The Kite Runner

April 10, 2018

Written by Memoonah Hussain

“THERE IS A WAY TO BE GOOD AGAIN”

Redemption lies at the heart of this devastating tale of friendship. This unforgettable award-winning adaption of Khaled Hosseini’s best-selling novel The Kite Runner is now on its third tour.

Having missed the opportunity to watch The Kite Runner back in 2014 (courtesy of my AS English teacher) and hearing how amazing the production was from my friends, I knew I had to see it this time round. Having intensively studied Khaled Hossein’s The Kite Runner for two years and having watched the film, I was intrigued to see how Matthew Spangler adapted the novel, especially key storylines and sensitive scenes, for the theatre.

The Kite Runner navigates through religious tension, racism, deformities, war, and terrorism to tell the “haunting tale of friendship” and family. The story follows Amir who grew up in Kabul with his best friend and servant Hassan before becoming a refugee in the Unites States. Pivotal in the narrative are the themes of guilt and redemption which have drastic consequences in shaping the lives of each character as that “frigid overcast day… changed everything. And made me what I am today”.

Before attending the play, I didn’t research the adaption because I wanted to see for myself how Spangler’s realisation of the novel would be visually adapted for this setting. I came in expecting two actors to be cast as Amir- a young child to play Amir as a boy in Kabul and an older actor to play the present Amir. However, Spangler’s decision to have just the grown-up Amir narrating his story and weaving in between past and present alongside Raj Ghatak’s ability to immerse himself in childlike sensibilities before returning to his adult self, beautifully demonstrated visually how integral the winter of 1975 was in defining him and how it continues to haunt him today.

Although Ghatak played the protagonist, stealing the show was Jo Ben Ayed. Playing the ever-loyal Hassan, his characterisation of Hassan through mannerisms heavily contributed to the emotion rife amongst the audience. Ayed’s faced was lit with genuine childlike wonder as he grasped after each word uttered by Amir which when paired with intricacies such as the way he squinted, hunched his shoulders, held his kameez, and spoke, bought to life Hassan’s submission to Amir.

The complexities and layers of Afghan and American culture were always going to be difficult to transcribe into a theatre setting so director Giles Croft’s minimalist set design consisting primarily of two large canvas kites was used brilliantly for scene transitions by projecting media onto them. By crafting the stage in this way, Croft was also able to utilise the kites to serve as a constant visual reminder of Amir’s betrayal and the link between Amir, Hassan, kites, and family by using the canvas kites to shield the audience from the rape scene. Evoking unease and nausea, the audience too are haunted by the betrayal just like Amir is. Croft returns to the kites behind which Hassan was raped to project the murders of Hassan and his wife which beautifully reinforce the themes of betrayal, redemption, and family.

Music was paramount in creating the atmosphere of the play given the simplistic set design. Before the play began, authentic Afghan music welcomed us into the theatre as we were greeted by Hanif Khan playing the tabla. Transporting us to Kabul, this perfectly set the scene given the simple set. The tabla alongside Tibetan singing bowls and schwirrbogen were used by Khan and the cast to evoke emotion and create the atmosphere during critical moments for Amir. Large wooden rattles were also used to create the sound of the wind blowing and the kites soaring. By using rattles of different sizes, spinning at different speeds, and using canon, Croft skilfully built the momentum and tension during critical moments during the play as the wind became more urgent, louder, and wild.

What I found surprising was the depiction of the antagonist Assef. Although Soroosh Lavasani expressed Assef’s psychotic persona, in the novel, Assef is half-German half-Afghani with blond hair and blue eyes. He is also an avid fan of Adolf Hitler and gave Amir a biography of Hitler as a birthday present whereas in the play there was no mention of his bloodline, Hitler, and a football was the present given to Amir. I am aware that Spangler consulted with Hosseini regarding his adaptation and perhaps this was discussed, but I do find this omission disappointing. With the rise of the Alt-right, these themes are significant today and by failing to include far right extremism but still mentioning Communist USSR and Islamic Terrorism, this does seem akin to the failure of the Western world to align such ideologies as being on par with Russian and Islamic terrorists.

