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 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.

Review 3.

ImogenTICKETSCAN.jpgImogen or Shakespeare’s Cymbeline at The Globe Theatre

Directed by Matthew Dunster

Main Cast: Maddy Hill, Imogen; Ira Mandela Siobhan, Posthumus; Jonathan McGuinness, Cymbeline; Claire-Louise Cordwell, Queen; Joshua Lacey, Cloten; Matthew Needham, Giacomo; Leila Ayad, Pisania (Pisanio); William Grint, Aviragus (lost son of Cymbeline); Scott Karim, Guiderius (lost son of Cymbeline); Martin Marquez, Belarius.


So I Saw… Imogen

Matthew Dunster’s take on CymbelineImogen – subtitled ‘renamed and reclaimed’ – rethinks the emphasis of Shakespeare’s early-17th century play for a modern (but primarily Millenial) audience. His emphasis is on Imogen’s character and how she attempts to carve out her place in a gang-world that looks like something from a Vice documentary. For the Globe, Dunster’s approach is unflinchingly original and attempts to be mainstream; something that is exemplified by the fact that as I write this I am streaming Imogen’s grime-heavy playlist (available at: via Spotify:

do it for the gang, yeh, do it for the camp […] tracksuit and my sliders, yeh, I’m comfy…’ [1]

As I think of the opening scene of Dunster’s production these lines catch in my mind. The Globe’s 16th century facade is wrapped in a thick slatted plastic sheet, through which figures – clad in black Addidas tracksuits – creep, in formation; pack-like and menacing; making coded hand-gestures and movements. To heavy grime music the group pulses, and mime punches, and as a great metal table is wheeled onto the stage they get to work. imogen-shakespearesglobe-462xKeeping beat with the music they simulate drug preparation – choreographically cutting and scraping this ‘substance’ into jiffy bags. With this, we are immediately submerged in a tough world of gang-warfare on the streets of 2016 London; an interesting modernisation of Shakespeare’s original setting of Cymbeline – another harsh world although of ancient, Celtic Britain, ruled by King Cymbeline and occupied by the Romans. Dunster translates Shakespeare’s presentation of Ancient Britons who are rebelling against Julius Caesar’s imposition into a battle between rival drug-gangs – Cymbeline’s London gang (who wear black) versus the Italian ‘Romans’, headed by ‘Caesar’ (who wear white). It is in this mess that Imogen finds herself trapped.

In this regard another line from a song on the playlist stands out; it could have come from Imogen’s mouth upon her entrance – as it seems an apt expression of our initial impression of her plight:

arrived from my friends in a jiffy…’ [2]

When Imogen appears she is treated like the drugs prepared on the table to be traded. She is bundled onto the table and stripped down to her underwear – later, as she watches Posthumous being sent away she is literally traded along a line of gang-members, being forcibly held and passed from one to the other. For Imogen has contravened her father’s wishes by marrying Posthumous. In Shakespeare’s Cymbeline Posthumous is denied of Imogen because of his low birth (he is a soldier’s son who has been raised at court and taught its manners) and the need for her to produce a fully royal-blooded heir. In Dunster’s Imogen though, the issue with their marriage is not so much about blood and producing legitimate heirs: it’s more about Cymbeline’s maintaining control. Posthumous is presented as a cog in Cymbeline’s drug-gang-game (he is expendable?), whom he cannot afford to have attached to his daughter – he would rather that Imogen marry Cloten, the son of his Queen (Imogen’s stepmother).

