The 39 Steps @ The Criterion

The Criterion Theatre, hidden under London’s Piccadilly Circus, is a glorious relic of Victorian excess. From the faded red velvet curtains to the cherubs that spill across an extravagantly ornate ceiling, the decor is an intriguing mix of gaudy music-hall glamour and opulent high aestheticism. The onset of slight shabbiness only adds to its antiquated charm.

Practically and stylistically, the venue is also perfectly suited to Fiery Angel’s wonderfully inventive reimagining of The 39 Steps. The play features two scenes in a London music hall, allowing the staging to open up into the auditorium and involve some tongue-in-cheek audience participation. Moreover, the surroundings lend themselves to director Maria Aitkin’s evocation of a once wealthy London in post-WWI decline, and to the production’s bawdy, theatrical brand of comedy.

The plot draws heavily on Hitchcock’s 1935 film, rather than the earlier novel. Returning to Blighty from a stint overseas, quiet-living über-Englishman Richard Hannay (Andrew Alexander) finds himself wrongfully accused of murder and embroiled in a treasonous plot. On the run, searching for the truth and inconveniently chained to a disobliging blonde, Hannay is pursued from London to the windy Scottish highlands by inept police, corrupt officials and a stern Scottish farmer with an impenetrable accent and a lustful young wife.

Catherine Bailey plays all three love interests – with enough skill that it took me a while to realise this – whilst all other roles are handled by the hilarious Stephen Critchlow and Ian Hughes. Much of the humour is drawn from watching the pair switch rapidly between villains, newspaper sellers, milkmen, train passengers, B&B owners and more, occasionally even conducting conversations with themselves in the process. In one memorable scene, A nightie-clad old lady (Critchlow) argues with a policemen at the door (also Critchlow), before spinning round to continue the argument as the policeman and revealing a completely different costume on the other side of his body. The production fully embraces these farcical elements, frequently making self-conscious jokes about the limitations of the props and set and, in an intriguingly post-modernist twist, actually scripting in mistakes and late cues for added comedy.

Despite poking fun at the mock-simplicity of the set, the technical elements of the production and the ingenuity of the cast, director and set designers are evident. The shadow-puppet sequences that replace complicated chase and crowd scenes are amusingly childlike, but also perfectly realised and surprisingly effective. At the heart of the production is a wry reference to the artifice essential to ‘realist’ theatre (and film) and a refusal to allow the audience to engage fully with this artifice. In doing so, the production frustrates any attempt to become emotionally vested in the play – tension, empathy, relief are all dissipated by the reminder that what we are seeing is blatant construction – but it does make for very entertaining viewing. For all its slapstick silliness, The 39 Steps provides a sophisticated comic reaction to immersive drama; one in which the puppets wilfully point out the strings.

39 Steps - Poster

The Origins of Sex

Faramerz Dabhoiwala @ LSE, 7th February 2012

You only have to skim through a few choice passages of Beowulf, Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, or Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde to discover that the Medieval woman was a salacious beast. Lustful, insatiable and morally incontinent, she frequently needed to be locked up for her own good, and for the good of the bewildered, pure -hearted men she made her victims.

At least, that’s how the theory went. And for a long time, went unchallenged, because women’s ineptitude for all things ethical and intellectual meant that they were rarely consulted on this near panliterary condemnation of their carnal desires. Then came the Enlightenment and, for the first time, female writers began not only to find their way to an audience but to make the incendiary suggestion that, actually, they were frequently on the receiving end of uninvited molestation – and that men as a whole were rather more sex-obsessed than anyone could previously have imagined.

From here, it took an astonishingly small leap for the Victorians to conclude that male sexual appetite was normal and natural, whilst women’s inherent passivity made a penchant for anything other than chastity an abomination. Now, ‘decent’ women still had to be locked up, not because they were dangerous, but because they were soft and fragile and needed to be protected from corruption by all those predatory, but nonetheless healthy and virile men. Men that were now justified in turning in their droves to a burgeoning prostitute underclass in order to satisfy that same outpouring of healthy virility. Patriarchy had never been so fun.

So argued Faramerz Dabhoiwala last night at LSE, introducing his ambitiously sweeping history of sexual attitudes in the British Isles: The Origins of Sex. According to Dabhoiwala, a fellow of Exeter College, Oxford, he began thinking about writing the book in the late ‘80s, and the result – a surprisingly slender, but closely packed volume – is the culmination of more than 20 years of research and investigation. Whether this research has been of a purely academic nature, one can only speculate. Dabhoiwala, after all, grew up in Amsterdam.

