Forget Me Not – Royal Lyceum Theatre

Piano & Conduction by Barrie Kosky

Performed by Komische Oper Berlin 

When it comes to Yiddish culture, it’s true what they say – they made Hollywood. They built Broadway. There is not a composer or lyricist creating today in Western culture who was not, indirectly or otherwise, influenced in some way by Yiddish musicians, singers and composers. A team of three from the Komische Oper Berlin bring the reverence of their entire orchestra to Scotland to pay tribute to Yiddish language and the creators before them.

For a mere 4,000 years, Jewish culture has stood as the oldest monotheistic religion. With this, the Yiddish language is around 1000 years old, though speakers are now significantly lower due to the events of the Second World War. But Forget Me Not – sung in Yiddish with English subtitles – is not about sympathy, nor tear-shedding. Featuring the works of genre-defining composers Abraham EllsteinJoseph Rumshinsky and the lyricist Molly Picon, it is a celebration of the language from Warsaw, to Broadway, and then back again.

Pianist Barrie Kosky kicks off the show with a tone which pervades the evening. His approach generates a familial atmosphere; this is just one extensive gathering of your relatives, friends, and those uncles you never liked. It’s warming, his humour effortless, and the decision to avoid scripted junctions between songs brings a natural rapport with the audience.

Performing arias and occasionally sharing the stage are Alma Sadé and Komische legend Helene Schneiderman. Though both primarily sopranos, Schneiderman teeters into the edges of mezzo-soprano when the occasion calls. Vocally exceptional, the way they perform stands them apart from their peers. Together they take us back to the misery and sarcasm of Yiddish Operetta, spanning film and stage productions from the 1880s to the 1930s.

Scriptures, poems and songs bare the scars of history. Imploring us to keep our mindsets away from 1933, encouragement is still needed to liberate the forgotten music of the Holocaust. Abraham Goldfaden’s Rozhinkes mit mandl’n, or Raisins & Almonds, is a lullaby mothers, sisters and friends would sing to the children in the concentration camps. To describe the beauty this number summons, primarily through the soprano tones of Sadé and Schneiderman, feels inherently wrong, yet this haunting, instilling performance is breathtaking in its gravitas.

It isn’t all tears, however, as a goal of changing the mindset over Jewish history is up for discussion. The Holocaust, always to hold as an example of how far from the path humanity can stray, does not define a people. With this, an appropriate amount of melodramatic comedy is thrust into the audience, swaying the emotional pendulum in the opposite direction. It’s all or nothing this evening. Schneiderman lifts any doldrum slithering into the mindset of the audience from the poignant pieces mentioned. Her louder than life attitude, unequivocally controlling her vocals, reminds us of the celebration aspect in the evening, bringing Yiddish culture to life on stage.

Opera has a grand image of bold, belting numbers. Forget Me Not is of a different calibre, balancing prestige and a sense of humour. Sadé and Schneiderman’s ability to carry the vocals without resulting in bombastic shrieks is testament to their marvellous skill.

Review originally published for Wee Review: https://theweereview.com/review/forget-me-not/

Barber Shop Chronicles – The Royal Lyceum

Writer: Inua Ellams

Director: Bijan Sheibani

We incessantly talk to three people; the barman, perhaps a priest, but always your barber. From the outset, there’s catalytic energy bouncing around, flinging us from Africa to the barbers of Catford, Lewisham or Brixton in a showcase of sensational world-building. Poetic in construct, Inua Ellams’ Barber Shop Chronicles is the height of sublime subtlety, relying on bold, poignant honesty, rather than false-bound spectacle or hollow pathos.

Storytelling through a diverse culture, these barbers are the councillors for generations, providing more than styles and smiles. A chronicle of various encounters, there’s a connection between these men – stretching beyond familial. Yes, cousins may depart, brothers return, but across the globe, they share the same stories; life, death, women, racism and grow from one another, learn from their elders in a way we recognise, but may not have experienced.

Respect for elders laces throughout, with the fleeting moments of aggression resulting from this disrespect or personal grief. This leads to bickers, altercations and a resulting strain between Samuel (Mohammed Mansaray) and Emmanuel (Anthony Ofoegbu), one of three men to originally open the South London barbers. Ofoegbu has a subdued role, impacting with his infectious smiles, language and relationship with the others. With his father in prison, Samuel takes on the family role, but with resentment towards Emmanuel, blaming his cowardice. It’s a change, as culture alters for black men, where some fathers will no longer talk with their fists, but father-figures, and indeed mothers, will listen.

Ramshackle, yet alluring, Rae Smith’s decision to incorporate signs we see in our peripherals, but never pay much attention too, framing them around the set creates a story-narrative to a culture many Lyceum watchers will be unfamiliar with. An intense centrepiece, a globe, sculpted from trash metals, hangs above as we transition from the UK and back. Such stagecraft is known, that as the choreography begins, as the set shifts, you’re left utterly mesmerised, with a determinable instinct to soak it all in.

