Thursday, 23 January 2020

THEATRE REVIEW: Hiya Anxiety / This Is Not For You - The Lowry Theatre, Salford.

I came this evening to The Lowry to see a double bill, ‘This is not for you (PS. Sorry)’ performed by second year students of Salford University and an anniversary performance of 'Hiya, Anxiety.' Created by Debs Gatenby, co-directed by Ashley Knowles & Mark Whitelaw.

With the first show being a cast of young students I had the intention of being as kind as possible, but their manners during the second show were atrocious. There was talking, mobiles audibly going off with notification sounds throughout the auditorium and mobiles being used to type messages and pass along the row to friends next to them. One of the performers sat directly in front of me and was one of the worst culprits, talking to several people down the row from her and using her mobile. I find it so ironic that the last show I saw was 'The Empathy Experiment' a show about the anxiety we feel without our devices and tonight this cast of students were unable to appreciate another performer's show about her anxiety, straight after their own show about anxiety!

‘This is not for you (PS. Sorry)’ had a large cast on stage throughout, dressed in oversized white shirts, black trousers, and decorated with barcode motifs. They appeared to be students waiting for another to arrive, the latecomer arrives and dives into a cupboard whilst gasping for breathe. It then comes to light they are trapped in the space, a book appears, instructing them to share parts of themselves.

So begins many sequences, with the students coming forward and sharing intimate and traumatic moments with the audience. A majority of the voices were clear and travelled well. The group came together in physical movement pieces to represent dream like scenes such as the ocean and a castle, these were enjoyable as the large cast had good awareness of one another, moved together nicely and balanced spaces well.

I heard from one of the performers after the show that the stories were all true, I hope not, as an actor myself I come from schooling that using imagined circumstances is a way for an actor to keep themselves psychologically safe. If they were sharing real traumatic events I would worry about the young performers being overly exposed and becoming triggered again. It reminds of the quote from Sir Laurence Olivier 'try acting.'

The second show, 'Hiya Anxiety' by Debs Gatenby was an intimate sharing of her story of the relationship with her mentally suffering mother and how she was coping with her own struggles.

It started with Gatenby lying on the floor with a police tape outline of her body, a triangle was also taped onto the floor to represent the different statuses one can find themselves in during an argument. Whilst lying on the floor Gatenby had a desperate imagined phone call with her mother, the audience immediately laughed and warmed to her. After standing and addressing the audience Gatenby explained she had been a comedian and sharing her struggles had developed into this show.

There were many laughs throughout the show and moments when Gatenby sharing upsetting memories had an effect on her audience, that even made the students put their mobiles down for a few seconds. Gatenby is very brave to tell such a revealing history of her life and relationship with her mother, but the show failed to stir much empathy with me. The theatre conditions were cramped, not pleasant and surrounded by distracted students, Gatenby's ability to talk constantly was a measured endurance test and she herself admitted to being lost in the story at one point and going back to something she had missed.

The story is a poignant one with so many issues not being discussed openly enough by those in society going through them. Maybe due to the conditions I was surrounded by I was too distracted to appreciate the piece and at another time could have admired such a display of emotion and honesty more.

Reviewer - Kerry Ely
on - 22/1/20

FILM REVIEW: From The Sea To The Land Beyond - HOME, Manchester.

‘From The Sea To The Land Beyond’ (Dir: Woodcock, P. 2012) is the fourth film in HOME’s ‘In Her View: Women Documentary Filmmakers’ season and is the only one to feature an Anglo-centric subject matter. Using over a century’s worth of archival material, Penny Woodcock’s ode to our relationship with Britain’s coastline promises a nostalgic, celluloid postcard.

