Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Richard III

Background history: 
The Platagenet House of English Kings started with Henry II and ended with the infamous Richard III. To provide some context, King Richard II was followed by Henry IV (start of Lancaster rule), then his son Henry V, and then Henry VI who left no eligible heir leading to the York line of rule.  King Edward IV (the eldest brother of Richard III) then ruled followed briefly by his son Edward V who was mysteriously murdered along with his young brother Richard.  They would come to be known as the Tower Princes for their disappearance and murder in the Tower of London.  Their deaths lead to the declaration of their uncle Richard as the new King Richard III, the star of our play.  Richard III is the last king of the Platagenet House, and he is the last English king to have died in battle.  He only ruled for only two years before dying in the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485.  Due to his scoliosis and his grisly death (10 wounds with 8 to the head), Richard III is said to be the origin of the Humpty Dumpty nursery rhyme.  Richard was succeeded by Henry Tudor thereby establishing the Tudor House with King Henry VII who then married Richard's Yorkist niece, Elizabeth, to secure his succession.  Richard III's body was buried with no pomp and was lost for over 500 years.  In 2012, the skeleton of an adult male with scoliosis and evident battle wounds was discovered buried in the choir of an ancient church which was underneath a modern car park located near the battlefield.  Last year, the body was confirmed to beyond a reasonable doubt to be that of Richard III's using a mitochondrial DNA comparison done with one of the current direct descendants of his matrilineal line.  Richard will be the first ancient person with a known historical identity to have the genome sequenced.  His body will soon be interred in Leicester Cathedral.

Shakespeare's Interpretation: 

Richard's reputation was heavily slandered after his death in order to further legitimize the new reign of the Tudors.  No evidence exists of his involvement in murder and treachery beyond the personal testimonies of Tudor men who likely never knew him personally.  He is often described as physically weak, clever, ruthless, calculating, and generally evil with a deformed body so monstrous that it must be a representation of the darkness of his soul. However judging from his skeletal remains, it is unlikely that his scoliosis was extreme enough to cause a debilitating or truly distracting deformity.  These dark accounts of Richard would eventually lead to Shakespeare's depiction of him as an explicitly villainous monster with a hump back and a weak arm.  He is also often portrayed as being much older than he actually was.  Richard was 32 years old at the time of his death, but Shakespeare's Richard and most other productions age him to his 40s and 50s.  Ian McKellen and Laurence Olivier each played Richard III on stage and in film as much older versions of the young, infamous king.  The Frontispage of the First Quarto of Shakespeare's tragedy (seen here) describes Richard's death as "most deserved".

Jamie Lloyd's Richard III

Lloyd's production of Shakespeare's Richard III launches the time period from the early 1480s when Richard historically reigned forward almost 500 years into the future to a vaguely 1970s setting.  The set design is made up of rows of large wooden office desks arranged in such a way that will clarify status of individuals as well as the otherwise often confusing system of alliances within the play.  Character will also be further clarified by intentionally keeping characters who are being discussed by others on stage.  This practice will also serve to show the fragile inter-character loyalties and the power of rumor.  In addition, Lloyd has chosen to stage most, if not all, of the deaths occurring during the play directly on stage.  It is likely that the murders in Richard III would have been traditionally done off stage, but Lloyd has apparently raised the gore-factor to a new, shocking level.  Another unexpected move is the casting of Martin Freeman as the ruthless king.  Known for his more nice-guy roles previously in The Hobbit and Sherlock, Lloyd's counter-intuitive casting creates a shocking performance as Freemen breaks his timid hero box and dives into a wider range of acting.  The outcome is a "gutsy, impassioned production" according to Variety's London Theater Review. (

Here is a quick impression of the production by the cast and crew:

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Ethan's Errantry: Part 1

I've been trying to figure out how I'd start my first post about the trip for the past three days, typically ending with "I'll decide later." However, I realized if I never get the rough part of the blog done, the rest can't happen. So, here we go! The first blog post of my trip to Stratford-upon-Avon and London.

I do post a disclaimer here: Witticism and sarcastic remarks are my forte, but this is one experience I just had to get down on paper. Expect a much lighter tone in the future.

