THEATRE: The Silo, by Dais Johnston and Thomas Kent (dir. Thomas K. Prater for Queen City Theatre Co.)

Queen City Theatre Co.’s debut production is nothing if not ambitious. Beginning with a young couple sneaking into an abandoned grain silo, it veers from contemporary bars to piratical romance on the high seas to the truly cosmic. At the play’s heart, though, is a recurrent interest in what it means to change and what it means to stay the same; why might we choose to stick with what feels safe; why might we want to transform ourselves; what happens when change is inevitable?

Orbiting one another like planets

The play is a series of narratively disconnected two-handers, reminiscent in some ways of works like The Blue Room, in which continuities are less important than thematic reflections and repetitions. Here, there is ambiguity; some of these characters could be the same figures, the couple who fall asleep in the silo remembering their first meeting and past encounters. But there are ghosts in the silo, as the man in the couple (Michael Blackwood) jokingly tries to persuade his partner (Devlin Ford). Their bodies are haunted by memories of different encounters, different attempts to reconcile a moment of change. In a lovely pastiche of an early modern epilogue, placed a few scenes before the end, Conduit (Ford) moves among the audience and apologises for the play’s rough verse, while drawing attention to the template-like quality of the bodies who have become the vessels for these words.

The recurrent interest is in the pressure of change – whether pressure to change, or the pressure of change. In one of the most straightforward and tense scenes, a woman visits a hairdresser to get the same cut as always, the cut that she had asked to be her ‘forever hair’ some years ago. But the hairdresser has been reading philosophy, and freaks her out with his admission that he never gives the same haircut, partly because the hair itself has changed, and partly because he believes his clients don’t really want to go backwards – they are always delighted when he gives them something slightly different. The creepiness of the hairdresser in this scene is nicely complex; he clearly thinks he’s doing his clients a favour, but the woman’s discomfort with his violation of consent and his refusal to listen to what she is telling him she wants means she walks out of the appointment.

There is often a gendered element to the scenes here. Blackwood’s characters are often overly pushy and often fail to listen to what Ford’s characters are saying. The highlight of the production is a beautifully performed scene of a director (Blackwood) drilling an actor (Ford) on a faux-Shakespearean speech. The fact that both actors and writer-director Thomas K. Prater are enrolled in or graduates of Mary Baldwin’s Shakespeare & Performance program perhaps unsurprisingly means that this is a particularly authentic scene in its working through of actor exercises, its parody of banalities and unhelpful ‘advice’, and its use of the format to contest power. Here, Ford’s character is desperate to get through her speech and to let the language speak; Blackwood’s character refuses to let her finish the thought. But she turns it around on him, calling him out on his wish to fix the speech’s meaning, and asking him to listen to her and to allow the scene to live in the live moment of performance – to risk change and discovery. In another vignette of a couple meeting in a bar, Blackwood’s character spends much of his time ‘splaining to Ford’s, explaining her experience of being told she was special by an IQ test as an attempt to indoctrinate her into a cult, a trick he would never fall for. And in the opening frame narrative, it’s Blackwood’s character who thoughtlessly locks the two of them into a silo.

But the play also resists an easily gendered narrative about pressure to change, especially as change itself is sometimes a positive and sometimes a negative. The play’s centre-piece is a beautifully staged conversation between Earth and Moon. Blackwood stands in the middle of the stage, turning slowly, holding a globe in front of him; around the perimeter of the stage, holding a moon sphere, Ford orbits him. In a clever bit of pacing, their orbits are slightly out of time with one another, and they’re also both slowly rotating on their own axis, meaning that they begin with the Moon facing an Earth that is looking in the opposite direction; rotate into a position where neither can see the other, and eventually move to a place where the Earth can see the Moon and finally both can see one another. The dialogue in this sequence is superb, evocative, mournful, and often funny, as Earth and Moon exchange profound insights into their ability to see and understand one another. The two are in a constant but always changing relationship to one another, and neither can understand themselves without the other’s perspective. And when some cosmic event happens which throws the two of them off their axis, they can do nothing but yield to the change.

