The Two Gentlemen of Verona: steal and attempt to rape my girl, but what the hell, we can still be friends

<em>The Two Gentlemen of Verona</em>: steal and attempt to rape my girl, but what the hell, we can still be friends

The Two Gentlemen of Verona, written between 1589 and 1593, is believed to have been Shakespeare’s first play – and, boy, does it show. It didn’t make much of an impression when first performed, and rare revivals in recent times have generally not been very well-received.

Last week we saw the Liverpool Everyman and Shakespeare’s Globe co-production which did a decent job of creating an entertaining and thought-provoking evening’s entertainment – but only by setting the action in 1966, hacking the text, and subverting Shakespeare’s happy-ever-after ending which leaves a modern audience feeling decidedly nauseous. It’s certainly the first time that I have come away from a Shakespeare production feeling that my main criticism of the play would be the text! Continue reading The Two Gentlemen of Verona: steal and attempt to rape my girl, but what the hell, we can still be friends”

Stories of exile: Queens of Syria, Exodus and the Very Quiet Foreign Girls’ Poetry Group

Stories of exile: <em>Queens of Syria, Exodus</em> and the Very Quiet Foreign Girls’ Poetry Group

Another day, yet another atrocity hurled from the maelstrom of conflict in the Middle East, the turmoil which has also resulted in over half of Syria’s people being killed or forced to flee their homes to become refugees. In the evening I attend a performance at the Liverpool Everyman of Queens of Syria, a remarkable touring production, performed by Syrian women from a refugee camp in Amman, which weaves the women’s own stories of exile and war into passages from the ancient Greek play The Trojan Women, theatre’s earliest dramatisation of the plight of women in war.

Earlier this week I watched the BBC documentary trilogy, Exodus: Our Journey to Europe, which told the stories of some of the refugees in last year’s huge movement of people fleeing disaster – on dinghies crossing from Turkey to Greece, along the migrant trail through the Balkans, and in the Jungle at Calais – filmed along the way by those same people on mobile phones.

After a referendum campaign which seemed to establish the expression of racist or anti-immigrant sentiment as respectable once more, these three films gave voice to those who have truly lost their homeland, in stark contrast  to those in this country who, having ‘wanted to get their country back’, now truly believe that’s what they have achieved. Continue reading “Stories of exile: Queens of Syria, Exodus and the Very Quiet Foreign Girls’ Poetry Group”

Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme

Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme

We’re not making a sacrifice. Jesus, you’ve seen this war. We are the sacrifice.

On 1 July 1916, 2,069 men of the 36th Ulster Division were among the among the 19,000 British soldiers killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. That day was also the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne, and some of the men of the 36th went over the top wearing orange sashes.

With the centenary of the Somme less than two weeks away, it was apt to have the chance of seeing a revival of Frank McGuinness’s great war play Observe The Sons Of Ulster Marching Towards The Somme at the Playhouse in Liverpool – especially as this was a co-production of Headlong, Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, and the Everyman. Continue reading “Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme”

A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Everyman: darkness on the edge of town

A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Everyman: darkness on the edge of town

There’s a darkness on the edge of town. A place of misrule and disruptive magic that in Shakespeare’s day incited dark fears and dreams of wild abandon. The Everyman production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, seen on the penultimate night of its successful run, helped me appreciate for the first time the darker side of Shakespeare’s timeless comedy. Continue reading “A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Everyman: darkness on the edge of town”

Filtered Macbeth at the Everyman

Filtered Macbeth at the Everyman

I have done the deed. Didst thou not hear a noise?

On Saturday afternoon we were at the Everyman to see the Filter Theatre production of Macbeth that was passing through, on tour.  Filter have gained a reputation for innovative and exciting theatre since 2003, and this was certainly no routine presentation of what is one of the most familiar of Shakespeare’s plays. I learnt the play as an O-level text, and have seen it performed two or three times since, including Trevor Nunn’s 1974 production at Stratford, a sort of Jacobean black Mass with Nicol Williamson and Helen Mirren as the murderous couple. Filter’s is a cut-down 75-minute version that might be difficult to follow if you are unfamiliar with the play. Continue reading “Filtered Macbeth at the Everyman”

Bright Phoenix: celebrating the city’s wild, anarchic spirit

Bright Phoenix: celebrating the city’s wild, anarchic spirit

Rhodri Meillir as Spike

Rhodri Meillir as Spike in Bright Pheonix

‘Why is it only ever one shoe?’

