Tuesday, 26 May 2009


22/5/09, National (Cottesloe)

Interfering Westerners getting involved in Africa with good intentions, and simply making matters worse.

Anna Chancellor as an election observer, with unsatisfactory personal life, who intervenes to press for a voter registration drive between the first and second rounds in a small West African state, knowing it will favour the opposition candidate. He duly wins and the president concedes, but only after the observer has been summoned by the head of the army to answer his question: "What happens now?" She has presumed to set herself up as a kind of deus ex machina, and the locals resent it: Sandhurst-educated in the case of the general, Harvard-educated in the case of one of the judges on the election commission to whom she originally takes her case for a registration drive and who send her translator away; when she protests, fearing a deliberate intent to refuse her a hearing, they point out (in perfect English) that they all speak perfect English.

AC does uptight very well. Chuk Iwuji (last seen as Henry VI in the RSC's Histories) is her young translator, with whom she has a fling. James Fleet is a slimy MI6 man in rumpled linen suit, initially contemptible, later revealed to be unplasantly Machiavellian and manipulative.

I wrote in my notes: "Set: blinds". But that was several weeks ago (the perils of not writing up a show straight after seeing it) and I can't now remember much about it. But it was good. Perhaps it used those blinds to hint cleverly at African heat.

There was a deeply unconvincing pair of scenes with a TV reporter. Why is it that they never get the details right? He was cynical (fair enough), wheedling (some are, but it doesn't get you very far), attempting blackmail (which never works, quite apart from being unethical). And the flaws in that characterisation made you wonder how convincing the others are. They seemed OK to me, but you never know...

It wasn't as good as the Overwhelming, about the Rwandan genocide, which we saw in Leeds two or three years ago and which tackled similar issues. That seemed a more layered piece in which the complexities of African society and politics were handled more convincingly. This was too schematic.

It wasn't as good as Death and the King's Horseman (21/4/09) either.

There was a touching scene with the translator's elderly father, who is dying. A scene with a young boy beaten up by thugs for ferrying voters to the polls on his moped.

I came away reflecting (as one always did after listening to George Bush) that dominant ideologies always seek to proselytise, that it is an unappealing trait, and will almost certainly fail.

Friday, 22 May 2009


20/5/09, Haymarket

Written by Penelope:
What is Waiting for Godot about? This question has puzzled audiences since the publication of Samuel Beckett's play in 1949. Each production has its own interpretation and creates its own sense of meaning. The current Haymarket version, directed by Sean Mathias, stars Sir Ian Mckellan as Gogo and Patrick Stewart as Didi. The two old friends are down on their luck and wait, every day, for the appearance of Godot.

Stewart and Mckellan are both extraordinary. The chemistry between the two actors is visible. Their synchronised body language, tap of their bowler hats and easy banter aren't just because both are fabulous actors. They have a genuine warmth and fondness for each other which Gogo and Didi have, despite the bickering. It's like watching a long-term couple who argue but are also lost without each other.

Mckellan plays Gogo as a man with dementia. His forgetfulness, vulnerability and dependence are heart-breaking at times. He acts with his entire body; from the sore-old-man gait, to his tiny hand gestures and his bright, shining, hopeful eyes. Stewart's performance is more youthful - he tenderly protects his old friend and wants to look after him, while at the same time finding him infuriating. Didi seems more knowing, wiser and is the 'care-giver'. When he sings Gogo a lullaby to soothe him to sleep, its almost unbearably moving. As ever, Stewart's diction is superb. The rhythm of Beckett's language comes to the foreground - the clever, clear and ironic lines flow freely from both actors.

The one bad note of the night is Simon Callow as Pozzo. Granted, it's not a character with whom to find sympathy. But Callow seems altogether too pleased with himself and is more of a circus clown than a tragic figure. Ronald Pickup's tragic Lucky is pitch-perfect and pathetic.

There is a huge contrast between the first and second half of the play. The first moves quickly and has a sense of fun. The second act plays up the pathos, the fundamental crisis of the human existence. Why are we here, what's it all about? The audience seemed to find the switch uncomfortable and there were a lot of nervous laughs during some of the most moving speeches in the second act.