Change is inevitable, says the unpleasant hairdresser to his client, but he’s right. Change comes for everyone, and while some of the characters in The Silo are right to resist it, there’s also an understanding that change will come and that perhaps the best we can do is meet it on its own terms. While the play ends on a surprisingly sentimental note – a re-statement of heteronormative love that seems oddly conservative in the wake of the fascinatingly different kinds of relationship envisioned by the different scenes – what resounds is the potential that emerges from many of these vignettes to learn to understand change, to learn to listen, to learn to understand the drivers of change and the factors that lead to resistance. It’s a play that insists that we need to know others in order to know ourselves, and that if we can develop true orbits – the play’s spatial manifestation of perfect love – then we may be able to finally see and know ourselves.


THEATRE: Messy Unity, written and directed by Homegrown at Nottingham Playhouse

Homegrown is a wonderful initiative at Nottingham Playhouse to give time and resource to young theatremakers hoping to get a taste of the industry for the first time. With access to professional practitioners in a range of fields, a kitted-out studio theatre to present work in to a paying audience, and the opportunity for feedback and development, it’s an invaluable opportunity for new work to get a low-stakes outing while supporting artists.

2022’s line-up includes Nicky Morley’s A Day in the Life of Roxie Ellison and Amalia Costa’s Parade: The Trial of Erik Satie, both around 25 minutes long, and complementing one another with their interest in systemic misogyny. They’re also very different pieces, with one drawing explicitly on lived experience and the kinds of everyday conversation that shape young people’s experience of the world, the other a drama on a historical subject with surprising connections to the present moment.

A Day in the Life of Roxie Ellison takes the form of vignettes across a single day in the life of the titular student, focusing on her encounters with misogyny. Each sequence is given a title, and they play out as contained episodes in which Roxie (Ophelia Hiebert) is forced to reckon with the consequences of toxic masculinity and structural sexism. Some of these instances are more overt than others – the horrific customer at the restaurant she works, who openly leers over her in front of his wife; the lecherous guys in the street who target Roxie and her friend (Abi Hutchison) – while others are the kinds of micro-aggression or minimising that happen between friends.

The episodes are drawn from experience, and this is a piece of new writing rooted squarely in the everyday world inhabited by the artists. What emerges most powerfully from it is the exhaustion of having to think about this stuff all the time. Roxie’s inner monologue plays out in pre-recorded voiceover, making clear the labour involved in concealing one’s actual reactions and acting as if everything is okay. The well-meaning male friend (Scott McKenzie) who thinks he is an ally but also demands that the women’s fears be explained and justified is a reminder that even ‘good guys’ can be oblivious to what the women around them are going through. The piece is a reminder of the shared work that we all need to do, not just to make women safe, but to make women feel safe.

Parade is a very different beast, opening with some archival footage of Erik Satie’s controversial 1917 absurdist ballet, and then opening up an exploration of art and criticism in the early twentieth century. The presence of some of the pioneering figures of the age as characters is enticing. Jean Cocteau (played by Martin Berry) is consciously exploiting the creativity of Satie (Emily Hewitt), while Satie works into the night with Suzanne Valadon (Costa), who speaks of the exploitation she’s experienced as a woman, posing for men in order to put bread on the table. The controversies of art, the desire to make a name for oneself, are inextricably linked to the forces of capitalism, and the relationship between art and money taints everything.

It’s a beautifully written script, with some powerful monologues, particularly as Cocteau lays into critic Jean Poueigh (Karli-Rose Morris), accusing him of wanting to force them all back into the conservative mode of Swan Lake, a challenge that Poueigh rebuts powerfully. In many ways, the lure of greatness and idealism about art dehumanises everyone here, reducing people to being defined by their outputs rather than by who they are themselves. It’s a piece that in many ways demands a longer format to explore the fallout of the ballet and the consequences for Satie, but also speaks to the current moment with its emphasis on earnings rather than art.

