Monday, 28 December 2009
A Boxing Day telly version of the RSC's recent Hamlet starring the BBC's current superstar, David Tennant (who was all over the Christmas schedules in everything from this and Doctor Who to Desert Island Discs), thus giving those of us who missed it in the theatre (because we couldn't get tickets or because he got ill at the start of the London run and had to withdraw) a chance to see what all the fuss was about.
Penelope, whose enthusiasm for Tennant knows no bounds, has penned a review which I shall paste in immediately below. Before reading it I'll say that Tennant makes a fine Hamlet, and catches the man's antic disposition perfectly, pretending madness with tremendous wit and playfulness. He picks the text apart with almost Russell Beale-like intelligence, but lacks Russell Beale's way with the soliloquies: the superlative Simon seemed to me making it up as he went along, a Renaissance humanist philosopher at once fascinated and appalled by the directions his introspection took him in; the divine David looked tortured and spoke the lines prettily, but remained just a fine actor acting. But I did get a powerful sense from this production of just how impossible Hamlet finds action, and quite what a dreadful king that would have made him: both his father and his uncle would, you feel, have had Claudius for toast within 24 hours of the chat with the ghost.
Patrick Stewart was an equally fine and Machiavellian Claudius (I especially liked his "so it goes" little shrug when presented in the final scene with the poisoned cup); Penny Downie was a sexy Gertrude; Oliver Ford Davies a simply marvellous and definitive Polonius.
Greg Doran the director seemed to have made minimal changes for television, and those he had presumably made weren't entirely helpful. The occasional shots through Big Brother CCTV cameras didn't quite fit with the 1960s dress of the court and Hamlet's business with an 8mm cine camera during the play scene (we saw part of the play through Hamlet's camera too). But then Tennant's jeans, trainers and beanie hat in the graveyard scene, in which he looked every inch the noughties student, didn't fit with the prevailing aesthetic either and that, to judge from the publicity photos, was in the original stage production.
And it was a brave decision, I thought, given that this was family viewing time at Christmas, to leave in Tennant's shamelessly blunt take on the Elizabethan double meaning in "country matters". I wonder if they'll get complaints.
And now here's Penelope:
Hamlet was the first production I saw this year, twice, and so it’s fitting for me that it should also be the last, this time on television. One of the many magical things about theatre is that it’s live – the action unfolds in front of you. So, I was slightly apprehensive watching this production – filmed over several weeks this summer and reuniting the principal members of the RSC cast. But every time I see Hamlet, my understanding of the play is enhanced. This managed the delicate balancing act of TV and theatre without a false or clumsy note. The stage is replaced by a handful of key sites, but the essence of the original production remains; all smoke and mirrors, glitzy chandeliers, gorgeous costumes and a sense of impending doom. Added to this is a new theme of surveillance. Hamlet is often watched, and often by those who wish him harm. So there are CCTV cameras everywhere and the audience becomes the camera’s eye at several key moments. As a device, I thought it worked well.
David Tennant is Hamlet. And it’s an extraordinary performance. In the theatre, you get a distant view of the actors and you see them from only one perspective. In television, you get close ups and see them from different angles. In this case, it really helps the storytelling. Tennant has the range for Hamlet – at times quiet and tender, anguished, confused, outraged and in feigning madness. He acts with his entire body, not just that hyper-expressive face but with arms and legs too. During the ‘coward speech’ where he’s trying to decide how to deal with Claudius, he moves around the set, bare foot, waving his arms, beating his chest, covering his face while talking about his dear murdered father. Hamlets are judged by how they deliver the famous “To be or not to be speech”. I thought it was an incredibly brave decision by the director, Gregory Doran, to film the beginning of this from behind, in silhouette. So as Tennant, very quietly, starts “To be…..” we can’t see his full face. What we have are the words. And they are such powerful words. Hamlet is wretched, he cannot decide if it’s better to live or die. As he starts to ruminate about sleep and death, the camera turns to his face and Tennant looks and it (and us) as he talks about shuffling off this mortal coil. The effect was breathtaking.
Hamlet pretends to be mad in order to expose Claudius as his father’s killer. Claudius (and the father) are both again played be Patrick Stewart, who is majestic, and makes Shakespearean verse sound like normal speech. Polonius has to be one of the most irritating and amusing characters and Oliver Ford Davies accomplishes both wit and grief with aplomb. I found myself once more enjoying Peter de Jersey as the ever faithful Horatio and Mariah Gale shines as Ophelia.
Betrayal, madness, murder, loyalty and love – these are the central themes of the play. Many of the play’s central characters are dead by the end. As Hamlet lies dying in the arms of Horatio, Tennant should be able to wring a tear from the hardest heart with “If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart, Absent thee from felicity awhile, And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain, To tell my story”.
Hamlet may not be conventional Boxing Day fare, but this production is very special. One can only hope that the RSC and David Tennant are reunited before too long.
Thursday, 17 December 2009
1 hrs 40 mins, no interval. Alfred Molina as Mark Rothko, Eddie Redmayne as his young assistant, in a cracker of a play set entirely in Rothko's studio.
I'm writing this some weeks after seeing it, so this is what sticks in the mind.
A wonderful scene in which Rothko and his assistant prime a huge canvas with red paint.
The scene towards the end in whiuch the assistant finally tells Rothko that, by taking the commission to decorate the Four Seasons restaurant in the new Seagram Building -- a commission which clearly troubles him anyway -- Rothko has sold out: he's met with the response that, for the first time, Rothko recognises the boy as an individual and not as a cipher... and dispenses with his service.
There's a lot of intelligent stuff about Rothko's fear of being superseded by a younger generation who will do to him what he did to the giants of the previous generation; about his rivalry with Jackson Pollock; about the 9-to-5 ordinariness of the job of painting.
We loved the detail in the studio; and there was a clever device of a great frame mid-stage which could be wheeled around and on which a succession of paintings and canvases could be hung, after being transferred from the Donmar's famous back wall (which really came into it own in this show).
3 hrs. A curious evening for an audience of students (the Bloomsbury is UCL's theatre) and hardcore rationalists. And us. We went because A's daughter's boyfriend Steve was playing trumpet in the band.
Robin Ince, broadcaster, journalist and stand-up comedian, engaging and genuinely funny was compere. The idea seemed to be to celebrate atheism and to mock religion and other forms of superstitious credulousness (eg homeopathy). Most of the time robustly satirical, it lapsed at times into whimsy and occasionally veered towards the downright nasty. Each act got no more than ten minutes, notionally: the techies had apparently rebelled after the previous night, when it ran four hours.
Some of D's colleagues had seen it last year, when Richard Dawkins was in it, and spoke highly. Dawkins didn't appear tonight (he is promised for the big bang version on the 20th at Hammersmith Apollo); but was present in spirit (if that's the right term, given the context) in the shape of a giant cartoon on the screen at the back of the stage, parodying Michelangelo's Sistine ceiling, which showed God the creator giving Dawkins as Adam the finger, and Dawkins giving him two back.
Not surprisingly, a curate's egg whose purpose I couldn't quite fathom. Not pure entertainment. Scarcely an exercise in proselytising. Some kind of ritual bonding, perhaps, for right-thinking atheistical folk in the face of a hostile superstitious majority. Except given the general irreligion of modern society it scarcely seemed necessary.
Acts included, in no particular order:
John Otway, tall, gangling singer of Elvis Costello-like ditties on scientific themes. The second, a parody of Disco Inferno (D says) which had apparently been on ToTP, came with a scratch choir of assorted performers and stagehands singing a chorus of "Burn, baby, burn" about Bunsen burners, with Otway not only singing but playing what I think was a Messiaenic Ondes Martenot (but the Guardian says was a theremin). Towards the end he ripped his white shirt open, scattering buttons and revealing a scrawny chest.
A (white) American rapper and improviser called Baba Brinkman.
Brian Cox, 41-year old CERN physicist and co-presenter, with Ince, of Radio 4's The Infinite Monkey Cage (which resembled this in being an intermittently entertaining and stimulating but hard-to-categorise scientific romp). Cox showed us photos of the earth from space, getting ever smaller (one, spectacularly, showed a tiny earth seen through the rings of Saturn), and a Hubble telescope photograph of tens (hundreds?) of thousands of galaxies, reminding me at least of quite how profoundly, utterly, extremely, terrifyingly insignificant we are.
Richard Herring. Who read us some stories he'd written when he was six.
Simon Singh. Who resisted the temptation to talk about That Libel Case and instead, while referring us in passing to libelreform.org, rubbished some American fundamentalist's claim to have found hidden coded messages in the Bible by entertainingly demonstrating you could do exactly the same with Moby Dick.
Ben Goldacre. Who was rude about homeopaths. D thought he was dreadful; I thought he was amusing.
Stewart Lee. Who got lost in an improvisation about an evangelist turning up on his doorstep.
Johnny Ball, Zoe's dad and telly science populariser. Who got the tone wrong and patronised the audience but didn't get booed off like he did the night before, either because he overran (Steve the trumpeter) or because he rubbished manmade global warming (the Daily Telegraph).
Alan Moore. Who wrote the Watchmen comic book series, looked like Dumbledore and told us in a surprisingly dry and amusing deadpan style and Midlands accent why he believes in a 2nd century human-headed snake god.
An indifferent singer-songwriter-guitarist with a female accompanist on the musical saw: not something you see every day.
