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 The Theatreguide.London Reviews

In March 2020 the covid-19 epidemic forced the closure of all British theatres. Some companies adapted by putting archive recordings of past productions online, others by streaming new shows. Until things return to normal we review the experience of watching live theatre onscreen.


VOILA! EUROPE FESTIVAL 2020


In November 2020 a virtual festival brought performers and theatre companies from across Europe together via recorded, streamed and Zoom performances. Here we review thirteen of them.

Scroll down for the one you want or just browse.



Alice In Wonderland
Asterions Hus, Denmark 

Fearlessly billed as “a tribute to unreason, fantasy and anarchy”, Asterions Hus’ Alice in Wonderland is adventurous and sparkling stuff that seamlessly fuses performer, props, set, costume – and the audience via their imagination.

In this solo physical piece Tilde Knudsen dips in and out of a variety of themes on movement, 'insubordinate costumes' and music to fashion a multi-levelled minimalist retelling of Alice’s surreal journey.

Pulling what seem like random objects and shapes out of a string of tubs like a kids’ magic show, Knudsen produces a gallery of organic origami that transforms her into the denizens cramming Alice’s reality rabbit hole.

Knudsen gazes at each piece plucked from a tub with wonder, seeming to discover along with us what character it will transform her into. Card and cotton artefacts turn into rabbit ears, petticoats in hoops anthropomorphise, leggings and cuffs become… well, something or someone else.

A flip, a sleight of hand and there’s a full-body garb swirling a dance that’s part White Queen, part whirling dervish before morphing into something quite quite different.

A walrus or manatee might next be the Cheshire Cat, or, brandishing a tub at the end of each limb, Knudsen body pops to summon up Tweedledee and Tweedledum. She shrinks and expands, fights objects unwilling to give up their form while those rabbit ears pop up unbidden, threatening to derail everything.

Voice and dance lace the action along with Klaus Risager’s edgy music. Director Peter Kirk fuses all these strands into a cohesive flow, giving everyone/everything their space and centrestage moments while ensuring that Knudsen or the narrative never risk becoming drowned out.

Delightful onscreen, this 45 minute piece is undoubtedly just as compelling and just as fun in person.

Nick Awde


Bingo!

Karavan Ensemble and Silvia Mercuriali, Italy/Portugal

You can’t go wrong with bingo, and this remote extravaganza from Yael Karavan and Silvia Mercuriali proves it. Piling on the magical allure of the numbers, Zoom, audience participation, avant garde mayhem and the thrill of a full house, the duo revel in the hit and miss of remote-controlled Bingo, where no two shows can ever be the same.

But this is also a game show about human rights, with each number called evoking an article from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. So along with clock ticking, wrong answer buzzer, canned applause, sonorous announcers, and cheesy music are serious scenes illustrating the issues.

Bubbly and glitzy, Karavan and Mercuriali bob in and out of frame, vying for our attention as they induct, cajole and encourage the players in English peppered with Italian, French and Portuguese – all between audio clips of milestones such as the UN and Martin Luther King.

It’s a bit all over the place to begin with but the audience swiftly gets the hang of it. In fact, as the hosts happily point out, the show doesn’t work without the audience being caught up in the blend of improv, audience participation, truly remote theatre, and the serious, often grim issues raised.

Observations on Zoom staging constitute part of any self-respecting review for 2020, and Bingo! scores highly mastering framing, lighting, backdrop and greenscreen to full effect.

Less effective is an opening that devotes 15 minutes to Karavan and Mercuriali prepping each audience member individually while the rest watch a ‘The Show will be starting SOON’ sign. But clearly that’s something they’ll rethink as they go – and that moment of personal contact admittedly adds to the experience.

An audience including families with kids who get into Bingo! with the same enthusiasm as the adults proves that issues-based experimental theatre in the right hands will appeal across the board.

Nick Awde


Diary of An Expat: Reloaded

Papersmokers, Austria/Italy/UK

I'm trying to become one of you – well, some of you.' And so begins Cecilia Gragnani’s gently ironic recounting of life as an Italian abroad – the ‘abroad’ in this case being the UK.

