Monday, 24 August 2009


17/8/09-22/8/09, McCaw Hall, Seattle

written by Foster


At 19.00 we were all ready for the Prelude, and the Rhine music started ever so slowly, as it should, but some of the orchestra seemed to be still thinking about the baseball results. But soon they were all awake and when we saw the Rhinemaidens swimming in the depths of the Rhine (a great feat of artistry, let alone singing) the thing was moving in the right direction. A flirty, girly lot, easily taken in by Alberich's wily and powerful singing, they soon lost the treasure and we moved to meet the sleeping Wotan and the very watchful Fricka - who stayed like this right to the close, watching over the dead Fasolt.

The next two hours saw a tree-filled forest scene with every cast member moving purposefully and singing and acting well. In Scene 3, underground, one did not get the full sense of Alberich's domination, but his disappearing act was fabulous and, as usual, Loge tricked him into becoming a frog with an easy arrogance.

The giants were big chaps with big voices who were clearly members of the Worker's Union and wanted their contract honouring - maybe that's why Fricka, a stickler for contracts, mourned for Fasolt after Fafner's over-greedy shareout of the gold goodies. And the rainbow shone as Loge uttered his grim forecast for the future as the gods took themselves above the conflict with their golden apples but without the gold, which Fafner dragged away.

Well cast: there were no weak links. Alberich cursed Wotan in a powerful scene, Fricka cosied up to Wotan and left us in no doubt who was the stronger. Wotan sang well and showed up his weaknesses of over-reliance on others to get him out of his own scrapes - an enduring theme of the Ring. Freia, Froh, Donner all sang well and did not appear to be minor castings. Loge dominated Wotan as a much more wily operator.

A great night at the opera with a deserved five-minute ovation.


You can approach it from an intellectual standpoint and get a lot that way. But if you don't or can't weep in the last act it hasn't worked at the right level. And tonight's show moved lots of us to tears as Wotan bade the long farewell to Brunnhilde. Not just because the singing was first-rate, but also because the direction and action were just right. He was broken by it and knew his end had begun, whilst she had to hope the protective fire would deter all but the most worthy - and we shall see if that works out to be the case.

Earlier there was reminsicence therapy from Siegmund and from Wotan and hallucinations from Sieglinde. Having visited a Memory Care wing in a senior living facility one could sympathise. These updating scenes can be long-winded but again the singing, acting and positioning were right. Fricka won again - or did she ? Another end of act body for her to stand over - this time the powerful Hunding who was felled by Wotan's command.

If the theme of the Ring is Love v. Power, Fricka comes out on top in the power stakes, Siegmund is overpowered by love and loses out in the power stakes and Brunnhilde gains a little lessening of Wotan's first power-mad (literally) reaction to her love-dominated attempt to save Siegmund.

This is a very good Ring, where the weaknesses have yet to be evident - and there may not be any. The Ride was portrayed with great aplomb and the eight singers moved with skill and sang with verve. Another great night at the opera in Seattle


Trying to keep up with the action is tough. Why couldn't Wagner have written a short piece of love music - hero and heroine fall into each other's arms? Instead he wrote some absolutely riveting story pieces of one-to-ones: Mime-Siegfried, Wotan-Mime(Wotan now downgraded to the Wanderer - but not musically down-graded as the melodies for him throughout this whole opera are outstanding - and the portrayal by Greer Gimsley was also of a high degree of excellence - the fulcrum of the story so far, as he is meant to be ), Siegfried-Fafner - and here was no attempt at a wimpish dragon imitation, but the real thing - a monstrous, green, slimy fear-inducing Wurm to everyone but Siegfried.

Too many highlights to describe - but it was all of the highest Wagnerian order, with the orchestra in fine growly form for two acts and then lyrical in the last as the lovers explored all reasons not to fall in love but succumbed. Erda tried to explain, but the Wanderer was reluctant to know and so, inevitably, the spear was shattered and Siegfried pressed onwards and upwards. What a great Wagner night - and none of us want das Ende.


The Ring is back with the Rhinemaidens - but who wins? Almost up to the last miniute it is Hagen who dominates in this great production of the last part of the Wagner masterpiece here in Seattle - but Brunhilde asserts herself and by sacrificing herself she ensures that the end may presage a new beginning. This production, by taking us back to the opening forest scene, pristine and new demonstrates the Schopenhaurian optimism, which Wagner bought into.

Gotterdamerung is relentlesss and drives on and on towards the conclusion the Fates(Norns) have foreacst in the prelude. Siegfried is totally out of his depth when he arrives at King Gunther's posh mansion and is putty in Hagen's hands, easily succumbing to all the Gibichung machinations and the love potion. Brunnhilde succumbs too, but is incandescent at her fate. Tension builds up over the long, long opera and is maintained right to the end. What a tour de force.

This Seattle Ring is memorable for many many reasons. The direction of the actors is brilliant and no movement is without meaning - no standing around just to sing - but drama is created by singing and moving. Congrats to Stephen Wadsworth. Thomas Lynch achieves miracles with his set designs - green or northwest, it has been labelled, but it provides great meaning throughout the whole cycle.

Robert Spano conducts the augmented Seattle Symphony Orchestra and they got better and better as the cycle went on. At the end of the day you need a good to great cast to make it work. Many of the singers were great - Greer Grimsley as Wotan/Wanderer should be invited to Europe, Stephanie Blythe sang three parts outstandingly -Fricka, a Norn, and Waltraute; Stig Anderson acted Siegfried with intelligence and sang the role well. None of the so-called minor parts were weak - a great feature of the Speight Jenkins meticulous choice of singers.

For this reviewer, however, the disappointment was the Brunnhilde, Janice Baird - she had the power for the role, but struggled to bring beauty and colour to her voice when it was needed, being somewhat monochrome. To get everything right in the Ring may be impossible - but the Seattle team got close to that. We leave confirmed in the greatness of Wagner, with unforgettable pictures for any sleepless nights away from Seattle, and with the Ring enigma intact till next time we see it.

Saturday, 22 August 2009


21/8/09, Gilded Balloon (Edinburgh Fringe)

A magic and illusions show by a couple of student conjurors and mathematicians, Morgan and West, with Victorian whiskers and lots of audience participation.

Lots of "how did they do that?" tricks with packs of cards, numbers in envelopes etc etc. I had some idea how they did the "crush the paper cup with the nail hidden underneath it" trick (the one who wasn't blindfolded made sure it was always the one on the left) and possibly some idea of how the fat one got a "magic number square" out of two numbers contributed by the audience, 21 and 58 -- he wrote down 19 instead of 58, then at the end of the show produced a magic number square in which each 4 x 4 row added up to 58, invited the woman who'd first suggested 58 to extract a sheet of paper with that number written on it from an envelope stuck to the back wall, and got someone else from the audience to add up random numbers which produced the day's date (21/08/2009 -- which also just happens to add up to 58. So she must have been a stooge, right? Except we'd seen her in the queue beforehand with her husband and the kids...)