A man who did a routine about "dancing" on trains while listening to an iPod while making almost no movement.
Monday, 14 December 2009
2 hrs 30 mins. A Katie Mitchell production of a Martin Crimp version of a Ferdinand Bruckner original more correctly translated as "the illness/disease of youth" and written in 1929.
The publisher's synopsis reads: "Vienna, 1923. A discontented post-war generation diagnose youth to be their sickness and do their best to destroy it. Promiscuous, pitiless and bored, six sexually entangled medical students restlessly wander in and out of a boarding house, cramming, drinking, taunting, spying. Freder sets about savagely experimenting with the young, pretty maid, with half an eye on his former lover Desiree, a wild, disillusioned aristocrat. Petrell abandons Marie for the ruthless underdog Irene. Marie doesn't waste any time weeping - Desiree wants her."
Or: "The sort of play written once in every generation, depicting the moral corruption and cynicism of a frustrated and disillusioned youth in a world that is hopelessly out of joint."
Way over the top but rivetting and not unconvincing. They all had tics, hang-ups and neuroses galore: checking their watches, looking over their shoulders, teasing and taunting and probing and provoking one another. This was, after all, the city and era of Freud. It's the sort of play in which someone says: "Bourgeois existence or suicide. There are no other choices."
The cast doubled as stage hands, in grey suits and white gloves, taking props on and off as the action froze and the lighting changed, covering furniture with plastic sheeting, introducing and removing glasses and clothing in plastic bags: detectives at the scene of the crime, or perhaps museum curators handling fragile artefacts. In the first part I didn't see the point. In the second part it served to highlight some important stage business, including a crucial overdose.
The fashions were elegant: splendid ladies' underwear, hats, frocks. And pyjamas! (Not for sleeping in, though: they had nightgowns for that.) There was a great deal of smoking (in one case of attractively aromatic cigars) and a great deal of shouting.
Everyone seemed to be playing games of control and dominance with everyone else. Feder was monstrous and spooky and clearly very ill, physically and mentally, as played by Geoffrey Streatfeild (whom we saw as Prince Hal/Henry V in the RSC Histories); he took delight in corrupting the housemaid and sending her out "on the game". A insisted at the interval that Desiree (Lydia Wilson), or Dizzy, the aristocrat who was so clever she scarcely needed to revise for her exams and seemed to have extraordinary sexual allure for men and women alike, plus an alarmingly suicidal bent, was also "on the game". We pooh-poohed that, insisting that she just slept around; but in part two she suddenly announced she too wanted to try walking the streets with the corrupted maid (she was prevented and promptly took a fatal overdose) so A was effectively right and we were wrong.
Marie's lover, Petrell (or "Dolly"), was weak and spineless and easily seduced by the self-made, waspishly self-defensive Irene (or "Sally" as her janitor father had originally named her). The dominance games seemed to involve quite a lot of class (the maid was delighted to discover that she and Marie both came from Passau and that her father, a carpenter, had worked for Marie's father, a bourgeois builder). D also thought they involved gender role-playing and the notion that women could only be happy and fulfilled if they had a man, perhaps because at the end Marie was taunted by the monstrous Felder into marrying him. I didn't get that: indeed, the women generally seemed admirably independent and un-dependant. They were, after all, professionals in the making (though I'm jolly glad none of them were my doctor).
Marie was Laura Elphinstone, first class: we saw her in Lysistrata at the Arcola and possibly Tom and Viv at the Almeida.
Saturday, 12 December 2009
Last night of the blockbuster exhibition, apparently the most successful by a living artist ever staged at the RA. They were queuing for an hour and a half in the Burlington House courtyard; luckily D had booked timed tickets in advance so we skipped the queue in the cold, though we still had to queue for the cloakroom and the final room, in which a large cannon fired a slug of red wax into a corner of the room every 20 minutes (we missed the firing).
Entertaining but not especially profound. There was a miniature version of the trumpet at Tate Modern in the first room in rusty metal (or possibly fibreglass meant to look like rusty metal: I obeyed the notices and didn't touch). I say "small", but it filled the space.
The next room was filled with structures made from gobbets, chunks and extruded sausage-like lengths of potter's clay, mainly pale grey. Each stood on a pallet. Some looked like great piles of wormcasts, others huge piles of pooh. Some looked like towering sand castles.
There was a room with a huge twisted trumpet with a shining dark red vulva-like opening, the tubing made of pale fibreglass with lines drawn on it to look like the borders of prefabricated panels or a technical draughtsman's sketches.
There was a room with exceedingly sharp giant distorting mirrors. You could see yourself looking short and fat, alarmingly large (about 10pc bigger than life-size, enough to be quite disconcertign), upside down. There was one which turned everyone into thin strips of colour: a shame it was winter, when so many people wear black; it would have been more effective if we'd all been wearing brightly-coloured summer kit. A funfair hall of mirrors for the arty classes.
Stretching all the way from end to end of the four rear galleries was a red wax trackway carrying a great block of equally red wax carved so it just fitted through the three monumental doorways en route and moving at 6mm a second (or something: very slowly, anyway).
Most disappointing was the last room, with three-dimensional geometric shapes covered in incredibly bright red and yellow and blue powder paint.
We were out in 40 minutes. If I were being kind I'd say it had a wonderful charm and innocence and playfulness, which depended for its impact on its size and shininess. If I were being unkind I'd say it was glib and superficial.
Update (a few days later)
A and Dr T, it turns out, had both seen the exhibition. Both were pretty contemptuous. A thought the cannon in the final room ridiculously phallic, and told us only men had been hired to fire it. Words like "superficial" were used. A fraud on the paying public was hinted at. I didn't think it THAT bad, but I could see their point.
Two one-man shows which started life at Edinburgh. In the first an 18-year old meets the girl of his dreams in a pub and they go on the most wonderful date (to Wilmslow dog track) until she tells him she's not drinking because she's pregnant and leaving for Hong Kong the following day. Beautifully captured the awkwardness of young adulthood and the intensity of first love. When she asks if he wants to kiss her he throws open a suitcase full of "Yesses" on thousands of scraps of white paper.
In the second, set for some reason in 2056, a successful actor looks back on his marriage to a woman he insists on calling "Pudding" and their baby, who died of cot-death, after which it all went downhill. Less successful. There wasn't a moment which matched the suitcase of yesses, though our man did go off stage briefly at one point and return with a trombone on which he blew a few sad notes; and at another point, when recalling the endless presents he bought to try and cheer up his desolate wife, he went off and came back with an armful of presents which he threw to the ground, returning for more again and again and again: too many times.
The first (for which he wore a grey hoody with the hood down) was brilliant and worked beautifully: the central character was called Stefan Golaszewski, so it might have been genuine autobiography. SG told us at one point that since his encounter with Betty he's been in a sketch comedy on BBC 4, which the real SG has. The second (for which he wore a white suit and tie) was a brave misfire.
One to watch.
Sunday, 6 December 2009
3hrs 10 mins. Brecht's classic in a new translation by Tony Kushner. The production, by Deborah Warner, had a troubled genesis. One preview had to be abandoned. Jane at work said she saw the press night performance, a fortnight after it was originally scheduled.
Fiona Shaw in a sprawling, noisy, intermittently moving but generally unsatisfactory affair. Hard to tell if this was Brecht's fault or the fault of Ms Warner and co. D thought Fiona Shaw's performance was magnificent. I thought it was OK, but I felt rather detached from the whole thing. There was only one moment I thought the theatre fell truly still, when Mother Courage mourned the death of her second son.
Great white sheets dropped down with the details of each scene, also intoned in voice-over by Gore Vidal (of all people). Additional information was supplied by a soldier in combats and shorts speaking into a mic at one side of the stage; when we arrived he was doing close-miked shooting/explosion noises and he also had a footpedal which produced a (very loud) explosion noise which became very annoying as the evening wore on. All good Brechtian alienation.
There was also some deeply alienating music by someone called Duke Special: dull, characterless stuff. We agreed the pace slowed drastically when he was on. During some of the songs a video camera showed a close-up of his face, projected onto one of the sheets, but like a number of things about this production (G Vidal's presence was another) it felt like an idea that hadn't been properly developed.
There was a large cast and the show was long (it might have been longer, but the cast list included characters in at least one scene who didn't appear). On the other hand, the shape and narrative of the piece was much clearer than when I saw it previously with Kathryn Hunter at the New Ambassadors. Though much of what happens, in any version, is bound to seem arbitrary because that's the way it's written and that's the way war is.
Mother Courage's problem is that she loves her children but she loves making money too. One son dies because she bargains too hard for his life. The Catholics catch him and kill him and her grief when she sees his bloodied body laid out on a bier was very affecting (S thought she detected visual hints of the dead Christ and a thousand pietas).
The second son enjoys soldiering and violence too much and pays the price, calling for his mother as he's executed.
The dumb daughter is raped(?) and dies banging a drum to alert her mother, away doing deals in the besieged city, that the enemy are at hand. They shot her down from the roof with a very real-looking and very loud general-purpose machine gun.
The cart was splendid: a square framework on wheels, surrounded by a white sheet, which became a double decker at the height of her pomp and success as a profiteer, and then a tattered old thing at the end.
The performances largely forgettable: this isn't a play which welcomes subtelty in the actors. But we warmed to Stephen Kennedy (the nice Ian in The Archers) as a Protestant chaplain forced into civvies as a Mother Courage fellow-traveller.
