Stuff I watch & read – ongoing

Notes around what I experience and what these things make me think of. Absolutely not reviews. Set out with the most recent first.

JULY 2016

How To Win Against History


Shangri-La. On the hottest day of the year so far. Interested in how many storylines is too much. Using multiplicity to make a point. On writers being bold and putting their work out there before it’s perfect. It’s never going to be perfect, especially if it’s a play. Perhaps is it’s a poem you have the best chance of making a perfect piece of art. Also, who is allowed to play who?

JUNE 2016

James and the Giant Peach. I’m interested in what and how children learn about the world. What’s moral? Dangerous? Who can they turn to or rely on and the role of parents. Gender positioning. I also thought, looking at a peach, I can almost smell it. Would I get tired of the scent of peach if I had to sleep on one every day? Sense memory is a funny thing.

You Bring The Agony, I’ll Bring The Aunt – of course I loved this. Loved the mix in the audience and the interaction. I’m looking forward to how it’ll develop.

The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk – what makes something theatre? How little we need to do to tell a story, to share. What makes something magical or important?

Minefield, Royal Court. One of the most immense things I’ve ever seen. What courage. What real risk and danger. What a project.

Giving, Hampstead Downstairs, by Hannah Patterson. Haven’t seen such a well produced play in ages. Incredibly well performed, phrased, delivered – sigh. Not seen this topic on screen or on stage, and thoroughly enjoyed my evening out. It made me think of this – actors need to keep acting over and over again, in different spaces, with material and language that stretches them, in order to get really good. This show wasn’t experimental or claiming to be pushing any theatre boundaries but my gosh, when something apparently simple is done well, it’s pure pleasure. Not many actors get the opportunity to practice.

MAY 2016

Human Animals, Royal Court. The Q&A was really worth attending. Playwright Stef Smith spoke brilliantly about labels people attach to her – female, Scottish, queer – and what this means. Louise Stephens was great as Chair. I was pleased to be able to watch actors do their thing, and to think about acting style  – what works, what doesn’t. It was great to see queerness on stage without it being a play about it. It made me think about long term creative collaborations and how the cumulative effect is richer than anything we imagine.

Boy, Almeida. It mad me think of class and the white underclass and poverty porn. I wonder if it is important for some people to see human beings who clean toilets and sick off the street. I wonder what medium is best for these “lesson” and who has the responsibility or right to do this teaching. I don’t know what I think of the main character being white but then would I just see blackness if he was black and in the same scenarios? It surely is a different story.

The Preston Bill, BAC. I had worked with Andy on an R&D for a new piece grown out of Brecht’s The Measures Taken. The evening was a wonderful reunion with Sam Pritchard, Angela Clerkin and Andy. I had not seen his work before and watching it, I saw others who reference him, and I was reminded of the beauty of the solo performer-storyteller leading us through something they love. It was surprisingly moving. I love how tightly structured this was. Structure gets such a bad rep. I love technique and architecture, the creation of space to dream in. I think of all the actors who struggle so much with their relationship to the audience and am reminded that the best actors are the ones who don’t. I LOVE pauses. I LOVE well judged space. A show that doesn’t trust itself to give us dreaming space is a poor one.

Stone Face, Finborough. STUNNING performance from Ellie Turner. Liz Jadav very acccomplised and lovely to watch. So, so lovely to see a an actor of colour on stage not in a race specific role. I cannot tell you how much this means to me. And Liz was perfectly cast.

Nude, Hope Theatre. Yes, I did spend much of this considering youth and where I am now. How could you not? Well done. Lovely grounded, natural, brave, easy performances from young people. I was suitably conflicted by musings on love and death and fate.

Cooked, Bread and Roses. Reminded me of Peter Morris’ Marge but not. I left pleased. This is uncommon.

APRIL 2016

In general, and after the last two shows, I’m reminded of one of the fundamental differences I see between making film and theatre. With theatre, because so much more is asked of the audience (and of the cast and crew and creative team) in terms of creating that suspension of disbelief, each moment is potent like poetry is potent – what does it mean, why was it created, why is it here, what is the maker trying to tell me right now. If something is puzzling or uncomfortable, all the more reason to ask, why are they making me feel weird? So simplistically, if there is a tree in the window on stage, it is more likely to mean something because it probably cost (not merely financially) more to have it there.

The Flick. I was very aware of what people laughed at. Some folk near me seemed to be navigating the show joke to joke (I am making an assumption, I do not know for sure what they were thinking) which is a shame, because there is a lot of great stuff between the laughs. I noticed when I laughed and others didn’t. I was reminded of Bojack Horseman (watch this animated series on Netflix. It’s great.) and the question of redemption. No spoiler, but the ending didn’t sit well with me due to this issue. Having done some comedy improv and more Gaulier recently, I have been thinking about individual rhythm and how each actor/person has their own, specific rhythm. Discovering this and using it in performance, without being subsumed by those around you and without interfering with the shape of the piece or the performance of your colleagues, is a tough task but well worth exploring. As a side note, I wonder why I find American chatacters so fascinating. Is it to do with the fact that american film and TV is such a strong force in  world culture?

