A Roaring Success

Lion King Las VegasAs those of you who read Theatre Room regularly will know that I’m no great fan of musical theatre.  There are however some exceptions, one being The Lion Kong. I first saw it in Los Angeles many years ago, and have been urging people to go and see it ever since. It first opened in Minneapolis in 1997, quickly transferring to Broadway. in 1999 it opened in London at the Lyceum Theatre, where it is till running 15 years later. In fact, it is currently playing in 10 cities world-wide. In its 17 years it has been seen by an estimated 75 million people and taken $6.2 billion, making it the highest grossing musical ever. Impressive figures indeed.


In a great article by David Gritten in The Telegraph, How The Lion King became the most successful stage show of all time he quite rightly points to the original director, Julie Taymor, as the creative genius behind the show.

It’s easy to overlook, what with all the trumpeting of huge grosses and audience figures, what a radical piece of theatre The Lion King is, and always was.

Credit for this goes to the prime mover of this stage version, director Julie Taymor, who came from avant-garde, ritual and experimental theatre, and had already used masks and puppetry in other productions. Taymor also helped design the costumes for the Lion King, and even wrote the lyrics for one of its songs, Endless Night.


She has created a world that is fiercely non-literal, often to moving and wondrous effect. She makes no attempt to disguise the fact that these animals are moved and performed by humans. A drought on the African plain is conveyed by a circle of blue silk gradually vanishing by being pulled through a hole in the stage. When a lioness weeps, she pulls lengths of white ribbon from her eyes. Taymor evokes a waterfall using a huge sheet of billowing silk. A score of actors stride on stage, boxes on their head with long grass sprouting from them; this is Taymor’s way of representing the African savannah.

Simba - Nicholas Nkuna and the Original UK touring company.JPG

All of which seems a long way from the animated film and video of The Lion King, which proved immensely successful for Disney in the 1990s. They’re agreeable entertainments, based on a hero-myth story redolent of Hamlet. As a young lion cub, Simba is hoodwinked by his malevolent uncle Scar into believing he was responsible for his father the king Mufasa’s death. Simba flees before returning as an adult to reclaim his birthright from Scar, who has installed himself as king.


This is all fine as far as it goes, yet there’s a cosiness and reassurance about the film that Taymor withholds; in the stage version there is simply more at stake, along with a recognition that life is fragile. She also gave far greater emphasis to the film’s female characters. There’s a tough-mindedness about her method of story-telling; it’s surprising that Disney, to its great credit, approved such a radical reboot of the film.

Gritten’s article is well worth a read in its entirety here.  Another one, this time by Adam Sherwin here in The Independent explores the money-making side of the The Lion King. Apparently Sirs Tim Rice and Elton John, the composers and librettists of the musical, have made a whopping US$120 million apiece from the show!

To finish with,  it was recently announced that Disney have adapted the musical for schools which will be licensed for performance from January 2015. Disney, Rice and John will no doubt need to get deeper pockets.

By way of a post script, I should say that the show’s appeal for me is the ingenious way in which the animal characters have been brought to life with puppetry.  The man behind most of the puppets is Michael Curry, and there are a couple of interesting interviews with him here and here about his work on the show .

Set In Aspic

Helen McCrory as Medea, National Theatre

Helen McCrory as Medea, National Theatre

A gnarly little piece today I came across in The Independent, Why are theatre directors messing with the classics? Written by journalist Adrain Hamilton, he bemoans (British) theatre directors who play with the text and/or original intent of the playwright. Has it ever been thus. Now far be it from me to suggest that Mr Hamilton (who is not a theatre critic or in any way connected professionally with the theatre) is simply whining because he may have witnessed a production of one of his favourite classic plays that he didn’t like (although I suspect there might be something in this). It’s not that I disagree with him totally. Indeed he makes some decent observations, but theatre is an interpretive art form, especially when dealing with the more classic/historical texts. There has to be a relevancy for a contemporary audience and it the director’s job to make that so. Of course it doesn’t always work, but that is theatre for you.

Why are theatre directors messing with the classics?

