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Review | Medusa at Sadler’s Wells Theatre

Rehearsals showing Medusa by Jasmin Vardimon Company @ IAB, Sitges, Barcelona. (Taken 26-07-18) ©Tristram Kenton 07-18 (3 Raveley Street, LONDON NW5 2HX TEL 0207 267 5550 Mob 07973 617 355)email: tristram@tristramkenton.com

Through beautifully poetic movements and engaging drama, Jasmin Vardimon has created a unique choreographic voice that enables her to explore deeply controversial social and political discourse. I had the pleasure of attending the opening show for her latest creation Medusa, a highly conceptual performance enriched with deep symbolism and motifs which offer an acute observation of human behaviour. The performance is both a visually stunning art piece with fluid and graceful movements, as well as being a learning experience for audience members as we tapped into our emotional and creative intelligence in order to digest Medusa’s many layers of symbolism. The only shame is that the performance was in theatre for such a short period of time. The quality of choreography, the passion of the dancers, and the standard of sound and light technicians was nothing less than sensational, bringing the myth of Medusa into the modern day.

Few recall the origin story of our feminine archetype, remembering her solely as the monster who turns men to stone. However, this is only one aspect of her narrative. A mortal woman transformed into a mute by jealous and lustful Gods. Vardimon’s Medusa focuses on the creation of the myth, rather than the image of the monster itself. First appearing in Ovid’s 15 book long poem Metamorphoses, Medusa began a beautiful human girl, raped by Poseidon, and subsequently turned into the monster we are all familiar with by the vengeance of the jealous Athena. The performance did not censor the discussion of rape, making it – at times – uncomfortable to watch. Nevertheless, it is a necessary confrontation of the ultimate manifestation of male dominance, which allows us to deepen our understanding of the Medusa archetype.

~ A myth dismissed as the onset of primitive imagination ~

In Jungian psychology, myths arise as a key component to the evolution of the collective consciousness (almost like a shared psychological awareness). Myths allow for healing and understanding of a damaged and suppressed subconscious through physical and verbal enactment. Focusing on the myth of Medusa, there is more depth to the archetype that we often mistake as another cautionary tale surrounding the dangers of female seduction (like that of Eve’s). After experiencing Vardimon’s Medusa, I felt inspired to explore the much deeper nature behind the powerful feminine symbol.

Gaze is a significant aspect of the Medusa archetype. Her ability to turn people to stone signifies the stillness inherent to self-reflection. But, this reflection tends to show us aspects of ourselves that we cannot stand to bear witness to, and so we hide them deep within our psyche. We respond to Medusa’s allusive gaze with fear, a fear that the gaze of our deeply suppressed subconsciousness may destroy us completely. Specifically, Medusa’s creation story stirs discussion around a womans relationship to patriarchal assimilation, becoming the gaze of the abused feminine consciousness. Medusa lurks in the shadows, like women lurk in the shadow of man. Femininity always hidden by the shadow of patriarchy. Vardimon’s Medusa addresses this discourse both indirectly, as the women wear black pantsuits, but it is also directly addressed in the early dialogue of the performance. To paraphrase, ‘We all have a shadow, a woman resides in my shadow – never allowed to be greater than me, the man, who stands tall in the light. Thus, a woman, living in the dark, can never cast a shadow of her own’. The identity of the woman is bound to the existence of the man, always the submissive, always the inferior, always the suppressed.

       Shame,                rejection,                  guilt,                   insignificance,                inferiority,                              fear.

States of being embodied by Medusa.

Not only does Medusa symbolise reflection and stillness but, rather paradoxically, she also represents fluidity and the concept of transformation. She brings awareness that we live in a liquid society, comprised of fluid beings permanently in a state of change and evolution. This can incite fear into a suppressive patriarchal world, labelling Medusa as a deity of death and destruction. But transformation is more complex than simply catastrophe. The snakes on her head suggesting fertility and fruitfulness, as life transcends death. It may help to recall the ancient Ouroboro, an image of the snake eating its own tale, symbolic of eternal self-renewal, and the concept of creation emerging from destruction.

