Review: The Marriage of Kim K

FULL DISCLOSURE: I am in no way unbiased towards this production. I am friends with most of the cast and crew, although I should note I was a fan of their work before I knew most of them personally. I also had a minor role in it, helping out with marketing in the run up to its first performance, and I sat in on roughly two weeks’ worth of rehearsals. As such, while I will strive be objective in my criticism, there’s no way I can actually write about this show objectively. Consider this review a biased opinion from someone involved, and I advise you check out some other reviews from less biased sources.

The Marriage of Kim K might be best described as Channel Surfing: The Musical. Mashing up the stories of Kim Kardashian, The Marriage of Figaro, and a couple arguing about which of the two to watch on television, fledgeling company leoe&hyde have produced a witty and engaging piece of theatre. Its clever structure, vigorous performances, and ambitious music make this a play well worth catching, even if the elaborate technical challenges sometimes threaten to overwhelm the team.

The play tells three overlapping stories which interact and comment on each other as the show progresses. We open with Amelia and Stephen, a lovely if slightly passive aggressive couple chilling out in front of the television. We are then introduced to Kim Kardashian and Kris Humphries, in a condensed version of their infamously failed 2011 marriage. Finally, we have the Count and Countess from Mozart’s opera The Marriage of Figaro. Amelia wants to watch Kim. Stephen wants to watch Mozart. Arguments, inevitably, ensue.

As Stephen and Amelia bicker, we switch back and forth between them and the shows they are watching. The effect, while jarring at first, is the baseline from which the show pulls several clever tricks, and the music makes the most of this juxtaposition. The live band switches between electronica and classical music at the drop of a powdered wig, and there’s some fun to be had spotting the show’s many quotes from contemporary pop songs.

But these quotations are still in service of the larger show. They create dramatic irony, such as when Amelia sings about her unhappy marriage to a sample of ‘Happy’, or hint at the world beyond the stage, like when ‘N****s in Paris’ is used to signal the approach of Kanye West. This is a show about the detritus of culture, both high and pop, but while the juxtapositions are all terribly clever, the script can feel a little bit timid.

It takes the best part of twenty minutes for all three narrative tracks to get up and running, which feels like quite a slow run up to the play’s real premise. Similarly, the decision to give every cast member a solo does not do wonders for the show’s pacing. The Count and Countess’s in particular feel underwhelming, and audio problems are a frequent occurence. The performance I saw had some real trouble with microphones, including a particularly nasty bit of feedback during Kim’s solo. There was also a real problem with audio levels, as the band frequently threatened to drown out the singing.

This is not a knock on the performers, however, who are good across the board. Stephen Hyde and Amelia Gabriel are impeccable as themselves, full of warmth and humanity, while effectively conveying their respective flaws of egotism and control freakery. [I should stress here that I am referring to the characters’ egotism and control freakery]. Yasemin Mireille is a classic diva as Kim K, while James Edge is pure id as Kris Humphries, his wild gyrating and asides to the audience almost taking him into panto territory. Nathan Bellis and Emily Burnett are similarly impressive as the Count and Countess, their skilled opera tones a marked contrast with the high-pitched pop antics of Kim’n’Kris.

The Marriage of Kim K is a sprawling, ridiculous contraption of a show, but at a mere 72 minutes it also manages to be energetic and concise. While it occasionally threatens to collapse under its own ambition, on its own merits it’s a funny, heartwarming, and downright clever piece of work, whose finer touches you will still be realising several days later.

Oh, and it has possibly the greatest title drop in the history of theatre.

 

The Marriage of Kim K is in London until 29 July, and the Edinburgh Festival in August. Tickets are available to buy here.

 

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Trolling the Grim Reaper: a Tale of Two Everymen

A few months ago, I opened Medieval Drama: An Anthology. It was uncomfortably close to my final exams, and I had decided to familiarise myself with Everyman. Everyman is a play from the 1510s, about a hapless dope at the mercy of forces beyond his control, who, after gradually abandoning his normal life, calmly faces the solemn ritual of his own demise. My study, as ever, was semi-autobiographical. Or so I flattered myself.

After that, some stuff happened.

