“this play about war and the devastating impact of chemical warfare and weapons of mass destruction has never been more timely”
This year British theatre has been marking the centenary of the ending of World War One by staging a number of new and revisited productions that pay homage to those involved in the terrible events between 1914 and 1918. One such play, based on true events, is the final production in the Finborough Theatre’s THEGREATWAR100 series. Square Rounds written by Tony Harrison and last performed almost thirty years ago at the National Theatre, is an epic exploration of the devastating effects of technology in the build up to the Great War. The play runs concurrently with the celebration of the venue’s 150th birthday.
The all women play opens with a three screen projection, on an otherwise black and white set, stating ‘I will give my life for peace’ and oddly, against an overall theme of death and destruction, it is this positive statement that runs through the content of the evening.
We are initially taken back to England 1915. With many men away fighting at the Front, six women in a munitions factory decide to play some of the inventors of the then modern technology warfare. We are introduced to Sweeper Mawes and the Munitionettes who in turn represent six very influential people who had both a positive and negative influence during that era.
Amongst those whose story we learn more of is American inventor Hudson Maxim (Amy Marchant) who is concerned for his country and the frightening technological advances employed by America’s new European enemies. But he is also jealous of his brother Sir Hiram Maxim (Letty Thomas) who invented the horrifically destructive Maxim machine gun.
Fritz Haber (Philippa Quinn) was a German Jewish chemist whose invention is still the basis used for producing nitrogen fertilisers of which approximately half of the world’s food is produced using. Sadly he is also considered the ‘father of chemical warfare’ for his pioneering work producing poisonous gases during WW1. We see an interesting interaction between him and his chemist wife Clara Immerwahr (Gracy Goldman) unhappy with her husband’s venture into developing a deadly gas.
Designer Daisy Blower has created a basic, though effective set, that is complimented by thoughtful sound design (Dinah Mullen) and sympathetic lighting (Arnim Friess). Direction from Jimmy Walters keeps the action moving well though on some occasions the rhyming verse was a little too fast to take in the necessary information.
With a mix of tragedy and parody covering themes of race and ethics, this play about war and the devastating impact of chemical warfare and weapons of mass destruction has never been more timely. Sadly some one hundred years later we still hear and see horrific stories of the gassing of innocent people.
Whilst I found the first half slightly difficult to follow because of the detailed historic and chemical references, the second half became much clearer and more enjoyable to watch. An interesting show and for those with a keen interest in World War One history, this is likely to be unmissable.
“Artistic Director Paul Hart and his youthful players have magnificently overcome the twin risks of over-familiarity and complacency in this joyful new production”
Buried deep in the English countryside is a little theatre that consistently beguiles. The 200-seat Watermill just outside Newbury stages its own plays twelve times each year. Casts live together throughout every production and shows are marked by both excellent ensemble work and by high levels of creativity and innovation.
But how to shine new light on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream? ‘I know a bank where the wild thyme blows, Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows’. And so do we all, for the play is a favourite of almost every outdoor theatre season, consistently ranking in the top three of all the Bard’s thirty seven plays. We love to laugh again (and again) at the play within a play, with its hackneyed ‘rude mechanicals’, two fingers held up to make another chink in the wall.
Watermill Artistic Director Paul Hart and his youthful players have magnificently overcome the twin risks of over-familiarity and complacency in this joyful new production. Appropriately enough for a play about make-believe, the show opens with a shadowy view of theatre fly ropes, part of a stage design by Kate Lias. Rope tricks of various kinds help make the magic in this celebratory show which also has a strong commitment to diversity.
Sign language is an integral part of the production, since the cast includes a co-founder of the Deaf & Hearing Theatre Company in a speaking role. Sophie Stone’s partially signed scenes with Evening Standard award winning Tyrone Huntley are delightful, the signing very much enhancing the show. As well as being a witty and persuasive actor, Tyrone Huntley has a fine singing voice. Singing and signing also combine in a moving ensemble number after the interval.
There’s more magic in the mix when shadow play begins behind a spangly red curtain that descends rapidly to transform the enchanted wood into a nightclub. It’s a good setting for some witty musical interpolations. Is this the first Midsummer Night’s Dream to feature Rodgers and Hart’s ‘Blue Moon’? In other scenes the always engaging Eva Feiler as Puck cleverly works dolls to underline the point that we are witnessing a dream time, engineered by otherworldly creatures for their own amusement.
Victoria Blunt was brilliant as Bottom, switching from broad Lancashire to a booming Gielgud parody as the most thespish of the ‘rude mechanicals’ who finally get to perform their play within a play right at the end of the show.
As Oberon, ‘King of Shadows’ Jamie Satterthwaite seemed at first a little too insubstantial for the patriarchal world of Athens where a father let alone a king of the fairies ‘should be as a god’ but he gained authority as the evening went on. Some careful cuts and rearrangements are characteristic of the close reading that’s evidently gone into a show that quite bursts with ideas. The night this reviewer saw it, Emma McDonald’s role as Titania was magnificently covered at very short notice by Rebecca Lee. She appeared to be all but word-perfect, with a vampish authority that was most engaging. Her substitution may have understandably explained a slightly hectic breathlessness that characterised more than one scene in the performance I saw.
The show ends in a magnificently farcical version of ‘Pyramus & Thisbe’, the play within. Talented Offue Okegbe doubles Snout and Theseus, as well as playing an instrument, like many other cast members. His ‘wall’ is much too funny a surprise to spoil in this review. Joey Hickman was an owlish Demetrius as well as the show’s musical director.
But for a bizarrely unexpected flash of light across the crowd, Tom White’s lighting design was highly effective, particularly so in the final scene ‘If we shadows have offended, Think but this, and all is mended, That you have but slumbered here While these visions did appear.’
On press night, a good part of the audience came whooping to its feet at the end of this big-hearted and dazzling show. Cast and a large supporting crew, including magic, movement and BSL advisers, all deserve huge congratulation for their contributions to such a delightful Dream.