For those who don't know, this summer I've joined a study abroad trip called Drama in Stratford and London. As sophisticated as that sounds, it is basically a three week journey to England to watch plays. Many, many plays. 15, to be exact, and that's not counting any extra shows I may add on later. We begin with a week in Stratford-upon-Avon, home of the Shakespeare Birth Trust and the Royal Shakespeare Company, where we will have the opportunity to have show discussions and classes with some of the company members at RSC. Then, we transfer to London for two weeks, seeing big name shows on the West End and at the new Globe while still seeing smaller shows in fringe theatres in the city.

BUT, before all that, were the flights.

Oh, the flights.

Something to be noted: My family took a vacation to San Francisco the week before my little excursion overseas. We landed in ATL around 7:00am on July 2. My flight cocktail to get to LHR left at 12:22 on July 3. That gave me just over 24 hours in Knoxville to repack, find everything I needed for the trip, and sleep (it was a red-eye flight from Vegas, where we had been up and moving since 9 a.m.). Things were going really smoothly, and I went to bed around 12:00am to do some final work online. At 1:12 a.m., right as I was about to go to sleep, an e-mail arrived.

My flight from Newark to Toronto had been canceled.

Without that flight, we couldn't get to our London flight, so our entire plan to go on the trip collapsed. From there, I've created a bullet point order-of-events, just so you can have a little sense of how the next 46ish hours went. BUT, to make it FUN, I've added PICTURES! Note they aren't editing and all were off my phone, so you're seeing them as I saw them.

Home base. The sight of "The First Terror".

  • 1:12 a.m. EST: Flight from Newark to Toronto was cancelled, meaning we’d miss Toronto to LHR.
  • 1:13 a.m. EST: I Facebook Kelly to alert her and look at options.
  • 1:18 a.m. EST: I say screw it and call mom.
  • 1:20 a.m. EST: Upstairs with mom working on flights.
  • 1:22 a.m. EST: Get e-mail: New flight: EWR to LHR, but arriving on July 5. Would have to spend night and get to LHR a day late.
  • 1:30 a.m. EST: We begin the phone calls to United.
  • 1:50 a.m. EST: Get first connection to United, call gets dropped.
  • 2:40ish EST: Get second person on United, but can’t talk to Kelly or Dr. Anderson to confirm the “only flight” available, so we have to hang up.
  • 3:50ish EST: Get third person at United, decide on new plan of action and get new tickets. New plan: Fly out of Knoxville at 6:47pm -> IAD, fly IAD -> LHR. Arrive 10:15 am. Verified with Dr. Anderson, good to go.
  • 4:20 EST: Check bags with Kelly and get through security.
Tyson McGee. With leaves?

  • 4:40 EST: Get coffee at Starbucks and talk about watching American Horror Story.
  • 4:50 EST: Get e-mail saying flight is delayed to EWR, meaning we’d miss flight to LHR.
I give up on exact times at this point.
  • Meet up with Kerri, whose flight had been delayed indeterminately.
  • Get in standby line to get on Kerri’s flight, because our flight had been cancelled.
  • Notified that Kelly and I are now booked to leave the following day to go through O’Hare, getting into LHR on July 5.
  • I leave security and go to the United desk to get Kelly and I booked on the standby flight.
  • Boarding passes won’t print, he said he’d bring them to us. Get phone call saying flight is boarding.
  • Get to check-in, our tickets hadn’t been processed, no boarding passes. Get THROWN onto flight to Dulles International.
  • Kelly spills coffee and stains the entire plane and our clothes.

Ceiling, pants, seats, tray table. All victims, like us.
  • Arrive at Dulles, get e-mail saying the flight I was supposed to be on tomorrow was cancelled. 
Outside landing. It was raining. Foreshadowing of what was to come?

  • Attempt to get on earlier flight because we were all now rerouted through Brussels. No luck. Ironically run into Jeannie, who was traveling on the earlier flight from IAD, which also happened to be delayed.
  •  Get on flight to Brussels.
The mysterious meal on the Brussels flight. That small square? Cheese.

  •  Arrive Brussels. Notice Kelly and I have a different flight than Kerri.
  •  Kerri calls United to sort through the situation. Apparently our tickets were booked on British Airways while we were in Tyson. No boarding passes had been printed yet, and the phone operator told us that only happens for “bereavement.” Notified we could get bumped from our flight.
We're all so happy in Brussels. We were promised chocolate. None to be had.

