Thursday, 26 February 2009

COLIN DUNNE

25/2/09, Barbican Pit.

1 hr, no interval. One man show, Out of Time, by the Irish dancer.

We'd seen him in a Fabulous Beast production at the Pit last year: a spectacular dancer with a gift for self-parody and a witty spoken delivery.

This one-man show was almost exclusively dance. It was sweaty: he changed his clothes two or three times. And sometimes it was breathtaking. He put microphones on his shoes to create a rhythm as infectious as Fred Astaire, and danced along to an audio track which was either his own pre-recorded steps or perhaps a delayed echo of his actual steps. Either way it created highly intricate sound patterns (full marks to Fionan de Bana, who designed and operated the sound). At other times he slowed the steps right down, deconstructing the dance.

The only speech came in a routine called "rashers and sausages", the mnemonic dancers use to remember the rhythm of one particular Irish dance, which Dunne used as the jumping off point for a wonderful, rather surreal verbal riff that was genuinely funny as well as mirroring the relentless overlapping patterns of Irish dance.

Highlights: the video of traditional dancers, several filmed in television studios in the 1980s, with audiences in a circle watching rapt as dancers in beautiful shiny brogues and three-piece suits went through their dazzling paces, arms at their sides, faces set in a mask of concentration. There was one (apparently silent) film of four men dancing in a row and taking solos, filmed at some agricultural event, wearing tweed suits and in one case plus-fours.

The best clip was of a ten-year old Dunne in brown kilt on Blue Peter, showng why he'd won some Irish dancing trophy. At the end he was interviewed, and spoke up smartly if a little breathlessly in a perfect Brummie accent, for that was where he came from. Today the adult Colin Dunne speaks a mid-Atlantic Irish-American English which slips and slides often (though with considerably less discipline than his feet).

On You Tube I found videos of him dancing in Riverdance, of which hewas clearky a star. Yet this show makes no mention f that except elliptically, in a line about some of the finest Irish dancerrs selling out. I thought he was talking about Flatley. Maybe he was talking about himself.
He's technically astonishing and I couldn't fault the staging, but I didn't quite see the point. Perhaps more narrative and context would have helped, or no narrative at all, just a virtuoso display and even more sweat-soaked shirts.

OF THEE I SING/LET 'EM EAT CAKE

21/2/09, Sadler's Wells.

2 hrs 30 mins (2 o'clock matinee) and 3 hrs (7.30 evening show). A pair of Gershwin "operas" ("musicals"? "operettas"?) written in 1931 and 1933 satirising American politics. The Gerswhins were great fans of Gilbert & Sullivan as kids, apparently, and it shows.

Both operas take place in a topsy-turvy world, reminiscent of Iolanthe. A politician called John P Wintergreen gets elected president after running a "love campaign" during which he meets and marries the girl of his dreams and corn muffin-maker par excellence, Mary. In the second opera Wintergreen is out of office and trying to make a living selling blue shirts, but the depression has kicked in: he and his cronies form a "blue shirt" movement and stage a coup with the aid of the army.

The Gershwins clearly had no illusions about politicians. Though Wintergreen presents himself as an idealist his administration is corrupt and incompetent; there are jobs for the boys (a Jewish garment trader as Secretary for Agriculture, for instance) and only Mary comes out of it smelling of roses.

There's plenty of sometimes rather laboured Gilbertain dialogue with the same topical/satirical jokes, including one about a politician only giving a speech if he wants the stock market to go down. What do you do if you want it to go up? he's asked. "I wish I knew" comes the reply. It got a big laugh.

The tunes are OK, though not especially hummable: the only exception is Of Thee I Sing itself (perhaps because it's reprised at the end). The lyrics are witty and Gilbertian in a positive way, and probably the best thing about both operas, but you couldn't hear enough of 'em.

In general there was too much plot and not enough music. And perhaps this production would have been betgter if the chorus had been Broadway youngsters not Opera North choristers.

The production skimped on the set to pay for the costumes (which were nonetheless often too grey). There were big problems with the staging. The director seemed unhappy moving people around and the performers always seemed to form up in straight lines, very static. There was a permanent walkway across the back which served as podium for politicians, catwalk for models and what have you, but which led to some unnecessary awkwardnesses (when Mary Wintergreen appeared in her wedding desk, for instance, someone had to fetch a chair so she could step up onto the walkway). And there were unforgivable errors with the lighting, especially downstage front when the vamp Diana Devereaux had to deliver her big number in semi-darkness.

There were some nice touches. The senators all had ridiculously long beards. The vice-president is a nonentity called Throttlebottom (Steven Beard: an actor who could sing rather than a singer having trouble acting), ignored by everybody, who is at one point the subject of a fine patter song with the refrain "Let's throttle Throttlebottom". When he's sentenced to be executed by the guillotine it won't work; Throttlebottom helpfully spots what the problem is and tries to fix it (an old gag, but funny). There's a neat chorus for nine Supreme Court judges (who reappear in the second opera, where the Gerswhins were clearly running out of really good ideas, as a baseball team playing the League of Nations in a winner takes all game for US war debts). The front cloth had a stars and stripes with 48 corn muffins in place of the (then) 48 stars representing the states.