The Coen Brothers' latest. A social satire, a bleak comedy, not violent (except for one brief and shocking scene, part of our hero's nightmare, in which his idiot brother is shot by the redneck neighbours while attempting to escape in a canoe to Canada), but very black.
Michael Stuhlbarg (who is apparently a hot, Tony Award-winning New York stage actor who seems to have done very few movies) plays Larry Gopnik, a Minnesota maths professor in 1967 whose life falls apart. His wife announces she's leaving him for an oleaginous friend and throws him out; his teenage son is smoking pot and running away from the class bully and dope dealer to whom he owes $20 he can't pay, while insisting Dad fix the TV aerial so he can watch F-Troop; his hopeless brother Arthur is sleeping on the couch and getting into trouble with the authorities for gambling (and homosexuality?); he is being harrassed by the Columbia Record Club for payments on records he hasn't ordered (his son did). The official synopsis continues:
"While his wife and Sy Ableman blithely make new domestic arrangements, and his brother becomes more and more of a burden, an anonymous hostile letter-writer is trying to sabotage Larry's chances for tenure at the university. Also, a graduate student seems to be trying to bribe him for a passing grade while at the same time threatening to sue him for defamation. Plus, the beautiful woman next door torments him by sunbathing nude. Struggling for equilibrium, Larry seeks advice from three different rabbis. Can anyone help him cope with his afflictions and become a righteous person -- a mensch -- a serious man?"
This is the world of the Coen's own youth, lovingly recreated. The whole thing is a shaggy dog story which, just as things seem to be looking up (Sy Ableman is killed in a car crash, Larry's wife returns, his son gets his confiscated cassette player complete with Jefferson Airplane tape and $20 back from a senile rabbi, the third of the ones Larry tries to consult, Larry gets tenure) his doctor rings to tell him the X-ray we saw him having near the start of the film has shown something truly alarming.
It begins with a shaggy dog story: in 19th century Poland a traveller brings home an old man his wife insists is a dybbuk; the wife stabs the visitor; the visitor laughs, apparently unaffected, then rises to leave a couple of minutes later just as a blood stain starts to appear on his shirt front. So is he a dybbuk or not? We never find out.
And in the middle of the film is another wonderful shaggy dog story, told by the second rabbi, about a dentist who finds Hebrew letters spelling out the phrase "Help me" etched, out of sight, on the teeth of one of his (gentile) patients. Trying to solve the mystery drives the dentist bananas: he goes to the rabbi; the rabbi in effect tells him to forget it. The dentists recovers. Larry, who has gone to the rabbi himself for advice about his predicament and is sitting in the exact same chair as the dentist, asks about the teeth: "Who cares?" says the rabbi. From which I take it that the ways of God are impenetrable to man and that worrying about it only makes us unhappy. When Larry asks for concrete advice and puts forward some suggestions the only one that gets a positive response from the rabbi is trying to more good in the world: "Doing good? Can't hurt," the rabbi says.
Self-consciously clever, often funny, thought-provoking.
Friday, 20 November 2009
70 mins. A devised piece about women committed to mental institutions on "moral" grounds. Sounds grim but turned out to be enthralling, poignant and moving, sometimes funny and beautifully staged. All that and Glenn Miller too.
Architecting's TEAM should see this show and learn a thing or two, notably that less is often more when it's as well done as this. There was relatively little text and all the scenes were tied tightly into the central themes -- the women's past lives and the humiliations and unfairness involved in their incarceration.
Red Cape are Claire Coache, Cassie Friend and Rebecca Loukes, who met studying drama at Lancaster University 16 years ago and have recently joined forces. They won a Fringe First at Edinburgh in 2008 and you can see why. Unusually this was a classic fringe show that transferred successfully to a non-Edinburgh venue. (Jackson's Lane is a rectangular box with a steep rake and good sightlines and acoustics).
Let's also hear it for whoever (uncredited) did the sound design: a succession of 80s pop tracks, Glenn Miller tunes and atmospheric asylum sounds which ran throughout. The only problem: it came from two speakers very widely separated on either side of the auditorium which made the stereo sometimes unnerving.
Set in a hair salon in a 1980s asylum. Three women, dressed in white (waisted smock/dresses doubling as nurses' uniforms and inmates' shifts). One, clearly deeply troubled, never speaks. She produces pebbles from her mouth, apparently vomiting up half a dozen. She's bathed by two brusque and bored nurses on arrival. She weeps in bed. She eventually wanders outside to die in the rain.
A second, Joy, took up with a black GI after her husband was killed in World War Two, and went off the rails when he left for D-Day. She was forcibly committed by her mother-in-law (hints of racism here?).
A third was raped by her piano teacher, became pregnant, had her baby taken from her, and was committed.
There was much use of white towels. Three were spread out downstage in rectangular pools of dazzling light to represent beds. One was held by the nurses to preserve the bather's modesty. They were used to mop up the spill when the third girl wet herself trying and failing to do the moves to the Chicken Song at a "dance". Water featured a lot too, often in conjunction with the towels, most strikingly when a towel dipped in a pail of water was stretched and wrung out to represent rain over the body of the first woman.
Much of the action was silent, mimed to some of Glenn Miller's most familiar but slowest tracks. The dialogue was almost all monologue, addressed straight to the audience. Highlights included the scene in a cinema (three women side by side in salon chairs facing the audience, a pair of shoes in a fourth chair representing the GI at whom Joy first makes eyes, then more intimate contact).
At the end Joy daubed one leg and one arm and then her face with black body colour to represent the GI with whom she danced: it didn't entirely come off as a conceit, but when her face was wiped clean at the end, with her arms held in a straitjacket, she looked truly wild and mad.
Much of the time the three stood or sat together in a row facing the audience. At the beginning they came on with their long hair combed forward over their faces, as if they stood with their backs to us. At the end it was combed back: faceless, anonymous victims.
Tuesday, 17 November 2009
1hr 55 mins (Bluebeard 55 mins; Rite 35 mins).
What a difference a director makes (for good or ill). We saw a concert performance of these two earlier in the year. Willard White sang Bluebeard with a glamorous Russian as Judith. It was musically challenging and I wasn't sure I cared for it, but it was undeniably impressive and Sir Willard made a fine Bluebeard (WW only does "noble", I suspect) while Judith came across as rather foolish and skittish.
One of the problems with opera is that it often transforms the mundane or the petty or the violent or the downright disturbing into something striking or noble. It's a function of the music, the grand stagings and the fact that those who can sing aren't always very convincing actors. Many opera enthusiasts, I suspect, rather like this other-worldly quality.
But Daniel Kramer, who directed this with Clive Bayley as Bluebeard and Michaela Martin as Judith, was having none of it. He dug down to reveal what Bluebeard is really about, and pretty unsavoury it was: sadism, violence, murder, the exploitation of women. It packed a considerable punch.
It started slowly and I was drifting: a black drop with only a single domestic door and a street lamp above it. Once Bluebeard and Judith were through the door a panel in the drop lit up to reveal them walking along a moving belt, as she pestered him.
When we got to the first of the door/key scenes the drop lifted and we saw Bluebeard's armoury (a toy tank on wheels whose barrel jutted out obscenely between B's legs as he sat on it), the blood (everything J touched seemed to be bloody; she continually wiped her hands on her dress), the treasury (two mannequins dressed in hussar's uniform and rich dark-blue velvet woman's dress) etc etc.
The production really took off with the scene showing Bluebeard's domains, when B pushed aside the back wall to reveal nine curtained bunk beds in the another wall behind, from which clambered nine children in descending order, dressed in recognisably Austrian fashion (blond little boys, girls in pigtails) and with the eldest girl holding a baby in her arms. All very Josef Fritzl. They remained on stage for the rest of the opera, and truly disturbing they were too.
The wives were the children's mothers, three large ladies in flowing robes, who lay down on a matress at the work's end and spread their legs for their master, now dressed in the hussar's kit and wielding a bloody sword. Judith (now in the mannequin's blue robe) made a fourth. Creepy, and rightly so.
Bayley overacted rather, telegraphing too obviously in the early scenes that he was a wrong 'un (why on earth, in that case, did J fall for him?) but singing with great force and clarity: you could hear virtually every word. The Physicist took A's ticket: he turns out to have some musical expertise as a former trumpeter in the Arts Theatre Cambridge pit band, and suggested Bayley was underpowered.
Michaela Martin was a little chunky for my taste and I couldn't hear most of her words; but the chunkiness made sense when you saw B's other wives.
The Rite was a bit of an anti-climax, though interestingly many of the critics preferred the dance to the opera.
We'd been looking forward to it because we've seen as lot of Fabulous Beast's work, choreographed by Michael Keegan-Dolan, at the Barbican and generally think highly of it.
Only three women, in floral frocks, plus an older woman, Cailleach (the Cailleach?) who didn't dance but seemed a kind of shaman and mistress of ceremonies. There were a dozen or 15 men in the tweeds, car coats, flat caps and boots of rural Ireland, plus a white bearded fellow on a chair on a table, who was at one point carried bodily around the stage.
At the start the men all sat down one side of the stage on institutional stacking chairs, as if in some small town community hall, with large cardboard boxes on their laps. They took the boxes onto the stage and danced around them, impressively, leaping and turning on both feet in unison.