For me the magic of the play is that what you think it's about depends on who you are and how you see the world. For an optimist, it doesn't matter that Godot never seems to come, the anticipation, the preparation and the life in the meantime is the important thing. For a pessimist, the question could be: What is the point of human life when you're waiting for someone or something which never comes and which there is no point in hoping for?

I went with two companions and we had very different views on this. But we were all touched. We shared the evening but it was also a profound personal experience. And the play does stay with you - that night I dreamt of Didi and Gogo debating the meaning of life and even three days later, some of the lines have stayed with me: "To all mankind they were addressed, those cries for help still ringing in our ears! But at this place, at this moment of time, all mankind is us, whether we like it or not. Let us make the most of it, before it is too late!"


21/05/09, ENO


I made a note immediately afterwards as to why it was so good, which I have lost.

But I have found some additional jottings.

It's not clear what drives Grimes: what's his motivation? He's a tragic outcast, man versus the crowd but also man versus the sea (both represented by the chorus).

An article in the programme suggests we shouldn't read it as a parable of the gay conchie returning to England post-war, but that's mad.

Musically it's haunting: the sea interludes, of course (which sound anaemic in the concert hall but tremendously evocative here) but also the choruses, especially the last (which reprises something from Act 1???) and some of the solos and duets, especially the Grimes/Ellen duet in Act 1, Grimes's solo at the close of Act 1, ditto Act 3.

Towards the end Britten gives up. There's no music at all when Balstrode tells Grimes to go to sea and sink the boat. The lights are even out in the pit. Then the music returns with the chorus.

Great set. Grimes's hut at a crazy slope, the trestle tables in the market.

Clever was the way the chorus hem Grimes in at the end of the dance scene, shouting his name with dramatic pauses: one of several moments when the hairs stood up on the neck.

Stuart Skelton as Grimes can certainly act; Amanda Roocroft as Ellen and Gerald Finley as Balstrode both very good. David Alden directed.

It suffered from Act 2-itis. The establishment was fine; the denouement was fine; but the bit in the middle, explanatory with less dramatic tension, failed to fizz rather. Though the hue and cry starts with the drum and reaches Grimes's hut just after the boy has died, so there's quite a lot of action in fact!

Act 1 was hugely impressive for its momentum. It was clear who everybody was, there were effective cameos and the recitatives needed no subtitles. None of this is necessarily true of many operas.

There were trestles on stage which served for the fish market tables. I noted the back wall in the pub in the storm (though I can't now remember why). The "nieces" were played cleverly as twin sisters in school uniform.

There were some problems with the updtaing to the 1940s (when it was written). There are spivs, flat caps, period women's fashions, but that does leave you with some difficulties over sailing boats, carts and what not.


20/5/09, Royal Court (Upstairs)

Missed it: had to work. D went and left at the second interval.

Monday, 18 May 2009


16/5/09, Menier

2 hrs 10 mins. The "classic" Ben Travers farce from 1929 heroically revived and played at a terrific pelt. We were a lousy audience: the funny lines and the wordplay mostly went straight past us; we only laughed at the pratfalls. But in our defence as an audience I should say it showed its age. It's a pretty dull and dated piece of work.

We went with A and d, and when I said to A I thought it dated he reminded me of the prevailing mores in 1920s Britain, where the idea of a newly-married man in a cottage with a scantily-clad young woman would have been far, far more shocking than it is today. Even so...

Frace works by subverting conventions or a set of values or a system of approved behaviour that everyone accepts and signs up to, or at least understands and sympathises with. When everyone doesn't sign up, can it still work?

Noises Off, one of the funniest farces ever written, works because it subverts the conventions of naturalistic theatre, which we can all accept. When the conventions are the sexual morality of the 1920s you have a problem.

It was a bit like watching Restoration Comedy, requiring a more than usual suspension of disbelief. You understand why it might be funny, without actually being moved to laughter yourself. The genuine laughs came from those pratfalls and from things not in the text, like knowing, arch performances.

The Telegraph enjoyed it (surprise!):


The Indie agreed with me:



15/5/09, Lyric Hammersmith

2 hrs 20 mins. The "Bollywood version" by Tamasha. Disappointing though not actively embarrassing.

The billing was misleading: there were few songs, little dance and no wet sari scene. The best bit of music was a delightful parody of the Ascot Races scene in My Fair Lady, set at the camel racing.