But I've no idea how they did most of it, which must be a mark of success. Highly entertaining.


21/8/09, Pleasance (Edinburgh Fringe)

Peter Straker is clearly a fringe institution, though we'd never heard of him. He first came here, he told us, in 1969 when they gave him a week off from the cast of the original London production of Hair. Forty years on he's still going strong, singing scorching cabaret songs to a piano accompaniment by Peter Brewis and with deadpan verbal and musical contributions from Rebecca Brewis ("no relation": cue an entertaining verbal spat with her dad, concluding with his remark, "Of course it's bloody nepotism").

It was directed by Mel Smith, who presumably contributed the backchat and badinage.

Long Island Iced Tea, we were told, was a concoction of equal parts gin, vodka, campari and tequila, and lethal it sounded.

Straker has longish hair tied back in a very tight bun, a pencil moustache (genuine or pencilled on?), eye make-up and a cracking voice.

Highlights: several Jacque Brel numbers, including a belter called Madame, in exceedingly witty English translation (memo to self: must find out more about Brel); MacArthur Park (including a cake "left out in the rain", which Ms Brewis delicately watered from a watering can); a Cat Stevens number; Harry Belafonte's "Day-oh!" with audience participation.

Most enjoyable.


22/8/09, Zoo Southside (Edinburgh Fringe)

Normally we steer clear of variety acts. Yet today we saw three -- and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.

Fhlip-Fhlop is engaging, funny, slick. Two decorators slip in and out of hip-hop routines: dance, mouth music, mime, DJ-ing, with the aid of loads of props, a pair of mixing decks and a wonderful sense of humour.

They were a top-notch double act, Matt Bailey and Joey D, who call themselves Rannel Theatre Company. S liked the way first one, then the other would take the dominant role (the naive, hapless one turned out to be by far the better dancer; the clever-clogs know-all turned out to be a bit of a dork who couldn't get the girl). I liked the fight with flip-flops and the breakdancing (there was only the one real dance routine, but it was spectacular). D liked the clever use of music from all genres and the amplified sound effects of bullets, swords, fists, broken glass and the rest to which they mimed a fight.

Friday, 21 August 2009


20/8/09, The Hub (Edinburgh Festival)

Billed as "triplepipes, lust and spilt blood" it appeared to have none of the latter two and only a little of the first, at the very beginning, when the piper Barnaby Brown and the singer (and harpist) Patsy Seddon came on singing a Gaelic son. Later he played the bagpipes. D complained she'd been short-changed and I was inclined to agree.

A concert by Concerto Caledonia, a Scottish early music group (harpsichord, viol, flute, harp and pipes -- the flautist came from Nova Scotia and the harpist, judging by his accent, from somewhere equidistant between Glasgow, Dublin and Brunswick). With them they had Seddon, a Glasgow folk singer and guitarist called Alasdair Roberts and, an unexpected delight, Martin Carthy, who hadn't been named in the original Festial brochure and who we've never seen live.

And though his voice is reedy his stage presence put him head and shoulders above the rest of 'em.

He and Roberts sang different versions of the same song (called Lord Randall in Carthy's version, Lord Ronald in Roberts's) with recongisably similar words but set to quite different tunes.

There was a fine version of Sir Patrick Spens (which I've never heard sung) by Seddon, a medieval Welsh harp piece (essentially ten verses, each a variation on a very simple theme, with a common refrain) and an utterly impenetrable 17th century pipe song which reminded one of quite how tuneless traditional Scottish pipe music is.

The Hub is an unforgiving venue, made less forgiving by a decision to keep the house lights up. An evening for the most part of academic interest, though one can imagine in the right setting it might have been quite engrossing and involving. We emerged into a cold evening to mingle with the crowds leaving the Tattoo.


20/8/09, St Augustine's (Edinburgh Fringe)

A rather self-indulgent 50 mins by a Brazilian musician living in London (who's played Edinburgh for many years with Antonio Forcione) who used to be called Pinto but changed his name after going back to West Africa in search of his roots.

Lots of different percussion instruments and effects. A long cod dialogue accompanied by a West African instrument which looks like a long bow with a gourd for a sound box. A jacket and wrist and ankle bands covered in little metal bottle tops which rattled as the body shook. A rather wonderful collection of plastic drain pipes played by slapping flip-flop soles over the ends (he played Beethoven's Ode to Joy before launching into something more Afro-American). And then a collection of rattles, whistles and drums, plus a large plastic bottle of water which drained into a terracotta pot, with which he created the sounds of the forest at night. (The sounds gradually faded away: he congratulated us at the end, telling us people in the modern world had lost the ability to listen to silence).

Intermittently intriguing, but too long.


On Tuesday there was a suicide sandwich: Beachy Head (all about suicide) and Daniel Kitson's The Interminable Suicide of Gregory Church (all about suicide indefinitely postponed) either side of comedy, laughter and song from Adams and Rae, who had little to say about perpetrating one's own death.

On Wednesday Faust began with our hero contemplating suicide.

On Thursday the most powerful scene in Chronicles of Long Kesh featured the prison officer contemplating suicide.

I'm looking out for Friday's dose, though somehow I doubt that Long Island Iced Tea will provide it.


20/8/09, Assembly on the Mound (Edinburgh Fringe)

This year's dose of circus. They were at the Riverside earlier and received rave reviews: three men topless in trousers, three women in leotards and corset-like tops. There were circus stunts: one of the girls spun five (possibly six) hoops simultaneously; there were stands and leaps and rolls; several times the men held a woman by her shins as she leant far over; two of the women linked arms back to back and somersaulted across the stage. But it occupied territory at the point where circus, dance and mime meet. There were lots of sly looks and little jokes about flirting and body language and games of dominance and oneupmanship. One of the women walked on a man in stilettoes. The music was cleverly selected (French song seemed to feature largely) but, alas, much of the time the musical accompaniment was repetitive and the lighting subdued and I found myself drifting, unable to do them justice.


20/8/09, Assembly on the Mound (Edinburgh Fringe)

2 hrs, with interval. Written and directed by Martin Lynch. We overslept and missed the start and nearly abandoned the whole enterprise, though I'm very glad we didn't. Even sitting right at the back in a sizeable hall it was engrossing, despite being (or perhaps because it was) unusually long for a fringe show.

The story of the jail, the IRA prisoners, the blanket protest and the hunger strikes, the loyalist prisoners, the screws and their respective families, interspersed with Tamla Motown and Smokey Robinson songs sung unaccompanied by the cast.

Six actors (including one woman who played all the wives and some of the butchest men!) and a bunch of big boxes to sit, stand and lie on. Otherwise no props.

It worked maginificently and got a standing ovation. The first half was OK, the second half (encompassing the hunger strikes) surpassed it. The finest moment for me was the drunken soliloquy of the prison officer/narrator, who cursed them all, from Maggie Thatcher to the hunger strikers, remembering all those caught up against their will (the families, the innocent victims of the bombings and shootings), before contemplating suicide with the Walther PPK 9mm issued to him "for his personal protection". The tears welled up. And you could cut the silence. Pure theatrical magic.