Then the women put on hare masks and danced. Then they took the hare masks off. Then the men took dog masks out of the boxes and danced. The men gathered around the women in threatening fashion. The men took the masks off, and all their clothes, and put on women's dresses. Then the Chosen One danced centre stage in her bra and knickers while the men stood around and made some rudimentary moves.
There was too much dressing and undressing and preparation, and not nearly enough dancing. What dancing there was did not impress. The atmosphere of some communal Irish ritual was right; but there was no excitement, no fear, little tension.
While the directorial interventions in the Bluebeard were entirely clear and evidently justified, Keegan-Dolan's seemed rather arbitrary. Why were the men in dresses anyway?
It's still going, which is one achievement and something of a surprise, given how often I delay writing something up until the memory is fading. Best to write notes on the bus home immediately afterwards, but I'm often too tired.
It hasn't turned into the word-of-mouth sensation I secretly hoped, but that's probably no bad thing: my lucubrations aren't really of widely merchantable quality.
I think the entries have changed in character, too. At the start I was very keen to capture in great detail the "feel" and look of a production. That probably made for rather boring, anal entries. As time has passed they've become looser, sloppier, more subjective, more like run of the mill newspaper reviews. Probably inevitable.
And reading some of the early entries I find I still can't remember many of the productions I wrote about, even though the whole idea was to create an aide memoire. The things that are good enough to remember you remember anyway, with or without this.
But I am still scandalously incompetent at the technical side of this. I can do pictures, just, though it seems to take an age (which is why there aren't more of them) and I can insert links to reviews. But hyperlinks? Must find out how to do those.
3hrs. A big, baggy, sprawling devised piece with lots of nice ideas, some toe-curling moments (especially at the start: as we walked in two of the cast were singing plangent country-style songs, she singing, he on guitar, and she welcoming us with a forced "in character" and "humorous" shtick) and a pressing need for a good editor or director to cut the thing down.
The scene: rebuilding post-Katrina New Orleans. A young architect, trying to implement her dead father's vision for a new kind of residential development, pitches up in a bar full of weirdos straight out of Tennessee Williams. They include Margaret Mitchell, author of Gone With the Wind. She is forced into a corset, along with most of the other female characters.
The best bit of the show was the deconstruction of GWTW (film and book) which made sense even to someone who's never seen the one or read the other. (Curious how much Gone With the Wind and other popular fictions permeate the general cultural atmosphere.) A caricature Hollywood producer is making a new film of the book with a black director who finds himself drawn to the novel's ambivalent "racism". There's a fine scene in which the director himself plays "Uncle Peter", a freed slave post-bellum, still driving Scarlett, and they pass a yankee officer's wife who asks for advice on where to get a decent servant, declaring she wants a white one and will have nothing to do with niggers. I assume it's in the book; whether it is or not it's a clever, uncomfortable scene which contrasts two different kinds of racism, the naked kind of the ignorant northerners, and a subtler kind akin to Victorian paternalism exhibited by Scarlett and her kind.
We see several chunks from the book-film; we see Scarlett herself, suitably spitfire-like; and several contemporary characters (women and men alike, the latter dressed in full skirts and corsets) who want to be Scarlett. La Mitchell is played as a knowing, no-nonsense kind of woman, tolerantly putting up with the strange ways of the moderns and defending "her" South against all the contemporary charges.
The second half lost its way a bit. There was a scene with a young woman who wants to be Scarlett who takes up with a filling station attendant en route to New Orleans to audition for some GWTW pageant; there's the architect, gradually losing it; there's a scene with a fire which destroys the only remaining old and "authentic" New Orleans house in her new development; and so on.
It would have been twice as effective at half the length, but it had its moments. The set was gradually demolished as the show progressed. There were touches of the absurd (the door through which the architect enters in scene one is blocked by a sheet of wood each time she opens it to try and leave, but not when the other characters want to go). And the (all-white) cast were mostly good-to-very good, and in some cases remarkable versatile.
They call thesmelves TEAM (it stands for Theatre of the Emerging American Moment) and this was a coproduction with the National Theatre of Scotland, among others, though it had nothing at all to do with Scotland.
A late 17th century classic by the prolific Spanish dramatist Pedro Calderon de la Barca, cleverly adapted and English-ed by Helen Edmundson, who also adapted War and Peace and Mill on the Floss for Shared Experience and Coram Boy for the National.
Shakespeare it ain't. It's schematic, lacks psychological verisimilitude and labours under a plot with more sudden reversals than a learner driver's three-point turn. It's hard for a modern audience to comprehend some of the things that motivate the characters, notably a highly-developed sense of honour (which at the end results in the heroine marrying a man she clearly loathes simply because he dumped her for someone else and thus impugned her honour), a strong sense of the innate superiority of those of noble birth, a belief in fate and prophecy, and a religious notion that life is only a dream from which we awake to the reality of heaven or hell. They're all ideas present in Shakespeare, but part of the fun in his plays is the way he explores, questions and even subverts these ideas. Calderon just seems to accept them wholesale. From my limited exposure to French tragedy of this period I'd say there's also something (French polish? Intellectual and formal coherence?) that they have but C lacks.
Shakespeare comes to mind because there were lots of Shakespearian echoes (which may partly have been down to the translation: Ms E very good at writing convincing cod-Shakespeare), especially echoes of the Tempest. As in several of the references to dreams, and in the central character's reaction when he first sees a woman (cf Miranda, "O brave new world..."). And in the sage or mage-like father and king (a kind of misguided Prospero) who imprisons his son Sigismundo in a tower because his horoscope says he's going to turn out a wrong 'un.
The core of the piece is the way Sigismundo reacts when he's first let out and put on the throne: like a savage, uncivilised, untaught, a beast. He's reimprisoned and then freed a second time, when he proves to have learnt from his earlier experience and behaves with the requisite nobility, sense of justice etc etc. That did have some (though not much) psychological truth, though it's a pretty bleak view of man compared with the later Enlightenment notion of the noble savage. (Calderon was a priest, which may explain some of this.)
What made the show were the performances, especially Dominic West as Sigismondo, slouching in ill-fitting court dress on the throne, part idiot child, part monster. He's in The Wire on TV, apparently, though we saw him in Rock'n'Roll at the Royal Court. David Horovitch was excellent as Clotaldo, Sigismundo's jailer, father of the spurned Rosaura and principal exponent of the theory of honour: we saw him in The Misanthrope at the National. He's especially good at taking the lines and unpicking them to deliver them thoughtfully, intelligently, illuminatingly: almost in the Simon Russell Beale class. And Kate Fleetwood was fiery and sympathetic as the unfortunate Rosaura.
Direction by Jonathan Munby (he did the RSC Canterbury Tales): much of the intelligent excavation of the text must be down to him. Design minimal: the odd throne, breast plate, period costume and prisoner's shackles attached to the Donmar's back wall.
An interesting period piece, as well done as it could be. We shall not be revisiting the work of Calderon.
Natasha went the following night (I'd managed to buy two lots of tickets, a pair of which she took). She thought the play absurd and David Horovitch sounded like Rupert Bear.
Sunday, 8 November 2009
Written by Penelope
Samuel Beckett doesn't do joy. He's not big on hope. He's not into fun. But he's a master at bleak humour, at malevolent co-dependence and at observation of the petty details of the human condition. It's a challenging evening for an optimist. Yet somehow his plays make people laugh.
Endgame is a play about endings. Hamm (Mark Rylance) is stuck in a chair, unable to see and walk. Clov (Simon McBurney) is his 'carer'. Living in a pair of metal bins to the right of the stage are Hamm's parents, Nell and Nagg (Miriam Margolyes and Tom Hickey). What we witness is the relationship between these two 'couples'. Watching Nell and Nagg is a bit like seeing your grandparents in their old age - lots of 'do you remember whens' and stories that no longer make sense, or have been told so often that you no longer see the point in listening. These parts are tenderly and beautifully acted. Given that both actors are confined to bins for the duration of the play, that's quite an achievement. Nell dies, very quietly, while the lid is down on the bin and watching Nagg's grief as he realises she won't be coming up again is remarkably moving.
Anyone who's ever read Beckett, as well as seeing the plays, will know that his stage directions are very precise. He proscribes the movements and scenery in enormous details. So the movements of the actors, and the props are very deliberate. As Clov enters the stage at the very beginning of the play, he wrestles with a set of ladders so he can view what's going on in the outside world from the high windows of their basement room. Here is Chaplinesque movement and humour, it seems every time Clov gets to the top, he realises he's forgotten something. You can see the jokes a mile off, but somehow they still make you chuckle. McBurney's portrayal of Clov is endearing. Here is a man trying to do his duty, while feeling trapped, bewildered and losing hope. He can see beyond his restricted little the world but doesn't quite get there. McBurney uses Beckett's language perfectly and imbues each line with feeling and meaning.
The only problem of the production, for me, is Mark Rylance as Hamm. Clearly, he's a talented actor. But somehow the pitch of this doesn't quite work. He delivers the lines but they don't hit the right note. It's altogether rather too manic. 24 hours after seeing the play, I don't remember anything he did or said. But the words and actions of the other three still echo in my head.
My companion for Endgame was a student at Trinity College, Dublin in the 1950's and went to see Beckett receive an honorary degree there in 1959. We puzzled over the play and its meaning afterwards. As an optimist, I was looking for a message of hope (I found several in Waiting for Godot earlier this year). At the end the play, Clov makes the decision to leave Hamm and Nagg and go into the outside world. He's breaking free. He can no longer bear to be imprisoned in the basement serving other people. This, said my companion, is the one moment of hope in the play. I'm not sure what Samuel Beckett would have made of us searching for a positive message in Endgame, but knowing Clov could escape helped me to enjoy it all the more.
