This telling pairing of plays connects oppression and prejudice in 21st-century Syria and pre-war Germany
Henry Naylor writes theatre that makes you sit up and listen. He needs you to engage with the terrors and injustices of the Syrian conflict now; he wants you to share his indignation at historic wrongs and persecution in Nazi Germany. But equally he knows that to hammer home his message, he’d best not hammer you over the head with it. That’s where his glorious gift for humour comes in. Naylor has an impressive comedy pedigree as a lead script writer on Spitting Image and contributor to radio comedy greats, including Dead Ringers, and there were years of successful stand-up too.
Borders, in which he pairs his story of a celebrity photo journalist, who made his name ‘shooting’ Bin Laden, and a courageous female Syrian graffiti artist who chooses to have no name, is an inspired idea and not just because of their contrasting lives and fates. It succeeds also because Naylor knows instinctively that giving the audience liberty to laugh, by turns with star photo journo Sebastian Nightingale for his wry self-deprecating sense of humour, and at him for his increasing posturing before his public, makes us all the more receptive to the plight of ‘Nameless’. Not that she is in any way a figure of pity. She is spiky and self aware, as well as extraordinarily resourceful and courageous.
Graham O’Mara created the role of Nightingale, while Deniz Arixenas is new to the role of Nameless. Both actors are spot on in realising Naylor’s vivid characters and in delivering his beautifully wrought monologues, which require his cast to take on the personae of friends and enemies, family and colleagues, within these narratives spoken directly to the audience rather than to each other. There is no credit for designer, simply for Vasilis Apostotatos’s atmospheric lighting that points up the performers, who inhabit the space with only a stool each, as they share the narratives that inexorably and shockingly come together at the play’s climax.
Naylor uses a similar strategy that’s equally as successful in Games. The games in question are the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Here his protagonists are Helen Mayer – outstanding fencer and, with long blonde plaits coiled around her face, a poster girl for German youth and athleticism – and seemingly superhuman high jumper Gretel Bergmann, who broke every international record for decades. The only problem for Hitler was that both sporting stars were Jewish, so for the Nazis it was essential that they should be discredited, excluded, humiliated and worse. How the two women defied the Nazis and fought back, in Mayer’s case also despite overwhelming personal tragedy (she received a cable with news of her boyfriend’s death in a military training accident as she was about to compete in the 1932 Los Angeles summer Olympics) is Naylor’s gripping matter.
Again there is no set and director Louise Skaaning’s production relies entirely on the pitch-perfect performances by the pair delivering Naylor’s equally pitch-perfect script. Although these are mainly monologues, Naylor does imagine the pair meeting at intervals during the time span covered by the play (in reality they never met); and actors and writer make every meeting count.
Sophie Shad cuts a defiant, determined figure as Mayer, lithe and fast in her fencing gear and armed with the vital prop of a fencing foil, which she gives every indication of being able to use.
Tessie Orange-Turner makes an equally impressive Bergman, powerful and athletic in her shorts and singlet and admirable in her self-assured defiance. As she explains, she is a mixed-race performer playing a Jew to bring the narratives of prejudice together. Mayer was famously called to account for using the Nazi salute on the podium, but it is made clear here that this is part of the cruelty she suffered, as members of her family were trapped in Germany and suffering persecution at the time.
Naylor uses the idea of the metal visage, the mask of mesh resembling a fly’s compound eye to top and tail the play and there is a real feeling of the courageous journey the two women make against all the odds. He writes especially well for his female characters, both here and in Borders, and the two plays work together as a fine double bill; Borders chiming with Games in examining the predicament of women fighting back against persecution and prejudice. This pairing brilliantly illuminates a warning from history against 21st century prejudice and exclusion.
Discover the established and emerging Israeli stars at this year’s festival
Have you ever considered Israeli contributions to culture? Sure, there are highly respected authors, great violinists, a burgeoning film industry and even success in Eurovision. But jazz? You’ll be surprised by how big the waves Israelis are making on the worldwide jazz stage.
The critics’ poll in August’s Downbeat magazine – the American bible of jazz – was liberally peppered with Israeli musicians. And the line-up for this month’s EFG London Jazz Festival (16–25 Nov) includes five established and rising stars in the genre from the Jewish state. What’s more, their national and ethnic backgrounds often inform their music.
Take the biggest star from the eastern shore of the Mediterranean, bassist Avishai Cohen (pictured above), who has deftly folded Middle Eastern and Sephardi elements into compositions and solos; singing in Ladino, Hebrew and English. Fellow Israeli Shai Maestro (piano) and American drummer Mark Guiliana round out the Cohen trio, who’ll be performing at the Barbican (24 Nov).
