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25May. 2017.

Food for Thought


‘Been there, seen it, done it’ is an expression that could well have been coined with Elizabeth Pisani in mind.


Born in the US, raised and educated in Europe and Hong Kong, Elizabeth speaks French, Spanish and Indonesian and modestly describes herself as able to 'fake' Mandarin. She has an MA in Classical Chinese from Oxford, an MSc in Medical Demography from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and a PhD in Infectious Disease Epidemiology. She began her career as a foreign correspondent. Her work for Reuters, The Economist and Asia Times thrust her into Tiananmen Square as the troops invaded, into Aceh to cover the civil war and, at less risk to life and limb, into Hong Kong to investigate the impact of the 1986 stock market crash on nightclub hostesses. Her zest and curiosity have prompted her to live, work and travel extensively, particularly throughout the Far East. She has written books, as well as countless essays, research papers and reports and has delivered two TED talks. She swapped one high-level career for another when she became an epidemiologist and insists that the skills are the same: find the right people; ask them the right questions; organise and analyse the information intelligently; communicate it to people who can do something about it. She has advised health ministries and organisations the world over and now runs her own public health consultancy. Here is a woman who has even taken tea with a stranger’s dead granny, for heaven’s sake. But she has never channelled her zeal to spread the word about what really drives decision making in global health, and the mismatch between need and resource, into creating a musical show. Until now.

In the autumn of 2014, Elizabeth dropped in, on a whim, to see Grand Union Orchestra’s spectacular Undream’d Shores at the Hackney Empire. Witnessing the phenomenal energy GUO generated around the weighty subject of migration scratched at an itch she’d been harbouring for a while. After years studying the data, Elizabeth knows that the diseases causing most suffering around the world are rarely those receiving the lion’s share of attention or funding. Yet the health establishment’s answer is to keep throwing ever more technical evidence at the problems, ignoring historical, social and political evidence and solving nothing much in the process.

Elizabeth yearns for a different approach. What about music, for instance? Why not take the statistics around a disease  - geographical spread, demographic, the amount of publicity it gets, how well treatment is funded – and assign musical elements such as rhythm, tempo, volume or specific instruments to each? Could people ‘hear’ the difference between diseases and the way the world treats them? Surely, this might set people thinking more creatively than what she describes as endless "po-faced conferences with power point presentations to an audience that has seen them all before".

So she stuck her neck out and emailed Tony Haynes, GUO’s founder and, for over 30 years, it’s composer and artistic director. Fortunately, Tony (no stranger to Wilton's) is also a great fan of long shots. With support from Wellcome Trust, many brainstorms, workshops, revelations, discussions, dinners and disagreements later, Song of Contagion premiers at Wilton’s in a few weeks. "I was so thrilled when Tony agreed to take on the challenge. I’ve worked with lots of brilliant scientists, but Song of Contagion is my first collaboration with musical genius, and it has been a real education.”



The very first workshop and, after an inspiring brainstorm, Tony Haynes explores the similarity between the didgeridoo and London's drains

Their first task was to decide which diseases to feature and the final work explores five stories. Here’s how Elizabeth describes them:

Cholera: London versus Kolkata: the disease was rife in both during the 1850s but their outcomes differ radically. When The Big Stink drove parliamentarians out of their riverside offices, pure self-interest led them to authorise funding for Bazalgette’s sewers, which happened to halt the water-borne disease in its tracks. In India, where such environmental investment has never been made, cholera continues to cause death and misery.



Zika versus dengue fever: both are spread by the same mosquito, Zika does not kill, yet received huge publicity when it was linked to a few thousand cases of abnormally small heads and incomplete brain development in Brazil in the run up to the Rio Olympics. For decades, dengue has killed 10-20,000 people every single year (many of them children), expensively hospitalising half a million or more, yet few people know of it and it never hits the headlines. Images of deformed babies make front page news but photographically unremarkable dengue shock syndrome never will.


Guilty!

HIV in the US versus Africa and the first case of successful patient activism: faced with the US government’s inaction, the well-connected, media-savvy gay community bravely campaigned for research and drugs, pulling stunts such as closing down the Stock Exchange for the first time in history. Treatment was available far sooner than it would have been without them. Meanwhile, the high cost of those drugs was prohibitive for sufferers in other continents, especially sub-Saharan Africa. But US public support (and George W Bush’s $60 billion in aid) for the campaign for cheaper drugs and treatment for Africa was only won after victims were widely shown to be innocent women and their babies, rather than gay men, drug users and prostitute.


AIDS on a graph and on a stave

Coronary heart disease and ‘a little of what you fancy does you good’: though it may just end up killing you, particularly if corporate lobbyists from the food and sugar industries have their way and block public health measures to reduce consumption.

Post traumatic stress disorder – inequities in diagnosis and treatment:  if you are a soldier with a rich country and a guilty government behind you, you will probably get treatment for the effects of dropping bombs on people. If you’re a civilian and those bombs killed your husband and three children, you will probably just be left to get on with it.

Through traditional music hall songs, African drum beats, Brazilian samba, strings, brass, sitars and the gamelan, plus all-too-human voices from around the world, these stories will colourfully and energetically unfold. And, hopefully, no-one will resist the urge to get on their feet for the Dengue Merengue. “Tony’s brilliance is that he manages to create shows that are simultaneously thought-provoking, moving, and damned good fun."

