Monday, 29 April 2013

'Our Country's Good' and so was this play!

Our Country's Good by Timberlake Wertenbaker, Directed by Chris Honer, Thursday, 25th April, Capitol Theatre, MMU

Words and photographs by Kevin Danson

My third time at MMU's Capitol Theatre and once again it leaves me more than satisfied with everything about the performance. The setting, seating and sound adds to the experience of this intense, yet comic play. 

Our Country's Good is a play about the first penal colony in Australia. On the shores of New South Wales in the late eighteenth century, the story concerns a group of convicts and Royal Marines. After noting how putting on a performance might arouse ‘pity and fear’ from the cast and audience of convicts, the Governor of the colony believes the convicts might reach redemption by putting on a show. Over the course of rehearsals of this play within a play, authority within the colony is challenged, relationships evolve, while others dissolve, taking with them communal justice and individual sanity. 

These third-year actors are incredibly talented. The play intentionally has a small cast to its required number of characters, allowing (or forcing) the actors to display their range of skill in one performance, sometimes even in one scene. This bumps up the respect I already have for these artists. Each character they incorporate bears no resemblance to the subsequent one. I know this is expected, but I can imagine how difficult it must be to nail an accent or physical trait every time they make their transformation. 
Left to right: Holly Fishman Crook, 
Simon Jenkins 

There is not one actor I can comment negatively upon, thankfully. MMU’s current third years make a strong ensemble cast. Instead of talking you through the play as a whole, I would like to mention a few actors individually. This is mainly due to the characters ascribed to them, as well as the personal spin they added to their representations.

Rory Thomas’ main character is the comedic Robert Sideway, a role that seems to have been written exactly for him. I follow his absurd, overly dramatic mannerisms as I follow the words of the play—intently. Though we witness his lashings at the start of the play, providing him with the audience’s sympathy, Rory and Robert carry with them a lightheartedness that softens some of the more intense scenes.

Hayley Gowland has been in all three of the plays I’ve seen here, and I have thoroughly enjoyed all of her performances. Hayley’s character; the intimidating convict of Liz Morden, is the main role she plays in this production. Her best scenes are the comedy scenes: Liz awkwardly attempts an imitation of a lady’s upper-class demeanor and hurls her learnt lines for the play at the Lieutenant without pause or necessary emotion. I wait for a stutter or a stumble, but instead I am left with a strong will to applaud.

Another two actors who make the play, for me, are Assad Zaman and Max Henry-Walsh. Assad executes swift changes from a mumbling Scottish Captain, Jemmy Campbell, to the convict, John Ascott, and the suffering midshipman, Harry Brewer. While his mutterings of a Rab C. Nesbitt kind draws in frequent chuckles from the audience, the psychological deterioration of the haunted and tormented Harry make me feel like a spy, as if I am on the shore with him close by, watching as he gradually breaks down. I have seen Assad play a small role in one of the sketches in, Tonight at 7:30 (originally Tonight at 8:30), which did not show his range of acting. I feel like this performance has definitely shown his capability as a professional actor.
Left to right: Max Henry-Walsh, Simon Jenkins 

Like Assad, I have seen Max in a smaller role in, Tonight at 7:30 (originally Tonight at 8:30). Unable to discern his true abilities beforehand, Our Country’s Good has given room for Max to demonstrate his skills by portraying two extremely different characters; Ketch Freeman, an Irishman transported to the colony for killing a sailor, and the Scottish Major Robbie Ross. While the cheeky chappie of Ketch was pleasing to watch, making me want to go for a country stroll and maybe jump in the air and kick my heels together, the Major had me seething. I was once told that if I feel hatred for a character who is meant to be bad, then the actor is doing good work. Kudos to Max! He had me folding my arms, clenching my fists and shaking my head. His accents were infallible as was the mutation between his characters.

In addition to the cast, another part I enjoy is the intertheatricality. References are made to the way in which inequality within the colony—between the convicts and the Royal Marines—is compared to the inequality Socrates expressed in his plays, and was therefore punished for by death. Also present are the undertones of Shakespeare’s Hamlet; a play within a play, these actors acting as actors, and the haunting ghost. My education seems to be paying off.
Left to right: Rory Thomas, Holly Fishman Crook, Hayley Gowland, 
Simon Jenkins, Mabel Wright 

This group of third years is tight and the hours they put into rehearsals obviously pays off. Each one is in the production because of their talents, and although not all have been mentioned individually this time, I’m sure I will get round to bolstering their talents soon.

The Manchester School of Theatre is my new local. These students put on a show well worth watching. Although I was unable (due to periods of lethargy) to follow up the previous performances with a review, the next two; Brontë, (15th – 18th May) and, A Bright Room Call Day, (5th – 8th June), will be.

Students get tickets for £2.50 on Thursdays! 

Kevin Danson is an English Literature student at MMU who likes to share his ramblings. Read his blog Pebbleddash and follow him on Twitter @pebbleddash

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

‘What’s in it for us?’ Ethical Consideration in Gang Research.

The Institute of Humanities and Social Science Research, Monday, 11th February, Geoffrey Manton Building, MMU

As part of the Ethical Issues strand of MMU’s Research Institute’s Annual Research Programme, Dr Hannah Smithson and Dr Robert Ralphs, both Senior Lecturers in Criminology at MMU, presented their paper, ‘What’s in it for us?’, which discusses the issues surrounding the current preoccupation with gang culture.

The audience was comprised of students, lecturers, police officers, visitors from the University of Manchester and the University of Bedfordshire, who are working on sexual violence in gangs, and one visitor from London who had been specifically funded to attend this event by the Centre for Mental Health, London. Hannah, whose specialism is in the evaluation in social and criminal justice policy, shared their findings in the second half from the three case studies they were commissioned for, while Rob, who leads research of ethnographic study in youth gangs, opened up the lecture by critically assessing the appropriateness of academic resistance and policy responses to gang culture.

Rob explained that, ‘there has been a lack of research on gangs in the UK that has been explicitly looking at gangs up until the last five or six years’. However, when they applied for their funding to conduct this research in 2004, there had been no research on this topic for around thirty years in the UK. The knowledge we posses in relation to what a gang is, the image we have of one, and its members, comes from, Rob says; ‘the media, police, politicians, ex gang members, criminal memoirs and academic research’, which, as stated, has been lacking.

In the report, ‘Dying to Belong’ (2009), by Chairman of Centre for Social Justice, Iain Duncan Smith, it was stated that 50,000 gang members existed in England and Wales. This is an incredible number, and exactly what Rob justifies to be incorrect with his prime example of Manchester, an appropriate case study in terms of where we are in gang research. With a notorious reputation for gang violence, Manchester has been dubbed ‘Gunchester, Gangchester, Britain’s Bronx’. But how did these names come into existence? There are many factors that play a role in the creation of these etymologies, but the main ones include media representation and an extreme focus on ethnic minorities. After showing results of reports carried out in 2002 and 2012, Rob argues that, ‘within a ten-year period, gang membership has remained the same in Manchester’. Talking us through his calculations of gang members within the leading gang cities in the UK, with room to add on a couple more hundred, the number that is reached continues to remain far below the number stated by Smith.

The definition of what a gang is varies from person to person. For the Home Office, a definition of a gang was: ‘A group of three or more people who have a distinct identity (e.g. a name or badge/emblem) and commit general criminal or anti-social behaviour (ASB) as part of that identity. This group uses (or is reasonably suspected of using) firearms, or threat of firearms, when carrying out these offences’ (TGAP, 2008: 23). One detail Rob brought to our attention is that, in Manchester, ‘one firearm incident a year is attributed to gangs, and the last gang related homicide is four years ago, almost. By that definition, we don’t have a gang problem in Manchester anymore’. Another interesting detail he shared is that now, the Home Office has changed their definition of a gang by removing the focus on firearms.

Hannah revealed the findings of their case study at a place they named ‘Northville’. For protection of identity and location purposes, this name changing is a practice they adopt whenever a fieldwork research project is carried out. This particular research was commissioned by Northville’s Gang Strategy Board, who, according to them, had seen Northville experience gang related crime for a number of years. Nonetheless, the intelligence collected by the two researches revealed that they found something different to this statement.

The three designated areas chosen by the commissioners for research shared some similar characteristics; deprivation, high rate of serious violent crime and assault and its population pertaining largely to BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) groups. As their research developed, their concerns grew as they noticed that the chosen areas were predominantly Asian, Muslim areas, forcing them to focus on young Asian men.

Through their data collecting techniques, the information acquired pointed to the fact that Northville did not have the violent gang problem previously stated. While Rob was blending in - hanging around the streets - he got talking to one of the young residents. After telling him about the research he was conducting in the area, he was told, ‘You won’t find any gangs around here. … Drugs yes, gangs no’.

