Drama at the theatre

stage

 

In the past, I preferred watching films (‘movies’) to attending live drama at the theatre. Now, my preferences have reversed. In live theatre there is an interraction between the actors on stage and the audience. Good actors engage the audience  psychologically and almost physically. And, I suspect that the actors are also engaged by the audience – its attentiveness, its reactions (facial and otherwise), and other signs of the audience’s feelings provoked by their actions. So great is that interaction between performers and the audience that often I leave the theatre at the end of a performance feeling physically exhausted. Even with superb cinema productions, I never feel as gripped by the performance as I do whilst watching live theatre.

Having stated the above, I am now going to be a bit critical. I have watched many live performances of drama on stage, much of which was excellent. However, I have noticed that in some plays, the first (opening) act is often very weak compared with what follows later. On several occasions, I have walked out of the theatre because a play’s first act or first half has been unpromising. This is sad because now I know that many plays improve as they progress.

I cannot understand why so many plays have weak opening scenes. If I were reading a book and the first 10 or 20% of its pages did not capture my attention, I would abandon the idea of reading it through to its end. Why do so many people remain in the theatre when the opening act is unpromising? Is it because they have paid so much for the tickets? Or, is it because they, like me, have realised that most plays take time to build up to an engaging/enjoyable momentum?

Recently, I saw a play “Amsterdam” by Mayur Arad Yasur at the Orange Tree Theatre at Richmond (SW London). From its first moment, neither the actors nor the play were able to engage me. The same seemed to be the case for several other members of the audience, who walked across the stage and out of the auditorium within a few minutes of the play’s beginning.

Mercifully, about half way through the performance, which did nothing to make me forget the discomfort caused by my seat – it did the opposite, there was a technical hitch. The performance was paused, and some member of the theatre staff mumbled something, which I imagine was to notify us of the hitch. After almost 10 minutes during which no further information was given to the by now restive audience, I decided to follow the actors backstage to find out what was going on. Only then, did someone come out on to the stage to give some information. As what we had already seen of the play had been so unbearable and there seemed to be no sign that the performance would be resumed in the near future, we walked out. Had the play been more enjoyable or in some way worthwhile, we would have waited for it to continue.

Well, you cannot win every time. For each disaster such as “Amsterdam”, we have have seen plenty of highly satisfactory plays.

From Norway to Bengal

Doll hse

 

We were attracted to the latest theatrical production at the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith (West London) because it was a play set in Calcuttta (Kolkata) in the late 1870s. It was not any old play set in Victorian Bengal, but a new adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s the Dolls House (first performed 1879), which was originally set in a Norwegian town in the 19th century.

What we saw at the Lyric was a new version of Ibsen’s play created by the playwright Tanika Gupta. In Ibsen’s play the main protagonists are Nora Helmer, her husband Torwald Helmer, Dr Rank, Nora’s school friend Kristine Linde, and one of  the employees in Torwald’s bank, a desperate widowed father, Nils Krogstad. In Gupta’s play Torwald becomes Tom Helmer, an Englishman, who has married Niru,  a Bengali beauty, and has become a senior official in the British administration of India. Dr Rank remains Dr Rank, but is also an Englishman. Kristine becomes Krishna Lahiri, an impoverished widow and schoolfriend of Niru. Nils Krogstad is transformed into Mr Kaushik Das, a widowed Bengali father of four children and a lowly employee in Tom’s office.

In its new guise, Gupta’s Dolls House sticks to the spirit and main ideas in Ibsen’s plot but causes it to be played out in the steamy tropical climate of Calcutta. Gupta explores the relationship between the representative of British imperialism and his very sweet Indian wife. The arrival of Krishna and then Mr Das on the scene soon unsettles the happy home life that the Helmers had been enjoying. Without giving the story away, Mr Das, whom Tom does not like, holds a secret that could bring about Tom’s downfall if revealed. Tom is blisfully ignorant of the threat that Das poses, but the opposite is the case for Niru, whose great anxiety Das stimulates.

Although I had some reservations about the new version of the play, I enjoyed it and the often excellent performances of the actors. What fascinated me was how successfully Ibsen’s play had been ‘relocated’ from the gloom of Norway to the colourfulness of Bengal without losing the feeling that it was a play inspired by Ibsen. By translating the play from one cultural milieu to another, Gupta has preserved and enhanced Ibsen’s messages about the role of women and social class. She has added another fascinating ingredient: the portrayal of British racism towards Indians in pre-independence India. I feel that many of the Anglo-Saxon members of the audience might have been blissfully unaware of their ancestors’ unpalatable attitude to Indians they ruled. They would have left the theatre better informed about this blot on Britain’s history.

