Friday, 20 November 2009


19/11/09, Jackson's Lane Theatre.

70 mins. A devised piece about women committed to mental institutions on "moral" grounds. Sounds grim but turned out to be enthralling, poignant and moving, sometimes funny and beautifully staged. All that and Glenn Miller too.

Architecting's TEAM should see this show and learn a thing or two, notably that less is often more when it's as well done as this. There was relatively little text and all the scenes were tied tightly into the central themes -- the women's past lives and the humiliations and unfairness involved in their incarceration.

Red Cape are Claire Coache, Cassie Friend and Rebecca Loukes, who met studying drama at Lancaster University 16 years ago and have recently joined forces. They won a Fringe First at Edinburgh in 2008 and you can see why. Unusually this was a classic fringe show that transferred successfully to a non-Edinburgh venue. (Jackson's Lane is a rectangular box with a steep rake and good sightlines and acoustics).

Let's also hear it for whoever (uncredited) did the sound design: a succession of 80s pop tracks, Glenn Miller tunes and atmospheric asylum sounds which ran throughout. The only problem: it came from two speakers very widely separated on either side of the auditorium which made the stereo sometimes unnerving.

Set in a hair salon in a 1980s asylum. Three women, dressed in white (waisted smock/dresses doubling as nurses' uniforms and inmates' shifts). One, clearly deeply troubled, never speaks. She produces pebbles from her mouth, apparently vomiting up half a dozen. She's bathed by two brusque and bored nurses on arrival. She weeps in bed. She eventually wanders outside to die in the rain.

A second, Joy, took up with a black GI after her husband was killed in World War Two, and went off the rails when he left for D-Day. She was forcibly committed by her mother-in-law (hints of racism here?).

A third was raped by her piano teacher, became pregnant, had her baby taken from her, and was committed.

There was much use of white towels. Three were spread out downstage in rectangular pools of dazzling light to represent beds. One was held by the nurses to preserve the bather's modesty. They were used to mop up the spill when the third girl wet herself trying and failing to do the moves to the Chicken Song at a "dance". Water featured a lot too, often in conjunction with the towels, most strikingly when a towel dipped in a pail of water was stretched and wrung out to represent rain over the body of the first woman.

Much of the action was silent, mimed to some of Glenn Miller's most familiar but slowest tracks. The dialogue was almost all monologue, addressed straight to the audience. Highlights included the scene in a cinema (three women side by side in salon chairs facing the audience, a pair of shoes in a fourth chair representing the GI at whom Joy first makes eyes, then more intimate contact).

At the end Joy daubed one leg and one arm and then her face with black body colour to represent the GI with whom she danced: it didn't entirely come off as a conceit, but when her face was wiped clean at the end, with her arms held in a straitjacket, she looked truly wild and mad.

Much of the time the three stood or sat together in a row facing the audience. At the beginning they came on with their long hair combed forward over their faces, as if they stood with their backs to us. At the end it was combed back: faceless, anonymous victims.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009


14/11/09, ENO

1hr 55 mins (Bluebeard 55 mins; Rite 35 mins).

What a difference a director makes (for good or ill). We saw a concert performance of these two earlier in the year. Willard White sang Bluebeard with a glamorous Russian as Judith. It was musically challenging and I wasn't sure I cared for it, but it was undeniably impressive and Sir Willard made a fine Bluebeard (WW only does "noble", I suspect) while Judith came across as rather foolish and skittish.

One of the problems with opera is that it often transforms the mundane or the petty or the violent or the downright disturbing into something striking or noble. It's a function of the music, the grand stagings and the fact that those who can sing aren't always very convincing actors. Many opera enthusiasts, I suspect, rather like this other-worldly quality.

But Daniel Kramer, who directed this with Clive Bayley as Bluebeard and Michaela Martin as Judith, was having none of it. He dug down to reveal what Bluebeard is really about, and pretty unsavoury it was: sadism, violence, murder, the exploitation of women. It packed a considerable punch.

It started slowly and I was drifting: a black drop with only a single domestic door and a street lamp above it. Once Bluebeard and Judith were through the door a panel in the drop lit up to reveal them walking along a moving belt, as she pestered him.

When we got to the first of the door/key scenes the drop lifted and we saw Bluebeard's armoury (a toy tank on wheels whose barrel jutted out obscenely between B's legs as he sat on it), the blood (everything J touched seemed to be bloody; she continually wiped her hands on her dress), the treasury (two mannequins dressed in hussar's uniform and rich dark-blue velvet woman's dress) etc etc.