  • Kerri is notified her ticket isn’t “real”, but Kelly and I get booked on the plane to LHR she was meant to ride.
  • Find person at Brussels Air kiosk, who prints us 3 boarding passes to LHR and verifies our seats are “real”. Most helpful person so far.
  • WE FIND THE BEAR. Begin documenting our adventures with him.

  • Arrive LHR. Realize Kelly and I have lost our luggage. We think it went on our original flights that were cancelled, but then we saw we had luggage tags, so we assume it arrived LHR before we did.
  • Informed they can’t find our luggage, but they will deliver it to us.
  • Find a ticket station, take Heathrow Express tram from LHR to Paddington Station.
I decided to look like the Hunchback at this point, with yet-unamed bear giving encouragement.
  • Take taxi from Paddington Station to Merlybone Station.
  • Acquire tickets from Merlybone Station to Stratford-Upon-Avon.
  • 20:18: Train for Stratford-upon-Avon leaves with us on it.
  • Around 11:00 p.m. in Stratford-upon-Avon, settle into our B&B.
So, if you include the fact I hadn't really slept on the plane or car ride from Vegas, I had been up and traveling for 72 hours straight, with only micronaps until I reached our final destination.

However, there is an upside to all of that traveling. I've decided to call my experience Ethan's Errantry. One of my favorite series of novels is the Young Wizards universe. When a wizard is commissioned to do a job, they are said to be on errantry. Upon Googling the definition, errantry means the state of traveling, usually searching for adventure.


If there's one thing this trip has been, it's been an adventure. We've taken to saying we earned our "Extreme Traveler" badges. I may have been stressed and hungry and sleep deprived, but now I am confidant in traveling airports as a point person, going to a country where I know nothing and can't even guess at their first language (French and Dutch, I now know), and dealing with cancelled flights. Though we still don't have our checked luggage (though I had a carry on with most of my clothes), and there's still three weeks of the trip left, I'm excited to be in a country with a major theatrical history and learn more about the art, the actors, and myself.



Thursday, July 3, 2014

Show Preview: Julius Caesar

Julius Caesar at Shakespeare's Globe Theatre
Directed by Dominic Dromgoole
Composed by Claire van Kampen
Designed by Jonathan Fensom

Catherine Bailey, Portia
Sam Cox, Marullus/Caius Ligarius
Patrick Driver, Lepidus/Cinna
Anthony Howell, Cassius
George Irving, Julius Caesar
Joe Jameson, Octavius Caesar
Christopher Logan, Casca
Tom Kanji, Soothsayer
William Mannering, Titinius Metellus and Cimber/Cinna the Poet
Tom McKay, Brutus
Keith Ramsay, Lucius/Young Cato
Paul Rider, Messala/Cicero
Katy Stephens, Calphumia
Luke Thompson, Mark Antony
Dickon Tyrrell, Decius Brutus/Lucilius


When Caesar returns to Rome from the wars a virtual dictator, Brutus and his republican friends resolve that his ambition must be curbed – which in Rome can mean only one thing: the great general must be assassinated. But once the deed is done, the idealistic conspirators must reckon with the forces of a new power bloc, led by Mark Antony and Caesar’s nephew Octavius. When their armies close at Philippi, will Caesar’s ghost be avenged?

Opposing dictatorship and republicanism, private virtue and mob violence, Shakespeare’s tense drama of high politics reveals the emotional currents that flow between men in power.


Although the title is Julius Caesar, Julius Caesar is not the most visible character in its action; he appears in only five scenes. Marcus Brutus speaks more than four times as many lines and the central psychological drama is his struggle between the conflicting demands of honor, patriotism and friendship. Julius Caesar was originally published in the First Folio of 1623.


For those who believe spin is if not a modern invention, then at least a modern fascination, Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar offers a sharp rejoinder. Interpretation, manipulation and persuasion pervade this incisive drama about the assassination of the Roman ruler, with the company donning layers of pretence as actors playing politicians whose lives unspool upon a stage; those who do not choose their lines with care are doomed to failure. Dominic Dromgoole’s traditional production, with Elizabethan dress and straightforward staging, is a tad unadventurous, but by eschewing gimmicks, it places the spotlight upon the gripping war of words.


Dominic Dromgoole's lively production, with Elizabethan costume and Roman accessories, delivers Shakespeare with great clarity, but the main roles are unevenly cast.


