Sunday, 25 January 2009


25/1/09, Tate Modern.

Sunday lunchtime at the power station. D keen to go: she says she finds Rothko relaxing, especially his black paintings: you see grades and shades and colours within colours. I think he's a bit dull.

The big room, the second you enter, is undeniably impressive: 14 huge canvases, from the Tate's collection and a collection in Japan, the room crowded with onlookers standing, strolling, criss-crossing the floor like figures in a railway station or a painting of a Parisian boulevard.

The canvases were painted in the early 1960s for the Four Seasons Restaurant at the Seagram Tower in New York but never installed. Rothko had second thoughts: the exhibition booklet doesn't say precisely why, but implies it was because a restaurant is a private space. In which case Rothko would presumably be delighted by the very public scene at the Tate.

The Seagram was an engineer's delight: a precise, geometric Mies van der Rohe-style tower. (Later: Mies designed it, according to Wikipedia, so the resemblance is hardly surprising.) Rothko's stuff looks similarly geometric at first glance, and then you realise it's defiantly hand-crafted. Patches of undercoat show through. The paint is textured. The boundaries between colours are deliberately and sometimes exuberantly fuzzy. The paintings feature geometric shapes, but they're hand-drawn, hazy and slightly distorted. They're all a hollow rectangle or pair of rectangles on a plain ground. But in some the hollow centres are so narrow and constricted they look like columns. And the internal corners of the rectangles have exaggerated serif-like angles.

Later paintings from the mid-to-late 60s are more precise but never look machine-made. There are straight hard lines between the blocks of colours but always evidently painted. When he uses tape it's only to provide a frame around the outside of the painting, and pulling the tape off introduces further imperfections because bits of paint come away with it. And the tapes weren't laid straight: you can see that clearly in one painting, where the top of the painted area runs first above, then below, then once again above the line of shadow cast by the top light shining down on the frame.

There's also much less variety in the later paintings. The last two rooms contain, respectively, brown-and-grey and grey-and-grey paintings, the two colours separated by an horizon of varying heights, usually somewhere below the mid-point of the picture. The paint (particularly the lighter colour, in the lower part of the image) is applied in a swirling, almost slapdash manner. On their own I imagine these pictures would be striking; in this profusion they look decidedly compulsive-obsessive. In the Seagram paintings the sameness is softened by variation and by the brighter colours, including once or twice a positively fiery orange.

And then there are the black paintings: huge black squares on a black background. Look closely and you see the squares are different colours. But are they in fact the same colour, just different textures which reflect and refract the light differently so look a different colour? Or is that different colour?! You find yourself peering closely at vast slabs of monochrome, trying to work it out: if Rothko was obsessive, he manages to make obsessives of the rest of us too.

I couldn't be bothered to queue for the lightboxes whch showed his techniques. All I managed to gather was that they photographed the paintings under ultra-violet light and found large areas of fluorescence.

D spent a small fortune in the exhibition shop on a catalogue and stuff for K, with whom she discovered Rothko jointly at Tate Modern years ago. The purchases included two prints she wants to send K and back at home she looked for some cardboard stiffening: she found a John Lewis box... whose dark grey/light grey colours look as if Rothko designed them.

Tate Modern must be nearly ten years old by now but wears well, and it's still packed on a weekend with tourists and a certain type of native Brit, a touch more elegant than the norm. There are hats and expensive hair and elegantly draped scarves and half the men look like A.C. Grayling. I felt a scruff.


24/1/09, Wigmore Hall.

1 hr 45 mins. Recital of songs and lieder, mainly duets, for soprano (Royal) and mezzo-soprano (Christine Rice).

Kate Royal looked like the school glamour-puss who'd brought her rather plain and dumpy friend along too, to show herself off to best advantage -- with the headmaster for company.

Ms Royal is certainly striking. Tall, posh face, slender, almost gawky if you're being unkind ("swanlike", according to the more charitable S) in a black sheath which left one of her wide swimmer's shoulders bare. There was loads of expression in the voice and face but she's a bit stiff, not a natural actress: the head girl descending from her eminence to grace the school play with a guest character appearance.

Christine Rice tries less hard but is more convincing as an actress, less impressive as a dresser: a claret off the shoulder gown with curious black Spanish lace (or so it looked) around the shoulders. She sure can sing, though.

Tinkling the ivories was the headmasterly Roger Vignoles: black jacket, grey shirt, black tie (conventional, not bow), grey hair, spectacles.

Had to work and got there late. Missed the first piece, Purcell's Sound the Trumpet, one of my favourites, which I've only ever heard a) on record or the radio and b) sung by counter-tenors, and was much looking forward to. D said it was very good.

Arrived during a set of songs by Mendelssohn, clearly audible through the double doors in the Wigmore foyer. Went in during the applause for a set of five by Brahms: a revelation. I've always thought lieder a rather bloodless form, but then I've never heard it in the flesh. A recalibration is required. It's surprisingly powerful stuff, even when you've no idea what they're singing about. It was clear one song was the comic number (Die Schwestern, it turned out, about two lovely and somewhat coquettish sisters whose relationship sours once it emerge that they love the same man); two (Love's Way 1 and 2, to words by Johann Gottfried Herder) came with the most lovely melodies. And the last was a splendidly melodramatic mother-daughter dialogue on Walpurgisnacht ("Dear mother, there's thunder over the Brocken." "Dear child, there are witches up there..." and Mum, it turns out, is one of them).

The second half had two songs by Gounod (associated with "sentimental religiosity" according to the programme note, but it was tuneful sentiment), two by Ernst Chausson, less obviously appealing, and four by Rossini -- two solos, two duets including another comic number called The Venetian Regatta which also provoked much mugging from the girls. Less than 24 hours on and I can remember nothing of the music, except that it was pleasing ("The English know nothing of music: they just like the noise it makes," as my father claims Beecham once said).

So we should go more to the Wigmore Hall, which is evidently an ideal size to appreciate this kind of stuff and is architecturally more exotic than I remember it from our one previous visit many years ago. The lobby has those wide, shallow arches much liked by English architects of the arts and crafts school. The performers sing on a stage in an apse at the end with an elaborate mosaic or fresco above it. S said it reminded her of an Edwardian loo: she felt the entrance and exit doors on either side should have "ladies" and "gents" above them.

It was a full house. We weren't quite the youngest there but it felt like it. They gave us two encores: a Brahms and a Schubert, both rather contemplative for encores; we could have done with something a little more upbeat.

The programme says Rice and Royal have been singing together occasionally since 2004, when they were Rhinemaidens in a concert performance of Rhinegold at the Proms, which we went to. But it wasn't until we saw Kate Royal at the Opera Garnier in Paris in a performance of Handel's L'Allegro, Il Penseroso and Il Moderato that she made any impression. She was brilliant, beautiful, poised: the best thing about an otherwise ghastly, lamentable staging by a South African "choreographer" who took great delight in deconstructing the whole thing.

Thursday, 22 January 2009


The title is a reference to the Marcel Carne film, Les Enfants du Paradis, set in the theatrical world of early 19th century Paris. The "paradis" at the Theatre des Funambules was the gallery (English equivalent "the gods") and its children were the spectators: noisy, opinionated and committed.


21/1/09, Tricycle.

Missed it: had to work.

