Review 10.


A Midsummer Night’s Dream at The Young Vic Theatre

Directed by Joe Hill-Gibbins with design by Johannes Schütz

Main Cast: Michael Gould, Thesues/Oberon; Anastasia Hillie, Hipollyta/Titania; John Dagleish, Lysander; Jemima Rooper, Hermia; Oliver Alvin-Wilson, Demitrius; Anna Madely, Helena; The Mechanicals: Matthew Steer, Peter Quince; Leo Bill, Bottom; Sam Cox, Robin Starveling; Geoff Ayemer, Tom Snout. Lloyd Hutchinson; Egeus/Puck.


When we think of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the sort of things that conventionally come to mind wouldn’t be out of place in one of those wonderful fairy-emporium shops – like those that Glastonbury is famous for. But this Dream, directed by Joe Hill-Gibbons, definitely stands outside of this. We’re in no a fantasy fairy wood – rather we are out in the field: literally and metaphorically. The characters stand on a semi-circular muddy stage, illuminated by harsh halogen bar lamps that run around the inner rim of its edge, and all backed by a mirror. Lovers will wrestle (both carnally and competitively) in this mud – as if it’s the last day at Glastonbury. This post-festival vibe seems a deliberate appeal to the idea that (as Emma Garland puts it in her piece for Noisey, ‘Having Sex at Festivals Isn’t Just Disgusting, It’s Shit.’) ‘summer music festivals are basically the closest thing humans have to mating season’[1]. For the mud covering the stage becomes a physical representation of love stripped bare – revealing it in all its messiness: un-idealised, raw, and at times grotesque. Yet we are also out of the fairy-Midsummer-Nights-Dream-Young-Vic-147.jpgwood in another sense. As we look at the stage we cannot avoid seeing ourselves – reflected in the mirror backing the stage. Indeed our faces might as well stand in for the trees of the wood where the Dream we are about to watch takes place.

At the same time, the mirror acts as a constant reminder that we are in fact an audience. It essentially removes the forth wall – like the signs held up by actors announcing the scene changes in Brecht’s theatre; an act that aimed to encourage the audience to recognise themselves as an audience, and therefore to be discouraged from over-identifying with the characters on stage, giving them space to adopt a more ‘socially critical’[2] attitude to the characters. But it’s not just the mirror that makes us feel disconcertingly alienated from the play’s main action. For whilst the characters all wear modern clothing (they could easily be any member of the audience), their movements stop us from becoming fully involved with them emotionally. Throughout the performance, none of them leave the stage (although sometimes they stand or sit in rows facing us along the shelf-like niches to the left and right of the mirror; they sip from bottles of water, almost as if we’re seeing the actors backstage). Instead they move around mechanically – like commuters-cum-cyborgs – creating different scene-zones on the bleak, and otherwise empty, stage. Sometimes they just stop, like puppets whose strings have been dropped, and face plant into the mud. They don’t seem quite human; or rather they seem to be humans controlled by some sort of impersonal force.

And, in many ways the characters in this play are. The plot is a tangled knot of love-ties made and un-made by magic, and often in response to social norms. At the play’s start we are met by Hermia, whose father (Egeus) is attempting to have her

‘consent to marry with Demetrius’,

instead of Lysander (the man with whom Hermia is in love). Lysander’s social standing is equivalent to that of Demetrius; Egeus is, on the face of it, more concerned by the fact that Hermia marrying Lysander would conflict with his having power over her according to the social norms of their society:

‘I beg the ancient privilege of Athens,

As she is mine, I may dispose of her:

Which shall be either to this gentleman

Or to her death, according to our law

Immediately provided in that case.’

He claims that Lysander has

‘With cunning […] filch’d my daughter’s heart,

Turn’d her obedience, which is due to me’.

It is to the Duke Theseus that Egeus ‘begs’. Theseus himself is soon to wed Hippolyta, MidsummerNightsDream-JR_feb17and
in this production an interesting parallel is drawn between Hermia (now lying face down in the mud, having heard Theseus support her father’s appeal: ‘to you your father should be as a god’)  and Hippolyta. Before this scene we watched Hippolyta (dressed in a suffocatingly tight looking black suit) ritualistically put on high heels; she seems to struggle to put them on – and when she places her feet down the skinny-stilettos quickly sink and stick in the mud. Throughout the scene she appears to be almost limping. This ritualistic dressing in restrictive (and debilitating) clothing seems to reflect her restrained and almost fearful reaction to Theseus’ speaking of their soon to come wedding (and night):

‘O, methinks, how slow

This old moon wanes! she lingers my desires’.

Hippolyta looks on, rigid, going along with what is expected of her – she seems constrained by her situation, just like Hermia.

But unlike Hippolyta, Hermia decides to rebel – running away with Lysander into the woods. They are followed by Demetrius (who has been told of their eloping by Helena, who is in love with Demetrius and spurned by him). But the woods are inhabited by magical beings, and the lovers’ arguments disturb them. Puck (servant to Oberon the fairy-king) is sent by his master to quiet them down. He puts the juice of a plant that will make the recipient fall in love with whatever they see when they wake on Lysander’s eyelids – mistaking him for Demitrius (Oberon wanted Demitrius to fall for Helena). Lysander wakes to see Helena, and falls for her. In his interpretation of this element of the play, Hill-Gibbins seems to take some cues from Jan Kott’s (whose 1964 work Shakespeare Our Contemporary explored the direct connections he saw between Shakespeare and then-modern European drama, including Brecht and Beckett) feeling that ‘the reduction of characters to love partners seems to me the most peculiar characteristic of this cruel dream; and perhaps its most modern quality’[3]. Lysander and Demitrius wrestle in the mud, like male animals in mating season jacked-up on testosterone. They seem mnd-11completely out of control – or controlled by something beyond themselves. Of course the magic Puck has used on them is out of their control, but it is difficult not to read their animalistic behaviour as revealing our idea of human love (which we like to imagine exists on a level beyond the physical – we tend to idealise the notion of finding ‘the one’, or our ‘soulmate’) as, at base, an impersonal appetitive drive.

Even before Puck puts the juice of the plant on Lysander’s eyelids, we see this in action. As they lay down to sleep on the forest floor, Lysander tries to persuade Hermia to allow him to lie next to her:

‘One turf shall serve as pillow for us both;

One heart, one bed, two bosoms and one troth.’

She refuses him,

‘Nay, good Lysander […] lie further off’,

but he persists,

‘riddl[ing] very prettily’ 

(as Hermia puts it) to try and talk her into it. This is brief, and after her second rebuttal he seems to have learnt his lesson:

‘Amen, amen, to that fair prayer, say I;

And then end life when I end loyalty!

Here is my bed: sleep give thee all his rest!’

However, in this production we can’t be so sure. For as he ‘riddle[d]’ he was pulling Hermia into a close and distinctly sexual embrace: reaching under her skirt, and seeming not to hear her words as he started to lie her down. It is only with the help of her legs (kicking and pushing) that Hermia manages to force a response to her panickedmethode-times-prod-web-bin-2a9d5b20-fa9d-11e6-a6f0-cb4e831c1cc0.jpg

‘Lie further off’.

Even Lysander seems shocked at his behaviour – as if he doesn’t quite understand how he could have been so possessed.

Despite this, when Lysander turns in favour of Helena, the women behave just like the men – wrestling in the mud. They even throw handfuls of it at each other, along with verbal abuse (centring on physical attributes – Hermia’s being shorter than Helena):

‘Her height, forsooth, she hath prevail’d with him.

And are you grown so high in his esteem;

Because I am so dwarfish and so low?

How low am I, thou painted maypole? speak;

How low am I? I am not yet so low

But that my nails can reach unto thine eyes.’

It all sounds (excuse the anachronism) bizarrely Darwinian. If this is the state of young love, we are given an insight into more mature relationships in Theseus and Hippolyta, and Titania (the fairy-queen) and Oberon – who are both played by Michael Gould (Theseus/Oberon) and Anastasia Hillie (Hippolyta/Titania). These dual roles develop a parallel between the two pairs – although one between foils: Theseus’ sexual dominance, versus Oberon’s jealousy and feelings of sexual inadequacy; Hippolyta’s uptightness, versus Titania’s sexual yearning. We see Theseus at the play’s start looking in the mirror, flexing his muscles as he dons a black silk dressing gown – he looks like Hugh Hefner. Theseus’ dominating sexuality contrasts the sexual anxiety of Oberon. For he is angry that Titania refuses his request that she give up her page-boy to him. In retaliation he takes the same plant that he orders Puck to put on Lysander’s (and, later Demitrius’) eyes, and to use it on Titania – ensuring that when she wakes the first thing she sees is

‘some vile thing’.

This turns out to be Bottom – one of the Mechanicals (a small theatre band led by Peter Quint), who has been transfigured by Puck into a man with an ass’ head (making Oberon’s queen seem an ass for falling in love with an ass).

As Titania wakes from her fairy bower (in this production simply a patch of the mud covering the stage; in the foetal position she seems vulnerable) she sets eyes on Bottom – and falls in love. When she sees him Bottom (hilariously played by Leo Bill) is singing – but instead of the traditional song (which gives actors the opportunity to do their best impression of a donkey: ‘Whose note full many a man doth mark, / And dares not answer nay;-‘, hopefully rousing tumultuous giggles from the audience) he sings Aerosmith’s ‘I Midsummer-Nights-Dream-Young-Vic-137.jpgDon’t Wanna Miss a Thing’. Whilst some might miss the traditional moment of comedy, Leo Bill’s increasingly whiney (and cringey) rendition of Aerosmith is truly hilarious – with each increase of volume drawing a peal of giggles, and eventually outright hard laughs. However the song choice also draws out the sexual politics between Titania and Oberon: ‘I could stay awake just to hear you breathing / Watch you smile while you are sleeping / While you’re far away and dreaming’, is both tender and not a little creepy – we could easily imagine the jealous Oberon singing it. But the song also fits in with this Bottom: he looks like a festival-going guy with his long hair, too-tight skinny jeans, wellies and aviator spectacles, exuding a sort of teenage sexual energy, which Titania seems to find exilherating – liberating, even. He seems to allow her to be more open with her sexuality. She takes great pleasure in caressing his ears – which are actually a pair of stuffed nude tights (reminiscent of Tracey Emin’s ‘My Bed’; he wears another pair on his arms, and he also wears another pair around his waist – except that this is stuffed with an empty Evian bottle, and is unmistakably phallic). Bottom taps into a deep vein of Titania’s sexuality: raw, inelegant, and dirty. We see this in particular when Titania calls upon three of her ‘fairies’ to serve Bottom:

‘Peaseblossom! Cobweb! Moth! and Mustardseed!’

No fairies come. Instead Titania takes on their roles – in a sort of erotic role play. Even Bottom seems sexed-out by her; in response to her role-playing there comes only an abashed ‘sorry’. Perhaps this is why she refuses to hand over her page-boy to Oberon – the latter cannot give her what she needs.

It seems that Oberon has underestimated the power of Titania’s sexual appetites. Later, when Hillie (Titania) is again Hippolyta, Bottom’s (now in the role of Pyramus as part of the play the Mechanicals put on for Theseus and Hippolyta’s wedding) speech in anguish believing his lover, Thisbe, to have been killed by a lion, Hippolyta is moved –

‘Beshrew my heart, but I pity the man.’

It’s as if a switch has clicked in her head; for from here on out she seems more Titania than Hippolyta. Bottom too seems to recognise her, and he addresses his speeches (as Pyrimus) to her – stressing, in particular, their carnal imagery –

‘Come, come to me,

With hands as pale as milk;

Lay them in gore…’

– as they grow closer and closer, eventually entwining themselves, as they sink onto the muddy ground. Again lovers are ‘reduc[ed…] to love partners’ only – something that is emphasised by the farcical performance of the Mechanicals (acting as if acting badly is Midsummer-Nights-Dream-Young-Vic-214.jpgnotoriously difficult, but these Mechanicals do it well – Sam Cox’s teenagerly-defiant ‘Moon’ and Aaron Heffernan’s childishly-fastidious Thisbe are particularly good). They perform the Tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe – before Pyramus believes his lover, Thisbe, to have been killed by a lion, they whispered their love to one another through a wall (a physical symbol of their families’ denial of their wanting to be together). But when he believes his lover to have been killed he rashly throws himself on his sword – and, when Thisbe returns, seeing her love dead, kills herself too.

We hold this narrative as an idealised view of true love: it is, in essence, that of Romeo and Juliet (the plot of which Shakespeare’s 16th to early-17t century audience would have been familiar with, just as we are today). But it is undeniable that there is a degree of comedy in the extremity of the lovers’ impulsive actions – even something of the grotesque. The Mechanicals’ performance is meant to be amateurish, but the degree to which their performance hangs together as something that we can still term a ‘performance’ is a matter of direction. Hill-Gibbins chooses to allow it to totally dissolve (with Bottom’s becoming descending into the mud with Hippolyta/Titania in a quasi-carnal embrace) – drawing out the grotesque element in the Mechanical’s show. For example the Lion wears only his underwear, and one of the stuffed pairs of tights that were Bottom’s ears; when he roars he does so flailing his arms about madly. This makes the formal (almost courtly) commentary of the characters watching the play (Theseus, Hippolyta, Lysander, Hermia, a-midsummer-nights-dream-at-the-young-vic-01-c-keith-pattison-58b973f4eaa87-58b975c3339bc.jpgHelena, and Demitrius) seem completely disjointed – perhaps suggesting that the notions of love that we sustain in society (e.g. idealising ‘the one’ – as Romeo and Juliet do to one another, so much so that they choose to die as opposed to living without their respective ‘one’) fail to marry up with love in reality. The broken figures of Hermia – face in the mud at the feet of Lysander – Demetrius and Helena, on either side of the Mechanical’s ‘stage’ epitomise this: the mud they are caked in seems a sort of metaphor for the emotional damage love has done to them.

