Countdown to new Who: Doctor Who Series 9

“Time will tell, it always does”

Phew, the Doctor Who rewatch comes to an end with the most recent series, another that I hadn’t seen any of since it originally aired. And again it was one of highs and lows, a frustrating sense of pick and mix that never settles. So from the astonishing bravura of the (practically) solo performance in Heaven Sent to kid-friendly quirks of the sonic sunglasses and guitar playing, Capaldi took us from the sublime to the silly. Fortunately there was more of the former than the latter (although it is interesting that my memory had it the other way round).

Part of it comes down to knowing in advance how the hybrid arc plays out (disappointingly) and a little perspective makes Clara’s departure(s) a little less galling. This way, one can just enjoy the episodes for what they are, free from the weight of the attempted mythologising. The Doctor raging against the futility of war, the wisdom (or otherwise) of forgiveness, the repercussions of diving in to help others without thinking through the consequences…it is often excellent stuff. It’s also nice to see Who employ its first openly transgender actor (Bethany Black) and a deaf actor playing a deaf character (Sophie Stone). Continue reading “Countdown to new Who: Doctor Who Series 9”

Review: The Inn at Lydda, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

“Some things are better left out of the history books”

Have you heard the one where Jesus, the three wise men and Caligula walk into a pub? No? Well it is pretty much the set up for John Wolfson’s curious new play The Inn at Lydda, at least once you’ve thrown John the Baptist and Tiberius Caesar in there as well. An eclectic bit of programming in the candlelit surroundings of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Wolfson has spun his tale from a tidbit in the New Testament Apocrypha and taken it to almost-farcical levels of comedy.

Ailing Roman Emperor Tiberius Caesar has heard of a legendary healer over in Judea and so off he pops to be cured by him, only problem is we’re in the days between the Resurrection and the Ascension. Stopping off at a hostelry in the city of Lydda where this news filters through, their party bumps into Tiberius’ lascivious great-nephew and heir Caligula, plus three weary travellers who have been waiting 33 years to reunite with a man who might just be hiding in a nearby cave. Continue reading “Review: The Inn at Lydda, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse”

Review: P’yongyang, Finborough Theatre

“Those stories…they’re not for us. Why dream about something that can’t be?”

You know how it is, you wait for a play about North Korea and two come along at once. But where Mia Ching’s You For Me For You used an absurdist approach to explore the impact of the Kim regime on individuals (and by extension, whole swathes of its population), In-Sook Chappell uses the frame of a classic thwarted love story, stretching over nearly three decades, to examine what life might be like in the harsh realities of the Communist state in P’yongyang.

When we first meet them, Anna Leong Brophy’s Yeon Eun Mi and Chris Lew Kum Hoi’s Park Chi Soo are schoolmates with a shared passion for cinema and soon enough, each other. They both dream of attending prestigious film classes in the capital P’yongyang but the revelation that Chi Soo’s father was born in the South demarcates him as lower-born in the strict rules of their society and thus their lives are set on radically different paths. Continue reading “Review: P’yongyang, Finborough Theatre”

Review: The World of Extreme Happiness, The Shed

“A boy is a child, a girl is a thing”

Given that around about this time last year, the RSC was copping a lot of flak for casting just three East Asian actors in a production of The Orphan of Zhao, it feels something of a shame that more of a noise isn’t being made about the greater opportunities that this year has seen, in the capital at least. Currently in London, you can see Chimerica and The Fu-Manchu Complex, a second David Henry Hwang production – Golden Child – has just closed after Yellow Face earlier this year and the Hampstead had the evocative #aiww. Along with Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig’s The World of Extreme Happiness now at the National Theatre’s Shed, could this be a sign of the changing tide, of greater visibility in our cultural lives as theatres’ reluctance to programme Eastern influences ebbs away? Who knows, I am far from qualified to tell, but it has made for a fascinating enrichening of my theatregoing this year (and by extension, my short-film viewing).

Cowhig’s play feels like a good companion piece to Lucy Kirkwood’s writing, turning the gaze firmly onto contemporary Chinese society and how it deals with being the fuel for the motor of exceptional economic growth. Its protagonist is Katie Leung’s Sunny, dumped in a bucket of pigswill at birth for not being a boy but surviving and once grown to a young adult, she joins the exodus from the countryside in pursuit of the urban dream. But once she arrives, it is emerges as more of a nightmare and Cowhig pulls no punches as she reveals the seedy underside to this version of capitalism – the sheer exploitation of the rural migrants, the appalling working conditions, the high rate of suicide, the indoctrination of the mantra of self-help that keeps an endless flow of willing bodies knocking at the door. Continue reading “Review: The World of Extreme Happiness, The Shed”

Review: Boris Godunov, Swan Theatre

“Everywhere they curse the name of Boris”

The instinctive reaction when one hears of a production of a lesser-known work by a well-known writer tends to be one of healthy scepticism, as one waits to find out whether there was a good reason for its relative obscurity. But sometimes there are mitigating circumstances and Alexander Pushkin’s 1825 play Boris Godunov – receiving its first ever professional production in English here at the Swan Theatre – sufficiently provoked the ire of the state censors so that it was 30 years after his death before it was first approved and even then, continued political pressure ensured its limited impact.

The uncensored version was finally translated by Adrian Mitchell, premiered at Princeton in 2007 and selected now by Michael Boyd to mark his swansong as AD at the RSC, as part of the ensemble-led globetrotting A World Elsewhere season. And one can see why the Russian authorities wouldn’t have taken too kindly to Pushkin’s satire, indeed still to this day, as wrapped up in the tale of men lying, cheating and murdering their way to become Tsar in the late 1590s is an excoriating indictment of the Russian ruling elite. And what Boyd teases out in this fast-moving version, is that such autocratic leadership is seemingly endemic in this country and so its resonances play out right up to the current day. Continue reading “Review: Boris Godunov, Swan Theatre”