I really loved this adaption, but it has left me torn. As soon as I heard Ghatak speak the words I had committed to memory: “I became what I am today at the age of twelve…”: I knew that the script had been lifted straight from the book. When films are not made exactly as the book is written, many, like myself, find it frustrating. But this time I was slightly frustrated that the play was word-for-word the majority of the book. Although, Spangler’s adaption is true to Hosseini’s tale, by using the book as the script, the play has omitted some key aspects. Of course, he couldn’t have included certain details such as Hassan’s cleft lip, but I do feel that there were certain things he should not have omitted but had to because by sticking to the wording in the novel, he could not condense scenes to include others. For example, in the book, there is an embedded storyline where Amir stays at Farid’s house after returning to Kabul in search of Sohrab. Amir thinks that Farid’s children are staring at his wrist because they want his watch, so he gives it to them. What they were actually staring at was the food in his hands because there was no food for them. After realising this, Amir plants money under a bed just like he had done twenty-six ago in an attempt to oust Hassan from his life. With “a way to be good again” central to this story, the failure in incorporating this circularity means that Amir’s redemption is not fully realised.

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DanceXchange, Mark Bruce Company-Macbeth

April 9, 2018

Written by Memoonah Hussain

 

DanceXchange Present Macbeth? More like WalkXchange confuse Macbeth?

Upon hearing DanceXchange Present Macbeth, I was consumed with fascination about how dance would be used to convey such as a dark and tragic Shakespearian story. My introduction to dance conveying stories stemmed from watching Matthew Bourne’s Edwards Scissorhands. I had never watched anything of this kind before but the power and beauty of dance in portraying and conveying the emotions and story still strikes me three years on. The clean lines, perfect time, costumes, facial expression, dance moves, music, props, just everything was magnificent and heart-stopping.

So, I obviously had very high expectations for Mark Bruce’s portrayal of Macbeth which sold itself as a dance theatre production that realises “a beautifully harrowing vision of an internal wasteland formed from a pursuit of power through ruthless means”. But boy was this far from the truth. It was more like a ‘restricted, weird, ugly, unharrowing eyesore of an external wasteland formed by a limited number of dance moves’. Bruce actively disagreed with me when I asked him why the number of dance moves was limited but if you repeat around ten dance moves in every dance, as far as I am aware, that entails a limited number of dance moves.

The dance organisation calls itself ‘DanceXchange’ but ‘WalkXchange’ would be much better suited. More than three quarters of the entire ‘dance’ was spent walking. When the crown was placed on Macbeth’s head, the routine was walked. When the two guards outside of the King’s bedroom were drugged, that was walked. When Lady Macbeth considering killing the King after drugging the guards, it was walked. I had the opportunity to ask Bruce why he chose not to have his dancers dance in these moments as they had such great potential to be portrayed through dance. He replied saying that he wanted to be economical in how much dance he used. He said that many performances overuse dance and overperform, so he wanted to be more sparing in his use of dance. However, on one hand you have Emirates’ economy class which includes somewhat spacious seats, access to movies and TV and food and on the other you have EasyJet which provides you with nothing other than cramped seats. This production was much more EasyJet than Emirates. I have no problem with being economical but there is something called being too economical and spending much of the time walking around the stage when you’re called ‘DanceXchange’ certainly calls Bruce’s concept of being economical into question.

 

 

In terms of the actual choreography and dancing itself, it was very disappointing. During the first ‘fight’ scene, the men were leaping and twirling around. It looked more like a child pretending to be a fairy then a sword fight. We were also treated to a dance number with the three witches who, like all of the female dancers, wore very tight skirts that drastically limited the range of movement in their legs. I was reminded of a school dance showcase rather than a professional dance because of the timing issues. I feel that the tight skirts may have contributed to this as the majority of the hand and arm lines were clean.

