Strange question, Graham! “Was Ralph Fiennes ‘menacing'” in TS Eliot’s Four Quartets at York Theatre Royal?

The look of a man who has just heard Graham Chalmers’ question: Ralph Fiennes in Four Quartets at York Theatre Royal

DISCOVER Charles Hutchinson’s answer in Episode 53 of Chalmers & Hutch’s arts podcast Two Big Egos In A Small Car.

Also under discussion are digging out your Harry Potter first editions; Graham’s review of a long-overdue documentary appreciation of undervalued music filmmaker Tony Palmer; Amy Winehouse, ten years gone, and dreamers versus schemers.

To listen, head to: https://www.buzzsprout.com/1187561/8952027

REVIEW: Ralph Fiennes in T S Eliot’s Four Quartets at York Theatre Royal ****

Ralph Fiennes in his world premiere: “He did not merely declaim or recite. Instead, Four Quartets became poetry in often slow, mellifluous motion”

REVIEW: Ralph Fiennes in TS Eliot’s Four Quartets, York Theatre Royal, until Saturday, 8pm nightly. Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk

THIS was always the “event” moment of the reopening Love Season at York Theatre Royal.

So much so, there had even been 16 days of darkness since the closing night of A Splinter Of Ice: a dramatic pause of anticipation worthy of a Harold Pinter play, a pause lengthened all the more by the gap between Ralph Fiennes’s unannounced arrival on stage and his opening word from T S Eliot’s epic poem cycle. Like a pianist composing himself for the first note.

In the interim since July 10 had come the Government’s rubber-stamping of Step 4 and the return to full-capacity audiences, making Fiennes’s York debut at 58 even more of an event.

Mask-wearing was still advised, a softly-softly policy that was met largely with compliance, although temperature checks and the taking of names and phone numbers have gone.

Sitting close together in an almost full theatre for the first time since mid-March 2020 was a suck-it-see experience: any loud cough was met a tad nervously, and the Theatre Royal felt uncomfortably warm. Hopefully, that can be adjusted. Please.

Anyway, on with the one-man show, a London-bound touring tour de force presented in its world premiere by the Royal & Derngate, Northampton, and the Theatre Royal, Bath, directed and performed by the esteemed Mr Fiennes, whose solemn entry was as low key as his autumnal colours of brown jacket and grey shirt hanging loosely outside dark trousers.

Ralph Fiennes in Four Quartets: “His feet were bare, maybe to ground himself, as if connecting with the earth below when the world around was in such a whirl”

His feet were bare, maybe still from that day’s yoga session, or maybe to ground himself, as if connecting with the earth below when the world around was in such a whirl.

He had the air of an intellectual lecturer, wrapped in intense thought, but needing to express himself, to communicate, hence the sporadic breaking of the fourth wall for direct address from the stage apron. Never dry, but conversational.

Fiennes did not merely declaim or recite. Instead, Four Quartets became poetry in often slow, mellifluous motion, a dramatic monologue with choreographed movement and lighting to suit the moment, the mood, the scene.

Fiennes had started with the lights still up and would bring them again sporadically, but at one point too, he plunged the stage into darkness, before a single light picked out a grey, almost ghostly countenance. Fire suddenly burned brightly, almost blindingly.

Every detail, every nuance, mattered, as with Eliot’s text, whether the placement of the two chairs and the table with a glass of water and a wartime studio microphone, used only once as if for addressing the nation.

The removal of the jacket and later putting it on again, wrapping it closely around his lean frame, signified the change of seasons, and all the while, Fiennes would break the moment, but not momentum, by moving two rotating slabs into different positions. It was an act of toil, but one to present new palettes, new shapes, new reliefs, as if in a painting, rather than the endless turmoil of Sisyphus being forced by Zeus to roll a boulder up a hill for eternity.

Ralph Fiennes: “Made Eliot’s language dance, sing, sting, ebb and flow, spark and turn to embers”

Fiennes’s voice, so familiar from the screen, is a thing of beauty in the flesh, weighted yet airy, his diction enunciated to the last ‘t’ that could blow out a candle. He made Eliot’s language dance, sing, sting, flow, spark and turn to embers in the series of symphonic meditations.

Conceived in lockdown, when Fiennes decided to set himself the task of learning Four Quartets, his performance could be termed a labour of love, but it is too transcendent to be burdened with a sense of labour.

Eliot’s final masterpiece, published in wartime 1943, brought together Burnt Norton, East Coker, The Dry Salvages and Little Giddings, each announced by Fiennes in an unbroken performance with resonance anew in our pandemic age of seeking survival amid a national (and international) crisis.

For all the turbulence and dissonance of war, Eliot’s tone is reflective, but never nostalgic, as he and in turn Fiennes addresses what Fiennes called “the perennial questions, the big, big ideas”: the passing of time and feeling trapped; the link between past, present and future; identity; existence; faith, the soul and spiritual yearning; the elements and the environment; the futility of war.

A chill wrapped itself around the Theatre Royal heat, as mortality, human frailty, the fire and the rose, signified the end. The rest was silence, Fiennes’s head bowed, as if to honour the passing of Eliot’s gilded, questing, mysterious words.

‘My God, it’s so modern; my God, it’s all about now,’ says Ralph Fiennes as he performs T S Eliot’s Four Quartets in York

“Four Quartets deals with such endless essential perennial questions of time, the spirit, the soul, the journey of the soul in life – big, big ideas,” says Ralph Fiennes. Picture: Matt Humphreys

RALPH Fiennes’s week-long run of his world premiere of T S Eliot’s Four Quartets will mark the return to full-capacity audiences at York Theatre Royal from Monday.

Good news for those who had missed out on tickets when the most in-demand production of the reopening Love Season was first put on sale with social distancing in place. This week’s unlocking of Step 4 has freed up the sudden availability of seats aplenty.

Please note that under the still-cautious Theatre Royal’s Covid-safety practices: “We strongly recommend that you wear a face covering out of respect for fellow audience members,” the management advises.

Star of stage and screen Fiennes is directing and performing in the world premiere of T S Eliot’s final masterpiece in his York Theatre Royal debut as the zenith of the Love Season after premiering the Royal & Derngate, Northampton and Theatre Royal, Bath co-production in Bath from May 25 to June 5.

After this summer’s regional tour, he will transfer Four Quartets to the Harold Pinter Theatre, London, for 36 performances from November 18 to December 18.