D's verdict: very funny, played at full tilt but still creaked a bit, proper farce. David Haigh very good as the policeman Truscott, played with a lot of bluster and lurching about in three-piece suit and raincoat. When it first came out the body on stage must have been pushing the boundaries, but nowadays has lost its shock value. On the other hand the violence -- when the policeman beats up the son -- really surprised her and was still shocking: "It was such a contrast to what you think you're watching".


17/1/09, Soho Theatre.

1hr 45mins approx, no interval. A sell-out.

What sounded like a very timely play by Steve Thompson about City traders and City greed: would it give us an insight into how we got into the present mess? In fact it was written too soon. It certainly skewers the questionable ethics and playground behaviour of many traders -- but beyond that there were no revelations. We went to see it mainly because S had met the very dishy real-life city type whose expert advice helped make characters and situation convincing.

Four desks (which double as restaurant tables, even a bed at one point), four sets of screens, four speaker phones, four traders. PJ is middle aged and losing it; he keeps going with copious liquid lunches and bluster, only in order to satisfy his expensive wife who is obsessed with exotic holidays and her new kitchen. His colleagues mock him for his eagerness to engage them in conversation about all manner of subjects, but it least he has some kind of hinterland when he tells the boss to shove his derisory bonus and walks out on the job.

Donny is an East End street trader with post-divorce visiting rights. In the best scene by far he teaches his young son (brilliant comic performance by Jack O'Connor, a lad who looks as if he can't be more than 12) about short selling, using a sachet of tomato ketchup in Macdonalds, and about the gamesmanship traders use. He pretends to get angry when he realises his son has put one over on him; when the boy hands the ketchup back in alarm Donny upbraids him -- if he's angry it means his judgement is impaired; the boy can take advantage of that. At their next meeting the lad produces a bag of pound coins, acquired by exploiting his nan's soft heart.

Spoon is a posh graduate (a First from Jesus, rowing blue), bullied and then humiliated in a trade by Donny, who learns fast, gets his own back and turns out to be a straightforward liar and a cheat.

And then there's the woman, Jess, who flirts shamelessly, sees through all the boys' posturing and delivers the plot punchline at the end. As so often, it's the women who have a sense of proportion the men sadly lack.

(The first scene, in which Jess and Donny role-play a job interview which ends up with the pair of them having a quicky, is an arresting beginning but seems to belong to a different play altogether.)

The milieu and motivations (greed, mainly) are convincingly established, as in Thompson's play Damages, about tabloid invasions of privacy (seen at the Bush c 2005). And there are some good gags, but not as many as in Whipping It Up (seen at the Bush c 2007), about Parliamentary whips. But the plot of this one came off the shelf rather than off today's front pages or Peston's blog, and that seems a shame.
Later: I went for work to a real-life City trading floor for the first time in years a few weeks after seeing this. And it truly is a bizarre world which this play does a good job in capturing. They'd all sit around doing very little but staring at screens until someone (the lead trader, presumably) made a shouted announcement, incomprehensible to outsiders. There then followed a great deal of shouting, phone calls, further incomprehensible exchanges; and then the excitement would subside after a minute or so and the prevailing lull would return... until another bunch started up in another corner of the floor.

Sunday, 18 January 2009


16/1/09, Menier Chocolate Factory.

2hrs 50 mins - but it didn't start until 8 so it was 11 o'clock before we pitched up at London Bridge hoping for a bus. Good thing it was a Friday, not midweek. Maybe it's so the diners in the (packed) restaurant have time to finish. Dashed inconvenient.

But a top notch show. Of course, it's by Sondheim. There are some very good jokes and some very good songs, but fundamentally it's a serious (and rather bleak) piece about lost youth, lost opportunities and the absurdities of love. The first act in particular is pretty downbeat. The ageing protagonists snatch at fleshly delights; they're vain, self-deluding, and yet you feel sorry for them.

The second act - the weekend in the country - is more upbeat, bringing matters to a suitably "comic" conclusion. But is the seminary student tortured by puppy love for his youthful stepmother really going to be any happier with her than without her? What sort of resolution is there for the ghastly dragoon, a boneheaded bully and an egomaniac, and his masochistically downtrodden wife? And as for our hero and heroine, the ageing actress and her one-time beau: can getting together now, in the autumn of their lives, really make up for the 14 years of missed opportunity since they broke up?

Sondheim's rhymes are immensely clever. I especially liked the first act song in which the newly-married ageing husband runs through the options for taking his young wife's long-preserved virginity, and concludes he'll have a nap instead. (The virginity turns out to have been a useful plot device when she runs off with his lovestruck son.)

As for his old flame: Hannah Waddington - tall, blonde, truly statuesque - is terrific. She delivers Send in the Clowns as if it's a Shakespeare soliloquy: you can hear the character's mind working as the song develops. I had shivers all over as she sang, and not just because it's so familiar: it only works that well when the context is right, and here the context was bang on.

The production, for Trevor Nunn, was admirably unfussy, a circumstance perhaps forced on him by the smallness of the Menier's stage. I'm not sure what period Sondheim originally intended but the setting is what in the UK would be Edwardian: cue entertaining goggles and helmets when motor-cars are mentioned, and long, elegant, lacy cream summer dresses for the ladies.

There were some disappointments. Why, in a house this small, are the singers amplified? It allows for some atmospheric echo at the start, but it's quite unnecessary otherwise.

Maureen Lipman as the wheelchair-bound grandmother dispensing worldly-wise advice and barbed put-downs is wonderful when speaking, less convincing when singing of her past liaisons (fun while they lasted, but not really worth it, seems to be the conclusion): her comic timing deserts her when there's music involved.

And the girl playing the young wife, though a fine actress, had a dodgy voice.

Otherwise nine and a half out of ten.

Saturday, 17 January 2009


12/1/09, Arcola.

90 minutes approx, no interval. Billed as a version of Euripides with Brazilian capoeiro -- a kind of dance-cum-martial arts discipline, apparently.

Missed it: had to work. Child One went in my place.
S hated it. Says she fell asleep three times and awoke each time to realise with horror that it hadn't yet finished. D rather enjoyed it but found the plotting confused: she had to consult Child One (a student of classical civilisation) afterwards for clarification.

Child One liked it too and has promised a review. Don't hold your breath.

Wednesday, 14 January 2009


9/9/08, Barbican

A full house on the day of the film's release. It seemed to go down well: beaming faces and a positive buzz afterwards.

It's set in India, it's about India, but it's not really an Indian film. For one thing, there's only one Bollywood-style song and dance sequence and that's over the end credits. The critics keep comparing it to Dickens, a very European writer, which is apt. There's the same melodrama and underlying sentimentality; the same rather cavalier approach to plotting with enormous reliance on mind-boggling coincidence; the same strongly-drawn characters; the same vivid portrayal of slum life, corruption, crime and downright evil. But Dickens wears his social conscience on his sleeve: his stuff is a kind of agitprop. This film is entertainment.

The strongest bits are those showing our orphaned hero's childhood in the Mumbai slums - perhaps because these are the bits of the film most alien to the affluent westerner. There are great chase sequences through the narrow alleys (director Danny Boyle does love sending his camera pelting along a corridor or up a staircase). There's a cruel scene in which a Fagin-like character has a boy blinded to make him a more effective member of his gang of beggars: I won't forget that in a hurry. Likewise a (comic) scene in which our hero, Jamal, gets locked in a latrine above a river and jumps through the hole into the ordure beneath, emerging covered in shit. And the colours are unforgettable -- especially of brightly-coloured clothing pegged out to dry after being washed.

