BPREVIEW: Behind Bars @ REP 24.11.16

Behind Bars @ REP 24.11.16Words by Lucy Mounfield

On Thursday 24th November, BOLDtext Playwrights present Behind Bars – an evening of short new plays about prison reform, performed at the Birmingham REP.  

Doors open at 8pm, with the audience invited to ‘Pay-What-You-Can’ as admission. For direct event info, click here.birm_prev-logo-main-lr

BOLDtext Playwrights are a group of working playwrights who aim to ‘create more opportunities and new platforms for our work in the Midlands and beyond’. Their work has previously been showcased in venues including the Birmingham REP and Warwick Words.

For Behind Bars, expect an evening of thought-provoking and deeply serious ideas. Three short plays about prison reform will take place in the REP’s smaller theatre, The Door, all written by Liz John, Nicola Jones and Tim Stimpson – writer of the Helen’s Trial in The Archers. With this Archers storyline even gaining national news attention, the criminal justice system is  arguably at the forefront of many people’s minds.

On their website, BOLDtext Playwrights offer up some pointed questions, such as ‘Does prison work? Or is it a revolving door?’ which gives an insight into the questioning nature of the evening. Following the short plays will be a debate about prison reform from a panel of representatives from both sides of the justice system.

Do BOLDtext Playwrights have an agenda? Or do they simply want to create an atmosphere of debate and insightful enquiry? Well, on the WordPress page for Behind Bars they have some pretty damning facts about the UK’s prison system, which feel very much like the roots of the idea for the event:

‘We lock up more offenders than any other Western European country, yet UK re-offending rates remain sky high – 60% in Birmingham for those serving sentences under 12 months. And with under-staffing, over-crowding, spiraling rates of assault, self-harm and suicide, substance misuse and mental illness – what can our prison system realistically achieve?’rep-logo-trans

Will Behind Bars offer us an alternative to this situation? At the very least it should make us think about our country’s prison system: what works, what doesn’t, how effective is it at reform, and does it make the country safer? And above all, are we are happy with it?

Behind Bars looks to be an evening that will hit us hard and fast with ideas. And with the political year we have had, it’s clear many people are looking for a platform to stand up and have their say.

Behind Bars runs at REP for one night only, on Thursday 24th November. Tickets are free but should be booked in advance at Birmingham Rep, then ‘Pay-What-You-Can’ on the night.  For direct event info, click here.

For more information on BOLDtext Playwrights, visit www.boldtextcollective.wordpress.com

For more from the Birmingham REP, including the full event programme and online tickets sales, visit www.birmingham-rep.co.uk

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BREVIEW: The Exorcist @ REP 21.10 – 05.11.16

Joseph Wilkins as Father Joe and Clare Louise Connolly as Regan in The Exorcist / By Robert Day

Words by Ed King / Production pics from Robert Day

The Exorcist didn’t scare me, when I first saw Blatty’s existential/ethereal see-saw on screen at the Odeon. It was a midnight showing, the entire audience was under some influence or another, and I was a precocious 18 year old not about to be frightened by ‘the scariest movie of all time’. Surely nothing was going to be that shocking, not even the violent and blasphemous masturbation of a possessed 10 year old. Pass the popcorn mother.

As the REP fills out tonight I am reminded of that witching hour screening. Nervous laughter rolls around the packed auditorium, fueled by the tacit titillation you find in an Alton Towers queue, whilst an ominous swirling sound escorts us to our seats. Fun and fear are both thick in the air. I jump at a loud bang through the tannoy, then laugh, then notice that the REP has deep red carpets.

Todd Boyce as Doctor Strong Clare Louise Connolly as Regan and Jenny Seagrove as Chris in The Exorcist / By Robert DayI also notice the potential pitfall to this production, as my friend points out all the film t-shirts being worn in homage tonight. The Exorcist is a spectacle, and for Pielmeier’s redrafted stage adaptation to claw back any sense of serious threat there is considerable work to do. Even if you’ve never seen the 1973 film or read the 1971 book, chances are you’ll know some of the story’s iconography. And we all want to see her head turn round 180 degrees.

