27 March 2021

Jabala and the Jinn Review.

Belgrade Theatre Coventry, in association with AIK Productions and Turtle Key Arts, brings their latest show, Jabala and the Jinn, to the stage for a virtual audience.

Asif Khan's new play takes us to Bradford and the home of Jabala and her father. It's been a few months since Jabala's mother died and her dad is constantly battling to get her to school on time. One day Jabala hears a mysterious voice speaking to her in Arabic. Is it her mum or has she imagined it?

With the of a school friend Munir, who happens to be a Shakespeare enthusiast, Jabala summons a Jinn called Sarah using a chant and some garlic. This sparks a brilliant friendship between the three but is restricted by Sarah's limited time before she's summoned back. 

The friendships blossom until Jabala's mum's gold bracelet turns out to be missing. A little predictably it's Sarah that has taken the bracelet. This causes conflict between the characters and Sarah needs the bracelet and 6 other items to become human and the sadness that Jabala's father feels at the loss of his wife's bracelet. 

It's a well-written story by Khan, he has written 4 believable, interesting and likeable characters as well as an imaginative story. With a run time of an hour, the language and pace will keep children's attention as well as there being plenty for adults to enjoy. Schools should certainly be showing it to their pupils.

The artwork for Jabala and the Jinn. Illustration by Nadine Kaadan.

The 3 performers are brilliant. Natalie Davies is perfectly cast as Jabala, she plays her with great skill and aplomb - if you were a child you'd want to be Jabala's friend. Jay Varsani plays both the emotion of Jabala's father and the youthfulness of Shakespeare obsessed Munir really well. Safiyya Ingar brings boundless energy to Sarah (the Jinn). She's joyous to watch. Undoubtedly the play's best moments are the scenes that involve Sarah.

Rosamunde Hutt's direction is slick and works well for the camera. There's only one moment where Jabala speaks directly to the audience as she asks whether she should bring Sarah back after the fallout. There's clearly been great work on the physicality of the characters too, all of whom are really believable. Mila Sanders's simple but effective set design, Aideen Malone's lighting and James Hesford's soundtrack enhance the setting and visuals of the production.

I watched this production live-streamed on World Theatre Day 2021 and what a beautiful reminder of the power of live performance, even if it's watching from home. How great storytelling and engaging performances can breathe life into stories and tales and have audiences gripped. This production had me hooked from the get-go. I loved it.

Rating - ⭐⭐⭐⭐ - a hugely likeable and engaging play that will delight both children and adults. A great family watch.

Jabala and the Jinn will be streamed from Belgrade Theatre's website from Wednesday 31st March until Saturday 24th April. Tickets can be purchased from https://www.belgrade.co.uk/events/jabala-and-the-jinn/ and allow a 24-hour viewing window. 

16 March 2021

Dream - Royal Shakespeare Company Review

The Royal Shakespeare Company is known for being an innovative company when it comes to technology, their 2016 production of The Tempest in collaboration with Intel and The Imaginarium Studios featured on stage motion capture, and now their latest offering is a live-streamed virtual production, Dream. 

Dream is a collaboration between The RSC, The Manchester International Festival, Marshmallow Laser Feast and The Philharmonia Orchestra. This feat of technology roots you as an audience member right into the hard of the forest and part of the world of Midsummer Nights Dream (although this is merely inspired by that world rather than being a straight adaptation). The story is told through Puck as she explores the forest, meeting sprites Moth, Peaseblossom, Cobweb and Mustardseed along the way. A storm then causes destruction, and it's up to us the glowworms to help Puck rebuild the forest. The plot pulls some of the imagery and poetry from Shakespeare. This allowed the designers to grow the virtual forest from the poetry within the play and that really comes across well.

Photo Stuart Martin (c) RSC.

The unique element of this production is that it is live. You'll have never seen anything quite like this. You're first greeted by EM Williams who plays Puck, they greet you in her motion capture costume and then they walk into space and then it begins. The virtual reality world is stunning. The forest literally comes to life before your eyes. It's a beautiful lush landscape. The world instantly felt calming and soothing.

