Wednesday, 5 December 2007

Henry V ( The Courtyard Theatre - RSC - Stratford-Upon-Avon November 2007)

Henry V brings to an end, the complete history works of Shakespeare by the RSC, and as with all things Shakespeare, it is full of life and has been interpreted by Michael Boyd with vigour. A story of war and its ruinous damage to those involved fused with humour and of course would be incomplete without the elements of treason, passion and love.

Geoffrey Streatfeild, gives an astounding performance as the young and zealous Henry V, who rallies the English forces as they take on the might of the French army, a rather ambitious decision that turns out in his favour with the minimal loss of his soldiers and they win the battle.

Boyd’s interpretation successfuly fuses the the responsibility o king feels towards his nation with his anger and disappointment at betrayal into a compelling story of war,culminating in a heightened burst of emotional energy when the restless king decides to confront the traitors within his own camp.

This final offering in the history cycle is monumental in style, the physical action on stage which includes the French dukes, a bunch of colourful characters hanging down on a trapeze and movements by Liz Ranken bring an element of entertainment to the whole production as the action unfolds. The English army don’t fail amuse us either with their humorous war antics. An unflinching moment for me was watching Captain Fluellen played by Jonathan Slinger, feed leek to Pistol for his wayward words during battle.

Electrifying performances from members of the cast, with the likes of Fluellen, Nym, Mount Joy, played Chuk Iwuji and Alexia Healy in her role as Lady Catherine, indulge us all the way. Henry V is a thrilling production to watch as it brings finality to the critically acclaimed History Cycle season for the RSC.

Image: RSC
Photographer: Ellie Kurttz

Statement Of Regret (National Theatre - November 2007)

Kwame Kwei-Armah is back with his third play, ‘Statement Of Regret,’ for the National Theatre, after the success of Elmina’s Kitchen and Fix UP. A daring attempt to address the deep seated divisions that exists between Africans and Afro-Caribbeans, and politics becomes the tool of exposing the differences in these communities.

Kwaku Mackenzie is the founder and head of IBPR, a political think thank that raises awareness about issues which affects Africans and Afro-Caribbeans in the UK. However, the death of his father and the guilt he feels over his actions of not being there soon takes their toll on him and he hits the bottle. To make matters worse, his family home is in disarray with the arrival of his illegitimate child, and he has lost the confidence of those who work for him. Kwaku is a self condemned man whose decision making ability has become more impaired since his heavy drinking sessions.

This will prove costly when IBPR, under Kwaku’s direction takes a radical step in complete contradiction to everything it stands for; fighting for the equality of Africans and Afro-Caribbeans, decides to focus on Afro-Caribbeans only. Creating a disunited Black-British community, even the BNP wants him to speak at some of their events. However, the tensions goes beyond politics, they are also personal as the characters are forced to face up to the stark reality of their individual lives and the prejudices they carry within. Hidden away from the surface yet visible for all to see.

The stage is set for questions to be asked about the role of slavery for the frosty relationship that still exists between both communities. An argument based on ‘Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome’, and at the same time seeking to know how far we have come as a community and the amount of healing to be done before we can move on.

Laced with humour, “BPT – Black People’s Time”, and energetic dialogue and an outstanding performance from the cast. Don Warrington is superb in the lead role, as of Kwaku and Chu Omambala is brilliant as Idrissa Adebayo, the Oxbridge educated gay and intelligent research director. Who speaks his mind, ever so eloquently and effusively. Clifford Samuel is the office intern with a PHD, who gladly reminds everyone of his academic achievement.

While it would have been easier to be an outsider looking in on the action, Kwei-Armah's writing resonates with stories and incidents I have heard and witnessed in past times within my community as a person of African descent living in the UK. He has managed to touch a nerve that needs healing from all side.

A visceral piece of writing but losses its way in the second half of this production by giving in to the emotions that run high. Taking focus away from the compelling subject matter it started with. Nonetheless, ‘Statement Of Regret’ is a provocative take on a rather delicate issue which is still a taboo when raised in some quarters of the African and Afro-Caribbean communities.