Innocent Victim

Monstrous Creature

Powerful Martyr

Vardimon had the difficulty of creating the multi-layered symbol of Medusa in a clear and concise way, and yet, upon some reflection, I believe her attempt was profitable. As Medusa is a transitory character, performer Patricia Hastewell Puig adopted many guises to articulate her nature. At first, Patricia’s head was wrapped in a thick rope to illustrate entrapment, as well as a sense of inward reflection. As the performance developed, Medusa’s image became more fluid, as dancers used their hands to bring to life the image of the snakes, moving from entrapment to freedom. This transition exaggerated the fluidity and transformative nature of Medusa. A creative play on a classic. Patricia takes the rope once wrapped around her face and coils it around her oppressor Athena, a testimony of human perseverance and growth against the strength of a God. Thus, Vardimon’s direction renders Medusa human once more.

Following the intensity of the performance, we had the pleasure of participating in an intimate and laidback Q&A with the director and dancers themselves, gaining rich insight into the personal motivations behind such beautifully powerful art.

Photography by Tristram Kenton

There is so much more to Medusa than the myth. Director Jasmin Vardimon spoke directly on the social significance of the figure Medusa, which allows the story to be persistently re-told and re-interpreted. Vardimon translates a contemporary understanding onto the face of classical mythology by attempting to deconstruct the modern day misogynistic perception of Medusa – citing the example of Donald Trump referring to Hilary Clinton as Medusa in a derogatory attempt to silence her autonomy. Coming from an understanding of Ovid’s poem, and thus Medusa’s creation story, this both perplexed and inspired Vardimon. Though Vardimon also perceives Medusa, not only as a key archetype in today’s discussion of gender politics, but also understands her nautical connotations which draw upon our current discussions surrounding the environment. In 28 different languages the word medusa translates into ‘Jellyfish’, a creature that has been around 700 million years, the longest surviving on planet earth. In fact, scientists believe jellyfish will be the sole survivor of climate change, as they flourish with the warmer waters. The fluidity of the dance movements incorporated into the performance, with the addition of plastic sheets, beautifully enacted the movement of waves. The gradual devastation of climate change runs alongside Medusa’s transitory narrative, the closing image being one of intoxication – the tragic beauty of both Medusa and Mother Earth, intertwining the two individual tensions of gender and environment. Interestingly, Medusa actually began with Vardimon’s desire to address the problem of climate change and pollution – the myth of Medusa later emerged from a brainstorm with the dancers.

The eight creative dancers come from varying walks of life, with all different kinds of backgrounds including Barcelona, Scotland, Belgium, Croatia, Australia and so on. The combination of unique and individual cultural, political and theatrical perceptions contributed to the power of the poetic piece. The choreography developed as Vardimon would open dialogue with the dancers, bouncing ideas off one another until they create stable foundations to rest their narrative upon. It took a total of three months to perfect the final choreography, showing the hard work and dedication that went into the performance.

Originally Medusa was intended to be an all-female cast, but later saw the addition of male dancers as Vardimon found it difficult to explore all the discussions that Medusa raises. The male characters in the piece do not come across well, rather, predatory, vulgar, and crass. When talking about the difficulty of embodying such antagonising roles, central male dancer Joshua Smith believes that performance art provides safety in exploring and experimenting with such difficult and sensitive social topics. He finds it humbling to be given the opportunity to express his own insight on such important political debates. Joshua offered an interesting interpretation of the piece, as he perceived the robotic movements incorporated into the performance to be a reflection of the increasingly robotic nature of human experience. ‘The ability to connect on a human level is deteriorating, while technological communication expands.’  He then went on to discuss the growing popularity of human-like robotic dolls, debating their possible impact on pre-existing gender tensions. 

The beauty of Medusa is the layering of interpretations and meanings that are built upon the classical Greek myth. The director, the dancers, and the audience members are given the space to explore and understand the significance of the feminine archetype. If Medusa is the representation of perception and reflection—the gaze of another upon us stirring self-consciousness —then to what can the audience relate the most? The feminine rage? The doll-like housewife? The robotic state of being? The primal males? What we connect with most during the performance, our own unique take, reveals the deeply hidden parts of our own psyche. The very heart of Vardimon’s Medusa is not the retelling of a mythological narrative, but rather a poetic deconstruction of a powerful feminine symbol.

Photography by Tristram Kenton

Words by Briony Willis.