Impressive because it made the IRA hunger strikers human without asking you to sympathise with their motives. Indeed it left me contemplating the madness of it all, the irrationality and the sense that almost everyone, including the IRA men, was caught up in something quite beyond their control.

It had a sly humour now and then as well, like the character of Toot, the simpleton who was framed for a bombing and spoke to the seagulls. At the end, as is the way with these Close the Coalhouse Door-style people's history-with-music plays, we heard in a sentence what happened to the main characters. All except Toot. They left the stage only for Toot to reappear to remark "youse really don't want to know what happened to me". Blackout. Laughter.


19/8/09, C Chambers Street (Edinburgh Fringe)

Only in Edinburgh (again). It's approaching midnight and you're on the top floor of a building in the Old Town, on a sweltering night (so hot that A felt ill) though mercifully there's a fan in the room to cool it down a little, watching eight dancers, naked but for G-strings and white body paint, pretending to be creatures emerging from cocoons. I think.

Four men, four women (though D thought one of the women started out as a man), three of the men and one of the women shaven-headed, the others with indecent amounts of hair (though only on their heads). They come from Oz and call themselves Zen Zen Zo. The music was new-agey, the movement controlled, often Butoh influenced: when the creatures woke up they turned into dancers, making Japanese-mask faces at us.

It was late, it was the fifth thing we'd seen that day and my memory is hazy. But there was a sequence where they ate raw eggs... then threw some at the audience. Another in which they donned shades and chunky red necklaces and pretended to be shrieking, airheaded women. One in which the men danced in Japanese costumes, arms and legs spread wide (A liked that the most). One involving simulated sex (A liked that the least). One in which they came forward in waves before collapsing and rolling to the back of the stage as the others stepped over them (S said that reminded her of Belsen).



19/8/09, Lowland Hall, Ingliston (Edinburgh Festival)

We took the airport bus from Waverley Bridge to the Hilton and hiked from the bus stop to the Royal Highland Showground, and at the end we hiked back in pouring rain, though we had, purely by chance, contrived to be sitting right by the exit so were the first of the thousands to get to the bus, with A powering ahead leaving the rest of us trailing.

Beforehand we'd prepared by visiting M&S and stocking up on salads, fruit and what not, which we ate in a corner of the hall before the show started and on the bus on the way back. A lot of planning went into that trip. I'm not sure it was worth it.

A man we met in a fringe queue, who said he was a theatre director in Dublin, called it the best piece of theatre he'd ever seen. We beg to differ. Undoubtedly spectacular, it was also ridiculously overblown, shed little light on the Faust legend and was very noisy.

It was staged in a vast hangar, directed by the Romanian Silviu Purcarete, which meant you seemed to be miles away from the action even when the set split in half and we all trooped through and round it for a traverse staging of Walpurgisnacht. Poorly translated subtitles didn't help, though the rain on the roof and the sounds of seagulls and of aircraft taking off overhead added to the atmosphere.

The Mephistopheles was the best thing in it: an actress with an extraordinary voice, who spent much of the time naked or partially so, twisting her body into shapes, effortlessly dominating Faust, an elderly and deeply unsympathetic cove.

This is Charlie Spencer's review in The Telegraph. I agree with every word:

Wednesday, 19 August 2009


18/8/09, The GVR (Edinburgh Fringe)

An English comedian with a cod German accent and an enthusiastic five-piece oompah band (two trumpets, trombone, horn, tuba) in a sweat box taking us through the credit crunch interspersed with popular melodies arranged for brass band.

Only in Edinburgh, you thought. And you would be right. But it was very jolly, unbelievably sweaty (pity the musicians) and surprisingly funny.

Our man had fun at the expense of bankers, quants (that's quantitative analysts to you), collateralised debt obligations, derivatives and all the rest. His description of CDOs, where the flaky trumpets represent sub-prime mortgages, the trombone corporate debt, the tuba sovereign debt etc, all parcelled up together to make wonderful music... until the trumpets go haywire, was inspired. Quantitative easing involved increasing liquidity (the band quaffed their pints).

They finished with an arrangement of Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody in 6/8 time.

Fun, but loud: after an hour in a small room with five brass instruments at full throttle you realise why they have those transparent sound baffles in front of the brass in orchestras. At times my ears hurt.


19/8/09, Bedlam (Edinburgh Fringe)

Three-hander by Ella Hickson, who is young and promising and has won awards, about an ageing man with demtnia, his young American carer and his rather spoilt and up herself daughter. Set in New York.

Began brilliantly with the contrasting accounts of the boy and the daughter about their first meeting, and a teasing lack of clarity about just what was going on. Ended a little galumphingly, almost as if she'd realised she was running out of her allotted hour and needed to wrap things up, with a soliloquy from the old man (explaining why he didn't want his daughter to know what he was suffering from) and a little later a soliloquy from the daughter describing a visit to Washington for Obama's inauguration. All a little too literal, and the piece would benefit from expanding to two hours with time to develop these ideas a little more subtly.

Lots of good lines, wittily if sometimes predictable contrasting the jaded British and "yes we can" American approaches to life. Well-acted. Ambitious staging for a small venue: a set on a revolve, the old man's living room on one side, the rooftop on the other. But the significance of the title escapes me.


19/8/09, Queen's Hall (Edinburgh Festival)

American counter-tenor and highly accomplished Brit accompanist in a programme of (mainly) English song, plus some Haydn settings of English words and a Beethoven cycle. Mehta has a lovely voice, though some of the Purcell at the start seemed to lie a little low for him. I was grateful for the words in the programme, not just for the translation from the German but also for the English since he's not hot on letting you hear the words.

Leider used to be one of the two things I automatically turned off when it came on Radio 3 (the other was jazz) but I'm starting to get the picture. Listen with sufficient care (and with the words to hand) and the whole thing becomes engrossing: the combination of musical effects and poetry, the singer's interpretation. A lot of the words, frankly, are pretty rubbish. But the Haydn included a positively brilliant setting of Shakespeare's "She never told her love" (which includes the phrases "worm in the bud" and "like Patience on a monument") from Twelfth Night: how odd that a comedy, in the hands of a composer like Haydn, should produce something so dramatic and dark and moving. On the other hand the words to Beethoven's "Auf dem Hugel sitz ich, spahend", by someone called Alois Jeitteles, seemed like the worst sort of derivative, self-indulgent romantic rubbish, though that didn't stop Ludwig producing something of great dramatic force and seductiveness.

The 20th century composers tended to choose lyrics of considerable quality in their own right. I'm not sure Vaughan Williams's Linden Lea qualifies (words by William Barnes, though English'd from the original dreadful Dorset dialect) but Lennox Berkeley's setting of de la Mare's The Horseman fits the description; so does Stanford's setting (also electrifyingly dramatic) of Keats's La Belle Dame Sans Merci; and Ivor Gurney's of Yeats's Down by the Salley Gardens.