Image:Keith Pattison

The Investigation (Young Vic - November 2007)

A courtroom, 6 smartly dressed male actors and 1 actress, and the stage is set for a showdown which examines the Holocaust. The only twist to this story is that its all in French, subtitled in English on two huge projectors for the audience and the cast members are Rwandans and so is the director.

Originally written by Peter Weiss, ‘The Investigation’, is one of the most prominent theatre productions to examine Auschwitz for all its horror. Produced by Urwintore, a Rwandan Theatre Company, and adapted and directed, by Dorcy Rugamba, this latest instalment is an introspective look at history’s most recent and atrocious Rwandan genocide.

The actors in their multiple roles as prosecuting lawyers, victims, defence counsel and defendants cross examine each other with each new case, as they seek answers to the actions of various individuals involved in the case. It is an intense and thrilling trail as victim after victim give accounts of their harrowing experiences, what you have is a gripping succession of stories which leaves you swirling with a wave of emotions and questions of how could we let this happen again? This happens to be the theme that resonates throughout this compelling production with its unadulterated exposure of crimes against humanity in words.

Rugamba points out that the aim of this production is not to answer questions but to leave the issue out there for individuals to answer for themselves, “By investigating the Nazi’s crimes, we are prosecuting the crimes of our own time which never succeeded in recovering from Auschwitz crimes.” A point which comes across vividly through the intensity of the play and the few momentary burst of emotions on stage.

The choreographed stage movement represent the beginning of a new case or as a different victim relays their bloody and painful story. Outstanding performances from the ensemble of actors gives a voice to each character the audience is introduced to, giving a multitude of polysemic meanings to each case from different perspectives.

Though the use of French, seems like a language barrier at first for those of us who don’t understand a word of French. However, the intensity that emanates as the characters tell you their story is powerful enough to have you fully absorbed and make you want to know more about what became of these individuals.

‘The Investigation’ is an authentic portrayal about a time in history that should never be forgotten and at all cost, should never happen again.

I think this is well worth seeing because hearing the voices and seeing things from the eyes of individuals who have lived through these heinous acts of our time keeps you grounded.

Image: Marc Brenner

The Brothers Size (Young Vic - November 2007)

It is rare for a new writer to captivate the attention of both critics and audiences alike but Tarell Alvin McCraney has succeeded were others have struggled with his first play.

Set in Deep South of Louisiana, ‘The Brothers Size’ explores the bond of brotherhood, written against the backdrop of life’s daily struggles. Ogun and Oshoosi Size are brothers and have chosen different paths in life. However, the love and family bond they share means one is continuously drawn into the other’s world, unwillingly. Ogun, the law abiding older brother, who owns an auto-repair shop, and Oshoosi, his younger brother, an ex-con who is doing his best to stay on the straight and narrow after his recent release from prison.

Despite Oshoosi’s attempt to do right, the arrival of Elegba, his ex-cell mate soon brings a dramatic twist to their lives and the promise of freedom is once again is threatened and in tatters for the Size brothers. Oshoosi soon learns certain things in life may be free but have a heavy price tag and for him, that could be his freedom.

Directed by Bijan Sheibani, the action of the entire play takes place in a circle mapped out by the actors at the beginning, reminiscent of traditional story telling times in the Yoruba culture and other African cultures; when children sit in a circle around as an elder narrates a story. It is more of an accomplishment for McCraney, using the same story telling techniques to introduce characters and scenes as the action unfolds. McCraney excels in his ability to take on Yoruba mythology, using the names of African gods to tell this tale of two brothers.

Shebani’s interpretation of McCraney’s script successfuly fuses the responsibility Ogun feels towards Oshoosi, and his disappointment and anger at his actions. A compelling story of family history and the dynamic relationship between both brothers, culminating in a heightened burst of emotional energy from Obi Abili as Oshoosi, and Nyasha Hatendi as Ogun.

Energetic stage movements choreographed by Aline David and the continuous music by Manuel Pinheiro, which accompanies the actions on stage combined with electrifying performances of Abili, Nyasha and Martello-White as Elegaba, is both delightful and captivating.

The Brothers Size is an evocative production and McCraney is an exciting new voice to watch out for.