Joshua Lacey’s Cloten is absolutely hilarious. His hair is gelled into spikes and bleached; he constantly seems pumped up (on cocaine or teenage testosterone?); unlike all of the other gang members he wears a red football tee and he walks with a gate so it seems that his main pivot point is his penis – giving weight to the gibe directed at him by his ‘Second Lord’:

you are a cock’,

in both senses of the word. Dunster doesn’t shy away from the sort-of teenage sexual humour that can be extracted from the text, and this makes it relatable: as Lacey puts it ‘I knew Clotens at school’ [3]. Yet this also calls to mind more serious issues outside of the imogen-shakespearesglobe-723play. Most particularly when Cloten attempts to court Imogen by waiting outside of her bedchamber to wake her with music. Playing the music (loud, electronic) and snorting coke off of his hand he struts around outside her room and says (accompanied with gross, lewd gestures),

tune: if you can penetrate her with your

fingering, so; we’ll try with tongue too’.

This frank presentation of gross sexualisation calls to mind the recent findings of the Women and Equalities Committee’s Inquiry into sexual violence in schools – that suggests there is a ‘normalisation’ of sexual harassment and violence in schools, particularly in the form of ‘lad culture’ [4]. As Lacey said, ‘I knew Clotens at school’.

Sex, between Imogen and Posthumous, is also mimed on stage – with the energy of someone making a ‘Grind on Me’ Vine [5]… This, along with the intimate club-style dancing they engage in creates a sense of their being in a highly physical and teenagely-intense relationship. However this makes the trick played on Imogen by Giacomo (he hides in a bag in her bedroom, having made a bet with Posthumous to test Imogen’s fidelity), where he uses the ‘evidence’ of his having knowledge of a mole under her breast imogen-shakespearesglobe-508to prove that he has slept with her (a lie) more believable – if Posthumous and Imogen didn’t have a good knowledge of one another physically then how could this be ‘evidence’ of her infidelity? It also goes some way to make Posthumous seem a little less naive, as playing their relationship as unconsummated means that his blindly agreeing with Giacomo’s claim ‘under her breast […] lies a mole’ makes him seem almost foolish – and not worth Imogen’s affections, in the same way that Cloten (with all his vanity and stupidity) isn’t. In the 18th century, Samuel Johnson famously complained that Cymbeline ‘has many just sentiments, some natural dialogues, and some pleasing scenes, but they are obtained at the expense of much incongruity’ [6], Dunster resolves this a little in his innovations.

However, he equally creates problems. For example by playing down the question of whether ‘blood matters’ the miraculous attraction of Imogen’s brothers to her (having met her when she is on the run – the princes were stolen by Belarius, a banished lord who raised them as his own and in Dunster’s production, on a marijuana plantation) seems a little more than can be explained by the effects of the weed… Dunster has also been criticised for his ‘criminal’ [7] cutting of the text, and re-assigning of lines. But I wonder if, for all of its ‘incongruities’, Cymbeline is perhaps one of the ripest of Shakespeare’s plays to be experimented with – to be ‘renamed and reclaimed’ as Dunster does with Imogen? The play contains elements of tragedy (Imogen’s treatment at the hands of Giacomo), traditional fairy-tale (Imogen’s drinking the sleeping draft given to her by Pisania which she obtained from the Queen – a sort of ‘evil stepmother’), history play (the ancient context), romance (the wager on Imogen’s fidelity) and comedy (the Agatha Christies’ Poirot-style multiple realisations in the closing scene – where Posthumous mistakenly strikes Imogen, who is disguised as a boy – seem intended to be farcical). This heady mix of forms seems to invite creative reimagining in a far more wild way than a more cohesive play might – for example Hamlet. A notion seemingly confirmed by John Tiffany’s choice to backtrack on his decision to open his 2015 production of the play (starring Benedict Cumberbatch) with the famous ‘to be or not to be’ speech, as it incited a heated critical row [8] (frustrating for audience members – like myself – who felt seeing his original intentions would have been interesting).