Some of the performances were a little under-powered, but Richard Suart was excellent as the French ambassador in the first one, and rather showed the rest up.

Saturday, 21 February 2009

VIENNA PHILHARMONIC/ZUBIN MEHTA

19/02/09, Royal Festival Hall.

2hrs 10mins. Haydn, Symphony No 104 (the London); Bruckner, Symphony No 9. I was too tired for this. Even the Bruckner couldn't keep me awake.

The Vienna Phil play with awesome precision, which was if anything a drawback in the Haydn which seemed just too polished, too perfect. It's polite music anyway. D said she wanted more "passion". I kept yearning for the sound of a period band, scraping away, living dangerously but with more edge, to bring the music alive.

Mehta conducted with remarkably economic gestures. When he came on at the start and when he acknowledged applause at the end his bow was barely more than a nod of the head. On the other hand, while we were in the rear stalls A was sitting in the choir seats behind the orchestra, as a result of a muddle over tickets, and said his face was animated and lit up as he cued the band. There were 52 (I think) musicians, only one woman (first violins, right at the back). They were all in white tie, which added to the sense of formality.

The upside of the orchestra's discipline was that you could hear every note and some of the effects were breathtaking. There's a series of dramatic pauses in the scherzo (around six, some in the strings, some in the woodwind): an upward swoop, and then... nothing. Executed perfectly.

There's a beautiful passage at the start for the bassoon, playing along with all the strings. And in the slow movement there's a passage in which the first violins carry the melody while the second violins dance a staccato figure around it: again, perfect.

Mehta began the second half with a tribute to Christopher Raeburn. I'd never heard of him, but he was a veteran record producer who started out with Decca way back in 1954 and according to Mehta was a great friend and fan of the Vienna Phil. Mehta said he "and the orchestra" had been saddened to learn of his death "when they arrived in London that morning". So the band had travelled from Vienna, where they'd given a concert the night before, then presumably rehearsed at the RFH and finally performed: a long day, and a knackering one. They were due in Paris the following evening.

"We would just like him to know," Mehta said of Raeburn, "we are with him in spirit and would like to dedicate this heavenly music to him."

And it is heavenly, at least at the start: a lovely slow string build up to a great brass crescendo meant to sweep you away. At which point the man on my left, clearly unmoved, opened his programme!

It has some fine effects. In the second (of three) movements there is some spectacular driving "machine" like music, interspersed with quieter passages featuring a little figure on the timps which is then taken up by the clarinet and (second time) by the flute. But the machine music came back six or eight times, confirming me in my prejudices about Bruckner: namely, that he is noisy and repetitious. In the tuttis you can see the woodwind blowing away fit to bust, but you can't hear them: with a full brass section blaring away their contribution seems pointless. Once more I found myself wondering what it would sound like with just 18th century orchestral forces instead of the 91 (?) players on stage (four women this time: two violins, a cello and, I think, a clarinet).

D was satisfied that she'd finally got her passion. S's friend J and J's friend Sheila were sitting with us and were full of enthusiasm. By the end I'm afraid I'd drifted off. Mehta, much more animated this time, looked totally drained. There was a special round of applause for the tuba. Then I lost sight of what was happening because all the people in front of us had decided to give it a standing ovation.

Monday, 16 February 2009

THE WRESTLER

14/2/09. Watched at A's on a Bafta judge's DVD with "Property of Optimum Releasing" permanently burnt into the top of the screen, which made it a tougher watch than it might otherwise have been.

Mickey Rourke's comeback movie, for which he is Oscar-nominated, directed by Darren Aronofsky and written by Robert D Siegel (former editor-in-chief of The Onion, who is wasted on journalism). Unquestionably a fine performance by Rourke, perfectly convincing as the over-the-hill wrestler Randy "the Ram" Robinson, whose life is a mess and becomes messier still when he has a heart attack after an especially bloody bout with an opponent whose gimmicks include barbed wire and a staple gun.

The suspicion must be that our Mickey wasn't really acting. He IS the Ram. On the other hand he must have had to work jolly hard to acquire the physique.

Good on the cameraderie of the westler's locker room, the way bouts are choreographed in advance, the soul-destroying business of being a minor star in a marginal but physically demanding branch of showbiz.

There's an especially depressing scene at a "fan night" when a bunch of the guys sit around autographing videos for a handful of fans in some ghastly community centre. When there are no more fans they sit in uncomfortable silence staring at the walls. One of them you see at the start (but only in wideshot) is in a wheelchair: it isn't milked, but it's a good touch, typical of this film's generally understated approach to a seriously over-the-top profession.

The Ram lives in a trailer: at the start he comes back from a bout to find he's been locked out by the manager for non-payment. He has to sleep in his van (a Dodge Ram, A said authoritatively). He gets part-time work in a supermarket humping boxes and then, after the heart attack, working on the deli counter in a ridiculous hairnet which completely covers his long dyed blond heavy metaller's hair. He has to be nice to difficult customers and eventually can't stand it and storms out in a destructive (and of course self-destructive) rage.