We might say that ‘love’ has caused them this pain, but it was Puck who took Lysander for a-midsummer-nights-dream-imageDemitrius (Oberon sent him to use magic on Demitrius to make him fall for Helena), and thereby set the lovers sparring in the mud. It seems that Kott’s influence is also strongly seen in this Puck. Kott’s Puck is not ‘just a playful dwarf from a German fairy tale, or even a poetic gremlin in the fashion of a romantic féerie’[4], and nor is Hill-Gibbins’. This Puck is an ageing punk, irritable, and bitter – he wears a scraggy red and back wig. His mistaking Lysander for Demitrius is not a ‘playful’ gaffe, but rather an act of deliberate negligence: he simply doesn’t care. In this regard it seems Kott’s influence can be seen in a far more fundamental sense, for it is Puck who ‘pulls all the characters on strings’[5], ‘put[ting] the mechanism of this world in motion’[6] (manipulating relationships of love; he might even be seen as the mechanism of love in physical form) – and in this production, as he does so, he literally ‘puts it in motion and mocks it at the same time’[7]. When Oberon demonstrates (with many elaborate gestures) how the juice of the plant is to be used, as he

‘streak[s Titania’s] eyes’

with it, Puck imitates him self-mockingly – and when it comes to his actually using the plant he goes further. Instead of miming the delicate placement of the plant’s juice onto Lysander’s eyes (as Oberon showed him) he takes one of the bottles of water (sat on the shelf-like part of the back wall) and drips it onto Lysander’s head; he looks up at the audience grinning – waiting for a response. We laugh; he opens the bottle again and proceeds to empty its contents onto Lysander’s head. We laugh again, more loudly this time – his seemingly excessive cruelty is oddly funny; he begins to beat Lysander with the empty bottle.

Therefore, if we do understand this Puck as in some sense to represent the mechanism of love (‘the mechanism of this world’; it is worth adding that he occasionally acts like a stage director – albeit one who is apathetic to the health of his actors – he violently throws Demitrius and Lysander from the shelf-like niches along the back wall onto the stage), we simultaneously find ourselves regarding him as personifying cruelty, and indifference. The last of these are reflected in other moments. For example when Bottom (now returned to his fully human form) tediously runs in circles around the stage – until he is tripped up by Puck, when he continues his laps, but now on all fours like an ape or a baby. This is funny – but in the absurd sense. For it seems that, like the character’s in the Absurdist plays of Beckett (that are often read as presenting worlds that are apparently indifferent to humanity, and where human life has no inherent value or meaning), Bottom is going nowhere (even regressing – devolving into an apish/baby-like crawl) – and is not helped by the apparently arbitrary action of ‘the mechanism of this world’ (Puck). As the play draws to a close the cast, led by Titania (who holds Bottom’s hand), all join hands in a long MSND4.jpgline; she runs – pulling everyone along with her – running them in circles, and what seems like impossible knots. However, the chain remains single-file: everyone is left chasing – never catching, never making a meaningful connection.

Still in single-file, they press themselves against the mirror (which has been mostly painted over; now it is simply a black wall – with the exception of a small section at the top in which we can see only ourselves), with their backs to the audience. This effectively isolates us, the audience, from the characters – who jump as if trying to reach the reflected faces (our faces) in the small strip of mirror left unpainted. Hermia draws giggles from us as she jumps more aggressively than the rest to make up for her being (in her own words) ‘so dwarfish’. Is it cruel for us to laugh? Or do we laugh to distract ourselves from the disconcerting sense that these characters have suggested (and are suggesting) to us that love is not what we think it to be? For in the world they present us, love is not an idealised vision of finding ‘the one’ or our ‘soulmate’, rather it is a a case of impersonal forces drive people together (just as they may drive us apart – consider the case of Lysander and Hermia). Further, as they stand reaching up to our reflections in the mirror, they seem to question the the very notion of being ‘together’ – challenging the idea that we really can form meaningful human connections at all.

Some have said of that this production of Dream ‘dispenses with all of the magic and much of the comedy’[8]. They aren’t wrong. The laughs evoked by this comedy are not jovial – they aren’t full of the warmth of a midsummers’ night. Rather they are laughs spurred by disorientation and discomfort when two contrary ideas collide (challenging a conventionally held conceptions). They are the laughs the idea of a ‘British summer’ can bring, or the seemingly crazy and carnal acts attending music festivals (like Glastonbury) can unleash. And whilst its arguable that the striking staging might detract from the poetry of Shakespeare’s words (as might the focus on physical theatre – for example Bottom’s running around the stage), it might equally be said that it draws out challenging themes that our conventional fairytale-like conception of Dream shies away from. Puck ( delivers the last words of Dream:

‘If we shadows have offended,

Think but this, and all is mended,

That you have but slumber’d here

While these visions did appear.

And this weak and idle theme,

No more yielding but a dream,

Gentles, do not reprehend:

if you pardon, we will mend:

And, as I am an honest Puck,

If we have unearned luck

Now to ‘scape the serpent’s tongue,

We will make amends ere long;

Else the Puck a liar call;
So, good night unto you all.

Give me your hands, if we be friends,

And Robin shall restore amends.’

This production asks us to take a position: to stay in a dream of love as we imagine it (an idealised quest where finding ‘the one’, or our ‘soulmate’ is possible: ‘think but this, and all is mended’), or to wake up to its realities (as this production presents them – perhaps epitomised in the arbitrary, indifferent, and sometimes cruel Puck: ‘the mechanism of this world’). Do we ‘the Puck a liar call’? That’s up to you.


More information about the production can be found at: 


by Emily Swettenham

7th March 2017.



[1] Garland, E. 2014. ‘Having Sex at Festivals Isn’t Just Disgusting, It’s Shit’. Noisey. [online]. Available at: [Accessed: 7th March 2016].

[2] Brecht, B. Collated by Bloomsbury Methuen Drama. Translated by Davis, J., Fursland, R., Giles, S., Hill, V., Imbrigotta, K., Silberman, M. and Willett, J. Edited by Silberman, M., Giles, S. and Kuhn, T. 2015. Brecht on Theatre. Third Edition. Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.: London. p.g.187.

[3] Kott, J. Translated by Taborski, B. 1964. ‘Titania and the Ass’s Head’. Shakespeare Our Contemporary. Methuen & Co. Ltd.: London. p.g.176.

[4] Ibid. p.g.172.

[5] Ibid. p.g.174.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Hemmings, S. 2017. ‘A midsummer night’s misogyny at the Young Vic’. The Financial Times. [online]. Available at: [Accessed: 7th March 2016].


Review 9.


The Tempest at the Royal Shakespeare Company Theatre in Stratford Upon Avon

Directed by Gregory Doran for the RSC in collaboration with Intel in association with The Imaginarium Studios

Main Cast: Simon Russell Beale, Prospero (the right Duke of Milan); Jenny Rainsford, Miranda (Prospero’s daughter); Mark Quartley, Ariel; Joe Dixon, Caliban; Daniel Easton, Ferdinand (son of Alonso, the King of Milan); James Tucker, Alonso; Tom Turner, Sebastian (Duke of Milan, Prospero’s brother); Oscar Pearce, Antonio; Joseph Mydell, Gonzalo; Tony Jayawardena, Stephano; Simon Trinder, Trinculo.


Over twenty years ago, in Sam Mendes’ 1993-4 production, Simon Russell Beale played a deeply untraditional Ariel: one that, unlike the tradition of Ariels before him, was austere and intensely disdainful of his master, Prospero. Most notably, at the close of the play when Prospero affectionately grants Ariel his freedom –

‘My Ariel, chick’

[…] Be free, and fare thou well!’

– Beale drew an ‘audible gasp from the audience’[1], when he spat in the face of his ex-master (perhaps implying freedom is a right, not a gift). Now, this shocking Ariel has succeeded in conquering his master – literally: for Beale returns to The Tempest as Prospero, and in a production (directed by Gregory Doran) that is both unconventional and breathtaking, although in a rather different vein. This Tempest is brought to us in thp_mdg_181116shakespeare-_01jpgcollaboration with tech-giant Intel (in association with Imaginarium Studios), and employs some of the most advanced technology ever seen in theatre. This is perhaps appropriate for a play that was written in the early Jacobean period, when the theatrical vogue was the masque; elaborate and often extravagant performances that incorporated music and dance alongside drama delivered by masked actors[2]. Indeed, The Tempest itself contains a masque (the ‘vanity of mine art’ that Prospero conjures to celebrate the nuptials of his daughter, Miranda, and Alonso, the King of Milan’s son, Ferdinand) and seems to have been written with some intent to exploit the technical innovations that the masque form brought with it. Not least because originally it was to be performed at the Blackfriars (a small, intimate and enclosed theatre, unlike the open-air Globe – better equipped to support the mechanical requirements of masques). But more importantly the centrality of magic to the plot, (for example in the tempest Prospero generates that opens the play, bringing the play its cast of castaways, which makes all of the goings-on that follow possible) would have given more opportunities to employ the theatrical machinery of masques in new, and more serious ways.

In 2017, Doran looks back to this tradition of extravagance just as he aims to look forward into the possibilities of combining theatre and technology in a computer age. We see this from the very first scene. The Tempest opens with just that: a tempest – a storm magically conjured by Prospero to capture a ship carrying Alonso, the King of Naples, who is returning from the marriage of his daughter, Claribel, to the Prince of Tunis. But it isn’t just the King that Prospero is after. He also wants to get his hands on his own brother and now Duke of Milan, Sebastian, who conspired with Alonso to usurp him (the right Duke of Milan) – succeeding in having both himself and Miranda (his daughter) kidnapped and set adrift at sea to die. As lights flash and bend across the stage floor (giving the illusion of a rocking motion as if the stage – itself contained by the skeleton of a ship that appears to have been modelled on the remains of the Mary Rose – is being tempest-tossed) a spiral of what looks like fabric above – reminiscent of the eye of a hurricane – extends itself downwards. And, as it does, an image appears upon it – illuminated in brilliantly bright blues and greens. The silhouette of a man, sinks down its length – as if he is being rexfeatures_7440787kinexorably pulled down by his back, drowning, towards the stage floor. Prospero looks on. Although we will later discover that no one really drowned, it is this frightening image that introduces us to the magnitude of Prospero’s ‘art’: beautiful, astonishing, but simultaneously terrible – all of which he recognises and understands.

It is significant that he is seen to recognise all of the potential aspects of his magic, because it makes him morally culpable for choosing to use it to create fear. The first time we see Prospero call upon Ariel – who appears in the form of a CGI avatar, projected onto the same fabric-pillar as was used in the initial tempest, and moving in sync with the live movements of the physical embodiment of Ariel, Mark Quartley – he asks (responding to Ariel’s prompting the question of his freedom),

‘Dost thou forget

From what a torment I did free thee?’

the-tempest-production-photos_-2016_-press-call_2016_photo-by-topher-mcgrillis-_c_-rsc_207545-tmb-gal-670and proceeds to

‘recount what thou hast been,

Which thou forget’st’, 

reminding Ariel of the

‘foul witch Sycorax’

(the previous ‘ruler’ of the island who died before Prospero arrived, but leaving her son, Caliban, who, like Ariel, Prospero ‘keep[s] in service’) and her treatment of him – trapping him

‘into a cloven pine; within which rift

Imprison’d thou didst painfully remain

A dozen years […]

thy groans

Did make wolves howl and penetrate the breasts

Of ever angry bears: it was a torment

To lay upon the damn’d’


‘I arrived and heard thee, […]

and let thee out.’

This speech dominates this interaction between the pair. Ariel’s lines are clipped (often less than five words) and deferential (consistently referring to Prospero as ‘sir’) – whereas Prospero’s are full of visceral imagery of pain and torment that can be interpreted as either a statement of his moral superiority and benevolence (imposing justice after Sycorax’s wrongs, and thus making him the rightful inheritor of the island) or as simplythe_tempest_production_photos_2016_press_call_2016_photo_by_topher_mcgrillis_c_rsc_207566.tmb-img-820.jpg an exercise in rhetoric – justifying his unsound claim to Ariel’s loyalty (is Prospero’s taking him into his ‘service’ in some sense equivalent to Sycorax’s ‘imprison[ing]’ a ‘spirit’ like Ariel into a ‘cloven pine’?). Doran employs special effects to explore this – hinting at the latter. For as Prospero delivers this speech, the spiral of fabric (that the figure of the man ‘drowned’ down) descends around Ariel – encircling him like the trunk of the ‘cloven pine’. And with each bitterly delivered descriptor Prospero gives of Ariel’s imprisonment, a new projection is cast across the stage, transfiguring it into a net of roots, and directly onto Ariel, appearing to transform him into wood. The effect is truly astonishing – and totally absorbing, especially with the accompanying audio of wood creaking (seeming to echo Ariel’s physically appearing to break under the force of Prospero’s magic) that sounds like bones cracking – or whips. Instead of undermining the power of the characters’ words, the special effects draw out their moral complexities and ambiguities – bringing them into sharper relief.

The wedding masque Prospero puts on for Miranda and Ferdinand later on is similarly astonishing – but to a slightly different end. For it demonstrates the potential for Prospero’s art to create joy and beauty, in celebration of potential growth and fertility (an inversion of the projections that grew around Ariel, seeming to turn him back ‘into a cloven pine’, crushing him right before our eyes). Previous productions have down-played the masque, using it as a meta-theatrical device (drawing to the audience’s attention that they are watching something that is not real) to highlight Prospero’s inadequacies: for example in Mendes’ production, where Alec McOwen’s kindly and eccentric Prospero conjured the masque on a tiny stage on stage (similar to the play within the play in Hamlet), with the actresses playing the goddesses Iris, Ceres, and Juno moving like wooden puppets – making him appear somewhat foolish, like a ‘conjuror who’d go down well at a children’s party’[3]. Doran does precisely the opposite. The goddesses of his masque are less easily dismissed as some ‘vanity’ of Prospero’s art – they appear as almost real, but perhaps not really gods as the glowing fibre-optic threads draped about their dresses are not enough to confirm them as otherworldly beings – they clash too much with the Screen Shot 2017-01-31 at 15.43.27.pngdresses organic looking fabric and tudor silhouettes. Further the setting for the masque is totally immersive; indeed the feathers of the peacocks that

‘fly amain’

with the entrance of Ceres are stunningly projected across the entirety of the stage – as are David Hockney-esque images of

‘rich leas

Of wheat, rye, barley, vetches, oats and pease;

[…] turfy mountains, where live nibbling sheep,

And flat meads thatch’d with stover.’

But poking in from all sides on this fantastic scene are the charry-black bones of the boat that encloses the stage – stopping us from fully losing ourselves in the pageantry. The emotional complexity of the characters sitting on the edge of the stage, facing away from us – watching the masque with us (Prospero, Miranda and Ferdinand) is constantly present.

