Wednesday, 29 October 2014

The House of Bernarda Alba

Next week I take to the Gulbenkian stage with a host of other fantastic women (and a couple of men as well, unusually for this show) for our Autumn production. 
This one has been a long time coming, with a longer rehearsal period than we are used to, but the results of that are really showing!
The House of Bernada Alba, by Lorca, is a 1930's Spanish play, written during the Spanish Civil War when groups of women were starting to question their traditional roles within the household and there was a thirst to throw off the shackles of repression that was endemic throughout rural Spanish culture of the time, a rising movement that was forced into submission when Mussolini invaded Spain.  Lorca was a passionate advocate of theatre as a motivator for social action, and the ideas and ideologies expressed by the more rebellious characters in Bernada Alba, coupled with his own outspoken liberal views and lifestyle, were enough to get him assassinated.  He did not live to see the play performed. 
The House of Bernada Alba was first performed in 1945.  It has since been performed hundreds of times around the world, is studied by school children, acts as a social commentary on rural Spanish life in the 1930's and has been adapted for film and television.
It is an incredibly powerful and intense play, a far cry for the lighthearted and gay Hay Fever by Noel Coward we performed over the summer, but this is one of the joys of amateur theatre - you really get the opportunity to try out your hand at pretty much any genre and we explore all areas of the craft.
We auditioned way back in June for our parts, and I was delighted to be cast as Amelia, the middle sister in the household.  Sally, our Director, has worked incredibly hard with us to draw out our own, individual characters (as the sisters can have a bit of a tendency to blur in the play if you are not careful) and it is this intensive style of rehearsal that has led to a very strong production.
This is a more stylized version than most, with the traditional Spanish elements being used as a reference point rather than dictating the feel of the play.  Costumes, for example, have no particular time period to reference but instead look as though they could be from anytime.  The colour scheme as well is pure black and silver - no other colour is allowed to bleed through, except for Adela's iconic green dress and Maria Josefa's tattered and pathetic wedding gown.
We have also been incredibly lucky to have our very own set of musicians.  Greg, from Green Diesel, has composed an original score for us which permeates through the play.  There are no sound effects, no pre-programmed music cues.  All the sound and music is live, played from the musicians sat amongst the audience or created by the actors voices.  This soundtrack gives the production the oppressive weight of a thunderstorm brewing on the horizon and is extremely atmospheric.  I've heard the music about 30 times now and know the play inside out, but last night, when we had the full set of musicians for the first time, and the action was punctuated by the drum and the guitar and the discordant bass, I felt the hairs on my arms and on the back of my neck rise as though triggered by electricity.  Good lord it was spine tinglingly effective!
As with any production, we have become close as a cast, especially given the fact that we have had a number of drop outs, including having to recast Adela at very short notice (Amy rose to the challenge and was off book before the rest of us, much to our shame!).  One of side-effects of being incredibly cruel and bitchy to each other on stage means that off stage, more often than not we are giggly and affectionate with each other.  There's only so much tearing of each other's hair you can do before you start to feel bad, even if it is only acting.
The amount of physicality this play has demanded has been quite high.  We see women being beaten by walking sticks, pulling each other's hair out, pushing and shoving each other, slapping each other and being dragged around by ropes.  It explores the darkest, most vindictive sides of female nature. 
The play itself is very intense, dark and repressive.  Modern days audiences may find it hard to relate to some of the ideologies expressed by the more traditional characters, with their comments about loose morals, women without men, class and the role of a woman in society, duty and obedience, but it was these very ideologies that Lorca was starting to question and could see being challenged in the world around him.  Lorca, as a homosexual, had an sympathy for oppressed groups, and he expanded this to include women.  Although he was in no way a feminist, in a peculiar way, this is possibly one of the most feminist plays I have ever encountered. 
One of the major challenges has been finding moments of lightness in amongst the oppression and repression of the play, and breaking up the constant tension that pervades through the language.  Our challenge has been to find pauses, snapshots of love and affection between the sisters and their mother.  These moments are few and far between but this makes them all the more important, and as a group we refused to believe that an entire family could only feel hatred for each other. 
We have steered away from the traditional image of The House of Bernada in other ways as well.  It is rare, very rare to have men cast in the production as they are referred to in the script, but never seen.  We have broken that and have a couple of fine gentlemen involved in a variety of roles!  Just wait until you hear them sing! 
We also never leave the stage - when not involved in a scene we hover on the edges, just outside of the light and we watch.  We stand and judge, condemning the action silently and having sentence passed on us in turn by the townsfolk around who add to the claustrophobia.  No matter what we do or how much we squirm, we cannot escape the critical eyes.
This play has been a long time coming - three nights a week, give or take, for three months, but I feel that we have a really impressive show on our hands now.
We have two more rehearsals this week, one on Thursday night and one on Saturday morning, then it is time to go to Wye on Sunday to load the van.  We get into the theatre on Monday, ready for build, and then it is curtain up for the first time on Thursday.
Wish us broken legs please!