MedusaDirected by Jasmin Vardimon

Sadler’s Wells Theatre, Monday 22nd October 2018 – Wednesday 24th October 2018.



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Review | Fatherland at the Lyric Hammersmith

The cast of Fatherland at the Lyric Hammersmith, taken by Tristram Kenton

The coats stand out in the exhilarating performance piece Fatherland now on at the Lyric, Hammersmith after its premiere in the Manchester International Festival in 2017. The armour of manhood in the 21st century. Men in black, beige and tan coats.  Leather jackets. Tracksuit tops.  Parkas.  Faceless firemen in what might as well be hazmat suits in a nightmare of X- Files proportions. Marching, swaying, writhing, climbing, dropping from the sky. Using ladders and doorways to fly.  Gathered in a workers’ or maybe hobos’ circle around the glow of a bonfire and marching through the streets like a massed football army but with flags that appear to be made of delicate silk. The sole flash of colour is the red of a Man U top standing out for its brightness in the gloom as much as for its ancient sponsor’s logo.

And only men’s voices are heard – from baleful to operatic.  At one stage the 13 men on stage are joined by massed voices from the aisles and circle. The men (like the audience thankfully) are diverse in ethnicities and accents. Fatherland finds myriad stunning ways to express verbatim testimony collected from small-town England and echoed through songs and chants against Karl Hyde’s brooding soundtrack which booms or whispers. Telling stories of harrowing sadness about fathers lost or never known. These are the stories of “real” men where real means from Kidderminster, Stockport and Bewdley and emphatically still there. Men who haven’t left to join the metropolitan elites which the creators Hyde, Scott Graham and Simon Stephens aren’t afraid to allow themselves to be mockingly identified with. And the men in Fatherland don’t want to leave their home towns: one character is sure that the place you grew up in makes you who you are.

The question reverberating through the show is “what is the earliest memory of your father?” In his memoir And When Did you Last See Your Father? Blake Morrison describes unflinchingly the black, white and greys of his relationship with his dad, the contradictions of the respected professional and family man who nonetheless seems addicted to small petty triumphs and finding ways to cheat the system.  And not only his father’s status as a figurehead is ambiguous: looking back through the family tree he finds a “heritage of neglect” and the example of “the Absent Father, who had his story too, grief and nervous breakdown”. In the media to be a contemporary father is almost automatically flawed – notable usually  for being both needed and not there –  and the paternal relationships of the men in Fatherland  portray all those complexities and then some.

Fatherland is not just about fathers – it’s very much about being a son too and the pain of one not being able to connect with the other. Women and girls are mentioned of course – what is stark and powerful is the love of fathers for the daughters they protect or raise single-handedly. But the stage is a space for men’s stories and movement, the raggedy bravado of their cockiness a front for aching tales of not being loved. As one character says: we all hurt.

My favourite depictions: Graham (Neil McCaul), whose affable Dad Zero unpacks his childhood scars; Mel’s (Michael Begley) hymn of a climb into horror which defies any attempt to pigeonhole his chirpy Black County persona; Daniel (David Judge), brittle, fragile and still standing through his own battles with mental health; and the scarcely buried violence of Alan (Joseph Alessi) whose stare, stance or even slight pause convey years of “being a bit handy”.

But Fatherland isn’t just a journey through the bad bits of being a man – it finds ways to lift you into admiration and eventually joy including with a stunning flash mob chorus on the night I attended in the bar post-show. I smiled a lot not least because of the gratingly incongruous but perfectly fitting reference to the children’s movie Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs and the tongue-tied and repressed father in that story who needs a machine to make his love audible.

The poet John Hegley explores his relationship with his father in several pieces in the collection The Sound of Paint Drying. One poem October ’71 describes how Hegley Senior presented his son with his old artist’s brushes. Hegley Junior asks his dad why he gave up painting and finds the answer is:  He gave up for me to go on. Fatherland’s stunning visions will leave men asking themselves what legacy they will be remembered for. Go see it.

Fatherland is at the Lyric Hammersmith until June 23rd, 2018

By Alexis Keir


Review | Red at Wyndham’s Theatre

Image by Johan Persson

Walking into the Wyndham, the stage takes you by surprise. Alfred Molina sits unmoving, back to the audience, staring fixedly at one of the many deep crimson paintings that loom over the stage. Instantly, we find ourselves in Mark Rothko’s studio circa late 1950s.