I begin to wonder if this was such a good idea, culturally speaking, before the house lights are ripped away and we are thrown into an elongated darkness. Are we on the cusp of another, albeit darker, Rocky Horror Picture Show? In years to come will the audience be squirting silly string instead of projectile vomit? Will we shout ‘Ronald’ when the dialogue says ‘Regan’?

More laughter, more darkness. Less laughter, more darkness. More darkness. Silence now. More darkness. Mist appears and we are no longer alone. The spotlight falls on Father Merrin discovering the statue of Pazuzu, as he turns and voices a weary fear to the world.

More darkness.

Enter the MacNeils…

Beautifully lit, with obvious but well timed transitions from stark light to pitch black, The Exorcist looks great on stage. The MacNeil’s house is represented through a detached attic, a comfortably lit living room, nervous hallways, and of course that bedroom. We move from inside to out, from safety to danger, with simple yet effective techniques maintaining the necessary menace. Imagery of tortured souls and restrained torsos illuminate the occasional shadowy corner, whilst the projected wall paper surrounding Regan’s bed is manipulated to superb effect. Only the apocryphal stone stairs – that claim two bodies in the film adaptation – are left unseen.

Sound also plays a large part in delivering The Exorcist on stage – especially in our distinctions between good and evil, with the guttural shift in Ian McKellan’s Captain Howdy/The Devil voice over marking the rising anger of the beast. Never has the word ‘prize’ been uttered with such icy intent. Arguably though, even more could have been done here, with the audio lacking some of the punches that the visual throws out; if we’re going to get blinded, we can be deafened a bit too.

The cast has been stripped back to the principals akin to the Batty penned original, with Pielmeier’s sophomore stage show having had ‘a major re-write, refocusing the script entirely’ – eradicating some oddly superfluous support characters and reference points. No one mentions Rwanda on stage tonight.

Jenny Seagrove plays a wholly believable and tortured matriarch, if not a little stuck in her character at times, bouncing off the solid support from a divisively alcohol dependent Uncle Burke – played by Tristram Wymark. Ancillary characters come and go, providing useful context and bite sized development but having no real moment to shine. Likewise, Andy Garcia is given only a handful of chances to show the despair and internal rage that controls the conflicted Karras – and therefore the story’s premise. Two minutes with a punch bag and an internal monologue just isn’t enough.

But the absolute success from The Exorcist’s cast list is Claire Louise Connolly, who turns the cloying Regan into a sarcastic Satan – armed with a frighteningly endearing volley of retorts to Karras’s questions, assumptions and accusations… with a little help from Ian McKellan. But the interaction between these two (or three) characters, especially when dissecting Jesus’s martyrdom, is wonderful – and even with her hands tied, Connolly owns every facet of each character she is a conduit for. Superb stuff.

Joseph Wilkins as Father Joe and Adam Garcia as Father Damien Karras in The Exorcist / By Robert DayThe weakness with The Exorcist, as adapted for the stage, comes in the writing. Presented like a series of sketches we miss the chance to see more character development, to feel the tension build through the actors and not just the acts. The oddly dependent, supportive, yet potentially dangerous world of ego and one liners that Chris (Seagrove) and Burke (Wymark) share could have blossomed into something so much more; both actors had a firm grip but not enough road.

Likewise Andy Garcia had much more to give us, with the philosophical banter between Regan/The Devil and Father Karras being stand out scenes in terms of dialogue – there just aren’t enough of them. Even Peter Bowles, who works immediately as the perturbed and detached Father Merrin, is so oddly cut out of the end narrative I almost wonder if Equity were involved. The second half of The Exorcist was just too quick and too dirty, with a rather hurried text missing opportunities to elevate itself above an evil pantomime. And once you see a child stick a silver cross where the sun doesn’t shine, you don’t really need to see it again.