If you want to buy a ticket, they are on sale at the Gulbenkian Theatre.  Shows are the 6th-8th November at 7.30pm.

Photo credit:  Les Gordon, from a (non costume) rehearsal

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Monday, 27 October 2014

Lord Of The Flies

A little while ago Ellie, John and I took a trip to the Marlowe to go and see Matthew Bourne's Lord of the Flies by the New Adventures.
I'm no stranger to Bourne's creative genius; I bawled my eyes out for the last 10 minutes of Swan Lake and came away with a new found respect and appreciation for dance.  To say I was looking forward to this production was an understatement.  I was borderline reverting to toddler levels of excitement, and I'm sure my voice had elevated up an octave every few hundred yards we got closer to the Marlowe.
As well as taking classic dance and turning it completely on its head, Bourne has a knack for exploring stories that you wouldn't automatically associate with the potential for dance, and re imagining them as a new art form.  He did it with Edward Scissorhands and Dorian Grey and he has done it again with William Golding's classic novel, Lord of the Flies.
Lord of the Flies is unlike anything he has ever attempted before though, and that is down to the use of local boys alongside the main Company as the show tours.  In each new city, young boys and young men from local schools and colleges, some of whom have absolutely no previous dance experience, are put through their paces in a series of rigorous auditions and then rehearsals, ready for a week of performances in the local theatre.  This means that every time the show enters a new city, the touring production must get to grips with about 20 new, highly excitable, faces every time.
This is having the not unexpected side effect of introducing thousands of boys to a world that they may well have previously been alienated from.  Ask most young lads if they want to dance, and they are more than likely to turn their noses up at the idea, imagining pink tutu's and pigtails.  Lord of the Flies is anything but feminine.  It is dark, gritty, filthy and violent and you can tell that the boys are having the time of their life.  There is clearly a need for this type of role for men - over 600 boys auditioned for just 24 places in Manchester alone.
In interviews, Bourne notes that he selects his core dancers from the Company from members of the New Adventures who will be positive role models for the young men he has in his production.  They are dancers who will not only perform well on stage, but will inspire the young men he is bringing into the fold.  He is focused not on finding the next dance star, but on helping the young men become more rounded individuals.  It is clear that he is taking the wider implications of his work seriously, something that is likely born out of the origins of the show.
Lord of the Flies started life in Glasgow in 2011 when the New Adventures were asked to create something that would inspire boys who would normally have to be dragged kicking and screaming into a theatre.  Lord of the Flies was the outcome of that initial idea, and after a successful residency in Scotland, the decision was taken to tour the show to three or four cities around the UK.  That tour, at last count, had 13 cities on the schedule.  That is quite an undertaking.
Choreographed by Olivier Award-nominated Scott Ambler, composed by Terry Davies and with an incredible set and costume design by Olivier Award-winner Lez Brotherston, Lord of the Flies is transported from a desert island to a deserted theatre.  On a school-trip-gone-wrong, the boys are trapped inside whilst outside the theatre there is civil unrest, and the situation rapidly deteriorates as order is abandoned and chaos reigns.  The boys quickly descend into feral behaviour, tormenting each other, with as many as 32 on the stage at any one time.
The set is industrial; steel girders, steel drums with fire blazing from the tops, ladders and metal shutters that are banged and rattled thunderously as a counterpoint to the action.  Everything is made of something that the boys can use to beat out their feverish rhythms.  The boys utilise every last piece of the set, swinging from the beams, stamping on the platforms and rolling on the drums.  They don't move slowly either - the movements are, for the most part, frenzied and frantic.  They take your breathe away. 
The storyline is very cleverly adapted from the book, with the raiding party heading out into the auditorium, passing up and down the aisles to fetch the boxes of crisps, ice cream and canned drinks that become their food supply.  The pilot becomes an ailing tramp that is living under the stage, terrifying the boys as they elevate him into a larger than life monster in their minds.  Costume rails and wicker baskets become hiding places, lights fall from the ceiling to tragic consequences.
Bourne has admitted in interviews that he is acutely aware of the fact that the show is being performed by individuals, 50-75% of whom are not professional dancers, and yet the show wants to attract paying audiences who will expect to see a professional level performance.  He needn't have worried - the show is stupendous and the boys look as if they were dancing before they could walk. 
The production feels wild, threatening and untamed.  It's been years since I read the book, but from what I can remember of it, this is a fitting tribute to the classic dystopian story of societies collapse in the wake of no rules or regulations, of the emergence of savagery and primitive behaviour over civilisation.
As the production wears on, the boys themselves become feral; marked with tribal paint and shredded clothes, moving through mist and smoke and beating out a rhythm with sticks.  The boys who reject this life, who keep their school uniforms on, who refuse to take part in the hunt or the frenetic group dancing become outcasts; spurned, scorned and later hunted.
Each of the boys is responsible for their own back story and character development.  They are not just faceless, anonymous members of an ensemble - they each have character names in their own right and they are encouraged to explore this. 
When the show comes to its climatic end, you leave the theatre utterly breathless.  You are also surrounded by excited parents, friends and relatives clamouring to get the stage door to applaud the youngsters as they leave the theatre on cloud nine.
For a host of young men, Bourne has done more than just open a door to a world that they had never dreamed existed.  He has held it wide and allowed them to run, screaming in savage animalistic joy through it.
The tour finishes in early December 2014.  If you have the opportunity to visit it at a theatre near you, please take it.  You won't be disappointed!