Yesterday, I opened Everyman: a new adaptation by Carol Ann Duffy. The passage of the aforementioned stuff meant I was now free to read as I saw fit, and in between the cover letters and the CV-polishing, I decided to see if Duffy’s version lived up to the original.

Everyman, for those unfamiliar, is a play about death. But it’s also about some other things, including Catholic doctrine, family dynamics, environmental destruction, and the music of Meghan Trainor. In both versions, it is not interested in beginnings. Only in endings.

But let’s make one thing absolutely clear: Everyman in no way ‘needed’ this adaptation. Dr Liv Robinson has talked about the paratext for Duffy’s 2015 National Theatre production, and its irritating tendency to treat Duffy as somehow ‘rescuing’ the play from its original context. Duffy’s script is indeed impressive, and by mounting such a high profile production she undoubtedly gave the play some much-needed attention. But the original Everyman is an astounding work of art on its own terms. That its own terms are not those of twenty-first century theatre (or of overpriced paperbacks from Faber & Faber) is not the fault of the text itself.

The original Everyman is melancholic atmosphere; Duffy’s is melancholic freak weather. The original is didactic, but its content is curiously benign. Greg Walker points out that, unlike most medieval moralities, Everyman has no vice figures, “nor is there, strictly speaking, any real dramatic tension”. This is not a world of epic conflict, but quiet acceptance and well-meaning abandonment. The play’s most moving moment comes when Everyman simply states:

How sholde I be mery or gladde?

For fayre promyses men to me make,

But whan I have moost nede they me forsake.

I am decyved; that maketh me sadde.

But for all that sadness, the play is full of odd humour (or odd to this modern reader, at least). Such as when Everyman asks:

EVERYMAN: My Cosyn, wyll you not with me go?

COSYN: No, by Our Lady! I have the crampe in my to!

Everyman is a play about accepting death, specifically within a Christian worldview. Everyman must scourge himself (“In the name of the Holy Trynyte,/ My body sore punyshed shall be”), and then seek absolution from a priest who remains offstage. The action is static, austere, funereal, concluding with Everyman simply laying down and dying, still delivering the play’s Message:

Take example, all ye that this do here or se,

How they that I loved best do forsake me

Excepte my Good Dedes, that bydeth truly.

It’s an attitude, if not alien to modern sensibilities, at least considerably removed from them. That a recent production of its acceptance of punishment, followed by death, resonated so strongly with the students of Oxford University, is left as an exercise for the reader.

Duffy’s version understandably ditches the sermonising, though she retains a surprising amount of the original plot, and updates the pithy humour of the original. My favourite moment comes when Everyman (or ‘Ev’ to his friends) tries to explain his problems to his sister:

EVERYMAN: I met death.

SISTER: Name-dropper. Last year it was George Clooney.

Duffy’s other updates are largely positive. We first meet Everyman drunk at a party, vomiting into a bucket held by a female cleaner, who turns out to be God herself. This adds a pleasing class-consciousness, particularly given Everyman’s portrayal as nouveau riche playboy.

Several of Duffy’s additions are hard to judge on the page; the rapping prologue reads cringily, but could well have been effective on stage. The use of pop music (including ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ and ‘All About That Bass’) is similarly difficult to judge without seeing the performance, though the “storm scene” towards the end, cued by Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler’s ‘Stormy Weather’ is pleasingly reminiscent of Derek Jarman’s film of The Tempest.

The film’s final image feels curiously apt: a young man, exhausted, slumped in a chair. His friends departing. His magic expended. But still the old potential for escape. The right words in the wrong order. That guy is dead now.

Duffy’s main divergence, of course, is the ending. Absent the explicitly Christian worldview, her Everyman achieves peace through more personal, less grandiose means.

He says thank you.

Thank you, thank you,

for the sweet, sour, ugly, beautiful, the cool, the crap,

for discord and harmony, rough, smooth,

for the fragrant or foul, the fucking lot of it.

My whole life all I’ve ever wanted

was to be alive; awaken

to the light and air of here.

This is his redemption. Not confession, but confessional. But these are not quite his last words. His final utterance comes in conversation.

DEATH: My work is done,

but let me tell you, son,

I’ve loved the hunt.

EVERYMAN: Can I tell you something?