The film is good too on Mumbai's criminal gangs, and the way in which Jamal's brother gets drawn into one. There's a vertiginous sequence atop a tower block under construction which, we're told, is being built by a man who started out as a slum gangster and is now clearly benefiting from India's extraordinary economic boom.

There's also a lyrical sequence in which the two boys criss-cross India, riding on the roofs of trains (snaking across the countryside, filmed in foreshortening long shot), stealing food from passengers and masquerading as guides at the Taj Mahal, which is obviously meant to subvert the tourist view of India but comes perilously close to endorsing it.

The weakest scenes are those when our hero has grown-up. He's tortured and interrogated in the police station. He mopes around hunting for the lost girl of his dreams. He flukes a succession of correct answers on Who Wants to be a Millionaire. He's a sort of holy innocent, but I never quite believed in him. Surely someone with his capacity to absorb and remember facts, combined with the survival skills picked up in a childhood on the streets, would have made more of himself than a chai wallah in a call centre?

The intense and deliberate artificiality of the Millionaire scenes clashed just too strongly with the rest of the film (they're meant to of course, but it jarred too much). And what do we think of Millionaire's producer, Celador, being the film's co-producer: is this just too much like an extended advertorial or an enormous exercise in product placement? They cheat, too, by pretending the show goes out live, because that heightens the drama.

And there was a missed opportunity. It's clear that after his first appearance on Millionaire Jamal has become a hero to tens of millions of India's poor. You see them, gathered round a TV set in the open air, the Taj Mahal in the distance. More might have been made of that.

But full marks for managing to make a charming, feelgood film which doesn't wholly flinch from showing the reality of poverty in India.

Saturday, 10 January 2009


London transfer, with and without David Tennant

(Written by Penelope)
I liked Edward Bennett, I really did. He was a good Hamlet. (Bennett was understudy for David Tennant, who was absent from the RSC's London run of Hamlet for three weeks, while Tennant had an operation on a prolapsed disc). Bennett was clear, focussed, his 'To Be or Not To Be...' was moving and effective. I believed in his love for Ophelia, his love for Gertrude and his death scene made several people in the audience around me cry.

I was incredibly lucky, though, a week after seeing Edward Bennett to see David Tennant play the role.I don't mean to be cruel, but the two actors really are in a different league. Bennett shows promise and has poise. Tennant is an actor who makes you suspend your disbelief, forget where you are and who inhabits a part. He doesn't just speak the verse, he becomes the words and the emotions in it. It was the most extraordinary performance I've ever seen at the theatre (the only other that comes close was seeing Patrick Stewart play Macbeth a year ago).

So what was so special? Tennant shows an understanding of Shakespeare and of the part that makes you forget he's best known for playing a 900-year-old Time Lord. He seemed to absorb all the joys and miseries of Hamlet and make them his own. His descent into madness was both moving and very funny. He manages to make 400 year old verse sound contemporary and fresh. Watching his 'To Be or Not To Be' was amazing - there was such a spontaneity that it was as if Hamlet were formulating his thoughts about what he should do right in front of your eyes. He convinces you that he feels every emotion and and that the revelations in the final duelling scene are making his heart break.

He's very physical and athletic, he moves around the stage a lot, but his Hamlet is more than just about perpetual movement; it's about the words. From his acerbic disapproval of his mother's marriage to his uncle -- "I shall in all my best obey you, madam" -- to his preposterous labelling of Polonius as a 'fishmonger' and finally, his wretched, premature death -- "I thou didst ever hold me in thy heart" -- all of these were delivered in such a convincing way that you were whisked into another, darker world and made to not only understand, but feel the meaning of the verse.

He plays to the audience but also to his fellow actors. David Tennant's impact on the other members of the cast was also very marked. Oliver Ford Davies, who played Polonius, was described by one critic as the best ever in that role. He was good with Edward Bennett. But against Tennant's Hamlet, he was funnier, louder, bigger, sadder, more tragic, more exasperated and more loveable. Hamlet's accidental murder of Polonius was somehow more tragic in the Tennant version. Penny Downie as Gertrude was different too -- their scene in her chamber was so tender and passionate that it was almost painful to watch. Her later realisation that Claudius had duped her and that her son had been right was shocking in its intensity. And with Tennant, Hamlet's love for his faithful friend Horatio (Peter De Jersey) was palpable.

Patrick Stewart was magnificent in both versions, but his interaction with Tennant's mocking Hamlet sent shivers up your spine. Seeing two talented Shakespearean actors playing against one another was joyous.

If I wanted to be critical, I would say that years of television mean that Tennant needs to work on projecting his voice better. A couple of times he was almost inaudible to those sitting in the upper tiers of the theatre. And while I found his grief for Ophelia at her graveside astonishingly affecting, I wasn't entirely convinced by his love for her in their earlier scenes together. But overall, I would say that I can't quite believe my luck that I managed to have a ticket to see one of the most magical performances from an actor who is clearly on top of his game and who promises so much more in the years to come.

And while I'm not exactly a screaming teenager, I would say that David Tennant really has amazing talents and is so much more than Dr Who, wonderful as he is in that role. If I were the RSC, I'd line him up now to play Macbeth in 5-10 years.

Monday, 5 January 2009


12/12/08, National (Lyttelton)

3hr 30 mins. Chicago’s Steppenwolf Company. Correction, “Chicago’s legendary Steppenwolf”(they presumably sing of little else around the camp fire when the harpist is in town). Written by Tracy Letts (a man) about his own Oklahoma background (and how happy he must have been to escape). Comes trailing clouds of glory and Tony awards, and gratifyingly lived up to expectations.

It’s really a very conventional well-made play about a nightmare family reunion. It even has three acts (and two intervals). There’s a big cast, a surprising amount of plot, with a constant drip-feed of revelations, a death, a love-story, a stolid sheriff, a family meal etc etc. There are some really peachy roles and a few very good jokes. It might be a theatrical cliché if it weren’t for the quality of the acting – the benefits of a long-standing ensemble, I imagine. They convincingly created a family, talking over one another as families do (that was very well done, without any essentials in the dialogue getting drowned – each actor presumably modulating their voice so that whichever character’s lines were essential at a given moment actually cut through the background noise). There was a real sense of long-established relationships being picked up where they’d left off last time they’d met (quite some time ago, in some cases). The play made horribly explicit the tensions and confusions in many families.

Good things. The mother, Violet: monstrous, manipulative, utterly destructive, addicted to pills, ruining her three daughters’ self-esteem and love lives and also destroying her alcoholic husband, long ago an award-winning poet. The aunt, Violet’s overweight sister, superficially noisy and jolly, who turns out to be almost as self-absorbed and destructive as her sister. The set, a cross-section through an old-fashioned Plains house, with steeply pitched roof. The grace at dinner, interminable, extemporised, interrupted by someone’s mobile phone. The eldest daughter’s academic husband, intense, earnest, decent, totally selfish (like the rest of’em) (all the men pretty hopeless, actually). Above all Amy Morton as the eldest daughter herself, her husband “porking Pippi Longstocking”, her 14-year old daughter smoking dope and allowing herself to be felt up by the oily fiancé of the middle daughter, eventually falling apart as she is abandoned in her mother’s home by the rest of the family and finds herself taking over her father’s role as the washed-up companion/sparring partner of her mother: a smart woman whose life just upped and walked out on her. D says she was “very three-dimensional”, her dialogue much more naturalistic than most of the rather stylised writing (or just better delivered?).

