The Poltergeist – Southwark Playhouse

Written by  Philip Ridley

Directed by  Wiebke Green

Rating: 5 out of 5.

The level of dedication and pressure placed onto a “child prodigy” is a notoriously gruesome affair. And all too often this expectation snaps, and we find those of immeasurable talent searching out humble jobs with “normal” lives. Sasha is one such star who has dipped. From a young age, his was path set,; Sasha’s first installation planned for 15, already stamped him as an emerging artist. Following an undisclosed incident, Sasha’s life as an artist ends, finding himself working in stationers in a small flat with his boyfriend.

It’s easy to understand the bitterness, but snippets of an event, which crashed his life expectations onto a different path, are alluded to in conversations, but are never fully divulged. Philip Ridley’s script allows enough audience imagination to stitch together an idea, even one they can sympathise with, as Sasha and his ever-patient boyfriend endure the last thing we ever want. A family barbeque.

Ridley captures the intensity and flippant emotions found at a family gathering, to the extent that you’ll find yourself opening a bottle in solidarity with Sasha. It’s a compelling script, which finds roots in an authentic setting and never strays from a believable path; too easy would it be to lean on the crutch of comedy, and too troublesome to pour lighter fuel onto the turbulent relationships. Wiebke Green’s direction complements Ridley’s script, which is mostly seamless and able to reign in the undoubted bursting energy of actor Joseph Potter. Together, the trio stage Poltergeist as a warning of the toxic nature of sipping poison and awaiting someone else to die. Holding onto things is never the answer, and, often, nefarious secrets have their reasons for remaining in shadows.

The outstanding capabilities of Joseph Potter in commanding, not only a solitary stage but a stage with the distractions of home life is exceptional. There’s an understanding in Potter’s performance, coupled with Green’s direction that, in honesty, Sasha is a bit of an arse. Dismissive, snippy and unable to remember the names of relatives (though this is forgivable), Potter embodies someone vulnerable, with an obvious but icy exterior to combat this.

As the sole performer, Potter has the duty of carrying Ridley’s fast-paced script, and it’s a dangerous one to perform solo. There’re slipups at every corner, multiple characterisations to falter over and even the occasional breakneck back and forth. Potter matches each step splendidly. Despite the premise of a monologue, these ‘dialogue’ sequences build a dimension to the production and expand on the expectations we have for the story.

But perhaps most elegantly, if painful in moments, is how much this production shrieks for a destined physical performance. The world of online theatre has catapulted the medium into the homes and minds of people who would never have considered it viable. And every production, good, bad or terrible, has at one point reached to someone who perhaps thought theatre was exclusive or inaccessible through financial means. The Poltergeist is a triumph online, but one cannot help but know how much more mesmerically captivating this obnoxious aggression and angst would feel in a live theatre. Perhaps that, in essence, is the highest compliment that could be paid to Potter.

Review pulished for The Reviews Hub

My Rembrandt – Review

Directed by Oeke Hoogendijk

2019/ Netherlands/ 97 mins

Rating: 5 out of 5.

The artworld is a savage affair where there are no friends, plenty of enemies and slim pickings with who to trust. In this cultural battleground, there are few artists as sought after, as valued and envied as Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn. The renowned master of the Dutch Golden Age, Rembrandt is resolutely the country’s most prestigious art figure, working across all the principal genres of portrait, landscape and historical or mythical scenes.

So, what happens when a lost piece is discovered? Or when the French and Dutch go head-to-head in a bid to secure a pair of privately owned pieces? Oeke Hoogendijk pries open the dust-laden dens of antiquity as My Rembrandt examines separate but interweaving tales of the painter’s masterpieces and their current resting places.

This multi-stranded narrative has Hoogendijk whisking us across the dreich estate grounds of a Scottish baron, to the prim and pristine luxury of the Champs-Élysées in her determination to fuel a sense of adventure. She knows precisely where to cut the film, where to draw enough intrigue into the opulence and history of each segment, and what to curtail to cause hunger in the audience for a fuller picture. The stories both hinge around a central crux: Dutch art collector Jan Six XI, whose promising discovery of an unknown Rembrandt muddies the dignity of his clients, and Baron Rothschild’s sale of his prize pair of paintings threatens the entente relationship between the Louvre in Paris, and Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum.

Thing is; when capturing art on the screen, shifting its medium from a physical frame to a cinematic one, the art direction must be exceptional, or the experience is fruitless. Thankfully, Gregor Meerman & Sander Snoep capture Hoogendijk’s intentions with their cinematography, homing in on precisely which aspect of the painting is being discussed, dissected, or argued over. The toying with levels, to reinforce the presence of a portrait is a minor work of art in itself, especially when contrasting the shadows of An Old Woman Reading, kept out of reach from thieves, with an ever-present eye on her books.