You’re a cunt.

He then slips gently into that good night. The play’s final image is Death, alone on stage, finally realising the insult:

Help me out here –

did my feckin ears deceive me

or did your man call me a cunt?

This is a total affront.

Where’s the respect?

I’m to pick up my scythe

and exit stage left?

This is Duffy’s answer to Everyman’s dilemma. We cannot outrun death. But we may be able, in a purely rhetorical sense, to get the better of it. To shame, bamboozle, and troll it. The last enemy that shall be DESTROYED is Death.

I’m coming towards the end now. A personal essay is like an English degree; the good ones always know just when to stop.

Listen: I’ve got something to say.

Never mind.

Review: Skylight

This article first appeared on Oxford Opening Night on 14 June 2017.

It was my last ever Oxford play review, and I’m glad I went out with a good one.

Student theatre can often be juvenile. In its weird, earnest, experimental brilliance, it sometimes feels lacking in emotional maturity, but Skylight is the antithesis of that. Its ad copy promises “a dangerous battle of opposing ideologies”, but this is a lie. Skylight is not a Bitingly Satirical Play about Politics. It is a play about three people, stupid, brilliant, a little bit broken, and all the pain and messiness that brings. The play’s naturalism feels hugely refreshing, even vital, as we close another academic year: this is the most human play Oxford has seen for months.

The play unfolds in a shabby little flat belonging to Kyra, a young woman working in the rougher parts of London. We open with her returning, exhausted, after a hard day’s work. As the evening progresses she is visited first by a young man named Edward, who has fallen out with his father, and later by that father himself, Tom, with whom Kyra has a history. The play is largely a two-hander; we never see all three characters together, and the lion’s share of the time is spent with Kyra and Tom. The two of them have had an affair in the past, but Kyra eventually left Tom to care for his dying wife, Alice. This, coupled with class tensions – Kyra is a penniless schoolteacher while Tom is a millionaire – generate the play’s action, which consists of Tom and Kyra talking, reminiscing, and arguing. This is helped by subtle, but ingenious touches to the production. The first hour’s conversation occurs while Kyra prepares dinner, and the decision to cook an actual spaghetti bolognaise during the performance is a masterful bit of verisimilitude.

The actors, naturally, are superb. Natalie Lauren is wearily sarcastic as Kyra, reacting sardonically to the two angst-ridden men, but holding her own in the more emotionally charged scenes. Her portrayal of anger is stunningly lifelike, and her gentleness with the shy and naive Edward lends credence to her character’s job as a teacher. Adam Diaper is brash and confident as Tom, but his swagger belies a real vulnerability. His constant banter and self-absorbed jokes make him intensely likeable, even as we recognise his character is a bit of an arse.

As a couple, the pair are impeccable; we understand intuitively why each of them has made the decisions they’ve made and why the other is hurt by it, and are able to sympathise with both. Luke Wintour is given a much less showy part as Edward, but he sells the character’s restless awkwardness. After two hours of sadness and conflict, the play ends on a note of unabashed sweetness, and it’s created by Wintour’s understated performance.

Skylight is a really special production. The gripes are there to be made – at two and half hours this may be a little long for some tastes, and the period details are messy – but I find myself somehow unwilling to make them. Skylight is proper, satisfying drama, and one of the finest productions I have seen in three years of student reviewing.

Review: Merlot and Royal

This article first appeared on Oxford Opening Night on 30 May 2017.

Merlot and Royal is a new musical being staged at Tingewick Hall this week. While it demonstrates genuine effort and no small degree of skill, it gives me no pleasure to say that the piece unfortunately falls completely flat. A period musical with no laughs, no tears, and no memorable tunes, it’s surprising that so many talented actors and musicians have managed such a mediocre display.

The plot feels both contrived and poorly-paced. Our hero is Robert Merlot, heir to the titular Merlot and Royal Banking Firm. After the death of his father he finds himself thrust into a world of high-powered meetings and luxurious parties, while also falling for a waitress ‘below his station’. You can probably guess the rest, but that summary does not do justice to the tangled mess that is the play’s structure. A mountain of undeveloped sub-plots, the play lurches awkwardly from scene to scene, lacking drive and panache. There are hardly any jokes, and the few there are struggle to raise a smile.

