Review: King Lear at the Royal Exchange

The Royal Exchange have a long and overall successful relationship with Shakespeare, and their latest production of King Lear poses no threat to that hard-earned reputation. Crafted in association with Birmingham Repertory Company and Talawa Theatre Company (as part of their 30th anniversary celebrations), this is a master-class in the work of a master.

An apt choice for the year of Shakespeare 400, King Lear serves as a reminder of the lasting relevance of the Bard. The play tackles the repercussions of dividing a kingdom; in light of the upcoming EU referendum and the very recently (and precariously) settled question of Scottish independence, this has never seemed so relevant.

Shakespeare is a tricky undertaking for any company; Don Warrington – who plays King Lear himself – compares it to “Mount Everest.” The text has an intrinsic melody which must be played out, but the physical acting is just as important as the vocal in realising the power of its symphony. Here, the actors punctuated the rhythm of the text with their movements; a sword being drawn and a prince falling to his knees adding texture to a dynamic performance.

My old drama teacher used to say that an actor should be able to explain his motivations at any given moment. If you were to hit pause on a performance, this should be evident to the audience. King Lear follows this advice. There are moments where you want to pause if only to take a photo – to capture what is often an example of beautiful direction offset by a rich and earthy colour palette. Talawa’s Artistic Director Michael Buffong has achieved an exceptional feat here. The visual quality of the performance captures the essence of each character in a new way. This applies particularly to the relationship between Lear and his fool, played by Miltos Yerolemou. The tenderness between the pair and the desperation with which Lear holds on to laughter as he descends into madness is riveting.

This tenderness finds its reflection in the relationship between the Earl of Gloucester and his estranged son Edgar – realised with exceptional skill by Alfred Enoch, who you may recognise from his role as Dean Thomas in the Harry Potter films. But Enoch is just one person in a strong cast of sixteen, many of whom had their chance to shine despite the dark subject matter of the play.

The sharp servant Oswald is portrayed wonderfully by Thomas Coombes, providing much-needed comic relief and with just the right amount of flamboyance. Centre stage, however, is commanded by Don Warrington, who cuts a raw and majestic Lear. Impulsive in both deed and manner, Warrington upholds the energy of the stage with admirable ease. In a play of three hours, a few lapses in energy are understandable: you do inevitably begin to count down the disastrous acts leading to the bitter end (made sweet by finally getting rid of your dead leg), but this is through little fault of the cast. The woman next to me left in the interval – an odd decision given that the last scene of Act One was by far the highlight of the whole production and a gross overreaction to what was – at worst – a slightly dragged out first half otherwise.

By no means was this production a perfect one, but it’s merits are many.

Manchester Histories Festival at the Town Hall

When the School of Arts, Languages and Cultures invited me to blog about the Manchester Histories Festival, my hopes weren’t exactly high. I certainly didn’t expect that when I rocked up to the Town Hall yesterday afternoon I would be joining a bustling crowd, all eager to get inside and have a nosey.

The thing about living in a city as large and diverse as Manchester is that you carve out your own little version of it; a bubble tainted only by the experiences you open yourself up to. And so, it’s easier than you think to forget just how varied and vibrant that city is. Manchester is comprised of millions of these personal bubbles, each adding to the overall picture of the city’s heritage. What the Festival showed me was the enthusiasm felt by so many living in Manchester about so many different things. The old Belle Vue Zoo – now long since closed – commissioned acting group The Larks to bring forgotten stories to life, whilst in the room next door, a man collected visitors’ views on where the new Peterloo memorial should go. Rambling clubs welcomed new members, and civic societies opened the doors of the suburbs’ hidden gems. From people who grew up here to students who have moved here, all were enthused by the rich history they witnessed. The most striking aspect of all of this was the combination of past and future; the way that some aimed to educate on days gone by, whilst others sought to establish new links with our past, encouraging visitors to study the history that is evidently still so relevant today.