Image: Marc Brenner

Joe Guy (Soho Theatre - November 2007)

Joseph Boateng, better known as Joe Guy, is a young premiership footballer of Ghanaian heritage. He soon finds himself living the life he has always dreamed of; the fame, the money, the notoriety and of course the bling. Gone are the days when he was mocked for his strong Ghanaian accent, ridiculed by the girls and bullied on all sides and the assault goes as far as him being called Kunta Kinte.

Joe is the new kid on the block until he meets Carlton the menace and Rod Campbell, his team mates and the road to self-destruct is set for this promising young talent. Who questions his own identity as he tries to fit in and finds himself lost in the hype of his own ego.

Joe Guy is an explosive and vulgar exposure about the underlining tensions that exists between Africans and Afro-Caribbeans, as it examines the issues of race and identity through a theatrical lens. It also gives a rare glimpse into the life the premiership world for all its eccentricities.

Roy Williams writes with a birds eye view on his chosen theme as he delivers sensational yet punchy and witty dialogue again and again. Abdul Salis is effulgent as Joe Guy and Mo Sesay, once again has not failed to let his brilliance as an actor shine through. Interestingly, there is great rapport between both men in the opening scene which was hilarious and captivating, makes them a dynamic stage duo.

Elufowoju, Jr, succeeds in his ability to take on an immensely sensitive subject matter and marry it to dramatic artistry, bringing life and humour to an issue that is rather swept aside. While the Despite a muffled up dug-out scene where it was rather challenging to hear Mo Sesay clearly, ‘Joe Guy’ is a sharp, energetic, exciting and brilliant production.

Image courtesy of Tiata Fahodzi and Stepehn Cummiskey.

Rough Crossings (Lyric Hammersmith - October 2007)

It is the American Civil War and slaves who were brought over from Africa dessert their masters to join the British army with the promise of their freedom. However, after the war, they find themselves in Nova Scotia, and the promise of freedom, unfulfilled. Feeling betrayed and abandoned, Patrick Robinson is his role as Thomas Peters takes it upon himself to fight for the justice of his people and travels to England to demand justice for the way they have been treated.

Set across three continents and countries, Europe (Great Britain), North America (United States) and Africa (Sierra Leone), Rough Crossings is the compelling true story of freed slaves sent back to Africa in the hope of deciding their own destiny. Based on a book by the same title and written by the historian, Simon Schama, and adapted for stage by Caryl Phillips. Directed by Rupert Goold, Rough Crossings is a play about vision, betrayal, prejudice, courage and fight for freedom at a time when slave trade was the most profitable business.

The tilting stage, which symbolises the sea and journey of the slaves to the different places they find themselves before returning to Africa, gets your attention when you walk into the theatre. The use of old Negro spiritual hymns and songs, adds a depth of humanity to the characters and helps the audience to experience their pain with them. The use of movement, scenic backdrps and video clips to represent the different transitions in the play also serve the thrilling production justice.

The cast delivers a powerful understanding of the story and of their individual characters as well as their ability to take on more than one role. Patrick Robinson (Thomas Peters) gives an outstanding performance as a charismatic character whose voice of opposition cannot be ignored. He is a man who is sure of himself and strength, and though he is seen by the others at some point as being contentious, he believes in his own self-worth. “I’m a man not an object to be cast aside once someone decides he has no use of me” as poignantly put to David George (Peter De Jersey) who serves a priest to the slaves and bring a godly perspective to the story.

While Rough Crossings is enthralling and thought provoking as it explores cultural arguments which are still deeply rooted on both sides of the Atlantic. It is also told from a multi-dimensional point of view; the Americans who lost their slaves and wanted them back, the British crusaders, who fought for the abolition of slavery and the freed slaves themselves. On the other side of the coin, it feels like an ensemble of messy acts joined together by the magnitude of the subject matter known as slave trade. If you are not conversant with the original story, it feels muddled up and takes a while to work out the point you are at with the play.

It certainly could have done with more depth as to what happened to the slaves upon their arrival in their new found African utopia. The audience is rather inundated with a succession of events as John Clarkson (Ed Hughes) tries to restore order and keep two opposing sides at peace. The White settlers who run the Sierra Leone Company and the freed slaves who want more from their home soil and feel the British Government has ignored them and fallen short on promises made. While the sum total of the story culminates in Sierra Leone, it also raises the question of what it means to be free and at liberty. Though this stage production fails to deliver on the same level of narrative vigour with which Schama tells the story in his book. It is still an imaginative and innovative attempt to recreate history on the stage.