Photo's courtesy of

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Wednesday, 22 October 2014

A Thai Banquet

When I get a craving, I get it bad.  This particular one hit me hard and I could not get Thai food out of my head.  I fought it off for a couple of weeks, but eventually had to cave.  Unfortunately, by that time I couldn't decide exactly what I wanted, so decided to make it all.  I went a little bit overboard, and Steve and I had Thai food coming out of our ears for a good few weeks!  It is safe to say that the itch was well and truly scratched.

It is true that Thai food is widely available in take away format these days, but in actual fact it is surprisingly easy to make.  Yes there are a lot of ingredients, but once you have the spices in your cupboard and things like the wrappers, lemon grass and lime leaves in the freezer, you just need the meat and fresh veg and you can whip it up in surprisingly little time.  All these recipes use very similar ingredients, just put together in different ways, and make a banquet fit for a king (or some friends you happen to like very much).  Most of this can also be made a day to half a day in advance as well, so when your guests arrive, all you need to do is a little last minute frying and you are ready to go with minimal stress!  If you don't have a deep fat fryer, heat up oil in a large wok or deep frying pan and use that instead.  Obviously use a lot of care when working with hot oil, and don't overload them!  It is far safer to cook in small batches rather than trying to cook it all in one go.  Don't forget to heat the oil back up to temperature between batches as the cooking process will have dropped the oil temperature.

