s indiscretions are forgiven. Updating the couples into Hoxton hipsters is very funny. Ncuti Gatwa and Edmund Derrington make an energetic Demetrius and Lysander. Anjana Vasan gets roars of approval for her very modern Hermia. Ankur Bahl plays –hold on – Helenus, with wit and courage. There’s more to this decision than giving the line “ugly as a bear” a new twist. An uncomfortable response from some, admittedly young, audience members gives pause for thought. The Globe is a global institution (listen to how many visitors are from abroad). To see love between two men portrayed with complexity on such a stage is remarkable. There may be touches of over enthusiasm here but Rice balances public appeal with a radical streak that makes this show, and her direction, one of the most exciting things around.

Until 11 September 2016

www.shakespearesglobe.com

Photos by Steve Tanner

“Measure For Measure” at the Young Vic

It requires a director as bold as Joe Hill-Gibbins to revel in the oddness of Shakespeare’s ‘problem’ play. Taking licence with the tragi-comic text and its complex moral questioning, this production is radical in the true sense of the word: a far-reaching, thoughtful interpretation that strips it of context and relies on emotional realism.

On the Saturday matinee I attended, Ivanno Jeremiah was unable to perform as Claudio, so first a big thank-you to Raphael Sowole, who stepped up and allowed the show to go on. It’s not ideal conditions but one absence did little to detract from how forthright Hill-Gibbins’ vision is. And, besides, the supernumerary cast of sex dolls more than manages to fill the stage.

That’s right – inflatable sex dolls, which are inevitably what the production will be remembered for. This is a shame since, while irreverent fun, they are not the best thing on offer. With live video recording projected onto the stage, this show gets up close and personal. And, with some help from Hans Memling’s apocalyptic artwork, arresting imagery is everywhere, with a pulsating soundscape from Paul Arditti adding to the atmosphere.

Paul_Ready_Zubin_Varla_and_Natalie_Simpson_in_Measure_for_Measure_at_the_Young_Vic._Photo_by_Keith_Pattison
Paul Ready and Zubin Varla

Best of all are the performances. The cast, like the text, is slimmed down and works hard. Romola Garai is brilliant as an indignant Isabella, as is Paul Ready as a cool Angelo – both performers root out the essentials of their characters. There are also strong roles for Cath Whitefield’s Mariana (although why she should be a fan of pop star Pink baffled me) and John Mackay’s Lucio, whose joke with the Duke has far more mileage than usual. It’s with the Duke, given a towering portrayal by Zubin Varla, that Hill-Gibbins should get most credit. This ‘power divine’ is displayed in his twisted benevolent best – a Rasputin gone right, with an injection of tension that suggests his plans could go awry. The conclusion, shuffling the cast into a deranged and confused photo opportunity, makes quite a picture for this flash-bang-wallop of a show.

Until 14 November 2015

www.youngvic.org

Photos by Keith Pattison

“Dara” at the National Theatre

With Behind The Beautiful Forevers still running – and well worth watching – The National Theatre offers another, very different, view of the Indian subcontinent with Dara. Adapted for a Western audience by Tanya Ronder, from Shahid Nadeem’s play, this historical epic shows the battle between Shah Jahan’s sons for the Mughal Empire. It’s a riveting story, all the more exciting if you aren’t familiar with the history (imagine the Tudors without knowing Henry had six wives); a family drama boasting an ambitious sense of scale that makes it topical too.

Nadia Fall’s quick-fire direction stages the action with speed, while Katrina Lindsay’s design and a large cast creates a sumptuous feel. Though a wide span of time is covered (the play is long, but never droops) and some roles are feel curtailed, Vincent Ebrahim manages to give Shah Jahan great depth, and Nathalie Armin is superb as his daughter, Jahanara. Zubin Varla takes the title role, a hugely satisfying character, saintly yet very human and ferociously intelligent. Dara’s fate is to be tried for apostasy – his own defence in court is fantastic theatre.

daradrop-Dara-credit-Ellie-Kurtz
Sargon Yelda and Anjana Vasan

Dara is as much about Shah Jahan’s other son, Aurangzeb, who claimed the throne and rejected both Sufism and the religious toleration that Dara explored. A tyrannical figure, Sargon Yelda’s performance as Aurangzeb is wonderfully layered. A brief, exquisitely crafted scene with his Hindu lover, ably played by Anjana Vasan, really helps. Aurangzeb isn’t just a villain and the play’s exploration of the need to choose between “faith or family” makes it great drama. It’s Dara’s religious content that makes it feel so urgent – presenting the “broken prince”, a figure to revere despite his fall from power, it provides a different view of religion at a time when one is so desperately needed.

Until 4 April 2015

www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

Photos by Ellie Kurttz

“The El. Train” at Hoxton Hall

Hoxton Hall has been transformed for a short run of three one-act plays by Eugene O’Neill. Billed as The El. Train, with the action set beneath the bustle of the New York Subway at the turn of the century, there are no long journeys to endure here as the short pieces run right on time. O’Neill’s bleak themes of desperation are easily recognisable, but this is an night of drama and action, backed by a superb jazz soundtrack, with original music from Alex Baranowski, that adds a satisfying unity to the evening.

The first two plays, Before Breakfast and The Web, are superbly directed by Sam Yates. Both star two-time Olivier Award winning Ruth Wilson who gives versatile performances as a downtrodden wife and an abused prostitute. Before Breakfast serves as a commanding monologue, produced with gripping precision from both director and actor. Special praise goes to the carefully delivered humour brought out in the production – a clear indication of the intelligence behind the whole evening. The Web is an even darker exploration of a criminal underworld. The unbelievable cruelty of a pimp, portrayed effectively by Zubin Varla, an heroic rescue, and a baby thrown in for extra emotion – there’s a little too much going on for its own good. But Yates does a superb job to embrace and pace the action. Wilson’s reappearance in this role, as a consumptive streetwalker, close to death, is tremendous.

