11/12/2010

A Room with a View

Last term I heard about a talk and screening that the Women’s Group were putting on, looking at pornography and a woman’s place in it. I immediately thought: ‘haven’t I heard this one before?’. However, in a desperate attempt to leave the library, I brushed my preconceptions aside and went along.

Arriving a little late, I sneaked in amongst the moans and groans of what was being shown on the film: predominantly a female look into adult entertainment. Although sometimes a little clich├ęd, the film on the whole was interesting; it looked at numerous sides of the porn industry and shed some light on filmmakers trying to focus on female pleasure, and not simply male eroticism. The discussion that followed was what really sold the event to me though – young, confident women (and a few men!) talking about the film without fear of being labelled or scoffed at, which helped the talk flow with zest and honesty. I left intrigued.

After meeting last week with one of the women who held the talk, Lauren brown, I am still surprised at how passionate she is on the subject of gender, and more specifically its place on campus (something that I hadn’t really thought about before – which is exactly her point). She explains, “the sexism on campus isn’t the blatant one we are familiar with; rather it is much more subtle. It happens in seminars. Men even dominated the talk about the rugby attack on those women. It is on the posters dotted around campus.” The examples she gives are of a recent sexual harassment awareness campaign run by the Metropolitan police: the posters are blue for men and pink for girls. Another poster, promoting an R&B night in Brighton, features a heavily sexualised picture of a woman. Lauren points out how upsetting it is to women on campus knowing that the University approves such posters. (In response, the Women’s Group have designed their own campaign which is gender neutral, and encourages people to think carefully about sexual violence in different contexts.

“This is why we have a women’s room on campus – a place for women, and only women, to come and voice concerns such as these”. The room, located in Falmer House, which is open to transgender women too, was set up when the university opened in the 1960s. Discussions are regularly held on subjects such as sexual health, women in the media, and other women’s groups across the country. But most importantly, it is somewhere for women to come and feel safe and relaxed, away from the “male gaze”.

I begin to see her point, and wonder what can be done to improve the situation. Many would argue that women are now equal enough, and those who push for more are deemed “radical feminists” or even “bra burners”. Lauren stresses the importance of education, and “conscious raising”, ensuring that women aren’t afraid of the people – usually men, but increasingly women too – who give them these labels. “Women shouldn’t shy away from the label ‘feminist’. It shouldn’t be understood as something that states your position on subjects. Instead, it can be used as a way of understanding; it can help put things into perspective; it can help put feelings into context”.

Outside of the room, the Women’s Group are very successful in holding events to raise awareness for their causes. For example, an International Women’s Day event was held in the meeting house last year, during which vagina monologues were read out, and painting of the female body (and sometimes their more intimate parts) took place. To celebrate it this year, they are putting on a pop night, where the theme will be women. An event that also stands out is Reclaim the Night, which is a cross-country campaign aiming to make the night safer for women. On this, Lauren emphasises improvements that could be made at Sussex inspired by this campaign, such as more lighting to make campus less intimidating: “It is something that wouldn’t seem a priority considering other needs on campus, but is important”.

It appears, after talking to Lauren and since becoming more attuned to the subtle sexism that can be found on campus, that the group is an important organisation for this university. The Women’s Group are welcoming and non-threatening; they promote individuality and confidence amongst females without having to shove a megaphone in your face. They want women to feel empowered, not afraid.

To get in touch with the Women’s Group on campus you can email them at womensgroup@riseup.net, or visit their Facebook page (Sussex University Women’s Group).

Off The Cuff

Upstairs at the Three and Ten, 2010, Brighton

Imagine a small room, six performers, one hour of improvisation and an on stage pirate narrator, and you will begin to understand the bizarre world of Off the Cuff. Audience participation (acting as the script writers) is crucial in this unique ensemble of weird and wacky party games brought to life on stage. Indeed, by the audience demanding what shape the scene will, the sense of excitement is heightened. (A performer was told to tell the story of Robin Hood through the mind-set of 'chick lit', whilst another was asked to rap it.)