He has two relationships with women in the course of the film, both of which look as if they're going to be stereotypically sentimental Hollwyood hook-ups, both of which collapse in a commendably realistic and honest (if bleak) fashion.

The first is with a lap-dancer (Marisa Tomei) who breaks her own rule and agrees to meet a client outside the club. She's a single mother with a nine-year old son. Her position as an ageing performer in a particularly tawdry branch of showbiz mirrors his: at one stage towards the end there's a direct visual parallel. We see her in wideshot, centre of the frame, spotlit and dancing on stage in front of a curtain and then (in close-up) faking alluring looks and sensuous abandon. Then she remembers Randy, exits stage and spotlight through the curtains behind her and rushes off to the venue where he has decided to make an ill-advised comeback.

She tries and fails to dissuade him from going on. He turns and emerges, spotlit, from another set of curtains and marches down a ramp to the ring. A little later in the bout we see him in close-up, clearly struggling, and he looks up to where she was watching him from the ramp: wide shot, central curtains. She's gone. It's almost the last shot in the film.

The other relationship is with his daughter. He hasn't seen her for years; he clearly walked out on her mother. When he tells the dancer of his heart attack she urges him to get in touch with his daughter and they meet up at a clothing store so she can advise him on a present to buy.

Initially suspicious, the daughter agrees to an afternoon together. They travel down memory lane (or at any rate, the Atlantic City boardwalk) though they're his memories: she doesn't recall the things he remembers. They dance in an abandoned ballroom. Cue lump in the throat and tears in the eye. They agree to meet the following Saturday. Then he fails to show, having got drunk and stoned and laid and when he does arrive, hours late, the daughter says (correctly) that he's always been a fuck-up and always will be and she wants nothing more to do with him and she throws him out.

Admirably unsentimental stuff. Immediately after watching it I thought it a rather mediocre film. Writing this, I've come to appreciate it rather more for its distinctly un-Hollywood avoidance of easy endings.

EVERY GOOD BOY DESERVES FAVOUR

14/2/09, Olivier.

1hr 5 mins. Very good: witty, pointed, music and spoken word beautifully integrated and likewise movement and dance. Arguably a rather slight piece and dated... except that totalitarian regimes and unjust incarceration remain a feature of the modern world, and it's quite possible some poor souls are locked up as lunatics merely for expressing political opposition to the regime.

Toby Jones, Joseph Millson as the two Ivanovs incarcerated in a lunatic asylum circa 1977. The former a madman who believes he can hear an imaginary orchestra playing; the latter a dissident, perfectly sane, who will be released once he admits he's mad (because only a madman would take on the Soviet state).

We, of course, can see and hear the orchestra which in this production occupied the Olivier revolve, across which a white path zigzagged from an entrance at the rear through the orchestra, past the desk representing the doctor's office, down to the two lunatics' prison (sorry, hospital) beds at the front.

Before it started it was clear the revolve would, um, revolve because the orchestra's seats were carefully arranged within it but I couldn't see how that was possible without breaking up the zigzag pathway. Answer: it turned a partial circle periodically, breaking the pattern decisively and disturbingly, only returning to its starting position and re-establishing the pattern at the very end. Clever.

Also before it started I counted the band and counted the names of the players listed and they didn't tally. Why became clear later. The doctor, a keen amateur violinist, emerged from the orchestra. And so, during one musical interlude, did a bunch of dancers: one of the French horns stripped off his white tie and tails to reveal the dark green shirt and tie of a militiaman or prison warder and began manhandling a lady violinist, and so on. Surely a Tom Morris touch (he co-directed with Felix Barrett).

Andre Previn's music was sort of sub-Shostakovich, noisy at times, highly coloured and written at times to counterpoint the words; Stoppard's text typically dry and witty, delighting in logical absurdities, but by itself rather slight, little more than an extended sketch.

As well as the prisoner-patients we saw sane Ivanov's son, and his conformist schoolteacher. Ivanov goes on hunger strike (it worked in the KGB prison in which he was incarcerated previously), his son is despatched to persuade him to relent. He won't. The impasse is eventually resolved by a deus ex machina in the shape of a KGB colonel (in a ridiculously wide military cap) who strides on and, apparently wilfully and deliberately confusing the two inmates, asks sane Ivanov if he hears an orchestra, asks mad Ivanov if he thinks innocent people are ever imprisoned in lunatic asylums and, getting satisfactory answers from each, orders their release. Thus giving the authorities the last laugh.

D adds: The ending was especially effective. The musicians left the stage one by one while the music played (evidently on tape by this stage). The son pushed Dad in a wheelchair out of the hospital and along the white tiled winding road, all the way back to home/inifinity/the outside through overturned chairs and music stands. As the stage darkened before this short final scene I saw two pieces of set fall and was wondering what was happening, and then the lights went up revealing this very deep (as far as the back wall?), film-like reflection or projection of the path disappearing way off into the distance.