The production focuses entirely on the music, at the expense of character, plot, and charm. While the music is beautifully played by the impressive ensemble, opening night saw near-debilitating audio problems. The band were frequently too loud to hear the songs’ lyrics, and microphones seemed to stutter and cut out with every alternate word. Though competent, the music is ultimately forgettable, with not a single catchy melody. The blocking and choreography are also too static and unimaginative to make any of it memorable.

The actors are poorly served by a wooden script, but most of them manage acceptable performances. Sammy Breen has plenty of leading man charm, and Amelia Gabriel almost manages to wring some pathos out of her frequent passionate confrontations. The real standout is Alex Buchanan as a slimy bank clerk turned traitor turned bank robber (why?) who plays a scene of sudden contrition and suicide with such conviction as to almost distract from its sheer contrivance.

The rest of the cast are perfectly adequate, and the singing is good across the board, but the fact remains that there is no spark of life in this production. The setting is unusual, but feels bland and generic; the ambition is admirable, but the execution is timid and dull. The sad fact is that these actors, these musicians, and these concepts, all deserve a much better play.

Review: Reigen

This article first appeared on Oxford Opening Night on 24 May 2017.

Reigen is a play about sex. It is also about society, class, gender, power relations: all regular subjects of student theatre. Written by Arthur Schnitzler in 1897, the play presents a series of sexual encounters between nine characters of various social classes and dispositions, which vary, worryingly, in levels of consent. It is also in German, which poses something of a difficulty for your Anglophone reviewer. Nevertheless, language society plays have consistently been some of the most inventive in Oxford drama, and Reigen is no exception. Ambitious, clever, and unapologetic, this is undoubtedly a worthwhile production.

The plot is conveyed through ten distinct vignettes, each involving a sexual encounter building up to the carnal act itself, with the exception of a more contemplative finale. The ten characters’ names, including The Soldier, The Parlour Maid, The Poet, and The Prostitute, suggest that they are broad archetypes rather than individual characters, staying true to the play’s satirical intent.

Being a play about sexual politics, Reigen’s age arguably hurts the production. Its no doubt groundbreaking treatment of sex feels tame in 2017, and it displays a distinctly nineteenth century attitude to issues of consent. The second and third chapters deal with sexual assault and bullying in a way audiences may find uncomfortable, and the fact that one of the assaulters is later treated sympathetically is somewhat disconcerting. That being said, the play is clear about the suffering caused, and we are not encouraged to view it positively. The play is also critical of patriarchy elsewhere, though in a more humorous context: there is a hilarious scene where The Husband lectures his wife on the evils of infidelity while she nods along, bored. The fact that we have seen the wife having an affair in the previous chapter only heightens the comedic effect.

The performers, too, are broadly comedic, but they bring some real nuance to their stock roles. Ruth Eichinger is brilliant as both The Soldier and The Young Wife, moving seamlessly from brutality to reluctance to deadpan sarcasm. Stephen Jones is another highlight as The Poet, by turns creepy and hilarious, and his character lends the play a self-awareness in his capacity as a self-indulgent writer.

The production’s main flaw, from a technical standpoint, is one that primarily impacts clueless Anglophones. The subtitles on opening night were appalling, constantly skipping both forwards and backwards, and connecting very little to the action on stage. While not a problem for the play’s main audience of German speakers, it is a shame for others to miss out on the full experience due to a technical problem.

Overall, however, Reigen is worth checking out. Funny, disturbing, and occasionally moving, it’s a type of theatre we just don’t see often enough. Go and see it, and chew over your own bemused reactions for a few days. Isn’t that what student plays are all about?

The Homecoming: A Freudian Reading Is a Bit Too Obvious

This article first appeared on The Oxford Student website on 16 February 2017.

This is not a show to beat the fifth week blues. And frankly, thank god for that. Dark, cruel, and deeply sinister, this new production of the Harold Pinter classic is a delightfully absurdist tonic to our horribly absurd time. With its story of a family reunion gone terribly wrong, the play is unafraid to deal with class and gender politics, and as such it feels relevant today in ways it couldn’t have in its original performance in 1964. Do not go in expecting light entertainment, but do expect scenes of perverse fascination, and some of the best acting in Oxford right now.

