Ubu Roi


Ubu Roi

Director- Declan Donnellan

Cast- Xavier Boiffier, Camille Cayol, Vincent de Bouard, Christophe Grégoire, Cécile Leterme, Sylvian Levitte

Company- Cheek by Jowl

On the final leg of their European tour, Cheek by Jowl have exploded into the Barbican’s Dancing around Duchamp season with their French language production of Ubu Roi. A precursor to the Surrealist and Theatre of the Absurd movement, Alfred Jarry’s 1896 play explores wealth, greed and power struggles through the deplorable activities of an incompetent bumbling leader, Pere Ubu.

Opening with Nick Omerod’s crisp, cream set in a middle class French apartment, a solemn teenager armed with a video camera films his parents preparing for a dinner party. In the projections of this voyeuristic footage, the pristine façade quickly gives way to everyday realities. But the stray hair in bed, glistening meat course and unclean toilet are only the beginnings of this visceral production.

The boy’s imaginings, prompted by his parents casual fondling of each other, flicker in and out of the green-lit static alternate world of Pere Ubu. Casting his father as the grotesque protagonist, his mother follows as the seductive, foul-mouthed, Lady MacBeth type Mere Ubu.

As the guests arrive, metamorphosing from polite facades into twisted figures capable of treason, a plot is quickly cooked to dispatch of the Polish King Wenceslas. Firmly lodged in the domestic sphere, the lampshade crown becomes Pere Ubu’s after a quick lobotomy with a hand held blender.

It is these clever touches of domesticity interchanging into warfare that give Donnellan’s production the absurd air of children playing dangerous games. The cleaning spray gun, tin foil gold, and toilet brush sword are only a few examples that slowly destroy the apartment in melodramatic battle scenes.

This, combined with clever ad libbing from Pere Ubu asking the audience for a banker to torture, lodges this performance firmly in today’s world. Amongst laughter, he continues, ‘but this is London, no?’ revealing the transience of Jarry’s insights into humanity’s worst attributes lurking below surface, capable of emerging once a fragile veneer is shattered.

This energetic performance is aided by the role-swapping cast who play financiers, gentry, lawmakers, and the entire Russian and Polish army. In this subtitled performance, words come second to Jane Gibson’s movement direction, transforming the upright middle class dinner guests into jerky, exaggeratedly grotesque miscreants.

Cheek by Jowl succeed in making their adaptation of Ubu Roi the most desirable dinner party in town, just make sure to bring a rolling pin sword, if you choose to accept the invitation.

Showing at Silk Street Theatre, Barbican until April 20th


The Prophet

The Prophet

The Gate Theatre

Director- Christopher Haydon

Cast- Sasha Behar, Silas Carson, Melanie Jessop, Nitzran Sharron

28 January 2011, Egypt is uprising. A time of deep political unrest, mass protests in Tahrir Square and one unsatisfactory sex life.

For a middle class couple living in downtown Cairo, the Friday of Anger will be remembered for both civic revolution and domestic revelations. Hisham, a journalist turned novelist, is suffering from writer’s block. His anti-government novel has stood still despite the raging action beneath his window ledge. His liberal wife Layla is also preoccupied, balancing ideas of rekindling romance with a political conscience threatened by her position at a major mobile network.

The Prophet forces the public and private to bleed into each other, the revolt becoming a centre around which the pair gravitates. A supposed appointment with a literary agent means Hisham is unable to protest, much to Layla’s frustration. She leaves him to demonstrate against the government his novel criticises safely from the sidelines. As they both participate in actions they deem necessary, conflicting guilt rising from personal obligation and past secrets fuels a confrontation as shaking as the street landscape.

Rapid scene changes heighten tension, as the minimal concrete set is illuminated by leaked video snippets featuring peaceful protest and stark violence. During intimate moments and risky admissions, the rubble floor and grey walls are presided over by projections of Mubarak’s portrait, reminding the characters that their actions are never far from the state’s mind.

Hassan Abdulrazzak’s play is not without its lighter moments. Witty intertextual lines, a role doubling of westernised boss with state guard, and sexual frankness are welcome relief to the intense panorama.

The Prophet is a compelling play with a fantastic cast, dealing with dramatic political change from a conjugal perspective. Based on interviews with a number of Egyptians, Abdulrazzak’s play presents a core conflict that will remain etched in Egypt’s psyche long after Mubarak’s resignation.

Too Asian, Not Asian Enough

Too Asian, Not Asian Enough

Edited by Kavita Bhanot

Tindal Street Press

The intriguingly titled Too Asian, Not Asian Enough is an anthology of fiction from the current generation of British Asian writers, who have each experienced the limitations of the dualistic category they inadvertently find themselves in. Exasperated by the clichés that mar the perception of the now mainstream genre, editor Kavita Bhanot’s selections simultaneously engage with and dispel stereotypical portraits in this twenty-one author strong collection.

