Tag Archive for: play

Kudzanayi Chiwawa and Ayesha Casely-Hayford


performed by Two Gents
at the Tara Arts Theatre,
Earlsfield viewed on 9 March 2019

by Penelope J. Corfield
after viewing by PJC and Tony Belton

Every new production of a classic play offers the chance of discovering something more about the drama – and about its message. This iteration was no exception to that rule. Wilde’s brilliant comedy was performed by two unknown young actors, who shared all the parts between them, with a bit of help from the audience. It could have been an embarrassing disaster. In fact, we were treated to an acting tour de force. The show was both magnetic and funny – and, judging from the prior comments of various members of the audience, it wowed a number of youngsters who were not traditional theatre-goers.

One reason for this scintillating success was the actors’ reliance on the power of Wilde’s dialogue. Quite a few lines were cut. (I was sorry to miss the butler’s announcement that cucumbers were not available in the market ‘even for ready money’). But in general the two actors gave us plenty of authentic Wildean witticisms, clearly enunciated throughout and projected via an array of regional accents and varied intonations to differentiate one character from another. That effect was also achieved by actorly effective body language. The commanding Lady Bracknell and her daughter Gwendolen did not fail to command. The simpering Cecily Cardew simpered. Canon Chasuble was unctuous. Miss Prism was outwardly prim yet not-so-secretly aflame with desire for the Canon. And so forth.

As the two actors raced around the small stage, with its minimal props, they cleverly conjured up the different scenes. At times, they verbalised some of Wilde’s stage commands. ‘[Enter Lane]’. It was all done very lightly, without halting the onwards flow of the play’s four Acts, which were run together into one ninety-minute show. The result really concentrated attention upon Wilde’s sustained satire of social artifice.

Throughout, too, the actors interacted genially with the audience. We were invited to make rural sounds to signify that the stage action was shifting to Jack Worthing’s country house in Hertfordshire: cue an assortment of baas, moos, clucks and birdsong. (It sounds naff but was very funny). And, at times, individual members of the audience were led onto the stage as stand-ins. So an unknown young woman became the recipient of Lady Bracknell’s fashion advice (Act IV). She pronounced loftily that: ‘Style largely depends on the way the chin is worn. They are worn very high, just at present’. The unknown young woman laughed and duly raised her chin – and we could all see the instant difference in her self-presentation. A moment of magic.

The two women actors who acted and coordinated this collective evening of mirth were modestly unnamed on the short flyer. They were identified merely as taking part in a Two Gents Production, which a web-search reveals to be a cross-cultural touring company, based in London.1 It may be assumed from their relative youth that these young women actors are relative beginners on stage. Certainly, the minimalist programme did not parade a back-list of their past performances in other shows. Somehow, however, these two have already become consummate stage professionals. At various points, their performances made easy and charming references to their British-African heritages. But they also showed us the universality of theatre and human passions. The diverse audience responded with laughter and enthusiasm. Since the performers went unnamed, here is a large picture of them instead – and (Two Gents/Tara Arts) they should have their names on the flyer next time. [STOP PRESS: Later identified from L to R as Kudzanayi Chiwawa and Ayesha Casely-Hayford]
Kudzanayi Chiwawa and Ayesha Casely-HayfordLastly, then, what of Wilde’s message to his audiences? He is clearly satirising the outward affectations of smart society, with its cult of money, status, conformity, hypocrisy, and insincerity. He also wants us to understand that, beneath the glittering social surface, deep feelings continue to bubble away. One of those subterranean passions, unsurprisingly, is sexual desire. This production underlines that point with vigour. At one point, each actor manages with great agility to hug herself as though wrapped in her lover’s arms, smacking her lips noisily, while the other, side by side, does the same. And, at another moment, the two of them, in the guise of Miss Prism and Canon Chasuble, disappear beneath a coverlet to have noisy and energetic sex, with much growling, yapping and lascivious sighing.

To escape those stultifying norms of high society, both the two leading male characters – the ‘solid’ Jack Worthing and the dandy Algernon Moncrieff (who turn out to be brothers) – have recourse to secret lives. They have created elaborate fictions which enable them to live one life in the countryside and another in town. Algernon has to make constant visits to a chronic invalid friend, named Bunbury, while Jack has to rush to the rescue of his ‘wicked’ brother Earnest, who is always getting into scrapes.

It is not hard to believe that their stratagems constituted a dramatisation of Wilde’s own awareness of living with a divided self and divided sexuality. The play, performed in triumph in 1895, was the last he ever wrote, immediately before he became embroiled in legal entanglements, which ended with his prosecution and imprisonment for ‘gross indecency’. Within the effervescent drama, there is no hint of tragedy to come. Nor does the plot conclude with anything as heavy as a call for social change, except by implication. There is, however, a covert appeal for friendship, sincerity, tolerance, the avoidance of subterfuge, and the capacity for individuals to live truthfully, in the light of their true natures.

Yes, Oscar Wilde: yes indeed. But, as he knew as a dramatist and then reaffirmed in prison, it’s not an easy task to reconcile all interests, all passions, all individual roles and identities. Toleration is a high social art, relying upon both law and custom; and it has to be relearned and lived positively in every generation.