At the end of the week in which the new Everyman building won the Stirling Prize for new architecture my daughter treated me to a meal at The Quarter and a ticket to see Jeff Young’s ‘love letter to Liverpool’, Bright Pheonix at the Everyman.

Young’s play opens with Spike, a one-eyed, shambling drunk haranguing a sharply-suited woman – a member of Liverpool’s new networked elite, no doubt – who is promoting a vision of business redevelopment for the shabby scene of dereliction that greets visitors to the city when they emerge from Lime Street station.  Soon we are inside the building that symbolizes Lime Street’s decay, the derelict Futurist, Liverpool’s first purpose-built cinema, now a mouldering shell in which the only thing that thrives is buddleia.

Encamped in the derelict cinema, kind of Occupy style, are a motley group who were childhood friends in the 1980s, and the play alternates its narrative between the present day and the 1980s in order to develop Young’s theme of a regenerated Liverpool turning its back on the magic and mythic city of the past. Lucas (played by Paul Duckworth returns twenty years after leaving Liverpool and meets up with the survivors of the gang of kids who scrabbled and fantasised in the dirt and decay of 1980s Liverpool.  Like Lucas, writer Jeff Young has spent his adult life leaving and returning to Liverpool, most recently coming back for Capital of Culture year, since when he’s stayed.

For the 8-year-olds playing games of make believe by the Leeds-Liverpool canal there are dreams of travel to distant places, re-enactments of scenes from war films seen after bunking into the cinema, home-made planes and fishing for rubbish in the canal (‘Why is it only ever one shoe?’), kisses and fags. They dream of flying, like the wartime bomber pilots, or the old Standard firework that gives the play its title. One member of the gang in particular is flying-mad – Alan (calls himself ‘Icarus’, played by Carl Au with Meccano wings strapped to his back.  He’ll come to a tragic end. The other members of the group, who call themselves The Awkward Bastards, are Alan’s sister, Lizzie, with whom Lucas falls in love, Stephen (Mark Rice Oxley) who at eight years is already uncertain about his gender identity, and Spike, an imaginative and impulsive boy whose (literal) entanglement with Lucas has terrible consequences. Rhodri Meillir’s terrific, lurching performance as Spike overshadows everything else in the play, making the sensitive but illiterate child, and the damaged alcoholic he becomes, a compelling, sympathetic figure around whom all the other characters revolve.

Carl Au as Alan 'Icarus' Flynn in Bright Phoenix

Carl Au as Alan ‘Icarus’ Flynn in Bright Phoenix

Twenty years later, Lucas, the only member of the gang to leave the city, returns, and is far from being welcomed by the others.  Gradually we learn of the impact that Lucas has had on the lives of the others, including a series of tragic accidents that tore the group apart. The survivors of the eighties fetch up in the derelict Futurist, where Lizzie (Penny Layden) is camped out, attempting to bring the cinema back to life and revive the wild, rebel spirit of their childhood days. ‘Do you live in magical places?’  she asks, a question that goes to the core of Jeff Young’s vision in this play. Bright Phoenix has been described as Jeff Young’s love letter to his Liverpool, populated by the kind of people with whom he feels an emotional kinship, and set in a place for which he holds a genuine affection.In a recent interview, Young said:

My favourite people are people who live on the margins, in the shadows that might get overlooked, as you said, misfits, who are kind of forgotten. The play is about all these kinds of people. There are homeless characters in it, people who are rejected by the educational system. The characters of the play, when they were children, were really wild and rebellious. When we meet them as adults; we meet them three times: as kids, teenagers and grown-ups. When they are grown-ups, they’re still as wild and rebellious as when they were kids. They still don’t fit in, they still don’t belong. There’s a sense about it that they don’t want to. They deliberately live outside the system. It’s a celebration of that spirit, a celebration of that wild, anarchic spirit. They are non-conformist, they’re anti-establishment, and quite happy to cause trouble!