The technology involved in Dream really raises the bar in terms of combining theatre and live performance with the latest technological advances. The sky is the limit to watch could be achieved. It's almost unfathomable to me that this online production has been created during a pandemic. I can't praise everyone involved enough for the work they've achieved here.

The motion-capture work involved is of the highest quality. The movement felt smooth and easy to watch. It almost felt as if you were watching a ballet, especially with Puck's movements. The motion capture and virtual reality make it feel like you as an audience are right there in the forest, you become part of the world. The cast all give great performances in this virtual world creating the characters and that movement.

The soundscape further enhances the world, with birdsong, leaves fluttering and other sounds really drawing you into the experience. Music from the Philharmonia orchestra adds another layer to the world of Dream. The clever process used was described as "gesturement", which means that when one of the characters moves you'll hear music. This is generated live meaning that every show sounds slightly different.


Puck and the Fireflies in the virtual forest. Photo Paul Mumford (c) Dream, 2021/Marshmallow Laser Feast/Paul Mumford.

Dream comes with two viewing options, you can watch the performance for free or you can pay £10 and this allows you to interact with the performers. As part of the Audience Plus ticket, you're offered the choice to interact with the characters. You take the role of a glowworm and you help light the world so that Puck can find the way. The first bit of interactivity I wasn't sure if I was doing it right but by the second time, I'd worked it out and found it very easy to use. I can imagine children being particularly engaged with the interactivity, but even for me as a 29-year-old I was fascinated. 

Dream has already pulled in over 20000 people in it's first three performances including 25% of new bookers to the RSC. The online element allows for a global audience to watch the production. The design team have clearly put a lot of thought into making sure the piece is accessible for all, and it really is. It's really engaging including a post-show Q and A with the cast too, this allows you to learn more about the world you've just seen brought to life.

Dream blurs the virtual and the real world and allows for the imaginations of the audience to run wild and free. It's a unique, incredible and unforgettable experience. I urge you all to grab a ticket.

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Dream continues until Saturday 20th March. With free tickets, if you just want to watch the performance or £10 Audience Plus tickets available allowing for interactivity. Visit http://dream.online/ to book or for more information.

Photo by Stuart Martin (c) RSC.

2 March 2021

Have You Heard Interview

Have you heard the story of Franceska Mann? Nora Productions' latest show brings to life the story of the Polish dancer who in 1943 shot two Nazi guards and sparked a riot. Her story has been passed from teller to teller, with her courage becoming a myth to inspire hope and vengeance in equal measure.

This new work in progress production is streaming virtually via Applecart Arts from Wednesday 3rd March to Friday 5th March. The piece is devised by a cast of seven multi-talented creatives and weaves together theatre, dance and music to bring the story to the stage.

Photo Petra Eujane Photography. Design by Steph Pyne Design

I had the chance to speak with director Eleanor Felton and performers Amber Wadey, Gaia Cicolani and Naomi Bowman about the production. 

We first discussed where the idea and inspiration for telling Franceska Mann's story came from. Director Eleanor said "I was doom-scrolling this summer and stumbled across a picture of her with a caption and spent the next three hours researching her, so it was clear that this was a story that I needed to tell. I love devising theatre, and as I slowly started to talk about the idea with potential collaborators, the idea started to take shape. Equally, some of the ideas about how to tell her story didn't come up until the last week of rehearsals, or even the last day! And I have new ideas now that we have recorded it, that I am waiting to try out when we develop the piece further."

Performer Amber added "Prior to Nora Productions'; Have You Heard, the only other known stage version of this story that we’re aware of is the ballet Momento, put on by The Jerusalem Ballet.  We wanted to give Franceska a voice because there are so many different accounts of her story - no two are the same in fact. We spent a long time researching and reading various articles and as an ensemble created our own version of this iconic moment in history. We hope to have honoured Franceska as well as the women who united with her on that day"

I asked about how the show was combining the different styles, theatre, dance and music. Amber explained "it was important for us as an ensemble to create a language which explored not just Franceska's story and emotions but her interactions with other people and characters too. By combining the various elements it allowed us to express the story in a new and unique way. Especially as Franceska was a ballerina herself and the myth of what happened that day at Auschwitz so clearly depicts her as a beautiful dancer, it was necessary to include it in our storytelling. Dance was Francesksa's power and we used that to our advantage for an impactful opening to the show. Music is also a key part of the performance because it's universal and has the ability to transport audiences back in time and allow them to be fully immersed in the world of that particular story.