Via an engaging litany of Gregg’s sausage rolls, working as a Pret cleaner, awkward dates with Englishmen, pub quizzes, warm-cold neighbours and that talk with mother about bringing a British boyfriend back to Italy for Christmas, Gragnani reels though a journey of vignettes that celebrate the joy and pain of integration, only to be regularly jolted back into the reality of today when she quotes pointless facts from a book she’s holding.

Said book is Life in the United Kingdom, the official guide to gaining UK citizenship, which invites satire because most of the book’s facts deemed essential to British heritage would be judged utter trivia by the majority of homegrown Brits or, worse, simply met with a blank look.

So under the humour and whimsy, Diary of an Expat: Reloaded is a dissection of identity vs assimilation, along with the very concept of nationality, probing how to stay true to your roots while committing to new roots in another country, culture and language.

Bubbly and disarming, Gragnani grabs your attention and runs with the intimacy of beaming direct into her audience’s living-rooms.

Transformation from an in-person stage show is smooth, though some of the Zoom effects and additions have not been fully integrated, and occasional weak spots in the script are amplified by the close-ups. Some performances end with an invitation to the Zoom audience to add their expat experiences to a lively conversation.

Nick Awde


Don't Leave Me This Way

Zoo Indigo, Germany/Hungary/Ireland/UK

Don't Leave Me This Way sees Rosie Garton and Ildiko Ripple meld Eurovision and gig theatre into a search for their roots across the continent of Europe.

Both have migrant parents, and Ripple herself moved country to live in Britain, so the Eurovision stage becomes the starting-point for an imagined tour that retraces their separate journeys in the hinterlands of Ireland, Hungary and Germany.

They and we relive naming five Hungarian inventions and singing ‘Michael Finnegan’, knocking up poteen and goulash – but also language loss and facing prejudice.

The dialogue veers Joyce-like from the abstract to the poetic to the earthy as they discover that countries are diverse and complex behind the veneer of monoculture, and suddenly Eurovision is no longer a kitsch celebration only, it’s also a compelling means of bringing nations together regardless of who gets nul points.

The rapport between Garton and Ripple, who devised the show, is evident as they juggle today’s trivia and yesterday’s folklore, mirroring each other in movement and voice.

Onstage, Rob Rosa adds musical commentary via his own Czech heritage, and a fourth presence is company member Matt Marks, musician and composer whose recent death forms a separate narrative that connects at the end.

The variety show format of this Zoo Indigo production offers space for a spectrum of set pieces but risks losing coherence, and picking a single journey strand might have a stronger overall effect.

Nick Awde


The Escape Of Iris Dupont

Simsalabim Productions, France

Simsalabim delightfully evoke one aspect of our Covid Age through a solo and largely silent mask piece by Freya Stang.

Delightfully’ is an odd choice of word  perhaps, but the success of this piece lies very much in finding the positive in the moment and celebrating how the social animal that is humankind has had to save itself from itself through isolation.

Freya Stang’s pensioner, who lives alone, suddenly finds her routine of cleaning her impeccable home in a sleepy provincial town interrupted by news flashes announcing the invasion of the virus and lockdown.

New regulations are continually announced, rapidly corralling older people into an utterly cut-off existence. But Iris's daily habits become a poignant lifeline: laying madeleines on a plate, hoovering, dusting, expanded by new routines prompted by the radio such as reading, workouts, dancing with herself.

Running gags build as she tries to follow the rules. And then one day activity starts to enter from outside – church bells, a mask left at her door – along with the grim reports of older people dying in care homes with no one to comfort them.

So one day she escapes, and the camera follows her through the almost deserted town. (Videoing these scenes actually involved the crew using their allotted one hour of outside exercise.) Going outside is her breakout and her reconnection, resetting her normal solitude in place of the imposed isolation.

Stang keeps focus throughout as performer and director, her dutifully restrained physicality signalling the nuances of Iris’s moods and changes. The action is well paced and never stops long enough to wallow in itself (a pitfall of mask theatre) – in fact the non-dialogue fits the cloying silence of quarantine, limned by the default look of Iris’s mask (resigned bemusement I’ll hazard).