Despite the pretence, this is anything but a simple piece on masculinity, or indeed it’s toxic form. This is a delicate, dissection of masculinity, but not the focus. The expectations, from cultural to age-related, even to the altering idolisation of Mugabe, Malcolm or Luthor, touching on the masculine ‘norms’ of black youths growing up in South London. Seldom does a production capture it’s culture this firmly yet openly reveals itself – welcoming anyone. There is little anger, but where it flares, like Tom Moutchi’s volleys of vindication, it doesn’t tarnish the production, merely re-affirming its attitude towards life.

Upon entering the theatre, one has expectations to sit, enjoy, perhaps experience an eye-opening commentary, or even a hint of social satire which they will quickly forget. Barber Shop Chronicles obliges all of this and plenty of rhythm. A lyrical weave allows these men to blend cultural dance with modern movement, struck to the beats of Pidgin, Chadic and a variety of dialects. Entirely, the cast is fluid, emitting a slickness as they sway, with Demmy Ladipo’s comedic flailing and Elmi Rashid Elmi’s tight pops stand out.

This is accessible theatre, Ellams’ writing may focus on the culture of black men, particularly those councillors offering a close shave, but in truth, it couldn’t care less who you are. It wants to speak to you, to encourage movement and song with a magnificent sound score. It desires us to open dialogue with one another. Barber Shop Chronicles injects the Autumn streets of Edinburgh with a much needed thrust of blood, bold passion and representation.

Barber Shop Chronicles runs at The Lyceum Theatre until November 9th: https://lyceum.org.uk/whats-on/production/barber-shop-chronicles

Photo Credit – Marc Brenner

Solaris – The Lyceum, Edinburgh

Written by David Greig

Adapted from Stanislaw Lem’s novel

Directed by Matthew Lutton

Runs at The Royal Lyceum Theatre until October 5th

A living planet. Capable of rational thought, movement and decision. Universal discovery of a lifetime – or idealist lie to further one’s understanding of the unknown? David Greig’s Solaris adapts itself from the original 1968 novel by Stanislaw Lem, also borrowing, but standing apart from the 1972 cinematic masterpiece from Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky. 

Examining the response to extraterrestrial life, a reflective piece on human isolation, David Greig’s (thankfully) gender-balanced cast stands aboard a spacecraft orbiting the titular Solaris. A planet of an endless ocean – yet there’s more. Solaris, perhaps unkindly, offers the crew gifts. Tokens at first, which distort themselves into something all too familiar. Recognisable phantoms sooner best forgotten, past loves and children. As the natures of scientific rigour fight against human desire, the crew find themselves sharing emotional vulnerability.

There isn’t a single scene which does not deserve to be captured, framed and proudly put on display. Hyemi Shin’s design captivates our attention from the opening. Furthering a cinematic motif, the tri-colour palette ebbs and hues across the distinctly clinical aesthetic. Monumentally triumphant, stage management must pride themselves in the seamless workings of Solaris. Capitalising on the cinematic ‘cuts’ over a traditional black-out, the pace of transition is impressive – holding off a tiring of the effect. 

This tantalising setting, through Matthew Lutton’s direction, divides itself through a richly rewarding make-up of staging and cinematic projection. With fewer gimmickry intentions than one may principally suspect, it’s in truth minimal in reliance on effects which do not overshadow stellar performances.

Chiefly that of Polly Frame, taking the role of psychologist Kris Kelvin. Her presence is accessible, easing audience preconceptions as they wrap their heads around the jargonish plot threads. Indeed, both Fode Simbo and Jade Ogugua’s doctors Snow and Sartorius bring different elements of morality to the concepts of ‘othering’ the vistor. Genuine, welcoming and offering levity – Simbo acts against the deteriorating sanity of Frame, maintaining a distinct element of that most dangerous trait: curiosity.

Gracing us through the medium of VHS is Hugo Weaving, who matches expectations – excelling those of a pre-recorded segment. His presence isn’t leant upon, his scenes an enhancing addition of flavourful exposition, without the reliance of heavy description.

Space encompasses the inevitability of isolation, the avoidance of one’s self-realisation, is futile. Greig takes a bold move in what he shapes from the original novel, honing the defiance in being alone, as the planet manifesting itself in human form. Psychologist Kris rips herself between the realms of human connection and scientific standards, drawn to the personification of her loneliness in Ray (Keegan Joyce). An energetic, attractive man from her past, a ghost of regret. In chasing this idealistic fantasy, Kris traps herself further in an addictive pursuit of false satisfaction.

Horror lurks principally in a tranquil yet unnerving underlying score, composed by sound designer Jethro Woodward. Straying from this psychological terror, a fear persists of allowing an excessive negative air to hang over Solaris. Humour is punchy, often natural, but permeates frequently, exceeding dread.

An infusion of stage and screen, David Greig champions sci-fi in a manner theatre rarely carries off. As alien as the narrative may reside, it couldn’t be further from human in construct. With a distinct beauty in design, both aural and visual, Solaris is a pinnacle of theatrical science fiction, and while it shy’s from the genre’s depths of horror, it redeems itself with a prevalent atmosphere.

Tickets available from The Lyceum: https://lyceum.org.uk/whats-on/production/solaris

Production Photography: Mihaela Bodlovic