Less good things. The rather underwritten part of the native American girl hired to look after the house, who is a largely silent observer and occasional participant in events; presumably intended as a symbol of some sort of integrity which the ghastly family have lost (if they ever had it). The bits of the play largely devoted to delivering plot rather than developing character: the audience was admirably quiet and attentive most of the time, except at these moments when a fusillade of coughs rang out and the dramatic energy sagged, often when the sheriff was on stage, poor chap – someone should record the audience one night and analyse the script and performances to work out why that happened and whether it could be fixed. The Lyttelton acoustic (or is that just me?). Melvyn Bragg in the gents during the interval, complaining loudly to no-one in particular that it was the worst National Theatre programme he’d ever seen, with nothing to read in it.

Saturday, 3 January 2009


30/12/08, Donmar

2hrs 30 (?). T.S. Eliot’s peculiar hybrid of drawing room whodunnit-cum-Greek tragedy given a Rolls Royce revival by the Donmar.

A mouthwatering cast. Penelope Wilton as Agatha, the sister who escaped to become principal of a women’s college at Oxford. Sam West as Harry, the son who returns eight years after his marriage to an unsuitable woman he has probably murdered, tormented by the Furies. Una Stubbs and Anna Carteret as the other sisters, small-minded, stupid, beautifully-dressed in 1940s upper-upper-middle fashion who, with their equally pompous, stupid and conventional husbands (William Gaunt and another chap whose name and face I didn’t recognise) also supplied the occasional Greek chorus-style interludes, speaking in unison. Gemma Jones as the eldest sister and manipulative lady of the house. There was even a tiny part for Christopher Benjamin, as a country doctor and old family friend – this was a play that had fun with many of the well-made play’s theatrical clichés, which also included a comic police sergeant, a couple of wise domestics and a remarkable amount of plot. The set included a massive fireplace, a huge mock-Tudor mullioned window, a number of rather cold-looking chairs and, in the second act, a large dining table with candles which were, don't you know, blown out at the end.

Most of the time the verse was not obtrusive. It forced the cast to speak in a deliberate fashion, but possible no more deliberate than one would have heard on stage in the 1940s in a conventional drama. It allowed for surprisingly naturalistic exchanges, sometimes quite funny. It also, of course, allowed for non-naturalistic elements such as the choruses and the intense metaphysical debates between Harry and Agatha and Harry and Mary (an Agatha-in-training who clearly fancies Harry). And for Eliot anoraks there were numerous riffs echoing things elsewhere in his poetry: the cruelty of spring (cf opening of The Waste Land); the door into the rose garden (cf the opening of Burnt Norton); the confusing business of time present, time past and time future (cf ditto).

Much of the superficial plot was perfectly straightforward, with the brooding materfamilias intent on luring Harry back to run the house and estate from which he has clearly been running away (pursued by Furies that only he is aware of but has been unable to see until he returns home – or so it seems… It turns out that his manservant has seen them all along, and Agatha and Mary become aware of them during the course of their exchanges with him). There is no father, so this might be Oedipal – but it turns out the father had left after an affair with Agatha, after which his wife had kept him hanging around in a loveless marriage, long enough to father two more sons as well as Harry.

The bits I didn’t understand (but then Harry kept saying “you don’t understand”, so maybe that was OK) were the metaphysical exchanges in which Harry becomes fully aware of his situation, finds hope in hopelessness, has some kind of epiphany, resolves to go off and do good works etc etc. Dense enough on the page, probably, but almost impossible to follow on stage.

The Furies appeared twice – three little boys in cream shirts and shorts carrying butterfly nets, and a female fairy-like figure in a long white dress we may assume was Harry's ex-wife. The boys entered through the audience and crossed the stage diagonally, looking menacing; the ex-wife appeared (and rapidly disappeared) at the window in a coup de theatre. They represented the lost childhood of Harry and his brothers, A thought. They were appropriately unsettling, though in the original production according to a quote from Eliot in the programme note they proved hard to embody convincingly. In this production much was done with lighting – bathing different parts of the stage in pools of light for the choruses etc. There were also by the end small heaps of sand in various corners of the stage, which I'd completely failed to notice from our seats right round at the side: A said sand had been trickling intermittently onto them from the flies during the action.

If I have a beef it was that Eliot showed a worrying tendency (a bit like his contemporary and fellow Anglo-Catholic Charles Williams) to delight in the physical embodiment of the supernatural, which is never very convincing. Much better leave everything unstated and implied.

Agatha, I discover, was the saint whose breasts were cut off. Now what should one make of that?


19/12/08, Finborough Theatre

A sprawling William Saroyan play with a huge cast (I counted 18 or 19 in the first half, and there may have been more in the second) set in a bar on Pacific St, San Francisco in 1940. There was a drunken sailor; a sad and sodden streetwalker; a cop; a longshoreman (very erudite); the proprietor; a profoundly unfunny would-be “comedian” with a bizarre line in surreal monologues; and Joe, at the table in the centre, a drunk (presumably) with a love for all humanity, an apparently bottomless source of funds, a generous spirit, the gift of foresight (or at any rate the capacity to pick long-shot winners in horse races) and a reluctance to participate (he tells one woman he can’t dance; asks another to dance then tells her too he can’t).

It reminded me of Altman’s Nashville – lots of interwoven stories, some poignant, some comic, some puzzling. It worked as a film and might work on a larger stage in a better production which found a way to capture the air of dream-like unreality. But here it was all too literal, the cast at tables and on bar stools in the Finborough’s tiny upstairs, often close enough to touch, literally “in your face”. You were conscious all the time of actors pausing mid-scene, waiting for another scene to play out so they could resume theirs. And it needed better acting. Joe was OK, and one or two of the others – though the way it was written gives most of the characters precious little time to establish themselves.

The final straw was the last character introduced in the first half, an ageing cowboy with a line in tall stories, delivered at a meaningless gabble at full tilt. It may have been the writing to blame as well, but I literally couldn’t follow a word of it: a complete failure on the part of the actor to inhabit the text.

So we jumped ship at half-time and sat downstairs and had a gossip and a couple of glasses of red wine and some nuts and olives. The last play we left at the interval was also set in a bar in California in the mid-century, Tennessee Williams at the Arcola. That was better done than this, but at the end we resolved never to go to the Arcola again (a resolve I’m sure we shall break, if only because it’s just round the corner). We have now resolved never to go to the Finborough either (a resolve easier to keep, despite its admirable policy of resurrecting interesting old plays – they just don’t do them well enough. I like my theatre living, not archaeological).

I think we’ve resolved never to go to another American play set in a bar, as well.

Memo to self: find out who William Saroyan was, anyway.

The only embarrassment: we were still in the (real) bar when it finished and the cast came down and got stuck into their pints. “Joe” looked daggers at me as we left…


20/12/08, Odeon Covent Garden

Slow start, rather laboured, but developed into a film that was charming, beautifully shot and acted and downright moving. I cried. And so did D.

