Sanmeet Kaur on 'Get Up Stand Up Now': Somerset House
A vibrant and vital celebration of Black British creativity
“Britain was cold and foggy. And some people were friendly and some were very rude. But they never stopped me from doing what I wanted.” This is how Horace Ove, Britain’s first Black feature film director, reflected on his work in 2005. And it is this sentiment that dominates Somerset House’s dazzling new exhibition; Get Up Stand Up Now, celebrating the impact and influence of 50 years of Black creativity in Britain and beyond. Curated by artist Zac Ove it captures the legacy of his father Horace Ove, whilst at the same time urging the audience to reassess what Black British was, is and will go on to be.
Focusing on five central themes of the Motherland, Dream to change the world, Masquerade, Imaginary landscapes and Mothership, the exhibition takes us on a journey, connecting us across time and place. Motherland marks the arrival of Black British people from the British Empire and Commonwealth, with Barbara Walker’s drawing The Big Secret inviting us to see the erasure of Black soldiers in the First World War. The strength of this exhibition lies in the fact that it brings the historical into our contemporary lives and demands us to confront the contradictions of British History; how it relied on the labour of the Windrush generation but now outwardly rejects their rightful claim as British citizens. The work of Horace Ove dotted throughout the exhibition, speaks volumes for itself about just how trailblazing it was at the time and indeed continues to be. Excerpts from Ove’s 1976 film Pressure tells us of the stories of British-born black youths whilst his earlier 1969 documentary Baldwin’s Nigger speaks of how interconnected the Black experience was across the US and UK and continues to be. The exhibition does not water down the radical nature of Ove’s work, showing clips of both these films and celebrating just how much they were rooted in Black Power.
Perhaps one drawback in Zac Ove’s attempt to capture the diversity and huge wealth of work within this exhibition is that at times, it’s a bit too much. The containment of so many powerful pieces in such a small space does not allow much room to connect emotionally with the pieces. Instead your eyes dart from one thing to the next, almost overwhelmed by everything around you. However what breaks up this exhibition well, is the accessibility - from film, audio, paintings to sculpture it has something for everyone
In the words of Ambalavaner Sivanandan ‘the personal is not political, the political is personal’ and Get Up Stand Up Now aptly captures how the lives of black British people have always been about resistance. Resisting the power structures that continue to oppress Black Britons. It connects the old to the new; inviting a new generation to recognise the work of those before them. In Masquerade, we see the history of the carnival - ‘the greatest road show in Europe’ but are compelled to question what it says beyond the fact that it’s a great party. Everything, it seems must have a statement - although we celebrate, we cannot forget the context in which all these celebrations occur.
This exhibition is a call to arms; it’s a dream to change the world and calls on us as the bystander to do that.
Minna Jeffery on Until the Lions (the Roundhouse)
There are two things worth noting before I embark on this review. Firstly, I am not really a ‘dance person’. I have no talent for or training in dance, and I rarely see dance performances. What I mean is, I don’t know how to read it – or at least I tell myself I don’t. In some ways I’m an easy audience member, impressed by contortions, stamina, skill, and so on, but I also worry that I’ll get bored, find it hard to follow and unpick, feel there must be things that I’m missing. Secondly, I have to confess to having read none of the Mahabharata or indeed Khartika Naïr’s reimagining of it (on which Until The Lions is mostly based). I’ve seen bits of the film of the Peter Brook adaptation, and knew vaguely that this show was going to focus on a story about a princess called Amba, who gets abducted, but that’s about it.
Unsurprisingly then, in all honesty, I was confused. I’d be lying if I said I’d followed much of the plot at all. Whose head was that, speared on a stick and looming over the action? Who was that prowling androgynous warrior type? So, my advice? Do at least a spot of research beforehand, even a skim through the handy synopsis in the programme would make a lot of difference. However, with all of that said, I had a great time. I was moved, awed, engaged. I quickly came to comfortable terms with the fact that I wasn’t going to pick up the narrative and follow exactly what was going on. It is a testament to the work and the performers and creatives behind it that despite this I was never in any doubt as to the tone or the emotion of every passing moment. From desperate tenderness, to rage, to anguish, to triumph, everything is there for you to take in.
Having now read the synopsis, I can summarise briefly: princess Amba (Ching-Ying Chien), is kidnapped before her wedding by Bheeshma (Akram Khan), who has made a vow of celibacy, who then rejects her on learning that she is in love with another and refuses her. She commits suicide, and is reborn as Shikhandi (Joy Alpuerto Ritter), a gender-shifting warrior who avenges Amba by killing Bheeshma. On the one hand, a retrospective read-through of the synopsis does give me the smallest twinge of regret that the narrative wasn’t a little clearer, since it’s such a good one. On the other, it reassures me that every feeling and moment was undeniably there in the dancing.