Missed it. Had to work late.
D said there were three pieces, two with decent music (St Saens' Carnival of the Animals and Schubert or Schumann -- cf Mark Morris), one with modern music. First piece very energetic and angular but fluid; the second (Carnival) very charming and cheerful and jolly and witty, danced in white tails, creating the animals including a male dancer flapping his arms cleverly to represent a swan. The third piece set to modern music dedicated to Darwin: dancers emerged from pods like eggs on stage, dressed in full length leotards (white at the front, balck at the back) against a dark backdrop. Surreal. One was draped in silver foil and then emerged, leaving the costume on the stage behind him, a kind of squatting godlike figure or idol; at the end they crushed the idol. Not as joyous as Mark Morris but well-received.
Once again, fatigue spoiled this. But it was jolly good. Britten's music spooky and thrilling. The production ditto. Big empty stage, semi-transparent screens flown in from the wings to signify changes of scene, hefty bits of furniture (beds, tables and chairs) moved on and off by silent stagehands dressed as servants. The Governess becoming increasingly hysterical (we think).
Reservations: the words given to Quint and Miss Jessel during their haunting appearances are too obscure, full of knotty imagery signifying (to my ear) not much. The lad we saw singing Miles struggled to fill the hall.
Directed by David McVicar, conducted by a truly venerable Charles Mackerras; Rebecca Evans excellent as the Governess, all sweet good nature and bustling good sense at the start, gradually undermined and driven to paranoia by the hauntings.
The first night we saw a new work called Visitation set to a Beethoven cello sonata (played live), about which I recall nothing except that I liked it very much. Then Going Away Party, set to the (prerecorded) music of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys: I saw it years ago in Edinburgh, good ole country music with naive lyrics and plangent guitar accompaniment for which Morris has devised a succession of dances in which seven dancers in cowboy boots and fancy shirts group and regroup, pairing up, swapping partners and generally having a high old time. Camp as cowboy coffee.
Finally (the one I fell asleep in) Visitation, also seen before. The dancers skip in fours diagonally across the stage; they finish powerfully in a circle, stamping.
I can remember even less of this, though ostensibly I was less tired. All I can remember is that V began and ended with the dancers in a V. And that once again I enjoyed it greatly.
Directed by Rupert Goold, currently enjoying a succes d'estime with Enron (qv). Which meant it was a huge disappointment. The production was risible though the music was fine (indeed, overwhelming at times: we've never heard it before).
Set for some reason in a Chinese restaurant, with the chorus playing a motley clientele who looked like escapees from the Village People: nuns, a clown, Elvis impersonators, people in dinner jackets, a ballroom dancer, a lady in twinset and pearls, golfers, a pair of twins... Why? No indication.
The waitresses were whip-cracking viragos in slinky black Chinese dresses (dancers, who later dressed up as a troupe of Lady Gaga look-alikes in pink wigs, and as pigs with butchers' aprons and meat cleavers); Ping, Pang and Pong were kitchen staff.
The only scene where the set-up made sense was in the second act, where the three of them sing of their unhappiness at the state of affairs and dream of rural retreats: they appeared as kitchen staff taking the rubbish down a fire escape, while behind them a neon sign in reverse read "Imperial Palace", clearly the name of the restraurant. (Second time this week a designer has used that gag: cf Speaking with Tongues.)
The other principals sat uneasily in all this. Gwyn Hughes Jones as Calaf in black frock coat and yellow tie stood and declaimed, rather than acted; we were told he was suffering from a throat infection and he squeaked a little now and then but it didn't detract from his singing generally, and in particular from Nessun Dorma. Kirsten Blanck was a sturdy, four-square sort of Turandot: you got the message that she was a tough and uncompromising piece of work, but her allure remained a mystery, though it was so great apparently she could seduce Calaf with one mute appearance even at the very moment he is being reunited with his long-lost dad. (That first mute appearance was as an ice sculpture, wheeled through the kitchen doors, and preceded by the appearance of a little girl in a white fairy's costume, who appeared two or three other times as well. Again, no indication why.)
The action was observed by another mute figure, a writer (played by Scott Handy, son of Charles Handy, and alumnus of St Catharine's College, Cambridge), who scribbled notes and got his bloody come-uppance from Turandot in the final scene when she stabbled him bloodily with a samurai sword in the restaurant kitchen.
The slave-girl Liu has the most beautiful music; Turandot's sounded unsingable (and was in any case windily delivered). And the choruses are stupendous. Great tunes; wonderful dynamic effects, several achieved off-stage.
But why all the distracting directorial interventions? Goold seemed to have no faith in the music or the material. Though in his defence You Tube throws up a few more weird and wonderful productions of what is clearly a "problem" opera.
Monday, 19 October 2009
15/10/09, Royal Court
Written by Penelope
Enron is now a byword for fraud. A giant corporate puzzle built on flimsy foundations which came apart at the seams. Some of the details are complicated and, even now, defy belief. Before I say what I thought of this play, I feel I should declare an interest. As a journalist working in the US in 2001, I covered the Enron saga, meeting people who'd lost all their savings, visiting the company's HQ in Houston and attending the congressional hearings which attempted to bring those at the top of the empire to account.
Lucy Prebble's play based on this sorry tale blends fact and fiction, farce, musical and tragedy into one production. And it works. Sam West is outstanding as Enron's CEO, Jeffrey Skilling. He is, by turn, insipid, creepy, imperious, venal and pathetic. He's on stage almost the whole evening so it's a role which demands stamina in addition to great acting. One of my favourite scenes was when he and Tom Goodman-Hill (who plays the CFO, Andy Fastow) hold a "meeting" in an imaginary gym on make-believe exercise bicycles. The audience was roaring with laughter.
Fastow and Skilling were the two executives who dreamt up some of the worst aspects of the Enron fraud - a company with high share prices built on nothing. Explaining mark to market accounting and shadow companies isn't an easy prospect but Lucy Prebble's script achieves this with aplomb. And this play resonates well in the current recession.
It's directed by Rupert Goold and is fast moving, entertaining and bold. The scenery and lighting (designed by Anthony Ward and Mark Henderson respectively) are imaginative and stark. There are songs, dances and moments of disbelief at the absurdity of the protagonists' behaviour. Goold is a director full of ideas. There were a couple of moments when one or two of them might have been edited out, as I was in danger of being overwhelmed. But it seems unfair to criticise anyone for having too many ideas! Also deserving a mention are Tim Piggott Smith as the wilfully blind company Chairman, Ken Lay (accompanied by three blind mice) and Amanda Drew as Claudia Roe who also worked for Enron.
For me, there was one glaringly awful moment in the evening which was a crass "reconstruction" of September 11th 2001, complete with projections of planes and tiny pieces of paper falling from the sky. I didn't feel this was necessary and it made me feel uncomfortable to use these iconic historical moments for entertainment. But that squeamishness aside, I loved it and the play thoroughly deserves its imminent West End transfer.
1 hr 40 mins. Transfer from Edinburgh of a three-hander about a married couple on a sink estate and her brother, who bursts in on their diner a deux with blood on his hands (and on his T-shirt -- loads of it).
He turns out to be a psychopath who has seized some hapless Asian man, attacked him with a knife, dragged him to a friend's shed and tied him up there and tortured him. This emerges by degrees, in a succession of revelations. The sister (they are orphans) defends him right up until the very last revelation, at which point it becomes clear, even to her, that his actions are indefensible.
But by then the husband (until then an upright character who is however putty in his wife's hands) has been persuaded to join in by terrifying the man, in the hopes that he won't go to the police. So the well has been well and truly poisoned.
A fable about blood being thicker than water, perhaps. Brother and sister are orphans, brought up by foster parents, and she has always looked out for her damaged sibling (who may have been the cause of the fire that killed their parents, and who ensured the couple wouldn't be parted by beating up a small boy at school when it looked like his sister might get a place with a nice middle-class family). She is in denial about his character, constantly making allowances for him, painting his unspeakable actions in the best possible light (as S said, constantly fending off reality), until reality intrudes too horribly).
The dialogue a highly stylised version of prole-speak: lots of "know what I means?", repetitions, uncompleted sentences, a veritable blizzard of F-words and C-words and P-words, all delivered with a reverence and deliberation worthy of Beckett. Happily the stylisation wore off a little as the evening wore on (or perhaps we just got used to it).
A convincing enough portrait of the compromises those at the bottom of the heap often have to make. We differed as to the significance of some of it, though, notably the question of abortion. At the start our heroine is carrying the couple's second child. Then she tells her husband she's thinking of aborting it. I couldn't see a reason for this, unless it was to find some emotional leverage over him; S and A thought it was because she feared the child might turn out like her brother, even though the couple's existing six-year old seemed perfectly OK. At the end she has decided she might keep the child, only to be told by her compromised husband at the very end that he wants her to get rid of it. Is he worried about its inheritance? Or is this revenge for having been dragged down by her?
All done on a single set, with a table and three chairs and exits stage left (to the kitchen) and stage right (to the hallway)... plus glimpses of high railings outside the house, and the lights of passing cars.
Interesting to see if it would have been as gripping without the spooky music, which I found intrusive (which is to say, I noticed it...).