‘Gang speak’ has pervaded society and its use has now become commonplace when referring to a group of young people, especially in a deprived area, though with few or no similarities reflecting the definition of the Home Office. When asking the police about gang presence in Northville, their responses were unequivocal: ‘Northville did have a gang problem’. One officer disclosed; ‘We’ve got gangs, they’re just set-up differently’, while another confirmed; ‘Northville doesn’t have a violent gang problem, but it has a gang problem’. Moreover, when asked, ‘Why were these three predominantly Asian areas chosen?’, one reply was, ‘The problem is there’s so many of them. You wouldn’t get these problems (young people with very little to do, hanging about on the streets) in the white areas. They’re hanging about on streets (or in cars) because they don’t want to be at home’.

One detail that kept recurring amongst their research was the drug-dealing problem in Northville. Hannah highlighted the fact that money from the government was not being distributed to tackling drugs, but to combat gangs. For this reason, the gang problem Northville declared to have, appeared to be a way of them being granted the funds they were unable to receive for the drug problem. This, Hannah argues, is the current climate we find ourselves in within the UK.

The main conclusions I have taken from their research are that; ‘the problems in Northville are set against wider social problems of inequality’, the labeling of gangs has become too indifferent, thus alienating BAME groups and their communities, creating unwarranted marginalisation, stigmitisation and antagonistic relationships with the authorities.

The information provided was interesting in abundance. You can listen to the lecture to get the full story here. Their article that goes more into detail about what they found in Northville, ‘Used and Abused: The Problematic Usage of Gang Terminology in the United Kingdom and Its Implications for Ethnic Minority Youth’ has come out just this month in the British Journal of Criminology (BJC). You can find out more about this article here.

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Sean, the Student Sheep

Last week I decided to go on a night out with my university's English Society. Despite being a mature student (only by age), I headed to a club with the posse to show them my Tap and maybe attempt to teach the art of courting.
Cat in box
Whether it is innate, like cats unable to withstand an empty box, the majority of students seem to roam around in flocks, like sheep. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has ever ascribed this animalistic form to students – the bar, Baa Bar, does it shamelessly.

This is no choice of the students though. Herded from one educational pen to another, students (generally speaking) become accustomed to this formation, creating a fear within themselves of straying alone into a world of self-made decisions and an audible voice (baa). 

Undoubtedly, there are always exceptions to the rule, but those black sheep are usually discouraged from their unorthodox thoughts, together with an, ‘I told you so’ sign at the ready. What the herd doesn’t understand is that, despite that lone sheep getting stuck in the barbed wire as it tries to flee the flock over and over, one day it will succeed, and life on the other side WILL be greener.

As a student myself, who pays full fees and is committed to attending my course to get as much information as possible, I feel entitled to raise questions about what I’m being ‘sold’. Does the salad have nuts in it? You would ask at a restaurant if you were allergic to nuts. Do you have this in a smaller size? You would ask the shop attendant after discovering with glee that your shirt size is now too baggy. Why, then, should a student not be able to question the products they are being sold by the university enterprise? The reason I am told (one I do not believe) is that if you baa too loudly, the shepherds (tutors) will come and segregate you from the herd and shave you prematurely (reduce your forthcoming grade) as a lesson to others. I love fiction.

sheep herding
Anyway, so I’m in the queue praying for the clock not to turn midnight; it’s a penny entrance before. While standing there, more flocks arrive and are veered to the back of the line—some sheep are yelled at, others whistled to, the rest are pushed, plucked or conveniently positioned. Some roam around showing off their Golden Fleeces, which in reality is just plain wool stained by spray tan. The instant you step into the paddock of pleasure (paying a pound instead of a penny due to false advertising, but who’s going to say anything?), more shepherds are waiting to direct you into the different pens on offer. At one point I had to transfigure myself back to my human form in order to shout back at the shepherd who was shouting and shoving me into the back of a ewe, as if to force me to reproduce!

What happened to the protesting students of yore, the ones who, despite receiving an education for free, would still stand up to, and challenge, those who did not have the best intentions in mind for the future of our nations? Don’t worry, my soapbox is currently in repair. This is me on my tiptoes.
shaun the sheep
Since high marks are what people want in life, speaking up and raising questions, which will inevitably unsettle inches of dust, causing visual impairments, breathing problems and a general discomfort, is, to the majority of modern-day students, implausible. The development of a student community continues to remain individualistic. There are a few who I watch attempt to escape the herd (like Rocky from Chicken Run), but just need that little bit of help from others to succeed.

I have made my generalisations, with reason, for a reason. It is time to shake that wool from our eyes and look at where we are being taken. As students, humans, we have a right to defend ourselves and not take life as it stands; a sheltered journey into the slaughterhouse.