Friday, 13 February 2009

MRS AFFLECK


12/2/09, Cottesloe

2hrs 25 mins. The critics were very rude about this. Unfairly. We thought it was a powerful piece of theatre with some cracking performances.

Ibsen's Little Eyolf updated (with many contemporary references) to the 1950s. A traverse production: the garden of a house with a posh kitchen (with massive fridge) at one end in Act 1; an outdoor seaside cafe and then the beach in Act 2. I liked the occasional arrangements of pebbles on the floor, which play a part from time to time in the action: a small boy throwing stones near the beginning; the leading character filling her pockets with them in anticipation of a suicide bid towards the end. A fine mist of rain fell at one point.

Rich Rita (Claire Skinner: bored, blonde, brittle in a collection of very elegant 50s numbers) has married penniless poet Alfred (Angus Wright, gawky and cadaverous as ever, the very picture of a buttoned-up literary Englishman); years ago they couldn't keep their hands off one another, so much so, it transpires, that the baby fell off a table while they were at it and was crippled for life. Oliver is now nine; dressed up in a cowboy outfit which leads his mother heartlessly, when she's not reading Lucky Jim, to call him Hopalong. There's also Alfred's half-sister, a teacher in Margate, with whom he has a semi-incestuous relationship ("semi" in the sense of "apparently unconsummated", not in the sense of "half" sister); the decent but commonplace engineer who'd like to marry her; and a strange rather feral teddy boy who makes an unsettling appearance in the first act and an even briefer appearance at the end.

Act 1 closes with news of Olly's disappearance and drowning after his parents have had a flaming and noisy row.

By the interval I'd decided that with her withering wit and hectoring manner she was monstrous, inhuman, uncaring, profoundly unsympathetic. In a nice touch she consigned a bunch of flowers brought by her sister-in-law to the blender. Him I rather liked. The ladies patiently put me right, pointing out that the strain of living with a disabled child would get to anyone, especially when you blame yourself for his condition and that his father ("typical man") had been running away from his reponsibilities: at the start of the play he has just returned shining-eyed from his latest six week trip to the Scottish Highlands, where he's supposed to be writing a great book about the threat of nuclear annihilation. He has abandoned the project he tells his wife (who calls him Casaubon), and has decided to devote himself to being a "proper father" to Olly.

In the second act the parents grieve (indeed, she virtually goes mad) and brother and sister chum up together. When sis finds an old letter written by her mother to their father which reveals that she is not in fact his daughter (and so they are not in fact siblings) you assume they'll walk off into the Kent sea mist together. They don't, and I'm not sure why.

The weakest part of the play, indeed, was the ending. Plot, situation and characters are all recognisably Ibsen, and the development was thoroughly satisfying up to the point where Rita and Alfred realise that Olly has probably drowned himself (in the hopes of making his parents happy, perhaps?). Their lives have been laid waste, thanks partly to their own errors, partly perhaps to the errors of an earlier generation. Unfortunately, dear old Ibsen tries for something a little more upbeat: a stab at redemption, in the form of some vaguely spiritual uplift which seems to include a commitment to good works, if not to a continuing, functioning marriage.

The critics presumably objected to all this late 19th century Nordic gloom transported to the altogether more prosaic surroundings of Kent in the 1950s. I can't say it worried me. Suburban tedium, the narrowness of middle class lives, the appalling spectre of nuclear war... surely those are sufficient to justify more than a little gloom.

Sunday, 8 February 2009

ROYAL OPERA YOUNG ARTISTS











8/2/09, Channing School, Highgate
A fund-raiser for the Highgate Literary & Scientific Institution, 170 years old this year. A school assembly hall, four performers from the Royal Opera Young Artists Programme (a tenor and a baritone, both from Korea; a soprano from Romania; a pianist from Queensland), the bass Robert Lloyd, now retired and a member of the Highgate Lit, and a dozen famous and familiar operatic arias.

S (also a member of the Lit) invited us to lunch beforehand with A and the Lit's president, plus the president's husband and the president's oldest friend, a nice lady who moved ten years ago from the Yorkshire Dales to the Pyrenees where she practices alternative therapies and counselling and such like. She offered me a head massage.

It was semi-staged (the singing, not the head massage); Lloyd did the introductions (with considerable wit); and they sang their socks off. The audience (average age about 80) lapped it up.

The soprano (Simona Mihai) struggled a bit with the gavotte from Act 3 of Manon, which has some very loud and very high top notes, but was generally pleasing in a long dark red evening dress. The baritone's acting wasn't up to much - his woodenness accentuated in the finale, a rousing martial duet with Lloyd from I Puritani by Bellini, in which Lloyd acted him off the stage - but he had the most wonderfully resonant voice; he was called Changham Lim. The tenor (Ji-Min Park) was a better actor and after a slightly under-powered start came into his own in Edgardo's graveyard aria from Lucia di Lammermoor, much of which is unaccompanied and which is punctuated by silences which really were silent -- he even managed to still the lady down at the front who kept taking photographs on her new camera (she had the manual open on her lap). His rendering of Your Tiny Hand Ain't 'Arf Froze from La Boheme made the hairs stand on end - but maybe that's just because it's so familiar.