When reviewing submissions, Bhanot commented that there were many stories ridiculing the disparity between East and West, as well as the pressures involved in being a second-generation citizen, fighting to mediate between two foreign cultures. Choosing to omit these common recurrences, she understood of the origins behind them. In the book’s introduction, there is an immediate acknowledgement of the quintessential British Asian portrayals that surfaced in literature, films and TV during the 1990s. Though this movement was necessary to establish a footing in mainstream culture, the portrayals are now outdated, leaving a tainted imprint on Asian Brits trying to engage in a similar field. The expectation that has resulted from the cultural rebirth two decades ago now means authors face the polarity of either centralising their culture or avoiding it altogether, risking the slapdash mentality from commercial categorisation that forms the anthology’s title.

Featured authors Anoushka Beazley and Rohan Kar also acknowledged the limitations of inhabiting racial dualism. Beazley stated the ‘difficulty of getting put in boxes’ as an author, but without this anthology’s exclusivity, ‘there would be no platform’ to change the genre from within. Kar continued, speaking of the ‘compromise [involved in] selling a bit of yourself’, but perhaps there is a necessity to engage with existing stereotypes if they are to be changed. Thus, Bhanot’s collection features pieces that ‘complicate the idea of British Asian, or avoid it entirely’, forging new alternatives to existing, exhausted narratives.

The selection may be woven together by the thin thread of British Asian categorisation, but the prose offered in this varied tapestry of culture, religion and subject matter illustrates the dynamism of its authors. Featuring a varied host of characters, leaping from ancient Rome to Jerusalem, Lahore to London, the writers stride away from the collection’s title, disowning the polarities it initially proffers. Each story is as compulsively sharp and strong as its predecessor, the snapshots slotting together to form dramatic, dark, humorous and enlightening fiction.

As is the case with almost all compilations, some voices invariably speak louder than others. Amina Zia shines particularly with The Necklace of Pound Coins, a brisk and tense story, centred on an unconventional aunt trying to liberate her suicidal niece from an arranged marriage. Anoushka Beazley’s The Interview shows dexterity in her flawless inhabitation of a male gang leader from Southall who matures into a successful lawyer, facing a lingering incident from his former life. NSR Khan’s Familiar Skin is an emotionally captivating memory of a bipolar Muslim girl’s lover in a psychiatric hospital. Finally, Niven Govinden’s La Coiffeuse proves to be as tactfully ruthless as her protagonist, in the hospitality-sheathed scissors that snip at underprivileged girls’ hair for money. These particular gems in this self-crowned ‘new generation’ of writers illustrate that literary talent lies far beyond ethnic tick boxes. Too Asian, Not Asian Enough may sit, albeit uncomfortably, on the Asian Writing shelves of a high street bookshop, but the powerful stories within it do not.



Director- Anthony Neilson

Cast- Arsher Ali, Jasper Britton, Lisa Hammond & Company

Peter Weiss’ 1963 play is infamous for having the longest title known to man, (The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade), but more importantly for revolutionising theatre as a means of social commentary.

Set in 1808, fifteen years after the French Revolution, the inmates of Charenton Asylum are about to perform the final days of Marat, a political agitator and revolutionary thinker, under the direction of de Sade, to entertain the languid bourgeoisie. Coulmier, the hospital’s wealthy director, oversees the performance, on hand to curtail the patients should they be incited to take revolutionary action.

The recent response to the RSC’s modern day dramatisation only confirms the talent with which Weiss conceived the play. Today’s Metro article may join the other collected newspaper clippings on the production’s website that all demonstrate the continued upset to the apple cart that this play causes. Peter Brook and Adrian Mitchell’s 1965 adaptation caused a minority the same shocked reaction, despite the fact the show ran for 145 performances, progressing to win the Tony award for best new play. They were clearly doing something right.

This version too is Artaud at his finest; dildos, anal rape, a farting priest, executions and the continual staged interruptions of mobile phones are only the tip of the visceral iceberg. In his three-star review of the production, The Guardian’s Michael Billington argues that these tactics were intentionally sensationalist and “Artaud for Artaud’s sake”. Perhaps, but they worked didn’t they?

The uncomfortably clear references to contemporary society are rife. There is an undeniable Arabic influence on the play from Khyam Allami’s entrancing score, the eerie torch-lit smoky stage and the ultimate assassination of Arsher Ali’s Marat. This is countered caustically with the Western world of large corporations and technology, illustrated through Chris Cahill’s clever costume choices. A particularly ingenious change sees Jasper Britton’s chameleon de Sade transform from a female Hollywood bombshell to a burka-clad shadow.