There are no more dreaded words in the English theatre today than “in a version by”. Whether it’s Ibsen’s Ghosts, Euripides’ Medea or Sophocles’ Electra, nothing will do but that the international giants of the stage be taken by an English writer and refashioned for the English audience in their own words.No one should doubt the theatricality of these “versions”. Greek tragedians, as indeed Ibsen, created great parts for female actors and this is what the British directors have seized on with such fervour today. Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra, Helen McCrory as Medea and Lesley Manville as Ibsen’s Mrs Alving have all been successively hailed as the new divas of drama for their anguished performances of tortured, wracked women.

Just as we perform Chekhov as the supreme English ironist, rather than the caustic writer of near farces, which is the way the Russians do, so our directors and dramatists rework the classics as studies in angst and high emotion, women on the edge not just of a nervous breakdown but of infanticidal self-destruction.

Lesley Manville in Richard Eyre's production of Ghosts

Lesley Manville in Richard Eyre’s production of Ghosts

Only that is not what these dramas are actually about, or not as their authors intended. The great classical dramatists didn’t set out to present psychiatric studies of individuals and their torments. They wrote about the human condition through the dilemmas and fates of individuals. The same goes for Henrik Ibsen. A would-be poet himself, he wanted to express what he saw as the societal truth of his times.

Sir Richard Eyre’s reworking of Ghosts, and his earlier Hedda Gabler, at the Almeida, are finely crafted works of domestic drama in which events speed their way to a horrifying conclusion, impelled by revelations which strip their heroines of all illusion. It’s Chekhov on speed, even to the point of climaxing the play with Mrs Alving administering the medicines with which to aid her son’s death.

But Ibsen didn’t write that. He left his heroine gripped by indecision whether to carry out her son’s desire to die or to refuse such an unnatural maternal act. Sir Richard’s version makes for a more melodramatic finish; Ibsen’s for a more troubling one. Which is how he saw his play, a very carefully modulated study through the dialogue of human evasion of how we are all made by our past and convention.

If you want to see the difference between the way that the British domesticate drama and other countries seize on the ideas behind a play, then the Barbican’s current series of international productions of Ibsen should be a revelation. The Berlin Schaubühne ensemble’s An Enemy of the People, the play he wrote in anger at the way Ghosts had been dismissed by the critics, is an interpretation full of the urgency that this angry assault on bourgeois conformity requires. Switching the time to now, it has all of Ibsen’s weight and weariness with the society about him but also his sense of the human part within it. If the production stuttered in London it was in trying, in the middle, to involve the audience in the debate. It apparently worked in performances elsewhere but not here. The English don’t go in for direct confrontation, let alone over ideas.

The Berlin Schaubühne ensemble’s An Enemy of the People

The Berlin Schaubühne ensemble’s An Enemy of the People

It gets worse with Greek tragedy. With a deeply affecting central performance, the National’s Medea wrung every emotion out of the story of an abandoned woman who wreaks revenge by killing her own children and dragging their bodies into exile in an end reminiscent of Bertolt Brecht. Only Euripides is not Brecht and he didn’t write Medea as a story of a wronged woman wrestling with her conflicting emotions. The Medea of Greek legend is a witch woman of terrifying force. The tragedy is one of anger and vengeance which cannot be constrained. At the end you feel not pity but horror and fear.

You don’t have to do Greek tragedy on a bare stage and skimped costumes. The poet Caroline Bird’s version of Euripides’ Trojan Women at the Gate Theatre in 2012 was one of the most intense theatrical experiences I’ve ever had. Moving the scene to a maternity hospital, it worked because it remained true to Euripides’ vision of captured women, turning in on themselves as they await their fate. But you can’t do what Frank McGuinness, whose adaptation of Electra is now playing at the Old Vic, did in the opera of the Theban Plays and mess around with the order at will. At least you can’t do it and still leave Sophocles on the credits.

Yukio Ninagawa, arguably the greatest theatre director of our times, who directed an electrifying Medea in Japanese, will only work with line-by-line translation. Presenting Shakespeare’s Cymbeline recently the Barbican (he’s back there with Hamlet next year), he apologised for changing a word in making a cedar into a pine for visual reasons. If only British directors would pay foreign dramatists the same respect when they turn them into English.