From the very outset Dunster’s production seems to acknowledge and draw upon this sense of the play’s openness to imaginative re-interpretation and choice of emphasis. The first spoken word is


but this is quickly followed by the stressed correction:

‘no Imogen’

playing on the discrepancy between the manuscript copies of the play’s spelling of Imogen’s name [9]. Dunster’s emphasis is clearly placed on Imogen’s story and on her capacity to overcome the male-dominated world she exists and is entrapped in. Just as he changes the name of the play from Cymbeline to Imogen’s he gives her some of the king’s lines – and some of Posthumous’. The effect is to create a female lead who is strong and achieves poetic justice with her own voice. I went to see the production with some of my friends, and Imogen’s

‘Kneel not to me:

The power that I have on you is to spare you;

The malice toward you to forgive you: live,

And deal with others better’

in the closing scene (directed at Giacomo – whose face is sandwiched between the floor and her foot) enthused us so much – particularly because we thought it unusual to see this sort of thing in Shakespeare – that we all raced to post it in our Facebook group-chat. Only then did we find that the line was originally Posthumous’.


Not knowing this when we left the theatre, we were on a high; the closing dance – where audience participation was encouraged (the groundlings became a sort of rave) – was just such great fun. But it was not just this that excited us; we left having seen some truly interesting and innovative theatre: William Grint’s beautiful signed speeches; Daft Punk’s ‘Get Lucky’ sung by Imogen’s as an anthem of despair that (despite the initial titter) somehow channeled both teenage romance and hardcore Aristotelian tragedy; an epic fight scene employing aerobatics I thought were not possible in the Globe – the list could go on.


More information about the production can be found at:


by Emily Swettenham 

16th October 2016.



[1] Yungen. 2016. I’m Comfy. [lyrics].

[2] Bonkaz. 2015. You Don’t Know. [lyrics].

[3] Lacey, J. 2016. Creating Modern London. . Available at: [Accessed: 16th October 2016]. Lacey, J. 2016. Creating Modern London. . Available at: [Accessed: 16th October 2016].

[4] Women and Equalities Committee. 2016. Sexual Harassment and Violence in Schools: Third Report of Session 2016-17. [online]. Available at: [Accessed: 16th October 2016].

[5] VineTV. 2014. Sexy Grind on Me Vine Compilation – Hot Grind With Me Vines. . Available at: [Accessed: 16th October 2016].

[7] Cavendish, D. 2016. ‘Imogen: EastEnders meets Shakespeare in Matthew Dunster’s Cymbeline criminal reworking’. The Telegraph. [online]. Available at: [Accessed: 16th October 2016].

[8] Grierson, J. 2015. ‘Not to be: Barbican U-turn over Hamlet soliloquy’. The Guardian. Available at: [Accessed: 16th October 2016].

[9] Gisbert, N. 2015. ‘What’s in a Name? Innogen/Imogen in Shakespeare’s Cymbeline’. [online]. Available at: [Accessed: 16th October 2016].

Review 2.


No’s Knife a selection of Samuel Beckett’s Texts for Nothing at The Old Vic

Conceived by Lisa Dwan and co-directed by Joe Murphy

Cast: Lisa Dwan.


SIS: So I Saw… No’s Knife 

In No’s Knife Lisa Dwan performs her own compilation of Beckett’s Texts For Nothing – a selection of fragmentary writings, written in the 1950s as Europe attempted to discover itself post-WW2, that refuse the conventional relationship between reader, narrator and plot. As Eliot Krieger puts it ‘the “I” that speaks throughout the Texts is not a person, but is the text itself’ [1]. Dwan paradoxically embodies this disembodied “I” in wonderful shifts of character, tone and wit. She slips lithely from the voice of a frightened little boy to a grizzled old man (and sometimes old woman); in the same breath she is both honestly emotional and cuttingly sarcastic; she dives into an attitude and accent that is reminiscent of the Godfather, and then swoops into an accentuated high lilt of her native Irish. Her vocal range is simply awesome – and it is this that allows her to embody that disembodied “I” so brilliantly for she is at once, and convincingly, one person and many.


