Archive for November, 2010

In The Penal Colony

New opera at the Traverse is becoming an annual exciting date to not to miss.    Music Theatre Wales made a return visit with In the Penal Colony by Philip Glass after their successful presentation of Letters of  Love Betrayed in 2009.    Before that, Lyall Creswell’s Good Angel, Bad Angel set a very high standard.   And in between, the Hebrides Ensemble performed The Martyrdom of St Magnus before taking it to Kirkwall Cathedral for the Orkney Festival.     The popular success of the Five:15 project from Scottish Opera demonstrates a healthy appetite for new chamber opera, and the Traverse had a waiting list for tickets for this one night only show.  
In the Penal Colony is based on a short story by Franz Kafka, with libretto by Rudolph Wurlitzer and music by Philip Glass.   The opera is 10 years old, but this tour was its first outing in the UK.      The setting was minimalist:   two singers, one actor and a string quartet (with added double bass) from Scottish Opera’s orchestra.    The stage had a table, a chair and a ladder.    
In the Penal Colony

In the Penal Colony - Photo, Clive Barda

The setting is a penal colony, with capital punishment in the hands of The  Officer, intent on doing things very traditionally and  superbly sung and acted by Omar Ebrahim.     The Condemned Man was expressively played by silent actor Gerald Tyler.    The third character was The Visitor, sung by Michael Bennett  sent to observe proceedings.   
The Officer shows the Visitor his brutal machine, and it becomes apparent that the killing takes  several hours – plenty long enough for a condemned man to see the error of his ways before he is finally dispatched.    The Visitor is appalled, and as it dawns on the Officer that the rest of the world has in fact moved on from the middle ages, there is only one course of action left – to turn himself over to the machine.

Glass’s music is based on repetitive but ever-changing motifs, and the musicians took up the challenge with clear relish.    However, it tended to get a bit samey after a while, and there were sudden halts where everyone turned a page, and there was a different lighting cue, which I felt spoilt the action.     The amplification of both the players and singers, which although reasonably unobtrusive, was perhaps not needed, particularly as the radio mikes were having a few buzzy problems.

I was just not sure this story worked well as opera.     There were times when there was not enough happening on stage.   Certainly, everyone turned in good performances, but the result was ultimately less than the sum of its parts, which was a little disappointing.

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We tried to get to see Roadkill back in the summer at the Tron ahead of its run at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, where it scooped a clutch of awards, and where we also failed to secure tickets.   We tried again for the recent run at the Tron, and initially failed, but we were put  on a waiting list – luckily we were offered returns…….

We knew well in advance that this was a hard-hitting play about sex trafficking, and that it was to be played out to a small audience in a seedy flat somewhere in town.     As a theatrical experience, it was deeply disturbing, and raised all sorts of questions.


Roadkill - photo, Ankur productions

We got on the wee bus at the Tron, and last to get on was Martha, a young smart Nigerian lady with Mary, a 14 year old Nigerian girl, fresh off the plane, hugely over excited to be starting a new life in Glasgow.   The girl sat across the aisle from me.   We struck up a conversation about farming;   she talked about Glasgow pubs to someone else, and about the lack of people walking about on the streets, and the fact that she had seen few black faces.   

OK, so this was a game which we, the 15 of us who made up the audience played:   Mary was in character of course:   we knew, and she knew.    Making friends with us, her fellow passengers cleverly heightened the shattering impact of this play.

We drove past the Citz and the Tramway, and we all got out at a run down flat nearby.   There was a smashed up loo and basin beside the steps – put there by the company, or just simply ‘there’ in the street?  

Within the space of a few minutes, the bubbly excitable 14 year old had been raped by an Eastern European man who was running the flat of sex trafficked girls, aided by Martha, called ‘auntie’ by the girl.    She was introduced to prostitution, and given explicit lessons on how to cope with clients.     She was cruelly convinced that the money was being sent back home to her family in Africa.     

The performances from Mercy Ojelade as Mary, Adura Onashile, and John Kazek (who played all the men) were quite extraordinary and outstanding.    Real tears.   Graphic detail was conveyed by video projection and soundscape, one part featuring read out entries from a real website where clients post their experiences with various girls in the city, as if putting up reviews up for  hotel rooms on Tripadvisor.   It was grim stuff indeed

It was all very real and horrifying for us in the audience sitting on our small stools around Mary’s room.    What made it bearable was Mary’s inner strength, which she held onto despite what others were doing to her, and in the end offered a glimmer of hope of sorts.  

The location of the flat underlined that this is happening in everyday places we know – not the obvious red light districts.    It really did leave questions of us in the audience who almost felt like voyeurs into a parallel world happening right alongside us – only a short bus-ride away.   It was a powerful theatrical experience, but I feel very uncomfortable walking away from this if that is the only thing I do take away.   And perhaps that is director Cora Bissett’s aim – to highlight the problem, and perhaps galvanise  some sort of action.   In particular, she highlights the relationship between the older woman and the girl as repulsive and intriguing:   how can one woman do this to another?  

The bus ride back to the Theatre was very sombre and thoughtful.

Roadkill is available for touring, so hopefully will be performed elsewhere.

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