Tag Archives: Southwark Playhouse Borough

Smoke

Smoke

★★

Southwark Playhouse Borough

SMOKE at Southwark Playhouse Borough

★★

Smoke

“The physical reality of the production doesn’t match the stinging quality of the words.”

 

The publicity copy, and writer Kim Davies’ programme notes, make much of “Smoke” being an adaptation of August Strindberg’s ‘Miss Julie’. There are similarities. The characters’ names – and, more tenuously, their background. Julie (Meaghan Martin) is the daughter of a successful artist, never seen but the constant references to him serve as a reminder of his power. And there’s John (Oli Higginson); a dogsbody at the artist’s beck and call with an obsequious ambition to achieve the latter’s recognition. We are in a kitchen too, albeit a symbolic one.

Yet “Smoke” impresses as a stand-alone piece in its own right. The shackles that bind it to Strindberg’s original both detract and confuse. The setting and the themes of Davies’ writing – writing which is undeniably sharp – are smudged by expectation and the inevitable but thwarted search for comparison.

Sami Fendall’s design suggests the kitchen with an upturned fridge in a pit of black sand. Polina Kalinina and Júlia Levai’s staging makes much use of the sand, stretching its symbolism to breaking point. It is continually being sifted through the hands. It is the eponymous smoke, it is cigarette ash, it is the blunt edge of a knife that will never cut as deep as words. It is foreplay, and afterplay. It becomes limited by its own variations, and therefore a cliché. But back to the kitchen, which is where we find Julie and John. Always in the kitchen at parties, this party being a BDSM party in New York City. John is introducing Julie to the world of bondage, dominance, submission and sadomasochism. It evolves into a game that is not just cutthroat but involves other parts of the anatomy. Verbally graphic, it delves into the subjects of sexual identity, consent and assault.

The performances are as strong as they get. Higginson has a steely charisma that allows him to give his character the credibility it needs, overcoming his status with confidant dominance. Martin’s Julie is no less fierce – her submissiveness snapping intermittently to outrage. Rajiv Pattani’s staccato lighting cleverly shifts the changes of perspective at crucial moments. The play sets out to challenge the notions of consent and, in the wake of #metoo, is pertinent. Some brave choices have been made but a paradoxical backlash of the changing times that are being celebrated is that the danger is presented in too safe an environment. An intimacy director is credited in the programme but, either because their job was done too well or because they were not really needed, there is little onstage chemistry – dangerous or otherwise – between the two. The physical reality of the production doesn’t match the stinging quality of the words.

Perhaps it is a deliberate avoidance to take sides, but we are never quite sure what the piece is trying to say. Julie’s question “Do you want to fuck me?” goes some way towards epitomising the predicament. She is offended if the answer is ‘yes’ and offended if it is ‘no’. John is damned whatever his answer. As the play progresses the dilemmas darken considerably, yet the confusion remains. Perhaps there are no answers. Perhaps there is still much to be learnt. The BDSM setting seems to be a convenient backdrop to Davies’ drama, just as Strindberg is a starting point. But both seem superfluous. “Smoke” tackles important issues without breaking any real ground, allowing a certain pretentiousness to get in the way. Despite the heated and powerful performances, it shows that sometimes there is smoke without fire.

 

 

Reviewed on 3rd February 2023

by Jonathan Evans

Photography by Lucy Hayes

 

 

Previously reviewed at this venue:

 

The Woods | ★★★ | March 2022
Anyone Can Whistle | ★★★★ | April 2022
I Know I Know I Know | ★★★★ | April 2022
The Lion | ★★★ | May 2022
Evelyn | ★★★ | June 2022
Tasting Notes | ★★ | July 2022
Doctor Faustus | ★★★★★ | September 2022
The Prince | ★★★ | September 2022
Who’s Holiday! | ★★★ | December 2022
Hamlet | ★★★ | January 2023

 

Click here to read all our latest reviews

 

Hamlet

Hamlet

★★★

Southwark Playhouse Borough

HAMLET at Southwark Playhouse Borough

★★★

Hamlet

“a workable and reasonably successful ensemble production”

 

This production from Lazarus Theatre Company reduces Shakespeare’s longest play to a concise one hundred minutes, performed without an interval, by axing all the adult characters. No Claudius, no Gertrude, no Polonius…

The work was initially created as part of an actor in training programme, and the production fails to escape these origins. It still looks and feels like an actor’s workshop rather than a finished piece of theatre. Part of this is deliberate: the setting is an unspecified young person’s space: part drama studio, part therapy group, part corrective training establishment.

