Quines Writes: Graeae Theatre, Hamlet, Small Island and more

Quines Writes: Graeae Theatre, Hamlet, Small Island and more

Reasons To Be Cheerful / credit: Patrick Baldwin

The fifth 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, participants (Ella Pennycott, Louisa Doyle, Eve Simpson, Rebecca McIlroy, Carolyn Paterson, Katie Dibb 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: Jenny Sealey (Graeae Theatre) – 'Everyone, regardless of their ability, has a right to go to the theatre'

Ella Pennycott catches up with Artistic Director Sealey about Graeae Theatre's Reasons To Be Cheerful, accessibility in theatre and her thoughts on the future of the industry

Note: this interview was conducted in British Sign Language. The quotes are translations of Jenny's views, but not a word for word transcription.

'We're going to worry about what's to come later, what's important is what we can do for the world now.' So says Jenny Sealey, Artistic Director of Graeae theatre, as we enter our 12th week in lockdown. Whilst streaming old favourites of theirs, such as Reasons To Be Cheerful, Graeae Theatre has been working to ensure that necessary changes will be made to the way theatre works, alongside producing their miniseries Crips Without Constraints.

'How amazing that Reasons to Be Cheerful has been watched over 8400 times! When we premiered it in 2010, Reasons was a touring show – quite a small one, but one of my favourites thanks to its upbeat and motivating style. When we revived it a few years later, we found that we remembered everything instantly. Reasons is in our DNA. I still can't believe that so many people have watched it in the last week, and I hope that those among them who are Deaf or disabled feel empowered and motivated by it. Reasons is a fun play, a happy play, but it's also rebellious and loud. That is what we need at the moment, with the virus changing so many lifestyles. For all of us, its really important that the Deaf and disabled community are involved in the re-evaluation of life and the decisions being made, that they can make their voices heard.

'I've had many Zoom meetings recently, talking about what sort of plays need to be created once theatres reopen. We think we need joyful, positive, inspiring plays to welcome the world back to the theatre, but it is equally as important to share the serious stories of lockdown. Especially about the minorities. Whilst we need those happy and fun plays to recover, we also need to show what we have learned from staying indoors.

Quines Writes: Graeae Theatre, Hamlet, Small Island and more

Jenny Sealey / credit: Micha Theiner

'We're getting to a point now where theatre is almost completely accessible and inclusive, but still not quite there. Graeae have been collaborating with various others to try and find a way to solve these problems now that we've had to step back from creating theatre as we normally would. A "diverse" cast usually means a mixed ethnic cast, or a mixed ability cast – it's rarely both and this needs to change. Additionally, when you think of accessibility for theatre, you must also think about the audience. Everyone, regardless of their ability, has a right to go to the theatre. We must facilitate that right. The ideal world must be really equal, but really diverse. Groups of theatres now are trying to make sure they do at least one show a year which is fully diverse, with at least half the cast being Deaf and/or disabled – at Graeae we're pushing for more. Every performance should be diverse. Why should it be a one-time event? We've got a lot of work to do, but it's all worth it.

'Normally, when we devise and cast people in plays, we bring all the actors to a workshop, all access arrangements are catered for. We just see who the best actors are, then they get the job. If you take out the barriers a minority actor might face when auditioning, you immediately get a diverse cast. With a greater range of access needs represented onstage, there's so much more opportunity for greater impact. Maybe one character who normally gets someone else to sign for them turns around and signs for themselves. It makes the audience sit back and really consider why a character did what they did, so diversity really enriches a production. We recently did a play about mental health in relation to race, it was a cast of almost all black people, with one white. There, we had to actively think about diversity even more than we normally would, which was an interesting challenge.

'One really good thing to come from lockdown is the miniseries Crips Without Constraints. Crips Without Constraints are weekly monologues written by different artists, filmed with ordinary equipment, improvements done quickly as we're working to a short deadline. They're rough, raw, they catch your attention and they're creative! They show that we can still work in teams to create a piece of theatre, even though we're apart.'

Crips Without Constraints, Reasons to Be Cheerful and many resources for Deaf and disabled performers can be found at graeae.org

Quines Writes: Graeae Theatre, Hamlet, Small Island and more

Hamlet / credit: Manuel Harlan

Hamlet (Royal Shakespeare Company)

From the opening moments of the play, Simon Godwin lets us know his production of Hamlet is going to be unlike any you've seen before.