There were also random dances between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth which contained the same leaps and twirls as the fight scene. My assumption was that these dances were supposed to be sensual but what with these two main characters spending a lot of time staring down the audience, it was more weird than sensual. There were also a number of scenes without context. For example, there is a scene of Macbeth dancing while there are people dining behind him and there were intense crescendos of a violin. No reason was given for as to why this was including. It did not add to the story, it merely made it much more confusing.

 

For some, the outfit choices may have seemed brave for modern clothing was used, but they left me feeling confused. The men were dressed in what seemed like very poor-quality suits while the three witches weren’t even dressed as witched. They had tight fake leather skirts, chockers, and leather buckled ankle boots. Coupled with an inadequate attempt at anti-dancing, the witches looked like three drunk girls on a night out at a club.

The performance did contain the cliché blood, thunder claps and lightning, and screams. During the second half, there is another repetitive weird dance between Macbeth and his wife. During the dance, Macbeth leaves before returning with blood covering his hands and he is holding knives. Having studied Macbeth previously, it made sense to assume he killed the King but as it wasn’t shown, those unfamiliar with the play wouldn’t have known. Lady Macbeth soon leaves before returning with blood on her hands. This occurs to the backdrop of some very weird music. It may have been Bruce’s attempt to show the characters “goaded by the whispers of demons” but it was strikingly similar to the eerie Church music in The Da Vinci Code but by layering weird sounds like those of a groan tube, consequently it make the whole affair even weirder. Bruce did say that he the music was used to show redemption, but I do believe he said that because he was feed that when questioned by an audience member.

Again, due to Bruce’s wish to be economical, there was no dancing to show the anguish and horror at the King’s murder. The scene purely consisted of the Queen screaming, the other performers walking up to the King or to the other side of the stage before Macbeth walks up to the two guards drugged by Lady Macbeth and brutally stabs them. Amazingly, Bruce inserts a dance to a scene of his own creation immediately after Queen places flowers by her dead husband. The Queen walks forward with her out to the sides and her arms drooping down, perhaps in attempt to mimic the image of Jesus on the cross. She then dances to the creepy Church music. Again, there is more staring at the audience as her facial expression is devoid of any emotion. Given the lacklustre dancing and her emotionless face, the dancer looked like a rag doll which a child is manipulating to make her dance.

The group dances again utilised the same dance moves and if you weren’t already bored, you were definitely by the penultimate group dance. The first group dance of each series of ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ has more oomph, passion, emotion, and skill than what I saw (or didn’t see) in this production.

This production contained even more bizarre things such as tattoos, creepy silver babies, Pennywise masks, and a rotting baby bought out by a woman covering in filth and grey. Not only was Lady Macbeth’s demise orchestrated poorly through tattoos shown on her body, her scratching the blood of her hands before a split-second dance choreography before she resorts to search for God knows what on the stage, shake, cry, streaking blood down her face and smearing it across her lips. She then dances to some jolly music where it is not the dance which portrays her demise but her facial expression of psychoticness before a man joins her who is revealed to be Macbeth after he removes his mask. Lady Macbeth then dies but the reason behind that is not terribly clear for although she does begin to strangle herself, Macbeth quickly removes her hand from her neck, but she still dies.

Regarding Macbeth’s death, the Queen stabs him twice with a spear before the rest of the cast join in, they too using spears. There were no entry or exit wounds nor is any of Macbeth’s blood split. The stage does dark, there is an extended pause as the audience is unsure as to whether this disaster has finished before eventually applauding the fact they have survived this train wreck.