The theatre space (Designer Sorcha Corcoran) is stripped back to its black walls exposing the lighting bars, the floor is scuffed with just some fresh blue lines marking zonal space providing some colour. A circle of blue plastic chairs and two props cabinets are the only set. The lighting (Designer Stuart Glover) is often blue too giving some ambience, whilst brighter light from the side bars causes shadowing issues.

An ensemble of nine actors is summoned into the circle by the ringing of a bell. Everyone is dressed in blue sweatshirts, tracksuit bottoms and training shoes. Each is invited to tell their story by an unknown amplified voice (Micha Colombo). This is the method by which Shakespeare’s plot is moved forward; at key moments the voice informs the young people of activities by the missing adults, or of offstage action not seen (“Hamlet has killed Polonius”). The amplified voice becomes an unseen presence with characters looking fearfully upwards, knowing that everything they do is observed. Is this voice then a helpful counsellor or Big Brother?

Central to almost every scene, Hamlet (Michael Hawkey) dominates the action. The remaining ensemble is pushed to the cramped sidelines, slightly but not completely out of the light. Hawkey grows into his role as the play progresses, but the need for speed often impairs the clarity of his diction. Noise from the wind machine and electronic sound effects mask the spoken word in the appearance of old Hamlet’s ghost – although Horatio (Alex Zur) boasts some fine vocal quality – and the occasional use of a handheld microphone with its inherent pops and bangs jars, particularly in Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy. The effectiveness of choral speaking during the Ghost scene is also marred by the amplified sound.

Director Ricky Dukes keeps the actors primarily at a distance as if intimacy between them is not permissible. Hamlet interrogates Rosencrantz (Amber Mendez-Martin) and Guildenstern (Raj Swamy) from the full width of the stage, and again when Hamlet berates Ophelia (Lexine Lee) with “Get thee to a nunnery”. Lee plays her role in an effectively calm manner. When she leaves the stage pursued by a handheld camera, TV screens show her movement through the backstage corridors to her untimely and bloody end in a toilet cubicle.

A comic Players’ scene (Kiera Murray and Juan Hernandez) is nicely done and Kalifa Taylor shines in her lone dramatic rendition. Laertes (Sam Morris) lacks sufficient anger on hearing of Ophelia’s fate but a slowmo sword fight (Fight Direction Alice Emery) between him and Hamlet provides an effective way of staging the final scene.

What is achieved then in this radical rethink of how to present Hamlet is a series of vignettes held together by the framing device of the Voice. This cast, the majority of whom are appearing in their first professional production, all require a little more polish and the production is rather rough around the edges. Considering the loss of so many key roles, though, Lazarus has produced, perhaps surprisingly, a workable and reasonably successful ensemble production.

 

 

Reviewed on 18th January 2023

by Phillip Money

Photography by Charles Flint

 

 

Previously reviewed at this venue:

 

Operation Mincemeat | ★★★★★ | August 2021
Yellowfin | ★★★★ | October 2021
Indecent Proposal | ★★ | November 2021
The Woods | ★★★ | March 2022
Anyone Can Whistle | ★★★★ | April 2022
I Know I Know I Know | ★★★★ | April 2022
The Lion | ★★★ | May 2022
Evelyn | ★★★ | June 2022
Tasting Notes | ★★ | July 2022
Doctor Faustus | ★★★★★ | September 2022
The Prince | ★★★ | September 2022
Who’s Holiday! | ★★★ | December 2022

 

Click here to read all our latest reviews