There is little plot to Red; the short play’s events circle around Rothko’s commission for a Four Seasons restaurant in New York and his resentment for the new pop-artists nipping at his heels, but it is his diatribes at young assistant Ken that overshadow all else. At first, Rothko appears god-like in his commands, teaching Ken and the audience how to view his paintings; and yet as the years go by and Ken becomes disenchanted with Rothko, we see a certain vulnerability and the cracks begin to show in his character.

Molina dominates the stage and entrances with his lectures and theories on colour and art. He is utterly convincing in his indifference to Ken, completely selfish and absorbed in his art with an intensity that is felt from the moment that you walk into the theatre. He portrays the perfect contrast; his bullying of Ken a striking polarity to his almost fatherly protection of the inanimate. Rothko’s spiralling is beautifully played out, and Molina exudes his internal conflict perfectly whilst avoiding the cliché of the tortured artist.

On the other hand, for the most part I found Alfred Enoch unconvincing as Ken. Rothko’s assistant is there to mix paint and fetch coffee, but ultimately to act as an audience and foil for Rothko’s philosophical rants. Enoch’s acting for most of the play feels forced and uncertain, his timing slightly off. That said, he grows as Ken does, particularly during his character’s retaliation to Rothko’s apathy and hypocrisy. His real shining moment is talking about his parent’s murder. This contrived plot point, echoed by the intense on-stage painting that leaves both actors and stage looking as though they are splattered in blood, hit home purely through Enoch’s performance. Staring at the spraying of paint, tears glistening in his eyes, Enoch takes a hollow plot point and gives it life.

This spectacular set which both looks and acts as a real studio, is filled with vibrant paintings which pulse and suffocate the work space. I am somewhat doubtful that Rothko would have held such eloquently enlightened and lively discussions in his real studio, however the dialogue and performance here is excellent. Whilst the play itself feels somewhat empty, the staging and performance of Red fill it and make it well worth a watch, particularly for art-lovers.

Red is at Wyndham’s Theatre until July 28th 2018 

By Emma Quick

Review | Absolute Hell – Pissed In Purgatory

Kate Fleetwood taken by Johan Persson (2018). Featured on NationalTheatre.

Rodney Ackland’s play ‘Absolute Hell’ (at the National Theatre until 16 June) is like spying on a drunken party through a club door. The first hour is intoxicating, in a salacious sort of way, but then it all starts to feel a bit maudlin and you just want them to drink up so you can go home.

The play takes place in ‘La Vie en Rose’, a seedy Soho drinking den (modelled on the Colony rooms) full of confused, desperate characters seeking sex and oblivion. It is set in the summer of 1945, in a war weary London that is under the shadow of Auschwitz and on the brink of a Labour Government. Although the clientele are determined to hide from the outside world, the gold veneer of the club begins to peel away, revealing the dull undercoat of post war life.

When it was first produced in 1952, as the ‘Pink Room’, the homosexuality was played down but the sordid, decadent world it depicted was still too much for the respectable theatre audiences of the time. It soon ended Ackland’s career. It was only until 1988 when it was re-discovered, first at the Orange Tree in Richmond, and then again at the National with Judi Dench who also starred in the 1991 BBC film of the play.

It runs on for over 3 hours and, although it has a cast of nearly thirty members, there are only 2 real characters – Christine, the lonely, emotionally fragile club owner (a charismatic and sensual Kate Fleetwood) and Hugh a gay, failing-writer (brilliantly played by Charles Edwards) who is constantly on the cadge. Esh Alladi is excellent in the minor role of camp dogsbody Cyril Clatworthy. Sinead Matthews wrings out some emotion as hedonist Elizabeth. The rest of the ensemble (black GIs, gay critics, film producers, tormented artists, black marketers and a prostitute name Fifi who endlessly circles the streets of nearby Piccadilly) only serve to emphasise the real subject of the play – the desperate desire to escape a bombed out London through the neck of a bottle.

