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Don’t be Burr, sir: The transformative politics of Hamilton on the London stage

Rachel Ann Go Hamilton

I went to Hamilton and it was pretty great. Five Stars. Admittedly, when it comes to hot takes that one right there is pretty tepid. As Matt Trueman mentions in his WhatsonStage blog, if you’ve been sentient over the last two years months, there is really no need for me to tell you just how critically-acclaimed, clever, relevant, inspiring or any number of other praising adjectives the Lin-Manuel Miranda-penned show, which has just opened at Victoria Palace Theatre, is. Instead, I want to talk about Hamilton and rewriting. The cautious reader might think it foolish to bring up rewriting when talking about a Pulitzer-prize and Tony-award winning show, so before There is Five Things You Need To Know:

No. 1. I too am Ham trash.

No. 2. I gladly confess to regularly trolling the murky depths of Tumblr in search of a new fix, preferably in the form of a gif of Renée Elise Goldsberry (a leading actress from the original Broadway run) being sassy on stage, a lip-sync battle video between members of the principal cast, or a YouTube marathon of songs that didn’t make it into the final stage version.

No. 3. I was utterly swept up in the celebratory atmosphere that surrounds the new London incarnation of the show.

No. 4. I cheered and sobbed and jumped to my feet and sighed and did all the things you do when you finally experience something that you’ve been listening to on your headphones for over a year.

No. 5. I felt pathetically happy coming out of the theatre.

But despite building anticipation over several months, and generally agreeing that what we had just seen had outstripped all our expectations this is what happened next: upon leaving the theatre, two of my female theatre-going buddies turned to me and said: “So… we want to rewrite the show from the perspective of the Eliza Schuyler because she’s the real star”. For the uninitiated, Eliza is the wife of the show’s eponymous hero, Alexander Hamilton, one of the United States’ founding fathers. Crucially, in addition to single-handedly creating America’s financial system, Hamilton was also what we would now call ‘a self-centred douche’. But still, why would a show that has famously been hailed for its post-racial politics elicit such a reaction?

Setting up legacies, dominating the narrative, rewriting and telling our own life stories; these are the central themes of Hamilton, as any number of opinion pieces and publications since its opening in 2015 have pointed out. And the real Eliza played a crucial role in how the legacy of her husband continued after his death. History is not, as the proverb has it, written by the winner. Neither is it a static series of neutral facts that can be understood and learned. History is constantly in the process of being made, lived, written, rewritten, and remoulded. Hamilton does not simply use rap music to retell the story of the American War of Independence. It considers hip hop and the genre’s history to be a revolutionary musical mode, and then blends this with historic characters and ideas that have become part of the American national identity. Squabbles over defending the US constitution, lurid political sex affairs and rapping founding fathers, eighteenth-century politics never sounded so current.

Transferring such a uniquely American mashup of a show to London comes with its own battles. The first thing that has been made anew, in a quite practical sense, is the Victoria Palace Theatre. The paint is still drying in places, but it’s a gorgeous space with terrific sight lines and super comfy seats. While you stand in a merchandise queue that stretches over two stairways and contemplate whether you could get away with buying the youth hoodie in XL instead of the more expensive adult one, you can bask in the shiny newness of it all. Though it must be said that the refurbishment has resulted in a programme contribution by Cameron Mackintosh that is too many damn pages for anyone to care about.

The American Broadway show was a trailblazer in many respects. It challenged industry norms in regards to racial representation on stage and what types of music are deemed palatable for mainstream audiences — something that can only do good in the notoriously non-inclusive London theatre industry. But, while still in New York, it also stirred up discussions about privileged access and exorbitant ticket prices. As a result, the London producers have put measures into place to try and avoid the same extortionate ticket touting, so far to only limited success.