 

The play is on at the Lyric until 5th October 2019.

See: https://lyric.co.uk/shows/a-dolls-house/

 

Image adapted from lovetheatre.com

A Dream

 

The first time I saw a performance of Shakespeare’s A MIDSUMMER NIGHTS DREAM was in the 1960s in north London (Big Wood in Hampstead Garden Suburb). It was performed by an amateur dramatic group in a clearing in a small wood. There were barely any props. The actors appeared and disappeared in and out of the trees growing around the clearing. It might not have been the very best of renderings of the play, but I found it highly enjoyable and magical. Whenever I think of the Dream, I remember that show in the woods, so long ago, with much fondness. 

Since that magical summer evening in the wood, I have seen several more performances of the play, but none of them managed to recapture for me the magical experience  that was created for me by my first viewing of the work.

A few days ago, I watched yet another performance of the Dream. This time it was at the lovely new Bridge Theatre next to the southern end of London’s Tower Bridge. The staging and acting was brilliant. The Director, Nicholas Hytner, had ‘tweaked’ the play slightly but successfully to make it more accessble to contemporary audiences. I hope that Shakespeare would have approved of this latest version. I feel that he might well have done. The ‘show’ was livened up with acrobats, who were not only superbly skilful but also great actors with clear diction, and much music. Despite these additions, the Bard’s original words were not sacrificed or edited in any noticeable way. It was not merely a play, but  a spectacular extravaganza.

There was one aspect of the performance that I did not like. The play was performed ‘in the round’ on an arena where there would normally be stalls seating. Many people had bought tickets to stand on the stage in order to take part in an immersive performance. The actors mingled with the crowd of spectators standing on the ‘stage’. Assistants and the actors themselves shifted the crowds around to make spaces for props and passages through which the actors could move. It was a case of, to use the Bard’s words, “All the world’s a stage…”. This seemed to be very popular with both the audience members immersed in the drama as well as the rest of us sitting in seats. I was not keen on watching a play where the actors are surrounded by swarms of spectators. I felt that the latter diluted the action and were a bit of a distraction. The immersive theatre technique disturbed me, but most of the rest of the audience approved of it.

 

My picture shows the actors and audience mingling together at the end of the play

A theatre resurrected…

Early in November 2018, I saw the opening performance of a new production of “Love Lies Bleeding” by Don de Lillo, which was premiered in 2005, at the Print Room in London’s Notting Hill Gate. The play deals with the question of euthanasia in a situation of a person with persistent vegetative state. The playwright deals with moral and other questions relating to this in a sensitive way. As with most Print Room productions I have seen, the acting was superb, at times gripping.

COR 1

The Print Room theatre began its life in 2010 in a converted printers’ warehouse in Hereford Road, close to Westbourne Grove. We attended several excellent performances there, seated on not very comfortable chairs. In summer the warehouse, which was poorly ventilated, could become very hot. I remember watching “The Kingdom of the Earth” by Tennessee Williams one hot May evening. The heat in the theatre complimented the seediness of the characters. A year or two ago, the Print Room shifted to the Coronet in Notting Hill Gate.

When I began living near this place, the Coronet was a cinema. It was the last cinema in London to permit smoking in the auditorium. Smokers had to sit in the balcony seats, not in the stalls below them. The cinema had two screens, the larger of which was in what looked like an Edwardian theatre. Indeed, the Coronet started life as a theatre when it was opened in late 1898 (see: http://www.arthurlloyd.co.uk/CoronetTheatreNottingHillGate.htm).    It was designed by a theatre architect WGR Sprague (1863-1933). Eighteen years later, the theatre began to be used as a cinema. Many of its original features were retained. By 1923 it became a full-time cinema.

COR 3

In 1972, the Coronet was threatened with demolition. It was saved and made subject to conservation regulations following local residents’ successful protests. In 1993, when I first came to live close to the Coronet, the cinema looked run down but romantically picturesque. The local Kensington Temple Church bought the Coronet in 2004, planning to use it as a place of worship (as has happened with so many former cinemas in London). As a digression, it is interesting to note that cinemas in London have been converted to churches, whereas in Communist Albania the reverse was true during its period of official atheism.

COR4

The Kensington Temple spruced up and restored the Coronet, but kept it running as a cinema. They used it occasionally as a place where their congregation could listen to preachers. Once on a Sunday morning I passed the Coronet, whose doors were open, and looked into the auditorium where a very enthusiastic clergyman was rousing his lively audience.