The ship’s skeleton serves as a symbolic reminder, not only of the wreck Prospero orchestrated in the opening scene (that causes Ferdinand to believe his father drowned), but also of the wreck that brought himself and Miranda to the island in the first place. This especially bears on how we interpret Miranda and Prospero’s relationship. The masque, with its semantic field of chastity and control –

the-tempest-production-photos_-2016_2016_photo-by-topher-mcgrillis-_c_-rsc_207292-tmb-gal-670‘this man and maid,

Whose vows are, that no bed-right shall be paid

Till Hymen’s torch be lighted’

– might be interpreted as indicative of Prospero’s authoritarianism, or of his viewing Miranda as merely a piece of his grand plan to secure revenge on his brother (or to teach him the error of his ways). These interpretations, on the surface, might seem to be suggested in this production; every Prospero halts the masque, claiming that he has suddenly remembered that he must stop

‘that foul conspiracy

Of the beast Caliban and his confederates

Against my life’,

(Caliban’s ‘confederates’ being the drunken butler Stephano, and the – also drunk – Fool, Trinculo – together they stage a rebellion against Prospero). But this line is delivered by Beale as he leaps forwards to halt the kiss Miranda and Ferdinand are about to share – which seemingly confirms his valuing Miranda only in the light of his personal machinations (heirs produced by Miranda must be legitimate beyond question: preferably born when the marriage has been recognised by more than just those watching the masque!). However things aren’t quite as clear cut as this: Beale’s Prospero is more complex, and human. Central to this is his love for his daughter. As he watches the masque Prospero cradles Miranda, hugging her with a true emotional attachment (which she reciprocates). Throughout the play Beale’s Prospero reinforces the sense of his affection for Miranda, with repeated moments of physical tenderness that are intensely human: she is not an object, rather he values her emotionally.

This is made apparent from the very first interaction between them that we witness. Miranda sees the tempest Prospero conjures, and feels for the plight of those on board (symbolically intensified by her wet hair and lurching gait; she herself looks like she could have been recently shipwrecked) – believing them to be drowned – begging her father to stop what he’s doing:the-tempest-production-photos_-2016_2016_photo-by-topher-mcgrillis-_c_-rsc_207130-tmb-gal-670

‘If by your art, my dearest father, you have

Put the wild waters in this roar, allay them.

[…] O, I have suffered

With those that I saw suffer.’

Prospero’s following verbal responses are full of pleas for ‘obedience’, and he appears to try to silence Miranda by repeatedly asking that she listen (‘dost thou attend me?’, ‘thou dost not’); further his decision to reveal to Miranda

‘How thou camest here’

might be seen as a means of displacing her concern – or even disregarding it. However, Beale’s Prospero defies such an interpretation. His reaction to Miranda’s horror and suffering ‘with those that I saw suffer’ is to clutch at his heart – as if he feels a real physical pain, promthe-tempest-production-photos_-2016_2016_photo-by-topher-mcgrillis-_c_-rsc_207192-tmb-gal-670pted by that which he has caused in her. Just as he clearly cares about her emotional state, he also appears to value her perspective (although he may not actually act on her advice, he respects her point of view – he is not simply dismissive of it) – and enjoys her inquisitiveness, despite the fact that her questions interrupt him. But perhaps most importantly he seems to need Miranda to sustain him emotionally. As he tells her of his mental anguish when adrift at sea, he kneels to her, clasping her hands, gazing up into her face – suppliant-like – and tells her, with deep tenderness

‘Thou wast that did preserve me. Thou didst smile.

emphasised by Beale’s particular stress on the second clause, as she responds (visibly moved by his affection) with exactly that – a smile. Their relationship seems a close one of respect and mutual emotional support. Hence his telling her the longwinded tale of ‘how thou camest here’ comes across as his making amends to her – giving her an explanation he owes her, as opposed to an attempt to distract her from her ethical concerns to those of personal origin. Further the repeated ‘dost thou attend me?’ (which might also come across as Prospero taking the moral high ground as much at silencing her) here appears symptomatic of anxiety on Prospero’s part.

the-tempest-production-photos_-2016_2016_photo-by-topher-mcgrillis-_c_-rsc_207141-tmb-gal-670For Beale’s Prospero is vulnerable; less of a self-convinced patriarch, he seems self-conscious and self-doubting. This is reflected in his simple clothing: he wears loose-fitting cheesecloth top and trousers – no grand magician, despite the huge power we know he wields. His gait is nervous: he rarely stays still, and agitatedly grinds his hands into his pockets. Several possible explanations for his being in such a state are suggested to us. But first and foremost are his feelings towards his past: for he cannot seem to be able to understand where the aggressive ambition of his brother came from (he thought he knew his brother well) and further how he could act upon this ambition as he did – attempting not only to unseat his Prospero, but to kill him and his daughter. This is made clear when Prospero is telling Miranda ‘how thou camest here’. Beale delivers a sharp mix of confused rage, hurt, and worry as he tries to verbally reconcile how, in his brother

‘Awaked an evil nature and my trust,

Like a good parent, did beget of him

A falsehood in its contrary as great

As my trust was.’

However, because Beale’s Prospero is less than self-assured there is scope allowed for us to understand why his brother may have acted as he did. Prospero is flawed – and even he seems aware of this, especially when it comes to his choice, when still in Milan, to

‘the government [the duties of the Duke of Milan] cast upon my brother’

whilst he allowed himself to become

‘rapt in secret studies’.

All of this is symbolically bound together in the appearance of his magic staff – which looks like a piece of driftwood; suggestive of fragility and imperfection, emphasising Prospero’s humanity as opposed to someone who is pushing the bounds of human understanding with his ‘art’.

the-tempest-production-photos_-2016_2016_photo-by-topher-mcgrillis-_c_-rsc_207132-tmb-gal-670Moreover this drift-wood staff also associates Prospero’s ‘art’ with the shell of the wrecked ship that encloses the stage (and all of his conjurings) – and thereby the mental tempest caused by his and Miranda’s shipwrecking. The ship’s ribs seem reminiscent of a whale’s (indeed the production’s use of special effects was greatly ‘inspired’[4] by Intel’s Leviathan[5], a CGI whale projected onto a screen that then literally swims out of it) calling to mind the many ‘monster[s] of the deep’[6] that feature in the Bible – particularly at times of human suffering, for example in Job. In his misery (a diligently pious man, Job’s faith is tested by God who gives Satan ‘power’[7] over ‘all that he hath’[8] – ‘only upon himself put not forth thine hand’[9]), having lost his family, home, wealth, and suffering numerous other hardships besides, Job protests, asking ‘Am I a sea, or a whale, that thou settest a watch over me?’[10], drawing on the image of the universe as chaotic waters (as in Genesis 1: ‘darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.’[11]) that God imposes order upon. In Job, it might be argued that his grief, his utter misery and despair at the apparent futility of life (‘my soul chooseth strangling, and death rather than my life’[12]), is of a degree that is as desperately chaotic as ‘a sea, or a whale’, or ‘the deep’ God must restrain to keep order in the universe: Beale’s Prospero channels something of this energy, in his anxiety, self-doubt – but most importantly, in his sudden rages, that seem borne of a chaotic, tempestuous mind, that has suffered and needs to right his feelings of being wronged. Like Job finds himself incapable of ‘refrain[ing his] mouth’[13] from ‘speak[ing] in the anguish of [his] spirit’[14], this Prospero in some sense must attempt to orchestrate his own poetic justice – to reinstate order in a world that he may find, ultimately, to be fathomless.

This is, perhaps, the central conflict of Beale’s Prospero, and potentially what gives him such a strong air of ambivalence – because the means of his remedying sense of injustice (his elaborate plot, starting with the tempest bringing his ‘enemies’ under his influence, and ending with his revealing himself to his brother – and outdoing him in his marrying Miranda off to the King, Alonso’s son, Ferdinand) come with the potential price of harming the very thing that ‘wast that did preserve [him]’: Miranda’s happiness – her ‘smile’. Just before the masque, Ferdinand (Daniel Easton’s is a combination of cavalier and naive teenage romantic) claims,

‘The white cold virgin snow upon my heart

Abates the ardour of my liver.’

This is addressed to Prospero – who grimaces bitterly in response. Little does Ferdinand know that Prospero was watching when he told Miranda

‘Full many a lady

I have eyed with best regard and many a time

The harmony of their tongues hath into bondage

Brought my too diligent ear’,

(the vivid sensory and sensual imagery, a stark contrast to the supposed ‘white cold virgin snow’) continuing to explain that she is unlike all the rest. Indeed during the actual solemnising of his and Miranda’s nuptials during the masque he doesn’t look at her – instead he gawps at the glorious sights about him (including the goddesses; the first time Screen Shot 2017-01-31 at 23.59.23.pnghe addressed Miranda he referred to her as a ‘goddess’). Whilst Miranda is set on marrying Ferdinand, the possibility that he may not live up to her expectations seems to bother Prospero (the masque itself seems to be a sort of utopian vision of the world he wishes he could give to her) – but not enough to change his plans. Maybe he thinks that, in time, he will be able to correct Ferdinand? His teacherly manner towards him – setting the lovers-test of piling up a ‘some thousand’ logs (which this Ferdinand does with much comic huffing and puffing – and help from Miranda, who is much more able than he) – might suggest as much. However, whether we think Prospero will manage this, or that his judgement is in any way sound is very much open to question.

This is where the extraordinary special effects really come into their own – and prove themselves to be a means of enhancing our view of the characters on stage, as opposed to ‘upstaging the actors’[15], as some have suggested. When Prospero halts the masque to direct his attentions to stopping the ‘foul conspiracy of […] Caliban and his confederates’ he chooses to set a trap for them.

‘the trumpery in my house, go bring it hither’,

hanging the garments out on a line – to hook the greedy eyes of (the hilarious Tony Jayawardena and Simon Trinder) Stephano and Trinculo (Caliban, it transpires, is not interested in this gorgeous apparel; he is, instead, far more focussed on the task in hand – attempting to overthrow Prospero). Then, as if to teach them an object-lesson about the evils of greed, vanity, and ambition, frightening them as punishment – sending Ariel’s Screen Shot 2017-02-01 at 00.00.40.pngband of spirits in the form of dogs to hunt them. Rendered with the special effects, the result is truly terrifying. The faces of three dogs (like Cerberus, the three-headed dog of the underworld owned by Hades), glowing a shockingly bright red (that is so bright it almost makes our eyes burn – as if Prospero is somehow indirectly, even inadvertently, punishing us), growling and barking through gaping jaws, are projected onto the back of the stage – whilst, in the foreground, spirits (clad in white morphsuits) holding white discs onto which more dog faces are projected. They chase the ‘confederates’ about the stage – who shriek and scream as Prospero condones their (and ours, as we blink at the red light and wince at the harsh too-loud sounds of the dogs) suffering:

‘Let them be hunted soundly.’

The sheer magnitude of this (enabled by the special effects) doesn’t just emphasise Prospero’s moral culpability for causing such suffering (even if it is to teach a lesson) but it also suggests that he is less capable of comprehending the outcomes of his actions than we might have supposed at the play’s beginning, when we saw him watching his conjured tempest. This punishment seems excessive – and what’s more, in its extremity, disconcertingly uncontrolled. Even wilfully so.

This sense of Prospero’s being less than in control comes to a head in the closing reconciliation scene. Before this he had Ariel enchant Alonso, his brother Stephano and their attendants, including Gonzalo (whom Prospero considers ‘A noble Neapolitan […] out of his charity’) – luring them with a banquet (mirroring the trap set for Caliban and his ‘confederates’) and then frightening them in the form of a harpy (another live CGI avatar) tempest-gramafilm-3048-e1480372282729– informing them that they are to be punished for the wrong they did to Prospero and then setting three anonymous spirit-swordsmen to fight with Alonso, Sebastian, and Antonio (whom Sebastian tried to tempt into killing Alonso). This is all to teach them a lesson – to achieve his poetic justice. He sets the scene for this – placing himself in the centre of the circle of fire (rendered via projection) that he draws on the ground with his staff,  as he simultaneously draws the enchanted Alonso, Sebastian, and Antonio (whose clothes are tattered and bloodied) about its circumference; Gonzalo, who is still neatly dressed, is also drawn in. Prospero’s intel-the-tempest-6moment has come. Before he breaks the spell he goes up to each and professes to forgive them; he then costumes himself in a military jacket (like those worn by the King and the rest of his party) and breaks the spell. He stands, awaiting their reactions, happily holding his arms out – as if to say ‘Tah-Dah!’ Standing as he is in the middle of the circle he seems hunted – even a little foolish. No one reacts – and then, when they do, it’s not to tell Prospero that they repent. It seems that Prospero has grossly misjudged his audience. Even Gonzalo, whom Prospero thought so ‘noble’ and ‘charitable’ receives him with a guarded look: brilliantly delivered by Joseph Mydell – who balances a veneer of benignity with hawkish self-interest. Stephano barely speaks; he barely moves – remaining icily still as his brother embraces him. The only one of these men who truly appears to believe Prospero’s claims is Alonso, who is himself on the brink of madness because of what he has suffered at the hands of Prospero (Alonso also believes his son to be dead). As Alonso embraces Prospero it seems that the latter might be just as mad as the former.

Such a complex Prospero somewhat overshadows his reticent Ariel and the kindly but simple Caliban; although Joe Dixon’s Caliban is strangely complex in his simplicity insofar as he exemplifies an alien system of logic, challenging us to relate to him. A real ‘mooncalf’ Caliban appears physically and mentally like the kindly ogre of a children’s fairytale: essentially benign, meaning well, and yet still capable of accepting something terrible as rape (Caliban attempted to rape Miranda) to be logically consistent with this. But it is also Prospero’s complexity that makes the task he sets us, as he closes the play, so difficult:the-tempest-production-photos_-2016_2016_photo-by-topher-mcgrillis-_c_-rsc_207334-tmb-gal-670

‘As you from crimes would pardon’d be,

Let your indulgence set me free.’