Joy Alpuerto Ritter is all animalistic crawling and menace as Shikhandi, and Khan is steely and unforgiving as Bheeshma. The standout performance, however, is Ching-Ying Chien as Amba. I can’t stop thinking about her hair, a true force in itself, thrashing and draping and swinging from move to move. The duet between Amba and Bheeshma as she tries to embrace him is heart-breaking, with her ache for tenderness and his unbridled contempt. Attempts to be close are twisted into uncomfortable contortions, and he never quite lets her touch him. Chien’s solo is also remarkable, and the precision of movement is incredible throughout.
The team behind the show are all on top form. Time Yip’s elegant and pared back tree-trunk design leaves space for symbolism and the movement itself, and is perfectly complemented by Michael Hulls’ beautiful lighting. Vincenzo Lamagni’s music does a huge amount to build the atmosphere for the show, and Sohini Alam’s haunting vocals are especially noteworthy. It’s a show rich in symbolism, with a motif of circularity. The physically circular space and stage, lots of running circling of the stage, the fact that the story begins at the end, Khan whirling round on the spot.
The ending is sheer cathartic spectacle. A fractured earth and showers of arrows. All soaring music and blazing light. The show is both epic and intimate. A relatively small number of performers in a relatively sparse and concentrated playing space, with epic subject matter and an arena audience. If you’re looking for clear narrative and don’t want to read the synopsis beforehand, chances are you will struggle a bit. I could also have done without the bits of text that were used, but that’s a small quibble. This is a show that hands space and agency over to the lions, and fierce they are indeed, bursting at the seams with female rage and bubbling tension.
Gus Mitchell on Until the Lions (the Roundhouse)
Until The Lions is a piece of inclusivity and wholeness, perfectly befitting a show made to be seen in the round. With only three dancers, Chin-Ying Chien, Joy Alpuerto Ritter and choreographer Akram Khan, we a plunged into a world of mysterious, desperate, violent impulses, performers alternately exchanging taut ferocity for gracefulness of the titular lions or the scuttling of insects.
Working with the writer Karthika Naïr, whose book Until the Lions: Echoes from the Mahabharata, drew upon the obscured and passed-over female narratives embedded within the ancient Indian epic Mahabharata, Khan and the company chiselled one of the Episodes from the epic into new prominence for Until The Lions. The princess Amba is abducted by the prince Bheeshma, who intends her as a bridge for his brother; on discovering that Amba loves her betrothed her releases her, but her betrothed now rejects her. A distraught Amba demands that Bheeshma rescue her honour by marrying her, which, given his vow of celibacy he refuses to do. Cue a bloody conclusion, involving reincarnation and death upon a bed of arrows.
The variety of mood, from epic and mythlike to personal and sensual is beautifully, seamlessly supported by the alternately tranquil and jarring score. The only words audible throughout the entire piece (at least to me) are whispered and looped renderings of the words ‘In the beginning is the end, in the end is the beginning.’ These emerge often during the more abrasive and electronic lulls in the action, the performers slowing down as though to allow the music to express their own exhaustion and torment in a moment of internal understanding and calm.
The music itself is astonishingly live: so much so that I didn’t even notice until what I suppose was the midway point that their mouths were moving, that singing was in fact emanating all around the dancers. It took a good few minutes to adjust to who would be dancing and who only playing, since the musicians take such a fearlessly inclusive role in summoning the experience. The four live musicians create a rhythmic power and vocal beauty that interweaves beautifully with Vincenzo Lamagna’s live score.
Sitting down totally cold in terms of knowing the story, characters or anything else about the Mahabharata (apart from seeing another Episode brought to life by Peter Brook at the Young Vic a couple of years ago) I felt thrust into a strange and alien world, illuminated again and again by shafts of familiar light, then plunged again into uncertainty. Khan’s images have remained in my head and now make their own kind of sense: a literal creation of Shakespeare’s ‘beast-with-two-backs’ image of sex, with Chien and Khan’s limbs twisting around one another like an impossibly well-trained Praying Mantis. At another, the soundtrack explodes, endless spears clatter onto the stage and the lights seem both to burn and wash out at the same time. Chien’s ecstatic, youthful early bridal dance is supplanted with Khan’s violent seizing and carrying of her over his shoulder, his running circles of the stage still beautifully graceful.