Good performances by Joe Armstrong as the psycho brother, Jonathan McGuinness as the husband and Claire-Louise Cordwell (last seen as Desdemona in the Frantic Assembly Othello at the Lyric Hammersmith last November). Written by Dennis Kelly, directed by Roxana Silbert, a Paines Plough/Traverse/Birmingham Rep co-production.
Thursday, 15 October 2009
2hrs 20 mins. By Andrew Bovell, who wrote When the Rain Comes which we saw at the Almeida recently and which was a cracker, mannered but thought-provoking, multi-layered and rather moving.
This play was the basis for a well-received film, Lantana, which we haven't seen but which S and A think not bad. And this production has a promising cast: John Simm from Life on Mars and Elling (in which he was very good a year or two back at the Trafalgar Studios); Ian Hart, whom I remember from Backbeat, the 1994 film about the "fifth Beatle" Stuart Sutcliffe and the band's time in Hamburg, in which he played John Lennon rather brilliantly (he has aged somewhat, though I suppose it was 15 years ago); Kerry Fox from Shallow Grave, looking Mumsy; and an actress new to us called Lucy Cohu.
It started well. Two couples dancing in alternating pools of light. Then the back wall rises in the dark to reveal a neon sign saying "hotel", seen from the back, and we are in a hotel room. Both couples engage in near-identical dialogue, mostly in unison (which could have become tiresome, but Bovell knew when to stop). It emerges that these are adulterous one-night stands, destined to remain unconsummated. And that the woman in couple A is married to the man in couple B, and vice-versa.
The next scene(s) is/are played out in the couple's(s') living room(s). One half confesses the affair to the other (who preteneds outrage) and they one half leaves home. Next we see the two men in a bar, where they have chanced on one another; then the two women in another bar, likewise. In each case one realises that the other is their partner's adulterous squeeze.
At which point the wheels came off rather. The (married) couples get together again and the "guilty" party in each case tells their husband/wife a story... interminably. The John Simm character tells of going jogging, colliding with a man he later finds weeping and then sees on the beach, where he abandons his brown brogues. The Kerry Fox character tells of a neighbour arrested on suspicion of murder after she has seen him throw a woman's shoe from his car onto a piece of wasteland and called the police.
Until this point the play had been excessively schematic and mannered, but there had been some dramatic tension: a series of rtevelations emerging in the proper way through dialogue. I wanted to know what would happen next. But the monologues finished me; I lost the will to lie. To judge by the coughs and shuffles around us I wasn't alone. D agreed and we left. The others stayed.
On the bus home I read the programme and wondered if we'd made a mistake. Each of the actors it seemed played at least one other character, so we wouldn't have been stuck with the ones we'd lost interest in. There was talk in an interview with the author (or was it the director?) of multi-layering.
I emailed the others to see if we'd made a mistake.
I got this back from A: I think we felt the second act was worth seeing although, as S said, it’s all well and good having actors double in roles but at times it can get very confusing when you introduce another whole set of characters. We did establish that Nick, the next-door neighbour, did not kill the woman, Valerie, whose shoe was in his car. She got freaked by her own demons and jumped out of his car, never to be seen/heard of again, at least in terms of our evening. We heard from Sarah (I think), the erstwhile girlfriend of the saddo who never got over her departure to the States, in that she did recognize him and spent some time angsting about it. The film, Lantana is, like the word (which I had to look up) and the play, a tendril-like affair, showing that there are more layers on layers and many lives are tangled into one another, often tangentially. It seems to me (but I’d have to see it again to be sure) that they ultimately left the conclusion hanging as to whodunnit.
Dr T wrote: I think it rather picked up in the second act and I liked the rather stagey (it is theatre) complex way the characters were all loosely connected to each other, and the way incidents/stories were told from different perspectives. The fact that the Sarah character chose her lover's wife as her psychotherapist was tantalisingly unexplored. But like wine, play-watching is contextual so as you were knackered an early night may have been more enjoyable for you.
We thought it was absolutely cracking, stuffed full of invention and first-rate performances. Directed by Rupert Goold: compare his Turandot which was also full of ideas and invention, but on that occasion they were often baffling or at odds with the music and the direction of the drama. Not here.
There were songs, dance routines, fantastic lighting, "raptors" in the basement (the fancy accounting devices and off balance sheet vehicles designed to cook the Enron books, which eventually came back to devour their creators), swift sketches of members of Congress, analysts, bankers and others blinded to Enron's failures by stupidity, greed, arrogance or a desire not to seem out of step with the prevailing consensus... oh, and Lehman Brothers sharing a single overcoat.
Sam West played Jeffrey Skilling, the CEO, developing from backroom geek to master of the universe to desperation and later paranoia as it all comes crashing down. Towards the end his lawyer tells him the principal accusation against Enron is that it "took advantage" of others (including the state of California, whose power supplies it deliberately disrupted to drive up the price). "Taking an advantage is what we do in business," Skilling retorts. Except of course that it isn't: making an honest profit by providing goods or services is one thing; unfairly exploiting legal loopholes and other people's gullibility while producing dishonest accounts is quite another.
I suspect the principal female character was an invention, there to contrast the Skilling approach to business with something more traditional (as well as to create a major role for a woman... except that she disappears two-thirds of the way through, when she's fired). She wants to build power stations in India, a market she thinks has huge potential, and she is of course right. But building power stations takes years, requires huge amounts of capital and provokes strikes and demonstrations and political problems; Skilling's approach to business makes everyone at Enron instantly rich overnight.
The parallels with the banking bubble are eerie. This is a company which started as a conventional business (oil and power generation) and grew massively and unsustainably by turning itself into a trading entity, many of whose products were incomprehensible to anyone but insiders. This was a play about the way businesses can lose touch with the underlying realities as clever people think up ever cleverer wheezes to make money. In the end Enron was little more than a Ponzi fraud.
Tim Piggott-Smith played the chairman, Ken Lay, as a good ole Texan boy. But A, who is American, said the accents for the most part were excruciating.
Lucy Prebble, who wrote it, is only 26: a fact which has inevitably excited much remark. We await her next with huge anticipation.
Penelope went to see it a few days later. I agree with almost everything she says.
2 hrs 10 mins. Gyorgy Ligeti's 1978 opera, reworked and revived in a spectacular staging by the Catalan company La Fura dels Baus.
The others liked this much more than I did. It was unquestionably spectacular, the stage dominated by a huge figure of a naked woman, crouching on her knees, bits of whose anatomy opened up to reveal the action. People looked out of her eyes, dropped through her mouth, etc. It was all fittingly reminiscent of Breughel, which was apt since the whole thing was set in "Breughelland".
A devil, or Death, comes down to destroy the world but falls into a drunken stupor instead, having recruited a drunkard called Piet the Pot as his assistant.
A Masochistic philosopher called Astradamors is terrorised by his sadistic wife Mescalina, who whips him while complaining loudly that she wants a "proper man".
Two young lovers sung by sopranos in hooded flesh-coloured leotards make out.
A prince (called Go-Go) has two ministers, one white, one black (well, white actually, but blacked up). There is a chief of the secret police who in this production was played by a frantic soprano in riot police uniform.
A video at the start and at intervals during the proceedings suggested the giant body was that of a woman who thought she was having a heart attack but who turned out only to need a good shit.
It made some sense, but not a lot, and the music was uncongenial.
Rebecca Bottone was one of the lovers, Susan Bickley was the whip-wielding Mescalina, Simon Butteriss the black minister.
Here are some reviews:
Handel's opera, directed by a Chinese visual artist, Zhang Huan, trying his hand at opera for the first time. A curious East-West mix which didn't work (because the Eastern elements seemed entirely arbitrary) but which musically wasn't half bad. Christophe Rousset and Les Talents Lyriques were excellent, with wonderful colour and pace and tunefulness. Handel can sound bland sometimes, even with period instruments: here he never did.
The Semele (Ying Huang) was a bit dour and dumpy, and out of her depth and shouty-screechy in the dramatic aria towards the end ("No, no I'll take no less") and struggling a bit in "Myself I shall adore". In the latter she wasn't a patch on Carolyn Sampson at the Proms the other day (I watched it again online and it's a truly brilliant performance; though Rosemary Joshua in an exceedingly sexy version done in Aix in the 1990s, which I think was the basis of a version we saw with her at ENO, runs Ms Sampson exceedingly close).
This Semele did contemplative very well, though: "Oh sleep why dost thou leave me?" was beautiful; even better was "Endless pleasure", sung while suspended from a hanging moon at the end of Act 1.
Best of all was Jupiter (Jeremy Ovenden), who sang "Where e'er you walk" better than I've ever heard it, while washing Semele's feet: hairs on the head time (the same went for "Endless pleasure" and "Oh sleep"). And honorary mentions for the father, Iris (Sarah Tynan) and Somnus.
The best of the Oriental interpolations was the set, a genuine 12th(?) century Chinese temple which we saw in a black and white documentary, projected onto the front cloth during the overture, being demolished and then re-erected in the artist's hangar-like studio in Shanghai, while subtitled locals told us its somewhat lurid recent history (someone was executed for plotting a murder) and we met the son of the owner, who hoped for something more modern to impress potential brides.
And then the curtain rose to reveal the very same temple, its wooden framework fitting the stage almost exactly, with massive round wooden columns and even more massive cross-beams. It was an appropriate setting for the opening marriage scene; filled with shrubbery for the scenes in heaven; appeared covered in a great crimson cloth across the roof in which Somnus slept at the start of Act 3.