Other artists on the festival bill have their own takes on bringing influences from home into the classic US musical form. As much a veteran on the jazz scene as Cohen is bassist Omer Avital. Proud of his Moroccan and Yemeni roots, Avital did the arranging for Ravid Kahalani’s world-music hit album, Yemen Blues, playing bass and oud throughout.
At the festival, Avital will be leading Qantar (18 Nov), an all-Israeli quintet who are also all residents of Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy neighbourhood.
Itamar Borochov was also part of that Yemen Blues unit and played on their second album, Insaniya. The Brooklyn-based trumpeter grew up in Jaffa on a diet of Arabic and Bukharan music, which he integrates into his work, along with pan-African influences, and combines these into a lyrical whole. His quartet will be taking to the Pizza Express bandstand in Holborn (20 Nov).
London resident Liran Donin is another Israeli bassist who has succeeded in the West playing American music. He has been a prized sideman, working in rhythm sections for groups as different as Mercury Prize nominee Led Bib and the backing band for rock singer Chrissie Hynde. He recently made the move to work on his own creative projects, releasing a first album with his quintet, 1000 Boats. Donin and his crew will sail into the Queen Elizabeth Hall at the Southbank Centre (22 Nov)..
A purer approach is offered by guitarist Ofer Landsberg, who last appeared at the London Jazz Festival in 2016, playing with the Mark Kavuma Quartet. This year he’s leading a quartet in paying tribute to bebop pioneers Charlie Parker and Bud Powell. Landsberg studied under the great pianist Barry Harris in New York, where he’d arrived from Israel at the age of 17.
Landsberg lists Parker, Powell and Art Tatum among his greatest influences, and you can hear their impact in his quick, thrilling solos through the classic repertoire. Catch him at a matinee at Toulouse Latrec in Kennington (24 Nov). If you miss him there, he’ll be playing again, once the festival has wrapped, at Ronnie Scott’s (28 Nov).
Jamie Lloyd’s commitment to completism continues to pay off
Season supremo Jamie Lloyd has an extraordinarily clear vision of how to weave Harold Pinter’s playlets together. Plus his cast of starry names work with total commitment and teamwork as an ensemble.
Pinter Three is a combination of short sharp sketches framed by two longer pieces, making for a satisfying evening that further illuminates Pinter’s work. Here, in particular, on relationships and how each man – and woman – can indeed be an island, separated by a sea of misunderstanding.
On Soutra Gilmour’s revolving set of varied rooms, illuminated by Jon Clark’s moody lighting, the cast move between sketches and characters to the almost sinister atmospheric soundscape composed by Ben and Max Ringham.
Tamsin Greig’s brace of stunning, brave and detailed performances in the longest and most substantial of these ‘shorts’ bookends Pinter Three. The audience enters to find Greig’s Beth marooned motionless on a chair. In Landscape she speaks into a microphone that gives an enigmatic quality to her soft Irish lilt, recalling a romantic idyll on a beach when she asked her man if he wanted a baby. By contrast, Keith Allen’s rather more prosaic Duff, who might or might not be that same partner, lives in the present, where avoiding dog shit is a preoccupation. You wonder if they can actually hear each other. It’s Pinter’s little joke perhaps to call them Beth and Duff, dropping the Mac.
Lee Evans is a revelation. Rising to the discipline of a script and a director, he is perfectly cast in Monologue, as a man in frank, bleak conversation with a chair, which he seems to be casting as a friend he’s fallen out with: “I’ll be frank, act as if you’re dead, as if the Balls Pond Road and the lovely ebony lady never existed.”
Evans proves he can share a stage to great comic effect in the daft sketch Trouble in the Works, in which he and Tom Edden revel in bouncing off each other like a pair of latterday I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue Panellists. “I hate to say it, but they’ve gone very vicious about the high-speed taper shank spiral flute reamers,” says Tom Edden’s Wills. “The high-speed taper shank spiral flute reamers!” exclaims Lee Evans’ Fibbs, aghast. “But that’s absolutely ridiculous! What could they possibly have against the high-speed taper shank spiral flute reamers?”
The pair are just as comically droll at the bar (pub not courtroom) in That’s Your Trouble, a right couple of dorks in Fair Isle singlets. Edden and Evans could be the start of a double act to succeed Morecambe and Wise (you heard it here first).