It was a shaggy dog story (literally) and really very slight, but redeemed by a witty script and performances, especially Peter O’Toole, who can convey a multitude of emotions and thoughts with his eyes alone, but also by Jeremy Northam (nicely understated as his son) and Sam Neil. The execution overcame the rather dated setting (c 1900) and extraordinary premise: a series of conversations between three middle-aged men and the elderly father of one in which the Sam Neil character, a very proper ecclesiastical Dean, recalls (under the influence of exceedingly rare Imperial Tokay) his previous life as a dog . It must have looked frankly unpromising on the page.
The O’Toole character is domineering and bullying, behaves monstrously towards his son, and obstinately refuses to mourn his other son, killed in the Boer War. This emotional aridity goes back much further, though. He is finally enabled to grieve (becoming a much nicer person in the process) by the realisation than the Dean (Spanley – geddit?) was O’Toole’s beloved dog Wag in an earlier incarnation – Wag having disappeared mysteriously, never to return, when the child O’Toole was sent away to school. O’Toole’s performance was frankly uncanny – profoundly, almost ludicrously hammy and yet convincing.

There were nice if rather sentimental sequences, shot in New Zealand, of the animals. There were some entertaining scenes with the local Nawab, who has taken over the local mansion and installed an indoor cricket pitch in the ballroom; there was a poignant scene in the old man’s club, with a club servant whose son had also died in the Boer War (and was obviously hoping – in vain – for some sympathy from the O’Toole character); and there were some less successful scenes with Judy Parfitt as the old man’s no-nonsense housekeeper.

Now and again O’Toole’s character reminded me of my own Old Man, a little lost sometimes, given to repeating favourite phrases and insights.

Question: Why was it made by the New Zealand Film Commission, when it was set in some unnamed East Anglian city and shot largely in Wisbech?


5/12/08, RSC, Wilton’s Music Hall

2hrs 50. New play by an American, Adriano Shaplin (from Burlington, VT, and a member of the Riot Group) about the early years of the Royal Society and the rise of empirical science (“natural philosophy”) as opposed to an older, purely intellectual approach to philosophy represented by the aged Thomas Hobbes, returned from exile in the dying days of Cromwell’s regime. One of the first productions by the RSC’s new ensemble, together for (two? three?) years, like the Histories ensemble. Commissioned jointly by the RSC and Mass Inst of Tech, of all people!

Wilton’s reconfigured. Steeply raked stalls going right up to the level of the gallery at the back: solves the problem of the lousy sight lines, though the bare back wall of the stage still means the acoustics aren’t up to much. A bridge across the top of the stage linking the gallery on either side, with a staircase down through the scaffolding onto the stage (which was also, I think, higher than normal and raked…).

Done in 17th century costume and written for the most part in a “high-flown” style which occasionally sounded authentically Restoration, at other times just overblown, but with occasional anachronistic modern interjections. Gresham’s College was referred to throughout as “our group”; one of the “actors” said “OK” at one point; the king, Charles II, was played by Arsher Ali as a kind of louche rockstar in fright wig. The last scene was an extract from Thomas Shadwell’s 1667 play, The Virtuoso, a satire on the “experimentall” philosophers and “virtuosi” of Gresham’s (by now the Royal Society) with their odd goings-on, like dissecting lobsters and building vacuum pumps – in other words, just the sort of thing we’ve seen the “real” virtuosi in Shaplin’s play getting up to.

A great sprawling play, not lacking ambition, but packed if anything with too many good things: any one of half a dozen elements could have been extracted and turned into a play in its own right. A cast of 15, never boring, but ultimately a bit unsatisfactory.

Hobbes (Stephen Boxer) was in fact a rather minor character and unsympathetic. He was a trimmer because he believed only a strong sovereign could save society from violence, war and disorder – which was one of the ideas that might have been worth expanding dramatically. His arrogance wouldn’t let him see that the Gresham-ites were the future: he engages in a pamphlet war with one who criticises (correctly) his grasp of geometry and then gatecrashes the Gresham-ites’ big presentation to the king with a curious dramatical-satirical interlude which lost me completely.

If the play was anyone’s tragedy it was Robert Hooke’s, the hunchback, working class mechanical genius recruited by one of the virtuosi and then stolen by another (Robert Boyle, Gresham’s wealthy patron as well as the framer of Boyle’s Law). Hooke (Jack Laskey – very good) eventually went mad, committing some of the same mistakes as Hobbes, refusing to admit, for instance, that the young Isaac Newton had done more than simply regurgitate Hooke’s ideas with one tiny addition – a failure to acknowledge, as D observed, that science progresses by each generation standing on giants’ shoulders.

The Gresham-ites, despite being the future, came across as rather unsympathetic – variously grasping, pompous, drunken and obsequious, except for Boyle who was an emotionless prig and was played for some reason by a woman (Amanda Hadingue) – the only woman in the cast, and one of the weaker links.

There was a sub-plot involving a pair of actors, thrown out of work by Cromwell’s closure of the theatres. One (played by the extraordinary Angus Wright – tall, angular, wonderful resonant posh voice; we saw him as the German officer in War Horse at the National) has been reduced to male prostitution in white facepaint and woman’s gown when picked up and recruited as companion by the homosexual Boyle. Then he falls out with Boyle when Hooke arrives, and ends up with Hobbes, enemy of all the Gresham-ites, helping to mount his satirical dramatic ambush. Confused? I was.

Quite a lot of the play was confusing, in fact. Maybe because Shaplin had tried to get too much in. At one point Boyle asks whether Hooke is a member of “our secret sect”, or words to that effect. Since Boyle has already been established as homosexual I thought that’s what he meant. My god, you ask yourself, was the entire Royal Society gay? Were the foundations of modern empirical science laid by a bunch of inverts? Later it becomes clear the sect is Anglicanism, driven underground by Cromwell’s Presbyterians.


30/11/08, RFH

2hrs approx (it was supposed to start at 19.30 but began late; we were out just before 21.50). Prokofiev, Autumnal; Rachmaninov Piano Concerto no 3 (soloist Simon Trpceski); Tchaikovsky Symphony no 4.

In the bar beforehand a woman came up with her husband and said she recognised me. Said she was only asking because she’d had the same surname before she was married, and the name was rare: she’d never met another she wasn’t related to. Her lot came from Worsley in Lancashire but we seemed to have no relatives in common. The husband I think was embarrassed that she’d introduced herself but she was very jolly. I was embarrassed because I haven’t shaved today.

The Prokofiev came and went. Inoffensive but unmemorable. Only about seven minutes. 40 strings, seven woodwind, a harp and a trumpet. The moustachioed harpist must be the only male harpist in London. Among the woodwind was an instrument that made an even lower note than a bassoon, apparently played by the oboeist but not listed separately. A lowboe? A basbois? The piece might have made more impression if I hadn’t been distracted by the man sitting immediately in front with his girlfriend, who began by filming the concert and then the pair of them with his digital camera. They canoodled distractingly throughout the concert. We oldies ticked mightily. I shut my eyes some of the time but that just meant I fell asleep.

A great deal of upheaval, half the players (and the harpist) leaving the stage so they can move the piano on. Scarcely seemed worth the trouble doing the Prokofiev at all.

The Rachmaninov played with enormous gusto, D thought very fast, certainly very loudly. If it has a structure I couldn’t discern it: it was just a succession of moments and effects, mostly very striking, but with only one memorable tune – a rather ominous drumbeat-like affair. (As I write this D remembers another tune, marginally more jolly.) Mr Trpceski (of whom we’d never heard) played with great passion, mopping his brow (and the keyboard) with a neatly folded white handkerchief more than once. His great moment the cadenza-like solo in the first movement, immensely long, splendidly bravura playing. When not playing he swayed to the music and swivelled round to look at the audience or the band. He looked less like a musician than an East European short order cook (expression copyright D).