Friedkin’s film excelled on the gore, and maintained some of the religious and intellectual threads that bound Blatty’s original prose together; The Exorcist is about a possessed girl, and all the horror that comes with her, but it’s Father Karras’s struggle with his own faith that defines the novel. The subtext is morality and martyrdom; if there is a loving God, then why… and all that introspection. But John Pielmeier’s adaptation to the stage still lacks gravitas, linguistically at least, with some dialogue even feeling verbatim to that in the film. And whilst I have not yet found the balls (or time) to cross reference this fully, I feel a little cheated.

You could easily, happily, and arguably should, add 30mins to the second half of The Exorcist as a stage production, writing a handful of (new) dialogue led scenes and evolving the conversations with The Devil (especially about its seeming focus of “burning another priest on my fire”) to make this a much richer tapestry.the-exorcist-text-webcol-crop

Although The Exorcist on stage, this time around, is a triumph for the actors involved – one so well earned it made me stand up to clap. Something I’m not overly eager to do. Using used often stale and trite lines, or bizarrely spoon feed plot points, the cast still managed to make me care.

Sean Mathias has delivered his creative brief with aplomb (one which could have fallen into the trap of over familiarity or schlock horror) through a hard working ensemble who simply deserved better words to work with. The Exorcist currently being performed is definatley worth seeing, even if you’ve never cared for its previous incarnations.

And whilst The Exorcist is still not scary, I can live with being able to sleep well at night. Just give me an intelligent battle between good and evil to mull over when the lights go out.

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The Exorcist runs at the Birmingham REP until 5th November. For direct info, including show times & online ticket sales, visit www.birmingham-rep.co.uk/whats-on/the-exorcist 

For more from the Birmingham REP, visit www.birmingham-rep.co.uk

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BPREVIEW: The Exorcist @ REP 21.10 – 05.11.16

The Exorcist @ REP 21.10 – 05.11.16

Words by Ed King 

On Friday 21st October, the UK stage première of The Exorcist opens at the Birmingham REP – as presented by REP in association with Bill Kenwright.main-with-web-colour-bcg-lr

Running until Saturday 5th November, evening performances of The Exorcist will be held every day except Sunday – with matinees on Thursdays and Saturdays, excluding 22nd October.

Standard tickets are priced from £15 with a reduced £10 standard charge for the opening two preview nights. N.B. At the time of writing Sat 22nd October is sold out. For direct details on show times and tickets, click here.

So… how are they going to make her head spin round, live on stage? That and other production challenges have been floating around (no pun intended) the Birmingham Review editorial bike shed since we first saw the REP had bagged this UK debut.

the-exorcist-text-webcol-cropJohn Pielmeier, a man with experience bringing evils alive on stage and on screen (spiritual or otherwise), started adapting William Peter Blatty’s 1970’s horror stalwart back in early 2008. The first, and to date only, run of The Exorcist stage play launched at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles four years later – starring Brooke Shields as Chris MacNeil, Richard Chamberlain as Father Merrin, and David Wilson Barnes as Father Damien Karras.

‘Mixed reviews’ was the polite response (along with ‘but the audience enjoyed it’) with director John Doyle telling the LA Times “We can’t do what the movie did. We’re having to find a theatrical storytelling language that helps us — and hopefully the audience — to find a way of inhabiting the world of the play and the novel that doesn’t use the imagery that is now so iconic to people.” So that answers my head spinning question.

