Tuesday, 10 April 2018

Review: Misty, Bush Theatre

image source: Bush Theatre

After much anticipation, I finally saw Misty at the Bush Theatre. A new play by Arinzé Kene, this exciting production used a daring mélange of techniques in its semi-autobiographical, psychological exploration of what it means to tell Black stories now. Playing with the  conventions of the play-within-a-play, the narrative-based performance rested heavily on a current of live music played onstage by joint musical directors Adrian McLeod on keys, and Shiloh Coke on drums. Embracing the full potential of live theatre, Misty seamlessly combined its technical elements of live music, pre-recorded sound, video, and projections, to paint the backdrop to Kene's words. The tech-heavy factors trod a delicate balance to complement Kene's mesmerising performance, within an effectively simple set design by Rajha Shakiry.

Without giving too much away, Misty explores the pressures and side-effects that identity politics can have on Black artists. Arinzé wants to write the hard-hitting tragedy of a young working-class Black man in London and his inevitable clash with the police. Arinzé's friends and family, however, are less than impressed, and berate him for playing to stereotypes and creating caricatures of Black identity. Fighting - literally - with his anxieties, Arinzé struggles to find a middle ground between his artistic and emotional desires, and his social responsibilities as a Black artist.

What makes Misty so effective is Kene's ability to weave together this field of debate which is as rich an varied as the people it seeks to represent. He does this with tongue-in-cheek humour, pathos, and sensitivity. Directly manipulating the audience's willingness to suspend disbelief, Kene dances in and out of the fourth wall of the theatre space, referencing a host of theatrical conventions only to give them his own, individual spin. Coincidentally, I watched Misty whilst finishing reading Paul Gilroy's seminal 1993 text The Black Atlantic, which explores all these issues and more, putting them into the context of several hundred years' of Black intellectual debate. In Misty, Kene takes these issues out of the academy and - perhaps more pertinently - off Twitter, and articulates them with wit and panache.

One theme which I found under-examined was Kene's own sexuality. Stripping twice during the performance, his gaze confronts the audience directly, but this moment of double-spectacle isn't interrogated. There's a vast body of literature on Black sexuality and the White gaze, and considering that Misty's stream-of-consciousness includes an anxious dialogue with the desires and assumptions of a typical theatre audience (which is too-often white, middle-class, and on the wrong side of middle-age), it's a puzzling omission. But that doesn't detract from everything else that Misty incorporates onstage. It's a wonderful piece, and I can't wait to see what Kene writes next.

Misty is playing at the Bush Theatre until 21 April.

Wednesday, 4 April 2018

Review: The Great Wave, National Theatre

Image source: National Theatre

We went, rather spontaneously, to see The Great Wave at the National Theatre. This is a mystery thriller and a family drama, with the complicated relationship between two sisters right at the heart of it superbly portrayed by Kae Alexander and Kirsty Rider. A co-production with the Kilburn-based Tricycle Theatre, this new play by Francis Turnly was notable in featuring a mixed cast of British and Asian descent. It feels somewhat wrong to be praising the casting of non-Caucasian actors in a play set in Japan and North Korea, and indeed this should be a normal thing to do, not a radical one. Yet this is an industry in which creatives of East Asian descent are still haunted by the racial drag of Puccini's Butterfly and Gilbert & Sullivan's Three Little Maids. It is refreshing to watch a play that is written in England, set in Asia, and goes about the business of telling a gripping and engaging story without being choked in the trap of identity politics.

The set design by Tom Piper was wonderful, and moved the audience between locations effortlessly. I especially enjoyed how set, lighting and projection design combined in an incredibly beautiful and nuanced manner to convey the emotion of the scenes. The events of the play take place over 30 years, and unfortunately the opportunity to display the passing of time through costume design wasn't seized; sadly, the costumes are also uncredited. The characters' ageing is nicely embodied by the performers, yet it is a shame that the costumes don't contribute more poignantly to the visual design, aside from fitting within the colour scheme.