There is something about witnessing an esteemed fellow of the Royal Historical Society talking for two hours about sex that transforms a roomful of seemingly sensible adults into a mass of sniggering schoolchildren. Perhaps anticipating this, Dabhoiwala’s lecture steered clear of rigorous analysis, instead giving an anecdotal account of 16th century sentences for ‘illicit’ sex (whipping, banishment and occasionally death) and then, with evident relish, tales of the Enlightenment: celebrity scandals, sexed-up memoirs, pornographic snuff boxes and media-savvy courtesans whose breathtakingly tactical self-interest make Kim Kardashian’s exploits look like old hat[1].

Whilst the result made for an interesting evening, it also felt lacking in real depth or insight, belying the serious scholarship behind Dabhoiwala’s work. Presumably, this was because the author would rather we bought his book (which was on sale at the event), but was nonetheless frustrating in the context of a self-contained lecture. There was little analysis of how the ‘first sexual revolution’ related to wider social or cultural changes; aspects such as the influence of travel, trade and empire, medical and psychiatric study and the role of classical texts in the debate on sex were briefly touched on in the final questions but not explored[2].

Nonetheless, Dabhiowala is a charming and witty speaker, and I suspect his book (which I now intend to read) will make for a fascinating overview of the past half millennium of sexual politics. Appreciating the origins and history of our sexual beliefs is, of course, essential to understanding contemporary cultural views on sex, gender and identity – and, crucially, the fluidity and manipulation of these beliefs. Moreover, the book has already sparked comparisons between Britain’s dark history of sexual repression and similar practices that continue elsewhere. With any luck, this will contribute to ongoing debate over the necessary conditions for increased liberation and equality around the world.


[1] Incidentally, ‘old hat’ is listed in a 1785 dictionary as meaning ‘a woman’s privities: because frequently felt’.

[2] This, however, was largely the fault of the audience, who had by this stage lowered expectations with an overwhelmingly banal line of questioning, centred almost exclusively around revealing their  pornographic preferences and vomiting up the name of Michel Foucault over and over again for the sole purpose of telling everyone what bona fide intellectuals they were for knowing how to pronounce ‘Foucault’.

What We’re Up Against (Review)

Aorta Theatre Collective presents a vibrant selection of scenes from Theresa Rebeck’s catalogue of razor sharp social satire.

Directed by Rob Hale

New York playwright, ‘relapsed Catholic’ and artful social commentator Theresa Rebeck has a back catalogue as long as your arm of acutely, playfully, hilariously observed satire. Evidently fascinated by the minutiae of human foibles, prejudices, mundane neuroses and twisted logic, her work is a masterclass of witty, energetic dialogue, bizarre non-sequiturs and heightened reality.

With this in mind, it is difficult to imagine how on earth Rebeck, in her own words, very nearly “fell off the map” following a scandalously misogynistic review of The Butterfly Collection in the New York Times in 2000. Despite the outrage of the theatre community and a flurry of complaints to the newspaper, this bad press forced the play to close and, for a time, it was seriously suggested that Rebeck either write under a male pseudonym or just “do something else”.

Thankfully, Rebeck hit back with a raft of superb plays including Mauritius, Bad Dates and the co-written Omnium Gatherum, even attracting a Pulitzer nomination for the latter. She also demonstrated that she could, in fact, “do something else”, by publishing an acclaimed novel, Three Girls and Their Brother, and writing the forthcoming series Smash for NBC – to be directed by Michael Mayer and produced by Stephen Spielberg, no less.

The seven scenes selected for What We’re Up Against, deftly handled by a highly competent cast, encompass issues as diverse as workplace misogyny, funeral parlour mix-ups and a struggling actor who would rather be a barman. All share the sense of quiet desperation that Rebeck specialises in, which infuses the comedy and humanises characters that are, on the face of it, rather unsympathetic.

Each scene is interspersed by shorter pieces from Rebeck’s one act play Mary, Mother of God, Intercede for Us, which shows a harangued, business-suited Virgin Mary, played by the excellent Juliet Prague, overrun by prayer ‘dockets’ and passing on requests of varying urgency and poignancy to a seemingly indifferent God – via the divine medium of her mobile phone.

As the play progresses, this juxtaposition becomes increasingly astute; subtle shifts in the performances between self-interested egotism and overwhelming emotional fragility are intensified by Mary’s increasing despair and rage at the arbitrary way her messages are dealt with- and her powerlessness to influence these decisions. Here, as in countless other examples of her work, Rebeck skilfully takes an exhausted argument and breathes fresh life into it through an imaginative, surprising and highly visual approach.

The cast are infectiously energetic, with Sally Scott’s barely concealed hysteria making for a particularly charged and engaging performance, but at times it felt that more variation in tone could enhance their effectiveness. The more muted delivery by Michael Benz and Tom Cornish in the funeral parlour scene created perfectly balanced tension between restrained fury and agonising grief, but Demi Oyedin, perhaps feeling a little underused, offered a forceful performance that proved slightly too overbearing for such an intimate space. The comic delivery, however, was spot on throughout, frequently leaving the audience helpless with laughter.