These moments all illuminate a story which you can get lost in and out of, but which ultimately makes you feel uplifted in a way that truly lives up to that disgustingly overburdened and overloaded term now: epic. Not because it overwhelms you with its grandeur, but because you can glimpse and wonder at the human beings in the middle of it all.
Bellaray Bertrand-Webb on Until the Lions (the Roundhouse)
I sat in the dark with a note book in my hand, ready to take notes, with the absent-minded confidence that I knew how to write about dance. Before the dance began, I dabbled with my own internal dialogue, trying to figure out how I was going to take notes, or even have an opinion in what I was about to watch. Externally, the conversation of Teresa May’s Brexit Bill was writhe, the bill was being voted on that evening and by the end of the dance, the decision would be made. Was Corbyn the only way out of this chaos? And so, I entered into the unknown, mentally, physically, emotionally and politically.
Lights down, Dancer walks onto the bare circular mound in the middle of the dry moat like stage, a black head stuck on a stick subtly towering over the stage. What follows is a succession of unbelievable flexibility and durability. What really made my bones bend was one of the dancers’ dead legs, the dancer crawled in a bug like speed across the floor, dragging her legs behind her stiff arched body. There was something so unnatural happening to something so natural like the human body. Another finger tickling, bones bending moment was when the two ‘lovers’ made love and their bodies became one, literally. Their backs almost morphed into each other, which made their love so all encompassing, unique and relatable. I sat there in awe of what I was seeing. But as you might be able to tell, my vocabulary in this field is limited, I felt so much during the piece with only a few words as my translator. It seems almost wrong to single out solitary words to describe something so lyrical, binding and visceral.
I clung onto my note book contemplating whether I should open it, get to the program and read what was going on, to have the arch of the story, and the characters spelt out to me. I thought I knew the story? It was an adaptation of Karthika Naïr’s book Until the Lions: Echoes from the Mahabharata , the princess Arba is abducted on her wedding day and then seeks revenge from the Gods. Simple right? But no, the moment I got lost in the movement, I was lost in the story and consequently, went into my own story by interpreting what was happening, inventing the narrative. And then I would come back to reality to berate myself for not reading the program.
It wasn’t until I went to the Q and A with Akram Khan that I felt I could talk about the piece and not be shamed for not understanding what I saw. Khan described the difference between Western and Eastern critics, Western and Eastern literature. Western critics, he said needed to be ‘spoon fed’, they needed to know what was happening and why, an effect of western literature, where there always has to be a clear good and bad character, right and wrong. A clear-cut way to do, have to do and have to be, moralistic frame work. Whereas the Eastern critics, respected the ambiguity, they didn’t need to know everything that was happening, they only needed a feeling for it to be real to them. This is the effect of the ambiguity of Eastern literature, where they explore, Khan says ‘the good within the bad, the bad within the good’ the inability to know who is right and wrong because it is all mixed up. Nothing really makes sense. Khan continues to explain that life is uncertain, unclear, we are kind and cruel to each other every day as we all move into the abyss and make what we can of our existence. Therefore, I had a choice, I didn’t need to be thinking the same as the person next to me, not one of us was right and this was a beautiful realisation. Our bodies speak for themselves, no one can claim to be the one narrator of another’s body, or story.
For me the story was about inner strength, my interpretation was that Ching-Ying Chien was the princess Arba. She was elegant, romantic and wistful and Joy Alpuerto Ritter was her inner warrior. Ritter was always there within Arba from the beginning, battling with her mind as to whether to commit to marriage and the expectations of a woman. But when Arba is abducted and comes back for revenge, the warrior grows stronger and is no longer in the shadows but the forefront of Arbas being. She gives her the strength, courage, flame and passion to avenge and to be the victor of her life. The dancing never became masculine, it was never as though Arbas inner warrior was the embodiment of her inner male but rather something that transcends gender. She is strong because she is strong, not because she has become manlier and more aggressive, which is a common misogynistic stereotype and archaic interpretation but rather, she has found a power and it is her own. This beautifully echoes the title, ‘Until The Lions’ and like the general atmosphere of the dance, harrowingly completes the proverb, ‘Until The Lions, The Hunter Will be Glorified’. Khan, has visually portrayed the story from the hunted lions perspective, the female perspective. Though a man himself, he has successfully given the lioness a platform and stage to be glorified and to not be the weak damned maiden. The man is not the victor, the hunter is not glorified. The story has been rewritten. I just hope next time, the choreographer is a woman to fully complete the reversion.
So, I left not thinking I mastered the story but still as confused as I went in. I felt sad and I didn’t know why, I felt empowered and I didn’t know why, I felt lost and I didn’t know why. But I knew that that was okay and that made the experience so special, I was moved, confused and infused.