The production really took off with the scene showing Bluebeard's domains, when B pushed aside the back wall to reveal nine curtained bunk beds in the another wall behind, from which clambered nine children in descending order, dressed in recognisably Austrian fashion (blond little boys, girls in pigtails) and with the eldest girl holding a baby in her arms. All very Josef Fritzl. They remained on stage for the rest of the opera, and truly disturbing they were too.

The wives were the children's mothers, three large ladies in flowing robes, who lay down on a matress at the work's end and spread their legs for their master, now dressed in the hussar's kit and wielding a bloody sword. Judith (now in the mannequin's blue robe) made a fourth. Creepy, and rightly so.

Bayley overacted rather, telegraphing too obviously in the early scenes that he was a wrong 'un (why on earth, in that case, did J fall for him?) but singing with great force and clarity: you could hear virtually every word. The Physicist took A's ticket: he turns out to have some musical expertise as a former trumpeter in the Arts Theatre Cambridge pit band, and suggested Bayley was underpowered.

Michaela Martin was a little chunky for my taste and I couldn't hear most of her words; but the chunkiness made sense when you saw B's other wives.

The Rite was a bit of an anti-climax, though interestingly many of the critics preferred the dance to the opera.

We'd been looking forward to it because we've seen as lot of Fabulous Beast's work, choreographed by Michael Keegan-Dolan, at the Barbican and generally think highly of it.

Only three women, in floral frocks, plus an older woman, Cailleach (the Cailleach?) who didn't dance but seemed a kind of shaman and mistress of ceremonies. There were a dozen or 15 men in the tweeds, car coats, flat caps and boots of rural Ireland, plus a white bearded fellow on a chair on a table, who was at one point carried bodily around the stage.

At the start the men all sat down one side of the stage on institutional stacking chairs, as if in some small town community hall, with large cardboard boxes on their laps. They took the boxes onto the stage and danced around them, impressively, leaping and turning on both feet in unison.

Then the women put on hare masks and danced. Then they took the hare masks off. Then the men took dog masks out of the boxes and danced. The men gathered around the women in threatening fashion. The men took the masks off, and all their clothes, and put on women's dresses. Then the Chosen One danced centre stage in her bra and knickers while the men stood around and made some rudimentary moves.

There was too much dressing and undressing and preparation, and not nearly enough dancing. What dancing there was did not impress. The atmosphere of some communal Irish ritual was right; but there was no excitement, no fear, little tension.

While the directorial interventions in the Bluebeard were entirely clear and evidently justified, Keegan-Dolan's seemed rather arbitrary. Why were the men in dresses anyway?


It's now a year since I started this blog (though for some reason the first two or three months' entries all appear as January 2009).

It's still going, which is one achievement and something of a surprise, given how often I delay writing something up until the memory is fading. Best to write notes on the bus home immediately afterwards, but I'm often too tired.

It hasn't turned into the word-of-mouth sensation I secretly hoped, but that's probably no bad thing: my lucubrations aren't really of widely merchantable quality.

I think the entries have changed in character, too. At the start I was very keen to capture in great detail the "feel" and look of a production. That probably made for rather boring, anal entries. As time has passed they've become looser, sloppier, more subjective, more like run of the mill newspaper reviews. Probably inevitable.

And reading some of the early entries I find I still can't remember many of the productions I wrote about, even though the whole idea was to create an aide memoire. The things that are good enough to remember you remember anyway, with or without this.

But I am still scandalously incompetent at the technical side of this. I can do pictures, just, though it seems to take an age (which is why there aren't more of them) and I can insert links to reviews. But hyperlinks? Must find out how to do those.


13/11/09, Barbican Pit

3hrs. A big, baggy, sprawling devised piece with lots of nice ideas, some toe-curling moments (especially at the start: as we walked in two of the cast were singing plangent country-style songs, she singing, he on guitar, and she welcoming us with a forced "in character" and "humorous" shtick) and a pressing need for a good editor or director to cut the thing down.

The scene: rebuilding post-Katrina New Orleans. A young architect, trying to implement her dead father's vision for a new kind of residential development, pitches up in a bar full of weirdos straight out of Tennessee Williams. They include Margaret Mitchell, author of Gone With the Wind. She is forced into a corset, along with most of the other female characters.