What We’re Up Against provides an excellent and intelligent interpretation of some of Rebeck’s finest pieces and the central throughline that binds together her work and ideas. For those unfamiliar with her work, Rob Hale’s selection also offers a perfect introduction to this extremely important contemporary playwright. Not to be missed.

****

The Old Red Lion Theatre, Angel. 8th Feb -3rd Mar 2011.

A Very Fine Art

This article was written for the dakini Tigers Campaign. Read the original post here.

Last Tuesday, I went to Asia House in New Cavendish Street, to hear Ruth Padel speak about tracking tigers in the wild and her wonderful book, Tigers in Red Weather.  At university I had read a little of Padel’s poetry and several of her books on Greek theatre – but I had no idea she was involved in tiger conservation.

In fact, Padel is something of a tiger conservation expert and speaks very compellingly and beautifully on the subject. She explained the concept of ‘trophic cascade’, the disastrous effect of removing a key animal or plant, especially a top predator, from the intricately interwoven network of living things in any ecosystem. By taking something out of the cycle too abruptly, the precarious balance between all other creatures can be completely disrupted – leading to a catastrophic population decline throughout the entire system. Padel explained this by taking an example of eight living things co-existing in the same forest: a wild pig, a mango tree, a leafcutter ant, a monkey, an owl, a lizard, a mosquito and a frog.

Essentially (this is a little abridged) after millenia of gradual adaptation, the eight living things are neatly balanced in their shared environment: the wild pigs scratch the earth on the river bank for food, leaving water-filled holes in the mud that make perfect places for frogs and mosquitoes to lay eggs. Some of the mosquito larvae is eaten by tadpoles. The frogs provide food for the owls that make their nests in the mango trees. Monkeys also live in the trees, where they collect and eat the mangoes, spread the seeds as they go and in doing so help new trees to grow. Leafcutter ants collect the fallen leaves to eat and to ’feed’ the fungus they use to incubate their larvae. Lizards rely on the leafcutter ants for food.

Then humans come to the forest and hunt all the wild pigs. Suddenly, there are no muddy holes in the bank for the frogs to lay their eggs. This suits the mosquitoes – they can lay their larvae anywhere damp and, now that none of this is being eaten by tadpoles, they grow in number. The frogs must either die out or leave to find somewhere to lay their eggs, and the owls leave, too, to find other food sources. There are now so many mosquitoes that they are plaguing the monkeys, so the monkeys move on. With the monkeys gone, there is nothing to spread the mango seeds and over time, the mango trees die. Without the leaves from the mango trees, the leafcutter ants can’t eat or breed, and they also leave or die. The lizards have no ants to eat and so they move on, too. Eventually there is nothing left but mosquitoes.

The same principle is true of any ecosystem, and certainly applies to tigers. Tigers are often seen as indicators of a healthy, functioning forest and throughout Asia have been depicted as powerful guardians – of the jungle and of the spirit. Asia House’s Tigers in Asian Art exhibition, which I was lucky enough to take a look around after the talk, vividly displays this clear common theme. One of my personal favourite pieces is a painted Begali story scroll, depicting a series of scenes of a solitary woman who has to give birth whilst journeying through the jungle. She is shown at first heavily pregnant and then nursing a baby boy, watched over throughout by the eyes of a protective tiger.

Another of the exhibition’s striking artefacts was a solid gold tiger head, decorated with emerald eyes and a ruby collar, which once formed part of  Tipu Sultan’s throne in the late 18th century. Dubbed “The Tiger of Mysore,” Tipu Sultan was by all accounts a fearsome warrior, famous for his assertion that ”it is better to live for one day as a tiger than a thousand years as a sheep” and for posing a particular problem for the invading British forces, by whom he was eventually killed in battle in 1799. He was also famous for ‘Tipu’s Tiger’, a huge, rather sardonic music-box style creation which depicts a tiger mauling a British colonial soldier to death; as you turn the handle on the box, the tiger growls and mauls, and the soldier moans in his death-throes. It’s absolutely brilliant.

During the evening, I also got talking to the exhibition’s curators, including Betty Yao, who has invited me to the Tiger Forum being held at Asia House on 7th December. This will be the only event of its kind in London, reporting on the outcome of the International Tiger Summit and discussing how we can, and must, progress in order to give tigers a fighting chance for survival. It was heartening to meet others striving for the same goal – especially as Asia House represents an important cultural link between the UK and countries across Asia. Here’s hoping that this is indicative of a shift in attitudes towards saving tigers, especially in China and its surrounding nations.