For 70-minutes Dwan’s monologue enlivens bleak and isolating settings, creating an impression of a state between life and death, that is both harrowing and hopeful. Initially we are met by a projection of what looks like a black gaping wound – with wiry, seeping rivulets of blood running out of it – all projected onto a billowing screen. Suddenly, this ‘wound’ opens – revealing that it is in fact a closed eye and the streams of ‘blood’ eyelashes. Then we are shown film of Dwan, suspended in water layered with audio of her laboured breathing – is she drowning? or is this symbolic of amnion? is she about to be born or die? No’s Knife asks these questions right up until Dwan’s final gasp – as she steps out onto a platform amidst the audience, looking upwards, face brightly lit – when the lights cut abruptly, mid-gasp. It’s a double-edged sword of sorts.

This dualistic play is constant. Dwan is dressed in a brown slip, that becomes gradually more grimed and tattered from the waist down. Her legs are blackened and covered in gaping wounds, in contrast to her pale and lively upper half – as she throws her arms out energetically in fits of character. Sometimes she is mobile, as in scenlisa-dwan-in-nos-knife-at-the-old-vic-photo-by-manuel-harlan-3.jpges two and four – where she plays in puddles in a wasteland of rocks and tree stumps. Sometimes she’s immobilised from the waist down, as in scenes one and two – the former sitting in a craggy hole, in what simultaneously resembles the ‘wound’ in the projection and a birds-eye view of wartime trenches; the latter she is suspended in a cage-like seat, hanging in utter darkness, and occasionally being addressed by bureaucratic and impersonal voices:


This, along with Beckett’s wonderfully ambiguous prose, so skilfully and variously conveyed by Dwan, makes No’s Knife difficult not to read politically. As Dwan implores of the seemingly endless darkness she is surrounded by,

‘Where would I go, if I could go, who would I be, if I could be, what would I say, if I had a voice, who says this, saying it’s me? Answer simply, someone answer simply.’ 

as she oscillates between moments of entrapment and movement, Fintan O’Toole’s linking Beckett’s writings to the ‘limbo of refugee camps’ [2] seems apt. But further, the notion of a search for identity – or even needing to have one at all – has a broader resonance with the state of Europe and, on a more personal level with oneself as a European (or not, as the case may be).

It was this perhaps that led to the apparently instinctive minute (although audible) exclamations of assent and occasional chuckles of the audience. Sometimes these all converged, when something of Dwan’s monologue chimed as true for the collective cultural consciousness of the audience, but most often these occurred independently of one another, as each person saw something in the meandering dialogue (or the attitude with which Dwan conveyed it) that was applicable to them personally.

In an interview with the Old Vic Dwan explains her view of Beckett: ‘There’s a great boundary-less quality about Beckett, it’s very democratic in a lot of ways – a lot of people think that Beckett’s for the academics. I think Beckett’s a lot more guttural, a lot more immediate than that’ [3]. The audiences’ reactions seems to confirm that she manages to convey this. However, in the same interview she says that she hopes to prompt people to ‘examine their own wounds’. I can only suggest that she has succeeded in doing this by recounting what chimed instinctively with me:

a story is not compulsory, just a life, that’s the mistake I made, one of the mistakes, to have wanted a story for myself, whereas life alone is enough. I’m making progress…’

I wonder if others went away from No’s Knife similarly armed.


More information about the production can be found at:


by Emily Swettenham

13th October 2016.



[1] Keiger, E. 1977. ‘Samuel Beckett’s Texts For Nothing: Explication and Exposition’. In: MLN, Vol.92. No.5. [online]. Available at: [Accessed: 13th October 2016].

[2] O’Toole, F. In: Taylor, P. 2016. ‘No’s Knife, Old Vic, London review: Lisa Dwan is back with Beckett in another extraordinary tour de force’. The Independent. [online]. Available at: [Accessed: 13th October 2016].

[3] The Old Vic. 2016. NO’S KNIFE | Lisa Dwan interview with Joe Murphy. . Available at: [Accessed: 13th October 2016].