Theatre Review: #Typical by Ryan Calais Cameron

BY RYAN CALAIS CAMERON
DIRECTED BY ANASTASIA OSEI-KUFFOUR
STARRING RICHARD BLACKWOOD

A powerful exploration of racism and how British society stereotypes Black masculinity. I have to admit that I went into this (online) show without knowing the story of Christopher Alder, but it is a heartbreaking example of the institutional racism and police brutality which recent events and Black Lives Matter have brought to the fore.

In 1998, Christopher Alder, a former British army paratrooper, was injured during a fight outside of a night club in Hull and taken to hospital for treatment to a head injury. He was arrested by two police officers for a breach of the peace after apparently becoming aggressive and taken to the police station. CCTV footage from the custody suite shows him being dragged in by officers and left lying face down on the floor, motionless, with his trousers around his ankles. Officers stand around laughing while he lies there, dying, for 10 minutes. A post-mortem failed to establish the cause of Christopher’s death, but a later inquest returned a verdict of ‘unlawful killing’. Five Humberside police officers were put on trial for the manslaughter of Christopher, but the case later collapsed, and all officers were cleared. In 2011, the Government publicly apologised for breaching Christopher’s right to life, right not to be tortured or treated inhumanely, and the right not to be discriminated against.

Photo credit: Franklyn Rogers, from Soho Theatre.

This roughly one-hour one-man show is a real tour-de-force for Richard Blackwood, who manages to convincingly portray both Christopher himself and the characters he encounters over the course of his fateful last evening against a very plain, minimalistic decor. The story is told through music, lighting and Blackwood’s face and body, which seem to effortlessly shapeshift from middle-aged, slightly overweight, to tall and debonair, to somewhat shy and awkward, from aggressive punter in a nightclub to drunk girl on a night out.

The show starts with the oldest cliché in the book: a man waking up and getting ready to go out, while musing about his circumstances. And yet, in this context, the cliché works – because we find out this is a man like any other, his race doesn’t matter at all. At least not while he is at home. We discover he is middle-aged, divorced, looking for a career change, looking forward to spending time with his two boys the next weekend, feeling rather lonely, starting to worry about aging, not doing too great a job of looking after himself with food and exercise. He sounds like so many people we know, and yet completely himself and unique at the same time, with the rhythm and lilt of his delivery. There is wit and self-deprecation in there a-plenty, as well as word associations and clever one-liners, such as ‘I scare myself half to life’ when looking in the mirror, or ‘Marriage is the process of finding out the type of man your wife prefers to you’. Not knowing what to expect, I almost had the feeling I was watching a comedy show – and that innocence is perhaps the best attitude to have when sitting down to watch this show, because what follows comes as a complete shock.

Christopher goes out with his friends, commenting that they are ‘just old men talking about old shit’. Even though his friends seem to have sunk into domesticity and blandness, he is nevertheless determined to enjoy himself. As he queues to get into the nightclub, as he dances inside, as he chats up a girl, he encounters numerous micro-aggressions, which end up not being all that micro. Every time, he talks himself down from losing his temper and reacting violently. He keeps repeating: ‘They need me to be the bad guy. I know the cost. Leave me alone.’

The scenes at the hospital and the police station are brutal but incredibly effective. They are also, mercifully, much shorter than the humorous scenes establishing the character in the first half, or the growing discomfort we experience as witnesses to both the overt and hidden discrimination he experiences as he goes about a very normal Saturday evening in a city centre somewhere in England. There is a crescendo of abuse, but above all there is a complete unwillingness to listen or to see the person in front of them as anything other than the stereotype of aggressive black guy. Holding his hand to his head wound, Christopher keeps repeating: ‘I am the victim here. I just want to be heard. Nobody’s hearing me.’ The final scenes, with the repetition of the words ‘I can’t breathe’ and the shaky camerawork, have an added poignancy after the death of George Floyd. Blackwood’s face fills the whole screen and forces us to look into his eyes. It is impossible to look away, it is impossible to remain unmoved.

First performed in 2019 at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, before transferring to Soho Theatre for a sell-out run, this exciting hybrid of theatre and film was shot during the pandemic on location at Soho Theatre. It certainly deserves to be seen, shared and discussed far more widely, so it’s good to know that it is now available as Theatre on Demand from Soho Theatre and Nouveau Riche productions.

Highly recommended for all of you who have missed theatre as much as I have.

Photo credit: Franklyn Rogers.

Play Review: ‘Linda’ by Penelope Skinner at RADA

Last night I went to my ‘local’ theatre and watched the final year students at RADA in Penelope Skinner’s play Linda. I had heard that it was a powerful exploration of a woman’s midlife crisis so I took a friend of roughly the same age as me along who has also recently divorced and is juggling full-time work, children and a useless ex. Turns out, the play was so accurate and relevant that we didn’t know whether to laugh or cry!