There are moments of real humour in the play (some of it dated) and the action is skilfully choreographed however, the last two scenes of the play are rushed, unsatisfactory and could be cut. Director Joe Hill-Gibbins does his best to make the play relevant but, the truth is, nothing much happens and watching others getting drunk is rather boring. By the end the jokes have turned stale and the characters’ search for sex has gone flaccid. The club literally starts to fall apart around them, the party is over and the hangover has already started to set in.

The final word of the play is hell.

Absolute Hell is running until 16th June at the National Theatre/ Lyttelton theatre.

By David Ford

Review | The Inheritance at The Young Vic

Photo by Simon Annand

The Inheritance stands at almost seven hours long: Matthew Lopez’s two-part, self-aware epic on the legacy of gay men past-and present. Treating everything from the devastation of a post-AIDs generation and the LGBT reaction to the Trump-era, The Inheritance paints a vivid image what it means to be homosexual and living in modern day New York.

Openly narrated, a cast of beautiful men collaboratively recount a tapestry of stories, circling around the pair who sit at the epicentre of the performance – Toby and Eric. The Inheritance is a testament to the power of storytelling; the men squabble over details, however ultimately their paths are set for them – inherited from and dictated by the events that have passed before them. It is at times both heart-wrenching and hilarious, with themes as universal as love, or as specific as Trump, being handled in a way that is quite simply innovative.

Lopez is unafraid of pausing the plot to make way for intense debate on LGBT culture, privilege and poverty; he deftly avoids lecturing the audience, and instead weaves fair, impassioned and considered points into the dialogue between characters. The audience (speaking particularly as a white, straight woman) does not feel isolated but rather included in these debates, forbidden from a feeling of disinterest and implicated in the grappling of these issues.

The cast sit around a deceptively bare, table-like stage which rises and falls throughout. Devoid of all but a few props, it is the intricate dialogue and narration that paints the settings, transporting the audience better than any elaborate set might. Lopez’s writing is undeniably beautiful and uninhibited, coming alive against such a simple backdrop.

The actor’s handling of the text is also exceptional, with many a stand-out performance. Kyle Soller brings alive a potential ‘safe’ character with his conveyance of Eric’s inherent decency, which contrasts perfectly with the tragedy of Toby’s complete self-absorption and route to destruction, portrayed by Andrew Burnap. A few actors handle multiple characters, however it is Samuel H Levine flipping between the confidence of Adam and the uncertain self-consciousness of Leo, even during the same scene, which is spell-binding. Similarly, Paul Hilton’s portrayal of both Walter and Morgan Forster is stellar. Walter’s quiet humanity paired with the representation of Morgan as a caring but measured British man in a tweed jacket truly epitomises just how far the LGBT community has come in recent years. This is a cast dominated by men, and whilst Vanessa Redgrave’s appearance in the latter parts of the play is moving, it is incomparable to the ambitious speeches and constant presence of the other cast members.

A play of this length is certainly an undertaking, and this features as the gag of many a joke throughout. I had a little more processing time than most, seeing the two parts with a week in between. Whilst the end of part one is not left on a cliff-hanger as such, I was still desperate to see the second even a week later. The soap-opera like nature of the multiple storylines left me wanting for more, even having seen part two.

The Inheritance is fundamentally significant and utterly enjoyable; the perfect combination of comedy and genuine issues tied together perfectly with a stunning script. Whilst this marathon of a play may feel like a commitment, it is one you will not regret.

The Inheritance is now booking for its West End transfer at the Noel Coward Theatre, 21st September 2018 – 5th January 2019 

By Emma Quick

Review | Three Women at The Trafalgar Studios

3 Women (2018) banner taken from LondonTheatreDirect

Katy Brand’s Three Women at the Trafalgar Studios offers a representation of the title across respective and somewhat stereotypical generations. 

Suzanne, a crystal-loving 40-year old played by Debbie Chazen, is facing trauma stemming from her childhood, which surfaces throughout the evening. Chazen perfectly executes a bitter rivalry between her and mother Eleanor, played by Anita Dobson, and reveals just the right amount of emotional upheaval from her loss of love. 

Maisie Richardson-Sellers adds an interesting and sometimes offbeat character to the mix. Laurie is portrayed as the peace-keeper whose beliefs surrounding post-genderism dictate a large amount of her lines. Richardson-Sellers performance feels forced at times, possibly due to the constant stream of information that her character is instructed to feed to her peers. Although sporadically comical, it is just that, and appeared as though she was reading from a chapter of a non-fiction, Millenial analysis. 