The Coronet cinema closed in 2014. It had been bought by the Print Room, which had shifted from Hereford Road. Thus, the Coronet became a theatre once more. The Print room have preserved many of the decorative features of the original theatre but have made some major internal modifications. A new stage has been built to cover the space where the original lower level stalls were once. This stage extends to the lower level of the raked seating that had formerly been the original theatre’s Dress Circle. The seats in this Circle have become the new auditorium. Although much has been done to preserve original features, the theatre has been decorated to give its walls a fashionable distressed appearance. The place reminds me a little of what I remember of the Theatre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris when I saw it in the 1970s soon after the British director Peter Brook re-opened it.

COR 5

Although the theatre and its productions are wonderful, the bar must not be missed. It is located beneath the new stage in the space where once the stalls were located. Its concave floor reflects the raking of the seats that were once affixed to it. A grand piano serves as the bar where drinks are sold. The dimly lit bar is decorated quirkily with all manner of bric-a-brac, largely chosen by the staff and, no doubt, sourced from the nearby Portobello and Golborne markets. The bar is open an hour before and an hour after a performance. It is closed during performances because its ceiling is the theatre stage. Even if you cannot manage a play, a visit to the Coronet’s bar is a treat.

Drama by the river: the Bridge Theatre

On Saturday the 29th September 2018, we had a wonderful evening at London’s recently opened Bridge Theatre. It is located on the south bank of the River Thames, a stone’s throw from the world famous ‘icon’ of London, Tower Bridge. From the glass front of the theatre’s foyer, there are superb views of: the new high-rise buildings in the City (including the ‘Gherkin’); the White Tower and the walls of the Tower of London; and Tower Bridge, which is beautifully illuminated at night.

BR 1

The Bridge Theatre opened for its first show in October 2017. The theatre is the brainchild of Nick Starr, of the former National Theatre, and the renowned theatre director Nicholas Hytner. Both of these two Nicks have been long involved with London’s National Theatre. Their creation, the Bridge, is an improved version of the facilities offered by the now ageing National Theatre on the Southbank. Excellent as the National Theatre is, the Bridge seems to have been designed to avoid some of the defects of the former. The newer theatre, which can seat 900 audience members, was designed by S Tompkins and R Watts of Haworth Tompkins Architects.

BR 0

Doorways in the wide glass façade give access to a vast foyer, well-illuminated by a myriad of lamps with curious shades that look like large translucent handkerchiefs. Ample tables and chairs are available for people to sit in the foyer, enjoying excellent food and drinks from the counters lining one side of the space.

BR 1a

When you order food, you are handed a small flat, square receiver that looks like a drinks mat. When your food is ready, lights on the receiver flash alarmingly. The flashing object must be taken to a counter where your freshly prepared food is waiting for you. Despite the size of the foyer and its large capacity, it never felt crowded or noisy. It is a well-designed space.

BR 3

The cloakroom and toilet facilities are easily accessible, not hidden in odd places as they are in the National Theatre.

BR 4

The auditorium is large, but not too large to be without intimacy. No seat is excessively far from the very wide stage. Sightlines are either excellent or more than satisfactory. We had ‘restricted view’ seats, which we bought at the last moment. They were as good as many ‘full view’ seats in older theatres. The acoustics are excellent. We were seated quite far from the stage, but had no difficulty hearing every word. The play we saw, “Allelujah” by Alan Bennett, was well-staged, well-acted, and well-written. In short, it was highly enjoyable. Set in an ageing National Health Service (‘NHS’) hospital facing imminent closure, most of the actors play either the roles of geriatric patients or those of hospital staff and management. The plot is about the plight of the aged and the plight of the ageing NHS system in today’s profit-oriented, economically declining Britain.

BR 5

Our visit to the Bridge Theatre was enjoyable and uplifting. I cannot wait to see another performance there.

BR 2

 

 

Reflecting on the Lehman Brothers

I have just seen a performance of the much-hyped, sold-out, “Lehman Trilogy” at London’s National Theatre. It is written by Italian playwright Stefano Massini and ‘adapted’ into English by Ben Power. Starring Simon Russell Beale and two other actors, the three-and-a-half-hour drama charts the rise and fall of the Lehman brothers and the financial establishments they created. It is in three parts separated from each other by intervals. The first part and the beginning of the second narrate the Lehman’s family saga clearly, entertainingly, and quite interestingly. Then, the latter part of the play seems to ‘lose the plot’.

LEH 0

Seligmann store in Barkly East, South Africa

The Lehman bank’s operations literally collapsed in 2008. Although I am the son of an eminent economist, I do not understand the subject at all. I was hoping that the collapse of the Lehman Bank might be explained in relatively simple terms as the “Lehman Trilogy” drew towards its finale, but it was not. Rather than explore the dramatic possibilities of what was surely a very dramatic demise of a great financial establishment, the playwright and his ‘adaptor’ merely hinted at the disaster but made no obvious attempt to depict the momentous events that led to a frightful ending that greatly impacted on worldwide news and financial affairs. So, as you can gather, I was not altogether satisfied by the play itself. However, it got me thinking about my own ancestors, who, like the Lehman brothers, left Bavaria in the mid-19th century to seek their fortunes away from Europe across the oceans.