The best bit of the show was the deconstruction of GWTW (film and book) which made sense even to someone who's never seen the one or read the other. (Curious how much Gone With the Wind and other popular fictions permeate the general cultural atmosphere.) A caricature Hollywood producer is making a new film of the book with a black director who finds himself drawn to the novel's ambivalent "racism". There's a fine scene in which the director himself plays "Uncle Peter", a freed slave post-bellum, still driving Scarlett, and they pass a yankee officer's wife who asks for advice on where to get a decent servant, declaring she wants a white one and will have nothing to do with niggers. I assume it's in the book; whether it is or not it's a clever, uncomfortable scene which contrasts two different kinds of racism, the naked kind of the ignorant northerners, and a subtler kind akin to Victorian paternalism exhibited by Scarlett and her kind.

We see several chunks from the book-film; we see Scarlett herself, suitably spitfire-like; and several contemporary characters (women and men alike, the latter dressed in full skirts and corsets) who want to be Scarlett. La Mitchell is played as a knowing, no-nonsense kind of woman, tolerantly putting up with the strange ways of the moderns and defending "her" South against all the contemporary charges.

The second half lost its way a bit. There was a scene with a young woman who wants to be Scarlett who takes up with a filling station attendant en route to New Orleans to audition for some GWTW pageant; there's the architect, gradually losing it; there's a scene with a fire which destroys the only remaining old and "authentic" New Orleans house in her new development; and so on.

It would have been twice as effective at half the length, but it had its moments. The set was gradually demolished as the show progressed. There were touches of the absurd (the door through which the architect enters in scene one is blocked by a sheet of wood each time she opens it to try and leave, but not when the other characters want to go). And the (all-white) cast were mostly good-to-very good, and in some cases remarkable versatile.

They call thesmelves TEAM (it stands for Theatre of the Emerging American Moment) and this was a coproduction with the National Theatre of Scotland, among others, though it had nothing at all to do with Scotland.


11/11/09, Donmar

A late 17th century classic by the prolific Spanish dramatist Pedro Calderon de la Barca, cleverly adapted and English-ed by Helen Edmundson, who also adapted War and Peace and Mill on the Floss for Shared Experience and Coram Boy for the National.

Shakespeare it ain't. It's schematic, lacks psychological verisimilitude and labours under a plot with more sudden reversals than a learner driver's three-point turn. It's hard for a modern audience to comprehend some of the things that motivate the characters, notably a highly-developed sense of honour (which at the end results in the heroine marrying a man she clearly loathes simply because he dumped her for someone else and thus impugned her honour), a strong sense of the innate superiority of those of noble birth, a belief in fate and prophecy, and a religious notion that life is only a dream from which we awake to the reality of heaven or hell. They're all ideas present in Shakespeare, but part of the fun in his plays is the way he explores, questions and even subverts these ideas. Calderon just seems to accept them wholesale. From my limited exposure to French tragedy of this period I'd say there's also something (French polish? Intellectual and formal coherence?) that they have but C lacks.

Shakespeare comes to mind because there were lots of Shakespearian echoes (which may partly have been down to the translation: Ms E very good at writing convincing cod-Shakespeare), especially echoes of the Tempest. As in several of the references to dreams, and in the central character's reaction when he first sees a woman (cf Miranda, "O brave new world..."). And in the sage or mage-like father and king (a kind of misguided Prospero) who imprisons his son Sigismundo in a tower because his horoscope says he's going to turn out a wrong 'un.

The core of the piece is the way Sigismundo reacts when he's first let out and put on the throne: like a savage, uncivilised, untaught, a beast. He's reimprisoned and then freed a second time, when he proves to have learnt from his earlier experience and behaves with the requisite nobility, sense of justice etc etc. That did have some (though not much) psychological truth, though it's a pretty bleak view of man compared with the later Enlightenment notion of the noble savage. (Calderon was a priest, which may explain some of this.)

What made the show were the performances, especially Dominic West as Sigismondo, slouching in ill-fitting court dress on the throne, part idiot child, part monster. He's in The Wire on TV, apparently, though we saw him in Rock'n'Roll at the Royal Court. David Horovitch was excellent as Clotaldo, Sigismundo's jailer, father of the spurned Rosaura and principal exponent of the theory of honour: we saw him in The Misanthrope at the National. He's especially good at taking the lines and unpicking them to deliver them thoughtfully, intelligently, illuminatingly: almost in the Simon Russell Beale class. And Kate Fleetwood was fiery and sympathetic as the unfortunate Rosaura.