Sugar Coated Bullets, Arcola. This got me thinking about the Chinese language and how I don’t know much about it. I wonder if, to Chinese speakers, the meaning of names is evoked each time a name is used. For example, my name is Vera and English speakers (or Russian or Italian) don’t call me “Truth” or “Veritas” i.e. the meaning of my name, and I doubt that they think about the meaning behind the sound of “Vera”. So for example, if a Chinese names means “Lotus Blossom” but the actual sound of the name is (and I am making this up) “Li Mei”, is it weird or not weird to have characters in an English language play set in China call each other by the meanings of their names, nick names like Horse Face excluded (or are they?). This use of names is similar or the same in movies where Native American characters feature, but then, I think (?) I have heard Native Americans refer to themselves as, Running Horse, if, for example, their name was that. I’m interested in the use of names (and labels) and the instances in real life when we use someone’s name to address them. It’s not as frequent as we see in plays. I was also thinking about Malaysian publisher Buku Fixi. They refuse to italicise Malaysian or any words from South East Asian countries which occur in their English language books. The reason behind this is because this is how languages work and co-exist in the region. They acknowledge the various English languages there are in the world. I love this. So in this play, characters sometimes quoted, in Mandarin, a saying, and then repeated it in English as a translation to the audience. This made me feel highly uncomfortable.

I was also thinking about mixed raceness and that skit which includes (new Star Wars lead, Asian American funny lady) Kelly Marie Tran, “Are You Asian Enough?”. When I was growing up in Malaysia (I don’t know if it the case now), mixed race white and Malay was the “best” combination so you would see Western looking asians in TV commercials because they represented the best of both worlds. White beauty and sophisticated Westernness was being sold to aspirational Asians. Also, given that the eyes are meant to be the windows to the soul, I have always wondered about “slanty eyed yellow folk” in the acting business, me being one of them, and how we get on. I know one Director of Photography who loves the large, expressive eyes of a (extremely beautiful) Japanese actress. All three of us were working on the same film and when he gushed on about her eyes, I really felt less valuable as an actor. I also recall the difficulty of actors of mixed heritage who have told me that in the eyes of the gatekeepers, they are not Chinese or not white enough to play XYZ roles. One actor I know pretty much told the director that he wasn’t Chinese enough for a role. Here’s a question: I inwo many mixed race white and Chinese actors. Some look more Chinese and some look more white. It’s worth noting that someone of 50% Chinese genes may look way more white than someone of quarter or and eighth of that ethnicity or not of that ethnicity at all. Who then do we cast in Chinese or yellow plays? It’s never as simple as the best person for the job, I’m aftaid. Often people don’t even get to audition  because they don’t look like what we think of as a yellow person. And sometimes yellow Asians play each other e.g. Korean, Thai, Vietnamese, Filipino, Chinese.

Interestingly, and not in a boo hoo way, I was told last week by an agent that I didn’t present/I didn’t look very Chinese. I’m 100% ethnically Chinese, in case you’re wondering. So we return to semiotics. What do we want to see on stage especially in terms of challenging or reinforcing our world view. Why do we make and what tools and who do we use to make our point? Some shows, and this is not at all a criticism but an observation of style and form, use actors as puppets. A response to the American production of The Orphan of Zhao talked about playing ethnic drag – the Asians on stage, despite being Asian, had to perform their ethnicity and the production underlined their Otherness. Performing ethnic drag is something I’m concerned about.

Finally, I’m wondering about how we use regional British accents both in British plays and in plays set abroad. What does a regional accent signify? In advertising, certain accents are more trustworthy and used to sell. Others are used for comic effect, playing on the stereotype of countryside simpleton. I’m not sure I’m comfortable with this in the same way a Chinese accent is often used as a quick way to make something comic. I’m wary of using an accent as the primary method to convey character eg hardened Scottish man, cheerful Irish person, ignorant (I can’t even). What happens when we want to translate the experience of being in a foreign countryside in an English language play in the UK? What devices are available to us to convey a non-urban setting?
In A Bar In A Tokyo Hotel by Tenessee Williams. Went to see lovely Andrew Koji. Made me think how much skill and wisdom and understanding is required to direct. Directors need to work out the special people they want to create with, then use them well. The written speech patterns were so specific and stylised. I would have loved to have workshopped this device. The end speech reminded me of the Rattigan, All On Her Own – lone seeming strident and strong rich articulate old woman suddenly widowed suddenly lost and realising how much they love their husband. Written by men.
The House of In Between, Stratford East. Lovely theatre, love how diverse staff and audience are in terms of ages and class and race, and how the bar is active with people not watching theatre. It’s a live building. Show about hijra, men in India who are castrated and live as women. Thinking that any criticism about I it being melodramatic or soapy might have something to do with culture. My Asian self didn’t find the story far fetched or the characters over emotional. Reminded me of when people found Korean play at the Court cold. Is it because they didn’t identify with the struggle? It was SO emotional in the right way. Back to this show, I am so glad I caught it. Thank you Ashraf Ejjbair. Also Esh Alladi.