Fiennes’s solo theatre adaptation features Burnt Norton, East Coker, The Dry Salvages and Little Giddings, published together in 1943 in a quartet of four interwoven, symphonic meditations that ranges across themes of time, nature and the elements, faith and the quest for spiritual enlightenment and war and mortality.

Mostly written during the Second World War, when the closure of London playhouses during the Blitz interrupted Eliot’s work in theatre, his epic poem cycle contains “some of the most exquisite and unforgettable reflections on surviving periods of national crisis”, apt for our pandemic times.

Here, Fiennes answers a series of questions on Four Quartets, verse, versatility and villains

Where did the idea for doing Four Quartets come from?

“I’ve known it since I was quite young – we had the TS Eliot recording – so it’s something that’s been floating in and out of my awareness over the years. In the first lockdown last year I gave myself little things to engage my mind and memory, and I thought I’d learn Four Quartets.

Ralph Fiennes in rehearsal for Four Quartets

“And then various things I thought I’d do the early part of this year went away – films and so on – and it sort of transitioned.

“Could it not be put in a context where it was not just recited in a suit or something, but given a kind of gently, appropriately judged theatrical context?”

What happened next?

I was daunted and excited in equal measure by what it might be, but with the help of my agent Simon Beresford, [creative producer] James Dacre got behind it and liked the idea.

“Then the Eliot estate got behind it and then a lot of very talented people in theatre production were available – like Hildegard Bechtler, Chris Shutt and Tim Lutkin, all brilliant in their field.

“I’m a great believer in the energies of things signalling whether they’re meant to happen or not, so it seemed that the cumulative gathering of people being available and wanting to be part of it sent me a sign that this had some viability.”

Why does Four Quartets appeal to you?

“I think it deals with such endless essential perennial questions of time, the spirit, the soul, the journey of the soul in life – big, big ideas. In the end you could say the takeaway is ‘Live in the present’ but Eliot goes deeply into how we’re trapped in notions of sequential time.

“But it’s a very human quest by a man who I think has been through the wringer internally himself – questioning his existence, very unhappy marriage, sense of identity – and then the war crystallising this sense of quest. So it’s endlessly mysterious, but I think there are also ways of speaking it that are conversational and accessible.”

“One of the key and most common responses was: ‘My God, it’s so modern; my God, it’s all about now’,” says Fiennes of Four Quartets’ resonance in lockdown times.

How much is Eliot’s voice in your head?

Not much at all. I said to the team on our first day of rehearsal back in February that I thought we should all listen to Eliot’s recording – the master’s voice – but we all came away with a very strong sense that this was not helpful for us if we want to make this accessible.

“It’s an old-school delivery with a certain kind of refined English intellectual speaking: it has its own kind of beauty and it’s wonderful to hear his voice, but the dynamic of its communicative ability more for younger people today I think is questionable, because it feels from another time. I want the poem to communicate to younger minds; I want it to be active.”

Four Quartets was written in the 1930s and 1940s, when the world was in crisis. How strong is the resonance with today?

Very strong. We’re trapped in our houses, we’re denied all these norms of social interaction, assumptions about life and work and travel are all taken away, and so I sense we’re left with: what are we, who am I, what is of value in my life, in our shared lives?

“It continues to be a crisis of what we don’t know, where this thing is going. And Eliot references a sense of where we have to embrace not knowing: ‘And what you do not know is the only thing you know’.

“Doing it for colleagues and friends in rehearsal, one of the key and most common responses was: ‘My God, it’s so modern; my God, it’s all about now’. And that was a very frequent response to it.”

What do you hope this interpretation will achieve?

“I want to enable the poem to be heard. Eliot has not been a focus in the theatre for a while. In his writing there is a religiosity, or questions of faith, which perhaps is unfashionable.

T S Eliot: Writer of Four Quartets

“I love Eliot’s poetry: I think it continues to communicate and I think often great writers suffer from the zeitgeist or the vogue of the moment and get relegated and forgotten about.

“I have a belief that the poem can work and I think it does chime with the big questions or the existential questions that I think we are asking about who we are – and I think that’s thrown into focus by the Covid crisis.”

Why have you decided to take the performance to regional theatres?

“That was part of the proposition. First of all I just said, ‘Can we do this?’. Then Simon and James said, ‘What about doing it as a regional tour, to offer it to regional theatres who may be excited to be able to open their theatres with this?’.

“And that appealed to me. It appealed to me to not do it in London, just purely to have the experience of going to different cities. That excited me because it’s different – I’ve not done it and I’m very aware that there are committed theatre audiences all over the country, so it was a bit of a no-brainer. I love the idea of being on the road: it’s rather romantic.”

Why have you chosen theatres such as York Theatre Royal?

“I was very protective of the sense of intimacy. In some theatres we’re not selling the very top circle because I wanted to keep the sense of intimacy and didn’t want to have to go into the level of projected voice, where there are certain nuances and delicacies that often get diluted.

“The poem has to feel like a conversation. I remember going on stage and doing a bit and saying, ‘Can you hear? Is it working?’. It was just putting my toe in the water as to how it felt in the theatre because it’s all very well walking the paths of Suffolk, where I am, doing it to the sheep, but the thing is, how will it land?

You have enjoyed huge success in both film and theatre. Do you have a preference?

“I love the very simple thing that you walk on to a space, either a monologue in this case, or with other actors, and you start something and you create immediately.

“I want to enable the poem to be heard,” says Fiennes. “Eliot has not been a focus in the theatre for a while”

“Even as I get older, the simple essential magic or possibility of that is endlessly fascinating – so simple and so profound at the same time.

“Film is full of huge potential thrills in terms of what the end experience can be for an audience but the process of film-making is not actor-friendly really. But then you might say, surely in front of a theatre audience you don’t have the chance to do it again?

“No, you don’t, but there is a dynamic of contact with an audience so you’re in a dialogue with the people receiving it. I suppose the short answer to the question is, I think I’m more at home in the process of theatre.”

Your career has covered everything from the Bard to Bond. Do those jobs feel different in your head, or is it all just acting?

“It is a sort of truism that good writing is always attractive, whether it’s classical or modern writing. You can just feel the crackle. I think I’ve got any actor’s hunger as to what’s a good part where there’s human complexity, there’s dramatic impact. We all like to be challenged and stretched.”