There were a couple of very fast Peter Warlocks which I didn't "get"; and Vaughan Williams's Silent Noon (lyric by Dante Rossetti) which left me cold.

Otherwise it was a stunner.

Observations. Mobile phones are a curse: one rang out during the Gurney; and then again during Silent Noon which followed it, and Mehta stopped and started again, not unreasonably. The Queen's Hall audience is very elderly: we were about the youngest there. And though respectful and almost as quiet as the Wigmore Hall tribe, they are going deaf: the coughs started before the last dying note of Linden Lea had faded away; ditto the page turning after Herbert Howells' The Widow Bird. Whoever printed the programme had decided to transpose two lines in La Belle Dame... "She took me to her elfin grot, And there she wept, and sigh'd full sore. And there I shut her wild wild eyes And made sweet moan" it read: it should be "With kisses four", with "And made sweet moan" at the end of an earlier stanza, but you can see why they did it.


18/8/09, Traverse (Edinburgh Fringe)

A raves about Kitson and insisted we see him. D's colleagues rave about him. I'd never heard of him.

We couldn't get tickets for his sell-out stand-up gig, so made do with this instead. S called it "a shaggy dog story" and didn't much care for it. D said she fell asleep (something to do with the red wine and the lateness of the hour, perhaps?). The man next to me was twitching (not enough jokes?). A raved.

He's a shaggy dog of a man, a balding beardy in a baggy jumper (which he removed as it grew warmer, carefully untucking his shirt as he did so). He does a very nice line in highly articulate self-deprecation. It's very engaging. He's geeky, slightly pompous, erudite, loves words and uses all those things to considerable comic effect. I'd love to see him do straight stand-up. I assume he's doing Gregory Church because he's mastered stand-up and this is a new challenge, something to stop him getting bored.

I'm not sure it worked though it was never less than intriguing. The story, such as it was involved a cache of some 30,000 letters written over more than 20 years to and from a man called Gregory Church, evidently Kitson without the sense of humour. He started friendless and suicidal and ended with this vast collection of letters full of words like "badinage" and "bombast", exchanged with a collection of similar misfits and no-hopers... and with a woman called Isabelle, to whom he sent thousands of letters but who never once replied.

Kitson read verbatim extracts from a little black notebook, and suitably pompous and self-important they sounded, but also wry and occasionally witty (a bit like Kitson...)

K began by telling us that everything we were going to hear was made up, except for the first bit. He then described house-hunting in West Yorkshire where he'd been brought up (plausible) with an estate agent called Mike (still plausible) and finding a house with a loft where he'd been told there was no loft (again plausible) and being told by Mike, when confronted with the evidence of a loft hatch, that it was a fake loft (OK, no longer plausible). But just where did the "real" story end and the fictional narrative begin?

A work of post-modern fiction dressed up as late-night fringe comedy. Clever, that.

Alastair McGowan was in the audience: A had no idea who he was.


18/8/09, Pleasance Dome (Edinburgh Fringe)

Two women singing witty songs, Sarah Adams the Australian dikey one, Lisa Rae the kooky English one. They both played guitars; Adams had a banjo too, and Rae a ukelele. We were given button badges as we came in with the titles of some of their songs: Middle Class Mum, Shit Shop. Half way through we caught a fortune cookie. Despite the rather fey window-dressing the songs were often sharply satirical: Middle Class Mum was about those smug yummie mummies; there was one about taking the kids on a ghastly camping holiday; another parody of a black rap song supposedly aimed at kids urging them to pick up litter which went "Put it in me bin, me big black bin..." as Rae stuck her bottom out at Adams: inoffensively offensive.

It passed the time entertainingly enough.


18/8/09, Pleasance Dome (Edinburgh Fringe)

At last something really, really good. A rumination on suicide featuring a man who jumps off Beachy Head, his wife, the Eastbourne pathologist who deals with the consequences and the two film-makers who accidentally capture footage of him leaping.

It reminded us of Katie Mitchell's After Dido, seen at the Young Vic, for its use of video and the way props and equipment were seamlessly wheeled on and off. It was very slick and well-rehearsed. But on this occasion (and unlike Dido) the paraphernalia was justified, the video integrated into the piece.

And there were some beautifully simple touches in the staging too, like the large wooden board flapped up to create a draft, mimicking the wind as an actor stood at the cliff's edge.

S pointed out the excellent use of music, almost throughout, which you don't often get in the theatre. And the clever scene in which the film-makers try out different bits of music as possible background for an interview, thus deconstructing what the play as a whole was doing.

I found it absorbing and technically impressive; D and S found it moving as well, especially a scene in the phone box at Beachy Head in which the suicide talks to the Samaritans, just about the only time we hear his voice at length. It's the scene which explains his motivation (along with a children's story left behind in a notebook, which his wife later reads) and that was gratifying too: the writers might have left the whole thing a puzzle, and it would have worked perfectly well, but would have been less satisfying.

I thought the dialogue took second place to the production and the performances, while perfectly decent, weren't showy. But it was highly informative (especially in the pathologist's monologues) and S pointed out moments of poetry. When the wife sees the footage she remarks that at the top of the cliff he was Stephen; at the bottom just a body.

I took a professional interest in the film-makers' ethical dilemma: whether to keep and use or to delete the footage in the first place; when and how to tell the wife that they had it (they flunked that one badly).

They call themselves Analogue Productions and devised the show between them. Hannah Barker (who played the pathologist) and Liam Jarvis directed it, from a script by three writers including Emma Jowett who played the wife. Original music by Simon Slater. Sound design by Alex Garfath. Multimedia design by Thor Hayton. Look out for them.


18/8/09, Assembly (Edinburgh Fringe)

One woman show with Linda Marlowe performing Carol Ann Duffy's sequence of monologues by the wives of the famous (and infamous): Mrs Faust, Mrs Darwin, Mrs Beast, Queen Herod were the ones I instantly recalled; D though of Mrs Midas, Mrs Quasimodo, The Devil's Wife, Eurydice and Mrs Kong.

The Devil's Wife was clearly Myra Hindley. Mrs Faust was a throaty 40-something who shared a secret about her ex ("he had no soul"). Queen Herod it was who ordered the massacre of the innocents after the three queens had seen her beautiful baby daughter and told her to look out for a star heralding the birth of Him, Mr Right. Mrs Midas coped womanfully with the disastrous consequences of a golden touch. Eurydice did everything she could to make O turn round, and eventually resorted to flattering his songs (it worked). And so on.

They reminded you what a clever, approachable poet Duffy is, wittily spinning variations on the familiar stories or subverting them altogether. Moving, too on occasion. The scalp prickled once or twice, and the highly successful Mrs Beast's litany of those who hadn't made it (starting with Eve) brought tears to the eyes.

Marlowe did it all with the barest minimum of props (scarves, glasses, a cardy) and nothing but projections on the back wall telling us who was who and a snatch of music as she slipped from one character to another.