Meera Syal brings a special warmth to the stage, particularly partnered by Tom Edden in Night. There’s a gentle sensual beauty in the conversation of this married couple with their different recollections of the early days of their relationship, the giddy thrill of “I touched your breasts” contrasting with the reality of “I thought I heard a child upstairs, crying”.
A Kind of Alaska was inspired by Oliver Sachs’s description, in his book Awakenings, of the sudden reawakening of patients who had suffered from decades of sleeping sickness once they were prescribed the drug L-Dopa.
Marooned again, this time in a king-sized bed with white bedlinen, Deborah is a child trapped in the middle-aged woman’s body that has developed in the years through which she has slept since she was a teenager. Greig is shocking and moving as the ‘ghost’ teenager from a previous age, struggling to make sense of the wrong body and the loss of life and experience. There is something of the dementia patient about her here, except that she has not forgotten her life experience but been deprived of it. As Deborah’s sad, caring sister, who has been married and widowed while she slept, Meera Syal brings that quiet warmth to the role, a perfect foil and balance to Keith Allen’s patronising doctor, the type one suspects enjoys his power and omniscience.
Pinter Four consists of just two much longer one-act plays, Moonlight from 1993 and Night School from 1979. In the latter the playwright seems to almost parody his own work. If you sought a definition of the adjective Pinteresque, you would surely find it in the non sequiturs, complete with pauses, exchanged by a pair of brothers played with immaculate timing by Al Weaver and Dwane Walcott. “It’s very important to keep your pecker up,” one exclaims. “How far up?” “Well… how high is a Chinaman?” “Quite.” “Exactly.”
They are apparently absent from their father’s death bed, though in an at once clever and potentially confusing concept, director Lyndsey Turner melds their shabby bedroom with their parents’ elegant one, so that they appear to roll on the dying man’s bed even as he asks his wife where they are. As the dying Andy, Robert Glenister hits just the right bitter note as he veers between anger and resignation, crudely recalling his sexual conquests so that it’s hard for his long-suffering wife Bel to sympathise. Brid Brennan provides a fine study of a purse-lipped spouse, prepared to give as good as she gets – death bed notwithstanding.
The earlier Night School, directed with flair and flamboyance by Ed Stamboulian, is a satisfying, well-made little tale with a fine sense of time (1970s), place (East End) and a beguiling cast of comic characters. Walter (Al Weaver again) is fresh out of prison and anxious to rest up in his room at the house owned by his two expansive aunties (a hilarious, judiciously over-the-top Cockney double act from Jamie Dee and Brid Brennan). The only thing is, they’ve let it out to “a lovely girl”, a teacher who goes to night school three times a week. He is affronted, but attracted to the apparently demure Sally, though he soon suspects that her evenings are not spent bettering herself learning languages, but earning a bit of extra cash as a club hostess. Jessica Barden subtly delineates between prim and less than proper and in a nice touch does not change out of her calf-length teacher’s skirt, leaving us to imagine a more revealing hostess outfit. The action is orchestrated by drummer Abbie Finn, who sits at her drum kit onstage throughout.
If you can’t get to both Pinters, don’t miss Pinter Three, but completists will thoroughly enjoy both Pinters Three and Four.
By Judi Herman
Photos by Marc Brenner
Pinter Three runs until Saturday 8 December. 7.30pm (Mon, Wed & Fri), 2.30pm (Sat only). £15-£65. Harold Pinter Theatre, SW1Y 4DN. 084 5871 7615. www.pinteratthepinter.com
Pinter Four runs until Saturday 8 December. 7.30pm (Tue, Fri & Sat), 2.30pm Thu only). £15-£65. Harold Pinter Theatre, SW1Y 4DN. 084 5871 7615. www.pinteratthepinter.com
This is a fast-moving, merciless satire comes from barrister and playwright Robert Khan, and writer and podcaster Tom Salinsky (who also nimbly directs). This pair of Jewish wits offer a take on Brexit that is, if anything, sharpened by its arrival in London after selling out in Edinburgh.
The year is 2020. Shiny bright and eager new PM Adam Masters is (still) leading the Tories through the final stages of Brexit negotiations. Spookily this PM is not so much a David Cameron soundalike as a David Archer soundalike, as Timothy Bentinck, who plays Masters, is indeed the voice of the eponymous paterfamilias in Radio 4’s soap. Archer’s fans may find it strange – or perfectly logical – for the gentleman farmer to be the PM to shepherd the Brits out of Europe with his “united and principled government … merging mutually contradictory departments”.