Direction by Jonathan Munby (he did the RSC Canterbury Tales): much of the intelligent excavation of the text must be down to him. Design minimal: the odd throne, breast plate, period costume and prisoner's shackles attached to the Donmar's back wall.

An interesting period piece, as well done as it could be. We shall not be revisiting the work of Calderon.

Natasha went the following night (I'd managed to buy two lots of tickets, a pair of which she took). She thought the play absurd and David Horovitch sounded like Rupert Bear.

Sunday, 8 November 2009


29/10/09, Duchess Theatre

Written by Penelope
Samuel Beckett doesn't do joy. He's not big on hope. He's not into fun. But he's a master at bleak humour, at malevolent co-dependence and at observation of the petty details of the human condition. It's a challenging evening for an optimist. Yet somehow his plays make people laugh.

Endgame is a play about endings. Hamm (Mark Rylance) is stuck in a chair, unable to see and walk. Clov (Simon McBurney) is his 'carer'. Living in a pair of metal bins to the right of the stage are Hamm's parents, Nell and Nagg (Miriam Margolyes and Tom Hickey). What we witness is the relationship between these two 'couples'. Watching Nell and Nagg is a bit like seeing your grandparents in their old age - lots of 'do you remember whens' and stories that no longer make sense, or have been told so often that you no longer see the point in listening. These parts are tenderly and beautifully acted. Given that both actors are confined to bins for the duration of the play, that's quite an achievement. Nell dies, very quietly, while the lid is down on the bin and watching Nagg's grief as he realises she won't be coming up again is remarkably moving.

Anyone who's ever read Beckett, as well as seeing the plays, will know that his stage directions are very precise. He proscribes the movements and scenery in enormous details. So the movements of the actors, and the props are very deliberate. As Clov enters the stage at the very beginning of the play, he wrestles with a set of ladders so he can view what's going on in the outside world from the high windows of their basement room. Here is Chaplinesque movement and humour, it seems every time Clov gets to the top, he realises he's forgotten something. You can see the jokes a mile off, but somehow they still make you chuckle. McBurney's portrayal of Clov is endearing. Here is a man trying to do his duty, while feeling trapped, bewildered and losing hope. He can see beyond his restricted little the world but doesn't quite get there. McBurney uses Beckett's language perfectly and imbues each line with feeling and meaning.

The only problem of the production, for me, is Mark Rylance as Hamm. Clearly, he's a talented actor. But somehow the pitch of this doesn't quite work. He delivers the lines but they don't hit the right note. It's altogether rather too manic. 24 hours after seeing the play, I don't remember anything he did or said. But the words and actions of the other three still echo in my head.

My companion for Endgame was a student at Trinity College, Dublin in the 1950's and went to see Beckett receive an honorary degree there in 1959. We puzzled over the play and its meaning afterwards. As an optimist, I was looking for a message of hope (I found several in Waiting for Godot earlier this year). At the end the play, Clov makes the decision to leave Hamm and Nagg and go into the outside world. He's breaking free. He can no longer bear to be imprisoned in the basement serving other people. This, said my companion, is the one moment of hope in the play. I'm not sure what Samuel Beckett would have made of us searching for a positive message in Endgame, but knowing Clov could escape helped me to enjoy it all the more.


6/11/09, Sadlers Wells

Missed it. Had to work late.

D said there were three pieces, two with decent music (St Saens' Carnival of the Animals and Schubert or Schumann -- cf Mark Morris), one with modern music. First piece very energetic and angular but fluid; the second (Carnival) very charming and cheerful and jolly and witty, danced in white tails, creating the animals including a male dancer flapping his arms cleverly to represent a swan. The third piece set to modern music dedicated to Darwin: dancers emerged from pods like eggs on stage, dressed in full length leotards (white at the front, balck at the back) against a dark backdrop. Surreal. One was draped in silver foil and then emerged, leaving the costume on the stage behind him, a kind of squatting godlike figure or idol; at the end they crushed the idol. Not as joyous as Mark Morris but well-received.


4/11/09, ENO

Once again, fatigue spoiled this. But it was jolly good. Britten's music spooky and thrilling. The production ditto. Big empty stage, semi-transparent screens flown in from the wings to signify changes of scene, hefty bits of furniture (beds, tables and chairs) moved on and off by silent stagehands dressed as servants. The Governess becoming increasingly hysterical (we think).