In the first half Lloyd sang Osmin's aria from the Seraglio with tremendous vigour -- but was so breathless at the end he could barely speak to introduce the next piece and had to go and sit in a corner looking a smidge peaky while he recovered. It was a reminder that singing opera must be bloody hard work. The young do it with greater ease, but for the most part lack the stagecraft and experience to carry it off at the very highest level. Which is a shame: as Lloyd said, it was nice to hear the Act 4 duet for Rodolfo and Marcello from La Boheme sung by chaps of the right age for once. (Later: turns out the soprano and the baritone are both 30, so not that young; not sure how old the tenor is.)

Worrying about Lloyd's health rather distracted from the baritone aria from Puccini's Edgar (no, I hadn't heard of it either) which featured an extraordinarily long note. And there was a second very long note when Lloyd and the baritone sang the duet for Rigoletto and Sparafucile from Act 1 of Rigoletto, which ends with the bass singing a very deep "Sparafuceeeel..." as he exits. Lloyd had no problem with that. He told us afterwards that it is the custom in Italian opera houses to pay the singers before their last entrance, a legacy of the time when opera house managers were apt to do a runner with the night's takings before cast and crew could be paid, and the Met in New York does the same. After exiting in Act 1 Sparafucile makes only one other appearance in the final act, so the exiting bass walks off stage in New York to be met by the stage manager with a cheque. "It really does fell like you're being paid especially for that note," he said.

He also introduced a duet from The Merry Widow by claiming he knew little of the opera because it had no role for a bass and cited the Australian baritone John Shore, once principal baritone at Covent Garden. Lloyd encountered him once in the recording studio when he, Lloyd, was a young man. Shore asked him what he was recording and when Lloyd told him asked what the baritone part in the opera was like. "There isn't one," said Lloyd. "What kind of bloody opera is that?" said Shore.

Maybe they were funnier the way Lloyd told 'em.

They gave us fruit juice and home-made biscuits in the interval and two encores, O mio bambino and the duet from The Pearl Fishers, a pair of Classic FM crowd-pleasers. Walking back afterwards S likened the Lit's role in Highgate society to that of the church in a country village, a focus for community life kept going by volunteers and donations, meeting regularly with occasional special events, like today's.

A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE


6/2/09, Duke of York's Theatre

Ken Stott in one of Arthur Miller's great plays of the 1950s, a study in jealousy and betrayal which also touches on a topic of great contemporary interest, illegal immigration, directed by Lindsay Posner.

Stott plays Eddie Carbone, a Brooklyn longshoreman, married to Beatrice (a rather pallid Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio). They have no children but have brought up their niece Catherine (Hayley Atwell) with whom Eddie is infatuated. They agree to find a home for two illegal immigrants (engagingly known as "submarines"), relatives of Beatrice from back home in Sicily.
Catherine falls for the younger brother and Eddie is consumed with jealousy and also, it appears from the text, with suppressed homosexual longing for the boy. That wasn't clear from Stott's performance, which implied straightforward homophobia in his repeated assertions that the boy, who could sing and dance, had blond hair and liked enjoying himself, "wasn't right". Ultimately Eddie betrays the men to the immigration authorities to prevent the marriage, and the older brother denounces him. He loses his good name and becomes an outcast, a situation from which he is rescued only when the older brother takes revenge and kills him.

So it's recognisably a classical tragedy and there is even a chorus, in the shape of a lawyer (a fine performance by Alan Corduner) in whom Eddie confides from time to time and who addresses the audience directly.
So Eddie is a tragic hero with tragic flaws -- perhaps too many of them. Dan said he'd find it easier if Eddie were more sympathetic. And it's true, he's hard to like. Was that the performance or the writing?

The set was challenging: the outside of a Brooklyn tenement which rose to reveal the main room of the Carbone's apartment on the ground floor. The interior was fine; but in the exterior scenes the corner of the building jutted down to the front of the stage, dividing the playing area awkwardly into two.
In a pivotal scene Eddie returns home to find Catherine and the boy canoodling and confronts them. There was a gratifying intake of breath when at one point he kisses Catherine full on the lips; and another a second or two later when he kisses the boy.
Stott is a fine actor and inhabited the part with conviction, bandy-legged and stooped. Scott, who is Scottish, complained that at moments of passion the Brooklyn accent slipped and Stott the Scot came through... but I didn't notice.
The Guardian called it "perfectly decent", which is damning with faint praise but about right. Seats up against the back wall of the dress circle came in at a whopping £50, which seemed a bit steep.



A MIDSUMMER NIGHT'S DREAM

6/2/09, RSC, Novello.


(Written by Penelope)
"The course of true love never did run smooth" Lysander tells Hermia right at the start of A Midsummer Night's Dreamy. And so it proves for every character in the play. With jealous fathers and lovers, mischievous fairies and magic spells which go awry, it does look like love will go wrong for everyone. This is a clever, genuinely funny production where the themes are love, identity, illusion and nature. Directed by Gregory Doran, it has pace, humour and moments of surprise and stark emotion.

The RSC is renowned for its ensemble work and this play demonstrates how effective that can be. All the actors are accomplished, are generous to each other and spark off one another. However, there are some performances which stand out - Peter de Jersey as the grumpy, controlling king of the fairies, Oberon, is wonderful and authoritative. Joe Dixon as Bottom gives a fabulous comic performance full of confusion and slapstick. Edward Bennett as Demetrius has noticeably grown in confidence and presence since standing in for David Tennant in the recent Hamlet (few actors have his clarity of speech and ability to project).

But Natalie Walter as Helena steals several scenes with her sad yearning for Demetrius and then her comic timing when Lysander pursues her in the wood; she is both knowing and innocent and it's a lovely portrayal.

The sets, costumes and fabulous lighting combine to show the contrast between the scenes in the wood, controlled by the fairies and the more stark, city scenes. The difference between the dreamworld and reality - at the heart of the play - is superbly enhanced by them. The choreography of the fairies where they move, slightly eerily together, being at the same time visible to the audience, but invisible to the players, works remarkably well. The ass's head worn by Bottom, with its expressive, floppy ears is wonderful. And there is some creepily effective puppetry.

The plot is complicated - there are three simultaneous stories and a lot of hilarity - but this production allows you to follow all three and they hold your interest equally. For me, the bawdy humour in the play scene after the three weddings was a bit laboured and relentless. But judging by the laughs around me, I was in a minority.

The cast managed the delicate balancing act between Shakespeare's jokes and the moments of serious emotion and tragedy well. It's enormously moving and shocking when Hermia (Kathryn Drysdale) says of Lysander (Tom Davey), after Puck's spell has made him fall out of love with her, "What, can you do me greater harm than hate? Hate me! Wherefore!".

When all the spells are broken and the chaos is over, we are left with the perverse logic of the trickster, Puck. His message is that while his shadows and enchantments may have offended, everything is now fixed so we can all be friends. It's a huge and hopeful contrast to many of Shakespeare's other plays and one which leaves the audience smiling and nodding in agreement.

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

SPRING AWAKENING




2/2/09, Lyric Hammersmith.

2hrs 20 mins. Final preview of a musical based on the notorious Franz Wedekind play, which comes floating on clouds of hype having reputedly taken Broadway by storm, but has been entirely recast for the UK

For the first half of the first half it felt like a superior school play. Almost all the cast were fresh out of drama school and looked about 16, the age they were playing. They were earnest, frightfully well-spoken (they’re meant to be – these are middle class Viennese) and rather callow. The musical interludes felt forced. It stayed on the right side of embarrassing, but only just. I kept wanting to see how an authentically American cast would have tackled it. They might have come across less as “painfully self-conscious” and more as “engagingly na├»ve”.

The exceptions to the youthful casting were Sian Thomas (last seen going over the top in Tennessee Williams at the Arcola) and Richard Cordery (last seen as the Duke of York and sundry other elderly aristocrats in the RSC Histories), who played all the adult parts – effectively highlighting the divide between adolescence and the adult world in the process. He was rather good as a kind of all-purpose male authority figure, except when called upon to sing and dance briefly, when he seemed to be having far too much fun and slipped completely out of character. She had difficulty distinguishing her collection of parents and teachers and middle-aged matrons sufficiently, and hammed one or two of them up excessively.

I’ve never seen the Wedekind original. A, who has (her son played the hero’s suicidal best friend in a student production last year), says this version is pretty faithful. From the outset it’s clear it’s about sex, specifically adolescent sex – frustration, ignorance, confusion and the rest. There’s a scene in which one of the boys masturbates in the bathroom, while dad thumps on the door. But the show really throws its first curve ball with a song about parental sexual abuse, at which point it’s clear this might be more interesting (and more serious) than you first think. Shortly afterwards there’s a scene in which our heroine urges out hero to beat her with a switch: he does, with just a bit too much enthusiasm.

The first half closes with them making love rather touchingly and in part two it all goes downhill. She falls pregnant, he’s sent to a reform school, his best friend commits suicide, and she dies at the hands of an abortionist. You can see why they banned it in 1899. If nothing else, it’s a splendid advertisement for decent sex education.

The songs were inoffensive but unmemorable (except for one, of which I can only remember the refrain, “I’m fucked!”). They were accompanied by a four-piece band – drums, guitar, bass, piano – at the back of the playing area, in keeping with the artfully contrived artlessness of the staging. Some of the audience were in bleachers on either side of the stage, with the cast interspersed among them (including four chorus members in modern dress). Behind the bleachers were climbing ladders reminiscent of a school gym. The boys were literally buttoned up in grey suits and knockerbockers; the girls were in smocks. They all wore head mics, but still seized hand mics for some (but not all) of the songs, which I thought unnecessary and inexplicably irritating. The songs themselves made no concession to period but jarred less than I feared.