At its core there is Paapa Essiedu's interpretation of Hamlet. He is living every last fibre of his character, bringing with him a real sense of anguish and embodying a young man isolated by grief. The turmoil brings forward a madness that Essiedu plays with humour but there's a dangerous unpredictability to his Hamlet.

Natalie Simpson's Ophelia is the perfect foil to this Hamlet, and what she does with the part is so impressive. Where he is untethered, she is resolute. It only makes her eventual destruction all the more tragic; a presence that lasts even when Simpson isn't on stage.

Paul Wills' design is impeccable. Every inch of the stage is used to its fullest, changing from military outpost to bedchamber to a grave in mere moments. The seamless transformation of the stage and striking visuals leave audiences constantly questioning how on earth they are doing it. This coupled with Sola Akingbola's percussive compositions build a world that supersedes the classical 16th century Denmark and roots itself in a more modern world.

There is not a weak link in cast or crew, and together they have created a production of Hamlet that will be remembered for a long time to come. (Rebecca McIlroy)

Quines Writes: Graeae Theatre, Hamlet, Small Island and more

Jane Clegg / credit: Carla Evans

Jane Clegg

Finborough Theatre's decision to revive St John Irvine's Jane Clegg for its first London performance in 76 years was a wise one. Written in 1913 during the Suffragette movement, Jane Clegg is no simple drama about domestic bliss: instead it is a thought-provoking piece of social commentary with themes of infidelity and female empowerment.

When Jane (Alix Dunmore) finds out about her husband's recent affair and spiralling debt, she begins to question her empty relationship. An inheritance gives Jane financial power over her struggling husband and helps her make brave decisions for her future. This one-set play, taking place in a dollhouse-esque room, feels claustrophobic and heightens the artificiality of the Clegg's relationship. Dunmore's performance is calm and controlled, giving power to Jane's protest-banner language. As she interrogates her mother-in-law about the boredom of domestic life and stands up to Henry's hypocritical gaslighting, the drama emphasises the power struggles taking place both on and off the stage.

The beginning of the play may have fallen a little flat, but the explosive ending more than made up for it. Startling revelations, violence and an unexpected ultimatum bring out the best in Jane and the worst in Henry (Brian Martin). The concluding dialogue between the couple is unexpectedly honest, leading Henry to confess that he wished he had married 'a woman like myself, or a bit worse'.

Jane Clegg is surprisingly futuristic in its exploration of gender roles, making the production a forgotten classic and one that is extremely relevant in today's world. (Carolyn Paterson)

Watch Jane Clegg online now.

Quines Writes: Graeae Theatre, Hamlet, Small Island and more

Small Island / credit: Brinkhoff-Moegenburg

Small Island

Just over 72 years ago, HMT Empire Windrush docked in England, with hundreds of passengers disembarking to a dreary and damp Tilbury, enticed with the promise of employment and the opportunity for a better life. A stark contrast to the tropical heat they left behind in the Caribbean, the bad weather was unfortunately the least troublesome difficulty the migrants were to face. Small Island, based on the book by Andrea Levy, adapted by Helen Edmundson and produced by the National Theatre, follows the story of the first arrivals to Britain, who would become known as the Windrush Generation.

Directed by Rufus Norris and first performed in 2019, the production was topical when it premiered, following the disgraced Windrush Scandal the previous year. The three hour epic switches focus between each character's tale, from the uppity Hortense (Leah Harvey) to her lovable but spent husband Gilbert (Gershwyn Eustache Jnr) to hospitable English landlady Queenie (Aisling Loftus) and her racist husband Bernard (Andrew Rothney). The beautiful performances evoke laughter and warmth whilst simultaneously rousing a burning rage at the injustice and mistreatment of the Windrush Generation who were sold a dream and instead met with hostility and racism.

In the climatic and brilliant final 30 minutes, we see Queenie do the unimaginable; making a sacrifice that will connect Hortense with the blood of her treasured cousin Michael (CJ Beckford). Small Island is a fantastic and heartbreaking look at the Windrush Generation, and despite the play being set 72 years ago, the subject matter seems ever relevant today. Gilbert's words are embedded in truth: 'We want the same thing, a decent home, some work, some self respect, some love.' Regardless of the colour of our skin, we want the same things because we are the same thing; we are human. (Lucy Philip)

Quines Writes: Graeae Theatre, Hamlet, Small Island and more

Suzy Storck / credit: Helen Murray

Suzy Storck

A dark and compelling play, Gate Theatre's Suzy Storck follows the story of a mother who doesn't want children. Starting on a warm summer evening, Suzy Storck, played by Caoilfhionn Dunne, stands at her kitchen window, a glass of wine in her hand. Three empty wine bottles sit on her kitchen table and toys litter the floor around her. She can hear her children upstairs, panicking in their room which she has locked, and idly wonders if the shutters are closed. Yet she does not check on them.