It worked well as a performance, less well as drama. The sequence would have worked equally well with the poems in a different order, you felt: there were contrasts of light and shade, funny and harrowing, conversational and more formal, but no development, no dramatic structure.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009


17/8/09, Assembly (Edinburgh Fringe)

We went to this bit of late-night music making because Jo's boyfriend S was playing the trumpet (and indeed the teapot: a metal one, with a trumpet mouthpiece shoved in the spout and a hinged lid so he could do the wah-wahs).

Down in London S plays with a band called The Mystery Fax Machine Orchestra, fronted by an accordion-playing songwriter called Martin. For this gig they teamed up with an accordion-playing New Yorker who also fronts a band , called in his case This Ambitious Orchestra.

The Fax Machine stuff was noisy, raucous, funny, dark: it reminded us of the Tiger Lillies and Vivian Stanshall.

The New Yorker's stuff was rockier (and he didn't actually play the accordion much). His words were completely inaudible but his arrangements seemed musically much more ambitious and, unlike Martin, he was a showman. The British musicians recruited for the show (from a variety of sources, including the Scottish Chamber Orchestra!) evidently thought he was a bit of an arse, but he was unquestionably a performer and gave the audience good value.

He'd brought one or two of his own band with him, including a horn player with a sweet smile, green dangly earrings and red tights under her little black dress, who clearly thought he was wonderful because she scarcely took his eyes off him during his set.

Martin fronted the first half with the New Yorker on piano (he dropped his music after the first song and there was a long hiatus: deliberate sabotage or genuine accident?). Then Martin played piano for the New Yorker.

Musically I can't judge it, but it was energetic, noisy, toe-tapping stuff and worth it just for the teapot and to see more than 20 musicians jammed onto the Assembly Supper Room stage.


17/8/09, Gilded Balloon (Edinburgh Fringe)

Oh dear. He's a charming fellow and a witty one but someone really should have told him that stand-up is a lot harder than it looks and you need plenty of decent MATERIAL. He came on in lilac turban, kilt and Superman T-shirt. He cooked (in theory) while discoursing, though the cookery just got in the way. The jokes weren't funny, the audience didn't laugh, it was impossibly hot.

We'd have left if we hadn't been down the end of the row. As it was plenty did go. Others stayed till the bitter end (it was a sell-out): one thing you can say for Hardeep, his audience are well brought-up and too polite to tell him what they really think of this.


17/8/09, Edinburgh College of Art (Edinburgh Fringe)

Shades of Stoppard's Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead in a fable about two couples on holiday in a timeshare with an empty apartment between them which turns out to be inhabited by the Macbeths, with predictable results.

The set three door frames and a picnic table. Not as witty as Stoppard and without his Beckettian sense of absurdity, but quite cleverly done.

I thought it slight but engaging. D liked it rather more.


17/8/09, Musical Theatre @ George Square (Edinburgh Fringe)

If producing a musical that's funny, engaging, with hummable tunes and audience involvement is as easy as this, whu are so many musicals so terrible? Improv always looks difficult, but improv to music? With rhymes? Surely not! But this lot (eight cast, pianist, MC) do it superbly. Cameron Mackintosh, who produced apparently, is on to a winner.

The idea is to improvise a musical from scratch with some input from the audience. The MC is downstage left with the pianist and his own spotlight. The cast are hiding behind four moveable screens, dressed in red and black, with a few hats, canes, chairs and feather boas for props.

The audience involvement is pretty slight, mainly restricted to suggesting appropriate musical genres for the next number. I assume the cast have rehearsed generic songs "in the style of..." to which they then put appropriate words.

We got a splendid confection about a theatre threatened with closure to make way for a Starbucks and haunted by the ghost of Longshanks and his murderous snakes, with Angela the ingenue in specs waiting for her big break.

Songs in the style of Cole Porter (that was a duet for a pair of budgie-juggling twins), Kander and Ebb, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Stephen Schwarz and others.

The only weak link was the matinee guest star, some chap who'd appeared on one of Lloyd Webber's TV talent shows ("This bloke's an idiot," A remarked loudly at one stage, and she wasn't wrong). But he could sing.



17/8/09, Royal Academy

The National Galleries of Scotland old master blockbuster. Goya, El Greco, Velasquez, Zurbaran as represented in British collections, plus any number of British artists from the 18th century onwards and their responses to Spain.

A rag-bag, but a stimulating one. Goya's etchings of the horrors of war next to his portrait of the Duke of Wellington (and the preliminary sketch, in which the poor old duke looks absolutely shattered). Two version of the Maid of Saragossa (she fired the gun at the siege when her gunner husband was killed): in Goya's she is faceless, in silhouette, emblematic of defiant Spain; in David Wilkie's she is beautiful, fiery, the picture overwhelmed with unnecessary detail. Like many of the Brits' paintings of Spain it was, if not sentimental, then deeply self-indulgent.

The Brits loved Spain, painting endless bullfights and gypsies and funerals and exotic costumes and bustling streets. There was a striking big unfinished picture of boys playing at bullfighting by John Phillip. (There was a self-portrait in one picture, Phillip in Victorian suit and hat and fine moustache, sketching some gypsies: he was one of those painters whose preliminary sketches are so much more convincing than his finished oils.)

David Roberts was head and shoulders the finest British artist of the 19th century to visit Spain. The exhibition contained three crackers: his watercolour of the interior of Seville's cathedral, breathtakingly detailed and atmospheric; an oil of the Giralda in Seville; and an oil of a huge double staircase in Burgos cathedral, disappearing into the gloom, which S said looked positively three-dimensional.

There were several Zurbarans: an altar piece which could have been by anybody; and four examples from a set of 12 paintings of Joseph and his sons, lifesize, now (for some reason) in the collection of the Lord Bishop of Durham. The figures are all dressed in some exotic hybrid Mediterranean/Cossack/Arab garb, richly decorated with extraordinary detail and with all sorts of frills and furbelows: figures from a timeless fantasy world.

The El Grecos were wonderful, especially the woman in a fur wrap whose image is on the exhibition poster. Can this really be the same painter who produced the Tears of St Peter on the wall next to it (hands clasped, head tilted, looking up to heaven)? Or those great religious pictures full of reds and blues and whites and sharp folds, angular figures, which are so extraordinary in Toledo, a 20th century artist working 500 years ahead of his time?

Then there was a room full of British copies of Velasquez (presumably to make up for only having two minor examples of the real thing, plus one copy and one work by a pupil, in the exhibition). Least said about most of these the better with the excpetion of Millais's Souvenir of Velasquez, a picture of a girl reminiscent of V's Meninas, with a profusion of blonde hair, a very rich dress, bright pinky-red sleeves and unbelievably thick paint.

Lots of pictures of the Alhambra, including decoration from a mid-Victorian pattern-book by someone called Owen Jones (never heard of him, but very influential, apparently) derived from the Alhambra's decorations. David Muirhead Bone pictures of Granada in the 1920s and 30s especially detailed and colourful.