Boudewijn Koole and Gys Zevernbergen’s editing shapes the documentary to this arcing narrative, a clever touch driving a much richer investment from audiences who may not value art history as much as others. The three-act structure centring around different paintings and their respective owners makes for a sense of motion, instead of a stagnant documentary. The film flows, gradually building on the mystery or the crumbling relationships between buyers and sellers – making for a strikingly opulent experience where the audience creates heroes, villains and old, wise experts.

Eccentric is the kindest way to describe the dragons’ hoarding tactic these elite collector’s exhibit, and Hoogendijk frames these characters magnificently. Whether it be the kind-hearted Baron Eric De Rothschild, a man who reluctantly parts with his iconic Pendant Portraits of Maerten and Oopjen to save his brother from taxes, or Professor Ernst van de Wetering twisting the knife in a ‘fake or fortune’ moment as authenticity is called into question.

Art captures the world’s most gruesome and glorious details, and DogWoof’s latest documentary demonstrates how the often faddy and sombrely viewed world of art can be a source of drama and spectacle. My Rembrandt illustrates the value of one of history’s finest artists, and the endless machinations and cut-throat antics commissioned by those desperate for a piece of the action. Hoogendijk takes no broad strokes in her approach, instead, she strips away the layers of veneer these dealers and collectors exhibit to reveal the ravenous children beneath, and on occasion, the purists who seek to protect these once-in-a-lifetime portraits for generations. 

Review originally published for The Wee Review

Birdsong – Online

Written by Sebastian Faulks

Adapted by  Rachel Wagstaff

Directed by Alistair Whatley & Charlotte Peters

Rating: 5 out of 5.

In the bleakest moments of atrocity, even war, stories of the human ability for kindness, compassion and endurance offer lifelines. 104 years, to the day, since the Battle of the Somme, one of modern Europe’s most horrific events, Rachel Wagstaff’s adaption of Sebastian Faulks 1993 novel Birdsong pays tribute to the tremendous valour and sacrifice of so many while streamlining their theatrical production for a digital medium – hoping to not only maintain the embers of theatre but promote The British Royal Legion and grasp the world’s focus, on the precipice of such inward destruction, that the lesson we seemingly have yet to learn about conflict.

For those lucky enough to catch the 2016, or subsequent 2018 touring production, fond memories will flood back of a dauntingly poignant show, and this returning online version contains enough deviation and difference to feel entirely innovative and individual. Set shortly before, during and after the Battle of the Somme, Faulks’ story revolves around the Tommys, miners who would dig the trenches and attempt to uncover enemy tunnels, focusing particularly on Jack Firebrace, and of his commanding officer Stephen.

Amalgamating the video format into a live performance, Alistair Whatley and Charlotte Peters’ direction refrains from cheap gimmickry, and while other productions find difficulty in modifying their narrative to a digital format, Birdsong excels. The intensity of the close-ups, only achieved with direct video, convey a rich connection with the performers, particularly Tim Treloar’s Firebrace. Fixated, it’s difficult to look away as the black knot in your stomach grows as Treloar’s words enrapture you, gripping the audience. In the silence of your own home, away from the distractions of a theatre, Treloar’s performance breathes humanity into Wagstaff’s words.

And this silence is paramount to the enjoyment of Birdsong – where possible, try to avoid watching this on a tablet or small screen, the editing process and visual quality has been crafted for no different an experience than a feature film. Dynamically staged, with multiple screens and the occasional fourth-wall break, Birdsong adapts to the medium, rather than accepts limitations. Where there is no physical set, it makes do, focusing on background designs, audio tricks and score. A composition played and designed by musical director James Findlay manages to almost evoke an intense response as hearing it in the heart of a theatre.

Additionally, combining elements of theatre and film, Faulks narrates the interceding scenes, offering a transition in place of a theatrical one which would enable time displacement or location changes. Swerving between the trenches, the earth-laden tunnels beneath the German troops or in the bright, fresh lands of provincial France, Tom Kay, Madeleine Knight and Liam McCormack all play their part in engaging with the audience, strengthening the believability of the digital production. Transformation is imperative, and each cast member evolves as the production moves forward. Kay’s status dynamic with Treloar shifts, as too does his emotional chemistry, resulting in powerful moments of silence, as he comes face-to-face with the enemy.

Are there insignificant issues of audio or effect warping? Certainly. Does this cause issue with enjoyment or appreciation? Not in the slightest. The tenacity, ingenuity and momentum propelling this unique performance of Birdsong forward are precisely what theatre thrives on, what empowers its creators and drives the audience to follow the siren calls of our treasured artform. Wagstaff’s adaption of Birdsong seeks to reignite our respect, recover a sense of waning history and demonstrate a significant reminder of the imperative words; “Never Again”.

Review originally published for The Reviews Hub:

Available here to rent from 7pm 1 July until 3 July