But it’s Dobson who takes centre stage, not only providing the much-needed comic relief with her witty one-liners and blasé view of her family’s approach to life, but also with her emotional collapse towards the end of the show. This display of impassioned contrition proved Dobson’s worthiness of her extensive acting career and left me satisfied at the believability of the show. 

Brand has written a confounding piece which appears to be mostly based on a societal view of generations today. Although it faces some difficulties in plot and characterisation, it is worth seeing for Dobson’s performance alone.

Three Women is running until the 9th June at the Trafalgar Studios.

By Lucy Morris

Coriolanus at the Donmar


Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, performed at the Donmar Warehouse, Directed by Josie Rourke, Wednesday 18th December 2013


Loyal to Shakespeare’s ‘noisiest play’, the Donmar Warehouse brings us a modern, edgy, bold and loud performance with dramatic and atmospheric music. A graffiti backdrop, heavy chains, blood and water: these are the elements in this hard-edged play.


Tom Hiddleston is no stranger to Shakespearean leads either (cast brilliantly as Henry V, Henry IV Parts I and II for one of the most brilliant depictions of Shakespeare on TV in the series The Hollow Crown), and his performance as Coriolanus captures the multifaceted character of the warrior, in all his weakness as well as his strength.


Menenius seeks to capture Coriolanus’ protean character by describing him in strikingly shifting terms:

Coriolanus is grown 
from man to dragon: he has wings; he’s more than a 
creeping thing.

The tartness
 of his face sours ripe grapes: when he walks, he 
moves like an engine, and the ground shrinks before his treading

… I paint him in the character. Mark what mercy his 
mother shall bring from him: there is no more mercy 
in him than there is milk in a male tiger; that
 shall our poor city find: and all this is long of

From Act V Scene 4


The descriptions of him are non-human: ‘from man to dragon’ and ‘he moves like an engine’, which are true for he is ferocious and his angry words scorn like the fire of a dragon, but the Coriolanus we see is a young man who has an unbreakable bond with his mother Volumnia, which causes us to see him as child-like and driven to warfare by the desires of his proud and fierce mother.


This is a play about the public vs. private – never is the contrast more clear than when we switch from the heart-wrenching scene of mother, wife and son – pleading to son, husband and father – and then shifting back to Aufidius with his best warriors who find his change of heart unforgivable. The maternal scene shifts to the brutal male military world.


During the play, it struck me how much the use of space was like a dance performance, such as the menacing moment when Caius attempts to throttle Aufidius. Men suddenly surround Caius to stop him, one with a sword at his neck, but so is the person holding the sword and so is he and so on and so forth. What you see is five or so people have a sword at their neck to which they all surrender and disarm before they disperse and move out to create another floor pattern. The spacial movements of the actors across this intimate stage are made very visible, reminding us that every decision made by the director was carefully choreographed and coordinated.




The analogy between the play and a dance routine is further developed in the range of levels. The heights and the falls – the sad bowing down to Coriolanus by his son; when Coriolanus climbs the ladder; the harrowing elevation in the last scene and the chanting of the people standing on chairs. It all adds to a symbolic sense of power change, political manipulation and the fall from hero to traitor. The symbolism is repeated at different stages of the play, such as when we see blood dripping onto Aufidius’s head in the last scene, just as we saw earlier Martius’s head under a shower as he shakes the blood off his hair like a dog.


This performance is not for the meek. I saw one young woman’s expression in the front row as if she stared into the abyss, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and the ‘Horror, the horror!’


The entire cast had transported themselves into the story so well you could see that they had already morphed into their characters way before the performance began. But the sterling performances of the night came from Tom Hiddleston as Caius Martius Coriolanus, Deborah Findlay (Cranford) as Volumnia, Coriolanus’s mother and Mark Gatiss (Sherlock Holmes) as Menenius, friend of Coriolanus also referred in the play as a ‘father’ to him.