On the menu:

Beef and Prawn Pouches
Spring Rolls
Fish Cakes
Squid and Pork Vermicelli noodles
Beef Massaman Curry
Thai Jasmine Rice
Hot and Sour Dipping Sauce
Sweet Chilli Dipping Sauce
Beef and Prawn Pouches (makes 15-20)

2 tablespoons oil
1 clove crushed garlic
1 small finely chopped onion
2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh ginger
80g minced beef
60g cooked small shelled prawns, chopped into at least thirds
1 small grated carrot
2 finely chopped spring onions
1 tablespoon finely chopped basil leaves
1 tablespoon sugar
1 finely chopped red chilli
250g packet of won ton wrappers (available in the freezer section of an Asian supermarket)
1 lightly beaten egg
oil for deep frying

Quick note before we start - I said finely chop the ingredients, and I mean really finely chop.  You will have about 1 1/2 teaspoons of mixture inside each parcel so you don't want giant chunks of one particular ingredient.  Take the time and make it all small!  Once the cooking starts as well, everything happens quite quickly so make sure you prep everything before you start heating the oil.  Same goes for the spring rolls in a bit.

Heat the oil in a large pan and fry off the garlic, stirring, until lightly browned.  Add the onion and ginger and cook for 1 minute.  Add the mince and cook until the mince is browned.  Stir in the prawns , carrot and spring onion and cook for a minute.  Stir in the sugar and basil.  Turn off the heat.

Take a won ton wrapper and brush with the egg mixture.  Add about 1 1/2 teaspoons of the mixture into the centre of the wrapper, leaving a gap around the edge and making sure you get a bit of prawn in there.
Pull up the edges of the wrapper and pinch together to seal. 
Deep fry the pouches in hot oil, in batches until well browned and drain on kitchen towel.  Serve hot with a dipping sauce.  Uncooked pouches will freeze well in a sealed contained, and you can make the pouches a half day ahead before cooking and store in the fridge.
Pork Spring Rolls (makes 15-20)

If you can make a won ton, you can make a spring roll.  It's the same idea, just rolled in a different shape using a slightly different wrapper.  If you want to make a vegetarian version, simply sub out the pork for finely sliced young broccoli stems and baby corn.

50g rice vermicelli noodles (available from an Asian supermarket)
250g lean minced pork
1 tablespoon oil
1 clove crushed garlic
1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh red chilli
2 finely chopped spring onions
1 grated medium carrot
1 tablespoon fresh chopped coriander root
1 tablespoon chopped fresh coriander leaves
1 teaspoon fish sauce
100g cooked prawns, shelled and finely chopped
30g spring roll pastry sheets (available from the frozen section of an Asian supermarket)
1 tablespoon cornflour
2 tablespoons water
oil for deep frying

Cover the vermicelli with warm water in a bowl and leave to stand and soften for 10 minutes.  Drain them well and finely chop.

Heat the oil in a pan and cook the pork, garlic and chilli's until the pork is browned.  Add the onions, carrot, coriander root and leaves, fish sauce, prawn and vermicelli.  Cook and then remove from the heat and leave to cool.

Place a tablespoon of the cooled mixture into the centre of a spring roll sheet and brush the edges with blended cornflour and water.  Fold the left and right corners inwards, then the bottom corner.  Flip the mixture to make a tight pouch then continue to roll upwards, making sure the last edge is sealed down.
Deep fry the rolls in hot oil in batches until golden brown and drain on kitchen towel.   Don't worry if some of them split a little.   Serve hot with dipping sauce.  Uncooked rolls will freeze well and the rolls can be prepared a half day in advance of cooking and refrigerated.

Fish Cakes (makes 25)

1/3 cup red curry paste (see below)
1kg red-fish fillets (snapper or perch)
1 egg
2 teaspoons chopped fresh coriander leaves
2 teaspoons sugar
100g green beans, finely chopped
Oil for deep frying

Blend the fish, egg, curry paste, coriander and sugar until smooth.  It will have a slightly gelatinous feel to it.

Combine the blended fish with the chopped green beans and mix well.