As you enter the auditorium to be met by rowdy chants of “Caesar” and raucous celebrations, you demand an actor who can ensure you believe in Caesar’s powerful influence with just a glaring look and royal wave; a charismatic George Irving does just that. Buoyed by the confidence of triumph in war, Irving plays the nation’s star with an edge of likeable swagger and just a sliver of arrogance.


Show Preview: Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Turning Mark Haddon's novel into a poignant and brilliant stage production, “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” lets audiences peer into the mind of fifteen year old Christopher Boone. Turning away from plot summary and towards personal applicability, the most interesting piece I found happens to be the relation to my career path of Special Education. Christopher appears to have a high-functioning form of Autism Spectrum Disorder, colloquially called Aspergers Syndrome. This is never outright diagnosed, other than Christopher saying he has "behavioral problems". Haddon in fact prefers Christopher's own description of himself as opposed to directly diagnosing him as Aspergers, according to both Ben Brantley of the NY Times and Charles Spencer of The Daily Telegraph.

Whatever the exact term used, the production aspects of play are dependent on this aspect of Christopher. The soundtrack leans towards a "glitch/techno” style, hinting at Christopher's love of math and computers; the set is a simplistic grid. These factors mesh wonderfully to bring audiences in to the world of Christopher's mind. Having seen and worked with autistic kids before, it is extremely difficult to understand what they are thinking and how they work. Therapists, parents, teachers, and doctors all desire to "get inside their head", and "Curious Incident" does just that. Of course, it all depends upon how the actor portrays Christopher, a job sensitively approached originally by Luke Treadaway, now left to Graham Butler.

So, what do we, as an audience, get to take away? According to Brantley, “you’re likely to reconsider the dauntless battle your own mind is always waging against the onslaught of stimuli that is life”.  I couldn’t agree more. But on a less dense level, I ask you to look at Christopher and other people with Autism Spectrum not with a sense of pity, but a sense of awe and a heart of love. If given a chance, these individuals will open your eyes to see your own flaws for what they are, honestly and sensitively.

And now for a few things you should click on, ‘cause they’re cool!

Brantley's Review:

Spencer's Review:


Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Show Preview: Bakersfield Mist

Bakersfield Mist


Starring: Kathleen Turner and Ian McDiarmid
Written by: Stephen Sachs
Directed by: Polly Teale

Inspired by true events, Bakersfield Mist is the unique tale of a woman named Maude Gutman, played by Kathleen Turner (or as I know her, Chandler Bing's "father" from the sitcom Friends), and a man named Lionel Percy, played by Ian McDiarmid (or as i know him, Senator Palpatine from the movie Star Wars). Maude is an unemployeed bartender feeling quite down on her luck, when one day while shopping around at a local thrift store, she finds a great deal on a painting that she is made to believe might be a Jackson Pollock original. Even after many people contact her offering millions and millions of dollars for this highly esteemed painting, Maude refuses to take any deals until she finds out the truth about her newfound treasure. She contacts Lionel Percy, a world-class art enthusiast from New York City, and asks him to come look at her painting, and tell if it is indeed trash or treasure. When the wealthy and sophisticated Mr. Percy lands himself in Maude's trailer park kingdom, things are sure to get pretty interesting, pretty quickly.

So far in its run, Bakersfield Mist has been given rave reviews from critics all across the board. Dominic Maxwell from The Times calls it, "a thoroughly entertaining 85 minutes of quipping, arguing, boozing, opining, fist-fighting, and soul-baring." In another review, Charles Spencer from The Telegraph says, "Turner and McDiarmid are terrific...the performances are definitely the genuine article." I am very excited to see some familiar faces on stage for this show, and based on the summaries and reviews I have found, I am sure this performance will leave us laughing until we cry, and might even tug on our heartstrings just a little as well.

Watch the trailer for Bakersfield Mist here:


Mr. Burns - Kelly Roth

Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play 
by Anne Washburn at Playwright Horizons

     Since another student is also reviewing Mr. Burns, I figured I would look up the playwright and why she picked this particular episode, along with other interesting tidbits. Anne Washburn sat down with John Del Signore from for an interview discussing her inspiration for the musical and audience reactions.