I went in search of the reviews of some of the plays that Hamilton vilifies as domestic. The same paper that carried his article, The Independent, gave the production of Euripides’ Medea he mentions 4 stars, calling it unforgettable and horribly gripping, as did The Telegraph who said it was thrilling and merciless. Richard Eyre’s production of Ibsen’s Ghosts, meanwhile was given 5 stars in The Independent – A spellbinding production – as it was in The Telegraph, with the final line of the review observing that Theatre seldom, if ever, comes greater than thisFinally, the production of Sophocles’ Electra was again given 5 stars by The Independent, calling it an evening of unalloyed magnificenceThe Telegraph said it was Theatre at its best with The Guardian undermining Hamilton’s whole premise in the final paragraph of its 4 star review.

Theatre cannot be preserved in aspic, perhaps more so today than ever. I’m looking forward to reading how other less conservative commentators react to Hamilton’s views

Dancing Revolution

gz-political-mother-blurd-dancers-circle_1000Sometimes a trip to the theatre can be truly exhilarating, confronting and prescient. Last night I went with my friend Sara to see Political Mother by British based Israeli choreographer, Hofesh Shechter, and it was indeed all of those things – and a lot more besides. In essence, it is a piece that explores the relationship between society and state, duty and service and brutalisation by a repressive power. The staging is epic – and very loud (being issued with ear plugs by the theatre was a first for us, although they remained unused). Political Mother has had a few incarnations and we witnessed another one, with it being re-worked a little for the festival it was part of and the addition of young, local musicians, largely drummers, to an already significant cast of dancers and musicians.


It has toured significantly around the world and I am delighted to have had the opportunity to see something I had been reading about with envy – the reviews have been almost uniformly outstanding. You can see for yourself here and here.

Hofesh-Shechter-Political-Mother-600x399However, it wasn’t simply the piece that was so enthralling, it was also the context in which it was being performed. The monolith of a building in which it was staged, the Hong Kong Cultural Centre, was commissioned and built under British colonial rule and is currently celebrating its 25th anniversary. Ten minutes walk away is the commercial district of Mong Kok, where protests for universal suffrage continue. Across Victoria Harbour from the theatre is the other site of protest, with roads closed and a growing tent city springing up. It was palpable that the irony of a governmental sponsored festival hosting Political Mother was not lost on the majority of the audience. We were left wondering what the performers thought about the timeliness of their work in Hong Kong.

Dance and politics have never been far apart. One of the founders of contemporary dance, Martha Graham was no stranger to this fact, as this short documentary shows:


Soviet By Design

c3ada36768c4bcfd35c1fc16ab83985bMy first share today was published this week in The Guardian. Written by Oliver Wainwright, it explores theatre design in the Soviet Union in the early 20th Century, which is currently the focus of an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

A critical period in the development of stage design, Wainwright’s article, Russia’s stage revolution: when theatre was a hotbed for impossibly space-age design talks about how artists created radical sets and costumes for a futuristic new era of theatre that are said to have inspired Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.


A square-headed figure stands in a jagged harlequin costume, like a toddler’s drawing of a Christmas tree, beside a red-clothed character with black spines emerging from his limbs. There is a portly green-skinned man bursting out of a tight red vest, while another figure’s body swells from a triangular skirt in a big blue bulge.

Set against a mysterious monochrome backdrop of triangles and squares, these were the costume designs of then little-known Kazimir Malevich for the world’s first “futurist opera,” Victory Over the Sun, produced in St Petersburg in 1913. Complete with a libretto in the experimental “zaum” language – a kind of primeval Slavic mother-tongue, mixed with birdsong and cosmic utterances – it infuriated audiences, who reacted with violent outrage.

Malevich was not deterred. The stage sets formed the basis for his first Black Square painting, and the foundations for his fractured visual language of suprematism, one of the defining movements of the period. It was here in these gnomic theatre designs that he began his urgent pursuit of the “supremacy of pure artistic feeling”, of geometric splinters flying through limitless space, fuelled by the impending trauma of revolution.

These striking drawings form the opening to a new free exhibition in the V&A’s theatre and performance galleries, which traces the effect of war and revolution on Russian avant-garde theatre design, from 1913–33, a period that saw an earthquake of artistic transformation.