Comedic moments are never absent in this production, and the raw cut throat nature of live performance is ever present; some jokes work, some don't. But luckily, the sex comedians were talented, and I found my cheeks and stomach aching by the end. Although all the scenes were innovative, fresh and sharp, a few stood out as really special. One of them, a scene based loosely around wink murder (where one character knows something the others don't) was by far the funniest. The set up was this: the 'murder' was taken off stage (so as he couldn't hear) and the two interrogators were left on stage. The audience then decided who the killer killed, where he killed, and with what he killed. The murderer was then brought back on stage and had to guess what the interrogators knew, what his crime was. In this instance, he was being charged for killing Celine Dion, on the Titanic, with a spade. Explaining it now makes it sound disjointed, random and bizarre, all of which is certainly true of the real experience, but it is also hysterically funny too.

Credit must be given to these comedians, as I did not envy their position of being at the front of the firing line - the audience were honest, there were no unnecessary claps or generous giggles. The improvisation of it all made me giddy with excitement and was a completely refreshing take on the often rehearsed comedy available today.

"Are you Allergic to Me?!"

SUDS production, February 2010, Sussex Campus

Roger Allam and Jodhi May in the 2006 production of Blackbird at the Albery.Roger Allam and Jodhi May in the 2006 production of Blackbird at the Albery.

Last week, I was invited to watch a twenty-minute snippet of SUDS’ (Sussex University Drama Society) week seven production of Blackbird, followed by a short interview with the cast and director of the play.

As I watched in the cold rehearsal room in Falmer House, I was already impressed by the level of commitment these students were giving – a good sign of quality. The extract I saw was very intense, but not exhausting (I wish I was able to see the whole thing!).

My first question after the performance, and perhaps the most obvious, was why this play? The director, Stefan Adegbola, informs me that he saw this play performed a few years ago and was instantly impressed. “It was my first experience at the theatre with a ‘taboo’ subject being treated so subtly. It wasn’t ironic, there was no jokes, and no happy ending. A fascinating play.”

“So, when the opportunity came to direct again for SUDS, this was the one to do, not just because it was different, but also because it was a good challenge.” Indeed, this is not the first time Stefan has graced SUDS with his undoubtedly strong talent; in 2007, he staged a production of Yerma.
Without giving too much away (the cast and director are very hesitant to even try to describe the whole play’s plot to me), the two hour production follows characters Ray and Una, fifteen years after their ‘relationship’. It’s the first time they’ve seen each other since, and its fair to say it isn’t a joyous reunion.

From the snippet I saw, the ‘issue’, (which I’m reluctant to out myself) the directors and actors stress, is not the focal point of the play. With something so explosive, it easily could have been, but they are keen to emphasise that it is the relationship that takes centre stage.

“The play’s so well written it’s very hard to come to any obvious conclusions. It has no beginning, has no end, its just there.”

My attention is drawn to the two, and only actors in the play, Greg Cranness (who plays Ray) and Rosie Sansom (playing Una). How did they go about researching for their characters?
Rosie explains that because of the difficult situation they are in, and their very individual experiences of their past relationship, there was a lot she was able to draw from the script. “We had solo rehearsals to begin with to help us get to grips with the people we were portraying. No external research was really needed because the characters are so strong in the play.”

Greg agrees with his co-star by adding, “because of the sensitivity of the issue dealt with in the play, it was quite difficult to research” (often for fear of having his computer investigated by the police!). “Because Ray suffers from a psychological disorder, I wanted to know how it would be treated, and how he himself may feel about his problems.”

Their chemistry on stage is unquestionable. There is a constant battle between who the villain and victim is of the two, something I still don’t know myself.

They all agreed that when they started rehearsing for the play (which went into production in week two), they would not judge the characters. “You can’t have any preconceptions of these characters. You must put personal prejudices to one side, as it could be damaging when trying to get to the bottom of Ray and Una, and could give them the wrong focus”, Rosie adds.

Given that the play is so heavily dependant on the emotions of these two people, it certainly has an aspect of rawness to it; there is no messing about with the acting, it’s high-class and mature. And I must remind myself that this was only a rehearsal.

The set is minimal, again encouraging the audience to focus only on the leads. “What makes this play so powerful is its simplicity. It fits the old unity: time, place and action. Everything happens together in one continuous stream, in one place, so the audiences attention is on what is happening directly in front of them”, Stefan comments.

From what I saw, the play is very effective at doing just that, the intensity of it is impossible to ignore. But that’s undoubtedly its purpose, because as Stefan says, “it’s more satisfying for the audience.”

What do they want the audience to come away from the play feeling then, I wonder? The immediate answer is: “come with no expectations, and leave questioning your conclusions.” Stefan insists that it isn’t the job of the director to “push” any ideas on the audience, “mainly because the audience is very unpredictable.” Which is true. With such a contentious issue being toyed with here, there is no way of knowing how each audience member will react.

