Thursday, January 23, 2014

Phytophilia and other tortures: Fiji Land @swkplay

Torture, boredom and having strange things done to plants are explored in Fiji Land, a thought-provoking piece currently playing at the little space within Southwark Playhouse for a short season.

The title comes from the testimony from a Professor Ali Shalal, who became a symbol for the torture at Abu Ghraib after catching the interest of the New York Times and it mistakenly attributing him as the man hooked up to wires and a black hood. His testimony describes a part of the prison in open space and made up of five sectors, surrounded by walls and barb wire as Fiji Land, where anything could happen.

The play is a short piece about what happens when cell doors are closed and nobody else is watching. You walk into the little space within the Southwark Playhouse to be greeted with what looks like a cross between a cold storage facility and an indoor plant growing facility. Unsure about what the next eighty minutes had in store for us,@Johnnyfoxlondon and I opted for seats towards the back of the theatre where we assumed soil and other organic substances wouldn't fly too close to us.

But it soon become apparent this a little less physical (at least in the beginning). Three actors carry out orders and mundane tasks that build over the course of the piece into something a touch more sinister and evil.

While it is slow to build, it has impressive young and intense cast that keep things slightly off balance yet evocative of some of the banality and crimes committed at Abu Ghraib. As the story moves along Jake Ferretti as Grainer is too hot looking after the plants and cannot keep himself cool enough.  Matthew Trevannion as Wolstead finds himself too cold and finds himself building an igloo to stay warm. Meanwhile Stephen Bisland as Tanc and the man seemingly in charge has an unhealthy attraction to some of his captors. The contrasts keeps the audience guessing what is real or imaginary.

I would have preferred it perhaps even to get crazier and pick up accounts of abuse with implements, shock treatment and the like. But it certainly is an original piece by writer Nick Gill. Fiji Land was first seen as staged reading at the Soho Theatre in 2007 and it was a finalist in the inaugural Amnesty International & Ice and Fire Protect the Human competition. It is great to see it get a slick and surreal staging from Three Streets Productions at the Southwark Playhouse.

Fiji Land runs at the Southwark Playhouse until 8 February 2014. It is 80 minutes without an interval and has torture and scenes of sexual abuse towards potted plants. What a way to start the theatrical year...

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Opera: Carmen pleasures

The tale of a cigarette worker and a promising soldier who throws his career away in lusting after her seems like an unlikely premise for an opera. But Bizet's rousing music and the melodramatic tale of love and obsession woven around it make Carmen hard to resist. The casting and current production make for a satisfying night out at the Royal Opera.

I caught this production just before Christmas with the alternative cast. Korean tenor Younghoon Lee as Don José delivers a thrilling performance with his range and gradually escalating dramatic intensity. By the finale the audiences were cheering. 

Christine Rice as Carmen was equally thrilling and has a dark timbre and luscious sound that is well suited to the role. The rest of the cast rise to the drama of the occasion. As Escamillo, the Johnny Depp of opera Kostas Smoriginas, dominates his scenes with a commanding voice and presence. 

Francesca Zambello's stylish production evokes Seville but what lingers even more is the sensuality that pervades throughout the piece. From the moment Carmen emerges from the cigarette factory - smoking - it looks so seductive and makes smoking seem so appealing you are bound to bemoan that raging storms and new safety rules ban a quick smoke from the upper terraces during the interval.

All this sensuality works for the most part, although there is one scene where it is a bit suspect... Don José, while trying to resist Carmen, ends up singing up her dress while she is splayed out in front of him as if it is some operatic gynaecological examination. So the production may not be for all tastes. 

The orchestra, conducted by Daniel Oren, gallops through the music, but at this speed the resistance to the drama and luscious sound is futile. And it is probably the best way to appreciate the piece, which still runs at over three hours.

The run is sold out but you can queue for day returns for the remaining four performances. It concludes on 9 January.

Photo credit: ROH production photo with  Anna Caterina Antonacci as Carmen and many tambourines