By Ross McGregor.
Gentleman Jack 3 *** Taro 3 ***
The Brockley Jack Studio Theatre, 410 Brockley Road, London SE4 2JH to 16 February 2019. In repertory so check dates.
Tues- Say 7.30pm
Gentleman Jack runs 100 mins No interval.
Taro runs 95 mins No interval.
TICKETS: 0333 666 3366.
Review: William Russell 25 January.
The stories of two amazing women
This repertory season by the versatile and innovative Arrow & Traps company is well worth catching for their daring and commitment alone – hence the four stars. In staging these plays about two women most people have probably never heard of, women before their time, they have come up with intriguing, topical theatre, but the plays do have problems – hence the three stars.
The decision to run them in repertory is part of the problem in that the audience for one may not be able to attend the other, which diminishes the achievement of the company. Part of what is rewarding is seeing how – several players appear in both pieces – it copes with the demands placed upon it.
The plays, both written by the artistic director Ross McGregor, although they use the same basic props – a table, a bench, a few chairs – have been staged very differently for a start, something to be impressed by. Gentleman Jack is about Anne Lister who, born in 1791, was a Lesbian who defied convention proved herself a fine businesswoman and lived for years with a partner. She also kept a diary partly written in code which has revealed how she coped with life in a world ruled by men as well as much more, so much that the family, once decoded, kept them privately. They were not published until 1988. Taro is about Gerta Pohorylle, a German Jew, who fled Berlin in 1933 aged 23 and went to Paris where she met a Hungarian refugee Endre Freidman, also Jewish, who was a photographer. They became lovers, he taught her how to use a camera, she changed her name to Gerda Taro and he too acquired a new name for professional purposes – Robert Capa – her idea the play suggests. They covered the Spanish Civil War where he made his name, and where she was killed in 1937. Her photographs were sometimes marketed under the name Capa, but in their own right – the negatives were discovered in 2007 in Mexico City – reveal just how good she was and, like him, how reckless.
McGregor has chosen to stage Taro with two actresses playing her at different times in her life, Cornelia Baumann as Greta, Lucy Ionnou as Gerda, a slight problem because good though they are one will never become the other. The cast wear the same grey dungarees and white shirts, have bare feet and it is all done with a lot of mime and orchestrated movement. If a foot has to rest it will be arched. There is a good background sound to complement the action, but in dramatic terms it really is too like one of those television history programmes with acted inserts for comfort – and there is one thing lacking. The photographs. Her story holds the interest, but for all the physical skills on display the piece is dramatically inert.
The same players are cast as the old and young Anne Lister in Gentleman Jack, although this time round it is not done barefoot and treated as a straight costume drama. But McGregor has opted to mix the times up, so we keep flitting from one decade to another as Lister loses her first love, then finds her last love and discovers how to take on men in a world where, although lesbians were tolerated, women had to know their place – which was to let men run things. The playing is good, and the family horror when those far too explicit diaries are discovered and decoded is intriguing. They put them away for years. But McGregor has also included a side plot about John Lister (Alex Stevens), who has them decoded, being homosexual which is really irrelevant to Anne’s story – it is a kind of diversion when what is needed is more about just how she and her last love, her wife, Anne Walker (Hannah Victory) took on society and lived openly as a couple and not just two eccentric women who were different.
It is the stronger of the two plays, and the less obviously directed. Maybe authors should not direct their own work as there are times one wants with Taro for the cast to stop posturing all over the place, acting furiously when they should be out of sight. Questions that could be asked about what is being done also do not necessarily get asked. Of the two Lister’s story is the more interesting arguably because she was not, as Taro was, eclipsed by men – and she did not die too young. But Baumann and Ioannou are terrific, there is good support from the men, Hannah Vctory is a splendidly devious “wife”, and Beatrice Vincent makes an impression as Greta Garbo, Taro’s idol.
McGregor says it is a new phase for the company doing its own historical new writing based on the lives of extraordinary heroines from the past – as well as looking for these heroines maybe looking for the writers to tell their stories would be an idea.
Gentleman Jack cast
Cornelia Baumann: Anne Lister (1832-35).
Tom Hartill: Arthur Burrell.
Lucy Ioannou; Anne (1810-23).
Laurel Marks: Isabella “Tib” Norcliffe.
Alex Stevens: John Lister.
Hannah Victory: Ann Walker.
Beatrice Vincent: Mariana Belcombe.
Toby-Wynn-Davies: Christopher Rawson.
Cornelia Baumann: Gerta Pohorylle.
Tom Hartill: Endre Freidmann.
Lucy Ioannou: Gerda Taro.
Laurel Marks: Ruth Cerf.
Alex Stevens: David “Chim” Seymour/ Karl Pohorylle.
Hannah Victory: Maria Eisner/Gisela Pohorylle.
Beatrice Vincent: Greta Garbo/Irene Goldin.
Toby Wynn-Davies: Heinrich Pohorylle.
Director: Ross McGregor.
Movement Director: Matthew Parker.
Lighting Designer: Ben Jacobs.
Sound Designer: Alistair Lax.
Production photographs: Davor Tovarlaza @ The Ocular Creative.