This he attempts under the reluctant guidance of his weary and wary campaign manager, chief of staff and minder Paul Connell (excellent Adam Astill). But PM Masters has failed to, erm, master the proposals he is supposed to be taking to Brussels, because he never gets round to reading the file the long-suffering Connell has painstakingly prepared for him. So, luckily for the audience, the proposals have to be spelled out for him.
Connell’s “master” plan is to neutralise his party’s remainers and Brexiteers by using their most vocal spokespersons to cancel each other out. Pippa Evans’ deliciously strident ‘remoaner’ Diana Purdy is horrified when she’s offered Brexit Secretary; Thom Tuck’s Boris sound-off-alike Simon Cavendish is equally disbelieving when he is offered Trade Secretary. “The only job in government that I wouldn’t want,” each gasps in turn.
It could all go so well, but might Helena Brandt, hard-line Brussels suprema, a sort of female Michel Barnier, prove Masters' nemesis? She is played with a glacial elegance and accent by Lucy Montgomery, who makes lines like, “For us, Brexit is like a close friend confiding that they have contracted a terrible disease”, seem worryingly plausible. The gender reversal of British PM and Chief EU Negotiator really works.
There is plenty more incisive wit before a denouement that you probably won’t anticipate – and it’s not really a spoiler alert to flag up that David Cameron himself might find it a perfect personal outcome. This is just the show to help us not simply to smile, but to laugh out loud through our tears as we exit the European stage.
By Judi Herman
Photos by Steve Ullathorne
Brexit runs until Saturday 17 November. 7pm, 3pm (Sun only; plus 17 Nov). £19.50, £18 concs, £10 under 30, £5 unwaged. King’s Head Theatre, N1 1QN. 020 7226 8561. www.kingsheadtheatre.com
A timely production of Irwin Shaw’s metaphor for the pain of war and remembrance
Bronx-born Jewish writer Irwin Shaw served in the US army in World War II, but he wrote this haunting expressionist drama in 1936, aged only 23. Although he sets it in “the second year of the war that is to begin tomorrow night”, it is perhaps more a comment on the waging of World War I than a prediction of the second. The dead of Shaw’s war refuse to lie down and be buried, but this is no Halloween tale of horror. It is rather a powerful metaphor, a starting point for a conversation about war and its futility, a way of giving a voice to the common soldier and his loved ones.
Director Rafaella Marcus’s visceral production grabs its audience with a filmic opening. The burial detachment march around the square, formed by designer Verity Johnson’s crates surrounding a shallow makeshift mass grave, beautifully singing a threnody (lament for the dead), with a mournful, period jazz feel. Martha Godfrey’s sombre lighting enhances the monochrome movie feel.
A priest and a rabbi (one of the dead is Private Levy – “with that name we won’t take any chances” decides the commanding officer) deliver the last rites, the clerics played authentically by Simon Balfour and Malcolm Ward, who also appear as a brace of generals. But it’s not long before the three corpses slowly and deliberately shed their body bags and stand in white shirts spattered with blood (created by Johnson’s embroidery), fixing the living with their intense, deliberate gaze.
Each of these three actors – Keeran Blessie, Stuart Nunn and Tom Larkin – represents two dead soldiers simultaneously, a necessary device in this small space, where the cast is already 11-strong. Given the surrealism, it works, especially under the scrutiny of a doctor giving her six diagnoses of fatal trauma, duly noted by her stenographer. These are two of a clutch of powerful cameos from Sioned Jones and Natalie Winsor, who play all the female roles, plus a newspaper editor and reporter working on how to spin this story.
Later, three of the actors playing the living soldiers morph into three of the dead soldiers, a thought-provoking device as the casualties mount. Meanwhile the three dead remain implacably motionless, stubbornly still standing. The rattled generals, faced with insubordination from their living troops who, led by Scott Westwood’s impressively earnest and upright bespectacled sergeant, refuse to attempt a forced burial, seek to bully or cajole the dead into obeying orders to lie down in their graves.
When the generals appeal to the womenfolk to get their dead to be buried, the playwright’s decision to give each rebellious corpse a scene with a wife, girlfriend or mother means the action becomes a tad formulaic. Nonetheless the quality of the performances, of the women especially, makes for a moving resolution, especially given an apocalyptic climax where church and state – and even exorcism – fail to bully the dead.