Image: Manuel Harlan

An African Theatre Renaissance

Tiata Fahodzi, is celebrating a decade of producing work which explores the richness and heritage of theatre inspired by British-African communities. Aimed at all-inclusive British audience, the company has established itself firmly on the UK theatre landscape by continuously, placing British-Africans at the heart of its productions.

Regarded as the foremost British-African Theatre in the UK, Tiata Fahodzi, translates as ‘‘theatre of the emancipated,’’ and was founded in 1997, by its current artistic director, Femi Elufowoju, Jr, who has been at the helm of the company for the last 10 years. Born in London to Nigerian parents, Elufowoju Jr, originally trained as a solicitor before turning to dramatic arts. He worked as an actor for six years and later trained as a Regional Theatre Young Director in 1996 at Theatre Royal Stratford, before forming the company with the sole aim of addressing the under-representation of African theatre in the UK in the 90s. However, what started off as a small ambition is today, one of the most highly recognised British-African theatre companies in the UK theatre landscape. “I had a small ambition, it wasn’t huge. It was a small ambition to try and redress in my own small way, the perspective of black theatre in Britain as it existed then” says Elufowoju Jr. A perspective he believes to have mainly been that of a huge British-Caribbean viewpoint. “I had the opportunity as a theatre facilitator and storyteller to change that balance in a particular way and that’s why I formed the company” he explains.

Since its early beginnings, the company has staged 14 major productions and its play reading festival, Tiata Delights, which celebrates African playwrights, a platform for their work to be presented to the public for the first time, recently celebrated its third successive year. The company’s last major stage outing was ‘The Estate’ at the Soho Theatre in 2006, which won critical acclaim with critics and audiences alike. Elufowoju, Jr, describes his experience over the last decade as a “Huge learning curve. Running a theatre is like running a crèche; it goes beyond actually producing a play.” It is a responsibility he deems to be one that gives you the remit of carrying out certain roles; from managing personnel, keeping the artistes prepared, happy and valued, to fulfilling certain criteria’s with funding bodies, and of course, producing the work. He believes the latter, is “The most important thing because you want members of the audience to appreciate and connect with the work.”

Known for its instinctive approach and style of examining Black-British culture, its latest production is no different. ‘Joe Guy,’ written by Roy Williams, an award winning playwright and directed by Elufowoju Jr, and is showing at the Soho Theatre later this month. It explores issues of identity and celebrity, and the historical tensions and bitter prejudices, which exist between African and Caribbean communities, where young African descendants distance themselves from a unified Black Britain. On his decision to deal with a controversial subject matter, Elufowoju Jr, says “It’s controversial because people don’t talk about it. It’s sacred and almost a taboo actually” and he sees this production as “a vulgar exposure of the theme.” He hopes both British-Africans and Caribbeans are empowered because it is not meant to criticise anyone, rather, it is “An attack on both races and sensibilities due to the experiences permeating society.”

Tiata Fahodzi’s, alliance with Soho Theatre - regarded as a jewel in the West End for its choice of diverse work goes beyond a joint effort to create work for audiences and make profits. Together, they have collaborated on two productions - ‘The Estate’ and ‘Joe Guy.’ Lisa Goldman, artistic director of Soho Theatre, points out that Soho Theatre, aims to bring a balance to collaborations but admits, “We love the work of Tiata Fahodzi, and Femi’s work is always entertaining and invigorating but his purpose is deeply serious.” While she appreciates the artistic values embedded in Tiata Fahodzi productions, she also believes they are “Exploring vital contemporary themes and deep complex emotions. I think audiences respond to the richness of that experience,” she adds.