     One thing that stood out to me was that she actually did not have The Simpsons in mind at first. Washburn always had the idea of a popular television show surviving post-apocalypse, but was thinking more along the lines of M*A*S*H, Cheers, or Friends. However, the priority was finding a cast that could be in it for the long haul. Once she found a group of dedicated actors, she had them try to recall notable episodes from well-known series, and The Simpson's "Cape Feare" episode had the most material to work with. She had the actors sit around in an empty bank vault below Wall Street for a week as she penned the first act. With the exception of one replaced actress, all the lines involving the actors trying to remember the episode are legitimate.

     She also noted that John Vitti, the original writer of the episode, saw the play in D.C. and commented that he enjoyed it, but it was an "odd experience." Considering that the entire script is a deconstruction and re-conceptualization of the episode, I imagine that was a bizarre experience for Vitti as a writer. 

      Washburn also did her research on nuclear reactors, talking to two separate authorities on the matter. As Mr. Burns was the owner of the nuclear power company and the nuclear apocalypse is a vital part of the plot, Washburn wanted to ensure everything was as accurate as it could be.

      All in all, this play is receiving rave reviews and is being touted as a reawakening of the mythos genre.  I, for one, am ecstatic to see such a unique and well-thought out play.


Based on the book by George Orwell.
Stage adaptation by Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan
Playing at the Playhouse Theatre London
Viewing on July 16 (2:30 matinee)


George Orwell wrote his famous dystopian novel, 1984, in in the 1940’s. The original novel follows the story of Winston Smith, a middle-class man struggling with the reality of his time. His home state, Airstrip One, is in a constant state of war and political uprising. Men and women are punished for opposing the central government, acting as an individual, and thinking independently. Winston Smith spends much of his time thinking about the flaws he finds in the political systems and of potential rebellion. 1984 has made its way into the curriculum of many high school and university level English classes. The book is very popular in both academia and in family libraries throughout the U.S. and Europe.


Robert Icke and Duncan Macmillan attempt to see the classic novel through different eyes. Like many other popular plays of our time, the adaptation remains mostly true to the novel it is based on. The biggest difference lies within the bookend style plot. At the beginning and the end of the play, historians are looking back on Winston Smith’s diary and are trying to determine whether the journal is a factual retelling or a work of elaborate fiction. Between these bookends, however, audiences are captivated by the characters and conflicts that they know and love.

The preview online shows the play to be very dark and dramatic. I’m not going to say that it is scary (because I haven’t seen it), but it has the potential to be very suspenseful! Critics across England have remarked on the show’s intricate use of lights and projections. From the preview, I could see that projection technology will be used. The lighting, subject matter, and strong theatricality should prove to be a captivating show!


In short, expect the 1984 that you read in high school, but expect it with a twist. I urge you to go to the website and see the dark preview featuring flashing subliminal messages and a creepy children’s song. Remember: Big Brother is watching you.

This Was a Man

This Was a Man
Writer: Noel Coward
Director: Belinda Lang
Banned by the Lord Chamberlain in 1925, This Was a Man is debuting on the professional London stage for the first time on July 15, which also happens to be my birthday. Coincidence? I think not. The play was banned on the grounds that it dealt with adultery irreverently. The play centers on Edward Churt, whose wife is serially unfaithful to him. Churt seems to be fine with it for most of the play as he becomes increasingly aware of her infidelity, but his best friend refuses to stand by and do nothing. The play seems like it is going to be entertaining, given the fact that it was banned for its “facetious…treatment of adultery.” Anything that is described as facetious definitely has my attention.
The play investigates what it really means to be a man. Is it better to have good manners or use brute force to get one’s way? Must a man be like a caveman? Is our view of manliness outdated? These are questions that I hope to answer after seeing the play.

The director, Belinda Lang, has performed in multiple plays written by Noel Coward, and I am interested to see how she brings this experience into This Was a Man. It seems to me that she would be a near expert on Coward’s work by now, and this will show in the debut of the play.