I’m not sure we can. What made this viewer pity this Prospero was that just as he labours to enact his plans, conjuring illusions to facilitate the events of the play, he himself is equally labouring under an illusion: the idea that the individuals upon which he attempts to impose his plans will react in the way he intends them to. The bones of the ship still encircle the stage; Prospero is still a mental wreck of a man – and maybe there is more wreckage to come. His brother seems unrepentant (or even enraged to an even colder hatred of his brother), and even Miranda surprises him, showing herself to be, perhaps, just as impulsive in love as Ferdinand – kissing one of the other crew members, full on the mouth, uttering:

‘O brave new world!’

Prospero might be free – but in a way that depends on your answer to the question: what do you think happened to them on the way back to Milan, by sea?


More information about the production can be found at: 

You can also watch the trailer (the production is to be broadcast live in cinemas) at:


by Emily Swettenham

30th January 2017



[1] RSC Royal Shakespeare Company. 2017. Sam Mendes 1993 Production. [online]. Available at: [Accessed: 21st January 2017].

[2] The Research Team, Shakespeare’s Globe. 2013. Masques in The Tempest. [online]. Available at: [Accessed: 21st January 2017].

[3] Taylor, P. 1993. ‘THEATRE / Rough magic: Paul Taylor reviews Alec McCowen and Simon Russell Beale in a new Tempest in Stratford’. The Independent. [online]. Available at: [Accessed: 21st January 2016].

[4] Ellis, S. for The Royal Shakespeare Company. 2017. ’O Brave New World: Sarah Ellis reveals how the RSC and Intel have merged art and technology to stage Shakespeare’s most magical play’. The Royal Shakespeare Company in collaboration with Intel: The Tempest. [production program]. p.g.2.

[5] Vera T. 2015. Leviathan at Intel CES 2014 Keynote. . Available at: [Accessed: 21st January 2017].

[6] The Bible. The Book of Job 7:12, New International Version. Hodder & Stoughton Publishers: London, UK. 2011. p.g.514.

[7] The Bible. The Book of Job 7:12, King James Version. Hendrickson Publishers: Peabody Massechusetts. 2011. p.g.262.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] The Bible. Genesis 1:2, King James Version. Hendrickson Publishers: Peabody Massechusetts. 2011. p.g.1.

[12] The Bible. The Book of Job 7:15, King James Version. Hendrickson Publishers: Peabody Massechusetts. 2011. p.g.262.

[13] The Bible. The Book of Job 7:11, King James Version. Hendrickson Publishers: Peabody Massechusetts. 2011. p.g.262.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Cavendish, D. 2016. ‘The RSC’s Tempest: Lord of the Rings-style magic and the welcome return of Simon Russell Beale – review’. The telegraph. [online]. Available at: [Accessed: 21st January 2017].

Review 8.


Nice Fish at The Harold Pinter Theatre

Written by Louis Jenkins and Mark Rylance

Directed by Claire Van Kampen

Cast: Mark Rylance, Ron; Jim Litchtscheidl, Erik; Kayli Carter, Flo; Raye Birk, Wayne; Bob Davis, The DNR Man; with puppeteer Mohsen Nouri.


So I Saw… Nice Fish

Mark Rylance and Louis Jenkins have collaboratively trawled the latter’s prose-poetry, angling themselves a wonderfully inventive play: Nice Fish. We meet Ron (Rylance) and Erik (Jim Litchtscheidl) standing on a frozen lake in Northern Minnesota; a thick white ice-sheet covers the stage, which they are busily drilling holes in with hand-cranked augers. They wear the latest cold-weather gear (Ron’s far more brightly coloured than Erik’s; the orange fluorescence of his high-vis garb comically suggesting his ineptitude in comparison to his friend’s experience). Modern fishing equipment is littered about them: boxes of tackle, bait and lures; a plastic sled-full of fold-out chairs and a pop-up tent; and (although audience members might not recognise it without the help of the program, that contains a detailed article entitled ‘An Introduction to Ice Fishing’ by the aptly named Mark Fisher) an underwater camera. It’s as if we’ve just happened upon them setting up; the feel is highly naturalistic. Ron even has his back to the audience.

But despite these realist appearances, the absurd and wonderful whimsy of this play is hardly bubbling under the surface. Indeed, it sits atop the ice-sheet in the form of a tiny fishing hut, which is – with the fishing gear – set against a line of miniature trees running along the back of the stage (giving the illusion of a huge amount of space between the shore line and fishwhere we are situated – looking onto the ice-sheet stretching out from the shore). From time to time, a train moves jerkily along a track running through the trees. It looks simultaneously real and toylike – expressive of vast distance yet clearly unreal: like something from an Aardman-made stop-motion animation film. As the audience took their seats before the play even began, this mini fishing hut glowed with a light from within – presumably left on by its (assumed) occupant, the tiny puppet fisherman standing outside. As the auditorium’s lights dim, a voice tells us (from nowhere):

‘Here is a man going jiggidy-jig-jig in a black hole. Depth and the current are of only incidental interest to him. He’s after something big, something down there that is pure need, something that, had it the wherewithal, would swallow him whole.’

But, right now, the voice informs us

‘Nothing is happening’.

And, in a way, this is essentially indicative of how the play will progress – for it doesn’t really have a plot. Not even Rylance knows what it’s ‘about’: ‘What is this play about? I don’t know.’[1] he says in the program. It’s more of a selection of vignettes (in quick succession, punctuated sharply by total darkness) that variously examines, through (often comic) prose-poetry monologues, how we interact with life – becoming increasingly bizarre and surreal in the process.

There is certainly something of Beckett in this play. Right from the outset, the disembodied voice announcing ‘here is a man going jiggidy-jig-jig in a black hole’ and ‘nothing is happening’ seems straight out of Beckett. Throughout Nice Fish we are variously presented with images (and down right plain statements) of life’s absurdity, apparent pointlessness, and meaninglessness. From Erik’s ice-cold comparison of human life to insects (whonice-fish-second-large_trans_nvbqzqnjv4bq5yqlqqeh37t50scym4-zegtt0gk_6efzt336f62ei5u

‘never worry about where they are […] neglect the long range plan […and] don’t seem to have a sense of place but only require a certain ambience’,

seeming to suggest that human standards of value aren’t as significant or solid as we think
they are), to Ron’s advising (hilariously and at length) that we wear or own specific things to denote our purpose to others –

‘otherwise it might appear that you have no idea what you’re doing, that you are merely wandering the earth, no particular reason for being here, no particular place to go’.

The use of puppets (throughout, and mostly representing main characters) amplifies this sense of transient meaning: suggesting a lack of certainty in reality, just as it implies that we might be lacking control of our lives (like puppets on strings), and as insignificant as a puppet show for the universe. Later a palm tree made entirely from fibre-optic lights (reminiscent of a tacky holiday resort) will appear for apparently no reason at all. Further in this absurdist vein, there is a distinct lack of focus on character development; although this is nothing to do with the skill of the cast – who manage to deliver characters who immediately engage us with their already (and well) developed personalities. Rylance’s Ron is an endearing mix of jovial and haphazard, with his ‘mad bomber hat’, and Wisconsin accent that seems to be slurred by the over-brimming force of his endlessly playful manner – which Erik endures with a sense of exasperation that can only be born of long-standing affection (admirably conveyed by Litchtscheidl).

Some hints are given that Ron is not a native of Northern Minnesota (not entirely clear from his accent, it is rather implied most clearly in a scene concerning a quibble over a fishing license) unlike Erik, is preoccupied with love (or rather the lack of it in his life), and a goofball – whilst Erik is more pensive. For example, in a particularly hilarious scene concerning a snowman (that immediately follows another scene entirely devoted to Ron attempting to amuse Erik by miming along to a singing plastic fish) Ron refers to a previous scene where Erik talked of the strange sense of ancestral connection he felt with a Swedish family (which he anticlimactically discovered were not his real relatives). As he puts his hat on the snowman’s head, Ron enthusiastically cries,

‘I don’t have a top hat like my ancestors… well my predecessors, had. No, I’ve got a mad bombermaxresdefault hat!’

Exasperated, Erik beheads the snowman – but this only encourages Ron, who grabs the snowman from behind, putting his own head in the place where the snowman’s once was. Now pretending to be the snowman, he continues chatting at Erik:

‘I always hoped that someone would come along, someone who would melt in my arms. A woman with whom I could become one. You wouldn’t guess it to look at me but I’m a romantic. But it’s getting rather late in the season for me. So I’m inclined to just drift…’

This is full of the characteristic whimsy of Nice Fish’s humour – that doesn’t really deliver sustained character development.

When the rest of the characters begin to pop up this becomes even more apparent. There’s the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Man who materialises on stage, as if by magic, out of the darkness of the complete cutting of the lights that punctuates the scenes. He talks like a machine, responding to Ron’s attempts to buy a fishing licence with:

‘I don’t accept cash. You can pay online, on smartphone, computer, tablet, or at, or call 1-888-MN-LICEN (665-4236).’

But quickly after this he abruptly begins speaking directly to the audience – giving a little monologue (a direct recitation of Jenkins’ poem ‘The Saint’[2]) about how he has recently

‘elevated to the status of Temporary Minor Saint (secular)’,

111549continuing to create an image of himself as a saint in a sort of mystical state, but one whose rapture is

‘suffused with a pale radiance somewhat like the light from a small fluorescent bulb’

as opposed to a holy glow – and who doesn’t levitate like Saint Teresa of Avila (purportedly) did in her Devotion of Ecstasy, but rather like the


Flo and her grandpa, Wayne, have similarly limited character arcs. The former arrives on the scene as a quirky, Moby-Dick reading, dreamer – and will literally jump off the stage, to take a seat amidst the audience, after a small monologue where she says, knowledgeably (whilst the tone of her voice acknowledges the allusion to Shakespeare’s 0594_160116_artnicefishdress‘Seven Ages of Man’, ‘all the world’s a stage…’ with an edge that hints at this being a little tired – but nonetheless true),

‘The world’s a stage […] you are merely a player’. 

It’s not like this is in any way a revelation to her – or that her worldview has changed at all. Rather it seems that she has simply chosen, on a whim, to act upon something she already knew. She beckons for Wayne to follow her, which he does – clambering off the edge without showing any surprise, and with the same gruffness that he entered the stage with. This moment of meta-theatre (an act that draws to our attention that we are watching something that is not actually real, and that we are actively sustaining with our imaginations) is symbolically followed by the ice sheet’s detaching from the shoreline and beginning to drift – heralding the complete scaling off of the realism established at the play’s beginning: now things are going to get really absurd.

The use of meta-theatre intensifies. Ron touches the lights dangling from the set that are meant to figure the aurora borealis; the DNR Man drags himself out of one of the holes Erik and Ron drilled earlier, returns the phone Ron dropped through one of the holes at the play’s start (in a moment of surreally-perfect slapstick comedy foreshadowing the present breakdown into the bizarre), and comments

nice-fish‘the phone might ring you from anywhere; the car, the bathroom, out of your coat pocket in a silent darkened theatre…’

Meaning is dissolving – even in terms of the logic of the play itself. This is continued into the final scene, where even the characters themselves melt away. Ron and Erik disrobe, finally stripping down into underwear (in Ron’s case a pink silk nightie, and Erik’s the male equivalent – complete with sock suspenders), and ageing in their gait. They hobble arm in arm around the stage and seem to comment half on life and half on the play:

‘Ron:  Old people are leaving this life as if it were a movie

Ron and Erik: I didn’t get it

Erik: It didn’t seem to have any plot


Ron: It was not much for character development either […]

Erik: the whole thing lacked subtlety.’

Then, apparently out of nowhere, two comically huge fishing lures drop from above the stage. Ron and Erik grab the hooks and are lifted off.

This might seem all too abrupt – perhaps that this ‘lacks subtlety’. Indeed, some have complained that they left Nice Fish in ‘hunger for something more substantial’[3], and have gone so far as to dub the play ‘Waiting for Codot’[4] – punning Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, the plot of which centres around the two men pointlessly and absurdly waiting for the mysterious Godot, who never turns up. But seeing this play as simply a whimsical exercise in Beckett’s Theatre of the Absurd, is, perhaps, a little unfair. It’s far more its own animal. For it is this whimsy and weirdness that makes this particular species of Fish what it is: one that is great fun to encounter, is accessible, and, on a more fundamental level, encourages us to fish deeper in the sea of life’s experiences – to try and catch as much as we can, before we ourselves are caught and reeled out of this sea.

We are not left ‘waiting for Codot’. For Erik does indeed catch a fish – and at that, a nice one:

‘Nice Fish…’ 

Ron and Erik cry, as they stare – in comic awe reminiscent of young boys seeing a monster truck – at the fish, and launch into the (imagined) story of what happens to it after its
catching; a direct adaptation of Jenkins’ poem ‘Fish Out of Water’[5], where a caught fish becomes an extended metaphor for the degradation of the catcher’s marriage. Central to this is the notion of the symbolic significance we instil (often arbitrarily or unconsciously) in the world around us – that is really illusory (the significance of catching a particularly nice fish, or even the notion of marriage). As Ron and Erik put it:

‘Erik: You look for deeper meaning in things. […] You find special significance in certain places and days.
[…] Ron: You set them up like signposts marking the passage of your life.’

But these can easily be broken:

‘Erik: Touch one and they all fall down’.

Erik returns the fish to the water – dropping it back through the ice-hole.

But this does get us somewhere: we have seen the fish, and this gives us some control. Godot (or, in this case ‘Codot’) arrived, and he didn’t fulfil the expectations imposed on him by the imagination – and Erik chose to return him to the water. At least, unlike Estragon and Vladimir in Beckett’s Godot we are not left waiting – we can choose where we imaginatively place significance, even if it has no fundamental value or meaning to anyone but ourselves. As Martin Esslin (who coined the term ‘Theatre of the Absurd’ in his work of the same name) argued ‘the plays that we have classed under the label of the Theatre of the Absurd […] express a sense of shock at th562_160131_artnicefishe absence, the loss of any such clear and well-defined systems of beliefs or values […] suddenly Man sees himself faced with a universe that is both frightening and illogical – in a word, absurd.’[6] In the universe of Nice Fish some logic remains, and in this sense it is substantial – not just a whimsical take on the Absurdist mode. Just before the closing scene, they remove their cold weather gear to initially reveal the conventional uniform of office workers. Hands reach up through the holes in the ice, holding cards that Ron reads:

‘the speaker points out that we don’t really have much of a grasp of things, not only the big things, the important questions, but the small everyday things. […] Most of us never truly experience life […] missing the true richness and joy life has to offer.’