The action was transplanted to 19th century Rajasthan, before the Brits got there: it seemed to work well, and most of the novel seemed to be present and correct. What Emily Bronte would have made of it heaven knows.


13/5/09, Shakespeare's Globe

Missed it: stayed at home with heavy cold. Slice of street life play, set in contemporary London, brought back for a second season after very good reviews last year.

D said the first half was scrappy but that it got better in the second. A said it was sloppy. S said it was over the top and not as unmissable as it should have been.

The place was sparsely filled, apparently, perhaps because the weather was poor, it's early in the season and it wasn't Shakespeare. D said one couple (tourists presumably) left soon after it started, perhaps driven away by the stream of F words.

Monday, 11 May 2009


11/5/09, Barbican Hall

2 hrs. Tan Dun's Ghost Opera, written for the Kronos (at first glance a conventional string quartet, though playing amplified instruments) and Wu Man, who plays a Chinese instrument rather like a large mandolin, but with two sets of strings plucked with both hands, called the pipa. Preceded in the first half by the world premiere of a work by ??? and eight folk songs from South West China (where half the country's recognised ethnic minorities live and from which troupes of itinerant musicians and performers traditionally issued forth) arranged for the same forces.

Wu Man was a whizz, and I'm glad to have heard her. She produced sometimes astonishingly complex tunes, sometimes playing two melodies simultaneously.

A's friend Renee thought it pretentious. I thought it by turns baffling, intriguing, beautiful and silly.

At the start the band, dressed in black, came on, there was a blackout, a certain amount of scrabbling and then the lights came back up to reveal them wearing Chinese fright masks and making a "yaah" kind of noise. The masks soon came off (though I seem to recall they went back on once or twice) but the proceedings were punctutated by occasional shouts which either added to the atmosphere or sounded risible, according to taste.

At one point one of the band blew on a deep bass wind instrument the size of an alpenhorn. Renee complained that the audience tittered at what should have been a solemn moment. I wasnt clear that it was meant to be solemn, so reserve judgement.

I wonder if the music in the first half, given its "ethnic" character, sounded as exotic to many Chinese as it does to us. Who can tell? The problem with this kind of corss-cultural melange is that you have to be equally familiar with both cultural traditions to make sense of it. Otherwise one is little better than a tourist watching some folklorique performance. On that basis it was not uninteresting, though not an experience I plan to repeat.

The Tan Dun was a very complex piece, and no doubt I failed to appreciate many of its layers of complexity. As well as their instruments, played at scattered points around the stage and in the audience, the quartet and Ms Wu created sounds by banging water-filled bowls. The bowls and the playing positions were spitlit dynamically. Centre stage was a screen and behind it a platform on which Wu Man sat to play, illuminated from behind, like a shadow puppet, her silhouette thrown onto the screen.

Of the music itself I can, a couple of weeks later, remember absolutely nothing.


9/5/09, BAC

2 hrs 30 mins. Kneehigh's latest, a version of Don Giovanni set in England in 1978 (for some unfathomable reason).

It was pretty close to the opera but with much less interesting music, mostly nondescript rock from a band stage left whose members occasionally joined in as actors. The only tune that survived from Mozart's version was the lute serenade, for which three members of the band unplugged and came downstage to play, kneeling coyly, on a ukelele, a guitar and a (plucked) cello. Very neat.

There was a towering set of freight containers, with Don John and his mate, a sleazy photographer with a Polaroid camera (character's name forgotten, but played by Kneehigh founder Mike Shepherd, he of the hooked nose and cheeky presence, in a frightful seventies wig) sitting high up on deckchairs and clambering up and down on ladders.

It was done in what must be the biggest hall in BAC, with a dazzling array of entrances and exits, through the audience, down from on high etc etc, with the usual Kneehigh quick changes and doubling.

Most of the interiors were set in a large container, which was wheeled centre stage and back to the side as needed, rather cumbersomely, and its front and sides let down to reveal actors who'd entered by a door at the back, out of sight of the audience. Containers higher up represented a church and a hotel room.

There was some clever updating. Leporello's counting aria in this version became a song in which he recounted the legions of women DJ had seduced over a slide show of pictures of 70s lovelies.