At the back was a brick wall, hung with portraits of bewhiskered patriarchs and other visual bric-a-brac. There was what looked like a headless rag doll in a glass case, and a picture of two adolescent girls. From time to time individual items on the wall were spotlit: I couldn’t see the relevance. At one point, en route to the reformatory, our hero climbs a ladder to sit in a chair hanging from the wall; during the next song he travels along the wall to the far side of the stage, ending up in the reform school uniform.

The clever lighting included electric blue and red and orange fairy lights, intermittently illuminated, and much of the time a cold bright light provided by institutional-looking lamps on the ceiling.

Choreography was by Bill T Jones, a renowned US practitioner, who uses hands and arms especially well.

A disappointment: the suicidal best friend, Moritz, with spectacular hair (all over the place to begin with, sticking straight up as he nears his doom), never made it quite clear if he was rebel or victim (or just plain stupid).

A decent effort. I’d say six out of ten. But I never felt involved or moved.
(The pictures are from the Broadway production.)





THE PITMEN PAINTERS






30/1/09, National (Lyttelton).

Very good. Thankfully lived up to expectations, having been exceedingly well reviewed on its original appearance in the Cottesloe last year. It's a transfer with the original cast, none of whom I'd heard of, from Live Theatre in Newcastle which commissioned the play from Billy Elliot writer Lee Hall.

The true story of the Durham miners from Ashington who came together for art appreciation classes under the auspices of the Workers' Educational Association in the 1930s; were lucky enough to have as their tutor Robert Lyon, who later became principal of Edinburgh College of Art, and decided they should "learn by doing"; and who turned out to have real talent, continuing to paint long after Lyon had moved on (the last one died in the 1990s).


They meet in a hut, display their work on easels, comment and criticise. We see the pictures projected onto screens hanging in front of the back wall -- not only their pictures, but other work with which they come into contact as their fame starts to spread and they're picked up by the cognoscenti, taken on a trip to London (Lyon travelling first class, the rest of them third) and encounter the work of people like Ben Nicholson and an exhibition of Chinese painting.


It started strongly: one reviewer complained there were too many easy jokes, but I'm a sucker for easy jokes. The comedy was rooted partly in class distinctions: Lyon's middle class values, the miners' Geordie dialect, both baffling to the other. It partly sprang from character: the organiser of the class is a petty rulebook bureaucrat. It partly came from politics: one young lad is unemployed and the organiser tries to exclude him on the grounds that the class is run by the Workers' Educational Association, and he's not a worker; the token Marxist insists he stay, arguing it's not his fault he's a victim of capitalism's cyclical nature - that got a big laugh from an audience staring down the barrel of the credit crunch.


The more thoughtful second half was punctuated by seasonal fusillades of coughing during the quieter scenes, which was a shame. The play asks what it means to be "an artist": one of the most talented of the group, Oliver Kilbourn, is offered the chance to escape the pit and become a full-time painter by a local Lady Bountiful; he eventually declines, because (I take it) accepting would mean cutting himself off from his subjects and his community, the source of his inspiration.


There's a nice scene when the group visits the exhibition of Chinese paintings. The miners are knocked out. Then the toffs, including Lyon, arrive; they are dismissive - they think it's formulaic, derivative. But by now the miners are confident of their own judgement. To Lyon's surprise they stick to their guns, arguing forcefully that this is folk art, just as what they do themselves is folk art.


Upstairs in the Lyttelton foyer they'd mounted an exhibition of the group's work, almost all (it turned out) by Kilbourn, though there were one or two by James Floyd, a truly naive painter who produced spectacularly colourful pictures of whippets and allotments and the other paraphernalia of life in a mining village, and a few by Harry Wilson.
Kilbourn's early stuff is reminiscent of Sickert. His paintings of life down the pit play with light and shadow, like his wartime paintings of blackouts and "dimouts". His later painting, full of sturdy figures who might have come out of a Stanley Spencer, include sequences devoted to women's work including washday. He seemed to my untutored eye a genuine talent, whose work is also a personal record of a vanished world. One of his paintings is below.


THE ISLAND OF AARS


28/1/09, Pleasance.

A horrible disappointment. We went to see it because the same team (writer-performer Chris Larner, plus composer and musician Mark Stevens) created a little gem a few years ago called The Translucent Frogs of Quup which D and I saw at Edinburgh and then took the kids to when it transferred to the King's Head in Islington, so much had we enjoyed it.

That was a very silly boy's own pastiche tale of a pair of buttoned-up newly-weds travelling up the Amazon or some such, he anxious to find the frogs of the title, she desperate for sexual satisfaction which she eventually finds, if memory serves, in the arms of a scantily-dressed local. It had lots of puns and bad jokes, some jolly songs, a wry narrative by Larner and some exceedingly dodgy props.

They tried to pull the same trick off again and failed. The setting this time: the Hebridean island of Aars (pronounced as you'd expect, allowing for a rousing final song with a chorus which went "Isle of Aars" - geddit? - over and over). Larner plays a bass player who has somehow washed up in this desolate spot and lives rough while observing the only remaining inhabitants, a pretty little thing called Morag and two competing wee wee wee free pastors, a jolly one called McSurname and a miserable one called Donald, played by the same actor. All three are stranded on the island (which eventually turns out to be a giant turtle) because the rest of the inhabitants have left taking all the boats with them. Into this peculiar Eden comes a serpent in the shape of a noisy Dutch lesbian, a frustrated health and safety officer who cops off with Morag and causes catastrophe all round.