Whilst there is still a question as to whether this actually means anything (who says that ‘the speaker’ has any authority?), this viewer would like to propose that we may choose to believe that it does. If we interpret ‘the speaker’ in terms of ‘the speaker’ of a poem we might remember that most of what we’ve heard in this play is in fact poetry (hence, perhaps, the limited character development) – and, at that, often very funny poetry. This world isn’t frightening, it’s whimsical – and however much logic seems to break down, the logic of laughter always remains.

It is, perhaps, because there is something inherently meaningful about laughter. It’s involuntary, and it’s something we all know, but simultaneously it’s difficult to convey through words alone. You need to experience it directly to really get it. It’s what the philosopher G.E. Moore might call a ‘simple’[7] or ‘unanlayseable’[8] notion – like the colour yellow, that cannot be described with reference to any other concept (how would you accurately describe the colour yellow to someone who has never experienced it?). It is this unanalysable logic of laughter that resists the absurd elements of this play: something always remains. In this sense laughter in this play is strangely like the experiences of mystics like Psuedo-Dionysius the Areopogite (yes, that is his real name), who argued that his mystical experiences (moments of direct contact with God) could only be expressed via the Via Negativa (speaking only in the negative tense: e.g. ‘God is not…’) – because what they experienced, God, was inexpressible in human language [9]. Of course there’s a world of difference between the notion of a transcendent all-powerful God and a simple human experience like laughter (and God is certainly not present in Nice Fish – unless we count the deus ex machina of the man-sized fishhooks!); nonetheless there is something similar in that both are life affirming. Just as the notion of God suggests a from-whence-we-came, a purpose or essential importance in creation, laughter can create a sense of nice-fish-jim-lichtscheidl-and-mark-rylance-photo-credit-teddy-woolf-jpg-1000x600substance in life, even if (paradoxically) what we are laughing at is the apparent absurdity or meaninglessness of existence. In this sense Nice Fish suggests that it is perhaps worth making the most of the minutia of experience (despite the fact
that the meanings we impose upon these aren’t really real) – even if it’s only to extract a laugh, or just to enjoy the whimsy. What else are we to do?

To put it in the words of Rylance’s friend, James Hillman (psychologist and author of The Soul’s Code, in which he argues against a simply deterministic framework for the soul’s development [10]) who was dying as this play was being written, and with whom Rylance would sit and ‘chat about the emerging characters in this play’[11]: ‘The imagination exists. It is not in us. We are in it’[12]. This is the world of Nice Fish. It’s absurd insofar as it’s simultaneously destructive of meaning just as at the same time it creates it with laughter. But most of all it invites us to make the most of the experiences life gives us – to drop a line with our imaginations, sit back and hope we catch something fun.


More information about the production can be found at: ___

by Emily Swettenham

Saturday 21st December 2016.



[1] Rylance, M. 2016. ‘Poetry, Prose and Play’. Nice Fish program. The Harold Pinter Theatre.

[2] Jenkins, L. ‘The Saint’. Read by Jenkins himself, and available at: [Accessed: 21st December 2016].

[3] Billington, M. 2016. ‘Nice Fish review – Mark Rylance reels them in with kooky comedy’. The Guardian. [online]. Available at: [Accessed: 21st December 2016].

[4] Ibid.

[5] Jenkins, L. ‘Fish Out of Water’. Read by Jenkins himself, and available at: [Accessed: 21st December 2016].

[6] Esslin, M. 1965. Absurd Drama. [online]. Available at: [Accessed: 21st December 2016].

[7] Moore, G.E. 1922. Principia Ethica. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge. p.g.7.

[8] Ibid. p.g.21.

[9] ‘It [God] is / not soul / not intellect / not imagination, opinion, reason and / not intellection […] / not life /  not being / not eternity, not time […] / not divinity / not goodness’. Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite. The Mystical Theology. In: Mortley, R. 1986. Chapter XII. Pseudo-Dionysius: a positive view of language and the Via Negativa. [online] p.230. Available at: [Accessed: 21st December 2016].

[10] Hillman, J. 1997. The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling.

[11] Rylance, M. 2016. ‘Poetry, Prose and Play’. Nice Fish program. The Harold Pinter Theatre.

[12] Ibid.

Review 7.



Composed by NoFit State Circus with direction from Firenza Guidi

Cast: Augusts Dakteris; Delia Ceruti; Francois Bouvier; Danilo de Campos Pacheco; Blaze Tarsha; Celia Zucchetti; Ella Rose; Jess O’Connor; Jani Földi; Topher Dagg; Lyndall Merry; Lee Tinnion; Junior Barbosa; Felipe Nardiello; Enni Lymi; Joachim Aussibal.


So I Saw… Bianco

NoFit State’s newest show feels deliciously clandestine – despite what its name Bianco (Italian for the colour white) might suggest. Just getting to the venue for the performance feels indulgently like taking a deliberate turn off the beaten (and proper) path; as you cross the flow of people walking off the east stairway of the Hungerford Bridge and dive down onto its underpass. As part of the Southbank’s Winter Festival a mini-city of market stalls has popped up down here; giving off the heady aroma of mulled wine and beer. Swimming through this, as the waters of the Thames glitter darkly alongside, you eventually reach Bianco’s home: a real big top. But it’s not quite what you’d expect. It’s small for a big top, and isn’t brightly coloured like most modern circuses. Instead it recalls the travelling circuses of the late 18th to early 19th century, when they were (most often) run by a single family or small collective of families – before they became fully commercialised[1] and acquired the technicolour gimmicks geared towards mass appeal that are familiar to us now. Posters telling us to ‘step right up’ and see the show are no where to be found; rather a cast member smiles, holds out a hand for a ticket, and allows you into their world.

But whilst the atmosphere in the tent feels exclusive, it certainly doesn’t exclude. Rather, it’s as if we have been invited into a microcosm of vagabonds, and to become embroiled with the temptingly transgressive aura they exude: even the smell of the fake smoke in Bianco, NoFitState, 2014 Edinburgh Fringethe air acquires a sort of musky allure. Vital to this extraordinary mood is the personal contact Bianco’s performers are afforded with their audience; for the tent has neither a ring, nor a ringmaster. Instead the audience stands, whilst the performers weave through them – doing their own thing. Although there is no central ring at this circus, there is (initially) a scaffolding that encloses the central area of the tent. It is wrapped in a gauzy fabric that the performers peel up as they casually clamber into (or up onto – dangling carelessly over or heads) this central space. They come together loosely, informally, and almost instinctively – chatting and swaggering about (casting huge shadows), loudly enjoying the inside jokes they have amongst themselves; calling to one another in a pan-cultural patois (including Italian, Spanish and French amongst others), in the same breath as they chat animatedly to (or just stare at) members of the audience – both inside and outside of the gauze. They are simultaneously friendly and intimidating, enticing and frightening, relatable and superhuman; moving between these expressions of character as quickly as the audience is (literally) moved around the performances.

This feels sort of dangerous – in a good way. As the performers spin in hoops above our heads (most of them scantily clad and highly muscled) it’s impossible not question whether they might fall: in fact they do – although intentionally. In a comical trapeze act a man dressed in a flamboyant white suit smoking a cigar swings over-exuberantly above our heads – and flies off the trapeze; hitting the tent ‘ceiling’. He bounces off – caught by tw-bianco-st-anns-29his safety wire; but we laugh both at the intended hilarity of the moment and at our feeling slightly trepidatious. And that helps us to let go – to let our guard down. So too does being a part of a constantly moving audience. Gradually the fear that you might tread on someone’s feet, or commit some other faux pas, dissolves the more we are moved around together – although this comes with a caveat, if you’re five-foot-one, like me. Others have reported seeing ‘a six-foot man bend down to check that the woman who is barely brushing five feet can see’[2]: I wish that had been me.

bianco_sigridspinnox-30However, visibility issues aside, immersion in Bianco’s world is immensely liberating; for the logic of its universe is one where contradictions can coexist. Or, as the show’s director Firenza Guidi puts it, one where ‘there is only passion, the messiness and infectiousness of life’[3]. But don’t assume that this is code for complete confusion: although we are presented with no consistent narrative, strong themes emerge. These range from something as light as the childlike pleasure in achievement (as in Francois Bouvier’s tightrope, where he completes a backflip, punches the air and joyfully points to himself), to something as heavy as the boulder the gods of Greek mythology force Sisyphus to repeatedly push up a hill, only to watch it roll back down and hit him. Camus regarded Sisyphus as ‘the absurd hero’[4], (whose ‘whole being is exerted toward accomplishing nothing’[5], and is trapped by his fate; yet is paradoxically fulfilled by his choice to embrace his fate) abianco_sigridspinnox-8nd there is something of the absurd in some of Bianco’s acts. For example the aerial silk performance of Danilo de Campos Pachecos: as he repeatedly climbs up his silks, with huge energy (muscles, that clearly indicate his skill and the effort he has put into this performance, visibly working) he suddenly falls, and hangs completely prone – like a puppet. Other images of human attempts at self-assertion, juxtaposed with entrapment are scattered throughout Bianco: from the aerial door-way shaped boxes a performer climbs through to open the show, to Delia Ceruti’s aerial rope performance, where she bianco_sigridspinnox-1literally ties herself in knots.

But the great thing about Bianco is that all of these performances could equally be interpreted otherwise: it’s a blank slate of sorts – partly because of the vivacity of its performances. Whilst there is a voiceover that mumbles (a little needlessly) a few words on existential themes – that are perhaps much better conveyed by the deep rumbling tones emanating from the band (particularly from the singer – whose voice is suggestive of Leonard Cohen meets throat-singing; often sustaining long deep primordially resonant notes) – words are not the point of Bianco. Rather this show is a collection of vivid, wild and totally immersive images ripe for an audience to interpret how they will – depending on what resonates most with them. Just as Ceruti’s aerial rope performance might be seen as expressive of a sort of absurd struggle, we could more specifically interpret it through the lenses of our own lives: for example this audience member read a narrative of perfectionism into Ceruti’s performance. This is whebiancoshowsre the audience’s freedom to move comes into its own; because the angle from which you view each act affects how you interpret it – and each person has the opportunity to find their own viewing sweet spot. As I watched her wrap the rope around her waist, and pull it up in front of her so that she could ‘walk’ along it at the same time (see the image to the right), my vantage point emphasised the restrictiveness of what she was doing to herself; for the rope constricted her waist, like a corset, and the rope-path she walked along (the rope she held in front of herself) seemed all too much like a self-inflicted tightrope – implying a fear of falling.

In the final act the aerial straps artist, Augusts Dakteris, dives deep into ttumblr_n0j5bmtwww1tq7fnso1_1280he air (only just stopping himself from hitting the ground) from the peak of the tent’s top. As snowflakes begin to fall (inside the tent) he flies in circles – soaring, held up only by his own physical strength conducted through the thin straps supporting him. He is perfectly elegant – he clips his toe (not a usual occurrence as far as this reviewer could judge) on the scaffold that has been constructed and re-constructed around us throughout the show; but he ignores it. He pushes on. He starts to create his own his own weather, his own tornado in the snow swirling about him as he turns within it. He lands, then the audience is invited to the centre of the tent to enjoy the snow too. We can’t fly through it as he did, but the collective euphoria makes us feel, for a moment as if we could.

Later as I leave I see two people taking pictures of each other – with their heads covered in the snow; collecting a new image to colour their world. Bianco, may mean white – but just as each snowflake has its own unique pattern, this show seems to encourage us to take the images it gives us to create our own collage that concentrates how we feel about our experience of life. It’s less about grand performance (at the end of the show we are even invited for drinks at the in-tent-bar with the cast) than the experience of being there – it’s personal, intimate and more than a little alluring; and powerfully freeing for this.


More information about the production can be found at: and 


With thanks to Theatre Bloggers: 


by Emily Swettenham

Monday 5th December 2016.



[1] The Victoria and Albert Museum. 2016. Victorian Circus. [online]. Available at: [Accessed: 5th December 2016].

[2] Howard, J. 2014. ‘Bianco – review’. The Guardian. [online]. Available at: [Accessed: 5th December 2016].

[3] NoFit State. 2016. ‘Bianco: Southbank Centre, 23rd November 2016 – 22nd January 2017’. Press Release, 29th November 2016.

[4] Camus, A. 1942. The Myth of Sisyphus. [online] Available at: [Accessed: 5th December 2016].

[5] Ibid.

Review 6.


Lazarus at The King’s Cross Theatre

Written by Enda Walsh and David Bowie inspired by The Man Who Fell to Earth by Walter Trevis

Directed by Ivo Van Hove with design by Jan Versweyveld

Main Cast: Michael C. Hall, Thomas Jerome Newton; Sophia Anne Caruso, Girl; Amy Lennox, Elly; Michael Esper, Valentine; Richard Hansell, Zach.


So I Saw… Lazarus

Having played Thomas Jerome Newton (the alien who crash lands to earth in Nicolas Roeg’s 1976 cult-classic film The Man Who Fell to Earth) Bowie commented on how he ‘just threw [his] real self into that movie’[1] – going so far as to say that ‘what you see there is David Bowie’[2]. It’s funny (and a characteristically Bowie-esque contradiction) that whilst he claimed the presence of his ‘real self’ in his performance of Newton he was simultaneously generating a new persona: playing a part. Having seen Bowie’s posthumous musical, written jointly with Enda Walsh, I am left wondering if he would say of Lazarus that ‘what you see there is David Bowie’. I even question whether it’s appropriate to speculate about Bowie’s potentially intending, in this play/musical, to survive beyond death through his art – no matter how much Bowie fans (like myself) might like to. This seems contradictory for a show that goes by the name of Lazarus – an apparent allusion to the Biblical Lazarus, whom Jesus ‘raised from the dead’[3] – but hear me out.

14924-9Lazarus starts with an old face: Thomas Jerome Newton. He is still stranded on earth (after his first attempt at building a rocket – seen in Roeg’s film) and we find him in his beige apartment, furnished sparsely: a fridge and record player against the righthand wall, and a bed on the opposite. As we quickly discover, Mary Lou (Newton’s lover in Roeg’s film) is no longer around. Nor is the dream that somehow he might return to his family on his home planet:

‘There’s nothing left of the past. It left. This is it now.’