Teresa May’s Bill was rejected, bring it on Brexit. Bring it on.
Minna Jeffery on An Adventure (Bush Theatre).
Clocking in at over three hours, spanning three continents (India, Africa and Europe) over sixty years, An Adventure is a mammoth work. It feels almost cinematic in its scope. Indeed, cinema is a recurring motif in the play, and the traverse stage is literally framed by two large screens (although, admittedly, beyond helpfully displaying the dates before each act, it is not entirely clear what function these screens were serving). Madani Younis’ production is relatively sparse, with the main set piece being a large podium on which the story plays out, which is gold at the start of the play and is covered alternately by earth and carpet as the couple move from India to Kenya to London. The mood is mostly set by clever lighting design (Sally Ferguson), and mostly what Younis has done is direct an elegant and clear production that generously serves Patel’s writing and the actors.
The play begins with fourteen-year-old Jyoti choosing a husband from a selection of five suitors. It is an immediately engaging scene, full of warmth and wit, introducing us to two lively and endearing characters. The acting is full of life. The fact of having a South Asian woman portrayed not as submissive, rather as loud, opinionated, clever and funny, is depressingly revolutionary. Anjana Vasan’s Jyoti is a delight to witness. Martins Imhangbe as David is truly impressive. His monologue in the third act is one of the most chilling and memorable moments in the play. It serves as a stark reminder of the violent physical realities of the worlds these characters lived in.
Patel has said that the inspiration behind An Adventure is his own grandparents’ story. They, like Jyoti and Rasik, travelled from India to Kenya to Britain. This fact ties in with the idea of the play being one about the stories we tell about ourselves and the stories others tell about us. It is impossible to fit a lifetime into one three hour play. Anything we think we know about a person and their life is only one version of an impossibly complex and detailed reality. Jyoti’s idea of herself and what her life has been is different to Rasik’s, her niece’s, David’s, and ours. The third act took me by surprise, and to be honest I initially felt some disappointment at the absence of a straightforward happy and satisfying ending. It is somehow unsettling and dissatisfying, bitter and bleak, but ultimately it reminds us of how impossible it is to fully know and understand other people’s lives. The fact that Anjana Vasan and Shubham Saraf have been replaced by Nila Aalia and Selva Rasalingam, playing older versions of Jyoti and Rasik, feels somewhat jarring at first, but ultimately smartly reinforces this.
Despite the ending not being necessarily ‘happy’, it is not without warmth. The final moment of the play returns to an earlier scene, where Rasik and Jyoti swim in the sea. Both the older and younger couples weave between each other in tender, stylised movement. An Adventure is a generous play, full of warmth and humour, moving and unsentimental. It puts lives, narratives and characters rarely seen on British stages in the spotlight in an ambitious and engaging production.
Rose Griffiths on Barber Shop Chronicles (National Theatre)
A ticket to the Barber Shop Chronicles is worth it alone for the pre-show atmosphere. Audience members are invited, at random, to interact with the onstage barber shop that facilitates for imitation haircuts, exuberant musical beats, and even the odd bit of dad dancing. This exhilarating environment serves to eliminate all pretension from the Dorfman Theatre, whilst establishing the communicative relationship between cast and audience that unfolds throughout the play.
The play, written by Inua Ellams, concerns itself with the events that take place in six different barber shop locations (Lagos, Johannesburg, Harare, Accra, Kampala, and South London) over 24 hours. Central tensions include a Chelsea vs Barcelona match, and the father son relationship – both used to discuss the complexities of tradition and racism.
Whilst significant progress has been made in regards to eliminating the stigma surrounding mental health, Ellams is able to re-evaluate this through the lens of black men. Both humour and sorrow illustrate that racism, the colonial past, fear of emasculation, and prejudice within the media all contribute to individual mental health for this societal group. Naturally, Ellams uses the barber shop - closely associated to the lives of black men – to explore this impassioned cry. Discussion of Nelson Mandela and Robert Mugabe – both divisive African leaders – provides the production with strong political charge that currently aligns with front page news. (Obvious script changes have taken place to accommodate for the downfall of Mugabe and his leadership – much to the approval of the audience).
Scene changes are effortlessly executed, through the use of both traditional and contemporary music and dance – which also showcase impressive group harmonies. A wire globe hangs above the centre of the stage, emphasising the similarities and differences in regional discussion of mental health. Men who seek to achieve an illusion of heroism and courage are contrasted with men who feel unsure of their belonging in the world, and a subsequent understanding of the self. Performances are strong throughout the whole cast – who portray complex, and wholly different, identities.