Is it true that villains are more fun to play?

“In a kind of basic way. They’re not fun if they haven’t got any complexity to them. Actually, one of the challenges of Voldemort is that he was mostly just sheer, distilled evil – the point of Voldemort [in the Harry Potter films] is that he doesn’t have a conscience – and that was quite a challenge because there was no doubt or inner contradiction.

“What puts the full stop on Richard III being a great part is his sense of regret or fear about what’s he’s done, and suddenly you have this other colour – doubt – and then he puts the lid on it. So that stuff is great. If there’s endless degrees of grey, I think that’s really human.”

Ralph Fiennes in TS Eliot’s Four Quartets, York Theatre Royal, July 26 to 31, 8pm. Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk

“I think I’ve got any actor’s hunger as to what’s a good part where there’s human complexity, there’s dramatic impact,” says Fiennes

Back story

BORN in Ipswich on December 22 1962 , Ralph Nathaniel Twisleton-Wykeham-Fiennes has appeared in such films as Schindler’s List; The English Patient; The Grand Budapest Hotel; The Constant Gardner; Skyfall; In Bruges; The Dig and The Harry Potter series.

Winner of a Tony Award for playing Hamlet, Fiennes has performed many of theatre’s most iconic roles. London theatre credits include Shakespeare’s Anthony And Cleopatra (National Theatre) and Richard III (Almeida) and Ibsen’s The Master Builder (Old Vic).

York Theatre Royal’s full statement on its Covid-safety protocol after all legal restrictions were lifted on July 19 under Step 4 of the “Roadmap to Recovery”, restoring full-capacity audiences:

“We are proud to be See It Safely-approved by the Society Of London Theatre and UK Theatre, so you can feel confident and safe knowing that we are following the latest Government and performing arts guidelines.

“We’ve outlined more about what to expect from a visit to the theatre below:

* Multiple hand sanitation points around the building, including on entry.

* Increased cleaning regime before and after performances.

* Face coverings worn by all staff and volunteers working in public areas.

* Windows and doors open, whenever possible, to allow fresh air to circulate.

“We strongly recommend that you wear a face covering out of respect for fellow audience members and our companies when coming into the theatre.

“As the situation is constantly changing, we shall continue to adapt our approach in line with any new guidance and your feedback. 

Find out more by visiting the website at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk/show/four-quartets/

York Theatre Royal: Returning to full capacity from Monday

More Things To Do in and around York when not banished to ‘see you later, self-isolator’. List No. 41, courtesy of The Press, York

Rick Astley: Soul favourite’s post-racing show is a definite runner at York Racecourse tomorrow evening

IT ain’t worth a thing if it got that confounded ping, but let’s hope this NHS Covid app hazard does not apply to any of Charles Hutchinson’s suggestions as Step 4 starts to kick in.

Outdoor concerts of the week in York: York Racecourse Music Showcase Weekend, Rick Astley, Friday evening; McFly, Saturday late-afternoon

YORK Racecourse was never gonna give up on Rick Astley performing on a race day, even if the original show had to fall by the wayside last summer. Sure enough, the Newton-le-Willows soul crooner, 55, has been re-booked for tomorrow for a post-racing live set.

McFly: Promising Young Dumb Thrills at York Racecourse on Saturday

After Saturday afternoon’s race card, the re-formed McFly will combine such favourites as All About You, Obviously and 5 Colours In Her Hair with songs from their 2020 return, Young Dumb Thrills, such as Happiness, Tonight Is The Night and You’re Not Special. The County Stand has reached capacity for Saturday already.

Friday’s racing starts at 6pm; Saturday, at 2.05pm. For tickets, go to: yorkracecourse.co.uk.

Rachel Podger: The violinist plays, after self-isolation, for online viewing from the York Early Music Festival. Picture: Theresa Pewal

Online concert home entertainment of the week: Rachel Podger, The Violinist Speaks, York Early Music Festival

WHEN Baroque violinist Rachel Podger fell victim to the dreaded “pingdemic”, she had to forego her July 13 concert performance, condemned to self-isolate instead.

In stepped Florilegium violinist Bojan Cicic to play the very same Bach, Tartini and Biber repertoire at St Lawrence Church, Hull Road, at only three hours’ notice.

Rachel, however, subsequently recorded The Violinist Speaks without an audience at the NCEM for a digital livestream premiere at 7.30pm last Saturday. This online concert is now available on demand until August 13; on sale until August 9 at:  ncem.co.uk/events/rachel-podger-online/ncem.co.uk

Twinnie: Twinning with Velma Celli for tomorrow’s double bill at Impossible York

York’s queen of vocal drag meets York’s country queen: The Velma Celli Show with special guest Twinnie, Impossible York, St Helen’s Square, York, tomorrow, 7pm, doors; show, 8pm

YORK’S international drag diva deluxe, Velma Celli, will be joined by country singer Twinnie at The Velma Celli Show at Impossible York on her return home from recording sessions for her second album in Nashville.

“My mate and fellow Yorky the awesome Twinny is my v. special guest tomorrow night at Impossible – York,” says Velma, the cabaret creation of Ian Stroughair, on Instagram. Like Ian, Twinnie has starred in West End musicals, most notably in Chicago, under her stage name Twinnie-Lee Moore.

Tickets cost £15, £20 for VIP stage seating, at ticketweb.uk.

Michael Lambourne: Fenland storyteller at Theatre At The Mill, Stillington, this weekend

Storytellers of the week: Michael Lambourne and Shona Cowie, Theatre At The Mill, Stillington, near York, Saturday and Sunday

NOT that long ago a familiar bearded face and booming voice on the York stage before heading south, Michael Lambourne will return north on Saturday to present the 7.30pm premiere of Black Shuck, a “responsive storytelling experience” based on the legend of the Demon Dog of East Anglia.

Penned and performed by Lambourne, Black Shuck is the tale of a hound of unnatural size, an omen of misfortune to those who see its eyes, wherein he explores the enduring effect it has on Fenland folklore in a personal account of how a rural myth can become a chilling part of the present day.

Scottish storyteller and physical performer Shona Cowie will open the evening with her Celtic tale of the dreamer and visionary Bruadarach and then present Beware The Beasts, a show for families (age five upwards), at 2pm on Sunday. 

Shona will provide case studies from leading monster evaders and offer instruction on the most effective ways to avoid being squashed, eaten or turned into a nugget. Box office: tickettailor.com/events/atthemill/. 

