Last Sunday evening I was invited to see ‘A double bill of Modern Spanish plays’ created by Skeptikal Productions at the Arcola Theatre, directed by Natalie Katsou. Like many people, my initial thought was ‘will Modern Spanish Plays keep me entertained for an evening?’ The answer to this question is a most definite and resounding yes.
The first of the two plays ‘Bazaar’ by David Planell is described as a darkly comic tale that gives insight into the lives of Spanish immigrants and questions the notion of national identity and the individual. This seems like quite a large undertaking for a cast of three and a studio space. However, upon entering the theatre, I felt instantly transported to the dusty, dirty and crowded streets of warm Madrid, Spanish guitar playing rapidly, welcoming the audience to sit closely and drink in the sense of sun bleached wood and clutter provided by the sumptuous set design of Maria Kalamara.
In the story, three very different and ethnically diverse men plot and attempt to have a video of what sounds like an hilarious bicycle accident involving one of them shown nationwide on a Television clip show. As they discuss daily life, plans for the future, and plans for the video, the racial tension and ongoing anger between each character becomes apparent and by the end of the story, personal identity has become the only thing that the characters have left to pick on. Although it begins humorously and builds to some very active and funny moments, the writing of the play flawlessly deepens its self to become something entirely serious in its message, both meaningful and clear.
The use of space throughout ‘Bazaar’ is fantastic. The whole stage is transformed by the opening or closing of a wooden shutter, the moving of boxes and tires, or by a very slick rotation of the central set piece which gives the show pace and a sense of time.
Christopher Neels opens the show strongly as Anton, a brash but seemingly very clumsy man who swaggers around the city like he is ‘the Don’. During his interaction with Hassan played by Pezhmaan Alinia, a Moroccan Muslim immigrant shop owner, we see his character clearly demonstrate the depths that he will go to make a peseta or two. Funny, charismatic and full of energy, Christopher Neels presents the right angle of Anton, he is the kind of man you love to hate!
Hassan was perhaps the most difficult character to understand. Without revealing too much of the story, he is seemingly very unhappy with the way he is treated in Spain, he dislikes the Spanish people and their values, but he shrugs away from dwelling on his home or past in an attempt to move on from something. But what? Pezhmaan Alinia works hard to bring understanding to Hassan, but unfortunately the situations that the character finds himself in are so much a private battle that at times it was infuriating as an audience member to see him leave the action of the stage without explaining how he felt.
Rashid, played honestly by Matija Vlatkovic is the voice of reason between the two cultures. He manages to bring a sense of togetherness, a sense of trust in which the other characters can reveal their true thoughts on the identity crisis which runs as a strong current throughout the show. Although he is not perfect and he uses his own identity for other purposes, he is the most relatable of the three men. He is seeing the situation through the eyes of someone who may not know what he wants to do with his life, but has a clear understanding of who he is. Matija Vlatkovic does a very good job of presenting Rashid’s young but routed sense of self to the situation he finds himself in.
The production, although dutifully performed and beautifully crafted on stage, suffers from the sheer fact that the play was not written for a British audience. There were many moments that on later reflection should have been funny or moving or profound, but unclear of how to react, the audience made no response. The piece feels like it has been lost in translation and the culture that it was written for is not a prevalent culture in young London. ‘Bazaar’ felt a little bizarre to me as I struggled to connect to some of the issues raised in the play.
After a quick drink and a discussion with friends about what we thought of the first show, it was time to head back into Studio 2 at the Arcola, and settle for the second round of Spanish voices with ‘Wolf Kisses’ by Paloma Pedrero.
The story revolves around the homecoming of Ana, a young woman who has left a Convent School to live with her father where she is awaiting the arrival of her fiancé. The way in which Ana views men, the world, and her own significance is captured stunningly in this melancholic and thought provoking production. Inherently Spanish, it is brimming with soul, music and poetry that sets fire to and strums the heart with a Catalan folk song.
The production bows to its Spanish heritage, and every component has been thoroughly regarded in order for the story to be told eloquently. The set is a character in itself. The perception of railway tracks disappearing into the horizon; the use of backlighting to create a sense of heat and claustrophobia; the sense of space throughout the studio incorporated into the show captures the audience from the first moment and stretches the production far beyond the confines of the small basement studio.
All characters are portrayed with strength and confidence by the ensemble, and I got the sense that everyone on stage was really enjoying it, something which is often overlooked but vital to the success and energy of any piece of theatre. Even the curly haired guitarist who played the guitar so beautifully to accompany the show observed the action on the stage and engrossed the audience to carry on watching with him.
Particular praise must be given to Katerina Watson for portraying the role of Ana so outstandingly. The slightness of her figure and her sometimes awkward angular posture and movements married perfectly with her characters loss of identity; the attention to the delivery of her speech, the way in which she moved across the stage and through the story made the characters swing within a single scene from elation to absolute despair compelling to watch.
Her father, played by Jon Millington, and her confidante Luciano, played by Patrick Holt are swept up in the whirl of Ana’s mind, but manage to tell of their own heartaches and desperate attempts at reinvention. Both men perform admirably and with real affection for their respective roles.
Camilo, the village’s train conductor, played by Angus King, acts not only as a hark back to things lost, but also as the one man who firmly bases himself in reality. Angus King’s portrayal is very successful in achieving Camilo’s frustration with the people he is surrounded by and compassion for the woman he has always been drawn to.
Wolf Kisses is a completely enthralling show and the sort of production that makes you question why people are afraid to go and see something new. This is West End worthy. The young producers Kieron J. Knights and Rhiannon Kelly have collaborated with a brilliant production team to create a beautifully told story.
The evening was unquestionably a success with two very different productions tied to one another due to their notions of identity, but each with its very own distinctive rhythm, soul and heat.
I really do encourage you to see both shows because it is fascinating to witness two completely different shows written and based on very similar topics in one evening, made by one theatre company, and with one goal in mind. To make an enticing theatrical event!
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