Elizabeth is keen to stress, however, that there will be no preaching or heavy messaging. "This is a fascinating topic, full of questions and answers with so much yet to learn. It encompasses all of life around the world. Yet what drives it is so embedded in our lives - the way we do business and so on - that we’re not necessarily aware of it. We’ve tried to make more explicit things that we don’t always articulate. We simply want to provoke thought and hope that people will perhaps question for the first time – why am I being sold this drug and not that one? Why have I heard of Zika but not dengue shock syndrome? Then begin to find answers and make connections. And, above all, have fun!"

There will certainly be plenty of opportunities for all that and more as the show will include schools and family matinees plus pre- and post-show presentations and discussions (strictly NOT po-faced). There is even an East End cholera walk ending at Wilton’s in time for the show.


Elizabeth delivering TED talks and with the portable tools of her trade(s): laptop and beer

The irony of all this is that music is one talent Elizabeth Pisani claims to lack in abundance. Aged seven, her piano teacher proclaimed her ‘unteachable’ after one lesson, insisting on refunding the full term’s fees there and then. Who knows, perhaps it was not being constrained by knowledge of musical theory that allowed her to make that creative leap and see (hear?) music as a new way to present these issues?

Song of Contagion runs 13 to 17 June. See our website for full details of all performances and associated events.

If you would like to read more about the fascinating story behind Song of Contagion and read the blog tracking its development, visit the website here.

Portrait of Elizabeth Pisani by Marit Miners.

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27Apr. 2017.

On being Othello and Desdemona



Shakespeare at the Tobacco Factory’s Othello opened in Bristol to a barrage of ecstatic reviews. A great deal has already been said about the production so, ahead of its arrival here at Wilton’s, we thought we would bring you a very personal account of what it’s like to get under the skin of one of Shakespeare’s most tragic couples, in conversation with Norah Lopez Holden and Abraham Popoola.


Both Abraham and Norah graduated from RADA in 2016. How does it feel to play such iconic Shakespearean roles in such a high-profile and acclaimed production so early in their careers and how familiar were they with the play beforehand?

A:  I feel privileged, very privileged. I studied the play for my English Literature degree at University of Westminster and used one of Othello’s monologues as my audition piece for drama school. I was then lucky enough to play the role at RADA in an abridged version for secondary schools. Their responses were fascinating, especially an all-boys school where they were really hot, sweaty and bored; all they wanted was action but, during the quieter moments, they were riveted. It was amazing to see how we could grasp their attention, even though some were harder to win over than others. I do believe we were helping to open their eyes to something new.

N: I studied it in the sixth form and loved it. It seemed so different to any other Shakespeare I’d come across before because it’s so economical in terms of its exposition. The story unravels so quickly. We have a joke in the company that it could easily make a Netflix one-part drama! I would once have been scared by a part like this and hadn’t imagined myself, with my Manchester accent, playing Shakespeare. It’s easy to get caught up in what are often perceived as the dos and don’ts of Shakespearean acting. Desdemona has always been dusted over as this very naïve, wishy-washy sort of creature. Like many young actresses, I’m inclined to gravitate more towards women with substance, with meat on their bones, so I was actually more drawn to Emilia. When this audition came through, though, I really looked at the story from Desdemona’s perspective for the first time and realised that she’s a headstrong young woman with the balls to stand up for herself. The first thing we see her do is defy her father.



Norah and Abraham not only studied together at RADA, they are also friends off-stage. Has that made a difference to their experience of playing Othello and Desdemona?

N:  We’re definitely comfortable with each other and, of course, our training together means we’d already broken down all the barriers of discomfort around things like love scenes. There have been plenty of laughs around our difference in height – I’m barely 5’ 6” and Abe’s 6’ 5”. If we need an intimate moment, he has to either pick me up or sit down! Although the physical difference perfectly reflects the changing relationship. In the beginning, he is this big, strapping, sexy man who literally sweeps me off my feet and carries me away. As events unfold, he becomes completely overpowering so that I can’t defend myself against him. Our physicality mirrors the opposition where everything turns from good to bad – the almost erotic heat of Cyprus becomes stifling and oppressive, Othello’s being a muslim lends him an exotic, attractive otherness at first, which then becomes terrifying as she realises “you’re a stranger, I don’t know anything about you”.

A:  I think our friendship and prior knowledge of each other’s acting has definitely helped us to explore the characters further. It also means we’re there to support each other when the play weighs heavy. It’s almost inevitable for me that some residue of the character lingers in me during the run and there are aspects that I’ve been affected by. I may never have killed my wife or led an army but the paranoia Othello feels, fuelled by the racism he encounters every day, that’s something I have felt. It’s close to home in that sense. It’s double-edged – in some ways it's a strength, being able to use my own experience to play the character, but it’s difficult when it reflects negative experience in your life. Whenever I’ve been struggling with that, it’s been good to know I have a friend there who understands me.


In rehearsal

Despite their previous knowledge of the play, there are elements of Director Richard Twyman’s production that are still fresh and unexpected.