I said confidently that I’d never heard the work in concert. When we got home D produced the programme from the Prom featuring the work that we went to in August.

The band augmented by full brass and timps plus three percussionists – who sat silent until almost the end when the older man addressed the bass drum, the woman deployed the cymbals and the other man… did three bars on the snare drum.

Trpceski played a beautiful encore none of us recognised. Very slow. Very quiet. Very intense. A mobile phone went off during the penultimate note.

Ashkenazy conducts like a marionette or a man learning semaphore. Great sweeping gestures. Then stock still, feet together, arms out, wrists jerkily moving. Then leaning right over. Then bouncing. He’s a smallish man, which may help explain it. A wider repertoire of gesture than almost any conductor I’ve seen.

The Tchaikovsky even noisier than the Rachmaninov, if possible. Band now augmented to 85 players. Great tunes, including the scherzo played pizzicato by the strings throughout (with a couple of interpolations by the woodwind), the fanfares thrown backwards and forwards between the brass and the horns in the first movement and the swaggering last movement, one of Tchaikovsky’s blow ‘em away marches – music to storm Moscow to. S said she thinks he used the same music again (before?) in Sleeping Beauty. D concurs, but thinks it was Romeo & Juliet.

They let the girl have a go on the big drum this time. She, cymbals and triangle all bang on time together on the off beat, so Ashkenazy definitely got that right.


28/11/08, ENO
50 mins (including a “prologue” consisting of a piece by Sibelius, Luonnotar, a tone poem for soprano and orchestra, first performed 1913). Riders itself around 40 mins; music Vaughan Williams, words Synge, first performed 1936; this production directed by Fiona Shaw

Ger-loo-my. The Aran Islands and death by drowning. At the start mother and daughters fear the missing Michael has been drowned at sea. Confirmation comes in the form of a fragment of his shirt and one of his socks. His brother Bartley sets off to take the red mare and the grey pony to the mainland to market, amid much foreboding. Towards the end he is delivered back to the women, drowned, when the mother (Patricia Bardon, excellent as she was in Partenope) welcomes the death of this, the last of her six sons: now she need fear the sea no more.

Music in a minor key and frankly monotonous throughout, the most effective moments those when grief is at its most overwhelming… and the music stops.

Great set – sloping stage, rugged cliffs stage L, upturned black boats the shape of discarded banana skins (but rather more beautiful, as D points out) descending from the flies during the mother’s lament. (The programme says: “Curraghs by Padraig O’Dunnin and the lads at Meitheal Mara”.)

Spectacular video – on the back wall (one minute the sea, the next minute the sky) and on the floor, where the rectangle representing the women’s cottage at the start apparently filled with water like the real Worm Hole on the Aran Islands’ coast.

Fiona Shaw’s first stab at directing. Can’t fault the lighting or the design, with the daughters in full red skirts, brown blouses and black shawls, but there was too much (rather aimless) rushing about and too many realistic props (kettle, mugs, darning mushrooms) which were rather at odds with the non-naturalistic representation of the house and the boats, and rather got in the way.

J (deputising for A) said she had trouble with the cod Irish. Except it was by Synge so presumably wasn’t cod. I said it was typical of the early 20th century passion for taking folk tales, folk music and folk motifs and cleaning them up for the salon and the polite theatre. S said she’d prefer more Handel.

Most effective was the prelude, a bit of Finnish nonsense about a nymph who became the sea for 700 years and destroyed the nest of a duck which laid its eggs on her knee. But the duck’s broken eggs became the sky, the moon and the stars. (I told you it was nonsense.)

Sung by a pregnant (or pretend pregnant?) soprano standing on the thwart of one of the black boats, suspended vertically. She had an immensely long dress which she discarded as she sang – while behind her one saw video projections of jellyfish in water, a woman with red hair floating in water, a white horse swimming in water. The music by Sibelius had real heft when compared to the Vaughan Williams. Ruined only by the woman who sneezed loudly just behind us during the last, long, diminuendo. Despite the note in the programme which reads: “Silence sponsored by Sela-Cough lozenges, which are available free of charge from the bars and in the foyer”.


24/11/08 Royal Festival Hall

With the Chamber Orch of Europe, leader Alexander Janiczek. Stravinsky: Apollon Musagete (music 1927-28 for a ballet); Mozart piano concertos no 23 and 24

The Mozarts written just a few weeks apart but very different. No 23 has two sunny outer movements (especially the last, which positively dances, though I’ve heard it sing even more than it did tonight) and an introspective, rather tortured slow movement which is very short. No 24 has a positively rhapsodic slow movement, bracketed by two very dark (for Mozart) outer movements, all minor key, with added timps and trumpets, by turns sombre, stately and rather tragic.

The first piece written for string orchestra by Stravinsky, choreographed by Balanchine. It would have benefited from some dance tonight. A bit bland now and then but generally lovely, rhythmic, patterned – with those plangent sounds so typical of 20th century works for string orchestra.

Ms Uchida a striking figure, wearing a turquoise strappy top under a pink chiffon blouse thing (hideous ensemble). I have never seen anyone bow so deep. Clearly no problems with HER hips. She looks around the orchestra when she first comes on stage (making eye contact) and when taking applause first gestures rather gauchely at the band. She conducted from the piano, sitting with her back to us, standing up to conduct with great flowing gestures.

Not sure how much notice the band took of her – or of Mr Janiczek, the leader. I noticed one of the cellists in the Stravinsky seemed to be taking his cue from the leader of the second violins. Watching the players’ eyelines generally they seemed to be looking anywhere and everywhere except at the leader.

Lots of Japanese in the audience. I saw two women in kimonos, and a very smartly dressed family (mum, dad, two little girls) a few rows behind us – the youngest girl, perhaps 4, fast asleep on her mother’s arm during the interval.

There were quite a lot of kids generally, but they were very well-behaved. But not the coughers, one of whom ruined the start of the slow movement of No 23.


24/11/08, Curzon Soho

(Written by D)
Animated documentary film, dir Ari Folman. D with A, S, J (J’s formidable friend S and C, v nice, from the film course). Midday showing on the cheap Monday tickets, we were virtually the only people in the cinema and Jackie told them to turn the volume down – twice.

Film started with a pack of snarling dogs racing through deserted streets at night, quite scary – then cut to two middle aged men in a bar. One is describing his dream about the pack of dogs, always 26 of them. He’s asked how he knows that there are 26 of them and he tells Ari (Folman) because he remembers killing every one of them. When on patrol during the war his platoon sergeant knew he would not be able to kill anyone so they got him to shoot the dogs when they arrived at the villages, to silence them. He asks Ari what he dreams about the war.

Ari says he doesn’t dream. But he does, one dream continuously repeated where he is lying in the sea with Carni and another man he doesn’t know, watching the flares land on Beirut. Next morning, he’s compelled very early to visit his friend/brother, a psychoanalyst to ask him about the dream. He gently tells Ari that he should find how the dream relates to what he did during the war. Ari realises he can’t remember what happened then.