Other challenges will perhaps be even more tricky for the London cast and crew to negotiate. They carry on their shoulders the weight of a Grammy-Award winning album and they need to do some major reworking on the audience’s ears, which in large swathes will have grown accustomed to the Broadway recording. The London production does this boldly. By casting fresh-out-of-drama-school newcomer Jamael Westman in the title role, and by giving the part of antagonist-narrator Aaron Burr to Giles Terera, they have decided to give the London production its own distinct sound. Less crisp and show-tune-y than Leslie Odom Jr. from the Broadway cast, Terera’s voice has a more characteristically jazz-tinged timbre. Between them, Westman and Terera unveil all the shades of grey in the traditional hero and villain-scenario.

And then there’s the other elephant in the room. It might not have escaped readers that the empire from which the American republicans sought independence was the British one. How does a celebration of that victory fly in front of a contemporary British audience? Unsurprisingly, the British audience seems to be utterly besotted with King George III. Huffing, eye-rolling and strutting performer Michael Jibson milks the ridiculous toff-ness of the emasculated monarch for all its worth.

Despite knowing the story and songs inside and out, I have to admit that I wasn’t quite prepared for the moment when the Marquis de Lafayette (superb comedy acting from Jason Pennycooke) and Hamilton, about to fight the British troops, shake hands and chant “Immigrants, we get the job done”. The audience cheered as I’m sure it has done many times before in its New York run, and I started blubbing. And that’s the deal with Hamilton right here. I know that this story is not about me, a white EU immigrant in London, yet it affects me personally because I can see the UK’s own relationship with patriotism changing every day before my very eyes. The story, the characters, even individual lines concerning such a specific historical context, are made to feel so universal that they lend themselves to reshaping around individual listener’s own biographies and experiences.

So, yes, I might have been initially stumped by my friends’ comment about ‘rewriting’ Hamilton. Yet reshaping the narratives of what’s believed to unchangeable is in the DNA of the show. There’s even an official mixtape remixing the original tunes to prove it. And while I know that Hamilton is still only a big piece of commercial entertainment, it was ultimately heartening that after a year that was all about female voices finally being heard, these two twenty-first century women came out of the show and didn’t just simply fawn over how brilliant everything was. Inspired by the electrifying performances of the London Schuyler sisters, Rachel John, Rachelle Ann Go and Christine Allado, they had no problem voicing their issues with some of the more sketchy aspects of the show’s feminist politics. The transformative impulse that drives the show has kept its momentum even after having been shipped across the ocean.

As an addendum, I’ll risk sounding like I have a bit of a chip on my shoulder. Judging from social media conversations, it appears that the producers of the London show did not offer reviewing tickets to bloggers or alternative reviewing sites such as Exeunt and instead prioritised the traditional news outlets. While I can see how that decision can be justified in trying to ensure widespread coverage for the show while it is still settling into its new home, it is disappointing nonetheless. Given that rewriting is at the heart of Hamilton, how great would it have been if the producers had acted more in accordance with the politics of the show and tried include bloggers and sites like Exeunt from the very start? Pretty great, right? (And to be sure, Bridget Minamore’s Exeunt review is stunningly thought-provoking). Because by facilitating and supporting alternative criticism you ensure that a diversity of voices can be found not just on stage but also in the reception and fan discussions. And if the show does not have rewriting at its heart then perhaps all it deserves are reviews saying: “I went to Hamilton and it was pretty great. Five Stars.” (or “Nice jodhpurs. Three Stars”.) And nothing more.

Posted in Musical, Reviews Tagged with:

Visual Monsterisation Strategies

clinton monster

Monsters thrive in the messy swamps of pop culture. They live in the fertile space where classic literary narratives and traditional aesthetic norms are blown apart by visual strategies born at the crossroads between political turmoil and contemporary taste. The particularly adversarial climate of the current American Presidential election campaign proves that monsters are nourished by culture’s incessant need for new imagery.