Something that Ruth Padel pointed out, which I found fascinating, is that to make a symbol of something is both a benefit and a curse. Many of the key reasons that tigers inspire beautiful artworks and passionate responses – their awe-inspiring beauty and power, their fierceness and independent spirit – are precisely the same reasons that they have been hunted, made into trophies, eaten and drunk by people who come to see them purely as symbols that can be attained and absorbed into oneself. It is crucial to understand that tigers are magnificent, but they are only so when respected in their own field, understood not simply as an image of strength but as a living thing with an intrinsic right to existence. Their magnificence cannot be owned, only admired.

Whilst putting together our book, we have tried to remain mindful of this. We have wanted to avoid simply pulling together images of tigers as lovely to look at and symbols of strength, but to go a step further and to really explore the life of the tiger, its needs and development – to follow the cubs as they grow up and learn from their mother what it is to be a tiger. We have endeavoured at all times to show these animals as rooted firmly in the context of their environment and as belonging exclusively to this. In short, we have sought to celebrate the tiger without making it into a symbol. When we come to take our book and its content to the media around the world and especially in Asia, it is precisely this message which we hope will, ultimately, save the tiger from becoming an historical artefact and instead be seen for what it is: a key element of a vibrant landscape, which we cannot allow to disappear.

www.tigercampaign.com

Tigers in Asian Art is on until 12 Feb 2011, at Asia House, 63 New Cavendish Street, London W1G 7LP.

Cambridge Invader (Review)

Review published in Varsity Newspaper, 8th March 2009. Cambridge Invader was a weekly feature covering a selection of the city’s (and university’s) lesser-known pubs, bars and secret societies.

Cambridge Invader: Girton College Bar

 

Our college bar closed on Tuesday. The new one is opening today, and it’s bigger and shinier and hopefully better, but nonetheless Tuesday night was seen very much as The End,  as swathes of current and ex- students poured in to the very limited space for a final nostalgic (and doomed) attempt to secure a lock-in, and to drunkenly sing College songs with misty-eyed enthusiasm and little in the way of coherent melody. Think the Pogues if half of them were actually English Public School veterans. Oh, wait, yeah. Think the Pogues.

 

As the final closure approached, panic set in. What would we do for two whole days without a cheap bar at stumbling distance? We were fairly sure this constituted a civil rights infringement. Fortunately I had a suggestion. “I know of a place,” I said. “A bar far, far away, where few students have ever ventured before.” The others raised a sceptical eyebrow. “’Tis called Girton” I said. There was a hushed silence. A few of the elders shook their wizened heads. One leaned in conspiratorially, whispering over his ale like an ancient sailor. “Have ye heard the tale,” he hissed, “of the Girton Threesome?” No. I hadn’t. And I didn’t believe it. But now I was more determined than ever to pursue the seldom trodden path to this remote Mecca of mythological debauchery.

 

The taxi pulled up outside what appeared to be a stately home. J and I hovered, feeling suddenly very isolated and vulnerable. I was reminded of the orgy scene in Eyes Wide Shut and wondered if I should have brought a mask.

 

We made our way through labyrinthine hallways and down a staircase into an underground bar which faintly resembled an S & M dungeon – all red uplighting, tucked away booths and exposed brick archways. We were the only people there. The bar lady surveyed us wordlessly with a look which said, “you’re not from these parts” and, fearing that our hacked up bodies might one day be discovered under the charmingly unlevelled flooring, we took our bottle of wine (£5.60 and certainly quaffable) and retreated to a corner.

 

An hour passed. I began to hallucinate tumbleweed. A few people turned up, but all seemed rather docile. Research revealed that the master’s efforts to prevent any Ents being organised has led to a general disillusionment with college socialising, and many Girtonians tend to eschew the bar for local pubs. I later discovered from an ex-member of my college that he’d been banned from the premises after announcing that the Mistress was a “fit little tart” during a formal dinner, which may or may not have had something to do with it. Regardless, I felt let down.

 

We finished our wine and called a taxi to take us to Cindies. As we made to leave, however, there was a sudden influx of people, establishing a highly satisfactory male-female ratio. Perhaps we were making a mistake? Just then, two previously unclocked FOLs blocked our path. “You can’t leave now!” they cried “THE SHOW’S JUST BEGINNING!” … and proceeded to strip, rapidly, to their boxer shorts. This was more like it. The bar lady nodded at the trousers around their ankles and snapped, “pull them up or take them out” with an unsurprised irritation which suggested the scene was commonplace. J and I began to reconsider our decision. Cindies, however, beckoned, and unable to persuade the men in question to accompany us, and unwilling to pass up our taxi to pay homage to the site of the – apparently real – threesome, we reluctantly departed. But we will be back. There’s untapped talent up there, girls, and the numbers are in our favour.