Doyle also cast a 23year old UCLA graduate, Emily Yetter, as the 12 year old demonically possessed Regan – reportedly to protect the more sensitive audience members from youthful profanity. This raises another question, why he took the job in the first place considering a tortured adolescence is at the centre of the narrative? John Pielmeier has further stated ‘I did a major re-write, refocusing the script entirely’ for The Exorcist’s sophomore stage production.rep-logo-trans

But with seasoned director Sean Mathias now at the helm, British theatre goers will no doubt be spared such artistic mollycoddling. A credible track record on both stage and screen, Mathias is arguably as a safe pair of hands as any – albeit not steeped in quite so much blood (…gore, searing flesh, projectile vomiting). Alongside a solid cast, The Exorcist‘s reborn on stage presence is a genuinely/potentially quite exciting affair.

And with The Exorcist‘s opening UK run being held in Birmingham, I don’t think a swearing 12 year old will turn too many heads. Again, no pun intended. Well maybe a little.

The Exorcist – Official trailer, UK stage production

Cast: Jenny Seagrove (Chris MacNeil), Peter Bowles (Father Merrin), Adam Garcia (Father Damien Karras), Clare Louise Connolly (Regan MacNeil), Todd Boyce (Doctor Strong), Mitchell Mullen (Doctor Klein), Joseph Wilkins (Father Joe), Tristram Wymark (Burke)

Crew: Sean Mathias (Director). Anna Fleischle (Designer), Tim Mitchell (Lighting Designer), Adam Cork (Composer & Sound Designer), Duncan McLean (Video & Projection Designer), Ben Hart (Illusions).

Accessible Performances: Audio Described Performance – Tues 1st Nov, 7.30pm / Captioned Performance – Weds 2nd Nov, 7.30pm / BSL Interpreted Performance – Thurs 3rd Nov, 7.30pm (Interpreted by Harjit Jagdev)

The Exorcist was written by William James Blatty – adapted for the stage by John Pielmeier.

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For more on The Exorcist at the Birmingham REP, visit www.birmingham-rep.co.uk/whats-on/the-exorcist

For more from the Birmingham REP, visit www.birmingham-rep.co.uk

For more from Bill Kenwright, visit www.kenwright.com

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BREVIEW: BE Festival @ REP 21-25.06

BE Festival @ REP 21-25.06 / By Heather Kincaid

Words by Heather Kincaid / Pics courtesy of BE Festival

As events got underway on Friday 24 June at this year’s Birmingham European Festival, the atmosphere in the buzzing Festival Hub was noticeably different from the three preceding days. Where a mood of apprehensive optimism had prevailed before, now anxious faces engaged in animated discussions, asking urgent questions about the future.BE Festival logo

Few among the artists, attendees, organisers and others gathered there from across the continent will not be directly affected by Britain’s decision to leave the EU. Nevertheless, in keeping with the spirit of collaboration, co-operation and creativity in which BE Festival was conceived, directors Isla Aguilar and Miguel Oyarzun delivered a rousing speech, urging us to meet the news by coming together to show the world that a better Europe was possible.

Programmed well in advance, none of the shows at BE Festival 2016 were directly themed around the EU referendum, yet its presence could be felt in almost every aspect of the event – like a capricious ghost looming over the festivities, showing us Europe’s past, present and possible futures in a bid for us to understand the impact of Thursday’s decision.

Situation with an Outstretched Arm – Oliver Zahn’s ‘performative essay’ on the history of what has come to be known as the ‘Hitler salute’, explores the complex and inextricable connection between art and politics. In deconstructing the gesture in paintings and in practice, it demonstrates how aesthetics and symbolism play a vital part in the establishment of ideologies and in how we interact with them. At a time when both art and criticism are under financial threat, it feels like a bold statement asserting their importance in teaching us to identify and analyse power mechanisms.

Situation with an Outstretched Arm by Oliver Zahn @ BE Festival 2016Meanwhile, Xavier Bobés’ Things Easily Forgotten tells a story set against the backdrop of Franco’s Spanish regime, which lasted until 1975. With emboldened far-right extremists making news across the continent again, angered by mass migration and an increasingly internationalist outlook, it’s a potent reminder of how recently such groups have held real power. And how easily it could happen again if we fail to work together to prevent it.

