ONCE ON THIS ISLAND at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre
“It is the score, the exuberance of the performances and the musicianship that carries this show”
Based on a book (‘My Love, My Love’ by Rosa Guy), in turn based on a fairy tale (Hans Christian Anderson’s ‘The Little Mermaid’), “Once On This Island” has used the bare bones of each while dressing it with more than a touch of Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’, throwing in shades of Alberto Casella’s ‘Death Takes a Holiday’. It is a mix that produces something exciting and effervescent but is ultimately not so easy to swallow. Or follow.
Set in the Antilles archipelago bordered by the Caribbean Sea, the story within a story focuses on Ti Moune, a peasant girl, who falls in love with Daniel Beauxhomme, a ‘grand homme’ from the other side of the island and the class divide. The island is ruled by four Haitian Vodou Gods (of earth, water, love and death). Ti Moune and Beauxhomme are brought together as a result of a wager among the gods. Is love stronger than death? Or vice versa?
Directed by Ola Ince, it opens the new season at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. As dark clouds spill their empty threats over London, a fabricated storm ignites the stage and the action. A burst of sight and sound, but lacking real substance. It is the score, the exuberance of the performances and the musicianship that carries this show. Stephen Flaherty’s music (with book and lyrics by Lynn Ahrens) creates the atmosphere and the setting, despite Georgia Lowe’s sparse backdrop that fails to give any real sense of location. As the sun sets, however, Jessica Hung Han Yun’s evocative lighting creates the requisite tropical hues that help us to forget the London chill.
The solid cast lead us through the musical numbers with an energy that keeps the piece alive. Gabrielle Brooks, as the adult Ti Moune, gives a powerful and enchanting performance, locked in the suffering of her unconditional love for Stephenson Arden-Sodje’s perfectly voiced yet undeserving Daniel. One fails to see how Daniel earns such devotion, nor can we truly understand the sacrifices Ti Moune makes for him. But after all, we are in the hands of the Gods, so it is best just to relish in the pageant. It is a show for the senses and not for the heart.
With a six-piece band – led by Musical Director Chris Poon- tucked away somewhere in the treetops, the ensemble cast are given the propulsion needed to reach for the stars, aided by some fine numbers. ‘Mama Will Provide’ lets Anelisa Lamola’s voice soar as Asaka, the Mother of the Earth. The standout is Lejaun Sheppard’s Papa Ge: Demon of Death, who sets the stage alight (literally) each time he appears. Yet each cast member is an indispensable pulse that keeps the beat throughout. The belting numbers ‘Waiting for Life’, ‘Pray’ and ‘Forever Yours’ early in the show are later reprised and given new life and meaning.
There is plenty of life in this revival of “Once On This Island” but not so much meaning. There is definitely enough to satisfy the senses in this little pocket of London where Camden borders the Caribbean.
THE MERCHANT OF VENICE 1936 at the Watford Palace Theatre
“A vivid and moving interpretation. Disturbing, enriching and thought provoking”
Tracy-Ann Oberman’s Shylock stands centre stage at the opening of Brigid Larmour’s brave and provoking adaptation of Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice”; and from thereon she remains in full command of, not just the action, but the unresolved themes. Themes that she manages to turn on their head. It has long been debated whether the play is anti-Semitic or whether it is about anti-Semitism. This show removes the question from the context of the drama and places it smack bang into society as a whole.
Shylock is living under the shadow of fascism in London’s East End in 1936. Greta Zabulyte’s video backdrops, with Sarah Weltman’s soundscape, evoke the tensions that lead up to the battle of Cable Street, in which anti-fascist protesters successfully blockaded a rally of Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts. It is particularly shocking to be reminded that this took place on our home ground. The scenes have more than an echo of Kristallnacht. This political landscape shapes our understanding of the text and gives the characters more depth than even Shakespeare could have imagined.
Oberman gives Shylock due reason for her outrage and desire for revenge. Although she doesn’t shy away from highlighting the less savoury aspects of her personality, she is far less villainous than her persecutors. “If you prick us, do we not bleed” carries a chilling resonance in this setting. Antonio (Raymond Coulthard) and his band of Old Etonians are simultaneously ridiculous and sinister. In particular, Xavier Starr, as Gratiano, captures the essence of the bumbling Bunbury Boy in whose deceptively likeable hands, privilege can become a dangerous weapon. Hannah Morrish cuts a striking Portia, overflowing with aristocratic advantage. A true Mitford sister, you almost expect Joseph Goebbels to spring out from behind the curtain. Antonio, whose “pound of flesh” is so famously demanded of Shylock, comes out slightly more favourably. Coulthard mangers to convey, with subtle facial expressions, a half-hidden dissatisfaction with his victory in court.
Liz Cooke’s set moves between the East End streets and Portia’s brightly lit salons. The more light that is shed on the stage, however, the less we see of the underlying tensions. Some scenes dip, and consequently pull back Larmour’s passionately paced staging. But, with skilful editing the problematical finale with its dubious happy ending is replaced with something far, far more powerful. Oberman refuses to let Shylock be written out of the story, and she remains perched on the edge of the stage – a formidable presence – until she returns to lead the resistance to Mosley’s ‘Blackshirts’. It is a significant and unsettling adjunct to the story.
“The Merchant of Venice” is a difficult text, with difficult characters. Four hundred years before it was written, the entire Jewish community had been expelled from England, and not officially readmitted until the mid-seventeenth century. Four hundred years after it was written, the human drama is crucially relevant. Shakespeare’s play is contradictory, but Larmour’s, and Oberman’s, message is clear as glass. Shattering that glass doesn’t diminish it – the relevance is reflected, if not magnified, in each jagged fragment. This is a vivid and moving interpretation. Disturbing, enriching and thought provoking.