Marat/Sade is categorically a ‘difficult’ play due to its confrontational nature and the dilemma each director has to face- how do you stage a revolution? Those that walked out of the performance are missing the ‘bigger picture’ entirely. The issues that Anthony Neilson’s interpretation places centre stage are daily occurrences that exist on the fringes of society; invariably some of them will be alien to theatregoers. However, themes of freedom and control that ultimately influence gay rights, feminism, capitalism, terrorism, or alternatively, anything that constitutes individualism, will always be relevant until a Big Change happens.

Though Neilson’s production does not offer any indication of a preferred ideals system, he presents society as it is and leaves the revolution in the audience’s hands, that is, if they don’t leave at the interval.

We Need To Talk About Kevin

We Need To Talk About Kevin

Director- Lynne Ramsey

Cast- Tilda Swinton, Ezra Miller, John C. Reilly

In her third feature, We Need To Talk About Kevin, Lynne Ramsey has not let Lionel Shriver down. The epistolary form has made a seamless transition from page to screen, in what is arguably one of the best book adaptations ever produced. 

As many will have gained from the inevitable surge of media coverage surrounding this controversial piece, the story, in short, sees one woman’s son go on a killing rampage, eliminating everyone around their estranged pair, leaving his mother to pick up the pieces. Simple enough?

Not at all. Through a series of cleverly planted psychological seeds, Ramsey destroys her audience in the same way her hideously compelling subject does, gradually but indefinitely. The opening shot depicts Eva Khatchadourian (Swinton) bathing in what seems to be bloody tissue and gristle. The reality is her participation in a Spanish tomato fight, but the jolty accompanying score places the audience on edge and in doubt immediately.

This is only the first instance of things not appearing as they seem in the fragmented mosaic offered. Ramsey continues her mental manipulation tactics using subtle triggers throughout, including iconic Campbell’s soup cans, red paint, even jam sandwiches. This, in conjunction with doo-wop sixties classics, scare tactics from suburban citizens, and sporadic, shocking acts of violence means the film is not one you would take your mother to.

Flawless performances from acting heavyweight Tilda Swinton and equally captivating Ezra Miller create a painful, naturalistic portrait of the unpredictable consequences of family life, raising the unanswerable dichotomy of nature versus nurture. Stripped down even further, this film asks two key questions about Kevin- Why? and Who is to blame?

Cinemagoers will inevitably leave the film frantically chattering, trying to arrive at an explanation to explain the various twists and turns of the characters’ motivations. From the dissatisfaction Eva experiences with her emotionally withdrawn child to Kevin’s acts of debatably premeditated violence, both could be held responsible. The insular society around them knows that, but they need to point the finger at somebody and Eva’s the only one left to take the shock of the fallout. This could be interpreted as a drama of one woman’s survival, but there are bigger tomatoes to throw when you consider the intentions behind Kevin leaving his mother alive.

It is completely justified to class this film as a Psychological Thriller over say, a Horror, a Tragedy or otherwise. Ramsey’s terrific interpretation of an already challenging book causes alarm in a wider social context, beyond one of small town politics in the event of a disaster.

Both Shriver and Ramsey have teased out an eternal conundrum of the human condition- are our personalities determined by inherent or learned behaviour? We may never be able to answer it in black or white terms, leaving us with a continued need to talk about people just like Kevin.

Green Girl

Green Girl

Kate Zambreno

Emergency Press

(5 stars)

Kate Zambreno’s second novel, Green Girl, is a series of fragmented snapshots chronicling the life of a young American girl in London on the verge of an existential crisis. Ruth is initially enticed by the fast-paced anonymity of the big city, but the monotony of being swallowed by the tube, working mundane jobs and striving for acceptance quickly grinds her down. A restless, damaged soul unable to endure the demands of daily life, Ruth prefers to revert inwards, routinely recreating her already fragile identity. Inundated with knowledge of iconic cinema, Zambreno’s protagonist carves away at herself to craft a carbon copy of classic New Wave starlets, beautifully doomed to self destruction.

Zambreno’s unwilling femme fatale lives a life of paradox, craving validation through others observing and adoring her, whilst fearing the judgmental gaze of the outside world. Though this ‘poor little beautiful me’ routine could become exhausting, Zambreno’s compacted jigsaw pieces are rife with puns, allusion and unique metaphors that result in a painfully compelling poetic prose.

Green Girl delights in linguistic play, engaging with the fluctuating concept of identity and its transmutability depending on social influences. Zambreno devises a voyeuristic ‘I’, whose appearances are rare and venomous, disgusted by the portrait of Ruth she initially births and continues to manipulate. This is embedded within a detached third person, which one suspects is Ruth attempting to simultaneously write and live her life.

