Please note that all of these reviews were originally written for North West End and first appeared here.
Ophelia: Madness (in blue), The Met, Bury, 31st July 2017
Her unusual name and tragic plight mean most people recognise Ophelia as Hamlet’s almost-lover, the girl who went mad with grief, her suicide. Never before though, have an audience been able to shine the spotlight on Ophelia and see her out from under the shadow of the primary scenes of her male counter-characters.
In Ophelia: Madness (in blue) Bristol based multidisciplinary artists Stem Collective aim to do just that; exploring Ophelia not as collateral damage of Hamlet’s story but as a woman in her own right.
Using Shakespeare’s original text and musical arrangement by Sergei Dreznin we are welcomed into Polonius’ drawing room, where Ophelia is remembering her dead father, brother and lover.
The set is beautiful; almost wholly lit by candles playing on the fragility of Ophelia’s mental state and nod to Elizabethan performances of Shakespeare. Throughout the piece performers move the candles around, extinguishing some, adding to the ghostly ambience and concept of memories flickering in the dark.
The whole 45-minute performance pivots around the dining table, which is laid for four. Ophelia is visited by each ghost, inviting them to sit with her, she is clearly grieving for them, taking in smells and looking across the stage at things that aren’t there.
The musical arrangements are complex and well executed. It has to be said that even if you are well versed in Hamlet, the linearity of the piece is confusing at times. But that can be forgiven because the music ties everything together as an experience rather than as a chronological timeline.
There are elements of jazz, which add a really interesting dimension to Ophelia’s character; the timings are erratic but also sensual. Costume changes reflect this too; the black of grief and red in the very intense nunnery scene with Hamlet show Ophelia is definitely not a one-dimensional character.
Emily McDouall’s performance as Ophelia was exquisite. McDouall’s voice prevails even amongst harmonies with all three other male voices. Her diction and prowess puts her a cut above the other performers. Polonius provided the much needed lighter moments.
Stem Collective are performing Ophelia: Madness (in blue) again at Camden Fringe 17th and 18thAugust in Covent Garden, London and I highly recommend you go and see it for some experimental and unusual musical theatre.
Fran and Leni, The King's Arms, Salford, 27th July 2017
Meeting at school in the 1970’s Fran and Leni are two lost souls cut from a different cloth to the rest of those around them. They soon get together and give the testosterone-fuelled world of punk the finger as fictional London based feminist band, The Rips.
A book Leni has written about her life frames the show and we bear witness to the pair romping back through the memories of their friendship like wildfire.
The piece, written by Sadie Hasler (Leni) and directed by Sarah Mayhew (Fran) is a follow up from Old Trunk Theatre to the 2015 critically acclaimed Pramkicker.
Clever snippets of songs and TV footage from that era break up the scenes while the two of them burst into each new memory from their life together spitting and swearing and smashing society’s expectations of them as women. Mentions of Jonny Rotten and Toyah Wilcox set the punk scene and clips from Top of the Pops and some poignant BBC faces demonstrate how relevant the show’s message is to this day.
The 70 minute performance covers so many topics at the heart of womanhood that I could easily have watched another hour of the rebellion as the pair unpacked taboo topics of womanhood like rape, queerness and women loving women, victim blaming, female masturbation, breast cancer and dismantling the patriarchy one safety pin, metal spike and stud at a time.
Fran and Leni is sweary, sweaty, angry, unclean and PUNK ROCK. I highly recommend catching this one wherever you can.
Shackles, The Boss, Stolen Elephant Theatre, The King's Arms, Salford, 27th July 2017
‘Shackleton. Ernest, Henry.’ Great explorer and pioneer fondly known as Shackles to his adoring stowaway in this piece from Stolen Elephant Theatre.
With The Studio of The King’s Arms in Salford creaking around us it is easy to visualise being a stowaway on a ship. The four black walls, black ceiling and floor help us envisage this tale of a dangerous expedition to the Antarctic with the two-man cast.
With only the sounds of howling winds and minimal props of maps and hats, the unlikely pair explore the difficult relationship between a stowaway and a captain on an expedition as important as this trans-Antarctic endeavour; completed by Shackleton and his team in 1916.
The relationship between the men is difficult at times and even dangerous, but during the hour long dramatisation grows stronger and the once annoying stowaway becomes more like a confidante. There were times when I wondered if the stowaway was actually depicting Shackleton’s conscience, or at least the doubt to his almost arrogant determination.
Shackles, The Boss is a great showcase into Shackleton’s personality and story, toeing the line between legend and madman. He’s played remarkably as very intense, obsessive even, hinting that perhaps you need that in your character to do remarkable things such as pioneer impossible trips as he did.
It’s not all threats of cannibalism and gore of seal blood and dead dogs though, there are comedic moments, mostly provided by the stowaway and his ignorance of Shackleton’s meticulous preparation for his cause. These lighter moments are much appreciated even in the face of despair at the ending, when you don’t know how either of the pair could ever survive.
Admittedly it’s not a polished script, but there are varying dramatic techniques employed and two very strong characters that bring the story alive. Hopefully we will see more of this show in the next year and it will grow to become a trailblazer like it’s namesake.