The show played at the Dorfman Theatre, the auditorium round the corner from the National's main entrance. It was at the start, running around the corner breathlessly trying to dodge the icy snow which was somehow coming down through my umbrella, that I realised that I'd never been to this part. In fact, whilst I had walked past the National Theatre countless times - and even been inside to tour the production workrooms whilst studying performance costume at university - I hadn't actually seen a show since I bought a £5 youth ticket for a staging of a Carol Churchill play nearly a decade ago, which left me feeling empty and exhausted.

This brings me to consider why theatre audiences tend to look as they do. We saw a Saturday matinee, which I realise could affect the experience. The vast majority of the audience (my estimate is over 90%) was White, a further majority (I estimate 50%) were near retirement age. This is based on observations, not an academic survey, but whilst there were a few clusters of people who like us were of Black, Asian and Mixed descent, we were certainly a minority. And this in a really fantastically written, acted and designed production which tells a thought-provoking, relevant mystery story about people who don't look like the cast of PoirotMidsomer Murders, or, I dunno, The Archers.

 I have been thinking about buildings as not containers or institutions but as familiar entities that we meet on the street, rather like a distant cousin we feel a detached sense of friendliness towards. I have been thinking about buildings which anyone has the right to freely enter, but which I myself would never step foot in. And there are many buildings which contain things that I find interesting, but which so many people would never engage with. Blurring into the streetscape, many walk straight by, and paths do not converge. The barriers are clearly psychological, not physical, but it is imperative to consider new ways of reaching broader audiences. Audiences who might not normally visit, but who would love the work. Otherwise I fear that producers will become reluctant to fund interesting new work which takes risks - even if those risks - like going against portraying racial stereotypes in writing and casting - are clearly stupid and shouldn't exist.

Diversity is a horrible buzzword that makes me feel frustrated because cultural organisations, whilst preaching equality of opportunity, are being far too slow to react to the importance of ensuring their output reflects the make-up of the wider population. My aunt and several of her friends were hired by the BBC in a diversity drive for young television director-producers in the mid-1990s; more than 20 years on, hardly anything has changed. Some adverts, TV shows and films may include more 'people of colour' in their visuals, but this is rarely reflected in the staff who actually work on the shows (in both manual and intellectual labour), let alone amongst boards of directors. My partner and I are used to being the only non-white person amongst backstage, creative and/or production staff. What I'm saying, I suppose, is that the diversity thing isn't just for good-looking performers, but actually goes into all levels of the theatre industry, from those physically building the shows, to those sitting in the stalls.

Anyway. If you want to watch a great play, see The Great Wave. 

The Great Wave is playing at the National Theatre until 14 April.

Monday, 2 April 2018

Devoted and Disgruntled - discussions on diversity, audiences, accessibility - and nationalism

D&D session at Omnibus Theatre. Photo from D&D Twitter account.

One of the reasons that I stopped working backstage in the theatre is because I found myself constantly questioning the systems that existed, and the people who enforced policies which I considered unjust. I struggled to find an outlet for these thoughts, and met people who either never thought about things like implicit bias, or who just wanted me to stop criticising the system. Keep quiet and carry on. That surely reflects on the particular circles that I found myself in, and not the entire industry. But eventually I returned to academia to study my masters degree, where learning social theory gave me some of the answers I was looking for - and opened me up to even more questions.

What I wish I'd had five years ago is Devoted and Disgruntled, an inclusive platform for discussion and debate run by Improbable theatre company. Last month I attended the session
'What are we going to do about the rise of Nationalism and the hardening of borders?' held at Omnibus Theatre in Clapham Common. D&D use Open Space Technology, a discussion format which fosters attentive and inclusive communication. Participants are encouraged to voice questions, and discussions are led in a non-hierarchical manner. We discussed subjects as broad-ranging as how to avoid tokenism, how to build long-term relationships with diverse audiences, how to listen, recommended podcasts, and differing working environments. Listening was the most important factor of the night.

I am currently in an incredibly privileged position of studying a funded PhD, and so I myself do have the opportunity to discuss such topics at academic conferences and events. But I really cannot express how valuable it was to come together with people from a range of backgrounds, job roles and positions and discuss important subjects in the industry together on an equal footing. This just doesn't happen at work, and I am so grateful that Devoted & Disgruntled are providing this platform at regular, free events.

Click here to read a report on one of the discussions I participated in.