N:  It’s really exciting to be in a production that deals with the female voices. They are so often overlooked as Othello is presented very much as about a group of soldiers - a man’s play, set in a man’s world. Yet the three women’s voices are so distinct and have such purpose. The relationship between Emilia and Desdemona has been a revelation. I had always read (and been taught to read) them as dowdy, cynical Emilia and naïve, stupid Desdemona but that does no justice to the characters, and denies all the nuances in-between. Their relationship is particularly sad and illustrates another about-turn as Desdemona becomes increasingly trapped in her marriage and loses her grip on her own strength and the oppressed Emilia gains courage to make a stand. There’s a scene between the two, the only scene with only women present, where the great unspoken truth underlying their conversation is that Desdemona is being abused by her husband. It’s also a play about domestic abuse, which still goes on today; nothing much has changed.

Katy (who plays Emilia) and I often marvel at how Shakespeare could hear both Emilia’s and Iago’s opposing voices so clearly and take an almost feminist approach to the way men treat women. The incredible irony is that those women would have been played by men because women were not allowed to play themselves!

A:  The women’s roles were a revelation for me too. It’s been illuminating to discover that this is not just a play about two alpha males. And that Othello can be - is – young. I always delivered my audition monologue as a man much older than myself because I’ve only ever seen the role portrayed by older actors. A director who saw that I’d played the role at RADA once made a point of telling me that I was far too young and shouldn’t think about it until I was 50! That thought was stuck in my head but Richard was keen to make it clear that he saw Othello as a young man. Also that he is a Muslim in hiding, he’s adopted Christianity in order to survive but his true faith is Islam. That and his youth mean he has no choice but to trust the older, more experienced Iago, who has been moving, manipulating and surviving in that society for longer than Othello has even been alive.

N:  Yes, it’s so important that they are a young couple, deeply in love, and Iago’s jealousy is made even worse by being faced with this young man who has everything he wishes he had. Audience feedback from Bristol shows that we really have portrayed that.

A:  It helps that, instead of just hearing other characters talk about the couple before we see them, we actually witness their wedding at the beginning. That’s a new addition for this production.



The cast are now gearing up to seven performances at Exeter Northcott Theatre before heading to Wilton’s. A prospect at which Norah, who has recently moved to London, and Abraham, who hails from Dalston, were particularly excited when they visited us recently.

A:  I’m absolutely buzzing – I can’t wait for the whole cast to come in! And it’s so significant to be doing this play here in Tower Hamlets where there is such a large Muslim population. We overheard conversations in Bristol that suggested we had managed to communicate something to Muslim audiences that they had never seen before so it’s going to be fascinating to see what responses we get at Wilton’s.

N:  Playing in the round here is going to be amazing. I can’t imagine it any other way now because it creates a stifling claustrophobia and you can feel the gender differences in the audience; you sense the male discomfort listening to speeches about the way men treat women and women are held spellbound with the recognition.


As themselves

We couldn't resist throwing in these snippets of Othello trivia: The first play Abraham ever saw was Ibsen's Ghosts at the Arcola. Which just happened to be Norah's first major role after graduating, at Home Theatre in Manchester. They both have friends who were in the recent version of Othello at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse and Abraham worked with Kurt Egyiawan, who played the eponymous lead in that production, in Three Migrants at the Royal Court, which was also directed by Richard Twyman. 

Othello runs 16 May to 3 June and you can buy tickets here.

You can also read another very personal account from a member of the cast in this blog post from Hayat Kamille, who plays Bianca.

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13Apr. 2017.

A Truly Revelatory Q&A with Boris & Sergey


It's not often that we get a glimpse into the lives, minds and sordid living conditions of a duo such as Balkan Bad Boys, Boris & Sergey. When we do, we feel it is our duty to reveal their secrets to you in a candid Q&A. You may feel the need to wash your hands after reading this.


How long have you been brothers and does it help or hinder your working relationship?
Sergey: We have been brothers all of our lives, though it certainly feels like much longer. I'm clearly being punished for something I did in a past life. In terms of our working relationship, I tend to be the help whereas Boris has the hindrance covered.
Boris: (proudly) Sergey says I'm the biggest hindrance in his life.

What’s your secret for keeping your skin so smooth and lustrous? Dubbin? Lard? Lenor?
Sergey: I take my skin care and personal hygiene very seriously, it's particularly important with all the disease and pestilence that Boris brings into our dwelling. My day typically starts with a bath in two litres of mountain spring water, followed by a hearty thrashing with Sicilian olive branches, performed by twelve stout men of honest character. At night I have myself vacuum packed to maintain my freshness.
Boris: Whereas I experiment with hot and cold, Sergey scolds me with boiling water, and makes me sleep outside at night. Which gives my skin it's natural onion-skin texture. The doctors say if I keep it up I won't see my next birthday, but Sergey doesn't let me have birthdays so I'm not too concerned.

Any tips for the gentlemen on how to succeed with the ladies?
Boris: A judge has ruled that I am no longer allowed to talk about, or be in the vicinity of anything female. I'll have to pay a heavy fine for answering this question.

Woken up with anyone interesting lately?
Boris: Mr Bumbles. I wake up next to him a lot.
Sergey: Who is Mr Bumbles? Some ridiculous cuddly toy that you need for security?
Boris: No, he's some guy who watches me sleep.