When the festival started in 2009, it set out to “celebrate and provide learning and education about the City region’s histories and heritage.” Five years down the line, I’d say that has been achieved. The Manchester Histories Festival ensures that Manchester’s colourful past will not be forgotten, and if just one other person felt as I did yesterday – that their eyes had been open to something so unjustly overlooked – then the festival has proven a success. Making history accessible to scholars and families alike, this is one part of our heritage which should not be allowed to fall by the wayside.

The Manchester Histories festival runs annually, this year from 21st-30th March. For more information, please visit

Palaver Festival: The Diary of Anne Frank

Yesterday was a day of festivities, as I immersed myself in not one, but two Manchester-based celebrations. The Manchester Histories Festival  was great, and led me to attend a play in the evening at the Contact Theatre (you know, the one that looks like an industrial plant but is actually really cool inside). That play was The Diary Of Anne Frank, and it was put on by the German Society at the University of Manchester. Here’s how I got on…

Faced with the challenge of performing a piece so historically significant and somewhat emotionally taboo as Anne Frank – and in a language nowhere near as familiar as my mother tongue- I’d probably run with fear. That said, as an audience member at the Contact Theatre tonight, my experience was hardly life changing. And when asked if I wouldn’t mind putting a sticker on a chart to show my level of enjoyment, I had no choice but to stray into the “satisfactory” zone. In light of that, I may be being slightly critical, as my “satisfactory” was one of just two; it seems the rest of the audience branded it “excellent.” I suppose my experience was somewhat tainted by Anne’s seemingly naive and overly-cheerful interpretation. However, given how difficult a play it is to handle, and that it was acted entirely in German, it was an interesting adaption to watch. And whilst I whole-heartedly encourage the promotion of foreign plays and festivals such as Palaver, this play was not one that gripped at my heart strings and left me in tears as the original diary did. With words so moving, any attempt to adapt them seems ever so slightly feeble. I suppose the problem stemmed from the fact that- despite brilliant costumes and a well-designed set – the actors were not actors. They were German university students passionate about their subject – and it showed. The focus dragged not to the words that have endeared millions to the story of Anne Frank, but to the pronunciation of the German- and how oddly it mismatched the subtitles. All in all, the effort was a bold one; it just didn’t necessarily live up to my expectations.

Poetry by Heart Competition, London

As pointed out to me this weekend, ‘the problem of poetry’ is something that has plagued school curriculums for years. How do you engage young people in emotional complexities often beyond their own experiences? How do you persuade them that what they see as out dated and dull is actually a riveting expression of the relatable and real?
All tough questions, but the answer has been well and truly hit on the head by none other than former poet laureate Sir Andrew Motion.

This weekend, I attended the regional and national finals of Poetry By Heart, a competition dedicated to the enrichment of young people via the medium of the spoken word. With a particular focus on memorisation (that’s the ‘by heart’ bit), the competition encourages it’s participants to really absorb the words dreamt up by poets past and present, before relaying them to an audience with the added flair of personal interpretation.

That may all sound too much like hard work, but I can’t stress enough how enlightened I feel after this weekend. I entered as a performer; I’ve done LAMDA exams in the past that have involved poetry, so I kind of thought ‘why not?’ But what I’ve left with is more than the experience of an all-expenses paid weekend in London and the chance to perform at The National Portrait Gallery. I’ve left with a sense of pride at having been involved in something so…vital. It may only be in its second year, but I’ve a feeling that Poetry By Heart will run for years to come. This might all seem very gushing, I know.
What competing has shown me is that what a poet writes can often be lost in translation, if given a voice that doesn’t do it justice. But when placed in the right hands (or should I say mouth?), words can be brought to life in a way so moving that it would be impossible to ignore. And that is right: poetry is impossible to ignore. As one girl rather randomly suggested, “humans are poems with feet.” Slightly odd, yes, but something to think about none the less.