1 For Two Gents’ productions and workshops, see http://www.twogentsproductions.co.uk. This production was supported by Tara Arts. Compliments are also due to the co-directors, identified subsequently as Arne Pohlmeier and Tonderai Munyevu.

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Directed by: Richard Eyre

Viewed at Trafalgar Studio/1, Whitehall, on 31 January 2014

Reviewed by: Penelope J. Corfield,

after viewing with Tony Belton, 31 January 2014

Ghosts at Trafalgar Studio/1 is a superb production. It’s directed by Richard Eyre and wonderfully acted by a strong cast led by Lesley Manville, making the most of a rare leading role for the ‘older woman’. It’s also magnificently presented on a stage with walls that are in turn enclosing and transparent – in conscious homage to the spare yet light-filled domestic interiors depicted by the Danish artist Vilhelm Hammershøi (1864-1916).

Yet in this play Henrik Ibsen’s ultimate message is so bleak that it leaves the audience stunned. It’s all about the dead weight of the past and the terrible effect of having chosen respectability over joy and love. Helene Alving (Lesley Manville) and Pastor Manders (Adam Kotz) have lived in denial. She tried to leave her wealthy but debauched husband, but the man she truly loved sent her back. Parson Manders may be assumed to have had a sincere religious faith which overrode his passion for Helene Alving, but he comes over as something of a wimp who is afraid of social censure – a difficult part to act attractively. Either way, their decision leaves them to suffer bleak and joyless lives.

But it gets worse. The sins of the father are visited upon the following generation. It’s blatantly unfair. But so the play unfolds. The tender young love dawning between Helene’s son Oswald (played with great naturalness by Jack Lowden) and the family maid Regina Engstrand (a spritely Charlene McKenna) is blighted not only by his inherited syphilis but also by the revelation that they are half-brother and -sister. Their lives have been spoiled by the ‘dead hand’ of history, through the casual debauchery of the late and unlamented Captain Alving. The self-seeking manoeuvres of the mischief-making carpenter Jacob Engstrand (Brian McCardie), who had hitherto been assumed to be Regina’s father, are relatively minor sins in comparison. At the denouement, Oswald collapses in a painful seizure, immediately after having appealed to his mother to kill him. Mutely, she holds out a handful of fatal pills, as a radiant sun rises outside the house … and the curtain falls.

Unlike at the conclusion to A Doll’s House (1879), which Ibsen wrote immediately before Ghosts, in this play there is no trace of redemption for the main characters. Perhaps Regina, who has finally walked out slamming the door, will make something of her future life, without her embryonic lover Oswald. But the Alvings, mother and son, are both doomed. He will either live incapacitated or die young. And she will have wasted her life in a sterile bourgeois conformity. Even her maternal love, which has hitherto shielded Oswald from the truths about his father, cannot save him.

Indeed, Helene Alving speculates, late in the play, that she herself may have contributed to the disasters of her life. Perhaps her own rigidity pushed her husband into philandering. And perhaps through fear of social censure, she then connived at things that she should have revealed much earlier. Perhaps the social hypocrisy that blighted her life has infected her own behaviour. Life with total disclosure would be impossible. People need some privacy, even in the closest of relationships. But living permanently with dire secrets leads to people becoming ‘ghosts’, consumed by the past and unable to enjoy the present.

In Ibsen’s original script, the mother is left hesitating at the end: ‘No no no … Yes! … No no’. It is left unclear as to which option she will choose. Ibsen, when asked later, said he did not know. The director Richard Eyre, however, removes any doubt in this production, for which he has adapted the text. Helene Alvings words of hesitation are omitted. Not that saving her son would be much better as an option in the long term. But, in this version, there’s not even a sliver of hope or even options.

What does the audience make of that? On the night, we were caught between admiration and stunned silence. It was difficult to applaud jovially. Of course, plenty of plays end sadly or badly. The finale of R.C. Sherriff’s Journey’s End (1928), when all the soldiers have left the dugout for a certain death on the battlefield under German bombardment (signified by an ear-blasting soundtrack) is also massively sombre. Umpteen tragedies end with dead bodies on stage as well as off. Many of Chekhov’s plays conclude with a dying fall. Yet somehow, in these other examples, there is some catharsis. Audiences can react with enthusiasm and delight. In this case, perhaps because the play is so intimate, it seems too unrelievedly sombre to generate a positive response. I suppose it is ultimately the unfairness of Oswald’s fate that jars. He had not denied love. And he appreciated the joys not only of life but also of work – as he explained to his mother.

It’s paradoxical that as a historian I often complain that people underestimate the power of deep continuities from the past. Yet here’s a play which is all about that theme. Helene Alving declares:

It’s not only the things that we’ve inherited from our fathers and mothers that live on in us, but all sorts of old dead ideas and old dead beliefs. … They’re not actually alive in us, but they’re rooted there all the same, and we can’t rid ourselves of them.

This sombre speech is reminiscent of Karl Marx’s diatribe in his 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852): ‘the tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living’. In this case, however, I was reminded that history always offers some other options. There are changes, both gradual and revolutionary, as well as continuity.

Ultimately, I left the theatre, applauding the cast and director, but appalled by Ibsen’s bleak moral judgment on the love-deniers. It happened to be raining very heavily as we left the theatre. But the sun will also rise … and syphilis would become, well after Ibsen’s time, a disease which is treatable or, better still, avoidable.

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