While Elufowoju, Jr, admits that the last 10 years of the company’s life has been, “An eclectic variety of exposing one’s self with its fair measure of trail and tribulation, emotions and celebrations.” He would also love to think that their latter years as a company will be euphoric times. Despite the challenges along the way, the company has been able to give back to the community for which it was created to fulfil a role by creating a platform for young British-Africans to maximise their artistic skills. Among those who have benefited from the work of Tiata Fahodzi, are Mo Sesay, Yvonne Dodoo and Nick Oshikalu. They all hold Elufowoju Jr, in high esteem because they get sense of camaraderie each time they work with him. They are in agreement about the prominent role of Tiata Fahodzi, which they believe is “To humanise the British African experience, allowing us to be seen as human beings, who have the same universal aspirations, flaws, goals and dreams as the rest of the British population” explains Sesay. Sesay and Oshikalu worked with Elufowoju Jr, on The Gods Are Not To Blame, its 2005 production at the Arcola theatre and are reunited with him for ‘Joe Guy’. Though Sesay has worked with Elufowoju Jr, on several projects, this is Oshikalu’s third time and on this occasion as an assistant director. “Femi allows me to portray human beings with all their complexities, their failings and successes,” says Sesay. Oshikalu credits the company for doors of opportunities that have been opened to him, “Personally, since working with the company, it has opened up casting opportunities that wouldn’t have come up with other companies and it has helped my personal development as an actor, and given me an amazing opportunity to try my hand at directing.”

While Dodoo, has only worked with Elufowoju Jr, once, in her role as Sola, in The Estate she has also reaped the benefits of being exposed before audiences through theatre and recently landed a role on The Bill for two episodes, to be shown in December. On his ability as a director and contribution to British-African theatre, they are fervent that “Femi is a credit to his contemporaries,” as affirmed by Dodoo.

While Elufowoju Jr, is excited about Joe Guy and anticipates how well it will be received, he is sure the future for the company is bright and he looks forward to Tiata Fahodzi’s eclectic repertoire of work which he believes will continue to enchant their audiences as well as an all inclusive British audience. “We have come a long way from our artistic mission statement, we wanted to say something about redressing” he says. Now we feel that we are at a place where we can leave the really classical indigenous forms of African theatre and now try to embrace theatre forms from both South of the Atlantic, British and Africa.” One of such future productions is its first family Christmas show, planned for 2009 at the Unicorn Theatre.

On his legacy, though he admits there are people he cannot be compared with, like the Oliviers and Branaghs, he simply wants to be remembered as “The man who allowed and found the ability for African theatre to exist within the mainstream British theatre and I want the legacy of Tiata Fahodzi not to die with my departure” he says.

This feature can also be found on the BBC London Website:

Also featured, is an image gallery of Tiata Fahodzi's 10 years in Theatre:

Image: Stephen Cummiskey

New Beginnings

Regarded as Britain’s best-known Black-led theatre company, Talawa Theatre Company is celebrating 21 years on the British theatre landscape with its first full Production in two years - Pure Gold, written by Michael Bhim, an emerging playwright, who is gaining the respect of his contemporaries. Is a renaissance on the horizon for Black-British theatre?

When you first meet Michael Bhim, you get the impression of a quiet and reserved young man. Beneath the exterior of his calm and unruffled personality, he is letting his pen do all the talking that needs to be done as part of a group of young and emerging playwrights in the UK from the Black-British community. At 26 years of age, Bhim’s first full length play, Pure Gold, is currently showing at the Soho Theatre, as a collaborative production of Soho Theatre and Talawa Theatre Company.

Together, Bhim and Talawa are putting Black-British subjects on the UK theatre landscape. Adding to his already budding list of accolades, he was recently nominated for the Meyer Whitworth Award for his short play, Distant Violence, an honour which he say makes “Me feel extremely grateful to the people with tons of experience in this field who have supported me.”

Three years ago, becoming a playwright was a distant thought to Bhim, who dropped out of College but later went back to pursue a (BA) in English and Literature. “It was the last thing I’d ever imagined myself to be. Three years ago, writing was irrelevant in my life, as was theatre” says Bhim. However, the case is now the reverse because Bhim’s second play, which he is currently developing, has also been commissioned by Talawa Theatre Company.