Why this production was performed at The Hippodrome, I have no clue. By associating it with the prestige of The Hippodrome, you would expect it to be at an elite standard, not mediocre. Yes, there were some beautifully orchestrated moments where, for example, Lady Macbeth stroked the crown of the Queen before her face, but the overall performance detracts from these intricate moments. You should be able to understand what happens in the performance without knowing anything about it. Those who were not well-versed on Macbeth would have absolutely no idea what was going on. Had Matthew Bourne headed this production, it would have been breathtakingly phenomenal, and I really hope he decides to showcase Macbeth in dance to show us how it really should be done.

Nina, Birmingham REP

March 9, 2018

Written by Susannah Shepherd

 

In three words, I would describe Nina as passionate, stirring and insightful.

Nina is a one woman show performed by Josette Bushell-Mingo about her own life and the career of Nina Simone which touches on the civil rights movement and Black Lives Matter. Despite the implications of the title, the show is as much about the woman onstage as it is about Nina Simone, if not more so, as well as things larger than either one. Bushell-Mingo showcased her huge personality, passion and boundless energy throughout the show, as well as her beautiful voice. The first half of the one act show took the form of an extended monologue, peppered with songs and accompanied with images from the civil rights movement as well as Black Live Matter. The second half took the form of a Nina Simone concert, with Bushell-Mingo introducing herself as the understudy. In the second half, Bushell-Mingo’s vocal talent is immense, and her performance was utterly captivating. However, it was not her singing voice that drew my attention, but rather her voice in a different sense – that of an activist and a passionate black woman – which she used fully during the first half.

She began by singing ‘Revolution’ by Nina Simone, but before the song was over the show took a sombre turn, as she claimed there had been no revolution, referencing the many black men and women killed throughout the 20th and 21st century. She also touched on forgiveness and religion, speaking about her mother’s death in a particularly moving section of the show. A darker turn was to come however, with Bushell-Mingo playing out a hypothetical situation in which shoots every white member of the audience, which included her imagining her family pleading with her to stop.

One-woman-shows automatically put me on edge, as they can be stirring, provocative and imaginative, but they can easily be cringe-worthy and over-dramatic. I was surprised and thrilled that Nina was an outstanding example of the former.

Puccini’s La Boheme

March 3, 2018

Written by Chiara Longmore

On the 26th February LANS students went to the Midlands Art Centre to see a cinema screening of Franco Zeffirelli’s production of Puccini’s La Boheme. La Boheme tells the romantic story between a vulnerable seamstress Mimi, played by Sonya Yoncheva, and a romantic poet Rudolpho, played by Michael Fabiano, set in poverty-stricken bohemian Paris. The story is simple, yet powerful, as the doomed romance between the two lovers is played out in 4 Acts.

The first Act begins with a comical exchange between Rudolpho and his best friend Marcello, played by Lucas Meachem, as they joke about the poverty they inhabit. Rudolpho comments on how he is poor yet happy in life and Fabiano delivers this beautifully with his strong tenor voice. This is a theme throughout the opera where characters continuously try to make the best of their situations through humour and friendship. Meachem has a deep, rich voice which throughout the performance captivated audiences. His character Marcello is witty and feisty, and a clever contrast to that of Rudolpho who is more sincere and idealistic about life and love. The two men are joined by their friends Schaunard and Colline and the jovial display of friendship and camaraderie set in a decrepit attic makes this scene even more impactful as it shows that happiness can be made even when living in abject poverty.

The men leave to go to the Latin quarter, but Rudolpho stays behind. This is where he first meets Mimi who comes to ask him to light her candle. The famous arias that follow are Che gelida manina’ (‘Your tiny hand is frozen’) and ‘Sì, mi chiamano Mimì’ (‘Yes, they call me Mimi’) and both beautifully outline how both Rudolpho and Mimi are happy in their humble jobs and lives. Fabiano and Yoncheva delivered these arias beautifully and faultlessly, and this was concluded with the duet ‘O soave fanciulla’ (‘O lovely maid in the moonlight’). What struck me in this scene was the power both singers demonstrated in their voices without the tone being compromised, and this helped to make the scene particularly moving for the audience as the instant love both characters felt for each other was beautifully translated through their voices.