In the 19th and 20th centuries the Brits came for the bullfights etc (see above) but also discovered the Spanish light. There was a whole room full of the most glorious colour. Someone called Arthur Melville in particular produced watercolours full of deep saturated colour, especially the blue of water.

Finally, a rather disappointing room devoted to British artists and the Civil War, with some Picassos, some Edward Burras (overblown) and a Wyndham Lewis.

Monday, 17 August 2009


16/8/09, Assembly (Edinburgh Fringe)

1hr 10 mins. One-woman show by Becci Gemmell, written by Penelope Skinner. A woman's progress from 17-year old virgin to whore (well, lap-dancer) in half a dozen scenes, performed in reverse order (projections on the back wall filled you in between scenes). Witty, beautifully-observed, excellent performance. The men are always hopeless, our heroine's capacity for self-delusion seemingly infinite, whether she's a schoolgirl desperate to lose her virginity, a neurotic student hooked on tranquillisers who's taken a vow of eternal celibacy, or a secretary finding true love in a nightclub on holiday. Next to no props: a bed, some books, a shapeless fleece. Really they were lots of different women, and on reflection linking them by suggesting they were just different stages of the same woman's rake's progress didn't really work; but at the time we didn't mind. We left satisfied.

Yesterday's offerings were distinctly disappointing and by mid-afternoon (after Optimism) we were deeply pessimistic. But tonight things looked up no end. Glad we came.


16/8/09, Usher Hall (Edinburgh Festival)

Royal Scottish National Orchestra, conducted by Paul Daniel, in a programme of works by Peter Maxwell Davies and James MacMillan. We only stayed for the first (Maxwell Davies) half because we'd managed to double book (sorry, James).

The hall barely half full which seemed a pity. Even so they'd run out of programmes: had to borrow one from a neighbour to remind myself what we were hearing.

Maxwell Davies's Symphony No 5 (written in 1994) is a lot more accessible than much of his music: alternating loud and soft, working up to a succession of climaxes full of brass and percussion (seven of the former, six of the latter, out of a total of 92); starts very quietly with a flute solo; ends very quietly with the double basses and a kettledrum. The solo flute (sometimes curiously flattened) is according to the composer reminiscent of the seabirds on Orkney, and the whole piece could be a reflection of the islands' turbulent weather.

The connections are absolutely explicit in the second piece, An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise, which is a real crowd-pleaser. Traditional Scottish dance melodies (reminiscent of an American hoe-down), winding down towards the end of the night into a string quartet, which gradually collapses into drunken discord (cue blaring trumpets) until sunrise comes (cue more brass and percussion) and the main melody is reprised with the addition of a solo bagpipe, entering through the audience. Lots of onomatopoeic effects (including, S thought, the happy couple departing in a horse-drawn carriage to the sound of clip-clopping hooves). We all thought it marvellous.

Why can't more modern music make this kind of direct connection with an audience? Maxwell Davies can do it sometimes (though he's been accused of selling out for writing pieces like Orkney Wedding and Stromness); so many composers just don't seem interested.


6/8/09, Royal Lyceum Theatre (Edinburgh Festival)

Australian version of Candide. Frank Woodley, one half of Lano and Woodley (and so an erstwhile Perrier winner) as Candide in a pierrot costume, interspersing the action with a front of curtain stand-up routine: very useful, because if he hadn't done you'd have had no idea what was going on (even having seen the opera twice I was stumped).

Modern pop songs, modern dress; the Lisbon earthquake became a plane crash and terrorist outrage (I think). There were air hostesses and wind fans. Plastic curtains were drawn across the stage to signify changes of scene, along with an illuminated sign up under the proscenium. The whole thing interspersed with great bleeding chunks of undigested Voltaire , especially the lady with one buttock's interminable monologue.

It was noisy, structureless, under-rehearsed, poorly-conceived , poorly acted and wouldn't have been great as a fringe show: for the International Festival it was definitely below par. Much rather have had an hour of Woodley, an engaging performer, doing stand-up.

A, D and I left at the half. S stayed and said it got no better.

Sunday, 16 August 2009


15/8/09, Festival Theatre (Edinburgh International Festival)

1hr 30 mins. Described as "an opera in three acts", performed in Gaelic, French and English (though I thought I caught snatches of Flemish as well), with choir, acrobats, aerialists, extensive video inserts and a five-strong band (piano, cello, trombone, accordion, percussion, plus conductor).

It had two composers (David P Graham, born in Stratford, based in Germany for Act I; Jean-Paul Dessy, Belgian, who also conducted, for Acts II and II). The original concept was by a Frenchman. The writer (Iain Finlay Macleod) was from Lewis; the choreographer (Juha-Pekka Marsalo) from Finland; the director (Thierry Poquet) from France. The two leading on-stage performers were a francophone Belgian (Alain Eloy) as a narrator speaking accented English and a singer (Alyth McCormack) from Lewis who sang Gaelic songs in a beautiful, high, bell-like voice.

The film, directed by Finlay Macleod and Poquet, featured an all-Scottish cast with "cliff dancers" from the Compagnie Retouramont, which sounds Belgian or French (presumably French: do they have cliffs in Belgium?).

The programme lists four co-producers (all francophone organisations) "in partnership with" the Gaelic Arts Agency and two French (?) organisations, "with the participation of" an Italian outfit, "and the support of" two French regional arts bodies.

A spectacular Europudding in other words, and like so many Europuddings it ended up an ambitious, intriguing but ultimately disappointing mish-mash, less than the sum of its parts.

The starting point was the island of St Kilda, abandoned by its people in the 1930s. Some of the best bits were the film clips shot at the time of a primitive, isolated community, swaddled in tweed against the Atlantic winds, whose economy revolved around birds. There was a story of sorts: a young couple; he goes off with others bird-hunting to a nearby island; the boat slips its knot and they are stranded for some days, perhaps many; when a rescue boat arrives he falls to his death from the cliff. But I would not have known that unless I'd read the synopsis.

The story is told simultaneously by the narrator and the singers on stage; on video; and by the activities of the aerialists, both on stage and (rather breathtaking this) on the cliffs of St Kilda itself.

The music was spiky but inoffensive. At the end the musicians joined the exodus, abandoning their instruments to walk up on stage and into the wings, leaving the cellist alone to reach a dying fall. My chief objections: every time Alyth McCormack came on, singing a Gaelic lament unaccompanied, after a few stanzas the band would strike up with something which seemed to come from a quite different sound world and gradually drowned her out; and the dirge-like quality of much of the music made it hard to stay awake (we were tired: we'd only just arrived from London).

The singing and narration were amplified. The stage was bare but for one huge screen at the back and another, smaller one hanging to one side of the proscenium. There were occasional moments of visual beauty: a woman in a white dress swinging from a rope from side to side; two aerialists behind a great plastic sheet, swinging into and away from it, like great sea birds on the cliff face (the sheet fell to the floor when they'd finished and was later rolled up and carried by the cast to the front of the stage, like a giant version of the bundles the islanders carried when they finally left).