Alone, he spends his days in the same way – as he informs us in a monotone:

‘I watch television and drink gin.’

and, occasionally

‘I walk around and try to locate the Twinkies.’

Newton is a broken man, wandering around his apartment – just as brokenly as the record player plays Ricky Nelson’s ‘Hello Mary Lou (Goodbye Heart)’ to open the show. By contrast Michael C. Hall’s performance as Newton is strong. His previous role as the main protagonist Dexter in the eponymous T.V. series explored similar themes as Lazarus (Dexter, orphaned age three when his mother was murdered by a madman with a chainsaw, has psychopathic tendencies and kills ‘constructively’, attacking heinous criminals, like murderers and rapists, who have escaped the justice system) but it gave Hall no opportunity to demonstrate his amazing voice – which, apart from being brilliant in its own right, channels intonations that are hauntingly reminiscent of Bowie.

Newton is also a trapped man:

‘I am a dying man who cannot die’.

Emotionally he is dying, but physically he can’t die (he’s not human) – so he dreams of escape. The first song he sings (‘Lazarus’ from Bowie’s last album, Blackstar) seems to express this with its aching saxophone, shallow beat and bitter dreaming refrain:

‘You know I’ll be free

Just like that bluebird

Ain’t that just like me.’

But he’s not only dreaming of escape; for in his gin-soaked state he sees things – he sees people. These figures materialise from behind a huge video screen standing in the centre of the stage; an action that is often so seamlessly performed that it appears as though theyrs-219486-lazarus_01 are emerging from the screen itself – as if it’s a sort of physical metaphor for Newton’s mind. This is firstly implied by the images of Mary Lou that dance across it, and because the strange celestial Girl (who claims she is there to ‘help’ Newton) – dismissed as

‘just another dream, a delusion, a chemical belch in my head!’ 

by Newton – emerges from it. Sophia Anne Caruso’s voice is as strong as Hall’s (despite the fact that she’s only fifteen) – and compliments it well. Her pure and clear notes lifting his hauntingly Bowie-like twangs to heights that brilliantly reimagine some of Bowie’s best-loved songs; for example ‘Heroes’, that closes the show. Yet she holds her own in others, like ‘Life On Mars?’ and ‘This is Not America’, her voice taking on an eery (although pitch-perfect) wailing quality – full of mysterious emotion.

These imagined figures, like the Girl, commingle with those in Newton’s ‘real’ world, blurring the distinction between his ‘delusion’ and reality. For example, just as the screen introduces Newton’s dreamed figures it is equally imposed upon by the characters of Newton’s ‘real’ life. Elly, Newton’s home assistant is the most notable example of this. Frustrated with her life – that leaves her asking her husband

‘…when was the last time we had sex? In what area of my life have I ever been successful?’

– she stares at the silhouettes of a woman bent romantically towards a man (that looks very like Newton) on the screen as she sings Bowie’s ‘Changes’, strips down to her underwear and changes into a brightly coloured satin blouse (reminiscent of Bowie’s New lazarus-london-5Romanticism) that once belonged to Mary Lou. She then returns to the figures on the screen and violently circles her hand around the couple – leaving a scribbly red line as if circling something she desperately wants in a catalogue. This is all indicative of the fact that the line between Newton’s mental world and reality is blurred – and increasingly so. Later she will dye her hair blue and continue to transform herself into the image of Mary Lou that intermittently dances on the screen; making it difficult to tell if it’s she who is imposing herself upon the extraordinary Newton to escape her un-extraordinary life, or whether he is imposing the image of Mary Lou onto her.

This is at times a little too confusing: fairly often we are simply left wondering what on earth is going on. This reaches its apogee when Elly, who is now indistinguishable from 08lazarusjpsub-master675Mary Lou, sits in front of the screen (with a picture of Mary Lou on it, dancing behind a crouching Newton) facing the Girl, who is herself dressed as Mary Lou as she attempts to put on a ‘play’ to help Newton

‘…forget about her [Mary Lou…so that he] can start making something else’;

a play that employs the help of a chorus-like group of three teenage girls who hang about the stage and are neither clearly a part of the ‘real’ world nor Newton’s dream. Add to this mix Valentine, a knife wielding serial killer who is a self-confessed

‘hopeless romantic’,

an idealist who has

‘always thought there has to be something more beautiful than what we’ve been given down here’,lazarus_-_sydnie_christmas_teenage_girl_michael_esper_valentine_gabrielle_brooks_teenage_girl_maimuna_memon_teenage_girl_credit_jan_versweyveld_-_4

and who violently reacts to the fact that

‘beautiful things – like friendship and being in love – can turn sour’,

makes things even more challenging to interpret. Especially as, like the teenage girls, he seems to be both real and another of Newton’s delusions – in fact one of these girls hands him his knife.

It might be tempting to impose clarity on this show by reading it biographically; arguably Jan Versweyveld’s beautiful staging invites us to. Versweyveld projects images onto the stage, turning Newton’s apartment into a sort of video screen. He even plays these images lazarus-michael-c-hall-newton-michael-esper-valentine-maimuna-memon-teenage-girl-credit-johan-persson-06370across the apartment’s large plain glass windows, that don’t look out onto the New York skyline but rather onto what seems to be a recording studio (where the live musicians really perform) – a starkly naturalistic contrast to the hallucinatory atmosphere of the front of stage (Newton’s flat). The screen stands between these windows (like the brain sits behind and between the eyes) suggesting that the dream world of Newton’s flat is a sort of inner reality; perhaps even an entirely mental one. This is apparently reinforced by the fact that often the characters who interact in the dream world of Newton’s flat press themselves up against these windows – as if trying to get out or to impress their feeling onto the musicians in the recording studio: as if to achieve escape through musical expression in the ‘real’ world. If we were to read Lazarus biographically, we might relate 5896-1478017614-shot17this to Bowie’s creative process.

Further Versweyveld also clearly alludes to particular periods of Bowie’s work; most notably (and stunningly) to his famous Berlin-Phase, when he produced his ‘Berlin Trilogy’ (the albums ‘Low’ and Heroes in 1977, and in 1979 ‘Lodger’) whilst ‘on the edge of physical and mental collapse’[4] hooked on cocaine and drained by the constant attention given to him in LA. As Hall sings ‘Where Are We Now?’ (just as his voice has hauntingly Bowie-like tones, he also looks a little like Bowie, amplifying the biographic aspect of this moment), Versweyveld’s set is transformed into a montage of the Berlin in which Bowie found himself in the 70s (played on the screen) and that of the modern day (projected onto the back wall). It was in Berlin in the 70s that Bowie began to ‘remake himself as an ordinary man […] enjoy[ing] the Berliners’ disinterest in him’[5], managing to entertain again (as he put it) ‘a great feeling of release and healing’[6]. In light of Bowie’s death we might read this musical as a similar attempt to find a ‘feeling of release and healing’ in terms of his mortality; which is made all the more complex if your life has revolved around a series of personas, to such an extent that – as Geoffrey Marsh (who curated the V&As 2013 exhibition David Bowie Is, the ‘first international retrospective’[7] of Bowie’s work and aesthetic) puts it – ‘even as the artist David Bowie, he has assumed a character’[8], he has become a sort of conceptual figure of reinvention. Newton’s claim that he is a

‘dying man who cannot die’

has a certain ring with this notion of Bowie as a conceptual figure more than a man, and seems to ask whether it’s possible for someone like this to ever achieve peace – even in death.

Lazarus perhaps plays with this idea that Bowie has bequeathed to us his image: every one of us has our own Bowie – we each relate to his personas differently and impose upon them our own meanings, that in turn give us some personal ‘feeling of release and healing’. Whilst this means he sort of ‘lives on’ through us, this equally bars the man himself from having ownership over his life, and its end. As Newton says,

‘not being able to die is a joke. A fucking terrible joke.’

adding, as if conscious of his being watched,

‘apologies for the f-word’.

This is partly why we might question whether it’s appropriate to talk about this musical in regenerative terms: it seems wrong to see it somehow as Bowie resurrected. However, it also feels wrong to see this show as biographical. It is difficult to feel that ‘what you see there is David Bowie’ in Lazarus.

From fairly early on the show the Girl has been helping Newton make a new ‘rocket’ (the ‘something else’ that she says he will be freed to create by forgetting Mary Lou). But this rocket is unlike the one that Newton made in Roeg’s film – this one isn’t made from metal 5332and rocket fuel, but rather from tape that the Girl uses to draw the rocket’s shape on the stage. Whilst this new ‘rocket’ looks disconcertingly like a coffin, (and Michael C. Hall all too much like Bowie as he lies in it, his face projected large on the screen) Newton’s final flight doesn’t appear like Bowie’s; rather it seems more of a universal metaphor implying a search for the freedom to be ourselves in a world that often fails to meet our expectations: as the Girl says

‘when you’re stuck between two worlds – it’s only right that you try something incredible…’

In Newton’s case it is his deeply rooted love for things past (the dream of seeing his family again; his life with Mary Lou) that holds him back from moving on to ‘something else’ – to a new sense of self; but Elly, his home assistant, also expresses a similar desire for self-assertion. As she says to Valentine

I’m standing there with no personality of my own, with no idea of what I want to be’;

hence why she models herself as Mary Lou – although she sees herself as being overcome imageby Mary Lou:

‘I can feel Mary Lou walk over and claim me as hers. I’m dressing in her clothes and she’s taking my voice even – and then I’m wanting him [Newton…] and there’s no real logic to this love – not a real love, I know – but madness only […] yet I don’t want my old life back – ‘cause to lose ‘the her’ that is still here might lose me a possibility of a new life. It’s a new life I want.’

Elly doesn’t know herself – she doesn’t really know who she is or who she wants to be; she just knows that she doesn’t want to be who she was. This longing for control over being who we want to be, the difficulty of being comfortable with and knowing ourselves (in all our multiplicity and changeability) is something that we can all relate to; and is arguably what underscores Bowie’s appeal. His ability to constantly reconstruct himself, and thereby his capacity to embrace an uncertainty of identity – the knowledge that that within us we all have something alien, even to ourselves – was something he wasn’t afraid of, unlike most of us. In this sense what Elly seems to ask us to do is to look to ourselves; for it is her failure to look beyond the avatar of Mary Lou, to believe in herself (to be happy with a fluid self that she can choose to construct how she likes), that eventually leads her to mime shooting herself in the head (through her mouth – as if self-silencing) as she dresses herself back into the clothes she wore at the start of the show and begins to dance discontentedly with her husband, Zach.

If Elly finds it all too difficult to believe in herself, Valentine finds it difficult to believe in anything; because the world never seems to behave in the way that he wants it to. He kills because he seems to be unable to trust in the good in the world: he chooses quick and controlled destruction instead of watching

‘beautiful things – like friendship and being in love […] turn sour’.

He sees this as the best way of coping with the world:

‘there’ll always be a love that needs killing’.

Yet at the close of the play a strange relationship develops between Valentine (this destructive energy) and the Girl, who comes to represent


to Newton. Until the close of the play the Girl has claimed that she doesn’t remember who she is, but that she knows everything about Newton. Now she finally remembers who she is – announcing that she was murdered, but not properly; she is half-way between life and 25jan_david-bowie-musical-lazarusdeath – caught between two worlds like Newton. Then she asks Newton to

‘help me die properly’,

and Valentine hands him his knife, which Newton uses to kill her. But strangely, incredibly, it is the death of this Girl (or hope) that allows Newton to progress into something totally new; to give up

‘trying to turn these old words into something new’,

to totally embrace his


and move into

‘that better place. An imagined world’:

the only place where the fluidity of the self and contentment with oneself can coexist peacefully.

The blood that seeps out from the body of the Girl isn’t red, it’s white – it looks like milk. It seems to suggest rebirth and newness – which is fulfilled as she wakes, announcing to Newton that she

‘found out my name’s Marley’;

an ambiguous line that could describe her identity before she ‘died’, or could be a new name. She is both a continuation of her old self and something completely new – she is fluid, undefinable. As she and Newton sing ‘Heroes’, and playfully belly-slide in the milk-blood ‘like dolphins can swim’, they are

‘…free now’

lazarus-1-848x478both because of and despite the fact that they are


And nothing will help us’.

Yet that makes them free to create themselves however they would like to be. They can

‘travel on’

and become

‘lost in these stars’

without fear.

At least that’s how this viewer interpreted all of this – and I’m not sure that I’m right (or even on the right track). This is the main problem with Lazarus; it’s just too confusing. It’s like watching anything of Beckett as a musical: there isn’t really a plot and what is said is most often obscure. That said it would be unfair to say that this isn’t reflective of Bowie’s work – his songs often include bizarre and abstruse imagery (who on earth is the ‘Man Who Sold the World?’). Enda Walsh certainly has represented this in Lazarus – perhaps a little too much. Lazarus is really carried by the astonishing performances and reinvention of Bowie’s songs – in terms of both the stunning voices of those performing them, and Versweyveld’s setting for these songs. Still, there is something to say for the ambiguity (aside from the confusion) of Lazarus. It allows for a huge scope of interpretation – giving you plenty of room to relate what you see to your own state of affairs; especially in terms of being able to become comfortable with a fluid identity, or not quite knowing who you are at heart – or maybe that’s just me. Lazarus is abstruse at times; but losing yourself in its universe might point you towards new, self-realising, horizons.


More information about the production can be found at:


by Emily Swettenham

20th November 2016



[1] Bowie, D. 1992. ‘Bowie at the Bijou’. Interviewed by Campbell, V. for Movieline. In: David Bowie: The Last Interview and Other Conversations. 2016. [online]. Available at: [Accessed: 20th November 2016].

[2] Ibid.

[3] Biblica. 2011. John 12:9.The Holy Bible, New International Version. [online]. Available at: [Accessed: 20th November 2016].

[4] Maclean, R. 2016. ‘Bowie in Berlin: ‘He drove round the car park at 70mph screaming that he wanted to end it all’. The Guardian. [online]. Available at: [Accessed: 20th November 2016].

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] The Victoria and Albert Museum. 2013. ‘Touring Exhibition – David Bowie Is’. Available at: [Accessed: 20th November 2016].

[8] Marsh G. In: Beesely, R. 2013. ‘What is David Bowie’. Aesthetica. [online]. Available at: [Accessed: 20th November 2016].

Review 5.