It's an intriguing set up, and Magali Mougel's script skilfully blends dialogue and poetic passages together to guide us through the events preceding this scene. Suzy is adamant she doesn't want children, but succumbs to pressure from society and her abusive partner, who takes every opportunity to berate her. She feels trapped in her role as mother and housewife and this is reiterated in the staging. The audience sits at the sides of the set, making the already small kitchen feel even more cramped. Although some scenes occur behind the camera, this does not take away from the performance.

The upsetting themes addressed in the play make it difficult to watch. There's graphic descriptions of violence, and Suzy's rejection towards her children is shocking. Despite this, the acting is brilliant; Dunne's commitment to the character is admirable, and the transitions between Suzy's emotions are seamless. (Ellen Leslie)

Watch Suzy Storck on the Gate Theatre's YouTube until Tue 30 Jun.

Quines Writes: Graeae Theatre, Hamlet, Small Island and more

The Protest: Black Lives Matter / Kalungi Ssebandeke, Matilda Ibini, Anoushka Lucas and Benedict Lombe

The Protest: Black Lives Matter

The Protest: Black Lives Matter, a series of six videos by Black artists, was made during the aftermath of George Floyd's murder. There is a recurring reflection on the traumatising nature of racism and the triggering effects of not just the events in themselves but from the exhausting expectation to become a teacher for others.

You Just Don't Get it - And it Hurts by Fehinti Balogun, was inspired by a real-life conversation and is reconstructed for the audience over a series of text messages. Reaching for solidarity from a white friend Balogun is instead forced to desperately explain why it is not okay for white people to say the N-word, only to be rebutted with endless questioning and problematic statements such as 'Babe this is such a good debate'. This heartbreaking video illustrates the disappointing experience of having to justify yourself to someone unwilling to learn, as Anoushka Lucas so concisely states later in Your Work: 'You do your work, cause we have done ours'.

Started with a suitably exasperated sigh from Benedict Lombe, Do You Hear Us Now? is a confrontational monologue that is justifiably sceptical of the white public finally engaging with anti-racist work. They remind the audience that 'this is not new to us' and question the longevity in 'your hashtags, your black squares and your just checking ins'. Yet in the frustration there is an invitation to be proved wrong, for us to continue to show up even when 'no one applauds you for doing the work you should have always been doing'. (Katie Dibb)

Watch The Protest: Black Lives Matter on YouTube and check out a Q&A with the artists on Instagram.

Quines Writes: Graeae Theatre, Hamlet, Small Island and more

A Vision of Love Revealed in Sleep / credit: Neil Bartlett

A Vision of Love Revealed in Sleep

Amidst the 19th century paintings of the Tate, Neil Bartlett revived his solo show A Vision of Love Revealed in Sleep from 1987 for one night. Recorded in the Tate Britain in 2017, it's a homage to the homosexual pre-raphaelite painter, Simeon Solomon, who the Tate would only recognise and celebrate decades later. Fined for cottaging in Oxford Circus and expelled from society, Solomon's galleries became the pavements of London, chalked with his visions. Thankfully, the pages of his autobiography have survived and Bartlett breathes them into existence in this celestial meditation.

Bare chested and scarcely lit by a single bulb, Bartlett confides in his audience like a friend they've known forever. He shifts into embodiments of Solomon's words, surrendering to oceanic passions. Sebaldian journeys take shape; the two men appear in each other's visions, at night when they are sleeping or roaming the streets of London. Bartlett makes known that their relationship is fabricated, a communion he's created to yoke them closer. Yet this doesn't limit the longing he feels and bitterness towards history that kept so little of Solomon's story. These moments that break through the piece are unforgettable.

As Simeon's words fade from his lips, Bartlett descends to his own fearful present, the first wave of the AIDS crisis. He revisits a long dark path of his past, travelling alone at night to get home unharmed by homophobic abuse. His voice is low, his words deployed with the measure of a man gathering all his strength to keep it together. No part of these memories are invented. That drives home the courage of people like him, like Solomon. Artists like them have been forced to fight for their safety, yet still bring light into the lives of others with their extraordinary imaginations. (Louisa Doyle)

Watch A Vision of Love Revealed in Sleep online via LADA.

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