In the present-day scenes the old Futurist gradually comes to be populated by a motley crew of anarchic rebels. There’s Spike, learning to read and write, spray-painting poetry on the walls; Stephen (Mark Rice Oxley) is a cross-dressing torch singer who observes of regenerated Liverpool: ‘We’ve got cafes. Cafes with chairs outside. You don’t get that in Paris’; and wandering in and out is Cathy Tyson in an understated role as a bag lady, Elsie, who remembers when she was beautiful.  She has one great song in the production.

These scenes depend critically on staging that convinces the audience that, amidst the dereliction,  there is magic in the air, but it has to be said that few of the sequences really take flight. It ought to work, as Ovid ‘s poetry is graffitied on the walls, as gorgeously-dressed Stephen sings swooning torch songs from the balcony, and  Lizzie’s Free Radio broadcasts rebellion across Liverpool ‘s airwaves.

But it never really comes together.  The production feels sluggish, stuttering from one scene to the next and between the past and the present.  The occupied Futurist seems under-occupied on stage: too few people, too many halting pauses between scenes. The music is good: compositions by Martin Heslop are played with panache by flautist and singer Laura J Martin and multi-instrumentalist Vidar Norheim (who was, the Everyman notes, voted Norway’s most promising songwriter in 2011).

Jeff Young in the bistro at the Everyman (Liverpool Echo)

Jeff Young

In the aforementioned interview, Jeff Young claimed that Bright Pheonix was a metaphor:

It’s a metaphor for believing in certain values and those values are cultural and about community and that collective spirit. That kind of place is about bringing people together and the importance of the crowd, instead of living in isolation. What makes places like that really powerful is not just the films that are being shown on the screen. It’s the fact that there are 50 or 100 people collectively gathered in there and that matters. The energy of the people together in that room.

The trouble with this production was that the energy and collective spirit to which Young refers just didn’t come across.  When the police move in to close down the occupation, you don’t feel any sense of loss. Young has said (in a recent post on Seven Streets) that he wants people to look afresh at their city, and to re-connect with places that form part of his Liverpool mythology: ‘I want people to explore those places and spaces again. To consider what public space is – what is it and how should it be used.’

Dave Sinclair, Bibby's shortly before closure

Dave Sinclair, Bibby’s shortly before closure

There’s certainly a debate to be had about the way the city has changed in the last decade or so – whether it is for the better, how much has really changed, and whether some things have been lost.  But, in my view, Bright Phoenix did not contribute very much to that debate. That Liverpool has changed since the 1980s is indisputable.  Coincidentally, in News From Nowhere this week I came across a book of brilliant photographs of the city in that decade taken by Dave Sinclair, who was working as the official photographer for the Militant newspaper in the city at the time. His book, Liverpool in the 1980s, contains memory-jolting images of the people, streets, derelict factories, docks and protests that gave Liverpool a very different image nationally in those days.

Dave Sinclair, Tate & Lyles, 1980s

Dave Sinclair, Tate & Lyles, 1980s

In a preface, Sinclair tells how, after leaving Alsop Comprehensive in 1976 half-way through his A-levels, he webnt to work at Kwiksave on County Road, stacking shelves.  After three years he went to art college where he learned to draw, but most importantly became interested in photography, initially as a form of note-taking for his drawings. He found inspitation, too, in books:

Liverpool Central Library had a fantastic collection of photography books, and I’d spend many hours after college poring over photographs.  Cartier Bresson was there, Ansel Adams, Paul Strand, Walker Evans, William Klein, Eugene Smith and many Europeans, too, including Don McCullin.  Loads of brilliant books taking up some serious shelf space.