Roll 2 level teaspoons of the mixture into a ball and flatten slightly.  Repeat with the remaining mixture.

Deep fry the fish cakes in hot oil until well browned and drain on absorbent paper.  The uncooked fish cakes will freeze well.  They can be made a day in advance and refrigerated and the red curry paste can be made a week in advance and refrigerated.  
Red Curry Paste
1 small red onion, chopped
3 crushed cloves garlic
2 tablespoons chopped fresh lemon grass
3 teaspoons chopped fresh coriander root
2 teaspoons dried chilli flakes
1 teaspoon galangal powder
1 teaspoon grated lime zest
1/2 teaspoon shrimp paste (available from an Asian supermarket)
1 dried kaffir lime leaf
3 teaspoons paprika
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
3 teaspoons oil

Blend all the ingredients together well to make a paste.  Leftover paste will freeze well - add coconut milk and chicken or fish to make a red Thai curry.
Hot and Sour Dipping Sauce

5cm fresh root ginger, chopped
2 teaspoons caster sugar
2 fresh chopped red chilli's
2 cloves of chopped garlic
1/2 small lime, peeled and sectioned
2 teaspoons fish sauce

Pound the ginger, sugar, chillies and garlic in a pestle and mortar to form a syrupy sauce.  Add the lime and pound to a mixture.  Add the fish sauce.  Keep in the fridge for up to 3 days.
Sweet Chilli Dipping Sauce

1/2 cup water
1/4 cup white vinegar
2 teaspoon hoisin sauce
1 small fresh red chilli, chopped
1/2 cup brown sugar

Combine all the ingredients in a pan over the heat and cook until the sugar has dissolved and the sauce is slightly thickened (about 5 minutes).  Serve hot or cold, and keep in the fridge for up to 3 days.
Squid and Pork Vermicelli noodles (enough for 4-6 as a side dish, or 3 as a main course)

300g vermicelli noodles, soaked in warm water for 10 minutes
100g lean pork, lightly browned
1 chopped red pepper
2 chopped spring onions
1 squid, lightly fried
Juice and zest of 1 lime
1 tablespoon fish sauce
1 teaspoon chopped fresh ginger
2 cloves garlic, crushed
2 red chilli's, finely chopped
1 teaspoon sugar

Mix the cooked noodles, pork, red pepper, squid and spring onions together.

Combine the lime, fish sauce, ginger, garlic and sugar in a pestle and mortar and pound together.  Add the chilli's to the sauce and then throw over the noodle mixture and stir to lightly coat.  Stick it in the fridge and serve cold.  Can be made a day in advance (it is actually better when the flavours have had some time to develop).
Beef Massaman Curry (enough for 4 as a main course)
1kg beef cut into cubes
500ml good quality beef stock
1 diced onion
3 bay leaves
1-2 potatoes, peeled and cut into large chunks
Handful fresh chopped coriander
1 inch ginger, grated
4-5 cloves of crushed garlic
1 stalk of sliced lemongrass
1 fresh chopped red chilli
Handful chopped peanuts
1 tsp ground coriander
1 tsp cumin seeds
1/2 tsp white pepper
1tso turmeric
1/8 tsp ground cardamon
1 tsp tamarind paste (or 1 tablespoon lime juice)
3/4 tsp shrimp paste
1 tablespoon brown sugar
2 tablespoon fish sauce
400 ml can full fat coconut milk

Place stock in a large pot over high heat. Add the meat, onion and bay leaves. Bring to a boil and then reduce to a low simmer. Cover with a lid and simmer 40 to 80 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the meat is tender

Add all the other ingredients, stirring with each addition.  Return to a boil, then simmer for at least 30 minutes until the potatoes are tender, stirring occasionally.

Prepare the jasmine rice according to the packet instructions, and serve with fresh coriander and the cooked rice.  Can be made a day in advance and reheated over a low heat for 20 minutes when required.
Serve the whole lot together, or keep the curry back for the main.  Pop some Thai beers and you have an amazing casual dinner for you and your friends!

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