The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures (or iHo for short) at the Hampstead Theatre

Written by Tony Kushner

Directed by Michael Boyd

Cast: David Calder, Gus; Richard Clothier, Pill (Pierluigi, P.L.); Tamsin Grieg, Empty (Maria Teresa, M.T.); Lex Shrapnel, Vito (Vinnie, Vino, Vin, V); Sara Kestelman, Clio; Luke Newberry, Eli; Sirine Saba, Maeve; Rhashan Stone, Paul; Katie Leung, Sooze; Daniel Flynn, Adam.


So I Saw… iHo

From his Academy Award nominated screenplay for the Hollywood film Lincoln, to his Pulitzer Prize for Drama winning play Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes, Kushner is renowned for his politically attuned work. In fact, in the past he has said that he believes ‘all theatre is political’[1], and although iHo is a self-confessed attempt at ‘a distinctively American strand of Aristotelian family drama set around a kitchen table’[2], politics underpins this. But the opening scene is not ‘set around a kitchen table’. Instead we see two men standing on either side of a half-constructed looking, concrete tower-block, out of which the iron bars of the building’s skeleton protrude. They talk to each other through mobile phones. Their relationship, as their conversation spasmodically reveals, is one of deceit: Eli, the younger of the two, is Pill’s rent-boy – and Pill has a husband. Pill, leads their disjointed conversation,

‘Pill: … a family talk

Eli: Uh-huh..

Pill: [sharply and suddenly] Major Barbara!

Eli: Who?

Pill: You asked me about good plays – good plays in Minneapolis…’

fillwyi3ntailci1mdaixq-reviews7Pill’s reference to Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbera is no coincidence. iHo’s title is actually a reference to Shaw’s 1928 work The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism (a ‘blend’[3] of Marxism’s ‘soaring idealism and no-nonsense realism’[4], expressing ‘belief in the parliamentary route to socialism, [with] no illusions about the unsatisfactory deficits in democracy’[5]) and in this vein Major Barbara’s subtitle could easily describe Kushner’s play: ‘A Discussion, in Three Acts’. For iHo examines the alienation of our progressively technologically mediated lives in a market-orientated neoliberal society; where the social fabric is being gradually unravelled to reveal a generation of individuals drifting in a globalising world. In iHo, Kushner brings the ideas of Marx to bear on our experience of this: suggesting that ‘in some way Marx saw this coming [… consider the] principle of the increasing abstraction of value equalling the the increasing abstraction of human life – well, the digital age is the most shocking realisation of that’[6].

Pill continues:

Pill: …some asshole’s cellphone went off in the middle of Undershaft’s big speech in the last act, and the actor, the actor winced […] At least I’m not an actor! […] But if I was, I would hurl myself off the stage in whatever direction the ringing was coming from, find the guy and stuff the god damn thing – ringing! – right down his throat!’

Although Kushner claims this play to be ‘Aristotelian’ (denoting a focus on the emotional identification of the audience with the characters on stage) this use of meta-theatre (‘at least I’m not an actor’ – the audience knows he is an actor, and is thus reminded they are watching a bit of constructed make-believe taking place in a very real world) seems to be a nod to Brecht; whose theory of drama (which he termed ‘non-Aristotelian’[7]) encourages audiences to not identify with the characters on stage, so that they may be aware of themselves as critical beings capable of assessing, and making change in, their real socio-political context. As Pill finishes the line ‘… right down his throat!’, the lights cut and we are immediately transported to the Marcantonio’s home, where the whole family is ‘set around the kitchen table’; but this first scene primes us to consider the goings on of the ‘family drama’ we are to witness in alongside our own broader understanding of the world beyond the confines of the play. 111996001_the_intellegent_homosexual2-xlarge_transv7lf6vpttymqtntakjxvkbionlss20mrfiiqki3u9mc

We meet the Marcantonios in a gale of their own voices. Each is pursuing an independent, emotionally charged conversation – making their individual voices as hard to follow as those of a swirling twitter-storm. They are arguing because Gus, (the Italian-American patriarch of the family) has attempted suicide – and is asking that his family support him in a second (implicitly final) attempt. Gus’ rationale for this is complex, but primarily he is experiencing a crisis of belief as he struggles to adjust his ideological outlook (he is an idealistic and uncompromising Marxist – progress, in his eyes, ‘can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions’[8]) to the world of 2007 neoliberal America. His other motivations similarly concern ideals. He was once a member of the Communist Party of America, and campaigned fiercely, as a member of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) to secure their collective goal of the Guaranteed Annual Income (GAI). Unionism is another of his ideals (a bust of Garibaldi is perched on the shelf behind the kitchen table) – and another that political realities led him to compromise (or so we discover later); because he only secured GAI for senior members of the Union – such as himself. To support his argument for his suicide, he constantly claims that he has Alzheimers – despite the fact that he is in the middle of translating Horace. In reality his Alzheimers is metaphorical: the only intellectual deterioration Gus is experiencing pertains to the purity of his ideals.

It’s not just Gus who is having to cope with the shifting sands of modern American life: his children live it. Even their names have a symbolic resonance with neoliberalism’s ‘increasing abstraction of human life’. Each of them has several nicknames – often fragmentations or abbreviations of their full names, that are entwined with their cultural heritage; resonating with the idea of neoliberalism’s dissolving of the social and cultural fabric of the previous epoch. Gus’ oldest son’s full name is Pierluigi, yet he is most often called Pill, and also goes by P.L.; Pill’s younger sister goes by M.T., which is an abbreviation of Maria Teresa – but she is also affectionately called Empty; and the youngest of Gus’ children, Vito is named after Gus’ cousin, Vito Marcantonio – whose picture hangs on the wall behind the kitchen table, and was a famous radical American Labour Party member who refused to vote for America’s entry into the Korean War – but 4860he is also called Vin, Vic, Vinnie and – most often – V. They also live lives of insecurity, disloyalty and deceit. Vito probably has the most stable life; but that’s not saying much.

He is married to Sooze, a no-nonsense (presumably) Korean woman who tells Gus that she respects his idealistic perspective and that she (and her parents)

‘don’t blame you for Kim Jung Un’

but that she wishes he could be understanding of Vito’s anguish about his suicide (it was Vito who found Gus during his previous, failed attempt). Yet she laughs when she discovers that instead of artificially inseminating Empty’s wife, Maeve, Vito had full intercourse with her – for the sake of ease. We can tell that Vito did this reluctantly (at no point does it seem that he is in any way attracted to Maeve) even he seems shocked and destabilised by Sooze’s flippant reaction. Maeve and Empty’s relationship is even more unstable. Empty regularly complains about Maeve, and openly declares that she doesn’t want a baby:

no one could want a baby less than I’.tamsin-greig-empty-the-intelligent-homosexuals-guide-to-capitalism-and-socialism-with-a-key-to-the-scriptures-at-hampstead-theatre-photo-by-manuel-harlan

She also cheats on Maeve – again, fairly openly – with her ex-husband, Adam, who is both the foolish boozer and the insidious buyer; as he ruins
Gus’ aim to

‘liquidate and vacate’

his family apartment, sharing the money between his children. Empty is also sexually confused – she claims (repetitively) that she

‘loves tits’,


‘loves pussy’,

but she seems to be more attracted to heterosexual sex – as she constantly goes back to Adam (who boasts that it’s only he who can really give her what she wants) and bemoans the fact that they

‘don’t make maternity strap-ons’

presumably for Maeve to use. Of course she could just be bisexual, but things seems a little too confused to sit comfortably with this. Empty is just that – she is empty: she finds it hard to define herself.

This is also key to her relationship with her father. She is the one who claims to understand him the best, whose profession is most like Gus’ activism (she’s a Labour tamsin-greig-empty-and-david-calder-gus-the-intelligent-homosexuals-guide-to-capitalism-and-socialism-with-a-key-to-the-scriptures-at-hampstead-theatre-photo-by-manuel-hLawyer and aided Gus on campaigns when she was little) and, to a certain extent, is accepting of Gus’ attempts at suicide – sitting with him and the widow of a fellow ILWU member, as the latter explains how she aided her husband in his suicide, listening for instruction on how to help her father do the same. She does this because she sees Gus as heroic –

‘you’ve always been heroic to me’ 

she tells him, in the penultimate scene, talking of his campaigning days in the ILWU. She idealises him and constantly defers to this heroic image of him at the expense of her own sense of self. But it’s only when she realises that her father is more committed to his purist, political outlook than to his emotional connection to his children (he sees them as cogs in his effort to achieve ideological absolution in his suicide) that she can finally assert herself fully – leaving him at the close of the same scene where she called him ‘heroic’ with

‘you are a coward’.

This scene is beautifully and sensitively performed by Tamsin Greig, as she delivers Empty’s anguished realisation of who her father really is – a man possessed by his ideology – and the progress of her emotion from one of entrapment to self-assertion. She is shouted at as she sits, hunched over and rocking, on a chair facing away from the audience – so Gus’ fury hits us too with similar force – eventually breaking, running and pressing her body against the wall, agonisedly twisting her arms, weeping, all lit by an increasingly focussed light. Then the tables turn. She shouts at Gus as he sits in the chair – calling him a ‘coward’ for failing to step up to his emotional responsibilities in choosing suicide over compromising his political beliefs for the sake of his children.

This is also indicative of the fact that whilst all of the children clearly display the alienating and destabilising effects of modern American life, they are also deeply influenced by Gus’ political ideology. Pill is, perhaps, most literally effected; for he eroticises Marx’s theory of alienation. This theory (as Pill – strikingly portrayed by Richard Richard-Clothier-Pill-and-Luke-Newberry-Eli-The-Intelligent-Homosexuals-Guide-to-Capitalism-and-Socialism-with-a-Key-to-the-Scriptures-at-Hampstead-Theatre.-Photo-by-Manu.jpgClothier – explains in great detail to Eli, as he straddles him on his bed) posits that work, when we are in control of both the means and the ends of production, is what makes us human: it is our ‘species-being’. In Marx’s conception this is why Revolution is needed: to restore the means and ends of production to the workers (who have had these taken from them by the capitalist) and in so doing, restore to them their ‘species-being’ – their fullness of life. But in Pill’s mind, this idea becomes sensual – as he sees what he does with Eli as expressive of ‘species-being’ in a sexual sense; for Eli controls and receives both the means and the ends of what he is producing (the sex act). Yet Eli has a more capitalistic conception of what he is doing – eroticising the notion of his being a commodity; something that someone desires so much that they are willing to pay for him.

Hence, although Kushner is highlighting the relevancy of Marx to the problems of modern neoliberalism it would be very wrong to see iHo as, in any sense, The Communist Manifesto Part II: the complex relationships of the children are a ‘discussion’ of 5837-1477995520-shot9predominating political theories of the past, in light of the present. In fact, in their relationships, many of the arguments against Marx can be read. In Pill and Eli’s case, as well as Empty’s, this is seen in the interrelationship between the theoretical and the emotional: as Eli says

‘money isn’t the only currency’.


Whilst this is resonates as dramatic irony (it is 2007, in 2008 the markets will crash because bankers made exactly that error: ‘what the economists got wrong in all their models and forecasts was their reliance on the odd notion that people are entirely driven by money’[9]), and thus a criticism of neoliberal capitalism – which Eli in many ways represents, with his eroticising selling himself and mannerisms that revolve around updating his profile on his rent-boy app and the word ‘like’ – this also checks Marx’s view of people’s behaviour as predictable according to their socio-economic position. This reduction of individuals to economic groups perhaps intensifies the capacity of leaders (such as Lenin and Stalin) to allow (or actively go about) the mass extermination of their people when attempting to initiate communism in their country; but equally this might underscore the capacity of the capitalist to exploit workers.

In the same vein Vito’s relationship with Gus must be considered: he might almost be read as paradigmatic of the working class – a class as the individual. When trying to persuade Gus to not kill himself he tells him to go and ‘get a real working class job’, implying a physical one like his own (he is a construction worker and intermittently attempts to fix the hole in the wall he creates – we’ll 111996009_the_intellegent_homosexual1-large_transefoz1-0wvaqpfvo8s0m8pvfknxbjqdbishywtovo6cocome back to this later), and even exasperatedly claims himself as a

‘real bonafide member of the working class’

whom Gus, the one whose political principles claim to be for the working class, eschews the advice of; claiming that V is deluded – blinded by the firmly capitalist ideology of 2007 America:

‘you just don’t understand’.

This echoes Isiah Berlin’s famous criticism of dialectical views of history – like Marx’s – that assume that ‘the ordinary run of men are blind in varying degrees to that which truly shapes their lives’[10], and cuts to the core of V and Gus’ relationship; because V has a very different understanding of his father than his siblings, who were taught Marxist theory by Gus from an early age (Pill says he read Das Kapital at summer camp). Instead V was made to feel like his father’s world of theory was

‘some place I just can’t go’.

Hence perhaps the pent-up emotion that leads him to smash the bust of Garibaldi (a symbol of unity?) through the wall. Yet this act, as well as V’s name – Vito – may also be read in as symbolic of Gus’ politically charged views of historical inevitability being thwarted: the working classes didn’t behave as Marx predicted – they vetoed the Revolution.

This is all very complicated. In this play there is a lot that cannot be understood immediately – or even at all. I’m still wondering if I get it. Kushner has a high opinion of his audiences’ intellect (‘that animal out there in the dark is extremely smart, and it’s very impatient, and you can’t bore it. If you are talking down to it, you’re telling it things that you already know’[11]). Maeve and Pill’s husband, Paul, argue over the minutia of translations of theological texts (both are academics – specialising in Christian theology) and words like ‘dialectic’ jostle against the colloquial. But I would argue that we aren’t meant to know what it all means; in a play containing a scene where all of the 5140.jpgmain characters are on stage each talking over one another, spread out and many in motion, a lack of understanding on the part of the audience seems intentional. We live in an increasingly complex world where the internet has made multiple forms of information and perspectives readily accessible – so much so, that, in the wake of Brexit and the rise of Trump, many (such as Katherine Viner) are now arguing that that the status of the idea of plain fact or truth is ‘diminishing’[12]. Like Gus we are in the midst of a crisis of belief – where our faith in old conceptions of ‘how the world works’ are being challenged by new and weird concepts, like the notion of our living in a ‘post-truth’ (the OED’s 2016 International Word of the Year, ‘an adjective relating to circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than emotional appeals’[13]) age, particularly in terms of politics[14]. To me this play, and all its sprawling complexity, asks us to address this.