THEATRE: A Winter’s Tale (dir. Kaitlyn Daniels for Scene Individible)

It’s perhaps inevitable that a company based in Stratford-upon-Avon – a town plagued with living statues – would end up producing a play with two of them. Scene Individible’s company-devised A Winter’s Tale, created in response to a brief to talk back to Shakespeare, took advantage of the paradoxes of living statues: the stillness that is only revealed as art by the act of moving, the memorialisation of a static past layered on top of a living body. And in doing so, it offered an alternative Winter’s Tale (the deliberate A here doing significant work) that captured both the tedium of isolation and the pain of grief in the COVID age.

A statue of a woman leans forward and holds its hand to its ear, against a background of flowers.
Hermione, still listening, not speaking.

The play picked up where Act 3 of The Winter’s Tale leaves off. Paulina (Chloe Otterson) and Emilia (Ellie Cummings) carried the sleeping body of Hermione (Paige Calvert) into a greenhouse filled with pot plants that a hunched gardener (Curtis Dunn) had just been tending. As Hermione awoke, Paulina filled her in, reminding her of their shared plot to drug her in order to get her away from Leontes, a plan now in jeopardy following the death of Mamillius. Bravely, the production took on the impossible task of trying to render the pain of a mother learning anew that her son was, in fact, dead. And then, in flashes over sixteen years, the production traced Hermione’s life in isolation.

This is not a new idea; Mary Elizabeth Hamilton’s 16 Winters took a very similar approach to The Winter’s Tale in 2019 at the American Shakespeare Center. Post-COVID, however, the potential in Hermione living in isolation felt fresh. In some of the more promising sequences, Calvert wandered around the small room – now doing a few half-hearted step-ups, now trying to straighten out a measly bookshelf, then returning to the step-ups. In many ways, a bolder production would have leaned into this aspect much more strongly, developing and extending the rituals that keep people alive even while they deal with unimaginable loss.

Early on, Hermione took drapes off two plinths at either side of the stage, revealing grey statues of Mamillius (Erica Lowry) and Perdita (Kate Boleyn). These statues stood as silent presences for a long time, reminders of what had been lost. As the production went on, and the years began to stretch out, though, Hermione began to see them look at her, and then to move. As the years went on, the statues took on a life of their own, and Hermione lost herself in her imaginary motherhood as the two children ‘grew up’. The gardener, Time, pottered in the plants during these sequences, while an increasingly agitated Paulina attempted to pull Hermione out of her reverie, to bring her back to life.

The idea was great, but surprisingly, for a production whose dramaturgical note by Kyara Hunter made heavy weather of needing to resist Shakespeare’s dominance, the production was much too timid about deviating from Shakespeare. The weaker first half merely retold the events of The Winter’s Tale through Paulina’s visits to catch Hermione up on events: a recapping of Leontes’ reaction to Hermione’s death; a mock séance where Paulina and Hermione attempted to contact Antigonus and tell him to take Perdita to Bohemia; the suspected and then confirmed loss of the ship and Antigonus, as discovered by Emilia (posted to Bohemia by Paulina to get news). The exposition, taking up a good half of the production, seemed unwilling or unable to imagine a story for either woman that wasn’t constrained by the events of Shakespeare’s play, despite the near limitless possibilities of a sixteen-year timespan.

This also meant that characterisation was limited to only what Shakespeare offered; indeed, the only actual event not prescribed by the text was a brief mention of Emilia getting married and moving away. This left Paulina, in particular, static, reduced in the second half to repeatedly coming in to try to get Hermione to break away from her delusions. Hermione’s story was much more interesting, as she used the avatars of her two children to indulge her fantasies of parenthood, to relive her memories of Mamillius, but also to process what had happened to her. Mamillius was not a perfect son – here, he began showing the same entitled cruelty towards women that his father would, and in the show’s most inventive writing, Hermione processed her own grief about Leontes’ treatment of her by admonishing her own son. The disappointment was that, her one scene of step-ups aside, Hermione wasn’t allowed to be anything other than a grieving mother, defined to exclusion by her losses. It seemed a shame to spend seventy-five minutes and sixteen years with these two women, and for them not to become more than their relationship to their husbands and children.

Notwithstanding, the production built to a moving close, as Pauline announced Perdita’s rediscovery, and a weeping Hermione bid farewell to the fantastical version of Perdita she had watched group up, and to Mamillius forever, the two returning to stone even as Hermione herself assumed the position of the statue. The most interesting implication – the question of whether the real Perdita could live up to the version constructed by Hermione over the years – was left tantalising hanging; matter, perhaps, for Another Winter’s Tale.