In an example from a couple of weeks ago, game designer Mike Selinker worked with several illustrators to produce an adaptation of the well known ABC book The Gashlycrumb Tinies by Edward Gorey. The original 1963 illustrated book is an assembly of macabre pictures about children meeting their unfortunate ends through such creative mishaps as being “sucked dry by a leech” or being “devoured by mice”.

Gorey Trump

In 26 different images the 2016 persiflage transposes the visual language of the original source directly onto a set of new images. While most of the illustrations in the amusing A-Z feature distorted drawings of Trump, it is the last picture that eventually sees him morph into a tentacled, bog-eyed and bewigged creature, wafting over a dystopian landscape and ushering the little girl Zeitgeist over a cliff. The Trump ABC is a reinterpretation directly addressing a range of policy issues that the illustrators see as marking out the Conservative candidate as unsuitable for the office of Commander in Chief. In doing so it relies heavily on the retention of the original alphabet structure and uses textual elements to deliver its criticism.



This first example shows the ways in which satire allow us to make sense of current issues through already familiar visual contexts. While stealing from or ‘being inspired’ by other art work is one of the most common ways for artists to find authentic expression for their own ideas, most monsterisation processes are a lot more complex than this. Often when a new monster is born, it dodges attempts to be assigned a conclusive meaning. This is not only because it draws its fangs and slimy limbs from a variety of visual sources, it also relies on the violent deformation of forms and contexts. Monsters leech off images that are freely circulating in popular culture. In their bellies they churn around these ideas and regurgitate them into new, puzzling and scary shapes.

When monsters fuse the remnants of several texts and images onto their bodies, it is not only incredibly difficult to make out the exact sources that have served as inspiration; exactly what they are saying, alluding to and achieving also becomes much more ambiguous.

In October a Big Issue magazine featured a cover illustration of Donald Trump in jarring colours reminiscent of the iconic ‘Uncle Sam’ image in which a man points at the onlooker. Big Issue, for those not familiar with the British publishing landscape, is a magazine set up as a social enterprise and which has been around since 1991. It prides itself on producing high-quality journalism and is published on behalf of homeless and vulnerably housed people who are able to support themselves through working as street vendors. The magazine covers are usually laid out in striking colours, sometimes featuring celebrities or allusions to current affairs. The picture on that particular issue is special because it is not merely an amusing picture of a person of current interest, but because Trump has been turned into a zombie-like creature. The aesthetics of the figure are directly informed by the John Carpenter alien invasion B-Movie They Live which was made in response to Reaganomics. In the film a special pair of sunglasses allows the wearer to detect the weaknesses of the American democratic system as personified in the fleshless aliens. Below I hint at the various visual and pop culture influences that have come together in this figure.

Donald Fear

The origin of Uncle Sam as the personification for the United States is apocryphal but likely dates back to at least 1812 when America was, still, or yet again, at war with Britain. It took about a hundred years, until 1916 for the image we know now to solidify into its iconic state. The illustration by artist James Montgomery Flagg appeared first in the magazine Leslie’s Weekly under the title “What Are You Doing for Preparedness?” and later, in the Second World War, served as a military enrolment poster. The creature with its exposed jaw and teeth also has distinctly zombie-like features. The idea of Uncle Sam as a zombie is not new: in 1996 — a time in which the States were involved in numerous military operations all over the globe — a horror military comedy lured punters into the cinema with the catchy tagline “Uncle Sam wants you… dead!” Now, this unspecific personification of America’s national pride has been swapped for an actual politician.

This Trump Monster both invokes the uncertainty about America’s future and plays to the popular conceit of a dystopian apocalypse. The flesh is taken off its face, revealing the sinews underneath which are made up of the colours of the American flag. The ‘rotten core’ forms a visual antithesis to Obama’s iconic 2008 election poster in which the colours of the flag are unambiguous and blocky, an image surface on which ‘Hope’ is quite literally projected. Instead, the projection of fear reflects back at us a jarring zombie-esque face, and instead of “Hope” an ironic “Nothing to fear” in a B-Movie alien flick font is splattered across as an ominous warning. The Trump Alien erupts from the complex paradoxes that underlie American history exactly in that moment when the patriotic idea at the core of Uncle Sam is twisted into senseless oblivion by a demagogue.