In very different ways, Teatro Sotterraneo’s Reload and Aldes’ In Girum Imus Nocte both hold a mirror up to Western society today. Satirising the constant distractions of a labyrinthine Internet, the hilarious Reload looks at our restlessness, reduced concentration spans and decreased capacity to delay gratification when fed a constant stream of information and entertainment. With the Internet serving as the major battleground upon which the EU referendum campaigns were fought, Reload accidentally seems to highlight some of the problems with the debate: is it possible to really have a serious conversation or follow ideas through properly when fighting against a barrage of memes and soundbites?

Elsewhere, CollettivO CineticO’s Hamlet stands like a warning, showing us a kind of election by TV-style talent show with local contestants competing to be crowned as Shakespeare’s Danish Prince.

Presenting a far bleaker view of our world, In Girum Imus Nocte speaks to the frustrations of modern living that have caused many people to rail against what can feel like oppressive limitations in our society. Dancers move aimlessly, jerking and twitching like clockwork automatons in a world of grey and black, against a repetitive, ticking soundtrack. Occasionally, their drab routines are punctuated by outbreaks of mob fury, hedonistic celebration and bouts of deep, exhausted sleep. In such a world, change in whatever form it’s offered will inevitably be seized upon by some.BE Festival 2016

Perhaps the single hottest (and most inflammatory) topic in Britain’s EU debate has been the issue of immigration, particularly in relation to the ongoing Syrian crisis. An Wei Lu Li’s pointedly titled Democracy draws attention to the plight of refugees through a series of large-scale paintings located around the city.

The centrepiece of this city-wide ‘exhibition’ is Leviathan – a giant picture of a curled body on the ground in Centenary Square, only really visible in its entirety from the privileged vantage point of the Library of Birmingham terraces. Down on the ground, meanwhile, passers-by unwittingly trample across the body, gradually causing it to fade away. In a democracy, the work suggests, we’re all responsible on some level for the policies our leaders enact, even if we choose to ignore them.

Picking up on the same theme, W. H. Auden’s ‘Refugee Blues’ made an appearance in Los Bárbaros’ Things We’d Love to See on Stage. Though essentially a random collection of unrelated things, it also included “a politician doing politics” – which turned out to be a maneki-neko (beckoning cat figurine). “He’s not under Europe, but he’s probably pro-China, so we don’t know how that will work out,” joked one performer. The show took on a particularly poignant dimension when an opportunity for the audience to choose something that they’d like to see on stage themselves prompted a callback to an earlier item on the list. Previously, “maps” of Europe, Britain, England and Birmingham had been created out of piles of compost. After a member of the audience suggested “unity”, cheers erupted when another came forward to combine the maps into one pile.

Leviathan by An Wei Lu Li @ BE Festival 2016No single performance could have been better suited to the occasion, however, than Power to the People, a project themed around democracy, developed by a handful of last year’s artists through the BE Mix initiative – a brief, scratch-style residency that takes place after the festival each year. In the lead up to the show on Friday, performers on either side of a debate had been canvassing for votes for their respective ideas – one a piece directed by a single person, the other collaboratively devised by a team of five.

As with the referendum, the results of the vote on the day itself were pretty close, but ultimately the Five Directors Project won it. Next came questions designed to identify viewers’ assumptions. Is democracy really the best form of government? Does theatre at BE Festival confirm its audience’s biases? Congratulations to us, we collectively decided that the only power system that most of us have ever known was superior to any other. But since we also decided that the art we see should challenge us, the company went on to spend half an hour trying to prove us wrong…

If there’s one thing that BE Festival makes clear, it’s the case for even the most lighthearted of creative endeavours as something with the power to prompt reflection on the important issues in our lives.

With no sign of an end to austerity yet in sight, and the likelihood that Brexit will make it harder for British artists to collaborate with their continental neighbours, one can only hope that it continues to be able to serve this function.

For more on BE Festival, visit www.befestival.org

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