Recommendations: A round-up of my personal favourites from the competition.

All poems are available from the Poetry Archive

Birmingham Royal Ballet: Prince of the Pagodas

BRB show without an exquisite set is like a cupcake without frosting; its perfectly nice, but you’d feel like you had been robbed. As different as The Prince of The Pagodas may be to the traditional BRB we all know and love in many ways, the set is one very pretty exception. Rae Smith’s design brings this relatively unknown story into the magical realms of ballet royalty. There’s something intrinsically dreamlike about the way the set and costume enhance the dancers’ movement that ignites a childish glee that will leave you mesmerised.

Despite its somewhat tentative opening, once the ball gets rolling, BRB are on top form with their commanding characterisation and surprising plot twists. Act Two will have you both laughing and crying (at the sheer inimitable grace of the dancers) with choreography highlight by what can only be described as ballet’s answer to twerking (just look for the octopus).

If you think of BRB as a boring or traditional ballet company, think again, because Prince of the Pagodas reshapes their flawless technique and synchronisation (a true skill with such challenging accompaniment) into a deeply atmospheric piece of dance, more than worthy of the company’s prestige.

Prince of the Pagodas is at The Lowry until 2nd February, followed by a UK tour until 29th March 2014

The Lowry Dance Blog: Motionhouse

Motionhouse have struck a perfect balance in contemporary dance; an innovative line drawn between the abstract curiosity people have come to expect of contemporary and the narrative of a traditional ballet. Choreographer Kevin Finnan credits the theme to “the standing joke that when choreographers get older they do the rite of spring or the elements.” Evidently the elements appealed more. What came of that was actually a catch-your-breath, heart-in-mouth experience, transforming dance into a multi-dimensional piece of living art. This is the dance of the future, open to interpretation but laced with technical complexities. The pure animalistic energy of the dancers will have you gripping the edge of your seat, entranced by the display of raw physical strength and boundless energy. ‘Broken’ leaves you utterly consumed by its effortless fluidity, in awe of the dancers’ stealth and sat grinning like an absolute idiot. To use cliches would be to cheat this show of its integrity, but the next time Motionhouse perform in Manchester, I’ll be waiting in the front row.

My review is also available on the Lowry Youth Dance Ambassador blog:

“Second star on the right and straight on till morning…”

‘Wendy & Peter Pan’ is on at the RSC in Stratford-Upon-Avon until 2 March 2014

A surprisingly comedic take on the classic children’s tale, Wendy & Peter Pan brought to life the joyous innocence of childhood and combined it seamlessly with adult humour, leaving audience members of all ages in fits of laughter. The sprinkle of fairy dust delivered the original opening to new levels, adding an extra layer that provided Wendy with a motive on her adventure to Neverland- an intriguing addition to the classic plot.

The only questionable casting was Captain Hook whose take on the role just didn’t fulfil the Hook of many an imagination; a slight glitch amongst an otherwise wonderful cast.
On a lighter note, there’s something intrinsically witty about a well-placed accent, as the array of cleverly constructed characters proved. A bustling Tinkerbell, larger than life, was just was just one of Ella Hickson’s masterfully woven adaptations and contrasted beautifully with an enviably flexible and terrifyingly sinister crocodile.

As ever, the RSC, not content with a stationary stage, featured many a moving part in their interpretation. Never ones to adopt a minimalist approach, they have a distinct ability to transform their space completely. This is the third play I’ve seen there (it’s become something of a Christmas tradition) and I’ve yet to leave without having been fully immersed in the intimate setting of each.

To write this off as merely a nice play to make you feel all warm and Christmassy inside would be impossible; what is, on the surface, a pleasant and humorous version of Barrie’s play, is in fact a poignant and thought-provoking tale of death, remembrance and love. If it’s a magical Christmas play or something more than a little bit different you’re after, head to Stratford and book a seat at the RSC before it sells out.