The audience seemed appreciative, except for one couple just in front of us who chose to leave just as the islanders were preparing to do the same, the video screens showing pictures of the book of Exodus in a Gaelic bible.

At the end I was left wondering what the point was: a powerful story, and powerful imagery and powerful Gaelic music, muddied and obscured by the modern musical overlay and Belgian touches.


15/8/09, The Zoo (Edinburgh Fringe)

Physical theatre/mime from six Oxford students calling themselves Idle Motion, showing off their knowledge of Borges with a bit of social satire (book groups were the principal target) and reflections on blindness (young lovers meet at book group and then she goes blind; Borges went completely blind just when he finally became head of the National Library in Buenos Aires, in charge of 800,000 books and unable to read them).

The Borges stuff was done in mime accompanied by narration, mostly by a girl supposedly giving a presentation as part of a job interview at the Bodleian. There were lots of gags involving books: Borges as a three-year old represented by the pages of a book cut into the shape of young child; the burgeoning city of Buenos Aires represented by pages cut with holes for windows, pulled out from books; an aeroplane made up of half a dozen books in formation held up by the cast; a blind Borges sweeping over a row of books like dominoes with his stick.

The space was too small: I had trouble seeing some of it, including a tiger (Borges was obsessed with them) created with the aid of a white overcoat, two tiny orange torches and another orange torch shining onto the coat through the pages of a book cut with jagged holes to resemble the pattern of a tiger's stripes.

A lot of it was derivative. Balletic moves with chairs; coats flapping to resemble wind. The acting in the dialogue scenes was OK-ish. A certain amount of stripping down to bra and knickers. A general sense of well-brought-up English kids, technically proficient but just a bit too prim to be utterly convincing (the recent musical version of Wedekind's Spring Awakening was much the same).

But A and D both said they got a bit teary at one point; S and I drifted a bit in the middle.

And at the end they had all that paper to clear up.


13/8/09, Tricycle

1hr 30'. A powerful rumination on the 7 July bombings, in which the most sympathetic character was the bomber. The rest were various dysfunctional, sad, alienated.

There was the schoolboy racist and motormouth; the elderly widow living alone and apparently addicted to interne tporn; the neurotic secretary and mother; the ageing lecturer and the former student he disastrously makes a pass at; the brother and sister embarking on an incestuous relationship.

A said it left a bad taste in her mouth. I found it gripping, though it didn't make it easy, proceeding as a succession of intercut monologues and dialogues in the run up to and immediate aftermath of 7/7, but each character (or pair of characters) seemed to be operating on a different timescale, so that one would be talking about the queues on the 7th as the tubes stopped working while another was still talking about winning the Olympics.

If you were in London on 7 July it brought it all back. The chaos. The fear. The euphoria at London's selection for the Olympics.

Simply staged, with lights hanging from cables above the stage which occasionally flashed bright white lights at moments of shock or tension.

The old lady the star: very funny, and very affecting. The writing powerful and direct.

The bomber was the only one who had standards. He kisses his family goodbye; he deplores the bad behaviour rampant in society; he thanks bus drivers (they don't respond); he smiles at ticket collectors (they ignore him).

Was the point one about alienation in modern society? Our addiction to forbidden things (violence, hatred, pornography, siblings, young students)? It made us all seem such a nasty, inadequate lot.


12/8/09, Royal Albert Hall

2 hrs 15 mins. Harry Christophers and The Sixteen (who on this occasion numbered 32 plus band and soprano Carolyn Sampson for the solos) in an all-Handel programme.

All four 1727 Coronation Odes (George II), interspersed with a rousing overture (Arrival of the Queen of Sheba: she got there first, I arrived too late), plus extracts from Semele, a lush 1707 Italian setting of Salve Regina and a 1735 Organ Concerto. A clever blend of the familiar and the unfamiliar and pretty much unalloyed joy.

Salve Regina (with Carolyn Sampson as soprano soloist in a demure black dress) was delightful and sensuous, with a brief, quiet coda.

The organ concerto (Alastair Ross) was apparently written to be played at performances of the oratorio Athalia, drawing on Handel's reputation as one of the finest organists of the age (according to the programme). There really wasn't much for the band to do, though it did end with a rousing Alleluia chorus to trumpet and drums accompaniment. A fizzy, showy work.

Carolyn Sampson was one wonderful form as Semele, playing the coquette in a startling backless dress. I thought she was a bit underpowered at the start, her voice getting lost in the Albert Hall's vast spaces, but she turned out to be perfect. They did three numbers: Endless Pleasure; My Racking Thoughts (a slow, reflective number sung to an unusual continuo accompaniment by cello, harp and theorbo playing a repeated, syncopated figure); and Myself I Shall Adore. For the last one Christophers handed her a mirror (the concert was televised) and she had enormous fun pouting and preening, especially in the da capo repeat with spectacular ornamentation and a positive unaccompanied cadenza at the conclusion.

The anthems build steadily to the triumphant Zadok, which made the hair stand on end just as it's supposed to. A musically-sophisticated composer who nonetheless knew how to engage an audience with directness and simplicity. Handel's choral writing at its finest.

Saturday, 1 August 2009


29/7/09, National (Olivier)

Helen Mirren and Margaret Tyzack in Racine's tragedy. Missed it: was in Paris. D said it was another cracker.

Reviews here:


28/7/09, Royal Albert Hall (Prom)

1 hr 20 mins. Late-night Prom with John Eliot Gardiner and the Monteverdi Choir plus soloists (chamber organ, double bass, two cellos, bassoon). Too late for me: this kind of music needs concentration which is hard to summon at ten pm; I kept falling asleep, left with a general impression of tuneful noise.

Thirty-eight singers, four motets, three of them with split choirs placed either side of the organ; the third a single choir (though six of the women dropped out for part of it, and there was a beautiful section for tenor, bass and soprano.

The motet was apparently a more old fashioned form than the cantata, for which Bach is best known. Cantatas include instrumental passages, solo singers and a lot more colour and variation. Some of his more puritan contemporaries deplored cantatas as excessively "operatic". But they were more involving, more emotionally rewarding apparently than motets.

I'm not qualified to judge. All of these seemed to me pretty sophisticated works. When Petroc Trelawny came on stage for the Radio 3 intro he interviewed Gardiner and asked if it was "too simple to say Bach's motets were unsophisticated" Gardiner replied flatly "It's wrong": that got a laugh.

I remain impressed by Bach rather than moved or seduced. There's something a little too perfect about the surface textures of all that choral singing. And you can't understand the words, unlike much of Handel, which makes a big difference.

But these pieces displayed great variety of tempo and texture and some pretty tunes.