Wants You


Another example draws heavily from European cultural history. Greek mythology in particular with its unreasonable deities and suffering demi-gods has been a rich source for artist reworkings throughout the millennia. Cursed by the goddess Athena for ‘laying with’ Poseidon in a sacred temple, the snake-headed female Medusa has become a popular choice especially when attacking women in power.


Donald Medusa


Vanity Fair’s illustration by Edward Sorel which depicts Trump as the ancient Gorgon beast appears a strange choice for a refiguration of Trump as monstrous. According to some interpretations of Ovid’s take on the story, Medusa was cursed by Athena after being raped by Poseidon. It introduces a strange irony into the picture to cast a man accused of and bragging about sexual assault in the role of a vilified woman. There is after all a history of female artists of reclaiming monstrous females, such as Medusa, to probe into female relationships (Sylvia Plath, for example, wrote a poem about her mother which alludes to the myth).

The article accompanying the picture discusses the convoluted tax issues around Trump’s business empire. Therefore the central themes of the underlying myth have been completely emptied out and have little bearing on this new monster. Instead, an amusing jibe about Trump’s unruly hair is fused with the symbolic character of the serpent standing in for regeneration. This aspect is perhaps more prominent in the myth of the many-headed snake creature Hydra which regrows a new snake head if one has been hacked off.

More intriguing in context with the same mythical background is this street poster which depicts Democratic nominee Clinton as a female Perseus slaying the Medusa. While the askew Medusa/Trump parallel is still present, the focus of the image is on Clinton dressed as the American comic book super hero Wonder Woman.



In the original myth the alliance between the cursing goddess Athena and the conquering hero Perseus stands opposite the perpetrator Medusa. The two women, according to art historian Marina Warner, act out the conflict between a woman being able to demonstrate and side with masculine strength and female fertility and victimhood (in the moment of death Medusa bears the fantastic beast Chrysaor and the winged horse Pegasus). In the act of violence committed by the new Clinton-Perseus lingers the rejection of traditional binary gender circumscriptions that govern how are females in power are supposed to act.



The picture also alludes to the misogynistic attack that Trump has repeatedly launched at Clinton. On top of the figure the word ‘nasty’ is printed in a celebratory gesture of reclaiming a word that was meant as an insult. The way figure and font are positioned in relation to one another echoes pop artist Beyoncé’s reclaiming of the word ‘feminist’ in one of her performances. Only in taking on the role as the Medusa slayer and exerting violence, the proto-masculin hero turns into an empowered female. For those who want to know more about the Medusa, Elizabeth Johnston has written a great article for The Atlantic examining how throughout history powerful women have been vilified through portraying them as the gorgon.

To finish off this menagerie of political monsters, I would like to share one of my favourite Trump monsterisations. It comes from a blog on tumblr that regularly posts stomach-churning photo manipulations using a different, uglifying strategy.

donald trumo


Instead of overlaying countless intertextual references the artist reduces the facial features of Trump to only a few aspects (hair, chin, mouth) and distorts any human familiarity. It’s a literal defacement of the politician the artist would like to get rid of. This deformation transfixes the perceived human failure of the candidate on moral, ethical and behavioural levels onto the visual body of the new monster.

When new creatures come to life, an awareness for the visual strategies involved in their generation is vital in order to pin down the heavily politicised ideologies behind them. The kinds of monsters we encounter in popular culture are part of the currency of creatively facing contemporary challenges.


The Ghastlycrumb Tinies:

The Ghastlytrump Tinies:

Big Issue

Vanity Fair article:

Vogue endorsement:

Medusa and women in power:

Marina Warner, Monuments & Maidens, (London: Vintage 1996), pp. 113–114.