The action takes place in a shabby old house on the cheaper side of London, inhabited by an old man and what passes for family; two sons, Lenny and Joey, and a despised younger brother, Sam. But when his third son Teddy returns unexpectedly from a six-year absence, with his mysterious new wife in tow, things take a turn for the bizarre. The new daughter-in-law, Ruth, exerts a strange influence on the men of this dilapidated house, and before long they’re actively fighting for her attention and favour. There’s a gradual slide from semi-affectionate banter to merciless infighting, and the whole thing plays out with the quiet illogic of a nightmare.

The set dressing is suitably run-down, with period details like a cheap gramophone and yellowing newspapers, and the shabby armchair (a kind of central throne for the action) looks liable to collapse at any moment, in a suitably obvious metaphor for this household’s patriarchal structure. Even the smell is appropriate; sweat and cigarette smoke permeates the house, and the confined space of the Michael Pilch works well to create the oppressive, claustrophobic atmosphere the play demands.

The acting is similarly in tune with the script. Adam Cameron Diaper plays Max, the family patriarch, and he does very well with a part clearly written for a much older actor. Rather than focusing on his character’s decrepitude, he plays up the spite and pettiness of the role, while also adding a dimension of pathos to his nostalgic ramblings. Adam Goodbody is obsequious yet oddly creepy as Max’s limousine-driving brother, and Alec McQuarrie plays dim-witted son Joey with well-honed comic timing. Rupert Stonehill is suitably pathetic as Teddy, projecting smug elitism and fragile insecurity with equal aplomb.

But the real standouts are Hugo McPherson as Lenny and Cat White as Ruth. McPherson plays a London gangster, his sharp suit instantly distinguishing him from the rest of the cast. He veers between pedantic arguing and soft-voiced threats, rising to a shout at moments of tension. It’s a forceful, menacing performance, matched by White as the play’s domineering interloper. Initially curious, and eventually actively manipulative, there’s something hypnotic about her presence on stage. The other characters fall silent as soon as she speaks, her voice and eye movements subtly asserting control over the situation. The chemistry between these two is electrifying, and their slow dance/ kiss in the second half is what really sends the play into overdrive.

This isn’t a production for everyone; it’s over two hours with an interval, and the sensation of being trapped in a bizarre situation with people you don’t understand is far from a pleasant one. But for its top-drawer acting, its sinister atmosphere, and its overriding commitment to its aesthetic, this is absolutely a play worth seeing. Just don’t invite the parents.

Review: The New Oxford Shakespeare: Modern Critical Edition

This article first appeared on The Oxford Culture Review on 16 January 2017.

With any new publication, especially concerning the “universal” bard, it’s worth asking, ‘Who is this for?’ The New Oxford Shakespeare is no different. Coming to us from general editors Gary Taylor, John Jowett, Terri Bourus, and Gabriel Egan, Oxford University Press’s fourth iteration of the complete works is actually not one book, but four: The Complete Works: Modern Critical Edition (under review here), The Critical Reference Edition (containing the folio and quarto texts in their original spelling), the Authorship Companion (explaining the editors’ choices in detail), and an online resource gathering all of the above. The Complete Works’ modern spelling and slick cover design marks it as one for Waterstones’ shelves, but its prospects for this audience seem dubious. At fifty pounds it’s hardly in the ‘stocking filler’ price range, and it comes at a time when access to Shakespeare is widening anyway, through live streams of major productions and online resources like Folger Digital Texts. Despite apparently having taken 27 credited editors and consultants ten years of work, The New Oxford Shakespeare seems uncertain of its audience, and for all its critical insight it never quite satisfies.