Some reviews:


25/7/09, Old Vic

3hrs. Simon Russell Beale as Leontes, Rebecca Hall as Hermione, Ethan Hawke as Autolycus. Sam Mendes directed. Part of the "The Bridge", a scheme to mount six productions with a single company of British and American actors on Broadway, on tour and at the Vic. This first effort plays in rep with Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard, which we aren't planning to see.

Simon Russell Beale as ever mesmerising. What that man can do with a silence! There's a moment in the latter part of this play where he sees his daughter Perdita for the first time since she was abandoned as a newborn. He doesn't know it's her. He says nothing but simply looks at her, and manages somehow to convey recognition, astonishment, doubt, love, disbelief, guilt... The production was worth seeing for that moment alone. It brought tears to the eyes. And of course he speaks the verse, including some of Shakespeare's thorniest constructions, as if new-minted dialogue, excavating the meaning (not perhaps always what Shakespeare intended, but none the worse for that) and making it crystal clear.

Hawke played Autolycus as an itinerant country and western ballad singer with guitar. It worked surprisingly well: the shepherds' harvest feast became a hoe-down. He made the characters' nonsense songs sound plausible. And there were some funny jokes. The costumes placed the production at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries; the Americans played the Bohemians, the Brits the Sicilians.

Rebecca Hall was unconvincing as Hermione (too young, frankly), Sinead Cusack was brilliant as Paulina, the older woman who reads Leontes the riot act over his treatment of his wife and then squirrels the supposedly dead Hermione away for 16 years until revealing her as a statue on the occasion of her daughter's return. Which has to be almost as unlikely a plot development as the murder of the courtier who abandons the infant Perdita, only to be torn limb from limb by a bear. The bear was well-handled: there was the inevitable laugh, but the creature was scary enough -- a man in a bear costume prowling menacingly in the half-dark. In the end there was no "Exit, pursued by a bear", just a slash of lightning, the bear rears up, then blackout. But why, one wonders, did Shakespeare specify a bear? Scary, sure. You only had to pop down the road to the bear-baiting to see how scary. But a trifle too exotic? Perhaps someone had given the company a bear skin and they were looking for some way to use it.

The statue coming to life was handled well. Hermione stood on a dais downstage with her back to the audience, the other characters in a semi-circle facing her (and us). When she came to life it was as though she were waking from a trance.

The Vic stage had been remodelled, with a forestage (lower than the main stage) in front of the proscenium and a sloping playing area linking main and fore stages.

Clever lighting. There was much use of bright white spotlights (though more diffuse than a conventional follow spot), which illuminated characters during soliloquies (it might have been over the top but actually worked fine); great geometrical slabs of light on the floor at certain points like the opening of the final section, when Leontes and friends sit disconsolate in a great cathedral-like space conjured up by lighting alone; and when Hermione reanimated the gloom lifted... on Perdita before the others.

The play remains fundamentally implausible. Apart from the bear and the statue, Leontes' jealousy at the start is simply a given: there's no Othello-like development or explanation for his condition. His emotions seem irrational -- though his brother Polixenes' fury when he sees his son proposing to Perdita seems equally over the top and implies that irrational mood swings may be a family failing.

It's a play that shows the fragility of the things we love and depend on -- even if, in this romance, they are (mostly) restored.


22/7/09, Royal Albert Hall (Prom)

Mixed programme to mark the 800th anniversary of Cambridge University (apparently). Vaughan Williams' The Wasps Overture and Five Mystical Songs; a new piece by Ryan Wigglesworth; choral pieces by Stanford, Jonathan Harvey and Judith Weir; Saint-Saens' Organ Symphony. The BBC Symphony joined by assorted Cambridge choirs, including (of course) King's and St John's.

I was late, thanks to work. Missed all the security brouhaha because the Prince of Wales was in the audience and walked in with no inspections. Missed the handing out of little flags with the Cambridge Uni crest on. Missed the National Anthem, arranged by Sir David Willcocks. Missed The Wasps. Went up the grand staircase and along the Circle corridor, and was accosted (as he came out of the gents) by Jo's boyfriend S, who said he was up in the Gallery. So I joined him up there.

Got a bird's eye view of the Wigglesworth, including umpteen types of percussion: classical music as theatre.

I thought it was a bit odd that S was in the gents during the performance... and that when I asked, him he didn't know what we were listening to. Not much of a musician, I thought; doesn't seem to take his concert-going very seriously. And was positively alarmed when the Wigglesworth finished, I slipped away to join D and as I did so a young woman, not Jo, marched smiling up to S.

Our seats were right on the very end of the Circle balcony, somewhere above the cellos. Not bad for £7. Listened to Five Mystical Soings: plangent, haunting, with the baritone Simon Keenlyside and a huge choir of surprisingly young people (I still hadn't clocked the Cambridge connection).

Then as the applause faded a brief trumpet fanfare rang out from above and behind us and we turned to see some young women unveiling a "Climate Rush" banner over the side of the Gallery. A very genteel protest. Rushed upstairs to confirm that it was indeed S's trumpet.

Second half might have been an anti-climax but wasn't. The Stanford, sung by a reduced choir, is a great late Victorian warhorse. For the other two choral pieces (sung unaccompanied) first John's director of music (Andrew Nethsingha) and then King's director (Stephen Cleobury) took over from Davies, with just the King's and John's combined choirs (complete with choirboys). The Harvey was a beautiful piece derived from plainsong. The Weir was grittier and less involving (I was uninvolved enough indeed to look over at the Royal Box, where HRH didn't seem to think much of it either since he was thumbing through his programme).

Davies returned for the Saint-Saens, which is a very silly but crazily uplifting piece of music, a glorious romp. Though why the BBC Symphony bothered to stay for much of the last movement beats me, since the Albert Hall organ is so powerful it drowned the orchestra entirely for much of the time.


21/7/09, Royal Albert Hall (Prom)

The Glyndebourne production of Purcell's "opera", semi-staged. The music of course was wonderful. The huge bleeding chunks of Midsummer Nights Dream, which might have worked well in a smaller theatre, got totally lost in the vastness of the Albert Hall.

I failed to make a note at the time and now, a month on, I can remember little of the detail. Desmond Barrit as Bottom was funny. Several of the other performances were intelligent, though the young lovers were colourless, as they often are, in white nighty-type things (in D's phrase).

D can't remember anything of the music either, though both of us recall that staging and music alike were witty and we laughed quite a lot. Conducted by William Christie with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, who can do no wrong.

Here are some reviews:


15/7/09, Royal Court

New Jez Butterworth play with Mark Rylance. Missed it: was in Bulgaria. D said it was a cracker. The reviews (which I read on the plane back) agreed.


7/7/09, ENO

Interminable opera byKaija Sariaaho in which nothing happens to the accompaniment of characterless, tuneless music. The central characters, a crusader/troubadour and a lady called Clemence, never meet; the Pilgrim reflects on their (non) relationship.

I think we went to see it because it was designed and choreographed by the chap who did Cirque du Soleil, Daniele Finzi Pasca, and the singing characters were accompanied by two doppelgangers. There were lots of screens and floaty banners.

We left at the half.