Who is your favourite puppeteer?
Sergey: Like any good parent we treat them with equal disdain, they are all expendable.

What's the worst thing you ever smelled?
Both: Fear.

It seems that Boris has been suffering for his art in rehearsals this week. Shame.



You can witness this kind of spectacle and worse, much worse, in Boris & Sergey's Astonishing Freakatorium 9-13 May.
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31Mar. 2017.

Ida Barr's mix-tape

From music hall to old skool, cockney rhymes to east London grime, Ida Barr shares some of the influences behind her Artificial Hip-Hop sound.


Solange – Don’t Touch My Hair




Solange and Beyonce were all that got me through the misery of 2016.  Lemonade and A Place at the Table were never off my Victrola.  This track got me in trouble with the warden in control of my warden controlled flats.  I was humming it under my breath not aware that the mobile hairdresser had arrived.  She reported that I was being difficult and the warden suspended my rights to a half price perm.  Innit tho!


Noel Coward - There Are Bad Times Just Around The Corner



A reminder that there are a lot of people who are very keen on making us feel that things are getting worse.  I’ve lived a long time and it seems to be that things have always been going to hell in a dustcart.  But that’s probably a lot of nonsense.  Noel was a lovely fella.  Light on his feet, and kind to his mother.  He was always very charming to me, and once bought me a Eccles Cake at Crewe Station.  That’s the kind of thing you don’t forget.


Mary J Blige – MJB da MVP



As the Notorious IDA, I appreciate this song by the lovely MJB.  MVP means most valuable player and it’s American slang.  I don’t know a IUD from a IOU which has got me into trouble in the past.  There’s too many acronyms about these days, but this is still a smashing song.


Stormzy – Big For Your Boots



Stormzy used to pop round for a tamazepam for his nan from time to time so when we meet now in the lift at Radio 1Xtra is always a delight.  I’m thrilled by his success.  He’s got a lovely sense of humour and is a tip top rapper, which he credits me for.  Maybe he picked up more than prescription medication on those trips up to my flatlette!  


Nadia Rose – Tight Up



Nadia is a lovely girl, she’s never orff my WhatsApp.  And she is right to bring this menace of tight garments to the forefront of our attention.  Some gals look like they are wearing a bandage rather than a garment, which ain’t nobody’s business but their own, but it looks very distressing to a harmonious and healthy life.


TCTS – Do It Like Me



I put this on to get my home help to speed up whilst she’s doing the dado rails.  She can get very lethargic.  This is like aural caffeine.  Kelis is old pal of mine since I covered her Milkshake number for a Complan advert.  ‘My Complan brings the old boys to the yard’


Jidenna - White Niggas



A snappy dresser and an interesting musician.  Jidenna is on Janelle Monae’s label.  I’ve a lot of time for her and her music.  Lovely gal.  When I first heard of her, I thought she was Jonelle the John Lewis own brand which I found confusing.  I was familiar with their pillowslips but hadn’t expected them to bring out futuristic sci-fi narrative RnB.


Missy Elliott – I’m Better



This is namedropping but Missy wrote this number for me about my nasty bout of flu last October.  Me and Missy go way back.  She always stays at mine when she’s in London.  I say, stay in the suite at the Hilton, Miss and come to mine for high tea.  But she prefers my put-u-up.


Michael  Kiwanuka – Black Man In A White World



Lovely lad.  Lovely voice.  Treat yourself and have a listen to this.  And an important sentiment.  It’s a little like being an older female in a world which discounts you entirely.  But this is a playlist – not a discussion of intersectionality and oppression.


Lady Leshurr – Queen’s Speech



Finally I’m representing for my girl Leshurr.  Inventive, creative, funny and headstrong.  She’s like me at her age.  She’s going to go far.  But she does owe me a fiver I leant her at Victoria Bus Station when I saw her onto the Birmingham MegaBus last April.  Fair’s fair, Leshurr.  

Listen to the full playlist and follow us on Spotify here. 

Ida performs here 4th & 5th April, tickets available: http://bit.ly/2kUGlFf


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27Mar. 2017.

How to revive a classic without sacrificing your cynicism



It’s more than 50 years since the last major London production of Frank Loesser’s How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, his second greatest achievement after Guys and Dolls.  Now, the creative team behind The Toxic Avenger at Southwark Playhouse and Shock Treatment at the King’s Head are in rehearsal, bringing this Broadway classic to Wilton’s in a stylish revival that is bursting with life, energy and very contemporary, cynical humour.




Director, Benji Sperring, is relishing the opportunity to apply his signature style to such an iconic work from the era of big-band musicals. He admits “It is quite a tricky piece, being very much of its time, particularly in its portrayal of the gender stereotypes and office politics of the 1950s – very un-PC by today’s standards”.  Which is what made this musical such a tempting prospect for a man who believes the greatest source of learning for theatre today is the past and who founded Tarquin Productions in order to put a new spin on works that have rather been consigned to history. It is precisely those potentially dating elements that Benji gleefully picks up and runs off with in his own musical-comedy-with-added-anarchy sort of a way.  For him, this musical is all about the weird wackiness of the often unpleasant yet strangely likeable characters and his vision is very much one of cartoon and caricature. Which is not to say that there is no serious or relevant message for 2017 audiences. “With characters using nepotism and sociopathic tendencies to get to the top, there are definitely parallels with what is going on in the US right now. At the end of the day, we see how capitalism continues to screw all of us over and I believe that British arts and theatre have a duty to comment on that. If you can do it with great characters, great tunes and a tap routine, all the better.”