Comprising 160 works by 45 designers, much of what’s on show has been unearthed from the dusty depths of the Bakhrushin Theatre Museum archive in Moscow, some exhibited in public here in London for the first time – and it is a thrilling hoard.

Lyubov Popova’s fantastic mechanical set for The Magnanimous Cuckold, 1922.

Lyubov Popova’s fantastic mechanical set for The Magnanimous Cuckold, 1922.

Facing off against Malevich are the early costume designs of Vladimir Tatlin, who would go on to dream up the spiralling skeleton of the Monument to the Third International, a plan for a gargantuan double-helix structure that would have loomed 400m above St Petersburg. While Malevich was brewing up a universe of dynamic shards, Tatlin’s designs – for operas with nostalgic titles such as Life for the Tsar and His Disobedient Son Adolf – reveal the beginnings of his constructivist style.

These counterpoints set the tone for a show that reveals the breadth of artistic styles spawned in these tumultuous years, with the theatre proving a hotbed of experimentation and a powerful vehicle of revolutionary propaganda.Women designers loom large, with the dazzling work of Alexandra Exterfeaturing extensively, from her bold reinventions of classics like Romeo and Juliet, to impossibly futuristic costumes for Aelita, one of the first ever sci-fi films, made in 1924. Based on a Tolstoy novel, it tells the story of an engineer who travels to Mars, falls in love with the Queen of the Martians, and organises a revolution. The space-queen was conceived as a Soviet Barbarella, clothed in a swirling dress of orbiting loops, topped with a many-pronged head-dress that gives her the look of a human TV aerial. It exudes the excitement of what the promised revolution would bring, the humble engineer discovering a brave new world through hard work. Utterly groundbreaking for its time, Exter’s alien set designs would go on to inform the dreamy aesthetic of Flash Gordon and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.

Vladimir Tatlin, costume design for Life for the Tsar, 1913-15.

Vladimir Tatlin, costume design for Life for the Tsar, 1913-15.

“I want to burn with the spirit of the times,” declared Vsevolod Meyerhold, another influential figure of the period, and one of most enthusiastic activists of the new Soviet theatre. He joined the Bolshevik party in 1918 and became an official of the theatre division of the Commissariat of Education and Enlightenment, trying to radicalise Russian theatres under Bolshevik control. Developing what he called “biomechanics”, he championed a form of acting in which bodily expression was all, teaching his students gymnastics and circus skills, in a bid to transform the theatre from a place of naturalism and emotion to a full-blown fairground spectacle.

“Meyerhold laid the foundations for modern physical theatre, and groups like Complicite,” says curator Kate Bailey, “as well as a lot of the techniques of projection and moving sets that we take for granted as part of contemporary theatre design.”

The Queen of the Martians, costume design by Alexandra Exter for the 1924 sci-fi film Aelita, based on a Tolstoy novel

The Queen of the Martians, costume design by Alexandra Exter for the 1924 sci-fi film Aelita, based on a Tolstoy novel

A key to realising his vision was Lyubov Popova, the daughter of a textile merchant who had been a member of Malevich’s Supremus art group from 1914-16. She produced a spectacular moving set for his production of The Magnanimous Cuckold in 1922, a model of which takes pride of place in the exhibition. The play follows the trials of a miller who suspects his wife of being unfaithful and pursues her lovers through the village, and Popova transforms the mill into an all-consuming acting machine, a thrilling landscape of rotating cogs and wheels.

Under the influence of Meyerhold, theatrical characters were reduced to types, emotion and psychological experience substituted for the gawp of physical and mechanical prowess. Similar narratives recur, in which “impure” characters of merchants and royalty, capitalists and priesthood, face off against “pure” peasants and sailors, the old order trounced by the newly awoken masses. Costumes of the old world are heavy and clumsy, set against the thrusting, cubo-futurist lines of the new Communist utopia.

It all comes to a satirical climax in Vladimir Mayakovsky’s comedy, The Bedbug, in which the brave Bolshevik protagonist, Prisypkin, is cryogenically frozen in an impossibly modern-looking spacesuit – to designs by Alexander Rodchenko – to be thawed when the ideal Communist world has been attained in 1979. Severely underwhelmed when he awakes, he finds a bedbug on his body, which becomes his only friend.