The animation is terrific in that you very quickly forget it is animated. The characters have personalities and physical quirks and the soundtrack, rustle of clothing, background noise, loading of rifles etc is very realistic. Trees wave in the breeze as cars go by and despite the very khaki colour palette it seems very realistic.

As Ari talks to more and more people from that time the story gradually unfolds. He was petrified most of the time, as were most of his young conscript comrades and they fire indiscriminately when they land on shore in Lebanon even though there is nothing to fire at. Everywhere there are pictures of President Bashir. There is a street firefight where one of Ari’s comrades through terror at seeing his fellows mown down by gunfire, runs into the street and amazingly doesn’t get instantly shot and waltzes around flying bullets, hence the title.

Cut back to the psychoanalyst friend/brother who tells Ari that he doesn’t want to remember because he is on the side of the aggressor and is behaving like a Nazi in the Ghetto during the war, which for a Jew is obviously very hard to deal with. These scenes though very brief don’t seem to sit well with the rest of the film – they have a different tone and pace. Almost as if Folman felt it necessary to put in the explanation, but wasn’t quite sure how to handle something which was obviously very complex – it’s possible they were heavily cut.

The confusion over friend/brother is due to not knowing anything about the language, no clues at all. It wasn’t like watching a French film where you pick up some of the language. You had to concentrate on the subtitles to know what was going on and so sometimes missed some of the action.

Finally Ari pieces it together. He was outside the camps when the Christian Phalangists went in, the Israeli army acting as guards. The soldiers realised that dead people were being brought out in trucks which were empty going back into the camps. They complained to their superiors that something was not right but were told it had already been reported. Ari’s job is to set off the flares so that the Phalangists can see – so his dream is not accurate in him being an observer, he is actually a participant. His patrol goes into the camp the next day.

The final scenes of the film are live action, but with no soundtrack, only there is no action, only massacred Palestinians.

A very sombre ending to a very sombre film, certainly makes you think and indeed I remember seeing it reported on the news. The film was obviously cathartic for Folman and really shows what the mind can do to shut out terrible things. It also shows how chaotic and confusing war is and the terrible effect it has on inexperienced young men.


21/11/08, Peacock Theatre

Missed this one too. Had to work late.

D says I missed a good ‘un. Very fluid, energetic, fast-paced dance, athletic. Good ensemble work and lots of narrative (including some speech – so more physical theatre than dance). Lots of video – including an Asian girl who drew on her body watched by a small video camera, the image projected on a screen at the back. Politically relevant bit with a National Front-type chap talking with a megaphone and waving a flag.


19/11/08, ENO

Missed it. Too knackered, had to get up early next morning to go to Manchester. Went home to bed. A and D didn’t think much to it.

Text from A: “Well, far as I’m concerned, you made correct choice 2 bail last nite! A very long 2 hrs & 10, relentless & a bit dull & I’m absolutely shattered. We were 2 far away & the set very dark & v static, lots of standing around anguishing w/ lots of serfs pleading. Boris gave it his best but he was more like the slimy bank mgr in the telly ad than an anguished Tsar.”

To which D emailed: “It was a bit gloomy and a very grey set, some thunderous music and I was very pleased I’d seen the play otherwise I’m not sure I would have understood what was what. Main trouble was Boris wasn’t Godunov (geddit) he was large and ponderous and couldn’t act, spose the singing was OK.”


17/11/08, The Hippodrome
2hrs incl interval

The estate of John Philip Sousa is doing good business: the Hippodrome’s sound system (calibrated for clubbing) is blasting out his marches and other assorted circus music – including a ridiculously fast William Tell overture. An MC welcomes us, urges us to forget our English reserve and the wet Monday and to whoop and holler our appreciation, and to make extensive use of the bars. There is red lighting and red plush and fairy lights on the ceiling. The audience sits around a tiny red podium. Yes, there is a sense of anticipation and excitement, and a general air of circus sleaze.

It starts badly – an overweight Balkan (?) Elvis with a vaguely surreal but deeply unfunny song. It improves no end with the circus acts, which really are very good. The English Gentlemen – a pair of acrobats who strip at one stage to their Union Jack boxers, displaying quite amazing musculature. Mario the Queen of the Circus – juggler and Queen fan, a cod Spaniard in briefest of leather jackets and Village People cap. The man in the bath who swings elegantly and erotically over and through it from two leather straps, drenching those in the first couple of rows. Captain Frodo, a double-jointed Norwegian with a wispy beard who turns out to be very funny. The Russian girl who spins four hoops simultaneously round various limbs (she is beautiful, but utterly humourless). And Ursula Martinez, who performs a striptease while making a small red handkerchief appear and disappear with each disrobing. How does she do it? Where does she put it? Clearly not up her sleeve. Eventually, when entirely naked, she produces it from somewhere deeply intimate. She also does a comic song in the (weaker) second half, playing on her Spanish name and Croydon upbringing.

It’s all a witty and slightly naughty showcase for top-notch circus skills. Towards the end the audience are encouraged to sing along to Queen’s We are the Champions, waving their arms. They all did (I didn’t). Then Capt Frodo builds a pyramid of upturned bins of diminishing size, climbing onto each one in succession, asking us finally to marvel at the ridiculous way these people choose to earn their living.

Beforehand a dubious D had said she’d be happy provided nobody took their clothes off. They did, yet she was...


12/11/08, ENO
3 hrs incl 2 x intervals. Robert Fox, Peter Taylor and Stephen Thingummy who used to be the controller of editorial policy in the Upper Circle audience. Why this affinity between Handel and middle-aged male employees of the BBC?

(Popbitch, the following week: "David Attenborough spotted nodded-off at Handel's opera Partenope, at the Coliseum." Bet he wasn't in the Upper Circle.)

A Handel comedy with a plot even more implausible and convoluted than usual. The princess Partenope (Rosemary Joshua, soprano, a bit shrill but lots of very showy arias) is loved by Armindo (A1, counter-tenor, with unexpected vocal power and expressiveness) but loves Arsace (A2, another soprano) who used to be in love with Rosmira (Patricia Bardon, mezzo, marvellous – you could hear every word). R has returned, disguised as a man, reveals herself to A2 but swears him/her to secrecy. Much confusion and unhappiness ensue. There’s also a bass in a dodgy red beard and the tenor John-Mark Ainsley camping it up as an invading prince who also fancies Partenope and must be defeated in battle. The usual succession of de capo arias (except for one, late on, which doesn’t repeat – unexpected and unsettling). We applauded virtually every aria, deservedly.

The directorial masterstroke was to relocate the whole thing to the 1930s and the Paris of the surrealists. The “battle” becomes a series of encounters during a party. The defeated prince is incarcerated in the loo. When A2 sings “How long must this go on, how long?” he/she sits unravelling a roll of lavatory paper. Later the door opens to reveal him/her almost completely buried in the stuff. P is the party hostess, dressed in a succession of elegant little numbers; the men (or “men”) all wear baggy 1930s suits, helpfully colour-coded. Most problematic, but most entertainingly, the invading prince is an Andre Breton/Man Ray character, with electric hair and a splendid camera-plus-flash-gun, who spends much of the last act up a ladder, pinning photographic prints on the wall: they gradually resolve themselves into a giant still of a nude woman’s torso (a genuine Man Ray). There was a very silly moment when a duel is about to be fought and the bass with the bushy red beard comes on in a lurid pink tutu. Earlier, R undresses to prove her gender to the Ainsley character. She is wearing sock suspenders. (She opens her shirt to prove she’s a woman, but Ms Bardon modestly kept her back to us). At the very end R appears dressed as a woman in flapper dress and far too much make-up: she looked much prettier as a man, notwithstanding a pair of substantial moustaches.