LITERATURE: Annie Q. Syed, ‘What is it about a letter that grounds us?’ (The Letters Page)

The Letters Page has long extolled the joys of receiving post, but those joys have perhaps become even more important in lockdown. With social interaction limited, and shops closed, getting post and parcels is a form of variety, a sense of the unknown and of anticipation (even when we know what we have ordered). In the latest missive from this innovative literary journal, Annie Q. Syed taps into some of this excitement as a way of reflecting on a time of relative isolation.

A letter, with Denmark postmarks
Airmail via email

In this world of lockdown, the postman becomes an important part of one’s community, perhaps even the lynchpin. Early in this letter, ‘Annie’ (as ever, the lines between author and letter writer are blurry) muses on the change in mailman. This one is different, friendlier. Should she be making more effort? Should she have said ‘bless you’ when she saw him sneeze? There’s the potential for over-investment here, and yet also the lockdown seems to have made the speaker unusually attentive to the human contact that she does enjoy, the mailman becoming representative of the possibility of community.

The letter includes a picture taken from the author’s window of a section of a street, and this seems to encapsulate the point of view from lockdown – a static, narrower perspective that focuses attention and leads to speculation, the writing of stories onto non-events. Why are the people across the street ordering so many things? Are they all essential? Does anyone care? Or is it simply that people are ordering things because they want to receive things, and create that connection to a wider world?

This heightened attention then becomes the subject of the letter. Annie recounts that she is very alert – a psychic told her she couldn’t be hypnotised because she is too awake; dentists have told her she’s impossible to numb. This alertness she projects onto the books she is waiting for, the only things that dull her senses. ‘I feel the sensation of that book becoming part of my consciousness’. The world has become small in many ways, and the sense of the letter is of over-stimulation, of waiting for the things that will help control those sensations. There’s a split consciousness, in some ways, in the levels of activity described.

And the letter acts to dissipate that sense of over-stimulation by speaking, fondly, of Ireland. The author is writing from New Mexico, but longs for Ireland, and indulges in a couple of paragraphs of fond memories – of people, of trips, of gatherings, of countryside. It’s described sensually as a series of experiences, from haircuts to embraces, and captures a busy and bubbling melee of people, all connecting, all gathering, inextricable from one another. It’s the antithesis of the focused, limited view from the window with its over-interpretation of daily events – it’s full of life and incident, too much to be taken in and understood, just enough to be experienced.

‘Can you see why it’s essential travel?’ she says to close. One can. It’s a lovely snapshot into the hope for a return to normality, into the sense of what has been lost and what has become important. It’s a letter of hope, sent from a time that has already passed, to a world that no longer seems to be entirely real – but which believes that that world will be real again, and soon.

THEATRE: The Convert, by Danai Gurira (dir. Ola Ince, Young Vic)

In the programme note for The Convert, author Danai Gurira discusses how the story of Pygmalion resonated with her upbringing in Zimbabwe. The resemblance is clear in the first third of Ola Ince’s production, as local would-be Catholic priest Chilford (Paapa Essiedu) teaches English and Christianity to Shona girl Jekesai (Letitia Wright). Rechristened Ester, the titular convert takes to the rituals and conventions of her new religion like a duck to water, soon even correcting the local white priest on his Biblical stories. The image of a man in authority moulding a young woman in his own image feels dispiritingly timeless.

The Convert reunites Black Panther stars Danai Gurira (as author) and Letitia Wright (in the title role)

But Gurira’s play and Ince’s production are far more subtle than Shaw. The Convert is a masterclass of dramatic complexity, examining apparently simple situations from multiple sides and never fully blaming or fully approving of any one position. And in exploring the internal conflicts of a diverse group of black Zimbabweans – the white colonists are an entirely offstage presence – the play demonstrates a remarkable maturity. Mai Tamba (Pamela Nomvete) opens the play, cleaning Chilford’s house while performing rituals with an animal skull to ward off evil spirits. Mai Tamba speaks mostly in Shona, and presents to her master as a convert while maintaining her old traditions. She is unafraid to invoke Jesus for her own needs – rescuing her niece Jekesai from a forced marriage after her father dies – but is then appalled a year later when the educated ‘Ester’ chooses her new faith over performing rituals for her ancestors.