Director Eleanor added that it required "a lot of experimenting! Because Franceska Mann is a dancer, some of those elements were already in her story. The fun part was exploring where else they might fit, and how we could use them to support the story."

Photo by Petra Eujane Photography

We discussed how the story would resonate with audiences in 2021. Eleanor said "There is such a sense of rage and injustice in this story, and that is a sensation that is growing in society at the moment with women's rights, BLM, environmental protests, and countless social-justice issues. This story feels like the perfect echo of that emotion."

Amber explained how she felt it was empowering that a woman was standing up to men in power some nearly 80 years ago. "One thing that stood out to us about this story is that it's still being talked about nearly eighty years later! As a stimulus and starting point for a show, it couldn't have been more uplifting.  The empowerment of women during what must have been the most traumatic experience of their lives is unbelievable. On first reading an account about it, it felt like a fantasy or a dream.  A woman standing up against a man, more powerful than her in both stature and status - it cannot possibly be!? Oh yes, it can.  There is still a way to go in terms of us achieving equal rights as a society.  But this isn't just a tale about gender politics. It's a way to provoke audiences to think about how they can and should stand for what they believe in."

Performer Gaia added "This is a story about hope and finding strength and inspiration by coming together. A lot of the themes we explored are still very current. Also, it is important not to forget history, as well as the power that one single person can have through their actions and how this power can be spread far in space and time because their story is being told."

We then discussed how the COVID pandemic and the restrictions in place have affected the development of the piece. Eleanor described how residency with Applecart Arts has helped with their development. "We were so fortunate to be offered a residency from Applecart Arts, and I was able to work with some of the cast in the rehearsal room. We also had cast members who were unable to come into the space because of COVID, so our creative process was split between a physical and a virtual rehearsal room. It also means that some of our performance was recorded by the actors from their homes, while other parts were filmed in the theatre at Applecart Arts."

Natasha Wright's at home set up.

Amber explained "In an ideal situation all cast members would have been in the rehearsal space together.  I was surprised how easily and quickly we were able to establish a way of combining both working from home and being in the Applecart Arts studio.  We managed to initiate a very creative and supportive environment which gave us a lot of perspective on how the piece was developing.  It challenged us to think in different ways and has been one of the most interesting processes I have been involved in. We have had the opportunity to present the show across different mediums - audio, self-tapes and recorded sections in the studio. This is something we might not have otherwise thought about, and I think embracing that we are in the middle of a pandemic has made our work-in-progress showing even more exciting."

Gaia added "Most of the company worked mainly online, which has definitely shaped the way the process unfolded and therefore the way the work in progress is presented. It is impossible to know how differently the work would have developed in normal circumstances, but I do not think it would have been any better or worse. We focused on certain aspects of the production more than others, but the limitations pushed us to find creative solutions and I believe the R&D was extremely successful.

Naomi said "I actually got Covid just before we began devising but thankfully was able to join online and contribute from home, so I could recover and keep everyone else safe. I think this opens new possibilities for theatre-making.

Eleanor Felton's rehearsal photos.

My final question turned to the future of the production after this online streaming of the work in progress. Eleanor said "We will be looking to develop the piece towards a fully staged production this year. I am especially excited to bring the whole cast into the rehearsal room and be able to explore the show in a more physical and abstract way. We created mostly over Zoom, with a couple of actors in the room. It was incredible to see what we could achieve that way, and I cannot wait to bring this creative team into a room together to see where else we can go with it!"

Amber added "We hope to further develop the piece after it being received by its first audiences.  This may be editing what we already have or extending it.  The hope is also to bring the whole ensemble together to perform the piece, so this will involve a lot of adaptation in itself."

The work in progress production of Have You Heard is will be available to watch through Applecart Arts on Wednesday 3rd, Thursday 4th and Friday 5th March at 8pm (GMT). Tickets are £10 and the piece runs for 40 minutes. You can purchase tickets here. 

© Beyond the Curtain. Design by soleilflare.