Gisli Orn Gardarsson was DJ: a handsome presence but we felt not quite emphatic enough. As with many attempts to put charismatic figures on stage (Lulu is another) it's difficult to get across exactly what the other characters find so magnetic about them if the actor lacks sufficient heft. And if they don't have that heft the whole thing seems a bit pointless. One's not clear where one's sympathies should lie. In this production it lay mainly with the Commendatore's daughter, whose deep unhappiness and ineffectual vicar husband made her easy prey for the Don.

There were several moments of vigorous simulated intercourse, during which DJ would enthusiastically remove the woman's knickers... revealing a second pair of knickers underneath.

One of the best things about the show were the four dancers, in pitch-perfect 70s tank tops and hair do's: Pan's People in mufti. They were so good I assumed they must be 70s revival specialists, drafted in just for this production, but it turns out they're an all-purpose dance troupe based in Plymouth (I think the programmes said) with whom Kneehigh have worked on several previous productions. From time to time they were joined by a fifth, rather diminutive girl who may have been an understudy (since this was the last night at this address).

Our enthusiasm may have been increased by proximity: we were in the second or third row. A and S and Dr T, who were a few rows further back, were less enthralled.

The Guardian's round-up of reviews when the production was first seen at Stratford in December is here:


Friday, 8 May 2009


8/5/09, Barbican (Pit)

1 hr 30 mins. A disappointing dud. The latest devised piece by Improbable, who have been going for aeons (well, since 1996) but whose work I don't think we've ever seen*. A series of ruminations on the god Pan, in mythology and in real life.

There was a great deal of brown paper, used to create both props and set: wide vertical strips, forming a curtain at the front that could be raised and lowered and doubled at one stage as the sails of a ship; horizontal strips ditto which doubled as a vertical bed, the actors' heads popping up between two sheets and "lying" as on a pillow in a rectangle of light.

There was a rather fetching puppet (also brown paper) of Pan. There were a number of monologues about the (supposed) real lives of the cast: one actress described behaving outrageously with her girlfriend in the gardens at Blenheim Palace on Family Day; another explained she was a former aerialist who wanted to be a proper actress (though that didn't stop her doing a little light aerial work in this piece); Phelim McDermott, playing both Pan and a modern man (lecherous, lonely, inadequate), told us a shaggy dog story about sleeping with 147 people and tracking down the 148th, a girl from his schooldays, in Australia. And so on.

Like a lot of devised pieces it lacked narrative or anything remotely resembling a structure. There were some nice touches. They included Phelim charging about as Pan with a pair of brown paper horns, a brown paper Mr Punch chin and a vast wicker phallus far too heavy for him; a rather amusing sequence in which he produced scores of self-help books from brown paper carrier bags, reading out their (absurd) titles as he did so; another sequence in which the three "nymphs" sat and stood with brown paper bags on their heads onto which video images of their faces were projected while Phelim... did what? Can't remember, though I can remember the visuals, and that he asked them afterwards what they'd seen inside their bags.

The projections generally were a high point. There were some nice forest effects. At one point the vertical strips representing a front curtain were pulled up backwards, to reveal a video projection on the back wall of a curtain which was likewise pulled up, and then another curtain behind that, and so on. There was a shadow puppet sequence, with a giant Pan and tiny naked figures cavorting and copulating above him.

Top marks for the visuals, then; two out of ten for content.

* Wrong. We saw Theatre of Blood at the National, which I seem to recall had a lot more going for it but was still a bit flimsy.

Tuesday, 5 May 2009


3/5/09, O2 Arena

3 hrs. My first ever proper rock concert. And pretty spectacular it was too.

We got the boat from Waterloo Pier (because the Jubilee Line was shut). Queuing up to get on I realised my mental image of rock concert audiences (viz, young) needed rethinking. Ms Turner is nearly 70 and the audience reflected that: mostly folk in their 40s, 50s and 60s.

Even so, security at the O2 took the tops off our water bottles, presumably to make them less effective as missiles. Did we look the water-throwing sort?

It started 15 minutes late and didn't look full, though when the lights went up in the interval there was scarcely an empty seat. We'd been due to see her in March but she'd cancelled, due to illness. But tonight she was in fine form: impossible to believe she's that old, so strong is her voice, so dazzling her charisma, so energetic her stage presence.