Alexander Rodchenko costume design for Bedbug, 1929, a comedy by Mayakovsky whose hero is frozen for 50 years to await a Communist paradise

Alexander Rodchenko costume design for Bedbug, 1929, a comedy by Mayakovsky whose hero is frozen for 50 years to await a Communist paradise

It is an appropriately gloomy end to the exhibition, which concludes with the rise of Stalin, who presided over a return to socialist realism, and the accompanying vicious backlash against the avant-garde. The final piece on show is a miraculous wooden and plaster model for Mayakovsky’s satirical play, Mystery-Bouffe, directed by Meyerhold, which depicts the North Pole, where the earth’s last survivors have voyaged, to be offered the choice between heaven and hell. They decline heaven, in favour of the promised land of the Communist paradise.

It was not to be so for the two leaders of the avant garde under Stalin: disillusioned and driven to despair, Mayakovsky shot himself, while Meyerhold was arrested, tortured and executed. “Theatre is not a mirror, but a magnifying glass,” Mayakovsky once said. And their powerful lens clearly looked a little too closely for the regime’s comfort.

The V and A exhibition, Russian Avant-Garde Theatre: War, Revolution and Design 1913-1933 has an associated Pintrest Board with some great images, as well as a blog.

Taking To The Streets

P_E_2008030706450314Politics and theatre are, and have always been, inextricably linked. So following on from my previous post, this one explores real theatre on the streets, this time in Nepal.  I came across an article in the South Asia Monitor, written by Deepesh Paudal and originally published in The Kantipur DailyRoad ActSadak Natak or Street Theatre emerged in Nepal in the 1980s, during the height of monarchial rule, as a way of protesting against the excesses of the ruling royal family. Ashesh Malla, Artistic Director of Sarvanam, a Nepali theatre company, is credited for starting the movement and in a country where many live in rural poverty, street theatre has proved to be an effective way of raising awareness of a host of issues,  as well as entertaining people.


However, in his article, Paudal sounds a note of of caution about the continuing existence of Nepalese street theatre:

Fading interest The development of  street theatre in Nepal has seen its peaks and troughs. Periodically, some have been critical, raising questions on its objective. Some of them have tagged  street drama as a mere developmental play (bikase natak), ‘farming dollars’, while others have sternly criticised it for an absence of aesthetics. Non-governmental organisations’ and other social institutions’ direct or indirect involvement in  street theatre s has drawn both positive and negative remarks from stakeholders. The lack of transparency in fund allocation and management has frequently put theatre groups under scrutiny, often exposing their dependency on donors and foreign aids. Additionally, the progress of cyber entertainment and communication has widely overshadowed the essence of  street theatre . street Even the interest of the pioneers and of those who had been actively performing in  street drama s in the past has significantly dropped. Under these circumstances, the sustainability and even the survival of  street theatre are increasingly in a vulnerable state. All theatre aficionados need to quickly apprehend that appreciating the contributions of  street theatre just as well as that of the commercial theatre will help save this form of art from extinction.

Little is written (in english, anyway) about the history of theatre in Nepal. Even in Jukka O. Miettinen’s wonderful online book Asian Traditional Theatre and Dance, Nepal fails to get a mention. It does, however, get a few pages in The World Encyclopedia of Contemporary Theatre: Asia/Pacific as it does in Ashis Sengupt’s book Mapping South Asia Through Contemporary Theatre (both available through Google Books). You can also read a interesting overview of the history of Nepalese theatre here on HubPages.