The second Act is set in the Latin quarter and it was interesting that between Acts we were able to see the scene changes behind the curtain. The set design for the second Act was incredibly impressive, filled with great amounts of detail that perfectly imitated the backstreets of bohemian Paris. This scene included many more performers on stage and chorus songs which was very enjoyable to watch, and in this scene we are also first introduced to Musetta, played by Susannah Philips, who is Marcello’s love interest. Philips has a strong voice and she brilliantly portrayed her character Musetta as a feisty and sensual tease who drives Marcello crazy, and the exchanges between Musetta and Marcello bring a comical element to the opera.

The love between Marcello and Musetta is a great contrast to that of Mimi and Rudolpho, and this is cleverly portrayed by Puccini in Act 3. Marcello is outwardly cynical about love, although it is clear that he is infatuated with Musetta, and their constant bickering is a great juxtaposition against the idealistic love between Rudolpho and Mimi. We soon find out, however, that this love is tragically doomed in Act 3 due to Mimi’s illness which we find out is terminal, and Rudolpho and Mimi have a heart wrenching moment where they agree to not be together anymore as neither can bare the pain of Mimi’s illness and potential tragedy it will bring.

The opera reaches its narrative climax in Act 4 when Musetta brings a dying Mimi to Rudolpho’s apartment and in this scene, we see the true nature and kindness of the characters emerge as they do everything they can to help save her. Musetta, who we often saw as being materialistic and selfish, sells her jewellery to buy Mimi a muff for her cold hands and Marcello comments how kind and selfless Musetta is. We see the love between Musetta and Marcello rekindle in this scene as they are tragically brought together over the lost love between Mimi and Rudolpho as Mimi dies in his arms. In this scene there is also Colline’s famous bass aria ‘Vecchia zimarra senti’, known as the coat aria, which is a shy yet powerful tribute to Mimi as Colline talks about pawning his old coat to buy medicine for Mimi, literally selling the clothes on his back to help a friend.

Although the opera has a tragic ending, the last scene demonstrates the kindness and selflessness of characters who, although impoverished, give the little they have in order to try and save Mimi. This is an emotive conclusion to Puccini’s La Boheme which, although has a relatively simple storyline, is filled with beautiful music and powerful themes such as love, kindness and grief.

 

Matthew Bourne’s Cinderella

February 13, 2018

Written by Abi Pilkington

 As the war sirens engulf the room with the clever use of surround sound, it is clear that this version of Cinderella is not the fairy-tale we are all accustomed to. Matthew Bourne’s interpretation of this classic as a World War II love story works surprisingly well. Bourne stays true to many elements of the fairy-tale, such as the poor treatment of Cinderella by her evil stepmother and sisters, the lavish ball and of course, the lost shoe; however, he adds and alters so much more.

 Bourne taints the elements of the story that are usually depicted as pure and good, dimming them somewhat with darkness. For example, the Prince is an injured RAF pilot, seemingly traumatised from the war, the fairy god-mother figure is an ambiguous phantom-like character who seems to have both good and evil qualities, and the notorious ball is set in the Café de Paris- a venue that hosted and still hosts a range of performers, but during the Second World War was bombed causing a number of fatalities. This intriguing mix of good and evil is a fitting reflection of the war. The prince-like character as an RAF pilot highlights the glorification of fighting for your country. Yet, this status came with a price- leaving many survivors traumatised, shell-shocked and injured. Still, this glorification is present throughout the entire performance, including the other male characters dressed in uniform, as all the women in the piece clearly want their attention. However, this idealistic image of a war hero is shattered when you consider the brutal and murderous nature of war. This conflict in honouring the men who went to war and showing the reality of it is depicted in Wilfred Owen’s poetry. Although Owen was a soldier in the First World War, the messages he conveys are still extremely relevant, particularly the preface we wrote to his poetry anthology:

‘This book is not about heroes. English poetry is not yet fit to speak of them.