This experimental form is peppered with cultural epigraphs from Jean Rhys, John Keats, The Smiths and Roman Polanski to name a few. The title itself is plucked directly from Hamlet, as Polonius rebukes Ophelia for her meekness, ‘You speak like a green girl, Unsifted in such perilous circumstance.’ Zambreno similarly chastises her protagonist, exposing and casting her into archaic female moulds of the virgin, the whore and, a Hitchcock speciality, the beautiful blonde victim.

The text examines Western society’s expectations of women and what it means to be a beautiful young girl, whilst presenting the ease with which human beings sculpt their personalities into a fashionable commodity. A surprisingly fast read, considering. Though Ruth has the potential to be infinitely powerful, she is unable to exert herself as anything more than a pretty face, agonizingly aware of being used. Kidding herself that she is playing various men at their own games, learning the script, where to groan suggestively and smile blankly, she is losing. A beautiful pawn working the board, but a pawn nevertheless.

Zambreno reels in her reader, wielding a cruel mirror bathed in literary allusion as she strips down her character, often literally. Yet she offers no resolution, but simply says, yes, it’s pretty awful isn’t it? Existence for Ruth is like wading through molasses, she endures but nothing progresses. Stifled by her own modern day Bell Jar, Zambreno creates dangerously familiar territory for anyone who has ever felt longing, used, beautiful or blue. The ‘green girl’ can be any female and has been famously throughout cultural history. Why society is apparently fascinated with the mental decline of vulnerable females is a whole other article, but this novel will undoubtedly appeal to many similar oddballs seeking release from stagnation. Regardless of the reader’s ability to sympathise or otherwise, Zambreno successfully ensnares the reader into this same stagnancy, offering occasional hints of the ultimate escapism, glamorising a suicidal step in front of a train, knives glittering, the likes. Though the ending is slightly dissatisfying, Zambreno creates a new Book of Ruth that will be a bible for many green girls to come.

As featured on The Graduate Times:


The Good Muslim

The Good Muslim

Tahmima Anam

Canongate Books Ltd

(4 stars)

Following her award-winning debut, A Golden Age, Tahmima Anam’s second novel reveals the enduring scars of war on a newly birthed nation, whilst continuing to weave the narrative threads of Rehana Haque’s familial life. The Good Muslim flashes between the immediate years after Bangladesh’s liberation and the early eighties, reintroducing the now matured siblings, Sohail and Maya.

Thirteen years and an elongated estrangement later, Maya returns to Dhaka to find her brother transformed into the revered leader of a small devout Muslim community, situated in a shack on the roof of their mother’s house. Though the country is free, the conflict continues in the domestic sphere, as brother and sister collide over the welfare of Sohail’s son, Zaid. The social and personal pressures weighing on the characters lead them to use the boy as a pawn in their battle of ethics, resulting in a tragically inevitable denouement.

The Good Muslim is a graceful page-turner, exploring the moral cost of living in a country with one foot in the past whilst the other tentatively steps on an uncertain present. Anam’s elusive title refers to the challenge that each character faces, as they attempt to reconcile their political actions with the governing religious ideology. As the novel dips in and out of its characters’ perceptions, Anam skilfully highlights the expectations of gender through the eyes of Islam. Sohail’s enforced enlistment as a guerrilla fighter sees him harbouring irrevocable emotional wounds, turning to Islam desperately seeking absolution. Maya’s battle is more public, but equally wrenching. As an independent woman worldly in her radical politics and medical knowledge, she attempts to right the injustices around her, receiving anonymous threats and eventual punishment for her aversion to order.

Despite The Good Muslim sounding heavier than an elephant in a steamroller, the swift vividness with which the scenes are presented allows tension to rise and fall without becoming demanding. Anam’s intertwining of past and present enables compelling character development, exclusively in the once inseparable relationship of Sohail and Maya’s adolescence. The convincing details of their shared passion for Simon and Garfunkel, denim jeans and further Western influences makes their drifting apart all the more difficult to comprehend.

The climax of their eventual confrontation is decisively understated, as is the novel’s epilogue, which offers the closest it can to a truly happy ending. Concluding in 1992, a hopeful time of peace and remembrance, the emotionally resistant tone reiterates that the individual can eventually triumph over a governing body.

Though Anam occasionally lapses into narrative simplicity, favouring easy expository lines, ‘this is how it happened’, the powerful, yet dreamy, portraits of Bangladesh’s ever-changing landscape, alongside her strong characters, more than make up for this minor criticism.

The Good Muslim is a universal novel exploring how a family can fracture under national obligation and personal principles. The characters are realistic creations that crumble under forces much larger than themselves. There are no heroes in this story, only members of a now stable nation for whom the aftermath of war feels like a somewhat hollow victory.

As featured on The Graduate Times: