Quines Writes: A Streetcar Named Desire, Sea Wall, Cyprus Avenue and more
- Quines Writes
- 29 May 2020
The first instalment in Stellar Quines' writing programme for young women in partnership with YWCA, Feminist Fringe and The List
Quines Writes is a writing programme for young womxn hosted by Stellar Quines, in partnership with YWCA, Feminist Fringe and The List, with the aim of tackling the gender imbalance in theatre criticism. Over six weeks, six participants (Ella Pennycott, Louisa Doyle, Eve Simpson, Rebecca McIlroy, Carolyn Paterson and Ellen Leslie) will be given the opportunity to develop new skills from professional development with journalists and critics. As part of the programme, participants will write one full length review and interview, alongside five shorter reviews, to be released every week and published via The List. Find out more about the programme at stellarquines.com.
Interview: Finn Den Hertog – 'We need to be innovative and start thinking in a new way'
Ella Pennycott speaks to Den Hertog about his work on A Streetcar Named Desire, online theatre streaming and how the pandemic continues to affect the industry
The most recent title in the National Theatre's online streaming series was the Young Vic's 2014 production of A Streetcar Named Desire. It proved to be hugely popular, having been watched over 844k times in just a few days. We spoke to assistant director Finn Den Hertog about why the National Theatre's At Home series has become so popular, as well as about his own experience of theatre closures.
'I was supposed to start directing a play called Enemy of the People,' Finn explains as we speak over the phone. 'It's rather ironic as because the play is about the handling of a healthcare crisis. Now that we're facing a healthcare crisis, it's been put off.
'Lockdown has really highlighted the preciousness of the art forms, if anything,' he continues. 'The response to online performances shows our desire for selective experience. What I'm missing is being in a room full of other people, when everyone's hearts start to beat at the same rate as the performance starts.
'It's interesting that people are watching Streetcar as a film now. It's a rather close representation of what you got in the theatre, with tracking shots and the stage continuously revolving. Maybe it's more accessible for people who don't respond so well to live theatre, because this production just feels really contemporary.'
We speak about the focus of this production of Streetcar and, whilst Finn worked on the revival as opposed to the original, he explains that director Benedict Andrews wanted to explore each of the characters in detail for the archetype they represent. A modernistic design scheme brought the characters and their plights into the 21st century. 'Before this production, audiences hadn't really watched a Streetcar set in their own time period,' he explains, 'but the themes around mental health, assault, sexual abuse, they're modernistic too, so must be explored as such. I think this production achieved that.'
The set, designed by Magda Willi, is minimalistic, mostly white and reminiscent of a cage. It is used as a canvas for boldly coloured lights accompanied by updated music throughout the play. 'The stylised minimalism strips away all the excess to leave the story front and centre,' Finn adds, 'and Jon Clark (the lighting designer) is phenomenal. He and Benedict worked hard together, taking inspiration from other contemporary plays. The coloured lights give the audience a sense of the characters' inner lighting at different points in the show. A lot of well-established photographers were involved in the creation of this effect.
'That raw and in-your-face aesthetic makes the production get under your skin. If it's really stylised, it sticks with you.'
The design isn't the only stand-out feature of this play, though; with a phenomenal cast including Gillian Anderson (Blanche DuBois) and Ben Foster (Stanley Kowalski), Andrew's character-centred approach is more than achieved. Finn explains, 'It was completely down to Gillian (Anderson) and what she did with Blanche. In the '50s film, Vivian Leigh gave a very heightened performance of the character, which is the way she's generally been portrayed since. Instead, Gillian plays her in a way which seems (on the whole) very in control through most of the show, making it all the more unnerving when she does crack.'
We also discuss Ben Foster's performance as Stanley, who is normally portrayed as completely brutish. Foster's portrayal shows a more human side to him, which can be swapped for the violent, brutish manner very quickly. 'There's a PTSD quality to him,' Finn points out. 'Stanley has been through war and seen some horrendous stuff, so there's a switch in his brain where he can go from irritation to violence very quickly. That's the great thing about Benedict's direction, that there's a more morbid, expressionistic quality, so Stanley can be portrayed in a way which the audience could resonate with.'
Finn is now working on Scenes for Survival, a series of digital short artworks produced with the National Theatre Scotland, and is working with drama students to help them through these uncertain times.
'We need to be innovative and start thinking in a new way. Theatre is becoming more small scale and DIY at the moment, but it's clear how important it is to us all.'
Keep up with the National Theatre's weekly streams on their YouTube channel.
Party Skills for the End of the World
For obvious reasons, Party Skills for the End of the World (created by Nigel Barrett and Louise Mari for the Manchester International Festival) is a timely choice for revival. It's an immersive, digital piss-up on Zoom to prep for Armageddon; the audience knocks up cocktails from the dregs in their cupboards and ping off to breakout rooms for party popper assembling, self-defence practice and lock picking. It has the energy of Blue Peter undertaken by jolly, if slightly burnt, '90s raver parents.
Which in a way, couldn't be more appropriate – it is week 10 of lockdown after all. Had the party skills teachers leant into that and led their sessions with more ecstasy, abandon or even panic, the show could have been a truly exciting whirligig experience. There is a thrill as the browser buffers and you wonder what rabbit hole you're about to get spat through. If only there was a greater urgency in the rallies to hedonism and quieter moments of existential questioning waiting on the other side.
Towards the end, a siren and looping voice erupts; 'DO WHAT YOU WANT' to kick off a live-stream gig. This motto is fitting. If you're up to it, there's a party to be had, accompanied by bookie visuals and thumping soundtrack. No doubt, it's priceless watching others in gallery view; bobbing in their windows like goldfish or thrashing about the living rooms pimped out with more merch and fairy lights than Americans at Christmas. But this isn't a queer house party, nor should it try to be. It has a different kind of potential to bring strangers together for moments of interaction and community, at a time when that's pretty hard to come by. (Louisa Doyle)
Despite being cancelled, MIF have a number of events available online and have released free recordings of performances, talks and events on their website.
'Just because we don't know, doesn't mean we won't know.
We just don't know yet.'
Sea Wall triumphs in its ability to take the most epic, philosophical questions and contain them in 34 minutes of one man's anguish. The conversationalist, occasionally comic tone set by Simon Stephens' writing lulls its audience into Alex's world. Andrew Scott addresses the audience in a wonderfully frank manner, building his world nimbly with just enough detail that it feels as though you've known him for years. It is carefully crafted so we do notice this 'hole in his stomach' and lets us think about what causes it. His musing on the presence of God comes across as grasps for an explanation, some base of reasoning for him.
Close, broken and still. Alex pauses to the sound of a silence that I collectively partake in. I haven't moved in just over 30 minutes, anticipating something to process how Scott's delivery has rhythmically consumed me, but I'm denied resolution. Debuting at the Bush Theatre in 2008, this is not a film of the staged production, but a monologue delivered to us in open space to a fixed camera in natural light. Captivated by my investment in everything that is not said, I become the hole in Alex's grief-stricken chest. Scott has an ability to make us feel everything Alex feels. I dissociate when he does, I laugh as he mimics his daughter's laughter, I'm cowardly when confronted. Moving from young to old, dialogue to poetry, invincibility to vulnerability, Alex narrates with a confessional strength bestowed upon him from the women whom he portrays. The perceptiveness of his wife, Helen, guides his self-assessment, whilst his unnamed daughter gives him purpose felt also by his father-in-law.
Stephens' character dynamics are a triumph, offering both light-hearted relatability and a chance to observe the gendered intricacies of discussing religion and beer with Alex's father-in-law, yet emotive introspection with Helen, with the universality of childhood imagination transcending barriers. All depicted by Scott, the multi-faceted collective give Alex life, offering a reminder that what we love most can fall from us as quickly as the sea wall drops.