Nor is it about deeds, or lands, nor anything about glory, honour, might, majesty, dominion, or power, except War.

Above all I am not concerned with Poetry.

My subject is War, and the pity of War.’

Furthermore, this dark undertone is evident in the costumes they use. Every costume we see is a shade of grey- even the extravagant ball gowns- depicting the bleak reality of the war that is constantly hanging over each character’s head. The evil stepmother, however, is very clearly always seen in black. This immediately reflects her dark qualities and makes her stand out from the others, often helping her to steal the attention of the scene as her character so clearly loved to do. In addition to this, the fairy godmother and Cinderella both wear white costumes- the fairy-godmother throughout, and Cinderella at the ball. This may be to show the ‘good’ characters, however, the fairy godmother seems both good and evil, particularly when playing the doctor character, or when hovering over the ball seemingly causing the explosion. Therefore, the white may instead be used to show what is supernatural, perhaps Cinderella never did attend the ball or really have a fairy godmother.

This dark and grey aesthetic is also reflected in the well-thought-out stage design. However, moments of intense colour such as the hellish bombed scene that act II began with, stood out against the mundane costumes and background colours. The set transported the audience to so many realistic and magical places. The London underground stood out for me as it captured exactly what it feels like. The surround sound of a tube arriving successfully added to this. The lighting and music also aided the overall atmosphere of the performance. Moments of intense colour from the lights depicted the time of day, the weather and much more, whilst the music added to the suspense of each scene.

Furthermore, it seems Bourne was inspired by the music for Cinderella, as the time period in which Sergei Prokofiev was writing it was during World War II, hence the setting of this ballet. The anxiety of this time period is mimicked in both the tense, dramatic music that leaves the audience in constant suspense, and the constant threat of a bomb, foreshadowed by the sirens and films they play throughout on ‘how to be safe’ in the event of an air raid. When eventually an explosion does go off it separates the two lovers, a twist that allows the story to be grounded in reality, instead of the spell wearing off at midnight like in the original. However, when the fairy-godmother character then comes on and seemingly reverses time and allows Cinderella to attend the ball, the story becomes increasingly more magical and supernatural, especially when Cinderella eventually arrives in her spectacular dress.

Although the ball that follows in one of impressive dancing and vibrant set design, it seems to go on for slightly too long and confuses the storyline when Cinderella seems to leave the prince before going back to him. Despite this, there were moments that were flawlessly executed. For example, when one-by-one the males attending the ball all began to dance with Cinderella, forming an almost ‘conga line’ sequence. The canon and different levels used in this section of the dance looked beautiful on stage and framed Cinderella’s transformation into a blonde ball-gowned beauty perfectly.

However, the scene that followed was by far my favourite:

We are met by the prince walking on stage where Cinderella sleeps in a bed. They are both in their 1940’s style underwear which immediately creates a vulnerability to the scene. As Cinderella wakes up the lighting starts to brighten slightly to a beautiful orange colour, creating the feel of a sunrise, or perhaps a fiery reflection of London burning outside. Cinderella and the prince then begin to perform a stunningly intimate dance, full of lifts and other dynamic movements that capture all the magic and romance that is expected in a performance of this classic fairy-tale.

Overall Bourne’s stylistic interpretation of Cinderella was something completely unexpected. Although moments of it left me confused and questioning certain plot holes, I thoroughly enjoyed watching this stunning piece of art take over the hippodrome stage.

An evening of Music and Dance

One Friday evening in January (19th, to be more specific), a group of LANS students went to see ‘An Evening of Music and Dance‘ with the Birmingham Royal Ballet and Royal Ballet Sinfonia. This one-off concert consisted of an alternating mixture of classical music and dance excerts performed in the beautiful symphony hall, with introductions by the director of the Birmingham Royal Ballet, David Bintley. The pieces were generally light-hearted and joyful, and we all left with smiles on our faces.