I was drawn to this film by HOME’s blurb in the listings, which emphasised the original score by British Sea Power and the use of archival material, so rightly assumed that it would be a collage of images aimed at evoking dewy-eyed sentiment for bygone times. As the documentary begins it is abundantly clear that director Woodcock is entrenched in the poetic mode; eschewing captions, voiceover or any other heavy-handed framing devices. The audience are to assume era, location, even thematic focus entirely on their own and it is not always an easy task. The opening footage transports us across waves, to a shoreline and finally to grainy, primitive black and white footage of Britain at the turn of the 20th century as the brooding adagio piano notes of British Sea Power’s score give way to an uplifting brass section. It is an uneasy opening five minutes, as the film struggles to find it’s feet with footage that is obviously limited in quality and the first three tracks from the soundtrack resembling an album playlist, rather than a bespoke score. It is jarring, but the film soon settles and the score really comes into its own.

With her film, Woodcock and her editor Alex Fry opt for chronology as their structural cue, which in hindsight is a real misstep. As the montage of images transports us through the first world war, the thirties, the second world war and beyond, the snapshots of life, industry, geology and history pass by without offering the viewer any significant theme or tone to get a true foothold on. We see bathers, ships’ crewmen (& crewwomen), shipbuilders, fishmongers and all walks of life intrinsically linked to the coastline, but all too often the juxtaposition between footage offers contrast, rather than comparison, so any feeling that the film is perhaps discussing industry is subverted by bathers, no wait… now it’s a TV broadcast, oh no… it’s shopping, before we’re back to bathers… and now transport… oh look, a seagull! (You get the idea)

It is only when watching the film that it becomes so apparent what one wanted from it in the first place. It never moves the viewer in a nostalgic sense, it finds no sense of space, the viewer is never immersed and it finds little by the way of humour or pathos because the filmmakers seem so hell-bent on barrelling through the decades. The British Isles has about 15 000 miles of coastline and 75 minutes of breathlessly touring them allows very little opportunity to truly explore them. The aesthetic quality of the footage is also not noteworthy enough to feel that this was perhaps the focus of Woodcock & Fry as they cut the film.

Overall I was never bored or disengaged by ‘From The Sea To The Land Beyond’; the footage is engaging and British Sea Power’s original score is consistently powerful (to the point where it occurred to me that the film would be better functioning as a back projection to a live performance by the band). I wanted so much to find ideas, moods or messages to cling to as I watched, but ultimately the footage works merely as a rather mild curio than a poetic insight into Britain’s coastline. It is an unfocussed, missed opportunity, but a worthy effort that admittedly held my attention throughout.

HOME’s ‘In Her View: Women Documentary Filmmakers’ season continues throughout January.

Reviewer - Ben Hassouna-Smith
on - 22/1/20

OPERA REVIEW: Madama Butterfly - The Palace Theatre, Manchester.

Madama Butterfly is a far superior opera to La Boheme (offered in tandem as they tour the UK). Both written by Giacomo Puccini and both fall very much into the classifcation of  Late Romantic Grand Opera, and yet the differences between the operas are quite astounding.

Madama Butterfly (or Madam Butterfly as it always was in my younger days.. not sure when or why the extra 'a' was added) was written a few years after La Boheme and was premiered in Italy, at La Scala, Milan in 1904. Puccini still uses the same two librettists for this opera, Giuseppe Giacoso and Luigi Illica, so their source material must have been much stronger and more powerful. In this instance, a play by David Bedasco; a short story by John Luther Long; and a novel by Pierre Loti. Both operas deal with a central female protagonist, and yet in La Boheme, the focus of the production is split between Mimi but focuses a lot too around the males, whilst in Madama Butterfly, the men hardly ever get a look in, and the role of Butterfly herself is a real tour-de-force as she is hardly ever off stage and hardly ever stops singing! Moreover Puccini wrote this as a two-act opera (quite innovative for the time!), and a single set.