On Defacement:

Dinild Trimp

Originally published on the Monster Network and on

Posted in Academia, Monsters Tagged with:

TT 17 Feature

With its heady mix of radical work and discussions on the future of art and the creative process, Berlin’s Theatertreffen is always a politically charged affair. Annegret Märten meets organisers and attendees of the festival to explore how international affairs are making their mark on the German-speaking theatre ecosystem.

Berlin’s Theatertreffen has always been a political affair, but the tone differs from year to year. In 2015, when Germany’s Angela Merkel opened the country’s borders to 800,000 refugees, Theatertreffen opened with a heavily discussed Nicolas Stemann production of Elfriede Jelinek’s reworking of Aeschylus’ The Supplicants, but this year post-migrant voices were virtually absent. While the festival opened with Simon Stone’s millennial reworking of Chekhov’s Three Sisters, the theme of political engagement remained a recurring theme throughout the 16-day festival.

At the heart of Theatertreffen is a selection of 10 shows that a jury of experts have deemed ‘notable’ – a nebulous term that is reinterpreted each year. From the outside, the festival can seem an elitist enterprise: tickets are hard to come by and sell out within a few hours, while the discussion and audience events often revolve around aesthetic forms and the political responsibility of art. However, Theatertreffen has always challenged production modes and forms of representation on stages in the German-speaking world and beyond. As such, it seeks to foster upcoming talent while grappling with problems that theatre currently faces.

The new writing segment Stückemarkt, for example, showcases radical theatre from across Europe. This is the forum to which Simon Stephens invited Chris Thorpe’s There Has Possibly Been an Incident in 2014. This year, however, the pieces presented at Stückemarkt largely avoided the refugee crisis. Petra Hulova’s Cell Number looks at Czech national identity, while Rainer Merkel’s Run and Bring Us Your Naked Life addresses colonialism and Tanja Šljivar’s We Are the One Our Parents Warned Us About is a touching exploration of grief.

Diana Insel, organiser of the Stückemarkt, says that themes such as populism and national identity were high on the agenda: “Borders were a huge topic, although, perhaps surprisingly, not many of the writers’ submissions focused directly on refugee experiences. Instead, the approaches to the current crisis were mostly filtered through personal lenses.”

The winning Stuckemarkt piece, The Growling of the Milky Way by Bonn Park, is an affirmative feat of wishful thinking that projects visions of a better world on to public figures such as Kim Jong-un and Heidi Klum. Another intriguing contribution, Who Cares?! by the company Swoosh Lieu, challenged the invisible nature of female care-workers.

The spotlight on the work of collectives such as Forced Entertainment, She She Pop and Familie Floz led to discussions about changing methods of production in theatre: how can international production structures work within the locally focused German city theatre model?

Festival director Yvonne Büdenhölzer and Berliner Festspiele director Thomas Oberender have questioned whether the trend towards international co-productions of the invited shows with directors such as Thom Luz (Theatre Vidy Lausanne) and Milo Rau (International Institute of Political Murder/Campo Gent) signals the end of the repertory theatre system.

Their conclusion that this is not the case was cast into doubt when the upcoming season at the Volksbühne, one of Germany’s most experimental ensemble repertory theatres, was announced during the festival. This was the latest turn of events in the hotly disputed takeover of the theatre from long-standing artistic director Frank Castorf by former Tate Modern director Chris Dercon. While the 2017/18 season features many co-productions, many of them, controversially, will not originate at the Volksbühne. Dercon’s idea of theatre is a much more open concept of performance that includes dance, film and even game formats.

His many critics are worried that the festival-like curated approach to programming endangers the fragile ensemble model as well as the subversive aesthetic cultivated under Castorf’s quarter-century reign. Local audiences might adapt to these changes quickly, but it remains to be seen whether the Volksbühne will retain its famed political and artistic explosiveness.