Mai Tamba represents one of many approaches to the divided sense of identity as a colonised Zimbabwean. Chilford is the ‘black tragedy’, separated from his family at the age of 9 and entirely assimilated into the Catholic religion. Chancellor (Ivanno Jeremiah) pursues money, suspicious of the white man but making use of the privilege he enjoys as a good colonial subject. His fiancée Prudence (Luyanda Unati Lewis-Nyawa) is the most educated of the lot, but her cut-glass English accent makes her a figure of novelty rather than of power to the white authorities she detests. And Jekesai’s Uncle (Jude Akuwudike) and cousin Tamba (Rudolphe Mdlongwa) are the dispossessed, scathing of their anglicised relations and reduced to poverty.

The uniformly outstanding performances are key to finding sympathy in the complex negotiations performed by each character. For my money, Essiedu is the play’s anchor. His Chilford is rigid to a fault in adherence to his faith and rejection of the ‘barbarian’, ‘savage’ traditions of his people; yet his lonely isolation from the Shona speakers is touching, and his hopeless devotion to the idea that the white man will do him justice – even while denying him the right to become a priest – is desperately sad. His devotion to Ester is genuine even as his control of her is disturbing. Essiedu’s performance is rigid and quickly spoken, he trying to physically embody the fixed values he espouses, even as the speed of his voice suggests he is trying to block out his own conflicts, as becomes clear when he hesitates and stumbles when challenged.

Bad actions come from good intentions, and good actions are often for the wrong reasons. In the play’s most difficult sequence, the entitled Chancellor tries to rape Ester, only to be interrupted by Tamba and Uncle, who try to rob him. When Tamba kills Chancellor, he has rid Ester of the closest thing the play has to a villain; yet he knew nothing of Chancellor’s violence, instead losing himself in his own. Coral Messam’s movement work is important in distinguishing the fluid, relaxed strength of Tamba from the leery, languid reach of Chancellor, the two posing very different kinds of threat.

The focus then shifts to Prudence. Lewis-Nyawa is superb, seeming initially to be the air-headed ideal colonial subject before revealing her fierce intelligence and attachment to her own people. In her early challenges to Ester to speak her own mind, she sows the seeds of Ester’s eventual freedom. But following the death of Chancellor, she extends her range to passionate rage and, in deciding Tamba’s fate, political pragmatism. Lewis-Nyawa’s eloquence and precise elocution allow her finally to take over the terms of debate, relegating the more awkward Chilford to silence. Her decision to defend Tamba to the authorities is a high point of empathy and solidarity; her bleak revelation to Chilford that they killed Tamba on the spot rather than listen to her is a low.

And this is where Gurira’s writing shows its mettle, by finally turning back to Ester – now calling herself again Jekesai. Throughout the play, Jekesai is the object of everyone’s projections, with all seeming to feel that if they can win her allegiance, they have affirmed their own identity. Wright’s beautifully nuanced performance shifts from a physicality and vocal performance rooted in Shona culture – represented by the cracked red soil that surrounds the stage – to the corseted, perfectly poised Englishwoman represented in the four gauze walls that are raised and lowered around the four sides of the in-the-round stage. Ester’s personality is imprinted on her as arbitrarily as her name, and when finally pushed beyond the point of endurance, the colonial subject shatters.

Wright’s performance in the final scene, as she seeks absolution from Chilford for the act of bloody retribution she has committed – is sublime. She gives Chilford the one thing he wants most: the authority of a priest, an authority he rejects as he implores her to flee. But as she describes her act, cries quietly, then dons her Shona clothes and sings a song of her people, Chilford brokenly joins her. There is no right course in a society where everything is systematically stacked against you, and where any attempt to assert identity causes conflict. But the moment of acknowledgement of a shared heritage hints at the possibility of a reconciliation of identities even at the point of destruction.