I would really encourage anyone interested and available to attend one of their sessions. The next one is held on 3 April. 

Sunday, 1 April 2018

Taking care of things

I take care of my hands because they take care of me.

They sort things out.

Fix things.

Smooth things over.

Stroke hair, hold hands other than my own.

Comfort me. I can trust them.

For more months than I can count now, my hands have been leading me to the keyboard of my piano, spelling out not QWERTY but C-D-E. I spell in sol-fa, avoid plain words, and everything has a rhythm in a beat. Sometimes I wonder why I've taken myself down this path so twisting, everything unclear. Yet my contrary, questioning nature knows that I would never take the easy option - nor the straight-forward, either.

There have been things I've needed to sort out, fix and render before I can return to writing words. And somehow, in this yearly glimpse of spring, I feel my difficulties simmering after the over-flow. Soon, I can begin.

Friday, 3 November 2017

PhD diary: Wintery renewals

Dear Readers,

It's been six weeks since I officially started my PhD studies at the University of the Arts London. As usual, time slips through my hands like bathwater (warm, with a sense of familiarity), although a quick glance through my diary over the last few weeks reveals pages black with inked appointments.

The beginning has felt slightly passive - lots of people to meet, information to take in, speeches to listen to. And of course reading, endless reading, and not nearly enough writing or output of any kind, really. I had an minor accident at the beginning of October, which resulted in quite deep bruising on my hands and legs. I was in quite low spirits because of that, but also because of the very real isolation that a PhD student endures. In general, I am happy in my own company, and can stand to be alone more than most. But there's nothing quite like the madness that comes from being shut up alone in a small room for a whole day, optic nerves throbbing from too much screen time, printed words blurring on a paper page.

Every month feels like a fresh new start, but I find myself unable to keep to the deadlines that I set myself; the goals I imagined with so much enthusiasm just trickle away in a blur of tiredness and procrastination. That's one of the reasons that I thrive in the education system, and found being self-employed so challenging: an external demand negating choice, forcing output. There's so much to do, and it's so hard to do it all.

Anyway, I'd love to write a monthly PhD blog throughout my studies, but I don't want to commit to anything at this stage. Throughout 2017 I have found my writing practice more slippery and elusive than ever before. I came to accept this eventually, but I truly hope that things will get better as we reach the new year.

Till next time,


Tuesday, 3 October 2017


He said, To be honest white people don't even really ask to touch my hair any more since I got dreads. It's mostly black people asking to touch it like, Ohh lemme feel those matted locks, because I don't look like I have nice locks.

I said, Well that's good then. I can't imagine what it must be like to have people constantly demanding to touch your hair. If I was a black girl, I would be really angry all of the time. I'd go mad!

He said, Well yeah, that's why there are whole comedies written about black people and how you don't touch their hair. If you were a black girl, you'd have anger management issues.


Sunday, 1 October 2017

London, c.1895

He looked at people walking about and envied them because they had friends; sometimes his envy turned to hatred because they were happy and he was miserable. He had never imagined that it was possible to be so lonely in a great city. 
When Philip thought that he must spend over four years more with that dreary set of fellows his heart sank. He had expected wonderful things from London and it had given him nothing. He hated it now. He did not know a soul, and he had no idea how he was to get to know anyone. He was tired of going everywhere by himself. He began to feel that he could not stand much more of such a life. He would lie in bed at night and think of the joy of never seeing again that dingy office or any of the men in it, and of getting away from those drab lodgings.   
from 'Of Human Bondage' (1915) by W. Somerset Maugham. London: Vintage Books

In my writing again and again, I find myself interrogating the topic of city life, and of being a living subject in place where a mass of people struggle not to crash into on another on a daily basis. Reading Somerset Maugham, I am struck by the sense of isolation which he conveys, whatever the place. Our antihero Philip Carey is a lonely person with a tricky personality, at once incredibly sensitive but touchy, tactless, and unable to negotiate his emotions in a satisfying, constructive manner. The book contains nearly 500 pages of hopelessness, despair and difficulty, both in relationships and financially. It is uncanny how closely the London of 1895 resembles London 2017. In the end, the most surprising thing of all is that Philip gets a happy ending. Good luck to him.