Marc Pickering takes the lead as J Pierrepont Finch

Which is exactly what Benji does, aided by a cast and creative team laden with awards, nominations and accolades too numerous to mention, several of whom have worked magic together under his direction before - anyone who saw Toxic Avenger will be happy to find Marc Pickering, Hannah Grover and Lizzii Hills reunited on stage with Ben Ferguson this time in the Musical Director’s chair. Suffice to say, there will be a roof-raising nine-piece band on stage to accompany such musical theatre royalty as Andrew C Wadsworth and razor-sharp dance routines choreographed by the inspirational Lucie Pankhurst. Meanwhile, we’re all oohing and aahing over glimpses of Mike Lees’ costume and set designs with colour-coded characters and a fun skewing of gender identity that we won’t spoil for you by revealing here.  Mike has created a heightened, stylised setting, unlike anything seen on Wilton’s stage before and which delights in the disconnect between the fast-talking, chain-smoking world of Mad Men chic and our charmingly distressed Victorian music hall.



 So. Can our hero triumph in the boardroom without becoming an unscrupulous monster? Can he live happily ever after with the girl of his dreams, even though she is, quite frankly, completely off her onion? Can the company glamour-puss keep her big secret and save her (and the Chairman's) reputation? Can anyone truly succeed in business without really trying? Find out between 8th and 22nd April. And don't forget to invite us to your next Big Launch.


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16Mar. 2017.

The truth and magic in storytelling



Undermined was conceived when Danny Mellor was required to write, direct and star in a piece as a final showcase for his MA at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. As the grandson of a South Yorkshire miner, with the 30th anniversary of the end of the miners’ strike looming, he saw the opportunity to create a show about a subject close to his heart.



There’s nothing quite so compelling, thought-provoking or entertaining as storytelling at its best. So Danny becomes Dale, down the pub with a pint, simply telling it like it was. Based on real events and first-hand accounts, stories of ordinary and extraordinary day to day events in the lives of ordinary and extraordinary miners and their families during brutal times. No sensational news reports, no politicians, no rhetoric. Just tales of the day a police superintendent in a range rover tried to mow down a snowman, a tedious drive in search of an elusive Welsh pit, an ingeniously simple but effective prank to make fools of riot police. Stories to make you laugh, cry, rage, or all three.



Undermined
’s first airing in Edinburgh attracted high praise: “If only there could be more one man shows like this at the Fringe” (Stef O’Driscoll, Associate Director Paines Plough & Artistic Director of Inner City Theatre); “Other actors could do with taking a leaf out of Danny Mellor’s book. The book would be called How to do a One Man Show Properly” (Chloe St George, EdFringe Review). Such is Danny's craft and passion in conveying the humanity at the heart of one of this country's most controversial and damaging disputes.

If you have read our History Book by Carole Zeidman, you will know that the Methodist Mission at Wilton’s played an important role during times of hardship caused by another historic strike - the dockers’ strike of 1889. Here’s an extract from Carole’s book:

"In 1889 dockers in the port of London went on strike demanding wages of 6d an hour for a minimum of four hours’ work a day. The strike for ‘the dockers’ tanner’ became a landmark in British labour history. Almost everyone living in and around Cable Street, Ratcliffe Highway and Wellclose Square was affected by the strike. John Jameson, the first minister at The Mahogany Bar reported ‘Here we are in the thick of it. This morning it was piteous to see the people. Some of them had had no food for three days’. Peter Thompson, the first superintendent of the East End Mission encouraged the dockers to hold their union meetings at The Mahogany Bar and set up a soup kitchen there to feed the starving dockers and their families.”

All of which makes us doubly proud and thrilled to welcome Danny, duly equipped with pint and chair, to our stage next week. You can catch Undermined 21 to 25 March and can buy tickets here. Cheers!


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7Mar. 2017.

Welcome to International Women's Day



Today we are marking International Women’s Day with stories of some of the extraordinary women who feature in a series of events during our coming season.  We are very proud to be presenting diverse shows both by and about very special women and we invite you to join us in celebrating these exceptional lives and works.



In May, we welcome National Opera Studio with works from three celebrated female composers, Dubai – Rostov – New York. The Rostov of the title was the Russian birthplace of pioneering psychoanalyst, Sabina Spielrein, her home for much of her life and scene of her tragic death in 1942. Sabina’s story is told by composer Errollyn Wallen, described by The Observer as a 'renaissance woman of contemporary British music'.