This was no Julius Caesar – the superb all-female production brought to us last year by the Donmar but my, it is not far off from everything you want from theatre: electrifying, intense and disturbing enough to shake up your existence. It took a slow sobering walk in the rain before I was back to reality …


By Heather Wells

Ibsen’s Ghosts

Kelly Hunter as Mrs Alving and Mark Quartley as Osvald Photo: Alastair Muir

Ghosts, currently playing at Rose Theatre Kingston brings Stephen Unwin’s (who is also the creative director of this play) translation of Henrik Ibsen’s 1800s play. The originally Danish play follows a short period of time of which the lives (and secrets) of five characters begin to unravel, set to change everything.

The cast was small, but it was not lacking; the characters were strong enough to carry the acts along and the echo of Captain Alving was powerful enough that it almost seemed like he was a physical presence on set. The strongest performance certainly came from the mother, Mrs Alving, (played by Kelly Hunter) with a particularly haunting and spine tingling moment which occurred right at the end of the play. The actor, Mark Quartley, who played Oswald also brought a very tormented performance of the tortured Oswald. The idea of history and ghosts carried through all of the characters – makes it seem like they too were part of the fabric, part of the characters themselves. Whether they could ever truly escape from what has been already done, the play deems it unlikely and this idea translated well on set.

However, one thing that did strike me, coming from a production standpoint, was that the play did contain some rather filmic qualities. Some moments felt like they would have translated better on screen when a camera would’ve framed their touching faces, rather than being on full display and witnessed by an audience. Nevertheless, these small moments did not detract from the overall performance.

This is not Unwin’s first take on Isben’s Ghosts and his devotion certainly shines through in the care taken on the production of this performance.

The Fear of Breathing. By James Denselow

The Fear of Breathing
The Fear of Breathing

Over sixteen months into the unrest in Syria a true picture of events on the ground is still hard to ascertain. This is partly due to the pace at which the situation is developing. The conflict, inspired by the regional ‘Arab Spring’, was sparked by children writing graffiti on the walls in the southern town of Deraa. Today it has morphed into a complex civil conflict with both ethnic and sectarian dimensions. The ‘Free Syria Army’ (FSA), largely made up of army deserters, launched an attack on the capital city, Damascus, in July and observers have started estimating the survival of the Assad regime in months rather than years.


The limited access of independent media has meant that much of the conflict has been communicated through social media: panicked YouTube clips and horror stories from Facebook. The lack of information from the country has resulted in several innovative attempts to communicate events here in the UK. The interactive theatre experience, 66 Minutes in Damascus, gives Londoners a vision of being under Syrian detention, based on a series of first-hand accounts. Likewise, The Fear of Breathing takes the increasingly popular verbatim format to the stage at the intimate Finborough Theatre in Chelsea.


The play attempts to tell the story of the revolution to date. It starts with idealistic youngsters full of hopeful imagination for a peaceful transition. Students, radio DJs, hotel owners and the ubiquitous ‘activists’ innocently speak of the ‘Facebook revolution’ and their networked organisation of demonstrations and protests. In a country where previously it was illegal for more than seven people to gather, the political oxygen that was blowing across the region is intoxicating and infectious. It is told well by the energetic performers who interestingly choose to speak mainly with Welsh and Scottish accents rather than attempt an Arabic impression.


The stories were gathered covertly by theatre director Zoe Lafferty and two journalists who had sneaked themselves into the country. The single outstanding personal tale is that of Quataba, a twenty-two year-old student, who gets picked up by the security forces. His subsequent torture makes for uncomfortable viewing, although it still appears bizarre that he was asked ‘how many facebook friends do you have?’ by his sadistic captors. Meanwhile a hotel owner in Damascus provides the counter-narrative of fear of the unknown that would follow the demise of the regime. His comfort and success in business, not to mention his love of sushi, are all at risk in the uncertainty of a ‘new Syria’.


Sectarianism is an underlying theme throughout, with a particularly sad moment coming when the tortured student promises revenge against his former captors. The verbatim format works generally well, although at one point a Syrian FSA fighter appears to deliver a lecture whilst ducking and diving from incoming fire which appears unlikely. It would also have been interesting to understand why these particular characters were chosen for their stories; as one says, ‘this is the first time I’ve told my story in English’.


The Fear of Breathing is a brave and important contribution to better understanding the darkness that is continuing to envelope Syria.

At the Finborough Theatre until 11 August: www.finboroughtheatre.co.uk


James Denselow is a writer on Middle Eastern politics. @jamesdenselow

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