Mr. Burns, A Post-Electric Play

When I first read the title of this play, I instantly thought, “Oh Mr. Burns, like The Simpsons!” but I convinced myself that it couldn't be the same Mr. Burns. After all, what does Mr. Burns have to do with the post-electric? Apparently a lot according to the playwrights.
            I think it’s interesting that the playwrights chose The Simpsons as the pop culture icons to showcase in Mr. Burns, a Post-Electric Play. The Simpsons have been a ubiquitous part of our culture since 1989 and will be going into its 26th season starting September 1st. The Simpsons has added words to our cultural dictionary (D’oh!), and has had practically every famous person in some way or another do a voice on the show. For instance, Queen Elizabeth II has voiced herself on the show and Elizabeth Taylor did the voice of infant Maggie Simpson in “Lisa’s First Word.” So it makes perfect sense to choose characters from a television show that have had such a profound effect on our culture to be the main characters of a troupe in an apocalyptic setting.
            The playwrights mention that they chose The Simpson not only because it is a long-running television show, but also because The Simpsons is a show that has strong character archetypes and deals with the entire community. The title of the play is a nod to that, after all as Mr. Burns isn't a member of the Simpsons family, but he has no doubt influenced both them and our culture.
            I also thought it was interesting that the characters in the play actually use the stage to cope with the apocalypse by performing in a stage troupe based on the Simpson episode “Cape Feare.” In this episode, Sideshow Bob, the former assistant to Krusty the Clown and escaped criminal, attempts to kill Bart because it was thanks to his efforts that put him in prison for attempting to frame Krusty for an attempted robbery. In this episode no one can help Bart; not the parole board who Sideshow Bob convinces to parole him; not the Witness Relocation Program, who give the Simpsons a new surname and a houseboat but cannot stop Sideshow Bob from strapping himself to the underside of the Simpsons’ car. It’s interesting that the troupe chooses this episode because it combines humor and terror. It’s terrifying to watch Bart have to deal with an ex-criminal trying to kill him, but it’s also funny to watch Sideshow Bob step on a lot of rakes and at one point get run over by elephants, and Bart even manages to free himself from Sideshow Bob’s clutches by asking him to sing the entire score of the H.M.S. Pinafore. Maybe the troupe chooses this episode as a guide for them for how to find the humor in the terrifying as they deal with the apocalypse?

            Whatever the reason, I’m excited to see this play!

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime

Christopher Boone, the protagonist and narrator of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” is highly intelligent, mathematically gifted, 15-year-old. He knows all of the countries in the world and their capital cities, can list every prime number up to 7,057, and he is the first person at his school to enroll in A-level math. However, Christopher is also autistic. He fails to understand human emotion, is easily overwhelmed by everyday stimuli, and cannot stand to be touched.

Our story begins with Christopher’s desire to write a Sherlock Holmes-esque mystery. The format of Mark Haddon’s novel version of the story feels almost like a stream of consciousness, and Christopher writes the story as it unfolds. Because Haddon’s novel is a first-person narrative, we, as the audience, are allowed insight into the inner workings of Christopher’s mind. In Simon Stephens’ adaptation of Haddon’s novel, visual and aural elements, such as stage design and compositional style, are used to transport the audience into Christopher’s mind and allow us a glimpse of the world as Christopher sees it.

At first glance, the set design for “The Curious Incident” appears to be incredibly simplistic. The set is basically a blank 3-dimensional grid that images are projected onto. However, as someone who loves math and avidly seeks to find order and patterns in the world, this suits Christopher perfectly.

The soundtrack for the production of “The Curious Incident” was composed by Adrian Sutton. Because of Christopher’s interests in maths and computers, Sutton composed the soundtrack using a “glitch/techno” style. Sutton also used  prime numbers as a “building block of the score” due to Christopher’s obsession with them. Reciting his prime numbers is one of the few things that calms Christopher when he begins to become overwhelmed by the chaos of everyday life, for, unlike people, prime numbers are logical, constant, and something that he understands. Because of this, it only makes sense that prime numbers be integrated into Christopher’s internal music.

Anyone who has ever met someone who is severely or even mildly autistic can tell you that they are not always the easiest people to understand. This combination of set design and compositional style, among other things, helps the audience to understand the ways in which this complicated character views and understands the world.

Show Preview: The Valley of Astonishment

Written and Directed by Peter Brook and Marie-Hélène Estienne

Cast: Kathryn Hunter (Sammy Costas), Marcello Magni and Jared McNeill
Musicians: Raphaël Chambouvet and Toshi Tsuchitori

Jared McNeill and Kathryn Hunter in The Valley of Astonishment

I first encountered Peter Brook some 15 years ago as an undergraduate when I was required to read his book The Empty Space for a directing class. The unit was focused on re-thinking the actor/audience relationship, and we were looking at Peter Brook and Jerzy Grotowski simultaneously. We read Grotowski’s Towards a Poor Theatre first, for which Brook had written an introduction. His introduction did not make much of an impression on me, except for one small section near the end, when Brook says the aim of his own theatre (as opposed to Grotowski’s) is to bring together “the private and the public, the intimate and the crowded, the secret and the open, the vulgar and the magical” (14). I didn’t really know what this meant at the time, but I thought it sounded cool. The vulgar and the magical… I suppose it might be fair to say this idea has become a guiding force in everything I work on these days.