“Wars are won only when the fallen are buried and forgotten,” declare the generals. At this moment, our acts of remembrance worldwide prove that remembering the dead is part of the peace and healing process and this is surely a vital part of the message of this surreal yet uplifting drama.
By Judi Herman
Photos by Scott Rylander
Bury the Dead runs until Saturday 24 November. 7.30pm (Tue-Sat), 3pm (Sat & Sun only). £18-£20, £16-£18 concs. Finborough Theatre, SW10 9ED. 012 2335 7851. www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk
Perfectly calibrated performances in an inventive reimagining of Joanna Murray-Smith’s 1995 relationship drama
Henry Goodman was last seen playing artist Lucian Freud in Alan Frank’s one-man play Looking at Lucian. In Honour – Australian playwright Joanna Murray-Smith’s telling dissection of relationships – Goodman plays George, a respected pillar of the literary community, husband of 32 years of writer Honor, and father of Oxford student Sophie. Director Paul Robinson stages the play in the round on designer Liz Cooke’s versatile set of simple blocks, rearranged by the cast, evoking a boxing ring. It’s a fine metaphor for a drama where almost every scene is a duologue, and many are sparring matches: wife with husband, daughter with father, wife with mistress and more.
No need for a spoiler alert, for it’s clear from the get go that George will end up in bed with Claudia, the bright young thing interviewing him for her series on influential literary figures. Goodman is comically pompous as he searches for words to describe himself to Katie Brayben’s Claudia, settling finally on “award-winning”. There’s comedy too in in his obvious attraction to the apparently confident, knowing Claudia. Brayben and Goodman mine their selfish, self-regarding narcissism to great effect. But this is as much about the insecurity of the ageing alpha literary male as about his infidelity; as much about the insecurity of the clever, attractive 29-year-old Oxford graduate as about her reeling in the older man.
“Middle class girls are all the same. That’s why we have to single ourselves out,” declares Claudia perceptively. But in the light of recent child abuse cases and the #MeToo movement, her words are as disturbing as they are infuriatingly smug when she continues, “I know I’m desirable. I’ve known that since I was 12.” This needs no update to bring the action into 2018. Elsewhere there are witty references to post-truth and Love Island.
All this is before Murray-Smith introduces Honor, George’s writer wife, who has subsumed her own career into his, instead of following up the huge success of her debut novel. Does she get the sympathy vote? George’s simple statement, “I’m leaving” succeeds so well in being kind to be cruel that she cannot take it in. Though you share her pain, Imogen Stubbs’ beautifully nuanced performance is far too subtle to settle for that. She fights back and achieves her own self-realisation and confidence, subtly underlined by her changing out of the grungy monochrome tracksuit bottoms of the comfortable marriage into red and purple technicolour.
She has an ally in daughter Sophie, hugely indignant at her father’s falling for a girl who could indeed be his daughter, but uncompromising in her perceptive reading of the situation: “Is he in love with her? Or out of love with you?” In her righteous indignation she gives her dad a reality check: “Look in the mirror. You’re old! It can’t be passion.” Natalie Simpson’s blazingly feisty intelligent Sophie completes a quartet of exquisite performances that make this drama never less than watchable.
By Judi Herman
Photos by Alex Brenner
Honour runs until Saturday 24 November. 7.30pm, 3pm (Thu & Sat only). £18.50-£32.50, £16.50-£23.50 concs. Park Theatre, N4 3JP. 020 7870 6876. www.parktheatre.co.uk
Rebecca Taylor expresses the sorrow we’re all feeling after the fatal shootings at Pittsburgh Synagogue
We are shocked and devastated by the tragic events that took place last Friday at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh and we send our deepest condolences to the Pittsburgh community. Our thoughts are with you. Mass support for the community has poured in from around the world – including a huge fund-raising campaign led by American Muslims. An online drive (at launchgood.com) organised by two US Muslim groups has raised over $200,000 since Saturday to help contribute towards the funerals and medical bills of the families of those killed and injured in the synagogue shooting.
“We wish to respond to evil with good, as our Islamic faith teaches us, and send a powerful message of compassion to the Jewish community – our Abrahamic cousins,” said Tarek El-Messidi, director of CelebrateMercy, one of the groups taking part in the campaign. Any proceeds leftover from the fundraising will go towards Jewish-Muslim initiatives for collaboration and dialogue. At a time when the world feels darker and more divided than ever by senseless hatred, this demonstration of interfaith solidarity is a small glimmer of light to be cherished.
Donations to the Muslims Unite campaign to help the victims and victims’ families can be made here: launchgood.com