Ralph Fiennes in TS Eliot’s Four Quartets, on tour at York Theatre Royal next week

First full-capacity shows at York Theatre Royal since mid-March 2020: Ralph Fiennes in T S Eliot’s Four Quartets, July 26 to 31

YORK Theatre Royal will return to full-capacity audiences with effect from Monday’s performance of T S Eliot’s Four Quarters, performed and directed by Ralph Fiennes.

Good news for those who had missed out on tickets for the most in-demand production of the reopening Love Season when it was first put on sale with social distancing in place. This week’s unlocking of Step 4 frees up the sudden availability of seats aplenty.

Please note, however, the wearing of face coverings will be strongly encouraged; some safety measures will continue too, but not temperature checks on the door.

Wall art: The poster for Miles And The Chain Gang’s first gig in York in 18 months. Picture: Jim Poyner

Back on the Chain Gang: Miles And The Chain Gang, supported by King Courgette, The Fulford Arms, York, July 29, 8pm

AFTER an 18-month hiatus. York band Miles And The Chain Gang will return to the concert platform next week, tooled up with new material.

In the line-up are singer, songwriter, storyteller, published poet and radio presenter Miles Salter, on guitar and vocals, Billy Hickling, drums and percussion, Tim Bruce, bass, and Alan Dawson, lead guitar, augmented for this gig by Fay Donaldson’s flute and saxophone.

The Gang have been working on a debut album, recording with producer Jonny Hooker at Young Thugs Studios in York. Tickets cost £7 at thefulfordarms.co.uk or £8 on the door. 

Joseph Rowntree Theatre Company’s poster for next week’s brace of Gilbert and Sullivan shows

Fundraiser of the week ahead: Joseph Rowntree Theatre Company Does Gilbert And Sullivan, Joseph Rowntree Theatre, York, HMS Pinafore, July 29, 7.30pm, and July 31, 2.30pm; The Mikado, July 30 and 31, 7.30pm

THE Joseph Rowntree Theatre Company, the JoRo’s in-house performing troupe, are producing concert versions of Gilbert and Sullivan’s biggest light opera hits, HMS Pinafore and The Mikado, next week.

The shows will be brimful of popular tunes and brilliant characters, with all profits from this topsy-turvy musical madness going straight back to the Haxby Road community theatre.

Rachel Croft: Cafe concert at Forty Five, with Reap What You Sow EP to follow in September

Music Café society gig of the week ahead: Rachel Croft, Forty Five Vinyl Café, Micklegate, York, July 31, 7.30m

NEXT Saturday at Forty Five, York singer-songwriter Rachel Croft will showcase tomorrow’s release of Reap What You Sow, a cinematic, moody taster for her four-track EP of the same name on September 9.

Exploring a more potent, bluesy style throughout, further tracks will be second single Time Waits For No Man, Roots and Chasing Time.  

Rachel will be supported by Kell Chambers and Evie Barrand. Tickets cost £10 via fortyfiveuk.com/whatson.

The Trials Of Cato: Tomos Williams and Rob Jones with new trio member Polly Bolton, playing Primrose Wood Acoustics in early August

Going down in the woods next month: The Trials Of Cato, Primrose Wood Acoustics, Pocklington, August 5, 7pm

BBC Radio 2 Folk Award winners The Trials Of Cato will headline the third Primrose Wood Acoustics session in Pocklington on August 5.

Organised by Pocklington Arts Centre, the outdoor concert series will complete its summer hattrick by popular demand after sold-out sylvan shows on July 1 and 8.

Leamington Spa singer-songwriter Polly Bolton joins co-founders Tomos Williams and Rob Jones for the showcase of imminent second album Gog Magog. Tickets cost £14 on 01759 301547 or at pocklingtonartscentre.co.uk.

REVIEW: Love Bites, The Love Season, York Theatre Royal, May 17 and 18

Send in the clown : James Lewis-Knight in his Love Bite, Staying Connected. Picture: Tom Arber

YORK Theatre Royal has reopened after 427 days. The longest, darkest hiatus since the Second World War at England’s longest-running theatre has ended with a declaration of love.

More precisely, 22 love letters to the power of theatre, a craving for freedom of movement, expression and identity and the need for human connection: a collective, anything-but-cautious hug that was as much a sigh of relief as a breath of fresh York air in the form of a fiesta of five-minute vignettes commissioned from 220 applicants.

Let’s repeat that. 22O applicants for £1,000 commissions from York’s diverse arts community that refuses to accept Rich Boy Risha Sunak’s slight that such talents are non-viable. A community that will laugh off the Beano comic’s laughable Hilarity Report finding that the average York resident laughs only 14 times a day, the second lowest in the country. Are you joking? Laugher aplenty could be heard on Monday night, alongside the joy, the sadness, the uncertainty but hope.

Indeed, The 22 would surely challenge York Mix e-letter writer John Wolfe’s scalding, agent-provocateur assertion that York is a city of “no real festivals or decent venues. No sports centres or entertainment for locals. No chance of change either. Why do you think all of the young people move away? Outside of its history it’s drab and bl**dy awful.”

Crying Wolfe? Well, John, in the city of the York Community Stadium, four state-of-the-art cinemas, myriad theatres, ever more restaurants, café bars, coffee houses, independent galleries and a rising tide of street art, perhaps you should go York Theatre Royal, one of the country’s great theatres, tonight (Tuesday) to see the spread of talent, both young and older.

Some were born in the city and are determined to stay here, when the arts are becoming less London-centric; others have been drawn to the city from, for example, Canada and Zimbabwe, and here they gathered under one rainbow umbrella to express their love for York and their place in it. 

Trouble is, John, you can’t buy a seat because, as with the first night, tonight’s Love Bites have sold out at the outset of a Love Season pulsing with life, vigour and, yes, love, topped off by Ralph Fiennes performing T S Eliot’s Four Quartets in late-July.

In the words of chief executive Tom Bird, Love Bites and The Love Season are a chance to “experience again the electric excitement that only live performance can bring. This spring and summer, we’re putting on a season of brave, bold love stories to celebrate the return of human connection. We’re doing it with passion, fervour and heart, as you’d expect.”

Monday night began with the much-loved veteran BBC broadcaster Harry Gration in host mode, toasting his 50-year love affair with the Theatre Royal before making way for the flurry of short pieces.

The screen backdrop could and probably should have been used for announcing each show title, writer and performer, especially as flicking through the e-programme on your phone in the dark would have been distracting for others, even in the socially distanced seating with the capacity reduced from 750 to 340.

Actor Toby Gordon’s hair has grown to Dave Grohl length in locks-down lockdown, but the golden tongue that delivered both Satan and later Jesus’s lines in the York Minster Mystery Plays now glistened anew in the questing, vexed poetry of W H Auden’s O Tell Me The Truth About Love.

Film would feature on several occasions through the night, first in a cinematic riparian soundscape by Ben Pugh to accompany the poetic ebb and flow of Robert Powell and Kitty Greenbrown’s The Angels Of Lendal Bridge, imagining those painted “angels” conversing above the Ouse, recalling so much water that has passed under their iron bridge amid a rising tide of love.

Luella Rebbeck, Jamie Marshall-White and Isla Bowles in The Art Of Losing. Picture: Tom Arber

CAPA College student trio Luella Rebbeck, Jamie Marshall-White and Isla Bowles, in glowing green and pink socks to suit the occasion, were nevertheless in contemplative mood in The Art Of Losing, tempo slow, bodies graceful, in what they emphasised were three “non-love stories”, but instead felt more like a lament; a year’s absence making the heart grow fonder for “what it means to have contact with one another”.

Playwright, poet and slam champ Hannah Davies’s tweets at @davieswords have charted her enervating health frustrations, but no York shaper of words captures a sense, meaning and memory of place so movingly, so evocatively, and what a joy it was to see back on a stage for Love Song To Spring.

Accompanied by Jack “Pascallion” Woods’s exploratory guitar paths, her lockdown love story journeyed through the freshly discovered joys of city walking and spring renewal in York’s myriad green spaces. Listen to Hannah, and you will step into spring with added spring in your step.

New discovery of the night was much-travelled Zimbabwean playwright Butshilo Nleya, who “wondered if my pockets are big enough to carry home with me” as he moved to York.

Explosive bursts of drumming and film imagery by Sunnie Hsia of Butshilo on York streets, stairways and in the dank Leeman Road tunnel formed a triptych with his soliloquy, Ekhaya, Love Them Both?, as he mulled over place, love and self, with humour rooted in observation of York’s idiosyncrasies, but a deeper wish to find his place, wherever he plays his drum, whatever life throws at him. One to watch, definitely.

For aeons, a Nightingale’s nocturnal song has had writers reaching for metaphors for love and beauty. Musician, performance writer and actor Tom Nightingale’s song, Elaine, is to “show everyone my gratitude to the only lady who has ever helped me”, his wife.

In its cautious yet unguarded way it was a song of love and beauty suffused with unshaven, wry, deadpan frankness, delivered in the spirit of John Otway and Jonathan Richman beneath Martin Stephenson’s cocked hat. Nightingale writes as a “therapeutic outlet”, to make sense of life; on Monday, it worked for your reviewer; hopefully it does for Elaine too.

The name in the Love Bites e-programme and in her Q&A answers to CharlesHutchPress is Erika Noda, but the Japanese-English actor and East 15 graduate born in York introduced herself on Monday as Aiaka, the name that a teacher found so difficult, she called her ‘Ai’ and banished her from the classroom for insubordination in challenging her.

So began the journey to Ai, Erika/Aiaka’s semi-autobiographical debut solo-writing work, examining her dual heritage and encounters with racist “microaggression”, growing up in York, (a city once so white it was dubbed “Persil Town”). On the evidence of Ai, this quest for identity remains unresolved, a bumpy ride with such familiar stones in the road as “no, but where are you really from?”.

Even the inventor of Zoom apparently has had enough of all those enervating Zoom-and-gloom meetings, but loveable York musical-comedy double act Fladam (pianist-singer Adam Sowter and funny face-puller and singer Florence Poskitt) found the funny side of this digital bridge to connecting in lockdown-separation in the tartly topical Love Bytes. Aptly, the cheeky, witty, melodious encounter was long-distance, Adam on stage, Flo online, filling the screen with a squelchy face as ripe for comedy as Thora Hird or Victoria Wood.

Surprise of the night? Seeing Paul Birch on stage and then wondering why he does not frequent this space more often. Maybe he is just too busy writing and directing, and running Out Of Character, the York company for artists with experiences of mental illness.

His twisting-and-turning five-minute gem, Lost For Words, was a mind-game in motion as the quicksilver Birch fought to save his most precious relationship in a race against time where a killjoy voice from beyond kept stripping him of the right to use letters from the alphabet, letter by letter. You found yourself joining him in his mental exercise, smugly spotting him still using a ‘V’ when barred from doing so, but cheering him on as he tried to keep his head above water as the wds rn t. Could this be a game show in the making?

All around is frown time, but clown time is never over for the red-nosed James Lewis-Knight, actor and artistic director of Clown Space, purveyor of comical pandemonium amid a pandemic. After a year as the Clown in Lockdown, wandering the busking streets of York turned silent, James unlocked his dusty case to make his mimed plea for Staying Connected. He kept saying “Picnic”, but where Birch was lost for words, James was a little lost for meaning, one punchline short of his Picnic having more bite.

If you heard Dora Rubinstein’s perkily assertive rendition of Gus Gowland’s The Streets Of York blind, you would swear it was from a musical. Sure enough, Gowland, latterly moved to York, is a musical theatre writer/composer with the award-winning Pieces Of String to his name. Gowland’s celebration of Gentleman Jack Anne Lister’s wedding vows in a York church will surely grow from a love letter to a full-blown show, a progression the Theatre Royal should encourage and activate.

Janet-Emily Bruce and Cassie Vallance in Story Craft Theatre’s She Can Go Anywhere. Picture: Tom Arber

In a night of storytelling, butter-rich with words, the shadow puppetry of children’s theatre company Story Craft Theatre silently spoke volumes to the accompaniment of Jonathan Glew’s beautiful score in She Can Go Anywhere. Who knew you could say so much with a sheet, folded and unfolded by Cassie Vallance and Janet-Emily Bruce as if a cotton version of origami, freeing imaginations when the pandemic has shrunk the world to the home, transforming life’s caterpillars into butterflies.

Hannah Wintie-Hawkins was a dancer at the double in her terpsichorean love letter In The Beginning, at once on stage and in digital artist Aaron Howell’s accompanying film, dancing with baby Mabel in her arms.  It was as though Hannah, like us, was watching in wonder at the joy of a new arrival: a beacon of hope amid the pandemic turbulence, only in her case it was moving her to break out into a dance. The dual focus, however, was not wholly satisfying, as she danced with herself, the one distracting from the other, rather than intertwining like mother and daughter on screen.

Richard Kay, actor, singer, pantomime writer and Zoom choir leader, asked his choir members two questions: how and why do you like singing? Whereupon he compiled the answers into the composition For The Love Of Singing, a song as nimble on its feet as Fred Astaire and wittily delivered in the crisply enunciated manner of a Richard Stilgoe, with digital choir backing and the projection of words dancing in and out of formation in David Todd’s playful animation. Clever, humorous, warm and briskly energetic, and tuneful to boot, it would sit well in a cabaret revue.

How did it feel to be back in the theatre after 427 days? Actor Maurice Crichton caught those feelings as he cast his net of observations in Where Are We Now, You And I?, and he looked in such a hurry to deliver his thoughts, it was as if he had come straight from a rehearsal room in tracksuit trousers and The Show Must Go On T-shirt, hair unkempt.

Not that he rushed through his sage counsel, instead understanding feelings of anger, advising a policy of gentleness with each other and not expecting too much too soon, while breathing in the wonder of theatre once more.  How right he was; how emotional too.

Canadian-born papercut artist Elena Skoreyko Wagner, countertenor and composer James Cave and libretto editor Bethan Ellis promised Magic and delivered it too in a four-minute mini-musical, set in a constantly evolving paper theatre that grew ever prettier under Elena’s delicate guidance.

Elena seeks to discover “magic and meaning in everyday, mundane experiences”, the transcendent magic rising through her imagery and the beauty of James’s singing, and in the stasis of the pandemic, a walk, birdsong, gardening, baking banana bread, have indeed taken on a heightened magical air.

On their Twitter account, non-binary, unapologetically autistic creator Ashleigh J Mills (they/them) calls themselves Angry Black Changeling. Identity and accessibility into theatre lay at the heart of In Progress, their spoken-word exploration of the “interplay between race, self-understanding and the shifting boundaries of gender over the span of a solitary year” when experiencing life on the margins.

Ashleigh has kept a Good Words List for four years, and on the screen behind them, the constant, measured flicking through a book revealed word after word standing proud from the text, each building a picture of Ashleigh’s questing, creative fascination with words.

Those words were knitted together to form their soliloquy, a still-evolving expression of Ashleigh as a work in progress in changing times, and only good words can be said of their poetic candour.

Of all the five minutes, nothing brought a broader smile than the sheer joy in dancing together of Alice Boddy and Leanne Hope, friends since Northern Ballet School days, who burst out of a restricted year of living-room creativity to revel in a Love Letter To Female Friendship on the dancefloor in the face of such trying times. They were so in their moment, they were in their own world, but one we all could recognise and wish to join in.

The title, Mise En Aby-Me, may have been baffling, but life model, milliner and costumier Claire Spooner made a fascinating body of work in her physical theatre piece that testified to her desire to tell a story through the human form, rather than words, in this case aided by Richard Stephenson’s artwork and LEMNIS’s music.

Claire turned herself into a Russian doll, peeling off layers, adding masks, revealing how she presented herself in relationships, love in different guises, until nothing could hide the constant persona within, beauty beyond the eye of the beholder.

Deaf director and “self-proclaimed proactive busy-body” Harri Marshall composed a semi-autobiographical love letter to oneself via cards and correspondence collected over the past year…and then handed over the task of interpreting them aloud to Sarah Huggett, accompanied by the exact wording on the screen behind.

I say “exact” because text and voice did not always say the same lines and you found yourself checking for differences as much as concentrating on Harri’s flow of meaning. What’s more, the rhythm of the language was broken too, screen and voice going in and out of synch. Hopefully, I Often Think Of You had a better second night.

Before Reverie came a nightmare, thankfully only briefly, as a flick of a switch belatedly awoke the somnambulant keyboard for composer, pianist and piano teacher Vanessa Simmons’s retelling of a dream in musical form. Ah, what peace, after the fizzing fireworks, as an unperturbed Vanessa rejoiced in “the beauty, sorrow and power of real love”.

Last, but anything but least and rightly chosen as the finale was 5 Minute Call, penned by esteemed York playwright Bridget Foreman, writer of 30 plays, both large and solo, with another, My Place, on the way.

Chief exec Tom Bird’s Irish-accented actor wife, Laura Pyper, took on the guise of a theatre “techie” five minutes before curtain-up, taking instruction on checking lighting for stage positions while capturing how the theatre itself felt about the return of life on its boards, warming up to the reunion with its lifeblood, both performers and audiences. The feeling of love was mutual, as the Pied Pyper led us back to our spiritual home.

These Love Bites left their mark, so much so, let’s hope York Theatre Royal can look to open further seasons with showcases for the city’s talents, £1,000 commissions et al.

Review written on May 18 with later additions

‘A year ago, I couldn’t have looked you in the eye and said, ‘this is going to be OK’,’ says York Theatre Royal chief exec Tom Bird

Tom Bird: Looking forward to tonight’s reopening of York Theatre Royal after 15 months like no other

YORK Theatre Royal will re-open tonight after 427 days, but chief executive Tom Bird feared this day might never have come.

Aside from two preview performances of December’s Travelling Pantomime tour, the main house stage has been in Covid-enforced hibernation since March 14’s performance of Alone In Berlin.

In the ensuing months, shorn of 89 per cent of its annual income being generated through selling tickets and associated revenue streams, the Theatre Royal had to cut its permanent staff by one third – seven voluntary redundancies and nine staff made redundant – after extensive consultations against a grim national picture where an estimated 40 per cent of theatre workers have lost jobs over the past 15 months.

Last September too, the Theatre Royal’s divorce was announced from the neighbouring De Grey Rooms, home to the theatre’s leased rehearsal rooms, workshops, offices and below-stairs costume department, as well as weddings, parties, award ceremonies and performances in the glorious ballroom.

Had Tom ever thought that the pandemic might be the final curtain for the Theatre Royal, England’s longest-running theatre outside London?  “Yes, as early as last May, I started wondering. I remember it well because the weather was gorgeous, but the outlook was bleak, though it was at that stage that Arts Council England were brilliant, in that they moved very quickly to provide £160 million Emergency Funding to theatres like us,” he recalls.

Josh Benson: The comic turn in York Theatre Royal’s upturn with The Travelling Pantomime last December

The Theatre Royal received £196,493 to help to cover costs in the fallow months from last July to September 30. “The ACE grant was about ‘What do you need right now not to collapse?’,” said Tom at the time.

“But when 89 per cent of your income revolves around ticket sales, you’re looking at that situation thinking, ‘that’s 89 per cent of our revenue gone, a turnover of £4.5 million; what business survives that?’.”

What’s more, Tom and the theatre faced the problem of running an old, if recently refurbished, building that is both huge and hard to heat, “so much so that it costs £475,000 a year just to keep it open, without staffing, to cover heating, lighting, water and safety,” he reveals.

“At that point, we didn’t know that Culture Recovery Funding would be made available by the Government, though there was a lot of noise, and we didn’t know if the pantomime [Cinderella, in the Theatre Royal’s first collaboration with Evolution Productions] could go ahead.

“What we did was to get brave at that point, making big decisions, giving up the lease of De Grey House and the De Grey Rooms, going back into our old offices in the gorgeous, ramshackle Tate Wilkinson House.

“Then there’s the decision you never want to have to make: having to lose staff, and that decision still haunts me. But in a way, the need to make savings was pretty black and white; it wasn’t a case of looking to be a bit more efficient. We had to take steps now, and last summer was pretty tough.”

The Pop Up On The Patio festival stage on the York Theatre Royal terracing last August

A Pop Up On The Patio festival season on the theatre terracing ran from August 14 to 29, a positive step in showcasing York and Yorkshire talent, but through the huge glass panes of the Theatre Royal could be seen the dormant foyer, box office and closed doorways to the main house and Studio: out of reach and shrouded in uncertainty.

Once the £1.57 billion Culture Recovery Fund was announced, the Theatre Royal was awarded £230,000 to assist the theatre until March 31, but the pandemic’s grip put paid to any chance of Cinderella going to the ball at the Theatre Royal.

“What picked us up was deciding to do the Travelling Pantomime that we took round York’s wards: it gave us something to focus on, not just thinking ‘is the Theatre Royal going to survive?’,” says Tom.

“It energised us all, and it was such a great show to do, but the truth is, a year ago, I couldn’t have looked you in the eye and said, ‘this is going to be OK’.

“We didn’t even know what was going to happen through that year ahead, but I have to say that the Yorkshire producing theatres have been brilliant. York, Hull [Hull Truck], Leeds [Playhouse], Scarborough [Stephen Joseph Theatre] and Sheffield [Sheffield Theatres] have got together each week on Zoom, which has been a really good case of peers supporting each other…

“…and we are where we are now, reopening to coincide with Step 3 of the roadmap. Love is in the air at the Theatre Royal!”

Clown time: James Lewis-Knight’s in rehearsal for Staying Connected, one of the Love Bites at York Theatre Royal tonight and tomorrow. Picture: Tom Arber

Tom is referring to The Love Season, already trailered in CharlesHutchPress [April 29 2021], that opens with Love Bites: two nights of two nights of letters from the heart tonight and tomorrow at 8pm that have both sold out.

The Love Season should have opened on St Valentine’s Day, February 14, but Lockdown 3 put yet another red line through diary plans. However, a second round of the Cultural Recovering Fund grants has put a £324,289 spring in the Theatre Royal’s step, coupled with the third stage of lockdown loosening from today.

Love Bites will turn the spotlight on the creativity of artists from in and around York, whether poets, performers, singers, dancers or digital artists, who have been commissioned to write love letters celebrating the return to live performances after the easing of the Government’s pandemic restrictions.

Introduced by Look North alumnus Harry Gration, Love Bites will explore the idea of love letters, dedicated to people, places, things, actions, occupations and more besides in five-minute specially commissioned bite-sized chunks.

The Love Season’s focus on human connection, the live experience and a sense of togetherness will embrace solo shows by stage and screen luminary Ralph Fiennes and Coronation Street star Julie Hesmondhalgh (The Greatest Play In The History Of The World…); a new Ben Brown political drama about writer Graham Greene and spy Kim Philby, A Splinter Of Ice, and Swedish playwright August Strindberg’s Miss Julie, transposed to 1940s’ Hong Kong by writer Amy Ng and director Dadiow Lin.

Ralph Fiennes in rehearsal for T S Eliot’s Four Quartets

The number one talking point is Ralph Fiennes’s Theatre Royal debut, in six performances from July 26 to 31, directing himself in the world-premiere tour of T S Eliot’s Four Quartets: a solo theatre adaptation of Burnt Norton, East Coker, The Dry Salvages and Little Giddings, a set of poems first published together in 1943 on the themes of time, nature and the elements, faith and spirituality, war and mortality.

Tom says: “Ralph is rehearsing in London, opening at the Theatre Royal, Bath, from May 25 and then touring. We’re so chuffed to have Ralph coming to York. We can’t believe it!

“We’re thrilled that Ralph’s show became a possibility for us, and it’s a huge credit to him to recognise the need to support theatre around the country at this time. Let’s say it, it’s rare for an actor of his profile and standing to do a regional tour, but he’s seen that he can help to save some incredibly important producing houses, like this one, by doing a tour – and it’s not an act of charity; it’s an important and really exciting piece of work.”

Performances in The Love Season will be presented to socially distanced audiences, adhering to the latest Government and industry Covid-19 guidelines to ensure the safety of staff and audiences with a reduced capacity of 344, but should Step 4 of the roadmap roll-out go ahead as planned on June 21, there is scope for more seats to go on sale for shows later in the season. Over to you, Mr Johnson and the Indian Variant fly in the ointment.

For full details of The Love Season, go to: yorktheatreroyal.co.uk. Tickets can be booked at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk; on 01904 623568, Monday to Saturday, 12 noon to 3pm, and in person, Thursday to Saturday, 12 noon to 3pm.

In the name of love: York Theatre Royal’s reopening season

Feel the love as York Theatre Royal marks May reopening with season from the heart

Love letter to theatre: The reopening season at York Theatre Royal

MUCH ado about nothing but love is promised when York Theatre Royal reopens with two nights of letters from the heart from May 17.