Born in 1885, Sabina, along with her siblings, suffered a brutal upbringing at the hands of a violent mother and tyrannical father. She was also highly educated with an extremely sharp mind. A diagnosis of ‘hysteria’ in her late teens (now easily recognisable as a natural response to the trauma she suffered throughout childhood) led to her becoming the patient of a young psychiatrist by the name of Carl Jung, who was keen to try a new approach known as psychoanalysis. Sabina was not only cured but inspired to begin assisting Jung with his research, then to study and become an analyst herself. She played a primary role in the development of child psychology and her work and thought is known to have had a significant impact on those of both Jung and Freud. She published 30 papers in French and German, most notably on schizophrenia and, still only in her mid-twenties, was elected to the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society in 1911. Despite this, the name Sabina Spielrein has been surprisingly little-known until recently and her own outstanding achievements have frequently been overshadowed by a preoccupation with her love affair with Jung and Freud’s disapproval of their relationship. Even her groundbreaking work in child psychology has been wrongly attributed to others such as Anna Freud or Melanie Klein.

Not only did Sabina Spielrein excel in her field, she overcame massive obstacles as a woman working in a male profession and a Jewish woman during a period of extreme anti-Semitism. The latter culminated in her murder at the hands of a German SS squad, brutally cutting short a brilliant life and career. Errollyn Wallen says of her ‘I am in awe of Spielrein for the sheer power of her mind and for her extraordinary ability to think herself out of her own mental illness — and beyond the prejudice which faced her and women of her time.  I have lived with Sabina Spielrein’s story for several years now and am extremely lucky that David Pountney has written a powerful libretto which contains much of Spielrein’s own writing. Composing an opera based on a person who has actually lived presents emotional and artistic challenges . . .  However, telling the stories of our time — and the stories of the women of our time is one of my principal objectives as an artist.   I hope that anyone coming to the opera Sabina Spielrein will be as enlightened and moved by her story as David Pountney and I have been.’


Errollyn Wallen and Sabina Spielrein

Dubai – Rostov – New York: Scenes from Contemporary Opera runs 4 – 6 May and you can buy tickets here.


At the end of June, we present Jessica Walker’s portrayal of 1930s Paris cabaret sensation, Suzy Solidor in All I want is One Night.

Jessica describes Suzy as ‘conceivably the most famous woman you’ve never heard of’. Yet she was one of the most celebrated and wealthy entertainers of the 1930s, the toast of Paris, her image captured in 225 portraits by some of the 20th century greatest artists, including Tamara de Lempicka, Francis Bacon, Jean Cocteau and Man Ray. After coming across Suzy’s story in Robert Aldrich’s compendium, Gay Life Stories, Jessica was curious as to how this woman, once so successful, could sink into obscurity and she began to delve into her fascinating and ultimately sad story.

Born in Brittany at the turn of the last century, poor, uneducated and illegitimate, young Suzanne soon showed her mettle when, barely more than fourteen, she lied about her age in order to drive ambulances during the First World War. In her twenties, resourceful, determined and already skilled in using her wiles and beauty to get ahead, she took herself, penniless, to Paris where she soon found a lover and benefactor – rich antiquarian Yvonne de Bremond d’Ars – and established herself as a couture swimwear model. After discovering her singing voice and leaving Yvonne for a wealthy producer of luxury cars, she opened her own nightclub, in which she sang erotic lesbian songs surrounded by adoring audiences and her growing collection of portraits painted by artists who recognised the value of displaying their work in a club increasingly frequented by the great and the good. Suzy starred alongside Edith Piaf in Jean de Limur’s 1936 film La Garçonne and, two years before Dietrich, she recorded a French version of ‘Lily Marlène’. Her fame, however, could not protect her from being found guilty of collaboration with the German officers who enjoyed her club's hospitality and she was exiled from France, an experience from which she never quite recovered. On her return, she opened a new club on the Côte d’Azur but she was now middle-aged, the world no longer desired her or wanted to look at her as it once had. She stubbornly resisted making changes to an act that people no longer wanted to see. When audiences dwindled to nothing, she closed the club, opened an antique shop and took to dressing as an admiral until she died, aged 83, in comparative obscurity; wealthy, obese and, as Jessica strongly suspects, lonely.



Initially, Jessica was drawn to Suzy’s compelling alpha-female image. In a country where women would not even be granted the vote until 1945, here was a sexually potent woman, refusing to be labelled, unapologetic and proud of who she was. What’s more, hugely successful, including financially. Jessica describes her as ‘effortlessly gender fluid, shamelessly capitalist and seemingly without recourse to feelings of guilt when it came to her poly-amorous relationships. She had the most powerful sense of self and, unlike many lesbians presented in mainstream media today, she was far from cosy and un-threatening, she was dangerous.’ Yet, for all her emancipation and daring modernity, she allowed her life force to be inextricably linked to her desirability and this, combined with the vanity that prevented her from accepting her aging self, led to her downfall. Once her adoring public stopped gazing upon her with desire, she simply did not know what to do with herself. Jessica also believes this was what prompted her later reinvention as the admiral: ‘If she could not live with herself as a woman, she would become a man’.

It would be nice to believe that no woman, no performer, today could possibly face the same fate, the same pressure to hide herself away or resort to any other means to conceal the natural aging process. But how often do we read vicious media criticism of those who go to great lengths to defy the effects of age and, equally, of those who do not? Plus ça change . . .

All I Want is One night runs 27 June to 1 July and you can buy tickets here.


I
n July, we welcome back Poet in the City with Ladies of the Left Bank - a celebration of some of the greatest female modernist writers living and working in Paris between the wars.