Beneath the silliness and the cross-dressing you might find a serious point about the delusions and illusions of love, not to mention its fickleness. Or you might not. At the end of this “comedy”, A2 is obliged to shack up with R, who apparently accepts the outcome joyfully despite his/her earlier betrayal; P, having lost A2 (the one she really fancies) is obliged to accept the drippy A1, in what looks like the beginning of a distinctly sado-masochistic relationship. Scarcely a promising start to a life of married bliss in either case. Surprisingly, some of the music is downright touching. Shivers down the spine more than once.


15/11/08. Lyric Hammersmith. Matinee
1hr 50 mins, no interval (including substantial bits of dance/movement/mime)
Frantic Assembly

A stripped-down version set in a pub (“The Cyprus”) with pool table in the middle of the stage, the characters members of a gang and their girls. Othello established in dumb show at the start winning “respect” and leadership, as well as Desdemona (a splendidly suggestive moment as she chalked the end of his black pool cue, held out in front of his crotch, blowing the excess dust from the end).
A fine ritualised dance/fight with pool cues and baseball bats and Stanley knives instead of swords. Yorkshire accents (except for O, the outsider, who spoke London black patois), trainers, hoodies and shell suits.
Pounding music and a constant FX track (distant street sounds mainly) which I noticed cease only once, when O has murdered D and total silence falls, on stage and off (a lot of teenagers in, but this production held them).
The translation to a modern gangland setting worked OK. Soldiers are just members of government-sanctioned gangs; both are obsessed with hierarchy, status, “place”, “reputation”. Cassio in this reading becomes a more plausible and more interesting figure than I remember. Rodrigo’s assault on him (in the pub car park) makes better sense.
There were other pluses. Desdemona and Emilia in the ladies, sharing a spliff and discussing “these men”. The pub walls, which separated to reveal the car park from time to time, were a series of flexible panels: when O has murdered D he backs against the wall, which flexes and gives as he leans on it, tossing him from side to side, his world literally collapsing around him.
Problems. Some of the plot essentials don’t work in this updating: D telling her father that O is now her husband and she owes him her duty: even in the hierarchical world of the gang, would the leader’s girl desert her father for him? (Maybe, on reflection, she would…)
Jimmy Akingbola was too young for O and too shouty, not at home with the verse, reciting rather than inhabiting it. Contrast Iago and also Desdemona, who was attractively feisty, not the drippy goody-goody she sometimes comes across as.
Some of my favourite lines had to go: “As acerb as the coloquintida…”, “Say that in Aleppo once…”
And in this version O had too little time to establish himself as noble and naïve, proud and pugnacious; he lacked nobility and the pride was inadequately sketched, so his sudden tumble into jealousy seemed implausible – though it was well done when it came.
The girls said they were moist-eyed by the end. I was unmoved but not unadmiring.


14/11/08, Olivier
1hr 30’ approx, no interval

Ralph Fiennes as O; Claire Higgins as Jocasta; Alan Howard as Tiresias; Malcolm Storry (very good) as the messenger from Corinth; Alfred Burke (also very good and rather touching – snowy white beard, must be about 80) as the shepherd reluctantly revealing all. Starry, starry cast.

Played on a stage almost bare but for a vast pair of doors and a kind of long pub garden table with benches downstage R, where the chorus sat (old men all, dark suits, no ties) and onto which O climbed now and then to make a point (white shirt, dark suit, red tie at the start, very much the CEO grappling with a little local difficulty in the plague afflicting Thebes; jacket off, tie gone as the plot develops and his situation unravels). The doors gradually turned with the revolve through 360 degrees (how come the table didn’t move when part of it overlapped the revolve: little wheels?), and then dropped with a clang through the floor at the very end – the old order destroyed. O and J came and went through the doors as did the final messenger, bearing news of J’s suicide and O’s self-blinding; the other messengers and Creon, returning from the oracle at Delphi, came from the back of the stage where a vast cyclorama opened clangorously to admit them.

The chorus sang (music by Jonathan Dove) harmoniously, rarely in unison, the songs developing almost naturally from spoken dialogue: the best integration of chorus and music I’ve ever heard in a production of a Greek tragedy. The translation was by Frank McGuinness, with some colloquialisms but formal enough to bear the weight of meaning and emotion these plays carry. The girls thought Fiennes too declamatory: I thought he was just right, because you can’t do Greek tragedy naturalistically. He was brilliant at the moment he realises the full horror of his situation – a great wordless scream, crescendo, downstage centre. The coughers were out in force, but that stilled ‘em. Jocasta good too – especially when she has realised (before O) what is about to be revealed and urges him desperately to go no further, to ask no more questions.

There’s no deus ex machina in this one, but the gods are present throughout, especially Apollo, who has foretold/decreed the whole thing. O is in many ways an admirable man, but he and the rest are trapped in an unfolding sequence of events through no fault of their own. That’s the big difference between these tragedies and Shakespeare’s, where the protagonists’ downfall is at least partly their own fault, the result of some tragic flaw in their character. “As flies are we to the gods: they kill us for their sport,” is Lear’s assessment and applies well enough to the Greeks but not to his own tragedy because Shakespeare was writing in the light of 1500 years of Christian ideas of sin, redemption, free will and the rest.*

The most interesting character is Creon (Jasper Britton), a politician. He counters O’s initial suspicion of his motives by asking why he should bother to destroy the king when as the king’s brother-in-law and gatekeeper he has the best of both worlds: power, with none of the responsibility. But when responsibility is thrust upon him at the end he exercises it ruthlessly, confirming O’s banishment.

A moment of confusion: Jocasta is dead and O blinded; the messenger emerges from the palace to tell us. He is white-shirted and shaven-headed, like O. Is it O, you ask yourself. But he’s wearing braces, from which you deduce he’s not.

The girls didn’t much care for it. At the end as the blind Oedipus is led away by his daughter Antigone and the chorus spread out, walking slowly towards stage L, S beside me made a suppressed noise. I thought she was snivelling. In fact she was giggling: she said it reminded her of a zombie movie. A was apparently asleep for most of it. I was shaken, if not exactly stirred.

*Discussing this with my daughter subsequently, she tells me I’m wrong. Sophocles’ tragic heroes are trapped not only by the gods but by their own failings. Oedipus’ fate was confirmed when he succumbed to pride and anger and slew the stranger in a chariot (his father, though he didn’t know it) who whipped him as he passed. On the other hand, surely, Apollo would have found some other way to ensure his prophecy was fulfilled… K seemed to suggest the tragedy lay both in our heroes’ own failings and in the inexorable workings of fate.


We’ve decided to dispense with theatre programmes. An economy measure in these tough times: recession, credit crunch, falling house prices. A small gesture – as if we didn’t spend far more than is wise on theatre tickets and alcohol. Since the programmes hitherto have been the only record of what we’ve seen, I’m going to start making a note of each show. It won’t last (probably) but it might mean details of performances and productions aren’t lost forever. Actually, they’re pretty much lost as it is: even old programmes aren’t much of a guide. Go through them and it’s alarming how often you have absolutely no memory of the show in question.