Peter Brook
Brook’s book is divided into four sections: the deadly theatre, the holy theatre, the rough theatre, and the immediate theatre. For those who have never encountered Brook, here is a (very) quick and dirty run-down of what these classifications mean (please pardon my momentary lecture mode):

  • The Deadly Theatre: This is the kind of theatre that addresses passive spectators – the kind of theatre he felt was taking over the stage at the time. No engagement, no need to think or be disturbed, everything outlined and perfectly understandable, handed to the audience (sitting quietly and passively in a dark auditorium) on a silver platter. Commercial theatre, meant to give audiences exactly what they expect, and make lots of money.

  • The Holy Theatre: Theatre concerned with ritual and higher values (moral, spiritual) – making the invisible intellectual and spiritual realms of the human… well… soul, if you will, visible and concrete onstage. The concern is that the Holy theatre might remain on this “higher” plane and therefore not really engage with the audience on an everyday or physical level.

  • The Rough Theatre: Focuses on senses, physical impulses, and direct engagement with the audience (and social engagement – audience members with other audience members). Brook was worried that an over-reliance on the Rough theatre might cause theatre to be simple and shallow (so, where the Holy theatre might cause people to get too much in their heads and not connect physically, the Rough theatre might cause people too think too much in physical and social terms and not connect intellectually/spiritually).

  • The Immediate Theatre: The combination of the best elements of the Rough and Holy theatres. Something that engages the audience on both a physical (sensory) and intellectual (spiritual) level.

These different “theatres” raised all kinds of new issues for me about theatre back in my undergrad days that I am still struggling with today. What is theatre supposed to do – what is the function/purpose? How does theatre-the-art relate to theatre-the-business? What does the mutability (changeability, volatility, plasticity) of theatre do to the experience of a production (from the perspective of both the artists and the audience)? What is required for theatre to be theatre, and what is not required?

This play itself is highly intriguing to me for a variety of reasons, some which sound fancy and academic and others which really are just me being a total geek. But that’s ok, too.

The Valley of Astonishment centers on the neurological disorder known as synaesthesia, a condition that causes sufferers to experience a kind of blending of the senses. For example, you might experience colors as smells, or sounds as colors. Because theatre, at its core, is something we experience through our senses, I am very curious about how the idea of a kind of disconnect between the senses, or sense confusion, might change our experience of the world and the theatre (cause us to question certain assumptions about the theatrical experience).

The title of the play comes from a 12th century Persian poem – The Conference of the Birds – which tells the story of birds who are searching for a leader, and travel through seven valleys (including the valley of astonishment – the 6th valley). I confess that I have not done a ton of research into this poem (ran out of time), but my understanding from reviews of the show and a quick Google search is that the valley of astonishment comes after the valley of unity, which involves letting yourself go in in order to become one with everything else – you are nothing in the light of God’s presence (you are enfolded into god – selfless). In this state, you reach the valley of astonishment and bewilderment – everything is new, astonishing, and no longer connected to a sense of self or the expectations you may already have about yourself and the world.

The cast is led by Kathryn Hunter, who is a well-known and highly accomplished actress. For the Harry Potter-minded, she played Arabella Figg in the HP movies, so you will probably recognize her (here’s where the geek-out comes into play for me – yay Harry Potter!).

Kathryn Hunter in The Valley of Astonishment

When we see The Valley of Astonishment there will be several things I will be thinking about – several questions I have in my mind about the production. I want to know what Peter Brook does with a play. How does he create his own theatre? Is it immediate, rough, holy, deadly, some combination, something new? How does he set up the actor-audience relationship? How does synaesthesia come into play in both the play and in the theatrical event?

Buckle up, y’all – this will be a weird one! (so excited!!)

Just for fun:

“What Does Your Tube Stop Taste Like?” by Ben Riley-Smith
The Telegraph, August 23, 2013
    • Apparently our Russell Square Station tastes like celery.

Peter Brook’s Introduction to The Valley of Astonishment: