Thursday, 29 April 2010

A Review of ‘Jesus Hopped the A Train’

(a play by Stephen Adly Guirgis*, performed by Synergy** at the Trafalgar Studios, London, on Thursday 22nd April 2010)

I want to write a review of the wonderful play I saw last Thursday – ‘Jesus Hopped the A Train’ by Stephen Adly Guirgis . The tricky thing is how to do so without giving away the story completely. I just want to talk about the whole thing without worrying about spoilers. It makes me realise how tricky it is for reviewers in ‘Time Out’ and the like: a review which mustn’t spoil the experience for someone who will be going to see the play or film for themselves. I am (or was) more used to writing essays for English Literature exams ( over 25 years ago, mind you) – and that’s quite a different approach.

‘Jesus Hopped the A Train’ is an extraordinary play. I laughed a lot, I gasped, I winced, I pondered and, at the end, I almost cried. The language is vigorous and full of expletives, but at the same time subtle and multi-layered, with a great deal of sub-text going on below the words. The play’s critique of religion, of moral absolutes and of the justice system is searing and thought-provokingly complex.

The play is set in Riker’s Island, New York in the protective custody wing. There are 5 characters: Lucius, a convicted serial killer who has found the Lord and is hoping to avoid extradition to Florida for execution. The other prisoner, Angel, is on remand, having shot a cult leader. He explains to his lawyer, Mary Jane, that the self-proclaimed ‘son of God’, Rev Kim, had brainwashed his best friend, and , having failed to rescue his friend, Angel - in a frustrated gesture of protest - had shot the Rev Kim ‘in the ass’. The initial charge of attempted murder is changed to 1st degree felony murder when Rev Kim later dies of unexpected complications. It is Mary Jane who tells us that Angel has been transferred to the protective custody wing following his brutal beating and rape, at the hands of other prisoners, and his subsequent suicide attempt. She becomes determined to find some way to ‘save’ Angel, even if that means risking her career by suborning perjury, since the only way for him to be acquitted is to lie.

The two remaining characters are a friendly prison warden, D’Amico, who has a soft spot for Lucius – and loses his job as a result, but who reappears towards the end of the play to describe Lucius’ fate, and a loathsome, bullying warden, Valdez, who treats Lucius with contempt, but seems to pity Angel.

The name of the central characters, Lucius and Angel, indicate that the story, while very particular and concrete, can also be taken as an everyman parable of good versus evil (‘a modern morality play’ as the programme puts it) – but with myriad shades of grey rather than black and white moral absolutes. As the review in ‘Time Out’ put it: “The extraordinary script has you switching allegiance from character to character as the story evolves. Lucius, the serial killer, who has found God, is so charismatic that you can’t help liking him in the early stages, despite the horrific nature of his crimes.”

So, Lucius is likeable yet (surely?) evil – a serial killer who smugly spouts about God, forgiveness and taking responsibility for one’s crimes. There’s a well known cliché that cynical convicts claim conversion to enhance their prospects and (like Valdez) we cannot help but wonder about this other possibility, even though Lucius seems convincing. He claims that he pleaded guilty because he was/is willing to take responsibility for his crimes: he would just rather serve a life sentence in New York than be executed in Florida.

In one heated exchange, Angel challenges Lucius and eventually seems to hit home: surely, as punishment for his horrendous crimes, he (Lucius) will go to hell. No, Lucius counters, he is confident that he is ‘right with God’ and will be going to heaven. Angel then asks why, in that case, Lucius is trying to avoid extradition to Florida – why avoid execution if he’s so sure he’ll be going to heaven? Lucius falls silent and seems angry. Later, possibly as revenge (although played disingenuously so it’s hard to know if there is malice afoot or just wrong-headed self-righteousness) Lucius infects Angel’s thinking, with disastrous results. I find it a poignant and significant inversion – that traditional morality and Bible-bashing are used by Lucius to ‘tempt’ Angel and lead to his undoing. I am left questioning the moral framework of traditional Christianity, particularly the value it places on truth.

Another fascinating sequence hints at Lucius’ damaged past – did he really have free choice when he started to kill? Is he a product of his abused childhood? Do white wealthy people get more sympathy when they explain the reasons behind their crimes than a poor black man ever does? And yet, and yet….one short phrase late on in the play brings us up short as we discover just how appalling and sadistic Lucius’ murders had been.

The title of the play is explained when Angel recounts a childhood game of ‘chicken’ with his friend down on the railway tracks. When they both find themselves stuck with a train bearing down on them, and then are mysteriously thrown out of the way at the last minute, his friend suggests they were saved because ‘Jesus must’ve hopped the A train that night’. Poignantly, this is the same friend who later becomes ensnared by pseudo-son-of-god Rev Kim.

The play begins and ends with Angel attempting to pray. At the start, Angel stumbles fearfully yet comically through the Lord’s Prayer, unable to remember the correct words (‘Howard is thy name’), with mocking voices coming at him from unseen fellow prisoners offstage. At the end of the play, Angel’s final prayer almost broke my heart. Angel is in pieces, crying and rocking backwards and forwards on his knees as he prays obsessively and pathetically for forgiveness - not for killing Rev Kim, but instead for a trivial childhood wrongdoing. Such regression into an infantilised and guilt-ridden version of faith speaks volumes about Angel’s psychological fragility and the fatal naivety that has been his undoing.

Mary Jane’s career lies in tatters; Lucius has long since gone – without undue drama (to meet his maker? Or not.) and the play closes with a convicted yet relatively (but not absolutely) 'innocent’ tied up in knots of guilt, babbling in his fear that God’s judgement on him may be as harsh as the secular ‘justice’ system has been.

And what an even sicker joke it all is if that (or any) God doesn’t even exist.

* Stephen Adly Guirgis is a New Yorker of Egyptian and Irish American parents. He started as an actor and founder member of LAByrinth but ended up writing and directing as well. So far he has written three full-length plays: ‘In Arabia We’d All Be Kings’, ‘Jesus Hopped the A Train’, and ‘The Last Days of Judas Iscariot ‘(the last of which I saw two years ago and loved)

From the programme (extract from an interview by Philip Fisher):

‘The story behind ‘Jesus’ is interesting. Guirgis had a close friend who “joined a cult and together with his brother and father we tried to kidnap and deprogramme him. He’s still in the cult today. I had to let go of this, and start facing beginning my own adult life. I had anger!” It was this anger, together with a reconsideration of his attitude to God as a lapsed Catholic that led him to write ‘Jesus’. He added to this his experiences as a violence prevention specialist and HIV officer working in a prison.’

** From the programme:’ Synergy Theatre Project, established in 1999, works with prisoners and ex-prisoners through theatre towards resettlement and rehabilitation, whilst placing the wider issues surrounding imprisonment in the public arena.’ The team assembled for this production included ex-offenders, professional actors, an ex-prison officer and a serving lifer on licence.

Saturday, 24 April 2010

TYSIC Update - A week-and-a-half

Didn't do an end of week TYSIC review last Wednesday evening. Not many highlights in the week ending Wednesday 21st April, so I am rolling it forward into a week-and-a-half summary to date. (Thursday 15th-Saturday 24th)

1: Improvement in my emotional wellbeing. A pretty good week-and-a-half, all in all.
I enjoyed spending most of the final few days of my holiday (Fri 16th-Sun 18th) relaxing and reading a couple of novels. On Friday 16th I also met up with an old friend for a final coffee and chat before she moves away to Cornwall. Being back at work from Monday onwards has been positive too - the kids are great and I felt much fresher and able to enjoy my work with them after having had a good break; there's also been a more relaxed atmosphere in the school than usual because some senior staff have been away all week, marooned by grounded flights.

2: Be less lazy & more productive daily and STOP PROCRASTINATING

Not a good start to the week,(I knew I was putting off things till the last minute) but it improved. Getting back into my normal work-routine seemed to co-incide with more productivity outside work hours as well. A big achievement was to accept a quote for some major work on the house exterior and roof - sofits and guttering etc. So I've been dealing with workmen for the last 4 days. On Thursday 22nd I was really pleased with myself for finally getting on with a sewing job I had been putting off for AGES. It took a long time, but it was very satisfying when I finished it.

3: Sons & their future happiness The usual ups and downs. Just a couple of points which were out of the ordinary. My older son surprised me by cleaning up the 'den' without me nagging him. My younger son was pleased when I helped him to sort out his phone upgrade earlier this week. Unfortunately, today - just a few days after getting him the new phone he wanted - I also had to help him report the theft (at knife-point) of that same phone. We had to speak to both the phone company and the police (who came round in person). Thankfully neither he nor his girlfriend were hurt.

4: Stay open to opportunities & take risks/ try new things, AND Be more proactive Well, I'd certainly count the house-project mentioned above. I also booked a Geodome tent to share with 3 others at the Hay Festival (we're going to see Tim Minchin on Monday 31st May)

5: Enjoy time with my parents - Nothing this week. Must ring them soon!!!

6: Nurture relationship with my husband We went to see Rufus Wainwright's opera Prima Donna together on Friday 16th. Although the opera was enjoyable, the evening as a whole wasn't an unalloyed success as we had a somewhat discordant time on the journey there (when we got a bit lost when trying to walk from Kings Cross to Angel).

7: Go out to live entertainment more
See above - Prima Donna on Friday 16th. Then, on Thurs 22nd, I went (on my own this time) to see 'Jesus Hopped the A Train'. It was an excellent production of a very powerful play. I plan to write a longer review of it at some point. I have also now booked a ticket for Matilda in December

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Going to Live Entertainment more

This is just a mini-blog to keep track of all the shows n stuff I've been to/ have booked as a direct result of the TYSIC since it started. It's been a bit crazy - like a dam bursting. Will have to start thinking a bit more about the cost and being slightly more selective I think - but it's been a real joy over the last few weeks!

1. 14th March - LIVE SHOW - The Big Libel Gig (lots of great stand-up sets) - with my son.

2. 25th March - 2 films as part of the Australian Film Festival at the Barbican (cinema doesn't usually count, but the 2 films were introduced by Tim Minchin 'live') Also met Tim himself and some friendly Minchin fans, AND went to an excellent Art installation with birds twanging guitars in the Curve

3.1st April - Went to Digital Art exhibition at V&A

4. 10th April - Went to Art galleries & more at Ulster Museum (but would have done this anyway without TYSIC, to be honest)

5. 12th April - LIVE SHOW - 'Rock Doves' at Waterfront Hall in Belfast - with parents & husband

6. 16th April - LIVE SHOW - Prima Donna (Opera by Rufus Wainwright at Sadlers Wells) - with husband

7. 22nd April - LIVE SHOW - 'Jesus Hopped the A Train' at Trafalgar Studios - review posted on blog (on my own)

8. 1st May - LIVE SHOW - Spymonkey's Moby Dick at Lyric Hammersmith (with husband)

9. 13th May - LIVE SHOW - Duke Special gig at Shaw Theatre (on my own)

10. 31st May - LIVE SHOW Hay Festival - Tim Minchin (with other AngryFeeters)

11. Monday 7th June - LIVE SHOW - Laughter/Pain: A Comedy Night for Reprieve at Lyceum Theatre (on my own)

12. Friday 11th June - LIVE SHOW - Junior Ministers et al, at Cavendish Arms (with AFs)

Went to other stuff in June, July, Aug and early Sept, but haven't got all the info to hand

Rhod Gilbert radio recordings x 2 with Wynn

Mark Watson at Hammersmith Riverside - late June
Gutted at Hammersmith Riverside - July
(trips to Cinema)

13. Monday 20th September - LIVE SHOW - Dara O'Briain (with my son)

Radio recordings - Jason Byrne x 2, Infinite Monkey Cage x 2

Various Minchin preview shows - Union Chapel, 100 Club, Lyric Hammersmith

14. Saturday 11th December - LIVE SHOW - Matilda, RSC, Stratford-upon-Avon (with AFs)

15. Tim Minchin - at O2, 14th Dec

16. Tim Minchin - in Nottingham, 18th Dec

(Into Jan 2011 - Matilda again, with Bob)

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

TYSIC - Weekly Review

This is just a direct copy of what I've just pasted in the TYSIC forum. So for anyone following both, apologies. I normally do a full version here and then a summary for the forum page and a link to here, but this time I just did one version.

This is supposed to be a summary for Mark but it's turned out longer than it should be - sorry Mark. Can't face editing it down now, so I am just going to post it in full(and tick the summary box) as it is. If pushed for time, just read point 5 as that's the main focus of this last week. But please also read the initial preface immediately below.

(This introductory preface is a slightly modified version of an earlier blog posting)
I can't tell you how amazingly helpful this whole project has been/continues to be to me (I have outlined some background to my intermittent problems with depression over recent years in an earlier blog). The approach of spring is always a good time for me anyway, but this year I feel so much more motivated and on top of things, due to the TYSIC kick up the bum. It really has been transformative! The most positive thing (linked with my overarching TYSIC of 'Improving my emotional wellbeing' has been writing a mini diary every day (just for me - a dull series of bullet points listing every single little achievement/ ways I've spent my waking hours, including the most banal and boring things, like 'went & filled the car with diesel' I can now prove to myself that I do manage to do (some) stuff and bizarrely that really helps to ward off my guilt and self-loathing. The process of looking back each week and reviewing things has also been very therapeutic. So thank you Mark: thank you for launching the TYSIC project and associated blogs and forum. It's great!

1. Improve my emotional well-being Going well. When I told my husband about all my TYSICs (shared this project with him for the first time - part of challenge 6: even told him about challenge 6!), he identified this number 1 challenge as THE challenge. I agree, but it's the one I can't really work on directly - it happens as a consequence of progress on the others - oh, and the spring weather helps hugely too!

2. Be less lazy/more productive/procrastinate less. Hmmm. This is the hardest one. It's mainly to do with chores - the boring minutiae of life - which I am supremely good at putting off. Last Friday (having put everything off on Thursday), I did manage to do quite a lot of the household tasks I needed to do (but mainly because I had an non-negotiable deadline) Even so, I didn't do any 'deep cleaning' or real sorting out - just stuffing things into corners again. **Sigh**

3. My sons. A good week since they came to visit my parents with me and we all had a really lovely time together. (no real opportunities to be nice to their respective girlfriends, apart from tolerating the boys' incessant texting & facebooking & phoning of/to them while in Belfast!)

4. Try new things & be proactive. I was a lot more positive in my approach to planning stuff to do while visiting my parents in Belfast. The anxiety that (as a result) any of our family outings or activities which proved unpopular would be all my fault was considerable - but fortunately that didn't really happen. A few sticky moments, but overall everything was enjoyed by everyone - phew!

5. Enjoy time with my parents. Well obviously that was the main success this week, since I was staying with them for 4 days. My Dad is nearly 80 so (without wanting to seem morbid) I am conscious of wanting to really make the most of all the time I have left with them. Maybe they'll both still be around in 10 years or more (after all, both my grandmothers lived until their early 90s) - and if so I want to enjoy ALL of those 10+ years. But I'm also conscious it could be less. My parents are amazing - so vigorous and living life to the full. My mum and I could talk the hind leg off a donkey when we get together (phone calls often last upwards of 2 hours!). My Dad is 'the quiet man' and we seldom talk on the phone. It was therefore particularly nice to have time to chat with him in person - just him and me, when no-one else was around.

6. Nurture my relationship with my husband. A couple of hiccups (inevitably) but generally a good week, particularly as we had more time together due to our family trip to Belfast. And (as mentioned above) I shared my TYSIC project with him for the first time. This 6th TYSIC remains a very important one for ongoing attention - doesn't mean we don't fall out or row from time to time. And we don't like all the same things either, so we continue to plough our own furrows - and that's fine, as long as I/we can keep a happy balance so we don't drift too far apart. I know I take him for granted sometimes - not least the financial security that his income gives us (he's not v happy in his job, so needs a lot of support and appreciation to be able to tolerate it until he can make a change OR retire)

7. Go out to live entertainment more. Yes - I went to see a new play - 'Rock Doves' - while in Belfast. Took my parents as a treat, hoping they would enjoy it... and fortunately they did - very much indeed! It turned out to be a very good play, in fact, with excellent actors - even my husband was positive about the fine acting (inevitably the play itself was less accessible to him since it was about Northern Irish issues). My sons were treated to seeing Derren Brown instead of the play (in the main auditorium of the same venue) and greatly enjoyed this alternative.

Well, that it then: another week of TYSIC reviewed. Good therapy!

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

TYSIC Progress - end of Week 5 (Thurs 1st - Wed 7th April)

Too tired to do a proper blog, so will just summarise briefly.

Most of the good bits of this week were to do with spending quality time with my husband and/or nurturing our relationship.

On Friday we rented a DVD and greatly enjoyed watching it together - 'Bunny and the Bull'. We also booked tickets to go to see Rufus Wainwright's new Opera in a couple of weeks: at last I'd managed to find something we BOTH want to go to!

On Saturday we watched the new Doctor Who episode together (this and the above DVD watching may sound like a fairly low-level kind of 'achievement', but it really was a step up from the norm, which has recently often consisted of him watching football in one room while I mess around on my laptop in the other all evening)

On Saturday, I curried further favour by sorting out my husband's new annual season ticket online and by ordering a book he wanted on amazon.

On Sunday afternoon we went for a lovely long walk with the dog in Denham Country Park.