Nick Awde


A Farewell Concert

k2 Theater, Hungary

It is the end of the world as the globe burns and floods, a pandemic spreads and our air is literally running out. But the party must go on, so upper-class guests take their seats at an imposing banqueting table in this devised piece (‘physical dialogue-free chamber oratorio’ mostly covers it) by Hungary’s k2. The cast ripple in and out of singing Mozart’s Dies Irae amidst the rustle of hazmat suits, clink of glasses, harrumphs, sighs, ominous thuds on the walls and the voices of the panicked populace outside.

The Dies Irae’s Latin text, with lines like ‘Nothing will remain unavenged’, sustains a palpable tension and dread, but the guests keep singing.

Backed by András Szép on sparse yet filling piano, Dániel Borsányi, Zsuzsa Gyöngy, Dániel Király, Zoltán Nagyhegyesi and Emőke Piti speak through music and the gestures and glances of characters whose loathing of each other is overcome by their loyalty to the tribe.

In this pre-recorded stage version, directed by Péter Hajmási, there’s a wash of thoughtful camera angles, moody close-ups and perspectives achieved by lighting, while the sound comes via focused capture. Every murmur, grunt or creak is significant and none of it is lost, making this one of those rare productions that works identically onscreen or in-venue.

Farewell Concert will be a little too static, or the sung Latin obscure rather than evocative for some, and a stronger emotional and narrative arc toward an ending is wanted. Still, Farewell Concert is undeniably a feast for thought.

Nick Awde


Naked

NAKEDpresents and Swans Events, Poland/UK/Ukraine

As a wash of cellos and choirs ebbs and subsides, the spotlight comes up on a clingfilm chrysalis. The figures inside writhe and grunt as they break out to reveal a naked woman and a naked man who push away from each other in stunned bemusement.

Not exactly naked – there’s briefs and a bra – but their lack of clothing combined with their physical similarities suggests mirror images yet different, cleaved from the same pod.

NAKED, a physical narrative from Luke Vincent and Paige-Marie Baker-Carroll, combines dance, cabaret and circus in an examination of the development and exploitation of gender difference.

A series of set pieces explore the dynamics and evolution of attitudes and relationships between the sexes, the changes in love and sex, and human equity, set in a soundtrack that’s a collage of music, excerpts from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and contemporary tales of sharing beds.

Vincent and Baker-Carroll forge a narrative through their inventiveness in unravelling ways to create earthy movement that reflects the complexities of nakedness that is also emotional and spiritual.

The duo call these 'structured improvisations' but a recurring imprecision of movement, particularly evident in the initial and final sections, suggests the need for more focus on structure.

Naked’s staging lends itself well to the camera. In this pre-recorded version there are textures and nuances evident that would be missed in the unforgiving starkness of a black box studio.

Nick Awde


Right Left With Heels

STIGMAcollective, Lithuania/Poland/UK

The absurdist double act of Rosa French and Francesca Isherwood here play, respectively, the right and left shoes in the last pair ever worn by Magda Goebbels, the wife of Joseph Hitler’s propaganda minister, as, after her death they are imagined being passed from woman to woman.

Staunch Nazis beyond the end, they judge their owners with unwavering snobbery and racial superiority beliefs

And so the shoes moan, ripe, grimace, get their hopes up, deflate. They analyse, scrutinise, criticise their owners’ coutures, foibles, strengths and failings – and always their perceived racial credentials.

Of course there is an allegory here, a view of a postwar world in which less changes than appears to change.

Maybe Magda’s been reincarnated as her own shoes, her own personal hell, as right and left share a common sensibility, French and Isherwood beginning and finishing each other’s sentences and thoughts, overlapping and bouncing off each physically and verbally.

Their skill and focus in both areas makes this a winning performance that works as emotionally as it does technically.

In this STIGMAcollective production, Rasa Niurkaite’s direction makes those words and movement embody what shoes naturally do, a rippled coordination that at no point allows the minimalism to become static, but fuels and reinforces the grim humour that laces this tale.