I wish those who now advocate library closures could read that.  Sinclair became especially interested in Liverpool’s urban landscape while studying.  In 1983, he went to Newport in South Wales to study photography and by the beginning of the Miners’ Strike in March 1984 he was spending a lot of time in the Welsh Valleys ‘which was going through something very similar to Liverpool economically, albeit with more hills and space’.  Although his photographs of striking miners were being published in socialist newspapers, the college lecturers didn’t regard them as art.  So he left, and was soon working for the Militant newspaper, travelling the country documenting struggles and strikes.  But he was ciontinually drawn back to his home town where Militant councillors had taken over the leadership of the Labour council, and were coming into conflict not only with Margaret Thatcher’s government, but also with the Labour party leadership for refusing to set a budget. The book contains 160 superb photos taken during the hours that Sinclair spent walking around Liverpool, exploring the landscape of dereliction, but gaining increasing confidence in capturing people.

Dave Sinclair, Chucking rock in Leeds Liverpool Canal '82

Dave Sinclair, Chucking rock in Leeds Liverpool Canal ’82

In the days before different attitudes toward photographing children in the street, many of the photographs feature children like the young gang in Bright Phoenix – the one above could almost be a scene from the play.

Dave Sinclair went on  to work as the official photographer for Tower Hamlets council in London.  When he went part-time in 2007 he had the opportunity to catalogue his archive, which he placed on the photo-sharing site, Flickr. The photos in the book have been selected from his Flickr photostream.

Dave Sinclair, Everton drunks, 1980s

Dave Sinclair, Everton drunks, 1980s

Liverpool has changed – our walk from my favourite restaurant to the Everyman reflected this fact in microcosm: the bustling restaurants (with chairs outside!), LiPa, the street art, the Philharmonic Hall renovation, the huge student apartment block going up on the corner of Hardman Street, and the new Everyman itself.  There’s a debate, of course, about how much this is for the better – there may be plenty of new jobs in the city centre in those restaurants, cafes and hotels that cater for the tourists who now flock to the city and the thousands who pour forth from the cruise liners that dock here weekly.  Down river dredging works have started for the Liverpool2 superport which will allow access for post-Panamax size container ships, reversing Liverpool’s long decline as a port.

Surprisingly, much of Liverpool’s renaissance – symbolized by Capital of Culture year – has held up, despite the banking crash that started that same year.  The rub is that in this new economy, many of the jobs in services and tourism are low-paid, part-time or on zero-hours contracts. But what is mostly taking the shine off the city’s renaissance is the government’s policy of austerity and public spending cuts.

Meanwhile – does anyone want to buy an iconic but derelict cinema on Liverpool’s most mythical street?

The Futurist in 1954The Futurist interior

The Futurist in 1954

The Futurist interior todayThe Futurist today

Inside the Futurist today

The Futurist opened on 16th September 1912 as the Lime Street Picture House, an upmarket city centre cinema. Until its closure in 1982, the Futurist was considered to be one of the most luxurious cinemas on the circuit, originally housing a full orchestra to accompany silent films and a prestigious first floor café, with a foyer lined with Sicilian marble. It was the first in the city to show wide screen Cinemascope films. With a Georgian-style façade and a French Renaissance interior, the auditorium was designed to have the effect of a live theatre with rich architectural detailing and plaster mouldings. Now the interior is probably unsalvageable. Whether the façade can be preserved, and Lime Street rejuvenated is another matter. Perhaps we need some artistic and determined young people to occupy it?

And does a building hold the memories of those who have spent time within its walls? Maybe so.  I certainly have memories of seeing films at the Futurist in the seventies.  But I have even stronger memories of times spent inside another of Liverpool’s iconic buildings, also now derelict, in the 1980s – a building I revisited last week.  More in the next post.