On Monday we enjoyed a day-trip to the South coast and discovered beaches we'd never known were there. We got a bit lost on the way down, (and got a bit shirty with each other for a short while) but it all worked out for the best since we passed through some much more interesting places as a result.

The other highlights this week were successfully obtaining my new passport last Thursday, and (to make use of the 4 hours while waiting for the passport to be processed) discovering an interesting little exhibition of digital art at the V&A. I've already posted a review of the exhibition in my previous blog.

In a similar vein, I met up with some new friends this afternoon (and extending on into the early evening) - and had a very enjoyable time chatting and chomping and drinking and laughing together.

SOME chores were done this week - in particular a first assault on the laundry mountain yesterday. Mind you, I can't really pretend I was all that industrious: I did use my newly acquired chest infection as an excuse for a fairly hefty amount of procrastination.

That's about the shape of week 5 then.

Thursday, 1 April 2010

Decode:Digital Design Sensation at the V&A

Unexpectedly I had a few hours to kill today while up in central London (thanks to the much appreciated upgrade of my passport processing from 1 week to four hours - a great relief after all my worrying!). I didn't really know what to do with this lump of 4 hours, so I sneakily went into WHSmith's in Victoria Station and browsed a Time Out to suss out some options. I leafed through various sections and finally hit upon an interesting sounding exhibiton at the V&A which finishes on 11th April - so it was/is very much a 'now or never' opportunity.

I'm very glad I plumped for this odd little gem (which only cost £5 to see). I very much like quirky and amusing interactive art - and judging by how crowded the place was, there are plenty of others who share this preference (the throng included lots of children, a number of teenagers and, less expectedly, a large group of traditionally dressed hasidic jews).

The exhibition is divided into three themes: Code, Network and Interactivity.

The Network pieces turned recorded data (from blogs, aircraft flights, motion-sensors etc) into visualisations - with spidery threads and twirling mulit-coloured lines dancing across the screens. The speeded-up criss-crossing animation of flight-paths across America over a 24 hour period on a specific date in 2008 was mesmerising- and very wriggly!

Among the Code pieces, my favourite was a randomly generated series of arcs, starting as a series of single lines on the brightly lit white screen, which then repeatedly replicated and intensified in dark blood-red, until reminiscent of some cross between a biology text-book and an abstract painting. The intensification would reach maximum after a few minutes and then 'reset' with another blank white screen and a new sent of single arc-lines... Many people were photographing these transcient images, to capture them before they vanished forever. If I'd had a camera with me, I would have done just the same I'm sure - although the movement and transformation from one second to the next was a vital part of it, rather than any one frozen image.

Among the many Interactive pieces, I particularly liked the giant slow-developing photo-sensitive screen. When you sat on the stool, or stood next to it, your portrait would slowly appear as a giant black and white image on the wall in front, with huge jagged-shaped mirror-fragments surrounding it. You had to stay very still for quite a while to achieve a clear image, or you could move and create a blurred image instead. I also discovered that I could 'fix' a first image of myself, sitting on the stool, then move and stand beside the stool to create a second image. My first 'self' still remained visible as the second image emerged from the misty grey background. It was quite a spooky effect - like haunting myself!

The motion-sensitive 'body paint' piece was particularly popular with children: waving an arm across the screen created a huge splatter of virtual paint, and it was great fun to over-lay splat upon splat of randomly generated colours. Next to it was a virtual dandelion with a real (infared) 'hairdryer' to blow away the feathery individual seeds by directing it at different parts of the image on the screen (fun but superficial I felt: it was just a bit too video-game-ish for me). Elsewhere, on another screen, virtual raindrops appeared to bounce off my shadow-head or arm. More intriguing - and vaguely sinister - were the semi-transparent digital creaures seeming to swim and swarm like real living organisms in a stark white world under a glass table-top covered with (real) black sand.

I ended up with sore feet and an aching back - but it was very much worth it. And I still had time to explore some other parts of the V&A, which is not a museum I had expected to like so much! In particular I was in awe as I passed through the 'Cast Courts' - it was like walking through a giant's horde of holiday souvenirs, plucked from the whole of antiquity. There were so many huge pieces, all crowded together higgledy-piggledly, with two towers (one called the Trajan tower) which stretched right up through two floors to the curved glazing of the gallery's roof. And it was jaw-droppingly wonderful to gaze up at the plaster-cast of Michaelangelo's beautiful marble statue of David: I hadn't realised quite how ENORMOUS the work is, in all its (ahem) rude splendour.