Sebastian Majewski’s play, originally written in Polish (though it hasn’t been produced in Poland), has a few textual problems in translation. Its essentially British vocabulary and syntax are occasionally interrupted by distracting Americanisms. 

Recorded live in London’s Cockpit Theatre as if for an audience, the video version proves that live performance on a stage can easily overcome the limits of the camera.

Nick Awde


Shit Happens

Patrycja Dynowska, Poland/UKDen

Through the small Zoom window of my mobile, Patrycja Dynowska looks comfortable sitting on her loo. She politely enquires how I feel about my own loo, which is where I am sitting. I think it’s okay.

Comparing notes about passing time in the loo, Dynowska affably offers stories about pooing, encounters with poo, what makes us poo and what society thinks of it or tries not to.

The toilet, she explains, is a defining feature of her life because she has IBP, inflammatory bowel disease, which means she doesn’t have the bowel control that others (such as me) may take for granted. What with the perils of public loos, the explosive unpredictability of long intercity bus rides, the convoluted anatomy of disease, you do start to look at the world differently.

Soon I was swapping stories on demand, my own pooing memories stirred by Dynowska’s simple storytelling.

In effect, the audience of one for Dynowska's fifteen-minute guided conversations becomes a collaborator. After all, she’s saying it’s okay to share something both of you are experts on. Dynowska creates a narrative out of what you feed her, which takes its form and direction from the mood you jointly create.

Me? I’ve always seen the funny side of poo, so that’s how today’s show turned out. But I suspect each story can be taken in different ways depending on that mood the audience of one establishes: funny or serious, personal or trivial, medically obsessive or awkwardly taboo.

Shit Happens blends subject and communication, creating an interactivity where both sides are in control. Even if you feel you have little to say, you the audience are empowered because you know that Dynowska endearingly has enough to say on behalf of both parties if required. The genius I suppose is that the immediacy and intimacy comes from actually not being in the same space together.

Nick Awde


State vs. Natasha Banina

Arlekin Players, presented by Cherry Orchard Festival, Russia/USADen

Failed and spewed out by a horrific Children’s Home system, feisty Natasha (Darya Denisova) entered Russia society with no direction or back-up beyond a dream of happiness. So the path that brought her here, on trial for murder with the audience as jury, had an internal logic of sorts

What we learn in this live solo show from Arlekin Players is that Natasha has been on trial by society every day of her existence, a tragedy that makes judging her crime so hard, especially when the core of her defence rests on her plea 'Don’t you have a dream?'

Based on the stage play Natasha’s Dream by Yaroslava Pulinovich, this video version sets Natasha's testimony against a backdrop of video effects that punctuate the dialogue and movement, veering from washed-out sepia to full colour swashes as her mood vacillates from punchy to punched.

Unless you’re from Russia, the lack of cultural context means that the story loses a huge amount of its intended resonance, and John Freedman's English translation risks making Natasha sound more like a postgraduate than a child of the streets.

But this is more than made up for by Denisova’s electric yet sympathetic portrayal of this scarred teenager fused with Igor Golyak’s focused direction and stark video staging – aided by Anton Iakhontov’s animation and Vadim Khrapatchev’s soundtrack.

At the end we are asked to vote as jurors, a seemingly unnecessary add-on that director Golyak defends by explaining that it’s the jurors who are on trial, that we ourselves need to explore what is guilt.

The digital production neatly avoids gimmickry but instead highlights the real-time stagecraft of the piece, making a convincing case for live online theatre as a stand-alone genre.

Nick Awde


Telephone

Coney, UK

Part autobiography, part history lesson, part therapy session, Tassos Stevens’ solo show explores the role the phone has played in our lives since its invention.

I say solo, but it’s hard to think of a show that uses Zoom as a tool to bring people together in quite the way Telephone does. It’s also hard to describe Telephone without giving it all away and taking away the joy of participation and the discovery that comes with it.

On the surface Stevens tells the tale of the humble telephone: its genesis and changing anatomy, old style phone numbers and local codes, directory enquiries and exchange operators, trunk calls and wrong numbers, crossed lines, ansafones, texts.