Reservations: the words given to Quint and Miss Jessel during their haunting appearances are too obscure, full of knotty imagery signifying (to my ear) not much. The lad we saw singing Miles struggled to fill the hall.

Directed by David McVicar, conducted by a truly venerable Charles Mackerras; Rebecca Evans excellent as the Governess, all sweet good nature and bustling good sense at the start, gradually undermined and driven to paranoia by the hauntings.


30/10/09 and 31/10/09, Sadlers Wells

I was knackered. Flew back for the first of these from a week's holiday driving round Bavaria. Kept drifting off after the interval which was infuriating because this was Morris at his charming, witty, fluid best.

The first night we saw a new work called Visitation set to a Beethoven cello sonata (played live), about which I recall nothing except that I liked it very much. Then Going Away Party, set to the (prerecorded) music of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys: I saw it years ago in Edinburgh, good ole country music with naive lyrics and plangent guitar accompaniment for which Morris has devised a succession of dances in which seven dancers in cowboy boots and fancy shirts group and regroup, pairing up, swapping partners and generally having a high old time. Camp as cowboy coffee.

In the second half we had Three Preludes to the music of Gershwin, for a solo male dancer dressed in black with white gloves and shoes. This too I saw years ago in Edinburgh danced by Norris himself; Brandon McDonald is slimmer and lighter on his feet. We're in Marcel Marceau territory, the arms windmilling, the hands opening palms outward in a "Mammy" gesture.
Finally (the one I fell asleep in) Visitation, also seen before. The dancers skip in fours diagonally across the stage; they finish powerfully in a circle, stamping.

Here is a review:

The next night we saw Empire Garden, to music by Charles Ives for violin, cello and piano; Bedtime, set to three Schubert songs including Erlkonig; and V, a new piece set to a Schumann piano quintet.

I can remember even less of this, though ostensibly I was less tired. All I can remember is that V began and ended with the dancers in a V. And that once again I enjoyed it greatly.

More reviews:


19/10/09, ENO 2 hrs 50 mins.

Directed by Rupert Goold, currently enjoying a succes d'estime with Enron (qv). Which meant it was a huge disappointment. The production was risible though the music was fine (indeed, overwhelming at times: we've never heard it before).

Set for some reason in a Chinese restaurant, with the chorus playing a motley clientele who looked like escapees from the Village People: nuns, a clown, Elvis impersonators, people in dinner jackets, a ballroom dancer, a lady in twinset and pearls, golfers, a pair of twins... Why? No indication.

The waitresses were whip-cracking viragos in slinky black Chinese dresses (dancers, who later dressed up as a troupe of Lady Gaga look-alikes in pink wigs, and as pigs with butchers' aprons and meat cleavers); Ping, Pang and Pong were kitchen staff.

The only scene where the set-up made sense was in the second act, where the three of them sing of their unhappiness at the state of affairs and dream of rural retreats: they appeared as kitchen staff taking the rubbish down a fire escape, while behind them a neon sign in reverse read "Imperial Palace", clearly the name of the restraurant. (Second time this week a designer has used that gag: cf Speaking with Tongues.)

The other principals sat uneasily in all this. Gwyn Hughes Jones as Calaf in black frock coat and yellow tie stood and declaimed, rather than acted; we were told he was suffering from a throat infection and he squeaked a little now and then but it didn't detract from his singing generally, and in particular from Nessun Dorma. Kirsten Blanck was a sturdy, four-square sort of Turandot: you got the message that she was a tough and uncompromising piece of work, but her allure remained a mystery, though it was so great apparently she could seduce Calaf with one mute appearance even at the very moment he is being reunited with his long-lost dad. (That first mute appearance was as an ice sculpture, wheeled through the kitchen doors, and preceded by the appearance of a little girl in a white fairy's costume, who appeared two or three other times as well. Again, no indication why.)

The action was observed by another mute figure, a writer (played by Scott Handy, son of Charles Handy, and alumnus of St Catharine's College, Cambridge), who scribbled notes and got his bloody come-uppance from Turandot in the final scene when she stabbled him bloodily with a samurai sword in the restaurant kitchen.

The slave-girl Liu has the most beautiful music; Turandot's sounded unsingable (and was in any case windily delivered). And the choruses are stupendous. Great tunes; wonderful dynamic effects, several achieved off-stage.

But why all the distracting directorial interventions? Goold seemed to have no faith in the music or the material. Though in his defence You Tube throws up a few more weird and wonderful productions of what is clearly a "problem" opera.