To The Bone, by The Tell. A new piece about ageing.Really love seeing Gary Merry on stage. Thought about stage craft. Enjoyed Beryl King and Annie Firbank – ladies in their 80s performing and talking about ageing and death.
X at The Royal Court. So lovely to be with friends Iskandar and Ellen who think so beautifully, openly and intelligently about the world and theatre. Thinking about selfishness and self-interest. Of destruction and children. Inheritance and legacy.

Another World: Losing Our Children to Islamic State, Temporary Theatre, The National. Some lovely performances in this show – Penny Layden and Sirine Saba in particular. Ronak Patani, Zara Azam and Farshid Rokey are great. Made me think of white men in power and women  who fight hard. Of gender tropes.

Welcome Home, Captain Fox, Donmar. Delighted to see Daniel York open the play and smash the first laugh.

Stdad, by John Luke Roberts. Made me think of trigger warnings. Really loved the dude who was roped in to help. Was thinking about this show – about his dead dad – for a while.

Adam Riches’ Coach Coach, Soho Theatre – surprise hit in Chok’s books. The love show tonight was so good. Very simple US high school sports movie premise. The familiarity of the form & narrative was a great structure within which little lovely games and weirdness could happen. The actors seemed happy to have and give in to fun on stage and that was joyous to be a part of.  It felt fresh, so easy, unpushed, unpretentious, and uncynical. Just what I needed.

MARCH 2016

Made Visible, by Deborah Pearson at The Yard. Last year I attended the work in progress showing and really loved it. Loved the liveness of it, love witnessing the way the actors were reacting to the content they had made, and their thorny relationship to it.Loved the ideas explored and the feelings and insecurities laid bare for us to identify with and learn from. I am so glad that this piece was made, and that a new set of actors experienced the difficulty of this kind of theatre and text, and that I got to see it with friends who had also seen the WIP. While I missed rather a lot of what made the WIP special e.g. the revelation that one of the actors wasn’t in fact, Indian at all, a new, key idea popped out at me. I paraphrase: Because white people have trouble policing their imagination, black men are dying. The idea of policing imagination is a strong one.

Oh No! by Jamie Wood at Soho Theatre – I am watching a whole set of comedy type solo shows with a pal from Gaulier, having just done a top of classes. I know and like Jamie and he’s very watchable which is no mean feat. The difference between persona on and off stage unsettles me, especially in solo performers. This is not a criticism but an observation.  I don’t know Miranda July but I am unsettled by her. There’s something Gaulier tries to lead us to I think and that’s to discover and open up to our true selves. I am inching towards this a little bit blindly. It also made me think of performers getting the audience to do things and make the show, essentially. I am thinking of Ross Sutherland’s show I saw in Edinburgh a few years ago, and Miss Behave’s Game Show (I love this. She is a revolutionary activist.)

Evening at the Talkhouse, by Wallace Shawn, Dorfman Theatre, National – this was surprisingly literal and so it didn’t quite work for me. Shawn is one of my favourite writers EVER and I do think he’s one of the more important writers in theatrical history and it was a joy to spot his scrunched up smiling face in the cafe afterwards. I wonder if his writing is taking a turn, or if it wasn’t handled in the right way. There was some acting stuff going on I wasn’t sure about. It makes me think of the way in which theatre is made. I do not think that, with certain and many pieces, it’s a good idea to rehearse a bunch of guns for hire actors to come together and make a show with complex ideas. Shawn, like Enda Walsh, writes in a specific way. 4 to 6 weeks of rehearsing, where the universe of the design is already decided before the players are in the space that they will change and make their own. Christ. Come on.

Improv show by some of the students at Gaulier, Etampes – lovely little theatte set up by former/older gentleman comedy star of screen in France. How wonderful, to provide this space to a small town. The format was easy enough – audience shouts to vote. Reminds me of Anti-Slam but I reckon audiences are often too polite and I am often in danger of sounding like a bellowing cow. Given that I didn’t know anyone in the room associated with the show (it was my second day at school and felt super awkward) I didn’t bellow. This wasn’t Gaulier style work at all, so I felt a conflict in me to watch it because this kind of comedy takes a lot of its own kind of work and practice to get really good. The thing is of course this was part of the process. It did inspire me to try improv. I wonder if I will.

FEB 2016

Bed, by Sheila Callaghan, at Echo Theatre, LA – interested in the manic princess trope and how it makes me feel in 2016. Great to see some theatre at this gorgeous venue, which is part of a lovely group of three/four theatres in one building. It’s a lie that LA contains no real theatre scene. The fact that people keep making independent theatre there is wonderful and a testimony to how much they care.

UCB (Upright Citizens Brigade), LA – great to see some improv at this important school. Two teams, one young and one of older people and comedy writers. The distinction between rhythm and certainty and the quality of laughter elicited was real. I’m interested in different qualities of laughter, the range: superficial herd tittering from an obvious joke, nervous barks, pained I shouldn’t be laughing but this situation is me and I have to laugh to get through it, light, joyous, sparkling, soaring laughter etc.


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