Evening dance 2The six dances showcased an impressive range of style and skill from the performers. The show opened with the Act III pas-de-deux from The Sleeping Beauty, a classical piece requiring a perfectly executed balance of strength and grace. This was contrasted with others, such as the far more contemporary After the Rain: pas-de-deux and the comedic La Fille mal Gardée clog dance, an entertaining fusion of ballet and tap performed in (you guessed it) clogs. My personal favourite was the finale: pas-de-deux and solos from Don Quixote. It was a fiery and exciting dance with many leaps and jumps culminating in a series of seemingly never-ending spins from the ballerina.

The music performed came from a variety of sources, including dance (The Miller’s Dance and Final Dance from The Three Cornered Hat), opera (prelude to Hansel and Gretal) and film (The Adventures of Robin Hood: suite). Beyond being able to say the pieces were performed very well, I do not know enough about music to be able to comment on them, so I turned to my more musically talented friends for advice (shout out to Alice Sharp and Joanna Stell)! They commented on the excellent Cor Anglais solo, as well as on the overall high-quality performance and well-chosen, entertaining pieces. They also liked how the music of Spartacus had repeated themes that changed subtly to reflect the emotions of the characters in the dance, with a more innocent variation for Spartacus’ wife that switched to a note of apprehension when he considered the war.

Evening dance 3, Giselle-Iain-Mackay-as-Albrecht-photo-Bill-Cooper-681x1024This concert was also of significance as it was the second to last performance of principal dancer Iain Mackay, who has been with the Birmingham Royal Ballet for 19 years. He and his partner, Jenna Roberts, danced After the Rain and Spartacus: adagio of Spartacus and Phrygia. According to the Birmingham Royal Ballet’s website “Iain created the role of the Prince in David Bintley’s Cinderella which premiered in 2010 and was broadcast on BBC Two to millions of viewers on Christmas Day that same year. He is also known for his outstanding performances as Romeo in Romeo and Juliet, the Third Seminarian in Carmina Burana and most recently for creating Prospero in David Bintley’s 2016 production of The Tempest.”1 He took his bow here to a standing ovation and huge round of applause.

1 https://www.brb.org.uk/press/birmingham-royal-ballet-principal-dancer-iain-mackay-to-leave-the-company-after-18-years

Contributed by Eleanor Teather, LANS year 1

Arsehammers – a monologue by Claire Dowie

An early January event – going to Crescent Theatre, that company of amateur theatre, run by volunteers but feeling quite professional, to see a production of two of Claire Dowie’s famouos monologues, staged by an incredible youth theatre company, Stage 2, founded in 1988 by Liz Light.

Clare Dowie Arsehammers

You walk in … and are overwhelmed by a sense of nostalgia; you see a group of kids playing a distoreted version of snakes and ladders with a die half their size and a splatter of childish glee across their faces. The audience is seated all around the room, as if encasing the children, centre-stage. The lights are bright and colorful, cheerful, much like the kids’ demeanour. They’re all dressed in overly bright shades of red, blue, and yellow; radiant and whimsical.

Stage 2, pic2The repetitive counting as they move their allotted steps adds a sort of ominous feel to the setting, as if this childish whimsy won’t last. The lights eventually dim, and there’s silence; darkness.

The kids appear centre-stage, spot-lit, each with a toy-like prop and an exaggerated excited grin; they’re all engaged in play, happily oblivious, until they start speaking. They talk of a grandma gone to live with the angels, of a granddad who’s alone and might come to live with them. There’s excitement and wonder about them, but also sadness; as each kid speaks a bit of the narrative, they sit down, as if resigned, and continue to play with their props in a more subdued manner.

The lights dim once more and explode into sudden brightness, mayhem, and laughter. There’s sudden, projectile noise: protests to being fed false stories about angels and death. The monologue evolves into vivid dark imagery and angry tones, talking of death and claiming to be more mature. The music and the lights seem to follow the tune of the monologue, rising in pitch and brightness, until it reaches a crescendo and then falls, the lights slowly dimming and the excitement dwindling, as if the children were crashing after a sugar high.