Linda is a senior brand manager at a cosmetics company who seems to have it all, albeit with the usual compromises. She has won awards for her work and is passionate about changing the world, but is being pushed aside for a younger, dumber, more ruthless version of herself. She has a lovely house and family, but her two daughters feel insufficiently loved by her and her husband is cheating. As the world comes crashing on her from all sides, she refuses to fall silent, to become invisible as women over 50 have been told to do. At times, Linda seems her own worst enemy, but the people around her are anything but understanding or appreciative. Yet the young women in her life (her daughters, her work rival) are trapped themselves in other people’s expectations of them.

Rehearsal picture of Linda from the RADA website, with Bea Svistunenko as Linda and Jamie Bogyo as her husband Neil.

It was very funny as well as bitter, with so many lines resonating (I may not be remembering them 100% accurately, so apologies, but here is the gist of them):

‘Now your beauty seems like an asset but when you grow older, you will find yourself wondering if your achievements were because of what you could do, or because of the way you looked.’

‘So what was I in this story between you and my husband? If you were the crazy girl and he was the hero, what was I?’ ‘You were nobody.’

‘My whole life I’ve been watching what I eat, what I I say, how I walk, how I talk, what I wear, because that’s what you’ve got to do when you’re a woman. We do whatever they do, but backwards and in heels. And all this while achieving, climbing, raising children. You feel guilty at work because you’re not with the kids, you feel guilty at home because you’re not at work…’

‘I used to send you reminders about my birthday every year, because I could not bear the thought of you forgetting about it. I put up with doing all the work at work and then all the work at home, because I thought you were loyal and reliable.’

The finale very nearly nosedived into melodrama, but then there was an epilogue: Linda’s prize acceptance speech from ten years ago. All the more devastating, because it is full of optimism, belief in self and others, and in a better future for women. And entirely deluded, as it turns out. Sadly, seeing the backlash about #MeToo, I think we may still have a few decades to go before optimism is justified…

Needless to say, the actors gave such polished performances it’s hard to believe they haven’t quite graduated yet. Queuing up in the ladies’ toilets after the show, we were all shell-shocked and muttering: ‘That was unbearably close to home!’ ‘God, they need to set up a women’s after-show session with stiff drinks to hand!’.

This is always going to make for uncomfortable viewing, especially if you are a man (although it is not deliberately man-bashing: the men in Linda’s life are thoughtless, while the other women are vicious). But if you would like to watch it, it’s on until the 1st of December at RADA in London.

Rock Me Amadeus!

When I was growing up in the mid 1980s , Mozart was all the rage. Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus had been made into a film by Milos Forman, Vienna was getting ready to mourn the passing of 200 years since his death (1791) and Falco was the first Austrian singer/rapper to go global with his ‘Rock Me Amadeus’ (apologies for the poor image quality – pre-HD music videos have not aged well).

Meanwhile, I was labouring with Mozart minuets and sonatas, having my knuckles rapped by my fearsome (but much loved and missed) piano teacher. It didn’t put me off him, however. He has remained, to this day, my favourite composer.

So the National Theatre’s production of Amadeus last week was a wonderful way to reconnect with my childhood. (And also an excellent form of self-medication for uncertain times.) Lucian Msamati gave a mesmerizing virtuoso performance as Salieri (his Italian was most convincing), while Adam Gillen was suitably foppish and vulnerable as Mozart (in Shaffer’s vision). All in all, Msamati is only off-stage for 13 seconds, while changing into a shinier outfit, so it’s a real tour de force.

Scene from Amadeus, National Theatre.
Scene from Amadeus, National Theatre.

Of course you have to allow for dramatic licence: no one seriously thinks that Salieri poisoned Mozart, or that Mozart was as childish and foolish as he appears in the play. Although he did live beyond his means and left his wife and children in debt after his death, he was not as unsuccessful and ‘tormented’ as he appears to be in the play. He certainly enjoyed scatological humour, loved his wife dearly, but he did not write his musical compositions effortlessly, from divine dictation. (He worked very hard, and if his manuscripts appear remarkably clean,  it’s because his wife destroyed many of the earlier drafts.) Schikaneder did not cheat Mozart out of the money for The Magic Flute (in fact, he put on a special charity performance for Mozart’s widow). Constanze was not a naive little girl, but quite a shrewd businesswoman who managed to turn her fortunes around after Mozart’s death. Salieri was highly respected as a composer and teacher, but it is true that he felt fashions had moved on, so he stopped writing operas for the last 20 years of his life.  Salieri’s music fell into oblivion – and do you know what boost led to its modest revival in recent years? The success of the film ‘Amadeus’!