Alex Cox gets into the Futurist

See also

Dead Dog In a Suitcase: ‘We hang petty thieves and appoint the great ones to public office’

Dead Dog In a Suitcase: ‘We hang petty thieves and appoint the great ones to public office’

Martin Hyder and Rina Fatina in Dead Dog in a Suitcase

Martin Hyder and Rina Fatina in ‘Dead Dog in a Suitcase’

Through all the Employments of Life
Each Neighbour abuses his Brother;
Whore and Rogue they call Husband and Wife:
All Professions be-rogue one another:
The Priest calls the Lawyer a Cheat,
The Lawyer be-knaves the Divine:
And the Statesman, because he’s so great,
Thinks his Trade as honest as mine.

In the 1720s, when John Gay wrote his timeless and fantastically successful The Beggar’s Opera, trust in politicians was almost non-existent, men had been ruined, and the national economy weakened, by the collapse of the South Sea Company.  The parallels with our own time need little elaboration; as Paul Crewe, the producer of Dead Dog in a Suitcase, the Liverpool Everyman and Kneehigh re-creation remarks in the production’s programme:

We’re still confronting a world in which there is no trust in politicians; where bankers wreck economies and lives, yet collect huge bonuses; in which the power of wealth and celebrity is celebrated, the law is often found to be corrupt, but where millions live in poverty and degradation. What is the world coming to?

engraving by Hogarth shows a burlesque of John Gay's popular ballad opera The Beggar's Opera. The engraving shows the actors in the middle of one of the songs, sending up the characters by using animal masks.

An engraving by Hogarth shows actors wearing animal masks performing a song from Gay’s ‘Beggar’s Opera’.

Dead Dog, seen this week, is a kaleidoscopic rewrite and update of John Gay’s original in which writer Carl Grose has returned to the spirit, if not the text, of the source, ignoring Brecht’s  better-known re-interpretation.  The characters’ names have not, however, been changed to protect the innocent.  We still have the contract killer Macheath (later transformed into Mack the Knife, in Brecht’s Threepenny Opera), hired by the Peachums to murder the town’s mayor  as the prelude to a fixed mayoral election. It’s an old story of power, corruption and lies.  Les Peachum is a businessman who fears that the incumbent mayor knows too much about his shady dealings (buildings made of his shoddy concrete, and a business selling pilchards poisoned by the toxic waste poured into the bay by another of his operations.

Grose doesn’t use Peachum’s line from Gay’s original, though it fits:

No Gentleman is ever look’d upon the worse for killing a Man in his own Defence; and if Business cannot be carried on without it, what would you have a Gentleman do?

Rina Fatania as Mrs Peachum

Rina Fatania as Mrs Peachum

With the run drawing to its close, I don’t think I’m giving anything away in revealing that the truly evil Peachum is the missus (a standout performance by Rita Fatania as Les Peachum’s domineering and scheming spouse).  This Mrs Peachum has no need of Mr Peachum’s advice in the original; she knows it already:

But Money, Wife, is the true Fuller’s Earth for
Reputations, there is not a Spot or a Stain but what it can take out.
A rich Rogue now-a-days is fit Company for any Gentleman; and the
World, my Dear, hath not such a Contempt for Roguery as you imagine.

A lot of money changes hands – in suitcase-sized portions.  Identical suitcases change hands, too: it’s a running gag throughout the show.  There’s the one with the money, one with the mayor’s evidence that could ruin the Peachums – and the one with the dead dog (the unfortunate pooch was being taken for a walk by its owner, the mayor, when both were assassinated; ‘it was a witness’, remarks Macheath, the killer).

Patrycja Kujawska As Widow Goodman

Suitcase mix-up: Patrycja Kujawska as the mayor’s widow

It’s hard to do justice in a few words to the energy and inventiveness of this production.  Director Mike Shepherd has the tale unfold against the backdrop of a vast, scaffolded set across which characters clamber and leap.  There is a Punch and Judy, there are hand puppets, choreographed dance numbers,  atmospheric lighting effects, a lot of physically-demanding  performance – and lots of music, a great deal of it performed by the actors themselves, most notably by Patrycja Kujawska on violin.