Love Bites will turn the spotlight on the creativity of artists from in and around York, whether poets, performers, singers, dancers or digital artists, who have been commissioned to write love letters celebrating the return to live performances after the easing of the Government’s pandemic restrictions.

More names will be announced nearer the time for the 8pm performances on May 17 and 18, but confirmed already from 200 proposals are Alice Boddy and Leanne Hope’s piece, A Love Letter To Female Friendship, and Japanese-English actor Erika Noda’s semi-autobiographical account of growing up dual heritage, entitled Ai.

Magic trio: writer Bethan Ellis, illustrator Elena Skoreyko Wagner and composer James Cave

Contributing too will be the Magic combination of illustrator and papercut artist Elena Skoreyko Wagner, composer and York Minster choir member James Cave and writer and editor Bethan Ellis, finding magic and meaning in the mundane, and York-based Zimbabwean playwright Butshilo Nleya, who combines words, music and dance in works centred on place, home and the multiplicity of cultures, this time presenting Ekhaya, Love Them Both?.

Juliet Forster, the Theatre Royal’s creative director, says: “Love Bites is really a love letter to live performance, put together by York artists. It’s a celebration of what we have been missing for over a year now: the chance to come together under one roof and share our stories and experiences. There was no one single theatre production that felt enough to mark the reopening of theatres, the lifting of restrictions, so we decided that we needed multiple ones.”

Selecting 20 commissions from more than 200 proposals was “extremely difficult, but really inspiring too,” she reveals. “There are so many talented, inventive, creative people in York – we could have filled the night several times over. The selection of short pieces that you will see on our stage represent a wide range of voices, artforms and approaches to the theme of love, created by both well-established artists and those who are newer to the scene,” she says.

“We hope Love Bites will turn out to be ‘a many-splendored thing’,” says York Theatre Royal creative director Juliet Forster

“Love Bites will explore the idea of love letters, dedicated to people, places, things, actions, occupations and much, much more in a multitude of ways, all presented in five-minute specially commissioned bite-sized chunks. We hope Love Bites will turn out to be ‘a many-splendored thing’”.

After these two nights introduced by Look North alumnus Harry Gration with a Pay What You Feel ticket policy, The Love Season’s focus on human connection, the live experience and a sense of togetherness will embrace solo shows by stage and screen luminary Ralph Fiennes [Four Quartets} and Coronation Street star Julie Hesmondhalgh [The Greatest Play In The History Of The World…]; a new Ben Brown political drama about writer Graham Greene and spy Kim Philby, A Splinter Of Ice,  and Swedish playwright August Strindberg’s Miss Julie, transposed to 1940s’ Hong Kong by writer Amy Ng and director Dadiow Lin.

Performances will be presented to socially distanced audiences, adhering to the latest Government and industry Covid-19 guidelines to ensure the safety of staff and audiences with a reduced capacity of 344, but should Step 4 of the roadmap roll-out go ahead as planned on June 21, there is scope for more seats to go on sale for shows later in the season. Over to you, Mr Johnson.

“We’re so chuffed to have Ralph Fiennes coming to York. We can’t believe it,” says Theatre Royal chief executive Tom Bird

Theatre Royal chief executive Tom Bird says: “The last thing we want to do, given our mission and the trouble in keeping theatre alive, is to put up more barriers to people coming, but we have to be Covid-safe, and that’s the bottom line. We did it for the Travelling Pantomime we took around York wards, and we will do it again from May 17.’”

The number one talking point is Ralph Fiennes’s Theatre Royal debut, in six performances from July 26 to 31, directing himself in the world-premiere tour of T S Eliot’s Four Quartets: a solo theatre adaptation of Burnt Norton, East Coker, The Dry Salvages and Little Giddings, a set of poems first published together in 1943 on the themes of time, nature and the elements, faith and spirituality, war and mortality.

Tom says: “The link to bring the show here is James Dacre, artistic director of Northampton’s Royal & Derngate Theatres, who co-produced A View From The Bridge with the Theatre Royal in 2019.

Ralph Fiennes rehearsing T S Eliot’s Four Quartets

“He’s co-producing this tour, helping Ralph put the show together. Ralph is rehearsing in London, opening at the Theatre Royal, Bath, from May 25 and then touring. We’re so chuffed to have Ralph coming to York. We can’t believe it!

“We’re thrilled that Ralph’s show became a possibility for us, and it’s a huge credit to him to recognise the need to support theatre around the country at this time.

“Let’s say it, it’s rare for an actor of his profile and standing to do a regional tour, but he’s seen that he can help to save some incredibly important producing houses, like this one, by doing a tour – and it’s not an act of charity; it’s an important and really exciting piece of work.”

“It’s a huge credit to him to recognise the need to support theatre around the country at this time,” says Theatre Royal chief executive Tom Bird

Tom is delighted by Fiennes’s choice of material too. “There’s a massive tradition of actors doing Eliot poems, like Fiona Shaw doing The Waste Land,” he says. “They lend themselves to performance, and it’s really telling that Ralph has chosen to take Four Quartets on tour at this moment because they’re rooted in life and death; the past and the future; human relationships and a love of place.

“For that reason, it fits into our programme for a season built around love, connection and being rooted in a place. As an American coming to England, Eliot was trying to root himself here by looking for his ancestors in Somerset.”

For full details of The Love Season, go to: yorktheatreroyal.co.uk. Tickets can be booked at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk; on 01904 623568, Monday to Saturday, 12 noon to 3pm, and in person, Thursday to Saturday, 12 noon to 3pm.

Ready for love at York Theatre Royal

Copyright of The Press, York

Look who’s coming to York Theatre Royal in July…

Another Fiennes message: Ralph Fiennes in rehearsal for his solo performance of T S Eliot’s Four Quartets poems

STAR of stage and screen Ralph Fiennes is to direct and perform in the world premiere of T S Eliot’s Four Quartets in his York Theatre Royal debut from July 26 to 31 as the zenith of The Love Season.

This solo theatre adaptation will feature Burnt Norton, East Coker, The Dry Salvages and Little Giddings, published together in 1943 in a quartet that ranges across themes of time, nature and the elements, faith and spirituality and war and mortality.

For full details of The Love Season and to book tickets, go to: yorktheatreroyal.co.uk. Full story will follow in charleshutchpress.co.uk.