Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

A Small Piece of History: Critics from Print, Online & Radio

At Theatr Clwyd

The Assassination of Katie Hopkins- Theatr Clwyd , Emlyn Williams Theatre , May 4, 2018
At Theatr Clwyd by The Assassination of Katie Hopkins- Theatr Clwyd Georgio Vasari was once asked why the art in his adopted city excelled above all others. He replied “the spirit of criticism: the air of Florence making minds naturally free, and not content with mediocrity.” For the makers of art there is a paradox to criticism. It is not necessarily good for the individual work but it is good for the form as a whole. The collection of Joyce McMillan's theatre criticism in Scotland has a foreword of praise and welcome from no less than Vicky Featherstone. The equivalent would not occur in Wales. Unlike in Florence the Thing passes over mediocrity.

Nonetheless, the range of articulate feedback in Cardiff is better in 2018 than even a couple of years back. In the north this month a small piece of critical history has taken place. Theatr Clwyd's spring production received attention from sources in three media. The media were print, online and radio; the authors were a top writer from London, a strong local critic and a trio for BBC Wales, the Corporation taking regard of culture in its own land. They report today. It is a small item in history. But history is equally made from a myriad of small things.

The limitations of space on print critics are harsh. In this instance, however, Lyn Gardner got 530 words. First, she gave the title a sense of perspective and went straight to “it’s an intelligent, thoughtful and often wryly enjoyable look at the polarisation of public debate in the age of social media, and what happens when it ceases to be a discourse and becomes a mere echo chamber.”

Designer Lucy Osborne was nominated for Best Design in the 2018 Wales Theatre Awards for “Uncle Vanya.” Here she has thematically designed “stairs, platforms and movable screens features the lights of thousands of endlessly winking mobile phones.”

Gardner picks out a young actor- “an impressive debut from Bethzienna Williams”- but has reservations on the form: “The two stories never quite meet, but offer a series of reverberating reflections on free speech, confirmation bias, our obsession with celebrity, who gets justice, and how humanity and truth are casualties in a world of instant messaging, unchecked news reports and videos that go viral at the click of a button.”

Later: “There are moments when it feels a little dry, and it’s definitely overlong and repetitive. But with tightening and cuts, it should shine, thanks to its brilliant cast and willingness to grapple intelligently with how technology is changing us.”

But she is impressed: [Writer Chris] “Bush and director James Grieve set out their stall early by pointing to the inability of theatre, or indeed any medium, to tell the whole truth, while slyly suggesting that what we are watching is a verbatim play based on real interviews and news reports. But, of course, it is a fiction.

"..It’s very neatly done, as is Winkworth’s deliciously inventive score, which pulsates and bleeps like a mobile device and yet still has a lyrical underscoring, and plenty of earworms. Music and words are sometimes in harmony, but often cleverly used in counterpoint to each other. Most importantly, the score offers an emotional hook that Bush’s clever, inquiring script sometimes lacks. The show has pitched itself in the realm of Jerry Springer: The Opera, and there are similarities. But it is less outrageously satirical and eager to shock, and more reflective.”

Conwy-based critic Steve Stratford has the generosity of space that online allows. His review, running to 1430 words, reflects on the phenomenon of social media. He takes it to the inevitable conclusion. There is many an opinion on this show and not having experienced it is no disqualifier for a view. The Guardian has racked up 102 comments. Just one contributor starts “I may be a rare commenter who has actually seen the show.”

Stratford has more space to discuss the score: “Winkworth's music is wonderfully modern and energetic, incorporating those awful mobile phone alert sounds we live with every day but barely notice, synthesising them into vibrant melodies thanks to a live band led by musical director Jordan Li-Smith. The stand-out song is Have You Seen This?, which opens the play and runs throughout as a touchstone, most amusingly near the end when a human rights lawyer is trying to launch her British Justice campaign at a press conference, but onlookers and reporters are distracted by something else happening somewhere else, right now... Breaking news! "Have you seen this...?" they say, pointing to their phones and wandering away. It's like a national choreography.”

He has the sharp eye for detail: “The stage management is a little haphazard at times too - for how many years have musicals been rolling flights of stairs around the stage to generate movement? It's a slightly hackneyed choice for what is supposed to be an ultra-modern musical.” His strongest critique is directed towards the dramatist. But that is why an array of critics is necessary, that disagreement may flourish.

As for the direction: “Director James Grieve comes up with the refreshing idea of having the actors conduct rolling news reports, YouTube videos and Periscope broadcasts live on stage (complete with screen freezes!). Cameras follow the performers around, with the broadcasts projected onto the big screen (excellent work by video projection designer Nina Dunn), giving the audience the choice of watching the live performers or the finished transmission simultaneously.”

The description in the paragraph sets the production in direct comparison with “Network” in London. The cast there was great for a concept that was boneheaded. The whole point about network television is that it has ceded its monopoly authority. So the score, on this count at least, is National Theatre 0, Theatr Clwyd 1.


Steve Stratford:

Lyn Gardner:

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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