‘I talk too much because I have been made so miserable by what you are keeping hushed.’  Djuna Barnes, Nightwood

At the turn of the 20th Century, the laissez-faire climate of Paris attracted the exiled American and European cultural community and Modernism as we know it was born.
 
Characterised by the way it ruptured conventional language structure, modernism made it possible to work with narratives that had previously been non-categorisable and non-linear. Suddenly, identities previously impossible to articulate could be recognised and developed. For Ladies of the Left Bank, Poet in the City have chosen to let the works of the women leading this movement to shine.

HD (Hilda Doolittle), Djuna Barnes, Gertrude Stein and Nancy Cunard were all indisputable influencers of the avant-garde scene. As Poet in the City programmer, Georgia Attlesey explains, 'they created a new liberal language for women to express themselves and, by doing so, extended the ambitions of the modernist movement. These radical women capitalised on this opportunity to establish a defiant new voice that spoke freely on sexuality, politics and society. Without them, the landscape of modernism would have looked very different, and it is essential that we recognise their legacy and that their words continue to echo through history.'


Clockwise from top left: HD; Nancy Cunard; Sandeep Parmar; Lisa Dwan

This event also brings two very special contemporary women to the Wilton’s stage: celebrated actor Lisa Dwan, renowned for her unique approach to Beckett will read the poetry; and acclaimed scholar and poet Sandeep Parmar will provide an overview of the Modernist movement and the poets themselves.

Incidentally, Suzy Solidor was not the only female of great note whizzing round France in an ambulance during the First World War. Gertrude Stein bought her own Ford van and, together with her life-long partner, Alice B Toklas, she also worked as an ambulance driver for the French. During her time in France, Gertrude served as both hostess and an inspiration to such American expatriates as Sherwood Anderson, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald and she is credited with coining the term ‘the Lost Generation’. Here's how fellow Modernist, Mina Loy, so succinctly and splendidly summed her up:

'Curie
of the laboratory
of vocabulary
she crushed
the tonnage
of consciousness
congealed to phrases
to extract
a radium of the word'

 So, we think Gertrude should have the last word here:

'There ain't no answer. There ain't gonna be any answer. There never has been an answer. That's the answer.'

Ladies of the Left Bank is on 5 July and you can buy tickets here.



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23Feb. 2017.

What it is to be Human



We all know the story of Frankenstein, don’t we? At least, we think we do, even though many of us have never actually read it. We’ve probably seen plenty of film adaptations and we can all conjure up the image of Boris Karloff lumbering around in an ill-fitting suit with bolts through his neck. Which is not a million miles from where writer Tristan Bernays and director Eleanor Rhode were coming from when they threw all that out of the window and each burrowed into Mary Shelley’s often rambling, sub-plot-ridden novel to unearth what really excited them about it.


They soon found that they were of the same mind, underlining the same passages - unsurprisingly, as they have collaborated closely and to Offie-Award-winning effect before, with Teddy at Southwark playhouse. Their strong connection and shared artistic vision have sparked an interpretation of Frankenstein like no other.

Stripped back to the bare bones in every way, this production allows audiences’ imaginations to go to work and builds atmosphere, layer upon layer.  We see a cast of only two, George Fletcher playing both Frankenstein and Creature, and Rowena Lennon in the role of Chorus, observing, highlighting and reflecting the characters’ thoughts and actions through sound and music. The world presented on-stage is barely dressed yet richly furnished by sound designer David Gregory, blending natural and electronic, music and ambient noise, to create an absorbing soundscape, made all the more magical by Lawrence T Doyle’s almost hypnotic lighting.



This is Creature’s world where, for Eleanor and Tristan, the beating and, ultimately, broken heart of the story lies. We see him as an innocent child, yet in a full-grown, monstrous body that he doesn’t understand how to use. He is struggling to develop and survive but without the love, protection and nurturing that a child needs. Eleanor was particularly fascinated by his schooling, courtesy of the blind man, in the works of Milton, Plutarch and Werther and the way that part of the story ‘really forces you to stop and think, of all the things that you’ve learnt over a course of a lifetime and how you take those things for granted’.

Movement Director, Tom Jackson Greaves, took George back to the very basics to examine the physicality of a child’s incremental control over muscles and cognition and development of awareness, movement, dexterity and language. The result is a unique interpretation and we’ll leave it for you to wonder how they handle the scene where both Creature and Frankenstein meet and to be captivated by what you see when they do.


George Fletcher in rehearsal

Mary Shelley was only 19 when she wrote the book. The story was concocted merely to amuse and impress Percy Shelley, Lord Byron and other guests during a stay near Lake Geneva when what she described as the ‘ungenial’ summer of 1816 confined them indoors to entertain each other with scary tales. She did not originally intend it to be a great novel but it grew into a story that is destined to resonate through time. As Tristan Bernays puts it, Frankenstein is about ‘the dangers of science, parental responsibility, Good and Evil, the question of what it actually is to be human. These are massive universal themes in a story that will always be relevant and will always speak to people'.

If only Mary Shelly could see this extraordinary re-imagining of her work  - what would she make of it?

Frankenstein runs 7th to 18th March and you can book tickets here.

Photography by Philip Tull


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31Jan. 2017.

Plays Without Décor


Calling all budding directors! 