But it’s drama, not historical accuracy we’re after, and boy, does it deliver it in spades! The conversation between Salieri and Mozart prior to the death scene was particularly moving, while the final salute to mediocrities is one of the most memorable speeches about jealousy and resignation ever:

Salieri : I will speak for you, I speak for all mediocrities in the world. I am their champion. I am their patron saint. Mediocrities everywhere… I absolve you… I absolve you… I absolve you… I absolve you… I absolve you all!

The South Bank Sinfonia were both actors and players in this version, and there were some very good singers among the actors. This whetted my appetite for Mozart’s music and I listened all day Friday (Mozart’s birthday) to his Masses. On Saturday evening I also attended a local semi-staged performance of The Magic Flute, performed by St John’s Opera and Chamber Orchestra, and Renaissance Voices choir. It was a contemporary adaptation, with Sarastro being the CEO of a foundation and giving Tamino a gruelling job interview. Meanwhile, Papageno worked as a ‘model scout’ for the Queen of the Night (hunting for birds, right) and also ran her social media, doing occasional Tweets for her. Great fun, the music of course sublime and I’d never heard Mozart sung in English before. Clever translation at times!

the_magic_flute

 

The Threepenny Opera

Earlier this month, as a reward for all of the hard relocation work, I treated myself to a play at the National Theatre. It was an old favourite of mine, Brecht and Weill’s ‘Threepenny Opera’, in a new translation by Simon Stephens, directed by Rufus Norris, with Rory Kinnear as Macheath. It was a canny blend of cabaret, jazz, dissonance and va-va-voom to infuriate and entertain. Not quite the escapism one might wish for in a play, but then Brecht was never about making the audience feel good.

From Official London Theatre website.
From Official London Theatre website.

Of course, the play is made for London and its inhabitants. The original story by John Gay (1728), was set among the whores, pimps and criminals of Newgate, full of allusions to the streets of the East End, satirizing politics, injustice and corruption at all levels of society. Much of it still sounds familiar today. Of course, Brecht took it a step further: from Gay’s romantic comedy, laced with social commentary, he turned his Threepenny Opera (and let’s not forget that Elisabeth Hauptmann was practically a co-author for this, but has since been denied credit) into an acerbic social critique, with elements of romantic comedy.Well, if by ‘romantic’ you mean a quick fumble and a slap… But there certainly was plenty of social commentary to make in Berlin in 1928, when it premiered. It was performed continuously until 1933, when Brecht had to go into exile, but had already become an international success by that point.

With the world increasingly resembling the 1930s, this play is more topical than ever, and this energetic production points out parallels to futile wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, anything-but-meritocracy promotion systems, inward-looking little England patriotism and flagrant social inequality without ramming the messages down your throat.

The two elderly ladies sitting next to me were muttering under their breath: ‘Really, is all this bad language necessary?’ but to my mind, yes, it is. Brecht’s original exuberance and desire to shock are all intact, even if some of the texts and storyline have been altered . This is all about over-the-top characters and situations (I particularly liked the red wool pouring out of wounds when a character was knifed). It’s all about filth and squalor, nasty characters chock-full with self-interest. The production even stuck to the original orchestra of just 7 musicians, which gave the musical interludes and singing a dissonance and drama that fitted so well with the on-stage action.

From Exeunt Magazine.
From Exeunt Magazine.

Confession time: although I’ve never seen the Threepenny Opera performed live on stage before, I’ve been obsessed with it since 1990. I read the libretto and the later novel by Brecht based on it (in which he does go on and on, rather, to explain his intentions). I watched most of the film adaptations  but it was when I found one of the best recordings of it in German, with the legendary Lotte Lenya singing, and started singing it with all my German friends in Cambridge, that it became something very special to me. (I texted one of those friends at the interval of the show with a lyric, and he replied straightaway with the next part of it, such is the power of that connection between us). The reason why it resonated so much with me is that it perfectly described the confusion and materialism of broken post-Communist society, where not only every person but the whole country seemed to be up for sale.

Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral – First comes the feeding, then the ethics.

Natürlich hab ich leider recht/ Die Welt ist arm, der Mensch ist schlecht./Wir wären gut – anstatt so roh/Doch die Verhältnisse, sie sind nicht so. – Of course, you see that I am right/Life’s a bitch and man is shite./We could be good instead of hell,/But circumstances don’t bode well. [my own translation, as I couldn’t find this new script online anywhere.]

In the end, Brecht’s cynicism was justified. Germany was engulfed by even darker shadows in the 1930s. By the mid 1990s, I’d lost all hope of leading a decent life in a country so hell-bent on its own destruction and that of its younger generation. I just hope that this time, for present-day London, he proves more entertaining than prophetic.

If you do want to see this inventive production for yourself, it will be broadcast live on the 22nd of September in many cinemas across the UK via the National Theatre Live programme.