This lack of satisfaction is partly due to a frankly bewildering introduction. The first part, ‘Why Read Shakespeare’s Complete Works?’, takes the standard tack of listing every major historical or literary figure to ever say anything vaguely positive about Shakespeare. This routine list is enlivened by the editors’ knack for cringeworthy phrases. We are told that “Shakespeare is the ghost with the most”, and that The Complete Works is “an anthology of extraordinarily powerful and varied virtual reality game worlds.” Besides the fact that they mix metaphors like a sea of troubles, lines like these feel incredibly patronising, especially addressed to a reader who has already picked up the Complete Works, and so presumably does not need persuading of Shakespeare’s importance. The presentation is also woefully inconsistent. One section attempts to refute accusations of racism in Shakespeare’s plays with a bullet-point list of notable non-white people who have interacted with the bard. All of Shakespeare’s other appreciators are generously discussed in continuous prose rather than simple listing. The introduction also mentions both Delia Bacon and J. Thomas Looney, without once stopping to clarify who these people are, despite its stated aim to create “something more accessible”.

This inconsistency further manifests in the second part of the Introduction, ‘Why Read This Complete Works?’, which explains the book’s editorial decisions. The editors note that this is “the first edition of Shakespeare’s complete works to include music for the songs, whenever a reliable original score is available”. While this is slightly less radical than the editors state (the 2015 Norton Shakespeare’s online edition featured recordings of the original music), it is a genuinely worthwhile move. The Tempest, for example, reads very differently with a more pronounced emphasis on music, and this simple change does more to inspire fresh reading than any waffle about virtual reality. Similarly good are the performance notes accompanying each play. The Tempest opens with the following:

“The play begins aboard a ship at sea. This is often accomplished through the uses of wind machines or sound effects, and ropes and sails manipulated by the actors. In early modern stagings a cannonball was rolled down a wooden trough to simulate the sound of thunder.”

This running commentary draws attention to the gaps and ambiguities of the script, as well as to different periods and types of staging. But while these performance-centric details are admirable, the authorship choices are baffling. Collaboration is this edition’s watchword, reflecting the trend in Shakespeare scholarship over the last fifteen years or so, as seen in books like Shakespeare, Co-Author and William Shakespeare and Others. This edition has grabbed a few headlines for listing Christopher Marlowe as co-author of the Henry VI plays. Yet its other choices betray its bardolatry; Shakespeare is interminably front and centre, even when his hand in a play is minimal. The collaboratively-written The Spanish Tragedy and Sir Thomas More are represented only by the bits ‘probably’ written by Shakespeare, with no indication of what came before or after, obscuring his impact on the overall script, and frustrating any reader unfamiliar with the plays. This fragmented presentation comes to a head with The History of Cardenio. A lost collaboration between Shakespeare and John Fletcher, it was adapted by eighteenth century playwright Lewis Theobald as Double Falsehood. In presenting it here the editors have used specialist software to identify the words most likely to have been written by Shakespeare, and left out everything else. This approach results in unreadable gobbets of text:

RODERICK   Why he hath pressed this absence, sir I know not
But [             ]  letters [
Wherein [Cardenio], good Camillo’s son,
[             ] (as he says) [
[                                 ] gold
To purchase certain horse that like him well

know the value of

There is some critical value to an exercise like this, but presenting it this way is not only frustrating to read (and hardly accessible for the general reader), it contradicts the sense of co-authorship the editors seek to emphasise. It may have been better to include the complete texts while typographically demarcating the collaborators. The Oxford Middleton, for instance, put Middleton’s additions to Macbeth in bold, and the Arden Titus Andronicus presents an inserted scene in a different typeface. The insistence on isolating Shakespeare serves to increase his iconic stature, rather than qualify it.

All told, The New Oxford Shakespeare has a distressing tendency to miss the wood for the trees. For the most egregious example we must return to the introduction. In relating Shakespeare to today’s theatre, the editors spend a page on Hamilton, ‘the most conspicuous theatrical event of the 400th anniversary year of Shakespeare’s death.’ The influence, it turns out, is fairly minor, but the truly shocking moment comes in reference to playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda’s dedicatory sonnet at the Tony Awards. The editors dutifully mention that it contained “the very Shakespearean tautology “And love is love is love is love is love”.” What they fail to mention is that the sonnet was written in response to the Orlando nightclub shooting that happened the same week. This is The New Oxford Shakespeare in a nutshell. For all its worthwhile contributions, its careful attention to detail, and its slick presentation, it suffers from a near total divorce from the context in which its material appears, be it that of 1616 or 2016.

‘The New Oxford Shakespeare: Modern Critical Edition’ is available to buy in hardback, RRP £50.