He wants to know what they say about us – and, crucially, how do they make us feel? Telephones may be an extension of our lives, but their networks mean nothing without the human relationships that bring them to life, evidenced by the audience breakaway sessions that produced some truly impactful stuff – some comic, some truly heartrending.

Quizzes and role play give the audience their own role in this narrative, their mobiles commandeered into Stevens’ dreamcatcher scenes, each sparking a personal story that propels what becomes a parallel history of telephones and his family.

You realise that absolutely nothing is throwaway here – like hypnotic suggestion (there’s even a mind number trick at one point), every stray fact is designed to resonate, every loose end has a connection.

Never has Zoom theatre seemed so live and immediate, where even the wifi glitches and Stevens reading from a script simply add to this feelgood show.

Nick Awde


Trojana: Web Chronicles

Defiant Reality: Theatre For Change and LACRA: Laboratorio de creacion en artes, Colombia/France

Trojana is very much an ongoing process, a ‘live art documentary’ where the research of Maud Madlyn and Andrés Montes Zuluaga into the webcam porn industry gets different outings in different guises along the way.

For the Voila! 2020 festival audience, Madlyn and Montes have created a series of daily bulletins that lead up to the performance session itself – a Zoom show live from their base in Cali Colombia that is basically a post-show Q&A without there actually being a show.

The first step is an online survey, with your answers determining what you see and hear next. One stop is an audio introduction to the webcam world, another offers verbatim excerpts from a sex-chat session. The matter-of-fact testimony of a pornographer is balanced by a harrowing account of the job from the people who do it. A lecture on the evil nature of human sexuality sits alongside the languid monologue of a potential sex murderer.

It’s clear that Madlyn and Mendes’ material, documentation and field investigations are geared to exploring society through the prism of gender and sexual violence and misogyny – amplified and exemplified now by the explosion in the virtual, profitable world of webcamming.

They share grim statistics of rape and paedophiles – and similarly grim tales of global exploitation ensue. Provided with all this background we the audience are now not allowed to stand as mere spectators but, armed with our own awakening and possibly research, are empowered – indeed required – to add our own reactions and judge ourselves by them.

That open-ended quality is the piece's biggest weakness. Ultimately this multi-levelled conceptual work places the onus on the audience to produce a finale, but even in the closing Q&A session Madlyn and Mendes offer too little guidance.

Nick Awde


We Missed You

Julia Masli and Viggo Venn, Estonia/Norway/Russia/UK

A handwritten sign pops up onscreen to the effect that the spirit of commedia dell’arte lies in players going into the public spaces to engage the populace with comedy, hopefully improvised.

Covid stir-crazy and with missionary zeal, a Pierrot (Julia Masli) and a Harlequin (Viggo Venn) robe up and step out beyond the confines of their flat into the semi-deserted streets of London.

The cheeky duo’s antics in unlikely locations duly engage and raise a smile from the occasional passers-by, some even gamely joining in while maintaining a 'nice social distance'. Vignettes include attempting to weightlift a building, a lion tamer in pursuit of a lion down a residential road, and chasing a giant tomato through the market stalls and shops of Brixton’s Electric Avenue.

There’s interaction with the online audience too, in real-time, as this show zips to and fro between the outdoor scenes and live shorter scenes and interjections back at the flat, greenscreen effects providing a playfully hit and miss backdrop.

The outdoor takeover itself isn’t as throwaway as it looks. As the notes tell us, it stems from a project by Masli and Venn with architect Valeria Burmistrova, 'aimed at transforming public spaces into magical spaces, through joyful and social-distanced performances, celebrating connection and community'.

There is unquestionably a lot of fun in this sort of improvised public clowning. But this pair's work suffers from lack of a decent mic and camera, along with hit-or-miss framing, selection of locations, and even their own skill at coordinated physical comedy.

Still, if the message is to have fun and brighten other people’s existence, We Missed You happily ticks the box.

Nick Awde

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Review of  VOILA! Europe Festival 2020