There are some predictable jokes about bass players, intolerant wee frees, health and safety officials etc etc. There are some engaging songs, including a couple of very good ones for the earnest and innocent Morag. But not enough to rescue the show.

It was well-received in Edinburgh. It was less well-received in North London, even though the first night audience included the ex-Python Terry Jones and Adrian Lester and his missis, presumably there to show support as friends of Larner.

Perhaps it started out at 50 minutes, a sort of standard Edinburgh length, and was unwisely expanded to fill an entire evening (with interval).

We would have left during said interval but A said she couldn't: a friend from one of the courses she attends was associated in some way with the production, and to have jumped ship would not have been seemly. We stayed out of solidarity. But D had a glass of wine for fortify her, thus falling off the wagon and abandoning this year's dry season.
Part two was marginally better (because shorter and tighter).
The picture is from the Edinburgh production.

LSO, GERGIEV, WILLARD WHITE


7/1/09, Barbican.

2hrs 20min. Stravinsky's Rite of Spring; Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle with Willard White and a young Russian mezzo, Elena Zhidkova, deputising for the advertised Katarina Dalayman. London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Valery Gergiev.

The orchestra (as well as Gergiev and White) were in full fig, white tie and tails. Inappropriate for the Stravinsky -- a product of the 20th century machine age; much more appropriate for the Bartok, with its melodrama and voluptuous orchestrations and its aristocratic milieu. The Stravinsky needs a big band: I counted 106, including six percussion (two sets of kettle drums, two big bass drums -- which made some very loud noises) and 40 woodwind and brass. It shrank to 86 for the Bartok, though that included two harps and a celesta and at one point eight more brass sidled on from the side door to provide additional welly in what for me was the high point of the Bartok.

Ms Zhidkova almost looked the part in that she was young, attractive, had masses of hair cascading down her back and wore a very tight slinky pink number. As she sashayed from the stage at the end both A and D said they thought she looked like a mermaid. She kept flicking her hair clear of her face, which was distracting; and the text calls for a pale raven-haired beauty, and she was spectacularly blonde. Otherwise I have few complaints. She was required to play a woman who is both sensual and innocent and rather arrogant -- and whose combination of innocence and arrogance eventually proves her downfall.

Sir Willard was an even better piece of casting. He has immense presence, is the right age to play a man with three former wives trying to repress the memory of a lifetime drenched in blood, and convincingly embodied the mixture of hope and wariness -- developing into despair -- of a man who believes his new bride may help him put his tortured past behind him. He doesn't in fact have a lot to do (or to sing) for much of the opera but play a straight bat to Judith's constant demands to open another of the shut doors in his castle (otherwise his psyche).

White also turns out to have a sonorous speaking voice: he delivered the spoken prologue which establishes that what we are about to see is in reality happening inside the protagonist's head, presumably a necessary explanation for an audience in 1911 who might be unfamiliar with psychoanalysis. (The prologue is in English -- the opera was sung in Hungarian with surtitles borrowed from Covent Garden.)

Those surtitles were handy, because the singers were sometimes drowned by the orchestra. Would a younger Willard White have held his own better?

Is this the first psychoanatical opera? The doors open to reveal aspects of Bluebeard's life... his torture chamber, his garden and so on, all stained in some way with blood. The musical high point is the glorious triumphant music which accompanies the opening of the door revealing his "vast and beautiful domains".

After that it's downhill for poor Judith, who insists almost petulantly, certainly self-destructively, and against Bluebeard's passionate urgings not to, on opening two further, darker doors, which reveal first a lake of tears and then Bluebeard's three mute former wives, who she duly joins in some sort of captive not-life.

A bag of laughs it ain't, but certainly stirring.

Of the music itself I can remember virtually nothing, thanks to a failure to write down impressions within a couple of hours. I can tell you that the Stravinsky was driving, noisy, energetic and exciting -- but not if it was any good, though I was disappointed by the opening bassoon solo. It seemed insufficiently sinuous. But there was much grimacing and putting in and taking out of reeds on the soloist's part, so perhaps all was not well.

I can tell you that the Bartok was surprisingly accessible and that the "vast and beautiful domains" section was glorious. But again, how good or bad the performance was I have no idea. Compare this, by a blogger who clearly thinks he does know enough about music to make a judgement:

http://boulezian.blogspot.com/2009_01_01_archive.html

Contrast this, however:

http://jessicamusic.blogspot.com/2009/01/elena-zhidkova-as-judit-bride-of.html

The reality is that, ignorant as I am of music and unable to remember anything but the most familiar tunes, I treat concerts as a form of theatre. My enjoyment is greatly enhanced if the presentation is visually interesting, the performers look the part and everyone involved gives an impression of involvement and interest rather than just going through the motions.
How many others, I wonder, go to concerts in the same frame of mind?