The costumes were a curious mix of European Renaissance (husband in tights and tunic; Iris in black dress and white ruff) and classical Chinese, for the women especially. The chorus wore orange or red Chinese robes which they discarded to reveal slate blue pyjamas and polka-dot underpants in the orgy as Jupiter and Semele make love.
Other eastern elements: a pantomime donkey at the start (donkeys are apparently associated with peasant weddings in China), which reappeared in the orgy scene with an enormous phallus ( wonder how the mother in the audience with three young kids explained that to the little ones?), and two sumo wrestlers at the end of Act 2. At one point a Mongolian throat-singer entered through the audience, singing unaccompanied, her rills and trills reminiscent of Handel's, and picking up a white chiffon scarf that Semele drops as she is translated to the heavens (a bit like the bride's bouquet, perhaps?). In the final scene there's a white Chinese dragon, and we last see Semele wrapped in its coils, lamenting her fate ("Ah me! too late I now repent").
Finally the conventional happy ending was dropped for a humming chorus of the Internationale as Semele's red coffin is carried off. Much of this was frankly baffling, though it kept one's interest. A helpful gloss was provided by this review in the New Tork Times:
There were some other good bits. Somnus was awoken from sleep in a vast blanket on the roof of the temple, a topless Penthesilea beside him: the pair then fly off (there was a lot of flying, and it was well done). While he sang a huge inflatable doll beside him was gradually blown up... then deflated again.
And "Myself I shall adore" was sung in front of a vast mirror filling the whole stage, reflecting the audience as well as Semele. We liked that, and laughed: about the only moment the audience roused itself as this Sunday matinee. We were a pretty unenthusiastic lot, and there was no applause for even the most finely-sung arias.
We decided on a trip to the opera in Brussels (readily manageable with Eurostar, but ruinously expensive thanks to the exchange rate) and saw this as well the evening before.
They called it nieuwZwart; my Flemish isn't good enough to know what that means.
The theatre was a great barn of a place, 1870s I'd guess, occupying an entire block, with a portico out front and three floors of fine flying balconies with iron railings all round each side, getting narrower with each storey. The inside had been gutted, the original auditorium replaced with a concrete near-sphere reminiscent of the Hampstead Theatre, squatting in the space with wire sculptures of naked dancers hanging in the void around it.
Inside there were three curved narrow balconies (we were in the centre of the middle level) each with three rows of seats and a large stalls area and a surprisingly big stage: a pleasing combination of the intimate and the spectacular.
The best bit of the building was the old bar-cum-withdrawing roomn above the foyer, which retained some of the original Flemish decor, with elaborately-painted walls in which dark red seemed to predominate, and a spectacular coffered ceiling, held up by two great black riveted cast iron girders, and at either end a bar with a Flemish tiled backing and canopy. It had obviously been in a poor state before renovation and rebuilding; in places the decoration had been replaced by red wash, and elsewhere the painted plaster had been taken back to reveal patches of bare brick. We were most impressed.
As to the show itself...
There were seven dancers (four men, three women), three musicians (percussion and two guitars), a narrator with a headset and an Australian accent. The text was in English, verse, impenetrable and not apparently related to the movement.
It opened with a very dimly lit stage behind a gauze, with the narrator out front looking back and naked figures vaguely visible. One moves, and there is a noise of... what? Dried leaves? Scrunched-up newspaper? Crumpled polythene? Others move too. Slo-o-o-wly. One or two emerge from whatever it is covering the floor, to the accompaniment of amplified FX.
The narrator produces something from his pocket, and unfolds it. It's one of those gold survival blankets they issue to walkers and military pilots. He holds it in front of him and it acquires a life of its own, hovering away with an invisible dancer beneath it.
The gauze falls, the lights go up and the floor is seen to be a great sheet of the golden stuff. The dancers are now underneath it, making it billow and scrunch. The sheet is pulled to the back of the stage, revealing the dancers lying naked on the floor. They twitch and writhe and kick like maggots, or creatures disturbed when you dislodge a stone.
Three men in uniform come on with lamps and microphones. They treat the dancers' bodies like musical instruments, beating a highly-amplified tattoo on their cheeks oir shins. One woman is made to convulse as one of the unifomed types seems to pick her up, arching her back, her feet and shoulders on the floor, head back, mouth open staring at the audience.
The dancers wriggle to the back of the stage where there is a heap of clothes. At some point in the gloom (I missed it) the three men in uniform clamber aboard a gantry suspended over the stage and mutate into the band, accompanying the rest of the evening with noisy rock music.
And we're still only ten minutes in...
During the rest of the evening our narrator wanders on and off the stage, at one point climbing a structure at one side of the stage from which hand six great metal sheets which serve as both the wings and as occasional percussion (shake them and they vibrate very noisily).
The dancers perform a succession of set pieces with no obvious links. One man mimes aggression. One pantomimes an ape, fascinated by a sleeping girl, whith whom he eventually seems to mate. The same girl slides over a recumbent dancer; he slides through her legs; another is manhandled into position behind him and she passes over him as well; and so on until all six dancers are leying in a ragged row stretching upstage; she dances around and over the row; at one point she rushes it and it moves away from her, as a single organism; then she dives into the row and another dancer takes over where she left off; and so on until they've all had a go.
In another scene towards the end they all come on under gold blankets, eventually standing up and running about the stage with the blankets sticking to their faces and bodies, blinding them, flapping. They pair up, face-to-face, boy-girl, with the thin, feather-light blankets keeping them apart. The narrator comes and drags the blankets away. The dancers do not move.
At one point one of the girls mimes throwing up. A woman in the audience laughs.
At another point the band stops. There are two dancers on stage, a man adn a woman. I can't remember what they're doing but there is a sense of great stillness and concentration. And then someone's mobile goes off.
There are a few costume changes, apparently arbitrary. They first donned dun-coloured clothes. One of the girls wore a hoodie: she bent over on all fours and it slipped over her head, making her look like some eyeless animal. Then the dun-colour was replaced with sexy red and blue and black for the girls, and for the men black or in one case a red and turquoise boiler suit.
D (who liked it more than me) remembered the percussion, including some sort of wooden box like a bent tube, and a thing like an upright piano back with a big reverb.
One woman was athletic enough to lift the men.
The best bits involved running and leaping and throwing themselves into one another's arms: a familiar modern dance trope but still breathtaking.
Northern Ballet Theatre's version of the old favourite.
Very conventional, recorded music, Dracula in a great black cloak, girls in short Victorian dresses, pretty costumes, traditional choreography much of the time, but a lot of impressive and inventive and evidently "modern" lifts.
Dracula's coffin rose through the front of the stage at the start, and he emerged to walk through the curtains away from us stark naked but for a thong, leading to hopes that Lucy might likewise emerge from her coffin starkers (no such luck). But there was a certain amount of simulated sex in lurid red light between Dracula and Lucy and D and Mina. There was also an impressive homo-erotic duet between D and Jonathan at the start, but since J didn't turn into a vampire I imagine they'd can't have gone all the way.
My knowledge of the Dracula story is shaky, and since we passed on the souvenir programme at £5 we had to glean what we could from a cast list which spelt out the characters' relationships. From this it appeared that the virginal Mina's friend Lucy was tempted into a night of passion with D during a night-time walk in a red dress in the graveyard (silly girl), lost all her inhibitions and behaved abominably at her engagement party, which was also the main chance for the corpse (ha!) de ballet to go through their paces; her fiance laboured under the unlikely moniker of Lord Arthur Godalming and was danced by a Japanese in a silly moustache.
Lucy was then put to bed while the medical men busied themselves about her, and where she was later visited by D and subsequently expired.
D then turned his attention to Lucy, with whom he danced an erotic duet ending up on another bed stage left, to the accompaniment of a Classic FM favourite I can't name, involving a very slow piano and solo violin, both incredibly close-miked.
It was camp and kitsch and done without any irony, but on its own terms it was effective.
There was a sub-plot I didn't entirely follow involving a lunatic in a cage who was winched down from the flies.
We agreed it would have been better still with live music, though the range of FX would have been much reduced in that case.
Semi-naturalistic scenery (like beds) was wheeled on and off from time to time, which was cumbersome.
The audience were an entertaining mix of the WYP's usual stolid burghers, plus gay balletomanes... and Dracula fans in gothic black (why are all goths fat?).
W didn't think he'd enjoy it but clearly did, especially the shorter second act, which was gratifyingly full of sex and violence.
Wednesday, 9 September 2009
Written by Penelope
In the week that two young brothers from Doncaster admitted to the gruesome and vicious beating of two other little boys, it somehow seemed fitting (if depressing) to see this play.
Country Music was written by Simon Stephens in 2004, after he'd spent eight months as a writer in residence at Wandsworth and Grendon prisons. It's performed by graduates from Rose Bruford College and directed by David Zoob.
It's a story in four acts, spanning 21 years in which we see the hopeless life and fate of Jamie Carris (played by George Banks). Here's a boy who doesn't take his chances and makes all the wrong choices, though he has bad luck too. The first scene has him as a teenager, in a stolen car, with his girlfriend Lynsey shortly after Jamie has stabbed another boy. He's cocky, funny, charming, scared, chilling and brutal in quick succession. She's all nervous laughter, bravado and then fear. The audience laughs along, while also wincing and shuffling uncomfortably. Middle-class theatre goers pay to see these scenes, but we're inwardly relieved Jamie doesn't play a part in our lives.