A transformation marks the finest theatrical moment of the final piece as well, with Nicola Hughes metamorphosing into an elderly woman as she sings between the plays. In The Dreamy Kid, Hughes’ Mammy Saunders is on her deathbed, waiting to say goodbye to a beloved grandchild. He is being watched by the police and his visit will be a trap as his crime catches up with him. The play marks Ruth Wilson’s directorial debut, a cleverly modest one, which takes a lead from Yates’ work and maintains the high standards and exciting tension.

And to round off a fine evening, an accompanying bar benefits from the atmosphere the talented musicians on stage have established so well. The Hell Hole Saloon is a pop-up venue that ostensibly takes its inspiration from the Golden Swan saloon O’Neill frequented. It’s much nicer really, with themed cocktails, including a delicious hot buttered rum which is perfect for the season, and fantastic service under the supervision of award-winning bartender Joe Stokoe.

Until 30 December 2013

Photo by Marc Brenner

Written 14 December 2013 for The London Magazine

“Troilus and Cressida” at the Riverside Studios

The World Shakespeare festival, which this new production of Troilus and Cressida at the Riverside Studio includes, has made audiences more familiar with radical versions of the canon. But this co-production between the RSC and the renowned American company, The Wooster Group, is staged in such a bizarre fashion, the play becomes confusing and alienating. It doesn’t help that the actors interact with videos mounted on big poles as they perform. This gives rise to seemingly erratic movements which have been prompted by the videos. Frankly, makes the whole show downright odd.

Co-directors Elizabeth LeCompte and Mark Ravenhill set Shakespeare’s Trojan war love story in an unspecified location with Native Americans against contemporary British soldiers. Sort of. The Trojans have futuristic costumes (by Folkert De Jong) and the British troops have a tendency to don drag. You certainly won’t be bored, but there is no balance – the play is made into a puzzle. It’s true that Troilus and Cressida is full of contradictions, but this company is obsessed with abandoning any coherence: the ideas and delivery may be eye-catching, but they add little humour or, more importantly, drama.

It is the actors who suffer most by this treatment with their performances reduced to bizarre cameos. Marin Ireland and Scott Shepherd deliver the title roles in a deliberately monotonous, stylised, fashion. Among the Trojans only Greg Mehrten’s Pandarus manages to break this spell by the force of his stage presence. The British contingent do better (maybe their delivery is more familiar), but Aidan Kelly’s WWF-inspired Ajax and Zubin Varla’s Thersites stubbornly reject any subtlety and quickly become annoying. Scott Handy has a better night of it as an asthmatic Ulysses, but his brief appearance as Helen is such bizarre casting, it jars. Most damning of all, Shakespeare’s text is delivered so differently that comprehension suffers. Whatever points that LeCompte and Ravenhill wish to make are unclear. Most of the plot is lost as well.

Until 8 September 2012

www.riversidestudios.co.uk

Photo by Hugo Glendinning

Written 31 August 2012 for The London Magazine

“Into thy hands” at Wilton’s Music Hall

Politics and prayer seem to have been much more interesting 400 years ago, at least if Jonathan Holmes’ new play at Wilton’s Music Hall is to be believed. Set in 1611, Into thy hands is a story of sex and death, religion and science, with the life of poet and preacher John Donne as its catalyst.

Holmes is a scholar as well as the production’s writer and director. He has staged a Jacobean court masque as well as recovering some of Donne’s songs and both become valuable additions to his play. So Into thy hands doesn’t wear its learning lightly, it’s too ambitious for that. There’s even a nod to verbatim theatre (another of Renaissance man Holmes’ interests). You have to be on your toes for this one.

Part of the challenge is the inspiration taken from Donne’s poetry. Complex and full of conceits, you could never call it an easy read. Rewarding certainly, but characters discussing theology in this manner is hard work. Donne’s very name is a case in point, dripping with puns and prophecy – he can be finished, satiated, but also downcast, undone. Donne’s role in public life adds another level: he becomes trapped as a symbol himself, forced into the church as a reformed soul. For Holmes, the early seventeenth century was a period when a new world of science and religion saw “words move” while reactionaries fought to pin everything “in place”.

Donne’s position in this struggle is never less than compelling. He wants to be “a voice not a text”, arguing for fluidity and a sensuality that is shockingly modern. Zubin Varla plays the lead and delivers his verbose lines with remarkable fluidity, convincing us of the man’s passion and originality. But Donne shouldn’t just be unconventional and Varla’s occasional rants make him unconvincing – a flaw in a man so famous for his sermons.

Listening to the debate is Donne’s circle of allies and adversaries. It is a strength of Holmes’ text that he attempts to give a voice to the strong women of the period. Donne’s wife Ann is a fascinating character, played articulately by Jess Murphy. There are also strong performances from Helen Masters as Lady Danvers and Stephanie Langton as the Countess of Bedford. The latter has to deal with some explicit scenes concerning her character’s sexuality and manages to create an emotionally rounded performance.

Nothing about Into thy hands is easy. Even the humour is a sophisticated kind of bawdy. But any trip to Wilton’s music hall is worth taking and Holmes deals well with the building’s fantastic acoustics. This ‘hidden gem’ of a stage, derelict for so many years and London’s last surviving music hall, is at risk because the Heritage Lottery has refused a grant for its redevelopment. This makes a visit more important than ever – and with a play that has a preacher as its hero, surely a donation is called for?

Until 2 July 2011

www.wiltons.org.uk

Written 3 June 2011 for The London Magazine