This heartwrenching and emotive story has much to offer and for those of you more familiar with Musicals as opposed to opera, then the basic storyline of Miss Saigon is based on this opera. With La Boheme, Puccini went back in time to set the opera in the 1830s, but here, he was absolutely contemporary, as the opera takes place in 1904, and we are at a small villa on a hillside outside Nagasaki, Japan. [the stage was beautifully appointed and looked very authentic, although sadly the programme doesn't credit anyone with the set design] A young girl (15 years old in the libretto) is to marry an American Navy lieuteneant, Pinkerton, and the marriage and he are all that she desires. Despite being warned against such a union, knowing Americans to be fickle and never come back once wed, the marriage nevertheless takes place. Three years pass, and in that time Lt. Pinkerton has not returned, and Butterfly is eagerly awaiting the day he does, for she knows he will. In Japanese law, an absent husband indicates grounds for divorce and as such Butterfly is offered the hand in marriage of a lasicvious old nobleman who offers her wealth and a position in society. She rufuses because she is holding a secret that she has told only her maid, Suzuki, so far. Namely that she has a three-year old child by him, and that he must return to see his son.  However, when he does return to Japan, it is not to visit Buterfly, and sends his friend and countryman Sharpless, the US consul to tell her that he is now married to an Anerican lady and will have nothing more to do with her. This is opera, and so, you know it's all going to end badly, and as the final curtain falls, Butterfly kills herself leaving the son to be hopefully brought up by Pinkerton and his new wife in America.

Puccini's score is much more dramatic and he writes with a maturity and a sensitivity that he had been developing since his La Boheme score. Sometimes, the opera is split into 3 acts, or as it was this evening, giving the second act two distinct scenes. However, this is, for me, the only flaw in the writing of the score. The so-called 'Humming Chorus' is a delightful and truly beautiful piece of composing and is scored for offstage female choir and orchestra, and used as the closing of the first scene of the second act, whilst the second scene opens with an entr'acte and again, nothing happens on stage. If the second act is to be played as one, then it would be far preferable for the entr'acte to be cut completely and simply get on with the storytelling. The length of time spent simply listening to the music at this point with nothing happening on stage is boring.

With more drama and more emotion to sink their teeth into, the cast responded superbly, and the quality of the acting was much more sincere and across-the-board than it was with La Boheme. Iurie Gisca still impressed greatly as the US consul, Sharpless. Not only does he have a powewrful and sonorous baritone voice, but his acting is always on point too, and here he gave a very sympathetic and human portrayal. Once again bass Vadim Chernihovskyi impressed with his cameo of The Bonze (an ordained Buddhist monk) and uncle to Cio-Cio San (Madam Butterfly's Japanese name). Elena Dee's Butterfly was lyrical and emotional, and with such a considerable role it must take its toll. However, there was only one (extremely brief) sign of that happening this evening, and as it is live performance, that is entirely and aboslutely forgiveable. Her interpretation was a little OTT for me though. Perhaps she was directed this way, but her constant arm movements and stauesque styled poses seemed false and at times were too much, distracting a little from the reality and the tragedy.  Georgio Meladze, last seen by this reviewer as Radames in Aida, brought much to his role as a somewhat cold and calculating lover Lt Pinkerton, even eliciting boos at his curtain call like a panto villain! For me though, the most believable and fully-rounded characterisation, as well as a wonderfully melifluous voice, came from Myroslava Shvakh-Pekar as Butterfly's maid, Suzuki.

As always with Ellen Kent productions, involving the local community is important, and the role of the 3 year-old son this evening was played by Xin En Liang, a member of Stagecoach Theatre Arts Salford and Didsbury.

Directed and produced by Ellen Kent herself, this was a faithful and traditional, but also visually beautiful production, which had my companion and I teary-eyed at the end. Fantastic singing, impressive acting, colouful and quasi-authentic costumes and set, and The Orchestra of The Ukrainian National Opera in the pit under the baton of their director Nicolae Dohotaru. What more could you possibly wish for?!

Reviewer - Matthew Dougall
on - 22/1/20