If you are a young or emerging director in need of space and support to workshop some of your brilliant theatrical ideas, our Plays Without Décor programme may be just what you're looking for. As part of our Learning and Participation Programme, led by David Graham, Wilton’s is offering eight emerging directors the chance to use our new, purpose-built Aldgate and Allhallows Learning and Participation Studio for one week between June 2017 – September 2017.

This light, airy space can accommodate up to 40 people, including audience and company, and you will be able to use it entirely free for a week. During that week, you may choose to produce one reading, workshop or semi-staged performance and we will manage the Box Office if you choose to perform for a paying audience. You will also be entitled to up to two hours of mentoring from Wilton's staff in the field of producing, marketing, fundraising or working for and with young people.

We are delighted to be able to offer this exciting opportunity to new directors thanks to support from the Noel Coward Foundation www.noelcoward.org. The closing date for applications is Monday 27th March 2017.

To Apply simply download the info sheet and application form and send to info@wiltons.org.uk with 'Plays Without Decor' as the subject title.
Info sheet
Application form


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4Jan. 2017.

The incredible true story of Tarrare The Freak - Part Two



Following on from Part One, which told the story of the man himself, we take a look at the fascinating research and development process behind Wattle & Daub's The Depraved Appetite of Tarrare the Freak.



Wattle & Daub writer and puppeteer, Tobi Poster, claims he found Tarrare’s story down the back of the internet as he wandered, lost in Wikipedia. Understandably, his first thought was 'How come no-one has ever turned this into a puppet opera?'

Haunted by the idea that Tarrare died believing he’d been killed by the golden fork that Baron Percy failed to find during the autoposy, Tobi’s thoughts turned to writing a libretto. Armed with a notebook containing translated phrases from Percy’s original autopsy notes, and together with his acclaimed pianist-composer brother, Tom, he wrote the opera’s opening song. I think we can safely say this was probably the first time autopsy findings have been used for such a purpose.

That was in 2012 and, by the middle of that year, with funding from Arts Council England and Bristol Theatre, Tom, Tobi and W&D Artistic Director, Laura Purcell Gates, had developed the story with help from writer Hattie Naylor. Both the score and prototype puppets were taking shape as they geared up to to a 15-minute work in progress showing at Bristol Ferment, which won considerable praise from Exeunt Magazine:Somehow this company, with a devising period of three weeks, have created magic through the careful concoction of puppetry and opera’. 



 Since then, this musical interpretation of Tarrare's bizarre and tragic life, has been slowly and sensitively, ahem, fleshed out to become the full scale 'monstrous chamber opera for puppets' that will be staged here at Wilton's. Along the way, they were joined by new members of the creative team, including Director Sita Calvert Ennals and puppeteer performer and maker Aya Nakamura.

Wattle & Daub fervently believe that puppets and objects have their own meanings and stories embedded within them, to be discovered and drawn out. This was at the heart of their devising sessions in which they allowed the puppets themselves to lead the creative process – and were often surprised by where that took them; for instance the realisation that, despite his entire life being governed by his insatiable appetite, poor Tarrare took no pleasure at all in eating. Other explorations included analysing movement in musical theatre performances, which revealed the importance of physical levels of tension, particularly in the sternum, during singing. This was one lesson which, with all due respect and despite their love for that motley puppet troupe, helped them to avoid what they describe as 'Muppet-style singing'. You can watch the team experimenting with some early ideas here.

Historical accounts have described Tarrare as both kind and decent as well as monstrous and freakish. Striking a balance between the two was one of the key issues Tobi and Laura wrestled with during the early stages of the story development with Hattie. As Tobi explains, 'So many of the details of his life are so grotesque - swallowing live cats, smuggling military documents in his stomach, eating amputated limbs, that it can be easy to simply revel in the monstrosity of it all'. They were, however, always clear on one crucial thing: 'We were telling the story of an actual human being and we felt a responsibility to do justice to that humanity. The big challenge is how to retain the essential humanity and genuine tragedy at the heart of the story. Yet it's a story about a freak show, so that tension runs through the whole show. For us, the most interesting route was to portray his humanity without shying away from the unpalatable elements - to make him relatable by sanitising his behaviour would have felt like the most significant betrayal of all'.



 As well as exploring the furthest reaches of humanity, the research and development process involved a crash course in the histories of medicine, pathology and disability. A Wellcome Trust Small Arts Award opened the door to inspirational and illuminating collaborations with a team of senior academics and experts in pathology, disability and medical phenomenology and humanities. There were also visits to fascinating (if occasionally gruesome) museums, including a trip to the Old Operating Theatre with Dr Alan Bates, who described to Laura and Tobi the sheer physical strength and force necessary to carry out an autopsy.

The complete work was premiered as part of the Bristol Old Vic Ferment Programme in September 2015 and, as an accompaniment to the show, W&D created a public engagement event titled Performing the Freak: A Dialogue between Science and the Arts about Monstrosity, in which they were joined onstage by some of their collaborators and other speakers to discuss the issues around medicine and monstrosity that have informed the show.

The Depraved Appetite of Tarrare the Freak
 runs 30th January to 18th February and you can book tickets here. Incidentally, this is probably your only chance to see an opera featuring a song entitled Gullet, so you’d be a fool to yourself if you missed it.

You can read Wattle & Daub's own R&D blog in full here.


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