There is something hugely cathartic about the nature of hair-cutting. Ellams taps into this. The barber shop is glorified as a place where men have traditionally come to discuss personal life and the external world. Baffour Ababio notes that Barber Shop Chronicles is a celebration of the barber shop as a ‘place of refuge’. He is correct, but this is also a persuasive plea for greater collaboration between mental health organisations and barber shops – clearly one way in which Ellams believes mental health discussion among black men can positively progress. This euphoric production is a life enriching must-see.
Nina Cassells on The Little C (Complicite)
The Little C. Cancer. A word that holds more gravity than most and is an unlikely subject for a musical. However, director Bryony Kimmings broke the mould and told the tales of cancer patients who felt the media had misrepresented the demographic they were a part of. A Pacifist's Guide to the War on Cancer was performed in 2016 at the National Theatre, and now, a sister product has come to life - The Little C. In the intimate setting of the Complicite offices, an array of families, friends, and fans of the company's work, gather to watch the screening of the film.
The film presents a snapshot of the research and rehearsals of A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer, along with an insight to the ideas that went behind the production. I felt that the film not only educated its audience, but also excited us with an even mix of musical numbers and interviews. It was heart-warming and opinionated, which is something a lot of films hide from when talking about illnesses. Having included interviews with people who had suffered from cancer, the film gave them a voice in which they could speak their truth, without the need to sugar coat or dilute their experience. The rawness of these interviews only added to the beauty of the film. Not only did it enlighten us on the rarer types of cancer, but it completely dismantled the typical face of cancer - “a woman who’s probably white”. Instead it showed us that anyone can be affected by cancer, and in that sense, we all have a connection to it. Unlike most cancer stories, which tend to focus on the tragedy of the illness, The Little C allows comedy to be brought into the discussion. It exposes the light and shade of living with cancer, and how it’s not all doom and gloom - something good really can come out of the illness people fear most.
However, despite the humour that is peppered throughout the film, there is no escaping the message that lies underneath. As a person who has had relatives die of cancer but has never really considered outsiders opinions of it, I felt the film made me question myself and my views. This film is more than just a bi-product of a controversial production. It is made a necessity because of the controversial production. When combating such a sensitive topic, it wouldn’t have done the subject justice if it were just left as a musical. The film allows the message to move beyond the theatre, and open its arms to wider audience to present a new perspective on cancer.
George Clark on The Brothers Size (Young Vic)
Fraternity, the Deep South and an exciting time for London.
Originally performed in 2007 The Brothers Size is one of the brother/sister trilogy created by Moonlight co-writer and Academy Award winner Tarell Alvin McCraney. It is no surprise that this play has been renewed, as the timeless text finds itself equally, if not more relevant today. Bijan Sheibani takes the on roll of director as he did during the 2007 and 2008 performances of the piece.
Oshoosi, played by Jonathan Ajayi, has been out of jail for a couple of months and is still on parole. He's out of work and struggling to move on, especially under the vigilant eye of his elder brother Ogun (Sope Dirisu). Though trying to help, Ogun won't let his brother forget his sins any time soon. Ultimately, the deep south of America proves a hard place for a young black ex-con to keep out of trouble. And together, a fraternal tug of war commences between the brothers, and Oshoosi's former cell mate Elegba (Anthony Welsh). We're never given a specific date of events, a pertinent choice I'd say.
The script on its own is one of the most effectively written I've seen, there is an interesting narrative happening here as we're slowly fed information through dream sequences and re-telling of events that had previously transpired. But it's here we see the dynamics of the relationships, pushing and pulling between love, loyalty, lust and responsibility. All three characters are driven by a strong relatable motive, brotherhood, whether it be biological or born out of necessity. The use and combination of sound, lighting and some meticulously choreographed physical theatre created a new dimension to the narrative, beautifully guiding us through moments of high emotion and conflict. All of which was performed flawlessly by all three of the main cast.
What is important about this production is that it manages to draw emotion by using minimal but clever theatre techniques. For example, the set is made purely of a chalk circle with small amount of red powder paint which, during the play, becomes increasing smudged until the entire circle is filled. This isn't particularly flashy, but it's pure. After seeing the equally excellent, though a lot more lavish Amadeus at the National a little over a week ago, I was highly impressed at how the combination of so many elements came off so well. This week, I'm impressed with how the use of small subtle elements can create something so moving.
It does feel like now is the time in which new, interesting perspectives are bought to our attention. This play is over a decade old, yet the hunger for this style of story and production has never been greater.