Saturday, 21 April 2018

Review: Rush, Pentire Street Productions

Burrowed under the arches of the Barons Court Theatre, Rush is a heady excursion through the trials of modern millennial life, exploring the intersections of technology and mental health. Written and performed by Tiwalade Ibirogba-Olulode, it follows the stories of ‘Alex’, a name used by multiple characters to interrogate social attitudes towards anxiety and depression. Ibirogba-Olulode, Eve Atkinson, Brandon Grace, Hannah Dunlop and Oseloka Obi carry Alex’s narrative from scene-to-scene. There is an unsavoury blending of comedic elements with perverse and abject moments, which sits a little uneasy at times.
The evening is fronted with a small musical ensemble playing covers of Destiny’s Child, Shakira and Britney Spears. Whilst these are accomplished renditions, they do feel somewhat mismatched with the stern subject matter which the play puts forth. The opening scene praises the audience for their social media use and ruminates on the cultural desire for online gratification. There is a sardonic declaration, “You are so, so special!”. The play weaves between scenes of social isolation, from a grotesque depiction of child abuse in a primary school to a jovial Tinder ‘how-to’. It loosely charts Alex’s maturation and continued seclusion through a cultural misunderstanding of mental health.
The lack of communication around mental wellbeing is confidently visualised in the family scene, where Ibirogba-Olulode and Obi play Alex’s parents and implore their child to pray after recounting mental health issues. The dialogue is sarcastically saturated with a disdain for middle-class potpourri predilections, Ibirogba-Olulode despairing that, “I put Citrus Zing in the kitchen!”. Ibirogba-Olulode later explains that this scene had been the most resonant with her own personal navigation of anxiety and depression in a strictly religious Nigerian household.
Physical movement is thoughtfully articulated with direction from James Monckton and Sussan Sanii. This is particularly outstanding in the bird scene, proving that one can explore ambitious metaphors even on a shoestring budget. The interpretive dance using the white light of iPhones is artfully executed and sound-tracked by Ellie Smit’s original compositions, drawing on electronic sequencing. Physical comedy is brilliantly staged by Obi in the Tinder dating scene and Hannah Dunlop’s Alex in the WTF News scene is disquietingly excellent.
The play ends with a scene of sexual exploitation between a theatre student and their mentor, a passage which Ibirogba-Olulode penned pre-Weinstein and the #MeToo movement. This book-ends the opening image of abuse and is a bleak, fatalistic concluding image which evades an inspection of the victim’s narrative or indeed the psychology of the perpetrator. Whilst the play outlines society’s agglomeration of ‘mental health issues’, it did not undermine this narrative and feels unfortunately fatalistic. Whilst technically good, the sensitive subject matter could have been more deftly handled.
Rush will be playing at The Space Theatre, London from 21-25 August. Further details and booking information will be coming to the website soon.
Photo: Pentire Street Productions
Written for A Younger Theatre.

Friday, 6 April 2018

Hamlet in Hackney

The RSC’s run of Hamlet at the Hackney Empire is a successfully ambitious transplant to modern West Africa. Paapa Essiedu commands the title role, and at the tender age of 27, is the RSC’s first black actor to play Hamlet for the company. Essiedu offers a moving and nuanced portrait of Shakespeare’s despairing Dane, ruminating on the stages of grief.
The play loosely begins in Wittenberg University upon Hamlet’s graduation, before a heady succession of flashes show a glass-encased body (the late King Hamlet) before placing the action firmly in African Elsinore’s city limits.
Simon Godwin’s direction takes Hamlet on an intriguingly creative avenue for theatre’s notoriously philosophising misanthrope. Godwin paints a fresh Hamlet, doing away with the introspective philosopher and articulating him more as a tortured artist; incapable of expressing the depths of his loss. There are explicit allusions to Basquiat in the production, as Hamlet mounts the throne to spray-paint a pink ‘H’ and crown on the imposing portrait of Gertrude and Claudius, overlooking the court. As insanity tightens its grip, Hamlet styles himself like a Neo-Expressionist in a gaudy blazer splashed with neon paint, surrounded by discarded mattresses and colourful drapes emblazoned with skulls, dinosaurs and edgy slogans. Essiedu recites the play’s notorious soliloquy, pontificating with an artist’s palate in hand.
There are some moments of excellency dampened by less convincing accompaniments. The decision to cast a female Guildenstern (Eleanor Wyld) and the allusion to a previous romantic relationship between herself and Hamlet feels somewhat misplaced, fails to enrich or advance the narrative, and reduces Rosencrantz to little more than a gormless fly-on-the-wall.
Whilst the ‘Get thee to a nunnery’ scene feels somewhat saturated in Ophelia’s attempts to blindly seduce Hamlet (despite his heart-breaking scorn), Mimi Ndiweni convincingly depicts Ophelia's woeful descent from youthful optimism to fervid mania. This reaches a gruesome climax in Ophelia’s ‘flowers’ speech where the noted plants are sardonically exchanged for segments of her weave, each one torn, grimly, from her head.
This is a bold staging that injects boundless colour and buzzing musicality to Shakespeare’s most contrary of heroes.

You can see Hamlet at the Hackney Empire until the 31st March
Words, Senior Literary Editor Ellie Potts- @eldpotts