The name of the author, David Harrower, is ironic. As Stefan puts it, the play is very harrowing. Certainly, leaving their rehearsal, I did feel a little shaken by what I had seen of the play. Not by it’s dealing with a controversial topic though, but because of the high-level of talent that is present in the play.

Strong direction, serious actors, and a supreme script – very refreshing indeed. It’s a must see.

Blood Brothers

Theatre Royal, November 2009, Brighton

Sitting in my seat before the curtain came up, I was feeling a little apprehensive. Musicals were something I enjoyed as a child, but were increasingly beginning to irritate me as the years went by. Having not heard of this famous production before, I was intrigued to see what all the fuss was about.

This story follows the lives of twin brothers raised by different mothers, one biological, and one desperate for a child. Willy Russell avoids narrowly focusing on the theme of separation and guilt, broadening the story’s appeal by looking at class division: Eddy, the rich, well-educated and reserved boy is familiar with things such as a dictionary, whereas Mickey, the cheeky, uneducated brother uses profanities and has bad habits. Despite these obvious caricatures, the boys remain likeable, with credit given to the actors Sean Jones and Simon Willmont.

The lives of the brothers constantly intertwine, though eventually taking strikingly different paths – a comment on the constrains of class structure perhaps. Indeed, the continuing success of this production is perhaps reliant on the prevalence of class consciousness as an issue, something I am sure Russell was aware of.

The back bone of this performance was the outstanding cast, with particular acclaim to the leads – Lyn Paul, Sean Jones, Simon Willmont and Anna Sambrooks – who together made it engaging and energetic. The music was impressive too; the sound vibrant, the voices powerful, and the range of songs managed a good balance between sing-song crowd pleasers and the more serious numbers.

The one criticism of this water-tight performance would be of the on-stage narrator, whose role was to warn characters that their actions may have negative consequences. However, his often High School Musical-esque performance style distracted me. His appearances were comical, not foreboding, turning the play at times into a quasi pantomime, with lines such as “the devils right behind ya!”.

Towards the end, my friend turned to me and said, “I swear this is a Disney song”, which I felt summarised the performance well. On the surface fun and enjoyable, but when you scratched away a little, some interesting issues buried underneath. If you get the chance, it’s definitely worth a see.

Rain Man

Theatre Royal, November 2009, Brighton

http://thelatest.co.uk/7/files/2009/10/444-interview-rainman.jpg

Having finished re-watching the film only an hour before the lights came up, I was doubtful any production of Rain Man would match the iconic film made over twenty years ago. However, I forced myself to keep an open mind – and was pleasantly surprised.

Dan Gordon’s adaptation opens by hurling the audience straight into Charlie Babbitt’s chaotic lifestyle of ducking and diving between clients and loan companies, climaxing with the call about his father’s passing. Oliver Chris’ portrayal of Charlie, whilst initially a slavish imitation of Tom Cruise’s performance in the film version of Rain Man, reflected a more individual understanding of the character as the play went on. The last character to enter the stage was an unexpectedly cast Neil Morrissey as Raymond. Bravely, he didn’t try to emulate Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal of the character in the same way as Chris did, instead sensitively depicting a man struggling to live in a society with such an interfering condition.

However, this play is not without its faults. What the production misses is the closeness or ‘connection’ that Charlie develops for Raymond. The film allows for this change to occur over several episodes of frustration, despair and eventual acceptance. On stage this transition happens too hastily. Its saving grace is the good direction; Robin Herford’s scenes were uncluttered, well thought out and sensitive to the story. A strong chemistry between Morrissey and Chris ensured that you believed the struggle that they’ve both endured and could empathise with Charlie’s wish to be permanently reunited with his brother.

For me, the most pervasive issue of the play, perhaps because I had the film so fresh in my mind, was how the play was deliberately more comical – the audience being often encouraged to laugh at Raymond’s unusual behavior – this elicits patronizing sympathy from the audience, something the film seems to consciously avoid. Surely Charlie is the one we should pity, an emotionless git who tries to pawn his brother off to get a fortune he doesn’t deserve? Besides these problems though, this play is a brave and triumphant adaptation of a cult classic, encapsulating the turbulent but rewarding journey that these two brothers go through after the death of their father.