No expense had been spared on the production, which included a seven piece band, four female dancers (the band, when introduced near the end, got surnames; the girls first names only), two female backing singers (one with an absolute belter of a voice) and four male breakdancers (or three break-dancers and a man-mountain) as an occasional novelty act. There was a huge set by Mark Fisher with lots of hydraulics and pyrotechnics and immensely elaborate lighting, and a six camera TV operation (two behind the sound desk, mid-arena; one restlessly tracking left to right and back again in front of the stage; three hand-held on stage) relaying the pictures to big screens on either side of the stage.

And now over to D for a blow-by-blow/song-by-song account of the concert itself.

(copy to come)


2/5/09, Cottesloe (National).

3hrs. Marlowe's (very long, very wordy) first play, done relatively straight, the Cottesloe arranged conventionally. The first half dragged, the second was tighter.

A two-tier set (by Tobias Hoheisel) with a central section, behind a golden curtain, which doubled as Dido's bedroom and the cave in which the lovers take refuge during a storm; the roof supplied the playing area on which the gods appeared. When the roof was in use a dark half-wall spanning the width of the stage descended in front of the curtain; at other times the wall lifted to provide a kind of frontage above the back of the stage. The costumes were generally Elizabethan but with touches of the exotic in Dido's Phoenician finery and Iarbus's African skirt and bare torso.

Anastasia Hille as Dido seemed at times a little lightweight. Perhaps it was just that she spoke too quietly. But she looked a dead spit for Elizabeth I, another queen who had lots of suitors and resolutely refused to marry any of them. Mark Bonnar was a grizzled Scottish Aeneas (with a Northern Irish sidekick). Siobhan Redmond an equally Scottish and somewhat unlikely buxom Venus in pale pink tight wraparound.

There were moments of unexpected humour. Hard to know if Marlowe intended them or whether they merely seem funny to us. The prologue (in which Jove sits with a sulky Ganymede and dandles him on his knee) must have been meant either to amuse or to provoke contemporaries.

The play is a classical tragedy, in that the characters' misfortunes are engineered by the gods (as a result of inter-deity bickering and rivalry). Dido falls in love with Aeneas only after Venus dispatches Cupid to stab her with his little arrow. Aeneas deserts her after Jove (indirectly) reminds him of his destiny, despite his mother Venus and her desperate efforts to keep him with Dido.

Maybe the sense that it's all out of the characters' own hands contributed to the slight sense of ennui I felt; it came alive only towards the end when both Aeneas and Dido seem genuinely tortured -- though they lapse at a couple of points into Latin!. But Dido's self-immolation in a pyre in her bedroom of Aeneas's belongings was impressive rather than moving.


30/4/09, Duchess

A feelgood recreation written by Nick de Jongh, who has just stepped down as the decidedly waspish theatre critic of the Evening Standard, of the 1950s when a Conservative Home Secretary, David Maxwell-Fyffe, vowed to stamp out the plague of homosexualuity, with the aid of aversion therapy and agents provocateurs, the "pretty police" who frequented gents' lavs to catch cottagers in the act. You wonder now what madness possessed them to attempt something so harebrained. But there's nothing so baffling as an earlier generation's obsessions.

There are some good jokes at the expense of the stupidities of the age, greeted on the night we saw it by appreciative laughter from an audience half of whom seemed to be elderly gay couples, no doubt remembering (fondly?) the years when their proclivities were a crime. There were some good jokes too at the expense if theatre critics and the Evening Standard.

Several stories interwoven, on a set with numerous doors and a revolving back wall which cleverly managed to suggest the bar of a louche gay club, the set of a country house melodrama, a gents' urinal and so on. There was lots of doubling, lots of quick changes: an excellent piece of stage management.

There was the young civil servant who jeopardises his career by having an affair with an ex-GI. There's the judge's son who falls for one the pretty police. And there's John Gielgud, arrested and fined for cottaging while rehearsing for the provincial opening of some dreadful drawing room drama co-starring Sybil Thorndike and produced by Binkie Beaumont (resplendent in a cream suit). How will Gielgud's audience react to his conviction? Will the tour have to be cancelled? Beaumont is cagey, hypocritical; Gielgud hopelessly naive.