Defiant Gestures

456423004I want to share an article today that was sent to me by an ex-student of mine, Clarissa Ko.  Clarissa is studying at the University of San Francisco and is taking a class called Embodied Activism. Given the current political unrest and student protests here in Hong Kong, the article struck a particular note with us both.  A number of gestures have been used by the Bypt2n1IMAE_MX-.jpg-largeprotesters that are now recognisable.  The crossed arms  has come to represent mistrust of the Central Government in Beijing. Hands held in the air was seen after tear gas was employed against them and borrowed from the non-violent protests held in Missouri, following the killing of Michael Brown. Adapted from it original “hands up, don’t shoot” meaning in Missouri, it was used here by the student protesters to indicate to the police that their intentions were entirely peaceful. Universal gesture at its most potent.  The Washington Post wrote about gesture used in mass protests around the world in the last few years, and produced this  info graphic:imrs

The article I referred to at the beginning, entitled Gesture, Choreography, and Protest in Ferguson, was written by Anusha Kedhar, Assistant Professor of Dance at Colorado College and makes fascinating reading. My colleague, Lou, has already used it as a way into the study of Peter Brook, the grand master of universal theatre . Published on The Feminist Wire, the piece is lengthy so I am only going to reproduce an extract here – you can read the rest at your leisure.

A Choreopolitics of FreedomAndré Lepecki recently wrote about “choreopolicing” and “choreopolitics.” He defines choreopolitics as the choreography of protest, or even simply the freedom to move freely, which he claims is the ultimate expression of the political. He defines choreopolicing as the way in which “the police determines the space of circulation for protesters and ensures that everyone is in their permissible place”—imposing blockades, dispersing crowds, dragging bodies. The purpose of choreopolicing, he argues, is “to de-mobilize political action by means of implementing a certain kind of movement that prevents any formation and expression of the political.” Lepecki then asks what are the relations between political demonstrations as expressions of freedom, and police counter-moves as implementations of obedience? How do the choreopolitics of protest and the choreopolicing of the state interact?

Powerful stuff, I’m sure you’d agree. Brecht would have loved it too!

Alternative Experiences

Today I would like to share two new excellent video documentaries from the American Theatre Wing. The first is about the creation of site-specific theatre. Since I Suppose is a site-specific theatrical experience based on Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure which allows the audience to travel on an immersive journey through downtown Chicago.

The video follows members of the Melbourne-based theatrical group, one step at a time like this and Chicago Shakespeare Theater who share a behind the scenes look at how the experience was created using digital technology and the architecture and culture of Chicago.


The second explores another visceral theatre experience but this time of the immersive kind. In the documentary Randy Weiner (Producer, Sleep No More), David Korins (Scenic Designer, Here Lies Love) and Zach Morris (Co-Artistic Director of Third Rail Projects) describe the ‘staging environment, the state of heightened theatricality, and the effect of the immersive movement on the audience and its influence on today’s theatre scene.’


If you are a first year IB Theatre Arts student reading this, both of these videos would be superb for your Collaborative Project.

The Umbrella Revolution

10636707_355054934652158_6232680504221465809_oBefore I begin posting today, I am compelled to write a few words about what is happening in Hong Kong where Theatre Room is based. It would be entirely wrong of me not to, as Theatre Room has an international readership. As I write this on National Day, it’s hard not to be in wonder at what is happening on the streets of our city. The last few days have had us all running the gamut of emotions. Little else is being discussed, dissected, prophesied and judged. The Umbrella Revolution, as it has been dubbed, is a truly profound experience. I’ve watched my social media feeds turning yellow and at every

new image, I well with tears of pride and astonishment. There is a determination amongst the student occupiers not to alienate fellow citizens. Rather then, to convince them that it matters and it is important. It’s working. People are coming out to support them because of how they are conducting themselves, which says so much.

How long it will continue and what the outcome will be is unknown and uncertain. However, the hope and the passionate belief that Hong Kong’s future will be a democratic one is palpable. We know the eyes of the world are on us, as does Beijing. Where ever we sit, be it on the street, at home, at work or at school, we are waiting for what comes next. From my window, across Stanley Bay, is a PLA barracks, hidden and, I can’t help feeling, brooding. The basic law allows for their deployment, should the authorities be unable to cope with a situation. We all hope that the change of tactics by the police and the withdrawal of the riot squads make this a diminishing prospect. National Day always has it’s tensions but this year they are immensely tangible and it is troubling when you hear the words ‘Tianamen’ and ‘Hong Kong’ uttered in the same breath.

All that said, at the moment it is peaceful and the pervading feelings are of pride and hope for a future where people have the right to determine their own lives. My hope, with every ounce of my being, is that it stays that way.