Jamie inevitably ends up in prison and in the second act we witness the poignant visit of his younger brother Mattie. Jamie has a terrible affect on everyone. He's all nerves. George Banks plays him with a series of nervous tics, he can't keep still, whether its shaking his legs, rolling cigarettes, folding sweet wrappers: he's perpetual motion. His family and friends are terrified into their loyalty.
Later, we see him released from prison where he meets his now 17 year old daughter, Emma. They have nothing in common and nothing much to say to each other and Jamie doesn't know how to tell her how much he's missed her. She's curious to meet him, but doesn't know what to say and is so uncomfortable, she keeps her coat on.
The final scene takes us back to the day before Jamie stole the car and stabbed the other boy. This is the day he makes his first big mistake. By now, we know what he's done, and we watch, uncomfortably as we see the beginning of the story.
All four performances are excellent and really spellbinding. George Banks as Jamie is the central focus. He "ages" 21 years, and has to be defiant, stroppy, nasty, violent and pitiful. And he does all this, while still making you feel sorry for him. That's quite remarkable. Each act is interspersed with a country music song (hence the title), to enhance the action. Lauryn Redding has a lovely, sweet voice and the music is well chosen. But I didn't think it was entirely necessary to the narrative. Mattie is played by Mark Conway, Lynsey by Hannah Pierce and Emma by"Emma-Louise Maw
It's not often you see a play in London which is so relevant to the current debate about 'problem kids". I hope this play gets a longer run in another theatre. I emerged into the night thinking that while Jamie's future was bleak, the future of our theatre looks pretty rosy.
Friday, 4 September 2009
2 hrs, 30 mins. The OUDS production en route from Oxford (via one night only in Stratford, for some reason) to Tbilisi in Georgia. Produced by the veteran Thelma Holt (who's been organising an international OUDS tour for a dozen years), with backing from Cameron Mackintosh. They're a well-connected lot: one cast member is son of a famous theatre director, the fights were arranged by Terry King who does this sort of thing for the RSC, no less (in the front row at the Trafalgar Two it felt like a sword might take a knee off at any minute, but with King in charge I was probably wrong to worry).
Two names to watch: director Tim Hoare and actor Jacob Lloyd, who played Henry. Lloyd has a commanding presence, comports himself like a king and speaks the verse as if he knows what it means. Hoare has a clear idea of what he wants, a fine sense of pace and some nice ideas and either undertook himself or commissioned a very clever stripped-down version of the play, bracketing it with the deathbed scene between Hal and the King from Henry IV Part 2, and the news of Henry V's death from the start of Henry VI Part 1, so giving the play a sense of context and emphasising the extent to which Henry and Agincourt were brilliant flashes in the otherwise dismal 15th century wars (of the Roses and against France).
We lost a lot of the lowlife stuff, including the by-play between Fluellen and Jamie and the rest, so it became less of a "picture of England" and more a portrait of a tough, successful and sometimes brutal king (he participates in the execution of the prisoners himself; personally oversees the hanging of Bardolph before cutting him down). We also lost the comic "naming of parts" scene between Katherine and her maid.
Some of the cuts produced clever tricks: Henry swaps gloves with the bolshy soldier before Agincourt... but then returns the glove not to a living survivor but to a dead body when he finds the soldier on the battlefield.
There were just ten in the cast, three girls (who played several male parts including the Chorus, the Boy and Montjoy the French Herald -- the latter rather well done by Martha May). Let's say some of the players were stronger than others, but none were actively embarrassing.
The English wore red, the French blue which helped with the doubling (though must also have required some pretty quick changes backstage); and knowing the play probably helped too. What the Georgians will make of it is anyone's guess.
Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment conducted by Roger Norrington with Joyce DiDonato singing; in the second half they played Mendelssohn's Symphony No 3, the Scottish.
I failed to make proper notes at the time but I did scribble in the programme. We had Purcell's suite from the incidental music to Abdelazer, and then La DiDonato came on in a green, full-skirted strapless dress to sing Ombra mai fu from Xerxes and Ah mio cor from Alcina. The former was funereal, though she sounded gorgeous. The second was much better, faster, and there was something she did at the segue into the middle section unaccompanied when her voice soared and fell and changed key and all sorts, and we all held our breath.
And then we had Handel's Water Music, which is too familiar and I fell asleep.
And that was followed by our Joyce back for Haydn's Scena di Berenice which is a splendidly dramatic concert aria. She was great: lyrical, highly dramatic, thrillingly low at times.
The Mendelssohn contrasts light and dark in the first movement (the Scots weather?), first brassy, then flute and clarinet. There are lovely melodies in the third movement. And a bouncy finish.
G didn't like Norrington: he thinks he's a show-off, turning to the audience at the end and bouncing like a schoolboy.
Royal Concertgebouw with Mariss Janson doing Haydn's Symphony No 100, the Military, and Shostakovich's Symphony No 10.
I failed to make a note at the time and remember nothing of it.
The reviews below help bring some of it back, notably the four percussionists marching on at the end of the Haydn.
Late-night Prom with the Michael Nyman Band.
Initially riveting: loud, repetitive, rhythmic with a spectacular sense of impetus and drive. Think Chasing Sheep is Best Left to Shepherds, the theme tune from The Draughtsman's Contract.
The trouble is, they all sound like that: same minimalist techniques, same (amplified) instrumentation.
Alas it became boring in the end
Only 35 mins. A disappointing piece of physical theatre from a company called Red Shift. A man, a woman and a bed: an extra-marital affair with the Slovenian au pair goes sour, intercut with extracts from Milton's Paradise Lost. As Eve eats the apple he recites the relevant section of the poem while the au pair gives him a blow job beneath the duvet (it is at least novel...). She wears only knickers throughout; he gets his kit off just before this point as he gets into bed with her.
He (Graeme Rose) knew how to deliver the verse: I'm not sure I've heard Milton better-delivered. She (Stephanie Day, who despite the name was authentically foreign I think) didn't.
A rather slight idea not fully-enough developed. There were rather a lot of solitary middle-aged men in the audience, which made her accusations that he was just a "dirty old man" hit rather close to home.
Dance and physical theatre piece with five dancers (three men, two women, plus another man and a woman who made occasional uncredited contributions) choreographed by Maresa von Stockert. Dance as political allegory.
At the start the five come on to loud martial music, marching, wheeling, shooting, saluting while dressed in uniforms and yellow sashes. The era could be any time from the 1940s to the 1980s: a drab police state, perhaps soemwhere in Eastern Europe.
We hear a dissident young couple rowing in voice-over about his political activism while watching them dance: rolls, lifts, scissor movements up and over and under and around one another. First he holds her then she holds him, defying gravity and expectations. Physically it's breathtaking but the voice-over is unconvincing.
As they dance one of the uniforms enters their home and steals one of his shirts, stuffing it into a glass jar. Next we see two functionaries in white coats with little folding tables "analysing" two similar shirts extracted from glass jars. They snigg, measure, fold, unfold, eventually turning into dogs on all fours, tossing the shirts in their mouths.
The dissident's half-brother is stopped by the political police and questioned, threatened and urged to shop him, the scene accompanied by secret policeman's patter and more rolls and lifts.
Then we see the half-brother at work, filing. At the back of the stage are two cages on wheels, the back wall facing the audience filled with shelves of box files; they can be turned to reveal interiors. Now one is turned (by the dancer playing the half-brother, with considerable effort) to reveal a woman sitting surrounded by concertina files. She extracts a cup from one, then a saucer and then pours tea for our hero (the use of props throughout is extremely ingenious), then the concertina files on the floor develop a mind of their own and start rising out of the floor. The couple (it later turns out this is meant to be a dream sequence) are forced to take to the walls and then the ceiling of the cage to escape.
The dissident's wife is taken in for questioning and literally enmeshed by her interrogators in the coils of quarter-inch tape used to record the bugs in her home.
There are signs of diminishing imagination as we proceed. There's a frankly puerile scene when one of the men's wives comes to report her husband missing and a large box next to her eats her handbag and the functionary who greets her through a hole in the box files then comes round to dance with her... and with a banana that turns into a phone.
The music is as much FX as anything, with shades of the Penguin Cafe Orchestra now and then. The spoken text is variable: the secret policemen (one sporting a rat-like countenance and the pencil moustache of a 1940s spiv) are effective, at other times you just wish they'd shut up and get on with the dancing.
At the end the regime collapses. The marchers return but now their movements are jerky and nervous and, like the Duracell bunnies, they gradually run down, develop repetitive faults or get stuck in corners. A new regime takes over. One of the men in uniform deliberately changes his yellow sash and badge for a red badge and scarf then walks into one of the cages where there's a table and lamp... and attaches them to the ceiling, the world turned literally upside down.
Our heroes in jail cells push out the box files which scatter across the floor; they hang from the ceiling and walls; their wives dance in anguished fashion amid the litter of boxes at the back of the stage.
Then the functionaries of the new regime appear and robotically and methodically start to build a wall of boxes while the dissident disassembles some of the other box files and scatters them wildly about. At the end the wall is destroyed.
Mostly inventive, with real skill and passion in the dance, but the allegory sometimes a little too obvious. A pitifully and undeservedly small audience at 11 in the morning.