Most of the cast I recognised, few I could properly place. Celia Imrie the only woman, playing Thorndike and the madame of a gay club, sometimes barely audible. Michael Feast doing a passable imitation of Gielgud, including the waspish humour. David Burt as a succession of manservants, waiters, lavatory attendants, all more or less camp. John Warnaby as Gielgud's friend, a portly theatre critic.

It was an old-fashioned play, a series of linked sketches, which reminded me of Alan Bennett. Funny, touching, soft-centred, engineering a happy ending by virtue of flashes forward to the 1970s and the decriminalisation of homosexuality and underlined by the judge's son and the pretty policeman stripping off an rolling around passionately.

Stephen Poliakoff was in the audience. So was Nick de Jongh, who sat right behind us. That might have been unnerving. Happily there was no need to pretend: we enjoyed it greatly.


28/4/09, Silk Street Theatre (Barbican)

3 hrs. Racine in the original, directed by Declan Donnellan and designed by Nick Ormerod. Though quite what O contributed isn't clear: the Silk Street theatre, the Guildhall School's performance space, was bare to the back wall and the only props were a handful of metal chairs. Only the costumes were evidently "designed": mostly black 1940s suits and skirts, which D cleverly suggested were meant to remind us of Vichy, appropriate for a play about an imprisoned woman being pressurised into collaborating with her victorious captor.

Surtitles meant it was easy enough to follow, but unsatisfying. You get the impression that half the pleasure of Racine for a French audience is the verse, which we could not appreciate. There is of course very little action. Perhaps to cover this, the actors cannoned around the stage like snooker balls. Their motivation seemed similarly wayward, changeable, unpredictable: positions would change mid-scene, violently and completely and almost arbitrarily. One moment Pyrrhus is a loving substitute father to Astyanax, hoping thereby the win Andromaque's hand in marriage; the next she rejects him and he is not merely disappointed but actively vowing death and destruction upon her and the child. A few scenes later he's planning to marry her again.

Apropos surtitles: we arrived to find Marcus and Daniel in the seats next to us (spooky, or what?). They are regular (dedicated) opera-goers. We agreed two things: 1 surtitles are a lot easier to handle in opera where there are far fewer of them, because fewer words; 2 this kind of classical tragedy needs music. M said in the second half he kept counting the arias, or rather the places where there should have been arias. My view: 18th century opera seria is a notoriously arid and austere form, but it make perfect sense when you realise the alternative is Racine.

It's easy (and probably rather crass, but I'll do it anyway) to marshal objections to Racine's procedures. A helpful essay by Lytton Strachey reprinted in the programme argues that the active premise of his work is that characters and events converge at the moment of most extreme crisis, whence arises the drama. The whole point is the concentration of emotion and conflict. But I kept thinking how much more straightforward things would be if the characters took a more moderate approach: deployed a little sensible English pragmatism, if you will.

Compare Shakespeare, whose tragedies manage to work up to moments of extreme catharsis more gradually and more plausibly and psychologically more convincingly. Macbeth is tempted by Lady M. Lear gradually comes to realise his folly. Othello is tempted by Iago into irrational jealousy. Hamlet (famously) agonises. Racine seems to dispense with all that psychological underpinning: he's not interested in winding his characters up, only in what happens once the spring is taut and the catch released.

In that respect his plays resemble classical Greek tragedies. But in fact he has more in common with Shakespeare. Greek tragedies are all the gods' fault; the human characters are merely their victims, who respond with greater or lesser dignity to their predicament. In Racine, as in Shakespeare, the characters all have choices and we see them exercising their freedom to choose (unwisely, so bringing tragic events upon themselves) while in the grip of passions like love (in the case of Oreste and Pyrrhus) which looks a lot like obsession; or because they've been seized by noble but excessive sentiments (Andromaque's reverence for her dead husband Hector, which leads her to court destruction both for herself and for her son); or because they're spoiled children who have inherited their parents' devastating combination of beauty, greed, stupidity and arrogance (Hermione, daughter of Helen and Menelaus, and hoping to marry Pyrrhus).

So an illuminating evening, and thought-provoking, but long and a touch tedious and not one (I told everyone) I was keen to repeat any time soon. And then someone pointed out that we have tickets for Helen Mirren as Phedre at the National in July.