Silence and darkness descend once more, and then they’re spot-lit; four of them are centre-stage with the rest lined at the back, each holding fast onto their toys. It’s a slow progression from then, they all slowly move to the centre, forming a V-shaped gathering; they talk in slow, eerily synchronized tones, of how granddad had gone out and not come back, of how the parents had been worried and out searching, leaving the kids at home, upset, confused, and angry. The dialogue is simple, but packed with emotional reverence, it leaves you feeling sympathetic, and oddly apologetic, longing to reach out and hug the hurting children.

Stage 2, pic1The tone shifts once more, the performers easily breaking into five groups, all engaged in excited play. It’s reminiscent of the fickle nature of childish thought and fixation, how easily they can go from angry and reserved to excited and animated.

The music, having picked up once more as the kids began to play, eventually fades, and they’re all still, as if in a game of dancing freeze, but they break away slowly, exaggeratedly, moving around the room with grand gestures and overly enunciated talk of the war. In a brilliant display of production, the childish speculation and mayhem about granddad’s exciting adventures to weird and wonderful lands is juxtaposed by loud short bursts of music, as if telling of war times, but subtly; hinting at the real reason for granddad’s spontaneous disappearances, as opposed to the gleeful speculation of super powers.

They envisioned a dance they imagined he would always do before venturing out on one of his adventures, a silly little thing with an equally silly chant, but one they tried to copy one too many times, only to burst into giggles or disappointed sighs, wishing and hoping they would once more go back to playing hide and seek with granddad, instead of him always hiding away, leaving them alone, with a little sister too immature to entertain and a mother too frustrated to fully connect with.

The atmosphere slowly shifts again, its more solemn, more tense; granddad’s not with them, or so the parents say, but he seems perfectly alright, seated on his armchair with his binoculars slung around his neck, only he doesn’t talk or play, just stares ahead into a void, scaring and worrying the kids. They all pile into a car shortly after, being told by mum and dad they’re visiting granddad’s new home. It’s not quite clear why he couldn’t just stay with them, but they weren’t sure they wanted him around either, not if he wouldn’t play with them, so the journey was spent in confused sulking.

Stage 2, pic3

The desolate mood dissipated once they arrived at granddad’s new home; it had nurses and doctors in fancy clothes, and many other grandmas and granddads. They asked a reception lady that smelled a tad funny about this new place they’d be running up and down and all around in, and she told them granddad would be working with experts, lighting a new fire in their little tummies. He would be working with experts, with cool gadgets and machines, and saving the world all the other grandparents. The kids were beyond happy, even proud.

Only, mum was crying in the car on the way back, and they had to pretend not to notice because dad was driving on as if he didn’t notice, but it became harder and harder to ignore her tears and her sniffles the louder they got and the longer they continued. You could never contain curiosity for long, and so they asked, and mum told them granddad would not be coming back, that he was very sick, and they had to leave him there.

Alzheimer’s! The word resonated with the kids, because they’d been chanting ‘Arsehammers’ to themselves for a while, believing it to be granddad’s secret trick for traveling, but no, he was only sick. The mood dims and dulls further, as does the light, to show the dawning night. It was hard to fall asleep that night because it was hard to not think of granddad and all they’d believed so far, but eventually sleep came.

So did granddad, jolting them awake with a loud bang and a crash, as he performed the silly dance, loudly exclaimed ‘arsehammers’ and vanished. The next morning was frightful and full of tears as mum told the kids granddad was dead, but their little hearts held onto the fantasy – he was only at home with grandma and the angels – as they silently played with their toys; a sharp contrast to the cheery attitude at the start.

Contributed by Arooba Shami, Year 1 LANS

pictures by E.C. Toescu