The Lehman brothers, who migrated to the USA in the mid-19th century, were born in Rimpar (Bavaria), near Würzburg. Heinrich (later’ Henry’) Bergmann, my great-grand uncle, was born 50 kilometres south-east of Rimpar in Ditenheim (Bavaria). He was only a few years younger than the Lehmans. In 1849, aged 18, he sailed to Cape Town in South Africa. Soon after arriving, he became the manager of a general store opened in the newly-established town of Aliwal North in the same year. Like the Lehman brothers, Heinrich became very successful as a middle-man. Like the Lehmans, during bad times he gave the farmers (his customers) credit, which they repaid when the wool harvests were brought to his shop (to be sold on to wool merchants). By the early 1860s, soon after marrying the daughter of a Jewish banker in Frankfurt-am-Main, he became the manager of one of the Aliwal’s three banks. Eventually Heinrich’s bank took over its two rivals. For reasons that are not at all clear, young Henrich shot himself in 1866.

LEH 1

The grave of Heinrich (‘Henry’) Bergmann in Aliwal North, South Africa

Heinrich’s death was not the end of the story. During his time in the Cape, Heinrich was joined in South Africa by his brother and some of his cousins. The cousins in question came mainly from Ichenhausen in Bavaria, 163 kilometres south of Rimpar. Heinrich’s brother married Klara, a daughter of Jakob Seligmann, a successful merchant in Ichenhausen.  Klara’s only brother Isak Rafael Seligmann and his wife had 18 children, of whom 15 lived to adulthood. One of the sons, Sigmund, Heinrich’s nephew, migrated to South Africa from Ichenhausen. He did not join his uncle, but began working for another German, a merchant in Lady Grey, which is not far from Aliwal North. Other young men from Ichenhausen including Sigmund’s brother Jakob and the Reichenberg brothers, one of whom joined Heinrich Bergmann, migrated to South Africa.

Sigmund Seligmann was offered a partnership in the business in Lady Grey but turned it down. He left Lady Grey to open his own shop in Dordrecht, a small place in the Cape. Soon after this, he opened a branch in Barkly East in the heart of a sheep grazing district. Like the Lehman brothers who bought cotton and sold it on, and also acted as bankers for the cotton-growers, Sigmund bought wool from his farmer customers and sold it on as well as lending money to the farmers when times were lean.

The Lehman brothers set their sights high. They moved from being merchants to becoming brokers, and then bankers. Their descendants continued the progression until, finally, others took over the running, and eventual ruining, of the business. Sigmund and many others like him, who went from what was to become ‘Germany’ to South Africa, more often than not retired to Germany when they had made their fortunes. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, life in South Africa was a lot less comfortable than in civilised Germany or the USA, parts of which were becoming very sophisticated. Those who returned to end their lives in Germany had to face WW1 and then later the advent of Hitler’s regime. Sigmund and his children left Bavaria for Palestine, thereby escaping the fate of many Jews who remained in Germany.

Before Sigmund left to retire in Germany, he left the running of his by now very successful business in the hands of some of his very numerous nephews. One of these, who arrived in South Africa in about 1903, was my grandfather Iwan Bloch. Hardworking Iwan, like his father-in-law the future Senator, Franz Ginsberg (an industrialist in the Cape, who had migrated there from Prussia), maintained the successful running of his business as well as entering politics. Iwan became the first and only Jewish Mayor of Barkly East. His life was cut short by ill-health, but had he lived longer I feel sure that he would have entered national politics following in the footsteps of his father-in-law Franz.

With the exception of Iwan’s ill-fated uncle Heinrich Bergmann, this extended Bavarian Jewish family did not take the same road toward high finance as the Lehmans did, but they started at the same point.

Furthermore, the Lehman fortune began to be built from the labour of black slaves in Alabama. This is skirted around casually in the play. Although formally, there were no black slaves in South Africa when my ancestors arrived there, much of the dirty work required to make their fortunes was performed by black Africans, whose treatment by the white Europeans was very far from admirable.

LEH 2

Adam Yamey’s grandfather, Iwan Bloch, brought the railway to Barkly East in South Africa

I am glad I saw the “Lehman Trilogy” because it is engaging and, although there is little acting, what acting there is was good. Also, it got me thinking about my own history. However, like the doomed bank, the quality of the plot declines gradually as the three and a half hours pass by. Would I recommend it? The answer is “no”.