This is why I found the final scene so profound. Gus has been left by Empty. Eli (Luke Newberry’s performance is excellent, particularly here) is with him – looking for Pill, and looking like he has taken rather too many pills as he shivers and jitters. We worry for him, because, like Gus he has threatened suicide – after Pill chose to end it with Eli for Paul. Gus has two bags in front of him: a white one containing the equipment required for his suffocation; and his grandfather’s suitcase that he carried to America as the first member of the Marcantonio family to emigrate. Eli asks him which bag he’ll choose (death or moving on?), and Gus responds with

‘I’m still thinking’,

and the play ends. Like Clio, Gus’ sister (who has tried an enormous number of different belief systems ranging from the violent Communist group, Shining Dawn, to becoming a Catholic nun), but has now chosen as her book of study Science and Health with a Key to the Scriptures by Eddy Mary Baker; a book (referenced in iHo’s title) of Christian Science given to her by a neighbour, and whose chief message, she explains, is belief in thinking (‘1. God is All-in-all. 2. God is good. Good is Mind.’[15]). In light of this we might read Gus’ closing line as a potential resolution to his crisis of belief, and in some sense our own.

Gus has pushed himself into this life or death situation through the disappointment of his restrictive worldview and might be saved if he learned to think flexibly – to believe in various thoughts, taking on their wisdom whilst acknowledging their flaws (as his sister Clio has). He needs to be able to believe in the act of thinking – to be open-minded, whilst understanding that this might throw up complexities unforeseeable, or even fully understandable. I can’t help thinking that in our world of ‘post-truth’, we might learn  something from this; we cannot abandon the notion of ‘truth’ just because we see that it’s complicated, or convoluted. Kushner has said that he thinks ‘it’s enormously important to [him] as a writer never to think of [himself] as delivering a message’[16], but that he feels his plays ‘can actually wind up explaining a lot to an audience’[17]. I’d agree with him – although I’m still thinking. But maybe that’s the point.


More information about the production can be found at: 


by Emily Swettenham

10th November 2016.



[1] Kushner, T. 2016. The Will Mortimer Interview. Interviewed by Mortimer, W. The Hampstead Theatre.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Toynbee, P. 2012. ‘Bernard Shaw’s guide to a post-crash world’. The Guardian. [online]. Available at: [Accessed: 10th November 2016].

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Kushner, T. 2016. The Will Mortimer Interview. Interviewed by Mortimer, W. The Hampstead Theatre.

[7] White, J. J. 2004. Bertold Brecht’s Dramatic Theory. Camden House: Woodbridge. p.g.207.

[8] Engels, F. and Marx, K. 1848. The Communist Manifesto. Oxford World Classics. Oxford University Press: Oxford. p.g.39.

[9] Toynbee, P. 2012. ‘Bernard Shaw’s guide to a post-crash world’. The Guardian. [online]. Available at: [Accessed: 10th November 2016].

[10] Berlin, I. 1953. Historical Inevitability. August Comte Memorial Trust Lecture, No.1. Oxford University Press: Oxford. p.g.2.

[11] Kushner, T. 2004. A TPQ Interview: Tony Kushner on Theatre, Politics, and Culture. Interviewed by Taft-Kaufman, J. Text and performance Quarterly, Vol. 24. No. 1. January, 2004. [online]. Available at: [Accessed: 10th November 2016].

[12] Viner, K. 2016. ‘How technology disrupted the truth’. The Guardian. [online]. Available at: [Accessed: 10th November 2016].

[13] BBC News. 2016. ‘Post-truth’ declared word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries’. [online]. Available at: [Accessed: 16th November 2016].

[14] Davies, W. 2016. ‘The Age of Post-Truth Politics’. The New York Times. [online]. Available at: [Accessed: 10th November 2016].

[15] Baker, E. M. 1875. Science and Health with a Key to the Scriptures. [online]. Available at: [Accessed: 10th November 2016].

[16] Kushner, T. 2016. The Will Mortimer Interview. Interviewed by Mortimer, W. The Hampstead Theatre.

[17] Ibid.

Review 4.


A Pacifists Guide to the War on Cancer at The National Theatre

Written and Directed by: Bryony Kimmings and Brian Lobel with Complicite Associates

Music by Tom Parkinson with lyrics by Bryony Kimmings

Main Cast: Amanda Hadingue, Emma; Naana Agaei-Ampadu, Gia; Rose Shaloo, Shannon; Hal Fowler, Mark; Golda Rusheuvel, Laura; Gary Wood, Stephen; Amy Booth-Steel, Stephen’s Mum/Ensemble.


So I Saw… A Pacifist’s Guide

I have been lucky enough not to be directly touched by cancer – and increasingly I have found myself wondering if this affected my reaction to Bryony Kimmings’ production. Walking out of the show, initially I was moved; having just been part of an audience that volunteered the names of loved ones who had been affected, or taken, by cancer. The cast gave names too and were visibly affected – many in the audience were audibly so. I start with this personal perspective because the production itself was intensely personal, like Kimmings other work; her previous 2015/2016 production, Fake it ’til You Make It, was ‘about clinical depression and men… from two people who know all about it’ [1] – where she performed alongside her (now ex) partner, who is both male and suffers from depression. As Kimmings’ pre-recorded voice introduces this latest show, she explains that this time her focus is on illness and death – and specifically our resistance as a society to talking about these tricky topics. Then she announces, with the same bravado she exhibits in her popular ‘Fanny Song’ [2](where she lists various names for female genitalia) that she thought the best way to go about this was through the lens of one of the most ‘frightening’ of illnesses, cancer – adding that they decided to make it a musical ‘to sell tickets’.

Whether you believe this claim or not, it’s a bold move on Kimmings’ part – and is reflective of another apparent aim of this ‘musical’: to challenge cancer’s mythologies and reveal the emotional complexities that this can obscure. True to the pun in the show’s title (Pacifists’ Guide to the War on Cancer), Kimmings attempts to turn inside-out the notion of ‘the war on cancer’ – a phrase coined by Richard Nixon in his 1971 signing of the National Cancer Act and that since has become a rhetorical tool used by both the maina-pacifists-guide-to-the-war-on-cancer-by-complicite-photo-by-mark-douet-_80a7805-2500x2500stream media, and charities (such as Cancer Research UK, ‘so many lives lost […] but we fought on’ [3]), to raise funds; giving a rise to a  sort of mythic narrative that can act as a ‘barrier to normalising cancer’ [4], isolating both society and the individuals dealing with a diagnosis. Kimmings show sets cancer not on a battlefield but in what seems an average room in any old NHS hospital. Each of the grey, ceiling-tiled walls that enclose the stage has a double door (the kind that makes it easy for gurneys push open), and basic slatted blinds conceal the musicians. Initially the cast are dressed like anyone you might meet on the street, and in a highly choreographed manner they mime walking (as if) in streets – singing about knowing that cancer could happen to any of them, but that

‘everything is fine […] I mustn’t moan – 

I could be dying of that cancer in a bed alone – 

don’t think about statistics, never trust T.V. 

I’ll just focus on the mobile phone in front of me!’

We are in this ‘street’ because we are following Emma, who was introduced by Kimmings’ voice at the start of the show – where she explained that she is en route to the hospital where her baby will undergo a series of scans. Only later will we find out (again via Kimmings’ voice) that Emma’s story is based on Kimmings’ own experience of having a very ill baby, although not with cancer – rather, ‘something called West Syndrome’ [5]. The other patients we meet when Emma reaches the hospital are familiar faces – we saw them walking in the ‘street’ – and they have each been diagnosed with cancer, of various forms; ranging from ovarian (Laura), testicular (Stephen) and lung (Mark) cancers, that most people have heard of, to less common ones – as with Shannon, who has a genetic predisposition to cancer and has therefore had several cancers despite her young age. Further, just as later we learn that Emma is based on real experience we will discover that these ‘characters’ are also based on real people. Indeed, at the close of the performance, their recorded voices (taken as part of the ‘research for this show’ Kimmings’ voice informs us) are played as the actors playing them mime along to their words. This was very moving at the time – especially as Kimmings’ tells us that Laura died shortly after making the recording – and set the tone for the name-giving mentioned earlier.

Yet whilst this adheres to the notion that this show is a ‘celebration of ordinary life and death’ [6] it risks being too realist: perhaps even to the point of offence. By grounding the production so directly in ‘real lives’ Kimmings paradoxically hazards depersonalising the people she presents, something that is particularly apparent when the cast call up a ‘real cancer patient’ [7] (as she was advertised as in the leaflets and on the National’s website) onto the stage and have her her read out her ‘hopes’. Although I thought that it was brave of her to get up and do this it also made me feel a little uncomfortable at the time – but I overlooked it because of the heightened emotion in the auditorium. Now, upon reflection, I feel increasingly troubled by her being called up. I can’t help but wonder if this, in some ways, reduced her and her experiences into a dramatic device… and in the same vein whether the names the audience and cast gave could be considered in the same light.

Nonetheless, before we get to this, Kimmings’ presents an interesting impression of what it’s like to become entangled in the bizarre logic of cancer – where

negative is positive and positive is negative […and] growth is bad

– and the world of illness more generally. One of the songs, ‘The Kingdom of the Sick’ (borrowing a term coined by Susan Sontag, from her 1978 book Illness as Metaphor, where she argues that the ‘healthiest way of being ill’ [8] is to be ‘resistant to metaphoric thinking’ [9] regarding illness) frankly presents the shock of encountering the reality of pacifists_production_1_mark_douet_0being in a hospital environment amongst people whose interactions and behaviours are somewhat dictated by sickness:

‘subtle as an icepick

the cast sing as they dance jerkily – in a half-mechanical-half-deranged way. Personally I could relate to this. Recently my granddad was in hospital, and when visiting him my expectation of his care being delicately attuned to his needs were tested – in particular in terms of the lack of privacy afforded to patients on his ward. Mark, during the song, talks about curtains that fail to mask the sounds and smells of human effusions. This seemingly tiny thing is something I experienced directly when visiting my granddad – something he would have experienced constantly – and it distressed me quite a lot. By relating to this tiny detail in the show, it somehow unlocked my capacity to speak about this (as my friends would attest) – fulfilling Kimmings’ aim to get us talking more about illness without masking its inglorious realities with glorious metaphors.

Another song (Gia’s personal number – each character who has cancer is given their own song to express how they are dealing with their diagnosis emotionally; for example Stephen’s, where he addresses his worried mother, asking for his independence back) boldly presents the frustration of dealing with a cancer diagnosis, and challenges presentations of cancer sufferers in the media. As they dance with iPads (it’s night-time in the hospital) the cast sing

fuck this-s-s-s

emphasising the ’s’ so that they sound as if they are hissing in anger. This is certainly not the presentation of cancer that mainstream media or charities regularly portray; something that Barbara Ehrenreich dubs ‘the pink ribbon culture’ [10] in her essay reflecting upon her time with cancer. From her own experience she argues that this attitude demands the harmful ‘denial of understandable feelings othe-company-in-a-pacifists-guide-to-the-war-on-cancer-photo-by-mark-douet-_31b7997f anger and fear’ [11] upon finding out you have cancer, ‘all of which must be buried under a cosmetic layer of cheer’[12]. This attitude is echoed by Gia, who looks up from one of the iPads and talks about the articles on Buzzfeed she has been reading, all of which present the ‘positive stories’ of ‘positive cancer patients’ – working herself into a fury, and eventually

‘I wish everyone would stop telling me how to deal with my cancer!’

We are also shown how emotionally harrowing the process of being diagnosed with cancer can be. We see this through Emma’s experience. Before she finds out that her son’s tests are positive, we watch her sitting alone, spotlit, and centre stage with the uncomfortably loud noises of the scanners being used on her son reverberating around the room. This lasts for about three minutes, but it seems an eternity: just as it must do for Emma, whose face constantly contorts with anxiety as we watch. Then, when she is told the results of the scan, the voice of the nurse is cancelled out – being replaced with a tinnitus-like ringing – with the exception of the word ‘options’. Through this the audience is placed in Emma’s position for a moment and we feel the almost inexpressible pressure of such a frightening diagnosis.

This is also reflected in the set, which, as the show progresses, is colonised by huge inflatable cancer cells – that break through the ceiling tiled walls, pressing the characters towards the audience. These are both cartoonish and sinister – just like the people dressed as gargantuan cancer cells, in brightly coloured and bedazzled lumpy suits, who follow the amy-booth-steel-in-a-pacifists-guide-to-the-war-on-cancer-photo-by-mark-douet-_31b7748characters around. Bizarre as they are, these characters embody the jangling tones of this show. They represent the strange and frightening world of cancer as they follow those in the ‘Kingdom of the Sick’ but one of them also puts cancer in its simplest and least frightening terms. Jovially she sings, to a nursery-rhyme like tune,

a cancer cell is a normal cell that starts to mutate…’

explaining how cancer cells become a tumour – ending:

I’m sorry if this is crass’.

This, to me, epitomises this ‘musical’ because it’s up to as to whether you think this apology is needed or not. To me, it’s yes and no.


More information about the production can be found at: 


by Emily Swettenham

28th October 2016.



[1] Kimmings, B. 2016. [online]. Available at: [Accessed: 28th October 2016].

[2] Bryony Kimmings. 2013. The Fanny Song. . Available at: [Accessed: 28th October 2016].

[3] Cancer Research UK. 2014. Let’s beat cancer sooner – Cancer Research UK. Available at: [Accessed: 28th October 2016].

[4] The Lancet Oncology. 2016. ‘Perceptions of cancer in society must change’. The Lancet. Vol.17. No.3. March 2016. [online]. Available at: [Accessed: 28th October 2016].

[5] Kimmings, B. 2016. Overshare / Catch Up. [blog]. Available at: [Accessed: 28th October 2016].

[6] The National Theatre. 2016. A Pacifists Guide to the War on Cancer. [online]. Available at: [Accessed: 28th October 2016].

[7] Ibid.

[8] Sontag, S. 1978. Illness as Metaphor. [online]. Available at: p.g.3. [Accessed: 28th October 2016]. p.g.3.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ehrenreich, B. 2010. ‘Smile! You’ve got cancer.’ The Guardian. [online]. Available at: [Accessed: 28th October 2016].

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.