Music director Charles Hazlewood has retained the sense of Gay’s original which subverted the popular operatic tradition of its day by incorporating songs and tunes that were familiar to ordinary people.  His ebullient score embraces rap, disco, ska and dub, with set pieces that reference – amongst many sources -Ian Dury, Madness  and Tom Waits, as well as  incorporating, as did John Gay, variants on ‘Greensleeves’ and airs by Handel and Purcell.  The Polly Peachum wedding scene, in which the entire cast restage a Madness routine wearing long, black overcoats and pork pie hats, is priceless.

Madness 2 Madness

 Madness: the cast with Carly Bawden as Polly Peachum

The acting is uniformly strong in this ensemble performance, though Rina Fatania as Mrs Peachum and Dominic Marsh as Macheath deserve special mention.  The whole thing works its way inexorably towards a truly stunning conclusion that brings home just how marvellous a box of tricks this theatre now has at its disposal.  It’s an apocalyptic ending that must leave the Everyman staff with a lot of clearing up to do every night. If I have one criticism, though, it is that the show is too long and a little uneven.  For example, there’s a scene towards the end where, with Macheath on the gallows awaiting execution, his two wives sing a song of devotion.  It’s not a particularly good song, and the rest of the cast are left standing motionless, watching.

Dead Dog in a Suitcase Everyman 1

 The Slammerkin

The production retains John Gay’s focus on ‘Gaming, Drinking and Whoring’.  In the original, Macheath frequents a tavern where he is waited on by women of dubious virtue.  In Dead Dog, writer and director have updated the concept with The Slammerkin, a nightclub staffed by gyrating pole dancers and transsexuals. There’s a hilarious scene (perhaps to be avoided by those of a nervous disposition who are uneasy around babies) in which the many babies fathered by Macheath surround him, bawling and crawling with menace.

Dead Dog logo

Dead Dog: Kneehigh/Everyman publicity

John Gay achieved his greatest success with The Beggar’s Opera which had its debut in London in 1728  and became an immediate success, performed more than any other play during the 18th century. Alexander Pope wrote of the play that its ‘vast success was unprecedented and almost incredible’.  It was popular, not just in London, but in all the major towns of Britain, and as far afield as Jamaica.

The play’s popularity was due in part to its satiric subversion of Italian opera, the passionate interest of the upper classes at the time – but mainly, perhaps, to the manner in which it lampooned politicians and commented excoriatingly on social inequity, primarily through Gay’s comparison of low-class thieves and whores with their aristocratic superiors: ‘There is such a similitude of manners in high and low life that it is difficult to determine whether (in the fashionable vices) the fine gentlemen imitate the gentlemen of the road, or the gentlemen of the road the fine gentlemen’.

Gay was not alone in making the comparison, as Vic Gatrell observes in City of Laughter, his superb history of sexual attitudes and satire in 18th century London which I read recently.  At around the same time as Gay’s play was being premiered, Henry Fielding wrote:

Great whores in coaches gang,
Smaller misses
For their kisses,
Are in Bridewell hang’d;
Whilst in vogue
Lives the great rogue,
Small rogues are by dozens hang’d

While Daniel Defoe observed caustically, ‘How many honest gentlemen have we in England, of good estates and noble circumstances, that would be highway men, and come to the gallows, if they were poor?

The theatre programme features a number of pertinent quotations along the same lines, including this one from Aesop some 2500 years ago (confirming that nothing is new under the sun):

 We hang petty thieves and appoint the great ones to public office.

While to Eddie Vedder is attributed the observation:

Give a man a gun, he’ll rob a bank.  Give a man a bank, he’ll rob the world.

Threepenny Opera Original German poster from Berlin, 1928

Threepenny Opera: original German poster from Berlin, 1928

In 1928, on the 200th anniversary of the original production of Gay’s play, The Threepenny Opera, a collaboration between Bertolt Brecht (who wrote the words) and Kurt Weill (who devised the music) updated the story for the Depression years.  By 1933, when Brecht and Weill were forced to leave Germany by Hitler’s policies, the play had been translated into 18 languages and performedacross Europe. Songs from The Threepenny Opera have become standards, most notably, of course, ‘Mack the Knife’.  It is absent, however, from Dead Dog in a Suitcase.