The journey has been a learning curve for Bhim, from the days when he was inspired to write his first play to its first reading at Tiata Delights 2006, a reading festival which celebrates writers of African heritage and organised by Tiata Fahodzi, one of Britain’s foremost British-African theatre companies. Bhim, whose roots stretch to Africa (Zimbabwe) and the Caribbean, and he is quintessentially British, delights in the knowledge that he is an avid observer of his immediate environment. Hence, it is no surprise that Pure Gold, which deals with the themes of fatherhood, poverty and family tensions, and described as a snapshot of Black inner-city life, as a father struggles to provide for his family. Bhim explains he was inspired by “The many people I lived with, in and around inner-city London, watching how our deferred dreams manifested in our daily lives.” He also drew from his personal experiences and family background while writing the script, “Growing up, there was hardly any money, lots of ambitions, good intentions and dreams but no money” he says.

Bhim, credits his life’s experiences as the pool of creative wealth, which has helped him to better understand the importance of character and dialogue in script. “We carry a wealth of cultural history in the way we speak and for me a character is about life’s experience and emotional state” explains Bhim. When he is able to fit these different factors together and imagine what it is like to live a certain way, then he can step into the shoes of the character he wants to create and find the truth.

These are some of the artistic values which were embedded in the script and attracted Pat Cumper, artistic director of Talawa Theatre Company, also an accomplished playwright and one of the UK’s most respected Black writers. “As soon as I read Michael’s play, I knew it was something I wanted to bring to the stage. He writes about the Black British experience in a way that makes it universal and powerful” she explains. The future of the working relationship between Talawa and Bhim was further sealed as Cumper admits being impressed by Bhim’s ability to bring his characters to life. “I was immediately impressed by the complexity of the characters and their relationships, and gave ordinary characters a poetic voice and observed them with great humanity” she says.

As a theatre company, Talawa has taken rest from the public stage in the last two years, gone through a process of re-structuring and is back with its vision of exploring the Black-British experience and finding the voices that tell Black-British stories. It is a period in the company’s history which Cumper believes has allowed them to go back to basics in order to return as, “Re-branded, re-focused and revitalised with a clear mission; to tell Black British stories, nurture the talent to best do so and welcome Black audiences, and audiences for Black work to our productions.”

One way Talawa is developing and nurturing this talent, is through its New Writing programme and has worked with the likes of Derek Walcott and Courttia Newland in times past. The New Writing arm of the company comprises of Talawa Writers Group, Script Development and Script Reading. Bhim has benefited from being a member of Talawa Writers Group, which offers emerging and established playwrights the opportunity to expand on their skills with key industry leaders and present their work in a showcase of play readings. “Sometimes, the best thing you can do for a writer, is to believe in their work and put your money where you mouth is” explains Cumper. This seems to have paid off with Bhim, who credits Cumper for the assistance he received while working with Talawa. “Pat Cumper, the artistic director has been a great pillar of support and encouragement. As a writer herself, she has immense understanding of how to mentor a new writer such as myself” he says.

For Bhim, whose primary aim was “to create a fresh artistic identity for the Black-British image and have people relate to the experience of the overlooked voices in this country.” It looks like his plan has worked with well respected critics like Lyn Gardner of the Guardian newspaper admitting the play has grit to it.

While Cumper and Talawa have plans to keep developing their writers and new writing through stories that reflect Black-British life, she also envisions the future of the company as a bright one with shows across London and the regions Most importantly, she would like “TalawaTheatre Company to have a solid reputation for excellence, and a loyal audience for our work and be a respected part of Britain’s cultural landscape” she explains.

For Bhim, who remembers sitting in Hyde Park not long ago with the script for Pure Gold in his hands after it had been rejected by every theatre but looks back today and is grateful for how uncompromising about what he wrote. It is not strange for every writer to desire their work is produced. As for Bhim, “I no longer worry about the things I can’t control. I’m a writer and I write, that is enough for me.” he says. “If I get the chance to share my thoughts and feelings with the outside world, it is a bonus.”

While recent times has seen a continuous growth in the rise of British Playwrights, from Kwame Kwei-Armah, whose new play, Statement of Regret will be at the National Theatre this November, to Roy Williams, also opening this October with Joe Guy, showing at the Soho Theatre and the added bonus that Pure Gold was a success. It looks like a bright future is indeed in-store for Black-British theatre in the UK.

A version of this feature can also be found at:

Image: Talawa Theatre Company