5 things you need to know about Berliner Theatertreffen

1. The first Theatertreffen took place in 1964. Meaning ‘theatre encounter’, it is produced by the Berliner Festspiele, a body funded by the national Federal Cultural Foundation.

2. Every year a jury selects ten notable shows from hundreds of productions from the German-speaking world – there is no single winner.

3. Other awards are also handed out alongside this. The 3sat Prize for an artistically innovative achievement was handed this year to director Milo Rau who was invited with his show Five Easy Pieces. The Theatre Prize Berlin went to Herbert Fritsch for services to German-language theatre and the Alfred Kerr Acting Award went to Michael Wächter.

4. In 1978, the Stückemarkt was introduced as a way of discovering new writing talent from across Europe. Since 2012 it has focused on exploring new forms of authorship.

5. The International Forum is a platform for up-and-coming theatre practitioners that enables them to see the invited plays and take part in workshops.


Das Knurren der Milchstraße Reading

Another segment at the festival is the International Forum, to which UK theatre-maker Ira Brand, co-artistic director of Forest Fringe, was invited this year. The forum is a platform for exchange between performers, dramaturgs and directors from more than 20 countries. Activities include workshops and talks as well as the opportunity to engage with different theatre ecologies.

Brand reflected on some of the differences she had noticed: “At the International Forum there are people from all over the world. Here in Germany, people really seem to have to stake out their roles and say ‘I’m a director’ or ‘I’m a writer’. Perhaps this has to do with a difference between working within the state theatre structure or bigger institutions and working as an independent artist, as is my background.”

A key difference, says Brand, is the figure of the dramaturg, whose role in German theatre institutions is to facilitate dialogue around the work. “There is a readiness here to accept that the work can’t answer or even pose all the questions and I don’t see this so much in the UK. It does happen, but in many theatres, curation is more about programming work that fits under a particular theme.”

For Brand, the collective scrutiny of the International Forum has thrown up questions about representation which the makers of the big shows might find difficult to address from within their own production contexts.

“I feel a peculiar distance to the shows I see here on the big stages in relation to my own practice,” she says. “The discussions we were having in the International Forum often revolved around identity, position and voice. Who’s speaking here and who isn’t. It was interesting to witness the very different approaches that are taken with regard to questions of diversity.”

This critical counterpoint to the main programme is consciously built in, according to Daniel Richter, who is the organiser of the International Forum: “Our objective is to connect the German-language work that can be seen here with an international context and to establish spaces where knowledge and experiences can circulate.”

One of the many formats trying to extend this exchange to the public was the accompanying conference, Art of Democracy. Theatertreffen uses its public platforms to show solidarity with artists whose works have pointed at the fractures and shifting grounds in European democratic models.

For example, Croatian director Oliver Frljić, who has been viciously attacked in the past for his controversial work, talked about freedom of speech. Falk Richter, whose 2015 work Fear at Berlin’s Schaubuhne faced protests and legal action from the burgeoning German far right, was invited to reflect on identity politics and current threats to plurality.

The spectre of globalisation has long been knocking on the doors of Europe’s theatres. Now it appears to have found its way inside.

Profile: Theatertreffen

Artistic director: Yvonne Büdenhölzer
Stuckemarkt director: Diana Insel
International forum director: Daniel Richter
Location: Berlin, Germany
Founded: 1964
Performances and events: 10 invitations, Five international co-productions with the Goethe Institute, Six pieces of new writing at the Stückemarkt, Other events include VR installations, workshops, artistic interventions, conference, films, concerts and discussion platforms
Audience numbers (2017): 17,700 over 16 days on five stages and event locations
Funding: Kulturstiftung des Bundes (Federal Cultural Foundation) – €1.9 million (£1.65 million) per year

Originally written for The Stage.

Posted in Features, Theatertreffen Tagged with:
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