The half-finished thoughts and information gaps subtly build a tension in the pit of your stomach through the ebb and flow of Scott's performance. His avoidance of certain topics make you question why he's doing that, what isn't he saying? There is a beautifully held silence and you no longer have to wonder why he's unable to string a full sentence together, his world crumbled in one moment and the performance allows its audience to feel that pain along with Alex. It is a slow caving in, a sinkhole, that you feel yourself falling through to the closing minutes. His initial bafflement at his father-in-law's mention of the sea wall they're swimming to so aptly foreshadows the tragedy that befalls him later in the play. The idea never crosses his mind, those sorts of things just don't happen, yet it is always on the cusp of happening to anyone. We may not know it now but we might someday. (Eve Simpson and Rebecca McIlroy)
Sea Wall can be streamed for free from 18–30 Jun via The Old Vic.
Bold, exuberant and carnivalesque, Emma Rice's adaptation of Angela Carter's novel Wise Children is an exciting first production from the theatre company of the same name.
Wise Children describes the lives of two showgirl sisters, Nora and Dora Chance, who grew up on the 'wrong side of the tracks' in London. After receiving an invitation to their biological father's 100th birthday party, the Chance sisters become nostalgic and reveal their personal histories to the audience using stories, songs and spellbinding choreography. Props are imaginative and childlike; the caravan at the heart of the stage symbolises a transient home, and captures the unsettled nature of its characters. But the highlight of Wise Children is its casting. 'Young', 'Showgirl' and 'Present Day' Nora and Dora interact with each other throughout the performance. In a play where the past is as important as the present, it collapses time and showcases the fondness each sister has for her adolescent self. Elsewhere, Katy Owen's talent for physical comedy shines through as Grandma Chance.
Rice's production celebrates family and the female experience. By closing ironically with 'Girls Just Wanna Have Fun', it leaves us wondering whether this is possible, but more importantly, if it even matters. (Carolyn Paterson)
Wise Children is available to stream on BBC iPlayer.
So It Goes
It can be hard to talk about bereavement, which is emphasised in On the Run's production So It Goes. Forgoing traditional dialogue for messages written on whiteboards, Hannah Moss tells us about her father, who died when she was 17. Helped by actor David Ralfe, she recounts the events leading up to his death and how she coped with the loss. The play is full of poignant moments, such as when teary-eyed Hannah says goodbye to her dad for the final time. Although there are happy moments where she shares childhood memories of running with her dad and singing along to his favourite song, the focus of the play is how Hannah coped with his death. She is refreshingly honest about her feelings, and the written messages serve to emphasise how difficult she found it to discuss his death.
There is no set and the actors use props drawn by hand to set the scene. Sometimes the transitions between scenes are slightly clunky but for the most part, it works well. The use of the props is cleverly choreographed and juxtaposes light-hearted, comedic moments with serious ones. In one scene, Hannah holds a dress against her body, which her dad disapproves of. As she finally persuades him to buy it, the dress is flipped, revealing her dad's diagnosis to the audience.
A powerful piece of storytelling, the play is thought-provoking and perfectly captures the complex emotions that follow bereavement. (Ellen Leslie)
Find out more about On the Run and information on future productions at ontheruntheatre.co.uk.
Cypress Avenue by David Ireland is a turbulent and stimulating look at the inner conflict of identity and the historical wounds that still run deep. We follow Frank, played by Stephen Rea, a hardcore loyalist from Belfast struggling to hold onto reality, convinced his newborn granddaughter is Gerry Adams, the former president of Sinn Féin. First performed in 2016 at the Royal Court in collaboration with Abbey Theatre, Rea gives a hypnotising performance that leaves you both wildly laughing and uncomfortably wincing at the demise of a man tormented by the past; a past he deems his duty to commemorate and continue. Cyprus Avenue offers a lot for contemplation, from identity crisis to generational trauma, as Ireland makes you question if we inevitably inherit the guilts and triumphs of the place we call home. Rea's hilarious exchange with 'Slim', a handgun waving paramilitary, played by Chris Corrigan, will have you giggling through the absurd repercussions of being raised to hate beyond reason. Despite the array of side splitting one-liners, the laughter soon turns to silence; and watching Rea's psychotic meltdown is equally thrilling as it is horrifying. The issues raised in Cyprus Avenue have incredible relevance to trials we face today. The battlegrounds may have changed but the complexity of 'Where are you from?' is here to stay. (Lucy Philip)
Stream Cyprus Avenue now for free via The Royal Court.